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Authors: Cathy Maxwell

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She didn’t know what emboldened her to say, “My face is farther up, Your Grace.”

He smiled lazily at her, completely unrepentant. Another insult. Then again, who would have thought the reserved, always refined duke
of Colster could be so—Her mind searched for a word.
Male.
He was very male.

And she was female enough to be secretly thrilled that she’d attracted him. However, her voice was icy when she said, “Your arrogance doesn’t impress me, Your Grace.”

“Was I being arrogant?” he asked with mock sincerity. “I beg your pardon. I assumed I was being rude.”

Charlotte closed her hand into a fist. That was it. Her lustful thoughts toward him vanished. She had her equilibrium back. “Please, don’t assume, Your Grace. Let me assure you,
you are
.” Now, it was her turn to smile.

“Cheeky, Miss Cameron. And very American. They have no respect.”

“You’re right,
Colster
,” she said. “We Americans don’t know how to handle ourselves at all around dukes with wandering hands. Then again, that does allow a person a certain familiarity, don’t you agree?”

He gave her a grudging smile, free of any of his earlier hostility. “Very good,
Cameron.
Let’s be republican. You and I.” He paused a moment before adding in softer tone, “You have a good head on your shoulders. You’ll need it. I am a worthy opponent…however, I am starting to believe you are, too.”

It wasn’t the most flattering compliment, but
Charlotte found herself pleased. She folded her hands in her lap, realizing that it might be the moment to offer an olive branch. “I understand your anger. I admit my sister treated you poorly—”

“You encouraged her to do so.”

“Are you purposely trying to make this difficult?” she demanded, all thoughts of a conciliatory tone fleeing. “Yes, I spoke up for her but only after I realized it was in
your
best interests, too. She loved another man. She would not have been happy married to you.”

“How pleasant of you to say so.”

“How
honest
, you mean,” she corrected.

“I like you better when you are being rude.”

His dismissive tone sparked her temper. “Why? Because it gives you license to return the rudeness?” She shook her head. “No, I won’t be angry. I have something to say. It deserves to be said. Your Grace—” she started, but he cut her off.

“Colster,” he interrupted quietly. “I think I like you calling me Colster. It reminds me that we aren’t friends.”

“You can call me
Miss
Cameron.”

His smile was genuine and quick. “
Touché
.”

She plowed on with the determination for which she was known. “Miranda meant little to you, and she has the right to be happy. I’m only apologizing because I know that a man with
your
excessive
pride and
overbearing
sense of consequence suffered greatly at being jilted.” There, let him chew on that.

His smile hardened. “You’re right,” he agreed. “She meant nothing to me.”

Charlotte’s sisterly defenses rose. “Then I am glad she married Alex. They were meant for each other.”

He leaned back, his expression inscrutable. “That’s good because that is
all
they have.”

“Alex is very capable of making money. You don’t control the world,
Colster
.”

“I do in England,
Miss
Cameron. He’s not making money there.”

Charlotte crossed her arms. “Well, we aren’t in England anymore, are we?”

“We are,” he assured her. “The king’s reach certainly covers the Highlands.”

He was so smug in his own sense of omnipotence. “Laird MacKenna may be of a different opinion,” she answered.

“Then I shall set him straight,” was the curt answer, but Charlotte had caught the flicker of doubt in his half-hooded eyes.

Suddenly, she understood. “You are on you way to meet Laird MacKenna. Why? He doesn’t like you. Not at all.”

Instead of answering, he said, “If you are wise, Miss Cameron, you will turn on your
heels and go running back to London as quickly as possible.”

“And miss this meeting? I think not.”

Grimly, he warned, “Beware of involving yourself in business that is none of your concern.” He started to pull his hat down over his eyes again, but Charlotte’s curiosity had been whetted.

“It
is
my concern, Your Grace,” she said. “You made it so when you accepted my hospitality for a ride in this coach and in return manhandled me—or is that some sort of medieval feudal right you were exercising?”

His brows came together. “You have a sharp tongue, Miss Cameron.”

“And a sharper wit,” she informed him.

Was it her imagination, or, in spite of her insolence, did she see a ghost of a smile on his lips?

She had. And with his humor, the stiffness seemed to leave him. He appraised her a moment before sitting forward, his manner changing. Without the earlier animosity, he asked, “Why are you visiting MacKenna?”

“Because he invited me,” she said simply, and couldn’t resist adding, “and because you have made it very difficult for me to feel comfortable in London. I’m welcome on very few doorsteps. Which I can handle,” she hurried to assure him, “except that my friends the Seversons are also being forced to share my guilt. They have done
nothing save extend the hospitality of their home to me and my sisters. In return, they have been practically shunned by polite society.”

The line of his mouth flattened. “Not because of me. I’ve done nothing.”

“You don’t have to. People are so anxious to please you they anticipate what they believe you want.”

“I can’t control what people imagine—” he started, but was interrupted when the door in the roof slid open. Wind blew rain into the coach’s compartment. Caught up in the furies between herself and Colster, she’d forgotten about the storm outside.

“We’ll be stopping,” Klem said. “The rain’s letting up, but the horses are spent.”

Charlotte couldn’t hide her disappointment. “This morning you had hoped to reach Nathraichean by nightfall.”

Klem frowned down at her. “This morning I did not expect such a storm. We’re done, miss. The horses and us have had enough. I have a cousin with a small inn not far from here by Loch Airigh. We’ll stay the night. It will also give us a chance to let him off,” he added, nodding to Colster. “Malcolm will be happy to see us. He doesn’t get much decent custom.” He slid the door shut, the matter closed before Charlotte could question what he’d meant by “decent custom.”

Colster sat up, apparently fine with the arrangement. Charlotte wasn’t. After two days of travel, she really was sick of being in this coach. Before she was tempted to bang on the door in the roof and demand Klem keep driving, His Grace removed his hat and pushed his fingers through his hair. Every hair fell back into place, giving Charlotte a new concern to worry over.

She must appear remarkably untidy. Turning away from him, she repinned her hair the best she could and reached for the hatbox on the floor that held her straw bonnet trimmed in a matching green for her dress.

Having finished with his own hasty toilette, he watched her. It made her self-conscious and her fingers clumsy. She feared the bow she tied under her chin appeared lopsided, but she wasn’t going to fidget with it. She pulled on her gloves and picked up the hatbox, intending to take it with her, and placed her knitting bag inside it.

The coach leaned as they pulled off the road. The ride was rough. It was as if they weren’t traveling on a road at all. The shades were down over the windows because of the weather, but she sensed they drove through a forest. After half an hour of this, the coach came to a halt.

Klem and Fergus jumped down from the driver’s box with a call of greeting. A man’s voice answered in a thick brogue.

There was a moment of almost unintelligible conversation as the cousins exchanged greetings, and then the coach door opened. Charlotte moved forward, her hatbox in her hand, waiting for Fergus to put down the step.

With a flourish, Klem said, “Welcome, miss, to Loch Airigh. The water is over beyond. You can tell where it lies by the fog, but you wouldn’t want to be wandering around at night or you might fall in. This is my cousin Malcolm, who owns the inn.”

He nodded to a man about five feet tall with a balding head, a straggly beard, and a nose that appeared to have been broken several times. A man who Charlotte would wager had been up to no good more than once in his life. “Good eve to you, miss.” He kicked aside a chicken that had been pecking too close to his feet. The bird issued a protest and took a few quick steps out of the way.

Charlotte hung back. Something wasn’t right.

The rain had turned into a mist. Fog drifted along the ground, swirling around the crumbling stone walls of what appeared more a rundown cottage nestled beneath the boughs of overhanging fir trees than an inn. In the gloominess, the light in the small, narrow windows seemed welcoming until a burst of rough male laughter coming from inside punctuated the air.

“Malcolm makes a mutton stew that tastes better than anything that could ever grace a king’s table,” Klem offered, as if to entice her.

Her stomach rumbled loudly.

She wished it hadn’t done that, not with Colster listening. Still, she was hungry. Her last meal had been breakfast, and she’d been so anxious about arriving at Nathraichean she’d not taken the time to purchase anything to take with her for the road.

“Malcolm, go dish Miss Cameron a bowl of that stew,” Klem ordered with the familiarity that made her uncomfortable.

“That I will.” Malcolm turned and left. He walked with a pronounced limp. Charlotte shifted the hatbox to her right hand and offered her left for Klem to help her down. Her shoes sank into a bed of wet pine needles almost as deep as her ankles. “Not many coaches stop here, do they?”

“Malcolm sees to a local custom, miss,” Klem said, moving around to the back of the coach. Charlotte followed.

“I really wish we could reach Nathraichean tonight,” she said. “Do you not believe that we could push on?”

“We’re hours away,” Klem answered, “and the horses need a rest. It’s been a hard drive through that storm. Yes, I could have stopped sooner, but
then I would not be seeing my cousins.” He opened the boot to bring out her bag packed with her personal items. Her trunk was tied to the roof. “Malcolm has a room with a cot. It’s not fancy but good enough—” The tone of his voice changed to mild surprise. “Well now, this is a fine saddle.” He’d had to move Colster’s saddle to get to her bag and now took a moment to rub the leather with an appreciative hand.

Colster, who had been left to his own devices, had come around to join them. He took the saddle from Klem. “I need to hire a horse.”

Klem lifted his gaze from the saddle, his expression speculative. “The only horses here are my coach horses.”

“Name a price, and I’ll pay it.”

The coachman gave another appraising look at the fine quality of the saddle, and Charlotte decided it was about only fair Klem knew the identity of the man he’d been carting around. At the very least, both her drivers deserved a more than handsome tip for rescuing His Grace.

It was also a way to pay the duke back for all the difficulties he’d caused her and her sisters.

“He means what he says, Mr. Klem,” she said. “The Duke of Colster has
plenty
of money to spend on whatever he pleases.” She hadn’t meant to sound quite so bitter, but it didn’t matter because Klem’s reaction was completely unanticipated.


Colster?
” The word seemed to explode out of him. “You are the Duke of Colster? The Maddox?”

“I am the duke,” Colster said impatiently, shifting the weight of his saddle while he reached inside his coat and pulled out a heavy leather money purse. With a world-weary sigh he said, “And, yes, you should receive recompense for your aid—”

Klem knocked the coins Colster was about to offer out of his hand. “I don’t want Maddox money. It’s blood money. If I’d known it was you by the side of the road, I would have run you over.” He turned and walked up to Fergus, who had unhitched the horses and held them by lead ropes. “It’s the Maddox. The bleeding Maddox.”

“Nah,” Fergus said with disbelief, and then looked past Klem’s shoulder, eyes wide in disbelief. “Are you certain?”

“Told me his name himself. Wait until the others meet him,” Klem predicted darkly. He marched into the inn without a glance even to Charlotte.

Fergus’s behavior was equally strange. He backed away from the horses, his gaze not leaving Colster until he turned to run inside the inn.

Charlotte had a very bad feeling—and knew it was her fault.

She’d seen men react this way before. Her father and his friends had this same urgency
whenever they set out to deal frontier justice. “Take one of the horses while they aren’t looking,” she advised Colster. “Get out of here.”

“You want me to steal a horse?” he answered, puzzled.

“I want you to save your skin,” she responded. At the same moment Klem, Fergus, Malcolm, and four other men came pouring out of the inn door as if to confirm her worst suspicions. They were big men with barrel chests who rolled up their sleeves and doubled their fists. Malcolm pushed to the lead, an ugly cudgel in his hand that could crack a man’s skull with one blow.


Run
—.” She turned to urge Colster, her earlier grievance forgotten in her anxiety that he escape what was coming his way.

However, her warning caught in her throat when she saw the small pistol the duke aimed at the angry party of Scots.

“Hold it right there, gentlemen,” he commanded. He cocked the trigger.

T
he pistol had been stored in a hidden holster attached to Phillip’s saddle. He had used it to put down his horse Dynasty. His skill was equal to putting a hole through a pheasant’s eye at ten paces with it; but he had never dueled, had never aimed a gun at another man. He was relieved his hand was steady and prayed that the powder cap was dry.

Malcolm pulled up short, as did the others.

“I’m not here to quarrel,” Phillip informed them.

“Then you shouldn’t have come at all,” Malcolm answered.

“You’ve the wrong man, mate,” Phillip said. “I’ve done nothing to you. I’ve never set eyes on you.”


Nothing
?” Malcolm questioned. “My great-great-great-grandfather and his brother hanged because of your scum of ancestors.”

“Great-great-great-grandfather?” Miss Cameron repeated as if confused. “What is this all about?”

“Go inside, Miss Cameron,” Phillip ordered. “You’re safer there.”

But Miss Cameron wasn’t one to listen to good advice. Especially from him. She stood her ground. “You want to kill him. Why for?”

“For what I said,” Malcolm snapped, his patience at an end. “For the lives of five good MacKenna men. Men who had served their rightful king while he and his were more interested in titles.”

Miss Cameron took a step toward Phillip. “Pretend I know nothing—because I don’t—and explain what is going on.” When Malcolm started to protest, she said, “If you all want me to docilely wait inside, you’d best give me a reason.”

“The reason is the Battle of Worcester when his ancestors sold out all of Scotland
and
the MacKennas,” Malcolm said.

“When did this battle take place?” Miss Cameron asked.

“Sixteen fifty-one,” Phillip answered grimly.

“Aye,” one of the Scots said. “And it is time to settle the score.”

“His family name was Maddoc then, miss,” Klem explained. “They changed their name when they sold out to the
Sassenachs
.”

“The what?” she asked, sounding lost again.

“The English,” Klem interpreted. “There was always a rivalry between the MacKenna and the Maddoc, but it turned sour during that battle. Their chieftain sold his pride for an English title. He betrayed our plans to Cromwell, and Charles barely escaped with his life. We helped him, and, for aiding him, five men paid with their lives.”

“But that was a
long
time ago,” Miss Cameron said reasonably. “It doesn’t have anything to do with any of you.”

“It has
everything
to do with us,” one of the Scots said, stepping forward. He was almost as tall as Phillip but stronger, meaner. “When Davy MacKenna was hanged, our ancestors swore vengeance, and none of us will rest until it’s done. We were robbed, and that’s why so many of us live dirt poor now.”

“What about Laird MacKenna?” Miss Cameron said, shifting the weight of her heavy portmanteau from one hand to the other. “Would he want you to do this? Why, he probably itches to mete out justice himself. I would if I were the head of a clan.”

Her common sense fell on deaf ears.

“The laird’s wishes don’t matter here,” Malcolm said darkly. “Not in this glade.”

“Aye, and he’ll be happy we did it,” Klem answered, and the others nodded agreement while
Phillip decided which man he should shoot. He had only one shot. Would it be Malcolm or the tall young man with the hulking muscles?

Miss Cameron turned to Phillip, her exasperation clear. “Say something to dissuade them,” she ordered under her breath.

“Such as?” he asked.


You
are the diplomat,” she reminded him. “Negotiating tense situations like this is rumored to be your strength. Don’t you believe you should be negotiating now?”

“Would it do any good, Malcolm?” Phillip asked the innkeeper.

“No good at all, Your Grace. We’ve a score to settle, and we are doing it now. Come along, lads, he can’t shoot us all.”

Malcolm and the other men started forward. Now was the moment Phillip should shoot. He must. He took aim, knowing he needed his mark almost on top of him for the shot to be effective.

However, before he could act, Miss Cameron swung back her heavy leather bag, and brought it with full force right into the big hulk’s groin.

The man was not expecting the attack from this quarter. She’d caught him completely off guard and, just like any other man who valued his “jewels,” he dropped to the ground. The others stopped, confused, since Phillip hadn’t fired a shot.

Miss Cameron didn’t miss a beat. She stepped over to Phillip, placed her hand over his holding the pistol and fired. The shot hit Malcolm in the shoulder. He cried out in surprise.

“Run,” she said calmly Phillip. “And this time, don’t diddle around.”

He was as stunned as the men, but he knew good advice when he heard it. The saddle would only slow him down. He dropped it and went for the nearest coach horse. The animal balked as he grabbed its lead rope and leaped onto its back. Holding mane, he whirled the horse around, grabbed Miss Cameron beneath the arms, and pulled her up in front of him.

“What are you doing?” she said in alarm.

“Saving your life,” Phillip answered, and kicked the horse into a gallop, just as the cry went up to stop them.

The Scots came after them but the poor coach horse was now out of his mind with fear. He went charging through the thick woods as if the hounds of hell followed, which was exactly what Phillip needed.

Of course, it would help matters if Miss Cameron were a touch more appreciative.


Stop
this horse.
Let me off,
” she said.

Phillip was too occupied riding through the forest to answer.

“I thought to save your haughty neck, not
escape
with you,
” she confessed. “Please, leave me here.”

The ribbons of her bonnet, which had been knocked off to hang around her neck, came undone, and the hat blew away. She made a soft sound of distress.

“I’ll buy you another one,” he said.

“I don’t want another. I wanted
that
one,” she said.

Phillip didn’t bother to answer. They’d come up on a road. Fog lingered in the low places, but the rain had passed, and the clouds were clearing. A much-needed full moon made an occasional appearance. It would provide light to guide their way.

However, he reasoned, if it helped him, it would also help the Scots. He pushed the horse off the road at a trot, cutting across a boggy pasture. The grass was tall and wet. Their pace slowed to a walk. He moved toward the sheltering darkness of a forest.

“I don’t like horses,” she stated. “I don’t like riding.”

“I can tell. You have a death grip on my arm.”

She released her hold immediately, and he tightened his on her lest she slide off the horse. The animal was actually not a bad ride. He was no stranger to being ridden and comfortable going off Phillip’s leg.

They continued onward. Within an hour, the
clouds had completely drifted away. The blue light of a silvery moon lit their way down a shadow-dappled path through the trees.

At last, Phillip decided they were safe. However, the moment he relaxed, Miss Cameron shoved all her weight against him. Phillip let her go. She slid down to the ground in a flurry of skirts.

Most women in her circumstances would either be in tears or making demands. She started walking back in the direction they’d come.

He watched her a moment, both amused and irritated. He’d never witnessed such a purposeful stride. One would think she planned to walk all the way to London by the way she moved. He was tempted to let her go…and yet couldn’t.

With a heavy sigh, Phillip nudged the tired horse in her direction. He had no problem catching up with her. Nor was he surprised that she ignored him, her head down, her face frowning in concentration. Dismounting, he walked with her for a pace, waiting.

He didn’t have to wait long. As if she could contain herself no longer, she rounded on him, the words exploding out of her. “How could you do that? You’ve
ruined
me.”

“Ruined you? I was under the impression that I may have saved you from death or something worse.”

She stopped. “
You
saved
me
?” The last of the
pins fell from her hair as she shook her head in denial. It tumbled down her shoulders in a golden mess of curls. “I beg your pardon, Your Grace, but if I hadn’t intervened, you’d be minced meat right now.”

The truth of her statement pricked his pride. “I was the one holding the pistol.”

“And I shot it,” she answered, a statement that seemed to remind her of something else she wanted to say. “You don’t point a gun at a lot like that unless you are prepared to pull the trigger, even though such a little gun wouldn’t stop the likes of them.”

She was right. He’d thought the same.

He didn’t want to admit it.

But, for once, Miss Cameron wasn’t in the mood to argue. “How shall I explain this to Laird MacKenna?” she asked, looking around at their surroundings as if expecting the trees to answer.

“You won’t be telling him anything,” Phillip answered. “You are returning to London.”

Miss Cameron rounded on him, her spirit returning. “I am not.”

“You are,” he assured her. “I’m hiring a vehicle to take you back first thing on the morrow.”

Her nose wrinkled with distaste. “You don’t like the fact I was the one to fire the shot, do you? I’ve wounded your male vanity, and you want to rid yourself of me as quickly as possible.”

“What nonsense. I’m not vain—”

She interrupted his claim with a definitely unladylike snort of disagreement.

Phillip was perilously close to losing his temper. “Listen, Miss Cameron, I am worried for your safety. If you believe that is vanity, so be it. However, do you truly think MacKenna would welcome you with open arms after you shot one of his clansmen?”

That
gave her pause.

“I didn’t
kill
him. I only wounded him,” she admitted in a somewhat contrite voice.

“An action that could be interpreted as your siding with me. I’m certain MacKenna will not be pleased.”

She raised her hands to her head as if wishing to hit herself for such an error in judgment, and then dropped them to her sides. “I only helped because I felt somewhat responsible for what they were about to do to you. In hindsight, I should have let them beat you into a pulp.”

“I’m fond of you, too,” he said dryly, surprised to find he was thoroughly enjoying himself. She had quick wits and a cool head in the face of danger.

But she wasn’t paying attention to him. “I
am
going to Nathraichean,” she said with a determination. “I will explain to Laird MacKenna. He knows I don’t like or trust you. He’ll understand
my concern, and I’m certain he will be as distressed over his clansmen’s behavior as I was—”

“Why were you going there anyway?” Phillip demanded, cutting through her verbiage.

“Are we back to this again?” She made an exasperated sound that she released in a sigh of resignation. “I met Laird MacKenna at a garden party. He called on me and, since I am a woman alone in this world and the security of a husband would not be unwelcome—” She said this as if blaming
him
for every single wrong in her life. “—I encouraged him. Naturally, when he invited me for a visit in Scotland at his estate, and I accepted. Can I be more clear for you?”

Phillip shook his head, satisfied.

She wasn’t. Hands on hips, she said, “Now, since it is obvious you will not be welcome, why are
you
going there?”

He grinned at her. He couldn’t help himself. She was not afraid of him or showing the smallest desire to toady up to him. She was also the one person who didn’t seem to want something from him.

But he wasn’t about to tell her why he was in Scotland. “It’s none of your business. Come along,” he continued, overriding any protest she could make. “We’ll keep walking and eventually find a place for the night. I’ll pay for your passage to London, and no one need be the wiser about what
either
of us was doing this night.”

Leading the horse, considering the matter settled, Phillip walked over a hundred feet before he realized she wasn’t following him. Instead, she was walking off in the opposite direction.

“Damn it all,” he muttered to the horse, his earlier admiration vanishing. “She can’t do one thing I ask her to.” He started after her. The horse lowered his head and dragged his back feet, a sign he wanted to rest but had no choice other than to follow.

She heard Phillip approach. Her step quickened. He stretched his legs and had no trouble catching up with her.

Phillip walked alongside Miss Cameron for a bit before saying, “Homer.”

Her chin came up. She didn’t ask about the word, but he sensed she wanted to.

He waited.

There was a long moment filled only with the sound of their footsteps and their breathing.

“Homer what?” she asked at last.

He smiled. He’d gambled on her curiosity, and won. “The name of the horse. I believe I shall call him Homer.”

Miss Cameron shot him an irritated look out of the corner of her eye. “Why should you name him at all? What gives you the right?”

“I have no right,” he said. “However, the old boy has carried us well and deserves to be called
something other than ‘the horse.’ Do you not agree? Or do you believe it better to ignore his hard work and courage?”

“Is that a slap toward me?” she said, her back still stiff and unyielding, her eyes on the road ahead. “Are you saying I ignore you?”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.

And then, when he least expected it, she murmured, “Homer is as good a name as any.”

“I thought so,” he quickly agreed. “Unfortunately, I believe Homer could care less. He’s exhausted. The poor old boy’s tail is dragging.”

Miss Cameron couldn’t resist glancing at the horse to see if what Phillip said was true, and her gaze met his. The tension eased in her brow. Her proud, stubborn chin lowered enough for her to say, “He should be. It has been a long day.”

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