I’m so excited about the first book in The MacGalloways series and hope you will be too! Here’s a wee peek at Chapter One:
En route to Newhailes, Musselburgh, Scotland, 27 February 1811
“Jules Smallwood here,” announced Lady Julia St. Vincent in her deepest, most masculine voice. The effort grated her throat, though she had no choice but to grow accustomed to it.
She blew on her gloved hands while a puff of grey mist billowed about the interior of the carriage. After an unbearably long journey via the mail coach from London to Edinburgh, she’d hired a hackney to ferry her to Newhailes, one her new employer’s many residences.
With a shiver, she tugged her great coat about her shoulders. And though she’d been wearing it for the better part of a week, the coat still felt too large, swallowing her petite frame in the folds of the thick woolen weave.
Having no other option in the matter, Julia had altered a number of her father’s castaways. The suits of clothes were a tad dated but, as a working man, she doubted anyone would scoff overmuch. Still freezing, she also tightened the wool scarf around her neck. But nothing helped. Scotland was bitterly frigid, every bit as unpleasant as her father’s butler, Willaby, had said it would be.
“Jules Smallwood,” she repeated, her mind recounting the details of her fabricated past as she had done every five minutes since the entire solution had been concocted with dear old Willaby. Indeed, the Brixham butler was the only other person privy to the truth.
And it must remain as such.
Her hands shook, and not from the cold. Her journey was near its end and Julia was actually going through with this. Again, she’d had no choice. Well, in truth there were two options—go hungry while her father’s health continued to deteriorate or take a position that would pay enough money for her to eventually settle her father’s gambling debts and provide for his care. With luck and the right physicians, the Earl of Brixham’s health would recover soon as well.
And then what? Papa will change his ways?
“Pshaw!” Julia loved her father, but in two and twenty years of trying, she’d never been able to change him. Moreover, he had not only borrowed money from the despicable Silas Skinner, as collateral her father had given the scoundrel the deed to Huntly Manor which had been the home to the Earls of Brixham for generations. With the Papa’s collapse from biliousness and their lack of funds, the estate had begun to crumble, leaving her no other option but to personally take matters in hand lest Mr. Skinner make good on his threats and cast them out.
As the hack rolled to a stop, Julia’s stomach lurched. For a moment she sat immobile, unable to breathe. This was the hour of truth. Once she stepped out of this carriage there’d be no turning back.
“We’ve arrived sir,” said the driver, to the sound of the man hopping down and pulling out the steps. Of course, he didn’t open the door or offer a hand, yet another thing to which she must grow accustomed.
Julia wiggled her toes, burrowing them into the lambswool used to fill out her father’s shoes. They were positively enormous on her slender feet. But there had been no time and no money to have a proper pair made.
With a trembling hand, she pulled on the latch, gaining her first peek at her new place of employment.
This is his “wee cottage”? At least that’s how Mr. MacCutcheon, the barrister who’d hired her, had phrased it. During her interview in London, Julia had also learned that the Duke of Dunscaby, her employer, owned an enormous castle on a seaside estate on the northern tip of mainland Scotland. In addition, His Grace enjoyed a hunting lodge in the Highlands, owned numerous smaller properties throughout Great Britain, and kept a sizeable town house in London. But despite his vast estates, Newhailes was the duke’s favorite…although he’d had little time to arrive at such a decision.
Still leaning forward and gaping, Julia instantly gained an affinity for the house. Though not a castle, any English manor would pale in comparison—a Roman façade, dual and opposing staircases curving upward to the front door, three stories, and more windows than she cared to count. Before she did something entirely inappropriate like swooning, she drew in a reviving breath and climbed out of the carriage. The tip of her shoe caught on the lower rung, making her stumble forward, her too-large beaver hat slipping over an eye.
Quickly recovering, Julia straightened her brim, gripped her lapels, and cleared her throat, glancing to the porch to ensure the entire MacGalloway family hadn’t filed outside to witness her inelegance. “It seems four days of travel has made me a tad clumsy,” she said in her practiced masculine voice. “Ah…would you mind fetching my valise, if you please?”
For a five-mile trip out of the city, the driver had insisted on payment up front, but still held out his palm when he handed Julia her case, chock full of altered clothing and a few necessities.
She dug in the pocket of her greatcoat, forced to bend down to reach her small stash of coins. Pulling out two pence, she deposited them in the man’s hand. “Thank you.”
With a smug grin, the driver tipped his hat and the coin disappeared. “Good day, sir.”
As the hackney drove off, Julia turned to the house, her eyes taking in the iron grillwork, the foreboding black door, the enormity of the estate. In an instant, rather than the vast, welcoming home she’d first envisaged, the manor seemed to lean forward and snarl as if it were a monster with fangs.
So many windows.
Clutching her valise to her chest, Julia whipped around. “Driver!” she called, cringing at the high pitch of her voice. Moreover, the man and his coach were already headed out the gates and down the long, sycamore-lined drive.
Still alone, she watched as the hackney grew smaller, turned right, and eventually rolled out of sight.
“For what I am about to undertake, may God have mercy on my soul,” she mumbled under her breath as she shifted her valise to one hand and tightened her grip, for a self-respecting man would never clutch his valise in front of his chest, no matter how heavy it may be.
At the top of the stairs, a brass knocker in the shape a lion’s head greeted her. Or at least it warned her. Looking over her shoulder once again, contrary to her wishes, the hack had not returned. Before she lost her nerve, she inhaled deeply and gave the lion’s mouth a good, solid rap.
The door eventually opened to a tall, gaunt butler peering above her head. After she cleared her throat, the man’s beetle brows knit while he dropped his gaze and examined her from head to toe as if she’d just flown down from the moon. “May I help you, sir?” he asked, his brogue unmistakably Scottish.
“Indeed, you may.” Julia reached inside her breast pocket and produced a calling card—one flawlessly crafted in her own hand. “Jules Smallwood, Esquire, recently appointed steward and secretary to the Duke of Dunscaby.”
The man took the card, gave it a look, and deposited it on a silver plate. “Ah, yes. His Grace mentioned you’d be arriving soon.”
“I’m Giles, I’m certain our paths will cross often enough.” The butler showed her to a parlor. “May I take your coat and hat, sir?”
“Very good. I’ll have your things sent to your rooms.”
“Rooms?” Julia asked, allowing him to take the valise as well. At Huntly Manor, no one had rooms unless they were family. Though her father was an earl, she had acted as his steward and secretary for the past five years. Before that, Papa had employed solicitors to take on such responsibilities.
“Aye,” Giles explained. “A gentleman of your station is allotted a sitting room and bedchamber—adjoining His Grace’s library.”
Of course, the steward to a duke, a member of the gentry, would have rooms. “Ah, yes.” She could have kicked herself if it weren’t for her oversized shoes. “Thank you.”
Once alone, she paced. The walls were adorned with family portraits and on one side of the parlor stood a marble hearth with a gilt mirror above the mantel. Even higher was a portrait of a dour man wearing a gauche periwig, his cheeks flushed, his brow stern, and his mouth brooding as if his frown had been painted for the sole purpose of accusing her of impersonating a man.
Julia held up a finger and looked the painting in the eye. “You may know my secret,” she whispered. “But I’ll tell you here and now, I can perform my duties as well as any m—”
“Mr. Smallwood,” interrupted the butler. “His Grace will see you now.”
Good heavens that was fast. She gave the painting a fierce glare before turning to the man. “Excellent.”
After leading her along a corridor festooned with more frowning portraits, Giles opened the door to an enormous library with volumes of books on shelves wrapping around the entire chamber from floor to ceiling—aside from the windows, of course. Great streams of light beamed through the glass panes while dozens of candles flickered above, supported by two opulent crystal chandeliers.
“Smallwood,” said a kilted man climbing down from a ladder with a book in his grasp. “I didna expect you before the morrow.”
The man skipped the last rung and hopped to the Oriental carpet. Dropping the book onto a table, he grinned, his teeth white and healthy, one incisor slightly crossing over the other. Before she was properly announced, the man marched across the floor and thrust out his palm. “Welcome to Newhailes.”
This is His Grace?
Good Lord, the duke wasn’t only enormous, his blue eyes sparkled like seafoam. Julia’s knees wobbled as if they’d suddenly become boneless mollusks while she stifled a gasp. Had she ever seen eyes so light and intense? Realizing she was staring, she gave herself shake, squared her shoulders, and took the offered hand. “Thank you…ah…you’re His Grace, the Duke of Dunscaby?” she managed in her manly voice.
He splayed his fingers and pushed up the black mourning band around the arm of his doublet. “Och, do you find it all that hard to believe? I may have recently taken on my father’s mantle, but I assure you I’ve been groomed for this role my entire life.”
Julia dipped into a hasty bow. “Forgive any impertinence, sir, I entertained no such assumptions.”
“Good.” The duke turned to the butler. “Thank you, Giles.”
When Dunscaby’s disarming gaze again met hers, he stroked his fingers along his jaw as if not quite certain what to do with her. “Do you fancy a refreshment? A glass of wine? A wee tot of whisky?”
Good heavens, whisky? Because too much drink was the cause of her father’s ill health, she cared never to allow a drop of liquor pass her lips. “Perhaps a spot of wine for warmth. ’Tis quite cold here.”
Rather than ringing for a footman, the duke moved to a table, pulled the stopper from a decanter, and poured two glasses with his own hand. “Aye, February is rather bleak. ’Tis even colder in the Highlands.”
“My thanks,” Julia took the offered glass. “Mr. MacCutcheon said your books of accounts are in quite a state.”
“Unfortunately, aye.” He gestured to a chair by the fire and took the opposite, crossing his legs, making his kilt ride up his well-muscled, hairy thigh. “My father wasna one for change.”
“Oh?” she asked, forcing her gaze to shift away from his legs. For the love of God, he was only a man. Very un-duke-like, though. Were all Scottish nobles so…casual? “Mr. MacCutcheon also said the estate has been without a steward for two years.”
His Grace swilled his wine, gazing at her from above his glass. “Closer to three, is more apt.”
“But why did the former duke not appoint another?”
“As I said, Da didna care for change. Also, I believe he was ill for far longer than he let on.”
“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to pry. Please accept my condolences for your loss.”
Dunscaby sighed and stared at the coal smoldering in the hearth for a moment. “My father was a good man. Far better than me, I’m afraid.” He glanced up, his expression forlorn. “Aside from the records being a shambles, the estate is sound with the backing of one of the oldest, most established families in Scotland, but I’ll be counting on you to sift through and set the books to rights as well as ensuring rents have been collected and the delegation of the servants’ duties are equitable. Of course, Giles oversees the male servants and the housekeeper oversees the female. They will both report to you now.”
“As I would expect.” Julia moved to the edge of her chair. “And I assure you I have ample experience, Your Grace. I’ve brought letters of reference from the Earl of Brixham.”
“Aye, MacCutcheon advised that your references are impeccable.” Dunscaby narrowed his gaze and drummed his fingers on the stem of his glass. “But tell me, why the devil did Brixham let you go?”
Julia bit her lip. It wasn’t proper to speak poorly about one’s betters. But then again, the duke deserved to know the truth. At least as much of the truth she was able to tell. “I’m sorry to say the earl fell upon difficult circumstances.” The words tasted like bile on her tongue. Though her father had well and truly lost his fortune, she preferred not to discuss his failure with anyone aside from Willaby.
“I see. Too much drink and gambling.”
Julia’s gaze dropped to her folded hands. “’Tis not for me to say.”
“Indeed. You may be aware that, I’ve just spent the past few years enjoying bachelorhood in London.” A faraway look filled His Grace’s eyes as he sipped his wine. “Needless to say, Brixham’s name was mentioned a wee time or two.”
“Mm-hmm.” Of course, Julia was woefully aware of the rumors. The gossip papers enjoyed blackening her father’s name. Not that Papa hadn’t done plenty to bring on the besmirching. “To explain in a few words, I found myself in need of employment just about the time Mr. MacCutcheon’s advertisement appeared in the Gazette.”
“Fortunate for me, then.” Dunscaby stood. “Well, Smallwood, you must be weary from your travels. I’ll have Giles give you a tour of Newhailes. He’ll acquaint you with the servants as well. After you’ve had a wee bit of time to familiarize yourself with the ledgers, we’ll chat.”
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