Cursed from birth with a physical flaw, Arthur Cameron can't seem to get past the feeling that he has way too little to offer the beautiful high-born daughter of a wealthy Scottish earl. Alicia McCray has everything she wants, doting parents, privilege, money...what seems out of her reach is the man of her dreams, a prickly, self-conscious, handsome young man who apparently can't grasp that she loves him for what he is on the inside, not what his limitations are on the outside. Male stubbornness and female determination clash under the pale moonlight...
Taking hold of one thick branch, Lady Alicia McCray eased over the sill of the window, her long skirts bunched in one hand. Luckily, even though it was late, the moon was full and brilliant in a velvet, summer night sky, so she could see fairly well. In a rustle of silk and narcotic ivy leaves, she began to climb downward, using her feet to feel for purchase against the stone walls of the manor house, the ancient vines as big as her wrist and firmly anchored to the structure for time out of mind.
This had better work, she thought wryly, since she was risking her neck.
And—even more fragile—risking her heart.
The gardens below were shadowed when she finally dropped the last few feet, landing in a flurry of long skirts and involuntarily crushing a small green plant with drooping pink flowers. Brushing her skirts and dislodging a small shower of fragrant petals, Alicia straightened and glanced down the path.
Mrs. McCreary, the housekeeper, had sworn Arthur always cut through the gardens on his way back from the stables. It made sense, with his disability he would want to take the shortest route.
Squaring her shoulders, Alicia skirted the towering bulk of a rhododendron and slipped toward the more formal outline of the rose garden. The blooms filled the air with the heady, seductive scent of literally hundreds of flowers, the bushes thick with glossy leaves. There was a small stone bench by the side of the flagstone path with a little statue next to it—which, she saw as she approached, proved to be a cavorting cupid, complete with bow and poised arrow.
If this wasn’t a sign, she didn’t know what was. Seating herself, she took a deep breath to ease her nervousness, and prepared to wait.
Waiting for Arthur Cameron, she mused with an inward pang, was something she was well-used to doing. First she’d waited years until she was old enough for him to even consider as a woman. Then she’d waited for him to give any sign he might be interested, and worse…she’d just endured nearly a week of him openly avoiding her company. At dinner, he had barely spoken more than two or three polite words in her direction, and escaped as soon as possible.
A slight sound made her look up sharply and go tense, the tell-tale thud of a footfall followed by the lighter scrape of wood on stone telling her that Mrs. McCreary had not failed her. When his tall form materialized out of the shadows, moving swiftly down the path with amazing grace for someone using a crutch, all she could do was say ineffectually, “Hello.”
Her quarry froze, the wooden brace under his arm shooting out to keep his balance at the abrupt stop, his right knee slightly bent to keep his deformed and inwardly turned foot off the ground. In the moonlight, Alicia could clearly see the surprise on his handsome face change to wary question. After a moment, he said neutrally, “Hello. Rather late to be taking a stroll in the gardens, isn’t it?”
God, she loved the sound of his voice. It was deep and smooth—the slight brogue of the Borders different enough from where she lived farther north that it lent a sexy, husky timbre to each word. What’s more, he was well-muscled and tall, his dark hair a bit overlong and slightly curly, his shoulders impressively wide. For someone so singularly aware of his defect, he was apparently ignorant of his startling good looks, though by all accounts, the village girls were not, and flirted shamelessly whenever he was around.
But she hadn’t fallen in love with him because he was beautiful in a completely masculine way—though, if she were honest, that was perhaps a little of it. She’d fallen in love with his dry wit, cool intelligence, the gentle but effective way he had with his beloved horses…and, of course, because she simply couldn’t help it. Considering his prickly standoffishness when it came to letting anyone close, she gladly would have picked some other man, perhaps one of the eager suitors pestering her father for her hand now that she was of age…but it wasn’t that simple.
She loved Arthur Cameron, lame leg and all.
“I wasn’t really strolling,” Alicia said, clearing her throat when she heard how off-key her voice sounded. “I was waiting for you.”
“Oh?” He still stood several paces away, looking remarkably like an animal poised for flight. “I find it a little hard to believe your father would approve.”
“I climbed out my window. I…need to talk to you.”
His gaze narrowed a fraction. “It’s two stories up, you reckless little fool. Whatever do you have to say that could be that important?”
She patted the cool stone of the bench. “Perhaps you could sit next to me.”
He was too much of a gentleman to refuse—she had counted on that. After a brief hesitation, he came forward and lowered himself onto the spot she’d indicated. And the moment he rested his crutch against the stone, she grabbed it and stood up, quickly moving out of reach.
Openly startled, Arthur said, “What are you doing?”
There was a small yew tree down the path on the other side, part of a pattern designed by some clever Cameron gardener. Leaning the crutch against it, Alicia turned and smiled with effort, though her heart pounded and her palms were damp. “I’m removing the temptation of you getting up and leaving before I’m finished.”
His gaze glittered and his mouth was tight as he stared at her. “I’m afraid I have to shatter your illusion that I’m so dependent on a crutch that I can’t walk, my lady. It isn’t pretty, but I can get around.”
“But I doubt you would somehow, not in front of me.”
She’d struck a nerve—she could tell it well-enough from the way a small muscle twitched in his cheek. “I have some pride,” he responded, “so you’re undoubtedly correct.”
He probably had no idea how attractive he looked, gilded by moonlight like some wounded fallen angel, his chiseled features washed to planes and shadows, the beautiful silver of his eyes veiled by long, thick lashes. Forcing herself to walk forward, Alicia sat down next to him. Close. So close her thigh was snug against his, her skirts cascading over the material of his tailored breeches and spilling across his boots. He carried the faint tang of fine whiskey, tobacco, and something indefinable but completely his—the scent devastatingly male.