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Widow's Treasure (The Marriage Maker Book 19) by Mary Lancaster (1)

Chapter One

Sir Stirling James paused behind the servant who had escorted him through the house and peered past the man’s shoulder as the servant announced him.

Robert Ogilvy of Lochgarron sat behind his desk, scowling at a letter held between his rough fingers. He wore no coat or necktie, and his too long, rumpled hair fell forward over his unshaven, wildly handsome face.

“What Duke?” he demanded without looking up.

“This one,” Stirling murmured before the servant could answer. “Roxburgh. At your service.”

Ogilvy did glance up at that, even half-rose from his seat to offer his free hand before waving the letter at the chair on the other side of the desk and growling at the servant to bring refreshment.

Stirling sat, casting his observant eye over the papers which almost entirely covered the desk—architectural plans, by the look of them.

“Forgive me,” Ogilvy said in his abrupt way. “Not used to formal visitors. What can I do for you?”

“Oh, this isn’t a remotely formal visit,” Stirling assured him. “I was just passing and remembered my wife wished me to nag you on her behalf.”

“Chastity?” Ogilvy’s frown deepened. “What have I done to annoy her now?”

“Oh, I don’t believe you’ve annoyed her, precisely. Merely she—and her sisters—are anxious to know that you will come to our ball next week.”

“Lord, no,” Ogilvy said, so naturally that it didn’t even sound rude. “I don’t go to balls, you know. No idea why people still invite me.”

Stirling’s lip twitched. “Neither have I.”

Ogilvy gave him a quick grin that lightened his somewhat grim expression. “Please thank the Duchess for her invitation,” he said more properly, “and convey my apologies.”

“She’ll be disappointed,” Stirling observed. “Come over some other day, then, when we’re quieter.”

Ogilvy’s brows shot up in surprise. “Aye, perhaps I will. Thank you.”

“My wife never forgets old friends,” Stirling remarked. He waved one hand over the chaotic desk. “But I can see you are busy. What are you working on?”

“Thinking of extending the house. It’s a bit cramped and with so much money coming in from the shipping ventures, thanks to you…” He broke off, his eyes straying once more to the letter before he flung it down with impatience.

“You are thinking of marriage, perhaps?” Stirling ventured.

Ogilvy shrugged. “One day. I’m the last Ogilvy of Lochgarron. I’d like the name to mean something again before I pass it on.”

The servant appeared with a slightly grubby tray on which he’d set a decanter and two glasses. Ogilvy grunted his thanks as the tray was set among the papers, and reached for the decanter. He paused. “Unless you’d rather brandy? Or tea? Or wine? Angus could throw together a meal if you’re hungry.”

“A glass of whisky is just the thing,” Stirling assured him, watching as he poured generous measures into each glass. “You seem troubled, my friend.”

Ogilvy pushed one glass across the desk and, as Stirling picked it up, clinked glasses. “Family,” he said with loathing, and drank.

Stirling sipped. “Chastity tells me you have a sister in England.”

“She made a good marriage, thanks largely to her godmother. As you know, my family has been persona non grata since the rising of ’45. But Euphemia married an English baron.”

“Then I don’t see your problem.”

Ogilvy sighed. “She has a stepson. Her husband’s heir, in fact. They’d arranged a match for him with some wealthy, well-connected heiress. Now they’re afraid he’s going to ruin it all by his pursuit of some tempting widow.”

Stirling regarded him over the rim of the glass. “Forgive me, Lochgarron, but I’m surprised you care.”

Ogilvy gave a short laugh. “You’re right. I don’t, whether or not I should. I’d put this damned letter in a drawer and forget about it except that the fool has followed his siren to Scotland—or is about to, it’s hard to tell—and my sister expects me to do something about it.”

“What?”

“Separate young George from the widow, somehow, and scare him back to England to do his duty with the heiress.”

“I can see it’s not a task you relish.”

“Not sure it’s even one I’m prepared to do. None of my damned business, is it? Sorry,” he added, finishing his whiskey. “None of yours either. Perhaps I’ll just shove the letter in the drawer after all.” He suited the action to the words and gazed at Stirling with apparent satisfaction.

“That’s the spirt,” Stirling approved. “Although…where exactly in Scotland is your—er—stepnephew to be found?”

“Who knows? My sister has become so English that she seems to regard Scotland as a village where I’m bound to know everyone who comes and goes.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, my reach is long and my eyes many,” Stirling said mildly. “What is your nephew’s name?”

“Beddow. The Honorable George Beddow.”

Stirling did not yet allow himself to smile. “And the widow?”

“God knows.” Ogilvy yanked open the desk drawer and snatched up the letter once more. “Lady something or other. Euphemia’s writing is pretty much indecipherable at any time and she insists on writing across what she’s already inscribed…It looks like Lady Devil to me, but I don’t suppose it can be that.”

Stirling permitted the smile at last. “Lady Derwent, perhaps?”

Could be,” Ogilvy allowed. He glanced up, frowning. “You know her?”

“And young Mr. Beddow. You’ll be able to meet them both at our ball next Wednesday.”

Ogilvy’s scowl deepened. “Damn.”

“Cheer up. It’s a masked affair. Wear what you like, hide it under a domino cloak and scare the wits out of your nephew. You can even flee before the unmasking, so no one will ever suspect you’ve broken the habit of a lifetime and attended a ball. And Beddow need never know it was his stepmother interfering.”

Ogilvy stared at him. “It’s all a bit unsavory, isn’t it?”

“Look on the bright side,” Stirling drawled. “It will surely be a good deed. And Chastity will be delighted to see you, so you’ll be doing me a great service into the bargain.”

***

Etta—otherwise Lady Derwent, or “the divine Henrietta” to the more poetic of her admirers—peeked out her bedchamber window at the arriving guests. Horses and carriages pulled up the torchlit driveaway to the front terrace, where ladies and gentleman alighted. Exotic and mysterious in their brightly colored cloaks and masks, they made Etta smile.

She’d never attended a masked ball before. Well, not a respectable one. In her constant battle with ennui, she’d been to much more vulgar events in Vauxhall and Ranelagh Gardens, remaining incognito, of course. But this, in a Duke’s house, was quite a novelty for her. It seemed everyone of note for miles around had come, many of them, like herself, staying the night, for the distances were too great and the roads through the glens and moors too rough to travel home afterwards. For that reason, Etta nearly hadn’t come, but she was very glad now she’d accepted the Duchess’s kind invitation to stay. The masked ball inspired her with almost childish excitement. Besides which, she had business to attend to, and this event seemed the best way to meet those who might wish to buy Ardbeag.

The briefest of knocks at her bedchamber door heralded Mrs. Ross, who was the downside of life at Ardbeag. Although she called herself the housekeeper, and her husband certainly managed the Ardbeag estate in the absence of its owners, she seemed to regard herself as Etta’s peer. Which Etta didn’t mind, except that Mrs. Ross had also taken upon herself the role of chaperone and had insisted on accompanying her to the Duke and Duchess’s ball.

The Duke and Duchess themselves hadn’t batted an eyelid, so perhaps Etta was in the wrong. Perhaps Mrs. Ross really had been invited. Certainly, she wore a voluminous cloak of eye-watering puce, and carried a mask of the same color with her reticule.

“Are you not ready, yet?” Mrs. Ross exclaimed.

“Almost, but feel free to go down without me,” Etta said. After all, she was hardly in need of a wretched chaperone! Already two years widowed, she’d been protecting herself since she was seventeen years old and was an expert in deflecting unwanted attentions. And attracting those she did want.

“I will not,” Mrs. Ross said stoutly. She cast a critical eye over Etta and frowned. “You look beautiful.”

Etta, wearing a pale blue gown of embroidered silk, glanced in the mirror. Sapphires and diamonds winked at her ears and her throat and glittered in her hair. “Thank you. Although you needn’t make it sound quite so much of an insult.” She picked up her royal blue domino and swung it around her shoulders before reaching for the diamond-studded mask on the dressing table.

Mrs. Ross snorted. “You’ll have the male population of Scotland falling at your feet. Do you think it a matter of congratulation?”

“A masterly set-down of the male population of Scotland. Let us go, Mrs. Ross, and count them as they fall.”

Her host and hostess, regal and instantly recognizable even in their masks and domino cloaks, claimed not to recognize her as they welcomed her to the ballroom.

Decorated with flowers and greenery and brightly lit by chandeliers—even at dusk—the room seemed a perfect setting for the Roxburghs and their bright, unidentifiable guests. Although hardly a “crush” by London standards, the ball was clearly one of the best attended social events of the year, and the masked aspect gave it just a hint of pleasant wickedness. A frisson of excitement whispered around the room.

Masked gentlemen advanced upon her with varying degrees of predatory intent, which would have been exciting had Mrs. Ross not constituted herself as dragon for the evening. Etta soon found herself largely surrounded by matrons and very young girls, until she murmured a civil excuse and headed for the champagne table.

Again, gentlemen detached themselves from all corners of the room and swarmed in her direction. This was better…

Until Mrs. Ross caught up with her. “You’ll be wanting some lemonade.”

“I’ll be wanting some champagne to lighten my evening,” Etta retorted, seizing two glasses and thrusting one into Mrs. Ross’s unwilling hand. “Enjoy. And since you know everyone, perhaps you’d point out Mr. Robert Ogilvy.”

Mrs. Ross blinked. “What do you want with him?”

With difficulty, Etta refrained from casting her eyes to heaven. “I want to seduce him.”

Mrs. Ross nearly dropped her glass. A faint moan issued from her lips.

“Oh, don’t be so ridiculous, Mrs. Ross!” Etta exclaimed, only half laughing. “I’ve never even met the man! I wish to discuss with him the possible purchase of Ardbeag. I heard he might be interested.”

“Oh no, he couldn’t do that,” Mrs. Ross said. “He has no money.”

“Well, if you’d be so good as to introduce us, I can discover the truth for myself.”

“He won’t be here. He never attends social events.”

“But the Duke told me he was coming.”

“Really? Well…” Mrs. Ross  looked around the room, and eventually nodded toward a brown-cloaked figure with his back to them. He seemed quite young, with a narrow back and red hair slightly askew over the strings of his mask. “That might be him. But we’re not on such terms that I could introduce you. Why don’t you wait for the unmasking?”

Under Mrs. Ross’s repelling stare, two of the nearest approaching gentlemen effaced themselves.

“What is the point in our being here,” Etta burst out, “if we are to dance with no one and speak to no one?”

“I’m protecting you from yourself as much as from them,” Mrs. Ross said loftily. Through the slits of her puce velvet mask, her eyes gleamed with righteous determination. “You may not be aware that your reputation has preceded you. Here, you’re like fresh blood to a swarm of midges, and I’d not have you bitten.”

For an instant, Etta stood speechless. Indignation, outrage and disappointment choked her. But she was damned if she would be ashamed.

She bit her tongue to prevent a devastating retort, for she was still aware that Mrs. Ross spoke and acted through kindness, however misguided.

Etta swallowed. “Midges,” she managed at last. “That is not an analogy I care to continue.” She swung away from the older woman to do what she should have done from the beginning—separate herself completely from her self-appointed and quite unnecessary duenna.

However, as she spun around, she almost collided with a man standing behind her. Her gaze travelled up, and up, over a tall, broad-chested, red-cloaked figure. His mask, black and unadorned, gave him more the appearance of a bandit than a gentleman in disguise. And his large, dark eyes, after a quick pass over her body, fixed on her face.

Since he didn’t speak, or even move, Etta said, “Well, he doesn’t look much like a midge to me.”

His dark eyes didn’t waver. She had never seen anyone stand quite so still before.

Unaccountably flustered, she inquired as lightly as she could, “May I help you, Sir Red Domino?”

As though pulling himself together, the stranger gave a jerky but not ungraceful bow. “Perhaps I may serve you instead.” He offered his arm.

Mrs. Ross glared. “I don’t—” she began.

“Perhaps you may,” Etta said, deliberately laying her hand on the gentleman’s arm. Without looking at Mrs. Ross, she murmured, “Excuse me,” and walked away. She caught the scowls of a few gentlemen, aimed directly at her savior, who, however, paid attention to no one but her.

How exactly may I serve you?” he asked.

“You already have,” she replied lightly. “Even when I was seventeen, I never had a more repelling duenna.”

“And yet I’m sure you could have shaken her off more quickly if you’d tried.”

“I believe it would have required a degree of rudeness that is still beyond me. Besides, it’s only now the orchestra has begun a waltz. Do you waltz, Sir Red Domino?”

“Badly. But if you’re prepared to take the risk, so am I.”

Etta’s lips twitched. “It’s not the most gracious invitation I’ve ever received.”

“The invitation was yours.”

Etta laughed. “So it was. Are you offended by my forwardness?”

“Not in the slightest. And even if I were, I’d blame Mrs. Ross.”

“Oh no, you saw through her disguise. Do you see through mine, also?” She knew she was flirting too much for such a short acquaintance, but in escaping Mrs. Ross, she felt a little like an arrow released from a bow. Besides, there was something about this abrupt stranger that intrigued her. He was too easy to flirt with.

“Yes,” he said with a trace of grimness that took her by surprise, but his arm encircled her waist at that moment, swinging her into the dance. Her stomach gave an excited little lurch. It had been a long time since a man’s nearness had given her such butterflies at a first touch.

Of course, he had a fine body, tall and broad, almost too large. She had to crane her neck to meet his intense gaze. His black hair was too long to be fashionable, and beneath the cloak, his black coat and knee-breeches looked a little faded. His cravat was white enough, but it had been carelessly tied by a man immune to fashion.

“Then you have me at a disadvantage,” she said. “I’m fairly sure we have never met.”

“We haven’t,” he agreed. “Lady Derwent.”

“Hush, you’re giving me away!”

“Everyone can spot a stranger in this part of the world. What brings you here?”

“It’s a ball. I was invited.”

“I meant to Scotland.”

“I know you did. I…” She broke off as the stare of a nearby dancer caught her attention. As she met his gaze, he smiled with delight. Even in the black mask half-covering his face, his identity was obvious to her. George Beddow. “Good Lord.”

“You have found an acquaintance,” her partner said without emphasis.

“I believe I have.”

“You seem surprised.”

“Oh no, very little surprises me. Except you.”

He blinked. “Me? How?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

He stepped forward in the dance, moving her backward, and as they turned, he held her closer than before. The heat of his body combined with his clean, earthy male scent. The arm around her was strong, his bare fingers rough against her fine gloves, like the hands of a working man. And yet he spoke like a gentleman, a bare hint of soft Scots in his accent. Even as he intrigued her mind, desire thrummed through her, hot, insistent.

“Then I ask again,” he said softly. “How may I serve you?”

Keep dancing with me, unmask me, kiss me in the moonlight… Sweep me off my feet and into bed… And God, he would be good. Passion, wild and untamed, blazed in the intensity of his eyes, lurked behind every controlled movement as he stepped and turned.

Control. A twinge of fear twisted through her, for she sensed that with this man, she was not in control. Self-preservation dragged her back to reality. This was not an attraction she should indulge. It should remain mere fantasy.

She drew in her breath, remembering why she was here. “Perhaps you might indeed help me. You’re a man who sees through disguises, after all. When our dance is finished, could you possibly introduce me to Mr. Robert Ogilvy?”

Finally, she had surprised him. He blinked, and let a full second pass before he said, “What do you want with him?”

“Then you know him?”

“Aye.”

“Is he a friend of yours?”

“God, no.”

Etta frowned. “You don’t like him much, do you?”

“He’s nobody. Why would you want an introduction?”

“I have a proposition for him.”

The man stared at her. He stopped dancing just as the music came to a close, though Etta wasn’t sure the two events were connected. He didn’t release her. If anything, his fingers tightened on hers. It was she who, baffled, stepped away from him.

And then two men almost hurled themselves between them, both pleading for the next dance, until a third appeared and begged her to ignore them and accept him instead. And when she had an instant to look for her erstwhile partner again, he had vanished.

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