October 20, 1807
The coach lurched through another rut. Violet grabbed the leather strap above her head, hanging on grimly. She was beginning to think this journey through Scotland would never end. She tucked her hands back inside her fur muff, deciding that sliding about on the seat was preferable to frozen fingers.
Thank heavens for the muff, a remnant of her life in her father’s house. After all these years, it was a mite bedraggled, but it still kept her hands toasty. Her practical flannel petticoats and woolen carriage dress were warm as well. She wished she could say the same for her ice-cold feet. It was not that she was unused to difficult weather or rough travel; she had accompanied Lionel to other sites throughout Britain, subjecting herself to every extreme of cold, heat, and
rain. But she had not been prepared for how cold it was in late October in the Highlands of Scotland.
Still, she had been right to come early, instead of waiting for spring as Uncle Lionel would have done if he were still alive. Her situation was entirely different now. Violet swallowed hard at the thought of her mentor. She would not cry. Lionel himself would have pointed out that it was ineffective and unnecessary. Her tears would not bring him back, and she must not arrive at her future patron’s home looking woebegone and red-eyed. She had to be firm, strong, and professional if she hoped to convince the earl that she was the person most fit to take her uncle’s place.
It was vital that she seize this opportunity before other antiquarians heard of it. Before the Earl of Mardoun learned of her uncle’s death and offered the ruins to someone he deemed more worthy—in short, to a man.
Violet suppressed a sigh. It was no use thinking of the inequities of life. She was accustomed to the ways of the world. She had long since learned that she must struggle for everything she accomplished. Only Lionel had accepted her abilities.
At a muffled shout, the carriage halted abruptly, sending Violet sliding from her seat and onto the floor of the post chaise. She sat up, a trifle stunned, hearing more voices, followed by a loud crack. Was that a gun? Violet jumped to her feet and flung open the door.
“What in the—” She stopped, her mouth dropping open at the scene before her.
It was dark, for evening fell early here, and the scene was illuminated by only the lantern in the postboy’s trembling hand. The lad was huddled on the lead horse, bundled
up against the cold till only his reddened nose and wide, frightened eyes were visible above the woolen scarf. Two men blocked the narrow roadway, facing the post chaise, four others to the side of the road. They were attired in similar bulky clothing, hats pulled low on their heads and thick woolen scarves wrapped around their necks and lower faces, making it almost impossible to discern their features in the poor light. It was easy to see, however, that one of them held a musket trained on the postboy, and two more carried pistols.
Anger surged in Violet. “What do you think you’re doing? Stand aside and let us pass.”
“Och! A wee Sassenach,” one of the men cried gleefully, his words muffled by the scarf.
Between his thick accent and the cloth covering his mouth, Violet could make little sense of what he said, but she understood the word wee well enough, and it added fuel to the fire of her anger.
“Get out of my way.” Violet’s eyes flashed. “I do not think the Earl of Mardoun will be pleased that you detained his guest.” Guest, of course, was stretching the truth since Mardoun had no idea she was coming, but the principle was the same.
“Oooh, the Earl of Mardoun, is it? Noo I’m shaking in my boots.” He laughed, and the men around him joined in. “Throw doon your jewels, lassie, and your purse, too. Then we’ll let you gae on your way . . . if you ask nicely.”
“I haven’t any jewels.” Her chin jutted stubbornly. She had precious little money in her reticule either after paying the expenses of this journey. If she gave it up, she would be utterly penniless.
“What’s those bobs in your ears, then!” He gestured at her with his pistol.
Violet’s hands flew up to her ears, knocking her bonnet back. “My grandmother’s drops! No! Absolutely not.”
The man’s jaw dropped in surprise at her defiance and so did his pistol hand, so that for an instant Violet thought she might have won the day, but then he scowled and started toward her. “Maybe you’re wanting to pay me some ither way.”
Violet knew that her fury and, yes, fear had carried her too far, but though her stomach clenched with dread, she reached back inside the carriage and grabbed her umbrella, turning to face her opponent. Again the man halted in astonishment. One of the men let out a hoot, and everyone laughed.
Her enemy’s face darkened, and he rushed forward. Violet swung with all her might, and the umbrella whacked into the side of his head. He let out a screech and stumbled back. But her umbrella had snapped beneath the blow. Violet had no idea what she would do now. She braced herself.
Suddenly, with a shout, a large man hurtled out of the darkness into the circle of light cast by the postboy’s lantern. He charged straight toward Violet.
Startled, Violet swept down the umbrella as hard as she could, though its being broken rendered the blow feeble. In the next instant, she realized that the newcomer had grabbed not her, but the fellow who had accosted her.
Her apparent rescuer turned to her in astonishment, still holding the front of her attacker’s jacket with one hand, and reached up with the other to yank the umbrella from her hand. “What is the matter with you? I’m trying to help you!” He tossed the umbrella onto the carriage floor behind her and turned back to the man he still held in place with one huge fist. Digging his hands into her attacker’s jacket,
he lifted him up so that only his toes touched the ground. “What the bloody hell are you doing, Will?”
For once bereft of words, Violet could only stare at her rescuer. He was a behemoth, towering over everyone else. His wide shoulders owed little to the heavy jacket he wore, and his broad, long-fingered hands held the other man up as if he weighed no more than a child. Seemingly impervious to the elements, he wore no muffler or cap, and his jacket hung open down the front. His thick, tousled hair glowed golden in the light of the lantern.
He shoved the man he called Will to the other side of the road, saying disgustedly, “Is this what you’ve come to?” He moved his scornful gaze over the row of men. “Preying on travelers like a band of reivers! Robbing innocent women! I’m ashamed to call you Highlanders. Look at her.” He swung his hand toward Violet. “She’s just a wee lassie! Hardly bigger than a child.”
“Wee!” Violet bristled at his description of her.
He swung around and glared. “Aye, wee. And apparently mad as a hatter as well. Canna you see I’m trying to help you? What the devil is your husband thinking, letting you jaunt about the countryside alone at night? The man should have better sense.”
“Let me? Let me?” Violet stiffened. “Fortunately, I am not married, so I need no man’s permission to go where I please and do what I want. I make my own decisions about my life. And I may be ‘wee,’ but I am no child. Just because I’m not . . . a . . . a giant doesn’t mean I’m not capable of taking care of myself.”
He swept his eyes down her in one swift, encompassing glance. At some other time, Violet might have found his
strong features handsome, but at the moment, she saw nothing except the scorn in his eyes. His mouth quirked up on one side. “Oh, aye, I can see that you are doing splendidly. No doubt your broken umbrella would hold off any number of men.”
“I don’t need you.” Violet knew her words were untrue, even silly, but she was too angry to be reasonable. Primed as she was for battle and with a lifetime of male belittling to fuel her wrath, this huge, supremely confident man’s dismissal of her sparked her fury. Her hands clenched. She had a strong desire to hit him.
“Do you not?” His eyes widened, something between heat and challenge flashing in them before he drew his brows together in a scowl. “I dinna ken whether you’re blind or silly, but there is only one of you—one small one—and you wouldna have won this fight.”
“I did not ask for your help.”
One of the men chuckled, spurring her aggravation.
“Nae, you dinna,” her rescuer shot back. “And I am beginning to regret offering it. Now would you cease this jabbering and get back in your carriage and let me handle this?” He swung around, effectively dismissing her, and addressed the other men again. “Give up this idiocy before the lot of you wind up with your necks in a noose.” He gestured toward the men blocking the carriage’s way, and they dropped their gazes, shuffling over to the side of the road. “Rob Grant, what would your gran say if she knew you were out frightening young lassies like this?” One of the robbers turned his head away, easing back behind the others. “And Dennis MacLeod. You should be ashamed of yourself. You’ve a wife and bairns at home.”
The man lifted his chin. “Aye, and I hae to provide for them.”
“Then you best be tending to your croft, hadn’t you? Stealing from travelers won’t mend the thatch on your roof. And May and the bairn will be hard-pressed to raise the crops alone next spring while you’re sitting in gaol.”
“That’s all easy for you to say, Coll, now that you’re one of them,” Will said.
One of whom, Violet wondered—and was Coll her rescuer’s name? It seemed odd, but then, there was nothing about this situation that was not odd.
“Sitting all snug and bonny, aren’t you?” Will went on bitterly. “Carrying out his lordship’s orders. You used to be one of us.”
“I am not one of them,” Coll retorted in a goaded voice. “I’m of this glen, same as I’ve always been. I dinna take on this job for him. I did it for the crofters. There willna be any more families tossed out of their homes.”
The other man let out a snort of disbelief. “For how long?”
“For as long as I’ve breath in this body. Dinna try me, Will. I have no hope for you any longer; you’re on your way to the gallows as fast and straight as you can go. But I willna let you take the others with you.” Coll took a long step forward. “Is that clear?”
“Aye.” Will set his jaw, not meeting Coll’s gaze.
“Then be off.” He swept them all with an encompassing gaze, then crossed his arms and waited. The other men began to melt back into the trees. In moments, they were gone.
Violet watched with a jaundiced eye. It must be handy to be able to shake others into submission. Authority came
easily to such a man. He had saved her and she must be grateful for that. But she had too often been shoved into the background by men who were louder, larger, and stronger than she to like this bully who had come to her rescue. His obvious contempt for her rankled. Like all men, he did not see her as a person in her own right, but only a possession of a husband or father.
He swung back to her. Disconcertingly, even though she stood on the step of the carriage, his face was level with hers.
“Are you going to issue orders to me now?” Violet arched a brow, her hands on her hips.
He took in her pugnacious stance and, irritatingly, smiled. “You are a bonny bruiser, are you not? Nae, I have no orders for you, though someone should have taken better care of you.”
“I take care of myself. I am a grown woman.”
“Aye, I can see that for myself.” Casually he planted one hand on the carriage, leaning against it. “Still, you’re a stranger to the Highlands. And these roads.”
“I have become quite well acquainted with these roads, believe me.”
His mouth twitched, but he said only, “You shouldna be out here at night. It’s dangerous.”
“Are you threatening me now?”
“What?” He stared. “You think I would harm you? I’m the one who just came to your rescue, if you’ll recall.”
“You chased off one set of thieves. But how am I to know you were not simply eliminating the competition?”
“Och, but you’ve a bitter tongue on you. Most people would have been grateful for my aid.”
“I’m sorry. No doubt I should have fainted. Or perhaps you expect payment?”
“A simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed. But I can see there’s little likelihood of that. So I’ll choose payment.” One large hand clamped around her nape, holding her still, and he leaned in to kiss her.
The touch of his lips was brief and soft, and it sent a shiver through her. Violet’s lips parted in surprise. He raised his head, and his eyes roamed her face, settling on her lips. “I think perhaps my price has gone up.”
His mouth came down on hers again. He tasted her, the kiss slow and lingering. His tongue teased along the parting of her lips, then slipped inside to caress and explore. Heat surged in Violet, every sense suddenly wildly alive. She had never felt anything like this before, and the onslaught of heat and pleasure stunned her.
He made a low, satisfied sound deep in his throat, and his arm came down to curl around her waist. “Sweet,” he murmured against her lips.
The word shot through her, waking her from her daze. Sweet. Wee. Melting in his strong, masculine arms.
Violet jerked out of his grasp and jumped back into the carriage, calling to the postboy to drive on. The vehicle rumbled away, leaving Coll staring after it in surprise. Violet did not look back.
She crossed her arms, unsure if her trembling was the result of the cold or delayed fright or the strange, delicious sensations that had flooded through her. The man was impertinent. Forward. Overbearing. Rude. Crude. Obviously the sort who was accustomed to shouldering his way through life, expecting men to stand aside and women to fall into his arms. And why not? That was exactly what had happened.
Shame washed over Violet. How could she have reacted
like that? She had spent all her life fighting men’s opinion of women as weak, emotional, and incompetent, yet in an instant she had thrown it all away. She had been scared and in need of rescue, and when he kissed her, she had not even had the fortitude to push him away. No, she had just stood there, helpless, betrayed by her own body, while he held her still and took what he wanted.
No, he had not taken; she had been happy to give it to him. Indeed, she had been on the verge of throwing her arms around him and asking for more. Violet closed her eyes, remembering the feel of his mouth on hers, the velvet softness, the way his lips had moved over hers, the touch of his tongue. She let out a soft noise that was as much pleasure as anger. She barely paid attention to the village as the post chaise rolled through it and turned off onto a smaller road. She was too busy trying to calm her racing pulse and banish the heat that pooled low in her abdomen. It would be disastrous to face her new employer in this shaken, frayed, tender state.
Violet took a calming breath and then another. That was a little better. At least she had, in the end, come to her senses and pulled away from him. She recalled the look of astonishment on his face as she jumped back into the carriage, and she felt a certain grim satisfaction. No doubt he was unused to being rejected by any woman. He was far too handsome for that.
She closed her eyes, picturing the glint of his hair in the low light—too long and untidy to be fashionable. What color were his eyes? It had been too dark to tell. But she had seen that firm chin well enough . . . the square jaw . . . the broad shoulders. Unconsciously she let out a sigh.
He was massive, his hands huge. Yet the fingers that had curled around her nape had held her gently. His lips had been unbearably soft, his mouth seeking, not demanding. Pleasure curled in her abdomen all over again at the memory. Long ago she had been kissed by the man she had almost been foolish enough to marry, but it had felt nothing like that.
How delicious Coll had tasted. If she had let herself throw her arms around him, she knew his muscles would have been thick and hard beneath her touch. She imagined sinking her fingers into his arms. His shoulders. His back. She thought of his deep, rumbling voice, softened by a Scottish burr. It had rolled through her like warm honey.
The voice had fit the man—outsize and solid, reassuring. She wondered who he was. His clothes had not been those of a gentleman. They had been rougher, plainer, like a worker’s garments. Yet something about his speech had set him apart from the other men.
It was not just that his accent was less thick; something in his words, in his turn of phrase, spoke of . . . gentility? No, that was not quite right; he had clearly called himself one of them. Education, perhaps? Violet smiled to herself. No, there was nothing of the narrow, hunched academic in that man’s broad shoulders.
The carriage turned, and she pulled herself from her wayward thoughts, lifting the curtain to look out. They were approaching a pair of tall, ornate gates, opened wide. She straightened and peered in front of her as the vehicle rumbled down a long drive. Trees grew close to the road on either side, but finally they emerged onto a wide lawn. An enormous mansion loomed before her. Violet craned her
neck to look up at the ornate towers atop the castle—there was no other word for it, with its crenellations and turrets. The post chaise pulled to a stop in front of a set of massive double doors.
For a moment, Violet feared her courage might fail her. But she squared her shoulders, wrapped her cloak around her, and stepped down from the carriage. There was more wind up here than there had been in the valley below, and it sliced through her, tugging at her cloak and hat as she mounted the steps to the front doors. The house was utterly dark; no lights shone in the myriad of windows, not even a glow through the drapes or around the edges.
Violet raised the ornate knocker and banged it firmly against its plate. After a long moment with no response, she gave it several more sharp raps. At last one of the heavy doors opened, revealing a young man holding a lamp in one hand.
“I am Lady Violet Thornhill,” she said briskly. She had learned long ago that one could not show any sign of hesitation or lack of confidence if one hoped to be taken seriously. “I am here to see Lord Mardoun.”
The young man gaped at her. A woman’s voice sounded faintly somewhere in the house behind the man, and with a look of relief he turned away. “Mrs. Ferguson! Some lass is here tae sae the earl.”
“What nonsense is this?” He stepped back as an older woman appeared at the door. Mrs. Ferguson was a square, substantial woman wrapped in a heavy flannel dressing gown. Her hair, liberally sprinkled with iron gray, hung braided in one thick plait over her shoulder. She regarded Violet suspiciously. “What do you think you’re doing, pounding on people’s doors at all hours of the night?”
“It is barely eight o’clock.” Violet returned an equally steely gaze. “I am here to see Lord Mardoun.”
“Well, you have nae chance of that. Go on with you now.” Mrs. Ferguson made as if to close the door, but Violet hastily slipped inside.
“I am here at the express invitation of Lord Mardoun.” That was stretching it, but the man had invited Lionel, and Lionel would have brought Violet with him if he had been able to come.
Mrs. Ferguson crossed her arms, blocking Violet’s entry farther into the foyer. “That’s a puzzle, then, since his lordship is not here.”
“Not here!” Violet’s stomach sank. “What do you mean? Will he be gone long?”
“Aye. He’s in Italy on his honeymoon. As you would know if you were a friend of Lord Mardoun’s.” With a triumphant expression, Mrs. Ferguson began to close the door.
“No, wait.” Violet dug in her reticule and pulled out her silver, chased card case, extracting one of her calling cards. “I did not say I was a friend of Lord Mardoun. But he is acquainted with me. I am Lady Violet Thornhill.”
The mention of her title had the intended effect. Mrs. Ferguson paused, took the card, and perused it, frowning. Violet dug in her reticule again and found the earl’s letter.
“This is Lord Mardoun’s invitation to my mentor, Mr. Lionel Overton, to visit and examine the ancient ruins on his estate. You can see it is written in his hand. Here, read it.”
Mrs. Ferguson drew herself up and said frostily, “It is not my place to read his lordship’s letters.”
“Then surely it is not your place to turn away Lord Mardoun’s guests, either.” Violet was pleased to see uncertainty
flicker across Mrs. Ferguson’s face. She pressed her advantage. “If his lordship is not in residence, who is in charge of Duncally?”
“I am the housekeeper here.”
“Does that leave you responsible for deciding whether or not you will refuse Lord Mardoun’s hospitality? He delegated such authority to you?” Violet felt a twinge of remorse at adopting her father’s aristocratic, contemptuous tone. But she could not fail after she had come so far.
The housekeeper turned to the footman, still hovering in the background. “Jamie, fetch Munro.”
The young man beat a hasty retreat. Mrs. Ferguson regarded Violet stonily. Violet, affecting an air of unconcern, sat down on the hall bench. Minutes dragged by. There was no sound but that of a large clock striking the hour. Finally, she heard a door closing somewhere in the back recesses of the house, and heavy footsteps came toward them.
Violet turned toward the sound and saw a tall blond man stride into the room. Her stomach sank.
He came to an abrupt halt, his brows drawing together thunderously. “You!”