Aye, I believe in the MacLean curse. If ye'd seen the blinding white lightning and heard the roar of thunder over MacLean Castle on a clear summer morn as I have, ye'd believe it, too.
OLD WOMAN NORA FROM LOCH LOMOND TO HER THREE WEE GRANDDAUGHTERS ONE COLD EVENING
"Argh! Bentley! Where are you?"
The yell echoed through the morning air, over the loud clops from the horses and carts that were just beginning to stir in Mayfair, London's most fashionable district.
Startled, Gregor MacLean stepped back from the ornate door of Oglivie House and glanced up at the open third-story window.
It was far too early for drama. Well, it was too early at most domiciles. At Oglivie House, drama was never out of fashion.
Gregor bit back an impatient sigh and stepped forward, rapping the knocker hard. The Oglivies were silly, extremely emotional, and far too given to excitement. Nothing could have brought him to this door except their one and only daughter, Venetia. Calm, logical, and rarely indulging in unseemly displays of emotion, Venetia easily offset her parents' sad tendencies. In fact, during his years of friendship with Venetia, Gregor had discovered only one flaw: a disturbing inclination to become overly involved in the lives of others.
"Bentley!" Mr. Oglivie's voice rang out louder than before, a hint of a sob at the end.
Gregor rapped on the door yet again. The quicker he collected Venetia for their morning ride, the quicker he'd be away from the brewing madness.
The door flew open, the usually impassive butler gasping a relieved sigh. "My lord, I am so glad -- you can have no idea -- it's been a horrible morning and -- "
Gregor walked past the incoherent butler. At Oglivie House, something as small as the chef quitting or a misplaced bracelet resulted in scenes worthy of the stage, complete with ranting, raving, accusations, and weeping. He knew from long experience that the best way to deal with such distractions was to ignore them. "I've come to take Miss Venetia for our morning ride. I assume she's ready?"
Overhead, a thump rattled the crystals on the chandelier.
Gregor frowned up the stairs before saying uneasily, "Is Miss Venetia awaiting me in the breakfast room? We should make haste to reach the park before the fops arise and clog the pathways."
Bentley's brow wrinkled. "But, my lord, Miss Oglivie isn't -- "
A loud crash sounded from upstairs, followed by an unmistakable yell: "Bentley! Order the carriage!"
Gregor cut a hard glance at Bentley. "What were you saying about Miss Oglivie?"
The butler's eyes teared up alarmingly. "She's missing, my lord, and we don't know where to find her."
"What?" The word snapped through the air.
Bentley wrung his hands. "Yes, my lord. Miss Oglivie apparently left the house quite early this morning, and no one knows where she went." The butler glanced warily up the stairs, then leaned forward to add in an undertone, "She left a note for Lord Oglivie and he has been in a taking since he read it."
"Do you know what the note said?"
Bentley shook his head regretfully.
How odd. It was quite unlike Venetia to --
A door slammed above, then Mr. Oglivie appeared on the landing and ran down the stairs. Though usually the most elegant of men, he wore a long white night rail, his robe loose and streaming about him, his feet bare, his hair in a white, unkempt fluff around a precariously tipped nightcap.
"Bentley!" Oglivie waved a crumpled paper over his head. "Did you not hear me? We must -- Venetia cannot -- she might be -- Oh, no!" His voice caught and he sank to the bottom step and dropped his head in his hands. "What shall I do? What shall I do?"
Gregor eyed Venetia's father, unmoved. Oglivie had once taken to his bed for a week over the loss of his prize poodle, certain his dog had been abducted for ransom. Of course, the dog had shown up a week later, bedraggled but happy, having taken up with some amorous three-legged mutt. The resulting pups were as hideous as expected.
Venetia's mother was cut from the same cloth, dismissing servants on a whim, declaring herself to be dying whenever she had a headache, going into a decline if an acquaintance unknowingly slighted her, and enacting Cheltenham tragedies at the drop of a hat.
Gregor couldn't count the scenes he'd witnessed, none of which he'd allowed to affect him. Why waste one's strength on mere emotion? Things always sorted themselves out, usually without anyone's help.
Despite Mr. Oglivie's piteous sobs, Gregor doubted that Venetia was in any danger. More than likely, she'd merely forgotten their promised ride and had gone for a walk. She'd send him a note when she returned, and all would be right with the world.
Whatever the truth, Gregor decided it was time for him to make his exit. "Mr. Oglivie, I bid you adieu. You obviously need privacy in your time of distress, so I will leave you n -- "
"No!" Venetia's father held out an imploring hand. "Lord MacLean! I beg of you -- for Venetia's sake, if not mine! She -- " He gulped as if the words were caught in his throat, his gaze desperately seeking Gregor's. "Please," the older man said, his voice cracking, his eyes wet with tears, his tone strained to a mere thread. "Please help me find her."
Something in Oglivie's face chilled Gregor's heart. There was genuine terror in his gaze.
Suddenly both cold and hot, Gregor snapped, "What's happened?"
"She -- She -- " Oglivie dropped his head back into his hands, a sob ringing through the foyer.
Gregor's hands fisted at his sides. Outside, thunder suddenly rumbled, the wind rattling against the windowpanes. He strode toward the stairs, his boots sounding sharply on the marble floor as he came to a halt before the older man. "Oglivie, what about Venetia?"
Mr. Oglivie lifted his head. "She's gone, MacLean! Abducted! And all because of me!"
The sentence hung in the air, a living, breathing fear. The wind lifted again, more furious and colder than before as it whistled around the closed door and chilled their ankles, ruffling the edges of Lord Oglivie's night rail.
"How can this be your fault?"
Oglivie's lips quivered. "Because he -- he -- told me he wished to run off with Venetia and I -- I -- I encouraged him, thinking she might find it romantic. I never thought he'd do it without her knowledge. I thought -- "
"What's his name?" Gregor asked, his jaw so tight it ached.
Gregor had an instant image of a young man with a weak chin and an overeager manner. "That whelp? You encouraged him?"
Oglivie flushed a deep red. "He seemed genuinely taken with Venetia and she was always pleasant to him -- "
"She's pleasant to everyone." His gaze locked on the note in Oglivie's hand. "Is that from Venetia?"
His eyes swimming with tears, Oglivie handed over the note.
Gregor scanned it.
Oglivie's voice quavered. "You must understand, MacLean. Lord Ravenscroft wished to marry her, but she's so shy and -- "
Gregor crushed the note between his fingers. "Bloody hell!" The note was written in Venetia's distinctively looping scribble. It said simply that she was accompanying Ravenscroft to attend her mother in Stirling 'as requested.' The fool must have told Venetia that her mother was ill.
Mr. Oglivie rubbed a trembling hand over his eyes. "I can't believe he did such a thing! I thought he was a fine, outstanding -- "
But Gregor had already turned on his heel and was striding toward the door.
"MacLean!" Oglivie jumped up and followed Gregor onto the doorstep, not noticing that a mere hour ago it had been clear and springlike, while now the cold wind blew with a ferocity that ripped off his nightcap and sent it tumbling down the road. Shivering, he said over the wind's howl, "MacLean, where are you going?"
"To find your daughter." Gregor took the reins of his horse from a waiting footman and threw himself into the saddle.
"But how? You don't know where to begin!"
"I've heard that Ravenscroft lodges on St. James Street. I will start there."
"But when you find them? What will you do then?"
"Whatever I damn well have to," Gregor said, his face grim. "In the meantime, wait here and keep your mouth closed. No one can know she's gone."
"But -- "
"Closed, Oglivie. That should keep you occupied until I return." Without waiting for a reply, Gregor turned his horse and galloped away.
Oglivie crossed his arms against the frigid wind, unable to look away from MacLean's rapidly disappearing figure. "What have I done?" he whispered, tears streaming anew. "Venetia, my darling girl, where are you?"
Miles away, in a rented carriage that raced over a deeply rutted road, young Lord Ravenscroft held his wounded hand against his chest. "You cut me! I'm bleeding like a stuck pig!"
"Do not overstate the facts, if you please." Swaying with the wild ride of the coach, Miss Venetia Oglivie pulled her handkerchief from her reticule and wiped off the pin of her pearl and silver brooch. "I did not cut you -- though had I a knife, I might have been tempted to do more than stick your hand with my brooch pin."
Ravenscroft stuck his knuckle into his mouth. "Whatever it was, there was no call for it."
"I warned you to cease making a cake of yourself."
"I wasn't making a cake of myself! I was merely saying that I love y -- " Ravenscroft gasped as Venetia raised the pin once again, his eyes wide as if she held a dagger.
She lowered the pin and sighed. "Really, Ravenscroft, these missish vapors are not the least attractive."
"Missish vapors? Venetia! How can you say -- "
"That's Miss Oglivie to you," she said firmly.
Ravenscroft scooted down the seat, away from the glimmering pin. "Look, Vene -- I mean, Miss Oglivie. I -- I -- I am sorry if you think I was out of line in declaring myself -- "
"You were grossly o...