To Kiss a Highland Rose – Tamara Gill

The first week of the Scottish Season was a crush and wonderful all at the same time. Lady Elizabeth Mackintosh admitted that being back within Scotland’s society’s bosom with all the scandalous goings-on was just what she needed. It had been two years since she’d traveled away from her brother’s estate, taking part in the gaiety with her friends. Two women she loved dearly and who were forever reminding her of what she was missing. With a bountiful glass of chilled champagne in her hand, she inwardly toasted her unmarried friend, Lady Julia Tarrant, for making her attend tonight. The weeks to come were sure to be filled with laughter, fun, and perhaps marriage, if she were lucky enough to find a suitable husband. God knows, she was well and truly old enough to find one. The sound of a minuet filled the room, a collective murmur of gasps and chatter as couples made their way out onto the floor. Elizabeth watched the throng of guests, one of them her good friend, Lady Georgina Dalton, a widow, who seemed exceedingly happy with the man holding her in his arms and moving her through the steps of the dance. He was dashing, rakish even, if the wicked gleam in the gentleman’s eyes was any indication. Married twice and sadly widowed the same number, Georgina would have to be congratulated on having another man fall at her feet and so early in the Season. Now, if only introductions could be made for her with a suitable gentleman who piqued her interest, the night would be perfect indeed. “Well, well, well, would ye look at that fine specimen of a gentleman? Too delicious to be English, dinna ye not think?” said her friend Julia, her gaze fixed on the man across the room. Elizabeth laughed, taking her arm. Julia, Georgina, and Elizabeth had their Season in London the same year and had formed a close bond ever since.

Of course, this was helped by the fact they were all Scottish by birth, heiresses, or had inherited their family’s estates. “Georgina certainly seems smitten by him. He’s too dark-haired to be Scottish. Maybe Spanish, he certainly has eyelashes long enough to be European.” Julia nodded slowly. “Yes, and everyone knows a person’s nationality can be guessed by how long one’s eyelashes are,” she teased. Elizabeth grinned, not missing the sarcasm in her friend’s tone. “Of course they can, silly. Did ye not know?” The gentleman in question glanced their way, and Elizabeth quickly looked elsewhere, not wanting to be caught ogling him like a debutante. But what were friends to do when one was dancing with such a dashing gentleman? One must look and admire.

Julia sighed. “Well, it seems the Spanish fox has caught his hare for the evening, and ye must agree, Georgina does seem taken with the gentleman.” “Ye said Georgina was very taken with another such gentleman last evening. I no longer hold any sway with yer words. You’re a terrible tease.” Elizabeth smiled, taking a sip of her champagne. “And what about you? Is there no one here tonight that has caught yer attention? Ye cannot remain unmarried forever. There must be a man somewhere in Scotland who’s perfect for our Julia.” “No one here, I’m afraid, who is exciting enough to marry, but the Season is young and there are many more nights before us. Perhaps my luck may change.

And let’s not forget, my aunts have threatened to travel here should I not become betrothed before returning home, so I must find someone. If at all possible, I would prefer someone ancient, who’ll pass away within the first year of marriage, and I’ll not have to bother with husbands after that.” Elizabeth laughed, having forgotten Julia was constantly trying to calm and beguile her two aging aunts. They thought their charge needed their help in all things, including gaining a husband. “So true. I shall look about and see who’s elderly enough to be suitable.” They both were quiet for a moment, watching the play of guests, when a pricking of awareness slid down Elizabeth’s back. She gazed about the room, wondering what it was that had a shiver steal over her. “Should we move away from the windows? I think there’s a draft here.” Julia nodded, and taking Elizabeth’s arm, they headed to the opposite side of the ballroom.

After a few moments at their new locale, the sense that someone was watching her wouldn’t abate. A gentleman bowed before them and asked Julia to dance. Her friend agreed, casting a grin over her shoulder as she walked off. “Good evening, Lady Elizabeth.” The deep, English baritone sent a kaleidoscope of emotions to soar through her. Without looking at his face, she knew the man would be devilishly handsome, could curl her toes in her silk slippers. “Do I know ye, my lord? I do not believe we’ve been introduced.” “That’s because we have not. I’m Sebastian Denholm, Lord Hastings. It’s a pleasure to have your acquaintance, my lady,” he said, bowing before her with more deference than was needed.

The English earl everyone one was talking about this Season here in Edinburgh. A rakehell from London, rumored to be carousing in Scotland for new skirts to lift. Or so it was said. “And ye know who I am? How is that so, my lord?” He leaned conspiringly close. “Doesn’t everyone know who you are?” Elizabeth started at his reply, knowing too well what he hinted. It was no secret in the society they graced that she was known to be unlucky in love. Two years ago, she had set off for London to enjoy another Season. Her brother happily settled, she had stupidly thought she too might find such companionship. How wrong she had been. In London, one by one, her friends had married around her.

They were courted and whisked down the aisle before she had time to change her gown. Not her, however. She had been the good-luck charm for those looking to wed. Lucky Lizzie people started to term her. Unlucky more like. “I beg yer pardon, but I do not understand yer meaning.” She would not let him throw her disastrous past Season in her face. No matter how handsome he may be. “I remember you from town. London deemed you a good-luck charm for debutantes looking to marry.

I see you have not been caught by such inducement yet, my lady.” Heat suffused her face. So he had heard of her. She’d fought hard to forget the many young women who befriended her so they could find husbands. It was the oddest situation and one reason she was attending this year’s Season in Scotland. Even so, it did not look like she could escape those who attended from southern locales and who remembered. “How gentlemanly of ye to remind me of the title. Is that why you’re speaking to me now? Do you hope that your nearness to me will equate to ye falling in love and marrying?” He grinned down at her. “On the contrary. I have no interest in marriage to any of these chits.

” Elizabeth fought to close her mouth, sure she was gaping at him. Did he mean that being by her rendered him safe? Was she so inept at finding a husband that the gentlemen now thought her a secure woman to be around, so long as other women did not hover close by? How absurd! Not to mention humiliating. She turned, facing him. “Let me assure ye, my lord, that being by me does not make ye safe from marriage. I’m sure since I’m Lucky Lizzie, the charm would also work on the men who flock to my side. Ye would be no different.” “Do many men flock to your side, my lady? Or am I the only one?” She narrowed her eyes on him, unsure where his questions were leading, if at all anywhere. Why was he near her if he was not interested? He seemed to be playing with words and her to an extent. She did not like it. “Ye are beside me, are ye not? I’m certain you will not be the last to grace my side this evening.

” “I sought you out not to tease you, my lady, and I do apologize for bringing up your London Season. I merely wished to introduce myself and inform you of some news that I’m sure you will be well aware of soon enough.” “Really? What is this news ye wish for me to know?” Vaguely she remembered his lordship from town, a rake who enjoyed the demimonde and widows more than the debutantes. Handsome as sin, rich and wealthy like many of her acquaintance, but S always the same. Men who looked for the next thrill, the next piece of skirt they could hoist. Not marriageable by any length. No matter what anyone said, rakes did not make the best husbands. “You inherited Halligale, I understand.” “I did,” she replied, saying nothing further. Her brother had gifted it not long after his marriage to Miss Sophie Grant.

He had wanted her to have a home close to him, but that was hers. That it came with an abundance of land was equally generous. Her brother was simply the best person she knew. “So, we’re neighbors. I’m at Bragdon Manor,” he continued. She stared at him a moment, having not known that. If Lord Hastings was a Bragdon, he was closer to her than her brother was at Moy Castle. “I did not know ye had inherited.” Pain crossed his lordship’s face, and the teasing light dimmed in his eyes. “I inherited the estate after my brother passed two years ago.

” “I’m sorry for yer loss,” she said, automatically reaching out and touching his arm. The moment she did, she knew it for the mistake it was. Shock rippled up her arm, a bolt of some kind she’d never experienced before. Elizabeth stepped back, breaking her hold. “Thank you. My brother was a good man, if not ruled by vices that others sought to their advantage.” His lordship seemed to shake off his melancholy and turned, watching her. He had dark eyes, almost gray, the blue so stormy. A handsome man and one who knew that fact well. “We shall see each other often then,” she said, sipping her champagne and willing her heart to stop beating fast in her chest.

He was merely a man. A gentleman like no other. There was no reason her stomach would be all aflutter with him at her side. He picked up her hand, kissing her gloved fingers. His eyes held hers, and again her skin prickled in awareness. Oh, dear. “I have traveled from England, Lady Elizabeth. I intend to see you as much as you will allow.” With a wicked grin, he turned and strode off into the throng of guests, leaving her to watch him. Her gaze slid over his back before dipping lower.

Well, it was not merely his eyes that were handsome, and what did he mean by his words? For the first time since her debut ball, excitement fluttered in her soul. Finally, perhaps this year, she would find love and have a marriage as strong and as sweet as her brother had found. Maybe rakes did make the best husbands after all. ebastian headed toward the card room to seek out his closest friend Rawden, Lord Bridgman, who’d accompanied him to Scotland. Bridgman had readily agreed to travel north, as the timing suited him perfectly well since he also had some business to attend while in the country. He found Rawden just as he was leaving a game of Loo and looking mightily pleased with himself. “How was your evening, my good friend? I saw you speaking to Lady Elizabeth Mackintosh. Did she confirm what you suspected, that she has indeed inherited Halligale?” Sebastian looked back to where he’d left Lady Elizabeth, but could no longer locate her in the crowd. “Yes, I spoke to her, and unfortunately, she has inherited the estate. I need to find a way to make her sell it back to me, or I suppose I could always take Laird Mackintosh to court and fight him over his unlawful acquiring of the lands.

” Rawden raised his brow disbelievingly. “That would be a feat made for giants. He’s Scottish, and the land is in Scotland. If you think the Scots will find the acquiring of Halligale unlawful, you have rocks in your head. You’d be best to marry the chit and acquire it back that way.” The comment from Rawden was off the cuff, meant as a lark, but Sebastian stilled, thinking over the fact. If he married her, he would get back his ancestral Scottish estate that had been in his family for hundreds of years. That his brother, the dead lout, had lost in a game of cards. It would be nothing but a mere inconvenience to him should he marry the woman who now owned it. She could stay in Scotland, and he could return to England, visiting Halligale whenever he chose.

The idea had merit. “She is handsome and seems to have wit. Maybe I will court her.” Rawden shrugged, taking two glasses of wine from a passing servant before handing him one. “To be married, though. I’m not sure you’re ready for such a step. And anyway, I thought you liked the widow Lady Clifford. You were certainly cozy with her at her mask in London, which I may remind you everyone noted.” Sebastian groaned, knowing what a colossal mistake that had been. He’d been so far in his cups he’d not known what the hell he was doing.

One moment he was dancing with Maria, and the next, he had her in a shadowed corner with his hands in places they ought not to be. “Do not remind me of my past mistakes.” “So, I should not remind you then that she’s here and heading your way?” Rawden sipped his drink, laughter in his eyes. Sebastian whirled about, panic seizing him. Maria was here! He took in the guests, only to see no one at all. Rawden laughed, doubling over, and Sebastian had the ultimate urge to kick him up the ass. “You think that is amusing. You’re a bastard.” Rawden wiped at his eyes, laughing still and causing a bit of a spectacle of them. “I’m sorry, my friend.

I could not help myself.” “Hmm,” Sebastian said, sipping his drink and glancing yet again across the sea of heads to ensure Lady Clifford was not, in fact, in Scotland and could not get him in her clasp yet again. “Lady Elizabeth is handsome, I will give her that. Do not be too hard on the chit. She probably does not know her brother won the estate in a game of cards.” “I never intended to be hard on her, but marrying her would certainly be cheaper than suing Mackintosh, and would be more pleasant for everyone. Why make war when you can make love with a woman like her?” He caught her moving through the guests, talking with another lady. Lady Elizabeth was tall, curved in all the right places, and with a bosom that would fit in his hands quite nicely. A well-developed lady, not some gangly, giggling debutante with no padding on her bones. Much more satisfying on one’s palate.

Her laugh when it carried to him was carefree and without caution, bountiful and heartfelt. He liked the sound of it, and seducing her, marrying her, could make his few weeks in Scotland much more pleasant. Her brother may not like his sister’s turn of events. Sebastian and Laird Mackintosh had already had terse words through correspondence over his acquiring of Halligale, but then, if his sister was in love, married even, what could Laird Mackintosh do about it? Nothing. “I’m glad to hear it,” Rawden said, downing his drink. “Now, where are we off to next? Edinburgh is much like London. There is more than one ball a night to attend.” Sebastian laughed and started toward the house’s foyer, all for experiencing what this ancient city had to offer that London did not. “Yes, of course, we have invitations for two other events this evening.” And many more ladies to meet and flatter before he settled down to court Lady Elizabeth.

With any luck, none of them would have emerald eyes and hair that blazed with a fire as bright as the sun itself.

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