Highland Champion by Cynthia Breeding

Chapter One

Scottish Highlands, April, 1775

She’d done it. She’d escaped. Lorelei Caldwell sank back against the leather squab of the Earl of Bute’s carriage and turned to Fiona MacGregor, her recent sister-by-marriage.

“Can you believe we are finally on our way to London? For the Season?”

Fiona grinned. “And best of all, none of my meddling brothers are escorting us.”

“That is something to be grateful for.”

“Mayhap the faeries had something to do with the timing,” Fiona suggested, still grinning.

Lorelei nodded. “I am beginning to believe in the Fae myself.” She was only half jesting. Fiona had five big, brawny brothers who felt it their duty to interfere with anything that amounted to having a bit of fun. Luckily, they’d been distracted lately. Ian had married Lorelei’s older sister Emily in December, Rory had become handfasted to her other sister Juliana—which was quite a story in itself—Devon wouldn’t be caught dead south of the border, and Carr had been called to Inverness. Alasdair was still away in Ireland, which was especially beneficial, since he was the one most likely to have an eye trained on her. Really, just because there had been a few instances—such as when she’d thrown wine on the despicable Neal Cameron—who’d tried to ruin her sister, and Alasdair had had to intervene to keep the vile man from retaliating—didn’t mean she needed a keeper. Granted, she’d been aware of the envious looks because Alasdair had come to her rescue. With his black hair and jade eyes, he was a handsome man, to say nothing of his height and muscular build. Lorelei would even admit, at least to herself, that she liked his attentions. Still. She did have enough sense not to cross in front of a team of galloping horses even though he acted as though she didn’t. At least she’d be safely in London before he returned home, which was supposed to be any day.

“Why are ye frowning?”

Lorelei shook her head. “It is nothing. I hope we did not leave anything behind.” Except Fiona’s brother…not that she was going to mention that.

“Your sisters helped us pack, so I’m sure we have it all,” Fiona replied and patted the soft leather of the seat. “I am so glad Lord Bute lent us his carriage. We’ll arrive in real grandeur.”

“That we will.” The Earl of Bute, who had been instrumental in helping the MacGregor clan reclaim their name, was attending to months-long business in Scotland and had lent Fiona and herself his personal carriage for the ride to London, since they’d be staying with his family, and his wife was sponsoring them for the Season.

“Aye.” Fiona sank back against the seat. “I like to think the Faerie Queen agrees ’tis time we show my overbearing, bossy brothers we are more than capable of taking care of ourselves.”

Lorelei frowned slightly. Luck and coincidence probably didn’t have anything to do with the situation. But she and Fiona were free as birds and—at only eight-and-ten—on their way to London for a whole set of adventures without any bossy men or older sisters reining them in.

Five days later, the carriage rolled to a stop in front of a four-story town home on South Audley Street in Mayfair. The earl’s London residence was quite impressive, and Fiona rounded her eyes like an owl at the sight. Lorelei hid a smile.

“This is where we will be staying?” Fiona asked.

“Yes. It is in one of the best locations.”

“’Tis verra grand. Grander even than the ones being built in Edinburgh.” Fiona sat back. “Are ye glad to be home?”

“It does feel good to be back in Town,” Lorelei answered, although home wasn’t exactly a fitting word anymore. Emily had had to sell their own town house last summer when her opium-addicted husband, the Earl of Woodhaven, had died and left a mountain of debts. Through a quirk of Fate, her sister had been granted title to Strae Castle, a former MacGregor holding in the Highlands. That had kept them from being homeless. “I am definitely looking forward to having a fantastic time at all the balls, routs, and soirees.”

“I hope I get invitations.” Fiona sounded a bit wistful. “I ken Scots are nae well-liked everywhere.”

Lorelei reached over and patted her hand. “You will be fine. The countess will make sure we are both included. Do not—how do you say it? Doona fash.”

Fiona smiled at that. “We may make ye into a Scot yet.”

Before she could answer, the door to the town home opened and a footman came out to open the carriage door and set down the steps. He opened his hand and Fiona looked at Lorelei expectantly.

“He wants to assist you.”

“Do I need assistance? ’Tis a wee small step.”

She hid another smile. “That is true, but in London, ladies are expected to act like they need help with all sorts of things.”

Fiona frowned and Lorelei couldn’t hold her smile in any longer. Back in Scotland, Fiona had worn breeches, saddled her own horse, and could throw a knife with alarming speed and accuracy. Not that those skills would be needed here, any more than Lorelei’s childhood obsession with climbing trees. At last, Fiona did allow the footman to assist her.

The butler, attired in proper livery, met them inside the door and inclined his head ever so slightly. “I am Belton. The countess and her daughter will receive you in the front parlor.” He gestured. “This way.”

Fiona glanced at her, eyes rounding again, as he turned to lead them down a short hallway, and Lorelei shrugged. Pompous butlers were a fact of life, especially in Mayfair. On the long journey down, she’d tried to explain some of the things that would be very different from life in Scotland, but describing wasn’t the same as experiencing. She wished her cousin Anne was in Town so she could help with situations that were bound to pop up, but Anne and her parents were on the Continent and had decided to spend time in Florence this spring. Perhaps Lady Louisa might help.

She was more than a little apprehensive about being introduced, although she wasn’t about to admit that. To anyone. She’d never met Lady Louisa, the daughter of their hostess the Countess of Bute, and the second youngest of the earl’s eleven children. There was a good chance she was thoroughly spoiled from doting elder siblings. Both Emily and Juliana were always trying to protect her and, as she’d noticed with Fiona, it was worse with brothers.

And…Lady Louisa was the daughter of the former prime minister, which was something no other debutante could claim. She might well give herself airs. Lorelei squared her shoulders and took a deep breath as the butler stopped at the open door to the parlor.

“Do come in. We were hoping you would arrive soon.” The Countess of Bute rose from a delicate-looking ivory-brocade chair. “Was your journey pleasant?”

Lorelei dipped a curtsy. “It went quite well, thank you.” She hoped Fiona wouldn’t mention that the carriage had almost overturned when a reckless driver in a cabriolet had sideswiped them coming into London or that they’d barely avoided a brawl that had broken out when they’d stopped for lunch earlier. Both incidents had caused Fiona to curse loudly in Gaelic.

A younger woman seated in a much more comfortable-looking armchair by the hearth closed the book she’d been reading and set it aside—somewhat reluctantly it seemed—and rose as well.

“I am Louisa. Welcome to our home.”

“Thank you for having us.” She wasn’t what Lorelei had expected. Although she resembled the countess somewhat, she was more plain than pretty. Her brown hair was pulled back in a simple chignon and she made no effort to remove her spectacles. Her gown, although silk, was simply cut in a nondescript shade of beige. No panniers stuck out to the sides, and she wasn’t wearing hoops, either. Instead, the material draped in pleats from the cinched waist. Comfortable, not fashionable.

She peered over the tops of the spectacles at Fiona. “And you must be Miss MacGregor?”

“Aye. ’Tis my pleasure to meet ye.”

Louisa gave her a genuine smile. “I have always loved Scotland, so I would like to have you tell me about where you live.”

Fiona smiled back. “I would be happy to.”

“Will you join me on the settee then?”

“Aye.”

Lorelei blinked as the two of them moved to the sofa below a side window. Either Lady Louisa was trained extremely well to make strangers comfortable or she was actually interested in Scottish life. From the questions she was rattling off, it sounded like the latter.

Another footman appeared, wheeling a cart with a full tea service although Lorelei didn’t recall Lady Bute having given instructions. It seemed the household was very efficiently run.

She looked around as the countess poured tea. In the nearly ten months she’d been in Scotland, she’d almost forgotten the fancy elegance of a Mayfair town house. By contrast, the original part of Strae Castle was medieval, complete with a great hall, stone walls, and narrow-slit windows that were meant more for defense than for light. This parlor had a large window that looked out into a small garden, and its walls were covered in ivory damask with a scrolled pattern of vines and leaves rather than tapestries. Dark blue velvet draperies complemented the pale blue brocaded upholstery and reflected the various threads in the Aubusson carpet laid over polished oak floors. Unlike the hearths at Strae Castle that were nearly large enough to stand up in, with permanently sooty walls from years of peat smoke, the one in this room was barely waist high, the brass screen in front of it polished to a sheen. The white marble mantel above showed not a speck of dust, let alone soot. Lorelei wondered what Fiona would make of it.

“Do come over and drink your tea before it cools,” Lady Bute said to her daughter. “You have months to learn about Scotland.”

Louisa turned to Fiona as they moved over to the larger sofa. “I do apologize. I should not have kept you talking.”

Fiona gave her a quizzical look. “Why nae? Ye were curious and I doona mind answering your questions.”

“I should have properly allowed you tea and biscuits first.”

Fiona tilted her head to one side. “Does everything have to be done proper all the time?”

“I am afraid so,” the countess answered for Louisa. “It is very important that young ladies observe all of Society’s rituals, if they want to gain proposals from respectable gentlemen.”

Louisa wrinkled her nose. “She means titled gentlemen.”

Fiona widened her eyes. “I doona expect that.”

“Really?” Louisa studied her. “You did not come down here expecting to make a match that would help the MacGregors secure their status?”

“Really, Louisa.” Lady Bute frowned. “That is certainly not a proper question.”

Her daughter frowned, too. “But it is the truth, Mother. Why else would our fathers spend thousands of pounds on our fancy gowns and slippers so we can outshine one another at endless engagements in hopes of catching the biggest prize—”

The countess set her teacup down. “I am sure Lorelei and Fiona are looking forward to some of those engagements.”

“I am,” Fiona said. “Several of my brothers have been to London and I have always wanted to see it.”

“And I am looking forward to the social Season as well.” Lorelei didn’t say that, even though she’d always envisioned a huge wedding—maybe at St. Paul’s Cathedral— she was not considering marriage yet. This Season was for adventure. Instead, she smiled. “Although I do not know how much attention we will actually get.”

“You will be noticed as soon as you walk into a room,” Louisa assured her. “Your hair is so light and your skin fair as porcelain.” She smiled at Fiona. “And you, with your inky hair will draw attention, too.”

“You do make a fine contrast to each other,” Lady Bute said.

Lorelei looked from mother to daughter. They were certainly a contrast as well. The Countess of Bute was mostly what she expected…a matron of the ton. Louisa was a surprise. She didn’t seem at all taken with fashionable clothes or balls, soirees and routs… Endless engagements she had called them.

And Lorelei had detected a bit of independence in her tone, even if she deferred to her mother. She bit her lip to keep from laughing. Independence was a trait both she and Fiona had in spades. Perhaps they’d have an ally.

It was going to be an interesting Season.

Alasdair MacGregor reined in his great Friesian and paused to observe the smoky haze that blotted the horizon and obliterated what he knew was the densely packed city of London.

He patted the stallion’s neck. “We better appreciate the fine air we still have, Kelso. In another hour or so, we’ll be breathing soot.”

The horse blew through his nostrils as though he understood the value of clean air and ambled slowly forward rather than briskly trotting like he usually did.

“Aye. I’m in nae hurry, either.”

He’d spent four days riding hard to get here and now that he was close, he slowed down. A wise general took time to survey the battlefield and plan a course of action before engaging in combat. He grimaced. The Scots would have defeated the English at Culloden if that procedure had been followed.

Not that he had any intention of resurrecting another war with England. Ostensibly, he would be in London to help sort through land grants that might be returned to the clan now that their name had been un-proscribed—specifically five hundred hectares that were in Campbell hands. He’d just spent the last five months in Ireland trying to locate MacGregors who might have a claim. Trying to reinstate those properties would probably require a vote of Parliament and would be not an easy task, but his brothers were depending on him to handle it. It was a huge responsibility and he didn’t intend to fail.

Truthfully, though, he had another reason for being in London. His incorrigible sister and Miss Lorelei Caldwell were apt to get themselves into trouble by blithely forging ahead, with no thought to consequences. What had his brothers been thinking to allow the two of them to travel to London by themselves, save for a driver and two coachmen? He’d stuck to the main road and kept an eye out for Lord Bute’s carriage, half expecting his sister and Lorelei to have run afoul of something before they’d even reached the city. That he’d seen no carriage with the earl’s crest parked at any of the coaching inns was encouraging, but the Lord only knew what mischief they could get into in a city the size of London.

But, as long as he was being honest with himself, there was still another reason he wished his damn brothers had kept the females at home. When Lorelei had arrived at Strae Castle with her sisters last summer, he’d been immediately attracted to her, even though she was but eight-and-ten. Her hair was the color of moonlight and her eyes such a light blue they looked almost silvery. She looked otherworldly, as if she’d been touched by the Fae. Or maybe the Fae had touched him, because he’d stolen a kiss—against all good sense and judgment—the night they’d returned from Kilchurn Castle, and it had rattled him to his bones. That she hadn’t slapped him silly was somewhat of a miracle or maybe the ill-timing—or well-timed, depending on one’s view—of his sister appearing on the steps had thwarted it. In any case, it was a good thing he’d left for Ireland not long after or he’d have attempted another kiss, probably not with the same luck.

Looks could be deceiving, though. Beneath Lorelei’s proper lady-like appearance lay a reckless streak that made her throw caution to the winds. Feisty. Flighty. Fickle. Not traits that a reasonably intelligent man would seek in a woman. Mayhap Lorelei was some sort of sylph after all, for he found her irresistibly fetching.

Courting her in the Highlands would have been much easier than having to mire through the muck of a London Season with all the sods that would be vying for her attention. But he wasn’t one to turn down a challenge.

He was a MacGregor, after all.