A Match for Marcus Cynster

By: Stephanie Laurens

PROLOGUE



April 1849

The Carrick Estate, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland



“Miss Niniver? Are you there?”

Niniver Carrick looked up from the silky head of the deerhound she was stroking. Recognizing the speaker’s voice, she inwardly sighed.

Crouched in a pen halfway down old Egan’s barn, she was hidden from Ferguson’s sight. For one fleeting instant, she was tempted to stay where she was, safe in her refuge surrounded by her hounds, but as ever, duty called. Called, hauled, and had her straightening, brushing pieces of hay from her riding habit’s skirts. The pens’ walls had been raised to keep the hounds contained; she lifted her head and peeked over toward the front of the barn. “I’m here. What’s the matter?”

Ferguson, the butler at Carrick Manor, saw her and strode deeper into the barn. A middle-aged man, upright and sober, he was one of the clan elders. “It’s Mister Nolan.”

Although Niniver’s older brother Nolan had succeeded to the title of Laird of Clan Carrick on the death of their father, Manachan Carrick, some ten months before, clan members had yet to change the way they referred to Nolan—a telling point, to Niniver’s mind.

Ferguson halted before the pen in which she stood and fixed his gaze on her face. “Sean sent word that Mister Nolan’s worse than ever. Ranting and raving like one possessed. Bradshaw, Forrester, Phelps, and Canning are there, too. They all think you need to come.”

Niniver stared at Ferguson while she absorbed his words and what they really meant. Shortly after their father’s death, Nolan had ridden up to a narrow ledge on the western side of the Coran of Portmark, one of the minor peaks in the range to the west of the Carrick lands. As that area was uninhabited, Sean, the head stableman, had followed at a distance; he’d reported that Nolan had sat on the ledge and stared out. As the ledge afforded a wide view over Loch Doon and the Rhinns of Kells, everyone had assumed Nolan had gone there to relax and think.

Initially, Nolan’s visits to the ledge had been infrequent, but when he’d started riding in that direction every week, and then twice a week, Sean had followed him again. The side of the ridge was ruffled with folds, making it easy to get close enough to watch Nolan without being seen—and to hear what he said when his visits became a daily occurrence and he’d started rambling aloud.

Then he’d started ranting.

Eventually, he’d taken to raging and raving.

The target of his fury was their eldest brother, Nigel—he who had been convicted in absentia of poisoning their father, and who was also suspected of killing two clan women. A hue and cry had been raised, but Nigel had slipped away without trace; it was believed he’d taken ship for the colonies and had escaped beyond reach.

“All right.” Niniver unlatched the pen’s gate. Carefully keeping the questing hounds back, she slipped out, then reset the latch.

She could guess why she’d been summoned. Like the others named, she’d been up to the ledge before and had heard the tone of Nolan’s ranting. He spoke to Nigel as if their brother was there, and he clearly blamed Nigel for all the difficulties the clan currently faced—the difficulties that, as laird, it was now Nolan’s responsibility to deal with. To improve and rectify.

Nolan had accepted the mantle of laird readily. If anything, Niniver would have said he’d been keen to show that he was up to the task. But as the weeks and months had passed… If she had to describe what she’d seen in Nolan, she would say he had crumbled under the weight.

She and Norris, the youngest of her three brothers, had never been that close to Nigel and Nolan, who were older by more than five years. Yet over the last eight or so months, Nolan had retreated even further from them, much like a crab backing deeper into its shell. The gulf between her and Norris, and Nolan, was now a gaping chasm, impossible to bridge. She’d given up trying.

Walking out of the barn, she glanced at Ferguson. The heads of four clan families—Bradshaw, Forrester, Phelps, and Canning—were already at the ledge. Ferguson was another clan elder. Five votes on the clan council constituted a majority. Niniver had a strong suspicion over why they wanted her there.