By Cara Elliott
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With her older sisters both happily married, Caro Sloane yearns for a romantic adventure of her own. Unfortunately the muddy, sulfur-scented waters of Bath seem the least likely setting for love or excitement. But the aspiring young poet soon finds inspiration when she runs into a familiar-and achingly handsome-Scottish laird.
Visiting Bath with his sickly sister, Alec McClellan is shocked to be reunited with Caro Sloane. He hasn’t been able to forget the English beauty since their brief but exhilarating first meeting. But Bath is not nearly as serene as it appears, and soon Alec must protect Caro from a danger that threatens to extinguish the sparks flying between them. Little does he know that a bit of danger is exactly what Caro is looking for . . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of Scandalously Yours
A Preview of Sinfully Yours
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A slip sent stones skittering down the slope of the narrow country road.
"Watch your step," cautioned Carolina Sloane, as the rough-edged echo faded into the shadows. "The way turns steeper here, and the ground is very uneven."
She paused to glance up at the ominous gray clouds and then looked back at her companion, who was struggling to keep pace with her. "We can rest for a few minutes if you like, but we ought not linger longer than that."
Thunder rumbled off in the distance.
"The light seems to be dying awfully fast," she added.
"No, no, I—I shall manage," answered Isobel Urquehart in between gasps for breath. "I'm so sorry to be lagging—"
"Oh, please, don't apologize," said Caro quickly. "It's my fault—I should have paid more attention to the time." She squinted into the gloom up ahead, hoping to see some flicker of light from the outskirts of town. But if anything the shadows seemed to deepen and darken as the road wended its way into a copse of trees.
A gust of wind, its bite already sharp with the chill of evening, suddenly rustled through the overhanging branches, stirring a prickling of unease at the back of her neck.
"We haven't much farther to go." Repressing an oath, Caro forced herself to sound more cheerful than she felt. "It can't be more than a mile or so until we reach town."
"Yes, yes, it must be close, given how long we've been walking." Isobel hitched her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders. Her cheeks looked unnaturally pale in the fading flickers of sunlight, but she managed a smile. "And if night falls before we get there, we shall just pretend we are having a marvelous adventure."
Caro was relieved that her companion had such pluck and a sense of humor, for she hadn't realized that Isobel's health was so fragile.
That was because the two young ladies had only just met the previous afternoon. On discovering a shared interest in antiquities—as well as literature—they had made spur-of-the-moment plans for a walk out to see one of the Roman ruins that dotted the countryside around the spa town of Bath.
The day had dawned warm and sunny, so they had set out after nuncheon, thinking to be gone no more than several hours. But the setting had proved wildly romantic, and the two of them had lost track of the time as they chatted about books and history over a picnic of pastries among the weathered limestone columns.
But now, with dusk cloaking them in a swirl of shadows and stormclouds threatening rain, the decision did not seem so wise.
Impetuous. Caro gave an inward wince, knowing she did have a tendency to go off half-cocked—
"Why, just listen to the wind keening through the trees," went on Isobel, interrupting Caro's brooding. "If you use your imagination, you can almost picture yourself in the wild mountains of Sicily, evading a band of cutthroat brigands on your way to a midnight rendezvous with a swashbuckling count at the ancient ruins of Taormina."
Caro picked her way over a patch of loose stones. "Yes, I can see what you mean." A pause, and then she laughed. "So, you've read Escape from the Barbary Pirates as well as The Prince's Evil Intentions?"
"I confess, I've read all of Sir Sharpe Quill's novels." Isobel gave a shy grin. "Although I daresay I shouldn't admit it, I find them scathingly funny. Not to speak of intriguingly interesting when, um, Count Alessandro starts removing Emmalina's clothing."
"Oh, your secret is safe with me," replied Caro.
"You've read them, too?" asked Isobel.
"Every word," she assured her new friend.
And in truth, the statement was no exaggeration. That was because the reclusive author, considered by the ton to be the most intriguing gentleman in all of London, was not actually a he, but a she—more specifically, Caro's older sister Anna.
But that was a secret she was not at liberty to share.
And at the moment, there were far more pressing concerns than clever noms de plumes or dangerous pen-and-paper plots. Perhaps it was merely the rising whoosh and crackle of the leaves overhead, but it seemed that Isobel's breathing was becoming more labored.
Damn, damn, damn.
Caro bit her lip, wishing she dared quicken the pace. The prickling sensation at the back of her neck had turned sharper, like daggerpoints digging into her flesh. It was foolish, she knew, to let talk of ruthless villains and exotic dangers spook her. This dark stretch of road was a quiet country lane in England, and the black silhouettes were placid oak trees, not gnarled claws of doom stretching out to grab…
"And then, of course, the scene where Emmalina slithers down a cliff…" Behind her, Isobel had begun to recount the plot of the latest Sir Sharpe Quill novel. "… and pounces on the pirate leader, who is about to skewer Count Alessandro, is very exciting."
"Indeed," murmured Caro, trying not to be distracted by the jumpy black shadows flitting in and out of the surrounding trees.
"Of course, it's not very realistic to expect that a young lady would know how to fight tooth and nail against a muscled villain…"
Ha! thought Caro wryly. Her late father, a noted explorer specializing in exotic tribal cultures, had taken his three young daughters on several expeditions to primitive places. Being a very practical man as well as a serious scholar, he had made sure that they knew how to defend themselves with some very unladylike tricks.
"But of course, fiction allows—"
A loud snap startled Isobel into silence.
Caro whirled around, trying to spot any movement within the glade, but the softly swaying tendrils of mist seemed to mock her fears.
"Wh-what was that?" whispered Isobel.
"It's probably just a fox setting off on a hunt," answered Caro quickly, her gaze still probing among the muddled trees.
Her friend let out a nervous laugh. "Then it is a good thing we are not mice."
Or helpless little pigeons—the perfect prey for any hungry predator stalking through the shadows.
Shaking off such disturbing thoughts, she freed the ribbons of her bonnet from the folds of her shawl. "We had best keep moving."
Isobel sucked in a lungful of air. "Yes, of course."
They walked on in silence, which seemed to amplify the night sounds. The screech of an owl, the crack of a twig, the rustle of—
Another snap, this one even louder.
The echo reverberated through the woods like a gunshot.
As the road narrowed and turned sharply past a thicket of brambles, Caro slapped aside a twist of thorns, and in her haste to put the grove behind them, nearly slid into a puddle of brackish water. Before she could call out a warning, Isobel stumbled on the wet ground too and lost her footing.
Caro caught her just as she was about to take a nasty tumble. "Steady now," she murmured, keeping hold of her friend's trembling hand.
"Sorry to be such a ninnyhammer."
"Nonsense. You are a far more intrepid adventurer than any storybook heroine."
"J-just as long as I don't step on any c-cobras." Though she appeared on the verge of tears, Isobel managed an exhausted smile.
"Oh, there aren't any snakes in this part of Somerset." That might be stretching the truth a bit, but as reptiles did not come out in the chill of night, it didn't matter.
"Let's rest for a moment."
They slowed to a halt. And yet, Isobel's breathing only seemed to grow more ragged.
If only a cart would come by, thought Caro. But given the hour, that hope was unrealistic. There was no option save to forge ahead on their own.
Tightening her grip, she started forward again, hoping that the next bend would bring them free of the trees. There was something oppressive about the heaviness of the air and the canopy of leafy branches that nearly blocked out the twilight sky.
Rain—only a soaking shower could make matters worse.
She angled a look up at the scudding clouds, just as a sudden movement in the bushes caught her eye.
A scream caught in her throat as branches snapped and a man dressed all in black burst out from between two ancient oaks.
Seizing Isobel from behind, he tried to drag her back into the tangle of leaves.
But Caro reacted in the same instant and held on to her friend's hand for dear life. "Let go of her, you fiend!" she cried, then raised her voice to an even higher pitch. "Help! Help!"
Isobel struggled to fend him off. She was putting up a game fight, though in size and weight she was no match for her assailant.
He gave another wrenching yank, then swore a vicious oath as Isobel's flailing elbow caught him flush on the windpipe.
"Help, help—let me go!" She, too, had started screaming at the top of her lungs.
"Bloody Hell, shut your gobs," he snarled, clapping a beefy hand over Isobel's mouth. "And you, you hellbitch…"
The epithet was directed at Caro.
"Back off or I'll break every last bone in your body." The brute—for brute he was, with muscled arms and legs thick as tree trunks—punctuated the threat with a lashing kick aimed at Caro's knees.
She caught his boot and jerked upward with all her might.
Yanked off balance, the man fell heavily to the ground, his skull hitting the hard-packed earth with a thud.
The force of his fall took Isobel down, too. But she managed to roll free and scramble to her feet.
"Run!" urged Caro. "Run!"
However slight the chances were of outracing him, flight was their only option. Trying to outfight him was madness. Still, she snatched up a rock as she turned to follow her friend.
All too quickly, the man was up and after them, cursing with rage. His heavy footfalls were coming closer and closer…
Caro whirled and flung her missile at his forehead. Thank God for the games of hunting skill she had played with the tribal children in Crete. Hours of practice had honed her aim to a lethal accuracy.
The rock smashed into his right eye, drawing a pained howl. Half stunned, half blinded, he staggered on, fists flailing wildly.
As she dipped and dodged the blows, Caro decided that the only hope in escape lay in trying one last, desperate measure. Ducking low, she darted straight at him and brought her knee up hard between his legs.
The brute dropped like a sack of stones, his curses turning to a mewling whimper.
"Run!" she called again, seeing that Isobel had stopped and was staring in open-mouthed shock. The trick had bought them more time, but when he recovered, he would be out for her blood.
"How—" began her friend.
"Never mind that now," she said, shoving Isobel into action. "We must fly like the wind."
But they hadn't gone more than several strides when two more figures appeared from the shadows up ahead.
"Bull!" shouted the one in the lead. "Wot's wrong? Why ain't ye grabbed 'em?"
A pack of abductors?
The thought sent a spike of fear through her.
Things looked rather hopeless, but Caro wasn't yet willing to go down meekly.
A quick glance around showed one last chance. Grabbing Isobel's arm, she pushed her off the road and toward the woods. The tangle of brush and trees might slow down their pursuers.
"Try to lose yourself in the darkness," she hissed. "I'll see if I can distract them for another few moments."
To her relief, Isobel had the good sense not to waste precious seconds in further argument.
Scooping up a handful of rocks, Caro peltered the new assailants with a quick barrage, then turned to seek safety in the shadows.
But luck chose that moment to desert her. Her shoe caught in a rut and she tripped, entangled in her skirts.
Cursing the constraints of female dress, she twisted free of the fabric, scrambled to her feet, and was moving again within the space of several rapidfire heartbeats.
Quick, but not quick enough.
The first trees were only a stride away when one of the men snagged her trailing sash and whirled her around.
"Poxy slut," he snapped.
Caro blocked the first slap and countered with a punch that bloodied his lip. The second blow caught her on the side of the head with a force that set her ears to ringing. She tried to pull away but he yanked her back, and then his fist drove the air from her lungs.
The ground began to spin and blur.
Dizzy with pain, Caro felt herself slipping into a daze. Squeezing her eyes shut, she fought down a rising nausea. But things seemed to be spinning out of control. The voices around her were suddenly sounding strangely agitated, and the ringing was turning into an odd pounding.
Like the beat of galloping hooves?
Wishful thinking, she mused as she slumped to her knees. And yet, her captor seemed to have released her…
Forcing her lids open, she saw a jumble of dark shapes. A horse. A rider flinging himself from the saddle. Flying fists. Her assailant knocked arse over teakettle.
"Shoot the devil, Bull!" he croaked.
As her gaze slowly refocused, Caro saw their first attacker rise and run off, still clutching his groin, into trees on the opposite side of the road.
"Your lily-livered friend doesn't seem inclined to come to your rescue," came a deep baritone shout. "That leaves two of you—whose neck shall I break first?"
Her wits must be so addled that she was hallucinating. How else to explain why the voice sounded oddly familiar?
The man who had hit her scuttled like a crab across the road. "Billy!" he cried in a high-pitched squeal.
The only answer was a scrabbling in the bushes that quickly faded to silence.
"Vermin," muttered her rescuer as he watched the man join his cohorts in beating a hasty retreat. Turning, he then gently lifted her to her feet. "Are you hurt, Miss?"
I never swoon, she wanted to reply, if only her tongue would obey her brain. Only peagoose heroines in horrid novels swoon.
However, on catching sight of the chiseled lips, the too-long nose, and the shock of red-gold hair now looming just inches above her face, Caro promptly did just that.
"There, that should revive her."
The splash of chill water brought Caro none too gently back to consciousness.
"B-but are you sure she's not badly injured?" Isobel leaned in a little closer. "She looks pale as a ghost."
"It appears to be nothing more than an attack of maidenly nerves," answered Alec McClellan—or, more formally, Lord Strathcona, though as a radical republican he wasn't overly fond of using his hereditary title.
"Maidenly nerves!" sputtered Caro, as Alec cupped another handful of water and dumped it over her cheeks. "I'll have you know that I've never had an attack of maidenly nerves in my life."
"Apparently, there is a first time for everything," he said dryly.
"Alec, don't be so beastly. This is no time for teasing," chided Isobel. "If not for my new friend's heroics, those horrible men would have easily dragged us off to heaven knows where." To Caro she added, "Please forgive my brother. At times, he has a very peculiar sense of humor."
Caro slowly sat up. Folding back the broken brim of her bonnet she met his all-too-familiar sapphire gaze.
His eyes widened ever so slightly—whether in dismay or some other emotion was impossible to gauge. "You," he murmured, just loud enough for her to hear.
The previous autumn, she and the baron had been among the guests at a Scottish castle. Sparks had flown between them, little flares of fire that had ignited a number of conflicting, confusing emotions.
What Alec had felt was impossible to tell. He kept his personal thoughts hidden behind a wall of reserve that was flintier and harder than Highland stone.
"Brother?" Caro repeated, breaking off eye contact. "But Isobel, I thought you told me your surname is Urquehart."
"Half brother," explained Alec tersely. He was no longer sounding quite so amused now that he had recognized her. "My mother remarried after my father perished in a hunting accident."
"Ah." Caro winced as she started to undo the muddied ribbons of her bonnet. The chipstraw was squashed beyond repair and, though it was barely heavier than a feather, the weight was making her head ache. However, the knot seemed hopelessly snagged…
Alec brushed aside her fingers and with surprising gentleness quickly removed the offending headgear. "I take it you don't mind if I feed this to the neighboring sheep?" Without waiting for an answer he flung it over the hedgerow that marked the end of the woods.
"Thank you," she murmured.
Strangely enough, his hand lingered on the curls just above her ear. "You've a lump forming here."
"Yes, well, that tends to happen when one gets punched by a miscreant with knuckles like granite."
His hand stiffened. "The fellow punched you?"
"I hit him first," replied Caro, allowing a smile of grim satisfaction. "And bloodied his lip."
"That was a damnably foolish thing to do," growled Alec. "Brave, but foolish."
"Alec!" huffed Isobel in reproach.
Caro made a face. "You would rather I had meekly submitted to letting those men kidnap your sister and me?"
His mouth thinned, but his only reply was a noncommittal grunt.
A typical male reaction when defeat was inevitable in a battle of words, thought Caro.
"Speaking of kidnapping," she began. "I cannot believe such a gang of men would try such a desperate act so close to Bath. Surely it was obvious we had no valuables worth stealing."
"They must have thought you the daughters of well-to-do families," replied Alec, "who would pay handsomely for your return—and for the matter to be hushed up."
"There are many soldiers returning from the war who can find no work," he said quickly. "They are desperate men."
Caro knew that was true, and yet something did not feel right about the explanation. No matter how desperate, the men had to know they would be signing their own death warrants. The local gentry would quickly be up in arms and clamoring for blood if their daughters started being snatched off the roads.
Alec speared her to silence with a sharp look and a tiny nod at his sister. "Time enough for talk later," he growled. "Right now I would rather get you two young ladies back to town without delay. You both must be hungry and exhausted."
Caro bit her lip. A sidelong glance at Isobel showed her last reserves of strength were fast ebbing away.
His gaze came back to her. "I imagine your mother will be beside herself with worry."
"Actually she won't. The plan was for me to take supper with your sister and your aunt."
He exhaled a measured breath. "Then it seems we have an excellent chance of keeping this little incident a secret." It was said as a half question. "That would be best for a number of reasons," he went on. "Including the effect it might have on your reputation were it known the pair of you were out wandering alone after dark."
"You may think my tongue ungovernable, but I think when it comes to keeping secrets, I have proved my discretion can be counted on, Lord Strathcona," replied Caro a little tartly.
Despite her obvious fatigue, Isobel had been following the exchange with great interest. "I say, are the two of you acquainted?"
"Yes," replied Caro.
"As I said, let us leave long-winded explanations for another time, Bella." Alec tucked her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders. "You're chilled and exhausted. I wish to get you home without delay."
"There's no need to fuss like a mother hen, Alec. I'm not quite so fragile as I look." But the tremor in Isobel's voice belied her words.
"How did you come to rescue us, sir?" asked Caro, as he hurriedly fetched his horse and lifted his sister into the saddle. Bath was not a large town, and she was surprised that she had heard no mention of his being there. Gentlemen—especially unmarried, titled gentlemen under the age of sixty—did not go unnoticed. "I was under the impression that you are loath to spend any time in England."
"I am occasionally obliged to travel to the south," he replied, but offered no further explanation. "My plans on this trip include a stay in Bath while my sister is here taking the waters. I arrived this afternoon, and naturally went straight to the townhouse that my aunt has rented. She was becoming concerned about Isobel, and since she knew your intended plans, I decided to ride out and make sure there had been no sprained ankle or other mishap."
"How very lowering to find that you all think me helpless as a kitten." Isobel managed a smile, but pain pinched at the corners of her mouth.
"Do you mind walking, Miss Caro?" said Alec softly. "The truth is, my sister has been ill—in fact, that's why she's here in Bath. I am concerned that she doesn't suffer a relapse from this little adventure."
"Of course not," she answered. "I should never have suggested the excursion had I known—"
"How could you?" he interrupted curtly. "Besides, it is not your responsibility to have a care for my sister's welfare, it is mine."
Caro knew that fear and worry had him on edge. Still, she felt a little hurt by his tone. "Then let us be off without further delay, sir."
A small frown momentarily creased his brow, but he merely gave a gruff nod, gathered the reins, and started walking.
Without, noted Caro, so much as offering his arm or a backward glance.
"So much for dreaming of dashing heroes," she muttered under her breath, then shook out her skirts and hurried to catch up.
They weren't much more than a mile from town, and as none of them seemed to be much in the mood for chatting, the short trip was passed in silence, save for the steady clip-clop of the stallion's hooves. Alec chose a roundabout route through the side streets of Bath, arriving in the mews of his family's rented townhouse without encountering anyone.
"Thank God we are here," murmured Alec as he lifted Isobel from the saddle. "It seems the chances are good that we have given no grist for the gossip mills."
"All's well that ends well," quipped his sister. "And you may put me down," she added quickly when he turned with her still in his arms. "I am perfectly capable of walking from here to the door."
He hesitated, which earned him another gentle rebuke. "Truly, Alec. I do not wish to be treated like an invalid."
"Very well." He relented and set her on her feet. "Still, you must promise me you will not overexert yourself."
"On the contrary, exercise is very beneficial in building my stamina," she countered.
As long as future walks don't include attacks by a pack of ruffians, thought Caro, watching her friend prove her point by walking briskly across the small courtyard.
Which once again raised the question…
Her gaze slid to Alec. During the walk she had decided the desperate soldier story did not fadge. And it was highly doubtful that Isobel had any enemies who might be moved to violence. But as for her brother, Caro was aware that he was involved in some very dangerous activities in Scotland.
Alec seemed to sense what she was thinking, for instead of following his sister, he shifted his stance and cleared his throat with a brusque cough. "I suppose that look means you aren't going to be satisfied with the earlier explanation for this evening's incident," he muttered.
"Should I be?" she countered.
He let out a sigh. Or maybe it was more of a snort.
"Soldiers may be desperate. But not that desperate," continued Caro. "So considering that I have—however unwittingly and unwillingly—been drawn into this intrigue, I do think I have a right to know what dangers I may be facing."
"None," he said quickly. "That is, there won't be any as soon as I take care of a few matters."
She noted that he avoided meeting her gaze. "I can't say that's entirely reassuring." A pause. "You forget that I saw some of your radical friends stealing an arsenal of weapons from Dunbar Castle. I'm well aware of what dangerous circles you move in, Lord Strathcona."
"As you eavesdropped on our meeting, Miss Caro, you should know that they are not my friends," he retorted.
"Let's not quibble over words," she huffed. "The fact is, you are involved in a secret political society seeking independence for Scotland. And your fellow members, be they friends or otherwise, are not afraid to use violence to achieve their ends."
He didn't argue.
"So whether you like it or not, I feel I have a right to know what is going on." She drew a deep breath. "Especially if you wish me to keep silent on the matter."
"That," he growled, "is blackmail."
"I prefer to think of it as persuasion. I am merely pointing out a sensible course of action."
His jaw tightened.
"Alec!" Isobel's call interrupted their exchange. "Don't be so rag-mannered as to keep Caro standing in the chill. She, too, is tired and hungry."
"We are coming," he called to her. Offering his arm to Caro—rather ungallantly, she thought—he added, "I would rather not upset my sister's delicate sensibilities with talk of this. I must leave town at first light for a few days on a matter that cannot be put off—"
Caro opened her mouth to protest.
"However," he went on, "as soon as I return, I shall meet with you and explain the situation more fully."
It was Caro's opinion that Isobel was not as delicate in spirit as Alec seemed to think. But as the friendship was so new, she did not feel it was her place to say so.
Instead she merely asked, "Is that a promise?"
"Ye gods, would you like me to write it down in blood?"
Her lips quirked up at the corners.
"Yes," he snapped before she could reply. "You need not resort to knives or razors—it's a promise. Though I daresay I'll regret it."
She bit back a retort, suddenly feeling too tired to argue. But as he paused to relock the gate to the mews, another thought occurred to her. "You may not wish to worry Isobel, but surely you will have to give her a more convincing explanation than rogue soldiers run amuck."
"I'll think of something," he muttered.
- "A delicious new trilogy with engaging characters, witty dialogue, and passion..."—My Book Addiction Reviews , (mybookaddictionreviews.com)
- On Sale
- May 26, 2015
- Page Count
- 342 pages