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London, February, 1817

As the hired town coach rattled along the road north, Quinn didn’t bother to hide his scowl or attempt to make conversation. Why should he exert himself with a woman who was so obviously determined to detest him?

Water from the puddles left by the heavy rain the previous night splashed up nearly to the windows, and the sky was dull and overcast, with a brisk breeze that did nothing to add to the comfort of the coach.

"If you slouch any more, you’ll ruin your great coat," Esme noted as the heavy vehicle upholstered with striped worsted jostled over yet another rut in the road. "It must have cost my brother a pretty penny."

"I doubt it cost more than the pelisse you're wearing and probably less," he replied, sliding a little lower on the seat just to spite her. "I'd wager my whole wardrobe cost less than one of your gowns, and I have the receipts to prove it."

She gave him a haughty look. "I know how to drive a bargain."

"I'm sure a look from you can freeze the marrow of a modiste's bones and convince her to work at a loss," he agreed. "I, however, believe in paying for a job well done."

"I only want my money's worth."

"Your brother’s money's worth," he pointed out.

That brought a flush of pink to Esme’s cheeks. "If women could have a profession, I'd have been a solicitor, too, and gladly earned my own income."

She’d probably be as good a solicitor as her brother, Quinn mentally conceded. She might be one of the most unpleasant women on the face of the earth, but he couldn't deny her legal expertise.

"I think you'd be a better barrister," he said, and that was no lie. "I can easily imagine you interrogating a witness on the stand."

She frowned, clearly not pleased with his comment. "Solicitors do all the real legal work, the preparation and research, while barristers unfairly reap the glory – the way noble landlords reap the benefits of their tenants' labor, even if those landlords are wasteful, drunken gamblers."

God give him patience! And the remembrance that he himself had made her criticism possible. Nevertheless… "Unless you want the servants to gossip about our marriage, you're going to have to at least pretend to like me when we get to Edinburgh."

"I see no reason why," Esme replied. "There are plenty of unhappy marriages in Britain. Ours can simply be another."

"Not if we're to be invited to balls and parties and things, and we should be, so we can find out if other gentlemen are experiencing financial woes, or if that's unique to the earl."

Esme shook her head. "I rather think the opposite. A squabbling couple is sure to be an object of curiosity and if people think we'll give them something to talk about, we'll be more likely to be invited. Haven't you noticed that people are more curious about a quarrelling, bickering couple than a happy one?"

"If that's the case, the hatred you harbor for me is indeed fortunate and we stand an excellent chance of being the most popular couple in Edinburgh."

"I don't hate you, MacLachlann," Esme said with infuriating composure. "I'd have to care about you to hate you."

It was like a slap to his face, or a blow to his heart, to hear her calm dismissal of him. But he would die before he'd allow himself to show that she – or anyone - could hurt him.

"Whatever you think about me, Miss McCallan," he said just as coolly, "your brother's asked for my help and he's going to get it. It would make that task easier for us both if you would refrain from condemning me every time you speak to me. And while I don't expect you to respect me, can you not at least co-operate? If not, we should return to London."

Esme got a stubborn glint in her eye. "I am cooperating, or I wouldn't be here." She took a deep breath and smoothed down her skirts. "However, I agree that continued animosity will not be beneficial to our task. Therefore, let us begin again."

He kept his relief hidden, too, even as he wondered exactly what she meant by "beginning again."

"If I'm to supposed to be your wife, I should learn more about your family. As it is, all I know is that your father was an earl and your older brother is the heir. Have you any other siblings?"

Of all subjects, his family was the last one he ever wished to discuss. Unfortunately, she had made a point that he couldn't refute – she should know something of his family history. "I had three more brothers, Marcus who was the second oldest, then Claudius and Julius. Marcus died in the war with France, Claudius died of a fever in Canada and Julius fell from his horse and broke his neck when he was sixteen. I had a sister, but she died in infancy before I was born."

If he were looking at any other woman, her expression at that moment might indicate sympathy. However, since it was Esme, her furrowed brow probably meant she was simply memorizing the information.

"And your oldest brother's name is Augustus?"

"My father had an unfortunate love of Latin and Roman history."

"So he called his fifth son Quintus."


"A name you dislike quite intensely, to judge by that expression."

"Not just the name. I had little love for my father – and he for me."

"I'm sorry."

She actually sounded sincere.

"Don't be," he said sharply. If there was one thing he didn’t want from Esme McCallan, it was pity. He didn't miss his family. He'd always been too different from them - too spirited, too full of life to exist in their staid world of hunting and shooting, exchanging tales of fish caught, pheasants downed and stags sighted. He'd yearned for something different – life in Town, a vibrant, colorful, exciting existence. Expensive. Sensual. Seductive. "I found ample compensation as I grew older."

"With women, I suppose."

He very much doubted Esme would ever understand why a man would try to console himself in the arms of a woman, even if it provided only a fleeting moment of pleasure and forgetfulness.

He couldn't even imagine Esme naked in a man's arms, kissing him, stroking, making love with sighs and moans and whispered endearments, writhing and passionate, crying out at the moment of climax.

Actually, he could.

Which was a very disconcerting discovery.

"How old is Augustus?" she asked, startling him out of his stunned reverie.


"Which makes you…?"


She nodded thoughtfully, and he noted that she didn't seem to find it impossible that he could pass for a man fifteen years his senior.

What did it matter if she thought he looked older than he was? "His wife is twenty-seven. It's fortunate you can easily pass for that."

She didn’t seem the least bit upset by his observation.

On the other hand, maybe he shouldn't be surprised by her lack of reaction. He'd never met a woman less vain of her looks. "She was seventeen when they married," he added. "Augustus always liked his women young."

Esme didn't look nonplused by that, either. "They have no children?"

"Not yet, but if I know Augustus, it isn't for lack of trying."

A spark of interest lit Esme's hazel eyes, which gave him another shock. He'd expected her to react with prim condescension, disgusted by the mere suggestion of the physical relations between a husband and wife.

"What was in the marriage contract?" she asked eagerly. "There was one, I assume."

He should have known it wasn't the sexual nature of a relationship that excited her, but the legal. Still, it was rather interesting watching her when she was talking about the law and her hazel eyes became vibrantly, intelligently alive. He could easily envision her brain as a sort of well-oiled machine, all whirring gears and levers.

But as for any marriage settlement or contract his brother might have made…. "I have no idea. Nor do I care."

She frowned. "You should. If he dies before you and there are no children, the inheritance- "

"I won’t get a penny and the title will probably go to my cousin Freddy. I was disinherited, remember?"

Finally something dulled those shining eyes.

"I should mention that my brother prefers his women pliant and ignorant, so his wife is likely as uninformed and stupid a young woman as you're ever likely to meet."

"Oh?" Esme replied as if about to write a treatise on the MacLachlanns. "Is that a family trait?"

Once more feeling the need to be on the offensive, MacLachlann inched forward so that their knees were nearly touching. "I prefer intelligent women who know what they want and aren’t afraid to ask for it. In fact, intelligent women who are interested in the law fascinate me."

Especially if the woman regarding him had shining hazel eyes in a pretty, heart-shaped face, with full lips and soft cheeks, and her head proudly poised above a slender, yet shapely body, the proximity of which was proving more of a temptation than he ever would have expected.

An expression flashed in Esme's bright eyes, but it was gone before he could tell what it was, and the rest of her expression didn't alter. "I don't believe you."

He sat back and laughed as if she were right.

Esme gave a long-suffering sigh. "If we are to work together, you should cease attempting meaningless, flirtatious banter or trying to elicit a reaction from me. Simply convey the information I require if people are to believe you are Augustus and I am your wife.”

Despite his increasing frustration and his own resolve to remember that she hated him, suspicion was not what was being aroused.

"For instance," she briskly continued, clearly and blessedly ignorant of her effect upon him, "what did your family call you? Quinn? Quintus?"

"Several epithets I don't care to remember. Since we're going to be husband and wife, you'd better start referring to me as 'my lord' or some form of Dubhagen."

"Pretending to be husband and wife," she immediately corrected.

Of course she would want to be precise.

A different sort of expression came to those hazel orbs. Almost…mischievous.

"Dooey," she declared. "After Doo-agen," she unnecessarily clarified.

He knew how the name of his family's title and estate was pronounced.

But Dooey sounded like some sort of dim-witted beast. "You can call me Dubhagen, or my lord. If you call me anything else, I’ll ignore you – or refer to you as my little haggis."

As he expected, she didn't like that. "Very well, my lord," she grudgingly conceded. "What is your sister-in-law's name?"

This was going to be interesting. "Hortense."

Esme reared back against the squabs, then her eyes narrowed. "Is it really, or are you just saying that to upset me?"

"It really is," he honestly admitted. "However, I think it would be best if we avoided the use of first names, even in private. That way, should our ruse be discovered prematurely, nobody can say we were using their names.

"I could call you Horsey," he proposed as if seriously considering it, although her features were not at all horse-like. "Or my little plum cake."

He had called her that last Christmas to tease her, but now, when he considered how delectable she looked, it seemed rather fitting.

Good God, had he just thought of Esme McCallan as delectable?

She glared at him as if she could kill him where he slouched. "If you do, I shall call you my dearest ducky."

Eager to get his feelings back to normal, he not only took up the challenge, he upped the ante. "I could call you my sweet encumbrance."

"My darling incarceration."

He frowned and sat up straighter. "My beloved shackles."

She shifted forward, as if being nearer to him spurred her imaginative efforts. "My handsome millstone."

He told himself not to notice how pretty she looked, or think about her rosy lips, or how it would be to have her looking up at him with desire instead of annoyance. Or how his traitorous body was responding to her excitement, her appearance and her proximity. "My adorable… punishment."

"My wonderful pestilence."

"My dearest-"

"I’ve used that already!" she cried, eyes aglow and full of triumph.

There seemed only one way to snatch victory from defeat – a way that was simply too tempting to resist.

He took hold of her face with his gloved hands and kissed her right on the mouth.

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Text copyright © 2010 by Margaret Wilkins. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and TM are tradmarks of Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its affiliated companies, used under license.