Christmas in the Scots Arms Excerpt

Book 3 > Highlander Vows

London, England
1815

Lying was a sin. Yet sometimes, one was given no choice but to lie. For example, if one was trying to protect one’s dearly departed father’s good name, sometimes one must lie. Or if one had a mother who was being positively unreasonable, sometimes one must lie. Even though Miss Cecelia Cartwright was sure she had legitimate reasons for what she was doing, guilt plagued her. Hence her new habit of reminding God exactly why he should forgive her for her trespasses.

Cecelia dashed a look behind her as she tiptoed past her mother’s bedchamber, down the stairs, and toward the front door of their townhome. She gripped her most prized possession in one hand—a book of poetry by Lord Byron that her father had given her—and her shoes in the other. Every astute schemer knew that shoes made entirely too much noise on hardwood floors, and since her mother had deemed Lady Elizabeth Burton unacceptable for Cecelia to associate with and had forbidden her from visiting Elizabeth, Cecelia had been forced to become an expert conniver.

Her mother had always been a worrisome sort, particularly about what others might think of them, but compassion had tempered her concerns, and she had never snubbed someone purposely simply because the ton had done so. But two years ago, when money had first started to seem scarce and her mother had discovered Cecelia’s father had been gambling, a bit of Mother’s compassion had disappeared. Instead, it was replaced by a need to make sure they did everything they could to maintain their place in Society. Then last year, when Father had gambled away almost all their money—and his life right along with it—every iota of empathy her mother had possessed had disappeared. Cecelia understood, of course. Her mother had come from poverty, and after she’d married Father, who’d had money at the time, Mother had never felt as though she was quite good enough. It made her fiercely determined never to return to a state of want nor let Cecelia be thrust into that same fate.

These familiar thoughts tumbled through Cecelia’s head as she crept along, diverting her attention from where she was stepping. The moment the splintered wood caught on the right toe of her last pair of good stockings, she cursed her carelessness and shook her head. She wiggled her foot, trying to free herself, but her efforts were for naught. The sliver of wood had gone through her stockings and pierced her skin.

Blast. She’d get a lecture for that, and rightly so. They had no spare coin to purchase such luxuries as stockings. The meager funds that had been left after her father had died were rapidly dwindling. She’d done what she could, such as taking on the task of shopping herself. She actually quite enjoyed going down to the market and bargaining with the vendors. She’d convinced her mother to teach her how to cook, as well, and that had allowed Mother to let go of their cook.

She knew Mother would have helped more, but her hands ached so much some days that she could hardly use them. Cecelia had also convinced her mother to teach her to wash and clean, so they no longer needed a maid. Mother had protested, of course, reminding Cecelia that she was sure the problem with her hands was from years of such labor, but when Cecelia had shown her the money they would save, Mother had relented. The only servant they still had was the butler, and that was only because Mother had said they must retain him to keep up appearances in case they had a caller. But no one ever called, not since Cecelia had been labeled disgraced.

Cecelia shook off the depressing thought and continued toward the front door. Tiny slivers of sunlight shone in through the cracks of the overly weathered door. Dismay filled her. It wasn’t simply the door. Being upset over a door would be silly; however, the sorry state of the door represented the sorry state of their affairs. So much needed repairing, but there was no money with which to repair it. Tonight, she promised herself, she would once again try to convince Mother to allow her to search for seamstress work.

Cecelia cringed thinking about how that conversation had gone last time. It had started with her mother screeching that if Cecelia did that, their only real hope—which Mother firmly believed was for Cecelia to somehow return to the ton’s good graces and marry well—would be lost, and poverty would claim them. The conversation had ended in blessed silence, but only because poor Mother had fainted. From all her screeching, no doubt.

Lifting up on the door handle to ease its squeak, Cecelia held her breath. Thankfully, the door released without a sound, and she could safely exhale. She pulled the door open.

“Oh!” she gasped, as a gust of wintery wind hit her in the face. Frowning, she eyed the sky accusingly. How could the sun be shining yet it be so cold outside? As if in answer, a larger, particularly ominous-looking cloud moved in front of the sun. She laughed in spite of the shiver another burst of wind had caused in her.

“I suppose that is your way of answering me, God,” she said under her breath while gently easing the door shut.

She tucked her book under her arm and bent down to put on her shoes. She could not stay at Elizabeth’s for more than one hour. Mother’s afternoon nap never lasted longer than that, and as market day was tomorrow, Cecelia could not use the chore as an excuse for where she had gone. Her mother had a suspicious mind—for good reason, Cecelia supposed—but that did not change the fact that she would likely take to following Cecelia if she thought her daughter was doing something that would endanger her return to Society. And Cecelia needed her friendship with Elizabeth. It kept her sane.

Shoving her quickly freezing feet into her slippers, she jerked upright, grasped her book, and started down the short, stone staircase without gripping the iron railing. The moment her right foot landed on the second step and the slick ice whipped her forward, she realized her mistake. She flailed her arms in a desperate attempt to regain her balance, but instead, she managed to lose it altogether. Her left foot joined her right in sliding out from under her, and before she could even release a scream, her feet—and her book—flew into the air. She landed hard upon her back, half on the bottom step and half on the walkway.

A burst of air released from her lungs, along with a groan as small dots of black with specks of brightness danced in her vision. She squeezed her eyes shut against the instant ache in her head, and the thud of rushing footsteps told her she had a witness to her clumsiness and humiliation. Forcing herself to open her eyes, she pressed her palms against the icy ground and dug her heels in to try to gain purchase, but the result was her body sliding all the way off the bottom step and onto the walkway.

Sitting up, she turned her head to see who was approaching, but the corner of her prized book floating in a puddle caught her attention. It was the last gift her father had ever given her, and she let out a strangled cry as she attempted to move from her bottom to her knees. Slipping and sliding on the ice, she managed to reach the book. She went to pluck it from the water, and it caught on a fallen branch, ripping out several pages of the soggy book.

“Oh dear!” she exclaimed on a choked sob.

“Are ye injured, lass?” inquired a concerned male voice with the deepest timbre and smoothest Scottish brogue she’d ever heard.

With her palms stinging from the ice, her knees throbbing against the unforgiving surface, and her heart broken over her ruined book, she could do little more than glance upward, her vision blurry with sudden unshed tears, and say in a strained voice, “My book is ruined. I—” She sniffled and blinked the mortifying tears from her eyes. She simply had to get control of herself!

“Please forgive me,” she said. “It was the last present my father gave me before he passed.”

With one more good blink, her vision cleared, and her mouth gaped open in shock. The most exquisitely handsome man was towering over her. He had a strong jaw and perfectly carved features. Before she could really scrutinize him, he kneeled, bringing his face a hairsbreadth from hers. Worried green eyes locked on her, and a tingle started in her stomach that seemed to move to all her limbs. She’d never seen such bright eyes in her life. Jonathan Hunt—she clenched her teeth at the thought of the man to whom she’d been betrothed, and whom was now betrothed to her former best friend, Matilda—had dark eyes, which should have been a sign. Dark eyes for a dark heart.

The Scot glanced toward her book. “Don’t be sorry for yer sadness over such a treasure being destroyed. I lost a cuff that my father had given me in a fall from a tower, and the grief is still with me. It was the last thing my father had gifted me, as well, so I understand.”

Cecelia was so touched by his words, honesty, and kindness that tears welled in her eyes once again. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“It is customary to help up a fallen woman, Liam, not make her cry!” an agitated feminine voice interrupted. She, too, had a strong Scottish brogue.

Cecelia slowly turned her now-pounding head in the direction of the new voice, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. This was simply awful! She’d been so busy gawking that she’d not even noticed the woman’s approach, and Cecelia was still sprawled on the ground!

Before she could rectify her unladylike position, the handsome Scot held out his hands to her. She blinked, uncertain whether to take his aid or attempt, yet again, to stand on her own, but when he said, “I can pick ye up, if ye wish it,” she quickly shook her head.

“That won’t be necessary, Mr.…?”

“Liam,” he replied, grabbing her hands and hauling her up with such swift efficiency that her head spun. As her body shifted dangerously forward, she placed a steadying hand out, which to her horror, landed on his broad, extremely solid chest. This man was certainly no soft fop.

She snatched her hand back but noticed the corners of his mouth tilt up into a smile. “I beg your pardon,” she offered, forcing herself not to mumble the apology in her discomfiture. If she’d learned one thing this year while weathering snubs from the ton, pretending not to hear snickers behind the fans of ladies she had once called friends, and hiding the true state of her family’s financial affairs daily, it was that appearing unaffected was the best shield against the pain. She rather thought she had become quite adept at it. Well, until her gawking of moments ago.

“It’s Liam who should be begging yer pardon at grabbing ye and hauling ye up like a brute,” said the petite, red-haired woman who smiled so genuinely at Cecelia that she found her defenses lowering as she smiled back. Oh, but it had been a long time since she’d passed someone on the street in this neighborhood and not felt judged. Her heart squeezed.

“Aila,” Liam said, speaking directly to the redheaded woman in a warning tone.

The woman, Aila, responded with a chuckle as she cocked her head and stared at Cecelia. Aila had the same mesmerizingly green eyes as Liam. In fact, their eyes were so similar that the two had to be related.

“I’m Aila MacLeod,” the woman said. She waved a hand at the man. “And this is my brother Liam. We are guests of the Duke and Duchess of Rochburn. Do ye know them?”

“Yes,” Cecelia said warily, anything but thrilled at the memories the mere mention of the Rochburn name stirred, since it was in their home that her reputation had been destroyed. On the other hand, she was glad there would be no more talk of her embarrassing tumble.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” she hurried on, refusing to acknowledge how they had met. “I’m Miss Cartwright,” she added, gripping her ruined book tightly.

“Well, Miss Cartwright, who reads…” He glanced down at the spine of her book, and his eyes widened. “Ye read Byron?” he asked with obvious surprise.

She could not help the smirk that pulled at her lips. “You speak of Byron as if you know his work,” she replied, giving him the same sort of insult he’d just given her.

He chuckled. “I deserved that. I’m sorry. Most of the ladies I’ve met in England have seemed—”

“Unintelligent?” Cecelia supplied for him with a grin. “More concerned with fashion than literature?”

“Aye,” he relented with an apologetic look.

“Well, Mr. MacLeod—”

“It’s Lord MacLeod,” his sister interjected. “But just barely.”

Cecelia frowned. Did the woman mean he was poor? She must, but why was she smirking at her brother then? Poverty hardly seemed like something to be smirking about.

“Ye were saying, Miss Cartwright,” Liam asked.

“Oh!” She felt her neck grow hot. “I’m not like most women of the ton.”

“If that’s true,” he replied, his tone teasing, “then ye will tell me yer Christian name. I find it humorous that all the ladies here seem so shocked when I ask for it.” His shining green eyes swept from her feet to her face, making her awfully glad she had donned her emerald-and-white day gown, which still looked lovely despite being made two Seasons ago. When his gaze met hers, there was no mistaking the challenge shining in their depths.

Her mouth gaped open. Liam’s sister gasped as she poked her brother in the arm. He did not so much as flick his attention to his sister but kept it squarely on Cecelia, his eyebrows arching high, as if daring her to break the dictates of decorum. She’d been a rule breaker previously, which was why everyone in the ton had been so quick to believe the worst about her. In fact, the beginning of her downfall had all started with an ill-advised horse race in Hyde Park with the Duke of Blackmore and had progressed from that incident to an imprudent frolic in the Serpentine with her shoes and stockings off. Once again, with Blackmore.

Or perhaps the true start of it all had been years before due to her inability to follow the rules of etiquette that Society demanded. She found them ridiculous, despite her mother’s constant reminders that the rules determined the difference between the upper and lower classes. However her downfall had started, once kindled, it had forced her to accept Jonathan Hunt’s—or Viscount Hawkins’s—marriage offer when he’d made it because, by then, Mother had learned of Father’s gambling problem and both her parents had feared she might not get another offer since the whispers in the ton of her hoydenish propensities had grown deafening. Jonathan had not seemed to believe the whispers, which she had thought said something good about his character. She should have known better.

That “good character” had disappeared about as fast as it had taken her to spit out the embarrassing sentence that she no longer had a dowry. She was fairly certain she’d not even inhaled a breath after completing the sentence before Jonathan had demanded the betrothal be broken.

“Let me handle how to announce it,” Jonathan had said. More the fool was she for having gone along with that plea. He’d handled it, all right. Somehow, he’d convinced Lord Tarrymount—his crony in crime—to lure her into the library at the Rochburns’ home and then kiss her just as a group of the ton’s biggest gossips strolled in—with Jonathan among them, of course. He had somehow managed to look like the injured party, and she looked like a woman of easy virtue.

He’d also promised that he’d keep the secret of her father’s near-penniless state. Technically, the blackguard had kept that secret, but the price of his silence was her good name, and after she had confronted him about what he and Lord Tarrymount had done to her, the price of Jonathan’s silence was her own silence. If she dared cry foul, he’d let her family’s financial situation be known. She’d been unwise, albeit unwittingly, but that had not changed a thing.

Since her disgrace had occurred, she’d broken nary a rule, not that she’d had much chance since the ton’s doors had been firmly shut in her face. Yet, even if the chance had arisen, she would not have dared to take it. She knew how much her mother hoped all would be forgotten in time and that Cecelia might still make a good match.

“Please do ignore Liam,” Aila said, disrupting Cecelia’s terrible recollections, thank heavens. Cecelia focused her attention on Aila just as she gave her brother a disgruntled look. “He does not care for the rules of English Society. He does not understand the necessity.”

Cecelia felt her frown deepen as she dragged her gaze back to the compelling Scot. Frankly, she had never understood the need for all the rules, either, which was why she had not bothered overly much to heed them. She still didn’t comprehend what was so god-awful about sharing your Christian name, but with all her troubles, she really should just abide by the rules that had been hammered into her since birth.

She narrowed her eyes as she watched Liam’s eyebrow arch ever higher. Challenging. Mocking.

Botheration! She’d never been one to pass up a challenge. She darted a look up and down the street to ensure that they were alone. “Cecelia,” she announced triumphantly.

“That’s a lovely name, lass,” he replied in a deep, sensual tone that made her skin prickle.

The compliment this virtual stranger had just offered pleased her so much that she wanted to grin, but somehow, she managed to make her mouth behave and appear unaffected, which was quite properly English. She had already broken one rule of etiquette today; she dared not break another so quickly. It was like tempting fate to slap her.

“Thank you,” she replied, trying desperately not to sound breathy with her happiness.

Liam’s mouth tugged farther upward at the corners, and she suspected she had failed miserably at hiding her pleasure in his compliment, but before he could say anything else, his sister spoke. “Have ye been to the Rochburns’ home before?”

“Yes, but not in quite some time. You see, I don’t get about much socially,” Cecelia said, praying her tone did not sound strained as she glanced toward the townhome of which they spoke. Her happiness abruptly vanished. Cecelia’s family had once been welcomed at the Rochburns’, but after her disgrace, that had changed. Everything had changed. And a sennight later, her father had drunk himself to death.

When Aila loudly cleared her throat, Cecelia flinched, realizing she was expected to elaborate. She had no notion of what to say. Heat burned her cheeks so greatly that she pressed her hands to them. “I’m terribly sorry,” she mumbled, searching for a passable excuse. “The cold makes me, um…”

“Freezes yer tongue, aye? It does that to mine.” Liam gave her a look of encouragement, and she knew the man had purposely just offered her a perfect excuse for her rudeness. She liked this man more than she liked most any lord she’d met in her past two Seasons on the marriage mart, despite knowing him for less than an hour.

She found herself nodding.

A slow smile spread across his face and made her heart tug. He was breathtakingly, ruggedly manly. He reminded her of the naked Greek statues she’d seen at the museum with her father. Except, of course, this man was clothed. She gulped just thinking about the scandalous prospect of his nudity, and when she brought her gaze to his once more, she found him staring intently, as if he knew her secret thoughts. Embarrassed, she focused on his sister, but she could feel his eyes upon her just as sure as she could feel the heat of the sun.

Aila turned and glanced down the street toward the Rochburns’ townhome. “’Tis funny, I thought I’d met all the family’s neighbors…”

Cecelia shifted from foot to foot, the uncomfortable knowledge of why the Rochburns had not mentioned her knotting her stomach. “Are you, er, particular friends of Her Grace’s?” Cecelia stumbled, finding it hard to believe the stuffy Duchess of Rochburn would befriend poor Scots, let alone have them as guests in her home.

Aila chuckled, and her brother frowned. “I am to marry her son,” she said.

Cecelia blinked in surprise. “Lord Aldridge?” Sadness tugged at her. They had once been good friends, but that was likely never to be again. “I hadn’t realized he’d returned from the fight against Napoleon.” Richard Stone, Marquess of Aldridge was the Duke of Rochburn’s only heir, and the man, to his credit, had defied his father and gone off to fight Napoleon.

“He has only just returned.” Aila surprised Cecelia by grabbing her hand. “Oh! We are having a grand ball to celebrate our betrothal! Ye must come! Ye are the first woman my age here I have met who I think I might actually like! It would be lovely to have a friend—”

“No!” Cecelia snapped, not meaning to be rude, but she certainly could not let this woman, who seemed so nice, return to the Duke and Duchess of Rochburn’s home and voice her wish to invite Cecelia to the ball. They’d laugh Aila out of their presence and may even doubt her worthiness for Aldridge.

When Cecelia realized Aila was gawking at her and Liam had a puzzled look on his face, she scrambled to come up with an explanation. “I, um, I detest balls.” Heat from the lie singed her cheeks, her neck, and her chest. “I really must go.” She offered a quick curtsy, but as she started to step around Liam, Aila touched her arm.

“I detest balls, too, but I would so dearly love to see ye there. I will have Richard invite ye, and ye may decline or accept as ye wish.”

The thought of going back to the Rochburns’ made her ill, but as she was positive the opportunity would not truly arise, she nodded.

A sudden thought struck her. What if she really could somehow manage to get back into the good graces of the ton? She would do it for her mother’s sake. Or she would at least try.

Even as she now prayed that she would receive an invitation, she pleaded to God that Jonathan not be there. Her palms still itched to slap him when she thought about what he had done to her, and her heart squeezed when she thought upon Matilda.

“Thank you,” she murmured, hoping it sounded genuine. She thought she might have succeeded, given Aila’s grin, but when Cecelia stole a glance at Liam, his narrowed, questioning eyes were trained on her.

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