The Earl's Convenient Wife
From housekeeper…to lady of the manor!
The terms of the will are simple: to keep his family's Scottish castle, Alasdair McBride, Earl of Duncairn, must marry his housekeeper, Jeanie Lochlan. Given their difficult past, there's no love lost between these two…but their chemistry is undeniable!
Now, vows exchanged and living together in their sumptuous Scottish castle, they start to uncover closely held secrets. And as their carefully erected barriers start to crumble, suddenly they're wondering, will one year be enough…?
There was deathly silence in the magnificent library of the ancient castle of Duncairn. In specially built niches round the walls were the bottles of whisky Jeanie had scraped to afford. Weirdly, that was what she was focusing on. What a waste. How much whisky could she fit in a suitcase?
How many scores of fruitcakes would they make? There was no way she was leaving them behind. For him. For her prospective bridegroom?
What a joke.
She'd been clinging to the hope that she might keep her job. She knew the Lord of Duncairn didn't like her, but she'd worked hard to give Duncairn Castle the reputation for hospitality it now enjoyed.
It didn't matter. Her efforts were for nothing. This crazy will meant she was out on her ear.
'This must be a joke.' Alasdair McBride, the sixteenth Earl of Duncairn, sounded appalled. It was no wonder. She stood to lose her job. Alasdair stood to lose his…fiefdom?
'A last will and testament is never a joke.' Edward McCraig, of the prestigious law firm McCraig, McCraig & McFerry, had made the long journey from Edinburgh to be at today's funeral for Eileen McBride—Alasdair's grandmother and Jeanie's employer. He'd sat behind Jeanie in the Duncairn Kirk and listened to the eulogies with an air of supressed impatience. He wished to catch the last ferry back to the mainland. He was now seated in one of the library's opulent chairs, reading the old lady's wishes to her only surviving grandson—and to the live-in help.
He shuffled his papers and pushed his glasses further down his nose, looking at neither of them. Crazy or not, Eileen's will clearly made him uncomfortable.
Jeanie looked at Alasdair and then looked away. This might be a mess, but it had little to do with her, she decided. She went back to counting whisky bottles. Maybe three suitcases? She only had one, but there were crates in the castle cellars. If she was brave enough to face the dark and the spiders.
Could you sell whisky online?
She glanced back at Alasdair and found his gaze was following hers, along the line of whisky. With an oath—a mixture of fury and shock—he took three glasses from the sideboard and poured.
The lawyer shook his head but Jeanie took hers with gratitude. The will had been a nasty shock. It was excellent whisky and she couldn't take it all with her.
But it did need to be treated with respect. As the whisky hit home she choked and sank onto one of the magnificent down-filled sofas. A cloud of dog hair rose around her. She really had to do something about Eileen's dogs.
Or not. This will said they were no longer her problem. She'd have to leave the island. She couldn't take the dogs and she loved them. This castle might be over-the-top opulent, but she loved it, too. She felt…befuddled.
'So how do we get around this?' Clearly the whisky wasn't having the same effect on Alasdair that it was on her. His glass was almost empty. She looked at him in awe. Actually she'd been looking sideways at Alasdair all afternoon. Well, why not? He might be arrogant, he might have despised her from the first time he'd met her, but he'd always been worth looking at.
Alasdair McBride was thirty-seven years old, and he was what Jeanie's granny would have described as a man to be reckoned with. Although he didn't use it, his hereditary title fitted him magnificently, especially today. In honour of his grandmother's funeral he was wearing full highland regalia, and he looked awesome.
Jeanie always had had a weakness for a man in a kilt, and the Duncairn tartan was gorgeous. Okay, the Earl of Duncairn was gorgeous, she conceded. Six foot two in his stockinged feet, with jet-black hair and the striking bone structure and strength of the warrior race he'd so clearly descended from, Alasdair McBride was a man to make every eye in the room turn to him. The fact that he controlled the massive Duncairn financial empire only added to his aura of power, but he needed no such addition to look what he was—a man in control of his world.
Except…now he wasn't. His grandmother's will had just pulled the rug from under his feet.
And hers. Marry? So much for her quiet life as the Duncairn housekeeper.
'You can't get around it,' the lawyer was saying. 'The will is inviolate.'
'Do you think…?' She was testing her voice for the first time since the bombshell had landed. 'Do you think that Eileen might possibly have been…have been.?'
'Lady McBride was in full possession of her senses.' The lawyer cast her a cautious look as if he was expecting her to disintegrate into hysterics. 'My client understood her will was slightly…unusual…so she took steps to see that it couldn't be overturned. She arranged a certificate of medical competency, dated the same day she made the will.'
Alasdair drained the rest of his whisky and poured another, then spun to look out of the great bay window looking over the sea.
It was a magnificent window. A few highland cattle grazed peacefully in the late-summer sun, just beyond the ha-ha. Further on, past rock-strewn burns and craggy hills, were the remnants of a vast medieval fortress on the shoreline. Two eagles were soaring effortlessly in the thermals. If he used binoculars, he might even see otters in the burns running into the sea, Jeanie thought. Or deer. Or.
Or her mind was wandering. She put her glass down, glanced at Alasdair's broad back and felt a twist of real sympathy. Eileen had been good to her already, and in death she owed her nothing. Alas-dair's loss, however, was appalling. She might not like the man, but he hadn't deserved this.
Oh, Eileen, what were you thinking? she demanded wordlessly of her deceased employer—but there was nothing Jeanie could do.
'I guess that's it, then,' she managed, addressing herself to the lawyer. 'How long do I have before you want me out?'
'There's no rush,' the lawyer told her. 'It'll take a while to get the place ready for sale.'
'Do you want me to keep trading? I have guests booked until the end of next month.'
'That would be excellent. We may arrange for you to stay even longer. It'd be best if we could sell it as a going concern.'
'No!' The explosion was so fierce it almost rocked the room. Alasdair turned from the window and slammed his glass onto the coffee table so hard it shattered. He didn't seem to notice.
'It can't happen.' Alasdair's voice lowered, no longer explosive but cold and hard and sure. 'My family's entire history, sold to fund…dogs' homes?'
'It's a worthy cause,' the lawyer ventured but Alasdair wasn't listening.
'This castle is the least of it,' he snapped. 'Dun-cairn is one of the largest financial empires in Europe. Do you know how much our organisation gives to charity each year? Sold, it could give every lost dog in Europe a personal attendant and gold-plated dog bowl for the rest of its life, but then it's gone. Maintained, we can do good—we are doing good. This will is crazy. I'll channel every penny of profit into dog care for the next ten years if I must, but to give it away.'
'I understand it would mean the end of your career—' the lawyer ventured but he was cut off.
'It's not the end of my career.'
If Lord Alasdair had had another glass, Jeanie was sure it'd have gone the way of the first.
'Do you know how many corporations would employ me? I have the qualifications and the skills to start again, but to haul apart my family inheritance on a stupid whim?'
'The thing is,' the lawyer said apologetically, 'I don't think it was a whim. Your grandmother felt your cousin treated his wife very badly and she wished to atone.'
'Here it is again. It all comes back to my wastrel cousin.' Alasdair spun around and stared at Jeanie with a look that was pretty much all contempt. 'You married him.'
'There's no need to bring Alan into this.'
'Isn't there? Eileen spent her life papering over his faults. She was blind to the fact that he was a liar and a thief, and that blind side's obviously extended to you. What was she on about? Marry Alan's widow? You? I'd rather walk on hot coals. You're the housekeeper here—nothing more. Marry anyone you like, but leave me alone.'
Her sympathy faded to nothing. 'Anyone I like?' she retorted. 'Wow. Thank you kindly, sir. As a proposal, that takes some beating.'
'It's the only proposal you're likely to get.'
'Then isn't it lucky I don't want one?'
He swore and turned again to the window. Jeanie's brief spurt of anger faded and she returned to shock.
Marriage…? To Alasdair? What were you thinking, Eileen? she demanded again of the departed Lady McBride.
Was she thinking the same as when she'd coerced Alan into marrying Jeanie? At least it was out in the open this time, she conceded. At least all the cards were on the table. The will spelt it out with startling clarity. It was an order to Alasdair. Marry Jeanie, collect your inheritance, the only cost—one year of marriage. If not, inherit nothing.
'I believe the time for angry words is not now.' The lawyer was clearing his papers into a neat pile, ready to depart, but his dry, lawyer's voice was sounding a warning. 'You need to be quite clear before you make rash decisions. I understand that emotions are…high…at the moment, but think about it. Neither of you are married. My Lord, if you marry Mrs McBride, then you keep almost the entire estate. Mrs McBride, if you marry His Lordship, in twelve months you get to keep the castle. That's a substantial amount to be throwing away because you can't get on.'
'The castle belongs to my family,' Alasdair snapped. 'It has nothing to do with this woman.'
'Your grandmother treated Jeanie as part of your family.'
'She's not. She's just as bad as—'
'My Lord, I'd implore you not to do—or say—anything in haste,' the lawyer interrupted. 'Including making statements that may inflame the situation. I suggest you take a couple of days and think about it.'
A couple of days? He had to be kidding, Jeanie thought. There was only one decision to be made in the face of this craziness, and she'd made it. She looked at Alasdair's broad back, at his highland kilt, at the size of him—he was practically blocking the window. She looked at the tense set of his shoulders. She could almost taste his rage and his frustration.
Get this over with, she told herself, and she gave herself a fraction of a second to feel sorry for him again. No more, though. Protect yourself, she scolded. Get out of here fast.
'Alasdair doesn't want to marry me and why should he?' she asked the lawyer. 'And I surely don't want to marry him. Eileen was a sweetheart but she was also a conniving matriarch. She liked pulling the strings but sometimes…sometimes she couldn't see that the cost was impossibly high. I've married one of her grandsons. I'm not marrying another and that's an end to it. Thank you for coming, sir. Should I ring for the taxi to collect you, in, say, fifteen minutes?'
'That would be excellent. Thank you. You've been an excellent housekeeper to Duncairn, Mrs McBride. Eileen was very fond of you.'
'I know she was, and I loved her, too,' Jeanie said. 'But sometimes…' She glanced again at Alasdair. 'Well, the family has always been known for its arrogance. The McBrides have been ordering the lives of Duncairn islanders for generations, but this time Eileen's taken it a step too far. I guess the Duncairn ascendancy is now in freefall but there's nothing I can do about it. Good afternoon, gentlemen.'
And she walked out and closed the door behind her.