Turning, she smiled with genuine affection at Lord Marchman and offered him her hand through the open window of the coach. "Thank you," she said shyly but with great sincerity, "for being all the things you are, my lord."
His face scarlet with pleasure at her compliment, John Marchman stepped back and watched her coach pull out of his drive. He watched it until the horses turned onto the road, then he slowly walked back toward the house and went into his study. Sitting down at his desk, he looked at the note he'd written her uncle and idly drummed his fingers upon his' desk, recalling her disturbing answer when he asked if she'd dissuaded old Belhaven from pressing his suit. "I think I have." she'd said. And then John made his decision.
Feeling rather like an absurd knight in shining armor rushing to save an unwilling damsel in the event of future distress, he took out a fresh sheet of paper and wrote out a new message to her uncle. As it always happened the moment courtship was involved, Lord Marchman lost his ability to be articulate. His note read:
If Belhaven asks for her, please advise me of it. I think I want her first.
Ian Thornton stood in the center of the large cottage in Scotland where he had been born. Now he used it as a hunting box, but it was much more than that to him. It was the place where he knew he could always find peace and reality; the one place where he could escape, for a while, the hectic pace of his life. With his hands thrust deep in his pockets he looked about him, seeing it again through the eyes of an adult. "Every time I come back it's smaller than I remembered," he told the ruddy-faced, middle-aged man who was trudging through the front doors with heavy sacks of provisions slung over his shoulder.
"Things always look bigger when yer little," Jake said, unceremoniously dumping the sacks onto the dusty sideboard. "That's the lot o' it, ?cept my gear," he said. He pulled his pistol out of his belt and put it on the table. "I'll put the horses away."
Ian nodded absently, but his attention was on the cottage. An aching nostalgia swelled inside him as he remembered the years he'd lived here as a child. In his heart he heard his father's deep voice and his mother's answering laughter. To his right was the hearth where his mother had once prepared their meals before the arrival of their stove. At right angles to the hearth were the two tan high-backed chairs in which his parents had spent long, cozy evenings before the fire, talking in low voices so that Ian and his younger sister wouldn't be disturbed in their bedrooms above. Across from that was a sofa upholstered in a sturdy tan and brown plaid.
It was all here, just as Ian remembered. Turning, he looked down at the dust-covered table beside him, and with a smile he reached out and touched the surface, his long fingers searching the surface for a specific set of scratches. It took several seconds of rubbing, but slowly they came into view-four clumsily formed letters: I.G.B.T.-his initials, scratched into the surface when he was a little over three years old. That piece of mischief had nearly gotten him a good shaking until his mother realized he'd been teaching himself his letters without her help.
His lessons had begun the next day, and when his mother's considerable learning had been exhausted his father took over, teaching him geometry and physics and everything he'd learned at Eton and Cambridge. When Ian was fourteen Jake Wiley had joined the household as a jack-of-all-trades, and from him Ian had learned firsthand of the sea, and ships, and mysterious lands on the other side of the world. Later he had gone with Jake to see them himself and to put his education to use.
He'd returned home three years afterward, eager to see his family, only to discover that a few days earlier they had died in a fire at an inn where they had gone to await his impending return. Even now Ian felt the wrenching loss of his mother and father, the proud man who had turned his back on his noble heritage and instead married the sister of a poor Scottish vicar. By his actions he had forfeited a dukedom. . . and had never given a blessed damn. Or so he said. The poignancy of being here after two long years was almost past bearing, and Ian tipped his head back, closing his eyes against the bittersweet ache of it. He saw his father grinning and shaking his hand as Ian prepared to depart on his first voyage with Jake. "Take care," he had said. "Remember, no matter how far you go, we'll always be with you."
Ian had left that day, the impecunious son of a disowned English lord whose entire fortune was a small bag of gold his father had given him on his sixteenth birthday. Now, fourteen years later, there were fleets of ships flying Ian's flag and carrying his cargo; mines filled with his silver and tin; warehouses loaded with precious goods that he owned. But it was land that had originally made him rich. A large parcel of barren-looking land that he'd won at cards from a colonial who swore the old mine there had gold in it. And it had. Gold that bought more mines, and ships, and palatial homes in Italy and India.
Gambling everything on a series of investments had paid off for Ian again and again. Once society had called him a gambler; now he was regarded as some sort of mythical king with a golden touch. Rumors flew and prices soared on the ?change every time he bought a stock. He could not set foot into a ball without the butler bellowing out his name. Where once he had been a social pariah, those same people who had shunned him now courted his favor-or, more precisely, his financial advice, or his money for their daughters. His wealth had brought Ian many luxuries, but no extraordinary joy. It was the gamble he loved best-the challenge of selecting exactly the right venture and the thrill of wagering a fortune on it. Moreover, success had come with a price it had cost him his right to privacy, and he resented that.
Now his grandfather's actions were adding to his unwanted notoriety. The death of Ian's father had evidently caused the old duke to feel some belated regret for the estrangement, and for the last twelve years he'd been writing to Ian periodically. At first he had pleaded with Ian to come and visit him at Stanhope. When Ian ignored his letters, he'd tried bribing him with promises to name Ian his legitimate heir. Those letters had gone unanswered, and for the last two years the old man's silence had misled Ian into thinking he'd given up. Four months ago, however, another letter bearing Stanhope's ducal crest had been delivered to Ian, and this one infuriated him.
The old man had imperiously given Ian four months in which to appear at Stanhope and meet with him to discuss arrangements for the transfer of six estates-estates that would have been Ian's father's inheritance had the duke not disowned him. According to the letter, if Ian did not appear, the duke planned to proceed without him, publicly naming him his heir, Ian had written to his grandfather for the first time in his life; the note had been short and final. It was also eloquent proof that Ian Thornton was as unforgiving as his grandfather, who'd rejected his own son for two decades: