One Night with the Highlander

By: Ann Lethbridge

 (The Gilvrys of Dunross)

Chapter One

“Bad news, my lady?”

Startled from the perusal of her letter, Annabelle, Lady Merton, realized from the post office clerk’s avid expression that she had revealed her shock. Folding the note she should have known better than to open in public, she forced a pleasant smile. “Not at all.”

Bad did not begin to describe the news. Disastrous came closer. The bank, deeming the case against her dead husband’s family hopeless, had refused to extend her further credit, and the lawyer was politely asking how she intended to settle his fees.

She couldn’t. Her stomach fell away in a sickening rush. She was destitute except for a few remaining jewels. She’d be lucky if their sale kept her and Mother for as much as a month. What on earth would she do now? A cold hand clutched at her heart. There was nothing she could do. Except marry. Something she had hoped to avoid. Keeping her smile cool, she tucked the letter in her reticule and turned to leave.

The shop doorbell tinkled merrily. A broad-shouldered man wearing a greatcoat boasting several fashionable capes strode in with a decisive air.

Her heart lurched. An odd kind of tumble she’d experienced only once in her life. Joyful recognition. A sweetly painful sensation that stole her breath.

Gordon McLaughlin of Carrick. The last person she had expected to see in the sleepy village of Barton Sidley, even if it was but a few miles from the Scottish border. He’d been a well-looking young man at twenty. At closer to thirty, he was spectacularly handsome. He’d grown into his large nose and dark heavy brows. Broadened out to stand monument-square on long athletic legs encased in dazzlingly shiny black Hessians. With eyes the bright piercing blue of a clear winter sky.

Her heart clenched and her body hummed with sensual appreciation. As it had when they had first met. Before she fully understood those sensations. And it seemed the sparks were still there, hot and ready to be reignited.

Shaken by this second shock following on the heels of the first, she lowered her face beneath her wide-brimmed bonnet and edged around his large form. Fresh air and daylight lay not three yards away. Two yards. A few feet and she would be outside on the pavement. Yet even as she made to scuttle past, she sensed his attention. A searing intensity arcing across the space between them.

“Annabelle?” The soft Highland burr sounding out the syllables of her name was just as she remembered. A recollection so sharp it could have been yesterday. She had met him only once, at the local assembly. Against all propriety, she had slipped away from her mother to meet him outside in the courtyard. Her lips tingled at the memory of his gentle kiss. The scent of his spicy cologne. The feel of his strong arms holding her close. Heat stung her cheeks as she remembered how she’d reveled in his stolen kiss that night. How wicked she’d felt at deceiving her mother. And how very womanly, in his embrace. So foolish. So young and heedless. A youthful romantic adventure that had come to nothing.

“I mean Mrs. Jenkins?” he said, correcting himself, bringing her mind back to the present.

Bracing herself, she looked up, squaring her shoulders against whatever emotion she might see in his face, whether it be derision, disdain or simply coldness. A false smile curved her lips, a tight little grimace, even as her gaze roved his face. “Lady Merton now, Mr. McLaughlin.”

The only expression she read was surprise. She almost sagged with relief. Though why she would care about his good opinion she didn’t know.

His bow was of exactly the right depth and elegance to recognize her superior rank. “Lady Merton. I was unaware you had married again. Please, accept my sympathy for your earlier loss.”

She clenched her hands tighter around the strings of her reticule. At any moment he would recall hearing her name. He would recollect what he knew of the infamous Lady Merton. And she would see revulsion instead of warmth.

“My first husband died many years ago,” she said calmly enough. She dipped a curtsy, intending to hurry on, like a coward. To avoid the embarrassment of small talk. Of trying to pretend they were friends.

He shifted. A small move, but it effectively blocked the path to freedom, to cool fresh breezes that would drive the heat from her face.

“I had not heard you were in the neighborhood,” he said. “Are you visiting your family?”

If forcing herself on her mother could be called visiting. And based on the news Annabelle had just received, she would be less welcome than she’d expected.

“Yes,” she said flatly. “I am visiting.”

He looked a little nonplussed.

Good manners required she say more. “I called in for the mail on my way to see my mother.” She offered a tentative smile. “And you? Are you visiting Mrs. Blackstone and her niece?” she asked, recalling it was because of Mrs. Blackstone’s niece, Lady Jenna, he had come to Barton Sidley that first time. He’d brought the girl, too. An elfin, sad-faced child he had escorted to her aunt after her father died. A curiously independent little creature who must be twenty by now.

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