“Mm, what sweet morsel is that?”
Mal Mackenzie, youngest of five brothers, called at various times in his life Young Malcolm, the Devil Mackenzie, and would ye get out of it, ye pain in my arse—the last mostly by his father and oldest brother—voiced the words as the tedious gathering suddenly grew more interesting.
The morsel was a young woman. What else would it be, with Mal?
“Oh, aye,” his brother Alec muttered as he leaned against the wall, in a foul temper. “Of course ye’d notice the prettiest lass in the room. The most untouchable as well.”
The lady in question glided through the drawing room on the arm of a man who must be her father. She wore a gown of rich material much like those of other young women here, but she stood out among them like a fiery bloom among weeds.
They were paraded, these ladies, laced into bodices and tight stomachers that showed a soft enticement of bosom, skirts swaying as they moved. They walked with eyes downcast to indicate what demure creatures they were—suitable wives for the bachelors, young and old, who’d come to view them.
Malcolm’s lady, in contrast, had her head up, smiling at all, though the smile was somewhat strained. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
She had red-gold hair that caught the candlelight as she passed beneath the chandeliers. Mal couldn’t see the color of her eyes from where he stood, but he was certain they’d be clearest blue. Or green. Or gray.
She noted Malcolm staring at her and paused for the briefest moment, the smile fading. Mal, who’d been leaning next to Alec, pushed from the cold stone wall to stand up straight, fires weaving through his nerves.
The young woman took him in—a tall, rawboned Scotsman in a fine coat, dressed like an Englishman except for the plaid that covered his legs to his knees. Malcolm prided himself in not looking entirely like these English whelps—he’d pulled his thick brown-red hair into a queue instead of stuffing it under a powdered cocoon-like wig, and had tied his neckcloth in a loose knot.
The young woman’s gaze met his, and the answering sparkle in her eyes woke every sense in Mal’s body.
Then she turned her head, looking past him as she scanned the crowd for someone else.
The moment, as fleeting as it had been, reached out and wrapped itself around him. The tendrils of something inevitable entangled the being that was Malcolm Mackenzie, changing everything.
Malcolm all but shoved an elbow into Alec, who was pretending to be interested in the interaction of the English and Scottish elite. “Who is she?” Mal demanded.
Alec moodily studied the crowd. “The blond lass, you mean?”
“Her hair’s not blond.” Mal tilted his head as though that could help him look under her modest lace cap. “’Tis the color of sunshine, tinged with the fire of sunset.”
“If you say so.” Alec, two years older and one of a pair of twins, gave Mal a warning look. “She’s not for you, runt.”
Runt was another name for Malcolm, who’d begun life very small, but now topped most of his brothers and his father by at least an inch.
The words not for you never deterred Mal. “Why shouldn’t she be?”
“Shall I run a list for ye?” Alec asked in irritation. “She is Lady Mary Lennox, daughter of the Earl of Wilfort. Wilfort has an estate as big as this city, more money than God, and power and influence in the cabinet. The family is one of the oldest in England—I think his ancestor fought alongside Henry the Fifth, or some such. All of which makes his daughter out of reach of the youngest son of a Scotsman with what the English claim is a trumped-up title. Not only that, she’s engaged to another English lordship, so keep your large paws to yourself.”
“Huh,” Malcolm said, not worried in the least. “Poor little morsel.”
Mal followed Lady Mary’s progress through the room, noting the polite way she greeted her father’s friends and the mothers of the other daughters. Correct, well trained—like a pedigreed horse brought in to demonstrate what a sweet-tempered creature it could be.
Malcolm saw more than that—the restless twitch of her eyes as she searched the room while pretending not to, the trembling of a ribbon on the red-gold curls at the back of her neck.
She was vibrancy contained, a creature of light and vigor straining at the tethers that held her. At any moment, the shell of her respectability would crack, and her incandescence would spill out.
Did no one but Mal see? Those around her smiled and spoke comfortably to her, as though they liked her, but their reactions were subdued, as were hers to them.
This was not her stage, not where she would shine. She needed to be free of this place, these enclosing walls. Out on the open heather maybe, in the Highlands of Mal’s home, Kilmorgan, in the north. Her vibrancy wouldn’t be swallowed there, but allowed to glow.
And she’d be with him, the layers of her clothing coming off in his hands, the warmth of her body rising to him. This woman belonged in Mal Mackenzie’s bed, and he intended to take her there.
It would be a grand challenge. Lady Mary was surrounded, protected. Her father and the matrons circled her like guard dogs, to keep wolves like Mal at bay.
Mal made a noise in his throat like a growl. If they considered him a wolf, so be it.
“What are you grumbling over?” Alec answered, not happy. He did not want to be here; he hated Englishmen, and only duty to their father kept him calm in the corner instead of racing around picking fights.
“At last, something interesting in this place, and you have no use for it,” Malcolm said. Alec was his favorite brother—well, the one who drove him the least mad—but Alec had his own tribulations.
“Let her be, Malcolm,” Alec said sternly. “I’m supposed to be watching after you. You go near her, and you’ll stir up a world of trouble. I’ll not be facing Da’s fists because I could nae keep you out of it.”
“I could put you in the way of Da’s fists, and maybe have your neck broken, with a few words, and you know it,” Malcolm reminded him. “But I don’t, do I? Why? Because you’re me best mate, and I don’t want you dead. The least ye could do is help me meet yon beautiful lass.”
“And I’m calling to mind the last time I did ye such a favor. I remember pulling your naked self out of a burning house, and taking shot in my upper arm, which still hurts of a rainy morning. All because ye had to go after what wasn’t yours.”
Malcolm flushed at the memory. “Aye, any husband should be angry to find a strapping lad like me in his place next to his bonny wife, but he had no cause to set the bed on fire. Nearly killed the poor woman. Not surprised she left him behind and went to the colonies with her mum.”
“He’s still looking for ye, Mal, so stay clear of him.”
“Nah, Da put the fear of God in him, and it was three years ago. And that lass isn’t married.” He waved a hand in the direction of the delectable Lady Mary.
“No,” Alec said. “It’ll be her father’s pistol ye’ll have to dodge instead.”
“So, you’ll not help me?”
“Not a bit of it.”
Malcolm fell silent. He would never betray Alec’s secret to their father—to anyone in the family—and Alec knew it. No leverage there.
“Ah, well.” Malcolm’s slow smile spread across his face. “I’ll have to solve this conundrum on me own.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Alec said darkly.
The innocence of it, Mary was to reflect later, should be astonishing. That moment in time—she at Lady Bancroft’s soiree in Edinburgh, her only worry her role of go-between in the forbidden liaison of her sister.
The simplicity of it; the nothingness . . . If Mary had left that night for home, if they’d reached Lincolnshire without her ever having seen the broad-shouldered Scotsman who gazed at her with such intensity, Mary would have lived the rest of her life in peace, moved out of the way like a chess piece, sheltered from the rest of the board.
That night, she stepped into the wrong square at the wrong time. A storm had kept them in Edinburgh, and her father and aunt had decided they might as well accept the invitation to Lady Bancroft’s fashionable gathering.
Malcolm would not have been there either, if his father hadn’t sent his brother Alec to spy for him. Alec had brought Malcolm along for camouflage, and also because Alec didn’t trust Mal alone on the streets of Edinburgh—for very good reason.
Mary’s life would have been so very different . . .
For the moment, Lady Mary Lennox existed in a bubble of safety, sure in her betrothal to Lord Halsey, and more worried about her shy little sister than herself.
Tonight’s gathering was a decidedly political one. Lady Bancroft had invited prominent Scotsmen to her soiree to reassure those in Edinburgh that rumblings of the Jacobite rising were just that—rumblings. Never mind that Charles Stuart had landed somewhere in the west, never mind he was trying to raise an army. He’d never succeed, and they all knew it.
Highlanders were harmless, Lady Bancroft was implying, thoroughly adapted to civilized living—enlightened men of science. They blended effortlessly with the English aristocracy, did they not?
In that case, Lady Bancroft ought not to have invited the two young Scotsmen warming themselves near the great fireplace at the end of the hall. Mary saw them as she scanned the room for the Honorable Jeremy Drake, the note from Audrey to him burning inside her stomacher.
The Scotsmen looked much alike, brothers obviously. But civilized, they were not.
They’d dressed in waist-length frock coats with many buttons, linen shirts, neat stockings, and leather shoes. Instead of breeches, they wore kilts, loose plaid garments wrapped about their waists.
Other Scotsmen here, in knee breeches and wigs, were indistinguishable from their English counterparts, and moved quietly among the company. These two, on the other hand, looked as though they’d risen from the heather, rubbed the blue paint from their faces, put on coats, and stormed down to Edinburgh.
They wore their dark red hair pulled back into loose queues—no wigs—and lounged with a restlessness that spoke of hunting in long, cold winters, bonfires on the hills, and the wild ruthlessness of their Pictish and Norse ancestors.
Though the two stood calmly, their stances relaxed, they watched. Eyes that missed nothing picked out every person in the room. Wolves, invited to stand among the sheep.
When Mary’s scanning gaze passed that of the younger one, his eyes sparked, and she paused.
In that moment, Mary smelled the sweetness of heather under sharp wind, felt the heat of sun in a broad sky. She’d been to the northern Highlands once, and she’d never forgotten the raw beauty of it, the terrifying emptiness and incredible wonder.
This Scotsman embodied all of that, sweeping her to the place and time, under the never-setting sun, when she’d felt afraid and free in the same breath.
The moment passed, and Mary turned away . . .
To find her life completely changed. One tick of the clock ago, she’d been serene about the path she’d agreed to, ready to fulfill her duty to her father and her betrothed. At the next tick, she felt herself plunging into a long, dark pit, and she’d consented to step off the edge.
Mary shook off the sensation with effort. She had a mission to fulfill, no time for idle thoughts.
She drew a deep breath and said vehemently, “Frogs and toadstools!”
A few ladies jumped, but her aunt Danae, used to Mary’s epithets, turned to her calmly. “What is it, my dear?”
“My fan,” Mary said, making a show of patting the folds of her skirts. “I’ve left the aggravating thing in the withdrawing room.”
Aunt Danae, a plump partridge in a too-tight gown, put a soothing hand on Mary’s. “Never mind, dear. Call for Whitman, and have her fetch it for you.”
Their hostess, Lady Bancroft, who stood near, began to signal for one of her many footmen. Mary, who’d hidden the fan for the express purpose of going after it, said, “No need. Won’t be a moment,” and ran off before anyone could object.
Mary’s fan was safely in a pocket under her skirt, so she quickly passed the withdrawing room and made for the stairs that led to the upper reaches of the house. Lady Bancroft was not spendthrift enough to waste candles lighting staircases, and Mary groped her way upward in the dark, only the moonlight through undraped windows to light her way.
Jeremy hadn’t been in the vast drawing room below, nor had he been in any of the anterooms, so he must be waiting in his chambers above. Likely languishing there, distraught that Lord Wilfort had forbidden the match between him and Audrey. No matter, Mary would soon cheer him with Audrey’s letter.
She made it to the upper landing, out of breath, and turned the corner for the wing that would take her to Jeremy.
A tall man stepped out of the shadows and into her path. Moonlight fell on a light-colored frock coat that topped a kilt of blue plaid.
He was one of the Highlanders from below, the younger one, who’d caught and held her with the heat in his eyes.
Primal fear brushed her. To be confronted by this man, a Highlander, in the dark, in this deserted part of the house was . . . exhilarating.
Mary also was touched with curiosity, wonder that such a being existed and was standing less than a foot from her. A warmth began in Mary’s breastbone, spreading downward to her fingertips, and up into her face.
The man did not move. He was a hunter, motionless in the dark, sizing up his prey. At the moment, that prey was Mary.
Fanciful nonsense, Mary tried to tell herself. Likely he was staying in the house, perhaps on his way to his bedchamber.
Where he’d pull off his coat, unlace his shirt, lie back before the fire in casual undress . . .
Mary’s throat went dry. She’d been listening too hard to Aunt Danae’s tales of her conquests when she’d been a young woman. Aunt Danae had lived on passion and desire, but Mary was far too practical to want such things for herself. Wasn’t she?
“I beg your pardon, sir,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “My destination lies beyond you.”
She spoke with the right note of haughtiness—after all, the Scots were a lesser people, drawn into civilization by the English. Or so her father claimed. Not that Mary truly believed in the natural superiority of Englishmen; she’d met too many Englishmen who were decidedly inferior.
The man said nothing, only stood in place, caught by moonlight.
The touch of fear began to rise. Mary was alone and unprotected, and he was a creature of the uncivilized Highlands. The clansmen raided each other’s lands, it was said, stealing cattle, women . . .
“No matter,” Mary said when he did not speak. “I will simply go ’round the other way.” The house was built in four wings that surrounded a courtyard below. “Good evening, sir.”
She swung away but had taken only a step before the Scotsman pushed past her and stood in front of her once more.
Her heart beating rapidly now, Mary swung around again, ready to make a dash for Jeremy’s chamber. Jeremy was not a small man—he could clout this Highlander about the head for frightening the woman he hoped would become his sister-in-law.
Mary stumbled and nearly fell as the Scotsman put himself in front of her again. A large hand on her shoulder pushed her back onto her feet.
“Steady, lass.” His voice was a deep rumble, starting from somewhere in his belly and emerging as a warm vibration.
The hand on Mary’s shoulder remained. No gentleman should touch a lady thus. He could grip her hand, but only when meeting her, dancing with her, or assisting her. The Highlander had stopped her from falling, yes, but he should withdraw now that she was upright again. Instead, he kept his hand on her, the appendage so large she was surprised his gloves fit him.
He stood close enough that Mary got a good look into his eyes. They were unusual, to say the least. Not blue or green as a red-haired man’s might be—they were tawny, like a lion’s. The sensible side of her told her they must be hazel, but the gleam of gold held her in place as securely as the hand on her shoulder.
“Please let me pass, sir,” Mary said, trying to sound severe, but she sounded about as severe as a kitten. In his opinion as well, because he smiled.
The smile transformed him. From a forbidding, terrifying giant, the Highlander became nearly human. The warmth in the smile reached all the way to his eyes, crinkling them at the corners.
“I will,” he said in a voice that wrapped her in heat. “As soon as ye tell me where you’re going, and who ye intend to meet.”
“Bolts and bodkins,” Mary muttered.
“What?” the Scotsman asked, eyes widening in amusement. “What the devil does that mean?”
“Nothing,” Mary said quickly. “My business here is hardly a concern of yours, sir. May I ask what you are doing up here?”
“Aye, well ye might.” His fingers moved on her shoulder, the faint caress pouring fire into her bones. “You’re up here alone, away from your chaperone. I saw you slip away, lass—it was cleverly done. You can nae be up to any good. So, I followed ye.”
Naturally. Mary wasn’t up to any good, as a matter of fact. She didn’t truly believe this man would rush to her father and tell of Mary carrying a letter from Audrey to Jeremy, but he might tell someone, and the tale would circulate.
“I have an errand.” Why Mary answered at all, she did not know. She should turn, retreat down the stairs, wait for a better moment. This was no business of a Scotsman’s, no matter how tall, how heart-melting his touch.
“Errand, eh? Whatever it is, it has ye blushing rosy red. A yellow rose, I thought you when I first saw ye. Now I’d say you were pink.”
It was not an easy task to meet his gaze, but Mary made herself do it. “If you will not let me pass, then I will return to the drawing room. Good evening once again.” She attempted a curtsy, but her knees were shaking so hard she could only dip the barest inch.
The chuckle that left his mouth was hotter than his touch. “I dinnae believe you’re all stiffness and cold, lass. Ye have fine eyes, do ye know? The sea near Castle Kilmorgan is just that blue. ’Tis a beautiful sight.”
Mary had a flash of it—blue-gray sea stretching from below sheer cliffs, a crumbling castle perched on a hill. The pair of them standing side by side while the Scottish wind blew cold around them and pressed them together. His arm would come around her, holding her, protecting . . .
Mary cleared her throat. “You have obviously rehearsed how to be flattering, sir. But not courteous.”
Another chuckle, which vibrated through his fingers into her. “I’ll let you by, lass. For a price.”
The dark note in his voice made her shiver. “Of course,” she said tightly. “Not because you are a gentleman with honor, courtesy, or discretion, but to gain something for yourself.”
“Ah, ye try to be so frosty, lass, but you’re nae good at it. One smile from your mouth, one flash of those eyes, and I wager men are puddles at your feet.”
Mary had never noticed any gentlemen in puddles. They paid very little attention to her at all, but then, most were stopped by her formidable father before they could even speak to her.
“You are very forward, sir. But perhaps you cannot help it, being raised a Highlander.”
The Scotsman laughed a sudden, true laugh, the sound filling the hall. Mary wanted to laugh with him, to throw off her troubles and sink against him, feeling his laughter with her entire body. The power of it loosened things inside her, opening what she never knew had been closed.
The Scotsman wiped his eyes. “You’re nae good at insults either, my girl. Of course I’ve been raised a Highlander, which means I’m forward, stubborn, and know what I want when I see it. Ye have the same stubbornness, lass.”
His laughter died as he leaned to her, fixing her with his amber-colored gaze, his hard warrior’s face an inch from hers. “Run away with me, love, and marry me.”
The things opening inside Mary gave a sudden wrench. Run away—from the tightness of her life, the path of duty before her, the walls of stone closing in on her. Leave with this beautiful barbarian for the open spaces of the Highlands, to the crags of mountains that marched to the sea, and the sky that stretched to forever.
Absolute nonsense, of course. This man did not want to marry her. He was flirting, teasing, delighted he’d found a young English miss wandering the house in the dark.
“I can hardly marry a man I’ve just met on an upstairs landing,” Mary said. “I know nothing of you—not your name, your family, and most importantly, your character. Besides, I am betrothed.”
“So I have heard. Who is this fortunate gentleman? Is it he you’re rushing to meet for a bit of pre-wedding tryst?”
Now Mary wanted to laugh. “Certainly not.” She couldn’t imagine George Markham, Lord Halsey, doing anything so rash as having a pre-wedding tryst. Halsey was not a man who did anything rash, and he definitely was not moved by passion. “I am betrothed to the Earl of Halsey.”
The Scotsman straightened with an abruptness that unnerved her. His hand left her shoulder, taking all the beautiful warmth with it.
“Dear God, ye can’t, lass. You’re a vibrant and beautiful woman. Don’t throw it away on that whey-faced English bastard.”
Mary blinked. She was no stranger to strong language—her father’s cronies could burn the air when they’d had plenty to drink—but rarely were the words directed at her. “Goodness, what is there to object to about Lord Halsey? He is well respected, a gentleman, honorable, well spoken . . .”
“. . . has a perpetual drip at the end of his nose.” The Scotsman flipped his finger under the tip of his own appendage.
“He does not . . .” Mary trailed off. It was true that Halsey spent many conversations dabbing his nose with a handkerchief. “That is neither here nor there.”
“Not something t’ face on your wedding night.” The Scotsman moved a step closer, his voice going soft. “Your wedding night, lass, should be a thing of beauty.”
Mary had never thought about it. She knew exactly how a woman went about providing her husband an heir—Aunt Danae had gone through every detail from start to finish, very thoroughly.
Some men, Aunt Danae said, made the experience quite enjoyable, while others were oafish pigs. Unfortunately, a lady never knew which her husband would turn out to be until she was climbing into the marriage bed with him.
Aunt Danae spoke from the experience of having three husbands as well as a number of lovers. In any case, the gentleman always believed his pleasure of tantamount importance, no matter what the woman thought.
Mary couldn’t help wondering what this Scotsman would be like. He had big hands, wide shoulders, a strong body. His arms would hold his lady, the large hands would caress her, and he’d speak intimacies to her in his deep rumbling voice.
He took another step toward her. “A bride should be properly handled,” he said. “Her husband gentle with her, guiding her every moment.”
Mary moved back, but falteringly, worried she’d find the open stairwell behind her. Her Highlander caught her, gliding her around until her back was to a wall. Safe.
But not safe from him.
“If ye were my bride, Mary, I’d be so very tender with ye.” One thumb brushed the skin of her shoulder, bared by the bodice’s neckline. “Taking care with you, as though you were delicate porcelain.”
His heat, the largeness of him, made her breath stop. And yet, where he touched her, the tiniest contact, was gentle, as though this brutish man truly could cradle and protect a fragile object.
“I’m not porcelain,” Mary said, her voice strangled.
“Aye, that you are. Porcelain is breakable but strong at the same time. And beautiful.”
His finger moved on her neckline, sliding slowly downward, the barest brush, to her bosom.
Mary had no business standing here letting this Highlander touch her. She was betrothed to a very important gentleman, a close friend of her father’s, both fiancé and father in high favor at court and in government.
Mary would cement the friendship between the two, and her sons would be the culmination of the bargain. Mary was to provide the heirs and raise them to be as powerful and important as their father and grandfather, to take the two families into the next generation of greatness.
Nowhere in this grand scheme was Mary to stand in the upper reaches of a house and enjoy the caress of a mad Highlander, one of those Jacobites whose treachery simmered beneath the surface year after year.
She was not to oblige any gentleman until she had an heir and a spare in the nursery. Then, Aunt Danae had instructed, Mary might enjoy herself, but discreetly, and certainly not with a man who posed any danger whatsoever to her husband or father.
Careful planning and thought crumpled to nothing under the gloved fingertips at her breast, the heat that spread from his hand to consume the rest of her body.
This man was life, while Mary’s path was existence. He was warmth, vivacity, freedom, while she was duty, obligation, sacrifice.
He drew his fingers along her bosom, a river of fire trailing to her heart. He dipped two fingers inside her bodice, and Mary closed her eyes.
She jerked them open a second later when his questing fingers found and withdrew Audrey’s letter.
“Ah, now, what’s this?”
Mary snatched at it. “Give me that.”
The Highlander grinned with boyish mischief and swung away, holding the paper out of her reach. Mary chased him, but he evaded her, unfolding the letter and reading as he sidestepped away.
“Billet doux,” he said. “Of the secret kind. The best.” He skimmed the text quickly. “Oh, but this is beautiful.”
Mary had been told that Highlanders lived most of their lives tending farm animals and couldn’t read a word, but apparently this was not true. The letter was in French, which Audrey and Jeremy considered the language of the heart, and the savage Highlander was reading every word.
“She’s very much in love, this lady,” he said. “With a man with beautiful blue eyes. I wager not your Lord Halsey of the runny nose.”
“I didn’t write it,” Mary said quickly. Why she cared whether this man believed she’d penned the letter or not, she couldn’t fathom.
“I know you didn’t. Unless your name is Audrey.”
“Good heavens, she signed it?” Mary made to snatch the paper again, which he lifted out of her reach.
“She did indeed. Not the most discreet lady, is she? She should have written, your best beloved, or your adoring lover, or signed as some lady of Greek myth, as instructed in the manuals of love-letter writing.”
“There are no manuals of—” Mary broke off and waved her hands. “You are a rogue, sir, and a tease. Give me back the letter. It has nothing to do with you.”
“Now, that is not necessarily true.” The Highlander folded the paper. “I had a wager with me brother, ye see, when I saw you evade your elders and run off alone. I wagered I would pry a kiss out of you. I can nae go back and tell him I failed, now, can I? So, English Rose, ye give me one small kiss, and I return t’ ye this sad and indiscreet letter.”
“One small kiss . . .” Mary said. The lips that would perform the kiss were stiff, barely to move. “Is that all?”
She wanted to bite out her tongue as the Highlander gave a shout of laughter. “Oh, no, Mary, I want more. So much more. I’m being kind t’ ye, lass.”
“And you should not use my given name. It’s forward. Intimate, even.” Mary’s chest was tight, her words breathless.
“Aye, that’s why I do it.”
“Besides, I don’t even know your name.” Again, not what she meant to say.
He stopped laughing and put one hand on his chest. “Malcolm Daniel Mackenzie, at your service, lass. Youngest son of that tricky bloody bastard, the Duke of Kilmorgan. But me friends call me Mal.”
********** Excerpt 2 *********
The cold dampness of Edinburgh woke Mal out of his stupor as they moved down the narrow street to another equally narrow passage.
A discreet bawdy house was tucked here. Its proprietor had sent a boy running to the tavern in search of Will Mackenzie’s brothers.
Mal understood why when they reached the place, Jeremy in tow. Shouting came from the upper reaches of the house, the rooms accessed by a rickety staircase that led to a leaning wooden gallery.
A deep voice was carrying on in Highland Scots, admonishing, demanding, then lapsing into cajoling, laughter, and singing. The songs were the same as Alec’s but much, much louder.
The proprietress of the house, a thin woman with an angular face, was from Glasgow. Mal could usually understand only about two words in six she said, but tonight she was very clear.
“Get him out.” She glared at Mal and Alec. “He’ll bring the constables down on us if he does no’ shut up and go away.”
“Easy, love,” Mal said. “We’ll take him. Alec, pay the good lady for her trouble.”
Alec shot an annoyed look at Mal, but his pouch of coins came out and silver found its way into the proprietress’s hand.
The woman looked less unhappy but remained planted by the foot of the staircase, as though ready to shove them out at a moment’s notice.
Mal tipped her a wink as he followed Alec up the stairs, Jeremy trailing behind. The tall lad looked around with much interest, indicating louder than words that he’d never been in a whorehouse before. The English whelp was too innocent to be believed.
“She were a fiiiiine lassie,” came the booming baritone. “With a bosom so sweet, and bum so large, and between her legs a . . . laaaaaad.”
“Is that a song?” Jeremy asked, his face red but his eyes sparkling with humor.
“He makes up his own,” Mal said. “Young Master Jeremy, meet my brother, the rakehell himself, William Ferdinand Mackenzie.”
Alec had crashed through the bolted door at the top of the stairs to reveal Will, clad in nothing but a plaid wrapped around his hips, standing on strong feet, serenading two tired-looking women who lounged on the bed. It was evident that they’d had enough of him.
Will turned blearily as they burst in. “Mal!” he shouted. “How fine to see ye, runt!” He spread his muscled arms and rushed at Mal, crushing him into a hug.
Will was the tallest of the Mackenzies, the biggest and broadest, a giant of a man with dark red hair. Being embraced by him was like being squashed by a bear. Will was as warm as a bear too, and about as hairy and smelly in his unkempt state. He must have been there for days.
Will lifted his head and looked past Mal at Alec. “Angus!” He shouted. “Won’t hug you. You’re a bastard. I only love the runt.”
“I’m Alec,” Alec said, sounding less drunk. “Angus is at home.”
“Good!” Will pounded Mal on the back then released him. “He’s not here to spoil our fun. Who is that?” Will scrubbed both massive hands through his unruly hair, which made it stand straight up, and pinned Jeremy with a tawny stare. “Are you a Mackenzie, lad?”
“’Fraid not,” Jeremy returned. He only looked slightly alarmed, which meant the boy had mettle. Will Mackenzie undressed and roaring drunk was not an easy thing to take.
“The Honorable Jeremy Drake, sir,” Jeremy said. He executed a practiced though wobbly bow.
“He’s a bloody Englishman!” Will rubbed his eyes and stared at him again. “What are ye doing with a bloody Sassenach, Mal? Did he arrest you?”
“He’s a friend,” Mal said. “My friend. Dress yourself, man. We’re going.”
“So soon?” Will looked confused. “But I’ve only just started the singing.”
Alec took a comfortable seat on the bed, giving the ladies there a smile and also a few coins for putting up with his brother. “And you’re in good voice,” Alec said, soothing him. “We’ll be off, and you can sing to us.”
Will gave him a doubtful look. “Well, all right, but you’re nae so pretty.”
“I’m glad of it,” Alec said. “Mal, get him decently clad . . . Och, man, I did nae need to see that!”
Will had stripped off the plaid and let it fall, revealing his hard-muscled thighs and the large thing dangling between his legs.
Alec covered his face and moaned. Mal ignored him while he fished up Will’s clothes from all over the room and helped the big man put them on. Jeremy watched, still flushed with drink, but enjoying the comedy.
Will got stuck inside his shirt, his arms flailing, unable to find the holes. Mal helped him, got the shirt settled and the plaid wrapped about his waist again. Waistcoat, stockings, boots, frock coat—all went on—then Will had to spend at least fifteen minutes looking for his hat.
They discovered that the proprietress had it. When Mal and Alec finally shoved Will out of the bedroom and to the staircase, Jeremy trailing, the proprietress held up a battered Scots bonnet. Will had to be helped down the stairs—his legs kept bending every which way.
Will reached the bottom at last and grabbed the hat from the woman’s thin hand. “Thank you very much,” he slurred. “Ye have a fine establishment. Until next time.”
He tried to bow and fell into Mal’s arms. Mal pushed him to his feet, hearing the clink of more coins as Alec placated the woman once again. Jeremy grabbed Will’s other arm and assisted Mal in squeezing his brother through the narrow door and out into the cold cobbles.
Will threw off their holds as chill night air poured over them. “I’m fine. I can walk meself.”
He couldn’t, very well. The four of them stumbled down the passage and to a larger street.
“Where are we going?” Will asked at his usual bellow. “Another nice house?”
“Home,” Alec said sternly. He looked at Jeremy. “Best you nip off to your own digs, lad. If Will gets us arrested, ye don’t want to be with us.”
Jeremy glanced at Mal, and Mal gave a reluctant nod. He liked Jeremy, but it was time to part ways for the night.
“Aye, go on.” He locked his fingers around Jeremy’s sleeve and pulled him aside. “I can call on you tomorrow, eh? So we can begin. I’ll help you win the hand of young Audrey, and in return, you slip me in to see Mary. Right?”
“Yes.” Jeremy’s eyes warmed with his smile. He clasped Mal’s hand with a firm grip of his own. “You’re a gentleman, Mackenzie, even if you’re a Highlander.”
“Aye, don’t I know it.” Mal clapped him on the shoulder and shoved him away.
Jeremy tipped his hat to Alec and Will, and turned and walked away into the darkness. His footsteps were uneven, his gait slightly swaying, but he’d be all right.
“Now, then, Mal, help me.” Alec scowled and bent to the task of getting Will indoors.
By the time they reached the house the Mackenzies lived in during their excursions to Edinburgh, Will was walking better on his own. A footman opened the front door of the house and assisted them inside; a second footman scurried down the back stairs to alert the rest of the staff that the Mackenzie brothers were home.
Will had lost most of his drunkenness by the time they reached his large bedchamber upstairs. Will let the rail-thin, red-haired valet who’d appeared—Naughton, who looked after them all when they were in the city—pull off his boots, then Will collapsed full-length onto the bed.
Naughton took the soiled boots away, as well as the frock coat Will had thrown off, frowning in disapproval at the mud on both. As soon as the door closed, Will sat up, the disoriented light leaving his eyes.
“Well, lads,” he said.
Mal found a stool by the fire and stretched his feet to it. He hated being cold.
Only a few candles were lit in the chamber, and the dim and wavering light cast weird shadows. Alec’s straggling hair was thrown into huge silhouette against the fireplace.
“Well?” Alec prompted.
“I heard quite a lot to tell Father,” Will said. He looked pleased with himself. “A few of Cope’s men were in that house.” Sir John Cope was the English general unlucky enough to command the British troops in Scotland. He was expected to deal with Charles Stuart—Teàrlach Stiùbhart—and his Highlanders if they made their way toward Edinburgh. “They tried to ply me with questions, find out who was with Teàrlach and who wasn’t, but alas for them, I could barely think, let alone speak, eh? Won’t be able to go back there if it’s full of loyalists, though, I’m thinking. Pity. It was a good house.”
“You mean the ladies there would put up with ye,” Alec said with good humor. “As long as ye paid them well.”
“Enough from you, whelp. What have you got to say?”
“Plenty,” Alec said. “But not about the Jacobites. Mal thinks he’s smitten with an English lass. Daughter of Wilfort, no less.”
Will pinned Mal with a fierce gaze. “Are ye mad, runt? Wilfort is at King Geordie’s elbow.”
“Not his daughter’s fault,” Mal said. “Mary’s a lovely lass, and better company than you lot.”
“Watch it, lad.” Will sat all the way up, his laughter gone. “I’ve seen what happens to you when you want a woman. When ye want anything, actually. You pursue it beyond reason.”
“Only when it’s worth it.” Mal folded his arms, looking back into the fire. Mary’s hair was the color of the hottest part of flame.
Alec’s shadow moved as he and Will exchanged a glance.
“This time ’tis dangerous,” Alec said quietly. “What with Duncan hot to drag Charles Stuart to the throne and Da denying that with every breath, this is nae a good time to be near anything English. Ye deflower the daughter of the Earl of Wilfort, he’ll come after ye with half the army and have your head on a spit. Leave her be, Mal.”
The part of Mal that was his common sense told him his brothers were right. Mary wasn’t a barmaid or a young Scottish lass he could woo without compunction.
Mary’s father had power, wealth, and influence—he could destroy Mal and all the Mackenzies with him. Mal had no doubt that his own father, to keep his standing as Duke of Kilmorgan, would happily throw Mal to the wolves in order to placate the English bastards.
The other part of Mal—the part of him that let nothing stand in the way of what he wanted—knew he couldn’t let Mary go.
Something had happened when he’d seen her, like a sudden completion of himself. As though he’d been walking alone most his life, and all at once knew he’d never be alone again.
This knowledge had intensified when Malcolm had touched her, had closed his fingers over the warm lock of her hair. Two parts of a single whole had met, briefly contacted, and had been pulled apart again.
Mal would spend the rest of his life if necessary to put those two halves together again.
He realized his brothers were watching him, waiting for him to reassure them. He couldn’t. Mal could only look at them, willing them to understand.
Will and Alec exchanged glances again, this time resigned. They knew exactly what happened when Mal took something into his head.
It warmed Mal that they ceased trying to stop him. They were making a silent pact to watch over him, and keep their little brother as safe as they possibly could, no matter what.
Mary knew exactly when Malcolm Mackenzie walked into the salon. She had her back to the door, her fingers plucking out an even tune on the harpsichord, but she knew.
The very air seemed to vibrate, to warm. The sound of his low voice confirmed his presence and sent a shiver down her back.
Mary’s hands faltered. She missed a few notes, then more notes, which made Aunt Danae glance at her in concern.
Mary never made mistakes at the harpsichord. She learned every piece perfectly, note for note. Her music master despaired that she put absolutely no passion into the music, but Aunt Danae said that didn’t matter—most of the people Mary would play for had no emotional response to music anyway and would only hear her technique.
But now Aunt Danae blinked as Mary skipped an entire page and stumbled the piece to the end. Her audience applauded dutifully, then put their heads together to criticize her in whispers. The need of people to constantly critique others puzzled her, but it was part of her world.
Mary left the stool, saying she needed air.
Aunt Danae caught her elbow. “All you all right, my dear? I knew this crush was a mistake. Lady Bancroft always overdoes. Ah, here is Master Jeremy, come to make it all bearable. And his . . . friend?”
The last was directed at Malcolm, who was dressed as he’d been last night, in formal frock coat over kilt, his smile wide, his tawny eyes sparkling.
Jeremy was with him, as though they were old acquaintances. Jeremy introduced Malcolm, and Mal held out his gloved hand toward Mary.Return to The Stolen Mackenzie Bride
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