Hit Me With Your Best Scot – Suzanne Enoch

“I’ll find my own damned wife, thank ye very much!” Coll MacTaggert, Viscount Glendarril, shoved aside the curtains and stomped out of the OswellMacTaggert box at the Saint Genesius Theatre. She’d done it again. This time his mother, Francesca Oswell-MacTaggert, Countess Aldriss, had thrown two lasses at him while he was trying to watch a blasted play. Two damned women and their families to share Lady Aldriss’s private box. Since his two younger brothers firstly weren’t present and secondly had already found wives, everyone in the entire damned theater had to know that the lasses were there for him. “Coll.” A low voice came from the curtains, and Matthew Harris stepped into the hallway. “Your mother wants to remind you not to repeat what happened on your first night in London.” That would’ve been the first time she’d flung a female at him. She’d tried to present him with a pretty wrapped bow of a lass whose family had already agreed to a marriage, and he’d fled into the streets rather than sit through Romeo and Juliet beside her. If his mother wanted to delve into the details, Miss Amelia-Rose Hyacinth Baxter had ended up married to a MacTaggert—just not to him. But his brother Niall loved her, and she him, so he had nothing else to say about that. “So, Matthew Harris,” he drawled. “I’ve nae seen ye without my sister by yer side for the past … what is it, three days since ye nearly ruined yer family’s reputation?” Immediately Matthew took a half step backward, toward the curtains. “We’re all friends here, Coll,” he said.

“Aden said I still had his blessing to marry your sister.” “My brother Aden is about to wed yer sister, so I reckon he has reason to be forgiving of yer previous idiocy. And he’s in love, so he sees everything covered with flower petals and cherubs.” “I—” “He may have proclaimed ye fit to wed our wee sister Eloise, but I havenae done so. And I’m the oldest—and the heir to our father. With him still in the Highlands, I speak for the MacTaggerts here in England.” Matthew took another step back toward the relative safety of Lady Aldriss’s very fine theater box. “I made a horrible mistake and lost far more money than I could ever afford to repay,” he said, lowering his voice still further. “But you know I was flimflammed—and far from the only man to fall into the trap set by Captain Vale.” “Aye.

I do know that. I also ken that ye were about to sell yer sister to Vale to keep yerself from ruin. The only thing that prevented ye from having Miranda marry that vulture was my brother. Aden saved ye both; ye didnae have another plan at all.” The younger man’s complexion paled, his generally cheery expression evaporating into glumness. “You’re correct. I had no idea what to do. I’m very glad Aden was here in London, and that he cared enough for Miranda to save the two of us. He saved the entire Harris family, actually, and I will forever be in his debt.” “Aden’s a good sort, once ye drag him out of the shadows,” Coll agreed.

“And since he loves yer sister and yer sister’s a better woman than either of ye likely deserve, she’s forgiven ye as well.” “Yes, she has. I’m very grateful.” “I’m nae yer sister.” “I—oh. I take your meaning. I’ve sworn off gambling of any kind, you know. And I’ve surrendered my membership to White’s, Boodle’s, and the Society. There will be no more clubs and no more wagering. I swear it.

” “And that makes ye fit to wed my wee sister? I’m supposed to believe that ye willnae get into some sort of trouble again and decide ye need to sell off Eloise to set yerself upright?” “I would not do any such thing,” Matthew said adamantly. Behind them, muffled applause sounded from the theater. The younger man shifted again. “We should get back. Your mother—Lady Aldriss— was quite resolved that you shouldn’t open yourself to more gossip by leaving her box yet again.” “I ken who my mother is. Right now I’m talking to ye about how ye keep scrambling away like a door mouse every time I walk into the room.” “Coll—Lord Glendarril—you may say anything you wish to me. I’m certain I deserve it. But I am utterly serious when I say that I would never put dear Eloise in any—” Flashing out his right fist, Coll caught the younger man flush on the nose.

Matthew staggered backward, his hands flying to his face. Blood dripped from between his fingers. Before the young Mr. Harris could regain his footing, Coll stepped forward and grabbed him by the cravat to yank him forward. “I dunnae put much stock into words,” he growled, practically lifting Matthew off his feet. “It’s easy to beg forgiveness, and it’s easy to swear repentance. I dunnae want to hear either of those from ye again. I am going to be watching ye, Matthew Harris. Eloise loves ye, and my mother says ye’ve a good heart. That is why ye’ve earned one—one—more chance.

The next time ye think to make a wager or a purchase or any wee thing ye might nae be able to afford with what ye have in yer pockets, ye think of how yer face feels right now. And then ye think what the rest of ye will feel like when I drag you up to Scotland and feed ye to my hounds. Do ye reckon I’m serious about that?” “Yes—yes, I do.” He let go, and the lad staggered backward. To his credit, Matthew didn’t immediately retreat into the box, and he didn’t swing back—though that would have been a mistake the size of a mountain. Few people had ever been able to stand toe-to-toe with Coll MacTaggert, though more than a handful had certainly tried. They had all reckoned that going through him would be the most expedient way to gain a reputation as a man not to be crossed. Except none had ever made it through him. “I understand, Coll,” Matthew finally rasped out, his tone nasal with his nose pinched closed. He pulled a kerchief from his pocket, wiped off his face and hands, and pressed it against the bruised middle of his face.

“You will never have cause to feed me to your hounds. I swear it.” Coll nodded. “See that I dunnae.” He turned on his heel. “But the play?” Matthew pursued. “This is the closing night for As You Like It, and you walked out three lines into the first act. And you have … guests.” Facing him again, Coll narrowed his eyes. “I dunnae like it, and they arenae my guests.

I’ll nae be ambushed again just because Francesca reckoned I’d nae get up and leave a second time. Ye can tell her she’s wrong about that.” “I’ll … tell her what you said.” Coll turned his back, then faced Matthew again. “And ye tell her I meant that last bit. I’ll find my own wife. If I need her help, I’ll ask for it. Now go away before ye rile me up again.” With that, he watched his almost-brother-in-law—twice over, with Matthew Harris marrying Eloise and Aden marrying Miranda Harris—scurry back through the heavy curtains. Then, before Francesca could march out and try to drag him back inside by his ear, Coll headed down the curving hallway toward the long set of stairs at the rear of the Saint Genesius Theatre.

As he considered it, he should have realized Lady Aldriss had laid a trap for him; she’d agreed to join him for an evening at the theater far too easily, and without any of her usual clever, tricky conversation. His brother Aden could sort through her nonsense and machinations, but subterfuge simply annoyed Coll. Being frustrated, though, didn’t eliminate his problem. He now had twenty-seven days remaining in which to find a wife, all because when he was eleven years old, his parents had written up an agreement that their sons would wed—and that their brides would be English, damn it all—before their youngest, Eloise, married the man of her choosing. And she’d been engaged for two months, now. Well, he was fucking tired of listening to reason, tired of trying to find common ground with delicate lasses just out of the schoolroom when he was but a month shy of his thirtieth year. He was tired of wondering if one of those hothouse flowers hovering about the ballroom would swoon, should he ask her to dance. Worse, he was tired of trying to figure out which likely-looking young thing would play pretty and agreeable, and then turn into a cold shrew who had no other goal but to wed a title and rule over the dim giant with the thick Scottish brogue. As he wandered through the mostly empty hallways and staircases of the Saint Genesius, he considered all the lasses to whom he’d already been introduced. Some were pretty enough, a few had their wits about them, and all of them, of course, had been raised to be proper English ladies who could handily oversee a proper household.

Not a one of them, he imagined, had set foot in the Scottish Highlands. Not a one of them would know how to raise good Scots bairns in a wild and rugged land, where peril waited in the deep, still lochs and the silent, brooding forests and the endless rocky hills. God, he missed the Highlands. The idea that he had to wed to please his mother bit at him like a pack of angry badgers. But damn it all, she had hold of the purse strings. She’d outfoxed her husband, Angus MacTaggert, Earl Aldriss, and kept all of the considerable Oswell fortune in her name and under her control. And before she’d fled the Highlands, she’d made Lord Aldriss sign that paper. That was why Coll had twenty-seven days to find a bride, or Lady Aldriss would cease funding Aldriss Park. “Excuse me, sir.” He blinked, swinging around as a petite lass dressed like a peasant of a previous century pranced past him.

A stout lad by an unadorned door nodded and stepped aside to let her enter, then took up his guard position once more. “What’ve ye got there?” Coll asked. “Nothing for the theater guests,” the big man replied. “If you wish to pay your respects to the performers, you can wait at the rear of the theater by the stage door until after the performance.” Coll didn’t wish to pay his respects to the performers; he’d seen but a minute of the play. What he did want, though, was a place where he could stay out of the rain and think for a damned minute without being plagued by Lady Aldriss or any more of her messengers. He dug a coin out of his pocket. “What if I’ve a mind to take a look through that door anyway?” The man glanced down at Coll’s palm. “Then you’d best have more blunt than that. Night before last, I had eleven gentlemen trying to crowd in behind the stage to see Mrs.

Jones, and management don’t like that. So the price to get through this door is now two quid.” “Mrs. Jones?” Coll repeated, ignoring the rest of the jabbering and the outrageous bribery sum being sought. “Who the devil is Mrs. Jones that it costs two pounds to set my peepers on her?” With a snort, the big fellow folded his arms over his chest. “Either you take me for a fool, or you’re not from around here.” “I dunnae know if ye’re a fool or nae, lad, but as ye might have guessed, I’m nae from around here.” “Then Mrs. Persephone Jones is the actress who’s broken half the lordlings’ hearts here in London.

She’s onstage now playing Rosalind, so if you go back to your seat, you can take a gander at her yourself.” Generally, Coll wouldn’t even have considered paying two quid for a gander at a lass. But when his mother had dragged him and his two younger brothers down from the Highlands, she’d made it clear as glass that she was the one who controlled the purse strings, that all the blunt in their pockets was thanks to her. That made the money in his pockets tonight hers, and he had no qualms about spending it with the idea of avoiding her talons. Putting the one coin away and pulling out two different ones, he pitched them to the door warden. “I reckon I’ll take a gander from behind the stage.” “Suit yourself, then. But be quiet. If you make any noise in the wings, they will throw you out.” Coll doubted any man could throw him out of a place where he was inclined to be.

His brothers didn’t refer to him as “the mountain” for no reason. He’d reached four inches past six feet a good time ago, and as far as he was concerned, he had the shoulders and strength to match his height. “I’ll be a wee church mouse, then.” The guard pulled open the door. “Be quick about it. If you get caught, I will say I’ve never seen you before. I’ve no wish to tussle with you, but neither do I want Mr. Huddle sacking me for letting you in here.” For the briefest of moments, Coll felt a pinch of disappointment that he’d avoided yet another fight. Since he’d arrived in London, he’d fallen into one brawl that hadn’t been any of his doing, taken one punch from his brother Niall that he’d deserved, and delivered one solitary jab as a lesson that his soon-to-be brother-in-law had best remember for the remainder of his life.

These Englishmen used words as their weapons, and while he’d been attempting to adapt, he still didn’t like it. At all. A fist was a weapon. Words, as far as he was concerned, were overrated. He stepped through the door into semi-darkness. Out in the part of the theater meant for the paying public, the floors were carpeted and the walls a clean white, interspersed with dark red curtains and panels of wallpaper that depicted exotic tableaux of the Far East. Through the door, though, the floor was wooden and plain, the walls bare brick, and up above might have been a lair for giant spiders, it was so crisscrossed with rope and wooden beams and planking. Everything felt too close to him, so much so that he had to fight the instinct to duck his head. Coll took a hard breath, putting one hand against the brick wall to brace himself. Dim and closed-in, but not to the point where he had the immediate urge to escape.

Not yet, anyway. For the moment, this was still better than being gawped at by debutantes too scared to chat with him. Once his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he moved away from the door, toward the dark curtains bordering the stage and the ring and echo of voices beyond them. Around him, an odd mix of brightly garbed actors and plainly dressed supporting folk scurried about—mice in a maze of painted trees, a stuffed horse fitted with a saddle and bridle, a scattering of thrones and plainer chairs, and giant painted screens depicting a storming ocean, a mountainside, the deck of a ship, and more he couldn’t make out. In some ways it reminded him of a bairn’s nursery, with bits of wonder tucked into the corners here and there. The folk around him, though, looked serious-faced and earnest, with the exception of the lass standing beneath a row of hanging sandbags, her attention on the lad playing the role of Orlando onstage. Hmm. In the play Orlando didn’t win Celia, but he seemed to be doing well enough from this vantage point. Coll studied her for a moment. She was pretty enough, with black hair and a slender waist, but he couldn’t see why it should cost a man two pounds to be closer to her than he could get from his seat in Francesca’s box.

“Excuse m—ah, another one,” muttered a short, thin man with a roll of blue material under his arm and a row of pins stuck along his lapel. “If you’re here for Mrs. Jones, stay out of the way. You can wait over there.” He indicated a small square of space that had a good view of the stage, with only the open curtains blocking him from the view of the audience. That would do, and from there he would likely be able to overhear whatever curses his mother might be flinging at him. “Is that Mrs. Jones?” he whispered, indicating the black-haired lass. “That? No, that’s Mary Benson.” The fellow glanced over his shoulder toward the door.

“You didn’t pay good money to see her, I hope. She’s nearly too occupied with ogling Baywich over there to remember her own lines.” “My thanks,” Coll returned, but the man had already scurried away. A trio of men dressed as nobles trotted past him as they exited the stage. “Stand aside, giant,” the one called Baywich commanded, his voice lilting and imperious. Coll ignored it, and they went around him. Half a hundred Sassenachs had referred to him as a giant over the past eight weeks. Aye, he towered over most people and he had done so since somewhere just short of his sixteenth birthday. So the wee Englishmen could have their opinions; he didn’t give a damn. Instead, he tried to reposition himself to see the two lasses arguing onstage, only to be jostled aside again by a quartet of men dragging a forest of potted trees forward, just out of sight of the audience.

The foliage looked a bit tame to be the forest of Arden, but they might suffice if the light was dim enough. A round of applause welled up beyond the curtains, and a heartbeat or two later, a lass pushed through the trees and nearly crashed into him. “Romeo, you seem to be in the wrong play,” she quipped with a quick grin that lit her blue eyes before she hurried into an alcove, two women and an armload of costumes hot on her heels. For a good second or two, he felt like he’d been caught in a gust of wind, bandied about and left unsteady on his feet. Coll took a breath. It was no doubt the way he’d been stuffed into a small corner with crazed Sassenachs tramping around him. He and small spaces had been enemies for as far back as he could remember. That had to be it, because no wee woman could topple him, and not with one damned sentence, clever though it might have been. He turned to get another look at her, but she’d disappeared into the tangle of scenery and props. Romeo.

Ha. He had much more in common with Henry the Fifth than the empty-headed boy who’d killed himself over a woman. Henry, at least, knew how to fight a battle. Still, she seemed to have meant it as a compliment. Still searching, he finally caught another glimpse of her over a half screen, as one of the other lasses pulled the gown off her while the second one fluffed out a white men’s shirt for her to pull on. All he could see was her head, topped by an intricate knot of straight brown hair and a bit of neck and the top of her shoulders, but he was fairly certain she was more or less naked behind that woven cane screen. “Look away, Romeo,” she said with a chuckle as their eyes met again. “I’m Rosalind, not Juliet.” “Aye? Well, I’m nae Romeo,” he retorted, and kept staring. A half dozen people immediately shushed him, and he snapped his jaw closed again.

The same quartet of men then walked past him onto the stage to squawk out their lines for the next scene. As You Like It had never been one of his favorite plays, probably because he could never believe that any man—much less one who claimed to be in love with a lass—wouldn’t know when he was talking with her just because she’d dressed as a man. The woman in front of him could never pass for a man, anyway, not with her delicate features and slender neck. Not even with her brown hair pinned up and a jaunty hat pulled down over it. She tilted her head, half bending over as one of the other women produced a pair of men’s boots. “Scottish,” she said in a quiet voice, still grinning. “Highlander. From somewhere near Ullapool. That would make you Macbeth then, I suppose.” Glendarril Park was but two hours’ ride from Ullapool.

Coll frowned. “Macbeth hailed from Inverness.” She stepped from behind the screen to pull a coat over her slender shoulders. “Near enough for Shakespeare,” she retorted, and sauntered past him. Damn. A woman in trousers, indeed. His fingers flexed; he had to stop himself from reaching out to take hold of her, to drag her up against him and stop her clever mouth with his. Aye, he’d been without a woman for a time, and aye, she looked a sight in those trousers that hugged her hips and practically forced his attention to her long, slender legs. As he watched her emerge from behind the curtains and onto the middle of the stage, he stopped breathing. Before his eyes, her stride lengthened and loosened, her hips halted their sway, and her shoulders lifted.

Her voice when she spoke as Rosalind in the guise of male courtier Ganymede lowered and slowed a touch, in as fair a representation of a young man as he’d ever seen from a woman. “That is Persephone Jones,” the tailor from earlier said as he hurried by. He hadn’t needed that information. If any lass could have eleven men panting after her all in one night, it was this one. And for God’s sake—no, for his sake—he hoped she was a widow. Her scene finished, and she exited to the other side of the stage. More actors dashed past him to play their roles, but without her out there, it was just a play he’d read and seen performed before. Aye, it had been in Inverness and with a basket-load of Scottish sensibility added to the nonsense, but the words remained the same. “How much longer does this damned thing go on?” a low voice asked from a few feet behind him. Coll turned his head.

A well-dressed lad in a bright blue jacket stood beneath another set of sandbags, his gaze on his pocket watch. The door guard had made at least four quid tonight, then. Another figure emerged into the dim light at the periphery of the stage, and he mentally corrected himself.

.

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