WHATEVER HEATHER FARTHİNGALE expected to see while in the garden at the break of dawn was not the big Scot, Robert MacLauren, tumbling over the high stone wall of Number One Chipping Way and dropping like a giant boulder onto the decorative wooden bench that stood against the garden wall. “Robbie!” He did not tumble so much as crash down and land flat on his back atop the bench that was never going to support the muscled heft of him hitting it with such impact. Heather was not surprised when the bench began to sway precariously or when the wooden slats gave an ominous groan and sharply cracked. She winced as the entire bench collapsed beneath his magnificent body, leaving him sprawled and dazed in all his golden glory. Well, there was no point denying that Robert MacLauren, captain in the Scots Greys, the Crown’s most distinguished cavalry regiment, was splendid in every way. “Bollocks,” he muttered, his words slurred as he gazed up at the early dawn sky. “Who moved the bloody wall?” Well, perhaps this was not his finest moment. “Robbie, are you hurt?” Heather hurried over to him and knelt by his side, ignoring the dampness of the grass now seeping through her thin robe and nightrail. The sun had barely peeked above the horizon, and she doubted any of the servants were stirring yet. She’d only come outside to calm her betrothal jitters, especially since tonight was the night of the Marquess of Tilbury’s grand ball, and she would be standing by his side now that they were soon to be married. But here she was, unable to sleep while her stomach was in a tight coil, and never thought to encounter anything but the light breeze against her cheeks and the soft twitter of birds in the blossoming trees. She had not expected the morning serenity to be shattered by this big Scot hurling himself over the wall from the fashionable Mayfair street known as Chipping Way and crashing onto the charming bench designed for sitting. He’d smashed it to bits with his less than elegant dive. “Are you drunk?” He did not need to answer. She smelled the ale on his breath and the acrid scent of cheap perfume on his jacket.
“Ugh, you reek.” He lay atop the soft grass, blinking his eyes as he tried to focus on her. “Pixie? Is that you?” “Yes, it’s me. I ought to be furious with you.” But she was afraid he had truly been injured. Getting him tended before he did more damage to himself was more important than lecturing him on the evils of his rakehell life. She wasn’t even certain he qualified as a true rakehell because he was too hardworking, had a well-defined code of honor, and had always been a complete gentleman in all his dealings with her. “What are you doing here at this hour?” “Looking for ye, lass. And I’ve found ye. How’s yer ankle?” “Completely healed.
Thank you for asking.” He smiled at her with enough warmth to melt a frozen sea. But this was Robbie’s way, wasn’t it? He knew how to turn on the charm whenever he wished. Perhaps she was being too hard on him. He had never attempted to take advantage of her. Quite the opposite, he’d appointed himself her protector and been quite wonderful to her until the Marquess of Tilbury had come along and taken up the role. She shook out of her thoughts and touched him cautiously, afraid he might have broken a bone or cracked his head. “Oh, dear. The wood sliced your arm as it broke apart. You’re bleeding.
Please don’t move. Let me get help.” He caught her hand in his rough palm, his touch surprisingly gentle. “No, lass. Give me a moment, and I’ll manage on my own.” “Don’t be stubborn. You need help. You fell off the wall.” “I could have fallen off the roof and not hurt myself. When ye’re that drunk, yer body does no’ feel it.
” “You must be jesting. If you ever dare climb on the roof, I’ll grab a loaded rifle and shoot you off it myself.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said with a warm smile that brought out the handsomeness of his features. “Just get me to the kitchen. I’ll tend to the cut on my own. What are ye doing out here at this unholy hour? Isn’t Tilbury’s ball tonight? As his betrothed, ye’ll be standing by his side. Ye want to make him proud, don’t ye?” “Yes…I just…” She frowned at him. “You had better sober up before the party. I won’t have you showing up in your condition.” He reached up and caressed her cheek.
“Heather,” he said, pronouncing it Heether in his thick brogue, “I canno’ go, lass.” “Why, Robbie? Are you still angry with me?” She wanted to cry, for his presence mattered to her more than she would ever dare admit. He did not appear quite so drunk as he gazed at her with gorgeous eyes the green of a lush, Highlands glen. She had expected to find them reddened and dissipated, but they were surprisingly alert and clear. This was Robbie, somehow always looking splendid even when he ought to look like something the cat dragged through a fetid alleyway. Even now, despite the gray light of dawn, a lone sliver of sunlight managed to shine down on his head so that his beautiful mane, cropped short at the sides and thick on top in military fashion, appeared golden. This was one of his most irritating qualities, his ability to look as glorious as a Scottish sun god no matter what befell him. He caressed her cheek again. “I could never be angry with ye. Why would ye think such a thing?” “Because you left town so suddenly after the new year, and we never got to read that book together.
You also stormed off after rescuing me the other day at Dahlia and Ronan’s house. Now my sisters are worried because they think I’ve put a hex on myself by not reading the book with you, as I promised I would.” He closed his eyes and moaned. “Och, The Book of Love. I have it in my pouch. That’s why I came here. I meant to return it to ye.” She glanced around. “I don’t see your pouch.” “Bollocks.
It’s on the other side of the wall.” She rolled her eyes. “The one you almost broke your neck climbing over?” He sat up slowly. “Aye, that one. My friends were supposed to toss it to me.” “Some friends,” she muttered. “Were they the ones who heaved you over? You might have broken your neck.” She suddenly gasped and scrambled to her feet. “What have they done with the book? Do you think they took it? They can’t! I need it back.” She had no sooner said the words than an object came flying at her head and struck her cheek.
She reeled and would have fallen had Robbie not caught her in his arms. “Pixie, are ye hurt?” He sounded quite shaken and did not appear at all drunk now. She was surprised by how quickly the pouch smacking her in the face had sobered him up. He’d shot to his feet with such speed, she realized he could not have broken any bones, or else he would never have been able to move so fast. Thank goodness for small mercies. He held her in his arms and was now stroking her hair, possibly to calm himself as much as it was to calm her. Her hair was in a loose braid down her back and probably unkempt since she hadn’t bothered to brush it before coming down here this morning. She hadn’t expected to encounter anyone. “I’ll be all right in a moment.” But she had to rest her head against his chest when she suddenly felt lightheaded.
Her heart was still racing from the shock of being hit, but as she was now pressed to his chest, she could hear the rapid pounding of his heart and knew he had been rattled as well. “I’ll kill them if they put a mark on ye.” She eased back and touched her cheek to the spot that was now throbbing. It also burned lightly and felt moist. She suddenly realized why. “Robbie, am I bleeding?” The blaze of fire in his eyes and the gentle sweep of his thumb across her cheek was all the answer she needed. “Tilbury’s grand ball!” She would now be facing her guests—and worse, her betrothed—with a bruised cheek. What if it was swollen, too? How was she to appear elegant when she looked as though she’d been caught in a street brawl? “We’ll fix it, Heether. Ye’ll look like a beautiful pixie, as ye always do.” He glanced at the pouch that had landed at their feet, the straps now loosened, causing it to fall open to reveal the book’s red leather binding peeking out.
He bent to retrieve the pouch and then surprised her by also lifting her in his arms. “What are you doing? I can walk. You’re the one who needs carrying.” He laughed softly, a deep, glorious rumble. “Och, lass. I’d topple on ye and squash ye like a bug if ye ever tried to lift me.” “But Robbie, you fell, and now your arm is bleeding.” “I’ve suffered worse. Ye’re the one my pawky friends hurt. Is yer head still spinning?” She nodded.
“How did you know?” “I can see it in yer eyes.” She wrapped her arms around his neck because she was indeed feeling a little woozy. Or was it giddy? She could lie to herself and blame it on the pouch hitting her face. Or she could admit the truth she’d always dreaded. There was something about this big Scot that always made her head spin. And now he was back after being away for months. She squeezed her arms tightly around him and hoped he would not mistake it for a hug. Perhaps it was a hug. She was glad to have him back. She’d missed him.
“My little pixie,” he whispered, kissing the top of her head. “I missed ye, too.” She wanted to cry. Why did he have to come back today of all days? She was about to make her first formal appearance beside her betrothed. She and the Marquess of Tilbury would soon be married, and she would be a marchioness. This was her dream. This had always been her heart’s desire. Ever since she was a little girl, she had always said she would grow up and marry a marquess, be a fine lady, and live in a fine house. But Robbie had returned, bringing with him The Book of Love. Was he about to shatter her childhood dreams?