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Scottish Highlands, 1817
H e had been too long in the city, Gordon McHeath thought as he rode along the crest of a hill toward the village of Dunbrachie. He drew in a great, deep breath of the fresh air. After so many years in Edinburgh, he'd forgotten how clean and bracing the air of the Highlands could be. He'd become too used to the smoke and the smells, the noise and the crowds, of a bustling city. Here the silence was broken only by birdsong and the occasional bleating of sheep or lowing of cattle.
The north-facing slope on his left was covered with gorse and bracken, the one on his right with a wood of birch, alders and pine. The needles of the pine were deep green and their scent came to him on the breeze, making him think of Christmas and dark winter nights, although it was only September. The leaves of the other trees were already turning brown and gold, and he guessed the ground beneath would be muddy and damp and thick with mulch. Through the trees he spotted a fast-moving river rushing between rocky banks that probably teemed with salmon in the spring.
Unfortunately, he'd also forgotten how cold a Highland breeze could be, and those heavy, gray clouds in the distance were definitely moving closer. Unless he wanted to be caught in a downpour, he had to get his hired light brown nag moving faster than a walk.
As he went to nudge his horse into a trot, a dog's furious barking broke the country quiet. It wasn't the baying of a hunting houndmore like a watchdog sounding an alarm. A shepherd's dog, perhaps, or a farm dog guarding a crofter's hut.
Gordon rose in his stirrups and looked around. He could see no herd of sheep, no crofter's hut or anything that might require a watchdog.
"Help! Help me!"
The woman's plaintive cry from somewhere in the wood was barely audible over the barking and rushing water, yet there was no mistaking the words, or the desperation.
Punching his heels into the horse's side, Gordon tried to make it leave the road and head toward the sound of the woman and the dog, to no avail, for the beast had the toughest mouth of any horse he'd ever ridden and refused to obey, as if it were more mule than horse.
With a muttered curse, Gordon dismounted, threw the reins over the branch of a nearby bush and began to make his way down the rocky, slippery slope between the trees as quickly as he could.
He tore the sleeve of his three-caped greatcoat on a holly bush. His riding boots were soon covered with mud that dirtied the hem of his coat. His hat got knocked off by a dangling branch he didn't see until it was too late. Reaching down to pick up his hat, he slipped and landed hard and started to slide, until he managed to grab a tree limb.
The dog kept barking, and the woman called out for help again, closer this time, thank God, although he still couldn't see her.
He scrambled to his feet and as he did, he caught sight of the largest, most vicious-looking black dog he'd ever seen at the base of a tall, slender, golden-leafed birch not far from the bank of the river. The dog of no breed Gordon could name was one of the ugliest he'd ever seen, with a huge head and jaw, wide-set eyes and small ears. It stood with legs planted aggressively, growling, a dribble of saliva dripping from its mouth.
Despite that, Gordon was fairly certain it wasn't a mad dog. He'd seen a rabid dog once, frothing and wild-eyed, moving with an uneven sideways gait, and he would never forget it. Nevertheless, he would keep as far from the beast as he could.
"Are you hurt?" The woman's voice came from the same direction as the dog, her accent telling Gordon she was no peasant or shepherdess.
"No," he called back.
Who was she? Where was she? He couldn't see anyone near the dog, or that tree, unless
As he came cautiously closer, he peered up into its branches.
There she was, her arms wrapped around the trunk, standing on a branch that, although she was slender, looked barely able to support her weight.
Despite the circumstance, he couldn't help noticing that she was also exceptionally pretty, with fine features, large, dark eyes and dark curls that peeked out from beneath a daffodil-yellow riding bonnet. Her whole riding habit was that same color of velvethardly the outfit of a thief or vagabond.
"I'm all right. Are you injured?" he asked as he considered what to do about the situation, especially that threatening, growling dog.
He had a pistol in his indigo greatcoat, for no man traveled alone and unarmed in this part of the country if he could avoid it, but shooting the animal should be a last resort. It might, after all, only be doing what it was supposed to do, if the young woman had ventured onto private land, for instance.
So instead of taking out his pistol, he bent down and picked up a rock that fit comfortably in the palm of his hand. He'd been a fairly skilled cricket player in his school days, and he prayed his aim hadn't deserted him as he threw the rock at the dog's hindquarters.
It struck the animal hard enough to draw its attention; unfortunately, it didn't run away.
He swiftly searched for another suitable missile that would be heavy enough to make the beast leave, but not to seriously hurt it. A solicitor, he could easily imagine an irate farmer bringing a lawsuit against him for killing his dog that had been dutifully protecting his property.
"This branch is creaking. It's going to break!" the woman cried.
And that would be a long way for her to fall.
He grabbed a rock slightly larger than the last. It was covered with mud and slippery, but he managed to lob it at the dog before it slipped from his gloved hands. It sailed through the air, bits of dirt and debris flying off it before it landed squarely on the dog's back.
Finally the dog fled, loping away through the trees toward the river, where they could hear it splashing.
"Oh, thank you!" the woman cried as Gordon hurried to the foot of the tree. "I was afraid I'd have to stay here all night!"
He could see her better now. She stood balanced on a branch that was only about three inches thick, her arms wrapped around the slim white trunk. In addition to her velvet riding habit, the young woman, who looked to be about twenty, wore tan kid leather gloves and boots. Her skin was fair and smooth, her lips rosy and bow-shaped, and her big coffee-brown eyes regarded him with admiration.
"I'm happy to be of assistance."
"I was lucky you were riding by," she said as she began to climb down with unexpected alacrity, "and equally fortunate I spent so much time climbing in my father's warehouses when I was a girl, or I daresay my fate would be worse."
Warehouses? Of course, her father must be rich. That would explain the velvet. He wondered if she had a mother, brothers, sisters or possibly a fortunate husband.
His curiosity on that point was momentarily suspended when the hem of her dress got caught on a smaller branch, revealing first her booted foot, then her shapely ankle, then her equally shapely, stocking-covered calf
Good God, what was he doing? Or rather, not doing? "I beg your pardon. Your dress is caught."
"Aye, so it is," the fair unknown replied, tugging it free while a blush added more color to her smooth cheeks. "I had no trouble getting up in the tree when I was afraid that dog would hurt me, but getting down is a different matter."
"Allow me to assist you," he offered when she reached the lowest branch about three feet from the ground.
Although he wasn't quite sure exactly what he was going to do, Gordon stripped off his muddy gloves and shoved them into his pocket before stepping forward.
Not that he should touch her. That wouldn't be proper.
On the other hand, surely these were exceptional circumstances.
She spared him having to come up with a plan by putting her hands on his shoulders. He lifted his arms and grabbed her around the waist. Then she jumped.
Her action was so quick, so confident, he wasn't quite prepared and nearly lost his balance. They both would have fallen to the ground if he hadn't immediately put his arms around her.
He didn't even know her name, yet holding her in his arms felt undeniably
right. No, better than just right.
It felt wonderful, as if somehow, this woman was meant to be in his arms.
Which had to be the greatest flight of fancy his logical lawyerly mind had ever taken.
Worse, he was blushing like a schoolboy, although he was nearly twenty-nine. Nor was this the first time he'd ever held a woman in his arms.
"There you are, safe as houses," he said with a smile, trying to sound as if he did this sort of thing every day.
"Thank you for rescuing me. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't, Mr
"McHeath. Gordon McHeath, of Edinburgh."
"I am in your debt, Mr. Gordon McHeath of Edinburgh."
Never had he been happier to hear the word debt.
Then, without a word, without a hint of warning, before he could even realize what she was doing, this woman whose name he didn't even know raised herself on her toes and kissed him.
Her lips were soft, her body lithe and shapely, and her touch sent a rush of fire flashing through his body.
Without thought, acting only on instinct and need, he put his arms around her and pulled her closer. His heartbeat thundered in his ears as he slid his mouth over hers, gliding and grazing, until he coaxed her to let his tongue slip into the moist warmth of her willing mouth. His hands slowly explored the contours of her arching back, caressing her supple spine, her breasts pressed against his rapidly rising and falling chest.
Her hands moved upward, cupping his shoulders from behind, her body relaxing against his.
God help him, he had never been kissed like this. He had never kissed like this. He didn't want to stop kissing like this
Until he remembered that he was no Lothario, but an Edinburgh solicitor, and she must be from a well-to-do family, perhaps with a father or brothers, or even a husband.
At nearly the same time, she drew back as suddenly as if a wedge had been driven between them. She flushed as red as a soldier's coat and swallowed hard, while he wondered what on earth he should say.
She spoke first. "I'm
I'm sorry, Mr. McHeath," she said, her voice as flustered as her expression. "I don't know what came over me. I'm not usually so
That is, I hope you don't think I often kiss strange men."
He wasn't a strange man, but he knew what she meant. "I don't usually kiss women I haven't been introduced to," he replied.
She moved back even more and ran her gloved hand over her forehead. "It must have been the strain. Or the relief. And gratitude, of course."
Those could be explanations for her actions; what was his excuse for returning her kiss with such fervor?
Loneliness. A heart recently broken, or wounded at least. Her beauty. The feel of a woman's arms around him, although they weren't Catriona McNare's.
Indeed, this bold young woman wasn't at all like the meek and mild Catriona McNare.
"May I ask where you're staying, Mr. McHeath? I'm sure my father will want to meet you, and an invitation to dinner is surely the very least we can do to express our appreciation for your timely assistance."
She spoke of a father, not a husband.
Thank God. "I'm staying at McStuart House."
Her whole manner and attitude altered as if he'd announced he was an inmate of the Edinburgh gaol. Her body stiffened and her luscious lips curled with disdain.
"Are you a friend of Sir Robert McStuart's?" she demanded, her voice as cold as her kiss had been passionate.
"Aye. We went to school together."
Her face reddened not with embarrassment but with obvious rage. What the devil could Robbie have done to make her so angry?
Since it was Robbie, he could think of several things, not the least of which was seductionand as he knew from legal experience, hell really had no fury like a woman scorned.
"Did he tell you about me?" she demanded, her arms at her sides, her hands curled into fists. "Is that why you thought you could kiss me like that?"
"Sir Robert didn't mention any young women when he invited me here," he answered honestly, trying to remain calm in spite of her verbal attack. "I must also point out that I still don't even know your name, and," he added, "you kissed me."
Undaunted by his response, she raised her chin and spoke as if she were the queen. "Thank you for your help today, Mr. McHeath, but any friend of Robbie McStuart is no friend of mine!"
"Obviously," he muttered as she turned on her heel and marched away.
The moment Moira MacMurdaugh was out of Gordon McHeath's sight, she gathered up her skirts and ran all the way home.
How could she have been so foolish? And impetuous? And bold? She never should have kissed him. Never should have touched him. She should simply have thanked him and let him go on his way.
When he pulled her closer, she should have broken away at once
even if Gordon McHeath's kiss was like something from a French novel, full of heat and desire and need and yearning.
Worse, she could only imagine what Robbie McStuart would make of this encounter, for surely Gordon McHeath would tell him. Soon more gossip about her would spread through Dunbrachieand this time, it would be all her fault.
As if that weren't bad enough, it was even more distressing to imagine her father's possible reaction when he found out what she'd done.
He'd kept his pledge to her for nearly six months nowthe longest span yetand it sickened her to think her thoughtless act might cause him to start drinking to excess again.