She hadn't spoken a civil word to him in over two years. But what else could he expect? Patrick Sutherland, fifth Viscount Glengramach, had seduced Anne Kerr seven years ago. Their secret affair aside, she wasn't going to be able to avoid him today, not at a court appearance.
He stared down the corridor of Windsor Castle, wondering what she would say when she saw him. He ought to be wondering why the Queen had summoned both of them into her presence. He couldn't even remember what he had done at the last court affair he'd attended, only that he had felt out of place, a Highlander despite his title. He still remembered, however, exactly what Anne had said to him the single time they had been lovers.
Every poignant detail came back to him.
In his memory he could feel the damp moorland wind blowing through the castle windows, and the mossy stone floor that formed their bed. He could see the heather buds that Anne had woven into her hair, and her frantic race to finish dressing because it was past suppertime, and she was due home hours ago but he had kept her, selfishly. He had loved her so hard they had both fallen asleep on the floor, and only the patter of summer rain on the battlements had awakened them. The hours had passed too fast.
"I don't know what you're grinning about, my lord." She flung his shirt at him. "We have just disgraced ourselves beyond redemption."
"I'm grinning because I'm a verra satisfied man." He bent his head to kiss her bare breasts before she could cover them with her lawn smock.
She wriggled away, shivering, then sat still as he fastened the ties at her shoulders. "If my father finds out about this, we'll both end up dead. Or married."
"Is there a difference?" he murmured.
She scowled at him. "Your father won't be pleased either," she added, "although he probably wouldn't be surprised. But if mine finds out I only spent a half-hour reading to Aunt Mildred, that's the end of me. We must never see each other again, and do not look at me in church again in such an intimate manner."
He plucked a heather bud from her hair. "Never again, Anne? Not even once more before I go off to fight, risking life and limb for my country?"
"Do you take nothing seriously, my lord?"
"Do you take everything so seriously, my wee witch?" he teased back.
"You are a rogue," she whispered.
He kissed her on the nose. "And you're irresistible."
"I'm leaving now. Don't ever talk to me again. I'm supposed to be married by the end of the year."
He sighed. "You might be married before then if a child comes of this. Contact my father should the need arise. He'll take care of you until I come home."
Her eyes widened in horror. "A child?"
He caught her by the shoulders. "You are truly innocent, aren't you? What have I done?"
Well, there had been no child from their foolish indiscretion, and in due time Anne had been married off to Patrick's own cousin, a respectable Englishman her family deemed suitable for their daughter. Patrick had joined the infantry, finding a fit channel in the military for his restless ways.
For years he had guarded the secret of their encounter, only regretting that he had not been mature enough to pursue a serious relationship with her. At first he had been irrationally angry that she had wed another man, even though they had not promised each other anything, but more often he felt simply wistful, wondering what might have happened between them under other circumstances. Most of his friends had settled down and married, and now that Patrick was free from military duty, he realized he wanted a family of his own. His dabblings in trade and charitable work satisfied his intellect but not his heart. The gaming clubs and weekends of golf with friends had grown tiresome. He and his most recent mistress had drifted apart; clearly he did not care for her deeply enough to attend the parties she enjoyed. They had nothing in common outside the bedchamber.
The sound of Anne's slippered footsteps on the carpet brought him back to the present. He caught a glimpse of blue-black hair, a curvaceous figure sheathed in pewter-gray silk, and his heart contracted in his chest. She had always been too beautiful for her own good.
She looked up; she was still too far away to see his face, to read whatever emotions would register when she realized who he was. Shock, outrage, embarrassment. She probably remembered him only as a rakehell. Life, however, had been kind enough to him in the intervening years. He had reconciled with his father before he died, inheriting a modest fortune and viscountship. He'd become an officer in the 71st Light Highland Infantry, recently fighting for the British Empire in Bermuda. Yet he had never forgotten her. Would that old attraction flare up between them again? Anticipation built inside him. It was pleasant to contemplate resuming an affair that had never had a chance to deepen into something meaningful.
She had stopped midstride -- did she see him standing in the alcove? No, she was covertly adjusting her collar. His mouth flattened into a line of amusement as he watched her. He'd come back to Scotland barely alive, a hero of sorts in his regiment. He was well-off and well-enough liked in London, but no one could call him a social tulip.
She hesitated again, not to look at him, but to stare uncertainly at a door. He studied her elegant profile in appreciation. The Widow of Whitehaven, they called her. A virtuous woman who avoided court and stayed in seclusion on her Hampshire estate with her beloved horses. To see her now, dressed so primly in that pearl-buttoned bodice, her raven curls so artfully tamed, no one would ever guess what a hellion Anne Kerr had been.
No one would ever dream she and Patrick had stood together, naked and shivering with as much lust as cold, in their own private waterfall behind their ruined Highland castle, and that he had washed away her virgin's blood with his bare hands, or that for a few hours they had found solace from their mutual unhappiness in their unwise mating.
"I know I hurt you, Anne. I'm a clumsy bear."
"Aye, but it doesn't matter. I'm as much to blame as you."
A wave of longing swept over him, and a cynical smile curved his mouth; what remained a pleasant memory for him might have become a nightmare in Anne's mind. Perhaps he ought to pretend they were nothing more to each other than distant relatives.
She was coming straight toward him now, as blithe as a dove flitting under the shadow of a waiting hawk. But Anne carried steel beneath her wings, not so much a dove at all but rather a full-fledged phoenix who had risen from the ashes of her shame and made quite a life for herself. She was admired by the society she shunned, praised for her virtue -- once married to his respectable English cousin, David Crafton, sixth Baron of Whitehaven.
Yet Patrick would always think of her as his Anne, a little wild at heart, more of a hoyden than her Bible-quoting mother or emotionally aloof father could control; ironically, Patrick had met her at church where their guardians had dragged the two youngsters for moral guidance. His incendiary affair with Anne had been sparked by a single bored look exchanged across a pew.
At the sound of her voice, his courage suddenly deserted him, and all the clever lines, all the quips and witty greetings he had planned seemed hollow and inadequate, considering he had stolen her innocence. She hadn't spoken to him since her husband's funeral.
He turned his back on her, rudely, and stared at the picture of a hunting scene hanging on the wall. The glass revealed the tension in his face, not a gently hewn face by any means, and it seemed stupid to delay the inevitable.
He hoped she wouldn't shout -- no, she had become the antithesis of the hoyden he adored, the essence of refined decorum. She wouldn't shout. She would cut him dead with a look and that would be the end of that.
"Excuse me," she said again, her voice so amazingly polite and well-bred he might have dreamed they had spent an entire day making love in their abandoned castle. He might have dreamed there wasn't an inch of her body he hadn't explored, tasted, touched and plundered.
"Could you help me, sir? I appear to be hopelessly lost -- I'm looking for the waiting room." She allowed the slightest catch of anxiety to creep into her voice as she confided, "I have an appointment with Her Majesty. I cannot be late."
It seemed she too wondered what lay behind the summons, and presumably did not know that he had also been invited.
"It's to your right," he said, his Scottish burr distinct in the silence.
"To my -- "
He turned and looked down into her perfectly oval face, drinking in every detail, the aquiline nose, the gray eyes like morning mist, the mouth that had always smiled too easily, the abundance of black curls that she had swept back onto her shoulders.
The sight of her affected him on a dozen different levels: emotionally, he was on a pendulum, swinging from pleasure to uncertainty; sexually, she struck him with the impact of a thunderbolt as she had when he had first seen her riding bareback across the moor to meet him.
"Anne," he said, experience coming to his rescue. "You haven't changed at all."
For a moment she did not react; she didn't even blink. Her face remained a polite blank, but the illusion did not last long. It didn't even last long enough for Patrick to hope she had considered forgiving him for what he'd done when they were both so young and instinctual and tomorrow didn't exist.
"You." Ice crystals hardened in the eyes he'd once found guileless and enchanting. Renewing their association did not loom as a distinct possibility. She looked as if she'd rather cleave his head open with her grandfather's claymore.
He braved a grin, not unaware of his own appeal. "It's been too long."
"Not long enough for me, you weasel, you wolf, you -- What are you doing at Windsor Castle?"
He took a breath. He'd caught her off guard, and it wasn't going well. "I'm here to see the Queen."
"Is that right? For an assassination attempt, I suppose?"
"Lower your voice, Anne," he said, frowning in the direction of the two footmen in blue livery who had just appeared at the other end of the corridor. "I have no intention of hurting the Queen."
"Then why -- Oh, of course not. Murder isn't your style, is it? Seduction and drunkenness are, and since I think I can safely assume you aren't here to seduce Her Majesty -- "
"Thank you," he said, giving a sigh.
" -- I can only assume you're here to steal something. The Hanoverian Crown Jewels, or does she keep them in a safer place?"
He rubbed the bridge of his nose, considering his options. He could kiss her and hope to shock her into utter silence. He could beg, point out that he'd changed, inherited a title, lived an exemplary life.
"Obviously you didn't read the letter I sent you after David's funeral," he said dryly.
"It burned into lovely ashes," she retorted.
He paused. He had spent a week on that bloody stupid letter, striving to affect a suitable tone. "Did you hear my stallion took a trophy at the St. Leger?"
She edged around a hideous tiger's head mounted on a marble pedestal. "I don't particularly care if your stallion sprouted wings and flew you to Olympus. I don't want to know one single thing about your life."
That hurt; he knew he had misbehaved a wee bit in the past, but he was willing to make amends. "I am not here to steal anything." His gaze flickered over her, and unconsciously, he had maneuvered his muscular body to block her way. Queen or not, she wasn't going anywhere until he'd at least made her agree to meet him again. "Believe it or not, I was invited."
"Invited?" She took a theatrical step backward. "To interview for the position of royal rat killer?"
He looked intrigued. "Is it still open?" He brought his hand up to his cravat. "Actually, I think the Queen has something a little more important in store. I've met her before, you know. Obviously I made an impression."
"Oh, really? Well, I've met her too, and from what I know of her, she'd be more likely to invite Genghis Khan to court than you."
He put his hands on her small shoulders and gently steered her toward the wall, trying not to laugh. "Watch out."
"What on earth do you think you're doing?"
"Moving you out of the way of the Mongol warriors," he said in a droll voice. "The very mighty ruler Genghis Khan would never have traveled to a foreign land without them."
She leaned against the wall. "Well, you've read a history book since I knew you. I'm amazed. I didn't realize you were literate, or that you could stay sober for the time it took to finish a page."
He gave her an engaging grin. "Would you like to hear me recite the alphabet?"
She grinned back. "It might not be a good idea to strain your mental processes with such a demanding task."
"Are you still that angry at me, Anne?"
"No, Patrick. I appreciate your part in my ruination. Now kindly move out of the way. You've done enough damage to my reputation, thank you."
"I couldn't have done that much damage," he pointed out, "or you'd never have been invited to court."
"Perhaps that's why I've been invited." A note of panic crept into her voice. "Perhaps the Queen found out about us and is going to banish me from her presence forevermore."
"That is entirely unlikely, sweetheart. Ever since her visit to Scotland last year, we Highlanders are all the rage. I suspect we're about to be invited to be part of some Gaelic spectacle."
She narrowed her eyes. "Are you behind this?"
"Don't be insulting, woman." He held out his arm. "Come on. We'll present a united and dignified Highland front if only for appearances. You can thrust the ancestral dirk into my heart afterward."
"Dignified, I agree to." She stepped toward the antechamber door, refusing his arm. "But I have a feeling I'd be safer united with Mephistopheles than with you again."
He laughed quietly. "Oh, Anne."
She arched her brow. "Oh, Anne, what? Or shouldn't I ask?"
"It is good to see you again."
She sighed. "I cannot say I return the sentiment."
Copyright © 2000 by Maria Gardner