Scot Under the Covers – Suzanne Enoch

“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.” “Aden, d—” “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. “Aden? You’re to respond by saying you appreciate my efforts and that you’ll behave yourself.” Blinking, he turned around to face Eloise again. “I’ll behave myself,” he agreed. “But I suggest ye remind Coll of that, too.

He’s the one more likely to put a lass over his shoulder and stomp off with her.” “Yes, but he said he wants a dull, fainting lily he can leave behind here in London. That wouldn’t seem to require kidnapping.” That made him grin. “Ye’re half Scottish down to yer bones, piuthar. Ye’ve the right of it. Just prop some half-dead flower up beside him, and he’ll thank ye for it.” “But what about you?” “Me?” Aden feigned surprise. “I keep thinking any lass will do, but then I reckon I’d prefer nae to be bored. So nae a boring one.

And mayhap a lass who wouldnae faint at the sight of her wedding bed.” “Aden,” she said, blushing. He lifted an eyebrow. “Do ye mean to faint when ye see yer wedding bed, Eloise?” “Well, no, but—” “That’s because ye’ve a backbone. Someone nae boring and with a backbone, then, if ye mean to find me a match.” Eloise tilted her head, her nearly colorless green eyes assessing him. “Weren’t there any lasses in the Highlands who could stand up to you, Aden?” Was that how she interpreted his request? A fighter? It didn’t much matter, he supposed, if such a lass didn’t exist. Flashing a grin he didn’t feel, he turned up the stairs again. “If there were, I wouldnae be here, piuthar. I’d be in the Highlands, a married man and free of Lady Aldriss’s claws.

” There had been lasses aplenty in the Highlands, aye, and he was well acquainted with a fair share of them. At seven-and-twenty he’d begun to contemplate marriage even before he’d learned about Lady Aldriss’s decree, but he’d yet to encounter a lass whom he cared to wake beside for longer than the stretch of a single morning or two. They didn’t call him the elusive MacTaggert brother for no reason. “My friends will be here in an hour. And you must have on shoes, for heaven’s sake. You’re fairly pleasant-featured, I suppose, but a prospective bride wants to know that her prospective husband is able to dress himself.” He grinned. “Aye, Eloise. I’ll wear someaught to cover my nethers as well, even without ye reminding me.” “Mm-hm.

One hour, Aden.” As he reached his bedchamber something crashed downstairs. Several voices began yelling, and he turned around yet again. Coll had been in a fine enough mood during their ride, but that had been all of five minutes ago and he’d lost forty quid since then. Or mayhap Eloise had reminded the viscount that they were to attend a proper luncheon with proper lasses. Before he’d managed two steps back toward the stairs something black and smelling of wet and cabbages hurtled up the hallway and crashed into his legs. Staggering, he grabbed the wall to keep himself upright. “What the devil?” The filthy thing wound around his legs, muddy paw prints all over the tops of his bare feet and patterning the green carpet runner around him. Finally it sat on his left foot and leaned hard against his knee. Smythe the butler came into view, a walking stick raised in one hand and his generally bland expression locked into one of shocked affront.

“Have you … There you are, you little piece of filth. Off with you! Out of this house!” Tilting his head, Aden blocked the downward swing of the stick with his forearm. “I reckon ye’ll have to go through me before ye hit this wee beastie,” he drawled, catching and holding the butler’s angry gaze. The man subsided. “It ran in past me, the wretched thing. And it’s ruined the carpet, I’ll wager. If you’ll wait here, I’ll get a rope and—” “Nae,” Aden interrupted. “Ye willnae. This is my dog, Br ògan,” he decided, settling on the Gaelic word for “boots” since the lad had attempted to steal one from him. “He’s come all the way from the Highlands to find me, and ye’ll do naught but put a bucket of warm water and some rags out in the garden so I can clean him off after his long journey.

” “That is not—I saw you giving it a biscuit in exchange for your boot not five minutes ago!” the butler exclaimed. “Aye, because he brought it back to me,” Aden returned coolly. “He’s a fine beastie.” “That … thing walked all the way from Scotland,” Smythe countered skeptically. “And found you here, at Oswell House.” “Ye see him with yer own eyes, do ye nae?” Aden said, nodding at Coll as his brother topped the stairs. “Coll, this Sassenach butler is near to calling me a liar. Tell him, will ye, that this is my dog Brògan, all the way from Aldriss Park? I told ye the lad had a fine nose.” His oldest brother’s deep-green eyes narrowed as he took in the scene, then he pinned the increasingly alarmed-looking butler with his gaze. “Were ye calling my brother a liar, Smythe?” “I…” “Because I’ll swear it to ye if ye insist, and I barely recognized him beneath the mud, but that’s Bogan.

” For a second Smythe looked like he’d swallowed his tongue. “I thought his name was Brògan,” he forced out between his teeth. “Oh, aye,” Coll drawled easily, his expression shifting to amused. “Good lad. Dunnae let him anywhere near me while he’s that filthy, Aden. And I changed my mind, brother. I believe I dunnae owe ye any blunt.” Hiding a grin, Aden nodded. “I believe ye to be correct, bràthair.” “Aye.

” With that Viscount Glendarril vanished into his borrowed bedchamber and shut the door behind him. “A bucket of water and some rags,” Aden said again. “We’ll be down in five minutes.” “I … Yes, Master Aden. As you wish.” Hm. All the antics of the past month hadn’t seemed to trouble the butler overly much, but a muddy, flea-ridden dog might have just broken him. Grinning, Aden leaned over and shoved open his door. “In there, lad,” he said. Thankfully the dog stood, removing his arse fromAden’s foot, and ambled into the bedchamber as if he’d been inside it a hundred times.

Shutting them in, Aden made his way to the overlarge wardrobe and pulled out an old work shirt and his most faded kilt. He wasn’t even certain why he’d bothered to bring them south with him, except they’d added to the general mass of nonsense they’d loaded into that pair of wagons. The work clothes and pair of well-worn boots were here because of that, as was the large, stuffed boar’s head Aden had placed above his bedchamber door. When he turned around, the dog had his front paws up on the bed and looked like he meant to jump onto the soft mass of pillows and blankets. “Nae!” he bellowed. With a yelp the black mutt ducked beneath the bed and disappeared. Aden frowned. If he’d had a previous master, the man hadn’t been kind. But for the moment the dog could stay where he was. His own generally restless sleep wouldn’t benefit from a battalion of fleas added into the bedsheets.

Pulling off his proper Sassenach coat and waistcoat and yanking his fine, soft shirt over his head, he dumped the clothes over the dressing table’s chair. His kilt followed, while he tossed his roadscuffed boots over by the door. Then he dressed again, immediately more comfortable in his old work clothes and heavy work boots and a simple white shirt that had seen better days. “Come along, lad,” he said, crouching by the door. “Brògan.” Toenails tapped beneath the bed, but the beastie didn’t reappear. “Brògan. Come on, lad. I’ll nae have ye in here flinging fleas onto my things. If ye mean to stay, ye need a bath.

” Whether it was his words or the tone of his voice, Brògan seemed reassured enough to stick his nose from beneath the coverlet, then crawl into the open. Tail tucked and wagging slowly, he crept forward until he could stuff his nose into the palm of Aden’s hand. “I dunnae ken who ye were, lad,” Aden murmured, “but ye’ve annoyed the butler. That’s good enough for me. Let’s see what kind of companion a Sassenach stray can make for a Highlander who’d rather be back in Scotland.” Straightening, careful to keep his motions slow and unthreatening, he opened the door and walked down the hallway. A moment later the dog followed, leaving more smudges along the bottom two feet of wallpaper as he sniffed from one side of the hallway to the other. At the top of the main staircase Aden paused, eyeing the very clear set of paw prints trailing up the steps and the two maids with buckets and brushes already attacking the bottommost stairs. Cursing under his breath, he squatted down to put one arm under the dog’s neck and the other beneath his hindquarters. Annoying Smythe was one thing; making more work for the lads and lasses of the house was quite another.

The fellow weighed forty pounds or so, light enough for a man accustomed to hauling about sheep for shearing. Up this close the beastie’s scent nearly made him gag, but he locked his jaw shut and descended the stairs. Continuing on through the rear of the house, he juggled the dog so he could open the back door and then went outside. As usual Smythe had exceeded his orders, providing both a bucket and a tin trough that must have come from the stable. Both already contained water, and a generous pile of rags sat a few feet away. For a broomstick-up-his-arse Sassenach, Smythe wasn’t so bad, Aden supposed. With a glance to see that the garden gate was closed in case the beastie decided to make a run for it, and not bothering to question why he’d decided Brògan would be staying on at Oswell House, he set the dog down in the half-filled trough. “Let’s see what we can make of ye, lad,” Aden grunted, and went to work with the bucket and the rags. Five more buckets of water, some scissors, cursing, splashing, and a good brushing later he had what looked to be a black English springer spaniel and another curious development. “Lad, I’m sorry to be the one to tell ye, but ye’re a lass,” he commented.

Brògan wumphed and buried her face in the rag he’d been using to dry her. “Och, ye knew that already. Ye’ve been using yer feminine wiles on me all along, havenae?” He looked at the dirty, furry carnage they’d left on the garden steps and at the same stuff caking the front of his shirt and his kilt. “I’d be more swayed if ye hadnae left half of London on my front.” A male throat cleared from the direction of the top of the steps behind him. “Master Aden,” Smythe intoned, “I’m to remind you that you gave your word to Lady Eloise that you would attend her luncheon.” Aden turned his head to eye the stone-faced butler. “Aye, I said I would, and so I will. What’s got her bonnet full of bees?” “The luncheon began twenty minutes ago, sir. Your brother Lord Glendarril is in attendance, as are Master Niall and Mrs.

MacTaggert.” “Niall got himself vertical, did he?” Aden intoned, straightening. “Tell Lady Eloise I’ll be down in ten minutes. Come on, Brògan.” “Did I hear you referring to that … Brògan as a female?” Smythe queried, his expression unchanged. “Nae, ye didnae. I’ll be needing a bowl of scraps for the lad; he’s had a long journey.” The butler craned his neck sideways, clearly trying to see Brògan’s undercarriage. “I’ll see to it, sir. Lady Eloise did stress that you were already late, however, and that she would not be pleased if you broke your word.

” She wouldn’t, would she? Well, when a Highlander gave his word, he kept it. “I’ll still need the scraps,” he said, patting his damp thigh as he headed up the shallow steps back into the house. Luckily the dog kept right on his heels; no doubt she’d sensed that he remained her best chance for a meal and a safe place to sleep. They’d somewhat reversed roles now, since she was damp but clean, and he was slathered with mud. But Eloise seemed to doubt that he meant to make an appearance, and that he meant to keep his word. And buried beneath that, the idea of walking into the small dining room looking as he did, especially when by now most every female of his sister’s acquaintance knew he needed to find a wife, appealed to him more than a little.

.

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