From beloved historical romance author Marion
Chesney comes the third installment in the Royal Ambition series.
The Misses Penelope Yarwood, Euphemia Perkins, and
Letitia Helmsdale all smugly informed her that the Marquess of Cleveden was at once the most eligible and the most elusive catch in the London marriage mart.
Society’s most dazzling beauties had failed to win him over yet, and a newcomer like Fiona didn’t stand a ghost of a chance of having him look at her twice.
That was all that fiery-tempered Fiona needed to hear, and she bet—far more wealth than she possessed—that she would snare the maddeningly elusive marquess before the season’s end.
Now Fiona faces the risk of losing a wager she cannot repay—and more, the even greater danger of losing her heart.
About the Author
M. C. Beaton has won international acclaim for her bestselling Hamish Macbeth mysteries and the Agatha Raisin mystery series. She is also the author of more than one hundred romance titles and a series of romantic suspense novels, the Edwardian Mystery series. Born in Scotland, she now divides her time between Paris and the English Cotswolds.
Read an Excerpt
Although Walter Scott's poetry was just beginning to make the Highlands of Scotland a romantic place in the eyes of the ton, very few members of Regency society would dream of leaving their overheated saloons and clubs to go and see the place for themselves. And so most of them remained unaware that the Scottish aristocracy and gentry still lived in a manner alien to their English counterparts.
On the other hand, many members of the Scottish upper classes were familiar with the hectic London Season, making the long journey each year in the hopes of finding suitable husbands for their daughters.
But at least one daughter of the Scottish landed gentry remained, as yet, blissfully unaware of the competition, the snobbery, and the rigid social rules among English society. Her name was Fiona Grant, and she lived with her parents, Sir Edward and Lady Grant, in a large ancient mansion, Strathglass House, located some miles outside Inverness and surrounded by deep pine forests.
Fiona was very popular. She had an open, easy manner and was quite unaware of her great beauty. She had thick chestnut hair that burned with tiny fiery red lights like sparks from a peat fire on a frosty night. Her complexion was flawless and her wide eyes were very green — not hazel, but as green as a cat's.
The one great flaw in her personality was that she had inherited her father's addiction to gambling.
Sir Edward was a lawyer, having been brought up at a time when the French Revolution had caused tremors of fear to run through the British upper classes, and just in case Britain should follow the French example, he had, like many of his kind, been trained to a profession. Like Fiona, he was spared the hells of heavy gambling because of geographical circumstances. The only neighbors with any money were too far distant to make more than two or three calls a year and the servants and tenants were too poor. Fiona gambled with the maids, using paper spills for money, each spill representing one hundred guineas, while her father was often reduced to playing cards with Angus Robertson, his piper, for shillings, not a very rewarding pastime, for if he won, he had to pay the piper, and if he lost, Angus would merely disappear into the hills for a week until such time as he considered his master might have forgotten the debt.
The fact that the Grants could do with more money was evident in the style in which they lived. Very little had been done to modernize the mansion, and the kitchen was still a disgraceful building of turf tacked onto the back of the house with holes in the turf roof open to the sky to let the smoke out, for there was no chimney. One day a mouse had fallen off the rafters into the soup and Lady Grant had vowed to tear down the kitchen and build a new one, but nothing had come of it.
In the Highland manner, the Grants sheltered many dependents under their roof. Fiona's old nurse lived in the attics, along with her governess, and two housemaids, too old to continue in service. Then there were various relatives, such as two half-pay captains and three maiden aunts, who had come on a visit a long time ago and showed no signs of leaving.
Fiona loved her home. Having never lived anywhere else, apart from a brief childhood sojourn in an equally dilapidated house in Edinburgh, she saw no fault in it. She had been strictly brought up in her childhood but now had more freedom than any young lady of her class usually enjoyed.
She rode her shaggy Highland pony over the moors of her father's estate and through dark forests, so thick that the great gales of winter could not penetrate and cried far above her head in the tops of the pines with a dismal moaning sound. The terror of invasion by Napoleon had spread even to this remote part of the country, and Fiona rode out with her father on field days to inspect their own regiment of Highlanders. She made a brave figure dressed in a tartan petticoat, red jacket, gaudily laced, and with the same style of bonnet ornamented with feathers as her father wore.
Although the daughter of the house, she was still expected to help the servants with household chores, which is why, on a cold November afternoon, Fiona was down on her hands and knees on the floor of the banqueting hall, chalking out squares that would enable the dancers to keep in their sets. A ball to celebrate her nineteenth birthday was to be held there that very evening.
She was looking forward to her birthday ball with the same mild pleasure she had looked forward to all the others. Dreams of romance still did not trouble her sleep. The young men who were coming to the ball she had known all her life and thought of as friends rather than as beaux.
She coughed as she worked, for the great fire in the hall smoked abominably, but then it always did. Fiona sometimes wished her father would make some push to have the chimneys rebuilt, but she alone found the smoke a nuisance, Sir Edward and his staff considering peat smoke beneficial and a sure way of keeping diseases at bay — as if diseases were so many mosquitoes.
Fiona finished chalking the floor just as the wheezing chime of an old grandfather clock in the darker recesses of the hall reminded her it was time to change into her party clothes.
Snow was beginning to drift gently down outside as Fiona put on a white muslin gown, high-waisted in the latest manner. Sir Edward always made sure she wore the newest fashions, for he admired his daughter's beauty, although he and Lady Grant never told her so, feeling that compliments might make her vain.
Fiona arranged her hair in a simple style, put on a thin necklace of coral, and drew on a pair of kid gloves that were wrinkled up to the elbow. She thought the gloves would surely have looked better had they been smooth, but Sir Edward had assured her that wrinkled gloves were "all the crack."
From down below, she could hear the groan of the bagpipes and the scrape of fiddles as the orchestra tuned up.
She had spent a long time dressing, for her parents wanted her to make an appearance. She rose to her feet, shivering a little, for thin muslin was little protection against the icy drafts of Strathglass House, and made her way to the top of the staircase that led down to the banqueting hall.
She stood for a moment, looking down at the assembled guests, envying the serving maids and tenants' wives their wool dresses — but not their bare feet. Only the ladies of the upper classes wore shoes.
It was a motley assortment of guests gathered below under the smoke-blackened beams. Tenants and servants, keepers, shepherds, stalkers, and poor relations all mixed together happily without paying any attention to degrees of rank.
On a small platform at the end stood Angus Robertson, fronting the orchestra. Angus was resident piper to the Grants and would not do any manual work for fear of ruining his hands.
Fiona started to descend the stairs, and then she froze. All at once she had a premonition that this evening was going to be different, that something was going to happen to her that would change her whole life. An initial feeling of dread was followed by one of elation and exhilaration. She felt she was standing on the threshold of something momentous.
She took a deep breath and began to descend the stairs.
A cheer went up from the guests and servants when they saw her and she felt she was being engulfed in the great wave of love and goodwill that rose up to meet her.
Beaming proudly, her father led her into a set for the first reel. Fiona looked up at him, waiting for him to say something — something that would explain the odd feeling she had had at the top of the stairs — but he only smiled at her proudly and said, "You look cold, Fiona. A few reels will soon warm you."
Fiona danced and danced. For a while the feeling of anticipation left her. There was a rest from dancing at midnight when a great supper was served with everyone — servants, tenants, and aristocracy — sitting down together, the only social distinction being that whisky punch was served to the lower orders while wine was served to the gentry.
Sir Edward rose to make a speech and again Fiona felt that almost suffocating sensation of anticipation, but her father said nothing at all out of the way, merely delivering the same speech he had delivered on all her other birthdays.
At two in the morning, the dancing resumed and did not end until dawn, which arrived in the middle of the morning, as during the long Scottish winter the sun rises at ten and sets around two in the afternoon.
Standing wearily beside her parents, saying good-bye to the guests, Fiona became convinced that she had imagined her earlier feeling that something was about to happen.
Sir Edward went off to the library and Fiona was about to climb the stairs to her room when her mother beckoned her and told her that her father wanted to speak to her on a most important matter.
Fiona's heart began to beat quickly. All at once she was sure she knew what was going to happen. Her father had a marriage planned for her and that was what he wanted to discuss with her. The most likely candidate was Jamie Grant, a fourth cousin who had lands on the banks of Loch Ness. Jamie was well enough, thought Fiona ruefully, but the same age as herself and still at times more like a schoolboy than a man. And yet, if Jamie had been chosen for her, she was prepared to accept him.
But Jamie! Sulky, petulant Jamie! Surely all that feeling of excitement, that feeling something momentous was about to happen, should have been the herald of some event greater than the prospect of marriage to Jamie Grant.
Fiona sighed. If her father had chosen Jamie, then Jamie it would have to be. Fiona knew her father had always longed for a son and felt she had somehow let him down by being a mere girl. The least she could do was to accept the husband of his choice.
She followed her mother to the library, a large gloomy room with serried ranks of bookshelves rising high up to the blackened ceiling. Fiona did not have happy memories of this room. It was here she had point-blank refused to dust the bookshelves with a fox's tail when she was only eight years old. She dreaded the thought of climbing up the library steps with that fox's tail in her hand, sure that the ghost of a tailless fox would appear to bite her. Her rebellion had shocked her father. She had been locked in a dark cupboard beside the fire, where the peat was kept, and left there, sobbing with misery for a whole hour.
Sir Edward Grant was a tall thin man like a beanpole. He wore the kilt when he was at home, having never paid the slightest attention, even when it was being enforced, to that stupid English law that forbade the wearing of tartan in Scotland. He had not practiced his profession for some time but had frequently threatened to move to Edinburgh and start in business again. Although he studied all the latest developments in farming, he made disastrous and expensive mistakes. He had at one time purchased a piece of land in Hertfordshire in England. He had bought at great cost a large drove of fine black cattle in Moray with a view to driving them down to England and selling the beef on the London Market. But before his drovers set off south, he had told them to put the cattle in a small paddock between the orchard and the river bordered on the shrubbery side by a yew hedge. By next day, the poor beasts had eaten the hedge, and lay about the paddock, dead or dying from the effects of the poison.
Lady Grant, showing little weariness from the night's celebrations, sat down beside the fire and took out a piece of embroidery. She was a fat, placid woman who had never fallen out of love with her husband and found she could lead a comfortable life provided she agreed with everything he said.
"Fiona," said Sir Edward, speaking in English instead of Gaelic, a sure sign of the weightiness of the interview, "I have decided to remove to London and study for the English bar. We have need of money and there are no fat pickings to be had north of the border. English law, as you know, is different from Scottish law, but if I study hard, I am sure I can master its intricacies very quickly."
"And we are to go too?" asked Fiona. "To London?" "Yes, and hope of finding a suitable husband for you is what forced me to make the move. There are plenty of fine men between Inverness and Edinburgh. But we need money, and if you made an advantageous English marriage, it would be the saving of us."
"We have also decided," said Lady Grant in her clear calm voice, "that keeping in mind we are relying on you to save our fortunes, you may marry whom you please — or rather, you will not be compelled to marry anyone you have taken in dislike."
A flash of humor lit Fiona's green eyes. "Of course, Mama," she said, "there are fortunes to be won at the gambling tables of St. James's."
"Aye," exclaimed Sir Edward, his eyes gleaming. "I kept that in mind. I have a quick mind and a deft way with the cards."
"Beware," mocked Fiona. "Playing hazard, dice, and whist with Angus the piper may not be the same thing as putting your lands in forfeit on a London card table."
"You must curb that unruly tongue of yours," said Lady Grant, putting a blue stitch neatly into a near-finished silk delphinium on her embroidery.
"Oh, leave her be," said Sir Edward good-humoredly. "There's plenty of fine London bucks who will like a girl with spirit."
"Quite so," said Lady Grant placidly, agreeing with him as usual.
"But London is so very far away," said Fiona. "I did not like Edinburgh at all, and that is a capital city as well."
When her father was working as a lawyer in Edinburgh and Lady Grant had been in ill health, Fiona had been at the mercy of the Edinburgh servants. Her bath was a tin one, out in the backyard of the house. Every week it was filled with cold water, whether winter or summer, and Fiona, then eight, had been dragged screaming down from the nursery in the attics and plunged into the icy bath. If she would not eat anything at supper, it was presented to her at breakfast, and if refused, then at the following meal, until one day, faint from starvation, she was locked in a cupboard with a stodgy pudding she had refused for three days and told to stay there until she had eaten it. It was only when her feeble wails had penetrated the soft heart of a Highland chambermaid that the news of her plight was whispered to Lady Grant and she was released from her prison. It was not so much the bullying over the food that had angered Lady Grant, who had been brought up the same way, but the frequent baths, shocking in an age when washing all over was only recommended for medicinal purposes. And yet, despite the horror the cruelty of the servants had given Fiona for the whole of Edinburgh, she continued the ritual of the weekly bath when she was much older, for after having been clean, she found an unclean body uncomfortable.
"London is a grand place," said Sir Edward dreamily. "We will arrive in time for the Season. There will be parties and routs and theaters. Lizzie Grant is apprenticed to a dressmaker in South Molton Street and will instruct you in all the latest fashions." Lizzie Grant was Sir Edward's brother's "accidental daughter," a polite Highland euphemism for an illegitimate female child. Sir Edward's eyes glowed as he talked, for he was privately thinking of the great fortune he was sure to make at the tables.
Lady Grant put one neat stitch after another in her embroidery and turned the names of their wealthier connections over in her mind. She was perfectly sure her husband would lose so much money that they would have to flee back to Scotland and was already preparing herself to approach various friends for money. But she accepted her husband's addiction to gambling as a Family Curse, something hereditary which nothing could be done about.
Fiona fell to thinking about marriage. She had already made up her mind she would have to marry someone. That was the way of the world. She hoped she would turn out like her mother and be able to tolerate some gentleman, faults and all. Fiona adored gambling as much as her father, but unlike him she could not face even her mythical losses of hundreds to some of the maids with equanimity. To repay her father for her having been born a mere girl, she must do her duty and go after the richest man at the Season. But he would possibly be English, she thought in dismay, and would expect her to live out the rest of her days in England. Perhaps, after all, there might be some way to get out of marriage. Perhaps she could contrive some way to win money for herself. She was luckier at cards and dice than her father.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Miss Fiona's Fancy"
Copyright © 1987 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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