Authors: Angeline Fortin
o repeated with a chuckle. “Now that I can understand. It is quite awe-inspiring. The sight of the castle silhouetted by the setting of the sun, the view of the cliffs …”
“That’s not quite what I meant,” Ian said softly as she trailed off.
“My awe is not merely for the visual—though it is all as you have said. No, it is the scope of the estate that holds me in its wonder. It is so much more than the castle itself. There are the parks, the woodlands, the orchards, the home farm, the mill, the herds. The gashouse and the icehouse. A dairy. Did you know there is a dairy? Cuilean is an enterprise of commerce. We buy very little but produce and sell so much. I am …
… nothing more than a simple soldier. I’ve never been a man of business before. Truthfully, I find the extent of my new responsibilities somewhat daunting.”
Hero stared up at Ian, taken aback by his honesty.
There wasn’t a male of her acquaintance whom she could imagine expressing doubt in his abilities or admitting to a shortcoming so vocally, for fear of being thought less of. While there was no doubt in her mind that Ian would learn the business of the estate handily—and honestly, education on the business of its operation was probably all he was wanting—it took a confident man to admit that he wasn’t all knowing. Hero found his admission perhaps more endearing than she should.
After all, he wasn’t a man lacking in intelligence.
She had found him to be a very knowledgeable conversationalist. He was well read and educated. What he needed was someone to school him on the workings of the estate. Cuilean’s steward, Jennings, was an excellent manager but a man who preferred to simply do rather than take the time to explain to another how to do it himself or why it was done in such a way.
She could teach him, Hero thought, glancing up at Ian through her lashes.
It would be simple to make the offer and she was inclined to think that he would appreciate any assistance offered even from a woman. But what if he did not? Some men didn’t like women of intelligence. While she knew Ian appreciated a witty conversation, he might not find business acumen as desirable a quality in a woman—and she did want to appeal to him.
Hero took a breath, pausing as if to admire the gothic fountain at the hub of the
low maze of hedges. There was much to dare in making the offer but she wanted to help him if she could. Beaumont turned and began to pace away once more, and they followed. Deciding it might be better to begin as she meant to move forward, Hero gathered the nerve to make her offer. Should he grow to care for her, she wanted him to appreciate her every facet, not mislead him into thinking she was something she was not. “Lord Ayr … Ian, I could perhaps be of assistance to you, if you’d like.”
“In what way?”
“Robert was very fond of Cuilean. He loved it, in fact, but he wasn’t fond of running it. The accounting bored him to tears and he disliked dealing with the tradespeople, the conflicts between the gamekeeper and the orchard’s gardeners or the park’s groundskeeper’s disputes with the grooms exercising the horses on the lawns.”
“I could assist Jennings in familiarizing you with the estate’s operations.”
Hero could feel Ian’s eyes on her, studying her solemnly
, but refused to return his gaze. Let him think what he would, she thought defiantly. She was a smart woman and proud of her accomplishments!
“I would be pleased for any assistance you might offer,” he said at length
, and it was Hero’s turn to study his profile as they emerged from the southerly end of the hedges and continued toward the more informal pleasure gardens. He seemed serene enough, but Hero couldn’t decide if he was genuinely accepting her offer or merely patronizing her.
“I ran this estate for almost seven years, you know,” she told him
“I could be a real help to you.”
“I believe you
. That’s why I accepted your offer.”
Hero inhaled sharply
, ready to defend her position, but before she could speak, she caught the twinkle in his eye and the hint of a dimple on his cheek. “You’re teasing me,” she accused.
“Only inasmuch as I find your indignation amusing.”
“But I could truly help you.”
Ian stopped and pulled Hero to a halt as well.
“Look at me, Hero.” She lifted her gaze to meet his. The laughter still lingered in his eyes but there was sincerity there. He repeated gently, “I believe you. That’s why I accepted your offer.”
she asked skeptically.
“Did I simply acquiesce too easily?” he teased.
“Were you expecting me to interview you ruthlessly or require some demonstration of your knowledge or perhaps even a written recommendation before I accepted your word on the matter?”
given in too easily, Hero admitted to herself. She had been prepared to argue her suitability to the task before he accepted, just as she’d had to with Robert before he finally let her sit in with Jennings. The new marquis was certainly an unusual man, to have agreed without a more substantial establishment of her skills. Hero shook her head in disbelief, an action Ian misinterpreted.
, don’t deny it,” he scolded with laughter in his voice.
“I won’t say anything more on the subject other than to offer my thanks,” she responded primly.
“I will try not to disappoint you.”
“I doubt you could even if you tried.”
Hero looked back at him curiously, but Ian was now refusing to look at her.
“You know, I’ve ridden my horse across the lawns a dozen times since I’ve been here,” Ian told her
, changing the subject. “I suppose I oughtn’t have done that. I would not wish to upset the groundskeeper.”
Hero just smiled
, realizing that Ian was quite adept at changing the subject. “You are the laird. It is your right to ride your horse anywhere you’d like.”
“Through the gardens?”
“If you chose to.”
“In the library?”
With a false shudder, Hero shook her head emphatically. “Never there! Even I wouldn’t brave Mrs. Potts’s wrath by marring her floors.”
“She is quite fierce, isn’t she?”
Hero smiled and received Ian’s mischievous grin in return.
With a sigh, she thought how nice it was to feel as if a man valued her intellect and truly seemed to like her. Not the social façade one donned in company but the woman she truly was. He laughed at her jests, teased her playfully, and showed a pleasing confidence in her intelligence. It was … nice. That he seemed to find her as physically appealing as she found him was an added windfall.
ing into a companionable silence, Hero allowed Ian to lead her to the south end of the formal gardens, where a moss-covered stone archway and low wall announced their arrival at the pleasure gardens. While the front lawns of the castle were very tidy and structured, these terraced gardens were a riot of pathways winding about a cacophony of flowering beds, tall statuary, small fountains, and draping willows. The facing walls of each level that rose back toward the firth to their right were dripping with clematis and other climbers.
Soon, Ian was
inquiring about the gardens and their origins as they meandered through them, showing a surprising knowledge of the flora and fauna that they came across. He was able to name so many more varieties than Hero was even while he drew the duke along with them, making sure her father didn’t wander off and once or twice reminding Beaumont of his name.
When Beaumont stopped at a fountain to dip his handkerchief in the water and mop his face with it, Ian stood by her father’s side and did the same.
He agreed heartily with the duke that the nudity of the woman portrayed on the fountain’s statuary was indeed a most envious state, though he calmly offered that perhaps they should refrain from imitating the goddess lest they offend Hero’s more delicate sensibilities.
Hero bit back a smile at that, surprising herself with the thought that the sight of Ian in the nude wouldn’t offend her at all.
It was another surprisingly hot day, most unusual for Scotland
, even in June. The sun pierced through Hero’s lace parasol, and bees buzzed lazily as the trio wove their way along the many pathways that wound through the acres of gardens. She wished she were able to loosen her clothing the way the men were able to, still she couldn’t seem to stop smiling despite her discomfort. Ian was such a kind man to be so patient with her father. The duke could be a trying personality these days, yet Ian accepted him and even played into the conversation in a way that delighted the duke and tugged at Hero’s heartstrings.
“Daughter,” Beaumont began, breaking through the
hum of summer pleasantly surrounding them, “I thought you said there were swans here.”
“Yes, Papa, we will see them soon.”
“Swans?” Ian echoed.
“Haven’t you been to the swan pond yet?”
“I have a swan pond?” he asked with playful surprise.
“Where did you say you had ridden all those times this past month?”
Ian grinned broadly. “The library, I believe.”
Six hundred acres of property and you hadn’t even made it into these gardens yet? I shall simply have to take you on a complete tour of the grounds, I see,” Hero laughed. “The swan pond, for example, is just past the gardens to the southeast where they meet the fringes of the wooded parklands. It is a charming lake, though man-made. I believe Jennings told me they blasted the site with dynamite to create it. It is stocked with fish to feed the estate, but for more aesthetic reasons, a swan house and gazebo were added next to it. It’s a lovely setting with the willows hanging low over the gazebo. And very well shaded.”
“Shade sounds very appealing at this moment.”
“It does, doesn’t it?”
“What other treasures have I missed?”
he asked, turning her in that direction.
“There is a
n exquisite Chinese pagoda farther into the woodlands, sitting along the banks of a narrow creek, and the orangery in the orchards to the south is probably the most divine structure on the grounds,” Hero told him with enthusiasm. “With all the metal and glass, one might think it a most stark structure, but there is more ornate ironwork and stained glass there than in any other building at Cuilean.”
“You’ll have to show it to me.”
“I would love to.” Hero tilted her parasol back and looked up to find Ian studying her with a thoughtful expression. “What is it, my lord?”
Ian’s eyes warmed and the corner of his mouth tilted upward in a tender smile.
“Nothing more than I have a feeling that there is much that I would have you show me.”
Hero felt her cheeks warm at his
allusion, knowing that he wasn’t merely referring to Cuilean’s acreage, and was thankful that the heat of the day was already keeping them flushed. He was flirting with her. It was subtle but it was there.
“And a picnic!” Beaumont added
, coming alongside Ian and bringing an end to the moment. “My daughter has ordered a picnic to be brought there for us.”
“Very thoughtful,” Ian said with a grin.
“She’s a very thoughtful girl.”
“Aye, she is.”
Ian shot Hero another wide smile, his dark eyes dancing, and she couldn’t help but smile back. “Tell me, Harry,” he continued conversationally, “is it truly the swans you were hoping to see or was it that basket?”
“One would think a man
might find pleasure in a great many things,” the duke said solemnly, rocking back on his heels before spying the gazebo in the distance and striding off toward it. “I am feeling rather peckish, however.”
Hero watched her father go and followed on Ian’s arm.
She could feel the strength of it beneath her fingers, feel the power of his body when her shoulder brushed against his arm. She had never feared strong men—her father, while not so tall, was very powerfully built—but she had never seen the attraction in a large man before either. Robert had been barrel-like in build, and most men of her acquaintance were either similar in stature, running to fat, or far more wiry. Ian was neither burly nor lean but rather settled nicely between. He was so very masculine in form, tall and muscular with a fine military bearing, yet it was a force she felt he kept tightly reined. She felt very feminine by his side, protected without being overshadowed.
It should have been very comforting but instead his presence
kept her feeling on edge.
It was an intoxicating feeling of anticipation that recalled to Hero her earlier admission. She had felt like such a ninny for admitting to Ian that at Cuilean she’d always felt as if something were about to happen, yet Ian left her feeling the same way. Waiting for something to happen.
Wanting it to happen.
to make it happen.
Hero shook her head ruefully.
She’d had but one Season before her father had accepted the Marquis of Ayr’s proposal on her behalf. One Season to flirt with other men, something Hero had decided took much more practice than she’d been allowed. After that, she’d been whisked away to Dùn Cuilean and had been happy to remain here but for their annual trips to London, Edinburgh, and Balmoral.
Ian might flirt but Hero didn’t truly know the best way to respond.
She wished she knew better how to go about engaging his interest and searched her mind for a topic that might interest him. Unfortunately, she found herself floundering helplessly.
Thankfully, as if sensing her sudden discomfort, Ian broke the silence.
“Why does your father refer to you as ‘daughter’ rather than calling you by name?”
Grateful to have
the dilemma taken from her hands—even though it was definitely not a provocative subject, Hero answered, “I think it is so that he does not inadvertently call me by another name. In the past year, I’ve been called Viola, Portia, Juliet, and even Valerie … my sisters and my mother,” she added at his puzzled look. “I think it is Papa’s way of being correct even when he is confused, and perhaps a way of holding on to the present as well. I look very much like my mother. While I believe Papa enjoys being with me, I sometimes have to wonder if that resemblance bothers him.”
“Were they very close?”
“I don’t know,” she said and added honestly, “I like to think so though.”
As if Ian could sense that she was becoming uncomfortable with the topic,
he did not press her but instead said, “Tell me what else you know about Cuilean.”
Hero sighed in relief.
He really did have a rare talent for putting a person at ease, and the topic was a favorite one. “Dùn Cuilean was built as a stronghold in the early fifteenth century. Its name means cave fortress or some combination of the words. It is an excellent location to defend.”
150-foot cliff does give an advantage.”
, thankful for Ian’s easy ways. “Yes, it does. The original fortress was actually just the tower and the building that now houses the laundry and stables on the north side of the courtyard. The main part of the castle today was built in the sixteenth century and added on to just fifty to sixty years ago, as we talked about last night, bringing the castle to its current size.” Hero paused, then continued, “When I was first brought here as a bride, I was astounded by the size and age of the castle, having been raised solely in London and having left that city only for house parties and weekends in nearby manors or for trips to Bath or Brighton. I was used to the Georgian style of architecture and unprepared for Cuilean’s fairytale proportions, but it swept me away.”
When Hero had first come here and witnessed th
e castle, she had fallen completely in love with Cuilean.
And never stopped loving it.
Staying away for the past year had been heartbreaking, but it wasn’t her home any longer, her mother had insisted. It wasn’t her place.
That hadn’t stopped Hero from returning
with the hope that the new marquis would let his predecessor’s widow remain, but she had never imagined that successor would be a man like Ian Conagham.
“I’m glad it pleases you so much to be home.”
“I can never thank you enough for allowing it.”
They reached the pond and Ian paused on the shaded banks and turned to her.
Hero stared up at him, taking in the rugged lines of his face. Her fingers itched to dip into those long dimples, while her body tingled with the urge to press against his.