One week later
‘If you tell me one more time that you’re sorry,’ Ewan said, ‘I’ll tip you out of the boat before we reach the isle of Dunlogart.’
‘That would please Mrs Fiona Bremner, for I cannot swim.’ Jennifer grimaced. ‘I really am sorry to have caused discord, Ewan.’
The boat rocked as he turned into the natural harbour and pulled in the oars to let it drift to shore. ‘We intended to use the Beacon to spread the word about how happy we were. We have merely relayed a different message—that I am not prepared to toe the line and conform to the conventions my father and all his forebears were bound to. That is no bad thing, so there is nothing to be sorry about.’
Ewan sighed heavily, pushing his wind-ruffled hair back from his brow. ‘You should have seen the look on my butler’s face when I told him to take down that blasted armoury that adorns the dining room. It celebrates the glorious military exploits of Clan Maxwell, apparently. I am glad I am confounding expectations. When I finally do take a wife, it will not be to serve, as my mother did, as a chatelaine in my absence. I will most certainly not expect her to subjugate her wishes to mine. Quite the contrary, I’ll want her to share my life, and I hers, else what’s the point?’
‘So you’ll make a companionate marriage, then?’
‘Companionate? If you mean one based on affection rather than passion, then absolutely not.’ Ewan jumped out of the boat onto the pebbled shore, pulling the small craft above the tideline before helping her out. ‘I want my marriage to be awash with passion.’
His words evoked an intense longing that took Jennifer aback. ‘So you will marry only for love?’ she asked wistfully.
‘If what you mean by love is finding a woman you want to spend your days with, not because she’s your wife or the mother of your children, but because you enjoy her company and she makes you view the world differently…’ Ewan broke off, an odd expression on his face. ‘Combine that with passion,’ he said softly, ‘and that is what I’d call love. Wouldn’t you, Jennie?’
Jennie. No one had ever called her that. No-one had ever spoken to her of love. She’d never put her own thoughts on the subject into words, and now she did not have to, for Ewan had described it so perfectly. Her stomach lurched. She must not be thinking, just because he was holding her hand, and just because he was looking at her in that—that yearning way—that it meant anything. She was a widow. She was certainly not fit to be a marchioness. ‘I’ve no idea, since I’ve never been in love.’
‘Has he destroyed any prospect of you experiencing it, Jennie, your brute of a husband?’
How much had Ewan guessed, despite her refusal to discuss it? Yet his voice was compassionate, with no hint of the condemnation she’d come to expect. ‘He did profess love for me, but it was similar to the affection he had for his dogs, provided they did as he commanded.’ As was the punishment he meted out when she disobeyed—or when he claimed she had. ‘He was a brute.’ It was the truth, but Jennifer had never admitted it so forcefully even to herself. The words triggered immense and unexpected relief. ‘And the worst of it is that I came to accept that it must be my fault.’
Ewan’s jaw clenched. His fingers tightened around hers. ‘There is no excuse, none, for any man to act in such a way.’
‘The law may beg to differ,’ Jennifer said bitterly. ‘I was my husband’s property. They all believed that, both my family and his.’
‘That is why you are estranged from them?’ Ewan cursed viciously. ‘Forcing you into destitution.’
Jennifer laughed bitterly. ‘There are families in Milne’s Court who consider they have gone up in the world.’
‘Don’t be obtuse. Did he leave you nothing?’
‘Nothing I chose to accept.’
‘But what will you do? How will you support yourself?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Jennifer, you can remain here, you know that? We can extend our betrothal for another month, six months, a year. It would buy you more time to decide what the future holds.’
‘No.’ Gently, she disengaged herself. ‘I’m here to get you through the ceilidh without being landed with an unwanted bride, but I must leave after that. You must see that Ewan. You have to forge a new life for yourself too. It’s going to be more challenging than you thought, if you’re set on balancing business with duty.’
‘Aye, you’re not wrong there,’ Ewan agreed ruefully. ‘It’s ironic, isn’t it, that I brought you here so that I could avoid one tradition without causing offence, when in fact I’m going to cause far greater offence by continuing with the business I’ve been running all my adult life.’
‘In fact, you need not have brought me here at all.’
‘Nonsense. Were it not for you, I would not have realised just how heavy the burden of expectation was, and how loath l was to carry it.’
‘But you are determined to be your own man, on your own terms, is that it?’
‘It’s how I’ve succeeded in business. I don’t see why I should change my tune now.’
Jennifer smiled up at him. ‘For what it’s worth, I agree.’
‘Your opinion is worth a great deal more than most to me. I meant it when I said that I want you to stay longer.’
Such temptation. She knew from the strength of it that she was in trouble. ‘And I also meant it when I said that I cannot. Having achieved our goal, we’d be wrong to maintain the charade when we both know that nothing could ever come of it.’ Jennifer took a step away from him, turning her attention to the little island they had landed on. ‘We came out to this island to escape reality for a few hours. Why don’t we do just that.’
Since Dunlogart was little more than a mile long, it did not take them more than a few hours to explore it, which allowed them time to stop and brew some tea in the old lookout’s cottage. Jennifer, as ever, was enthusing about the beauty of the landscape, and seeing it through her eyes made him both proud and humbled to be the custodian of it all. But he was not fooled. Mention of the future had unsettled her, brought it looming uncomfortably close. She had no clue as to what she would do, and for all he was fiercely set on ensuring she was not forced into making a humiliating peace with her parents or her in-laws, Ewan couldn’t think what he could do about it. Jennifer would not accept charity. She would not extend her stay in his home, and for very valid reasons, reluctant as he was to accept them. Could he find her some form of employment?
Watching her as she made a careful selection of flat stones to skim on the surface of the water, it came to him like a kick in the stomach, that the perfect role for her, as far as he was concerned, was right where she was, by his side, as his betrothed. And then his wife.
No! He stared at her, confounded by the thought. He could not possibly have fallen in love with her. Yet he could not imagine life without her. The problem was that she seemed very set on a life without him.
Jennifer’s pebble skipped the water four times. When the next skimmed five, she turned to him gleefully. ‘I think I’m rather good at this.’
The wind ruffled her hair, which she was wearing tied loosely down her back. She had, like him, removed her shoes and stockings to walk along the loose-packed sand which formed this little beach. Her toes were curled into the sand. Her feet were white, slender, vulnerable, yet her smile was vibrant, sensual, full of life.
Jennie was right. They’d come here to escape reality for a brief moment in time. Tomorrow was time enough to be worrying about the future. Ewan scooped up a couple of flat stones and went to join her at the shoreline. ‘Beginner’s luck, I reckon,’ he said, handing them to her. ‘We’ll need to watch our time, though. The tide will be turning in half an hour.’
‘What happens if we miss it?’
‘Then we’ll be forced to take shelter in the cottage until morning. It’s basic but weatherproof and there’s plenty of driftwood around for a fire.’
‘So if we did miss the tide, perchance…’
‘What are you saying, Jennie?’
‘We have no time to be bashful. I want to make love with you, Ewan. This might be our only opportunity. Let us grasp it, and to hell with the consequences.’
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