Authors: Grace Burrowes
Tags: #Historical Romance, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Highlanders, #love story, #Scotland, #England, #Literature & Fiction, #Historical, #Scottish, #Regency Romance, #Scotland Highland, #Victorian, #Romance
He launched into the little waltz, a lilting, sentimental confection full of wistful die-away ascending scales and a turning, sighing secondary melody.
“You play well, Mr. Daniels.”
Lady Mary Frances nearly whispered this compliment, and Matthew could feel her gaze on his hands. “That’s Matthew, if you please. I’ve always enjoyed music, but there wasn’t much call for it in the military.”
Out on the dance floor, by the soft evening light coming through the tall windows, three couples turned down the room in graceful synchrony. Beside Matthew, Lady Mary Frances was humming softly and swaying minutely to the triple meter. He finished off the exposition with another one of those tinkling ascending scales, which allowed him to lean far enough to the right that his shoulder pressed against the lady’s.
“Page, my lady.”
She flipped the page, and Matthew began the contrasting section, a more stately interlude requiring little concentration, which was fortunate. Lady Mary Frances had applied a different scent for the evening. That fresh, cedary base note was still present, but the overtones were more complicated. Complicated enough that Matthew could envision sniffing her neck to better parse her perfume.
“What scent are you wearing, my lady? It’s particularly appealing.”
“Just something I put together on an idle day.”
Matthew glanced over at her to find she was watching the dancers, her expression wistful. “You haven’t had an idle day since you put your hair up, and likely not many before then.”
“A rainy day, then. We have plenty of those. Your sisters are accomplished dancers.”
“As are your brothers.” For big men, they moved with a lithe grace made more apparent for their kilts. “You should take a turn, my lady.”
“No, I should not. I’ve things to see to, Mr. Daniels, but it is nice to watch my brothers enjoying themselves on the dance floor.”
She turned the page for him, and Matthew had to focus on the recapitulation of the first, delicate, sighing melody. The final ascending scale trickled nearly to the top of the keyboard, which meant Matthew was leaning into Lady Mary Frances at the conclusion of the piece.
And she was allowing it.
“Oh, well done, my boy, well done.” Altsax clapped in loud, slow movements. “I’d forgotten your fondness for music. Perhaps you’d oblige us with another waltz, that I might have the pleasure of dancing with Lady Mary Frances?”
“When did he slither into the room?” Lady Mary Frances muttered, resignation in her tone.
Matthew rose from the piano bench. “I’m afraid that won’t serve, your lordship. My compensation for providing music for the ladies is a waltz with my page turner. Perhaps Hester will oblige at the keyboard?”
Gilgallon turned a dazzling smile on Matthew’s younger sister. “And I’ll turn the pages for her.”
“My lady, may I have this dance?” Matthew extended his hand to Lady Mary Frances, who smiled up at him in a display of teeth and thinly banked forbearance.
“The honor would be mine, Mr. Daniels.”
He led her to the dance floor, arranged himself and his partner into waltz position, and felt a sigh of recognition as Hester turned her attention to Chopin’s Nocturne in E Minor. The piece was often overlooked, full of passion and sentiment, and it suited the woman in Matthew’s arms.
“I hate this piece.” Lady Mary Frances moved off with him, speaking through clenched teeth.
“You dance to it well enough.” This fulsome compliment—certainly among the most lame Matthew had ever offered a lady—had her scowling in addition to clenching her teeth.
“Don’t think of the music then. Tell me what it was like growing up in the Highlands.”
She tilted her head as Matthew drew her through the first turn. “It was cold and hungry, like this music. Never enough to eat, never enough peat to burn, and always there was
Her expression confirmed that she hadn’t meant to say that, which pleased Matthew inordinately. That he could dance Mary Frances MacGregor out of a little of her self-containment was a victory of sorts. “What else?”
“What else, what?”
“What else was it like, growing up in these mountains?”
He pulled her a trifle closer on the second turn, close enough that he could hear her whisper. “It was lonely, like this blasted tune.”
“Your brothers weren’t good company?”
“They are my
, Mr. Daniels. They were no company at all.”
She danced beautifully, effortlessly, a part of the music she professed to hate.
“And yet here I am, my lady, an older brother along on this curious venture for the express purpose of providing my sisters and their chaperones company.”
She huffed out a sigh. “I appreciate that you’re preserving me from your father’s attentions, Mr. Daniels, but I assure you such gallantry is not necessary.”
“Matthew, and perhaps I’m not being gallant, perhaps I’m being selfish.”
He turned her under his arm, surprised to find he’d spoken the truth. A man leaving the military in disgrace was not expected to show his face at London’s fashionable gatherings, and had he done so, few ladies would have stood up with him.
“What was it like growing up in the South?”
Her question was a welcome distraction. “I didn’t. I went to boarding school in Northumbria. I was cold and hungry for most of it.”
Her gaze sharpened. “Why the North?”
Another turn, another opportunity to pull her a bit closer and enjoy the way her height matched with his own. “The North is cheaper, and Altsax isn’t what anybody would call a doting father. I made some friends and spent holidays with them to the extent I could.”
Though those same friends would probably be careful not to recognize him now.
“So you weren’t lonely.”
He distracted her with a daring little spin, one she accommodated easily, and from there, conversation lapsed while Matthew tried to enjoy waltzing with a gorgeous, fragrant woman in his arms.
Her last comment bothered him though. In boarding school, he’d been lonely. The schoolmates who’d taken pity on him for a holiday here or there had not been the sort of companions to provide solace to a boy exiled from his home and family. The military had been a slight improvement, for a time, and then no improvement at all.
As Matthew bowed over the lady’s hand to the final strains of the nocturne, he admitted to himself that he’d been lonely for most of his boyhood as well as most of his military career.
And he was lonely still.
Mary Fran had a soft spot for wounded creatures, and the tall Englishman was nothing more than another wounded creature. The loneliness came through in his silences, in the grim quality of his expression around his father, in the way he watched his sisters as if bandits might seize them and carry them off.
A severely handsome, grave, quiet, broad-shouldered, wounded creature with beautiful, tanned hands. Matthew Daniels’s hands embodied both grace and strength, and even on this family outing through the woods, Mary Fran had occasion to admire them often. Matthew—
—was a solicitous escort, not like a brother who’d pelt along willy-nilly, dragging her forward as if she were a reluctant bullock.
He would shift his hold on her, grip her hand, link their fingers, or grasp her wrist to guide her over logs she’d been hopping since childhood, or past boulders that were hardly going to rise up and roll directly into her path. This solicitude was… lovely. His attention was also largely silent, and his gaze never suggested anything inappropriate.
She rather wished it would.
“That was a heartfelt sigh, my lady. Shall we tell the others we’re turning around?”
He’d apparently forgotten he had taken hold of her hand, and she wasn’t going to remind him.
“It’s a beautiful summer day, I’m free of my chores, and I have a handsome escort for wandering my own property at my leisure. Maybe it was a sigh of pleasure.”
He liked that answer. She could tell by the way he flattened his lips as if suppressing a smile, and the way his blue eyes lit briefly with humor.
“You regard this land as your property, don’t you?” He shifted his grip again, so their fingers were linked. “Your brothers are almost here at your sufferance.”
“They’re good brothers, but no, I don’t regard the place as my own, really. I wasn’t raised here. None of us were. We spent our childhoods farther west in the mountains and came here from time to time to learn the English and have some schooling. The boys had to go to university. I, of course did not.”
“You would have terrified the professors.”
“Is that a compliment, Mr. Daniels?”
“Yes, you may be assured it was.” He reached up with his free hand and held back a drooping branch, so Mary Fran had to duck very close to him to pass. He didn’t step back, and it occurred to her the man was quite possibly doing some English approximation of flirting with her.
Ah, to be flirted with. Not propositioned, not chased, not groped and pinched and leered at… A place in her heart that had been growing cold since her farce of a wedding night felt a small, curling warmth spread through it. To be flirted with…
But the rules of fair play—the English were very big on fair play—decreed she really ought to spare him the effort.
“You could have me, you know. Or I think you could.”
Some subtle, smooth innuendo had been called for—an Englishwoman might have known how to dangle her interest coyly—but worse, far, far worse than Mary Fran’s blunt declaration, was the awful longing she heard in her own voice.
He did drop her hand then and turned to face her. “
you?” His face betrayed nothing. Not shock, not pleasure, not judgment. But that was good, Mary Fran decided. She would have hated to see that calculating, lustful gleam in his eyes, despite her awful, bold words.
Hated to see him glancing around, choosing a tree to brace her against as he rucked up her skirts and unfastened his trousers. Hated it and longed for it.
Her chin came up, but this did little to reestablish her dignity when he was taller than she. She opted for bravado, her usual choice in difficult moments. “I’d dally with you, I think. I’m almost sure of it, in fact. I’m a widow—have been for years. I know all about being a widow.”
He looked… perplexed as he peered down at her. “You know about being a widow.” He regarded her searchingly then lifted his hand to trace her hairline with the side of his thumb. Mary Fran closed her eyes to absorb the unexpected pleasure of that slow, simple caress.
“You know about being lonely,” he said, dropping his hand. “I know about that as well, and while I’m flattered you’re
importuning from me, I am
sure I’m willing to settle for merely that. I hear Hester very obligingly whistling up the path so as not to surprise us. Let’s join her, shall we?”
He put her hand on his arm, wrapped his fingers over hers in an odd little display of gallantry, and led her in the direction of Hester’s off-key whistling.
While Mary Fran blinked back the damnable and stupid urge to cry.
When a man who’d been celibate for some time declined a beautiful woman’s almost, conditional, not-quite invitation to dally, that man was entitled to consider the situation afresh, when his wits were not sent begging by the way dappled sunlight danced across auburn hair. Matthew assured himself of this as he approached his hostess.
“Lady Mary Frances, a word with you, if you don’t mind a small interruption of your breakfast?”
She glanced over at him as he slid into the chair next to hers, but didn’t quite hide the impatience behind her smile. “Of course, Mr. Daniels. Are we to racket about the garden while we chat, or perhaps take another turn in the woods?”
“If you’d prefer, but I was hoping you’d show me some of the property, assuming the stable can spare us a pair of mounts.”
The idea had come to him in the middle of the previous night, when recollection of the feel of her waltzing in his arms, the feel of her hand clasping his, and the sound of her musical burr had necessitated two occasions of self-gratification.
“You’re inviting me for a ride?” Her brows knitted, suggesting the prurient interpretation of her question had escaped her notice.
“It’s a lovely day, and I’ve heard rumors that visitors to Balfour might chance upon Her Majesty if they spend enough time in your woods.”
As if he ever again wanted to report to his Queen face-to-face.
“A short ride, then. I’ve—”
“Things to see to,” Matthew finished for her. “Shall we meet in the stables in an hour?”
Those delicately arched brows came down. “I hardly need an hour to pop into a habit, Mr. Daniels.”
Matthew leaned near to top up her teacup. “You would have made an excellent officer, my lady. You are disciplined, organized, and decisive, also indifferent to your own comfort.”
She watched while Matthew added cream and sugar to her tea. “I’m not indifferent to my own—”
He lifted the cup close to her nose, so she could see the fragrant steam curling up and catch a whiff of rich black tea. “You have not yet taken a single bite of your breakfast, and I would not hurry you through your meal. Part of the challenge Her Majesty’s forces face in the Balkans is the simple logistical difficulty of defending our interests so far from home. This is the same factor that eventually defeated Napoleon. Drink your tea and eat a proper breakfast.”
She took a sip. “The Russian winter had a hand in things, as I recall my history.”
He couldn’t help but smile. “You know some military history.”
She smiled back, a small but genuine smile that fortified Matthew every bit as much as a stout cup of breakfast tea might. “Four older brothers, Mr. Daniels, and more than a passing respect for Highland winters. I’ll see you in the stables in an hour.”