Once Upon a Tartan
Book 2 in the MacGregor series
Hester MacDaniel is recovering from an engagement gone awry by summering at her brother’s holding in the Highlands, and looking after her brother’s young step-daughter, Fiona. Tiberius Flynn, heir to the English Marquis of Quinworth, appears on Hester’s doorstep claiming he’s Fee’s paternal uncle, and he’s been sent by her English relations to make the girl’s acquaintance. Tye believes his brother’s dying wishes compel him to take Fee south with him, but he doesn’t plan on Hester capturing his heart, even as she fights him tooth and nail for custody of Fiona.
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When Tiberius Lamartine Flynn heard the tree singing, his first thought was that he’d parted company with his reason. The idea wasn’t unwelcome, reason being a close associate of those ever-present twin burdens, honor and duty. Then two dusty little boots dangled above his horse’s abruptly nervous eyes, and the matter became a great deal simpler.
“Out of the tree, child, lest you spook some unsuspecting traveler’s mount.”
A pair of slim white calves flashed among the branches, the movement provoking the damned horse to dancing and propping.
“What’s his name?”
The question was almost unintelligible, so thick was the burr.
“His name is Flying Rowan,” Tye said, stroking a hand down the horse’s crest. “And he’d better settle himself down this instant if he knows what’s good for him. His efforts in this regard would be greatly facilitated if you’d vacate that damned tree.”
“You shouldn’t swear at her. She’s a wonderful tree.”
The horse settled, having had as much frolic as Tye was inclined to permit.
“In the first place, trees do not have gender, in the second, your heathen accent makes your discourse nigh incomprehensible, and in the third, please get the hell out of the tree.”
“Introduce yourself. I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
A heathen child with manners. What else did he expect from the wilds of Aberdeenshire?
“Tiberius Lamartine Flynn, Earl of Spathfoy, at your service. Had we any mutual acquaintances, I’d have them attend to the civilities.”
Silence from the tree, while Tye felt the idiot horse tensing for another display of nonsense.
“You’re wrong—we have a mutual acquaintance. This is a treaty oak. She’s everybody’s friend. I’m Fee.”
Except in his Englishness, Tye first thought the little scamp had said, “I’m fey,” which seemed appropriate.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Fee. Now show yourself like a gentleman, or I’ll think it’s your intent to drop onto hapless travelers and rob them blind.”
“Do you think I could?”
Dear God, the child sounded fascinated.
“Down. Now.” That tone of voice had worked on Tye’s younger brother until Gordie had been almost twelve. The same tone had ever been a source of amusement to his younger sisters. The branches moved, and Rowan tensed again, haunches bunching as if he’d bolt.
A lithe little shape plummeted at least eight feet to the ground and landed with a loud, “Ouch!” provoking Rowan to rear in earnest.
From the ground, the horse looked enormous, and the man astride like a giant. Fee caught an impression of darkness—dark horse, dark riding clothes, and a dark scowl as the man tried to control his horse.
“That is quite enough out of you.” The man’s voice was so stern, Fee suspected the horse understood the words, for two large iron-shod hooves came to a standstill not a foot from her head.
“Child, you will get up slowly and move away from the horse. I cannot guarantee your safety otherwise.”
Still stern—maybe this fellow was always stern, in which case, he was to be pitied. Fee sat up and tried to creep back on her hands, backside, and feet, but pain shot through her left ankle and up her calf before she’d shifted half her weight.
“I hurt myself.”
The horse backed a good ten feet away, though Fee couldn’t see how the rider had asked it to do so.
“Where are you hurt?”
“My foot. I think I landed on it wrong. It’s because I’m wearing shoes.”
“Shoes do not cause injury.” He swung off the horse and shook a gloved finger at the animal. “You stand, or you’ll be stewed up for the poor of the parish.”
“Are you always so mean, mister?”
He loomed above her, hands on his hips, and Fee’s Aunt Hester would have said he looked like The Wrath of God. His nose was a Wrath-of-God sort of nose, nothing sweet or humble about it, and his eyes were Wrath-of-God eyes, all dark and glaring.
He was as tall as the Wrath of God, too, maybe even taller than Fee’s uncles, who, if not exactly the Wrath of God, could sometimes be the Wrath of Deeside and greater Aberdeenshire.
As could her aunt Hester, which was a sobering thought.
“You think I’m mean, young lady?”
“Then I must answer in the affirmative.”
She frowned up at him. From his accent, he was at least a bloody Lowlander, or possibly a damned Sassenach, but even making those very significant allowances, he still talked funny.
“What is a firmative?”
“Yes, I am mean. Can you walk?”
He extended a hand down to her, a very large hand in a black riding glove. Fee had seen some pictures in a book once, of a lot of cupids without nappies bouncing around with harps, and a hand very like that one, sticking out of the clouds, except the hand in the picture was not swathed in black leather.
“Child, I do not have all day to impersonate the Good Samaritan.”
“The Good Samaritan was nice. He went to heaven.”
“While it is my sorry fate to be ruralizing in Scotland.” He hauled Fee to her feet by virtue of lifting her up under the arms. He did this without effort, as if he hoisted five stone of little girl from the roadside for regular amusement.
“Do you ever smile?”
“When in the presence of silent, well-behaved, properly scrubbed children, I sometimes consider the notion. Can you put weight on that foot?”
“It hurts. I think it hurts because my shoe is getting too tight.”
He muttered something under his breath, which might have had some bad words mixed in with more of his pernickety accent, then lifted Fee to his hip. “I am forced by the requirements of good breeding and honor to endure your company in the saddle for however long it takes to return you to the dubious care of your wardens, and may God pity them that responsibility.”
“I get to ride your horse?”
“We get to ride my horse. If you were a boy, I’d leave you here to the mercy of passing strangers or allow you to crawl home.”
He might have been teasing. The accent made it difficult to tell—as did the scowl. “You thought I was boy?”
“Don’t sound so pleased. I thought you were a nuisance, and I still do. Can you balance?”
He deposited her next to the treaty oak, which meant she could stand on one foot and lean on the tree. “I want to take my shoes off.” He wrinkled that big nose of his, looking like he smelled something rank. “My feet are clean. Aunt Hester makes me take a bath every night whether I need one or not.”
This Abomination Against the Natural Order—another one of Aunt Hester’s terms—did not appear to impress the man. Fee wondered if anything impressed him—and what a poverty that would be, as Aunt would say, to go through the whole day without once being impressed.
He hunkered before her, and he was even tall when he knelt. “Put your hand on my shoulder.”
Fee complied, finding his shoulder every bit as sturdy as the oak. He unlaced her boot, but when he tried to ease it off her foot, she had to squeal with the pain of it.
“Wrenched it properly, then. Here.” He pulled off his gloves and passed them to her. “Bite down on one of those, hard enough to cut right through the leather, and scream if you have to. I have every confidence you can ruin my hearing if you make half an effort.”
She took the gloves, which were warm and supple. “Are you an uncle?”
“As it happens, this dolorous fate has befallen me.”
“Is that a firmative?”
“It is. Why?”
“Because you’re trying to distract me, which is something my uncles do a lot. I won’t scream.”
He regarded her for a moment, looking almost as if he might say something not quite so fussy, then bent to glare at her boot. “Suit yourself, as it appears you are in the habit of doing.”
She braced herself; she even put one of the riding gloves between her teeth, because as badly as her ankle hurt, she expected taking off her boot would cause the kind of pain that made her ears roar and her vision dim around the edges.
She neither screamed nor bit through the glove—which tasted like reins and horse—because before she could even draw in a proper breath, her boot was gently eased off her foot.
“I suppose you want the other one off too?”
“Is my ankle all bruised and horrible?”
“Your ankle is slightly swollen. It will likely be bruised before the day is out, but perhaps not horribly if we can get ice on it.”
“Are you a priest?”
“For pity’s sake, child. First an uncle, then a priest? What can you be thinking?” He sat her in the grass and started unlacing her second boot.
“You talk like Vicar on Sunday, though on Saturday night, he sounds like everybody else when he’s having his pint. If my ankle is awful, Aunt Hester will cry and feed me shortbread with my tea. She might even play cards with me. My uncles taught me how to cheat, but explained I must never cheat unless I’m playing with them.”
“Honor among thieves being the invention of the Scots, this does not surprise me.” He tied the laces of both boots into a knot and slung them around Fee’s neck.
“I’m a Scot.”
His lips quirked. Maybe this was what it looked like when the Wrath of God was afraid he might smile.
“My condolences. Except for your unfortunate red hair, execrable accent, and the layer of dirt about your person, I would never have suspected.” He lifted her up again, but this time carried her to Flying Rowan, who had stood like a good boy all the while the man had been getting Fee’s boots off.
“I have wonderful hair, just like my mama’s. My papa says I’m going to be bee-yoo-ti-full. My uncles say I already am.”
“What you are is impertinent and inconvenient, though one can hardly blame your hair on you. Up you go.” He deposited her in the saddle, bracing a hand around her middle until she had her balance.
“Oh, this is a wonderful adventure. May I have the reins?”
“Assuredly not. Lean forward.”
He was up behind her in nothing flat, but that just made it all the better. Flying Rowan was even taller than Uncle Ian’s gelding, and almost as broad as the plow horses. Having the solid bulk of an adult male in the saddle made the whole business safe, even as it was also exciting.
He nudged the horse forward. “Where I am taking you, child?”
Fee could feel the way he rode, feel the way he moved with the horse and communicated with the horse without really using the reins.
“That way.” She lifted her hand to point in the direction of the manor, feeling the horse flinch beneath her as she did. “If you go by way of the pastures, it’s shorter than the road.”
“How many gates?”
“Lots. Papa has a lot of doddies.”
“Has your upbringing acquainted you with the equestrian arts?”
He didn’t even sound like a priest. He sounded like nothing and no one Fee had ever heard before. His voice was stern but somehow beautiful too, even when he wasn’t making any sense at all. “I don’t know what equestrian arts are.”
“Do you ride horseback?” He spoke slowly, as if Fee were daft, which made her want to drive her elbow back into his ribs—though that would likely hurt her elbow.
“I don’t have a pony, but my uncles take me up when I pester them hard enough.”
“That will serve. Grab some mane and don’t squeal.”
He wrapped that big hand around her middle again, and urged the horse into a rocking canter. The wind blew Fee’s hair back, and it was hard not to squeal, so delightful was the sensation of flying over the ground.
“Hold tight.” This was nearly growled as the man leaned forward, necessitating that Fee lean forward too. In a mighty surge, the horse leapt up and over a stone wall, then thundered off across the pasture in perfect rhythm.
The sensations were magnificent, to be borne aloft for a timeless moment, to soar above the earth, to be safe and snug in the midst of flight.
“Do another one!” Fee called over her shoulder, even as the horse bore down on a second wall.
They did three more, cutting directly across the fields, leaving the cows to watch as the horse cantered by, the placid expressions of the bovines at such variance with the utter glee Fee felt at each wall.
When the man brought his horse down to a walk at the foot of the drive, she leaned forward and patted the gelding soundly on the shoulder. “Good fellow, Flying Rowan! Oh, that was the best! I will write to everybody and tell them what a good boy you are.” She lapsed into the Gaelic, too happy and excited not to praise the horse in a more civilized language than the stilted, stodgy English.
Behind her, she felt the man’s hard chest shift slightly, and she fell silent.
“Mama says it’s rude to speak the Gaelic when somebody else can’t.”
“I comprehend it. Is this your home?”
“I live here. Aunt Hester lives here too, but Mama and Papa are away right now.”
“Shall I take you around to the back?”
He was scowling at the manor as he spoke, as if the house wasn’t the most lovely place in the world, all full of flowers and pretty views.
“Here comes Aunt Hester. I expect she’ll want to thank you.”
Fee felt Rowan’s owner tense behind her. It wasn’t that his muscles bunched up, it was more that he went still. The horse beneath them went still too, as if both man and horse understood that the look on Aunt Hester’s face did not at all fit with Fee’s prediction of impending thanks.
A female thundercloud was advancing on Tye where he sat his gelding, the little girl perched before him. Beneath his hand, he felt the child’s spine stiffen and her bony little shoulders square.
This particular thundercloud had golden blond hair piled on top of her head, quite possibly in an attempt to give an illusion of height. She wore an old-fashioned blue walking dress, the dusty hems of which were swishing madly around her boots as she sailed across the drive.
He’d always liked the sound of a woman’s petticoats in brisk motion, they gave a man a little warning—and something to think about.
“I bid you good day.” He nodded from the saddle, a hat being a hopeless inconvenience when a man rode cross-country. “Spathfoy, at your service.”
Some perverse desire to see what she’d do next kept him on the horse, looking down at her from a considerable height.
“Hester Daniels.” She sketched a hint of a curtsy then planted her fists on her hips. “Fiona Ursula MacGregor, what am I to do with you? Where have you gone off to this time, that a strange man must bring you home at a dead gallop, over field and fence, your hair a fright and—” The lady paused and drew in a tremendous breath. “Why are your boots hanging about your neck? What have I told you about running off barefoot, much less when you’re in the company of horses, and when will you remember that we eat meals at regular hours, in a civilized fashion, and what do you expect me to tell your dear mother about this latest escapade?”
When she fell silent, Tye was somewhat taken aback to see the lady’s eyes shining, quite possibly with tears.
“I am sorry,” said the girl, hanging her head. “I went to visit the oak, that’s all, and it was a fine afternoon for singing in a tree, and then I jumped down, but I landed wrong, and this fellow came along on Flying Rowan. I didn’t mean to hurt my foot, but we had such fun galloping home, didn’t we, sir?”
She turned around to spear him with big, pleading green eyes, leaving Tye feeling resentful, and perhaps… oh, something else too bothersome to parse at the moment.
“There now,” he said, smoothing a gloved hand over the child’s crown. “A very nice apology, and that should be an end to it. The child can’t be blamed for my horse’s loss of composure when finding himself beneath a singing tree. If anybody should be apologizing, it’s Rowan here.”
This was a ridiculous speech, attributing manners and morals to a mute and consistently self-interested beast, but it served to soften the lady’s ire. Her hands dropped from her hips, her breath left her in a gentle sigh, and her expression became one of exasperated affection. “Did you come a cropper, then, Fee?”
“She wrenched her ankle,” Tye said, swinging down. He was pleased to note that when standing, he was still a good deal taller than Miss Daniels, but then, he was a good deal taller than most everybody. “I’m happy to carry her inside, where some ice and a tisane might be in order.”
Before Miss Daniels could summon a servant for the task, Tye lifted Fiona out of the saddle. The child obligingly perched on his hip, batting those guileless green eyes at her aunt while a groom came to take Rowan.
Gordie had had such eyes, though the lack of guile was far more genuine in the child than it had ever been in the man.
“If you don’t mind carrying her,” Miss Daniels said, “I would be obliged. Fee is getting quite grown-up.”
“She means I’m too heavy.”
“You are a mere bagatelle.” He shifted her to a piggyback position. “Lead on please, madam. The bagatelle has to be in some discomfort.”
But the girl did not complain, which was interesting. She settled in on Tye’s back, resting her cheek against his nape. “I like being a bagatelle. Do bagatelles sing?”
“This one does, and she chatters,” Tye said. “Incessantly.” Though she was also at the braids-and-pinafores stage of her development, so he limited his rebuke.
“I know what that means. I’m trying to make small talk. Why do we call it small talk? It’s the same size as other talk, at least other talk inside the house. Is there such a thing as large talk?”
She huffed out a sigh while Tye followed Miss Daniels into the house. The dwelling was a tidy Tudor manor that looked to be laid out in the typical Tudor E, gardens overflowing with flowers all about the place and even in window boxes on the upper stories. The mullioned windows were sparkling, the gravel walks tidily raked, and the terraces neatly swept.
Which was… not disappointing, exactly, but not what Tye had been expecting.
“I hope this isn’t too great an inconvenience,” Miss Daniels said as Tye carried his burden into a cozy library. “I’ll ring for refreshment as soon as we have Fee settled.”
“May I have some refreshment?” the child asked.
Miss Daniels frowned at the girl clinging to Tye’s back like a monkey. “You nipped out before breakfast, Fee, and missed luncheon. No doubt you pilfered some scones, but you’ll make a pig of yourself at tea and ruin your supper entirely.”
“I’ll have one sandwich. Just one. Please, Aunt Hester?”
Tye had no doubt the winsome green eyes were working their wiles over his shoulder, but really, an active child couldn’t go all day on a just a few scones.
“We might take our tea in here,” Tye said, shifting the girl to seat her on the sofa. “It’s a pleasant room with a nice view of the back gardens.”
“Oh, very well.” Miss Daniels looked unhappy with her capitulation, but moved off to speak with a footman at the doorway. Tye looked about, spotted a hassock, and moved to place it before Fiona. He tossed a throw pillow onto the hassock and pointed.
“Get your foot up, child. It will help contain the swelling.”
“But then it won’t look horrid enough.”
“And it won’t feel quite so horrid either. Besides, you’ve already winkled tea and crumpets out of your aunt, and that after playing truant the entire day. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
God in heaven, he’d sounded just like his father.
“You should not have used foul language.”
“I should not—” He closed his mouth. The impertinent little baggage was right, though foul language was a simple enough pleasure in a life where pleasure was otherwise in short supply. “I do beg your pardon. I was overset.”
“You were not.” She grabbed a green-and-black tartan blanket from the back of the sofa. “Grown-up men don’t get overset, though they do get soused. Aunt taught me that word, but I’m not to use it around company.”
He stared at the child. Treated the little minx to a gimlet gaze that had settled overspending distant relations without a word.
She winked at him. “We’re even now.”
“The tea tray will be along shortly,” Miss Daniels said, sweeping back into the room. “Won’t you have a seat, Mr. Spathfoy?”
She betrayed her Englishness with the lapse—it was a Scottish title, after all, and a Scottish courtesy title at that. Her lack of familiarity with it confirmed suspicions originating in her proper southern speech and pretty company manners.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Daniels, I am the Earl of Spathfoy.” He waited with some interest to see how she’d react to her faux pas.
“I do apologize, my lord. Shall we be seated?”
No blush, no stammering, no glancing all around or scolding him for not initially introducing himself properly.
Seeing no alternative, Tye sat, taking a wingchair flanking the sofa where the Duchess of Singing Trees reclined in grand estate. Miss Daniels took a second wingchair and turned a considering look on her niece. “I’m going to have to send a note to Uncle Ian at least, Fee. He might wire your mama and papa.”
“Will they come home to see if I’m alive?”
“They will come home when they’ve completed their journey. They hardly had time for a wedding journey, so you must not begrudge them their travels this summer.” She shot the child a speaking glance, as if visually reminding the girl not to argue before company.
Though Tye would enjoy seeing the two of them go at it. His money would be on the girl. “Where are they traveling?” he asked, mostly to break a growing silence.
“All over,” Fiona said, slumping back on a dramatic sigh. “First Paris, then Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Venice, Florence and Rome. Madrid and Lisbon, then home again. I had a cat named Florence once. She ran off with a handsome marmalade fellow named Beowulf.”
“This will be quite a journey.” And quite a convenient development, given Tye’s plans.
“Mary Fran and Matthew have been married a year,” Miss Daniels said. “Their first priority was establishing a home here, near Mary Frances’s family, but she has longed to see some of the Continent, and I was available to stay with Fiona while they traveled, so here we are.”
She gave him a bright, false smile, and it occurred to him that he was in the presence of a Poor Relation. Miss Daniels was young, pretty, not sporting a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, and by rights ought to be in London, trying to flirt herself up a decent match.
Instead she was here in Aberdeenshire, during the only months that location boasted pretensions to decent weather, idling away her youth with a child who sang to trees. A bleak prospect indeed, but a penniless female was at the mercy of the rest of her family.
“Have you written to your parents, Fiona?” He put the question to the child, though making polite conversation with the infantry was not a skill he’d ever aspired to.
“I write to them every other day, but that’s mostly so Aunt Hester can say I’ve practiced my penmanship.” She regarded her propped foot. “I miss them.”
Such a plaintive expression accompanied this declaration that Tye felt an unwelcome urge to comfort the child. Very unwelcome.
“We’ll stay busy,” Miss Daniels said. “The weeks will pass quickly, and then they’ll be home.”
“And then at Christmas, we’ll have a new baby!” As melancholy as the girl had been an instant ago, she was that gleeful with news of her coming half sibling. “I hope it’s a boy so I can teach him how to fish and make mud pies.”
“Fiona.” Miss Daniels put a wealth of repression in three syllables, and Tye was intrigued to see the lady was blushing hotly, right up her neck and both cheeks, which was almost as interesting as the news that Fiona’s mother was again on the nest.
Within one year of marriage, no less. The woman was nothing if not an easy breeder. The food arrived before Tye could dwell on that unhappy subject, and Miss Daniels launched into a recitation of all the books Fiona might read while allowing her foot to heal. A chambermaid appeared with a bowl of ice and a set of towels, and Miss Daniels interrupted her litany of books to make a fuss doctoring the child’s ailing foot. Tye used the time to fill the pit in his stomach with scrumptious ham-and-cheddar sandwiches and a delectable array of small tea cakes.
“You enjoy a hearty appetite, my lord.”
He pause midreach toward the last chocolate tea cake, wondering if that was censure or amusement in Miss Daniels’s voice. She was nibbling on a tea cake too, and while he watched, the pink tip of her tongue peeked out of the corner of her mouth to lick a dab of white frosting from her lip.
“The fresh country air and a tidy little gallop have left me peckish. Then too, I have been traveling for some time.” Though the fresh country air was also addling his brain if he’d taken to staring at a decent woman’s mouth.
“Were you in Florence?” That from the child, who was reaching for another sandwich. He met her gaze and realized she knew damned good and well she was exceeding her own stated limit of one sandwich.
“I have been in Florence, though not recently. A lovely city, if hot.” And somewhat unfragrant, like many of the European capitals, including—emphatically—dear old Londontowne.
“My uncle Asher is in Canada.” The girl took a bite of her second sandwich. “He went there when I wasn’t even a baby, but I love him. My uncles are the best.”
The child’s words were a providential opening. Before Miss Daniels could nibble more frosting, before the child could cadge a third sandwich, Tye decided it was the only opening he was likely to have, and it was past time he presented himself honestly.
“Your uncles are the best?”
Fee nodded emphatically. “The very, very best. Especially Uncle Ian, because he looks after all of us—he’s an earl—but all my uncles are capital fellows.”
“It’s fortunate you feel that way, because I myself am among their number.”
Hester had taken their guest for a Scot at first, in part because of his glorious size. He appeared to enjoy the breeding of many a Scot, a cross of dark Celtic good looks with Viking scale and muscle.
He inhabited his body like a Scot too, comfortable and rangy, at ease with both his proportions and his strength. Watching him ride across the pastures, she’d envied Fee, thinking at first that Ian had perhaps cantered over for a surprise visit and was treating his niece to a taste of adventure.
But then he’d spoken, and that voice… Spathfoy should be a mesmerist, with a voice like that. The English public school consonants were present, all crisply started, neatly executed, and cleanly finished off, but in the vowels there lurked something… more. Something suggestive of foreign antecedents and earthy inclinations. She could listen to that voice like a lullaby.
Except… he formed words, not just spoken music, and he’d said something extraordinary.
“I beg your pardon, my lord. Did you just pronounce yourself to be among Fiona’s uncles?”
“I did. I am the older brother of Fiona’s late father, and very pleased to make my niece’s acquaintance.”
The great beast of a man was lying—not about being Fee’s uncle, but about being pleased. He even sounded beautiful when he lied—beautiful and believable. Oh, he’d done the proper thing and made sure Fee got safely home when she’d hurt her ankle, but the proper thing and the convenient thing were sometimes separated merely by the intention motivating the same act.
“Fiona would make her curtsy to you, I’m sure, but for her indisposition. I don’t suppose you were merely in the area and calling upon a relation?”
Fiona shifted amid her pillows. “I don’t know you. I know my uncles.”
“I have been remiss in not calling before, but I reside primarily in London, which is some distance away.” He looked directly at Fee while he spoke, and this, Hester realized, was part of his… not charm. He wasn’t in any case charming, but part of his attraction. He had moss-green eyes, startlingly green, fringed with long, dark lashes. They imparted a sensual air to an otherwise austere countenance, and suggested the truth of the man was in that voice, in the caress and lilt of it, rather than in the stern features.
“You are here now,” Hester said, though she was wishing it were otherwise, and that probably showed in her voice.
Fiona peered up at his lordship. “Why are you here now?”
For an instant, something flickered through lordly green eyes, impatience, maybe, or resentment. Or—a remote possibility—surprise, that a little girl would not remain silent and passive in the presence of this titled uncle.
“I am addressing a previous oversight. I’d written to Altsax of my intent, but he has apparently gone traveling with his lady. I will call upon Lord Balfour at the earliest opportunity in Altsax’s absence.”
“Papa doesn’t use the title.” Fee was frowning a particularly worried frown, and Hester could only imagine what was going through the child’s mind.
She passed her niece the last tea cake and served up a reassuring smile with it. “After such a trying day, Fiona, you should probably rest for a bit. Would you like a book?”
“Robinson Crusoe, please.” The please was an oddment, an indication of tension caused by Spathfoy’s bald announcement, and the choice of story was the mental equivalent of reaching for a favorite doll.
Hester got down the book, noting that Spathfoy had gone quiet, probably the better to plan his next broadside.
“My lord, may I request a turn in the garden on your arm? The day is lovely, and Mary Frances takes great pride in her flowers.” The request was as polite as Hester could manage, but her temper—her blasted, perishing temper, which had never been a problem until this self-imposed banishment to Scotland—was threatening to gallop off with her manners.
“But of course.” He rose to his impressive height, looking handsome and proper. There wasn’t a single crumb on his breeches, and his hair looked artfully windblown, not as if he was given to pelting over fences willy-nilly.
Hester led him to the gardens, lecturing herself all the while about decorum, Highland hospitality, and making good first impressions. When Spathfoy inquired as to whether “the child” had a governess, tutors, or music instructors, she did not wallop him across his arrogant cheek.
She limited her wrath to a mere ladylike tongue lashing, but she made as thorough a job of it as momentary inspiration and vicarious maternal instinct could muster—which was very thorough indeed.
Where a prim little bit of poor relation had stood before, a raging tempest now boiled.
“What on earth can you be about, my lord, to come barging in here, misrepresenting yourself to all and sundry, insinuating yourself into the child’s good graces when she’s all alone and without her parents? You broke bread with that girl before you revealed yourself to her. And you’ve yet to explain why Fee’s paternal family could turn their collective English backs on her for years, then show up here, without invitation, and trespass on the child’s peace. Do you know how much upheaval and change she’s gone through in the past year? Moving, acquiring a stepfather who loves her, losing the only home she’s known, and parting from the family in whose care she has thrived? And then you, you gallop onto the scene, as if you have some right to make inquiries regarding Fee’s care and well being…”
She ranted on quite impressively. Blue eyes were commonplace, and Tye had never been particularly partial to them—never noticed them, in fact, but these blue eyes were capable of sinking galleons, so effectively did they fire off indignation and protectiveness.
He was impressed, and he allowed the lady to rage on in part because he was impressed, but also because, as a member of Fiona’s extended maternal family, Miss Daniels was entitled to her tantrum.
“Perhaps madam might permit me an edgewise word of explanation.” He did not allow this be a question.
She folded her arms over a bosom rendered impressive when heaving with ire, and turned her back on him—a telling shot. “Make it a good word, my lord. Fiona’s father was a disgrace, and his family’s behavior has only confirmed that his character ran true to his breeding.”
A splendid insult, but enough was quite enough.
“And how is any of this your concern, Miss Daniels? As I understand it, you are the younger sister of Fiona’s newly acquired stepfather. You are no relation to the child at all.”
She turned to face him, somehow glaring down a rather determined nose, though she was a foot shorter than Tye. “I am her physical custodian at present, my lord, and I love her.”
Clearly, this irrelevance was a decisive argument to the woman, and just as clearly, Tye was going to have to reassess the situation. A serving of contrition leavened with charm was called for—on his part.
“You are quite right to be indignant on Fiona’s behalf, though I had expected to have this discussion with Altsax, or possibly with Altsax and Balfour. Shall we stroll a while, or would you prefer to sit?”
She blinked at the choice. “It matters naught to me.”
He offered her his arm, a strategic bit of manners. She took it gingerly and let him lead her down a path among the roses. “Fiona’s mother does take her gardens seriously, doesn’t she?”
“Her name is Mary Frances.”
He let a silence form, one intended to ease hostilities and allow him to size up his immediate opponent—because they were opponents. He’d take on all the indignant aunts and doting—if absentee—stepfathers in Scotland, if necessary, to accomplish his ends.
“And is Mary Frances happy with your brother?”
Something shifted in the woman’s demeanor. “They are besotted.” Her admission was grudging and maybe wistful too.
“I concluded as much, owing to the brevity of their engagement. When a man has a title, though, these things become a priority.”
She dropped his arm. “These things? These things, such as marrying the love of one’s life, speaking vows with the person who can help one to face life’s hurts and wrongs with courage, the person in whose love and trust one can repose one’s entire heart?”
She spoke in flights and poems, and made no sense to him.
“I was referring to the need to secure the succession, to populate one’s nursery. Procreation of legitimate offspring, that sort of thing.”
She visually walloped him, smacked him hard, a good, cracking blow that no doubt would have left his cheek smarting mightily had she used her hand instead of those blue eyes, that nose and a posture reminiscent of an outraged angel. “Fiona is legitimate, no thanks to your dashing scoundrel of a brother.”
He did not touch his cheek, though it was tempting. “I did not mean to imply otherwise.”
“Yes, you did. Dripping gentlemanlike condescension, using sly innuendo and subtle hints, you insulted my niece and her mother. If I were a man, I’d call you out.”
He took two steps to stand right next to her, since the upper hand had to be reestablished, manners be damned. “Dueling went out of fashion thirty years ago.”
And this entire conversation had blundered into something very like an argument with a lady, which Tye could not in his entire adult memory, recall ever having engaged in before. It was almost… arousing.
“You’re in the Highlands, my lord.” She closed the remaining distance between them and stuck that arrogant nose in his face. “We settle our differences here in as expedient a fashion as necessary.”
“And this is Highland hospitality? Railing in the garden at guests who come in good faith, guests who take tender care of injured children like, like a Good Samaritan?” Ah, that was gratifying, to flourish the biblical term and see her righteousness falter.
“Fiona would not right this minute be watching her ankle swell up with pain if your blasted horse hadn’t necessitated that she jump down from a dangerous height. Good Samaritan, indeed.”
Tye was formulating a riposte to that inanity when a quavery voice sang out over the roses.
“Why, Hester, we have a guest. Always so nice when friends come to call. Perhaps you’d introduce us?”
A Lilliputian in a purple turban advanced on them, if such a doddering progress could be called an advance. That turban bobbing along was all Tye could make out at first, until stooped shoulders and a frail personage came around the corner of a bed of roses. She leaned heavily on a thick, carved cane that looked to be more counterweight than support, and her face had the papery smooth transparency of great age. Her smile was sweet and slightly vague, but her green eyes bore more than a spark of intelligence.
“My dear girl,” said the old woman, “you must introduce me to such a handsome fellow. Merely beholding him adds years to my life.”
Old women could be great flirts. Tye had learned this startling fact while lurking on the edge of many a ballroom. They could also be powerful allies to their favorites, having connections that went back to Mad King George’s day, and a knowledge of family history—family secrets—that went back even further.
He turned his best, most enchanted smile on the old dear. “Miss Daniels, I agree. you must introduce us this instant, that I might pluck for the lady a rose worthy of her attention lest she continue to bedazzle my feeble sight with her smile.”
Miss Daniels heaved a great sigh conveying nothing so much as long-suffering.
“Lady Ariadne MacGregor, may I make known to you the Earl of Spathfoy, though I can’t recall the man’s name if he deigned to part with it. Your lordship, Fiona’s great-aunt, possibly great-great, and a woman not to be underestimated. Fiona intends to grow up to be just like her. I warn you solely out of a sense of pity for helpless creatures.”
“Oh, now, Hester. You’ll have the man thinking you’ve no manners.” But being a flirt, Lady Ariadne extended her hand to Tye for a gentlemanly bow, which he bestowed in lingering, adoring fashion.
“Spathfoy is the title for the Quinworth heir, am I right? And how is your dear mother, my boy? She was such a pretty girl. And you must call me Aunt Ree. Everybody does—I insist.”
A slight trickle of unease percolated through Tye’s vitals. He let the lady retrieve her hand and kept his smile in place. “My mother fares well.” As far as he knew. He offered Lady Ariadne his arm, though it was about the equivalent of offering his arm to little Fiona, so tiny was his new, honorary aunt.
“I saw you galloping over the fields, Spathfoy. That black of yours looks like a handful.”
And when she wasn’t flirting or gossiping, an old woman might talk horses and hounds as well as many a squire. Tye relaxed his guard and prepared to move very slowly toward the house. “Flying Rowan is young, and he needs to work the fidgets out regularly, but his sense of distance to a jump is faultless, he has tremendous bottom, and he has a good heart.”
“He has potential, then.” She stopped and craned her neck to peer up at him. “My late husband—my second late husband—often remarked that a man will choose his dogs to complement his personality, but his horse must be a direct reflection of him.”
He wasn’t going to go near that sally—he rode a gelding, for pity’s sake.
“And what of his cats, Lady Ariadne? On what basis does a man choose his cats?”
“Cats?” She twitched a little straighter as they meandered along. “Cats are like women, Spathfoy. They do the choosing. Come along, Hester. We must inform the staff we’ll be providing hospitality to a guest.” She stopped again, as if thinking, talking, and moving forward at the same time exceeded the energy she could muster in one moment. “How long can you stay, my lord? I’m sure Fiona will want to get to know her uncle, particularly when you will one day be the highest ranking among them all.”
Hester watched as Aunt Ree hobbled and swayed along on That Man’s arm. While her body was frail, Aunt’s hearing was remarkable, as was her eyesight. Without doubt, she’d overheard that unseemly disagreement Hester had undertaken with the earl.
Of Spathfoy, which Aunt had recognized as being an heir’s courtesy title, and if the courtesy title was an earldom, then the man’s father was a marquis at least, or—Merciful Powers, deliver me—possibly even a duke.
No wonder he had arrogance to spare and condescension oozing from every syllable. Hester considered lingering in the garden to cool her temper then discarded the notion.
Aunt Ree had joined the household to provide proper chaperonage for Hester, while Hester had joined the household to look after Fiona in her parents’ absence. They formed a little parade of the cast-off and inconvenient females of the family, put in train to keep their eyes on one another.
And if anybody required supervision, it was Aunt Ree in the presence of a handsome and unsuspecting man. With a reluctant nod to duty and decency, Hester plucked herself a bud from a Bourbon rose, treated herself to a whiff of its fragrance, and made her way into the house.
She caught up with Aunt and her escort outside the library doors.
“His lordship tells me our Fiona has wrenched her ankle, Hester. I can sit with the child while you alert the housekeeper to our good fortune. Spathfoy says he’s at leisure.” Aunt beamed a guileless smile at the man. “He can stay with us for quite some time. Isn’t that marvelous?”
Marvelous! To have such a great, arrogant, interfering, argumentative excuse for a—
But Aunt was aiming her smile at Hester, communicating a more immediate message than how marvelous his lordship’s company was going to be.
Hester smiled right back at Aunt Ariadne. “I’ll confer with Mrs. Deal. I’m sure she’ll be as happy as I am at the prospect of his lordship staying with us.” She tossed a curtsy in the direction of His Marvelousness and ducked down the stairs to the kitchen before his two-inch inclination of a bow was even fully executed.
Aunt had known Spathfoy was Fiona’s uncle, and there was some warning for Hester in that final observation—Spathfoy was the most powerful among Fee’s uncles.
This was enough to give Hester pause at the foot of the steps. Fee had three, possibly four maternal uncles, each of them every bit as handsome and physically imposing as Spathfoy.
Connor MacGregor was married to a wealthy Northumbrian widow, one whom he was making wealthier still, if the family gossip could be believed. A man who commanded wealth had significant power in these modern times.
Ian MacGregor was currently styled Earl of Balfour, though family gossip also suggested an older brother thought dead in the Canadian wilderness might yet be lurking among the provincial pines. Ian also knew how to make an estate profitable, and his wife, Augusta, was both titled in her own right and abundantly landed.
Gilgallon MacGregor was sporting about London as husband to Hester’s own sister, and if he wasn’t exactly wealthy, he was canny, ruthless, and quick with his fists.
And Spathfoy was going to be more powerful than any of these three?
Than all of them put together?
A woman built roughly along the proportions of a plow horse looked up from where she was pummeling a batch of dough at the wooden counter. “Miss Hester.” A great, toothy smile creased Deal’s ruddy face. “Are we to be serving up another round of tea? Damned English do love their tea.”
And Deal loved her work. She was more cook than housekeeper, since Mary Fran’s notions of how to run a household left little room for delegation. Deal personified the old-fashioned Scottish notion of “family retainer.” She served MacGregors, and the specific capacity mattered less than the resulting loyalty and mutual obligation.
“We don’t need another tea tray,” Hester clarified, “but Aunt Ree is inviting Lord Spathfoy to stay with us for a bit. We’ll need to serve more than bannocks or scones for breakfast, because he’s one of Fiona’s paternal uncles.” By Highland standards he was family, as incongruous as that notion felt.
“Ach, aye. If the English couldn’t get a proper breakfast, they’d starve but for their tea. That lot knows nothing of sauces and subtleties. Which bedroom shall we put his lordship in?”
She smacked the dough down with particularly fierce enthusiasm, as if showing his lordship the error of English culinary failures was going to be the satisfaction of a life’s work.
“Let’s use the corner bedroom in the east wing. It boasts nice views of the garden, and the chimney doesn’t smoke.”
Deal nodded as she started separating the dough into long, thick sections. “Putting him in the guest wing will keep him out of everybody’s hair. I suppose you’ll be sending a note over to Balfour House?”
“Of course.” Belatedly, Hester realized this was the mission Aunt had tried to communicate between all those smiles. “At once.”
“You, Dinlach.” Deal barked at the potboy, who was doing a desultory job at the main sink. “Tell Festus we’ll want a rider over to Balfour soonest. Miss Hester needs to warn the earl that Lady Mary Fran’s worthless former in-laws have come skulking about at last.”
“Mrs. Deal, you shouldn’t say such things.”
Deal deftly braided the dough into a fat loaf. “Flynns is border English, which is the worst kind. They recall enough of their Scottish heritage to hold their whisky and reave what they want, but they’ve got English titles, and English wealth to protect them from the consequences. Ask auld Ree. She’ll explain it to you.”
Deal used a pastry brush to dab melted butter over each loaf in curiously delicate movements, while foreboding settled cold and queasy in Hester’s innards.
“He’s a titled English lord, Deal. He won’t be stealing cattle, trust me on this.”
Deal set the butter and brush aside. “I’m just the help, Miss Hester. Far be it from me to speak ill of a guest. Hadn’t you best be writing that note?”
Hester headed back up the stairs, but Deal, plain-faced, phlegmatic, and loyal to her bones, had suggested a potential threat to the household coming from the most likely quarter.
A perishing son of a titled family, as if Hester hadn’t suffered enough already at the hands of the very same.
Being the Earl of Balfour was a damned pain in Ian MacGregor’s muscular backside—his muscular, and according to his wife, adorable backside. The title involved responsibility for family members both cantankerous and unruly, stewardship of difficult and rugged land, and a bloody lot of ceremony and pomp for which no self-respecting Highlander had much patience.
In other regards, though, Ian was a very, very patient man.
His countess pinched the part of him she found so adorable.
“You’re teasing me, Husband. I am not in a mood to lollygag.”
“Hmm?” He kissed her ear, then bit down on the lobe. “My hearing is a wee bit off today, most likely as a result of all that exercise our son gave his lungs before going down for his nap.”
He plied her gently with his cock, listening for the telltale sighs, both audible and corporeal, that would signal that she was growing desperate. Augusta grew greedy and wonderfully passionate when she was desperate.
“You are teasing me, Ian. This is not well done of you. The baby will awaken, and then you’ll wish you’d applied yourself with a little more—oh, my goodness.”
He applied himself with a little more, not faster, just a trifle more. Too much more, and his self-discipline would go down in the flames of his wife’s passion, but a little more, a few sparks on the dry tinder of her arousal, and she’d start up with those soft moans that inspired him to great feats of forbearance.
“My wife is given to chatter. I will kiss this tendency away.”
He made her wait for even his kisses, running his nose along her jaw, then dragging his lips over each eyebrow. Beneath him, Augusta shifted her hips, catching him at a slightly deeper angle.
In their year of marriage she’d learned how to toss a few sparks of her own.
“So impatient, Wife. ’Tis a failing in you English. Always plundering when you could barter.”
He eased a hand up and gently closed it over one full breast—very gently. Maddeningly gently. She sighed against his neck and bartered her luscious mouth right over his, an open-mouthed, seeking kiss involving her tongue and his few remaining wits.
“Naughty girl. How I treasure you.”
She sighed into his mouth, anchored a hand on his bottom, and then—oh, have mercy upon a poor married man—got her internal muscles into the negotiation.
“Lass, you mustn’t—”
She offered him no quarter, just her luscious, loving body, her heart, and her very soul, and he gave her his in return.
And then… ah, then the cuddling, at which she also excelled, an attribute Ian privately thought was the influence of Scottish antecedents hanging a few branches back on his wife’s family tree. Highland winters sorted out the priorities that effectively.
He tucked his sated wife against his side and hugged her close. “Could the little man be cutting teeth yet?”
“I certainly hope not. Mary Fran says that can presage months of intermittent misery for the child, and Fiona didn’t start teething until she was six months old.”
“So we have that to look forward to.” He kissed her ear—it was a beautiful ear. “You are a wonderful mother, Augusta, never doubt it.” She eased in his arms in some way, suggesting she’d needed the reassurance, but God in heaven, no baby was ever cosseted and cared for more conscientiously.
The entire family, the entire clan, seemed to dote on their son, and it warmed Ian’s heart to see it.
“I want more children, Ian. I want a big family, and we’ve gotten a late start on it.”
“And did you think I was exerting myself so manfully in this bed purely out of selfish motives, Wife?” He dragged her over him, so she straddled his hips and cuddled down to his chest. “If my wife wants more babies, then I will do my utmost to see her pleased in this regard. My marital devotion allows for no less.”
She ran her tongue over his nipple. “Such generosity. What was in the note, Ian? You got very quiet after you read it.”
He rested his chin on her crown and let his hands wander over the long, elegant bones of her back. “We’ve trouble, Wife. Spathfoy has made a surprise raid on your cousin’s household, and we don’t know what his motives are.”
“Spathfoy?” Augusta paused in her teasing to peer up at him. “I don’t recognize the title.”
“He’s heir to the Marquis of Quinworth, and older brother to the worthless, conniving scoundrel who took advantage of my sister and got her with child.” He tried not to let his anger show in his voice or in his body, because Augusta was that perceptive, but Mary Fran had given the faithless bounder her virginity, and Gordie Flynn had given her nothing but pain and humiliation in return.
“Spathfoy lost a brother, Ian. That cannot have been easy.”
“And he has Quinworth for a father, but what if he’s showing up all these years later to snatch our Fiona away, my love? Mary Fran will be heartbroken, and Matthew will stop at nothing to retrieve the child.”
Augusta’s fine dark brows knit, which made Ian want to kiss them. He resisted this notion, because babies slept only so long, and he valued his wife’s counsel.
“Maybe he’s merely showing the colors, Ian. You can’t assume because he’s English his purpose is necessarily nefarious.”
“Nefarious and English are synonyms in the Scottish lexicon, my love. The Flynns made it plain they considered the girl child of a handfast marriage little more than a bastard. They’ve never sent so much as a groat for Fiona’s upkeep or a token for her birthday. I’m not inclined to trust Spathfoy’s avuncular motives very far.”
“Is his father perhaps ailing? That can shift a man’s perspective on family matters.”
Ian let out a sigh of his own. The topic was curdling any notions of further efforts to ensure the large family his wife sought, but Augusta was a good sounding board, and theirs was a marriage without secrets. “I’ll ride over in the morning and get the lay of the land. Hester sounds like she’s in quite a dither, though Aunt Ree will manage the man well enough I’m sure.”
“You’ll behave?” She rose off his chest to spear him with a look. “Charm at the ready, all Scottish good cheer to the fore? You can be very charming when you set your mind to it, Ian. I have your ring on my finger as a result of your charm.”
“There was bit more to it than that, my love.”
“More, Ian?” She smiled a feline smile, feathered her thumbs over his nipples, and Ian barely had time to send up a prayer that the baby would sleep for at least another hour before Augusta was offering him more, indeed.
Hester had forgotten the pleasure of spending time with a man on his best behavior, particularly a handsome man with a gorgeous voice. If she’d known scolding a lordling would have this effect, she might have behaved very differently with her former fiancé.
Though it was irksome in the extreme to think she’d have to withstand Spathfoy’s good behavior all on her own for the duration of an entire meal. Aunt had decided to take a tray with Fiona, which was probably as well, given the child’s difficult day.
“I am sorry Lady Ariadne will not be joining us for dinner.” Spathfoy offered his arm with all the courtly élan imbued by his breeding. “She gave me to understand she’s something of a family historian, and I would love to hear the tales she has stored in her head.”
“She’s a treasure.” Also a terror. “But her stories are not such as would flatter English ears.”
He seated her at the table without replying, and he had the knack of even that.
A lady needed assistance taking her seat because she had to manage her skirts and petticoats, which involved two hands, generally, and that left the gentleman to manage the chair. Her brother Matthew was no good at it at all, usually catching hems under chair legs, or bumping the chair right into the backs of her knees.
Matthew was her brother. Spathfoy was… A pest. An elegant pest who’d bathed and changed for the evening meal, though even in informal attire, he exuded a kind of inborn grace that was not having a good effect on Hester’s disposition.
“You might be interested to know I am half English, Miss Daniels.”
He’d murmured that soft aside right near her ear as she’d fluffed out her skirts, and in addition to the impact of his silken voice twining through her awareness, she caught a whiff of his scent.
It was all she could do not to bat him away. He smelled of lavender and something lovely—attar of roses? Honeysuckle? She was still trying to dissect the incongruous sweetness in his fragrance when he took the chair to her right.
“Your mother is Scottish, my lord?”
“A Lowlander, but yes. I get my height from her side of the family. May I serve you?”
They were dining informally, with the food kept hot on the table in chafing dishes. This was how the household always dined, but Hester felt a pang not to have Fee chattering away on one side, and Aunt chirping along on the other. They were her family now, and she had quickly grown to love them.
His lordship was regarding her curiously, and Hester realized she’d let the conversation lapse.
“If you would do the honors, my lord. I am very partial to my vegetables. Have your things arrived from the inn at Ballater?”
“They did. I must say I was impressed with the quality of the accommodations. I take it Her Majesty’s interest in the surrounds has done good things for the local economy.”
He passed her a plate full of steaming food, but the portions were such as a large man might consume after a busy day in the fields—an interesting miscalculation from somebody Hester took to be very calculating indeed.
“If I eat this much, my lord, I’ll not be able to rise at the end of the meal.” She set the plate down in front of him and started serving herself. “And as for the local economy, the royal family is here but a few months a year, and that only in recent years. Deeside owes more to the fish than we do to the Crown.”
“Fish?” He watched her serve herself and frowned at the portions she put on her plate. “Miss Daniels, you cannot thrive on such meager fare.”
“There’s trifle for dessert, my lord. Will you say the blessing?” An inspiration, to stick him with something as mundane as blessing the meal.
Her cleverness backfired. He was sitting where Fee usually sat, and out of habit, Hester reached out her hand when it was time to say the blessing. When her fingers closed around Spathfoy’s, she was too dumbstruck at her blunder to withdraw her hand.
“I’d be happy to say the blessing.”
While Spathfoy sat there holding Hester’s bare hand in his, his gaze moved around the table, over the covered dishes, to the huge bouquet of roses starting to wilt on the sideboard, and to the window, where the long hours of gloaming were casting soft shadows. “For journeys safely concluded, for good food, for the company of family and friends, we are grateful. Amen.”
He kept his hand around hers for an instant more, long enough for Hester to register several impressions: his grip was dry, warm, firm, and unhesitating. He wasn’t cursed with bodily shyness, for all his other faults.
And it felt good—far, far too good—to join hands again with an adult male, to feel the latent strength in the clasp of his hand, to revel in simple human contact.
Hester reached for her water goblet at the same time Spathfoy reached for his wine, and their hands brushed again.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Daniels. You were saying something about fish?” He took a sip of his wine, not by word or gesture suggesting a little collision of hands might unnerve him the way it unnerved her.
“The River Dee is among the finest salmon streams in the world, my lord. Throughout Deeside, there are excellent inns and hostelries to accommodate the fishermen who come here for sport. His Highness is a great sportsman, and that doesn’t hurt either.”
“But the royal family is not now in residence at Balmoral, are they?” He ate almost daintily, and yet the food was disappearing from his plate at a great rate.
“Her Majesty usually removes here closer to August. We get quite the influx of English then, all mad for a walk in the Highlands in hopes they’ll encounter the royal family on a ramble.”
“You say this with some aspersion.”
His lovely voice held not so much censure as curiosity. Hester collected her thoughts while she took a sip of her wine, though the truth came out anyway.
“I came to Scotland to be with family, my lord. To escape the social confines of London, and the expectations incumbent on the daughter of a titled man when she emerges from mourning that man’s death. I do not relish the idea of coming across in the woods the very people I sought to avoid when I quit London.”
He was regarding her closely, his expression hard to read, and then he did the most unexpected thing: he patted her hand. A gentle, glancing stroke of his fingers over her knuckles.
The gesture should have felt condescending, but instead it was… comforting.
“Society is the very devil.” He topped off her wine. “As the heir to a marquis, I can only sympathize with your disparagement of it. And my condolences on the loss of your father. I’m hoping my own lives to a biblical age.”
He sounded very sincere in this wish, very human. Hester tried not to be disconcerted by that.
She’d thought dinner would be a struggle, but by the time he was asking her to finish his serving of trifle, she realized more than an hour in Spathfoy’s company had been… enjoyable.
“We’ve almost lost the light, Miss Daniels, but is there time for a short turn in the garden? A stroll before retiring settles the meal and is a personal habit of mine. If nothing else, I can look in on Flying Rowan.”
She could not politely refuse, and it wasn’t pitch dark yet. He assisted her to her feet, taking her hand then tucking it over his arm. He touched her with a certain competence, a male assurance that suggested handling women came instinctively to him.
She could not quite resent him for this—being handled competently was too rare a treat—but Hester vowed she would not be swayed by his abilities in this regard. He was an invading army of one, and his company manners did not make his mission any less suspect.
“The roses are particularly lovely,” she said as they moved across the terrace. “Mary Fran spares no effort in their care.”
“My grandmother was quite the gardener. My Scottish grandmother, that is.”
“And you must have seen her gardens at some point?”
He walked along beside her, making a gentlemanly accommodation to her shorter stride, and yet she felt him hesitate at the question.
“I did. For a succession of boyhood summers, I was sent to my grandparents while my parents attended various house parties in the South.”
He said nothing more, revealed no memories of those long-ago summers, so Hester was casting about for a polite topic they hadn’t yet exhausted, when an odd, ugly sound split the evening gloom. Beside her, Spathfoy paused.
Hester shuddered, wanting to put her hands over her ears. “What is that? It sound like a child in distress, a very young child.”
“It’s a fox, and I’ve been told that sound is Reynard’s attempt to attract a mate.”
“Pity the poor vixen, then, if that’s his best effort at courtship.” Hester wanted to move, to get away from that unpleasant, raucous noise, though it didn’t seem to bother her escort.
“The female’s lot is often unenviable, or so my sisters would have me believe. Which is your favorite rose?”
They made a circuit of the entire garden, until Hester’s head was beginning to ache with the unaccustomed amount of wine she’d consumed and the burden of being sociable to a man she did not like or trust. He left the impression that being cordially pleasant was no effort for him, so thoroughly ingrained were his gentlemanly inclinations.
“It is nearly dark,” Hester said. “Shall you visit your horse?”
“Let’s sit for a moment. It has been some time since I paused to appreciate the fragrance of roses on the evening air.”
Mother of God, he sounded wistful, and there was nothing for it but she must sit with him. Hester appropriated a wooden bench between the Bourbons and the Damasks, hearing the seat creak when Spathfoy came down beside her.
“I see a lamp burning in the opposite wing from my bedroom, though I doubt you have servants biding on the ground floor.”
“Aunt Ree’s rooms are on the ground floor to spare her the stairs and put her closer to the kitchens if she’s in need of a posset at bedtime.”
As they watched, Lady Ariadne herself bobbed past a window, her purple turban no longer in evidence.
“My grandmother had the same snow-white hair,” Spathfoy said. “What do you suppose she’s reading?”
Hester sensed that this too was part of his nature, a curiosity about anything and everything around him, because a man likely to inherit a marquessate would not comprehend that people with small lives treasured at least the privacy of those small lives.
“She reads old love letters before retiring and hopes her former swains will visit her in her dreams.”
Ariadne’s habit sounded daft, put into words like that. Daft and lonely.
And he had nothing to say to this, so a silence fell while Hester felt fatigue of both body and spirit seeping into her bones.
Spathfoy stretched out long, long legs and crossed them at the ankles. “At least she has love letters. Are you growing chilled, Miss Daniels? I can offer my coat, or return you to the house.”
Hester rose. The idea of being enveloped in the warmth and fragrance of his clothing was more disturbing than any slight chill in the evening air. “No thank you, my lord. I’ll see myself in, and my thanks, too, for your company at dinner. Breakfast is on the sideboard in the same dining parlor no later than first light.”
He got to his feet. “My thanks as well, Miss Daniels. Pleasant dreams.”
She might have tarried, might have reminded him to ring for anything he needed, and added admonitions that Highland hospitality meant their home was his for the duration of his stay, but she left him among the roses and shadows. Reminding Lady Ariadne to close her curtains was a far more urgent and worthy mission.
Tye hadn’t lied. A stroll after dinner was one of his personal habits. He’d acquired this habit in defense of his peace of mind when the alternative had been port and cigars with his father—a domestic ritual that invariably degenerated into vituperation of the Commons, the Prince Consort, his lordship’s own marchioness, or the fairer sex at large.
And seeing Flying Rowan properly bedded down was also part of Tye’s routine, though it served nicely to allow for discreet reconnaissance of Matthew Daniels’s outbuildings and grounds as well.
If the stables and gardens were any indication, Daniels was no slacker.
Rowan flicked an elegant black ear as his owner approached. The horse stood in a loose box bedded in ample, fragrant oat straw. A full bucket of clean water hung on the wall, and the gelding’s coat showed signs of a thorough grooming after his exertions earlier in the day.
“Don’t get too comfortable here, horse. The poor of the parish—of which there are more than a few—could use a hearty stew.”
Rowan wuffled and turned large, luminous eyes on Tye.
“Shameless beggar.” Tye let himself into the stall and produced a lump of sugar from his coat pocket. “Does it trouble you, horse, that you have no love letters to read by your bedside of a night?”
Rowan dispatched the lump of sugar and used a big roman nose to gently nudge at Tye’s pocket.
“You have no love letters, do you? Neither do I, thank The Almighty. Don’t beg.” He tapped the horse’s nose. “It’s ungentlemanly.” Tye scratched the beast’s withers, also part of his end-of-day ritual with the horse. “Quinworth reads old letters. One almost pities him when one finds him in such a state. Swilling whisky and chasing it with sentiment.”
The horse groaned and shivered all over. When Tye dropped his hand, the gelding craned its neck to pin Tye with another pointed look.
“You have no dignity, horse.” Tye moved around and started scratching from the horse’s other side. “And Quinworth has too much. The old boy has me neatly boxed in, make no mistake. If I don’t retrieve my darling niece, there will be hell to pay.”
And for just a moment, Tye let himself wonder if the ends truly justified the means. A childhood served out on Quinworth’s terms was not exactly a guarantee of happiness—far from it.
He slung an arm over the horse’s withers and leaned in, resting his weight against the animal for a moment. Fiona would be better off being acknowledged by her paternal family, and she would want for nothing money could buy.
And that should be an end to it.
“We’ll be heading back south before too much longer. Enjoy your Scottish holiday while you can.”
Tye let himself out of the stall, made certain the door was securely latched, took a tour of the rest of the stalls to inspect for the same measure, and ambled out into the starry night.
A light was burning on the first floor in the wing opposite Miss Ariadne’s, and the rest of the house, for the most part, was dark. The light wasn’t in Tye’s room—he’d been graced with a corner chamber of stately proportions—which meant it was possibly Miss Daniels burning late-night oil.
Did she, too, read love letters in hopes of inspiring amorous dreams?
He thought not. She didn’t strike him as a woman who’d received many love letters, much less as a lady who’d treasure the ones she’d been sent.
“Serviette on your lap, Fee.” Hester passed the child two sections of an orange. “And you’ll not be haring off this morning. If you need to stretch your legs, we’ll take a walk down to the burn.”
“May we picnic?”
Aunt Ariadne turned the handle of the teapot so it faced Hester. “It’s a lovely day for a ramble, my dears. I’m sure his lordship would appreciate a chance to see some of our views, too.”
Hester did not wrinkle her nose at this suggestion, because Fee was watching her too closely, even as the child also made short work of the orange sections.
“Perhaps his lordship would like to rest up from his journey,” Hester suggested. “Write some letters assuring his loved ones of his safe arrival.”
And perhaps his lordship didn’t intend to stay long enough to make even that exercise worth his time. The inn had sent out one small trunk and a traveling bag, which Hester took as encouraging.
A man traveling that light usually did not intend to tarry.
Aunt Ariadne watched as Hester filled their teacups. “Did you sleep well, my dear?”
“Oh, of course.”
Except she hadn’t. Hester had heard his lordship in the chamber next to hers, heard the sound of his wardrobe closing, heard him stirring on the balcony next to hers, heard him opening and closing the drawers to the escritoire in his room.
He wasn’t particularly loud, but he was there, where nobody ought to be, and this offended Hester’s equilibrium to the point where she suspected the dratted man had made an appearance in her dreams.
“Good morning, Lady Ariadne.” As if conjured from Hester’s thoughts, Spathfoy paused in the doorway to the dining parlor. “Miss Daniels, Miss Fiona. A lovely morning made lovelier still by present company.”
He advanced into the room, and Hester gave him a look informing him that she wasn’t charmed by his expansive good will. Last night, over a few too many glasses of wine, she’d exerted herself to tolerate his company out of simple good manners, but in the broad light of day, he needed to know she was not about to let down her guard again.
“Good morning, Uncle.” Fee beamed up at him over sticky fingers and a sticky chin. “Do you want to share my orange?”
“I’ll pass, thank you.” He moved along the sideboard, piling eggs, bacon, ham, and toast on his plate. “But a spot of tea wouldn’t go amiss. I must say, it has been quite some time since I’ve enjoyed my matutinal repast in such jejune company.”
He took a seat at Ariadne’s elbow while Hester wiped off Fee’s chin.
Fee spoke around Hester’s dampened serviette. “Your tootinal what?”
“His morning meal,” Hester translated. “In the company of one so young.”
“Is that English?”
Hester almost replied that such lofty expression was very definitely English, but Aunt intervened.
“Maybe his lordship was offering me a compliment on my youthful good looks, for which I would have to thank him. You must accompany the ladies on their rambles this morning, Spathfoy. They’re planning a picnic by the burn, which is a lovely spot. After traveling all day yesterday, you might want to work out a few of the kinks. Sitting on a train can be such an ordeal.”
“I didn’t actually.” He paused before he took up his knife and fork, which left Hester a moment to stare at his hands. She’d held one of those hands, if only briefly. “I do not enjoy train travel, though it serves well for long distances. I rode out from Aberdeen over the course of the past two days.”
Fee sat up. “You rode Flying Rowan clear out from Aberdeen? That is miles and miles. Surely, your fundament—”
Hester put her hand over the girl’s mouth. “Fiona MacGregor, you know better than to mention such a thing before a gentleman.” Though sixty-some miles was quite a long way to ride when the train was readily available.
Aunt placidly sipped her tea. “One can wonder about such things, Fiona, my dear, but one doesn’t ask at table, and not of a gentleman guest. Some jam, my lord?”
He was not afraid of good, hearty fare. In fact, he ate with the casual gusto of a man who had never known hunger or want, a man whose family hadn’t weathered potato famines, clearances, or decades of outlaw status forbidding them use of their very name.
“You’re quiet this morning, Miss Daniels. Did you sleep well?” He paused long enough to put down his utensils and take a sip of his tea while he considered Hester from across the table.
“I’m a sound sleeper, my lord. Thank you.”
Fee seized on the minute silence following Hester’s comment. “Will you picnic with us, Uncle? We could bring Flying Rowan if he needs to work out the kinks too.”
“Rowan will work out his kinks ambling around a grassy paddock, but I will tell him you extended a cordial invitation. Perhaps tomorrow we might take him for a short hack.”
“Does that mean I can go with you?” Fee fairly bounced in her seat with anticipation. “Can we leap the walls again and go really, really fast?”
Spathfoy set down his teacup. “I am guessing permission for such an outing will depend on your excellent deportment in the intervening hours, Fiona, and of course upon the Scottish weather.”
He tossed a glance at Hester, as if making some clever implication about the weather, or Hester herself.
“He means you have to behave, Fee,” Hester said.
“I’ll behave. Aunt Ree, may I please be excused? I want to tell Rowan we might go on another adventure.”
“You may be excused, but Fiona?” Aunt’s countenance remained serene. “You are not to go into that horse’s stall, my girl. You can visit with him perfectly well from outside his door.”
Fiona scrambled off her chair, remembered to bob something resembling a curtsy at the door, and departed in a patter of small feet.
“She is a wonderfully lively child,” Spathfoy remarked. “And it appears her injury is healed overnight. More tea, Miss Daniels?”
He managed to imply that lively was a distasteful quality in a child—in anybody. “No thank you, my lord. I was wondering if you’d like us to post some letters for you. Surely your family will want to know you’re safely arrived?”
“And here I thought I was among family, at least in the general sense.”
Well, good. Sniping was far preferable to charm.
Aunt beamed him an angelic smile. “Of course you’re among family, dear boy. You must prevail upon Balfour to take you shooting while you’re with us, and fishing, though Hester is quite the sport fisher herself.”
Hester put aside her irritation with this disclosure long enough to wonder what Aunt was up to.
“Ian knows the woods well, and a haunch of venison never goes to waste,” Hester said. “I doubt his lordship wants to idle along the Dee with a fishing pole and a book.”
“On the contrary, Miss Daniels. While I’ve been on many a shoot, I can’t say I’ve had much opportunity to fish.”
Bother and damnation. “It would be my pleasure to take you, then.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized he’d hooked her with only a few words. Plucked her from the current of her intentions and left her flopping on the verge of his own plans.
The last thing she wanted to do was spend time idling about with this spoiled, overgrown exponent of English aristocracy.
“I shall look forward to it, then,” his lordship said. “Maybe tomorrow, after we take out the horses?”
Aunt clapped her hands together gently. “Oh, excellent! Hester so enjoys a good gallop, and she hasn’t had a riding companion since she got here. What a pity Fiona has no mount of her own.”
Hester tried not to let her consternation show: by some legerdemain of manners, she was now accompanying Spathfoy both riding and fishing.
“Perhaps I shall get the child a pony.” Spathfoy looked intrigued with the notion. “My sisters all had ponies before they had tutors.”
“Fiona’s parents might have something to say about such an extravagant gift, my lord. I believe Matthew wanted to be the one to teach his daughter how to ride, though the thought is most generous of you.”
Hester fired off a smile to go with her scold. Spathfoy smiled back, all even white teeth and genial condescension. “An uncle, particularly one newly introduced to the child, must be allowed to dote, Miss Daniels.”
“I’m off to the kitchen,” Aunt said, laying her folded serviette on the table. “I will alert Deal to the need for a picnic today, and likely one tomorrow as well, though you won’t catch any fish if Fiona comes along.”
Before she could put both hands on the table, Spathfoy was on his feet and poised to shift her chair. He waited with every appearance of solicitude while Aunt scooted to the edge of her seat, bounced a little on her backside, then heaved up to a standing position.
“Shall I escort you to the kitchen, my lady?”
“Lord, no. Deal would have kittens to think of such a great man among the scullery maids and potboys. If you’d hand me my cane, my lord, I’ll toddle along under my own steam.”
Deal might also be tempted to take a carving knife to the great man’s self-importance, though Hester kept that thought to herself when Spathfoy resumed his seat.
“Our elders present us with a puzzle.” He poured himself more tea and gestured with the pot at Hester’s cup.
“Please.” When tea was one’s only source of fortitude, it would be silly to refuse another cup.
“I never know with my father whether he’s being irascible out of habit, or whether he’s provoking me into some display of dominance over him so he might retire from the duties of the marquessate, satisfied that I have sufficient pugnacity to step into his shoes.”
That sentence was long, even for him. Hester searched through it for plain meaning while she drank half her tea. “Your father is too proud to ask for your help.”
Spathfoy peered at his teacup, and it was a satisfying moment, both because she’d flummoxed him and because his father apparently flummoxed him. Spathfoy had mentioned sisters, too—in the plural—which boded well for Hester’s spirits.
“It is perhaps more the case my father and I don’t know how to ask for help from each other.” He sounded unhappy to draw this conclusion, the honesty of the sentiment ruining Hester’s gloat entirely.
“What help would you request of him, my lord?”
Spathfoy dabbed a bite of eggs onto a corner of toast the way an artist might add paint to a canvas. “Interesting question, though I don’t seek the help he proffers enthusiastically. The man is forever tossing prospective brides at me. He has a good eye for horses, though.”
“And the two don’t correlate? An eye for a bride and an eye for a horse?”
Too late, Hester realized she’d left him worlds of room for sly innuendo about mounts, rides, and other vulgar jokes. Jasper would have been smirking lasciviously at the very least. She took refuge in draining her teacup.
Spathfoy wasn’t smirking, though humor lurked in his green eyes. “My mother and my sisters would skin me alive did I intimate a connection between brides and horses, but if there is one, it likely has to do with tossing a man aside when his attention lapses and giving his pride a hard landing.”
A polite, even friendly rejoinder, damn him, and yet Hester wished she could leave him to his own company at breakfast, even though he was a guest newly arrived.
“What of your own father, Miss Daniels? Was he inclined to provide helpful advice?”
“He was not.” Even the thought of the late Baron Altsax had Hester’s tea and toast threatening to rebel. “He provided his opinions to all and sundry nonetheless.” She lifted her teacup to her mouth, only to find it empty, and when she set it down on the table, she realized Spathfoy could see quite well what she’d done.
“I never did offer my condolences on your loss.”
If he patted her hand again she’d be smashing her teacup against the wall. “My thanks, Lord Spathfoy. You also never told Aunt how long you can stay with us.”
The inquiry wasn’t rude, exactly, put like that, but he clearly wasn’t fooled.
“I am at leisure, Miss Daniels, and it has been far too long since I’ve enjoyed a Scottish holiday. When do we depart for this ramble Fiona seems so delighted to contemplate?”
Scotland was good for the body. Tye had forgotten this in the years since his boyhood visits.
The old house bore the slight tang of peat smoke rather than the pungent stench of coal. Out of doors, the air was crisp, the light clear, and under all the other scents—garden, stable, breakfast parlor, or freshly turned earth—heather wafted gently through the senses.
The hills ringing the shire bore purplish hems of heather; the inn where he’d stayed in Ballater had offered heather ale. He’d enjoyed a tankard and enjoyed the freedom to sit in the common and simply watch the passing scene. He was also enjoying this morning respite on a tartan blanket by a gurgling little stream, though the company left a great deal to be desired.
“Is my niece always so prone to climbing?”
“Your height spares you the indignities and inconveniences of shorter stature, my lord.” Miss Daniels did not even glance up from her book to deliver this insight. If she sat any farther away, she’d be on the grass. “Those of us built on a less grandiose scale enjoy what height we can appropriate from trees, horses, and the terrain itself.”
Grandiose, not grand. Miss Daniels bore the scent of lemon verbena. Tye was not intimately acquainted with the lexicon of flowers, but he suspected lemon verbena might stand for, “May the ruddy bastard get himself back to England, the sooner the better.”
If only he could.
“Hmm?” She tucked an errant lock of blond hair over one ear and kept her gaze on her book.
“Have I somehow given offense? I realize you were not forewarned of my visit, but I did write to your brother twice.”
She put her book down with particular patience and glanced at him as if he smelled a good deal less appealing than heather, but she was too much a lady to show it.
“My lord, it is curious to me that you would travel such a distance without any guarantee of your welcome. What if Matthew and Mary Fran had closed up the house during their summer travels? It was one plan under consideration.”
“Then I should have paid my respects to Balfour, enjoyed the Highland scenery currently so much in vogue, and taken myself back south. Lady Ariadne seemed cheered at the thought of a house guest. If I am mistaken in this regard, I will be happy to remove to the inn in Ballater while I further my acquaintance with my only niece.”
She closed her book, and Tye had the satisfaction of seeing her neatly cornered by manners and good breeding. When she did not speak but bit her full, rosy lip and regarded her closed book, he gave her a little more to think about.
“I am enjoying my stay, short though it has been. I am not much in the company of my female family, and yet your household at present is exclusively female.”
“And you like staying with a child, a dowager, and a spinster?”
“A spinster, Miss Daniels?” She was damned pretty for a spinster. Also quite young.
She lifted her chin so his gaze collided with a pair of solemn blue eyes. “There are worse terms for me, your lordship. Spinster is accurate. I’m not ashamed of it.”
And abruptly, they were beyond the bounds of manners. Her gaze was steady, neither challenging nor defensive, though any fool could see her dignity was supported by some deep hurt.
“You have me at a loss, Miss Daniels.”
She regarded her book of verse the same way Fiona had regarded her injured ankle the day before. “I am a jilt, at least, and others called me a tease—”
“Aunt Hester! I see a fish!” Fiona stood on her tree limb and pointed to the shallows of the burn, making the entire limb as well as its shadows shake. “He’s a great big fellow and taking a nap in the reeds not two feet from the bank.”
Wanting nothing so much as to escape from the faint accusation in Miss Daniels’s somber gaze, Tye yanked off first one boot, then the other. “You mustn’t wake him up. Stay where you are, Fiona. My grandfather showed me how this is done.” He stripped off his socks and rolled up his breeches.
“Will you guddle him, Uncle? Can I watch?”
“You can watch quietly.” Tye rose off the blanket. “Point to him again, then climb down slowly and without making a sound.”
“There.” Fiona stage-whispered and gestured to the dappled shallows. “You can see his tail sticking out from the reeds.”
Tye set his boots and socks aside and stepped one foot at a time into the shallow water downstream from the fish.
“God in heaven.” He stood for a moment, enjoying the shock of the near-freezing water. “This is invigorating. Do not think of dipping a single toe into this water, Fiona. Your word on it.”
“But I want to guddle him too!” She clambered out of the tree and stomped up to the bank. “I saw him first, and I’ve never tickled a fish before.”
“Then this is your chance to learn from your elders. Hush, child. This requires concentration.”
It required no such thing. It merely wanted patience, common sense, and an inhuman tolerance for cold water. By degrees, Tye inched up along the streambed, keeping the delicately waving fishtail in his sight at all times. When he was near enough to the fish, he dipped down on one knee and slipped both hands into the water.
“You start at the tail,” he said softly. If Fiona leaned one inch farther out, she’d fall into the water. “My grandda said to begin with one finger and stroke slowly, slowly along the belly.”
He made contact with a cool, smooth fish belly, using the tip of one index finger.
“And you mustn’t rush it. Mustn’t disturb his dreams, but rather, steal into them.” He added a second finger in a slow, back-and-forth stroking motion. “If you get greedy, you’ll wake him rather than lull him deeper to sleep.”
“Is it like a lullaby when you tickle him?” Fiona’s voice was soft and wondering, just as Tye’s had been when his grandfather had first shown him how to tickle a fish.
“Like a lullaby, or rubbing a baby’s back to coax her to sleep.” He shifted his fingers up the fish’s belly, half inch by half inch. “He’s quite good size.”
“I want to see!” Fee hissed out her frustration, slapping her fists against her thighs.
“Fiona.” Miss Daniels’s voice was soft with reproach from her place at Fiona’s side. “Lord Spathfoy is not freezing his toes off so you can scare the fish away with your chatter.”
Fiona fell silent as Tye stroked his fingers back and forth, back and forth. “I’m close.” He was whispering, and when he glanced up, he saw both Fiona and Miss Daniels’s expressions were rapt with expectation.
“Another moment.” Another moment and his calf submerged in the burn would cramp or lose sensation altogether. Tye slid his hands around the fish and closed gently.
“That’s it. There we go.”
He lifted the fish up out of the water, feeling inordinately pleased with himself.
“He’s enormous!” Fiona reached out a hand then dropped it. “May I touch him?”
“Of course, though he’ll start to thrash here directly.” The fish was panting, dazed, and soon to realize its mortal peril.
“He’s very pretty, and cold.” Fiona ran a finger over the fish’s side. “He looks like the light from the water is caught in his skin.”
“His scales,” Tye said. “If we don’t toss him back soon, he’ll die.”
“Toss him back?” Fiona glanced over at her aunt. “Won’t Deal want him for the kitchen?”
Miss Daniels looked horrified at the very notion. “We won’t tell Deal quite how big he is.” While Tye watched, Miss Daniels ran her fingers down the cold, scaly length of the fish’s body. “Best toss him back quickly, my lord.”
Tye hadn’t expected her to touch the fish then command its rescue. He gently lobbed the creature to the far side of the stream, and they all three watched as it swam away down the current.
Fiona slapped her hands together. “That was capital! If we see another, may I try?”
“You may,” Tye said, slogging up onto the bank. “With your aunt’s permission.”
“Not by yourself, Fiona MacGregor. The burn is a pretty little stream now, but one storm higher up in the hills, and it can rage over its banks.”
“Why can’t I ever do anything by myself?” The fish forgotten, the child repaired to her tree—a reading tree, rather than a treaty oak—and began to climb.
Tye waited while Miss Daniels resumed a place on the blanket, then took a spot immediately beside her just to see what she’d do. “You allow her to address her elders in such a manner?”
She picked up her book. “Why don’t you give her a stern talking to, Uncle? Let her see that with merely a cross word, she can pique your interest and rivet your attention. As fascinated as she is with you—or perhaps with your horse—she’ll be bickering the livelong day in no time. And she’s right: she is left little to her own devices.”
Miss Daniels turned a page, as if she were reading in truth.
“You’ve piqued my interest, Miss Daniels.”
She looked up, her expression gratifyingly wary. “My lord?”
“You mentioned the words jilt and tease. These are pejoratives, and I would have you explain them.” He kept his voice down out of deference to the child’s proximity, though Fiona was warbling among the boughs in Gaelic about her love gone over the sea.
The lady closed her eyes and expelled an audible breath. When she opened them, as close as Tye sat to her, he could see flecks of gold in her blue irises and flecks of deeper blue.
“If you frequent London society, my lord, then you are as aware as the next titled lordling that I’ve recently broken an engagement to Jasper Merriman—Lord Jasper. The situation was particularly nasty, because the gentleman had been counting heavily on my dowry. He threatened to bring suit.”
“God in heaven. Suit? Against you? I’ve never heard of such a thing—a lady is permitted to change her mind. Even the courts know that.”
“Breach of promise, though he was convinced to take the more gentlemanly route.”
“Convinced by a goodly sum of coin, no doubt.” He couldn’t keep the anger from his voice. A woman brought suit for breach of a man’s promise, because a man’s word was the embodiment of his honor. A young woman’s word was hardly hers to give, because she was in the care of her parents if the match involved a lady of any standing.
“You censure him for this?” Her tone was careful, merely inquisitive.
“Of course I censure the bas—the beggar. Living on one’s expectations is foolishness, and threatening to drag a woman’s good name through the courts, when that woman was previously considered adequate to mother one’s children… Of course I censure him. What was his name? Merridew?”
“Merriman. Third son of the Marquis of Spielgood.”
“For God’s sake… A third son, no less. He should be horsewhipped. I hope your brother dealt with him.”
“My brother paid him off.”
And from the way she took to studying the burn, Tye divined that this was the real hurt. Not the gossip, not the labeling, not Merriman’s legal posturing and dishonorable conduct. The real shame, for Hester Daniels, was that her brother had been put to embarrassment and expense on her behalf.
“He doesn’t blame you.”
She glanced over at him fleetingly, then resumed her perusal of the burn, the banks, the fields and hills beyond. “I beg your pardon?”
“Your brother does not blame you. He blames himself. If he’d been more attentive, you would not have taken up with a bounder like this Merrifield idiot.” Her lips quirked at his purposeful misnomer, the smallest, fleeting breach in her dignity. He wanted to widen that breach.
“Matthew did not approve of the match. Because my older sister was not yet betrothed, my father kept his agreement with Jasper private. Then too, Mama wanted me to have my own Season once Genie was engaged.”
“But your father died, and there were no more Seasons for you.” She nodded, and Tye might have seen her blinking at the book in her hands.
“I had only Jasper’s word for the fact that Altsax had agreed to the match. The solicitors could only tell us my father had instructed them to draw up the settlements. He never signed them or sent them to Jasper’s solicitors.”
Now this purely stank. “How would breach of promise have been proved if there were no signed agreements?”
She set the poetry aside and smoothed a hand over her skirts, putting Tye in mind of his younger sister’s habit of twisting a lock of hair when unnerved. “Jasper proposed to me in the park one afternoon, directly after I’d concluded my mourning for Altsax. Before one and all, his lordship put a ring on my finger and kissed my cheek.”
“That is utter rot.” He wanted to throw her bloody, bedamned book into the water. “The bastard ambushed you, caught you unawares, and set you up so you could not refuse. He must have been very deep in debt indeed, and my guess is old Spielgood cut him off.”
She abruptly found Tye worthy of study. “Do you think so?”
“For God’s sake, Miss Daniels, I know so. Younger sons face a choice—I know, my brother was one. They can either try to be more noble than their titled fathers and brothers, or they can spend their lives pouting because they were born two years or two minutes behind their older sibling. This Merriberg fellow was entirely beneath you, you’re well rid of him, and he’s lucky your brother didn’t arrange a bare-knuckle encounter with him in some dingy alley.”
Her lips were threatening to turn up again. “You are carrying on like a brother now.”
She sounded approving, damned if she didn’t. Tye wrestled the urge to hunt down Jasper Merridamn and introduce him to some of Tye’s favorite pugilistic theories.
“I am a brother. I have three younger sisters, not a one of them married, and if I understand anything, it’s the perils of Polite Society.”
“You truly think I’m well rid of him?”
She sounded plaintive, which left Tye wanting to have a word with the woman’s brother. “Has no one told you as much?”
“Aunt has. My cousin Augusta. Fiona.”
But she hadn’t heard it from her menfolk, or apparently from her own mother. Tye schooled himself to sound older and wiser, and not bloody angry on her behalf.
“You think you are destined for a life of obscurity, and that your great shame will follow you all your days. I am loathe to inform you, Miss Daniels, that your great shame has already been forgotten by every tabby and tattletale in London. At least four scandals have crowded in on the heels of your little contretemps, each juicier than the last. You are tormenting yourself for nothing. The man took advantage of you when you were grieving, pressed an expectation never legally his, and embarrassed you unforgivably in the process. Take a few turns around a few ballrooms next Season, and the matter will be at an end. I will be happy to stand up with you for this express purpose.”
He fell silent because there was no disguising the anger in his tone. Was chivalry to die such an easy death at the hands of the men of England?
The lady at least looked interested in his version of events, which was an odd relief. He much preferred her spewing hail and lightning on all in her path.
Or possibly, he preferred to see what would happen if she permitted herself even one genuine smile aimed in his direction.
“Did you know, Miss Daniels, that Henrietta Mortenson was caught out in a punt on the Cam when a downpour started, and though her escort offered his coat, she was drenched through to the skin before he could row her ashore? This occurred not two weeks past, and I was told repeatedly, whether I wished to hear it or not, that every stitch of the embroidery on her underlinen was visible through the wet fabric of her dress, and very nice stitch work it was, too.”
“Oh, do be quiet. Fiona will overhear you.”
“Good. Then she’ll know what to expect when she makes her bow. I also have it on good authority that to win a dare from her sister, Sally Higgambotham allowed Sir Neil Forthambly to kiss her, but her brothers overheard the dare and placed side bets on whether they could compromise the couple into marriage. The couple was caught, but I do not know if an announcement has yet been issued.”
“But Sir Neil…”
“Is eighty if he’s a day.”
She tried to hide it. She made a good effort, a good stout firming of her mouth, but then her lips curved up, curved up higher, and parted to reveal two rows of white teeth. Her discipline crumbled apace as her cheeks lifted, her eyes lit, and merriment suffused her countenance.
She smiled at him, and the grace and beauty of it, the sheer loveliness, was such that Tiberius Lamartine Flynn, for the first time in his nearly thirty years of life, felt as if a woman’s smile illuminated him from within.
An hour by the stream, which should have been a simple, even tedious outing to humor Fiona’s need for activity, had presented Hester with three problems, each disturbing in its own way.
First, there was the realization that Fiona was predisposed to love uncles—any uncles who came into her life. Because Fiona had been raised without a father, her three maternal uncles had showered her with the love and affection less easily shown to their sister, her mother. Any man sporting the title “uncle” would bear positive associations for Fiona.
Second, Spathfoy was good at this uncle-ing business. His manner of doting was brusque, even imperious, but he neither hovered nor ignored Fiona, and because he was an older brother and an astute man, the role of uncle was not that great a leap for him.
Well, so be it.
Perhaps a wealthy, titled English uncle would be an asset to Fiona as she grew older, provided he kept to his wealthy, titled English world except for the occasional summer visit.
But then there was Difficulty Number Three, which devolved to Hester personally: the man himself.
A woman inured to the injustices of the world was in a sorry case indeed when she envied a gasping trout. Or salmon—whatever that poor fish had been.
“This requires concentration… Stroke slowly, slowly along the belly… mustn’t rush it… like a lullaby… I’m close… That’s it. There we go.”
Had the fish been as seduced by that voice as Hester had? Inside her body, things had lifted and shifted as Spathfoy had entranced the fish. His wet, dripping hands had secured that hapless fish with gentle implacability, and the thing had been willing to lie in his grasp and gasp itself to death while Hester looked on and tried to breathe normally.
Mother of God, had Jasper been right? Did all women seek a man’s intimate attentions?
And that wasn’t the worst of the problem. Spathfoy walked along beside her as they made their way back to the house, Fiona swinging his hand while she pestered him about sea monsters and tree sprites.
“But what if a sea monster fell in love with a tree sprite? How would they marry, Uncle?”
“Turtles walk on dry land and yet dwell in water, and I know many trees sink roots into a riverbank. I should think they’d marry fairly well.”
This silenced the child for three entire strides. “What if a troll fell in love with a beautiful princess?”
“This is easy, Niece. The princess kisses the troll, he turns into a handsome prince, and they live happily ever after. Your education has been neglected if you don’t know that one.”
“I knew it, but my papa didn’t, and neither did Uncle Ian. Uncle Con said trolls who fall in love with princesses are to be pitied, and Aunt Julie smacked him, and then he kissed her.”
“Which was likely his aim. I’m for a visit to the stables. Will you ladies join me?”
“I will!” Fee started kiting around madly on the end of his arm. “I want to tell Flying Rowan all about the fishie, and I can guddle the next one.”
“Not if you’re making this much racket.”
At her uncle’s simple observation, Fee quieted.
“I will excuse myself,” Hester said. “With company in the house, Mrs. Deal is understandably concerned regarding the menus. Fiona, I’m sure Aunt will want to know all about the fish when you read to her this afternoon.”
“Yes! And I can tell her he was this big!” She stretched her hands about three feet apart, which for Fiona, was only a slight exaggeration. She snatched her uncle’s fingers in hers and dragged him off toward the stables, until, as Hester watched, Spathfoy hiked the child onto his back.
Leaving Hester to again enumerate the growing list of difficulties relating to the Earl of Spathfoy.
The worst problem revealed by the morning’s outing was that Spathfoy—for all that his vocabulary and his conceit were in proportion to the rest of him—was a decent man.
Hester had expected he’d recoil upon realizing she was that Miss Daniels, the one who’d tossed aside the son of a marquis. She was the Miss Daniels who’d left a young man to the mercy of his creditors and to the mercy of a father for whom the term “old-fashioned” was a euphemism.
She was the Miss Daniels whose own mother had banished her to the far North, thrown her on the mercy of a brother newly wed to become, at not even twenty-five years old, an object of pity.
Spinster was beyond a euphemism. It was a fairy tale, a benign mischaracterization Hester had been all too willing to accept—though Spathfoy had not.
This endeared him to her, which was a very great disruption of Hester’s plans for the man. He’d teased her. How long had it been since she’d been teased with relentless, gentle good humor?
And then, when she’d indicated he’d made his point, he’d smiled at her. Not one of his buccaneer grins, or a condescending quirk of the lips accompanied by a haughty arch of his brow.
His smile was a blessing. A radiant, soul-warming benevolence just for her.
And—assuming the man was going to head back south without a backward glance—therein lay the sum and substance of Difficulties Number Three through Three Hundred.
Tye was by no means done reconnoitering enemy territory, but he could start maneuvering his artillery into place nonetheless. Lollygagging by the stream was defensible as an information-gathering expedition—also a pleasant respite after a demanding journey—but his time was limited, and each day had to count.
“This is Hannibal. He’s Uncle Ian’s horse, but he’s getting on. If I’m tall enough, I can have him when Uncle says Hannibal needs a lighter rider.”
Hannibal was every bit as substantial and elegant as Flying Rowan, but there was gray encroaching on the horse’s muzzle, and above his eyes, the bone structure testified to advancing years.
“Wouldn’t you rather start off with a pony, Fiona?”
She stood beside him on a sturdy trunk, her hand extended through the bars into the horse’s stall, and yet Tye could feel every fiber of her little being go still. “Mama says I can’t have a pony until I’m nine.”
“That seems a very long way off.” To a child, even a few months could feel like forever, and a year or two an unfathomable eternity.
“It is forever, a terrible, awful, perishing long time.” She turned around, and with a hearty huff, plopped her backside onto the trunk. “Mama never changes her mind. Aunt Hester says Mama is the Rock of Gibraltar on matters of importance. I think she’s stubborn, and Uncle Ian once told me I wasn’t wrong. I’m stubborn too—so is Uncle Ian.”
Tye had to wonder about a belted earl sharing confidences with a girl child, but then, here he was himself, attempting the very same thing. He took a seat beside his niece on the trunk. “Does your mother have a reason for making you wait such a terribly, awfully, perishing long time?”
“Yes. Mama has a reason, and Papa says it’s a sound reason, so I must not wheedle. Her reason is this: ponies are small, but I am going to be a great, strapping beauty, and so I will outgrow ponies very quickly. The longer I wait for my first one, the fewer ponies I will outgrow. Mama wanted me to wait until I was twelve, but Papa said I was already quite tall, so Mama compromised. They had an argument.”
“Arguments can be loud.”
“They go in the bedroom and lock the door. It isn’t loud. Sometimes I hear Mama laughing.” She hopped off the trunk and crossed the aisle to lean over Rowan’s half door. “He’s very handsome.”
Tye remained where he was, oddly reluctant to pry further information from the child. “Will you miss Rowan when he goes?”
She whirled, which caused the gelding to startle in his stall. “You just got here. You can’t be going away so soon! Why doesn’t anybody want to stay with me? Aunt Ree is too old to travel, and Aunt Hester is only here for the summer to look after Aunt Ree and me. It isn’t fair.”
She turned again to extend a hand to Rowan. The gelding overcame his nerves enough to sniff delicately at her fingers.
“He smells that fish,” Tye said. “Would you enjoy traveling, Fiona? Seeing the sea and the north country, Edinburgh and London?”
She was quiet for a moment while Rowan went back to lipping his hay. “I’ve been to Aberdeen. There are lots of horses there, everything is made of stone, and it smells like fish by the sea. I don’t like the ocean.”
“Come here.” He patted the place beside him. “There’s a menagerie in London, and the Royal mews too, which is where the great golden coronation coach is.”
She scrambled onto the trunk and crammed right up against his side. “Is it really made of gold?”
“Sit with me for a moment, and I’ll tell you about it.” He tucked an arm around her small, bony shoulders and tried to recall what had first impressed him about the coach when he’d seen it as a small and easily enchanted boy.
Augusta MacGregor, Countess of Balfour, worried about her cousin Hester, and thus Ian MacGregor, Earl of Balfour, was prone to the same anxiety. The girl looked far too tired and serious for her tender years.
“Is Fiona running you ragged, Hester?” Ian bent to kiss his pretty cousin-in-law’s cheek, catching a pleasant whiff of lemon as he did.
“Fiona is a perfect angel, but the nights grow short, and I’m not quite settled in here yet.”
A month had gone by since Ian and Augusta had collected her from the train station at Ballater, it being familial consensus that no less person than the earl himself should welcome her back to Aberdeenshire. She’d been pale, brave, and so dauntingly proper in her behavior Ian had wanted to get on the damned train, head to London, and pummel the daylights out of a certain marquis’s youngest son. Matthew and Mary Fran had talked him out of it, lecturing him about sleeping dogs and an earl’s consequence.
He tucked Hester’s hand onto his arm and led her toward the family parlor. “Will Aunt Ree be joining us, or is she resting?”
“She rests a great deal, Ian. I try not to disturb her, but she’ll want to see you.”
“Interrogate me, you mean. Where’s Fiona?”
Hester untangled her hand from his arm. “I left her in Spathfoy’s care. They were visiting the horses, which seemed like a good way for them to get further acquainted.”
“Brave man, to take on Fiona in her favorite surrounds. Do you trust him?”
She took a seat in a rocker by the empty hearth, the same chair Aunt Ree usually favored. “I do not trust him, Ian. Spathfoy came here without any acknowledgement that he’d be welcome or the house even occupied. His family has shown no interest in Fiona since her birth, and yet here he is, when Mary Fran and Matthew are far, far away.”
Ian took the corner of the sofa. “Augusta has a theory about this, and it makes sense to me.”
Hester said nothing and didn’t even set the chair to rocking. Last summer, she’d been lively, good humored, and bristling with energy. This summer, she was a different and far sadder creature entirely.
“Augusta believes old Quinworth is getting on and the young lord is preparing to take over the reins. Showing an interest in Fiona is one way Spathfoy can do that. Then too, by sending his son to look in on the girl, Quinworth isn’t quite admitting he’s neglected his only granddaughter all these years.”
“Men.” She spat the word. “Titled men in particular.” Ian allowed a diplomatic silence to stretch when what he wanted to do involved travel south, cursing, and fisticuffs. “I don’t mean you, Ian. I mean titled Englishmen.”
“Has Spathfoy been so insufferable as all that? I can have him over to Balfour, and if that screaming infant doesn’t send him back to London hotfoot, then Augusta’s discussions of nappies and infant digestion will.”
At long last, humor came into Hester’s blue eyes. “Ian MacGregor, are you complaining?”
“Bitterly. I finally find a woman I want to keep for my own, a woman courageous enough to marry me, and she’s stolen away by a wee bandit no bigger than this.” He held his hands about a bread-loaf’s distance from each other. “Shall I subject Spathfoy to my son’s hospitality?”
“I think not.” She answered quickly and with some assurance, which was interesting. “He’s very well mannered, and Aunt Ree enjoys flirting with him.”
“Ariadne MacGregor has an affliction. She can’t help herself.” Aunt Ree was enough to give a man in contemplation of daughters pause.
Hester rose from her chair to go to the window. “He flirts back, and he’s very good with Fee—patient, but he doesn’t let her get away with much.”
Ian moved to stand beside her, marveling anew at how petite she was. “Give it a few days. He’ll be cowering under his bed to hide from his niece, or she’ll be having him up the trees, into the burn, and down the hillside. I have to admit when Fee and Mary Fran left Balfour House, the place felt like a library, so quiet did it become.”
“It’s not quiet now, is it?”
When the baby slept it was quiet. “You’re quiet, Hester Daniels. How are you getting on?”
She crossed her arms and glowered at the roses beyond the window, but did not retreat to her rocker, ring for tea, or indulge in any of the other genteel prevarications available to her. “I am indebted to my brother for his hospitality. We’re having a lovely summer, or we were until unexpected company arrived.”
“And you don’t want to hand your company over to me and Augusta?”
She wrinkled her nose, which reminded Ian that his cousin-in-law was nigh ten years his junior, with all of one social Season under her dainty belt. That her father had been a conniving scoundrel did not mean Hester herself was worldly, and she’d said little about her reasons for breaking off what ought to have been a very promising match.
“Ian, I like Spathfoy. I don’t want to like him, and he has no charm whatsoever, but he’s…”
Ian watched as a tall, dark-haired man in well-tailored riding attire was led up the path from the stables by Fiona, who appeared to be chattering away all the while. “He’s a good-looking rascal.”
“He’s arrogant,” Hester said, dropping her arms. “He uses vocabulary unsuited to communicating with a child, but she likes him for it. He fascinates her, a shiny new uncle with a fancy accent appearing just as she’s about to die of missing her parents.”
“They’ll be home in a few weeks, and then Spathfoy will be forgotten until he next recalls he has a Scottish niece. By then he’ll have a countess of his own to keep him out of trouble.”
She gave Ian an unreadable look. “I’ll ring for tea.”
Ian watched Fiona tow her shiny new uncle along, and felt a sense of frustration that Augusta had not accompanied him for this visit. Hester was pining for something, or someone, and Ian was at a loss about what to do for the girl.
Mary Fran had suggested peace and quiet would help, but exactly what they were supposed to help with, Ian had not asked.
“Uncle Ian!” Fiona pelted into the room, throwing herself into Ian’s waiting arms. “I spied the biggest fish from up in my reading tree, and we guddled him right to sleep. Uncle said I can do it next time, but not if there’s a storm to raise the burn. Did Aunt Augusta come along? Will you tell her we guddled a huge fishie?”
Ian wrapped his arms around his only niece. “I will tell her you are grown half a foot since I saw you on Saturday. You’ll soon be dancing with your cousin, at this rate.”
She wiggled away, her face a mask of disgust. “Not until he’s out of nappies.”
Ian let her go and saw Spathfoy hanging by the door, wearing the look of an uncle who’d just learned his niece could forget his existence in an instant.
“This must be the great guddler.” Ian extended a hand. “Balfour, at your service.” He bestowed his best, disarming smile on the man, and received a firm handshake in return—no smile.
“Spathfoy, pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Augusta would know how to describe that voice—sophisticated, or portentous, or some damned big, pretty, stuffy word.
“Uncle Spathfoy caught the fish,” Fiona supplied. “I wasn’t allowed in the burn, but next time it will be my turn.” She seized Ian’s hand and turned to regard “Uncle Spathfoy” pointedly.
“Be glad you weren’t allowed in the burn,” Ian said. “Your wee teeth would still be chattering.”
“And,” Spathfoy said, eyeing the grip Fiona had of Ian’s hand, “your clothing might still be damp. If you’ll excuse me, Lord Balfour, I’ll see to my attire before we observe further civilities.”
He nodded—perhaps the gesture approached some form of bow by virtue of its proximity to his prissy little speech—and withdrew.
“Uncle Ian, what’s a tire?”
Not two years into public school, Tye had understood why Duty and Honor must be elevated so high in the esteem of the budding flowers of English manhood: duty and Honor were required to fill a boy’s vision so he might lose sight—if not entirely then at least substantially—of his Resentments.
The result of this insight was for Tye to focus intently on those resentments, until he could list them, recite them to himself like a litany of souls to be prayed for. He resented his younger brother, whose scrapes and pranks were forever earning Tye a birching or worse, protracted lectures about setting a worthy example. He resented his younger sisters when they came along, for they appropriated attention from a formerly devoted mother and very indulgent staff.
He probably resented his mother too, though even in his lowest adolescent lows—and those were melodramatically low, indeed—he did not quite manage to add her to his list.
And he still had not, though in the privacy of his thoughts it was a near thing.
He resented his father. There were sublists and footnotes and nigh an entire bibliography appended to the resentment he bore his father. He suspected other fellows in expectation of a title carried similar lists in their heads, but by tacit understanding, each honorable, dutiful boy nurtured his resentments in private, if he acknowledged them at all.
And now, Tye could resurrect the list that had died a quiet death in his university years—resentment was an indulgence, after all—and add several more items to it.
He resented Scotland. This struck him as a solid, English sort of addition to the list, and if it meant he resented half his own heritage, well, he’d borne that burden for his entire life.
He resented nieces who charmed and provoked protective instincts at variance with the demands of Duty and Honor.
He resented, bitterly, fathers who made a son choose between duty and conscience, particularly when both options were rife with negative consequences to people not even involved in the choice.
He resented Scottish earls, Balfour in particular, who could exude such bonhomie and graciousness that Tye nearly believed Balfour shouldered the burdens of his title without suffering any resentments at all.
Tye mentally polished his list while changing into dry morning clothes, dragging a brush through his hair, and returning to the family parlor from whence he’d come. He figuratively left his resentments at the door, fixed a smile on his countenance, and prepared to match Balfour’s pleasant good humor with every semblance of credibility.
“Uncle!” This time, Fiona bolted toward him, which was a fleeting triumph until Tye realized he was supposed to sweep her into his arms, though they’d parted not ten minutes earlier.
“Niece.” He set her on her feet. “I see you left a scone or two on the tray.”
“I didn’t, but Uncle Ian did. He said he’s going to reive Deal back to Balfour, because she makes the best.”
She escorted him across the parlor to the sofa and indicated he should take the seat to the left of Miss Daniels. Tye did, only to find his niece wiggling herself between him and the end of the sofa, which forwardness necessitated that he shift closer to Miss Daniels.
“Uncle told me about the coronation coach. He said the wheels are almost as tall as he is.”
“That is your last scone, Fiona MacGregor. You’ll spoil your luncheon.” Miss Daniels spoke pleasantly while she passed Tye a cup of tea.
“And I’ll not be stealing Deal until your aunt Augusta weans the little shoat, particularly not when Deal can be cooking for an English earl here.” The dainty teacup in Balfour’s hand looked like doll china, though the man’s fingernails were clean and his turnout every bit as well made and spotless as Tye’s own.
Balfour snitched a bite of his niece’s scone and went on speaking. “I have petitioned the Sovereign to pass a law that the offspring of titled men should be weaned at birth. The succession of many a title will be more easily assured. The Prince Consort has told me privately he endorses my scheme, but I’ve yet to prevail.”
This was humor. Tye understood it as such, but there were females present, and it was humor relating to, of all things, weaning.
“I haven’t an opinion on the matter.”
“You will, laddie.” Balfour winked at him, reminding Tye strongly of their mutual niece. “Give it time, a countess of your own, and a few assaults on your beleaguered paternal ears, and you will, particularly when the ruddy little blighter must invade your very bed. That’s mine, Fee.”
He used two fingers to slap his niece’s wrist, but she crammed a piece of his scone into her maw and drew back against Tye, giggling all the while.
“Would you like a scone, Lord Spathfoy?” Miss Daniels wasn’t oblivious to the misbehavior of her family members, but she didn’t appear bothered by it either.
“None for me, thanks.” Because though he was hungry, how on earth was he to react when some niece or earl or other pilfered the food from his very plate?
“We’ll have none of that.” Balfour passed him a plate with two scones on it. “You’ll hurt Deal’s feelings if you turn up your nose at her scones. The vindication of English diplomacy lies in your grasp, Spathfoy, and, Fee, I’ll not take you up before me for a week if you try to raid a guest’s plate.”
Well. Tye bit into a scone.
And while he consumed both scones—he’d forgotten the pleasure of a fresh, warm, flakey scone full of raisins—Balfour proceeded to quiz his niece on her sums and her Latin, her French and her history. This was a version of an earl executing the duties of Head of the Family that Tye had not previously seen, and one he had to approve of.
Grudgingly, of course.
Still, Fiona was given a chance to show off a bit before her elders, and while she conversed in basic French with her uncle, some of her little-girl mannerisms fell away.
She sat more quietly beside Tye. She set her plate aside and folded her hands in her lap, her expression convincingly demure.
“But, Uncle Ian? What is the French word for guddle?”
Tye spoke without thinking. “Voler.”
“Nay.” Balfour’s expression lost a measure of its geniality. “You are mistaken, Spathfoy. To guddle is not to poach or steal, it is more in the nature of chatouiller, to tickle or tease.”
Balfour’s smile changed in some way, becoming edged not with threat, exactly, but with… challenge. “You’ll walk me to the stables, Spathfoy? Good manners and my continued good health require that you accept an invitation from my countess to dine with us while you’re visiting. I will try to have his little bellowing lordship taken up by the watch between now and then.”
While Tye looked on, Balfour hugged and kissed both his niece and her aunt. The girl went willingly into his embrace, as did Miss Daniels, to whom the man had only the remotest family connection.
“My regards to Aunt Ree,” Balfour said, releasing Miss Daniels. “She’s been naughty, I know it. She’d face me like a proper auntie if she weren’t trying to hide some misdeed. Fiona, you behave for your aunts or I’ll make you change your cousin’s dirty nappy when next you visit.”
The young lady disappeared into the little girl amid giggles and expressions of disgust as well as more hugs. Tye undertook the walk to the stables with more relief than foreboding.
“So, Spathfoy, to what do we owe the honor of a visit?”
Balfour’s tone was not accusing, but it wasn’t genial either. This interrogation too, was a part of being the head of a family, and Tye respected it as such.
“My father sent me along to ascertain whether the child was thriving, and to investigate her circumstances generally.”
Balfour ambled along beside him, when Tye wanted to stop, stand still, and admire the way sunlight had a sharper edge this far north, even in high summer.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Why,” Balfour said, “after leaving Fiona in my care since birth, has Quinworth chosen now—when Mary Fran and her husband are off on an extended journey—to finally make inquiry regarding the child?”
“You had the care of her?”
“For God’s sake, man.” Balfour stopped walking, and in his voice Tye heard a trace more of the Gaelic, the mountains, and the laird of old. “I’m Fee’s uncle, Mary Fran’s older brother, and head of my branch of the clan such as it exists in these enlightened, damned times. Of course I provided for my niece. I also wrote to your father regularly, regarding the girl’s progress and health, and I never once received a reply.”
“You never once received money, you mean?”
To put it like that was rude, but goading Balfour would expose how much opposition Tye was likely to face.
“You’re trying to convince me you’re stupid,” Balfour said mildly. “Brave, but stupid. I suppose it’s the most one can hope for from an Englishman. That, and pretty manners.” He resumed walking. Tye fell in beside him while trying to determine if he’d heard pity, humor, or resignation in Balfour’s insult.
“If my father was asked for funds and refused your request, perhaps he intends to make amends. Fiona is arguably his responsibility.”
“Morally, yes. Legally, I doubt it. But he has failed spectacularly in this responsibility, and now he sends you around to charm the ladies and whisper in Fee’s little ear about gold coaches.”
Tye remained silent, resenting Balfour’s astuteness.
And the trickle of shame it dripped into Tye’s conscience.
“I want what is best for Fiona,” Tye said. It was the truth—despite the marquis’s machinations, Tye could be honest about this much.
Balfour sighed mightily as they approached the stables. “That’s what I’m afraid of. The English have ever wanted what is best for Scotland, and the Scottish have wanted only to be left the hell alone. Give Quinworth my respects when next you report to him, and warn him he’ll have a fight on his hands if his intentions toward Fee are less than honorable. We’ll expect you at Balfour House tomorrow night for dinner. Be prepared for an assault on your ears.”
He walked off without a bow or a backward glance, and Tye was reminded that for now, Balfour outranked him and had the advantage of fighting on home turf.
For apparently, a fight it would be.
Sitting next to Spathfoy at morning tea, Hester had noted a resemblance between him and the Earl of Balfour. They were both tall, dark haired, and green-eyed, true, but the resemblance went deeper, to a force of personality that had little to do with brawn or wit per se. Ian was relentless when committed to a goal; Hester had the sense Spathfoy would be no different.
When the opportunity to best him came along later in the morning, she could not resist.
“If I give you a few lengths head start, my lord, will you race me to that cow byre?” She pointed across the valley to a small stone building set half into the earth of the hillside.
Spathfoy drew his horse up. “A few lengths head start? Should I be insulted, Miss Daniels?”
“I know the terrain, my horse hasn’t recently been ridden half the breadth of Scotland, and I’m the one challenging you.”
He looked thoughtful, while his horse capered and curvetted beneath him. “No head start, and not to the cow byre, but to the wall just beyond it.”
“To the last jump then.”
“The lady gives the start.”
She brought her mare alongside his gelding at the walk, collected her horse with a few simple cues, snugged her knee to the horn, and gave the signal quietly. “Go.”
The valley was a good mile across, and Dolly was fresh and eager to show the fidgety gelding her heels. Hester bent low and let the mare have her head.
They flew effortlessly across the ground; the wind sang in Hester’s ears, and the rhythm of the horse thundering beneath her beat away every worry, woe, and anxiety she had ever claimed. She urged the horse faster, aware that Spathfoy’s gelding was keeping pace half a length back.
Of course he was. The beast was a good hand taller than the mare, giving Spathfoy an advantage of height, even mounted. And the damned gelding jumped so smoothly in stride, Spathfoy barely had to get up in his stirrups, whereas Dolly chipped at the first wall and overjumped the second.
Hester ran a gloved hand down the mare’s crest even as she whispered to the horse for a hair more speed.
They cleared a burn that Spathfoy and his gelding weren’t prepared for, and it put Dolly a full length in the lead. As the last wall loomed closer, Hester could feel Spathfoy gaining, pushing his horse hard to close the distance. She knew better than to look over her shoulder.
“Don’t let them catch us, girl.” With a touch of her heel, she urged the mare into a flat, flowing gallop that sent them sailing neatly over the wall.
Like a perfect lady, Dolly came down to the walk on cue, her sides heaving, her neck wet with sweat.
“Well done, my lady.” Spathfoy’s horse was winded as well and blowing hard, but still dancing with nervous energy beneath its rider.
Hester gave Dolly a solid pat on the shoulder. “Did you let us beat you?”
“I did not. Rowan has tremendous stamina, but your lighter mount has more native speed, particularly for a short distance. Then too, Rowan is young and wastes energy fretting. Shall we walk for bit?”
They turned back through the meadow, the race having eased something inside Hester’s body and mind. That Spathfoy would honestly pit his horse against hers was a compliment; that she’d beat him was a lovely boon.
“You ride quite well, Miss Daniels.”
“You’re being gentlemanly again. You needn’t bother.”
Some of her pleasure in the ride dimmed at the exchange, but Spathfoy remained quiet on his horse beside her until they came to the burn.
“Shall we let the horses rest? We’re a good way from the manor.”
“Rest and have a drink.”
Too late she realized this would require that he assist her off her horse. When Ian or his brothers offered the same courtesy, it meant nothing. Gilgallon was inclined to flirt, Connor to handle her like a sack of grain, and Ian to turn it into such a gallantry as to be a jest. To a man, they had to comment on her diminutive size each and every time.
Spathfoy turned it into… something else entirely.
Hester unhooked her knee from the horn, shifted sideways in the saddle, and put a hand on each of Spathfoy’s shoulders—surpassingly broad shoulders when measured thus. His hands went to her waist, which was standard protocol for such a courtesy.
When she boosted herself from the saddle, she expected his hands to merely ride along her sides until her feet met the ground, but no. His strength was such that he could control her descent, so she did not jump to the ground but was borne there by his hold, until she stood quite close to him.
Dolly swished her tail and took one step to the side with a hind foot, nudging Hester such that she was pitched into the solid expanse of Spathfoy’s chest.
“Steady there.” Not quite at her waist, but lower, almost on her hips, his hands held her for a moment. He didn’t presume, didn’t take untoward liberties, and yet…
It was the closest thing to a true embrace Hester had enjoyed in too long to recall. Yes, her brother hugged her, fleeting, brusque, mostly one-armed gestures of affection entirely foreign to their interaction until he’d married Mary Frances.
And Ian, Connor, and Gil were affectionate men, but always with Hester, there was a carefulness to their affection. It drove her mad, that carefulness.
“I won’t break, you know.”
She didn’t slide away, didn’t elbow the horse to make room for a backward step.
“I do believe you are one of shortest women it has ever been my pleasure to assist from a horse.” He sounded curious, and before Hester could shake her riding crop at him for his rudeness, his hand settled on the top of her bare head and then measured her height against his breastbone.
She went still, staring at the shirt and cravat covering that breastbone while he did it again, only this time, his hand did not pass from her crown to his sternum. It slid down over the back of her head in what felt heartrendingly like a caress, and then settled at her nape.
“Your hair is an absolute fright. Come here.”
He steered her by the shoulders to stand before him, but facing away. Behind her, he was taking off his gloves with his teeth, admonishing her through a clenched jaw.
“You’ve no doubt lost half your pins, for which, somehow, you will blame me. This is the recompense I’m to be served for allowing you to win.”
“You did not let me win.” She half turned to remonstrate him, but his fingers loosening the braid at her nape prevented an adequate range of motion. “Your horse was still fatigued from riding the length of the River Dee, you did not know the terrain, and it is not your fault if I lost a few of my pins.”
“Hold these.” He passed a dozen pins over her shoulder, and Hester felt her braid hanging down her back.
“Is there a reason why your hair must be so long?”
If he was examining its length, then he was noting the tail of her braid swinging against her fundament. This notion was enough to provoke a blush, and that was enough to spark Hester’s temper.
“A woman’s hair is her crowning glory, my lord. Surely even you have been sufficiently exposed to Scripture to understand this?”
“Hold still, I tell you, and yes, I’ve had as much Scripture drummed into me as any English schoolboy, though my grandfather explained to me that the reason for this is because the print in the damned Bible is so small, one can read it only with the eyes of youth. In old age, memorized passages are the only comfort Scripture affords. There. You will soon be marginally presentable. Give me the rest of those pins.”
A few minutes later, she patted the bun he’d secured at her nape and turned to regard him.
“The damned Bible, my lord?”
“Yes, the damned Bible. I will explain once I’ve loosened the horses’ girths.”
He dealt with the horses and passed Hester the mare’s reins so they could offer their mounts a drink from the stream. The gelding had to snort and dodge and caper around while Dolly slaked her thirst. When the mare raised a placid eye to the other horse, he condescended to take a few dainty sips beside her.
“He lacks confidence,” Spathfoy said, “but this makes him work hard to please, and I have hopes for him.”
“I noticed you did not pet him after his exertions.”
Spathfoy peered over at her from the other side of the horses. “An oversight on my part. Horse, pay attention: my thanks for your efforts. Next time, I will not allow the ladies to win. Is that better?”
She could not help the smile that emerged from some dark corner of her soul. “You are diverting, my lord, and not just because we beat you and your flighty beast.”
For a few minutes, they did not speak. Spathfoy unrolled a tartan blanket from behind his saddle and spread it on the ground. The stream gurgled along, the horses soon took to cropping what grass there was, and a kind of peace seeped into Hester’s soul she would not have expected the moment to yield.
“Shall we sit, Miss Daniels? The day is pretty, and I’m enjoying the outing. I think you are too.”
He gestured to the blanket and began shrugging out of his jacket. To be alone like this was arguably improper, except they had a niece in common and they were in plain sight, and what had being proper ever earned Hester, except a fiancé bent on the worst of improprieties? She unbuttoned the jacket of her habit and spread it on the blanket as well.
When she settled beside their coats, Spathfoy came down beside her. “Care for a nip?” He waggled a silver flask, unscrewed the cap, and held the flask out to her.
“Please.” She reached for it, expecting cider, lemonade, or water, and got… fire. Whisky scorched its way down her gullet into her entrails, leaving her lungs seizing, her eyes watering, and heat blooming through her limbs.
“Oh, Merciful Powers, Heaven and Earth, Mother of God.” She tried to breathe evenly, but this provoked a coughing spell that inspired Spathfoy to sit directly at her hip while he thumped her soundly in the middle of her back.
“For God’s sake, take shallow breaths. I should have warned you. I do beg your… what did you think I’d have in a flask if not spirits?”
“You drink that on purpose? Stop beating me.”
“I’m not beating you, for God’s sake.” His hand went still, but he switched to rubbing her back, causing a warmth of a different sort where he touched her. “I drink it on purpose and in quantity on occasion.” His hand fell away, but he did not move from her side. “I suspect Balfour does likewise.”
“Of course, but a lady does not drink strong spirits. I can understand why now. Augusta said it’s an acquired taste.”
He took a pull from the flask before tucking it away, then hiked his knees and started shredding a sprig of heather plucked from a nearby bush. “Augusta would be Balfour’s countess?”
“And my cousin. What were you going to explain to me about the damned Bible, my lord?”
He turned up his substantial nose. “My lord this, my lord that. I have a name, and since we’re drinking companions, you might consider its use.” He did not look comfortable to be making this offer. He snatched up another sprig of heather and set to destroying it as well.
“What is your name?” She did not add my lord for fear of agitating him further.
“Tiberius Lamartine Flynn. My sisters call me Tye.”
His friends—if any he had—would call him Spathfoy, though. Hester wasn’t sure being lumped in with his sisters was a good thing.
“You may call me Hester. We are practically family, and if I call you Tye, then Fiona will have an alternative to Uncle Spathfoy.”
He tossed away the bits of heather. “Fiona, my one and only niece. Balfour asked me what I was doing, skulking about the child after my father had neglected her for years.”
So Ian’s visit hadn’t been about tea, crumpets, and fish stories. “What did you tell him?”
Spathfoy—Tye—looked away, and Hester sensed he was choosing words, choosing the more attractive versions of the more attractive truths to share with her.
“I told him my father was likely seeking to redress his previous neglect of the child, and that I wanted what was best for my niece.”
He snatched up a third little branch of heather, but Hester put her hand over his before he could wreak more destruction. His hands were warm and much larger than hers. “You were prevaricating, weren’t you?”
He kept his gaze on their joined hands. “I do not know what my father’s motives are, but you should not trust me, Hester Daniels. Not when it comes to that child.”
She withdrew her hand and regarded him. Sitting this close, she could feel the heat of exertion coming off of him, catch a hint of the flowery shaving soap he used, along with the pungent scent of heather, and could almost count the long, dark lashes framing his eyes. She could also sense that Tiberius Lamartine Flynn, the Earl of Spathfoy, was troubled by these half confidences he reposed in her.
“You represent no threat to me, sir. It’s the men crooning their trustworthiness behind closed doors who must be avoided at all costs. If you want what’s best for Fiona, you are no threat to her either.”
His lips thinned, but he remained silent.
“Tell me,” Hester urged.
“She runs wild, barefoot even.”
“I have seen no less personage than the Earl of Spathfoy himself unshod. This is no great crime.”
“So you have.” His lips turned down, when Hester had wanted the opposite reaction. “She climbs trees, she sings to them, reads to them.”
“You were denied these pleasures as a child, but I’ve no doubt you sneaked into a few trees anyway.”
“So solemn, and over a child’s summer pastimes?”
He looked away, toward the horses, but this was more than prevarication. Predictably, he changed the topic. “I’m to dine at Balfour House tomorrow.”
“Then you’ll want to work up an appetite. Ian believes in feeding his countess, for she sustains his heir.”
“I cannot believe he said as much in mixed company.” He was back to plucking at heather.
“Are you fascinated at his forthrightness or appalled?”
“Impressed, I suppose, and intrigued to know what sort of woman would take on such a barbarian.”
Hester leaned back on her hands. “Ian MacGregor is more a gentleman than ninety-nine percent of the men I stood up with in London. He loves his wife.”
Spathfoy’s fingertips were turning gray with all the heather he was shredding. “Was that Merriburg’s shortcoming, he did not love you?”
This was no business of his, but it kept them off the topics of Fiona’s behaviors and Augusta nursing her own child. “Jasper loved none but himself, but no, that was not the reason I tossed aside my reputation, my future, my hopes for a family of my own, and my welcome in my own mother’s house. Shall we be going, my lord? I think the horses are quite rested enough.”
She struggled to her feet when a dignified exit stage left was called for. A riding habit was an odd garment though, not symmetric, and shown to best advantage only when a lady was mounted. Hester managed to tramp on her hem twice while she tried to gain her balance, until only Spathfoy’s grip on her forearms kept her from landing in a heap at his feet.
He glowered down at her with particular intensity. “Merriman was an idiot, and Hester Daniels, you should not trust me.”
She was so close to him she could see the verdigris gradations in his pupils—green, gold, agate, amber, black, brown, an entire palette of colors—and she could feel the warmth and strength of his grip through the thin cotton of her sleeves. The urge to comfort him—to soothe him—was strange, unwelcome, and irresistible. She smoothed the fingers of one hand down his chest, marveling at the heat he gave off.
This simple caress was a mistake, or possibly the smartest thing she’d ever done.
He bent over her, firmed his grip on her forearms, and pressed his mouth carefully but relentlessly to hers.
Hester had been kissed before and hadn’t found it at all appealing. Men who’d had too much wine with dinner, chased by a few cigars and port, did not have much to recommend them when they were bent on mashing their teeth into Hester’s lips or slobbering on her neck.
On Spathfoy, the wee dram of whisky tasted lovely—all dark, smoky apples, and spice. He didn’t mash, he caressed with his mouth. His hands shifted to Hester’s back and held her close; his strength and heat enveloped her. She moaned with the pleasure of his nearness, and then the damned man took his mouth away.
She grabbed a fistful of his cravat. “Don’t you…”
“Hush.” He ran his open mouth along her throat, leaving heat and wanting to trickle down through her vitals. When he brought his mouth back to hers, Hester sank a hand into his hair and opened her mouth beneath his.
He groaned, a soft, sighing breath into her mouth—so intimate, Hester felt as if she’d downed the whole flask of whisky. She burrowed closer, until he took his mouth away again—before her tongue could learn the contours of his big, white teeth.
His hand cradled the back of her head while she stood in his embrace, her forehead resting on his chest. “This will not serve, Hester Daniels. I owe you a sincere apology for taking liberties no gentleman would think of appropriating. I offer you my most—”
She reached up without lifting her face from his chest and put her hand over his mouth, more to feel the shape of his words than to stop him from speaking. His apology didn’t matter, but the sound of his voice was something she wanted to take into her senses through every possible means.
“Tell me about the damned Bible.”
He expelled a bark of humorless laughter, which she felt against his chest. “The damned anything. I have a theory that a good bout of swearing helps settle the nerves. Foul language re-establishes a sense of equilibrium and diverts uncouth feelings into their natural expression.”
She did pull back then, far enough to peer into the bleak depths of his eyes. “So this is a damned kiss?”
“A bloody awful, misguided, bedamned, miserable excuse for a bleeding kiss. I told you not to trust me, Hester.”
He looked as unhappy as Hester had seen him. This was a small comfort. She went up on her toes, kissed his cheek, and offered him a small comfort in return. “I do not now, nor do I have any intention in the future, of trusting you.”
He caught her to him for one more brief, fierce hug, then let her go. When he helped her into the saddle, he managed it while barely touching her, and not looking at her at all.
He did not shake the blanket out, but simply rolled it up and stashed it behind his saddle, then vaulted onto Flying Rowan’s back. They went directly home, trotting and cantering through the heather without a single word of conversation.
In her head, Hester was testing his theory, using every naughty, off-color, and outright bad word she knew to describe his advances. It didn’t work. When they ambled into the stable yard to hand the horses off to a groom, Hester was still hoping Spathfoy would offer her another bloody awful, misguided, bedamned, miserable excuse for a bleeding kiss—rather damned sooner than later.
“Is all in order with our visiting earl?”
Augusta kissed Ian before he could get out a reply, and then he had to kiss her back, and then he had to hold her and pet her while he tried to recall what her question had been—even as she was stroking her hand over his arse in the most proprietary fashion.
His adorable arse.
“Spathfoy is a great big lout, speaking the Queen’s English with such precision it nigh left my ears bleeding. He’s cozening Fiona with tales of the golden city to the south, and likely bedazzling Aunt Ree with his university-boy manners.”
He patted her bottom then recalled they were standing in the rose gardens where any servant peering out of any window might see them. He patted her bottom again for the sake of the stable lads no doubt idling in the hayloft. “I’ve invited his lordship to dinner tomorrow, but I think he’s afraid you’ll start nursing The Terror right at the table.”
“You were naughty.” She rested against him more heavily. “Ian MacGregor, must I remind you of the requirements of proper behavior?”
“Yes, Wife, I fear you must. At great length and in considerable detail. The privacy of our bedchamber would be an ideal location for this reminder.” He growled this command into her ear, which caused her to cuddle against him, her shoulders shaking with suppressed mirth. She was such a dignified woman generally that he loved to make her laugh. “I would have reported earlier for my lesson in proper deportment, except I cut into Ballater to arrange for a few wires to be sent.”
He turned her under his arm so they could start walking toward the house before Ian’s interest in his wife’s scolding reached embarrassing proportions. “Wires are expensive, Husband.”
“But expedient. Matthew and Mary Fran need to know there’s an English lordling slithering about in their garden.”
“Is he slithering?”
“The poor bastard is here as the old man’s emissary. I think Spathfoy has orders to reive little Fee right out from under our noses, and the guilt of it is nigh killing the man.”
“Do you mean reive in the legal sense, or in the Scottish sense?”
“That’s what one of the wires was about, to see if there are any custody suits recently brought regarding our niece, and to see where Quinworth is lurking while his son is on holiday in our backyard.”
“You didn’t send one to Mary Fran and Matthew?”
“I sent three. Now about that lecture you promised me, Countess? I have been exceedingly remiss, I am planning on being naughtier still, and my only hope of proper guidance rests with you.”
He scooped his wife into his arms and carried her up two flights of stairs, only to hear a certain Terror waken from his nap in a predictable state of loud and hungry indignation just as Augusta was on the point of unfastening her husband’s breeches.
A list of known aphrodisiacs had circulated among Tye’s confreres at university, but lemon verbena had assuredly not been among the foods, fragrances, and substances named.
Nor had fresh air, or the scent of heather, or the sound of a burbling Scottish stream, or proximity to tartan wool, but something or someone had so unbalanced the relationship between Tye’s self-restraint and his base urges as to violate every tenet of common sense.
One did not accost decent young women, no matter how much in need of kissing they might seem.
One did not kiss young ladies who had given no overt indication they were receptive to such advances.
One did not allow oneself into compromising situations where any wandering neighbor might come upon one.
But one was also having great difficulty forgetting the kiss, and the compromising situation, and the decent young lady from whom the kiss had been stolen.
Behind his closed door, Tye wrote a letter—not a report—to his father, who was rusticating at the family seat in Northumbria. To his sisters, he dashed off notes full of drivel about the fresh Scottish air and beautiful Scottish skies. He wrote to the steward of his estates in Kent and outside Alnwick, and in sheer desperation, he even wrote to his mother in Edinburgh.
And still, when he sanded the last epistle, he had not in the least changed the fact that he’d kissed Hester Daniels.
Thoroughly, but somehow, not thoroughly enough.
And worse yet—far worse—she had kissed him back.
He tossed his pen down and leaned back in his chair, his gaze going to the view of the gardens, stables, and grounds stretching between the manor and the surrounding hills.
Maybe the fresh Scottish air was to blame.
He enjoyed sex enthusiastically when it came his way, and it came his way frequently. Friendly widows were thick on the ground in the social Season, and if they were ever in short supply, Tye had been accosted by any number of wives intent on straying. Then too, there were women on the fringes of Polite Society with whom arrangements involving coin and exclusive sexual access could be discreetly made.
Those women were available once terms were struck. Hester Daniels—jilt, tease, spinster, or whatever inaccurate label she wanted to put on herself—was unavailable to him.
And always would be.
A quiet triple tap on his door interrupted another round of self-castigation.
“Uncle!” Fiona literally skipped into the room, leaving the door open behind her. “I read to Aunt Ree, and we spoke French, and she said I could write to Mama in French tomorrow if I look up five very big words tonight. Are you writing letters?”
“I was.” He shifted the stack of missives to the side while the infernal child scrambled up onto his knees.
“May I see?”
“No, you may not. Shouldn’t you be at your lessons?”
“I did my reading lesson. Tell me some big words in French. You have to spell them.”
“Here.” He passed her a pencil. “Spell this: p-e-s-t-i-l-e-n-t-i-e-l.”
“What does it mean?”
“It’s French for niece.”
She squirmed around to scowl at him. “Niece is the same word with an accent like this over the e.” She drew her finger down in imitation of an accent grave. “Are you in a bad mood?”
For God’s sake… He set the child aside and rose. “Because I came up here for privacy, and you have intruded.”
Her brows drew down in an expression that put Tye in mind of her step-aunt, though Miss Daniels was unrelated to the girl except in so far as both females bothered him. “Then, Uncle, you should not have let me come in.”
“That would have been rude.”
“You’re being rude now.”
He wanted to bellow at the little imp, wanted to transport her bodily to the corridor, but she was regarding him with such an air of mischief he felt his lips quirking up. “My apologies.”
“You could tell me what’s bothering you.” She skipped to the bed, hopped up the three steps on one foot, then hiked herself onto the mattress. “Aunt Hester was in a bad mood when she came here a few weeks ago, but she explained to me that she’d had her heart broken. She came here for it to get better. Is your heart broken?”
“It is not. Please remove your person from that bed.”
She hopped down, again on one foot. “Aunt said her beau took unseemly liberties, and she should have coshed him on the head.” Fiona swung her fist in a fierce downward arc through the air while Tye smoothed the wrinkles from the counterpane of his bed. “I told Aunt Hester there are no beaus here in Scotland, we only have braw, bonny lads. Aunt Augusta said we had braw, bonny earls too, but she meant Uncle Ian. He winked at me when she said it.”
“Is that where you acquired such a lamentable habit, from your uncle Ian?”
She winked at him. “It’s a secret. I’ll see you at tea.” As quickly as she’d invaded his privacy, she skipped right back out to the corridor.
The ensuing silence had a peculiar, relieved quality. Tye had just sat back down at his desk when Fiona poked her head around the doorjamb. “Can I call you Uncle Tye? Aunt Hester said your real name is Tiberius, which would be a grand name for a bear, I think.”
“It’s a perfectly adequate name for an earl, but yes, you may call me Uncle Tye.”
She grinned at him, a huge, toothy expression of great good spirits, winked once more, and disappeared.
Tye stared at his stack of letters. He had not mentioned any kisses in those letters, just as Hester Daniels hadn’t mentioned her worthless excuse for a fiancé taking unseemly liberties or needing his head coshed.
Which left Tye pondering why his own head had not been coshed by that fair lady when he’d taken unseemly liberties. Why she’d kissed him on the cheek without any provocation on his part at all.
He picked up the pencil and started making a list.
“I have been foolish.” Dear Hester made this pronouncement in tones indicative of an impending bout of martyrdom, so Ariadne set aside her third husband’s journal and resigned herself to patience.
“I hope you at least had a grand time being foolish.”
The girl dropped into the rocking chair by the hearth—a feat Ariadne hadn’t attempted without assistance or planning for more than a decade. “I am not jesting, Aunt. I was very rag-mannered to Lord Spathfoy.”
Ariadne gave the kind of snort an old woman was permitted even in public. “That one. He could do with some rudeness. He’s handsome as sin, in expectation of a title, and wealthy to boot. I hope you took him down several pegs.”
“I kissed him.” A furious blush accompanied this confession.
“I’m envious. Did he kiss you back?”
“You’re envious?” Hester shot to her feet and started pacing the small confines of Ariadne’s sitting room—small rooms were easier to keep warm—leaving the rocking chair to bob gently, as if inhabited by a ghost. “I toss propriety to the wind when I know the fate of my good name is hanging by thread, and you are envious? Spathfoy isn’t some younger son trying to cadge a dowry so he can keep up with his gambling cronies. He’s going to be Quinworth, and I’ve disgraced myself utterly, again.”
The girl was overdue for some dramatics. She’d been pale and composed for weeks, only rousing from her brown study when Fiona dragged her out-of-doors or Ian got her onto a horse.
“You are not to blame for Merriman’s mischief, Hester Daniels. He was a bad apple, as my fourth husband would have said. Spoiled rotten and contaminating all in his ambit. Do you know how many men I’ve kissed?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Such pretty manners. Do have a seat. You’re making my neck ache with all your stomping about.”
Hester popped back into the rocker. She was nothing if not considerate of her elders.
“I asked if you knew how many men I’d kissed.”
She looked guardedly intrigued. “Of course, I can’t know such a thing.”
“I’ve lost count as well, but I’ll tell you, Hester Daniels, from where I’m sitting now, waiting to shuffle off this mortal coil, it wasn’t nearly enough.”
“Aunt, perhaps in a former era, when society was less—”
Ariadne waved a hand. “Bah. Society has always delighted in catching the unwary in their missteps, and there have always been missteps. Old George ran a proper court, I can tell you. To bed at a reasonable hour, up early to ride for hours, and yet, look at his get. A crop of fifteen children. Even his princesses were not entirely chaste, and old King William had more Fitz-bastards than some people have fingers. Do you think you’re the first woman ever to steal a kiss? Merciful sakes, child, men are so blockheaded one must sometimes draw them a map.”
Hester’s brows drew down, suggesting Ariadne’s outlook wasn’t one shared by whatever tutors and governesses had raised the girl.
“But, Aunt, I enjoyed kissing him.”
“I kissed his grandfather once, the one he’s named for. The man knew a thing or two about comforting a widow—all in good fun, of course.”
“He’s named for a grandfather?”
Bless the girl; she didn’t hide her interest in even such a crumb of information as this. “He’s named for his maternal grandfather, a Lowland Scottish earl who knew how to turn a coin practically out of thin air. Quinworth’s wealth today owes much to the dowry and financial abilities Spathfoy’s mother brought to the match.”
“He’s never mentioned his parents.”
“They are cordially distant, as happens in the later years of many a dynastic match. Was Spathfoy flirting with you when you kissed him?”
“Yes.” An unequivocal answer, which suggested his strapping, handsome lordship had been engaged in more than pretty compliments.
“Then kiss him some more, for pity’s sake. You’re both at loose ends, he’s handsome, and who knows, you might form an attachment.”
“Aunt, one is supposed to form the attachment before one appropriates any kisses.”
She was so certain of this progression, Ariadne felt sorry for her. “And were you attached to young Merriman?”
Hester stared at her hands, which rested in her lap. Her expression was wiped clean of all intentional emotion, but Ariadne had buried four husbands, and the misgivings and griefs of women were familiar to her.
“This is your real worry, isn’t it? The man you gave your hand to, however temporarily, did not charm you with his kisses, and yet this arrogant intruder has you sighing and glancing on only a few days’ acquaintance.”
Hester sprang onto her feet again and went to the window. The girl spent a lot of time considering the views from various windows. “What if I am unnatural? What if I can only have feelings for things and people forbidden to me?”
Ariadne considered Hester’s poker-straight posture and the tension in her fists.
“What if you are completely natural, healthy, and attracted to one of the finest specimens of manhood I’ve seen in decades? What if he’s attracted to you, and what if you’re both sensible enough to explore the attraction—within reason?”
Hester turned to face Ariadne and crossed her arms over her chest. “Are you encouraging this foolishness?”
“Yes. Yes, I certainly am. I am encouraging you to put the unfortunate situation with Merriman behind you. The man was a cad and an idiot. I suspect he rushed his fences with you and showed you the low cards in his hand far too plainly. Get back on the horse, my girl. Toy with Spathfoy’s affections all you like. He can manage for himself, and you might find you suit.”
“But what if he toys with mine?”
The question was bewildered, anxious, and sincere. Ariadne did not permit herself to smile.
“Then you enjoy it. And when he trots back to England in a week or two, you thank him for a few kisses and remember him fondly. All need not be drama and high dudgeon, Hester, and if you didn’t want to kiss a man like Spathfoy, I would be worried about you indeed. Now, we’ve missed our Gaelic since Spathfoy has joined us. Shall we practice?”
Hester rang for tea, and with the determined mispronunciation of the young and serious, started her daily session mangling the language of her own maternal ancestors—while being very clear about where her current interests lay.
“If you please, Aunt Ariadne, what else can you tell me about Lord Spathfoy’s family?”
The shame had caught Hester quite by surprise, as if she’d risen from a chair to stride across the room, only to find her hem caught under some malefactor’s boot.
She’d ridden over several miles of countryside with Spathfoy in silence, pondering his kiss—and her kiss—and feeling for the first time as if ending her engagement might have been among the better decisions she’d made.
Feeling a stirring of that most irksome of emotions: hope; but it was a hope so amorphous as to leave her wondering if Spathfoy himself had anything to do with it, or if a kiss from any handsome gentleman might have served.
No matter what she’d said to Ian, it wasn’t as if she liked Spathfoy, after all.
But then they’d trotted into the stable yard, and Spathfoy had swung off his horse and turned to assist Hester to dismount. His expression had been so severe she’d nearly scrambled off the far side of her horse. He’d deposited her on the ground as if touching her had burned his hands, bowed shortly, and stalked off toward the house without a word.
Leaving Hester to doubt herself so badly, she was making confessions to Aunt Ree and butchering a language normally more pleasing to the ear than French.
“But are there rules, Aunt? If a gentleman kisses a lady, is it still forbidden for the lady to kiss the gentleman?”
“Oh, my heavens, child. If a gentleman kisses a lady, he is unquestionably opening the negotiations. He’s hoping she’ll kiss him back.”
Spathfoy had not looked the least hopeful.
Hester was saved from explaining as much by Fiona’s arrival. The child skipped into the parlor and plopped down beside Aunt Ree on the sofa.
“Uncle Tye is writing letters. He wouldn’t give me any big words in French, though he was happy enough to give me some in English.”
Aunt Ree smoothed a hand down the remains of one of Fiona’s braids. “We’re practicing our Gaelic, Fiona. We can look up the big English words in the French translation dictionary if that would help.”
Inspiration struck, and Hester didn’t pause to question it. “Maybe Uncle Tye will help you think up some big French words over dinner.”
Fiona sat bolt upright. “I can come to table with Uncle and Aunt and you? I can stay up late and have dessert?”
“If you take a bath and change your pinny, yes, just this once.”
Fiona bounced to her feet. “I must put this in my letter. I’m to dine with company. Mama and Papa will be very proud of me.” She skipped off to the door, stopped, and frowned. “Will Uncle mind if I join you for dinner?”
Aunt Ariadne answered. “Of course, he won’t. What gentleman wouldn’t want to have three lovely ladies all to himself at dinner?”
Tye had friends who’d served in the Crimea, men who’d gone off to war in great patriotic good spirits only to come home quiet, hollowed-eyed, and often missing body parts. The Russians had developed a type of weapon referred to as a fougasse, though various forms of fougasse had been around for centuries.
A man walking through deep grass would inadvertently step on one of these things and find himself blown to bits without warning.
Dinner loomed before Tye like a field salted with many hidden weapons, each intended to relieve him of some significant asset: his dignity, his composure, his manners, or—in Fiona’s case—his patience.
“I’ve made you a list,” he said. “Not less than ten of the largest words I know in French, and you shall have it after we dine. Now, might we converse about the weather?”
Lady Ariadne presided over the meal with benevolent vagueness. Miss Daniels—he could hardly call her Hester now—limited her contributions to gentle admonitions regarding the child’s deportment, leaving Tye to converse with… his niece.
“Why do people talk about the weather?” Fiona queried. She aimed her question at a piece of braised lamb gracing the end of her fork.
“Eat your food, Fee dear, don’t lecture it.”
The girl popped the meat into her mouth and chewed vigorously.
“I’m just asking,” she said a moment later. “The weather is always there, and we can’t do anything about it, so why bring it up all the time as if it had manners to correct or ideas we could listen to?”
Tye topped off his wine and did the same for the ladies. “I will admit, Fiona, that weather would make a less interesting dinner companion than you, who have both manners to correct and all kinds of unorthodox ideas.”
“What is the French word for un-ortho-ducks, and what does it mean?”
He took another sip of his wine. He was beginning to feel that slight distance between his mind, his emotions, and his bodily awareness, that suggested he’d had rather too many sips of wine.
Lady Ariadne murmured something in Gaelic that Tye did not catch—the child had addled his wits that greatly—and a servant brought Fiona a small glass of wine.
“For your digestion, my dear, but take small sips only, or it could have the opposite of its intended effect.”
The girl took a dainty taste of her libation, showing no ill effects, which was the outside of too much.
Properly reared children did not dine at table with adults.
They did not run roughshod over the dinner conversation.
On this sceptered isle, they did not sip passably good table wine as if it were served to them nightly.
And a proper gentleman did not sit across from a decent young woman and mentally revisit the feel of her unbound hair sliding over his hands like blond silk. He did not watch her mouth when she drank her wine. He did not wonder if she would cosh him on his head if he attempted to kiss her again.
The longest meal of Tye’s life ended when Lady Ariadne pushed to her feet. “If you young people will excuse me, I’ll retire to my rooms and leave you to turn Fee loose for a gambol in the garden. Fiona, I am very proud of you, my dear. Your manners are impressive, and we will work on your conversation. Fetch me my cane and wish me sweet dreams.”
Fiona scrambled out of her chair to retrieve her great-aunt’s cane from where it was propped near the door. “Thank you, Aunt. Good night, sweet dreams, sleep well, I love you.”
Tye rose, thinking, this reply had the sound of an oft-repeated litany, one that put a damper on the irritation he’d been nursing through the meal. He frowned down at Lady Ariadne.
“Shall I escort you, my lady? I’m sure Miss Daniels can see the child to the gardens.”
“No, thank you, my lord. Until breakfast, my dears.”
She tottered off, leaving an odd silence in her wake.
“Aunt is very old,” Fiona said. “It’s easy to love old people, because they’re so nice.”
“It’s easy to love you,” Miss Daniels said, “because you’re very kind as well, and you made such an effort to be agreeable at table tonight. My lord, please don’t feel compelled to accompany us. Fiona and I are accustomed to rambling in our own gardens without escort.”
Except they weren’t her gardens. If she’d taken his arm quietly, without comment, he might have let her excuse him at the main staircase, but she had to intimate he was not welcome.
“I would be delighted to join you for a stroll among the roses, and I have to agree. Fiona acquitted herself admirably, considering her tender years.”
He winged his arm at Miss Daniels, half expecting—half wishing for—an argument.
She placed her bare hand on his sleeve. “Come along, Fiona, the light won’t last much longer, and you’ve stayed up quite late as it is.”
They made a slow progress through the house and out onto the back terrace. With the scent of lemon verbena wafting through his nose, Tye came to two realizations, neither of which helped settle his meal.
First, when he kissed a woman, it was usually a pleasant moment, and possibly a prelude to some copulatory pleasant moments, but the kiss itself did not linger in his awareness. Kissing was a means to an end, a means he was happy enough to bypass if the lady perceived and shared a willingness to proceed to the end.
With Hester Daniels, the kiss itself had been his goal. He’d wanted to get his mouth on hers, and yes, he’d wanted more than that from her too. What had irritated him over dinner was not the child’s chattering, or her forwardness. It was not the paucity of adult conversation or the unpretentious quality of the place settings or the simplicity of the food itself.
What irritated him was the memory of that kiss, lingering in his awareness like some upset or shining moment—he wasn’t sure which. He’d enjoyed that kiss tremendously.
The second realization was no more comforting: he should not kiss Hester Daniels again, no matter how much he might want to.
And he did want to. Very much.
“Aunt Ariadne insists I owe you no apology, but I’m proffering one nonetheless.”
Hester watched as Fiona went from rose to rose, sniffing each one. The end of her nose would be dusted with pollen at the rate she was making her olfactory inventory.
“An apology?” Sitting beside Hester, Spathfoy stretched out long legs and crossed them at the ankles. He’d been his usual self at dinner, both mannerly and somehow unapproachable, patient with Fiona, solicitous of Aunt Ree, and toward Hester—unreadable.
“I kissed you, my lord. This is forward behavior, and regardless of Aunt’s interpretation of the rules of Polite Society, I am offering you my apologies for having taken liberties with your lordship’s person.”
He was quiet for a moment in a considering, strategizing sort of way. This was rotten of him in the extreme, when he might have simply accepted Hester’s apology and remarked on the stars winking into view on the eastern horizon.
“Correct me if I err, Miss Daniels, but I don’t believe yours was the only kiss shared between us.”
“That is of no moment.”
Another silence, one Hester did not enjoy.
“My kiss was of no moment, but yours—a chaste peck on my right cheek, I do believe—requires that you apologize to me?”
Hester could not tell if he was amused or affronted, but she was mortified. The damned man could probably detect her blush even in the fading light.
“Young ladies are expected to uphold certain standards, my lord. Gentlemen are expected to have lapses.”
Fiona sank down in the grass some yards off and started making catapults out of grass flowers. She shot little seed heads in all directions, then lay on her back and tried launching them right into the evening sky, though they fell to earth, usually landing on or near Fee’s face.
“Miss Daniels, you would not allow me to apologize for my lapse, if my recollection serves, but if you insist on apologizing to me, then I insist on apologizing to you.”
A little torpedo of grass seeds landed at Hester’s feet. “You have nothing to apologize for.” Except this ridiculous conversation. She wondered if the son of a marquis was somehow exempt from the manners every other gentleman—almost every other gentleman—had drilled into him before he was out of short coats.
“I have nothing to apologize for. I am fascinated to hear this.” He sounded utterly bored, or perhaps, appalled.
“I was getting back on the horse.” She would explain this to him, lest he be mistaken about her motives. Aunt’s version of events, upon reflection, had been helpful after all.
“You were mounting your horse? Before or after I kissed you, using my tongue, in your mouth, and my bare hands on various locations a gentleman does not presume to touch?”
Wretched man. “I wasn’t getting back on the horse in the literal sense. By kissing you, I was demonstrating to myself that my failed engagement was not permanently wounding.”
His arm settled along the back of their bench. To appearances, he was a man completely at ease after a simple, satisfying meal, while Hester was a lady who wished she’d not had so much wine. Again.
“What did Merriman do to make you wish you’d coshed him on his head?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your esteemed former fiancé. You were tempted to resort to violence with him, which makes me suspect he attempted more than a mere kiss.”
Mere kiss? Mother of God. But how to answer?
He did not harry her for a reply, so Hester sat silently beside him, aware of him to a painful degree, staring at his hand where it rested on his thigh. His arm was at her back, his length along her side, his attention focused on her intently despite the lazy inflection of his voice and the apparent ease of his body.
It became difficult to breathe normally.
“Do I conclude from your silence, Miss Daniels, that your former fiancé attempted to anticipate the conjugal vows, and you were not impressed with his behaviors?”
His voice held no more inflection than if he’d been complimenting Mary Fran’s roses, though Hester’s heart began to thump against her ribs..
“You may conclude something of that nature.”
His silences were torturing her even as she dreaded the next question.
“In that case, I accept your apology, madam. I would regard it as a kindness if you would accept mine as well. The Bourbons are without equal when it comes to scent, whereas the Damasks lack subtlety, don’t you agree?”
She managed a nod, becoming aware of the fragrance perfuming the evening around them only when he’d pointed it out to her. She became aware of something else too: Spathfoy’s arm lightly encircling her shoulders, a solid, warm weight, perhaps intended as a comfort, more likely intended to mean nothing at all.
End of Excerpt
Once Upon a Tartan is available in the following formats:
August 6, 2013
Professional voice actor and audio narrator James Langton, of Eloquent Audio, was generous enough to read the following excerpt from Once Upon a Tartan at Lady Jane’s Salon in New York City on Monday, August 5, 2013. He’s narrating the entire MacGregor trilogy for the Tantor audiobook edition, and if you ask me, James reads an even better story than I wrote.