Clan MacLawry had an old saying that through the years had become, “If ye want to see the face of the devil, look at a Campbell.”
There was another MacLawry saying about London and the weak-chinned Sasannach who lived there, Arran MacLawry recalled, but as he currently stood in the center of a Mayfair ballroom, he would keep it to himself. A gaggle of young lasses, all of whom had donned elegantly-arching swan masks, strolled by in a flock. He grinned at them, disrupting the formation and sending them, honking in feminine tones, toward the refreshment table.
“Stop that, ye devil.”
Arran glanced over at his brother, seated a few feet away and in deep conversation – or so he’d thought – with an elegant owl mask. “I didnae do a thing but smile. Ye said to be friendly, Ranulf.”
Ranulf, the Marquis of Glengask, shook his head. Even with his face partly obscured by a black panther half-mask, there wasn’t likely a single guest at the Garreton soiree tonight who didn’t know precisely who he was. “I said to be polite. Nae brawls, nae insults, and nae sending the wee Sasannach lasses into a frenzy.”
“Then likely I should’ve worn a cow or a pigeon mask, instead of a fox.” Or perhaps he shouldn’t have attended at all tonight – but then who would keep a watch for Campbells and other unsavory sorts?
The owl beside his brother chuckled. “I don’t think the disguise would matter, Arran,” she said in her cultured English accent. “You’d still make all the young ladies sit up and take notice.”
“I suppose that to be a compliment, Charlotte,” he returned, inclining his head at his oldest brother’s Sasannach fiancee, Charlotte Hanover, “so I’ll say thank ye.” At that same moment he spied a splendid peacock mask above a deep violet gown and smiled, but the expression froze as the green and gold swan beside the peacock came into view. Damnation. The two young birds joined arms and turned in his direction, but he didn’t think they’d spotted him yet. “Ye’re bonny sister wouldnae be a swan tonight, would she?” he asked Charlotte, slowly straightening from his lean against the wall.
“Yes,” Charlotte returned. “Poor thing. I don’t think she realized so many others would be wearing swan masks tonight, as well.”
“Well, if ye see her and Winnie, tell the lasses I said hello,” he said, turning for the door to the main ballroom. “I spy Uncle Myles, and I ken he wanted a word with me.”
"Liar," Ranulf said. “And dunnae go far. The Stewarts are expected tonight, and I want ye to make Deirdre Stewart’s acquaintance.”
Arran stopped dead, though he did duck a bit to stay behind the clutter of masks between him and the green-gold swan. “Deirdre Stewart? The hell ye say.”
His older brother didn’t look like he was jesting, however. “I’ve heard she’s pleasant enough, and she’s but two-and-twenty. And she’s the Stewart’s niece.”
So that was the other reason his brother had told him to stay about in London, even after the brawls and his obvious…impatience with the rather English way Ranulf had been conducting himself. “That’s my duty now, is it?” he asked, unable to keep the growl from his voice.
“We’ve nae met Lord Allen’s daughter, so I suppose we’ll find oot.” The marquis glanced beyond Arran’s shoulder. “Yer pretty bird is close by.”
Jane Hanover was more like a vulture, circling and waiting for him to succumb to her relentless charm, but Arran wasn’t about to stand there and argue while she closed in. He didn't need to wear a fox mask to sense trouble, and Charlotte’s eighteen-year-old sister was nothing but. His own sister Rowena's dearest friend or not, she was a debutante, a Sasannach, and a romantic. Arran shuddered, glancing over his shoulder. Devil take him before he let himself be caught up with that.
And then, evidently, there was clan Stewart. There’d been no open warfare between the two clans, and now that he thought about it, over the past week his brother had mentioned them more often than he had the Campbells. And though this was the first time Ranulf had directly mentioned him and Deirdre in the same sentence, Arran had had more than a hunch it was coming. Politically an alliance would likely fare better if Ranulf himself offered for Deirdre, but as the chief of clan MacLawry had gone and fallen in love with a Sasannach, Arran supposed that left it to him to be the sacrificial MacLawry. And so he could only hope the lass more resembled her mother than she did her frog-faced father, and he could be grateful that no other lass in particular had caught his eye before now.
Off to his left the music for the evening's first waltz began, shaking him back to his present peril. Damnation. Jane Hanover would track him down, inform him that she had no partner for the dance, and he would have to be polite because they were about to become in-laws. Before the music finished he would find himself betrothed – and that would throw a bucket of sour milk into Ranulf’s plans, not to mention his own.
A peacock and swan hurried through the doorway behind him. And by God, he wasn’t yet fool enough to end up leg-shackled to a fresh-faced debutante who found him "ruggedly handsome". St. Bridget, he didn’t even know what that meant. Sidestepping between two groups of guests, he turned again -- and walked straight into a red and gold vixen half mask.
"Sir Fox," she said, a surprised smile curving her mouth below the mask.
"There he is, Jane!" he heard his sister, Winnie, exclaim.
"Lady Vixen," he returned, matching her smile with one of his own. "I dunnae suppose ye'd care to dance this waltz with one of yer own kind?"
Shadowed green eyes gazed at him for a half dozen heartbeats, while his doom moved in behind him. One of his dooms. How many of them was a man of seven-and-twenty supposed to shoulder? "I'd be delighted, Sir Fox," the vixen said, saving him with not even a moment to spare.
He held out his hand, and gold-gloved fingers gripped his. Moving as swiftly as he could without dragging her -- or giving the appearance that he'd fled someone else -- he escorted her out to the dance floor, slid his hand around her trim waist, and stepped with a vixen into the waltz.
His partner was petite, he noted belatedly, the top of her head just brushing his chin. And she had a welcoming smile. Other than that, she might have been Queen Caroline, for all he knew. Or cared. She wasn't Jane Hanover, and at the moment that was all that mattered.
"Are we to waltz in silence, then?" she asked, London aristocrat in her voice. "Two foxes among herds of swans and bears and lions?"
Arran grinned. "When I looked at the dessert table I was surprised nae to see baskets of corn for all the birds."
She nodded, her face lifted to meet his gaze. "Poor dears. Evidently Lady Jersey wore a particularly lovely swan mask to this same soiree last year, and it prompted something of a frenzy."
As she glanced about the crowded ballroom, he took her in again. Petite, slender, light green eyes, and hair... He wasn't certain what color to call it. A long and curling mass straying from a knot, it looked like what would result if a painter ran a brown-tipped brush through gold and red in succession -- a deep, rich mix of colors that together didn't have a name.
He blinked. While he'd been known to wax poetical, he generally didn't do so over a Sasannach lass's hair. "Why is it that Lady Vixen didnae already have a partner fer a waltz?" he asked.
"I only just arrived," she returned in her silky voice. "Why was Sir Fox fleeing a peacock?"
So she'd noticed that. "I wasnae fleeing the peacock. That bird's my sister. It's the swan who terrifies me."
The green gaze held his, and he found himself wishing he could see more of her face. As a Highlander and a MacLawry, the ability to assess someone’s expression swiftly and accurately had saved his life on several occasions. An abrupt thought occurred to him. Ranulf had said the Stewarts were attending this evening. What if this vixen was Lady Deirdre? Was she taking his measure as much as he wished to take hers?
"All swans,” she countered, “or just that one? Do they not have swans in the Highlands?"
Of course she knew where he was from; even if all of Mayfair hadn't been buzzing about the MacLawrys brawling their way through drawing rooms over the past few weeks, his brogue would have made it fairly obvious. Unlike his sister, Rowena, he made no attempt to disguise or stifle his accent. Being a MacLawry was a matter of pride, as far as he was concerned. "Aye, they do have swans there, though nae many. It's easier to avoid them in the Highlands, where a lad knows the lay of the land and there's more space to maneuver."
"I had no idea swans were so deadly."
"Aye. They'll catch hold of ye when ye're nae looking, and they mate fer life."
She laughed. "Unlike foxes?"
Did foxes mate for life? He couldn't even recall at the moment. After a fortnight spent hunting for more human dangers, both male and female, a discussion of wildlife -- even an allegorical one -- seemed...refreshing. "This fox is nae looking for a thing but a partner for the waltz," he returned, smiling back at her. There. If this was Lady Deirdre, she now knew he wasn’t pursuing some other lass. "And the vixen?"
"I was looking for a friend of mine. An interlude with a fellow fox is an unexpected...distraction. And if you say something flattering, I won't even be insulted that you only asked me to dance in order to avoid a bird."
Was that a cut? Or a jest? The fact that he couldn't be certain of which it was intrigued him. Sassanach lasses in his experience and with very few exceptions knew all about the weather and could discuss it for hours, but he couldn't give them credit for much else. "Someaught flattering," he mused aloud, trying to decide how much effort to go to. He meant to approach a marriage agreement from a position of strength, after all. A MacLawry didn’t beg for an alliance. "Ye dance gracefully," he settled on.
She laughed again, though it didn't sound as inviting, this time. "Well. Believe it or not, you aren't the first Scotsman to say so. You measure quite equally with the lot of them."
Arran was fairly certain he'd just been insulted. He hid a scowl, not that she'd be able to see it behind the fox mask. If she was Deirdre, perhaps he needed to be more…charming, or some such. Though she might have introduced herself before she began pecking at him. "I've know ye fer two minutes, lass," he commented, pulling her a breath closer. "I weighed saying ye had a lovely pelt and gracefully pointed ears, but I didnae ken ye'd appreciate that."
"And why wouldn't a vixen like to hear that a fox admires her pelt?"
"Because ye're nae a vixen, any more than I'm a fox. Ye chose nae to wear a swan mask, which at least sets ye apart from a dozen other lasses here tonight, but I'm wearing a fox because my sister handed it to me. I reckon I’d rather be a wolf, truth be told." Yes, the family generally called him the clever one, and Rowena had seemed pleased enough at the choice that he'd gone along with it, but it was a well-painted piece of papier-mache -- and nothing more.
"I wanted to be a vixen," she said after a moment. "My father wanted me to be a swan."
Now this was interesting. "And yet here ye are, nae a swan." She also was a young woman, perhaps three or four years older than Rowena – the age he knew Deirdre Stewart to be -- with an attractive mouth, lips that seemed naturally to want to smile, and shadowed green eyes that he imagined crinkled at the corners. If Arran hadn't had both hands occupied with the waltz, he would have been fighting the urge to remove her mask, so he could see the whole of her face, to know if the parts were equal to the sum.
Her lips curved again. "And that is a compliment, Sir Fox." She tilted her head, the gold lights in her hair catching the chandelier light. "Or do you wish me to call you Sir Wolf?"
"I'd answer to Arran," he returned, grinning back at her. She didn’t react to his name, but then she likely already knew who he was. London Society didn’t boast many lads fresh from the Highlands.
"Tell me why the swan -- the one pretending not to gaze at you from over by the refreshment table -- terrifies you, Arran," the vixen said.
He shrugged. "She's my sister's closest friend, and my oldest brother is betrothed to her sister."
"Ah," the vixen returned, her lush gold and red gown swirling against his legs. "The moment she discovered her future brother-in-law had an unmarried brother, she began dreaming about a double wedding."
"Aye. Someaught like that. I've nae wish to break her heart, but I'll nae end up marrying her to avoid seeing her pout, either."
"You must be quite the dancer, if your waltz causes ladies to become spontaneously engaged. Someone should have warned me."
"Tease if ye like, lass, but I'm nae here to get tangled into a debutante's fairy tale." God and St. Bridget knew there were more than enough bonnie lasses awaiting his pleasure in the Highlands, and none of them with silly Sasannach sensibilities about romance and danger. When Ranulf, the chief of clan MacLawry, married his English bride, the family would have more than enough gentle southern blood brought into the mix. And evidently he was to be aimed at a Stewart, anyway.
"If you're not here to marry, then what brings you to London? The mild weather?"
Arran snorted. "If it's nae someaught that can knock ye to yer knees, it's nae weather. I'm only here to keep an eye on my brother and sister. And to be polite."
He sent a glance over where the big black panther waltzed with his owl. With Ranulf distracted by a pair of pretty hazel eyes and Rowena enamored of everything English, one of the MacLawrys needed to keep a wary eye open for Campbells. That was why he'd left their youngest brother, Bear, behind to see to Glengask while he rode down to London. Because William Campbell declaring that clan Campbell would recognize a truce with the MacLawrys was just words. Very shaky ones. Arran had seen enough bloody deeds to recognize the difference.
"'To be polite'?" she repeated. "An...interesting goal. Are you generally not polite, then?"
It likely wasn't a coincidence that she'd several times now decided to comment on the most barbed portion of his various statements. She was needling him -- and on purpose. He liked it. "I'm a very polite lad," he said aloud, "except to those who nae deserve a kind word."
Amused green eyes looked up to meet his gaze again. "And where do I fall in this hierarchy?" she asked.
Whoever this lass was, she was no timid flower. “Ye’ve some Highlands blood in yer veins, do ye nae, lass?”
She lowered her head for a heartbeat. “I do, at that. But what makes you say so?”
With a crescendo the waltz ended. Arran stood there for a moment, briefly wishing he hadn't named himself the designated watchdog of his family. Then he would have been free to continue this conversation somewhere more intimate. "Save me a quadrille or someaught, and I'll tell ye," he offered instead.
She belatedly untangled herself from his arms. "I would, but there are enough men here that that wouldn't be...seemly. Another time, perhaps?"
"Aye. Another time. But at least tell me yer name, lass."
A slow smile curved her attractive mouth once more, and this time the muscles across his abdomen tightened in response. For God’s sake, he hoped she would say Deirdre Stewart. Then he could put this odd heightened awareness to instinct. Taking a step closer again, she put a hand on his shoulder and lifted up on her toes. "I think, Sir Fox," she murmured, her warm lips brushing his ear, "that you should call me...Lady Vixen."
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