Authors: Grace Burrowes
Tags: #Historical Romance, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Highlanders, #love story, #Scotland, #England, #Literature & Fiction, #Historical, #Scottish, #Regency Romance, #Scotland Highland, #Victorian, #Romance
Copyright © 2013 by Grace Burrowes
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One glimpse of Lady Mary Frances MacGregor, and Matthew Daniels forgot all about the breathtaking Highland scenery and the misbegotten purpose for his visit to Aberdeenshire.
“For the duration of your stay, our house is your house,” Lady Mary Frances said. She strode along the corridor of her brother’s country home with purpose, not with the mincing, corseted gait of a London lady, and she had music in her voice. Her walk held music as well, in the rhythm and sway of her hips, in the rustle of her petticoats and the crisp tattoo of her boots on the polished wood floors.
Though what music had to do with anything, Matthew was at a loss to fathom. “The Spanish have a similar saying, my lady:
“My house is your house.” She either guessed or made the translation easily. “You’ve been to Spain, then?”
“In Her Majesty’s Army, one can travel a great deal.”
A shadow creased her brow, quickly banished and replaced by a smile. “And now you’ve traveled to our doorstep. This is your room, Mr. Daniels, though we’ve others if you’d prefer a different view.”
She preceded him into the room, leaving Matthew vaguely disconcerted. A proper young woman would not be alone with a gentleman in his private quarters, and Mary Frances MacGregor, being the daughter of an earl, was a lady even in the sense of having a courtesy title—though Matthew had never before met a
with hair that lustrous shade of dark red, or a figure so perfectly designed to thwart a man’s gentlemanly self-restraint.
“The view is quite acceptable.”
The view was magnificent, including, as it did, the backside of Lady Mary Frances as she bent to struggle with a window sash. She was a substantial woman, both tall and well formed, and Matthew suspected her arms would be trim with muscle, not the smooth, pale appendages a gentleman might see at a London garden party.
“Allow me.” He went to her side and jiggled the sash on its runners, hoisting the thing easily to allow in some fresh air.
“The maids will close it by teatime,” Lady Mary Frances said. “The nights can be brisk, even in high summer. Will you be needing a bath before the evening meal?”
She put the question casually—just a hostess inquiring after the welfare of a guest—but her gaze slid over him, a quick, assessing flick of green eyes bearing a hint of speculation. He might not fit in an old-fashioned bathing tub was what the gaze said, nothing more.
Nonetheless, he dearly wanted to get clean after long days of traveling. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble?”
“No trouble at all. The bathing chamber is just down the hall to the left, the cistern is full, and the boilers have been going since noon.”
She peered into the empty wardrobe, passing close enough to Matthew that he caught a whiff of something female… Flowers. Not roses, which were probably the only flower he knew by scent, but… fresher than roses, less cloying.
“If you need anything to make your visit more enjoyable, Mr. Daniels, you have only to ask, and we’ll see to it. Highland hospitality isn’t just the stuff of legends.”
She frowned at the high four-poster and again walked past him, though this time she picked up the tartan draped across the foot of the bed. The daughter of an earl ought not to be fussing the blankets, but Matthew liked the sight of her, snapping out the red, white, and blue woolen blanket and giving it a good shake. Her attitude said that nothing, not dust, not visiting English, not a houseful of her oversized brothers, would daunt this woman.
Without thinking, Matthew picked up the two corners of the blanket that had drifted to the blue-and-red tartan rug.
“Will you be having other guests this summer?” He put the question to her as they stepped toward each other.
“Likely not.” She grasped the corners he’d picked up, their fingers brushing.
Matthew did not step back. Mary Frances MacGregor—
Mary Frances MacGregor—had
over the bridge of her nose. They were faint, even delicate, and they made her look younger. She could have powdered them into oblivion, but she hadn’t.
“Mr. Daniels?” She gave the blanket a tug.
Matthew moved back a single step. “You typically have only one set of guests each summer?” Whatever her scent, it wasn’t only floral, but also held something spicy, fresh like cedar, but not quite cedar.
“No, we usually have as many guests as the brief summers here permit, particularly once Her Majesty and His Royal Highness are ensconced next door. But if your sister becomes engaged to my brother, there will be other matters to see to, won’t there?”
This question, alluding to much and saying little, was accompanied by an expression that involved the corners of the lady’s lips turning up, and yet it wasn’t a smile.
“I suppose there will.” Things like settling a portion of the considerable Daniels’s wealth into the impoverished Balfour coffers. Things like preparing for the wedding of a lowly English baron’s daughter to a Scottish earl.
“We’ll gather in the parlor for drinks before the evening meal, Mr. Daniels. The parlor is directly beneath us, one floor down. Any footman can direct you.”
She was insulting him. Matthew took a moment to decipher this, and in the next moment, he realized the insult was not intentional. Some of the MacGregor’s “guests,” wealthy English wanting to boast of a visit to the Queen’s own piece of the Highlands, probably spent much of their stay too inebriated to navigate even the corridors of the earl’s country house.
“I’ll find my way, though at some point, I would also like to be shown where the rest of my family is housed.”
“Of course.” Another non-smile. She glanced around the room the way Matthew had seen generals look over the troops prior to a parade review, her lips flattening, her gaze seeking any detail out of order. “Until dinner, Mr. Daniels.”
She bobbed a curtsy and whirled away before Matthew could even offer her a proper bow.
Mary Fran’s insides clenched at the sound of Baron Altsax’s voice. She pasted a smile on her face and tried to push aside the need to check on the dining room, the kitchen, and the ladies’ guest rooms—and the need to locate Fiona.
The child tended to hide when a new batch of guests came to stay.
“Baron, what may I do for you?”
“I had a few questions, Miss MacGregor, if you wouldn’t mind?” He gestured to his bedroom, his smile suggesting he knew damned good and well the insult he did an earl’s daughter by referring to her as “Miss” anything. A double insult, in fact.
Mary Fran did not follow the leering old buffoon into his room. Altsax’s son, the soft-spoken Mr. Daniels, would reconnoiter before he started bothering the help—though big, blond, good-looking young men seldom needed to bother the help—not so with the skinny, pot-gutted old men. “I’m a bit behindhand, my lord. Was it something I could send a maid to tend to?”
The baron gestured toward the drinking pitcher on the escritoire, while Mary Fran lingered at the threshold. “This water is not chilled, I’ve yet to see a tea service, and prolonged travel by train can leave a man in need of something to wash the dust from his throat.”
He arched one supercilious eyebrow, as if it took some subtle instinct to divine when an Englishman was whining for his whisky.
“The maids will be along shortly with the tea service, my lord. You’ll find a decanter with some of our best libation on the nightstand, and I can send up some chilled water.” Because they at least had ice to spare in the Highlands.
“See that you do.”
Mary Fran tossed him a hint of a curtsy and left before he could make up more excuses to lure her into his room.
The paying guests were a source of much-needed coin, but the summers were too short, and the expenses of running Balfour too great for paying guests alone to reverse the MacGregor family fortunes. The benefit of this situation was that no coin was on hand to dower Mary Fran, should some fool—brother, guest, or distant relation—take a notion she was again in want of a husband.
“Mary Fran, for God’s sake, slow down.” She’d been so lost in thought she hadn’t realized her brother Ian had approached her from the top of the stairs. “Where are you churning off to in such high dudgeon? Con and Gil sent me to fetch you to the family parlor for a wee dram.”
Ian’s gaze was weary and concerned, the same as Con or Gil’s would have been, though Ian, as the oldest, was the weariest and the most concerned—also the one willing to marry Altsax’s featherbrained daughter just so Fiona might someday have a decent dowry.
“I have to check on the kitchens, Ian, and make sure that dim-witted Hetta McKinley didn’t forget the butter dishes again, and Eustace Miller has been lurking on the maids’ stairway so he can make calf eyes at—”
“Come, you.” Ian tucked her hand over his arm. “You deserve a few minutes with family more than the maids need to be protected from Eustace Miller’s calf eyes. Let the maids have some fun, and let yourself take five minutes to catch your breath. Go change into your finery and meet us in the family parlor. I’ll need your feminine perspective if I’m to coax Altsax’s daughter up the church aisle.”
Ian had typical MacGregor height and green eyes to go with dark hair and a handsome smile—none of which was worth a single groat. In Asher’s continued absence, Ian was also the laird, and well on his way to being officially recognized as the earl. While neither honor generated coin, the earldom allowed him the prospect of marrying an heiress with a title-hungry papa.
Mary Fran did not bustle off to change her dress for any of those reasons, or even because she needed to stay abreast of whatever her three brothers were thinking regarding Ian’s scheme to marry wealth.
She heeded her brother’s direction because she wanted that wee dram—wanted it far too much.
Matthew enjoyed a leisurely soak in a marble bathing chamber that boasted every modern convenience, then dressed and prepared to find his way down to the formal parlor. As he moved through the house, he noted the signs of good care: a faint odor of beeswax and lemon oil rising from the gleaming woodwork, sparkling clean windows, fresh flowers in each corridor, an absence of fingerprints on the walls and mirrors.
Lady Mary Frances, or her minions, took the care of Balfour House seriously. A swift drum of heels from around the next corner had Matthew stopping and cocking an ear. A man did not lose the habit of stealth simply because he was no longer billeted to a brewing war zone.
The hint of acrid cigar smoke warned Matthew that his father was in the vicinity.
“Miss MacGregor, perhaps you’d allow me to provide you an escort down to the parlor?” Altsax spoke in the unctuous tones of a man condescending to an inferior, though Lady Mary Frances was arguably the baron’s social superior.
Matthew eased far enough down the corridor to see that the lady was attired in a dinner gown of green-and-white plaid that did marvelous things for her eyes—and riveted the baron’s attention on her décolletage.
“That’s gracious of you, Baron.” Her smile was beautiful, though it did not reach her eyes. “I hope Mr. Daniels will escort your womenfolk?”
The baron winged his arm. “I’m sure Matthew or your own brothers will see to that duty.”
As the lady tucked her fingers around the baron’s elbow, Matthew’s gut began to churn. Altsax was never polite to anybody, much less to pretty young women, unless he was maneuvering toward his own ends.
“So why aren’t you married, Miss MacGregor?” Altsax stroked his fingers over her hand. “You’re comely enough, wellborn, and intended for better than spinsterhood as your brothers’ household drudge.”