The Lover – Nicole Jordan

She never intended to eavesdrop. Never meant to intrude on a celebrated libertine enacting a practiced seduction. Yet neither did she anticipate being captivated by a dark, caressing voice as sleekly velvet as the night. Her restless mood ebbing, Sabrina Duncan stood beyond a hedge of topiary yews, an unwilling interloper upon Niall McLaren’s amorous pursuits. She’d escaped her cousin’s betrothal ball for the refuge of the moonlit terrace gardens only moments before the Highlander unexpectedly appeared for an apparent rendezvous with his latest conquest, the noble wife of an English colonel. Hidden from view, her presence further disguised by the muted strains of a minuet issuing from the ballroom above, Sabrina scarcely dared breathe. She should have made herself known at once, but she hadn’t wished to cause embarrassment. And then she’d found herself held captive by that enchanting voice as it beguiled its way into her senses. “Well met, my bonny Belle….” Sweet heaven, how could he infuse so much warmth into a simple murmur? It was like being stroked. No woman alive could remain unmoved by those low, honeyed tones: lilting, warm, devastatingly sensual. Full of the heather and mist of the Highlands. Doubtless it was a prime reason for the man’s remarkable success with the fairer sex. “They say he can draw a woman’s soul from her body,” her cousin Frances had confided with great relish. “And that no female’s virtue is safe.

” Sabrina could well understand the Highlander’s appeal. She recalled being stunned earlier when Niall McLaren strode into the crowded ballroom, eliciting excited feminine whispers and dreamy sighs. Powerful, virile, sinfully handsome, he cut a bold figure in full Scottish garb. He wore the McLaren plaid draped over his coat of black satin, while his belted kilt bared strong, muscular legs above tartan silk stockings. The rapier at his side seemed a natural extension of his person—and a stark contrast to the touch of lace at his throat and wrists. With his ebony hair and sunbronzed features, he stood out among the crowd of painted, bewigged aristocrats like a Highland mountain against tame lowland hills. Sabrina knew him by reputation only. The youngest son of a fierce Highland chieftain, Niall McLaren was a thief of female hearts, infamous for his sexual exploits. “The Darling of Edinburgh,” the ladies were wont to call him. Yet he’d cut a wide swath through the female populations of France and England as well.

Now, having returned from his travels abroad, he was engaged in another sensual chase—that of seducing a married lady. Most of the company at the ball tonight had seemed more titillated than shocked. “Everyone is wagering on the outcome of his pursuit, whether or not Lady Chivington will surrender,” Sabrina had heard her cousin remark. She knew how she would wager. Hearing that enchanting voice, she couldn’t suppress a dismaying ache of longing, an inexplicable yearning for impossible dreams. What would it be like to be pursued by Europe’s most infamous rogue? To have him gaze at her with such single-minded devotion, to be the recipient of the formidable charm she’d seen him lavish on his chosen partners earlier in the ballroom…. Clutching her fan, Sabrina chided herself. What was wrong with her? She rarely lamented her circumstances or felt such melancholy as she did tonight. The bitterness she’d known when her chief suitor had fallen in love with her beautiful cousin had mellowed to regret by now. She was content with her life; she was needed, appreciated, loved by her family.

She found pleasure in being a dutiful stepdaughter. She enjoyed quietly spending her evenings with her stepfather and his account books for company. If there were times, like now, when she felt moments of restlessness, if sometimes she was bedeviled by romantic yearnings and the depressing suspicion that life was passing her by, well then, she was usually practical enough to quash them. Except for tonight. Her pragmatism couldn’t quell the sense of envy that pierced her now, or repress the yearning that stirred deep within the secret recesses of her heart. Or stop her fascination with the man whose reputation was a byword for wickedness. Was this how rakes enticed females into carnal love? “Come and sit beside me,” he exhorted in a murmur, his voice a warm handstroke on her heart. Sabrina almost wished he were speaking to her. She could picture the moonlit scene on the other side of the yew hedge: the handsome Highlander lounging on a stone bench, while Lady Chivington kept her distance—to tease and torment him. She recalled the Englishwoman’s stylish elegance, her voluptuous figure resplendent in a wide, panniered ball gown of blue silk brocade, her towering, powdered hairdo adorned with pearls and ribbons.

Her voice, however, currently held a note of waspishness that didn’t match her beauty. “I am not certain I wish to sit beside you, sir,” Lady Chivington observed, pouting. “I think perhaps you deserve a punishment for your neglect of me this afternoon. You did not come to me as you promised.” “Surely you will forgive me, my sweet. As I mentioned, I was unavoidably detained.” A faint scoffing sound issued from the lady’s lips. “By a tavern wench, no doubt. Or another gentlewoman.” “Never, ma cherie,” he replied, his voice holding a uniquely seductive rasp in his apparent attempt to win her from her sulks.

“How could I contemplate another lass when the hope remains you might favor me with your attention?” “You never even replied to my note.” “Yet I am here now, am I not? And if we are at all alike, Belle, you’ve found that anticipation only heightens the pleasure.” In the resulting silence, Sabrina could imagine the lady unfurling her ivory fan and plying it vigorously. “Do you make it a habit, sir, of ignoring a lady’s request to call?” “Only when the lady in question has a jealous husband…a colonel in the English army, at that. I do cherish my skin.” “Pooh! I doubt you fear my husband in the least. Besides, Richard cares little if I engage in dalliance.” “He is a fool, then, to neglect such a beautiful wife.” The compliment seemed to mollify her only slightly. “Perhaps you should seek out another lady who will dance to your tune.

” “Do you wish me to withdraw, then, Arabella?” The question held skepticism and a lazy amusement. “I suppose not,” she replied petulantly. “I was facing an evening of unutterable boredom.” “I shall endeavor to relieve it, if you will permit me.” “If you can, then I expect I can contrive to forgive you.” “I am gratified.” His reply was edged with a smile. “Finding a new object of worship would require too much effort.” “Do you worship me, sir?” It was a flirtatious, coy remark. “Indeed, I do, Belle.

Behold me enraptured.” “Hah! You are little better than a knave, sir. A disreputable Scot preying on womenfolk.” “Surely not preying.” “We English consider the Highlanders barbarians,” Lady Chivington remarked. “Which I suspect is part of our appeal,” he returned smoothly. “Confess, you occasionally tire of fops in velvet and lace, with soft hands and powdered wigs.” She laughed in an apparent capitulation. “Occasionally. But you, sir, could well be a savage.

In England you would be considered half naked if you arrived at a ball with your lower limbs exposed.” “Ah, but I wore my kilt for a reason.” “And what is that?” “The better to pleasure you, my dear.” “Wicked man,” she murmured in a husky, intimate tone. “Is it true a Scotsman wears nought under his kilt but bare skin?” “You are welcome to discover the answer to that for yourself.” “A rogue to the very bone,” she breathed. “’Tis scandalous, what you are thinking.” “Is it, Belle? Can you claim you are not entertaining similar thoughts?” His languid voice dropped to a husky resonance. “Does your heart not beat faster with anticipation at the thought of having a wild heathen inside you?” Behind the hedge, Sabrina caught her breath at his implication, a flush warming her cheeks. She nearly missed Lady Chivington’s playful reply.

“…claim you are the greatest lover in Europe. By all accounts you’ve made countesses swoon in Paris and brought baronesses to their knees in Venice.” His laughter held a casual charm. “Modesty prevents me from replying to such an observation.” “But ’tis true, poets have composed ballads about the amorous adventures of the dashing Highlander, Niall McLaren.” “An exaggeration, I assure you.” “Is it an exaggeration that you are endowed like a stallion?” “Why do you not come here and find out?” Lady Chivington hesitated. “Here? In the garden?” “I can think of no more interesting way to enliven a ball, can you?” “What if someone should find us together?” “Danger is the greatest aphrodisiac, I’ve always thought. Come here, sweeting,” he murmured in a low, throaty command. “I will take care not to dishevel your coiffure if you will contrive to contain your moans.

” Hearing the lady’s skirts sweeping the gravel path, Sabrina felt a measure of panic. It was bad enough to eavesdrop on a gentleman whispering heated love words to his newest inamorata, but his seduction apparently intended to go much further. She took a careful step backward. “That is far better,” he murmured in satisfaction as Sabrina retreated deeper into the shadows. “Here, allow me to assist you, pet.” The pause that followed his offer was filled with the whisper of silk. “How lovely your nipples are this way…hot, peaked, eager for my kisses.” Sabrina felt a shameful tingling in her own breasts as she envisioned his gently roving hands moving languidly over her own skin. “Oh…” the lady breathed, the word ending in a lush, purring resonance. “Niall…” “Patience, sweet…” Sabrina took another cautious step backward.

She dared not remain any longer. Yet it would be impossible to pass the lovers without being detected. She would have to move deeper into the garden, make a wide circle— The snap echoed like a pistol shot. Sabrina winced as the delicate ivory sticks of her fan splintered in her hand. An instant later she bit back a gasp as the menacing form of a kilted Highlander loomed before her, moonlight flashing off his drawn rapier. His unpowdered raven hair was drawn back from a broad forehead and secured at the nape with a ribbon, emphasizing high, hard cheekbones and a lean, square jaw. Beneath slashing ebony brows his blue eyes were narrowed at her threateningly. Alarm kept Sabrina rooted where she stood, but even had she tried to flee, Niall McLaren would have prevented her. His strong fingers clasped her wrist in a velvet manacle, thwarting her movement. “What do you here, mistress?” he demanded sharply, his voice holding little hint of the magic that had recently held her spellbound.

In spite of her own tall stature, he towered over her. Moonlight played over his features in stark accents, making his anger all too apparent. “Who is there?” Lady Chivington demanded shrilly as she rounded the yew hedge, still plucking at the disheveled neckline of her gown. She stopped short when she spied Sabrina. “You! How dare you intrude this way?” “You know this lass?” The lady’s aristocratic English nose lifted. “She is the heiress to the Cameron fortune. Can you not detect the smell of the shop about her?” Sabrina stiffened. This was not the first time she’d been accused of being tainted by trade, since her stepfather was a wealthy merchant, yet it stung more coming from this haughty Englishwoman with her aristocratic assumptions of superiority. Class distinctions mattered far less in Scotland, Sabrina thought defiantly. And the Scots saw nothing shameful in making money.

“I would hardly term myself the intruder, my lady,” Sabrina retorted coolly. “This is my aunt’s house, after all. And my cousin’s betrothal ball.” “You deny you were spying on me, you nosy little snoop?” “Of course I deny it!” “Arabella,” Niall McLaren interjected, “perhaps we misjudge the situation.” “I pray so, or I am ruined! Her aunt is the greatest gossip alive! If this girl should tattle, I will never live down the scandal.” “I assure you, Lady Chivington, I am not in the habit of bearing tales.” “Hah! I doubt any relative of your aunt knows how to keep her tongue between her teeth. Indeed, I wouldn’t put it past that woman to orchestrate a deliberate attempt to discredit me.” “Arabella,” Niall said calmly. “You are overwrought.

” She turned on him with a fierce stare. “Are you in league with her, too, sir? Did you lure me out here to dishonor me?” The Highlander’s striking features grew cool in the moonlight. “My Lady Chivington, perhaps you need a moment alone to compose yourself before returning to the ball.” Her fierce look faded. “Niall, I…I never meant to accuse you of complicity. I spoke rashly, in the heat of the moment.” “I know, my dear. Which is all the more reason to allow our tempers to cool.” “Will you call on me on the morrow?” His hesitation spoke volumes. “I think perhaps it wiser to delay any further meeting between us for a time.

” With a smoldering glance at them both, Lady Chivington spun on her slippered heel and swept away in a flurry of hooped skirts. In the resulting silence, Sabrina found herself alone in the darkened garden with the notorious Niall McLaren. When she hazarded a glance up at him, she nearly flinched at his stony gaze. “Kindly unhand me, sir,” she said unsteadily. To her relief, he released her wrist, but his tone held more than a hint of annoyance. “With pleasure.” “You need not fear,” she began nervously, rubbing her bruised wrist, “that I will divulge a word of this, to my aunt or anyone else. This incident would reflect almost as poorly on me as you. I shan’t tell anyone what you were up to.” His anger remained unplacated.

“Do you make it a habit of eavesdropping on your aunt’s guests?” Sabrina felt her cheeks flush. She was guilty of eavesdropping, yet it had been wholly unintentional. Defensively she lifted her chin. “I am sorry to have spoiled your seduction.” “So am I,” Niall responded without the least sign of embarrassment or shame. “Your timing was wretched.” “Perhaps, but I believe I arrived here first.” “You might have made your presence known.” “You might have chosen a more appropriate place for a liaison!” “In my experience, a moonlit garden is generally considered appropriate for a liaison.” She could hear amusement warring with irritation in his lilting voice, though the emotion was not reflected in his piercing gaze.

“Yes, well…” Her chin rose another inch. “If you wish I shall send out another lady to take Lady Chivington’s place. There are certain to be scores of females eager to supplant her in your good graces.” A muscle in his jaw flexed as he appeared to bite back a smile. “Hundreds, possibly, but none so willing as she.” Sabrina stiffened at his teasing reply. “I pray you will accept my apology, sir,” she murmured. “Now, if you will excuse me…” She started to brush past him, but Niall McLaren held up a hand. “One moment, Mistress… Cameron, is it?” She hesitated reluctantly. “Duncan.

Sabrina Duncan. Cameron is my stepfather’s name.” “Well, Mistress Duncan,” he said as he sheathed his rapier. “I suggest we allow the lady to return to the ball first. It will better serve to shield her reputation.” “I’m surprised you are concerned with protecting any lady’s reputation,” Sabrina remarked archly. He eyed her sharply, his penetrating gaze fixing on her in the darkness. In the moonlight his blue eyes were the color of midnight. Sabrina found herself catching a deep breath. He was handsome as the devil, tempting as sin, yet his starkly masculine beauty was not the sole reason a woman’s heart beat erratically with curiosity and fascination when this man was near.

He had a quality about him that was intently compelling, dangerous. “I collect you know me?” he asked finally. “By reputation, merely. Who has not heard of the infamous Niall McLaren?” His sensual mouth curled at one corner. “I believe I detect a note of censure, Mistress Duncan.” “It is hardly my place to judge you, sir.” “But you disapprove of me even so.” She did disapprove of him, an attitude she strongly suspected amused him. Prudish, Sabrina was sure he would define it. “In most circles it is considered scandalous to pursue an affair with a married lady.

” “Apparently we move in different circles,” he responded dryly. “I don’t suppose you would credit it if I told you the lady was pursuing me?” She could well believe that might be the case. The brazen Highlander would be idolized for his startling physical beauty alone. Yet there was an air about him that was utterly irresistible to women. To her as well, Sabrina acknowledged reluctantly. “I don’t remember you putting up any resistance,” she said, mimicking his dry tone. “But then ’twould hardly have been the act of a gentleman to disappoint the lady.” She was amusing him, Sabrina realized. Even in the darkness she could see his arresting eyes were lit with a mocking sparkle. “I assure you, mistress, this would not be the first time a lass has lured me into a secluded garden.

” She bit back a smile at the thought of this bold rogue hiding from over amorous females. “It must be a great trial, being hounded by languishing ladies eager to be seduced.” His grin was unwilling—and devastating. “You might be surprised by the tribulations I must endure to uphold my reputation.” Sabrina shook her head. She should know better than to enter into a duel of words with an expert in verbal swordplay. Indeed, she should leave at once. Simply being alone with this man could compromise her. Yet before she could respond, the Highlander spoke. “If you were not spying, what brought you out here to the garden when a ball is in progress?” Sabrina suddenly looked down at her clasped hands.

She had no intention of divulging the true reason she’d fled the ballroom: to escape the painful sight of her former suitor dancing with his betrothed—her own cousin. “Is it a crime to partake of fresh air, sir?” “Not that I’m aware. I do not recall seeing you earlier this evening, mistress.” There was a simple reason for that, Sabrina reflected. Niall McLaren simply hadn’t noticed her. Such a man would scarcely give her a second glance, a wren among a flock of peacocks. She was still in half mourning for her mother, so she had worn her plain gray bombazine gown, much to her aunt’s dismay. Now she wished she had swathed herself in armor of silk and lace, for it might have helped disguise her lack of beauty. “Doubtless,” Sabrina forced herself to reply, “it was because I sat with the spinsters and chaperons while you held court with your legion of admirers.” “You are unmarried, are you?” Sabrina found herself fighting a swift surge of wanton rebellion.

At one-and-twenty, she was past the common age for marriage and considered almost on the shelf. “I am, sir.” “I own surprise that an heiress would lack for suitors.” She averted her gaze from his measuring scrutiny. He could not know how deeply his casual remark wounded her. She’d had a suitor. She and Oliver had met during her mother’s illness and developed an understanding after her death: they would marry only after an appropriate period of mourning. But then Oliver had caught one glimpse of her cousin Frances and tumbled head over heels. When he pleaded with Sabrina to release him from his pledge, she had agreed. What else could she do? And indeed, her pride had suffered most.

If her heart had also shriveled a little, if his defection had killed something elusive inside her, well she didn’t delude herself that she was the only female who had ever been jilted. “My mother was ill for some months before passing away,” Sabrina answered defensively, “so I had little time for suitors. I have not yet wholly put off mourning.” To her dismay, his gaze raked over her, coolly appraising. Sabrina tensed. Tall and angular, she lacked the soft prettiness that characterized the other women in her family. Her mother had been a celebrated beauty, as was her Aunt Helen and her cousin Frances. Moreover, she was not in her best looks this evening, Sabrina knew. She wore face paint, which washed any color from her complexion and rendered her features pasty and indistinct. And the hairstyle she’d adopted at her aunt’s insistence covered her most attractive attribute, her rich brown hair.

It was dressed and powdered and artfully arranged in intricate puffs and rolls, yet she felt awkward and pretentious in it. “Duncan…” he mused, not taking his eyes from her. “I call numerous Duncans friend. Would I know your kin?” “No doubt you are acquainted with my grandfather, laird of Clan Duncan. I understand you hail from the same region of the Highlands.” “Your grandfather is Angus Duncan?” One black eyebrow rose. “Aye, I know him well. We are near neighbors, in fact. Angus once saved my father’s life in a feud with the Buchanans, a debt I am not likely to forget. But I do not recall him ever speaking of a granddaughter.

” “Oh, Grandfather Duncan would doubtless prefer to disregard my existence. I was not the right gender, you see. A granddaughter was useless to him, since I could not carry on the clan name. And he never really approved of my mother, either.” “Ah, yes…I recall your father married against Angus’s wishes during a visit to Edinburgh.” “For which he was never wholly forgiven. Papa was expected to marry a Highlander to uphold our clan honor. A lowland Scotswoman was not good enough.” “Ranald died in his prime, did he not?” “Yes, a tragic mishap—a fall from his horse.” A grim frown claimed Niall’s features.

“’Twas no mere mishap. It transpired during a raid by the bloody Buchanans, if memory serves.” “So I understand. I have little recollection of him, or the Highlands, though I’ve heard tales. I left when I was quite young. After Papa’s death, my mother returned with me to her family here in Edinburgh, and remarried some years later. My stepfather is a merchant who trades successfully in wool and fine cloth.” “You must return to the Highlands someday, mistress,” he commented in a tone of polite boredom. “I doubt that will be possible,” she replied, a bit vexed by his apparent dismissal of her. “My stepfather has need of me.

He holds little faith in clerks, and with his failing eyesight, he relies on me to check his accounts each evening.” “Brains in a woman. How fascinating.” His languid tone held a hint of teasing and made her stiffen. “I have found it just as unusual to discover brains in a man,” Sabrina retorted. His half smile was indulgent. “Reviewing accounts is a rather odd occupation for a lass, you must admit.” “Perhaps,” she said a little too sharply. “But I have a head for figures—and I’ll not apologize for it.” “Apparently you also have a temper that is easily provoked,” Niall said, sounding amused.

That wasn’t quite the case, Sabrina reflected. Normally she was remarkably even-tempered. Yet tonight she was feeling defiant, reckless, rash. Definitely not herself. This man seemed to bring out the worst in her. “My temper is usually considered quite serene.” “I confess surprise. For a wallflower you lack a decided meekness.” “For a hedonist, you possess an amazing degree of frankness. I expected more subtlety.

” His slow smile was wickedly disarming. “Is that what you think me? A hedonist?” “Hedonist, pleasure-seeker, libertine…Rumor paints you in rather unflattering terms.” He laughed with careless amusement. “Rumor claims that I regularly engage in perversions and bacchanalian orgies as well, but not every tale you hear is true.” “I’m not aware of any specific perversions. Merely that you seduce every woman you meet.” “Now that is a bald untruth. I only seduce the ones who interest me, I assure you.” He paused, gazing down at her, a speculative gleam in his deep blue eyes. “I wager I could seduce you, little mouse.

” Sabrina caught her breath. She could not possibly interest a man such as he. He was merely amusing himself at her expense. “I sincerely doubt it. I have a great regard for my virtue.” “How tiresome.” She wanted to laugh, but she forced it back. Lazily he adjusted the froth of lace at his cuff. “’Tis just as well, I warrant. Despite my vaunted reputation, I have yet to be accused of deflowering prudish maidens.

” Strangely Sabrina felt disappointed. “I own relief to know I am safe.” “Did I say ‘safe’?” He took a step closer. “It seems a pity to waste such a braw evening.” His tone was casual, but all her senses went on full alert. “I think I could truthfully promise you would enjoy my attentions, mistress.” His sudden smile, part wolfish, was wholly enticing. Sabrina took a step backward, feeling very much the vulnerable lamb. He was far taller than she, broad of shoulder and powerfully muscled, and when he turned the full force of his charm on her, she felt overwhelmed. He was remarkably good at this game of seduction, but that was all it was to him, a game.

He knew very well his power over women. Over her. Sabrina felt a mutinous flash of stubbornness course through her. “You’ll not have any effect on me, I promise you.” “No?”

.

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