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by Lucy Muir
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: When a Scottish laird came to London looking for an English wife, Phoebe Hartwell admitted to a fascination with Lord Murray. And he seemed to take an interest in her as well. But then, most surprisingly, he became unofficially engaged to her best friend. Phoebe reluctantly agreed to accompany the couple to Scotland, but there every complication possible arose? Regency Romance by Lucy Muir; originally published by Harlequin Regency
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1991
eBookwise Release Date: June 2012
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [228 KB]
Reading time: 145-204 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
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" 'But when, advancing through the gloom,
They saw the Chieftan's eagle plume,
Their shout of welcome, shrill and wide,
Shook the steep mountain's steady side.
Thrice it arose and lake and fell
Three times return'd the martial yell;
It died upon Bochastle's plain,
And silence claimed her evening reign...' "
Phoebe Hartwell declaimed dramatically to her friend Celeste Laurence, finishing the third canto of Lady of the Lake. Every morning they read aloud to each other from the popular poem, and in the seven weeks since it had been published, they had gone through it once and were now upon their second reading. Her enjoyment of the beautiful words was as great as ever, Phoebe reflected as she sank back into the pretty damask-covered armchair in the Laurences' small drawing room. Repetition did not dim the enchantment.
Celeste lounged against the back of a French-style settee, her eyes half-closed, lost in an imaginary world.
"I can just picture the brave Rhoderik Dhu, silhouetted against the purple mountains, staring purposefully into the distance. A stern expression settles upon his face as he banishes thoughts of his lady love and dedicates himself to battle. Do you not think the Highlands of Scotland must be the most wonderfully romantic place to visit?" Celeste asked dreamily.
Phoebe looked indulgently at her friend as she placed a marker in the slim volume and laid it on the small gilt table next to her chair. Celeste had a tendency to be excessively rhapsodical, but Phoebe had to agree that the picture Mr. Scott painted of the Highlands was most compelling. She herself would like to see the lake that was the setting of much of the poem.
"Yes," Phoebe agreed aloud. "I understand why Lake Katrine promises to be the most popular destination for the ton this summer."
Celeste came out of her reverie and sat up, a frown marring her youthful features.
"I still do not understand why Mama will not agree to an excursion there in July," she complained loudly, hoping that her mother, who was visiting with Mrs. Hartwell in the adjoining room, would overhear. "We shall be the only members of Society who are not planning to go."
Phoebe smiled, knowing full well what Celeste was about, but could not avoid a certain amount of disapprobation from entering her thoughts. Celeste was an only child and accustomed to having things ordered as she wished. Her young friend had not taken kindly to her parents' refusal of what she felt was an unexceptionable request to visit the Highlands. Phoebe suspected that Mrs. Laurence was not up to the rigours of such a journey, having suffered a severe attack of the influenza earlier in the Season. But Celeste, with the unconscious selfishness of youth, did not understand the slower recuperative process in adults, and thought her parents were being unreasonably cruel.
Still, Phoebe could understand Celeste's disappointment. Society had tired of the Grecian and Egyptian crazes, and the Highlands had been all the rage since the previous year. The recent publication of Mr. Scott's Lady of the Lake had brought the Scottish craze to a peak. One heard people quoting lines from the poem to each other in the street, and many of the ton were planning excursions to Lake Katrine this summer. When one was young it was very difficult not to be allowed to join Society in its latest caprice.
"Are you positive your mama cannot accompany us?" Celeste persisted, having received no response from the drawing room to her earlier complaint.
Phoebe shook her head. "I have explained before that Mama dare not leave London so close to my sister's lying-in."
That was only half the reason, but Phoebe did not elaborate. An excursion to the Highlands would be far too dear, even sharing the expense with Celeste's family. What with the hire of a vehicle, mileage duty, tolls, meals and accommodation, the journey would cost over half her father's yearly income. Probably more, Phoebe concluded sadly. Barristers often had difficulty making ends meet, for they were not allowed to discuss fees with their clients, or to attempt to collect them. They had to rely entirely upon their clerks to obtain their earnings, and even should a client refuse to pay altogether, they were not allowed to sue to recover their fees. She sighed softly, leading Celeste to believe Phoebe shared her frustration over not being able to travel to Scotland.
"It is the worst luck," Celeste complained, albeit in a lowered voice. "If we could go to the Highlands I know we would meet Highland lords and marry them. Imagine how romantic it would be--walking through the heather, the rugged mountains in the background, the lord in his belted plaid, dirk in hand," she fantasized.
"I think a lord would carry a sword, not a dirk," Phoebe corrected. "And I doubt that a Highland lord would ask for my hand."
This was Phoebe's fourth Season, and she had yet to receive an offer--from anyone she cared to marry, that was. She rose from her chair and went to stand before a gilt-framed glass, resisting a childish impulse to stick out her tongue at her reflection.
"I wish my hair were any colour but red," she said mournfully. "Red hair will never be fashionable, especially when it is accompanied by freckles."
Celeste spoke up eagerly. "That is all the more reason we must go the Highlands. I understand such colouring is not at all unusual there."
Phoebe laughed at her friend's persistence and shifted her focus in the mirror to where Celeste was reflected sitting restlessly on the settee in the background. Celeste had no worries about her appearance. Her complexion was flawless, and her clear green eyes coupled with the glossy black curls that framed her piquant face made an unusual but striking combination. No fault could be found with her slight figure, and her beautiful hands and tiny feet proclaimed her descent from the aristocracy. Celeste was undeniably a Beauty. Yet one of her most appealing qualities was that she was entirely without vanity and never gave herself airs.
Not that Celeste did not have faults. She was rather heedless and inclined to be peevish if things did not go her way. But who did not have faults? Phoebe knew that she herself was rather stubborn and possessed of a somewhat whimsical sense of humour.
Altogether, Phoebe would not have traded her friendship with Celeste for that of a duchess. They had been friends for nearly fifteen years, ever since the Laurences had moved into the adjoining brick town house on John Street. Unlike the more fashionable inhabitants of the area, Phoebe and Celeste did not leave London after the Season, but remained in Town year-round. Phoebe's father, being a barrister, had to stay near Chancery, and Celeste's father disappeared into the depths of the City every morning. This circumstance had led to the forging of a very close friendship between Phoebe and Celeste despite their four-year age difference.
"You do not have so many freckles," Celeste said in an effort to reassure her friend as the moments passed and Phoebe remained silent before the glass. "They do not prevent you from having admirers, in any case. Why, Mr. Arnold calls upon you every day."
"You know quite well Mr. Arnold calls upon me only in hope of encountering you," Phoebe said, turning to address Celeste with mock severity. "You should not pretend to be so unaware of his admiration, nor refuse to reward such devotion."
Mr. Arnold was a young solicitor who prepared cases for Mr. Hartwell. Calling upon Mr. Hartwell at the barrister's residence one morning, he had spied the enchanting Miss Laurence there, and had been totally smitten. Since that day he had taken to haunting the Hartwells' drawing room every morning in hopes of catching a glimpse of his goddess. He had become rather a joke to the two friends, although there was nothing to cavil about in Mr. Arnold's appearance. Indeed, he was actually quite well-looking, with his golden curls, fine features and soft brown eyes.
"Perhaps I should take pity on Mr. Arnold," Celeste agreed, "but it is difficult to take someone seriously who sits in complete silence for a half-hour at a time, making calves'-eyes at one. At any rate," she said, deftly changing the subject to the earlier topic, "I am quite happy no one you cared to accept offered for you during your first three Seasons. We could not have had this one together had you already been married."
"That is true," Phoebe agreed, going to sit next to her friend and pressing her hand affectionately. This Season had been the most enjoyable for the simple reason that Celeste had made her come-out and that they had at last been able to share their experiences, going shopping together, attending entertainments together and exchanging confidences about the gentlemen they met.
Now it was almost June. Another Season would be over in a few short weeks, and neither of them had accepted an offer. Phoebe had received one, and Celeste four, which was a small number for such an acknowledged Beauty. But none of the offers had been from anyone either of them cared to marry. Although they rarely spoke of the matter, both girls realized their backgrounds kept away many of the most eligible gentlemen. Phoebe had neither wealth nor fashionable good looks, and her father was only a barrister. Celeste was the granddaughter of an earl, and had both beauty and wealth, but the fact that her father worked in the City was enough to frighten off many gentlemen of the ton.
A footman appeared at the door of the small drawing room, interrupting their separate reflections.
"Miss Olivia Atwood," he intoned.
Phoebe and Celeste exchanged quick looks of dismay and resignation. Miss Olivia Atwood, the honourable Miss Olivia Atwood, as she was fond of pointing out she must be addressed on an envelope, was not their favourite person, although she was often in their company, and most of Society assumed the three were friends. The association was not of their choosing; indeed, Phoebe and Celeste found Miss Atwood's company decidedly disagreeable, what with her superior airs and condescending attitude. Phoebe rather suspected the only reason Olivia sought out their company was that they were the only ones her age of lesser rank who were at least marginally acceptable in Society.
"Good afternoon, Miss Laurence, Miss Hartwell," their caller said politely as she entered, walking slowly around the perimeter of the room so as to give her friends a good view of her new gown and matching bonnet. "I trust I find you both well?"
"Quite well, thank you," Celeste replied, grudgingly polite. "Please sit down. I shall ring for refreshments." Celeste rose to reach for the bell pull, momentarily turning her back to Miss Atwood, and took advantage of the situation by directing a simpering face toward Phoebe, mocking her guest. Phoebe was hard put not to smile at the accuracy of the imitation, though she could not condone such shocking bad manners.
"I hope you are also well, Miss Atwood, and Lord and Lady Atwood?" Phoebe enquired, hoping to distract Olivia's attention from Celeste.
Olivia, unaware of the byplay, seated herself primly on the edge of a gilt open armchair, patting a new garnet pendant that shone darkly against her creamy throat. "Quite well, thank you, Miss Hartwell. I can only stay a moment, but I wished to share my good news with my dear friends before I told anyone else."
Celeste, her face now schooled into a proper expression, sat back down and prepared to endure the call. Phoebe and Celeste knew from the expression on Olivia's face that she had something to lord over them, but even Celeste dared not be so rude as to fail to follow her guest's conversational lead.
"What news is that?" Celeste asked unwillingly. She would at least refuse to comment about the obviously new and expensive garnet pendant Miss Atwood was wearing--most inappropriately for an early call.
"We are to have an unexpected guest for the remainder of the Season." Olivia hesitated a moment to create suspense in the minds of her listeners. "Lord Robert Murray, the Earl of Abermaise," she then announced, a triumphant tone in her voice, and watched eagerly for the effect the unmistakably Scottish name would have on her friends.
Olivia's scrutiny was rewarded, for Celeste made an involuntary exclamation, and Phoebe's hazel eyes widened with interest.
"Lord Murray's father was a friend of my father's," Olivia elucidated. "He wrote to Papa recently, enquiring about accommodations in London, and naturally my father invited him to reside with us as long as he wished.
"He is addressed by his family name as Lord Murray instead of Lord Abermaise because of his clan affiliation," Olivia added in a patronizing tone.
Phoebe glanced quickly at Celeste, and could see that her friend was seething with envy at Olivia's news. Still, she could not refrain from asking the question of highest importance.
"Will his family accompany Lord Murray to London?"
"Lord Murray is unmarried," Olivia informed her friends exultantly, immediately divining the intent of the question. "He is coming to London for the express purpose of seeking a wife, or so he wrote Papa. He wrote there are no eligible women in the remote region of the Highlands where his castle is located, and that he felt he would be most likely to find a woman of acceptable background in London."
Miss Atwood's announcement created all the feelings of envy in her friends' breasts she could have wished, although they strove not to let it show and give her the satisfaction. A real Scottish lord to stay in Olivia's house for the remainder of the Season! True, the Season only had another three weeks, but even a day with a real Scottish lord in residence would have been something to envy. Why did such a wonderful thing happen to a person like Olivia Atwood? Why not to one of them?
"It is odd he did not come earlier in the Season. Two or three weeks will not give him much time to select a bride," Phoebe commented, thinking to herself it was even odder that Lord Atwood had confided all the personal information in the earl's letter to his daughter. She rather suspected Olivia might have secretly reviewed the correspondence.
"He wrote that he did not feel he could leave his responsibilities for a longer period of time," Olivia explained. "Apparently he has no close relations to take over his duties while he is away from his castle."
Phoebe and Celeste were silent, not knowing what they could say that would not increase the look of smug satisfaction on Olivia's face.
Olivia, satisfied that her news had had the desired effect on her friends, rose. "I must go, I am expected at Lady Tresham's, but I wished to share my news with my dearest friends first. We shall be holding a ball to introduce Lord Murray to Society, and of course you will both receive invitations."
She went to Celeste and placed a light kiss on her cheek, repeating her action with Phoebe. After a quick look into the glass above the fireplace to ascertain whether her bonnet needed adjusting, Olivia glided to the door, where she paused and turned back.
"Miss Hartwell, you should avoid wearing yellow, it makes your hair look redder. Have you done as I advised and tried lemon juice on your freckles? I hear it is much more effective than cucumber. And Miss Laurence, you should not wear green. It emphasizes the odd colour of your eyes."
Without waiting for an answer, she swept from the room with a condescending nod worthy of a princess.
"Ohhh! How I detest her," Celeste stormed, jumping up from the settee as Olivia vanished. She glided across the room mimicking Olivia's walk, and fingered her throat, with a supercilious look on her face.
"Did you notice my new gown, and my expensive new garnet pendant? I know it is a little extravagant for day wear, but I wished you, my dear friends, to see it and be envious. Papa, who is a baron as you know, bought it with his money. Good money, you understand, because he did not earn it but inherited it."
Phoebe laughed in spite of herself at Celeste's antics. Sometimes it was difficult for her to remember she was four years the elder when in Celeste's company.
"She was rather obvious," Phoebe agreed, "but she was also successful, for I must confess I am envious of the Atwood's prospective house guest."
Celeste gave a final twirl and sank back down on the settee. "It is so unfair," she proclaimed. "Her mother was already planning to take her to Lake Katrine this summer, and now she is to have a real Scottish lord staying in her home."
"It is quite obvious Olivia plans to be the one to marry him," Phoebe remarked. "If she does it will be the Match of the Season. Perhaps it is already arranged, since her father and Lord Murray's father were friends. Although I doubt it, for she could not have refrained from telling us, had it been so. I hope someone else will snatch him away beneath her very nose," she finished uncharitably.
Celeste's changeable green eyes turned as brilliant as emeralds at Phoebe's words. "That is just the thing!" she exclaimed excitedly. "One of us must win him from her. I could not bear Olivia to be the one to marry a real Highland lord and crow over us the rest of her life. I should go into a decline and die," she proclaimed melodramatically.
"It would not be good ton to steal away Olivia's betrothed," Phoebe objected, ignoring Celeste's latter comments.
"She is not betrothed yet. If Lord Murray is coming to London to seek a wife, why, every unmarried girl is a possibility. It would not be wrong for us to try to attract his notice."
"But to intentionally pursue a gentleman--it does not seem the thing to do."
Phoebe knew her protest sounded half-hearted. She would like to see Olivia get her comeuppance. Some of Olivia's unkind remarks about her red hair, freckles and advancing age had found their mark over the past two Seasons, much as she tried not to let them hurt. Nor had she been the only girl so insulted. Olivia's sharp and spiteful tongue had wagged endlessly about Miss Markham's spots, Lady Ainsworth's plumpness, and Lady Winslow's unfortunate resemblance to a horse.
"What is a Season but a time for us to meet gentlemen whom we and our parents look upon as prospective marriage partners?" Celeste argued. "Lord Murray is no exception."
"I suppose that is true," Phoebe admitted. She was becoming very tempted to agree to Celeste's plan, but should she encourage Celeste in one of her starts? Phoebe knew her mother and Mrs. Laurence relied upon her to be a steadying influence on her flighty young friend.
"Olivia will have a great advantage, with Lord Murray living in her house," Phoebe warned, knowing that Celeste did not take defeat well.
"Perhaps not," Celeste said, adding with a rare flash of insight, "for if Lord Murray lives in the same house Olivia must show her true colours sooner or later. Please, let us try."
Phoebe was silent a moment. After all, what would be the harm? She and Celeste would not be the only ones vying for Lord Murray's favour. With the current rage for all things Scottish, every woman in Town was likely to be pursuing him.
"Very well, let us try," she capitulated.
Celeste ran to her friend and hugged her. "We shall succeed, you will see," she promised and promptly began to dance about the drawing room floor in her excitement.