You want me to pretend to be your fiancée?’ The sheer absurdity of the proposition made Jennifer burst out laughing.
‘Would it be such a hardship?’ Ewan leaned forward, taking her hand in his. ‘Are you capable of clinging to my arm and throwing me a loving look or two?’
Her skin was cool against the warmth of his, but his touch was heating her rapidly. And the smouldering look in his eyes was kindling a flame at the core of her being. ‘I think I might be able to manage that.’
‘And if, for the sake of authenticity, I put my arm around your waist, and drew you just a little bit too close when we were in polite company, or while we were dancing, do you think you’ll be able to refrain from flinching?’
‘With difficulty, but yes, I think I might manage that too.’
He got to his feet, pulling her up from her chair, and slid his arms around her waist. ‘And do you think,’ he said, his voice a seductive whisper, ‘that if I happened to kiss you, for the sake of appearances, you understand, just gently on the mouth, do you think you’ll be able to kiss me back?’
Was he testing her or teasing her? He was certainly flirting with her, and she was enjoying it. A lot. ‘There’s only one way to find out,’ Jennifer said, lifting her face to his.
He did exactly what she had so brazenly suggested, and from the moment his lips touched hers, any lingering reservations were swept away. Ewan’s kiss conjured no ghosts, no grisly memories, no instinctive resistance. It was a gentle kiss, which demanded nothing. Though his arm was around her waist, it was not in restraint. She closed her eyes, stepping into his embrace, relishing the hardness of his body against hers, finding in the breadth of his shoulders and his chest a paradox of safety and danger. She wrapped her arms around his neck, opening her mouth to his kiss, and felt the sharp intake of his breath. She melted into the deepening of his kiss, her heart fluttering in response. This was what a kiss should be, she thought hazily, not wanting it to end even as he lifted his head, his eyes reflecting the heat they had both kindled.
‘That was not quite what I had intended, though it proves beyond doubt we make a convincing couple,’ Ewan said.
Reluctantly, Jennifer stepped free from his embrace. ‘Kirstin assured me that you are an honourable man.’
‘I am certainly not a man to take liberties. You can trust me not to overstep the mark.’
‘I know I can. I have the added reassurance of knowing that, since our betrothal is a conceit, I can simply walk away if I choose. A luxury not afforded me in the past.’
‘It will not come to that. Indeed, I intend that we both enjoy our temporary alliance. But before we get ahead of ourselves and before Kirstin comes back, I think it might be better for us to discuss the practicalities of our little charade in a bit more detail.’
‘And I am keen to understand why you require this little conceit in the first place.’ Jennifer rolled her eyes. ‘Such a weighty topic requires something stronger than tea, but I’m afraid that’s all I have.’
‘I’ve spent much of my adult life trading tea and made a sizable fortune in the process. Perhaps that is why I much prefer tea to strong drink.’
Not that she needed any further compelling evidence, but as far as she was concerned, this brought Ewan close to perfection. ‘Then tea it is.’
Jennifer set the pot down on the table between them. ‘Since you are a connoisseur, I’m embarrassed to be offering you this cheap dishwater.’
Ewan, whose discerning nose had detected a distinctly mouldy odour, was inclined to agree, though not at all inclined to say so. Drinking inferior tea was, he reckoned, one of the lesser sacrifices this remarkable woman had made. Had her unlamented late husband not only made her life a misery but left her penniless? Even so, surely there would be relatives, kin who would take care of her? Yet whatever the offers she’d had to support her, she had chosen penury. Which said a great deal, he surmised, about the nature of the offers.
‘What is it?’ Jennifer’s brow was raised in enquiry, and he realised he’d been staring.
‘I was just thinking that I admire your fortitude,’ Ewan said, opting for the truth. ‘Independence is difficult enough for a man to achieve, let alone a woman.’
‘I am not sure how long I can sustain even this modicum of independence. I was not raised to earn my corn, but needs must.’ She grimaced. ‘We seem to have strayed from the subject in hand. Why do you need a fictitious engagement?’
‘The answer is prosaic—to avoid a real one. Which, when I put it like that, sounds very caddish.’
‘That depends on the nature of the betrothal you are trying to avoid.’
‘The type that every Marquis of Glenkin has made, and all of the gentry in Argyll—it’s the tradition in those parts. I have always known I’d inherit the estates at some point, always known that I’d have to modify the life I’ve chosen for the one I was born to lead, but I did not expect it all to happen so soon. My father was killed in a hunting accident, you see. He was in the prime of life.’
‘I’m so sorry, that must have been a terrible shock.’
‘Aye, that it was.’ Ewan rubbed his jaw, frowning. ‘But as a consequence I’ve had to hand over all my business dealings to my agent in order to get to grips with my family’s vast estates. I miss it already. The travel. Striking deals. Meeting new people, visiting new places.’
‘Won’t you be able to strike a balance in the future?’
‘That is certainly what I plan. One of the reasons I’m not yet ready to settle down and marry.’
‘But that is what is expected of you now that you are the marquis? So what is this ancient wedding rite?’
He laughed ruefully. ‘There is a grand ceilidh held once a year attended by all the gentry in Argyll. The eldest marriageable daughters from each family are introduced to the eldest unmarried sons, and they are duly paired up.’
‘As courtship rituals go, that is positively barbaric. Are the numbers always evenly matched? Lord, what if one poor lass was left—no, that is muddled thinking,’ Jennifer said, frowning deeply, ‘for at least then she’d have avoided an unwanted and potentially unhappy match.’
‘The method is unusual, but it seems to have worked well enough for generations.’
‘You may think so, but no-one knows the truth of what goes on inside a marriage,’ Jennifer said darkly.
‘I’m in no rush to find out,’ Ewan said, ‘So it would be extremely convenient if I were able to attend the ceilidh already engaged.’
‘Thus avoiding causing offence by rebuffing all blandishments, which, since you would undoubtedly be the prize catch, would be both numerous and persistent.’
‘Exactly. And it is you who will get me off the hook.’
‘And in return I’ll have a whole month far from here to reassess my situation. My husband is dead, and as far as I am concerned, my family may as well be. They abandoned me to my fate and I have no wish to endure their crocodile tears. So you see, you are actually doing me a great favour, Ewan.’ She quirked a smile at him. ‘And if it turns out that I need protecting from you, I’ll set Kirstin on you.’
‘Ah yes, your new maid.’
‘And my one true friend.’
‘You don’t really fear you’ll need protecting from me?’
Was she crazy to trust her instincts? He was a complete stranger, after all. Jennifer studied him. It was obvious from his expression that her answer mattered a great deal to him, and that told its own story. She pressed his hand. ‘Ewan, if I thought that for a second, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion, I promise you.’
‘Truly, it is I who should be thanking you for this opportunity. And I should thank Kirstin too, for putting me forward. Which reminds me, she’s an obvious candidate—why did you not ask her instead of me?’
‘She’s a lovely lass, but I’ve never had any desire whatsoever to kiss her. I doubt we could convince anyone we were besotted.’
‘While you and I…’
‘Can have fun trying.’ Ewan’s smile set her pulses racing. ‘If you are willing?’
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