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.
Tiberius Flynn, Earl of Spathfoy, has presented himself on Hester Daniels’s Highland doorstep claiming to be a doting uncle come to visit with his little niece, Fiona. Hester, as the girl’s paternal step-aunt, has her reservations about why a handsome Englishmen would be whiling away his summer days in the Highlands, though she can’t help admitting that despite his many flaws, Spathfoy has a certain attraction…
“Good evening, my lord.” Hester hadn’t intended to speak, but hiding silently in the garden any longer seemed rude.
“Miss Daniels, good evening.” In the moonlight, Spathfoy’s voice was different—richer, darker, less English and less of all the things that clouded its inherent beauty. “May I escort you to the house?”
“So you can lurk out here among the roses and brood in solitude?”
In the darkness, his teeth gleamed. A smile or a grimace? “Yes, if you must know. Solitude is my preferred state, in fact, and if I don’t get regular doses of it, I become restive.”
Querulous, too. “You usually like bickering with me.” And she liked bickering with him. The realization was not as lowering as it should have been, particularly when he took a seat beside her on her bench.
“Your observation is no compliment to one who aspires to the status of gentleman.”
“It wasn’t an insult either. Spathfoy.” He was in some sort of mood. Hester recognized it, because she’d been in the same mood ever since Lord Jasper Merriman had left bruises on her person that had only recently faded. “And you don’t deny it, either. You enjoy our spats.”
“I’m tired, Miss Daniels, and yet I am not comfortable leaving you out here without companionship at such a late hour. What do you want of me?”
Even for him, that was brusque, but she seized the opening before her courage deserted her. “Please call me Hester. We are practically family, and our paths are likely to cross on occasion if you remain interested in Fiona’s well-being.”
“Very well. May I escort you to the house, Hester?”
He was truly rattled. Whatever the dinner conversation had been about, Spathfoy was wrestling with it, while Hester wrestled with a different problem entirely.
“Will you kiss me, my lord?”
“For God’s sake, no, I will not kiss you.” He didn’t get off the bench though. Didn’t shift the slightest bit away from her.
“It’s just that I don’t particularly like you, so I think it’s safe to try out your paces, so to speak. You’ve already had your tongue in my mouth, after all, and your bare hands on my person.”
“We’re back to your equestrian analogies?” Still he didn’t leave. Didn’t get to his feet or cross his arms or otherwise reject her proposition.
“Something is amiss with me,” Hester said, speaking slowly. “You say you are restive if too much in the company of others. I comprehend this, though I would not have even a few months ago. Fiona says I’m out of sorts, and my family looks at me like I’m a powder keg whose fuse they must not inadvertently light. Sometimes, I can’t get my breath, and I feel like I am a powder keg.”
She fell silent, because the more words she let spin forth, the faster they wanted to come—and to him, of all people.
“You feel as if that fuse has been lit,” Spathfoy said slowly—reluctantly? “You feel as if you’re watching it burn down, and there’s nothing you can do to stop the impending mayhem.”
She nodded, because speech abruptly seemed a chancy thing.
“Any further kissing between us is ill-advised in the extreme.” Spathfoy stood, and Hester knew the urge to scream, to drag him back to her side by the hair, to rage and cry out and destroy the entire peace of the night around her.
Then he turned and stalked toward the bench. He kept coming, until to her shock, he knelt over her, one knee by each hip, so the great bulk of him was straddling her lap. “Very ill-advised.”
He framed her face in his hands and paused, his mouth a whisper from hers. “You will regret this, Hester. I will regret this.”
His mouth descended onto hers firmly, nothing tentative or reluctant about it, and inside Hester, something eased. All the tension and frustrations she’d been corralling behind her manners and her benighted self-restraint found an outlet, a way to express themselves. She didn’t think about Jasper Merriman or bruises, or her idiot mother, or her silently worried family.
With just his mouth on hers, Spathfoy obliterated all thought and all memory from Hester’s awareness, leaving her to feast her senses on him alone.
He was warm all around her, and clean and yet male too, in the scents of horse and night and well-oiled leather clinging to his clothing. When Hester opened her mouth beneath his, his arms came around her, and hers lashed around him. She held him desperately tight, letting herself cling and need for just a few moments.
His tongue was a marvel, tasting first the corners of her mouth, then tracing her lips, then retreating to invite her into similar boldness. She accepted the invitation, went plundering into the hot, wet reaches of his mouth, sent her fingers into his hair, arched her body up into his.
“For God’s sake, woman.”
He hung over her, panting, while Hester pressed her face to his chest and resented his clothing.
“Do you want me to swive you right here on this damned bench?” He climbed off her and turned his back, his shoulders heaving with either ire or—Hester rejoiced to think it so—passion. Then he faced her, scrubbing a hand back through his hair. “I assume you comprehend the term?”
“I comprehend the term better than you imagine, my lord. And what would you say if I replied in the affirmative?”
She’d shocked herself with her own question, but she’d shocked him as well. His posture shifted with it, as if she’d smacked him physically.
“I would say, madam, that you are overwrought for reasons I cannot fathom, and I would offer once again to escort you inside the damned house, where I would leave you in blasted peace and hope you might offer me the same ruddy courtesy while I try to forget this whole misguided encounter.”
He resumed his seat on the bench when Hester had expected him to stomp off into the darkness. They sat there in silence until Hester realized she’d synchronized her breathing with his.
“Now you’re scolding me?” she marveled. “I asked you to kiss me, I did not toss you bodily onto your lordly back and force my wiles upon you. I can’t help that I like kissing you.”
“You sound damned unhappy about it yourself. God knows a taste for you—for your kisses—doesn’t make my life any easier.”
Now he was disgruntled, or likely amused. The worst of his ill feeling was passing, perhaps as his passion faded. He wasn’t going to kiss her again, and to Hester, this seemed like a great, miserable unfairness on top of many other injustices.
“I know about that word you used.”
“Swive—a lovely, old Anglo-Saxon monosyllable never to be uttered in the presence of women or children. Even my horse would likely take exception. My apologies for an egregious breach of propriety.”
She closed her eyes, because she was going to confide in this large, unhappy, often rude English lord. “I know about it.”
“You’ve said as much. Congratulations on the range of your naughty vocabulary, Miss Daniels. Please do not share this dubious accomplishment with my niece.”
“My name is Hester, and I don’t mean merely the word. I know about it.”
A few beats of quiet went by, while off in the distance a fox started up lamenting his solitude. The beast’s tortured aria struck Hester as appropriate to the discussion.
Spathfoy turned his head to regard her in the moonlight. “Are you telling me you have been relieved of your chastity?”
His voice was arctic, the verbal embodiment of barely contained affront. Hester hunched forward, gripping the edge of the bench with both hands.
He muttered something under his breath that sounded Gaelic. “Merriman?”
She nodded again, but inside her, that fuse had begun to burn down more quickly.
“Does your family know?”
Hester shook her head.
And then very gently, so gently she barely recognized it as the voice of the Earl of Spathfoy, “Hester, are you carrying the man’s child?”
The quiet wraith beside Tye shook her head again.
“I am not w… with child. It’s not that I wanted to be, but still…”
“Come here.” He settled an arm around her shoulders and brought her close to his side. “You should tell your family, Hester.”
Tye traced the slender bones of her shoulder with his hand, hurting for her. Oh, he could catch a train south, hunt up Merriman, and mete out some rough justice, but this woman would still be hiding up here in rural Scotland, upset and unhappy when she should have been planning her wedding and picking out names for her firstborn.
“Did he hurt you?” The question was not prompted by conscience, but by something more problematic.
The daft woman tried to shift away. He gently prevented it.
“Not the way you mean.” She sounded tired now, and for the first time in Tye’s experience, defeated. To hear it made him furious, though he had wisdom enough to keep his anger to himself. “He confused me.”
Tye waited. Hester Daniels was intelligent and articulate. She’d sort through what she wanted him to know, and he’d sit on this bench until his backside fell asleep while she did.
“Jasper could be so sure of himself, so convincing. He said I’d inflamed his passions, that I wanted what he was doing, and it was my duty, and everybody anticipated their vows. He was very confident of what he said.”
Bastard. “You began to doubt yourself.”
“I didn’t begin to doubt myself. I lost sight entirely of what I knew to be true. I’ve never inflamed a man’s passions in my life, you see. I’m the girl none of the fellows need to take seriously. I’m cute. Adorable, a whacking good sport, or I was.”
At Balfour House, Tye had seen a picture of the woman she described. She had the same gorgeous hair and the same wide, pretty eyes as Hester, but that woman had had an innocent gaze and a laughing smile.
And now was not the time to tell her she was still adorable. “I suppose a cute, adorable, adoring fiancée allows her prospective husband any liberties he demands. Was that Merriman’s reasoning?”
She was silent so long worry started to flap around inside Tye’s head, creating all manner of awful scenarios.
“He says I forced him. I drove him to unbridled lust.”
She ought to have snorted with disgust to relay such tripe; she ought to have laughed with incredulity that a grown man could posit such nonsense in the Queen’s English.
But she still doubted. Tye heard it in her voice, felt it in her tense posture. Because of the violation of her person and of her will by a man who ought to have died to keep her safe, Hester Daniels still doubted herself.
“I’ll kill him for you, if that will help. I’ll castrate him first, with a dull, rusty knife. I’m the Marquess of Quinworth’s son and heir. I won’t be held accountable. You know what it means to castrate a man?”
Beneath his arm, her shoulders lifted and dropped, as if she’d found what was very nearly a sincere offer amusing. “A rusty knife, my lord?”
“A dull, rusty knife. A dull, dirty rusty knife left to lie about on the floor of a stable for a few days first.”
Against him, she eased at his exaggeration. “I lie awake at night, dwelling on such thoughts. I want to maim him, socially if not physically. I want to see him humiliated.”
“So you jilted him. Good for you. Well done, Hester Daniels.”
The lady lifted her face to the stars and sighed, not necessarily a sigh of defeat, but maybe of soul weariness. The conversation had been extraordinary in Tye’s experience, not one they could have undertaken in daylight. In the morning, he would resent these confidences from her because they made what he must do to appease his father all the more difficult.
Morning was hours away. The moon was rising full over the eastern horizon, and Hester Daniels was becoming a warm, comfortable weight against his side. He didn’t think before he acted, he merely indulged in a selfish impulse and scooped her onto his lap.
She fit there nicely, a soft, tired, inconveniently delectable, fragrant bundle of woman to whom life had not been very kind. Of course, he desired her, but more than he wanted to be her willing and enthusiastic sexual hobbyhorse, he wanted her laughter and confidence restored to her. “Go to sleep, Hester.”
She made some little sound of contentment. This wasn’t how she’d intended for the evening to go between them, he was sure of that, and it sure as hell didn’t fit with his plans either.
Still, for her to fall asleep in his arms was good in a way Tye couldn’t put into words. In the moment, holding her soothed and comforted him probably more even than it did her, regardless that this encounter would complicate their breakfast conversation considerably.