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Authors: The Troublemaker

Rexanne Becnel (2 page)

BOOK: Rexanne Becnel
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And now, in the cumbersome coach near his own, he might have the first opportunity to see if he was right.

Except that with a snap of a whip, the coachman sent the heavily laden vehicle rumbling away from the dock and into town. Marsh muffled an oath of frustration. “How much longer?” he prodded Duff, his newly hired servant. “We need to be on our way.”

The wiry fellow eyed him. “I’ve got to replace this broken leading strap. Take ’bout a quarter hour, guv’nor.”

Marsh grimaced. Bloody hell. Then he spied a man staring after the carriage, and his eyes narrowed. Perhaps all was not lost.

“Excuse me,” he said, strolling up to the fellow, who had the widespread stance of a sailor and wore a captain’s hat. “Did I hear someone mention Kelso?”

The man gave him a quick look-over. “You’re American, aren’t you?”

Marsh responded with a friendly grin. “Guilty as charged. Would you like a smoke?” He held out a decorative case of neatly rolled cheroots.

When the captain’s bushy brows arched in appreciation, Marsh went on. “I’m here on business. First time in Scotland. I’m heading for Kelso myself. That’s why I asked.”

The captain took one of the cheroots and sniffed it. “Virginia tobacco, or Cuban?”

Marsh smiled genially. He had him. “It’s a special blend I have made to order.”

A fifteen-minute conversation garnered him three bits of information. Though usually Highlanders, MacDougals could be found in the Lowlands too; the road to Kelso was best not driven after dark; and the young woman in the carriage was English, beautiful, and too spoiled for her own good.

“A right winsome bit a’ fluff. But an expensive bit.”

Marsh thought about that now as he urged the matched pair of bays into a steady, ground-eating pace. He hadn’t had a woman since before his mother’s death. Not on the ship, nor in London. But he found himself thinking of women now. Not that a haughty English miss was likely to provide him the sort of relief he needed.

He chirruped to the horses, preferring to handle them himself, rather than give them over to Duff. But his thoughts remained on the woman en route to Kelso. What was a young Englishwoman doing traveling in Scotland with only her maid anyway?

But he didn’t really care. All he knew was that he had a hankering to have a pretty woman smile at him. If nothing else, it would remind him of his old life in Boston and Washington. Before his mother’s death. Before her secret cache of letters had thrown his entire life on its ear.

He touched the lead horse lightly with the whip. Soon enough he would reach Kelso. And he would stay till he had his answers, and follow his father’s trail until he had his revenge.

Chapter 2

S
ARAH
pushed up the collar of her cloak, cold despite the fire Agnes stoked in the fireplace of the private dining room they’d taken. They’d stopped for the midday meal at a cheerless-looking place. But the stew smelled delicious and her stomach rumbled hungrily.

“Tight-fisted Scotsmen,” Agnes muttered when she found nothing but kindling in the log bin.

Sarah smiled, for her spirits had improved considerably over the course of the morning. “You’ll have to watch that tongue, Agnes. For my sister is half Scots on her father’s side, and my brother-in-law, Lord Hawke, is fully Scots, as are some of your mother’s family, I am told.”

Sarah took a secret pleasure in the dour woman’s discomfort. Part of her good mood came from her anticipation of seeing Olivia and Neville. Life with them would certainly not be as exciting as London during the season, and there were no men of any merit to be flirted with in Kelso.

But there were other rewards. Neville kept one of the finest stables she’d ever had the privilege of riding from. That meant she would have access to the finest horseflesh and take real hell-for-leather gallops. Plus she would be free to ride astride, without her mother’s constant scolding. And then there were also young Catherine and little Philip to enjoy.

So she ate a hearty luncheon, ignoring Agnes’s muttered complaints. She would sleep away the afternoon, and by the time she awoke, they would have arrived.

When they returned to the coach, however, it was to find the coachman standing beside the team of rested horses, in conversation with a well-dressed gentleman. Sarah knew her role as a young woman of good breeding. Never acknowledge a gentleman to whom she had not been properly introduced—and coachmen were hardly considered suitable to provide that proper introduction.

She knew all that, and yet she slowed as she neared the coach, slowed and stared at the stranger longer than she ought. There was something intriguing about him. Not just his solid build and excessive height. Not just his wide shoulders and unfashionably long hair. There was something else, something she could not quite specify.

He was definitely not the sort of English gentleman she was accustomed to.

Then again, she was no longer in England.

She let her gaze meander over him, admiring the muscular legs beneath his breeches and the strong profile shaded somewhat by his beaver topper. A funny little tingle ran down her back and settled in the vicinity of her stomach. If this was an example of Scottish manhood, perhaps her sojourn to the hinterlands might not be so boring as she’d feared.

Then he looked up and caught her staring, and for a long, suspended moment she could not tear her gaze away. His eyes grew dark as jet, dark and yet glittering in the sunlight.

Agnes must have noticed their locked gazes, for with a none-too-subtle elbow to Sarah’s side, the maid broke the mesmerizing pull of the stranger’s eyes. In truth, it was a relief for Sarah to drag her gaze from his. Yet still, she resented the maid’s interference. “You overstep your bounds,” she hissed as she turned stiffly for the carriage door. But Agnes only folded her arms and stared unrepentantly at her.

Muffling a curse that would have done her brother proud, Sarah reached for the door to swing it open. But another hand was already there.

“May I assist you, miss?”

Sarah turned abruptly, startled by the low, masculine voice. She was startled also by the impact of that dark, appreciative stare, so much nearer now. She shot a
so there
look at the disapproving Agnes, then refocused her attention on the man holding the coach door open with one hand while he extended his other to help her up the narrow steps.

Really, but he was a bold one. Hat on, gloves off. Any London gentleman would know better. But then, London gentlemen had proven to be a shady, unreliable lot. So she allowed the tiniest smile to curl the corners of her mouth, and considered him for a long, assessing moment. She folded her gloved hands neatly at her waist. “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced, sir.”

His grin increased. Then he removed his hat and made a short, neat bow. “I am Marshall MacDougal, at your service, Miss…Miss…”

Her smile increased also, just a fraction. “You are not British, are you, Mr. MacDougal?”

“I’m American,” he conceded. “Is it my accent that gives me away?”

Primly she pursed her lips. “No. Your manners.” She affected a scandalized expression, but one she knew he would not believe. “In our society a gentleman does not introduce himself to a lady.”

“Oh?” He replaced his hat on his head. “Then how do women and men ever meet?”

Sarah could feel Agnes’s disapproving stare, and the coachman’s nervous one. But that only egged her on. “They meet through proper channels, of course. Family. Friends.”

He shook his head. “That’s too bad. I fear I am in for a lonely time of it, then, for I am newly arrived here after a short jaunt in London. And unfortunately I have neither friends nor family in Scotland to recommend me.”

For a moment longer their gazes clung, and Sarah felt clearly the crackling tension between them. It was scary and exhilarating, and she knew one thing without a doubt. This was not a man who would ever want for company, especially female company. There was something in his eyes, some spark caused not solely by the spring sunshine. She felt a little thrill shoot through her every time he looked at her.

No, not merely a little thrill. She’d felt a little thrill when Harlan Bramwell had looked at her. She’d felt a little thrill when Ralph Liverett had taken her hand. And Lord Penley, the cad.

What she felt now, however, was quite different from those little thrills of conquest. This was hot and tickling, trembling its way right through her body, making her heart race and her stomach clutch.

Fortunately, caution raised its head in the nick of time.

This impulsive surrender to her emotions was what had gotten her into trouble in the past, this reckless attraction to everything she ought to avoid. And one thing she knew instinctively: This man was someone she ought definitely to avoid.

So she schooled her face into a more serious expression and banished any flirtatious tone from her voice. “I suspect you will get the hang of things, Mr. MacDougal. Good day.” And without further ado—or his assistance—she stepped lightly into the hired coach.

Agnes followed, slamming the door behind them, and in a moment they pulled out of the inn yard. As the coach rocked down the dusty roadway, Sarah congratulated herself that she’d behaved precisely as she ought: polite, but not friendly. Certainly she had not encouraged him, at least not toward the end.

But as she removed her hat and gloves and positioned a small pillow behind her back, she allowed herself the luxury of imagining just who this American was, and why he’d come all the way across the wide ocean to Scotland. Marshall MacDougal was his name, a Scottish name for an American man. Dark chestnut hair that glinted red in the sunlight. Black eyes that glinted blue.

Again she felt that traitorous little tremble in her belly, and she sighed at her own perversity. If the smooth and charming Lord Penley had been wrong for her, a forthright American like Mr. MacDougal would be disastrous. She had already learned, the hard way, that she was an exceedingly poor judge of men. She must work now to remember that fact.

But it was going to be hard, she acknowledged, closing her eyes. It was going to be so hard.

 

Marshall trailed a quarter mile behind the lumbering coach. The incident with the pretty young woman at the posting house had been instructive. If Boston’s society was bound by intricate rules after less than two hundred years, English society was mired in them. He’d bought his way into Boston’s elite. After all, in America, money was the primary arbiter of class. But British society was more complex, as Duff had swiftly apprised him.

“Fell flat, did you?” the outspoken fellow had said when the Englishwoman’s coach had left Marsh standing in the yard, covered with dust.

Marsh had fixed him with a thunderous glare, but the man had continued on unperturbed. “The thing is, guvnor, this ain’t America. There’s women, an’ then there’s ladies. You’ve got to decide which ones it is you’re interested in.”

“And what of servants? Are they different here too, speaking up even when their opinions are not welcome?”

Unfazed by his new employer’s ire, the man squinted at him. “You look the sort who kin handle hisself in a brawl, otherwise I wouldn’t’ve took you on.”

“You took me on?”

“That’s the right of it. You’re up to somethin’, even if you ain’t ready to tell me what. But I’m the adventurous sort, meself. I don’t take you for the type as needs someone to fold his clothes and carry his bags. I’m thinkin’ you have other reasons for hiring me than that. Don’t know what, not yet. Meanwhile, best you understand that we Scots got our own ways. If you want to get along here, best that you learn ’em. An’ I’m the one as can teach you.”

Much as he’d resented the man’s observant remarks, having lived by his wits all his life, Marsh had respect for others who survived the same way. Now, as he stared after the carriage ahead of him, he considered Duff’s words. Maybe he could use a little assistance on that score. After all, that coachman hadn’t been especially forthcoming, and even less so when the red-caped beauty had advanced so regally upon them.

Marsh rubbed one hand across the back of his neck. Damn, but she was a self-possessed little tart. Like a succulent red cherry, she looked delectable enough to eat. And well she knew it. Those bright blue eyes had sparkled with awareness when he’d approached her. She’d not been at all opposed to their flirtatious encounter—at first. But then he must have done something and she’d recognized his lack of social acumen. That’s when her interest had cooled.

Was that what had cooled his father’s interest in his mother? Had she overreached her bounds? Cameron Byrde must have been a man of some means if he’d settled a hundred pounds on her. But Maureen MacDougal, for all her gentle manner and quiet beauty, had been a simple lass from ordinary stock. She’d worked her whole life as a domestic in other people’s homes. That’s probably how she’d met the heartless Cameron Byrde.

Marsh’s gaze narrowed on the luxurious coach up ahead. If his father was from anywhere around Kelso, then the pretty little snob in that behemoth carriage was sure to be acquainted with him. After all, like gathered with like.

By the same token, they excluded everyone they deemed not like themselves. He’d learned how to travel those circles in Boston and in Washington. He had the money to fit in when he worked at it, and the social skills as well. But here he was less certain. Though he now had the requisite servant, carriage, clothing, and horse flesh—and plenty of money—he could see already that it might not be enough. Perhaps Duffy Erskine was right. Perhaps the man could help him with the rest of it. All he needed was entrée into the right society. After that he could manage on his own. He’d done so in Boston, and he could do so here.

He was resolved on the matter several hours later as they crossed a narrow stone bridge to enter the town of Kelso. It was a prosperous-looking place centered around a village green. He stared around him at close-set cottages, painted shop fronts, and busy village folk. Had his mother once walked these cobbled streets?

His palms began to sweat. Did his father walk them still?

He reined in at the sign of the Cock and Bow and handed his weary animal over to the ostler. “A room for me. And for my man,” he said to the aproned innkeeper who came eagerly out to introduce himself.

“Yes, sir. And how long will you be staying, sir?”

Long enough to wreak havoc on my father and whoever else contributed to my mother’s grief and suffering
.

But to the shiny-pated fellow he only said, “A week. Maybe longer.”

“Very good, sir. Very good.” The man led the way to the register. “And what name shall I record here, sir?”

“Marsh…Marshall MacDougal.”

“MacDougal.” The man stared at him a moment. “MacDougal.”

Marsh’s gaze narrowed. Did the man know the name? Did he know the family?

“Is that spelled
ou
or
uo
?”

Marsh’s even expression hid any sign of disappointment. “It’s
ou
, and only one
l
.” He took the key the man handed him. “Tell me, Mr. Halbrecht, are there any sights hereabouts I should take in? Or perhaps particular social gatherings I ought to seek out?”

The man gave him a quick assessing look and glanced over at Duff, who was unloading the carriage. Apparently satisfied that this customer was a gentleman and kept a manservant, he said, “We have our own subscription hall with dances every Friday. It’s not yet huntin’ season, but there’s prime fishin’ in the Tweed. Course if you want to venture off the bridge, you’ll have to apply to the stewards at the big houses. Mostly they make free with fishing along their shores. At Woodford Court they’s only particular about the stretch right along the house.”

“And the other estates?”

“They’s only one other close around here. It’s upstream a mile or so. Byrde Manor. Though it’s not nearly so grand as Woodford…”

Byrde Manor! The words echoed in Marsh’s head, drowning out the rest of the man’s remarks. There was an estate called Byrde Manor. Had he this easily found the seat of his father’s family? But what else could it be? Though his heart thudded with excitement, he somehow forced himself to remain calm.

“So you suggest I apply to the house for permission to fish their portion of the Tweed?”

The innkeeper shrugged. “’Tis not strictly a necessity. Howsomever, I’m sure they would appreciate it.”

No. Marsh didn’t think they would appreciate it at all, not once his true identity was revealed. But for now he would court the Byrde family’s approval and acceptance.

He thanked the man and turned for the stairs, patting the pocket of his riding coat that held the three letters Cameron Byrde had sent to Maureen MacDougal. His time in London had been a waste, but after only ten minutes in Kelso he might have located his father’s lair, or at least have discovered a strong lead in that direction.

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