'Dear heavens.’ Kirstin, looking utterly astounded, sank down onto the bed. ‘To think that you’ve kept this to yourself all this time. Did you kill him?’
‘I honestly don’t know.’ Jennifer sat down on the bed beside her friend.
‘If I’d known how bad things were for you, I’d have killed him myself.’
‘That’s what Ewan said.’
‘Now that does not surprise me.’ Kirstin pursed her lips. ‘Ewan is one of the most decent men I know.’ She turned her clear gaze on Jennifer. ‘Which is why I can’t understand why he hasn’t asked you to marry him. I can’t believe he would have made love to you…’
‘How do you know he did?’
Kirstin smiled slyly. ‘I do now.’
‘Oh!’ Jennifer crossed her arms and glared, but it was impossible to be angry with the woman who had brought Ewan into her life. ‘He did ask me to marry him. It’s why I told him the truth.’
‘Thinking it would put him off! You do know he’s fallen in love with you, don’t you?’
‘He thinks he has.’ Jennifer shook her head. His declaration had been the most precious words she’d heard. So many times, over these last few days, she had been on the brink of surrendering, on the cusp of throwing her arms around him and telling him she would be his. ‘My history would be a millstone round his neck. I’d make him unhappy, in the end. I couldn’t bear that.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ Kirstin asked gently. ‘Has he said so?’
He had said quite the contrary, but he was wrong. Jennifer got to her feet. ’There’s no point in discussing it any further, Kirstin. I promised that I would stay for the ceilidh tonight. I can’t be his wife but I can help him avoid another.’
The Duke of Argyll’s new castle, built in granite that blended seamlessly with the grey skies which prevailed over this part of the county, stood in pride of place at the head of Loch Fyne. ‘His grace had the village moved further up the loch to accommodate his new abode,’ Ewan told Jennifer as their carriage swept up the driveway. ‘Tomorrow, we can take a walk along the shores’
‘Tomorrow, I will be heading back to Edinburgh, as we agreed.’
He had accepted no such outcome, though he’d gone along with the pretence, just as he’d gone along with Jennifer’s plea to say no more to her on the subject of love or marriage. But Ewan had plenty more to say, and once this blasted ceilidh was out of the way, he’d be saying it.
The carriage drew up in front of the driveway. The doors were flung open. There was barely time to whisper in Jennifer’s ear that she looked lovely, before they were swept into the melee. Their cloaks were claimed, and they stood negotiating a long line of introductions, with the Duke and Duchess of Argyll at the head of them.
Pomp and circumstance. Custom and convention. He could see it all far enough, right down to the heavy badges of office he wore, the weighty gold buckle bearing the Glenkin crest on his belt. He couldn’t wait for it all to be over, so that he could focus on what mattered. Jennifer. The future he was determined they must forge together.
Looking at her now, as they reached the end of the line, his heart felt as if it might burst with love and with pride. His Jennie. His brave, bold Jennifer, who thought herself not good enough, when no one here was fit to wipe her boots. Standing by her side in their allotted place as the wail of the pipes filled the air and the would-be grooms made their formal appearance, Ewan could not resist taking her hand in his. He could not resist leaning down to whisper in her ear, ‘Can you even imagine me taking part in that?’
‘It is not flattery to say you that you’d have first pick if you did. Most of these boys look as if they aren’t acquainted with a razor yet.’
‘They say that a long betrothal allows the pair to get to know each other. What they don’t say is what happens if, in the process, a hearty dislike festers.’
The Duke of Argyll’s pipe major, having led the pride of Argyll’s unwed males into a line, returned to the doorway and struck up with a fresh skirl. The girls were all dressed in white, each draped with a family plaid, every one of them looking quite terrified. ‘Poor souls,’ Ewan said to Jennifer, no longer mildly amused but frankly disgusted by the ceremony. ‘Surely no-one present really believes this is the way to do things.’
But it was the Beacon of Argyll, standing next to them, who replied. ‘Everyone present was matched in this way. It is how we preserve the traditions which define us.’
‘They do not define me, Mrs Bremner. I will have none of it.’
‘Really, my lord. No matter the cost?’
Fiona Bremner’s smile was venomous. ‘My sister, Lord Glenkin, is married to a gentleman called Douglas Stewart. He practices law in Edinburgh.’
Ewan looked baffled. ‘I am afraid I do not know…’
‘Ah, but it is obvious that Mrs Campbell knows exactly who he is. Do you not, madam?’
Jennifer felt as if the polished ballroom floor was tilting. Mute with horror, she listened as Mrs Bremner continued. ‘Mr Stewart is a partner in the firm of Riddell and Murray. The senior partner, Mr Alan Murray, being your father, madam? Mysteriously risen from the grave, it appears. A father most anxious to discover the whereabouts of his widowed daughter. A woman who fled her husband’s home before he was cold in his grave, I understand. Not that he is so very cold as yet, for you buried him, what, two months ago?’
‘Better late than never.’ Ewan shook his head fiercely when Jennifer made to speak, his entire attention focused on Mrs Fiona Bremner, who was, despite her previous resilience, quailing under is icy blue gaze. ‘Does this little tale of yours have a point, or are you simply wishing to inflict pain?’
‘I merely wish to prevent you from making a terrible mistake. You should be grateful. I’m saving you from becoming a social pariah.’
‘If one word of this escapes, you may find that you are the one being ostracised. I am, as you repeatedly point out, the Marquis of Glenkin. It is unjust, but the way of the world, that my good opinion ultimately counts for far more than yours. Do we understand one another?’
Considerably deflated, the Beacon turned tail. ‘Ewan.’ Jennifer tugged on his sleeve. ‘I beg you, do not do something you will regret. She is bound to talk.’
‘Then I will ensure she pays a heavy price. As to regrets—Jennie, the only regret I have is holding my tongue for the last week. Can you have any idea of how much I love you?’
Enough to risk everything for her. She stared up beseechingly into his eyes, wanting him to ask her, begging him not to, knowing she could not refuse him.
‘My darling Jennie,’ he said, ‘the only thing that will silence me is if you tell me you don’t love me. Can you say that?’
‘You know I can’t,’ she whispered, ‘but Ewan…’
His eyes lit up. She was dimly aware that they had drawn the guests’ attention away from the couples dancing a sedate reel, but she was already past caring.
‘Jennifer,’ Ewan said fervently, ‘when I think of the suffering you’ve endured, when I think of how brave you have been, how misguidedly loyal you were, it makes me want to wreak retribution on every one of your family, and of that man’s, who turned their backs on you in your hour of need. But that is no solution.’
She shook her head. Tears were trailing down her cheeks. She knew, her body and her heart and her mind knew, that she could no longer fight her feelings.
‘Love,’ Ewan said. ‘Love is the solution. I love you so much, Jennie. If you love me, just think of what we can achieve together. Do you love me?’
‘Of course I love you.’ She glowed inside—it was like the sun coming out. No, bursting out. ‘I love you so much, Ewan.’
‘And you’ll marry me, just as soon as I can arrange it?’’
‘I will marry you tomorrow if you can arrange it, though what people will say, the scandal…’
‘Oh yes, scandal.’ A wicked gleam came into his eyes. ‘Let us start the way we mean to go on.’
‘What do you mean?’
Ewan wrapped his arms around her. There was an audible gasp, but Jennifer’s heart was pounding, her eyes locked on his. ‘A marquis, kissing his future marchioness, in full public view,’ he said. ‘And she a widow to boot, I don’t think it gets any more scandalous than that.’
And then his lips claimed hers. And Jennifer discovered that he was right. The world and the cream of Argyll society were no match for love.
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