Sinful Scottish Laird – Julia London

THE COACH GROANED and shuddered along a nearly impassable road, tossing its inhabitants across the benches and back against the squabs. The young Lord Chatwick’s complexion had turned gray, and he rested listlessly against the wall. “My poor darling,” crooned his mother, Daisy, Lady Chatwick, as she stroked his hair. “I said from the beginning such aggressive travel would make the child ill. I pray we see a quick recovery from him.” This sunny observation was made by Daisy’s cousin Miss Belinda Hainsworth. “I’m well when the coach isn’t moving,” moaned Ellis. “Dear boy, you think you are,” Belinda said and smiled sadly, as if Ellis had been made feebleminded by the travel and didn’t know his own feelings. She glanced at Daisy. “Is it not too late to turn back and spare us all?” Too late? Yes, it was too late! They’d been traveling for an eternity and were only miles from their destination. “Too late,” Daisy said and closed her eyes. She would explode, she thought. Shatter into a million bits of furious fatigue. Almost three weeks in transit, from London to Liverpool, then sailing up the coast through rough seas to Scotland, and then the relentless plodding past hovels made of peat and mud, past people in strange dress with small cattle and barking dogs, through miles and miles of empty landscape with a young son made ill by the motion of travel, a gloomy cousin, and no place for them to rest except the occasional mean inn. It had been wretched.

“You look piqued, Daisy.” Daisy opened her eyes; Belinda was studying her, her head cocked to one side. “Yes, I am. I am sick to death of riding in this coach,” Daisy fussed. “And I will be much relieved when I can remove these blasted stays.” She pressed a hand against her side with a heavy sigh, feeling the stays of her corset digging into her ribs. At that very moment, the coach shuddered violently and sank hard to the right, and the stays dug deeper into Daisy’s side. Her son landed on top of her with an oomph, and Belinda was thrown against the wall of the coach with a cry of alarm. “For heaven’s sake,” Daisy said, breathless. “Madam!” someone shouted from outside the coach; the door swung open.

“Are you unharmed?” “We’re fine. Is it a wheel?” “It is indeed,” her escort, Sir Nevis, said as he lifted her son out of the coach. “What shall we do?” Belinda asked as she carefully backed out of the coach. “We haven’t the proper tools to repair it. We’ll be forced to camp here!” “We shall endeavor to repair it,” Sir Nevis said as he extended his hand to help Daisy down. She stepped gingerly onto terra firma and adjusted her corset as best she could without removing her gown and clawing the damn thing from her body, then joined Sir Nevis to have a look. A spoke had broken, and the wheel was bowing. The driver and his helper were quickly releasing the horses from their traces. “We must elevate the coach to keep the wheel from snapping,” Sir Nevis said. He looked to the three men they’d hired at port to escort them to Auchenard.

Gordons, he’d said. A mighty clan, he’d said. Daisy didn’t know how mighty the Gordons were, but she hadn’t liked the look of these three from the start. They were as thin as reeds, their clothing worn and filthy, and they looked at her like little boys staring at sweetmeats in the shop window. They were fond of whisky, and if they spoke English, she couldn’t say—they rarely uttered a word, and when they did, their accents were so heavy that she couldn’t make anything out. Now, they stood aside, eyeing the broken spoke with disinclination. “Madam, if you and his lordship would take shelter beneath those trees,” Sir Nevis said, nodding to a stand a few feet from the coach. “This might take some time.” Might? Daisy sighed wearily. She was not new to the world of coach travel and rather imagined it would take all day.

She looked around them. It was a sun-drenched day, the air uncomfortably warm. Even the plumes atop their coach were wilting. There was no shelter, nothing but miles and miles of empty rolling hills and swarms of midges as far as one could see. Ellis had dipped down to examine a rock. At least some pink had returned to his complexion; she was thankful for that. “See, Mamma,” he said, and held up a rock. “It’s pyrite.” “Is it?” she asked, leaning over to peer at a rock that was yellowish in color. “So it is,” she agreed, although she had no idea what sort of rock it was.

She looked back over her shoulder at her retinue— three servants and a tutor; Sir Nevis and his man, Mr. Bellows, who had accompanied them from London along with the two drivers; a pair of wagons under Mr. Green’s care, loaded with boxes and trunks that carried their things; and a smaller chaise in which Mrs. Green and the housemaid rode. It was as if she were leading a band of gypsies across the Highlands. A movement at the lake caught her eye, and Daisy noticed the Gordons at the shore. Well, yes, of course, they should swim, the poor things. Perhaps wash a bit of the dirt off them while her men toiled in the hot sun to repair the wheel. How much had they paid for that trio of scoundrels? “We can’t possibly be forced to camp here,” Belinda said, fanning herself. “There is no shelter! We leave ourselves open to marauders and thieves.

” “Belinda, for God’s sake, will you stop,” Daisy said wearily. “I have listened to your complaints until I can bear it no more. There is nothing to be done for our predicament. We are here. We will not die. We will not be harmed. We will not be set upon by thieves!” All those years ago when Daisy had been a new bride, with her mother gone and no one to advise her, she’d promised her maternal aunt on her deathbed that she would look after Belinda. Of course she would—Daisy loved her childhood playmate. She’d just never realized how doleful her cousin could be until she was under her roof. Belinda said nothing to Daisy’s rebuke.

In fact, she seemed to be staring at something behind Daisy. With exasperation, Daisy drawled, “What is it now? Marauders?” She turned around to see what had captured Belinda’s attention, and her heart sank to her toes—five figures in highland dress were galloping down the hill toward them. “Not marauders,” Belinda said, her voice trembling. “Smugglers. I’ve heard it said they hide in these hills.” And with that remark, the air was snatched cleanly from Daisy’s lungs. There was a sudden and collective cry of alarm as the rest of Daisy’s entourage noticed the riders. It was as if someone had fired several rounds into their midst; people ran, grabbed up their things as they raced to hide behind the wagons. “Lady Chatwick!” Sir Nevis shouted. “Take shelter in the chaise!” He had drawn his sword, and together with Mr.

Bellows, stood with his legs braced apart, facing the intruders, prepared for battle. Belinda was already moving, grabbing at Ellis’s arm as he lined up the rocks he’d collected and dragging him toward the chaise. But Daisy? She didn’t move. She was too stunned to move. Utterly paralyzed with fear and exhilaration, on the verge of screaming in terror or laughing hysterically at the absurdity of it all—of course they would be set upon by highland thieves! This was precisely the disaster Belinda had predicted all along. Something about the notion of disaster made her move; she whirled about to summon the three Gordons, but they were no longer on the shores of the lake. They had fled. Fled! Her heart leaped to her throat, and she whipped back around…almost expecting the Gordons to have joined the riders. The Highlanders had slowed their mounts, approaching with caution now. One of them—a woman, it appeared—spurred her palfrey to lope ahead of the others.

Roving bands of thieves were not led by women, were they? Perhaps, then, this was not what it seemed. The bark of gunfire startled Daisy so badly that she dropped to all fours on the ground before realizing that Mr. Bellows was the one who had fired his musket. But his aim had erred, and the shot pinged off a tree to the right of the band of Highlanders. One of the riders abruptly spurred his mount forward, catching the palfrey’s bridle before the woman rode headlong into buckshot, and reined her to a hard stop. “For God’s sake, put down your weapon!” he roared in English. “Bloody hell, lad, you might kill someone, aye?” Mr. Bellows aimed his gun at the man. “We’ve no use for highwaymen or Jacobites, sir! If you do not ride on, I will aim for the spot between your eyes!” Daisy found her feet and hurried forward with the vague intention of seeking shelter inside the listing coach. But she paused at the driver’s seat and peered over the footrest as another of the men rode forward to meet the first and spoke in the language of the Scots.

The first man answered, his voice low and soft. Whatever he said prompted two of his companions to laugh. But he did not laugh. He sat tall and stoic on that horse, his mien fiercely proud, his gaze shrewd and locked on Sir Nevis and Mr. Bellows. He looked to be a head taller than the others. He was broad shouldered and square jawed, with thick auburn hair that he’d tied at his nape. His appearance was so rugged, so overwhelmingly masculine, that Daisy’s blood raced in her veins in a mix of absolute terror and fascination. He looked stronger than any man she’d ever seen, as if he alone might have been responsible for carving these hills from the granite landscape. Something sharp and hot waved through Daisy, making it impossible to breathe, much less move.

He spoke to the woman, who clearly did not care for what he said, judging by the way she jerked her gaze to him and responded in a heated tone. “Do as I tell you, lass,” he said, his voice unnervingly calm. “Fearful men fire without warning and without aim.” The woman muttered under her breath, but she turned the palfrey about and put herself behind the other three men. Now the man nudged his horse forward, his gaze still fixed on Mr. Bellows and his gun. “Come no closer!” Mr. Bellows warned him, then looked around. “Gordon, where are you? Why do you not do something?” he shouted. The man chuckled.

“The Gordons willna help you now, lad.” One of the riders muttered something that made the others laugh. They weren’t the least bit afraid of Mr. Bellows’s gun or the fact that they were outnumbered, Daisy realized with a slam of her heart against her ribs. They were…amused. Like a cat, the man’s attention suddenly shifted to his left; Daisy followed his gaze and noticed that the drivers had crept around one of the wagons, both holding muskets. He sighed loudly as the drivers both leveled their sights on him. “We’re no’ highwaymen,” he said brusquely. “Put down your guns, aye? I donna care to kill you on what’s been a bonny afternoon thus far.” He swung off his horse; everyone in Daisy’s party took a step backward.

But not her, because Daisy had clearly lost her fool mind. She was keenly aware that she ought to be seeking shelter, hiding Ellis, finding something with which to defend herself…but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the perfect physical specimen of a man. A bolt of feral desire shot down her spine, unlike anything she’d ever felt, as she studied him standing there, his weight cocked on one hip as he yanked his gloves from his hands. He wasn’t handsome in a conventional way. His looks were fine enough, she supposed, but it was him that enthralled her—his presence, his carriage and the veritable confidence that exuded from him. He was wearing the plaid about him, and his legs, Lord in heaven, his legs shaped by sinewy muscle, were covered in a sort of red-and-white plaid pair of stockings, tied just below his knee with garters. He was tall, but not overly so, and lean, but burly, too. He was clean shaven, yet his hair appeared untamed, even tied at his nape as it was. He was so calm, so unruffled—he projected palpable power. Had she been any other place, Daisy might have fanned herself.

As it was, she was on the verge of swooning. She was astonished by her physical response to this man who, for all she knew, was a murderer, a smuggler, a thief—but damn her, in that frenzied moment of lust and fear, she could not think of a single other time she had been so completely enthralled by one man. Now that he’d removed his gloves and tucked them into the plaid somewhere, he moved with great ease toward Mr. Bellows as Sir Nevis circled around, his sword raised, prepared to attack. “Mi Diah, look around you, aye?” the Scotsman said. “Does a lady and gentlemen in leather boots rob coaches? Here? Where scarcely anyone resides?” He swept a thick arm to indicate the vast, untouched land around them. “We are no’ Jacobites, nor highwayman. But if we were, we’d shadow the road to Inverness. No’ this seldom used road.” That seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation to Daisy.

Wasn’t it? She wanted to believe him, but her nerves, always so pragmatic, warned her that this entire situation might be planned. Perhaps the Gordons led them here so that these men could rob them. Now her heart began to pound with the possibility of danger, her palms dampening, her breath shortening. And yet she didn’t hide— she slipped around the coach while Mr. Bellows nervously kept his gun sighted on the man. “We are charged with the protection of Lady Chatwick and her son, and we will not hesitate to give our lives if necessary, sir! Do not come closer!” Mr. Bellows’s hand shook. If these Scots were in cahoots with those rotten Gordons, her party would be outnumbered at any moment. She was struck cold with the image of dozens of them coming down from the hills to pillage them, just as Belinda had predicted. “We mean only to help, aye?” the Scotsman said.

His voice wasn’t as heavily accented as the Gordons. In fact, his speech sounded as it was tinged with a bit of an English accent. He lifted his hands shoulder high to show he was unarmed. “We’ve no desire to harm you; I give you my word as a Highlander and a gentleman.” He didn’t tremble, didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned. He seemed only impatient, as if he wished this meeting to be done. “You expect us to believe it?” Mr. Bellows snapped. “There is no’ a man among us who is inclined to haul so many boxes and trunks down the road.” One of the riders behind the Scotsman spoke in the Scots language, and when he did, Mr.

Bellows made the mistake of looking at him. In the space of no more than a moment, the Scotsman lunged so quickly for the barrel of the musket that Daisy couldn’t help but sound a yelp of alarm. He yanked it cleanly from Mr. Bellows’s hands and twirled it around in one movement to train it on him. “You’ll tell your companions to put away their firearms now, aye?” he asked, his voice deadly in its calm. Daisy believed she would be bargaining for her son’s safety at any moment and frantically thought what to do. Should she find him and run for the lake? She glanced toward the chaise where Ellis was hiding, and saw Mr. Green furtively begin to lift his musket and take aim. Mr. Green, her groundskeeper, who’d likely never before fired on another man.

“No!” she cried out inadvertently, the desperate sound of her voice startling her. “All of you! Do as he says, sir, please.” The Scotsman did not take his eyes from Sir Nevis. “Heed your lady.” “I urge you, madam, put yourself in the coach!” Sir Nevis shouted. “If these men intended to rob us, would they not have already done it?” she asked, tripping over the traces of the chaise as she picked her way around the coach, desperate to avert a crisis. “Would not our hired men have interceded? I think he speaks true.” “Ah, a voice of reason, then,” the Scotsman drawled. There was no reason in Daisy at all—she had no idea what these men intended and spoke only with the frantic hope of avoiding bloodshed. “Please, Sir Nevis, tell your men to lower their sights,” she begged.

“We want no trouble here.” Sir Nevis jutted out his chin, but he turned slightly and nodded at the other men, and slowly, suspiciously, they lowered their guns. The Scotsman smirked, then twirled the musket in one hand so that the butt was facing away from him and handed it to Mr. Bellows. “Now…might we help you repair the wheel?” he asked as if the tension had not just simmered so menacingly between them. As if none of them had, only moments before, feared for their lives. “That is not necessary,” Sir Nevis said stiffly. The Scotsman shrugged indifferently. “Aye, then. We’ve no desire to toil under the hot summer sun.

” He turned as if he meant to depart, but he caught sight of Daisy and he hesitated, his eyes locking on hers. Daisy’s breath quickened; her first instinct was to step back, to run. Her second instinct overruled the first, however, for he had a pair of astoundingly blue eyes. Cerulean blue. She was moving without thought, stepping away from the coach as she nervously pressed her damp palms to the front of her gown. His heated gaze slowly traveled the length of her, his eyes like a pair of torches, singeing her skin as he took in every bit of her gown and the tips of the shoes that peeked out from beneath her hem. Then up again, to her bosom, where he unabashedly lingered, and finally to her face. Daisy self-consciously brushed her cheek with the back of her hand, wondering if she looked dirty or worn. He continued to stare at her so boldly and unapologetically that Daisy couldn’t help but smile uneasily. “Ah…th-thank you for your offer,” she stammered.

What the devil was she to say in this situation? He stared at her. “Madam, I must insist that you return to the chaise with your lady to wait,” Sir Nevis begged her. “Yes, I will,” she assured him, but she made no move to do so, not even when she heard Belinda call for her. She simply could not look away from the Scotsman. “Who are you?” he suddenly demanded.

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