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
The observation was Altsax’s version of flattery, no doubt. Matthew felt a familiar urge to scream, or find a fast horse and gallop straight back to the Crimea.
“Marriage seems to be the topic of the day, my lord.” While Matthew watched in a conveniently positioned mirror, Lady Mary Frances smiled back at her escort, revealing a number of strong white teeth. “You are blessed with two comely daughters. It’s a pity your baroness could not accompany them on this journey.”
As if Altsax would have allowed
. Matthew’s mother knew better than to come along when her husband had decreed it otherwise, and quite honestly, Matthew envied his mother her freedom from Altsax’s company.
“My wife and I have been married for thirty-some years, my dear. I hardly need to keep her underfoot at all times. Marriage is, after all, still a business undertaking among the better classes. I’m sure you’d agree.”
Altsax walked with her toward the sweeping main staircase, a monument to carved oak that suggested at some bygone point in the MacGregor family history, coin had been abundant.
Matthew had an instant’s premonition of the baron’s intent, a gut-clenching moment of knowing what was about to take place. The baron took his opportunity at the turn in the hallway where carpet gave way to gleaming bare floor. He made a show of catching his toe on the carpet and jostling his companion sideways with enough force that she fetched up against the wall.
This allowed Altsax to mash into her bodily, and his hand—like one of the big, hairy spiders common to the tropics—to land squarely on the lady’s generous, fashionably exposed bosom.
“I beg your pardon, Miss MacGregor.” Altsax made an effort to right himself which of course involved clumsily, almost roughly, groping the lady. Matthew was about to reveal himself to his disgrace of a father, when the baron flew across the hallway as if propelled out of a cannon.
“Baron, do forgive me!” Lady Mary Frances was standing upright and looking creditably dismayed. “I did not mean to step on your foot, I sincerely did not. Are you all right, my lord?”
Her strategy left Altsax trying to look dignified and innocent of his crimes while not putting much weight on one foot. “The fault is mine, Miss MacGregor. I beg your pardon most sincerely. Shall we join your family downstairs?”
As they moved toward the stairs, Matthew noted that this time, Altsax did not offer the lady his arm.
First skirmish to Lady Mary Frances, though as Matthew waited for a silent moment at the top of the stairs, it occurred to him that rising to the lady’s defense would have been enjoyable.
Tricky, given that he’d be defending her from his own father, but enjoyable.
“A word with you, if you please, Lady Mary Frances.”
Mary Fran tore off a bite of scone and regarded Mr. Matthew Daniels where he stood next to her place at the breakfast table. The baron had taken a tray out to the terrace, there to read his newspaper as he let a perfectly lovely repast grow cold at his elbow, while Ian and Miss Augusta Merrick, the younger of the two chaperones, had disappeared to the library.
And now Mary Fran’s favorite meal of the day—sometimes her only decent meal of the day—was going to be disturbed by this serious gentleman waiting to assist her to her feet. No doubt Mr. Daniels’s shaving water had been too hot, or not hot enough. Perhaps he objected to the scent of heather on his linen, or he’d found a footman using the maids’ staircase.
Mary Fran folded a napkin around the last of her scone and put it in her pocket, then placed her hand in Daniels’s and let him assist her to her feet. Thank God her brothers weren’t on hand to see such a farce.
“In private.” The gentleman kept his eyes front as he appended that requirement, as if admitting such a thing made him queasy.
“Shall we walk in the garden, Mr. Daniels? Pace off some of our breakfast?”
“That will serve.” He tucked her hand around his arm, which had Mary Fran about grinding her teeth. They skirted the terrace and minced along until they were a good distance from the house, and still Mr. Daniels said nothing.
“Is there a point to this outing, Mr. Daniels? I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve a household to run, and though you are our guest, my strolling about here among the flowers isn’t going to get the beds made up.”
He stopped walking and gazed down at her with a surprised expression. “You do that yourself?”
“I know how. I expect you do as well.”
Something flashed through his eyes, humor, possibly. He was one of few men outside her family Mary Fran had to look up to. She’d been an inch taller than Gordie, and she had treasured that inch every day of her so-called marriage.
“I do know how to make up a cot,” he said. “Public school imbues a man with all manner of esoteric skills. The military does as well. Shall we sit?”
He was determined on this privacy business, because he was gesturing to a bench that backed up against the tallest hedge in the garden. They’d be hidden from view on that bench.
Even if she were amenable, Mary Fran doubted Mr. Daniels was going to take liberties. Good Lord, if he was this serious about his dallying, then heaven help the ladies he sought to charm. Though as she took a seat, it struck her with a certainty that Matthew Daniels needn’t bother charming anybody. For all his English reserve in proper company, he’d plunder and pillage, devil take the hindmost, when he decided on an objective.
Former cavalry could be like that.
“You are smiling, my lady.”
And he was watching her mouth as he stood over her. Mary Fran let her smile blossom into a grin as she arranged her skirts. “I’m truant, sitting out here in the garden. I suppose it’s fair play, given that my brothers—save for Ian—are off gallivanting about with your sisters and your aunt.” And Lord knew what Ian was up to with the spinster cousin—probably prying secrets from the poor lady.
“About my womenfolk.” He took the place beside her without her permission, though she would not have objected. “I have sisters.”
He had two. The lovely Eugenia Daniels, whom Aunt Eulalie had spotted as a possible wealthy bride for Ian, and the younger, altogether likable Hester Daniels. Mary Fran held her peace, because Mr. Daniels was mentally pacing up to something, and he struck her as man who would not be hurried—she was familiar with the type.
“I have sisters whose happiness means a great deal to me,” he went on, leaning forward to prop his elbows on his thighs. “You have brothers.”
“My blessing and my curse,” she said, wondering
he’d get to his point.
“My sisters are dear to me.” He flicked a brooding glance at her over his shoulder. “As I’m sure you are dear to your brothers.”
“Their hot meals and clean sheets are dear to them.”
He sat up abruptly. “They would cheerfully die for you or kill for you. Not for the hot meals or the clean sheets, but for you.”
She regarded him for a quizzical moment, trying to fathom his intentions. Insight struck as she studied the square line of his jaw and the way sunlight found the red highlights in his blond hair. “They won’t kill your father while he’s a guest in our home. Rest easy on that point.”
, as you say.” He hunched forward again, the fabric of his morning coat pulling taut across broad shoulders. “My father’s regard for women generally lacks a certain…”
“He’s a randy old jackass,” Mary Fran said. “I don’t hold it against him.”
Whatever comment the situation called for, it wasn’t that. No earl’s daughter, not even a Scottish earl’s daughter running a glorified guesthouse ought to be so plainspoken.
“I’m sorry,” she said, gaze on her lap. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful. Your da’s a guest in my home, and I’m responsible…”
“Hush.” His finger came to rest on her lips, and when she looked up at him, he was smiling at her. He dropped his finger, but the smile lingered, crinkling the corners of his eyes and putting a light in his gaze that was almost… gentle.
The man was abruptly, stunningly attractive. Mary Fran felt a heat spreading out from that spot on her mouth where his bare finger had touched her.
a randy old jackass, I was searching for those very words. He can offend without meaning to, and sometimes, I fear, when he does mean to.”
“He’s not the first titled man to show uncouth behavior toward women.” She linked her fingers in her lap lest she touch her lip as he had.
“No, but he’s my father. If he should come to a premature end, all the burdens of his title will fall upon me, and that, rather than filial devotion, makes me hope your brothers will not have to challenge him to pistols at dawn.”
The daft man was genuinely worried. “My brothers are Scottish, but they don’t lack sense. If Ian took to dueling with his guests, God Almighty could live next door, and the most baseborn coal nabob wouldn’t give a farthing to spend a day with us. Her Majesty has just about frowned dueling out of existence.”
Plain speaking wasn’t always inappropriate, and Mary Fran sensed Matthew Daniels could tolerate a few home truths.
“I fear, my lady, you underestimate your brothers’ devotion to you, and”—he held up a staying hand when she would have interrupted—“you underestimate the depths of my father’s more crass inclinations.”
Mary Fran studied him, studied the serious planes of his face, and noted a little scar along the left side of his jaw. “I can handle your father, Mr. Daniels. I won’t go running to my brothers in a fit of the weeps because he tries to take liberties.”
“Tries to take liberties again, don’t you mean?”
He had blue eyes—blue, blue eyes that regarded her with wry sternness.
“He’s too slow, Mr. Daniels. He can but try, and I shall thwart him.”
He peered at her, his lips thinning as he came to some conclusion. “Your brother had the opportunity to take my father very much to task the other evening for a verbal slight to you. Balfour instead suggested I see my sire to bed. I’d suspect the reputation of the Scots’ temper to be overrated, except I’ve seen Highland regiments in action.”
“Our tempers are simply as passionate as the rest of our emotions.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized she’d spoken
plainly. Ungenteelly, though that was probably not a proper word.
“I agree,” he said, rising and extending his hand to her. “Having fought alongside many a Scot, I can say their honor, their humor, their valor, and their tempers were all formidable. Still, I am asking you to apply to me rather than your family should my father’s bad manners become troublesome. I assure you, I’ll deal with him appropriately.”
She wouldn’t be
to anybody. If the baron overstepped again, he’d face consequences Mary Fran herself was perfectly capable of meting out. God had given each woman two knees for just such a purpose.
“I can agree to bring concerns regarding your father’s conduct to you, Mr. Daniels, before I mention them to my brothers.” She placed her hand in his and let him draw her to her feet.
And there they stood for a long, curious moment. His blue eyes bored into her as if he were trying to divine her thoughts.
“My name is Matthew,” he said, still holding her hand. “I would be obliged if, when we are not in company, you would do me the honor of using it.”
He was so grave about this invitation, Mary Fran had to conclude he was sincere. He would be
if she addressed him familiarly—there was no accounting for the English and their silly manners. She nodded, put her hand on his arm, and let him escort her back to the house in silence.
She did not invite him to address her as Mary Frances.
Maybe being born with red hair, slanting green eyes, a mouth that personified sin incarnate, and a body to match made a woman sad—for Mary Frances MacGregor was a sad woman.
Matthew drew this conclusion by watching her at meals, watching the way she presided over the table with smiles aplenty and little real joy. He drew further evidence of her sadness from the way her brothers treated her, verbally tiptoeing around her the way Matthew had learned to tiptoe around his wife when she was tired, fretful, or in anticipation of her courses.
And Mary Frances worried about her brothers. The anxiety was there in her eyes, in the way she watched them eat and kept their drinks topped up. To Matthew, it was obvious the MacGregor clan was not happy about having to trade their title for English coin, but the Scots as a race could not often afford the luxury of sentiment.
Because she was sad, and because he genuinely enjoyed dancing, when the middle brother, Gilgallon MacGregor, challenged Aunt Julia to a waltz—those were his words, he
her to a waltz after dinner—and Julia had laughingly accepted, Matthew joined the party adjourning to the ballroom.
“Who will play for us if I’m to show Gilgallon what a dance floor is for?” Julia asked the assemblage.
Before Genie could offer, and thus ensure she wouldn’t be dancing with Balfour, Matthew strode over to the big, square piano. “I will provide the music for the first set, on the condition that Lady Mary Frances turns the pages for me.”
Genie shot him a disgruntled look, but stood up with the youngest brother, Connor MacGregor, while Balfour led a blushing Hester onto the floor.
“What shall we play for them?” Matthew asked. “Three couples doesn’t quite make a set.”
“I believe my idiot brother demanded a waltz,” Lady Mary Frances muttered as she sorted through a number of music books stacked on the piano’s closed lid. “Take your pick.”
She shoved a volume of Chopin at him, which wasn’t quite ballroom material.
“I take it you don’t approve of dancing?” Matthew flipped through until he found the Waltz in C-sharp Minor and opened the cover shielding the keys.
“Dancing’s well enough,” the lady said. Her tone was anything but approving.
“Maestro, we’re growing moss over here!” Julia called, but she was smiling up at her partner in the manner of a younger, more carefree woman, and for that alone, Matthew would dust off his pianistic skills.