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Wild Wicked Scot: The Highland Grooms, Book 1

Arran Mackenzie adored the pleasant sensation of a woman’s soft bum on his lap, and the sweet scent of her hair in his nostrils, especially with the golden warmth of good ale lovingly wrapping its liquid arms around him. He’d sampled freely of the batch his cousin and first lieutenant had brewed. Jock Mackenzie fancied himself something of a master brewer.

Arran was slouched in his chair, his fingers slowly tracing a line up the woman’s back, lazily trying to re­call her name. What is it, then—Aileen? Irene?

“Milord! Mackenzie!” someone shouted.

Arran bent his head to see around the blond curls of the woman in his lap. Sweeney Mackenzie, one of his best guards, was shouting at him from the rear of the hall. The poor man was clutching his chest as if his heart was failing him, and he looked quite frantic as he cast his gaze around the crowded room. “Wh-wh-where is he?” he demanded of a drunk beside him. “Wh-wh-where is Mackenzie?”

Sweeney was a fierce warrior and a dedicated com­mander. But when he was agitated, he had a tendency to stutter like he had when they were children. Generally there was little that could agitate the old salt, and that something had made Arran take notice. “Here, Swee­ney,” he said, and pushed the girl off his lap. He sat up, gestured his man forward. “What has rattled you, then?”

Sweeney hurried forward. “She’s b-b-b-back,” he breathlessly managed to get out.

Arran frowned, confused. “Pardon?”

“The L-L-L…” Sweeney’s lips and tongue seemed to stick together. He swallowed and tried to expel the word.

“Take a breath, lad,” Arran said, coming to his feet. “Steady now. Who has come?”

“L-L-L-Lady M-M-Mackenzie,” he managed.

That name seemed to drift up between Arran and Sweeney. Did Arran imagine it, or did everything in the hall suddenly go still? There was surely some mistake—he exchanged a look with Jock, who looked as mystified as Arran.

He turned to Sweeney again and said calmly, “An­other breath, man. You’re mistaken—”

“He is not mistaken.”

Arran’s head snapped up at the sound of that familiar, crisply English, feminine voice. He squinted to the back of the hall, but the torches were smoking and cast shad­ows. He couldn’t make out anyone in particular—but the collective gasp of alarm that rose up from the two dozen or so souls gathered verified it for him: his wench of a wife had returned to Balhaire. After an absence of more than three years, she had inexplicably returned.

This undoubtedly would be viewed as a great occa­sion by half of his clan, a calamity by the other half. Arran himself could think of only three possible reasons his wife might be standing here now: one, her father had died and she had no place to go but to her lawful hus­band. Two, she’d run out of Arran’s money. Or three…she wanted to divorce him.

He dismissed the death of her father as a reason. If the man had died, he would have heard about it—he had a man in England to keep a close eye on his faith­less wife.

The crowd parted as the auburn-haired beauty glided into the hall like a sleek galleon, two English­men dressed in fine woolen coats and powdered wigs trailing behind her.

She could not possibly have run out of money. He was quite generous with her. To a fault, Jock said. Perhaps that was true, but Arran would not have it said that he did not provide for his wife.

His wife’s grand entrance was suddenly halted by one of Arran’s old hunting dogs whose sight had nearly gone. Roy chose that moment to amble across the cleared path and plop himself down, his head be­tween his paws on the cool stone floor, oblivious to the activity of humans around him. He sighed loudly, pre­paring to take his nap.

His wife daintily lifted her cloak and stepped over the beast. Her two escorts walked around the dog.

As she continued toward him, Arran had to consider that the third possibility was perhaps the most plausi­ble. She had come to ask for a divorce, an annulment—whatever might give her freedom from him. And yet it seemed implausible she would have come all this way to ask it of him. Would she not have sent an agent? Or perhaps, he reasoned, as she made her way to the dais, she meant to humiliate him once more.

Margot Armstrong Mackenzie stood with her hands clasped before her and a faltering smile for the stunned, speechless souls around her. Her two escorts took up positions directly behind her, their gazes warily as­sessing the hall, their hands on the hilts of their small swords. Did they think they’d be forced to fight their way out? It was a possibility, for some of Arran’s peo­ple wore expressions of anticipation—far be it from any Scotsman to back away from anything that even remotely hinted at the potential for a brawl.

Not a death, then. Not a lack of funds. He had not ruled out divorce, but no matter what the reason, Arran was suddenly furious. How dare she return!

He leaped off the dais and strolled forward. “Has snow fallen on hell?” he asked calmly as he advanced on her.

She glanced around the hall. “I see no trace of snow,” she said as she removed her gloves.

“Did you come by sea? Or by broom?”

Someone on the dais chuckled. “By sea and by coach,” she said pleasantly, ignoring his barb. She cocked her head to one side and looked him over. “You look very well, my lord husband.”

Arran said nothing. He didn’t know what to say to her after three years and feared anything he did would unleash a torrent of emotion he was not willing to share with the world.

In his silence, Margot’s gaze wandered to her sur­roundings, to the rush torches, the iron chandeliers, the dogs wandering about the great hall. It was quite differ­ent from Norwood Park. She’d never cared for this mas­sive great room, the heart of Balhaire for centuries now. She’d always wanted something finer; a fancy room, a London or Paris ballroom. But to Arran, this room was highly functional. There were two long tables where his clan sat, with massive hearths on either end of the hall to heat it. A few rugs on the floor muted the sound of boots on stone, and he’d always rather liked the flick­ering light of the torches.

“It’s still charmingly quaint,” she said, reading his thoughts. “Everything exactly the same.”

“No’ everything,” he reminded her. “I was no’ ex­pecting you.”

“I know,” she said, wincing a bit. “And for that, I do apologize.”

He waited for more. An explanation. A begging of his forgiveness. But that was all she would say, appar­ently, as she was looking around him now, to the dais. “Oh, how lovely,” she said. “You have indeed added something new.”

He squinted over his shoulder. The dais was the only thing left of the original great hall besides the floors and the walls. It was a raised platform where the chieftain and his advisers had taken their meals over the years. The use of it was not so formal now, but still, Arran liked it—it gave him a view of the entire hall.

It took him a moment to realize she was admiring the carved table and upholstered chairs he’d acquired on a recent trade voyage, as well as the two silver can­delabras that graced the head table. He’d taken those in payment from a man who was down on his luck and had needed some horses for a desperate run from authorities.

“It’s French, isn’t it?” she asked. “It looks very French.”

Was what French? And what did it matter at this mo­ment, given the great occasion that was unfurling before them? Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie of Balhaire were stand­ing in the same room, and no knives had been drawn! Call the heralds! Trumpet the news! What the devil was his wife doing here after three years of silence, natter­ing on about his dining table? Why was she here with­out warning, without a word, particularly having left him in the manner she had?

Her audacity made him feel unstably angry; his heart was pounding uncomfortably in his chest. “I was no’ expecting you, and I’d like to know what has brought you to Balhaire, madam.”

“Aye!” someone said at the back of the hall.

“Goodness, I do beg your pardon.” She instantly sank into a very deep curtsy. “I was so taken by familiar surroundings that I failed to announce that I’ve come home.” She smiled beatifically and held out her hand for him to help her up.

“Home?” He snorted at the absurdity.

“Yes. Home. You are my husband. Therefore, this is my home.” She wiggled her fingers at him as if he’d forgotten her hand was extended to him.

Oh, he was aware of that hand, and more important, that smile, because it burned in Arran’s chest. It ended in a pair of dimples, and her luminescent green eyes sparkled with the low light of the hall. He could see the wisps of her auburn hair peeking out beneath the hood of her cloak, dark curls against her smooth, pale skin.

She kept smiling, kept her hand outstretched. “Will you not come and greet me?”

Arran hesitated. He was still dressed in his mud­died riding clothes, his coat had gone missing from his body, his collar was open to his bare chest, and his long hair was tamed by only his fingers and harnessed in a rough queue down his back. Nor had he shaved in sev­eral days, and he no doubt reeked a bit. But he reached for her hand and took it in his.

Such fine, delicate bones. He closed his calloused fingers around her fingers and yanked her to her feet with enough force that she was forced to hop forward. Now she stood so close that she had to tilt her head back on that swan-like neck to look him in the eye.

He glared at her, trying to understand.

She arched a single dark brow. “Welcome me home, my lord,” she said, and then, with a smile that flashed as wicked as the diabhal himself, she surprised him—shocked him, really—by rising up on her toes, wrap­ping an arm around his neck and tugging his head down to hers to kiss him.

Bloody hell, Margot kissed him. That was as surpris­ing as her sudden appearance. And it was not a chaste kiss, either, which was the only sort of kiss he’d known from his young bride, timid and prudish, who’d left him three years ago. This was a full-bodied kiss, one that bore the markings of maturity, with succulent lips, a playful little tongue and teeth that grazed his bottom lip. And when she’d finished kissing him, she slipped back down to her toes and smiled at him, her green eyes shining with the light of the torches that lit the hall.

It was effective. A wee bit of Arran’s anger began to turn to desire as he took her in. She looked the same—perhaps a bit more robust—but this wasn’t the bride who had fled Balhaire in tears. Arran roughly pushed the hood of her cloak from her head. Her hair was rich au­burn, and he touched the curling wisps around her face. He ignored the feathered arch of her brow as he unfas­tened the clasp of her cloak. It swung open, revealing the tight fit of her traveling gown, the creamy swell of her breasts above the gold brocade of her stomacher. He noticed something else, too—the emerald necklace he’d given her on the occasion of their wedding glimmered in the hollow of her throat. She looked ravishing. Seductive. She was a fine meal for a man to savor one bite at a time.

But she was grossly mistaken if she thought he would be dining at her table.

“It would seem my purse has found you often enough,” he said, admiring the quality of her silk gown. “And you look to be in excellent health.”

“Thank you,” she said politely, and lifted her chin slightly. “And you look…” She paused as she took an­other look at his disheveled self. “The same.” One cor­ner of her mouth tipped up in a wry smile.

Her scent made him heady, and a flash of memories flooded his brain. Of her naked in his bed. Of her long legs wrapped around his, of her perfumed hair, of her young, plump breasts in his hands.

She was aware of his thoughts, too; he could see it spark in her eyes. She turned slightly away from him and said, “May I introduce Mr. Pepper and Mr. Worth­ing? They’ve been kind enough to see me safely here.”

There was some rumbling in the crowd—in spite of the recent union of Scotland and England, there was no love for the English among his clan, particularly not after the disaster that was his marriage.

Arran scarcely spared the English fops a glance. “Had I known that you meant to return to Balhaire, I’d have sent my best men for you, aye? How curious you didna send word.”

“That would have been very kind,” she said vaguely. “Might we trouble you for supper? I’m famished, as I am sure these good men are. I’d forgotten how few inns there are in the Highlands.”

Arran was slightly inebriated and a wee bit shocked…but not so much that he would allow his wife to swan into his castle after three bloody years and pretend all was well and ask to be served without any explanation at all. He meant to demand an answer from her, but he was uncomfortably aware that every Mackenzie ear was trained on them. “Music!” he bellowed.

Someone picked up a flute and began to play, and Arran caught Margot’s wrist and pulled her closer. He spoke low so others couldn’t hear what he said. “You come to Balhaire, unannounced, after leaving like you did, and you are so insolent as to ask for supper?”

Her eyes narrowed slightly, just as they had the first night he’d ever laid eyes on her. “Will you refuse to feed the men who have seen your wife safely returned to you?”

“Are you returned to me?” he scoffed.

“As I recall, you were forever impressing on me that the Scots are well-known for their hospitality.”

“Donna think to tell me what I ought to do, madam. Answer me—why are you here?”

“Oh, Arran,” she said, and smiled suddenly. “Isn’t it obvious? Because I’ve missed you. Because I’ve come to my senses. Because I want to try our marriage again, of course. Why else would I have taken such a hard road to reach you?”

He watched her lush mouth move, heard the words she said and shook his head. “Why else? I have my sus­picions, aye?” he said to her mouth. “Murder. Bedlam. To slit my throat in the night, then.”

“Oh no!” she said gravely. “That would be too foul, all that blood. You can’t really believe it’s impossible that I would have a change of heart,” she said. “After all, you’re not unlikable in your own way.”

She was teasing him now? His fury surged.

“Frankly, I would have come earlier had I been given any indication that you wanted me to,” she added matter-of-factly.

Arran couldn’t help a bark of incredulous laughter. “Have you gone mad, then, woman? I’ve heard no’ a bloody word from you in all the time you’ve been gone.”

“I haven’t had a word from you, either.”

This was outrageous. Arran couldn’t begin to guess what game she was playing, but she would not win. He slid his arm around her back and yanked her into his body, holding her firmly. He pressed his palm against the side of her head, his thumb brushing her cheek. “Will you no’ admit the truth, then?”

“Will you not believe me?” she asked sweetly.

He could see that wicked little sparkle in eyes the shade of ripe pears, that glimmer of deceit. “No’ a bloody word.”

She smiled and lifted her chin. He realized suddenly that she wasn’t afraid of him now. She’d always been a wee bit fearful of him, but he saw no trace of that in her now.

“You’re awfully distrusting,” she said. “Haven’t I al­ways been perfectly frank with you? Why ever should I be any different now? I’m your wife yet, Mackenzie. If you won’t believe me, I suppose I’ll just have to con­vince you, won’t I?”

Arran’s blood began to rush in his veins. He gazed into her face, at the slender nose, the dark brows. “You have surprised me,” he admitted as his gaze moved down to her enticing décolletage. “That’s what your wretched little heart wanted, aye? But be warned, wife, I am no fool. The last time I saw you, you were fleeing. I willna believe you’ve suddenly found room in there for me,” he said, and tapped the swell of her breast over her heart very deliberately.

She continued to smile as if she were unfazed by him, but he could see the faint blush creeping into her cheeks. “I should be delighted to prove you wrong. But please do allow me to dine, will you? It is obvious that I will need all my strength.”

Arran’s pulse raced harder now with a combustible mix of fury and desire. “I wonder where the fragile lit­tle primrose who left me has gone.”

“She grew into a rosebush.” She patted his chest. “Some food, if you would be so kind, for Mr. Pepper and Mr. Worthing.”

“Fergus!” he said sharply, his gaze still on Margot’s face. “Bring the Lady Mackenzie and her men some bread and something to eat, aye? Make haste, lad.”

He curled his fingers around her elbow, digging into the fabric, and pulled her along. She said not a word about his dirtied hand on her clothing as she would have before, but came along obediently. Almost as if she expected to be handled in this manner. As if she was prepared for it.

Arran was aware of a flutter of activity and whis­pered voices around him as people strained to get a glimpse of the mysterious Lady Mackenzie and the two bulldogs who followed closely behind.

“It wasna necessary to come with an armed guard,” Arran snapped as he led her to the dais, glancing over his shoulder at the two Englishmen. “You frightened Sweeney near unto death.”

“My father insisted. One never knows when one will encounter highwaymen.” She glanced at him sidelong.

He’d always thought her uncommonly beautiful, and somehow, she seemed even more so now. But he did not have the same longing in him he’d once felt for her—he felt only disdain. There was a time her smile would have swayed him to accept her bad behavior. Now he felt numb to it. He should deny her food, toss her into rooms and have her held there for leaving him as she had.

It was not yet out of the question.

Margot removed her cloak and sat gingerly in the seat Arran held out for her on the dais, perching on the edge of it. Her fastidious nature was still lurking be­neath that cool exterior.

“Your men, they can sit there,” he said, pointing to a table down below.

Her guards hesitated, but Margot gave them a slight nod to indicate that they should obey.

Arran resisted the urge to remind her she was not queen here, especially not now, but he took his seat beside her and kept his mouth shut. For the moment.

“You’ve been keeping company, I see,” she said con­genially as her gaze settled on the lass who had been sitting on his lap and was now off the dais, pouting.

“I’ve kept the company of my clan, aye.”

“Male and female alike?”

He put his hand on her wrist once more, squeezing lightly. “What did you think, Margot, that I’d live like a monk? That once you left me I’d take my vows and prostrate myself before your shrine during vespers?”

She smiled as she pulled her arm from his grip. “I’ve no doubt you were prostrate at someone’s shrine.” She glanced away and curled a ringlet around her finger.

“And I suppose you’ve been a chaste little princess,” he snorted.

“Well,” she said airily, “I can’t say I’ve been com­pletely chaste. But who among us has?” She turned her head and looked him directly in the eye, a cool smile on her lips, the color in her cheeks high.

What game was this now? She would flirt with him, hint at bad behavior? It made no sense, and it stank of trickery. Who was this woman? The woman who had left him would have been appalled by the mere sugges­tion that her chastity was not practically virginal. But this woman was toying with him, making suggestions and smiling in a way that could make a man’s knees give way.

He turned away from that smile to signal the serv­ing boy to pour wine and noticed that half of his men were still gaping at her. “All right, all right,” he said ir­ritably, gesturing for them to do something other than stare. “Can you no’ play something a bit livelier, Geor­die?” he demanded of his musician.

Geordie put down his flute, picked up his fiddle and began to play again.  

As Margot lifted the cup to her lips, he said, “Now that you’ve had your grand entrance, I’ll know what has brought you to Balhaire. Has someone died, then? Has your da lost his fortune? Are you hiding from the queen?”

She laughed. “My family is in good health, thank you. Our fortune is quite intact, and the queen is gen­erally not aware of me at all.”

He sprawled back in his chair, studying her.

She smiled pertly. “You seem skeptical. I had forgot­ten what a suspicious nature you have, but I did always quite like that about you, I must say.”

“Should I not be suspicious of you? When you ap­pear as you have without a bloody word?”

“Can you tell me a better way to return to you?” she asked. “If I’d sent word, you would have denied me. Is that not so? I thought that perhaps if you saw me before you heard my name…” She shrugged.

“You thought what?”

“I thought that maybe you would realize you’d missed me, too.” She smiled softly. Hopefully.

There it was, that stir of blood in him again, accom­panied by another rash of images of his wife’s long legs on either side of him, her silky hair pooling on his chest. He swallowed that image down. The truth was that he couldn’t bear the sight of her. “I donna miss you, Mar­got. I loathe you.”

Her cheeks turned crimson, and she glanced down at her lap.

“Aye, and how long has it been, precisely, since you began to miss me, then, leannan? Did I no’ send enough money?”

“You’ve been entirely too generous, my lord.”

“Aye, that I have,” he said with an adamant nod.

“As to when I began to miss you so ardently?” She pretended to ponder that as she fidgeted with the neck­lace at her throat. “I can’t say precisely when. But it’s a notion that’s taken root and continues to grow.”

“Like a bloody cancer,” he scoffed.

“Something like that. I always thought you’d come to assure yourself of my welfare instead of sending Dermid as you did.”

“You thought I’d come all the way to England, chas­ing after you like a fox after a hen?”

Chase is a strong word. I rather prefer visit.”

“I didna receive an invitation to visit, aye?”

“You never needed an invitation! You’re my husband! You might have come to me whenever you liked. Didn’t you always before?” she asked with a salacious look. “Didn’t you miss me, Arran? Perhaps only a little?”

“I’ve missed you in my bed,” he said, holding her gaze. “It’s been a damn long time.”

Color crept into Margot’s cheeks again, but she steadily held his gaze. “Has it really been so long?”

His gaze drifted to her mouth. An eternity. He sat up, leaning in. “A verra long time, lass. It’s been three years, three months and a handful of days.”

Margot’s smile faded. Her lips parted slightly and her lashes fluttered as she looked at him with surprise.

“Aye, leannan, I know how long I’ve been free of the burden of you. Does that surprise you?”

Something in her eyes dimmed. “A little,” she ad­mitted softly.

Arran smiled wolfishly. His pulse was thrumming now, beating the familiar rhythm of want. He pushed hair from her temple and said, “Pity that I donna care to reacquaint.”

There it was again, a flicker of some emotion in her eyes. Had he struck a blow? He didn’t care if he had—it would never equal the blow she’d struck him.

Wild Wicked Scot: The Highland Grooms, Book 1
by by Julia London

  • Genres: Fiction, Romance
  • Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HQN Books
  • ISBN-10: 0373789661
  • ISBN-13: 9780373789665