Waiting for a Scot Like You – Eva Leigh

It was impossible to ignore the hissing. “Psst! Psst!” Duncan McCameron kept his head down in a valiant effort to focus on the essay he and the other four boys had to write by the end of the day. The composition was part of their punishment, along with spending hours stuck inside the library, and though Duncan preferred being out on the field kicking a football or running races, he had a reasonable amount of brains and could write a relatively convincing paper. The essay’s topic was who they believed themselves to be. What a ridiculous question. Everyone at Eton knew who they were—they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. “Psst!” came the irritating, insistent voice behind him. “Oi—McCameron!” Duncan twisted in his seat. Peering out from between the library stacks was Theodore Curtis, who smirked at him. He and Curtis had very little to do with each other, since hulking brute Curtis was a rule-breaking troublemaker rumored to be a viscount’s bastard. Duncan, on the other hand, was the legitimate second son of the Earl of Glenkirk, a venerable and ancient Scottish title that dated back to Robert the Bruce. But Duncan didn’t give a rat’s arse about lineage—it was a lad’s character that mattered, and Curtis was a scofflaw delinquent to his core. “C’mere,” Curtis said, motioning for Duncan to join him. Duncan glanced at the other three boys who shared in the day’s discipline. Scholarly Sebastian Holloway was bent over his desk, his pen flying across a sheet of foolscap as he industriously labored away at his composition.

Lord Clair had his feet propped up on his desk as he contemplated Holloway, likely trying to find a way to get the other boy to write his paper for him. William Rowe, however, stared at Duncan from behind his shaggy hair, wearing his usual strange little smile. “McCameron . ” Curtis said in a singsong voice. “McCameronnn . ” Ignoring him clearly wasn’t possible, so Duncan shot to his feet and stalked into the stacks. “Quiet,” Duncan snapped. “The senior boy might come back at any minute, and if he finds us talking, we’ll get flogged.” “You don’t know anything about flogging,” Curtis sneered. “You never had a cane across your backside.

” “Unlike you, I don’t make a practice of it,” Duncan shot back. But Curtis didn’t seem offended by this remark. If anything, he looked pleased at the notion of cultivating a terrible reputation. That was precisely what Duncan did not want for himself. “Help me get out of here,” Curtis said. Duncan stared at him. “Beg pardon?” “Eddings locked the door behind him, but there’s a window just up there—” Curtis pointed toward a narrow window set high in the wall. “I reckon with some help I can scramble up there and get out— and you’re going to help me, Corinthian that you are. Bet you can climb anything, and I’ll need someone up there to help pry the window open so I can wriggle out.” “Bloody hell, Curtis.

” Duncan gaped at the other boy. “That’s against the rules.” “Of course it is, you nitwit,” Curtis spat. “That’s the point,” a crowlike voice said behind Duncan. Spinning around, Duncan faced Rowe. The boy stood three feet away, and this close, his angular face and pale eyes looked even more uncanny. Rowe had made no noise as he had approached. Even though Duncan knew the fairy stories he’d heard as a lad had been nonsense, if someone told him that Rowe was a changeling, Duncan would have believed them. “No point in doing something unless it’s against the rules,” Rowe added. “Ain’t that so, Curtis?” Curtis frowned in puzzlement, as if he couldn’t quite believe that the uncanny Rowe had spoken to him, let alone that his words had made a twisted kind of sense.

But for Duncan, who’d grown up in the shadow of his family’s motto—Dignitas, Honestas, Pietas, Dignity, Honor, Duty—it was the very opposite of everything he knew to be true. Rules were in place for a reason. He’d been taught since infancy that rules existed to keep everything running smoothly, and without them, the world itself would eventually fall to pieces. “What are we doing?” Clair drawled from behind Rowe. Naturally, the school’s most popular boy had to be in the thick of everything. “We are doing nothing,” Duncan bit out. “Curtis wants me to help him bolt, but I won’t do it. Bad enough that I’m here. Not going to make it worse by insubordination.” Curtis rolled his eyes.

“God. You are such a goody two-shoes.” He sang the last words, digging needles of annoyance under Duncan’s skin. “Why don’t you loosen your laces? We’re all going to die someday, so you might have a bit of fun. For once.” Duncan’s spine firmed, and his hands balled into fists. He wanted nothing more than to drive his knuckles into Curtis’s smug face—but he couldn’t. That’s what got him here in the first place. A boy had accused Duncan of cheating at a footrace, and in the next moment, the boy lay on the ground, blood streaming from his nose. That same blood had smeared across Duncan’s fist, and only then had he realized he’d punched his accuser.

He had to keep himself under control. Hitting one boy was a mistake, but if he hit another, he’d veer dangerously into anarchy. Dignitas, Honestas, Pietas. “Stuff it,” Duncan growled instead. When Curtis groaned in disappointment, Duncan shouldered past Rowe and Clair, then threw himself into his seat. He crossed his arms over his chest and fought the impulse to sulk. Sulking was for babbies, and he was no babby. Hell, he was fourteen years old, and in just a few more years, he’d have a commission and would be an officer in His Majesty’s Army. That was his plan, and he always adhered to his plans. Returning to his essay, he’d known from his earliest memories of arranging his lead soldiers into orderly columns on the floor of the nursery.

He’d been praised by his parents and tutors for his exceptional ability to follow instructions—never late for tea, always putting his toys away in precisely the right place, completing his schoolwork on time—which meant that he would be an outstanding soldier and an honor to his family’s august name. Yet these boys—Rowe, Curtis, Clair—sneered at such control and discipline. They seemed to think it less a guiding principle and more of an obstacle. “I-it’s all right, McCameron,” Holloway stammered from his seat. “No harm in doing the right thing.” He smiled shyly. Duncan said nothing, but—was Curtis right? What if his whole life slipped by and all he could remember was toeing the line? Or, like Holloway said, was it better to follow the rules and cause no harm? Damn it, he didn’t know, and he hated not knowing. If only this interminable day would be over so he could leave these boys behind and get on with his orderly, regimented existence. Then everything would be fine. Chapter 1 London, 1817 Summer in London lay heavy on the city streets, the heat stifling and the atmosphere still and thick.

As Duncan walked through Mayfair, the urge to remove his hat and loosen the pleats of his neckcloth tugged on him. But nearly two decades as an officer in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders had drilled into him the necessity of maintaining a neat, orderly appearance. Even now, in peacetime, he couldn’t let go of almost two decades of training and discipline. As he made his way toward his destination, he noted laborers working on the front of a house. He envied the men their ability to shuck their jackets and roll up their sleeves. He envied them for more than their sartorial choices, too. They had work to accomplish, a purpose that got them out of bed each day and ensured they slept well every night. Duncan couldn’t say the same about himself. Hopefully, all that would change soon—which was why he now strode toward Rotherby’s home. Knowing that his aimlessness would soon come to an end sped his steps.

A man’s shout broke the quiet. “Watch out!” Something crashed above him. He caught a glimpse of a piece of scaffolding shuddering loose, which made a stack of bricks atop it tumble toward the edge. The mason managed to stop most of them from falling—but one escaped his grasp. It hurtled straight at Duncan’s head. He dove—the movement instinctive and smooth from years of drills—and the brick fell with a bang to the ground. When he felt reasonably certain that nothing else would tumble down, he eased to his feet to study the now-shattered piece of clay. If he hadn’t moved in time, it would have smashed right into his head, likely spattering his brains across the road. “Here now,” a tradesman huffed, running up, “that were a close one. But you moved like that.

” He snapped his fingers, then looked at Duncan wonderingly. “Not a scratch to be seen.” “Given all the brushes with death I’ve had over the years,” Duncan said, “meeting my end on this quiet and sunlit Mayfair avenue would have been the height of irony.” Ironic deaths were the most senseless, and if he was going to die, by God, it was going to mean something. Even so, he couldn’t find a thread of fear from this close call with mortality. Having encountered death so many times, he could barely be bothered to acknowledge its presence. Like seeing the same face in the taproom again and again. You nod once in its direction before resuming your ale. The war had been over for two years, and, presumably, he should have developed stronger ties to life in that time. What did it say about him that all he could muster after nearly meeting his end was indifference? He truly needed something to motivate him.

God above, he hoped what Rotherby offered was the answer. “Suppose,” the tradesman said, scratching under his cap, “I can buy ye a pint, if you’ve worked up a thirst.” Pulling out his timepiece, Duncan consulted its face. “My thanks, but I’ve an appointment in five minutes, and this little dance with the Devil has cost me time.” “Sure whoever you’re meeting don’t mind if you wet your gullet first, given that you almost met old Mr. Grim.” “Old Mr. Grim and I are good friends.” Duncan returned his timepiece to his waistcoat pocket and dusted a streak of grime off the leg of his trousers. “Just as I’m good friends with the man I’m about to meet.

And if I’m late, he’ll give me a roasting like a joint of beef.” He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat. “Good day.” The rest of the journey to Rotherby’s colossal mansion was blissfully uneventful, and within minutes, Duncan stood beneath the columned portico and knocked smartly on the door. The butler immediately appeared. “Major McCameron.” “Symes.” Duncan stepped into the vaulted entryway and handed a footman his hat. In early September, there was yet no need for a coat, and Duncan eschewed the affectation of a walking stick. He had functioning legs, didn’t he? “His Grace awaits you in his study.

” There was no need to show Duncan the way. He’d been to Rotherby’s home countless times—as far back as when Noel had merely been Lord Clair—so he made quick work of the acres of corridors between the entryway and the study. He didn’t slow his steps or pause to admire the artwork and priceless decor. As usual, though, he lifted two fingers in an affectionately rude salute to the portrait of Rotherby that had been painted soon after he’d inherited the dukedom. The door to the study stood open, and Duncan walked straight inside the chamber. He found Rotherby seated at his desk, staring balefully at several mounds of documents stacked in front of him. The responsibilities of a duke seemed vast and generated tremendous amounts of paper. “Do you think anyone will notice if I burn these,” Rotherby asked without looking up, “and then the house down around them?” “Her Grace might object to losing her home,” Duncan noted, dropping into one of the two chairs facing the desk. At the mention of his wife, a smile flashed in Rotherby’s appallingly handsome face. They had been wed a month, after an engagement of mere weeks.

“I’ve six country properties, so that should soften the blow. Still, if you think Jess will be upset . ” “She’s an adaptable woman, but I don’t think arson is something to which she’ll readily agree.” Duncan had been barely affected by his close call with the plummeting brick, but now that he was in Rotherby’s study, with its relative quiet that offered little distraction, energy pulsed through him. He surged to his feet and, walking to the cold fireplace, he shook out his hands as though preparing for a fight. Surely if he concentrated hard enough, he could light a fire with his mind alone. Given how restless and flinty his thoughts had been for the past two years and three months, it wouldn’t quite surprise him if he could conjure flames merely by thinking. “Soon, I’ll be entrusted to one of those homes,” he said, affecting enthusiasm. “Again, you’ve my thanks in offering the position of Carriford’s estate manager to me.” The unexpected proposition had been made a month prior, at Rotherby’s wedding breakfast.

At first, Duncan had laughed, thinking it was one of his friend’s occasional forays into whimsy. But no, Rotherby had been in earnest, and after realizing this, Duncan had accepted the position. Second sons generally did not find employment as estate managers, yet his family had always emphasized the importance of making oneself useful. Better to work—at a gentlemanly profession, of course—than be idle. “I’m acting from pure self-interest.” Rotherby waved his hand. “Mr. Gregory will be stepping down as estate manager so he might spend more time with his grandchildren, and as Carriford is the favorite of my holdings, it stands to reason I need someone with a nauseating amount of competency to run the place.” “Mr. Gregory will leave big boots to fill—” “Ah, they say that the size of the boots isn’t as important as the size of one’s gloves.

” Rotherby crossed the room to Duncan and glanced at his hands. “Surprised you could load a rifle with those bangers you call fingers.” “They’re still good with the delicate work. Never had a lady complain about them.” Well, that wasn’t so. Susannah used to sigh with exasperation because he had large, coarse hands that did not belong to an earl’s son. She’d kept giving him gloves in the hope that would make them— and him—a little more elegant. He forcibly shoved thoughts of her away. That was long ago. It didn’t matter anymore.

“But they’ll do the job at Carriford,” he pressed on. “Been thinking you ought to give me a review in six months, make certain I’m exceeding expectations.” “That’s not necessary—” “It is necessary.” It was a measure of the durability of Duncan and Rotherby’s friendship that he could interrupt a duke without a word of rebuke. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but whatever I receive I earn. This position’s no different, even if one of my oldest friends is giving it to me.” “Your father did buy you a commission,” Rotherby pointed out. “Because he told me I’d be cut off if I enlisted, so I’d no choice. But I didn’t get to be a major by merely screaming at my batman to polish my boots.” Duncan propped his elbow on the mantel.

“Mark me, Rotherby, I mean what I say. I must be employed on a conditional basis contingent on my performance.” He’d been wrestling with this ever since Rotherby had offered him the position. A small voice in the back of his mind had been whispering terrible, insidious thoughts. That his friend was only acting out of charity—even as he hoped this work would give him the focus he’d lacked. Were Duncan to write up an itemized list of all the activities his life in peacetime ought to include, he had followed that list to the letter. And yet for all his adherence to prescribed behavior, restlessness pushed him from one end of London to the other. The fault had to be something within him, surely. He needed something. Something to occupy his body, and even more so his mind.

Nothing seemed to hold his attention anymore, and it was nigh impossible to derive pleasure from any of the things that used to satisfy him. Rotherby had married four weeks ago, and Holloway had done the same a handful of months before that. With two members of the Union of the Rakes spending more time at home than before, the group had met with less frequency. Yet even before this, when his four friends would spend evenings out on the town, traversing from gaming hell to theater boxes to private parties, Duncan’s restlessness grew. He’d keep looking toward the door as if something or someone would walk through it, someone who would hold in their hands the missing piece to Duncan’s sense of unease. The past months had seen him rigorously adhering to schedules. Up at six every morning for a solid two hours taking exercise, then a bath and a light breakfast, followed by work wherein he supplemented his income by reviewing friends’ and acquaintances’ accounting ledgers. At precisely four o’clock, he rode to Hampstead Heath and back—the crowds at Rotten Row were too thick to permit getting a decent gallop—and a subsequent quick wash before heading out for the evening’s revels with his friends. Regardless of what time he went to sleep, he always rose at the appointed hour of six. Day after day after day.

He’d followed the correct path of a gentleman in peacetime—and should have been satisfied. Instead, he felt his temper always on the verge of fraying, and when he laughed with his friends, the sound was forced out of him as if he hadn’t the necessary chemicals to create the alchemy of laughter. Perhaps the work as Rotherby’s estate manager would be the answer. It had to be. His friend looked like he wanted to argue against a six-month review, but he must have known the futility of arguing with a Scot, because he eventually threw up his hands. “As you wish, you donkey.” Sticking out his hand, Duncan said, “Shake on it.” “Fine, fine,” Rotherby muttered, shaking his hand. “A gentleman’s agreement.” “Except before your marriage,” Duncan said with a smirk, “you were a duke but no gentleman.

” “Jess would be highly displeased if I suddenly developed fussy manners. Although, if she was displeased with me, that might require punishment . ” Rotherby’s eyes glazed as he drifted off to somewhere highly enjoyable. “God! Don’t talk to me of that business!” Duncan grimaced. “We’re approaching harvest time, so I’ll need a full listing of tenant farmers and their projected crop yields.” Rotherby smoothed a hand down his perfect lapel. “I didn’t ask you over here today to discuss the position.” Duncan lifted a brow. “Then, what? Plans for a night out?” Despite his dissatisfaction, the prospect was a pleasant one. On the nights when his friends were unavailable, he would play billiards at Brooks’s, which was only mildly diverting.

He couldn’t be too surly about the fact that his friends assembled less frequently, not when Rotherby and Holloway seemed happier now than they’d ever been. “More like a week out.” Rotherby lifted his chin. “I need a favor from you.” “Of course,” Duncan said without hesitation. Even if he didn’t feel indebted to Rotherby, twenty years of friendship meant that the five boys from that day in the Eton library would do anything for the others. The rule was so obvious, no one ever mentioned it. As an afterthought, he asked, “What is it?” Rotherby walked over to a side table, where he poured two glasses of spirits. That should have been an indication that strange things were afoot in Mayfair. Before his marriage, Rotherby indulged in alcohol at nearly any hour of the day.

However, Duncan had noticed that since his wedding, his friend only partook once the sun had set. He brought the glasses over to Duncan, and they both sipped at their drinks. Regardless of the reason Rotherby had decided to break his embargo on strong drink during the day, Duncan could appreciate the excellent whisky that had certainly come from Scotland. Every good Highlander knew if it wasn’t Scottish whisky, it was merely amber-colored swill. “A minor thing, in truth,” Rotherby said after a moment, his words smooth and easy. “More of a holiday than anything. I’ve a female friend who’s journeying to a house party in Nottinghamshire. She’ll have her paid companion with her, but as she’s very close with Jess, my friend’s safety is extremely important to me.” “And I’m to accompany her on this journey to Nottinghamshire,” Duncan said. “I’ll feel more comfortable knowing she has you—a decorated soldier—escorting her.

Keeping an eye out for unsavory characters. She’s a widow and knows the world, but you never know who’s out on the road, eager to take advantage of a woman on her own.”

.

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