Handsome Alexander MacLean enjoyed his intoxicating flirtation with lovely Caitlyn Hurst…until she embarrassed him in front of the entire town. Orchestrating Caitlyn’s attendance at a fashionable house party, Alexander plots her downfall. But to his fury, her charm and wit thwart his plan to ruin her.
Her disastrous London season left Caitlyn filled with regret and determined to make things right with Alexander. She’s delighted to find him at the house party to which she’s unexpectedly invited—but it’s clear that the sexy, arrogant Highlander hasn’t forgiven her. So, Caitlyn comes up with a bold scheme, proposing an unusual contest drawn from legend: each must complete a set of mythic tasks. If Caitlyn succeeds, Alexander promises to relent and forgive her previous rash behavior; if he succeeds, she will join him in his bed! But can Caitlyn force Alexander to give up his quest for vengeance without giving up her heart in return?
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It takes a woman who dinna knows the word no to conquer a MacLean, especially one wit' a heart o' stone.
Old Woman Nora from Loch Lomond to her three wee granddaughters one cold evening
"A real, live duchess?"
Caitlyn Hurst laughed at her younger sister's wail. "Yes, a real, live duchess, not a real, dead duchess."
"Oh, you know what I mean." Mary threw herself on the bed with her sister's worn portmanteau, three ball gowns, a stack of freshly folded unmentionables, and a pair of well-worn ball slippers. "I wish I could go to a real, live duchess's house for a three-week house party!"
Caitlyn placed a pair of only-mended-once stockings into a small trunk on the floor. "Surely you're not begrudging me the only fun I've had in months?"
"No, I just wish I might go with you." Mary threw her arms out to the side. "The letter from the duchess said there will be walks through the park, horseback rides, archery, card games "
"Mother was not happy about that aspect."
"No, but Papa slipped you a guinea that you might play, so it can't be too bad. Besides, it wasn't the gaming that had Mother in a taking; it was the masquerade ball. I truly thought she'd refuse to allow you to go when the duchess wrote that you'd need a costume."
"I had to promise not to wear a mask and to behave as any gently raised young lady should."
Mary's brow rose. "Can you do that?"
"I will do it," Caitlyn said fervently, and meant it. She always did; the trouble was remembering she wished to behave herself when she lost her temper. She didn't have a burning desire to thwart society's rules; but when she was challenged or angry, her competitive spirit burned through all caution or thought.
Caitlyn stuffed a shawl into the portmanteau with more force than necessary. Blast it, if only she'd kept her temper three months ago and hadn't allowed Alexander MacLean to irk her into saying and doing things she shouldn't have. But there wasn't anything she could do about it now except use this incredibly fortuitous invitation to reestablish herself and her family into society's good graces.
Mary reached out to touch one of the new gowns spread upon the bed, ready to be wrapped in tissue paper before being packed. "Certainly no one at the duchess's house will have as beautiful gowns as these. You sew better than most of the modistes on Bond Street."
Caitlin smiled. "Thank you! That's quite a compliment. I'm very proud of the silver one; it's for the masquerade."
"It looks wonderful on you, even though Mother made you sew the neckline so high." Mary grimaced. "If she had her way, you'd go to the masquerade sewn chin to toes into a large burlap potato sack. Mother worries far too much, even though you " Mary's face pinkened.
Caitlyn's humor evaporated. "I will never allow my temper to get the best of me again. If I hadn't behaved so badly that Triona had felt compelled to come to London to rescue me, then she wouldn't have been forced to wed and " Caitlyn's throat tightened painfully.
Mary grasped her sister's hand. "It all worked out well in the end. Triona is deeply in love with her new husband and said she had you to thank that she met him. And you made Mam a very happy woman. She's excited as a lamb with a wool sweater about the match."
"Grandmother thinks anything having to do with the MacLeans is wondrous especially if it means she might get some great grandchildren out of it."
"Oh, that would be so "
A noisy thumping came from the hallway, sounding like a herd of romping calves. A fast knock later, the door was thrown open to reveal William, their oldest brother, followed by a surprisingly elegantly dressed Robert and a much-too-thin Michael.
They were all so tall, especially William, who, at twenty-one, had reached the impressive height of six feet four inches, his shoulders a proportionate width.
Michael, only recently recovered from another chest complaint, threw his lanky, sixteen-year-old length into the chair by the fireplace. "Well?" he asked, looking at the gowns and slippers and gewgaws placed on every surface of the room. "I thought you'd be packed by now!"
Mary grinned. "Caitlyn's only had two weeks to pack; you know that's not enough."
Caitlyn gave Michael a flat stare. "Have you all come to bother us? I assure you that we have enough to do without entertaining you."
Robert eyed the contents of the bed through a quizzing glass he'd recently taken to wearing. "Good God, woman! How much stuff are you taking with you?"
Caitlyn narrowed her gaze on her brother. "Must you use that ridiculous eyepiece?"
"It's the fashion," he said stoutly, though he looked somewhat uncertain.
"For a nearsighted Cyclops, perhaps."
Mary giggled while Michael and William snorted loudly.
Robert slipped the eyepiece into a pocket and said in a lofty tone, "Just because you don't appreciate good fashion "
"She does, too!" Mary interrupted. "You've seen the gowns she's made."
Caitlyn smoothed a blue morning gown on the bed. "If the list of amusements offered by the duchess is to be believed, I have fewer gowns than I need, but these will have to do. I can always change my wrap and shoes and make minor alterations so that my outfits look different."
"Caitlyn even redid her old riding gown." Mary reached into the portmanteau to touch with a loving hand the brown velvet riding habit. "When you return, will you help me make one like it?"
Michael snorted. "And where would you wear it? All we have to ride is the squire's old, fat mare."
Mary sniffed. "It doesn't matter what the horse looks like, just the rider."
"You spent hours making a riding habit you might only wear once or twice a month?" Michael appeared to be amazed at the thought.
"If it looked good on me, I might."
"Vanity is a sin. Father's told us that a million times."
"It's not vanity to wish to appear good; it's vanity if you think you look so good that it won't matter how you dress."
That opened up a discussion between Mary and Michael that grew in volume as Robert and William egged them on.
Caitlyn ignored them and tucked away a spangled shawl she'd purchased during her brief stay in London three months ago. Has it only been that long? The entire episode seemed a faded nightmare.
She couldn't clearly remember the balls and gowns anymore, or the sumptuous foods or town attractions, but she remembered every second she'd spent dangerously flirting with Alexander MacLean. She clearly recalled how she allowed him to teach her to ride. Though she'd made certain one of the grooms stayed nearby for appearance' sake, MacLean had quickly and easily dispensed with the man, sending him to fetch various "fallen" gloves or to look for a scarf that was blown away, even on days when there was no wind.
Her cheeks heated when she thought of her own participation in duping the servants. At the time, all she'd been able to think about was how much she wanted to feel MacLean's strong arms about her, how she longed for his heated kiss and She clamped the memories away. Those days were gone, and they'd meant less than the imaginary wind.
She forced herself to smile at Mary. "I'll make you a riding habit when I return. We can use the blue velvet from your old pelisse and that old gold opera cape Mother has in the trunk in the attic. The colors should be perfect, and if we place some silk flowers where the material is a bit worn, no one will notice. I did the same with one of my remade newer gowns."
Momentarily forgetting his jaded, man-about-town pose, Robert snorted. "You plan on hoaxing the crème of the ton with the clever placement of a few flowers? They'll be onto your hoax in a second."
Caitlyn folded a deep blue silk scarf and placed it into the portmanteau. "Oh, they'll never know. They didn't realize it before." She set a pair of satin slippers in the trunk beside the others. "Only three pairs of slippers. I wish I had two more."
William, who'd been lounging in the doorway, lifted his brows, a lazy twinkle in his eyes. "How many pairs of slippers are needed for a simple country house party?"
"It's not a simple house party at all," Mary protested. "It's at the castle of a real, live duchess!"
"I should have at least one pair of slippers for each color of gown. I shall just have to make do." Caitlyn placed the final gown into the trunk, carefully tucked it in, then closed the lid. "I keep expecting Mother to walk in and say she's changed her mind."
"She won't," Robert said, a superior tone in his voice.
Caitlyn eyed him. "How would you know?"
"I overheard her talking to Father. Mother thinks you will behave yourself for a few short weeks, and that you've made wonderful progress on your temper. You've hardly lost it at all in the last three months. Plus," he smirked, "she's hoping you'll meet someone eligible."
Caitlyn's cheeks burned. "I don't want to meet someone eligible." She just wanted the chance to reestablish the family name and prove to her parents that she'd learned from her horrible mistake.
Honestly, one thing that infuriated her about the incident was that no one seemed to place a bit of blame on MacLean, and he'd been just as much of a part of Triona's ruin as Caitlyn. If he hadn't been so intentionally intriguing, she'd never have paid him the least heed. But the second they'd met, he'd taunted and challenged her, and she'd discovered she didn't have the self-discipline to ignore him.
One thing was for certain, MacLean had been determined to kiss her: she knew because he'd told her so the third time they'd met. Of course, she'd then said something entirely inappropriate like "Just try it!" and that had been the beginning.
There'd been an unmistakable attraction between them, one that had flared hot and ready and left Caitlyn feeling things she'd never before felt. One kiss from Alexander MacLean reduced her to a quaking mass of heated passion. Worse, it was as addictive as chocolate, and she'd found herself seeking more and more of those kisses, taking more and more risks to secure his attention, challenging him even as he challenged her, until they were both dangerously close to stepping over the lines that might have protected them.
Oddly, it was the memory of those kisses that Caitlyn battled the most. Every night when she closed her eyes, she dreamed of them hot, passionate, determined, and...
No. That's all in the past. She closed the portmanteau, then placed it beside the small leather trunk. "That's it! I'm packed."
Michael eyed the trunk. "You have clothes in that, too?"
Mary frowned. "You didn't think she could get all of her gowns and a riding habit into one portmanteau, did you? Now help carry Caitlyn's things to the foyer. The duchess is sending her own carriage for Caitlyn, and it should be here any moment."
Robert grabbed the portmanteau and headed out of the room, calling over his shoulder, "I bet the horses are a matched set of prime goers!"
William scooped up the leather trunk as if it were nothing, hoisting it to his shoulder. "I want to see the horses, too."
Grinning, Michael ambled toward the door. "Caitlyn, shall I tell Mother you'll be down soon?"
"Please do. I just want to make sure I haven't missed anything."
"Very well." He winked and left.
Mary hung by the door. "You'll write, won't you?"
"Every three days."
Mary sighed. "I suppose that will do. I so wish I were going with you." With a wistful look, she left as well.
Caitlyn gathered her faded wool pelisse and a thick scarf. She'd wear these with her sensible boots, and when they arrived in two days at Balloch Castle, she'd stop and change into her more fashionable, but far less warm, pelisse and boots.
She took a last look around her room. Then, satisfied she hadn't forgotten anything, she left, closing the door behind her. Copyright © 2009 by Karen Hawkins