Seductive as Flame
It was common gossip that there wasn't a woman alive safe from the seductive skills of Alec Munro, Earl of Dalgliesh. Except for Zelda MacKenzie, a magnificent, flame-haired Scottish beauty who makes it clear she has no interest in libertines.
How lovely, Alec thought. How irresistibly challenging.
Groveland Chase, November 1894
The Duke and Duchess of Groveland were entertaining at their hunting lodge in the West Riding. The original party had been small, although more guests had arrived yesterday, and tomorrow the local squires and farmers would come out for the day’s hunt. As was often the case with country house parties, those invited arrived with unexpected companions. Charlie Bonner, for instance, had come with his wife, who neither rode to hounds nor liked the country. “Sorry Fitz,” Charlie had murmured with a grin for his host. “I couldn’t shake off Bella.” And surprisingly, Lord Dalgliesh had brought his wife. They barely spoke. But her young son had wanted to see a hunt, someone said, and Lord Dalgliesh doted on the boy.
Not that all aristocratic marriages were as ill conceived and regrettable, although love matches were a rarity in the haute monde. Long-held custom in the fashionable world had always viewed matrimony as a business transaction and marriage settlements as a means of enhancing family wealth, prestige, or blood lines. Should anyone be looking for love, that was available elsewhere.
Naturally, there were exceptions to prevailing custom. Three of those exceptions were currently having coffee and brandy in a sitting room off the terrace. The Duke of Groveland and his friends, Lords Lennox and Blackwood, were having an early-morning eye-opener while waiting for their beloved wives to come down for breakfast.
“To family.” With a smile, the duke raised his cup. “May our tribes increase.”
“A pleasant endeavor,” Oz Lennox murmured. “I’ll drink to that.”
Jamie Blackwood lifted his cup. “We’re fortunate, all of us.”
“Indeed. To kind fate,” Oz said softly and drained his drink.
A small silence fell, each man fully conscious that life was uncertain, a gamble at best. They all understood how impossibly long the odds had been against meeting the women they loved in the great vastness of the world. How bereft their lives would have been had they not.
Into this contemplative moment a striding figure intruded, sweeping past the long span of French doors. The woman was tall, with magnificent flame-red hair, the spectacular lynx coat she wore equally resplendent.
Fitz smiled as she disappeared from sight. “Rumor has it she’s a witch.”
“In more ways than one,” Oz drawled, pushing himself upright in his chair in sudden interest. “What?” He shot his friends a grin. “I love my wife, but I’m not dead. Did you see those flashy spurs? I’ll bet she’s a wildcat in bed.”
“And you should know,” Fitz waggishly noted.
Oz cast a sardonic glance at his friend. “Please—as if either of you were Puritans before you married. Hell, Fitz, you had Willery’s bountiful daughter sizing you up under Rosalind’s eye last night at dinner. I thought she might lean over just a little more and let her plump, quivering breasts spill over on your plate. And Bella practically ate Jamie alive while we were having drinks in the drawing room.” He shot a look at James Blackwood, who’d spent years standing stud to not only Bella but a great many other ladies. “Did you have to make amends to Sofie afterward? She didn’t look happy.”
“Bella’s always been difficult,” Jamie coolly replied. “Sofie understands.”
“I beg to differ,” Oz drolly said. “I know Sofie. She doesn’t understand at all.”
“Let’s just say I was able to atone for Bella’s sins. Satisfied? And the enticing Zelda happens to be my cousin, so mind your manners.”
Oz grinned. “You’re kidding. Zelda? What a perfect name for a bodacious lady witch.”
“Her name’s Griselda, so relax,” Jamie muttered. “And the gossip about witches arose because she’s recently returned from the jungles of Brazil with some native artifacts she chooses to wear. She’s no more a witch than you or I.”
“She raised all her younger siblings when her mother died, didn’t she?” Fitz commented.
Jamie nodded. “All five of them.”
“So witch and earth mother,” Oz waggishly noted. “Every male fantasy.”
Jamie gave his friend a warning glance. “Fucking behave.”
“Or?” Oz’s grin was brilliant.
“Or I’ll tell Isolde you’re lusting after my cousin,” Jamie silkily returned.
“And I’ll tell her I’m not.”
“Screw you,” Jamie muttered.
“I’m afraid I’m no longer available,” Oz sweetly replied. “My wife doesn’t approve.”
The stunning apparition suddenly hove back into view, arresting the raillery. Coming to a stop at one of the doors, the flame-haired woman opened it and stood for a moment on the threshold, her tall form limned in golden sunshine.
The extravagant lynx coat fell to her ankles, her flamboyant hair was untamed and wind tossed, her long, slender legs buckskin clad, her booted and spurred feet firmly planted. While a faint smile graced her lovely mouth, mild query arched her dark brows. “Am I intruding?”
“No, not at all. Do come in, Zelda,” Jamie quickly offered, rising from his chair along with the other men. “You’re up early.”
“It’s not that early. Hullo, everyone.” The rowels on her spurs jingled quietly as she walked in and shut the door. “Father and I’ve been out riding since dawn,” she said, turning to the men and stripping off her gloves. “Although I seem to have lost him somewhere between here and the stables.”
“No doubt he stopped to talk to someone.” Sir Gavin was everyone’s friend. “You know Fitz,” Jamie observed. “And this is Lord Lennox. Oz, my cousin, Zelda MacKenzie.”
“A pleasure,” Oz said, moving forward and putting out his hand. “You must tell my wife where you found your coat. It’s magnificent.”
“Thank you.” He had a very lucky wife, Zelda thought, shaking his hand, and he must care for her or he wouldn’t have mentioned her in his first breath. “A wonderful tailor in Edinburgh made this for me. I can give you his name if you like.”
“I would.” Oz’s smile was boyishly warm. “You weren’t here last night.”
“We came in very late.”
“Would you like a drink?” Fitz interjected, because Oz charmed without even trying and Jamie had warned him off. “We’re drinking our breakfast.”
“Fitz has smuggled brandy so it tastes much better,” Oz said, shifting slightly to include his friends in the conversation.” I recommend it.”
“Perfect. Just what I need. And may I compliment you on your jumps, Lord Groveland,” she added, turning to her host. “They’re wicked. I’m looking forward to the chase.”
“I can’t take credit for the hedges. They were planted long ago. But I’ve added an obstacle or two over the years to make the run more interesting. Please, have a chair. I’ll get your drink.”
Zelda was shoving her gloves into her coat pocket and Fitz had turned to the drinks tray when the door to the hallway suddenly opened and a large, dark-haired man walked in. “Morning, gentleman.” The Earl of Dalgliesh advanced into the room. “It’s a perfect day for hunting—frost, crisp, cold. You couldn’t have ordered any better weath—” His cool blue gaze suddenly fell on Zelda and a warmth entered his eyes. “Good morning, ma’am.” A connoisseur of beautiful women, he automatically surveyed her as he strode toward her—taking in her glorious face and form, the exotic garb, particularly the tight buckskins that left nothing to the imagination. He’d never seen a woman dress like that in public. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said, bowing slightly as he reached her, looking down at her with a beguiling smile. “Dalgliesh at your service.”
“Alec, allow me to introduce my cousin.” Jamie moved closer to Zelda, Dalgliesh’s interest apparent and his reputation such that female relatives required protection. “Alec Munro, may I present, Griselda MacKenzie, Sir Gavin’s daughter.”
“A pleasure, sir.” Zelda smiled and put out her hand.
Grasping her fingers lightly, Alec brought them to his mouth and brushed her knuckles with his lips. For a lingering moment, he held her fingers in his warm, cupped palm before releasing her hand. “I haven’t seen you before.” His voice was velvet soft, lazy with provocation.
But his gaze wasn’t lazy; it was predatory, like an animal on the scent. “My father and I are down from Scotland,” Zelda replied, half breathless under the unmistakable lust in his eyes, the warmth of his hand still tingling on her skin; her heart was suddenly pounding.
Their eyes held for a moment—pale blue and amethyst—and a flurry of ripe, unguarded expectation shimmered in the air. Hotspur and graphic.
Alec recovered first because he wasn’t given to blind impetuosity. “You’ve been out riding, I see,” he smoothly said.
“Yes, I was just telling Lord Groveland what lovely acres he has.” Zelda, too, had regained her composure. “Have you hunted here before?”
“He has several times,” Fitz said, stepping in to diffuse what was clearly a volatile encounter. “Alec has a hunting lodge in the neighborhood. Come, both of you, please have a seat. I’ll see to the brandies and coffee.”
“There you are, Alec!” a female voice vexatiously exclaimed, the high, sharp cry shattering the faint hush of carnal ambivalence. “I’ve been searching for you everywhere!”
Five pairs of eyes swivelled toward the open doorway.
A fashionably gowned, diminutive blond woman dressed in crimson cashmere stood dwarfed by the lofty door frame, her frown marked. “Christopher was wondering when you were coming back?”
“I’ll be up in ten minutes.”
“Would you like coffee, Violetta?” Fitz politely inquired. He couldn’t very well not ask. Although her husband offered her no welcome.
“No, thank you. I have to go back and calm dear Christopher.” Lady Dalgliesh’s smile held a hint of melancholy. “He’s such a high-strung little boy. You won’t make him wait long, will you, Alec?”
“No.” Soft and dismissive.
“You shouldn’t have run off like that,” she scolded, either not noticing her husband’s dismissal or not caring. “Chris was upset to find you’d gone off. But I’ll do my best to console him until you return.”
The earl’s jaw clenched. “Mrs. Creighton’s more than capable of consoling him.”
“Really, Alec,” Lady Dalgliesh said with a sniff of disapproval. “I don’t know why you insist on that woman. She’s so common.”
“Chris likes her. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” the earl said, a dangerous edge to his voice.
The small woman hesitated fractionally, then with a toss of her blond curls, she crisply said, “Very well, don’t be late,” and flounced off.
Dalgliesh exhaled quietly before turning to the others. “Please forgive the drama. Violetta always enjoys making a scene. A large brandy for me, Fitz. No coffee.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Fitz calmly said. “Please, everyone, sit. One large brandy coming up. How about you, Zelda?”
“Just two fingers of brandy please with coffee.” She took the chair Jamie offered her.
Once everyone was seated and their drinks were in hand, the talk turned to hunting, the discussion focused initially on Fitz’s hunting pack. Ten generations of Moncktons had succeeded in breeding the fastest pack of hounds in England with the nose, voice, and stamina to handle the coverts and bogs natural to the area. Yorkshire was the most sporting part of Her Majesty’s dominions, the county where fox hunting had been first established.
The subject of thrusters came up next—riders ready to jump anything in sight with no care for the hounds. It was agreed that the men would all do what they could to restrain the louts. Riders of that ilk could raise havoc with the dogs by throwing them off the scent, or worse: A pack worth thousands of pounds could be seriously damaged if ridden over.
Everyone in the room was experienced in the field. Oz had first hunted in India with leopards as coursers, Jamie had ridden to hounds in Hungary and on the Continent, particularly with the Empress Elizabeth, who liked to surround herself with handsome, world-class horsemen. Fitz and Zelda had hunted since childhood here and abroad.
Consumed with her own thoughts, Zelda only half listened to the conversation. Comfortably ensconced in a large, down-cushioned chair, she sipped her drink and tried not to stare at Dalgliesh. But he was murderously handsome, dark as a gypsy, with sleepy, bedroom eyes, his hunter’s gaze shuttered now that he was lounging relaxed in his chair, his brandy glass resting on his chest. His legs were stretched out before him, his hard, muscled body of unusual height—that height particularly attractive to a woman as tall as she. He didn’t wear correct hunting dress—nor did anyone in the room; she was among men who shared her disdain for conformity. Or perhaps like she, they rode for pleasure, not to parade their pretensions or wealth.
Dalgliesh’s coat was black not red, his riding pants buff not white, his boots devoid of the pink or brown tops of the fashion-conscious hunter. But his broad expanse of shoulder was shown to advantage under his elegant tailoring, and his green foulard waistcoat was buttoned over a hard, flat stomach. The powerful thighs of a superb horseman were evident under his tight buckskins as was his virility, impressive even in repose.
A sudden suffusion of heat she didn’t in the least wish to feel stirred deep inside her. Wrenching her gaze from his crotch, she upbraided herself for such recklessness. Good Lord . . . Dalgliesh was married, with a child—and a difficult wife. Nor did she usually respond with such madcap indiscretion to a man. In fact, never. Not that she was some virginal miss. She lived her life with considerable freedom, her independence nurtured, she supposed, by the casualness of her upbringing.
Although no question—Dalgliesh had been offering her more than cultivated pleasantries a few minutes ago. He’d been offering her an invitation to unbridled sex.
She’d couldn’t accept, of course. It would be the greatest foolishness to antagonize a spiteful woman like Lady Dalgliesh. Particularly in the midst of a country house party with so many people in attendance.
Good God! Meaning what?
If there weren’t so many people about . . . might she consider being foolish? Of course not, a little voice inside her head sternly asserted. Her father was here, for heaven’s sake, and while Papa probably wouldn’t notice with his mind rather narrowly on sport and drinking, this was hardly the venue for such rash behavior.
Get a grip, she told herself. And with that pragmatic injunction, she turned her attention to the men’s conversation.
She was unaware her scrutiny hadn’t gone unnoticed by the object of her attention. More practiced, however, Alec’s surveillance of the splendid Miss MacKenzie was well disguised. But he was having second thoughts about a carnal flirtation. Apparently the lady’s father was here for the hunt. He’d met Sir Gavin before, the hard-drinking Scottish baronet typical of his class: bluff and friendly, physically large in the hardy Norse tradition, his life entirely devoted to sport and drink.
And at base, Dalgliesh reflected, he had come for the sport. Fitz’s gamekeepers were superb, his lands extensive, his hunt master the best in England.
As for amorous amusement, there was plenty enough of that in London, he reminded himself. And had not the sudden, unexpected vision of the exotic Miss Mackenzie captivated every libertine nerve in his body, he might have more sensibly controlled his initial reaction to her.
Furthermore, both Violetta and Chris were in residence; surely that was reason enough for restraint. Starting now, Alec decided after a glance at the clock. His ten minutes were up. Draining his glass and setting it aside, he came to his feet. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said. “We’ll see you all outside. Chris is looking forward to his first hunt.” He turned to Zelda, his smile urbane. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss MacKenzie.” There, that wasn’t so hard. It was just a matter of self-discipline.
“Indeed, a pleasure,” Zelda replied, smiling back, ignoring the inconvenient little flutter coiling in the pit of her stomach.
After the door closed on the earl, Fitz gruffly said, “I’ve never understood why he doesn’t divorce her.”
“Rumors are rife in that regard.” Oz had heard the stories from Marguerite when he was spending a great deal of time in her luxurious brothel and bed. “Margo says it’s something more than the boy that keeps Dalgliesh fettered.” Oz shrugged. “I’d divorce the bitch, pardon my language, Zelda, scandal be damned.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t wish to hurt the boy,” Jamie remarked. “The lad’s still quite young, isn’t he?”
“About six I think,” Fitz answered. “He was two when they married.” The duke had a son who was two and was fully aware of the attachment between a parent and child. “I suspect the boy has come to depend on Alec. They’re very close.”
Zelda looked up, her brows lifted. “The boy’s not his then?”
“No, Violetta was a widow when they met. Or rather I should say when they became reacquainted. She’d grown up near Alec and returned after her husband died. They married rather quickly soon after Alec came back from South Africa to visit his ailing mother.”
“Marry in haste, repent at leisure,” Oz murmured. “Although not in my case,” he added with a grin. Oz had married Isolde after having known her only a few hours. “I’m happy to say, I’m the exception.”
“None of us had a long courtship,” Jamie pointed out with a smile for his cousin.
Zelda shrugged. “Hardly a requirement if you find someone compatible.”
“You didn’t meet anyone in the Brazilian jungle, I gather,” Jamie teased.
“They were all rather short. The native tribes,” she added. “And while the local landowners were charming enough, I’m afraid I towered over most of them as well. Not that I was actually interested in a permanent stay in Brazil. I’d miss the children.”
“Zelda was on an orchid-hunting expedition in Brazil,” Jamie recounted to his friends. “You came back with some precious specimens I hear.”
“Yes.” Zelda smiled. “I won’t bore you with the catalogue, but suffice it to say, the conservatory will soon be awash with colorful blooms.” Then she said for no good reason or perhaps for entirely reprehensible reasons, “Why South Africa?”
None of the men so much as blinked an eyelash; they’d all spent considerable time in dalliance prior to marriage. In fact, the three men together held the distinction of having serviced a record number of women here and abroad.
Jamie glanced at Fitz. “You know more about Dalgliesh than we do. Explain South Africa.”
“It was an accident, as I understand,” Fitz began. “Having left after a pitched battle with his father—they had a long history of strife—Alec was on his way to India and decided to stop in Cape Town. The new Transvaal diamond discoveries were coming to light, and he invested in a small mining venture that made everyone a fortune. He returned to England when his mother took ill. Happily, she recovered, although his father died soon after. Alec and his father were in a heated argument apparently when the old earl collapsed. He lingered on for a few days, unable to speak or move.” Fitz shrugged. “Alec’s father was a brute. No one mourned his loss.”
“Is Dalgliesh’s mother alive?”
“Yes, although she’s in uncertain health. Alec remains in England because of her, I suspect, and, of course, for Chris. He and the dowager countess both adore the boy.”
“Why did he marry?” Zelda asked, her gaze searching. “He and his wife seem incompatible—although many aristocratic couples are, I suppose.”
“No one knows why they married,” Fitz replied. “There were rumors of a stillbirth, but he’s never spoken of it, nor has she. A word of advice, dear, and I mean it most kindly. I saw how he looked at you. He has a reputation for profligacy.”
Zelda smiled. “I’m warned. And coming from profligate men such as yourselves”—she scanned the handsome group—“I’ll take your advice to heart.”
“Formerly profligate,” Oz corrected with a flashing grin.
“Just take care, my dear,” Jamie gently said. “Dalgliesh is known to break hearts.”
“I was mostly curious about him, that’s all,” Zelda casually replied. “Thank you for the abridged biography, Fitz. His wife was so bloody unpleasant, I just wondered what sort of man would marry a woman like her.”
“The entire world wonders,” Oz drawled.
“Should you find out why,” Jamie pointedly said, knowing Zelda for a purposeful woman, “you might wish you didn’t know.” His cynical view of the world had been tempered by a loving wife, but not entirely suppressed. He knew better than most that men were imperfect at best and occasionally reprehensible.
“I don’t expect to find out. I’m generally more sensible than impulsive. Had I not been,” she said with a flash of a smile, “I would have married Johnnie Armstrong when I was fifteen and let Da raise the children himself.”
“I’m sure your father appreciates what you did.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t. He didn’t even notice.”
A fact impossible to refute. “Is this where I say you’ll get your reward in heaven?” Jamie facetiously noted.
“I’ll be getting it long before that,” Zelda sportively replied as she came to her feet in a ripple of glossy fur. “I’ve enjoyed this chat, gentlemen. I’ll see you all in the field.”
After she was gone, Oz raised his glass in homage. “There goes a dazzling and engagingly candid woman. If I didn’t adore my wife, I’d envy Dalgliesh.”
“Perhaps there won’t be anything to envy,” Jamie retorted with exacting precision.
Oz looked at him from under his lashes, his dark gaze amused. “Such cousinly anxiety. If she wasn’t related to you, I’d bet a thousand Dalgliesh doesn’t last the weekend.”
“I agree,” Fitz said. “Which means we’ll have to shield Zelda from Violetta’s sharp claws. We’ll take turns holding the bitch at bay.”
“Ah, what delightful entertainment’s in store,” Oz murmured. “A quixotic seduction, a snarling wife, a possible pursuit and retreat.” He looked up. “Will Dalgliesh actually refuse her?”
“I doubt it,” Fitz said.
“Hell no, he won’t,” Jamie muttered. “Who would with a wife like that?”
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