Stephanie Laurens

Scandal's Bride


December 1, 1819

Casphairn Manor, the Vale of Casphairn

Galloway Hills, Scotland

She'd never had a vision like it before. Eyes-blue, blue-blue as the skies over Merrick's high head, blue as the cornflowers dotting the vale's fields. They were the eyes of a thinker, far-sighted yet focused.

Or the eyes of a warrior.

Catriona awoke, almost surprised to find herself alone. From the depths of her big bed, she scanned her familiar surrounds, the thick velvet curtains half shrouding the bed, their mates drawn tight across the windows beyond which the wind murmured, telling tales of the coming winter to any still awake. In the grate, embers gleamed, shedding a glow over polished wood, the soft sheen of the floor, the lighter hues of chair and dresser. It was deep night, the hour between one day and the next. All was reassuringly normal; nothing had changed.

Yet it had.

Her heart slowing, Catriona tugged the covers about her and considered the vision that had visited her-the vision of a man's face. The details remained strongly etched in her mind. Along with the conviction that this man would mean something, impinge on her life in some vital way.

He might even be the one The Lady had chosen for her.

The thought was not unwelcome. She was, after all, twenty-two, long past the age when girls invited lovers to their beds, when she might have expected to play her part in that never-ending rite. Not that she regretted that her life had been otherwise, which was just as well, for her path had been set from the instant of her birth. She was "the lady of the vale."

The title, one of local custom, was hers and hers alone, none other could claim it. As the only child of her parents, on their deaths, she'd inherited Casphairn Manor, along with the vale and its attendant responsibilities. Her mother had been the same, inheriting manor, lands, and position from her mother before her. Each of her direct female ancestors had been "the lady of the vale."

Cocooned in warm down, Catriona smiled. Just what her title meant few outsiders understood. Some thought her a witch-she'd even used the fiction to scare away would be suitors. Both church and state had little love of witches, but the vale's isolation kept her safe, there were few who knew of her existence, and none to question her authority or the doctrine from which it sprang.

All the inhabitants of the vale knew what she was, what her position entailed. With roots buried generations deep in the fertile soil, her tenants, all those who lived and worked in the vale, viewed "their lady" as the local representative of The Lady herself, older than time, spirit of the earth that supported them, guardian of their past and their future. They all, each in his own way, paid homage to The Lady and, with absolute and unquestioning confidence, relied on her earthly representative to watch over them and the vale

To guard, to protect, to nurture, nourish, and heal-those were The Lady's tenets, the only directives Catriona followed and to which she'd unstintingly devoted her life. As had her mother, grandmother and great grandmother before her. She lived life simply in accordance with The Lady's dictates, which was usually an easy task.

Except in one arena

Her gaze shifted to the parchment left unfolded on her dresser. A Perth solicitor had written to inform her of the death of her guardian, Seamus McEnery, and to bid her attend McEnery House for the reading of the will. McEnery House stood on a bleak hillside in The Trossachs, north and west of Perth; in her mind's eye Catriona could see it clearly-it was the one place outside the vale in which she'd spent more than a day.

When, six years ago, her parents had died, Seamus her father's cousin, had, by custom, become her legal guardian. A cold hard man, he had insisted she take up residence at McEnery House, so he could better find a suitor for her hand-a man to take over her lands. With his rigid fist clamped on her purse strings, she'd been forced to obey; she'd left the vale and gone north to meet Seamus.

To do battle with Seamus-for her inheritance, her independence, her inalienable right to remain the lady of the vale, to reside at Casphairn Manor and care for her people. Three weeks of turmoil and drama later, she'd returned to the vale; Seamus had spoken no more of suitors, nor of her calling. And, Catriona was quite certain, he had never again taken The Lady's name in vain.

Now Seamus, the devil she'd conquered, was gone. His eldest son, Jamie, would succeed him. Catriona knew Jamie, like all Seamus's children he was mild mannered and weak willed. Jamie was no Seamus. In considering how best to respond to the solicitor's request, she d been much inclined to start as she meant to go on, and reply suggesting that, after the will was read and Jamie formally appointed as her guardian, Jamie should call on her here, at the manor. Although she foresaw no difficulty in handling Jamie, she preferred to deal from a position of strength. The vale was her home, within its arms, she reigned supreme. Yet…

She focused again on the parchment, after an instant, the outline blurred-once more the vision swam before her mind's eye. For a full minute, she studied it; she saw the face clearly-strong patriarchal nose, determinedly square chin features chiselled from rock in their angularity and hardness. His brow was concealed by a lock of black hair; those piercing blue eyes were deep set beneath arched black blows and framed by black lashes. His lips, held in a straight, uncompromising line, told her little-indeed that was her summation of his face-one meant to conceal his thoughts, his emotions. From chance observers.

She wasn't a chance observer. Presentiment-nay, certainty-of future contact compelled her; she focused her mind and slid beneath his guard, behind his reserved facade and tentatively opened her senses.

Hunger-hot, ravenous-a prowling, animalistic urge, swept over her. It caressed her with fingers of heat; its tug was even more physical. Beyond it, in the deeper shadows, lay…restlessness. A soul-deep sense of drifting, rudderless, upon life's sea.

Catriona blinked, and drew back, into her familiar chamber. And saw the letter still lying on her desk She grimaced. She was adept at intepreting The Lady's messages-this one was crystal clear. She should go to McEnery House and, at some point, she would meet the restless hungry, reserved stranger with the granite face and warrior's eyes.

A lost warrior-a warrior without a cause.

Catriona frowned and wriggled deeper under the covers. When she'd first seen that face, she'd felt, instinctively, deep inside, that at long last The Lady was sending her a consort-the one who would stand by her side, who would share the burden of the vale's protection-the man she would take to her bed. At last. Now, however…

"His face is too strong. Far too strong"

As the lady of the vale, it was imperative that she be the dominant partner in her marriage, as her mother had been in hers. It was written in stone that no man could rule her. Not for her an arrogant, domineering husband-that would never do. Which was, in this case, a pity. A real disappointment.

She'd immediately recognized the source of his restlessness, the restlessness of those without purpose, but she'd never met anything like the hunger that prowled within him. Alive, a tangible force, it had reached out and touched her, and she'd felt a compulsion to sate it. A reactive urge to soothe him, to bring him surcease. To…

Her frown deepened, she couldn't find the words, but there'd been a sense of excitement, of daring, of challenge. Not elements she generally met in her daily round of duties. Then again, perhaps it was simply her healer's instincts prodding her? Catriona humphed. "Whatever, he can't be the one The Lady means for me-not with a face like that."

Was The Lady sending her a wounded male, a lame duck for her to cure? His eyes, those hard edged features, hadn't looked lame.

Not that it mattered; she had her instructions. She would go to the highlands, to McEnery House, and see what-or rather, who-came her way.

With another humph, Catriona slid deeper beneath the covers. Turning on her side, she closed her eyes-and willed her mind away from, once again, seeking the stranger's face.

Chapter 1

December 5,1819

Keltyburn, The Trossachs

Scottish Highlands

"Will there be anything else, sir?"

An artful arrangement of sleek, nubile, naked female limbs sprang to Richard Cynster's mind. The innkeeper had finished clearing the remnants of his dinner-the feminine limbs would satisfy that appetite still unappeased. But…

Richard shook his head. Not that he feared shocking his studiously correct gentleman's gentleman, Worboys, standing poker-straight at his elbow. Having been in his employ for eight years, Worboys was past being shocked. He was, however, no magician, and Richard was of the firm opinion that it would take magical powers to find a satisfying armful in Keltyburn.

They'd arrived in the hamlet as the last light left the leaden sky; night had fallen swiftly, a black shroud. The thick mist that had lowered over the mountains, hanging heavy across their path, obscuring the narrow, winding road leading up Keltyhead to their destination, had made passing the night in the dubious comfort of the Keltyburn Arms an attractive proposition.