Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson
“There will be no chance of picking up the trail tonight,” James was saying when she took note of his words again. “He is certain to have crawled back under the rock where he was spawned.”
“The road leads into England,” Cameron replied.
“So do many others. He will not leave Scotland until his work here is completed.” A satisfied smile eased the lines of pain etched into his face as he patted the pocket of his coat. Romayne remembered him taking something from the horse and securing it there, but could not guess what it was as James continued, “And we have made sure that he cannot complete that work.”
“But if he met his contact tonightâ”
“Let us hope the storm made that impossible.” He shifted, and his face grew gray. “Cameron, we are going to need help. Ban-righ is dead, and your mount cannot carry three. Go back to Struthcoille and bring help.”
“I can take the lady with me.” Again his cheeks became ruddy as he glanced shyly at Romayne.
“She will stay here,” the major answered before she could speak, “because I fear she will freeze to death as she is dressed now.” He pointed to his arm. “With the kind offer of her stockings, she has nothing on her feet except those kid slippers. Bring several heavy cloaks and a pair of heavy boots with you.”
The thick-set man nodded and rushed out into the storm. The door slammed heavily behind him, the sound echoing through the abruptly silent hut.
Romayne rose. Rubbing her cold hands together, she went to the door. Hastily she backed away as the frigid wind struck her past its edges.
“Cameron should be back in a few hours,” James said.
She kept her back to him as she said, “I am not one of your soldiers, Major MacKinnonâ”
“Call me James. I don't want you making the same mistake Cameron did.”
“It would have been pleasant of you to consult me before you decided what I would do.”
“You need not play the lady of the manor with me, Romayne.”
Startled by his casual use of her Christian name, she turned to see he was struggling to stand. He leaned against the wall as he fought to regain his breath. Taller than Bradley, he must be of an age with her betrothed.
She gasped as she saw blood on his breeches. “You were shot!”
“Nicked, no more. I would guess it was a fragment of the rock as lief a ball. Poor Ban-righ took the brunt of the attack.” He cradled his arm in his left hand as he lurched toward her. “If you will be so good as to reload my pistol, we should be safe until Cameron returns. Not comfortable, I fear, for this bourach is nearly as cold as the forest.”
Taking the pistol, she whispered, “If you were not chasing the highwaymen, who were you trying to capture?”
“Do not ask any questions that I cannot answer.”
“Cannot or will not?”
His smile stole the hardest edges from his face, but one glance at his eyes warned her not to be taken in by it. “I leave that to you to decide, Romayne.”
“I care little about what you are doing. I just want to leave this place and see that those bridle-culls are caught. I shall report them to the nearest charley.”
“Charley?” His laugh was as cold as the wind. “You are not in London. You will find that the watch here is lax when it comes to highwaymen. A sparkle of gold passed from hand to hand can buy blindness on the part of the law.”
“This is insane!”
When he put his hand on her arm, she flinched. His smile vanished as his fingers clamped on her elbow. She considered resisting when he steered her back to where they had been sitting, but she feared any motion would knock him from his feet. Although his manners were almost as beastly as the knights of the pad, she could not forget that she owed him her life.
Romayne was silent as she sat and competently reloaded the pistol, a skill she had begged her soldier grandfather to teach her. If James was surprised, he said no more than she did. He sat next to her and drew up one knee, so he could balance his arm on it.
She flinched again when he asked without preamble, “What are you doing in Scotland dressed in that thin coat and useless slippers?”
“I was eloping with Bradley Montcrief, my betrothed.”
“Eloping?” He laughed sharply. “Did you consider waiting a fortnight or two until spring makes such absurdly romantic antics feasible?”
“We wanted to get married.”
“And your family disagreed? Or was it his that objected to you?”
Romayne glowered at him. What a rag-mannered rogue! No wonder his commanders had banished him far from the garrison to this desolate place. “That is no bread-and-butter of yours.”
His fingers curled around her left wrist. When she would have pulled away, they tightened. Slowly they gentled to brush her fingers in sympathy. She gasped, for even the scant touch scorched her skin with heat. Staring up into his eyes, she wondered what emotions roiled in their depths. He would allow her to see only what he wished.
“They were cabbage-heads if they considered you beneath their contempt, Romayne. Your Montcrief should count himself a lucky man.”
She closed her eyes, feeling tears dampening her lashes. “Only bad luck, for I think the highwaymen killed him.”
“Killed?” James's teasing tone vanished as his lips became straight again. “Duffie is no murderer. His means usually are pops in the air and off he goes with his prize. I never have heard of him killing anyone.”
“I heard two gunshots.” Romayne turned to face him. “Could that have been you firing?”
“No, and I heard the shots as well.” He ran his finger along her cheek to halt the single tear inching along it.
His unexpected kindness completely undid her. She pressed her face into his shoulder and wept. When he pulled his cloak over her, she let the heavy scent of the damp wool envelop her. His fingers stroked her arm, but he said nothing. She mourned Bradley and the loss of her dreams. She tried not to think of her grandfather's anger, for she feared he would not welcome her home again. With her reputation in tatters about her, the Polite World would turn its back on her as well.
As the slow pulse of James's heart beneath her cheek soothed her like a lullaby, she faded from her living nightmare into one that haunted her as she slept. She knew there would be no escaping it when she woke.
A screech woke Romayne. Fear erupted within her, and she fought to escape the nightmare. Bradley! The highwaymen! She shuddered as she was whipped into the past. A pistol pointed at her. The sound of a shot. Bradley!
A strong arm pinned her against a warm body and unyielding stones. “No,” she moaned. “Bradley! Don't hurt Bradley!”
The arm tightened around her. When she gasped and would have pulled away, she could not move.
A barely familiar voice ordered, “Steek your gob!”
“What?” she choked, fearing that she was still lost in the nightmare. Why else would the words sound so alien? She opened her eyes to see a pain-etched face close to hers in the gray twilight. Shadows did not accent every angle, but with ease and horrified dismay, she recognized the man holding her so intimately.
James aimed a glower at her, then, looking beyond her, snapped, “Keep her quiet, will you? Such screeching is sure to rouse every ghost in the hills.”
Only then did Romayne realize that he had not been speaking to her. Following his gaze, she was blinded by a piercing brilliance from a lantern that swallowed the feeble light of their lamp. She held up her hand to shield her eyes and blinked, trying to adjust to the brightness. When forms emerged from the glow, she leapt to her feet.
She ignored James's shout as she raced to be enfolded in thin arms. She whispered her abigail's name over and over. Never had she guessed when she left her grandfather's home in such anticipation that she would be so happy to see Grange again.
“Child, are you well?” Grange asked in her scratchy voice. She held Romayne at arm's length, but the faded eyes in her round face were filled with relief. Shorter than Romayne by nearly a head, the older woman's gaze swept along her to determine for herself the answer to her question.
Although her muscles ached from the long ride and being pitched from the horse, Romayne offered Thatcher, her grandfather's groom, a weary smile. The young man's boots and crimson livery were splattered with mud, but no signs of fatigue were visible on his taut face. Wanting to thank him, too, she refrained. Grange would be outraged if she was so familiar with one of the servants, although Romayne considered Thatcher a friend.
Looking back at Grange, she said, “I am as well as could be expected under the circumstances.”
“I thought we had lost you when the storm settled in.”
Romayne patted her abigail's arm, for Grange would appreciate no shows of emotion between them. Not that Grange was distant. Indeed, she was quite the opposite. The older woman wished to involve herself in every aspect of her charge's life, but the thin woman always kept an invisible barrier between her and Romayne. As she had reminded Romayne often, the granddaughter of a duke should have friends only of her exalted class. That had not halted her from considering Grange one of her dearest bosom bows.
“Grange, thank goodness you did not give up searching for us!” She wrapped her arms around herself. In the midst of the excitement of seeing someone from home, she had forgotten the fierce cold that had clamped onto her.
The gray-haired woman's lips became a straight line as she drew Romayne away from where James was slowly rising. A genteel shudder rippled along her gaunt form beneath her thick cloak. “We have spent the last two hours riding through that horrible storm and looking in every cot and byre in the countryside around Coldstream. I fear we became quite lost. It is clear you have as well. When we saw the bit of light from this horrid place, we stopped in here.”
“Yes, we were lost.” Romayne blinked back the tears pricking her eyes. “Bradley believed we were misdirected when we asked for directions south of here. We had no idea that we had passed the village.”
“Then you haven't married?”
Grange exchanged a relieved look with Thatcher. “Then we arrived in time.” Her forehead furrowed again. “Where is Mr. Montcrief?”
Biting her lip, Romayne whispered, “I think he's dead.”
“Dead?” Grange looked from Romayne to James. “What madness is this? I was sure when I found your note pinned under your pillowâa most unoriginal plan, I must say, Lady Romayneâthat you were eloping to Coldstream with Mr. Montcrief.”
“We did elopeâI mean, we intended to get married.” She rubbed her hands together, then looked at them. She had forgotten James had given her his glove. “We had reached the Tweed whenâI mean â¦” She hesitated, recalling what James had told her. How much easier this might be if he were not listening to the recounting of her skimble-skamble adventures! She was astonished. Why should she care what a Scotsmanâarmy officer, though he might beâthought?
James intruded to say, “If I may â¦ Lady Romayne and her companions had lost their way when they were set upon by a band of toby-men. They were robbed, and the highwaymen intended to abduct Lady Romayne.”
“My dear child,” moaned Grange.
“But where is Mr. Montcrief?” asked Thatcher.
Romayne's voice broke, but she struggled to say, “I fear that they murdered Bradley.”
Grange's wrinkled face became a mask of horror. “Murdered? Why?”
“I don't know.” Gazing up at the ceiling, which was swallowed by the darkness, she fought to keep her tears in her eyes as she whispered, “I don't know anything about anything any longer.”
“Child, you should never have run off like this. It was madness. What will His Grace say when you relate this tale to him?” Grange pulled the cloak more tightly over her spencer. “We need not worry about that now, for I fear this storm is ready to leave us all stuck in this hellish place.”
“What do you wish me to do with
, Grange?” asked Thatcher. “He's a bold one, he is, to stand there as if nothing's amiss.”
“I must say that the world would be better off with one less highwayman,” Grange said without emotion.
For a moment, Romayne did not understand the import of her abigail's words. Then, seeing James's eyes narrow and his fingers slip beneath his cloak, Romayne whirled to discover Thatcher holding a gun which was pointed directly at James. Hearing the click of the hammer, she leapt forward to put her hand on the barrel and push it toward the floor.
“No,” she cried, “don't shoot him! Mr. MacKinnon is not a highwayman. He saved me from them! Thatcher, put down that gun before you hurt Mr. MacKinnon worse.”
Grange cried, “No, Thatcher, don't let that dashed Scotsman weasel his way out of here! Keep that gun on him. Even if he is no highwaymanâ”
“He saved me
the highwaymen!” insisted Romayne.
“He's destroyed Lady Romayne's reputation, and he must make restitution.” The older woman gestured toward Thatcher, who raised the gun again.
“He did nothing wrong!” Romayne persisted. “Thatcher, put that weapon away before someone gets hurt. Grange, calm yourself before you have a fit. Mr. MacKinnon has been very much the gentleman with me.” She silenced the small voice which reminded her that she was lying. To speak the truth would damn them more. Then she had to own that her rescuer had been as kind to her as circumstances allowed. “If you will recall, Grange, what I told you just moments past, Mr. MacKinnon saved my life. He deserves my thanks. We should help him find his way home, where his arm can be tended to, so that we might return to England and Westhampton Hall. I wish to be done with Scotland and everything in it.”
Again the abigail shook her head. “I cannot take you back to the duke with your reputation in such a questionable state. You are the only thing your grandfather has, and His Grace would be well within his rights to cock up his toes if he heard of this escapade which has ended with us discovering you with that man.” Pointing her finger to where James stood, she asked with a groan, “What will His Grace say when he learns that you were discovered asleep with your head on his shoulder and his arm about you?”