Jamie Mackenzie stood the rail at the Southampton docks and craned his head for a better view of the young woman who strolled down the gangplank of the massive ship moored before him.
The lady was surrounded by chaperones, the tall man and harried-looking woman probably her parents, the other two matronly women likely aunts or a former governess or two.
The liner, the Baltic, the largest in the world, blocked any view of the ocean with its vast, dark bulk. A large opening in its hull disgorged passengers onto the open pier, more than two thousand of them, into the blustery late April day.
The young woman stood out, not only because she wore a gown of soft yellow—not the most practical choice for the sooty pier—but because she carried herself with a grace that set her apart. Golden hair peeped from under a white hat—again a questionable choice of attire for the docks, but perhaps her family had instructed her on what to wear
A black-clad man with a large photographic apparatus bumped past Jamie. “Sorry, guv,” he said cheerfully. “Almost missed her.”
He set up his tripod, unfolded his camera, pointed his long lens at the young woman, and began snapping away.
“Who is she?” Jamie asked.
Click … click … click. “You don’t know? Imogen Carmichael, American heiress, richest woman in the world—so I’m told—come to these shores to land herself a titled husband.”
“Title, eh?” Aristocratic monikers held glamour and romance for Americans, and not only for them, Jamie reflected. So many, even in this country, were entranced by a Lord This or Marquis of That.
As the nephew of a duke and cousin to the duke’s heirs, Jamie knew the true worth of titled gentlemen.
He leaned on the rail, wind tugging at the Mackenzie plaid kilt around his hips. “She is a beauty.”
“She’s fair enough.” The photographer shrugged. “Whether I like her or not, my instructions are to get as many photographs of the lovely lady so those what put pen to paper can write all sorts of guff about her.”
Miss Carmichael turned slightly, and Jamie swore she stared directly at him. He inclined his head, rewarded by a slight flush to the lady’s cheeks. Or maybe that was the sudden wind that streaked down the dock, an icy, briny blast from the Channel.
Never mind that Jamie himself wasn’t titled. Mackenzie was an old name, a revered one—one spoken with awe and a little shiver. He could convince Miss Carmichael she didn’t need a title. Persuade her to let him steal her away, as Old Dan Mackenzie had done with his bride so long ago—
Someone slammed into Jamie’s back with the suddenness of a cannon ball, sending him hard against the railing. He slipped on an oily patch and felt his too-tall body begin to pitch over the side, gravity inevitably taking him down to the black water between ship and dock.
The young woman in drab brown who’d run into him dropped her portmanteau and seized handfuls of Jamie’s coat, sucking in a lungful of air as she hauled him upright.
“Trying to drench yourself again, are you, Mackenzie?” she demanded breathlessly.
Jamie turned when she released him, meeting blue eyes the color of delphiniums. Those wide eyes had gazed at him another day, long ago, on the banks of the Cam, when she’d pulled him to safety as she’d done just now.
It couldn’t be …
She had hair like darkness, cheeks pink from the wind, and was bundled in a practical coat, her hat squashed down over her ears. The brown coat and hat were as dull as their surroundings, but her eyes emerged from them like bright sky after gloom.
Jamie hadn’t seen her in half a dozen years, but her wry smile hadn’t changed. The blasted woman had always laughed at him.
“Evie McKnight.” Jamie took a step back from her, meeting the solid rail. “Trying to push me in again? At least you didn’t bring your oar this time.” He glanced behind her as though searching for it.
“Is that all you remember about me, Mackenzie?”
“It is burned upon m’ memory, McKnight.” Jamie’s backside even now recalled the sharp whap from the oar that had inadvertently landed on it as Evie, on the lady’s rowing team at her Cambridge college, had rushed with it to her scull.
“I didn’t need it today,” Evie said, eyes sparkling. “You were so lost in the famous Miss Carmichael that you could have gone straight into the drink without my help.”
“No, lass, I was minding my own business when a lady barreled into me.”
Evie flushed—she could never control her blushes. “Ogling women will be the death of you, Mackenzie. At Cambridge, it was your interest in girls in rowing costumes that was your undoing …”
“Not ogling,” Jamie said with indignation. “I’d come to cheer on the team.”
“Not what you said when you were climbing out of the river.”
Jamie’s language had burned the air. Evie’s face had been beet red at her blunder, and her fellow teammates had laughed themselves sick.
Jamie Mackenzie, the arrogant Scotsman, up to his waist in muddy water, had cursed and floundered until Evie had lowered her oar to him and pulled him from the river. The mud had made a sucking sound as it disgorged him, which had thrown her teammates into further glee.
“I did apologize,” Evie said.
“I know. Ye did it beautifully.”
Evie’s face went even more red, and Jamie knew why. His own was heating at the moment.
“Well, I am glad that is cleared up,” Evie said briskly. “I recommend you don’t fall in here. Far too dangerous.”
Evie leaned to retrieve her portmanteau, but Jamie beat her to it and held the bag out to her. Her hand closed on the handle, half an inch from his.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Jamie asked. “Besides trying to push me in … again.”
Evie dithered, her feet shifting as though ready to flee. She glanced at their hands, both still on the bag’s handle. Jamie withdrew unhurriedly, but Evie moved the bag to her other side, as though worried he’d try to grasp it again.
“Returning home from a sojourn in New York with my mother and sisters. My sisters are all grown up now, and Clara is ready to marry. Hence the journey to New York, though both Clara and Marjorie have declared they prefer Englishmen.” She spoke in a rush, the words pat, as though her thoughts roved far from the docks, the shock of running into Jamie diverting her only momentarily.
“I notice you’re not speaking of yourself rushing to America to snare a husband,” Jamie said. “Or did you? Engaged, are you?”
Evie jumped, returning her full attention to him. “I am, as a matter of fact.”
Jamie’s brows rose. “To an American magnate? Ready to bathe in goat’s milk and honey, or whatever American magnates put into their baths?”
“Hardly.” Evie’s sunny smile blossomed. “He’s a respectable Englishman and a gentleman. Mr. Hayden Atherton. We’ve been betrothed nearly a year now.”
“Oh, yes?” Jamie feigned excitement then shook his head. “Never heard of him.”
Evie laughed, her face lighting up and driving everything else from Jamie’s thoughts. “No, of course, you haven’t. He isn’t one of your reprobate university friends. He is kind and genteel. Polite, cultured.”
“Sounds a right dull stick.” Jamie made a mollifying gesture when she puffed up like an indignant hen. “My apologies, McKnight. You know how to stir up my fractious side. Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials.”
Even as he spoke, Jamie had a curiosity to meet this Mr. Atherton. Was he as polished and perfect as she implied? Good enough for the fiery Evie McKnight? Would Mr. Atherton tame her fire, or would she pry him from his boring stupor?
“Thank you.” Evie’s air of condescension was incongruous with the windblown curls trickling from under her hat. “What are you doing here? Besides ogling heiresses, I mean? I saw Miss Carmichael onboard. She’s lovely, but a bit vague.”
“I was not ogling …” Jamie growled. “Never mind. Here to meet my cousins—Danny and his wife and bairns. They were racing cars and risking their necks in America. I told him I’d assist in the unloading.”
A gleam of interest lit her eye, but everyone was fascinated by motorcars. “Ah yes, I saw them during the voyage. I wasn’t able to meet them—my mother kept us herded together. They seem a warm family. You at least have kind relations, Mackenzie.”
“Ha. I wouldn’t call any of them kind,” Jamie retorted. “Some more interesting than others, maybe. Why have ye strayed then, from your herd?”
Evie darted her gaze about, as though debating what to tell him. He wondered very much what she’d been in a hurry to do when she’d nearly knocked him down.
“I saw an unusually tall Scotsman in danger of falling from the pier,” she said glibly. “I thought I’d warn him.”
Not at all true. She hadn’t noticed Jamie until she’d run smack into him.
“Very amusing. Warn me? Or push me over?”
Evie rubbed her chin, leaving a smudge from her sooty glove. “Actually, I hadn’t quite decided.” She scanned the pier once more but this time, she grinned. “Oh, dear, Mackenzie. Your heiress has gone.”
Jamie turned his head to see that, yes, the lovely Miss Carmichael had disappeared into the sea of brown and black coats, likely whisked off by her parents to a train or a posh hotel. Ah, well …
He abruptly realized that as soon as the radiance of Evie McKnight had entered his sphere, the pale beauty of Miss Carmichael had faded to nothing.
“There he is!” a voice floated to them. “There’s Jamie!”
A straw boater hat on a young lady bobbed up and down in the morass of disembarking passengers, and a thin arm waved frantically.
“Your family at last,” Evie said with a touch of relief. “I must dash. So nice to have caught up with you, Mackenzie. Do be careful while leering at young ladies near bodies of water.”
She whirled in a flutter of practical wool and dashed down the pier. Jamie watched her go, in the opposite direction of the ship, white petticoats flashing around dark boots.
Who was she racing to meet? The fiancé? And if so, why had he not been at the foot of the gangway, ready to lift her into his arms? Jamie would have grabbed her the moment he saw her and smothered her in kisses.
But if not the fiancé, then who was she meeting? Jamie gazed after Evie until he lost her in the crowd, his curiosity aroused in a way it hadn’t been in a long time.
The journalist, whose camera Jamie realized was now pointed his way, clicked one last frame then began folding up the apparatus.
“What the devil?” Jamie growled at him.
The journalist answered with a grin. “Mackenzies are always good for copy.” He shouldered his camera and marched away, unmindful of Jamie’s glower.
“Who was that delicious man you were speaking to, Evie?” Clara McKnight settled herself into the second-class train compartment amid boxes and bags that the ladies had not wanted to entrust to the porters. The porters, already burdened with the bulk of their baggage, had relinquished the extras with relief.
“Speaking to?” Marjorie repeated in delight. Evie’s younger sisters, Marjorie and Clara, were seventeen and nineteen respectively, and held the energy of youth Evie fondly remembered in herself. “Evie was speaking to a man? What would Mr. Atherton say?”
Evie dropped into her seat across from her mother, who regarded her too shrewdly. Mrs. McKnight’s soot-black hair was styled in a soft pompadour that suited her slender face, her body poised on her seat. Clara had inherited her looks, Clara who’d turned heads in the hotels and public spaces of New York. Evie’s mother had turned plenty of heads in her day, so said their besotted father, and still did.
“Do tell, Evie,” Mrs. McKnight said, her dark blue eyes watchful.
Evie found herself flustered. “He is an old friend. I met him at Cambridge.”
“Cambridge?” Marjorie asked with interest. “Where you were locked into your ladies’ college down the road and never spoke to the gentlemen?”
“We did see them from time to time.” Why was Evie so disconcerted? Her encounter with Jamie today had been a harmless one, old acquaintances chatting about past times. Distracting, though, as she’d not been able to send the telegram to her friend Iris she’d hastened down the docks to do, before her mother and sisters had called her to them. “They came out to cheer our rowing team.”
“I’m certain they did.” Marjorie collapsed into mirth, sagging into the piled up bags at her side.
“What nonsense.” Evie did her best to be haughty while Marjorie went off into gales, and even Clara, more composed than her younger sister, smiled knowingly.
“You haven’t told us his name, dear,” Mrs. McKnight said gently.
“Jamie Mackenzie.” The words came out in a rush. “I mean, Mr. Mackenzie. He is nephew to the Duke of Kilmorgan.”
“Duke, eh?” Marjorie crowed.
“Hush, darling.” Mrs. McKnight could rebuke without raising her voice. Marjorie stifled her giggles, but her eyes danced. “I am certain the young man is perfectly respectable,” Mrs. McKnight went on.
“He is,” Evie answered with a straight face.
Had Jamie always been so tall? There’d been a hardness about him he’d not had as a youth, his skin bronzed from a sun far from English shores. Evie was suddenly curious about where he’d been and what he’d done. Would he laugh as she’d seen him do, throwing back his head and roaring without abandon when he heard something hilarious?
His handsomeness was altogether different from her fiancé’s. Jamie had a slightly crooked nose—from a scrap in his first year at Cambridge, she’d heard—red-brown hair, brilliant blue eyes, and as she’d observed, a hardness that lent him an air of danger.
Hayden Atherton, by contrast, had a chiseled face that any sculptor would wish to capture, a warm smile, golden blond hair, and fine brown eyes. He’d recently grown a trim beard that made him quite distinguished.
Ladies regarded Evie with envy whenever she appeared on Hayden’s arm. General opinion was that Evie and Hayden would produce quite beautiful children.
Such statements made Evie contemplate the method for conceiving those children, and there her imagination went hazy. As much as she tried to picture her wedding night with Hayden, something inside her—modesty?—would not allow her to form a clear vision.
Today, however, a memory had thrust itself up into her thoughts, scattering all contemplation about Hayden.
Evie saw an angry Jamie charging at her out of the river, eyes flashing fury. Before Evie could dodge from him, large, wet hands cupped her face in a strong grip. She’d gazed up into steely blue eyes framed by damp red-brown lashes.
Before Evie could apologize or admonish Jamie for touching her—or say anything at all—his mouth had come down on hers, crushing a firm kiss to her parted lips.
Evie had tasted rage in the kiss, but also excitement and a hungry need she’d never before experienced. To her consternation, the same hungry need had stirred in her.
Jamie had kissed her thoroughly, his hands holding her steady, his wet coat damp against her rowing costume. He’d kissed her while her mates on the team had watched avidly, while Evie’s knees had gone weak, and her breath had deserted her.
He’d kissed her until she’d gasped, then Jamie had released her, brushed a thumb across her now-wet lips, and turned and walked away from her. Even now, the image of his waterlogged kilt clinging to his backside, his bare thighs flashing as he strode from the river, came to her too vividly.
Her teammates, her closest friends in the world, had watched in shock and delight. The teasing Evie had endured since that day had been merciless.
She’d seen Jamie now and again in the next year until he left Cambridge, he talking or laughing with friends, wind blowing back his academic gown to reveal the kilt he insisted on wearing. He’d nodded at her when he’d seen her, sometimes flashing a bone-warming smile, sometimes feigning fear that she might have her oar with her, as he’d done today.
Today, when he’d gazed at the ship, wind tossing his hair, every line of him strong …
The train bumped over a crossing, jerking Evie back to the present. Marjorie was watching her, her youngest sister too perceptive. Evie quickly turned her head and peered out the window at the passing countryside.
Evie was engaged to the handsome and eligible Hayden Atherton. She had no business thinking about Jamie Mackenzie, speculating on what sort of man he’d become. She especially had no business daydreaming about the astonishing kiss he’d given her years ago.
Absolutely no business at all.Return to The Sinful Ways of Jamie Mackenzie