A Lady’s Rules of Etiquette When Eloping:
1. A lady should never leave a note behind explaining her intentions.
2. If by chance a note has been left behind, a lady must prepare to be hunted down and the ceremony thwarted.
3. In such a case, seeking consolation with a night of excessive drinking will be tempting, but ill advised.
4. And lastly, a lady must never, under any
circumstances, wake up manacled to a deliciously handsome Highlander.
Lady Evelyn Alexander has managed to break all four rules in the space of an evening—and the tall, virile Highlander she accidentally married is only the beginning. Her fiancé has also mysteriously gone missing and the threat of scandal is hot on their heels…
Alec McAllister has no use for a wife, but when he wakes up entwined with the lovely and spirited Evelyn, he’s willing to reconsider. He’ll help her find her fiancé, but when the passions ignite between them, it’s only a matter of time before the Highlander claims what’s his…
“Are you certain you want to do this?”
Evelyn Alexander glanced at the man next to her, and smiled. “Would I have come all this way if I weren’t?”
Indeed, she’d never been more certain about anything in all of her twenty years. Well, perhaps that wasn’t entirely true. She was quite certain, for instance, that her brother, Lucas, would flay her alive when he’d discovered what she’d done.
Protective didn’t even begin to describe his character, and when he learned she’d eloped with Stephen Crawford—the man he’d explicitly refused—there would be no end to his outrage.
But Lucas was married now, and it was high time she tended to her own happiness. She was almost, very nearly, practically one and twenty, and old enough to make her own decisions. If she waited for Lucas to find her a suitable husband, she’d be in her dotage before the wedding vows were spoken.
It was early evening when she and Stephen finally arrived at the small village just outside England. Gretna Green. Evelyn glanced out of the carriage window and tried to calm her scattered nerves. Never would she have guessed she would be married here, in a clandestine ceremony, without her brother and her closest friends in attendance. It was a hollow feeling and she tried, unsuccessfully, to wish it away.
What did it matter, in the end? It was only a ceremony—a mere detail. More important was that she would finally be settled with a situation of her own—a house, a family.
As the driver helped Evelyn alight from the carriage, her gaze scanned the small, picturesque village. Several clay cottages dotted a single dirt lane—all wedding shops of some variety, and all bustling with life.
Stephen stepped out behind her. He was large, over six feet, with blond hair, startling green eyes, and a smile that had enslaved every debutante in London. Thankfully, he was completely oblivious to the effect he had on women—which was, perhaps, what Evelyn admired most about him.
“Shall we settle in, then see about finding a blacksmith?”
Evelyn swallowed. “My brother will be upon us in two days—and we should be headed back toward London by then. Perhaps you should secure a room at the inn while I find the blacksmith to marry us. It will save time.”
There was an infamous blacksmith, she understood, Mr. Lindon, who performed the marriage ceremonies. In such a small village, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find him. With any luck, they would have this whole business dispatched within the space of an hour, and she would at last be Mrs. Stephen Crawford.
“Yes, of course.” Stephen bent over her gloved hand and brushed his lips across her knuckles. “I won’t be a moment.”
A quarter of an hour later, she was cursing Mr. Lindon’s infamy. When she finally found his shop, the aptly named Anvil of Love, it was bustling. A queue that began at the front door was wrapped around the squat, whitewashed building like a serpent. Couples of every age and situation stood in the dwindling sunlight, waiting their turn to be wed.
Evelyn bit her bottom lip in frustration. All her hopes for a quick, simple wedding were dashed.
She whirled around and latched on to the first person she saw—a young pageboy who teetered along the narrow lane, both arms filled with packages.
“Pardon me,” she called. The boy stopped, his tower of packages leaning precariously to one side. Evelyn held out her hand to prevent one of the packages from slipping. “I’m very sorry,” she said. “Can you tell me, is Mr. Lindon the only blacksmith in town?”
Surely there must be others—especially given that Gretna Green was a popular destination for elopement.
The boy—who could be no older than twelve—looked slightly confused by her question. “Alec McAllister is just down the lane.” He lifted his chin to indicate a dirt road that disappeared down the gently sloping hill. “But ye donna want to disturb him…”
“Thank you.” She took a shilling from her reticule and placed it one of the more secure-looking packages. “You are very kind.”
But she was already halfway down the lane, her boots crunching in the gravel, her reticule swinging loosely from her fingertips. She would find this Mr. McAllister, and he would marry her to Stephen. If he didn’t wish to be disturbed, well, she had plenty of money to put him in a hospitable mood.
Not several feet past the cluster of shops stood a small barn, its doors wide open, and the name McAllister etched into a sign above the door.
As Evelyn approached, she caught sight of the man himself. He was much younger than she imagined. Tall with dark hair, and tanned skin. He wore a tattered green and blue plaid kilt, but was otherwise completely unclothed from the waist up. His biceps flexed as he brought a mallet down onto a glowing, red-hot horseshoe.
Evelyn stood, mesmerized, at the threshold of his workshop, unable to speak. She’d never seen an unclothed man before. She’d seen illustrations, certainly, in the medical books her brother kept in his library. But seeing the male specimen in the flesh was rather…diverting, to say the very least.
Every muscle and sinew flexed as he moved, a fine sheen of sweat coating his skin. It should have repulsed her, but something inside stirred at the sight of him. He was miles different from the men in her circle, so unlike the finely tailored men she knew. He was rough and untamed. Beautiful.
“Is there something ye want?” he asked brusquely.
Evelyn blinked. He’d stopped hammering and was now staring at her, the mallet hanging limply at his side. Dark hair fell over a pair of chocolate-colored eyes that looked into her so keenly, she felt as though the air had been drawn forcibly from her lungs. His sharp nose and angular features gave him a harsh, masculine appearance that caused every female cell in her body to sigh in approval.
She cleared her throat, her cheeks flushing. “I’m looking for Mr. McAllister. My fiancé and I—”
“No’ interested.” And just like that, he turned his attention back to his work, bringing his mallet down again, the forceful blow causing the windows to rattle in their frames.
“You didn’t even allow me to finish…”
“I know what ye want, and I’m no’ interested. Good day to ye.”
If Evelyn weren’t mistaken, she’d say she’d just been dismissed. The very idea! Evelyn Alexander was never dismissed. And if by some absurd twist of fate she were, it certainly wouldn’t be by a blacksmith. A woman of breeding did have her standards, after all.
Balling her hands into fists, she stepped forward, and schooled her features into pleasant civility. It was a tactic she often used in society. An amiable smile and a calm countenance could smooth even the most ruffled of feathers. “If you please, sir, we are just looking for someone to officiate. It would be most kind of you to help us.”
“Mr. Lindon is down the lane.” He continued to hammer at the horseshoe, never glancing up at her.
“I’ve just arrived from there, in fact, and the queue is horribly long. Seeing as you have no queue, I don’t see why you can’t do us this small favor.”
Mr. McAllister straightened to his full height, tossed his mallet to the ground and stalked toward her. He was quite tall—shockingly so—and at this very moment, he wore a scowl that would have stricken fear into even the bravest of men.
But Evelyn was sister to the most powerful duke in England, and she would not be cowed. And if she felt a little faint, well, that was to be expected. In their haste to cross the border, she and Stephen had skipped lunch. She was hungry. Famished, really. It certainly had nothing to do with the grimace stretched across Mr. McAllister’s too-handsome face, or the way he moved toward her like a prowling leopard.
“And where is this man ye are so eager to marry?” He growled the words, his tone tight and angry.
Despite her resolve, her voice wavered when she spoke. “I…He is parking the carriage.” She shook her head. No, heavens, that was the driver’s task. What was it about this man that flustered her so completely? No man had ever affected her this way. “I meant to say, he’s securing a room at the inn. He will only be a moment.”
His lip curled up into the semblance of a half smile. “Were ye my lass, I wouldna leave you alone for a heartbeat.”
He was close now, his tanned, glistening body within arms length. All she had to do was reach out, and her fingertips would meet with taut, molded flesh. She clenched her hands at her sides. “What you would or would not do is of little consequence, Mr. McAllister. I am not yours, nor will I ever be. I’m here to marry Stephen Crawford.”
This entire conversation was ridiculous, and not a little coarse. She’d never ventured into Scotland before today, but thus far, the rumors had proven true. Scottish society was rough and unrefined. Utterly uncivilized. Or perhaps it was just Mr. McAllister who was uncivilized. It seemed unfair to blame an entire country for one man’s lack of manners.
He continued to advance, forcing her to retreat several steps, until her back met with the smooth surface of the wall. She swallowed. Perhaps she was a bit beyond her depth here.
In London, she navigated society with ease and confidence. She understood London’s intricate, often contradictory rules, and knew how to twist them to her advantage. Here…It appeared there were no rules—none that she could distinguish, in any event. And that realization was more frightening than she cared to admit—she had no compass for a world without rules.
Leaning in, he placed both hands against the wall, one on either side of her head. She was trapped. Completely caged in. Her heart hammered against her ribs as she considered her options. Scream, faint, or fight—or perhaps she could manage a combination of all three. Fainting, in particular, sounded quite tempting.
“Do ye love him?”
The words were so gentle, so calmly spoken that they caught her off guard. She blinked up at him, unsure what to say. True, unfailing, everlasting love was nothing more than a fantasy, a lie embroidered by poets and novelists. Though they’d told her brother it was love when they’d asked his permission to marry, it had been stretching the truth. They felt a mutual regard for one another, which was more than most marriages could boast.
“Love is not a requirement for marriage.”
He laughed at that, a low rumble that she felt all the way to her toes. “Sassenach.”
The unfamiliar word rolled of his tongue, and right down her spine. Loath as she was to admit it, even to herself, she was affected by him. Her cheeks flushed, her heart raced, and she had the wholly inexplicable desire to press her lips to his.
What would they taste like, she wondered?
Stephen was the only man she’d ever kissed, and he had tasted…clean, like brandy with a dash of mint. She doubted this barbarian would taste as agreeable. Indeed, he would likely taste of spirits and soot. And yet, the desire to push up onto her tiptoes and sample his full, enticing lips, was nothing like she’d ever felt before.
Shaking herself mentally, she forced the thought away. Soon-to-be married women had no business thinking about other men’s lips, even if they did look tempting and utterly kissable.
“Mr. McAllister, if you married us, I would be much…obliged to you.”
The word obliged tasted sour on her tongue. As a duke’s sister, she’d never been obliged to anyone. But she was growing desperate. There were only two blacksmiths in town, and the sun was quickly setting. Her brother, or someone in his employ, was doubtless headed this way. She and Stephen must marry tonight, or risk not marrying at all. And the thought of returning to London unmarried was too humiliating to contemplate.
“Alec,” he said.
Evelyn lifted a brow. “Pardon?”
“Call me Alec.”
“No, I think not.”
His body was close, far more close than was proper. He dipped his head and the feel of his warm breath brushed across her cheek. “Call me Alec.” Each word was slow and clipped—a command, not a request.
Addressing this man by his Christian name went against her every instinct, but she wasn’t in a position to argue. She’d call him Great Uncle Sam if it got her any closer to matrimony. “Alec, will you please marry us?”
He considered her for a moment. “I’ll make ye a proposition.”
A proposition. Dear heavens, the way the word rolled off his tongue, languid and seductive, left her in no doubt of his meaning. He wanted something from her, and for the first time in her life, she wondered if the price might be too high.
“No proposition.” The words emerged in a panicked rush. “A simple yes or no will suffice.” Please don’t refuse.
He pressed the lower half of his body against her, his hands still braced on either side of her head. She sucked in a shocked breath, too nonplussed to move. She’d never been this close to a man, this intimately connected, and the sensation was—she swallowed—unsettling.
“I will marry ye to the Sassenach for one kiss. That’s my price.”
Her eyes went wide. He was joking, certainly. Except, he wasn’t. The way he looked at her, his eyes dark, hungry, was evidence enough that his request was sincere. Ridiculous, but nonetheless sincere.
“Release me, or I will scream,” she said calmly. Though why she was telling him instead of simply doing it, she couldn’t say. Something strange was happening to her, that was all she knew for certain. She was dizzy, breathless, and it felt as though her legs had suddenly lost all their strength.
His lips curved into a delicious smile. “One kiss.”
“I will pay you one shilling. Two shillings? A pound…” Good heavens, she’d give him all the money in her reticule if he’d only stop behaving as though she were a gazelle, and he were a starving leopard. “Whatever you want, it’s yours.”
“What I want” —his smile deepened—“is a kiss.”
Drat. He would use her own words against her.
Evelyn huffed out a breath. “Surely money would be of more use to you. You could purchase a shirt, for instance.” He scowled and she lifted her hands. “Just tossing out ideas.”
He shifted his hips, just slightly, and something inside her lit like kindling. White-hot heat spread through her limbs, pooling low in her belly. She felt feverish, faint, and she very nearly swayed, but caught herself.
“I believe I am ill.” She drew in several deep breaths in a vain attempt to calm her racing heart. “My heart feels as though it will beat right out of my chest, and I can’t seem to breathe properly. Perhaps I’d better sit down.”
He laughed at that, a low rumble in his chest that just seemed to make her condition worse, if that were possible. “Ye aren’t ill, lass. What ye feel now is desire.”
The word desire sank in slowly.
She blinked at him. “Oh.”
Well, that certainly explained it. She had little experience with the feeling—none, in fact. She’d felt fondness, certainly. Esteem, perhaps. But this strange energy humming through her veins now was entirely foreign to her.
She analyzed that for a moment. He was beautiful—rough and masculine, so different from the gentlemen in London. And even if she didn’t approve of her body’s response to him, physiologically speaking, it made sense. He was male, she was female. The odd symptoms she was experiencing were natural reactions, and for some reason, that thought comforted her.
“Now, about that kiss…”
She shook her head. “That, I’m afraid, will never—”
Before she could finish refusing his outlandish request, he dipped his head and pressed his lips hard against hers. Stunned, she lifted her hands to his chest, her fingernails digging into his smooth flesh. He was all hard, unyielding muscle, likely honed from years of swinging that damnable mallet. There was nothing soft or gentle or refined about this man.
And yet, when he deepened the kiss, she melted into him. She should pull away. She should slap him across the face. She should do anything other than what she was doing, which was sinking into his kiss, drinking in the hot, spicy taste of him.
Still, one stray thought flittered across her mind: How had she lived her entire life without ever experiencing this?
Just then, the sound of footsteps approached.
Evelyn was jolted out of her haze. Dear God, what was she doing? What was she allowing him to do?
She jerked back, while at the same time, pushing Alec away. He fell back easily, looking just as shaken and confused as she felt. He retreated a few paces more, as though in a daze, just as someone appeared in the doorway. She recognized the tall, muscular frame instantly.
It was Stephen.