A Scot in the Dark (Scandal & Scoundrel #2)


by Sarah MacLean

Prologue

DUCAL DEVASTATION!

ONE DOZEN DAYS OF DARKNESS AND DEMISE

March 1829

Bernard Settlesworth, Esquire, believed that name was destiny.

Indeed, as the third in a familial line of solicitors to the aristocracy, it was difficult not to believe such a thing. Bernard took immense pride in his work, which he performed with precision on nearly every day of the year. After all, he would tell himself, the British aristocracy was built on the hard work of men such as he. Without the Bernard Settlesworths of the world expertly calculating ledgers and deftly managing enormous estates, the House of Lords would crumble, leaving nothing but the dust of ancient lines and fortunes.

He did the Lord’s work, ensuring the aristocracy remained standing. And solvent.

And though he took pride in all aspects of his work, there was nothing Bernard enjoyed quite so much as meeting with new inheritors, for it was in those moments that the Settlesworth name was best put to work—settling worth.

Bernard enjoyed this part best, that is, until tragedy struck the Dukedom of Warnick.

Two marquesses. Six different earls and baronets. A landed gentleman and his three sons. A vicar. A ship’s captain. A hatter. A horse breeder. And one duke.

Lost to a spate of tragedies that included, but was not limited to, a carriage accident, a hunting mishap, a robbery gone wrong, a drowning in the Thames, an unfortunate incident with influenza, and a truly unsettling incident with a cormorant.

Seventeen dukes, if he were honest, Bernard supposed—all dead. All within the span of a fortnight.

It was a turn of events—seventeen turns of events—unheard of in British history. But Bernard was nothing if not dedicated, even more so when it fell to him to play protector to such an old and venerable title, to its vast lands (made vaster by the rapid, successive death of seventeen men, several of whom died without issue), and large fortunes (made larger by the same).

And so it was that he stood in the great stone entryway of Dunworthy Castle in the cold, windy, wild of Scotland, face-to-face with Alec Stuart, once seventeenth in line for the Dukedom of Warnick, now the last known heir to the title.

Face-to-face wasn’t quite accurate. After being greeted by a pretty young woman, Bernard had been left to wait, surrounded by massive tapestries and a handful of ancient weaponry which appeared to have been haphazardly affixed to the wall.

And so he waited.

And waited.

After three quarters of an hour, two large dogs appeared, bigger than any he’d ever seen, grey and wild. They approached, the movements deceptively lazy. Bernard pressed himself to the stone wall, hoping they would decide to find another, more appetizing victim. Instead, they sat at his feet, wire-haired heads reaching nearly to his chest, grinning up at him, no doubt thinking him quite tasty.

Bernard did not care for it. Indeed, for the first time in his career, he considered the possibility that soliciting was a less than enjoyable profession.

And then the man arrived, looking wilder than the dogs. He was dark-haired and big as a house—Bernard had never seen a man so big—well past six and a half feet, he imagined, with what might have been twenty stone on his broad, muscled frame, and none of it fat. Bernard could tell that bit, because the man wasn’t wearing a shirt.

Indeed, he wasn’t wearing trousers, either.

He was wearing a kilt. And carrying a broadsword.

For a moment, Bernard wondered if he’d traveled through time as well as space on the journey to Scotland. It was, after all, 1829, despite the Scotsman appearing as though he’d arrived via three centuries earlier.

The enormous man ignored him, tossing the sword up onto the wall where it stuck as though by sheer force of its owner’s will. That same owner who then turned his back on Bernard and made to leave.

Bernard cleared his throat, the sound louder than he’d intended in the massive stone space, loud enough for the man to turn and cast a lingering look over the solicitor’s diminutive-in-comparison frame. After a long silence, he said, “Who are you?”

At least, that’s what Bernard thought he said. The words were thick on the man’s tongue, wrapped in brogue.

“I—I—” Bernard collected himself and willed the stutter away despite being surrounded by beasts both human and canine. “I am waiting for an audience with the master of the house.”

The man rumbled, and Bernard imagined the deep sound was amusement. “Careful. These stones shan’t like hearin’ that ye think they’ve a master.”

Bernard blinked. He’d heard tales of mad Scots, but he hadn’t expected to meet one. Perhaps he’d misunderstood in the confusion of rolling Rs and missing syllables. “I beg your pardon.”

The man studied him for a long moment. “Mine or the keep’s?”

“For . . .” Bernard wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t apologizing to the castle, was he? He tilted his head. “Is Mr. Stuart here?”

The enormous man rocked back on his heels, and Bernard had the distinct impression that his obvious discomfort was pleasing to the great brute. As though he shouldn’t be the one who was uncomfortable, what with traipsing around the castle half nude. “Aye.”

“I’ve been waiting nearly an hour for him.”

The dogs sensed his irritation and stood, clearly offended by it. Bernard swallowed.

“Angus. Hardy.” Instantly, they retreated to their master’s side.

And it was then that Bernard knew. He looked to the half-naked man across the entryway and said, “You are he.”

“Aye, but we still have nae established who you are.”

“Alec!” A young woman’s voice echoed through the castle. “There’s a man here. Says he’s a solicitor from London!”

The new Duke of Warnick didn’t look away from Bernard as he raised his voice in reply. “He also says he’s been waiting for me for an hour.”

“Seemed nothing good could come of a fancy London solicitor,” the voice sang down. “Why bother you while you were having a spar?”

“Why, indeed,” the Scot replied. “Apologies. My sister does nae care for the English.”

Bernard nodded. “Is there a place we might speak more privately?”

“As I care even less for the English than my sister does,” the duke said, “we needn’t stand on ceremony. You are welcome to state your purpose here and now. And then you may leave.”

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