Four years before, the Jacobite rebellion under the fabled Bonnie Prince Charlie had been squashed by an English general nicknamed Butcher Billy Cumberland. In the aftermath Cumberland swept across Scotland, burning, looting and hanging men indiscriminately. Thousands were exiled, including James MacLonan. Now James has the opportunity to return to his beloved Highlands, but his pardon comes at a cost: he must marry the daughter of an English officer.
Headstrong and independent, Thea Tilton is contemptuous of the respectable gentlemen of eligible society. Her heart is falling for James, but he is a rebel, the enemy of her country and her king. Can her heart overcome the objections her mind is making?
Thea observed him thoughtfully. James MacLonan, it seemed, was willing to make an effort to begin again, just as she was. “Mr. MacLonan, what we are we will always be. You are a Scot and a follower of the Stuarts. I am the daughter of an English general and the sister of a captain. By birth and belief I am loyal to King George.”
He caught her hand again. This time he gently rubbed his thumb along the soft skin on her knuckles. Pleasant sensations rippled through Thea.
“I have nothing against the English,” he remarked. “I have been friends with the Viscount Staverton for years.”
He paused. Thea found herself holding her breath, and had to deliberately remember to let it go. Finally he continued. “It is the politics that divides us, is it not?”
“King George and his enemy, the Young Pretender. You are right, Mr. MacLonan, it is the politics that places the true barrier between us.”
After one final silken stroke, he released her hand. Thea wanted to sigh with disappointment. His very public caress had given her sensual pleasure, but even more, it had given her hope.
“And yet, what place does politics have between a man and a woman?” He watched her through hooded eyes, waiting for her reaction.
The common answer would be none. Women had been used to solidify alliances between people of different political beliefs for time immemorial.
Thea, however, was far from the marriageable pawn of tradition.
“Beliefs, strongly held, are the essence of men and women. Since meeting you, sir, I have heard stories of your conduct during the rebellion.” Her lips curled into a rueful smile and her impish dimple peeped out. “I know I should not be listening to gossip, but…alas, I could not resist. I wanted to know what kind of man you were.”
He raised his brows, somewhat cynically. “And common gossip gave you the answer?”
She should have been offended. Instead she laughed. “Mr. MacLonan, you are not kind! Did I not hint to you that I was deeply ashamed of myself?” She tapped his wrist gently with her closed fan, her dimple very much in evidence. “You should not force a lady to admit outright that she has erred in listening to gossip. It just is not done!”
He laughed, a deep appreciative chuckle that caused Thea’s spirits to soar in a mercurial way.
“Miss Tilton, I beg your forgiveness.”
“It is gladly given, sir.”
James looked down at her, a faint smile still curling his lips. “I am intrigued, Miss Tilton, how the daughter of a good Whig general overcame her perfectly natural distaste for a man who was a traitor to England through listening to gossip. I think you were about to explain that deep dark mystery to me.”
“You are a most determined man, Mr. MacLonan.” She pouted, glancing up at him from beneath her lashes. “You refuse to allow me to divert the subject away from my transgression.”
“Others have made the same complaint, madam,” he said rather ruefully.
Thea sighed in an exaggerated way. “Alas, I fear I must confess all.” She looked up at him again, her head cocked, and her eyes twinkling. “The truth be known, there is not much to tell. I was persuaded to listen to the history of the rebellion from the point of view of the other side. I began to see that you were an honorable man, acting according to your beliefs. In truth, I do not think you could have done other than to pledge your sword to Charles James Stuart when he raised the clans. You were only doing what your honor demanded.”
Complete silence followed her words. Thea found herself searching his face, far too anxiously for her peace of mind.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he said very slowly, “Miss Tilton, I do not know how to reply.”
She turned her head away. Gently he caught her chin, uncaring who might be watching them, then turned it so that she had to look up into his eyes. Briefly, his thumb stroked lightly, temptingly, along her skin.
“I did not mean to hurt you,” he said softly, “but your words left me mute. It is rarely that a man receives a confession and a compliment phrased so gracefully. I only wish that my own explanation could be as elegant.”
He caught her hands and squeezed them gently. Thea’s fingers tightened in his and something flared in his eyes, deepening the blue. Her heart pounded in response and she took a deep breath. Being near to James MacLonan was causing her body to react very strangely, in ways that she decided she liked very much.
“Your own explanation, sir? I do not understand.”
“Why I agreed to come to your party, Miss Tilton,” he said gently. “Why I borrowed Staverton’s snuff box so I would have a way of approaching you that ensured that you would be willing to speak to me.”
“Oh,” Thea said, feeling quite silly, but wonderfully flattered. Her voice sounded breathy to her own ears. She wondered if James MacLonan had noticed her lack of composure. “Why did you do those things, Mr. MacLonan?”
His eyes caressed her face. Slowly, he turned her hands so that the palms lay upward. “I could not get you out of my mind,” he said simply. Then he bent and kissed first one palm and then the other with a graceful flourish that spoke of the Continent.
Thea’s breath caught as her heart began to pound, and a strange longing made her want to drift forever in the pleasure of his touch. “James,” she whispered.
He looked up at her and smiled, then dropped her hands. Some of the tension that had kept Thea tight with anticipation eased, but not all. Her whole body continued to tingle with awareness of him.
“I think, Miss Tilton, that we should join the dancing, or people will accuse me of monopolizing your company.”
Thea’s lovely rippling laugh rang out. “One of the prerogatives of holding your own party, sir, is that you may bend, and even break, the rules. No one will condemn either of us for talking overlong tonight.”
“Then I will not hesitate to monopolize you.” He took her hand and placed it on his arm. “Is there a place where we can be more private than this? Do you have any suggestions?”
“My father’s study,” she said a little breathlessly, knowing that after the intensity of their conversation, she was not just breaking, but shattering, all of the rules. “We did not open it for the party tonight. We can be alone there.”
Briefly, he hesitated. Then he smiled down at her in a way that was almost possessive. “An excellent suggestion, Theadora. I am yours to command.”
She swallowed, then whispered, “Thea. I am Thea to my family.”
His smile only deepened.