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SCOTLAND, SEPTEMBER 1882
I saw Mrs. Chase slide that letter into Lord Cameron’s pocket. She did it almost under my nose. Bloody woman.
Ainsley Douglas sank to her knees in her ball dress and thrust her arms deep into Lord Cameron Mackenzie’s armoire.
Why did it have to be Cameron Mackenzie, of all people? Did Mrs. Chase know? Ainsley’s heart thrummed before she calmed it down. No, Phyllida Chase could not know. No one did. Cameron must not have told her, because the tale would have come ’round to Ainsley again with breathtaking speed, society gossip being what it was. Therefore, it stood to reason that Cameron had kept the story to himself.
Ainsley felt only marginally better. The queen’s letter hadn’t been in the pockets of any of the coats in the dressing room. In the armoire, Ainsley found shirts neatly folded, collars stacked in collar boxes, cravats carefully separated with tissue paper. Rich cambric and silk and softest lawn, costly fabrics for a rich man.
She pawed hastily through the garments, but nowhere did she find the letter tucked carelessly into a pocket or fallen between the shirts on the shelf. The valet had likely gone through his master’s pockets and taken away any stray paper to return it to Lord Cameron or put it somewhere for safekeeping. Or Cameron had already found it, thought it female silliness, and burned it. Ainsley prayed fast and hard that he’d simply burned it.
Not that such a thing would completely solve Ainsley’s dilemma. Phyllida, blast the woman, had more of the queen’s letters stashed away somewhere. Ainsley’s assignment: Retrieve them at all costs.
The immediate cost was to Ainsley’s dove gray ball dress, the first new gown she’d had in years that wasn’t mourning black. Not to mention the cost to her knees, her back, and her sanity.
Sanity was further disturbed by the sound of the door opening behind her.
Ainsley backed swiftly out of the wardrobe and turned around, fully expecting Cameron’s rather frightening Romany valet to be glaring down at her. Instead, the door blocked whoever had pushed it open, giving Ainsley a few more seconds to panic.
Hide. Where? The door to the dressing room lay across the length of the chamber, the armoire behind her too full for a young woman in a ball dress. Under the bed? No, she’d never dash across the carpet and wriggle beneath it in time.
The window with its full seat was two steps away. Ainsley dove for it, stuffed her skirts beneath her and jerked the curtains closed.
Just in time. Through the crack in the drapes, she saw Lord Cameron himself back into the room with Phyllida Chase, former maid of honor to the queen, hanging around his neck.
The sudden burn in Ainsley’s heart took her by surprise. She’d known for weeks that Phyllida had stuck her claws into Cameron Mackenzie. Why should Ainsley mind? Phyllida was the sort of woman Lord Cameron preferred: lovely, experienced, uninterested in her husband. Likewise Cameron was the sort Phyllida liked: rich, handsome, not looking for a deep attachment. They suited each other well. What business was it of Ainsley’s?
Even so, a lump formed in her throat as Lord Cameron shut the door with one hand and slid the other to the small of Phyllida’s back. She wound her arms around him, while Cameron leaned down and pressed leisurely kisses to her neck.
There was desire in that embrace, unashamed, unmistakable desire. Once, long ago, Ainsley had felt Cameron Mackenzie’s desire. She remembered rippling heat softening her body, the point of fire of his kiss. Years had passed, but she still remembered the imprint of his mouth on her lips, on her skin—his hands so skilled.
Phyllida melted to Cameron with a hungry noise, and Ainsley rolled her eyes. She knew full well that Mr. Chase was still in the gardens, following the house party on a ramble, the paths lit by paper lanterns under the midnight sky. Ainsley knew this because she’d slipped away from the party as they moved from ballroom to gardens, so that she could search Lord Cameron’s chamber.
They couldn’t have let her search in peace, could they? No, the bothersome Phyllida could not stay away from her Mackenzie male and had dragged him up here for a liaison. Selfish cow.
Cameron’s coat slid to the floor. The waistcoat and shirt beneath outlined muscles hardened by years of riding and training horses. Lord Cameron moved with ease for such a big man, comfortable with his height and strength. He rode with the same grace, the horses under him responding to his slightest touch. Ladies responded to the same touch, she had reason to know.
The deep scar on his cheekbone made some say that his handsomeness was ruined, but Ainsley disagreed. The scar had never unnerved her, but his tallness had taken Ainsley’s breath away when Isabella had introduced her to him six years ago, as had the way his gloved hand swallowed her smaller one. Cameron hadn’t looked much interested in an old school friend of his sister-in-law’s, but later . . . Oh, that later.
At this moment, Cameron’s gaze was reserved for the slim, dark-haired beauty of Phyllida Chase. Ainsley happened to know that Phyllida kept her hair black with the help of a little dye, but Ainsley would never say so. She wouldn’t be that petty. If she and Isabella had a good giggle over it, what harm was there in that?
Cameron’s waistcoat came off, then his cravat and collar, giving Ainsley a fine view of his bare, damp throat.
She looked away, an ache in her chest. She wondered how long she would have to wait before attempting to slip away—surely once the couple was on the bed they’d be too engrossed in each other to notice her crawling for the door. Ainsley drew a long breath, becoming more unhappy by the minute.
When she summoned the nerve to peek back through the drape, Phyllida’s bodice was open, revealing a pretty corset over plump curves. Lord Cameron bent to kiss the bosom that welled over the corset cover, and Phyllida groaned in pleasure.
The vision came to Ainsley of Lord Cameron pressing his lips to her bosom. She remembered his breath burning her skin, his hands on her back. And his kiss. A deep, warm kiss that had awakened every single desire Ainsley had ever had. She remembered the exact pressure of the kiss, the shape and taste of his mouth, the rough of his fingertips on her skin.
She also remembered the icicle in her heart when he’d looked at her and through her the next day. Her own fault. Ainsley had been young and allowed herself to be duped, and she’d compounded the problem by insulting him.
Phyllida’s hand was under Cameron’s kilt now. He moved to let her play, and the plaid inched upward. Cameron’s strong thighs came into view, and Ainsley saw with shock that scars marked him from the back of his knees to the curve of his bu**ocks.