Lady Honoria MacGregor glared up at her brothers with her hands firmly planted on her hips. As the second daughter of the late Duke of Roxburgh, she had always been coddled by her older brothers, who wrapped her in cotton wool and shielded her from the world. Granted, as a young child, she had adored their attention, even at times when she wanted to wrench the hair from her head.
That had been fifteen years ago. As a woman of twenty, she refused to be coddled any longer.READ MORE
Sadly, after a horrific twist of fate two years ago, their brother Ewan heaved his last breath in Adair’s arms. He had sustained grave injuries in a fighting match, and Honoria and her younger sister, Isla had been leashed to the castle grounds ever since. A leash, Honoria thought bitterly, that would snap if it wound any tighter.
“Don’t be looking at me like that, Honoria. You can’t travel with us to Edinburgh. ‘Tis a matter for adults,” her oldest brother Adair murmured in his usual low drawl.
His soft coffee-colored eyes held no hint of remorse—only firm conviction. That he was the most indulgent of all her brothers made it all the more infuriating for him to rebuff her request—for the hundredth time.
Like her own, and most of her siblings, his hair was chestnut tinged with cherry–all different ranges of red—except for Isla and Boyd, whose hair was proper copper.
“I am an adult!” Honoria exploded, hands fisting at her side. “I have been for ages now!”
“You are still a wee lass to us.”
Honoria flung her glare to Duncan, who, unlike the rest of the brood, had a peaceful nature about him. It infuriated her that both Adair and Duncan refused to listen to reason.
“You cannot be serious; I am old enough to travel with you!”
“Aye, but who will watch over Isla?” Gregor asked in a reasonable voice.
Honoria leveled him with a not-so-reasonable glare. “Hugh is staying behind.” Which was a miracle, truly. Hugh, being her twin—and the youngest brother—Duncan or Boyd normally stayed behind to supervise in the general run of things.
“Isla needs her sister,” Duncan insisted.
Honoria scowled at him. His soothing tone was doing everything except sooth her. They all knew well enough Isla and Hugh were old enough to boil their own darn potatoes. But no, what her brother wasn’t saying was that they did not want her to accompany them while they traveled to Edinburgh.
Ever since Honoria turned sixteen, she wanted to travel with her big brothers and trace the steps of her favorite poets, artists, and ancients alike. She longed to breathe in the city’s culture, society soirees, and rub elbows with ladies that shared the same interests.
And over the past two years, with the walls of the castle closing in on her, her desire grew fiercer. Her desire, however, was one her brothers refused to indulge, even Adair.
Rats, the lot of them.
“I am not a teeny wee lass too delicate to travel such an arduous road,” she snapped, her green eyes lifting to meet Adair’s.
“We will take you when Isla is older,” Callum said, drawing her gaze, attempting his famous knee-wobbling smile.
Honoria was not in the mood. Neither was she one of his simpering sweethearts who swooned at his feet. “And how old is that?” she demanded of him. “Thirty-seven?
“Honoria,” Adair warned.
“There are enough servants to watch over Isla,” Honoria snapped, redirecting her icy gaze to him. “And she is nearing her eighteenth birthday—not an infant either.”
Adair sighed. “We have business to attend to, Honoria. You can’t expect us to take you sightseeing. Why not find yourself a young lad to marry instead of engrossing yourself with the life of dead people and senseless musings?”
“Don’t forget those paintings of hers,” Callum put in with a shudder. “A husband will do you good, lass.”
The barbs hit home.
“You sent the man Isla loved away!” Her eyes met each one of her brothers in the great hall before once more settling on Adair. “That hardly inspires enthusiasm, or have you forgotten you ripped her heart to pieces?”
“That’s a bit harsh, Honoria,” Duncan muttered, dragging a hand through his unruly hair.
“He was a gardener,” Adair snapped. “You are daughters of a duke. Patrick Moray knew there was no future with Isla.”
Honoria threw her hands up in exasperation. “He was never just a gardener—he was the object of Isla’s affection. That ought to count for something.”
“Honoria,” Callum warned, scowling down at her. “That matter has long been settled.”
“Has it?” Honoria mocked. “What did you expect, Callum? We live far North. All the acceptable men keep quarters in the city, where we are not allowed to venture because there are beasties that will snatch us away!”
“She has a point,” Gregor muttered with the lift of his shoulders.
Adair and Callum shot him a glare.
“The North has more than enough acceptable men,” Adair said.
“Aye, just look at us,” Callum said.
“The only point worth noting,” Adair continued, a soft note of warning in his voice, “is that the city is no place for a lady, not without a proper chaperone. Perhaps next year.”
“Aye, lass,” Duncan agreed. “Next year we will arrange everything proper.”
Next year? As in another twelve months? That’s what the scoundrels had said last year. Maybe next year, Honoria, we shall see. Nay, Honoria was not waiting another year only to hear another excuse then. Not if she had any say in the matter. Which she did not, but that was beside the point. She would find a way to break free from these wretched castle walls.
“Honoria?” Adair probed.
Her eyes lifted to meet his. “Next year I’ll be an old maid.”
“One-and-twenty is not that old, lass,” Gregor attempted to appease her and failed.
“Nay? Before you clear your eyes I’ll have all but shriveled up like a dried prune!”
“You won’t shrivel, lass” Adair said, pulling a face at the word. “Not while I’m still alive to witness it.”
Callum, the rotten beast, made a gurgling sound in the back of his throat.
“I may not survive the next twelve months, have you beasts thought of that? I could slip on a river bank and hit my head on a rock. Or catch a cold and perish of consumption.”
Three sets of eyes glowered down at her.
“Don’t say such things, lass,” Duncan reprimanded, his green eyes stormy.
“What things, Duncan? The everyday perils threatening a wee lass like me?” She shook her head, thinking how she wanted to clobber each one of them. “For heaven’s sake, I can stumble down the flight of the stairs this night and perish.”
“That’s enough, Honoria,” Adair said, his voice laced with steel. “We are done debating the matter.”
“Och, but you are all impossible!”
She shot them each a quelling look—since they were too big to clobber—and spun around to stalk from the great hall. Honoria almost careened into Kieran, another good-for-nothing brother. She bared her teeth at him, and he jumped out of her way, wide-eyed.
“What did you say to get her in such a hot temper?” Kieran asked.
Honoria did not linger to lend an ear to their obnoxious comments. Growing up with ten brothers respiring down her nape and riding herd on her every move had always made her feel smothered.
Don’t touch the horse Honoria, it will bite you.
Don’t run down the hill Honoria, you will fall.
Don’t swim in the lake Honoria, you will drown.
Don’t eat so fast Honoria, you will choke to death.
Well, they could all choke on the air they breathed!
Bursting through the front entrance in a flurry of skirts, she headed for the small hill just beyond the castle to clear her mind. A pox onto any sibling who tried to stop her because the pollen she might drag into her lungs would cast her into a timeless sleep.
More likely would be that she would die of boredom before her brothers allowed her to do anything remotely thrilling. They could go to Hades for all she cared, except for, Hugh. Her twin was the only MacGregor man she could tolerate at the moment.
Boyd and Lachlan, her two most likely brothers to get into a brawl, were busy readying the horses when she stalked past them. It was a beautiful day with nary a cloud in sight—the perfect day for travel. Her anger soured.
They cast her curious looks but wisely said nothing. Hah! The two devils knew what injustice had transpired here today and had done nothing to aid her.
“Good for nothing male cretins,” she muttered, shooting them each a glare.
“Where are you heading, Honoria?” Lachlan shouted after her.
“To sulk,” she snapped, not bothering to look back.
“Och, come now lass, it can’t be that bad,” Boyd called out.
Honoria ignored them, confident they wouldn’t follow unless they wished to lose a limb. They always left her to brood after they snuffed out all her hopes. And always upon their return, they brought gifts.
As if gifts would console her battered pride.
Those brainless lumps did not understand. About the only thing Honoria adored more than culture and poets was painting. Granted, she did not paint as any young lady of her age painted, such as landscapes and portraits, but enjoyed a more peculiar style.
She loved painting faces, though she was terrible at sketching, thus the peculiar element to her work. But mostly it wasn’t painting in itself that appealed to her, but the layering of abundant colors at her disposal. Her own intuitive art style, as she thought of it.
About the only thing she was good at sketching was eyes, animal eyes, young eyes, wrinkled eyes, any eyes. Of course, her sketches made her brothers skin crawl, which was why she not only painted them but hung them on the walls all over the castle.
Honoria did not mind that her paintings were odd. She painted from her heart. It also, and this was the most infuriating part, kept her occupied—and sane—while living under the watchful eyes of nine brothers. Which was no way to spend your life.
Was it too much to ask to accompany them to Edinburgh?
She let out an undignified snort.
The cool air nipped at her skin as Honoria made her way up a hill overlooking the looming brick wall structure. Her home was beautiful, nestled in the northern highlands, cloaked between mountains and pastures. Castle MacGregor had once almost fallen to ruin, but her great-grandfather, the third Duke of Roxburgh, had relocated from Inverness to restore the castle to its former glory.
While Honoria loved her home, she wanted to participate in the city life too—attend the theatres, dance at balls. But their father had wanted his children to be raised outside the influence of corrupted city life—or English influence, as he oftentimes said. And Adair, as most of her brothers, had adopted the same school of thought.
Settling down on the grass in view of the castle, Honoria tucked her legs close to her chest, resting her chin on her knees. Adair and Gregor were striding toward the stables, issuing orders to the servants, almost ready to depart.
Disappointment settled in her chest.
For the past month, every night before she turned in for bed, and every morning when Honoria opened her eyes, she prayed for something, anything that may bring about change—preferably the sort of change that resulted in her traveling to Edinburgh.
But no such luck.
She was to stay at MacGregor Castle.
At this rate, she would die an old maid, which would be fine if she could get to the city before her death. Perhaps the time had come for her to go off on her own exploration. Or something. Anything.
If only fate would send her a sign.
In the distance, her brothers mounted their horses. It was torturous to watch them set out on their journey, a carriage filled with their belongings edging forward at a slower pace.
At the gate, Adair drew his horse to a halt and glanced up toward the hill. It had become a ritual of sorts. She would retreat to the hill to brood whenever they left, and he would turn at the gate and…acknowledge her sulk?
She did not quite know. Had never asked.
But Honoria vowed then and there that the following year Adair would find an empty hill. She’d be with them, or off on her own, or choose another place to sulk. But this was the last day of their unspoken tradition.
A dull thump drew her attention away from her brothers, so faint Honoria almost missed the sound. Her head snapped around, her eyes searching for the origin but found nothing.
She must be imagining things.
With the shake of her head, she rose to her feet, smoothing out her skirts when another, more unmistakable, thud followed by an indisputable grunt.
What on earth?
It sounded like a man, maybe a goat. In her undervalued opinion, they sounded much the same.
Gathering her skirts, she marched further up the hill to inspect the thump she’d heard. Near the top she cast a glance over her shoulder; to assure that her brothers were no longer in sight when her foot caught on something hard.
A shriek tore from her throat as she tumbled over a large animal, landing on a crumpled heap beside the thing. Eyes wide, she scrambled away from it, putting enough distance between them to settle her thundering heart.
Good Lord! Her hand settled over her chest.
Was that a man?
She leaped to her feet. That could not be a man. It was a big hulking bear—her brows puckered—with breeches. A bear that wore breeches. She inched closer.
“As I live and breathe,” Honoria muttered, leaning over the motionless form. It was a man. A filthy, bedraggled man, covered in mud and—her heart lurched—blood.
Honoria clutched her throat and glanced furiously about. Should she leave him there? Would he die if she did? He did not seem capable of managing on his own.
The man was out cold.
Something thawed in the region of her chest. Or ignited. A spark. Curiosity? Fear? Whatever it was, she could not leave him on the hill to die. If whatever wound had caused so much blood did not kill him, the frosty night surely would.
She studied his thick, tangled ebony hair. It covered most of his face, so it was hard to tell his features. He was a big beastie, maybe as tall as her brothers, around six feet two thereabout. He would dwarf over her like her brothers. The thought annoyed her.
She kneeled beside the man, calculating how much strength they would need to move him. The last time Boyd had gotten so foxed he couldn’t walk it had taken Lachlan, Gregor, and Kieran to put him to bed. Three of her brothers may very well equal four servants.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured to the unconscious man. “I will return with help.”COLLAPSE