"Coll—Lord Glendarril—you may say anything you wish to me. I'm certain I deserve it. But I am utterly serious when I say that I would never put dear Eloise in any—" Flashing out his right fist, Coll caught the younger man flush on the nose. Matthew staggered backward, his hands flying to his face. Blood dripped from between his fingers. Before the young Mr. Harris could regain his footing, Coll stepped forward and grabbed him by the cravat to yank him forward.
"I dunnae put much stock into words," he growled, practically lifting Matthew off his feet. "It's easy to beg forgiveness, and it's easy to swear repentance. I dunnae want to hear either of those from ye again. I am going to be watching ye, Matthew Harris. Eloise loves ye, and my mother says ye've a good heart. That is why ye've earned one—one—more chance. The next time ye think to make a wager or a purchase or any wee thing ye might nae be able to afford with what ye have in yer pockets, ye think of how yer face feels right now. And then ye think what the rest of ye will feel like when I drag you up to Scotland and feed ye to my hounds. Do ye reckon I'm serious about that?"
"Yes—yes, I do."
He let go, and the lad staggered backward. To his credit, Matthew didn't immediately retreat into the box, and he didn't swing back—though that would have been a mistake the size of a mountain. Few people had ever been able to stand toe-to-toe with Coll MacTaggert, though more than a handful had certainly tried. They had all reckoned that going through him would be the most expedient way to gain a reputation as a man not to be crossed.
Except none had ever made it through him.
"I understand, Coll," Matthew finally rasped out, his tone nasal with his nose pinched closed. He pulled a kerchief from his pocket, wiped off his face and hands, and pressed it against the bruised middle of his face. "You will never have cause to feed me to your hounds. I swear it."
Coll nodded. "See that I dunnae." He turned on his heel. "But the play?" Matthew pursued. "This is the closing night for As You Like It, and you walked out three lines into the first act. And you have...guests."
Facing him again, Coll narrowed his eyes. "I dunnae like it, and they arenae 'my' guests. I'll nae be ambushed again just because Francesca reckoned I'd nae get up and leave a second time. Ye can tell her she's wrong about that."
"I'll...tell her what you said."
Coll turned his back, then faced Matthew again. "And ye tell her I meant that last bit. I'll find my own wife. If I need her help, I'll ask for it. Now go away before ye rile me up again."
With that, he watched his almost-brother-in-law—twice over, with Matthew Harris marrying Eloise and Aden marrying Miranda Harris—scurry back through the heavy curtains. Then, before Francesca could march out and try to drag him back inside by his ear, Coll headed down the curving hallway toward the long set of stairs at the rear of the Saint Genesius Theatre. As he considered it, he should have realized Lady Aldriss had laid a trap for him; she'd agreed to join him for an evening at the theater far too easily, and without any of her usual clever, tricky conversation. His brother Aden could sort through her nonsense and machinations, but subterfuge simply annoyed Coll.
Being frustrated, though, didn't eliminate his problem. He now had twenty-seven days remaining in which to find a wife, all because when he was eleven years old, his parents had written up an agreement that their sons would wed—and that their brides would be English, damn it all—before their youngest, Eloise, married the man of her choosing. And she'd been engaged for two months, now.
Well, he was fucking tired of listening to reason, tired of trying to find common ground with delicate lasses just out of the schoolroom when he was but a month shy of his thirtieth year. He was tired of wondering if one of those hothouse flowers hovering about the ballroom would swoon, should he ask her to dance. Worse, he was tired of trying to figure out which likely-looking young thing would play pretty and agreeable, and then turn into a cold shrew who had no other goal but to wed a title and rule over the dim giant with the thick Scottish brogue.
As he wandered through the mostly empty hallways and staircases of the Saint Genesius, he considered all the lasses to whom he'd already been introduced. Some were pretty enough, a few had their wits about them, and all of them, of course, had been raised to be proper English ladies who could handily oversee a proper household.
Not a one of them, he imagined, had set foot in the Scottish Highlands. Not a one of them would know how to raise good Scots bairns in a wild and rugged land, where peril waited in the deep, still lochs and the silent, brooding forests and the endless rocky hills. God, he missed the Highlands. The idea that he had to wed to please his mother bit at him like a pack of angry badgers. But damn it all, she had hold of the purse strings.
She'd outfoxed her husband, Angus MacTaggert, Earl Aldriss, and kept all of the considerable Oswell fortune in her name and under her control. And before she'd fled the Highlands, she'd made Lord Aldriss sign that paper. That was why Coll had twenty-seven days to find a bride, or Lady Aldriss would cease funding Aldriss Park.