Read McAlistair's Fortune Online

Authors: Alissa Johnson

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Romantic Suspense, #Western, #Historical Romance, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense, #Westerns, #Fiction, #Historial Romance

McAlistair's Fortune

BOOK: McAlistair's Fortune
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McAlistair’s Fortune
Alissa Johnson

LEISURE BOOKS            

What A Man Wants

“You don’t understand men.”

Evie spluttered a bit before responding. “I’ve no trouble at all understanding Whit and Alex.”

“They’re family.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, a defensive posture that pressed the soft mounds of her breasts up another tantalizing inch. McAlistair dragged his eyes to her face, watched as she caught her plump bottom lip with her small, white teeth. It was too much. The need that had been clawing painfully under his skin like a wild animal, tore free. He took a step toward her and gained a wicked satisfaction at the way her eyes widened and her breath hitched. “They don’t want to kiss you,” he growled.

Her arms fell to her sides. “Well, no, not—”

He took another step and had her retreating. Oh, he liked that. He liked the unfamiliar power in having the upper hand. For
once, for once,
she could be the one to back away. “They don’t think about it, every bloody second of the day.”

“I…I should hope not.”

He stalked her mercilessly. “They don’t imagine what it would be like to have you alone, like this. Like the night in the woods. At the inn.”

She stopped backing away and swallowed hard. “Why should you only imagine it?” she whispered unsteadily. “You know I want to kiss you.”

He swallowed a groan and reached up slowly to rub the pad of his thumb across her bottom lip. “A man’s imagination extends beyond kissing.”

For Jo, Sondi, and Tracey, because you always stand beside me, even when you’re not quite sure where I am.

One

M
iss Evie Cole had long ago come to the conclusion that, contrary to popular opinion, ignorance was not bliss.

There were, after all, a great many miserable fools in the world.

Furthermore,
she
was a perfectly happy young woman, and no one who knew her well would ever accuse her of ignorance. She was always in the know.

She made absolutely certain of it.

Just as she was making certain of it now, crouched outside the thick burl wood doors to the Haldon Hall library, her weight shifted to her stronger leg and one dark brown eye peering through the keyhole. Probably she should feel a bit guilty at eavesdropping on a private conversation. But having found herself the subject of that conversation, she experienced not so much guilt as fascination, amusement, and no small amount of annoyance at having stumbled across the scene too late to ascertain all the details.

What she understood well enough, however, was that her aunt, the dowager Lady Thurston, and two family friends, Mr. William Fletcher and Mrs. Mary Summers, were currently sequestered on the other side of those lovely old doors, arguing over how best to go about finding the stubborn Evie Cole a husband.

It was nearly as amusing as it was insulting. Nearly.

Mr. Fletcher, seated on the small settee in the center of the room, leaned forward and spoke with some excitement. “What better way to win a lady’s heart than to rescue her from certain danger? I can have a threatening letter drawn up and sent to Evie from London next week. Have her young man here the following day to protect her. It’s fast, simple, and effective.”

Clearly impressed with neither Mr. Fletcher’s scheme nor his enthusiasm, Lady Thurston added a deliberate dollop of milk to a cup of tea and calmly handed it to Mrs. Summers. “It will never work, William.”

He settled his stout frame back against the cushions. “Have you a better plan?”

“The plan, though I do not approve of it, is not the problem.” She poured her own cup. “The problem is the objective itself—it simply cannot be done.”

“You cannot make someone fall in love,” Mrs. Summers pointed out, straightening her rail-thin shoulders.

“Least of all those two,” Lady Thurston added. “I am not at all certain they’re well suited. What’s more, Evie has categorically refused to marry.”

“I refuse to accept that.” Mr. Fletcher ran a hand through what remained of his hair. “I made a promise to a man on his deathbed.”

Mrs. Summers sent him a pitying glance. “You were tricked into a promise by a man who would—were he still alive—be the first to admonish you for taking this matchmaking business quite so seriously. The late Duke of Rock-eforte was a reasonable sort, despite his penchant for jests. I very much doubt he expected you to succeed in marrying off five children.”

“You weren’t so dismissive when it was your Sophie we set out to match. Nor you,” he added, turning to Lady Thurston, “when it was Whit and Mirabelle.”

“Yes, but that was Sophie, Whit, and Mirabelle,” Lady Thurston returned evenly. “Not Evie.”

“Nevertheless, the promise was made, and I intend to keep it.” Mr. Fletcher held out against the ensuing silence for a solid thirty seconds—an impressive show of fortitude to Evie’s mind. She’d been subjected to that knowing silence from the inestimable Lady Thurston. It was daunting.

“I intend to at least try,” Mr. Fletcher finally added.

Lady Thurston gave a delicate shrug of her shoulders. “If you feel you must.”

“I do. I’ll begin by—”

Evie would never be entirely certain of how, exactly, Mr. Fletcher intended to begin, because the sound of laughter and approaching footsteps necessitated her immediate retreat to the small parlor across the hall. It was doubtful that the intruding staff would tattle, but it was best to not take chances.

No matter, she’d been privy to the most important bits of the conversation, or at least enough of them to be quite confident that she was, once again, very much in the know.

As Evie slipped out the side door of the parlor, Lady Thurston and Mrs. Summers patiently listened as William Fletcher finished outlining his plan, again.

Lady Thurston smoothed the pale green silk of her gown. A diminutive woman with a soft voice and round, rosy cheeks, she was sometimes taken, by those who didn’t know her well, for a kindly sort who perhaps needed a bit of looking after.

A mistaken impression invariably short-lived.

“Your plan is certainly…detailed,” she allowed when William finished. “Unfortunately, it is also poorly conceived. Such a scheme would only serve to frighten Evie. I will not allow it. And I will not agree to using her work with mistreated women as the source of your faux threat. It touches too close to the truth.”

“But—”

“She is quite right,” Mrs. Summers cut in. “Evie faces very real danger as a result of her work. Adding a contrived threat would be unconscionable.”

William blanched. “Unconscionable seems a bit—”

“Did I tell you what happened to Mrs. Kirkland last summer?” Lady Thurston asked, turning to Mrs. Summers.

Mrs. Summers nodded sadly. “Exposed by the very woman she sought to help.”

“And her home burned to the ground the very next day. She was lucky to have escaped.”

Mrs. Summers took a sip of her tea. “The authorities ruled it an accident.”

Lady Thurston gave a most genteel sniff. “Shameful.”

“That
is
most unfortunate.” William tried again. “But I hardly intend to start fires or—”

Mrs. Summers shook her head. “It is no good, William. Not only does your plan go too far, the strategy itself is flawed. In order for the ruse to work, Evie would need to believe in the threat. If she believes in the threat, she will be too preoccupied to notice the attentions of a young man. No sensible young woman would be thinking of love whilst her life was in jeopardy.”

“Sophie did,” he pointed out quickly, rather surprised he was able to get a word in edgewise.

Mrs. Summers pursed her lips thoughtfully. “True, but Sophie, though I adore her, is not always the most sensible of women.”

Lady Thurston nodded in pleasant agreement.

William scowled. “And you’re absolutely certain Evie is a sensible young woman?”

“Yes,” both women answered simultaneously.

“Blast.” He frowned a moment longer before sighing and finally reaching for his own cup. “Well, I still say it was a clever idea.”

Mrs. Summers smiled at her old friend fondly, if a bit condescendingly. “Exceedingly. But you shall have to think of something else.”

Two

Two Weeks Later

I
t was conceivable that ten years ago, Mr. James McAlistair would have laughed out loud at the notion that he might one day fall in love. It was easier to imagine, however, that he would have simply hooked up one corner of his mouth in the sort of cool and unfathomable expression that can really only be successfully affected by either a profound poet or a talented assassin.

Anyone looking at him now—standing on the grounds of Haldon Hall, his dark gaze unreadable, and his tall frame honed to the muscled leanness of a panther—would have a difficult time mistaking him for the former.

Pity, that.

Because despite what his reaction may, or may not, have been ten years ago, McAlistair had indeed fallen in love. And a man in love could always use the gifts of a poet.

Particularly when burdened with the sins of an assassin.

Reflecting on those sins now, he rolled his shoulders in a rare, albeit barely perceptible, show of nerves.

He shouldn’t be there.

With Evie Cole in danger, though, he couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. He scanned the lawn before him, mapping out his path before taking a step. “Act in haste, repent in leisure,” his dear, departed, and no doubt often repentant mother had been fond of saying. An interesting bit of advice from a woman who’d birthed six bastards.

He moved forward silently, keeping to the long shadows in the late evening light. It was a precaution taken out of habit more than necessity. He’d already checked the grounds and woods immediately surrounding the house for signs of an intruder. All was as it should be. And he knew, down to a branch,
exactly
how it should be. Those woods had, after all, been his humble home for years. Long years of hardship and solitude—of trying to atone for, or perhaps just forget, the heavy burden of his memories.

The forest would be his home still if he’d had his say in the matter, but William Fletcher, his one-time employer and current thorn in his side, had been steadily pushing him back into the world over the past few months.

McAlistair had capitulated to a point—walking away from the old forgotten hunting cabin he used during inclement weather and buying an equally old, but slightly less secluded cabin just outside the Haldon estate. He was making use of the money he’d earned from the War Department. Money he’d thought he would never touch. He had an armoire filled with the clothing of a gentleman. He owned the fine gray mare he’d just slipped into the Haldon stables. But those trappings were as far into the realm of society as he was willing to venture. He wanted to be left alone, to live as he pleased. And he would…as soon as this business with Evie was sorted out.

To avoid the irritating custom of being announced, and to skip the pesky formality of knocking, he let himself in through a rarely used side door of Haldon Hall. He had to pick the lock, of course, but that was a minor detail, and not unexpected given the nature of his visit. Whittaker Cole, Earl of Thurston, was no fool, and when it came to the safety of his family, took no chances.

Once inside, he shot a brief glance at the ceiling, where Whit’s muffled voice filtered down from the study above. The sound drifted softer and louder as McAlistair navigated the twisting halls and stairways of Haldon, taking a side trip here and there to avoid the staff. He moved with silent efficiency, a vital talent in his former career.

He arrived at the open doors of the study without being detected—a matter he intended to discuss with Whit later—and quietly slipped inside, taking up a position in the dark shadow of a bookcase.

An argument was in progress, with Whit and Lady Thurston of the mind to keep Evie at Haldon, while William Fletcher, Mrs. Summers, and Evie were of the opinion that a trip to the shore would be in her best interest. He said nothing, simply kept to his corner and watched.

He was accustomed to watching and waiting. And, in recent years, to wanting.

He was not, however, accustomed to being indoors, boxed in by walls and surrounded by noise and movement. The mix of voices, the shuffle of feet, and the random creaks and bangs of a busy household scraped at his nerves.

But that was nothing,
nothing
, compared to the torture of standing so near Evie Cole. She was little more than three feet away, her back turned to him, and he could make out each soft brown curl on her head, take in the clean lingering scent of her soap, and hear every breath as it left her lips. He remembered, quite clearly, what it was like to caress that hair with his fingertips and feel that breath against his mouth.

He recalled vividly—and with far more frequency than was comfortable—that she’d tasted of lemons and mint.

He wanted to roll his shoulders again.

He really shouldn’t be there.

Dragging his gaze away from Evie, he looked to the rest of the group. The argument appeared to be at a stalemate, neither side able to claim victory or willing to accept defeat. The futility of it annoyed him, trying his already strained patience. They were wasting time. His hands itched to scoop Evie up, toss her over his shoulder, and carry her off into the woods—
his
woods, where he knew every trail, every noise, every hidden place. His woods, where he knew he could keep her safe…from everyone but himself

Of its own accord, his gaze tracked back to Evie and trailed up the stiff line of her back, the creamy skin of her narrow shoulders, the delicate arch of her neck. She was such a small thing, barely reaching his shoulders. Too small to defend herself against the violence of a madman. And certainly sensible enough to realize as much.

Bloody hell, she must be terrified.

Evie was having a splendid time of it.

She surveyed the scene before her and decided that it was, without question, the single most absurd bit of artifice she’d ever had occasion to witness. What a superb lot of liars they all were, she thought with affection. Who would have imagined her friends and family held such an affinity for theatrics?

And who would have guessed they’d be so proficient?

Lady Thurston was actually pale.
Vale
. How did one manage that sort of thing? Mrs. Summers was sitting tight-lipped and straight-backed, her hands gripped in her lap. Whit, pacing back and forth in front of his desk, looked half ready to pull out his hair. And Mr. Fletcher, with his brow furrowed and his cravat coming undone, made the perfect picture of the concerned family friend.

She, of course, was every inch the brave little soldier, keeping her chin up and her shoulders square despite the
tremendously
dire state of her circumstances. Upon receiving the threatening letter, she had briefly considered trying something even more dramatic—a touch of panic, perhaps even a swoon—but the notion of carrying on in such a fashion for more than a minute or two held little appeal. Besides, she had never swooned in her life and wasn’t entirely certain how to go about it. It seemed the sort of thing one ought to practice a time or two in private first.

She had selected stoicism instead and, at the risk of becoming smug, rather thought she was making a respectable go of it. They were all making a good show of their respective roles—standing-ovation and encore-worthy performances.

They should take to the stage, each and every one of them.

She could admit to some initial surprise at Mr. Fletcher’s suggestion that she leave for the coast with a small group of armed guards. But, confident they couldn’t possibly mean to send her where she would be out of their interfering reach, she chose to argue in favor of the trip. For no other reason, really, than to cause a bit of trouble. She might be willing to play along in the interest of getting the silly matchmaking business over and done with, but there was no point in making it easy on the meddling schemers.

“I’ll not send her half a country away,” Whit snapped. Tall, fit, and gifted with a deep voice suited for authority, her cousin had always struck Evie as very much the quintessential lord of the manner. Not that she was in the habit of ceding to that authority; she merely appreciated the image.

Mr. Fletcher pinched the bridge of his bulbous nose. “Norfolk is hardly half a country. It is a mere two days’ journey.”

“Two days too far from her family,” Lady Thurston replied.

“It’s for the best,” Evie argued, and my, didn’t she sound noble? “My presence here puts everyone else in danger. And with Mirabelle and Kate returning next week from the Rockefortes’, things will only—”

At the mention of his wife, who was currently expecting their first child, and his younger sister, Whit cut her off with a curt wave of his hand. “I can easily extend their visit.”

“They would be more than happy to stay, I’m sure,” Evie agreed. She’d been truly disappointed when a head cold had kept her from making the trip to see Alex and Sophie, the Duke and Duchess of Rockeforte, and their three-month-old son, Henry. ‘At least until word of this reaches them—and it will most certainly reach them—then they’ll
insist
on returning.”

Either to enjoy the scheme or to stand beside her in a perceived time of need, Kate, Mirabelle, and Sophie would most certainly come. As her cousin, Kate was the only one of the three considered family by blood, but in their hearts, all of them were sisters. They would never allow themselves to be kept removed from such a situation.

“I’ve already sent word to Alex,” Mr. Fletcher said. “I suspect he’ll be here before morning.”

Evie nodded. “You can be sure Sophie will be, as well, and with Kate and Mirabelle in tow.”

Whit swore softly but emphatically. Evie supposed it was a testament to how important their ruse was to Lady Thurston that she did little more than sniff disapprovingly at her son’s language.

“This conversation is going nowhere,” Lady Thurston pronounced.

“We need an objective opinion,” Mr. Fletcher agreed with a nod before turning in Evie’s general direction. “What do you think, McAlistair?”

That simple question, obviously addressed to someone directly behind her, instantly dashed Evie’s enjoyment of the scene. Her heart stopped beating in her chest—an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least—and she turned around slowly, certain she’d misheard. And uncertain whether she hoped or feared she had not.

She hadn’t.

The man in question was standing in the shadow of a bookcase not three feet away from her—a fact that had her heart starting again with one great, painful thud.

Dear Lord, there he was…McAlistair, the Hermit of Haldon Hall.

Only he didn’t much look like a hermit at present, she noted as he stepped into the light. She narrowed her eyes, suspicious of the transformation. The last time she had seen McAlistair had been in the Haldon woods. He’d been wearing the serviceable garments of a peasant. His hair had been long and wild, almost as wild as his dark eyes. And he’d been carrying a rather large knife.

Now he was dressed in gentleman’s attire—a well-tailored green waistcoat, tan breeches, a pair of Hessians, and a perfectly knotted cravat. He’d trimmed his thick brown hair and pulled it back into a neat, if unfashionable, tail at the nape of his neck. His jaw was clean shaven, his hands scrubbed free of dirt, and there was nary a weapon in sight. He looked utterly respectable.

And somehow twice as dangerous.

Evie took in the sharp arch of brows, the square cut of jaw, and the nose that had obviously been broken more than once. She noticed—and blushed upon noticing—the bulge of muscle in his legs, the broad width of his shoulders, and the wiry strength of his arms. McAlistair was no London dandy come to call. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, she thought, that’s what he was, or possibly a big cat with a collar about its neck. He might look harmless, or tamed, but one need only peer closer at his eyes to see the lie. They were still just as wild.

She had stared into those eyes once—lost herself in them—right before she’d lost herself in his kiss one fantastical evening in the woods. And she had thought of him, as she had promised to think of him, every day since.

For five bloody months.

She narrowed her eyes further, the flush of heat giving way to the burn of anger. He had told her he’d be away and had made no promises to return, but
really
, would it have been so terribly difficult for the man to have sent one blasted letter? Even
she
could have managed as much—if she’d known where to find him—and she was a dismal correspondent.

She watched as Whit stepped around her to deliver a bolstering pat on McAlistair’s shoulder and draw him farther into the room. “McAlistair, good to see you. We could use another voice of reason. I believe you’re acquainted with everyone here but our Evie.”

McAlistair turned his dark eyes on her, and for one terrible moment she feared he might give away their secret. When he did nothing more than stare, unblinking, as if drinking her in with his eyes, her fear turned to embarrassment.

Uncertain how one was expected to react to a long, knowing look from a man one was not
supposed
to know, she dropped into a quick and awkward curtsy. “M-M-” She bit the end of her tongue in an effort to regain control. She
detested
that she stammered when nervous. “Mr. McAlistair.”

“Miss Cole.” He bowed, an eloquent bend at the waist perfectly in tune with his attire and so very incongruent with the picture of the wild hermit she still held in her head. He turned to Lady Thurston next and bowed even lower in a sign of deep respect. “Lady Thurston. It is an honor.”

His voice was still rough, Evie noticed, still gravelly, as if he weren’t accustomed to using it. She wished she didn’t find the sound quite so appealing.

Lady Thurston dipped her head in acknowledgment. “It was good of you to come. I assume Mr. Fletcher advised you of the contents of the letter Evie received?”

“Some.” McAlistair looked to Whit before jerking his chin at a side table holding a sheet of paper and envelope. “That it?”

“It is.” Whit gestured at the table in invitation.

With her mind still reeling—what on earth was the man doing here?—and her heart still racing—
heavens
, he was handsome—Evie watched him cross the room and pick up the paper. He wasn’t illiterate then, she thought somewhat ruefully. That had really been her last hope of an excuse for his silence.

BOOK: McAlistair's Fortune
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