A runaway heroine. A hero in disguise. A spooky inn full of quirky characters. What can go wrong? Absolutely everything.
A LADY FLEEING HER CASTLE
Beautiful, sweet-tempered, and utterly put out with her brothers, Lady Isla MacCallan reckons a break from their pompous ways is exactly what she needs. She longs to find her place in the world, nurse her aching heart, and catch a breath. She never expected Mr. Ross, the handsome head groom of their stables, to be the only obstacle in her way. He is bossy, beyond tempting, and suddenly very familiar . . .
A MAN IMPRISONED BY PAIN
Haunted, frustrated, and disguised as a groomsman at MacCallan castle, Lord Drew Murray has loved Isla MacCallan all his life. There’s just one problem. He is the reason her brother, and his closest friend, died. But Drew is content to live in the shadows until, one night, Isla decides to run away. He would do anything to remain at her side, even aid in her bold behavior, knowing to step back into the light, he risks losing everything he holds dear.
Isla MacCallan, the second daughter of the late Duke of Roxburgh and youngest sister to the current duke, hurried down the muddy path that led to the castle stables. Shadows moved in the darkness, and a cold breeze stung her cheeks, but her steps did not falter. This was her one opportunity to slip away without notice, the first time her courage outweighed any common sense. In the distance, laughter and song broke through the quiet night. Urgency drove her to a faster pace, and her fingers tightened around the light travel pack she’d prepared.
Once again, her brothers had gone too far.
Three days ago, they had run off Lash Ruthven—a gypsy man her sister had fallen hopelessly in love with—just as they had dismissed Patrick Moray seven months prior, a gardener with whom Isla had formed a close bond of friendship. Of sorts.READ MORE
Isla did not believe men should be judged by their lack of title or the circumstance of their birth. Adair should have understood that. Every one of her brothers ought to have understood. Their mother had been of inferior birth—the daughter of a seamstress and an impoverished blacksmith—and she had been the most elegant woman, her grace unparalleled.
And after all that, after sending away the men their sisters had grown attached to, they had the nerve to host a ball and invite every unattached bachelor in the vicinity?
The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. They had crossed the line one too many times.
Isla needed a reprieve.
From them. Their despotic ways. This castle.
Fortunately, the stables were deserted when she entered, with not a groomsman in sight, and a shaky breath left her lips. There was no time to waste. Her feet pushed straight to the stall of Handsome—a stallion as white as the wintry snow. Any moment a groom might happen upon her, and Isla wished to avoid that at all cost.
“Och, you are so Handsome,” she greeted the horse upon entering his stall, tickling him behind the ears. “We are going on a trip, you and me. Let us saddle you up.”
Isla hastened to ready Handsome, having done so hundreds of times before, insisting on tending to him herself whenever she went out riding. She knew the location of ever strap by heart and navigated the dimly lit stables without much effort.
Minutes later, she gave a satisfied nod and secured her travel bag to Handsome’s rear. Her brothers would give chase the moment they discovered her gone, but with some luck, they’d reckon she’d sleep in after a night of dancing. Isla only needed to reach England without being caught. Everything would be fine once she arrived in London.
“I should have worn breeches,” she muttered as she set her foot on the stirrup to hoist herself astride Handsome. “It would have been much more comfortable.”
“Now this won’t do,” A gravelly male brogue spoke from the shadows.
Isla stilled mid-hoist.
Nay. She was so close.
The first thing she noted was that the voice did not belong to any of her brothers. But it did belong to a man. A darkly commanding man, from the sound of it. One of the guests, perhaps?
In any event, Isla knew with brow-smacking certainty that this was not a man who would let her ride off into the night on her own.
She shut her eyes.
Muscular arms encircled her waist, and she was yanked back against a hard chest with a sudden jerk.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, lass?” The deep, throaty voice breathed in her ear.
“Me? Sir, I do not know who you are, but you have grossly crossed the line! Unhand me at once!” She struggled to free herself from whoever had accosted her.
He stiffened against her. “It’s me. Ross.”
She froze in his arms. Mr. Ross? The head groom? Then she caught it—the familiar scent of earth and tobacco that clung to him, always betraying his presence. Och, why did it have to be him? Anyone else would have been better.
There was something unusually unnerving about Mr. Ross. She could never quite look him in the eye. What’s more, every nerve in her body leaped to life in his presence, as though trying to alert her to a significant fact, a point she was missing entirely.
“Let go of me,” she ordered, inwardly cursing at the panic welling in her breast.
“First, tell me where the hell you’re going this time of night.”
Ye gods, he annoyed her. Always meddlesome. Always bossy. Always impertinent. From the first day she laid eyes on him three months ago, she decided to avoid him. An impossibility, she soon discovered.
Isla loved riding and tending to Handsome and so spent a great deal of time at the stables. But that wasn’t even the problem. The problem was him.
Their new head groom commanded attention.
That vexed her more than anything. Mr. Ross seemed to be cut from the same cloth as her brothers. Only, he looked meaner, downright menacing, with a brown leather eye patch covering his right eye and a wicked scar slashing across his left brow.
“I asked you a question, lass.”
“A question you have no business asking as it’s no concern of yours,” she retorted, renewing her struggle.
The circle of his arms tightened. “Tell me, and I’ll let you go.”
“Let me go, and I’ll consider telling you,” Isla countered, giving up on breaking free. It was like trying to escape the hold of a marble statue.
“You are running away,” he murmured, and Isla felt the flutter of air against her scalp as he inhaled deeply.
“What are you doing?” she breathed, her stomach tightening in knots.
“Why are you running away?”
His hands disappeared from her waist to settle on her shoulders, and he spun her around to face him. Her heart fluttered as she stared up into one steely blue eye, hard and ruthless. That focused stare was the very reason she aimed to avoid him at all cost. Isla was partial to men with blue eyes.
Patrick, too, had blue eyes, though his had been cast in a lean, almost hollow face and shadowed by glasses and pain. No scar had impaired his features—not that Mr. Ross’s jagged line detracted at all from his handsomeness, though it did add to his fierceness. And while a permanent cap had been secured on the gardener’s head, Mr. Ross’s shaggy chestnut hair appeared at odds with gravity, reaching for every direction, its length teasing his shoulders.
Something felt strangely familiar about this face that hid behind a mop of hair, a bushy beard, and a leather eye patch. Mr. Ross had a bold quality that called to the very center of her being. Isla felt like she had known him forever. The sentiment he inspired reminded her of a time before her life became overshadowed with misfortune and grief. A time honeycombed with happy moments.
“But that cannot be right, lass,” the overpowering groom pressed on, strong fingers flexing against her shoulders. “Why would you run away? And if not running away, you must be running toward. So who are you meeting so clandestinely in the dead of night?”
“What’s it to you, Mr. Ross?” She shrugged off his grip, and he let her go, arms folding over his stalwart chest.
“Very well. Do not tell me.” He nodded in the direction of the castle. “Shall I send for your brothers, then?”
“Don’t you dare!” Isla cried.
One dark brow jutted upward.
“Och! You are impossible!” She stomped her foot and glared up at him. “If you must know, I’m not meeting anyone.”
“Then where are you heading off to this time of night?” Accusing eyes narrowed at her.
Isla wanted to bash the impetuous groom over the head. Irritation snaked down her spine. He could ruin everything for her. Even if she left, somehow getting past Mr. Ross, he’d tattle on her. She’d be hauled back to the castle within the hour and never let out of sight again.
“I am going to London.” She lifted her chin a notch.
“England?” Disbelief clouded his features. “Why the hell are you going to that flea-infested place?”
“To join my brother, Falcon, and his wife, Davina. They are visiting friends in London.”
His gaze skittered to the horse and then back to her. “Alone?”
She squared her shoulders. “Aye. Alone.”
“Why the hell would you do that?”
“A reprieve, Mr. Ross.” At his look, she explained, “One brother is less infuriating than eight.” She would be able to breathe easier, at least until she figured out what she wanted from her life. A husband and children? Seventy cats? A journal filled with empty pages? She did not know.
“What happened?” Mr. Ross demanded. His one steely eye narrowed. “Something must have happened if you are running away.”
“I am visiting family, ’tis all.”
“In the dead of night, alone. That is called running away.”
“Call it what you will.” Isla shrugged. “Now please step aside.”
“I cannot allow that, lass,” he said. “Your brothers will have my head.”
“Go on, then,” Isla challenged, taking a bold step toward him. “Call for my brothers.”
“So that you may ride off the moment I turn my back?” His lips thinned. “Why be so reckless? Is it because of the ball your brothers are hosting?”
“Partly,” Isla confessed begrudgingly, straightening her spine. “But it’s their fault; they have provided me the perfect opportunity to leave while they are distracted.”
He shortened the distance between them with one step. “Why not ask them to send you to your brother? They can hardly deny you that.”
“Honoria asked for years, and they never once obliged.” Isla gave him her most imploring look. “Please, Mr. Ross, do not stand in my way.”
“Lass, you cannot ask me that.”
“It is not a lot that I ask,” she insisted. “Merely stand aside.”
“If you had any idea how dangerous it is for a woman traveling alone at night, you would not ask this of me.”
“Nevertheless, Mr. Ross, I am leaving. I do not want to have to do this, but you leave me no choice.” She straightened her back. “I order you to turn a blind eye to my activities.”
“You are in the employ of my family and therefore in mine as well.”
A vein ticked in his neck.
Ye gods, she was done for. She could tell from the flash of devilment that burned in his gaze. He was a man, after all. Any moment, he would toss her over his shoulder and forcibly carry her back to the castle, dumping her at Adair’s feet.
“Then command it,” he challenged, to her surprise. “I’m feeling in the mood to disobey orders tonight.”
Isla clenched her fists at her side. “Nothing you do or say will change my mind. Accompany me, Mr. Ross, or stop me, but one way or another, I will not back down.”
“Accompany you?” His gaze turned speculative. “Are you that desperate to run off tonight?”
“I am that determined.”
His steadfast gaze bore into her for a full minute before his shoulders relaxed, and he smiled—a soft, suspicious upturn of the corner of his mouth. “Aye, then I shall accompany you.”
Isla blinked several times. This was not at all how she expected Mr. Ross to react. “You are? I mean, you will?”
“I cannot in good conscience allow you to travel alone,” he said with a shrug. “Neither will I stand in your way, being a lowly servant and all. But I can at least offer you my protection.”
“You cannot accompany me!” Isla exclaimed in panic. Och, why had she suggested such a thing? Already his proximity made the air thick and difficult to drag into her lungs. Traveling with him would be anything but painless.
He scowled. “Then why the devil did you suggest it?”
“I—” Isla paused, at a loss for words. Why had she? The words had snuck past her lips of their own accord. She shook her head. “I spoke hastily.”
“That is too bad, lass. You presented an alternative, and I accepted.” His brow furrowed in challenge. “You are only leaving one way, Lady Isla, and that is with me at your side.”
“What of my brothers?” Isla demanded, attempting another approach, one that had worked in the past on another man: intimidation. The threat of nine angry brothers, if she included Falcon who did not live at the castle, was nothing to scoff at. “They will have your hide if they learn you accompanied me.”
“I have a thick one, trust me.”
“What of my reputation?”
“How is traveling with me worse than traveling alone?”
Isla held up a finger. “For one, I can travel unnoticed,” she retorted, giving him a once-over. “I cannot do that with you by my side.”
“You could never go unnoticed, lass. You will draw all sorts of bounders to your side—bounders that will do much worse than appropriate pretty trinkets.”
“Attempting to scare me will not work.”
“Then decide which it shall be,” he said simply. “Return to the castle or accept my first-rate company.”
Isla withheld a grimace. First-rate, my toe. Och, why did it have to be him? Unyielding. Like a blasted mountain. Impossible to deal with.
But she hadn’t come this far to be deterred by the likes of Mr. Ross. Besides, they’d be traveling straight to London. There was little chance of them conversing much. Isla drew comfort from that, little though it might be.
“Och, fine,” she snapped, turning back to Handsome. “But do not blame me when their wrath comes down on your head.”COLLAPSE