Bonus chapter: HOW TO MARRY A ROYAL HIGHLANDER (Renegade Royals book 4)
This scene takes place during the wedding reception for Evelyn Whitney and Captain Wolf Endicott, the heroine and hero of HOW TO PLAN A WEDDING FOR A ROYAL SPY (Renegade Royals book 3).
From the secluded window alcove, Edie Whitney studied the man who’d become her nemesis the moment she’d met him. Even in a room full of powerful and wealthy men, Captain Alasdair Gilbride, formerly of the Black Watch, commanded attention. And, as Edie knew all too well, he could do so simply by being himself—big, handsome, and charming, with a smile that could knock an unsuspecting female flat at twenty paces.
Not that Gilbride suffered from false modesty. True, he didn’t boast or preen or make a cake of himself, but he knew very well what a prime catch he was on the marriage mart. If he didn’t, the legions of women who flirted so shamelessly with him would clear up any such misconceptions. And the good captain clearly liked to flirt back with the ladies who flitted around him like brightly colored, exceedingly determined butterflies.
Except for Edie. She never flitted, and Gilbride never flirted with her. Instead, he teased, argued, or laughed at her, as if he found her the most amusing thing on the planet, and not in a good way. Edie had told herself more than once that what he thought of her didn’t matter. She would have had a good chance of convincing herself, if not for the unfortunate fact that her twin sister’s new husband was Gilbride’s best friend. That meant they spent an inordinate amount of time together, whether Edie wanted to or not.
A moment later, her twin bustled across the crowded drawing room to join her, looking resplendent in her beautiful and very expensive wedding gown. Edie knew just how expensive because she’d been there when Evelyn first tried it on. It had been one of the sweetest moments of Edie’s life. Her sister had finally found the happiness she so richly deserved, with the man she’d loved since childhood. Captain Wolf Endicott had, at long last, come home from war to claim his bride.
Sad to say, that life would mostly be lived on the Continent, since Wolf was taking up a career in the diplomatic corps. Edie was determined to be thrilled for them as they embarked on their new adventures. But the truth was, she struggled with a nasty case of something that felt close to panic. As much as she wished nothing but joy for her sister, she hated the idea that Evelyn would soon be mostly gone from her life. They’d been inseparable since birth, and the idea of life without her twin, sharing her every thought and every emotion, was too gruesome to contemplate.
The only time Edie could truly forget her gloom was when she fell into yet another ridiculous dispute with Alasdair Gilbride—something that happened with alarming frequency. And if that was the only thing standing between her and a permanently melancholic frame of mind, she might as well throw herself into the Serpentine poste haste.
“Darling, why are you lurking in this drafty alcove?” Evelyn asked, affectionately scolding her. “You’ll catch a chill if you don’t come away from that window.”
Edie rolled her eyes. “I never get sick, and you know it. Besides, it’s hot as blazes in this confounded room, which isn’t surprising since we’re stacked on top of each other like cords of wood. Mamma seems to have invited half of London. I thought Papa would have a fit when she finally showed him the guest list last week.”
The sisters gazed around the lavishly decorated room. Huge arrangements of flowers covered almost every surface, and light blazed from chandeliers and branches of candles. Their ancestral family home rarely looked as beautiful—or as crowded—as it did today.
“It is quite a crush, isn’t it?” Evelyn said, sounding a tad guilty. “I suppose it’s rather over the top, when one thinks about it.”
Edie linked an arm with her sister. “You can’t fool me. You’re having the time of your life, as you should. No two people fought harder to find happiness than you and Wolf.”
Behind the lenses of her spectacles, Evelyn’s blue eyes grew soft and misty as they fastened on her husband, looking outrageously handsome in his regimentals. “I know it sounds silly, but it’s actually rather overwhelming, I didn’t think I would make it through the ceremony without bursting into tears.”
“Pet, I hate to tell you this, but I could hear you sniffling from the front row.”
Evelyn gave her a sheepish grin. “Oh, dear, how inelegant of me. Mamma must have been appalled at such a lapse in manners.”
They both glanced over at their mother, who was fluttering around Wolf’s father, the Duke of York, like a deranged moth.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Edie said dryly. “Mamma is delirious with joy that she has a member of the royal family staying at Maywood Manor. You could probably set the buffet table on fire and she wouldn’t mind.”
Her twin huffed out a laugh. “I wouldn’t go quite that far.”
Evelyn’s relationship with their mother had always been fraught. Unlike Edie, who was the proverbial apple of her mother’s eye, Evelyn had always drawn Mamma’s unjustified ire. It was lovely to see the two of them getting along, for once.
Edie squeezed her hand. “It doesn’t really matter what Mamma thinks anyway. What matters is that you’re happy.”
Her sister peeked again at her husband, deep in conversation with a guest on the other side of the room. Evelyn’s eyes shone with a love that Edie could only imagine. For a moment, she felt a stab of something that felt too much like fear—fear that she would never know the joy of loving a man so deeply, and seeing that love reflected in return. At her age, she was perilously close to being on the shelf and had yet to experience anything remotely close to that sort of emotion.
Edie ignored the mocking voice in her head that begged to differ, and concentrated on her sister.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real that it all worked out,” Evelyn confessed. “Wolf and I are finally together, and our parents actually approve of him. It’s so monumental that I think I’m going to pop with happiness.”
“Ugh. That sounds painful,” Edie said. “You’d better not do that before your wedding night, or I imagine Wolf will be quite annoyed. The poor fellow’s been waiting weeks for the grand occasion, rather like a puppy dog with his tongue hanging out.”
Evelyn’s eyes rounded, then she burst into laughter. “Don’t worry,” she said, when she finally got her giggles under control, “I know exactly how to take care of my husband, I assure you.”
Edie regarded her twin with a jaded eye. “Apparently, you do, since you are entirely lacking in the appropriate display of nerves that one would expect from a gently bred spinster on her wedding night. Which would confirm what I’ve suspected all along—that you and Wolf have already engaged in, er, nocturnal activities.”
Her twin’s cheeks colored a bright pink. “And not just at night,” she blurted out. Then she clapped a hand over her mouth.
This time, it was Edie’s turn to laugh. “I knew it, you wretch. And how beastly of you not to share the details with me.”
“Well, normally I would, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Except to say that it’s lovely.” Her twin breathed out an entirely satisfied sigh that suggested just how lovely those encounters had been.
Edie snorted. “I should expect so, given the way you dissolve into a puddle every time your husband walks into the room. I’m happy for you, dearest, but I must admit to being a tad envious, too.”
Oh, dear. She hadn’t intended for that to slip out.
Her twin pounced on the admission. “Well, you needn’t be, old girl. You have dozens of swains panting after you on a regular basis. I count at least ten in this room right now.”
“And I suspect I wouldn’t want to do the things with them that you do with Wolf.” Edie gave an exaggerated shudder. “In fact, the very notion makes me rather queasy, to tell you the truth.”
“It won’t when it’s the right person.” Evelyn pointedly looked in the direction of a group of men clustered around one of the drinks trolleys—a group that included Gilbride.
Edie forced herself to look, too. At this distance and with her poor eyesight, Gilbride looked rather fuzzy around the edges—which was a shame because she knew he was spectacular in his kilted Black Watch uniform. But she didn’t need her sister’s spectacles to pick him out, since he topped the other men by several inches and his brawny shoulders would be recognizable from across a parade ground. He was so formidably masculine that it made Edie go weak in the knees just looking at him, even if he was fuzzy around the edges.
She’d often imagined how he looked too, particularly when she was alone in her bed late at night. The very fact that she couldn’t seem to stop thinking about Gilbride, almost to the point of obsession, was becoming an extreme nuisance.
Especially given his treatment of her. Since Edie’s suitors generally thought of her as charming and funny and beautiful—if occasionally infuriating—she couldn’t help taking offense at Gilbride’s apparent disregard for her womanly attributes, for lack of a better term.
“Well, old girl, what about it?” Evelyn asked, arching her eyebrows. “Do you think you’d feel queasy if you kissed Alasdair?”
“The only thing I feel when I look at that Scottish oaf is irritation,” Edie said in a tart voice. “I cannot believe you would think such a thing possible.”
Evelyn studied her for a few moments, then shrugged. “Sorry, I thought you and Alec were on better terms these days. I do hope you eventually forgive him for spying on us and telling so many whoppers. He really didn’t have much choice, you know.”
“You weren’t exactly skipping for joy when you found out, as I recall.” Both Gilbride and Wolf had been spying on them, under orders from the prime minister and the Duke of York.
Evelyn grimaced. “Don’t remind me. But you must admit they did save the day.”
“Yes, I know.” Edie sighed. “And I’m eternally grateful that they saved your life. Both Wolf and Gilbride are well deserving of their accolades.” She gave her sister a flourishing bow. “All hail the conquering heroes.”
Evelyn lifted a quizzical brow. “Then what still bothers you, dear heart? About Gilbride, I mean.”
“I suppose it was the way he tricked us, especially me,” she finally admitted. “Playing the dolt with that ridiculously thick brogue. It’s like he expected us to all fall for it like a pack of idiots.”
“Some of us did,” her sister replied.
“Yes, I fell for it. You, however, figured out that there was more to Gilbride than appearance suggested.” Edie shook her head with disgust. “It’s humiliating that you had to tell me.”
In fact, Edie had been dismayed that she’d been attracted to a man who was so thickheaded. When she discovered Gilbride was nothing of the sort, she’d been both dismayed and infuriated. It made absolutely no sense. One would think she’d be pleased that the most handsome and charming man in London was not, in fact, a dimwit, but intelligent, resourceful, and brave.
“I wonder what kept you from seeing that?” her twin mused.
Edie gave a casual shrug. “I suppose I didn’t care enough to really find out.”
“Liar. You know very well that—”
“Oh, dear,” Edie interrupted with a concerned frown. “Do you think Mamma is annoying Wolf’s father? She’s been fluttering around him for ages. That can’t be good.”
Evelyn blinked, then peered across the room at her royal father-in-law. “He is looking rather testy, isn’t he? I suppose I’d better do something about that. Mamma would be crushed if the duke snapped at her.” She gave Edie a quick hug. “Now, please stop hiding away, dearest. It’s a splendid party, and you should be enjoying yourself.”
“I promise to have a good time even if it kills me,” Edie said, crossing her heart.
Her twin rolled her eyes and rushed off, and Edie let her gaze start drifting again. Not that she could see all that much, since their best drawing room was very large. But she could see enough to know that Gilbride was no longer where he’d been a few minutes ago. He’d probably wandered off to flirt with some gaggle of adoring—
“Good God, why are you hiding in this stuffy little hole?” came a deep, Scottish burr from behind her. “One would think you were the spy, not me.”
Edie practically leaped out of her silk evening slippers. She spun around, scowling up at the brawny Highlander who was regarding her with predictable amusement in his glittering gray eyes.
“Well, speak of the devil,” she muttered.
His dark brows went up in a slow, interested arch as he studied her. “Were you? Do tell, Miss Whitney.”
“Never mind,” she said grumpily.
He let out a low, rumbling laugh that seemed to wrap around her like the softest of Scottish plaids. God help her, she even had to repress a shiver.
“So that’s why my ears were burning,” he said. “You and your sister were talking about me.”
She half-turned her back on him. “As if we don’t have better things to do than talk about an oversized oaf.”
“Ah, that’s better. I was beginning to worry about you.”
Edie glanced over her shoulder at him, surprised at his thoughtful tone. “What do you mean?”
“It’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? You and Evelyn are as thick as thieves, and I suspect you’re feeling a wee bit anxious about what life will be like without her.”
She stared up into his handsome face, taking in his uncharacteristically serious expression. The sympathy she saw in his gaze made her throat go tight, and she had to look away again. Blast him, how had he figured it out when nobody else had? She hated the idea that he might think she was jealous of her own twin, or afraid of being alone.
Damn him to hell for reading her so easily.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, forcing out a careless laugh. “I’m thrilled for Evie and Wolf. And I expect life will go on as it always has—parties, balls, reading, shopping, trips to the country—“
“And men throwing themselves at your feet like witless fools,” he finished sardonically.
Edie cast him an irritated glance. “Except for you, of course. You’re much too busy flirting with all the women throwing themselves at your feet.”
Something flickered in his gaze. “I do no such thing,” he finally replied in a mild voice. “Besides, I had no idea that you wished me to, er, throw myself at your feet. Not that the notion doesn’t have a certain appeal.”
A certain appeal? How flattering.
“Don’t strain what little brain you have on my behalf,” she said. “And of course you’re a flirt. The most dreadful one I’ve ever known.”
He snorted. “After yourself, of course. You could teach classes in how to lead men around by the nose. Miss Eden Whitney’s Academy for Turning Gentlemen into Morons.”
Scowling, she whipped up a hand and pointed her finger at his face. “Now, you listen to me, Captain Alasdair Gilbride—”
When he gently curled his hand around her fingers, engulfing them in his big fist, Edie’s words died on her lips.
“Ah, lass, you know I was just teasing, fool that I am,” he said in a husky voice laced with an enticing hint of brogue. “Can we not cry peace on your sister’s wedding day? Just this once?”
Then he smiled at her, and Edie’s heart skipped like a stone across a pond. With the part of her brain that could still function, she noted that the floor seemed to be collapsing under her feet, as if a slow, deliberate earthquake rumbled up from the center of the earth.
Gilbride had an arsenal of smiles in his repertoire, each more charming than the next. The ones he reserved for her were usually mocking, but this one dazzled with genuine emotion and seductive masculine warmth. And something even more alluring—something that turned her world upside down and made her forget everything but him.
Good Lord, she could barely remember her own name when he looked at her like that.
“Och, you’re a bonny lass, and that’s a fact,” he murmured, his brogue thick and dark.
She stared at him, unable to force a word from her throat. Even though she had to tilt her head back to meet his gaze, Edie felt like she was falling. Her perspective—everything—suddenly seemed turned on its head.
It was an absolutely terrifying sensation.
“Don’t flirt,” she finally managed to whisper.
His gaze flickered down to her bosom, then back to her face. “I’m not,” he whispered back.
When his hand tightened on hers and he pulled her closer, sanity returned in a rush. Good God, he was flirting with her, and in front of a room full of people, including her parents. How utterly vulgar of both of them. She’d almost fallen for it, too, just like all the other foolish women who’d tumbled at his oversized feet.
Edie jerked her hand away. “And for heaven’s sake, please spare me that ridiculous brogue and your thick-headed Highlander routine. I swear it makes me want to do something desperate.”
He studied her for a few moments before letting out a soft, mocking laugh. “You and me both, Miss Whitney, I assure you.”
“What in Hades do you mean by that remark?” she asked. “I swear, you’ll drive me demented one of these days.”
“Again, let me just say that pot is calling kettle black.”
Edie started to turn on her heel. “So much for calling a truce. If you’re just going to poke fun at me—”
He gently reeled her back in. Edie reluctantly allowed it, mostly because she didn’t want to cause a scene. It was a nice bit of sophistry that even she didn’t believe.
“I do want to call a truce,” he said. “And I’m sorry if I insulted you. I didn’t mean to. Truly.”
She narrowed her gaze, ignoring the thumping of her heart. “Oh, very well. I suppose you can’t help it. I must say, for a spy you certainly can make a hash of things.”
“Don’t I know it,” he said.
She crossed her arms under her chest and started to tap her foot. When his gaze again fastened on her breasts, she hastily dropped her arms to her side.
“Have I told you that you’re looking very fetching this evening?” That slow, seductive smile once more curved up the corners of his mouth. “As lovely as the bride.”
“Well, we are identical twins,” she replied, trying to be practical as she ignored a silly flutter of pleasure. “Honestly, sir, you have to do better if you’re truly intent on flirting with me.”
He clapped a hand to his chest, pulling a sad face. “You wound me, Miss Whitney, you do.”
“I doubt it. But if you’re just going to stand there and spout nonsense, you’ll have to excuse me. We’ve been alone in this alcove long enough.”
His eyebrows arched. “Are you afraid the other guests will start gossiping?”
“Yes,” she said bluntly. That would be most unfortunate, because there would be little, if any, truth to the no-doubt lurid talk. Alasdair Gilbride was no more serious about her than she was about him.
Except she was beginning to think she was serious about him. Very serious, and that was very awful.
“And would you mind if they did?” he asked in a curiously reserved tone.
“Well, of course I would mind. It’s generally considered a bad thing for a single young woman to be the subject of salacious gossip. Or did they not teach you that in the Highlands?”
He smiled. “Oh, you’d be surprised what they teach you in the Highlands.”
“Do tell. I’m all-ears,” she said with a sugary-sweet smile.
“Perhaps another time.” He flicked a glance over her shoulder, as if checking to see if anyone could overhear. As far as Edie was concerned, it was a little late for that.
“Actually, I do need to speak to you about something,” Gilbride said.
He’d gone back to being serious again. Lord, he was beginning to make her heard whirl. Cautiously, Edie gave him a nod.
“In private,” he said. “Without fear of being disturbed.”
She stared up at him, disconcerted. His request bordered on the scandalous, if not the positively indecent. What was the confounded man up to now?
“Whatever for?” she blurted out, unable to keep suspicion from coloring her voice. “So you can tell me I’m a bonny lass again?”
His gaze went as cold as the North Sea. “No, because I need to talk to you, you daft woman. And you’ve made it abundantly clear that you have no interest in flirting with me, as you call it, so I won’t waste my bloody time.”
On you. Edie heard it in his voice, plain as day.
He realized his mistake a moment later. “Dammit, Edie, I didn’t mean—”
“Get out of my way, you lummox,” she managed as she shoved past him.
As she stalked across the room, blinking back the hot sting of tears, Edie made a solemn vow to never, ever be a fool again—especially when it came to Captain Alasdair bloody Gilbride.