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Authors: Karen Ranney

Scotsman of My Dreams

BOOK: Scotsman of My Dreams
6.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



To Jeff Stutsman: a classy, witty guy




Chapter 1


July, 1862

our hours past noon on a muggy July day, Minerva Todd got into her carriage, jerked her gloves on, retied her bonnet ribbons, and stared straight ahead as if to speed the vehicle to its destination.

The day, although already well advanced, was shy on sunlight. Pewter-­colored clouds moved in from the east, bringing with them a sodden breeze and the scent of rain.

She inserted a gloved finger between her cheek and the bonnet ribbon, wishing the fabric wasn't irritating. Anything new was bound to chafe, at least until a certain familiarity had been achieved.

The dress was not new, however. Instead, she wore one of her ser­viceable dark blue day dresses. She'd had half a dozen of them made so she could detach the white collar and cuffs when she was working. Otherwise, she wore her most favorite garment, a divided skirt much like trousers.

Today she had to appear garbed like a proper woman of London, at least until this ghastly errand was finished.

As much as she would have liked to be on an expedition, the wet spring and early summer weather had prevented it. Yet even had she been blessed with sunshine in Scotland she wouldn't have left London. Not until she had an answer about Neville.

Where was her brother?

The Earl of Rathsmere must know, but the man hadn't answered her five letters, the latest only three days ago. She had no choice but to call on him.

She'd heard stories about Rathsmere, of course. The man had a foolish soubriquet—­the Rake of London—­and was rumored to have once had a royal lover, one of the cousins of the Queen herself.

The fact that he'd broken off the arrangement was scandalous enough, but he'd also recounted certain personal facts to a gathering of men no better than himself. Namely, that the woman in question liked the color red. To please her, he'd had his undergarments dyed crimson. He'd flaunted his Scottish heritage by parading around her rooms attired in nothing more than a swath of crimson and black tartan.

The Queen had not been pleased by the tales of her cousin's licentiousness. The poor woman had been shipped off to Australia to tour sheep farms. No doubt she'd been told to mend her ways if she ever wanted to appear at court again.

Wayward women were never applauded in society.

The Rake of London, however, was a perennial darling. ­People laughed at his escapades. They excused his excesses. They allowed—­no, encouraged—­his complete disregard of the most basic tenets of civilization.

He was, in a word, a reprobate, a miscreant, and a libertine. And now he was an earl. A complete and total waste of a proper title.

When the carriage stopped in front of the large town house belonging to the man, she stared through the window at the broad steps, her eyes traveling upward to encompass the three stories of the structure. How like MacIain not to simply live in a fashionable square, but in a house that took up one whole corner of it. The structure seemed to proclaim itself a royal residence. At the very least it was a home for someone filled with his own consequence.

From what she'd heard, the man was attractive. Looks faded. Intelligence didn't. The earl was, from his actions, a very stupid man. What did she care how attractive the apple if the fruit within was rotten?

She had quite a wealth of correspondence from various men across the continent. The topic had not been as important as her missives to the Earl of Rathsmere, but each man had been kind enough to answer her letters.

Yet the earl had not seen fit to respond to her inquiries, and he was the only one with the information she was desperate to obtain.

Her driver dismounted, came around, and opened the door for her.

“Are you very certain you wish to do this, Minerva?”

She bit back her sigh. Hugh was the perfect example of attractiveness, intelligence, and character. Unfortunately, he was also too curious. She was to blame for that. By her actions, she'd led him to believe he had the right to be so intrusive.

“I see no other recourse,” she said. “He hasn't answered my letters. What else can I do?”

“He may refuse to see you.”

She nodded, placing her hand on Hugh's arm, allowing him to assist her from the carriage.

“He may,” she said. “If he won't see me today, he'll see me tomorrow. If he won't see me tomorrow, he'll see me the day after. And a thousand days if necessary, Hugh.”

He raised one eyebrow.

Very well, perhaps she was a tiny bit stubborn in certain situations. She was a woman who toiled in a man's world. She couldn't afford to be perceived as soft and demure. That was for women who rarely left their parlors or used fans, for the love of all that was holy. She couldn't imagine using a fan to flirt with a man. She'd feel like a fool.

Shaking her skirts free, she did a quick perusal of herself. Of course she looked nothing like the scores of women who'd probably made their way up these broad white steps.

She was simply Minerva Todd, whose assets were not those of figure or face.

Before she made it to the door, she felt the first droplets of rain. In moments it felt like a full bucket had been upended over her head.

At the top of the steps she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and stared at the black painted door with its whimsical brass knocker. Why a mushroom, of all things?

She raised the knocker and let it fall, hearing the soft echo in the foyer. Her heart galloped in her chest, tightening her breath. Inside her gloves her fingertips were cold.

He must see her. He must tell her. Even if it was the worst possible news, she must know.

When no one answered the door, she let the knocker fall twice more.

The front windows were clean and sparkling. The stoop had been swept. No debris of any sort was on the steps. Yet she had the feeling the house was deserted.

Taking a step back, she looked up at the windows through the rain. All of them were shielded by curtains. No one stood there watching her.

She turned, calling out to Hugh standing beside the carriage.

“Would you go to the stables, Hugh? See if there's a carriage there.”

If the earl wasn't home, it would be the reason he hadn't answered. Did he have a country house? How would she find out where it was?

Hugh nodded and began walking to the corner and around to the back of the town house as she stood there waiting. The steps had no place where a visitor might stand and be shielded from the elements, and it felt almost like a personal affront.

She let the knocker fall again.

The rain smelled of dust and the London streets. London seemed to be a city that contained odors, holding them in as if jealous they might escape. Now she picked out the scent of honeysuckle and roses, old buildings, manure, dust, and the ever-­present and pungent smell of the Thames.

The door opened so suddenly she nearly fell forward.

A tall, thin man greeted her. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, revealing muscular arms. His hair was brushed back from a face made stern by a prominent nose and pointed chin.

Sweat dotted his brow and above his lip.

His look of irritation was a little off-­putting, but she ventured a smile anyway.

“Yes?” he said.

She had the strangest urge to apologize. No, that would never do. She was there for a reason.

“I'm here to see the earl.”

“Are you?”

How very odd to be questioned by a major domo.

She pulled a calling card from her reticule and held it out until he took it. A good thing, since she was becoming drenched and the card was decidedly soggy.

Why hadn't she brought her umbrella?

“Will you tell him that Minerva Todd is here to see him, please, on account of her brother, Neville.”

“He isn't receiving visitors.”

She ignored that comment.

“Please tell the earl I shall not take up much of his time. I only have one question to ask.”

Had the majordomo begun as a footman? His height was impressive. She truly disliked having to look up at him. The stony expression on his hawkish face would have been daunting if she weren't determined to see the earl.

“That won't be possible.”

He moved to stand half behind the door, edging it closed with his foot. Minerva deliberately inserted her leg in the opening. She wasn't as tall as the majordomo, but she was not excessively short either. She and Neville were of a height.

“Please, I really must see him.”

His brown eyes remained flat and unmoved.

“I regret, Miss Todd, that His Lordship is not receiving visitors,” he said.

“Can you take him a message, then? I need to know where my brother is. Neville hasn't returned to London.”

“I'm afraid I couldn't.”

“I've never met a more insolent majordomo,” she said, annoyed beyond measure.

The man startled her by smiling, such a transformative expression that his entire face softened. The hooked nose lost prominence, the jutting chin didn't seem as sharp. Even his brown eyes bore a twinkle.

“I'm the earl's secretary, Miss Todd,” he said, making a small bow. “Stanley Howington. I suppose I act as majordomo as well.”

“Do you have no other staff?”

“Is that any of your concern?”

“It is if you leave a visitor standing in the rain.”

“It's the housekeeper's half day off and the maids are engaged in other tasks, Miss Todd, not that it's any of your business.”

“Did you go to America with the earl, Mr. Howington?”

He shook his head, placed his hand on the latch and started to slowly close the door again.

“Will you ask him about Neville?” she asked, putting her own hand on the edge of the door. In order to completely close it, he was going to have to shove her out of the way.

Mr. Howington, for all his rudeness, didn't look the type to brutalize a woman.

“Will you, sir?”

“His Lordship doesn't like to discuss America, Miss Todd.”

She told herself that she could be excused her bad manners because of worry. Attempting to get the Earl of Rathsmere to answer her was frustrating to the extreme, and having Mr. Howington say he wouldn't see her now was enough of an incitement for rudeness.

She pushed the door inward.

“I am not talking about America,” she said, her voice this side of a shout. “I am talking about my brother. Where is Neville?”

Since the door was advancing on her knuckles and was already pressing against the toe of her shoe, she had every expectation that the Earl of Rathsmere's secretary would toss her from the stoop. So much for not brutalizing a woman.

“Do not force me to be ungentlemanly, Miss Todd. You are getting very wet. Would it not be best for you to retreat to your carriage?”

“At least tell me you will ask the earl.”

He considered her for a moment. She had the feeling whatever he said next would be a lie, anything to get rid of her.

“Very well,” she said, taking a step back.

Sometimes it was necessary to retreat in order to fight again another day. Besides, he was correct. She was drenched. Rain had permeated her dress until even her shift was wet. Droplets slid down her spine, leaving an icy trail.

Her bonnet emitted a peculiar smell, something reminding her of their neighbor's dog. Frederick loved water and sought it out at every opportunity. At the moment a wet Frederick and her bonnet smelled the same.

She turned, grabbed the wrought-­iron railing and descended the steps with hard won dignity. Hugh stepped in front of her, his hair wetly plastered to his skull.

“The carriage is there,” he said. “I think the earl must be in residence.”

Nodding to him, she entered the carriage, more determined than ever to succeed in her task. She had to find Neville, and no secretary, diligent as he was, was going to stop her.

She would see the Earl of Rathsmere. She would.

BOOK: Scotsman of My Dreams
6.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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