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 hell of it is, Gordie really had asked me to marry him.” Mary Fran made this disclosure to Matthew—he was no longer Mr. Daniels, even when they were in company—while they strolled the gardens after dinner. The men had abandoned their port and cigars by mutual agreement, leaving a surprised Mary Fran to accept an invitation to enjoy the flowers.
“Were you going to take him up on his proposal?”
She peered over at her escort. The night was warm enough that he’d shed his jacket and carried it over one arm as he walked beside her. He wasn’t touching her, and she… missed him. Missed the touch of him, missed the greater proximity necessitated by walking with arms entwined.
“I don’t know if I was going to accept. I’ve puzzled over it. Gordie was the marquess’s spare, and an earl’s daughter would be considered acceptable in his family, even a Highland earl’s daughter. I’m fairly certain I chose him because he was not acceptable to mine.”
“Because he was English.”
Matthew spoke the words softly, though in the dying light, Mary Fran felt the frustration in him.
“Any Englishman would have annoyed my family, but we did marry, didn’t we? Gordie was as much a Lowlander by breeding as English, though English alone does not cast a man from my family’s favor.”
“Then what was his besetting sin?”
His curiosity seemed genuine, and she ought to tell him, but even after all she
told him, the words didn’t come easily.
“Let’s sit a bit.” She glanced around for a bench, until Matthew took her arm.
“Up the hill, we can watch the stars come out.”
She was a widow, they were in full view of the house, and Matthew was damnably proper with her at all times. “To the pines, then.”
They walked in silence. Even when he switched his grip and held her hand—fingers laced, no gentlemanly pretense of guiding her along involved—Mary Fran didn’t comment on it.
Didn’t comment on the simple, profound, and rare pleasure of merely holding his hand.
“This will do.” He’d chosen a spot partway up the last slope before the woods took over the park, a place where young evergreens surrounded a shallow bowl and the sod was covered with thick grass.
He spread his coat on the ground, and when Mary Fran lowered herself to it, she realized they weren’t in view of the house after all, not when they were in the grass. A soldier would have known that when he’d chosen their location. Matthew came down beside her and settled back to brace himself on his hands.
“You were going to tell me the rest of it, Mary Fran. The part about why Gordie was such an ideal choice for mischief and a bad choice as a husband.”
Plain speaking, indeed. She plucked a little white clover flower from the grass, then another.
“He was a tramp, you see.” She spoke lightly, so the words wouldn’t stick in her throat. “I knew it, knew that’s how he’d come by all his flirting and flattery. He was
, and I was eighteen and so wicked smart.”
“I was eighteen once too.”
“But, Matthew, were you such a calculating little baggage you essentially tossed yourself under the regimental tomcat because you thought surely, a man that naughty would know how to look after you your first time?” She couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice, from rising up the back of her throat as she spoke. “I was wrong, though.”
He moved closer while she systematically plucked hapless clover flowers from the grass.
“I was so bloody, blasted wrong.”
The sound of ripping grass filled a small silence.
“He hurt you.”
She nodded and forced her hands to stop their pillaging. “He hurt me two ways. First, he was not considerate, and then he was not discreet. The second injury was far worse than the first.”
A hand landed on her shoulder, warm and solid. The night wasn’t cold, but the warmth of that hand felt divine. She forced herself to continue with her confession despite the comfort Matthew was offering. “I think Gordie was trying to make me scream. Insurance, in case I wasn’t going to accept his proposal. We were at the regimental ball, a throng of people right out in the corridor.”
He drew in a breath, as if the words gave him pain. “You didn’t scream.” His hand slid across her shoulders to wrap her in an embrace. “You didn’t scream, you didn’t run to your brothers, you didn’t ask for mercy or quarter, but you would not allow your child to be born a bastard.”
“I might have.” She turned to press her face against the side of his throat. “I might have cursed my child that way, except Gordie bragged to his fellows about his latest conquest. His own officers were so disgusted with him that somebody got word to my menfolk, and then six weeks later there were documents executed and the handfasting became official. Ian and Asher promised me Gordie would be sent to Canada, and I’ve wondered if Asher wasn’t the one who made sure I was widowed. I was so stupid.”
“You were so young.”
His thumb traced up the tendon in her neck, a little nothing of a touch, but it eased her soul. He did it again and again, until Mary Fran began to cry.
“I didn’t come out here with you to blubber and carry on like some—”
He slid his hand gently over her open mouth and left it there, giving her a place where she could finally let the screams go. As his arm closed around her more snugly, she keened into his splayed fingers, her fists clutching his shirt in a desperate grip.
“It shouldn’t still hurt like this…” She shook with the remembered indignity, with the hopelessness and pain of it. She cried for a stubborn young girl with too few options, and for a sad, tired widow who had even fewer. She wept for her daughter, for all the daughters, and even for the family whose love and respect she’d betrayed.
And when the tears finally, finally subsided and Matthew’s thumb was brushing gently over her damp cheeks, still she stayed wrapped up in his embrace.
“I am so ashamed. Bad enough I must comport myself like a strumpet, even worse I should seek pity for it.”
Matthew snorted at that pronouncement. “If an eighteen-year-old virgin
behave like a strumpet—which premise I do not concede—then you should forgive her for it. Look around at your housemaids, Mary Fran. They don’t know the difference between proposition and flirtation, not unless they’ve been in service since childhood. You were even more protected than they, more sheltered, and your grandfather very likely was overbearing and old-fashioned. Have you ever discussed this with your brothers?”
“The shame of it…” She started to pull away, needing to use her hands to better express herself, but Matthew bundled her closer.
“Spare me your Highland drama. I don’t mean you need to review all the specifics. Simply ask your brothers if they ever discussed it with your grandfather. My guess is they feel even more ashamed for letting you slip the leash than you do for taking up with a man who was likely lying in wait for you, grooming you for his own ends, did you but know it.”
me?” She hated the term, because it brought to mind a pony standing docilely in the cross ties, preening at the attention given to mane, tail, hooves, and tack, never noticing the fellow in the corner strapping on roweled spurs and flexing a stout whip.
“Setting you up,” Matthew said, “leading you on, getting his hands on the dowry your family worked so hard to save for you, beating out all the other fellows to the prettiest young lady in the shire, the most highly titled…”
She subsided against him, considering his words. He did not have the right of it, but for the first time in eight years, Mary Fran considered that perhaps
didn’t entirely have the right of it either. Gordie could be charming and tolerant, but when he’d pressed his body to hers, the gleam in his eye had been not merely possessive, but
Smug, like a man whose plans have played out exactly to his liking.
“I can hear the compression building in your mental engines, Mary Fran. The night’s too pretty for that.”
“You’ve given me much to think about, Matthew Daniels.”
“Let me give you a little more to think about.” He shifted her so she was on her back, the fine silk lining of his coat between her and the fragrant grass.
“You’re not eighteen. You’re a lovely, desirable woman with a lot to offer the right man. You have choices now, Mary Frances. Make those choices, and I’ll abide by them.”
He kissed her, and after no longer hesitation than it takes for a lady to smile in the darkness, she chose to kiss him back.
Lady Mary Frances MacGregor had needed kissing almost as badly as Matthew had needed to kiss her. With the moon rising like a benevolent beacon and the summer air cooling around them, Matthew felt the urge to intimately cherish a woman for the first time in a long, long time.
He desired her, of course he did, but other feelings eclipsed that desire easily. Admiration for her, protectiveness—he’d felt those things for his wife, too—but also a tenderness that hadn’t found a place between spouses who’d joined in an expedient union.
He and his wife had been partners, comrades in arms and convenient sources of comfort for each other, but with Mary Fran, he wanted to be a lover. Call it a dalliance, an affair, a discreet liaison—he was not worthy of her hand in marriage, but he could share pleasure with her.
“I’ll stop.” He made her that promise while grazing his nose along the swell of her bosom. Her scent was luscious here, flowery and sweet. His mouth was literally watering for the taste of her.
“You’d best not stop yet, laddie.” She winnowed her fingers through his hair and gripped his scalp in such a fashion as to hold him still for her plundering mouth. “Not bloody… Not if you… God, yessssss.”
He eased her breast above her décolletage and ran the tip of his third finger over her nipple. She went still, as if focusing on his caress.
certainly focused on it, on the satiny, ruched flesh beneath his fingertip, on the pale, smooth curve of her breast in the moonlight.
“Lovely. Exquisite. Gorgeous…” He closed his lips around her nipple. “Delicious.” She arched up, a soft, lovely sigh escaping her as Matthew drew on her. Her fingers stroked over his hair, traced his ears, and then cupped the back of his head.
“Matthew Daniels, you are wearing entirely too many clothes.”
She was smiling as she squirmed under him. He could hear her smile; he could taste it. “You’re scolding me?”
“I’ll be tearing your shirt off in a moment—or skelpin’ yer bum.”
He liked that idea, but her brother might disapprove of a shredded garment should they meet the earl upon returning to the house. Matthew rested his forehead on her collarbone. “Undress me, my lady.”
“You want me to do all the work?”
“Of course not.” To make his point, he straddled her and used his teeth to pull her dress off one pale, freckled shoulder. “There will be enough work to go around.”
She hugged him, with her arms and legs both, to the extent her skirts and petticoats permitted it. “You make me feel foolish, Matthew Daniels.”
“I make you feel pretty and desired, which you are.” He sat back and started to work on the myriad buttons fastening the front of her dress. “I make you feel entitled to a little pleasure and some companionship. I make you feel, for a time, a little less lonely.”
She stroked a hand over the trousers covering Matthew’s burgeoning erection. “I suppose pleasure and companionship are an improvement over oblivion and desire.”
Abruptly, what he’d intended as a gift to her—a gift to them both—felt inadequate. “Are you asking me to stop?”
Her brows knitted as she shaped him through the fabric and sent pleasure shuddering through him. “Matthew, I’m asking you to hurry.”
He hurried. He hurried
, as though his life depended upon it, hurried through the unbuttoning and unlacing and loosening and unfastening—and without tearing a single button or seam.
When she lay beneath him, her clothing and stays pushed aside—thank God for the old-fashioned, front-lacing country variety—the moonlight turning her breasts, ribs, and belly to so much living alabaster, Matthew took her hands and settled them on his chest. “My turn.”
“Close your eyes, please.”
He obeyed, which meant he felt the little tugs and twists as her fingers worked at his neckcloth, then at his waistcoat, and finally, his shirt. He could not be naked with her in the sense of revealing his past, but he could share the simple pleasure of physical nudity with her.
“You are such a braw, lovely man.” Her burr had thickened—a
braw, loovly mon—
while her hand skimmed down his breastbone, spreading warmth over his chest.
“I’m a man in need of kisses.” He shrugged his shirt off and shifted to prop himself on an elbow beside her. “Moonlit kisses taste the best.”
They felt the best too, particularly when Mary Fran’s hands roamed his person as if she’d sketch his soul with her touch. She lingered in the oddest spots—his nose, the soft skin inside his elbow, her thumbs in the vulnerable hollow of his armpit—and her hands felt as though they warmed not just his body, not just his lust, but his soul.
“Ye are no’ hurryin’, boyo.”
“I’m pleasuring.” A fine idea, one his conscience took to with the dreadful enthusiasm of a martyr. Mary Fran wasn’t particularly objecting either, so Matthew stroked a hand up her long, shapely leg, baring calves and knees and muscular thighs as he did. “I have the oddest urge to worship your knees.”
“Ye daft Englishman.” Such affection she put into her scolds. Matthew felt an abrupt pang of pity for the departed Gordie Flynn. The man had bungled badly, irrevocably, but had probably been unable to help himself.
Matthew knew exactly how that felt. “Spread your knees a bit, love. Pleasuring takes a little trust.”
She spread her knees more than bit. “And far too much time.”
He’d decided to keep his pants on, which meant the feel of her nails digging into his buttock was muted, a teasing hint of the intensity he craved with her—more damned martyrdom.