In the Heart of the Highlander

Ladies Unlaced, Book 2

Ever since Mary Evensong’s elderly Aunt Mim got sick, Mary’s masqueraded as the owner of the Evensong Agency, finding housemaids, husbands and solving pesky problems for the peerage. Someday she’d like to shake off her silvery wig and spectacles and be the young woman she truly is. But desperate clients are waiting for “Mrs. Evensong” at the office.

Like a scandalous Scottish baron. Honor forbids Lord Alec Raeburn from explaining the suspicious circumstances surrounding his wife’s death, but he knows who’s responsible. He just needs to hire an actress to lure the scoundrel into a trap.

After listening to Raeburn’s story—and seeing him in his kilt—Mary knows the perfect person.

Letting her red hair down, she heads off to the Scottish Highlands to pose as a seductress, but soon finds herself with more than her virtue at stake in a tug-of-war between two powerful men. She could wind up in danger—or in the heart of the highlander.

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ISBN-13: 9780425265802 • ISBN-10: 0425265803

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Chapter One

Mount Street, London, May 31, 1904

Mary Evensong was tired. Tired of wearing smoke-gray spectacles that covered her hazel eyes. Tired of wearing an itchy gray wig that covered her russet hair. Tired of the problems that came in by the sackloads every time the mailman rang her doorbell.

And most especially tired of her Aunt Mim, who was the original Mary Evensong and refused to stay retired.

Every day when Mary locked up the Evensong Agency offices and trudged upstairs to the elegant apartments above, she had to face Aunt Mim’s questions and Aunt Mim’s gouty foot. It was the gouty foot that had been both their undoing. Mim had been running her employment agency and people’s lives since 1888, after a successful career as housekeeper to a duke. Instead of relaxing in the handsome cottage the duke provided once she turned fifty-five after forty years of exceptional service to the family, Mim Evensong sold it, took her savings and set up her business in London. She knew what great—and not so great—houses needed in the way of reliable servants.

She also knew what flighty young society girls needed—she’d had experience helping to marry off the duke’s five difficult daughters, and had sat up with the girls more nights than she could count discussing the vagaries of young gentlemen. Her cleanliness, canniness and commonsense made her uniquely qualified to solve various domestic disasters.

But one morning in 1900, just in time to herald in the new millennium, her big toe began to throb. Soon the other toes joined it. Her ankle too. Now it was with the greatest difficulty that she rose from her chair and hobbled to the window to watch the traffic on Mount Street. There was no thinking of her going downstairs to her thriving business to interview footmen or meet with a mama in her private office to discuss her daughter’s slide into scandal with an impoverished musician who insisted on playing ragtime instead of Richard Straus.

So four years ago, Mim had invited her namesake niece Mary to make her home with her and learn the ropes of the Evensong Agency. Mary was a spinster, just as Mim was—the ‘Mrs.’ was an honorific that had been granted to her as the duke’s housekeeper as she rose up the ranks.

Mary really had nothing better to do—both her parents were dead, her brother married and running their grocery shop. She faced a dismal future keying the cash register and unpaid babysitting for her hellacious little nephews.

Mary was a sensible young woman, and looked forward to a new life in London, without frogs in her bed and the constant chatter of her bossy sister-in-law at home. She would not miss the scents of over-ripe melon and problematic sausages at work, and hung up her spotless apron there with no regrets.

It was only when she arrived in Town that Mim’s plan for her looked less than sterling. Mim was harboring the fond delusion that one day her foot would miraculously reduce in size and she could return to the massive mahogany desk in her corner office. The fact that she was in her seventies did not dissuade her from feeling the company could not function without her and her vaunted wisdom. It was imperative to continue its lucrative services, and imperative that her clients trust the dispenser of those services as they had these dozen years.

Young Mary did not look especially wise. True, she had a broad forehead and shrewd hazel eyes, but her hair was reddish and some people thought redheads were unbalanced. She was short of stature, too, though Aunt Mim was of a similar height and her lack of inches had never stopped her from being terrifying when the situation called for it. If the agency was to carry on and prosper, a disguise was necessary. Thus Mary was bewigged and bespectacled—just temporarily, Mim assured her, until she could get back on her feet, so to speak. No one would really look at her—older women in large black hats were a dime a dozen, nearly invisible in their ancient ubiquity, so Mary should have no fear of discovery.

An army of doctors had been discreetly consulted, and Mim was no closer to waltzing than she was before they mounted Mount Street’s steps. And poor Mary never got a chance to waltz at all—she was too busy pretending to be an elderly woman, and growing into the part more perfectly every day.

Something must be done.

But not today. Today was…taken.

There was a rap on the frosted glass of her office door, and her secretary Oliver Palmer poked his head in. “Lord Raeburn is here to see you, Mrs. Evensong.”

Oliver was a handsome young man with impeccable manners. He made an excellent impression at the reception desk, and was totally discreet. If he suspected Mary was not exactly who she purported to be, he never gave any indication of it. He had secrets of his own.

Oliver had been frank about his unfortunate situation—and hungry—when Mary interviewed him. Flat broke, he’d come about another job, but Mary claimed him for her own and he was now invaluable to her. Oliver’s finger was firmly on the pulse of all society gossip. It was he who’d provided the newspaper clippings about Lord Raeburn, not that she’d needed reminding. She remembered the grainy scowling photographs on the front pages.

Accident, though there had been invisible quotation marks on the word. Open window. Insufficient evidence.

“Oh, dear. Do I look all right?” Mary could have bitten her tongue. She’d never asked Oliver such a thing no matter how noble her clients were, and he gave her an odd look. Lord Raeburn was only a baron, after all. And after what happened in Scotland, no decent woman should even give his good opinion a second thought.

“Very handsome, as always, Mrs. Evensong. Your hat is very becoming.”

It was perhaps ridiculous to always wear her hat indoors, but with judicious pinning, it kept her wig on straight. “Send him in. We’ll need a tea tray.”

“If I were you, Mrs. E., I’d offer the fellow a whiskey.”

“I’m sure you’re right. See to it, would you, Oliver?” There was single-malt whiskey in a cabinet somewhere. The Evensong Agency always had everything at hand and in hand. In the past four years, Mary Evensong had found husbands for heiresses, valets for viscounts, and even a dairymaid for a marquess who kept a Hertford cow in his kitchen much to the consternation of his cook. The agency was famous for achieving the unusual—in fact, her aunt had hit upon “Performing the Impossible before Breakfast since 1888” as its motto.

Some members of the peerage, like that marquess, were known for their eccentricity. Lord Alec Raeburn was not one of them. What he was known for caused Mary’s heart to beat a little faster.

If he had a simple staffing problem, he would never have bothered to come himself. So the nature of his visit must be personal. She doubted he was looking for a new wife—his old one had not been dead a year, and the scandal surrounding her death would take much longer to die down. Mary was not naïve enough to think he was celibate after all the rumors, but surely it was too soon to seek her matchmaking services.

Mary cleared her throat and drummed her gloved fingers on her desk. Her hands were nowhere near as wrinkled as they should be, so she wore her gloves at all times too. And right now, her palms were damp with perspiration.

The clacking of the typewriter keys ceased in the outer office. Her girl stenographers were no doubt swooning—discreetly, she hoped—as Lord Raeburn made his way to her inner sanctum. It was with the greatest difficulty that Mary stopped herself from swooning along with them as Oliver opened the door to announce Lord Raeburn.

As if one wouldn’t notice the man. A woman would have to be blind or dead not to respond to the man’s physical presence.

For one thing, he was more or less a giant, but in the best possible way. Mary had been to a fair once that advertised ‘the tallest man in Britain,’ but the poor fellow had been the ugliest man in Britain as well. Lord Raeburn was not ugly, except perhaps for his attire. He wore a walking kilt in his family’s tartan, an unfortunate combination of yellow and black that reminded Mary of angry bees. But his black jacket molded his massive shoulders and matched his longish hair and neatly-trimmed beard. Mary was not at all fond of beards, but somehow she didn’t think Lord Raeburn was hiding a weak chin. His eyes looked black as well, giving her and her office intense scrutiny while she stumbled to her feet and extended a hand.

“Good afternoon, Lord Raeburn,” she said briskly, hoping she could trick herself into feeling as confident as she sounded. “Won’t you sit down? Oliver, bring us in the refreshments we discussed, please.” She needed a stiff drink herself—she was feeling like a giddy schoolgirl. He was gorgeous. No wonder women fell at his feet.

And out his windows.

Lord Raeburn tucked himself into one of the leather client chairs. It was a very tight fit. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I’m bound for home in a few days, and I have to know I have your help before I go.”

“What can the Evensong Agency do for you, my lord?”

“I’m not sure you can do anything. But I’d like you to try. I won’t beat about the bush. Do you think I murdered my wife?”

Mary took a quick breath, then stalled for time with a question of her own. “Does it matter what I think?”

“It might. If you just take my money and pay me lip service, there’s no point in me hiring you now, is there? We Scots don’t like to waste our time. Or our gold.”

Her spine stiffened. “I can assure you the Evensong Agency does not take on clients merely to humor them and pad out account books. If we can perform a legitimate service, we do our utmost to fulfill our obligations.”

“So you won’t say if I’m a killer or not.”

“I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently acquainted with the particulars of the case,” Mary lied. Oliver kept scrapbooks filled with the most interesting articles under his desk. Lord Raeburn had one all to himself.

Oliver chose that moment to step into the office with a silver tray. There was not only a decanter of whiskey but a pretty china teapot on it. They were silent as Oliver arranged and poured. Mary reconsidered her thirst and decided to keep her wits sharp, settling on a cup of oolong. To her surprise, Lord Raeburn did the same.

“Thank you, Oliver. That will be all.”

“I’ll be just outside if you need me, Mrs. Evensong. Just outside.”

Lord Raeburn gave Oliver a wry smile. “Don’t worry, lad, I won’t ravish your employer. I may be a blackguard in the eyes of the world, but I do have some standards.”

Well. Could the man be any more insulting? She shouldn’t be offended—she was meant to look like an old trout—but the twenty-nine year old woman beneath the black hat was inexplicably annoyed. Mary set her tea down, causing the liquid to splash on its saucer.

“Perhaps you’d better tell me why you are here.”

“I need a woman for a month.”

Mary rose to her full height—not that there was much of it—in umbrage. “We are not that sort of employment agency, Lord Raeburn. Good afternoon.”

“Oh, get off your high horse and sit down. I didn’t make myself clear. I need to hire a woman to infiltrate the guests of that new hydrotherapy spa. The Forsyth Palace Hotel. In the Highlands. Have you heard of it?”

Mary had. There had been full-page advertisements in all the London papers when it opened last year. It was built in the Scots baronial style, accommodating 200 guests and offering first-class accommodations for healthy visitors and various hydropathic treatments for those whose health was not so robust. Mary had even entertained the idea of sending her aunt there, but Aunt Mim would never leave the agency solely in Mary’s hands.

To be fair, Mary had received amazingly astute advice from her aunt—Mim was sharp as a tack, especially when it came to the trickier clients. Lord Raeburn might be joining that list, if Mary could figure out what he wanted.

“You say ‘infiltrate.’ Why do you not employ an inquiry agent? I know several reputable agencies I can recommend.”

“They’re all men, Mrs. Evensong. I need a woman to lay a trap for the doctor who runs the place. The man responsible my wife’s death.”

Mary turned her teacup, wishing she had the ability to read the dregs. “Why haven’t you gone to the authorities with your suspicions?”

“Och, what’s the point? They think I’m guilty—it’s just they don’t have enough proof. But I’ll tell you this—my wife was seduced by that piece of sh—slime. Dr. Josef Bauer,” he spat. “I have my wife’s diary. Everything’s in there. She paid him a fortune to keep it quiet.”

Mary looked across her desk at the baron. His color was still vivid through the light gray of her lenses. Judging from the expression on his face, he was in a state of controlled fury. She wouldn’t want to see him lose control. A man his size would frighten anyone with a modicum of sense. It was difficult to imagine his wife daring to be unfaithful. Surely she would know there would be consequences.

“What would you want this woman to do?”

“Pretend to be a patient. Toss around my money and attract Bauer’s attention. Get cozy with him.”

She shook her head. “As I said, we don’t employ ladies to do that kind of work.”

“She wouldn’t have to fu—uh, fornicate with him. Just catch him doing something unethical. Like trying to kill her and pass it off as an accident after she made his will over to him.”

“I doubt anyone of my job seekers would be willing to make themselves a possible murder victim, Lord Raeburn,” Mary said dryly.

“It doesn’t have to go that far, of course. If he’s accused of carrying on romantically with one of his patients, that should be enough to ruin his reputation. What husband or father would trust him to cure his wife or daughter? And anyway, I’d be there to keep your woman safe.”

Mary’s mouth dropped open a second too long. Goodness, she must look like the veriest imbecile. “You?” she asked, when she gathered her scattered wits.

“I’ve booked a suite of rooms there. I’m having some renovations done to Raeburn Court now that Edith is—gone, and the hotel is not two miles away. It’s only natural I stay close to supervise, and the hotel is the only decent place to stay in the area. The only place, period. We’re a bit isolated from the world.”

Yes, that was the spa’s attraction—unspoiled countryside. Pure air, high altitude, fresh water. Enough wildlife and waterfalls to thrill any amateur photographer. Yet there was train service to Pitcarran, a charming little town close enough for a day trip in one of the hotel’s horse-drawn wagonettes.

It seemed Mary had committed the advertisements to memory. She wondered if Oliver had saved any stories about it.

“Bauer knows me. I make him nervous,” Lord Raeburn continued. “He may slip and make a mistake.”

“He also may be on his best behavior,” Mary said. “Does he know he has you for an enemy?”

“Oh, yes.”

Mary shivered at the glitter in Lord Raeburn’s black eyes.

“Let me see if I understand this. You wish Dr. Bauer to be discovered in a compromising position with a patient, even though he knows you will be watching him.”

“The man’s ego—you are familiar with that alienist fellow Freud?—knows no bounds. He’s full of himself. I think because I will be there he’ll flaunt his indiscretions in front of me, knowing there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Who will believe anything bad I have to say about him? Me, a man who killed his wife? I have no credibility.” Lord Raeburn sat back in his chair, looking vulnerable for the first time. Mary decided she had to re-read all the newspaper accounts of Lady Edith Raeburn’s death.

“Let me think about this.”

“I don’t have time for you to dilly dally, Mrs. Evensong. If you can’t get someone to do it, I’ll have to hire some actress. I do know a few.”

Yes, Mary had heard that he did. Lord Raeburn and his wife had lived apart for most of their marriage. No wonder the poor woman sought comfort in the arms of a sympathetic Dr. Bauer.

“Why haven’t you already?”

“The girls I know—let’s just say they’re more suited to the chorus line than playing an heiress. I need someone fresh. Innocent. Someone Bauer will think he can corrupt with no consequences. From what little I know, he only debauches virgins, who are then too mortified to confess their stupidity.”

“Then why did Dr. Bauer target Lady Raeburn?” From the moment she asked the question, Mary knew she had made a mistake. She watched Lord Raeburn struggle to frame his answer.

Instead of the shout she expected, his words, when they came, were quiet. “My wife was very young when we married. Delicate. She had a disgust of the marital act. Or perhaps she just had a disgust of me. Josef Bauer somehow overcame her objections.”

Despite her relative youth, Mary Evensong was rarely surprised by anything her trickier clients had to tell her. She was surprised now. Lord Raeburn had bared his heart. His pain. Somehow she knew he’d never told the truth to anyone before.

Edith Raeburn had been a virgin. And a fool.

Mary made her decision, and hoped she wouldn’t be sorry. “I’ll do it. That is, I’ll find someone for you. When will she have to leave?”

“We wouldn’t want to arrive at the hotel together—let’s say, get your girl to come a week from Thursday. The sooner we can put a period to Bauer’s villainy, the better. Do you have someone in mind?”

“Yes,” Mary said, hoping Aunt Mim would approve of her madcap plan.

Mary wasn’t madcap—she was steady. Sensible. Responsible. Boring. But that was about to change.

She pulled out a contract and discussed terms as if she didn’t have black and yellow bees buzzing drunkenly in her head.