Scotsmen Prefer Blondes (Muses of Mayfair #2)
Starring: Lady Amelia Staunton and Malcolm MacCabe, Earl of Carnach
Why you should read it: Compromising situations! Arranged marriages! Sheep stealing! Making out in a moonlit library!
Want to sample first? Read the first two chapters here.
MacCabe Castle, the Scottish Highlands – 23 September 1812
“Are you sure you want to do this, Prue?” Amelia asked.
Miss Prudence Etchingham turned away from the window. Her frown was answer enough. “No. But you must admit the tea Lady Carnach served when we arrived was better than anything my mother’s housekeeper can produce. I would happily marry the devil for those lemon cakes.”
Amelia crossed her arms. They’d had the argument in fits and starts all the way to Scotland, but there were only a few moments left before Prudence met her would-be fiancé. “Lemon cakes are all well and good…”
“More than well and good, I should think, if you’ve lived off my mother’s housekeeper’s soda bread,” Prudence interrupted.
“You can’t sell yourself for a cake,” Amelia insisted. “Your worth is greater than that of anyone I know.”
Prudence leaned against the edge of the bed, so high that she couldn’t sit on the mattress without boosting herself up onto it. “You are the only one who thinks so. The marriage mart gave up on me ages ago.”
They were in one of the castle’s innumerable guest chambers, already dressed for dinner and waiting for the gong to summon them downstairs. Amelia did acknowledge that the castle was vastly preferable to the Etchinghams’ lodgings in London. The castle was large enough that Amelia and Prudence had their own chambers — a luxury their spinster statuses rarely allowed.
If Prudence followed through with the plan her mother had made for her, though, she would have the entire castle, not a minor guest room. Most single women at seven-and-twenty would be delighted to entertain a proposal from an earl. But Prudence was pale under the light brown hair piled on her head. Her yellow gown only enhanced her pallor — it made her look sickly, not satisfied.
“You don’t need the approval of the marriage mart,” Amelia retorted. “If you could just wait a bit longer, perhaps one of your historical treatises could raise some funds for you.”
Prudence smiled, but her brown eyes were sad. “History doesn’t sell as well as fiction. And it’s better to marry than be trapped in spinsterhood with my mother.”
Amelia picked at a fraying thread on the edge of her glove. “I think we might escape in another year or two. Once I’m thirty, my mother will surely let me set up a cottage in the country. No one would remark upon it if you joined me. Then I could write my novels and you could study history as much as we like, without fear of discovery.”
“With what do you suppose we will pay for a cottage?”
“If neither of us marry, our dowries should maintain us. And anyway, if my books continue to attract notice…”
Prudence cut her off again. “Your dowry, perhaps. Mine won’t even buy a new pair of gloves. Mother says I should be grateful to have found any man at my advanced age and without a pound to my name. The fact that Carnach is an earl has her salivating even more.”
Amelia stopped picking at her glove with a guilty sigh and pulled it onto her hand. “Don’t you think that might be a reason not to marry Lord Carnach? You haven’t met him. Our mothers liked Lady Carnach when they shared a Season with her, but they know nothing of her son. She said he wants to go into politics — what if he is such a prig that no other woman would have him? Or what if his tastes are perverse?”
Her voice dropped on the word, but Prudence giggled. “I’ve seen all the same illustrations you have, Mellie. I can tolerate a bit of perversion for those lemon cakes.”
With a delicate blush sweeping across her cheeks, Prudence looked younger than she had in an age. Amelia sighed. “Don’t decide yet, Prue. At least wait until you meet him. He could be an utter ogre.”
“Of course I won’t have him if he’s an ogre. And I have no desire to be a political hostess, even for a hundred cakes. But I can’t turn everyone down like you have. This is likely my only chance.”
Amelia’s heart twisted. Other than her cousin Madeleine, who had recently married the Duke of Rothwell, Prudence was her best friend. And she was the sweetest girl in London, with a secret streak of humor that Amelia adored.
But sweetness and good humor were wasted on a woman who had no dowry. In London, no one paid Prudence any notice.
Would the Earl of Carnach notice Prudence? The real Prudence, the one Amelia knew? Or would he see her as a desperate woman who would be grateful for his title and his fortune, one who would do whatever he needed of her?
“Still, know that I’ll do anything you need to avoid this. If I have to write another book like The Unconquered Heiress, I will. It’s still selling like mad.”
Prudence frowned. “You shouldn’t take such a risk again.”
Amelia had written the satire in the spring, partly as penance for an argument with her cousin Madeleine, partly as revenge on the most repugnant of her would-be suitors. She preferred writing Gothic romances to social commentary, but the book had sold better than anything she’d written before.
“Perhaps it’s a risk worth taking if it saves you from Carnach,” Amelia said.
The dinner gong sounded — likely carried up the stairs by a footman and rung especially for them, since the guest wing was separated from the family wing by the vast expanse of the ancient great hall. Prudence pushed herself away from the bed and held out her hand to help Amelia stand.
“No, you can’t write another,” Prudence said firmly. “If anyone knew you authored the first one, you would have been ruined. And if you’re ruined, my mother won’t allow me to see you. So you have to stay safe, even if another book would buy you lemon cakes for life.”
Amelia grinned at that. “Very well, no satire. What about a Gothic novel in which a dastardly seducer lures a beautiful woman to his mountain castle, then forces her to throw parties for Whigs until the end of her days?”
Prudence swatted her arm. “Let me at least meet the man before you cast him as a villain.”
Amelia relented. They walked to the stairs that led down to the great hall. The castle was no longer shaped like a castle proper — as with many old estates, the original building had been added to, subtracted from, and renovated over the centuries. The great hall was intact, lined with tapestries, and the dais still held its ancient table for the lord and his family. Behind the dais, a passage had been converted into a portrait gallery, leading to the castle’s only remaining tower.
Amelia shivered as they passed through the hall to the stairs that led up to the family wing, which was more modern than all the rest. “If you do stay, make sure Carnach buys you well-soled slippers. You’ll catch your death here otherwise.”
Prudence didn’t laugh as easily as she normally did. “No more talk of death, Mellie. I need to concentrate.”
Amelia sighed. It only took a few moments to climb the stairs and walk down the hallway to the drawing room. When they reached it, Prudence paused just outside the door.
“Lemon cakes,” she muttered to herself.
Amelia laughed despite herself. “A battle cry that will live on for centuries, Prue.”
Prudence’s laugh was shaky, almost a sob. She squared her shoulders, cloaking herself in dignity like she wore the most expensive gown in England, not a plain muslin dress that was several seasons out of date. Then she stepped forward, ready to offer herself up as a sacrifice to replenish her mother’s fortunes.
Amelia followed, feigning serenity as her anger grew. Prudence didn’t want this, even if she needed it. And if Prudence wouldn’t demand something more for herself than this, Amelia would do whatever it took to find an alternative.
The MacCabes’ butler, Graves, greeted them at the door. “Lady Amelia Staunton and Miss Etchingham,” he announced, even though the gathering was small. She knew the women — her mother, Lady Salford, sat with Prudence’s mother, Lady Harcastle, and their hostess, Lady Carnach. Amelia’s brother Alex, the Earl of Salford, was there too, having grudgingly escorting them to Scotland.
The only man she didn’t know broke away from the group to stride toward them. Lady Carnach trailed in his wake, presumably to conduct introductions.
Amelia heard Prudence suck in a breath, felt her freeze beside her. If this was her would-be husband, he didn’t look like an ogre. He didn’t look like a politician, either — he looked like one of the old Celtic warriors come to life. He was tall, well over six feet, with a muscled frame that showed to complete advantage in his tailored eveningwear. His dark hair was longer than fashionable, and he had carelessly pushed it back in a sinful sweep that would make Byron foam with jealousy. His brows were thick over his eyes, and with just a quirk they would turn sardonic.
But for now, he was polite. He took Prudence’s right hand as Lady Carnach murmured the introductions.
“Miss Etchingham, I am honored that you have come to Scotland,” he said.
His voice rumbled, rough and sensual, under the cool welcome. Amelia’s eyes narrowed. It had taken less than a second to register Carnach’s appeal. With his title and his looks, why would he need to take a woman he’d never met as his bride?
Perhaps Prudence had the same doubts. She didn’t let go of Amelia’s hand, even after Carnach took her other hand into his. Instead, her grip tightened as though Amelia could save her.
If the earl noticed his would-be bride attaching herself to her friend like a barnacle — and with the sidelong glance he gave Amelia, he did notice — he didn’t remark on it. “I trust you’ve found the castle to your liking?” he asked.
The sound Prudence made was not one of delight. It sounded like a mouse realizing it was clutched in a hawk’s talons.
Just before it died of fright.
Damn. It wasn’t a ladylike thought, but Amelia didn’t feel like a lady. She felt like a general suddenly confronted with a suicide mission. She didn’t think Prudence should marry the man.
But she didn’t want Prudence to be embarrassed, either. Amelia squeezed Prudence’s hand, hard and urgent.
Prudence finally remembered what she was supposed to do. She dropped into a curtsey. “You have a lovely home, Lord Carnach.”
The curtsey was awkward, with Carnach holding one hand and Amelia the other, but Prudence successfully executed it. When she came up again, Carnach brushed his lips across her knuckles. “Thank you, Miss Etchingham. I hope you find much happiness here.”
His tone was gentler than before.
Prudence made another strangled sound.
Amelia smiled, pretending this was like any other house party she’d attended. “You are so fortunate to live here, my lord. We could not stop marveling at the scenery, could we, Miss Etchingham?”
It was an uninteresting observation, the sort of statement that made men preen and think themselves clever by comparison. But Prudence stopped choking. If they both stayed vapid and boring, as the ton had trained them to, perhaps Prudence could overcome her panic. The tactic had successfully hidden Amelia’s writing and Prudence’s academic leanings for so long — surely it would work now.
Carnach’s gaze shifted to Amelia. His eyes were grey, but grey was such a lusterless word for what they really were — the moody grey of clouds about to break, turning into quicksilver as he looked at her. His mouth turned up, just enough to show amusement without baring his teeth.
“The poets appreciate the scenery, I’m sure,” he said. “Will you regale me with a discussion of the weather next?”
Amelia would have laughed. Carnach knew the way the conversation was supposed to progress, and apparently had as little use for it as she did. But she couldn’t be at ease with him — not when his plans for Prudence still bothered her.
She eyed him coolly, holding her ground when he raised an eyebrow. “Would you prefer to discuss the chance of sun tomorrow? Or the chance of rain? I am prepared for either topic, my lord.”
“If it’s weather you care about, my lady, you’ll find the conversation here much to your liking,” he said, suppressing a grin. “But what of you, Miss Etchingham? Shall we discuss the weather as well? I don’t have any gossip to share that would interest you, I’m afraid.”
Prudence was looking beyond him to where Alex and their mothers sat. She didn’t answer, and the pause turned awkward. Amelia finally recalled her with another squeeze of the hand.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” Prudence said, a flush spreading across her cheeks. “I was woolgathering.”
Carnach smiled at her, but the quicksilver in his eyes had turned back into storm clouds. “We have wool as well, of course, if you’d like to discuss that instead.”
Prudence didn’t laugh at the jest. “Whatever you wish, Lord Carnach.”
His smile faded. Amelia had never heard that note of resignation in Prudence’s voice before. To Carnach’s credit, he didn’t seem to relish it either.
His brothers came into the drawing room then, and the relief on Carnach’s face was obvious. When he turned to greet them, Amelia leaned in to whisper in Prudence’s ear. “Don’t let him think you’ll be his chattel.”
“That’s what I’ll be though, isn’t it?” Prudence snapped. “No sense pretending otherwise. And no sense regretting what I might have had instead.”
There wasn’t time to try to convince her — Lady Carnach was already introducing them to the other MacCabes. The second son, Alastair, was the local vicar, and his angelic blond hair matched his role. Duncan and Douglas were twins, almost identical, with the same dark hair as Malcolm. But where Malcolm’s eyes seemed capable of brooding, she saw nothing but amusement on his brothers’ faces.
They were everything that was pleasant. Even a few minutes in their company made Amelia feel that she would enjoy her time in Scotland, regardless of the outcome.
And if any of them noticed Prudence’s distraction, when she should have tried harder to be amiable with her potential new family, they were too polite to mention it.
When it was time to go in to dinner, one of the twins claimed Amelia’s arm. “How do you find our weather, Lady Amelia?” Douglas asked.
She snorted, then tried to smooth it over with a cough when she realized he hadn’t meant it as a joke. “Do you think we will have rain or sun tomorrow?” she replied.
Douglas started regaling her with an old wives’ tale of how to predict such things. He turned her toward the door, and she looked up to find Carnach grinning at her.
The earl didn’t say anything about her choice of conversation, though. He turned back to Prudence and spoke to her with the soft voice of a horse tamer. If Prudence responded, her voice was too soft for Amelia to hear.
Amelia followed on Douglas’s arm, listening with half an ear to his stories. She’d been angry when she had walked into the drawing room, but she left it confused. She still found it suspicious that Carnach had fixed his attentions on Prudence — she loved her friend, but even Amelia knew Carnach could have looked far higher for a bride.
But why wasn’t Prudence responding to his charm? Perhaps this was like one of the Gothic novels Amelia wrote, and Prudence had recognized some dark omen, some latent evil, that Carnach hid from everyone else.
If this were one of Amelia’s stories, Prudence would try to escape. But Fate would have other plans.
Amelia shivered. This wasn’t a novel. Prudence could certainly do worse than Carnach. He wasn’t the villain Amelia had guessed him to be, even if he was entirely too smooth for her liking. She wouldn’t scheme to end the match, as she had originally planned — perhaps it was for the best if Prudence married him.
But if Prudence wanted to escape him, Amelia would be more than happy to help her.
In his study with his brothers three hours later, after a remarkably wretched dinner, Malcolm slammed his empty whisky glass down on his desk. “Do not say another word, Duncan. I’ve made my decision.”
Duncan and Douglas exchanged glances. Douglas gestured with both hands, an elaborate, sweeping movement ending with a suggestive curl, and Duncan laughed into his glass. The twins had developed their own language at a young age, and they still used it when they didn’t want to share their thoughts with others.
Malcolm scowled at them. “I know what that one means. Buying myself a whore won’t help matters.”
Alastair rolled his eyes in sympathy. “Don’t mind the twins, Malcolm. They’re still more boy than man.” Then he cleared his throat. “Of course, wisdom does occasionally come from the mouths of babes.”
Malcolm and his brothers had adjourned to his study after dinner. The Earl of Salford had declined, instead choosing to work on his correspondence, which is what Malcolm would have done if his brothers hadn’t forced him into retreating to the study and having a drink with them. “Retreat” felt like the right word for it. In the war to secure his clan’s future, the search for a bride was his prime objective. Tonight’s opening salvo had not gone as intended.
At least he had his brothers to commiserate with — although their commiseration usually made him feel better only because it redirected his annoyance to them rather than his other woes. At thirty-four, Malcolm was the oldest and had been responsible for all of them since their father’s death the previous year. Alastair was three years younger than Malcolm, and was the village’s vicar — not that he always behaved so piously. But the twins had just turned twenty-five, and with no wives, no incomes, and no houses of their own, they were a unified thorn in Malcolm’s side.
“I should buy you both commissions and be done with you,” he said, removing the stopper from the heavy crystal decanter to pour himself another drink. “Perhaps one of the India regiments so you can’t come home on leave.”
Douglas grinned. “You’ve threatened that since we were in leading strings. Send Duncan. He sports a uniform better than I do.”
“Only because I bathe regularly,” Duncan retorted. Then he turned back to Malcolm, ready to press his point again. “You cannot seriously intend to marry that chit, brother. It would be like legshackling yourself to a sheep.”
“Or a dishrag,” Douglas supplied.
“She’s not a dishrag,” Alastair said. “Miss Etchingham is just…a tad quiet for you, isn’t she?”
Malcolm glared at his turncoat brother. Alastair usually sided with him, not the twins. “Why should I not marry a quiet woman? It would be a welcome relief from hearing the lot of you criticize me at every turn.”
“Douglas and I are usually silent in our criticisms,” Duncan said. He emphasized it with another gesture to Douglas that had them both laughing again.
Malcolm had had enough. “Miss Etchingham is a very nice young lady.”
“‘Young’ is charitable,” Douglas muttered.
“A very nice young lady,” Malcolm repeated, raising his voice. “She was no doubt tired from her journey. As for conversation, I can’t blame her for not wanting to talk to any of you.”
“Did she talk to you?” Alastair asked.
They all knew the answer to that. Malcolm had escorted her in to dinner, made sure she had the choicest morsels on her plate, led her into discussions of the weather, the society pages, and everything else he could think of — but to no avail. Her answers were monosyllabic. Her countenance was almost bored. She kept glancing down the table as though hoping for a rescue. He coaxed one or two giggles out of her, but nothing that could be deemed joy.
He never failed to engage a lady in conversation. Even her mother, Lady Harcastle, who looked to be every bit the sour bitch his friend Ferguson had warned him about, had warmed to him.
Malcolm rolled his tumbler between his fingers. “You know why I have to marry. If I am to achieve enough influence in the House of Lords to save our clan’s livelihood, I need a hostess who can give the right sort of parties. Ferguson has vouched for her. He claims she can speak quite nicely. She has never caused a scandal. And she needs a husband.”
Alastair sipped his whisky. “Ferguson has only known her a few months. And why do you trust Ferguson’s judgment on society issues?”
Ferguson was Malcolm’s closest friend, but had left Scotland after unexpectedly becoming the Duke of Rothwell several months earlier. He was now married to Lady Amelia’s cousin Madeleine, which was how he knew both Amelia and Miss Etchingham. When Malcolm had decided to find a suitable wife quickly so that the wedding plans didn’t take valuable time away from his political aspirations, Ferguson was perfectly placed to recommend a possible bride.
“Ferguson understands society,” Malcolm said. “He just doesn’t care for it.”
“But if you want a hostess, shouldn’t you look for someone who can, say, host? And talk to people?” Alastair asked.
Douglas looked up from his silent side conversation with Duncan. “What about the blonde girl? She was quite talkative, if you didn’t notice in your efforts to sustain speech on your side of the table.”
The blonde girl. Such simple words for such a beautiful woman. When he had first seen her in the drawing room, it was all he could do to keep his attention focused on the woman he was supposed to marry. Amelia Staunton was lovely — taller than his would-be bride, with humor and intelligence shimmering in her sapphire eyes. She was also loyal, if her attempt to prop up her friend was any indication.
But she was not for him. “Ferguson said he doesn’t know anything about her past, other than that many men have tried to win her and failed. He said Prudence is the safer bet. If one of you wants to tie yourself to Lady Amelia, you’re welcome to. At least she would take you out of my hair.”
“She would be better than India,” Duncan mused.
Alastair eyed him as the twins returned to their conversation. “Lady Amelia does not seem unsuitable. She was all that was charming and witty at dinner.”
Malcolm hadn’t heard any of it. The formal dining table was simply too big, particularly when his mother seated him and Prudence slightly away from the rest of the guests to give them a chance to talk. But Amelia’s low, seductive laugh had cut through him during the awkward silences with Prudence. He would have happily traded places with any of his brothers if it had put him within range of her words.
“If Miss Etchingham does not wish to continue our acquaintance,” he started to say. Then he caught himself. “Miss Etchingham, given enough time, is far more suited for my needs. I want someone who is utterly beyond reproach, who will not bring any embarrassment or scandal, who will serve as my hostess and give me heirs. Her lineage is impeccable, and her financial position poor enough that she will be grateful for what I can give her. I am confident that we can manage each other quite tolerably. Lady Amelia can go to the devil.”
Alastair stared at him, his jaw uncharacteristically slack. “So you do want a dishrag — a dishrag who is grateful for you.”
Malcolm threw back the dregs of his second whisky. He thought about pouring a third, but it would only increase the censure in his saintly brother’s eyes. “What else would you have me do, Alastair? I am destined to marry for duty, not love. It’s the way of the world. And Miss Etchingham is good enough.”
“There are surely other women better suited to this duty than Miss Etchingham.”
“Perhaps. But I cannot spend months or years chasing after silly misses on the marriage mart. I must take up my seat in the Lords in November, and I’ll have this marriage business done before then.”
“I don’t think such haste…” Alastair said.
Malcolm cut him off. “I want to be noticed for my speeches, not my search for a bride. Why not marry the first woman who fits my requirements? Really, you should thank me for it — the faster I gather influence, the sooner I may put a stop to the landlords who are evicting their Scottish tenants to make way for sheep.”
Alastair shook his head. “Do you only see marriage as a duty? If I have learned anything from the church, it is that duty does not have to be joyless.”
“I don’t think that,” Malcolm protested.
“When was the last time you went to Edinburgh for pleasure?” Alastair asked.
“Or gotten properly foxed?” Douglas interjected. “And this drink doesn’t count — I mean well and truly soused, in the pub instead of alone in your study?”
“Or taken a mistress?” Duncan asked. “A female mistress, not an estate ledger.”
They all knew the answers. He’d devoted himself to entertainments like those when he was younger, not seeking marriage because there would be time enough for duty when he inherited. But he hadn’t done anything but estate business since his father’s wake.
Malcolm scowled at them. “You can do as you please. But I won’t have our clan forced to emigrate to America while I pursue some mindless pleasures.”
He was overstating it. The look Alastair threw him said they all knew it. No one could evict the MacCabes except Malcolm himself. But his tenants were starting to trickle away on their own, driven by economic policies that ruined the small crofters’ livelihoods.
And if none of the other Scottish landlords would stand for their tenants, Malcolm would try to stand for all of them.
Alastair rose, leaving his unfinished whisky on the table beside him. Duncan beat Douglas to the abandoned glass, draining it with a careless laugh. Alastair sighed, then looked back at Malcolm. “I will marry you to whomever you choose. But at least take care to make it a choice, and not just a business transaction.”
He left after that pronouncement, taking his cursed wisdom with him. Malcolm didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to hear it from the twins, either. He left them to the decanter and slipped out onto the terrace. In the dark, in the chill of early autumn, he could be alone with his thoughts.
And if his duty felt distinctly joyless in that moment, he ignored it.