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“I can smell the shite from here.” Niall MacTaggert pulled up his bay gelding, Kelpie, at the top of the low rise. “Bloody Saint Andrew,” he muttered, swinging down to the ground. The sight before him—a vast sprawl of hazy, smoke-shrouded streets, the peaks of bell towers here and there the only bits that had managed to break free of the gray to stab into the overcast sky—had both a scent and a sound he hadn’t even the words to describe. “Have ye ever seen the like?”
“Nae.” His oldest brother, Coll, Viscount Glendarril, remained aboard his massive black Friesian stallion, Nuckelavee, but he leaned forward to cross his wrists over the saddle’s pommel. “I reckon we’ve found hell.”
As they gazed at the loud, fog-bound morass, Niall’s second oldest brother, Aden, drew up behind them. “Finding a bride here’s nae the first thought that strikes me,” he commented, patting his chestnut thoroughbred, Loki, on the withers. “I reckon we should rescue our sister from that blight and make for the Highlands.”
“And send her to a nunnery,” Niall added. “If we can keep her from marrying, we’ve nae reason to tote posies about and read poetry to some fainting English hothouse flower.”
That had been the plan he suggested, but Coll had overruled him, insisting that the three of them could convince Francesca Oswell-MacTaggert to tear up the agreement. Coll had always favored battle, a direct confrontation, over delicacy or subterfuge. And his methods generally succeeded—the main reason Niall and Aden had agreed to give it a go.
Niall turned to see the quartet of outriders and two wagons of luggage accompanying them come into sight. It all looked impressive, which had been the point; they all knew that no Sassenach traveled far without half his worldly goods accompanying him. Now, though, he had to consider that having to repack all of it would considerably slow any getaway they might attempt. Then again, they could always taxidermy another red deer stag if they had to leave behind the one they’d brought along.
Most of the rest of it was nearly as unnecessary. Then again, Francesca claimed to want her sons about. Well, here they were. All three of them. And not a one in the mood to be cooperative. Niall stepped into the stirrup and remounted Kelpie as his brothers returned to the rutted, muddy road and the wagons. London. He’d rather take a wade through a peat bog than spend an hour in London. Their da had signed a paper, though, and then seventeen years later had refused to rise from his sickbed—his deathbed, according to himself—to join his sons in disputing it. Angus MacTaggert, Earl Aldriss, a roaring giant of a Highlands warrior and evidently too scared of his estranged wife to leave his estate and go set eyes on her. Not that Angus would ever admit to that.
On a sunny day, if such things existed here, the oak and elm trees scattered along the road might have provided a pleasant shade. Today they mostly made Niall miss the pines and the craggy, snow-topped peaks of the Highlands. Christ, had it only been five days since he’d last seen them? It was warmer here, or at least the breeze, even with the rain hanging just behind it, didn’t have that chill that dug into a man’s bones.
He fell in beside Aden, with Coll and his great black warhorse a few feet ahead of them. The outriders had been more for show than for anything else; he doubted even some damned Sassenach highwayman would care to run up against the MacTaggert brothers. Still, someone had to lag behind with the wagons and protect the stuffed stag and their shaving kits. Their grand arrival wouldn’t change the fact that they’d left behind an ailing father and a busy season of new lambs and growing crops, that they’d had to postpone the Highlands games that had been a tradition in June for the past two hundred years, and dozens of other things that all needed tending. And a fair crop of young ladies who’d be lamenting his absence.
“Ye ken if yer face freezes like that a hundred lasses will perish from sorrow.”
Niall sent Aden a sideways glance. “If I’m forced to wed some pinch-faced flower of the south, those hundred lasses will all be perishing from loneliness and sorrow. Even the lot chasing ye might frown for an entire minute once they read about yer nuptuals.”
“Dunnae underestimate Coll’s lack of enthusiasm at having Francesca choose a bride for him.”
“Aye. Thank the devil he’s the one lost the card turn. I’m surprised he has any teeth left, the way he’s been grinding ’em for five days.”
With a swift look at their brother’s backside, Aden pulled a deck of cards from his coat pocket and shuffled it one-handed. “I reckon he’ll fight harder for us with himself in the hangman’s noose.”
Aden’s swift expression of amusement as he pocketed the cards again might have been simple appreciation, or it might have been one of his rare admissions of trickery. Either way, Niall was abruptly grateful not to be the present Viscount Glendarril. It was horrifying enough to be ordered to choose a Sassenach bride; to have a woman he’d not seen in seventeen years pick out the lass he was to marry would have been enough to make him consider fleeing to the Colonies, regardless of the consequences to Aldriss Park.
The scattering of farms gave way to densely packed shops, businesses, hotels, inns, brothels, taverns, and stately homes, looming out of the fog like giant, steep-edged ravines to tower halfway into the sky. Along with the buildings came the people, shouting in a hundred accents and several languages, offering oranges, fish, pies, glimpses of the far-off Orient, and themselves. So these were the civilized folk, turning to stare at the trio of riders as they passed—as if the Highlanders were the odd birds. “It’s a madhouse,” he muttered, reining in Kelpie to avoid a scampering, nearly skeletal young girl scooping horse shite into a bucket.
“What in Saint Margaret’s name is that?” Aden commented, flicking the end of his reins toward a street corner.
Niall followed the gesture to spy a tall, thin man dressed in a lime-green jacket so tight he wouldn’t have been able to lift his arms above the elbow. The points of his shirt, white and stiff, dug into his earlobes, and his blond hair had been curled tighter than sheep’s wool. His trousers were a peacock blue, his waistcoat a patterned yellow and green, and the black boots he wore shone like water and had heels as deep as a horse’s hooves. “I saw one of ’em in a fashion catalog Eppie had on her bed stand,” Niall replied. “That, Aden, is a dandy.”
“I’m stunned enough that I willnae ask what ye were doing in Eppie Androw’s bedchamber. A dandy. Do ye reckon he can walk?”
“If he takes wee-enough steps, aye. And ye know damned well what I was doing in Eppie’s bedchamber. I’m four-and-twenty, nae eleven.”
Ahead of them Coll consulted a folded paper, then headed right down a narrower, quieter lane. The houses here were larger and didn’t share common walls, with more windows and quaint-looking gardens in the back. A street or two beyond them, the homes had short front drives, overhanging roofs for leaving carriages without getting rained on, and stables alongside the gardens in the rear.
Though Coll had initially been against it, they’d sent word that the MacTaggert brothers were traveling down to London. Niall could see the benefits of surprising Francesca Oswell-MacTaggert, putting her back on her heels and maybe even frightening her into tearing up the damned agreement. On the other hand, she’d sent the letter announcing Eloise’s betrothal, so she would have a fair idea that her sons would be arriving sooner rather than later. And he personally didn’t relish the idea of having to sleep in the stable because no additional rooms had been opened for them.
They trotted past a small park dotted with bairns in frilly dresses or short pants, together with women dressed in caps and dowdy gowns—nannies, he supposed—before Coll led them down another lane. A labyrinth of climbing roses and wrought-iron gates surrounded them now, not as closed in as the bordering streets but just as suffocating. When Coll finally drew Nuckelavee to a halt, Niall felt somewhat relieved; he could imagine a hell where one rode through flower-choked lanes endlessly searching for a tavern that would never appear.
“This one,” Laird Glendarril grunted, his gaze on the stately gray house on the right.
“Write out the direction for me before we step outside again,” Aden requested. “I’ll nae find it again otherwise.”
“With any luck we’ll be back home before ye have to memorize it,” their oldest brother returned, and sent the big black warhorse up the half-circle drive. “Hallo the house!”
The front door opened. Servants started fleeing the house in front of them, maids and kitchen help and footmen all straightening caps and coats willy-nilly as they ran out the door. For a hard half a dozen heartbeats Niall thought they’d caught the house on fire and were running for their lives, until he realized they were lining up on either side of the doorway. He did a swift count—fifteen of them. With that many servants, a man wouldn’t even have to hold his own kerchief to blow his nose.
“We’ve merited a parade,” Aden noted. “Do ye reckon they do this every time someone approaches the house?”
Niall stifled a grin. “That wouldnae seem very practical, but the English are all mad anyway.”
The narrow man with the most gentlemanly attire bowed as the three of them lined up on horseback. “Welcome to Oswell House, Lord Glendarril, Master Aden, Master Niall.” Down the line the other servants bowed and curtsied in fairly impressive unison. “Lady Aldriss awaits you inside.”
Behind them the first wagon turned onto the drive and stopped, the other one just behind it. Charles and Wallace, the two men seated beside the drivers and brought down expressly for one purpose, stood and pulled their bagpipes from beneath their wooden seats. At Coll’s nod and after a few off-key groans to fill the bags with air, they began playing “The White Cockade” at full volume. Now that felt like a proper greeting.
Niall dismounted, handing Kelpie’s reins off to a stunned-looking lad who wore stable livery. Windows of the neighboring houses began flying open, maids and footmen and anyone else in earshot trying to get a look at whatever was making that noise. Before the first refrain they’d gathered a crowd on the street behind them, clapping to the reel.
“I reckon we’re overdressed,” Aden commented as he handed Loki off to another stableboy.
Sweet Andrew, Oswell House seemed to have a lad for every horse in the stable. “That was the point, wasnae?” Niall straightened his fox-fur sporran and fell in with his brothers. Scarlet plaid with thick lines of black and green, the colors of clan Ross had to be the grandest and brightest in the Highlands. And with the three men all pushing past six feet tall, they were definitely not about to be missed—or mistaken for anything but what they were.
“Won’t you…” The butler fellow cleared his throat. “Won’t you come inside?” he repeated, more loudly.
“They havenae played ‘Killiecrankie’ yet,” Coll returned. “And ye’ve nae introduced us to all these folks who’ve lined up so proper to say hello.”
Because he’d been watching the doorway, Niall saw Francesca Oswell-MacTaggert, Countess Aldriss, the moment she left the shadows. He’d been but seven years old the last time he’d set eyes on her, but he would have recognized her among a crowd of hundreds. Aye, her black hair had lightened to a peppered gray, and the angel’s face he recalled had widened a bit at the jaw, but it was her. In fact, the one thing he hadn’t expected was that she would be so … tiny. The top of her head wouldn’t even come to his shoulder.
She walked slowly outside to stand in front of the doorway. Her gown of deep blue likely would have sparkled in sunlight, but there was none of that to be found today. “I see I won’t need to inform the neighbors that my sons have arrived,” she said, her voice that cool, sophisticated accent he’d found very exotic as a bairn. Now it merely sounded English. Unlike his own. “Thank you for that.”
“Aye, we’re here,” Coll returned, his eyes narrowing. “Thanks to yer threats, Francesca. Ye managed to put Da on his deathbed and took me away from mending the irrigation ditches, but ye’ve brought us out of the Highlands.”
Her left hand flew up to her throat and a delicate gold necklace there before she lowered it again. “Your father has passed away?”
“He might’ve, by now. Made us swear nae to delay heading south and risk ruin for Aldriss, so we’ve nae idea. Pogan—our butler, if ye’ve forgotten—is to send us word.”
“I haven’t forgotten Pogan,” she returned. “Nor will I discount Angus’s dislike for London. Until I hear otherwise I shall credit his so-called deathbed antics to be just that—antics.” Rubbing her hands together, she took a breath and stepped to one side of the doorway. “Now. Given that the future of Aldriss lies in you agreeing to my wishes, I do wish you would come inside.”
Niall stole a glance at Coll. At nine-and-twenty, the current Viscount Glendarril and future Earl Aldriss had the clearest memory of Francesca; he’d been twelve when she’d left for London, after all. Coll stood four inches above six feet, and men—much less women—generally didn’t argue with him. Even fewer attempted to order him about. This might not be an order, but it was close enough. Niall wondered if Francesca realized she’d just invited a bull into her glassware shop. An angry bull.
Coll met Francesca’s gaze, then turned his back on the house. “Keep playing, lads,” he called, then whistled for the wagons to pull onto the drive. “We’ve a bloody mountain of luggage to move inside, and I’d rather hear the pipes than the groaning of the footmen.”
“Or the neighbors, I reckon,” Niall muttered. He hadn’t put much hope into Coll’s plan of stomping up to the Oswell House front door, bellowing that Francesca had best rethink her plans because the MacTaggert brothers did not bow to anyone, and marching back to the Highlands. They looked to be trapped here for a few days, at least.
He looked up at the half-a-hundred windows that adorned the front of the grand house. None of the past six days had gone as he expected, though he had enjoyed the ride down from Scotland. Instead of a head-to-head battle, he would have chosen to find a London-based solicitor of their own to fight Francesca’s agreement. Another Englishman would have had better odds of finding a way out of an English agreement than Coll and his preference for straight-up brawling. That suggestion had been overruled as well, of course, because everyone knew a Highlander couldn’t trust a Sassenach. Not even one in his own employ.
Either way, he’d never been averse to making trouble. While Coll and Aden issued orders to their outriders and the Oswell House staff, he strolled up the pair of low steps to the front doorway. “I’m told I knew ye when I was seven years old,” he drawled, sticking out his hand as Francesca looked at him. “I’m Niall.”
She faced him, taking a quick half-step forward before she stopped again. Being a MacTaggert in the Highlands meant running across plenty of men wanting to make their own reputations on his back, to prove their strength or power or wealth by attempting to set him on his arse or in his grave. He’d become deft at determining who was an actual threat and who was actually angry or terrified or—more than likely—drunk. That was how he knew he’d just struck a blow against Francesca Oswell-MacTaggert, and that he’d hurt her. While he generally didn’t hold with battling a woman, she’d started it.
Lifting her chin a little, she moved again, reaching out to grip his hand. “You don’t need to introduce yourself to me, Niall. For goodness’ sake.” Her fingers trembled just a little, but as he shifted to let go, she tightened her hold on him. “I expected your hair to be red.”
Shrugging, he ran his free hand through the overlong mess hanging into his eyes. “It got darker. Brown mostly, with a wee bit of fire here and there in the sunlight.”
“You were a handsome young boy, but my heavens. You’ll have half the girls in London swooning at your feet. And those eyes of yours—they’re very like your sister’s, you know. Such a pale celadon, like new leaves in sunlight.” She reached a hand toward his face.
Niall stepped sideways into the house, freeing his hand and avoiding her caress in the same motion. One hello did not make them friends, or family. In the strictest sense it made them acquaintances. Aye, that’s what they were—barely acquainted, with the caveat that Francesca happened to hold the purse strings that could determine the future of the estate and all their tenants. His future as well.
“It seems to me,” Aden drawled, stepping between them and into the long, dark foyer beyond, “that if ye had a curiosity about the color of Niall’s hair or his pretty eyes, ye had a simple way to satisfy it. A visit, mayhap. Or a letter.” The middle MacTaggert brother hefted a monstrous stuffed boar’s head mounted on an oak plank. “Where am I lodging?”
The skinny butler skittered up on Aden’s heels. “That … Perhaps one of the footmen could carry that for you, sir. John? And—”
Ignoring that, Aden started up the wide, elegant staircase and paused at the landing where the steps separated to climb to the left and right wings. “Give me a direction, or I’ll just choose whichever room strikes my fancy.”
“Smythe, show Aden to his bedchamber,” Francesca said.
“Of course, my lady.”
“Och, ye remembered my name, Francesca,” the lean twenty-seven-year-old drawled. “Then again, I am rumored to be unforgettable.”
“When you’ve deposited your trophy, join us in the morning room,” the countess instructed, turning to head into a room just off the foyer. “Niall, please join me, won’t you?”
Time to do a bit of scouting the terrain, then. Niall started after her, then stopped abruptly when a hard hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Ye shook her hand,” Coll muttered.
“And I introduced myself, as if we’d nae met before. I’m charming, if ye’ll recall. But I’m nae a traitor.”
“Dunnae forget that, bràthair. Ye heard Da’s warning. She may look a flower, but many a man’s been drowned in a soft voice and tears. If ye dunnae have the stomach for this, then step back. Aden and I will manage it.”
If they went by Angus MacTaggert’s last description of his estranged wife, the one he’d presented them from his self-proclaimed deathbed, Francesca Oswell-MacTaggert was a weeping, fainting damsel in distress who used her feminine wiles to manipulate every man within hearing into fulfilling her whims. Niall didn’t know if he believed all that or not; contrary to what he’d said, he did have a few memories of her, and she’d been warm and pleasant in most of them. And she’d smelled of lemons. But then he’d been a bairn, and he wasn’t one now. Far from it.
“The only good reason to marry an Englishwoman would be because the weeping pansy would do as I said, and I could leave her behind in London,” he returned in a low voice. “It worked for Da, after all.”
“Aye. As ye say. Nae marrying one at all is my first choice, though. Especially one some stranger’s picked out for me,” Coll returned, releasing him again to follow him inside the room.
Niall took a seat close by the morning room door, while Coll stomped around for a bit, eyeing the neat shelves of books and vases and delicate, feminine knickknacks. The moment Aden reappeared, the two of them took command of the couch to Niall’s left. That left Francesca facing the doorway into the foyer and well able to see the ridiculous chaos of things they’d toted down from Scotland as each was brought into the house. This should be interesting, at least, even if he doubted it would go as well as Coll hoped.
“My boys,” she said, her quiet voice just audible over the bagpipes outside.
“Ye’ll have to speak up,” Coll announced. “The lads are enthusiastic this morning.”
“I said I’m more pleased than you could ever know to see my boys again,” the countess restated, her voice firmer now.
“We’re nae yer boys,” Coll returned. “Ye summoned us here with a threat, and so we’re here to answer in kind. If ye wanted affection, ye should’ve asked more kindly, and written more frequently.”
She sank down in the available blue chair, her skirts rustling around her as she folded her hands onto her lap. Every move she made seemed studied, as if she had a painter in the next room ready to leap out and sketch her portrait. “So I’m to take the blame for your father not bothering to inform you that we’ve had an agreement for seventeen years. Very well. I can accept that.”
Aden tilted his head. “He didnae leave us behind, Francesca.”
Looking down, she opened her mouth and shut it again, while Niall waited for the weeping and lamenting and pleas for sympathy to begin. Instead she cleared her throat. “My greatest fear was that Angus would raise you boys as wild, unmannered barbarians, and evidently I had the right of it. That said, as we all know that your futures depend on you doing as I say, let’s begin with this: You will not call me Francesca. I am your mother, and you will show me some respect. I’ll give you four choices—you may refer to me as Mother, Mama, my lady, or Lady Aldriss.”
That didn’t sound at all weepy. “Then might ye tell us where we can find our sister, Lady Aldriss?” Niall asked, covering his surprise.
“I might,” she conceded, “if you’ll give me your word that you won’t blame her for the agreement or for her engagement. It’s not her fault that you’re here.”
Niall scowled, putting aside the thought that he’d suggested kidnapping her. That had been one of a dozen ideas thrown at the dartboard. “Do ye reckon we’re mad enough to mean harm to Eloise? She’s a MacTaggert. And she’s our wee sister.”
Something about what he’d said seemed to please her, because Francesca smiled. “Good. I’m glad to hear it. She wanted to be here, but she’d made a previous engagement to go shopping with some friends, and I made her keep to it. As I said, I wasn’t certain how she might be greeted. She’ll be home before dinner.”
“I reckon ye might want to tear up that agreement,” Coll stated. “Ye dunnae know who we are, or whether we might already have a lass in mind for marriage. If ye force us to wed some milquetoast female or other, ye may nae see grandbabies, my lady.”
“I know you’ve had less than a week to conjure some defense against your father’s and my agreement, but that’s the best you could come up with?” she countered. “No grandchildren? You are, after all, speaking to a woman who left her own sons behind.”
“Ye said ye were glad to see us,” Aden put in, scowling.
“I am. I hope that eventually you’ll understand how pleased I am. But the agreement stands. You will all three abide by it, or I will withhold the funds your father has been using for the past thirty years to keep Aldriss Park from collapse. I certainly don’t care about the place. But you do. I can see that.”
“Aye, we do, Lady Aldriss,” Coll growled. “And all our cotters and servants and villagers.”
“Then you know what you need to do. It’s very s…” She trailed off, her gaze on something in the foyer behind them. “Is that a stag?”
“Aye,” Aden returned. “That’s Rory. We keep him in the library.”
“Not in my library, you won’t.”
“I reckon he’d look just as fine on the staircase landing, then,” Coll took up. “Joseph, Gavin. Leave Rory on the stairs, so we can all admire him.” Lifting an eyebrow, Coll turned his gaze back to Francesca.
“Well,” she said, clearly not realizing she’d just lost that argument, or not caring, since she’d won the larger one. “I suppose we can decide on his placement later.” Rising, she walked over to the wall and tugged twice on a gold tassel pull by the doorway. “This does not need to be an adversarial business. For the moment, however, since you are all my prisoners and evidently are disinclined to engage in polite conversation, Smythe will show you to your rooms. Luncheon will be set out in the small dining room between one and three o’clock, and we sit for dinner tonight at seven. If you don’t sit for dinner, you will not have dinner.”
The butler appeared in the doorway. “Yes, my lady?”
“Aden’s seen his, but please show Coll and Niall to their bedchambers.” Inclining her head, she started out of the room. At the last moment she turned around again. “As you’ve read the agreement, I presume you’re aware that one of you is to wed a lady of my choosing. And as you’re the one with the title and inheritance, Coll, I’ve decided it should be you.”
They’d already decided that among themselves, but Coll hadn’t liked losing to begin with. Having it shoved at him all over again wouldn’t gain Francesca any affection. Lord Glendarril stood, all six feet four inches of him coiled and ready for a fight. Moving quickly, Niall climbed to his feet, as well. “Coll said it should be him,” he lied, “so ye’ve nae surprised us, Lady Aldriss, though I doubt ye can find an Englishwoman to match him.”
His jaw clenching, Coll flexed his fingers. “Aye. Ye find me some swooning, untouched lass, then. I reckon we’ll deal as well as ye and Angus MacTaggert did.”
Her cheeks paled a shade or two. “The young lady I’ve selected will make you a fine Viscountess Glendarril, and a better Lady Aldriss when your father does see fit to expire,” she returned, ignoring his other comments. “You’ll meet her tonight at the theater. You may bring one of your brothers; I don’t wish her overset by the three of you all glowering at her.”
“Ye might give me a bloody day to catch my breath before ye bring the axe down on my neck,” Coll snapped.
She sent him a smile that wouldn’t have warmed ice. “There’s no sense in wasting time. What if Eloise and Mr. Harris were to elope? You might lose everything over poor timing.”
Well, this hadn’t gone at all the way Coll had described. Niall would have been amused with the way Francesca had stomped all over him if that wouldn’t have encouraged his oldest brother to punch him. But still, thank God he had at least a small say in finding his own bride, a milquetoast lass like Coll had described, a woman he could bed and then leave behind while he went back to the Highlands and lived as he pleased. “Ye might as well set eyes on her, Coll,” he said aloud.
Coll swiveled his head around. “Niall likes the theater. He’ll join us tonight.”
Niall took a breath. Bloody wonderful. “Och, I’d be delighted,” he lied. Just what he wanted, to spend an evening watching Coll trying to make some weak-willed lass faint from his mere presence. At least, he supposed, if any of the nearby females succumbed as well, he’d have his first chance at finding a weepy, dim-witted one for himself.
Francesca wanted them tied to London, it seemed. The countess likely hadn’t reckoned on them pursuing a set of lasses none of them wanted anything to do with. One visit to London, and perhaps a second one from Coll to make himself an heir, and Aldriss Park funded permanently. Not ideal, but better than whatever Francesca imagined for them.
Copyright © 2019 by Suzanne Enoch.