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
“Your opinion regarding our hostess is ill-bred in the extreme.”
Matthew had managed to speak quietly—Hester or Genie could come tripping along any moment—and he had not balled up his fists or clenched his teeth. Even so, the comment was a tactical error, one that would inspire Altsax to further crudeness if nothing else.
“My, my, my!” Altsax smiled broadly, revealing tobacco-stained teeth. “Ill-bred, am I? It pains me to point out to you that I sit in the Lords and have more wealth than these kilted heathen will see in ten lifetimes. I can be ill-bred when I please, where I please, in any manner I please.”
“Which freedom you feel compelled to demonstrate on far too many occasions,” Matthew responded as pleasantly as he could.
The humor died from Altsax’s rheumy eyes. “Mark me on this, young man: you are a good part of the reason I had to drag your sister into the wilds of Scotland in search of a title for her. Had you not left a trail of scandal clear back to the Crimea, she could have had her pick of the London bachelors. Instead, I’m put to the expense and ignominy of treating with a damned Scot for her hand, and a reluctant damned Scot at that. Cross me at your peril,
. I can leave my wealth to your sisters and wish you the joy of a lowly barony.”
A door opened a few yards down the corridor. Julia Redmond stood there, attired for dinner, a forced smile on her pretty features. “We’ll be ready in just a moment, gentlemen.”
“Matthew will escort you to dinner,” Altsax said. “Though once the earl and I start parlaying family secrets between us, I doubt even a liberal-minded Scot would want the likes of my son at his table.”
The baron stalked off as Julia slipped her fingers around Matthew’s arm. “He’s full of nonsense, you know. Genie has had three Seasons to pick out a swain, and she’s waiting for some lightning bolt from on high to smite her and her one and only simultaneously. As an approach to matrimony, it hasn’t much to recommend it.”
Julia was a petite, pretty woman only two years Matthew’s junior. Her marriage to Altsax’s younger brother hadn’t been a love match, and widowhood had left Julia comfortably well-off.
“You are kind, Julia. Altsax was speaking nothing more than truth. Association with me will not aid either of my sisters in their marital aspirations.”
Julia kissed his cheek, bringing him a hint of roses and solace. “I’ve heard very little talk, Matthew, at least among the ladies of Polite Society. Whispers and hints at the edges of the ballrooms, but nobody seems to know exactly what went on. By this time next year, everybody will have forgotten. Let’s fetch your sisters and Augusta, and go to dinner.”
Amid a gaggle of pretty, merry women, Matthew traveled the earl’s house to the formal parlor, where they’d enjoy whisky and conversation in anticipation of another fine meal. He’d enjoy feasting his eyes on Lady Mary Frances in her finery, too, and he’d tell himself that old army scandals would not matter here in the Highlands.
Except they likely would. Perhaps not to Balfour, or to his brothers, but if Altsax was the one relaying the tale, then at least to Lady Mary Frances, an army scandal that had Matthew Daniels compromising the honor of a young lady would matter a great deal.
“I was hoping I might find you out here.” Matthew Daniels sauntered up from the direction of the gardens, and the guilt roiling in Mary Fran’s gut threatened to choke her.
“I’m in need of a little solitude, Mr. Daniels.” She pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders, though it was a beautiful, soft night.
“No, you’re not.” He picked up her hand and tucked it over his arm. “Something has you overset. Are you feeling guilty for having spent the morning with me? All we did was talk, my lady, and admire your family’s holdings.”
Without her consent, he escorted her off the terrace and down into the gardens. And damn him and all his people unto the nineteenth generation, he was
“I talked. You talked, though you said precious little.”
“I said enough. I don’t usually burden anyone with remembrances of military life.” He sounded a touch put out with himself, or maybe perplexed, but Mary Fran had been fascinated to hear his recounting of a colonel’s responsibilities in the political cauldron that was the Crimea. She gathered he’d been mustered out through his father’s machinations, which had left the baronial heir guilty and frustrated as war loomed ever closer.
Imagine that. An Englishman feeling guilty the same as a negligent mother might feel guilty.
“I won’t be riding out with you again, Mr. Daniels.”
“I was Matthew earlier today. I rather liked being Matthew to you, and I liked spending my morning with Mary Fran.”
His voice held no accusation, more a sort of wistfulness she could understand all too well.
“Matthew, then.” And she couldn’t leave it at that. She prattled on with no more poise than Fee might show on market day, saying things a grown woman ought not to burden a guest with. “Fiona was nearly trampled by a bull today while I was out larking around with you. She might have been k-killed.”
She paused in their progress to take a steadying breath. Thank God for the darkness. Thank God for the distance from the house.
He was a man blessed with fluid movement, like a big cat. He didn’t spook her. He just eased around to stand directly before her, put both hands on her shoulders, and pulled her gently into his embrace. “Tell me, Mary Fran. I assume she came to no harm, or you wouldn’t be out here in the darkness, flagellating yourself over a simple childhood misadventure.”
She went into his arms, more grateful for the refuge he provided than she could say. Her brothers treated her to their offhand version of affection, and from time to time Mary Fran allowed herself a discreet flirtation with a passing fellow.
But to be held…
“Talk to me, Mary Fran. You don’t need solitude. You have too damned much solitude even as you thunder around amid your family. Talk to me…” He went on, a low, soothing patter accompanied by equally soothing strokes of his hands over her back, her shoulders, her hair. She would not mistake him for a gentle man, not ever. His ability to
gentle had the tears spilling from her eyes.
“I love her,” she got out. “I love her
, but I’m no good at being a mother. I’m no good at it at all… I never know where she is. I never know what to say to her. I never know what she needs except that I provide it too little and too late. My brothers help, but they’re only men…”
She just damn cried for long, wearying minutes. Cried until she realized Matthew had settled her on a bench and kept an arm around her shoulders. He let her wet the front of his shirt and his neckcloth, while she kept his handkerchief balled up in her hand.
When Mary Fran at last fell silent, his thumb traced her damp cheek—a small gesture, but so intimate. She turned her face into his palm, feeling foolish, helpless, and completely at sea.
“I have imposed,” she said, trying to sit up.
“You have been imposed upon,” he countered, keeping her against him. “You’re supposed to un a very fancy guesthouse, take care of three grown men to save them the cost of a housekeeper, play lady of the manor with the Queen of half the known world for your neighbor, and raise a rambunctious child without benefit of a father’s aid, guidance, or coin.”
Put that way, it was hard to decide which hurt worse: the comment about saving her brothers the cost of a housekeeper or the bald fact that Gordie’s family had no interest in Fiona.
“One gets weary,” he said, suggesting he was capable of divining her thoughts. His hand—big, warm, and slightly rough—came to rest on the side of her neck. “Not just tired, but weary. Physically, emotionally, morally. At such times, one needs friends.”
He sounded not English, but simply weary himself. A soldier who’d seen too much of war and not enough of peace. A son chafing under the demands of family. A man resigned to loneliness.
“One needs sleep too.” Mary Fran made another effort to sit up, and he let her, but kept his hand on her nape. “I owe you an apology, Mr. D—Matthew.”
“You owe me nothing.” His thumb stroked over the pulse in her throat, which should have been relaxing but was in truth more of a distraction.
“Earlier today…” Mary Fran steeled herself for the cost of being honest. “I had plans for you. Plans that might have involved the gamekeeper’s cottage, had you cast me even a single curious glance. It’s our informal trysting place, because my brothers won’t bring their passing fancies into the house.”
His thumb paused; Mary Fran’s breath stopped moving in her chest. His thumb resumed its slow progress over her skin; she resumed breathing.
“If all you’d wanted was a tumble, Mary Fran, I’d likely have obliged and acquitted myself as enthusiastically as the situation allowed. You are an exceptionally desirable woman, but I think you want something else more than you want a few minutes of oblivion and desire.”
Oblivion and desire? Was that what she’d been after? He was so much more substantial than that, and the yawning need inside her wanted more too. She tried to see into his eyes in the gathering darkness, but there simply wasn’t enough light.
“Let me hold you, Mary Fran. Please.” A suggestion, not a command. He understood her that much, which was better than she understood herself at the moment. She leaned against him and nuzzled his shoulder until she found a comfortable place to rest.
His arms settled around her. His lips brushed against her forehead, and something eased in her aching chest. She fell asleep in his embrace, there on the hard bench under the stars.
Activity was the army’s typical prescription for sexual restlessness, and Matthew found it served in most cases, though after tramping through the Balfour woods for an hour, he still couldn’t get the scent and feel of Mary Frances MacGregor out of his mind, or set aside the conundrum of how honest to be with her. When a man wanted something more than a flirtation but deserved less than an attachment the usual rules were no help.
“Good day. A fine morning for a ramble, is it not?”
A man sat in dappled sunshine on a rough bench a few yards up the path. He rose to a substantial height and came toward Matthew. The fowling piece over his shoulder was exquisite, the stock and handle chased with silver. The fellow’s attire was as fashionable as country turnout could be.
“Good day…” Matthew’s heart gave a lurch as he placed that tall figure and the slight German inflection lacing the man’s greeting. “Your Highness.”
Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel, Prince Consort to the Queen, father to a growing brood of princes and princesses, and devoted sportsman, stood in the Balfour woods, frowning at Matthew.
“It’s Colonel Daniels, isn’t it?”
“Just plain Matthew Daniels, sir.”
The frown cleared. “I recall your situation now. Her Majesty has fretted over you,
Daniels. May I assure her all goes well with you?”
Matthew hesitated an instant too long, proving to himself how distracted he’d become with his hostess at Balfour. “All goes well enough. My family is visiting at Balfour in hopes of securing a match between my sister and the earl.”
“A delicate business, the advantageous marriage.” The prince’s eyes danced while he made this observation. “Walk with me, Mr. Daniels, because my wife will want a full report on you and on the matchmaking at Balfour. I would not disappoint her for anything.”
One did not refuse a royal invitation, particularly not when one had nothing better to do but brood over whether a temporary liaison with Lady Mary Frances was worth the unpleasantness bound to ensue if she learned of the scandal hanging over Matthew’s head.
“How fares Her Majesty, sir?”
“She loves it here, and the children enjoy it as well. I struggle along too, of course, between the fishing, the grouse moors, the deer-stalking. One must bear up under the press of duty.” More German humor lurked in his words, both broad and subtle. His Royal Highness produced a flask and held it out to Matthew. “All is not so very well with you, though, is it? Your papa is not an easy man to spend time with.”
The Queen was not the most political monarch to take the throne, but she kept her hand among the peerage socially, as Matthew well knew. “My father is a randy old jackass.”
“So why not sport about at the summer house parties or among the fashionable beauties in Edinburgh? The company there is delightful for an unattached fellow.”
What to say? The Prince was a devoted husband and father, a well-educated man who did much to improve the situation of the same working-class people who treated him with such disdain. He was also one of very few who knew the truth of Matthew’s past.
Matthew took a nip of lovely whisky and passed the flask back. “For the present, at least, I am not suitable company for fashionable beauties, and with one possible exception, there are no beauties who interest me.”
His Highness tucked the flask into an inner pocket of his shooting jacket, shouldered his piece, and sighted down the barrel as they walked along. “Do you know, Mr. Daniels, that though there is war brewing here and there about the realm, and the condition of our cities is a daily disgrace, and the nonsense that goes on at Westminster is without end, the only thing that truly can disturb me is difficulty between me and my wife? She is my exception, and I flatter myself that I am hers. One does well to pay attention to the exceptions.”
“My past—” Matthew fell silent. He wasn’t going to complain, for God’s sake, not to the Prince Consort.
“If she’s truly exceptional, that will not matter—if it even comes up. Would you like to give this gun a try? It’s heavy, but flatters my vanity, and the aim is excellent. It was a gift from my wife.”
Matthew accepted the fowling piece and spent another hour tramping about the woods, shooting twigs and branches of His Royal Highness’s choosing, and telling himself his past really ought not to matter to Mary Frances.
Provided all she wanted from him was oblivion and desire.