One Little Sin
Pocket Star Books, September 2005
|Excerpt from the novel One Little Sin|
She found MacLachlan in his study as expected. He had changed into a dark green coat over a waistcoat of straw-colored silk and snug brown trousers. His starched cravat was elegantly tied beneath his square, freshly shaved chin. Indeed, he looked breathtakingly handsome, and his ability to do so after a night of debauchery somehow annoyed her. He ought, at the very least, to have the decency to look a little green about the gills.
Surprisingly, MacLachlan sat not by the coffee tray, but at his desk, his posture no longer loose and languid. Instead, he sat bolt upright, like a bird dog on point, fervent and focused. If he were suffering any ill-effects from his night on the town with Mrs. Crosby, one certainly could not now discern it.
Upon coming further into the room, she realized he was not working. Instead, he was intent on some sort of card game, his heavy gold hair falling forward, obscuring his eyes. Suddenly, with a muttered curse, he swept up the cards, then shuffled them deftly through his fingers in one seamless motion. He shuffled again, his every aspect focused on the cards, as if they were an extension of hands, which were long-fingered and elegant. And surprisingly quick.
She approached the desk, sensing the very moment when he recognized her presence. At once, he set the pack away and looked at her, something in his gaze shifting. It was as if she’d awakened him from a dream. He stood, and in an instant, the lazy, somnolent look returned to his eyes.
“Good morning, Miss Hamilton,” he said. “Do sit down.”
She moved to the seat he had indicated, a delicately inlaid Sheraton chair opposite the tea-table. This room was beautifully decorated in shades of pale blue and cream. The blue silk wall coverings were accented by floor-to-ceiling pier glasses between the windows, and the creamy carpet felt thick beneath her feet. A footman carried in a small coffee tray and set it on the far end of the tea table. MacLachlan asked her to pour. The coffee was very strong, and rich, reminding her, strangely, of black velvet.
“Wellings tells me you took the child out for a stroll yesterday,” he said. “I hope you both enjoyed it?”
For some reason, she did not wish to tell him about her visit to Aunt Rowena’s. Perhaps because it made her look desperate and a little foolish. “London is a large place,” she murmured. “But we had a pleasant outing.”
“How far did you go?”
“Why, to Mayfair, I believe.”
“A fine part of town,” he remarked. “But I have always preferred the tranquility of this little neighborhood.”
“Aye, ’tis much nicer here.” Esmée sipped gingerly from her hot coffee. “Tell me, do you play at cards regularly, MacLachlan?”
There was a cynical look about his eyes today, and it made her a little wary. “I think you know I do, Miss Hamilton,” he said in his low, husky voice. “How is it, by the way, that you keep making me feel as if I am still back in Argyllshire? I wonder you don’t put an imperious ‘the’ before my name—The MacLachlan—as if I am the only one.”
“To your clan, perhaps you are,” she answered simply.
His eyes hardened. “I have no clan, Miss Hamilton,” he said. “I have lands, yes, though nothing one would wish to boast about. My grandfather fought against the Jacobites, and for his service, he was tossed a bone, in the form of a baronetcy, by the King.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“He was given a baronetcy by the King of England.”
MacLachlan lifted one brow. “A diehard Highlander, are you?”
“Aye, and I dinna ken there was any other kind,” she said in a thick burr.
He laughed. “So tell me, Miss Hamilton, are you one of those treasonous holdouts still toasting ‘the king over the water?’” he asked. “Am I harboring a secret Jacobite?”
Esmée smiled faintly. “Perhaps you are harboring a stickler for historical accuracy,” she suggested. “Do you wish me to call you Sir Alasdair?”
He shrugged, and began to stir his coffee with the same slow, languorous motions he seemed to use for everything else in life. Everything save his card playing. “I don’t think I care,” he finally admitted. “Call me what you wish. I am not a stickler for any sort of accuracy at all.”
“I don’t entirely believe that,” she said. “I think you are a very accurate sort of card player.”
He looked up from his coffee and smiled thinly. “I collect you think little of my talent,” he murmured. “But when carefully honed, Miss Hamilton, card-playing is a skill by which an impecunious young Scot can make his way in this world.”
“Aye, sair sarkless, were you?” She let her gaze drift to his elegantly cut coat, which had probably cost more than half her wardrobe.
“No, never quite that.” His eyes glittered a little dangerously. “But now I am, as you recently reminded me, a very rich gentleman. And I can assure you I did not get that way by living off my tenant farms.”
“Perhaps you got it by means of other people’s weaknesses,” she suggested. “Games of chance are inherently unfair.”
“I don’t care a jot about another man’s weakness, Miss Hamilton, if he is fool enough to sit down at the table with me,” he replied evenly. “And nothing is left to chance when I play. It is strictly a matter of probability and statistics—something so real and so tangible, it can be calculated on the back of an old newspaper.”
“How ridiculous that sounds!” she returned. “You are just trying to paint up a vice as a virtue. Everyone knows card-playing is a matter of luck.”
“Do they indeed?” He reached behind him for his pack of cards. With an artful flourish, he fanned it across the tea-table. “Pick a card, Miss Hamilton. Any card.”
She scowled across the table at him. “This isn’t a village fair, my lord.”
“Are you afraid, Miss Hamilton, that despite your vast and worldly experience, you just might, for once, be wrong about something?”
She snatched a card.
“Excellent,” he said. “Now, Miss Hamilton, you are holding a card—”
“How astute you are, MacLachlan.”
Tension was suddenly thick in the room. “—A card which is either black or red,” he went on. “It has a fifty-fifty chance of being either, does it not?”
“Yes, but that is hardly a matter of science.”
“Actually, it is,” he said. “And there is, of course, yet another variable.”
“I should have imagined there were fifty-two variables.”
The brow went up again. “Work with me, Miss Hamilton,” he said. “The card you are holding is either an ace, a face card or a numbered card. At present, with fifty-one cards still face-down on the table, the probability of your holding an ace is four out of fifty-two. Not, admittedly, the best of odds.”
“As I said, a game of chance.”
He held up one finger. “And the probability that it is a face card is twelve out of fifty-two, is it not?”
“And the probability that it is a numbered card is thirty-six out of fifty-two, correct?”
“Then I believe, Miss Hamilton, that you are holding a numbered card. That is a distinct probability, you see. And I shall venture to say, more specifically, that it is a red card.”
Esmée looked at her card and blanched.
“May I see it, please?”
Reluctantly, she laid down the eight of diamonds. “Still, it was just a lucky guess,” she complained.
“The first supposition was not,” he countered. “But the latter was. And that, Miss Hamilton, is the difference between probability and luck. Now, place your card face-down, and take another.”
“This is absurd.” But she did as he asked.
“Now, Miss Hamilton, you have just altered the probability,” he said, his gaze locked with hers. “We now have but fifty-one cards, for your red eight is out of play.”
At his insistence, they repeated the process a dozen times. On four of them, Sir Alasdair was wrong. Esmée tried to gloat, but regrettably, his accuracy improved with play, and after each card was laid aside, he would recite the new probabilities. Red versus black. Faces versus numbers. Soon, he was able to guess not just the color and style, but soon the suit, and eventually the number.
Esmée’s head was swimming. But what was worse, no matter what was drawn, Sir Alasdair seemed to recall precisely what had been played, and knew, therefore, what remained. She thought of the pile of arcane, unreadable books she’d found in the smoking parlor. It galled her to admit that he must have read—and comprehended—every blasted one.
When he had guessed four cards in succession correctly, Esmée gave up. “This is all perfectly silly,” she said, tossing aside her last card. “Surely, sir, you did not call me down here for a card game?”
He lifted one broad shoulder, and swept up the deck with the opposite hand. “It was you, Miss Hamilton, who disparaged my means of making a living,” he said calmly. “I am merely defending my honor against your cruel and scurrilous accusations.”
Esmée laughed. “Surely you do not live by your wits?”
“You think I have none?” he challenged.
She hesitated. “I did not say that.”
“But you did once suggest that I am little more than a—now, let me see—yes, a pretty face, was it not?”
“I suggested no such thing,” she said, then realized she’d just lied. “Nonetheless, card-playing is hardly an intellectual endeavor.”
“Have you ever played vingt-et-un, Miss Hamilton?” he asked darkly. “Go back upstairs and get that three hundred pounds out of your ink-pot or your hat-box or where ever it is you have secreted it if you are so sure, and let us put your high-minded assumptions to the test.”
Esmée opened her mouth, then closed it again. With his golden good looks and raspy bedroom voice, MacLachlan was the very devil—worse, a devil who looked like an angel—and she had no doubt he would strip her of every ha’penny just to make his point. “No, thank you,” she said. “I do not gamble.”
“You gambled rather boldly, Miss Hamilton, when you came all the way to London with that child in tow.”
“She is not that child,” said Esmée. “She is—”
“Yes, yes,” he interjected, waving his hand in obviation. “She is Sorcha. I recall it. Give me time, Miss Hamilton, to adjust to this vast change in my life.”
They drank their coffee in silence for several moments, Esmée searching for some neutral topic, and finding none. “How is she?” he finally asked. “Sorcha. She is settling in well?”
“Oh, aye,” said Esmée. “She’s a resilient child.”
“What do you mean?”
Esmée opened her hands expressively. “’Tis hard to explain,” she said. “But Sorcha is strong willed, and she possesses a—well, a sort of trust in her own ability to charm everyone around her, and to get what she wants.”
Suddenly, Sir Alasdair smiled, deepening the dimples on both sides of his too-handsome face. “Hmm,” he said. “I wonder where she got that?”
Esmée looked at him over her coffee cup. “Now that I think on it, sir, I’m afraid the poor child may have gotten a double dose.”
“Ah.” Languidly, he finished his coffee and pushed the empty cup away. “No doubt you are right.”
Esmée felt suddenly churlish and unsporting. It wasn’t his fault he’d been born handsome and charming, and knew how to put both to good use.
Absently, he drew a card from the spread, and began to flick it adroitly back and forth between the fingers of one hand, but his eyes never left hers. Esmée searched for something constructive to say. “Thank you for the furnishings,” she blurted. “There seem to be a great many chairs. But it was terribly kind of you.”
“Kind?” he echoed, still lazily turning his card. “I rarely do anything kind for anyone, Miss Hamilton. If I do, it is either out of self-preservation, or simply to please myself.”
“I see.” His disarming honestly perplexed her. “Which was it, then?”
“To please myself,” he answered. “I wished to see the warmth kindle in your eyes again when you thanked me—as you did just now. You have fallen, Miss Hamilton, into my trap.”
“Kill them with kindness?” she murmured. “Well, ’twill take more than that, MacLachlan, to do me in. You ought to know Scots are made of sterner stuff.”
“It is more my fear, Miss Hamilton, that hard work might do you in first,” he said quietly. “I have it on the best authority that children should have both a governess and a nurse. Do you agree?”
Esmée was taken aback. “In a perfect world, aye.”
Sir Alasdair twirled the card from between his fingers, and flipped it face-up in front of her. The ace of hearts. “Then may your world, Miss Hamilton, ever be perfect.”
For a moment, she could only stare at his elegant, long-fingered hand, which was warm against the white starkness of the card. She was beginning to feel a bit unsteady. She did not like being alone with this man, his perfect hands, and his low, dark voice.
“What do you mean?” she finally managed.
“I mean to hire a nurse,” he said. “Wellings will have candidates in a day or two. Pick whomever you think best.”
Esmée didn’t know what to say. “That is generous, sir,” she answered. “I hardly know what to say.”
“How about I shall be forever in your gratitude?” he suggested. “Or I am your deeply devoted slave?”
Esmée did not like the way his words washed over her, warm and suggestive. “I think not.”
MacLachlan gave his slow, lazy shrug. “Then perhaps you could simply pour me another cup of coffee,” he proposed. “I emptied my mine nearly ten minutes past.”
Esmée looked down, mildly embarrassed at her oversight. His cup sat empty on the edge of the table. He lifted it, and thrust it in her direction. Instinctively, Esmée seized the pot. But somehow, the twain did not meet, and next she knew, MacLachlan had jerked back his hand, splashing coffee down his fine clothes.
“Christ Jesus!” he shouted.
After that, she was not perfectly sure what happened. She must have leapt from her chair. Somehow, she had her handkerchief, and was on her knees by his chair, dabbing impotently at his straw-colored waistcoat, never thinking what a fool she must look.
“Oh, I am so sorry!” Esmée scrubbed furiously at the silk.
MacLachlan had drawn back in his chair to survey the damage. “Bloody hell, that was hot!”
“Oh, have I scalded you?” she asked. “Are you hurt?” Inexplicably, Esmée wanted to cry. This felt like the last straw.
“I shan’t be scarred for life.” MacLachlan settled a warm, strong hand on her shoulder. “Really, Miss Hamilton, it is quite alright. Stop scrubbing, please, and look at me.”
Esmée’s gaze trailed upward. “Oh, no!” His cravat, too, was splattered. “Oh, this is ruined!” She plucked desperately at the folds as if drying it would help.
MacLachlan lifted away her hand, and grasped it securely in his. “I’ve suffered worse,” he said, leaning over her, so close his breath stirred her hair. “Now do get off your knees, Miss Hamilton, before someone barges in and draws a bad conclusion—which, given my reputation, might too easily happen.”
She did not quite absorb his words. “I beg your pardon?”
MacLachlan sighed, then somehow pushed back his chair, and drew her up with him. They were standing mere inches apart now, her head barely reaching his chest, and her hand still caught in his. For a long moment, he was perfectly still, his gaze intent on their entwined fingers. “My dear Miss Hamilton,” he finally said.
His mouth curled into a smile. “I think it safe to say you are the most relentless nail-biter I have ever known.”
Her face already aflame, she jerked the hand from his, and thrust it behind her back.
He seized hold of the other one, and held it resolutely. “Indeed,” he said, peering at it, “I am not at all sure these are fingernails.”
She tried to extract her hand, but the scoundrel just grinned. “You have quite vanquished them, Miss Hamilton,” he said, still looking at her fingers. “They are actually receding, like the French retreating from Moscow.”
Esmée was still distraught over having doused him with hot coffee. “’Tis a vile habit,” she admitted, tugging at her hand. “I would I knew how to stop.”
He lifted his gaze to hers, and held it for a long moment. “What I would know,” he said quietly, “is what it is that troubles you so much that you feel compelled to chew them to the quick.”
He would not release her hand, though he held it quite gently. “I just do sometimes,” she said softly. “It means nothing.”
“Esmée.” The chiding affection in his tone unsettled her. “My dear, you really are troubled. Why? How can I help?”
Suddenly, she felt her chin quivering. “Do not you dare,” she whispered, tearing her gaze away. “Do not you dare feel sorry for me.”
His eyes heated. “I just want you to tell me what is wrong,” he insisted. Suddenly, his tone shifted. “Is it me, Esmée? Do I . . . distress you?” At that, he dropped her hand and stepped back.
Oh, God. It wasn’t that. Why did he even have to care? Why couldn’t he be the insensitive lout she expected? How could he be so blithe one moment, and so compassionate the next? Suddenly, Esmée couldn’t get her breath.
“It isn’t you,” she managed, her hand nervously toying with the strand of pearls at her neck. “It isn’t you, and it isn’t anything to do with you. Please, MacLachlan, just leave me be.”
“I’m not sure I should.” His voice was gentle but resolute. “You put on a brave face, my dear, but I begin to suspect a crack in that brittle veneer of yours. Are you in over your head?”
“I can manage!” she cried, dropping her hand. “I can, I swear it! Is that why you’re hiring a nurse? You think I know nothing of childrearing? And the coffee—I’m sorry—I was careless.” Her voice was taking on a frantic edge now, but she couldn’t seem to stop. “It shan’t happen again. And I can take care of Sorcha, too. I can!”
“Miss Hamilton, this is all so unnecessary,” he said. “You are tired, homesick, and still grieving. Your mother is dead, and your responsibilities are grave. I am sure you must sometimes feel quite alone in the world. May I not show at least a little concern?”
She made a noise—a gasp? A sob?—she hardly knew which. And suddenly, she felt his arms coming around her, strong and sure. In that moment, it felt like the most comforting, most protective gesture anyone had ever made toward her.
Esmée shouldn’t have done it, of course, but she let herself sag against the solid wall of his chest, which felt like the Rock of Gibraltar. He smelled of laundry starch and warm, musky male, and suddenly it was all she could do not to bury her nose in his sodden cravat and weep. She was homesick. She did miss her mother. And she was frightened. Frightened, perhaps, of herself as much as anyone.
“Esmée, look at me,” he whispered. “Please.”
She lifted her gaze to his, wordlessly pleading for something; she knew not what. His embrace tightened. His sinfully long lashes lowered just a fraction, his mouth hovering over hers. Esmée felt her blood quicken. She wanted to melt against him, to hide inside him. Instead, she closed her eyes, and parted her lips. As she’d somehow known it would, MacLachlan’s mouth settled over hers, and a sense of inevitability settled over Esmée.