“You are not the sort of woman a man marries,” he said, speaking more to the newspaper he held in front of him like a barrier between them than to her.
Grace MacEachin knew that. She’d told herself as much many times. But she’d not have the Honorable Mr. Richard Lynsted say such to her and not be brought to heel, especially when there was only the two of them in the rolling confines of the drafty, rattlely old coach.
“And why not?” she challenged. “Because I’m an actress? Because I have a history?” She purred that last word wanting to needle this insufferable, arrogant man with the most potent weapon in her arsenal—her blatant sexuality.
His kind was always aloof and sanctimonious and usually the first to pant all over her if she let him.
“Because you think nothing of blackmailing my family,” he replied without so much as a sideward glance.
All thoughts of making him squirm dropped from Grace’s mind. “It’s not blackmail to speak the truth. Your father and uncle stole that man’s money and made it appear my father was the thief. Your complete family fortune down to the last penny is based upon those ill-begotten gains.”
He shot her glance, his eyes alive with fury. “A charge I have repeatedly refuted. I manage the accounts for my father and uncle’s business interests. I know exactly how their money was made.”
“And they couldn’t have been too clever for you? Lied to you? Or pulled the wool over your eyes?”
“Never. They are honorable men.”
Grace almost barked her disdain. “God, I hate that word—honorable. It usually means there are sticky fingers in the pie somewhere.”
“Do not compare my father and uncle to the sort of low characters with whom you rub shoulders.”
“Are you speaking of real people, Mr. Lynsted? Hardworking men and ladies who earn an honest wage for work instead of whatever games you, your father and uncle play with other people’s money?”
That mark struck home. “We invest, Miss MacEachin, a concept you wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh, I understand investing, Mr. Lynsted. I invest in myself all the time.” She ran a gloved finger along the velvet bodice of her expensive, provocatively cut dress.
He frowned in disapproval as her boast, even as his gaze dropped to her breasts—and she could have laughed her triumphant.
She knew men. She knew their weaknesses. And he was no different than any other. He had been more reserved than most, but he had succumbed.
With deliberate movements, she buttoned her cloak closed at the neck. She would never let him, the son of the man who ruined her family, have a sample. “And we shall see what you believe when we reach Scotland and you have the opportunity to hear the story from my da,” she said.
Mr. Lynsted leaned back in his corner of the coach as if she were the devil. “Yes,” he agreed, his deep voice harsh. “We shall hear that story—especially when he is confronted by the son of the man he is maligning.” He raised the paper with a snap between them.
Grace had needled her way past his façade of control and righteousness he wore like armor. Her victory made her hungry for more. It was a long way to Inverness and she wasn’t about to let this trip be comfortable for him.
Besides, she had to entertain herself some way, didn’t she?
“I don’t know why I worried about traveling with you,” she confessed, settling herself in. She smiled at the newspaper he held as if it were a shield between them. “You think I’m a tart. You’re right. I’ve slept with many, many men. And I enjoyed it.”
He didn’t answer.
She watched him a moment before observing, “I don’t see how you read the paper the way you do. You never turn the pages.”
In response, he flipped a page over and she laughed quietly.
Oh, yes, she had his attention.
She tapped her foot on the floorboard, beating out the passage of time. They traveled in silence with only the sound of the sound of horses, the rattling of chains, and the squeaking of lose hinges. The coach really was old and uncomfortable. She shifted her weight on the hard leather seat so that her thigh touched his.
He pulled away although he couldn’t go far. After all his big body took up most of the room in the coach.
“Granted, I wouldn’t consider marrying you,” she informed him as if they’d been discussing the matter.
He concentrated on his paper.
“Not only is your family guilty of destroying mine,” she continued, “but I wouldn’t want someone with your priggish attitude. Did you hear what I said?” she asked the newspaper. “I said you were priggish. Priggish, priggish, priggish.”
He turned his shoulder away from her.
“And as out-of-fashion as this coach,” she added.
The newspaper came down.
“It is not priggish to have standards,” he bit out. “In fact, it is a necessity—but then, you wouldn’t understand because you don’t have any.”
“I have one standard–truth,” she insisted. “It’s the only one that matters.”
His gaze narrowed. “I wouldn’t be making this blasted trip if I didn’t seek truth.”
He really was roughly masculine—in his own priggish way. And Grace found herself attracted to the size of the man. She’d always liked big men. Especially deceptively strong ones.
Mr. Lynsted was all hard lines and muscle. A man who had not yet tested his own physical strength. A man who might be rock hard under the veneer of civilized clothing—
The direction of her thoughts startled her.
It had been a long time since she’d felt even the whisper of an attraction for a man. How perverse was her nature that she would sense it with this one?
He’d returned to his paper, once again attempting to shut her out.
She didn’t want to let him succeed.
“So what sort of standards do you have for a wife?”
“What do you care?” he said to his paper.
“I don’t. I’m merely making conversation.”
“She won’t be an actress,” he muttered. “Or a Highlander.”
“Am I to be offended?” Grace wondered, laughing to herself. “I ask a simple question and you turn it into an insult.”
His paper came down. “There is nothing simple about your questions, Miss MacEachin,” he said, his expression stony. “You are baiting me plain and simple. You enjoy mocking me. Now here is the truth, the woman who wears my marriage ring will be all a gentlewoman should be. She’ll be reserved, conservative, genteel, well-bred–”
“And boring,” Grace assured him.
“She won’t be boring.”
“She will,” Grace pronounced with the voice of experience. “Because you can’t make a list and order a wife to be fit to your personal specifications before you meet her. Wives don’t come that way. They are people and people are always complex and challenging.”
He snorted his opinion.
“And then there is romance,” she continued. “Marriage is a partnership of lovers. Romance is an essential ingredient.”
“I am romantic enough.” He sounded annoyed with the accusation.
“Truly? How romantic is it to order a woman as you would a steak pie? I want her plump but not too plump. Maybe plump here and slender there. And her hair must be yellow unless I’m in the mood for something red, or purple, or green—
Women don’t have green hair, or purple hair,” he grumbled. “And I didn’t talk about personal features but qualities of character. There is a difference.”
“So you would marry a woman with green hair if she was boring?”
His jaw muscle tightened. “Boring was not on my list. You added it.”
“Very well,” Grace said, enjoying herself at his expense, “I will amend my statement. It’s not a concern if your wife has ten fingers and ten toes provided she go to Church every Sunday and prays at six on Tuesdays and never expresses an opinion than the one you decide for her since intelligence wasn’t on your list–”
“Why are you doing this?” He threw his paper to the floor. “Why are you spouting such nonsense?”
“Nonsense? I’m not the one ordering up a wife, Mr. Lynsted,” she said primly.
“No, there is something else at work here. You are attacking me, but it isn’t just me, is it, Miss MacEachin? This is something that has been on that female mind of yours a long time. You don’t like men very much, do you? You think we are fools.”
He was right.
How quickly he had summed up her nature.
Now it was Grace’s turn to feel a bit uncomfortable. “I’m merely calling you on a hypocrisy, sir,” she said. “You aren’t alone in your lists. Every man had them. The image of what his dream wife will be. They all want virgins while they chase me relentlessly. And once they do marry, they take on mistresses whom they treat better than those perfect wives.”
“And you hate that, don’t you? Being left out, knowing you will never be the wife?”
Grace crossed her arms against her waist. “I prefer my own company.”
“Liar,” he accused softly.
He was right, but she’d not admit it. Not ever.
Suddenly, he moved as if to throw himself across her.
Panicked, she reached down to her walking boot, her fingers searching for the small dirk hidden there even as his body came across hers. She whipped the knife up in time to pressing the razor sharp edge against his throat.
Surprise crossed his face. He went still. Her heart pounded in her throat.
“No one touches me,” she said, forcing the words out. “No one. Not ever again.”
His gaze held hers.
She swallowed, prepared to carry through her threat.
Slowly, he lifted his hand. She tensed, wondering if he dared her.
He reached, his hand away from her and going for the door just as it started to swing open with the movement of the coach. A blast of damp, frigid air enveloped them before he pulled it shut.
“The door comes loose,” he said, the muscles of his throat moving against her knife. “I didn’t want you to fall out.” Raising his hand to show he meant no tricks, he sat back up.
Grace didn’t move immediately. It took several moments for her heartbeat to return to normal, and she was all too conscious of the fact that she’d tipped her hand. She’d overreacted and confirmed his suspicions. It made her feel naked, vulnerable.
Mr. Lynsted had picked up his crumpled paper and was once again pretending to read.
She slipped the knife back into her boot and sat up.
They rode in silence for a moment and then Mr. Lynsted broke it by murmuring, “One other item to my list, the woman I marry won’t pull a knife on me.”
“More’s the pity,” she replied.