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“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 turned away, shaking 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, so 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.”