The viscount's house party promises to be one of the Season's highlights, and Lord and Lady Kilgorn are delighted to attend. If only the long-estranged couple had realized that they were both invited--and assigned to the same bedchamber...
"When four talented authors join forces to create a quartet of stories where unforgettable heroes take center stage, readers are assured of a sizzling feast of dreams-come-true romances...MacKenzie delights with...The Naked Laird."
~Kathe Robin, Romantic Times BOOKreviews
Eleanor, Countess of Kilgorn, sank deeper into the copper slipper tub.After the long carriage ride, the hot water felt wonderful.The knot in her back began to loosen.
But not the knot in her stomach.That stayed hard and tight.She closed her eyes and tried to take a deep breath.
All the long ride from Scotland, she’d had this leaden knot in her belly.She’d wanted to turn back each mile they’d rolled farther into this flat, tame, unnatural land.She didn’t belong here at this benighted house party, among the English ton.She belonged back home, amid the crags and lochs, safe at Pentforth Hall.
She gripped the sides of the tub.But the Hall wasn’t safe anymore, thanks to that worm Pennington.That slimy bastard.Why had Ian hired him?Couldn’t he have found a more suitable--a less randy--estate manager when sweet old Mr. Lawrence retired?Did he take some cruel delight in torturing her?Did he--
Good God.She jerked and some water sloshed over onto the floor.This was England, close to London.Surely Ian...?He wouldn’t be at this gathering, would he?Was that why she’d been invited?So the Sassenach could snicker at her and watch the Earl of Kilgorn publicly discard his inconvenient wife?
She forced her fingers to release their death grip on the tub.No, of course not.Ian would decline any invitation that included her.He must have as little desire to see her as she did to see him.
“The footmen were right braw, weren’t they, milady--for Sassenach, that is.”Annie, her young maid, grinned and handed her the soap.“Did ye see how the one with the blue eyes looked at me?”
“No, I didn’t.”Annie wasn’t going to be chasing after Lord Motton’s footmen, was she?This house party would be bad enough without that.“I’m not certain your mother would care to hear you taking note of Lord Motton’s footmen, Annie.”
“Oh, Ma wouldna mind.She kens I have eyes in my head.”Annie snorted, wrinkling her nose as she looked around the room.“And right now I see this wee little mouse hole of a room.I’d have thought ye’d have a grander bedchamber, milady.”
The room was...cozy.The four poster bed took up most of the space.“It’s perfectly adequate for me.”
“But yer a countess.Ye deserve better.”
“Don’t be daft.”A countess without an earl was more a figure of fun than respect.She only hoped everyone wouldn’t gawk at her.Her stomach twisted.Perhaps it was hunger as much as nerves.It had been hours since they’d eaten.“Didn’t you say you were going down to see about tea?”
“Aye, that I did.”Annie glanced in the mirror and smoothed her skirt.
“Tea, Annie.Only tea.Don’t be looking at the footmen.”
Annie laughed.“Ye worry worse than my ma.”
Nell sighed as the door closed and she turned back to face the hearth.She probably did worry more than Martha--the woman had raised five daughters, while Nell hadn’t managed to birth even the one poor bairn she’d been gifted with.
She swirled her fingers through the bathwater.What would her life have been like if she hadn’t lost the baby?
She’d have a daughter--or a son--now, a sturdy youth of ten, a child with quick strong limbs, a ready smile, and a sharp wit who’d spend hours climbing trees and swimming in Kilgorn Loch.She smiled.Surely she’d have other children as well--two or even three more.She and Ian--
What was she thinking?She detested the man.He’d never mourned their poor bairn--he’d just wanted to get busy making another.He certainly hadn’t wasted any time after she’d left finding another female to warm his bed.
Well, all right--not his bed at the castle.He hadn’t brought a woman into his home, but that was a distinction without a difference.He’d visited plenty of Sassenach beds in London.He was a man--he’d only one thing on his mind.
She rubbed the soap vigorously.He was just like Pennington.That cods-head had had his arm around her waist when Mr. MacNeill had barged into the library.For once the butler had actually seen something of note--ha!The old man’s eyes had just about popped out of his head.She’d wager an entire month’s pin money he’d never run so fast as he did that night to send a message to Ian about her supposed flirtation.
Pennington wasn’t the first amorous male she’d had to elude--Mr. MacNeill had had plenty of grist for his rumor mill over the years.Some men seemed to take her odd marital situation as a challenge--but Mr. Pennington? He owed his employment to the man he apparently wished to cuckold!
She glared at the soap cake.Not that Ian cared, of course.If the gossip in the newspapers were true, he’d already selected the Earl of Remington’s widow as her replacement--and given the woman a thorough interview between his sheets.
Well, to be fair, he had just turned thirty.The succession must be on his mind.He needed an heir, and to get an heir he needed a wife--a real wife, not the girl he’d married too young.
She sunk lower in the tub.Oh, God, what a mess.
She should write him today.This had gone on long enough.They were adults now, even if they hadn’t been when they’d married and then separated.Surely they could solve this...problem in a sensible fashion.He was not malicious.
The door opened and closed.Annie must be back with the tea.Nell splashed water on her face.If her eyes were red, the girl would only suppose she’d got a little soap in them.
“Did you see the blue-eyed footman, Annie?”
“Blue eyed--what the hell?”
Her heart stopped.
Oh God, oh God.That voice.Even after ten years, it slid around her heart as no other ever had.After all the tears, all the pain, it reminded her of laughter, of lying on sun-warmed heather with a summer breeze blowing cool off the loch.Of twisted bedsheets, slick flesh, heat and damp and...
No, it couldn’t be.
“I-Ian?”She struggled to her knees, turned to grasp the back of the tub.It was Ian.He’d changed, of course.The slender, wiry lad had broadened.His features were more chiseled; there were lines around his mouth and eyes that hadn’t been there before.His eyes themselves were the same, though, the same turbulent green of a storm-whipped sea.They were staring at...
She looked down.Water dripped from her naked breasts.
“Ack!”She leapt for the towel, but it was a little too far and the tub was a little too slippery.She pitched forward.“Ow!Aaa!”
The edge of the tub smacked her knee and shin hard, but the floor was going to smack her face harder.
“Nell!”Strong hands grabbed her before she hit the ground and pulled her into a rock-hard embrace.The rough fabric of Ian’s greatcoat rubbed against her breasts, her stomach, her...dear God.
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut.She would die of embarrassment.She was naked in Ian’s arms.
“Are you all right, Nell?Can you stand?”
She felt cool air on her wet skin.He was holding her away from him and he was--she opened one eye to peek--yes, he was looking at her.She felt her nipples pebble--she was cold, that was all.Not hot.Her womb was not melting and the long dead place between her legs was not throbbing and swelling.
They had married when she was seventeen.She had wanted him so wildly then, she could not wait to go to his bed.
She swallowed the sob, but not quickly enough.
“Aye, you’re hurt, lass.I heard you cry.”He pulled her up against him again, held her tight with one arm while he slid the other hand down her naked, wet back.Did he think to comfort her?It was not comfort he gave her. He was stoking the flames of a fire she’d thought so long dead even the embers were stone cold.
“Tell me where you hurt.Is it your leg? Can you stand, love?”
She had been his love once, long ago, before she’d lost his babe.She choked back another sob.She felt his lips brush her forehead.
“Oh, sweetheart. Dinna cry. Let me see your leg.”
But Ian was already stooping, sliding his hand over her thigh, her knee, her calf.His face was level with--
Please let him think the wetness on her thighs was all from her bath.
“Hold on to my shoulders, Nell.”
Was his voice huskier?
“Nay, I’m fine, Ian.Just get me that towel.I’m naked, ye ken.”
He laughed then, though it was a short, choked sound.
“I ken, Nell.”He ran his hands up her body, letting his thumbs skim her breasts, as he stood.He cupped her jaw and looked down into her face.His eyes were...hungry.
They’d been hungry when he was nineteen, too, but this was different.Were there pain and a hint of desperation there as well?
She certainly felt desperate.She moistened her lips; his eyes followed the sweep of her tongue.His head bent.
In a moment she would feel his lips again after so many, many years.She shivered with anticipation.
“Och, Nell, you’re cold, and here I am...I am...”His head snapped up and he stepped back.“What the hell am I doing?”
Good God, he had just been about to kiss Nell.The need, the overwhelming lust, still hammered at him, like storm waves crashing against the shore.He’d never felt that intensity with any other woman.How had he stopped himself?
Thank God he had.If he hadn’t, Nell would have done so for him.She hated him.She was glaring at him now.
He scowled.Would she put some damn clothes on?Did she not realize what a tease she was, standing there naked?The firelight glistened on her wet body--it was even more beautiful than it had been when she was younger--slightly rounder, a little fuller.Her breasts--
He jerked his eyes back to her face.He would not look at her breasts.
She finally wrapped the towel around herself.He should have handed it to her, but frankly, he didn’t trust himself.He balled his fists.The damn lust was like a raging fever.If he moved, he’d fall on her like the rutting animal she thought he was.
She had made it very clear ten years ago that she never wanted him in her bed again.In all the years since, she had not once given him any indication she’d changed her mind, though MacNeill had told him time after time she was not averse to male companionship.Hell, just a fortnight ago, the man had sent word she was dallying with the damn estate manager.MacNeill had caught them in the library, apparently just moments before Pennington’d had Nell out of her gown and down on the rug.
Would she not put some clothes on?
There, finally she was reaching for her dressing gown.She was holding the damn thing in front of her like a shield.The sooner she put it on, the better.
He should just turn his back so she’d have the privacy to get the job done.If he turned, he wouldn’t keep staring at her.
He couldn’t move.He was worse than a randy schoolboy, hoping for another glimpse of her perfect...
Damn it all to hell, he was a thirty-year-old man.He’d seen plenty of naked females.He should not be panting, almost mindless with desire, just because he was here in a bedroom alone with Nell.Naked Nell.
He was going to have an apoplexy if she didn’t get some blasted clothes on right now.Perhaps speaking would help.Formulating words and even sentences would take some thought away from contemplating Nell, naked and--
“What the hell are you doing in my room?”
“Don’t shout.”Nell frowned.Ian was scowling at her now.
“All right.”This time it sounded like he was talking through gritted teeth.“What the bloody hell are you doing in my room?”
“Don’t curse.”Did she actually hear his teeth grind?“And this isn’t your room--it’s mine.”She turned away briefly to struggle into her dressing gown and then turned back, tying the gown’s sash tight while she glared at him.“As you noted, I was in the middle of bathing.I suggest you leave me to my privacy and seek out the housekeeper.Obviously you have gone astray.”
Yes, she’d been in the middle of bathing--and then in the middle of lusting after him.
What was the matter with her?Was the man a bloody conjuror?She hadn’t felt these...urges in ten years.She didn’t want to feel them.She was content the way she was.She didn’t need any more heartbreak.
“This is my room.”Ian’s voice was hard--mulish.
This was the man she remembered.The man who’d insisted she come back to his bed once her courses had returned.The man who’d said it was her marital duty.
Perhaps by law he had been right, but she couldn’t do it.If she’d submitted to him, something important would have died in her.Something besides the baby who was already dead...
“It’s not your room.”
“It is.”His jaw jutted out.He could be incredibly stubborn.Everyone had used to say he was only stubborn with her because she was the only one who had the backbone to stand up to him.
“This is my room.”She pointed to the tub and then flushed.She’d rather not bring his attention back to the tub, but it did prove her point.“Lord Motton’s footmen would not have brought me up a bath if this were not my room.”
Ian scowled at the tub.“They must have been confused.I tell you, the housekeeper was very clear.This is definitely my room.I did not make a mistake.”
“Obviously, you did.”
“No, I--” He grunted.“Wait here.”He opened the door and stepped into the corridor.
Nell stepped closer to the fire.Of course she would wait here.Where else would she wait?She wasn’t even dressed, for goodness’ sake.She found her comb and attacked the tangles in her hair.
Five, ten minutes passed.What was taking so long?Had Ian left?But his bag was still here--
The door swung open and Ian ushered in Mrs. Gilbert, the housekeeper.He was scowling; Mrs. Gilbert was wringing her hands.
“I’m terribly sorry, milord.”
“Just tell my--” Ian made an odd noise, sort of a cross between a cough and a growl.“Just tell Lady Kilgorn what you told me.”
Nell hurried over to Mrs. Gilbert.The poor woman looked miserable.
“Mrs. Gilbert, please don’t be distressed.Lord Kilgorn’s bark is much worse than his bite, I assure you.”
“Wait until you hear what she has to say, Nell.”
“What?”Nell glared at Ian.Why was he being so fierce?Couldn’t he see he was frightening Mrs. Gilbert?He hadn’t used to vent his spleen on the servants.“Oh, stop it.You are giving poor Mrs. Gilbert heart palpitations.”She turned back to pat Mrs. Gilbert’s shoulder.“Now what is it?Surely it can’t be as bad as all that.”
“Oh, milady, I very much fear there has been a misunderstanding.”
“A misunderstanding?”Nell’s stomach clenched.“What kind of misunderstanding?”
“Miss Smyth, Lord Motton’s aunt, is acting as his hostess, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
Mrs. Gilbert nodded.“She is.She assigned all the rooms.She usually doesn’t make mistakes.”
“Yes?Was there a mistake this time?”
“I--” Mrs. Gilbert sent a nervous glance at Ian.“Yes, milady, apparently there was.”
So Ian was right.This was his room.Well, no matter.She didn’t care, though she would insist on being given time to dress before she found her new chamber.“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Gilbert.I don’t mind.”
“You don’t?”Mrs. Gilbert looked as if she would fall on Nell’s neck and weep tears of joy.The reaction seemed a trifle out of proportion to the situation.
“I don’t believe you fully understand the nature of the error, Nell.”
“No?”Nell glanced from Ian to the housekeeper.“Perhaps you’d best explain it to me more completely, Mrs. Gilbert.”
Mrs. Gilbert paled.Her hands fluttered around her face and then fell, like dying sparrows, to her skirts.“Miss Smyth must not have understood...she must not have known that you and his lordship...”
She and his lordship?Nell felt a sudden flutter of nerves herself.“Just tell me, Mrs. Gilbert.”
“Miss Smyth told me to put Lord and Lady Kilgorn--both of you, milady--in the Thistle Room.”Mrs. Gilbert cleared her throat.She must have thought Nell’s understanding was weak--not surprising as Nell definitely felt more than usually stupid at the moment--because she repeated herself.“Together, milady.In one room.Here.”
“Oh.”That was awkward, but surely no more than momentarily embarrassing.There was no need for Mrs. Gilbert to look so stricken.Nell smiled weakly.“But that’s easily rectified, isn’t it?You can just move one of us.And since Lord Kilgorn seems unwilling to change rooms, I don’t mind being the one to move--just let me dress and get my things together.”
Why Ian wasn’t acting the gentleman and offering to take another room was odd, but he must have his reasons.Her stomach sank to her slippers as the obvious reason immediately presented itself.He must already have arranged an assignation, most likely with Lady Remington.
Mrs. Gilbert’s mouth flapped slightly, but it seemed the poor woman could not muster words.Ian spoke instead.
“The solution is not that simple, Nell.”
“Oh?Why not?”Nell turned again to Mrs. Gilbert.The housekeeper truly looked as if she would swoon.
“The problem is...”Mrs. Gilbert swallowed so they could observe her throat moving.“The trouble...the difficulty is...well, you see...”She trailed off into silence, looking to Ian.Nell looked at him, too.His lips were twisted into an odd, almost desperate half smile.
“The difficulty is,” Ian said, “there are no other bedchambers available.”
Copyright © 2009 by Sally MacKenzie