Horses thundered past Lord Loughton as he wandered along Rotton Row. His quarry, Lady Clara, was further ahead on a bench in Hyde Park. Her bonnet tilted askew as she gestured with a hard slash of her hand to a severely dressed gentleman sitting with her. Rather than adjust her bonnet, she ignored the sunlight on her face, and her freckles appeared like dots of burnt sugar on her cheeks. Fortunately, he was a fan of freckles, so they didn’t diminish her allure but made him smile as she continued to press her point, whatever it was, to the gentleman beside her.
Lady Clara was a lovely woman with a passionate nature, at least in conversation, and Liam cared not a whit. It was her dowry and her brother’s position in government that had caught his attention. Still, she appealed to him, and so he approached her in the only way a Scotsman could approach a titled English lady—by apparent accident.
“It’s not possible,” she was saying to the man. “Think of the height of those castle towers. You’d have to get water all the way up there. You’d have to carry it up. Imagine the amount of work!”
The gentleman shook his head. “Begin with a cistern to catch rainwater. And then, with the right application of pulleys, a single maid could bring water up from a well.”
“A well, yes, but not all the way up to the top of a castle.” The lady gestured with her hands to a place high above her head.
“Yes, she could,” the gentleman countered. “Think of a line of buckets on a pulley that dunked buckets in the nearest stream.”
“But that could be miles away!”
She took a deep breath in preparation of continuing her argument, but Liam grabbed the opportunity to intrude. “Excuse me,” he said, doing his best to hide his Scottish accent. “I couldn’t help but overhear. By any chance, have either of you ever lived in a castle?”
Lady Clara blinked. “I’ve toured them, of course—”
“Myself, as well,” the gentleman said.
“—But they’re drafty, awful places compared to a modern home,” she finished.
They could be, he thought, but his expression was one of challenge. “ I live in a castle, and I can tell you that it’s not always that way.” He smiled. “Were you talking about plumbing? I would very much like to hear your ideas.”
The gentleman frowned. Liam could tell he wasn’t interested in sharing the lady’s attention. Fortunately, Lady Clara lived up to her reputation of being willing to talk to anyone about anything. “You live in a castle? Is it in Scotland?”
So much for hiding his accent. Either he’d been very bad at it or she had a good ear. He bowed again. “Lord Loughton, at your service.”
“See here,” the gentleman said as he pushed up from his park bench. “You can’t go up to strangers and introduce yourself. That’s not the way it’s done in London.”
What he meant was that as a Scotsman, Liam couldn’t approach strangers. Fortunately, Lady Clara was more open-minded.
“Don’t be a prig, Julian. I’m pleased to meet you Lord Loughton.” She held out her hand and he made a show of being excruciatingly proper as he kissed it. And if he squeezed her extra tight, she seemed pleased by his strength. She smiled as he eyed her over her gloved hand, and her companion huffed out at the insult.
“This isn’t proper,” the man said.
“It wasn’t proper for me to meet you, Julian, and yet here I am without a maid in the middle of the afternoon.” She turned back to Liam. “Lord Loughton, pray allow me to introduce you to my fussy friend, Mr. Julian Russell. He’s got a passion for architecture that has lately turned to plumbing. I think we would both benefit from your knowledge of castles.”
“I would be happy to answer whatever questions you might have. Indeed, I could even arrange a tour if you were so inclined.”
“All the way in Scotland?” Mr. Russell exclaimed. He might as well have called it Hell, for that was the tone of his statement. “I assure you, we have plenty of castles in England if we need further education.”
“As you wish,” he said. “But I doubt your castles have the same kind of ghostly tales that we Scots enjoy.”
He watched Lady Clara closely as he spoke. His information on her was sketchy at best, but everyone had heard of her love of the occult. It was said she went to seances with regularity.
“A ghost story? I do love those. Is it a murdered bride?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “An old lonely cleric who wanders the halls and terrifies boys who don’t do their lessons.”
Lady Clara laughed, her nose wrinkling such that her freckles pressed together. “Sounds like a tale to keep young boys in line.”
“It would be,” he acknowledged, “if I hadn’t seen the terrifying sight myself.”
“And did you then complete your lessons?”
“Every single one.”
“Then I would say that is a ghost who should remain exactly where it is.” She tilted her head. “Is that the only ghostly tale in your castle?”
“Goodness no. In fact, there is a murdered bride, but…” His voice trailed away.
“But you don’t think them appropriate for my delicate, female ears?” Her voice was tart.
No, he wanted to intrigue her so that he could spend more time with her. “I meant no offense,” he said quickly. “We have just met, and some ladies do not enjoy bloody tales of ghostly apparitions.”
“Then you weren’t listening closely, were you? I told you I love ghost stories.” She didn’t appear angry so much as challenging him. Apparently, the lady enjoyed battling wits.
“Unfair! There are several types of ghost stories, my lady. I only began with the most proper.”
“And there you have it wrong again. I also said I was a most improper lady.”
Yes, he thought, he was counting on it. “True point, my lady.” He held out his hand. “May I buy you an ice at Gunter’s as my forfeit?”
That was too much for Mr. Russell who stood up forcefully enough to knock Liam’s hand aside. “Lady Clara is otherwise engaged.” Then he turned to the lady with his own warm smile. “I believe we were going to promenade this afternoon.”
Lady Clara looked at her friend and then back at Liam. Clearly, she was at a loss here, unused to having two gentlemen vie for her attention. She shook her head. “You’re both being very vexing,” she said firmly.
Then she straightened off the bench. And kept straightening. Good lord, the woman was tall. She nearly looked him in the eye. And that dusting of burnt sugar on her face now stretched out on a long face. He hadn’t noticed it before, but now that she stood, he saw how very angular she was. Long limbs, a full slash of a nose, and a wide mouth pressed tight.
And she did not like Mr. Russell demanding her sole attention.
Best to give way lest she tar him with the same brush. Except he couldn’t make himself small beside this arrogant Englishman, so he attempted a compromise.
“Can we three not walk together? There is plenty of time before the fashionable hour.”
“Don’t listen to him,” the man said, his tone a dark warning. “He’s charming, and you don’t like that.”
“Neither do I like peevish,” the lady countered. Then she twitched her skirts into place and headed off in the other direction. She didn’t say good day or any other polite formality. She rounded on her heel and walked away, her long legs covering distance with ease.
“Lady Clara!” cried Mr. Russell, his hands lifted in disgust. “Now she’ll be skittish for weeks.” He turned to glare at Liam.
“So run after her. Blame it all on me.” Clearly the man was smitten with her, and if an attachment was in the offing, Liam would like to know now.
“She hates being chased. Almost as much as I despise impertinent Scotsmen.”
Liam allowed his accent to roll through his word. “Ack, we know. That’s why we do it.” And no truer statement had ever been spoken.
“Well, it won’t work with her. Or me.” And with that, the man gathered up his papers and stomped away.
Liam watched him go while his thoughts spun toward the seduction of Lady Clara. Clearly Mr. Russell favored the mealy-mouthed approach of letting the lady set the pace of their interactions. Probably a wise choice for an Englishman with little bottom. But Liam was cut from Scottish cloth, and his ancestors favored boldness when acquiring their women. Abduction was not the plan, even though his father had suggested it. His thoughts were more “charming nuisance.” No woman had ever resisted him beyond five interactions.
This was his first, and quite successful given that he’d removed a rival.
His second came at the opera where he visited her booth. Her brother was in London for one night and was known to use his booth as way to advance his political ambitions. Easy enough to slip in behind several Members of Parliament. He found her reading a book at the side edge of their box. He greeted her and was rewarded with a grunt. He teased her, and she grudgingly looked up.
He could tell she remembered him. Her eyes widened then narrowed. “Castle plumbing, yes?”
He smiled. “Yes.”
“I’ve moved on to botany now,” she said as she flashed him the cover of her book. Something about plants, he assumed. The light was weak enough that he couldn’t make out the title. He wondered how she managed to see the words on the page.
“What about ghostly tales? Have you lost interest in those?”
That did catch her interest, but her gaze landed beyond his shoulder to her brother. “Aaron will never allow it, and since it’s his birthday, I shall oblige him this once.” This time she dismissed him in the polite way. “You may wish him happy birthday over there. Good evening.”
Not an auspicious conversation for Interaction #2. Fortunately, he was able to wish her brother a happy day. Since the man was no fool, Lord Chambers correctly guessed Liam’s interest was in Lady Clara. Discrete inquiries into Liam’s character followed within the week. Indeed, if the man had stayed in London, Liam might very well have resolved the matter immediately. Unfortunately, Lord Chambers left for his father’s sickbed too soon for a meeting of suitor to older brother.
Interaction #3 had him dancing attendance on her at a ball. Except she never arrived. Same with attempted interactions #4, 5, and 6. But by this time, his tracking skills adapted to the urban environment. Certainly, he did not follow her footprints in the dirt, but he was able to learn of her movements from any one of several dismissed servants. Thus he located her at a meeting of the Astronomical Society and again at an Alchemical Investigation lecture.
He charmed her to the best of his ability, but he was sadly uninformed when it came to the composition of comets or the formulae of various compounds. It was unpleasant to be viewed as an idiot. Worse still to be called a Scottish one as if that made him even more stupid. And though the lady cried foul at such disparagement, she nevertheless lost interest in him when distracted by scientific discussion.
But far from losing faith in his charm, Liam switched to a different plan: cocky declaration.
Rather than bribe another of her ever-changing servants, he waited at her door until she chose to come out. He didn’t ring the bell, but sat upon her front stoop reading the morning paper. If she had better servants, he would be shooed away within a quarter hour. She did not. It wasn’t until nearly noon that she stepped out and discovered him there with a gasp of surprise.
“Lord Loughton?” she cried. “Whatever are you doing here?”
He looked up at her with a smile, taking his time to fold up the newspaper. “I’ve come to tell you that we’re to be married.”
“What!” she cried.
“We are. Your family approves.” He winked boldly at her. “Shall we rush to the bedding or get to know one another first?”
She gaped at him. Indeed, it was perhaps the first time he had seen her rendered speechless.
He straightened up to his full height. Given that he was on a lower step than she was, they ended up nose to nose. He fully intended to take advantage of this position. More than being nose to nose, they were nearly mouth to mouth, and he planned to give her a full Scottish kiss. No woman had ever resisted that, and since this was their fifth actual encounter, it was well past time for her to tumble into his arms.
She did, but not in the way he expected. She was leaning close to him, no doubt to complete the kiss, when her heel caught. Her foot twisted, her knee buckled, and she tumbled straight into his arms. She landed with a heavy umph. The lady was not as light as she appeared. But he was strong enough to twist her in his arms such that her headfirst tumble ended up as a backwards collapse against his chest. Then he completed the move by settling her more firmly in his arms such that he could kiss her as passionately as he wanted.
But when he leaned down to claim her lips as his reward, she batted at his face.
“No,” she said. “No, no, no!”
He pulled back. It was that or get a broken nose.
“Ach, girl. What’s the matter?” She appeared genuinely alarmed, and all he was doing was cradling her as gently as a babe in arms.
Stop what? Stop keeping her from bashing her head on the stone walk? “Rest easy, lass. I promise you’ll never forget your first Scottish kiss—” He might have said more, but she planted the palm of her hand over his mouth. If he hadn’t flinched at the last moment, he would have lost an eye.
“Let me up,” she grumbled, but he was hardly in a position to help. She’d fallen down the stairs and her feet were well above her head. Besides, he was still trying to get her accustomed to him.
“Calm yourself, lass,” he muttered because her palm was still over his mouth. Then to tease her, he stroked his tongue across her skin.
“Ugh!” She pulled it back with a grimace.
Damn it, the woman had no ability to flirt whatsoever. Bowing to the inevitable, he helped her adjust her feet. Soon, he set her down on the steps right where he’d been waiting for her. Then he rocked back on his heels as he pondered her indifference to him.
“Is it because I’m Scottish?” Damnation, she’d seemed so open-minded about everything, not at all like the prissy English girls of equal fortune. She discussed castle plumbing in Hyde Park. She attended lectures on chemistry. She was a woman of logic and yet she appeared shocked by the idea that he’d intended to kiss her.
“Yes, of course, it’s because you’re Scottish,” she drawled, the sarcasm thick. “That would be the only reason I would catch my heel and fall.”
“You know what I mean. I’ve had the devil of a time getting your attention. I’m not ugly, your family approves of me.” That was a stretch. Her brother had not waved him off.
Lady Clara’s eyes widened, and her jaw hardened. “My family approves?” she said, her voice slow.
“Yes, of course they do.” What else was he to say? At least they didn’t disapprove, as far as he was aware.
She straightened her spine so hard he was surprised her spine didn’t crack. “That’s it. That’s why.” Again, her tone implied sarcasm, but he wasn’t completely sure. The woman never acted as he expected.
She grabbed hold of the railing and hauled herself upright. “Why I will not marry you.”
“Because your family approves?” He hovered beside her, ready to catch her if she fell again. She didn’t. Indeed, her feet seemed to be firmly planted on the ground. “Lady Clara, pray try to make sense.”
“I don’t care what arrangement you’ve made with my mother, I will not marry you.”
“Your mother? What does she—”
“She’s the only one who approves in my family. Which means I do not.”
He blinked. Damn it, he’d erred here, but there was still time to recover. “My apologies, Lady Clara. I have never spoken to your mother. I know nothing about her.”
The lady frowned at him, then sniffed hard. “My mother and I do not get along.”
Obviously. He raised his brows and attempted a Scottish wink. “Leave it to me. I’ll charm her too.”
Wrong tact. Her expression tightened. “You said we were going to marry.”
He smiled, scrambling to find a way to make her smile. “I was flirting. With you.”
“But you also meant it.”
True hit. He did intend to marry her.
“No,” she said.
“Lady Clara—” he tried, but she cut him off.
“It’s not because you’re Scottish. It’s because you live in Scotland! And in a castle no less!” Then she threw up her hands in disgust. “I told you that on the very first day we met.”
“Whatever are you talking about?”
“Castles are drafty, miserable places. My home is not.” She pointed to the house behind her. “Scotland is far away. London is not.” She pointed again at his chest. “I don’t care that you’re Scottish. I care that you’re charming.” She spit out the word like bad meat. “And I’m not marrying anyone, no matter what my family has said to you or anyone else!”
He thought she would go inside then. Indeed, the butler was standing in the doorway with his jaw slack as he watched the entire encounter. But instead of running inside, she looked hard past Liam’s shoulder. “Good day, Lord Loughton. There is a lecture on beekeeping that I am most anxious to attend.”
“Lady Clara!” the butler called in a nasally tone. “Shouldn’t I call a maid for you?”
The woman rolled her eyes. “No. It’s embarrassing when she falls asleep.”
She stomped down the remaining steps, her head lifted high enough that the hard slash of her nose seemed to cut the air around her. Such magnificence. She’d make a fine Scottish bride.
Unfortunately, that was encounter number five, and he’d exhausted the breadth of his charm. He didn’t want to think of his father’s plan, but he really had to consider it now.