A Dangerous Damsel (The Countess Scandals)

Also by Kimberly Bell

A Convenient Engagement

A Dangerous Damsel

Kimberly Bell

InterMix Books, New York

INTERMIX

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

A DANGEROUS DAMSEL

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2016 by Kimberly Bell.

Excerpt from
A Ballroom Temptation
copyright © 2017 by Kimberly Bell.

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eBook ISBN: 9781101991275

PUBLISHING HISTORY

InterMix eBook edition / July 2016

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

Chapter 1

Ewan Dalreoch stared at the empty surface of the desk. He had absolutely nothing to do.

For fifteen years—ever since his cousin Gavan had inherited the Earldom of Rhone when they were just beginning to shave—Ewan had seen to the business of the estate and Clan Dalreoch as if he had been named earl. He hadn’t been suited to it in the beginning, but he’d grown to love the ordered columns of figures and the solving of minor disputes. When his cousin found a woman daft enough to fall in love with him, everything changed. Gavan had, for the most part, embraced responsibility. What tasks were beyond him, his new countess capably assumed as her own.

Ewan should have been happy. He should have been downright elated. For fifteen years he’d been after Gavan to assume his birthright, and he adored Hannah, his cousin’s new bride. What he hadn’t anticipated was the problem before him—Ewan now had no purpose.

“Ye intending to glare that desk into submission?” The speaker blew an errant lock of red hair out of her face while she bounced a baby on her hip.

“I might be.”

Morag moved in from the doorway, settling into a chair with a sigh. “Let’s see it then. I’ve long suspected yer head is harder than oak.”

“What’s brought ye then?” Ewan asked.

Morag wasn’t known for idle social calls. “Ye’ll tell me what’s eating at ye first.”

“That’s my business.”

She stared at him, unimpressed with his authority.

Perhaps he wouldn’t miss playing laird all that much. “Hannah sorted everything before they left on the honeymoon. I’ve naught to do.”

Ewan expected her to harp at him and rattle off a list of things that needed tending—she’d been known to even without such an open invitation. Instead she smiled.

“I find myself well amused by the mysterious workings of the Lord.” Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out an envelope and slid it to him across the smooth desk top. “A letter came.”

Ewan looked back at her. “It’s open.”

“So it is.”

“It looks to have been sealed previously.”

“Odd, that.”

“I dinnae suppose someone became curious and opened it so she could stick her interfering nose into my private business.”

“Certainly nae,” she said. “Must be this heat. Plays havoc on the wax, I hear.”

He moved on from the broken seal, turning it over. The jesting atmosphere immediately dissolved. It was addressed to Ewan MacMurdo. No one who knew him as MacMurdo had any news he was interested in hearing. He hadn’t gone by that name since his Aunt Maggie had brought him to Dalreoch Castle as a boy.

“Ye read it?” he asked.

It was obvious she had, and he wondered at it. Even Morag, who bossed everyone about like she was royalty, knew better than to interfere in this quarter. Letters had come before, addressed to the name he was born with. At his cousin’s suggestion, Ewan had fed each of them to the fire unopened. He moved to light a taper and do the same with this one.

“Quit being a coward, Ewan. Ye should never have listened to Gavan.”

She had the right of it—it was cowardice—but he could not open the letters and face the words, regardless of what they said. There was so much he didn’t want to remember about that name and the place it belonged to. “Ye dinnae ken—”

“Perhaps nae, but that’s nae this. Read the letter, Ewan.”

He ran a furrow through the hair at his temple. The sour feeling built up in his stomach. Nausea and a faint ringing started in his ears. He went to the window, grateful it was already open, and took a deep breath.

After a moment, Morag came to join him. Her expression hadn’t softened but her voice did.

“It’s nae from yer father.” She watched his face. “Read it.”

It took a moment to hear her and a moment longer to truly understand. He looked again at the paper that had become crumpled in his big hands. They shook as he unfolded the edges.

***

Deidre Morgan caught her reflection in the glass and cursed her face. She cursed her figure, too, for good measure. If only she had been born plain, or a man, she might have had a chance at an honest life.

“More wine, love?” Leaning forward, she made sure to give him an eyeful.

“Yes, yes definitely.” He stared into her cleavage.

She pressed her chest against his arm as she poured, and his heavy breath landed hot on the top of her breasts. “Fancy some company?”

“Yes, please.”

Please. Bloody hell, how old was he? She looked closely at him. He had the faintest stubble on his cheek—old enough then. Seducing boys was low. She would still do it, of course, but she would feel guilty about it.

Shoving down the thought, she slipped onto his lap. A suggestive wiggle turned his face from pale to a bright red flush. He might have a beard but he couldn’t have had many women yet if he’d had one at all. Deidre counted her blessings. There was always some danger with the experienced ones.

“What’s your name, love?” Deidre ran a fingertip up the side of his neck, circling around the outside of his ear.

“V-V-Viscount Lathrope.” The viscount was having considerable trouble concentrating.

She leaned closer, letting her lips brush his earlobe. “Friends use their Christian names, Lord Lathrope. Would you like to be friends? I think we could be very, very good friends.”

“M-M-Michael. It’s Michael!” He practically shouted his name to the entire taproom.

Deidre let her hand drift down, slowly popping open each button on his coat and waistcoat. “My name’s Mary.”

It didn’t take long for Michael’s ardor to overwhelm his prudence. He took no notice when her hand slipped into his pocket, relieving him of a healthy stack of notes. She moaned encouragement as he pressed his mouth to the side of her neck. At least he wasn’t a slobberer. Pocket watch and cufflinks made their way to the hidden pouch sewn into a fold of her skirt. Before long the unassuming viscount was stripped of everything except his clothes.

“Michael,” she murmured. “Do you have a room upstairs?”

His hands tightened on her backside. “Yes.”

Deidre ran her fingers along the inside of his thigh. “Why don’t you go up? I’ll get another bottle of wine and follow you. We can be much friendlier in private.”

He practically dumped her on the floor in his haste to rush upstairs. After ensuring she was uninjured and unoffended, he turned and bounded up the steps two at a time. When he cleared the landing, Deidre made her way to the backroom.

“For a bit there, it looked like you might finish him off right at the table,” the innkeeper speculated when he saw her.

Deidre shrugged, peeling his cut off the stack of notes. “I’m certain he would have been up for a second go-round.”

The innkeeper’s grin revealed stained teeth. He grabbed her wrist when she held out the money. “You can keep it, if you’ve a mind to do a bit of honest work.”

She suppressed a shudder. Her hand went to the Queen Anne pistol stashed in her pocket but she kept her tone flirtatious, hoping she wouldn’t have to use it. “Me, do honest work? I’ve a reputation to maintain.”

“Nobody’d have to know,” he said, tugging her closer. His free hand palmed her breast, squeezing.

Damn this face. Damn this body. Damn this lecherous swine. “Alastair always knows.”

The name served its purpose. He dropped his hand and backed away. “That he does.”

Her grip on the pistol relaxed. “I’d better be off. That one’s not going to wait long before he comes looking.”

“You’ll be back tomorrow?” the innkeeper asked, throwing another covetous look at her curves.

Deidre shook her head. “I’m lying low for a while. Our friend was pretty flush. We don’t need any trouble if he’s got a protector.”

Without saying good-bye, she slipped out the back door and down the alley. It wouldn’t take long for the innkeeper to try again—they were always harder to dissuade the second time. She would have to find a new hunting ground.

Damn.

***

Ewan Dalreoch slapped the side of his neck and swore. “Bloody pests.”

Plodding along on the horse next to him, Angus responded with a nondescript grunt. The elder Scotsman was immune to the swarming insects brought on by the indecisive weather. One minute it was raining, and the next it was hot as hell. For the moment it had settled on the latter, and the sweat on Ewan’s skin was like a clarion call to every bloodsucking nuisance in Scotland.

He swore again, swatting a midge a hair too late to escape the stinging bite.

Angus gave him a sideways glance.

“What.”

The clansman shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Nothing, my arse. What?”

Angus cleared his throat, spitting off the far side of his horse. “I just dinnae recall ye being so soft.”

Ewan pulled his horse up short. “Soft!”

Angus wheeled his horse around to stare him in the eye. “Aye, soft. Ye’ve been whining since before we set out. Yer worse than yer bloody cousin.”

That was going too far. “No one asked ye to come.”

“No one needed to.”

“I dinnae need a nursemaid, Angus.”

“Then quit acting like a spoiled child.”

Ewan’s hands flexed on the reins. He’d known Angus since before he could walk—it would be akin to patricide to strangle him. “It’s too bloody hot. I’m taking a swim.”

“Dragging it out isnae going to stop ye from getting to Broch Murdo eventually, lad.”

Ewan had already turned his horse for the river. “Go on ahead. I’ll catch ye up at the next town.”

He left Angus’s grunt behind as his horse picked through the trees toward the embankment. Ewan knew he was being irritable. The old curmudgeon certainly didn’t help matters, but it wasn’t Angus’s fault.

A gentle slope in the riverbank presented itself and Ewan dismounted. He planned to stay a long while and let Angus get well ahead of him, so he stripped the kit from his horse and tethered it under a shady tree. His own clothes followed suit and he waded into the river. Even in the summer, the water this far north was ice cold. It shocked straight through his senses and erased all memory of the sweltering heat of the road. Ewan dunked his head under, willing it to take the rest of his memories as well.

Broch Murdo—the real reason Ewan was in such a foul temper. Oh, it was certainly irritating getting eaten alive by pests and having every bit of his clothes and bedroll riddled with damp, but it was Broch Murdo that made him want to pick a fight with Angus and everyone else they’d encountered on the road. Ewan had never intended to return to his birthplace. He dunked beneath the water again, holding himself there until his lungs burned and he was forced to break the surface with a gasp.

“For a moment it looked like you might not come back up,” a woman’s voice lilted from the shore.

Turning, Ewan found the most exquisite lass he’d ever seen standing on the bank. Everything about her screamed temptation. Mesmerizing curves, mischievously tilted full lips, and inky black hair spilling down in a riot that put him in mind of a selkie story. He was enthralled.

“Mind you, that would have simplified things a bit.” She used the toe of her boot to sift through the items he’d left on the shore. “It’s hardly stealing if you’ve drowned yourself.”

Ewan hadn’t been stricken speechless by a woman since he was a boy, but he was struggling to find words, any words, now. “Stealing?”

“Don’t you worry your handsome head about it. I know thinking is a hardship for men your size.”

His saddlebag was being lifted onto the back of her horse when sense finally broke through. “What are—”

“Not so fast, love.” The pistol he’d failed to notice leveled on him at chest height. She continued robbing him with practiced efficiency. Not even his clothing was spared. “I’m afraid I’m already engaged for the evening, and I musn’t be late.”

Ewan didn’t have any intention of standing in the river freezing his bollocks off while she rode away. He took a step toward the shore.

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“Yer nae going to shoot me.”

She lifted an amused eyebrow. “I’m not?”

Ewan took another step forward to where the water just reached his hips. A few more and he’d be clear enough to charge. “I dinnae think so.”

Her irritated sigh was joined by click of the flint locking into position. “I believe I advised you not to think.”

“Ye also called me handsome.” He crept forward in tiny increments while she was distracted tying his horse to her own. “Perhaps ye fancy me too much to shoot.”

“No amount of handsomeness is going to save you if you keep sneaking toward the shore.”

“I’m quite a large man. Perhaps one shot willnae put me down.”

She tapped two fingers on the handle of Ewan’s own pistol, peaking out of the pocket in her dress.

Bollocks. At worst, he’d thought he could take his chances knocking her shot off course in a burst of speed. The second gun significantly increased the likelihood of Ewan ending up with a chunk of lead in his guts if he charged her.

“If it’s money yer after, let me help ye. Ye’ve no need to rob me.”

“Oh no?” She pulled the edge of her skirt up slowly, revealing a slender calf, a perfectly shaped knee . . . A whirl of fabric saw her securely in the saddle before Ewan’s dazed mind registered his opportunity to lunge. “Maybe I just want to, then.”

He was running out of time. If she bolted now, Ewan would never catch her. “If you just let me—”

“Time’s up, handsome.” She clucked to the horses and they headed for the road.

“At least leave my clothes,” he shouted.

She looked back, running her eyes down his frame. Ewan realized his movements toward the shore left him scandalously close to being exposed. Considering the circumstances, her obvious interest shouldn’t please him nearly as much as it did.

“I think you’ll do fine without them.” She winked at him as she spurred the horses into motion.

Ewan sprinted after her, but the water slowed him down for the precious seconds she needed to clear the trees. His shouts followed her dust cloud down the road, but it didn’t take long before even that was gone.

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