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 (7 page)

BOOK: McAlistair's Fortune
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There had been nothing artificial in it, nothing that spoke of the phony or the designed.

There was still truth in the world, he’d realized, and it could be found in one woman’s laughter.

He’d fallen in love with her that very day. Without seeing her, without even knowing for certain who she was, he’d fallen in love. It had been an innocent sort of love initially, the sort a lost and hungry man might develop for a woman who takes him in and enchants him with food and kindness.

But it had been love nonetheless.

For a time, he’d been content with that level of affection, to simply listen for and appreciate the sound of her laughter. But he was only a man, and eventually his desire to know more had led him to seek her out. Drawn by the sound of her voice, he’d made his way to the edge of the woods by the lawn one evening and caught his first glimpse of the woman who’d brought him some measure of peace.

He knew who she was the minute he laid eyes on her. Before he’d taken up residence in the Haldon woods, Whit had given him a description of every member of the house. Small, curvy, and with a scar running the length of her cheek, the object of his adoration could be none other than eighteen-year-old Miss Evie Cole.

He’d watched her and a younger, taller girl who could only be Lady Kate Cole as they played with a pair of lop-eared puppies in the grass. He stayed no more than a quarter hour, just long enough to witness the gentle way she tussled with the pups, the affectionate way she teased her friend…and the disturbing way his body tightened when she stood up and bent over to pick up one of the puppies, showing him a clear outline of her backside.

He’d walked back to his camp that afternoon with a love very different from the sort with which he’d walked out.

Pity, he thought now, that it hadn’t been the fleeting sort.

He found the stream and knelt to cool his face. It wasn’t frigid as he had hoped, but it did the job. Calmer, if not exactly comfortable, he sat back on his heels and took stock of the situation.

He’d kissed Evie—again—and that couldn’t be undone. He doubted he would take it back even if he could. It had been heaven, and no man gave up paradise willingly, even when it was undeserved.

A man could, however, make a better effort not to steal it.

He’d keep his distance from her. He would remember who she was—a lady, an innocent, cousin and niece to the people he owed more than he could hope to repay. More importantly, he would remember who he was, and what he had been.

Feeling considerably more resolute, McAlistair stood and began a walk around the perimeter of the camp. He hadn’t the least expectation of finding anything. He wouldn’t have indulged in the kiss or gone stomping through the woods if he had believed, for a moment, that anyone could have followed them without his notice.

It wouldn’t matter if a pursuer had taken every precaution to go undetected; McAlistair would have known of the danger. He had, after all, made a fine living from ferreting out men who had done their very best to hide.

Still, he wouldn’t be comfortable forgoing the patrol.

Evie would no doubt consider the precaution pointless. Scowling again, McAlistair carefully pushed his way through a cluster of low-hanging branches. This notion she had of a matchmaking ruse troubled him. Not because he thought there was any truth to her theory, but because a woman certain of her safety was far more likely to take chances with her person.

It irritated him as well that she hadn’t accepted his rejection of the theory. She had an unexpected stubborn streak.

Bullheadedness, however, could not stand forever against reason and reality. She’d come around eventually. And likely it was best she do so in stages. It would be less traumatic for her to grow accustomed to the idea gradually, rather than to be hit over the head with it all at once. He rather doubted she was inclined toward hysterics, but one never knew.

And he could keep her safe in the meantime.

With that settled and his patrol completed, he turned his steps toward camp…and his mind back to the kiss.

It occurred to him suddenly that apologizing to Evie might be the proper thing to do.

To hell with that.

It was enough that he had pulled away before things had gotten out of hand. He’d let the matter drop—simply pretend it hadn’t happened. It had been some time since he had been subject to the rules of gentlemanly behavior, but he was certain—well,
relatively
certain—that pretending the kiss had never occurred was the next best thing to apologizing for it.

It would have to be. He wouldn’t steal paradise, but damned if he’d apologize for sneaking a glimpse.

Left alone after McAlistair stormed off into the woods, Evie had considered staying up simply because he had ordered her to go to sleep, but in the end, she’d decided that pretending to sleep was a sight less humiliating than standing about, waiting for him to return.

Staring up now into the thin sliver of night sky afforded in the clearing, she might have taken some pleasure in the realization that her pile of leaves, branches, and a layer of thick blanket made for a surprisingly soft bed—might have, if she hadn’t been so damnably uncomfortable.

Her body still hummed from McAlistair’s kiss, making her hot and restless, and her mind still reeled from his sudden withdrawal.

Why had he turned away? Why had he tossed her the blanket, then
run
away? She wondered where he’d gone and when he would come back.

Perhaps she should have gone after him. Perhaps she should go after him now.

She wondered how mortifying it would be if she tried it, slipped and fell in the dark, and had to call out for his help.

She was weighing the benefits of getting up and pacing off her agitation around the glowing remains of the fire, when she heard the rustle of branches. Slowly (she was attempting to feign sleep, after all) she turned her head to the side. Squinting into the dark, she was able to discern the outline of McAlistair’s form as he gathered branches at the edge of the clearing.

She turned her head back, rolled over, and shut her eyes as he made his way toward her. She wanted to ask if he was quite done being snippy, but thought better of it—particularly after he settled down behind her. He was so close she could hear his every breath. If she were to roll over, she could reach out and touch him. The urge to do just that was nearly overpowering. But even stronger was the desire for it to be him who reached.

“Evie?” he called softly, and nearly had her jumping off the blanket.

“Yes?” She winced at the wealth of hope in that one word.

“It’s James. My first name is James.”

“Oh.” Heavens, the man really
was
odd. “Shall I…shall I call you James?”

“No. My father was James, as well.”

“McAlistair, it is, then.”

He wouldn’t reach, she realized, but at least he wasn’t angry or cold. Willing to accept that for now, she closed her eyes and let exhaustion drag her into sleep.

Nine

T
he sun had yet to break over the tops of the trees when Evie next woke. It filtered through branches and leaves to shoot long beams onto the forest floor and softly light the clearing. She blinked blurry eyes at McAlistair’s blanket, only to find him gone.

She sat up slowly, wincing at the stiffness of her leg and…well, the stiffness of everything, really. “McAlistair?”

She was answered by the soft crunch of leaves behind her. Turning, she saw McAlistair stride out from the trees into the clearing, two fish dangling lifelessly from one hand.

She made a futile attempt to rub the sleep out of her eyes. “Where did you get those?”

“Stream. Caught them.”

She saw no sign of a fishing pole or net. “With what?”

He held up his free hand, wiggled his fingers.

“Oh, you did not.” She laughed. He couldn’t possibly have. She watched him set his catch down next to the fire and stir the embers. “Did you?”

A corner of his mouth hooked up. “I could show you.”

“What,
now?”

He shook his head. “At the cottage. There’s a stream.”

“You’ve been there?”

“No. I asked Mr. Hunter to draw a map at Haldon.”

“Oh.” She yawned hugely. “Is it nice?”

He glanced up. “Wasn’t a portrait. Just a sketch of surrounding towns, landmarks, buildings.”

Of course it was. What else would it be—a rendition of every room, brick, and tree in watercolor? She grimaced. “I’m not at my best in the morning. I much prefer evenings and nights. In London—”

She broke off, suddenly remembering last night in particular.

That she could have forgotten, even for a moment, was a testament to just how muddled she was in the mornings.

Good heavens, he’d kissed her. She’d kissed him back. Rich delight warred with a sudden wash of nerves. Should she say something—somehow acknowledge what had happened? Would he?

He slapped a fish down on a large flat rock and pulled out his knife. “In London, what?”

Apparently, he would not. “I—Nothing.”

Disappointment neatly wedged out delight. Had it been so mundane to him, that he could so easily dismiss what had passed between them? Or was it simply that what she had felt—that wonderful, nearly overpowering thrill, had not touched him as well? It was a humiliating thought, and because she didn’t care for humiliation as a rule, she pushed it aside.

He was being a gentleman, that was all. A man of breeding would never remind a lady of what some might consider a moral lapse. Never mind the fact that a gentleman would not have kissed her to begin with; he was being one now. She should be grateful, really. It would save her from a considerable amount of awkwardness, not to mention another round of fanciful daydreams.

He’d told her she was meant for someone else, hadn’t he? To her mind, that excuse was tantamount to a “no, thank you.” That, along with his sudden forgetfulness, told her that a few stolen kisses were all he was interested in. She would be wise to remember it.

Pasting on an indifferent expression, she wandered forward and eyed the fish on the rock. “Whit and Alex would be monstrously impressed—”

She broke off again and made a face as he began the cleaning process.

He glanced up. “Haven’t you seen a fish gutted before?”

“Oh, yes. Many times.” She kept her eyes studiously away from him and his work. “Whit and Alex often fish. Have since they were young boys.” She made another face. “Boys have a tendency to play with the bits and pieces.”

“Left them in your bed, did they?”

“And face the housekeeper’s wrath?” She laughed and shook her head. “They preferred chasing us about the yard with the head and…whatnot, stuck to the end of a stick.”

“Nasty lot, little boys.” He smiled and reached for a fish. “Did you enact retribution?”

“Tied their lines into hopeless knots,” she confirmed. She tilted her head to study him. He was practically chatty all of a sudden—asking about her family, offering to teach her to fish, initiating conversation. He was bright-eyed, alert, almost cheerful, or as cheerful as she’d ever seen him.

“You’re a morning person.” She hadn’t meant for it to come out sounding quite so much like an accusation, but well, she had a long-standing, deep-rooted suspicion of morning people. It was so unnatural.

“I like the light,” he replied—cryptically, in her opinion.

“I like it too,” she mumbled. “At noon.”

“You sleep until noon?”

“Not unless I want a lecture from Lady Thurston on the pitfalls of sloth. I’m just not fully awake until midday.” She rubbed a hand down her face. “What do you mean, you like the light?”

“It’s softer.”

“Is it?” She glanced to the east and winced. “Seems uncommonly bright to me.”

“Depends on one’s viewpoint.”

“I suppose.” Forgetting to be disgusted, she watched him set aside the first fish and reach for the second. “Something I can do to help?” she asked.

“Build up the fire.”

Evie questioned the wisdom of having her play with fire first thing in the morning, but did as he asked all the same. And in the end, she was able to produce a nice flame from last night’s coals with only a singed bit of sleeve for her trouble. She sighed at the damage to her gown. Her blue travel ensemble had gone from smart and stylish to hopelessly wrinkled, stained, and now burnt. She expected the rest of her looked nearly as frightful, but aside from twisting her hair into a braid she tossed over her shoulder, there was very little she could do about it until they reached someplace where she could make use of some soap and a mirror.

To her disappointment, McAlistair quickly dispelled the idea of stopping at an inn.

“We stay off the road,” he informed her after he’d cooked the fish, handed her half of one, and packed the other away for lunch.

“Couldn’t we stop
somewhere?”
Evie asked as she ate her miserly portion.

He doused the fire with handfuls of dirt and a few judicious applications of his boots. “Where?”

“A tavern? A farmer’s? A—?”

“No.”

As she had rather suspected that would be his answer, she didn’t bother grousing.

She did, however, indulge in a fair amount of grumbling when she climbed into her saddle to leave. Yesterday’s ride had turned her entire body into an aching mass of muscle and bone, and it had been a mere half-day’s journey. How much worse would a full day in the saddle be?

It wasn’t nearly as awful as Evie had feared. In deference to her comfort, McAlistair made regular stops for her to dismount and stretch. It bruised her pride a little, and her leg continued to ache, but it was far better than the numbness she’d experienced the day before. In turn, she resolved to set aside her discomfort and make the best of the trip. It was an adventure, after all, and not one she’d likely repeat.

Meaningful conversation with McAlistair was out of the question, as he seemed always to be riding ahead, or behind, or off to the side, or…well, just away from her. She preferred to think he was trying to discern if they were being followed, and not just avoiding her, but in either case, she was left to entertain herself.

And that entertainment was
not
to include lingering over the sight of him galloping along on his horse…even if he did look rather dashing, with his dark locks slipping from their tie to blow across his restless eyes, and the hard muscles of his legs rippling under the fabric of his breeches, and—

She jerked her gaze away from him and pointedly turned her mind to safer subjects, like the study of an unusually large shrub. Mirabelle, she told herself, would want to know all about that shrub. In fact, Whit’s wife, who had a hobbyist’s fascination with plants, would probably enjoy hearing a detailed description of every flower, tree and bush Evie came across.

And considering what she could share or bring her friends from her journey was certainly a happier thought than dwelling on her jumbled emotions. Thinking of them, instead of herself, she began to look around with renewed interest.

It was lovely countryside, she decided. Though she’d been to Cambridgeshire before, she’d never traveled far outside the major towns, and she’d never gone so far off the road. It was a whole different world, and a new experience to watch the familiar soft hills and patches of forest slowly give way to the low-lying fenlands. If she’d been in a carriage, she likely would have occupied her time with reading or conversation, only bothering with the occasional glance out the window. She wouldn’t have appreciated the gradual changes, the soft shading of color, or the airy charm of a distant windmill.

She reached out and pulled a few leaves from a tall plant, noting the light sage fragrance, and tucked them into her pocket for Mirabelle. Perhaps she could find a wildflower to press for Kate. Sophie would like nothing better than a fine story or two, and Evie was certain she’d have plenty before the trip was out.

Preoccupied with her surroundings and thoughts of her friends, Evie barely noticed the morning passing until McAlistair rode up beside her, declared it time for lunch, and brought the horses to a stop. They settled on one of the blankets—at Evie’s insistence, for he would have been content to stand and eat—and quickly consumed the fish McAlistair had saved from breakfast. Generally, Evie preferred her fish warm and with seasoning, but having had so little to eat in the last twenty-four hours, the meal tasted like ambrosia—a sadly inadequate portion of ambrosia.

Evie gave a passing thought to offering a portion of her share to McAlistair. Then she ate her meal in four greedy bites. She wasn’t quite that noble.

To distract herself from the fact that the fish had done so little to assuage her hunger, she once more turned her attention to the scenery. It occurred to her that if someone had been out for her head, she’d be ill at ease riding, not to mention sitting, in such open land. “What convenient targets we make,” she commented absently.

McAlistair finished the last of his fish and looked to her. “Sorry?”

She waved her hand at the open landscape. “There’s no place for us to hide here. Not that we need it,” she was quick to add, “but if we did, we wouldn’t have it.”

“No place for anyone else to hide either.”

“You have a point.” Anyone who might like to take aim at them would need to make himself a target as well. “What would happen then, if a man on a horse came charging toward us all of a sudden? Would we simply begin firing at each other and hope we have the better aim, or would we run and hope our horses could outlast his, or—”

“I won’t let anything happen to you.”

His earnest tone had her turning to him. The intensity of his gaze had her turning away again, her breath caught in her lungs. A discomforting combination of heat and guilt settled in her chest.

That had been thoughtless of her.

McAlistair believed the ruse to be real. He shouldn’t, of course—she had told him the truth—but the fact remained that he
believed
her to be in danger. And that belief made his willingness to see her safely across several counties an act of genuine selflessness. She had no reservations about arguing with him about the necessity of his concern, but she should take more care not to poke fun at him for it.

“I know you won’t,” she said quietly.

“Because you don’t think yourself in danger,” McAlistair guessed.

“Well, yes,” she admitted, still unable to meet his eyes. “But only in part.”

“You think you’re capable of seeing to your own safety.”

“Well, yes,” she said again. “But if I
were
in danger and incapable of taking care of myself, I would certainly trust you to see to the job.”

“You’re too kind,” he said in a dry tone.

It sparked a laugh from Evie, and laughing helped the tense moment to pass. “It’s true, I am a bottomless well of generosity.” She blew out a long breath and rubbed her hands against her blue skirts. “And now that we’ve agreed upon it, I suppose we should be moving.”

“In a hurry to ride?”

She gave him a wry smile as she stood. “I am in a tremendous hurry to arrive.”

“It will be another day, yet,” he reminded her as he rose in the smooth, graceful manner that Evie knew she’d never grow accustomed to.

“I know. At least we’ve clear weather,” she replied with determined cheerfulness.

Perhaps, if she hadn’t been quite so determined, she might have noticed the way McAlistair glanced darkly at the horizon or the way his lips moved to frame the words, “For now.”

The sun of afternoon held none of the gentle warmth Evie had enjoyed that morning or the cheery light she’d barely noticed at noon. The afternoon sun was hot, harsh, and just as it had the day before, beat mercilessly down on her head and back.

She grimaced as a line of sweat trickled between her shoulder blades. She felt, and no doubt looked, positively gruesome. If only McAlistair would change direction for a few minutes so that she might roast a different part of—

She cut off her own line of thought.

Why the devil was the sun beating on her back? She twisted in the saddle to peer behind her, ignoring the shriek of protest from her sore muscles.

They were going east, she suddenly realized. They’d been going east nearly all day. Norfolk was not straight east. Stunned, she brought the horse to a stop.

“McAlistair?”

He’d been riding within speaking distance for a change and brought his own horse to a halt beside her. “Something the matter?”

“No. Yes. I have no idea,” she decided.

A line formed in his brow. “Is it your leg?”

“No, I…” She shifted her weight. “Are we lost?”

“No.”

She blew out a short breath of annoyance. Wasn’t that just like a man? He wouldn’t even consider the possibility he might be in the wrong, even when a great shiny orb in the sky indicated otherwise.

“You know where we are, then?” she asked.

“Not far from the village of Randswith.”

Being completely lost herself, she had absolutely no idea if that was true. “The thing is, McAlistair…we’re going east.”

“Yes.”

She opened her mouth, closed it. Oh, hell, what had she been thinking, following a man who likely hadn’t left the Haldon grounds in nearly a decade?

BOOK: McAlistair's Fortune
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