Betrayed, p.5

Betrayed, page 5

 

Betrayed
 


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  She could do it; she’d learned her lessons well from Juliet, the duchess of Ross. But the thought of finessing wealthy and powerful men to do their Christian duty soured Sarah’s mood. Women shouldn’t be made to play the inferior in order to have a say in the workings of good governance.

  What would Michael Elliot think about her methods? She really shouldn’t care. If she were truthful, she didn’t in the least value his opinion. But she was curious. What would he do when he realized she had tricked him? Given the example of his family, he probably wouldn’t understand her reasons or sympathize with her cause. Money was all the Elliots cared about.

  Rose came into the room. Over a dress of white muslin sprigged with tiny heather blossoms, she wore a lace-trimmed apron. A prim little cap, starched and positioned to perfection, covered her black hair. Draped over her arm was Sarah’s favorite gown.

  “It’s the devil’s own misfortune,” she fussed, “that handsome soldier turning out to be an Elliot.”

  Since Sarah had told Rose of the assignation tonight with Michael Elliot, her laments over his identity had been constant and increasingly dramatic. Laying the silk gown out on the bed, Rose tisked. “Laura, that’s Lady Jane’s maid, says the powder from the wigmaker in Dewar’s Close is the finest in Scotland. Shall I send Notch for it tomorrow?”

  Sarah had yet to find a powder that didn’t send her into a fit of sneezing. People thought her provincial for not wearing wigs, but opinions of the haughty didn’t matter to her. Disapproving glances wouldn’t keep her at home or force her to abandon her cause.

  She folded her notes and tucked them into the pocket of her dressing gown. “He’s to bring only a bit of the powder.”

  Rose walked to the vanity and picked up a pair of silver combs. “No sense wasting another batch. Sit here and I’ll make something of your hair.”

  Sarah blew out the lamp and moved from the writing desk to the stool before the mirror. Rose dragged the brush through Sarah’s freshly washed hair until her scalp tingled and she hummed in delight.

  “Notch had it from the letter carrier that Lord Henry’s brother wore his family tartan to the tailor shop in Putnam Close. Commissioned a fine wardrobe, so the postman said.” Rose sighed so forcefully, the flame on the vanity lamp wavered. “A penance from God, making him an Elliot. Does he do a plaid justice?”

  Sarah had ceased denying that she found him handsome. “He has very long, straight legs, and he’s taller than Lachlan MacKenzie.”

  Rose nodded so vigorously she shook with the effort. “Ha! Didn’t I say it right there on High Street with Notch and the others to hear? But I’ll wager his knees are as plump as ripe cabbages.”

  Sarah choked back laughter. The first time she’d heard the expression, she’d been in Glasgow with her family, attending a harvest ball. Rose had described the tartan-clad earl of Clyde as having knees like ripe cabbages. At three and ten, Sarah and her sisters had giggled like tickled children. Even years later, it was a private jest between them and a reliable source of good cheer.

  “Actually, his knees were not my primary concern.”

  “You’re young yet. There.” Rose secured the combs. “Better than a runny nose.” She twitched her own. “Very unromantic for a woman to sneeze in public.”

  Sarah examined the twisted figure eight Rose had made of her hair and rather liked it. “Thank you, but I do not expect tonight to be a romantic evening.”

  Rose clutched the brush to her breast. “Heaven forbid! He’s a bletherin’ Elliot. But what if some other eligible gentleman is there? Wearing that gown, you’ll turn a few heads.”

  Sarah didn’t like the implication, but Rose was smiling, and there was little enough joy to be found in this house. Tonight was important. The dress gave Sarah confidence. She loved the feel of wearing a furlong of silk. “I’m interested only in speaking with Mayor Fordyce.”

  “If he looks askance at you for not being wigged up like the ladies of fashion, be sure to tell him it’s the powder’s doing. If that fails, tell him what you told the countess when she disapproved. That handsome rascal of hers ought to hear it, too.”

  Glancing up, Sarah met her maid’s gaze in the mirror. “I’ll tell him no such thing. He’ll learn for himself that I am sensible. Now get my dress. It’s almost nine o’clock.”

  Rose stayed where she was. “When will you tell him you’re not the daughter of the duke of Ross? Or will you? You know what his grace said, and don’t think for a moment that he’ll stand by and let ill befall you.”

  Lachlan MacKenzie’s promise of protection was better ignored for now. Sarah rose and discarded her robe. “I’m saving the news of my parentage for Lady Emily alone. I want to win over the mayor tonight.”

  Rose fetched the dress and held it so Sarah could step into the skirt. The cool silk rustled as it floated into place.

  Walking in a circle around Sarah, Rose fluffed out the voluminous skirt. “The countess was a boor to send her second son to demand money from you.” She shivered with revulsion.

  At the mention of the woman’s machinations, Sarah cringed inside, and her mood turned sour. Did Michael feel that he was being used, or had she mistaken his manly aloofness for hurt pride? The latter, her instincts said. “I sense that he doesn’t like her.”

  Rose uncorked Sarah’s favorite perfume and dabbed the fragrance on her neck and wrists. “That’s something else in his favor. Let’s just hope his gentlemanly behavior comes from the other side of the family, too. He doesn’t bear the tiniest resemblance to Lord Henry. But why is he currying favor with you? I mean—” Rose winced. “I’m sorry.”

  Sarah took no offense. She had long ago made peace with herself over mistakenly choosing Henry Elliot. Since her meeting with Michael yesterday, she had spent hours mulling over the man and his mission and comparing him to Henry.

  “You needn’t apologize.”

  “You like him,” said Rose, her voice laced with awe.

  “Michael was—uncomfortable, and he admitted to not knowing the countess very well. He’s been in India for a long time.”

  “What’s he truly like—aside of being an Elliot?”

  “He has a gentleman’s way about him—never looked me in the eye when he spoke of my dowry. I think the mission ill suited him. But he’s as bold as Agnes when a notion strikes.”

  “My lady . . .” Rose grew pensive, which made her appear younger than her 40 years.

  Their gazes met. “What is it, Rose?”

  “I fear you’re setting yourself up to be hurt again by the Elliots.”

  As always, Rose was concerned. Sarah grinned. “Never. I’m going only because he must witness my conversation with Mayor Fordyce.”

  Shaking the brush at Sarah, Rose tisked. “You’re too clever for the likes o’ them Elliots—or the tight-fisted betters in this reekin’ place.”

  “I haven’t succeeded yet.” She transferred the sheaf of papers to her purse. “But if preparation counts, I should present a good argument.”

  Rose went to the washstand and returned with a damp cloth. “You’ve ink on your fingers.”

  Sarah wiped her hands and succumbed to a bit of vulnerability. “I do hope it goes well tonight.”

  “You’ll change that mayor’s mind about giving over that customs house. Weren’t you the one who convinced his grace to let Agnes go off to China?”

  “A position I regret taking.”

  “Worry not over the hellion. Aside from those foreign fighting skills, she learned a few womanly wiles.”

  Dear Agnes, she had her own special quarrel with the world. “A disgusting term for intelligence.”

  “The principle remains, my lady. You shouldn’t be made to put up your dowry for a crumbling building. You didn’t turn those poor children out. ’Twas merchants and guildsmen sowing their seeds in the tawdry ones who leave their babes to fend for themselves.”

  Sarah grew melancholy, for Rose had perfectly described the methods of the sheriff of Tain. He
d seduced Sarah’s mother and left her to die here in Edinburgh. But Lachlan MacKenzie had taken in Smithson’s bastard daughter and raised her as his own. Why had Lachlan likened her fair features to those of his mother, when all along Sarah’s true blood kin lived a mere bowshot away?

  A hand touched her shoulder. “Will you write to him? He loves you, and you’re fair breaking his big heart.”

  Sarah knew the feeling well, but how could she face Lachlan MacKenzie now? He’d told her a thousand times that Henry Elliot was not the man for her. He swore that Henry would bore Sarah to tears within a fortnight of the ceremony. But she’d ignored his advice and rushed into the betrothal.

  If she were honest with herself, she had to admit that it wasn’t really Henry she’d wanted. Whether calm or angry herself, Sarah was adept at listening between others’ words and sensing their thoughts. She’d often heard her stepmother, Juliet, say that an intelligent woman instinctively knew when it was time to leave. That was why Sarah had chosen Henry. Not because she truly loved him, she’d just given up finding the kind of man she wanted. Henry was the least objectionable. But more, it was time for her to leave the nest and fly on her own. Lachlan and Juliet were busy raising their second family, and although Sarah loved them all deeply, she knew she was in the way. As for Henry, it now appeared he’d wanted her only for her much-needed dowry.

  “Write to him tomorrow.” The plea in Rose’s voice was heartfelt, bringing Sarah back to the present. “Give him a jolly laugh. Tell him how you spent an evening convincing the mayor of Edinburgh to go against the town directors.”

  Too many obstacles stood in Sarah’s path. Once she’d established herself, the going would be easier. She’d find the courage to journey across town and visit her mother’s grave. By then she would have forgiven Lachlan for likening her to a MacKenzie.

  “Not yet, Rose.”

  “Time’ll come, and he’ll be awaiting.”

  Rose was right. But what remained a mystery to Sarah was what Michael Elliot would say when he found out who owned the customs house. What would she do if he learned the truth before she broached the subject tonight?

  4

  Michael arrived in a hired carriage promptly at nine o’clock. After helping Sarah and Rose inside, he took the facing seat and began a pleasant conversation about the fine quality of the food at the inn. Warm bricks were stacked on the carriage floor, and thick blankets covered the cushions. The combined effects gave the impression of a comfy nest rather than a traveling coach.

  Her host wore a caped woolen cloak over a waistcoat and breeches of oak-brown velvet. A bright yellow neckcloth, wrapped and knotted modestly, added a splash of color to his masculine appearance and complimented his sun-bronzed skin. His finely polished boots reflected the golden light from the carriage lamps.

  To Sarah, his modern clothing was a sharp contrast to the other attire, one ceremonial, the other cultural, that she’d seen him wear. Did he feel differently in each garment? While she’d like to know the answer, it was an intimate question that only a sister asked a brother or a wife posed to a husband. Sarah MacKenzie certainly couldn’t ask it of Michael Elliot. Such frankness represented one of the many special expectations she had for marriage, another closeness and comfort she would one day share with her mate.

  Michael spoke congenially during the short ride through the darkened, narrow streets. All went well until they were handed down from the conveyance. With a hand at Rose’s back, Michael nudged her forward as he summoned the doorman.

  “This is Mistress Rose, Lady Sarah’s companion,” Michael said. “You’re to make certain she is comfortable and entertained.”

  “Shall I seat her in the lower salon with Turnbull?”

  “That will do. Serve her promptly, and she’s to have whatever takes her fancy.”

  Rose looked as if she’d melt into a puddle of feminine gratitude. “Thank you, my lord.” She caught Sarah’s gaze, then stared pointedly at his knees. “I’ll be surprised if they have cabbages. I ain’t seen any ripe ones about.”

  Laughter bubbled up inside Sarah, and she had to cover her mouth and turn away. Michael hadn’t worn a kilt tonight, so Rose couldn’t have seen his knees. He’d so completely charmed her, she had forgotten his family name and complimented him anyway.

  He did have impeccable manners tonight, and as Sarah recalled, exceptionally nice knees.

  “A private jest?” he asked, a curious smile enhancing his manly attributes.

  Her back pike-stiff, Rose snickered as she followed the footman into the inn.

  “Yes,” Sarah confessed, “and far too silly to share with you.”

  “If you insist.” He guided her through the door and helped her remove her cloak.

  Looking up at his profile, she had the notion she’d disappointed him by not sharing the jest. It was a tiny withdrawal of sorts; she’d seen it often in Notch.

  Notch and Michael Elliot. Whatever had made her match them together? An orphaned lad and a distinguished noble son could have nothing in common.

  “Have I dirt on my face?”

  She’d consider the comparison later. Now she had a more immediate concern. “Nay, you haven’t a speck.”

  “Would you tell me if I did?”

  “Of course. Watching another suffer embarrassment is wicked and thoughtless. I’d never stoop so low.”

  “Good. Now will you tell me why that swarthy-skinned fellow behind you is bearing down on us like Suleiman leading the Ottoman army into Buda?”

  What an interesting analogy, but then he was a military man. She turned. It was the mayor, and Michael Elliot didn’t know him. She had gambled and won.

  Inspired by her own accurate judgment of Michael’s character, she threaded her arm through his. “That’s Mayor Fordyce. He’s the guest I spoke of.”

  Michael murmured, “He doesn’t look especially pleased.”

  An energetic, tidy man, Fordyce hurried everywhere. He wore a bottle-green short coat and matching knee breeches. His hose were stark white, same as his ruffled shirt, and his fashionable bagwig had been dusted with pale green powder. The perpetual frown was as much a part of him as his stylish tastes.

  Under his breath, Michael said, “Are you certain he wants to dine with us?”

  He didn’t want to dine with Sarah, but Michael needn’t know that. “Our good mayor never looks pleased. That’s actually a smile.”

  “Not in any culture I’ve encountered.”

  Sarah chuckled at his effortless repartee and wondered how many exotic places he’d been. She was still battling the giggles when the mayor reached them.

  “Thank you for the invitation, Elliot. Delighted to meet you.”

  “I’m sure,” Michael replied, sending Sarah a puzzled glance.

  By way of weak explanation for penning the invitation to Fordyce in Michael’s name, she said, “Everyone is eager to welcome the Complement.”

  Fordyce bowed. “Good evening, Lady Sarah. You’re lovely, as always. That’s a Tremaine gown, is it not?”

  The sapphire-blue silk was a design created by the exclusive Viennese modiste. Agnes had sent it to Sarah last summer on their birthday. She was saved a reply when the innkeeper led them to a private salon off the public room.

  An extraordinary fire roared in the wall hearth, and the table had been formally set for three. A pair of crossed Lochaber axes embellished one wall; the others bore landscape paintings done in the Dutch grandeur style. Sarah chose the chair facing the door. Michael took the seat nearest the fire, leaving the mayor to view the ancient Highland weapons.

  “A refreshment before dinner?” the apron-garbed innkeeper asked.

  Michael turned to Sarah and lifted his brows. “My lady? What is your pleasure?”

  Continued good luck throughout the evening was her first request. Being allowed to speak directly to the innkeeper and have him answer to her was her second wish. She cursed the man who had begun the ridiculous custom of making women speak to one man throu
gh another. “Tell him I’ll have the claret, if it’s smooth,” she said to Michael. “If not, I’ll have Johnson’s newest ale.”

  “For a certainty, sir. ’Tis the very same wine the Complement drank last night.”

  Michael said to Sarah, “You’re fortunate there’s some left.”

  “Why is that?”

  “Some of my friends took a liking to it last night.”

  The jovial proprietor slapped his thigh. “Which ain’t to say the Complement didn’t make a bonny affair of it after you retired, sir. That new fellow you broke in—little of him was seen above the table, except his nose. After that, he lay still from necessity.”

  “I’m sure he has an aching head for it today. What will you have, Fordyce?”

  The mayor held up his empty glass. “I’ll venture upon a few more drops of wine.”

  “A bumper of claret, then,” Michael said. “And leave the door open.”

  Most considerate, Sarah thought—especially so, minutes later, when Count DuMonde and his mistress took a table in the main room directly in Sarah’s line of vision. DuMonde sat with his back to Sarah, but she did not need to see his face to know he was smiling fondly at his mistress. Their shared joy was obvious in the lady’s eyes.

  Sarah felt oddly discomfited. She’d seen that adoring look many times before: her stepmother gazed at Lachlan MacKenzie in that very way; David Smithson mooned over Lottie at every occasion.

  “Is something wrong?” Michael asked.

  “No, everything is delightful.” According to Notch, Lady Winfield was DuMonde’s mistress. But that was obvious, now that Sarah had seen them together.

  “I was just about to broach the subject of the weather with Mayor Fordyce,” Michael said, his brows lifted in entreaty to Sarah.

  “It’s been cold of late,” she said.

  “Much more so than in India, I assure you.”

  They chatted amiably over a feast that began with succulent lamb flavored with thyme and costly cracked pepper. Between courses, Sarah continued to sneak glances at the couple in the next room.

 
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