I know it's a long wait until January. So I thought I'd give you a sneak peek at HIGHLANDER MINE. Here's Chapter One. Happy Tuesday!
The danger of the journey ahead was equal to the perils we had left behind, this I knew. My knowledge of the Highlands was practically nonexistent. I might as well have been embarking on an escapade to the jungles of Africa, or captaining my own pirate ship to the newly discovered Americas.
Yet I was glad to be free of stuffy, seedy Edinburgh. I had never been past its borders and I was sure we had entered another world entirely, one that was as free as it was possible to be. As we hitched rides farther and farther up into the rolling peaks of the high country, it seemed impossible that such a place could harbor threats of any kind, so peaceful and serene its landscape appeared. We could hide ourselves in these picturesque hills and protected valleys, I was sure. No more murderous ganglords to contend with. No cardsharks or knife fights. No bawdy dens full of loose women and predatory men. Just wide-open countryside, glistening expanses of sparkling, sun-shimmered water and an endless azure sky.
Of course there were dangers. I was a young woman traveling alone, after all, aside from my small nephew, who fancied himself a mighty warrior but was in fact a nine-year-old waif with a toy wooden sword that he clutched even now, in his sleep, as we rode along on the back of a hay wagon. Its driver was unaware of our quiet presence—we had become surprisingly adept at keeping ourselves hidden, with all the practice we’d had over days past. As soon as the wagon slowed, we’d jump and take our chances with the next mode of transport.
I wasn’t sure of our exact destination. The Highlands had seemed a good place to hide from our pursuers. Indeed it was a perfect choice. Was there a more expansive place on earth? I doubted as much, though I’d only read books on the subject of travel. I had spent my entire life cooped up in two city residences only streets apart. And, while the social divide of my homes’ geography might as well have seen oceans between them, this was a detail that hardly mattered now. My past was well and truly behind me.
At least for now.
We’d been on the road for five days, climbing ever higher into the undulating green mountains. We’d seen very few people. Farmers, mostly. A lone fisherman. Shepherds and goatherds, who seemed as mild and docile as the flocks they tended.
Aye, this world was new to me, but I wasn’t that naive. Men were men, after all, and I knew of their tendencies far too well. Everyone had heard of the Highlands clans and their armies, their fearsome warriors and their bloody battles. Watching the glowing orb of the yellow sun hover ever lower over the horizon, I wondered now if those stories were merely folklore. I’d seen no sign of war or aggression in these lovely heather-peppered hills. Only honest endeavor and peaceful coexistence.
It might have been a sixth sense or the slide of a silver-edged cloud over the low-hanging sun, but some instinctive flutter warned me that safety was only a temporary illusion. Despite this, I felt wary but not afraid. Even sword-wielding warriors were preferable to the threats we’d left behind. At least skilled soldiers loyal to their cause and their kin might have some sense of honor and integrity, not like the lawless, malevolent beast who would be scouring Edinburgh at this very moment to find our trail.
I only wished we could travel faster. I would go to the very ends of the earth to hide and protect Hamish. As I looked around at the countryside, it occurred to me that we might have actually reached a place where that might be possible.
The wagon driver slowed his horses to a walk. I peered around the back of the wagon to see we were approaching a large tavern. We’d reached some oasis of community within this vast green desert of solitude.
I shook my nephew. “Hamish,” I whispered. “Wake up.”
Hamish was instantly alert, his dark eyes bright, his sword held in his small fist. He understood the danger, even if he didn’t grasp the severity of our current predicament. It helped that his lifelong dream was to travel to the Highlands, a desire that seemed almost innate. He’d yearned for an adventure for as long as I could recall.
And now, despite the gravity of our situation, I almost smiled at his sparked excitement. He loved the open majesty of this place, so different from the enclosed, squalid streets of the city. “You’ve taken ridiculously well to this life on the run,” I told him quietly.
He perched at the edge of the wagon’s deck, his sandy brown hair tousled and flecked with hay. He looked back at me, a smile on his beatific face. “So have you, Ami,” he whispered, pronouncing the address with all the flair of its French meaning: friend. He was the only person who used this shortened form of my full name, Amelia. Once, a short lifetime ago, I had attended one of the most exclusive schools in Edinburgh. Hamish had never had such a privilege. So I’d taken it upon myself to teach him everything I knew. It was one of the few things I had to be proud of: my nephew, at the age of nine, could read, write, do sums and speak basic French better than many of the fully grown men who frequented my family’s establishment. I was slightly less proud of Hamish’s uncanny knack not only for counting cards but also for dealing them. I’m only taking after you, Ami, he’d said to me. You’re the best dealer in Edinburgh. Whether or not it was an accurate accusation was no longer relevant. I’d only done what I needed to do to survive, as I would again, in whatever way this new life required.
I held his arm, taking in the details of our surroundings. It was dusk now and the dimming daylight would give us an advantage. A thick copse stood behind the tavern: a place to take cover until we could fully assess the clientele of the inn. Wagons of many descriptions were parked along the road, and upwards of twelve horses had been tied to a hitching rail. They were slow, sturdy farm horses. None were coated with sweat as though they’d been ridden at pace all the way from Edinburgh. I felt confident that there was nothing to fear here, that our pursuers were a long way from tracing our trail to this unlikely hideout.
“Now,” I whispered.
The slow pace of the wagon made the disembarkment easy enough. Our only belongings were Hamish’s sword and a small bag I carried, which contained two woolen blankets, a single spare, fine dress of my sister’s, a wineskin full of water and a few coins I’d managed to take from the cashbox as we’d made our escape. I had also brought the small red book that was my most sentimental possession; in it, I had recorded dreams, scribbled poems and wishes, and drawn pictures of trees and stars and fanciful yearnings. An impractical possession, aye, but symbolically precious to me nonetheless and light enough to carry. Holding on to Hamish’s hand, I led him past the entrance of the tavern and into the woods. We needed to check our appearances and get our story straight.
Tonight, it seemed, we might need to put all our skills of deceit and persuasion to good use. We were both, it had to be said, somewhat gifted in the ways of trickery, since we’d had a regular need to fabricate tales to various people and on a daily basis, like debt collectors, upset wives or the law, to name a few. These were skills we had honed over many years: an unfortunate necessity of our lifestyle, but one I was now glad we had some practice with.
“I’m hungry,” Hamish said. “I want some meat and potatoes with gravy, some stew with bread fresh from the oven and melted butter and some—”
“Aye,” I said. “But first, what’s it to be? This tavern is sure to be full of local farmers and traders. They’ll likely know each other, and they’ll know that we’re not from around here. We’ll need a convincing story. I could get work here possibly, as a cleaner or a cook. We need money.”
“A cook? You don’t know how to cook, Ami. They’ll probably want you to perform other services. Why don’t we just offer up a card game and win some money?” Regrettably, my nephew was far too worldly for his own good.
“We’re not playing cards anymore,” I said. “We’re starting a new life. An honest one. One that doesn’t involve cheating, stealing, smuggling or gambling.”
“But gambling is so much easier than working. And besides, it’s the only thing we know how to do.”
This riled me. But it would hardly do to get upset with him. It was my responsibility to be not only his guardian but also his role model. I would have to show him that honesty was more effective than the life we were used to. I hoped I could. I wasn’t sure whether my new philosophy was even true, nor did I have any idea how to employ it. “It seems easier, Hamish. But it isn’t. Look how it’s turned out for all of us. Hiding, separated, on the run. Gambling is like stealing, when you use the kinds of tricks we do. Stealing makes people angry. You know it as well as I do. ’Tis up to us to find a better way for ourselves.”
My nephew looked up at me, unconvinced.
“Or at least try to,” I said, a suggestion that was met with at least a degree of acquiescence. His eyebrows furrowed in the middle as he mulled this over. And I continued to formulate our plan. “I propose that we are well-bred travelers from Edinburgh who have fallen on hard times, whose carriage was—”
“Taken over by bandits!”
I considered this. It wasn’t a completely unreasonable suggestion. How else might we have parted ways with our transport? Were there bandits in these parts?
“Mr. Fawkes told me he once got robbed by bandits as he traveled the Highlands, years ago,” Hamish said.
The very mention of my nemesis was enough to see my blood run cold. My voice sounded frayed when I quickly changed the subject. I hated the sound of that vulnerability, that fear. “Or maybe a wheel broke off and we had to make way on foot.”
“But why wouldn’t we have an escort or a driver with us, in that case?” Hamish said.
A good point. “Maybe he stayed behind to fix the carriage, and promised to come for us as soon as—”
“Why can we lie but not play cards?” my nephew asked.
I paused. This was a difficult question and one that I wanted to answer with careful consideration. “We’re only making up these stories to keep ourselves out of harm’s way. As soon as we’ve secured a safe situation for ourselves, then we won’t have need to lie anymore.”
He appeared drawn to the novelty of this approach. “Let’s try not to lie, then, as much as we can—except the part about the bandits,” he said. “We’ll say our father was a doctor—yours was, after all—and our parents have died, and we were forced to flee to escape our creditors.”
My heart thudded in a grief-stricken beat. This lie was upsettingly close to the truth. It was then that I felt the first twinge of brittleness since we’d left Edinburgh. Making a concerted effort to be as fearless and resilient as I needed to be, I hadn’t allowed myself to think about any of it, or any of them, for my nephew’s sake. Hamish’s words were shards of truth in the smashed pane of our history, with too many broken pieces to ever mend. It was true that my parents had died, years ago. The thought of Hamish’s own parents and their precarious situation almost brought me to tears. But I held them back, concentrating instead on the task at hand. My father had been a doctor, aye. And we had fled to escape, although “creditors” was a generous allowance to what our pursuers actually were. “That makes us sound like criminals.”
Hamish thought about this, and then his small face lit up with his idea. “Let’s say we were en route to visit relatives, but were attacked by bandits who took all our money, and so we’re now in need of work to pay for our return to Edinburgh—or to our relatives, if we can find them.”
“They’ll ask who our relatives are.”
“Mysterious relatives,” Hamish said. “We don’t know their names. But we know we have Highlands relations, and since we’re orphans, we were curious. Since we have no other family left, we came to search them out.”
Not bad. Not bad at all. This would give us a reason to ask about the local people, the Highlands clans and the work opportunities. “I’m not sure if I should be happy about or rather alarmed by your ability to spin lies with such ease, nephew.”
He grinned. “I learned everything know from you, Ami.”
I ignored that, and began picking the hay out of his hair. I only wished I could have taught him even more. When my education had come to a very abrupt and final end at the age of eleven, I’d vowed to read every book in Edinburgh, or at least those I could get my hands on. Since that very day, when I wasn’t working, I was studying, teaching myself the ways and means of every damn subject I could get my hands on. My sister, Cecelia, had once said I was probably the most qualified astronomer, botanist, linguist, zoologist and everything else, if only anyone had bothered to test me. You just never knew when an opportunity might present itself, or a random morsel of knowledge might be your saving grace. My tenacious study habits were of little consequence now. Survival was, and always had been, the order of the day.
With our plan decided, we turned to our appearances. After removing all the straw from Hamish’s hair, I used some water to smooth it into place. There was little that could be done about the state of my nephew’s clothing , which was dirty but not yet showing signs of too much wear and tear. In our haste, Hamish hadn’t thought to bring a change of clothes and I had not had the chance to retrieve anything for him. I’d only just managed to grab a spare dress for myself, from my sister’s cupboard. Her clothes were finer than mine, since her husband refused to allow his wife and son to appear outwardly as though his business was in financial distress, which it most certainly had been. In hindsight, it seemed a strange detail for him to be so particular about, with all the other worries he’d had to contend with. But now I was glad of his pride. My brother-in-law’s insistence that appearances be kept up meant that I now had a dark blue gown to wear that was not only clean but also of the finest quality, enough to support the story we were about to spin. It mattered little that the dress was, in fact, a size too small. My sister wasn’t quite as curvy as I was. I ordered Hamish to turn his back and, after a brief struggle, managed—just—to pour myself into the garment. It was of a lower cut than I was used to and, with the sizing issue, was, in fact, quite revealing. I was glad I had my light blue shawl, which I wrapped around my shoulders and secured in the front with a silver kilt pin that had once belonged to my father.
“That will have to do,” I said, attempting to tame my hair into place. My braid was still coiled, but some of the shorter strands at the front had come loose.
“No one will expect you to be perfectly groomed,” Hamish commented, turning to watch me. “We’ve been attacked by bandits, remember, and forced to walk for miles after our driver was killed and our carriage stolen.”
“Killed? Now we’ve witnessed a murder and been robbed?”
“If he was still alive they’d look for him.”
This was becoming increasingly macabre by the minute. Either way, he was right. I’d be more convincing if my hair was in some state of disarray. I left the escaped tendrils loose to frame my face. My hair was long, wavy, and a light shade of red that was almost blond. Strawberry blond, my sister called it. My sister Cecelia’s hair was the exact same shade as her son’s: light brown with streaks of honey and gold.
Hamish was looking at me and there were glistening tears in his eyes. My nephew, despite his tender age, rarely cried. The sight of his tears now sent an awful of stab of woe through my chest. I knew I was reminding him of his mother, and it saddened me that she might be lost to him for quite some time, leaving him with only me for companionship and protection.
“Tell me again why they couldn’t come with us,” he said.
“You know why,” I said. “They have business to attend to. When we find a safe place to stay, I’ll send word to them, and they’ll join us.” I wiped his tears, knowing only too well that it would be too dangerous to send word; interception was too risky. “In the meantime, I’ll take good care of you.”
“And I’ll take good care of you,” he countered, recovering a shred of his earlier enthusiasm for this adventure.
“Now,” I said, “let’s go get that meal. Meat with potatoes and gravy. Stew and fresh bread. As much as you can eat.”
This cheered him further and he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Holster your weapon, soldier,” I told him. “We don’t want to frighten anyone.”
He slung the wooden blade so it hung from his belt.
So it was, and we headed for the tavern door.
It was a lively scene. Clearly a popular local gathering place. There was a large contingent of farmers and tradesmen who appeared to know each other and were already well into their evening’s allotment of ale. They sat at long, central tables that had been laid with platters of food. Several of them watched as we entered, but their conversation remained on more important matters: the planting of crops and the shearing of sheep. In the quieter corners sat smaller groups of travelers. Several sat alone. I spied an empty table near the back of the tavern and led Hamish to it.
A serving woman came to us. “Is it a meal you’re after?” She was perhaps thirty-five years of age, or maybe younger, with tired brown eyes and lank hair she’d tied back. Her clothing was plain and well worn, but neat. In her voice were inflections of boredom, resignedness, a clear note of I’d-rather-be-anywhere-but-here. Maybe she needed another server to help her, to ease her workload. I could earn money, to pay for food and accommodation. It would take a long time to earn enough not only to survive on but also to save for the return journey and the stay in Edinburgh. Gambling would be quicker, and easier. I refused the direction of my thoughts. But I couldn’t help picturing myself, a year from now, wearing a similar coarse brown dress, taking yet another order, still hiding and waiting. I couldn’t afford to be overly choosy, I reminded myself. I would make do as best I could and accept the lot I was given gracefully.
Or would I?
“A meal, for two, please,” I said. “A large one. And a pot of strong tea. With sugar.” I almost asked her right then if there was work available. Something stopped me. I could at least enjoy a meal first—the last I would be able to afford—before I resigned myself to my fate. A fate. There were always choices. I warred with myself as the serving woman walked off. Serving was gainful, honest employment. But so dull. There would be plenty to eat, a warm place to sleep. Hamish might get hired by a local farmer, out of sight of passersby, as I cooked and cleaned. So isolated and monotonous.
I thought of my mother, who had worried constantly about my impetuous nature. You’ve a little devil that sits on your left shoulder, Amelia, who whispers willful ideas into your ear. Listen to the angel on your right shoulder. Let that be the voice that guides you. But the devil’s advice had always seemed so much more intriguing. To ease my mother’s concerns I’d tried my best—and mostly succeeded—to do as she said, to tune that little devil out, to learn discipline and control. Tragedy, however, had all but silenced the voice of reason. My parents died when I was eleven years old. And once my sister, who was seven years older than me, had been forced to marry a struggling gaming club owner to keep us off the streets after the death of our parents, I’d had much more to worry about than conscience and etiquette.
Our meal was served. The food was plain but hearty. I hadn’t felt so hungry for a very long time. Ever, in fact.
Before we could finish eating, there was a commotion at the door.
I reached for Hamish in an instinctive movement. Could it be that Fawkes and his men had tracked us? So soon? I grabbed Hamish’s sleeve as terror flooded me, and I could taste my fear as a metallic, bitter tang.
Before we could make a move to flee, an imposing man walked into the tavern, followed by several more. These weren’t city people: that was glaringly obvious at the very first glimpse of their brawny, unfamiliar-looking silhouettes as they entered the dining room, which seemed to shrink in their presence.
They wore tartan clan kilts and weapons belts equipped with plentiful supplies of swords and knives. They were enormous, not only tall but big and wide-shouldered, muscular and lethal-looking. I heard Hamish’s quick intake of breath. These were the clan warriors we’d read stories of, with their weaponry and their battle scars. They looked every bit as savage as one might have expected. Their hair was worn long, to the shoulders, with small braids at their temples. Each one of them looked as though he could kill a man with his bare hands, if so inclined. They gave off an aura of confidence and contained ferocity. Yet I couldn’t help noticing they were exceptionally good-looking men, for all their subdued aggression, with strong features and glowing vitality.
The farmers and tradesmen did not appear to be frightened by these men, but rather respectful. It occurred to me that warriors such as these would be not only the protectors of any given district, but also the lawmakers.
I noticed then that the men were followed by three women.
These women looked somewhat out of place, their fashionable clothing and petite, refined countenance offering a sharp contrast to the men’s size and overt ruggedness. Groomed and glamorous, the women were well dressed in gowns and capes of unusual design. My sister and I had always had an interest in fashion, even if we’d only occasionally had the opportunity to indulge it, and it was easy to see that these women had access to quality seamstresses. It seemed clear enough, too, that these were Highlands clan women, and I was surprised at their elegance. I was reminded that the clans’ ruling families were not heathens or barbarians, as I might have imagined, but were instead composed of nobility. This was something I’d had little cause to give much thought to, but now there was something highly fascinating about these very-masculine men and the trio of petite, stylish women they were clearly assigned to accompany on their travels, to guard with their swords and their lives.
Hamish had recovered from his initial fear and now, his mute fascination. “Do you think those swords are as long as the scabbards that hold them?” Hamish whispered.
I eyed one of the leather sheaths in question. “It seems impossible that anyone could lift one, if they are,” I said in hushed tones, “but then, look at the size of those men’s arms. And the scabbards look well made. I would expect that they would fit the swords like a glove.”
“Aye,” Hamish agreed, agog and wide-eyed. These men before us embodied everything his childhood fantasies had promised, and more. He’d modeled himself on the stories of the Highlander warriors I’d read him as a small boy, on their strength and their bravery, having never seen anyone like that on the backstreets of Edinburgh. And here they were: real and fierce. Hamish had been carrying his toy swords around since he was barely old enough to walk, but he’d never seen anything like this. I couldn’t help thinking he’d found his element here in these Highlands, and we’d barely just arrived. I wasn’t sure why this realization, though hardly surprising, caused a ripple of unease in me. I realized in that moment that I was entering new territory that would very likely change not only my outlook but the entire course of my future.
Then again, that’s exactly what I’d intended all along, by fleeing the city. A new life, for him, at least. And here, in this very place, I could feel that new life beginning to unfold, reaching and affecting us both.
The women took a seat at the table next to ours and the men sat at a large round table near them. The server attended to them immediately.
One of the women noticed our interest and she caught my eye. She appeared to be the youngest of the three, and she was, even from this small distance, quite strikingly beautiful. Her eyes were a brilliant shade of cerulean blue that matched her dress, and her hair was a shiny, rich dark brown. She appeared equally interested in my own appearance, taking in the snug fit of my dress and my slightly windblown dishevelment. She smiled, and behind a thin veil of shyness, I could detect genuine interest, and a light note of concern. Clearly I was unaccompanied by any escort aside from a small boy whose eyes were glued to her guards even as he continued to wolf down his food as though he hadn’t eaten in weeks.
My position, as a woman traveling without protection, was clearly not only inappropriate, but dangerous. Especially from the vantage point of such privilege. I guessed that these women were returning to their Highlands clan after a short trip to Edinburgh on business of one sort or another—which had more than likely involved copious amounts of shopping. They were practically sparkling with fresh grooming and the newness of their garments.
I felt a million miles removed from such splendor. My dress was fine enough, aye, if somewhat constricting, but I had in fact been on the run for upwards of five days, had eaten little, slept on hay wagons or in open fields and, now for the first time, felt the accumulating effects of all the tumult of recent weeks to my very bones.
In fact, I should have been counting my blessings. I was alive, and so was Hamish. And I held on to hope that Cecelia, too, was holed up in some safe haven, being fed a meal as fortifying as ours. For her sake, and her son’s, I resolved to somehow beat Sebastian Fawkes at his own game, to get my revenge by saving her, and saving myself.
I noticed then that Hamish had left the table. Curiosity had overcome him. He was circling the soldiers, keeping a not-so-subtle distance from them, and arousing the interest of the young woman in blue, as well as the other two.
They watched my nephew for a moment, taking in his outfit, and his beauty; it was true he had been exceptionally blessed in this way.
“Would you like to touch one of the swords?” the young woman in blue asked him.
Hamish, alas, lacked any hint of bashfulness. He was a straightforward boy who was quite aware of his angelic face, his sun-touched hair, and his long, graceful limbs. He had used his looks to his own advantage upon many occasions, a practice I had not only encouraged but taught him. “Aye, milady. I’m the son of a doctor, not a warrior. I’ve seen plenty of scalpels but never a sword.”
Ah. I felt an equal amount of pride and dismay at his quick response. He was already spinning our tale.
“Lachlan, would you mind terribly?” the young woman addressed one of the guards. “The lad is so sweet.”
The guard named Lachlan eyed Hamish for a moment, and I detected his mild annoyance, as though he was lamenting the fact that he wasn’t out-of-doors spearing things, instead finding himself relegated to guard duty and the unappealing assignment of entertaining a vagrant boy. Even so, it was clear enough that Lachlan would not refuse whatever request the young woman made of him. He obliged, unsheathing his colossal weapon in one easy swipe, holding it up in front of Hamish’s rounded eyes.
I’d never seen Hamish so awestruck. He reached up tentatively to touch his fingers to the flat side of the blade.
“Don’t touch the blade, lad, or you’ll be picking your neatly sliced fingers up off the floor,” Lachlan said with persuasive eloquence.
“I wasn’t going to touch the blade,” Hamish replied, miffed that the soldier would think him so dim-witted. “I know it’s sharp. It wouldn’t be much use if it wasn’t.”
Several of the other soldiers chuckled at this and I felt a ripple of shame that Hamish would respond with such impertinence. Lachlan, however, appeared more impressed by Hamish’s answer than angered. Strength and bravery were their currency, I supposed. Hamish understood this and had just bought himself a hint of this soldier’s respect. Clearly, despite his small size in the face of these enormous, armed men, my nephew was not intimidated. And there was a shiny-eyed eagerness to him that Lachlan could not help but respond to.
“I’d offer to let you hold it,” Lachlan said, “but the sword outweighs you.”
More laughter from the men.
“Here,” Lachlan continued, retrieving a large knife from its holster at his belt. “You can hold this one.”
Now that Hamish was well and truly engaged, the young woman in blue took the opportunity to make light conversation. She was clearly somewhat overcome with curiosity, about my obvious predicament. Her blue eyes gleamed with bright interest, and her shiny brown hair waved prettily around a pale face that was highlighted by the subtle paint of pink on her cheeks.
“I’m Christie Mackenzie,” she said. “This is my sister, Ailie.” She motioned to the woman on her right, whose beauty was equal to her sister’s but somehow more reserved. Christie’s beauty had a fresh, mischievous appeal while Ailie’s conveyed composure and sophistication. Ailie smiled politely. Her hair was darker than Christie’s and her eyes were a deep shade of indigo blue. “And this is our friend Katriona,” Christie continued.
Katriona was perhaps as many as ten years older than the two sisters, and her manner was markedly less friendly. Her smile was so forced that if taken out of context, it might have been mistaken for a grimace, perhaps from a mild case of indigestion. She was not as beautiful as the sisters, but it could be said that she was exceptionally well presented. Any beauty she might have possessed was eclipsed by the pinched, rigid impatience that set her face, and by the youthful radiance of the two women she traveled with. The ill fit of my dress did not escape her notice, nor did she appear particularly pleased by Hamish’s precocious joy as he held Lachlan’s glinting knife.
“I’m Amelia Taylor,” I said. “And this is Hamish.” I stopped myself from giving Hamish’s correct surname just in time. We were pretending to be siblings, I remembered. “My brother.”
Christie asked the question she must have been dying to ask all along. “And you travel alone?”
“We had an escort, of course,” Hamish answered, with such sincerity I suffered a pang of guilt that overshadowed any pride that might have accompanied it. The lad was gifted. I should, as his guardian, be grooming him for a career in stage acting and if he hadn’t been so staunchly adamant about his decision to become a soldier, I might have considered setting our sights for the theaters of London as a hideout, rather than the remote expanses of the Highlands. My guilt only compounded as I recalled telling him that it was likely that we would be reunited with his parents more quickly if we were particularly convincing in our storytelling. “But he met an untimely end at the hands of the dastardly bandits that stole our carriage and all our belongings.”
This news was met with the collective dismay of his now-rapt audience. “Bandits?” said Lachlan, bristling, his eyes surveying the room as though they might be among us. “What bandits?”
“Aye,” replied Hamish. “Five of them. They wore black masks and capes and they rode black horses. Ruthless, they were. Killed our escort right in front of our eyes. Speared him through the heart with a silver-hilted sword.”
A twinge of pain brought me to the realization that I had bitten my own lip. I hoped Hamish’s imaginative yarn wasn’t too creative. I didn’t like the thought of what these war-hardened men might do to us if they suspected we were deceiving them. But there was no point correcting my nephew; it would only make them more inclined to doubt us. Strangely, I felt an uncharacteristic sense of regret that we were, in fact, deceiving them, these beautiful sisters with their kind eyes and their enviable lot in life. I would never have thought to wish for such a thing, but I couldn’t help feeling a sense of wonder at their fortune. Their manly band of escorts, all rugged good looks and masculine protectiveness against any and every potential threat these sisters might face; their dark beauty; their innate sense of style that was only enhanced tenfold by the wealth that so flatteringly showcased it.
Ah, well. Overblown luck was not something I sought out, or even valued especially, having experienced so little of it. Which was why I had made a point of learning the tricks and mathematics that ensured something akin to luck. My kind of manufactured luck, however, was only useful at the gaming tables. It didn’t translate further afield than that. And even my skills at trickery in the gambling den hadn’t been enough to keep my brother-in-law’s broken, corrupt business afloat. Or my sister safe. It was best to carry on and appreciate the smaller fortunes in life, like this hearty meal we were almost finished with. And this fine brew of sweet tea.
“We’ve been forced to make our way on foot,” I said, before Hamish could elaborate further. “We were fortunate to get a ride part of the way on a farmer’s wagon, which explains our somewhat ragged appearance. And then we saw this tavern.”
“We’ve come from Edinburgh,” continued Hamish. “To search for some long-lost relatives whose names we don’t even know.”
“You have relatives in the Highlands?” Christie asked, intrigued.
Hamish answered before I could. “We do, but we know nothing about their identity. Our father’s final words to us, as he lay pale and choking for breath on his deathbed, his life seeping away from the disease that tragically stole him from us, were these—‘Go to the Highlands and seek out my cousin. He’s a good man and he will take you in. He’ll care for you as if you were his own.’ Of course we were asking him, ‘Who, Father? Who is this cousin you speak of? Why have you never told us of him before? What’s his name?’ But it was too late. Father’s eyes had gone dull and lifeless. His final breath rasped from his body in a weak sigh. And then he was gone.” Hamish’s eyes, the little puck, were shiny with emotion. And he was still clutching the lethal-looking knife with both hands, which somehow only added to the performance. “We buried him next to our mother.”
“Oh, you poor child,” exclaimed Christie.
“I have Amelia to take care of me,” Hamish told her, with what I knew to be genuine relief tinting his words. “And I take care of her. We’re not alone.” I’d practically raised Hamish, since his parents had been so busy running the club, and I’d loved him madly from the moment he was born. In the nine years between then and now, my role in his life as aunt and guide had offered me as many moments of joy as any relationship I’d ever had. His complete trust in me—a trust that shone now from his seraphic face— strengthened my resolve to keep him safe and to give him every chance in life, despite our significant hardships. If I had to stoop to servitude or to spinning a few harmless lies to do it, then so be it. “And so,” Hamish continued solemnly, “with no living relatives left in Edinburgh, we’ve come to seek out this cousin. But then, out of nowhere, a band of renegades surrounded us, attacking as one! Ours was a fine enough carriage, filled with all our belongings. They took everything. James tried to protect our family heirlooms. We told him to let them have it, that it wasn’t worth his life, but he wouldn’t listen. He was loyal to his bones.”
James. His father’s name. An odd choice for our fictional driver. But then, I knew Hamish’s bond with his father had never been a strong one.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Katriona said, her mild empathy laced with more pronounced vestiges of disbelief. “Who are these bandits in black? I had no idea such people even existed.”
Unfortunately, Katriona’s skepticism aggravated the little devil in me, the whispering contrariness that resided persistently within my character no matter how hard I tried to banish it. That she would so immediately question Hamish’s sincerity irked me, even if she had good reason to do so. I found myself yearning to bolster my nephew’s story to support him, and to silence her. “Oh, I’d never heard of such a thing, either,” I said. “At first we thought them an apparition, a wayward fear that might have stepped out of the fathomless pages of medieval history, traveling as we were though such unfamiliar territory. It was why our escort was so unwilling to cooperate with them. We simply couldn’t believe we were being robbed so aggressively, and in such an idyllic setting. And when they demanded we step free of the carriage, I was relieved, at least, that they intended to let us go. I willingly bargained with them, giving them all our possessions, my jewelry—most of which belonged to our dearly departed mother—our horses and the carriage itself in exchange for our freedom, even if it meant we might wander for days on end without any sign of shelter or assistance. But James was worried about our safety under such conditions. He argued. He refused to relent.” I faltered here, almost getting swept away in the emotional momentum of my tale. “’Twas a brutal end,” I finally said. “But thankfully, Hamish and I were allowed to flee. We hid behind the incline of a small hill until they were gone.”
“If I’d had this knife,” Hamish added, “I’d have run after them.”
Christie’s eyes sparked with concern as she pictured our harrowing ordeal. Lachlan, however, sported a completely different expression as his gaze flicked back and forth between Hamish and me. If I wasn’t mistaken, he appeared faintly amused, more relaxed than a soldier should have been when confronted with news of this kind: that evildoers were loose in his near vicinity, that his noble charges might be under dire threat. I had no way of knowing if he was reading our lie with ease. I suspected it. Maybe, as a seasoned soldier born of these lands, he knew that there were no black-clad bandits wreaking havoc; he’d know of them if such people existed. Maybe he’d banished those that once prowled these lands himself. Or he’d listened at the knee of his warrior father, who’d killed them off one by one.
If Lachlan did detect our dishonesty, he made no effort to expose it. His concentration returned to his ale, from which he took a long drink. For this I was profoundly grateful. I decided I liked him, and if there was ever a way I could ever reciprocate the favor, I would.
I realized that Hamish was now holding something in his right hand, the hand that was not currently occupied with the glinting, oversized weapon. A bag, small and blue. Exactly the same fabric, in fact, as the dress that Christie wore. A matching accessory.
My heart thumped with a clenching realization. Nay, I thought. He hasn’t. He’s pickpocketed her! I knew only too well how deftly skilled he was. One might have argued that our predicament was severe enough to warrant theft, or worse. But it was exactly what had put us in this position of vagrancy in the first place, and I wanted nothing more to do with it. This lady, given her hefty bodyguards and their abundant weaponry, was quite possibly the worst choice of target ever in the entire history of thievery.
Hamish spoke, with the utmost politeness. “Milady. Your bag. You dropped it. I wouldn’t want you to leave it behind mistakenly.”
Christie looked confused. Her hand ghosted to the now-empty pocket of her coat, where her bag had been. Then she reached to take the small purse that Hamish held out to her. “Thank you. What a kindhearted lad you are.”
With that, as my heart rioted in my chest, Christie looked at Ailie somewhat beseechingly. “Knox would want to hear about their plight,” she said to her sister. “And he’d want to learn more about these bandits from the witnesses themselves.”
Ailie appeared to contemplate this for a moment, and she looked at me thoughtfully, weighing her decision.
“Aye,” Ailie finally said, to my surprise. “You must come with us.” It was the first time she had spoken. Her voice was soft yet ingrained with a sure, quiet strength, as though she was used to being listened to with interest and obedience. It made me wonder what kind of rank these women held. They were clearly noble; their obvious wealth and their brawny entourage were evidence enough of that.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea—” Katriona began.
“Aye, you must,” Christie agreed quickly. “You can’t stay here at this tavern, and you’ve nowhere else to go. You’ll come with us and we’ll help you find your family. Knox will probably know of them. He knows everyone.”
“Who’s Knox?” asked Hamish.
“Our brother,” said Christie.
“Laird Knox Mackenzie,” Katriona stated with emphasis, as though everyone on the planet, from the tribesmen deep in the jungles of Africa to the painted plainspeople of the faraway Americas, had heard of Laird Knox Mackenzie. Except us.
Not only Katriona’s tone but also her reverential mention of this Laird Knox Mackenzie made me question whether accompanying these women would be in our best interest, as appealing as such an offer might seem. The last thing we needed was to be under the thumb of a lordish, controlling overseer. It was the very situation we were fleeing from. And while I could easily recognize that the brother of these charming sisters might be a far more appealing overseer than the one we had left behind, my pride would not allow us to be charity cases, no matter how desperate we might have been.
I shook my head. “Nay. We wouldn’t dream of imposing on you like that,” I said. Hamish gave me a look of startled irritation. I already knew he would follow Lachlan around like a loyal puppy wherever the beefed-up warrior happened to go if given half the opportunity. “I had already decided to search for gainful employment, to pay our way to our father’s cousin’s lands, wherever they may be.”
“Perhaps we could help you find some work,” offered Ailie, “once you have spoken with Knox.”
“Aye,” said Christie, turning to me. “Our brother, laird of lairds, is very thorough when it comes to the details of any threat to peace within a fifty-mile radius of Kinloch’s walls. It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen bandits in these parts and I know he’d be very interested to hear of them. I’d say you’ll be well occupied for some time to come.”
Her playful respect intrigued me, but I didn’t like the thought of being interrogated by some all-powerful, self-important laird, to spin further, deeper lies that might be as transparent to him as they had been to Lachlan.
“I’m not sure if—” I began.
“We can’t possibly leave you here…” Christie interrupted, glancing around the crowded bustle of the tavern somewhat critically. “…unchaperoned and vulnerable to any number of perils, as you are. We’re very close to Kinloch’s borders and it’s therefore our duty to harbor you. I’m sure Knox would agree.”
“I suppose he would,” Katriona tentatively agreed, as though not entirely persuaded.
“We should be on our way as it is,” Ailie commented. “We’ll ride through the night and reach Kinloch by morning.”
“It’s settled, then?” Christie asked. I suspected that these sisters were acting not only out of kindness and benevolence, but also in the interest of their own clan, as it made sense that they would. We were unknown wanderers after all, with a somewhat outlandish past . We must be investigated as well as protected. And their guards were on hand to ensure not only our safety but their own. Even though we could hardly be considered threatening, it was possible that our story had not fooled either Lachlan or the women, and that Hamish and I might be seen as a riddle that needed to be solved, just in case our riddle presented threats this close to their home.
“You’ll accompany us to Kinloch—our clan’s keep,” Ailie continued. “’Tis very comfortable there, I can assure you. You and your brother will be well cared for.”
The way the sisters said the name of this place made it sound like some mythical Eden.
I should have refused. But the absolute elation on Hamish’s face as he realized that we would travel with these soldiers swayed me. Knowing that he’d be safe for a time, and well fed, clinched my decision. He wouldn’t have to stay here in this tavern, or another like it, helping me clean or cook—an occupation that, it occurred to me only now, would be very visible, and unprotected, if our pursuers happened to, in time, track us this far north. We would be far safer inside the walls of a well-armed keep. Practically untouchable.
Despite my apprehensions at putting myself at the mercy of this Laird Knox Mackenzie and all his noble authority, it was these details concerning my foremost priority—my nephew’s safety—that found me agreeing.
“All right, then,” I heard myself saying, and my voice sounded uncertain even to my own ears. “We will accompany you to Kinloch.”
Wherever that might be.