Либрусек (книги fb2)
Julia Quinn’s “Gretna Green” is the most amusing story in the book. Margaret Pennypacker has traveled to Scotland to prevent her younger brother from making a disastrous marriage. Her trip itself is disastrous, and she is rescued from an attack by Angus Greene just in the nick of time. Angus has come to Gretna Green to stop his sister who intends to go to London for a Season. The two of them end up sharing a room and a haggis at an inn where Angus informs the innkeeper that they are married and that Margaret is expecting.
Angus is a thoroughly satisfactory hero – bold, principled, funny. Margaret is a loving woman, devoted to her family (although she does seem to have hied herself off to Scotland with a definite lack of preparation) who is a good match for him. Readers will find little depth to their story, but it’s sure to please.
Julia Quinn Gretna Greene
Gretna Green, Scotland
Margaret Pennypacker had chased her brother halfway across a nation.
She had ridden like the very devil through Lancashire, discovering when she dismounted that she possessed muscles she didn't even know existed-and that every one of them was bone-sore.
She had squeezed herself into an overcrowded hired coach in Cumbria and tried not to breathe when she realized that her fellow passengers apparently did not share her fondness for bathing.
She had endured the bumps and jolts of a mule-drawn wooden cart as it made its way across the last five miles of English soil before she was unceremoniously dropped at the Scottish border by a farmer who warned her that she was entering the devil's own country.
All to end up here, at Gretna Green, wet and tired, with little more than the coat on her back and two coins in her pocket. Because-
In Lancashire, she'd been thrown from her horse when it stepped on a stone, and then the dratted thing-so well-trained by her errant brother-had turned and run for home.
On the Cumbria coach, someone had had the temerity to steal her reticule, leaving her with only the coins that had slipped out and settled into the deepest recesses of her pocket.
And on that last leg of the journey, while riding in the farmer's cart that had given her splinters, bruises, and probably-with the way her luck was running-some sort of chicken disease, it had started to rain.
Margaret Pennypacker was definitely not in good temper. And when she found her brother, she was going to kill him.
It had to be the crudest sort of irony, but neither thieves nor storms nor runaway horses had managed to deprive her of the sheet of paper that had forced her journey to Scotland. Edward's sparsely worded missive hardly deserved a rereading, but Margaret was so furious with him that she couldn't stop her fingers from reaching into her pocket for the hundredth time and pulling out the crumpled, hastily scrawled note.
It had been folded and refolded, and it was probably getting wet as she huddled under the overhang of a building, but the message was still clear. Edward was eloping.
"Bloody idiot," Margaret muttered under her breath. "And who the devil is he marrying, I'd like to know. Couldn't he have seen fit to have told me that?"
As best as Margaret could guess, there were three likely candidates, and she wasn't looking forward to welcoming any of them into the Pennypacker family. Annabel Fornby was a hideous snob, Camilla Ferrige had no sense of humor, and Penelope Fitch was as dumb as a post. Margaret had once heard Penelope recite the alphabet and leave out J and Q.
All she could hope was that she wasn't too late. Edward Pennypacker was not getting married-not if his older sister had any say in the matter.
* * *
Angus Greene was a strong, powerful man, widely reputed to be handsome as sin, and with a devilishly charming smile that belied an occasionally ferocious temper. When he rode his prized stallion into a new town, he tended to elicit fear among the men, rapid heartbeats among the women, and wide-eyed fascination among the children-who always seemed to notice that both man and beast shared the same black hair and piercing dark eyes.
His arrival in Gretna Green, however, caused no comment at all, because everyone with a lick of sense-and Angus liked to think that the one virtue common to all Scots was sense-was inside that night, bundled up and warm, and, most importantly, out of the driving rain.
But not Angus. No, Angus was-thanks to his exasperating younger sister, whom he was beginning to think might be the only Scot since the dawn of time to be completely devoid of common sense-stuck out here in the hard rain, shivering and cold, and establishing what had to be a new national record for the greatest use of the words "damn," "bloody," and "bugger" in a single evening.
He'd hoped to get farther than the border this evening, but the rain was slowing him down, and even with gloves, his fingers were too cold to properly grip the reins. Plus, it wasn't fair to Orpheus; he was a good horse and didn't deserve this sort of abuse. This was yet another transgression for which Anne would have to take the blame, Angus thought grimly. He didn't care if his sister was only eighteen years old. When he found that girl, he was going to kill her.
He took some comfort in the fact that if he had been slowed down by the weather, then Anne would have been forced to a complete stop. She was traveling by carriage-his carriage, which she'd had the temerity to "borrow"-and would certainly be unable to move southward with the roads muddied and clogged.
And if there was any luck floating about in the damp air, Anne might even be stranded here, at Gretna Green. As a possibility, it was fairly remote, but as long as he was stuck for the night, it seemed foolish not to look for her.
He let out a weary sigh and wiped his wet face with the back of his sleeve. It didn't do any good, of course; his coat was already completely sodden.
At his master's loud exhale, Orpheus instinctively drew to a halt, waiting for the next command. Trouble was, Angus hadn't a clue what to do next. He supposed he could start by searching the inns, although truth be told, he didn't much relish the thought of going through every room in every inn in town. He didn't even want to think about how many innkeepers he was going to have to bribe.
But first things had to come first, and he might as well get himself settled before beginning his search. A quick scan up the street told him that The Canny Man possessed the best quarters for his horse, so Angus spurred Orpheus in the direction of the small inn and public house.
But before Orpheus had managed to move even three of his four feet, a loud scream pierced the air.
A feminine scream.
Angus's heart stopped beating. Anne? If anyone had touched so much as the hem of her dress…
He galloped down the street and then around the far corner, just in time to see three men attempting to drag a lady into a dark building. She was struggling mightily, and from the amount of mud on her dress, it looked as if she had been dragged a fair distance.
"Let go of me, you cretin!" she yelled, elbowing one of them in the neck.
It wasn't Anne, that was for sure. Anne would never have known enough to knee the second man in the groin.
Angus jumped down and dashed to the lady's aid, arriving just in time to grab the third villain by the collar, pull him off of his intended victim, and toss him headfirst into the street.
"Back off, sod!" one of the men growled. "We found her first."
"That is unfortunate," Angus said calmly, then bashed his fist into the man's face. He stared at the two remaining men, one of whom was still sprawled in the street. The other one, who had been doubled over on the ground and clutching at his nether regions ever since the lady had kneed him, looked at Angus as if he wanted to say something. But before he could make a sound, Angus planted his boot in a rather painful area and looked down.
"There is something you should know about me," he said, his voice unnaturally soft. "I don't like to see women hurt. When it happens, or even when I think it might happen, I-" He stopped talking for a moment and cocked his head slowly to the side, pretending to search for the right words. "I go a wee bit mad."
The man sprawled on the cobbles found his feet with remarkable speed and ran off into the night. His companion looked as if he dearly wanted to follow, but Angus's boot had him a bit too securely pinned to the ground.
Angus stroked his chin. "I think we understand each other."
The man nodded frantically.
"Good. I'm sure I don't need to tell you what will happen should we ever again cross paths."
Another pained nod.
Angus moved his foot and the man ran off, squealing all the way.
With the threat finally removed-the third villain, after all, was still unconscious-Angus finally turned his attention to the young lady he had possibly saved from a fate worse than death. She was still sitting on the cobbles, staring up at him as if he were a ghost. Her hair was wet and sticking to her face, but even in the dim light shining from the nearby buildings, he could tell that it was some sort of shade of brown. Her eyes were light in color, and utterly huge and unblinking. And her lips-well, they were blue from the cold, and shivering to boot, so they really shouldn't have been so appealing, but Angus found himself instinctively moving toward her, and he had the oddest notion that if he kissed her…
He gave his head a little shake. "Idiot," he muttered. He was here to find Anne, not dally with some misplaced young Englishwoman. And speaking of which, what the devil was she doing here, anyway, alone on a darkened street?
He leveled his sternest stare at her. "What the devil are you doing here?" he demanded, then added for good measure, "Alone on a darkened street?"
Her eyes, which he thought couldn't possible get any more huge, widened, and she started to scoot away, her bottom skimming along the ground as she used the palms of her hands to support her. Angus thought she looked a bit like a monkey he'd seen in a menagerie.
"Don't tell me you're frightened of me" he said incredulously.
Her shaking lips managed something that could never be called a smile, although Angus had the distinct impression that she was trying to placate him. "Not at all," she quavered, her accent confirming his earlier supposition that she was English. "It's just that I-well, you must understand-" She stood so suddenly that her foot caught on the hem of her dress, and she nearly fell over. "I really have someplace I have to be," she blurted out.
And then, with a wary glance in his direction, she started walking away, moving sideways so that she could keep one eye on him and one on wherever it was she thought she was going.
"For the love of-" He cut himself off before he blasphemed in front of this chit, who was already looking at him as if she were trying to decide whether he more resembled the devil or Attila the Hun. "I am not the villain in this piece," he bit off.
Margaret clutched at the folds of her skirt and chewed nervously on the inside of her cheek. She had been terrified when those men had grabbed her, and she still hadn't managed to stop the uncontrollable shaking of her hands. At four-and-twenty, she was still an innocent, but she'd lived long enough to know their intentions. The man standing in front of her had saved her, but for what purpose? She didn't think he wanted to hurt her-his comment about protecting women was a bit too heartfelt to have been an act. But did that mean she could trust him?
As if sensing her thoughts, he snorted and jerked his head slightly. "For the love of God, woman, I saved your bloody life."
Margaret winced. The big Scotsman was probably correct, and she knew her deceased mother would have ordered her to get down on her hands and knees just to thank him, but the truth was-he looked a little unbalanced. His eyes were hot and flashing with temper, and there was something about him-something strange and indescribable-that made her insides quiver.
But she wasn't a coward, and she had spent enough years trying to instill good manners in her younger siblings that she wasn't about to prove herself a hypocrite and behave rudely herself. "Thank you," she said quickly, her racing heart causing her words to tumble from her mouth. 'That was… uh… very well done of you, and I… thank you, and I believe I can speak for my family when I say that they also thank you, and I'm certain that if I ever found myself wed, my husband would thank you as well."
Her savior (or was it nemesis?-Margaret just wasn't sure) smiled slowly and said, 'Then you're not married."
She took a few steps back. "Uh, no, uh, I really must be going."
His eyes narrowed. "You're not here to elope, are you? Because that's always a bad idea. I have a friend with property in the area, and he tells me that the inns are full of women who have been compromised on the way to Gretna Green but never wed."
"I am certainly not eloping," she said testily. "Do I really look that foolish?"
"No, you don't. But forget I asked. I really don't care." He shook his head wearily. "I've ridden all day, I'm sore as hell, and I still haven't found my sister. I'm glad you're safe, but I don't have time to sit here and-"
Her entire countenance changed. "Your sister?" she repeated, charging forward. "You're looking for your sister? Tell me, sir, how old is she, what does she look like, and are you a Fornby, Ferrige, or Fitch?"
He looked at her as if she had suddenly sprouted horns. "What the devil are you talking about, woman? My name is Angus Greene."
"Damn," she muttered, surprising even herself with her use of profanity. "I had been hoping you might prove a useful ally."
"If you're not here to elope, what are you doing here?"
"My brother," she grumbled. "The nitwit thinks he wants to marry, but his brides are completely unsuitable."
"Brides, plural? Bigamy is still illegal in England, is it not?"
She scowled at him. "I don't know which one he eloped with. He didn't say. But they're all just horrible." She shuddered, looking as if she had just swallowed an antidote. "Horrible."
A fresh burst of rain fell upon them, and without even thinking, Angus took her arm and pulled her under the deep overhang. She kept on talking through the entire maneuver.
"When I get my hands on Edward, I'm going to bloody well kill him," she was saying. "I was quite busy in Lancashire, you know. It's not as if I had time to drop everything and chase him to Scotland. I've a sister to care for, and a wedding to plan. She's getting married in three months, after all. The last thing I needed was to travel up here and-"
His hand tightened around her arm. "Wait one moment," he said in a tone that immediately shut her mouth. "Don't tell me you traveled to Scotland by yourself." His brows pulled together, and he looked as if he were in pain. "Do not tell me that."
She caught sight of the fire burning in his dark eyes, and drew back as far as his heavy grip would let her. "I knew that you were crazy," she said, looking from side to side as if searching for someone to save her from this lunatic.
Angus yanked her in closer, purposefully using his size and strength to intimidate her. "Did you or did you not embark upon a long-distance journey without an escort?"
"Yes?" she said, the single syllable coming out like a question.
"Good God, woman!" he exploded. "Are you insane? Do you have any idea what happens to women traveling alone? Did you give no thought to your own safety?"
Margaret's mouth fell open.
He let go of her and started to pace. "When I think about what might have happened…" He gave his head a shuddering shake, muttering, "Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce. The woman is daft."
Margaret blinked rapidly, trying to make sense of all this. "Sir," she began cautiously, "you don't even know me."
He whirled around. "What the hell is your name?"
"Margaret Pennypacker," she answered before it occurred to her that maybe he really was a lunatic, and maybe she shouldn't have told him the truth.
"Fine," he spat out. "Now I know you. And you're a fool. On a fool's errand."
"Just wait one moment!" she burst out, stepping forward and waving her arm at him. "I happen to be engaged in an extremely serious mission. My brother's very happiness might be at stake. Who are you to judge me?"
"The man who saved you from rape."
"Well!" Margaret responded, mostly because that was all she could think to say.
He raked his hand through his hair. "What are your plans for tonight?"
"That's none of your business!"
"You became my business the minute I saw you being dragged off by-" Angus whipped his head around, realizing that he'd forgotten about the man he'd knocked unconscious. The fellow had woken up and was slowly rising to his feet, obviously trying to move as silently as possible.
"Don't move," Angus snapped at Margaret. He was in front of the burly man in two steps, then grabbed his collar and hauled him up until his feet dangled in the air. "Do you have anything to say to this woman?" he growled.
The man shook his head.
"I think you do."
"I certainly have nothing to say to him," Margaret put in, trying to be helpful.
Angus ignored her. "An apology, perhaps? An abject apology with ample use of the phrase 'I'm a miserable cur' might lessen my temper and save your pathetic life."
The man started to shake. "I'msorryrmsorryrmsorry."
"Really, Mr. Greene," Margaret said quickly, "I think we're quite finished. Perhaps you ought to let him go."
"Do you want to hurt him?"
Margaret was so surprised, she started to cough. "I beg your pardon," she finally managed to get out.
His voice was hard and strangely flat as he repeated his question. "Do you want to hurt him? He would have dishonored you."
Margaret blinked uncontrollably at the odd light in his eyes, and she had the most horrifying feeling that he would kill the man if she just gave the word. "I'm fine," she choked out. "I believe I managed a few blows earlier m the evening. It quite satisfied my meager bloodlust."
"Not this one," Angus replied. "You hurt the other two."
"I'm fine, really."
"A woman has a right to her revenge."
"There's really no need, I assure you." Margaret glanced quickly about, trying to assess her chances for escape. She was going to have to make a run for it soon. This Angus Greene fellow might have saved her life, but he was completely mad.
Angus dropped the man and pushed him forward. "Get out of here before I kill you."
Margaret began to tiptoe in the opposite direction.
"You!" he boomed. "Don't move."
She froze. She might not like this huge Scotsman, but she was no idiot. He was twice her size, after all.
"Where do you think you're going?"
She decided not to answer that one.
He quickly closed the distance between them, crossed his arms, and glowered down at her. "I believe you were about to advise me of your plans for the evening."
"I regret to inform you, sir, but my intentions were not following that particular line of-"
"Tell me!" he roared.
"I was going to look for my brother," she blurted out, deciding that maybe she was a coward, after all. Cowardice, she decided, wasn't really such a bad thing when faced with a mad Scot.
He shook his head. "You're coming with me."
"Oh, please," she scoffed. "If you think-"
"Miss Pennypacker," he interrupted, "I might as well inform you that when I make a decision, I rarely change my mind."
"Mr. Greene," she replied with equal resolve, "I am not your responsibility."
"Perhaps, but I have never been the sort of man who could leave a lone woman to her own defenses. Therefore, you are coming with me, and we will decide what to do with you in the morning."
"I thought you were looking for your sister," she said, her irritation clear in her tone of voice.
"My sister certainly isn't getting any farther away from me in this weather. I'm sure she's tucked away in some inn, probably not even here at Gretna Green."
"Shouldn't you search the inns for her this eve?"
"Anne is not an early riser. If she is indeed here, she will not resume her journey any earlier than ten. I have no qualms about delaying my search for her until the morning. Anne, I'm sure, is safe this eve. You, on the other hand, I have my doubts about."
Margaret nearly stamped her foot. "There is no need-"
"My advice, Miss Pennypacker, is for you to accept your fate. Once you think about it, you'll realize it's not such a bad one. A warm bed, a good meal-how can those be so very offensive?"
"Why are you doing this?" she asked suspiciously. "What is in it for you?"
"Nothing," he admitted with a lopsided smile. "But have you ever studied Chinese history?"
She shot him a wry look. As if English girls were ever actually allowed to study more than embroidery and the occasional history lesson-British history, of course.
"There's a proverb," he said, his eyes growing reminiscent. "I don't remember how it goes precisely, but it is something about how once you save a life, you are responsible for it forever."
Margaret choked on her breath. Good God, the man didn't think to watch over her forever, did he?
Angus caught her expression and nearly doubled over in laughter. "Oh, do not worry, Miss Pennypacker," he said. "I have no plans to install myself as your permanent protector. I'll see you through until daylight and make certain you're settled, and then you may go on your merry way."
"Very well," Margaret said grudgingly. It was difficult to argue with someone who had one's best interests at heart. "I do appreciate your concern, and perhaps we might search for our errant siblings together. It should make the job a bit easier, I should think."
He touched her chin, startling her with his gentleness. "That's the spirit. Now then, shall we be off?"
She nodded, thinking that perhaps she ought to make a peace offering of her own. After all, the man had saved her from a horrible fate, and she had responded by calling him a lunatic. "You have a scrape," she said, touching his right temple. It had always been easier for her to show her gratitude through deeds, rather than words. "Why don't you let me tend to that? It's not very deep, but you ought to have it cleaned."
He nodded and took her arm. "I would appreciate that."
Margaret caught her breath, a bit surprised by how much larger he seemed when he was standing right next to her. "Have you secured a room yet?"
He shook his head. "Have you?"
"No, but I saw a vacancy sign at The Rose and Thistle."
"The Canny Man is better. Cleaner, and the food is hot. We'll see if they have room first."
"Cleanliness is good," she commented, more than happy to forgive his arrogance if it meant clean sheets.
"Do you have a bag?"
"Not anymore," she said ruefully.
"You were robbed?"
"I'm afraid so." At his darkening look, she added quickly, "But I didn't bring anything of value."
He sighed. "Well, there's nothing to be done about it now. Come with me. We'll discuss what to do about your brother and my sister once we're warm and fed."
And then he grasped her arm a bit more securely and led her down the street.
Their truce lasted all of two minutes. Margaret wasn't exactly certain how it came about, but before they were even halfway to The Canny Man, they were bickering like children.
He couldn't resist reminding her that she'd been beyond foolish in setting out for Scotland by herself.
She just had to call him an arrogant boor as he propelled her up the front steps and into the inn.
But none of that-not one single snippy word-could have prepared her for what happened when they stood before the innkeeper.
"My wife and I require rooms for the night," Angus said.
By sheer force of will, Margaret managed to keep her jaw from dropping to her knees. Or maybe it was an act of God; she didn't much think her will was strong enough to keep her from smacking Angus Greene in the arm for his impertinence.
"We have only one room available," the innkeeper informed them.
"We'll take that, then," Angus replied.
This time she knew she was subject to divine intervention, because there could be no other explanation for her restraint in the face of her massive desire to box his ears.
The innkeeper nodded approvingly and said, "Follow me. I'll show you up. And if you would like a meal-"
"We would," Angus cut in. "Something warm and filling."
"I'm afraid all we have at this late hour is cold meat pie."
Angus pulled a coin from his coat and held it forward. "My wife is very cold, and given her delicate condition, I would like to see that she receives a good meal."
"My condition?" Margaret gasped.
Angus smiled down at her and winked. "Come now, darling, surely you didn't think you would be able to hide it forever."
"Congratulations to you both!" the innkeeper boomed. "Is this your first?"
Angus nodded. "So you see why I'm so protective." He snaked his arm around Margaret's shoulders. "She's such a delicate woman."
That "delicate" woman promptly bent her arm and jabbed her elbow into Angus's hip. Hard.
The innkeeper must not have heard the ensuing grunt of pain, because he just took the coin and rolled it around in his hand. "Of course, of course," he murmured. "I'll have to wake my wife, but I'm sure we can find something hot."
The innkeeper moved forward, and Angus made to follow, but Margaret grabbed the hem of his coat and yanked. "Are you mad?" she whispered.
"I thought you had already questioned my sanity and found it acceptable."
"I have reconsidered," she ground out.
He patted her on the shoulder. "Try not to overset yourself. It's not good for the baby."
Margaret's arms were sticks at her sides as she tried to keep herself from pummeling him. "Stop talking about the baby," she hissed, "and I am not going to share a room with you."
"I really don't see what other choice you have."
"I would rather-"
He held up a hand. "Don't tell me you'd rather wait out in the rain. I simply won't believe you."
"You can wait out in the rain."
Angus ducked and peered out a window. Raindrops were beating loudly against the glass. "I think not."
"If you were a gentleman…"
He chuckled. "Ah, but I never said I was a gentleman."
"What was all that about protecting women, then?" Margaret demanded.
"I said I don't like to see women hurt and abused. I never said I was willing to sleep in the rain and give myself a raging case of lung disease for you."
The innkeeper, who had walked on ahead, stopped and turned around when he realized that his guests had not followed. "Are you coming?" he inquired.
"Yes, yes," Angus replied. "Just having a small discussion with my wife. It seems she is having a remarkable craving for haggis."
Margaret's mouth fell open, and it took several attempts at speech before she managed to say, "I don't like haggis."
Angus grinned. "I do."
"Och!" the innkeeper exclaimed with a broad smile. "Just like my wife. She ate haggis every day while she was expecting, and she gave me four fine boys."
"Brilliant," Angus said with a cocky smile. "I shall have to remember that. A man needs a son."
"Four," the innkeeper reminded him, his chest puffing out with pride. "I've got four."
Angus slapped Margaret on the back. "She'll give me five. Mark my words."
"Men," she spat out, stumbling from the force of his friendly pat. "A bunch of strutting roosters, the lot of you."
But the two men were too involved in their manly game of one-upmanship-Margaret fully expected them to start arguing about who could toss a caber farther any moment now-and clearly didn't hear her.
She stood there with her arms crossed for a full minute, trying not to listen to a thing they were saying, when Angus suddenly patted her on the back and said, "Haggis, then, for dinner, my love?"
"I'm going to kill you," she hissed. "And I'm going to do it slowly." Then Angus jabbed her in the ribs and glanced at the innkeeper. "I'd love some," she choked out. "My very favorite."
The innkeeper beamed. "A woman after my own heart. Nothing protects one from the spirits like a good haggis."
"The smell alone would scare off the devil," Margaret muttered.
Angus chuckled and gave her hand a squeeze.
"You must be a Scotswoman, then," the innkeeper said, "if you love the haggis."
"Actually," Margaret said primly, yanking her hand back. "I'm English."
"Pity." The innkeeper then turned to Angus and said, "But I suppose if you had to marry a Sassenach, at least you picked one with a taste for haggis."
"I refused to ask for her hand until she tasted it," Angus said solemnly. "And then I wouldn't go through with the ceremony until I was convinced that she liked it."
Margaret walloped him in the shoulder.
"And a temper, too!" the innkeeper chortled. "We'll make a good Scotswoman out of her yet."
"I'm hoping," Angus agreed, his accent suddenly growing stronger to Margaret's ear. "I'm thinking she ought to learn to throw a better punch, though."
"Didn't hurt, eh?" the innkeeper said with a knowing smile.
"Not a bit."
Margaret ground her teeth together. "Sir," she said as sweetly as she could muster, "could you please show me to my room? I'm a terrible mess, and I would so like to tidy myself before supper."
"Of course." The innkeeper resumed his trek up the stairs, Margaret right on his heels. Angus loitered a few steps behind, no doubt grinning at her expense.
"Here it is," the innkeeper said, opening the door to reveal a small but clean room with a washbasin, a chamber pot, and a single bed.
"Thank you, sir," she said with a polite nod. "I am most appreciative." Then she marched into the room and slammed the door.
Angus howled with laughter. He couldn't help himself.
"Och, you're in trouble now," the innkeeper said.
Angus's laughter settled down into a few choice chuckles. "What's your name, good sir?"
"McCallum. George McCallum."
"Well, George, I think you're right."
"Having a wife," George pontificated, "is a delicate balancing act."
"I never knew how much until this very day."
"Luckily for you," George said with a devious smile, "I still have the key."
Angus grinned and tossed another coin at him, then caught the key when George flipped it through the air. "You're a good man, George McCallum."
"Aye," George said as he walked off, "that's what I keep telling my wife."
Angus chuckled to himself and put the key in his pocket. He opened the door only a few inches, then called out, "Are you dressed?"
Her reply was a loud thump against the door. Probably her shoe.
"If you don't tell me otherwise, I'm coming in." He poked his head inside the room, then pulled it out just in time to avoid her other shoe, which came sailing at him with deadly aim.
He poked back in, ascertained that she had nothing else to throw at him, and then entered the room.
"Would you mind," she said with barely controlled fury, "telling me what the devil that was about?"
"Which bit of it?" he stalled.
She answered him with a glare. Angus thought she looked rather fetching with her cheeks all red with anger but wisely decided that now was not the time to compliment her on such things.
"I see," he said, unable to prevent the corners of his mouth from twitching with mirth. "Well, one would think it would be self-explanatory, but if I must explain-"
He shrugged. "You wouldn't have a roof over your head right now if George didn't think you were my wife."
"That's not true, and who is George?"
"The innkeeper, and yes, it most certainly is true. He wouldn't have given this room to an unmarried couple."
"Of course not," she snapped. "He would have given it to me and tossed you out on your ear."
Angus scratched his head thoughtfully. "I'm not so sure about that, Miss Pennypacker. After all, I'm the one with the money."
She glared at him so hard, her eyes so wide and angry, that Angus finally noticed what color they were. Green. A rather lovely, grassy shade of green.
"Ah," he said at her silence. "Then you agree with me."
"I have money," she muttered.
"Didn't you say you'd been robbed?"
"Yes," she said, so grudgingly that Angus thought it a wonder she didn't choke on the word, "but I still have a few coins."
"Enough for a hot meal? Hot water? A private dining room?"
"That's really not the point," she argued, "and the worst part of it is, you were acting as if you were having fun."
Angus grinned. "I was having fun."
"Why would you do this?" she said, shaking her hands at him. "We could have gone to another inn."
A loud clap of thunder shook the room. God, Angus decided, was on his side. "In this weather?" he asked. "Forgive me if I lack the inclination to venture back outside."
"Even if we had to masquerade as husband and wife," she conceded, "did you have to poke so much fun at my expense?"
His dark eyes grew tender. "I never meant to insult you. Surely you know that."
Margaret found her resolve weakening under his warm and concerned gaze. "You didn't have to tell the innkeeper that I was pregnant," she said, her cheeks growing furiously red as she uttered that last word.
He let out a sigh. "All I can do is apologize. My only explanation is that I was merely getting into the spirit of the ruse. I have spent the last two days riding the length of Scotland. I'm cold, wet, and hungry, and this little masquerade is the first amusing thing I've done in days. Forgive me if I over-enjoyed myself."
Margaret just stared at him, her hands fisted at her sides. She knew she ought to accept his apology, but the truth was, she needed a few more minutes to calm down.
Angus raised his hands in an overture of conciliation. "You may keep your stony silence all you want," he said with an amused smile, "but it won't wash. You, my dear Miss Pennypacker, are a better sport than you think you are."
The look she gave him was doubtful at best and sarcastic at worst. "Why, because I didn't strangle you right there in the hall?"
"Well, there's that, but I was actually referring to your unwillingness to hurt the innkeeper's feelings by disparaging his cooking."
"I did disparage his cooking," she pointed out.
"Yes, but you didn't do it loudly." He saw her open her mouth and held up his hand. "Ah, ah, ah, no more protests. You're determined to make me dislike you, but I'm afraid it won't work."
"You're insane," she breathed.
Angus peeled off his sodden coat. "That particular refrain is growing tedious."
"It's difficult to argue with the truth," she muttered. Then she looked up and saw what he was doing. "And don't remove your coat!"
"The alternative is death by pneumonia," he said mildly. "I suggest you remove yours as well."
"Only if you leave the room."
"And stand naked in the hall? I don't think so."
Margaret starting pacing and searching the room, opening the wardrobe and pulling out drawers. 'There has to be a dressing screen here somewhere. There has to be."
"You're not likely to find one in the bureau," he said helpfully.
She stood stock-still for several moments, desperately trying not to let go of her anger. All her life she'd had to be responsible, to set a good example, and temper tantrums were not acceptable behavior. But this time… She looked over her shoulder and saw him grinning at her. This time was different.
She slammed the drawer shut, which should have given her some measure of satisfaction had she not caught the tip of her middle finger. "Yoooooowwwww!" she howled, immediately stuffing her throbbing finger into her mouth.
"Are you all right?" Angus asked, moving quickly to her side.
She nodded. "Go away," she mumbled around her finger.
"Are you certain? You might have broken a bone."
"I didn't. Go away."
He took her hand and gently pulled her finger out of her mouth. "It looks fine," he said in a concerned voice, "but truly, I'm no expert on these matters."
"Why?" she moaned. "Why?"
"Why am I no expert?" he echoed, blinking in a rather confused manner. "I wasn't under the impression you thought I'd received medical training, but the truth is, I'm more of a farmer than anything else. A gentleman farmer, to be sure-"
"Why are you torturing me?" she yelled.
"Why, Miss Pennypacker, is that what you think I'm doing?"
She snatched her hand out of his grasp. "I swear to God above, I don't know why I am being punished in this way. I cannot imagine what sin I have committed to warrant such-"
"Margaret," he said loudly, halting her speech with his use of her given name, "perhaps you are making a wee bit too much out of this matter."
She stood there, barely moving, next to the bureau, for a full minute. Her breath was uneven, and she was swallowing more than normal, and then she started blinking.
"Oh, no," Angus said, closing his eyes in agony. "Don't cry."
– Sniff--"I'm not going to cry."
He opened his eyes. "Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce," he muttered. She certainly looked as if she were going to cry. He cleared his throat. "Are you certain?"
She nodded, once, but firmly. "I never cry."
He breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. "Good, because I never know what to do when-oh, blast, you're crying."
"No. I'm. Not." Each word came out like its own little sentence, punctuated by loud gasps for air.
"Stop," he begged, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. Nothing made him feel more like an incompetent, awkward clod than a woman's tears. Worse, he was fairly certain this woman hadn't cried in over a decade. And even worse, he was the cause.
"All I wanted to do-" she gasped. "All I wanted to do-"
"Was…?" he prompted, desperate to keep her talking- anything to keep her from crying.
"Stop my brother." She took a deep, shuddering sigh and flopped onto the bed. "I know what's best for him. I know that sounds condescending, but I really do. I've been caring for him since I was seventeen."
Angus crossed the room and sat down next to her, but not so close as to make her nervous. "Have you?" he asked softly. He'd known from the moment she'd kneed that man in the groin that she was no ordinary woman, but he was coming to realize that she was more than a stubborn temper and a quick wit. Margaret Pennypacker cared deeply, was loyal to a fault, and would lay down her own life for those she loved without even a second's hesitation.
The realization made him smile wryly-and at the same time terrified him to the core. Because in terms of loyalty, caring, and devotion to family, Margaret Pennypacker might have been a female version of himself. And Angus had never before met a woman who matched those standards he held for himself.
And now that he had-well, what was he to do with her?
She interrupted his thoughts with a very loud sniffle. "Are you listening to me?"
"Your brother," he prompted.
She nodded and took a deep breath. Then she suddenly looked up from her lap and turned her gaze on him. "I'm not going to cry."
He patted her shoulder. "Of course not."
"If he marries one of those awful girls, his life will be ruined forever."
"Are you certain?" Angus asked gently. Sisters had a way of thinking they knew best.
"One of them doesn't even know the entire alphabet!"
He made a sound that came out rather like "Eeee," and his head recoiled slightly in commiseration. "That is bad."
She nodded again, this time with more vigor. "Do you see? Do you see what I mean?"
"How old is your brother?"
"He's only eighteen."
Angus let out a whoosh of air. "You're right, then. He has no idea what he's doing. No boy of eighteen does. Come to think of it, no girl of eighteen does, either."
Margaret nodded her agreement. "Is that how old your sister is? What's her name? Anne?"
"Yes, on both counts."
"Why are you chasing after her? What did she do?"
"Ran off to London."
"By herself?" Margaret asked, clearly aghast with horror.
Angus looked over at her with a bemused expression. "Might I remind you that you ran off to Scotland by yourself?"
"Well, yes," she sputtered, "but it's entirely different. London is… London."
"As it happens, she's not entirely by herself. She stole my carriage and three of my best servants, one of whom is a former pugilist, which is the only reason I'm not terrified out of my skull right now."
"But what does she plan to do?"
"Throw herself upon the mercy of my great-aunt." He shrugged. "Anne wants a Season."
"And is there a reason she cannot have one?"
Angus's expression grew stern. "I told her she could have one next year. We have been renovating our home, and I'm far too busy to drop everything and head to London."
His hands went to his hips. "What do you mean, ah?"
She moved her hands in a gesture that was somehow self-deprecating and all-knowing, all at once. "Just that it seems to me that you are putting your needs before hers."
"I am doing no such thing! There is no reason she cannot wait a year. You, yourself, agreed that eighteen-year-olds know nothing."
"You're probably right," she concurred, "but it's different for men and for women."
His face moved a fraction of an inch closer to hers. "Would you care to explain how?"
"I suppose it's true that eighteen-year-old girls know nothing. But eighteen-year-old boys know less than nothing."
To her great surprise, Angus started to laugh, falling back upon the bed and shaking the mattress with his chuckles. "Oh, I should be insulted," he gasped, "but I fear you're right."
"I know I'm right!" she retorted, a smile sneaking across her face.
"Oh, dear Lord," he sighed. "What a night. What a sorry, miserable, wonderful night."
Margaret's head snapped up at his words. What did he mean by that? "Yes, I know," she said-just a touch hesitantly, since she wasn't quite sure what she was agreeing with. "It's a muck. What are we to do?"
"Join forces, I suppose, and look for both of our errant siblings at once. And as for tonight, I can sleep on the floor."
A tension that Margaret hadn't even realized she was carrying slid right out of her. "Thank you," she said with great feeling. "I appreciate your generosity."
He sat up. "And you, my dear Margaret, are going to have to enjoy the life of an actress. At least for a day."
An actress? Didn't they run about half-dressed and take lovers? Margaret caught her breath, feeling her cheeks-and a rather lot of other bits-grow warm. "What do you mean?" she asked, horrified by how breathy she sounded.
"Merely that if you want to eat tonight-and I'm fairly certain there will be more than haggis on the menu, so you may breathe easier in that respect-then you will have to pretend to be Lady Angus Greene."
"And," he added with a roll of his eyes, "you're going to have to pretend that the position is not quite so disagreeable. After all, we did manage to get you with child. We can't dislike each other so very much."
Margaret blushed. "If you don't stop talking about that infernal nonexistent baby, I swear I shall close the drawer on your fingers."
He clasped his hands behind his back and grinned. "I am quaking with terror."
She shot him an irritated look, then blinked. "Did you say Lady Greene?"
"Does it matter?" Angus quipped.
For a moment Angus just stared at her, disappointment spreading in his chest. His was a minor title- just a baronetcy with a small but lovely piece of land-but still women viewed him as a prize to be won. Marriage seemed to be some sort of contest to the ladies he knew. She who catches the title and money, wins.
Margaret placed her hand over her heart. "I place great stock in good manners."
Angus found his interest renewed. "Yes?"
"I shouldn't have called you Mr. Greene if you're truly Lord Greene."
"It's actually Sir Greene," he said, his lips twitching back into a smile, "but I can assure you that I am not offended."
"My mother must be turning over in her grave." She shook her head and sighed. "I've tried to teach Edward and Alicia-my sister-what my parents would have wanted. I've tried to live my life the same way. But sometimes I think I'm just not good enough."
"Don't say that," Angus said with great feeling. "If you're not good enough, then I have serious fears for my own soul."
Margaret offered him a wobbly smile. "You may have the ability to make me so furious that I can't even see straight, but I shouldn't worry about your soul, Angus Greene."
He leaned toward her, his black eyes dancing with humor, mischief, and just a touch of desire. "Are you trying to compliment me, Miss Pennypacker?"
Margaret caught her breath, her entire body growing oddly warm. He was so close, his lips mere inches away, and she had the sudden, bizarre thought that she might like to be a brazen woman for once in her life. If she just leaned forward, swayed toward him for only a second, would he take the initiative and kiss her? Would he sweep her into his arms, pull the pins from her hair, and make her feel as if she were the star of a Shakespearean sonnet?
She fell right off the bed.
Margaret yelped in surprise as she slid through the air. It wasn't a long slide; the floor practically jumped to meet her hip, which was (of course) already bruised from her ride in the farmer's cart. She was sitting there, somewhat stunned at her sudden change of position, when Angus's face appeared over the edge of the bed.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I, er, lost my balance," she muttered.
"I see," he said, so solemnly that she couldn't possibly believe him.
"I frequently lose my balance," she lied, trying to make the incident seem as unremarkable as possible. It wasn't every day she fell off a bed while swaying into a kiss with a complete stranger. "Don't you?"
"That's not possible."
"Well," he mused, scratching his chin, "I suppose that's not entirely true. There are times…"
Margaret's eyes fixed on his fingers as they stroked the stubbled skin of his jaw. Something about the movement transfixed her. She could see each little whisker, and with a horrified gasp she realized that her hand had already crossed half the distance between them.
Good Lord, she wanted to touch the man.
"Margaret?" he asked, his eyes amused. "Are you listening to me?"
She blinked. "Of course. I'm just-" Her mind flailed for something to say. "Well, it's obvious that I'm sitting on the floor."
"And this interferes with your auditory skills?"
"No! I-" She clamped her lips together in an irritated line. "What were you saying?"
"Are you certain you don't want to come back up on the bed so you can hear me better?"
"No, thank you. I'm perfectly comfortable, thank you."
He reached down, clamped one of his large hands around her arm, and hauled her up onto the bed. "I might have believed you if you'd left it at one 'thank you.' "
She grimaced. If she had a fatal flaw, it was trying too hard, protesting too much, arguing too loud. She never knew when to stop. Her siblings had told her so for years, and deep in her heart, she knew she could be the worst sort of pest when she was single-mindedly fixed on a goal.
She wasn't about to inflate his ego any further by agreeing with him, though, so instead she sniffed and said, "Is there anything distasteful about good manners? Most people appreciate a word of thanks every now and then."
He leaned forward, shocking her with his nearness. "Do you know how I know you weren't listening to me?"
She shook her head, her normally ready wit flying out the window-which was no inconsiderable feat, considering that the window was closed.
"You had asked me if I ever felt off-balance," he said, his voice dropping to a husky murmur, "and I said no, but then-" He lifted his powerful shoulders and let them fall in an oddly graceful shrug. "Then," he added, "I reconsidered."
"Be-because I told you that's not possible," she just barely managed to say.
"Well, yes," he mused, "but you see, sitting here with you, I had a sudden flash of memory."
He nodded slowly, and when he spoke, he drew each word out with mesmerizing intensity. "I can't speak for other men…"
She found herself caught in his hot gaze, and she could no more look away than she could stop breathing. Her skin tingled and her lips parted, and then she swallowed convulsively, suddenly certain that she'd been better off on the floor.
He touched one finger to the comer of his mouth, stroking his skin as he continued his lazy speech. "… but when I am overcome with desire, drunk on it-"
She shot off the bed like a Chinese firecracker. "Maybe," she said, her voice sounding strangely thick, "we should see about getting that supper."
"Right." Angus stood so suddenly that the bed rocked. "Sustenance is what we need." He grinned at her. "Don't you think?"
Margaret just stared at him, amazed by his shift in mien. He'd been attempting to seduce her-she was sure of it. Or if he wasn't, he was definitely trying to fluster her. He'd already as much as admitted that he enjoyed doing so.
And he'd succeeded. Her stomach was flipping about, her throat seemed to have grown three large lumps, and she kept having to grab hold of the furniture to keep her balance.
And yet here he was, completely composed-smiling, even! Either he hadn't been the least bit affected by their nearness, or the dratted man belonged on the Shakespearean stage.
"Food is good," she blurted out.
"I'm glad you agree with me," he said, looking utterly amused by her loss of composure. "But first you must take off that wet coat."
She shook her head, hugging her arms to her chest. "I don't have anything else."
He tossed a garment in her direction. "You can wear my spare."
"But then what will you wear?"
"I'll be fine in a shirt."
Impulsively, she reached out and touched his forearm, which was exposed by a rolled-up sleeve. "You're freezing. Is your other shirt made of linen? It won't be heavy enough." When he didn't reply, she added firmly, "You cannot give me your coat. I won't accept it."
Angus took one look down at her tiny hand on his arm and started imagining it traveling up to his shoulder, then across his chest…
He didn't feel cold.
"Sir Greene?" she asked softly. "Are you quite all right?"
He tore his eyes off her hand and then made the colossal mistake of looking at her eyes. Those grassy green orbs, which had, in the course of the evening, gazed upon him with fright, irritation, embarrassment, and, most recently, innocent desire, were now brimming with concern and compassion.
And it quite unmanned him.
Angus felt himself fill with an age-old male terror-as if somehow his body knew what his mind refused to consider-that she might be The One, that somehow, no matter how hard he fought, she'd be pestering him for all eternity.
And worse, that if she ever took it upon herself to stop pestering him, he might have to track her down and chain her to his side until she started up again.
Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce, it was a terrifying fate.
He tore off his shirt, furious with his reaction to her. It had started with just a hand on his arm, and the next thing he knew, he'd seen his entire life stretched out before him.
He finished dressing and stomped to the door. "I'll wait in the hall until you're ready," he said.
She was staring at him, her body trembling with tiny shivers.
"And take off all of those damned wet clothes," he ordered.
"I can't just wear your coat with nothing under it," she protested.
"You can and you will. I won't be responsible for your catching a lung fever."
He saw her shoulders straighten and her eyes fill with steel. "You can't order me about," she retorted.
He raised a brow. "You can take off your wet shirt, or I'll do it for you. It's your choice."
She grumbled something under her breath. Angus didn't quite hear all of the words, but the ones he did catch weren't terribly ladylike.
He smiled. "Someone ought to scold you for your language."
"Someone ought to scold you for your arrogance."
"You've been trying all night," he pointed out.
She made an unintelligible sound, and Angus just barely managed to duck out the door before she threw another shoe at him.
* * *
When Margaret stuck her head out the bedroom door, Angus was nowhere to be seen. This surprised her. She hadn't known the huge Scotsman for more than a few hours, but she was fairly certain he wasn't the sort to leave a gently bred lady to fend for herself in a public inn.
She shut the door behind her quietly, not wanting to draw attention to herself, and tiptoed down the hall. She was probably safe from unwanted attention here at The Canny Man- Angus had loudly proclaimed her his wife, after all, and only a fool would provoke a man of his size. But the trials of the day had left her cautious.
In retrospect, it had probably been a foolish endeavor to trek all the way to Gretna Green by herself, but what other choice did she have? She couldn't let Edward marry one of those awful girls he'd been courting.
She reached the stairwell and peered down.
Margaret jumped about a foot and let out a short, yet quite remarkably loud, scream.
Angus grinned. "Didn't mean to startle you."
"Yes, you did."
"Very well," he admitted. "I did. But you certainly had your revenge on my ears."
"It serves you right," she muttered. "Hiding in the stairwell."
"Actually," he said, offering her his arm, "I hadn't intended to hide. I would never have left the hall, except that I thought I heard my sister's voice."
"You did? Did you find her? Was it she?"
Angus raised a bushy black brow. "You sound rather excited about the prospect of finding someone you don't even know."
"I know you," she pointed out, dodging a lamp as they moved through The Canny Man's main room, "and much as you vex me, I would like to see you locate your sister."
His lips spread into an easy grin. "Why, Miss Pennypacker, I think you might have just admitted that you like me."
"I said," she said pointedly, "that you vex me."
"Well, of course. I do it on purpose."
That earned him a glare.
He leaned forward and chucked her chin. "Vexing you is the most fun I've had in ages."
"It isn't fun for me," she muttered.
"Of course it is," he said jovially, leading her into the small dining room. "I'll wager I'm the only person you know who dares to contradict you."
"You make me sound like a termagant."
He pulled out a chair for her. "Am I correct?"
"Yes," she mumbled, "but I'm not a termagant."
"Of course not." He sat down across from her. "But you are used to having your own way."
"So are you," she retorted.
"In fact," she said, leaning forward with a knowing gleam in her green eyes, "that's why your sister's disobedience is so galling. You cannot bear that she's gone against your wishes."
Angus squirmed in his chair. It was all fun and well when he was analyzing Margaret's personality, but this was unacceptable. "Anne has been going against my wishes since the day she was born."
"I didn't say she was meek and mild and did everything you say-"
"Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce," he said under his breath, "I would that were true…"
She ignored his odd expletive. "But Angus," she said animatedly, using her hands to punctuate her words, "has she ever before disobeyed you on such a grand scale? Done something that so completely disrupted your life?"
For a second, he didn't move; then he shook his head.
"See?" Margaret smiled, looking terribly pleased with herself. "That's why you're in such a dither."
His expression moved to the comical side of haughty. "Men do not dither."
Her expression moved to the ridiculous side of arch. "I beg your pardon, but I am looking at a dithering male as we speak."
They stared at each other across the table for several seconds, until Angus finally said, "If you raise your eyebrows any farther, I'm going to have to physically retrieve them from your hairline."
Margaret tried to respond in kind-he could see it in her eyes-but her humor got the best of her, and she burst out laughing.
Margaret Pennypacker consumed with laughter was a sight to behold, and Angus had never been so perfectly content to sit back and watch another person. Her mouth formed an enchanting, open-mouthed smile, and her eyes glowed with pure mirth. Her entire body shook, and she gasped for air, finally letting her brow drop down into one supporting hand.
"Oh, my goodness," she said, pushing aside a lock of gently curving brown hair. "Oh, my hair."
Angus smiled. "Does your coiffure always come undone when you laugh? Because I must say, it's a rather endearing quirk."
She reached up and self-consciously patted her hair. "It's mussed from the day, I'm sure. I didn't have time to re-pin it before we came down to supper and-"
"You don't need to reassure me. I have every confidence that on a normal day, every hair on your head is in place."
Margaret frowned. She had always prided herself on a neat and tidy appearance, but Angus's words-which were surely meant as a compliment-somehow made her feel like the veriest stodge.
She was saved from further contemplation on this issue, however, by the arrival of George, the innkeeper.
"Och, there you are!" he boomed, slapping down a large earthenware dish on their table. "All dried off, are you?"
"As best as can be expected," Angus replied, with one of those nods that men shared when they thought they were commiserating over something.
Margaret rolled her eyes.
"Weel, you're in for a treat," George said, "because my wife, she had some haggis made and ready to go for tomorrow. Had to boil it up, of course. Can't have a cold haggis."
Margaret didn't particularly think the hot haggis looked terribly appetizing, but she forbore to offer an opinion on the matter.
Angus wafted the aroma-or fumes, as Margaret was wont to call them-in his direction and took a ceremonial sniff. "Och, McCallum," he said, sounding more Scottish than he had all day, "if this tastes anything like it smells, your wife is a blooming genius."
"Of course she is," George replied, grabbing two plates off a side table and setting them in front of his guests. "She married me, didn't she?"
Angus laughed heartily and gave the innkeeper a convivial slap on the back. Margaret felt a retort welling up in her throat and coughed to keep it down.
"Just a moment," George said. "I need to get a proper knife."
Margaret watched him leave, then leaned across the table and hissed, "What is in this thing?"
"You don't know?" Angus asked, obviously enjoying her distress.
"I know it smells hideous."
"Tsk, tsk. Were you so gravely insulting my nation's cuisine earlier this evening without even knowing of what you speak?"
"Just tell me the ingredients," she ground out.
"Heart, minced with liver and lights," he replied, drawing the words out in all their gory detail. "Then add some good suet, onions, and oatmeal-stuffed into the stomach of a sheep."
"What," Margaret asked to the air around her, "have I done to deserve this?"
"Och," Angus said dismissively. "You'll love it. You English always love your organ meats."
"I don't. I never have."
He choked back a laugh. "Then you might be in a wee bit of trouble."
Margaret's eyes grew panicked. "I can't eat this."
"You don't want to insult George, do you?"
"You told me you placed great stock in good manners, didn't you?"
"Are you ready?" George asked, sweeping back into the room with blazing eyes. "Because I'll be giving you God's own haggis." With that, he whipped out a knife with such flair that Margaret was compelled to lurch back a good half a foot or risk having her nose permanently shortened.
George belted out a few bars from a rather pompous and overblown hymn-foreshadowing the actual meal, Margaret was sure-then, with a wide, proud swipe of his arm, sliced into the haggis, opening it for all the world to see.
"Oh, God," Margaret gasped, and never before had she uttered such a heartfelt prayer.
"Have you ever seen a thing so lovely?" George rhapsodized.
"I'll take half on my plate right now," Angus said.
Margaret smiled weakly, trying not to breathe.
"She'll take a small portion," Angus said for her. "Her appetite's not what it once was."
"Och, yes," George replied, "the babe. You'll be in your early months, then, eh?"
Margaret supposed that "early" could be construed to mean pre-pregnancy, so she nodded.
Angus lifted a brow in approval. Margaret scowled at him, irritated that he was so impressed that she had finally participated in this ridiculous lie.
"The smell might make you a bit queasy," George said, "but there's nothing for a babe like a good haggis, so you should at least try, as my great-aunt Millie calls it, a no-thank-you-portion."
"That would be lovely," Margaret managed to choke out.
"Here you are," George said, scooping her a healthy amount.
Margaret stared at the mass of food on her plate, trying not to retch. If this was no-thank-you, she shuddered to imagine yes-please. "Tell me," she said, as demurely as possible, "what did your Aunt Millie look like?"
"Och, a lovely woman. Strong as an ox. And as large as one, too."
Margaret's eyes fell back to her dinner. "Yes," she murmured, "I thought as much."
"Try it," George urged. "If you like it, I'll have my wife make hugga-muggie tomorrow."
"Same thing as haggis," Angus said helpfully, "but made with a fish stomach instead of sheep."
"Och, I'll tell her to stuff one up, then," George assured her.
Margaret watched in horror as the innkeeper pranced back to the kitchen. "We cannot eat here tomorrow," she hissed across the table. "I don't care if we have to change inns."
"So don't eat the hugga-muggie." Angus forked a huge bite into his mouth and chewed.
"And how am I supposed to avoid that, when you've been prattling on about what good manners it is to praise the innkeeper's food?"
Angus was still chewing, so he managed to avoid answering. Then he took a long swig of the ale that one of George's servants had slipped onto the table. "Aren't you even going to try it?" he asked, motioning to the untouched haggis on her plate.
She shook her head, her huge green eyes looking somewhat panicked.
"Try a bite," he urged, attacking his own portion with great relish.
"I can't. Angus, I tell you, it's the oddest thing, and I don't know how I know this, but if I eat one bite of this haggis, I will die."
He washed down the haggis with another sip of ale, looked up at her with all the seriousness he could muster, and asked, "You're sure of this?"
"Well, if that's the case…" He reached over, took her plate, and slid the entire contents onto his own. "Can't let a good haggis go to waste."
Margaret starting glancing around the room. "I wonder if he has any bread."
"If you think you can manage for ten more minutes without perishing, old George will most likely bring out some cheese and pudding."
The sigh Margaret let out was heartfelt in the extreme.
"You'll like our Scots desserts," Angus said. "Not an organ meat to be found."
But Margaret's eyes were strangely fixed on the window across the room.
Assuming she was merely glazing over from hunger, he said, "If we're lucky, they'll have cranachan. You'll never taste a finer pudding."
She made no reply, so he just shrugged and shoveled the rest of the haggis into his mouth. Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce, it tasted good. He hadn't realized how hungry he'd been, and there was truly nothing like a good haggis. Margaret had no idea what she was missing.
Speaking of Margaret… He looked back at her. She was now squinting at the window. Angus wondered if she needed spectacles.
"My mum made the sweetest cranachan this side of Loch Lomond," he said, figuring that one of them had to keep up the conversation. "Cream, oatmeal, sugar, rum. Makes my mouth water just-"
Margaret gasped. Angus dropped his fork. Something about the sound of her breath rushing through her lips made his blood run cold.
"Edward," she whispered. Then her countenance turned from surprise to something considerably blacker, and with a scowl that would have vanquished the dragon of Loch Ness, she shot to her feet and stormed out of the room.
Angus set down his fork and groaned. The sweet aroma of cranachan wafted in from the kitchen. Angus wanted to bang his head against the table in frustration.
Margaret? (He looked at the door through which she had just exited.)
Or cranachan? (He looked longingly at the door to the kitchen.)
"Damn," he muttered, rising to his feet. It was going to have to be Margaret.
And as he walked away from the cranachan, he had the sinking feeling that his choice had somehow sealed his fate.
The rain had subsided, but the damp night air was a slap in the face as Margaret dashed through the front door of The Canny Man. She looked wildly about, twisting her neck to the left and the right. She'd seen Edward through the window. She was sure of it.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a couple moving quickly across the street. Edward. The man's golden blond hair was a dead giveaway.
"Edward!" she called, scurrying in his direction. "Edward Pennypacker!"
He made no indication of having heard her, so she picked up her skirts and ran into the street, yelling his name as she closed the distance between them.
He turned around.
And she did not know him.
"I-I-I'm so sorry," she stuttered, stumbling back a step. "I mistook you for my brother."
The handsome blond man inclined his head graciously. "It's quite all right."
"It's a foggy night," Margaret explained, "and I was looking out the window…"
"There is no harm done, I assure you. But if you will excuse me"-the young man put his arm around the shoulder of the woman at his side and drew her near-"my wife and I must be on our way."
Margaret nodded and watched them disappear around the corner. They were newlyweds. From the way his voice had warmed over the word "wife," she knew it had to be so.
They were newlyweds, and like everyone else here at Gretna Green, they'd probably eloped, and their families were probably furious with them. But they looked so very happy, and Margaret suddenly felt unbearably tired, and forlorn, and old, and all those sad, lonely things she'd never thought she'd be.
"Did you have to leave right before the pudding?"
She blinked and turned around. Angus-how the devil did such a large man move so quietly?-was looming over her, arms akimbo, eyes glowering. Margaret didn't say anything. She didn't have the energy to say anything.
"I assume that wasn't your brother you saw."
She shook her head.
"Then for the love of God, woman, can we finish our meal?"
An unwilling smile danced across her lips. No recriminations, no "You stupid woman, why did you go running off into the night?" Just "Can we finish our meal?"
What a man.
"That would be a fine idea," she replied, taking his arm when he offered it. "And I might even taste the haggis. Just a taste, mind you. I'm sure I won't like it, but as you said, it's only polite to try."
He raised a brow, and something about his face, with those big, bushy eyebrows, dark eyes, and slightly crooked nose, made Margaret's heart skip two beats.
"Och," he granted, stepping toward the inn. "Will wonders never cease? Are you telling me that you were actually listening to me?"
"I listen to almost everything you say!"
"You're only offering to try the haggis because you know I ate your portion."
Margaret's blush gave her away.
"A-ha." His smile was positively wolfish. "Just for that, I'm going to make you eat hugga-muggie tomorrow."
"Can't I just try that cranopoly that you were talking about? The one with the cream and the sugar?"
"It's called cranachan, and if you endeavor not to nag me the entire way back to the inn, I might be inclined to ask Mr. McCallum to serve you some."
"Och, you're ever gracious," she said sarcastically.
Angus stopped in his tracks. "Did you just say 'och?'"
Margaret blinked in surprise. "I don't know. I might have done."
"Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce, you're beginning to sound like a Scotswoman."
"Why do you keep saying that?"
It was his turn to blink in surprise. "I'm quite certain I've never mistaken you for a Scot until this very moment."
"Don't be obtuse. I meant the bit about the son of God, heathen spirits, and your Scottish hero."
He shrugged and pushed open the door to The Canny Man. "It's my own little prayer."
"Somehow, I doubt your vicar would find that particularly sacrosanct."
"We call them ministers up here, and who the devil do you think taught it to me?"
Margaret nearly tripped over his foot as they reentered the small dining room. "You're joking."
"If you plan to spend any time in Scotland, you're going to have to learn that we're a more pragmatic people than ye of warmer climes."
"I've never heard 'warmer climes' used as an insult," Margaret muttered, "but I believe you've just managed it."
Angus pulled her chair out for her, seated himself, and then continued with his pontification. "Any man worth his salt quickly learns that in times of great need, he must turn to the things he can trust best, things he can depend upon."
Margaret stared at him with a mix of incredulity and disgust. "What on earth are you talking about?"
"When I feel the need to summon a higher power, I say, 'Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce.' It makes perfect sense."
"You're a stark, raving lunatic."
"If I were a less easygoing man," he said, signaling to the innkeeper to bring them some cheese, "I might take offense at that."
"You can't pray to Robert the Bruce," she persisted.
"Och, and why not? I'm sure he's more time to watch over me than Jesus. After all, Jesus has the whole bleeding world to look after, even Sassenachs like you."
"It's wrong," Margaret said firmly, her head shaking with her words. "It's just wrong."
Angus looked at her, scratched his temple, and said, "Have some cheese."
Margaret's eyes widened in surprise, but she took the cheese and put some in her mouth. "Tasty."
"I'd comment on the superiority of Scottish cheese, but I'm sure you'll already be feeling a wee bit insecure about your nation's cuisine."
"After the haggis?"
"There's a reason we Scots are bigger and stronger than the English."
She let out a ladylike snort. "You're insufferable."
Angus sat back, resting his head in his hands, with his arms bent out at the elbows. He looked like a well-sated man, a well-confident man, one who knew who he was and what he meant to do with his life.
Margaret couldn't take her eyes off of him.
"Perhaps," he allowed, "but everyone loves me so well."
She threw a piece of cheese at him.
He caught it and popped it into his mouth, grinning wolfishly as he chewed. "You do like to throw things, don't you?"
"Funny that I never felt the inclination to do so until I met you."
"And here everyone told me I brought out the best in them."
Margaret started to say something and then just sighed.
"What now?" Angus asked, clearly amused.
"I was about to insult you."
"Not that I'm surprised, but why did you think the better of it?"
She shrugged. "I don't even know you. And here we are, bickering like an old married couple. It's quite incomprehensible."
Angus eyed her thoughtfully. She looked tired and weary, and just a little bit baffled, as if she had finally slowed down enough for her brain to realize that she was in Scotland, dining with a stranger who had very nearly kissed her not an hour earlier.
The subject of his perusal broke into his thoughts with a persistent, "Don't you think?"
Angus smiled guilelessly. "Was I supposed to make a comment?"
That earned him a rather fierce scowl.
"Very well," he said, "here is what I think. I think that friendship blossoms most quickly under extreme circumstances. Given the events that have unfolded this evening and, indeed, the common purpose that unites us, it's not surprising that we are sitting here enjoying out meal as if we have known each other for years."
Angus briefly considered how splendid his life would be with the removal of the words, "yes" and "but" from the English language, then interrupted with, "Ask me anything."
She blinked several times before replying, "I beg your pardon?"
"You wanted to know more about me? Here is your chance. Ask me anything."
Margaret grew thoughtful. Twice she parted her lips, a question on the tip of her tongue, only to close them again. Finally she leaned forward and said, "Very well. Why are you so protective of women?"
Tiny white lines appeared around his mouth. It was a small reaction, and well controlled, but Margaret had been watching him closely. Her question had unnerved him.
His hand tightened around his mug of ale, and he said, "Any gentleman would come to a lady's aid."
Margaret shook her head, recalling the wild, almost feral look of him when he'd dispatched the men who'd attacked her. "There is more to it than that, and we both know it. Something happened to you." Her voice grew softer, more soothing. "Or perhaps to someone you love."
There was an achingly long silence, and then Angus said, "I had a cousin."
Margaret said nothing, unnerved by the flatness of his voice.
"She was older," he continued, staring at the swirling liquid in his mug of ale. "Seventeen to my nine. But we were very close."
"It sounds as if you were fortunate to have her in your life."
He nodded. "My parents were frequently in Edinburgh. They rarely took me with them."
"I'm sorry," Margaret murmured. She knew what it was like to miss one's parents.
"Don't be. I was never lonely. I had Catriona." He took a sip of his ale. "She took me fishing, she let me tag along on her errands, she taught me my multiplication tables when my tutors threw up their arms in despair." Angus looked up sharply; then a wistful smile crossed his face. "She wove them into songs. Funny how the only way I could remember that six by seven was forty-two was to sing it."
A lump formed in Margaret's throat because she knew this story did not have a happy ending. "What did she look like?" she whispered, not entirely certain why she wanted to know.
A nostalgic chuckle escaped Angus's lips. "Her eyes were much the same color as yours, maybe a touch bluer, and her hair was the richest red you've ever seen. She used to lament that it turned pink at sunset."
He fell silent, and finally Margaret had to voice the question that hung in the air. "What happened to her?"
"One day she didn't come to the house. She always came on Tuesdays. Other days I didn't know if she'd visit or not, but Tuesdays she always came to help me practice my numbers before my tutor arrived. I thought she must be ill, so I went to her house to bring her flowers." He looked up with an oddly regretful expression. "I think I must have been half in love with her. Who ever heard of a nine-year-old boy bringing his cousin flowers?"
"I think it's sweet," Margaret said gently.
"When I arrived, my aunt was in a panic. She wouldn't let me see her. Said I was right, that Catriona was ill. But I went around back and climbed through her window. She was lying in her bed, curled up in the tightest ball you've ever seen. I've never seen anything so-" His voice broke. "I dropped the flowers."
Angus cleared his throat, then took a sip of ale. Margaret noticed that his hands were shaking. "I called her name," he said, "but she didn't respond. I called it again and reached out to touch her, but she flinched and pulled away. And then her eyes cleared, and for a moment she looked like the girl I knew so well, and she said, 'Grow strong, Angus. Grow strong for me.' "
"Two days later, she was dead." He looked up, his eyes bleak. "By her own hand."
"Oh, no…" Margaret heard herself say.
"No one told me why," Angus continued. "I suppose they thought me too young for the truth. I knew she'd killed herself, of course. Everyone knew-the church refused to bury her in consecrated ground. It was only years later that I heard the whole story."
Margaret reached across the table and took his hand. She gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Angus looked up, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded brisker, more… normal. "I don't know how much you know of Scottish politics, but we've a good many British soldiers roaming our land. We're told they're here to keep the peace."
Margaret felt something queasy growing in the pit of her stomach. "Did one of them… was she…?"
He nodded curtly. "All she did was walk from her house to the village. That was her only crime."
"I'm so sorry, Angus."
"It was a path she'd traveled all her life. Except this time, someone saw her, decided he wanted her, and took her."
"Oh, Angus. You do know that this wasn't your fault, don't you?"
He nodded again. "I was nine. What could I have done? And I didn't even learn the truth until I'd reached seventeen-the same age Catriona was when she died. But I promised myself-" His eyes burned dark and fierce. "I promised God that I'd not let another woman be hurt the same way."
He smiled lopsidedly. "And so I've found myself the subject of more brawls than I'd care to remember. And I've fought several strangers I'd rather forget. And I don't receive many thanks for my intervention, but I think that she-" His eyes flitted heavenward. "I think that she thanks me."
"Oh, Angus," Margaret said, her heart in her voice, "I know she does. And I know I do." She realized she was still holding his hand, and she squeezed it again. "I don't believe I've thanked you properly, but I do appreciate what you did for me this evening. If you hadn't come along, I- I don't even want to think about what I'd be feeling right now."
He shrugged uncomfortably. "It was nothing. You can thank Catriona."
Margaret gave his hand one last squeeze before she pulled hers back to her own side of the table. "I'll thank Catriona for being such a good friend to you when you were small, but I'll thank you for saving me this eve."
He pushed some food about on his plate and grunted, "I was happy to do it."
She laughed at his less-than-gracious reply. "You aren't used to being thanked, are you? But enough of that; I believe I owe you a question."
He looked up. "I beg your pardon?"
"I got to ask you anything. It's only fair I return the favor."
He waved his hand dismissively. "You don't have to-"
"No, I insist. It wouldn't be sporting of me, otherwise."
"Very well." He thought for a moment. "Are you upset that your younger sister is getting married before you?"
Margaret let out a little cough of surprise. "I… how did you know she is getting married?"
"Earlier this evening," Angus replied, "you mentioned it."
She cleared her throat again. "So I did. I… well… you must know that I love my sister dearly."
"Your devotion to your family is clear in everything you do," Angus said quietly.
She picked up her napkin and twisted it. "I'm thrilled for Alicia. I wish her every happiness in the world."
Angus watched her closely. She wasn't lying, but neither was she telling the truth. "I know you're happy for your sister," he said softly. "You don't have it in you to feel anything else for her. But what do you feel for yourself?"
"I feel… I feel…" She let out a long, tired breath. "No one has ever asked me this before."
"Maybe it's time."
Margaret nodded. "I feel left behind. I spent so much time raising her. I've devoted my life to this moment, to this end, and somewhere along the way, I forgot about myself. And now it's too late."
Angus raised a dark brow. "You're hardly a toothless crone."
"I know, but to the men in Lancashire, I am firmly on the shelf. When they start thinking of potential brides, they don't think of me."
'Then they're stupid, and you shouldn't want anything to do with them."
She smiled sadly. "You are sweet, Angus Greene, no matter how hard you try to hide it. But the truth is, people see what they expect to see, and I've spent so much time chaperoning Alicia that I have been cast in an authoritative role. I sit with the mothers at country dances, and that, I fear, is where I'll stay."
She sighed. "Is it possible to be so happy for one person and at the same time be so sad for oneself?"
"Only the most generous in spirit can manage it. The rest of us don't know how to be happy for another when our own dreams have gone astray."
A single tear pricked Margaret's eye. "Thank you," she said.
"You're a fine woman, Margaret Pennypacker, and-"
"Pennypacker?" The innkeeper came scurrying over. "Did you just call her Margaret Pennypacker?"
Margaret felt her throat close up. She knew she'd get caught in this bloody lie. She'd never been good at fabrication, or even at playacting, for that matter…
But Angus just looked George calmly in the eye and said, "It's her maiden name. I use it as an endearment from time to time."
"Well, then, you must be recently married, because there's a messenger traveling from inn to inn, asking after her."
Margaret sat up very straight. "Is he still here? Do you know where he went?"
"He said he was going to try The Mad Rabbit." George jerked his head to the right before turning to walk away. "It's just down the street."
Margaret stood so quickly that she overturned her chair. "Let's go," she said to Angus. "We have to catch up with him. If he checks all the inns and doesn't find me, he might leave the village. And then I'll never get the message, and-"
Angus laid a heavy, comforting hand on her arm. "Who knows you're here?"
"Just my family," she whispered. "Oh, no, what if something dreadful has happened to one of them? I will never forgive myself. Angus, you don't understand. I'm responsible for them, and I could never forgive myself if-"
He squeezed her arm, and somehow the motion helped to settle her racing heart. "Why don't we see what this messenger has to say before we panic?"
Margaret couldn't believe how reassured she was by his use of the word "we." She nodded hurriedly. "Right. Let's be off, then."
He shook his head. "I want you to remain here."
"No. I couldn't possibly. I-"
"Margaret, you're a woman traveling alone, and-" He saw her open her mouth to protest and continued with, "No, don't tell me how capable you are. I've never met a more capable woman in my life, but that doesn't mean that men aren't going to try to take advantage of you. Who knows if this messenger really is a messenger?"
"But if he is a messenger, then he won't release the message into your hands. It's addressed to me."
Angus shrugged. "I'll bring him back here, then."
"No, I can't. I can't bear to feel useless. If I stay here-"
"It would make me feel better," he interrupted.
Margaret swallowed convulsively, trying not to pay attention to the warm concern in his voice. Why did the dratted man have to be so bloody nice? And why did she even care if her actions could make him "feel better"?
But she did, bugger her eyes.
"All right," she said slowly. "But if you don't return in five minutes, I'm coming after you."
He sighed. "Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce, do you think you might be able to grant me ten?"
Her lips wobbled into a smile. "Ten, then."
He pointed at her mouth with the jauntiest of fingers. "Caught you grinning. You can't be that angry with me."
"Just get me that message, and I'll love you forever."
"Och, good." He saluted her and walked out the door, pausing only to say, "Don't let George give my cranachan to anyone else."
Margaret blinked, then gasped. Good Lord, had she just told him she'd love him forever?
Angus reentered The Canny Man eight minutes later, message in hand. It hadn't been that difficult to convince the messenger to relinquish the envelope; Angus had merely said-with a certain level of firmness-that he was serving as Miss Pennypacker's protector, and he would see to it that she received the message.
It also didn't hurt that Angus towered over six feet by a good four inches-which gave him nearly a foot over the messenger.
Margaret was sitting where he had left her, tapping her fingers against the table and ignoring the two big bowls of cranachan that George must have set before her.
"Here you are, my lady," he said jovially, handing her the missive.
She must have been in a daze, because she jerked to attention and gave her head a little shake before taking it.
The message was indeed from her family. Angus had managed to obtain that information from the messenger. He wasn't worried about there being an emergency; the messenger-when asked, once again firmly-had told him the message was very important but that the woman who had given it to him hadn't seemed overly panicked.
He watched Margaret carefully as her shaking hands broke the seal. Her green eyes scanned the lines quickly, and when she reached the end, she blinked several times in rapid succession. A strangled, choking sort of sound emerged from her throat, followed by a gasp of "I can't believe he did this."
Angus decided he'd better tread carefully. From her reaction, he couldn't tell whether she was about to start screaming or crying. Men and horses were easy to predict, but God alone understood the workings of the female mind.
He said her name, and she thrust two sheets of paper toward him in reply.
"I'm going to kill him," she bit out. "If he isn't dead yet, I'm going to bloody well kill him."
Angus looked down at the papers in his hand.
"Read the bottom one first," Margaret said bitterly.
He switched the sheets and began to read.
Rutherford House Pendle, Lancashire
My dearest sister-
This note was delivered to us by Hugo Thrumpton. He said he was under strict orders not to bring it by until you had been departed a full day.
Please do not hate Edward.
yr. loving sister, Alicia Pennypacker
Angus looked up with questioning eyes. "Who is Hugo Thrumpton?"
"My brother's best friend."
"Ah." He pulled out the second letter, which was written in a decidedly more masculine hand.
nr. Clitheroe, Lancashire
My dear Margaret-
It is with a heavy heart that I write these words. By now you have received my note advising you of my flight to Gretna Green. If you react as I know you will, you will be in Scotland as you read this.
But I am not in Scotland, and I never had any intention of eloping. Rather, I leave tomorrow for Liverpool to join the Royal Navy. I shall use my portion to purchase my commission.
I know you never wanted this life for me, but I am a man now, and as a man I must choose my own fortune.
I have always known that I must be destined for the military life; ever since I played with my pewter soldiers as a young boy have I longed to serve my country.
I pray you will forgive my duplicity, but I knew that you would come after me to Liverpool if you were aware of my true intentions. Such a farewell would pain me for the rest of my days.
It is better this way.
yr. loving brother, Edward Pennypacker
Angus looked up into Margaret's eyes, which were suspiciously bright. "Did you have any idea?" he asked quietly.
"None," she said, her voice quavering on the word. "Do you think I would have undertaken this mad journey if I'd dreamed he'd gone to Liverpool?"
"What do you plan to do next?"
"Return home, I imagine. What else can I do? He's probably halfway to America by now."
She was exaggerating, but Angus figured she'd earned that right. There wasn't a lot one could say in such a situation, though, so he leaned over and pushed her bowl of pudding a little closer to her. "Have some cranachan."
Margaret looked down at her food. "You want me to eat?"
"I can't think of anything better to do. You didn't touch your haggis."
She picked up her spoon. "Am I a terrible sister? Am I such a terrible person?"
"Of course not."
"What kind of person am I that he would feel the need to send me all the way to Gretna Green just so he could make a clean escape?"
"A well-loved sister, I imagine," Angus replied, spooning some cranachan into his mouth. "Damn, this is good. You should try some."
Margaret dipped her spoon, but she didn't raise it to her mouth. "What do you mean?"
"Obviously he loves you too well to endure a painful farewell. And it sounds as if you would have put up quite a fight to his joining the navy had you known his true intentions."
Margaret had been about to retort, "Of course I would!" but instead she just sighed. What was the use defending her position or explaining her feelings? What was done was done, and there was nothing she could do about it.
She sighed again, louder, and lifted her spoon. If there was one thing she hated, it was situations about which she could do nothing.
"Are you going to eat that pudding, or is this some sort of experiment in the science of spoon-balancing?"
Margaret blinked her way out of her daze, but before she could reply, George McCallum appeared at their table.
"We'll be needing to clean up for the night," he said. "I don't mean to toss you out, but my wife is insisting." He grinned at Angus. "You know how it is."
Angus motioned to Margaret. "She hasn't finished her cranachan."
"Take the bowl up to your room. Pity to waste the food."
Angus nodded and stood. "Good idea. Are you ready, my sweet?"
Margaret's spoon slipped out of her hand, landing in her bowl of cranachan with a dull splat. Had he just called her his sweet? "I… I… I…"
"She loves me so much," Angus said to George, "sometimes she loses her power of speech."
While Margaret was gaping at him, he lifted his powerful shoulders in a huge, satisfied shrug, and said, "What can I say? I overwhelm her."
George chuckled while Margaret sputtered. "You'd best watch your back," the innkeeper advised Angus, "or you'll be finding yourself washing your hair with my wife's best cranachan."
"A fine idea," Margaret bit out.
Angus laughed as he stood and held out his hand to her. Somehow he'd known that the best way to distract her from her sorrows was to raise her hackles with another joke about her being his devoted wife. If he'd mentioned the baby, she would probably forget her brother altogether.
He started to open his mouth, then caught sight of the furious gleam in her eyes and thought the better of it. A man had to think of his own safety, after all, and Margaret looked ready to do some serious physical harm-or at least fling a bowl of cranachan at him.
Still, he'd gladly take the pudding shot if it meant she could stop thinking about her brother, even for a few moments. "Come along, darling," he said smoothly, "we need to let this good man close up for the night."
Margaret nodded and stood, her lips still clamped tightly together. Angus had a feeling she didn't trust herself to speak.
"Don't forget your cranachan," he said, motioning to the bowl on the table while he picked up his own.
"You might be wanting to carry hers, too," George chortled. "I dinna trust that look in her eye."
Angus took his advice and scooped up the other bowl. "An excellent idea, my good man. My wife will have to walk without the benefit of my arm, but I think she'll manage, don't you?"
"Och, yes. That one doesn't need a man to tell her where to go." George elbowed Margaret in the arm and smiled con-spiratorially. "But it's nice nonetheless, eh?"
Angus nudged Margaret out of the room before she killed the innkeeper.
"Why must you persist in teasing me like that?" she growled.
Angus turned the comer and waited for her to start up the stairs before following. "It took your mind off your brother, didn't it?"
"I…" Her lips parted in stunned amazement, and she stared at him as if she'd never before seen another human being. "Yes, it did."
He smiled and handed her one of the bowls of pudding while he fished in his pocket for the key to their room. "Surprised?"
"That you would do such a thing for me?" She shook her head. "No."
Angus turned slowly around, the key still sitting in the lock. "I meant, were you surprised you'd forgotten about your brother, but I think I like your answer better."
Margaret smiled wistfully and touched her hand to his arm. "You're a good man, Sir Angus Greene. Insufferable at times…" She almost grinned at his mock scowl. "Well, insufferable most of the time, if one wants to put a fine point on it, but still a good man."
He pushed the door open, then set his bowl of cranachan on a table inside the room. "Should I not have mentioned your brother just now? Perhaps I should have left you spitting mad and ready to slit my throat?"
"No." She let out a long, tired exhale and sat on the bed, another lock of her long brown hair spilling from her coiffure onto her shoulder. Angus watched her with an aching heart. She looked so small and defenseless, and so damned melancholy. He couldn't bear it.
"Margaret," he said, sitting beside her, "you have done your best to raise your brother for what, how many years?"
"Now it's time to let him grow up and make his own decisions, right or wrong."
"You yourself said no boy of eighteen knows his own mind."
Angus swallowed a groan. There was nothing more detestable than being haunted by one's own words. "I shouldn't want to see him marry at such an age. Good God, if he made a bad choice he'd have to live with it-her!-for rest of his life."
"And if he made a bad choice by entering the military, how long a life will he have to regret it?" Margaret raised her face to his, and her eyes looked unbearably huge in her face. "He could die, Angus. I don't care what people say, there is always a war. Somewhere, some stupid man will feel the need to fight with some other stupid man, and they're going to send my brother to settle it."
"Margaret, any one of us could die tomorrow. I could walk out of this inn and be trampled by a mad cow. You could walk out of this inn and be struck by lightning. We can't live our lives in fear of that moment."
"Yes, but we can try to minimize our risks."
Angus lifted his hand to rake it through his crisp hair; it was an action he often repeated when he was tired or exasperated. But somehow his hand moved slightly to the left, and he felt himself touch Margaret's hair instead. It was fine, and straight, and silky smooth, and there seemed to be a lot more of it than he'd originally thought. It slid from its pins and cascaded over his hand, between his fingers.
And as he savored the feel of it, neither of them breathed.
Their eyes locked, green against the darkest, hottest black. Not a word was spoken, but as Angus leaned forward, slowly closing the distance between them, they both knew what was going to happen.
He was going to kiss her.
And she wasn't going to stop him.
His lips brushed against hers slowly, in the barest of touches. If he'd crushed her against him or ground his mouth onto hers, she might have pulled away, but this feather-light caress captured her soul.
Her skin prickled with awareness, and she suddenly felt… different, as if this body she'd possessed for twenty-four years were no longer her own. Her skin felt too tight, and her heart felt too hungry, and her hands… oh, how her hands ached for the touch of his skin.
He'd be warm, she knew, and sculpted. His were not the muscles of a sedentary man. He could crush her with one blow of his fist… and somehow that knowledge was thrilling… probably because he was holding her now with such gentle reverence.
She pulled away for a moment, so that she could see his eyes. They burned with a need that was unfamiliar, and yet she knew exactly what he wanted.
"Angus," she whispered, lifting her hand to rub the rough skin of his cheek. His dark beard was coming in, thick and coarse and entirely unlike her brother's whiskers on the few occasions she'd seen him unshaven.
He covered her hand with his, then turned his face into her palm, pressing a kiss against her skin. She watched his eyes over the tips of her fingers. They never left hers, and they were asking a silent question, and waiting for her answer.
"How did this happen?" she whispered. "I've never… I never even wanted-"
"But you do now," he whispered. "You want me now."
She nodded, shocked by her admission, yet unable to lie to him. There was something about the way he was looking at her, the way his eyes swept over her as if he could see all the way to the very center of her heart. The moment was ter-rifyingly perfect, and she knew that lies had no place between them. Not in that room, not on that night.
She moistened her lips. "I can't…"
Angus touched his finger to her mouth. "Can't you?"
That brought forth a wobbly smile. His teasing tone melted her resistance, and she felt herself swaying toward him, leaning into his strength. More than anything, she wanted to throw aside all of her principles, every last ideal and moral to which she'd held true. She could forget who she was, and what she'd always held dear, and lie with this man. She could stop being Margaret Pennypacker, sister and guardian of Edward and Alicia Pennypacker, daughter of the departed Edmund and Katherine Pennypacker. She could stop being the woman who brought food to the poor, attended church every Sunday, and planted her garden every spring in neat and tidy rows.
She could stop being all of that, and finally be a woman.
It was so tempting.
Angus smoothed one of his callused fingers across her furrowed brow. "You look so serious," he murmured, leaning forward to brush his lips to her forehead. "I want to kiss away these lines, brush away these worries."
"Angus," she said quickly, letting her words tumble out before she lost her ability to reason, "there are things I can't do. Things I want to do, or I think I want to do. I'm not sure, because I've never done, but I can't- Why are you smiling?"
He knew he was, the bounder.
He shrugged helplessly. "It's only that I've never seen anyone quite so becomingly befuddled as you, Margaret Pennypacker."
She opened her mouth to protest, since she wasn't sure if his words were complimentary, but he placed his finger over her lips.
"Ah, ah, ah," he said. "Hush now, and listen to me. I'm going to kiss you, and that's all."
Her heart soared and fell in a single moment. "Just a kiss?"
"Between us, it will never be just a kiss."
His words sent a shiver through her veins, and she lifted her head, offering her lips to him.
Angus drew in a hoarse breath, staring at her mouth as if it held all the temptations of hell-and all the bliss of heaven. He kissed her again, but this time he held nothing back. His lips took hers in a hungry, possessive dance of desire and need.
She gasped, and he savored her breath, inhaling its warm, sweet essence, as if that might somehow enable her to touch him from the inside out.
He knew he ought to go slowly with her, and much as his body was crying with need, he knew that he would end this night unfulfilled, but he could not deny himself the pleasure of feeling her small body beneath his, and so he lowered her down onto the bed, never once taking his mouth off hers.
If he was just going to kiss her, if that was all he could do, then he was damned if this kiss didn't last the whole night through.
"Oh, Margaret," he moaned, letting his hands roam down the side of her, past her waist, over her hip, until he cupped the smoothly rounded curve of her buttocks. "My sweet Mar-"
He broke off and lifted his head, flashing her a boyishly lopsided grin. "Can I call you Meggie? Margaret's a bloody mouthful."
She stared up at him, breathing hard, unable to speak.
"Margaret," he continued, trailing his fingers along the edge of her cheek, "is just the sort of woman a man wants by his side. But Meggie… now, that's a woman a man wants underneath."
It took her an eighth of a second to say, "You can call me Meggie."
His lips found her ear, as his arms snaked around her. "Welcome to my embrace, Meggie."
She sighed, and the movement sank her deeper into the mattress, and she gave herself up to the moment, to the flickering candle and the sweet scent of the cranachan, and to the strong and powerful man who was covering her body with his.
His lips moved to her neck, whispering along the lines that led down to the crook of her shoulder. He kissed the skin there, so pale against the black wool of his coat. He didn't know how he'd ever wear that garment again, now that it had spent an entire evening brushing against her bare skin. It would smell like her for days, and then, after the scent drifted away, the memory of this moment would still be enough to set his body on fire.
His nimble fingers undid just enough buttons to reveal the barest hint of her cleavage. It was nothing more than a shadow, really, a vague darkening that hinted at the wonders below, but even that was enough to send fire through his veins, tightening a body that he had thought couldn't possibly get any harder.
Two more buttons found their way free, and Angus trailed his mouth down along each new inch of bared skin, whispering the whole time, "It's still a kiss. Just a kiss."
"Just a kiss," Margaret echoed, her voice strange and breathy.
"Just a kiss," he agreed, slipping yet another button through its loophole so that he could fully kiss the deep hollow between her breasts. "I'm still kissing you."
"Yes," she moaned. "Oh, yes. Keep kissing me."
He spread open his coat, baring her small, yet gently rounded breasts. He sucked in his breath. "Good Christ, Meggie, this coat never looked half so good on me."
Margaret stiffened slightly under the intense heat of his gaze. He was staring at her as if she were some strange and wondrous creature, as if she possessed something he'd never seen before. If he touched her, caressed her, or even kissed her, she could melt right back into his embrace and lose herself in the passion of the moment. But with him just staring at her-she was made uncomfortably aware that she was doing something she'd never even dreamed of doing.
She'd known this man only a few short hours, and yet-
Her breath catching, she reached up to cover herself. "What have I done?" she whispered.
Angus leaned down and kissed her forehead. "No regrets, my sweet Meggie. Whatever you feel, don't let regret be a part of it."
Meggie. Meggie didn't adhere to the strictures of society simply because that was the way she was raised. Meggie sought her own fortune and her own pleasure.
Margaret's lips hinted at a smile as she let her hands fall away. Meggie might not lie with a man before marriage, but she would certainly allow herself this moment of passion.
"You're so beautiful," Angus growled, and the last syllable was lost as his mouth closed around the peak of her breast. He made love to her with his lips, worshipping her in every way a man could show his devotion.
And then, just as Margaret felt her last shreds of resistance slipping away, he took a shuddering, deep breath and, with obvious reluctance, closed the folds of his coat around her.
He held the lapels together for a full minute, breathing hard as his eyes fixed on some blank spot on the wall. His face looked almost haggard, and to Margaret's untrained eye, he looked almost as if he were in pain.
"Angus?" she asked hesitantly. She wasn't certain what she was supposed to ask him, so she settled for just his name.
"In a minute." His voice was a touch harsh, but somehow Margaret knew that he bore her no anger. She held silent, waiting until he turned his head back toward her and said, "I need to leave the room."
Her lips parted in surprise. "You do?"
He nodded curtly and tore himself away from her, crossing the distance to the door in two long strokes. He grabbed the doorknob, and Margaret saw the muscles in his forearm flex, but before he pulled the door open, he turned around, his lips starting to form words…… that quickly died on his lips.
Margaret followed his gaze back to herself… Good God above, the coat had fallen open when he'd let go of it. She snatched the lapels together, thankful that the dim candlelight hid her mortified blush.
"Lock the door behind me," he instructed.
"Yes, of course," she said, rising to her feet. "Here, you do it, and then take the key." She fumbled toward the table with her left hand, clutching the coat together with her right.
He shook his head. "Keep it."
She took a few steps toward him. "Keep the- Are you mad? How will you get back in?"
"I won't. That's the point."
Margaret's mouth opened and closed a few times before she managed to say, "Where will you sleep?"
He leaned toward her, his nearness heating the air. "I won't sleep. That's the problem."
"Oh. I…" She wasn't such an innocent that she didn't recognize what he was talking about, but she certainly wasn't experienced enough to know how to respond. "I-"
"Has it started to rain again?" he asked curtly.
Margaret blinked at the rapid change of subject. She cocked her head, listening for the gentle patter of rain against the roof. "I… yes, I believe it has."
"Good. It had better be cold."
And with that, he stalked out of the room.
After a second of paralyzing surprise, Margaret ran to the door and poked her head into the hall, just in time to see Angus's large form disappear around the corner. She hung onto the doorframe for a full ten seconds, half in and half out of the room, not precisely certain why she felt so completely stunned. Was it the fact that he'd left so abruptly? Or that she'd allowed him liberties she'd never dreamed of allowing any man who wasn't her husband?
If truth had to be told, she'd never even dreamed that such liberties existed.
Or maybe, she thought wildly, maybe what really stunned her was that she'd lain on the bed, looking up at him as he'd stormed across the room, and he'd been so completely… well, delicious to watch that she hadn't even realized that the coat had fallen open and her breasts were peeking out for all the world to see.
Or at least for Angus to see, and the way he looked at her…
Margaret gave herself a little shake and shut the door. After a moment's pause, she locked it as well. Not that she worried about Angus. He might be in a bear of a mood, but he'd never lift a finger against her, and, more importantly, he'd never take advantage of her.
She didn't know how she knew this. She just did.
But one never knew what manner of cutthroats and idiots one might find in a country inn, especially in Gretna Green, which she imagined saw more than its fair share of idiots, what with everyone eloping here all the time.
Margaret sighed and tapped her foot. What to do, what to do. Her stomach let out a loud and vigorous rumble, and it was then that she remembered the cranachan sitting on the table.
Why not? It smelled delicious.
She sat down and ate.
* * *
When Angus stumbled back into The Canny Man several hours later, he was cold, wet, and feeling like he ought to be drunk. The rain, of course, had resumed, as had the wind, and his fingers resembled nothing so much as thick icicles attached to the flat snowballs that had used to be his hands.
His feet didn't feel quite his own, and it took him several attempts and many stubbed toes before he made it up the steps to the top floor of the inn. He leaned against the door to his room as he fumbled for the key, then remembered he hadn't brought a key, then turned the doorknob, then let out an irritated grunt when the door didn't budge.
Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce, why the hell had he told her to lock the door? Had he truly been that worried about his self-control? There was no way he could ravish her in this state. His nether regions were so cold, he probably couldn't muster up a reaction if she opened the door without a stitch of clothing on her body.
His muscles made a pathetic attempt at tightening. All right, maybe if she were completely naked…
Angus sighed happily, trying to picture it.
The doorknob turned. He was still sighing.
The door swung open. He fell in.
He looked up. Margaret was blinking rapidly as she regarded him. "Were you leaning against the door?" she asked.
"You did tell me to lock it."
"Yer a good woman, Margaret Pennypacker. Dutiful 'n' loyal."
Margaret narrowed her eyes. "Are you drunk?"
He shook his head, which had the unfortunate effect of banging his cheekbone against the floor. "Just cold."
"Have you been outside this entire-" She leaned down and touched her hand to his cheek. "Good God, you're freezing!"
He shrugged. "Started to rain again."
She jammed her hands under his arms and tried to heave him to his feet. "Get up. Get up. We have to get you out of these clothes."
His head lolled to the side as he shot her a disarmingly lopsided grin. "At another time-at another temperature- I'd delight in those words."
Margaret tugged at him again and groaned. She hadn't managed to budge him an inch. "Angus, please. You must make an effort to stand. You must be double my weight."
His eyes wandered up and down her frame. "What are you, seven stone?"
"Hardly," she scoffed. "Do I look that insubstantial? Now, please, if you can just get your feet flat on the floor, I can get you to bed."
He sighed. "Another one of those sentences I'd dearly like to misinterpret."
He wobbled into an upright position, with not-inconsiderable aid from Margaret. "Why is it," he mused, "that I so enjoy being scolded by you?"
"Probably," she retorted, "because you so enjoy vexing me."
He scratched his chin, which was now quite darkened by a day's growth of beard. "Think you might be right."
Margaret ignored him, trying instead to concentrate on the task at hand. If she dumped him onto the bed as he was, he'd soak through the sheets in a matter of minutes. "Angus," she said, "you need to put on some dry clothing. I'll wait outside while you-"
He shook his head. "Don't have any more dry clothes."
"What happened to them?"
"You're"-he jabbed her shoulder with his forefinger- "wearing them."
Margaret uttered a very unladylike word.
"You know, you're right," he said, sounding as if he'd just made a very important discovery. "I do enjoy vexing you."
"Ah, very well. I shall be serious." He made a great show of forcing his features into a frown. "What is it you need?"
"I need you to take off your clothing and get into bed."
His face lit up. "Right now?"
"Of course not," she snapped. "I'll leave the room for a moment, and when I return, I expect you in that bed, with the covers pulled up to your chin."
"Where will you sleep?"
"I won't. I'm going to dry your clothes."
He twisted his neck this way and neck. "At what fireplace?"
"I'll go downstairs."
He straightened to the point where Margaret no longer had to support him. "You are not going down there by yourself in the middle of the night."
"I can't very well dry your clothing over a candle."
"I'll go with you."
"Angus, you'll be naked."
Whatever he'd been about to say-and Margaret was certain, from the indignant thrust of his chin and the fact that he had his mouth open and ready to contradict her, that he'd been about to say something-was abandoned in favor of a loud and extremely creative string of curses.
Finally, after running through every profane word she'd ever heard, and a good deal more that were new to her, he grunted, "Wait right here," and stomped out of the room.
Three minutes later, he reappeared. Margaret watched with nothing short of amazement as he kicked open the door and dumped about three dozen candles on the floor. One, she noticed, was still smoking.
She cleared her throat, waiting for his scowl to soften before saying anything. After a few moments, though, it became apparent that his grumpy mood was not going to change in the near future, so she asked, "Where did you get all of these?"
"Let's just say that The Canny Man is going to wake to a very dark morning on the morrow."
Margaret declined to point out that, at well past midnight, it was already the morrow, but her conscience did require her to say, "It's dark in the morning this time of year."
"I left one or two in the kitchen," Angus grumbled. And then, without a word of warning, he started to peel off his shirt.
Margaret yelped and dashed out into the hall. Blast that man, he knew he was supposed to wait until she was out of the room before stripping to his skin. She waited a full minute, then gave him another thirty seconds on account of the cold. Numb fingers didn't do well with buttons.
Taking a deep breath, she turned around and knocked on the door. "Angus?" she called out. "Are you in bed?" Then, before he could answer, she narrowed her eyes and added, "With the covers pulled up!"
His reply was muffled, but it was definitely in the affirmative, so she twisted the doorknob and pushed.
The door didn't budge.
Her stomach began a dance of panic. The door couldn't be locked. He would never have locked it, and doors didn't lock themselves.
She banged the side of her fist lightly against the wood. "Angus! Angus! I can't open the door!"
Footsteps followed, and when she next heard his voice, it was clearly coming from just on the other side of the door.
"The door won't open."
"I didn't lock it."
"I know. I think it's stuck."
She heard him laugh, which produced an overwhelming desire to stamp her foot-preferably onto his foot.
"Now this," he said, "is interesting."
The urge to do him bodily harm was growing more intense.
"Margaret?" he called out. "Are you still there?"
She closed her eyes for a moment as she exhaled through her teeth. "You're going to have to help me open the door."
"I am, of course, naked."
She blushed. It was dark; he couldn't possibly see her reaction, and still she blushed.
"The mere sight of you shall probably blind me, anyway," she snapped. "Are you going to help me, or will I have to break the door down myself?"
"It would certainly be a sight to behold. I'd pay good money to-"
He chuckled again, a warm, rich sound that melted through the door and straight into her bones. "Very well," he said. "On my count of three, push against the door with all of your weight."
Margaret nodded, then remembered that he couldn't see her and said, "I will."
She squeezed her eyes shut.
She slammed all her weight against the door, but he must have yanked before she slammed, because her shoulder had barely met the wood before she fell into the room and hit the floor. Hard.
Miraculously, she managed to keep her eyes shut the entire time.
She heard the door click shut, then sensed him bending over her as he inquired, "Are you all right?"
She slapped her hand over her eyes. "Get into bed!"
"Don't worry, I've covered myself."
"I don't believe you."
"I swear. I wrapped the bedsheets around me."
Margaret separated her fore and middle fingers just enough to let in the narrowest strip of vision. Sure enough, there seemed to be something white wrapped around him. She got up and pointedly turned her back on him.
"You are a hard woman, Margaret Pennypacker," he said, but she heard his footsteps taking him back across the room.
"Are you in bed?"
"Do you have the covers pulled up?"
"To my chin."
She heard the smile in his voice, and as exasperated as she was with him, it was still infectious. The corners of her lips wiggled, and it was an effort to keep her voice stern as she said, "I'm turning around now."
"I shall never forgive you if you've been lying to me."
"Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce, just turn around, woman."
She did. He had the covers pulled up-not quite to the promised level of his chin, but far enough.
"Do I meet with your approval?"
She nodded. "Where are your wet clothes?"
"On the chair."
She followed his line of vision to a soggy pile of fabric, then set about lighting the multitude of candles. "This has to be the most ridiculous endeavor," she muttered to herself. What she needed was some kind of massive toasting fork upon which to spear the garment. As it was, she was likely to burn the shirt, or maybe her hands, or-
A drop of hot wax on her skin cut off her line of thinking, and she quickly stuck the injured finger into her mouth. She used her other hand to keep the flame moving from candle to candle, shaking her head as she watched the room grow brighter and brighter.
He was never going to be able to sleep with so many candles burning. It was bright as day.
She turned around, prepared to point out this lack of foresight in their plans, but her words never made it past her lips.
He was asleep.
Margaret stared for one more minute, taking in the way his unruly hair fell over his forehead and his lashes rested against his cheek. The sheet had slipped slightly, allowing her to watch his muscular chest as it gently rose and fell with each breath.
She'd never known a man like this, never seen a human who was quite so magnificent in repose.
It was a long, long time before she turned back to her candles.
* * *
By morning, Margaret had dried all of the clothing, blown out all of the candles, and fallen asleep. When Angus woke up, he found her curled up next to the bed, his coat wadded into a pillow beneath her head.
With gentle hands, he picked her up and laid her down on the bed, pulling the covers to her chin and tucking them around her slender shoulders. Then he settled into the chair next to the bed and watched her sleep.
It was, he decided, the most perfect morning of his recollection.
Margaret came awake the following morning just the way she always did: completely and in an instant.
She sat upright, blinked the sleep from her eyes, and real-ized three things. One, she was in the bed. Two, Angus was not. And three, he wasn't even in the room.
She hopped to her feet, grimacing at the irreparably wrinkled state of her skirts, and made her way to the small table. The empty cranachan bowls were still there, as were the sturdy pewter spoons, but they had been joined by a folded piece of paper. It was wrinkled and smudged, and looked as if it had been torn from a larger piece of paper. Margaret imagined that Angus had had to search the inn fairly thoroughly just to find this little scrap.
She smoothed it open and read:
Gone for breakfast. Will return shortly.
He hadn't bothered to sign it. Not that that mattered, Mar-garet thought as she searched the room for something with which she might brush her hair. As if the note could have come from anyone but Angus.
She smiled as she looked down at the bold, confident handwriting. Even if someone else had had the opportunity to slip the note into her room, she would have known it was from him. His personality was right there in the lines of his letters.
There was nothing to use as a brush, so she settled for her fingers as she moved to the window. She pushed the curtains aside and peeked out. The sun had made an appearance, and the cerulean sky was gently dotted with clouds. A perfect day.
Margaret shook her head and sighed as she heaved the window open for some fresh air. Here she was in Scotland- with, as it turned out, no reason to be in Scotland-she had no money, her clothing was stained beyond redemption, and her reputation would probably be in shreds by the time she returned home.
But at least it was a perfect day.
The village had already come awake. Margaret watched a young family cross the street and enter a small shop, then shifted her gaze onto yet one more couple who had clearly just eloped. Then she took to counting all the young couples moving from street to inn and back to street.
She didn't know whether to smile or frown. All this eloping couldn't be a good thing, and yet some romantic corner of her soul had been stirred the previous night. Maybe some of these new brides and grooms weren't the complete idiots she'd called them the night before. It wasn't entirely unreasonable to suppose that some of them actually had good reasons for running off to Scotland to elope.
With an uncharacteristically sentimental sigh, she leaned a little farther out the window and started making up stories for all the couples. That young lady had an overbearing father, and this young man wanted to wed his true love before he joined the army.
She was trying to decide which young lady had the wicked stepmother, when a thunderous cry shook the building. Margaret looked down just in time to see Angus tearing out into the street.
Margaret gasped. His sister!
Sure enough, a tall, black-haired miss was standing on the other side of the street, looking extremely panicked as she tried to hide behind an obviously well-maintained carriage.
"Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce," Margaret whispered. If she didn't get down there soon, Angus was going to kill his sister. Or at least frighten her into temporary insanity.
Picking up her skirts to well above her ankles, Margaret dashed out of the room.
* * *
Angus had been feeling reasonably cheerful, whistling to himself as he'd set about finding the perfect Scottish breakfast to bring back to Margaret. Porridge, of course, and a true Scottish scone were necessities, but Angus wanted to give her a taste of his country's delectable smoked fish as well.
George had told him that he'd have to go across the street to the fishmonger in order to get some wild salmon, and so he'd told the innkeeper that he'd be back in a few minutes for the porridge and scones, and pushed open the front door.
He hadn't even taken a step into the street when he spied it. His carriage. Sitting innocently across the street with two of his best horses hitched up to it.
Which could only mean one thing.
His sister's head poked out from around the side of the carriage. Her lips parted with horror, and he saw her mouth his name.
"Anne Greene," he roared, "don't you take another step!"
She froze. He barreled across the street.
"Angus Greene!" came the shout from behind him. "Don't you take another step!"
Anne stretched out a little farther from behind the carriage, the stark terror in her eyes giving way to curiosity.
Angus turned around. Margaret was racing toward him with all the grace and delicacy of an ox. She was, as always, completely focused on a single subject. Unfortunately, this time that subject was him.
"Angus," she said in that matter-of-fact tone of hers that made him almost think she knew what she was talking about, "you don't want to do anything rash."
"I wasn't planning on doing anything rash," he said with what he would deem saintly patience. "I was just going to strangle her."
"He doesn't mean it," Margaret hastened to add. "He's been very worried about you."
"Who are you?" Anne asked.
"I do mean it!" Angus shouted. He jabbed his finger at his sister. "You, young lady, are in very big trouble."
"She has to grow up sometime," Margaret said. "Remember what you said to me last night about Edward."
Anne turned to her brother. "Who is she?"
"Edward was running off to join the navy," Angus growled, "not following a fool's dream to London."
"Oh, and I suppose London is worse than the navy," Margaret scoffed. "At least she isn't going to have her arm shot off by some Portuguese sniper. Besides, a season in London isn't a fool's dream. Not for a girl her age."
Anne's face brightened visibly.
"Look at her," Angus protested, waving his arm at his sister while he stared at Margaret. "Look how beautiful she is. Every rakehell in London will be after her. I'm going to have to beat them off with a stick."
Margaret turned to Angus's sister. Anne was quite pretty, with the same thick black hair and dark eyes that her brother possessed. But she was no one's idea of a classic beauty. No one's but Angus's.
Margaret's heart swelled. She hadn't, until that very minute, realized just how well Angus loved his sister. She laid a hand on his arm. "Maybe it's time to let her grow up," she said softly. "Didn't you say you had a great-aunt in London? She won't be alone."
"Aunt Gertrude has already written that I might stay with her," Anne said. "She said she would like the company. I think she might be lonely."
Angus's chin jutted forward like an angry bull. "Don't try to make this about Aunt Gertrude. You want to go to London because you want to go to London, not because you're worried about Gertrude."
"Of course I want to go to London. I never said I didn't. I was merely trying to point out that my going benefits two people, not just one."
Angus scowled at her, and she scowled back, and Margaret caught her breath at how alike the two siblings looked in that moment. Unfortunately, they also looked as if they might come to blows at any moment, so she deftly stepped between them, looked up (Anne was a good six inches taller than she was, and Angus topped her by well over a foot), and said, "That's very sweet of you, Anne. Angus, don't you think Anne made a good point?"
"Who's side are you on?" Angus growled.
"I'm not on anybody's side. I'm just trying to be reasonable." Margaret pulled on his forearm, drew him aside, and said in a low voice, "Angus, this is exactly the same situation about which you counseled me last night."
"It's not at all the same thing."
"And why not?"
"Your brother is a man. My sister is just a girl."
Margaret glowered at him. "And what is that supposed to mean? Am I 'just a girl' as well?"
"Of course not. You're… you're-" He fished the air for words, and his face grew rather agitated. "You're Margaret."
"Why," she drawled, "does that sound like an insult?"
"Of course it isn't an insult," he snapped. "I just complimented your intelligence. You're not the same as other females. You're… you're-"
"Then I think you just insulted your sister."
"Yes," Anne piped up, "you just insulted me."
Angus whirled around. "Don't eavesdrop."
"Oh, please," Anne scoffed, "you're talking loud enough to be heard in Glasgow."
"Angus," Margaret said, crossing her arms, "do you think your sister is an intelligent young woman?"
"I did, before she ran off."
'Then kindly offer her some respect and trust She isn't running blindly away. She has already contacted your aunt and has a place to stay and a chaperone who desires her presence."
"She can't choose a husband," he grumbled.
Margaret's eyes narrowed. "And I suppose you could do a better job of it?"
"I'm certainly not going to allow her to marry without my approval of her choice."
'Then go with her," Margaret urged.
Angus let out a long breath. "I can't. Not yet. I told her we could go next year. I can't be away from Greene House during the renovations, and then there is the new irrigation system to oversee…"
Anne looked to Margaret pleadingly. "I don't want to wait until next year."
Margaret looked from Greene to Greene, trying to work out a solution. It was probably rather odd that she was here, in the middle of a family squabble. After all, she hadn't even known they existed the previous morning.
But somehow this all seemed very natural, and so she turned to Angus with steady eyes and said, "May I make a suggestion?"
He was still glaring at his sister as he said, "Please do."
Margaret cleared her throat, but he didn't turn around to look at her. She decided to go ahead and speak, anyway. "Why don't you let her go to London now, and you can join her in a month or two? That way, if she's found a man she fancies, you can meet him before things grow serious. And you'll have time to finish your work at home."
Margaret persevered. "I know that Anne would never marry without your approval." She turned to Anne with urgent eyes. "Isn't that correct, Anne?"
Anne was taking a little too long to ponder the question, so Margaret elbowed her in the stomach and said again, "Anne? Isn't that correct?"
"Of course," Anne grunted, rubbing her midsection.
Margaret beamed. "You see? It's a perfect solution. Angus? Anne?"
Angus rubbed a weary hand against his brow, grasping his temples as if the pressure would somehow make the entire day go away. It had started out as the perfect morning, gazing upon Margaret as she slept. Breakfast awaited, the sky was blue, and he was certain he would soon find his sister and bring her back home where she belonged.
And now Margaret and Anne were ganging up upon him, trying to convince him that they-not he- knew best. As a united front, they were a mighty powerful force.
And Angus feared that as an object, he might not be completely immovable.
He felt his face softening, felt his will weakening, and he knew the women sensed their victory.
"If it makes you feel more comfortable," Margaret said, "I shall accompany Anne. I can't go all the way to London, but I can see her at least to Lancashire."
Margaret started at the forcefulness of his reply. "I beg your pardon?"
Angus planted his hands on his hips and glowered down at her. "You're not going to Lancashire."
"She isn't?" Anne queried, then turned to Margaret and asked, "If you don't mind, what is your name?"
"Miss Pennypacker, although I should think we may use our given names, don't you? Mine is Margaret."
Anne nodded. "I'd be ever so grateful for your company on the journey to-"
"She's not going," Angus said firmly.
Two pairs of feminine eyes swung around to face him.
Angus felt ill.
"And what" Margaret said, not unkindly, "do you suppose I do instead?"
Angus had no idea where the words came from, no idea even that the thought had formed, but as he looked at Margaret, he suddenly remembered every last moment in her company. He felt her kisses and he heard her laughter. He saw her smile and he touched her soul. She was too bossy, too stubborn, and too short for a man of his proportions, but somehow his heart skipped over all of that, because when she looked up at him with those gorgeously intelligent green eyes, all he could do was blurt out, "Marry me."
Margaret had thought she knew what it felt like to be speechless. It wasn't a condition she often experienced, but she thought she was reasonably familiar with it.
She was wrong.
Her heart pounded, her head grew light, and she started choking on air. Her mouth grew dry, her eyes grew wet, and her ears began to ring. If there'd been a chair in the vicinity, she would have tried to sit in it, but she'd probably have missed the seat entirely.
Anne leaned forward. "Miss Pennypacker? Margaret? Are you unwell?"
Angus didn't say anything.
Anne turned to her brother. "I think she's going to faint."
"She's not going to faint," he said grimly. "She never faints."
Margaret began to tap the flat of her chest with the flat of her hand, as if that might possibly dislodge the ball of shock that had settled in her throat.
"How long have you known her?" Anne asked suspiciously.
Angus shrugged. "Since last night."
"Then how can you possibly know if she faints or not?"
"I just know."
Anne's mouth settled into a firm line. "Then how- Wait just one second! You want to marry her after one day's acquaintance?!"
"It's a moot question," he bit out, "since it doesn't appear that she's going to say yes."
"Yes!" It was all Margaret could do to choke the word out, but she couldn't bear to see the disappointed look on his face any longer.
Angus's eyes filled hope-and with the most endearing touch of disbelief. "Yes?"
She nodded furiously. "Yes, I'll marry you. You're too bossy, too stubborn, and too tall for a woman of my stature, but I'll marry you, anyway."
"Well, isn't this romantic," Anne muttered. "You should have made him ask on bended knee, at the very least."
Angus ignored her, smiling instead down at Margaret as he touched her cheek with the gentlest of hands. "You do realize," he murmured, "that this is the craziest, most impulsive thing you have ever done in your entire life?"
Margaret nodded. "But also the most perfect."
" 'In her life?' " Anne echoed dubiously. " 'In her life?' How can you know that? You've only known her since yesterday!"
"You," Angus said, spearing his sister with a stare, "are superfluous."
Anne beamed. "Really? Does that mean, then, that I may go to London?"
* * *
Six hours later, Anne was well on her way to London. She'd been given a stern lecture from Angus, heaps of sisterly advice from Margaret, and a promise from both that they would come and visit in a month's time.
She'd stayed in Gretna Green, of course, for the wedding. Margaret and Angus were married less than an hour after he'd proposed. Margaret had originally balked, saying that she ought to be married at home, with her family present, but Angus had just raised one of those dark eyebrows and said, "Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce, you're in Gretna Green, woman. You have to get married."
Margaret had agreed, but only after Angus had leaned over and whispered in her ear, "I'll be bedding you this eve whether or not we've the minister's blessing."
There were benefits, she quickly decided, to a hasty marriage.
And so the happy couple found themselves back in their room at The Canny Man.
"I might have to buy this inn," Angus growled as he carried her over the threshold, "just to make certain this room is never used by anyone else."
"You're that attached to it?" Margaret teased.
"You'll know why by morning."
"Pink cheeks still?" he laughed. "And you, an old married woman."
"I've been married for two hours! I think I still have the right to blush."
He dumped her on the bed and looked down at her as if she were a treat in the bakery window. "Yes," he murmured, "you do."
"My family isn't going to believe this," she said.
Angus slid onto the bed and covered her body with his. "You can worry about them later."
"I still can't believe it."
His mouth found her ear, and his breath was hot as he said, "You will. I'll make sure you will." His hands stole around her backside, cupping her and pressing her firmly against his arousal.
Margaret let out a surprised, "Oh!"
"Do you believe it now?"
Where she got her daring, she never knew, but she smiled seductively and murmured, "Not quite."
"Really?" His lips spread into a slow smile. "This isn't enough proof?"
She shook her head.
"Hmmm. It must be all of these clothes."
"Do you think?"
He nodded and went to work on the buttons of his coat, which she was still wearing. "There are far, far too many layers of fabric in this room."
The coat melted away, as did her skirt, and then, before Margaret even had time to feel shy, Angus had doffed his own garments, and all that was left was skin against skin.
It was the strangest sensation. He was touching her everywhere. He was above her and around her, and soon, she realized with breathless wonder, he would be within her.
His mouth moved to the delicate skin of her earlobe, nib-Wing and nipping as he whispered naughty suggestions that caused her to blush right down to her toes. And then, before she could form any sort of response, he moved away and moved down, and then before she knew it, his tongue was circling her navel, and she knew-absolutely knew-that he was going to perform every one of those naughty acts that very night.
His fingers tickled their way to her womanhood, and Margaret gasped as he slid inside. It should have felt like an invasion, but instead it was more like a completion, and yet it still wasn't enough.
"Do you like that?" he murmured, looking up.
She nodded, her breath coming in shallow, needy gasps.
"Good," he said, looking very male and very pleased with himself. "You'll like this even more."
His mouth slid down to meet his fingers, and Margaret nearly bucked off the bed. "You can't do that!" she exclaimed.
He didn't look up, but she could feel him smiling against the tender skin of her inner thighs. "Yes, I can."
"No, you really-"
"Yes." He raised his head, and his slow, lazy smile melted her bones. "I can."
He made love to her with his mouth, teased her with his fingers, and all the while a low, rumbling pressure built up within her. The need grew until it almost hurt, and yet it felt wickedly delicious.
And then something within her exploded. Some deep, secret place she hadn't even known existed burst into light and pleasure, and her world was reduced to this one bed, with this one man.
It was absolute perfection.
Angus slid his body up the length of hers, wrapping his arms around her as she slowly drifted back to earth. He was still hard, his body tightly coiled with need, and yet somehow he felt strangely fulfilled. It was her, he realized. Margaret. There was nothing in life that couldn't be made better with one of her smiles, and bringing her her first woman's pleasure had touched his very soul.
"Happy?" he murmured.
She nodded, looking drowsy and sated and very, very well-loved.
He leaned in and nuzzled her neck. "There's more."
"Anything more would surely kill me."
"Oh, I think we'll manage." Angus chuckled as he rolled over her, using his powerful arms to hold his body a few inches away from hers.
Her eyes fluttered open, and she smiled up at him. She lifted one of her hands to touch his cheek. "You're such a strong man," she whispered. "Such a good man."
He turned his face until his lips found the curve of her palm. "I love you, you know."
Margaret's heart skipped a beat-or maybe it pounded double-time. "You do?"
"It's the strangest damned thing," he said, his smile a touch bewildered and a touch proud. "But it's true."
She stared up at him for several seconds, memorizing his face. She wanted to remember everything about this moment, from the glint in his dark eyes to the way his thick, black hair was falling over his forehead. And then there was the way the light hit his face, and the strong slope of his shoulders, and…
Her heart grew warm. She was going to have a lifetime to memorize these things. "I love you, too," she whispered.
Angus leaned down and kissed her. And then he made her his.
* * *
Several hours later, they were sitting in bed, enthusiastically partaking of the meal the innkeeper had left outside their door.
"I think," Angus said quite suddenly, "that we made a baby tonight."
Margaret dropped her chicken leg. "Why on earth would you think that?"
He shrugged. "I certainly worked hard enough."
"Oh, and you think that one time-"
"Three." He grinned. 'Three times."
Margaret blushed and mumbled, "Four."
"You're right! I forgot all about-"
She swatted him on the shoulder. "That's enough, if you please."
"It will never be enough." He leaned forward and dropped a kiss on her nose. "I've been thinking."
"God help me."
"Seeing as how we are Greenes, and this is Gretna Green, and we ought never to forget how we met…"
Margaret groaned. "Stop there, Angus."
"Gretel!" he said with a flourish. "We could name her Gretel. Gretel Greene."
"Jesus, whiskey, and Robert the Bruce, please tell me he's joking."
"Gertrude? Gertrude Greene? It doesn't have quite the same flair, but my aunt will be honored."
Margaret sank into the bed. Resistance was useless.
"Grover? Gregory. You cannot complain about Gregory. Galahad? Giselle…"