Heather had no interest in awaiting the arrival of the two Highlanders. She already knew, even without Janet’s added verification, that Duncan would be handsome. She had spent enough time with Colin Stewart to have briefly fallen under that special influence of piercing, jade green eyes, chestnut brown hair, strong nose, and stubborn jaw to know whereof Janet spoke. But she was equally aware, for all his fine education and airs, the most noble of the two brothers was selfcentered, arrogant, and lacked any depth of character. How much less impressive could the Highland-raised brother be, reared in nearly total isolation from everything that truly mattered? In the end, what counted wasn’t braw looks and trappings, but the heart and mind of the man. And, odds were, not much good ever came out of the Highlands.
Though her own mother had been of the Highlands, Heather nonetheless considered herself a Gordon through and through. And the Gordons, who had risen over the centuries to become the predominant power in the northeast of Scotland, weren’t natives to the Highlands or indeed even to Scotland itself. Of Norman descent, they were one of many families welcomed into his kingdom by David I. Indeed, they chose to call themselves the House of Gordon, rather than Clan Gordon, distancing themselves in every way they could from their more Gaelic --- and coarser --- Highland neighbors. Even before her father spurned Colin Stewart’s suit for her hand, Heather had found him lacking on so many levels. But at least Charlie Seton, as plain as he was in face and body, seemed a good, decent man. Her father had chosen well in that, if nothing else.
"Ye should go down and be there to greet the Highlander," Beth said as she followed Heather along the corridor to her bedchamber. "Janet’s love-struck aspirations don’t matter a whit in light of yer needs. And I’d wager, once he has a chance to set eye upon ye, he’ll not spare that girl another look."
Heather glanced at her maid. She had brought two lady’s maids with her --- Beth and Alison Gordon, a distant cousin. Of the two, however, Heather far preferred the plump, brown-haired Beth’s solid common sense and dependable ways to the flighty, vain little Alison. Her advice was usually good, her opinions based on careful observations. This latest statement, however, was most unsettling.
"I don’t care if Duncan Mackenzie spares me a look or not," she muttered. "I haven’t come here to please his eye or win his heart. I wish but to teach him what he needs to know and then be rid of him."
"Yet why not use all yer fine attributes, be they of the mind or body, to yer advantage?" Beth persisted, opening Heather’s bedchamber door and stepping aside to allow her to enter. "I’d say, men being men and Highlanders being more men than some, the day might well be won more because ye’re a lovely piece of woman flesh than because of some appeal to his fine sense of justice or love of learning."
"Would ye now?"
Heather flounced over to the blazing hearth fire and bent to warm her hands. By mountain and sea, she thought with a shiver, but it was even colder in the Highlands than in the Grampians. Was there nothing about this frosty, gray land to recommend it?
"When one wishes to win, one uses every weapon at one’s command." Beth shut the door and walked over to her. "Isn’t this but a battle of sorts, before the final skirmish against the walls of Lochleven? And isn’t the price worth it, if it results in the rescue of Queen Mary?"
Heather’s shoulders slumped, and she flung herself into a tall, oak chair. She leaned back, gripped the wellworn arms, and expelled a frustrated breath.
"I just don’t like being the bait used to lure this man to a fate he has no way of fully choosing. I’d much prefer to face him in all honesty and fairness, and . . ." Her voice faded. "Och, I don’t know what I really want to do," she finally cried. "I just don’t feel right about this!"
"Yet there’s no other way, is there, lassie?" Beth supplied softly, moving to stand beside her. "Not and be true to yer father and his cause?"
"Nay, no other way." Heather sighed. "And I must be strong in this, for he depends --- "
A knock sounded. The two women exchanged glances, then Beth walked to the door and opened it. Robert Gordon stood there, a frown on his face. "Come, come, lass." He motioned for Heather to join him. "The man we’ve ridden all this way to meet has arrived. Naught will be served with ye hiding in yer room. Ye must greet him sooner or later and, to my mind, the sooner the better."
Heather rose, smoothed the wrinkles from her blue, high-necked, and pearl-studded satin gown, straightened the long rope of pearls encircling her neck, and made her way to him. Forcing a bright smile onto her face, she followed her father out the door and back down the corridor.
"I but thought to give the man a time to rest and refresh himself, before forcing my company on him. Oftentimes, to appear overeager isn’t the best strategy."
"True enough," her father admitted. "But while ye linger in yer room, Angus’s daughter has lost no time welcoming the Highlander and seeing to his needs. Before he squanders all his time and attention on her, I want to dangle the true prize before him." Robert Gordon smiled down at his daughter. "It’ll sweeten the pot, so to speak, when I present our plan to him."
Unaccountably, resentment swelled in Heather. Need her father be so blatant in his use of her physical charms to manipulate and tempt Duncan Mackenzie? Maiden though she was, she wasn’t unaware of the power of women over men. She was also aware that many men found her attractive. Physical beauty, however, was frequently more a detriment than an advantage if one wished ever to be respected and valued for one’s mind. But her father, Heather also knew, didn’t desire yet another philosophical discourse, leastwise not at a time such as this. He wanted action and results. In the end, it was probably also the best course with the likes of a man such as Duncan Mackenzie, and well her father knew it. Subtlety and the finer points of the philosophers would make little impression on the Highlander. He was, after all, little more than a savage. An attractive woman would have a much more immediate and forceful impact. Yet Heather also wondered how she’d deal with the consequences of such a game, especially once her father was gone and she was forced into frequent and close contact with this simple, primal man. Thankfully, she had at least the safety of her uncle’s intimidating presence and the formidable shelter of his tower house to protect her. After all, Angus was this Duncan Mackenzie’s laird. Surely that, if nothing else, would compel him to maintain some semblance of manners.
"What exactly do ye wish of me, Father?" Heather forced herself to ask.
"Whatever ye think proper, lass. I don’t want ye compromising yerself. That was never my intent. But I also know how susceptible I was as a young man to the influence of a beautiful woman, and I wager this young Highlander will be the same." Robert Gordon halted before a door near the winding stone turnpike stairway that pierced the southwest corner of the big, L-shaped tower house. "Just go in and offer Janet yer assistance. Yer presence and pretense of hospitable concern, if I’m not too far off the mark, will be all that’s needed."
"As ye wish, Father."
She knocked on the door. A male voice, muffled by the thick wood and stone walls, answered, beckoning her in. For an instant, Heather almost imagined the voice had an urgent, pleading quality to it, then decided she was mistaken. She pulled down on the door handle, paused to shoot her father a determined smile, then opened the door and walked in.
The sight that greeted her as she turned from closing the door behind her took her breath away. A tall, mud-spattered man, nearly naked save for his knee-high leather cuarans and the sodden plaid he fought to hold to him, stood in the middle of the bedchamber beside a steaming, wooden tub of water. Before him, her back turned to Heather, was Janet, pulling on the other end of the plaid just as determinedly as the man strove to retain it. Off to one side by a kettle of water simmering over a roaring hearth fire was a young maidservant, a grin on her face and an avid look in her eyes. At Heather’s soft gasp, Duncan Mackenzie jerked his glaring gaze from Janet. A pair of striking green eyes, topped by straight, dark brows, locked with hers. Janet’s earlier description of Duncan Mackenzie as the "finest piece of man flesh," Heather decided as her glance swung from his head to toe and back up again, was the most inapt and imprecise use of the language that ever was. As well-built and attractive as his brother Colin had been, this Highlander, in many subtle and not so subtle ways, put his sibling to shame. His proud, strong forehead was crowned with a lush, wild mane of damp, deep chestnut brown hair. Though a day or two’s growth of dark beard shadowed his ruggedly arrogant, chiseled jaw and the line above his firm, sensually molded lips, the fine, high-bred features nonetheless all but shouted out his breeding. His face was unmarred, perfect in a manly sort of way, save for his nose, which was straight but for a slight lump over the bridge, and a short, ragged scar beneath his left eye that curved down onto his high cheekbone.
It was his eyes, though, that pulled Heather back again and again. Somehow, they seemed greener, sharper, and more assessing than Colin’s had ever been. They held hers captive with a virile, unflinching directness she found disconcerting. This wasn’t a man easily led or intimidated, Heather realized with a tiny, foreboding shudder. And not a man easily swayed from whatever prize he sought, either.
After what seemed an interminable length of time, but was likely no more than a few seconds, Heather broke eye contact, finding surcease from his intensely personal perusal by moving her glance down his body. As compelling as his face was, the muscled swell of his neck and shoulders effortlessly drew Heather’s gaze downward, past a generous tangle of dark, dense chest hair and bulging pectorals to a most impressive set of lightly furred, rippling belly muscles that quickly disappeared beneath two strong, long-fingered hands clenching a generous wad of plaid.
Heather forced her gaze upward, back to his. There, in the gleaming jade green depths, she easily discerned his recognition of what, at least to him, must appear an unseemly feminine interest. At the realization, coupled with his almost feral, masculine regard, Heather flushed. This wasn’t quite the scenario or reaction she’d had in mind, not from him, and most definitely not from herself.
"Er, Janet," she forced out the words past a strangely dry throat, "my father thought ye might be needing a bit of help with yer guest. Is there aught I can do to assist ye?"
At the sound of Heather’s voice the girl gave a strangled squawk, relinquished her hold on the Highlander’s plaid, and wheeled to face her. "I-I don’t think so," she stammered, her glance darting nervously about as if she were a child who had been caught with her hand in the honey pot. "I was just helping Duncan with his plaid before he stepped into his bath. He was filthy, soaked to the skin, and shivering so badly his teeth clacked when he arrived. I thought it best immediately to get him into a hot bath." She turned back to Duncan and held out her hand.
"Now, give me yer plaid like a good lad, and step into the bath before ye catch yer death."
Duncan’s gaze swung from Janet’s to Heather’s. The merest hint of a smile touched his mouth.
"Nay, lass. Even a Highlander has his modesty."
"Och, Duncan," Janet tittered shrilly, "ye’re a bold one, and no mistake. But ye don’t fool me with yer saucy words, and ye’ll not sway a fine lady such as my cousin, either. She’s a noblewoman, born and bred, and isn’t impressed with an uncouth Highlander such as yerself."
"Indeed?" He cocked a dark brow. "A fine lady, is she now? Well, I may be uncouth, but I well know what that gleam in her eye, as she ran her gaze down my body, meant. And I’d wager what she was thinking was as uncouth as any man’s."
At his shocking audacity, Heather’s eyes narrowed in anger. Before she could open her mouth to deliver a stinging retort, however, Janet clucked her tongue.
"For shame, Duncan," she chided. "Ye’re a brazen one --- though with good reason, seeing how all the lasses sigh after ye --- but this is the Lady Heather Gordon of Dunscroft Castle, daughter of Lord Robert Gordon and my dear, departed aunt Margery Mackenzie, who was my father’s sister. Ye must offer yer apologies, and quickly now, or risk offending my cousin."
"Must I now, even for speaking the truth of it?"
"Aye, ye must."
His even, white teeth flashed in a lazy grin. Then with an elegant bow and sweep of the hand not still holding his plaid in place, Duncan bowed.
"If I mistook the situation, my lady, I beg yer forgiveness. And if I didn’t . . ." He straightened, lifting his massive shoulders in a mocking shrug.
Disgusting, rutting stag, Heather thought. Well, he’d not unsettle her, even if his apology had hardly been any apology at all.
"Yer guest is correct in supposing neither of us wishes to view his manly attributes. Come, Janet. Grant him his privacy. The promises men make are usually far, far grander than what they ever are in reality."
Duncan threw back his head and gave a shout of laughter. "Aye, get on wi’ ye, Janet. It’s as the Lady Gordon says, leastwise in all cases but mine. Indeed, she must know, to speak so knowledgeably. And ye’ve been raised to respect yer elders."
Janet glanced uncertainly from Heather to Duncan. "Aye, that I have," she mumbled. "But, at nineteen, she really isn’t all that older than me, Duncan. And she isn’t wed, so I can’t fathom why ye’d think she’s --- "
"Enough, Janet." Heather held out her hand to her cousin, who quickly joined her. "It doesn’t matter what he does or doesn’t think. Time enough to talk with him later. In the meanwhile, yer maid can see to his needs."
She shot Duncan a final, scathing look before turning and leading Janet away. "Not that any amount of soap, water, and clean clothes will make him more than he ever was."
"And what is that, sweet lass?" came a deep voice behind her, rumbling with barely contained laughter.
"What else?" Heather retorted, at the end of her patience. "An oafish clod with naught more than whey for brains!"