Lady Diana Argyle clenched her leather-gloved fists into the thick weave of the green, gold, and black tartan blanket, willing herself to have the courage of her foremothers. The women of her clan had survived several disastrous rebellions, famine, the Highland Clearances, and badly behaved men.
If they could manage it with such aplomb and spirit, Diana could certainly do the same.
Even so, leaving her sprawling, family castle by the long sea loch in the dead of a Scottish winter night had been no easy choice. The Highlands had been the only home she had ever known. She’d not once been south of Edinburgh and those bens and burns of the north ran in her blood.
And now? Now, by God, she’d taken the road south and had crossed the threshold of the most powerful city in the world.
London was the land of the Sassenachs, the oppressors, but tonight? Tonight, she prayed with all her will that one man in the labyrinth of ancient houses, warrens, and government held the key to her freedom.
She stared out the window, wishing somehow she could see the mysterious city with more clarity.
The black night was punctuated by a thick fog, making the city nigh invisible to her. Her coachman, Angus, had braved the wild roads down the country only to meet the far wilder ways of London Town.
Somehow, Angus had negotiated the tangled London roads to arrive at the address she had been given in whispered secret not so very long ago.
“We’re mad, lass,” her trusted maid breathed. “We shouldna have come.”
Nellie’s dismay at being so far south was palpable. She wasn’t a young woman and, being fairly set in her ways, it had never occurred to her that she might go south of the border one day. But. . . given the events of the last months, it had not been as hard as Diana had thought to convince her devoted maid.
“Nellie, we had no choice. And well ye ken it,” she replied with a far more steady voice than she would have thought to possess at such a time.
But her maid, who’d been with her since she was a bairn, had grown ever more agitated the deeper they’d gone into the land of the hated enemy. It mattered not that Diana had convinced her that this was the only route left open to her. Each mile might as well have been a veritable thorn in Nellie’s side.
“What hope can ye have for help from an English mon?” Nellie demanded, her mob cap shaking with her indignation. “And a laird, too.”
Diana leaned forward and peered out the coach window at the imposing edifice located on the edge of St. James’ Park. The house towered, ghostlike in the mist, over the other abodes. Golden lanterns glowed with an ethereal tint at the foot of the grand entry stairs.
Did she dare?
Of course she dared. What other choice had she?
None. Hell or worse awaited her at home and she had no other friends who might be able to aid her. Not in this.
Diana gave herself a nod. “I’m going in, Nellie.”
“Surely, he’s the devil, Lass,” Nellie rushed.
“I’ve heard things. . .”
“He canna be worse than Hamish,” Diana replied quickly, firmly though it still broke her heart.
Nellie’s mouth tightened with disappointment at the name of the young man who had once toddled at her knee. “Ye dinna ken what men are capable of.”
Diana sighed. “I’ve got a fairly good idea now.”
The sound of the horses’ bridles clinked in the night. But for that small sound there was little noise at this late hour.
Worrying her lower lip with her teeth, Diana braced herself.
Was the great duke awake? Was he even at home?
There was only one way to find out.
“Wish me luck,” she said, tilting her chin up with determination.
“Ye’ve always had it, lass,” Nellie replied gently, as encouraging as she could likely be in the circumstances.
Diana managed a rueful smile. “Not as of late.”
“’Tis no’ yer fault,” Nellie frowned. “The way of yer brother.”
That it was not. But she was a victim of his choices. Not any longer. She’d decided that a week ago when she’d stuffed her things into a traveling valise and rushed into the night.
She swept the blanket aside and reached for the gold door handle. They’d had to make do without a footman, such was their secrecy and urgency.
Nellie scooted forward on the velvet squab coach bench. “I’ll be coming with ye.”
“No, Nellie,” Diana countered. “Ye’ll be stopping in the coach.”
Nellie’s mouth dropped open. “B-but what if he’s a beast of a man?”
Diana lifted her chin, determined. “Then I’ll have to tame him, willna I?”
Nellie made a tsking sound but she did as asked. For though she was older, she’d always been in the service of an Argyle lady and she knew the nature of Diana’s fierce spirit.
Diana grabbed the handle and forced the door open. The coach step tumbled down and she leapt to the pavement, her boots thudding.
She shivered and tugged her green traveling cloak tighter about her frame. Though it was night and the mist was thick, thankfully, the air lacked the bitter bite of a Highland night. Though she wrapped her cloak about her, it was not the cold that caused her to shake.
Och, how she cursed society and the way it made women at the mercy of men’s goodwill. For she had no other course but to seek protection from a man and, now, she had to do so boldly.
She did not allow herself to glance backward for an encouraging glance from the woman who had held her hand when she’d taken her first steps, but kept her gaze trained on the massive, engraved double doors before her.
Mounting the steps, she forced herself to draw breath slowly and think on the way her mother had stood more than once against a shouting man, no sign of fear on her beautiful face.
Once she arrived before the door, she stiffened her spine, grabbed the brass knocker and thumped it forcefully. The sound of it echoed on the other side, as if there were a great cavern beyond the door.
After several painfully long moments, she heard the clatter of feet on the other side of the thick panel.
The great carved door swung open and an imperious-looking man of over fifty years peered down at her. His white eyebrows arched with surprise and his icy gaze raked her up and down, assessing.
He waited silently.
His lack of greeting surprised her and she squeezed her gloved fists beneath her cloak, girding her loins.
“I’m here to see His Grace,” she said firmly.
The butler’s brows drew together. “Do you know the hour, young woman?”
“I ken it well, sir.” She cocked her head to the side. “Do ye?”
Her response caused his white brows to shoot upward, towards his thick white mane, with shock.
“And I’m no’ a young woman,” she went on to correct him. “I’m Lady Diana Argyle.”
“You might be the Princess of all the Russes,” he drawled with really a rather remarkable disdain. “And I’d still ask you to return in the morning. His Grace is not to be disturbed.”
Her heart began to hammer in her chest as an emotion she’d only recently become familiar with filled her chest. Desperation was not a pleasant feeling. “Do ye ken I’m no’ here for a lark? This is an emergency.”
“I am not in the habit of admitting just anyone into His Grace’s home without an appointment.”
She drew herself up. “Now, listen here, ye Sassenach, I’ll be seeing His Grace.” She gave a tight nod for emphasis. ”Tonight.”
In answer, the butler shut the door.
Amazement at his rudeness rushed through her. How dare he leave her on the pavement?
She wasn’t having it. Perhaps, it was the days of travel. Perhaps, it was the sheer desperation driving her. Or perhaps, it was the absolute frustration of having her fate be determined by men. She struck out a hand and grabbed the door. She shoved back, leaving a narrow space. Then she shoved herself through it.
“I will be calling the authorities,” the butler threatened, his eyes blazing with anger at her audacity.
She smoothed the front of her cloak. “I’m sure His Grace kens all the magistrates.”
“Now, look here—”
“No,” she interrupted firmly, allowing her Highland temper to take her in hand. “Ye look here. I’m no’ here on a whim. I was given this address by my aunt and I willna be leaving until I’ve seen His Grace!”
The butler fairly recoiled at her shouting. As if completely unused to such strident tones, he raised his hands and shushed her.
“I’ll no’ be shushed,” she retorted. “If ye kent what’d befallen me, ye’d no’ be shushed yerself.”
“Lady Diana,” he began, begging now rather than instructing. “You must leave.”
She blew out a breath, turned about and spotted a beautifully brocaded bench. She flung herself upon it and folded her arms. “I willna be moved. I’ll be stopping here until ye take me to him or I see the whites of his eyes myself.”
A strangled tone of despair emanated from the older man. “You cannot be serious.”
She gave him the look she’d had ever since she was a wee lass and would not be gainsaid. Her brother had once called it the look of doom.
The butler pulled back his chin and sputtered, “This is outrageous.”
“Ye have no’ seen outrageous yet,” she corrected, hating the lengths to which she needed to extend herself, but refusing to give in now that she’d finally arrived. “Now, go wake His Grace or interrupt him in whatever it is he’s doing.”
“You don’t understand,” protested the butler, who’d gone from a pillar of disdain to one of wheedled coaxing, much like a beleaguered mother with a wayward bairn.
“I dinna ken. Ye dinna ken. We dinna ken each other,” she agreed loudly. “At least we are together on that front.”
The butler’s shoulders snapped back. “Young lady, you are an impossible person.”
“And proud I am of it at the moment.” She paused then swallowed. “Please. I’d prefer no’ to cause a scene but I will.”
The words cause a scene seemed to cause the butler to suffer a mild apoplexy.
He scrambled back across the marble floor and started for the stairs.
“Tell His Grace that Angeline Purcelle sent me,” she called after him, hoping to God those words would do the trick. Praying that her Highland will and the last words whispered to her by her aunt would save her when it seemed naught else could.