“There’s no need to worry on that account; Jane welcomes any excuse to shop.” With a grin, Lady Charlotte Hanover kissed her sister on the nose, then stood.
“I’ve no wish to upend your schedule,” Lady Rowena MacLawry returned in her soft, lilting accent. “It’s poor enough of me to arrive on your doorstep with nary a warning.”
“Nonsense.” Lady Jane Hanover gripped her friend’s hand. “I’ve been inviting you to visit for what seems like years. Your mother and my mother were practically sisters. Weren’t you, Mama?”
“Yes, we were.” Elizabeth Hanover, the Countess of Hest, nodded. “And I’m so pleased you began corresponding with Jane. You do look so like Eleanor, you know.” She sighed, offering a soft smile. “You’re welcome here, my dear, for as long as you care to stay. And of course I’ll sponsor your Season. It’s only fitting that you and Jane debut together.”
Jane clapped her hands together. “You see? You should have come down ages ago, Winnie.”
“Oh, I wanted to, believe you me. It’s only Ran who dug in his heels about it. He thinks every Englishman is…” She trailed off, clearing her throat. “Well, he’s very narrow-minded when it comes to London.”
She flipped a hand, laughing, but to Charlotte’s gaze young Lady Rowena didn’t look entirely at ease. Of course she was fairly certain she wouldn’t be, either, if she’d traveled alone with no one but her maid through half of Scotland and nearly the entire length of England. Clearly Winnie had badly wanted a London Season.
For an overprotective brother, this Ranulf MacLawry had failed in rather spectacular fashion. A young lady who’d never left her own shire had no business navigating England alone. Or of traveling in a mail coach. Charlotte had half a mind to write Lord Glengask and tell him precisely that. Surely no one could be so ignorant as to think it unnecessary even to send a letter to precede his sister to ensure that someone would be home to greet her and to take her in for the Season. It was … it was unconscionable, even for someone ignorant of English custom. Surely he could read a newspaper, after all. And he must have a modicum of common sense.
She exchanged a glance with her father, who lifted an eyebrow before returning to the conversation. Jonathan Hanover, the Earl of Hest, was not a fan of chaos or upheaval of any kind, but he did dote on Jane and her to excess. Of course Lady Rowena would be welcomed into the house, and she would never see so much as a hint from him or anyone else that he would rather the family didn’t have live-in company for the Season.
Longfellow, the butler, and two footmen arrived with cold sandwiches and tea for them; it was far past dinner, and evidently Mrs. Broomly had gone from the kitchen to spend the night with her very pregnant daughter near Tottenham Court. As the servants set out plates, the knocker at the front door rapped.
“I’ll see to it, Longfellow,” Charlotte said, since she was already standing and nearest the hallway door.
“Thank you, milady.”
By the time she’d made her way the short distance from the sitting room to the foyer, the rapping had turned to pounding. “For heaven’s sake,” she muttered, and pulled open the door. “What is so ur…” Charlotte began, then nearly swallowed her tongue.
A wall stood on the front portico. Well, perhaps he wasn’t as wide as a wall, though his shoulders were certainly broad. But he towered over her by a good ten inches, and most of her fellows considered her tall. As all of that rattled nonsensically through her brain, though, what she most noticed were the blue, blue eyes currently glaring icily down his straight, perfectly carved nose at her.
“I’m here for Rowena MacLawry,” he said without preamble, rich Highland Scot in his voice.
Charlotte blinked. Winnie, as Rowena had asked them to call her, had arrived less than an hour ago; taking a hack from the coaching inn. As far as she knew, no one else was aware of their visitor’s presence in London. No one but Rowena’s family, that was. They, however, remained in Scotland—so far as she knew.
“I didnae come all this way to be gaped at,” the mountain stated into the short silence. “Rowena MacLawry. Now.”
“I was not gaping at you, sir,” Charlotte retorted, though she was quite aware that she didn’t seem to be able to look away from that fierce, stunning countenance. It was if a black-haired god of war had simply … appeared on her doorstep. “Most visitors come to the door with a calling card, or at least with a word or two of polite greeting and introduction before they expect to be allowed past the foyer.”
His eyes narrowed. It wasn’t ice she saw in that deep blue, Charlotte realized, but something much more heated and angry. “I’m nae a visitor,” he said, steel beneath the soft lilt. “And if the English think a wee lass barring the door is enough to keep me from what’s mine, they’re madder than I recall.”
His? This was becoming very strange, indeed. And there was no blasted need to be insulting. “I am not a wee anyth—”
He stepped forward. Putting his large hands around her waist, he lifted her off her feet only to set her down behind him on the portico—all before she could do anything more than take a gasping breath. By then he was well inside Hanover House.
“Rowena!” he bellowed, striding down the hallway.
Charlotte settled her skirts and charged after him. “Stop that yelling at once!” she ordered.
For all the attention he paid her stalking behind him, she might as well have been an insect. “Rowena! I’ll see yer arse here before me, or I’ll knock this house down around yer blasted ears!”
Longfellow and a trio of footmen dashed out of the sitting room. The big Scot pushed them aside as if they were no more than bowling pins. He shoved into the room they’d exited, Charlotte on his booted heels. Given the physical … presence he radiated, she expected to see Lady Rowena cowering behind a chair. Instead, however, the petite young lady stood in the middle of the room, her color high and her hands on her hips.
“What the devil are ye doing here, Ranulf?” she demanded.
“The coach is outside. Ye have one minute to be inside it.”
Rowena seemed to deflate. As she lowered her head, a tear ran down one cheek. “My things?” she quavered.
“What … what is the meaning of this, and who the devil are you, sir?” Lord Hest demanded.
The dark-haired head swiveled to pin the earl with a glare. The devil, indeed. “Glengask.” He returned his attention to Rowena. “Go get Mitchell and yer things. If ye run in the meantime, we’ll return to Glengask by way of St. Mary’s, where I’ll leave ye off. A decade or so with nuns should cool yer heels.”
Another tear joined the first. “Ye’re a beast, Ranulf MacLawry,” Winnie whispered, and fled past him and Charlotte out of the room.
“Glengask. Lady Rowena’s brother?” her sister, Jane, said in a thready voice. “The marquis?”
“Aye,” he returned, his tone still clipped and angry.
“It was our understanding that you sent Lady Rowena to us for her Season,” Charlotte’s father stated. From his tight expression he was furious, and that didn’t surprise her at all. People—much less bellowing blue-eyed devil Scotsmen—did not barge into proper households such as theirs unannounced. Ever.
“Because ye wouldnae think twice over sending a young lass into a foreign land with no advance word. Or is it only a Scotsman ye’d believe would do such a mad thing?”
“She told us you’d sent her here,” Charlotte put in.
The Marquis of Glengask turned around to face her. “She told an idiot lie and ye believed it. Now get out of m’way, lass, and we’ll be gone from this damned place.”
Rowena had called her brother a beast, and Charlotte saw nothing to contradict that assessment. And she did not like men who thought with their fists and large muscles. Not any more than she liked being called a lass and dismissed—twice now—as something no more significant than a flea. She squared her shoulders. “I am Lady Charlotte Hanover, and you will address me properly, sir. Furthermore, until we are assured that your sister is safe in your company, she isn’t going anywhere.”
“Charlotte!” her mother hissed.
Yes, her family would more than likely simply be relieved to have this disruption gone from the house. But this was not the way anyone remotely civilized conducted business, or anything else. She refused to look away from his gaze, though he was clearly expecting her to do so.
“Well then, Lady Charlotte,” he said succinctly, exaggerating the roll of the r in her name, “I don’t suppose MacLawry family business is any of yers. I ordered my sister to remain at home, and she didnae. I am therefore here to bring her back where she belongs. As I’ve clearly offended ye, I’ll be waiting outside. Happily.”
He took a step closer, lifting an artfully curved eyebrow as he did so. Obviously he was giving her the choice between stepping aside or being bodily lifted out of the way yet again. She elevated her chin to keep her gaze squarely on his. “Your sister traveled a very great distance on her own and against your wishes, then, Lord Glengask. It seems to me that she wants very badly either to be in London, or to be away from you. I do not take you for someone who is crossed lightly.”
The eyebrow dove with its twin into a scowl. “It seems to me that this is still none of yer affair.” He sent a glance at her father, who still stood in front of his chair and looked as though he’d rather be in the House of Lords discussing taxes. “Do ye allow yer women to speak for ye, then?”
Lord Hest cleared his throat. “My daughter is correct, Glengask. You’ve stormed, clearly enraged, into a proper household and continue to behave like a bedlamite and a devil. It would be irresponsible of me to release Lady Rowena into your care without knowing her feelings and without some assurance of her well-being.”
“‘Her well-being’?” Glengask repeated darkly. “How would ye respond, then, if Lady Charlotte here fled without a word and then when ye ran her down some foreign stranger refused to return her to ye?”
“Firstly, I would hope I never gave my daughter—either of my daughters—cause to flee her own home. And secondly, we are hardly foreign here. Nor are we precisely strangers, as your mother and my wife were the dearest of friends.”
“You somehow knew to come here to find Winnie,” Charlotte added, before the marquis could begin an argument over the degree of their acquaintance. The man seemed to have an argument for everything, after all. “Clearly we are not unknown to you. Nor you to us.”
“Ye’ll have to keep me locked away forever and ever.” Rowena’s unsteady voice came from directly behind Charlotte. A moment later shaking fingers gripped hers. “I only want to see London.”
“And so now ye’ve seen it.” Glengask looked from his sister to Charlotte to where their hands clutched together. “Let my sister go,” he said after a moment.
Charlotte tightened her grip. “No. You are already in London. What possible harm could there be in allowing her to remain for a time?”
“‘What possible…’” He trailed off. “I will not stand here and argue with a female over what’s best for my own family,” he finally growled.
She refused to flinch at his tone, though beside her, his sister did. “Then as I am not giving in, I assume you mean to let Winnie remain here,” she countered. Just when this young lady’s cause had become hers, she had no idea. But this mountain of a man was not going to call her a wee lass and discount her. Not even if he’d lifted her as if she weighed no more than a feather, and not even if he looked to be made of solid sinew and iron.
He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again. Charlotte allowed herself a moment of satisfaction. So the English kitten had spat at the great Scottish bear, and he didn’t know how to react. Good. And good for her.
“So this is what ye aspire to, piuthar?” he asked his sister a moment later, though his gaze remained disconcertingly steady on Charlotte. “To surround yerself with Sasannach who keep ye from yer own family? To hide behind mouthy lasses who decide yer battles and fight them fer ye?”
“You’re the one who’s making this a battle, Lord Glengask,” Charlotte retorted, straightening her shoulders. “And I am only ‘mouthy,’ as you call it, in the face of an overbearing bully.”
“Oh, my,” Winnie whispered almost soundlessly, her fingers tightening.
A muscle in his lean, hard jaw jumped. “A bully, am I?”
“That is certainly the impression you give. Your own sister is hiding behind a stranger rather than approach you.”
The intense blue gaze shifted immediately to his sister. “Rowena, ye know I…” He trailed off, then said a single word in Gaelic that didn’t sound at all pleasant and that made his sister draw in a stiff breath through her nose. Finally he gave a slight nod, as if to himself. “I’m nae a bully,” he finally said. “One fortnight, Rowena. Ye want to see London, then see it. I’ll take a house here, and ye’ll have yer damned debut.” He held out one hand. “Let’s go from here, then.”
“I don’t believe ye, Ranulf.”
“I give ye my word. Two weeks.”
Charlotte bit the inside of her cheek. He’d just given far more ground than she expected, and she’d likely pushed him far past where she should have, already. In addition, her parents wouldn’t thank her for what she meant to say next—but Rowena likely would. And this was for her new friend’s sake rather than for her own. “If you truly mean for your sister to have a proper Season—or a fortnight’s worth of one—then she should remain here. You’d be a bachelor household with no one to sponsor Lady Rowena or provide her with introductions. Unless you have a female relation here who’s acquainted with London Society, that is.”
“I have no female relations,” Winnie said, her fingers tightening around Charlotte’s hand again. “And everything you do will be to show me how it’s no good here. I only want to see it with my own eyes, Ran. Please.”
He blew out his breath. “By all rights I should take ye over my knee and have ye back on the road north within the hour.”
“But ye won’t.”
“But I won’t,” he repeated after a moment, his glance finding Charlotte again. “Stay here, then, if they’ll have ye. But ye’ll inform me where ye mean t’be at all times, and I’ll go about with ye when I choose.”
With a squeak Rowena released Charlotte’s hand and flung herself at her brother. He enveloped her in his muscular arms. “I agree, Ran,” she said fiercely. “Thank ye. Thank you.”
For a moment he closed his eyes, something close to relief—or sadness—briefly crossing his expression. “I’ll call on ye here in the morning. At eleven.” Setting her down, he bent to kiss her on one cheek. “Ye had me worried, piuthar,” he murmured, then straightened again. “Is there some nonsense ceremony aboot exiting, or may I take my leave?” he asked, pinning Charlotte again with his gaze.
She stepped aside. “Good evening, Lord Glengask.”
Only when Longfellow had shut the front door rather firmly behind him did Charlotte let out the breath she’d been holding. From the way her family swept up to her and the fast beating of her own heart, anyone would think she had just faced down the devil himself. But then she just had, really.
And he would be back in the morning.
* * *
“I do hope this is acceptable, Lord Glengask.”
Ignoring the thin man dogging his heels, Ranulf continued his tour of the hallways and rooms of the small house on Adams Row. The building was old, but well made, with twelve rooms and half a dozen windows looking out over the quiet avenue. It stood three stories tall, which he imagined was the origin of its name—Tall House. “It’ll do,” he finally said, realizing that the bony fellow wouldn’t stop nagging at him until he gave an answer. “Though I’d like it better if it had more than two doors to the outside.”
“I’m glad you approve, my lord. You gave me such little notice—only an hour, if you’ll recall—but I believe Tall House is the finest establishment currently available to let. With the Season beginning in earnest, you know, simply everyone flocks to London.”
Everyone plus one damned stubborn younger sister. “You’ll have yer fee by the end of the day,” Ranulf returned, wondering if it was permissible to call Tall House by a different name while he stayed there. Frivolous House with Nae Enough Escape Routes, perhaps.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to press—of course you’re not well known here, but your uncle is, and I’ve no worry that you would keep me waiting.”
Ranulf angled his chin toward the front door. Immediately Owen, who’d spent the previous twenty minutes shadowing the solicitor, stepped forward. “Let’s get ye on yer way, Mr. Black,” he said, blocking the fellow when he would have followed Ranulf into yet another room.
“Certainly, certainly. With you being new to London, Lord Glengask, if you require the services of a solicitor I would be honored to—”
“The laird has yer wee card, Mr. Black, as ye nearly shoved it into ’is pocket. The door is this way.”
Mr. Black blinked. “I say, that’s quite forward of you. Lord Glengask, your servants need more schooling in proper behavior.”
Drawing in a breath, Ranulf faced the red-cheeked solicitor. “I think it’s ye who needs schooling, if it takes a man three tries to get ye to leave when ye’re no longer needed. Good mornin’, and if that’s not clear enough fer ye, good-bye.”
The solicitor opened his mouth. Ranulf continued to gaze at him levelly, and then Una began a low, rumbling growl from where she stood at the window. A heartbeat later, still wordlessly, Mr. Black turned around and left the hallway, Owen grinning behind him.
“Amadan,” Ranulf muttered, though Mr. Black seemed more a bootlicker than a fool. Or, more likely, he was the fool in all this.
After all, he’d agreed to allow Rowena to remain in London, in an English household, of all damned things, for a fortnight. Where he couldn’t hear what nonsense she was being told. And worse, where he couldn’t be assured of her safety.
“M’laird, the Sasannach has departed,” Owen said, returning to the doorway. “I doubt he’ll darken these halls again, at least while we’re in residence.”
“Good. Thank ye, Owen.”
The footman nodded. Shifting, he scowled. “I need t’say someaught to ye, Laird Glengask.”
“Then do so.”
“Peter and I are pleased and proud to be here with ye. Very proud. And so is Debny. But … we are nae enough. With ye staying on in London, ye’ll have need of a cook and a valet, and more eyes ye can trust t’keep ye and Lady Winnie safe.”
Ranulf nodded. He’d intended to retrieve Rowena, spend the night at an inn, and be on the way north by sunrise. Nothing his sister said would have changed his mind or his plans. No, for that he could thank that woman. Lady Charlotte Hanover. She hadn’t so much as raised her voice, and yet now he’d rented a house in Mayfair and given his sister over to an English aristocrat’s family.
“My uncle’s in Town,” he said slowly, wondering what Myles Wilkie would have to say about all this—and not liking the answer he came up with. “I’ll send Peter over with a note, asking if he knows of any likely lads we can trust.”
“But Lord Swansley’s English,” Owen said, making the word a curse.
“Aye, but he’s also family. And he spent ten years at Glengask, raising the likes of my brothers and sister. He’ll know what we require, whatever he is.”
“As ye say, m’laird.”
After he scrawled out the note and sent Peter off to deliver it, Ranulf made his way back to the bedchamber he’d chosen for himself. It looked over the street on the north, and the stable yard on the east, and gave him a good view over a fair part of the lane. He’d left for London with almost no luggage and no wardrobe at all fit for so-called proper Society. At least the bed looked more comfortable than the one at the inn where he and the lads and the hounds had spent the night.
He’d worn buckskin trousers, riding boots, and an old coat to call on Hanover House. He supposed he could do the same today, and then find a tailor’s shop to see him in something better suited to Mayfair. While he didn’t give a damn about what the English thought of him or his attire, Rowena would. Embarrassing her would not be the way to convince her that Scotland and Glengask held more promise for her than did London. A damp nose pushed at his hand, and he absently scratched Fergus behind his rough gray ears. “What in God’s name are we doing here, boy?” he murmured, answered only by a tail wag.
Owen rapped at his door and leaned in. “Shall I valet ye then, m’laird?”
“I can put on my own boots, but thank ye, Owen. And valet isnae someaught ye do; it’s what ye are. See that Debny saddles Stirling, will ye?”
When he arrived back downstairs ten minutes later, the dogs on his heels, the silence of the place finally struck him. Back home the grand house was occupied not only by his siblings and himself, but by myriad servants, friends, and on numerous occasions, various clan subchiefs and their families, in addition to the pair of pipers who sounded off every morning and evening from the rooftop. If it was anything, it wasn’t quiet or solitary. This was, and while at the moment it felt peaceful, he was fairly certain that wouldn’t last. Trouble had a way of finding the MacLawrys.
Touching a hand to the pistol in his left coat pocket, he opened the front door himself, stepping to one side of the wide entry as he did so. No sense in making himself an easy target. Three horses waited in the drive, with Debny and Owen already mounted. “Are ye ready for this?” he asked, taking Stirling’s reins from the head groom and swinging up into the bay’s saddle.
“I’d rather face all of Bonaparte’s army in naught but a kilt,” the footman answered, “but ye cannae go aboot London alone.”
“One day in London and ’e’s already uppity,” Debny drawled. “Don’t ye worry, m’laird. We’ll see ye and Lady Rowena safe, or die in the tryin’.”
Ranulf nodded, appreciating the sentiment. “Let’s be off, then. And keep that blunderbuss ’neath yer coat, Owen, or ye’ll panic the Sasannach.”
The dogs padding behind them, they clattered down the street toward Hanover House. His rented home might be quiet, but compared to the Highlands, London seemed far too close and too crowded, and amazingly, chaotically loud. Practically elbow to elbow, the residents were, all of them talking at the top of their lungs to be heard over their fellows. He hadn’t noticed it so much last evening, but then he’d had only one concern—finding Rowena. Today the cacophony didn’t so much rattle his nerves as it ground his short patience into gravel.
What the devil had he been thinking, to let Rowena have her way and remain here? She’d fled from home without even leaving a note, damn it all, and deserved nothing so much as a switch across her backside and a long ride home. In fact, this was ridiculous. He would see to it that she returned with him to the house he’d rented so he could keep an eye on her, and then they would head north on the morrow. She could hate him for a year if she chose, but at least she would be safe and where she belonged. And that did not make him a bully. It made him a responsible brother and head of his family.
At Hanover House he tossed his reins to Debny before one of the earl’s grooms could appear, told the dogs to stay, and then strode for the front door. It opened before he reached it, depriving him of the satisfaction of pounding on the solid oak again.
“Good morning, Lord Glengask,” the fat butler intoned, bowing. “You’re expected. I’ll show you to the morning room.”
As the morning room turned out to be four feet from the foyer, the taking of him there seemed ridiculous, but he would tolerate the nonsense until he had Rowena back in hand.
“Lady Charlotte, Lady Jane, Lady Rowena, Lord Glengask,” the butler announced, bowing as though he’d just met the king.
As if they weren’t all acquainted since last evening. The three women rose, curtsying. Since Rowena had never curtsied to him—or to anyone—in her life, she’d clearly already taken to modeling herself after the other two. That did not bode well.
That woman stood there, as well, gazing at him as if she hadn’t a fear or worry in the world, which annoyed him further. She was everything he disliked in a female, tall and skinny and blond, like some delicate porcelain doll likely to shatter if anyone attempted so much as an embrace. Even worse, she interfered in matters that had nothing to do with her, and spoke when he would have much preferred a moment or two to think.
“I’m so glad you’ve permitted Winnie to remain in London,” she was saying now, her mouth curved in a rather attractive smile that didn’t touch her eyes. “And we could certainly use your escort today.”
“And where am I to escort ye to, lasses?” he asked warily, watching for another trick or trap like the one that now had him residing in London for a fortnight.
“Mama wishes to present Winnie at Almack’s on Wednesday. She’ll be presenting Janie as well, and—”
Lady Charlotte blinked her pretty hazel eyes, as if no one had ever naysayed her before. Likely no one had, considering the weak-headed, weakhearted Englishmen that surrounded her and that sharp tongue between her teeth. “Beg pardon?” she said faintly.
“Nae. No,” he repeated, exaggerating the sound to make certain she understood.
“If she doesn’t come out at Almack’s and receive her voucher to the Assembly, traditionally she won’t be able to waltz anywhere else. She won’t even be considered as ‘out,’ by more traditional households.”
“I’ll nae have my sister paraded before a herd of spoiled, fatheaded Sasannach lordlings like a prize cow.”
Rowena stepped forward and took hold of his sleeve, as she’d done when she wanted his attention since she was two years old. “It won’t be just me there, Ran,” she said softly. “Jane will be there, too. Every young lady who wants to have her Season goes to Almack’s first. And I do so want to dance.”
Damnation. He’d never been able to refuse her a thing she truly wished for. Except for London, but then she’d managed that on her own. “Ye’ll be there as well,” he asked, turning to eye Jane, smaller and lighter haired than her mouthy sister. “Right there, beside her?” he asked, hating both that he didn’t know how the damned process went and that he had to ask an English chit for confirmation.
“Yes. And a dozen or so other young ladies, too,” the younger Hanover sister said, her voice unsteady. In fact she looked at him as if she expected him to leap on her, claws and teeth bared.
Beside her, the older sister looked much more composed as she nodded her agreement. The golden curls hanging from the knot at the back of her head swayed silkily from side to side. “This is the first Assembly of the Season. She won’t be standing there alone.”
“And who is it gives them permission to waltz? Who are these patronesses the bloody Society page is always wagging on about?”
“Well, it’s a group of very influential, aristocratic women. Lady Jersey, for one, and Lady Cowper, and Lady Est—”
“Jersey. She’s Prince George’s old mistress.”
Lady Charlotte’s fair cheeks darkened. “No, that was her mother-in-law,” she said crisply. “But proper young ladies do not discuss such things, regardless.”
Ranulf cocked his head. “Ye lot have an odd idea aboot what’s acceptable, then. Why give any o’them the leave to pass judgment on every lass who walks into the Assembly rooms? That’s daft.”
From Charlotte’s expression she didn’t appreciate having to explain her peers to a barbarian such as himself, but he’d be damned if he’d let Rowena walk into something where he didn’t know all the facts. It would be bad enough if some elderly woman of unblemished reputation were to give the nod, but foreign princesses and daughters of royal castoffs? Ridiculous.
“Aren’t there people in your … village or town or—”
“Clan,” Rowena supplied.
“Clan,” Charlotte took up, nodding her thanks, “who have to acknowledge when a girl becomes a lady, or a boy becomes a man, or when two people may marry? All the social minutiae a society requires?”
“Aye,” he returned, not seeing any similarity in the two situations at all. “That would be me.”
Her eyes widened, hazel darkened almost to brown by the yellow sprigged muslin she wore. “You?”
“Ran’s the chief of Clan MacLawry,” Rowena explained, a touch of pride entering her tone. Good; at least she wasn’t embarrassed to be a MacLawry. Not yet, anyway. “It’s the largest clan still with its main seat in the Highlands.”
“With its only seat in the Highlands,” he amended with a slight frown.
“I’m not quite certain what all that means, I’m afraid,” Lady Charlotte said, continuing to eye him. It wasn’t the same apprehensive look he had from her sister, though. Mostly, she seemed curious.
“I’ve nae the time nor the inclination t’explain it to ye at this moment.” She wouldn’t understand, and he didn’t like being ogled like some two-headed lamb. Ranulf gestured at his sister. “If she’s to be presented at Almack’s, what’s required?”
Rowena threw her arms around him. “Thank ye so much, Ran! This means the world to me!”
He put a finger beneath her chin, tilting her face up to look at him, admitting to himself that he’d lost yet another argument before he’d even begun it. At least this time he could blame himself rather than the blond-haired witch. “I know it does, my dear one. Just ye keep in mind that ye’re the world to me. I do mean to keep ye safe, Rowena.”
“I know ye will, bràthair.”
“Oh, it’s perfectly safe on Bond Street,” Jane said emphatically. “We need to get Winnie fitted for a gown. I’ve had mine for ages.”
Clearly he was missing something again, but rather than beginning another conversation over what was wrong with the gowns she’d brought with her—the gowns he’d bought for her—he nodded. “It’ll be safer still with me aboot. Let’s be off then, shall we?”
As they left the foyer the two eighteen-year-olds linked arms and practically skipped down the front steps. Ranulf gestured at his two men, and both of them dismounted, handing the reins over to the affronted-looking Hanover stable boys.
“We’re off to Bond Street,” he said in a low voice, as they reached him. “Owen, ye stay to the left, and ye get the right, Debny.”
“On foot?” Debny returned, scowling.
“Aye. On foot.”
“I’m a groom. Nae a … man who walks.”
“Today ye’re a man who walks,” he returned, hiding a smile. Turning, he caught sight of the Hanover sisters eyeing Fergus and Una, who seemed to be viewing them with equal interest.
“What are those?” Jane asked with an obvious shiver. “They’re big as ponies.”
Ranulf flashed a grin and whistled the dogs to his side. “These are my hellhounds,” he drawled.
“Oh, stop it, Ran.” Rowena walked over and knelt between the hounds, who then nearly turned themselves inside out with licks and tail-wagging. “The big one is Fergus, and the wee lass is Una. They’re Scottish deerhounds.”
“‘Wee’ one?” Lady Charlotte repeated, lifting an eyebrow. “Good heavens.”
“They’ll keep an eye on us,” Rowena said, standing again. “Let’s be off, Janie.”
That left Ranulf gazing at Lady Charlotte. “Do the dogs frighten ye, my lady?” he asked.
“No. They are very … wild looking, though.”
“Aye. They’re a touch bristly. But they’ll outrun a greyhound on uneven ground.” For a moment he continued looking at her, but beginning to feel rather … odd, he gestured toward the vanishing debutantes. “After ye, my lady.”
With the other two giggling and whispering, he fell in with Lady Charlotte several yards behind them. This afternoon he would find a map of this damned place so he would know where he was going. At the moment he felt far too vulnerable, following two bairns thirteen years his junior.
“Guards truly aren’t necessary on Bond Street,” Lady Charlotte commented, glancing over her shoulder at the dour Debny and then at the hounds on Ranulf’s heels.
“It may be safe and civilized for ye, my lady,” he returned, “but I’m a stranger here, and I’ll keep watch over those under my protection.”
Her lips curved again in a smile. To himself he could admit that she had a pretty smile; if he’d favored tall, skinny English women who spoke when they shouldn’t, he would even say she had skin that looked as smooth as fine cream, and that up close her hair shone like silken sunshine.
“Are Janie and I under your protection, then?” she asked, amusement in her voice.
“Laugh if ye want, but aye. Ye’ve taken in a member of my family. That makes ye clan to me.”
“But we’re not Scottish.”
He tilted his head. “Nobody’s perfect.” Ranulf moved a breath closer to her. Her hair smelled of roses, he noted, ignoring the responding tug in his gut. “And I’d thank ye to keep in mind that what’s safe for Mayfair ladies might not be so fer a Highland lass.”
This time she looked full at him, spears of green lit by sunlight deep in her eyes. “It speaks well of you that you’re so protective of your sister,” she said after a moment, “but have you considered that she might not have tried to escape if your grip hadn’t been so tight?”
So this skinny, fair-haired woman thought she had him dissected and analyzed and stuck on a pin. “I’ll nae have a Sasannach woman telling me the right or wrong of what I’m doing,” he snapped. “Ye dunnae know me, or mine, or anything aboot me. And ye’ll nae advise me how to raise my own sister.”
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