The Bridegroom Wore Plaid

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  • Copyright: 2012-12-04
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In an effort to preserve the family estate, Ian MacGregor, the Earl of Balfour, must marry for money. When a promising match emerges in the form of Genie Daniels, a rich English heiress, Ian begins devising a strategy to woo her. When he meets Genie's poor cousin Augusta, he discovers a new avenue to Genie's heart. But after spending time with Augusta and falling for her charms, Ian begins to question whether or not he's willing to forfeit his heart to save the family name...


<p><b>One</b></p><p>"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single, reasonably good-looking earl not in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wealthy wife."</p><p>Ian MacGregor repeated Aunt Eulalie's reasoning under his breath. The words had the ring of old-fashioned common sense, and yet they somehow made a mockery of such an earl as well.</p><p>Possibly of the wife too. As Ian surveyed the duo of tittering, simpering, blond females debarking from the train on the arm of their scowling escort, he sent up a silent prayer that his countess would be neither reluctant nor managing, but other than that, he could not afford-in the most literal sense-to be particular.</p><p>His wife could be homely, or she could be fair. She could be a recent graduate from the schoolroom, or a lady past the first blush of youth. She could be shy or boisterous, gorgeous or plain. It mattered not which, provided she was unequivocally, absolutely, and most assuredly rich.</p><p>And if Ian MacGregor's bride was to be well and truly rich, she was also going to be-God help him and all those who depended on him-English.</p><p>For the good of his family, his clan, and the lands they held, he'd consider marrying a well-dowered Englishwoman. If that meant his own preferences in a wife-pragmatism, loyalty, kindness, and a sense of humor-went begging, well, such was the laird's lot.</p><p>In the privacy of his personal regrets, Ian admitted a lusty nature in a wife and a fondness for a tall, black-haired, green-eyed Scotsman as a husband wouldn't have gone amiss either. As he waited for his brothers Gilgallon and Connor to maneuver through the throng in the Ballater station yard, Ian tucked that regret away in the vast mental storeroom reserved for such dolorous thoughts.</p><p>"I'll take the tall blond," Gil muttered with the air of a man choosing which lame horse to ride into battle.</p><p>"I'm for the little blond, then," Connor growled, sounding equally resigned.</p><p>Ian understood the strategy. His brothers would offer escort to Miss Eugenia Daniels and her younger sister, Hester Daniels, while Ian was to show himself to be the perfect gentleman. His task thus became to offer his arms to the two chaperones who stood quietly off to the side. One was dressed in subdued if fashionable mauve, the other in wrinkled gray with two shawls, one of beige with a black fringe, the other of gray.</p><p>Ian moved away from his brothers, pasting a fatuous smile on his face.</p><p>"My lord, my ladies, fáilte! Welcome to Aberdeenshire!"</p><p>An older man detached himself from the blond females. The fellow sported thick muttonchop whiskers, a prosperous paunch, and the latest fashion in daytime attire. "Willard Daniels, Baron of Altsax and Gribbony."</p><p>The baron bowed slightly, acknowledging Ian's superior if somewhat tentative rank.</p><p>"Balfour, at your service." Ian shook hands with as much hearty bonhomie as he could muster. "Welcome to you and your family, Baron. If you'll introduce me to your womenfolk and your son, I'll make my brothers known to them, and we can be on our way."</p><p>The civilities were observed, while Ian tacitly appraised his prospective countess. The taller blond-Eugenia Daniels-was his marital quarry, and she blushed and stammered her greetings with empty-headed good manners. She did not appear reluctant, which meant he could well end up married to her, provided he could dredge up sufficient charm to woo her.</p><p>And he could. Not ten years after the worst famine known to the British Isles, a strong back and a store of charm were about all that was left to him, so by God, he would use both ruthlessly to his family's advantage.</p><p>Connor and Gil comported themselves with similarly counterfeit cheer, though on Con the exercise was not as convincing. Con was happy to go all day without speaking, much less smiling, though Ian knew he, too, understood the desperate nature of their charade.</p><p>Daniels made a vague gesture in the direction of the chaperones. "My sister-in-law, Mrs. Julia Redmond. My niece, Augusta Merrick." He turned away as he said the last, his gaze on the men unloading a mountain of trunks from the train.</p><p>Thank God Ian had thought to bring the wagon in addition to the coach. The English did set store by their finery. The baron's son, Colonel Matthew Daniels, late of Her Majesty's cavalry, excused himself from the introductions to oversee the transfer of baggage to the wagon.</p><p>"Ladies." Ian winged an arm at each of the older women. "I'll have you on your way in no time."</p><p>"This is so kind of you," the shorter woman said, taking his arm. Mrs. Redmond was a pretty thing, petite, with perfect skin, big brown eyes, and rich chestnut curls peeking out from under the brim of a lavender silk cottage bonnet. Ian placed her somewhere just a shade south of thirty. A lovely age on a woman. Con would call it a dally-able age.</p><p>Only as Ian offered his other arm to the second woman did he realize she was holding a closed hatbox in one hand and a reticule in the other.</p><p>Mrs. Redmond held out a gloved hand for the hatbox. "Oh, Gus, do give me Ulysses."</p><p>The hatbox emitted a disgruntled yowl.</p><p>Ian felt an abrupt yearning for a not-so-wee dram, for now he'd sunk to hosting not just the wealthy English, but their dyspeptic felines as well.</p><p>"I will carry my own pet," the taller lady said-Miss Merrick. A man who was a host for hire had to be good with names. She hunched a little more tightly over her hatbox, as if she feared her cat might be torn from her clutches by force.</p><p>"Perhaps you'd allow me to carry your bag, so I might escort you to the coach?" Ian cocked his arm at her again, a slight gesture he'd meant to be gracious.</p><p>The lady twisted her head on her neck, not straightening entirely, and peered up at him out of a pair of violet-gentian eyes. That color was completely at variance with her bent posture, her pinched mouth, the unrelieved black of her hair, the wilted gray silk of her old-fashioned coal scuttle bonnet, and even with the expression of impatience in the eyes themselves.</p><p>The Almighty had tossed even this cranky besom a bone, but these beautiful eyes in the context of this woman were as much burden as benefit. They insulted the rest of her somehow, mocked her and threw her numerous shortcomings into higher relief.</p><p>The two shawls-worn in public, no less-half slipping off her shoulders.</p><p>The hem of her gown two inches farther away from the planks of the platform than was fashionable.</p><p>The cat yowling its discontent in the hatbox.</p><p>The finger poking surreptitiously from the tip of her right glove.</p><p>Gazing at those startling eyes, Ian realized that despite her bearing and her attire, Miss Merrick was probably younger than he was, at least chronologically.</p><p>"Come, Gussie," Mrs. Redmond said, reaching around Ian for the reticule. "We'll hold up the coach, which will make Willard difficult, and I am most anxious to see Lord Balfour's home."</p><p>"And I am anxious to show it off to you." Ian offered an encouraging smile, noting out of the corner of his eye that Gil and Con were bundling their charges into the waiting coach. The sky was full of bright, puffy little clouds scudding against an azure canvas, but this was Scotland in high summer, and the weather was bound to change at any minute out of sheer contrariness.</p><p>Miss Merrick put her gloved hand on his sleeve-the glove with the frayed finger-and lifted her chin toward the coach.</p><p>A true lady then, one who could issue commands without a word. Ian began the stately progress toward the coach necessitated by the lady's dignified gait, all the while sympathizing with the cat, whose displeasure with his circumstances was made known to the entire surrounds.</p><p>Fortunately, Mrs. Redmond was of a sunnier nature.</p><p>"It was so good of you to fetch us from the train yourself, my lord," Mrs. Redmond said. "Eulalie told us you offer the best hospitality in the shire."</p><p>"Aunt Eulalie can be given to overstatement, but I hope not in this case. You are our guests, and Highland custom would allow us to treat you as nothing less than family."</p><p>"Are we in the Highlands?" Miss Merrick asked. "It's quite chilly."</p><p>Ian resisted glancing at the hills all around them.</p><p>"There is no strict legal boundary defining the Highlands, Miss Merrick. I was born and brought up in the mountains to the west, though, so my manners are those of a Highlander. And by custom, Ballater is indeed considered Highland territory. We can get at least a dusting of snow any month of the year."</p><p>Those incongruous, beautiful eyes flicked over him, up, up, and down-to his shoulders, no lower. He tried to label what he saw in her gaze: contempt, possibly, a little curiosity, some veiled boldness.</p><p>Shrewdness, he decided with an inward sigh, though he kept his smile in place. She had the sort of noticing, analyzing shrewdness common to the poor relation managing on family charity-Ian recognized it from long acquaintance.</p><p>"How did you come to live in Aberdeenshire?" Mrs. Redmond asked as they approached the coach.</p><p>An innocent question bringing to mind images of starvation and despair.</p><p>"It's the seat of our earldom. I came of age, and it was time I saw something of the world." Besides failed potato fields, overgrazed glens, and shabby funerals. He handed the ladies in, which meant for a moment he held the hatbox. His respect for the cat grew, since from the weight of the hatbox, the beast would barely have room to turn around in its pretty little cage.</p><p>Ian knew exactly how that felt.</p><p>He handed the cat up to the coachman, closed the coach door, and swung up on Hannibal, because his brothers were already in their respective saddles. Up on the box, Donal waited for the riders to go ahead, lest the mounted contingent have to eat an unnecessary helping of summer dust.</p><p>And then they were leaving the crowded surrounds of the Ballater train station, leaving the sound of steam belched from the train, the hubbub of greeting and parting in the station yard, the stomping and tail swishing of coach horses impatient-as Ian was impatient-to be away from the noise.</p><p>"What can you tell me?" Ian asked his brothers as they slowed their horses to a walk. The coach had fallen hundreds of yards behind, the aging team needing a modest pace on the many inclines on the road to Balfour House.</p><p>"The younger daughter, Hester, is harmless, but not stupid," Connor said. "My guess is she knows she has to wait until the older one is wed before she herself goes on the block. She won't be a problem."</p><p>"See that she isn't."</p><p>Connor nodded, no doubt resigned to having to dance and flirt-as best he could-with yet another English miss.</p><p>"Gil, what about my prospective bride?"</p><p>Gil fiddled with his reins, adjusting the balance of curb and snaffle. "Pretty, which should make married life a little easier, at least during daylight hours."</p><p>"What does that mean?"</p><p>Gil's lips flattened. "She's... nervous. Anxious, but many women are not pleased to be making long trips by train. I can't say in five minutes of her company I came to any significant conclusions about Miss Daniels."</p><p>Gil had gotten a generous helping of the family charm along with his blond good looks. If there was more intelligence to gain regarding Miss Daniels, he was the best man to gather it.</p><p>Con glowered at nothing in particular. "It was MacDaniels until a few generations ago."</p><p>"It's Daniels now," Ian said. "Well, keep your eyes and ears open. The shorter chaperone strikes me as pleasant enough, though those types are easy to underestimate. The taller one is decidedly lacking in cheer."</p><p>Con's mouth quirked up. "Serves you right."</p><p>"She could be an ally," Ian said. "If she's willing to see her cousin matched to a Scottish earldom, then a fat English dowry is that much closer to our dirty, grasping hands."</p><p>Con's smile disappeared as he glared at his horse's mane. "There has to be another way."</p><p>"There isn't." Gil's tone was weary. "Thank God that Her Majesty has made all things Scottish fashionable, particularly strutting about the Highlands in summer. The paying guests get us from year to year, from crop to crop, and shearing to shearing. We'd be on the boat to Nova Scotia without them. They will not keep Balfour in any sort of repair, though, and they leave us precious little to send along to the others."</p><p>"We're doing all right," Ian said. But just all right. Another blight on the crops, a sickness in the flocks, a new tax from London, and all right would not be good enough. As much coin as they sent to their myriad relations in the New World, there was always a need for more.</p><p>"We're waltzing and flirting our lives away," Con said. "It's enough to make that boat to Canada look very, very good."</p><p>He'd let his diction lapse: verra, verra guid. As the youngest, Con had come down from the mountains most recently, but it was more than that. This charade took a toll on them all, but on Con worse than Ian or Gil. Con was their horsemaster, a man more comfortable out-of-doors among the beasts than swilling tea in his dress kilt.</p><p>"Race you!" Gil drove his heels into his horse's sides, shooting out from between his brothers like a blond streak. Con thundered after, while Ian held Hannibal back through a series of impatient crow hops and props.</p><p>"Settle, you. A fellow of your dignified years has no business disporting like a cocktail lad of three."</p><p>At the sound of Ian's voice, the gelding ceased his antics. They were both getting too old to caper around for the sheer hell of it, but as Ian watched the coach come lumbering up the hill behind him, he wheeled his horse and shot off after his brothers.</p><p>***</p><p>"My goodness, the men here are certainly tall!" Hester offered this observation to the coach at large.</p><p>"And... substantial," Julia concurred, wiggling her eyebrows in an unwidow-like manner. "Verra, verra substantial."</p><p>"Naughty, Aunt, mimicking the locals." Eugenia was smiling. Not the bored, arch expression Augusta saw on her so often, but a genuine, affectionate smile.</p><p>"Sometimes being a saint grows tiresome," Julia said. "Gus, the Scottish air has put roses in your cheeks. Surely this bodes well for our stay in Aberdeenshire."</p><p>"One need not travel this far from the good air of Oxford to acquire roses in one's cheeks," Augusta replied. "I will be surprised if that wretched trip didn't leave the lot of us with permanent aches in unmentionable locations."</p><p>This remark occasioned much drollery, which Julia abetted shamelessly while Augusta watched the passing countryside. In its craggy majesty and bleakness-the mountains here sported no trees above a certain altitude-the landscape bore a resemblance to the strapping specimens of Scottish manhood who'd met their train.</p><p>This trip had not been Augusta's idea-she'd been dead set against it, in fact-but there was pleasure in spending time with her female cousins. Willard and Matthew, thank the angels, had seen fit to spend this leg of the journey up on the box with the coachman, meaning Augusta could relax just a bit.</p><p>Mentally, anyway. The stays biting into her hips and sides made physical relaxation impossible.</p><p>"Pretty country," Genie remarked from her place beside Augusta. "One can see why Her Majesty chose it for her private residence."</p><p>Austere, perhaps. Not pretty. "Attractive in its way, but so is Kent."</p><p>Something passed through Genie's blue eyes, something that marred the classic English beauty of her features. If Augusta had been forced to name it, she might have called it despair.</p><p>And what would such a lovely young lady, the world at her feet after three very successful Seasons, have to despair over?</p><p>"You aren't the one being paraded before every title with pockets to let, Cousin." Genie turned her head to look out the other window. "I appreciate that you've abandoned your rose gardens to chaperone Hester and me, but is the duty really so onerous when all you'll be doing is walking in Lord Balfour's woods and dancing with his brothers?"</p><p>"Not... onerous, though you know I do not dance."</p><p>"You did." That from Julia, the traitor. "When you came out you danced quite often, Gussie."</p><p>"Nearly a decade ago, when there was no choice but to dance."</p><p>A little silence fell, while Augusta felt a despair of her own. This was her lot in life now, to kill confidences from her younger cousins, to leave little clouds of awkwardness and disapproval in her conversational wake. But really, for Julia to bring up Augusta's come-out...</p><p>"Did you fancy Lord Balfour, Genie?" Hester put the question quietly. Because Augusta was sitting beside Genie, she saw the girl's mouth tighten.</p><p>"Cousin Augusta doesn't dance," Genie said. "I do not seek marriage to a stranger sporting a title. I'm sure Lord Balfour is a very amiable gentleman, but I'm not here to become his countess."</p><p>Her tone consigned all amiable gentlemen to the jungles of darkest Peru.</p><p>"Papa mightn't agree with you." Hester's tone bore no malice. "We're both for titles, Genie. You've heard him lecturing Mama about it incessantly."</p><p>"Then you marry the Scottish earl."</p><p>Hester, with characteristic good cheer, appeared to consider the notion. "He's handsome, if tall."</p><p>"And substantial," Julia added. "Don't forget that. I like his eyes."</p><p>"Maybe you should marry him, Aunt," Hester suggested, lips curving. "I hadn't noticed his eyes."</p><p>"They're kind," Julia said. "I find that very attractive on a man."</p><p>Oh, for pity's sake. The man's eyes were green. A startling, emerald green, probably made more striking by his somewhat dark complexion and the thick fringe of dark lashes around them. They were also tired, those eyes. They had a weariness that contrasted subtly with his flashing white teeth, easy grin, and comfortable manners.</p><p>"The one with brown hair struck me as serious," Julia said, egging on her charges. "Maybe he'd be a better match for you, Genie. If he's the spare, he'll at least have a courtesy title."</p><p>"Connor has the brown hair," Hester supplied. "He has the best nose. Gilgallon looks like he laughs more, and I like his blond hair, but his mouth is stubborn. I'd put my money on him as the spare."</p><p>Lord Balfour's mouth wasn't stubborn. Augusta frowned, picturing him grinning as he'd swung up on his horse and patted the beast soundly on the neck. His mouth was wide, the lips a trifle full, and on the left side, he had a dimple that flashed when he smiled. With thick, dark hair ruffled by the breeze, he made an attractive picture.</p><p>Julia untied her bonnet and set it in her lap. "What constitutes a good nose, Hester?"</p><p>"Proud," Hester said. "Connor has a proud nose, a conqueror's nose. Not a narrow little whining thing like Richard Comstock-Simms has."</p><p>"My sister has taken up reading noses," Genie said, her smile back in place now that impending marriage was no longer the subject. "You can make pots of money predicting men's futures by assessing their noses."</p><p>"We already have pots of money," Hester retorted. "Which is why Lord Balfour will offer for you. I wouldn't mind having a Scottish brother-in-law, Genie."</p><p>"Why not a Scottish husband?" Julia asked, deflecting the temper flaring in Genie's eyes.</p><p>"Because Mama will not allow me to marry until Genie is at least engaged. Besides, Genie has had three Seasons, and I've had only one."</p><p>Augusta let their combination of banter and bickering wash over her, while she considered Ian MacGregor's nose.</p><p>There was nothing subtle about his nose. Proud applied, but also, perhaps, aristocratic. His nose occupied the middle of his face as a nose ought, but was a little more grand than the standard nose, having the slightest tendency to hook toward the bottom. She knew this because she'd studied the man in profile when he'd offered his arm the second time.</p><p>He'd smiled down at her, offering a polite, even friendly smile to a woman whom he could safely dismiss as a nonentity, which was exactly how Augusta intended he view her. Why his willingness to do so should leave her disgruntled, she did not know, nor was she going to waste time pondering it.</p><p>The coach rattled along roads likely improved in honor of Her Majesty's decision to make her private residence at nearby Balmoral. Lord Balfour's proximity to the royal household had figured prominently in the Daniels's campaign to have the girls spend much of their summer here in Aberdeenshire.</p><p>As if Queen Victoria would pop out from behind a tree and declare herself thrilled to be making the acquaintance of Hester and Eugenia Daniels.</p><p>Julia put her bonnet back on twenty minutes later and tied the ribbons beneath her chin. "At long last, our destination. What a lovely, lovely facade."</p><p>Pale gray stone caught bright summer sun, ivy blanketed the northern face, and topiary dragons frolicked along the wings spreading from either side of the main entrance. The house looked comfortable in its setting, secure, affluent, and pretty without being pretentious.</p><p>Julia was first to leave the coach, owing to her senior status, but then Augusta motioned for her cousins to leave next. Those oversized, smiling Scotsmen were out there, offering their arms, exuding charm, and generally creating the sort of impression intended to make the ladies forget they were paying a great deal for the privilege of being Lord Balfour's "guests."</p><p>"Madam?"</p><p>She had expected her uncle or perhaps her cousin Matthew to be the last available escort, but Lord Balfour himself loomed in the coach doorway, his hand extended to offer her assistance.</p><p>His bare hand. He'd taken off his riding gloves, allowing Augusta to notice that even the backs of his hands were of a darker complexion than an Englishman would feel comfortable exposing socially.</p><p>She placed her gloved fingertips on his palm and suffered him to assist her from the coach. All went well as she stepped down, but as luck would have it, her foot landed on a pebble that rolled beneath her weight as she descended.</p><p>Leaving her careening into Lord Balfour.</p><p>"Steady there."</p><p>She'd pitched ignominiously against his chest, finding him as immovable as a slab of rock.</p><p>He smelled better than a rock, though. Leaning against him, Augusta took one half breath to find her balance, enough for her nose to gather the scents of soap, lavender, and something fresh and spicy-heather?-underlain with a hint of horse.</p><p>Good smells, clean and bracing. She straightened lest he think her daft. "My thanks, your lordship."</p><p>"Surely Balfour will do? It's summertime, and we're far, far from London, Miss Merrick."</p><p>She nodded noncommittally. Calling the man by his title little more than an hour after meeting him was not something Miss Augusta Merrick should be comfortable doing, regardless of the season. She had to like him for offering, though. It suggested some of the warmth in those smiles he tossed around so carelessly might be real.</p><p>He put her hand on his arm and patted her knuckles. "I'll have my sister, Mary Frances, show you to your rooms. We keep a country schedule unless our guests request otherwise. It leaves hours of the gloaming to relax and enjoy ourselves."</p><p>Gloaming. A soft, northern word. He caressed it a little with the burr in his voice.</p><p>"I shall retire early and take a tray in my room," Augusta said. "Train travel does not agree with me." Let his lordship turn that charm on Genie, where all and sundry knew it was intended to focus.</p><p>"We'll miss your company at table." He bowed as they gained the front terrace. "And here is Mary Fran, who will be wroth with you if you do not allow her to see to your every comfort."</p><p>Mary Fran, more properly Lady Mary Frances-she was an earl's daughter, for pity's sake-was an imposing redhead with the same facile smile as her oldest brother. She collected the ladies with an air of brisk friendliness, and soon had them bustled into their rooms, maids clucking and fussing with an informality that would not have passed muster at all back in the South.</p><p>Augusta's room was done in the current Highland vogue-curtains, bed hangings, carpet, and even wallpaper sported either a green, black, and white plaid, or echoed the hues of the plaid. As a whole, the room was a little dizzying.</p><p>"Is all the staff so... familiar?" Augusta asked her maid.</p><p>"Familiar, mum?"</p><p>"Friendly?"</p><p>The girl's freckled face split into a wide grin. "We're to treat you like family, laird's rules. Is there anything else I can do for ye?"</p><p>Augusta shook her head and waited while the girl bobbed a curtsy then stopped by the door to check the level of the water in a bouquet of red roses.</p><p>And then Augusta was blessedly, finally, at long last, completely alone.</p><p>***</p><p>Wherever Ian looked for Mary Fran-the kitchen, the formal dining room, the pantries, the larder-the servants reported she'd just gone off to some other location, they knew not exactly where.</p><p>And though Ian paid them some of the best wages in the shire, he did not fool himself: if the staff was intent on abetting Mary Fran, then she'd elude capture easily, despite her laird, earl, and brother's pressing need to speak with her.</p><p>A flash of red braids and quick, light tread on the footmen's stairs suggested possible hope. Ian lit up the stairs, two at a time.</p><p>"Fiona!" A door banged on the next flight up. "Fiona Ursula MacGregor!"</p><p>Silence, meaning the child-who generally knew exactly where her mother had gotten off to-was intent on disregard for authority as well. Ian could expect as much-she was Scottish, a MacGregor, and Mary Fran's own daughter.</p><p>He burst through the door on the upper landing, lungs heaving, ready to bellow the rafters down in search of the child, only to stop short.</p><p>"Your lordship."</p><p>As Ian mentally fumbled about trying to locate the good manners of a charming host, his brain produced the thought: The lady with the anxious, pretty eyes.</p><p>"Miss Merrick." Though not the Miss Merrick he'd met at the train station, or even the Miss Merrick he'd escorted from the coach. This Miss Merrick was clothed in a robe the exact shade between red and purple, a regal, substantial hue that flattered her black hair and perfect skin. She looked curiously luscious, with her hair piled on her head in a soft topknot, and her spectacles perched on her nose.</p><p>"I confess, my lord, to having lost my way." Her smile was more self-conscious than worried. "I was looking for the bathing chamber."</p><p>And while another woman might have been mortified to be caught wandering the hall in a robe, Ian suspected Miss Merrick was more troubled by the loss of her bearings.</p><p>He offered her his arm-she was clothed from neck to ankles, for God's sake, and the house was swarming with people. "It's easy to get turned about in this house. When I was a boy visiting my grandfather, I delighted in discovering new rooms and hidden stairways."</p><p>And now he was hard put not to resent the entire property.</p><p>"Did you also delight in your first experience with train travel? Boys do, I'm told."</p><p>Boys were likely a species of noisy, dirty savage to her. "I take it train travel does not appeal to you?"</p><p>When he expected her to rap out some sniffy answer, she looked thoughtful. "I enjoy the sense of mobility, of being able to flee my surrounds for a bit of coin. Having come hundreds of miles though, I find I want nothing so much as the solitude, stillness, and fragrance of a hot bath."</p><p>Interesting, that she did not profess a desire for her home. "You're in luck then, because we've a monstrous roof cistern, and the old chimneys, stairwells, and priest holes were such that installing some water closets wasn't too much work."</p><p>Though it had been expensive. Holy God, had it been expensive. Only Mary Fran's threat to lead a mutiny-from laundry, to kitchens, to gardens-had seen the renovations done.</p><p>"Who is this? He looks like a younger version of you."</p><p>She'd paused before another extravagance, though this one, Ian was dearly glad for. "That fellow is my older brother, Asher, just before he took ship for Canada."</p><p>"A solemn young man, though quite comely."</p><p>Solemn? They'd been reeling from the effects of the potato blight, reeling from Mary Fran's scandal with the wretched Captain His Bloody English Lordship Flynn, and reeling from Grandfather's inchoate decline.</p><p>"He had much to be solemn about." And the New World had given him only more to be solemn about. "The bathing chamber is this way."</p><p>She did not immediately move away from the painting, but stood for another moment, studying a portrait of a young man in Highland attire-not the full regalia; Asher had balked at that notion. Asher had been gaunt, serious to a fault, and proud. Ian hoped the pride at least remained to his brother.</p><p>"You have much to be solemn about too," she remarked when she at last deigned to continue their progress.</p><p>Ian mustered a smile. "I have much to take pleasure in as well. I've acquired neighbors most fortuitously, we own one of the prettiest patches of ground in God's creation, and my family enjoys good health."</p><p>"You own it."</p><p>Shrewd and noticing-not an endearing combination in a female.</p><p>"I am Scottish, Miss Merrick. Everything I do, I do in the name of my family." Even finding lost spinsters and guiding them on their way. "Your bathing chamber."</p><p>Ian peeked in and saw that soap, towels, and all the other expensive items Mary Fran claimed were necessary for a lady's bath had been laid out. "Has anyone shown you how to work the taps?"</p><p>"No."</p><p>And from the look on her face, she would perish of excessive train travel before she'd ask.</p><p>"It's not complicated." Ian moved into the marble temple to cleanliness and refined English sensibilities and felt Miss Merrick mincing along behind him. "The one on the right is the cold, the one on the left, hot. You start with cold because the boiler can be cranky, and..."</p><p>He trailed off, turning both taps only to find someone hadn't opened the upper valves. In the small confines of the water closet, he had to reach over Miss Merrick's head-her hair bore the scent of lemon verbena and coal smoke-to open the feeder taps.</p><p>The next few moments happened in a series of impressions.</p><p>First came the sensation of the door thwacking into Ian from behind. A stout blow more unexpected than painful, but enough to make him stumble forward.</p><p>Then, Fiona's voice, muttering the Gaelic equivalent of "Beg pardon!" followed by a patter of retreating footsteps.</p><p>And then, in Ian's male brain, the woman with the pretty, anxious eyes became the woman who was soft, lush, and still beneath Ian's much greater weight.</p><p>She didn't push him away. She didn't even touch him. The sole indication that his weight was any imposition as he flattened her to the wall, that the impropriety of the moment was any imposition, was her closed eyes.</p><p>The final impression threatened to part Ian from his reason: her breasts, heaving against his chest. In preparation for her bath, she'd left off her stays, and the feminine abundance pressed against Ian ambushed his wits.</p><p>Shrewd, noticing, and astoundingly well endowed.</p><p>When he wanted to press closer, Ian pushed himself away with one hand on the wall and made sure both feeder taps were open. "I do beg your pardon, Miss Merrick."</p><p>"A mishap only. I stumbled upon leaving the coach."</p><p>She would recall that, while Ian had thought nothing of it. His damned male parts were thinking at a great rate now, and all because...</p><p>He wasn't sure why, though lengthy deprivation might have something to do with his reaction-and pretty eyes.</p><p>"The valves are open, but mind the hot water."</p><p>She nodded, and Ian got the hell out of there before he said something even more stupid.</p>

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