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
Matthew rose, intent on changing into riding attire, but was arrested by the gaze of Ian MacGregor, Earl of Balfour. His lordship was leaning against the doorjamb to the breakfast parlor, the look in the man’s eyes speculative.
“My lord.” Matthew hoped that would be the end of it, but the earl ambled along beside him as Matthew headed into the corridor.
“Ach, must we be milording so early in the day? If you’re going to flirt with my sister, MacGregor will do, or Ian, since we’ve several MacGregors underfoot.”
The earl wasn’t just tall, he was broad, well muscled, and exuded the fitness of a man of the land. Dark hair made a handsome contrast to mossy green eyes, and his smile would have felled many a debutante in the ballrooms to the south.
“I’m going riding with the lady,” Matthew said, pausing at the foot of the stairway.
The earl paused right along with him. “Riding is always a nice place to start. Can’t get up to too much mischief when you’re on separate horses, can you? You will be on separate horses?”
“For God’s sake, Balfour, your sister is hardly going to content herself riding pillion behind an Englishman.”
“Her husband was English.” Balfour studied his big, blunt fingernails, while Matthew absorbed that Balfour was trying to warn him of something.
“It is not a crime to be English.”
why, come to think of it, did Lady Mary Frances eschew her married name?
“It isn’t any great advantage, either, at least not when a fellow is sniffing around Mary Fran’s skirts.” Balfour’s face creased into a grin that wasn’t exactly merry. “Enjoy your ride.”
With that cryptic comment, the earl spun on his heel and disappeared in the direction of the breakfast parlor.
Matthew repaired to his room, laid out his riding clothes, and tried to determine what Balfour had been telling him. The Scots were deuced canny, of necessity. By virtue of famine, clearances, service on various fighting fronts in Highland regiments, or by operation of prejudicial law, a stupid Scot was historically a dead Scot. This reality had been impressed upon Matthew by the Scottish officers he’d shared campfires with, and by his own family’s Scottish history.
But the typical Scot was also fair-minded to a fault.
Balfour really had been warning him, he decided. Warning him that only a stupid Englishman would do more than flirt with the fair Mary Frances.
“Or perhaps,” Matthew told his reflection in the cheval mirror, “an Englishman who relishes a challenge and recognizes another lonely soul when he sees one.”
Though maybe dallying with Mary Fran was the aspiration of an Englishman who was both lonely
“I haven’t been up to this lookout since…” Mary Fran paused to take in a great lungful of heather-scented air and tried to think back.
“Then it has been too long. A view like this restores the soul.”
Matthew Daniels sat a horse like a man born to the saddle. His horsemanship was a relaxed, natural thing, not a set of skills he’d honed just to show off, and his boots and breeches weren’t in the first stare of fashion. They looked comfortable, like Mary Fran’s old green velvet riding habit.
He gestured to the west, to the gleaming gray edifice under construction farther up the River Dee. “I take it that’s Balmoral?”
“None other. Albert had it designed for his Queen—and their children, of course. It seems a shame to use such a lovely property only a few months of the year.”
“It seems a shame that you are moldering away here in the countryside the year round, my lady. Doesn’t some part of you long for the society of Edinburgh?”
If he’d been flirting with her the livelong morning, if his efforts to boost her into the saddle had been the least forward, if he’d done anything except appreciate the beauty of her home, Mary Fran might have launched a barbed retort discouraging his suggestion that her life was somehow incomplete.
But he’d been a perfect gentleman. Polite and friendly without a hint of impropriety. His demeanor reminded Mary Fran of the way all the gentlemen had treated her prior to her marriage.
“I might like to see a bit of the South, but then I’d have to leave my Fee, wouldn’t I?”
“I beg your pardon?” He stood in the stirrups then settled back into the saddle, an equestrian at his leisure. “Your fee? I can’t imagine your brothers would begrudge you wages should you take a short holiday.”
Too late, Mary Fran realized that the barrier she vigilantly maintained between her role as hostess and her role as mother had fallen. Oh, the female guests usually got wind of Fiona at some point—the child was outright pestering the spinster cousin, Augusta Merrick—but Mary Fran kept her daughter away from the gentlemen guests.
Far, far away, particularly from the English ones.
“Not that kind of fee, but my Fiona.”
Daniels’s expression didn’t change.
Fiona.” Mary Fran pretended to study Balmoral, a brand-new building intended to resemble something medieval, at least from a distance. She knew the place well—Her Majesty was a good neighbor, and His Highness an avid sportsman—but she did not know why she kept talking.
“Fiona is my heart. I love her dearly, but she’s impossible sometimes. She says the most confounding things, and she has no sense except at the oddest moments. Her uncles dote on her, and I worry that isn’t a good thing, then I worry that I ought to be doting on her.”
She fell silent, wishing not that she’d kept her mouth shut, but that her companion would say something.
“You sound like my commanding officers, fretting over the troops. Doubting yourself for coddling them, doubting yourself for enforcing the discipline an army needs to function, despairing over the best soldiers when they do the most idiot things on leave.” He offered her a smile, a slow tipping up of his lips, the same smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. “It’s the very devil when one can’t help but care, isn’t it?”
She realized something about him then. He was not only a former military man at loose ends in the civilian world, not only an Englishman, not only a paying guest whose sister might well be the next Countess of Balfour.
He was a man, a human being, a fellow creature. A man who had refused Mary Fran’s invitation to sin simply because he was decent.
She basked in his smile, in the understanding of it, and offered him her own smile in return. “The very devil, indeed. I want to brain my brothers most days. They must wear their muddy boots in the house, swear in front of Fiona, and tell lewd jokes when they think I’m not listening.”
“Sounds like life in the military—though you might also have alluded delicately to the noisome bodily functions one doesn’t speak of in Polite Society.”
He was pretending to study Balmoral now too, but Mary Fran couldn’t help it. She laughed, a chuckle at first, then a great big belly laugh that had the horse shifting beneath her.
“Tell me more about military life, Matthew Daniels. I might have some useful suggestions for its improvement.”
They let their horses amble down the hillside while Matthew told one tale after another of pranks and skirmishes, though gradually, his tone became more serious.
“You did not want to leave,” Mary Fran guessed. “You hated it, and you loved it.”
He stroked a gloved hand down his horse’s crest. “I think most career military have mixed feelings, but no, I didn’t love it. I felt useful, though, and it grates upon me daily that I must idle about, my father’s much-vaunted heir, when I could be of real service in a part of the world that’s quickly heading for war.”
Useful. She knew what a cold comfort that was.
became an acceptable way to go on only when the alternative was to be useless.
“Could you go back?”
Mary Fran might have missed the expression on his face, but she liked watching the way emotion would flicker through his blue eyes. The happy emotions—humor, joy, pleasure in the scenery—were fleeting, while the other emotions faded more gradually.
“I cannot go back. Not ever, and I do not want to.”
Despair—profound despair—but also resignation crossed his features.
“I wish we’d brought a picnic.” The observation was as close as she could come to admitting she did not want to go back either—to the housework, the squabbling maids, her swearing brothers, and sometimes even to her own confounding, exhausting, endlessly dear daughter.
“A picnic sounds like a lovely idea for another day, my lady. Tell me, how do you think your brother is faring with his courting of my sister?”
The change in topic was welcome, and it was a relief to think that if Ian married Eugenia, then Matthew Daniels might become a relation of some sort to Mary Fran—and to Fiona.
“Ian must be studying the terrain before advancing his troops,” Mary Fran replied. “I can’t say as I’d be very impressed with his efforts thus far, though you English do delight in your mincing about. He can hardly pounce on the lady and carry her off to his castle.”
“Mincing about. I take it mincing about would not meet with your approval were a man to court you?”
They were back to his version of flirting. It made the prospect of her duties at Balfour a little more bearable and suggested that Matthew had had enough of shadows and regrets for one morning. “Mincing about would not impress me one bit. Shall I race you back to the stables?”
her win, but Mary Fran’s mount was carrying considerably less weight, and Mary Fran knew the terrain. They called it a draw, and as Matthew escorted her up to the house, Mary Fran let herself wonder: If mincing about as a courting strategy would not impress her, then what would?
“Pretend you don’t see me.”
The Balfour estate was home to many children. Matthew had observed them weeding the vegetable plots, herding sheep, spreading chicken manure on the pastures, mucking stalls, and otherwise taking on the tasks appropriate to youth. This was the first child he’d seen in Balfour House itself, and he knew in an instant the girl dismounting nimbly from the banister was the dear and dread Fiona.
“Are you asking me to lie, child?”
She studied him with the trademark MacGregor green eyes, twirling the end of a coppery braid between her fingers. “Not lie,
. This is the ladies’ wing, so I will
I didn’t see you here either.”
“I’m fetching my aunt, my sisters, and my cousin, to escort them to dinner. My name is Matthew Daniels.”
“Fiona Ursula MacGregor Flynn.” She gave a sprightly curtsy that looked more like a Highland dance maneuver. “I know who you are. You are Miss Augusta’s cousin, Miss Daniels’s brother, and Miss Hester’s brother too. The baron is your father, and Miss Julia is your auntie by marriage, which is why she’s so young.”
“I’m impressed.” He was also charmed by this miniature version of Mary Fran. “Lady Mary Frances is your mother, and the earl and his brothers are your uncles.”
“Yes.” She twirled around, smiling gleefully. “And you are our guests. I had an adventure today.”
Matthew took up a seat on the bottom stair. “I expect you have adventures most days. Lots of them.”
“Not like this. A gentleman should ask a lady’s permission before he takes a seat, you know.” In her thick, piping burr, she was reminding him of his manners as a kindness.
“A lady stays off the banisters. What was your adventure?” Because, of course, she was dying to be asked, and Matthew did not like disappointing even so young a lady.
She plopped down on the stair beside him and tucked her pinny over her knees. “Romeo came after us.”
“Romeos generally do give chase where pretty ladies are concerned.” And this one was going to be gorgeous, right down to the freckles she shared with her mother.
“Romeo is our bull, our
bull, though the uncles won’t let him step out with Highland heifers, only with the Angus. Miss Augusta and I went for a picnic, and Romeo came calling. Uncle Ian saved us, and I was very brave.”
“You’ve had a busy morning. How is Miss Augusta?” Visions of Augusta Merrick scrambling over a stone wall brought back childhood memories of similar escapades with her and his sisters.
“She said she’ll tell Ma for me, tonight, after the ladies have had their tea. Ma won’t skelp m’ bum if the ladies are present. I think I should get a medal from the Queen for being so brave.”
This last was bravado, the kind of bravado a child produces when she knows her opinion will not be shared by her parent.
“She won’t skelp your backside. She might weep all over you, though.”
Fiona grimaced and resumed twirling her braid. “That would be awful. Ma hardly ever cries. I hate it when she cries, and so do the uncs. Uncle Con makes her mad so she won’t cry, and Uncle Gil makes her laugh.”
“What does Uncle Ian do?”
“Uncle Ian neg-o-ti-ates. He explained it to me. It’s a bit like playing pretend.”
Before Matthew could fashion a reply to this revelation—Ian would be negotiating the marriage settlements before too much longer—he caught an acrid whiff of cigar smoke.
Fiona sprang to her feet. “G’day, sir. I’ll just be going now.” She shot off up the stairs as Altsax sauntered into the corridor.
“Taken to lurking in the ladies’ wing, Matthew?”
Matthew rose and resisted the urge to dust off his backside. “I’ve come to fetch the women for dinner.”
“You won’t find that Valkyrie sister of Balfour’s here in the women’s wing. She bides in the family wing, where her brothers can do a better job of protecting her virtue than they did in the past. Sound strategy cozying up to the brat, though.”
“Her name is Fiona.” Fiona Ursula MacGregor Flynn, which did not explain why the mother was still using her maiden name.
Altsax fiddled with an ornate gold sleeve button so it winked in the evening sun slanting through the nearby window. “Getting protective already? You can take the boy out of the army, but not the army out of the boy? How very quaint, given the manner in which you and the military parted company. If you’re going to bed the Valkyrie, I suggest you be about it—though that is not a woman in whose presence I’d let my guard down one bit. She’ll likely steal the rings from your fingers while you lie sated and spent in her arms.”