Virtue and Valor
Highland Heather Romancing A Scot Series, #2
Can love unite a reluctant earl and a disenchanted beauty?
Bartholomew Yancy never expected to inherit an English earldom and had no intention of marrying. Now, the Earl of Ramsbury and last in his line, he’s obligated to resign his position as England’s War Secretary, find a wife, and produce an heir. Only one woman holds the least appeal: Isobel Ferguson, an exquisite Scotswoman. Brought to Scotland to mediate between feuding clans, he doggedly woos her.
Disillusioned with men pursuing her for her attractiveness, rather than her unusual intellect, Isobel has all but abandoned any hope of finding a husband in the Highlands. Not only does she believe Yancy no different than her other suitors, he’s a notorious rake. She’s been told he’s practically betrothed. Therefore, his interest in her cannot possibly be honorable, and so she shuns his attentions.
When Isobel is mistakenly abducted by a band of rogue Scots, Yancy risks his life to rescues her. To salvage her compromised reputation, her brother and father insist she marry him. Yancy readily agrees, but Isobel—knowing full well she’s fated for spinsterhood by refusing his offer— won’t be coerced into marriage.
Can love unite a reluctant earl and a disenchanted beauty?
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2016 RONE Nominee
8 September 1818
“There’s nothing for it.” Yancy tipped back his tankard and enjoyed one last bracing pull of dark ale. “It’s off to Craiglocky at first light. Unrest between the clans has escalated steadily since I visited there in July.”
His companion, Lucan-Rochester, Duke of Harcourt offered a non-committal grunt.
Yancy scratched his nose and frowned. “Peculiar, that. In recent years, tribal disputes are rare, even in the Highlands.”
“I am certain you are not overly distressed at the summons.” Harcourt gulped the last of the coffee he’d been nursing between sips of brandy. “You may be Bartholomew Yancy, Earl of Ramsbury and an English lord by birth, my friend, but you’ve displayed a distinct penchant for certain things Scottish.”
Yancy glowered, sending a silent warning.
Harcourt grinned, completely unabashed. “Come now, admit it. You’ve been sniffing about Isobel Ferguson’s skirts for the better part of a year.”
Damn. Will he not let the matter go?
Nonetheless, a stab of expectancy flooded Yancy. Anticipation always preceded a visit to Craiglocky Keep.
Its laird Ewan McTavish, the Viscount Sethwick, hailed as one of Yancy’s closest chums, and Isobel, Sethwick’s sister, was of particular interest.
Possessed of a lively intelligence, she had matured into a magnificent beauty. Graced with cocoa-colored hair, streaked with creamy highlights, her eyes mirrored the shade of a tropical sea at sunset, and her peach-tinted lips . . . well, he’d give his earldom to taste their dewiness.
However, she loathed him.
None, but God in heaven, knew why. Until last December, they had gotten on famously, and he had been certain she harbored a distinct tendre for him.
Holding his tankard, Yancy fingered the smooth rim.
Charming, biddable, and educated, Isobel possessed every attribute a quintessential countess ought to, and he’d been of a mind to pay his address. Until she gave him the cut direct at her sister’s Christmastide ball.
A rakish gleam entered Harcourt’s eyes. “By-the-by, how is your pursuit of the fair Scots lass progressing?”
Tempted to ignore the taunting, Yancy instead lifted a shoulder and feigned nonchalance. “She treats me as if I am a sore-laden leper or the devil himself.”
Harcourt threw back his head and roared with laughter, causing several patrons to turn and stare in their direction.
A dismal substitute for the silken, ivory skin he yearned to trace his fingertips across, Yancy stopped caressing his cup. “The last time we met, I actually sniffed beneath my arms and blew my breath into my hand fearing an unpleasant smell might be the cause of her aversion.”
“Poor sot.” Another robust burst of mirth from Harcourt followed Yancy’s disclosure.
Yancy crossed his legs and returned his mug to the polished table. Tapping his buff-covered knee with slightly ink-stained fingers, he relaxed against his chair and turned his thoughts away from the vixen who had him at sixes and sevens.
Scanning White’s dining room, he acknowledged several acquaintances with a slight inclination of his head.
The club bustled tonight, a sort of pleasant male hubbub. A steady stream of London’s finest arrived for an evening’s entertainment or to escape the company of demanding females. An occasional guffaw interrupted the low murmur of voices and the clinking of silverware against dishes.
Laden with the aroma of food, candles, and the stench of men doused in cologne or in need of bathing, the air hung thick in the room.
Nasty habit that, drenching oneself in scent in an attempt to cover noxious body odors. Personally, Yancy enjoyed a good daily soak in the tub.
Upon spotting Sir Gwaine MacHardy entering the cardroom, he grimaced. “MacHardy’s arrived.”
“Why the bore hasn’t been banned from White’s altogether, I do not understand.” Harcourt’s clasp on his snifter tightened until his knuckles glowed white, and he shot the stout Scot a glare intended to lay MacHardy flat.
“Nor do I.” Elbows resting on his chair’s arms, Yancy tapped his fingertips together. “I do wonder why he’s admitted, especially since he’s blatantly contemptuous of the English.”
“Awfully smug prig for a feudal baron.” Harcourt pushed his coffee cup to the edge of the table, his dark gaze impatiently roving the room. “Where’s our waiter?”
“You drink more coffee than anyone else of my association.
Sleep less than any of them too,” Yancy observed, matter-of- factly. Hence the need for copious amounts of the bitter brew, which Harcourt claimed helped keep him alert. “The practice cannot be good for your health.”
Cynicism wrinkled Harcourt’s brow. “Are you pointing a finger at me? You, who confessed last week, that you overindulge in spirits more often than you ought?”
“No, I’m simply making an observation.” Resting his head against the plush chair, Yancy eyed his friend.
Impeccable, as always, in his usual all-black togs, his blond hair neatly brushed, and his face smooth as a lad’s, Harcourt lounged in his seat. His gray eyes, the whites red- tinged, didn’t hold their customary wicked gleam.
Returning Yancy’s appraisal, the duke’s lips swept into a mocking smile. “What?”
“You look like bloody hell, Harcourt. Late night?”
Yancy chuckled, fully aware of Harcourt’s mistress’s reputation and her insatiable carnal appetite. After all, he had introduced her to his friend, though Yancy hadn’t sampled her charms himself.
That was one rule they, and their friends, strictly abided by; no sharing of women or sampling the same wares. The practice created too many complications and the potential to brew conflict amongst the rogues.
Friendship before females—always.
The comrades had lived by that motto until six of them had gone corkbrained and fell head-over-arse in love. So much for oaths of friendship. The pledge had been tossed aside with as little regard as a smelly, moth-eaten sock.
True, his friends seemed blissful as mice in a full larder, and the women they had chosen as mates proved quite exceptional. Nonetheless, Yancy wasn’t such a slowtop he didn’t realize his friends had stumbled upon something exceedingly rare in their unions.
From his observations, most leg-shackling appeared tolerable at best and, far more commonly, altogether torturous.
Now, only he and Harcourt remained unencumbered by wives, except Yancy’s infernal obligations demanded that he acquire a countess. Every time he reluctantly contemplated selecting a spouse, Isobel’s lovely face hovered around the fringes of his consciousness.
He’d never desired the damnable title. The Earls of Ramsbury who held the honorific before him hadn’t been noble men he proudly claimed as relations or whose footsteps he gladly followed in.
Since inheriting the earldom, the one concession he refused to make pertained to his form of address.
Devil it, he had been known as Yancy since Eton. The rest of the world could call him Ramsbury, or Honey Sop, or Flitter- Mouse for all he cared. However, to his closest friends and those he held dear, he would forever be Yancy.
Harcourt yawned behind his hand, his signet ring glinting from the candles nestled in the silver candelabra centered atop their table.
Yancy crooked an eyebrow. “Have you slept at all?” The duke motioned for a waiter to refill his cup.
“No, I haven’t, not that it’s any of your business.” He covered his mouth and yawned widely again. “I severed my association with my mistress last evening. She had become too demanding and untrustworthy.”
“She didn’t take receiving her congé well, I gather?” Yancy gave a lopsided smile. “Precisely why I refrain from such cumbersome entanglements. Dashed nuisance that, having to coddle and appease manipulating females.”
Though a few, like his mother—God rest her tormented soul— made the best of her circumstances without complaint. Mother had filled her life with an excess of scripture, cats, shopping, and rich foods. The latter of which sent her to an early grave at a mere seven and thirty and corpulent to the extreme.
Harcourt snorted and combed a hand through his hair. “Not well at all. I was compelled to call for a physician to administer drops to calm her hysteria. Why she thought I wouldn’t object to her sharing her favors with three other men while under my protection, is beyond me.”
Grimacing, Harcourt shut his eyelids and pressed two fingers there. “I wasn’t miserly with her either. A greedier woman I’ve never met.”
Vulnerability registered on his face for a flash, then vanished. For all of his affected aloofness, Harcourt possessed a sensitive soul.
Yancy grasped the first thing that sprang to mind and pointedly changed the subject. “Did I ever mention Cecily ensconced herself and that niece of hers at Bronwedon Towers a mere week after I inherited the title? Without my knowledge or permission, I might add.”
He flicked bits of dried wax off the table. Too bad he could not rid himself of his stepmother and her niece as easily.
“Then my dear stepmother dared to call herself the dowager countess and went on a spending spree that would shame the Prince Regent.”
Harcourt tsked. “The nerve.”
Brushing a waxy flake from his pantaloons, Yancy scowled. “And she had the pluck to assure the merchants I would cover her bills.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose against the ache thinking of Cecily and Matilda always caused. They’d been thorns in his side since his father married Cecily. Thank God, at seventeen, he had been off to university shortly thereafter.
“I put a quick stop to that, I’ll tell you.” He dropped his hand to his lap. “Told the merchants I refused to pay a single groat of her debt. Nipped her expenditures faster than clippers to a rosebud, I did.”
Harcourt released a throaty chuckle. “For certain, she’s been a trial to you.”
“Indeed.” Yancy heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Did she ever fly into the boughs over that last bit. Her screeches rang in my ears for days.”
“Cannot abide a harpy,” Harcourt murmured sympathetically. For the past two years, Yancy permitted Cecily to reside at Bronwedon Towers during the summer months, which meant he avoided the estate like the seventh level of hell.
Even worse, Cecily’s niece, Matilda, had attempted trysts with him the last three times they’d been under the same roof. A doubt didn’t exist that, despite having just seen her seventeenth birthday, the chit was no virtuous miss.
Curling his lip, he grimaced at the memories of Matilda’s wagtail ways and Cecily’s constant harping. “Visions of that harridan are what have kept me content with casual liaisons these many years.”
That and memories of Julia Cambrill—the voluptuous widow who’d captured his trusting heart at eighteen. She mauled it beyond recognition, and then, her hand on the arm of her latest conquest, had tossed his mangled heart at his booted feet.
A satisfied smirk on her face, she had publically mocked him. “I need a man, not a boy, in my bed.”