Man Of The Mist
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Evan’s heart went out to the lass over that egregious disappointment. He wasn’t so old that he couldn’t remember what it was like to sit on the side at a gathering and be unable to enjoy it because of the strict rules of etiquette held by their class.
Worse, he was most confused by his own physical reaction to her. He loved Izzy, in the loyal, altruistic way he loved all his friends and kinsmen.
Their six years of correspondence, following two years in the same schoolroom together, had made him feel closer to her than he did to his own sister. None of his feelings for Elizabeth tonight were at all brotherly. He couldn’t help thinking that perhaps they never had been.
He’d always taken on the role of Izzy’s protector in the schoolroom. It was so easy to slip back into that comfortable way of thinking of her as somehow weaker than he and needing a champion. But Elizabeth was simply too young to stir in him the feelings of deep lust, desire and passion that alluring older women did. Despite his looks, Evan was painfully shy when it came to making advances to women. He couldn’t have borne it if he was rejected, or failed to perform as expected by an older, experienced woman.
Knowing that, and thinking with a head that should have been rational enough to override the heavy ache in his cods, why then did he ask the too-young Elizabeth to dance without Aunt Nicky’s permission?
And God only knew why Elizabeth threw caution and decorum to the winds and agreed.
Never, in all of his days, could Evan have predicted that one impetuous dance, one gay and happy highland reel, was to be the beginning of all his heartache and troubles.
January 9, 1808
The ink of wintry midnight cloaked the nursery in the Duke of Atholl’s London town house. Auld Krissy Buchanan couldn’t see a thing. Yet what she heard in the heavy darkness made her eyes widen with alarm. She scrambled out of bed, snatched up her robe and tiptoed to her mistress’s adjoining room, taking care not to wake young Robbie as she opened and closed the adjoining door.
The alarming clattering sound came again, louder and stronger in the sleeping lady’s bedchamber. “Milady,” Krissy whispered. “Wake up! Do you not hear that noise?”
“Noise, Krissy?” From the deep cocoon of her tester bed, Lady Elizabeth Murray mumbled in a husky, caught-in-a-dream voice. “What noise?”
“Lady Elizabeth!” Krissy’s harsh whisper rose a shrill notch. “Summat’s breaking into yer father’s hoose!”
“Krissy? What did you say?” Wide awake now, Elizabeth sat bolt upright, turning to the corner windows, seeking the source of that most peculiar and very distinct noise.
It came again, three – no, four – quick little smacks on the window glass. Krissy gasped, unable to believe that the frightening sounds came from the window glazing. There were no balconies on the third floor, where the duke of Atholl’s womenfolk were quartered.How could anyone be out there?
Elizabeth’s eyes widened in alarm. “I heard that! What is it, Krissy?”
“A bloody London cutthroat, that’s what!” Krissy answered promptly. She snatched her warmest tartan robe closed and stoutly tied the sash before Lady Elizabeth’s feet touched the cold floor.
“We’ll just see about that!” Elizabeth insisted, rattled, but not panicked. After all, they were hardly alone. Her father wasn’t in residence, but the dowager duchess and her entire staff were. Elizabeth glanced at the clock on her nightstand as she lit a lamp. Four o’clock in the morning. Everyone would be sound asleep!
“Summat’s outside, banging on the window glass.” Krissy armed herself with the iron poker from the hearth. “’Tis your lucky day I’m here to protect you. Miss Nicky gave me fair warning about the tricks and troubles of dealing with the blasted Sassenachs. I kin defend the clan’s honor, I kin.”
Elizabeth withheld comment as she deftly fastened her robe at her waist. Auld Krissy was clearly frightened, else she would have remembered that little harm could come to any resident of 19 Grosvenor Mews. Without further discussion, Lady Elizabeth hurried to her corner bay windows.
One overlooked the pleasant park fronting Grosvenor Square. The other gave a not-so-charming view of the gables and slate tile roofing of Lord Mansfield’s house next door. There was nothing remarkable to be seen on the roof.
Elizabeth opened the drapes and cautiously parted the sheers on the bay window facing the street. London’s ever-present deep winter fog enveloped the park and obscured the stately avenue. She could pick out very few landmarks in the thick, heavy mist. “All I can see is a carriage light on a hackney turning at the corner.”
Another shower of minuscule pebbles pattered against the glass. Krissy jumped and came within inches of putting the poker through the glass panes. “Blood and fury! Will the demmed bounders scale the walls next?”
“Whisht, Krissy!” Elizabeth warned immediately. “Don’t wake Robbie.”
“Yes, mum,” Krissy said contritely.
Elizabeth did what any sensible young woman safely ensconced on the third floor of her father’s abode should do; she disarmed her fractious abigail, urging her to more dignified silence, and raised the window sash. Then both she and Krissy leaned their cap-covered heads out the window to appraise the scene on the street below. After all, Elizabeth thought, twenty-and-a-half isn’t so abysmally mature that I can’t show a minimum of curiosity.
“Wait, mum.” Krissy laid a trembling hand on Elizabeth’s sleeve. “Do ya ken who they are?”
At first glance, Elizabeth couldn’t rightly say that she did. Thick and heavy fog curled against the walls of the house and lifted up to dampen her chin and cheeks. The mists swirled, stirred by a soft gust of wind, to reveal three men huddled on the doorstep, under the novel haze of a pair of gas-fueled coach lights. The thick fog softened all details of their identity.
“Och, I count three of ’em,” Krissy’s brogue overlaid the mist. “What kin they want at this hour?”
“Good question,” Elizabeth replied suspiciously. Anyone with a shred of decency would have properly rung the bell and summoned Keyes, regardless of the urgency or the hour. That was the way things were done in the duke of Atholl’s house. “Suppose I best find out.”
Leaning farther over the sill, Elizabeth called out in a chilly voice, to let the intruders know she considered it outrageous form to throw stones at her windows. “Who are you and what do you want?”
The largest of the trio looked up, cupped his hands to his mouth and tilted his face toward the light gleaming on the near side of the entrance door. His voice echoed peculiarly, dampened and magnified by the fog.
“Ha! I’ll be bound! So Tullie was right. You are to town. Get up, lass! Come down here and unlock the door. Be quick about it, Izzy!”
“Izzy!” Elizabeth repeated his last word in a harsh whisper, instantly drawing back inside the window. Her heart skipped a beat, then jumped to an escalated cadence. Only one ne’er-do-well in the entire British Isles had ever dared to call her by that dreadful remnant from the nursery in public. Evan MacGregor!
“Eh?” Krissy cupped her hand to her ear, leaning her white face closer to Elizabeth’s. “What did he say? Who is it?”
Elizabeth ignored the question as she swallowed and sought her courage. She laid trembling hands on the damp windowsill to steady herself, leaning out once more. This time, when she spoke, her voice rang with the cool disdain of the bred-in-the-bone aristocrat. “Tell me one good reason why I should unlock the door of my house for the likes of you, Evan MacGregor!”
“What?” Krissy gasped, and laid her hand over her heart.
“Don’t argue with me, Elizabeth Murray! Get down here!” Evan stepped onto the highest step, deliberately placing himself in the circle of lamplight. She caught a glimpse of her brother’s red hair as Evan raised his arm in a furious gesture. “Unless you prefer that I heave Tullibardine’s bloody body in the bin out back. Make up your mind quick! The marquess has been shot, and he’s bleeding like a stuck pig. As bad as he’s wounded, he won’t last long, left out in this weather.”
“Shot?” Elizabeth cried. She backed out of the window so quickly she banged her head on the sash. So did Krissy.
“Shot?” Krissy parroted. “I dinna see Tullibardine.”
Elizabeth had. Her brother, John Murray, the marquess of Tullibardine, had become recognizable the moment Evan MacGregor moved away from him. Tullie slumped heavily against the support of the third man.
“What in the name of creation is going on in here? Are you trying to wake every soul in the house?” Amalia Murray demanded as she imperiously swept inside her younger sister’s chamber. “Elizabeth, who have you been shouting at on the street? Do you realize what time it is?”
“Hang the time!” Elizabeth exclaimed as she bolted past her sister. “Tullie’s been shot! Krissy, make certain Robbie’s sleep has not been disturbed, then come downstairs at once to help me.”
“What?” Amalia gasped. She stood stock-still, stunned, as Elizabeth ran past her to the staircase.
“What do you mean, Tullie’s been shot?” Amalia snatched up her hems, following. “Oh, no! Dear God, no! Elizabeth, come back and tell me it isn’t true!”
Elizabeth wasted no time getting down to the entrance foyer. But at the doorway her hands turned inept and clumsy, fumbling with the locks. Amalia caught up to her as Elizabeth swung the door wide open to the three men huddled on the step in the bone-chilling mist.
“What has happened?” Amalia exclaimed.
Elizabeth stood frozen on the doorsill, locked in a horror that went deeper than any life-threatening alarm raised for her brother. Some other portion of her mind recognized the grey breeks and scarlet jacket of a Highland volunteer cloaking Evan’s tall body. Her eyes came in full contact with his, and all sense of time and reality ended.
The panic surging into her veins wasn’t for the condition of her oldest brother. An unvoiced scream strangled underneath the tight compression of the fingers sealing her lips.
Evan! God help her, Evan sported the well-cut jacket of an officer of Graham’s Grey Breeks. He towered over Tullie, her brother. The Highlander’s jaw was set, his mouth a grim, dark and austere line that caught the night’s deepest shadows. His eyes locked with Elizabeth’s. She ceased breathing and thinking, and stood blocking the door.
“God save us!” Amalia whispered a fearful prayer behind Elizabeth. “John, what have you done?”
Elizabeth’s nostrils flared as the mist rolled past Evan and washed her burning cheeks. With it came the tang of burnt whiskey mingled with odors off the streets, horses, sweat, blood and dank wool.
“Move, Izzy!” Evan commanded, in a voice grown deeper over long years. It touched her center, glazing her soul like the mists that swept around him and sank quickly to her darkest primordial core. Evan’s eyes remained inscrutable, sharp and hard. The mist shrouded him as he came ominously closer, her brother’s arm clamped across his wide shoulders. Stupidly, Elizabeth stood rooted to the floor, unable to make any part of her body move under her own volition.
“I said move, lass!” One hand snaked out, touching the silk covering her waist. It flattened and pressed intimately into yielding flesh, urging her backward, out of his way.
“Elizabeth!” Amalia’s voice roughened with a fine edge of fright. She caught Elizabeth’s arm, yanking her off the threshold, out of the way of the Highlanders bearing her brother John, the marquess of Tullibardine, into his father’s house.
Glowing lamps in the foyer illuminated the gap in John’s greatcoat. Elizabeth partially roused from the dazzled dream in which she was trapped and dragged her eyes from Evan to stare in mute horror at the wash of scarlet staining the marquess’s rumpled linen and cravat. Amalia gasped out loud.
Shaking herself free of the shock of Evan MacGregor’s return, Elizabeth gulped. “I’ll fetch Dr. Morgan.”
MacGregor caught her arm as Elizabeth reached for the cord to summon the servants, commanding, “No doctors, and no servants, Izzy. Corporal Butter can tend to the marquess’s injury. There’s not a better man in the regiment for bullet wounds. Amalia, fetch hot water, linens, and whatever carbolic you have. Don’t wake anyone else in the house. Izzy, lock that door.”
“You can’t come barging in this house giving orders, Evan MacGregor!” Elizabeth sparked, recovering her wits.
Evan’s dark eyes bored deep into hers, sharp and hard, like the eyes of a man sighting the barrel of a pistol on the heart of his enemy.
“Do as you’re told,” he commanded. He released her arm, but the impression of his strong fingers gripping her wrist remained as he turned to deal with the older Amalia Murray’s sputtering protests. She looked on the verge of vapors, the back of her hand pressed against her mouth in horror. Krissy hurried down the stairs and quietly slipped an arm around Lady Amalia to support her, lest she faint.
“Amalia!” Tullibardine rasped. He caught hold of the newel post for support. “Do exactly as MacGregor orders!”
“Well, I never!” Amalia roused herself to the authority she was well versed in wielding with all of her siblings, including her eldest brother, the marquess. “John, I will have some explanation, this very moment!”
“No, you won’t!” Evan MacGregor cut Amalia short. “You’ll get an explanation once we’ve got Tullie’s bleeding under control.”
Amalia started to protest that order, but this time Evan MacGregor shut off her tirade before it could begin. “Woman, the marquess’s life is in more danger this minute than his bloody reputation. If you cannot be of good assistance to him, then kindly stay the hell out of our way!”
Without pause, he turned and took Tullie’s arm off the newel post and helped him mount the stairs, leaving Amalia’s and Krissy’s jaws sagging in shock.
Elizabeth blinked, unable to take her eyes from Evan MacGregor’s commanding back. Where had he learned to exert such overwhelming authority? Why was he, of all people, here? Her throat squeezed dangerously. Her knees felt as wobbly as ninepins hit solidly by a stone bowling ball.
Krissy had the sense to close the door, barring the cold and the wet from entering the house. She dipped in a deep and reverent curtsy. “So tha’s the MacGregor,” the servant said under her breath.
“Aye, the very devil himself,” Elizabeth whispered between her tightly pressed teeth. She made sure the door was bolted and, leading the awestruck Krissy by the band, pulled her along in Amalia’s wake down to the kitchens.
“Why can we not call a doctor?” Krissy asked.
Elizabeth grabbed the largest tray from Keyes’s pantry and slammed it onto the central table. Shot... Heaven help them all, her brother had been shot! Why? How?
Amaha had gotten hold of her wits. She tilted her proud chin and stated unequivocally, “’Tis clear enough. John has been involved in a duel.”
“A duel!” Elizabeth protested. Duels were outlawed, and severe penalties were levied on those who engaged in the practice, if the king got wind of it. “What makes you say such a thing? If he had been in a duel, John would have had the sense to have a surgeon present. Think, Amalia. John’s never been in a duel in his life. He wouldn’t resort to secrecy if he had, not to us.”
“And how do you know that?” Amalia countered, obviously flustered. “I can assume he doesn’t want Father to know.”
Elizabeth muttered, “Oh dear...” She opened a drawer, fetching a stack of clean linens to add to the tray.
“A duel?” Krissy echoed with eyes agog. “Stars! A duel... Over who or what? Mrs. Hamilton’s latest memorial, do you ken? Can someone have accused the marquess of cheating at cards, and called him out?”
Elizabeth groaned inwardly. Amalia made hers more audible. They’d only been in town three days, but Krissy Buchanan had already learned the value of knowing the latest on-dit.
Dodging a pointed look from her sister, Elizabeth hastily took a cloth from the tray and blotted away a sheen of perspiration from her upper lip. God save her, Evan MacGregor was in the same house as she and Robbie! Her heart racketed inside her ribs, and her brain felt paralyzed. Her hands and feet moved with the motility of cold lead.
“Krissy!” Amalia said sternly, fixating on something she could deal with properly. “While you are in the employ of the duke of Atholl, you will not engage in the disgusting habit of repeating gossip belowstairs. Whatever happens in this house does not go one word further.”
“Beg pardon, milady.” Elizabeth’s maid cast a sidelong glance at Amalia, clearly hurt to be the focus of Amalia’s formidable ire.
“My dear sister,” Elizabeth said, defending her loyal servant, “are you forgetting that you are the one who just suggested Tullie’s been in a duel?”
“Well, heavenly days, I don’t know that for a fact!” Amalia sputtered. “Don’t either of you repeat it!”
“Amalia, please! That’s entirely uncalled-for. We both know better.” Elizabeth managed an apologetic murmur to Krissy, excusing both her and Amalia’s overreactions to their shock.
Amalia curbed her temper, despite the mutiny that sparkled in the Scottish maid’s amber eyes. There simply was no one more territorial, proud and possessive than a Scots personal servant. Amalia well knew that Krissy’s loyalty was solely to Elizabeth. Moreover, Elizabeth thrived on being original and different. Together, the two of them made an unpredictable, unmanageable pair in the duke of Atholl’s household, for which Amalia was responsible.
Evan MacGregor! What next? Amalia thought as she vainly sought her lost composure. She flashed a warning look at Elizabeth. No matter what, she must see that Elizabeth was never alone for one minute with that Highland rakehell! He’d caused enough damage five years ago.
Misinterpreting the reason for Amalia’s scowls, Krissy flashed a placating smile of apology, saying, “Forgive me, Lady Amalia. When I gets excited, I forgets myself.”
“A proper lady’s abigail never gets excited,” Amalia said with authority. She was on firm ground here, knowing all the hard-and-fast rules regarding ladylike behavior. “Forgive my sharp words, Krissy. Rare is the day when Elizabeth sets you a good example.”
“Well, and I thank you for that vote of confidence,” Elizabeth interjected. It had been too much to hope that she’d escape Amalia’s eagle-eyed circumspection. God clearly wasn’t listening to her frantic prayers that the past be forgotten.
“Humph.” Amalia hoisted the tray. “Fetch the water upstairs as soon as the kettle boils, Elizabeth. And before this progresses to disaster, I order you not to act like a hoyden.” She sailed out the door muttering, “Hanging out the windows like bawds in Covent Garden...”
Krissy looked crushed at the severity of Amalia’s scolding, and she promised Elizabeth, in her sister’s absence, “I’ll do better.”
Elizabeth felt a burst of resentment, coupled with anxiety, surge into her veins. Damn Evan! What had brought him out of the seventh level of hell to which she had consigned him years ago?
“It’s not your fault,” she told Krissy.
No sooner had she spoken than a more worrisome thought took root. Good God! What was she thinking of? She’d let Amalia go up alone! What sort of interrogation might Amalia put Evan through when they came face-to-face—alone for the first time in almost six years?
Elizabeth slapped her palm against her cheek. She didn’t dare let Evan be alone with any member of her family! She prodded the red-hot coals under the kettle with a vengeance, muttering, “Boil, damn you!”
Amalia was the unofficial mother of all the duke of Atholl’s unmarried children. She had even delayed her own wedding to Lord Strathallen until next January. Granted, Strathallen had spent the past four years in India, repairing the financial gaps in his inheritance. Amalia had made it plain that her most ardent wish was to have Elizabeth settled before she married herself. In her sister’s estimation, time was running out for Elizabeth.
“What got her in such stew?” Krissy asked boldly, once she was certain Amalia was out of hearing range. “’Tis no’ like we did summat improper.”
Elizabeth stared at the black kettle. A wisp of steam wafted out the spout, swirling like the mist that had swirled up and around Evan MacGregor as he came through the front door. How could she have forgotten the impact of his eyes?
“Milady, did you not hear me?” Krissy asked.
“Oh!” Elizabeth yanked her gaze from the steam and made a futile, belated effort to compose her face. “What was that, Krissy?”
“Och, I knew it! Ya felt it, din’t ya?” Krissy executed a fey pirouette between the worktable and the stove, on amazingly nimble feet for one of her years. Her voice sounded so wishful, she could have been reading Elizabeth’s mind.
“Did ya ever see such a bonnie mon? Why, what one of me friends at home would believe I saw the bra’ MacGregor himself, striding out of the mists... across our own step...in London! Do ya no’ realize, lass, that he’s the first of the Gregarach born in ten generations to walk tall and proud, boasting his true name, in London, afore God, king and country? I never thought to see such a sight, ever!”
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