Miss Claire Willoughby fell in love with Harry, the Eleventh Duke of MacArran, the first time she saw him — as did every other woman in the drawing room. But it wasn’t just the incredible beauty of the man that made Claire love him. It wasn’t his shoulders, which were the width of a garden-hoe handle, or his thick blond hair and brilliant blue eyes. Nor was it his legs, well muscled from years of riding unruly horses, and exposed to their best advantage beneath the brilliant green kilt. No, it wasn’t what she saw that made her sway on her feet: it was what she heard.
At the sight of the kilt, with the silver-topped sporran hanging from his waist, the ivory-handled dirk in his heavy sock, the tartan thrown over one shoulder and pinned with the laird’s badge, she heard a tone man playing the bagpipes. She heard the wind across the fields of heather and the drone of the pipes. She heard the guns of Culloden and the cries of the widows as they grieved for their men. She heard the shouts of joy at victory; the silence of misery at defeat. She heard the sound of hope at the rise of Bonnie Prince Charlie and heard the despair when he was defeated. She heard the treachery of the Campbells, and she heard the long, long wail of pain of the Scots in their centuries-old battle against the English.
All the sounds echoed in her head as she watched Harry, this man descended from generations of MacArran lairds, walk across the room. The other women saw only an incredibly handsome, dashing young man, but Claire looked beyond that and saw what she heard. She could imagine this blond giant sitting at the head of a heavy oak table, a silver goblet in his hand, flickering firelight reflected on his face as he called on his men to follow him. Here was a leader of men.
What Harry saw was a short, bosomy young American woman who was pretty, true, but what made her almost beautiftul was the expression on her face. She had a look of eagerness, a look of interest in all things and everyone. When she looked at Harry he felt that he was the only one on earth worth listening to. There was curiosity and intelligence in her big brown eyes. Her small, trim body moved quickly, and she walked with a purposefulness that most women didn’t possess.
Harry quickly came to like the fact that Claire was a girl of action. She couldn’t sit still even for a moment and always wanted to go places and see things. Claire suggested outings and ordered the lunch and all Harry and his friends had to do was show up. She made him laugh and she entertained him. Sometimes she talked too much about Scotland’s history, but he found it highly amusing that recounting some battle that had taken place over a hundred years ago could bring tears to her eyes. There seemed to be a hundred dead men whom she considered heroic figures, who she said had led lives of great bravery and importance. When she talked of these men, her eyes turned dreamy and unfocused — so Harry spent that time contemplating her lovely bosom.
It was when she mentioned that Harry’s dead brother was one of her heroes that he sucked a cherry pit down his windpipe and nearly choked to death. Miss Claire Willoughby, never at a loss for action, pushed him over a chair so his belly slammed into the back of it, then she hit him between the shoulder blades so hard the pit flew across the drawing room to land with a splash in the punch bowl.
It was that action that made Harry know Claire was right for the job. Bramley House needed a mistress who could think and react quickly. And all of Harry’s houses needed a mistress who had Claire’s money.
As for Claire, she was stunned at having a Scottish duke pay attention to her. When she was in Harry’s presence, she could hardly breathe. She listened to him and looked at him and smiled at him. She said what she hoped he wanted to hear and did what she hoped he wanted her to do. And when she was out of his sight, she thought about him and sighed.
Claire’s mother was beside herself with delight when she found out that her daughter was pining for a man who was a duke. “But he’s also the laird of Clan MacArran,” Claire said, but that meant nothing to her mother.
Arva Willoughby had once been a great beauty and now she didn’t seem to notice that her flesh bulged above and below her corset. She wasn’t going to allow her daughter, who was much too studious for Arva’s taste, to miss an opportunity such as this. Arva did everything in her power to instruct her daughter in the art of winning a man.
For one thing, Arva didn’t allow the young people to spend time alone together. Arva said that a man’s interest was piqued by absence, not by seeing him every day. She said that a woman saw enough of her husband after they were married, she didn’t need to see him before the marriage too.
“Mother,” Claire said, exasperation in her voice. “The duke has not asked me to marry him and how do I know if I want to marry him if I don’t get to know him?”
As usual, Arva had an answer for everything. “You may think you know about life because you’ve spent your few years with your nose in a book, but you know nothing whatever about men and women.”
Claire was too happy to allow her mother’s pessimism to upset her. She smiled and thought of Harry and his ancestors striding across the Scottish Highlands.
It was only after she’d known Harry for over a month that Claire began to have doubts. “Mother, Harry and I never seem to have anything to talk about. He listens to me and smiles at me, but he never comments on what I say. Sometimes I think His Grace doesn’t even know who Bonnie Prince Charlie is.”
“My dear child, whatever are you complaining about? That young man is divine looking and he’s a duke. What more could you want?”
“Someone to talk — ”
“Hah!” Arva snorted. “What does conversation matter in a marriage? After the first year you never so much as say more than pass the butter, and if you have good servants you don’t need to say that much. Your father and I haven’t spoken to each other in years and we love each other madly.”
Claire looked down at her book.
Arva put her hand under her child’s chin. “I know what it’s like to be young and in love. You have doubts. We all do at your age. But, trust me, there’s nothing to worry about. Your young duke is handsome, kind, thoughtful — just look at the flowers he sent to you last week — he is everything a woman could ask for. And if he doesn’t talk a great deal, that’s to your advantage. And you say he listens to you? My dear, a man who listens to a woman is worth his price in diamonds.”
Claire gave her mother a weak smile and Arva took the book from her hands. “You’ll ruin your eyes reading so much.” She looked at the cover. “And who is Captain Baker?” she asked, naming the author of the book.
“An explorer. The greatest explorer the world has ever known. It’s rumored that he’s a relative of the duke’s.”
Arva looked at the light in her daughter’s eyes and frowned. “Dear, I know what it’s like to dream. I, too, had dreams, but I’ve learned some things in my life. A woman’s entire future depends on her husband. These men you dream about, these…” She looked about Claire’s bedroom, full of books that were packed and unpacked in trunks wherever the Willoughbys went. “These inventors and artists and writers and this one, this explorer, they aren’t men you can live with. There are men you live with and men you — Well, never mind, you’ll find out about that part of life after you are married. I won’t have to tell you a thing and I daresay young Harry is worldly enough to be understanding.”
Claire wasn’t sure what her mother was talking about, but she knew she didn’t like it. “I want to love my husband.”
“Of course you do. And you love Harry, don’t you? How could you not?”
Claire thought of Harry, of the way he looked in his kilt, of the way he looked at her with his blue eyes.
Arva smiled at her daughter. “And there are other considerations. Think, Claire, what it will be like to be a duchess. Your every whim taken care of before you know you want it. You’ll be able to meet all these wayward creatures you read about. How could they turn down an invitation from a duchess? You will have freedom, Claire, freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it.” The smile left her face. “And there is the little matter of your grandfather’s will. Your father and I approve of young Harry and if you marry him, you will receive your inheritance. If you do not…” She smiled again. “I’m not threatening you, dear, you do what you must, but there is your little sister to consider.”
With that Arva swept from her daughters room, leaving Claire alone. Sometimes her mother seemed like a silly, frivolous woman, a woman of little education and not much brain power. But sometimes her mother almost frightened Claire.
Claire put Captain Baker’s book aside and smoothed her dress. Whatever was she concerned about? Harry, duke of MacArran, was a divine man and, yes, she did love him. As her mother said, how could she not love a man like Harry? There wasn’t a thing wrong with him. If a woman were to create the perfect man, she would invent Harry.
Claire laughed aloud. She was being silly. She was in love with Harry and she was probably going to be a duchess. She was the happiest, luckiest young woman in the world.
The next Sunday afternoon Harry took Claire out alone on a lake, rowed her to a pretty little island in the middle, and helped her from the little boat. Claire sat upright on a tartan robe that Harry had brought for her, her hands folded on her lap, while he sprawled in the grass beside her. He wore an old-fashioned linen shirt with huge gathered sleeves. The linen looked as if it had been washed a thousand times and was a soft yellow with age. It was laced at the neck with a drawstring and Harry had left it open so that part of his smooth skin was exposed. He wore his green kilt, not the drawing room kilt, but one that was faded with age and use. He made no concessions in his movements to the fact that what he was wearing was actually a skirt; he sat with his legs apart, mounted horses with his usual quick, strong gestures (it was rumored that one young lady had fainted the first time she saw the kilt-clad young duke mount his horse). Now he sprawled on the grass, his kilt spread about him, a four-inch-wide belt about his waist, and looked at Claire.
“I’ve grown rather fond of you, you know.”
Claire’s heart was in her throat, pounding. She didn’t know if it was the man himself, or what he represented to her, or, as her brat of a sister said, if it was the sheer beauty of him, but Harry did odd things to her insides. “I…like you too,” she said.
“I was wondering if you’d like to marry me.”
Claire turned to him, her eyes opened in shock. She had been expecting this, hoping for this moment, but it was still a shock. There was nothing she could think of to say.
“I know it’s asking a great deal,” Harry continued. “I have a few monstrous pieces of property, including a hideous old house called Bramley. It’s falling apart, and there are a few other problems in my life as well, but I do rather like you.”
Claire began to breathe again, and she tried to swallow the lump in her throat. She wanted to recover herself before she answered. There were times, when she was away from Harry, that she had doubts about their suitability for each other, but not when she was with him. When she was with him, she could only see him and hear the bagpipes in her head.
She hesitated, not wanting to appear too eager to become his wife. Of course, what she was thinking, as she looked at his strong legs, was that she would climb a snow-covered mountain barefoot if she could marry this heavenly man and become a Scottish duchess. “Is your house very old?” she asked, trying not to allow her voice to squeak.
Harry leaned his head back, catching the warmth of the sun on his face. His lashes were quite long and thick. “I don’t remember. Bramley was built in twelve hundred, thirteen hundred, something like that.”
“It’s a castle?”
“It was at one time. Part of it’s old and falling down, but some ancestor of mine built around it.”
It took her a moment to understand what he meant. “Someone put a facade on it? You mean there’s a castle hidden inside your house?”
“Mmmmm,” was all he said.
Claire’s imagination ran away with her. She imagined one family having lived in the same house for centuries; she imagined all the history that must be in a house like that. “is Bramley very large?”
He put his head down and grinned at her, making Claire’s heart skip a beat. “I haven’t seen all of it.”
A house so large its owner hadn’t seen all of it. It was a difficult concept for her to imagine. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I will marry you.”
With that Claire could no longer contain herself. She jumped up and began to twirl about, her skirt held to one side. He couldn’t help laughing, as she was rather like a puppy in her exuberance. He did so like American girls, they said what they thought and acted on their impulses. “I shall make you the best duchess in the whole world,” she said. “You’ll see. Oh, heavens, but I think being a duchess will be so very interesting — ”
He didn’t say another word but slowly lifted one of his big hands, put it behind her head, and drew her face down to his for a kiss. Claire had never kissed a man before and she was anxious that she should please him. She tried to follow his lead and do what he wanted her to, but when he pulled her down to him, then pushed her body on top of his, she moved her head away. She had to use some strength to get away from him. When she was at last back on the robe, she was out of breath as she blinked at him. He had a wicked look in his eyes.
“I don’t think I’ll mind marriage much after all,” he said, and leaned back on his arms again.
They sat in silence for a while, Claire trying to calm herself. The very oddest thing had happened: when Harry was kissing her, she could no longer hear the pipes.
“You must come and meet my mother,” he said. “It’s hunting season and there’ll be some shooting. You can stay at Bramley with my family and after a while we’ll get married.”
“Yes,” was all Claire could say.
They didn’t say any more for a while — Claire had realized some time ago that Harry didn’t like to talk much — but sat in companionable silence until he said it was time to go. As he helped her into the boat, he kissed her again, softly and sweetly on the lips, then rowed her to the far shore. Claire smiled at him and thought of the future that awaited her.
What followed were weeks of preparation. Claire’s mother was swooning with happiness over her daughter’s announcement and the impending visit to stay at Bramley and meet the duchess. Claire wanted to spend every minute of every day with Harry, but Arva had other plans for her daughter. “After you’re married you’ll spend more than enough time with him. Believe me, you’ll see more than you want to see of a man after he’s your husband,” her mother repeated yet again.
Claire wasn’t about to allow her mother’s cynicism to upset her. She saw Harry whenever she could, never alone, but always with other people. They went with four of Harry’s friends to choose her engagement ring, a fat blue diamond surrounded by emeralds, and she knew she was going to miss him dreadfully when she went with her parents and sister across the Channel to be fitted for a divine wardrobe by Mr. Worth.
Claire returned from her first fitting at Worth’s Paris salon and looked about the suite of rooms of the hotel. It wasn’t the Ritz, but her mother said it was where all the really fashionable people stayed. Yet the carpet was frayed, the seat on one of the chairs was torn, and there were spiderwebs hanging from the ceiling. Claire knew it was now necessary to stay in places like this, and it was just as necessary to her mother to believe her little lie that this was actually the most fashionable hotel.
“I’m off, dear,” her father, George, said to his plump wife.
Claire knew where her father was going, for she’d seen him sneak a thousand franc note from the little box her mother oversaw. Her father was going to the races — where he’d lose the money, as he always did. Frowning, Claire pulled off her gloves and tossed them on the top of a dusty table.
Her mother instantly picked them up. “You can’t have such disregard for fine things. There won’t be more of these until after you’re married.”
“If he marries her,” said Claire’s fourteen-year-old sister, Sarah Ann, better known as Brat, while she went through Claire’s jewelry box again.
Tired and irritable from a day of standing still while she was pinned and repinned, Claire snapped the jewel case shut.
Brat just laughed. “I shall marry a man who adores me. He will do whatever I tell him to do. And he will be very, very rich. I’m not going to marry a man who’s poor even if he does have nice legs.”
“You’ll marry who I tell you to marry,” Arva said as she grabbed her younger daughter’s ear and pulled her from the room. Claire shrugged when she saw them, for she knew her mother would never actually punish her adored younger daughter no matter what she did. Within minutes the clever child would have her mother feeding her chocolates — and promising her some forbidden outing.
Claire walked to the window and looked at the trees in the little park outside the hotel. The leaves were just beginning to turn in the fall air, and she thought of her home in New York. Both Paris and London seemed so different from New York, so much slower. She thought of all her nineteen years in New York and her summers in the coolness of Maine. She had taken her easy life for granted up until now, had thought it would never change. She was used to kissing her father good-bye as he went out the door to go away on his yacht, or off to some week-long hunting trip, or off for months to the wilds of the West after grizzly bear and mountain lions.
She’d grown used to the sound of her mother giving orders to their many, many servants as Arva decorated their big Fifth Avenue house for yet another party. Claire used to stop and admire the thousands of orchids hanging from the walls and mantels and the ceilings as she left on her way to the library or the museum.
For the most part, her parents had ignored their two daughters, thinking they were well cared for in the hands of their governesses. Both Claire and Brat had found it easy to bribe their overseers; for the most part, they’d led their own lives. Brat liked society, just as her mother did, and often wandered down to her mother’s parties, where everyone made a great fuss over her prettiness.
But Claire hadn’t much taste for society. What she liked were libraries and museums and talking to people who were knowledgeable in their chosen fields. Her mother hated it when Claire brought home for tea ancient professors of obscure branches of history. Arva always made derogatory remarks about how much the skinny little men could eat. “I like intelligence,” Claire had said.
But both Arva and George had been too busy to pay much attention to their daughters until their accountant had that horrid talk with them. After that, it seemed to Claire, their lives had changed overnight.
Now the house on Fifth Avenue was gone, the house in Maine was gone, her father’s yacht had been sold. All of it, their possessions and their whole way of life, had disappeared.
Now it was up to Claire to do something about it. When she married Harry and became the duchess, everything would be all right again. Her parents would have what they most wanted and her little sister would have a chance to get a rich man who adored her.
As Claire looked out the window, she smiled. She had been dreading it all, but Harry had made it easy. The old saying that it was as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one was true. It had certainly been easy to fall in love with a duke.
On their third day in Paris, books that Claire had ordered while in London arrived. She began to read them between fittings, and between her mother’s constant warnings and questions. (“Will people have to curtsy to you when you’re a duchess? Will they have to curtsy to me since I’m the mother of a duchess? How will people address me? Is it as Your Honorable?”) Claire soon gave up trying to explain the difference between aristocracy and royalty, and she hated breaking the news to her mother that she, as the mother of a duchess, would have no title at all.
The books were about the history of Harry’s family, the Montgomerys. She found out how old it was and that this Scottish branch of the family, which was called Clan MacArran, had at least once had a woman is its chief. In the early fifteenth century one of the Montgomery men had married into the MacArrans and had taken the name MacArran, and then more Montgomerys had married more MacArrans until the Montgornerys were almost a separate clan. In 1671 Charles II had given the family a dukedom. There was a great deal of speculation as to why he’d done this. Some said it was for having rendered years of faithful service, but there was also a rumor that the MacArran laird had volunteered to marry a very ugly and very shrewish woman who was rumored to be a half sister of the king.
For whatever reason the clan was awarded a dukedom, at the time there was a great deal of discussion as to what name the family should be called. Should the family name be MacArran and the dukedom called Montgomery or the other way around? There was a legend that a coin was flipped. So, Harry was the duke of MacArran, yet his name was Henry James Charles Albert Montgomery.
During those days in Paris, Claire sometimes thought she was going to break under the fatigue of fittings and preparations and being part of her mother’s busy social life, but she kept remembering that Bramley was waiting for her at the end of it.
At night, tired as she was, she often couldn’t sleep, so by lamplight she read the books on Harry’s family and novels by Sir Walter Scott, read the Scottish author’s accounts of the beauty of the Highlands and the courage of the men who lived there. Claire went to sleep dreaming of heather and armies of men who looked just like Harry.
When Claire and her family returned from Paris, Harry was waiting for her. He escorted her to his carriage with the ducal crest on the door. Autocratically, he told her parents and sister that he and Claire were traveling to London alone. Claire could have cried with joy at the prospect of a few minutes away from her mother’s admonitions. Once inside the carriage, she saw that Harry had filled it with pink roses. She took the fluted glass of champagne he handed her and smiled at him — and suddenly she wished he’d kiss her. She wished he’d take her in his arms and hold her. She’d like to have him force all doubts from her mind.
But Harry didn’t touch her.
“I’ve missed you,” he said, smiling. “Did you think about me?”
“All the time,” she answered, looking at the way his broad shoulders practically filled one side of the coach.
“And what were you doing while you were away from me?”
“Buying dresses and reading. What did you do?”
Harry smiled at her over the glass of wine. He wasn’t about to tell her what he had done, for it involved mistresses and a few actresses, and some horses that he’d lost too much money on. But he was going to marry a very rich heiress and it didn’t matter how much money he lost.
“I thought about you,” he said and the way he said it made Claire’s heart flutter a bit.
To control herself, she looked out the window. “My mother won’t like that I am alone with you.”
“I think your mother would allow anything if it resulted in her daughter marrying a duke.”
Claire gave him a look of surprise. “I’m marrying you because I love you, not because I want to marry a duke.”
“Is that so?” he said, smiling, and when he smiled like that Claire forgot everything in the world except him. “And what about all this history you keep talking about? What about that place? That Cull something or other?”
“Culloden? But that was — ”
“Yes, yes, a very great battle.” He leaned forward and took her hand in his, playing with her fingers. “When I think of marriage, I think of other things besides war. You’re not going to lecture me on history after we’re married, are you?”
His fingers were on her forearm. Only lace separated their skin. “I’m looking forward to getting you into bed,” he said very softly.
Claire held her breath as he leaned toward her. She knew she should not allow him such liberties, but, on the other hand, they were going to be married in a short time. Thanks to several books she’d read — books she wasn’t supposed to read — she had a general idea of what happened after the marriage ceremony.
As his lips covered hers, Claire didn’t do any more thinking. Had it not been for the abrupt halt of the carriage she wasn’t sure what would have happened, but as she stepped from the carriage, she was frowning. She wished she loved Harry as much when he was touching her as she did when she was looking at him or thinking about him.
For the next two weeks her mother kept her so busy she had no time alone with Harry or with her thoughts.
At the end of those two weeks, he came to her family’s rented town house to tell her he was leaving London to return to his home in Scotland. There were a thousand things Claire wanted to ask Harry about his mother, about the rest of his family, about what was expected of her as his fiancé, but she didn’t have a chance to say a word, for Arva chattered throughout the brief meeting. When Harry was ready to leave, he kissed Claire’s hand while Arva said good-bye, and then he was gone. Claire blinked back tears as she went back to her room. It would be one whole week before she saw him again, and she was anxious for her life to begin.
Copyright ©1991 by Deveraux Inc.