The MacGregor’s Lady
Book 3 in the MacGregor series
Asher MacGregor has returned from years wandering the Canadian wilderness to assume an earldom he’s avoided, and to seek a bride he does not want. He’s saddled with an additional family obligation in the form of Boston heiress Hannah Cooper, whom he is to escort about the London ballrooms so she might find an English husband. Hannah is no more interested in settling in Britain than Asher is in returning to the New World, and yet their sympathy for one another soon turns to passion. With Hannah anxious to return to the family she’s trying to protect in Boston, and Asher bound to his earldom in the Highlands, they must trust in love to span an ocean of differences and difficulties.
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Asher MacGregor, ninth Earl of Balfour, had crossed the Atlantic five times in his thirty-some years on earth, each passage worst than the last, each leaving him a little more symbolically at sea.
And yet, he’d learned a few things in his wanderings. Though the Harrow had made port yesterday afternoon, her captain would wait until morning to come into Edinburgh’s harbor, so he might get a day’s work from his crew before they went ashore to drink and whore away their pay.
Giving Asher one more night to avoid his fate.
Asher also knew that after a winter Atlantic crossing, Miss Hannah Cooper and her aunt, Miss Enid Cooper, would be weary travelers. They had no notion the aging Baron Fenimore was using them to punish his nephew for being… what?
Being alive, very likely.
Asher climbed from the traveling coach at the docks, the heavy vehicle being the only one in his Edinburgh mews suited to dealing with muddy, slushy streets and heavy loads of baggage.
“Stay with the horses,” Asher admonished the coachy and both footmen. The docks were safe enough by daylight—for docks, and particularly for a man with some height, muscle, and frontier fighting skills. Asher knew which quay would be unloading the Harrow’s cargos and debarking its passengers, but the whole situation brought back memories.
Memories of being eleven years old, on just such a cold, blustery morning, on just these docks, and only servants to fetch him to the family he’d never met.
Memories of landing back on Canadian shores as a twenty-year-old, hoping for some sense of homecoming, of welcome, only to realize he wasn’t even going to be met by servants.
And two more returns to Scotland, both solitary, one at age twenty-two, and the most recent—the hardest one—less than six months past, both with a disappointing sense of bowing to an empty fate.
A lonely fate.
Dockside, a tender shipped oars and lowered a gangplank as the passengers and a small crowd on the wharf cheered. Families were reunited, travelers tried to adjust to walking on land, and one old gent creaked to his knees and kissed terra firma on the weathered and chilly wooden cheek of the wharf.
A total of six women debarked. Two were clearly of the lower orders, the younger showing sufficient symptoms of scoliosis to ensure a crabbed old age. They bustled away in the direction of a waiting mule cart, a sturdy yeoman at the reins.
Two were just as clearly wellborn, or at least well off, though the younger of this pair suffered acute strabismus. They climbed into a black-lacquered coach-and-four, two liveried footmen behind.
His guests. Plain but not too plain in their attire, the older one taking a bench while the younger one stood by like a protective hound, scanning the wharf for either danger or welcome. The young lady suffered neither a hunched back nor a squint, though she was afflicted with red hair.
Nearly the same shade of red hair as Asher’s sister, Mary Frances.
The older woman patted the bench; the younger shook her head. Her bonnet ribbons weren’t tied in a fetching, off-center bow, a sign she either wasn’t seeking the approval of fashionable Society or wasn’t native to Great Britain.
The younger Miss Cooper looked chilly, wary, and alone, and though she was a burden Asher had done nothing to merit, neither did she deserve to stand watch in the bitter shore breeze, courting an inflammation of the lungs.
“Ladies, I hesitate to be so bold, but if you’re Miss Hannah Cooper and Miss Enid Cooper, I’m Balfour, your escort.”
“Mr. Balfour.” Miss Hannah bobbed a stiff curtsy, one hand braced on the back of the bench. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Lord Balfour.” Miss Cooper held out a hand. “Forgive my niece her form of address. We discussed it endlessly on the crossing, but we are weary and forgetful.”
“And likely chilled,” Asher said, bowing over the older woman’s gloved fingers. “The rest of your bags will be sent on to the town house. If I might take you to the coach?”
The aunt kept her hand in his and rose with his assistance. The young lady merely watched while Asher tucked the aunt’s hand over his arm and gave a few instructions to the stevedores. He did not linger over civilities, knowing Miss Hannah’s impassivity could mask fatigue, bewilderment, homesickness, and other emotions common to the weary traveler in a strange land.
“This way, ladies.”
At first he thought Miss Hannah was having difficulty walking on land. After days at sea, it could be like that. The ceaseless, nauseating movement became normal, and then concentration was needed to adjust to stillness.
“How was your crossing?”
“Truly, truly unpleasant, my lord,” the elder Miss Cooper said. “I dread the return trip already.” She chattered on about the food, the crowding, the rough crew, the cold, the endless stench of the sea, and all manner of discomfort, and occasionally, she’d stumble a little, lean on Asher for a moment, then resume both her walking and her complaining.
When she at one point turned her face up to his with the apparent intent of batting her eyes—Uncle Fenimore must truly have taken Asher into dislike—Asher noted that the aunt’s pupils were a trifle enlarged.
“Though I must say”—she paused for breath as they neared the coach—“it is exceedingly good to hear the Queen’s English spoken with the Queen’s accent and intonation. It has been twenty years, you know, since such a sound graced my ears. Twenty years.”
Of course he did not know, nor did he care. Miss Cooper shook her head at the sorrow of it all, and Asher glanced over his shoulder to see how this dirge was striking the niece. The poor girl had doubtless endured an ocean of such woes, for a woman dependent upon the poppy was usually a self-absorbed creature indeed.
Miss Hannah’s expression was unreadable, and her remarkably ugly brown bonnet had remained on her head, despite the limp ribbons and a brisk breeze. She trundled along unevenly behind them like a servant, but her head was up and her gaze was darting all over the passing scene, like a small child on her first trip to the trading post. A coil of russet hair tried to escape the bonnet’s confines near her left ear.
“This is the Balfour coach,” Asher said. He handed in the older woman, then extended a hand to the niece. She glanced around one more time as if reluctant to part with the scenery—Edinburgh was a lively and beautiful city, after all—then darted into the coach after barely touching her fingers to his.
He climbed in, predictably tipping the coach with his considerable weight. When the thing righted itself—an earl’s coach must be well appointed and well sprung, regardless of the expense—Asher thumped the roof with a gloved fist.
Miss Enid pulled the shade closed on her coach window, no doubt because her eyes were offended by the Scottish winter sunshine.
“Tell me, my lord, will we pass an apothecary on the way to our accommodations?”
“We shall. Edinburgh has shops aplenty, including apothecaries, though the town house is quite commodious. If you need a common medicinal, we likely have it on hand.”
“I’ve the very worst head. Didn’t I tell you, Hannah, my head would plague me terribly? A touch of the poppy might provide a little ease.”
“I’m sure we can accommodate you.” As much as old Fenimore grumbled about aches and pains, there was bound to be an entire pantry of nostrums and patent remedies somewhere in the house Fenimore had used as freely as if he owned it. “What about you, Miss Hannah? Has your health suffered as a result of a winter crossing?”
She was peering out the window and trying not to get caught at it. Asher didn’t smile, but something of his amusement must have shown in his eyes, because she shifted her gaze to meet his, like a cannon swiveling to sight on an approaching target.
“I am in good health, thank you.”
The tones were clipped, the vowels flattened, and the sound was music to Asher’s cold ears. Her accent might strike some as uneducated, but it would never sound slow-witted. That accent connoted a wily mental agility, and he hadn’t heard it in too long.
“Boston, if I do not mistake your accent?”
The aunt waved a hand. “Oh, the accent! There’s nothing to be done, I’m afraid. She’s had the best tutors, the best dancing masters, the best instructors of deportment and elocution, but none of them made any headway against that accent.”
This use of the third person on a fellow occupant of the same coach, even a large coach, had the effect of compressing Miss Hannah’s lips and turning her gun sights back to the streets. When she shifted her gaze, the fugitive coil of hair escaped the bonnet altogether to lie in coppery glory against her neck.
Edinburgh was a bustling place year-round. Its better neighborhoods—some of them less than fifty years old—did not empty out in summer, nor did the city limit its social activities to a mere three months in spring. Asher had enjoyed his visits here, as much as he enjoyed any city, and he rather liked Miss Hannah’s curiosity about it. As the horses trotted off in the direction of the New Town, he recounted various anecdotes about the place, suspecting his guests were too tired to manage much conversation.
And all the while he talked, he watched Miss Hannah Lynn Cooper as surreptitiously as close quarters would allow.
She was a disaster of the first water in terms of fashion—something he also had to like about her. The bonnet, with its wrinkled ribbons, peculiar brown flowers, and slightly bent brim was only the beginning. Her index finger poked out of her glove. The seam wasn’t frayed, the end of the finger hadn’t been obviously darned, the glove was simply shot, and stained across the knuckles to boot.
Her cape was stained as well, especially around the hem. Her attire was adorned with salt, mostly, which could have been brushed off had she cared to apply a deal of effort. The aunt’s clothing was in much better repair, her hems tidy, her gloves pristine and whole.
Perhaps the aunt had been waiting for landfall to take the girl in hand?
Asher wished her the joy of such an undertaking, for no amount of finery would help with the proud tilt of Miss Hannah Lynn Cooper’s nose or the determined jut of her chin. Her mouth was wide, and her lips were generous. She compressed them constantly, as if to hide this backhanded gift from the Almighty.
And to go with such a definite nose and chin, the Deity had also bestowed on the woman large, agate eyes with long, velvety lashes. The eyebrows were bold slashes in dark auburn, a dramatic contrast to pale skin and coppery hair. Such features would have been handsome on a man, but on a woman they were… discordant. Arresting and attractive but not precisely pleasing.
Not boring or insipid, either.
In any case, Miss Hannah Cooper was going to be a royal project to launch socially. He’d been hoping for a giggling little heiress he could drive about in the park a few times, the kind of harmless female who’d be overcome with mortification when she misstepped. This one…
Asher prosed on about the city’s history, but in the back of his mind, he had to wonder if Miss Hannah Cooper would have been more comfortable marching about the wilds of Canada than taking on the challenge of a London social Season. Northern winters were cold, but the lack of welcome in a London ballroom for those who were different, foreign, and strange could be by far colder.
Hannah had been desperate to write to Gran, but three attempts at correspondence lay crumpled in the bottom of the library waste bin, rather like Hannah’s spirits.
The first letter had degenerated into a description of their host, the Earl of Balfour. Or Asher, Mr. Lord Balfour. Or whatever. Aunt had waited until after Hannah had met the fellow to pass along a whole taxonomy of ways to refer to a titled gentleman, depending on social standing and the situation.
The Englishmen favored by Step-papa were blond, skinny, pale, blue-eyed, and possessed of narrow chests. They spoke in haughty accents and weren’t the least concerned about surrendering rights to their monarch, be it a king who had lost his reason or a queen rumored to be more comfortable with German than English.
Balfour was neither blond nor skinny nor narrow-chested. He was quite tall, and as muscular and rangy as any backwoodsman. He did not declaim his pronouncements, but rather, his speech had a growl to it, as if he were part bear.
When that observation had found its way onto the page, Hannah had started over.
The second draft had made a valiant attempt to compare Boston’s docks with those of Edinburgh, but had then doubled back to observe that Hannah had never seen such a dramatic countenance done in such a dark palette as she had beheld on Balfour. She’d put the pen down before prosing on about his nose. No Englishman ever sported such a noble feature, or at least not the Englishmen whom Step-papa forever paraded through the parlor.
The third draft had nearly admitted that she’d wanted to hate everything about this journey, and yet, in his hospitality, and in his failure to measure down to Hannah’s expectations, Balfour and his household hinted that instead of banishment, a sojourn in Britain might have a bit of respite about it too.
Rather than admit that in writing—even to Gran—that draft had followed its predecessors into the waste bin. What Hannah could convey was that Aunt had not fared well on the crossing. Confined and bored on the ship, Enid had been prone to frequent megrims and bellyaches and to absorbing her every waking hour with supervision of the care of her wardrobe.
Leaving Hannah no time to see to her own—not that she’d be trying to impress anybody with her wardrobe, her fashion sense, or her eligibility for the state of holy matrimony.
Her mission was, in fact, the very opposite.
Hannah eventually sanded and sealed a short note confirming their safe arrival, but how was one to post it?
Were she in Boston, she’d know such a simple thing as how to post a letter, where to fetch more tincture of opium for her aunt, what money was needful for which purchases.
“Excuse me.” The earl paused in the open doorway, then walked into the room. He had a sauntering quality to his gait, as if his hips were loose joints, his spine supple like a cat’s, and his time entirely his own. Even his walk lacked the military bearing of the Englishmen whom Hannah had met.
Which was both subtly unnerving and… attractive.
“I’m finished with your desk, sir.” My lord was probably the preferred form of address—though perhaps not preferred by him. “I’ve a letter to post to my grandmother, if you’ll tell me how to accomplish such a thing?”
“You have to give me permission to sit.” He did not smile, but something in his eyes suggested he was amused.
“You’re not a child to need an adult’s permission.” Though even as a boy, those green eyes of his would have been arresting.
“I’m a gentleman, and you’re a lady, so I do need your permission.” He gestured to a chair on the other side of a desk. “May I?”
“How are you faring here?”
He crossed an ankle over his knee and sat back, his big body filling the chair with long limbs and excellent tailoring.
“Your household has done a great deal to make us comfortable and welcome, for which you have my thanks.” His maids, in particular, had Hannah’s gratitude, for much of Aunt’s carping and fretting had landed on their uncomplaining shoulders.
“Is there anything you need?” His gaze no longer reflected amusement. The question was polite, but the man was studying her, and Hannah bristled at his scrutiny. She’d come here to get away from the looks, the whispers, the gossip.
“I need to post my letter. When do we depart for London?”
He picked up an old-fashioned quill pen, making his hands look curiously elegant, as if he might render art with them, or music or delicate surgeries.
“Give me your letter, Miss Hannah. I maintain business interests in Boston and correspond frequently with my offices there. As for London, we’ll give Miss Enid Cooper another week or so to recuperate, and if the weather is promising, strike out for London then.” He paused, and the humor was again lurking in his eyes. “If that suits?”
She left off studying his hands, hands that sported neither a wedding ring nor a signet ring. What exactly was he asking?
“I am appreciative of your generosity, but I was not requesting that you mail my letter for me. I was asking how one goes about mailing a letter, any letter, bound for Boston.” Hannah disliked revealing her ignorance to Balfour, but if she was to go on with him as she intended, then his role was to show her how to manage for herself rather than to make her dependent upon him for something as simple as mailing letters.
He laughed, a low, warm sound that crinkled his eyes and had him uncrossing his legs to sit forward.
“Put up your guns, Boston. I know what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. I’ll walk you to the nearest posting inn and show you how we shuffle our mail around here. If you still want to wait for the HMS Next-to-Sail, you are welcome to, but I can assure you my ships will see your correspondence delivered sooner by a margin of days if not weeks.”
“Your ships?” Plural. Hannah made a surreptitious inspection of the library, seeing with new eyes hundreds of books, a dozen fragrant beeswax candles in addition to gas lamps, and thick, spotless Turkey carpets.
“When one is in trade with the New World, one should be in control of the means of distribution as well as the products, though you aren’t to mention to a soul that you know I’ve mercantile interests. Shall we find that posting inn?” He rose, something that apparently did not require her permission, and came around the desk to take her hand.
“I can stand without assistance,” she said, getting to her feet. “But thank you, some fresh air would be appreciated.”
“We should tell your aunt we’re leaving the premises.”
This was perhaps another rule, or his idea of what manners required. “She’s resting.” Aunt was sleeping off her latest headache remedy.
His earlship peered down at her—he was even taller up close—but Hannah did not return his gaze lest she see contempt—or worse, pity—in his eyes.
“We’ll leave a note, then. Fetch your cape and bonnet while I write the note.”
How easily he gave orders. Too easily, but Hannah wanted to be out of this quiet, cozy house of stout gray granite, and into the sunshine and fresh air. She met him in the vestibule, her half boots snugly laced, her gloves clutched in her hand.
“Perhaps you’ll want to wear your bonnet,” he said as a footman swung a greatcoat over his shoulders. Hannah counted multiple capes, which made wide shoulders even more impressive. Though how such a robust fellow tolerated being fussed was what Gran would call a fair puzzlement.
The bonnet had spontaneously migrated from whatever dark closet it deserved to rot in to the sideboard in the house’s entryway. “Why would I want to be seen in such an ugly thing?”
“I don’t know. Why would you?”
Propriety alone required a bonnet for most occasions, but she wouldn’t concede that, not when the only bonnet she’d packed was a milliner’s abomination. And yet, when they gained the street, she wished she had worn her ugly bonnet.
They’d had a dusting of snow the night before, though the sun had come out and the eaves were dripping. Just as in Boston, the new snow and the sunshine created a winter brightness more piercing than the summer sun.
“A gentleman would not comment on this,” her escort said as he tucked her hand over his arm, “but I notice you limp.”
That arm was not a mere courtesy, as it might have been from Hannah’s beaus in Boston, but rather, a masculine bulwark against losses of balance of the physical kind.
“A blind man could tell I limped from the cadence of my steps. You needn’t apologize.” The only people in Boston solicitous of Hannah’s limp were fellows equally solicitous of her unmarried state and private fortune, but the earl could not know that.
Silence stretched, while they meandered along walks shoveled clean of snow. Hannah knew she limped, but she forgot she knew most of the time. She forgot the ache in her hip that went with it, and forgot all the times her stepfather had told her to stand up straight lest her shoulders become as crooked as her leg.
“Does it pain you?” This handsome, wealthy man was to be Hannah’s escort for the next several months, for reasons she could not fathom. His tone was pleasant, his arm a sturdy support, and his question unexpectedly genuine.
Her reply was unexpectedly honest as a result. “It rarely hurts. Not unless I overdo.”
“We will have to see you do not overdo, then. Shall we sit? The sun is lovely, and the less time I spend cooped up behind stone walls, the happier I am.”
With that startling little revelation, he directed her to a bench in a widening in the walkway. Somebody had dusted the thing free of snow early enough that it was dry, or perhaps the February sun was that strong here in Edinburgh.
He seated her, then took a seat beside her—without permission. “Why are you in Great Britain, Miss Hannah Cooper?”
She’d wanted to resent Balfour, whose job it was to deliver her to London, like a federal marshal might deliver a felon for trial. And yet, she shared with the earl an appreciation for the out-of-doors, for plain speaking, and for a sunny bench. Hannah shouldn’t derive a sense of kinship with Balfour on such meager footing, and yet, she did.
“I am to find a husband,” she said, reciting the litany that had been shouted at her. “I am an American heiress and only a little long in the tooth, and it shouldn’t be too hard to find a willing baronet’s son or an aging knight.”
“What do you see?”
“You are a mendacious American heiress.” The amusement was back, and maybe a hint of approval.
“And you are an overly observant English gentleman.”
Another silence, while Hannah studied her bare hands and tried not to smile. Her escort wore soft kidskin gloves likely made to fit his big hands. Those gloves would feel heavenly next to the skin. Supple, warm, soft… she’d bet his were even lined with silk.
“I am not your enemy, Boston, and I am not English.” His tone was gentle, but not apologetic.
“You are the instrument of my enemy, though. You are to squire me about the ballrooms and so forth, and quietly let it be known I come with a fat dowry.”
He eyed her sidewise while Hannah pretended not to notice that the brilliant winter sun turned his dark hair nearly auburn.
“You honestly don’t want to find yourself some minor title and swan about on his arm for the next several decades? Have a few babies to show off to your friends and relations while casually flashing a vulgar diamond or two at them as well?”
“I have never swanned in my life and, I hope to die without the experience befalling me.”
Swan, indeed. But the babies… Oh, damn him for mentioning the babies.
“What do you think you see?”
“I see why the ugly bonnet,” he said, rising. “Come, the posting inn is several blocks off, and I promised to show you how we go about our mails here. We should stop at a grog shop too, so you can see how we do our toddies and rum buns.”
That was all he said, no lecture, no lambasting her for her unnatural inclinations, her ingratitude. The lack of resistance made Hannah uncertain, like the bright sunshine, and she leaned him on a little with the disorientation of his response. Perhaps he simply didn’t care what she was about—he’d get to fritter away his spring in any case, and she really didn’t intend to be a bother to him.
Not much of one, anyway.
As they walked the streets of the neighborhood, Hannah found differences between Edinburgh and Boston in the details, like tea with scones instead of bread and butter, and gas lamps taller than those at home. And were she home, she’d be accompanied by a maid and not this great, strapping man in his beautiful, warm clothing.
He walked slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, as if he hadn’t seen these streets over and over in all seasons.
“You are being patient with me,” Hannah said.
“I am avoiding the mountain of paperwork waiting for me back in the library. It’s a pleasure to share a pint of grog with somebody who hasn’t had the experience—also a bit naughty. Ladies do not usually partake of strong spirits, but cold weather provides the exception to the rule, and we’re not as mindful of strictest propriety here in the North. And truly, our rum buns are not to be missed.”
“A bit naughty” sounded fun when rendered in those soft, dark tones, as if the earl were as much in need of a treat as Hannah might be.
Or in need of a friend with whom to enjoy a bite of forbidden bun?
To Hannah’s eye, the posting inn was similar to the posting inns in Boston, except it was three stories of stone, not two, the common was larger, and the stables huge, complete with fenced paddocks and enormous, steaming muck pits in the yard beside the establishment itself.
Once Hannah’s note to Gran had been posted, the earl escorted Hannah to a low-ceilinged, half-timbered establishment midway between the house and the posting inn. The place boasted a few customers; one held up his pipe and nodded to her escort.
“Morning to ye.”
“Will.” The earl nodded but kept Hannah moving toward the rear of the common where high-backed settles faced small tables. Every wood surface in the place was dark with age, from the floors to the timbers to the tables and settles. The room was long and narrow, so the windows at the front afforded scant light, and the few lit sconces added little to it.
“It’s like a cave,” she said, peering around. Though Edinburgh’s New Town boasted hundreds of gas lamps, gas lighting either hadn’t found this enclave or was disdained in favor of ambience.
“So a patron might forget the passage of time,” the earl replied. He lifted Hannah’s cape from her shoulders and hung it on a hook, then hung his own coat on top of hers.
The scent of the place was intriguing—yeasty, like an alehouse might be back home, and with the same cooking odors emanating from the kitchens, but the smell had something woolly about it, too.
“Do you come here often?”
“I do. The town house is too quiet, and they let me sit here as long as I need to. I bring my paperwork, they keep the toddies or teapots coming, and a few rum buns later, I’ve made some progress.”
To Hannah’s surprise, he seated himself directly beside her, but then, there were no chairs facing the settles, so where else would he have sat?
“If you’re not here to find a husband, why am I to haul you to Town for the Season, Miss Cooper?”
“You aren’t going to give this up, are you?”
“I can think of a dozen places I would rather be than London in springtime, mincing around the ballrooms and formal parlors.”
Hannah was heartened at the misery in his tone. “I can think of two-dozen places I’d rather be, and not a one of them would be on your list, I assure you.” For his list would be in Britain, while hers would be an ocean away.
“Where would you be, Hannah Cooper, if you had your choice?”
“Home, with my grandmother.” A pang of something rose up in her middle, not homesickness for the house she lived in, but a wretched, desolate longing for her grandmother’s love.
“It passes.” He patted her hand, his fingers stroking over her knuckles. His hand was warm, and she wished he’d do it again.
That little unexpected caress and thoughts of her grandmother had Hannah speaking aloud sentiments that could not interest the earl. “Gran is very old, and she hasn’t had an easy life. I do not appreciate being made to perform in this husband-hunting farce. She isn’t going to live forever.”
“Is she in good health?”
“She’ll probably live another few months then. Ah, our libation arrives.”
A serving maid unloaded two mugs and a plate of buns from a tray. The scents were heavenly. Rum, butter, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg…
“A toast.” The earl tapped his mug against hers. “To safe journeys and worthy destinations.” His comment about her grandmother had sounded offhand, a little callous, but his toast took the sting from it.
“Safe journeys,” Hannah echoed. “Worthy destinations.”
“Go slowly,” he cautioned, taking a sip of his drink.
Rum was a sailor’s drink, but Hannah was lulled into a false sense of pleasurable anticipation by the lovely bouquet of spicy, buttery scents filling her nose an instant before the spirits hit her tongue.
Those spirits bloomed, they blessed and they burned all the way down.
She took a slightly larger sip and set the mug on the table.
“You don’t approve of a lady taking spirits?” her companion asked.
Was he teasing her? “I shouldn’t, but I approve of the medicinal tot to ward off the chill at least. New England winters are serious weather, and this is a lovely concoction.”
“I’ll make sure you have the recipe to take home with you. Try a bun.”
He talked of his first experience of rum, on his initial crossing. The sailors had gotten him drunk with it and dared him to climb to the crow’s nest. He’d made it, then fallen asleep, which meant he had to be roped down before the captain got wind of the day’s mischief.
“You might have died, trying to get down.”
“I might, but I didn’t, and it makes an adequate tale to share over a toddy, but Miss Hannah?”
“Earl?” She was not going to my-lord him, and a troop of redcoats would likely appear posthaste if she referred to him as Mr. Earl.
“My job this spring is to see to it you snare a husband, will you, nil you.” He took another sip of his drink then set the mug down beside hers.
“And if I don’t want a husband?”
“My uncle Fenimore has set me this task as a sort of penance for spending nearly seven years away from my post in Scotland, or perhaps because he owes your stepfather and hates any sort of indebtedness. And yet, I owe my uncle only so much duty. I’d need a damned good reason to go to all the bother of trotting around the social Season merely for the sake of wasting your papa’s money—pardon my language.”
“My money,” she corrected him, and his language was nothing compared to what Step-papa could unloose. “I’m an heiress, recall. My real father left me quite well off, and if I can manage to stay unwed another two years, the funds all become mine.”
She should not have told a stranger such a thing, but this stranger had understood why she needed to see her letter to Gran mailed herself, and this stranger was likely the only earl in captivity who loathed fashionable ballrooms as much as Hannah did.
“You can’t trust yourself to find a man who’ll take good care of both you and your money?”
His question was reasonable, and yet, Hannah hadn’t heard it before.
“I notice you haven’t any Mrs. Earl.”
“Point for the lady,” he said, lips quirking up. “I’m to hunt one up this spring, but alas, I’ve no more heart for the quest than you do.”
“So what’s your damned good reason for braving the ballrooms?” She took another sip of the lovely concoction, though the company was a bit lovely too. “Why squire me about and appear to look over the possibilities when you’re not going to make any offers?”
“Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong. Perhaps some enterprising little filly will snare me and lead me off to be put in double harness.”
“As if you’re a coach horse? Strong, sound of wind and limb, but not elegant enough for a hack or nimble enough for work over fences?”
He ran his finger in a slow circle around the rim of his mug. “An excellent question. Rum tends to bring out the imponderables. No doubt the Greeks invented it, and by rights the drink ought to be dubbed the Progenitor of Philosophy.” He fell silent for a moment, as if considering this profundity. “We seem to be contemplating similar exercises in futility for the coming Season.”
“Your secret is safe with me, sir.”
She reached for another bun just as he did, and their hands bumped.
“After you, miss.”
She took up a bun, broke it in half, and passed him the larger portion. “You’re supposed to say my secret is safe with you.”
“Bun-swearing,” he said, regarding his pastry. “A kind of alimentary fealty my mother’s family would have understood all too well, except you aren’t making any secret of your shameless intentions. You’re going to waste a great deal of good coin on dresses and dancing slippers, spend many nights out until dawn, leading the unsuspecting swains around by their noses, then laugh them to scorn and catch the next ship for Boston. Not very sporting of you.”
And yet, he sounded more impressed than envious.
“Not very sporting of my stepfather to send me away from everything and everyone I love to cross the Atlantic in winter, now was it?”
Hannah wished dear Step-papa might see the scowl her words provoked from the earl. “Not sporting at all, but you’re here. Why not make the best of it?”
“What best is there to make of it?” she said, dipping her bun in her drink. “I cannot marry here, else I’ll have to spend the rest of my days an ocean away from everybody and everything I hold dear.”
“England isn’t such a bad place.” He studied his drink, as if he were repeating a litany that had never been convincing. “England is pretty, in truth, and there’s a lot of variety on one island. I thought I’d go mad missing Canada, but I knew by my first winter in Great Britain there were compensations for leaving Canada. By the second winter, I was mostly complaining about going home to reassure myself I had a home.”
Canada? What was a Scottish peer doing wandering around Canada, and what had compelled him to return home?
“You’re saying I could learn to like it here.” She could certainly learn to like rum buns dipped in grog, and Scottish earls who commiserated with American heiresses. “Eventually, perhaps I could, but I cannot leave my grandmother to fight all the battles with Step-papa. If he had his way, he’d leave her in the servants’ parlor, swilling tea and knitting.”
“You’re protective of this grandmother, which speaks well of you.” He broke another bun in half, this time giving her the larger share. “Is she growing vague?”
“Hardly.” Hannah nibbled the bun, finding the earl’s approval as sweet as the icing. To air her situation like this was a relief of some sort—one she hoped she would not regret. “Gran is old, and she has no one else. She was my father’s mother, and she’s all I have left of him.”
“That doesn’t rule out finding a husband who would settle with you in Boston.” Balfour spoke gently, as if Hannah might not have reasoned her way to this solution on her own.
“Oh, of course. Some knight twice my age is going to give up all his comforts and honors to brave New England winters and never see his cronies again?”
“It is possible. Many people have found worthy spouses in unlikely locations.” His pronouncement had the ring of a tired admonition, not a declaration of unflagging optimism.
“Eat your bun,” Hannah said, passing him his uneaten sweet. “Anything is possible, sir. You could find the bride of your dreams in an unlikely location as well.”
He said nothing, but gobbled up the rest of his rum bun in about two bites, then rose and held out his hand.
Hannah regarded the large palm, the elegant fingers, the perfectly rounded clean fingernails, the slight callus on the fourth finger from years of holding snaffle reins. Perhaps not strictly gentlemanly hands, but they suited Balfour.
She gave him her hand, and he drew her to her feet.
Still holding her hand, he looked down at her, his expression serious. This close, Hannah caught his contribution to the ambient scents, a clean, spicy male fragrance that put her in mind of spices and sea breezes.
“I will make a promise with you, Hannah Lynn Cooper. I will make a good-faith effort to find a bride, if you will make a good-faith effort to find a husband.”
She considered his hand, wrapped around hers. His skin was darker than hers, as if he had Mediterranean blood.
“I can make that promise.” If good faith was merely the absence of bad faith. “I am not optimistic that I will be successful finding a spouse.”
He brought her fingers to his lips, and brushed her a kiss that was mostly air plus a touch of warmth and gallantry. When he had given her back her hand, he plucked his coat from the hook, then shuffled the wraps so he could settle her cape around her shoulders first. He shrugged into his coat but didn’t button it.
“The rum has warmed me up,” he said, winging an arm. “If I am not mistaken, we’re due for a thaw, and we’ll have nothing but sunshine and mud for the rest of this week, followed of course, by the inevitable blizzard.”
He sounded like a Yankee farmer, daring the weather to try to trick him with its inconveniences.
Hannah needed his arm, between the wet cobblestones, her limp, and the rum. He was utterly solid, his pace was sedate, and given the way his coat had hung over hers, his scent was wafting into her nose. Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, a little ginger, and a dash of sea travel.
His scent reminded her of the rum buns, but in the privacy of her thoughts, Hannah admitted the earl’s fragrance was the more attractive.
Asher had caught the lady, though only barely. That was the good news, but the bad news…
Damn and blast if the old man hadn’t given Asher an impossible task. Bad enough Asher was to go bride hunting, bad enough he had to drag this red-haired American rebel-spinster-heiress around with him, bad enough she was going to limp onto the dance floor if she could even dance, worse yet he liked the infernal woman, but now he’d nearly dropped her on a patch of ice, and her locomotion was further jeopardized.
“She was bobbing along beside me, enjoying the air, and then she hit a patch of wet ice, and down she went,” Asher told the aunt. Miss Hannah had nearly taken him with her, too, so frantically had she struggled to maintain her balance.
The aunt shrugged as she took a sip of her wine. “She falls occasionally. When she was younger, my brother ordered that all of Hannah’s clothes be in plain dark colors so the mud wouldn’t show. Fortunately, she has gained some poise.”
“She doesn’t wear dark colors exclusively now, I hope? Here the darker colors are mostly for married women, widows, older companions, and so forth.” And the darkest colors were for mourning, to which Miss Hannah might well consider herself entitled.
“You will have to take this up with her.” Miss Cooper gestured with her glass of claret, spilling a drop on the pristine tablecloth. “Do you know what a pleasure it is to have Continental wines of an evening? Back home, they are a rare and expensive treat.”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” If chronic mild inebriation could be called enjoying oneself. “Assuming your niece recovers adequately, by the end of next week I’d like to depart for London, where the selection of all manner of delicacies will be superior.”
“We are in your hands, my lord. My brother told me to show you every respect, so I must trust your judgment in all matters.”
She batted her lashes, and Asher felt a lick of dyspepsia to think the woman might be flirting with him.
“Madam, if you will excuse me, rather than chase you to the parlor for your tea, I’ll leave you the table so you might linger over your wine and cheese.”
He bowed and left the dining parlor at a swift walk, knowing he was being rude. Let her have her Continental wines, and he’d have his guilty conscience. It was a companion of long standing, not quite an old friend, but the next best thing—a familiar enemy.
Asher found Miss Hannah in her sitting room, her foot propped under a blanket while she reclined on a chaise near the fire. He knocked on the slightly open door, then let himself in.
“Good evening, Miss Cooper. How can you read with the lamps turned so low?” And why would she be reading, when any number of upper servants might have been recruited to read to her?
“When I started to read it was quite light,” she said, putting down a bound version of David Copperfield.
“You have bellpulls in America.” He fingered the strip of tasseled brocade dangling above her. “Why not have a maid turn up the lamps, refresh your tea, and generally cosset you?”
“Cosset?” She gave him a thin-lipped look, as if this was one of those words that meant something altogether less savory on this side of the Atlantic. Woe unto the London swains who merited that look from her.
“So you neither swan nor permit cosseting,” he concluded, moving around the room to turn up the lamps. “Are you comfortable enough? The physician said you could have some laudanum.”
Her expression grew, if anything, more severe.
“This is growing to be a long list, Hannah Cooper.” He sat on the raised hearth at her side. “No cosseting, no swanning, no laudanum. One wonders what you do for recreation.” Though given her aunt’s proclivities, he could understand that last prohibition.
“I love to read.” She traced a finger over the gilt lettering of the book’s title, gently, as if poor Trot’s peregrinations through life’s vicissitudes comforted her.
“You’re going to love to shop, too,” Asher said. “Your aunt abdicated decision-making authority in this sphere to me at dinner, so be warned.”
She closed the book with a snap, a peacock feather marking her place. “I most assuredly do not love to shop, not for clothing, if that’s what you’re implying.”
He rose and shifted the fireplace screen, then pokered some air into the coals and layered wood and coal on the blaze.
“We don’t burn as much coal much in Boston,” his guest observed. “It has a distinctive aroma.”
Coal smoke purely stank, and in Asher’s experience, aggravated the lungs. The longhouse had been full of smoke too, though, and that had resulted in all manner of consumptive ailments.
“I prefer wood smoke myself.” And starry nights, too. Since returning to Scotland this time, he’d even lain awake, missing the howling of the wolves.
Asher repositioned the screen and resumed his perch on the hearth. “England has more coal than trees, or it soon will, so needs must. Let’s make a list of things you’re going to fight me on, shall we?”
“A list?” She caressed the o in Copperfield, drawing attention to pale hands, the backs of which sported a deal of fetching, unfashionable freckles.
“Clothing being foremost. Shoes, gloves, hats, being assumed additions. Did anyone bring you a tray?”
“I had some cheese toast—a wonderful cheddar with caraway in the bread.”
She had hearty appetites, apparently, and her tastes were not too refined—this was more evidence of impending social disaster, but Asher liked her for it.
“I prefer rye bread to the standard brown bread, myself. But back to our list. Under present circumstances, I blush to inquire, but do you dance?”
A look crossed her features, so fleeting he would have missed it, except he was studying the exact arch and swoop of her dark eyebrows.
“I do not.”
But she wanted to. That’s what that look was about, longing. Miss Hannah Lynn Cooper wasn’t entirely resigned to her unswanning, I-love-to-read spinsterhood. She longed to dance.
“Let’s have a look at your foot.” Asher shifted to sit near her legs on the chaise. He was presuming, flirting with naughtiness, even, but he needed to offer her a good distraction for the ensuing topic.
“That is not necessary.” She drew back against the chaise as if a malodorous cat had appropriated a place at her feet. “The physician said it should heal nicely in a few days.”
“He said we’re to keep you off your feet for a few days, at least.” Asher drew back the blanket, revealing a slender, elegant foot. “He said it’s fortunate I carried you back to the house, or your injury might have been even worse for trying to put weight on it all that distance.”
As if Asher would ever again allow any woman to risk harm to her person when he was in a position to prevent it.
And how Hannah Cooper had suffered to be in his arms, remaining stiff and silent until pain alone had inspired her to hold onto him. Asher still hadn’t sorted out his feelings regarding those few blocks, the last woman he’d carried in the same manner being Monique. By the time he’d reached the house, Miss Cooper’s arms had been around his neck, and her face turned to his shoulder.
While his remorse had weighed more than she had.
“This is a minor bruise,” he said, drawing his finger over the faint purpling around the base of her tibia. “You do not strike me as a lady to dramatize her injuries.”
She wouldn’t admit her injuries, if she could help it.
“Do the gentlemen here often use a lady’s indispositions to fondle her person?” Her tone was wonderfully dry, her accent amplifying the effect. He sensed she was not offended by his presumption, so much as she was uncertain.
“When the gentleman is thoroughly schooled as a physician, he might use his knowledge the better to care for his injured guest.” God help the woman if her definition of fondling was so pedestrian. “You kept the ice on it?”
“No, I danced a few jigs,” she said, running a finger over the edge of the peacock feather protruding from the book. “I should not have imbibed the rum, so if you’re blaming yourself, you can stop. You never said you were a doctor.”
His admission had been more careful than that—and he wasn’t a doctor, not any longer. “What had a tot of rum to do with this?” He traced the bruise, a distortion of an otherwise perfect, graceful foot.
“My gait is unsteady enough, and I knew well the condition of the walks. Rum wasn’t going to help me stay on my feet.”
Her second toe was longer than her first, as Monique’s had been, but Miss Cooper had higher arches. Asher stuffed that thought away, unfairly annoyed with his guest for inspiring it. “So you blame yourself for a little slip, deny yourself adequate lights to read by, and forgo a decent dinner? Will that be punishment enough?”
He closed his hand around her foot, for it was cold and wanted comforting—her foot, that is.
“You are blaming yourself, aren’t you, Balfour? This is a duty visit, or do I mistake the matter?”
He slipped a second hand under her ankle and held her foot with both hands. The bones were all where they should be, the tendons in their assigned locations. Nothing about her foot was distorted or misshapen, save for the unfortunate bruise.
All in all, an elegant, functional foot.
“I was your escort, my job by definition to shield you from harm, and I suspect the problem is not with your foot at all, but with your os coxae or lumbar vertebrae—your hips or lower spine.”
She frowned at her foot as it lay in his grasp, but did not draw it back. “Possibly both, but consider this: had I landed on my backside or my hip, the damage would likely have been much worse. In answer to your earlier question, I do not dance. I do not dare.”
Miss Cooper hated making that admission. Asher kept hold of her chilly foot. “For fear you’ll fall?”
“Yes, and lest you think the humiliation alone deters me, there is also the risk of further injury. I fell while skating as a child, and the bones didn’t knit correctly, hence the limp. The physicians assure me I am as sturdy as the next young lady, but I dread having two misshapen limbs.”
She hadn’t any misshapen limbs that he could see. He shifted his grip on her foot. “You are too cold.”
He hadn’t meant the comment to refer to anything other than her foot, but she drew in a swift breath, as if he might have intentionally offended with the deeper meaning. Whatever else was true, Boston society had not been entirely kind to Miss Cooper—or to Asher, at first.
“You’ve built up the fire,” she said. “Thank you.”
He set her foot back down on its pillow, her gratitude as chilly as her injured foot. He reached past her, which had the bothersome result of her flinching away from him, and took a folded afghan from behind her head.
He stood to drape the blanket over one side of the hearth screen. “Shall I send your aunt to you?”
“Why would you do that?”
She was rattled. Direct she might be, but Hannah Cooper wouldn’t offer such a graceless retort unless she were unnerved. “To play cards with you? To talk? To read to you?”
“Recall, please, that I just spent weeks in close quarters with my aunt.”
Tonight, she had an answer for everything, did Boston. A prickly, off-putting, almost rude answer. Had Asher never felt out of place himself, never struggled with homesickness or a weariness of spirit as wide as an entire ocean, never longed for one place on earth where he could feel safe and included, he might have obliged the woman with the solitude she thought she wanted.
But the terrain Miss Hannah Cooper traversed was all too familiar to him, so Asher took the warmed afghan from the hearth screen, tucked it gently around the lady’s foot, then picked up her book from its place at her side, passed her the peacock feather, and began to read from the top of the page.
Everything about the blasted man was beautiful.
Blasted. Less than a week in Scotland, and Hannah was appropriating the local vocabulary, and with just provocation.
Balfour’s features were beautiful, far more dramatically so than the typical blond, bland exponent of English aristocracy. His brows were definite, dark, and a trifle swooped at the edges, but they also had a mink-soft look to them, as if a lady might enjoy tracing her finger along their arch. Repeatedly. Both at the same time, and the pads of her thumbs, too.
Hannah was fascinated with his nose, as well, by the nobility of it, the way it finished off a face that belonged on some Highland leader of old.
His hands had been gentle and warm on her foot. His touch had held no presumption, only comfort and strength. And what strength he had, lifting her against his chest as if she weighed nothing. He’d gotten them back to the house at a far more brisk pace than he’d set with Hannah gawking and tottering at his side. She’d been reluctant to lift her nose from his collar, so lovely was the spicy scent of him up close.
His voice was every bit as enticing and dark as the rest of him, and Hannah was tempted to close her eyes and let that voice seduce her to sleep. It could, his words were that powerful, that beautiful in the ear.
The only saving mercy from Hannah’s perspective was that if she worked at it diligently, she might resent the man in possession of all these lovely attributes. He gave orders, and worse, he apparently took orders that included herding her through the ordeal of a social Season. She gained some consolation from the idea that he was herding himself right along with her, though of course he would be snatched up in the first week.
And Aunt wasn’t going to interfere, which was a relief. Worse than Hannah’s limp would be the immediate perception that her only relation was dependent on tinctures and medicinal tots from day to day.
“You’re falling asleep.”
Hannah opened her eyes slowly. “I’m enjoying the story, thank you. If you’d like to leave, I’m sure a maid will be along shortly.”
“Of course.” He put the book aside and tugged on the bell pull. “Now a maid will be along shortly. Let’s get you to bed, shall we?”
Before Hannah could protest, he’d scooped her up against his chest. Without winter clothes between them, the embrace was more intimate than it had been earlier in the day.
“Arms around my neck, Boston. We can’t court further mishap with you already injured.”
She complied, feeling the heat of him and that wonderfully spicy scent wrapping around her.
“I can’t believe you agreed to my request without making some tart protest,” he said as he crossed the room with her. “I’m heartened is what I am. Cheered even.”
“Cheeky is what you are, isn’t that the English word?” she said as they moved into the bedroom.
“For God’s sake, why wasn’t the fire lit?”
He lowered her to the bed and saw to the oversight, pumping the daylights out of a set of bellows to get a roaring blaze going.
“Here.” He lifted her up and sat her in a rocking chair near the fire.
“I am not a piece of masonry, to be hoisted about without my permission.”
“I’m running the warmer over your sheets, Boston. Perhaps you’d rather get into a cold bed in a cold room and try to manage on your own?”
Must he sound so amused? Must he be so thoughtful? “The maid can see to my sheets.”
“Now that somebody has considerately rung for a maid.”
He disappeared into the other room and came back with the afghan. The afghan he’d warmed and wrapped around her foot with such care and comfort Hannah had been hard put not to melt. It almost, not quite but almost, had served as consolation for the loss of his warm hands wrapped around that same foot.
“Up you go.” He lifted her again, and she participated to the extent her arms were around his neck. He set her down on the bed and delivered another magnificent scowl.
“You do that so well, sir.”
“Hoist you about?”
That too. “Frown, express displeasure, disapproval.” She shifted on the mattress, because it was cold. Blasted cold.
“I don’t want to leave you until the maid comes along,” he said, hands on hips. “And I don’t think for a minute a nibble of cheese toast was an adequate meal.”
“So I should have supper in bed?”
She was hungry, but God was in charity with her, for her stomach didn’t rumble very loudly.
“You should be spanked soundly,” he said on a sigh.
Step-papa would certainly have agreed.
The maid appeared in the doorway, a hefty young woman with a clean, full-length apron to her credit and her cap neatly tied.
“You’ll get Miss Hannah tucked in, please,” the earl said. “And mind her foot is injured, and her sheets cold. In future, her bedroom fire is to be lit when we get up from table, the same as every other bedroom.”
The maid bobbed a curtsy. “Of course, milord.”
He left on that grouchy little scold, and Hannah felt abruptly both the fatigue of a long day and a mild throbbing in her right os whatever.
He’d been right about that too: she’d barely twisted her ankle, but the wrench to her hip and back had been as significant as the injury to her dignity.
“I can stand beside the bed while you use the warmer,” Hannah said. “The room really is a little chilly.”
“It is,” the maid said, “and I do apologize, mum, but your aunt is still in the dining room, enjoying an aperitif, and we typically don’t see to the bedrooms until the ladies have arisen from the table. Saves on coin that way. Shall I braid your hair?”
As the room gradually became more comfortable, they managed Hannah’s hair. The maid was running the warmer over the sheets again when another maid appeared, tray in hand.
“His lordship says you missed supper,” the second maid explained. “He said you wasn’t to get cranky and peckish.”
Hot chocolate sprinkled with cinnamon sat near a pair of rum buns.
If reading Dickens to her hadn’t won a bit of her heart, the offerings on the tray surely did.
Hannah propped up her pillows and lay back on her warmed sheets. She took a nibble of delicious rum bun, wrapped her hands around the mug of hot chocolate, and wondered if all the titled, handsome gentlemen she’d meet here would be possessed of such good manners.
And such warm hands.
“A bloody damned bit of snow isn’t going to keep me from leaving the house.”
Asher directed his foul language at no one in particular, for at this time of the morning the study was empty of living creatures save himself and a large black-and-orange housecat curled up on a hassock near the fire.
The specter of Uncle Fen’s disapproving presence hung close by though, as close as Asher’s elbow, where the baron’s latest epistle sat on the massive desk, its meek appearance belying its vituperative content.
“You will make all haste for London, the ladies being your responsibility to see suitably housed, attired, and introduced.”
The last word was the stinging tail of the lash: introduced… As if Asher himself had more than nominal and begrudging entrée among the baron’s titled peers and cronies. Asher and the Cooper women would be the socially blind leading the blind.
Or the lame. After two days in bed, Miss Hannah Cooper was much recovered from her injury, recovered enough he need not haul her about in his arms.
Asher was not recovered. Not from the sight of her helpless and in pain, not from the sense of having failed in so simple a task as escorting a lady, and not—God help him—from the realization that holding a woman’s foot could be intensely erotic when it wasn’t supposed to be.
He knew about women’s feet—phalanges and metatarsals, peroneous tertius, brevis, and longus—but he also knew about women purely in the sense a man appreciates the Creator’s more refined effort. Knew about their ears and napes and fingers and bellies, and all the luscious parts of them that could be turned to the service of their arousal and Asher’s pleasure. Yes, feet could be erotic, but they were supposed to mind their mundane business until Asher recruited them for the business of seduction.
Not even seduction, for he’d never had to seduce a woman, not since he’d turned fifteen and the ladies had started seducing him.
But here he was, haunted by the feel of a lady’s foot, soft and cool against the callused palms of his hand. He’d long since accepted that grief did not permanently inoculate a man against arousal, but this, this fascination for a woman who wanted no part of England, Scotland, and the fellows to be found there—
The cat opened unblinking green eyes.
“I’m to haul them to London, weather be damned, and believe me, cat, the weather will be evil. Every God’s blessed aspect of this misadventure will bend to the baron’s need to see his heir suffering and miserable.”
The cat squeezed her eyes closed in a display of feline indifference.
“Maybe I should make you come with us.”
More indifference, reminding Asher of the elders among whom he’d been raised. They weren’t indifferent, though, so much as stoic. Anybody who could withstand sixty Canadian winters with nothing but a longhouse and a meager fire between them and the elements had stoicism running in their veins.
And those were his people too.
Asher leafed through the rest of the mail delivered that morning. One thin missive had crossed the Atlantic mere days after its intended recipient: Hannah Cooper had a letter from home, something bound to raise her spirits. Asher hooked his spectacles back around his ears and peered at the letter.
Many people still didn’t bother with the expense of an envelope, but Hannah came from money, from people with pretensions to class in so far as the United States boasted of same. Still, the man penning this letter hadn’t bothered to limit his sentiments to the inside of the folded paper, but rather, had scratched his message so the last of it could be read on the outside.
“You have disgraced your family, and the only solution remaining is to situate you where you might never again bring shame down upon my house, where you are firmly established as some other man’s problem. This is your last chance, Stepdaughter. I suggest you make the most of it.”
What had Hannah Cooper done to invite such an admonition? Smiled at some beamish farm boy? Leaned a little too closely on a widower’s arm? Cheered too loudly at a race meet? He could not see the woman now contentedly reading one floor above him disgracing herself in any meaningful sense.
Even if she did have the most erotically appealing feet it had ever been Asher’s torment to hold.
He stuffed that thought back into the dark closet from whence it had escaped, and took the little epistle to Miss Cooper’s sitting room.
She looked up at him, setting Copperfield face down in her lap. “To what do I owe the pleasure, sir?”
She had her feet up on a hassock, and an afghan swaddling both legs. Asher had the sense she’d taken to the comfort like the feline in his study, instinctively seeking warmth and ease to save against the times when there would be none.
“I bring you an epistle from home,” he said, making no move to pass her the letter. “Have you enough light to read it?”
“If it’s from Grandmother, she doesn’t write cursive, so yes, I have adequate light.”
He settled on the hearth, blocking some of that light.
“I gather it isn’t from your grandmother.” He passed her the letter and watched the eager light in her eyes wink out like a snuffed candle.
“Step-papa then.” She took the letter and slit it open, glancing at the contents. “A little sermon, lest I forget his many attempts to guide me into the arms of the suitors of his choice.”
“You’re finicky. Somehow, one might guess this about you.” And she was bitterly disappointed not to hear from this old granny of hers.
“I’m female. We’re given to odd notions.” She set the letter aside unread—Asher suspected the missive would shortly end up in the fire—and made as if to resume disporting with Master Copperfield.
“Odd notions such as?”
She returned the book to her lap and gazed past him, into the fire. “I would like to be held in affection by my spouse, not merely tolerated for my fortune, for one thing.”
“Affection doesn’t strike me as too odd a notion.” Though affection for her? A fellow would have to scale the battlements of her disappointment and self-sufficiency, bare his soul, and place his heart entirely in her hands.
But what a lucky fellow he’d be, if she surrendered her heart in return.
“I would like my spouse to take me to wife whether I’ve a great fortune or only a modest dowry.”
“Many men marry women with modest dowries.” Many men with modest expectations, or personal fortunes of their own. Perhaps those were in short supply in Boston.
“Men generally only marry women of modest means when the fellow’s heart is engaged.”
“Affection and means of his own, then,” Asher said, and he wanted to add some deprecating little aside, except Boston wasn’t being unreasonable at all. Affection in a marriage would be… wonderful.
It had been wonderful.
“Does that smile suggest you are laughing at me, sir?”
“Was I smiling? I thought I was agreeing with you. Is your stepfather so easily disappointed that your modest requirements foiled his ambitions for you?”
“He presented me several choices, all of them beholden to him or deeply indebted to him or even in his employ. I considered each man and declined them one by one. He presented more, and more, until I realized he wasn’t going to stop.”
“What did you do?” Because clearly, she’d taken control of the situation somehow.
She used her peacock-feather bookmark to stroke her chin, the gesture distracting as hell. “I rejected those too.”
“You’ll have a whole crop of dandies to choose from when we reach London,” he said. Miss Hannah Cooper wasn’t being honest with him, not about her romantic past, in any case. “You will consider them too, I hope, and find at least one worthy of your hand.”
“What of you? Will you be considering the crop of ladies available to become Mrs. Lord Balfour?”
“Lady Balfour,” he corrected her, though he knew she was being Colonial on purpose, as he had often been Scottish on purpose, or even Mohawk. “And yes, I am specifically charged with that happy task.”
“You’re laughing at me again.” She picked up her book and ran her finger halfway down the page. “Not well done of you.”
He had to smile. Her choice of expression was British, the rebuke all the more effective for her crisp accent.
“Perhaps I’m laughing at myself. If you could spare me a few more minutes of your busy day?”
She did not put her book down but turned to gaze out the window. “It’s pouring snow out there, and you have a wonderful library. Forgive me for appreciating it—at your invitation.”
“Despite the snow, I am also charged with getting you and your aunt safely to London posthaste. My uncle the baron has suggested we depart in several days time.”
This time she batted her nose with the peacock feather, and Archer had to study the frigid weather lest he snatch the feather from her. “Aunt is not one to put up with discomforts silently.”
Unlike Miss Hannah Cooper, who had not once complained about her disability, nor had she complained about her stepfather, exactly. She’d answer Asher’s questions, albeit only up to a point.
“If we can’t take an express train, we’ll go in easy stages. The inns along the main routes boast decent accommodations, so your aunt should have no cause for complaint.”
“She will complain, though. Aunt has prodigious ability when it comes to manufacturing complaints.”
She studied her infernal feather, while Asher caught the ghost of a smile tilting her lips up.
“You want us delayed,” he said. “You’re enjoying this storm, looking forward to the lousy roads, the delayed trains, hoping they mean you miss the start of the Season.”
“They can’t possibly,” she said. “It’s barely March. The Season won’t start until the second week of April this year.”
“But you’ll need a wardrobe.” He rose from the hearth to pace. “You’ll need mounts for riding in the park and driving at the fashionable hour. You’ll need calling cards printed up, and stationery for accepting or declining invitations. You’ll need to hire lady’s maids for you and your aunt.”
And every one of those needs, Asher would have to see to.
He stopped and speared her with a look. “You plan on fighting me every step of the way, don’t you? You won’t like the clothing made to order for you. You won’t choose a maid until the very last minute. Your schedule won’t allow you to you try out the horses I select for you, and it will all be in aid of thwarting a stepfather who has tried hard to see you well situated.”
And while Asher might commend the lady’s fighting spirit—he did commend her fighting spirit—he did not at all appreciate that she’d be making a hash of his efforts to endure a Season of Polite Society at the same time.
His brothers Ian, Connor, and Gilgallon, and his sister Mary Fran had all acquired English connections, and to the extent that Asher owed his family, good impressions in London were devoutly to be wished.
Miss Cooper rose as well, shedding her blankets to face him as he glared down at her.
“Were I to engage in such antics, sir, it would be in aid of maintaining my freedom. My stepfather didn’t try hard to see me situated, he tried hard to see my fortune situated under his fat, greedy thumb. I read the proposed settlements, and my prospective husbands were not to have control of my money. He controls me now, and he wants to control my money when I marry. He went to great lengths in the attempt. I’m prepared to go to greater lengths to see him thwarted.”
She believed what she was saying; Asher concluded that much from the fire in her eyes. “Is he wasting your fortune?”
“He can’t.” She turned away and went to the window, her limp barely noticeable. “Papa, my real papa, set it up so there are trustees, but they lose authority when I marry or turn six-and-twenty. Papa intended my husband to take over management of my funds, but the marriage settlements simply turn the husband’s authority over to Step-papa. He’s greedy, not stupid.”
“Or he’s prudent.”
“If he’s so prudent, why doesn’t he find me a fellow who isn’t beholden to anyone? A man who’s made his own fortune and will understand how to make the best use of mine? A man who will put that money in trust for our children, for our daughters, especially?”
They were good questions, questions the lady’s mother should have been asking the stepfather at least. One of Asher’s first tasks upon returning to Scotland had been to read Mary Fran’s settlement with her English baron. Fortunately, Ian, who’d held the earldom at the time, was a canny negotiator, and Mary Fran and little Fiona were well set up.
“Your stepfather is an ocean away,” Asher said. “Nobody can make you marry a man against your will.”
“No, they can’t. It has already been attempted.” Her spine was ramrod straight at this disclosure.
“Did you cry off?”
She nodded once, back still turned.
Oh, Miss Cooper. “You left him literally at the altar?”
“Not alone.” She turned to face Asher, arms crossed over her chest. “When the minister asked if I took that man, I answered as loudly as I could in the negative, before the entire congregation. I said he was my stepfather’s choice, not mine, and if Step-papa was so in love with the man, then Step-papa could marry him, for I wanted no part of him. None.”
She was in utter, jaw-clenched earnest, and she’d humiliated both her stepfather and her intended as publicly as she possibly could.
“I see.” He saw she was expecting him to lecture or rebuke or perhaps—worse than either—to laugh. How he wished Mary Fran had exercised the same determination where her late first husband had been concerned. “Then you realize you can enjoy spring in Town, enjoy leading the callow swains around by their noses, enjoy all the female fripperies of fashionable Society, and leave a trail of broken hearts when you return to the wilds of Boston.”
“Boston hasn’t any wilds, though Massachusetts does.”
Half the Irish who’d survived the famine had ended up in Boston, and more than a few stray Highlanders too, making the place wild enough. Asher chose not to share that opinion.
“Boston has you,” he said, a reluctant smile blossoming. “That should suffice to introduce a complement of savagery to the place.”
“Yes.” Her chin came up, and she presented him a dazzling, toothy smile. “It most certainly should.”
Aunt Enid entertained herself with a number of games, one of which Hannah had dubbed, “if only.” The object of “if only” was to remind Hannah obliquely, and with the very best intentions, of course, of what lay in wait at home should Hannah fail to snabble an English husband. Aunt had started the present round as the coach had pulled out of the mews in Edinburgh to take them to the Waverly station. Snow made the going difficult, and as the morning became colder and more grim, the game wore on.
“If only you hadn’t made such a public scene with young Mr. Widmore. He was in expectation of a barony, you know.”
“He was a third son sent to America to escape some scandal with a female, and he was entirely Step-papa’s creature. He deserved what befell him.” Hannah turned her face to the window, where the bleak expanse of the North Sea lay visible in the distance.
“No man deserves to be treated that way by a woman he has offered for.”
“He’s not a man,” Hannah said. “He’s an errand boy seeking to be richly rewarded for doing Step-papa’s bidding. I think it’s going to snow again.”
“If only you weren’t so stubborn, Hannah. My brother tries merely to see to your welfare.”
“If it snows enough, we’ll be stranded at some inn. That would serve nicely, because I brought some of Lord Balfour’s books along. He has the nicest selection of novels.”
“Novels, bah. If only you were more given to the pursuits of a normal girl, Hannah. You’d be content to do embroidery and read improving pamphlets.”
Hannah let that pass, for she’d never been exactly sure how much of the Widmore debacle Aunt understood. They didn’t discuss it, and Aunt Enid brought it up only when she was scraping the barrel of sermon topics or wandering mentally after a surfeit of some tonic or nostrum.
“If the trains aren’t running, do you suppose his lordship will force us to travel in this wretched weather?” Enid asked.
Now that was a first, for Aunt to criticize anything remotely British, and they hadn’t even boarded their southbound train.
“I suspect, one way or another, we’ll start our journey as long as we have light,” Hannah said. In truth, the traveling coach was a great, lumbering conveyance, but it was well sprung and cozy enough. They’d brought hot bricks for the floor and hot water bottles for the ladies’ muffs, and because they would stop to change horses every twelve to fifteen miles, the interior would stay fairly comfortable.
“Dear, can you reach my traveling bag?”
“You just had a dose of your tincture, Aunt, right before we left the house.”
“But I have the most awful head, Hannah. If only you understood such pain, not that I’d wish it on my worst enemy.”
“You need to be using less, Aunt, not more. How will you keep up with the social calendar I’m expected to maintain, if you’re sleeping off your headache remedies until midday every day?”
“Hannah, one does sleep until midday when the Season is at its height. One dances until dawn, then sleeps until noon, and barely has time for a few morning calls before going out again in the evening. It’s marvelous!”
As if Hannah would be dancing.
Black-gloved knuckles rapped on the window beside Hannah’s face. She swung the glass down, a lovely blast of chilly air hitting her.
“We’ll be going overland for the first part of the journey,” his lordship informed her. He was mounted on a black horse that looked big enough to pull a plow, the beast’s trot churning snow up with every step. Despite the cold, the earl didn’t wear a hat. He had a woolen scarf about his neck, the pattern a bright red and dark green plaid with a thin white strip mixed in.
Beside Hannah, Enid squeaked, “But that’s—we cannot—my lord, you must understand that is not to be borne.”
“There’s a breakdown on the tracks south of the city. We’ll pick up the train in Bairk,” the earl said. “And we’ll have to move smartly if we’re to make that distance by nightfall.” He sent Hannah a look, one that warned her delays would not be tolerated and complaints were futile.
“But an entire day in this stuffy old—”
Hannah closed the window before Enid could finish her first volley of protest.
“I did not see a town named Bairk on the map,” Hannah said. “Perhaps it isn’t so very far.”
“Ber-wick, you foolish girl. Berwick-on-Tweed. It’s nearly sixty miles!” From Enid’s tone, this might as well have been halfway to the north pole.
“If we change teams regularly, and the roads are well traveled, we could easily be there by nightfall, as the earl suggested.” Provided Hannah did not first do away with her aunt and force the coach to stop so she might dispose of the remains.
They had changed teams twice when the great, lumbering coach went swaying off to the side of the road. Something snapped loudly underneath, and the conveyance swung wildly, bumping along the snowy ground for a good twenty yards before coming to a canted halt.
“Oh, my! My goodness! Dearest, my remedies, please. The headache and the nerve tonic both.”
“Ladies!” The earl’s voice cut through Aunt’s ranting. “Is everyone of a piece in there?”
His voice came from above, from the road, and Hannah felt an undignified spike of relief to know he was about and uninjured.
“We’re fine,” she said, unlatching the window and lowering it. “A little tossed about, but well enough. What happened?”
“Snapped a wheel,” he said. “Probably hit a rock hidden by the snow, and it will take some work to repair it. You’re likely as warm as you can be in there, so sit tight until we get the team unhitched.”
Except unhitching the team took a good deal of time and cursing and rocking the vehicle about. The wheelers grew frantic when the leaders were walked off and the weight of the coach had to be balanced by only two horses. Hannah could hear Balfour’s voice as he crooned to the horses, a soothing patter that belied the rising wind and dropping temperatures.
“This is awful,” Aunt pronounced. “Just awful, Hannah. If only we hadn’t arrived in the depths of winter.”
“We’ve arrived to take advantage of the social Season, Aunt, but had Step-papa considered our welfare, he might have bought us passage to London itself and allowed us a departure when spring was advanced.”
For once, Aunt had no reproof to make.
“Ladies?” Balfour, up on his enormous horse, spoke near the window. “We’re going to have to get you out of there now. The wheelers won’t be content to hold the thing when the leaders are gone, and it will be dark sooner than is convenient.”
“Gone?” Aunt Enid seized on the word. “Where are they going? Where are we going?”
“The coach can’t go anywhere,” Balfour said. “But we’re only about five miles from the last coaching inn. I propose to send the coachy back with the leaders for another conveyance. One of you can ride the second leader, and the groom will take the wheelers.”
“You go, Aunt.”
“We have four horses, though,” Aunt Enid said. “Five, if you count your mount, my lord. Why not put Hannah on one of the wheelers, or take her up with you?”
“The wheelers are green,” Balfour said. “In this footing, they aren’t safe for a lady to ride bareback astride, nor is it safe to ask a horse to carry a double burden.”
Aunt’s eyebrows rose. “Astride?” And then those same brows came crashing down. “That will leave you and Hannah…” Her voice trailed off, and Hannah saw the befuddled workings of her Aunt’s mind follow the situation to its conclusion. “It will be for only an hour or two, won’t it, dear? You’ll be all right?”
So much for the selfless devotion of a doting aunt. “I’ve dressed very warmly,” Hannah said. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
The coachy came up astride one of the sturdy beasts who normally pulled the carriage, the groom behind him on one curvetting wheeler while the other danced nervously on the end of its reins.
“We’ll have somebody back here for you before dark,” the coachman said. “Moonrise at the latest.”
Except a lowering layer of clouds would obscure any moonrise.
“We’ll manage,” Balfour said, glancing at the sky. “Best hurry. There’s snow waiting to come down.”
“Aye.” The coachy moved the horse along. Getting Aunt Enid situated aboard the second leader took a preventive tot of her nerve tonic and a great deal of patience on the part of both men and beasts. The coachman took the lead, letting both wheelers come behind him, with Aunt Enid bringing up the rear on the second leader.
“Isn’t it a shame the roads are so miserably inadequate to the challenge of keeping travelers from the ditch?” Enid’s voice trailed away in the bitter breeze as the horses trudged off in the direction of the last coaching inn.
“‘Isn’t It A Shame’ is her second-favorite game,” Hannah said. “Right after ‘If Only.’”
“If only I hadn’t forced you out of Edinburgh so early in the season?” Balfour asked. He sounded genuinely displeased with himself.
“She’s happy, Lord Balfour. Not a solid week on British soil and already I’m compromised.”
“Compro—” His dark eyebrows nearly met, so thunderous was his scowl. “They should be back in less than two hours. You’re not compromised.”
“If Aunt loses track of her discretion in some remedy-induced fog, I am compromised, and so are you.”
His gaze went to the horses making slow progress toward the horizon. “Then you’d best make sure she understands that I am a gentleman and you are lady. We behave as such under all circumstances.”
“If you say so.” The landscape was bleak, the prospect of relying on Aunt’s discretion bleaker. “Is it too much to hope we could build a fire while we’re behaving so prettily?”
“Not a bad idea,” Balfour conceded. “I don’t like the look of that sky.”
He did more than build a fire. He used the lap robes and horse blankets to fashion a sort of lean-to over cut saplings—aspen poles, he’d called them, with an oilskin for their ceiling anchored by a thatch of Scots pine—while he set Hannah to collecting rocks from the wagon ruts to line a fire pit. He put the fire at the edge of their lean-to, and made them a floor layered with an oilskin, followed by more wool lap robes and horse blankets.
“By now, you’re probably longing for the necessary,” he said, kneeling in the snow to survey the little fire.
“Blunt speech, my lord.”
“I do believe that’s the first time you’ve my-lorded me.”
“The topic seemed to call for it. What next?” She was hungry and thirsty both, but despite the lowering sky, their isolation, and the occasional flurry, not the least bit afraid.
“Here.” He passed a sizable pocket flask to her. “I understand you don’t object to the occasional tot to ward off a chill.”
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 a bit 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 rum, 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 and cheeks and chin.
End of Excerpt
The MacGregor’s Lady is available in the following formats:
February 4, 2014