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Authors: Stealing Sophie

Sarah Gabriel

BOOK: Sarah Gabriel
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SARATH GABRIEL
Stealing Sophie

To good friends, here and elsewhere, who listened, advised, brainstormed, hugged, healed, sang, fiddled, shared, and saw me through this so graciously. I am forever grateful.

Contents

Chapter 1

Connor MacPherson heard their approach long before they appeared. Thick…

Chapter 2

Stealing a bride was a miserable business, Connor decided.

Chapter 3

She felt ill. Folded over the brigand’s hard, wide shoulder…

Chapter 4

Holding the rope taut to assist the girl, Connor held…

Chapter 5

The rectangular medieval building was roofless, its peaked end walls…

Chapter 6

His bride hung back on the rope, jerking it to…

Chapter 7

Emerging from a cluster of evergreen trees that fringed a…

Chapter 8

Shutting and barring the gate behind them, Connor took his…

Chapter 9

“Mary left some food for us,” Connor said, glad for…

Chapter 10

Her heart quickened, the darkness whirled when she closed her…

Chapter 11

Waking, Connor was startled for a moment, his heart leaping…

Chapter 12

“Katherine, then,” Connor said calmly, though her tone gave him…

Chapter 13

Brushing dried mud from her gown, Sophie frowned over the…

Chapter 14

The flash fire of a satin gown and a stream…

Chapter 15

“Oh! Blast! Be damned, ye filthy, nithering cur!”

Chapter 16

Parting the heavy drapes to peer out the window, Sophie…

Chapter 17

With her heeled shoes sticking in fresh mud, Sophie turned…

Chapter 18

Though his back was to her, Connor felt her gaze…

Chapter 19

Bending down, Sophie pushed aside a tangled clump of weeds.

Chapter 20

“Where is our cousin?” Donald MacCarran glowered at Connor.

Chapter 21

“Mary Murray makes a fine stew,” Andrew remarked as he…

Chapter 22

In the dusky purple twilight, he saw the sheen of…

Chapter 23

Striding over the hilltop, Connor looked down and felt a…

Chapter 24

“Over a dozen eggs this morning when I checked the…

Chapter 25

“Saighdearean ruadh,” Connor said—red soldiers—glancing at Neill and the others…

Chapter 26

“Ach, I’ve corrupted you, lass,” Roderick said. “Connor will have…

Chapter 27

“Not sitting here like this with you,” he murmured. Reaching…

Chapter 28

“Kinnoull, what do you think of the good news?” Padraig…

Chapter 29

“We cannot just walk down there and tell them to…

“Come here,” Sophie said. She took Connor by the hand…

Epigraph

I know that she will find me

I know that she will find me

Even if I vanish without trace

O and though I’m running blindly

I know that she will find me

Hiding with the shadows that I chase

Dougie MacLean, “She Will Find Me”

Love makes its own magic.

Inscription on the Fairy Cup of Duncrieff

Scotland, Perthshire
Spring 1728

C
onnor MacPherson heard their approach long before they appeared. Thick fog and darkness obscured the glen and the hills, and sounds were distorted. But the jangle of bridles, the creak of leather, the thud of hoofbeats on the old drover’s track signaled the approach of the escort party.

His heart slammed suddenly, the long wait over. His left hand clenched the basket hilt of his sheathed sword. Katherine Sophia MacCarran—Kate—would
soon be his bride, snatched away without warning, married swiftly. The marriage must be made this way, whether either of them wanted it. The folded paper tucked inside his shirt contained her name and his, a note signed by her brother, laird of Duncrieff and chief of Clan Carran.

He would honor Duncrieff’s request. After all, Connor had caused the MacCarran to be captured and imprisoned—and rumor now said that he had died a few days ago.

The pain of that cut deeper than he wanted to admit.

Striding ahead, footsteps silently crushing brown grass and old heather, he glanced back at his two companions, who followed like graceless bears. Their belted plaids, pale shirts, and faces were blurred in the shadows and mist, but he saw the gleam of pistols and swords. Weapons were illegal for Highlanders to carry now. He and his men carried them nonetheless.

Slipping behind the shelter of a cluster of tall, ancient stones, Connor waited for his comrades. He bent to pick up the folded extra plaid that he had earlier stored in this same spot in anticipation of this night’s work. Tucking the tartan cloth into the pocket formed by the folds of his own plaid, he turned.

“All is set?” he murmured in Gaelic.

“The ropes are in place,” his ghillie, Neill Murray, replied. “And the priest is waiting at the old chapel in the hills.”

Connor MacPherson nodded, watching as ghostly veils moved over the glen. Poised to spring like a wild cat, he could not even see his prey. He scowled, placed a hand on cool stone.

“This is a mere prank,” his cousin, Andrew MacPherson, said. “We can do worse.”

“No worse,” Connor said. “We’re inviting trouble enough.”

“There are other ways to get a bride,” Neill growled.

“None so fast as this,” Connor replied quietly.

The chink and creak of saddles and the thud of hooves sounded closer now. As the milky veils drifted apart, he saw the ribbon of the drover’s track for only a moment.

But he knew the course of the moorland road like his own hand, knew the placement of the two burns that poured down from the mountains to cross the moor. Even in obscuring mist he could gauge just where those bridges were, and how long it would take the escort to reach them.

“Horses,” Neill murmured as the sound grew louder. “Two Highlanders on foot and two dragoons escorted the lass and her maid when they left the magistrate’s house.”

“Aye,” Andrew confirmed. “We saw them earlier. After they dined there, Sir Henry sent her home with a military escort.”

“Courteous of him,” Connor drawled. “Sink the men and spare the ladies. Then slip away. If I’m caught for bride-stealing, I’ll hang alone.”

“We’re at your back as always, Kinnoull,” Neill said.

Connor ignored the bitter tug in his heart.
Kinnoull.
He had the title still, but not the property. The fact that Sir Henry Campbell inhabited his house now seared like fire in his belly.

Motioning to his companions, he strode forward cautiously. He would not crouch—he was too tall a man for it, and too proud. He slipped behind an
other cluster of rocks and tilted his head to listen, hearing wind, water, the approaching escort. He could almost hear the hammer of his own heart.

He could still walk away, he told himself, and escape this madness. Kate MacCarran was a fine, bold lass, and though he had seen her but once, he knew she had fire and spit in her. Her brother had confirmed that she was involved in Jacobite espionage—she would be a good match for an outlaw, though some might say that Connor MacPherson was no fit husband for a bride.

Foolishness, he told himself. He should not be here. On such a night, he should be sitting beside a fireside with a dram and his fiddle, alone with his music and his lost dreams. But the urge to proceed felt like a deep core hunger within, stronger even than his own unyielding pride.

The escort party came closer. Peering through the fog, Connor could just see the faint shapes of two Highlanders walking, followed by the cloaked women riding, and finally the dragoons mounted behind them.

He did not want a bride—not yet, not this way. But that note bound him to an ill-omened promise, and he always kept his word. Always, though the man who had exacted this promise from him likely was dead. All the more reason that Connor felt he owed him, and his clan, this favor. Duncrieff had said that the girl must be stolen away and made a bride before others could interfere.

Easing around the cluster of stones, Connor narrowed his eyes. Not far ahead, to either side of the patch of ground where he stood, two burns crossed the glen, spanned by two wooden bridges. Through
the fog he could see the escort party coming closer to the first bridge.

Turning to his comrades, he motioned. Neill and Andrew ran ahead, then dropped to lay flat, grabbing hold of a pair of stout ropes that snaked through grass and heather to end at each of the bridges.

Connor watched as the two Highlanders in the escort crossed the first bridge. The women followed, recognizable by the long drape of their gowns and cloaks. One of the women shone like a star, her bright gown reflecting the scant light. A good distance behind them came the dragoons, their white breeches and cross halters pale blurs in the mist.

As they came closer, Connor heard the thud of hoofbeats on the planks. He heard voices now, too—a Highlander speaking, a female complaining. Another female answered, light and sweet.

His heart bounded. Her soft voice had magic in it.

His bride. He felt the certainty of it like a physical blow, and nearly lost his guard for an instant. He would hear that lovely voice in his own house—upon his own pillow, God save him, and in his dreams.

The MacCarrans of Duncrieff were said to have fairy blood, with magical abilities passed down through generations. Connor did not believe in such things, but the girl’s voice had an enchanting quality, fey and alluring. A shiver went through him.

Just a trick of the mist, he told himself.

Scowling, he turned his attention to the task. Wrapped in mist, he stepped forward, intent on timing. The women’s horses cleared the planking of the bridge and struck out over the moorland toward the
second watercourse. Ahead, the two Highlanders reached the next bridge. At the same time, the dragoons’ horses stepped onto the first bridge.

When the women were isolated in the middle ground between the burns, Connor gave a low owl’s hoot. His comrades whipped the ropes taut in the grass.

Both bridges groaned and collapsed in unison, planks crashing into the water. Men shouted, horses neighed, and the women cried out, their horses sidestepping wildly.

Connor surged forward through the darkness.

 

Sophie MacCarran pulled on the reins as her horse whirled. The men in her escort had fallen into both burns—somehow the bridges had collapsed. In the confusion, unsure whether her companions were safe or hurt, all she could do was try to calm her horse. Beside her, Mrs. Evans, her companion, shrieked loudly, her advanced age and nervous disposition making it difficult for her to control her sidestepping mount.

“Mrs. Evans—hold tight!” Sophie called out, unable to turn her horse to help the other woman.

Gripping her own horse’s reins, Sophie tried to look around. Able to see little through the gauzy vapor, she heard her cousins, Allan and Donald MacCarran, crashing about in the water and swearing in Gaelic. Behind her the two English dragoons splashed and shouted, while their horses whinnied as the men struggled to help them.

Her horse whirled again, and Sophie lost her sense of direction. The commotion seemed to come from all sides now. Where were the two burns? She
could not risk her horse stumbling down a bank. Her riding skills were basic at best, and currently rusty after six years spent in a convent.

Her efforts to control the animal took all her strength and concentration. She pulled on the reins, tilting back with the effort, nearly sliding off as the horse turned again.

“Steady, lass.” She felt a hard, firm grasp on her waist as a man reached up to help her regain her seat. At the same time, he flashed out a hand to grab her horse’s bridle, stilling the animal with a gentle murmur.

Through milky fog she glimpsed a broad shoulder draped in plaid, saw long dark hair and the side of an unshaven jaw. He reached through mist and darkness to soothe her frenzied horse.

“Allan? Donald?” Relieved, Sophie wondered which of her Highland cousins had climbed out of the water to safety.

Her savior turned his head, and Sophie saw a stranger.

As he pulled her horse forward, she assumed that he must be a nearby tenant farmer who had come to help. “Thank you, sir,” she called.

He looked at her, then turned back without a word. All she saw was a piercing glance, a sweep of dark hair, a plaid.

“My horse is fine now,” she went on. “My companion needs assistance, and so do the men in the water.”

He did not answer her, pulling on the bridle to lead her horse away. Did he speak only Gaelic? She had known the language in childhood, but could not recall much now under duress.

“Tapadh leat,”
she managed. “Thank you—but my companions need help,” she went on in English.

The Highlander ran now, drawing her cantering horse deep into swirling fog, putting distance between her and the watercourses where her escort floundered. Behind her, Mrs. Evans shrieked and moaned, her horse still not under control.

Alarmed now, Sophie leaned back in the saddle to try to stall her horse. The animal whickered and sidestepped, uncertain.

“Let go,” she called to the Highlander. “Stop!”

Not even a backward look. Only that strong fist wrapped around the leather bridle, only that muscular arm draped in a linen shirt, the broad shoulders and dark head turned away from her. Silently, steadily, he moved forward.

She saw the gleam of the weapons in his belt.

Dear God. A brigand!
Returning to Scotland only days ago, she had already heard tales of the rebels and outlaws who lived in these hills, some renegade Jacobites, some lawless men entirely. Sir Henry Campbell, the magistrate who had hosted dinner for her at Kinnoull House, had warned her not to cross the length of the glen that night.

But she had felt safe in the company of her Highland cousins and the two soldiers assigned by the magistrate. And she and Mrs. Evans, weary from their travels, had been anxious to return to Duncrieff Castle that night. Sophie herself had been more than ready to depart Sir Henry’s company. Her father, before his death, had promised her to Campbell in marriage, no matter his daughter’s protests. Finishing her education in a Flemish convent, she had been sent back to Scotland by her widowed mother to
keep her father’s promise, and marry a man she despised.

Now she wished she had stayed at Kinnoull House when Sir Henry had extended the invitation. The magistrate’s dire warning about brigands and the like had proven true.

This Highlander was clearly no well-meaning local. He led her horse deeper into the mist instead of turning back to help her escort.

Heart slamming, Sophie dug in her knees, leaned back again. The horse obeyed the man. She tried to scream, but the sound stuck in her throat. She glanced back wildly.

Through the obscuring fog she heard Mrs. Evans’s banshee shrieks, heard men shouting and horses whinnying. None of her companions realized that she was being abducted.

“Turn back,” she gasped frantically. “Oh, God, let me go!” Gathering breath again, she managed a sundering scream.

The Highlander whirled, set his foot upon the stirrup, and vaulted into the saddle behind her. He moved so fast that she had no chance to shout again, or even to shove him away before he snatched the reins from her and closed one hand over her mouth.

With his right hand he guided the horse, stopping her mouth with his left. His arms, hard with muscle, pinned her own arms to her sides as he leaned to his task. Signaling the horse, he plunged them forward into billowing fog and darkness.

Twisting, Sophie realized that her gown and cloak were caught beneath the stranger’s legs, her thighs trapped by the grip of his own. His arms surrounded her, his torso pressed to her back, unyielding and
warm. He urged the horse to a gallop, leaning so that she had to bend low. The horse launched ahead under the man’s unhesitating command.

Writhing, unable to shout with his hand pressing her face, Sophie freed an arm enough to elbow him.

“Be still,” he said, his voice firm but quiet, deep as darkness. “You’ll come with me.” His voice had an unexpected mellow richness, both soothing and thrilling.

Feeling his hand on her shoulder, she tried to shrug him off. His iron-hard arm only pulled her tighter against him, preventing movement. She gasped, flailed.

He loosened his hand from her mouth. “Can you breathe?”

“You stole me away,” she blurted. “You attacked my escort. Why? Have you taken my companion as well? She’s elderly, you must not harm her! Why are you doing this?”

“Breathing fine, I see,” he said.

He did not speak broad Scots, but rather the perfect English of a native Gael, with a softening of the words, a whisper of a lilt. The tone was deep and rich, as if cream and whiskey had turned to sound.

She gathered her wits. “You should have helped the others!”

“They will be fine. I came for you, lass, not them.” His breath warmed her cheek, his hands tightened on her arms.

“But why?” she asked breathlessly.

He did not answer, pressing her back against him, his fingers spreading on her arm. Sophie forced herself out of the spell he seemed to cast, for his very touch, his presence, calmed her somehow.

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