Authors: Patricia Potter
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Scottish
JOVE BOOKS, NEW YORK
Copyright © 2002 by Patricia Potter
Alex Leslie rode hard. He wished he could ride a hell of a lot faster. But how could he do that with ten children, and only five tired horses among them?
He knew their pursuers could not be far behind. Soldiers of the Duke of Cumberland, the man known among Jacobites as “the butcher,” the man bent on destroying each one of them just as he had systematically destroyed the finest families in Scotland.
Alex had doubled back at one point of their journey and found a small patrol sniffing around their trail. It would not take long for them to gather more troopers and follow them.
He could only urge his small band to a faster pace. He knew it would be a miracle if he and this group of children made it to the coast, and to the French smuggler who was to take them to safety in France.
Bloody hell, he didn’t want to go. He would just as soon stay here in Scotland and make life miserable for the British who had brutally slaughtered so many Highland families. But he had responsibilities to the orphaned children with him.
‘Twas the greatest of ironies. He was a man who disliked responsibilities. He’d been a man who loved adventure and women and song. But that was two years ago. It felt like centuries ago.
Now he was the unwilling—and unlikely—guardian of children. Children who had found him like some infernal Pied Piper. A more unlikely one probably never existed. But he could not leave them to the not-so-tender mercies of the Duke of Cumberland, the English king’s brother. Once they reached France, Alex intended to find Scottish refugee families willing to take them in, and go on about his business of retribution.
Mist was falling. He usually liked the Scottish mist. It had helped cloak him and his activities. But now he had children ranging from five to twelve, and the bairn in his arms was cold, his too-thin body shivering under the damp blanket.
What hurt as much as anything was that the child didn’t cry. He had no more tears. He was a stoic little soldier, his childhood destroyed when he saw his mother killed by a British soldier.
So were the childhoods of the others. They no longer knew how to laugh or smile or giggle. He didn’t have to worry about their crying or complaining. Or laughing. They never laughed, never chattered, never played children’s games.
Alex wanted to give them safety. Safety and security. And laughter. And that meant a family.
He wished he could stop and rest, but that was a luxury they couldn’t afford. They had to be at the coast at mid-‘ night, or miss what could be their last chance for rescue.
They had been traveling all day through the mountains, staying off the patrolled roads, traveling faint hunting paths that few knew about. But the trails were so overgrown, branches stung their bodies and wearied the horses.
He led the way, one young lad in front of him in the saddle, then Robin—the oldest lad—followed on the second mount with one of the younger children. Ewan and Colm rode a third. Meg, the oldest lass at eleven, led a horse with three children in the saddle. Burke—his fellow thief—rode at the rear of their ragtag procession. He carried the youngest child, a small lass whose mother died a month ago of cold and hunger and fever, making a total of ten orphans in Alex’s care and Burke’s.
Burke, strangely enough, was good with the bairns despite the fact he was a rogue through and through. Like Alex, he had turned thief and murderer after Culloden. Alex believed he acted in the name of justice, in the name of the innocents killed by Cumberland, in revenge for the decimation of the Highland clans.
Burke just liked being an outlaw.
So of the two of them, who was the more honest man?
A question he didn’t wish to ponder, and an answer he relished even less.
But Burke was immensely loyal to the children. And they to him. Alex had never quite understood why.
He moved up to Alex. “The pass is near, my lord. Cumberland’s men may be guarding it. I’ll go ahead on foot if you can take this wee one and lead my horse,” Burke said. “As you know I am a bit clumsy wi‘ tha’ beast.” He gave Alex a fierce grin.
Alex nodded. He stopped the small procession and dismounted from his horse. He placed the child riding with Burke on his own horse with the lad who’d been sharing his saddle and took the reins of both his and Burke’s mounts. The lighter loads would rest the poor beasts.
He would have to see that the horses were returned to Neil Forbes, who would see to their care. Just as the man was seeing to his sister’s well-being. It was an unlikely match, a Leslie and a damned Scot turncoat. Still, the man had saved his sister’s life and most likely Alex’s and that of his charges. For the former and the children, he was grateful. For himself, he did not care.
He watched as Burke disappeared into the mist. As large and clumsy as he was on a horse, he was a born footpad.
A sense of urgency filled him. They didn’t have time to waste. Still, he couldn’t ride into a British patrol with ten children, several of them members of outlawed clans. It wouldn’t matter that they were but five and twelve.
Dark was descending quickly. Time was running out. The ship would appear at midnight. It wouldn’t wait.
Shots rang out, then silence. The children and their mounts melted into the trees. The older ones held hands over the mouths of the horses, soothing them in almost soundless whispers.
He handed the reins of his horse to Robin. “Stay here,” he said. “If I don’t come back, go back to the cave. Wait a few days, then send Meg to Braemoor. It’s two days away to the east. You can find help there.”
Just then he heard a whistle. Burke’s whistle;
It was safe
. He nodded to Robin, who went back and reassured the other children. Alex led Burke’s mount and his own.
In minutes, they passed two bodies. A fire was hissing—sputtering—in the mist, a makeshift oilskin cover apparently torn by a falling body. Then they passed two more bodies. One was moaning.
Alex hesitated. Burke started toward the injured man, dirk in hand.
“Tie him,” Alex said. He cared not about another British soldier, but the children had seen enough violence.
Burke frowned but did what he was told. He used the dirk to cut the soldier’s britches into strips, then tied him securely. Alex found a lantern the soldiers were using, thanking the saints that it was lit. Then they started again, ignoring the carnage his comrade had wrought. He had not time to hide the bodies.
They started down the steep trail. How much time did they have? No more than four hours.
He quickened his pace, ignoring the pain in his leg. He was all too used to it. He wanted to mount but he feared wearing out the beasts. There was no place between here and the coast to steal fresh ones. Night closed around them. The clouds and mist shrouded the moon; despite the light from the lantern, the path was treacherous, particularly for his own awkward gait, the weakness of his leg. He cursed the British yet again.
He tried to ignore the pain and watch the ground carefully to keep from stumbling. Finally they reached the bottom of the trail. He knew this land. There would be hills ahead but nothing like the area they’d just traversed. And now they should be able to avoid a British patrol.
The pain in his leg was excruciating. It had never healed properly after being split open by a musket ball. It did well enough when not overly strained but now ...
His throat tightened as he remembered how he used to walk ten miles with ease. Strange how a man never appreciated something until he lost it.
Burke caught up with him. “You should ride, my lord. You do not want to slow us up.”
Alex nodded. It would be foolish to risk all now because of pride. He swung up on Burke’s mount, tightened his hands around little Elizabeth. Burke started into a slow, steady run, moving ahead to scout out the road.
Three hours later they reached the coast. Dark figures surrounded them at the appointed spot. He and Burke were searched, and he was relieved of a purse of gold the Marquis of Braemoor had given him. He had another purse sewn into his clothes.
A light shone through the mist. A lantern on the beach responded. He held young Elizabeth. Patrick Macleod, once meant to be the chief of the Macleods and now an orphan and refugee, clung to his leg. Burke held another child. The other seven stayed together, the older ones taking care of the smaller ones.
A boat appeared out of the mist just as they heard a shout down the beach. The men. with them disappeared into the shadows, and he and Burke took their charges into the cold sea to meet the approaching longboat.
A shot. Then another.
The boat approached. One of the children cried out.
Hands reached for them. Alex practically threw Patrick inside, then lifted Elizabeth to waiting hands. Burke was also loading children. Finally the last of them was inside. He vaulted inside with the help of two strong hands, then Burke did the same.
Oars moved with a steady but hurried rhythm. He heard the sounds of shouts, of spurs, of English curses. Then the mist closed in around them.
He heard a small whimper and found the source.
. Her cloak was wet not only with water but with a thicker substance. Blood.
“I’ll see you safe, lass,” he said, finding the wound and wrapping it tight to stem the bleeding. He prayed the Frenchmen had a surgeon aboard. “I swear it,” he added, trying to convince himself.
He felt her body relax against his. She trusted him.
Jeanette Campbell stared at the letter in her hands.
“It is a solution to our problem,” her father said.
problem,” she corrected.
“Nay,” her father said. “Our problem. We are also ... tainted. You know there have even been hints of witchcraft.”
Jeanette rubbed her arm. It was well covered. Even her hand was gloved. She was accustomed to hiding both. “Does he know?” she said in a low voice. “Does he know about the mark?”
“And he still makes an offer?”
Her father fidgeted with the ink bottle on his desk. He couldn’t quite meet her gaze.
“He is a man of fine family. I am told he is of good disposition. But he lost his wife and he cannot leave Barbados to find a new one. He has children and needs a mother for them.”
“In other words, he is as desperate as you are,” Jeanette said dryly.
“And you, Jenna. You are twenty-five. You have no chance of obtaining a husband here.”
Loneliness overwhelmed her. She had never felt loved in this house. She had always been a burden. Nay, worse than that. She was an embarrassment to them. She was the devil’s child. Would she be that to the man offering marriage? Had her father really explained the extent of her... disfigurement?
Could anything be worse than this cold house and a father—and family—who embraced barbarism toward other Scots? She knew of the slaughter following Culloden. And the bloody aftermath when women and children were killed as well as wounded men. She’d heard British officers laugh about it.
Still, she couldn’t resist one last challenge. “You offered my hand without even asking me?”
“I thought you would be pleased. A husband at last.”
“Does he know I am considered a bluestocking as well?”
“That, Jenna, is something you
change. We all know why you’ve been hiding in those bloody books of yours.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then you can leave this house,” he said.
“Does my mother feel the same way?”
The despair deepened inside her. The aloneness. She couldn’t remember ever receiving a gentle gesture from either of her parents. Her sisters had taunted her unmercifully at first, then complained bitterly as they grew older. Jenna was ruining their chances for good marriages. Her blood was tainted. Maybe suitors would think their blood—and that of prospective children—would be, too.
. She knew it was an island in the Caribbean. Furthermore, she knew that some Jacobites had been shipped there as bond servants to plantations.
A chance to escape what had become intolerable here in Scotland. The Campbell clan was hated by most of the Highland clans, even those who had sided with the English at Culloden. None had forgotten the massacre of the Macdonalds at Glencoe decades earlier.
Still, she tried to be loyal to her family. It was the only family she had, even if they cared little about her.
She wanted to weep, but she wouldn’t give her father the power of knowing how much he’d just hurt her. Perhaps Barbados would be a good place to go. A new start. A family of her own. She only wished she believed her father when he said the planter knew about the marks. What if she sailed across the seas, only to be rejected once again? She didn’t know whether she could bear that.
It might be the only chance she had. Despite a large dowry, every man feared “the mark of the devil,” afraid it might be passed to any children.