Excerpt: Taken by the Laird
Book Two: Regency Flings
In 1829, Brianna Munro escapes a dreaded marriage by fleeing to Scotland where she knows her beloved aunt will protect her. But when she finds her aunt has died, Brianna flees once again, taking refuge from the weather in what she believes is a deserted castle on the rugged Scottish coast.
Hugh Christie left the habitable section of the castle and headed to the south wing and the ancient buttery, where his brandy came into the castle for storage before being diluted and shipped out. He followed an old, secret passageway, dark and silent, but for the candle he carried, and the quiet brush of his own footsteps. The air grew chilly as he moved farther away from the fire in the drawing room, but at least he would not need to go out into the wind and wet. The walls and roof in the old wings of Glenloch were intact, but just barely, making it an unlikely storage place. To Hugh’s knowledge, customs agents had never broached the buttery in search of contraband.
Hugh did not expect to hear anything but his own breath as he approached the door, but when something moved stealthily on the stairs, he stopped still.
Dousing his candle, he moved to one side of the door, flattening his body against the wall. He held his breath as he waited in the dark, careful not to make any sound that might frighten the intruder away. He intended to make short work of this prowler, and likely gain the information he needed. He never expected it to be as easy as this.
The faint rasp of the door latch fairly screamed in Hugh’s ears, and he braced himself for a physical confrontation. The door opened silently and a darker shadow emerged from it. He remained motionless as the fellow took a step into the room.
Hugh quickly lunged, and heard a grunt when he grabbed the intruder and wrestled him to the ground. The man struggled, and Hugh realized he was small. a lad, perhaps. He did not want to hurt him – at least, not yet – so he loosened his hold.
The boy made a sudden move, scissoring his legs round Hugh’s hips, and quickly sprang up over him, leaning down, pressing his full weight against Hugh’s chest. Hugh then felt the cold steel of a knife against his throat.
The intruder spoke. “Do not move, you.”
The lad was either very young, or. “You’re a woman!”
“And who might you be?” she demanded.
“I’m the man who regrets going easy on you,” he rasped. “Do you mind putting that thing away?”
“I do mind.” Her breath was shaky and her hand unsteady. She was frightened, as well she ought to be, for she had to know she was no match for a man of his size or strength.
Hugh took care not to move suddenly – for she did hold the knife – and slowly inched his hand up to the level of his chest. “I’ll do you no harm.”
“What have you against me, lass?” Besides a delectably soft feminine bottom, pressed against his groin.
“Y-You do not belong here!”
“But you do?” He took advantage of the uncertainty he heard in her voice and made a swift move, knocking the knife away as he rolled her to the floor. And then she was under him. He managed to gather both her hands in his, holding them securely above her head.
“Let me up, you oaf!” she cried, not at all uncertain now.
“Not until you give me some answers.”
“I cannot breathe!”
He eased his weight off her somewhat, but held onto those ferocious hands of hers. No point in letting her get hold of the knife again. “What are you doing here?”
“I came in to get out of the rain,” she said grudgingly. She was definitely soaked. He could smell the wind and rain on her, and the hint of warm, feminine skin. Her speech was refined, with barely a trace of Scots in her words, and her hands were smooth. Both signs were indicative of a gently bred woman.
“Where are you from?”
“Up away near Muchalls.” He heard the lie in her words. She sounded more English than Scots.
“Who came with you?”
“N-No one.” He felt the subtle roll of her throat as she swallowed. She was small-boned and soft, and he felt a distinct stirring in the lower region of his body with the press of his chest against her breasts.
He refocused his thoughts. “Who are you?”
“Sir, you have me at your mercy. Please let me go. I’ve done naught but come in out of the cold and damp.”
There was a breathless panic in her voice and Hugh wished he could see her face and features more clearly. “‘Tis clear you are a fugitive-“
“But not from the law!”
“No? What then? An angry husband?”
“Of course not!” she cried vehemently.
“‘Tis not your concern!”
“Ah, but it is,” he said tightly. “I am laird here, and ’tis my house in which you trespass so cavalierly!”
She squirmed and he stifled a groan when her pelvis pressed up against his groin. They could hardly remain there on the cold floor indefinitely. He had a far better idea for this audacious lass in her men’s clothes.
“You are Laird Glenloch?” she croaked. “The Earl of Newbury?”
“Do not say we know each other.” He did not think he could stand to face another conniving female.
“Not exactly. I am.” She swallowed again. “What are you doing here?”
“I own the place,” he said. “Remember?”
“Yes, but.” She sighed resignedly. “Let me up, please.”
“As soon as you tell me who you are and what you’re doing here.”
She stared up at him, hesitant, reluctant to speak.
“I’m waiting, lass.”
“I am Br-Bridget. Bridget MacLaren,” she said.
Her name did not stir a memory. But that was hardly surprising. If she was local, Hugh would not be likely to know her, for he had not spent any time at Glenloch in recent years. And, ever since Amelia’s death, he made a general practice of casting a wide berth around society’s doings. So Bridget MacLaren could be unfamiliar on that front, too. One would think the widower of a suicide, and a man who most assuredly deserved his reputation for fast living, would not be a prime catch. But alas. a goodly number of young, marriageable ladies in London, as well as a few whose prime had passed them by, still set their sights upon him.
Hugh judged that that did not seem to be the case here. He could think of no proper young lady who would go about in public wearing men’s clothing, much less wielding a wicked knife as though she knew how to use it. And yet she was no raw Scottish lass.
Hugh lowered his head, dipping down toward this woman who excited him with her dirk and her unconventional clothes. Whoever Bridget MacLaren was, she was not at all commonplace. Her features were only slightly visible in the thickening shadows, but he could see that she kept her eyes upon his as he moved, bringing his mouth within an inch of hers.
“What are you doing here, Miss MacLaren, so far from Stonehaven?”
“Ah, yes. What are you doing so far from Muchalls,” he said, unable to catch her up. He wondered why was she so well-prepared to defend herself with that dirk, if not expecting trouble. Perhaps she was involved in the theft of his goods. If that was true, Hugh knew better than to hope she would admit it outright.
She stiffened at their little interchange, giving rise to more questions. “‘Tis rather too personal to say. I. I just stopped here to get out of the storm. But I.”
Reluctantly, Hugh eased his hold on Miss MacLaren and located her knife. Taking it in hand, he slid off her and reached for the candle he’d set on the floor nearby.
“But you. what?” Hugh lit the candle, observing her closely as she came to her feet. He’d been right about her build – she was not very tall, the top of her head only reaching the bottom of his chin. Her eyes, when she looked up at him, seemed translucent, the impossible blue of the Aegean Sea. Her skin was fair and her features nearly perfect, down to a slight dent in her delicately pointed chin. This one would draw attention in the finest London drawing rooms. But as he had never heard of her, she could not have been inside many of those.
“.but I will find shelter elsewhere if-“
“You are dressed as a lad. Why? And what are you doing abroad without an escort?”
She turned away and pulled off her hat, letting a fall of pale blond hair cascade down her back. She slid one of her hands through the long waves, and scratched her head vigorously. “I am en route to Dundee.”
“Alone,” he said, wondering if it could possibly be so simple. She was soaking wet and he wanted to believe she had truly entered the castle merely to get warm and dry. But he was no fool. There had to be more to it.
“Yes. Why not? I am perfectly capable of managing on my own.”
Perhaps that was true, until she’d been confronted by a full-sized male who took exception to her. “Is that entirely proper, Miss MacLaren? Who are your connections? Your family?”
“I have no fam-“
She stopped abruptly when a strange sound – like the rustling of dried leaves – fluttered round their heads. Hugh was accustomed to all the odd noises in the castle, caused by shifting stone and old timber beams. But it startled the lass. She ducked and looked about her. “What was that?” she asked in a hushed tone.
Hugh decided not to regale her with all the blather about the Glenloch Ghost. He was not sure what she was up to, so he did not want to frighten her off just yet. At the same time, he had no interest in being caught alone with a gently bred woman. She might have denied having any family, but something about her words did not ring true. And if she had some familial connections she did not wish to mention, they would surely have expectations he had no intention of meeting.
Alternately, if she was involved in the theft of his valuable French brandy, then he wanted to keep her close. At least until he determined her methods and who her accomplices were.
“‘Tis naught,” he said of Glenloch’s legendary harbinger of trouble. “A trick of the room. ‘Tis always catching the sounds of the wind and rain.”