Lady Aisla Montgomery has a perfectly tolerable marriage...as long as her husband stays in Scotland and she in Paris. But now, years later, she wants only one thing—a divorce.
Niall Stuart Maclaren, the rugged Laird of Tarbendale rues the day he met his beautiful, conniving wife. Though the thought of her incites a bitter and biting fury, no other woman
has ever stirred his blood as hotly. When Aisla returns to Scotland to sever ties, Niall agrees on one condition—one week with him for every year of desertion. Six weeks as his wife in his castle...in his bed...in exchange for her freedom.
Scotland, May 1828
The boulder-sized fist that connected with Niall Maclaren’s temple almost took him to the ground. It was a miracle he managed to remain standing at all and not go sprawling flat on his arse. If he had, he might as well pack up and head for England.
“Had enough yet?” his best mate and closest neighbor, Hamish MacLeod, crowed. “Do ye yield?”
“I’ll yield when pigs fly, ye pompous, overgrown pup.”READ MORE
Niall bounced on his toes and shook his wet hair, sweat flying in all directions, as he squared off against his opponent. Hamish MacLeod—at least all three blurry versions of him at the moment—was built like a mountain. A mountain with thick sturdy legs and a powerful left hook. Niall should know—they’d been sparring partners for years, and then, as they’d grown older, more serious rivals in the ring. He should have seen the blow coming, but he’d been distracted.
A buxom milkmaid had appeared at the edge of the crowded circle surrounding them, and he’d lost his focus and his footing for a scant second. Enough for Hamish to get in the lucky strike. The man’s brute strength was enough to knock any normal man down, but Niall wasn’t any normal man. He hadn’t trained rain or shine or in ballock-shriveling cold every day for most of his life to not know how to take a hit. Nor was he about to relinquish his title of Champion of Tarbendale three years running. Hamish would have to do more than sneak in a lucky wallop to win.
Bare-knuckle boxing wasn’t quite sanctioned by his father, Laird Maclaren and Duke of Dunrannoch, but what Niall did on his own lands was his own business. And Tarben Castle was his, sold to him by his sister, Sorcha Montgomery, who’d had no need for the property that had been part of her tocher. Neither she nor her husband, the Duke of Glenross, had wanted it. She’d said that if Niall could turn a profit, she would sell it to him. That had been three years ago. Tarbendale was now his, along with its lucrative cairngorm mines.
His eyes flicked to the dairymaid who’d cost him what would be a beautiful shiner by the evening meal. A healthy Scottish lass, with dark curling hair, apple-round cheeks, pink lips, and a very, very ample bosom that was a sneeze away from spilling out of her bodice, gazed back at him. Not that he was a man known for ogling women’s bosoms, but hers was truly exceptional. He’d have to be blind not to notice. And he wasn’t the only one.
Niall sighed. He’d been without a woman for far too long if the sight of a pair of breasts could make him lose a fight to Hamish MacLeod.
His friend noticed his stare and leered. “Tell ye what,” Hamish said in a low voice. “Let’s add her to the pot. Ten head of cattle, plus a kiss from the lass.”
“She’s no’ mine to give. And I’m no’ interested.”
“Ye’re laird here, are ye no’?”
“No’ that kind of laird,” Niall said with a scowl. Though he was laird. For a fourth son, and the last of five children, being master of his own lands had been a godsend. His eldest brother, Ronan, was heir to Maclaren and the dukedom, along with the vast holdings that came with it, but the small, unentailed pocket of Tarbendale was Niall’s alone.
Hamish grinned. “Ye seemed interested in the lass before, didnae ye? Or parts of her at least. Imagine sinking yer face into those bonny pillows.”
“I told ye, I’m no’ interested,” Niall said with an upward jab that missed, putting him slightly off balance.
Not one to squander an opportunity, Hamish threw a punch toward Niall’s bare midsection that connected with a loud, fleshy thud. Niall returned the blow with a combination of right fist and left elbow to his opponent’s ribs. Hamish grunted and danced out of the way. Both wearing breeches and naked from the waist up, they were covered in perspiration and dirt. A swim in the loch would be in order once the match ended.
“Is it Fenella then?” Hamish asked with a grin. “She looks like she’s about to set that poor lass on fire.”
Niall grunted, his eyes shifting to where Fenella, his longtime friend and more recently housekeeper, stood glowering at the unsuspecting girl. Her dark eyes met his and she stalked away, back toward the castle. She was not fond of his brawling, as she called it. But what Fenella didn’t understand was that Niall needed the fights. He needed them to keep uglier things at bay. His left arm twinged as if in response, the rounded end of the stump at his wrist covered by a snug leather glove. He’d designed the covering himself, one of many he’d worn since losing his hand more than a decade ago. But the loss had never held him back, especially in a fight.
The crowd had grown thicker, Niall noticed, with many more females than would be expected for such an exhibition. His lips curled into a smile as he flung a wet clump of hair out of his face. Once, he’d have thought they would come just to see the one-handed son of the duke. The cripple of Maclaren. But from the rosy looks on the women’s faces as they eyed his glistening muscled chest and arms, he’d wager the last thing they were thinking about was his missing left hand. Satisfaction rolled through him, costing him another well-placed blow from Hamish before he stepped neatly out of the way of a second.
“Lucky shot,” he said with a grunt and paid back in kind with a jab to Hamish’s thick jaw.
“Aye,” the man said, dancing forward, sweat pouring off him in sheets. “Ye seem distracted, my friend. Mayhap some wenching is in order to cure whatever ails ye?”
“Ye think about women far too much,” Niall replied with a punch thrown in for good measure, ducking a swift counter-blow.
“And ye dunnae. Look at them,” he said, waving a drenched arm to the boisterous crowd. “They all want ye.”
Niall’s eyes narrowed, seeing that look on his friend’s face and feeling his temper start to boil. “Hamish,” he said in warning.
“Ye could have yer pick of the lasses,” Hamish went on.
“If ye weren’t still pining over the one who—”
The red haze Niall fought to keep contained threatened to break free of his rigid control. “I’m warning ye, Hamish, keep yer bloody mouth shut.”
The block-headed man didn’t take the hint. “—left ye.”
Niall didn’t pause to think, he just reacted. His knuckles and knee crashed out, connecting with flesh and bone in rapid succession. He ducked and weaved, his right fist and left elbow flying out in punishing sequences, driving Hamish back until he was nearly upon the people forming the far end of the circle. Blinded by rage, he swept Hamish’s feet from beneath him. The man’s thick arms did nothing to block the force of the blows that had been forged in the depths of hell, from years of pain and betrayal.
“I yield, I yield!”
It took half a dozen men to pull him off Hamish, for the bloodlust to clear, and for him to understand that his friend had fairly yielded the match. Everyone was cheering, his clansmen watching him with pride. He remained undefeated, though he took no pleasure in the fact. He’d lost control. Niall’s skill in the ring was well known, but he never lost hold of himself. Never.
He drew a strangled breath as Hamish rose and spat a mouthful of blood to the earth. One eye was swollen shut, and his face looked like it’d been trampled by a herd of cattle. “’Twas wrong of me,” was all he said, but the pity in his friend’s good eye was impossible to ignore.
Niall staggered back from it, panting like a wild animal. No one spoke as he reached for a nearby skin and drank deeply. He passed a second skin of whisky to Hamish, who accepted the silent peace offering. They clasped arms and moved to two tree stumps on the edge of the clearing where they sat, breathing hard. The crowd closed ranks to watch a new pair of fighters face off.
“I almost had ye,” Hamish said with a jovial grin.
Niall shot him an incredulous look. “In yer dreams ye almost had me. And dunnae think I didnae ken ’twas ye who invited the maid. She has the look of a MacLeod.”
Hamish had the grace to look sheepish.
“Aye, about the lass, I didnae mean—”
“Think nothing of it,” Niall said.
But Hamish had never known when to shut up, even as a boy. “Niall, I ken ye’re angry,” he lisped through swelling lips. “But do ye no’ think it’s about time ye moved on? Lady Aisla’s been gone for years, and she’s no’ coming back.”
“Dunnae say her name,” Niall said.
The pain surged up again, raw and fierce, as it had been the day his wife had left him. It had not diminished with time, but had grown and festered. His own personal purgatory. And he’d welcomed it. He’d used the anger to chisel himself into rock. To make himself impenetrable. He supposed he had her to thank for that. She’d taken a stripling of a lad and forced him to become a man. A hard man.
“Tarbendale needs a lady,” Hamish went on, unmindful of the danger that simmered beneath his friend’s calm surface. “It’s been six years, and have ye heard one word from her?”
Niall’s jaw clenched. He didn’t have to answer for Hamish to know he had not. The whole bloody clan knew as much.
“Let her go, then,” Hamish said. “Find yerself a bride, like that young lass with the huge bubbies who’s been making calf eyes at ye for the last hour.” His voice lowered. “This thing ye carry inside ye…it’ll destroy ye.”
Niall’s whisper was inaudible. “It’s already destroyed me.”
But he made no protest when Hamish waved over the lush dairymaid and a handful of other giggling women to their sides. He didn’t say a word when said dairymaid plunked a generously rounded arse into his lap. Hamish laughed and waggled his bushy black eyebrows as two others climbed atop him, caressing his bruises and cooing naughty nonsense into his ears.
“Ye fought well, laird,” the lass in Niall’s lap said shyly.
“Thank ye. What’s yer name?”
He rolled his eyes at Hamish who shot him an unapologetic look.
Maggie smelled of warmed bread, and Niall felt something stir in his chest and not between his legs as one would hope. It wasn’t sexual, but an odd desire for comfort. He had the indescribable urge to put his head in this woman’s lap and lie there. He doubted that was what she would expect, but his beautiful, perfidious wife had done more than reject and humiliate him when she left.
Aisla Maclaren had burned the lust right out of him.
A memory of burnished golden tresses and slumberous eyes the color of smelted copper assaulted him. She’d sat in his lap, facing him, straddling him without shame. “Oh God, Niall, dunnae stop. I’m falling…”
“Fall, love,” he’d gasped to her. “I’ll catch ye.”
And he had. She’d come apart in his arms, her lithe body trembling, those singular eyes hooked on him with sated desire. For all her faults, her passion had never been false.
The maid on his lap laughed at something Hamish said and wiggled her bottom. Niall blinked, feeling the part of him he’d long thought dead stirring. Not because of the lass, but because of his utterly unwelcome thoughts of a woman who should be dead to him.
Perhaps this time, he might be able to exorcise his wife’s memory for good. Exchange images of small round breasts for enormous ones that would overflow in abundance. Or long, slender thighs that wrapped around his for plush ones that would cushion his every thrust. He would eradicate coppery eyes for blue ones, a wide sensuous mouth for the lips of a cherub, fair hair for dark.
Niall felt his desire wane at the throaty giggle of his companion. It was useless. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how beautiful or willing the woman, he could not bring himself to touch another. To want another.
Perhaps that made him pitiable to someone like Hamish. But sex made a man soft. It made him beholden.
And he would be neither of those things ever again.
Paris, France, May 1828
The soiree should have been just like any other. The same music, the same champagne, the same guest list, and the same explosion of soft pastels and shimmering golds that Aisla had encountered at every society function so far that season. Lady Eugenie Montpierre, the Duchess of Marchand, had gone to great lengths to make sure her annual ball not only met the Paris standard, but exceeded it. Aisla was certain the two jesters that had been greeting the guests in the front hall, one juggling apples and oranges, while the other balanced upon stilts, were evidence of Lady Montpierre’s desperation to be fashionably different.
However, it had not been the jesters who had cast significant change over the party.
It had been Lord Julien Leclerc.
Aisla stopped moving halfway through a quadrille and stared, jaw unhinged, at her friend.
“Marry ye?” she gasped. Julien released her hand and waist, and gave her a small push toward Mademoiselle Cotille, whose gloved hand was already extended and waiting to grasp Aisla’s.
“Don’t sound so revolted,” he said in a low, amused voice as Aisla stumbled forward. She took the young lady’s hand and made the requisite half turn, straight into the arms of Mademoiselle Cotille’s paunchy dance partner, a general in the French army.
Good Lord, how she hated group dances.
The general spun her and passed her back to Julien. “I’m no’ revolted, ye dolt,” she hissed.
“You’re speaking with a brogue again.”
“Because you’ve caught me off guard,” she replied, rounding out her vowels this time.
Julien chuckled as he passed her off to Mademoiselle Cotille again, but in another few moments, the two of them were standing to the side of the dance floor, waiting as the other two couples made their turns.
“Why would you ask me to marry you?” she asked, careful to keep her voice low. As one of Paris’s most coveted bachelors, Julien had the eyes and ears of a fair number of women—debutantes, widows, and mothers looking to make a match for their daughters—pinned onto him at the moment.
“Why wouldn’t I ask you?” he asked, his hand behind his straight back, his chin held high as he watched the dancers.
Aisla, however, couldn’t tear her eyes off of his lean, aristocratic profile. She had known Julien for nearly all of the six years she had lived in France, and though they had become close friends, they had never entertained the idea that it might become something more. Well…at least she hadn’t entertained the idea. As bonny as he was, what with the luster of his blond hair falling around his ears in absurdly beautiful curls, and his even more ridiculously striking peridot eyes, Aisla hadn’t once felt that spark. That igniting of flames in her chest and stomach. A sensation she hadn’t experienced in so very long.
“Because you don’t love me,” she said.
“Oh, my poor provincial Scottish rose,” he murmured.
Aisla smothered her scowl. “Don’t be an arse.”
“I take that back. You’re more like a patch of prickly thistle.”
She bit back a smile at his humor. That was Julien…never serious. Even when he attempted it, that ever-quirked corner of his mouth would not fall flat. It was part of his charm, and part of his armor. Beyond the smiles and witty repartees, no one ever saw the true Julien Leclerc. Not even her.
“Tell me the truth, Jules.”
But it was already their turn to move into the center of the dance floor. As Aisla turned and changed dance partners, again and again, she kept meeting Julien’s eyes. Each time, he’d prop one eyebrow and make a silly face at her. When the quadrille music finally ceased and the four couples bowed and curtsied to one another, Aisla was near to bursting with curiosity. And not a little bit of alarm.
“The balcony, chérie,” Julien whispered in her ear, taking two flutes of champagne from the tray of a passing servant.
As they exited the stuffy ballroom and made their way onto a crowded terrace, Aisla took a long sip of her champagne. And grimaced. Even after years of drinking the stuff, she couldn’t abide the sweetness or the pop of effervescence. She longed for some of the stout ale she’d known back home at Montgomery. But here in Paris there was only wine, champagne, or sherry for ladies. So, she’d learned to drink like a society lady. She’d learned to speak like one, too, though, as Julien had pointed out just now, her brogue had a way of returning when she was caught by surprise. And his casual proposal of marriage had certainly done just that.
Julien led her to a stone balustrade, apart from the other guests milling about, and Aisla could feel his need to charm and jest fade away.
“It’s time I marry,” he began. “I’m nearly thirty and Maman wants it done. You know I can’t deny her anything.”
Aisla felt her shoulders relax. There it was—the truth of the matter. Julien’s mother, Lady Haverille, had grown tired of waiting for her only child to marry. And yes, Aisla did know that he had trouble denying his lovely mother whatever she wished. Lady Haverille was a fine woman, one Aisla adored beyond measure. It still didn’t explain why he’d chosen her. She hadn’t given him, or any other man for that matter, any signal that she was remotely open to marriage.
For one very good reason.
“Thank God,” she said, panicking slightly. “Perhaps we can find you someone else. One of those debutantes, for example.”
He nearly choked on his sip of champagne. Coughing lightly, Julien set his glass on the wide shelf of the balustrade. “You know I don’t have the constitution for a debutante. We are much better suited, and I confess I’ve grown attached to you. I also haven’t helped but notice how you’ve remained wholly unattached these last few years.”
Julien was right. When she’d first joined her aunt in Paris, the offers had come in abundance. And when she’d turned her back on them without hesitation, it had caused a rash of whispers and scandal, wherever she went. But as the years passed, each one tucking Aisla further and further upon the shelf, the scandal had fallen off. So had the offers. No one seemed to care much anymore that she was a ‘spinster.’
If only they knew the truth.
“Julien,” she said with a sudden quiver in the bottom of her stomach. “I cannot marry you.”
She knew rejecting him would not injure his feelings, only his plans. Yet, she still wished she didn’t have to.
“We could be friends,” he said quickly. “Married friends. To be completely honest, Aisla, I’ve not met one woman here, or anywhere, to whom I could picture tying myself for the rest of my life. Except for you.”
Aisla felt a rush of warmth on her cheeks, and with a start, she realized she was blushing. She hadn’t blushed in ages. “You don’t understand,” she said, clasping her hands and twisting her fingers in a burst of nervousness.
“What is there to understand?” He propped an elbow on the balustrade and leaned toward her. “I need a wife, and I’d prefer her to be a friend. We scrub along, don’t we?”
“Of course we do, magnificently, but—”
“Do you find me attractive?” he asked. Aisla’s eyes widened, and she forgot what she’d been about to say. “Because I find you very pretty, and it wouldn’t be troublesome at all, at least not on my end, to…produce an heir.”
He laughed at her shocked expression. “Very well, if such a thing would be troublesome for you, I have loads of cousins in England and any one of them will do to inherit my fortune. Or we can give it to your family or to charity for all I care.”
The last bit was said with some bitterness. He took her clasped hands and pried her fingers apart to weave them with his own. “I’ve given this a great amount of thought, and I want you to be my wife. Trust me, this will be the perfect ton marriage of convenience with a little fun thrown in for posterity. It will be a grand old laugh, and we’ll be content with our lot and each other.”
Aisla held his gaze, feeling the warmth of his hands through their gloves, and let out a heavy sigh. For the first time in six years, she swallowed the instant rejection that had leaped onto her tongue after a proposal. To her astonishment, she could see the possible future Julien was offering: a content marriage between friends. Love and lust, and all the messy and disastrous ramifications those two emotions stirred, would never have to enter the equation. Not with Julien. She could have a future…one that allowed her a modicum of true freedom, unlike the act she’d performed for the last six years.
Because the truth was, her freedom could end at any minute.
And Julien was her best friend. Aisla couldn’t remember exactly how they had come to be such good friends. Her aunt, Lady Griselda Sinclair, her mother’s younger sister who had married a Frenchman, had introduced her to Julien at a ball, just like this one, and they had simply fallen in together. He had liked her Scottish brogue, and she had liked his self-deprecating humor. And she had also liked that he’d never thrown in his hat with her other luckless suitors. In fact, he’d gotten a good laugh at all the earls and dukes and counts who had continued to pursue her, only to be rebuffed. She’d never imagined that he’d now be the one standing here, proposing.
He frowned at her. “You’re thinking much too hard about this.”
“It’s just…” she began, though she still felt thrown off-center by the strange notion running through her mind. That maybe this could be a blessing in disguise.
She’d become so used to the idea of growing old, alone. It had, for so long, been preferable to what she had thought was the only possible alternative: a return to Scotland, and to the world she’d left behind. But even after years of living in Paris, Aisla couldn’t leave behind the lingering knowledge that she was running away. That she was hiding. And she was suddenly exhausted. Perhaps what Julien was suggesting could fix that.
“It’s just what?” he prompted, squeezing her fingers.
She shoved away the sobering thought that by traveling this path, she’d be evicting the only man she’d ever loved from her heart. For good.
Aisla shook herself. Hard. She didn’t need love—that road had only brought her heartache and misery. She needed peace. “Very well, I’ll consider it.”
Julien’s smirk vanished. In its place appeared a broad and gleaming smile of victory. “Did you just say yes?”
Aisla bit her bottom lip and shook her head. “Not exactly. First, there’s something I must tell you. It’s important, and a bit complicated. And it may completely reverse your good opinion of me. You may wish to retract your proposal, in fact.”
“Now, I’m intrigued, little minx.” Julien grinned wickedly and brought her hands to his lips to kiss the back of each one. “Do you have a secret lover I don’t know about? A dark, erotic past full of scandalous secrets?”
“Don’t joke, Jules.” She drew her hands from his. “It’s much worse.”
He vaulted a golden eyebrow. “What can possibly be worse than a scandalous erotic past?”
Aisla took a breath to tell him what she had kept secret since she fled Scotland: “The thing is…I already have a husband.”