Too Wicked To Marry
Book One of "The Macleods Of Skye Court"
(From Avon - January 2002
She did not show how his words pricked small wounds in her soul. She folded her gloved hands in front of her, and restrained the sigh that threatened to escape her lips. "I need your help," she told him.
"Why don't you say you need me?" His lips formed a smirk, but the expression in his eyes was darker and more intense. "I know it would be a lie, of course, but I'd like to hear it."
"I did not expect this conversation to be easy, Martin."
She nodded. "As you wish, my lord."
His smirk turned into a very wicked smile. "I'd love to hear you say that as well, to everything I want."
For some reason, she had not expected sexual innuendo from him. At least not until after she posed her proposition to him, and then what she expected was a form of bitter, caustic teasing that she'd told herself she could live with. It had not occurred to her that his repudiating any love he thought he felt for her would leave him with any residual feelings at all.
"You are going to give me a very hard time aren't you, my lord?"
His answering laugh was low and sinister. "Very hard indeed."
Her cheeks burned bright red, and redder still when a quick glance below his belt buckle confirmed that the man was not joking. "Martin, are you more drunk than you look?"
Harriet supposed she should have waited until tomorrow morning instead of rushing off right after her mother suggested the plan to ask him for help. What had she been thinking? The man needed, deserved, time to calm down, to regain rationality and equilibrium - just as she did. She wasn't at the top of her form either, or she wouldn't have rashly slipped into Martin's room for a midnight tete a tete. But tomorrow he would take the ferry back to the mainland, and from there who knew where he'd head? To his parents, to be with Patricia? She couldn't confront him there. To his London home? Back to the houseparty he'd left on the Isle of Wight? To the Continent? She could trace him, of course, but that would waste precious time, the window of opportunity was right now. She didn't want to think that her hieing after him so rapidly was the result of not being able to bear never seeing him again. No, her heart could not be so foolish and impulsive. This was business. She had to concentrate, and make Martin do the same.
"Martin. My lord," she amended at his crooked eyebrow. "I have a favor to ask of you."
"Ah." He smiled, and he reminded Harriet of a large, black stalking cat, a panther to be exact. "You need me."
He threw back his head and laughed.
"I could kick you," Harriet vented her exasperation.
"And scratch and bite and claw, I hope. From flat on your back."
He put his finger over his lips. "Shhh. Remember old man MacLeod."
Harriet fumed in silence for a few moments. She had to admit that she'd left herself open for every jab he'd delivered. The man had the right to give her a certain amount of grief, she accepted that. What was disturbing was how his suggestions dovetailed so succinctly with what she needed to discuss. "I've come to grovel for a favor. Will you please let me get on with it?"
"Or off with it," he suggested. He waved toward the whisky bottle on the washstand. "Pour me a drink."
No please, she noted, and sighed. He probably expected her to tell him he'd had enough. Well, she wasn't here to nursemaid him, or play the disapproving governess. "Very well." She turned.
"Take off your gloves first."
She glanced over her shoulder, and caught the glint of wicked amusement in his eyes. "Very well," she said, mild as you please.
Slowly, and not without a certain amount of insinuation, she peeled the thin kidskin riding gloves off her fingers. He watched her hands with riveted attention the whole time that she found disturbing. She meant to place the gloves on the table, but one by one she let the discarded gloves drop to the floor, the action taking on a sensuality she hadn't consciously intended. Then she poured a measure of amber liquid into the glass next to the water pitcher. He snatched at her hand when she brought the drink to him, but she danced back, only letting him have the glass. He drank the potent single malt whisky down in a gulp.
"Another." He held out the glass. "And take off your coat."
All too aware of the tension radiating from the man Harriet undid the coat and slipped out of it with a minimum of fuss, draping it neatly over the back of a chair before bringing him the whisky. "There's only so far I'm willing to go, you know, before we have our talk."
His gaze held a disturbing mixture of contempt and hunger. One hurt her, the other she found unwillingly fascinating. He said, "I notice you did not say you wouldn't go further."
He drank. "Undo your hair."
She would go this far, and no further, fighting off a whisper of why not? from some long-suppressed corner of her mind. She hated having her hair pinned up, anyway. While she took down her hair, Martin moved to the bed. He stretched out on his side on top of the blue bedspread, leaning back on piled up pillows, his glass held casually in one hand. He smiled his dangerous, tempting black cat smile as he watched her, as pleased with himself as some oriental potentate having his every wish fulfilled by his favorite concubine. What had he been up to during those private meeting with the Turkish sultan?
"I won't dance for you now, effendi," she said after she shook her long hair out around her shoulders and face. "Don't bother to ask."
"I don't have my water pipe with me, anyway."
Harriet took a seat in the room's one chair, across the room from the bed. She tried not to notice that he'd undone several more buttons of his shirt. She also ignored the impulse to settle on the bed beside him and help him slip the garment the rest of the way off. She hadn't allowed herself to think of Martin Kestrel as a male for the last four years, at least not in any context concerning her own mating urges - she'd tried not to have mating urges. But now her carefully ordered thinking pattern was topsy turvy, her life was a complete disaster, and all those repressed urges threatened to bubble out of control. It was only going to get worse if things worked out as she needed them to. She had to keep control. Remember that he has good reason to hate you, she reminded herself. For he's not likely to let you forget. This job was not going to be easy or fun. Do what you have to, she ordered herself sternly. Then go home and get back to licking your wounds. They'll only be worse when you're done.
"I should like to see you naked," he said, proving her point.
"We can't always have what we want when we want it," she snapped back before she could stop herself.
"I've waited four years." He drained this last glass of whisky and let the glass drop to the floor. He crooked a finger. "If a woman comes to a man's room she only has one thing on her mind."
"Tidying up, most likely," Harriet answered. "Scrubbing the floors, airing the linens."
"That wasn't what I meant and you know it."
"But some bait doesn't bear rising to, does it, Martin-my lord?" Harriet forced her thoughts back to her objective, and kept her gaze away from studying the hard muscles of Martin's chest. "May I leave off groveling for a while and discuss business?"
"We were discussing business. I've always paid you for your services."
The contempt in his voice brought her angry gaze to his. "I never took any of your money, my lord. Not a penny, nor a pound, and I gave Patricia the finest education a girl is likely to receive in this unenlightened age. Furthermore-" Harriet bit her tongue and reminded herself that she had not come here to discuss the past. Justifications were not necessary; she had served her country.
"Nothing." She'd risen to her feet during her tirade. Harriet shook her head, shifting the thick tendrils of hair framing her face. How the man could make her lose control so easily after all these years, she did not understand. Perhaps it had something to do with bare chests and beds, but she liked to think that she was not so easily susceptible to his flagrantly displayed charms. It had been a bad day, she was tired and rattled. That was all.
She stiffened her spine, took her seat once more, straightened her skirts, and asked, "Where was I?"
Mention of his daughter seemed to have taken some of the lecherous pleasure at taunting her out of him. "You were about to attempt to talk me into something." He glared at her through narrowed eyes. "You're going to try to make me believe I should help you with some sort of undercover assignment is my first guess."
"For a man who has just met me you know me too bloody well."
"Don't swear. It isn't ladylike." He smirked. "Oh, right. You're not a lady."
She hated that they so easily descended into bickering. If Patricia had behaved this way, Harriet would have put her down for a nap. She supposed that after such a trying day she and Martin both needed rest, but she was so keyed up she didn't know how that was possible. Perhaps she should ask to join him in a drink, which would, of course, be no more ladylike than her swearing. Men got to have all the fun; women who joined them got called very ugly names.
"Very well," he finally agreed. "What do you want?"
"To go to a party."
Martin sat up so fast his head swam, lights danced before his eyes, and only an act of sheer will kept him from hurtling face first onto the braided rug on the floor. It took a moment for his eyes to come back into focus, and when they did he saw - Harriet MacCleod - gazing at him with a look of mild concern, and her usual calm demeanor. "A party?" he demanded of this odd mixture of complete stranger and long time acquaintance. "What are you talking about? What sort of party?"
"Let me explain."
Her hands were clenched so tightly together in her lap that her knuckles were white. Nerves? He saw the strain around her lips and eyes. She was a consummate actress, the little traitor, but he doubted these signs of strain were part of an act. He took great pleasure in seeing her perturbed.
"This should be quite an explanation," he observed. "You hate having to come to me for help, don't you? Of course." He rubbed his jaw. "You wouldn't be willing to put yourself in my debt."
"Even drunk you're too bloody perceptive."
"I'll take that as a compliment, and stop swearing. Tell me."
She took a deep breath, and seemed totally unaware of the delightful way her breasts shifted beneath the starched material of her white blouse. Martin imagined them uncovered while she talked. "It is a complicated story, and I cannot tell you all of it. To those uninvolved in the game the details always sound quite preposterous anyway."
He understood what she meant by the game, of course. In his own diplomatic capacity he was very much a player in the rivalry between the British Empire and Czarist Russia. Russia schemed to expand its borders, England countered with schemes to preserve the current balance of power in the world. The Great Game as some romantic in the Foreign Office had dubbed the power struggle decades ago went on on many levels, some official, many covert. Martin fought the war with words, negotiating delicate treaties between the empire and governments that were courted with equal fervor by the Russians. His was the clean, honest way: a game played by fair rules.
His lip curled back in disgust at Harriet's mention of the game she played. "Spies." He might as well have spit as said the word. "I'm getting used to your preposterous tales, Miss MacLeod. Do go on."
"The short version of the story is that a courier carrying vital information needs to be met at a certain time and place. The person who was supposed to meet that courier has been delayed. The meeting is to take place at a very private house party on a secluded estate. When I heard the location, I recalled that you had turned down an invitation to that specific party to accept the Hazlemoor's invitation instead. You could still go to that party - and take me with you." She smiled. "You see, when one ignores all the secretive trappings, it is really a very simple plan. I need a way in, you have an invitation. I meet the courier, I leave, no one is any the wiser."
Somehow he was certain it could not be as simple as she said. He must have received four or five invitations for the same time that he chose to spend in the Hazlemoor's wholesome company. He smiled bitterly. If he hadn't gone to Freddie Hazlemoor's and been bombarded by eligible maidens, his thoughts would not have turned to marriage. Then he would not have proposed to his governess and he would not now be sitting in a room in Scotland with the treacherous woman who'd torn his life and soul to shreds.
He crossed his arms. "Good God, how I wish I'd gone off to Sir Anthony Strake's for a fortnight of good old fashioned debauchery."
"You still can," Harriet said. "But you have to take me with you."
Martin stood even quicker than he'd sat up, and it was even more of a mistake. This time when the room spun, it kept right on spinning. He could barely manage to croak out, "Take you to that den of iniquity!"
The last thing he heard was Harriet very calmly saying, "I
could go as your mistress."
Copyright © 2002 by Susan Sizemore