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Authors: Cathy Maxwell

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“I’m disappointed in you, Miss Cameron,” Laird MacKenna said. “I’d taken a liking to you. I’d thought we shared a common enemy. I believed you incorruptible.”

“I am.”

His eyes lit with secret amusement. “I can see that.”

Charlotte ignored the hot color flooding her cheeks. She would not be ashamed, not for loving Colster. “Was this the reason you invited me?” she demanded. “Did you expect me to be a witness to the game you played with the duke?”

“At first.” The humor left his expression. “Actually, I had a thought of making you my lady. I arranged an introduction because of the stories I’d heard, but I came to admire you.”

“We obviously barely knew each other if you believe I would be a party to such as this,” Charlotte answered.

He frowned as if taken aback that anyone would dare to speak to him this way. She braced herself, fearing the worst—but then he began clapping. “
Brava,
Miss Cameron. Spoken with the spirit of a Colonial.” He turned to his people. “She’s from America,” he said in his genteel, rolling accent. “She’s been raised in the wilderness amongst savages, and yet her people defied the king
and won
. We can, too!” he said, curling his hand into a mighty fist. “We
will
win because we have a cause, and our cause is just!”

His claim was met with a roar from the crowd. These people were desperate. Charlotte could see by the pinched look in many faces and the raggedness of their clothing that these people
would do as he wished because they had no other choice.

Laird MacKenna turned back to her. “Help Miss Cameron down, Dougal, and be gentle about it.”

Dougal slid to the ground. He put his hands up to help her down. Charlotte didn’t move. “I assume I am
not
a prisoner,” she said loudly.

The laird had been conferring a moment with Bruce, but his attention was on her. He smiled regretfully. “I wish I could honor your request, Miss Cameron. You are a fascinating woman, but from what Bruce is telling me, I’d best not let you have free rein of my castle.”

“I’m a prisoner, then,” she insisted, raising her voice so all could hear and perhaps realize what a tyrant he was. Perhaps they would come to their senses. She’d met men like him, men who saw raw territory as an opportunity to build their own private kingdoms.

Laird MacKenna laughed and confirmed her suspicions by saying, “I enjoy your show of spirit, lass, but here, I am king. There’s none that will gainsay me. My word is law. So you’d best tuck away your pretty defiance and behave. I hold your life in my hands.”

With those ominous words, he turned back to give Bruce an order.

Charlotte swallowed. She should keep quiet.
Her eyes met Gordon Lachlan’s. He lifted an eyebrow as if to tell her to behave.

She couldn’t. “Will
I
be on trial?” she demanded quietly of Laird MacKenna. If something happened to her, who would see to Constance’s welfare? Or be there for Miranda if she should need Charlotte?

Laird MacKenna’s patience was wearing thin. “No, Miss Cameron,” he assured her, “I don’t need a trial to handle you.”

“I shall not be a willing captive.”

“Good.” He turned to Dougal. “Tavis can help the woman down. You go with Bruce, and I’ll see the two of you in an hour in the hall.”

Charlotte had little choice but to let the blacksmith help her from the horse. He was kind enough to untie her hands. The crowd around them was dispersing. She felt their curiosity, but they didn’t ask questions. Laird MacKenna was right. These people trusted him to lead them. If he slit her throat, there would be none to argue.

The dark-haired beauty named Moira came out on the step. She caught Laird MacKenna’s attention. “Lady Rowena is taking her nap.”

“Good,” the laird answered. “I want her in her best mood for the trial this evening.” He nodded to Charlotte. “Escort Miss Cameron upstairs. You know which room to take her to. Tavis, accompany them.”

The blacksmith motioned Charlotte toward the proud beauty. Charlotte’s legs felt wobbly from the ride, but she was relieved she carried herself well.

Laird MacKenna was quickly being swamped by petitioners seeking his attention. However, as they passed Laird MacKenna, he said to Tavis, “I want you here this evening. You shall stand beside me.”

“I?” Tavis asked obviously surprised.

“Bruce told me what happened in the glen. You did right. I wanted him alive.”

Charlotte was pleased, and relieved, that Laird MacKenna’s intent was not to kill Colster. Perhaps they would have this “trial” Laird MacKenna kept talking about, money would be paid, and she and Colster would be free to return to London.

She prayed that was true.

Inside, the house was cool plaster walls and marble floors. It could have been any house in England and served as a testament that Laird MacKenna was no pauper. He couldn’t have made the money for such a house with sheep, not and feed as many mouths as were waiting outside his gates.

But there was something else Charlotte noticed. She felt a stiffness between Moira and Tavis.

As they were preparing to go up the stairs, Bruce came in the door looking as if he wanted to hit something. “Where are you going?” he demanded of Moira.

“I’m doing the laird’s bidding,” she answered.

Bruce’s scowl deepened, his gaze hardening on Tavis. “I’ll be finished in a moment,
husband,
” Moira said, and started up the stairs. Charlotte’s mind went alive with questions. Moira had chosen that last word deliberately, but for whose benefit? Hers?

Charlotte followed her up the stairs with Tavis bringing up the rear. Bruce had no choice but to stomp down a hallway.

They walked until they came to a door at the end of the hall on the first floor. Moira opened the door, nodding for Charlotte to step forward.

Charlotte didn’t know what she had anticipated, but it certainly wasn’t to find herself in a lovely bedroom decorated in soft greens and blues. A fresh breeze from the open windows carried a hint of salt and the call of the birds nesting on the rocks below the cliff. A huge four-poster bed with carved railings dominated the middle of the room. There was no fire in the stone fireplace.

“This is the Sea Room,” Moira said. “I hope you find it comfortable. The coachmen brought your bags, and you will find we’ve unpacked for
you. Your clothing is in the wardrobe.” Even Charlotte’s brushes had been lined up on the dressing table before the mirror.

Moira walked over to the windows. “These overlook the sea. Come, take a peek.”

Charlotte did as ordered and peered out. The side of the house was a straight drop down the cliff to rocks and angry waves below.

“You can try to escape this way,” Moira said politely. “But not one has done so and lived.”

“Do you entertain many prisoners?” Charlotte couldn’t resist asking.

“From time to time,” Moira answered evenly. “The laird is not without enemies.”

“And what does that say about him?” Charlotte suggested, unable to keep the hint of sarcasm from her voice.

“Every man has enemies,” Moira answered. “But Nathraichean shall never be overcome. Her walls are too strong.”

She didn’t wait for Charlotte’s response but walked toward the door, where Tavis respectfully waited in the hall. “You are a prisoner, Miss Cameron, but we don’t want you to be uncomfortable. I shall send a tray of food up and drink. Is there anything else you would like?”

“Well, if I can’t have freedom,” Charlotte answered, matching her tone to Moira’s practical one, “then I’d like a bath with rose-scented soap.”

The Scotswoman frowned. “You are pushing your boundaries, Miss Cameron.”

“You don’t have soap up here?” Charlotte asked sweetly.

“We have soap,” Moira said, the pretense of hospitality leaving her eyes and voice. “A maid will be up with tub water—and your smelly soap.”

“I would like to see His Grace, the Duke of Colster,” Charlotte said, deciding to ask for everything.

“Don’t try my patience, Miss Cameron,” Moira advised, and shut the door. A key turned in the lock.

There was something about Moira Charlotte just didn’t like. For that reason alone, she crossed over and tested the door anyway.

It was locked.

But sometimes doors could be unlocked.

Charlotte bent to inspect the keyhole. She couldn’t see anything because the key was still in place.

A second later, she learned why. Tavis and Moira were having a conversation. “Tavis, what is going on between you and the laird?” Moira asked, her voice low as if not wishing to be overheard.

“You lost your right to ask questions a year ago when you left me,” he answered insolently.

“Oh don’t be stubborn. Something is going on, something
you
don’t understand.”

“Do you?”

“I’m trying to.”

“For your husband’s sake or your own? I’m sorry, Moira, I’ve crossed your husband once today, and it was one time too many. If you have plotting to do, you must do it yourself.”

“I do this for him,” she lashed back. “He’s not like you. He’s ambitious.”

“As are you.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Yes, yes, yes. And I don’t trust Gordon. Don’t make a mistake, Tavis, and throw your lot in with him just because you are angry with me. ’Twould be foolish.”

“I shall remember that.”

He must have turned to walk away because Moira said, “Wait.”

There was a pause. Charlotte had to strain to hear her next words. “…I still love you.”

To Charlotte’s ears, the admission sounded contrived.

“I can see how you do,” he replied, his voice tight. Charlotte was relieved he wasn’t gullible.

“You never asked me to stay, Tavis. You were the one who never asked.
I
put the question to you.”

“I never asked, Moira, because I knew the answer. You didn’t want me. You chose Bruce. Are
you happy? He’s a hard man. I warned you, but you didn’t believe me.”

Instead of answering, she asked again, “What does the laird want with you?”

Tavis made an impatient sound. “You heard, Moira. I saw you linger to get an earful. He wants me there this evening, and as he does with most things, he offered no explanation.”

“He didn’t ask for Bruce. It’s made Bruce angry—”

“Bruce is always angry. ’Tis your bed you made, Moira, and you are welcome to it.” He walked off, and Moira slammed Charlotte’s door with her fist in frustration.

Charlotte hurried to the other side of her room, lest Moira enter and she be caught eavesdropping. She called out, “Enter?” as if she’d just heard the sound.

There was no answer.

Fifteen minutes later, there was another knock on the door. Without waiting for her response, the key turned. Dougal entered carrying a huge metal tub. Several servants followed him, carrying buckets of water, linen towels, and a soap that smelled of the spring flowers. Another maid carried a tray of food.

Charlotte decided to push the limits of her captivity. “I think after my bath, I shall go for a walk.”

“You shall not,” Dougal said. “I’ll be outside the door. You are not to go anywhere until the laird sends for you.”

She made an “oh” with her lips and sat down to wait by the window while they finished preparing her bath. Beyond these walls were blue skies and freedom. She’d heard trappers talk about being held captive by Indians. They’d all said the same thing—one had to be ready to run at a moment’s notice.

Charlotte would make certain she was.

Dougal and the servants left. Charlotte lifted the covers over the plates. Roast mutton stared back at her. She wondered how she could store some of this for when they could escape—

Colster’s voice said, “Charlotte?”

For a moment, she thought she’d imagined the sound. Then she heard him again.
“Charlotte.”

His voice came from inside the room, but she was alone. Leery now, she looked around.

“Over
here,
Charlotte.” He sounded more determined, and she realized his voice came from the cold hearth. She ran over to it.

“C
olster?”

Phillip could not contain his relief at hearing Charlotte’s voice. He’d gambled that she was close. He’d been standing by the fireplace, leaning against the mantel, trying to think of a way out of this room when he’d overheard talking.

His room was next to hers. Their fireplaces shared the same flue. If this had been a true medieval age house, the walls, even at the back of the fireplace, would have been too thick for sound to travel. But this was a modern building and the workmen cut corners as they had on anything he’d ever had built.

He’d waited for silence, and then waited what seemed an interminable amount of time before daring to speak.

“I’m in the room next to yours,” he said in a
low voice, uncertain how far sound would carry along the chimney pipeline.

“I feared they’d thrown you in a dungeon,” she said.

Phillip glanced around at his room with its furnishings fit for a wealthy landowner. “I would rather they had. There doesn’t seem a way out unless I can fly. What of you?”

“I’m the same.”

“But you’ve not been harmed?”

He held his breath until she said, “No.”

It was the answer he wanted to hear. Not knowing how much time either of them had until someone came or an alarm went up, he immediately said what was most important, “Charlotte, I want you to escape. I’ll try and create a diversion, something that will take their attention off of you. When that happens, run. Don’t look back. Don’t worry about me.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “I will absolutely do no such thing. We are in this together, Duke. Perhaps
I
shall create the diversion, then
you
should run.”

Duke.
Her irreverence made him smile. There wasn’t another woman on this earth with her spirit.

Or another one that he trusted.

He had no close friends. No one he could
confide in that he knew wouldn’t gossip or turn the information against him…until now.

They had started off enemies, but he realized they were cut of the same cloth. Charlotte understood honor. She had pride and was protective of those in her care. These were qualities he understood, that he admired.

He settled down as close as he could against the chimney wall that separated their two rooms. He wished he could reach through stone and mortar to touch her. To feel the softness of her skin and smell her hair and kiss that impudent mouth. “Please, Charlotte,” he said. “I must know that you are safe.”

Again there was a pause. At last, she said, “If I can escape, I will, but you must promise the same thing.”

“I won’t leave without you.” The words came to his lips without debate. The loneliness of his life threaded through him. “I can’t,” he admitted. “I rather like having you around.”

There was a beat of silence, and then she said quietly, “I rather like you, too.”

A warm feeling spread through him, one he didn’t recognize at first.
She liked him.
And
she,
of all people, had every reason not to.

He thought of the night before, of making love to her. She should hate him.

She didn’t.

“Charlotte, the letter is a fake.” There, he’d said it. “It was a trick to get me up here.”

“I feared it so,” she answered. “How do you feel about…” She let her voice trail off as if not wanting to mention his brother.

“I feel like a bloody fool,” he said bluntly. And he felt disappointed.

“Is that all?” she pressed. “I’d be angry, too, but I’d also have such deep regret over not discovering someone I’d missed all my life.”

Her words ripped open his heart.

Tears burned in his eyes, tears he forced back. “It’s nothing,” he said, his voice tight. “You can’t miss what you’ve never had.”

“That’s true for some people…but not you. He was your twin. There had to be some connection between you, even from birth. You shared the same womb.”

“He died, Charlotte. At birth. He was never truly ever born.”

“I don’t believe that, and I don’t think you do either. If you did, you would never have traveled all this way, Colster.”

“Then I was played a fool.”

“You are not a fool for wanting to believe. A fool is the one who cares only for himself. That’s not you, Your Grace. It never has been you.”

The truth of her words sank into him. The tension built by anger and despair evaporated.

“Laird MacKenna is a fool, a cheat, and a liar,” Charlotte finished. “And I shall tell him such the next time I see him.”

Her crisp condemnation startled a laugh out of him. Dear God, he loved this woman. She made him grin like any lovesick fool—

Phillip broke off the thought, his mind, the rational part, the
ducal
part sounding an alarm as loud as a hundred fire bells.

He was falling in love.

The thought was so startling, he sat upright and bumped his head on the top of the chimney. With a soft oath, he practically crawled out of the hearth and scrambled to his feet.

He
was falling in
love
? His brain choked on the thought.

Miss Cameron—Charlotte, was the
worst
person for him to—

Phillip shook his head hard as if he could shake the idea out of his brains. He’d never wanted to be in—

He broke off, unable to repeat that one word.

Love.

It had never been part of his vocabulary. Not really.

He’d thought he’d loved Elizabeth. Theirs had
been the usual courtship and marriage. But his feelings were nothing in comparison to the sense of connection he had with Charlotte.

Phillip backed away from the hearth. He hit the wall and couldn’t go farther.

He’d not known Charlotte more than a day…and yet she’d quickly become like his right arm. She was loyal, brave, and consistent.

It had to be the sex.

It had been too potent between them, too tumultuous. He doubled his hands into fists, reminding himself once again how often it had been suggested by those who dared to approach the subject to him that it was unnatural for a man to endure prolonged celibacy. Foolishly, he had denied their claim. And now he was paying the price.

What he felt for Charlotte wasn’t love. It was
lust
.

Yes, that made perfect sense.

Lust
and
love—

Phillip raised his hands to his head, wanting to pound these errant, irrational thoughts out of it.

God, the wags in London would be tickled pink to see him now—
lusting
after her the way he was…
and
loving her.

A breeze came through the window, carrying the freshness of clean, salt air. Phillip turned and stared at the water outside beyond his reach.
There was not a soul in sight. Not even a bird in the sky.

But he wasn’t alone.

His world had expanded to include Charlotte. Beautiful, spirited Charlotte, who was the exact opposite of Elizabeth. With Charlotte, sex hadn’t been about lust. It had been a joining, a melding of two souls. For so long, he’d thought of himself alone—and now he wasn’t. He’d been one, and now he was two.

The only problem, aside from the irritation of gossips, something he’d have to weather no matter whom he married, was that Charlotte was not the sort of woman a man of his rank and class took to wife. She didn’t have the lineage to be a duchess. Her family was bad
ton.
They’d even proved it when Miranda jilted him.

The best he could offer Charlotte would be his protection. He’d gladly keep her and love her for all the days of his life.

He just didn’t know how she would feel about the idea, but he had an inkling. To even mention such a suggestion would hurt her pride. She would see it as lowering her station.

On the other hand, he could argue with her that being a duke’s mistress was far more important than being any other man’s wife—

Phillip broke off the thought with a frown. It might be true, but Charlotte would never believe
such claptrap He’d have to bring her around to the idea slowly. He’d wait until the best possible moment to make his offer.

And he had to make her love him. To want to be with him in spite of the slight of never being his wife. He had a responsibility to his title. But he couldn’t give her up either.

“Colster,”
her voice said from the fireplace.

He turned from the window and looked at the cold hearth.

“Are you still there?” she whispered.

Phillip walked over to the fireplace, feeling as if the floor tilted right and left. Love was different than he’d imagined. It should have simplified life. It didn’t. He now had more worries than ever before.

“I’m here,” he said.

“Is something wrong?”

“What makes you think that?”

“Your voice sounds funny.”

She was far too astute. A man had to have his wits around his Charlotte. “I’ve been thinking,” he said truthfully.

“About the trial? What is this over, Colster?”

“I don’t know. No one has told me anything.”

“Colster, I have a request of you.” She sounded as if she’d moved closer to the wall separating their two rooms.

He knelt. “What is it?”

“If anything happens to me, please, you must look after my sister Constance.”

Constance would be the youngest. He barely remembered meeting her. “Is she in London?”

“No, I sent her to a Madame Lavaliere’s boarding school here in Scotland. It’s in Ollie’s Mill, a village close to Edinburgh.”

“Why did you send her all the way up here? We have schools in England.”

“Yes, but none would take us. They all feared incurring the Duke of Colster’s wrath.”

Phillip felt the barb in her voice. “They should have known better. The Duke of Colster isn’t that sort of man.”

Silence was her response.

“I’m not,” he insisted. “I can’t help it if people want to believe I am. Why did you send her to school anyway?” he asked, deciding a change of subject would be wiser.

“She needed polish. Mother had drilled us girls on social graces. It had been a game we’d played with her. However, Constance was too young when she died to remember the lessons. If she is going to marry a man of title, she needs some polish.”

“What if she doesn’t want to change who she is?” he dared to ask.

“She must,” Charlotte answered. “I want her to be happy. This is the best for her.”

“Are you happy?”

“Surprisingly, yes. Especially right now.”

He settled closer to the wall, wanting to ask her what she meant. Wondering if it had anything to do with him.

But their conversation was interrupted by the sound of someone at the door. The key scraped in the lock. Phillip jumped to his feet and faced the door as it opened.

MacKenna walked in.

The proud set of the man’s head reminded Phillip of his own father. It was arrogance, he realized, a failing of which he himself was guilty.

The laird looked around the room. “I hope you find your accommodations satisfactory, Your Grace?”

“I’m not accustomed to being a prisoner anywhere,” Phillip counted.

MacKenna smiled. “The guard outside your door overheard someone talking.” When Phillip didn’t answer, he added, “Sound carries in this house. Have you discovered that?”

“I regret to say I haven’t had the opportunity,” Phillip answered, hoping Charlotte could overhear them and would know to keep silent.

At his silence, MacKenna’s head seemed to shrink down in his shoulders. His lips twisted into a mirthless smile. “I’ve had to wait a long time for this meeting.”

“You could have set an appointment with my secretary Freedman. It would have been simpler.”

“But less rewarding.”

“What reward do you seek?” Phillip asked.

The older man shook his head. “One I fear you would never understand. I look forward to this evening. It has been a long time for my clan. ‘Out of the ashes we shall rise victorious,’” he quoted.

“I’m not familiar with the quote.”

“It’s no quote but a prophecy. It was made by my ancestor as he stood on the gallows and was hanged for treason. A Maddox should have been hanging beside him.”

“We had the good sense to leave.”

“Or turn traitor.”

Phillip dropped all pretense of civility. “What do you want? You are an intelligent man. I can’t believe you would bring me up here for some ancient feud. Whatever your reasons or purpose, this is personal.”

A gleam of appreciation appeared in MacKenna’s beady black eyes. “You’re right. My only regret is that your father isn’t here to see the price he must pay.”

Phillip leaped on the clue. “So this was a matter between you and my father?”

“You will find out at your trial.”

“My trial for what?” Phillip demanded.

“For being the son of such an arrogant man as
William Maddox,” the laird replied, every word singed with hate. “You are being tried because he’s gone from me now but that doesn’t mean my revenge won’t be just as sweet. After all, you are cut in his image.”

“But what do you gain?” Phillip wondered. “What purpose is there? I am not my father.”

“No, but you’ll do. You’ll break the curse my sister has lived under ever since the moment she laid eyes on the man.”

“The curse of what?” Phillip pressed.

“Of what your father did to her,” MacKenna barked out. He stared as if he could see the words in the air. When he focused on Phillip, he appeared a man possessed.

“Your father ruined her. He used her in the coarsest way and tossed her aside. She was so young and beautiful back then but he broke her.” His brogue thickened with each word. “We were schoolmates, and he ridiculed me about his conquest in front of my mates. You see, she’d fallen in love with him. She tumbled into his arms like a silly milkmaid. I warned her to avoid him, but he sought her out.”

MacKenna trembled he was so angry. “He used her, Colster, in the worst manner possible—and she allowed it. She thought she loved him. And he was a
duke.
What woman doesn’t want to marry a duke?”

Phillip couldn’t say anything. His father had been a distant figure in his life. Phillip had always thought it was because of his mother’s death…now, he had a flash of insight that, perhaps, that had been his father’s nature. The only meaningful conversations they’d had dealt with the responsibilities of the title.

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