Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson
“If Montcrief survived the robbery, he will still wish to marry you, so he will protect your secret, which you are welcome to reveal to him once I have run my prey to earth.”
Romayne sighed and shook her head. “I know nothing of this life of espionage you live.”
“That is for the best.” Setting himself on his feet, he cupped her chin and tilted her face toward him again. “Romayne, you must know that I am desperate if I ask you to involve your family and yourself in this. Chance brought us together. I cannot afford to disregard this opportunity.”
“Our marriage would be only a sham?”
“A Smithfield bargain.”
In spite of herself, she laughed as he used the common term for a marriage of convenience. “It could be annulled with no trouble?”
“There will be no need for an annulment when there was no true marriage.” His face became serious again. “Say you will help me to protect England from the insidious schemes of a traitor. Say you will be my wife, Romayne, my dearie.”
Her fingers clenched on his shoulders as his mouth brushed her cheek, setting her skin ablaze with its moist flame. She gazed up into his eyes' emerald fire and imagined their heat caressing her. Closing her eyes, she knew that was not to be. She loved Bradley and would mourn him all her life, but James's kissâchaste, though it had beenâhad awakened sweet sensations she had never known with Bradley. This was madness, but she did not know how to fight it.
She opened her eyes when he brushed his fingers against her cheek. “Yes,” she whispered. “I'll be your wife.”
“Finally you have come to your senses,” Grange pronounced with a satisfied smile. “Mr. MacKinnon is certainly not the suitor His Grace would have chosen for you, but a match between you will keep the Smithfield name from being besmirched.”
Romayne sighed as she wandered about the small room they had been given on the upper floor. Running her fingers along the windowsill, she said, “Grandfather considered Bradley a fortune hunter. Will he offer James a warmer welcome?”
“He will be your husband.”
She wished she could see things in such clear shades of black and white, but she knew Grandfather would not. The duke had been determined to make her a “proper” match. Marrying James, when her grandfather would see him only as a Scot with no standing, would enrage him.
“Is it true?” Ellen burst into the room, saving Romayne from having to remind Grange of how much Grandfather hated having his opinions contested. “Are you marrying Jamie?”
“He asked me this morning.” She tried to put some enthusiasm in her voice. After all, James's plans to catch the traitor needed her wholehearted support if they were to have a chance for success.
“And you said yes?”
Ellen spun about the room, her braids under her mobcap slapping the back of her bodice of undyed linen. Her dark brown skirt belled around her. “Oh, Romayne, this is wondrous!” She dropped onto the bed and was swallowed in the thick featherbed. Pushing down the coverlet, she grinned. “Mama has been eager to see Jamie take a walk to the altar, but not a lass in Struthcoille ever caught his eye. Now I understand why he waited. I think you two will be perfect together.”
Romayne forced a smile. Had James considered how he chanced hurting his family with this tale? She almost laughed at the thought. James thought of nothing but capturing his man before the traitor could deliver the damaging information to the French.
“I am not so sure if perfect is the correct word,” she hedged.
“Nonsense!” Ellen refused to let her spirits be down-pinned. “When do you plan to marry up?”
“In a few days.”
“In a few days?” Her smile dropped into disappointment. “But, Romayne, that will allow no time to prepare for the wedding feast and to invite the neighbors andâ”
Romayne went back to the window, wishing she could flee into the hills ringing the village. Then maybe she could put this nightmare behind her. “James and I thought it would be best, under the circumstances, that the ceremony be done quickly and quietly.”
“Are you took with child? Mr. Montcrief's child? Is that why you came to be married so quickly?”
Grange gasped. “Lady Romayne would not have anticipated her vows!”
Ellen hurried to apologize. As soon as Romayne had assured her no insult was taken, the girl began to prattle again about the wedding feast she wanted her cousin to have. Romayne said nothing to halt her, but Grange interrupted to urge Romayne to rest.
Fatigue pulled at Romayne on every step, but she was tempted to refuse. When she saw the anticipation on Ellen's face, though, she acquiesced to her abigail's suggestion. She did not want to be caught up in an endless conversation about the wedding that James's cousin was more excited about than either the bride or the groom.
Sleep was impossible for Romayne. When she heard Grange's soft snores from the other side of the bed, she pulled on her shoes and slipped her arms into her torn pelisse. She needed to escape from the cloying closeness of the cottage. Glancing down at her thin slippers, she wished for her high-lows, for the boots, which laced higher than her ankles, would have protected her from the snow drifts. She had to be grateful that Grange had lent her a pair of thick stockings.
Sneaking quietly down the stairs and out the main door, she saw no one in the yard or the road beyond it. Snow sputtered from the gray sky, trying to regain the strength it had had. Frigid air tried to strip her breath from her as it inched along her pelisse, finding every rip. The wind swirled around her ankles and tugged at the hem of her skirt.
Romayne whirled at the sound of iron horseshoes on stone. She saw Thatcher by what must have been the stable. The cockeyed building leaned toward the hills and was in dire need of a coat of whitewash.
The groom had dispensed with his livery and wore a heavy coat over his unbleached breeches. Boots rose to his knees, and were covered with bits of hay and mud. That he had been tending to the horses while the rest of them recovered from the harrowing journey did not surprise her. Unless he was accompanying her on a ride, Thatcher seldom left his beloved stables at Westhampton Hall. She started toward him but stopped when she heard him shout to someone in the barn.
“That's right, Mr. MacKinnon. I shall take the horses next door toâ” He halted as he looked toward Romayne. Smiling, he called, “Were you looking for me, Lady Romayne?”
She wished she had hurried away before he had noticed her. That would have let her avoid speaking to James. As she walked through the clinging snow to where Thatcher was holding a horse by the halter, James emerged from the blackness beyond the stable door. He started to pull the door closed, but the glint of light off polished wood caught her eye.
“That's Bradley's carriage!” she gasped.
James shut the door and stood in front of it. “You shouldn't be out here. You'll catch your death of cold in that thin coat.”
“That's Bradley's carriage in there, isn't it?” she asked, refusing to be distracted by his concern, which she suspected was feigned.
“Cameron brought it back from where it had been abandoned.”
“I would like to see it.”
He shook his head. “There is nothing you wish to see.”
Cold spiraled through her, and gooseflesh climbed her arms. “Bradley?” she whispered.
Again he shook his head.
Spinning away, she covered her face with her hands. She sobbed as she had not since the night she had huddled in the byre with James. Although she had known how futile her hopes were, the agony of having them demolished seared her.
She was turned against a thick, wool coat. She clung to James as she had in the byre. As he had that night, he let her grieve without speaking. Gently he stroked her back until her tears were gone.
“Let me take you inside, dearie,” he murmured.
She nodded, afraid to speak and release a new explosion of sobs. With his arm around her shoulders, she allowed him to guide her through the narrow door and into the parlor. He took her coat as she walked to the settee and folded her stiff body to sit. Staring at the flames on the hearth, she tried not to think, not to feel.
A mug appeared in front of her face, and she raised her eyes to see the sorrow in James's eyes. She took the mug in both hands because she did not trust her quaking fingers. Taking a cautious sip of the whiskey, she let its swift fire flow through her.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Tell me everything.”
He sat next to her. “There is little to tell. We rode out there and found signs of bodies having been dragged away. There are two fresh graves in the churchyard in the next village.” He kneaded his forehead. “I'm sorry, Romayne.”
“I am, too.”
At a curse, she turned to James. He was readjusting his right elbow on the arm of the settee. “I know 'tis no more than a bad sprain,” he said, “but I tire of being forced to sit idly while my prey continues his work.”
“What of the highwaymen? Was there any sign of them?”
His green gaze glided along her. She drew back, afraid to be caught anew by the enthralling caress. “Nothing, although I saw enough of them that night to know they were Duffie's lads. The carriage was stripped of anything of value. If I had not chanced along when I did, I surmise you would have been dead by this time, too, or wished you were.”
“What a horrible thing to say!”
“Aye, but 'tis the truth. Duffie could not afford to have the authorities after him on the Scottish side of the Tweed. He has too many anxious to catch him on the English side.” As Romayne lifted her mug to her lips, he mused, “What I do not understand is why he did not shoot you when he murdered your betrothed.”
She choked on the whiskey. Holding her hand to her mouth, she fought to keep from dissolving into weak tears yet again. “How can you say such things whenâ?” She could not continue.
“The truth cannot be ignored,” he said in the same terse tone. “Duffie acted queerly, and it behooves us to understand why.”
“James, you said other attempts to halt the high pads have been useless.”
When he took her left hand in his, she raised her eyes slowly to meet his hooded ones. She sensed his compelling emotions through his gentle touch. That strength swept aside the barrier of numbness she had created as protection from memories that taunted her. Biting her lip to keep its quiver from drawing forth more tears, she yearned for his arm around her again. He was the most exasperating man she had ever metâeven more infuriating than Grandfatherâbut he could be as kind as the first breath of spring.
“Tomorrow would probably be best for our wedding,” he said softly.
“You were able to get the license we need?”
“I have it.” He surged to his feet. “Everything is ready if you are.”
“If you wish to marry me tomorrow, I shall not protest.”
“Just like that? No other questions?”
“Will discussing why you want to hurry the wedding change anything?”
“I thought you might wonder why I am making such a request.”
She stood and kept her back to him. “I have no interest in your mind's workings. This bargain we have made is a business one, and we would be prudent to recall that.”
“I think only to protect you.” His voice, so close to her, startled her, for she had not heard him near. He whispered against her ear, “Soon, if it is not already, the tale of how you arrived in my life will be buzzed about the village. If we present a wedding feast to divert their attention, mayhap the gossip will be muted.”
“Nothing halts those who long to chatter.” She almost smiled as she thought of Philomena Boumphrey, who lived next door to her grandfather's house in London. Philomena adored poker-talk.
Closing her eyes, she sighed. It was possible that she never would share another afternoon with Philomena. Slowly she was beginning to realize how much she had lost along with Bradley. Yet what she feared most of all was that she would lose Romayne Smithfield when she became Mrs. James MacKinnon on the morrow.
“It is only for a short time,” he said as if he could sense her thoughts. “A few weeks.”
“I know.” But such a short time seemed an eternity.
Romayne needed little time to get ready for her wedding. The dress that she had worn to come north would be her wedding gown â¦ as she had planned. As she adjusted the muslin sleeves so that the hasty stitches to repair the rips along the seams would be invisible, she struggled with the tears that filled her eyes again and again in endless waves of sorrow.
She had planned to become Bradley's wife in this gown. It was the greatest hypocrisy she could imagine that she would marry James while wearing it.
“Bradley,” she whispered, “forgive me.”
“What did you say, my lady?” called Grange from where she was trying to brush mud stains from Romayne's slippers.
“Nothingânothing important.” That was the truth. Although Grange would not speak badly of Bradley now that he was dead, she sensed her abigail was relieved Bradley was gone.
After Grange left to supervise the arrangements in the parlor, Ellen bounced in along with a black spotted mongrel pup she called Nokkums. She shooed the dog out with a laugh. Yet even the young woman's excitement could not brighten Romayne's spirits. Names of the expected guests meant little to Romayne when she recognized none of them. Ellen's recitation of the food which would be served added to the discomfort squeezing Romayne's center.
Ellen spun away from the window. “Here comes Reverend Kerr!” Laughing, she added, “You shall be my own dear cousin as soon as he shakes the snow from his mournful sporran.”
She giggled. “The sealskin purse he wears at his side. 'Tis an old Scottish custom.”
“Oh.” She could think of nothing else to say, then tried to smile, but failed.