Highlander’s Indecent Wager – Lydia Kendall

“THİS İS İT,” Lady Iris Stephenson said to herself under her breath. “The moment you have waited for all these long, lonely years.” The sights and sounds that enveloped her in the Hearthing Manor ballroom were the same as they were every year. The room was a grand one, Iris would grudgingly admit, with a handsome tiled floor perfect for dancing, illuminated by a hundred candles suspended from a chandelier that dangled from the vaulted stone ceiling. Fires roared in four great hearths on opposite walls, bringing as much cheer to the ancient hall as was possible for a brisk autumn evening in the northernmost reaches of England. Just like always, Iris had thought with a sigh on entering the ball that afternoon. How terrifically dull. The same hundred or so revelers were in attendance as always: interchangeably tiresome minor knights, lordlings, and grasping younger sons of Southern lords, accompanied by their equally tiresome wives and daughters. Even worse, most of these men were well past the age of dancing, let alone more handsome pastimes. The same antediluvian musicians played the same stodgy old tunes, making dancing rather a moot point in any case. The same chill autumn rain pattered on the windows outside, heralding the oncoming of yet another unbearable Northern winter. Even the food was the same bland, uninspired dishes as ever. “Good evening to you, Lady Iris,” mumbled some forgettable old skeleton in a threadbare coat. Iris returned his greeting with admirable cordiality, she was sure, though she hardly paid enough attention to bother noticing. Her mind was too firmly set on its objective to give her father’s ancient acquaintances even a passing care.

Of course, the deathly tedium of the ball did not persist for want of trying. Even if Harry Stephenson, the Earl of Hearthing, was content to repeat the same ball every year of his life in their drab little manor, his daughter was far too canny to allow such monotony to go unchallenged. Iris had begged him to employ a French chef, as her distant friends had written her were tremendously fashionable in London. She had imposed on her cousins to donate printings of the latest music, and had given them to her father to pass along to their musicians. She had spent a full year of her precious social life reaching out to more obscure or eccentric nobles in their area, including those rugged individuals across the border, in Scotland. She had even wheedled her father into considering inviting some of the newcomers who had arrived in the wake of the Articles of Union, that promised to bring increased trade with the much-feared Scots. All for naught. Every one of her suggestions was rebuffed with a pat on the cheek and a patronizing compliment from her father. The music was left untouched on the Earl’s writing desk. The invitations went unsent.

By all appearances, this year’s Hearthing autumnal ball would be identical to all the dreary ones that preceded it. But then, it was never wise to underestimate Iris Stephenson. “Not this time,” she muttered to herself again, draining the last dregs of wine in her glass. “This year is going to be different. You are going to have your heart’s desire if it takes your every effort.” Across the ballroom, cutting through a forest of bows and wigs and other fripperies, her eye was fixed like a hunter on its prey. Just as I vowed. Tonight I make him mine, or I swear myself to a nunnery. Either way, I will be out of the doldrums I seem unable to escape. Father had left entertaining the guests to her, having business to conduct in his salon.

She had cheerily assured him she would take care of everything, then promptly passed the responsibility onto their steward, Mister Corning. As usual, Mister Corning had been positively frantic at this addition to his duties, and as always, he performed his charge admirably, leaving Iris to wholly devote her attention to the much more important task at hand. Dozens of men and women gave their best attempt at a country dance, but as far as Iris was concerned, there may have only been two people in the ballroom. That enchanting patch of red-and-gold checked fabric floated at waist level, dipping to and fro among the flock of English nobles. Iris bit her lip to prevent it from pouting at the sight. To her it was a pattern as familiar as it was extraordinary—no mere mortal red, but a burning, aching red, as fearsome and primal as the very fire stolen from Olympus. It stood out from amid the crowd of creams and beiges as a fire on a mountaintop, or a fox among sheep. For her part, Iris was thoroughly tired of sheep. Every one of her peers seemed as thoroughly, crushingly ovine as the fluffy white beasts that dotted every field for miles around. Through some accident of heraldry or geography, the Hearthing family arms featured a lion rampant on a field of blue, and Iris had always tried her hardest to live up to that noble animal’s reputation.

Even when by size and disposition she felt more a mouse than a lion. Besides, it turned out that to be a lion among sheep was a lonely thing, and left her hungry for something greater. Ever since she had clapped her eyes on the massive, muscular figure of a Scotsman named Balthazar at one of her father’s annual balls, she had been able to think of nothing else. How many times have I seen that colorful marvel in my dreams since that ball four years ago? How many nights have I lay awake imagining myself swaddled in the strong, masculine arms of the fierce, manly Balthazar Nerwood, third-born son of Laird McGregor? “Very well. This is it,” she repeated, setting down her empty glass on an empty serving tray. Her heart hammered from somewhere deep within her, under layers of mantua and petticoat and corset. It had taken her nearly an hour to locate her goal from her vantage point by the window, made more difficult by the vultures that perpetually swooped in to inquire about Iris’s uncharacteristic turn as a wallflower. But now that she had sighted her quarry, she suddenly found herself frozen on the spot. Why am I so fearful? Iris asked herself, trying to quell the rumbling in her stomach. I’ve sighted his telltale garment, even if the man himself is hard to identify from this distance.

Now all I need do is approach Balthazar and speak to him, just as I’ve done a thousand times in my mind. The rumbling grew stronger at this thought. Perhaps butterflies are made more agitated when fed a diet of wine alone. “Cousin Iris!” a voice trilled from her periphery. A great commotion of ribbons wafted into view, topped by the cherubic face of her cousin Charlotte. Iris put on her most gratifying smile as she turned to greet her kind, if overloud, cousin. Unfortunately, she must not have accomplished as great a feat of deception as she had imagined, because the next words to come out of Charlotte’s mouth were, “Are you unwell? You have the look of having just swallowed a spider.” She winced. “Forgive me, Cousin. The… change in weather does not agree with me,” Iris said as gently as she could manage, keeping one eye on the patch of tartan across the room.

“Are you sure it is not the grouse pies?” Charlotte asked with a wink and a hand conspicuously raised to one side of her mouth. “Whatever your Lord Father does to that poor chef must be terribly cruel. I vow, a man who cooks like this must be suffering.” Iris laughed with surprise, breaking free of her scowl of concentration for the first time in hours. “Charlotte, I am surprised at such rudeness! You are, of course, completely correct, as I am sure Chef would agree, but since when is it proper for a guest to show up at a ball and begin telling the truth to her hosts?” “Well, someone ought to!” Charlotte quipped, fanning herself with a feathered folding fan. “And it might as well be an old married hag like me, as I have less to lose.” “How is everything in London?” Iris asked, her thoughts turning away from Caledonian concerns for a welcome change. “Oh, wracked with scandal. Erupting in political and societal turmoil. The same dull old lot, really.

” “And your Lord Husband? I trust the Duke is—” “Iris,” Charlotte interrupted with a tsk. “If I wanted idle pleasantries, I would have approached literally anyone else here. Such banality is unbecoming a young woman of your stature.” Iris’s cheeks grew hot. “My ‘stature’?” she snapped. “Yes, yes, though you be little, you are but fierce, or however it goes,” Charlotte said with a wave of her hand. “And the Duke is the same as always, not that either of us gives a fig.” She reached out and took her cousin’s hand in her own gloved fingers, her eyes alight with curiosity. “Now that we have concluded old matters, why not be a good hostess and indulge your guest for a moment?” “Surely you cannot think you suffer from a lack of indulgence,” Iris joked, her temper cooling as quickly as it had ignited. Her cousin met her with the faintest approximation of a laugh before continuing.

“Tell me of your own adventures here in the wild North! It must be dreadfully exciting, especially nowadays.” “Oh, Charlotte, you simply cannot imagine how wretchedly uninteresting everything is here!” said Iris. Noticing she was drawing stares from some nearby codgers dozing in their cups of wine, she lowered her voice and continued. “The winters here are so long and dark, and there is hardly even anyone to speak to!” “Hardly anyone?” Charlotte asked with an arched eyebrow. “Or hardly any eligible men, you mean?” Iris snorted. “The only eligible men in this part of the country are colder than the winters. Most of them are older than my father and frail enough they would snap in half in a mild wind.” “Oh, really, it cannot be as bad as all that.” “You should have been here at my last birthday,” said Iris, her already considerably boldness inflated by the wine. “There was a certain Viscount my father had his heart set on for me—I cannot recall his name, somehow.

” “And what did you find wrong with him, then?” Charlotte asked boldly. Why am I not addressing you as the Lady Whoever-It-Was?” Iris rolled her eyes. “First, he could neither eat nor drink due to a weak stomach. And if that weren’t bad enough, the man fainted during our first dance!” She laughed bitterly. “Really, Cousin, can you imagine being married to a man like that? I should hardly call that a man at all!” “I know a certain Duke who might differ in opinion,” Charlotte chuckled. Then the pair was interrupted by a roving band of codgers, their conversation grinding to a halt as they returned the old men’s stuttering pleasantries. “You see what I have to put up with?” Iris muttered through a clenched-teeth smile. Suddenly recalling her purpose for the evening, as discreetly as she could muster, Iris peered over and around the wizened heads of their supplicants for that guiding flash of red and gold. Curse my inattentiveness, I’ve lost track of him! “But surely that can’t be all to your life here at Hearthing!” Charlotte continued as the old men tottered off. “Are there truly no other suitable diversions near Hearthing? Why, I was sure you must be simply overrun with mad Scotsmen, especially so close to the border with our new countrymen?” “Hardly!” Iris coughed.

“Even as close as we are to some of the clans, Father will have little to do with them.” Charlotte sighed, slowly walking towards the grand hearth with Iris in tow. “How disappointing. I had half expected you to have been carried off by a barbarous Highlander by now. It should hardly take any effort at all for a Scotsman to toss a little thing like you over the side of his horse and marry you within an afternoon.” “They are not barbarians!” Iris protested. Her cousin gave her a sly look out of the corner of her eye. “Ruffians, then. Vandals. Brutes.

However you like to put it, Cousin, surely it’s clear that our new compatriots to the North are not half as civilized as we are?” “Charlotte, how can you say that?” “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Living in drafty old castles, making war with one another over the slightest insult, wearing skirts like any peasant woman—” “They’re called kilts, Charlotte, and they are—” “Oh, Iris,” Charlotte laughed theatrically, her mouth wide and eyes closed. “I’m sure I must seem frightfully old-fashioned. But you can’t really think Scotsmen are the equal of our beloved kingdom? Why, I have heard stories they stuff the hearts of their enemies into that awful haggis of theirs.” “That simply isn’t true!” Iris felt her voice raise but was powerless to fight it, caught in the wave of emotion that washed over her. She felt her cheeks redden with ire. “I have yet to meet a single Englishman who possesses a tenth the courage and masculinity of a Scotsman!” Charlotte stopped in place and gave Iris a maddeningly confident smile. “If that is how you feel, Cousin, and you are so terribly unhappy with your lot here, why not entertain a Scotsman as a suitor?” she asked in a sweet tone of voice, her round face a mask of jovial cruelty. “Perhaps I shall!” Iris snapped, then clutched her hands together to prevent them from flying in front of her mouth. Her words echoed in the now-quiet ballroom. Somewhere in the distance, over the sounds of the feeble musicians struggling with their minuet, she was sure she heard voices whispering on the theme of her outburst.

Iris was sure her cheeks must now be the color of Balthazar Nerwood’s tartan kilt, but she kept her eyes fiercely locked on Charlotte’s, swallowing heavily. “Why,” Charlotte said as she put a hand to her mouth in mock surprise, “what a happy coincidence! Isn’t that one of our Scottish neighbors just over there?” She gestured towards the end of one of the long tables near the door where from a quick glance, Iris detected the same red that had lingered in her dreams. Her stomach churned, her head suddenly feeling light enough to be carried away on the breeze. A dozen excuses leapt into Iris’ mouth at once… but seeing the smile of victory already creep onto her cousin’s face was enough to marshal her courage. You will not see me falter, Cousin. She set her chin in defiance. You may have all of London’s glamor, but here in the wild North none shall shame a lion out of pursuing what she aims for.

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