Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson
A door opened, and a tall, gaunt woman entered the room. Her auburn hair did not match the wrinkles weaving life's pattern in her face. Brown eyes widened, then narrowed as she stared at the snow melting on the floor.
“Jamie!” she gasped. “What has happened to you?”
“A bit of an accident,” he replied with a nonchalance that his pain-tightened lips belied.
“Ellen, send Fergus for the doctor.” When Ellen ran out of the room, the tall woman continued serenely, “I see you have brought us guests. This is indeed a surprise.”
“My aunt Dora Dunbar,” James said. “Ellen is her daughter. Dora, this is Lady Romayne Smithfield and her abigail Grange. Her man Thatcher is out at the stables with Cameron. I fear they are quite stuck here.”
He saw Romayne's frown. He did not care a rap if she was distressed by his informality. He had saved the chit's life while he muddled up his best chance to stop the traitor.
Not giving them time to greet each other, he said, “As for me, I would appreciate a dram of mountain-dew.”
Dora clapped her hands and motioned to a serving lass who had followed her into the room and was listening eagerly to the conversation. As the girl scurried away to get the whiskey, Dora said, “You are welcome to stay here until the storm is past.”
Pulling off her gloves, Grange retorted coolly, “We may be dependent upon your hospitality for a while longer than that. Lady Romayne cannot return to England in shame. It is my belief that your nephew has an obligation to marry her.”
James struggled not to smile when he heard the shock in Dora's voice. Seeing outrage blossoming on Miss Grange's face, he suspected Romayne's servant could not understand why he would not be delighted with the chance to wed an English duke's wayward granddaughter. Not that it would be difficult to take such a lovely woman to his bed.
He treated himself to a leisurely view of Lady Romayne Smithfield. Her cheeks were chapped to the same warm shade of her lips, but he paid them scant attention as he watched her draw off her coat. The gentle curves he had enjoyed against him last night were outlined by the fine white muslin of her gown. Braiding across the bodice drew his eyes to the enticing line of her bosom. She possessed a golden beauty that brought to mind a passionate nymph rather than an angel, but her charms were not for him, even if he had time to dally with her.
He said nothing as Romayne rose and clasped her hands in front of her. “I can assure you, Mrs. Dunbar, that I have tried to disabuse Grange of her misapprehensions with scant success. I have no interest in marrying anyone here while I am in mourning for my betrothed.”
Dora looked to him for the key to her confusion, and he said, “Lady Romayne's carriage was overrun by caterans last night,” he explained. “We fear for the life of her betrothed.”
“Oh my!” This was, undoubtedly, the closest he had ever heard Dora come to speechlessness. Slowly she sat and stared at the hearth. “Artair and his lads?”
“If you could have me shown to where I may rest,” Romayne said, “I would appreciate it greatly.”
“Why do you expect Jamie to marry your lady?” Aunt Dora asked as if Romayne had remained silent.
Grange smiled with satisfaction. James did not have to hear her thoughts. They were emblazoned on her face. Finally Grange had found someone who would turn a sympathetic ear to how the Duke of Westhampton could not have his granddaughter's reputation questioned. “His Grace is of an age at which one should abstain from offering him too much agitation. To learn that his granddaughter was discovered in a dubious situation might damage his heart beyond repair.”
“I understand,” said Aunt Dora with a nod.
Some message passed between the two women, but James was not privy to it. He could not argue this alone, not when his head was reeling with pain. Surging to his feet, he stormed across the room to where Romayne was ignoring the conversation as she peered up the stairs. The selfish lass! She could think only of her comfort while his aunt and her abigail were plotting to foul up his work and his life.
“James,” she asked, turning to him, “please can you have someone take me some place where I can rest? I want to crawl under a pile of comforters and not come out until I'm warm again.”
“You would be wise to think of something other than seeking your bed right now.” His hand curved along her cheek as he tilted her face up toward his. “If you don't do something to silence Grange, I suspect you and I shall soon find ourselves going to bed â¦ together.”
Romayne stared at James's cold smile. He was crazy if he thought she would welcome him in her bed. Last night had been bad enough â¦
, came the small voice that insisted on the truth,
being in his arms last night had been wonderful
. She had never felt so safe. As her eyes rose to meet his, she knew safe was something she would never feel again if she was want-witted enough to let him draw her into his arms.
“I would appreciate it,” he continued in a low voice that could not hide his vexation, “if you would halt Grange's rattling tongue. Even if I was anxious to wed youâwhich I assure you is far from the truthâher caustic voice irritates my head.”
“Your aunt is goading her on,” Romayne argued, but softly, for her head ached also. The loss of two nights' sleep weighed heavily on her shoulders and threatened to seal her eyes closed until she could sleep her fill. “Can you halt your aunt?”
A reluctant smile stole the lines of pain from his face. “I could sooner halt the wind from blowing along the hills. She has been intrigued with the idea of me settling down since I arrived here. Whom better to tack together with than a duke's granddaughter?” He glanced across the room. “Is it going to take that lass all day to bring me a bit of whiskey?”
“'Tis barely noon. Do you usually drink at this hour?” asked Romayne before her exhausted mind could silence the question.
“By gravy, I am grateful that I have no true interest in wedding you. You chide like a shrew when I am interested only deadening the pain in this arm.” His smile returned, but it was as icy as his green eyes. “You look as if you could use a drop or two yourself, Romayne. I have seen more color in the face of a corpse.”
“Pray don't,” she whispered.
His voice became kinder. “Forgive me. I did not mean to remind you of your betrothed. Blame the anguish in my arm for the lack of thought in my head.”
“Bradley may not be dead.”
“Maybe not,” he answered too quickly. “Once the weather clears, we can make inquiries into that.”
“I only heard the shots. I saw nothing.”
“Duffie cannot afford to waste gunpowder when it costs so dear.”
“Pray don't,” she whispered as she had before. When she started to turn away, he took her by the elbow. She kept her eyes lowered, for she did not want him to see her confusion as warmth slid along her from his fingers. How could she find his touch so splendid when she remained unsure if Bradley was dead or alive?
Before he was able to speak the dangerous thoughts glowing in his eyes, the front door opened to reveal a lanky man.
The dim light off the snow glittered on the man's pale hair, and Romayne whispered, “Bradley?”
James's fingers bit into her arm, but loosened when his cousin called, “Dr. Wollaston, come in. Jamie is right here.”
“He may still be alive,” James whispered as the doctor bustled into the room.
“I hope you are right and my fears are wrong.” Closing her eyes, Romayne sighed. She walked away from where the doctor was urging James to sit. Her wishes were cockle-brained, but her heart refused to believe that Bradley was dead. Surely then she would feel more than this unending emptiness.
A slender hand settled on her arm. She turned, expecting to see Grange. Instead Ellen Dunbar stood next to her, the young woman's warm eyes filled with sorrow.
“Please, Lady Romayne, sit here by the fire. You must be hungry and tired.”
James answered before Romayne could. “We dined with St. Giles and the Earl of Murray last night, Ellen.”
“An earl?” asked Grange, baffled. “Here in this desolation?”
He laughed, then winced as the doctor examined his arm.
Ellen hurried to explain, “He means he and Lady Romayne had nothing on their table.” She dimpled. “You should not heed Jamie. He is always jesting.”
“Is there a bit of something tasty about for me and Romayne?” He raised the mug the serving lass had handed him and took a sip. “I'd like to wash down this fine whiskey with something other than thoughts of food.”
“Let me find you something to eat while Dr. Wollaston tends to you, Jamie.” Ellen clapped her hands and giggled again. “Oh, 'tis so wonderful to have you home! What fun we all shall have while we enjoy the company of our guests!”
Romayne glanced involuntarily at James. Her gaze locked with his, and she saw her disquiet reflected in his eyes. He found nothing wonderful about this whole situation. She began to wonder where this disaster would end.
Morning dawned with a crystalline sparkle. James rose with the sun as he had made his habit, dressed with Cameron's help, and ignored his sergeant's constant attempts to guard against bumping the bandaged arm. Dr. Wollaston had announced it nothing worse than a bad sprain, and a week of rest had helped ease the worst of the pain. Nothing had eased his frustration at failing to stop the traitor.
“It's time, Cameron,” he said without preamble.
“For what, sir?” Cameron asked, keeping his voice low as he sat on a chest at the base of the rope bed.
“To start this blasted hunt over.” James bent so he could see in the glass to adjust his cravat. With the slanting roof of the house, there were few places on the upper floor where he could stand straight. “The blackguard must come out of hiding to meet his contact. While the weather closed the hills, I doubt he emerged from the comfort of his hearth. However, the sun has returned, and it's time to complete our task.”
Cameron nodded as he looked at the window where icicles dripped slowly. “But if the information is passed to the Frogs before we can halt itâ”
“I prefer not to think of that.” That was a lie. James thought of it all too often, although he was unable to do anything until he could mount his horse without Cameron's assistance. “Cameron, how would you like to take a bit of a ride about the countryside?”
The sergeant's round face brightened with a smile. “My pleasure, sir.”
“You know what to look for.”
“Aye, anything unusual.” Patting his full stomach, he rose. Then he hesitated. “I hate to be leaving you with two women who are determined to see you wed to Lady Romayne.”
James sat on a bench by the room's sole window. Resting his arm on the back, he grinned. Grange's determination to see her charge salvage her reputation had not changed a whit during the past week. “Do you think I will succumb at this point to the pressure from two old hens who are clucking about as if Romayne was the sole chick between them?”
“'Tis not their prattling that worries me, sir.” He glanced out the window. “'Tis the lady.”
“She wishes to be buckled to me no more than I wish to be buckled to her.”
“True, but, about Lady Romayne, it's most peculiar.”
“It may be none of my concern, sir, butâ”
“Spit out what you have to say, man.”
“Have you considered, Major, that Lady Romayne and her companions were on the route you expected the traitor to take?”
“Often.” His smile vanished as he leaned forward to place his bandaged arm on the knee of his gray breeches. “However, she is not an accomplished liar, for I can see through every tale she tries to create.”
“And what of her betrothed? Do you believe him to be as innocent?”
“That's something I intend to find out.”
James stood. “How else? Romayne might hold the key to the truth about any part he may have been playing in this treacherous game, whether she knows it or not.”
Cameron cleared his throat, then said, “I trust you can determine that without causing Lady Romayne more hurt. She has suffered quite enough, I suspect.”
“And I suspect,” he said, turning to look out the window because he did not want his sergeant to see his distress, “she will be suffering more pain.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “And I shall be the one causing it.”
The parlor was empty when Romayne entered it. For that, she was grateful. Although Thatcher and Sergeant Cameron had found quarters in the small stable behind the house, the house was bursting with people. She never had realized how much she appreciated the spaciousness of Westhampton Hall until now. Even Grandfather's town house in London was larger than this cramped house.
She could not fault Dora and her daughter, for in the week since James had brought them to Struthcoille, they had made every effort to make their unexpected guests welcome. How she wished to be done with Scotland! She was willing to do almost anything to put these hills behind her and return to the comfort of her grandfather's house. Would he accept her back? Never had she been as defiant as she had been when she eloped with Bradley. Yet, if he would take her back into his house, she would gladly suffer his rage at her disobedience. Even a scold was preferable to being in this house with Major James MacKinnon and his secrets.
Romayne went to the window nearest the hearth. The snow that had drifted up against the panes was pocked with drops from the eaves. So much snow in March had seemed an impossibility until she was imprisoned in this backwater town in the Cheviot Hills. In a different situation, Romayne might have enjoyed the beauty of the frosted trees and cottages. She could feel nothing but a nagging sense of dread.