Strathmore Castle, Scotland, 1841. Three days before Hogmanay
“Of all the delightful Scottish traditions at your house party, Emma dear,” Marianne Kent said as she sorted through a pile of newspapers, “I must say ‘redding the house’ counts as my least favorite.”
Wearing one of her oldest dresses with an apron tied over it, Emma Kent McLeod, the Duchess of Strathaven, was busy consulting her list of tasks. Redding the house was an important part of Hogmanay, or Scottish New Year’s Eve, and involved cleaning one’s home to greet the incoming year with good luck. As Emma’s home was Strathmore Castle, a behemoth of a building with turrets, sprawling wings, and over a hundred chambers, there was much work to be done.
At present, Emma was in her husband Alaric’s study, joined by her sisters-in-law Marianne and Tessa Kent and her friend Beatrice Murray. She was reviewing the third item she’d jotted down on her lengthy list: Tidying Up Alaric’s Study. Given her husband’s habits, this was a Herculean task and included several sub-items. Normally, Emma, who liked having things orderly, would have enjoyed organizing the room. Yet the truth was she was a bit peaked…and her fatigue confounded her. From the time her mama had passed when she was fourteen to now, her thirty-seventh year, she’d always managed household duties with boundless energy.
In particular, the winter holidays were a time where she put her usual vigor and vim to good use. This year, several dozen guests had descended upon Strathmore Castle, and she’d done plenty of preparation. Things had gone off without a hitch thus far. The halls were decked with holly and mistletoe, the suppers had been delicious, and the activities she’d organized—including an archery tournament, a piano concert given by her sister Thea, and a participatory theatre production for the children—had been well received.
There was more to come. In Scotland, Hogmanay festivities eclipsed those of Christmas, and she wanted her guests to have an authentic taste of her adopted home’s culture. On the eve of the new year, there would be a ritual called “saining the house,” which involved blessing the house with sacred water and burning juniper branches to ward off evil. There would also be feasting, singing, and dancing. After the stroke of midnight, the “first-footer” or first visitor of the year would arrive, bearing tidings for the new year. Emma had hired a professional first-footer, a local blacksmith known to bring good luck to the houses he entered.
Now thinking of all she had planned made her feel a teensy bit exhausted.
I just need to get a good night’s sleep, she told herself. I’ll be right as rain in the morning.
Emma summoned a smile for the other ladies. Against the masculine backdrop of dark-paneled walls, leather upholstery, and rich Aubusson carpets, her three friends tackled their assigned tasks. Marianne, a glamorous silver blonde, sat upon a studded sofa as she rifled through a pile of old newspapers. Tessa, a petite curly-haired brunette whose pregnancy was just beginning to show in her crimson frock, half-heartedly swiped a feather duster over the windowsills. Willowy blonde Bea appeared engrossed in her task: her lavender eyes had a look of concentration as she put a bookshelf in alphabetical order.
Feeling guilty that she was putting her guests to work, Emma said, “You don’t have to help, you know. In fact, you ought to be enjoying the activities with the other guests.” She furrowed her brow. “You did see the schedule? There are card games and—”
“We saw the schedule. How can we enjoy ourselves knowing that you’re slaving away in here?” Tessa rolled her jade-green eyes. “Although that does beg the question: why don’t you let your veritable army of servants handle this?”
“Hear, hear.” Marianne fanned herself with one of the papers. “Delegation is a lady’s prerogative. And you are a duchess after all, Em.”
Why does everyone feel the need to remind me? Emma thought with a touch of impatience.
Just this morning, Alaric had made a point of telling her she ought to relax and let the servants take care of everything. As she had been in the middle of planning amusements for the children—including their own, twelve-year-old Livy and nine-year-old Christopher—she’d been a trifle short with him. He had looked hurt, and she’d instantly felt guilty.
When she’d tried to apologize, Alaric had sighed.
I just don’t want you to overdo, pet. You look tired, he’d said. You know how you get around the holidays…and this year has been a busy one.
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