It took two hours to cool Connall’s body and he was awake for fifteen minutes of it. He’d had the strength to make their bet, then surrendered to sleep while Mairi tried to keep her mind and her heart from declaring war on one another.
She cared for this man. A very great deal, if truth be told. And who wouldn’t want a handsome duke as a husband?
But now as always, the man was too much for her. She was a strong woman. Some had even called her a firebrand. But in every contest against this man, she’d lost. Even when she won a bet—and she had won many—she always came out feeling like the loser. She’d lose her common sense in doing everything to win. She’d lose her health, her sanity, and her words in an all-consuming war to keep him back, keep him away, and to prove herself strong against him. But she wasn’t strong when it came to him, and pretending she was made her feel like a failure.
Simply put, he consumed her thoughts whenever he was around. She’d learned young that such imbalance wasn’t healthy, and so she’d stepped away. She’d been promised to Liam at the time, and so it was a necessary thing to leave Connall behind as she focused on her future with Liam.
But now he was here and looking glorious in his sleep. Even though a maid sat with her, helping her cool his overheated body, Mairi could not keep her thoughts from turning lustful. He’d touched her with his large hands. Nearly a decade ago, he’d caressed her breasts with them, and she could still feel it. He’d pressed his lips to hers, he’d invaded her mouth with his tongue, and when she’d pulled away, he’d pursued her to lick her neck and jaw.
He’d said such things to her then. Called her his bonnie lass and other such nonsense. Then he’d pressed her down to the grass and she’d needed all her strength to shove him away and run. He hadn’t fought her, though he could have caught her if he’d wanted to. The one she’d struggled with was herself. She knew what boys said about girls. She’d spent her childhood in the glass factory with her father hearing the crude talk of men. She’d be damned if she became one of their tales of conquest.
So she’d run and she’d cut him from her life in every way possible. If only the damned man would stay away! Instead, she was stroking every inch of his glorious body and wondering what it would have been like if she’d stayed all those years ago. What would she have felt? During their time together, what would they have done?
Afterwards would have been a humiliating disaster as he whispered about her to all his friends. But during? What would it have been like?
Those thoughts had tortured her for years and now she had even more images to add to her very graphic imagination.
In the end, she threw down the cloth with disgust. His body was cooler now, he was sleeping peacefully, so she had no need to sit here and torture herself by staring at his glory. She gathered up the dirty water basin and stomped out. She met Parry outside the bedroom door.
“Please have someone sit with him through the night. Get me immediately if his fever worsens.”
The man’s brows rose. “Doesn’t he have a valet who can—”
“We’re Scots. We don’t need servants dogging our steps every second.” She looked over Parry’s shoulder at a footman loitering in the downstairs hallway. “Surely someone is interested in advancing himself. The duke will likely hire a manservant once he recovers and finds rooms in London.”
Parry didn’t react to her statement, but the footman did. He immediately leapt up the stairs and presented himself with a bow. “I should be happy to watch his grace through the night,” he said.
“You?” Parry scoffed. “You can’t stay awake through afternoon tea.”
Mairi didn’t care to hear the rest of the argument. She shoved the basin of dirty water at Parry. “Assign someone,” she said. “I’m going to be…” She was about to say “in her bedroom,” but she could hear voices in the room down the hall. The countess was grilling the newcomers. Now that was something she wanted to hear. She smiled at Parry. “I’ve a question for the countess,” she lied as she headed for the female voices.
She knocked on the door but didn’t wait to be invited in. She turned the knob and curtsied. It was very important to give the countess her due. The lady liked it even when it wasn’t necessary.
“Is it all right that I join you?” she asked sweetly as she looked about the room. The countess was seated in a chair as she appeared to inspect Sadie’s method of walking. Mairi recognized the drill. Walk, walk, walk, turn. Smile over your shoulder, mince sideways a bit, then return. She always felt like a show horse when doing that.
Meanwhile, standing in the corner with her head bowed like a servant, was Isbeil—the only lady born out of all of them. And what was going on with that?
“Come in,” the countess said as she waved her in. “I’ve been putting Miss Allen through her paces. She’ll have to join you in your lesson, I’m afraid, but all in all, she’s much better prepared for a season than I feared.”
That was high praise coming from the countess.
“At least Lady Isbeil can speak without a brogue. Your mother was English, wasn’t she?”
The countess frowned. “Lady who?”
She gestured to Isbeil whose eyes were wide with shock. “You know better than to come into a lady’s house, ask for her help, all while pretending to be who you aren’t.”
The countess turned to Isbeil. “What is this? Who are you?”
Isbeil curtsied, her expression tragic. “Please, my lady, I’m Sadie’s maid, nothing more. I only ask that I be allowed to serve as any other maid—”
Any other time, Mairi might have been more understanding. It was the God’s honest truth that Isbeil’s situation was ugly. But a lie never made things better and if she wanted help, then by God, she’d be honest about it.
“She’s Lady Isbeil. Granddaughter of the Earl of Gowrie. Her father passed several years ago—”
“Poisoned by his brother,” Isbeil said with tears glittering in her eyes.
“And now the ward of said brother.”
“Goodness,” the countess murmured. “It’s a Hamlet play.”
“Except I’m a woman and he means to marry me to his awful cousin. I had to get out. I had to!”
“Well, she wouldn’t be a lady anyway. A granddaughter does not have the title.”
Oh. Right. But with her airs and her heritage, everyone called her Lady Isbeil. Her uncle insisted.
Meanwhile, Sadie stepped forward. “It’s true, my lady.” She shot Mairi a hard glare. “She escaped and ran to me. I took her as my maid—”
“To do what?” Mairi rasped. Why could no one think their actions through? “Do you marry an English footman then? Will he get your dowry?”
The countess straightened up. “Dowry? What dowry?”
“Five hundred gold coins,” Mairi said.
“I don’t know that it’s still there,” Isbeil said, her voice tight. “My uncle probably spent them already.”
“That is your groom’s problem.” The countess gestured Isbeil forward. “Come on. Head up. Step forward and let me look at you.” She frowned. “Pretty face and the Scots call you a lady. That means a very great deal to some. I don’t like the red hair and you’re a Scot, so that weighs against you. Nevertheless, I think I can do something with you.”
Sadie frowned. Clearly, she hadn’t been around long enough to realize that the countess lived to matchmake. Her every thought was to about a girl’s assets on the Marriage Mart and how they could be promoted to best advantage.
Mairi folded her arms. “Do you mean to get married Isbeil? It’s the only way out from under your uncle’s thumb.”
The woman nodded. “But I haven’t any money. How will I get dresses and hats? These aren’t even my own shoes—”
“Tut tut.” The countess waved her to silence. “There are ways around that.” Her gaze cut across the room. “Three Scottish girls of modest means, and one with a title of sorts. Hmmm.” She tapped her fingers on her lips. “I can do it,” she said firmly. “If you listen to me. Every one of you must swear to do exactly as I say when I say it. Otherwise, you can leave my home now and do whatever poor people do when they have no possibility of better.”
What were they to say to that?
“Of course, we will,” they all said. And because Mairi had lived with the lady for longer than any of the others, she added an extra benefit for the lady.
“I’ll teach them to run your household, too. Between the three of us, you won’t have to lift a finger.”
“Not a finger?” the woman cried. “Do you think it is easy to plan a come out? Of not one but three young ladies?”
“No, my lady.”
“No!” she snapped as she stood up. “It is not. But mark my words, I’ll see that you all get husbands and you’ll be grateful for it.” The woman headed for the door with a hard swish of her skirts. She appeared to be furious, but Mairi wasn’t fooled. There was a martial gleam in her eyes and her lips twitched with pleasure. The countess adored nothing more than being a warrior in the social whirl.
Mairi opened the door for her as the lady sailed out. Then the woman paused in the hallway, looking back over her shoulder just as Sadie had been practicing a few moments before.
“Well, don’t just stand there!” she said. “Downstairs, the lot of you. I’ll see you three walking like ladies before bed tonight. And then tomorrow, the real work begins.”
Sadie and Isbeil exchanged a startled look, then both rushed to follow. Mairi was the last to go, her heart and her mind still torn. Her mind told her to follow smartly. She was a prize as a wife, and some lucky Sassenach was going to be grateful for her. But her heart still lingered down the hallway with Connall. What if his fever spiked? What if he grew delirious?
What if he woke and decided that marrying Lady Isbeil was the best choice for him? The woman knew how to run a household, was a titled Scotswoman, and she was right here. What if he picked her? That was an unsettlingly close possibility.
“Miss MacAdaidh!” the countess called from down the stairs. “I will not tolerate dawdlers. Do you come and learn how to be a lady? Or do you—”
“Coming!” she cried as she rushed forward. “I thought to check on the duke’s health.”
The woman frowned. “Is he ailing?”
“No more than before.”
The woman pressed her lips tight as she looked toward Connall’s room. She was worried, though about what, Mairi had no idea. Did she fear for Connall’s survival or fear having illness in the house? Either way, she had a practical mindset that Mairi appreciated. “Does he need more attention?” asked the countess.
“No, my lady.”
“Then come down here and learn something!”
“Yes, my lady.”
And so it was done.