Authors: Paula Quinn
He didn’t give a rat’s arse. The only thing on Tristan’s mind was Lady Ashley’s lips. It was difficult enough, without her rambling on about politics, to keep his focus on wanting to kiss her and not on another lass with a freckled nose and a rapier-sharp tongue. He’d known last eve that trying to speak with Isobel would be a challenge. She hated him, and he didn’t blame her for it. But finding himself still so completely beguiled by her was unexpected. He’d never had to try to win a lass who hated him.
Hell, he didn’t know any lasses who hated him. He found himself looking forward to the challenge.
“You are not even listening to me.” Lady Ashley pouted her ruby red lips and gave his arm a playful slap.
How would Isobel Fergusson’s curses taste against his mouth?
“My father says that what Highlanders lack for in brains, they make up for in ruthlessness. What do you think of that?”
Tristan cocked his brow and his smile at her. Mayhap this English feather possessed a bit of a spark after all. “My guess is that would be true of any man who lacked brains. Highlander or Englishman.”
“Hmmm.” She made a sweet little sound and smiled up at him, giving in before they’d even engaged. “Are you ruthless, Tristan?”
Ruthless enough to send her back to her father unable to walk… or sit properly for at least a day. He wondered what she would think of that? She’d likely fall into his arms, a willing participant in his infamous inheritance. He’d been in England only a few days but already he knew how little it took to get these fine, powdery ladies into his bed—endeavors that left him feeling emptier than all the heads in Whitehall put together. He could take Lady Ashley right here, up against the enormous painting of Oliver Cromwell leading his New Model Army into Scotland. A month ago he might even have tossed Cromwell a mocking grin while he drove his body into one of England’s daughters, but since Isobel’s stinging rejection, he felt the way a lion might if gazelles began to fall dead in front of him instead of giving chase.
“Tristan.” Lady Ashley paused her steps and tilted her mouth up to his. “You may kiss me now if you like.”
He’d rather not. But how to tell her so without insult?
“I know I should exercise more prudence,” she cooed, looping her arms around his neck, “but rumors of your prowess in the bedchamber intrigue me.”
Tristan freed his neck from the arms that bound him. “Alas, fair Margaret.” He brought her hands to his lips and kissed each one to soften his rejection. “But I fear my reputation fer bein’ a ruthless rogue would wither at yer silken fingertips.” When she blushed and smiled at him beneath her pale golden lashes, he sighed inwardly, not with relief, for she hadn’t the mind to consider any deeper meaning to his words, but with regret—for the very same reason.
Releasing her hands, he caught a flash of fire out of the corner of his eye. Instinctively, he turned to let his gaze pursue the fair Miss Fergusson as she passed him on her way to the Shield Gallery.
“Pardon me.” He stepped away from Lady Ashley, his eyes intent on his prey. “There is a matter I must see to.”
But even as he steadied his pace to keep a short distance behind her, Tristan knew that his desire to speak to Isobel again had less to do with defending himself or his kin than was wise to admit aloud. He already missed the ease with which they spoke, the spark of intelligence in her emerald eyes, her ability to see the best in him when no one else had ever bothered looking.
Silently, he watched her make her way down the long corridor, passing the gallery without pause. He surveyed her form and cocked his head a little at the soft sway of her hips. The hem of her kirtle was somewhat tattered, but she passed a half dozen statelier-dressed ladies with
her chin tilted upward. The pride she possessed made him breathless.
He was deciding how best to approach her when she suddenly turned, stilling him with a fiery glare.
“Do ye intend to follow me around the entire duration of my stay, MacGregor?”
Lifting his gaze from the roundness of her backside, he couldn’t help smiling at her caustic tone and large, wary eyes. She was like an unbridled rush of fresh air to his lungs, and he wanted more. “Now that I’ve enjoyed the view from such a vantage point, Miss Fergusson”—he moved quietly toward her—“I confess the likelihood is quite high.”
He didn’t miss the high flush spreading across her cheeks, or the way she practically trembled with the effort it took her not to tear one of the old swords off the wall and strike him with it.
“Is this where I am supposed to swoon like all yer other little sheep?” she asked him, relying on her sharp tongue instead. She wielded it with zest. “They might think ye are a ram, but I know now what ye truly are.”
No one knew that, not even him, Tristan thought as his wee game of seeking to bask in her temper came to an abrupt end. Outwardly, he could be many things, change with his surroundings like a chameleon. But nowhere in him was there a cold-blooded killer.
Someone called out from down the corridor. It was Mairi’s voice. Hell. The rest of his kin might disregard his interest in Isobel, trusting that it would not last long and knowing there was nothing they could do about it short of locking him away somewhere, but Mairi had a tendency toward violence.
“Meet me in the Privy Garden at midnight,” he said quickly, counting the moments until his sister saw them together, “and let me prove that ye’re wrong.”
Isobel looked about to laugh, and for an instant Tristan considered giving up all to watch her do it.
“My answer,” she told him tightly, “is the same as the last time ye invited me fer a walk. Ye are deranged if ye think I will agree to a clandestine meeting with my worst enemy, Mister MacGregor. Utterly and completely deranged.”
He had to agree with her. A casual interest was one thing. Trying to win the favor of Archibald Fergusson’s daughter was another. He could likely be tossed out of Camlochlin for such betrayal. He didn’t know why his father hadn’t done it already with all the trouble he’d caused his kin over the years. “Please, fer yer brothers’ sake then.” He added a smile to his mad request and left her looking after him.
Four hours later, Isobel drew her cloak around her shoulders and cursed under her breath while she stepped out into the Privy Garden. What was she doing meeting Tristan alone in the darkness? She had to be as deranged as he, but for her brother’s sake she would do anything. Oh, the scoundrel! Were his words a threat of danger, or a promise of protection? No, not protection. He was not the man she had first believed him to be. Why would any MacGregor promise a Fergusson safety? None of Tristan’s kin had cared what had happened to her and her brothers after they killed her father. And why should they? The MacGregors had no understanding of what they had truly taken from Archibald Fergusson’s bairns. They believed they had been merciful in leaving
the children alive, a belief that for many years Isobel doubted was correct.
A brisk breeze snapped her hair across the bridge of her nose. She swept the lock away with her pinkie and looked around. Beneath the milky glow of the low moon, the statues appeared like ghostly sentinels, sent to watch over Whitehall’s private Eden. As her vision adjusted to the dim light, she studied each sculpture, waiting for Tristan to step out from behind one of them.
She should not have come. Tristan MacGregor was too dangerous, not only to her brothers, but to her. She could not deny the dangerously charismatic appeal that drew women to him like insects to a flame—including her, before she had known his true identity.
She almost breathed a sigh of relief when she realized that he wasn’t coming. It seemed he had more sense than she did. She would go back to the palace, back home to her kin, and put Tristan MacGregor out of her mind for good.
His deep voice behind her played over her nerve endings as if on a drum. Or mayhap it was her heart she heard thudding furiously in her ears. She hated him for speaking her name with such tenderness, such intimacy that it felt as if he were touching her even when he wasn’t. It reminded her of how at ease she’d felt with him the day she met him. Of the way his gaze lingered over her features, as if her plain face delighted him. She had gone to bed that night wanting to know him better, wanting to lose herself forever in the sound of his laughter.
“Ye’re even bonnier in the moonlight.”
Aye, it was her heartbeat. Her palms felt moist and her breath labored. Unbidden memories of the tender smiles
they had shared, the sweet, musical lilt of his voice when he told her the story of Arthur and his brave knights, came rushing back to her, softening her kneecaps, melting her bones to the core. Scoundrel bastard. He practiced the charm and mannerisms of the most eloquent nobleman, but his urbane grins were meant to ignite passionate responses, like a cat playing with its prey. The mystery was why had he chosen to continue to play with her.
“Why do ye waste yer flowery words on me, when there are at least a hundred ladies in the palace”—finally, she turned to face him fully—“and mayhap some men, as well, who would enjoy hearing them?”
Genuine humor curled his mouth as his eyes washed over her like a sunrise, heating everywhere they settled. “Because ’tis no’ their enjoyment that concerns me, but my own. That is why I’d rather be here with ye than with anyone else.”
She gave him a doubtful look. He was eloquent, all right—his words sprinkled with a thick Highland burr to make him all the more peculiar. Her family was responsible for his uncle’s death. He had to hate her. He was after something. She was sure of it now, and she was almost sure of what it was. What if the revenge his kin had taken on her father was not enough? What if, after ten years, their demand for justice had returned and they wanted proof that the lethal arrow came from her father’s quiver? She was there when the MacGregor Chief killed her father. She’d heard what her father’s closest friend, Kevin Kennedy, had shouted out moments before her father was murdered. She was sure the Devil MacGregor had heard it, too. Had he sent his son to her to discover the truth? Why else would Tristan MacGregor pursue her throughout the palace? She should not have come. Dear God, he
could swerve any woman from her most stubbornly held convictions. And she had to hold tight to hers.
Straightening her shoulders, Isobel called up her strength of will. MacGregor’s attempts to find the truth, no matter how determined they were, would fail.
“Walk with me.” He stepped closer to her. So close, in fact, that her breasts grazed his chest. She moved back, doing her best to ignore the clean scent of heather that clung to him.
“No, I must return to my brothers.”
“Then I will walk ye back to them.” He hooked his arm at her and waited for her to accept.
She stared at him with scathing anger coloring her cheeks. “That is what ye want, is it not?” Her breath nearly stopped when his eyes dipped to the heavy rise and fall of her bosoms. “Ye want to give one of my brothers a reason to fight with ye.”
Flicking his keen gaze back to hers, he said, “By yer own admission, ’tis Alex who is foolish enough to try to open old wounds. I simply want to walk with ye, and if I have to escort ye back inside to do it, I will.”
“So, what ye are saying,” she accused, folding her arms across her chest, “is that I have no choice.”
“Aye, ye have two,” he corrected. Oddly, there was no trace of victory in his tone. “Ye can choose to be with me alone or in the sight of many. As fer myself, I’d prefer yer first option. I risk as much as ye if any of my kin see us together.”
“I doubt that.” Isobel looked toward the palace and then back at him, trying to decide what to do. Would he truly follow her back to her chamber? She didn’t have to ponder it an extra instant. Of course he would. This was the man who had kicked an English nobleman’s
chair from under his arse in the presence of all. “I think yer father is well enough aware of yer follies by now to expect the worst of ye.”
The change in his expression was so quick and so complete that Isobel played her words over in her mind three times after she had spoken them, trying to discover what it was that made him go cold.
“Ye’re probably correct,” he admitted after a moment that looked as if he was through wanting to walk with her. His smile returned, artful and insincere. “But tonight I’d like to be unpredictable.”
He turned away from the palace and offered her his arm a second time. Isobel did not accept it, but she did follow him when he began to walk to garden path. What choice did she have?
“It will be worse if we are discovered out here alone,” she pointed out, picking up her pace to match his leisurely gait.
“Aye, but the wee hint of danger makes yer blood run quicker, does it no’?” He angled his face just enough for her to catch the glint of his playful dimple.
“Is that what this is about fer ye then?” She flicked her finger back and forth between them. “Danger?”
Turning to her fully, his grin widened, along with his eyes, in sheer amusement. “Why d’ye insist on believin’ that ’tis some meaningless reason like revenge or danger that compels me to want to be with ye?”
“Because most MacGregors do not think revenge is meaningless.”
“I am no’ like most MacGregors.”
She doubted that as well. “Then why?” She had to know why a man who had his choice of any of the beautiful ladies in the palace chose her. “What compels ye to
take interest in me, Tristan MacGregor? Ye claimed to be honest, so tell me the truth.”