The macgregor's lady : MacGregor Series, Book 3. / Grace Burrowes.
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- ISBN: 9781402268748 (electronic bk)
- ISBN: 9781402268731 (electronic bk)
- Physical Description: 1 online resource.
- Publisher: Naperville : Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2014.
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What if the steps they take to avoid marriage...The last thing Asher MacGregor, newly titled Earl of Balfour, wants is a society wife, though he has agreed to squire Boston heiress Hannah Cooper about the London ballrooms. When he's met that obligation, he'll return to the Highlands, and resume the myriad responsibilities awaiting him there....Lead instead to impossible love?At her step-father's insistence, Hannah Cooper must endure a London season, though she has no intention of surrendering her inheritance to a fortune hunter. When she's done her duty, she'll return to Boston and the siblings who depend upon her for their safety... or will she? The taciturn Scottish earl suits her purposes admirably-until genuine liking and unexpected passion bring Asher and Hannah close. For if the Scottish earl and the American heiress fall in love, an ocean of differences threatens to keep them apart."Burrowes' powerful and complex characters will enthrall...
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The MacGregor's Lady
By Grace Burrowes
All rights reserved.
Asher MacGregor, ninth Earl of Balfour, hadcrossed the Atlantic five times in his thirty-some yearson earth, each passage worse than the last, each leavinghim a little more symbolically at sea.
And yet, he'd learned a few things in his wanderings.Though the Harrow had made port yesterdayafternoon, her captain would wait until morning tocome into Edinburgh's harbor, so he might get a day'swork from his crew before they went ashore to drinkand whore away their pay.
Giving Asher one more night to avoid his fate.
Asher also knew that after a winter Atlantic crossing,Miss Hannah Cooper and her aunt, Miss Enid Cooper,would be weary travelers. They had no notion theaging Baron Fenimore was using them to punish hisnephew for being ... what?
Being alive, very likely.
Asher climbed from the traveling coach at thedocks, the heavy vehicle being the only one in hisEdinburgh mews suited to dealing with muddy, slushystreets and heavy loads of baggage.
"Stay with the horses," Asher admonished thecoachy and both footmen. The docks were safeenough by daylight—for docks, and particularly for aman with some height, muscle, and frontier fightingskills. Asher knew which quay would be unloading theHarrow's cargoes and debarking its passengers, but thewhole situation brought back memories.
Memories of being eleven years old, on just such acold, blustery morning, on just these docks, and onlyservants to fetch him to the family he'd never met.
Memories of landing back on Canadian shores asa twenty-year-old, hoping for some sense of homecoming,of welcome, only to realize he wouldn't evenbe met by servants.
And two more returns to Scotland, both solitary,one at age twenty-two, and the most recent—thehardest one—less than six months past, both with adisappointing sense of bowing to an empty fate.
A lonely fate.
Dockside, a tender shipped oars and lowered agangplank as the passengers and a small crowd on thewharf cheered. Families were reunited, travelers triedto adjust to walking on land, and one old gent creakedto his knees and kissed terra firma on the weatheredand chilly wooden cheek of the wharf.
A total of six women debarked. Two were clearlyof the lower orders, the younger showing sufficientsymptoms of scoliosis to ensure a crabbed old age.They bustled away in the direction of a waiting mulecart, a sturdy yeoman at the reins.
Two were just as clearly wellborn, or at least welloff, though the younger of this pair suffered acutestrabismus. They climbed into a black-lacqueredcoach-and-four, two liveried footmen behind.
His guests. Plain but not too plain in their attire,the older one taking a bench while the younger onestood by like a protective hound, scanning the wharffor either danger or welcome. The young lady sufferedneither a hunched back nor a squint, though she wasafflicted with red hair.
Nearly the same shade of red hair as Asher's sister,Mary Frances.
The older woman patted the bench; the youngershook her head. Her bonnet ribbons weren't tied ina fetching, off-center bow, a sign she either wasn'tseeking the approval of fashionable Society or wasn'tnative to Great Britain.
The younger Miss Cooper looked chilly, wary, andalone, and though she was a burden Asher had donenothing to merit, neither did she deserve to standwatch in the bitter shore breeze, courting an inflammationof the lungs.
"Ladies, I hesitate to be so bold, but if you're MissHannah Cooper and Miss Enid Cooper, I'm Balfour,your escort."
"Mr. Balfour." Miss Hannah bobbed a stiff curtsy,one hand braced on the back of the bench. "Pleasedto make your acquaintance."
"Lord Balfour." Miss Cooper held out a hand."Forgive my niece her form of address. Wediscussed it endlessly on the crossing, but we are wearyand forgetful."
"And likely chilled," Asher said, bowing over theolder woman's gloved fingers. "The rest of your bagswill be sent on to the town house. If I might take youto the coach?"
The aunt kept her hand in his and rose with hisassistance. The young lady merely watched whileAsher tucked the aunt's hand over his arm and gave afew instructions to the stevedores. He did not lingerover civilities, knowing Miss Hannah's impassivitycould mask fatigue, bewilderment, homesickness, andother emotions common to the weary traveler in astrange land.
"This way, ladies."
At first he thought Miss Hannah was having difficultywalking on land. After days at sea, it could belike that. The ceaseless, nauseating movement becamenormal, and then concentration was needed to adjustto stillness.
"How was your crossing?"
"Truly, truly unpleasant, my lord," the elder MissCooper said. "I dread the return trip already." Shechattered on about the food, the crowding, the roughcrew, the cold, the endless stench of the sea, and allmanner of discomfort, and occasionally, she'd stumblea little, lean on Asher for a moment, then resume bothher walking and her complaining.
When she at one point turned her face up tohis with the apparent intent of batting her eyes—UncleFenimore must truly have taken Asher intodislike—Asher noted that the aunt's pupils were atrifle enlarged.
"Though I must say"—she paused for breath as theyneared the coach—"it is exceedingly good to hear theQueen's English spoken with the Queen's accent andintonation. It has been twenty years, you know, sincesuch a sound graced my ears. Twenty years."
Of course he did not know, nor did he care. MissCooper shook her head at the sorrow of it all, andAsher glanced over his shoulder to see how this dirgewas striking the niece. The poor girl had doubtlessendured an ocean of such woes, for a womandependent upon the poppy was usually a self-absorbedcreature indeed.
Miss Hannah's expression was unreadable, and herremarkably ugly brown bonnet had remained on herhead, despite the limp ribbons and a brisk breeze. Shetrundled along unevenly behind them like a servant,but her head was up and her gaze was darting all overthe passing scene, like a small child on her first trip tothe trading post. A coil of russet hair tried to escapethe bonnet's confines near her left ear.
"This is the Balfour coach," Asher said. He handedin the older woman, then extended a hand to theniece. She glanced around one more time as if reluctantto part with the scenery—Edinburgh was a livelyand beautiful city, after all—then darted into the coachafter barely touching her fingers to his.
He climbed in, predictably tipping the coach withhis considerable weight. When the thing righteditself—an earl's coach must be well appointed and wellsprung, regardless of the expense—Asher thumped theroof with a gloved fist.
Miss Enid pulled the shade closed on her coachwindow, no doubt because her eyes were offended bythe Scottish winter sunshine.
"Tell me, my lord, will we pass an apothecary onthe way to our accommodations?"
"We shall. Edinburgh has shops aplenty, includingapothecaries, though the town house is quite commodious.If you need a common medicinal, we likelyhave it on hand."
"I've the very worst head. Didn't I tell you,Hannah, my head would plague me terribly? A touchof the poppy might provide a little ease."
"I'm sure we can accommodate you." As much asold Fenimore grumbled about aches and pains, therewas bound to be an entire pantry of nostrums and patentremedies somewhere in the house Fenimore had used asfreely as if he owned it. "What about you, Miss Hannah?Has your health suffered as a result of a winter crossing?"
She was peering out the window and trying not toget caught at it. Asher didn't smile, but something ofhis amusement must have shown in his eyes, becauseshe shifted her gaze to meet his, like a cannon swivelingto sight on an approaching target.
"I am in good health, thank you."
The tones were clipped, the vowels flattened, andthe sound was music to Asher's cold ears. Her accentmight strike some as uneducated, but it would neversound slow-witted. That accent connoted a wilymental agility, and he hadn't heard it in too long.
"Boston, if I do not mistake your accent?"
The aunt waved a hand. "Oh, the accent! There'snothing to be done, I'm afraid. She's had the besttutors, the best dancing masters, the best instructorsof deportment and elocution, but none of them madeany headway against that accent."
This use of the third person on a fellow occupant ofthe same coach, even a large coach, had the effect ofcompressing Miss Hannah's lips and turning her gunsights back to the streets. When she shifted her gaze,the fugitive coil of hair escaped the bonnet altogetherto lie in coppery glory against her neck.
Edinburgh was a bustling place year-round. Itsbetter neighborhoods—some of them less than fiftyyears old—did not empty out in summer, nor did thecity limit its social activities to a mere three months inspring. Asher had enjoyed his visits here, as much ashe enjoyed any city, and he rather liked Miss Hannah'scuriosity about it. As the horses trotted off in thedirection of the New Town, he recounted variousanecdotes about the place, suspecting his guests weretoo tired to manage much conversation.
And all the while he talked, he watched MissHannah Lynn Cooper as surreptitiously as close quarterswould allow.
She was a disaster of the first water in terms offashion—something he also had to like about her.The bonnet, with its wrinkled ribbons, peculiar brownflowers, and slightly bent brim was only the beginning.Her index finger poked out of her glove. The seamwasn't frayed, the end of the finger hadn't been obviouslydarned, the glove was simply shot, and stainedacross the knuckles to boot.
Her cape was stained as well, especially around thehem. Her attire was adorned with salt, mostly, whichcould have been brushed off had she cared to apply adeal of effort. The aunt's clothing was in much betterrepair, her hems tidy, her gloves pristine and whole.
Perhaps the aunt had been waiting for landfall totake the girl in hand?
Asher wished her the joy of such an undertaking,for no amount of finery would help with the proudtilt of Miss Hannah Lynn Cooper's nose or the determinedjut of her chin. Her mouth was wide, and herlips were generous. She compressed them constantly,as if to hide this backhanded gift from the Almighty.
And to go with such a definite nose and chin, theDeity had also bestowed on the woman large, agateeyes with long, velvety lashes. The eyebrows werebold slashes in dark auburn, a dramatic contrast topale skin and coppery hair. Such features would havebeen handsome on a man, but on a woman theywere ... discordant. Arresting and attractive but notprecisely pleasing.
Not boring or insipid, either.
In any case, Miss Hannah Cooper was going to bea royal project to launch socially. He'd been hopingfor a giggling little heiress he could drive about in thepark a few times, the kind of harmless female who'dbe overcome with mortification when she misstepped.This one ...
Asher prosed on about the city's history, but in theback of his mind, he had to wonder if Miss HannahCooper would have been more comfortable marchingabout the wilds of Canada than taking on the challengeof a London social Season. Northern winterswere cold, but the lack of welcome in a Londonballroom for those who were different, foreign, andstrange could be by far colder.
* * *
Hannah had been desperate to write to Gran, but threeattempts at correspondence lay crumpled in the bottomof the library waste bin, rather like Hannah's spirits.
The first letter had degenerated into a descriptionof their host, the Earl of Balfour. Or Asher, Mr. LordBalfour. Or whatever. Aunt had waited until afterHannah had met the fellow to pass along a wholetaxonomy of ways to refer to a titled gentleman,depending on social standing and the situation.
The Englishmen favored by Step-papa were blond,skinny, pale, blue-eyed, and possessed of narrowchests. They spoke in haughty accents and weren'tthe least concerned about surrendering rights to theirmonarch, be it a king who had lost his reason or aqueen rumored to be more comfortable with Germanthan English.
Balfour was neither blond nor skinny nor narrow-chested.He was quite tall, and as muscular andrangy as any backwoodsman. He did not declaim hispronouncements, but rather, his speech had a growl toit, as if he were part bear.
When that observation had found its way onto thepage, Hannah had started over.
The second draft had made a valiant attempt tocompare Boston's docks with those of Edinburgh, buthad then doubled back to observe that Hannah hadnever seen such a dramatic countenance done in sucha dark palette as she had beheld on Balfour. She'dput the pen down before prosing on about his nose.No Englishman ever sported such a noble feature, orat least not the Englishmen whom Step-papa foreverparaded through the parlor.
The third draft had nearly admitted that she'dwanted to hate everything about this journey, and yet,in his hospitality, and in his failure to measure downto Hannah's expectations, Balfour and his householdhinted that instead of banishment, a sojourn in Britainmight have a bit of respite about it too.
Rather than admit that in writing—even to Gran—thatdraft had followed its predecessors into the wastebin. What Hannah could convey was that Aunt hadnot fared well on the crossing. Confined and bored onthe ship, Enid had been prone to frequent megrimsand bellyaches and to absorbing her every wakinghour with supervision of the care of her wardrobe.
Leaving Hannah no time to see to her own—notthat she'd be trying to impress anybody with herwardrobe, her fashion sense, or her eligibility for thestate of holy matrimony.
Her mission was, in fact, the very opposite.
Hannah eventually sanded and sealed a short noteconfirming their safe arrival, but how was one topost it?
Were she in Boston, she'd know such a simplething as how to post a letter, where to fetch more tinctureof opium for her aunt, what money was needfulfor which purchases.
"Excuse me." The earl paused in the open doorway,then walked into the room. He had a saunteringquality to his gait, as if his hips were loose joints,his spine supple like a cat's, and his time entirely hisown. Even his walk lacked the military bearing of theEnglishmen whom Hannah had met.
Which was both subtly unnerving and ... attractive.
"I'm finished with your desk, sir." My lord wasprobably the preferred form of address—thoughperhaps not preferred by him. "I've a letter to post tomy grandmother, if you'll tell me how to accomplishsuch a thing?"
"You have to give me permission to sit." He didnot smile, but something in his eyes suggested he wasamused.
"You're not a child to need an adult's permission."Though even as a boy, those green eyes of his wouldhave been arresting.
"I'm a gentleman, and you're a lady, so I do needyour permission." He gestured to a chair on the otherside of a desk. "May I?"
"How are you faring here?"
He crossed an ankle over his knee and sat back, hisbig body filling the chair with long limbs and excellenttailoring.
"Your household has done a great deal to makeus comfortable and welcome, for which you havemy thanks." His maids, in particular, had Hannah'sgratitude, for much of Aunt's carping and fretting hadlanded on their uncomplaining shoulders.
"Is there anything you need?" His gaze no longerreflected amusement. The question was polite, butthe man was studying her, and Hannah bristled at hisscrutiny. She'd come here to get away from the looks,the whispers, the gossip.
"I need to post my letter. When do we departfor London?"
He picked up an old-fashioned quill pen, makinghis hands look curiously elegant, as if he might renderart with them, or music or delicate surgeries.
"Give me your letter, Miss Hannah. I maintainbusiness interests in Boston and correspond frequentlywith my offices there. As for London, we'll give MissEnid Cooper another week or so to recuperate, and ifthe weather is promising, strike out for London then."He paused, and the humor was again lurking in hiseyes. "If that suits?"
She left off studying his hands, hands that sportedneither a wedding ring nor a signet ring. What exactlywas he asking?
"I am appreciative of your generosity, but I wasnot requesting that you mail my letter for me. I wasasking how one goes about mailing a letter, any letter,bound for Boston." Hannah disliked revealing herignorance to Balfour, but if she was to go on with himas she intended, then his role was to show her how tomanage for herself rather than to make her dependentupon him for something as simple as mailing letters.
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