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As rugged and bold as the Scottish hills, the Highland Knaves take no prisoners when it comes to love…
A DEFIANT APPRENTICE
Thrust into indentured servitude as a child, Shona Slayter is counting the days until her twenty-first birthday, when she gains her precious freedom. Unfortunately, the new laird of the estate has other plans—and he’s determined to keep her bound to him. The only way for Shona to be free of her bonds is to ...
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As rugged and bold as the Scottish hills, the Highland Knaves take no prisoners when it comes to love…
A DEFIANT APPRENTICE
Thrust into indentured servitude as a child, Shona Slayter is counting the days until her twenty-first birthday, when she gains her precious freedom. Unfortunately, the new laird of the estate has other plans—and he’s determined to keep her bound to him. The only way for Shona to be free of her bonds is to marry the man who holds the key. But seducing a handsome laird is not what she was trained for, and the more she tries to win his heart, the more she loses hers.
A HARD MASTER
With a young son to raise and a crumbling Scottish estate to manage, Conall has enough to worry about without the brazen, beautiful Shona challenging him at every turn. But their heated spats are starting to turn into real sparks…and soon the Scottish hills are ablaze with their forbidden attraction. Yet no matter what Shona is willing to do to buy her freedom, Conall has no intention of letting her go…
“Marcos brings the Regency period to vibrant life. Passionate and pleasurable!”
—TERESA MEDEIROS on Secrets to Seducing a Scot
"A satisfying story of Scottish love overcoming all obstacles, with the reader solidly rooting for fiery, funny Shona." —Publishers Weekly
WICKEDLY EVER AFTER
“A scrumptiously sensual and delightfully witty historical romance…I absolutely loved this story. Brimming with mystery, humor, witty repartee, an interesting plot, charismatic characters and intrigue, this book is a winner! I look forward to reading Ms. Marcos' future works as well as those she already has out. I highly recommend Wickedly Ever After to anyone looking for a terrific read.” —Romance Junkies
"4 ½ Stars! For this installment of Marcos’ Pleasure Emporium series, the once infamous brothel becomes a school where young ladies learn the art of seduction. Playing on several erotic romance themes and adding her own delicious brand of sensuality, Marcos delivers a fast-paced, sexy tale.” —Romantic Times Book Reviews
"The strong lead characters for which Michelle Marcos is becoming known for are also present in this newest of the Pleasure Emporium novels. WICKEDLY EVER AFTER is a sensual treat for historical romance readers everywhere." —A Romance Review
“Richly drawn characters, the spice of desire and a bit of mystery combine with undeniable emotion to make this a treat you’ll want to savor over and over again.” —Romance Reviews Today
GENTLEMEN BEHAVING BADLY
“4 ½ Stars! Marcos gives readers another taste of desire and danger, along with an enticing adventure/mystery in the second Pleasure Emporium novel. Strong and likable characters, as well as a unique setting, should have readers longing for her next book.”—Romantic Times BOOKreviews
“Michelle Marcos infuses plenty of humor and suspense into this historical tale which readers won’t want to put down.”—Romance Junkies
“A talented storyteller, Marcos gives a very human face to all her characters and the moral dilemmas and situations they face. A solid gold read!”—Fresh Fiction
WHEN A LADY MISBEHAVES
“Marcos delivers a refreshing, creative take on the typical Regency, carried by the spirited heroine and buoyed throughout by lively plot twists.” —Publishers Weekly
“Her heroine is a spunky delight, and her dark, hostile hero is an ideal foil...Marcos displays talents that are sure to grow with each new title.”—Romantic Times BOOKreviews
“The first in a bold and original new series by a bold and creative new voice in the romance world. Michelle Marcos is impressive in her debut. The characters in When a Lady Misbehaves are complex and immensely fascinating, the story is imaginative, and the plotting is excellent. Ms. Marcos makes some clever twists on the traditional romance…Marcos is an author to take note of.”—Romance Reviews Today
“This rags-to-riches story by debut author [Marcos] absolutely sizzles. When A Lady Misbehaves is beautifully done and I highly recommend it.”—Fresh Fiction
“When A Lady Misbehaves is loaded with smolder and charm...It was a joy to read this inventive, sexy, and ultimately moving story. When I want a great historical romance, I’ll reach for anything by Michelle Marcos!” —Lisa Kleypas, bestselling author of Love in the Afternoon
MILES’ END FARM
“I’ll kill her!”
The front door slammed, thrusting an exclamation point on the threat.
Iona rolled her eyes as she wiped her sticky hands on her apron. “What did Shona do this time?”
Her husband lumbered into the kitchen, and wedged his hatchet into the wooden table.
“It’s no’ what she did. It’s what she has no’ done. I ordered her to bring in the flock from the field before midday. Farragut’s will be here any minute to take the lambs to be butchered. She’s disappeared and taken the damned sheep with her!”
Iona’s loose bun wobbled as she turned back to the task of stuffing the chicken with the oniony skirlie. “Well, what did ye expect? Ye know how she gets. As soon as ye mentioned the word ‘slaughter,’ she was bound to rescue the lambs. I told you to send her off to market today. Getting those lambs away from Shona will be like tryin’ to pry the cubs from a she-bear.”
Hume jerked the worn tam off his head, revealing a shiny white scalp. Though his face was bristling with thick ginger hair, there was not a single strand above his bushy eyebrows. “Every blessed year we go through this.”
Iona hoisted the pan heavy with two stuffed chickens and hung it from the hook inside the fireplace. Her back screamed as she righted her rounded frame. “After near ten year workin’ for ye, ye should know the lass well enough by now.”
“If I had only put my foot down in the first place. I knew she’d be trouble from the moment I laid eyes on her. I told ye so, didn’t I? I told ye we should ha’ only taken in the fair one. Every time I listen to you, I end up having to eat ma own liver.” He stuffed a hunk of bread into his mouth.
“Och, Hume. Ye know perfectly well we couldna take one sister and no’ take the other.”
“Aye, we could ha’!” Crumbs of bread flew out of his mouth. “T’were required we take only one parish apprentice, no’ two. And slaighteurs, no less! Two mouths to feed, two backs to clothe—”
“And two pairs of hands to do all the work that ye’re too old to do, so shut yer pie-hole.”
Hume grumbled. “Why can’t Shona be more like her sister? I don’t understand it. They eat the same food, sleep in the same bed, wear the same clothes. We grew them alike. Why is the one so obedient and docile, and the other so full of her own mind?”
Iona’s thoughts turned to the gentle Willow. The twin sisters could not be more dissimilar. Not just in looks, but in disposition. The murder of their parents must have affected them in entirely different ways. The fair-haired Willow was a beauty, but terrified of her own shadow. She was not docile; she was dominated.
Shona, on the other hand, had grown fangs and claws. Since the night she had witnessed the brutal slaying of her parents and older brothers, Shona had grown into an untamable wildcat, and it was not to Hume’s liking. Oh, they got along well enough, whenever they shared funny stories in the evening, or when they were of one mind on an issue. But if Shona Slayter had to stand up to him, stand up she did, and woe betide him if he tried to put her in her place. Yet there was a chink in her armor, and Hume knew what it was. She had a weakness for all things defenseless, especially her twin sister. And, of course, lambs destined for slaughter.
“If she doesna bring back those sheep before Farragut’s arrives, I’ll … I’ll—”
Iona ignored him and began to slice the carrots. Hume never could finish that sentence.
The sound of carriage wheels crushing the gravel outside made Hume groan. “Och! Farragut’s has arrived! Damn that lass! So help me, Iona, I’ll make that girl obey me if it’s the last thing I do!” He wedged the cap back on his head and stormed off as fast as his bowed legs would carry him.
* * *
There would be the devil to pay for this. And Shona Slayter knew she was about to become the chosen currency.
She slumped upon a felled tree trunk about a mile from the farmstead. Two dozen sheep fanned about her, dotting the emerald hillside, blissfully munching away at the moist grass. So joyfully ignorant of the fate that awaited them.
The brisk Lowland wind leaned against the grass, and it lifted the black tendrils from her face. The breeze was thick with moisture, heralding a heavy rain. She sighed in irritation. Her work had to be done whether it be fine weather or no, and she dreaded having to spend the day in a sopping wet dress.
A three-month-old lamb ambled up to her, his white eyelashes sliding over his glossy black, questioning eyes. Her heart melted. How perfect his trust in her. The little creature followed her everywhere, came whenever she called. Hume had ordered her not to give the animals names, lest she get too attached, but she didn’t care. This lamb was born with a gauzy nap of snowy white fleece, and she had named him Pillow.
She untied the pouch that hung next to her dagger on a cord around her waist. Inside a folded cloth was her untouched breakfast, plus a treacle-sweetened oat biscuit she had snatched from the kitchen window where Iona had been cooling them. She tore the chewy biscuit in pieces and held them out in her hand to Pillow. His nostrils puffed air onto her palms as he smelled the crumbles and then nuzzled them from her hand.
Shona smiled, resting her chin on her fist as Pillow finished off the biscuit. Eagerly, he sucked on her sticky fingers, massaging them between his flat upper gums and his short, dull bottom teeth. It was a pleasant sensation, and she chuckled when he weakly tried to bite off her fingers.
“Away with ye, now. Those are my fingers, not blades of grass!”
He bleated, and it sounded like a child’s laughter.
Pillow sought her other hand, searching for more sweet things. But she had nothing more to give him. Her smile began to dissolve. The thought of Pillow being turned over to Farragut’s chilled her more than did the distant thunder. When it came to slaughtering animals, Farragut’s was careless and inhumane. She shuddered as she thought how Pillow’s joyful bleating would turn to screaming as he was torn from his mother’s side, hoisted onto a wagon, and hauled thirty terrifying miles over rocky roads to Dumfries. Then some brute of a man at Farragut’s would cram Pillow into the slaughterhouse pen. He’d swing a hammer onto Pillow’s tiny skull, knocking him senseless. Then he’d hang Pillow upside down from the lamb’s delicate rear legs before slicing open his neck, leaving him to bleed out until dead. She wanted to—had to—save Pillow and the other lambs from that experience. She might not be able to stave off the slaughter forever. But today, at least, Farragut’s would leave empty-handed.
The rumble of the thunder seemed to get closer, until Shona realized it was the muffled sound of a horse galloping toward her. She stood up from the tree trunk and looked behind her. Willow was quickly approaching atop General, the plow horse.
The sheep scattered as General came to a halt in front of Shona. Willow slid down the horse’s bare back.
Shona crossed her arms. “Willow Slayter, if ye came to wag yer finger, I’ll tell ye instead where to shove it.”
Willow shook her head, her blond corkscrew tendrils bouncing against her face. “No, I didn’t. I wanted to find ye to tell ye that a man came to see Hume just now. A town man! He had a big book with him … and papers. I couldna hear what they said, but whatever he came aboot, it made Hume very cross.”
Shona’s eyes widened. “Was it someone from the parish authorities?”
Willow shrugged. “I couldna tell.”
Shona’s breathing quickened as her excitement grew. “Maybe it was. Maybe Hume has to sign papers to release us from our apprenticeship. After all, we’re nearly twenty-one.” It was a day that Shona longed for, when she and Willow would no longer be wards of the parish. As much as she liked living with Iona and Hume, as a parish apprentice, Shona chafed at her lack of freedom. But one day they would reach maturity, and they’d be free—free to live and work wherever they wished, and no longer subject to a master’s dominion. That glorious day was still three months, eleven days, and fourteen hours away.
Her freedom was so close she could almost taste it. She knew precisely what they would do. Upon their birthday, they would pack their belongings and head back to the Highlands to find their little brother Camran. If he was still alive.
They hadn’t seen Camran since the Day. He’d been taken by the bearded man, and Shona and Willow were taken away by the man who’d branded them. Mr. Seldomridge was his name, and she’d never known a crueler human being. He used to punish them by making them kneel on brambles or locking them in a dark closet with rats. Thrice they’d run away, thrice they were caught, and each time they were badly beaten. After nearly a year, the two of them finally succeeded in escaping Mr. Seldomridge. They ran as far from the Highlands as they could, and made it as far south as Thornhill. There, they sought refuge in a church, and the vicar gave them food and a place to sleep. Eventually, though, the vicar had to surrender them to the care and protection of the parish authorities, which then arranged to apprentice them to learn trades befitting their station in life. Hume and Iona Findlay agreed to take in both sisters, and train them in farming and animal husbandry.
Shona had no idea what had become of Camran, but he was the only family they had left. She simply had to locate him. She glanced at the back of her hand. Like her, Camran had an S seared on the back of his hand. It identified them as slaighteur—knaves. Finding work or even friendship would be difficult for anyone with that damning brand, but there was one good thing about it—it might make Camran easier to find.
Willow tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I dinna know who that man was, but he must have a lot of power. When Farragut’s wagon came, the town man sent it away.”
Shona’s eyebrows drew together. “The town man sent the wagon away?”
Willow nodded. “I saw him, clear as daylight. That’s when Hume began to plead with him, but the town man just shook his head. Then I saw the town man get back in his carriage and leave.”
Bafflement twisted her features. She picked up her pouch, and tied it around her waist again. “Come on, help me get the flock back to the sheep paddock. I want to find out who this town man was.”
Willow shook her head. “Hume isna too pleased with you right now. If I were you, Shona, I’d stay clear of him. Hiding the sheep might’ve just earned you a lifetime of trouble.”
Shona glanced at the horizon. Trouble, aye. A lifetime, no. Just three months, eleven days, and fourteen more hours of it.
* * *
To Shona’s surprise, Hume didn’t reprimand her for hiding the sheep from the butcher. In fact, he didn’t even look for her. He spent the entire day inside the house, away from the farm. Even the chatty Iona was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the strange visitor who had come that morning.
It rained throughout the night and into the next morning. Willow had developed a sniffle, sneezing and moaning throughout the night. When they awoke the next morning at half past four, Willow’s eyes were puffed into near slits, and her nose was the color of Solway salmon. But at least she’d not had any of her nightmares.
Shona leaned over and touched her cheek to her sister’s forehead. “Ye do no’ have a fever. That’s a blessing. Ye’d do well to stay abed today.”
“No. I’ll be all right. No doubt I look dismal.”
“No worse than usual,” Shona ribbed. “Still, I wouldna want ye to get a cough. Sleep the morning. I’ll bring ye some tea after I do the milking.”
Willow threw off her covers. “I canna let you do both our work. Besides, it’s my turn to do the milking. I’ll be fine once I shake the dew off me.”
Shona felt a stab of remorse, but couldn’t help feeling relief at sharing the task of milking. It was backbreaking, repetitive, exhausting work, and it had to be done twice each day, dawn and midafternoon. It took about twenty minutes to milk each cow, and there were three of them. Then there were the nanny goats, and there were seventeen of them. It was hard enough between the two of them, but for Shona alone, it would take all day.
Willow had washed and dressed before Shona had much time to object. Willow didn’t seem to mind the quiet, patient work of milking as much as Shona did. Shona would rather pull a plow over a rocky field than have to do the milking. Cows could be peculiar, inscrutable creatures. It was easier to milk them from the rear, but that was not their most attractive side. Plus, it was the most dangerous. When she wasn’t dodging a kick, she was dodging something else.
Shona stepped behind Willow to tie her pinafore. “All right, ye can help milk … but ye must stay inside the byre. The rain’s coming down in buckets, and I dinna want you getting wet. I’ll bring in the cows and nannies from the field to ye. Agreed?”
Willow snuffled, and nodded.
The morning lasted twice as long as any other for Shona. Her dress was glued to her wet body as she brought in the goats one by one from the paddock to the dairy. While Willow milked them, Shona tended to their other work. She mucked out the horse stalls; filled them with fresh, dry hay; collected the chicken eggs; and hauled water from the brook. By noon, even though it had finally stopped raining, she was nearly done in.
As Shona was hitching up General to the wagon, she saw a carriage approach the farm. Her eyebrows drew together as she edged toward the stable door. Hume and Iona had such few visitors that Shona immediately suspected it was either very good news … or very bad.
Willow ran into the stable from the kitchen courtyard, where she had been washing and candling the eggs. “Shona! That’s the carriage that came yesterday! The town man … he’s back!” She pointed at the carriage from behind Shona’s back.
It was a fancy carriage, very unlike the kind seen in this part of Dumfriesshire. An older gentleman alighted from within the black lacquered coach. He had a compact, thin frame, and his body moved with great purpose and ease, even though his hair had become snowy white. He was dressed in a tartan jacket, vest, and trews. Under his arm was a large, flat book.
Shona took a step toward the driveway, but Willow gripped her arm. “Where are ye going?”
“I mean to find out exactly who this man is.”
“What if he’s from Mr. Seldomridge?” Willow’s large green eyes had curved fearfully.
A streak of vengeance stiffened her spine. After all, she was no longer a frightened eight-year-old girl. In fact, she would very much like to cross paths with that monster once more. “Only one way to find out,” she said as she wiped her hands on her sopping wet pinafore.
She walked out of the stable, her hands clasped behind her back, and stood in front of the team of horses. “Good day to ye.”
The man turned his face to her. He touched his hat. “Good day, lass. Can ye fetch Mr. Hume Findlay, please?”
“Aye. Can I tell him who ye are?”
“Horace Hartopp. Factor to the new laird of Ballencrieff.”
Shona let her guard down an inch. She turned in the direction of the house to call Hume over, but he was already coming toward the carriage to greet the visitor.
“Mr. Hartopp! Just having me tea. You’re a wee bit earlier than I expected, sir.”
The elderly gentleman held out his hand. “My apologies, but Ballencrieff has matters of a pressing nature this afternoon, and he hopes to settle business affairs with his tenants as soon as possible.”
“Well, I’m afraid I’ve no’ been able to scrape together the amount due the laird. Would he consider extending the time I have to repay?”
The elderly gentleman waved his hand. “We already discussed this yesterday, Mr. Findlay. Ye’re nearly eighteen months in arrears, and I sent ye notice of collection six months ago. Ballencrieff has now arrived to take the reins of the estate, and he will not permit his tenants to live gratis upon his lands.”
“’Twere not our fault the estate has been ungoverned this past eighteen-month after the old laird passed away. No one came to collect the rents.”
“All the more reason I would expect ye to have the monies from the sale of last year’s crops.”
“No, sir. We put all that money back into the management of the farm. Bought a new plow, got a stronger horse. We rotated our crops, and that required additional tilling and fertilizing.”
Mr. Hartopp pasted an artificial smile on his face. “I appreciate the improvements to the land, Mr. Findlay. But the fact remains that the rent must be paid.”
“We need more time to make up the debt, Mr. Hartopp. Can the laird just give me until the harvest?”
“Ye may wait until harvest to make up the rent past due for this year. But as I informed you yesterday, Ballencrieff must have the last twelvemonth rent.”
“I tried to sell all my lambs yesterday … did ye at least tell the laird that ye yerself stopped me from doing so?”
Mr. Hartopp shook his head. “Selling off your livestock was a step ye should have taken a long time ago. As the new laird’s factor, I could not risk that ye would abscond with any new profits. It is now simply too late. The laird has the right to confiscate this land for nonpayment of rent.”
Hume turned pale. “The wife and I are advanced in years, Mr. Hartopp. Ye can’t throw us off the homestead we’ve had for nigh on three decades.”
“That decision is for the laird to make. But in the meantime, these crops are now forfeit to Ballencrieff.”
Hume’s voice shot up. “But I worked these crops, sir. They’re mine.”
“Not in the eyes of the law, Mr. Findlay. This land belongs to the estate of Ballencrieff. Under yer agreement with the landowner, ye were permitted to live upon and cultivate these forty acres for a rent of thirty-five pounds sterling per annum. As ye have provided the estate with neither monies as rent, nor provender to the stables, nor produce to the house, it now falls to the laird to determine how the estate can recover its losses. It will be my recommendation to rent the arable part of the land to a new tenant, thereby making good on most of your arrears.”
“That’s not fair! The fields are already planted and cultivated. A few more months and they’ll produce a full harvest. This year, I’ve got wheat, peas, barley, and oats. They’ll bring in enough money at market, I promise. If I could just have more time. Maybe if I speak to Mr. Carnock, the former factor?”
A note of pique sharpened his tone. “Mr. Carnock is no longer working for the estate. I’m the new laird’s factor, and ye’ll have to deal with me. And I do not look the other way when I see a scrounger living off my employer’s generosity. In fact, if the laird is agreeable, I will suggest that he scrape you off his land this very day.”
Hume had been a strict master, but a fair one. In all the time Shona had worked for him, she’d never seen him swindle anyone. Everyone in these parts could attest that Hume never asked for a farthing more for something than it was worth, nor did he pay less than its fair value. Indignation leaped within her. No one insulted Hume that way and got away with it.
“Ye will, will ye?” Shona retorted, taking a step toward the white-haired man. “Then ye’re as wicked as ye are ugly. Hume is no scrounger, and he’s never cheated a soul. The man’s as good as his word. If he told ye ye’d have yer money at the harvest, then ye’d be smart to believe him. But ye seem more interested in showing off yer fancy suit and crowing like a cockerel on a pile of pigswill. Ye’re nothing but bully and bluster, and I’ll wager ye don’t have the goolies to do it. Away with ye, and tell yer master he’s got a whey-haired old goat for a servant.”
Mr. Hartopp’s face flushed to red, and even the whites of his eyes had colored to pink. He looked as if he’d been winded by a fist to his gut.
The carriage door opened. A glassy black Hessian boot emerged and landed on the muddy path. A second followed, and the door closed. Standing beside the carriage was a man almost as tall as General, the Clydesdale she had just been harnessing. His mouth had thinned to a razor-blade line across his face, and his eyes were blue flames burning beneath a scowl. He was dressed unlike any Scotsman she knew, with a tailcoat of navy blue and breeches made of fawn. A white cravat was tied underneath his square chin, and a gold brocade waistcoat outlined a trim torso. If she didn’t know better, she’d think the new laird of Ballencrieff was an—
“You can tell me yourself, young woman, for I’m right here.”
Shona’s open mouth closed slowly. The man towered over her, filling her range of vision with his forbidding presence. A quake of fear erupted in her belly.
She swallowed hard, trying not to betray her trepidation. The man was an unfamiliar threat, but he clearly had both the status and the physical strength to enforce his own will. He was not in the least singed by her words. And that was the only weapon she had at her disposal.
“What game is this?” she demanded, forcing the steadiness back in her voice. “Do ye really expect us to believe that the laird of Ballencrieff is an … an—”
“Englishman?” The handsome man cocked an eyebrow. “I’m afraid so.”
Now it was Shona’s turn to be winded. His clothes, his accent, even his arrogance all screamed English. Despite the dominating stance, he was incredibly, incredibly handsome.
“Bah!” Hume punched his forefinger in the man’s direction. “Ballencrieff was a patriot. A head-to-toe Scotsman. He would ha’ nothing to do with Sassenachs.”
The man’s jaw tensed, and his eyes grew flinty.
“I appreciate neither my uncle’s politics nor your disparaging remark, sir. Do not now pretend you two were allies. As for your daughter here, you’d do well to teach her to respect her betters. Or at least to keep a civil tongue in her head.”
Hume’s mouth sealed to a tight-lipped snarl.
The Englishman continued. “As for Mr. Hartopp’s generous offer, it is hereby nullified. You will repay your debt—in its entirety—to my estate. If you don’t like that arrangement, perhaps a spate in debtor’s prison is in order, there to remain until every last penny is settled. Now, what’s it to be?”
Shona could kick herself. Her outburst served only to worsen Hume’s position. And put a smug smile on Mr. Hartopp’s face.
Hume grumbled into his chest. “I’ve got five pound in the house.”
The Englishman gave a curt nod. “And?”
Hume’s nostrils flared. “I’m owed four pound thruppence from some in town. I can have it to you on the morrow.”
Hume shrugged. “Crops will come in by fall.”
The Englishman shook his head. “I won’t wait that long. You can make up the difference with the livestock. Hartopp, what was your accounting of his animals?”
Perfunctorily, Mr. Hartopp opened his book to a marked page and scrolled down with his finger. “Three milk cows, seventeen dairy goats, two bucks, one plow horse, twenty-four sheep and lambs, fourteen laying hens, and one rooster.”
“Take them. Have them conveyed to the estate until I decide what to do with them. You can reduce Mr. Hume’s debt by the fair market value of his animals.” The Englishman turned on his heel, followed closely by Mr. Hartopp.
“But you can’t take my animals, my lord,” Hume pleaded. “You’ll leave us with no milk or cheese or meat. We need them for sustenance.”
The Englishman didn’t even turn around as he spoke. “I’m certain you’ll think of something.”
Hume removed his cap and held it to his chest in humility. “My lord, please. My family will starve without them.”
The Englishman stopped in his tracks. He heaved a ragged sigh and turned around. The Englishman’s eyes landed upon Shona. His expression softened.
“Very well. In light of your years, I’ll allow you to keep the plow horse to help you bring in the harvest. You may also keep one cow, and half of the poultry. That should keep you and your daughter from immediate want.”
“I’m no’ his daughter,” erupted Shona.
It felt so good to toss his mistake into his face. “I said, I’m no’ his daughter.”
“I see,” he said, his irritation palpable. “You’re incredibly opinionated, but I find you a bit scruffy to be his solicitor. Who are you then?”
Hume took a step toward her. “She’s a parish orphan, my lord. The wife and I took her and her sister in. We’ve been taking care of them for almost ten year now. I taught Shona the business of farming. Growing crops and raising livestock.”
The Englishman crossed his arms at his chest. Slowly, his eyes took their fill of her, and she grew uncomfortable under his perusal. She could just imagine how she looked to him. Horse manure caked her shoes and lined the hem of her dress. Her wet, shiny hair hung down her head like long black snakes. Her once-white pinafore was now mottled with smears from handling the rain-soaked animals.
A thread of embarrassment coiled inside her. The image she presented to him was little more than mud, moisture, and manure. At least her branded hand was behind her, out of his sight.
“How much were you given for her?”
Hume wrung the tam in his hands. “Er … two pound, my lord.”
The Englishman scratched his jaw. “I’ve not hired any outside servants yet—other than the gamekeeper, that is. I’ll need someone to look after the livestock that Hartopp is conveying to the estate. As you’ll have little enough need of Shona yourself, you can article her to me. And for that, I’ll reduce your debt by a further four pounds.”
Hume silently considered the proposition.
But not Shona.
“Ye’ve a bloody cheek!” she told the Englishman, her hands pinned to her hips. “How dare ye trade me aboot like an animal! Who do ye think ye are? I won’t be bought and sold like a heifer.”
Mr. Hartopp rolled his eyes. “My dear young woman, there is little enough difference between a parish apprentice and a farmyard animal. In fact, if it were left to smell alone, I doubt the laird would be able to distinguish between a heifer and yerself.”
The Englishman suppressed a chuckle. Shona, however, was not similarly amused.
“Why, you ill-begotten, half-bairned son of a cur!” She lunged at Mr. Hartopp, determined to scratch the smug look off his face. Before her nails made contact, a long arm snaked around her middle.
“Whoa!” shouted the Englishman. “It was only a jest.”
“’Twas no jest,” she said, struggling against the Englishman’s superior strength. “’Twas an insult, clear and deliberate!”
He laughed. “You thrust first in that swordfight. It was not so long ago you called him a whey-haired old goat. Now sheathe your claws.”
Shona stopped wriggling. When she did, she became vividly aware of the feel of the man holding her tightly. Behind her was a wall of strength—a wide chest dense with muscle, narrowing to a firm waist. His long legs prevented any retreat, but she wasn’t making any. She grasped the arm wrapped around her middle. The fabric of his sleeve was soft, but the muscles beneath were marble-hard. Her waning fury was quickly replaced by a surprisingly agreeable sensation.
He released her, and she backed away from him. Her body was still tingling wherever it had made contact with his.
He jerked on his waistcoat, straightening his clothes. “Now, the fact remains that my estate is not yet fully staffed, and your services will be required. Apprentices don’t usually get paid, but I am prepared to offer you a small wage, in addition to bed and board. If you’re industrious and well behaved, that is. And I’ll give Mr. Findlay here until the end of the year to make up the balance owed. Now, are we in agreement?”
For the first time, hope winked inside her. Not only would Hume have more time to pay his debts, but she would finally be able to earn a wage. Her mind reeled with the possibilities of how her and Willow’s lives would change if they went to work for the Englishman. Surely with some money jingling in their pockets, they would be in a better position to seek their own lives—and Camran—once they turned twenty-one. Also, she’d be able to tend to Pillow and all the other animals she’d come to love.
On the other hand, the Englishman might prove to be an evil taskmaster. She’d heard stories of Sassenach lords and the advantages they took of servant girls. For all his boorishness and bluster, Hume was no lecher. She wasn’t so sure about the Englishman. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
The Englishman’s eyes gazed at her in bemused curiosity. He was handsomer than she had at first surmised. His eyes were blue, like the sky on a summer day, encircled by a darker cobalt, like the color of a loch in winter. Beneath his long eyebrows, his eyes were edged by a thick fringe of dark brown lash. The wind picked up a sandy brown whorl from above his forehead. His jaw was clean-shaven, but tomorrow’s beard lay submerged underneath.
Maybe this would not be such a bad move after all. “Sounds fair enough. Aye. Willow and I can be there on the morrow.”
The crease between his eyebrows deepened. “Willow? Is that the cow’s name?”
Shona laughed. “No. Willow is my sister.”
His dark lips thinned. “Willow is not part of the bargain between myself and Mr. Findlay. She can stay here on the farm.”
The smile drained from her face. “Nay. Willow must come with me.”
The Englishman sighed. “I’m sorry. Findlay, please sort this out. Hartopp will draw up the articles of indenture. I want the girl on my estate before nightfall.” The Englishman stepped onto the carriage.
“I’ll not leave without Willow,” she protested.
Hume put a hand on her arm. “Leave it be, Shona. I want Willow to stay here with me.”
She jerked her arm free and ran to the carriage door, holding it open. “Ye must take us both. Keep the wages if ye wish, but I’ll not leave Willow behind.”
“Shona, hush yerself!” Hume admonished. “Take no notice of her, my lord. ’Tis sisterly affection between them. But they are of age now, and must learn to live apart.”
“No,” she insisted. “It is both or none.”
“Young woman,” began the Englishman, “I am not in the habit of being issued ultimatums, least of all by those in my employ. Now I strongly suggest that you—”
His voice trailed off and his eyes lifted to a place just behind her. She turned to look. Willow was standing behind her.
“Please, my lord,” Willow said. “Don’t separate us. I’ll be no trouble, I promise.”
He blinked. “You’re Shona’s sister?”
“Aye, my lord.” Willow cast her face toward the ground, her blond hair falling forward along her cheeks.
He gave Willow a leisurely appraisal. His expression was one that many men had when they set eyes upon Willow. “Very well, Shona. I’ll take you both. I think I might be able to find something for her to do. Gather your belongings. The carriage leaves in ten minutes.”
* * *
Within five minutes, the girls had tossed their wardrobe—the frocks that they shared between them—and their few belongings into a worn leather valise they had brought with them from the orphanage. Iona stood in the doorway of their room and wept, swearing all sorts of curses upon Hume’s bald head.
“Don’t cry, Iona,” said Shona as she changed out of her wet dress and into a dry one. “The estate is only five miles away. I promise Willow and I will be back every chance we get.”
Iona’s nose looked like a wet cherry. “Five miles? It may as well be fifty. Ye’ll never make it out to the farm from that distance. And even if ye could, there’s no telling what that Sassenach laird will be like. He might refuse to let ye leave the estate. He might be just as bad a tyrant as his uncle, may that man rot in his grave. Oh, God. What if he’s a scoundrel? What if he takes advantage of ye?” Iona dissolved into tears again.
Willow embraced Iona from behind as Shona grasped the older woman’s hands. “We’re not going to let that happen,” Shona assured her. “Don’t ye worry. We can take care of ourselves.”
“Ye, perhaps. But Willow, sweeting, ye must promise to be strong.” She turned toward Willow, whose own tears had begun to fall swiftly. “Men are animals, the lot of ’em. They want only one thing, especially from a pretty girl like ye. Ye mustn’t let anyone bully ye into giving them favors. Not yer master, not the other servants. Ye’re a sweet girl, and ye don’t understand the effect ye have on a man.”
Shona looked away, stung once again by the realization that she was not the prettier of the two. Willow’s effortless loveliness drew men to her like flies to honey. She could see why. That creamy, unblemished skin, which invited caresses; the childlike shape of her face, which lent her an ageless beauty; those full, shell-pink lips that formed a perpetual pout; her long, shiny lashes, which made her appear as if she had just been weeping. Yet there was an unawareness of her own beauty, making Willow much more susceptible to men’s flattery, leaving her as helpless as a tethered goat outside a den of wolves. Iona’s advice was a truth that Willow needed to hear.
“And ye,” continued Iona, placing both her hands on Shona’s cheeks, “take care of yer sister. Ye’re a sensible soul, and ye’ve sound instincts. If anyone makes unreasonable demands of either of ye, or hurts ye in any way, promise me that ye’ll run away straight home. D’ye understand? Hie yerselves here.”
“I promise,” she said.
A crest of tears spilled over the rims of Iona’s blue eyes. “Dear Lord, what am I going to do without m’girls?”
They went downstairs to the kitchen, where Iona placed some treacle biscuits and the kidney pie she had made for Hume’s dinner into a basket. She stumbled over her own sobs, trying to pour overdue motherly advice into their heads. All she managed to do was stammer unintelligibly.
The driver placed their bundles in the rumble of the carriage. He then held the door open for them and helped them onto the coach.
The interior of the coach was even grander than the exterior. Burgundy-colored leather seats faced each other, and the matching walls were accented with gold trim. The clear glass windows were elegantly etched at each corner.
Shona glanced at the other occupant. Not only did the carriage seem to belong to another world, but so did the Englishman. He had a manner that bespoke generations of breeding, completely at ease with his own power and wealth. His tall frame filled the cabin, and his long legs extended out almost to the opposite seat. He was immensely attractive … for a Sassenach. Shona edged past his lap and sat opposite him, while Willow took her place beside her sister, their gloved hands clasped nervously in their laps.
The Englishman smiled at Willow. “So you’re the one that Mr. Findlay wouldn’t part with. I can certainly see why.”
Willow smiled sheepishly, a blush whispering across her cheeks. Shona’s protective instincts immediately became alert. To Shona, Willow looked a mess—her hair was uncombed, she was at the pinnacle of her cold, and her clean pinafore was already smudged. But to a man, she probably looked as beautifully rumpled as if she had just risen from a lover’s bed.
“Your name is Willow?”
“Aye, my lord. Willow Slayter, at yer service.”
“What do you do for Mr. Findlay?”
Willow glanced up from her downcast head, and shrugged. “Whatever’s required, my lord. Milk the cows, see to the chickens, mend the clothes, do the washing—”
“Do you have children?”
Color flooded her face. “No, my lord. I’m a maiden.”
“I see,” he said, a smile touching his eyes.
“But I love children. When the women of t’other farms would give birth, Iona would ask me to look after the wee ones while the mums got their strength back. I love seeing to bairns.”
“Do you?” he replied, his interest even keener. “In that case, I have a special position I think you might be able to assume.”
The words “dirty sod” flashed through Shona’s mind. “And just what position would ye be talking aboot?”
The Englishman flashed a puzzled glance at Shona. “I have an infant son—a two-year-old—and his nursemaid fell ill midway on the journey from London. She simply couldn’t continue, so I had to put her on a coach back home. Consequently, I must engage a nursemaid to look after the boy. Perhaps you, Willow, might be able to fill that station.”
Willow’s face brightened. “I’d love to, my lord!”
The Englishman asked Willow a barrage of questions as to her health, cleanliness, morality, temperance, habits, and specific experience with children. She answered each question with self-effacing candor and meek respect.
The Englishman turned to his factor. “I think Miss Slayter here can serve as Eric’s nursemaid—on a trial basis, of course. Hartopp, ask the housekeeper to get adequate clothes for Miss Slayter. She’ll also need to be given accommodations in the nursery. You’ll ask Mrs. Docherty to see to that as well, won’t you?”
Mr. Hartopp scribbled into his ledger. “Of course, sir.”
Shona became immediately suspicious. “And where is this nursery?”
His brows drew together. “On the uppermost floor. Why do you ask?”
“Will yer bedchamber be adjoining hers?”
“Shona!” Willow admonished.
The Englishman’s lips pursed. “Are you implying that I’m arranging a sordid dalliance with your sister?”
She straightened. “I’ve a right to know what yer intentions are toward her.”
Mr. Hartopp came to his employer’s defense. “Young woman, ye’re speaking to a gentleman and the laird of the estate. If he—”
The Englishman raised his hand and Mr. Hartopp stopped speaking. He leaned forward and brought his face to within inches of hers. “In the first place, I do not care for being upbraided by a servant, however well intentioned it may be. In the second place, if you are accusing me of desiring to take liberties with innocent maids, you have much still to learn about me. And finally, if I were to take liberties with anyone in my household, there is nothing you could do to stop me. So I will thank you to remember your place, for if you cannot control your impudent tongue, I will send you—and only you—back to that farm.”
He retracted his imposing frame back to his chair, and Shona could finally breathe again. His threat had winded her, robbing her of speech. During their brief acquaintance, he had accurately discerned what her greatest fear was—to be separated from her twin sister—and he knew precisely how to use that weakness to his own advantage. She now understood that although the Englishman was well groomed and genteel, he was infinitely more dangerous than she had initially thought him. Ownership of the sisters had passed hands from Hume to the Englishman, but she was no longer certain that it was a good thing. A lamb never fared better at the second place it went to.
No one spoke during the remainder of the trip. Shona gazed out the window, hands in her lap, her left hand instinctively covering the right. The familiar woods near Hume’s property faded behind them, and the carriage rumbled into unfamiliar terrain as it neared Ballencrieff House. Shona had seen the house only once or twice—and only from afar—because Iona had warned them both to stay clear of the “wicked laird of Ballencrieff.” Even after that man’s death, unmourned by everyone she knew, she still kept her distance. As she was fond of saying, she had lost nothing on the estate, and even if she had, it was not worth going back for.
Now the carriage turned onto the very property she had avoided. The wheels crunched on the gravel in front of a large mansion that seemed about three hundred years old. The one-time fortress seemed to make an effort to be welcoming and warm, but failed utterly. The beige stone walls rose high into the sky, dwarfing the leafy woods that receded from it. The walls were studded with narrow windows, more brick than glass. The façade was crowned by a crenellated wall and several small, sharp turrets, looking for all the world like a row of fangs in the mouth of a large beast.
The Englishman jumped off, extending himself to his full height.
“Hartopp, see to Miss Slayter’s clothing. Then have her report to me in the study for inspection. Also, tell Mrs. Docherty I got her her very first dairymaid. She can tell Cook to expect fresh milk, cream, and butter soon. And tell her to prepare a room in the servants’ quarters for the other Miss Slayter.”
The other Miss Slayter. A flicker of jealousy had already been burning inside Shona, but it flared at his dismissive attitude. Despite his authority, she would make the Englishman respect her. As she always said, start as you mean to go.
“In the first place, I am not ‘the other Miss Slayter.’ You can call me Miss Slayter, or by my given name, which is Shona. And in the second place, my sister’s place is with me. We live together, we work together, we stay together.”
It was the last thing in the world she expected him to do. The Englishman tilted back his head and laughed.
“Clearly, you’ve been accustomed to a great deal more latitude than I am prepared to give you. So let me paint you a picture of what your life is about to become. I am the master, and you are the apprentice. You belong to me now. On this estate, I am the supreme and final authority. If from my lips you hear that I want you to work in the dairy, then that is precisely what you can expect to do. And if your sister is wanted in the nursery, then that is where she will serve. I demand swift and absolute obedience, and anything less is blatant disobedience. The sooner you learn that fact, the more inclined I will be to hearing your requested privileges.” He dipped his head curtly. “Shona.”
Despite his admonishment, she enjoyed hearing her name on his lips. Perhaps it was his English accent, which softened her name into something that sounded elegant and romantic. Or maybe it was that she had won some measure of his respect, as he had done precisely as she had asked him to do. But she greatly suspected it was the way his mouth curled into a slight smile as he looked her in the face.
“What shall I call you?” she asked softly.
An invisible smile touched his eyes. “You may call me Master.”
A dog bounded out from the open front door of the house, a white English pointer with blue-black spots and pendant ears that flapped in the air as he ran toward the Englishman.
The man’s face transformed into something she had not yet recognized. He smiled widely, revealing straight white teeth, and his eyes became playful crescents. The dog’s tail whipped side to side as he reared up and pushed his forepaws into the Englishman’s abdomen. The Englishman grunted, laughing at the dog’s squealing salutation.
“Good to see you, too, Dexter!” The Englishman ruffled the dog’s ears with both hands. The dog jumped higher, trying to lick the man’s face, but not quite reaching it.
Shona took in the joy that man and dog felt in each other’s presence. Aye, she liked seeing the Englishman contented. Aye, she relished seeing the happiness he brought to the dog. But if the Englishman thought she was going to call him Master and lick his hands like his dog, he was in for an unpleasant shock.
Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Marcos
Posted March 7, 2012
Life was never easy for Shona MacAslan but she is so close to gaining her freedom and living life on her own with her twin sister. Shona has watched everything she loved be taken away and left her with horrible memories and an even worse future destined to be fulfilled by her enemies. Nothing will part her from her twin sister not even the new Laird of Ballencrieff, Conal MacEwan. Conal is making decisions that will alter everything about Shona’s life and she is going to fight him with every stubborn and spiteful bone in her body.
Without her consent Shona finds herself still living an indentured servant’s life living on Conal’s estate. Shona is never one to let opportunity pass her by she immediately starts a formulating a plan that will set her and her twin sister free. Conal left a flourishing medical career to take over these lands and make them something his son will be proud to inherit. There is obligation but also the need to forget the past and the life his late wife left him to recover from. Fortunately, Conal sees very quickly Shona’s intelligence and decides to tap her ideas with long-term suggestions with short-term gains to make the estate solvent again. Conal is also sees Shona’s beauty and loves the shape of her sensuous lips even when those awful words come out of them.
The biggest problem with plans is they always have the possibility of falling apart when someone else’s agenda over rides yours. Shona’s idea for love and freedom unravel as the front door opens to accusing statements and a situation that Conal will have to resolve to save his estate, reputation, and future for his son. There has to be another way around this but right now all Shona sees is the life she wanted drifting away and the past coming back to haunt her in ways she never expected.
Michelle Marcos has completely blown me away with the magnificence of this book. Every reason I read historical romance is provided between the pages of this story. There are fascinating characters, plots that overlay the subplots, and a romance that will make you weep with joy it is so beautiful.
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Posted March 15, 2012
I couldn't finish it. It was boring, slow and silly. I should have known, because I didn't like very much the first one either. It started good but in the middle to the end turned boring and silly.
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Posted February 22, 2014
Reviewed by Rachel
Book provided by the publisher for review
Review originally posted at Romancing the Book
I’ve never read a book by Michelle Marcos before, but one of my very favorite authors gave her an AMAZING review so I knew it had to be awesome. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed. There’s something magical about Highlander books.
We were immediately thrown into Shona’s life as a little girl as she watches the murder of her family and is left with her little sister. Through a series of events they find themselves living with a decent family as glorified servants. But emotional scars aren’t the only thing they carry. They are marked for the world to see, in more ways than one.
Shona’s character was immediately flushed out as a very strong female lead. She doesn’t cower in the corner and speaks her mind regardless of what the consequences may be. In fact, her outspokenness is what gets her and her sister jobs at the new estate, with Conall, an English Laird as their master. She has an instant dislike and attraction for Conall. He’s handsome, but very stern and tells her she’s going to earn her keep by milking the cows, while her sister becomes the nanny.
Jealousy flairs until Shona soon proves her worth at estate management which forces Conall to spend endless hours with her. Conall is instantly attracted to Shona because of her spirit, but soon their attraction turns into something much more dangerous. I liked the flow of their love story. The progression made sense, it wasn’t this sex crazed immediate thing. It was almost like the author made it so that the two characters were able to court before the feelings were made known, which as a reader, I really appreciated.
If I was to complain about one thing in this book, it would probably be that the female lead became somewhat tiresome. I get why Shona is the way she is but in the end I felt like her character was almost too overbearing.
All in all it was a wonderful romantic story with very little swearing and mild sensuality.
Posted March 4, 2012
Indentured in service since she was a child, Shona Slayter can hardly wait days until her twenty first birthday. She will be "free" to live her own life with her twin sister Willow. But unfortunately Shona plans will have to be derailed because of the new owner has taken over the family estate and her indenture too! Even though the new "laird" is Scottish, he was raised in London. Conall MacEwan is bossy, infurating, handsome lout Shona has ever met. Conall thinks Shona is bossy, undisciplined, stubborn and oh so beautiful.
Boy do sparks fly when these two get together. I really love this story of how Shona's and Conall's past tragedies gave each a life to treasure. This is the second book series of Ms Marcos. The first one was "Secrets to Seducing a Scot".
Posted February 29, 2012
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