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CHAPTER TWO

What were they going to do? Something had to be done, that was certain. Ruin faced them. The new duke was about to arrive any minute according to one of the stableboys who'd been positioned at the entrance to the road. Five of them, tucked into heavy coats and woolen hats, had been dispersed to various places around Bealadair in order to report on the first sighting of the new duke from America.

No one in the parlor looked remotely upset. Perhaps they were following Her Grace's often-expressed adage: anxiety does nothing but bring wrinkles. The Duchess of Lothian looked at least a decade younger than the age she was reputed to be.

Yet didn't the circumstances call for a little panic? Elsbeth certainly felt it. How could you not?

The room was filled with people yet none of them were talking.

Lara sat on the sofa with her husband, Felix. Anise sat on a nearby chair looking bored. Muira, Elsbeth's favorite of the three sisters, was delicately nibbling on one of cook's tarts. Rhona, the Duchess of Lothian, was sitting in a chair in front of the fire, pretending that it was just another evening at Bealadair.

Muira took another tart.

In any other situation, Rhona would have chastised her daughter for marring the perfection of the tray of delicacies already set out for the new duke. Maybe she wasn't looking. Or maybe she was a little anxious after all.

There was plenty of food in the kitchen. They'd been baking for a good ten days, preparing for this moment. Ever since word had come that the new duke was in London and making his way north.

Two hours ago, Her Grace had given orders for several of the best bottles of wine to be brought up from the cellar. All the decanters were filled with McCraight whiskey. No one was imbibing because of strict orders from the duchess.

Meanwhile, Muira stole another tart.

"It's time," Rhona said, suddenly standing and facing them all. A chorus of moans greeted her words.

"It's snowing," Elsbeth said, her comment earning her a sharp look from Rhona.

"It doesn't matter," the duchess said. "It's tradition. It's something the McCraights have always done." Implicit in her tone was the rebuke: You wouldn't understand. You're not one of us.

Even if she wasn't technically a McCraight, she was still expected to appear in front of Bealadair to welcome the new duke.

They stood and followed the duchess to the front of the house, the staff following like starched ducklings behind them.

Surely tradition allowed them to don coats and cloaks before venturing outside? Or were their frozen bodies supposed to show some measure of respect? The snow was coming down so thick that she wondered if the stableboy had actually seen an approaching carriage or simply wished it to appear. They formed a long line in front of Bealadair, the weather keeping all of them silent. If they made the mistake of speaking, no doubt the frigid temperature would freeze their lips to their teeth.

Elsbeth couldn't help but wonder if everyone was as cold as she was. According to the duchess, they were to stand there without coats or cloaks or hats or scarves, guaranteeing to the new duke that they posed no harm or risk. Nothing was concealed in their garments. No claymores, dirks, or shields.

She could only assume that this idiotic tradition had begun before there was any civilization in the Highlands.

She couldn't help but think that the McCraight ancestors were laughing uproariously at the sight of all their descendants shivering in the snow and nearly turning blue, like the early Picts. Perhaps they didn't paint themselves blue. Maybe the color came from experiencing a Highland winter.

If the 13th duke had been alive, Gavin wouldn't have agreed to such a foolhardy gesture. A foolish thought, since if he had been alive they wouldn't be standing out here praying that the carriage reached Bealadair quickly.

Night was almost upon them and in welcome or maybe to offer the frozen McCraights a touch of warmth, torches had been lit behind them, illuminating the curved approach to Bealadair.

The home of the clan had begun as a medieval keep in the fifteenth century on lands that had been acquired by the McCraights a hundred years earlier. The original castle with its stone walls still perched on a steep hill overlooking Dornoch Firth and was used in several McCraight celebrations including the Welcoming of the Laird. Thankfully, Rhona had decided to break with tradition in this instance. Otherwise, they would have had to trudge all that way in the freezing cold. The blizzard that had arrived this afternoon, lowering the sky until it felt like it pressed down on them, would have made the trek to the old castle suicidal.

Instead, they assembled on the east side of Bealadair below the Hammond Tower, named for the architect who'd designed the renovations of Bealadair in the past century.

The house may not have been built for protection, but there were hints of fortifications in the elaborate surrounds of the roof, the oversized turrets, and the statues of clan members carved in stone, standing ready on the parapet to defend the laird and his family. In better weather the new duke would have been able to see the pennants flying, the McCraight colors of red and black distinctive against the backdrop of the white stone of Bealadair.
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