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

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BOOK: McAlistair's Fortune
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William Fletcher had a fortnight to set his conscience at ease, and not a day more.

Lizzy glanced about the tidied room. “Well, if there’s nothing else, miss, I’m going for my own dinner and an early bed.”

Evie nodded and tried to generate some interest in her meal as Lizzy closed the connecting doors between their rooms. She wasn’t particularly hungry, but the food was there and she had little else to occupy her time. She managed another bite of her roll, picked at the chicken, poked at the carrots, and otherwise turned her plate of food into a wholly unappetizing mess. Giving up, she set the tray on the vanity and, deciding not to bother Lizzy again, managed to change into her night rail on her own.

If she couldn’t eat, she’d sleep. Granted, it was barely after nine, but after a long day, and with a painfully early morning looming before her, going to bed early seemed wise. Anything and everything that would turn her mind from a particular houseguest seemed wise.

She crawled under the covers and willed her mind to clear. She wouldn’t think of him. She wouldn’t. Not a single thought would be given to the handsome and mysterious Mr. McAlistair. She wouldn’t think of the kiss, of the way he’d held himself perfectly still as his mouth gently took hers. She wouldn’t think of how her heart raced and her breath caught when he looked at her with those dark, intense eyes. She wouldn’t think on where he might be sleeping tonight, or what he might be doing now, or…

“Oh, bloody, bloody hell.”

She rolled over, sat up, pounded her fist into the pillow a few times, and then finally flopped back down with a frustrated groan.

It was going to be a painfully long night.

Evie managed, somehow, to fall asleep—for all of two hours. She might have made it through the whole night, but for the second time that day, Lizzy stumbled in through the connecting door. She looked just as wide-eyed as she had the first time, but now she wore a night rail and clasped a pile of bedding to her chest.

Evie shot up in bed, instantly awake, if not entirely coherent. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“He’s in my room. He booted me from my own room.”

Evie bounded out of bed. “He? He who?”

“The hermit,” Lizzy breathed. “McAlistair.”

“In your room?” Evie grabbed a wrap to throw over her night rail.

Lizzy nodded and swallowed. “Came right in, pretty as you please—well, he did knock first,” she allowed. “But
then
he came right in and told me to take my things and sleep in here.”

“I can’t believe it. I cannot
believe
he’d barge into your room.” Did the man really think he could treat Lizzy however he pleased merely because she was employed as a servant?


I
still can’t believe he’s real,” Lizzy breathed. “All that time I spent looking for him and suddenly he—”

“Barges into your room,” Evie finished for her. She cinched her wrap shut with a decisive yank. “We’ll see about this.”

“Shouldn’t we send for Lord Thurston, or—”

“I can handle the likes of Mr. McAlistair.” She headed toward the door, intent on doing just that.

Four

E
vie had never considered herself a prude. Quite the contrary, in fact. At fourteen, she’d been the first of her friends to experience a kiss. At nineteen, she’d met her first prostitute, and by twenty she’d been propositioned by a bawd, a pimp, and a handful of drunken sailors. Such was the enlightenment of a woman who occasionally spent time in some of London’s seedier neighborhoods.

According to the standards set by her peers, she was a scandalously forward young woman—or would be, if any of those standard setters ever became apprised of her transgressions. But despite her broader than average education, she wasn’t quite prepared for the sight that greeted her on the other side of the connecting door.

Not when that sight was McAlistair, half undressed. Well, more like a quarter undressed, if one wished to be overly precise about it. The salient point was that it was McAlistair, in the room directly connected to her own chambers, and he was in a state of undress. He was down to shirtsleeves, and
that
had been unbuttoned down to his waist, exposing a smooth expanse of skin and muscle. Good Lord, the muscle. The man was as toned and sculpted as the wild cat she’d thought him earlier.

“W-W-” Oh, blast. She bit the tip of her tongue, then averted her gaze, pushed aside the sudden heat she felt
everywhere,
and tried again. “What d-do you think you’re doing?”

He said nothing, which was understandable given that what he was doing was fairly obvious. She felt her cheeks turn to fire. Why the devil hadn’t she thought to knock?

“You had no right to remove Lizzy from her own r-room.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him rebutton his shirt. “For her own safety.”

Utter bafflement momentarily replaced embarrassment. “Her own safety?”

He pointed at the large windows. “If I were coming for you, I’d use those.”

She looked at the windows in Lizzy’s room, then stepped back to peer through the connecting door at the more expansive windows in her own room. “Why not use my own?”

“Too well guarded.”

“Well, why not come in d-downstairs or through the windows of an unoccupied room?” Lord knew there were plenty of them at Haldon.

“These are closer.”

There was something rather odd about his argument—above and beyond the fact there was slight chance of an intruder climbing through any of the windows in Haldon—but she couldn’t put her finger on just what.

Since she couldn’t, she looked directly at him—a task much more easily accomplished now that he’d finished buttoning his shirt—and asked, “Are you an expert on such matters?”

There was a long, long pause before he nodded.

“I…oh.” How would a soldier-turned-hermit know of such things? For that matter, why would a regular, literate, possibly well-bred soldier choose to turn hermit? She tilted her head to study him. “Who are you?”

Surely, kiss or no kiss, he would afford her the courtesy of answering that much.

An extended silence informed her that, no, in fact, he would not.

She fought against the lump of disappointment and hurt that formed in her throat. It was ridiculous. The kiss, the scheme, his reticence—all of it was absurd and therefore no reason for her to suddenly begin leaking like a sieve. She was an experienced woman of six and twenty, she reminded herself, not a silly miss fresh from the nursery to be undone by one man’s disinterest.

“Keep your secrets, then,” she muttered and turned for the door.

“Evie.”

She shouldn’t stop. She knew she shouldn’t. But she did.

He waited until he caught her eye. “I meant no insult,” he said softly. “To either of you.”

She hesitated. She knew she shouldn’t ask. Knew she shouldn’t bring it up. But she couldn’t seem to stop herself. “Why…that night in the woods…why—” She cut off at the shake of his head.

“I shouldn’t have. You’re not meant for me.”

Suspicion, ugly and as painful as his earlier silence, seeped in. “And who am I m-meant for, Mr. McAlistair?”

“Someone…other,” he answered softly. “Just other.”

Suspicion left as quickly as it had arrived. He wasn’t speaking of a specific man for her, only a man who wasn’t him. He didn’t know of the ruse, then. Presumably.

“I am meant for whomever it is I am meant for,” she returned. “My fortune isn’t for you to tell.”

Pleased with her response and relieved she’d managed to deliver it without a single stammer, she turned and walked through the doorway, shutting the door behind her.

She found Lizzy still standing in the center of the room, clutching her bedding to her chest.

“Well, what did he say?” Lizzy demanded.

“That he expects your windows would prove too much a temptation for any murderers creeping about the grounds.”

Lizzy’s mouth fell open. “They’d come through my windows? Through me?”

Guilt stabbed at Evie. It was possible Lizzy knew nothing of the scheme, though unlikely, as a matchmaking ruse was something Lizzy would find very irresistible.

“Of course not. He’s overreacting, that’s all. Didn’t you say Lord Thurston wouldn’t allow for any harm to come to us?”

“To you,” Lizzy corrected and earned herself a hard glare from Evie. “Yes, all right, to any of us. Am I to sleep on the floor, then, miss?”

“Don’t be silly. There are a dozen other beds in the house. What of your old room next to Kate’s?”

“I couldn’t.” Lizzy shuddered dramatically. “Those rooms are enormous. I’d be too nervous to sleep with Lady Kate gone.”

Evie wanted to laugh. Kate’s nocturnal composing had been the very reason Lizzy had recently chosen to take up residence in the room next door. It was difficult to sleep when your mistress left candles burning half the night, hummed to herself, and had a tendency to trip over furniture.

Laughter, unfortunately, was not an appropriate response under the current circumstances. She wasn’t supposed to be amused, she reminded herself. She was supposed to be frightened. Terribly frightened—and terribly brave about it.

“Sleep here, then. The bed is large enough for the both of us.”

Lizzy didn’t need a second invitation. She tossed her bundle on a chair and scrambled onto the four-poster. “Thank you, miss. I’ll sleep a world better with someone else in the room.”

As Lizzy had a tendency to snore, Evie doubted she could say the same.

She wasn’t given the chance to complain. A soft knock on the door to the hall heralded the arrival of Mrs. Summers, wearing a frilly night rail and frillier cap.

Evie blinked at her, absolutely baffled. “Mrs. Summers?”

“Good evening, Evie.” She swept past her to the bed. “Wiggle aside a bit, Lizzy dear. I prefer the outside.”

Evie gaped at her. “The out—”

“Mr. McAlistair has taken up residence in Lizzy’s quarters, has he not?” Mrs. Summers sent her a questioning glance as she removed her wrap.

“Well, yes, but—”

“Then I insist on taking up residence here. Threat or not, you have a reputation to consider.” And with that pronouncement, she slipped under the covers next to Lizzy.

Evie threw up her hands. “I can’t see how anyone else would know. We haven’t any visitors who are likely to betray a confidence, and the staff would never gossip.”

“Most of the staff, certainly,” Mrs. Summers agreed as she adjusted a pillow to her liking. “But your aunt informs me you have several relatively new maids and grooms on hand.”

As Lizzy had pointed out earlier, the most recent additions to the household had arrived more than seven months ago, but it hardly seemed worth the energy to argue. Besides, it would probably be best to drop the topic of McAlistair’s presence in the next room before Lizzy let slip that he hadn’t been in there alone. Given her current company, the slip wouldn’t ruin her, but it would certainly elicit a very lengthy, and therefore very tiresome, lecture from Mrs. Summers.

“Well, push over then, Lizzy. I don’t care for the middle, either.”

“And I do?” Lizzy grumbled, but nonetheless shifted to the center of the bed.

Absolutely the cheekiest maid in England. “You’re welcome to sleep elsewhere,” Evie reminded her and climbed under the covers.

Lizzy sniffed once. “The middle will be fine.”

Sleep hadn’t been McAlistair’s reason for undressing. He had no intention of closing his eyes for anything more than a light doze. Comfort had been foremost on his mind when he’d begun stripping off his clothes. One of the many benefits of being a hermit had been the freedom to wear what he liked, and stiff waistcoats and even stiffer shirts were decidedly not among the list of things he liked.

He eyed the feather bed dubiously. Also on the list of things he disliked was sleeping indoors. He preferred the soft whisper of the wind through the leaves over the murmur of voices to lull him to sleep. He certainly preferred listening for the crunch of sticks and underbrush rather than the subtle creak of floorboards to tell him someone was approaching. And he was definitely more comfortable in the open woodland than with the limited options afforded by a room with only two exits.

As a hermit, he’d often slept in the old cabin in the Haldon woods, but being the lone occupant of a one-room shelter was considerably different from being one of many residents in an enormous manor. Everywhere he turned here, there were more people, more rooms, and more walls. There seemed an endless number of barriers between him and the woods.

Even now, when he had a larger home of his own, he took a blanket outside at night and made his bed under the stars whenever the weather allowed.

And he didn’t sleep in that bed wearing a damn nightgown.

He finished unbuttoning his shirt, pulled it off and tossed it over the back of a chair. Remembering how Evie had floundered at the sight of his bare chest, his mouth hooked up in a half smile. She was lovely when she blushed. She was always lovely to his mind—those enormous brown eyes, the soft curve of her cheek, the tempting figure that was somehow both slight and generous. How many nights had he lain awake, imagining that figure beneath him, over him, around…?

He uttered a single succinct curse and stalked to the windows to throw them wide, knowing full well no self-respecting villain would be so foolish as to climb through them. One more reason he wasn’t fit for Evie’s company, let alone her favor. He’d lied to her, smoothly and without remorse.

But he’d be damned if he would take up a room at the other end of the hall for propriety’s sake. The difference between life and death was often the matter of a few precious seconds. What if she had need of him? What if she screamed?

He made a conscious effort to relax. She was just a few feet away from where he stood. She was fine. She was safe.

He was bloody well going to make sure she stayed that way.

Five

E
vie made her way downstairs with her mouth stretched open in an enormous yawn and—because it was difficult to see properly whilst yawning—with one hand gripped firmly on the banister. She’d been woken before first light by Mrs. Summers and practically shoved out of bed by Lizzy. She’d been fed, clothed, and left to arrange the business of seeing her things downstairs before her eyes had fully opened. She had managed, eventually, to see to the task, but rather feared she had groused unfairly at one of the footmen in the process. Mornings, as any of her family could attest, did not show Evie to advantage.

Now she was tired, feeling guilty, and giving serious consideration to the idea that the whole charade wasn’t worth the bother. First light, for pity’s sake. Was there anyone in full possession of his faculties who
preferred
to start the day at first light?

“Looks as if you could use this.”

Evie stopped at the foot of the stairs and blinked, first at the realization that Whit was standing before her and then at the steaming cup he held out for her.

“Hot chocolate.” She sighed with delight and took the drink to draw in the heady aroma. “Bless you, cousin mine. All I’ve had this morning is an undercooked egg and a cup of weak tea.”

“The staff’s a bit preoccupied, I’m afraid.”

He stepped back, affording her a view through the open front doors. The drive was a hive of activity—footmen loading the carriage, grooms checking the horses, maids running about doing…she had no idea what. Lady Thurston, Mrs. Summers, and Mr. Fletcher stood on the front steps, overseeing it all. Somewhere in all the mess was very likely the man they meant as a match for her. He’d have arrived last night, surely. Or before she’d risen, the poor soul. Likely he was on the other side of the carriage, she mused, or off doing whatever it was Mr. Hunter and McAlistair were doing.

She gestured to the open doors. “Isn’t this rather obvious? If anyone were watching the house—”

“McAlistair and Mr. Hunter are checking the grounds now. There’s no one about who shouldn’t be.”

“It’s a large area to go over. What if they’re mistaken?”

“They’re not.”

She eyed him speculatively. “You’re very sure of them.”

“I have my reasons.”

How very interesting. She dearly wished she were awake enough to devise a clever plan to find out those reasons. If she tried now, with her head still foggy, she’d only embarrass herself and possibly make Whit suspicious.

She took another sip of hot chocolate and said, half to herself, “I suppose it doesn’t matter, as you’ll be along to—” She broke off, realizing for the first time that he wasn’t dressed to travel. “Aren’t you coming along?”

His mouth compressed into a thin line. “No. It was agreed I should stay here and search for the bastard with Alex and William. Begging your pardon.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t know why you insist on apologizing when you know I’m not offended.”

“Habit,” Whit answered with a shrug.

“Well, it’s damned annoying,” she teased and leaned up to kiss his cheek when he scowled. “I suppose it’s best that you remain here. Sophie, Mirabelle, and Kate will be returning eventually. Alex might be able to convince Sophie not to interfere, but Mirabelle and Kate are another matter.”

“I can handle my wife and sister.”

“Delighted to hear it. May I inform them you said so, upon my return?”

“Absolutely not.”

She laughed softly as Whit gave her a one-armed hug about the shoulders.

He stepped back and searched her face. “You’re taking this very well.”

Not too well, she hoped, and contrived to affect a more suitably worried expression. “I’m not certain how else to take it.”

He considered that, and her, for a moment before nodding. “You should be going. The others are waiting to say good-bye.”

He led her to the front stairs, where Lady Thurston took her performance to new heights, fussing over Evie extensively before bravely sniffing back tears and exiting quickly into the house. The woman was astonishing.

Lizzy sidled up next, just in time for them both to watch McAlistair and Mr. Hunter ride up the drive.

“He’s a wild one, isn’t he, miss?” Lizzy whispered with a subtle—thankfully—jerk of her chin toward McAlistair. “He has a pistol on him and a knife in his boot.”

Evie eyed the tall form on the gray mare and positively refused to acknowledge the heat that crept into her chest. “How could you possibly know that?”

Lizzy shrugged. “Don’t know why I notice these things. But the gun shows through his coat—see there? And he adjusted the knife before he and Mr. Hunter rode off this morning. I’ll wager you it’s not the only one.”

“I’d be a fool to take that bet.”

“You would, at that.” Lizzy shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I suppose you should be off.”

Mrs. Summers stepped up to join them. “She certainly should.”

Evie took in her demurely cut peach traveling gown. “Are you leaving today as well, Mrs. Summers?”

“I am.” She picked up a small valise and headed for the carriage. “I am to be your chaperone.”

Evie gave Lizzy a quick kiss and followed, fighting a smile. Her chaperone. Of course. A well-bred young lady wouldn’t think of making an escape from a life-threatening situation without a proper chaperone.

“Are you certain of this, Mrs. Summers?” Evie asked, picking up the blue skirts of her own gown—a smart and flattering piece she’d chosen with great care. “You’re putting yourself in grave danger. Terribly, terribly grave danger.”

Mrs. Summers came to a stop at the carriage door and turned to face her. “Terribly and grave are rather redundant, dear.”

“Yes, well.” Oh, blast, she was having too much fun, and it was beginning to show. “I only wish to be certain you fully understood the…the…er…”

“Danger?”

“Rather.”

Mrs. Summers gave a quick nod. “I do. You should know that Lady Thurston wished to come in my stead, but Whittaker put his foot down on the matter.”

Mr. Fletcher strode up to stand beside them. “As well he should have,” he snapped with surprising force. “As well should I where you’re concerned.”

“You did,” Mrs. Summers calmly reminded him as she stowed her valise inside the carriage. “But you are neither an earl, nor my son. I chose to ignore you.” She turned to Evie. “In you go, dear.”

Evie climbed into the carriage, settled herself in a seat, and turned around in time to witness Mr. Fletcher press a kiss to the back of Mrs. Summers’ hand.

“You will take care, Mary,” he ordered rather than asked. When she nodded silently, he lowered her hand and assisted her into the carriage, closing the door behind her. Then opened it again.

“And you as well, Evie.”

She smiled at him, touched by his concern for Mrs. Summers and amused that she should be an afterthought. “We’ll be fine, Mr. Fletcher.”

She’d wager every penny she had on it.

He nodded and shut the door.

“Close the curtains, dear,” Mrs. Summers advised when the carriage started forward with a soft lurch.

Evie reached over to pull at the material. “Do you mean to nap? You couldn’t have slept well last night.”
She
certainly hadn’t.

“A short nap sounds lovely, but we shall keep them shut for the duration of the trip.”

Evie felt her eyes widen. “The entire trip?”

“Better no one should see you.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake. She gritted her teeth to keep from arguing. It was such a lovely day, sunny and warm, and she found the idea of sitting in the dark for the whole of it distinctly unappetizing. But if she argued, she’d appear unconcerned for her own safety.

“May I at least peek?”

Mrs. Summers appeared to give the matter some thought. “Only when you’re certain there’s no one else on the road.”

Well there wasn’t anyone on it now. They hadn’t yet reached the end of the drive. She pushed the curtains back an inch and found McAlistair riding along on her side of the carriage. Determined not to think about him—again—she scooted across the cushions and looked out the other window, where she found Mr. Hunter riding alongside the carriage.

A furrow worked into her brow. She knew Christian, a very old friend of Mirabelle and Mr. Fletcher’s, was driving the carriage, and she’d noticed before climbing in that he sat alone up top. A middle-aged man with a soft brogue, dancing green eyes, and a weak arm and leg, Christian had sparked an immediate, if not yet deep, feeling of kinship in Evie.

But kinship or not, she wasn’t about to marry a man twenty years her senior. Surely there was someone else about. She checked both windows again, craning her neck to look to the front and back of the carriage. There was no one else.

She sat back, feeling a bit stunned. These were her guards? Christian the driver, Mr. Hunter the businessman, and McAlistair the hermit? They were fine men, all, and quite probably capable of protecting a lady from harm. But surely none of them had been chosen as her intended rescuer?

“Are we to meet anyone else along the way?”

Mrs. Summers took her own turn peeking out the window. “We are all here.”

“At the cottage, then?” Evie tried. “Are there others waiting for us there?”

“No, this is the entire party. Christian shall drive, and Mr. McAlistair and Mr. Hunter shall ride alongside the carriage.”

“Oh.”

Mrs. Summers retrieved a small traveling pillow from her valise. “Are you worried, dear? Because I assure you, these gentlemen—”

“No, I’m not worried.” What she was, was puzzled. Who among the three men was meant to be her knight-errant?

It must be Mr. Hunter, she decided, pulling back the curtain again to take another look at him. Not a bad choice, really, though it was surprising. She could have sworn Lady Thurston knew his interests lay elsewhere.

Still, the man was devilishly handsome. Not in the traditional sense—he was too large, as tall as Alex and even wider across the chest and arms. And his features were too dark to appeal to the current taste for pale hair and eyes. But he had very nice deep-set brown eyes, a strong, wide jaw, and a wickedly charming smile.

Rumor had it, he also had one of the largest fortunes in the country. On the marriage mart, he would be considered by some to be a fine catch. True, his parentage was suspect, but many among the
ton
were willing to forgive—or at least conveniently overlook—such matters when there was vast wealth and the recommendation of an earl involved.

Pity they would never suit, Evie mused. He needed someone…softer. Someone a bit more like Kate.

“Mrs. Summers, do you think—”

She broke off when she noticed Mrs. Summers was fast asleep and therefore in no position to offer an opinion.

A short nap turned out to be more of a second night’s sleep for Mrs. Summers. Evie passed the time reading until the fine print and jostling of the carriage threatened to give her a headache. She put her book aside and occupied herself by making a mental list of the work she intended to see to at the cottage, taking in the occasional glimpse of passing landscape, and trying her utmost not to dwell on the fact that, for her, McAlistair comprised the most interesting part of that scenery.

Her success was limited. Enough so that she was more than a little relieved when Mrs. Summers woke and dug out a late lunch for them to share. She desperately needed the distraction of conversation. If only Mrs. Summers would cooperate, but the woman still seemed half asleep, and clearly unenthusiastic about carrying on an extended chat. Under other circumstances, Evie would have been sympathetic to her plight. After hours of only her own thoughts for company, however, sympathy was in short supply.

“Will we be stopping to change the horses soon?” Evie bit into a thick slice of bread.

“Soon enough, I imagine.”

She swallowed and tried again. “Have you been to this cottage before? It belongs to Mr. Hunter, doesn’t it?”

“It does, and I haven’t. I am not particularly familiar with Mr. Hunter.”

The familiarity comment reminded Evie of the sweet scene she’d witnessed that morning.

“I don’t mean to pry.” She thought about that. “Well, yes, I suppose I do. I can’t help myself. Have you and Mr. Fletcher formed an attachment?”

The slightest hint of rose tinted the older woman’s sharp cheekbones. “It is possible we have.”

“Oh, that’s lovely, Mrs. Summers.” Evie grinned, genuinely happy for her friend. “Absolutely lovely. When did this happen?”

“I’m not entirely—”

The remainder of that sentence came out in a gasp as the carriage jerked and tilted sharply to the side. Evie felt herself being thrown across the interior.

A crash. They were crashing.

An image flashed across her mind, a memory of screams and pain, and the sharp smell of burning wood.

Panic swelled in an instant, wiping out all thought, all sense of her surroundings.

The next thing she knew for certain, she was on the floor of the carriage, her head against the wood frame of the front bench and something round and hard digging uncomfortably into her back.

She took several deep breaths, willing away horrific images and managing her fear. She wasn’t trapped, she wasn’t in pain, and nothing was burning. This was not the carriage accident of her youth. She was fine. A trifle muddled, and certainly uncomfortable, she amended as she shifted and felt that large something dig into her back again, but otherwise fine.

The last vestiges of panic faded just as the door flew open, blinding her with a wash of bright sunlight.

“Evie!” Strong hands lifted her to a sitting position.

McAlistair.

He ran his hands over her, searching for injuries. “Are you hurt?”

Disoriented, she reached behind her to brush at her back. Her hand returned sticky with the mashed remains of an apple. “So
that’s
what—”

McAlistair caught her face in his rough hands. “Look at me. Are you hurt anywhere?”

She blinked, coming back to herself. “I…no. I’m fine.” When he continued to search her face with his dark gaze, she reached up to pull at his hands. “I’m fine. I…Mrs. Summers!”

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