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A WELL FAVORED GENTLEMAN: Well Pleasured #2
Where has she been? The rumors fly throughout the countryside about Lady Alanna, the beautiful and mysterious displaced mistress of Fionnaway Manor. Now she has emerged from hiding only to find her beloved estate besieged by greedy relatives…and coveted by a darkly handsome Englishman.
Ian Fairchild knows that Fionnaway belongs to him. For years he yearned for the cherished place where he passed his childhood. He can secure his rights to the manor only through marriage with the enigmatic Alanna, but the exquisite hellion has warned him off at knifepoint. Now with skill and charm, Ian must penetrate the lady’s defenses, boldly lay claim to her body and spirit…and convince this lady her true home is in her lover’s heart.
While writing A WELL PLEASURED LADY, I had a character pop up, as they sometimes do, and demand I write his story. Ian Fairchild, A WELL FAVORED GENTLEMAN, is the most handsome of my heroes — "darkly beautiful, like sable, like a starry night, like Mephistopheles himself." He is also greedy, generous, tormented, kind, demanding and determined. Only a woman of strength, character and pure, er, bitchiness could give him what he deserved …
"She’s a witch, Mr. Ian."
A bluster of air off the sunlit sea swirled in the capes of Ian Fairchild's greatcoat as he strode toward the stables. It ruffled his hair and disarrayed his cravat.
"I’m na a man given t’ fancies, but I would be derelict in my duty if I didna tell ye some say she's an evil witch." Armstrong’s short legs scrambled to keep up with Ian’s long gait. "Her face withers the barley in the field, she’d just as soon cause a wart as cure one, and what she did t’ Kennie!"
Ian cast an diverted glance at Armstrong. "The blacksmith?"
"Aye. He threw a bit of iron at her — witches abhor iron — and she cursed him." They reached the stable yard. "And my wife claims Mrs. Kennie says he hasn’t been a true man since."
Ian understood immediately. "Got a horseshoe where his rod should be, eh?"
Sadly, Armstrong nodded his head. "Badly bent."
Ian heard shouting, and saw two boys clinging desperately to the reins of his horse. Striding forward, Ian caught the reins and looked into Tocsin’s face. "If you want a fight, pick on someone your own size. For instance, I’ll be glad to oblige you."
The horse snorted, and quieted, and both boys scrambled onto the fence.
Ian rubbed Tocsin’s nose. "You’re a beauty," he crooned, and in a swift motion mounted the horse. "Armstrong, I know how to handle a mere witch."
"I dunna doubt ye, but if ye must seek a favor from her, Mr. Ian, please promise ye’ll hie yerself back before the dark."
"What brew does she stir at night?" Ian pulled on his gloves, controlling the horse with tight-held knees.
"At night — that's when she changes her shape. She transforms from the hideous old crone int’ a bonnie woman who enslaves all men who behold her."
"She’d best keep her evil eye off my rod, or I’ll be no good to her as a slave," Ian said. "I’ve been told she’s the best healer we have at Fionnaway, so she’ll come to ease my father’s pain." With a word to Tocsin, he raced out into the summer day. In his memory, he carried explicit instructions to the witch's house. In his heart, he carried the exaltation of a man escaping a prison.
The moon had come to full and waned again since his arrival, and in that time, he had inspected every inch of Fionnaway. Leslie Fairchild had proclaimed Ian his heir. Yet now Ian dreamed of a moment away from the manor, away from the wary servants, and most of all, away from his father.
For that moment, Ian would do anything, even visit a witch.
Her hut nestled deep in the wood, with a thatched roof and drifts of moss all around. The garden sparkled with flowers, and a shed at the edge of the clearing held stacked wood and well-tended rabbit cages. Chickens pecked in the grass. A fire crackled in the fire pit outside and a rich scent wafted from the iron cauldron suspended from a rod. Stones ringed the well — a magic well, perhaps. Ian stared and wondered if he had found the wrong hut in the wrong wood.
Then the witch stepped out of the open door.
She wore dirty brown homespun. A hump deformed one shoulder and her bosom drooped over the belt that circled her thick waist. A large spoon and wickedly sharp fork hung from the rope and clanked as she walked, and the sheath beside them contained a knife of a size to gut a man. Her long hair, dry and gray, caught in the smears of green unguent on her face.
Her face. Good God, it looked like a parched meadow in a drought. Her complexion was gray, too, with furrows between her black brows and beside her red mouth and above her upper lip.
The sight of that countenance would wither a man’s rod, Ian admitted.
She didn’t seem to see him as she hobbled to the kettle. With the spoon she tasted the steaming brew, shook her head, and opened one of the leather pouches that dangled by her hip. Taking a handful, she sprinkled it into the cauldron.
Ian half-expected to see colored steam rise and form some ominous shape. Instead the odor of marjoram filled the air.
Oh, an evil, awesome witch indeed. She used herbs in her brew. Dismounting, he led his horse to a shady patch of grass. "Old woman, I have need of your services."
His presence caused her no obvious consternation. After a single sharp glance, she picked up a wooden bowl from the stool beside the firepit and filled it. With a tilt of her head, she invited him inside her home and entered, never looking to see if he followed.
He did, of course, tracking the sumptuous odor of vegetables and broth. Ducking his head beneath the door frame, he said, "The lord of Fionnaway desires succor."
"I cannot think of any man who deserves succor less," the old woman said in a creaking voice.
Ian fixed her with a stern and commanding look. The crone stared right back, neither cringing nor remorseful.
So. He could not intimidate her. "Or needs succor more."
"And why should I do as Ian Fairchild demands?" the witch asked.
So she knew who he was. "No doubt you’ve heard the rumors about me," Ian said coolly. "That’s a good reason to obey me."
"Rumors." She snorted with disdain. "Rumors." Placing the bowl on a sturdy, well-worn table, she ordered, "Eat."
He shouldn’t. But Ian had been constantly attending Leslie for the past week, catching a bite only when he could. Now the odor of food made his stomach growl. Stripping off his leather riding gloves, he placed them on the table, seated himself on the stool and picked up the spoon. Discreetly, he poked at the concoction. Stew. It looked like stew.
The witch stood in the shadows in the corner, her arms crossed over her stomach. "Eat! Eat and become my slave forever."
In a trick he’d been taught as a child, he looked toward her and blurred his vision. He could see clearly when he observed more than the physical, and he knew this woman was lying. With every breath she took, with every movement she made, she was living a lie. But more important — today, at least, she had no plans to poison him.
"If you won’t be my slave, eat for your own sake," she said. "You’ve a lean and hungry countenance, and it’s not comfortable being in the same room with a wolf."
He sampled the stew, redolent with herbs and garlic. He took another bite, and the flavor convinced him of one thing — the witch should supervise the manor house kitchen, not lurk in a hut in the woods. Fionnaway’s cuisine left much to be desired. "It’s good."
She smiled, and he wondered what spell she had cast to retain all her teeth, white, sturdy, and young. "It’s enchanted," she answered. Taking a cloth-wrapped package off the shelf above her, she tossed it to him.
Ian opened it and found a flat piece of bread. Breaking off a chunk, he dipped it in the sauce and chewed it thoughtfully. A fine, nutty flavor spread across his tongue, and he agreed, "So it is."
The witch moved to the far corner, picked up a pestle and mortar off the shelf crowded with bags, jars, and loose leaves. Holding the bowl against her stomach, she began a steady grinding of stone against stone, leaving him to eat.
When he had satisfied the keenest pangs of hunger, he pushed the bowl away and looked around the room. Climbing roses nodded into the windows. A finely carved chest stood in the middle of the far wall. A rope-and-stick bed hung in one corner, covered with luxurious furs. They provided a comfortable spot for the huge brindle cat snoring in the square of light, which opened one disinterested eye and viewed him with contempt, then stretched and fell asleep once more.
He carefully wiped his beard with his handkerchief, and wished his valet had accompanied him on this trip rather than quitting in a huff, but English servants were quite sniffy about traveling to Scotland. "You’ll come to Fionnaway with me."
With elaborate care, she placed the mortar on the shelf, then hobbled over to remove the bowl from the table. "What do you want me to do about Mr. Fairchild?"
"I want you to ease his suffering."
"Do you not want me to cure him?" She fixed him with the unblinking stare of the peregrine falcon.
"If you can, but the hand of God is heavy on his neck — "
"The hand of the devil, more likely." The witch touched her mouth as if she regretted her outburst, then her hand fell away. "Do you know what St. Peter will do to Mr. Fairchild when he sees him?"
Ian suspected he did, but he could scarcely believe the witch had the brass to tell him.
"He’ll open the trapdoor and drop him straight into hell." She struck her chest with her fist. "I recognize your father as one of Beelzebub’s demons, because I’m evil, right to the bone."
"I’m quaking in my linens."
"You’d better be." Then she realized he ridiculed her, and in an ominous tone, she asked, "Have you heard what I did to the blacksmith?"
"Kennie the Eel?"
She thrust her head forward and rubbed her palms together. "They used to call him Kennie the Goat."
"I’ve heard the tale." He lounged in an attitude of abject boredom. "Is that the worst you can do?"
"I can wither your man-parts so small you have to tie them in red yarn to find them!"
He couldn’t help it; he laughed. "You’ll be a welcome entertainment when you come to the manor." She’d been too spoiled, this evil witch, by men groveling in fear of their virility. He’d take his chances against her sorcery, and enforce his will as the lord. "You will come to the manor."
The old woman clasped her hands under the long sleeves of her gown. She didn’t want to obey him. Neither did she want to fight him. Witch or no witch, withered love-apples or not, she would lose. "Aye," she said grumpily. "I will. But why seek help now? He’s been ill since your arrival, and before."
"Yes, but now he screams and sees things that aren’t there — and he’s afraid."
Shuffling to the stalks of dried herbs hanging from the rafters, she grasped one and yanked, and dried leaves showered her. Crushing a little in her palm, she sniffed it thoughtfully. "Should old Mr. Fairchild die, you think you’ll be the new laird."
"I will be the new lord." He fought the base desire, but it burrowed beneath his skin and teased the edges of his mind. He wished his father dead. He wished for the day when he would be free of the taunting, the cruelty, the lacerations of the soul Leslie so skillful applied. And then … ah, then, Fionnaway would be his.
As if she read his thoughts, the witch asked, "What about the good and sweet Lady Alanna?"
Some grievous emotion vibrated in the old crone’s voice, a personal interest he couldn't place. It gave him an advantage, for after all, a man such as Ian
sharpened all his senses in pursuit of nothing more than a continued existence. "Lady Alanna?" He studied his fingernails. "She doesn’t matter."
"Doesn’t she?" The witch’s peculiar anxiety increased. "But don’t the farmers talk about her? Haven’t the fishermen spoke to you of her? Haven’t the servants told you stories about her, and all with tears in their eyes?"
She was right. The people of Fionnaway wished for, hoped for the return of the mistress. It was as if they hoped that telling their tales would bring her back. Worse, they acted as if he could bring her back. As if he could right injustice. He, Ian, bred half a Fairchild and tainted with that ancestry.
"Didn’t you see her ghost?" the old woman whispered.
Slowly, he lifted his gaze to hers. Alanna’s ghost? No, he’d not seen her ghost. He’d seen her. He had the scar on his throat to prove it. She had been in his bedroom, taunted him, threatened him, been willing to kill him … and why? Because she wanted her heritage back. Ian didn’t know where Lady Alanna hid. He only knew she was a threat to him, and to these lands that filled the desolation of his soul.
The witch read his thoughts, and echoed them with uncanny precision. "Lady Alanna is alive."