Read Legend Of The Highland Dragon Online

Authors: Isabel Cooper

Tags: #Highland Warriors, #Highlanders, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal Romance, #Romance, #Scotland, #Scotland Highland, #Scottish Highland, #Warrior, #Shifters, #Dragon Shifter, #Magic

Legend Of The Highland Dragon (8 page)

BOOK: Legend Of The Highland Dragon
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“I don’t know. I can’t know. And if you keep springing your own plans on me—”

“Oh, yes.” Miss Seymour tossed her head back, and Stephen followed the slim, proud arch of her neck with his eyes even as he heard her sneering at him. “God forbid your captive have plans. Or ties to other people. Or anything that doesn’t go your exact way.”

A few steps forward let Stephen glare down at her, a look that had gotten him through many a conversation in the past. “I’ve been very generous wi’ you so far, Miss Seymour. I’m prepared to continue that course of action, up to a point, but I’m a man of limited patience. Must you always be arguing with me?”

Her eyes flashed cobalt fire. “When you’re being unreasonable, yes!”

“Unreasonable, is it?” The words came from deep within his chest, as deep as the impulses he stopped trying to resist. Reaching out, he wrapped an arm around Miss Seymour’s waist, then pulled her forward. Now her slender form was a hair’s breadth away from him, and the anger on her face was rapidly changing to surprise. “Lass, you don’t know what unreasonable is.”

Miss Seymour’s mouth opened again. One hand grabbed at Stephen’s arm, while the other came up to his shoulder. Before she could push him away or make whatever snide comment had occurred to her, before she could say anything at all, Stephen bent and kissed her.

She froze against him for a second. Stephen almost let her go then, as the human part of him asserted itself. The feeling of Miss Seymour in his arms had his blood pounding almost at once, but he wasn’t in the habit of tormenting women. He began to relax his grip on her—

—and then her lips parted beneath his and the stiffness in her body became tension of another sort entirely. Her fingers curled into the fabric of his coat. Pressed against his chest, her breasts rose and fell rapidly; and she kissed him back with inexpert—and perhaps unconscious—hunger.

That was the end of thinking for Stephen just then.

With one arm, he drew Mina—he couldn’t keep thinking of her as Miss Seymour, not now—even closer, pinning her to his body, feeling the outline of her through far too many layers of cloth. She could feel him, Stephen was sure. He was hard and aching, hungry as he’d almost never been for a woman, even in his youth. She didn’t draw back from his arousal, though she did catch her breath. Stephen wound his free hand in her hair and kissed her more deeply, stroking his tongue against hers and sliding his other hand down from her waist.

His palm was gliding over Mina’s hip when she pulled away. She shoved at him when she did it, the hands that had been clenched on his coat now flat and forceful. The gesture wasn’t quite as good as a bucket of cold water, but it sufficed. Stephen dropped his hands and took a step backwards.

Panting, Mina stared up at him. Her hair was disheveled now, light-brown strands tumbling down around her face. Her eyes were dark and her lips slightly swollen, but the face she turned on Stephen was full of cold anger.

“That didn’t prove a bloody thing,” she said, the East End as thick in her voice as Stephen had ever heard it. “Not one thing,
my
lord
. An’ if you try winning an argument that way again, I’ll leave straight away, an’ you and your money can both go to Hell.”

She spun on her heel, her loosened hair almost hitting Stephen in the face, and stormed out.

Nine

Mina almost didn’t come down to breakfast the next morning.

It hadn’t been a good night. She’d left MacAlasdair’s company without any clear idea of where she was going and had finally sought refuge in her room. There she’d tried unsuccessfully to start reading her book again, tried even less successfully to lie down and calm her mind, and ended up alternately pacing the room and hitting the pillow.

She should have slapped MacAlasdair, she thought, lord or not.
Dragon
or not. After all, he obviously wasn’t willing to kill her, and if the kiss had actually proved anything, it was that in some respects, he was just a man like any other.

She wished she had something to throw at the wall, but she didn’t own anything breakable in her room. Not that MacAlasdair would notice if she broke the lamp or the mirror; he probably didn’t even know they existed.

But no. It didn’t do to get into that habit. It didn’t do to lose control. She’d done quite enough of
that
for one evening already.

That, of course, was the other problem: she’d liked kissing MacAlasdair.

Actually, she’d liked it quite a lot.

He hadn’t been the first man to kiss Mina—though the others had been boys, really, and she’d been much younger as well. She’d gone further than that with one of them, though never as far as he’d wanted. Even at seventeen, Mina had known what risks she didn’t want to take. She’d liked the experience then too, and had, in truth, wanted more herself. Sometimes her breasts would ache, after their…encounters…or the place between her legs, and she’d had some idea of what satisfaction her body craved.

The feelings had seemed almost overwhelming. Mina had understood how girls could get carried away. In comparison to the longing she felt now, even through her rage, those earlier sensations were pale and cold and abstract.

Perhaps it was that she was older, or that Stephen was older—well,
much
older—than those lads from her past. Perhaps it was that she was better rested now and better fed. But Mina didn’t think either of those reasons explained all the difference. Even remembering MacAlasdair’s mouth over hers, or the strength in his arms as he held her against him, had her body longing to repeat the experience. And
not
remembering was hard work.

She didn’t even like MacAlasdair, not really. She certainly hadn’t
wanted
to kiss him—not really—not then, at least. It had been horrible and arrogant and forceful.

And Mina kept wondering what it would be like to do it again.

Eventually, the remnants of lust subsided, the pacing wore her body out, and she could make herself sleep, though her dreams were restless and she was glad not to remember them in the morning. When she woke, for the first time since she’d come to MacAlasdair’s house, she looked at the door as a safeguard. If she stayed in her room, she wouldn’t have to face him yet.

But, if she stayed in her room, he’d know she didn’t want to face him. She wouldn’t see Professor Carter, either, and she wouldn’t get out of the house. MacAlasdair would have won—and Mina would still be trapped and probably start climbing the walls any day.

She dressed and thought of girding her loins, then tried not to think about loins again.

When Mina strode into the dining room, it was with every particle of self-possession, every ounce of formality and propriety that she’d learned since she’d decided to become secretary to a scholar. Every muscle in her back felt rigid. She blessed her foundation garments.

MacAlasdair was at the head of the table as usual, with her place set nearby. As usual, he lowered the paper as Mina entered the room.

When he met her eyes, there suddenly seemed to be much less space around them. He filled the room as he filled the chair: big, powerful, commanding.

Mina quickly took her seat. Only then did she notice a difference in the table. At her right hand, a little ways away from her breakfast dishes, was a silver tray. Someone had laid out several sheets of stationery on its surface, as well as two envelopes, three black fountain pens, and a sheet of stamps.

Mina blinked.

Right, then.

Slowly, with careful, controlled movements, she poured tea. Added sugar and cream. Buttered a scone. Pretended that she wasn’t watching MacAlasdair out of the corner of her eye.

Then, when she could trust herself, she spoke. “That’s quite…comprehensive. Everything a correspondent could ask for.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” said MacAlasdair. “I’ll be meeting with Carter this noontime, if you’ll be ready by then.” He sounded very casual, but his gaze never left Mina’s face.

She smiled. There was certainly no harm in that. He’d keep his distance now, and so would she. It was a virtue to be gracious in victory, Mina had heard. “I’ll write after breakfast,” she said. “If you’d like to read the letter before I seal it, I’ll be in the study.”

***

The door opened as Mina was on the last page of her letter, finishing a paragraph about the view from her bedroom window. It could have been a servant coming in to clean or to tell her something, but she knew it was MacAlasdair even before she lifted her head.

“The first two pages are on the table,” she said. “Have a look if you’d like. I’ll be done in a moment.”

“Thank you,” he said and smiled—diffidently, for the first time since Mina had met him. He ran a hand through his dark hair and seemed about to say something, but ended up crossing the room in silence.

Mina bent to her letter, trying to ignore the way her skin prickled at MacAlasdair’s approach. She saw his hand, large and firm, out of the corner of her eye as he picked up the sheets of stationery she’d already covered with writing. She heard the steady rhythm of his breath and the sound of paper crinkling as he read.

I
hope
that
you’re all doing well,
she wrote, concentrating—or trying to concentrate—on making the letters neatly. She’d mastered that particular art some ten years ago, but it never hurt to pay more attention, did it?

I’m not sure when I’ll get to see you again, but I’ll keep sending these letters. You can write to me in care of Professor Carter.

“That’s not a bad story you’ve told them.” MacAlasdair spoke from behind her. “Very close to the truth.”

Mina had said that MacAlasdair wanted her to help put his father’s affairs in order, that some of them were the sort he didn’t want anyone talking about, and that she’d be well paid and get a week’s holiday after she was finished. She intended to take one, too. A hundred pounds should more than cover the time, and Professor Carter would understand. She didn’t mention the hundred pounds in the letter—that much money
would
make people talk—just that she’d be well paid.

“Lying’s a sin,” she said demurely and then couldn’t resist a smile of her own. “And more importantly, too many lies are confusing.”

MacAlasdair chuckled, deep and rich. “Verra sound philosophy you have there. You don’t think they’ll talk about whatever secrets I want you to be keeping?”

“Not much. It’s business, and business isn’t really that interesting. They might think that your father had some opinions he didn’t want getting around—”

“He probably did, at that,” said MacAlasdair. “He was still bitter about the Rising, when I was young, and all that came after. Talked a great deal about it.”

“The Rising?” It sounded familiar, but it wasn’t new enough to be current or old enough to be antique, and so Mina sought for the reference amid memories of schoolbooks and the smell of chalk dust. “You mean the Scottish rebellion?”

“Aye.” MacAlasdair’s mouth was tight. “I wasna’ born yet, nor for a few years after, but I heard stories enough, and I understand the bitterness.”

MacAlasdair’s hair was rich red-black, without a thread of silver in it; his strong-boned face held a few sun lines near the eyes, but nothing more; and his body was straight and strong and vigorous. Looking at him, you didn’t think
two
centuries
old
, and then—

—and then she was in a room with someone who wasn’t entirely human, someone who remembered the world before her grandmother had been born. She wanted to put out a hand and touch his sleeve, just to make sure he was real.

Instead, she said, “But he couldn’t have fought in it. I mean—I don’t think we’d have won if we’d been fighting
dragons
.”

“And do you think that I and mine are the only such creatures in Creation?” MacAlasdair shook his head and laughed again, this time with a much darker humor. “Ye had your own creatures to send against us, you English, and your sorcerers and artifacts as well, the things that none of the history books mention. And we die from steel and lead if you put enough of it into us. My father fought, and one of his brothers died at Fort William and the oldest of my sisters at Littleferry.”

“I’m sorry,” said Mina.

MacAlasdair shrugged, and the darkness passed from his face. “It’s a family wound, and not my own, nor of your making. As I said, I never knew either of them. I did my fighting elsewhere.”

Still, there was nothing really to say to that, or at least nothing Mina could think of. She started to turn back to her paper, and then something MacAlasdair had said drew her attention.

“Your
sister
?”

“Our women are more…active than most,” MacAlasdair said. “There’s little difference between a female dragon and a male, at least where size and strength are concerned. It makes a bit of a difference in the way we view things.”

“If only the Pankhursts knew,” said Mina, thinking of the articles she’d read about the suffragists.

“There’s a bit more of a difference for mortal women, I’ll admit, but—no’ as much as people have been in the way of thinking lately. And at that,” said MacAlasdair, smiling again, “I’m surprised that you’re not out there attending meetings yourself.”

Despite the teasing tone of his voice, there was warmth in his smile and approval that Mina felt in her chest. Still, she tossed her head and fired back, “Well, I would be, if I had a bit more time for it. Speaking of which, are you going to let me finish?”

“Forgive me,” he said, still teasing. “I should have known your schedule would be crowded.”

“Oh, if only it were,” said Mina, and went back to writing.

Ten

Not too far from the British Museum and the office where Stephen had first encountered Mina, down several little side streets, one came to an ordinary-looking house. Like its neighbors, it was three stories of neat red brick, secure behind an iron fence and a tidy yard. Nothing was remarkable; everything was respectable.

At night, light and noise stole from behind the drapes, out the windows, and off into the spring air. That, too, was little different from other houses nearby. Some of the neighbors did say that the lights were odd colors at times and that the sounds were almost inhuman. Other, more skeptical sorts said that the first group of people were drunk or dreaming or seeing what they’d thought they’d see.

After all, London had heard rumors about Mrs. O’Keefe for years, and the Society of the Emerald Star was no real secret. Too many of its members were too fond of notoriety for that.

Secret or not, the Society did employ a butler who never spoke and who looked as if he could have given Stephen some serious trouble, even in his draconic form. The man looked over Stephen, his card, and the letter of introduction he offered, all without moving a single muscle in his face. Then he retired to the inner sanctum, consulted with someone inside, and returned to gesture Stephen through the door.

Not only a door, as it turned out, but a set of red, gauzy curtains that clung to Stephen’s evening wear and knocked his top hat briefly askew. He straightened it, took a breath of air that was redolent with both incense and opium, and turned to face the woman approaching him.

Selina O’Keefe was tall, pale, and willowy, with large gray eyes and a heavy mass of raven-black hair, which she was currently letting tumble down her back to match the gown she was wearing: flowing gold silk and lace, as unstructured as it was impractical. Gems gleamed on every finger and dangled from her ears, catching the light from many shaded lamps. Her walk was airy and she gave Stephen her hand as if she was Cleopatra bestowing a favor, yet there was something in her eyes and in the set of her chin that suggested more practicality than the dozen or so similarly dressed women, or their smoking-jacketed companions, who currently disported themselves around the room.

“Welcome, Lord MacAlasdair,” she said quietly but in a voice that made the simple statement a theatrical pronouncement. “In what way might our Society aid you?”

If she mentioned anything about him being king hereafter, Stephen thought, he would leap out a window posthaste.

“I’m looking for a man,” he said. “Can we talk somewhere a bit more private?”

“There’s a couch near the window,” said Mrs. O’Keefe, and put a hand lightly on his arm. The butler had disappeared somewhere. “I’m afraid I can’t leave my guests alone just now.”

As they walked toward the couch, Stephen understood why. He’d expected the lolling figures on other couches even before he’d smelled the opium. He hadn’t expected the woman with snakes winding around her wrists, like living ribbons of bright green and gold, or the man who stood near her casting bone runes onto a velvet cloth. Near them, a tall, lithe man with coppery hair was staring into the fire. As Stephen passed, the man looked up with eyes that seemed to hold the flame themselves for a moment, and the angles of his face were inhuman.

Charlatans made up most of the Society. Hedonists. Harmless, if scandalous, degenerates. But a few were different—and Ward, if he was still interested in occult power, would have wanted to contact those few.

They reached a red plush sofa with a high back in a corner that afforded a good view of the room while still a fair distance away from most of Mrs. O’Keefe’s guests. She took a seat, arranging her miles of skirts around her, and Stephen sat down at the other end of the sofa. Mrs. O’Keefe eyed the space between them, glanced up at Stephen’s face, and then gave him a humorous, rueful smile—
Can’t blame a girl for hoping
, it said—that looked much better on her than her former dramatic pose.

Then she said a few words in Latin to the group, and the noise from the rest of the room died away. “What sort of man are you looking for, Lord MacAlasdair?”

“His real name is Ward, though he might have been using an alias. He’s a tall fellow and skinny, with blue eyes sort of wide-set and blond hair, though it’s probably gray by now.” Stephen sighed. This wouldn’t help, not really. There were thousands of tall, skinny men in London, and Ward could have dyed his hair as easily as not. “Has anyone been coming in asking a lot of questions? Anyone other than me, that is—asking about spells, perhaps, or magical trinkets or books?”

“Many people seek such wisdom as we possess,” said Mrs. O’Keefe with a graceful gesture of one hand. “But,” she added in a much more worldly voice, “there was one particularly insistent gentleman. He came in…oh, a month ago? My memory for these things drifts sometimes. One moment.”

She rang a tiny silver bell, and the enormous butler drifted over, moving with astonishing silence.

“Saunders—”

Saunders, thought Stephen. For that hulk. He managed to keep control of his face. Mina, he thought suddenly, would be biting the inside of her cheek about now, her blue eyes dancing in that way they had when she was trying to stay solemn and proper and having the devil’s own time of it. Just as well she wasn’t here; he’d have never kept his countenance.

“Saunders,” Mrs. O’Keefe continued, “how long ago did you have to, er,
escort
that gentleman out?”

“Six weeks past, madam,” said the butler in a melodious tenor voice. “The incident, if you’ll recall, was just after the occasion of Sir Cartland’s epic recitation.”

Stephen cleared his throat. “You had to throw him out, then?”

Mrs. O’Keefe sighed. “He impressed me as an unfortunate character from the first. He was quite incredulous that I was the head of the Society—well, one does get men like that.” She shrugged, languid and indifferent. “But he was rather insistent on being admitted to the inner circles very quickly and on obtaining certain information that we were unwilling or unable to give.”

“Were you now?”

“Lord MacAlasdair,” said Mrs. O’Keefe, “contrary to the world’s opinion—and I know full well what
that
is—we do have ethics here. There are lines we will not cross, and summoning certain creatures is one of them. Even if the risks were not surpassingly great, the price is far greater than I would allow.”

Certain pages of certain books had burned themselves deeply into Stephen’s memory. He grimaced and nodded agreement—and relief.

Ward, after all, was no footpad and no brawler. Getting inside locked houses or past watchmen would have been difficult for him, and he’d already known that Stephen had an inhuman resistance to injury. If he’d hoped to ruin Stephen, either through physical damage or by exposure, without risking his own person, he probably would have had to deal with some very nasty forces.

For that matter, he would probably have called on those forces to kill Moore. That would also have been safer for him.

“I’m guessing he wasn’t pleased about your refusal,” said Stephen.

“Anything but. He made a number of threats against me, but…” She spread her hands, gems catching the light, as Stephen was sure she’d intended. “I have protections enough.”

And
you’re not his main target.

Stephen didn’t know the full strength of Ward’s arsenal, whether magical or financial. But from what he’d experienced and from Moore’s death, he doubted the Society would survive very long if Ward made its members the sole focus of his wrath.

“Is there anyone else he could have gone to?” Stephen asked. Mrs. O’Keefe started to lift her shoulders and spread her hands again, and Stephen was certain that the next words out of her mouth would be something about how the city was crawling with dubious occultists. “Anyone in particular that you know of?”

“A few,” said Mrs. O’Keefe, and reached for a sheet of paper and a pen. Many such objects were lying about on tables, Stephen noticed, presumably in case one of the Society members was struck with poetic inspiration. She wrote quickly in a graceful, flowing hand. “Of these, I think Reynolds is most likely to give your man Ward what he wants. He was a member of this society once, but his…tastes”—she almost hissed the word—“were profoundly unacceptable. Unfortunately, he has powerful allies now. Another thing your quarry would seek, from the sound of it.”

“You’re thinking your visitor was Ward, then?” Stephen asked. He’d have followed the trail anyhow since it was the only one he had, but he wanted to be sure before he got hopeful. “Another might have asked for the same information.”

“He looked like you describe. The hair was darker—not blond or gray—but such things are easy enough to manage. I wouldn’t have said he was particularly thin, either. But the eyes were the same, and he was tall.”

Age could add a few inches to any man’s waistline. The description was close enough.

“I’m very much obliged to you,” said Stephen, getting to his feet. “Good day, Mrs. O’Keefe.”

“Good luck, Lord MacAlasdair,” she said.

***

Earlier that evening, Mina had set aside the last of Professor Carter’s correspondence and made a decision. If she was going to stay in MacAlasdair’s house for some unknown length of time, she was by God going to
stay
in the house and not skulk around in the attics. MacAlasdair and his servants could like it or not as it pleased them.

So, after a glance in the mirror to replace a hairpin or two and make sure she didn’t have ink spots on her nose, Mina had descended all three flights of stairs with her head high and made her way toward the library.

The servants were back by then—the stars had been out for quite a while—and Baldwin had intercepted her on the way. His expression managed to be both polite and forbidding. “Laird MacAlasdair’s out for the evening,” he said. “If it’s him you were looking for, Miss Seymour.”

“Actually,” Mina had said, even as she briefly wondered where MacAlasdair had gone and why, “I was just going to find a book.” She didn’t explain that MacAlasdair had given her permission to look around the house. That would have been admitting that she
needed
permission. “There’s quite a library here.”

“It’s verra large, yes,” said Baldwin. “A bit disorganized, though. Will you be wanting anything in particular?”

“I thought I’d see what I could find,” said Mina. She’d risked a smile. In return, she’d gotten a slight softening of Baldwin’s heavily whiskered face. It was something, at least. “Could someone make a fire in the drawing room and bring me a cup of tea?”

Training had kept Baldwin from looking surprised at her request. He’d hesitated only an instant before saying, “Of course. I’ll see it done.”

Flush with minor triumph, Mina had proceeded into the library, managed to find a small subset of Dickens in the shelves’ jumbled contents, and was curled up on the couch with
The
Pickwick
Papers
when the door opened again and MacAlasdair, dressed in spotless evening clothes, walked into the room.

“Owens said you’d come in here for the evening,” he said, looking from Mina to the fire and back. “I hope I’m not intruding.”

It’s your house
was the first response that came to Mina’s mind. What she said, as she hastily straightened up, was “No, not at all.”

It was true. The extent to which it was true was no more surprising than the thrill that had run up her spine when MacAlasdair walked in. Both were unnerving.

He did look good in evening clothes. That might have had something to do with it. The close-fitting coat and trousers showed off both his broad shoulders and the firm lines of his waist and thighs, while the white shirt made his hair look almost garnet-colored and his eyes even brighter. Somehow, unlike most men Mina had seen, he looked more powerful in evening dress.

She resisted the urge to shift in her seat or to moisten her lips, although they’d suddenly gone dry. Thank goodness for tea.

“You’ve been out,” she said, in a truly amazing feat of stating the obvious. “Er, Baldwin said you were. But not where.” She kicked herself mentally for sounding like a prying wife, and then kicked herself twice for caring. “Somewhere fancy, I’d guess.”

“You could say as much,” said MacAlasdair, his mouth curling sardonically around the words. “There are a number of…clubs…around London that take an interest in mysticism. I thought some of them might be able to put me onto Ward’s track.”

“Ah,” said Mina. “And did they?”

“Perhaps. There are a few hints I might pursue. The Emerald Star, for instance—” MacAlasdair stopped. “But telling you all of it could take some time.”

“Time I’ve got,” said Mina. “And I want to know.”

“Very well, then,” said MacAlasdair. He settled into a seat near the fire, leaned back, and began.

BOOK: Legend Of The Highland Dragon
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