Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson
“This bourach will shelter us,” the man continued. “Come. It is but a few more steps.” When she did not move, he said, “It is a bourachâa hut. Come. I think the storm is strengthening.
Pulling her ripped pelisse tighter, she lowered her head so that the brim of her ruined bonnet blocked the wind. He kept his cloak around her shoulders as they lurched toward the bourach. Every step was a separate torture. He clenched his chattering teeth, not wanting to let a groan betray how his stamina was seeping away.
The building was larger than he had expected, nearly as big as a byre. James cursed under his breath when he saw how the door leaned against its frame by one hinge. Releasing the woman, he tugged on it. The motion nearly sent him into the snow, but the door gaped open. He gestured for her to enter.
“Are you sure it is safe?” she shouted over the whine of the wind.
“Safer than freezing to death or ending up in an unmarked grave thanks to Artair Duffie's boys.”
She whirled, unmistakable terror on her face. “How do you know his name?” She backed away and hit the wall. “Are you one of them?”
Deuce take it!
He had no need for her skittish fears. Grasping her arm, he propelled her through the door. To her back, he snapped as he pulled the door closed, “Do you think they would have been letting fly the pop at me if I had been one of their rapscallions?”
“Then who are you?”
Instead of answering, he tried to see through the darkness shrouding the hut in shadows. He listened but heard nothing but the wind moaning around the uncaulked eaves like the lament of a Highland piper. Snow spit at them as water dripped onto the straw-strewn floor. Wrinkling his nose at the odor of rot and mildew, he swore when an icy drop fell from the thatched roof to trickle along his back.
“We cannot stay here,” the woman said, horror replacing her fear. “This is no better than a barn.”
“It is better than freezing to death or letting Duffie's lads find you.”
“But I cannot stay here. Bradley is out there,” she whispered. He heard what sounded like a sob.
“You can offer no help to Bradley now, whomever he or she may be. First, let us get a light.”
Somehow he found her hand in the darkness. He pulled her toward him. When she bumped into him, he grimaced. He was astonished when she said aloud the curse in his head.
“You need not dump snow from your cap onto me,” she said sharply, then sneezed.
He brushed snow off her pert nose, his fingers stroking the curve of her cool cheek. He grew even more surprised when no salty tear stains roughened her skin. When she did not draw back, he let his fingertips discover what his eyes could not see. Her fine eyebrows brushed his skin before his thumb edged her jaw to graze her round chin. With her soft breath warming his hand, he traced the half-circle of her ear which was nearly lost beneath the wealth of silken hair. Pale hair, if he had seen rightly in the night.
“Stop,” she whispered.
“If you wish â¦”
“Please do not be too kind. I know you want only to console me, but the least kindness now would unnerve me.” She raised her face to look at him, but he could see nothing but her silhouette against the darkness.
James nearly laughed. How naÃ¯ve she must be if she thought he thought only of offering her solace when he was standing so close to her! His fingers had told him that she was not classically beautiful, for the stubbornness in her voice was sculpted into her face, but this woman would draw men's eager eyes and women's jealous ones each time she entered a room.
Forcing the amusement from his voice, he said, “I know you are frightened, miss. I would tell you not to be afraid, but I shall not lather you with lies. What I will do is be honest. We are as safe here as we can be now.”
“Good. There should be a lamp about somewhere. Can you find it?”
“I have no idea.”
James heard her take a pair of steps away from him, then heard a crash. “What in the blazes are you doing, miss?”
“I fell.” Another sob battered her words.
He did not hesitate. Swinging out his left arm, he found a pair of shelves. He smiled grimly when his fingers closed on a small box. Next to it was a crucible lamp that confirmed this hut had been used to shelter a shepherd and his flock.
Only desperation and the sound of the woman's soft weeping enabled him to open the box, prop the steel against his arm, and strike the flint to spark a light into the cruisie. A surprisingly bright glow burst from the lamp. Blinking, he saw the room was rougher than he had guessed. Not a scrap of furniture filled it. Broken rafters were remnants of what might have been a loft, but no chimney offered the hope of a fire to take the fierce chill from the hut.
The woman scrambled to her feet, kicking away the crook that had tripped her. She turned, her golden hair flowing around her face, and stared unabashedly at him.
He knew well what she would see. His russet hair was windblown above his aquiline nose and about the stern angles of his jaw. Burnt powder shadowed the shoulder of his dark brown coat where his right arm hung, useless. Beneath his caped overcoat, his clothes, which were cut in the rustic style of a yeoman farmer, were splattered with mud. Scuffed boots encased his legs to the knees of his gray wool breeches.
He looked back at her as candidly. Looking at her was something he could enjoy doing for endless hours. His fingers had not deceived him, for, with her golden curls tumbling down around her heart-shaped face, she could be an impish fairy peering from a child's book. Her clearwater blue eyes suggested depths of emotion no man had dared to plumb. Yet the firm line of her lips and the saucy tilt of her chin warned of a strength of will that could contest his own.
He captured her eyes with his green gaze. In them, he saw a reflection of the fatigue and frustration weighing every move he made.
“Hold the cruisie, miss,” he said, “while I make sure the door is secure.”
“Is there more oil?” she asked she said as she took it.
“I see no can, but, with luck, we may not need much.” He wobbled away from the door.
“Is there something I can do to help?” she asked.
James was about to shake his head, but the motion betrayed him. He collapsed against the wall. Agony raced along his arm as blackness nibbled at the edges of his vision. Taking a deep breath, he released it slowly. He had taunted her about suffering from vapors when the caterans were after her. She had proven she had pluck then. He must do the same.
Gentle fingers guided him until he was sitting on the cold floor. Fighting his own weakness, he saw the woman kneeling next to him. “Thank you,” he said in a labored voice. “That dashed cateran. He made a doodle of me, sneaking up behind you to lead me into that ambush.” His expression became rigid with grim satisfaction. “He is one who shall not prey upon the road again.”
“You saved my life,” she whispered. “I should tell you thank you.”
“I did save your skin, didn't I?” He sighed as he struggled to sit straighter. She reached to help him, but he waved her aside.
“Your right arm may truly be broken,” she whispered.
“That takes nothing but eyes to determine,” he snapped through clenched teeth. “Do you have something to wrap it with?”
“My bags were looted when the carriage was attacked.”
“Something else then?”
She sat with her back to him and pushed aside the muddy hem of her coat. Looking over her shoulder, she said, “I would appreciate you averting your eyes, sir.”
“You would deny a man who has saved your life and is suffering such pain as a result the indulgence of looking at your pretty ankles?”
“You are no gentleman to ask such a thing.”
“You are right. I am no gentleman.” His lips tightened. “Nor do I care if you disrobe completely in front of me at this point. Just get something so I can wrap my arm before I do it more damage.”
She flushed at his crude words, then turned away. The rigid set of her shoulders warned her that he must not push her too far. She could shatter as readily as the tree branches beneath their load of snow. When she faced him again, she held lacy stockings in her hand.
“Have you ever set an arm?” he asked.
“I should have guessed you were just a pampered English miss. You did nothing to save yourself,” he argued, the pain affecting his words.
He sniffed his disagreement, then winced. “Riding away from the highwaymen at top speed into an unfamiliar wood? No wonder you got knocked from your horse when you tried to take that wall! You have no need for a cateran to endanger you. You present enough peril to yourself and everyone around you with your caper-witted actions.”
“If you will tell me what to do,” she returned curtly, “I shall try to do my best to set your arm. Even a pampered English miss knows enough to help someone in distress.”
He nodded grimly, ignoring her sarcasm. “Your efforts should not hurt it too much more. I can have it looked at by a doctor tomorrow.” He paused, then asked, “Can you do the job without getting ill?”
“I will try.”
James had to admire her courage as she followed his orders to get the staff that had tripped her and break off two pieces the length of his forearm. He fisted his left hand on the floor and closed his eyes as she forced the bone back into place. Mayhap it was only dislocated. He might have laughed at that thought if he did not hurt so badly. Through gritted teeth, he muttered, “Be certain to wrap it with care and tightly, so nothing will jar it, Missâ”
“Miss Smithfield or Mrs.?” he asked, recalling the indentation on her left hand where she had worn the ring that had been stolen.
“Lady Romayne Smithfield.”
He forgot his pain as he stared at her and repeated her name in a strangled voice. He had been a sap-skull to think he had suffered the worst this accursed night had to offer. What was this woman doing in the Lowlands? A duke's granddaughter should be luxuriating in the warmth of the fire on one of the grand hearths in her fine hall.
“Have we met?” she asked, clearly disconcerted by his reaction.
“I am sure I would have recalled that,” he answered, his composure intact once more, “even if you have forgotten. I am James MacKinnon of Struthcoille.”
“A village about a league from here.” He added nothing else as Romayne twisted the second stocking along his forearm.
James stared straight ahead while she struggled to knot the ends together. When she bumped his arm, he could not silence his moan.
“I am so sorry,” she gasped.
“You did nothing,” he said softly. “The dashed arm hurts more than anything has a right to hurt.” Looking past her, he sighed. “Damn my eyes! This is a horrid turn of events.”
Romayne started to answer, but he suddenly pressed his hand over her mouth. He ignored the torment arcing up his arm as he heard footsteps beneath the rumble of the wind. When she reached across him and pulled his pistol from the waist of his breeches, he smiled grimly and drew his hand from her lips. He held out his hand for the gun, but she rose to her knees and aimed it steadily at the door.
“Romayneâ” he whispered.
The door burst open, and he swore. He seized her wrist as she pulled back the trigger. Jerking her arm up, he sent the shot into the roof.
“Major MacKinnon, why in the blazes are you shooting at me?” The older man standing in the doorway choked back the rest of his words as he stared at the woman by James's side.
Coolly, as if it was an everyday matter to have an Englishwoman holding his pistol while his arm was half-bound with her lacy stockings, James said, “I had thought you were lost in the storm, Cameron.”
“No, Majâ” A flush climbed his ice-coated cheeks.
“You might as well spit it out, man,” he said, not certain if he was more exasperated at Cameron or the woman who was regarding him with wide, blue eyes. “She is not daft, so she understood what you have already divulged.” Wryly smiling, he said, “Lady Romayne Smithfield, allow me to present to you Sergeant Fergus Cameron.”
“And you are
James MacKinnon?” she asked as she sat back on her heels.
“For now it is better that you think of me as you have.” He took the gun from her. “Simply James MacKinnon, Lowlander.”
“I don't understand.”
He winced as she tried again to tie a knot in the binding at his wrist. Every motion was like a cannon being fired in his head. “You need understand no more for now, except that Cameron and I are here in Scotland on the Regent's business.”
“To stop the highwaymen?”
“What are left of Duffie's lads are nothing for anyone to worry about, not even you.”
Romayne drew away and blinked back the tears that threatened to undam her grief. James MacKinnon might think himself very much the hero for saving her, but he had come too late to rescue Bradley.
She listened as he spoke to the pudgy man she nearly had shot. The easy authority in the major's voice should have warned her that he was no yeoman farmer. That he was a soldier explained how he could free her from six armed and mounted men. When he turned his green eyes toward her as he told his sergeant what had taken place, the feline coolness of his gaze pounced on her. She shivered and looked away, wondering if, like a cat, he could see more than most men.
How she longed to be home in Westhampton Hall! She held her hands to her lips as a sob oozed from her heart.
Oh, Bradley, where are you
? If only they had not come to Scotland tonight, Bradley might have been able to convince Grandfather to give his blessing on their betrothal. Hysteria threatened to consume her, but again she heard her grandfather's voice in her mind's ear. She was a Smithfield. She must be strong. Never could she shy away from doing what was right.