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DEVIL'S OWN
by Veronica Wolff

Genre: Scotland, Historical Romance

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“I told you, told all of you, to keep my identity close.” Aidan shifted his glare from Anya to Elspeth. He was seated at the great slab of wood that was the dining table, simmering with rage. “And now you go and bring this stranger into our home?”

“Elspeth is no stranger.” Anya kept her chin held high. “But I still don’t understand your reasons. Are you in trouble? Are you in hiding?”

“No.” He tossed back the last of a tankard of ale. He wasn’t hiding—he just didn’t want folk to uncover the truth of his goals. He studied Anya’s friend, doubtful this mouse of a girl would be able to help him. He glared at her, to make his meaning clear. “I just don’t wish every villager from here to Aberdeen to hear about my return.”

“Elspeth will keep your secret,” Anya told him in a calming voice. “The MacAlpins lost you once. We’ll not lose you again. Until you decide to tell us why you insist on such secrecy, we shall all respect your wishes.”

Elspeth nodded. Nobody knew better than she how to keep a secret. She had no doubt he had a good one, too. She was certain Aidan was embroiled in some private scheme. A thrilling plot, involving mystery and intrigue. 

Aidan was furious, and she secretly rejoiced. Because he wasn’t angry at the thought of reading, or her, or of reading with her. It was simply that he wished to be discreet. Clearly, he only wanted to keep his identity a secret so as not to bring danger upon his family. Or to the friends of his family. That meant her. Ergo, he wanted to keep her safe too. She shivered.

He tore a hunk from a loaf of bread and pinned her with that blue gaze. “You’ll keep your mouth shut, aye?”

Elspeth’s voice was breathy when she replied, “I shall be the very picture of obsession.” She blanched. “Discretion. I…I…I shall be the very picture of discretion.”

He gave her a peculiar look. Her heart pounded, and she was certain it was pumping twenty shades of red into her cheeks.

She assured herself it could’ve been worse. She might have accidentally misspoken something more embarrassing. Possession, for instance, or affection. Or, God forfend, erection.

The thought made her squeak.

Not taking his eyes from Elspeth, Aidan posed a question to his sister. “You’re certain this chit has the wits to teach me?”

His tone broke her spell. “Indeed,” both women said in unison.

Anya was bristling. “Elspeth is the smartest girl you’ll ever meet. She knows Latin and French.”

“I just need English,” he said over a mouthful of bread.

Elspeth watched, hypnotized, as he swept crumbs from the table into his hand, and then popped them in his mouth.

“She’s quite proficient in that as well,” Anya said. “She even does her father’s accounting.”

“That’s more a comment on her father than on her.” He looked at her, speculating. “Tell me, girl.”

“Her name is Elspeth.” Anya’s tone was steady and calm.

“Tell me, Elspeth. Are you to speak to me when you teach, or will my sister have to translate?” A smile, a true smile, cracked his face.

The sight of it made Elspeth’s heart soar. She spoke slowly and carefully in her response. Just in case. “Indeed, sir. I am perfectly capable of speaking for myself.”

Aidan tilted his face, considering her. Never before had a man considered her like that. Never had one so handsome ever so much as looked her way. 

Her chest tightened, and she forced it to rise and fall. No good came of fainting from lack of breath.

Anya cleared her throat. “It’s settled then?”

“It’s settled.” His eyes were hooded and intense, and Elspeth thought he might just be able to see through her clear into the next room. “She can begin our lessons tomorrow.”