LONDON WAS DISMALLY gray with rain the day Alistair Johnstone attempted to decline his inherited earldom. It did little good for him to bother, he knew, save for Madge's sake. Yet, try he did, and had been promptly met with the unamused blinking of the solicitor. Dejected and titled, Alistair gazed out the window where puddles of mud reflected a gray sky. A dog with jutting bones rummaged with desperation and skittishness through the rubbish piled in the alleyway.
Madge always did have poor taste in lodgings.
The door slammed closed. She had returned, and yet he was not ready to face her. Outside, the miserable creature drew a piece of waste and hunkered over the prize in a protective gesture.
“Well, how did it go with the solicitor? What was it all about?” Madge's thick Scottish burr cut through the intensely silent room.
“My grandfather has passed on.” Alistair continued to watch the poor beast.
Madge scoffed. “Good riddance to that bastard. Were it no' for him, yer da and I could've been happy. He put us against one another.”
Alistair bit back a long-suffering sigh. He didn't want to hear the story of it again, not today. “I've inherited his earldom.”
Madge coughed out a wheezing laugh. Finally, Alistair put his back to the window and faced his mother. Though age and hard years had left her face creased, her hair was the same shade of luminous red that had caught his father's eye. Her cheeks were flushed with mirth and her blue eyes sparkled with it. “Ye canna be serious.” The smile wilted somewhat and she straightened her skinny frame. “Well, ye said no, aye?”
“I did. But as anticipated, I have no choice.” Alistair steeled himself between the clash of his own blood which ran in equal parts English and Scottish and said the truth of it for the first time since he'd spoken with the solicitor late that morning. “I am now the Earl of Benton.”
The blue of his mother's eyes went sharp with reproach. “One can always say no.”
“This is not one of those instances.” Alistair folded his hands behind his back and resisted the urge to let his attention go to the window once more. “Were I to say no, I would face the wrath of the king.”
“An English king,” Madge hissed. “I dinna care a fat toad what the English king wants.”
“This will be of great benefit to you,” Alistair continued, intentionally ignoring her treasonous remark. Time had taught him reprimands for such things fell on deaf ears with Madge. “It affords us the opportunity to repair Lochslin Castle, which sorely requires a great many things. Whisky smuggling doesn't provide nearly enough—”
“The whisky smuggling.” Madge snapped upright. “Ye'll still be doing it, aye?”
Somewhere down the hall, another inhabitant of the rickety inn slammed a door and stomped away. If only Alistair could be so lucky as to readily escape. Instead he drew a deep breath in the hopes of bringing in some patience with it.
“I cannot run whisky any longer, Madge. It is considered treason.”
“By the bloody English king,” she muttered.
“And I could lose my life for it.”
“So ye'll give up one of yer grandda's legacy for the other?” Her lips puckered as if she had something bitter lodged in her mouth. “Yer Scottish ancestry for yer English.”
The final threads of Alistair's tolerance were shredding under his mother's insistent refusal to listen. “I do not have a choice,” he said through clenched teeth.
“We'll see what can be done when we get back to Scotland.” Madge stopped speaking abruptly and slowly angled her face to Alistair. “Ye will be coming home to Scotland, aye?” Her tone was softer, hesitant. If he didn't know Madge so well, he might have even assumed she was frightened.
His chest drew tight. For all Madge's prickly exterior, within she was a fierce mother set on protecting her only child. And what he would say next might possibly break her heart.
“I will not be going to Scotland.”
The proud stance Madge had displayed crumpled. “The bastard has won,” she whispered. “He tried to steal ye from me when ye were but a lad. I insisted ye come home despite yer da's protest because he dinna see it. He dinna see it. But I did. That English whoreson meant to take ye from me, to sway ye to yer English side. And now he's won.”
Alistair inwardly cringed at her words. His grandfather had wanted what was best for him. In truth, those years at Eton had afforded him friendships he would have never been able to find in the wilds of Scotland at Lochslin Castle. Those would be integral in his assuming the earldom smoothly and entering the ton. “It was not a battle, Madge. He—”
“He made ye full English is what he did.” She waved a bony hand at him. “Look at ye, with yer fine English coat and yer crisp speech and yer unaffected demeanor. And in an instant ye’re an English earl, living on English soil.” She sniffled. “Ye're lost to me, son. I've lost ye.”
Alistair handed his mother his handkerchief, which she deftly pushed away. “Madge, I am still Scottish.” He gestured to his kilt with exasperation. “I proudly wear the Munro colors. I will eventually be home to assist you in overseeing the repairs to Lochslin and ensure you are well.” Outside the window, a small group of urchins circled the dog. The creature had curled in on itself with its tail tucked between its legs.
“Leave me,” Madge said with wounded vehemence. “I'll smuggle the whisky without ye. I'll repair Lochslin without ye. I'll live my life without ye.”
Alistair twisted from the window, pulled by the weight of his heavy heart. “Madge, I—”
A vase flew past his head and slammed into the wall where it shattered. Alistair jerked to the side as another article hurtled toward his face, narrowly avoiding being struck.
“Leave me.” Madge snatched up a metal cup from the bedside table and drew it back.
Alistair knew too well how her tantrums went and strode across the room at a clipped pace. He opened the door and paused. “I'll always be your son, Madge.”
He didn't know what made him say it. Some deep childhood memory for the woman who would rock him in her arms when he had night terrors, and had fought for him with the force of a lion. He was aware that in her own twisted way, this rage was driven by the fear of losing him. Madge never did deal well with hurt.
Perhaps that was why he'd taken the time to say it, risking the integrity of his face as the cup came hurtling through the air at him. He closed the door in time for the weight of the projectile to thunk solidly against it.
A scream sounded from the other side, wild and raw. It tore into his heart, but there was no reasoning with Madge. Not when she was like this. He treaded down the narrow stairs, ignoring the wobbling banister which had more possibility of upsetting one's balance than solidifying it, and remembered the dog.
He quickened his pace and exited the building to find the boys tossing rocks in the direction of the beast. It did not snarl and snap at them as others might have done. No, it merely cringed deeper into itself as if attempting to make itself disappear. Alistair was well acquainted with that feeling, one of wishing to simply become invisible.
“Get on with you,” Alistair said in a low, warning tone. “Leave the creature be.”
A boy with a mop of shaggy brown hair surveyed Alistair up and down. “We'll do what we want.” He sneered, revealing a missing front tooth, and lobbed a stone at Alistair. The bit of rock sank into the mud at Alistair's feet.
“I said get on with ye,” he snarled, the Scottish burr of his youth thickening his accent in his rage. For it was not only the boy who he was angry with, it was the injustice of the starving beast, the cowardice of children pitching stones at a defenseless animal, and it was Madge and her damned stubbornness.
The boys scowled and ran from him, scattering in multiple directions like vermin. A soft whimpering rose from the ground and a pair of liquid brown eyes gazed imploringly up at Alistair.
He reached down and patted the dog's wet, matted head. The beast nestled closer to him, desperate for affection. Alistair looked up the front of the inn to Madge's window where all had gone quiet.
At least with the beast at his side, he could help. Madge was too obstinate to listen to reason.
“Come on, then.” He made his way down the muddy street to the better part of town. A glance confirmed the dog had not moved. Alistair whistled and the creature cocked its head, the pink of its tongue protruding from the side of its mouth.
“Come on,” Alistair repeated and waved his hand.
This time the beast did not hesitate. It sprinted to him at full tilt, its muddy brown ears flapping about its head. And together, the two of them, neither one cut from the fine cloth of London society, made their way into a world that would otherwise have cast them readily aside