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Authors: Lecia Cornwall

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BOOK: Once Upon a Highland Autumn
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“Culloden, first off, then what came after. Some died, some left to find a better life. The laird of Glen Dorian was a good man who swore he’d take no part in the fighting for either side, but other MacIntoshes took up arms, sided with Prince Charlie. The English troops took the laird away in chains, they say, and left his young wife to grieve his loss. They burned the castle, drove away the cattle, and left nothing. Mairi MacIntosh was a brave lass, and she led the few folk who were left up into to the high hills, and kept them safe, and that’s why I’m sitting here now, able to tell you stories about this place.” He pointed to a hill that overlooked the loch and the castle. “After her man was taken, Mairi came here every day for the rest of her life, and stood on that ridge, and waited for him to come home. She grew old waiting, longing for him.”

Megan held her breath and waited, but the man scratched his bearded chin, puffed on his pipe, and let the blue smoke swirl around him and said no more.

“What happened to him?” Megan asked eagerly.

“No one knows. Executed as a rebel perhaps, somewhere in England with some of the prisoners they took, or transported across the sea, or dead.”

He tapped the ash out of the pipe onto a rock, and rose to his feet. “Good day to ye, then,” he said.

She hurried after him, heading down the slope. “Wait, there must be more.”

He glanced at her and kept walking. “More? What more could there be, lass?”

“Well, who lives there now?”

He let his eyes go to the castle in surprise. “In the ruins? No one,” he said. “The English burned it so no one could ever live there again. Och, a few have tried to make a life there, but the castle sends them out again. ’Tis said Lady Mairi MacIntosh laid a curse on the place before she died, that the castle would suffer no one to live within the walls until true love returns to Glen Dorian, and it becomes a home again. Until that happens, it’s fit for none but otters, birds, and badgers and whatever folk travel the hills and dare to spend a night there. They don’t stay long.”

“Are there ghosts? Does Mairi’s shade walk the halls?” Megan asked, made as breathless by the man’s swift pace as by the actual story.

He chuckled. “You’re a fanciful wee thing, aren’t you?” he said. “I’ve not heard tell of ghosts, but there’s a feeling you get within those walls—a terrible creeping of your skin, a sadness. Go in yourself if you don’t believe what I say. You never know—it might be you that finds true love here. Not sure I believe the curse is anything more than a tale to keep the bairns away from the old place, myself.” He turned, his blue eyes bright upon her. “But it makes no difference what I think. What do you believe, lass?”

“I already have a true love,” Megan said, trying to picture Eachann’s face. He’d been gone less than two months and already she was forgetting little details about him. She frowned, and stopped, trying to force herself to remember.

“What is it? Are you unsure about it after all?” the man asked, pausing as well, and Megan wondered which he meant—entering the castle or her love for Eachann.

She realized they had reached the causeway that led across to the castle. The gray stones stood with battered dignity, and the empty windows regarded her solemnly, waiting for her decision to continue on or draw back. She swallowed, felt her palms itch.

“Is it safe?” she asked.

“There’s no roof to fall in on you,” he said. “But I wouldn’t climb the walls. Go on—it’s a wee adventure, if nothing else.”

She hesitated for a moment, and the wind whistled through the cracks and holes as if the castle itself was calling to her.

“Come now—you said you wanted a tale about the place. I daresay you’ll tell find a better tale on your own than any I can tell,” he coaxed, and stepped back.

Megan looked at him. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Me? Och, no. I’ve things to do, and I must be on my way. Go if you wish, lass, or go back home, but I’d decide before the weather changes if I were you.” His gaze dared her to walk away, and she glanced at the castle again. It was a bonnie old place really, with the sun shining on the stone and wildflowers growing in the crevices. Birds flew over the tiny island, no doubt nesting inside the broken walls. An otter pulled itself out of the water onto a rock by the old tower and regarded her with a curious black gaze. Megan couldn’t resist.

“I’ll wish you good day, then,” she said, and stepped onto the causeway. The shadow of the castle loomed over her as she crossed the narrow bridge, and the wind hummed. When she reached the black and twisted iron of the open gate, she turned and looked back, but the old man was gone.

She went through, found herself in a courtyard, and crossed to the heavy oak door, scarred by fearsome blows and age. She imagined angry soldiers pounding it open with rifle butts, rushing inside . . . She set her hand on the cold iron of the latch and hesitated a moment before she pushed it open.

The hinges groaned an objection—or a warning. She ignored the chill that raced up her spine and shoved the heavy panel open enough for her to slip through.

The humming stopped. Just a trick of the breeze, she told herself, and stepped across the threshold.

“Hello?” she called, her voice a tentative quaver. She flinched as a flock of birds shot out of the shadows and fled for the open sky. Megan stared up at the hole above her. Charred timbers bristled around the edges like jagged teeth, and she drew a sharp breath. It was damp and musty inside, the old stones radiating wintery cold even in the heat of summer. She wrapped her cloak around her thin gown, felt a sense of loss and sorrow seep into her very bones that was almost overwhelming. She put a hand to her chest, and felt the rapid thump of her heart.

She forced herself to step away from the door, into what had surely once been the laird’s hall. It must have been a magnificent home once. Two great fireplaces hugged the walls, but their hearths were dark and empty mouths. The room was filled with rubble—broken stones, shattered roof slates, charred wood, rotting beams and planks in forlorn piles. A stone staircase wound upward in one corner, guarded and unreachable amid the destruction. She moved forward, her footsteps chattering on the gritty floor. The stone walls whispered back, a thread of sound that might have been her imagination, or perhaps it was just some small animal, hiding in one of the dark corners. She didn’t dare look.

This end of the room was close and dark, the floor above intact, the air thick with dust. She felt something brush against her face, and she flinched and cried out, heard the sound echo. Her fingers shook as she swiped at the cobweb that clung to her cheek.

Faint fingers of daylight poked tentatively through charred shutters, and she hurried across, and forced one open. Light poured in, and Megan drew a deep breath of air, stared out at the hills that surrounded the glen—was that the place Mairi MacIntosh had stood and waited for her lost love? Megan felt another deep wave of sadness pass over her, and the wind keened, sending dust swirling through the air like ghosts.

The lives lived here, the happiness, the joy, had ended the day the castle had burned, when the family was driven out. Seventy years later, it stood empty, bereft of life, but longing to be filled. She could feel that, too—the old stones pleading for mercy, for love. She felt a moment’s anticipation and she turned to glance at the door, her heart rising in her throat.

But the doorway was empty, the hall silent, and she felt her heart sink, her knees weaken under the crushing weight of despair. The open shutter rattled, and she gasped and spun again. Under that sound she heard the faint echo of laughter, a snatch of a pibroch played on bagpipes, the clatter of boots on the stone. She crossed to the door, looked into the courtyard.

“Hello?” she called again, but it was empty, and she was alone. The cold crept up from the floor, wound around her legs, pulled at her.

Megan felt her skin creep, just as the old fellow had said it would. She picked up her skirts and hurried out, rushing across the courtyard. She felt eyes on her back like a touch as she crossed the causeway, but she was too afraid to look back. She didn’t stop until her feet touched the shore.

Only then did she turn. The movement of the shutter caught her eye, and she felt her heart kick into a gallop.

But the wind brushed over her cheeks, and a cloud passed to let the sun through, and the light warmed her icy skin. She let her shoulders drop. “Just the wind,” she whispered. “Just the wind.”

 

C
HAPTER
S
IX

M
onsieur LaValle clapped his hands, and the sharp staccato sound rang though Dundrummie’s music room. “Young ladies, form a line, if you please.”

The dancing instructor stood primly before his charges and waited. Megan sighed as Alanna firmly clasped her arm and nudged her into position between herself and Sorcha. There would be no escape today. Megan did not want to dance. She’d slept badly, her rest fraught with dreams of standing in the hall of Glen Dorian, waiting, hoping, her stomach aching with terror. There was a pounding at the door, and she watched the oak panels shiver, saw them crack, begin to give way. Then strong hands gripped her shoulders, pulled her away, and she fought, tried to free herself, but he would not be deterred. She turned and looked up into his face, met a pair of fierce gray eyes . . . and that’s when she woke up.

She furrowed her brow, trying to remember, hoping to see his face in her mind’s eye, but like most dreams, it had disappeared in the harsh light of day, leaving only smoke to torment her daylight hours.

Monsieur tapped his foot impatiently.

“We are ready, Monsieur,” Alanna said in French.

Monsieur’s eyebrows flew into his pin-curled hairline. “Ready? How can that be? There are only three of you—how are we to dance with three?”

Megan regarded the dancing master. He was as trim and light on his feet as a bird on a branch, and just as nervous. He looked about with his lips pursed into a pointed beak, and fluttered. “Are there no gentlemen? Boys even?”

“Our—um, companion—will be joining us shortly I believe. She is with Mama—the Dowager Countess of Glenlorne—at present,” Megan said in careful English. Monsieur LaValle may understand French and English, but he spoke not a word of Gaelic. Megan wondered if “companion” was the right word to describe the formidable Miss Carruthers. She was not a ladies’ maid exactly, or a governess, nor was she a nursemaid. She had been hired to teach English language, English etiquette, English dress, and the kind of dull, witless conversation that apparently was actually enjoyed in English drawing rooms, and to guard her charges against all things Scottish. Sorcha called Miss Carruthers The Torturer, and Alanna called her The Dragon. She was ever present, ever vigilant, and never, ever tolerant of “un-Englishness” in her three charges. They all missed Caroline, their previous governess, a gentle and lovely lady who had fallen in love with their brother, Alec, and married him.

How dull the English must be, they decided. Miss Carruthers seemed incapable—or unwilling—to teach the fine points of flattery and flirting, or to countenance a longed-for lesson on gossip. Megan and her sisters could politely ask for scones, or for cream and sugar for their tea, or even request a glass of orange squash, whatever that might be. She could comment on the weather, be it cloudy or bright, warm or cold.

Miss Carruthers warned that they must never, ever stray from the banal list of discussion topics she considered safe and polite. “One never knows when one is speaking to a duchess or an earl. One must guard one’s tongue, and never give the impression of a less than perfect upbringing.”

An upbringing like hers, Megan was given to understand, a happy time of running barefoot in the hills, consorting with village children and gamekeepers’ sons. What would a duchess say to that? What would an earl think if he knew Megan loved a ceilidh beyond all things, a chance to dance to the skirl of the pipes, and drink ale and whisky with the folk of Glenlorne village, with nary a single drop of orange squash to be had?

She wriggled her toes in the uncomfortable English dancing slippers Miss Carruthers had insisted upon. It wouldn’t matter—Eachann would be home again before she ever had to set a single toe across the border, and it wasn’t as if any eligible English gentlemen were likely to come calling here at Dundrummie. She smiled. No, she would never need to know how to waltz, or find a reason to ask for orange squash.

Monsieur flapped his arms and rose up and down on his toes. “Companion? We do not need another female. We require gentlemen.”

Sorcha giggled. Alanna blushed, and Megan straightened her spine. “My mother will not allow Scottish lads into the castle, Monsieur, and I daresay there isn’t an English gentleman to be found between here and Inverness. We are as a convent at Dundrummie Castle—save for yourself and Mister Graves, of course.”

Sorcha tittered again, but Monsieur clapped his hands once more. “Summon him.”

Megan raised her brows. “Mister Graves?”

“Oui
. At once, if you please, so we may begin the lesson. We must have male partners, and if, as you say, he is the only one—”

“But he’s the butler!” Alanna said, and clapped her hand over her mouth, surprised at her own outburst. “I don’t think he knows how to dance.”

He probably did not even bend in the middle, Megan thought.

But Sorcha crossed the room and tugged the bell. “I doubt it, too, but I can’t wait to see his face when he’s asked,” she said in Gaelic.

“In English, if you please,” Monsieur said, fluffing his feathers again.

“Oui, Monsieur,”
Megan replied tartly in French.

Mr. Graves appeared in the doorway, his expression as stiff as his spine. “Do you require tea?” he asked Megan, as the senior lady in the room.

“We require dancing partners. You will dance,” Monsieur LaValle chirped.

“I beg your pardon?” Graves asked, looking down the hump of his nose at the tiny Frenchman.

“Do you dance, Monsieur?”

“I do not,” Graves said, drawing his dignity around himself like a cloak. Megan noted the impish delight in Sorcha’s eyes, and hid her own smile.

BOOK: Once Upon a Highland Autumn
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