The Lady Most Willing . . .
A Novel in Three Parts
For our husbands . . .
. . . Paul. He might not throw cabers,
but give him a pair of scissors,
and he can slice a wasp in half in mid-air.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the
modern-day equivalent of slaying dragons.
. . . Alessandro, because we met on a blind date,
and although it didn’t take place in a Scottish castle,
one might argue that our characters
find themselves in a similarly happy situation.
. . . the good Dr. Brockway, whom I forgive
for not gaining a single pound since the day we wed.
No truer love has a woman than this.
About the Authors
More Dazzling Romance
About the Publisher
Some said the legendary storm of 1819 that screamed down from the north pushed madness ahead of it. Others said the only madness exhibited that night was born inside a bottle of contraband whiskey. And then there were those who claimed that magic rode vanguard to the snow, sweeping the halls of Finovair Castle and inspiring its laird to heights of greatness . . .
Or something along those lines.
All that’s known for certain is that it was a chilly December day when Taran Ferguson led his clansmen to the brow of a hill from which they could see Bellemere Castle glowing like a jewel in the dark Highland night. As his men told the story later, the wind whipped Taran’s tartan back from his shoulders as he forced his steed to paw the air, then brought the magnificent beast back down to earth.
Nearly disbalanced, ’tis true, but that was part of the miracle: he’d drunk a bottle of whiskey and kept his seat.
“A glorious and sacred task lays ahead of us this night,” he bellowed. “Our cause is just, our purpose noble! Down yonder sits the Earl of Maycott . . . The English Earl of Maycott!”
This brought forth a roar from his men. And perhaps a belch or two.
“He sits amongst his gold cups and fine china,” Taran continued grandiosely, “seeking to worm his way into our good graces by bidding the finest Highland families to dine and dance with him.”
His clansmen glowered back at him: none of them, including Taran, had been invited. Not that they’d wanted to be. Or so they told themselves.
“No English interloper will seduce a Scottish lassie on my watch,” Taran shouted. “Scotland is for the Scots!”
There was another obligatory roar of approval from his men.
“Ye ken full well that I have been sowing wild oats since my dear wife died, some twenty years ago,” Taran continued. “But sadly, laddies, ye also know that none of those seeds bore fruit, for it takes a rich field indeed to nourish a seed as mighty as that of the Ferguson.” Taran had the good sense not to wait to see how this was received. “My line is threatened with extinction. Aye. Extinction! And where, I ask you, will you all be then? Where will your children be without a Ferguson laird to see to their well-being?”
“A better place than we are now,” one of the men muttered, pulling his tartan closer against the screaming wind.
Taran ignored him. “Yet all is not lost! You ken I have two nephews by my younger sisters.”
Unhappy mutters met this statement. One of Ferguson’s sisters had married a refugee from the French Revolution, a penniless comte. The other had wed an English earl who turned out to be as disagreeable as he was English.
Taran raised his hand, quieting the grumblers. “It’s the half-French one, Rocheforte, who’ll inherit my castle.” He paused dramatically. “Think on it, lads. If my Frenchie nephew marries a Scotswoman, his son will be one of us—a true Scotsman!!” He slashed the air with his broadsword so vehemently the momentum nearly carried him off his saddle, but at the last moment he righted himself. “Or mostly. And it’s the same for my English nevvy as well.”
“I’m sorry to tell you but the earl is engaged to an Englishwoman!” one of the men called out. “Me wife’s cousin lives in London and wrote about it to me wife.”
“Oakley was going to be wed,” Taran said briskly, “but he caught his intended practicing steps with her dancing master that were never meant to see a ballroom floor.” He paused dramatically. “Her French dancing master.”
“Didn’t you just say your other nephew is French?” one of his men asked, rubbing his hands on his kilt for warmth.
Taran brushed this aside. “It pains me to say it, but neither lad can be trusted to find a bride worthy of Finovair. And marry they must, or our birthright will crumble to dust.”
“Half there already,” someone muttered.
“It behooves us”—Taran paused, so pleased with the word he thought it bore repeating—“it behooves us, my fine companions, to make sure both my nevvies marry Scotswomen. Or at the very least, someone with enough blunt—”
“Get to the bloody point!” shouted someone with freezing fingers and a wife at home. “What are we doing here?”
No one could fault Taran for missing a good exit line. “What are we doing?” Taran bellowed back. “What are we doing?” He rose in his stirrups and, wielding the great broadsword of the Ferguson over his head, shouted,
“We’re going to get us some brides!”
“Remind me again, why are we here?”
Byron Wotton, Earl of Oakley, took a fortifying gulp of his whiskey and nudged his chair closer to the fire. Castles were notoriously difficult to heat, but it was bloody freezing at Finovair. He knew his uncle was short on funds, but surely something could have been done about the arctic breeze that ran like a snake through the sitting room.
“I believe you left a woman at the altar,” his cousin Robin said with an arched brow.
“We were a month away from the wedding,” Byron shot back, perfectly aware that he had risen—or rather, descended—to Robin’s bait. “As well you know.”
He might have pointed out that he’d caught his fiancée in the arms of her dancing master, but really, what was the point? Robin knew the whole story already.
“As for me,” Robin said, leaning forward to rub his hands together near the fire, “I’m here for the food.”
Anyone else might have taken it as the dry riposte Robin had intended it to be, but Byron knew better. With nothing to his name but a defunct French title, Robert Parles (Robin to everyone but his mother), quite likely had come to Finovair for the food.
A rush of cold air hit Byron in the face, and he bit off a curse. “Did someone leave a window open?” he asked, scowling as he glanced around the room. The sun had gone down hours before, taking with it its pathetic delusion of warmth.
Byron stomped to his feet and crossed the room to inspect the windows. Several were cracked. He peered out, into the worsening storm. Was someone out there? No, no one would be so mad as to—
“What happened to Uncle Taran?” Byron asked suddenly.
“Hmmm?” Robin had let his head loll against the back of his chair. He did not open his eyes.
“I haven’t seen him since supper. Have you?”
Robin snorted and sat up straighter. “You missed the show. After you went off to God knows where—”
“The library,” Byron muttered.
“—Taran got up on the table in his kilt. And let me tell you”—Robin gave a shudder—“that is not a kilt one cares to peer under.”
“He got up on the table?” Byron could not help but echo. It was outlandish, even for Uncle Taran.
Robin gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Some of his liegemen came to drink with him after supper, and the next thing I knew, he was on the table, thumping his chest and raving about the glories of the past, when men were men and Scottish men were thrice as manly. Then he called for his claymore and the whole lot of them disappeared.”
“You didn’t think to ask them where they were going?” Because that was the first thing Byron would have demanded.
Robin eyes met his with the barest hint of amusement. “No.”
Byron started to comment, but he was cut off by the welcome sound of their uncle, bellowing outside the castle.
“Speak of the devil,” Byron said, with some relief. Their uncle was a bosky nuisance, but neither of them wanted to find him facedown in a snowdrift.
“Best go drag him to the fire and thaw him out,” Robin said, putting down his glass. “Garvie says we’re in for a three-day blow.”
They left the great hall and pushed open the huge front door, where they discovered a small clutch of their uncle’s clansmen milling about the keep, thumping their chests and clapping one another on the back. They wore full Highland kit, kilts and fur cloaks, and the torches they carried sputtered beneath a thickening snowfall. Taran stood at their center, grinning like a madman.
“God, look at all those knees,” Robin murmured.
“Whose carriage is that?” Byron asked, peering at a gleaming black vehicle drawn up just where the torchlight gave way to darkness.
Taran pushed his way through his men. “I’ve brought you brides!” he shouted over his shoulder to his nephews. “Come out here, lasses!” He pulled open the door of the carriage with a flourish.
A fresh, pretty face appeared for a moment, and then a slender hand grasped the inside handle. “There are no brides here,” she said smartly. The door slammed shut.
Byron stared in shock. “Bloody hell!” he breathed. He looked at Robin. Even as his cousin’s brows rose, a smile was growing on his handsome face. “This is not amusing, Rob. That was a lady.”
“Damned right that was a lady,” Taran bellowed. “A spirited one, too. I got three of them with money, birth, and looks enough.” He pointed a gnarled finger at Robin. “You’ll pick one of these, nephew, or I’ll do it myself and lock the two of you in a room until you have to get married.” He glanced at Byron. “You might as well take one, too,” he added magnanimously.
Byron started down the steps with a groan.
Taran gave the door a sharp tug and a dark-haired girl tumbled out. “Lads, this first lady be—” He stopped. Stared. “Catriona Burns, what in the devil are you doing here?” he demanded.
“You abducted me!” the dark-haired young lady retorted, hands on her hips.
“Well, if I did it were a mistake,” Taran said. He looked over at Byron and Robin. “Don’t even think about this one, lads. Nice lass, no money.”
Byron heard her outraged gasp even above the sound of Robin’s hopeless laughter.
“Move aside, Catriona. The rest of you lassies get out here,” Taran bellowed, peering into the carriage. “My nephew needs to take a good look before he chooses one of you for his bride.”
“I cannot believe that you visited an outrage of this nature on young ladies,” Byron stated, shooting his uncle a murderous look. Taran was a moth-eaten bear of a man, still more brawn than beef, dark hair shot through with the same silver that colored his beard. He didn’t look cracked, though he obviously was.
Byron reached the carriage just in time to offer an arm to the lady who appeared in the open door. In the light of the torches, snowflakes drifted onto hair the color of dark rubies.
“There’s a good one!” Taran announced. “Fiona Chisholm. She’s a bit long on the shelf, but I brought her younger sister, too, if’n you want a more tender lamb. Each of them has a tidy fortune.”
“I deeply apologize for my uncle’s lunacy,” Byron said, bowing over Miss Chisholm’s hand once she was on the ground. “You must be feeling nearly hysterical with fright.”
There was laughter rather than terror in the young lady’s eyes. “Having long acquaintance with the laird, I am not as frightened as I might be. You have the advantage, sir,” she said, dropping a curtsy.
“Byron Wotton, Earl of Oakley.”
“Lord Oakley, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
“This is my younger nephew. Lives in England,” Taran put in. “Robin there will be inheriting Finovair. He’s the one ye’re here to marry.”
Robin had crossed the courtyard and now moved to stand at Byron’s side. “Robert Parles, Comte de Rocheforte,” he said cheerfully. “Call me Robin. Pleased to meet you, Miss Burns, Miss Chisholm.”
Byron handed Miss Chisholm to him and put his hand out to help yet another lady, this one smaller, with curling toasty brown hair, delicate features, and brilliant, deep-set brown eyes.
“Maycott’s daughter,” Taran said proudly. “Lady Cecily. She’s the best of the bunch: worth a fortune and pretty as a penny. Though”—he lowered his voice—“she is English. But she’s been out a fair few seasons now, too, and shouldn’t be too picky at this point.”
The lady’s eyes grew round.
“Uncle, I implore you to shut your mouth,” Byron said. “Lady Cecily, I can find no words to apologize for the terrible imposition committed against you.”
Lady Cecily seemed about to reply when Robin edged Byron aside, taking her hand and bowing. “Oh, I don’t think I can apologize,” he said. “No one’s ever kidnapped a lady on my behalf before. But then,” he continued, grinning wolfishly, “no one has ever had to.”
The girl’s eyes widened again, and even in the fitful torchlight one could see her cheeks turn rosy. For a second, Robin froze, staring down at her. Then he abruptly looked away, releasing her hand, and stepped past her, craning his neck to peer into the carriage. “Who else is left in there, Uncle? One of George’s girls? I always fancied marrying into royalty.”
“This is a serious business!” their uncle said with a scowl. “Only one left, I think. Fiona’s sister.”
His ancient lieutenant nodded gravely.
Byron ground his teeth. “Robin, please escort Miss Burns, Miss Chisholm, and Lady Cecily into the castle. It’s freezing, and they aren’t wearing cloaks.”
“Didn’t have time for that,” Taran said cheerfully. “I snatched them straight out of the ballroom. Marilla Chisholm, there’s no hiding in that carriage,” he bellowed.
The last young lady appeared, pausing dramatically at the top of the carriage’s steps. She was very young, very blond, and very beautiful, and she swayed gently. “What is happening?” she cried, her voice wavering. “Oh, what is to become of us?”
“You are perfectly safe, Miss Marilla.” Byron held out a hand to support her as she stepped down. “I am Lord Oakley. I offer our deepest apologies, and my assurance as a gentleman that you will be speedily returned to your family.”
“No, she won’t,” Taran said. “Snow’s already closed the pass. Should be two to three days before anyone makes it through.” He pushed the carriage door shut. “Let’s get inside. It’s as cold as a witch’s teat out here, and we’re done.”
The carriage door slammed open again and an exquisite Hoby boot landed decisively on the ground. A deep, irritated voice said, “Not quite!”
Byron’s jaw dropped.
Robin turned around. “Holy hell, Uncle, you’ve kidnapped the Duke of Bretton!”
Catriona Burns was a practical girl. One had to be, living as she did in the Highlands of Scotland. When it was December the seventeenth, and the sun rose for barely six hours per day, and the temperature hovered somewhere between freezing and dead, one had to be prepared for anything.
But not this.
It was two in the miserable morning, she’d lost feeling in at least eight of her toes, and she was standing outside in three inches of snow. With an earl. And a French comte. And a duke. Who’d been kidnapped.
“Taran Ferguson, you insufferable miscreant,” she practically yelled. “What do you think you are doing?”
“Aye, well, y’see . . .” He scratched his head, glanced at the carriage as if it might offer advice, and then shrugged.
“You’re drunk,” she accused.
His mouth twisted so far to the right it seemed to turn his head. “Just a wee bit.”
“You kidnapped the Duke of Bretton!”
“Well now, that was a mistake . . .” He frowned, turning to his loyal retainers. “How did we end up with him?”
“Indeed,” bit off the duke. Normally speaking, Catriona would not have found him terribly fearsome. He was a rather good-looking fellow, with thick, dark hair, and deep-set eyes, but there was nothing wild or untamed about him.
That said, when the Duke of Bretton speared Taran Ferguson with a furious stare, even Catriona took a step back.
“What were you doing in the carriage?” Taran demanded.
“It was my carriage!” roared the duke.
There was a moment of silence—well, except for the French comte, who wouldn’t stop laughing—and then Taran finally said, “Oh.”
“Who,” the duke demanded, “are you?”
“Taran Ferguson. I do apologize for the error.” He motioned toward Lady Cecily, then waved his hand past both Chisholm sisters. “We only meant to snatch the women.”
Marilla Chisholm let out a delicate cry of distress, leading Catriona to let out an indelicate grunt of annoyance. She’d known Marilla for every one of her twenty-one years, and there was no way she was the least bit distressed. She’d been trapped in a carriage with a duke, only to be deposited at the feet of two other titled gentlemen.
Please. This was Marilla’s wildest dream come true, and then inflicted upon the rest of them. Catriona looked over at Marilla’s older sister, Fiona, but whatever she was thinking, it was well hidden behind her spectacles.
“Bret,” said one of the men—the stiff and serious one who had already apologized six times.
The duke’s head snapped around, and Catriona saw his eyes widen. “Oakley?” he asked, sounding well and truly shocked.
Lord Oakley jerked his head toward Taran and said, “He’s our uncle.”
“Our?” the duke echoed.
Lord Rocheforte—or was it Mr. Rocheforte? Catriona didn’t know, he was French, for heaven’s sake, for all that he sounded British. Whoever he was, he clearly saw no gravity in the situation, for he just grinned and held up his hand. “Hallo, Bret,” he said in a jolly voice.
“Good God,” the duke swore. “You too?”
Catriona looked back and forth between the trio of men. They had that air about them—five hundred years of breeding and a membership to White’s. One didn’t have to venture far beyond the Highlands of Scotland to know that once one reached a certain social level, everyone knew everyone. These three had probably shared a room at Eton.
“Didn’t realize you were in Scotland,” Mr. Lord Rocheforte said to the duke.
The duke cursed under his breath, following that up with: “Forgot the two of you were related.”
“It still quite frequently comes as a shock to me, too,” Lord Oakley said in a dry voice. Then he cleared his throat and added, “I must apologize on behalf of my uncle.” He jerked his head furiously toward Taran. “Apparently, he—”
“I can speak for myself,” Taran cut in.
“No,” Lord Oakley said, “you cannot.”
“Don’t you speak to me like that, boy!”
Oakley turned to Taran with a fury that even outstripped the duke’s. “Your judgment—”
“He was asleep in the carriage,” Catriona blurted out, jumping into the fray. The men went silent for long enough to stare at her, so she quickly added, “When you and your men threw us inside. His Grace was already there, asleep.”
“Did he wake up?” Mr. Lord Rocheforte murmured.
Catriona blinked, not sure if she was meant to actually answer. But she had a feeling that if she did not maintain control of the conversation, the other three men would come to blows, so she said, “Not right away.”
“It was right easy,” Taran boasted. “We just went in, snatched them, and left. No one even put up a fuss.”
Lord Oakley let out a long, agonized breath. “How is that possible? Surely your parents . . .”
Fiona Chisholm cleared her throat. “I think the guests thought it was all part of the entertainment.”
Rocheforte started laughing again.
“How can you find this funny?” Lord Oakley demanded.
“How can you not?” Rocheforte sputtered.
“I feel faint,” Marilla twittered.
“You do not,” Catriona snapped. Because really, the whole thing was bad enough without Marilla’s nonsense.
Marilla gasped in outrage, and Catriona had no doubt that she would have hissed something monstrously insulting if they had not an audience of unmarried gentlemen.
“Might we go inside?” the Duke of Bretton asked, each syllable icy sharp.
“Of course,” Lord Oakley replied quickly. “Come in, everyone. We will get this sorted out and have everyone back on their way home”—he glared at his uncle at that—“posthaste.”
“We can’t go home,” Catriona said.
“What do you mean?”
“The roads are impassable.”
Lord Oakley stared at her.
“It’s a miracle we even made it here,” she told him. “We certainly cannot return tonight. There is no moon, and”—she looked up at the sky—“it’s going to snow again.”
“How do you know?” Lord Oakley asked, with perhaps more than a touch of desperation.
She tried not to stare at him as if he were an idiot, she really did, but his white-blond hair was practically glowing in the moonlight, and with his mouth still open in horror, he looked like a traumatized owl. “I have lived here my entire life,” she finally said. “I know when it’s going to snow.”
His reply was something that should never be uttered in front of a gently born female, but given the circumstances, Catriona opted to take no offense.
“Let’s get inside,” he muttered, and after a moment of confusion, they all piled into the castle.
Catriona had been to Finovair Castle, of course; Taran Ferguson and his crumbling abode was the Burnses’ third-closest neighbor. But she’d never been so late at night, after most of the fires had been allowed to die down. It was so cold the air had teeth, and none of the young ladies was wearing a coat or pelisse. Catriona’s gown had been sensibly tailored with long sleeves, as had Fiona’s, but Lady Cecily’s powder blue confection had little cap sleeves, and Marilla’s practically bared her shoulders.
“There’s a fire in the drawing room,” Lord Oakley said, hurrying everyone along. It was difficult to believe that he was related to Taran; they looked nothing alike, and as they passed the candlelit sconces, Catriona could see that Lord Oakley’s features were uncommonly stern and severe.
As opposed to Mr. Lord Rocheforte, who had one of those faces that looked as if it didn’t know how not to smile. He was chuckling as they made their way through the cavernous great hall, although Catriona did hear him say to the duke, “Oh, come now, Bret, surely you see the humor in this.”
Catriona pricked up her ears, but she didn’t hear “Bret’s” response. She didn’t dare steal a glance at the duke, not when they were all in such close proximity. There was something about him that made her feel uneasy, and it wasn’t just the fact that he was certainly the highest-ranking individual to whom she had ever been introduced.
Except she hadn’t been introduced to him. She’d only watched him from across the Maycott ballroom, as had the rest of the local peons. The Earl of Maycott was one of the richest men in England, and heaven only knew why he had wanted his own Scottish castle, but want it he had, badly enough to spend a fortune restoring Bellemere to a level of magnificence that Catriona was fairly certain it had never enjoyed, even when it was in its supposed glory.
Once the work was completed, the Maycotts had decided to hold a ball, inviting a few of their London friends but, for the most part, the local gentry. Only so that their first annual Icicle Ball would be a crush.
Or at least that was what the local gossips said. And while Catriona knew better than to believe everything she heard, she always listened.
The Chisholm daughters had been brought to meet the duke, of course. They were heiresses, quite possibly the only heiresses this corner of Scotland had ever seen, and they’d each had a season in London. But not Catriona. Her father was a local squire, and her mother was the daughter of a local squire, and as Catriona fully expected one day to marry a local squire, she didn’t see much sense in begging an introduction to the visiting aristocracy.
Catriona still wasn’t sure how she had come to be snatched up along with Lady Cecily and the Chisholm daughters, but she’d been the first to be tossed into the carriage. She’d landed squarely atop the duke, who responded first with a snore, and then with a frisky hand to her bottom.
Then he’d called her Delilah and started nuzzling her neck!
She’d jumped away before she could dwell upon the fact that it all felt rather nice, and then the duke had fallen back asleep.
Someone, Catriona had decided acerbically, had got into the Maycotts’ good brandy.
Catriona had only a minute alone with the sleeping duke before the other three ladies were tossed into the carriage, and then he had woken up. She shuddered to think how much brandy he’d have had to drink to sleep through that. Marilla was shrieking, Lady Cecily was banging on the ceiling with her fist, and Fiona was yelling at Marilla, trying to get her to shut up.
Sisters the Chisholm girls might be, but there had never been any love lost there.
The duke had tried to get everyone to be quiet, but even he wasn’t able to break through the din until he bellowed, “Silence!”
It was at that moment that Catriona realized that the other ladies had not yet noticed he was in the carriage. Lady Cecily’s jaw dropped so fast Catriona was surprised it stayed hinged. And Marilla—good Lord, but Catriona had never liked Marilla—she had been immediately tossed onto his lap by a nonexistent bump in the road.
He had not, Catriona had noticed with some satisfaction, responded by squeezing her bottom.
She wasn’t certain how long they’d been trapped in the swiftly moving carriage. Ninety minutes at least, perhaps two hours. Long enough for the duke to announce that no one was to utter a sound until they arrived at their godforsaken destination. Then he went back to sleep.
Or if not sleep, then a crackingly good imitation of it. Even Marilla had not dared to disturb him.
But whatever good sense Marilla possessed had fled when she’d stepped out of the carriage, because now she was chattering to the duke like an outraged magpie, clutching his arm—his arm!—as she went on about “shocking” this and “insupportable” that.
The duke gave a little tug, but Marilla had no intention of releasing her prey, and he gave up. Catriona could only think that he’d decided the heat of her hand was worth the annoyance.
Catriona couldn’t fault him for that. She’d have cuddled up to Marilla just then if it meant raising her temperature a few degrees. The only people who didn’t seem to be shivering madly were Taran’s two nephews, who, it had to be said, were almost as pleasing to the eye as the duke, and not the sort of men one would think would need to have women snatched from a party.
Then again, Taran Ferguson was as eccentric as the summer day was long. And the last time she’d seen him he’d been going on about the fate of Finovair after he was dead and in the ground, so she supposed she shouldn’t be too surprised that he’d go to such lengths to secure brides for his nephews.
Lord Oakley led the entire crowd into a small sitting room off the great hall. It was shabby but clean, just like most of Finovair, and most importantly, there was a fire in the grate. Everyone rushed forward, desperate to warm his limbs.
“We’ll need blankets,” Oakley directed.
“Got some in that trunk,” Taran replied, jerking his head toward an ancient chest near the wall. His nephews went to retrieve them, and soon they were passing the blankets along like a chain until everyone had one draped across his shoulders. The wool was rough and scratchy, and Catriona wouldn’t have been surprised if a flotilla of moths had come spewing forth, but she didn’t care. She would have donned a hair shirt for warmth at that point.
“Once again,” Lord Oakley said to the ladies, “I must apologize on behalf of my uncle. I can’t even begin to imagine what he might have been thinking—”
“You know what I was thinking,” Taran cut in. “Robin’s dragging his feet, pussyfooting around—”
“Uncle,” Oakley said warningly.
“As no one is going anywhere tonight,” Mr. Rocheforte said, “we might as well get some sleep.”
“Oh, but we must all be introduced,” Marilla said grandly.
“Of course,” Taran said, with great enthusiasm. “Where are my manners?”
“There are so many possible replies I can hardly bring myself to choose,” the duke said.
“I am, as you all know, the laird of Finovair,” Taran announced. “And these are my two nephews, Oakley and Rocheforte, but I call them Byron and Robin.”
“Byron?” Fiona Chisholm murmured.
Lord Oakley glared at her.
“You seem to be the Duke of Bretton,” Taran continued, “although I don’t know why you’re here.”
“It was my carriage,” Bretton growled.
Taran looked back at his men, one of whom was still toting his claymore. “That’s what I don’t understand. Didn’t we bring a carriage of our own?”
“Uncle,” Rocheforte reminded him, “the introductions?”
“Right. Maycott’s probably busted it up for kindling by now, anyway.” Taran let out a sorrowful sigh. “Speaking of Maycott, though, this one is his daughter Cecilia.”
“Cecily,” Lady Cecily corrected. It was the first word she had spoken since their arrival.
Taran blinked in surprise. “Really?”
“Really,” Lady Cecily confirmed, one of her brows lifting in a delicately wry arch.
“Hmmph. So sorry about that. It’s a lovely name.”
“Thank you,” she replied, with a gracious tilt of her head. She was remarkably pretty, Catriona thought, although not in a flashy, intimidating way like Marilla, whose blond curls and sparkling blue eyes were the stuff of legend.
“These two are the Chisholm sisters,” Taran continued, motioning to Fiona and Marilla. “Fiona’s the elder and Marilla’s the younger. They’re good Scottish ladies, but they have been down to London. Got a little polish, I hear. And that’s about it.”
Catriona cleared her throat.
“Oh, right!” Taran exclaimed. “So sorry. This one is Catriona Burns. We took her by mistake.”
“Ye said the one in the blue dress,” one of Taran’s men protested. Catriona had met him before. She was fairly certain his name was Hamish.
Taran jabbed a finger toward Lady Cecily. “That one’s wearing a blue dress.”
Hamish shrugged and jerked his head toward Catriona. “So is Miss Burns. And they have the same coloring.”
It was true. Brown hair, dark eyes. But while Lady Cecily was delicate, and moved with an ethereal grace, Catriona was . . . Well, she didn’t know what she was. But she wasn’t delicate. And she probably wasn’t graceful, either. She generally tried not to dance for long enough to know for sure.
Taran looked back and forth between the two brunettes for a comically long few seconds. “Right, well, the problem is,” he finally said to Catriona, “I wasn’t expecting you. I don’t have a room ready.”
“You will give her my room,” the duke commanded.
“I don’t have a room for you, either,” Taran said.
Lord Oakley groaned.
“It’s very kind of you to have rooms prepared,” Marilla said prettily.
Catriona could only gape. Taran Ferguson had kidnapped her and she was thanking him?
“I’m not really sure where to put you,” Taran said slowly. He looked over at the sofa, frowning thoughtfully.
That was it. “Taran Ferguson,” Catriona fumed. “I am not going to sleep on the sitting room sofa!”
He scratched his head. “Well, now, it’d be a sight more comfortable than the floor.”
“And I am not going to sleep on the floor!”
The duke stepped forward, his eyes deadly. “Mr. Ferguson, I suggest you find a chamber for the lady.”
“I don’t really—”
“Or you will answer to me.”
Silence fell. Catriona looked over at the duke, stunned that he would come so fiercely to her defense.
“Miss Burns may share a room with me,” Lady Cecily said. Catriona shot her a look of gratitude.
“Can’t do,” Taran said. “There’s only the one small bed.”
“Put the sisters together,” the duke suggested imperiously.
“Already have,” Taran replied. “You’ll be sharing a bed, lassies,” he said to the Chisholm sisters, “but it’s comfortable enough. Never had any royal visits here, so no need to get any of our extra bedrooms fancied up.”
“We have two very nice guest rooms at our home,” Marilla said. “We once hosted the Earl of Mayne.”
“In 1726,” Fiona muttered.
“Well, it’s still the Mayne room,” Marilla said with a sniff, “and if any of you came to visit, that is where we would put you. Well, except maybe you,” she said, blinking in Catriona’s direction.
“Marilla!” Fiona gasped.
“She lives just five miles away,” Marilla protested. “She would hardly need a guest room.”
“One apparently never knows when one might need an extra guest room,” the duke said dryly.
“So true,” Marilla said. “So very, very true.” She looked over at him with that annoyingly catlike tilt of her head and batted her eyelashes. “Are you always so very, very wise?”
Bretton, apparently at the end of his rope, just looked at her and said baldly, “Yes.”
Catriona choked on laughter, then feigned a few coughs when the duke turned to her with an arched brow. Oh dear heavens, was he serious? She’d thought he was merely trying to shake off Marilla.
“Well,” Taran declared, filling the awkward silence, “we’ll find something for everyone. In the meantime, let’s get the rest of you settled. Where is Mrs. McVittie? Oh, there you are!”
His housekeeper nodded from the doorway.
He flicked a hand toward every female besides Catriona. “See these three up to their rooms. And, ah, Robin and Byron, why don’t you go as well. Just to make sure everything is as it should be.”
Lord Oakley shook his head. “As it should be,” he repeated in disbelief.
“Give Lady Cecilia the blue room, or at least the one that used to be blue, and Miss— Well, actually, it really doesn’t matter. Give them whichever room they want.” Taran turned back to Catriona and the duke, who were still standing by the fire. “I’ll see what I can find for the two of you.”
“Bretton can have my room,” Lord Oakley said, standing in the doorway as everyone else filed out.
“No, really,” the duke responded, his voice a mocking monotone, “I couldn’t possibly inconvenience you.”
Lord Oakley rolled his eyes and exited into the great hall.
It was only then that Catriona realized she had been left quite alone with the Duke of Bretton.
John Shevington had been the Duke of Bretton since the age of forty-three days, and as such, he had been inflicted with a legion of tutors, each of whom had been given the task of making certain that the young duke would be able to handle any situation in which an aristocratic young man might reasonably expect to find himself.
Astonishingly, his tutors had not considered the possibility that he might find himself accidentally kidnapped by a stark raving lunatic, trapped in a carriage (his own carriage, mind you) for two hours with four unmarried ladies, one of whom had groped him three times before he used a bump in the road as an excuse to toss her across the carriage. And if that hadn’t been enough, he’d been deposited into a barely heated castle guarded by a roving pack of ancient retainers hobbling along with weapons attached to their kilts.
Dear Lord, he fervently didn’t want a stiff wind to lift any of those kilts.
Bret glanced over at the young lady who’d been left in the sitting room with him, the one old Ferguson claimed had been snatched by accident. Miss Burns, he thought her name was. She seemed to know Taran Ferguson better than any of the other erstwhile captives, so he asked her, “Do you think our host will find rooms for us?”
She huddled closer to the fire. “I can almost guarantee he’s already forgotten he’s meant to be looking.”
“You seem to be well acquainted with our host, Miss . . . It was Miss Burns, wasn’t it?”
“Everyone knows Taran,” she said, then seemed to remember herself and added, “Your Grace.”
He nodded. She seemed a sensible young lady, thankfully not given to hysterics. Although it had to be said, he’d come close to cheering her on when she’d given old Ferguson a tongue-lashing. Hell, he’d been hoping she’d wallop the old codger.
Miss Burns returned his gesture with a smile and nod of her own, then turned back to the fire. They’d both been standing in front of it for several minutes, but if her fingers were anything like his, they still felt frozen from the inside out.
If he’d had a coat he would have given it to her. But his coat was back at Bellemere, along with the rest of his things. He’d meant to stay for only two days; it was a convenient place to stop and rest his horses on the way back to Castle Bretton from the Charters shooting party in Ross-shire. In retrospect, he should have just remained with his friends for the holiday; only a fool took to the roads in Scotland at this time of year.
But he’d always had a sentimental streak when it came to Castle Bretton at Christmastime. He might make his home in London for much of the year, but he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else when the Yule log was lit and Mrs. Plitherton’s famous Christmas pudding was brought to the table. He had almost no family with whom to celebrate—just his mother and whichever of her maiden sisters chose to join them. But the lack of Shevingtons had made the holiday a jollier, less formal affair, with songs and dancing, and the whole of the household—from the butler down to the scullery maids—joining in on the fun.
Now it seemed his tradition would be broken by Taran Ferguson, the improbable uncle of both Oakley and Rocheforte.
Oakley and Rocheforte. He’d nearly fallen over when he saw them. He’d known Oakley since . . . well, since he’d punched him in the eye their first week at Eton and gotten a bloody lip in return. But it had all been good since then.
As for Rocheforte, Bret didn’t know him well, but he’d always seemed an amiable, devil-may-care sort of fellow.
Bret glanced out the window, not that he could see anything. “When you said it was going to snow tonight,” he said to Miss Burns, “had you any thoughts as to the amount? Or duration?”
She turned to him with frank dark eyes. “Are you asking me when we might be able to leave?”
He liked a woman who got to the point. “Precisely that.”
She grimaced. “It may well be three days, Your Grace. Or more.”
“Good Lord,” he heard himself say.
“My thoughts exactly.”
He cleared his throat. “Has Mr. Ferguson ever done . . . this before?”
Her lips pressed together with what he thought might be amusement. “Do you mean kidnap a duke?”
“Kidnap anyone,” he clarified.
“Not to my knowledge, but he did run bare-arsed through the village last May Day.”
Bret blinked. Had she just used the word “arse”? He tried to recall the last time he’d heard a gentlewoman do so. He was fairly certain the answer was never. Then, as he watched the firelight flickering across her skin, he decided he didn’t care.
Miss Burns wasn’t beautiful, not in the way Lady Cecily was, with her rosebud mouth and heart-shaped face. But she had something. Her eyes, he decided. Dark as night, and blazingly direct. You couldn’t see what she was thinking, not with eyes so dark.
But you could feel it.
“Your Grace?” she murmured, and he realized he’d been staring.
“I’m sorry,” he said automatically. “You were saying?”
Her brows rose a fraction of an inch. “Do you mean,” she asked with careful disbelief, “for me to continue the story about Taran Ferguson going bare-arsed through the village?”
“Precisely,” he clipped, since if he spoke in any other tone of voice, he might have to admit to himself that he was blushing.
Which he was quite certain he did not do.
She paused. “Well,” she said, clearing her throat, “there was a wager.”
This he found interesting. “Do many Scottish wagers involve racing about unattired?”
“Not at all, Your Grace.” And then, just when he thought he might have offended her, the corners of her lips made the slightest indentation of a smile, and she added, “The air is far too chilly for that.”
He smothered a laugh.
“I believe the wager had something to do with making the vicar’s wife faint. There was no requirement for nudity.” Her eyes gave a slight heavenward tilt of exasperation. “That was Taran’s invention entirely.”
“Did he win?”
“Of course not,” Miss Burns scoffed. “It would take more than his scrawny backside to make a Scotswoman faint.”
“Scrawny, eh?” Bret murmured. “Then you looked?”
“I could scarcely not. He ran down the lane whooping like a banshee.”
For a moment he stared. She looked so lovely standing there by the fire, her thick hair just starting to come loose from its pins. Everything about her looked prim and proper and perfectly appropriate.
Except her expression. She’d rolled her eyes, and scrunched her nose, and he thought she might have just snorted at him.
Snorted. He tried to remember the last time he’d heard a gentlewoman do that in his presence. Probably the last time one had said “arse.”
And then the laugh that had been fizzing within him finally broke free. It started small, with just a silent shake, and then before he knew it, he was roaring, bent over from the strength of it, rolling and rumbling in his belly, coming out in great, big, beary guffaws.
He tried to remember the last time he’d laughed like this.
Wiping the tears from his eyes, he looked over at Miss Burns, who, while not doubled over, was laughing right along with him. She was clearly trying to maintain some dignity, keeping her lips pressed together, but her shoulders were shaking, and finally, she sagged against the wall and gasped for breath.
“Oh my,” she said, waving a hand in front of her face for no apparent reason. “Oh my.” She looked at him, her eyes meeting his with a direct gaze that he suspected was as much a part of her as her arms and legs. “I don’t even know what we’re laughing about,” she said with a helpless smile.
“Nor I,” he admitted.
The laughter fell softly away.
“We must be hungry,” she said quietly.
“Insensible,” she whispered.
He stepped toward her. He couldn’t not. “Completely.”
And then he kissed her. Right there in front of the fire in Taran Ferguson’s sitting room, he did the one thing he shouldn’t do.
He kissed her.
When the duke stepped away, Catriona felt cold. Colder than when she’d been in the carriage. Colder than when she’d been standing in the snow. Even with the fire burning brightly at her back, she was cold.
This wasn’t the cold of temperature. It was the cold of loss.
His lips had been on hers. His arms had been around her. And then they weren’t.
It was as simple as that.
She looked up at him. His eyes—good heavens, they were blue. How had she not noticed it? They were like a loch in summer, except a loch didn’t have little flecks of midnight, and it couldn’t stare straight into her soul.
“I should apologize,” he murmured, staring at her with something approaching wonder.
“But you won’t?”
He shook his head. “It would be a lie.”
“And you never lie.” It wasn’t a question. She knew it was true.
“Not about something like this.”
She felt her tongue dart out to moisten her lips. “Have you done this before?”
A small smile played across his features. “Kissed a woman?”
“Kissed a stranger.”
He paused, but for only a moment. “No.”
She shouldn’t ask, she knew she shouldn’t. But she did, anyway. “Why not?”
His head tilted to the side, just an inch or so, and he was peering at her face with the most remarkable expression. He was studying her, Catriona realized. No, he was memorizing her.
Then his smile turned sheepish, and she knew. She simply knew that his was not a face that often turned sheepish. He was as befuddled by the moment as she was.
It was amazing how much better that made her feel.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever met a stranger I wanted to kiss,” he murmured.
“Nor have I,” she said quietly.
He moved his head slightly, acknowledging her comment and waiting. Waiting for . . .
“Until now,” she whispered. Because it wouldn’t be fair not to say it.
His hand touched her cheek, and then he was kissing her again, and for the first time in her life, Catriona considered believing in magic and fairies and all those other fey creatures. Because surely there could be no other explanation. Something was raging within her body, rushing through her veins, and she just wanted . . .
She wanted him in every possible way.
Dear God above.
With a gasp she broke away, stumbling back, away from the fire and away from the duke.
She would have stumbled away from herself if she could have figured out how to do it.
“Well,” she said, brushing at her skirts as if everything were normal, and she hadn’t just thrown herself at a man who probably took tea with the king. “Well,” she said again.
“Well,” he repeated.
She looked up sharply. Was he mocking her?
But his eyes were warm. No, they were hot. And they made her feel things in parts of her she was quite sure she wasn’t supposed to know about until she was in her marriage bed. “Stop that,” she said.
“Looking at me. Like . . . like . . .”
He smiled slowly. “Like I like you?”
“Like I think you kiss very well?”
“Oh God,” she moaned, covering her face with her hands. It was not her habit to blaspheme, but then it was not her habit to kiss a duke, and it was definitely not her habit to be thrown into a carriage and transported ten snowy miles across impassable roads.
“I promise you,” she said, her face still in her hands, “I don’t usually do this.”
“This I know,” he said.
She looked up.
He smiled again, that lazy, boyish tilt of his lips that flipped her insides upside down. “The madness of the moment. Of the entire evening. Surely we can all be forgiven uncharacteristic behavior. But I must say . . .”
His words trailed off, and Catriona found herself holding her breath.
“I’m honored that your moment of uncharacteristic madness was with me.”
She backed up a step. Not because she feared him but because she feared herself. “I’m a respectable lady.”
She swallowed nervously. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t . . . ehrm . . .” She couldn’t finish the statement. He would know what she meant.
The duke turned to face the fire, holding his hands out toward the warmth. It was as clear a signal as any that they would put their momentary insanity behind them. “I am just as susceptible to the strangeness of the situation,” he remarked. “I don’t usually do this sort of thing, either.”
Catriona fairly jumped. Back in the carriage, when he’d been intoxicated . . . He’d called her Delilah.
He obviously did this sort of thing with her.
“Where’s Taran?” she practically groaned.
“Didn’t you say he likely forgot about us?”
“Oakley won’t,” the duke said.
She turned and blinked. “I beg your pardon.”
“Lord Oakley. He won’t forget to find us rooms. I’ve known him for years. The only thing that is making this bearable is that he must be dying inside over all this.”
“You don’t like him?”
“On the contrary. I’ve long considered him a friend. It’s why I enjoy his misery so much.”
Men were very strange, Catriona decided.
“He’s quite proper,” the duke explained.
“And you’re not?” She bit her lip. She should not have asked that.
The duke did not turn, but she saw a faint smile play across his mouth. “I’m not as proper as he is,” he said. Then he glanced her way. “Apparently.”
Catriona blushed. To the tips of her toes, she blushed.
The duke shrugged and turned back to the fire. “Trust me when I tell you that nothing could give him greater agony than to be party to something like this. I’m sure he’d much rather be the aggrieved than the perpetrator.”
“But he’s not—”
“Oh, he’ll still feel like he is. Ferguson is his uncle.”
“I suppose.” She was quiet for a moment, then asked, “What about the other one?”
“Rocheforte, you mean?” he asked, after the tiniest pause.
She nodded. “Yes, although . . . Is he Mr. Rocheforte or Lord Rocheforte? I feel quite awkward not knowing what to call him. I’ve never met a French comte before.”
The duke gave a little shrug. “Mr. Rocheforte, I believe. It would depend upon the recent Royal Charter.”
Catriona had no idea what he was talking about.
“He won’t mind whatever you call him,” the duke continued. “He takes nothing seriously. He never has.”
Catriona was silent for a moment. “An odd set of cousins,” she finally said.
“Yes, they are.” Then he turned to her abruptly and commanded, “Tell me about the rest of them.”
For a moment she just stared in surprise. His tone had been so imperious. But she did not take offense. It was likely a more usual tone of voice than the one he had been using. He was a duke, after all.
“We’re to be stuck together for several days,” he said. “I should know who everyone is.”
“Oh. Well . . .” She cleared her throat. “There is Lady Cecily, of course. But her father is the Earl of Maycott. Since you were at Bellemere, you must know her already.”
“A bit,” he said offhandedly.
“Well, that’s more than I know of her. Her family has been renovating Bellemere for nearly two years. It seems a folly to me, but . . .” She shrugged.
“You’re quite practical, aren’t you?”
“May I take it as a compliment?”
“Of course,” he murmured.
She smiled to herself. “I don’t think the Maycotts plan to be in residence for more than two weeks per year. It seems an inordinate amount of money to spend on a house one rarely uses.”
“It’s lovely, though.”
“Well, yes. And I cannot complain. The village has not been prosperous since—” She stopped herself. Better not introduce politics with an Englishman. Especially one who likely owned half of England. “The Earl of Maycott has provided many jobs for the villagers, and for that I am grateful.”
“And the others?” he asked.
“The Chisholm sisters,” Catriona said. Dear heavens, how to explain them? “They are half sisters, actually, and . . . not terribly fond of each other. I don’t really know Fiona that well—it’s Marilla who is my same age.” She pressed her lips together, trying to adhere to the whole if-you-don’t-have-anything-nice-to-say doctrine. “They’ve both been down to London, of course,” she finally said.
“Have you?” the duke asked.
“Been to London?” she asked with surprise. “Of course not. But I had a season in Edinburgh. Well, not really a season, but several families do gather for a few weeks.”
“I like Edinburgh,” he said agreeably.
“I do, too.”
And just like that she realized that she no longer felt on edge with him. She did not know how it was possible, that she could kiss a man until she barely remembered how to speak, and then just a few minutes later could feel utterly normal.
But she did.
And of course that was when Lord Oakley returned, scowling mightily. “My apologies,” he said the moment he entered the room. “Miss Burns, we’ve found a room for you. I’m sorry to say it’s not elegant, but it is clean.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“You can have my room, Bret,” Lord Oakley said.
“And where will you sleep?”
Lord Oakley waved off the question. “Robin will be down in a moment. He’ll show you the way.” He turned back to Catriona. “May I show you to your chamber, Miss Burns? I apologize for the lack of a chaperone, but there isn’t a female available who might take my place. And I assure you, your virtue is safe with me.”
Catriona glanced over at the duke. She trusted him, she realized, although she could not have articulated why. He gave a little nod, so she said, “That will not be a problem, Lord Oakley. Your escort is the least improper event of the evening, I’m sure.”
Lord Oakley gave a tired smile. “This way, if you please.”
She took his arm and headed out of the sitting room. After a few twists and turns, she realized she’d be sleeping in the servants’ quarters. But after all that had happened, she decided that as long as she had a blanket, she didn’t care.
The following morning
Catriona had always been an early riser and was well used to breaking her fast with only herself for company, but when she walked into the dining room, the Duke of Bretton was already seated at the table, slathering butter on a piece of toast.
“Good morning, Miss Burns,” he said, coming instantly to his feet.
Catriona dipped into a brief curtsy, bowing her head less out of respect than the desire to hide the faint blush that had stolen across her cheeks.
She’d kissed him the night before. She’d kissed a duke. Good heavens, her first kiss and she had to start with a duke?
“Are you enjoying your breakfast?” she asked, turning to the well-laid sideboard. Whatever Taran Ferguson’s faults, he’d provided an excellent morning meal. There were two kinds of meat, eggs prepared three ways, salted herring, and toast and scones. And, of course, homemade butter and jam.
“In all honesty,” the duke said, “I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a breakfast more.”
“Mrs. McVittie is the best housekeeper in the district,” Catriona confirmed, loading her plate with food. “I don’t know why she stays at Finovair. Everyone is always trying to steal her away.”
“I recommend the scones,” Bretton said.
Catriona nodded as she took a seat across from him. “I always recommend Mrs. McVittie’s scones.”
“I wonder why we can’t get them right in England?” he mused.
“I shall not answer that,” Catriona said pertly, “for fear of insulting an entire country.”
He chuckled at that, as she’d hoped he would. She needed to keep this conversation light, her observations wry. If she could manage that, she could forget that less than twelve hours earlier, his lips had been on hers. Or at the very least, make him forget it.
It was going to be a very long few days if he thought she was pining after him. Good heavens, if he so much as thought she might be trying to trap him into marriage, he’d run screaming for the trees.
A distinctly non-noble Scotswoman and an English duke. It was ludicrous.
“You’ll have to pour your own tea,” the duke said with a nod toward the pot. “One of Ferguson’s . . . Well, I don’t know what you’d call him, certainly not a footman . . .”
“Men,” Catriona said.
The duke looked up at her, clearly startled.
“One of his men,” she said quickly. “That’s what he calls them. I don’t think there’s a one below the age of sixty, but they are fiercely loyal.”
“Indeed,” Bretton said in a very dry tone.
“Loyal enough to steal women from a ballroom,” Catriona said for him, for surely that was what he had meant.
Bretton looked to his left and then his right, presumably to make sure none of Taran’s men were in earshot. “Whatever he wishes to call the gentleman who was here earlier, I would not trust his grizzled hands to aim the tea into the cup.”
“I see,” Catriona murmured, and she reached out to pour for herself.
“It is probably no longer hot,” the duke said.
“I shall endure.”
He smiled faintly into his own teacup.
“Would you like some more?” Catriona asked. At his nod, she refilled his cup with the lukewarm tea, then set about spreading jam on her scone.
“Did you sleep well?” he asked.
“No,” she answered, “but I did not expect to.” She would not complain about having been put in a maid’s room. In truth, she’d been grateful just to get a bed; she’d been half expecting Taran to try to stick her out in the stables. Still, the tiny garret room had lacked a fireplace, and although Lord Oakley had handed her three blankets, they were all quite thin.
At least with Mrs. McVittie as the housekeeper, Catriona could be assured that the mattress was aired out and clean. Bedbugs truly would have been the final insult.
“And you, Your Grace? Did you sleep well?” she asked politely. He’d been given Lord Oakley’s room, which had to have been more comfortable than hers. Certainly not up to ducal standards, but still, presumably the best that Finovair had to offer.
“I’m afraid not, but as you said, I shall endure.” The duke cut off a piece of bacon, ate it, and then asked, “Is it always this cold?”
“In December?” Her lips parted with surprise . . . and perhaps a bit of disappointment. Surely he had not just asked her such a stupid question. And here she’d been thinking she rather liked the highborn Englishman. “Er, yes.”
He did not so much roll his eyes as flick them upward in impatience. “No, I meant here. At Finovair. I was shivering all night.”
“Didn’t you have a fire in your room?”
“Yes, but I fear it was a mirage. And it was dead by morning.”
Catriona gave him a sympathetic nod. “My father says it’s why Scots marry young.”
At this, the duke paused. “I beg your pardon?”
“For warmth,” she clarified. “It’s tremendously difficult to heat these old castles. I usually sleep with my dog.”
Bretton nearly spit out his tea.
“Laugh all you want,” Catriona said with an arch little smile, “but Limmerick weighs seven stone. He’s like a giant furry hot water bottle that never goes cold.”
She turned back to her food. “My grandfather was Irish.”
“Since I can only assume Ferguson did not loose the dogs on you,” Bretton said dryly, “were you warm enough last night?”
“Not really.” She shrugged, resigned to her fate. “I’m in a maid’s room. No fireplace, I’m afraid. And, as you surmised, no dog.”
His expression turned ominous. “You were put in the servants’ hall?”
“ ‘Hall’ might be a bit of a stretch,” Catriona demurred.
“Bloody . . . sorry,” the duke apologized, but not before Catriona heard the beginnings of “hell.” “I will speak to Oakley immediately,” he said. “I will not have you insulted by—”
“It’s hardly an insult,” she interrupted. “No more so, at least, than being informed I was kidnapped by accident.” She set down her toast and regarded him with an arched brow. “If I must go through the bother of being kidnapped, I should have liked it to have been deliberate.”
The duke stared at her for a moment, then smiled, almost reluctantly. “I commend you on maintaining your good humor.”
“There is nothing else to do,” she said with a shrug. “We are stuck here for the foreseeable future. It behooves no one to flounce about in hysterics.”
He nodded approvingly, then said, “Still, the arrangement is unacceptable. I told Oakley you could have my room.”
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Catriona said, trying not to be delighted at his ire on her behalf, “but your room is his room, and the last thing he will wish to do is offend the dignity of a duke.”
“I have been kidnapped by a caber-wielding relic,” Bretton muttered. “My dignity has already suffered a mortal blow.”
Catriona tried not to laugh; she really did.
“Oh, go ahead,” he told her.
She brought her serviette to her lips, smothered her giggle, then adopted a most serious expression before saying, “It was a claymore, Your Grace, not a caber.”
“There’s a difference?”
“If Hamish had been wielding a caber, you’d hardly be talking about it over breakfast.”
He stared at her blankly.
“It’s a log, Your Grace. A log. And it’s not really used for fighting. We just like to toss them about. Well, the men do.”
A good long moment passed before Bretton said, “You Scots have very strange games.”
Her brows rose daringly, then she turned back to her tea.
“What does that mean?” he demanded.
“I’m sure I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“That look,” he accused.
“Look?” she echoed.
His eyes narrowed. “You don’t think I can toss a caber.”
“Well, I know I can’t toss a caber.”
“You’re a woman,” he sputtered.
“Yes,” she said.
“I can toss a bloody caber.”
She arched a brow. “The question would really be, how far?”
He must have realized he’d begun to resemble a strutting peacock, because he had the grace to look a little bit sheepish. And then he completely surprised her by saying, “A few inches, at the very least.”
Catriona held her supercilious expression for precisely two seconds before she lost control entirely and burst out laughing. “Oh my,” she gasped, wiping her eyes. “Oh my.”
Which was precisely the moment Marilla chose to enter the dining room. Marilla, who Catriona was certain rarely rose before noon. Clearly, someone had tipped her off that the duke was an early riser.
“You’re very jolly, Catriona,” Marilla said. Although from Marilla’s lips, it sounded more like an accusation.
Catriona opened her mouth to reply, but anything that might have resembled an intelligent comment died upon her lips. For Marilla had abandoned her thoroughly impractical evening dress in favor of a heavy brocade gown dating from sometime in the prior century.
Not that that would have given Catriona pause. She was all for making do, and if Taran’s wardrobes contained nothing but leftovers from Georgian times, then so be it. But Marilla had chosen a dress of the deepest, darkest, most sensual red, with a tightly corseted waist and a square-cut neckline that dipped far lower than it ought.
“Isn’t it lovely?” Marilla said, smoothing her hand along the skirt. “There was an entire trunk full of gowns in the attic. One of Taran’s men brought it down.”
Catriona just stared, speechless. As for the duke, he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off Marilla’s breasts, which trembled like barely set custard with every movement. Catriona would have been irritated, except that she couldn’t take her eyes off them, either. They had been pushed up so high the tops had gone completely flat. She could have balanced a dinner plate on them without losing a crumb.
“Marilla,” Catriona suggested, “perhaps you should . . . er . . .”
“I couldn’t possibly wear the same gown two days in a row,” Marilla remarked.
Catriona, clad in the same green velvet she’d been wearing the night before, decided to refrain from comment.
“It’s a bit like a masquerade,” Marilla said with a jaunty little flick of her wrist.
Catriona and the duke gasped in unison, as Marilla very nearly tumbled free. But Marilla must not have noticed, because she kept jaunting about, chattering on about her room, her sister, her dress . . . and with every movement, Catriona flinched, terrified that Marilla’s breasts were going to burst forth and pummel them all.
“Miss Marilla,” the duke said, finally rising to his feet. He cleared his throat. Twice. “I hope you’re hungry. Mr. Ferguson’s housekeeper has outdone herself.”
“Oh, I rarely eat more than a square of toast in the morning,” Marilla replied. She looked down at the feast before her, then added, “With jam, of course.”
“You might wish to make an exception for this morning,” Catriona said as the duke sat back down. “You will need your strength. His Grace has expressed an interest in caber tossing.”
“Caber tossing?” Marilla echoed. “How very, very noble you are to take an interest in our Scottish customs, Your Grace.”
Catriona wasn’t sure how this made him noble, much less very, very noble, but she decided to let that point pass in favor of: “I think it will be great fun. As long as the duke is here in Scotland, he may as well learn some of our traditions.”
“It will be cold,” Marilla pointed out.
Marilla was right, of course. It would be viciously cold, and were Catriona arguing the point with anyone else, she would have abandoned the suggestion in favor of a hot toddy by the fire. But Marilla had always been a thorn in her side, and more to the point, she kept jiggling herself at the duke.
“It will be invigorating,” Catriona said. Then added, “Of course we will have to cover up.”
“I think it’s a grand idea,” the duke said.
“You do?” Catriona asked.
“You do?” Marilla echoed, followed by: “Of course you do. You have such a very fine sense of sportsmanship, Your Grace.”
“Very, very fine,” Catriona muttered.
“Although we might want to wait until the snow lets up,” he said.
Marilla placed a fluttery hand on her heart. “Is it still snowing, then?”
Catriona motioned to the window. “The window is right in front of you.”
Marilla ignored her. “Oh, what will become of us?”
“I recommend bacon,” Catriona said flatly. “Surely we will need reserves to keep ourselves going for the duration.”
The duke made a choking sort of sound.
“Well,” Marilla said, “perhaps just a piece.”
Or three, apparently.
Marilla came over to the table with her toast, jam, and bacon and sat at the duke’s right, her chair somehow sliding to within inches of his. She smiled prettily at him as her breasts very nearly poked into his arm.
Catriona could only stare in wonderment. Surely those old-fashioned corsets could not have been comfortable. Marilla’s chest preceded the rest of her by at least six inches.
“Did you sleep well?” the duke asked, valiantly trying to keep his eyes aloft.
“Oh heavens, no,” Marilla replied, laying a hand on his arm. “I was frightfully cold.”
“Perhaps Mr. Ferguson might lend you a dog,” he murmured.
Marilla blinked her pretty blue eyes.
Catriona, on the other hand, choked on her tea.
“And my bed was frightfully stiff and hard,” Marilla continued, sighing tremulously. She turned to the duke with melting eyes. “What about yours?”
“My . . . er . . . what?”
“Your bed, Your Grace,” Marilla murmured. “Was it stiff and hard?”
Catriona thought Bretton might expire on the spot. And what was that . . . a blush? He was blushing! He was!
“But the pillows were nice,” Marilla continued. “I do love a soft pillow, don’t you?”
The duke’s eyes immediately fell to Marilla’s soft pillows. Catriona couldn’t fault him for that; so did hers. It was rather like Taran’s scrawny arse when he’d run through the village trying to shock the vicar’s wife. It was impossible not to look.
“Ehrm . . . I . . . ehrm . . .” The duke picked up his teacup and drained the dregs.
“How long do you think it will be before someone saves us?” Marilla said in a breathy voice.
“We are hardly in danger, Miss Marilla,” Bretton replied.
“Still.” She sighed dramatically. “Ripped from our homes.”
“From Lady Cecily’s home,” Catriona corrected, still focusing on her food. She couldn’t look up. She really couldn’t. The way Marilla was shaking about, she was terrified by what she might see.
“Still,” Marilla said, with a touch less sweetness and light than the “still” she’d directed at the duke. “Whatever shall we do to occupy ourselves?” she continued.
“I believe Miss Burns suggested tossing a caber,” Bretton remarked.
Marilla blinked. “Oh, but you cannot be serious.”
Catriona looked up just in time to see him give a falsely modest shrug. “I don’t see why I couldn’t give it a try,” he murmured. “Besides, did you not just praise my fine sense of sportsmanship?”
“But Your Grace,” Marilla said. “Have you ever seen a caber?”
“Miss Burns tells me it’s a log.”
“Yes, but it’s— Oh!”
“Oh my heavens, I’m so sorry,” Catriona said. “I have no idea how my jam flew off my spoon like that.”
Marilla’s eyes narrowed to slits, but she said nothing as she picked up her serviette and wiped the red blob off her chest before it slid into the deep, dark crevasse between her breasts.
If the duke thought that a caber was a simple little log, Catriona wasn’t going to let Marilla tell him otherwise.
“Oh dear me,” Marilla said, leaning toward the duke. “I can’t reach the butter.”
Bretton dutifully reached out for the butter, which was to his right, and Catriona watched with amazement as Marilla scooted even closer to him while he wasn’t looking at her. When he turned around, she was just a few inches away, batting her lashes like butterfly wings.
If Catriona hadn’t disliked Marilla for so many years, she would have been impressed. Really, one had to give the girl credit for persistence.
The duke shot Catriona a look that said clearly, Save me, and she was trying to figure out precisely how she might accomplish this when they all heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Lord Oakley arrived on the scene, and Bretton shot to his feet to greet his friend.
“Oakley!” he said, with enough enthusiasm that Lord Oakley’s expression took on a vague tinge of alarm.
“Bret,” Lord Oakley said slowly, glancing about the room as if waiting for someone to jump out and yell, “Surprise!”
“Join us,” the duke ordered. “Now.”
“Good morning, Lord Oakley,” Marilla said.
Oakley glanced down at her and flinched.
“You remember Miss Marilla,” Bretton said.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Marilla said with a laugh that set her all a-quivering. “How could he possibly forget any of us?”
Lord Oakley made haste to the sideboard, piling his plate with food.
“Miss Burns and I were just finishing,” Bretton said quickly.
Catriona felt her lips part, and she almost said, We were? But the duke shot her a look of such desperation, all she could do was nod and grunt, “Mmm-hmm,” over the giant forkful of eggs she’d just thrust into her mouth.
“You may keep Miss Marilla company,” the duke said to Lord Oakley.
Catriona shoveled two more bites of food into her mouth, watching Marilla as she eyed Lord Oakley assessingly.
The poor man was an earl, Catriona thought with a twinge of guilt. Marilla was going to be on to him like . . .
Well, like she’d been on to the duke.
Still, Catriona couldn’t be expected to save everyone from Marilla, and the duke had asked first . . .
Silently, but still. She’d got his meaning.
“Miss Burns?” the duke said, holding out his arm impatiently.
She nodded and held up a hand in a just-one-moment gesture as she gulped down the rest of her tea.
“We’re going for a walk,” the duke said to Lord Oakley.
“That sounds lovely,” Marilla said.
“Oh, but you must finish your breakfast,” Catriona said quickly. “And keep Lord Oakley company.”
“I would love that above all things,” Marilla said. She turned to Lord Oakley, who had taken a seat next to her, and smiled seductively at him over her bosom.
Catriona thought she might have heard Lord Oakley gulp. But she couldn’t be sure. The duke had already taken her arm and was hauling her toward the door.
Bret did not let go of Miss Burns’s arm until they had put three full rooms between them and Marilla Chisholm. Only then did he turn to her and say, “Thank you.” And then, because once was not even remotely enough: “Thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome,” she said, looking down at something in her hand.
“You brought a scone?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I was still hungry.”
His fault. But surely she’d forgive him.
She glanced toward the door through which they’d just come. “I think I may have left a trail of crumbs.”
“My deepest apologies,” Bret said, “but I—”
“There is no need to apologize,” Miss Burns said, “as long as you don’t mind if I finish eating while we’re standing here.”
She took a dainty little bite, then said, “I thought Marilla was going to attack you.”
“Is she always so . . .”
A kinder version of the word he might have used. “Yes,” he said.
“No,” Miss Burns admitted. “But you’re a duke.” She looked up from her food, her eyes large and filled with the same amusement that played across her lips. “Sorry.”
“That I’m a duke?”
“It can’t be a good thing at times like this.”
He opened his mouth to say . . .
His mouth hung open. What had he meant to say?
“Your Grace?” She looked at him curiously.
“You’re right,” he said. Because as lovely as it was to be a duke, and it was—really, what sort of idiot complained about money, power, and prestige?—it still had to be said, with Marilla Chisholm on the prowl, life as a stablehand was looking rather tempting.
“I’m sure most of the time it’s delightful,” she said, licking strawberry jam from her fingers. “Being a duke, I mean.”
He stared, unable to take his eyes from her mouth, from her lips, pink and full. And her tongue, darting out to capture every last bit of sticky-sweet jam.
Her tongue. Why was he staring at her tongue?
“You needn’t worry about me,” she said.
He blinked his way up from her mouth back to her eyes. “I beg your pardon?”
“Dangling after you,” she explained, sounding somewhat relieved to get it out in the open. “And I think you’re safe from Fiona as well.”
“The elder Miss Chisholm. She’s as unlike Marilla as, well, as I am, I suppose. She has no intention to marry.”
Bret regarded Miss Burns curiously. “Does that mean that you don’t, either?”
“Oh no, I do. But I don’t intend to marry you.”
“Of course not,” he said stiffly, because a man did have his pride. His first marriage rejection, and he had not even proposed.
Her eyes met his, and for the briefest moment, her gaze was devoid of levity. “It would be very foolish of me to even consider it,” she said quietly.
There didn’t seem to be an appropriate response. To agree would be a grave insult, and yet of course she was correct. He knew his position; he had a duty to marry well. The dukedom was thriving, but it had always been wealthier in land than in funds. The Duchesses of Bretton always entered the family with a dowry. It would be highly impractical otherwise.
He hadn’t given marriage much thought, really, except to think—not yet. He needed someone wellborn, who came with money, but whoever she turned out to be, he didn’t need her right away.
And yet, if he were to choose a duchess . . .
He looked at Miss Burns, peering into her bottomless brown eyes before his gaze dropped to the corner of her lips, where a tiny spot of strawberry jam lay temptingly pink and sweet.
“You’re not going to marry me,” he murmured.
“Well, no.” She sounded confused.
“So what you’re saying,” he said with soft calculation, “is that, for my own safety, I ought to remain in your company for the duration of our incarceration.”
“No!” she exclaimed, clearly horrified by his leap of logic. “That’s not what I meant at all.”
“But it makes sense,” he pressed. “Surely you can see the wisdom of it.”
“Not for me!” When he did not answer quickly enough, she planted her hands on her hips. “I have a reputation to consider, even if you do not.”
“True, but we need not steal away from the rest, as delightful as that sounds.”
She blushed. He quite liked that she blushed.
“All I really need,” he continued, “is for you to act as a deterrent.”
“A deterrent?” she choked out.
“A human shield, if you will.”
“I cannot be left alone with that woman,” he said, and he felt no remorse at the low desperation in his voice. “Please, if you have any care for your fellow man.”
Her lips clamped together in a suspicious line. “I’m not certain what I get out of the equation.”
“You mean besides the joy of my delightful company?”
“Yes,” she said, with an impressive lack of inflection, “besides that.”
He chuckled. “I shall be honest . . . I don’t know. The joy of thwarting Miss Marilla?”
Her head tilted thoughtfully to the side. “That would be a joy,” she conceded.
He waited for a few more seconds, then said simply, “Please.”
Her lips parted, but whatever word she’d had resting on her tongue remained there for an endless frozen moment. “All right,” she finally agreed. “But if there is a hint—even a whisper—of anything improper . . .”
“You can be assured there will not.”
“You can’t kiss me again,” she said in a low voice.
Normally, he would have pointed out that she had been doing her fair share of the kissing, but he was far too desperate for her agreement to argue. “I will do my best,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed.
“It is all I can promise,” he said quite truthfully.
“Very well,” she said. “What shall we do?”
“Or hadn’t you thought that far ahead?”
“Apparently not,” he said, flashing her what he hoped was a winning grin.
“We can’t just stand here all day in the old buttery.”
For the first time, Bret paused to take a look about. They were in a pass-through room, with one door that opened to the great hall, and another that was presently shut but probably led to the kitchens. There were a couple of tables, but other than that, the small chamber was mostly empty, save for a few ancient barrels in the corner. “Is that where we are?” he remarked.
She gave him a look of mild disdain. “You do know what a buttery is, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. I live in a castle.”
“An English castle,” she said with a sniff.
“It’s a castle,” he ground out. Not as ancient as Finovair, of course, but the Brettons predated the Tudors by at least two hundred years.
“You do know that we don’t make butter in a buttery?” Miss Burns said.
“We don’t make anything in the buttery,” he shot back. And then, when her face still did not release its expression of skepticism, he said, “The buttery was where one got a beer. From wooden butts.” He raised a brow. “Satisfied?”
“This was hardly a test.”
“Wasn’t it, though?” he countered. But he felt a smile approaching. It was a little frightening how much he was enjoying himself.
“We Scots are proud of our history,” she admitted.
He gazed longingly at the dried-up old barrel. “I could use a beer right now.”
“Beer? A duke?”
“Bait to which I shall not rise,” he said archly.
She smiled at that.
“I suppose you’ll say it’s too early for spirits of any kind,” he grumbled.
“Not this morning I won’t,” she said with feeling.
He regarded her with curiosity. And admiration.
“Well, let’s see,” she said, ticking off her fingers. “I was kidnapped . . .”
“So was I,” he pointed out.
“. . . thrown into a carriage . . .”
“You have me there,” he acknowledged.
“. . . groped . . .”
“By whom?” he demanded.
“You,” she said, seemingly without ire, “but don’t worry, I got away very quickly.”
“Now see here,” Bret sputtered. He had never claimed to understand the female mind, but he did understand the female body, and there was no way she hadn’t enjoyed the previous night’s kiss every bit as much as he did. “When I kissed you . . .”
“I’m not talking about the kiss,” she said.
He stared at her, flummoxed.
She cleared her throat. “It was when . . . ah . . . Never mind.”
“Oh no, you don’t,” he warned. “You cannot introduce such a topic and then not follow through.”
“In the carriage,” she mumbled. And then: “Why were you in the carriage?”
“It was my carriage,” he reminded her.
“Yes, but the rest of us were in the ballroom.”
He shrugged. “I was tired.” It was true. And bored, too, although he would not tell her that. The Maycotts’ Icicle Ball had been pleasant enough, but he’d really wanted to be home.
“I suppose it was late—” Miss Burns started to say.
“Don’t change the subject,” he cut in.
She didn’t even try to look innocent.
“The groping,” he reminded her.
Her cheeks went every bit as pink as they should. “You were asleep,” she mumbled.
He had groped her while he was asleep? “I’m sure you must be mistaken.”
That got her goat. “You called me Delilah,” she ground out.
“Oh.” He had a sinking suspicion that his cheeks were also going every bit as pink as they should. Which was to say, quite a lot.
“Who’s Delilah?” she asked.
“No one whom you would ever have cause to meet.”
This could not end well. “Surely this is not an appropriate—”
He paused, taking a good look at her face. Miss Burns was lovely with her color high and eyes flashing. His eyes dropped to her lips, and there it was again, that amazing, overwhelming desire to kiss her. It wasn’t an urge so much as a need. He could stop himself if he had to, but oh, what a sad and colorless place the world would be if he did.
“What are you looking at?” she asked suspiciously.
“Are you jealous?” he asked with a slow smile.
“Of course not. We just got through—”
“You’re jealous,” he declared.
“I said I’m not— What are you doing?”
“Kicking the door shut,” he said, just as he did so. It was a small room, and only three steps were required to bring him back to her side. “About that kiss,” he said, pulling her into his arms.
Her lips parted, just in time for his to brush gently against them.
“I said I would do my best,” he murmured.
“Your best not to kiss me,” she reminded him, her voice trembling softly into a whisper.
He nibbled at her lower lip, then gently explored the corner of her mouth. “My best, apparently, has nothing to do with not kissing you.”
She made some sort of inarticulate sound. But it wasn’t a no. It definitely wasn’t a no.
Bret deepened the kiss, nearly shuddering with desire when he felt her body relax against his. He didn’t know what it was about this woman, what mystery she possessed that made him want to possess her. But he did. He wanted her with an intensity that should have terrified him. He’d never dallied with gently bred women, and he wasn’t angling for a bride. Catriona Burns was all wrong for him, in almost every possible way.
Because the thing was, when she was in his arms . . . No, even when she was merely in the room with him . . .
He was happy.
Not content, not pleased. Happy. Joyful.
Good God, he sounded like a hymn.
But that was what it felt like, as if a chorus of angels were singing through him, infusing him with such pleasure that he could not contain it. It spilled out through his smile, through his kiss and his hands, and he had to share it with her. He had to make her feel it, too.
“Please tell me you’re enjoying this,” he begged.
“I shouldn’t,” she said raggedly.
“But you do.”
“I do,” she admitted, moaning as his hands cupped her bottom.
“You don’t lie,” he said, hearing his smile in his words.
“Not about this.”
“Catriona,” he murmured, then drew back a few inches. “Do people call you Cat?”
He gazed down at her for a moment, his first inclination to declare that he would call her that. He wanted something special for her, something all his own. But it didn’t fit, he realized. She would never be Cat. Her eyes were too round, too open and honest. There was nothing slinky about her, nothing cunning or calculated.
Which wasn’t to say she wasn’t enormously clever.
“Who is Delilah?” she whispered. While she was kissing him.
And stubborn, apparently.
He pulled back, just far enough to settle his nose against hers. “She was my mistress,” he said, unable to be anything but honest with her.
If his life had been written by Shakespeare, he might have said that Delilah had entered the past tense of his story when he first laid eyes on Catriona. That he had been so squarely struck by Cupid’s arrow that all other women were made insubstantial and colorless.
But the truth was, Bret had broken it off with “Delicious Delilah” some weeks earlier. It was exhausting keeping company with London’s most renowned opera singer. Forget her temperament, which was full of drama, both on and off the stage. It was the other men who were driving him to the edge. He couldn’t get a quiet drink at White’s without a pack of young bucks edging over to his table with winks and leers and drunken elbows jabbing in his shoulder.
Even at the Icicle Ball he’d been accosted by a pack of young men dying to talk to him about the legendary lady. To say nothing of the rude and raunchy gestures, as if the young dandies could approximate Delilah’s curves by cupping their hands in front of them.
If it was going to be that much work to be with a woman, she ought to be someone whose company he could not live without.
He drew back another inch, and then another, regarding Miss Burns—Catriona—with something approaching wonder. “Was,” he affirmed softly. “I do not have a mistress right now. I could not, I think . . .”
Now that I’ve met you.
But he didn’t say it. How could he say it? It couldn’t possibly be true. A man didn’t fall in love, or like, or anything more than lust in so short a time. It did not happen. And it certainly did not happen to him.
“I think you have bewitched me,” he whispered, because surely that had to be it. It did not matter that he did not believe in fairies or witches or magic of any sort.
He bent down to kiss her again, surrendering himself to the enchantment, but the moment his lips touched hers, they heard a commotion in the great hall, followed by a terrible sound.
Taran Ferguson, bellowing Catriona’s name.
Catriona supposed she should be thankful. Kissing the duke again was the last thing she should be doing, and it was difficult to imagine anything that might more quickly extinguish her desire than the possibility of Taran Ferguson barging in on them.
“I might have to kill him,” the duke muttered, pulling reluctantly away.
“Catriona Burns!” Taran bellowed.
“I’ve got to go see what he wants,” she said, trying to smooth her skirts. Did she look rumpled? She felt rumpled.
Bretton stepped away with a nod toward the door, but before she could head out into the great hall, Taran burst into the buttery, his eyes narrowing when they settled on its occupants.
“Catriona Burns,” he accused. “What the devil are you doing here?”
“You kidnapped me,” she reminded him.
“Not on purpose!”
Normally, she would have blistered him with a scathing retort, but it was difficult to maintain the moral high ground when Taran had just caught her alone with the Duke of Bretton.
“Ye’re under my roof, lassie,” Taran said sternly, “which means ye’re under my protection.”
“He did not just say that,” the duke remarked, to no one in particular.
“Oh no, you don’t,” Catriona said furiously, jabbing her finger into Taran’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for you. You don’t get to claim dominion—”
“I’ll not return you to your father as damaged goods,” Taran cut in.
“I know you did not just say that,” the duke said in a terrifyingly quiet voice. “Because if you did, I might have to kill you.”
“Eh,” Taran grunted, “you were already planning on that.” He waved an impatiently dismissive hand at the duke and turned back to Catriona. “You cannot be left alone with him.”
“You left me alone with him last night,” Catriona reminded him.
Taran looked at her blankly.
“When you were supposedly trying to find us rooms,” she added.
Taran cleared his throat. “Ach, well. You can’t be alone with him anymore. I have known your father for thirty years. I’ll not dishonor him by leaving you alone in the bloody buttery with the Duke of Breedon.”
“Bretton,” came the duke’s clipped voice.
“He knows your name,” Catriona said to the duke, although she did not take her eyes off Taran. “He’s just being contrary.”
“I don’t care what his name is—”
“You should,” Bretton murmured. “You really should.”
“—he’s not spending another moment alone with you,” Taran finished. His large hand made a circle around Catriona’s wrist. “Come along.”
“Let go of me, Taran,” Catriona retorted, trying to shake him off. Good heavens, if her life grew any more farcical she’d have to take to the stage.
“I suggest you release Miss Burns,” Bretton said, and although his voice was light and conversational, there was no mistaking the edge of steel beneath his words.
Taran stared at him with a shocked expression before making a great show of letting go of her wrist.
“You know, Taran,” Catriona said, shaking out her hand, “while I appreciate your concern for my good name, has it even once occurred to you that the other ladies deserve the same consideration?”
“It’s different,” Taran grunted.
Whatever patience she’d had with the man snapped entirely. “How?”
Taran jerked his head at the duke, who was still regarding him icily. “He’s not going to marry you.”
“I realize that,” Catriona shot back, “but your nephew is hardly going to marry all three of the other young ladies.”
“I have two nephews,” Taran muttered.
“Taran,” Catriona ground out.
But Taran Ferguson had never been one for logic or consistency. He crossed his beefy arms, jutted out his chin, and stared down at her like a hawk.
An infantile hawk.
“Fine,” Catriona said with a sigh. “I’ll come with you, there’s no need to be so dramatic.”
“No!” the duke said suddenly.
Catriona turned. So did Taran.
The duke pointed his index finger at her. “You promised.”
Taran’s head whipped back and forth between the two of them. “What is he talking about?”
“I have to go with him,” Catriona said, tipping her head toward Taran. She had told Bretton that she could not spend the day alone with him. Finovair might be remote, and the circumstances of their gathering might be unusual (to say the least), but the rules of propriety could not be abandoned completely. When all was said and done, the Duke of Bretton was not going to marry Miss Catriona Burns of Kilkarnity. And Marilla Chisholm would still be the biggest gossip north of Dunbar.
Catriona might be headstrong, but she was no rebel, and she did not think she could face a life as a social pariah. More to the point, she did not think her parents could face it.
She would not shame them that way. She could not.
With a weary sigh, she looked at the duke, willing herself not to drown in his blue eyes, and said, “Taran is right.”
Taran uncrossed his arms and let out a sound that would have put a crow to shame.
“Much as it pains me to admit it,” Catriona ground out.
“Then I’m coming with you,” the duke said.
Catriona tried to ignore the warm bubble of pleasure his words brought forth. She liked the Duke of Bretton. It didn’t matter if he sought her company as protection from Marilla. Because somewhere, deep down where she was afraid to acknowledge it, she knew that Marilla wasn’t the only reason he was insisting upon remaining by her side.
He liked her, too.
And even though nothing could ever come of it, Catriona decided that for once she was going to be utterly impractical and seize the day. Well, perhaps not utterly. She had, after all, just agreed with Taran that she should not remain alone in Bretton’s company. But if she was going to be stuck here at Finovair for heaven only knew how long, then by God she was going to enjoy herself.
“Taran,” she said, turning back to the older man with a devilish smile, “do you have a caber?”
“I’m cold,” Marilla whined.
“Stuff it,” Catriona said, without sparing her a glance. The men—Bretton, Oakley, and Rocheforte—were gathered around Taran, who was clearly relishing his role as man-in-charge. Catriona couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was waving his arms with great vigor.
“Oh, look,” Marilla said, with a decided lack of interest. “Here comes my sister.”
Catriona pulled her attention away from the men to see Fiona Chisholm dashing across the snow-covered lawn, hugging an ancient cloak around her. Catriona could see that she, too, had chosen to wear the same long-sleeved gown she’d had on the night before.
“Have they started yet?” Fiona asked breathlessly.
“I thought you were planning on remaining in your room all day,” Marilla said in a sulky voice.
“I was, but then Mrs. McVittie told me that they were bringing out a caber.” Fiona’s eyes danced merrily behind her spectacles. “There is no way I would miss this.”
“Taran won’t let us get too close,” Marilla complained. “He said the caber field is no place for the sexes to mingle.”
“When did he become such a stickler for propriety?” Fiona asked.
“You’d be surprised,” Catriona muttered.
The three ladies stood in silence for a few moments, instinctively huddling together for warmth as they watched the men from afar. Catriona still couldn’t believe they were going to try to toss a caber, although truth be told, it hadn’t required much prodding on her part. The men had been almost absurdly eager to show off their prowess; truly, the only difficulty had lay in obtaining a caber. And even that hadn’t been that difficult. Taran’s men were presently hauling it up from the west field.
Taran said something that made the men laugh, and then Rocheforte grinned and raised his arms as if to make his muscles bulge. Catriona felt herself grinning along with him. She’d had no cause to speak with him this day, but he certainly did seem an easygoing sort.
“Do you know where Lady Cecily is?” Fiona asked.
“No, I haven’t seen her at all,” Catriona replied. “Of course I’ve been stuck with Taran since breakfast.”
“Except when you ran off with the duke,” Marilla said in a waspish voice.
Fiona turned to Catriona with unconcealed interest.
“I didn’t run off with the duke,” Catriona retorted. “We merely finished breakfast at the same time.”
“And left me alone,” Marilla sniffed.
“With the Earl of Oakley!”
“You had breakfast with Lord Oakley?” Fiona asked her sister.
“I was having breakfast with the Duke of Bretton until Catriona ran off with him,” Marilla said.
Catriona let out an exasperated sigh. There had never been any point in arguing with Marilla. Instead, she turned to Fiona and asked, “What have you been doing all day?”
“Altering dresses,” Fiona told her. “That’s probably what’s caught up Lady Cecily, too. Did no one tell you about the trunks that were brought down from the attic?”
“Not until I saw Marilla at breakfast,” Catriona told her. “My room is in an entirely different part of the castle.”
“The servants’ wing,” Marilla murmured, not taking her eyes off the men. Lord Oakley was laughing at something that his cousin had said. He looked quite different when he smiled. Much more pleasing to the eye, Catriona decided.
Although still nothing compared to the duke.
Fiona gave her sister an annoyed glance before turning back to Catriona. “If you’re comfortable in the dress you came with, you’re not missing out. Most of the gowns in Taran’s attic were for ladies of more ample endowment than we possess.”
Marilla shot her a supercilious look.
“Well, than some of us possess,” Fiona corrected. “You really should have let me take your gown out a bit, Marilla.”
Marilla ignored her. Fiona shrugged and turned back to Catriona. “Do you think they know what a caber is?” she asked, the corners of her lips tilting into a tiny smile.
“His Grace is aware that it is a log,” Catriona replied, biting back a smile of her own. “Of what length or girth he imagines it, I do not know.”
“The other two are part Scottish,” Fiona mused. “They must be, if they are related to Taran.”
“I’ve never seen them here before.”
“Nor I.” There was a beat of silence, then Fiona murmured, “It’s possible . . .”
“. . . that they have absolutely no idea what they’re getting into?” Catriona finished for her.
Fiona grinned in response.
“Well, I think you’re very unwise to have suggested this,” Marilla announced. “When they see the caber and realize they can’t lift it, they are going to feel like fools. And men do not like being made fun of.”
“That presupposes that none of them are in possession of a sense of humor,” Catriona responded. She looked over at the men again. Or rather, still. She hadn’t taken her eyes off them even once. The duke appeared to be having a grand time, laughing heartily at something Mr. Rocheforte had said.
Then he turned, and their eyes met.
And he smiled. Grinned, really.
Catriona’s heart stopped. She felt it, thumping loud, then skipping three beats.
“Did you see that?” Marilla said excitedly. “His Grace just smiled at me.”
“I thought he was looking at Catriona,” Fiona said.
“Don’t be silly.”
“Bait to which I shall not rise,” Catriona murmured.
“What did you say?” Marilla demanded.
Catriona didn’t bother to answer.
“Oh, look,” Fiona said. “Here come the men with the caber. I daresay the snow is making it easier to transport.”
Catriona craned her neck to watch as four of Taran’s men brought the caber into view. It was an enormous thing, at least fifteen feet long. They’d looped chains around the enormous log, pulling it along like a sleigh.
“Time to prove your manhood, boys!” Taran announced, loudly enough for the women to hear. His arm swept through the air in a majestic arc. “The ancient, ceremonial caber.”
It was gloriously massive. At least sixteen stone and thick as a man’s leg.
Catriona felt her lips pressing together, hard, just to keep from laughing. She couldn’t see the expressions on Lord Oakley’s or Mr. Rocheforte’s faces, but the Duke of Bretton’s mouth had come positively unhinged.
“Respect the caber!” Taran yelled. “Ye’re going first, Duke!”
Bretton stared at it.
“Now remember,” Taran said loudly, “it doesn’t matter how far you throw it, it’s all about landing it on its end.”
“You’re joking,” the duke said.
“It’ll balance,” Taran assured him, “if you do it right.”
Catriona tried not to giggle.
“Excuse me,” the duke said.
“Pfft. Brrrght.” All sorts of ungraceful noises were spit forth from Catriona’s mouth until she finally just gave up and laughed.
“Uh-oh,” Fiona said, but Catriona was laughing too hard to have any idea what she was talking about.
“Catriona,” Fiona said in a warning voice.
“Oh! Oh!” Catriona yelped, gasping for breath.
“I told you so,” Marilla crowed.
Catriona wiped her eyes and looked up just in time to see the duke barreling toward her. “Your Grace,” she chirped, the squeaky noise just about all she could manage.
He pointed a finger at her. “You said it was a log.”
“It is a log,” she said, not that her words were remotely intelligible through her giggles.
“It’s a bloody maypole!”
“Oh, I think it’s bigger than a maypole.”
His lips clamped together in a straight line, but he couldn’t fool her. The Duke of Bretton, it seemed, was in possession of an excellent sense of humor. In three seconds, he’d be laughing just as hard as she was.
“Still think you can toss it?” Catriona said daringly.
He stepped forward. To the rest of the observers, he must have looked furious, but she could see the mirth dancing in his eyes. “Not . . . even . . . an . . . inch.”
And then she lost herself entirely. She laughed so hard she doubled over, so hard she feared she might faint from lack of breath. “Your face! Your face!” she gasped. “You should have seen your face!”
“Catriona!” Marilla exclaimed, horrified. And it was true, Catriona supposed. One wasn’t supposed to talk to a duke in such a way.
But his face! His face! It had been priceless.
She laughed even harder, grabbing on to Fiona for support. The other men had ambled over, grinning at her uncontrollable mirth, and out of the corner of her eye, Catriona saw that Lady Cecily had joined the party, too. The poor girl was clad in some sort of antique mourning gown, the heavy black bombazine dragging through the snow.
“Miss Burns needs air,” the duke announced, and before anyone could offer an opinion, he scooped her up in his arms and said, “I’m taking her inside.”
And just like that, all the chill left the air. Catriona allowed herself the indulgence of resting her cheek against Bretton’s chest, and as she lay there, listening to the steady beat of his heart, she could not help but think that this was where she was meant to be.
But then, of course, Lord Oakley had to spoil the whole thing. “You’re taking her inside so that she might get air?”
“Shut up,” the duke said.
Catriona had a feeling she might be falling in love.
“Wait!” Taran yelled, tramping over through the snow. “She needs a chaperone!”
“I’ll go,” Fiona offered.
Taran blinked in surprise. “You will?”
“I’m cold,” Fiona said with a deceptively placid smile. “And I still have sewing to complete before supper.”
“Do you think you might help me?” Lady Cecily asked, fidgeting beneath her cloak. “Nothing they brought down fits, and I am a terrible hand with a needle.”
“Of course,” Fiona said. “Why don’t you come with me? We’ll take tea in my room and see to the gowns.”
“You’re supposed to be chaperoning Miss Burns,” Taran reminded her.
“Oh, but Catriona will take tea with us as well,” Fiona said. She looked over at Catriona. “If that is amenable.”
“I would be delighted,” Catriona said, although not, perhaps, as delighted as this very moment, wrapped as she was in Bretton’s arms.
“Marilla, you must stay and watch the caber tossing,” Fiona instructed. Marilla looked about to argue, but then Fiona added, “The gentlemen must have an audience.”
Marilla must have decided that one earl plus one French comte equaled something more than a duke, because her expression quicksilvered into one of utter enchantment. “I cannot imagine a more pleasing activity.” She placed a delicate hand on Lord Oakley’s muscular arm. “It is all so very, very exciting.”
“Very,” Catriona thought she heard Lady Cecily say under her breath.
“Back to the caber, then!” Taran hollered. “The old laird and his nephews,” he chortled, elbowing Mr. Rocheforte in the ribs. “The way it should be, vying to impress the fairest maiden in the county.”
Mr. Rocheforte smiled, but it was a queasy thing, quite unlike his normal expression.
“That’s the one I wanted for you in the first place,” Taran said in a loud whisper. “Prettiest girl in town. She’s got some money. And she’s Scottish.”
Mr. Rocheforte said something Catriona could not hear, and then Taran’s bushy brows came together as he grumbled, “It was a whisper! Nobody heard me.”
And then, before anyone could contradict, Taran pumped a fist in the air and once again yelled, “To the caber!”
“To the house,” Fiona Chisholm said in urgent response, and she hurried off, Lady Cecily right at her heels.
As for the duke, his pace back to Finovair was much more measured. Catriona, snug and warm in his arms, could find no reason to complain.
By the time Bret reached the drawing room, Miss Chisholm and Lady Cecily were nowhere to be found. “Your friends seem to have deserted us,” he said to Catriona as he set her down upon an ancient chaise longue.
“Perhaps we were meant to follow them to Fiona’s room?”
“Oh, but I could not venture into a lady’s chamber,” Bret said, placing one hand over his heart for emphasis.
Catriona gave a look that was dubious in the extreme.
“And at any rate,” he added, “I don’t know where her room is.”
Catriona cocked her head, then said, “Do you know, neither do I.”
He grinned at that. “We seem to be stuck here, then.”
“On our own,” she said, a small smile touching her lips.
“You’re not concerned for your reputation?”
She tilted her head toward the door. “The door is open.”
“Pity, that,” Bret murmured. He perched on the table directly across from her, testing it first before settling his entire weight; like everything in Finovair, it was chipped and rickety.
“I think you should call me by my given name, don’t you?”
“Absolutely not,” she said firmly. “And at any rate, I don’t know what it is.”
“John,” he said, and he tried to remember the last time anyone had called him such. His mother did, but only occasionally. His friends all called him Bret. He thought of himself as Bret. But as he looked at Catriona Burns, who had already shifted herself to a sitting position on the chaise, he wondered what it would be like to have someone in his life who would call him John.
“I heard Lord Oakley call you Bret,” Catriona said.
“Many people do,” he said with a small shrug. He looked down, finding it suddenly awkward to meet her gaze. The conversation had made him wistful, almost self-conscious—a sensation to which he had never been accustomed.
But this feeling that seemed to wash over him whenever he was with Catriona—it was growing, changing. He’d thought it lust, then desire, and then something that was far, far sweeter. But now, swirling amid all this was an unfamiliar longing. For her, certainly for her, but also for something else. For a feeling, for an existence.
For someone to know him, completely.
And the strangest part was, he wasn’t scared.
“I couldn’t possibly call you Bret in front of the others,” Catriona said, pulling his attention back to her face.
“No,” he agreed softly. It would be improper in the extreme, not that anything in the past day had been proper, normal, or customary.
“And I should not call you Bret when we are alone,” she added, but there was the tiniest question in her voice.
He brought her hand to his lips. “I would not want that.”
Her eyes widened with surprise, and—dare he hope it?—disappointment. “You wouldn’t?”
“John,” he said, with quiet determination. “You must call me John.”
“But nobody else does,” she whispered.
He gazed at her over her hand, thinking he could stare at her forever. “I know,” he said, and at that moment something within him shifted. He knew—and by all that was holy, he hoped she knew, too—that their lives would never be the same.
Catriona stopped at her small garret before making her way to Fiona’s bedchamber for tea. She needed a moment. She needed a thousand moments.
She needed to breathe.
She needed to think.
She needed to find a way to face her friends and speak like a normal human being.
Because she did not feel like a normal human being, and she very much feared that Fiona and Lady Cecily would take one look at her and know that she’d been kissing the Duke of Bretton in the sitting room with the door open, and before he’d finally pulled away, his hands had been on her skin, and she’d liked it.
Good God above, she’d liked it.
If he hadn’t stopped, she didn’t know if she could have done so. But he had lifted his lips from hers, cradled her face in his hands, and looked into her eyes with such tenderness. And then he’d whispered, “Say my name.”
“John.” She’d barely been able to make a sound, but he was staring at her lips; surely he’d seen his name upon them.
He’d taken her hand, helped her to her feet, and said something about her joining the other ladies before they became concerned. Then he bowed and headed to the nearest exit.
“You’re going outside?” she asked. “It’s freezing out there.”
“I know,” he replied, his voice a little strange. He bowed, then said, “Until supper.”
And so Catriona made her own way through Finovair’s twisty halls, gathering her thoughts, tidying her appearance in her room, and then finally locating Fiona’s sparse bedchamber.
Tea had already arrived, and Fiona and Lady Cecily were deep in conversation. Fiona was expertly pulling a seam out of an ancient blue gown. Lady Cecily was sucking on her finger.
“I’ve stabbed myself,” Cecily said.
Fiona shook her head. “I told you to let me do it.”
“I know,” Cecily replied. “I just didn’t want to feel so useless.”
“I should think,” Catriona opined as she took a seat next to Fiona on the bed, “that given all we’ve been through, we’re entitled to feel anything we please.”
The two ladies turned to her with identical expressions. Expressions which, Catriona was alarmed to realize, she did not know how to interpret. Finally, after she could no longer stand it, she turned to Fiona (since she could hardly be so rude to an earl’s daughter she’d met only the day before) and said, “What?”
“You’ve fallen in love with the Duke of Bretton,” Fiona said.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Catriona tried to scoff. But her voice did not come out as briskly as she would have liked.
Fiona stared at her from behind her vexing little spectacles, lifting her auburn brows as if to say—
Well, Catriona didn’t know what she might be saying, or rather, implying, since it wasn’t as if Fiona could speak with her eyebrows. Still and all, Catriona knew she had to nip this in the bud, so she said, very firmly, “You can’t fall in love with someone on so short an acquaintance.” It was what she believed. It was what she’d always believed.
“Actually,” Lady Cecily said softly, “I think you can.”
That got the other ladies’ attention, so much so that Lady Cecily blushed and explained, “My parents have a love match. It has made me a romantic, I suppose.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Catriona, grateful for a change of subject, voiced the obvious question. “What do you suppose they are all thinking?”
“Our parents?” Fiona asked.
“They’ll be angry, of course,” Fiona said slowly, “but once they realize it’s only Taran who has taken us, they won’t worry for our lives. Or our virtue,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
“They won’t?” Lady Cecily asked.
“No,” Catriona agreed. “Taran may leave our reputations in tatters, but we will be returned every bit as alive and virginal as when we were taken.”
And then, with an aching gasp, she realized what she’d said. But if Fiona took offense, she did not show it. In fact, Fiona’s voice was completely unaffected as she explained, “It is well known that while Taran’s sense of honor is unique, it does exist. He would never allow us to be harmed in any way.”
Catriona wanted to say that she had never believed the gossip about Fiona, but she could hardly bring up the subject in front of Lady Cecily. Now she felt a little knot of shame in the pit of her stomach. Why hadn’t she gone out of her way to offer Fiona her support? It was true that their paths hadn’t often crossed; Catriona had always been much more likely to come across Marilla at local gatherings.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to have a dress altered for you before supper this evening,” Fiona said to Lady Cecily, expertly steering the conversation back to mundane waters. She frowned down at the ice blue brocade in her hands. “I promised Marilla I’d finish this one first. Then I’ll do yours.”
“Surely Marilla can wait,” Catriona said. “Didn’t you already see to that red dress she was wearing today?”
Fiona snorted. “If I had seen to that red dress, you can be sure I’d have yanked the bodice up a few inches.”
“But what about you?” Lady Cecily asked. “I insist that you see to your own gown before mine.”
“Nonsense,” Fiona replied. “I can—”
“I will not take no for an answer,” Lady Cecily said forcefully, “and even if you alter a frock for me, I won’t wear it until yours is done.”
Fiona looked up at her and blinked behind her spectacles. “That is very generous of you,” she finally said.
Lady Cecily shrugged, as if walking around in ill-fitting gowns was nothing to the daughter of an earl. “There is nothing to be gained by complaining about our situation,” she said.
“Try telling that to my sister,” Fiona muttered.
Catriona and Lady Cecily looked at her with identical expressions of sympathy.
Fiona just rolled her eyes and went back to her sewing. A few moments later, Lady Cecily turned to Catriona and asked, “Have Mr. Ferguson’s nephews visited Finovair before?”
Catriona shook her head. “First of all, no one calls him Mr. Ferguson. It’s always Taran. I don’t know why; it’s not as if we’re so shockingly familiar with anyone else. And secondly, I’m not sure.” She glanced over at Fiona. “We were talking about that earlier. Certainly, I’ve never met them.”
“Nor I,” Fiona agreed.
“Do you know them?” Catriona asked Cecily. “I would think you would have been much more likely to cross their paths in London.”
“I know of them, of course,” Lady Cecily said, “and I’ve been introduced to Lord Oakley. But not the Comte de Rocheforte.”
“Why not?” Fiona asked.
Lady Cecily appeared to hesitate, and a faint blush stole across her cheeks. “I suppose our paths did not cross.”
That was a clanker if ever Catriona had heard one. But she certainly wasn’t going to say anything about it.
Fiona, however, must not have shared her reticence, because she murmured, “He strikes me as a bit of a rake.”
“Yes,” Lady Cecily admitted. “I imagine that’s why our paths did not cross.”
“It seems to me that he ought not to be a rake,” Catriona said.
Lady Cecily turned to face her with wide, interested eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Just that his is such a ready smile. I haven’t shared more than two words with him, but he strikes me as being altogether too nice to be a rake.”
“He is very handsome, of course,” Fiona observed.
“Well, perhaps,” Catriona murmured.
Fiona grinned. “You’re just saying that because you have fallen in love with the duke.”
“I haven’t!” Catriona insisted.
Fiona replied with an arch look, then said, “You may thank me later for securing you time alone in the drawing room.”
Lady Cecily pressed her lips together—presumably so as not to laugh—then said, “I have been introduced to the Duke of Bretton.”
“Really?” Fiona asked with great interest, saving Catriona the trouble of pretending that she wasn’t dying for more information.
“Oh yes. Not that I would pretend any great friendship, but our fathers were at Cambridge together. The duke generally pencils his name on my dance card whenever our paths cross at a ball.”
Catriona wondered what it would be like to dance in John’s arms, to feel his hand pressing gently at the small of her back. He would hold her close, maybe even a little too close for propriety, and she would feel the heat of him rippling through the air until it landed on her like a kiss.
She felt herself growing warm, which was ludicrous. It was the dead of winter, barely a week before Christmas, and she was trapped in Taran Ferguson’s underheated, crumbledown castle. She should be freezing. But apparently, the mere thought of the Duke of Bretton sent her into an overheated tizzy.
“Would you like some tea?” Fiona asked.
“Yes!” Catriona responded, with perhaps more eagerness than the question called for.
“It only just arrived before you got here,” Fiona told her, “but it wasn’t hot even then.”
“It’s quite all right,” Catriona said quickly, thinking she could almost do with an iced lemonade right now, she felt so flushed. She set to work preparing her cup, moving slowly and methodically, needing the time to compose herself.
“Do either of you know what our plans for supper are?” Lady Cecily asked.
“Mrs. McVittie’s already laid the table,” Catriona said. She’d seen it after she’d left the duke—John, she reminded herself—in the sitting room. She’d been discombobulated, but not so much that she hadn’t stopped to inspect the seating arrangements. Taran had been at the head, with Marilla on his right, followed by Mr. Rocheforte, Fiona, the duke, Lady Cecily, Lord Oakley, Catriona, and then back to Taran.
Catriona had switched with Lady Cecily, certain no one (except possibly Taran) would be the wiser.
“Please tell me I’m not seated next to Taran,” Fiona said.
“Marilla has that honor,” Catriona replied. She gave a sympathetic look to Lady Cecily (but not so sympathetic that she regretted having switched their spots). “And you, I’m afraid.”
“That’s all right, I suppose.” Lady Cecily took a sip of her tea. “Did you by any chance see who was on my other side?”
“I think it was Lord Oakley, but I’m not entirely positive,” Catriona fibbed. There was no need for anyone to know she’d memorized the seating arrangements.
“Oh.” Lady Cecily brought her cup to her lips again. “How perfectly pleasant.”
The conversation stalled at that, and then, after Fiona had put her attention back to her needlework, Lady Cecily blurted, “Are either of you chilled? I’m chilled.”
“The tea isn’t very hot,” Catriona said, since the sudden statement seemed to call for some sort of reply.
“And the fire’s gone quite low,” Lady Cecily added. “Perhaps I should find someone to tend to it.”
“Well, I can do that,” Catriona said, coming to her feet. It didn’t matter how gently bred a woman was. In the Highlands, everyone needed to know how to tend a fire.
“But I think I need a blanket,” Lady Cecily said. “This . . . I mean, it’s not even really a shawl . . .” She fussed with the piece of fabric draped over her shoulders and made for the door. “Perhaps if I lie down.”
“That was very odd,” Fiona said, once Lady Cecily had hurried out the door.
Not so odd, Catriona thought fifteen minutes later. It just so happened she had to walk through the dining room to get back to her own bedchamber. When she inspected the place settings, she saw that someone had been busy with the name cards. Lady Cecily and Marilla had exchanged positions.
Catriona shrugged. As long as she remained next to the duke, she didn’t care where anyone else was sitting.
Later in the evening
By the time Bret came down for supper, he was a changed man.
For one thing, he was talking to himself, something he was not accustomed to doing.
“I have a plan,” he said under his breath as he headed down the stairs. “A plan. I am a man with a plan.” He paused, letting his eyebrows rise at the sound of that. A man with a plan. Ridiculous.
And yet rather catchy.
Which might have explained why he was humming. He never hummed. Or did he? Honestly, he couldn’t recall. If he did hum, no one had ever mentioned it.
Catriona would notice if he hummed. She would even say something. And she would have plenty of opportunity to do so, because he was going to marry her.
All he needed was a quiet moment away from the motley crew of guests to propose. He didn’t have a proper ring, but he did have the House of Bretton signet ring. It had been placed on his thumb as soon as the digit was large enough so it wouldn’t fall off. The ring had moved from finger to finger as he grew, finally settling on his pinkie. It had been in his family for generations, the gold forged during the time of the Plantagenets, the sapphire in the middle scavenged from some Roman ruin. A face had been etched in the gem, an ancient goddess that some Bretton of old had probably rechristened the Virgin Mary.
It meant the world to him. It was the symbol of his family, his past, his heritage. And he wanted to place it on Catriona’s finger. To kiss her hand and ask her to keep it safe for their son.
He chuckled out loud, barely able to recognize himself in his own thoughts.
When he rounded the corner to the dining room, he saw that Rocheforte was already there, his eyes narrowed as he examined the place settings at the table.
“Rocheforte,” Bret said in merry greeting.
Rocheforte yanked a hand back. Had he been planning to tamper with the seating arrangements? Bret didn’t care, just so long as Catriona was by his side.
“Bretton,” Rocheforte said with an uncharacteristically awkward nod.
“Please tell me I’m not next to Miss Marilla,” Bret said, coming to the table to see for himself.
“Er . . .” Rocheforte arched his neck as he came around to the other side. “No. You’re between Miss Burns and the other Miss Chisholm. The one with the red hair and spectacles.”
“And you?” Bret returned. “Please feel free to swap the cards if you need to get away from her. It’d do Oakley good to have to suffer through a meal next to her.”
Rocheforte cleared his throat, then offered a lopsided grin. “Precisely, although I will confess that my need not to sit with her is greater than my desire that my cousin be forced to do so.”
Bret took a moment to follow that statement.
“At any rate,” Rocheforte continued, “Miss Marilla was already ensconced between Byron and Taran, so we are both of us safe.”
Bret chuckled at that. “You will forgive me if I remain in the dining room until the appointed hour, then. We wouldn’t want to fall prey to any switching of the place cards.”
“Of course not,” Rocheforte replied, “although I don’t know that we’re meant to gather anywhere else prior to the meal.”
“Not in the sitting room?”
“My uncle is hardly that civilized. He’ll wish to eat immediately.”
As if on cue, they heard Taran crashing through the castle, bellowing something about hunger and nonsense and God only knew what else.
“And there won’t be any port after the meal, either,” Taran was saying as he tramped into the dining room, followed by an aggrieved Lord Oakley and the four young ladies. Marilla was first, still clad in the gravity-defying red gown she’d worn to breakfast. Lady Cecily followed in her delicate blue evening gown, shivering beneath some odd-looking shawl. Fiona Chisholm and Catriona brought up the rear, both of them wearing the same clothing in which they’d been kidnapped.
Sensible women, the both of them, Bret decided. Although he supposed Lady Cecily hadn’t had much choice. She’d been in some wisp of a thing the night before. At least now she wasn’t going to freeze to death.
“No after-supper port?” Marilla twittered. “Why, Taran, that is positively heathen of you.”
“There’s no port in this castle,” Taran said proudly. “Not when we can be drinking whiskey in its stead.”
Bret caught Catriona’s eye. She smiled.
“Eh, and besides,” Taran continued, “I didn’t bring you here to send you off to the sitting room while the men get drunk.” He grinned over at Lady Cecily. “I’m much more sociable than that.”
“Of course,” Lady Cecily murmured. “I would be delighted to have the gentlemen join us in the sitting room after supper.”
“We shall play games,” Marilla announced.
Bret thought he heard Oakley groan.
“It shall be grand,” Marilla continued, clapping her hands together with enough force to make the ladies gasp and the gentlemen avert their eyes.
Except Taran, who stared at Marilla’s quivering bosom with open fascination.
“Shall we dine?” Lord Oakley said with great haste. “Mrs. McVittie has outdone herself, I’m sure.”
“Oh look, Lord Oakley,” Marilla cooed. “You’re next to me.” She leaned toward the earl and murmured something Bret could not hear. Oakley didn’t flinch, so it couldn’t have been that bad, but his response was a stammered collection of barely intelligible phrases.
“Miss Burns,” Bret murmured, holding out her chair. “How lovely that we are seated next to one another.”
He wasn’t positive, but he thought she might have blushed when she said, “It is most fortuitous, Your Grace.”
Had she tampered with the seating arrangements? He smiled to himself. He was loving her more by the second.
“Well, this is a boon,” Taran announced, grabbing the hands of the ladies on either side of him and giving them a squeeze. “The two loveliest lasses in the Highlands, right here next to me.”
Marilla beamed and Lady Cecily winced, presumably in pain. Taran did not appear to have modified his grasp for her delicate hand. Bret glanced at Catriona and Fiona, but neither appeared to have taken any affront at having been excluded from Taran’s pronouncement. If anything, Fiona looked relieved.
And Catriona amused.
“It is really too bad the rest of you were not able to watch the caber toss,” Marilla said to the other ladies. “It was marvelous. The men were so very, very strong.”
“Ach, but the point isn’t how far you can throw the thing,” Taran reminded her. “It’s whether you can land it neatly on its end.”
“Yes, yes,” Marilla said dismissively, “but surely you must agree, sometimes brute force is preferable to finesse.”
“Oh, Marilla,” Fiona groaned.
“Lord Oakley took my breath away,” Marilla said, laying a hand on the newly horizontal plane of her bosom. “He was so strong.”
Oakley’s color heightened and Bret almost felt sorry for him . . . but not quite.
“His muscles!” Marilla exclaimed. She laid a hand on Oakley’s upper arm in what might have been a squeeze. Or a caress. Bret couldn’t tell for sure.
“How are you feeling, Miss Burns?” Oakley asked, politely tugging his arm free of Marilla’s grasp.
Catriona blinked several times in complete incomprehension.
“You were feeling faint,” Bret reminded her gently.
“Oh! Yes. I’m quite recovered,” she answered. “Thank you so much for your concern.”
Under the table, Bret placed his hand on hers.
“Are you sure you’re well?” Lady Cecily asked with some concern. “Your color is quite high.”
“I’m fine,” Catriona answered. She tugged on her hand, but Bret held tight, his thumb making lazy circles on her palm.
“Did you also toss the caber, Mr. Rocheforte?” Lady Cecily asked.
Rocheforte jerked a little and said, “Yes.” And then, while everyone stared at him for his terse answer, he added, “Thank you for asking.”
“Who threw it the farthest?” Fiona asked.
“Byron,” Taran answered, jerking his head toward Oakley. “But Robin’s attempt wasn’t anything shabby.” He grinned over at Marilla. “I’m leaving him the castle, you know.”
“Uncle,” Rocheforte said, “don’t.”
“Eh, now,” Taran grunted, “it’s not like anyone thinks ye’ve got two pennies to rub together. We all know what’s what.”
Rocheforte said nothing, just sat stiffly in his chair.
“I think Finovair is charming,” Lady Cecily said, smiling encouragingly at Rocheforte. “It is a lovely heritage.”
“Really?” Taran said, drawing the word out with great interest.
“Yes,” Lady Cecily replied, dipping her spoon into the soup that had just been placed before her by one of Taran’s ancient retainers. “It’s a little cold, but of course it is December.”
“One doesn’t always get to choose when to live in one’s castle,” Rocheforte said brusquely.
“Robin!” Taran said sternly.
But Rocheforte just shrugged and turned to his soup.
“You seem quite unlike yourself,” Oakley said to his cousin.
Indeed, Bret thought. Rocheforte’s silver tongue and ready smile were legendary. Both seemed to have deserted him.
“It must be the cold,” Rocheforte replied.
“The cold certainly wasn’t bothering you this afternoon,” Marilla said, leaning forward so that she could smile at him. “I was shocked when you removed your coat. But I must confess, it did seem to give you a greater range of movement when you picked up the caber.”
“I’m sorry I missed it,” Lady Cecily said.
“I was the only one who landed the bloody thing on its end,” Taran said.
Marilla gave him a placating smile, patted him on the hand, and then returned her attention to Oakley, who appeared to have nudged his chair as far as he could in the opposite direction.
“Have you recovered from your exertions?” Marilla asked.
Oakley cleared his throat, adjusted his cravat, and turned toward his soup. Somewhere in the midst of all that, he muttered, “Yes.”
But Marilla could not be tamed. “I was so very, very grateful that I had a handkerchief with me this afternoon to wipe the perspiration from your brow.”
“It was warm, too,” Taran chortled, motioning to his chest. “Pulled it right out from—”
“Uncle!” Oakley cut in.
“Eh, well, she did. And don’t say you didn’t notice.”
“There isn’t a man alive who could fail to notice her bosom,” Fiona muttered under her breath.
Bret had a feeling he wasn’t supposed to have heard that, but he smiled at her nonetheless.
“What shall we play after supper?” Marilla asked Oakley.
Oakley was speechless.
“Hide-and-seek?” Taran suggested.
“No,” Marilla said, playfully tapping a finger on her chin. “It’s not very sociable. And you did wish to be sociable, did you not?”
“I always wish to be sociable,” Taran replied.
Rocheforte coughed, loudly.
“The problem with hide-and-seek,” Marilla continued, “is that all of the players are separated for the bulk of the game. And we must be so quiet. It’s hardly fun when the aim is to become better acquainted.”
“Quite right,” Taran said vigorously. “What a clever lass you are. I had no idea.” He jerked his head toward one nephew, then another. “Take note of that, boys.”
Oakley smiled tightly. Even Rocheforte could not manage a response.
“Have I mentioned,” Bret murmured to Catriona, “how very grateful I am not to have any blood uncles?”
“Not a one. My mother had six sisters. Three older, three younger.”
“And your father?”
“An only child.”
“As am I,” Catriona said.
“Really?” The sane and lucid part of his brain reminded him that he had known her only one day, but still, it seemed incomprehensible that he did not know this.
“My parents had me quite late in life,” she told him. “I was something of a surprise.”
“I am also without siblings,” Bret said.
“Really?” She smiled, and then he smiled, and it was the most ridiculous, lovebird-hearts-and-flowers sort of thing, but he almost sighed, because it felt like such an important connection.
And then Fiona Chisholm snorted.
“Oh, Catriona,” she said, her innocent voice not quite masking a devilish intent, “do you believe in love at first sight?”
“What?” Catriona asked, dropping her spoon.
“What?” Bret heard himself echo.
“What?” came Lady Cecily’s voice from down the table.
“I was only wondering,” Fiona murmured.
“Do you believe in love at first sight?” Catriona countered.
“I don’t think so,” Fiona said thoughtfully. “It does seem quite improbable.”
“Madness,” Rocheforte put in.
“But,” Fiona continued, “I don’t see why one could not fall in love at one’s first meaningful conversation. Do you?”
Bret turned to Catriona. She was swallowing uncomfortably, and her cheeks had gone a particularly dusky shade of pink. He knew that Fiona meant no malice, but all the same, Catriona clearly did not relish having been placed so squarely at the center of attention.
“I believe,” Bret announced.
Catriona flashed him a grateful glance.
“You believe in what, Your Grace?” Fiona asked.
“In love at first meaningful conversation. Why not?”
“Why not, indeed?” Marilla exclaimed, clapping her hands together. And then she beamed at him.
“Oh dear,” Bret whispered.
“Did you say something?” Catriona asked.
He shook his head. But he didn’t let go of her hand.
“Blindman’s buff!” Marilla cried out. “Oh, it will be perfect.”
“Then we must play it,” Taran said, smiling at her the way she was smiling at Bret.
“I’ve never been good at games,” Oakley said, in what Bret thought was a phenomenally lame attempt to escape the oncoming torture.
“I know,” Taran retorted. “It’s why you should do it more often. You’re playing, and that’s final. You too, Your Dukeness,” he said, jabbing a gnarled finger in Bret’s direction.
Which was how Bret found himself cowering in a corner an hour later, answering Marilla’s call with as quiet a voice as he could manage.
“Blindman!” she sang out.
“Buff,” he whispered.
“Oooh, I hear someone,” she sang out.
Bret looked frantically for Catriona. Hell, he looked frantically for anyone. But Oakley was half out the door, and Rocheforte had disappeared entirely. Lady Cecily was standing on a bloody table.
“Buff,” he mouthed, but Marilla continued marching toward him with unerring precision. There was no way Marilla couldn’t see from underneath her blindfold.
“Oh, I do love a meaningful game,” she trilled.
Meaningful? Good God.
He caught Catriona’s eyes. She had hopped up onto the table behind Lady Cecily. Save me, he implored. Surely she would take pity.
But no, she had her hand over her mouth and was giggling away, the traitor.
“Blindman!” Marilla called out.
Bret didn’t even bother mouthing the word this time.
“Oh, I hear someone,” Marilla cooed, still walking toward him. She held her hands in front of her, moving them this way and that. “You must warn me if I crash into something,” she called out. “But of course not someone.”
Bret inched to the left. If he timed it just right, he might be able to squeeze behind the grandfather clock. He also might knock over the grandfather clock, but he wasn’t so concerned about that at that moment.
Just a little more . . . a little more . . .
Marilla turned, following him like a beacon.
“She’s good at this game!” Taran hollered.
“I’m good at many games,” Marilla murmured.
That was when her hands found his chest.
It was all very amusing.
Until it wasn’t.
Catriona had been standing on the table, clutching on to Lady Cecily’s shoulder for balance as she watched Marilla stalk the duke. They’d all been laughing, because it was funny, it truly was. Even Lord Oakley had started to chuckle, and he never laughed about anything.
But then Marilla attacked.
“Who could this be?” she asked, placing her hands on Bretton’s chest. “Remember, you have to hold still while I guess your identity.”
Catriona frowned as she watched Marilla move her hands to Bret’s shoulders.
“Someone very athletic,” Marilla purred.
Catriona’s arms began to tingle. And not in a good way.
“Let me see,” Marilla continued. She trailed her fingers up to Bret’s face, lightly touching his lips. “It’s definitely a man,” she said, as if that hadn’t already been obvious, “but—”
“Enough!” Catriona roared.
“Miss Burns?” Lady Cecily said.
But Catriona had already vaulted off the table and was halfway across the room. “Unhand him!” she yelled, and before Marilla could make a response, Catriona had grabbed her by the shoulders and wrenched her away.
Marilla let out a shriek of surprise and would have crashed into a table had not Taran leaped forward to save her.
“Here now,” Taran said accusingly. “That’s not very sporting of you.”
“She was mauling him,” Catriona growled.
“It was just a game,” Marilla sniffed.
“It was—” But then Catriona stopped. Because Marilla hadn’t been doing anything wrong. She’d been playing the game precisely as it had been meant to be played.
Catriona’s stomach clenched, and all of a sudden she realized that everyone was looking at her. With pity. With shock. With—
She looked at Bret’s face, terrified at what she might find there.
She looked at Bret’s face, and she saw . . .
John Shevington, the man with whom she’d fallen crazily, spectacularly, and apparently quite publicly in love.
He would never be the Duke of Bretton to her again. He would never even be Bret. He would always be John. Her John. Even if they never saw each other again, if he left Finovair and refused to ever take another step in Scotland, he would be her John. She would never be able to think of him as anything else.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Because she’d made such a scene. Because now everyone was looking at him, and he was going to be forced to save the situation, to find a way to laugh it all off.
Because she couldn’t. It was taking her every ounce of strength not to burst into tears then and there.
“No,” he whispered. “Don’t be sorry.”
She swallowed, then looked down at their hands. When had he taken her hands in his?
“You are magnificent,” he said.
Her lips parted in surprise.
And then he smiled. One corner of his mouth tilted up, and he looked so boyish, so handsome, so just plain wonderful, that she thought her heart might burst.
He dropped to one knee.
Marilla gasped even louder. “He is not proposing to her!”
“He is,” John said with a smile. And then he looked up, right into Catriona’s eyes. “Catriona Burns, will you do me the indescribable honor of becoming my wife?”
Catriona tried to speak, but her words tangled and tumbled in her throat, and finally, all she could do was nod her head. But she nodded with everything she had, and finally, when she realized that tears were running down her face, she whispered, “Yes. Yes, I will.”
John reached into his pocket and pulled out an ancient ring. She stared at it for a moment, mesmerized by the delicate etching on its sapphire center. “But this is yours,” she finally said. She had seen it on his finger. On his pinkie. She hadn’t even realized that she’d noticed this about him.
“I am lending it to you,” he said, his voice trembling as he slid it onto her thumb. Then he lifted her hand and kissed it, right where the gold touched her flesh. “So that you may keep it safe for our son.”
“Kiss her!” someone yelled.
John smiled and stood.
“Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!”
Catriona’s lips parted with shock as he drew her close. “Right here? In front of ev—”
It was the last thing she said for quite some time.
One could hardly say that there was adequate documentation on the matter, but Byron Wotton had always taken hell to be a fiery proposition.
He was wrong. Hell was obviously freezing, decrepit, and located in the Scottish Highlands. What’s more, it was ruled not by Beelzebub, but by an uncle with a fiendish sense of humor and not a single gentlemanly instinct to his name.
Byron had been watching, dumbfounded, as his old friend the Duke of Bretton declared everlasting love for a woman he’d met practically five minutes before, when Taran—alias Chief Tormenter—pulled him to the side.
“I hope ye’re taking some lessons from that English booby,” his uncle hissed.
Byron was watching the besotted look on his friend’s face as he gazed into Catriona Burns’s eyes. It gave him a queer feeling. Not that he could imagine himself in the grip of an emotion of that sort.
“What are you talking about?” he said, looking away as the duke drew his new fiancée into his arms. Actually, he could only assume they were affianced; he hadn’t heard her whispered answer to Bret’s proposal.
Given the way he was embracing Miss Burns, though, it must have been in the affirmative. It was truly odd. Byron knew damned well that the duke hadn’t any plans for marriage. Bret had confided only last summer that he planned to marry at the ripe age of thirty-five, and he was still a good six years from that milestone.
But now . . .
“Did you hear me?” Taran barked at his shoulder. “I gave you nevvies a chance to do the wooing that you don’t have ballocks to do yourselves, and yet you’ve let an Englishman steal a march on you.”
Byron scowled at him. “I have all the balls needful. And may I point out that you’re a single man yourself, Uncle, but you haven’t done a bit of wooing in the last decade or so that I’ve noticed.”
“I’m too old to put up with a woman.”
“More likely one wouldn’t put up with you.”
“No man in his fifties should be asked to make the sacrifice!”
“You’re only a year or two into that decade,” Byron pointed out.
“I’m a widower,” Taran said piously. “Kept your aunt’s memory in my heart, I have.”
Byron snorted. No woman in her right mind would accept the old scoundrel.
“Back to the point,” his uncle persisted. “You’ve lost one heiress already. You know what they say: as you grow older, yer balls grow colder.”
“You are being manifestly rude, Uncle.” He glanced back over his shoulder. Bret and Catriona were still locked in each other’s arms.
“Thank the Lord, he’s too much of a fool to realize that Catriona Burns doesn’t have tuppence to her name,” Taran muttered. “Her da will be kissing my feet for last night’s work, I’ll tell you. Burns would have danced a jig if she’d landed the second son of a baronet, let alone a duke. And he can’t say I didn’t try to chaperone the two of them.”
“Be quiet!” Byron hissed. He’d known the duke since they were both boys, and though Bret was easygoing to a fault, Byron had the firm conviction that no one would ever be allowed to insult his wife without being beaten within an inch of his life.
“As I was saying before,” his uncle said, mercifully abandoning that topic, “I’m giving you two every opportunity to snatch up yer brides, same as that Englishman done. Blindman’s buff seems to be working. I’ll make certain we play it every night. You lads are so lily-livered that you need the help of a blindfold.”
“I do not need help choosing a wife, from you or a blindfold,” Byron responded, keeping his voice even.
“No, yer problem is keeping her, once you’ve proposed,” his uncle scoffed.
The lovers had finally drawn apart, but Bret still held Catriona’s hands in his, and was looking down at her with such an adoring expression that Byron felt a true pulse of envy. He hadn’t deluded himself that either he or his former fiancée, Lady Opal Lambert, had felt that sort of feverish entanglement, but it was a bruise to his vanity to think that Opal wanted someone other than himself to the point of not caring about scandal.
“One more round of blindman’s buff,” his uncle called, surging forward. “Marilla, tie that blindfold back on. Now where’s Robin got to?”
“Robin left the room a good hour ago, when the blindfold first made its appearance,” Byron pointed out. He was rethinking his lifelong policy of courtesy. Why shouldn’t he simply retire to his room and stay out of the fray, the way Robin had done?
“Dang and balderdash,” Taran muttered. “How does that lad think he’ll catch himself a wife if he can’t even stay put for an evening?” He started barking out orders. Bret, Catriona, and the rest of the guests reluctantly, but obediently, gathered around Marilla again.
The lady was looking distinctly irritated. She had made it obvious that she hoped to lure Bret into the parson’s mousetrap, so she must be vexed that her overly intimate patting of his chest had led to his marriage proposal—to another woman.
But she smiled prettily enough when Taran handed the blindfold to Catriona so that she could cover Marilla’s eyes. “Lord Oakley,” she called, “you simply must join us. This children’s game won’t be at all fun without you.”
Byron stepped forward and Taran scuttled into place beside him.
“She’s up for anything,” his uncle whispered approvingly. “Blast Robin for leaving the room. Here I got him a lively one with a sweet fortune, and he flees like a sheep at its first shearing.”
“She’s an impudent baggage,” Byron said, taking advantage of the fact that Marilla was surrounded by giggling young ladies adjusting her blindfold and couldn’t hear him. “Didn’t you see how outrageously she behaved with the duke?”
“You are turning into a proper antidote,” his uncle snapped, rounding on him. “A pompous, self-righteous turnip! I heard about what you did to your betrothed, merely because she gave a buss to her dancing master. Likely she meant it no more than as a matter of courtesy, and you ruined her reputation for it.”
Rage swelled in Byron’s chest. He had found his fiancée bent backward over a sofa, one slender leg wrapped around her dancing master’s thigh. If that kiss represented the standard expression of appreciation for a dance, there would be far more men capering about English ballrooms. “I will never allow a strumpet to become Countess of Oakley,” he replied frigidly. “As for her reputation, I never mentioned the kiss; it was she who told her father all.”
“That’s the English for you,” his uncle said, looking disgusted. “A Scotswoman knows to keep such matters to herself. Though ’tis true Scotswomen have no need to stray. One kilt can keep a woman warm all winter long.”
Byron looked away from his uncle and met the eyes of the girl who wore spectacles. Fiona, he thought her name was. Her disdainful expression implied she’d overheard their conversation. He tightened his jaw; he didn’t care what she thought.
He wouldn’t choose a wife from this assembly if someone paid him. In fact, he’d just as soon never return to Finovair again. Next week, he would travel back to London, and in time he would marry a woman who possessed the proper respect for both her person and his title.
A second later he came to the discomforting realization that the emotion in Fiona’s eyes wasn’t disdain. In fact, it looked like pity. Damn.
“Turnip!” his uncle repeated, stamping off to the other side of the circle.
Byron took a deep breath. The game had begun, and one glance told him that the blindfolded girl was heading in his direction, arms outstretched. Presumably, he too was about to be patted down. But in his case, no young lady would leap to his rescue.
Marilla’s giggles were breathy and uninhibited. She sounded like the type of woman who would throw herself into the arms of any man with a gift for capering.
But he stood rigidly still. It wouldn’t be polite to back away from her; the group was watching and laughing, as always seemed to happen during absurd games like this. Taran, for one, was clapping like an organ-grinder’s monkey. She was coming closer and closer . . . He would wager anything that Marilla could see through that blindfold. She was heading straight toward him with as much single-minded purpose as a child who spies a sweetmeat.
He wasn’t the only one who had realized that Marilla was cheating. Fiona had a distinct scowl on her face as she watched her sister’s antics. Even given her spectacles, he could see that she had eyes the color of a dark Scottish forest, the kind that stretches for miles and miles.
Then a fragrant, soft bundle tumbled against him and began laughingly patting him, not on his chest, but his face.
“Oh, I think I know who this is!” Marilla cooed. “Such a resolute chin and powerful brow could only be one man . . .” She burst into a storm of giggles. “And now I must beg forgiveness from the rest of you. Of course, every one of the gentlemen in the room has a strong chin. But this nose . . .’tis a Roman nose.”
Byron clenched his jaw. It wasn’t her fault that he had taken a dislike to being touched since his betrothal fell apart. He wasn’t the sort of man to keep a mistress, and it was something of a shock to realize that he hadn’t been with a woman in months. Not that Opal had touched him in such an intimate fashion, of course.
Marilla was now stroking his neck, which was only slightly less unpleasant than when she touched his face. His repulsion must be some odd response to the dissolution of his engagement.
“Make your guess, Marilla,” her green-eyed sister called, a commanding tone in her voice.
“So who do you think you’ve caught in your arms, lass?” Taran demanded with obvious glee. “Who do you choose?”
“I choose you,” Marilla breathed, so softly that no one except him could have heard her. Then, before he grasped what she meant, she said more loudly, “Of course, we all know there’s only one way to be certain,” and without pause she rose on her toes and brushed his mouth with hers.
Byron reacted reflexively, thrusting her violently away and stepping back. Then, realizing what he’d done, he lunged forward, catching her in his arms as she toppled. “I beg your forgiveness,” he said, carefully placing her back on her feet.
The room had gone silent. Lady Cecily was gazing into a corner, an agonized expression on her face, and the spectacled girl was scowling. Bret had the delighted air of a man realizing that he’d barely escaped a man-eating tiger. Deserting all claims to respectable behavior, the duke dropped a kiss on Catriona’s rosy lips with a distinct air of relief.
“So you should,” Marilla cried with a pout, as she pulled the blindfold from her head. “I could have fallen to the floor and injured myself.” She widened her blue eyes. “Not the action of an English gentleman, Lord Oakley. Nor a Scotsman, either, I assure you.”
She was inarguably right. Byron ground his teeth and swept into an apologetic bow. “I offer my sincere regret. I’m afraid I have had a tendency to startle since I was a boy.”
“This nephew is a nervy type,” Taran said, popping up at his elbow like an evil sprite. “Now, my nephew Robin is a real man, the kind who knows how to keep a woman in his arms, though not on her feet!”
This crude jest was greeted with marked silence by everyone except Marilla, who giggled. Byron held out his arm to her. “May I escort you to the stairs? I’m sure we all feel quite tired after our frivolities.” It was just the sort of sticklike comment his father would have made.
“Damned if you don’t sound older than me,” Taran cackled, as if he’d heard Byron’s thought.
Marilla on his arm, Byron followed her sister through the door. Marilla’s figure showed to exquisite advantage in her evening gown, the high waistline emphasizing her breasts, which were magnificent by any man’s measure.
In contrast, Fiona’s gown was conservative. Her evening gown was a sober blue, with long sleeves, and without even the smallest ruffle to relieve its austerity.
Still, you knew with one look that her breasts were luscious as well. And sensual, and feminine, and all the things that he hadn’t felt or tasted in months. Just because Marilla’s were on display didn’t mean that—
With a start, he wrenched his thoughts back into place. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking down at the bright curls of the girl at his side. “I didn’t hear what you said.”
“I said that the storm is worsening,” Marilla repeated, an edge of disapproval in her voice. Clearly, she was under the impression that he ought to hang on her every word.
He cast her a glance that conveyed a censorious view of her pretensions. That look—he’d been reliably informed—was feared throughout London. Oakley was one of the oldest earldoms in the country, and Byron had learned at his father’s knee not to tolerate impudent and overfamiliar mushrooms.
Marilla didn’t even flinch. She merely patted his arm and dimpled up at him. “But I will forgive you, Lord Oakley. I know you must have any number of very, very serious matters on your mind. Men are so given to that sort of thinking.”
“I do not think it is necessarily a trait of the sex,” came a quiet voice in front of them. Fiona was waiting for her sister at the newel post. “Marilla, it is time that we bid the company good night.”
Marilla did have a very pretty pout. “No, don’t bow again!” she said gaily to Byron, who had no such intention. “We should not be on such terribly formal terms here, don’t you agree?” She pointedly looked behind them. Bret and Miss Burns had made it as far as the drawing room door before they started kissing again. “Obviously,” she added, “at Finovair we are not obligated to adhere to the very, very silly rules that London society requires.”
“Exactly,” Taran chortled, coming up from behind to beam at the girl. “We are all friends here.”
Byron shot him a silent snarl.
“I would contest that,” Fiona stated, putting a hand under her sister’s arm.
Marilla jerked away in a somewhat ill-tempered manner. But her face betrayed nothing but sweetness when she looked back up at Byron. “I think we should all be on familiar terms, don’t you?” she asked. “My name is Marilla.”
She had melting eyes, the color of cornflowers in spring. Ridiculously, Byron felt an overwhelming urge to flee, but stilled himself. It wasn’t her fault that her eyes were the same color as Opal’s.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” Taran said with his usual blustery cheer. “My nephew Robin, now, who will someday own this fine castle, he will be on the easiest of terms with a lovely lass such as yourself. Byron here is a bit stuffy. Always has been. He got it from his father. I tell you, I thought I’d seen it all when me other sister got married to a Frenchie, but Byron’s da was even worse. When she brought the earl—the old earl, that is—back to Finovair for the first time, I almost fled to the Lowlands. He was a humorless, obstinate old bastard who acted as if every Scotsman should kiss the toes of his withered slippers. I never blamed her when she flew the coop.”
Byron gritted his teeth. He’d heard the story a hundred times . . . from both points of view.
“Course, it only took a Scotsman one well-placed blow to lay the earl out flat,” Taran said, chortling. “Marilla and Fiona’s father did the honors. Took out that Englishman with a doubler to the jaw. No . . .” He paused. “I’ve got a detail wrong, I do believe.”
The company waited, some of them even looking faintly interested.
“It wasn’t a doubler,” Taran finished triumphantly. “It was a roundhouse. We didn’t ever see that pompous fart again in God’s green country. The man never met a Scotsman whom he didn’t find beneath his touch, and the same went for Englishmen. Didn’t have a friend in the world, to my mind.”
“My father had numerous friends,” Byron stated.
“Not one,” Taran contradicted. “Even sadder than that was the fact that Fiona’s da took him out with one blow. The man didn’t even get his hands in position.”
Byron heard a little moan. His eyes met Fiona’s. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who was finding Finovair Castle less than idyllic.
“My father was not given to common fisticuffs.” But he didn’t stop when he should have. “And I am not stuffy,” he heard himself saying. “As a matter of fact, I am on familiar terms with my many friends. My Christian name is Byron, and I invite you all to use it.”
Bret had one eyebrow raised now, and his face radiated compassion. Byron gritted his teeth again.
“As I said before, my name is Marilla,” the blonde chirped, patting his arm once more. “Now we will all be comfortable with each other! I shall look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning, Byron.” She said it with a breathy emphasis that made his jaw tighten.
Don’t be narrow-minded, he reminded himself, as Fiona grabbed her sister’s arm and hauled her up the stairs with what seemed unnecessarily forceful disapproval. True, Marilla was a lively girl.
His father would reject her on those grounds.
“Good work, boy,” Taran said approvingly. “Not that I want you to steal an heiress from under Robin’s nose. He needs the blunt more than you do. Pretty as a picture, ain’t she? I thought she was best of the bunch. Lady Cecily has a bundle of the ready as well. Why don’t you take Marilla, and we’ll reserve Cecily for Robin. Dang that lad, he’s missed all the fun.”
Byron headed up the stairs without taking leave of his uncle. There are limits to a man’s patience, and he had reached the limit of his.
He wasn’t pompous, he told himself. Or stuffy, or narrow-minded. That was his father.
He was just . . . irritated.
The following afternoon
“I know it’s exciting to find yourself in a household with two eligible bachelors, even after the Duke of Bretton made that surprising proposal to Catriona,” Fiona said to Marilla, blocking their bedchamber door so that her sister couldn’t push her to the side and rush downstairs in hot pursuit of those very bachelors. “But you must play this right, Marilla. Neither of the other two gentlemen would be interested in a minx. Your behavior at blindman’s buff last night did you no credit, and you already have a mark against you as a Scotswoman.”
Marilla scowled at her. “I’m not the trollop; you are.”
“Just don’t play your hand too obviously.”
“If they think I’m a minx, it will be because your reputation ruined my chance at a good marriage before I even left the schoolroom,” Marilla said shrilly.
Fiona took a deep breath. “I am not under the impression that my lost reputation has, in fact, affected your eligibility for marriage. Your fortune has outweighed such concerns.”
“No one could possibly forget what kind of woman you are,” Marilla retorted. “I would likely be happily married by now if it weren’t for you.”
It was certainly true that there are some events from which no woman’s reputation can recover. An immodest kiss? Perhaps. A lascivious grope? Perhaps not. A fiancé falling from her bedchamber window to his death? Never.
Fiona had been labeled an uncaring trollop throughout her village by sunset on that fateful day; by week’s end, she was known throughout Scotland as a reckless fornicator. If not worse. The mother of her former fiancé spat in her path for a good three years at the merest glimpse of Fiona, and she wasn’t the only one.
No one seemed to care that when he fell, the lumbering oaf Dugald Trotter had been climbing up to her window without the slightest encouragement on her part. They were too busy being scandalized by her shameless ways—not to mention the fact that she had, in their version of events, “callously neglected” to inform Dugald that mere ivy cannot hold a man’s weight. Even those inclined to excuse frolicsome behavior between betrothed couples couldn’t seem to forgive her for not warning him.
Of course, any man with a functioning brain could have taken a look at the ivy below her window and come to his own assessment of its strength. But that was how stupid her fiancé had been, at least in Fiona’s uncharitable recollection.
Dugald apparently didn’t think of it, and she hadn’t warned him because—as she kept trying to point out, to no avail—she never planned to welcome him or anyone else to come through her window.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, she often found herself outraged at the universal rejection of her account of the event. Her own father had racketed about the house for months, moaning about how she had besmirched the family name.
“So you say,” he would bellow, in response to her protests. “What was poor Dugald doing at your window, then? Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a female child! He wouldna climbed your ivy, you silly goose, if you hadna turned a carnal eye in his direction. Ach, poor Dugald, poor, poor Dugald.”
There the argument would stop, because Fiona didn’t allow herself to comment whenever the chorus of poor Dugald reached deafening proportions. She knew perfectly well that she had not thrown Dugald any come-hither glances. In fact, she wasn’t even sure what such a glance would look like.
She wouldn’t have learned it from Dugald. He seemed to regard her as a pot of gold rather than a nubile woman, at least until the last evening of his life. In fact, she’d thought him more in pursuit of her fortune than her person.
But that night she had refused to kiss his whiskey-soaked mouth, only to find herself shoved against a brick wall and forcibly dealt a wet kiss accompanied by a rough squeeze to her breast. The very memory made her shudder. She had slapped Dugald so hard that he reeled backward, after which she had run into the ballroom—with every intention of breaking her betrothal on the morning.
As for what he was doing climbing up to her window later that night . . . she could only think that he had decided to take matters into his own hands. Presumably, he had planned to force her to accept the marriage, and the only thing that had saved her virtue was the fragility of the ivy.
She certainly could not suggest such a terrible thing aloud. God forbid she would dishonor a man’s name after death by suggesting he might have had something so sordid as rape in mind. Poor Dugald had killed himself, to her mind.
Besides, she came to think of herself as lucky. What was ruination compared to being married to a beast of a man? She proceeded to shape a life that was happily husband-free, regularly offering prayerful thanks to her late mother for leaving her the fortune that made such a decision possible.
By five years after the “incident,” as her father called it, most people had stopped crossing the street when she approached. The last two seasons she had even ventured to London as Marilla’s chaperone; her half sister seemed likely to cause a nasty scandal if she wasn’t closely watched.
And though Fiona was not precisely fond of her sister—it was hard to imagine who could be—she did love her. Somewhat.
In short, during the last five years Fiona had arrived at the conclusion that the fatefully flimsy ivy had preserved not only her virtue, but her happiness.
A wealthy, unmarried woman has all the time she likes to read whatever she wishes. She can learn cheese making and experiment with medicinal salves for the pure pleasure of it. She can brew dyes from red currants, and then try making wines from the berries instead.
Freed from the need to hunt and catch a man, she could eschew crimping irons and chilly, yet seductive, gowns. She need not blunder around a ballroom pretending that she has perfect eyesight; instead, she can balance a pair of spectacles on her nose and accept the fact that she resembles someone’s maiden aunt.
Which status she would presumably attain, someday.
She was free.
“Please do not spontaneously offer either gentleman a kiss,” she said now. “From where I stood, Oakley looked mortified rather than flattered.”
“Kissing means very little.” Marilla tossed her curls. “You’ve been out of society too long, Fiona. I can assure you that he understood it as a jest, even if you did not.”
Fiona silently counted to five. Then: “If kissing means very little, I still think it would nevertheless be better to allow a gentleman to kiss you, if he shows the inclination, rather than chasing him yourself.”
“As if I would do something that fast!” Marilla caught a glimpse of herself in the glass and froze for a moment to coax an errant lock into place.
She was extraordinarily beautiful; you had to give her that. Fiona crossed the room and picked up a hairbrush to shape the long lock that fell down Marilla’s back. Her sister accepted the attention as her due; she was smiling at herself with a tilt of her head that she likely considered sophisticated.
Indeed, Marilla was so exquisite that men could hardly stop themselves from falling at her feet . . .
Though they seemed to fall out of love just as quickly, once they came to know her. As Fiona had bluntly told their father on Marilla’s debut, he should have matched her quickly, before news of her temperament circulated among eligible men.
Regrettably, that hadn’t happened, though Marilla was only beginning to notice the lack of offers; her vanity was such that she deemed virtually all potential suitors beneath her notice.
“We have only a few days before the pass is cleared,” Fiona told Marilla, giving her hair a little tug to get her attention. “Perhaps three or four . . . five at the outside.”
“I know that,” her sister said, twitching her curl free.
“I have no doubt but that Rocheforte or Oakley will fall in love with you. But I would suggest that you make sure of the man before the three days are up.”
“Rocheforte?” Marilla snorted. “Granted, he is very handsome and he’s reputed to have a sportive disposition—in every way. But he could have fled back to France for all I’ve seen him. He hasn’t spent more than five minutes with us. ’Sides, I want a title. A real title, not some French sham.”
“All right, Oakley will fall in love with you,” Fiona said patiently. “But not unless you play your cards right.”
“Are you implying that I cannot do so?” Marilla cried. “That nun of an English heiress can’t hold a candle to me. Though I was shocked to see the duke fall prey to that dreadful Catriona Burns. I’ve never liked her.”
“I have always liked her,” Fiona said. “She’s exceedingly nice.”
“My point is that Oakley will not pose any particular challenge for me.”
“Of course not.” There was no point in taking issue with Marilla’s overweening self-regard. It was as infinite as a starry night. “Do try to control your temper. Be docile and chaste.”
“Why should I be docile? I hate to fawn over an Englishman. I—”
“Because you want to marry into the peerage,” Fiona interrupted. “The English aristocracy. Though I have to say that Rocheforte’s title is an ancient and honored one, not a sham in any sense of the word.”
“That’s right,” Marilla agreed, the little smile coming back to her mouth. “I do want to marry an aristocrat. But I don’t care how old Rocheforte’s title is. He could crawl on his knees across Scotland begging for my hand, and I wouldn’t marry him. The man was too superior to join us for games after supper. I’m sure I don’t know what right he has to be so haughty; the duke and the earl are perfectly happy to join us.”
“In order to marry the earl, you must be docile, courteous, and gentle, as in gentlewoman.” Fiona felt like a governess reciting the alphabet, but that was the reality of being Marilla’s older sister.
“Gentleness doesn’t suit me.” Marilla’s nose wrinkled. One thing you could say about her was that she did not bother to lie to herself.
“Pretend,” Fiona said, rather grimly. “No more behavior such as you exhibited last night.”
“Blindman’s buff invites that sort of playfulness,” Marilla said, with an edge to her voice. “You know how much I love frolics of that nature. Every man in the room tried to find me as soon as he had a blindfold over his eyes.” She squared her shoulders and readjusted the bodice on the ice blue gown she’d chosen from Taran’s ancient selection. “I think I would prefer to carry your reticule than mine. It would better suit the color of this gown. Give it to me, please.”
“I can’t seem to find it,” Fiona said. “I must have dropped it during the kidnapping. Or perhaps I left it in the carriage.”
Marilla raised an eyebrow. “Careless of you,” she drawled. But her eyes returned to the mirror. “These clothes are terribly old-fashioned, but I rather like them.”
“I didn’t think the neckline would be quite so low on you when I altered the gown,” Fiona said, wondering how shocked the room would be if Marilla bared a breast to all and sundry.
“Actually, you didn’t do an adequate job altering the dress, so I had to adjust it myself,” Marilla replied, carefully arranging a long, silky ringlet so that it lay in the valley between her breasts.
“Be careful with your tone,” Fiona warned. “I’m no subservient Cinderella here to do your bidding. I sewed on your gown all morning so that you wouldn’t be stalking the castle half-naked, but if you are rude about it, I shan’t even thread a needle tomorrow.”
Marilla glared back. “You want me to marry, if you remember. It’s to your benefit that I leave the house, so that you can have Father all to yourself.”
“And I would remind you that you want to be married,” Fiona replied. “So kindly remember not to gesture too enthusiastically. Your bodice may well lose its claims to propriety.”
“I doubt it.”
“From all I’ve heard, Englishmen like their wives chilly and chaste.”
“That puts you out of the hunt,” Marilla said with a spiteful giggle. “I’m sure they already know all about you and your infamous bedchamber window.”
“Perhaps,” Fiona said. “But it would be better for you if the news doesn’t leak out.”
“You tarnish my reputation just by existing, do you know that?”
“So you have reminded me, many times,” Fiona said, adding, “You sound like a shrew, rather than the docile virgin you should be playing.”
“I am a virgin,” Marilla retorted. “Which is more than I can say for you!” She turned up her nose and flew out the door in a flutter of skirts.
Fiona lingered for a moment to look in the glass.
The clothing she’d found in her wardrobe actually flattered her. She had a figure meant for gowns that hugged her curves in a way that current fashion did not; the tiny velvet balls that adorned the snugly fitted bodice and danced along the curve of her breasts were a particularly nice touch. In fact, she looked better in this gown than she did in her usual garments. She fancied it would draw male eyes to her best features. What’s more, her skirts were a trifle short and revealed her ankles.
Not that anyone showed an inclination to gape at her ankles.
Fiona sighed and made her way down the wide stone steps leading to the great hall. A fire burned in the huge hearth, but the room was as echoing and cold as it had been the previous night. Even the ancient retainers who were knocking about last night seemed to have disappeared.
She hesitated for a moment, wondering where she might find the others, and was moving toward the drawing room door when she heard Marilla’s laughter.
There must be some other room to which she could retreat, perhaps a library or a study; she didn’t want to watch Marilla chase the earl around a sofa. Her sister apparently thought a man who displayed that kind of icy precision would make a complacent husband.
There was something buried and formidable about him, something that made all his control seem a façade. He would not be comfortable. She was sure of that. But she was also sure that if Marilla wanted him, she would take him.
When they were in London, Marilla was hemmed in by society’s strictures. But there was nothing to stop her here, in this isolated castle. Ever since she was a little girl, Marilla had taken whatever she wanted—including Fiona’s toys and Fiona’s clothing. Faced by a little angel with buttery curls, their father had always given in.
Just then Marilla burst out of the drawing room, but the smile dropped from her face the moment she saw Fiona. “Go away!” she hissed. “You’ll ruin everything. This bodice is a trifle chilly, so I’m going to fetch a shawl. Then I’m returning to the card game.”
“I’ll find the library,” Fiona said.
“Just stay in your chamber,” Marilla ordered. “The earl hasn’t come down since luncheon, but he is obviously very punctilious about his reputation. I don’t want him to recall that we’re sisters, in case he knows of your disgrace.”
The laird’s ancient butler emerged from the dining room on the far side of the great hall as Marilla trotted up the stairs. “May I be of assistance, miss?” he asked.
Fiona gave him a warm smile. “Could you advise me as to a room to which I might retire for a spell? The library, perhaps?”
“In there,” he said, nodding at a door. “Nobody goes in but the gentlemen after supper, for a smoke and a bit of brandy. If you don’t mind the smell of dogs and good tobacco, you’ll be comfortable.”
“That sounds perfect,” Fiona said. “You’re my savior, Mr. Garvie, indeed you are.”
“I shouldna be doing it,” Garvie said. “You’re supposed to be marrying the young comte. By all rights, you oughta be in the drawing room with the rest of them. The laird won’t be pleased.”
“I’m not the right one,” she assured him. “Any of the other ladies will make a better mistress of the castle than I. May I beg you to have some tea sent to me, Mr. Garvie?”
Fiona pushed open the door to the library and found it surprisingly cozy, given that the castle ceilings were so high. Its walls were lined with books, and the roaring fire in the fireplace didn’t hurt, either.
This was much better than joining the party in the drawing room, playing some sort of game devised by Marilla to throw herself into the arms of the chilly earl.
She wandered along the shelves, trailing a finger over the leather-covered volumes. Books on crop cultivation, on iron working, on terracing . . .
Old plays, poetry . . . and Persuasion: a Novel by the Author of Sense & Sensibility! How in the world did such a novel end up in the laird’s library? It could not have been published more than a few months ago.
She read the first couple of pages and instantly began smiling. Sir Walter Elliot—he who read no book for amusement but the Baronetage—was surely a parallel to Lord Oakley. Sir Walter viewed those below his estimation with pity and contempt, which was a fair summary of the way that the earl looked at lesser beings such as she.
She threw herself happily onto the sofa before the fire. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable piece of furniture—more lumpy than soft—but the inimitable Sir Walter promised to make her forget any discomfort.
It was a good forty minutes before Mrs. McVittie appeared with a pot of tea, but Fiona was so engrossed in the novel that she scarcely noticed.
By then she had wriggled into a more comfortable position: head propped on one arm of the sofa, feet crossed on the other arm. Marilla would squeal like a stuck pig if she walked in and saw Fiona’s ankles, clad in pale pink silk, but Marilla was in the drawing room, presumably chasing a blindfolded peer around the furniture, if they had moved on from cards.
“This is heaven,” she said to Mrs. McVittie, swinging her feet to the floor and smiling at her. “Thank you so much.”
“Mr. Garvie’s taken a shine to you,” Mrs. McVittie confided, bending over to put another log on the fire. “He reckons that you’re not the sort to marry, so you might as well be comfortable. The rest of them are all in the drawing room playing at Pope Joan and the like.”
“He’s right,” Fiona said. “I am not the type of woman who marries.” She felt only a tiny pang at that idea, which was quite a triumph.
In no time, she had sunk deeply back into the book and had realized that the prescient Miss Austen had, in addition to creating Sir Walter—who bore such a similarity to the Earl of Oakley—created in Elizabeth Elliot a perfect portrait of her own sister, Marilla, who like Elizabeth was indeed “fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever,” but “felt her approach to the years of danger.” Granted, Marilla was only twenty-one, but even she had begun to notice the reluctance of English gentlemen to offer for her hand during her three seasons in London.
Englishmen seemed to be remarkably canny. They buzzed about Marilla like flies in honey, but they didn’t come up to scratch.
It was much more satisfactory to read about Sir Walter and his daughter than to be trapped in a cold castle with two versions of the same. While the aggravations and extravagances of polite society were funny on the page, they were deeply irritating in real life.
After luncheon Byron couldn’t stop thinking about the way Catriona Burns looked up at Bret, eyes shining, her love obvious. His own expectation of marriage did not include feelings of that nature. His father had taught him well: one’s wife should be a chaste woman of good breeding. Passion between a husband and wife was out of the question.
The new Countess of Oakley, as his father had instructed him time out of mind, should be virtuous, well mannered, and above all, show respect if not fawning submission to her husband.
Respect and submission wasn’t what Catriona felt for Bret.
Envy was an uncomfortable emotion. It felt like a dark, raging burn in his veins.
Before he chose Opal to wed, he had danced with every maiden on the marriage market who fell into his purview—which left Scottish girls such as Marilla and Fiona to the side—and then he had made what he thought was a reasoned, intelligent decision.
His thought process had been a bit embarrassing, in retrospect. He had decided that Opal would make a good mother. He hadn’t known his own mother well, since she had run away with his uncle—his father’s younger brother—when he was just a child. They had gone to the Americas, and for all he knew, they were there still.
Still, it didn’t help to know that he had a reason to feel unsure of himself around women. His father’s freezing tirades, which invariably emphasized female lust, had clearly affected him.
He would have sworn that Opal was chaste; among other signs, he had never detected the faintest shadow of desire when she looked at him. Now he thought back to the docility with which she accepted his compliments, her downturned eyes, and the way she turned her head to the side . . . He had been a fool.
It wasn’t that he wanted to make a fast woman his countess. An unblemished reputation was of supreme importance. But . . . he would like to have his wife love him. Enough so that she wouldn’t leap to another man’s bed.
What’s more, if Bret could make a woman love him, Byron damn well could as well. His competitive edge rose to the surface. He could make a woman look at him with wild delight. He could bind her to him so persuasively that she would never look at another.
Marilla Chisholm was an obvious candidate. She was pretty, devastatingly so. Her curls were soft as butter, and her eyes a delightful blue.
And the fact that her youthful spirits led her to behavior that would be classified as outrageous by the strict matrons who ruled the ton . . . well, that was all to the better. After all, she was trying to kiss him, rather than a dancing master. She was probably just innocent of the ways of the world.
To be fair, his fiancée had not shown any reluctance to accept his kisses, to the best of his recollection. It was he who had thought to protect her maidenly virtue, never venturing more than to give her a chaste buss. If he had kissed Opal more passionately, would she have turned to him, rather than the dancing master?
He rather suspected that might be the case.
One could almost think that she had deliberately planned that he should discover her in a compromising position. When he’d entered the room, she had seemed neither shocked nor dismayed. He had stood there, consumed in an incandescent rage, and Opal watched him as she pushed away her dancing master, smiled prettily, and said, “Well, I suppose our betrothal is at an end.”
The more he thought about it . . . the more he was convinced the whole scene was calculated. She probably paid that dancing master for the kiss. That was how much she wanted to get rid of him. Of him, the Earl of Oakley.
Yet his figure was agreeable, if not better than that. His nose was Roman, as Marilla had pointed out, but not overly so. He was wealthy and titled.
But he hadn’t bothered to woo Opal. In fact, he’d been something of a pompous ass about it, bestowing his hand upon her with the expectation that she would consider it life’s greatest blessing.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t recognize the prototype. His father had judged people solely on their claims to bloodlines and estate. No maid in the late earl’s presence raised her eyes above shoulder level unless spoken to. No child, including his own, spoke unless invited to do so. No woman, including his own wife, expressed disagreement with one of Lord Oakley’s opinions, at least to the best of Byron’s memory.
He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. He might have inadvertently fallen into some of his father’s habits of mind and conduct. But that needn’t mean he had to retain them; he was, after all, possessed of a free will. The late earl had been a cold-blooded man whose only deep concern was for his reputation. He had sent Robin to Rugby after the comte died because of what people would say if he didn’t; but he wouldn’t let Robin come home on holidays because of the French “taint” in his nephew’s blood.
He, Byron, didn’t have to take after his father. He could be spontaneous and warm. Amusing, even. Charming. All those things that Robin was and he wasn’t . . . but only because he hadn’t ever really tried.
He couldn’t imagine himself in love—but he could damn well make a woman fall in love with him. For a moment he considered Fiona Chisholm, but there was something in her gaze that suggested she was unlikely to succumb to tender feelings. Some sort of reserve that echoed his own.
Lady Cecily was pretty as a picture, but his friend Burbett had mentioned that he was as good as betrothed to her, so there was no point looking in her direction.
That left Marilla. She was lively, beautiful, and—for the most part—well mannered. Her joie de vivre would keep him young. He could play blindman’s buff with his children someday.
Byron took himself downstairs that afternoon resolved to win Marilla’s heart. He would begin by reiterating the request he had made to her to address him by his Christian name.
If he married someone like Marilla, it would prove to Taran that he wasn’t stuffy, like his father. The more he thought on it, Marilla was practically perfect. The other young ladies seemed to regard her as something of a leader: witness the way that they followed her suggestion of blindman’s buff.
Leadership was a good attribute for a countess.
He reached the bottom of the stairs, hesitated, and then turned into the library rather than the drawing room. Even given his new determination to consider Marilla as a countess, it was something of a relief to find that she wasn’t in the room.
In fact, the library’s only occupant was Marilla’s sister, Fiona. She lay on a sofa before the fire, reading a book, dark red curls tumbling down one shoulder. Her spectacles were surprisingly winsome, he thought. Really, it was enough to make one think that they might become fashionable.
As he walked over to the fireplace, she looked up from her book, and her brow creased for a moment. He could tell perfectly well that she had momentarily forgotten who he was. This was a woman truly unimpressed by his consequence.
“Lord Oakley,” he prompted, adding, “but please call me Byron; we are all on terms of the greatest familiarity at Finovair.” It wasn’t at all hard to ask her that. In fact, he would rather like to hear his name on her lips.
She swung down her legs, rose, and dropped a curtsy. “Lord Oakley,” she said, her eyes shadowed by curling eyelashes.
Byron bowed to the young lady and then walked over to stand in front of the sofa. He nearly sat down without being invited to do so, because that was the way people on easy terms behaved. Or at least, so he thought. But his breeding got the better of him and he remained on his feet. “We all agreed to address each other by our Christian names,” he informed her, hating the hectoring tone of his voice even as he spoke. “Mine is Byron.”
She regarded him silently for a moment. Her eyes were just as green as they had appeared last night, and her spectacles perched on a delightfully pert nose.
“In fact, you and my sister made that agreement between you, though I must presume that the Duke of Bretton and Catriona have agreed to the same informality. Does all this lack of ceremony distress you?” she asked, avoiding use of his name, he noticed. And not offering to allow him to use her own.
“I am not accustomed to it,” he admitted. “Do I remember that your name is Fiona?”
“Yes,” she confirmed, again not granting him permission to address her as such.
Despite himself, he felt a little stung. “I apologize for interrupting your reading,” he said, making up his mind not to leave the room directly, because it was good for him, one might say instructive, to remain with people who took no account of his importance. Fiona certainly fell into that category. “May I ask what volume has caught your interest?”
The earl was dangerously beautiful, Fiona thought. But so controlled. Did he even perspire when he made love? Did his face turn red, did he make inelegant noises, did he . . .
“I am reading a novel called Persuasion,” she said, jerking her mind from that disgraceful (though interesting) subject. As it happened, she had not personally acquired information about intimate encounters of that nature, but she had heard all about them. Nothing she had heard about grunting, sweaty encounters sounded terribly appealing.
“You have found your way into the wrong room, Lord Oakley,” she said, tucking herself back into a corner of the sofa. Her finger marked her place in her novel. When he first entered the room, the pompous Sir Walter of the novel and the pompous earl in front of her were confused in her mind; she had blinked at Byron as if he had somehow materialized out of the book’s pages.
In reality, her comparison wasn’t fair in the least. Oakley was young and remarkably good-looking, with white-blond hair clipped very short, and winged black eyebrows. He reminded her of a medieval saint carved from ivory: all dignity, virtue, and pale skin.
But he was still Sir Walter, under that lovely exterior. A man who could not conceivably feel other than disgust for her.
“Everyone is doubtless having a wonderful time in the drawing room. They will be missing you,” she said encouragingly.
“I am too old to play games,” he countered, as if she’d shown the faintest interest in his age.
“Does that mean you actually played games as a child?” she asked, with a queer mix of genuine curiosity and a strong wish to puncture his rigid control. He looked as if he had been born in an immaculately pressed—and elegantly tied—silk neck cloth.
“Certainly, I did.”
Frankly, while the man might be an exceptional physical specimen, he was not a very captivating conversationalist. All the same, it would be rude to simply resume reading in front of him. “Is there something I might help you find in the library?” she asked, her tone once more implying that he should take himself elsewhere.
Instead, he sat down beside her.
Fiona took a deep breath, and then wished she hadn’t. He even smelled good, like starched linen and manly soap. She didn’t like English earls. In fact, she didn’t like Englishmen in general. This one was distracting her from her book. He made her . . . he made her think about things she had given up.
Men, for example.
She had agreed to marry once, and that was enough. Though, of course, her betrothed had been nothing like Oakley. Dugald had been an oaf—and a violent, drunken one at that. The earl didn’t look as though he ever relaxed enough to drink spirits.
“Lord Oakley,” she said, rather less than patiently, “would it bother you greatly if I continued to read my book?”
“May I ask you a blunt question before you recommence, Miss Chisholm?”
“If you must,” she replied. “But only if you give me the same courtesy. What on earth are you doing here? You should be in the drawing room being wooed by adoring young ladies.”
“Adoring young ladies?” He seemed genuinely confused.
“I hope you are not wounded by Catriona’s defection to the duke. Either my sister or Lady Cecily would be a splendid countess, and I’m certain they are waiting with bated breath for your return to the drawing room.” A less severe man might have been thought to smile, she noticed. Perhaps he did smile, with his eyes, though not with his lips.
“I gather that you deem Miss Burns and yourself as birds of a feather.”
“You wouldn’t want me to adore you,” Fiona assured him. “I have a ruined reputation. That being the case, I think we could simply skip the part where I try to entice you into an unwise marriage based on our unexpected propinquity, don’t you?”
“That was a very long sentence.” Yes, he was smiling. Amazing.
“I can translate it, if you’d like,” she offered.
“I cannot decide how I am to take your wit. I seem to be the target of it, so presumably, I should not laugh. But if I am not to laugh, then who is the recipient?”
Fiona took a swift breath. “You have put me in my place. And,” she admitted reluctantly, “I deserved it. I should not have made fun at your expense, particularly since my jests were weak. But, in truth, Lord Oakley, I’m certain everyone is awaiting your return to the drawing room. I mustn’t keep you with this foolish babble.”
He was silent for a moment. “I suppose I am looking for someone to adore me. Though it sounds remarkably arrogant, put so.”
Fiona winced. “I have offended you again. I am truly sorry. I have no right to judge your demeanor, and I would never consider you in such a light.” She didn’t know where to look, so she glanced back at her book.
“I’ll leave you to your reading. If I might ask a question first?”
“Absolutely,” she said, and then, unable to stop herself: “Though I’m positively dying to finish this novel, so I would be grateful if you would ask your question immediately.” It wasn’t the book, not really. There was something very dangerous about the earl, doubly so because he was so domineering and arrogant—and yet at this moment there was also something slightly uncertain about him.
It made no sense that a pang of faint anxiety should overrule her dislike of arrogant men, but there it was. She didn’t even want to meet his eyes again, for fear she would see that utterly disarming note of uncertainty.
“My question is in reference to your sister.”
At that, Fiona lifted her head and gave him a judicious smile. “You couldn’t do better than to choose Marilla as your countess,” she cooed. It was manifestly false, but family loyalty is surely a greater good than truthfulness.
“I was wondering whether her affections were otherwise engaged. A woman so beautiful must have many local admirers.”
“Not at all! That is,” she added, “of course Marilla is much adored. But she has not yet settled on the man to whom she would like to bestow her hand.”
He appeared to be brooding over something, so Fiona said mendaciously, “And I’m sure I need not tell you how admired she is. She has a very lively personality.”
“Too much so, some might say.”
Fiona stiffened. Marilla was objectionable, but nevertheless was still her sister. “What precisely do you mean by that?” she inquired, her voice as chilly as she could make it.
“Merely foolishness,” the earl said. He stood, and gave her a slight bow. “I will give your best to everyone in the drawing room.”
She felt a pang of guilt. Something like disappointment clouded his eyes. Though that was ridiculous. It was as if she caught a flash of a lonely boy, but looking at the magnificently dressed, handsome aristocrat before her, she was obviously mistaken.
“I would greatly prefer that you did not,” she told him. “They may feel the need to gather me into the game-playing fracas on the other side of the wall.”
When the oh-so-severe earl smiled, which he did now, his face was transformed. His eyes could make a woman into a drunk who lived for those moments alone. She hastily returned her gaze to her book.
He paused for a moment, and then she saw his boots receding and heard the door to the library quietly closing.
Fiona sat still, biting her lip, not reading. She was reconciled to her lot in life, truly she was. But there were times when she felt a stab of anger at Dugald, anger so potent that it burned the back of her throat. What right had he to take away her chance to marry a man like the earl?
The absurdity of that thought jerked her out of her self-pity. She had attended Marilla in two of her last three seasons in London. Though she stayed, appropriately, at the fringes with the chaperones, she had nonetheless spied Oakley from afar. Dugald or no Dugald, she would never have had the slightest contact with a man such as the earl under any other circumstances.
She opened Persuasion again and pushed away the pulse of sadness. What was she thinking? That implacable look in his eyes would make him a terrible—
What was she thinking? Even if she wasn’t known the length and breadth of Scotland as a hussy of the worst order, she was a mere Scottish miss.
Noblemen such as Oakley did not deign to look at lowly beings such as she.
Her fingers curled more tightly around the volume as a sudden image of Marilla as Countess of Oakley flashed through her mind. Byron as her brother-in-law. Seated across from her at the supper table before retiring upstairs with Marilla.
She’d move to Spain.
No, that wasn’t far enough.
Two hours later
Fiona was firmly under the spell of the cheerful but slightly battered heroine of Persuasion—not to mention Sir Walter and his daughter—when she heard the door to the library open and then quickly shut again.
She was curled up under a toasty red blanket with a comforting doggy smell, and felt vastly disinclined to move.
“Hello?” she asked reluctantly, sitting up.
The earl was standing against the door, finger on his lips. She nodded and lay back onto the sofa.
She had decided to keep her distance from the earl. She could not allow herself to be enticed by that air of confidence and power that he wore like an invisible cloak. It had probably been bestowed in the cradle along with his insignia or crest or however it was that earls distinguished themselves from mere mortals.
She read the next paragraph three times, trying to fix her attention on the words, even though every fiber of her being was dying to know what Byron was doing. Against her better judgment, she had started to think of him as Byron, an inappropriate intimacy, if ever there was one.
When she’d read the paragraph for the fourth time, and still had no idea what it said, she conceded defeat. She sat up again to confront Byron just as the door was slammed open and Marilla appeared, flushed and radiant. If Marilla was exquisite at the best of times, when she was rosy and excited, she was terrifying. “Oh, Byron! I’m very, very sure you’re here!” she caroled.
The moment she noticed Fiona, her eyes narrowed, and her voice lost all claim to charm. “I’m looking for the earl. Has he entered?”
Marilla’s quarry had flattened himself against the wall behind the door. His lips were moving, perhaps in prayer or entreaty; either way, he had the look of a hunted animal. Marilla had obviously overplayed her hand again, but Fiona couldn’t bring herself to care very much.
She quickly looked back to her sister so as not to betray his presence. “No, but I think I heard someone running up the stairs.”
The sparks in Marilla’s eyes faded as she contemplated the significance of this. “Of course! He’s hidden in his bedchamber or mine, so that we may enjoy a moment or two of privacy once I find him.”
Fiona frowned, and Marilla added irritably, “High-society games are little more than opportunities for dalliance, which is something you could never understand. The forfeit is a kiss. We’ve been playing hide-and-seek all afternoon, but the duke and Catriona insist on finding no one but each other, which is tiresome for the rest of us.”
“In that case,” Fiona said, “perhaps you’d better find the earl before Lady Cecily steals a kiss.”
Marilla smirked. “She’s proved to be a regular sobersides. We’re all playing, even Taran, and—”
“Taran ran off and hid?”
“I found him in the back of the kitchens! He’s surprisingly fit for a man on the edge of the grave. He actually insisted on the forfeit.”
“Taran is hardly on the edge of the grave,” Fiona pointed out.
Reputation—as distinguished from virtue—seemed to have been declared irrelevant for the duration of the storm-imposed confinement. Fiona was fairly certain that the Duke of Bretton and Miss Burns were not worrying about reputation . . . well, now she thought about it, Catriona’s virtue as well as her reputation might be at risk. But that was hardly Fiona’s problem, and besides, they were betrothed.
“Don’t you dare return upstairs or come to the drawing room,” Marilla ordered. “Our bedchamber may be occupied for some time.” Her smile was more predatory than sweet.
“I’m getting hungry,” Fiona protested. “It’s teatime.”
“You’re plump enough. You could go a whole day without eating, and it would be the better for your waist.”
Fiona’s eyes must have narrowed, because Marilla suddenly looked a bit cautious. “I suppose if you must eat, you could ring for something. I am certainly not the person to wait on you hand and foot.”
“The library has no bell,” Fiona pointed out. “In fact, I doubt the castle has a system to summon the help.”
Marilla sighed. “I’ll have one of those disgusting old fools send you some seedcakes, I suppose.”
“I would like a hot drink as well.”
“Very well,” Marilla said with a flounce. “Just remain in this room. As I said, I do not want the earl to associate the two of us in any way. It’s better that you stay tucked out of sight.”
“I shan’t leave,” Fiona promised.
Characteristically, Marilla slammed the door behind her.
The library fell silent again. Fiona could hear Marilla impatiently delivering orders on the other side of the door, and then the patter of her slippers as she left in hot pursuit of her prey.
“Ignominious and yet fascinating,” Fiona remarked, as soon as the sound of her sister’s footsteps had faded completely. Against all reason, she found herself unable to suppress her laughter. “The fabulously rich and powerful Earl of Oakley cowering behind a door, as if the hounds of hell were in hot pursuit. I thought this kind of scene happened only in French farces. And in those, the main characters are already married.”
He strolled forward, his eyes glittering with less-than-suppressed anger. “Your sister,” he stated, “is a threat to every unmarried man in Great Britain.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
When the earl had first been pointed out to her in a ballroom two years before, she had thought him utterly aloof, in the way of men who are so consumed by their own consequence that they were like ice statues: rigid and cold.
But now his color was heightened. In a man less ferocious, his expression could be deemed an insulted pout.
“Marilla has strong opinions about titles,” Fiona said. “She thinks they improve a man immensely, rather as a vintage does a wine. What did she do to give you such a fright?”
The way Byron glared at her suggested he was prone to murder; she parried it with an even more lavish smile, because it would never do to let him know that all that glowering menace was effective. “One would think that such a big, strong earl as yourself wouldn’t be overcome by fear,” she cooed, “but there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Fear is a natural human emotion.”
One more furious stride, and he was glowering down at her.
He didn’t look frightened: more the opposite. He looked like an enraged beast, roused from a peaceful den by an impudent intruder. Fiona loved it. Her heart sped up, which was utterly perverse.
“Your sister is a menace,” he spat. “Do you have any idea what she did to me? Any idea?”
“No,” Fiona said, tipping back her head in order to see his expression. “I’ve been right here all along. Something lacking sense, no doubt.”
He bared his teeth at her. “I am a calm man.”
“Oh, I can see that,” she said with some enjoyment.
“And I can see that you merely pretend to be a quiet, bookish young lady.”
“Well, I did tell you that I had a bad reputation,” she said, grinning at him the way she smiled only at her closest friends because . . . well . . . this was just so much fun. “But since we both seem to have a hidden dark side, may I say that yours is more interesting? I judged you a chilly aristocrat to the bone, but now you more resemble a barbarian.” She frowned. “Perhaps a barbarian chased by a rhinoceros. Really, what’s the worst Marilla can do to you? There’s no chaperone here to force the two of you to wed simply because of a rash kiss.”
“You think I’m boring and predictable. The sort who would prefer respect to love in matters of marriage.”
Her mouth fell open.
“Don’t you?” He braced his arms on the back of the sofa and leaned over her. The flush of anger in his face was fading, but his eyes were still hawklike. Fiona frowned at him, not sure what she was seeing. Hawklike and wounded?
“Yet even the most liberal gentleman would think it reasonable to avoid a woman who, when her bodice slips to her waist, merely giggles. And what happened thereafter—” He broke off, obviously remembering he was speaking to Marilla’s sister.
“Given our constrained circumstances, we cannot be criticized for wearing ill-fitting garments,” Fiona said, coming to Marilla’s rescue. “Lady Cecily’s clothing is hanging from her like drapes from a narrow window.”
“At least Lady Cecily manages to remain decently covered,” Byron retorted.
“Yet more surprising information about the male sex,” Fiona said. “I was always under the impression that men quite liked a risqué glimpse of an ankle and the like.”
“You mock me.”
Fiona couldn’t help it: laughter bubbled out of her, and when he scowled, she found herself practically rolling on the sofa, gasping with laughter until he gave a reluctant smile.
“I’m sorry,” she said, giggling. “I really am. I’ve been indoors too long, obviously. No fresh air.”
“I wish to ask you a question,” Byron said, interrupting. He moved around the sofa to stand in front of the fire, the better to glower at her.
“What happened to the icy earl?” she asked, a last giggle escaping. “I feel as if the fairies stole you and returned with a hot-tempered . . .” She eyed him.
Backlit by the fire, his muscled legs showed to remarkable advantage. Suddenly, he didn’t look like an aristocrat, like an English aristocrat. It was as if he shifted before her eyes, replaced by a big, muscled man emanating a sort of primal heat. And . . .
She wrenched her eyes away. Wonderful. Now she was ogling him with as much fervor as her sister probably had done.
“Hot-tempered giant,” she said quickly, sobered by that thought. “What was it you wanted to ask me, Lord Oakley?” Her book had slipped to the floor; she picked it up and smoothed the pages. She had a third of it left. She should bury herself in the plot, and stop thinking about Byron altogether. He was too male, too beautiful . . . too volatile. And he was obviously in the grip of some fierce, barely contained emotion.
It couldn’t be that Marilla had roused all that passion.
Or perhaps she had.
He glanced down at the book in her hand. “I see you are still reading. What is the title again?”
“Persuasion, by Miss Jane Austen.”
“And are you enjoying it?”
She looked at him and hardened her heart. Men as beautiful as he were surely accustomed to fighting off the advances of young ladies. “Yes,” she said shortly. “I am. But surely, Lord Oakley, that is not the question you wished to ask me.”
“It’s not a question, precisely. I was hoping that you could inform your sister that I am an unlikely focus for her attentions.”
“Everyone knows that you are looking for a bride,” Fiona said, feeling her way into a further defense of Marilla. “News of your broken betrothal traveled before you. I’m afraid that I cannot alter the tide of public opinion. Every unmarried young lady considers you a suitable focus for her attentions. More than suitable.”
His brows drew together. “Perhaps you might tell her that I have determined not to marry.”
Fiona rolled her eyes. “Please. Marilla will no more believe that than I would. You still need a wife; you merely need to find a woman who isn’t interested in kissing other men. Marilla, for one, would never kiss a footman. As I told you, she’s mad about titles.”
“My fiancée was not kissing a footman,” he said, giving the distinct impression that his teeth were clenched together. “It was her dancing master.” To her shock, he strode over to the sofa, pushed her legs aside, and sat down.
Then he folded his arms and looked at her challengingly. “It’s not a matter of my being overly punctilious, either. Do you see what I just did? Where I am? I pushed you aside and sat down without being asked. I’m sitting in this room with a young lady who has identified herself as having a less-than-perfect reputation.”
Another giggle broke from Fiona’s lips before she could suppress it. Was she supposed to congratulate him on his bravery? Or his finesse?
He gave her a narrow-eyed glance. “I may be a dunce, but I’m not a self-righteous turnip.”
“I would never think of you in terms of a garden vegetable,” she said encouragingly.
“At any rate, a dancing master is not precisely a servant.” He paused. “Although lately I begin to think that she set up the entire event so that I would break off the engagement.”
Fiona reached over and patted his knee. The stuffy earl was obviously having some sort of stuffy person’s crisis, and she was thoroughly enjoying watching it, even though such pleasure cast a dubious light on her own claims to being a kindly soul. “Oh, don’t underestimate the allure of a dancing master. So much more understandable than a footman. Was he French?”
“If you are warming up to casting aspersions on my ability to dance, as has my cousin, I would prefer that you refrain.”
Fiona had been planning to do just that, so she started over. “Marilla hasn’t the faintest interest in kissing anyone—except, of course, her husband, once she has one. And she would never kiss a commoner; she has very high standards. Therefore, she will be a perfect match for you.”
“Your sister has already kissed me,” he stated. “I played only a passive role in the incident. I am well aware that my uncle’s foolishness has thrown us all together without a chaperone, but—”
“Exactly!” Fiona said, grasping thankfully on to that excuse. “Marilla is overcome by a heady sense of freedom.”
“Then you should act as her chaperone.”
“Unfortunately, my sister pays me no mind,” Fiona said, more honestly than was perhaps advisable.
“I had given her hardly any encouragement,” the earl said, a heavy frown indicating something that she had long suspected. Men liked to seduce, rather than be seduced.
“You’re very attractive,” Fiona said, silently cursing Marilla’s propensity to overplay her hand. “She was overcome by your . . . your . . .” To her horror, her mind went blank; the only thing she could think of was his thighs and that ferocious maleness about him. “Your charm,” she cried. “Overcome by your charm, she has temporarily forsaken her maidenly modesty.”
A smile curled one side of his mouth. Really, a man shouldn’t have such a full lower lip. It wasn’t fair to the female sex. “I feel a bit wounded that it took you such a time to come up with a single attribute about me that might attract a young lady such as your sister, apart from my title, of course.”
Fiona ignored this. “Marilla would make a perfect countess.”
“I beg to disagree.”
She persisted. “Yes, she would.” She raised a finger to enumerate. “She’s an heiress. You do know that land isn’t entailed here in Scotland, don’t you? She will inherit my father’s entire estate, and it is considerable.”
“Your father bequeathed her everything? What about you? Don’t you have a dowry?”
“I have my own fortune from my mother,” Fiona said. “My father had no need to provide a dowry.”
There was a gleam in his eye that made her frown.
“Money is not everything,” she pointed out. “I’m not eligible for marriage, at least not to anyone like yourself. I have already told you of my reputation, though Taran must have forgotten about it when he scooped up his potential brides. To return to the matter at hand.” She raised a second finger. “Marilla is not only an heiress, but she’s very beautiful.”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the earl said promptly.
She cast him a glance. She couldn’t imagine the person who would judge him less than beautiful, and that went double for Marilla.
“Don’t you agree, Miss Chisholm, or may I call you Fiona?” the earl said, leaning toward her. His eyes were rather warm. “I think Fiona is a lovely name.”
“I wouldn’t know about beauty,” she said with some severity. “I wear spectacles, as you see. That keeps me from drawing conclusions about people based on something as shallow as their appearance. But I am aware that a gentleman would like to take that into account, and I can assure you that Marilla is one of the most beautiful young ladies in all Scotland. And England as well, from what I’ve seen,” she added, somewhat recklessly.
“Your sister is like a hound in full-blooded chase after a fox. In that metaphor, I am the fox,” he stated.
Fiona shut her eyes for a moment. “She is young. And as I said, she’s wild about titles. Just wild about them.”
“Wild?” His face said it all.
“I assure you that the phrase is used in the most polite households. Miss Austen uses it several times.” She opened the book and found the relevant paragraph in a moment. “ ‘The girls were wild for dancing.’ ”
“Wildness is not a trait I am looking for in my bride.”
“I expect you are not looking for a wild girl,” Fiona said, trying to sound conciliatory. “But if you wouldn’t mind a bit of plain speaking, after the unfortunate affair of the dancing master, the trait that you truly want is an understanding of propriety. Marilla wouldn’t kiss a servant if she were at the point of death. She understands her own worth. I’m her sister, and I should know. That is, I do know.”
“I am not interested in her behavior once married.”
Fiona nodded. There was no hope for Marilla; one had only to take a look at Byron’s stony countenance to know that. “I will tell her.” Honesty compelled her to reiterate, “But she won’t listen to me.”
“Why not? In the absence of your parents, she should pay respect to you.”
“You have no siblings, so I gather you have no idea how ignorant that assumption is.”
“I do not wish to quell her natural spirits. She is quite beautiful, sportive, and charming.”
Fiona flipped open her book. She’d had enough talking about Marilla for the day, and besides, if the earl thought her sister was that charming, he’d probably end up married to her, whether he wished to or no. “I completely understand,” she said, glancing down. “I will inform her that you prefer that she offer no more kisses, and that she keep her bodice firmly in place.”
A moment later she was immersed again in the story, bent on ignoring the man sitting at the other end of the sofa . . . except he did not stir. “I thought you were leaving,” she said finally, peering at him over her spectacles.
“I have been watching you instead.”
“A tiresome occupation,” Fiona observed.
“You mean it, don’t you? Your sister will pay no heed to an admonishment from you.”
Having already been unduly honest, Fiona saw no reason to prevaricate now. “It could be that your absence from the drawing room has turned her attention to someone else . . . the Comte de Rocheforte, perhaps.”
“It is my impression that Rocheforte is looking elsewhere.”
Fiona raised an eyebrow. “Really? That’s quite interesting.”
“He’s my cousin,” Byron explained. “I know him better than any other person in the world. He pretends to be a care-for-nothing, but in fact, he has a great affection for this place. However, without an estate, he cannot afford it, so he acts as if it is not important to him.”
“I’ve seen people act in that manner before,” Fiona said, thinking that she did it herself.
At that moment the door opened behind them. Byron froze and then he turned slowly, his eyes bright and wary.
Fiona had been looking forward to the next act in the French farce that their kidnapping had become, but rather than Marilla, one of the laird’s men pushed his way through the door, a tray balanced on his shoulder.
“Brought you buttered crumpets,” he said with a grunt. “And mulled cider.” He walked over to the fire and put the tray down on a hassock. Then he set a lidded silver pitcher on the floor close to the hearth. “Leave it here so it’ll stay hot,” he ordered.
“Thank you,” Fiona said. “We will.”
He straightened, caught sight of Byron, and scowled. “Does the laird know that you’re in here?”
“No, and you’ll not tell him.” The words were delivered with a hard tone that seemed to make an impression on the man.
“Wooing!” he said, and turned and spat into the fire. “Time was a man dinna have to do this kind of wooing. Groveling for money, more like.” His gaze moved to Fiona. “Begging from women who has the money. It’s unnatural.” He collected her cold teapot and headed for the door.
Byron strode after him. “You didn’t see me here,” he stated.
The old Scotsman snorted and stomped off.
Oddly enough, that snort made Byron smile. Fiona decided that she didn’t understand him. He was unnerved by Marilla’s advances, but amused by a retainer’s flat rudeness. As she watched, he not only closed the door but turned the key.
“Is that truly necessary?” Fiona inquired.
“If you’re asking whether I’d prefer to avoid the experience of having another strange breast fall into my hand like an overripe plum, the answer is yes.”
Perhaps she should say something to defend her sister. But an overripe plum didn’t sound very nice.
“What if it weren’t a strange breast?” she asked, unable to resist.
“I am not familiar with any woman’s breasts,” Byron replied, walking back to the sofa. “At the moment the world is full of strange breasts. Though I must say, this is a very improper subject.”
“You do need to marry,” Fiona pointed out, struck by his observation. “You should be out there groveling at someone’s feet—Lady Cecily’s for example—in the hopes of gaining an intimate acquaintance with body parts other than her feet.”
“There are better things a man could do with his time than grovel at a woman’s feet,” Byron remarked.
With a start, Fiona realized that he was looking at her as he sat back down. With a lazy smile.
A dangerous smile.
For a moment her heart hiccupped, but she got hold of herself. “Right,” she said briskly. “You may have one of my crumpets, and then I would ask to be left in peace. I don’t have much left to read in this novel, and I’m keen to finish it.”
“If you force me to leave now, I shall starve,” he complained, picking up a linen napkin from the tray.
“Only because you’re afraid to go into the drawing room for tea.”
He reached a powerful hand toward the crumpets. Devil take the man, his limbs were probably as beautifully knit as his fingers. “More cautious than afraid,” he said. “Have you noticed how much worse the storm has grown today?”
She didn’t even glance at the windows. She’d lived in the Highlands all her life, and she knew the howl of the wind. “It will worsen through tomorrow evening, I should guess. You are now in the Highlands proper, Lord Oakley.”
“My name is Byron,” he said, for the third or fourth time, as he handed her the napkin and a crumpet.
The incongruity of this man being named Byron flashed across her mind. Byron was a poet, a man who wrote of love, midnight, and a woman’s smile. The earl, though, was of a different character altogether.
He obviously read her expression. “I have no connection whatsoever to that paltry rhymester Lord Byron. The name has been in my family for generations.”
“You’re not a poet, then?” She smiled at him, acknowledging that the mere notion was ridiculous. In fact, his christening had to be some sort of jest on destiny’s part. This Byron was the least poetic man she’d ever met.
On the other hand, his person could easily be the subject of poetry. From the top of his ice-blond head to the toes of his perfectly shined boots, he was flawless. Even in the width of his shoulders and the clear blue of his eyes.
He had finished his crumpet, so he picked up the pitcher and poured hot cider into her empty teacup.
“Brandied cider,” she said happily. “What a perfect drink for an afternoon such as this.”
“It’s not afternoon; it must be going on six in the evening,” Byron said, pouring himself a mug. “At any rate, I could write poetry if I wished.” Stubbornness echoed in every word.
She eyed him. “Are you this competitive in every aspect of your life?”
“It is not competitive to understand that poetry presents very little challenge. A rhyme here or there is hardly problematical.” He tossed back his cider.
Fiona thought precisely the opposite, but she kept prudently silent. It had just occurred to her that he might have had a rather sad childhood. Still, thinking that an earl—a man immersed in privilege and luxury—could have been neglected was absurd. She was mistaking innate arrogance for something else.
“Did your governess teach you the fine art of writing lyrics?” he asked, reaching past her toward the plate of crumpets. “Or were you sent to school?” His lips had taken on a buttery shine. If she had the nerve—and life were completely different—she would kiss him just there, on the bow of his lower lip.
Snow was dashing itself against the windows, and the library felt like a very warm, very snug nest. “We were largely raised by a nanny and a governess,” she told him. “We had different mothers, but unfortunately, neither survived past our early years. My governess was not poetical, to the best of my memory.”
“Mine felt that nursery rhymes were poor substitutes for biblical verses,” the earl said.
“That sounds . . . tedious,” Fiona said honestly.
He nodded. “I think it would have been better had I a sibling. I would have guessed that Marilla was spoiled. ‘Too pretty for her own good,’ my nanny would have said.”
“Did your nanny say that of you?”
“I’m not pretty,” he said, reaching for the last crumpet.
“Please save at least one crumpet for me,” she asked pointedly.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. To her surprise, there was a wicked amusement in his eyes. “I’m sure Marilla would say I should eat them all, the better to protect your waistline.”
“Beast,” she said, but without heat. His gaze made it perfectly clear that he thought her waistline was fine as it was. In fact, that was probably the kind of carnal look that her father thought she’d given Dugald. She hadn’t. Ever.
“I wouldn’t want us to quarrel over crumpets,” Bryon said, a glimmer of a smile at one corner of his mouth. Then he did something that she would never in a million years have expected: he held the crumpet up to her lips.
She looked at him.
“Open your mouth and take a bite,” he ordered.
He watched her lips so intently that she felt a curl of heat in her stomach. He couldn’t truly be attracted to her.
Not that it mattered. At the moment he knew next to nothing about her past, yet all too soon he would. But then . . . his eyes met hers as she took the bite, and the curl of heat grew a little more intense.
It was as though they were having two completely distinct, yet simultaneous conversations. It was most disconcerting.
“Marilla was a beautiful infant,” she told him, unable to think what else to say. He took a bite of her crumpet, still watching her intently. “The adoration her curls inspired wasn’t terribly good for her.”
“I suppose it led her to believe that she was the most endearing child in the Highlands, as opposed to the most willful.” He held out the crumpet again.
“Lord Oakley,” she asked with some curiosity, “do you feel that you might have a fever?”
“You seem to be acting out of character. Do you think your friends would recognize you if they could see you now?”
“Of course they would.”
She hesitated. “You do know that Marilla and I attended the London season the last two years?”
A slight frown creased his brow. “Will you eat this crumpet, or shall I finish it?”
She accepted what little remained of the crumpet and finished it in two bites. Butter dripped onto the back of her hand, and without thinking she licked it off. Their eyes met again, and the warmth in her stomach spread to her legs.
“I glimpsed you at two balls in the last season,” she said, straightening her back. “You were pointed out to me as one of the most eligible men in London—that was before you asked for Lady Opal’s hand in marriage, of course.”
“But we were not introduced.” He frowned in a rather irresistible way. “I would have remembered you.”
“Of course we were not introduced,” she said, almost laughing at him. “Marilla and I are as far beneath your notice as butterflies are to a . . . a . . .”
“Hawk?” he suggested.
The right side of his mouth hitched up in an enchantingly hesitant smile.
“At any rate,” she said hastily, reminding herself that this flirtation had no future, “I rather think your friends might believe you’d lost your mind if they could spy on you.”
“I would like to know what it was like to grow up with a sibling,” he said, ignoring her comment. “Did she steal your toys? I believe that is common behavior.”
“Surely Rocheforte stole your things when you were boys?”
“My father did not consider Robin suitable company for his heir,” the earl said. “A matter of his French blood, you understand. We met only as adults, so I did not share my nursery with anyone.”
Her hunch had been right, then: his had indeed been a lonely childhood. “Marilla did borrow my things occasionally,” Fiona admitted. She took a sip of the cider and broke into a fit of coughing.
He leaned over, slipped a hand behind her, and gave her a gentle clap on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Excepting the fact that she could feel the touch of his fingers all the way through ancient velvet, two chemises, and a corset, she was fine. Just fine. “Your uncle’s cider is a trifle stronger than I’m used to.”
Byron poured himself a new cup, and took a healthy swallow. “Brandy with a touch of cider, rather than the reverse,” he said with obvious pleasure. “It isn’t as though we have to do anything requiring coordination.”
Fiona took another sip. The drink burned on the way down to her stomach, reminding her that one crumpet, plus two bites of another, wasn’t much of a meal.
“Let’s return to the subject of your childhood,” Byron said, settling into his corner of the sofa.
“Let’s not,” Fiona said. “We ought to join the others in the drawing room. It must be nearly time for supper.”
There was something wild and boyish about the earl’s face, as if he’d thrown his entire personality—at least, what she’d seen of it in London—out the window. “Not after I went to all that trouble to sneak in here,” he said. “Besides, I’m enjoying this. Very much.”
Fiona felt a blush creep up her neck.
“Lord Oakley,” she said cautiously, “did you take anything to drink before that cider?”
“No,” he said, tipping his head against the back of the sofa. “I did not. But I might drink that whole pitcher; I may never return to the drawing room.” He turned his head and looked into her eyes. “I don’t want to be kissed by your sister again. And that’s even though I gave some thought to marrying her.”
Fiona cleared her throat. “I can understand that.”
He leaned toward her. “But I wouldn’t mind if you kissed me. If you address me as Oakley once again, I shall kiss you. There: I’ve given you fair warning.”
“I shall not kiss you,” Fiona exclaimed, drawing back. “I don’t kiss anyone.”
“And your reason for such abstinence?”
“That’s none of your business.”
He settled back into his corner, nodding. “You would probably share such information only with your intimates. Friends.”
Fiona glanced at him, feeling shy, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him about Dugald. Not yet. “Marilla and I didn’t fight over toys,” she said, looking back to the fire. “I didn’t mind sharing. But when we were growing up, my sister always wanted a portrait frame that I owned.”
He stretched out an arm along the back of the sofa; it was amazing how a person could not touch you . . . and still touch you. “Did she take it from you?”
She nodded. “I always got it back, though.”
“And that frame held a portrait of your dead mother.” She felt him pick up a lock of her hair.
“How on earth did you guess that?” She turned to face him again, and her hair slid from his fingers. Her toes were a little chilly; she pulled up her legs and wrapped her arms around her knees.
“Power of deduction,” he answered, shrugging. “I suspect that you have always given Marilla what she wants, because I doubt there are many material objects you hold dear. I could think of only one thing that you wouldn’t give up. She would want it all the more because it was important to you.”
She stole another look at him, and realized that there was one other thing that she would never willingly give to Marilla . . . but he wasn’t hers to keep. It was a horrifying thought. It was hard enough to recover from the emotional morass caused by Dugald’s death. She didn’t need to fall in love with an improbably beautiful and thorny lord as well.
“It was a very, very pretty frame,” she said, realizing she had adopted Marilla’s favorite phrase only as she said it. “Silver worked with pearl, and of course my sister was quite young when she first saw it.”
Byron stood and moved to the fire, onto which he carefully placed two more logs. As she watched him, it occurred to Fiona that he probably did everything carefully. He returned to the sofa, but somehow ended up seated not at one end, but in the middle.
His hip touched her slippers, in fact. Once again, he slung his arm along the sofa and picked up a lock of her hair. Unsure how to react to this, Fiona pretended not to notice.
“What happened to the frame?” he asked.
“She began stealing the portrait and hiding it, after which I would tear apart her bedchamber looking for it. Eventually, my father heard of our battles, and he sent off to London to have a precise duplicate made, but with a portrait of Marilla’s mother rather than mine. She was, you understand, very beautiful.”
“Your mother must have been extraordinarily lovely as well. What was your father’s secret?” His eyes held an expression she recognized, though it wasn’t often directed at her. She’d seen it too often in the eyes of men looking at her sister to mistake it. He must be drunk to feel lust for her. Quite drunk.
“In fact, my mother was an ordinary woman,” she said, hugging her knees.
“I doubt that.” He paused, then: “How did she die?”
“She caught pneumonia one particularly cold winter. I was quite young, so I haven’t many memories of her, but she was motherly, if you know what I mean.”
“Dark red hair like yours?”
“Your hair has all the colors of the fire in it, like banked logs that might burst into flame any moment. And it curls around my finger like a molten wire.” Without stopping, he asked: “What happened when the portrait arrived?”
“Nothing,” Fiona said, rather sadly. Her sister had tossed the portrait—painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence from an earlier likeness—to the side as if it had cost mere pennies. She could still picture her father’s crushed expression. “Pearls are old fashioned, Papa,” Marilla had snapped. “Don’t you know anything? I swear I don’t belong in this mud hole. I belong in London.”
The earl tugged the lock of her hair that he held, rather as she had tugged Marilla’s that morning. “Lord Oak—”
He tugged harder.
“Byron,” she said, reluctantly. “This conversation isn’t at all proper. Not at all. I don’t wish to call you by your given name.”
“And why is that?”
“Because this is some strange fairy-tale moment, and tomorrow, or possibly the next day, the snow will stop and then the pass will open, and you will return to your life. And I will return to mine.”
“Will you come to London for the season this March?”
“No,” she said swiftly, knowing instantly that she would rather die than sit on the edge of a ballroom and watch the Earl of Oakley waltz with another woman as everyone attempted to decipher his haughty expression. “I didn’t like you very much when I saw you there.”
He nodded, seeming to understand. “You wouldn’t like me this time, either. But couldn’t we pretend that I’m someone different? Likable? After all, we’re buried.” He gestured toward the windows. They were encrusted with snow and ice.
“I’m not very imaginative,” she said apologetically. “All I can see is an earl who is well-known as a most punctilious man, but has apparently lost his head. It would be one thing if I were Marilla. But you’re not struck mad by my nonexistent beauty, so the only way I can explain your flirtation is to believe that you do so in order to avoid my sister. And that doesn’t make me feel very flattered.”
“Why couldn’t I be enthralled by your face? Because, as it happens, I am.” He reached over and poured more cider into both of their cups.
She frowned at him. “How strong is that cider?”
“You are very beautiful, in a quiet way. You’re like a flower that one sees only after wandering away from the coach into a field. And then, behind a rock, one finds a tiny blue flower, like a drop of the ocean in the midst of a brown field.”
“Goodness,” she said, startled by this flight of lyricism. “Perhaps you do have something in common with Lord Byron.”
“Absolutely not,” he said, his lip curling. “The man leads a licentious life and deserves every drop of notoriety he’s earned.”
“Reputation is tremendously important to you by all accounts.”
“An excellent character is a person’s greatest blessing,” he replied. It sounded as if he was repeating a sentence he’d heard many times.
“It’s far more complicated than that. The public nature of one’s character can differ from the nature of one’s intrinsic self,” she answered, feeling her heart ache. Surely she wasn’t falling in love with a man she hardly knew. Clearly, she was feeling too much. More than she’d allowed herself to feel in years, since the wrenching horrible days when she realized that her father didn’t, and never would, believe her about Dugald.
Byron stretched his feet out toward the fire. A log cracked in half and sent a shower of sparks like live bits of gold up the chimney.
“My father believed that nothing mattered except for one’s reputation,” he said, staring into his mug.
“He would have approved, then, of your broken betrothal?”
“Without question. Though I should say that, in point of fact, she broke the engagement after . . . after the incident.”
“Did you love her?” Speaking the words sent a little pulse of savage longing down her neck. Why would his fiancée kiss a dancing master when she could have kissed this complex, beautiful man? It was inconceivable.
“No,” he said morosely. “And obviously, she didn’t love me, either. But I didn’t ask for love.” His expression made it clear that was an important distinction. “I never asked for that.”
“You should have,” Fiona exclaimed, before she could catch herself.
He pushed to his feet and squatted before the fire, using the poker to move a half-burnt log closer to its heart. He moved with a powerful grace that belied his large physique. “I begin to share your opinion.”
She raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t look back at her. “Neither love nor affection is a prerequisite for marriage amongst the nobility,” he continued. “But faithfulness is. That’s what a woman’s reputation means: that she won’t sleep with another man, and leave a cuckoo to inherit one’s estate.”
“I think kindness is important,” Fiona said, thinking of Dugald and his lack thereof.
“Of course. Sanity is also a good attribute in a spouse.” Humor laced his words again, albeit humor with a dark edge.
“You’ve omitted physical attractiveness,” Fiona offered. “From what I’ve seen during the season, gentlemen find beauty tremendously important.”
He was placing another log on the fire, but he half turned in order to see her face. “Why do you single out my sex? Don’t ladies feel the same about their future husband’s appearance?”
She thought about it. Dugald hadn’t been handsome, not in the least. Of course she would have preferred a good-looking man, but when her father had presented her with the marriage, it never occurred to her to say no for that reason. “We generally don’t have the freedom to choose on that basis.”
He looked back at the fire. “The dancing master was going bald. That’s what I remember most: the way his head shone in the back.”
Without conscious volition, Fiona rose and walked a step to his side. But once there, she was at a loss. Obviously, he had cared about his faithless fiancée, no matter how much he protested to the contrary. She put a hand tentatively on his shoulder. Her velvet sleeve was a little too long; its folds fell over the arm of his coat. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He got to his feet. “I didn’t care about her overmuch.” Perhaps he was telling the truth, but she knew instinctively that he would never admit it if Lady Opal had broken his heart.
Byron was a stubborn, stubborn man. That square chin conveyed a level of obstinate, masculine strength that a woman could lean against—and battle—for the whole of her life.
Fiona found herself smiling at him as if he were a true friend, as if genuine affection flowed between them. Somehow, beyond all reason, she felt as if she had just become friends with a pompous, irascible turnip of an English lord.
From the look in his eyes, he had come to the same realization at the same moment.
Then his eyes fell to her lips. She licked them nervously. “Of course,” she said, her voice coming out in a breathy tone that reminded her uncomfortably of Marilla, “of course you didn’t love her!” Somehow she managed to give the sentence a perky tone that was utterly inappropriate.
His eyebrow shot up. He was mocking her, and yet . . . yet there was sensual promise there as well.
“No,” she whispered.
He didn’t answer, at least not directly. Instead, he reached over and pulled one of her hairpins and, before she could stop him, another. Without pins to hold it up, her heavy hair tumbled down over her shoulders.
Byron made a sound in the back of his throat that sounded like a hum.
“What are you doing?” Fiona said, stepping back and frowning. Her spectacles had slid down her nose; she pushed them back up. “I have already informed you that I am not an appropriate person with whom to conduct a flirtation, Lord Oakley.”
“And I have already warned you about using my title,” he said, his voice throaty, and just as she remembered his threat of a kiss, his arms came around her and his mouth descended on hers.
It was not her first kiss. In the heady days before her father matched her with Dugald, she had kissed two boys. For years afterward, she had remembered one of those kisses in particular. She could even remember the sharp smell of the pine needles that crackled under their feet as she and Carrick Farquharson stood in the shade of a garden wall. There had been no second kiss. Carrick had left to fight in His Majesty’s army, and never returned; his body lay in a grave somewhere in France.
Byron’s mouth brushed across hers, and she smelled pine needles, like a ghost of a promise. It was awkward. She didn’t know what to do with her arms, or her spectacles.
The only thing she felt was a deep sense of rightness . . . and an equally powerful sense of wrongness. “We mustn’t do this,” she whispered.
He eased back enough to remove her spectacles. Holding her gaze, he carefully put them on the mantelpiece.
That just meant that Fiona could see his face even more closely. Her brows drew together as she tried to make sense of what was happening. “Why are you kissing me?” she said, keeping her back straight, so that she didn’t relax against him like the veriest trollop. And then, fiercely, “Is it because you know of my reputation?”