A Scottish tale of privateers, whiskey, handsome men in kilts, family, and the fiery young woman who dared to love a MacLeod.
As the fourth MacLeod son, Donnan MacLeod does not have to take on the responsibilities his older siblings do. He is free to keep his business private. As a privateer, he sails the channel looking for smugglers. Very elite smugglers.
It's not until he returns to Skye for his mother's birthday that Donnan begins to lose control of his life. And it's all because of a woman, the one woman he's loved since childhood. The woman he desires above all others - that is, should he ever think of taking a wife.
Rosalind, strong willed and opinionated far more than most, is determined to find out what Donnan is hiding. Never before had they kept things from each other, but Rosalind is convinced he's keeping something huge from her.
Everything changes in the blink of an eye.
Stowing away in the back of Donnan's coach, Rosalind changes their lives forever. The adventure begins...
Release date: February 12, 2021
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 228
Content advisory: Sizzling scenes
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J R Salisbury
Somewhere off the eastern coast of Scotland
Standing at the rail, Donnan MacLeod watched as the rugged coastline of northern Scotland came into view. The fog gave it an eerie appeal to his senses. It also made approaching all the more dangerous as it was low tide, which along with the fog, made the cove they needed to anchor the Tigress in all the more treacherous to navigate. Until the fog lifted, they were at the mercy of mother nature.
This had once again proven to be an empty voyage. Chasing smugglers was never easy. This band, however, was far more cagey than any other he'd pursued. That was fine by him; he liked a good chase.
The smugglers he was after were unlike any other he'd encountered. These men only stole from wealthy English aristocracy and moved the goods off the island and to the continent. They also stole from rich Europeans, importing the stolen property into Britain to be sold to the highest bidder. It didn't matter where they stole from or who.
He'd first been assigned to keep their ships from reaching the continent, something the British fleet had been unable to do. The goods were returned to their rightful owners. Then they got resourceful and began stealing from the Europeans, making his work more invaluable.
With the dawn of new ships outfitted with steam engines, Donnan was afraid his foe had made a switch to the new way of sailing. None of his sources had found evidence leading to this conclusion. The smugglers, it seemed, preferred the ways of the past as did he. At least for now.
There was something to be said about a sailing vessel a steamer could not match. For one, the engines were noisy, making their presence known before they were seen. A sailing vessel, however, could still be stealthy through the water.
Donnan MacLeod was not one to give up. His men had discovered the possibility the smugglers were attempting to throw the Tigress off by going north. Unloading their cargo in a lesser used port to the north on the continent would not raise an eyebrow.
His biggest frustration was that no one knew who was behind this ring of thieves. The ships belonged to a ghost. No one knew exactly who the individuals were, but they had enough money behind them to weave a complicated trail of paperwork. Nothing he couldn't untangle in time.
"How much longer before we can sail in?" he asked no one in particular. His eyes were still on the nearing coast. The smell of the salt water in the air always reminded him of home. The Isle of Skye. He couldn't imagine not being able to inhale the power of the sea in his lungs.
"Should be safe to enter in another hour, sir," James replied.
James also served as his valet in his real life. The one of the fourth MacLeod son. Donnan, though a shrewd businessman and investor, was also known as a rake and a scoundrel. Not that he cared much for what others thought. If it kept people at arm's length and out of his affairs, the better.
The valet hesitated. "Were you wanting to go to the manor first, my lord?"
"Yes. I'll bathe and change there. We'll go to Edinburgh later in the afternoon. That way when my brother shows up to go to the isle, he'll be none the wiser."
"I understand your conflict. You want to continue pursuing these smugglers."
"Yet I cannot disappoint my mother. Her birthday comes but once a year, and it's the only time she requests I make an appearance. It's the least I can do."
"They will be out there when you return."
"That they will. Bloody bastards."
With the exception of a sliver of a moon peaking from behind the clouds, the night was dark as the devil himself. The carriage careened through the inky darkness, the team flying down the road at break neck speed.
Inside, two men sat across from each other, one by all appearances asleep, the other gazing out the window of the carriage into the night.
"You need to tell your man to slow it down, brother."
"No. Any slower, and we'll never make it in time," Donnan said, never opening his eyes.
"I didn't know you were in such a damn hurry to get back home."
"I'm not. If it were not for the fact our mother demands our presence, I wouldn't be coming back. Besides, the horses need a good run. Diablo in particular."
"You could have ridden him back yourself, Donnan. No need to put us all at risk. It's Mother's birthday we're here for; we need to arrive unscathed."
"Aye, as you and everyone have reminded me a thousand times, Kent." Donnan MacLeod ran his hands through his thick, wavy dark hair without opening his eyes. "Now, if you would kindly quit your whining, I should like to sleep."
"You're going to hell, you know that?" Kentgem MacLeod replied as he glared at his younger brother. He sat up, trying to maintain his balance in the fast moving carriage, while his brother sat across from him. Legs sprawled out, his hands in his pocket like he had not a care in the world. How was it possible they were even related?
The carriage hit a hole in the road, becoming airborne for a second as the driver never slowed the team. Still Donnan sat there, unruffled.
Then, without warning, there were shouts outside, the pounding of hooves and curses from above. Shots rang out, and the carriage came to a halt. Outside, there was a good deal of commotion.
"Good God, Donnan, we're being robbed." Gasping, Kent stared as the carriage door was flung open, and a masked face holding a pistol appeared.
"Hand over your money. Now, gents!"
Donnan didn't move. He appeared to be asleep in spite of everything going on around them. His kilt fluttering slightly in the breeze from the open door was the only movement to be seen. That is, until the muzzle of a gun flashed. The figure at the door fell to the ground. A startled shout and trampling horse hooves were next.
Donnan MacLeod withdrew his right hand out of his pocket. In his hand, there was an elegant silver ladies’ pistol, still smoking. He laid it on the seat beside him and crushed the smoldering portion of his greatcoat with his elegant, long fingers.
Kent stared at his brother in disbelief, too shocked to say a word about what he'd just seen.
James, Donnan's valet, was at the door, lantern in hand. "Highwaymen. There were four of them, my lord. Now there are three. The rest scampered off."
"You killed him, Donnan," Kent blurted out.
"Aye, so it seems."
"What do you want to do with him, my lord?"
"Leave him; drive on, of course."
"Donnan, you can't. You just killed a man."
"A highwayman, intent on robbing us, perhaps killing all of us, brother. An English one by the sound of his voice. He's dead. James, tell the carriage man to continue on. I suspect we should arrive at the coast in about two hours."
"Yes, my lord."
Kent continued stare at Donnan in disbelief. Sitting back in his seat, he did not speak again until they reached their destination.
Arriving at the coast, Kent nudged his brother's foot sharply with his. Getting no reaction, he sat up in his seat and yawned quite loudly.
"We made it, finally, no thanks to you."
"You're not dead are you?" Donnan inquired, opening his eyes. He dug around in the inside of his greatcoat and produced a flask. He took a long swallow off the contents before offering it to Kent.
Kent shook his head of ginger colored curls before stepping outside the carriage and into the night. The men were shouting orders, and at the water's edge, the barge was readied for their departure to Skye and home.
He turned around and watched as his brother stepped languidly down from the carriage, not a care in the world. Coldhearted, that's what he was. There was not a sign of any emotion on Donnan's face as he strode toward him, his kilt swinging in the night breeze. Though he wore his kilt when he was at home on Skye, Kent saw no reason to wear it in London. Donnan, on the other hand, wore his all the time, as did their eldest brother Rory.
Donnan walked to the team and began softly speaking to the black hunter that snorted and pawed his hoof at the front of the four, quieting the animal. As the men began herding the animals onto the barge, he walked with his mount, holding onto the reins, all the time talking to the beast.
As the barge began its trek across the water to the Isle of Skye, Donnan MacLeod remained with his horse. Sometimes a beast was better company than one's own family. He stroked the animal's massive, thick, muscular neck until they reached land on the other side of the channel.
Assisting the men leading the team and carriage off the barge, he remained with Diablo until they were readying to continue on to Castle MacLeod, the family home for some five hundred years. Or so it'd been told. Thank God their grandfather had seen fit to build a road leading to the stone monstrosity, or they'd be taking yet another barge ride.
Donnan strode into the drawing room, heading directly to the decanters of amber liquid. Ignoring the commotion going on around him, he picked up a glass and poured a glass full of the family whiskey. He drained the contents in one long swallow before turning to face the intruders behind him.
"He shot and killed the man and left him on the side of the road," Kent was saying to their eldest brother, Rory.
Still he didn't turn around. He didn't have to hear Rory's voice to know he was in the room. Not only did he feel his brother's presence, he heard his footfalls as the two men neared.
"Is that correct, Donnan? You killed a man?"
Donnan quietly poured himself another glass of whiskey and turned to face the pair.
"Would you rather I brought the man home for supper?" he drawled. "Aye, it's true. All of it. He was a highwayman, an Englishman. He would have killed us if I hadn't taken his life." He lifted the glass to his lips and downed its contents again.
"No, of course not, and you're probably right. The bandits would have probably shot and killed all of you if not for your quick thinking, Donnan."
Rory MacLeod studied his younger sibling for a moment. He knew it did no good to get into a war of wits and words with Donnan. His brother did as he pleased, always had. Though Kent may not approve of his methods, Rory had to admit it was smart thinking on Donnan's part to carry such a tiny pistol.
Donnan MacLeod was known by his reputation first. He'd always been daring as a child, but now, as an adult, he feared no man. Rory wondered when his brother had the time to attend to his business affairs, as his brother preferred whiskey, cigars, and women to the more serious matters in life.
"So you see, I saved us all." Donnan was back at the decanter, pouring himself another glass of whiskey. "On to other subjects. I'm here, I drug myself out of Edinburgh, so Mother's party can proceed."
"No one spends the summer in London or Edinburgh, Donnan. So there was no reason for you to be there other than your vices," a female voice said from the doorway.
Looking up, the men found themselves greeted by their mother, Lady Edana MacLeod. Her long, dark blonde hair was now streaked with gray. She glided into the room, as graceful as she always had been. As though she owned the castle, a true laird's wife, or in this case, widow. That, and she was a duke's widow.
"Mother," Donnan said, kissing her cheek.
"Guests have begun arriving, Donnan, and I will not have any of my sons embarrassing me. Do I make myself quite clear?"
"Yes, perfectly," Donnan replied, stepping away to finish his whiskey.
"That means you will not overindulge in what you seem to prefer in life. I have invited several young women, along with their parents. I intend to have one or more of my sons either married by the end of summer or at least betrothed. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly," Kent said as he eyed his younger brother with contempt.
"Donnan, did you hear me? You will not embarrass me. You need to settle down and make something of your life."
"Perhaps, Mother, I should just leave in the morning, if I'm such an embarrassment. I will not be forced into a marriage. So save your lectures of the finer points of matrimony for my brothers, for I shall not listen to such dribble."
Having said that, Donnan poured one last glass of the family whiskey, and downing it in one swallow, slammed the glass down, turned, and stormed out of the room. Mother or no mother, she was not going to dictate his life, nor choose his mate. Her tactics might work on Rory and Kent, but he was having no part of it.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he ascended the grand staircase. He ignored the portraits of MacLeods who lived before him, knowing none of them would have allowed a woman to speak in the manner in which their mother spoke to him.
Donnan headed toward his suite of rooms in the wing opposite Rory's. He stormed down the hall, a man on a mission. Except the only mission he had at the moment was to get away from his aggravating family.
He flung open the door, startling James, who was busy putting things in their place like Donnan preferred.
"May I get you anything, my lord?"
"Yes," Donnan growled, tearing his cravat from his neck and flinging it on to a chair as he opened the neck of his shirt. "Bring me a bottle of whiskey. Make sure one is kept in here. If I must suffer through this, I'll not do it sober."
"Is that all, my lord? I could bring a plate from the kitchens."
"Fine. Something simple as I've lost my appetite. Also see to getting me some hot water for a bath, James."
"Your brother had hot and cold water added to the bathing chambers since you were last here, my lord. All that has to be done has been simplified, my lord."
"Really? My brother is modernizing the castle? Running water taps? In my bathing chamber?"
"Yes, my lord," James replied, producing a bottle of whiskey and setting it down on the table Donnan preferred near the hearth.
"Then draw a bath, and afterwards, please see to some meat, cheese, and perhaps some bread. That should suffice until morning."
Donnan marched over to the bottle and poured himself a glass. He stared into the fire as he vaguely heard James moving about, leaving the room and heading into the dressing area and bathing room. This day had been long and exhausting. Made even more so by the mere fact he had to deal with his family now. In the morning, he would have Diablo saddled, and they would go on a long ride through the moors, away from the castle and his relatives.
Turning from the fire, he raised the glass to his lips and began to drink. The whiskey did little more than drown out the demons, make them tolerable. That was good enough for tonight.
He walked across the room and into his dressing area, to the bathing room. Inside, he found James running the water for him, placing what items he needed.
"That's good, James. See to finding me some food, and then you can be off for the night 'til morning. We've had a long day of it."
"Yes, my lord."
Donnan set his glass next to the tub and pulled off his boots and socks. His shirt was long gone by now, and his kilt all that remained. He found the pin and released the fabric, letting the plaid fall to the floor before stepping into the hot water.
Walking into the breakfast room the next morning, Donnan was immediately assaulted by his mother. She sat quietly conversing with his very distant cousin, the Lady Rosalind. It had been some time since he'd seen her and was taken aback by her beauty. Not that she hadn't always been a head turner. They'd always been thick as thieves, and he supposed he never gave her a serious look. She may be his cousin, but he never thought of her as such. She was Rose, his confident.
"I don't understand you, Donnan. You were always a rebellious child, but ever since you left school, you've been outrageous. It's a wonder you weren't kicked out," his mother exclaimed as she watched him walk towards the table and sit down. His valet hurried over to the food and placed a variety of items on a plate while a footman poured coffee.
"That's been ages ago, Mother. In case you've forgotten, I was forced to go to university as well. St. Andrews if my memory serves me correctly."
"There's no need to be smart, young man. You need to do something besides drink and cavort around London, Edinburgh, or wherever else you choose. It's time you got serious about your responsibilities and make something of yourself. It's also time you consider getting married."
"Why am I being picked on for matrimony? It seems to me none of my other brothers are beating a path to the altar. If and when I find the proper woman, I will marry and not a moment sooner."
He gazed across the table at Rosalind and noticed a grin on her face. She was fully prepared for what was coming and seemed to enjoy it.
"I'm not picking on you. Of all my sons, you are the one most in need of some stability. A wife is the only way you might tame your wicked ways, Donnan."
"Preach to one of them, not me. You're wasting your breath with me." He picked up his fork and speared a piece of sausage and popped it in his mouth, noticing the young woman in the room was desperately trying not to smile. Still. Time to call her out.
"What say you, Rosalind? Do you agree with my mother?"
"I believe yes, you should marry. But marry for love, not family obligations. That is Rory's job. Marriage is a long time. Better to be in it with someone you love that someone you barely tolerate."
"Ah, another woman who thinks with romantic ideals."
"I'm not bound to marry for family obligations, either; therefore I can wait and marry for love."
"There is no such thing as love, Rosalind. It's all a physical attraction..."
"That is enough of that sort of talk, Donnan. Save it for your club, gaming hells, and whores." His mother looked sternly at him, reprimanding keen on her mind.
Picking up one of the newspapers beside him, he hid behind it, his temper on the edge of eruption. Did she always need to treat him as though he were still a child? In front of Rosalind no less? What? Why the hell should he care what Rosalind thought? She was one person who'd never been critical of his choices, and if she were, she kept it to herself.
"And what will you do if you don't find this love, Rosalind? Become a spinster?" he muttered from behind his papers.
"If that's what happens, so be it. I'd rather be a spinster and happy than in an unhappy, loveless marriage." The answer came clear and bold, just like the woman behind the voice.
"Oh, my!" his mother exclaimed. "Donnan?"
"Yes, what is it?" he asked, putting the paper to one side so he could see his mother.
"That pirate, Lucifer! There's a story on him."
"Pirate? What are you talking about?"
"Turn your paper over, young man. The black-hearted pirate called Lucifer. Don't tell me, in all your time in London and Edinburgh, you haven't heard talk of him."
"I try not to pay attention to fairy tales, Mother. That's all he is. A figment of some bored lady of the ton's imagination I'm sure. No one has actually seen this Lucifer fellow; therefore, he's a ghost, an aberration."
"He's as real as any one of us," the dowager duchess insisted. "They say he's a handsome devil. Haven't you heard that, Rosalind?"
"That, and I've heard he's a rake to the tenth degree. He steals from the wealthy aristocracy, certain ones in particular it seems. Why is a mystery, but I've also heard he has never hurt or killed anyone."
"You ladies have been reading far too many of those romance novels."
"It's been said he's been heard to have a Scottish brogue when he speaks sometimes," Rosalind said quietly, eyeing him closely.
"Scottish? Robbing the English? How appropriate," Donnan said.
"What are you talking about?" Rory asked as he entered the room. He walked over to his mother and kissed her on the cheek before helping himself to a plateful of breakfast.
"They're talking about that rake of a pirate, the one they call Lucifer," the dowager replied. "There's a story in the paper that your brother has in his hand."
"Really, what has he done now?" Rory inquired.
"I don't know; your brother won't read it."
"It's a fairy tale, Mother. The man doesn't exist except in the minds of you ladies. Besides, there are no pirates, just privateers now," Donnan injected, picking up a forkful of egg and eating it without looking at anyone in particular, though he felt Rosalind's eyes on him. Damn woman. She was far too smart, and besides, she loved to tease him. Always had since they were children. If there was anyone who knew him and how and what he thought, it was Rosalind.
"I don't know, Donnan, there's been quite the talk of him and his ship sailing up and down the coast from Edinburgh and London, then across the channel. Which is where I suspect he unloads his stolen cargo."
"And still no one has ever set eyes on this Lucifer fellow. He surely must be the devil himself if human eyes can't see him." Donnan snickered, picking up his paper and handing it across the table to his brother. Rory occupied the head of the table, naturally. He was laird, duke, and everything else that went with it. None of that mattered to Donnan.
"Laugh if you want, brother. I know a few men he's stolen from. Believe me when I say they were not amused by this pirate. He'll hang for sure the moment he's caught. I doubt he'd ever make it to trial."
"You can't catch a ghoul, Rory."
Donnan took one last swallow of coffee before pushing away from the table and standing. He needed to get outside. A good ride was just what he needed indeed.
"Mother, Rosalind, Rory. If you'll all excuse me, I believe I shall go for a ride this morning."
"Would you like some company?" Rosalind inquired, looking straight at him. "That is, unless your mother needs me to help her with details of the ball, of course."
"No, go with Donnan, child. There is nothing left to do but await the remainder of the guests now. We have everything in hand for the ball."
"Go change. Hurry up, Rosalind. You know I detest it when women keep me waiting."
"You dislike waiting on anyone or anything, Donnan MacLeod. Don't try and fool me with your ways."
"I wouldn't dream of it. I'll meet you in the drawing room in a half hour. If you're not there, I'm leaving."
"Fine. Have Mariah saddled for me, please."
With that, Rosalind stood up and glided out of the breakfast room, leaving Donnan to shake his head. Instead, he eyed his brother and mother looking at him, watching.
"Not a word, either of you," he said, walking out of the room.
"I wouldn't think of it," Rory muttered, raising the newspaper to hide his face, so his brother didn't see the smirk on face.
"Mind your tongue, Donnan. I'm not one of your brothers," his mother said as she watched her younger son leave the room.
Rosalind nervously fingered a stray lock of ginger hair, pushing it behind her ear as she waited on Donnan to appear. They were to go riding, and she had been on time to the drawing room to meet him. In fact, she'd arrived ten minutes early, knowing Donnan's ways. He would pay dearly if he'd tricked her into coming here to wait on him while he was off running around on that beast of his.
She was about to turn and march out to the stables, when she heard the sound of footfalls on the marble floor outside the drawing room. Donnan strode in with a devil-may-care swagger to his steps.
"Have you been waiting long?" he asked, a smirk crossing his face.
"That would depend on your definition of long. Where have you been?"
"Tending to some correspondence that arrived and needed my immediate attention. You do get correspondence, don't you, Rosalind?"
She glared at him before gathering her skirts and gliding across the room.
"Come on, let's ride. That beast needs to run, doesn't he?"
"Is that a challenge?"
"Why would I challenge you and that black scoundrel? I don't have to impress anyone with my riding skills." Rosalind tossed her head and continued walking towards the door.
"Aye, you don't. Perhaps I can give you some tips on how to impress a man and catch a husband."
"You are a rake, Donnan MacLeod, and are the last person I'd ever think to ask on how to snare a husband. If I wanted one."
"Oh, you want one. You just haven't found your match yet."
She walked to the two horses standing with their grooms. Mariah, a dark bay complemented with three white socks and a white star, stood patiently pawing the ground. Rosalind nodded to the groom to walk the mare over to a set of steps so she could mount without assistance. As she settled herself on the sidesaddle, she gazed at Donnan, who was already atop Diablo, his kilt skewed and untidy. As though he were testing her tolerance. Donnan wore his kilt proudly, refusing to bend to any Englishman who might have a distaste for Scottish dress among men. He was a rebel and it had always been something that attracted her to him.
"Are you ready?" she asked as she urged the mare over toward the towering black monster.
"Aye, though the question is, are you?" He had a devilish grin on his face as he clucked to Diablo, the two off in a cloud of dust.
Without thinking twice, Rosalind followed him, encouraging the mare on. The route Donnan was headed on would take them around the loch, but suddenly, as quick as he'd begun, he turned the stallion to the left, heading away from the water and through the meadows. At one point, the castle had been inaccessible except by barge or boat. Now, thanks to MacLeod ancestors, a road had been built. One they both knew quite well.
Where was he headed? Donnan was testing her, trying to see how far and how fast she'd go to keep up with him. It may have been a while, but he should know her far better than to think she couldn't or wouldn't. In her eyes, she was as good a horse person as he was. If not better.
Finally, windblown, the horses breathing heavily, Donnan slowed down to a walk. She came up beside him and looked at his disheveled appearance. Rosalind knew this was one pleasure, one simple pleasure he loved and took full advantage of when in Scotland.
"I see you still know how to stay with me." He nodded, a grin on his face.
"Of course. I'm simply curious as to why the change of course."
"I don't like to be predictable. We always go around the loch, or close to it. Everyone knows our routine."
"So you thought to throw everyone off if someone was looking for us."
"Aye," he replied, patting the stallion on the neck, giving him rein to stretch his neck.
"Who do you think would possibly want to look for you?"
"Any one of my brothers. Perhaps with the exception of Rory. He knows to leave me alone."
"Kent and Malcolm are the only ones here, unless Wallace or Tavish has arrived," she replied, letting Mariah have her head as well.
"Kent is afraid of his own shadow. Wallace? Who knows when he'll arrive, and Tavish won't be here until this evening."
"How would you know all that? You barely stay in touch with Rory."
"Mother. She sent me a long letter telling me of everyone's planned arrivals."
"Ah, I see. Tell me something, Donnan, why do you keep a distance from your family, people you were once close to?"
"Are you including yourself in that?"
"Yes, I am," she said boldly.
"I am a younger son, as you know..."
"Don't give me that ‘younger son, I have no responsibilities’. Obviously you do something to make money and keep yourself going. Rory doesn't fund you."
"Nor would I allow him. He's laird, he's duke. Let him have it. It's what he was trained for. I simply wish to be left alone to do what I want in life."
"And what is Donnan MacLeod's purpose in life? Gambling, whoring around like the scoundrel everyone but me believes you to be?"
"Do not ask me questions I cannot answer, Rosalind."
"So we're back to the mysterious Donnan? What happened to you since you left school and university? What's become of the boy I used to love to pester and follow around?"
"He grew up and became a man you don't need to get close to, Rosalind."
"Bollocks. I don't believe that for one second, Donnan MacLeod."
"Rosalind, a word of advice? Forget about me. I'm not a man you need to be involved with."
"I didn't know we were anything but friends. Close friends, I thought."
"Leave it at that."
"Never," she replied, gathering the mare's reins and urging her on down the dirt path toward a group of trees. It was where a secret place they shared sat.
Donnan cursed under his breath as he watched her tearing down the road to the forest.
Damn, infuriating woman. Why can't she do as I ask?
He dug his heels into Diablo's side and began to follow her. A woman like Rosalind was precisely what he didn't need in his life. All he needed was a whore, not some well-bred, refined lady like Rosalind. Damn her! She stirred feelings within him no one else ever had, and he couldn't have it. Not now. Not while he was in the middle of this business of his.
Rosalind didn't let up with the mare until they were inside the woods. Only then did she slow the mare down to a walk. She was determined Donnan was going to open up to her and tell her whatever this mysterious enterprise was. No more was he going to try and appease her with his over-blown stories. Neither one of them was getting any younger, and no other man intrigued her like he did. There had always been a chemistry between them, one which he liked to pretend didn't exist. No more. No more. She wanted no other man but Donnan MacLeod. She'd become a spinster before she looked at another.
"Where in hell do you think you're going?"
"Oh come on, Donnan. Don't tell me you've forgotten the clearing we used to spend hours at talking."
"We were children, which if I may remind you, we are no more."
She stopped Mariah and stared at him. "What are you hiding? What's really going on with you?"
"Not a thing. It's your overactive female imagination."
"Liar. That may work with your mother, but it doesn't work with me. Now I'll ask you once again, what's going on? You kill a man on your way here with no emotion, stories fly around Edinburgh and London about how cold you are. It's as though you're trying to keep people away from you."
"You know I've never played by society's polite rules. That's for people like Rory or Kent."
"Donnan, this is me you're talking to. Not your mother or one of your brothers. I think you would remember I know you better than most."
"Perhaps you did, Rose. At one time you might have, but no more."
He called her by his pet name for her. One he only used when they were in private. So she hadn't lost him. Not completely. She would find out what the truth was with him. Even without his help.
"So you say. I refuse to give up on you." She began to dismount, but he stopped her.
"Don't. We need to head back. There's no time for such foolishness right now."
"Foolishness? Is that how you think of our friendship?"
"Rose, I know you. I can't. Find yourself a decent man to marry. I can't get involved with any woman. Ever."
"We'll see about that, Donnan MacLeod. Perhaps not today, but mark my words, I aim to get to the bottom of whatever mystery you are harboring," she replied, turning Mariah around. She brushed against him as she passed him. They both stared at each other. He didn't fool her in the least. "Oh, and Donnan? You might want to lower your kilt a little more. Your bits are showing."
With that she bolted ahead of him and out of the way.
Dinner was lively that evening. More family and even some guests had arrived. The ball was in three nights, meaning the castle would become like court. A mass of humanity.
Rosalind looked around the table after being seated. She hadn't seen Donnan since their ride late that morning. He hadn't even been behind her when she arrived back at the stables and dismounted. She'd kept her eye out for him, but the brooding, mysterious Donnan hadn't shown himself.
"He's not here," Kent whispered to her. He was seated on her right, much to her chagrin. In her eyes, the man was, well, she thought he needed to be more of a man, rather than acting the way he did. Sniveling.
"Who?" she inquired innocently.
"Don't play coy with me, Rosalind. I know you're seeking Donnan. Truth is, no one has seen him since the two of you went galloping off this morning.
"Knowing your brother, he'll make a grand entrance. He's such a rake."
"Which you seem to love, don't you?"
"It’s better than the alternative," she replied demurely and quickly turned her attention to Lady Pennington. The woman was a notorious gossip, but if it kept her from having to hold a conversation with Kent, so be it.
The problem with Lady Elizabeth Pennington was that she was married to a very old earl, who also happened to be in declining health. That never stopped her from traveling or doing whatever she wished. Her son would soon be earl, and as a dowager countess, she'd never have a worry.
Lady Pennington also was a vivacious flirt, and Donnan had been in her sights for years. No matter how polite he was in rebuffing her advances, the more she tried.
"I haven't seen Lord Donnan this evening. Is it true he shot a man in cold blood on the way here?"
"The man was a highwayman. As to where he is, well, he does detest gatherings like this. I'm sure he's with some whore somewhere quiet," she replied dryly.
"I'm sure he'll show later."
"I'm sure you're right. The dowager duchess is trying to get him married and settled, so I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see him paired up with some of the more available ladies."
"No, I'm afraid not. While we grew up together, Donnan is not the sort of rogue I'd want to bring home. If you get my meaning." She smiled as well as she could at Lady Elizabeth without laughing in her face.
"Really? I believe the right woman will come his way, and he'll settle. I hear he's an amazing lover."
"I was unaware you kept company with those sorts of women."
Quickly she turned to face Kent, who was taking a swallow of wine, trying to look as aristocratic as possible. The poor man was a snob and a sniveling one at that. However, it seemed the Lady Eloise Drake was intently watching him from across the table, as he was watching her.
"I see Lady Eloise made it. She's quite good with the pianoforte, Kent. Perhaps she'll play for your mother while she's here."
"Do you know if she's being courted by anyone?"
"I do not. However, if you like, I could inquire. Discreetly, of course."
"Of course. You wouldn't mind?"
"No, not at all. I don't know her well, but she is a sweet, smart young woman, Kent."
"Thank you for doing that for me, Rosalind. I apologize for being so harsh earlier. It's just that Donnan gets away with things none of the rest of us ever could."
"You're both grown. Pursue what makes you happy. One day perhaps Donnan will settle. For now, as long as he's not robbing and murdering people, let him find his own course."
Kent stared at her. "He shot a man with a ladies’ pistol he had in his coat. What sort of man does that?"
"It's a good thing he had that pistol, or you might not be here to tell me the incident," she replied.
"You're right. Again."
A footman stood behind them offering the next course, putting an end to another conversation. Where, though, was Donnan? He usually never disrespected his mother or Rory for that matter. Whatever it was, it had to be important; surely nothing bad had come. The one thing she knew about Donnan was he knew how to take care of himself.
"You still haven't found a suitable husband?" the countess whispered.
"I'm not looking. I'm quite happy to become a spinster. So much more I can do, if you know what I mean."
The countess tried to emulate the look of being shocked, but Rosalind knew nothing shocked that woman. "Yes, I suppose you would be able to move more freely than now."
"Correct. Now I can't be seen alone with a man."
"Yet you went riding alone with Lord Donnan this morning. Or so I heard."
"Lord Donnan is different. He's like a brother to me, and don't try to make something there that isn't. It won't work, my lady."
"I wouldn't dream of it. You are too ill-suited for him anyway."
"I know. Like I mentioned, he prefers his women to be the bawdy type. Whores and the like. You know the kind, don't you?"
Just as the woman was about to say something, the doors opened, and in strode Donnan, dressed for dinner in a dress jacket and kilt. He acted as though he'd simply been napping or something. Rosalind could tell, however, that beneath that cool façade, something more sinister was lurking, and she intended to find out what it was.
"Please excuse my tardiness," he said, walking over to his mother and, like he had that morning, kissed her cheek. "I had some business to attend to in the village, and time simply got away from me."
As he said the words, his dark eyes bore right through Rosalind. Rather than let him try and intimidate her, she stared right back at him. He'd been up to no good. Every fiber of her being told her such. She would find out what mysteries he was hiding before she left.
Rosalind cringed as she sat in the drawing room after dinner with the rest of the ladies. As usual, Lady Pennington was attempting to dominate the conversation with her overtly steamy stories of the men in the dining room. She knew Donnan was soon to be a topic; it was simply a matter of time.
Instead, the countess surprised her, inquiring to Lady MacLeod about the improvements Rory had initiated in the castle. Rosalind wondered what the countess's real intention was, bringing the matter up. She knew the woman never did anything without a reason. Perhaps with her own husband being so old and ill, she was making an effort to discourage her and others from pursuing Donnan. She wanted him as a play thing, then as her husband. Of that she was quite sure, and she also knew Donnan had no interest in the old bag.
"Rory is to be commended for updating the plumbing. It cannot be easy nor cheap to undertake such a task. I imagine such a feat is costly."
"It is, but my son sees it as a way to improve the castle. He's even upgraded the kitchens and servants’ quarters."
"Really? Perhaps if Rory or one of his brothers married a woman with a sinful amount of money, far more could be done with this drafty, old castle," the countess said.
"This drafty old castle has been in the MacLeod family and clan for hundreds of years, my lady. The MacLeods will never leave."
"Ah, but one has. Donnan. Perhaps he needs someone to guide him through this difficult time in his life."
"I assume you mean you, my lady," Lily MacLeod quipped before her mother could turn the conversation from progressing to her rebellious son.
Before the old countess could come back from Lily's remark, the men returned to the drawing room. From their demeanor, it had been the usual talk men had. Sometimes Rosalind thought their conversations more stimulating that what a lady had to endure behind closed doors of a drawing room.
She watched Donnan carefully, discreetly, trying not to draw the countess's attention to what she was doing. He appeared agitated, which she noted seemed to be a normal state for him whenever he was home from wherever he'd been. He acted like one of those caged tigers, walking from the hearth to the windows, never sitting down. As though his mind was a thousand miles from this very room.
Whatever it is, Donnan, I intend to find it out. Of that you can be sure.
"See that this missive gets in the hands of who it's intended for," Donnan whispered to his faithful valet.
It was the morning of his mother's birthday ball. He couldn't leave or do anything that seemed out of sorts. Not today. Today he needed to smile and do whatever was asked of him and do it graciously. He also knew he could leave tomorrow, but even that might raise some eyebrows considering the way he'd made his arrival. As bad as he wanted to get away from this place he would wait it out yet another day. Thus, no questions would be asked, his mother satisfied at having seen him and spent more time with him than in the previous two years.
"Aye, capt'n. It will be just as you say."
"What have I told you about calling me that? Not here, not anywhere among my peers and polite society."
"Sorry, my lord. A slip of the tongue it was."
"See it doesn't happen again. The last thing I need is for someone to go ferreting around in my business."
"It won't happen again. If there's nothing else, my lord, I'll see to this." He held up the folded and sealed parchment in one hand.
"No, and be on your way."
Donnan watched as the man disappeared through the garden and out of sight. He heard a faint noise behind a tall hedge leading into the labyrinth his mother had designed. It was too loud to be a rabbit or other small animal. In fact, if he wasn't mistaken, he could swear he heard the swish of a lady's skirts. Great balls, who the hell could be the source of the noise? Whoever she was, he silently prayed she hadn't heard the entire conversation.
"Whoever you are, show yourself. I can hear you breathing."
He heard a slight polite cough, followed by the sound of skirts rustling.
"Lord Donnan, aren't you full of surprises," the countess of Pennington gushed as she rounded the corner. She had a smile pasted on her face that reminded him of a cat. A cat who'd swallowed a very big canary. Damnation. "What sort of secret missives are you having your man send, captain?"
"Lady Pennington," he replied, bowing. "As you are aware, I have businesses in several areas. Countries even. There's been a matter which has come up since I've arrived. I'm simply trying to take care of it without offending my mother. She expects us to devote our attention entirely on her when we're home. As for my man calling me by that moniker, it is something I'm referred to in some business circles. I do own a small fleet of ships."
He hoped his quick thinking would satisfy the old bat, and she'd move on, though he knew better. Lady Pennington had been eyeing him for quite some time. It was well known in White's and other clubs that she was already on the hunt for her next husband. He would never stoop to her game. The woman was far too obvious.
"I see," she replied pensively. "It sounded much more sinister than all that, Donnan. How about we call it even if you grant me no less than two dances this evening? After the ball, I expect you to join me for cordials in my rooms."
He was about to give her an answer that would make her sputter. Calling him by his given name without his permission was highly offensive. But then everything about Lady Pennington repulsed him.
"Donnan! Here you are. You must come. Baby brother has arrived, and he's asking for you," Malcolm MacLeod said excitedly.
Donnan watched as he regarded the countess and how to address her. Malcolm usually had good reactions. If anyone could charm the old biddy, it would be Malcolm.
"Ah, Lady Pennington. I dinna know you were out here with my brother. You look lovely as always. I know it must wear on you having to be away from your dear husband when he lies so ill in his bed."
"Yes, well, your brother and I were simply remarking at how lovely the garden has matured. Thank you for your concern. It does pain me to have to be away, but he insisted I come pay my respects to your mother and your family."
"I trust it won't pain you too terribly if I take Donnan away. There are a few matters concerning our mother's ball about which I need to speak in private with him."
"I thought you said your brother had arrived?" she countered, studying him sternly.
"Aye, he has. There is something we lads are all planning, and now that he has arrived, we can put it all together."
The countess gazed from one young man to another, both with looks that would not give away the laughter that was boiling under the surface.
"Very well. Remember what we discussed, Lord Donnan. I look forward to this evening, my lords."
Malcolm turned and began walking towards the house. Donnan followed, neither of them saying a word until he was quite sure they were out of the old bat's range of hearing.
"That woman is relentless. Do you know what she proposes?"
"Don't. Don't tell me, Donnan. I don't want that vision in my head all evening at Mother's ball."
"Scandalous and wicked, she is."
"She can get away with it, too. Whatever she wants or expects, I'll see to it you're simply too busy and occupied to pay her any mind. Besides, she'll find another to fawn over."
"I don't know. She seems to have set me in her sights this time, and I don't like it. Not one bit."
"Don't worry about her. I would think you would be spending much time with Rosalind during the time you are here. She's not betrothed, nor have I heard of anyone she's interested in."
"Women. They're trouble, Mac. Even Rosalind. I'm not looking for a wife. I have too much of my own life to live without burdening it with a woman."
"Does the lass know that, though?"
"Aye, if she doesn't, she's daft. Daft is one thing Rosalind is certainly not. Persistent and stubborn, but never daft. She's one of the smartest women I know." He stopped on the footpath and ran a hand through his long black hair. "She says she's willing to be a spinster, but one day before long, I'm certain a suitable man will call on her."
"Who are you trying to convince, Donnan? You sound as bad as Rosalind. You need to get your head out of the sand like one of those birds."
"A woman's the last thing I need. Now can we speak of more cheerful matters, like this once a year spectacle we must endure?"
"Careful, brother. Mother won't be with us forever. You best remember that and tolerate her birthday ball with more respect."
"I meant no harm, Malcolm. It's just that I have a great deal of things that need my attention elsewhere, that's all."
"Whatever it is, it can wait two more days. Then you can be off to wherever it is you think needs you more than your own family."
"You're beginning to sound a lot like Kent and Rory. It doesn't become you, Mac."
"Pretend you're enjoying yourself, and make Mother happy. Is that too much to ask?"
"No. I'll do it for her, but the morning after tomorrow, I am gone."
"Where to this time?"
"Wherever I'm needed."
Donnan continued down the gravel footpath to the house, determine he wasn't going to let this conversation go any further. His brothers were too damn nosey. Everyone was too damn inquisitive about his personal affairs. It would best serve him if he were out and away from all the madness and drama. Rosalind in particular. He was finding himself too unsettled whenever she was near, and he didn't need that. Not now. She had been his friend since they were children. That's where it needed to stop, and the best way to end it would be to leave.
Donnan paced over to the desk in his suite of rooms and poured a glass of whiskey from the crystal decanter James had wisely placed there upon his arrival. It would take more than one to get him through this blasted horrid evening. However, since it was his mother's birthday, he would pace himself a little better. He had no wish to embarrass her, but damn, to get through these hours of pretending to be nice and well mannered made him want to punch a fist through a wall or someone.
He would make the rounds, be as courteous as possible with the guests, and then attempt his best to hide. Stay out of sight away from the empty-headed masses. Lady Pennington and Rosalind both needed to be avoided at whatever cost, each for distinct reasons all their own.
His cock, however, told him something entirely different when it came to Rosalind, and he needed that to stop and stop now. Certainly he'd had these thoughts over the years, but now his lust seemed out of control when it came to her. By all that was sacred, the last thing he needed was for his cock to control him. A woman would be a dangerous thing to get too attached to, and hurting her was the furthest thing from his mind. If anything, he wanted to bury his cock deep inside her. Which was exactly what would have happened if he'd followed her to the clearing in the woods.
He poured another glass of whiskey and downed it before turning around to go and face the music and the ladies. Of all the things a gentleman had to do, going to a social event such as this maddened him more than anything else. He'd rather swim in the loch naked in the middle of January rather than face proper society.
Swallowing the amber liquid, Donnan sat the glass down on a table and slowly closed the door. He could hear the faint sound of the musicians playing and the buzz of people talking. That's what it sounded like, a swarm of bees. He stopped at where the railing leading to the grand staircase began and listened some more. Carefully, he peered down into the huge entry hallway below. He recognized a few couples who'd just arrived, his brother Rory doing his duty and greeting everyone as they arrived. He never did it as London society dictated, in a receiving line. Rory always preferred greeting his guests as their father had in the great hall.
"Who are you hiding from?" he heard a voice behind him say. The voice belonged to his brother, Tavish.
"No one, and I could ask the same of you, but frankly I don't care why you're up here still."
Tavish and Kent had always gone by the rules growing up, and that had rubbed Donnan the wrong way for years. Even now, simply hearing his voice grated on him.
"Ah, yes, the mysterious rake comes home to let Mama pet him before he leaves and goes back to whatever black-hearted things he does."
"Watch your tongue before I cut it out." Donnan sneered, brushing past his brother.
"I'm quite sure you're the one who'll have something barbaric happen to them first. After all, no one has any idea what it is you really do, Donnan."
Ignoring Tavish's taunting, he continued to the top of the stairs and began walking down. How in the hell had he let himself be talked into coming back to his family?
With no one in the grand hall except a pair of footmen, he peered through the open door to the ballroom and noted Rory talking with Lady Guinevere Lindsay. So this is the young woman who had Rory all dimwitted when it came to talk about betrothal and weddings. He certainly appeared to be besotted with the homely creature.
Noting Lady Pennington surrounded by three other women, including his mother, he slipped out of sight, quietly making his rounds and engaging in conversation with people who were nothing but strangers to him. He grabbed a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing footman, trying to determine how to stay out of sight, but still in attendance for his mother's sake. He walked toward a potted ficus plant and stood watching.
Then he caught a familiar scent. Honeysuckle. There was only one woman who wore that scent well. Rosalind. He hadn't seen her yet this evening, but either she'd just been here, or she was quite close by. He inhaled again, the honeysuckle stronger than it had been a second ago.
"Is the great Donnan MacLeod hiding behind a potted plant?” Rosalind said, stepping out of the shadows and towards him. "I never thought you the sort who hid from anything, let alone anyone."
"Lady Pennington? You're familiar with her and her atrocious behavior when it comes to younger men?"
"Oh, my, Donnan. Has she set you in her sights? Has she made you promise to help fill her dance card, bring her refreshment, and perhaps even be naughty and meet her in her rooms?" Rosalind giggled at her words, watching him intently. Or was that lust?
"You know what she does? My god, Rose, you could have warned me. I had no idea the woman had gotten so…so scandalous."
"I believe every lady knows what the good Lady Pennington does. She fancies herself quite a catch, and once her husband passes, it will be worse. I doubt she'll make it through her year of mourning."
"I won't be caught up or near her scheming web."
"Are you saying you need my help?" She grabbed onto a stray tendril of her red hair and wrapped it around her finger coyly.
The dark sapphire gown she was wearing enhanced the color of her hair. He tried not to look down at her breasts, which were almost swelling over the top of the gown. He suddenly felt the urge to take her to some dark room and explore every part of that perfect body.
"If you are not previously engaged or if your dance card is full, yes."
She snickered. "Dance card? Full? Other gentlemen? Donnan, when was the last time you saw a man take interest in me?"
"If you would allow them, I'm sure you would find yourself a perfect husband."
"I already have. However, since you're asking nice, I'll help you out."
She had a beau? A suitor? Why in hell had no one informed him of it? Why had she not told him of such rather than flirt with him and arouse him?
Putting his flute down on a table, he offered his arm. "Come, I believe you like this particular waltz, don't you?"
She smiled demurely and in such a way that it made a fire ignite within him. He had to be careful. He had too much at stake to risk his heart. Perhaps someday, if he got through all this, and if Rosalind was still unmarried, he could consider a wife.
He deliberately had chosen a waltz because he also knew he had to keep her at arm's length. Too close, and he was no longer sure he could control his animal appetite.
"We're being watched," she said quietly enough for him to hear.
"I hadn't noticed."
"Donnan MacLeod, I know better than that. You are one of the most observant men I've ever known." She graced him with a smile. One of those that had always warmed him when they were younger. Why hadn't he noticed it since?
Because you're in the middle of business no one needs to be the wiser to. If and when the time comes, and I don't have to be in the middle of protecting honest hardworking men from the likes of some of these high society bastards, I might give her a second look. I can't ask her to wait, I can't tell her why.
"There are some things I prefer to not notice."
"Ah, yes, Lady Pennington?" She smiled once again, tilting her head to one side as though she knew his answer.
"Has anyone told you that you are far too intelligent for a woman?"
"If they have, I either didn't hear or paid them no mind," she saucily replied.
"Has anyone told you how wonderfully that dress complements your hair and eyes? You look ravishing, Rosalind."
It came out of his mouth before he knew it and could stop it. Why had he no self-control around her all of a sudden? He gazed at her, watching as she tilted her head, obviously unprepared for his attempt at a compliment. She was contemplating how to reply. The edges of her rosy lips curved up. The lady was not offended. But then this was Rosalind. Nothing offended her, at least nothing he had ever said to her.
"I must say, you're full of surprises this evening, Donnan. In fact you've been a curious bag of oddities since you arrived."
"I can assure you, I'm no different than any other time. I simply complimented you on your choice of gown color. Nothing else was meant by it."
She said nothing, eyeing him as any young woman would while waltzing. The entire ballroom whirled by them, and Donnan found the temperature increasingly stifling in the room. His instinct would normally have been to bolt, get away from any young woman presenting more than a night of naughty pleasure.
As the dance ended, he bowed and offered her his arm as they left the dance floor. He could feel a dozen eyes watching him as he escorted Rosalind to the side of the room. Then he caught himself saying the unexpected to her.
"Would you like to go outside for some air? I could get you some punch and bring it to you."
"Yes, I'd like that, Donnan."
Feeling like a boy, he led her to the glass doors leading to the night air. He led her to the edge of the terrace where they'd be in full view of everyone in the room. For the first time, he felt confused by his feelings, but at the same time, angry with himself for allowing them to leak out of that place deep inside where he kept them securely locked.
"Wait here while I go get us some punch," he said softly.
"Stay, Donnan. I'm not really in need of anything to drink. In fact, I think I'd like to take a stroll around the gardens."
"Do you think that wise?"
"Since when did Donnan MacLeod care what others thought?"
"I was merely thinking of you and your reputation, Rosalind."
"This is me you're talking to, Donnan, not some sweet young innocent."
"That is one thing I'm quite aware of."
The sound of skirts rustling behind them caused them both to turn around. The countess, Lady Pennington. While Donnan had so far avoided her, even going as far as to not sign her dance card, the woman was not going to be put off any longer.
"There you are, Lord Donnan. Have you forgotten about me?"
"Hardly, Lady Pennington. I shall come to claim my dance shortly. I was merely finishing my conversation with Lady Rosalind here."
The older woman had a scowl of disapproval on her face, but it disappeared as quickly as it appeared. It was as though she'd thought of something new and devious.
"Very well, but please don't keep me waiting much longer."
"The evening is still young, countess. There are many dances to be had," he smartly replied. He turned his attention to Rosalind, dismissing Lady Pennington. Something he probably shouldn't do, but she was determined to push him. His actions would probably be reported back to his mother, but if that was the price of rebuffing the woman, so be it.
"That was rather rude of you," Rosalind whispered as he led her toward the stairs which led down into the gardens.
"Rude is the only thing Lady Pennington seems to understand."
They began to walk along the path. The moon was fuller than when he'd arrived back home. He said nothing as they walked, knowing what he wanted and knowing asking anything of her would be unkind of him. He couldn't do that to her, not and ruin years of friendship.
"What is it, Donnan? You seem preoccupied since you've been back, like something is weighing heavy on you."
"Aye, it is," he replied, pulling her off the path and into the shadows. "It's true. I do have a lot on my mind. I cannot afford to allow myself to stray until I finish a few things."
"Am I to presume that I am what you are referring to when you mention straying? What do you want from me, Donnan? You already have my heart, and I think you know that."
Without thinking, Donnan bent down and gathered her in his arms and covered her lips with his. Opening her mouth with his tongue, he deepened the kiss. She went willingly, a quiet moan escaping her lips when he slid his hand to her breast, making him want more.
"Aw, lass, what are you doing to me? Every time I am near you a fire starts in my groin. I want you, Rosalind. I want to make love to you. I have for years."
"Then do it, Donnan. For God's sake, do it. You think I don't ache for you, for something I've yet to have?"
"I cannot make any promises to you, Rosalind. Not right now. No promises for the future, just whatever time we might have together now."
Rosalind stood in front of Donnan's door. What was she doing here? Certainly what she'd overheard Kent and Tavish talking about could wait until morning. Somehow she felt compelled to tell him now. No, Donnan needed to know now, not later.
She raised her hand and took in a deep breath. This wasn't proper, her being here. Bollocks! This was Donnan, not some strange man she'd just met and wanted...
There would never be a man. Donnan was the only man she'd ever wanted, and he'd made it abundantly clear that he wanted no part of a woman. Not unless she were to become his mistress. Damn him!
The door opened almost immediately. He cocked an eyebrow at her and whispered, "What are you doing here, Rose?"
She stood in a daze, taking him in, his hair loose, falling haphazardly over his shoulders, his bare shoulders. He was shirtless, boots off, standing before her in nothing but his kilt.
She wanted him.
Silence as he reached out and grabbed her gently by the arm and brought her into his private domain. He shut the door.
"I...I have something to tell you."
"It could not wait until morning?"
She took a deep breath. Silence. Shaking her head, she gazed up at him. "No, it cannot."
Tell him. Tell him you love him. That's why you're really here.
"What is it?"
She looked into those eyes. "I overheard Kent and Tavish. I thought you should know."
"And it couldn't wait?"
"No." She paused. "I heard them joking about when they were finished with you, you'd wish to have never crossed them. They plan to change your life, Donnan."
Her eyes fell to his hands, where they were both fisted at his thigh. His knuckles were white. He was angry.
"What else did you overhear?"
"That was most of it. Lord Quinn joined them, and the subject was changed. I believe they mean to embarrass you."
He remained silent as though his mind were whirling in a thousand different directions. When he did speak, the words came out low, like pulled from somewhere deep inside him.
"I appreciate you coming to me. Really I do, Rose. I shall be more attentive to them. Now you really must go. This is not proper. You know that."
"I know, but I could not let something stand in the way of telling you what I heard. The pair are not to be trusted."
"Aye, they're not."
She looked up at him, his eyes focused on her. He didn't look away from her. He didn't move.
Tell him. Tell him now. You may not have another chance.
"I...I love you, Donnan."
Silence. His fists released.
"Say it again," he begged. "Please."
"I love you, Donnan," she whispered.
He moved, reaching for her, pulling her to him. He tangled his hand in her hair as he took her in a long, wonderful, deep kiss. He ended the kiss and pulled back, his forehead touching hers. His gaze met hers, and he raked his thumb along her jaw. "Leannan, you have no idea how long I have wanted to hear those words come from your lips."
He leaned down and kissed her again, her lips parting for him, letting him explore the depths of her mouth. His hands were stroking her back, pulling her tight against him.
With a low growl, he picked her up and carried her to his bed. He laid her on the mattress and followed her down. She gasped at the sensation of him resting himself between her thighs. She was surprised at the pleasure she suddenly felt. "Rose, I shouldn't...I cannot be what you want me to be."
She didn't want him to change for her. She wanted him as he was.
"I've wanted to you for so long, leannan," he said between kisses as his fingers went together on her dressing gown. His lips were everywhere. He paused and lifted his head, looking at her. "Stop me now before it's too late."
"I want this as well," she replied, catching his bottom lip gently with her teeth. He groaned his pleasure and kissed her.
He growled again, untying her dressing gown belt. "I've never seen you naked, Rose."
"Liar. You've seen me plenty of times when we swam in the loch."
"Aye, but we were children then. I've never laid eyes on you naked as a grown woman."
She felt the silk sliding off her, baring her skin to him. He lifted off her, sitting up to gaze at her.
"You're beautiful," he whispered as his hands traced over her, down to the swell of her belly, to her thighs.
She wanted him to explore her. His touch made her want more. Tonight was theirs at last. He found her mouth once again and kissed her, flattening his chest against her breasts.
"Donnan..." She spread her legs further, feeling his hardened cock pulsing against her apex.
He continued to kiss her, his hands still exploring. Too soon, he ran his fingers through her hair. He rested on his elbows. "We must stop."
"Donnan, no. I want this. You want this," she said, confused by the sudden change in his emotions.
"We must stop, Rose. You must go back to your room."
"Please, Donnan," she pleaded, lifting her hips against his.
"Rosalind, do not make this any harder than it already is. We cannot. Not tonight, not here. We mustn't be caught." He tucked a strand of her fiery red hair behind her ear, running his thumb over her cheek, feeling the tears unleash. She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
"Very well. You are right of course." She sat up after him, wiping away the tears. She leaned down and grabbed her dressing gown and put it back on. She headed to the door.
"Rose, wait. Please." He was going to have her. Tonight, this place. It was not the way he would have her. He would not ruin her. "Don't leave like this."
She stood still at the open door, her gaze fixated on something in the hall. Horror crossed her face. Donnan stopped in his tracks.
Tavish MacLeod stepped into his bedchamber, his gaze on a disheveled Rosalind, then the bed and finally to where Donnan stood. Naked.
"You've ruined her. Right here."
"He has not done any such thing, Tavish MacLeod."
"Then explain my brother's lack of clothing and your disheveled appearance."
"It is not as it appears, Tavish," Donnan said, grabbing his plaid from the floor.
"I say differently, and it's obvious what's gone on here." He gazed at Rosalind, who had tears streaming down her face.
"Back inside, Lady Rosalind. The both of you wait here. We're going to see what Rory has to say about this."
"Tavish, no!" she cried.
The realization hit her hard.
"Unless you wish to wake the entire house, may I suggest you keep your voice down, my lady."
"It's more than obvious what you're about, Donnan. This time you're going to make right by the lady. You've obviously compromised the lady's reputation. The only gentlemanly thing for you to do is marry the girl," Tavish crowed.
"Are you mad?" Donnan roared, lunging at his own sibling. He felt a small hand in his arm as he did.
"He's not worth it, Donnan. Kent and Tavish have always been envious of you, though perhaps jealousy is a better word."
"Enough, both of you," Tavish said, then turned to Kent, who appeared from the darkness of the hall. "We'll take them to Rory's study. Go find him. Tell him to come immediately."
"Why are you involving Rory in your childish game?" Donnan drawled.
"Rory's Lady Rosalind's guardian, or have you conveniently forgotten that?" Tavish said, making a gesture that meant they were to begin walking back toward the staircase.
"He's what? When did this happen?" Donnan eyed Rosalind closely.
"Donnan, you don't remember? My father asked Rory if he'd become my guardian until I wed. He asked your brother on his deathbed. How could you forget something like that?"
"No, no one ever informed me of that."
"Or you were too far into your cups to remember. We all sat and discussed it with Mother before Rory agreed to it," Tavish smugly replied.
Donnan knew his brother was probably right on that count. Not something he was proud of, but it was how he coped at times.
Entering through the huge oak doors, Tavish ushered them into their eldest brother's study. Donnan sat in a chair while Rosalind sat across from him. He avoided eye contact with her; he needed his wits about him. He watched as Kent left the room in search of Rory, and Tavish smugly sat back in one of the leather chairs.
Donnan stood and walked over to where Rory kept crystal decanters containing whiskey and other spirits. He began to pour himself a glass of whiskey.
"Pour me one if you don't mind, Donnan," he heard Rosalind mutter. "Whiskey."
He poured another not even a quarter way and handed it to her. She looked like a lamb about to go to slaughter. What in the name of hell had he done? No, better yet, what had his brothers done and why? What was in it for them?
"Not so arrogant now, are you?" Tavish said lazily, a cocky smile on his face.
"Where is Malcolm?" Donnan suddenly asked. He locked eyes with her. He could tell this turn of events had angered her, and at the same time disappointed her. In him. She had every right to be. Of all his siblings, though, Malcolm and Rory were the two who aligned with him and overlooked his ways.
"He can't help you now. How does it feel, Donnan? To not be the one in control?"
"Shut it, Tavish, or I swear..."
"That's enough, the both of you. Tavish, leave us. This is between Donnan, Lady Rosalind, and me now. Go!" Rory MacLeod growled as he entered the room, his ginger hair disheveled.
"Surely you want to hear what Kent and I came upon? What our dear brother was doing and what he's claiming?"
"Kent did that for both of you. Now leave us."
"Have you told Mother?"
"I couldn't tell her anything when I had nothing to tell, and I suggest you do the same until I've had time to speak with these two."
Tavish unfolded his long frame and stood. He walked toward the door, turning before he opened it. "As you wish. Don't let him fool you, Rory. Kent and I saw what we saw."
"Leave now!" Rory demanded, the vein in his neck beginning to bulge from anger.
The door shut, and Rory walked over and poured himself a glass full of whiskey. He downed half of it before turning and facing Donnan and Rosalind. Uttering not a word, he strode across to where they were seated. He sat in the leather chair occupied by Tavish just moments before.
His gray-green eyes looked between the two as he took another sip off his whiskey. He appeared to be trying to compose himself, and decide what to say, get his temper in check. Rory was known to have one, a MacLeod trait.
"Kent told me what Tavish saw. He also said you don't remember nay about what I promised Rosalind's father on his death bed. To watch after Rosalind until she married. What say you, brother?"
"I will not try and deny any of it. Either what he saw nor the fact that I do not remember you agreeing to become Rosalind's guardian."
"Good, because I didn't want to have to kick your arse off the isle all the way back to London." He took another sip off his drink, then shook his head. A tendril of ginger hair slid onto his forehead, but Rory chose to ignore it. "You've put me in a very difficult position, Donnan. I'm the laird now, duke and Rosalind's guardian. I can't ignore what has happened. You have put Rosalind in a precarious position. Her reputation has been compromised, ruined because of your lust, Donnan. No decent man will want her, so you will do the right thing, brother. You will marry Lady Rosalind."
"Rory, please. Kent and Tavish exaggerated what they think they saw. They have a vendetta against their own brother," Rosalind said, placing the crystal glass to her lips and drinking the contents.
"So the two of you are going to lie to me about what you were doing? Tavish found you naked, Donnan! I'd go into details, but I think you know them already. It does not matter what the two of them do or do not do, Rosalind. The fact remains Donnan put you in a compromising situation. He will act accordingly. You have a choice. Either I send for the archbishop, whom I know is on the isle visiting, and a special license is requested."
"Or?" Donnan asked.
"Or you leave here at first light. I will let it be known that I have banished you for a period of a year."
"Why would you do that, Rory?" Rosalind asked.
"Donnan is right. Tavish and Kent are up to something. This sort of behavior is out of character for them. They won't be expecting a banishment. They expect a wedding."
"What am I to do?" she inquired, her gaze darting to Donnan.
"Stay here, help me keep our mother pacified. You can reassure her that nothing inappropriate occurred between you and Donnan. You merely went to his chambers to tell him something important. Something that couldn't wait until morning."
"So you plan to announce that you found nothing inappropriate occurred between Rosalind and me."
"Yes, that and I didn't approve of the way you handled the situation. Instead of speaking with Rosalind outside your chambers, you invited her in. Banishment for a year makes it appear I am not siding with the two of you. It keeps Rosalind's reputation intact and gives you a good year to find out what those two are up to."
"Why do I feel as though there is something you haven't told us,” Donnan said, lifting the crystal glass to his lips.
"Because upon your return in one year, there will be a wedding, Donnan. A wedding between the two of you."
At the front of the stable, Rosalind could see the gleaming black of Donnan's expensive traveling carriage. Creeping closer to the door, she saw that the conveyance was ready to depart
Two of Donnan's footmen stood in conversation with the driver and James. She listened to their conversation, and her heart began to pound. She couldn't stay behind, no matter what Rory dictated. She would have to find a place to hide in it until they were far enough away from the castle. Donnan would never chance bringing her back. At least she didn't believe he would. There was a frosty mist in the cold morning air. It had started raining.
The luggage boot at the rear would be perfect. If there was room for her inside. She prayed there was, took a deep, steadying breath, and prepared to move quickly. When she heard the men laughing, saw that their attention was focused on Donnan's stallion, Diablo, she sprinted for the back of the carriage.
Jerking up the leather cover, she climbed inside, settled herself and her one bag between the trunks and satchels, and tried to calm her frantically pounding heart. She prayed that no more luggage would be added.
Seconds passed. Her pulse pounded in her ears. Though the morning was chilled and rainy, sweat dampened the hair at her temples. She heard men approaching, as they took their places on top of the carriage. She felt it dip and sway with their weight, then the four matched blacks strained against their traces, and the carriage rolled off toward the bailey.
It paused only briefly, long enough for its single passenger, Donnan, to climb aboard and settle himself. She shut her eyes tightly, trying not to see the fury of his face once she was discovered.
Hidden safely in the luggage boot, Rosalind breathed a sigh of relief and allowed her weary body to slump against the black lacquered wood. She was so tired. The night had been exhausting, especially after Rory had announced to Kent and Tavish no wedding would be taking place. They'd been furious, but quickly settled once Malcolm entered the room and reminded them who they were talking to.
The cool summer day began to warm, heating the space in the back of the carriage. Her tired muscles relaxed, and she began to fall asleep. She slept off and on, awakened once when the carriage paused at a roadside tavern late in the afternoon, and Donnan departed, probably for a bite to eat. Rosalind ignored the rumble in her stomach. She relaxed once more as the coach resumed its journey. She was too tired to even notice when the wheels jarred into the ruts in the road.
The hours dragged past. Her legs were cramped in the tight confines of the luggage boot. A dull pain nagged at the back of her neck. Her back and shoulders ached as well. The coach rolled along, and she was almost grateful she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink.
She had no idea how many hours had passed when she was awakened with a fierce jerk on her arm. She would have landed in the mud if a second footman hadn’t caught her other arm. Instead, he hauled her upright with a rough jerk that snapped her head back.
“Let me go!” Rosalind struggled against him, trying to break loose. “Get your hands off me!”
“It’s Lady Rosalind!” one of the men called out, wrapping an arm around her waist and forcing her back against his chest.
“That’s enough!” The deep voice cut through the melee, and both men instantly went still. Rosalind noticed the tall, imposing man who stood in the shadows. Donnan.
“Let her go. She seems quite able to talk. Give her a chance to speak.” They did so with some regret, releasing her arms and taking a single step backward.
“Rosalind, what in the name of God have you done?” he asked. “What are you doing in the back of my carriage?”
Rosalind squared her shoulders, trying not to think what a miserable picture she must look. She summoned the lie she had concocted for just this moment.
“I could not stay, Donnan. I can be more useful with you than back at the castle alone."
His brows drew together. He surveyed her from top to bottom, taking in every inch of her seedy appearance, shaking his head.
“Come into the inn with me, Rose. We can speak inside. After you've bathed, of course." He smirked at her, extending his arm.
Rosalind took her time bathing. She knew Donnan was angry with her stealing away. She had to make him understand.
Finally, she finished and rejoined him in the sitting room of the suite he'd gotten them. A mouthwatering meal graced a table. Her stomach reminded her she hadn't eaten since she was on Skye.
"Come and join me," he said as he rose from a chair he sat in.
She followed him to the table and sat in a chair he'd pulled out for her. He was not happy. His face told her so.
He sat across from her, his eyes intently watching her. "Rose, do you realize what you've done by stowing away in my carriage?"
"Of course I do. I'm quite sure Rory is furious with me."
Donnan picked up a piece of cheese and broke it in half. "If he doesn't think we planned this to begin with."
She shook her head. "I will take full responsibility for my actions."
"Not that it will do any good now," he replied briskly.
"What would you have me do, Donnan? Sit and wait on you for another year? I'm sure when the time came, you would have an excuse not to come back and accept your duties."
"That is exactly what you were suppose to do, Rose! You were suppose to wait for a year," he bellowed. "I would never purposely disobey anything Rory orders of me. Never. He is not only my brother, he's my clan leader. When the year was up, I would have come back for you, Rose. Now you've changed all that. Now we must marry."
She said nothing for a moment. She speared a piece of chicken and ate it. If Donnan wasn't so angry with her, she could sit right here and enjoy this plain feast. "Why can't I simply spend the year with you? I can help you, I'm sure. After that, we can return to Skye and marry just like Rory wishes."
"Surely you jest. I cannot have you live with me and follow me around for a year like some tap room wench. You're a lady, Rose. Your reputation would be ruined. No, we'll do the proper thing and marry at Gretna Green."
"Now. Our journey will begin as soon as we've finished our meal."
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