Berkshire, December 31, 1810
“You know precisely whom I will marry, Grandfather. You tease me to enjoy yourself, but all the games in the world will not change that Major Barnett will someday be my husband.”
As she spoke, Lady Jane Randolph regarded her grandfather in half amusement, half exasperation. Grandfather MacDonald sprawled in his chair by the fire in the small drawing room in Jane’s father’s manor house, his blankets in disarray. Grandfather always occupied the warmest place in a room, in deference to his old bones, but he was not one for sitting still.
His lined face held its usual mirth, his blue eyes twinkling. Grandfather MacDonald liked to hint and joke, pretending a connection to the Scottish witches from Macbeth, who, he said, had given him second sight.
“What I say is true, lass.” Grandfather fluttered his hands, broad and blunt, which her grandmother, rest her soul, had claimed could brandish a strong sword and then pick out a tune on the harpsichord with such liveliness one could not help but dance. Indeed, Grandfather often sat of an evening at the pianoforte, coaxing rollicking music from it.
Grandfather had been quite a dancer as well, Grandmother had said, and every young woman had vied for a chance to stand up with the swain. When Hamish MacDonald had first cast his eyes upon her, Grandmother had wanted to swoon, but of course she’d never, ever admitted this to him.
“Mark my words,” Grandfather went on. “At Hogmanay, the First-Footer over the threshold will marry the most eligible daughter of the house. Hogmanay begins at midnight, and the most eligible young lady in this house is you.”
“Perhaps.” Jane returned to her embroidery, a task she was not fond of. “But you know I already have an agreement with John. No First-Footer need bother with me. There will be other young ladies—Mama and Papa have invited all their acquaintance.”
“But you are not yet engaged.” Grandfather’s eyes sparkled with a wicked light seventy years hadn’t dimmed. “No announcement in the newspapers, no date for the happy event, no ring on your finger.”
“There is the small matter of war with France.” Jane had marred the pattern in her embroidery, she noticed, an inch back. Sighing in annoyance, she picked out the thread. “Major Barnett is a bit busy on the Peninsula just now. When Bonaparte is defeated, there will be plenty of time for happy events.”
Silence met her. Jane looked up from repairing her mistake to find her grandfather glaring at her, his joviality gone.
“Am I hearing ye right?” he demanded. “Ye’re discussing your nuptials like ye would decide which field to plant out in the spring. In my day, lassie, we seized the hand of the one who struck our fancy and made sure we hung on to them for life. Didn’t matter how many wars we were fighting at the time, and when I was a lad, Highland Scots were being hunted down if we so much as picked up a plaid or spoke our native tongue. Didn’t stop Maggie and me running off together, did it?”
Grandfather adored going on about his wild days in the heather, how he and Grandmother never let anything stand in the way of their great passion.
Times had changed, Jane reflected with regret. The war with Napoleon dragged on, the constant worry that France would invade these shores hovering like a distant and evil thunderstorm. She and John must wait until things were resolved—when John came home for good, there would be time enough to make plans for their life together.
The thought that John might never return, that a French artillery shell might end his life, or a bayonet pierce his heart, sent a sudden chill through her.
Jane shuddered and drew a veil over the images. There was no sense in worrying.
She missed another stitch and set the embroidery firmly aside. Grandfather could be most distracting.
“John is in Portugal,” she reminded him. “Not likely to be our First-Footer tonight. But someday, perhaps.”
“Course he’s not likely to be the First-Footer.” Grandfather scowled at Jane as though she’d gone simple. “He’s a fair-haired man, ain’t he? First-Footer needs to be dark. Everyone knows that.”
“Your betrothed lives here?” Captain Spencer Ingram shook snow from his hat as he climbed from the chaise and gazed at the gabled, rambling, half-timbered monstrosity before him, a holdover from the dark days of knights and bloodthirsty kings.
“Not betrothed,” Barnett said quickly. “A childhood understanding. Will lead to an engagement in due time. Probably. Always been that way.”
Barnett did not sound as enthusiastic as a man coming home to visit his childhood sweetheart might. Spencer studied his friend, but Barnett’s ingenuous face was unconcerned.
Though it was near midnight, every window in the house was lit, and a bonfire leapt high in the night in the fields beyond. Spencer would have preferred wandering to the bonfire, sharing a dram or tankard with villagers no doubt having a dance and a fine time.
The house looked cozy enough, despite its ancient architecture. Lights glowed behind the thick glass windows, welcoming on the frigid evening. The snow was dry and dusty, the night so frozen that no cloud marred the sky. Every star was visible, the carpet of them stretching to infinity. Even better than the bonfire would be a place on the roof and a spyglass through which to gaze at the heavens.
A pair of footmen darted out to seize bags from the compartment in the back of the chaise. Both valises were small, in keeping with soldiers who’d learned to travel with little.
The chaise rattled off toward the stable yard, the driver ready for warmth and a drink. The footmen scurried into the house and disappeared, the front door swinging shut behind them.
Spencer leapt forward to grab the door, but it clanged closed before he reached it.
“What the devil?” Spencer rattled the handle, but the door was now locked. “I call this a poor welcome.”
To his surprise, Barnett chuckled. “Lady Jane’s family keeps Scots traditions. A visitor arriving after midnight on New Year’s—no, we must call it Hogmanay to follow their quaint customs. A visitor arriving after midnight on Hogmanay needs to beg admission, and must bring gifts. I have them here.” He held up a canvas sack. “Salt, coal, whisky, shortbread, and black bun.”
“Black bun. A cake of fruit soaked in whisky. It is not bad fare. I obtained the cake from a Scotswoman—the landlord’s wife at our accommodations when we first landed.”
Spencer had wondered why Barnett insisted on traveling to that inn, well out of the way, the venture taking precious time.
Barnett grinned. “The whole rigmarole is to prove we aren’t Norsemen come to pillage the family. ’Tis greatly entertaining, is it not?”
Spencer had other ideas of entertainment. “We stand shivering outside while they decide whether to admit us? There is a good bonfire yonder.” He gestured to the fire leaping high in the fields, shadows of revelers around it.
“They’ll be waiting just inside. You will see.”
Barnett stepped up to the door the footmen had all but slammed in their faces and hammered on it.
“Open, good neighbors. Give us succor.” Barnett shot Spencer a merry look. “We must enter into the spirit of the thing.”
Spencer heard the bolts rattling, and then the door opened a sliver. “Who is there?” a creaky, elderly man’s voice intoned.
“Admit us, good sir.” Barnett held the sack aloft. “We bear gifts.”
The door opened wider to show a wizened, bent man wrapped in what looked like a long shawl. Spencer sensed several people hovering behind him.
“Then come in, come in. Out of the cold.” The man added something in the Scots language Spencer didn’t understand and swung the door open.
Barnett started forward, then stopped himself. “No, indeed. You must lead, Spence. A tall, dark-haired man brings the best luck.”
He stepped out of the way and more or less shoved Spencer toward the door. Spencer removed his hat and stepped deferentially into the foyer.
Warmth surrounded him, and light. In the silence, he heard a sharp intake of breath.
Beyond the old Scotsman in his plaid shawl, in the doorway to a room beyond, stood a young woman. She was rather tall, but curved, not willowy. Her hair was so dark it was almost black, her eyes, in contrast, a startling blue, like lapis lazuli. They matched the eyes of the old man, but Spencer could no longer see him.
The vision of beauty, in a silk and net gown of shimmering silver, regarded him in alarm but also in wonder.
“Well met, all ’round,” Barnett was saying. “Spence, let me introduce you to Lord and Lady Merrickson—the house you are standing in is theirs. Mr. MacDonald, Lady Merrickson’s father, and of course, this angel of perfection is Lady Jane Randolph, Lord Merrickson’s only daughter and the correspondent that keeps me at ease during the chaos of army life. Lady Jane, may I present Captain Spencer Ingram, the dearest friend a chap could imagine. He saved my life once, you know.”
Lady Jane came forward, gliding like a ghost on the wind. Spencer took her hand. Her eyes never left his as he bowed to her, and her lips remained parted with her initial gasp.
Spencer looked at her, and was lost.