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The Highlander's Christmas Countess
Author: Anna Campbell

 

Chapter 1

 


Glen Lyon, Western Highlands of Scotland, 20th December 1830

 

“Kit! Kit! Let’s do it again!”

The imperious voice of five-year-old Miss Andromeda Douglas rose above the laughter and chatter echoing around the snowy glen.

“No, Kit! It’s my turn! Come down the hill with me, Kit!” Master William Douglas, a year younger than his sister, demanded.

A light laugh and a cheerful voice responded. “He’s right, Miss Andy. It is his turn. Ye can ride down with Uncle Joseph, if you’re in such an all-fired hurry.”

“But I want to go with you,” the daughter of the house insisted, scorning the idea of accepting Joseph Laing, the head groom, as a substitute.

“In that case, you’ll have to wait.”

With a mince pie in his hand and a smile that he hoped hid his raging curiosity, Quentin MacNab turned to his Aunt Emily who stood beside him. “The new stable lad seems to be a favorite with the bairns.”

A group consisting of the laird and lady and the senior members of the household gathered on the snowy slopes behind Lyon House. Beside them stretched a trestle table, laden with seasonal treats. The day was fine but bitterly cold. Perfect sledding weather.

Quentin had already taken the dizzying ride down the hill several times and had only drawn aside now to join his aunt and uncle in a mug of mulled wine. The scents of cinnamon and cloves lent a spicy note to the clean Highland air.

Emily Douglas smiled back. The Lady of Glen Lyon was a bonny woman, with rich dark brown hair and gray eyes that sparkled with intelligence. Despite being Quentin’s aunt, she was only eight years older than his twenty-four. More friend than aunt.

“Yes, he’s proven himself a treasure in this last month. Laing speaks highly of his work and as you can see, the children adore him. We were lucky Laing asked his nephew to come and work for us.”

Quentin’s gaze locked on the slim figure settling in behind the rambunctious heir to Glen Lyon. The stable lad seemed to have cut off Andy’s tantrum before it could start, which spoke volumes for his tact and intelligence. “He’s very well spoken for a stableboy.”

Uncle Hamish turned, a slab of fruitcake in his massive hand. “Aye, apparently the lad was a favorite back in his village, too. When Kit wasn’t busy on the family croft, the minister gave him lessons.”

Uncle Hamish sounded as English as his wife, the result of a childhood spent in London. He was fair and brawny like a Viking, and while Quentin at six foot one was no midget, his uncle towered over him.

Quentin took a mouthful of his wine, appreciating the warmth. “Odd he aims no higher than a place in the stables, then. If he has a good education, he could find a post as a clerk somewhere or a teacher.”

Quentin watched as the sled careered down the snowy slope. William’s shrieks of delight filled the air, and the stableboy’s face was bright with childlike excitement.

When Quentin turned back to Hamish and Emily, he caught them sharing a meaningful glance. That was nothing new. Quentin had lived at Glen Lyon for the last six months. He’d become used to silent communication between the laird and his lady.

Emily answered. “Kit’s a genius with the horses and seems happiest working outdoors. I believe Laing is hoping that his nephew might take over as head groom after he retires.”

“Although that won’t be for years yet,” Hamish added, before he took a bite of his fruit cake.

“Hmm.” Quentin continued to observe the stable lad and the two children, the boy dark and intense and the girl as golden fair as her papa.

Speaking of family resemblances, Kit didn’t look much like his uncle Joseph Laing. Quentin’s gaze flickered toward the redheaded giant standing under the trees with the horses and wagons that had transported the sleds and the furniture for this alfresco winter party.

Kit and William reached the base of the hill and climbed off the sled. Holding William’s hand, the stable lad started to haul the sled back up the hill. Andy bounced around on top of the slope, urging them to hurry.

Andy was a clever, outspoken lassie, very like her father in personality, too. Hamish Douglas, Laird of Glen Lyon, was a famous astronomer. Emily was hardly less distinguished in scientific circles. Quentin had come to Glen Lyon from his father’s estate near Perth to work as his uncle’s assistant. Hamish’s older sister Prudence had suggested that her son might enjoy some time on the west coast with his uncle and aunt.

His mother had been right, as usual. Quentin was enjoying it. He loved Hamish and Emily and the children. He loved the elegant house on the shore of its sheltered sea loch. He loved the challenging work, although he was the first to admit that while he might be clever, he was nowhere near as clever as his brilliant uncle.

But as he watched Kit trudge up the hill toward Andy, he had to admit that by far the most interesting thing on the Glen Lyon estate was the laird’s new stableboy. Thick trousers covered long legs – the lad gave the promise of height to come. A bulky, roughly woven coat fell from neck to knee, and a tight knitted bonnet covered his head and ears. In fact, the boy was considerably more bundled up than anyone else out here on this cold day, including the two children.

Quentin set his silver mug on the table. “I might go back to the sledding. If William will accept me in place of Kit, I might even take him with me.”

Another of those speaking looks between his aunt and uncle. “Kit has it all in hand,” Hamish said with a hint of disapproval.

“No doubt,” Quentin said and strode up the hill to Kit and the two children.

“It’s my turn now,” Andy was saying, as dictatorial as any princess. “You have to wait, William.”

“Now, Miss Andy, there’s nae need to rub it in,” Kit said, a gurgle of laughter adding a rich edge of warmth to the gentle reprimand.

“I’ve got a better idea,” Quentin said, with a shaming hint of breathlessness. That hill was deuced steep. It was a lot easier coming down it on a sled than climbing it on two legs. “I’ll take William.”

“Oh, Cousin Quentin, yes, please, yes, please!” the child shrieked, jumping up and down with excitement.

Two large bluebell-colored eyes surrounded by thick black lashes fixed on Quentin with a hint of wariness. The cold weather had put pink in Kit’s cheeks. He was a delicate-looking creature to be working somewhere as rough-and-tumble as the stables. This close, Quentin could see that the body under all that heavy clothing was slight.

“Aye, sir.” Kit bowed, before sidling away. “He’ll love that.”

Quentin had already noticed that the lad was painfully shy and inclined to avoid company other than the children. A few times, he’d set out to talk to Kit, only to turn around and find the lad had scarpered out of sight.

He waved a hand through the air. “No, stay.”

“Aye, sir.” But reluctance weighted the obedience, Quentin could hear.

He held that bright blue gaze until the pink in the stable lad’s cheeks turned vivid. The boy’s glance flickered away, and he seemed flustered as he placed Andy on the sled and positioned himself behind the little girl.

“Let’s go,” Andy commanded.

“Aye,” Kit said, the husky tone sending a jolt of awareness through Quentin. His hands closed into fists at his sides, and his nostrils flared. He knew now how a hound felt when it scented a fox.

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