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THE BRIDEGROOM WORE PLAID
by Grace Burrowes

Genre: Scotland, Historical Romance

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Ian MacGregor, heir to an impoverished earldom, has come in from his early morning ride to find Augusta Merrick indulging in a barefoot walk in his gardens…

Ian followed the line of her gaze, noting that from beneath the damp hem of Augusta Merrick’s nondescript walking dress, he could see the first two naked toes of her right foot.

“I understand costumes and roles.” He reached over to pull her shawl up around her shoulders yet again, because she seemed determined to let the thing fall where it may. “I’m disguised as an earl, for example, one who’s pleased to open his home to guests each summer when Her Royal Majesty is in residence next door.”

It was an admission. Not one he’d planned to make, but her smile told him she was pleased to accept it.

“You should not judge yourself for taking Uncle’s coin. He’s a trial on a good day, and he’ll dine out on his summer with the Queen for years.”

“And I’m not really an earl, not yet.” He glanced over to make sure she was paying attention, because this truth was one he did not want hidden. “My half brother, Asher, holds the title, but he’s been missing for almost seven years. We’ve started the proceedings for having him declared legally dead, though at the last moment, I expect him to come strolling off a boat, thanking me for my impersonation of him.”

“Uncle knows this. He’s been spying on you for a bit.”

A confidence for a confidence. Miss Merrick rose a notch in Ian’s estimation.

“Has he now? I suppose that’s to be expected.” And Miss Merrick no doubt feared such an uncle would also spy on his niece. “Come with me, and I’ll show you where you can pick up a trail in the woods that will allow you all the solitude you want, most of it within shouting distance of the house and stables.”

“Another time perhaps.” She rose, her expression genuinely rueful. “If I’m seen gadding about with my hair in disarray and my hems getting soaked, there will be questions at breakfast. You won’t tattle?”

This was important to her, her eyes suggesting it was tantamount to a matter of safety and peace of mind.

He got to his feet. “A gentleman would never reveal a lady’s confidences, Miss Merrick. Never.”

She looked relieved, and then indecisive, as if she might say more or take his hand to solemnize the exchange. But she turned, pulled the ugly shawl up, skittered away, then darted back to his side.

Ian had no warning. She rested a hand on his chest then went up on her toes and grazed her lips against his cheek. He got a fleeting impression of warmth and softness and a little whiff of spring flowers before he had the presence of mind to steady her by the elbows. For a procession of instants, she remained next to him, a woman who likely permitted herself no allies and no affection. Ian’s hands slid from her elbows to her waist, sharing an embrace that was as comforting as it was unexpected.

She was not prim, fussy, and prejudiced. She was shy, lonely, and uncertain.