Catherine MacClelland, as strong-minded as she is beautiful, is hiding a terrible secret. Predestined to carry on an ancient curse, Catherine knows she must live isolated from the world and resigns herself to a life devoted to her clan. But powerful forces are gathering around her, and she alone will have the chance to break the curse that has plagued the MacClelland clan for centuries.
Nicholas Efington, the Dark Duke, has abandoned his wicked life in an attempt to heal the physical and emotional wounds he'd suffered in the past. Now he has only one task on his mind: find a wife and beget an heir. But when Catherine MacClelland's father blackmails him into marrying her, he's drawn into a dark mystery where ancient myths come alive, while finding a lass who brands his very soul with passion.
As Nicolas and Catherine come closer to understanding the secret that could destroy them forever, betrayals and ominous forces threaten their only chance at happiness. Will they overcome the curse of the grimalkin or surrender to it as so many before them?
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.95(d)|
About the Author
It happened to me in the fourth grade. Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series forever changed me. I solved mysteries along with Jupiter, Bob, and Pete, three boys who ran their detective agency out of a junkyard and spoke regularly to Alfred Hitchcock. Green ghosts, whispering mummies, moaning caves, screaming clocks-they haunted my nights as I hid under the covers with a flashlight and read well past the time I was supposed to be sleeping.
From there I graduated to just about every kind of book you could think of. I read Stephen King, Judy Blume, Richard Matheson, Arthur Clarke...the list was endless. At some point I decided to try a Barbara Cartland, and once again, my life changed. As I put that finished book down, I knew romance was the genre for me. Laurie McBain's Moonstruck Madness was the first long historical romance I ever read and I'll never forget it. It spurred me on to other authors such as Kathleen Woodiwiss and Clare Darcy. Romance became the staple of my reading diet and still is, to this day.
I've dabbled in writing from the earliest days of my childhood, always keeping a journal and making up stories to entertain my brothers and sisters. You'd think I would have made a career of journalism, but I didn't. I decided to try my hand at computer science until family obligations required me to quit my nine-to-five job. Although I left my career and steady income with a few tears, they were crocodile tears, because inside I was already gleefully planning that first novel. Several attempts later, I wrote Touch Not the Cat, a story that's been in my head for a long, long time.
Please visit my website, www.tracyfobes.com, to read excerpts from and find more info about all of my books.
Tracy Fobes writes rich historical romances with a paranormal twist for Pocket and Leisure Books. Before turning to a career in writing, she graduated from the University of Scranton with a B.S. in Computer Science and a minor in mathematics and for several years worked as a technical writer and analyst in various industries. Born and raised in New Jersey, she has made Pennsylvania her home for the last twenty years.
Read an Excerpt
Honey licked by flame.
Never had he seen hair precisely that color.
He could almost feel it drag across his bared chest, taste its warmth.
Nicholas, the twelfth Duke of Efington, felt his mien of polite boredom slip as he stared at the woman poised in the doorway.
Unfashionably tall, she topped the other ladies milling around Lady Wisborough's Egyptian-inspired ballroom by at least six inches. Her gown, a remarkable shade of green, sported a plaid sash across the shoulder. She stood out among the pastel gowns like a torch among candles.
Completely unorthodox. Utterly disarming.
He was not the only one to notice her. The heads of several elderly ladies immediately bent together in urgent gossip. Potted palms hid their malicious expressions but not their words.
"...confirmed spinster at eight-and-twenty...hopeless recluse with a shrewish temper..."
Again, her hair drew his gaze. Streaks of red shot back from her temples and joined the riotous jumble of golden curls piled atop her head. He wondered how long it was, and for a brief instant thought about the pleasure he'd have unraveling it. Most of the women he'd known intimately had their hair cropped à la Tite, denying him that most sensuous of experiences.
"Quite a picture, ain't she?" The Honorable Harry Rappaport took up post next to Nicholas, a half-smile curving his pink lips. His stance was that of studied indolence, weight slung on one leg, the toe of his dainty-heeled shoe propped against the floor. A buck of the first head, his elaborately coiffed blond hair and heavy-lidded blue eyes stiffed the pulses of dowagers and schoolgirls alike.
NicholasNNicholas's gaze settled on the bosom that strained against the top of her gown. "No, indeed." In the past his taste had run toward females of a more theatrical nature. Tonight, however, he unexpectedly found himself intrigued by a woman whose very presence at Lady Wisborough's ball spoke of propriety.
The dance ended. The elderly man escorted her from the floor, leading her closer to Nicholas and Harry. Light from a chandelier revealed golden-red eyebrows that cut straight slashes across a forehead pale as moonlight.
"Damme, her dress may be a dozen years out of date, but she's a sweet morsel," Harry said.
Nicholas cast an amused glance at his cousin's tight-fitting Wellington coat, nipped in at the waist and sporting buttons as large as crown pieces. "God forbid should anyone fail to cut a dash."
"There's no need to look down your nose at me, just because you prefer to rig yourself like a priest." Harry transferred his attention to Nicholas's black evening coat -- tailored by Weston himself -- and poked it with an annoyed air.
Nicholas, whose restrained but tasteful mode of dress had excited such nobs of fashion as the Prince Regent, resolutely ignored him. Dandyism, he decided, was the only weakness in his cousin's otherwise engaging personality. Returning to his study of the Scotswoman, he rubbed his jaw with one lean finger.
A familiar voice broke into his reverie. "Nicholas, Harry, I'm so glad you've come." A woman with graying hair, her face wreathed in a smile, waded toward them through groups of chattering people. Ladies nodded and men bowed as she passed, her smart yellow gown and air of majesty giving her a presence only a true patrician could command.
When she reached their corner of the ballroom, Harry grabbed her gloved hand and kissed it. "Good evening, Aunt Annabella."
The Duchess of Efington narrowed her eyes and shook her finger at him. "Don't try to flummox me with your courtly airs, scamp. I'll not pay another of your debts until you've come up to scratch and wed Miss Schuler."
Nicholas rolled his eyes heavenward. His mother -- forever the matchmaker. He leaned over and pecked her on the cheek. "I would have preferred White's to this crush."
Annabella gave her son a disapproving look. "Surely White's can withstand one night without you. Your presence here will mean so much to Clarissa."
Ah, yes, Nicholas thought, Clarissa. His blushing bride-to-be. Although he'd avoided actually offering for her, he knew he'd come to an age where it was natural for him to marry. He'd avoided the pitfalls of eager debutantes over the course of several Seasons, but the need for an heir, and for a wife to assume the duties the duchess now performed, made it imperative.
He supposed he could do worse than Clarissa Stonehaven. A more lovely English miss he had yet to meet. Small, delicate, she looked barely strong enough to support the wealth of sable-brown curls that teased her neck. Her eyes, a deep, chocolate brown, warmed him with their innocent promises, amid a complexion much like clotted cream. Light pink stained her cheeks, giving her the look of a delicious English confection.
Beauty notwithstanding, he knew no great love would develop between them. Simply put, Clarissa was incapable of it. Shallow and excitable, she worried more about the color of her gown than any of the recent crises that had so tested the English spirit. Even Waterloo had failed to gain much reaction, and that a moue of displeasure over the disruption to her social life. And she held not a jot of passion in her beauteous breast...a few stolen kisses had convinced him of that.
But it mattered not to him. Wealth, impeccable manners, and an extensive education in womanly pursuits would make Clarissa a perfect if somewhat frivolous duchess he could easily keep in hand. After the wild excesses of his youth -- excesses that had damned near killed him -- he only wanted to settle down to a predictable life with the woman of his choice: the docile yet beautiful Lady Stonehaven. And when the nights grew cold, he'd visit the mistress he planned to install on Torrington Square, a wench to warm his blood with a passion matched only by his own.
Unaccountably, his gaze strayed to a golden-red head.
Annabella tapped him on the arm, her eyes full of reproof. "I could see you ogling the MacClelland gel from across the room. Have a care, Nicholas. Clarissa will notice."
"Care to provide me with an introduction to the MacClelland gel, Mother?" He grinned as his mother's frown deepened.
"I will not. I barely know her, or her father."
Harry watched their interplay with an air of mild interest. "MacClelland, you say? What do you know of them?"
Annabella looked from Harry to Nicholas and sighed. "Her father, lain MacClelland, is Earl of Kildonan. I met him at court in Edinburgh almost forty years ago. I remember it being something of a sensation he'd even appeared at court that year. The MacClellands are a reclusive bunch with a pack of rather odd legends around them."
Harry raised his eyebrows. "What type of legends?"
"Let's see." Annabella's forehead creased in thought. "Throughout the age s, all of their women have either devoted themselves to good deeds or entered convents."
"What a shame." Nicholas admired the contrast the Scotswoman's pale skin made against her deep green gown. Outmoded as she appeared, he secretly applauded her selection.
Annabella shot him a warning glance before continuing. "The MacClelland gel has followed her ancestors' example; the local Scots call her the 'Angel of Mercy.'"
Harry folded his arms across his chest and leaned against a column. "A bit too nunnish for you, don't you think, coz?"
"Perhaps." Most women Nicholas knew had experienced a man before they'd reached twenty. Those few who had waited longer were often less restrained in bed when they finally yielded their virtue. Instinct told him the Scotswoman would fall into the second category.
"Also," Annabella said, her tone quelling, "there's a story of a fierce Highlands wildcat, nearly the size of a leopard, called a grimalkin. Apparently this grimalkin ravages Kildonan's moors at periodic intervals, killing sheep and sometimes even people. According to legend, the grimalkin is the MacClelland clan's familiar."
"Barbarians, the lot of them," Harry pronounced.
"Sounds outlandish," Annabella agreed. "Nevertheless, the locals believe in the grimalkin wholeheartedly. I think it has something to do with an ancient clan they belonged to -- Clan Chattan. Their motto is, in fact, 'Touch not the cat.' And that, gentlemen, is the limit of my knowledge."
His tone deliberately bored, Nicholas nodded toward the redhead. "What's her first name?"
"Catherine, I believe."
A black-clad butler approached lain MacClelland and extended a note on a silver tray. After reading the missive, the Scotsma n leaned down and spoke briefly to his daughter.
At the same time, two mamas, their oh-so-eligible daughters in tow, approached Nicholas from different angles. Leaving him no avenue of escape, they navigated the ballroom with more aplomb than Wellington at Vitoria. Silently Nicholas renewed his promise to offer for Clarissa soon, if only to discourage these damned title hunters.
Harry elbowed him. "Better fly, Nicholas, if you want to avoid dancing with a chit almost half your age."
"Surely a hunted fox has more options than I," he said as he scanned the room for a path to freedom.
The mamas drew near, their faces stretched in triumphant smiles.
His gaze fell on hair of honey and flame.
After a quick nod of greeting, he adroitly slipped past the women converging on him and strode toward Lady Catherine MacClelland.
She stood alone near the edge of the dance floor, her back stiff, the look in her eyes unapproachable. One glance at the pair of gray-haired biddies behind her, their mouths pursed with whispers, revealed the source of her outrage.
"...choked on a piece of steak tartare tonight, quite unladylike..."
"Good evening, Lady Bickham, Mrs. Elphinstone," he said to the twosome, effectively ending their gossip. "I trust you're enjoying yourselves tonight?"
Without waiting for their replies, he tapped the Scotswoman on the shoulder. "This is our dance, is it not, my lady?"
She spun around and turned the full force of her green eyes on him, eyes that assessed him -- at a most leisurely pace -- from the tips of his polished black Hessians to the top of his head. "Why, I believe it is. Shall we?"
Something about the way she looked at him made him want to pull her into one of L ady Wisborough's unused rooms and kiss her senseless. She was too saucy by half, particularly for a confirmed spinster. He checked the impulse and, with a wry smile, placed a gloved hand against her back. Her velvet dress was soft, but he was willing to wager her skin was far softer. "You find me acceptable?"
"You'll do." With a neat twist she shrugged off his hand and led him onto the dance floor.
The little hellcat had an attitude about her, he thought, one that said she held her scullery maids in higher estimation than he. It was a novel experience, for women simply didn't treat him that way, and Nicholas felt a renewed urge to close her impudent mouth with a firm kiss.
He maneuvered her toward three couples who had joined for a country dance. She walked by his side, chin tilted upward, looking everywhere but at him. A delicate scent drifted toward him, that of heather and woodruff. She smelled clean, a rare thing in the malodorous, perfumed throng of society's finest.
An orchestra, hidden in an alcove, struck up a lively tune, and the lead couple began their figures. As they were the last couple in the set, Nicholas knew they'd have a good deal of time for conversation before they danced.
For once, he looked forward to it. He wanted to find out as much as he could about Lady Catherine MacClelland. "Pay Mrs. Elphinstone and Lady Bickham no attention. They gossip about everything and everyone...even the archbishop is fair game."
She threw her head back and looked him in the eye. "I don't know whether to thank you or scold you. You forget yourself, sir. We haven't been introduced." The faintest hint of a brogue colored her voice.
He could almost picture her in some secluded glen, surr ounded by heather and fern, bathing, her hair floating on the water like liquid sunshine....Nicholas stopped himself there, and hoped his casual smile hid the wicked thoughts running around in his head. "You looked as though you needed rescuing. I am Nicholas, Duke of Efington. You are Lady Catherine MacClelland. We are now introduced."
The duke gave her a slight bow, drawing Catherine's attention to his broad shoulders, tapering to a slender waist and long, muscular legs. He was very large, she thought, and twice as appealing. Six feet four if an inch, he had no need of the buckram wadding used so generously by the less-endowed bucks of the ton. Indeed, a body such as his would have sent da Vinci into raptures.
She nodded in return, surprised that this "noble," whose notorious exploits had reached her ears even in the Highlands, had chosen to dance with someone as unfashionable as herself. She'd hoped her gown would deter even the most persistent suitor, for she had no time for men or their games. Perhaps she could discourage the duke with her tongue.
"Your Grace. How wonderful to make your acquaintance. In fact, I feel as if I know you already. Tales of your escapades have reached even into the Highlands."
She searched his silvery-gray gaze for some sign of outrage. If he felt her barb, he gave no sip of it. Instead, he inclined his head toward her, giving her an excellent view of his profile -- a strong jaw, straight Roman nose, and thick black hair brushed back in a vee from his forehead. He had the bold stance of an aristocrat, his tailored black evening coat and breeches emphasizing an unquestionable authority.
"Tell me, are you enjoying the Season?" he asked.
"Of course. Wh at woman wouldn't enjoy a never-ending series of balls, visits, and dinners? Only in London would a hostess serve beef so rare it bellowed on the platter." She raised an eyebrow, daring him to contradict her.
Unlike the muslin-clad women who flitted about the room, she thought the Season a potentially deadly situation. If it weren't for her father's incessant prodding, she'd have remained in the Highlands-alone, safe, free. Every scrap of gossip she'd heard about herself came closer to the truth, chipping away at her secret, forcing her to remain on alert. Her head ached with the pressure of it.
"I also find it tiresome," he admitted, and bowed to a petite brunette who passed by with a snap of her fan.
"If that is so, what draws you to Lady Wisborough's tonight?"
His gaze flew to the brunette, who fanned herself near a refreshment table. Several dandies paid eager court to her, but she kept her attention on the duke. "A sense of duty. But let us talk of more diverting subjects. I understand you are known as the Angel of Mercy among your people, caring for your clan with a selfless generosity."
She choked back an unladylike snort. He made her sound like Joan of Arc! "Yes. When I'm not wearing this stunning gown, I don my white robes and halo."
His eyes widened for a moment, and he tried without success to smother a laugh. The sound, rumbling deep in his throat, was infectious, and she felt herself softening toward him.
In general, she cared not for the London dandies with their tiny waists and big heads. No, from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, she preferred men in kilts. But this man ... well, were circumstances different, he might convince her of the appeal of Englishmen. She didn't fin d him handsome; his face was too thin and his nose too bold. Nevertheless, his hawkish looks, so different from Byron's perfection, were undeniably those of a sensual man.
A smile playing about his mouth, he tried another subject. "What part of the Highlands do you reside in?"
"The Strath of Kildonan."
"I've heard of it. A beautiful place, they say."
"If you enjoy rocks and moors."
"I have a passion for many things Scottish." The smile on his face changed somehow, became more intimate.
"How fortunate for Scotland." She wondered how it would feel to have those curving lips pressed against hers. He was no simpering dandy, this duke, with a kiss full of melodramatic feeling. No, he was a man, with a man's hard body and a man's uncompromising desires.
Quickly she chided herself for her fancy. She could see why society called him the Dark Duke: He'd wrung a reaction from her despite her best intentions. But this time it would do him no good. She would never marry, never take a lover, for to do so would risk discovery of the secret that could send her to Bedlam...or even to the stake. Many times she'd wondered what it would feel like to have flames lick at her clothes, ignite her hair, and devour her flesh, leaving only a few bones as remnants. Nothing, she'd decided, could be more agonizing.
"Perhaps you'll invite me to your home once the Season has ended. I understand your grouse moors are quite the challenge to even an experienced hunter." His tone was dark, languid, full of promise.
She narrowed her eyes. She knew what he planned to hunt. The rogue hadn't an ounce of shame. "We do not entertain guests at Rivendell."
"'Tis a pity, for I hoped to catch a glimpse of the grimalkin."
Catherine froze. Icy tendrils of alarm skittered down her spine. The word sounded so strange on his lips, spoken in a crowded ballroom. To her, it had all the power of an incantation.
As if sensing her change in mood, he leaned toward her, dared to put his hand on her arm. "My lady, are you all right?"
Flutes and a violin trifled a melody behind her, but she heard them with only half an ear. She attuned her every sense to the duke, hoping to smell the perspiration that suggested a lie, to hear a telltale quiver in his voice indicating a hidden motive. Smiling pleasantly, she removed his hand from her arm. "I'm fine. An errant draft momentarily chilled me. What do you know of the grimalkin?"
"'Tis a fierce Highlands cat that ravages Kildonan's moors. Have you ever seen it?" His voice was guileless as was his scent, that of Macedonian soap.
"I'm afraid I haven't. The grimalkin is nothing more than a tale used to frighten children into good behavior."
"I thought the local Scots believed in it wholeheartedly."
She worked hard to keep an uninterested tone in her voice. "I cannot speak for others, but I am certain the grimalkin is utter nonsense."
His smile became playful. "Tell me the tale. I would like to hear it."
The duke, she thought, gave new meaning to the word stubborn. She began to feel like a trapped animal. "Why such persistence, Your Grace? Do you expect the tale to improve your behavior, as it does children's? Lord knows you are in dire need of improvement."
He leaned his head so close to hers that his warm breath -- a heady combination of brandy and spices -- fanned across her cheek. "As an angel of mercy, there is no better woman to provide guid ance than you."
The man was simply outrageous. "I do not know why you've singled me out for your dubious company, Your Grace, nor do I care. You simply do not interest me. Now, I think it best I bid you good night." Satisfied she'd given him a ringing set-down and deflected his interest in the grimalkin, she began to march away.
"If I have in some way given offense, I apologize. I would have guessed you'd enjoyed our wordplay as much as I."
She caught the chiding note in his voice and spun back toward him. "Do not patronize me. You think me a wanton piece of goods, one you can flatter into your bed? Well, sir, you flatter only yourself. I assure you, I can think of nothing more distasteful. Good evening."
Heedless of the scene she was causing, she turned on her heel and crashed into the dandy she'd seen the duke talking to earlier.
The dandy grasped her arm, eyebrows drawn together in concern, but she pushed him away and hurried toward the entryway. The ballroom became hushed as society's leaders watched her hasty departure. She searched the staring crowd for a kilted form.
Where was Papa?
Silently she tried to recall whether or not Lady Wisborough was serving Scotch whisky in the gaming parlor. She'd identified many odors that night: brandy, ratafia, cigar smoke, the sweat of gambling, the unmistakable musk of coupling; but detected no trace of her father's beloved uisge-beatha. If she couldn't find him quickly, she decided, she would return to the MacClelland residence alone.
Suddenly an arm went around her waist. Iain MacClelland drew her into the shelter of his presence, his gaze settling on the duke. "What happened, lass? Yer cheeks are as flushed as pippin apples."
"Nothing, Papa, that our return to Rivendell wouldn't cure. I am quite ready to leave." She shook her head, unwilling to say more.
Iain draped an ivory shawl over her shoulders. "'Tis just as well, for my prize mare's in foal."
She risked a glance over her shoulder. Eyebrows lowered, the Duke of Efington was making his very determined way across the ballroom in her direction. "We must go now, Papa." She pulled the shawl over her head, shielding her face.
Her distress evidently communicated itself to Iain, for he shot her a discerning glance before hurrying her out into the moonlight. Her gaze fixed on the torchlit walk beneath her feet, she climbed into their barouche.
Her father settled onto the velvet squabs next to her. "Who was the fancy gent pursuing ye through the ballroom? He looked a wee bit perturbed."
"The 'gentleman' was none other than the Duke of Efington." Feeling much like a rabbit who'd barely escaped the jaws of a wolf, she closed the shades on the carriage window and pulled the shawl from her head. "He thinks himself irresistible. I purged him of that notion."
Iain began to chuckle. "Aye, I bet ye did, lass."
Nicholas reached Lady Wisborough's vestibule just as the MacClellands' barouche pulled away. Harry followed close on his heels.
"What the devil did you say to her, Nicholas? I've seen women run to you, but never from you." Out of breath from his mad dash across the ballroom, Harry rasped as he spoke.
Nicholas frowned, his annoyance with Lady Catherine fading as he considered his own disgraceful part in the affair. Ten years ago, he might have pursued a woman as vigorously as he'd just pursued Catherine MacClelland. Time, however, had mellowe d him. At six-and-thirty, he'd given up his dissolute fife in an attempt to heal both the physical and emotional wounds he'd suffered. Nevertheless, society continued to call him the Dark Duke, rehashing his past overindulgences with greedy enjoyment.
His behavior tonight, he thought with disgust, would no doubt reinforce his nasty reputation. He hadn't the faintest idea why he'd reacted so lustfully to the Scotswoman; something about her had loosened his tongue, made him want to wake her up, to see how hot her anger would blaze.
She stirred him in a way Clarissa never would.
Still, he owed her an apology, one he intended to make as soon as he was able.
Face red from exertion, Annabella joined them in the entryway. "Nicholas, good God! Whatever did you say to the MacClelland gel? Lady Wisborough is positively mortified."
His frown deepened. "I said nothing out of the ordinary."
"Nothing out of the ordinary, eh?" She put her hands on her hips. "You must have said something shocking. Everyone is agog with speculation. And Clarissa plans to quit the ball as soon as she can leave undetected."
He didn't like the tone his mother took with him -- as if he were but a boy in a shortcoat. He gave her a severe look. "I simply suggested that a spot of hunting in Kildonan, after the Season had concluded, would interest me."
"Aha!" Annabella sounded victorious. "So, you angled for an invitation to the MacClellands' estate. No wonder the gel ran from the room. Nicholas, for pity's sake, you're spoken for."
"Mother, I'll ask you not to interfere in my affairs."
"Your affaire de coeur, you mean."
"What I do doesn't concern you."
The duchess gave a harrumph of disapproval.
Harry took up the reins of interrogation. "How did Lady Catherine reply?"
This evening had all the qualities of a nightmare, Nicholas thought, and decided he'd had enough. "She said she didn't entertain guests at Rivendell. Beyond that, I will answer no more questions." He gave Annabella a cold bow. "Good evening, madam. Tell Clarissa I will leave, so she may stay."
With a sharp turn, he strode away, only one purpose in mind: Find out where the MacClellands were staying in London and visit them first thing in the morning.
As fate would have it, he found himself at the MacClellands' residence on Berkeley Street much sooner than expected. Directly after the debacle at Lady Wisborough's ball, he stopped at White's, where he learned Iain MacClelland had a prize mare in foal. A few club members had even placed bets against the mare surviving the foaling. Nicholas promptly placed a bet in favor of the mare and made his way to Berkeley Street, not only to soothe his conscience but to ensure his win.
A late-summer fog had descended upon London, dampening the moonlight and creating a halo around the oil lamps that lined the streets. Alert to the sounds around him -- for London sported more than its share of ruffians, even in the best of neighborhoods -- Nicholas passed the MacClelland residence and walked some distance before realizing he'd gone astray.
And no wonder, he thought, for despite its lofty address, the house was in a sad state of disrepair. The pink brick exterior had fallen prey to coal smoke, giving it a dirty chipped appearance, and two of the windows in the porter's lodge had cracked. All of the shutters were closed, and a gate that hung on only one hinge creaked as he eased it open and steppe d onto the gravel drive.
Drunken shouting drew him to the stable behind the house. Lanterns within the building revealed two men struggling with a mare, a leather hoggin of whiskey lying in the straw nearby. He identified one man as Iain MacClelland, stripped to the waist and his arm buried deep within the mare; the other man, a stablehand, held a lantern directly over the mare's belly.
"Argh, the wee beastie keeps slipping from my grasp." MacClelland grunted. Veins popped out on his forehead. "Get me a rope, and another swig o' yer fine whisky." He withdrew his arm, which appeared red and chapped, and grabbed the rope the stablehand proffered. With his other hand he lifted the hoggin to his lips and took several healthy swallows. "Ah, nothing like Macallan uisge-beatha baoghal."
The stable housed at least twenty horses, all fine examples of horseflesh, each standing on a soft bed of straw with a bucket of water nearby. Polished saddles and neatly stored tack leaned against a brick wall. If MacClelland was short of funds, as the state of his house and his daughter's wardrobe would suggest, the Scotsman certainly spared no expense in the stables.
The mare whickered softly, her eyes rolling. Nicholas knew her pain was great. He stepped into the light just as MacClelland began to fashion a slipknot. "May I be of service? I heard you're about to lose a prize mare."
The old laird wiped his hands on a rag and squinted through the darkness. "And who might ye be?"
"Nicholas, Duke of Efington." Nicholas braced himseff for the laird's anger over the earlier scene in the ballroom, but none came.
Instead, the older man shrugged. "I appreciate yer offer. But what brings ye tae my house?"
" I came to apologize to your daughter for my conduct at Lady Wisborough's ball -- "
"Catherine cannot be disturbed." Frowning, Ian turned away from him and gestured toward the mare. "This lass has her foal all bunched up inside her. Do ye have any experience with foaling?"
"I own and have bred several valuable horses," Nicholas said, diverted from his apology.
The stablehand, a Londoner if his accent was any indication, stepped forward with an eager smile. "Aye, His Grace is a crack whip with the horses...a bruising rider to the hounds, wins the Ascot every year." The words tumbled from his mouth in quick succession, and he repeatedly tugged on his forelock as if to accent each word with a show of deference.
A smile lifting the corners of his mouth, Nicholas nodded.
The stablehand's eyebrows suddenly drew together. "If I may be so bold as to ask, Your Grace, why do you always spare the fox?"
MacClelland leaned forward to better hear the answer.
"'Tis simple. The cunning is not in the kin but in the pursuit. Why destroy an animal you cannot eat?"
Something flickered in the laird's blue eyes.
The mare snorted as if in agreement. Nicholas reached forward and rubbed her silky nose. "Easy, girl. We'll get you through this." He stripped the clothes off his upper body, the night air brushing against his skin with an invigorating chill.
MacClelland stepped back, his gaze fixed on the starshaped birthmark just above Nicholas's rib cage. Nicholas had grown used to the attention his birthmark drew, but the laird's eyes seemed to reflect a particular curiosity.
"Have a tipple o' whisky, Yer Grace. The foal's in there tight -- ye'll need it."
Nicholas took the hoggin and brought it to his lips, more to humor the laird than to satisfy a desire for drink. Smooth, single-malt, with a distinctive flavor, the whisky rolled down his throat and created a pleasant warmth in his stomach. With a sigh, he took another swig.
The laird grinned. "Compliments of the Macallan clan."
"Bought or stolen?"
MacClelland's grin widened. "Stolen."
Nicholas shook his head but couldn't keep a return grin from forming on his face. "I'll have to procure some myself...through traditional means, of course."
The Scotsman let out a guffaw that shook the walls of the stable. Then, without warning, he stumbled against a bale of straw, his face taking on a dangerously red hue. A low hiss escaped from between his teeth.
"Are you all right, man?" Nicholas stepped forward to offer support, should the laird need it.
MacClelland shook his head vigorously. "Nay, just a touch o' fire in the blood. It'll pass."
Within a few seconds, the Scotsman regained a normal color. After assessing him for a moment to make certain he had indeed recovered, Nicholas approached the mare. She lay on a soft mat of straw, her breath coming through her nostrils in fast snorts.
"Easy," he said again, and removed a ring from his finger. He held it out to MacClelland. "Will you hold this for me?"
MacClelland took the ring with a nod and put it atop a bale of hay.
Nicholas put one hand on the mare's haunch and, muttering soft words of encouragement, eased his other hand into the birth canal. He began to feel around. Two slick hooves and flanks jamming the opening...
A breech presentation. They were in for a long night.
For almost an hour, Nicholas maneuvered the foal, trying to pull the front two hooves forward. But the bab y was slippery and resisted his efforts. Sweat dripped into his eyes and the muscles of his back and shoulders screamed with strain. During that hour he and the laird dropped all pretense of formality.
"The foal's a stubborn one." Nicholas grunted with effort. "Iain, the whisky. Another contraction is beginning."
MacClelland lifted the hoggin to Nicholas's lips. "Do ye want me tae have a go at her?"
"No, no, I'm almost there." He waited a full minute while the mare crushed his upper arm with the strength of an iron vise. Her contraction squeezed a low moan from him as the purest agony radiated into his back. Finally the contraction eased, and with a delicate pull he attempted to wiggle the foal into normal position. The mare raised her head to look at him, but her limpid brown eyes held nothing more than weariness.
"Ye have a fine touch wi' the lassies...ye can tell she's appreciative. But 'tis nigh ontae three in the morning. Ye've been at it for an hour, lad." MacClelland drank from the hoggin and dropped it with a frown. "Get us another hoggin," he ordered the stablehand. "We've drunk this one dry."
The whisky dulled Nicholas's pain, giving him the strength to endure in this task of unexpectedly Herculean proportions, but he feared the mare hadn't much time left. Just when he'd decided to let lain have another try, the foal moved. Eagerly he grabbed the hooves that had eluded him for so long. With stunning ease, the foal's front legs and head appeared first, followed by the rump and hind legs as the mare pushed him out. He plopped, amid a gush of steaming fluid, into the hay, smelling much like newly made butter: soft, creamy, with a touch of salt.
Nicholas stared at it in blurry-eyed shock.
MacClelland gave a shout of joy. "Ye've done it, lad."
He slapped Nicholas on the shoulder and hefted the new hoggin to his lips. "And a fine colt it is! He's a beauty."
Nicholas collapsed into the hay, his muscles quivering like jelly. He really felt good, in a way he hadn't known for a long time. The sight of the mare nuzzling her baby had thoroughly restored him. MacClelland collapsed beside him, and together they watched as the mare gave her newborn one tentative lick.
MacClelland retrieved Nicholas's ring from the bale of hay. "Here's yer ring." He examined it in the light, some of the whisky-dullness leaving his eyes.
Nicholas held out his hand, but the laird refused to give it over.
"This is yer ring, ye say. Where did ye get it?" MacClelland's voice rang with strange intensity.
"It was my father's. Note the 'R.' It stands for 'Ross.'"
"Did yer father give it tae ye?"
Nicholas eyed the laird as closely as he could, given the prodigious amount of whisky he'd consumed. "No, my mother gave it to me, after my father died. Said it was his."
"And yer mother, what's her name?"
"Annabella, Duchess of Efington. Why do you ask?"
MacClelland's eyes widened, as if Nicholas had just solved a particularly difficult problem. "Annabella," he breathed. "Ye didn't play fair, lass."
Without warning, MacClelland leaned over and grasped Nicholas's arm. His eyes glittered with some nameless emotion. "Ye are going tae marry my daughter, lad."
The laird's fingers dug into his muscles with relentless pressure. Just as firmly, Nicholas removed them. "Your wits have left you, Iain. Perhaps another swig of whisky will straighten you out."
"Marry her ye will."
Nichol as narrowed his eyes. Had MacClelland gone mad? "I have no desire to be priest-linked to your daughter." As alluring as Catherine MacClelland was, he had no wish to marry a woman who had a penchant for causing scenes and whose temper burned even hotter than her hair. Besides, he had already committed himself-in his own mind-to Clarissa Stonehaven.
"Ye aren't betrothed, are ye?"
"Then ye'll marry my Catherine."
"Now, Iain..." Nicholas was about to protest further when the horses in the staffs behind him began to snort and paw the ground. The mare scented the air and struggled to her feet. Her frightened whinny echoed through the stable.
Nicholas jumped to his feet. "What in damnation..."
A large black shadow loomed near the door to the stable.
MacClelland struggled to his feet as well, sorrow warring with the alarm in his eyes. "Catriona," he whispered.
The shadow grew until it covered the door.
Nicholas's instincts screamed in alarm. He grabbed a pitchfork from the wall, his body getting colder and colder as the sound of sticks breaking and bushes rustling increased.
Something big was approaching the door.
The musk of a wild animal lay heavily in the stable.
The mare reared and plunged, her flanks heaving. Iain leaped back and pressed himself against the stall door.
Nicholas felt all the moisture in his mouth dry up as his mind chased around in circles, trying to guess what the shadow belonged to.
What he saw next nearly sent him reeling.
A pair of glittering green eyes observed him from about three feet outside the door. Shadows partially obscured its form, but the eyes alone made him question his own sanity.
They weren't human eyes.
They were the eyes of a wildcat.
As quick as it had appeared, it vanished.
The pitchfork dropped from his numbed hand. "Good Christ, what was that?"
MacClelland looked at the hay beneath his feet. "I saw nothing."
"It looked like a bloody leopard!"
"Ye've had too much whisky, lad. I'll have someone escort ye home."
"I think not." Nicholas raced outside and stared in all directions. Tendrils of fog, glowing beneath the moonlight, wove through a grove of birch and fir trees. All seemed peaceful.
He reentered the stables. "You saw it, MacClelland. Why do you refuse to admit it?"
"I canna discuss it further with ye. Thank ye for yer help wi' the mare. I must go now." MacClelland gave him one last intent look before retreating to his manse.
Pulling on his shirt, Nicholas found that fright had left him completely sober. On the walk back to Efington House, he turned the puzzle over and over in his mind. Maybe he'd seen a housecat, and his whisky-soaked wits had enlarged the cat until it gained the proportions of a leopard.
The problem was, he'd never felt more sober in his life.
But the idea of a leopard running loose in London was utterly ludicrous. Where could it have come from -- a visiting circus? Perhaps all that superstitious talk about the grimalkin had brought on a hallucination.
A bitter chuckle escaped him as he turned the corner to Mount Street and Efington House. If he so much as dared to mention tonight's incident to any of his friends, they'd think he'd gone 'round the bend and recommend a stay at Bedlam.
It defied explanation.
And yet, he had a feeling MacClelland had seen the beast before. Why else would he remain so unconcerned, so downright saddened, as the thing had stalke d toward the barn door?
Yes, MacClelland was hiding something.
But Nicholas didn't care to solve this puzzle. The hair prickling on the back of his neck at the memory of those weird eyes, he resolved to deliver his apology at the next public gathering he and the Scotswoman attended, and then stay as far away from the MacClellands as he could. The leopard he would put from his mind completely.
Lady Catherine, however, would not be so easy to forget.
Copyright © 1998 by Tracy Fobes
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was my first scottish romance when I started reading romance novels. Great book to read!