Authors: Grace Burrowes
Tags: #Victorian, #Historical, #Regency Romance, #Scotland, #Romance, #Historical Romance, #Scottish, #England, #Scotland Highland, #highlander, #Fiction, #london
She tipped the flask to her mouth, his body heat having made the metal unexpectedly warm against her lips. “My thanks.”
“Next, we wait, though I advise you to first heed nature’s call, otherwise you’re going to get all cozy in the blankets there, and have to get up and face the cold.”
“You think we can stay cozy?”
“I know we can,” he said, taking a nip of the flask before slipping it into the folds of his greatcoat.
“Aren’t you worried about your horse?”
“He won’t go far, and he’ll come when I call him. For privacy, I suggest you avail yourself of those bushes, and I’ll take the opposite side. These are spindle bushes, so don’t touch. The berries are poisonous.”
Hannah considered making some sort of protest, but none came to mind on the topic before her—even poisonous bushes could provide privacy—so she slogged through the snow in the indicated direction.
“Do we have to worry about wolves?” she asked as she made her way around the stand of bushes. They were tall enough, but devoid of leaves. She could see Balfour’s shape moving through them thirty feet away. He turned his back to her, and she had to admit it was… comforting, to know he was there, to know he could sort the poisonous flora from its useful or innocuous kin.
“No wolves, not since my grandfather’s time. Wild dogs might roam on the heath, but they’ll be closer to town in this weather. You all right?”
“Dandy,” she said, gathering her skirts up in one hand and fishing for the slit in her drawers with the other. Her gloved fingers brushed against her intimate flesh, bringing a profound and novel chill with them.
Scotland was turning out to be more of an adventure than she’d foreseen.
“You about done?”
“In a minute.”
She turned her back to the bushes as he had, tended to business much to the relief of her innards, and sacrificed a handkerchief in the interests of hygiene. She kicked snow over the handkerchief, wondering if Balfour had done the same, and if wild dogs could scent it through the snow.
“Come along.” He came around the stand of bushes, the snow not slowing him down one bit. “These flurries are soon going to thicken into something serious, unless I miss my guess.”
How and when he’d found time to set snares, Hannah did not know. A hare and a fat grouse were roasting on spits over the fire an hour later, the aroma enough to turn Hannah herself into a wild dog. He basted the meat in some spirits taken from the boot of the coach, and used a knife to slice Hannah generous servings of both hare and fowl. Bread and butter were produced from the coachy’s stash.
“I cannot recall enjoying a meal this much in ages,” she said. “It’s like a picnic, only better.”
He gave her an odd look over the last of his bread and butter. “A bit cold for a picnic.”
“And getting a bit dark.” Everything here was a bit, a trifle, a touch. Hannah sat on the blankets under the lean-to, as the flurries thickened into
of real snow. “Will your little structure keep us dry?”
“If you don’t poke at it, it should. And it will be warmer here than in the coach, provided the wind doesn’t shift.”
“What has that to do with anything?”
She’d had a few more medicinal tots of his whiskey, and it was to them Hannah attributed an incongruous, rosy sense of well-being.
“We don’t want the smoke joining us under here,” he said. “If we have to move the tent, or the fire, we’ll be less comfortable. More bread?”
“Couldn’t hold another bite.”
“Then we’ll save it for morning.”
“Morning?” A trickle of cold seeped past Hannah’s rosy glow. “We can’t be here much longer. It’s one thing to manage two hours in broad daylight on the plain, Mr. Lordship, but quite another to spend a night unchaperoned under the same, somewhat flimsy roof. I’ll have you—”
He reached over from his side of the lean-to and put a bare finger on her lips. His hands weren’t even cool.
“I do know,” he said. “But attempting to walk back to the inn now would be folly. The wind has drifted snow over the horses’ trail, darkness is falling, and the temperature is dropping. Then too, the snow has started.”
Something in what he said wanted arguing with, but Hannah was unable to get her mind wrapped around it. For her to navigate five miles of slippery terrain was not well-advised, though he’d mercifully left her limitations off his list of reasons. She had no doubt were he not burdened with her, he could have marched back to the inn without breaking a sweat.
His lordship was a good man. A gentleman. A pity his ilk did not abound in Boston.
“Shall I escort you to the bushes again before we lose the light entirely?”
And he was a blunt man—a trait of which she had to approve, for he was essentially offering to escort her to the privy. Good heavens. What did one say? Hannah lifted her face to the sky, to the flakes drifting down from the heavens in a thickening swirl of small, frigid kisses to her nose, eyelashes, cheeks, and chin.
The lady was half-tipsy, or perhaps a quarter. Asher usually avoided tipsy women, but Hannah Cooper wasn’t silly or giddy with it. She was more like a man who’d imbibed a wee dram at the end of a taxing day: relaxed, her sense of humor closer to the surface, her dignity not quite so tiresomely evident.
The liquor was the simplest explanation for the lady eating up her dinner with her bare fingers, wiping her mouth on her scarf, and thanking him kindly for the most crude fare.
She’d drunk from his flask without comment too, and set about gathering rocks and kindling without grumbling. He’d tossed the tasks at her mostly to give her something to grouch about and to keep her moving, but she was singularly lacking in biting retorts.
She came around from her side of the bushes and took his arm as if they were bosom bows.
“It gets like this in Boston,” she said. “So cold your lungs shiver with each breath.”
“So cold,” he took up the conversation, “you don’t dare breathe through your nose, for the thing freezes together on you.”
“Yes!” She beamed at him. “That cold. Do you suppose we’ll freeze to death in our sleep?”
“Tonight? Of course not. This isn’t dangerously cold by my standards. It’s merely inconvenient.”
“And compromising,” she added, her tone dismissive. “I’ve been compromised before. Will you read to me?”
“Read to you?”
“You did earlier this week. The Walter Scott, I think.”
“You’re reading Scott now.” He’d thought she’d been asleep as soon as he’d started reading. She’d certainly acted asleep. “I can read to you for a bit.”
When they were back on their blankets under the lean-to, and Asher had arranged the tarps to keep the snow off the fire, he took up the book, lit a coach lamp, and began to read, slowly, because his glasses were in his breast pocket, and he wasn’t about to wrestle them onto his nose before company. For almost an hour, he regaled Hannah with the deeds of old Ivanhoe—an idiot, by Asher’s standards—while she sighed and watched the fire beside him.
“Nobody’s coming for us tonight, are they?”
“They’d be fools to try. Had the wind not come up, there would have been a broken track to follow, but that’s not the case now.”
“Time for bed?”
She sounded wistful, as if she were longing for a nice, cozy four-poster after somebody had made good use of the warming pan.
“Time for bed. Give me your cloaks.”
“I beg your pardon?” Not so tipsy now—not tipsy at all.
“If we’re not to freeze, and we’re not, then I need your cloaks. We sleep together, like kittens, and use both our coats as extra blankets.”
“You are a very large kitten, Mr. Balfour.”
“Call me Asher.”
“Is that yet another title? I can’t keep them straight as it is. Lord This and Lord That, it’s quite confusing.”
“Asher is my name, Asher MacGregor.”
“If you say so.” She untied a cloak and passed it over to him. “Both of them?”
“Please. We’ll be warmer this way.” He unbuttoned his coat as her second cloak landed in his lap.
“Now what?” Her teeth were chattering.
“Under the blankets,” he said, holding up the top several. “You’ll be between two lap robes and have several thicknesses above and below you.”
She curled up on her side in a ball. Asher arranged himself behind her, so she was between him and the fire, then spread their respective outer garments on top of the blankets.
He scooted down into the blankets and drew them up over her shoulders, spooning his body around hers.
“Mister Balfour Asher Lordship MacGregor? What are you doing?”
“Keeping us both warm.” He tucked her close under the blankets, wrapping an arm around her waist and threading another under her neck so she could use his biceps as a pillow. “Now go to sleep. It’s the best way to get through a truly miserable winter, endorsed by no less beast than the great white bears of the North. I should know.”
After a few minutes, her teeth stopped chattering, while Asher thought back to all the nights he’d spent in the longhouses, shivering his way to sleep to the sound of incessant coughing and the thick scent of bitter smoke.
Nobody in the longhouses had ever smelled quite this good, though, or cuddled this agreeably. Canadian winters might have worn an entirely different face if they had.
He woke several times in the night, cozy and warm, the fragrance of Miss Hannah Cooper’s hair tickling his nose. She smelled incongruously of flowers and lavender.
Were their situation not so dire, his unruly body would no doubt be getting
. To Asher’s relief, cuddling, while comfortable and even comforting, did not engender overwhelming sexual cravings.
Evidence that even his long-deprived intimate parts comprehended the folly of entertaining notions about a woman determined to return to her side of the ocean without a husband, fiancé, or similar inconvenience.
“Beastly damned weather, Laird.”
Maxwell Lockhart Fenimore was laird of nothing more than a constant bellyache, sore joints, and a lot of bleating sheep, but Evan Draper was a loyal retainer and of mature years himself—also stubborn as hell.
“It’s merely cold and snow, Draper. This is Scotland, and we excel at cold and snow. Did Balfour get under way, or is he still fussing about in Edinburgh?” Though thank God the boy was fussing about on Scottish soil at long last.
“They left the town house for the train station early this morning,” Draper reported. “Shall I build up the fire, sir?”
Fenimore’s study was a veritable camphor-scented inferno, and yet, the ache in his joints was unrelenting. “You’ll provoke my cough if you add coal to that fire. Tell me about the Americans.”
“Perhaps your cough might benefit from a wee dram, Laird.” Meaning Draper was in want of a wee dram or three, but then, the man had spent much of his day braving the elements, and everybody benefited from an occasional tot.
“Help yourself to the decanters, you reiving ingrate.” Had Fenimore been a few years younger, he would have risen to pour the man a drink himself. Instead he twitched at the tartan over his knees and silently cursed old age.
“Don’t mind if I do. The American girl limps. The aunt tipples or uses the poppy. I chatted up the maids, and they don’t have much good to say about the aunt.” Draper tossed back a shot of whiskey and patted the decanter as if it were a pretty girl’s bum.
“Draper, have you gone daft?”
“Oh, aye, years ago. It’s that cold, too, and the drink is that good. Balfour’s being a conscientious host.”
“He’d better be.”
Without permission, Draper poured himself a second drink and ambled over to the hearth with it. He turned his backside to the fire, not out of any manners, of course, but because a roaring blaze felt ever so good toasting that part of a fellow’s anatomy. “The American girl sasses Balfour, according to the maids. He seems to like it.”
This was good news. “You call that a report?”
“She slipped on the ice, and he carried her nigh five blocks in his arms, all romantic-like. The maids were fair swoonin’ over it.”
Draper’s grizzled face split into a beatific smile, one the occasional maid found passably tolerable. There was no accounting for the queer starts of females, though Fenimore suspected cold weather might be a factor. A fellow of Draper’s hulking dimensions would give off significant heat.
“Balfour was a physician before he started running from his birthright. I take it he dealt with any twisted ankles, megrims, or sprains the American came up with?”
Draper peered into his drink. “He read to her.”
Outside the wind moaned as only a Scottish winter wind could, but inside, Fenimore felt a spark of hope. “Balfour has years of medical education, the woman’s worth a bloody fortune, and
Half of Draper’s whiskey disappeared. “Aye, when they wasn’t arguin’. Even the housekeeper found it quite touchin’.”
The Edinburgh housekeeper, one Bessie Flaherty, had been old when Roman legions had marched past Arthur’s Seat.
“Draper, I do not pay you to decimate my stores of whiskey. You will keep track of Balfour and his charge, and report back to me regularly. Now get out.” Though Draper was too honest a man for the rest of the scheme Fenimore intended to put into play. For those machinations, a more dastardly relation would have to serve.
“I’m leaving, Laird.” In no particular hurry, Draper set his half-full glass within Fenimore’s reach, tossed more coal on the fire, and tugged at the plaid over Fenimore’s knees. “And Mrs. Flaherty sends you her regards. I left a jar of her special liniment in the pantry.”
That liniment was magic, and yet, if Fenimore had asked for it, the damned woman would have said she had none to spare. “Be gone, Draper, and send my quack to me—with the liniment.”
“Oh, aye, mustn’t forget the liniment. Sweet dreams, Laird.”
Draper toddled off, a good, loyal man with friendly blue eyes, and an incongruous talent for flirting up the maids. And Draper knew what mattered, too, for he’d noted that Balfour had read to the American girl.