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Lord of Sin
"Snappily paced and bone-deep satisfying, Hunter's books are so addictive they should come with a surgeon general's warning." —Publishers Weekly
When carefree rake Ewan McLean inherits an earldom, his plans for his new fortune are entirely in keeping with his lifestyle: to expand his collection of erotic art and expensive mistresses. That is, until he becomes acquainted with his most intriguing new responsibility.
Bride Cameron is beautiful, unmarried, and sole caretaker of her three younger sisters. Now it’s Ewan’s duty to see that she is provided for. But to his amazement, the last thing the fiery lass wants is Ewan’s help. The simplest thing would be to walk away. But Bride, with her sparkling gaze and fierce wit, is the most bewitching woman Ewan has ever met. And he intends to have her—and to learn how she has managed to survive on her own. Even if he has to employ all the arts of seduction for which he is notorious. . .
The Earl of Lyndale was dying.
He lay shriveled and frail in his bed, cheeks sunken and skin wan. His right hand rested over his heart as if he waited to feel its last pulse. He presented a pitiable image of an old man facing the end.
Ewan McLean was not impressed. His Uncle Duncan pretended to lie at death's door at least once a year. Each imminent departure from the earthly realm summoned his sons and nephew so they could ease his passing. While on his deathbed he issued demands and extracted promises of outrageous presumption. Then he would "recover" and use those promises like a whip to get all the cattle lined up in the direction he had decided they should go.
"I fear the end will come tonight." The earl spoke it like a line in a stage drama. Which, for all intents and purposes, it was. "I need to set matters in order before I go.'
He held out a trembling hand.
Ewan took it and smiled indulgently. He had been here for four days, waiting for the earl to decide when to finish the game.
"Since Hamish is not here, I must confide in you," the earl said, referring to his heir.
Ewan was all too aware that Hamish was not here. Right now Hamish and his younger brother were enjoying fresh air and sunshine on the Continent and not sitting in this drafty old castle in a room hung with heavy green drapes. The same faded fabric framed the earl's body on the big bed, falling in languid swags like stage curtains.
The interruption of Ewan's visit to London by the summons had been irritating enough, but the discovery that his cousins, the earl's own sons, had escaped the call by taking off for Switzerland really annoyed him.
"I will confess that I am glad it is you, my boy. Hamish would not have understood the matter that weighs on me. You know how he is."
"I certainly do." All too well. Hamish had grown into one of those purse lipped, morality-spewing, judgmental Scots. When the earl eventually died, which Ewan expected would not happen for another decade or so, Ewan fully anticipated that Hamish would try to reform his cousin by threatening the allowance that augmented Ewan's income from his modest property.
His uncle had never been so intrusive in his private life, but then his uncle had a history that did not permit umbrage over bad behavior without considerable hypocrisy. The current Earl of Lyndale had been a rake in his youth and a roue in his maturity. Ewan suspected that the fair-haired woman floating about the castle today was the current mistress.
In short, the earl had more in common with his nephew than with his sons. If he had chosen to play at dying when only Ewan was available, that meant that his demands for promises this time probably had to do with matters that only another rake would take in stride.
"There is a letter that explains it all." The earl pointed his trembling hand toward a small writing table. Ewan watched the arm and finger stretch out while the earl rose on one shaky arm. His pose imitated that of a dying father in a painting by Greuze. An engraving that reproduced the painting was in Uncle Duncan's extensive fine-print collection, its theatrical sentimentality obviously appreciated often by its current owner.
"You must give the letter to Hamish. You must swear that you will see that he carries out my wishes that are contained in it."
"I will be in no position to do so. He will be the earl. I will remain a dependent relative and can demand nothing of him."
"Tell him you are bound by your promise to me."
"That will be of no account to him. You are asking that I harrass a man for the rest of my life. That I pound my head against a stone wall. It isn't fair to make demands that I cannot fulfill."
"You can make him see that it must be done if you put your mind to it. You are far more clever than he is."
Ewan was losing his patience. Being blackmailed into his own promises was one thing. Being forced to ensure that others acted in compliance with Uncle Duncan's whims was another.
"What is this vitally important matter, uncle?" Attending the next sheep shearing? Escorting some cast off mistress to a ball? The earl's demands were never dreadful, just damned inconvenient and often boring.
"I did a grievous offense to a man in my youth. The next earl must right this wrong."
"What kind of wrong?" Most likely his uncle had bedded a friend's wife. For all of his envy of the last century's ribald behavior, seducing a friend's wife was something Ewan himself would never do. Once, when he and Uncle Duncan had gotten foxed together, he had tried to explain to the old goat how that was dishonorable. Uncle had simply been unable to grasp the nuances.
"I was vengeful and went too far. It has preyed on my conscience ever since. I had intended to right matters, but now. . ." His hand went to his heart again.
"Well, if it is something that the Earl of Lyndale should do, then you can still make it right yourself. When you are better."
"I will never be better. I tell you I am dying." Uncle Duncan spoke emphatically, with powerful strength of voice. His dark eyes glared out from under his bed cap's edge and his color rose to a nice healthy pink.
Ewan experienced profound annoyance. This entire drama had been so unnecessary. There had been no reason for Uncle Duncan to pretend he was dying. There had been no justification in dragging Ewan from London and from the delicious pursuit of pretty Mrs. Norton.
"Swear it," the earl demanded. He sat upright, looking fit and hale and ready to ride for twenty miles."Would you allow me to go to my grave with this unfinished, with no assurance that this sin will be mitigated? Ungrateful wretch! I will make a codicile to my will at once and cut you out without a penny. I will—"
Here it came, the blackmail. The threats. Really, Uncle Duncan should hire a writer to devise a new set of lines.
"—leave a letter for Hamish telling him to cut off your allowance. I will—-"
"Fine, I swear," Ewan snapped. "I swear that I will do all within my power to see that the next earl fixes the problem that you created but never bothered to fix yourself."
It was a toothless promise to make. There would not be a "next earl" for quite some time. Swearing to do all within his own power meant little, since he would have no power at all.
Uncle Duncan did not see the huge holes. His ire receded. He sank back into his pillow. He arranged for his body to go limp and for his cheeks to appear gray.
The earl vaguely waved Ewan away. Still annoyed, but also amused by the theatrics, Ewan played his role to the end. He got up, leaned over, and kissed Uncle Duncan's head affectionately before leaving.
That night the earl surprised everyone by actually dying. He passed quietly in his sleep.
Ewan was stunned by the unexpected turn of events, but he suspected his amazement was more than matched by that of the earl himself.
Two weeks later Ewan lay on a sofa in his chambers in London.
If life were fair he would not be reclining alone. Mrs. Norton would be here with him, receiving the lesson in love that he had long anticipated giving her. Right now he would be plucking at the laces of her stays, preparing to unveil her abundantly luscious beauty.
But life was not fair. He'd had to beg off on their assignation. He could not move, let alone seduce a woman tonight. He could barely think.
He lifted a limp arm and raised the letter. He read the first line again and groaned. It was unbelievable. Incomprehensible. Just a month ago he was happy and innocent and going about his business which was easy to do because he made sure his business only dealt with pleasure, and now—
His manservant entered, carrying a fresh bottle of wine to replace the one that Ewan had just finished. Swigged, to tell the truth. Gulped down as if it were rum and he were a sailor.
Another man came in too. Ewan glanced up from beneath the arm draped over his forehead to see Dante Duclairc gazing down at him. Dante's limpid brown eyes showed more amusement than concern and a smile wanted to break out on his angelically handsome face.
"Duclairc. Good of you to come."
His friend's presence touched him, and a pang of nostalgia sounded in his heart. Dante Duclairc had not been in these chambers since he married Fleur Monley last spring. The parties that occurred in this apartment were a lot less fun now that Dante had been domesticated. Only a calamity such as had visited Ewan today would get Duclairc here now.
"Your message seemed desperate. Are you unwell? You look like someone in a bad Greuze painting."
"Disaster has struck. Complete and total catastrophe. Once you learn of it you will understand why it has laid me low." He lifted the letter.
Duclairc took it and sat down on another sofa to read. He did not even notice the little bronze statue on the table beside his seat. The latest addition to Ewan's reknowned collection of fine art erotica, it was a Renaissance work displaying a nymph servicing Pan. Ewan had been proud of the acquisition yesterday, but his friend's indifference seemed appropriate to today's solemnity.
"Jesus," Dante said after peering at the letter for a few minutes.
"I knew you would appreciate how outrageous this is."
"It is certainly unexpected. And amazing. I do not know whether to congratulate you or help you to mourn."
"I'll be damned if I'm going to mourn. It was very inconsiderate of them. Hugely so. There should have been a law against both of them putting themselves in danger at the same time. Where was Hamish's sense? If he wants to climb a damned mountain and die in a damned avalanche,let him go I say, but to drag his younger brother on the adventure and risk their both dying in the same damned avalanche—-" He closed his eyes. It was all too much.
"Pity that they both dallied in marrying."
"Pity? Pity? Irresponsible! Look where their negligence has left me."
"It appears that it has left you the Earl of Lyndale."
Indeed it had.
Ewan swung his legs and sat up. "Make yourself comfortable. I plan to get drunk and need company. I trust you told your pretty wife that you will not be home soon."
"Fleur assumed you were in horrible trouble after reading the dramatic message you sent me. She insisted I come. She had no idea that the terrible news was that you have inherited a title and a significant fortune."
"Do not get sardonic on me, Duclairc. A man has a right to some warning on such a thing. There I was, assuming there were two strapping men between the title and me. What were the odds they would both die before one produced a son? Negligible. Damned near impossible or at least reassuringly unlikely. And now. . ." He waved the letter that had come from Switzerland, then let it drop to the floor.
He looked down at it. Something nibbled at his dazed mind. Something just as unpleasant as that letter had been. He tried not to acknowledge its intrusion, but it nudged and poked until it had his stomach sinking.
"Your shock is understandable, McLean, but you will be a fine earl. You will rise to the position. It will not disrupt your life as much as you think."
"Yes it will, but this oh hell was about something else." He got up, walked around the assortment of sofas and chaise longues that dotted the chamber, ducked past the swing hanging from the ceiling, and went to a writing table in a dark corner.
"Uncle Duncan gave me something to give to Hamish should Uncle Duncan die, which I never expected him to do. I brought it down here so that I could fulfill his final wish by handing it over to Hamish as soon as he returned to England." He pawed through a drawer for the infernal letter.
He brought it back to the sofa and stared at its seal. He gulped down another glass of wine.
I swear that I will do all within my power to see that the next earl fixes the problem that you created but never bothered to fix yourself.
"Duclairc, let me pose a philosophical question to you. Suppose a dying man extracted a promise from you, but you did not really believe he was a dying man, nor for that matter did he. Let us say further that both of you thought the ultimate responsibility would fall to someone else but that a freakish coincidence means that instead it falls to you. With all those peculiarities, wouldn't you say that—"
Ewan looked up to see Dante regarding at him severely.
"Yes. Of course. You are right."
Well, hell and damnation.
"Perhaps you should read it. Maybe it is something very minor."
Sighing, he broke the seal.
"Well?" Dante asked.
"It appears that my uncle wronged a man named Cameron many years ago. Ruined him. He wants me to see that this Cameron and his family are cared for, that they do not want for anything. That is ducedly ambiguous. What if they want a coach and four? What if they want twenty thousand a year?"
"I think you would be safe to use your own judgment of what is adequate to be sure they are suitably cared for. I do not think your uncle means you have to hand them whatever their hearts’ desire."
"Good point. I knew having you here would be helpful. That is why I called for you and not one of the other lads. Marriage has made you so. . . sensible."
"There is no need to get insulting."
"My apologies." Ewan peered at the letter. "It seems this Angus Cameron lives all the way north, on the eastern border of Strathnaver. I get to haul myself back up to Scotland and brave the cold and early snows of the highlands."
Ewan poured more wine. "I should have started with whisky. It would have done the job quicker. You must stay. I promise no women are coming. This entire matter has left me cold for such pleasures."
"You are indeed distraught enough to need my company if that is the case. I never thought I would hear such words from you."
Hell, yes, he was distraught. In shock, and barely controlling his temper. He did not want to be the earl and this business with Cameron was only one example of why. Everywhere he turned now people would probably be using boring words like "duty" and "responsibility" and "obligations."
"You probably should attend on that responsibility soon," Dante said, gesturing to the letter about Cameron that had joined the other on the floor. "The duty will only get more onerous if you put it off. With winter coming, a journey to the highlands should be made at once. After you fulfill your obligations at court, of course."
Ewan wanted to punch Duclairc in the nose.
It was all too much.
"That should be it down there," Ewan said to Michael, his manservant.
"Lord be praised."
Ewan and Michael sat on their horses at the top of the hill and gazed into the glen where the home of Angus Cameron sat.
Highland vistas like this, with the treeless rolling hills and valley, with a sky so blue it blinded your eyes and air so crisp and clean it hurt your chest, inspired poetry.
The mutterings moving through Ewan's mind were not pretty verses, however.
After a hellish journey, most of it on horseback through icy rain and bitter fog and more than enough mud to fill this glen, here he finally was.
I hope that you are enjoying this, Uncle Duncan.
"Do not praise providence yet, Michael. I do not expect the conclusion of this journey to improve our lot. Angus Cameron probably has six burly, red-haired sons who wear tartan kilts and hurl tree trunks for fun. No doubt the evening meal will be haggis."
"You do not have very kind words for your countrymen, sir."
"I may be a Scot, but I am not fond of highlanders. Highlanders assume they were purer Scots than anyone else. They imply with their cocky grins and insinuations that a Scot from the south is more English than Scot in blood as well as loyalty. There are many Scots who never reconciled to the Grand Union into Great Britain, and lots of them live in god-forsaken glens like this, on the edge of the world, being whipped by brutal weather that any sane person would flee."
He led Michael down into the valley, anticipating little welcome when he intruded. He had not written or contacted Cameron because that would give the man a chance to rebuff him. The last thing Ewan wanted was a recalcitrant victim prolonging the "making right" that needed doing.
Duty. Duty. He had been practicing that chant for two weeks now, ever since the ceremony with the King. He was no longer Ewan McLean, man about town, gambler and drinker, lover extrordinaire and host of some of London's finest orgies.
Now he was a peer, a member of the House of Lords, paterfamilias to a passel of relatives whose names he had made it a point never to know.
Worse, what had recently been an unremarkable life had now become notorious. Society had long ago ceased to notice his behavior, but suddenly it was grist for the rumor mill again. He had heard that already some unimaginative wag had dubbed him the Lord of Sindale.
What a ludicrous development it had all been. The only good thing about this journey, and it was small consolation, was that it removed him from London where several mothers of eligible daughters had sent him invitations to parties at houses that had never before received him.
He might be notorious, but now he was a notorious earl. Ladies who should know better apparently had no qualms about throwing their virginal daughters in the Lord of Sindale's path.
"I thought you said it would be a hovel. A dark, drafty, ancient cottage." Michael's blond head turned and he glanced back with resentment at the packhorse he had been dragging. "You made me bring good linens and soap but it looks to be a house that will have its own."
It did look to be such a house. Uncle Duncan had said he ruined Cameron, but this house was the nicest one they had passed in many miles. It was not some thatched, wattle and daub cottage huddled in a township of others like it. This house was situated on its own, of good size, built of stone, with rather attractive plantings all around it. A large stable stood to the north and a handsome carriage waited out in front.
Perhaps the family hung onto their pride through the property. Maybe they were one of those families that eat nothing but soup in order to keep up appearances.
"I say, sir, what is happening down there? Those people upstream?"
Ewan looked past the house to the congregation of dots about two hundred yards behind it. He hoped to heaven that he had not arrived on some festival day, or in the middle of a party or celebration. He really was not in the mood.
Since it appeared the household was busy by the stream, he and Michael passed the house and headed for the dots. They took on forms as they neared. A little crowd was watching something transpiring among three men.
Two of the men began walking away in opposite directions. Ewan was impressed by the determined expression of the blond-haired one heading his way. Then he noticed the pistols.
It was a duel.
The man coming toward him was much too young to be Angus Cameron. He looked to be no more than about eighteen. Ewan examined the other figure, the one heading in the other direction.
Cameron was dressed bizarrely, like someone in a Restoration costume drama. Boots, pantaloons and a red doublet covered his body. He was tall and wiry, and his spry step implied the years had not taken much toll.
He wore a flamboyant brown hat with a broad brim and big red plume. It appeared this old man wore his ancestor's garments and had never purchased any of his own. Definitely eccentric, or too poor to hire a tailor.
The pacing stopped. The red plum swished the air as Cameron turned. Ewan saw the face under the upturned right brim of the hat.
This was definitely not Angus Cameron.
It was a woman. Her steely expression made her appear hard and wise, but the face itself was fairly young.
The blond man turned too. Pistols rose.
Ewan kicked his horse and galloped forward. Women in the little group cried out as he sped past. His thundering approach made the duelists pause long enough for him to pull up his horse between them.
He glared at the young man. "Good God, that is a woman over there. What are you thinking?"
"Ah'm thinkin to shoot her ‘fore she kills me."
"The hell you will. Stand down."
"Who are ye to interfere, Mon?" The crisp, feminine demand bit into Ewan's ear.
He turned. The doublet and pantaloons hung loosely, but not so much that her curves were totally obscured. Wisps of curly red hair escaped the hat into which she had stuffed her locks. Her face was very lovely, with skin showing the translucent whiteness that marks a true Scottish beauty. Her bowed raspberry mouth and her delicately boned oval face competed with her jade eyes for his attention.
"I am Lyndale." It was the first time he had used the title to presume rights to do things that were none of his business.
"I hae ne’er heard o ye. Now, move the horse so we can be done with this." She waved her pistol toward the southern hills to emphasize just how far away he should go.
"You will not be done with this while I am here."
"Then leave. Gae on to where ye were headed."
"Since this glen is on the road to nowhere, it should be obvious that I was headed right here. Put down that gun, woman."
"Nae. Jamie MacKay has dishonored my little sister." The plume angled toward a young girl in a brown cape with big, frightened eyes. "She is too young and stupid to ken the ways of men. He has been after her for months and talked her into meeting him last night. Now, move yer horse so I can kill him."
Ewan eyed Jamie MacKay.
"Did you have her, boy?"
Jamie shook his head emphatically. Ewan shot a look at the girl in question. She shook her head too.
He returned his attention to the older sister. "I said to put the gun down."
"The hell I will. Move yer horse's arse."
He dismounted and patted the horse's arse so it would indeed move. He walked toward the pointing gun. "Your sister says it did not go too far. You should believe her. Put down the pistol or shoot me, because I will not move out of the way."
Her green eyes sparked with tiny lightening bolts. For a moment he thought she might actually shoot. Deciding not to take the gamble that she was only half crazy but basically sane, Ewan flashed out his hand, gripped her wrist, and raised her arm up high. He pried the gun from her grasp with his other hand.
"Who are yer to stick yer nose into this? Mind your own—"
He ignored her ravings and walked back to Jamie MacKay. The boy was looking far too relieved. A touch of smugness was inching onto his face.
Ewan only had two rules where women were concerned. No friends' wives, and no innocents. If the dishonor of the latter seductions was obvious to him, of all men, he assumed it was abundantly clear to others.
"You did not have her, but you intended to," Ewan said quietly with a man-to-man smile.
Jamie could not entirely suppress a roguish grin.
Ewan swung his right fist. It landed in the young man's stomach with a satisfying thud. Breath whooshed out. The little crowd gasped in unison and Jamie fell to his knees. Ewan swung again, connecting with the pale face. Jamie fell back, out cold.
"Are you his second?" Ewan asked another young man who rushed over.
"His brother. Our faither sent me lookin fer him when he did not come home last night. Ah got here just as she was bringin him out for this duel. Good thing he isna dead. That would take some explaining, what with the challenger being a woman."
"Yes, I expect that would be hard for the family to live down. Get him out of here before she finds another pistol."
"Get him oot o here," a voice echoed at his shoulder. "Put him in yer faither's fancy carriage and take him home and make sure he and all the others like him ken that the Cameron sisters arna their sluts for the takin."
Ewan glanced at the plume and hat. She was very tall. Evidently she was also one of those irritating women who had to have the last word.
He ignored the feminine fury beside him and waved the boys away. Jamie staggered under his brother's arm toward the house. A bevy of cloaks strolled after them, subtly opening to absorb Michael and the horses. Ewan fell into step at the back of the procession.
Boots suddenly paced next to his. "Where are ye goin?"
He kept walking and did not look at her. If he did they would get into a row, with her accusing him of interfering, which he had done, and his calling her a lunatic, which evidence indicated she was. He did note, however, how the legs that moved the boots looked quite slender from the knee up, despite the pantaloons.
Long legs. He had a lot of practice in imagining women without any clothes, and his mind's eye now saw the knees and thighs of this one, snowy white and naked.
He resisted the temptation to picture the rest of her. "I am going to this house to call on Mr. Angus Cameron. Would he be your grandfather?"
"My faither. What dae ye want with him?"
"I have important business to conduct with him. I have journeyed all the way from London to attend to it."
"That is a lang journey to accomplish nae mair than saving the sorry hide of Jamie MacKay. Ye should o written. I could o let ye cknow that Angus Cameron is dead. Has been these five years noo."
Ewan stopped walking. Wonderful. Just like Uncle Duncan to give him a mission, to provide directions, to demand action, but to forget to determine whether the victim of the great sin was even still alive. It was a wonder he had not arrived in the glen to find the homestead in decay and the whole Cameron family living in Brazil.
On the other hand, the promise had not been about Angus alone. This news of Angus's death hardly relieved him of the obligation.
"I am sorry to hear that your father has passed. I will speak with your mother or brother then."
"If I had a brother do ye think I'd be fighting duels that he could fight?"
"Well, you appeared to be enjoying it so much."
"Listen, Mr. . . .um. . ."
"I am Ewan, the Earl of Lyndale." He had considered never demanding use of his title from anyone. However, right now, with this particular anyone, he enjoyed demanding it enormously.
"Well, Lord Lyndale, I didna enjoy it. It was necessary, however. There's those like Jamie who think my sisters are without protection, that no one will stop them if they try something. Now I've reminded them all that isna so. I expect we will have a lot less trouble with such things for some months to come."
He barely heard her. His concentration had been distracted by how changeable her eyes were. Right now they appeared like emeralds, full of lively facets and sparks. And her skin was really very beautiful, quite fragile looking, like the finest japon paper. She was not a girl, but probably in her latter twenties, and that made her beauty even more appealing.
"Are you saying there is no male relative here to protect your sisters? No cousin or husband?"
"Nae. It falls to me. If ye came all this way to conduct business, ye are stuck with me for that too. I am the head of this family now."
Ewan inwardly sighed. Somehow he did not think that last pronouncement would be good news for his mission.
Lord of Sin, copyright © 2005 Madeline Hunter