A Match for Marcus Cynster – Stephanie Laurens

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. She pulled her riding gloves from her pocket. “Are you returning to the manor, or will you come, too?” “The others asked me to come,” Ferguson said, “so I’ll ride along with you.” And that, she thought, confirmed it. Unsurprisingly, the clan had grown skeptical of Nolan’s ability to manage and lead; they were preparing to confront him, possibly to take the lairdship from him, and they wanted her—his sister, but also the next oldest member of the main Carrick line—there as a witness. Pausing to lift her face to the spring sun, she closed her eyes, breathed in, then out.

All she felt was a sense of inevitability, of being on a road from which there was no turning aside. With an inward sigh, she opened her eyes. Setting her lips, she strode for her big bay gelding, Oswald, waiting placidly by the fence. “In that case, let’s go.” * * * After leaving Oswald tethered with the other horses a little way away, Niniver joined her clansmen in the fold to the south of the narrow ledge on which Nolan was pacing. Bradshaw, Phelps, Canning, and Forrester greeted her politely. Phelps and Bradshaw had brought their sons. After exchanging quiet hellos and nodding to Sean and the young groom he’d brought with him, she joined the others in studying Nolan. The rock ledge on which he paced was a little way down from the ridgeline, at an elevation slightly below their position. He strode agitatedly back and forth, half the time turned away from them. They only saw his face when he swung around, yet his attention remained elsewhere; he never looked their way. A stiff breeze was blowing from the northwest, making it unlikely he would hear them even if they called, but the breeze carried his words to them clearly. She hadn’t set eyes on him for the last week; he’d taken to eating his meals in the library and avoiding all contact, not only with her and Norris but with the household in general. Now, as she looked across the shoulder of the ridge that lay between them, what she saw shocked her. Over the last months, Nolan had been growing more furtive, his expression more hunted—more haunted. Now he looked like a caricature of a madman, his eyes wild and staring, his hair—once as fair as hers but now lank and dull—standing out from his skull at odd angles. His complexion, normally as pale as hers, was red and blotchy. Previously, he’d always dressed well—not just neatly but expensively. Now his clothes looked as if he’d slept in them for days. Even more disturbing was the way he walked—jerkily, abruptly, like a puppet whose strings were being manipulated by some amateur puppeteer, with Nolan himself no longer in control. As for the words that spewed from his lips… “You bloody bastard! How was I to know it would be like this? But you knew, didn’t you? You knew, and you never said anything! So now I’m here, trying to cope, and they’re all watching and expecting me to be like Papa and make it all work—and it’s hopeless! There’s nothing there!” Nolan clutched at his hair, gripping and tugging, his face contorting with effort and pain. “Aargh!” He released his grip; Niniver saw several pale strands drift from his fingers. Nolan’s voice lowered, darker and grating. “I can’t do this. This wasn’t what I planned.

I can’t go on pretending, and I’m trapped! Trapped, I tell you!” His jaw set. He ground out the words “This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.” His tone was ghastly; none of those watching could have had any doubt they were witnessing a descent into madness. Niniver swept up her skirts and swung toward the path to the ridgeline. The path to the ledge lay ten yards further on. Ferguson looked at her. “Where are you going?” She glanced at Nolan. “I’m going to talk to him.” “You can’t do that.” Canning looked appalled. “He’s beyond reasoning with.” “I know, but I have to try.” Niniver met Canning’s gaze. “We all know where this is leading, but he is my brother. If I can calm him down, we can all leave and ride back to the manor without a struggle.” None of the men liked it, but none of them had the right to gainsay her. She took another step. Sean moved to follow her. “I’ll come with you.” She glanced at him. “No. If he sees you, he’ll erupt—you know what his temper’s like. Bad enough he’s in this state—we don’t need that, as well.” Sean stared at her stonily, every bit as stubborn as she. “We can’t let you face him alone.

I’ll hang back if you promise to keep your distance from him.” She grimaced, but then nodded. “All right. I’ll keep out of his reach.” She turned to the path. The others returned their attention to Nolan. Niniver, along with Sean, glanced at Nolan, too. Abruptly, Nolan clutched his head with both hands. He pressed hard, the tendons in his hands and wrists sharply defined as he pressed in, his features contorting. Then he hunched, curling in on himself as if in unbearable pain— He released his head and straightened. Throwing his arms wide, he screamed, “You bloody fool! You should have killed me, instead!” He took one step forward and flung himself off the ledge. Below the ledge ran a deep, narrow, granite-sided crevasse—one of the occasional fissures that, like rocky gashes, scored this landscape. In the sudden silence, they instinctively froze, then the breeze wafted and they heard a muted thump. It was the most chilling sound Niniver had ever heard. Shock held them all speechless. Until Sean murmured, “Bugger me. The bastard’s killed himself.” * * * Phelps was a sheep farmer; he and his son, Matt, always carried ropes on their saddles, as did Sean. In a group, they walked to the ledge. They peered into the crevasse, but small bushes and grasses sprouting from the rock walls made it impossible to see what lay in the shadowed depths. The opposite lip of the crevasse was lower than the ledge, but was flanked by scree; circling around to it wasn’t an option. But the crevasse was very narrow, a gaping wound ripped in the side of the hill and lined with rock as far down as they could see; there was no way to walk in and no path down. Phelps, Matt, and Sean laid out the ropes. The other men organized themselves into teams to lower Sean and Matt into the crevasse. Her arms tightly folded, her mind blank, Niniver watched as the pair went over the edge, each on separate ropes, with a third rope dangling between them.

As they descended into the shadows, she walked to the edge; she looked down, watching, but the bushes soon obscured her view. She turned her attention to the ropes. The men slowly let the ropes play out—and out; the crevasse was deeper than any of them had thought. At last, the tension on the ropes eased as first Sean, then Matt, reached a point where they could stand. A moment later, a yelping exclamation—both Sean’s and Matt’s voices raised in surprise—erupted from the depths. Peering down, Niniver frowned. Sean and Matt had known what to expect, so why had they sounded shocked? “What did they say?” Ferguson called from where he waited with the other men to haul the pair up again. Still frowning, she shook her head. “I don’t know. The rock distorts their voices too much. They’re talking now, but I can’t make out what they’re saying.” The third rope—the one Sean and Matt had planned to tie around Nolan’s body—shifted. Phelps came to stand beside Niniver, but he, too, could make nothing of the mutterings rising from below. Then Sean tugged on his rope, and Matt tugged his. Phelps rejoined the other men, and they hauled the pair up. Sean reached the ledge first. His weathered, normally ruddy countenance was chalk-white. “What is it?” Niniver demanded as he scrambled onto the ledge. Sean pushed to his feet. “We found Nolan’s body. He’s dead—neck broken, among other things— just as we expected.” He glanced at Matt as the younger man scrambled up to stand beside him. Matt, too, looked badly shaken. Sean turned to Niniver. He hesitated for a second, then blurted, “Nolan’s body was lying on top of another body.

Nigel’s body was already there—Nolan flung himself down in the same place.” Niniver blinked. Her mind whirled. “Nigel flung himself off this ledge, too?” She couldn’t imagine that, not of Nigel, but she hadn’t expected Nolan to kill himself, either. Looking grimmer by the second, Sean shook his head. “Nigel landed on his back, and Nolan’s hunting knife, the one he said he lost last year, was buried between Nigel’s ribs.” She felt her mouth fall open, then her mind whirled one last time, and like a kaleidoscope, all the pieces fell into place. “Ah.” The quiet sound—of recognition, of realization—was drowned beneath the men’s shocked exclamations. She looked around the group. Unlike the others, she wasn’t surprised. Indeed, just the opposite. Finally, everything was starting to make sense. * * * It took several hours to bring both bodies up from the depths of the crevasse and transport the remains to Carrick Manor. Despite the depredations of small animals and the passage of time, Nigel’s body was easily identified. His remains were garbed in the clothes he’d worn to the wedding of their cousin, Thomas Carrick, and Lucilla Cynster—the last time anyone other than Nolan had set eyes on him. Niniver spent the rest of that day closeted in the library with the clan council. Norris was present, too. Although he was several years younger than she and therefore had fewer memories of Nigel and Nolan as children, his assessments of their older brothers matched and supported her own. Fact by fact, she and the council assembled the true sequence of events. Recalling a statement Nolan had made at the inquest into the Burns sisters’ deaths—an inquest that had reached no final conclusion but had left the suspicion of murder hanging over Nigel’s head—Niniver sent Sean to Ayr to pose what were now clearly pertinent questions to certain people there. It was the following morning before Sean returned. The clan council reconvened to hear his report. Once they’d digested the no-longer-unexpected news, Ferguson turned to Niniver. “What now? Do we summon the authorities, or what?” Seated behind the desk her father had used throughout his long reign as laird, Niniver met Ferguson’s gaze, then looked at Mrs.

Kennedy, the housekeeper, seated alongside him, then at Canning, Phelps, Bradshaw, Sean, and the others on the council. All regarded her levelly, expectation in their eyes.


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