-- Mrs. Charlotte Harris, headmistress
Lady Venetia Campbell's visit to her childhood home in Scotland takes a dramatic turn when she's kidnapped at pistol point by her father's sworn enemy. Sir Lachlan Ross is widely feared in his guise as The Scottish Scourge, but Venetia remembers her former neighbor as a handsome youth whose attentions she craved. Now a wickedly sexy man, Lachlan's appeal is even more intoxicating...and much more dangerous. Though Lachlan tries to treat her as his foe, his scorching kisses tell another story. And despite his plan to use her as a weapon against her father, Venetia is determined that Lachlan's lust for revenge will be trumped by an even more powerful desire....
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Edinburgh August 20, 1822
August 20, 1822
I worry about Venetia's trip to Scotland. Yes, I know what the papers reported -- that the Scottish Scourge was killed three months ago in a fight with Sir Lachlan Ross that left both men dead. Still, considering the Scourge's mysterious grievance against the earl, I'd feel easier if someone could produce the villain's body.
Your anxious relation,
Mama would have loved this," Venetia said wistfully to her aunt, Maggie Douglas, the Viscountess Kerr. They stood in line waiting to be announced at the True Highlander Celtic Society's masquerade ball, now near enough to hear bagpipes skirling from inside the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms. "Don't you just adore the tartans and strathspeys and costumes and -- "
" -- packed streets and wretched food and ghastly accommodations?" Aunt Maggie rolled her green eyes, the same shade as her niece's. "Not a bit. Unlike you -- and my sister, when she was alive -- I prefer the comforts of London. Why, I haven't had a wink of sleep since we arrived."
"So the snoring I hear nightly comes from our baggage?" Venetia teased.
"Mind your tongue, or I'll make you take the lumpy side of the mattress."
Venetia laughed. "Forgive me. You've been very good to put up with it."
Their lodgings truly were awful, but they'd been lucky even to find them. Every spare bedroom, garret, and cellar had been spoken for by the hordes that had descended upon Edinburgh to witness the first visit of a reigning English monarch to Scotland in nearly two centuries.
But Venetia didn't mind their miserable inn room. She'd waited sixteen years to return to Scotland, and she wouldn't let a flat pillow and a lumpy mattress -- or a grousing chaperone -- dampen her pleasure.
Venetia squeezed her aunt's hand as the line moved forward. "You can't know how much I appreciate your accompanying me. Otherwise, I would never have convinced Papa to let me come."
"I'm rather shocked that you did. However did you manage it?"
"Oh, Papa is easy enough to handle. I only had to make one tiny promise."
"And what was that?"
She cast her aunt a game smile. "To accept a proposal of marriage in the next year."
"That isn't exactly a tiny promise, my dear. And who is the lucky fellow?"
"Lord, I don't know. Anyone I can endure, I suppose." And anyone passing the inspection of Mrs. Charlotte Harris and the mysterious Cousin Michael, who routinely provided information about men in society to Venetia's schoolmistress.
"Papa worries I'll never find a husband," Venetia explained. In truth, she'd begun to worry the same thing.
"A lady like you will always have proposals," her aunt said with a dismissive wave of her jeweled fingers.
"It's not a dearth of proposals that worries him. It's my lack of interest in any of them." She'd promised her mother never to marry any man who didn't rouse her senses, whatever that meant. When Mama had elicited the promise, she hadn't said it was because of Papa, but Venetia often wondered...
"So have you any particular men in mind?" her aunt asked.
She blew out a long breath. "No, but I hope to find someone in Scotland, away from the fortune hunters and dull-witted English lords. I want a Scottish laird with a venerable old name, who lives and breathes the Highlands -- "
"Like the fellows in those ballads you love to collect, I suppose."
Her aunt's contempt was plain. "Why not?" Venetia said defensively. "Why shouldn't I have a Duncan Graeme or a Highland Laddie who'll carry me off to his manor in the Highlands to live in connubial bliss?"
"Because you're about as Scottish as the Queen of England, my dear."
"That's not true!" she said, thoroughly insulted.
"You've got too many fine manners and too much English deportment for a country that thinks a good evening's entertainment is a jar of whisky and a rough brawl. You wouldn't last one day with a 'Highland Laddie' before you wanted to hit him over the head with the jar."
That might be the case, but she didn't feel any more comfortable in England. When she lost her temper, people called her "that Scottish termagant." Too much reserve, and they said she was a "haughty Scot." And when Papa fell into his heavy brogue, she always had to interpret it for others. As if he were foreign, for pity's sake!
Then there was the insidiouly superior manner of the English toward their "lesser" Scottish subjects, which even Aunt Maggie had adopted after her years married to an Englishman. She scowled at her aunt, who didn't even notice.
"You're certainly wearing the right costume for catching your ballad hero husband." Aunt Maggie lifted her white silk mask to survey Venetia's gown of simple worsted. "Highlanders practically worship Flora MacDonald."
"As well they should. She saved Bonnie Prince Charlie."
"Yes, yes, but it's a pity she had to dress like a farmer's daughter."
"She was a farmer's daughter." Venetia adjusted her own silk mask. "And I had quite a difficult time finding the right gown, so don't make fun." Fortunately she and Flora both had black hair and fair skin, so they resembled each other.
"At least the color is good. You look well in burgundy."
"So do you." Venetia bit back a smile. "Who are you supposed to be again?"
"Don't be impertinent. You should be glad I bothered to wear a mask. If not for that old fool, the colonel, twisting my arm, I wouldn't even be here."
Colonel Hugh Seton was one of the hosts of the ball and, unless Venetia missed her guess, quite enamored of Aunt Maggie, given how he'd tracked them down at their inn after their arrival. "He's rather forceful, isn't he?"
"Forceful?" Her aunt snorted. "He's mad. Why would the Celtic Society put a blustery cavalry officer in charge of a ball? Heaven only knows what nightmare of bad taste awaits us -- he probably had them perch saddles on the chairs." She scowled at Venetia, who was laughing. "What, pray tell, is so amusing?"
"You!" Venetia choked out between peals of laughter. "I thought you liked him, given how you chatted about my old school yesterday. You told him his daughter is lovely."
"She is, but it's no thanks to him. Charlotte Harris is responsible for that." Aunt Maggie shook her head. "The fellow patted my bottom as we were leaving, for heaven's sake!" The color in her cheeks showed she wasn't as affronted as she pretended. "He illustrates perfectly what I mean about Highland Laddies. The impudent devil acts as if he's his daughter's age -- "
Her aunt broke off as they reached the top, then whispered to the servant, who announced them as "Masked Lady" and "Flora MacDonald."
No one in the packed ballroom seemed to heed their entrance, except a tall man near the doorway who swung around to stare at them when their "names" were announced.
He barely spared a glance for Aunt Maggie, but Venetia he assessed with a thorough, rather unsettling perusal. Then he lifted his glass in a silent toast.
Her "English deportment" demanded that she squelch such presumption from a stranger. But he was a particularly attractive stranger and she was in costume, after all. Besides, his Stuart tartan showed he was probably just playing Bonnie Prince Charlie to her Flora.
So she acknowledged his toast with a nod... and made sure to look him over. Despite his brawny build and the jagged scar marring his high brow, he captured the royal manner to perfection. He suffered a white powdered wig with regal dignity, and he kept his posture stiff and his bearing as aloof as any monarch.
But the rich chestnut-brown eyes gazing at her through the black silk mask weren't remotely aloof. They burned with startling fierceness. And they seemed oddly familiar, too.
Before she could wonder at that, Aunt Maggie was hurrying her to the receiving line and Colonel Seton.
"Ah, you've come at last!" the colonel exclaimed as he seized Venetia's hand, apparently recognizing the two of them despite the masks.
The widower looked rather dashing tonight in the tartan of Robert the Bruce. With his full head of steel-gray hair, his soldier's fit form, and his brilliant blue eyes, he cut quite a fine figure for a man well past forty.
With a furtive glance somewhere behind her, he said in his usually booming voice, "Delighted to have you here, Lady Venetia. Most delighted."
"Shh, Colonel," she chided. "You aren't supposed to reveal my true identity until the unmasking."
"Right, right, forgive me. Quite a blunder, what? It won't happen again, Flora."
She laughed. "I suppose it doesn't matter anyway. The place is probably filled with Flora MacDonalds and Bonnie Prince Charlies."
"No, indeed. We have princes to spare, but you are the only Flora." He leaned close with a conspiratorial air. "The other ladies preferred more ornate costumes." He slanted a glance at Aunt Maggie, then broke into a jovial smile. "Like the fine one your companion is wearing. And who exactly is she dressed as? You didn't mention her costume yesterday."
"She's a queen," Venetia lied.
"Which one?" he persisted.
"Come now, sir," her aunt said dryly. "It should be obvious that I'm -- "
"Very pleased to be here," Venetia hastened to say. "We both are."
"Excellent!" He rubbed his hands together. "Have you asked her about tomorrow, the outing to Holyrood Park?"
"Yes, and she said she'd be delighted to go."
"'Delighted' wasn't quite the word I used," Aunt Maggie muttered.
"What?" Colonel Seton asked, bending nearer to hear over the din.
"She said, 'Thank you for thinking of us, sir.'" When her aunt snorted, Venetia went on quickly, "It's sure to be tedious in town tomorrow with no activities scheduled for the king, so we're grateful for the diversion."
"Splendid! But are you sure you don't want to visit Rosslyn Chapel?"
"No, indeed," her aunt cut in. "I promised Venetia's father we wouldn't stray from Edinburgh."
Venetia sighed. They'd arrived here by ship, so she'd barely seen any of the countryside. But the specter of the Scourge still haunted Papa and he wouldn't take the chance of her running afoul of any "Scottish brigands."
"Then Holyrood Park it is," the colonel said cheerily. "We'll march up to Arthur's Seat after our picnic. The view is spectacular, though the climb is hard." He seized Aunt Maggie's hand. "I vow to help you every step of the way."
"I do not need your help, sir." Her cheeks pinkening, Aunt Maggie snatched back her hand. "Nor have I given you permission to be so familiar with me."
His jovial laugh showed he wasn't the least put off. "Indeed you have not, Your Majesty." He poked Venetia jocularly with his elbow. "I hope she won't order me executed for my impertinence."
"Don't tempt me." With a sniff, Maggie turned to Venetia. "Come, my dear, we're holding up the line."
Laughing, Venetia followed her. As soon as they'd left the receiving line, she said, "You've certainly made a conquest."
"Lord help me," her aunt snapped, although her eyes shone brightly.
"Oh, he's not so bad." As they skirted the room, Venetia gestured to the masked guests swirling in a wave of tartan and splendid gowns. "You see? Despite your fears, the ball is lovely -- very festive and Scottish, but tasteful."
"No doubt the other committee members voted down his more boorish ideas." They halted near a pillar. "I only hope that he thought to designate a ladies' retiring room. I have need of it. What about you?"
"I'm fine. I'll stay here."
"Very well, I shall return shortly." Her aunt cast her a teasing glance. "Perhaps one of your ballad heroes will float by while I'm gone."
Venetia frowned as her aunt walked off. Float by, indeed.
"Surely the dancing's not so bad as all that," remarked a husky male voice at her elbow.
Venetia turned to find the Bonnie Prince Charlie from earlier standing behind her. Speaking of ballad heroes... She tried not to stare, but he was even larger close up, a decided improvement on the original short and slender Prince Charlie. "Beg your pardon, sir, are you speaking to me?"
The corners of his mouth crinkled up. "Aye. You were frowning, and I wondered if it was the dancing that failed yer inspection."
"Not at all," she said with a flirtatious smile. "I adore Scottish dancing."
"Ah, then perhaps it's the garish excess of tartan. Too many kilts and such."
"Certainly not. The kilts are my favorite part. Every man should wear one."
He eyed her askance. "Every man?" He nodded toward a portly gentleman kicking his hairy legs up dangerously high. "Even him?"
She stifled a laugh. "All right, I concede the point."
"We should ask that fellow and the king to refrain from the fashion."
"Oh, I heard about the king's kilt! You must have been at the levee for the men. Was His Majesty's attire really as appalling as everyone says?"
His gaze grew shuttered. "I don't know, lass. I didn't arrive in town until yesterday, so I only read about it in the papers."
She sighed. "Me, too. But I heard that he wore flesh-colored pantaloons underneath his kilt."
His eyes gleamed at her through the slits in the mask. "So you prefer the alternative, do ye?"
What a shocking thing to say! Yet she rather liked his daring. It tempted her to be equally reckless, something she could never be with English lords.
"Not for His Majesty. Frankly, I think he should stay away from kilts entirely." Her gaze trailed down to her strapping companion's knees, bare below his own kilt. "But other gentlemen are certainly welcome to practice the old traditions."
He chuckled. "Glad to know you approve, lass," he said in a throaty brogue that melted her bones. He lowered his voice. "Now I can guess what had you frowning so fiercely a moment ago. You were trying to figure out which gentlemen were practicing the old traditions."
Torn between laughter and outrage, she said, "I certainly was not!"
"Were you imagining the king in his pink pantaloons?"
"No, nothing like that. If you must know, I was..." She cast around for a suitable excuse. "Trying to make out the tune the pipers were playing. I have a passion for Scottish songs -- I gather them from broadsides and such." She added a trifle defiantly, "I hope to see my collection published someday."
He continued to stare out at the dance floor. "A lofty endeavor."
"You don't disapprove?" Most people said that well-born ladies shouldn't dabble in a vulgar business like publishing.
"I've no right to disapprove." He shot her a veiled glance. "Why? Does your husband give you grief over it?"
"I'm not married, sir," she said with a coy smile.
"Ah. Then your parents must be the ones giving you grief."
"Papa does think it's silly, but he tolerates it well enough." She flicked her fan back and forth. "I suppose you think he ought to give me grief over it."
"No. If anything, young ladies should have more freedom than they do."
"Really?" Mrs. Harris routinely warned against men espousing freedom for women, since that often meant they only wanted the women to be free with them. Yet he didn't seem like a fortune hunter. And he didn't know who she was, so how could he be hunting her fortune?
She smiled cautiously. "Do you approve of such freedom for your wife?"
"I would." He dropped his voice to a murmur. "If I happened to be married."
A little thrill shot through her. But how absurd of her to be attracted to an utter stranger. It was his stunning costume, that's all. In his kilt, he bore "the manly looks o' a Highland laddie," as "The Tartan Plaidy" put it.
But it wasn't merely that. His eyes, with their golden specks, still seemed very familiar... "Have we met, sir?"
"Don't you remember, Flora? You helped me escape the English after Culloden." His words were teasing, but his countenance wasn't. It held a seriousness utterly at odds with the whirling, laughing crowd around them.
"I mean," she chided, "have we ever met as our real selves?"
"I wouldn't know that, now, would I?" He bent near to whisper, "Unless you tell me who ye really are beneath that mask."
"You first," she demanded.
"Och, no, lass." He laughed. "I'm not taking the chance that you'd order me to stop speaking with you, all because we lack a proper introduction."
Oh, he was certainly a sly one. "And what makes you think I'm the sort to follow the proprieties so stringently?" she asked in a voice equally sly.
"The way you speak and stand. Yer ladylike manner." His gaze fell to her mouth, and something flickered in his eyes that made her skin thrum. "The fact that talking to a man like me has got you so nervous that you can't rest easy until you're sure who I am."
"That's preposterous." She ignored the kernel of truth in his words. "If the colonel invited you, you must be his friend, and I doubt he has unsuitable friends."
"What if the Celtic Society invited me? Are you as sure of their friends?"
"Absolutely. I've attended the society's lectures in London, so I know them to be respectable." Her eyes narrowed. "Perhaps I even saw you at one."
"Perhaps." But his amused smile told her she was far off the mark.
"Or perhaps..." She stood back to survey him critically.
He bore too polished a manner for some country Scot, so he was either a gentleman or an officer or both. He did carry himself with military rigidity, not to mention his jagged scar...
"Might you have been in a Highland regiment?"
"No," he said with a swiftness that made her sure she'd hit upon the truth.
"That would explain where I met you," she pressed on. "Regimental officers attend London affairs." And his costume looked adapted from a uniform, its hardy leather sporran and its serviceable cross belts unlike anything the real Bonnie Prince Charlie would have worn.
"No, lass," he said more firmly. "Fine guess, but no."
"I'm back," Aunt Maggie interrupted as she broke through the crowd. She gave Bonnie Prince Charlie the once-over, eyes narrowing. "Excuse me, sir, but have we met? I could swear that we have."
"I said the same thing!" Venetia exclaimed. "He reminds me of someone."
"Sir Alasdair Ross," her aunt said. "Don't you remember, dear? The baronet who lived near your family? It's the eyes, and the square jaw. The man's been dead for years, but they could be related."
"We are indeed, I believe." Her ballad hero forced a smile. "He's a distant relation."
"Not too distant, I'll wager, for you look as if you could be his son." Aunt Maggie surveyed him critically. "He had a son, actually. Do you remember him, Venetia? I know you were only eight, but -- "
"I could never forget Lachlan Ross." That was it! That's who the man reminded her of, the boy who'd dubbed her Princess Proud.
She'd thought of him often through the years. When last she'd seen the heir to the baronetcy, he'd been sixteen and too caught up in rebelling against everybody and everything to bother with a mere girl. So she'd preserved her pride by pretending not to care and making rude comments about his haphazard dress and country manners.
Secretly, though, she'd worshipped him. She'd adored his tall, rangy body and his untrammeled hair the color of burnt sugar, and she'd admired his wild bent.
Though that had probably got him killed. "He's dead, too, Aunt Maggie. We read about his funeral. That awful Scourge fellow murdered him."
Her aunt clucked her tongue. "Such a pity for one to die so young. I suppose, sir, that you heard -- "
"Yes," he broke in. "So how do you ladies like Edin -- "
"I don't know what the boy was thinking, to tangle with the Scottish Scourge," her aunt went on. "Did they ever find the villain's body?"
Their companion gave a pained smile, as if not liking to discuss such an unsavory subject with ladies. "He was washed out to sea after the skirmish, I believe. I doubt anyone could ever find him." He glanced over to the floor. "Excuse me, madam, but I was hoping to dance with your niece -- "
"Oh!" her aunt exclaimed. "And here I am blathering away like some old fool." She looked him over, seemed to like what she saw, then said, "I suppose it's all right, but I'll expect a proper introduction after the masks come off later."
"Of course." He offered his arm to Venetia, that fierceness burning in his gaze again. "May I have the honor?"
A strange thrill swept through her as she took his arm. "I'd be delighted."
"Enjoy yourselves," her aunt said as she waved them off.
When they were out of earshot, he said, "I should warn you that it's been months since I've done this. My dancing is like to be rusty."
She gazed at him in surprise. "Then why did you ask me to partner you?"
"Because I enjoy a challenge, lass." He shot her a dark glance that thrummed through her like the piper's hum. "And I begin to think that you might be one."
With that intriguing remark, he led her onto the floor.
Copyright © 2007 by Deborah Gonzales