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“I said he was in the doorway,” Aden MacTaggert stated, eyeing his older brother on the great black Friesian warhorse Coll rode. “He walked in, opened his gobber, and started yapping like he always does, and I threw my boot at him.”
“And cracked him in the head,” Coll MacTaggert, Lord Glendarril, finished, scowling. “With ye being still half drunk, woke from a sound sleep, and nae more than a peep of light in the room? I think maybe ye did throw yer boot at him, and it scared him when it hit the wall or someaught, so he fainted.”
“I knocked him cold,” Aden protested, slowing his chestnut thoroughbred, Loki, as they reached Grosvenor Street and the front of Oswell House. “Ask Oscar. He’ll even point ye to the lump he says he still has on his skull.”
“I’d nae admit to fainting in fear, either,” Coll grunted, swinging to the ground. “Ye cannae throw a boot with any accuracy.”
“I cannae speak for ye, but ten pounds says I can,” Aden returned, dismounting to hand Loki’s reins over to Gavin, the groom they’d brought with them when they’d all been ordered down to London.
Had that only been five weeks ago? It seemed a century had passed since Lady Aldriss, their estranged mother, had revealed the existence of that damned agreement she and their father, Angus MacTaggert, had signed back when the three MacTaggert sons had been bairns. If they didn’t wed English ladies before their only sister—Eloise, the youngest—married her own beau, Francesca Oswell-MacTaggert would cease funding Aldriss Park—and thereby the lives of all the cotters, farmers, shopkeepers, servants, and her own sons.
“And how do ye mean to win that wager?” Coll retorted. “We’re in damned London. Ye cannae go about hitting valets with boots, or the pretty people will frown at ye.”
Aden looked around. “Gavin, go take that bucket down the street.”
The groom eyed him. “I’ll nae have ye pelting me with boots, Master Aden. Oscar claims his eyes still cross when the weather turns foul.”
“I’ll wait till ye’re clear. Go.”
With a sigh the groom picked up the bucket and went trotting up the street. Twenty or so feet away he stopped and looked back at them. “Here?”
“Nae. Keep going.”
When Gavin had to wait for a carriage to pass before he continued up the street and then motioned at them from fifty or so feet away, Aden nodded. “That’ll do. Get out of the way.”
Beside him, Coll sat on a mounting block and pulled off his boots. “Ye’ll go second,” he said. “And if I get closer, ye owe me twenty pounds.”
That had escalated quickly, and predictably. “Then throw it, before ye end up losing yer hide.” Leaning back against the wrought-iron railing that enclosed the front drive of Oswell House, Aden crooked a leg and yanked off his own Hessian boots. Their mother would no doubt be dismayed to see her two oldest lads walking about the streets of Mayfair in bare feet and kilts, but then she’d demanded they hie themselves down to London for no damned reason but to find wives. There were consequences to such rash orders. “And likewise. Twenty quid when I thrash ye.”
Standing again, Coll hefted a boot in his hand, cocked his arm back, and hurled it toward the bucket as if the finely crafted leather footwear were a rock. A horse carrying its dandy of a rider up the road skittered sideways as the boot bounced beside him and then skidded to a halt about eight feet short and two feet wide of the bucket.
“I say!” the rider chastised, trotting toward them. “This is not how—”
“Move, ye peacock,” Aden said, taking Coll’s place. “Dunnae get in the way of a Scotsman’s wager.”
With a squeak the dandy paled, yanking the gray’s reins sideways. “Heathens!” floated back on the breeze as the fellow vanished down the side street.
“He’s wearing more colors than a stained-glass window,” Coll observed.
“Aye. That’s a lad ye could spy in the dark.” Aden took his own boot by the top, letting the heavier heel hang. Swinging it back and forth, he opened his fingers and let fly near the top of his arc. The Hessian boot did a slow loop end-over-end, clanging against the bucket before landing straight up and down directly beside it.
Whistling, Gavin stopped an ice wagon. “Go around, ye fool,” the groom ordered. “We’ve a wager to settle here.”
“Why are people shouting in front of my h … Oh,” Francesca Oswell MacTaggert, Lady Aldriss, began as she descended the short, half-circle drive. “Barefoot? Really?”
“I cannae throw a boot while it’s on my foot,” Coll grunted, shouldering Aden out of the way to line up his second throw.
“Why are you throwing your boots?” the countess asked, a faint line furrowing between her brows.
“Coll claims Oscar fainted and hit his head when I tossed my boot at him, and I’m proving that ye can hit a valet from across the room well enough to knock him cold.”
“You—I will not have you hitting servants, Aden.”
He kept his attention on Coll. “It was eight months ago. And he might’ve ducked. I did warn him.”
Beside him the oldest MacTaggert brother had adopted Aden’s underhand swing. Coll was nearly six-and-a-half feet tall, all muscle and no subtlety, though, so Aden wasn’t surprised when the boot sailed up toward the clouds and past the bucket, past the curve in the road where Grosvenor Street turned up Duke Street, and landed in the shrubbery of the Duke of Dunhurst’s hedgerow.
“Ha!” his brother chortled, slapping his hands together. “Beat that.”
“The wager was over whose throw is closer to the bucket, ye lummox,” Aden reminded him. “Nae who can fling their footwear all the way back to Scotland.”
“Bah,” the viscount growled. “Give me another throw, then.”
“I willnae. Two feet, two boots.”
“Then yer second boot has to land closer than the first.”
Aden lifted an eyebrow. “I’ve already won twenty pounds. I may as well put this boot back on my foot.”
“Yes, please do,” their mother muttered from behind him.
He grinned at that, keeping his face turned away from her. “Unless ye’ll double the wager,” he went on. “Forty quid that this boot lands closer to the bucket than the first one.”
“Ye’re on,” Coll said on the tail of that, as if he thought Aden might change his mind. “Since ye’d have to get it inside the bucket to win.”
So be it. Half closing one eye, Aden swung the boot once, waited for a trio of bairns to cross the street with their nanny, swung again, and let go. The boot’s heel hit the rim of the bucket, tipped it over, and landed half inside as the thing rolled in a slow half circle. “Forty pounds,” he said, straightening and keeping his own surprise to himself. A time or two he’d benefited from luck over talent, but only a fool counted on the fickle lass.
“Gavin, bring my damned boots back here,” Coll bellowed.
As the groom dove into the shrubbery, a knee-high black dog dodged around him into the street and grabbed up one of Aden’s boots. Aden scowled. Damnation. That wouldn’t do. Those Hessians were his only pair of boots fit for wearing in proper Sassenach company. Stepping forward, he whistled before Gavin could give chase.
“Here, laddie,” he said, opening his sporran and pulling out the biscuit he’d stolen from the kitchen earlier. “Do ye favor a trade?” Squatting, he held the biscuit out in his hand.
The long-snouted dog edged forward, tail down, pointed ears flattened, and boot in his mouth. Whoever he was, he hadn’t been treated kindly on the streets of London. Aden could sympathize with that.
“Grab him, Aden,” Coll urged.
Aden ignored his brother. Coll always favored a scrap, even when a gentler hand would serve a situation better. The dog dropped the boot, stretching forward with a slightly sideways cant, one eye twitching as if it expected to be struck. “Only cowards beat animals,” Aden soothed, holding his hand and the biscuit steady and outstretched. “Ye’ve nae a thing to fear from me.”
Ears lifting a little, the dog clamped its teeth over the edge of the sweet and skittered away, disappearing around the corner in the direction of Hyde Park. With a sigh Aden stretched out to pick up his boot and stood again. Poor wee lad.
When he turned around, Lady Aldriss had her green gaze on him. The woman was clever and knew it, and because she’d managed to get the youngest of the three MacTaggert lads married already, she thought she had them all figured out. But he wasn’t amiable, goodhearted Niall. He was three years older than his twenty-four-year-old brother, and ten times more cynical. He remembered quite well the day their mother had left them behind in Scotland, and how empty and … idiotic he’d felt for months afterward. That was the last time he’d been caught unaware. Hell, he hadn’t led matters with his heart since then.
“What is it ye think ye’ve deciphered, Countess?” he asked aloud, catching his second boot when Gavin tossed it to him and turning for the Oswell House front door.
“I don’t know,” she returned, following him. “I continue to observe.”
“Observe all ye wish, then,” he countered. “I reckon ye’d gain more insight doing that with me in my natural surroundings, which isnae here in London.”
“From the way you and your brothers speak about you, I thought your natural surroundings would be anywhere you might find a table and some cards or dice.”
“Aye. Ye’ve the right of that, then. Ye’ve deciphered me.”
“Nae,” he interrupted, not slowing his retreat. “I’ll do yer bidding and find a wife, because ye’ve nae left any of us a choice. But I’m nae going to sit down for a heart-to-heart chat with ye over tea, màthair.” Over his shoulder he caught sight of Coll’s interested expression. Always looking for trouble, the viscount was. “Forty quid, ye behemoth.”
“I’ll pay ye in a damned minute.”
Padding barefoot into the foyer, Aden passed an affronted-looking Smythe the butler, who’d likely never seen any of Oswell House’s residents without footwear before. Heading upstairs, he freed a necklace made of paste pearls from his coat pocket and hung it over the antlers of Rory, the stuffed deer they’d brought south with them and left on the landing of the main staircase for every exalted Sassenach guest who stepped through the front door to see.
The red deer had been a part of the ridiculous amount of luggage they’d toted from the Highlands with them, because as far as they’d known, all traveling English had a ludicrous number of trunks and bags accompanying them. And they’d wanted to make a ruckus, to demonstrate that they wouldn’t be ruled by some Englishwoman they barely remembered just because she had gold in her purse. When the countess had declared that under no circumstances would Rory be allowed to live in the library as he had up at Aldriss Park, Aden and Coll had set him down on the landing out of pure contrariness.
In the weeks since then the deer had acquired a cravat, a beaver hat, a blue satin skirt, a lambskin glove over one antler tine, earbobs, and various other knickknacks hung over his impressive rack of antlers and muscular frame. The lad looked less than dignified now, but the amusement of dressing him like a disheveled Sassenach had kept Aden, at least, from punching several actual Sassenach.
“Where did you get that?” a female voice asked from the landing above him.
“Rory?” he replied, glancing up at his sister, Eloise. She was the youngest of the MacTaggerts, and the only one of them raised English. She was also the reason her brothers had allowed themselves to be dragged down to London. The eighteen-year-old had gotten herself betrothed, an act that had set their father on his deathbed—where Angus MacTaggert still remained better than a month later according to his frequent letters warning his sons of the treacherous females lying in wait in London—and her three brothers with pretty, English-bride-shaped nooses around their necks.
“No, the necklace,” she corrected, descending the steps to join him. Eloise removed it from the deer’s antler and held it up to examine it. “Oh, they aren’t real, are they?”
“Nae. A lad lost a wager and had to give over whatever he carried in his pockets. I dunnae if they were to be a gift for a lass, or if he tried and she refused them, or if he nicked them from some unsuspecting lady or other.”
“That’s sad, any way you put it.” With a sigh she hung them back on the antler. “Even so, Rory is quite well dressed.”
“Aye. All the other deer in the Highlands would be jealous if they could see him now.” Kissing her on the cheek, he continued up the west-side stairs toward the group of bedchambers given over to him and his brothers. Whatever bother she’d caused them, Eloise was their bairn of a sister and a MacTaggert. She was to be loved and protected, English-raised or not. She’d lost her heart, and hadn’t known about the agreement any more than her three brothers had.
Behind him Eloise cleared her throat. “Thank you for returning in time to attend my luncheon,” she said, and he could almost hear her grimace. “I know you don’t like the idea of having young ladies thrown at you. But they are all my friends. And it’s just food, which you like. There’s no harm in you and Coll joining us.”
Aden slowed. Women were always flinging themselves at him, but since they’d arrived in London it seemed like someone had loaded a catapult full of skirts and bosoms and launched it at his head. Aye, Francesca demanded he wed an English lass, and aye, he’d been looking now for five weeks. Well, not looking as much as he’d been observing with growing cynicism. Fluttering eyelashes and discussions of the weather bored him to tears, but as far as he could tell that was the sum of female Sassenach conversation. Eventually, though, he would have to choose one of them, empty-headed and dainty or not. He did recognize that. The future of Aldriss Park depended on it. But he didn’t have to like it. And he did not. At all. Even Eloise’s friends—the ones he’d met, anyway—had seemed very, very … young. Naive. Dull. Full of naught but polite chatter and lace.
He couldn’t put into a sentence what it was he wanted in a lass, but a bit of fire and boldness would have been nice. Or not nice, which was what he preferred. A lass who wouldn’t lie on her back, wide-eyed and stiff, while he did his “husbandly right” or whatever the proper set called fucking here in London. As for the rest … well, he needed to marry. All he required, he supposed, was a woman who didn’t make him wish to drown himself in the nearest loch.
Perhaps the difficulty here was that Niall, the youngest MacTaggert brother, had not only found a lass within a day of arriving in London, but he’d found one he loved. And Amy adored him. Hell, they’d barely left Niall’s bedchamber in the six days since they’d returned from Gretna Green. Love was a sticky proposition, and any man aiming to find it was a fool. Niall, to his credit, hadn’t been after the damned thing, which apparently was the only way to find it. A bloody conundrum, and one Aden wasn’t certain he would ever trust, anyway.
Copyright © 2020 by Suzanne Enoch