“Infatuation. That’s what it was.” Rowena MacLawry flipped her hand at the pair of young ladies seated opposite her. “I mean, for heaven’s sake, I barely knew anyone else.”
Lady Jane Hanover kept her gaze aimed out the coach’s window. “I think I would be more convinced that you’ve set aside your feelings for Lord Gray if you spent less time talking about how you don’t give a fig about him.”
“Don’t be rude, Jane,” her older sister commented. Lady Charlotte smiled at Rowena. “Talking through a complication often does wonders for untangling it. And considering that you spent your previous eighteen years viewing Lord Gray in a particular way, I expect it will take some time to see him differently.”
Rowena nodded, reaching across the coach to squeeze the hand of Viscount Hest’s older daughter. “Just so,” she agreed, carefully burying her brogue beneath the cultured English tones she’d spent the past three months perfecting. “It’s a new way of thinking about things, is all.” Shifting, she looked south out the window to catch a glimpse of the long tail of coaches behind them. Civilization on the hoof, as it were.
The contents of those vehicles was the result of three months spent learning how to be a proper lady, of reminding herself that gentlemen looked only with amusement on ladies who conversed about shearing sheep and fishing and bathing in a loch like some sort of heathen. Well. She wasn’t a heathen. And she had the friends and admirers and wardrobe and manners now to prove it.
“We all have to find a new way of thinking, don’t we?” Jane commented, shifting to sit beside Rowena. “You and I are about to be sisters-in-law. And we’re in Scotland, of all places! Do all Highlanders wear kilts? I never thought to ask.”
As much as she could appreciate a finely-shaped man in the black and red and white colors of clan MacLawry, Rowena continued to be surprised at most of her English friends’ infatuation with the garb. “Today everyone will be in kilts and clan colors. Ranulf will want his betrothed to see Glengask at his best.”
Color touched Charlotte’s cheeks, and that was rather heartening. Rowena didn’t think Lord Hest’s older daughter could be as calm as she’d been pretending over the past few days. Not when she was about to set her eyes on what would be her new home. Her new life.
She stifled an abrupt grimace. Charlotte was traveling north to a whole new life with a man who adored her. All she was doing, though, was returning to her old life after three glorious months in London. Nothing had changed for her, except for her, of course. How long would that last, though, back in the Highlands with her brothers? She didn’t belong here any longer. She belonged in glorious, sophisticated London.
“However you feel about Lachlan MacTier and however he feels about you, I would imagine he is going to be very surprised at seeing you again, Winnie.” Charlotte grinned. “And what…” She trailed off as a musical, high-pitched wail drifted over them. “What is that?”
Finally Rowena chuckled. Whatever else might trouble her, the four MacLawry siblings were about to be reunited. Together, at Glengask, they were unstoppable. And Glengask, however much she wished it was several hundred miles to the south, was where she’d been born. “That is ‘A Red, Red Rose,’” she said, “played on at least half a dozen bagpipes, from the sound of it. It’s a love song, for you, I’d imagine. We’re here.”
Her own heart sped, so she could imagine Charlotte’s must be pounding. She could say she felt eager to see Bear again after three months, and that she wanted to throw her arms around clever Arran and his new wife after they’d spent a fortnight on the run from Campbells and MacLawrys. She could tell herself that after Ranulf had left London a little over a week ago and ordered them all to follow, she hadn’t been ready yet to leave. What she never wanted to admit was that part of her hesitation at returning to Scotland had been that niggling daydream – the one where Lachlan MacTier swept her up in his arms and kissed her. It was annoying that she couldn’t stop being such a fool, even over a man who clearly didn’t deserve her. Infatuation was a stupid, embarrassing thing, and it should be done away with entirely.
The timbre of the wheels changed as the coach left the rutted dirt road for the hard-packed gravel and crushed oyster shells of Glengask’s shallow, curving front drive. Charlotte and Jane both pressed up against the windows and chatted excitedly, but Rowena wasn’t ready to look. Not yet. However much she adored her brothers, southern England called to her. Or perhaps deeper down she dreaded her own reaction to seeing Lachlan again, and she was simply a coward.
“Oh, look, Charlotte! It’s Lord Glengask!” Jane exclaimed, practically bouncing in her seat. “And there’s Arran and Mary Campbell!”
“Lady Mary MacLawry, now,” Charlotte corrected, sending another glance at Rowena.
Was she supposed to be ill-at-ease or jealous, Rowena wondered? Yes, she’d been the sole female at Glengask for the past eleven years, and yes, she wished she’d had an opportunity to make Mary Campbell’s acquaintance before Arran fled London with her, but honestly the idea of having a sister – two of them, once Charlotte and Ranulf wed – filled her with glee. That house had been too full of hot-blooded Highlands men for far too long.
“That very large man with them – is that Bear? Or is he the other one? My goodness, he’s very…muscular.”
“Stop pestering, Jane. We’ll find out in a moment.”
Immediately Jane left the window and seized Rowena’s hand. “I’m so sorry, Winnie,” she said. “I forgot you left here angry.”
Rowena squeezed back. “You mean I slipped out the back door and ran away to London angry,” she said with a brief smile. “I know they’ve forgiven me, and if they hadn’t I would only point out that Ranulf wouldn’t have met Charlotte, and Arran would never have met Mary, if they hadn’t followed me. As for the rest, my eyes have been opened.”
As she finished speaking, the coach rocked to a halt. The door swung open so hard it nearly came off its hinges, and before she could even squeak Bear leaned inside, grabbed her around the waist, and lifted her out onto the Glengask drive. Then she was engulfed in large, strong arms and surrounded by the familiar smell of leather and mint soap.
“Bear, I can’t breathe!” she gasped, but hugged him back. If Munro MacLawry was happy to see her back home, then all was right with the world. Or nearly everything was, anyway.
Finally he released her and took half a step back. “By God,” he drawled, the Highlands brogue thick in his voice, “I think ye’re taller. And look at yer hair, Winnie – it’s prettier than raven’s wings. Do ye nae think so, Lach?”
She barely had time to mentally square her shoulders before Viscount Gray stepped into view. Like her brothers he’d donned his kilt of white and black and red, but that was where the similarities of appearance ended. Where her brothers were tall and broad-shouldered and all muscle, Lachlan was leaner and more narrow-waisted. His hair was a deep mahogany rather than the midnight black of the MacLawrys, even if he had adopted Bear’s tendency to avoid a barber. His eyes had always reminded her of lush springtime – but that had been before. Now, they were simply green.
“Aye,” he said, looking like he wasn’t certain whether to offer her a handshake or a hug. “Very fashionable. Welcome home, Winnie.”
She stuck out her hand to spare him the dilemma. It likely wasn’t his fault he hadn’t a romantic bone in his body, she decided. “You’re no doubt surprised I don’t have burrs in my hair,” she said with a practiced smile in her practiced new accent.
His brows knitted. “What happened to yer voice?” he asked.
“Nothing happened to my voice,” she returned, retrieving her fingers as swiftly as she could. He was her silly, youthful past. That was all. And she’d brought her future with her in those other coaches, so she needed nothing from him at all. “It’s the proper way of speaking. Now if you’ll excuse me, I would like to meet my new sister-in-law.”
With that she turned her back on him and let out a long breath. What had she been so worried about? That she would abandon her sensibilities and try to kiss him? Ha. He was merely a man – albeit a very handsome man – and he was no longer the only potential suitor whose acquaintance she’d made. Nor was he even the only one present.
And because of that, she still needed to do a bit more maneuvering. Halfway to her new sister-in-law, she angled over to where her oldest brother stood with his betrothed. “Thank you for allowing me to invite some friends, Ranulf.”
His expression unreadable, the marquis inclined his head. “I require a Sassannach witness or two at my wedding, so we’ll say this is mutually beneficial. Though I think ye had yer own plans more in mind than mine when ye sent oot the invitations.”
“Nonsense, Ranulf. I’ve brought along representatives of the finest English families.” For the most part, anyway.
He glanced from Charlotte to her parents approaching from one of the following coaches. “I suppose we’ll find oot,” he returned, then took a half step closer to her and lowered his black-haired head. “Just ye keep in mind that this isnae London. I’ll bury any lad who steps too far, Rowena.”
“I don’t think any of them would dare,” she said truthfully, as the small horde of English began exiting coaches and traipsing noisily up the drive. “This is your kingdom.”
“Aye, it is,” he agreed, taking Charlotte’s hand and gazing at his betrothed as though it had been far longer than a week since he’d last set eyes on her. “Welcome to Glengask, leannan,” he murmured, kissing her knuckles.
“It’s beautiful,” Charlotte returned with a warm, excited smile. “Just as you described it.”
“It’s more bonny with ye here.” Ranulf tilted his head. “And did ye know we favor beheadings in the Highlands?” he asked, raising his voice.
“Since when?” Rowena put in, frowning. He was going to frighten everyone away before a single piece of luggage could enter the mansion.
“I ken ye’re all aware there’re different rules in the Highlands than these soft English lads are accustomed to,” he continued levelly. “Fer instance, here we dunnae bother turning our backs on someone if they do something improper.”
“Nae,” Bear took up, looking from his brother to the dozen coaches still spitting out ladies and gentlemen and servants. “Here we’ll bloody yer nose and set ye on yer arse.”
“And then we’ll find ye a nice, deep bog to rest beneath,” Arran said finally, clearly understanding the direction of the pronouncement.
Rowena’s cheeks warmed. “That’s quite enough,” she hissed. “My friends are not accustomed to threats and violence. And if you want to be seen as gentlemen,” she went on, stopping just short of jabbing a finger in Ranulf’s direction, “you can’t bellow at people who haven’t done anything wrong.”
Ranulf lifted an eyebrow. “I can be a gentleman,” he rumbled in his deep Highlands brogue. “I have eyes, as well. Ye have a great number of Saccannach men with ye, piuthar. I dunnae think they’re all here to witness my wedding. I’m nae acquainted with most of them, fer one thing.”
“And they’d best keep in mind that ye’re my only sister,” he pressed, “and that I’ve nae spent this long looking after ye to see someought…unacceptable happen now.” Releasing Charlotte’s hand, he took one long step forward. “Nor do I mean to let ye ferget yer heritage, however prettily ye choose to talk,” he continued in a much lower voice. “Are we clear, Rowena Rose MacLawry?”
It took a great deal of will to look up into his stony blue eyes. “Aye. Yes. I understand.”
Ha. This from men who wagered over the quantity of whisky they could consume. Well, her brothers and Lachlan had best behave themselves, too. Because she had a good idea that her new friends were not going to be the problem. After all, they’d all had governesses and tutors and dance instructors. They all knew how to conduct themselves at balls and formal dinners and house parties. And whether Ranulf realized it or not, she was very close to preferring that life to the one with which she’d grown up. It wouldn’t take much more to tip the balance. In fact, the right man could do it fairly easily. With a flounce of her skirts she continued on to where Arran and Mary stood a little apart from the crowd at the front doors.
Lachlan MacTier took a step backward to avoid having a trunk set on his toes. “Did ye know she was bringing half of London north with her?” he muttered at Bear beside him.
“Nae,” Munro growled back. “Ran said his Charlotte’s family and a few of Winnie and the Hanovers’ friends are to attend the wedding. Nae this horde.” His brows lowered. “They’re all so…pretty. And breakable.”
“Aye.” Lachlan gazed after a tall, spindly lad with high shirt points and blond hair that looked so smooth and shiny it could likely reflect the sunlight. “Breakable.”
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