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
And now the man with the piercing green eyes who made casual death threats and summarized Matthew’s sister accurately in a few words took to studying a portrait of some crusty old Highlander over the fireplace.
“Balfour, I do not share my father’s opinion on the matter of marriage. I married once for duty, for Queen and Country, and while it was not a horror, it was not what either I or my wife deserved. Ask me your questions. If I know the answers, I’ll gladly share them, though I have to warn you—the press of business means I must travel south in the morning.” The press of business and the dictates of sanity.
The emotions flitting through the earl’s gaze weren’t hard to name: relief, wariness, and bewilderment. “Travel on if you must, but my questions are about your cousin.”
The words were parted with carefully, with a studied neutrality that fooled Matthew not one whit. “Break Augusta’s heart, and the same promise applies, Balfour. She’s been through enough. Too much, in fact, and all she wants is to be left in peace.”
“No, that is not all she wants.” Balfour spoke softly, humor and sadness both in his tone. “Neither is it what she deserves, but that’s a discussion for another time. I was wondering if you could tell me the other things.” He ran a hand through thick dark hair, took another sip of his drink, and commenced staring out the mullioned window at gardens he’d had years to study.
“What other things?”
“The small things… What is Augusta’s favorite flower? How did she come by her love of drawing? Is she partial to sweets? Does she prefer chess or cribbage or backgammon?”
The personal things. Abruptly, Matthew recognized a fellow suffering swain, particularly in the earl’s mention of the difference between what a lady wants and what she deserves.
“I could use a game of cribbage myself, my lord, and perhaps we’d best keep that decanter handy.”
“Never a bad idea.” Balfour crossed the room to rummage in a desk drawer. “Turnabout is fair play, too, you know.” He slapped a deck of cards on the desk, then a carved cribbage board.
“You have questions, Daniels. About Mary Fran. As long as you don’t ask me to violate a confidence—the woman has a wicked temper and very accurate aim with a riding crop—I’ll answer them.”
Matthew fetched the decanter and prepared to lose at least one game of cribbage. He’d lost two—only one intentionally—before Balfour asked Matthew to fetch some sensitive documents back to him here in the Highlands posthaste.
Perhaps that was fitting, that Matthew be given a chance to torment himself with another glimpse of Mary Frances, and to contribute to the happiness of others—his own being a lost cause.
“Where are you going?” Fiona asked the question as she tried to descend from the hayloft while holding her kitten, Spats. Mr. Daniels’s horse didn’t take exception to the company, but then, the horse had likely known Fee was above.
“Have you started sleeping in haylofts, Fee?”
“The sun comes up early, and I wanted to play with my kitten. Are you out for a ride?”
He smiled at her. Mr. Daniels had nice eyes—he smiled with his eyes more than he smiled with his mouth. “I’m leaving for the South, Fee. Business, you know.”
This was not good. Mama had disappeared into the saddle room the other day with Mr. Daniels, and she’d been smiling radiantly at the time—also holding Mr. Daniels’s hand. “Send a wire for your business. That’s what Her Majesty does.”
Mr. Daniels slipped off the horse’s headstall and looped the reins of a bridle over the gelding’s neck. “Her Majesty explains her business practices to you, does she?”
“She comes to our tea parties in the nursery at Balmoral sometimes, and so does His Royal Highness. They speak German to help us learn. If you’re leaving, you ought to pay a call on her.”
And he ought
to leave. Fiona would bet her favorite doll on that—if she could find it.
“Her Majesty is the last person I want to spend time with, Fiona.”
Mr. Daniels had been in the cavalry. He put a bridle on his horse in a precise order, and he checked each strap and buckle in order too.
“I like the Queen. Why are you leaving?”
“I told you.” He blew out a breath and stared over the horse’s neck. “The press of business calls me away, and even if I were having second thoughts, and leaving was the
thing I wanted to do, your uncles need me to see to some things for them rather urgently. It’s best if I go.”
must be half of what adulthood was about. Fiona didn’t think such a life was going to be much fun. Uncle Ian’s face wore the same expression when he talked about Marrying Won’t Be So Bad. “You should not lie. Ma will skelp your bum.”
“Would that it were so simple.” He stared at his empty saddle, his eyes bleak. Uncle Gil looked like that when he stared at Miss Genie.
“I am forbidden to tell the truth by my own honor and by vows explicitly made to one whose requests I could not refuse.” He muttered the last as he checked the horse’s girth, which meant soon he’d lead the horse out to the mounting block.
“That is silly. Nobody is forbidden to tell the truth. It says to tell the truth in the Bible.”
“It also says ‘let the women keep silent in the church,’ but I doubt you do. Put my stirrup down on that side, if you please.”
Fiona put Spats on her shoulder and pulled the stirrup down, then ran the buckle up under the saddle flap. “If you are forbidden to tell the truth, and you
to tell the truth, then you must simply get permission first. Uncle Ian says you have to neg-o-ti-ate.”
On the other side of the horse, Mr. Daniels peered over at her. “Get permission?”
“To tell the truth. You ask nicely, and give at least three reasons, and it doesn’t hurt if everybody’s in a good mood when you ask.”
“I should get permission…” He came around the horse and scooped Fiona up against his hip, like Uncle Ian used to before she got so big. Spats hopped down, and the horse twitched an ear.
“You are a brilliant child. You’re going to grow up to be as lovely as your mother, and I’m going to be there to see it—I hope.” He didn’t look nearly so bleak now. He looked fierce.
“I hope so too. May I have a pony if you are?”
“Not unless your mother says it’s acceptable to her. I have to leave now, Fiona, but I will be back in time for the ball.”
He hugged her, good and tight, and while he led his horse out to the mounting block, Fiona ensconced Spats on her shoulder again. She waved Mr. Daniels on his way in the predawn light, and watched as he cantered off. At the bottom of the drive, he turned the horse not toward the train station in Ballater, but to the west, toward Balmoral.
Which was odd.
Mary Fran hated the summer ball. Not the planning and organizing of it, not seeing her brothers in all their Highland finery, not seeing how excited Fee got as the day drew closer.
She hated the ball itself—had taken all balls, dances, and assemblies into dislike the night Fee was conceived, and saw no reason to change her opinion at this late date.
“You are glowering, my lady. Have I done something to offend?” Augusta Merrick posed the question in the soft, polite voice Mary Fran would never be able to imitate.
“All this nonsense offends,” Mary Fran said, glancing around the ballroom. “We won’t have a flower left in the garden, and the ice alone will beggar us.”
“He’ll come back, Mary Fran.” The same soft voice, but with a hint of something under it. “Matthew is honorable. If he told Ian and Fee he’d be back, he will be.”
“I’m that obvious?”
“You’re that in love.”
Mary Fran peered over at the Englishwoman who was arranging flowers for a small centerpiece. Augusta had suggested keeping most of the centerpieces low, and therefore simple and inexpensive. She’d also suggested including heather here and there to keep the air fresh and the tenor of the gathering Scottish.
“You wouldn’t begrudge me your cousin’s affections?” Mary Fran could not have asked that question of Matthew’s sisters. For some reason, they took less notice of him than Miss Augusta did.
“Let’s take a break,” Augusta said. “And no, we will not ring for tea.”
She linked her arm through Mary Fran’s and led the way out to the terraces, where footmen were setting up torches and tables while maids scurried in all directions. Mary Fran drew out her pocket flask when she and Augusta got to the first bench behind the privet hedge.
“A medicinal nip is in order.” Mary Fran passed the little leather-covered flask to her guest, who did not even pause to wipe the lip before taking a sip.
“Each time we put on one of these fancy-dress affairs, I hate it a little more.”
“Matthew will lead you out, and then you won’t hate it so much ever again.”
“You don’t mind that we’ve become… involved? Nobody else seems to have noticed, not even your aunt Julia, whom I would think had some things in common with Matthew.”
“Grief?” Augusta passed the flask back, but Mary Fran studied it rather than take a drink.
“He loved that wife of his. He simply didn’t realize it until it was too late.” Mary Fran deduced that some of what afflicted Matthew was guilt, and one had to feel some love if guilt found a way to take root.
August Merrick didn’t seem at all discomfited by the topic. “I met Lydia only at the wedding. She was a plain little sparrow trying to make us think she was besotted with her dashing husband. The Queen had a hand in the matchmaking, from what Genie said, but I worried for the couple.”
“He said…” Was it violating confidences to repeat words spoken in private? “He said she saved his life, ordering him moved from the hospital, fetching an Arab doctor to tend him, selling her jewelry to see him properly fed and cared for.”
“And then she fell ill, and there was nothing Matthew could do. Hester has told me a little of it, but Matthew doesn’t speak of the past.”
too. To me he speaks of it, though not honestly enough.
“What gave us away?” Mary Fran took a sip, but a small one.
Augusta’s smile was a little smug and a little sad. “You look at Matthew the way I look at Ian.”
Mary Fran absorbed that truth, nodded, and passed her the flask. “Will you come with me to Balmoral after the shoot? Her Majesty won’t be joining us for the dress ball, but she’s summoned me to relay all the details afterward. His Highness might pop over for the shoot on Saturday.”
“You visit back and forth as if they were any other neighbors?”
Mary Fran accepted the flask back. “We do. Fee visits the princesses often, and Ian and the Prince Consort are quite friendly. This time, though, Her Majesty has sent a formal summons.”
“I suppose you’d best heed it, then.”
The bloody damned trains and the bloody damned coaches and the bloody damned lame livery horses conspired to make Matthew bloody damned late to the ball. The idea that he might disappoint Mary Fran made him positively frantic, so frantic he barged in on the dinner gathering in all his riding attire and dirt.
And not a moment too soon. Balfour announced Genie’s engagement, and good wishes were offered all around. By virtue of careful orchestration on the earl’s part, Altsax was hustled off to the library with the MacGregor family surrounding him, while the guests called toasts from all sides to the prospective bride and groom.
Amid all the toasting and familial machinations following Balfour’s announcement, Matthew had not one moment with Mary Fran, not even as they joined the family for the celebratory dram in the library.
“We’ll return to the ballroom,” Matthew said, taking Mary Fran’s hand at an opportune moment. “Somebody needs to get the dancing started, and Mary Fran is the hostess.”
Balfour sent them on their way with a grateful smile, while Mary Fran remained ominously silent.
“You got word from Her Majesty?” Matthew asked.
Mary Fran, elegantly turned out in MacGregor plaid with all the Highland trimmings, looked bemused and not… not unfriendly.
Also not quite kissable. “I cannot refuse an official summons, Matthew, and you cannot go back to the ballroom dressed like that and reeking of horse.”
He stopped dead in the corridor. “I stink.” Which likely explained why an audience with the Queen hadn’t resulted in Mary Fran plastering herself to him in welcome.
Her lips quirked. “The smell of horse has never offended me, but Ian said he’d seen to your fancy kit.”
The earl was not a man to be underestimated. “I’ll change then.” But damn and blast, he’d wanted to waltz with her. Now he’d have to wait until the good-night waltz, but at least that was typically a slower tune.
A more romantic dance. And some romance was apparently in order. Her Majesty had looked with favor on Matthew’s plight, and had apparently seen matters set to rights, but Mary Fran was still regarding him with some… speculation.
“Come with me,” Matthew said, tugging her down the corridor. “A man needs an extra hand if he’s to get into his evening finery posthaste.”
She came along, not reluctantly, but not enthusiastically either. As it turned out, Matthew did need her assistance, because Balfour’s idea of evening finery was a McDaniel dress plaid and all the trimmings, save a bonnet. Mary Fran’s assistance was more than appreciated; it was necessary if Matthew was to don his clothing properly.
“Some fellows will wear their underlinen if they’re in mixed company, but my brothers do not.” Mary Fran stepped back and surveyed him in the confines of his bedroom. “The sporran helps protect your modesty, if that’s a concern.”
“Stop fussing over the clothing, Mary Fran, and tell me if you’ll marry me.”
Graceless, tactless, and the only question that mattered to him. She’d spoken with the Queen, gotten as much explanation as anybody could give her, and all that remained was to break Matthew’s heart or crown his future with resplendent happiness.
“I wasn’t sure you’d ask again, Matthew.” She regarded his riding attire, heaped on a plaid-upholstered chair. “My past is no better than yours, in theory. I’m glad you told me of the scandal, but when I had time to think, to consider if something long ago and far away should control both our futures, I decided it should not.”