Authors: Suzanne Enoch
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Julia Prentiss sat in the road as the tail of her mare vanished around a large pile of boulders. In other circumstances she likely would have thought the sight pretty—a black horse galloping, riderless, into the cloud-filled orange and purple sunset. It was precisely the sort of thing she’d imagined when she’d suggested that a summer visit to Scotland for her aunt’s wedding would make for a perfect Christmas present. She fingered the ripped hem of her blue gown and scowled. This wasn’t even remotely what she’d had in mind.
Nothing in the past five days, in fact, seemed like any sort of holiday gift she ever would have asked for. Not in a thousand years. So she supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised at being flung to the ground now. It all went perfectly along with the horrid nightmare this so-called gift had become.
Once she had her breath back, she wiggled her fingers and her toes. Her backside would definitely be bruised tomorrow, but nothing seemed to be broken—which was also the first bit of good luck she’d managed in the past five days. It was also likely the last bit of luck she would see. She certainly couldn’t risk waiting by the side of the road hoping for a friendly face. It was far more likely the next person she saw would be decidedly
That thought sent a chill down her spine, and she carefully gathered her feet beneath her and stood. The long, narrow lake that had attracted her attention lay close by on her right, and though she should likely be spending her energy recovering that blasted horse, thirst had already turned her mouth to dust. With a quick look behind her at the empty rolling hills of rock and heather, Julia made her way to the water’s edge, squatted down, and scooped up mouthfuls of blessedly cold water with both hands.
Whatever she thought of Hugh Fersen, Lord Bellamy, he’d chosen well when he’d dragged her off here. She’d been riding for two hours or so, and other than Bellamy Park and the scattering of cotters’ shacks around it, she hadn’t seen so much as a chimney. And now she couldn’t see her horse either. In another twenty minutes, she wouldn’t be able to see anything at all because it would be completely dark. Another thought occurred to her. Wolves had supposedly been killed off in the Highlands, but she wasn’t as certain about bears. Or wildcats. And to think, she might have asked for a visit to Paris. Or a new gown.
“Damnation,” she muttered. Would one bit of luck be too much to expect?
A splash of water out in the lake answered her. If she’d been hungry enough to consider raw fish, she would have been interested, but though breakfast had been hours and hours ago, she and her hunger hadn’t yet reached the point of desperation. At the edge of the water she’d hoped reeds would offer her some sort of shelter from the view of the road, but evidently here either the weather wasn’t temperate enough or the wind was too strong to allow any plants to grow above ankle height. A canyon would hide her, or a nice deep valley, but she didn’t want to hide as much as she wanted to be gone from here entirely. Cowering under a tree wouldn’t serve any purpose.
From somewhere in the distance a low sound rumbled across the craggy hills, and she shivered. Whether it was a gunshot or thunder, it reminded her how very exposed she was. Whatever her wishes, she would have to find somewhere to shelter and hope the night and the rain hid her trail. Julia straightened. As she turned, something caught her eye, and she bent down. A large swathe of checkered material had been folded and set across a low boulder. She snapped the cloth open to see black and white and gray squares with a thick red threading shot through them, almost like blood.
Bellamy’s clan colors were blue and green and black; anything different was welcome. Had she finally gotten free of Fersen land? The low rumble repeated, and she wrapped the cloth around her shoulders. If rain came, she would have something beyond her once pretty blue ball gown to keep her warm at least.
Water splashed out in the lake again, and she looked back. And froze.
A figure rose from the
water. A male figure, she noted, belatedly stepping backward as he moved directly toward her. Black hair, straight beneath the weight of the streaming water, brushed bare, broad shoulders. His well-muscled chest and abdomen came into view as the water fell away, and she took a heartbeat to wonder whether he wore anything at all before the up-sloping bank answered the question for her.
Oh, my. A thick cock rooted in dark, curling hair hung between muscular thighs. She’d seen statues, of course, and the occasional naked toddler, but this was no toddler. And no statue. Taken altogether, he was … stunning.
She shook herself. He was also a stranger, and she was very much alone. “Stand back,” she ordered, backing up another step.
He eyed her, wet black hair falling across one startlingly green eye as he tilted his head. “Ye seem to be wearing my kilt,” he rumbled in a thick Highlands brogue.
Julia fingered the heavy material around her shoulders. “Oh. Oh!” Shrugging out of it, she flung the mass at him.
The large fellow caught the tartan as it slapped against his chest. Keeping his gaze squarely on her as if he thought she might vanish into thin air, he wrapped the long material twice about his waist and tucked the end away. “That’ll do,” he said a moment later. “Now. Ye’re a Sasannach lass, are ye not? What are ye doing on my land?”
Was he a Fersen, then, even with the different tartan colors? Or had she indeed found someone who might aid her? All the alliances and territories were terribly confusing, and now she wished she’d spent more time learning about them. Back before her Christmas gift had gone so horribly awry, she’d thought the idea of clans rather romantic. Oh, she should have begun running the moment this man’s head emerged from the water. But if he didn’t know who she was or why she was there, perhaps she did still have a chance to escape. “I was riding with friends,” she ventured. “We were separated, and my horse spooked.”
The green gaze trailed from her snarled red-brown hair half escaped from its pins to her equally disheveled blue gown. “Ye went riding in that?” he asked, producing a pair of boots from the other side of the boulder and stomping into them. “Unlikely.” Abruptly he turned his back on her and began walking along a faint path in the heather.
“Wait!” Julia looked from the empty, dimming road behind her to the rapidly-retreating half-naked man in front of her. The mare could be in York by now, for all she knew. Or worse, it might have returned to the stable from where Julia had procured her this afternoon. What mattered was that if Bellamy’s men came across the horse, they would know she was on foot. And close by.
“Well, come along then,” the large man said, not offering a backward glance. “I’ve nae got all night. And it’ll be raining by suppertime.”
When one was drowning, any bit of flotsam would do, she supposed. Gathering her skirts, she hurried after him. After ten minutes or so of walking to what looked like nowhere, a narrow valley opened up before her, the trail deepening into a surprisingly well-cut series of switchbacks leading down to the bottom. It was fairly easy to navigate but nearly impossible to see from above unless one knew where to look. She dearly hoped that Fersen didn’t know where to look.
A waterfall to the left carried the run-off from the lake above into a narrow, fast-moving stream that cut through the middle of the valley in a series of cascading descents. Trees, elm and pine and sturdy oak, lined both sides of the water. If she’d been in a more expansive mood, she might have had a random thought or two about how it looked very like a hidden Eden below the stark hills and craggy peaks above.
“Where are we?” she ventured. According to the tale she’d spun, she was lost, after all. Therefore she’d asked a perfectly reasonable question.
Strath na saighead
,” he rumbled.
Well, that wasn’t at all helpful. “Beg pardon?”
“Valley of the Arrows,” he said after a moment. “A great battle was fought here. A course, great battles were fought nearly everywhere in the Highlands.” They rounded a stand of tumbled boulders, and a small stone house came into view tucked beneath the cliff. No, not a house. Not even a cottage. A tiny cotter’s shack that hardly looked bigger than her bedchamber back at Sebree House in Wessex.
“That sounds exciting,” Julia returned absently. So now she knew what the valley was called. That didn’t answer the more pressing question. Was she still on Fersen land? Was he loyal to Fersen? She took a breath, trying to ignore the stiffness setting into her backside. “I hear that Clan Fersen has its seat nearby. Are you a part of Lord Bellamy’s clan?”
“Is that where ye rode from?” the Highlander asked, stopping to turn around and look at her.
Escaping this afternoon had taken every bit of courage she possessed. If she had to do it again … “Please, just tell me if you’re allied with the Fersens,” she insisted, abruptly realizing that in a very isolated place she’d just taken herself even further from help in this hidden valley. She’d though—hoped—this might be her chance. But if she was wrong, she’d just delivered herself back into Bellamy’s hands, and he would make certain she never escaped again.
“Nae,” he answered after a moment. “I answer to Clan MacLawry.” He tilted his head, that stray strand of damp, raven black hair falling across one green eye again. “More or less.”
She didn’t know Clan MacLawry, but then most of the odd … antiquity of the Highlands had been a complete surprise. And where before it had seemed quaint, now it seemed distinctly dangerous. Rather like walking into a pit of vipers and not knowing which one was the most—or least—poisonous. “Oh,” she ventured, deciding he expected some kind of reply.
“Oh,” he repeated, a touch of humor brushing his gaze before he turned back to the cottage and continued forward.
“Is that MacLawry House, then? Who’s the … clan leader? Might I speak with him?”
“Ye think that pile of rubble is the house of a clan chief? Ye’re nae one of those Bedlamites escaped from the asylum, are ye?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then, nae, that’s an old cotter’s shack I use from time to time when I go hunting. The chief of Clan MacLawry is Lord Glengask, who resides at Glengask Castle. And nae, ye cannae speak with him, as he’s in London. His youngest brother Bear MacLawry is there, but it’s near seven miles from here, and it’s aboot to rain.”
Seven miles? It might as well have been a hundred miles, since she had no horse and no idea which direction to travel. Thunder rumbled again, closer this time. “Is … is there anyone else here?”
“In the shack? Nae. Lenox House—where I live—is three or so miles from here. I can take ye there tomorrow when I’ve finished up here, or when the storm passes; whichever comes first.” He pulled a rope latch and pushed open the heavy door. It opened with a squeak she couldn’t describe as anything other than ominous.
“I … Perhaps you could tell me the direction to Lenox House? I’m certain I would be welcome there.”
He folded his arms across his chest. “Aye? Do ye know Duncan Lenox and his kin, then?”
That would be quite a bluff, if she meant to attempt it. Those keen green eyes glinted at her, though, and she had the distinct feeling that he knew more than he was saying. About what, she had no idea. Julia forced a smile. “No, I don’t.”
Unfolding his muscular arms, he stuck out his right hand. “Well, now ye do. I’m Duncan Lenox. Come in, lass. I’ve hot water on fer tea and a rabbit stew on the fire. I’ll nae harm ye. Ye have my word on that.”