Married for a Highland Debt by Olivia Kerr

Prologue

William Hamilton staggered through the door of his home with a woebegone expression on his face, one his family knew well. It was almost dawn, and Bettina’s father had been out with friends at the local tavern, as was his habit of a Friday evening.

His daughter Bettina had been waiting anxiously by the window of her bedroom waiting to speak to him, but as she saw the condition he was in, she knew she would get no sense out of him this morning. She sighed and went to meet him.

“Da, it is almost morning!” she said reproachfully. “I thought something had happened to you. Where have you been?”

William shook his head. “No, Bettie,” he replied. “I am fine.”

“Are you sure?” She frowned at him, folding her arms across her body. “How much did you lose tonight? Or perhaps you won?” Her voice was hopeful, but she knew the answer already, for William Hamilton was a loser. He had always gambled, but when her mother died, it had spun disastrously out of control. He had lost his lucrative wool-trading business and now the family was on the verge of destitution.

“Everything,” he groaned, throwing himself into a chair. “I have lost the house.”

Bettina felt as though her heart had stopped. She could not breathe or move for a moment as she felt a great weight settle on her shoulders. He was jesting. He had to be. She moved to stand over him, looking down into the pale-gray eyes that were so like her own. If she were a man she would have struck him, but she was not. All she could do was stare at him and try to deny the truth as though she could somehow wish it away.

“The house?” she asked, her voice high with disbelief. “You bet on our house?”

“I was on a winning streak, Bettie,” he said plaintively. “I had won five games in a row, and I was ready to come home with a pile of silver, but I was careless and lost it in the next hand. I should have stopped there, I know. I do not know what made me do it, but I was a little drunk and...and I bet on the house. I know I should not have done it, but—I cannot explain it properly to one who cannot understand. I had to. Something drives me on.” He put his head in his hands. “I am so sorry.”

“Who won it from you?” Bettina asked.

“Does it matter?” he asked bitterly, then sighed. “Campbell McDade.”

Bettina’s face hardened. McDade had bought most of her father’s wool from him after his business collapsed at a fraction of the price it was worth. He was a mean-spirited, selfish man in his middle years who had been widowed twice over. He should have looked ugly and unapproachable, yet he was handsome and unfailingly charming, his pleasant exterior belying the black heart that lay within.

“I will go and speak to him,” she said grimly. “Perhaps I can change his mind.”

“I will come with you,” William offered.

“Indeed, you will not!” Bettina snapped. “You are the cause of all this, Da. You will stay as far away as you can.”

Campbell McDade seemed pleased to see her. When Bettina curtsied in front of him as he sat behind the imposing oak desk in his study, he stood up, bowed, and smiled at her. “Mistress Hamilton!” he said delightedly. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Bettina sat down and took a deep breath. “I wish to ask you something, sir,” she replied. She looked down at her hands, which she was twisting in her lap, afraid to meet Campbell’s keen-eyed gaze. A moment of silence passed, then she took a deep breath and looked up at him. “I want to ask you to forgive my father’s debt to you. You are a rich man and own property all over Scotland. What is one more house to you? I am asking you humbly, on my knees if you wish, to let us keep our house.”

As Campbell McDade looked into Bettina’s silver eyes, an idea came to him. “A debt is a debt, Mistress Hamilton,” he said solemnly. “If I forgive this one, then I will have to forgive all of them, to everyone, then where will I be?”

“But if you take our house, we will have nowhere to live,” Bettina said desperately. “I can find work and pay off the debt to you. I am sure our house is not worth very much.”

He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. “There is one way you can repay me,” he said, his hazel eyes glinting as he gazed at her.

“How?” Bettina asked hopefully.

“Become my lover,” he answered smoothly. “Then I will not only forgive the debt but fill the house with fine things for your comfort.” His eyes glinted with lust.

Bettina was aghast that he should even suggest such a thing, then a boiling rage rose within her. If she had thought that Campbell McDade would keep his promise, she might have considered his offer, although with great reluctance. She would have swallowed her pride and honor and done it for her family, though. However, he was known to be a man of little honor and even less honesty.

“Thank you for your kind offer,” she replied, trying to keep her temper. It would not do to antagonize him, even though she would rather have jumped into a pit of vipers than share his bed. “May I suggest something else? If we pay you a quarterly rent, will you allow us to stay until we can find somewhere else?” She closed her hands into fists by her sides and waited, her heart thumping.

He held her gaze for a moment, and she thought he would refuse, then he smiled. “I am not heartless, Bettina, whatever you have heard,” he answered. “As long as I receive my money, I am content, although I must say that I am sad you did not take up my first offer.”

Bettina pinned a smile to her face, then left with great relief, feeling sick.

“We must leave at once,” Bettina informed her sister Kairstine. “I asked Campbell McDade to forgive our father’s debt, but he will not. He told me he wanted me to become his mistress, and if I did so, he would forget about what he is owed, but I would not. Ugh. Can you imagine it, Kairstine? However, I managed to negotiate a settlement with him, whereby we pay him a quarterly rent, but I do not trust him to keep his word. I think it will buy us a little time, though. Do you think I did the right thing, Kairstine?”

Kairstine nodded her head. “You did exactly the right thing, Bettie,” she replied angrily. “I cannot believe he suggested such a disgusting thing! But what about Da?”

“He is a grown-up man,” Bettina growled. “And he has friends. Let him look after himself.”

“Where will we go?” Kairstine asked.

“To Inchgarvie Castle,” Bettina answered. “Mammy had a friend there—the cook, Lizzie McGregor. We have both been keeping this house clean for months since we had to get rid of the servants, and we can sweep floors and do laundry or whatever else needs to be done. I can try to find work there, then send for you.”

“What if you cannot?” Kairstine’s voice was fearful.

“Then we will find some other way to earn a crust,” Bettina said firmly. “We will not be beaten, Kairstine, and even if we have to sleep in a haystack, I will never become Campbell McDade’s mistress!”