Copyright © 1991/2015 Patricia Rice
Book View Café Publishing Cooperative
Edition February 3, 2015
First published: 1991 by New American Library, New York
Cover design by Killion Group
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portion thereof, in any form.
This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Rory Maclean cursed and scratched surreptitiously at a suspicious itch beneath his arm. Beneath the coarse wool of his decrepit coat, his stained leather jerkin and threadbare homespun shirt stank from hard use and no washing. Why the devil he had decided to make this trip was far beyond his capacity to comprehend. The country that had branded him an outlaw for all these years would scarcely welcome him with open arms now—even less so if they knew he was more of a criminal now than he had been when he left. But his family had worked hard to obtain his pardon, and it seemed only fair that he should thank them personally.
His ship had landed off the coast of Cornwall. His men were unwilling to risk the British Navy in closer ports. Glaring over the desolation of a Cornish mining town, Rory knew he was in for a long and tedious ride to London.
The gray colors of day were fading to twilight, and he yawned. He could have chosen to arrive in a little more grandeur than his usual disguise, but he preferred to keep the connection between himself and the ship undetected. The men had their orders and would carry them out well enough without him for a while. And they would be ready when he was. This courtesy visit should not last overlong.
Sometime after midnight the coach rattled to a halt to change horses and take on passengers, but by this time he was sound asleep.
When he woke again, Rory found the opposite seat occupied by two daunting women who glared at him as if he had threatened rape at knife point. One was so obese as to make the act physically improbable. The other wore the prim attire and thin-lipped mien of a spinster. Maliciously Rory winked and watched her shiver in horror, before he returned to watching the passing landscape.
The barely perceptible evergreen scent of heather in springtime gradually reached his senses. Rory wondered if one of those damn fleas had given him the fever. Springtime would not have reached the Highlands yet, and he was a long way from those lovely hills.
The soft rustle of a page turning jerked his attention back to the far occupant of his seat. Since she was not in his direct field of vision, he had not bothered to examine the passenger blocked by a large merchant snoring between them.
Adjusting his position so his long legs nearly touched the skirts of the wide-eyed spinster, Rory glanced over. The cloak the small passenger wore was as disreputable as his own and totally enveloped her. The fabric might smell of the stables, but the scent of heather had to be coming from somewhere.
The smooth white hands turning the pages revealed she was as much a fraud as he—more so, he suspected. But the fact that she was a fraud wasn’t what fascinated him. It was the hands. He hadn’t been this close to soft hands like that in years. The women he knew lived harsh lives, and the toil showed in the brown filth and calluses. These hands didn’t appear to have ever lifted anything heavier than roses or touched anything dirtier than crystal. They were slim and soft. He wondered how they would feel against his skin, but remembering the unshaven bristles of his jaw and the work-hardened coarseness of his own palms, he turned to stare out the window again.
By evening Rory was cursing himself for three sorts of a fool for not just sailing up the Thames and disembarking in London for all the world to see. He was unaccustomed to sitting still this length of time. He contemplated buying a horse to complete the journey rather than continuing to suffer this torture. The merchant had descended at noon, but the three women lingered. If he had to sit idle any longer, he would go mad.
The fat one had snored through most of the day, waking only when they stopped to eat. The spinster had managed to spend the entire time looking disapproving and pulling her skirts away from his boots. The third one… Rory leaned his head back against the hard box seat and contemplated the third one with pleasure.
She had declined to join the others in their meals, but stayed in the coach and evidently lunched out of the basket at her feet. But he had stationed himself where he could see her when she descended to visit the necessary, and he had finally caught sight of the vision beneath that musty wool.
The glimpse had been brief but revealing. Light eyes the gray-blue of a misty Scottish morn gazed from a round-cheeked face of palest snow, with just a hint of rose to her cheeks. A beauteous cloud of ebony hair swirled about her brow and throat despite some attempt to control it with combs and ribbons. He still could not see her figure, but the way she moved across the yard told him all he needed to know. She was an angel down from heaven, and as such, far from the reaches of a devil such as himself.
Lapsing into drowsy cynicism as night closed in, Rory ignored temptation and tried to sleep on the rough wooden bench of the public conveyance. Before he reached that happy goal, the frantic cry of the driver and the sudden unexpected jerk of the coach threw him forward, nearly landing him in mounds of flesh. A faint wailing sound arose from the other passenger’s throat as Rory righted himself by using her knee as a brace.
The coach ground to a halt, and the spinster shrieked in terror at some sight in the forest beyond. The angel finally surrendered her book to the gray light and looked outside as if to discern the status of the elements. Rory pushed her back against the seat and leaned across her to find the cause for this unscheduled stop.
From this angle he could see a mounted man holding the bridle of the lead coach horse. Another horseman held a blunderbuss pointed at the driver, while a third had dismounted, pistol in hand, and approached the coach. That didn’t require much problem-solving.
In the darkening twilight he could see only an expanse of bare trees behind the highwaymen. They had found a barren, isolated spot to perpetrate their crime.
Rory disturbed the spinster’s equilibrium by brushing her skirts in climbing over her legs to unlatch the coach door. His seat mate only made her delicate frame more compact to allow him to pass. He dropped to the ground, blocking the coach door.
The highwayman pulled his tricorne over his brow and gestured at Rory with his pistol. “Get the women down.” The kerchief masking his jaw muffled his voice.
With three loaded weapons aimed in his direction, Rory didn’t see an immediate alternative. Keeping his eyes on the pistol, he opened the door and held out his hand. “Best listen to the man with the gun,” he suggested.
The spinster screamed again, but she reluctantly obeyed Rory’s whispered reassurances and took his hand to climb down. The fat one huffed and complained and rolled out after her. The third one hesitated, and Rory had to climb up on the step to urge her to hurry.
“They’re likely half-bosky and ready to show their prowess at the slightest disobedience, ma’am. Giving them our coins is better than surrendering our lives.”
Reluctantly, she took his rough hand and climbed down.
“’And over the val’bles, ladies and gent.” The highwayman swept off his hat for them to deposit their coins in, revealing a swarthy face and filthy hair.
“You bloomin’ hidget! We ain’t arfter the gold. Just get the female and lets get outter ’ere.” The mounted horseman added a few succinct curses as his companion began pocketing the coin purses he had taken.
“Which uv the wenches you meanin’ to take?” the bold thief demanded irritably. “They don’t none uv ’em look like quality to me.”
Rory felt the slim woman beside him stiffen, and he rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder while the highwaymen bickered among themselves over the identity of the mysterious female they had been sent to abduct. Things made a little more sense now.
Shoving his slovenly hat from his brow, Rory spat at the ground and contemplated the gunman. “Don’ know who ye be lookin’ for or why, but just to get rid of ’er wicked tongue and bony knees, I’d give you this ’un, exceptin’ that’s my bun she’s got in the oven, and I reckon I’ll keep what’s mine.” He felt the girl’s angry twitch, and aggravatingly, he hugged her shoulder. Be deviled if she didn’t feel good squeezed against his side.
“That leaves ’em two.” Rory nodded helpfully toward his other traveling companions. “If I was ye, I’d cast my lot on the young ’un. She’s got a fine eye to ’er and a lady’s ways. She’ll be bringin’ you the best billet, I reckon.”
The spinster sputtered, apparently not knowing whether to scream in outrage or preen. Rory smothered a chuckle as the would-be kidnapper grabbed her skinny elbow. The girl beside him tried to jerk from his hold, but he kept a firm grip on her hood so no one could see her face. One look at her creamy complexion and sooty lashes, and even a man without a brain would know she was the one they wanted.
“Come on, miss, we ain’t got all day. We ain’t gonna ’urt you none, just take you back where you belong. That’s all, miss.”
Those words coupled with the spinster’s screams caused the girl to step back against Rory, and he wrapped a protective arm around her waist. He felt her shudder, but whether it was him or fear that caused it, he couldn’t ascertain.
With much ado and wails and shrieks of protest, the spinster was carried off in the arms of the highwayman for the first and only adventure of her dismal life. With the gunmen gone, the remaining passengers returned to the coach to the tune of the driver’s curses.
The fat woman stared at Rory suspiciously. Muttering under her breath something vaguely resembling “What’s this world comin’ to?” she removed a hunk of cheese from among her voluminous clothes and began to munch.
Alyson sat on the edge of the seat, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands, deliberately not looking at him. “What’s to become of her?” she whispered.
Rory smiled at the beauty of that musical lilt. Each piece of this puzzle was better than the last. It almost made the journey worth it. “That’s something I suspect you would know better than I.”
Alyson jumped nervously at this murmur so near her ear. She glanced at the woman across from them, but she had leaned back and begun to snore again. Guiltily Alyson looked at the empty place across from her. Apparently the spinster had been traveling alone.
“I don’t know.” This rather odious man had saved her, Alyson realized. She didn’t know how to thank him.
That he had guessed she was the one the villains were after did not puzzle her. She had long ago accepted that other people understood things that she didn’t, while she saw things that made people look at her strangely. That was the way her world was.
“He’ll be furious, but I shouldn’t think he would harm a stranger,” she said more to herself than to her listener.
Her companion crossed his arms over his chest. “Who will be furious? Who wanted you abducted?”
Alyson sighed and sat back against the seat. There was little enough she could do now. The coach rattled and jerked faster to make up lost time. Her words lurched with the horses’ gait. “My… cousin. He meant… for us… to be married.”
Her filthy companion hummed but merely asked, “I don’t suppose you would have a bite or two of something edible left in that basket, would ye, lass? It looks as if we’ll not be makin’ the inn for supper.”
Startled, Alyson glanced at the stranger who had rescued her, however ungallantly. In this dusk she could discern little, but her sight was enhanced by the impressions she had received throughout the day. He was taller than she, but not frighteningly so, not so tall as Alan or her cousin. He seemed very sturdily built, certainly not the skinny scarecrow one would expect beneath those rags. Remembering the muscular strength of the arm that had restrained her, she stirred uneasily. He was not so big as Cranville, perhaps, but he had to be as strong. That arm had been sheer iron.
His face was something of a problem. Covered in a week’s growth of beard, it appeared formidable, as square and sturdily made as the rest of him. His russet hair was tied in a queue, but since he kept it covered with a hat, she could tell little more. She suspected she should be afraid of him, but she had felt him as a congenial presence from the very first, more so than the ladies, and she trusted her instincts.
She reached for the basket. “You certainly have many voices, don’t you? Are you an actor?” The change from his ignorant accent with the highwaymen to a hint of a Scots burr had not escaped her notice.
“ ‘All the world’s a stage, and men and women merely players…’” he quoted mockingly. “I fancy you’re not quite what you seem either, milady.”
“Do you enjoy Shakespeare, Mr….” She glanced up in surprise, realizing she was conversing with a man whose name she didn’t know.
“Rory Douglas Maclean, at your service, milady.” He swept off his hat and made the half-bow the coach’s limited interior allowed him. “Might I have the honor of yours, milady?”
The soft, lilting roll of his R’s enchanted her, and Alyson smiled. “You sound just like my grandmother. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed that accent until now.” She produced a linen napkin with a variety of selections from the cook’s generous basket. “I hope some of these will suit your appetite.”
She had not responded to his calling her lady. She had not offered him a name. She had merely offered him all the food she carried.
Rory accepted the offering without looking at it, wondering if he’d finally found the flaw in all this perfection. What a shame it would be to have a witless angel. Their conversation seemed to be carried on two levels: he would ask questions and she would talk about Shakespeare and accents and grandmothers, which would be fine if that was what he had asked her.
But how many witless ladies could even read Shakespeare, let alone recognize the quote? He didna ken, but he would.
Rory opened the napkin, and the scent of pickled salmon hit him. With wonder he sampled the rest of the fare, each discovery bringing another enraptured cry. “Bannocks! Ach, my bonny lassie, do ye not know what I would give for fresh bannocks? And spelding! It’s been years…” His ecstasy disappeared in the mouthful of bread and fish he deposited between his grateful lips.
His companion giggled at his reaction to her food. “Alan always turned up his nose at my favorite dishes. Even grandfather hated spelding. I should have known the Maclean would like this fare. My name is Alyson Hampton. Pleased to meet you.”
Rory nearly choked on her ingenuous recognition of his Scots title. He hadn’t introduced himself as laird, nor did he show any outward sign of it. He wasn’t even certain why he had given his proper name after all these years of hiding it. Maybe she wasn’t the one who was witless, but he.