Highlander’s Indecent Wager Preview

A Historical Scottish Romance Novel

 
 

About the book

“If you can’t give me your heart, then give me your happiness…”

Lady Iris Stephenson has been in unrequited love with a Highlander for years.

When all her efforts fall short, she makes a deal with a Scotsman: he will teach her how to woo a kilted man and in return, she will help him raise funds for his clan. That is until she realizes she just might be in love with him instead.

Desperate to save his people, Laird James Maclean needs to become a gentleman accepted by the English society. So he makes a bargain with an English minx. A bargain that ends up costing him a high price: his own heart .

As they both soon realize, success is not the key to happiness. Especially when their pursuits lead them down different paths: James back to his home country and Iris into the arms of another man. But liars are always ready to take oaths. When Iris gets kidnapped, James has but one choice: save her, and perish.

 

Chapter One


A Fateful Ball


“This is it,” Lady Iris Stephenson said to herself under her breath. “The moment you have waited for all these long, lonely years.”

The sights and sounds that enveloped her in the Hearthing Manor ballroom were the same as they were every year. The room was a grand one, Iris would grudgingly admit, with a handsome tiled floor perfect for dancing, illuminated by a hundred candles suspended from a chandelier that dangled from the vaulted stone ceiling. Fires roared in four great hearths on opposite walls, bringing as much cheer to the ancient hall as was possible for a brisk autumn evening in the northernmost reaches of England.

Just like always, Iris had thought with a sigh on entering the ball that afternoon. How terrifically dull.

The same hundred or so revelers were in attendance as always: interchangeably tiresome minor knights, lordlings, and grasping younger sons of Southern lords, accompanied by their equally tiresome wives and daughters. Even worse, most of these men were well past the age of dancing, let alone more handsome pastimes.

The same antediluvian musicians played the same stodgy old tunes, making dancing rather a moot point in any case. The same chill autumn rain pattered on the windows outside, heralding the oncoming of yet another unbearable Northern winter. Even the food was the same bland, uninspired dishes as ever.

“Good evening to you, Lady Iris,” mumbled some forgettable old skeleton in a threadbare coat. Iris returned his greeting with admirable cordiality, she was sure, though she hardly paid enough attention to bother noticing. Her mind was too firmly set on its objective to give her father’s ancient acquaintances even a passing care.

Of course, the deathly tedium of the ball did not persist for want of trying. Even if Harry Stephenson, the Earl of Hearthing, was content to repeat the same ball every year of his life in their drab little manor, his daughter was far too canny to allow such monotony to go unchallenged.

Iris had begged him to employ a French chef, as her distant friends had written her were tremendously fashionable in London.

She had imposed on her cousins to donate printings of the latest music, and had given them to her father to pass along to their musicians.

She had spent a full year of her precious social life reaching out to more obscure or eccentric nobles in their area, including those rugged individuals across the border, in Scotland.

She had even wheedled her father into considering inviting some of the newcomers who had arrived in the wake of the Articles of Union, that promised to bring increased trade with the much-feared Scots.

All for naught. Every one of her suggestions was rebuffed with a pat on the cheek and a patronizing compliment from her father. The music was left untouched on the Earl’s writing desk. The invitations went unsent. By all appearances, this year’s Hearthing autumnal ball would be identical to all the dreary ones that preceded it.

But then, it was never wise to underestimate Iris Stephenson.

“Not this time,” she muttered to herself again, draining the last dregs of wine in her glass. “This year is going to be different. You are going to have your heart’s desire if it takes your every effort.” Across the ballroom, cutting through a forest of bows and wigs and other fripperies, her eye was fixed like a hunter on its prey.

Just as I vowed. Tonight I make him mine, or I swear myself to a nunnery. Either way, I will be out of the doldrums I seem unable to escape.

Father had left entertaining the guests to her, having business to conduct in his salon. She had cheerily assured him she would take care of everything, then promptly passed the responsibility onto their steward, Mister Corning. As usual, Mister Corning had been positively frantic at this addition to his duties, and as always, he performed his charge admirably, leaving Iris to wholly devote her attention to the much more important task at hand.

Dozens of men and women gave their best attempt at a country dance, but as far as Iris was concerned, there may have only been two people in the ballroom. That enchanting patch of red-and-gold checked fabric floated at waist level, dipping to and fro among the flock of English nobles.

Iris bit her lip to prevent it from pouting at the sight. To her it was a pattern as familiar as it was extraordinary—no mere mortal red, but a burning, aching red, as fearsome and primal as the very fire stolen from Olympus. It stood out from amid the crowd of creams and beiges as a fire on a mountaintop, or a fox among sheep.

For her part, Iris was thoroughly tired of sheep. Every one of her peers seemed as thoroughly, crushingly ovine as the fluffy white beasts that dotted every field for miles around. Through some accident of heraldry or geography, the Hearthing family arms featured a lion rampant on a field of blue, and Iris had always tried her hardest to live up to that noble animal’s reputation. Even when by size and disposition she felt more a mouse than a lion.

Besides, it turned out that to be a lion among sheep was a lonely thing, and left her hungry for something greater. Ever since she had clapped her eyes on the massive, muscular figure of a Scotsman named Balthazar at one of her father’s annual balls, she had been able to think of nothing else.

How many times have I seen that colorful marvel in my dreams since that ball four years ago? How many nights have I lay awake imagining myself swaddled in the strong, masculine arms of the fierce, manly Balthazar Nerwood, third-born son of Laird McGregor?

“Very well. This is it,” she repeated, setting down her empty glass on an empty serving tray. Her heart hammered from somewhere deep within her, under layers of mantua and petticoat and corset. It had taken her nearly an hour to locate her goal from her vantage point by the window, made more difficult by the vultures that perpetually swooped in to inquire about Iris’s uncharacteristic turn as a wallflower. But now that she had sighted her quarry, she suddenly found herself frozen on the spot.

Why am I so fearful?

Iris asked herself, trying to quell the rumbling in her stomach.

I’ve sighted his telltale garment, even if the man himself is hard to identify from this distance. Now all I need do is approach Balthazar and speak to him, just as I’ve done a thousand times in my mind.

The rumbling grew stronger at this thought.

Perhaps butterflies are made more agitated when fed a diet of wine alone.

“Cousin Iris!” a voice trilled from her periphery. A great commotion of ribbons wafted into view, topped by the cherubic face of her cousin Charlotte.

Iris put on her most gratifying smile as she turned to greet her kind, if overloud, cousin. Unfortunately, she must not have accomplished as great a feat of deception as she had imagined, because the next words to come out of Charlotte’s mouth were, “Are you unwell? You have the look of having just swallowed a spider.”

She winced. “Forgive me, Cousin. The… change in weather does not agree with me,” Iris said as gently as she could manage, keeping one eye on the patch of tartan across the room.

“Are you sure it is not the grouse pies?” Charlotte asked with a wink and a hand conspicuously raised to one side of her mouth. “Whatever your Lord Father does to that poor chef must be terribly cruel. I vow, a man who cooks like this must be suffering.”

Iris laughed with surprise, breaking free of her scowl of concentration for the first time in hours.

“Charlotte, I am surprised at such rudeness! You are, of course, completely correct, as I am sure Chef would agree, but since when is it proper for a guest to show up at a ball and begin telling the truth to her hosts?”

“Well, someone ought to!” Charlotte quipped, fanning herself with a feathered folding fan. “And it might as well be an old married hag like me, as I have less to lose.”

“How is everything in London?” Iris asked, her thoughts turning away from Caledonian concerns for a welcome change.

“Oh, wracked with scandal. Erupting in political and societal turmoil. The same dull old lot, really.”

“And your Lord Husband? I trust the Duke is—”

“Iris,” Charlotte interrupted with a tsk. “If I wanted idle pleasantries, I would have approached literally anyone else here. Such banality is unbecoming a young woman of your stature.”

Iris’s cheeks grew hot. “My ‘stature’?” she snapped.

“Yes, yes, though you be little, you are but fierce, or however it goes,” Charlotte said with a wave of her hand. “And the Duke is the same as always, not that either of us gives a fig.” She reached out and took her cousin’s hand in her own gloved fingers, her eyes alight with curiosity.

“Now that we have concluded old matters, why not be a good hostess and indulge your guest for a moment?”

“Surely you cannot think you suffer from a lack of indulgence,” Iris joked, her temper cooling as quickly as it had ignited. Her cousin met her with the faintest approximation of a laugh before continuing.

“Tell me of your own adventures here in the wild North! It must be dreadfully exciting, especially nowadays.”

“Oh, Charlotte, you simply cannot imagine how wretchedly uninteresting everything is here!” said Iris. Noticing she was drawing stares from some nearby codgers dozing in their cups of wine, she lowered her voice and continued. “The winters here are so long and dark, and there is hardly even anyone to speak to!”

“Hardly anyone?” Charlotte asked with an arched eyebrow. “Or hardly any eligible men, you mean?”

Iris snorted. “The only eligible men in this part of the country are colder than the winters. Most of them are older than my father and frail enough they would snap in half in a mild wind.”

“Oh, really, it cannot be as bad as all that.”

“You should have been here at my last birthday,” said Iris, her already considerably boldness inflated by the wine. “There was a certain Viscount my father had his heart set on for me—I cannot recall his name, somehow.”

“And what did you find wrong with him, then?” Charlotte asked boldly. Why am I not addressing you as the Lady Whoever-It-Was?”

Iris rolled her eyes. “First, he could neither eat nor drink due to a weak stomach. And if that weren’t bad enough, the man fainted during our first dance!” She laughed bitterly. “Really, Cousin, can you imagine being married to a man like that? I should hardly call that a man at all!”

“I know a certain Duke who might differ in opinion,” Charlotte chuckled. Then the pair was interrupted by a roving band of codgers, their conversation grinding to a halt as they returned the old men’s stuttering pleasantries.

“You see what I have to put up with?” Iris muttered through a clenched-teeth smile.

Suddenly recalling her purpose for the evening, as discreetly as she could muster, Iris peered over and around the wizened heads of their supplicants for that guiding flash of red and gold.

Curse my inattentiveness, I’ve lost track of him!

“But surely that can’t be all to your life here at Hearthing!” Charlotte continued as the old men tottered off. “Are there truly no other suitable diversions near Hearthing? Why, I was sure you must be simply overrun with mad Scotsmen, especially so close to the border with our new countrymen?”

“Hardly!” Iris coughed. “Even as close as we are to some of the clans, Father will have little to do with them.”

Charlotte sighed, slowly walking towards the grand hearth with Iris in tow. “How disappointing. I had half expected you to have been carried off by a barbarous Highlander by now. It should hardly take any effort at all for a Scotsman to toss a little thing like you over the side of his horse and marry you within an afternoon.”

“They are not barbarians!” Iris protested.

Her cousin gave her a sly look out of the corner of her eye. “Ruffians, then. Vandals. Brutes. However you like to put it, Cousin, surely it’s clear that our new compatriots to the North are not half as civilized as we are?”

“Charlotte, how can you say that?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Living in drafty old castles, making war with one another over the slightest insult, wearing skirts like any peasant woman—”

“They’re called kilts, Charlotte, and they are—”

“Oh, Iris,” Charlotte laughed theatrically, her mouth wide and eyes closed. “I’m sure I must seem frightfully old-fashioned. But you can’t really think Scotsmen are the equal of our beloved kingdom? Why, I have heard stories they stuff the hearts of their enemies into that awful haggis of theirs.”

“That simply isn’t true!” Iris felt her voice raise but was powerless to fight it, caught in the wave of emotion that washed over her. She felt her cheeks redden with ire. “I have yet to meet a single Englishman who possesses a tenth the courage and masculinity of a Scotsman!”

Charlotte stopped in place and gave Iris a maddeningly confident smile. “If that is how you feel, Cousin, and you are so terribly unhappy with your lot here, why not entertain a Scotsman as a suitor?” she asked in a sweet tone of voice, her round face a mask of jovial cruelty.

“Perhaps I shall!” Iris snapped, then clutched her hands together to prevent them from flying in front of her mouth. Her words echoed in the now-quiet ballroom. Somewhere in the distance, over the sounds of the feeble musicians struggling with their minuet, she was sure she heard voices whispering on the theme of her outburst. Iris was sure her cheeks must now be the color of Balthazar Nerwood’s tartan kilt, but she kept her eyes fiercely locked on Charlotte’s, swallowing heavily.

“Why,” Charlotte said as she put a hand to her mouth in mock surprise, “what a happy coincidence! Isn’t that one of our Scottish neighbors just over there?” She gestured towards the end of one of the long tables near the door where from a quick glance, Iris detected the same red that had lingered in her dreams.

Her stomach churned, her head suddenly feeling light enough to be carried away on the breeze. A dozen excuses leapt into Iris’ mouth at once… but seeing the smile of victory already creep onto her cousin’s face was enough to marshal her courage.

You will not see me falter, Cousin.

She set her chin in defiance.

You may have all of London’s glamor, but here in the wild North none shall shame a lion out of pursuing what she aims for.

“Perhaps… I shall,” Iris said once more. And with a dramatic flourish of the skirts of her gown, she turned on her heel and marched towards the errant Scotsman. She detected a look of surprise come to Charlotte’s face as she turned away, but pushed it out of her mind. She had to focus on the more important task at hand.

You are not a mouse, she said to herself, closing her eyes. You are a lion. Be a lion.

She dug deep within herself to review her plan and retrieve any mislaid supply of courage.

“Oh, Mister Nerwood!” she would say. “I am so terribly glad you could attend this year’s ball! I have been hoping to have a chance to speak with you. Perhaps we could adjourn to somewhere quieter to discuss—

Then, with an explosion of silk and lace and hair, Iris Stephenson found herself colliding into something as solid and massive as a mountain, then discovered herself to be in a heap on the ground.

Stupid girl! Look where you walk!

Opening her eyes, Iris’s heart fluttered at the sight of that red and gold lodestar right before her. That glorious, unmistakable tartan kilt folded invitingly, its intricate sporran dangling right before her eyes, revealing a handsomely hairy man’s leg. The sight was queerly compelling, rousing a hunger that she had struggled with for so long now.

Balthazar has knelt to help me to my feet! Foolish though I may be, perhaps this will do for an introduction after all. I may just evade the nunnery yet!

Iris captured her most winsome smile, stuffing it full of equal parts charm and embarrassment, and lifted her eyes to her rescuer in gratitude.

“Please do pardon me, sir, I—oh!” She stopped with a gasp as soon as her eyes fell upon the unfamiliar man’s curly red hair, his blue eyes, and dimpled smile. “Who are you?” she blurted, her heart plummeting in her chest.

It’s not him!


Chapter Two


The Other Scotsman


The assailant who had crashed headlong into James Maclean, Laird of Clan Armstrong, was surprisingly small considering the force of the collision. And, he was startled to notice, surprisingly comely.

The woman looked to be about his age, although she was quite small. In fact, she appeared to be shorter than him by more than a head, though it was difficult to assess with her crumpled on the ground. Her own head was topped with curly tresses the color of ripe wheat in the summer sunlight, one of which she brushed out of her open mouth as soon as she had recovered from her shock.

“Forgive me, Me Lady,” he couldn’t help but say, a warm smile creeping onto his face. “Where I come from, it’s proper to introduce oneself before startin’ a brawl. Even for a wee lass like yerself.”

This’s a right vixen, indeed!

James watched as the young lady’s face changed rapidly from an expression of shock to dismay to indignation. He extended a hand to help her to her feet, but withdrew it when she hoisted herself to her feet with a pout.

I cannae imagine where she’s been hid in this dreary old house, but perhaps this party’s nae such a waste of time after all…

“I apologize, sir,” she snapped, as she attempted to rescue her unraveling hairstyle. “I must watch where I am going. I pray you are not injured by my carelessness?”

“Of course, Me Lady, nae a problem. Yer humble servant is undamaged,” he returned in his most proper speech, punctuating the utterance with a theatrical bow. These English seemed to live on such ritual, as far as James was able to determine. Affairs of manners now dealt with, he allowed himself to indulge his curiosity. “Ye seem to be in a right hurry, though. Lookin’ for somebody, are ye?”

Her hair appeared more or less the same to James, but apparently it was sufficiently repaired for the young woman to give a belated curtsy as she waved off attempts to assist her from other chary partygoers. Her eyes, which James noticed were the deep brown of an old rowan tree, now darted about the ballroom.

“Indeed,” she said in a distracted tone. “I mistook you for someone else.”

James scoffed, silencing himself as best as he was able when that adorable scowl leapt to the young woman’s face once more.

“Have I said something amusing, sir?” she asked, her hands perching on her hips as menacingly as a short young woman could manage.

“Nay, Me Lady, forgive me,” James coughed. “I just find it difficult to believe I was confused with another man in this company.” He swept his outstretched finger across the room, indicating the crowd of identical old Englishmen and ladies. The revelers fervently avoided looking at him, as they had all night, but instead busied themselves with their food, conversation, and what they somehow referred to as dancing.

“It is impolite to point, especially in mixed company,” the girl said, seemingly without thinking. James smiled as he dropped his finger.

As she continued to collect herself, James took an opportunity to inspect the girl for any damage beyond her hair. He could hardly see her limbs beneath the wide panniers of her gown, though he had caught a brief glimpse of a well-turned calf as she scrambled to her feet with ease and haste.

Her red gown had all the hallmarks of the usual English tackiness, though admittedly this small, feminine pugilist wore it better than most. Perhaps it was the way the gown curved invitingly in all the feminine places—though she seemed younger than he, her hips bulged with womanly power, and her…

Be a gentleman, James, he chided himself. Ye’re here for business, nae for oglin’ the Lords’ daughters.

Forcing his gaze to ignore the young lady’s dramatic décolletage and move on to her face, he smiled as he noticed the constellations of freckles on her full cheeks.

Though the lass is quite pretty, indeed. Nae like the old boots most of these English tadgers seem to have hidden away.

As his eyes alighted on hers, he saw they were giving him much the same thorough once-over that he had just given her. Then her gaze fell upon his own eyes, and he caught a glimpse of the intense heat that burned at the bottoms of those deep, earthy pools. James blinked, expecting her to avert her eyes from his, but was pleasantly surprised once again at the boldness of this fierce little mouse.

“I—indeed,” she stammered, her fists losing purchase on her hips, eyes softening as they lingered on his. Abruptly, she looked away with a blush. “I fear I was fooled by your appearance at a distance. I was looking for another Scotsman I expected to be in attendance at the ball.”

“Another Scotsman?” he asked, puzzled. Then his memory returned an unpleasant answer. “Ye cannae mean ye are lookin’ for Bal—”

“Do you know Balthazar, then?” she asked, her eyes bright and hands clasped with eagerness. “I mean, Mister Nerwood? Have you seen him here tonight?”

James groaned in frustration.

Nerwood. Of course she’s lookin’ for Nerwood.

“Is there something the matter?” the girl asked, suddenly solicitous.

James laughed bitterly. “Nay, lass, naught is wrong. If it’s Mister Nerwood ye’re seekin’, I’ve a good idea where he can be found.”

“You do? Where?”

“Aye, I saw him just over…” James trailed off, realizing he had little idea how to give directions in this dim, ugly English house. “Well, nae far. Maybe it would be best if I escorted ye to him, then?”

The girl composed herself once again, hands clasping one another like a proper young English lady. In a dispassionate voice she replied, “Thank you, sir, that would be most suitable.”

Gesturing towards the door, James followed his companion out of the ballroom and into the corridor, shaking his head in disbelief.

What are ye doin’, James Maclean? Ye’ve crucial business to conduct, the clan’s dependin’ on their Laird, and here ye are playin’ guide to an empty-headed gentleman’s daughter? Though, then again, she does seem a bit less ignorant than most of them.

He cocked his head to one side, suddenly stricken by the peculiarity of this interaction. “It’s nae me business, Me Lady,” he asked as they walked towards what he hoped was the salon where he had last seen Nerwood, “but what could ye be wantin’ with Mister Nerwood, exactly?”

The young lady’s hands began plucking at invisible threads at the ends of her gloves, and the milk-white skin on her face grew flushed at the question.

She couldn’t… That Nerwood isnae half so ugly as his brothers, but he’s the third-born son, and a frightful boor to boot!

Biting her lip, she finally spoke her piece as they walked solemnly down the corridor. “I simply would like to see him for a short time, and I fear this ball shall be my only chance. My Lord Father does not welcome company, and I wish to speak to him about my feelings before it is too late.”

Aye, there it is. The lass is smitten, sure as anythin’. Lord knows what she sees in that daft grasper, but that’s surely nay worry of mine.

“A mission of romance, then?” James asked with a knowing smile. “A cause most noble, indeed.”

Though he would have hardly believed it possible, her blush deepened on her pale cheeks. The young lady put a hand to her cheek and looked about, aghast. “I—excuse me, I should not be so forward with my feelings, especially with a stranger.”

“Is that right?” he inquired, putting a hand to his square chin in thought.

“Of course!” the girl laughed. “As an unmarried young woman I should not even be speaking to you without an introduction. And certainly not in the corridor, out of sight of my father.”

Lord, what fools these English be! It seems they cannae even go about the basic interactions of man and woman without puttin’ all manner of restrictions and rituals around it.

He stopped walking, noticing a familiar door just in arm’s reach. They now found themselves in an empty nook in the manor’s corridor, the light from a fire in a nearby hearth casting its warm orange light on the girl’s comely face.

“Well, I thank ye for the instruction in English manners, lassie,” James uttered as he rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, hoping that was not yet another faux pas. “As I wouldnae wish ye to be in any trouble, perhaps we’d best call this a… lesson in courtly manners, instead of conversin’ with a strange man.”

A relieved smile came to the young woman’s face. She gave an easy curtsy. “That would be very agreeable, sir, thank you.” Noticing they had stopped walking, she glanced at the door they had paused in front of. “Mister Nerwood is in the library, then?”

“This was where I saw him, at least, gabbin’ the ears right off some puffed-up lords or another.”

She moved to enter the open double doors, from which sounds of laughter and conversation were spilling, but paused and fixed James with an odd look. “Consider this one last lesson in proper civilities, then, sir, as your teacher’s thanks. Most noble English ‘lairds’ prefer not to be called ‘puffed-up.’”

“Ha!” James chortled. “Ye are a most gracious teacher, Me Lady. Now let me return the favor. Most Scotsmen, no matter how noble, prefer a ‘good day’ to the… ah, direct approach ye’ve already tried.”

The girl shared his laugh, then made ready to charge. But as James watched in amusement as she attempted to summon her courage, he saw her falter. Her hands once again began to pick at her gloves as she peered sheepishly through the doorway at the assembly of snuffboxes and brandy snifters.

Sighting an ornate mirror hanging above a nearby breakfront, she inspected her appearance, carefully rearranging herself. Her hair was adjusted, her gown straightened, her décolletage lifted subtly.

“Ye look most bonnie indeed, lass,” James said, despite his better judgment.

She fluttered her long eyelashes at him winsomely. “Do you truly think so?”

“Well, I dinnae ken the fashions down in England or France, but any Scotsman would be right pleased with what he sees.”

Steady on, James, he cautioned himself.

Her smile dissolved into a sigh, her nerves returning as soon as she glanced towards the door once again.

She’s a powerful wee thing, but she does seem most afeared, for one so determined.

“Is there a… specified way in which a young lady introduces herself to a Scottish Laird?” the girl asked, her chin quivering ever so slightly.

“Who, Nerwood?” James snorted. “There’s yer first mistake, lassie. He’s nae a Laird.”

“A Scottish gentleman, then,” she retorted.

James almost contradicted this second appellation as well, then thought better not to irk the fearsome little thing any further. He stroked his chin in thought, dismayed to find whiskers already sprouting despite having shaved just that morning. “There’s nae such a specific order to things. Scots are nae so keen on ritual as ye English, ye see. What were ye plannin’ to say to him?”

The girl assumed an expression of forced delight, then recited from memory, “Oh, Mister Nerwood! I am so terribly glad you could attend this year’s ball! I have been hoping to have a chance to speak with you. Perhaps we could adjourn to somewhere quieter to discuss—”

James interrupted her with a chuckle and a wag of his finger. “Lassie, that’s nae good.”

“What’s wrong with it?” she asked, crestfallen.

“Invitin’ a man to follow ye somewhere private and ‘talk?’ Nay aspersions on yer feelin’s, of course, but Mister Nerwood could easily get the… er, wrong idea about yer intentions with an introduction like that.”

He paused, suddenly remembering something. With a cunning grin, he pressed her a bit further. “And did nae ye say somethin’ about a young unmarried lady speakin’ with a man in the absence of a chaperone?”

The girl tsked with mock haughtiness. “I’ve a lesson for you, sir. It is most uncouth to question a lady’s right to flagrant hypocrisy when it suits her. A woman’s privilege, call it.”

At the warm laughter that escaped James’ mouth after this pronouncement, the young woman’s veneer of seriousness broke and she let loose an enchantingly girlish giggle.

“Still, lass, woman’s privilege aside, ye cannae approach Nerwood like that if ye want him to take ye seriously as a… er, suitor.”

Those strong but tiny fists found their way to her hips yet again. “If my introduction will not do, pray tell, what would be more suitable?”

He considered this quandary, trying to recall how girls had approached him in the past. Reflecting on these experiences, he quickly dismissed them with a shake of his head.

I’d be thrown out on me arse if I made such a proposition to a Laird’s daughter.

Eventually he decided to hedge as best he could. “Just dinnae seem too eager. Be calm, collected. A Scotsman likes a lass who’s willin’, but he likes to be the one pursuin’ her, nae the other way ‘round.”

“Calm,” she repeated. “Collected.” The young woman took a breath to steady herself, then drew herself straight. Her demeanor was now positively icy. “Good evening,” she said to an invisible figure before her. “Mister Nerwood, isn’t it? How lovely to see you. Hearthing Manor is always open to you.”

James smiled bemusedly.

Perhaps that’s too far in the other direction.

But before he could make this assessment known, the girl nodded, satisfied with her performance. “Yes, that shall do nicely,” she said to herself before turning to give him a most collected curtsy. “Thank you, sir. You have been an excellent teacher, and I hope a passable student.”

He gave his most grandiloquent bow to the young lady, then paused in admiration as he saw her square her shoulders, take a deep breath, and without another word rush in through the door in search of her target. The young lady strode confidently through the crowd of English nobles, who were seated around low tables and drinking brandy. James was gratified to see her walk right up to a standing, kilt-clad blond man and begin speaking to him immediately.

Balthazar Nerwood. If the lassie is dobber enough to want him, they’ll be perfect for one another.

He shook his head in disbelief, turning away from the sight.

Enough of that. The clan needs me. Time for business.

James licked his hand and flattened down his long, wild hair as much as possible, straightened his shirt collar, and marched back towards the ballroom.

Shame.

He paused to cast a regretful look back towards the open doorway.

She seemed too smart to be fooled by a bonnie face. I hope she ends up with someone truly deservin’, whoever that poor fool may be.



Chapter Three


A Profitable Idea


I dinnae ken these English Lairds.

James took in the view of the ballroom with a grimace. He swallowed the last of his wine and stifled a curse at the taste.

But I ken when someone’s bein’ a rude bloody bampot.

An hour of studious application of the young woman’s brief tutelage had yielded nothing but rejection for the poor Laird of Clan Armstrong. It had taken a great deal for him to decide to attend in the first place—he had only come to this ball at Hearthing Manor to forge new trade agreements for his clan. “We cannae go on sellin’ wool tae one another ‘til kingdom come,” Old Boyd had chided him. James had agreed, but the results had been less than fruitful, to say the least.

Fruitful!

James suppressed an urge to spit on the precious tile floor.

It would have been a more profitable evenin’ stayin’ home and countin’ cobblestones.

One after another, he had approached the English lords to introduce himself. And one after another, they had rebuffed him, condescended to him, ignored him, and talked over him. A dozen of them scarcely let him get that far, even—as soon as they caught sight of him, before he could even get within five paces, they turned tail and fled the ballroom as though he had been waving a claymore over his head in the altogether.

Yes, you must be terribly important,” he echoed to himself in a mocking tone, the last words he had managed to extract from the Earl of Something still stinging fiercely in his memory. “Sheep, is it? You know what they say about Scotsmen and sheep! Ha ha!” It was all James could do to restrain the impulse to show Lord Something just what a Scotsman was capable of when properly insulted.

Now that the music had stopped and the wretched old men were beginning to clear off to their own miserable castles, James was left even more alone by the window. Unless he understood these English even more poorly than he thought, there would be no trade opportunities, no market for Clan Armstrong’s resources.

I just dinnae ken how to talk to these stuffy English popinjays!

James lamented. His mission a miserable failure, he had resolved to at least consume as much of Lord Hearthing’s stores as possible before returning to Armstrong Castle in defeat.

Sorry, Boyd. The clan’s money troubles will have to go on a bit longer.

He reached for the wine bottle on the nearby table. Finding it empty, he growled at the wig-topped manservant who stood at attention nearby.

“Oi, any more of this swill? Or are ye only here to keep the Scotsmen from makin’ off with the lassies and settin’ the place afire?”

He chuckled as he watched the bent old man scamper off, then caught sight of himself in a grand mirror on the wall. Until this day, James had always taken some small pride in his appearance. Tall since his boyhood, he had grown into a proud, strong man. Though but a young man, he had never failed to command the respect and admiration of his clansmen, and represented them now in his finest Laird’s attire. And from what Sophia McDonald had told him, he was as handsome in the face as any lass could wish for.

Ugh. Sophia McDonald. Dinnae have enough to drink to start ponderin’ that situation.

Then a strange thought came to James’ head, bubbling to the surface of the stew of wine and resentment.

If only I had gotten a bit more advice from that strange young lassie, whoever she was. She could have even introduced me to some of her noble friends.

He smiled at the thought.

Daft, for certain, but she couldn’ae be worse company than her countrymen.

A crash from across the ballroom roused him from his reverie.

Speak of the Devil…

James’ smile grew broader as he saw the source of the commotion was the same red-clad blonde girl who had tutored him in manners previously. Now, though, she appeared to be in a state of disarray, judging by the gentle sway to her gait and the broken glass at her feet.

James chuckled at the sight.

At least she’s still on her feet. Surely that’s progress from an hour ago.

James cleared his throat loudly, catching the eye of the woman from across the room. As soon as her gaze landed upon him and he waved her over, he saw tears flood those bright brown eyes and spill over onto her red gown. Before James knew what was happening, he was walking over to her, arms jerking forward, outstretched in sympathy, then back behind his back.

“I take it Mister Nerwood wisnae receptive to yer overtures?” James asked, surprised to find his voice full of nothing but compassion.

The young woman took the neckerchief James didn’t realize he had removed and was offering to her. She dabbed it under her eyes. “We—we spoke,” she explained between sniffs. “I introduced myself, saying just what I intended.”

“And?”

And he was… polite. Courteous. But I may as well have been a serving girl, or…or a household dog!” She blew her nose into James’ neckerchief with surprising force.

James noticed the servant had reappeared at his side, an open bottle of wine in his trembling hands. Barely looking at the man, he snatched the bottle and poured the pitiful girl a fresh glass. “Me mother always said misery should never be drunk alone,” he said as he offered it to her. “What happened after that?”

“After? Hah!” she barked as she gratefully took the glass from James and downed a healthy draught. “I was so nervous after seeing his reaction that I could barely get a word out. My lips may as well have been fixed shut with glue.”

Pity the poor bastard who would try such a thing with this wee thing. Like as nae he’d get his hand bit clean off.

Then she shot James an accusing glare. “I behaved just as you told me to, sir. I was calm, collected, cool in demeanor in every way.”

Nonplussed, James protested, “Aye, I told ye to be all that… but there’s a vast difference between ‘cool’ and ‘cold as ice’!”

“Wasn’t that what you advised me to do?”

“I just wanted to keep ye from fallin’ on yer face again, lass!” James laughed. “And if ye were truly that chilly, there’s nae a chance in Hell Nerwood or any other Scotsman would pursue ye. Bloody fool probably thought ye were sellin’ somethin’, else thought ye terribly haughty.”

Seeing the look of distress that came to the young lady’s face, James attempted to clarify. “It’s true what I said, that we dinnae like a woman who’s too forward. But too calm and collected isnae good, either. Scottish women—the best of them, that is—are less icy and more… loose.”

James was immediately sprinkled with secondhand wine from the young woman, who had devolved into a disbelieving cough mid-sip.

“Perhaps that wisnae the best choice of words. Easygoing. Carefree. Happy-go-lucky, do ye ken?”

Wiping the corners of her mouth with the now-damp neckerchief, the girl repeated these instructions with little enthusiasm. “Carefree, not collected. Happy-go-lucky, not cold.”

“Aye, exactly.”

“You could have been clearer with that instruction, you know,” the girl said as she glumly took a sip of her wine to replace the one she had lost. “Before I made a fool of myself.”

“Alas, it seems ye found a man who’s nae better a teacher than he is a student,” James grumbled. He reached out an open hand. “Pass me the bottle, love. Mum had a few things to say regardin’ men bein’ drunk alone, as well.”

“Has your evening at tonight’s ball been as dispiriting as my own, then?” Iris asked in a tone that clearly communicated the impossibility of such a thing.

He poured himself a generous glass of the too-sweet stuff, downed it with a grimace, and poured another. “Aye, I fear so. If ye were treated like a household dog, they see me more like a stray, or a wolf—insult me, ignore me, treat me like a bloody curiosity, anything to get rid of me.” James reared back to spit, but once again caught himself in time, instead growling, “There’s nae much I can do for me clan if these English wouldnae so much as give me the time of day.”

A quiet sense of calm settled over the strange pair, so different in looks yet similar in mood. The ballroom was now empty save for a few stragglers who had ceased even pretending interest in the couple, and for a handful of servants who were hurriedly cleaning up the debris of the dance from the floor. These last were harried by a thin man with thinning hair and a tone suggesting he was in imminent danger of catching fire.

James and the girl let their gazes linger on the air between them. Though their eyes did not meet, he was sure she realized as well as he that their breathing had synchronized pleasingly. At first James was sure he could hear the blonde woman’s heart beating, but eventually he realized it was the sole of her fine shoe tapping anxiously on the floor.

And what is that smell?

James wondered as he enjoyed the quiet moment.

Like flowers, but nay flowers I’ve ever smelled before.

Again, he found himself unable to conclude that it was anything other than his companion. Though he had long loudly derided perfume as wasteful frippery, somehow this scent seemed more compelling than any he had encountered before, and he felt himself breathing it in more heavily.

“It seems we are perfectly matched, then,” sighed the girl at last. “In our failure, that is,” she hastily amended.

James raised his glass with an air of celebration. “Shall we share a drink, then? To failure?”

She smiled wearily, raising her glass as well. “An English lady who cannot entice a Scotsman, and a Scotsman who cannot interact with Englishmen. Truly, a failure for our age.”

Their glasses clinked, but James froze before taking a drink. In a flash, the germ of an idea that earlier had taken purchase in James’ brain sprouted, growing into a fully-formed blossom of a scheme before he could blink. He frowned in thought, then his face broke into a wide grin as he took in the contours of this peculiar plan.

“It could work,” he murmured, marveling at his own ingenuity. “Why couldn’ae it? It’s as simple as anythin’.”

“What is?” asked the young lady.

He set down his wine glass and rubbed his large, calloused hands together eagerly. Looking his companion square in the eye, he laid it out before them. “As I see it, lass, each of us has somethin’ the other wants,” he reasoned. “I need to find a way into English society to make new opportunities for me clan. Which I cannae do without kenning how to act like a proper gentleman, which I dinnae know how to do by meself.”

“Correct.”

James let this comment pass, continuing his proposition. “And ye need to ken how to break the ice with yer beloved Nerwood, which means ye need to ken how to talk to a Scotsman. Somethin’ ye dinnae know anythin’ about, but a subject on which I happen to be an expert.”

“But how does that help either of us?” she asked, looking at her hands lying open in her lap. “It sounds as though we are nothing but perfect failures at our respective pursuits, as I said. Perfectly ironic, perhaps, but that hardly helps our respective plights.”

A gleam came into James’ smile. “Have ye forgotten yerself already, Madam Schoolteacher?”

When this only elicited further confusion in the girl, he elaborated. “Why nae simply continue our lessons? Bein’ a perfect English lady, ye can surely teach me the ways of a proper rich English blockhead, and I can teach ye how to woo a Scotsman. Ye’ve already schooled me in many of yer people’s manners in just a short few hours, after all, and who better to teach ye what a Scotsman wants in a woman than a Scottish Laird?”

“Oh!” she blurted, nearly dropping her wine glass. “You and I, teach one another?”

“Exactly!”

“But… how? Where would we be able to meet? When could we—”

James interrupted her with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Hang the particulars, lass. If the pair of us have our minds set on somethin’, do ye think there’s anythin’ in the land that could stop us? All we need to ken now is if we’re willin’.”

He leaned forward, only just stopping himself from taking her tiny hands in his own. “I’m willin’ to teach and to learn, lass. Are ye?”

It was a fascinating thing, the contortions that came over the girl’s face as she carefully chewed the idea over. Each squint of her eyes, furrow of her brow, pinch of her mouth was as surprising to James as the last. Confusion turned to glee, then to dejection, finally resting somewhere in the middle of all three.

“I…I still am not sure…” she said hesitantly. “Even if it could work, my Father may not approve of my spending time with a stranger.”

“Och, that again, eh?” James stood from his chair by the wall and straightened, clasping his hands behind his back in his best impression of a proper English lord. “’Twould be me most honorable pleasure to introduce meself, Me Lady. Yer humble servant, James Maclean, head of Clan Armstrong and Laird of Armstrong Castle.” He bowed as low as he dared, giving his hands a bit of a twirl on the way down.

Staying bent for a few moments and trying his best to ignore the sounds of tittering, James eventually straightened to see his companion rise and give a simple curtsy. “Lady Iris Stephenson, daughter of the Earl of Hearthing.” She raised her hand before her mouth and giggled once more. “Perhaps we can start our lessons with proper introductions.”

“See, ye’re thinkin’ like a proper teacher already!” James said with a wink.

Iris chewed on her lip in thought, reddening it in a way James found disturbingly distracting. “Do you really think you can teach me how to attract Mister Nerwood?”

“Lass,” James replied with a twinkle in his eye, “after a few lessons, I’ve full confidence there willnae be a Scotsman alive who can resist yer charms.”

One final transformation overtook the young lady’s face as her skepticism was utterly erased. The light that came into those shining brown eyes was a remarkable thing, and in a heartbeat Iris was a whirlwind of energetic movement.

“Oh, how wonderful!” she trilled, spinning in place as though the ball were continuing just for her. “What a wonderful escapade this will be! Mark my words, My Laird, I will make a true gentleman of you, you will see. And I will grow into the very picture of a true Scottish lady, ready to claim sweet Balthazar for my own and win his heart, as I swore I would! To think, just this evening I was ready to ship myself off to a nunnery…”

James smiled as he stood before her with his weight on one leg, content to be an audience to this marvelous solo dance and recital.

The lass is bonnie when she’s flappin’ and even bonnier when she’s pleased. Unless I end up ripped to shreds by this wee lioness, this plan should bring us both naught but profit.

The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk

~ Cicero 


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  • I think that this author had done a marvelous job once again. These two characters are
    going to be highly entertaining. AWESOME READ.

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