My Lord Jack
Hope Tarr

Excerpt

Chapter One

Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira
Les aristocrates à la lanterne.
Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira
Les aristocrates, on les pendra.

Ah! It's coming, it's coming, it's coming
Aristocrats from the lamppost.
Ah! It's coming, it's coming, it's coming
Aristocrats, we will hang them.

-Popular song of the French Revolution

The Scottish Border Country, October 1793

"Imbécile! Voleur! Brigand!"

Shivering as much from outrage as from the pelting rain, her sodden cloak weighing down her aching shoulders like an anchor, Claudia seized on the sole, reliable remedy for warding off the tears that threatened. She hauled back her foot and dealt the coach's mired and broken rear wheel a sound kick. Unfortunately temper and the thin leather of her worn half boot proved to be scant shields against solid metal. Silver-tailed stars flashed amidst the sheeting of rain.

Blinking hard against the smarting of a stubbed but hopefully unbroken big toe, she lifted watery eyes to the mail coachman and shouted, "You take my money. You… you promise I will arrive in Edinburgh by nightfall, in Linlithgow by the morning next, and now you tell me that we must spend the night here. Here!"

Here was a squat, thatch-roofed structure that served as both coaching inn and local public house. That she, Claudia Valemont, should be forced to lodge in such a hovel was ample cause for humiliation. That she no longer possessed the funds to pay for bed and board was beyond humiliation. Beyond bearing.

The back of the driver's broad, hatless head reappeared from the bowels of the coach boot. He twisted about to look back at her, a pained expression hanging on his ruddy, weather-beaten features. "Wheesht, there's nay cause tae get yerself in a swivet o'er what canna be helped. 'Tis a mercy we made it 'ere afore that axle went."

Whatever it was that passed for mercy in this barbarous country of Scotland, Claudia had experienced precious little of it since crossing the border the day before. If England was a nation of shopkeepers, surely Scotland was a land of savages. Shaggy brutes all, their manners were as coarse as their unappetizing peasant food, their thoughts as unfathomable as their vulgar, discordant dialect. Had she known when she landed in Dover that Linlithgow, not London, was to be her destination; that the bumpy Channel crossing was to be the forerunner to an even bumpier, more punishing journey north by coach; she might have sailed back to Paris and let the mob have her.

But now there would be no turning back. Determined to be heard above the wind's howling and the battering of the rain, she yelled, "I tell you I will not stay in this despicable place." No lie, that, for she'd surrendered the last of her Scotch pounds for coach fare to fund the final leg of her journey.

From the hollow of the boot, the muffled reply echoed, "We're tae bide 'ere and there's no a blessed thing ye can do aboot it, so ye may as well go on inside wi' t'others."

In true British fashion, her five fellow passengers had collected their bags and filed across the muddy inn yard like so many sheep. No doubt they were even now ensconced before a roaring fire, quaffing their coarse ale and tearing into their beefsteak suppers. Claudia felt a pang of envy take root in the pit of her belly, the first thing to fill it since the single, miserable oatcake she had supped on the evening before. Petite bourgeoisie and peasants though her travel companions were, their unfashionable clothes looked sturdy and snug and their flesh well fed.

Chafing against her helplessness, she clenched the handle of the leather traveling bag. Small as it was, it contained the sum of her worldly riches: the mother-of- pearl comb; the precious vial of rose perfume, from which she doled out one daily dab behind each ear; and the sole proof of her paternity, the tartan broach that once had belonged to her father.

Her father, Gearald Drummond, the earl of Aberdaire. In London she'd presented herself on the marble steps of his Berkeley Square town house only to discover that several weeks prior, His Lordship had decamped to his grouse moor near Linlithgow, five leagues or so west of Edinburgh. What he would say when his bastard daughter turned up at his door in Scotland was anyone's guess, but the small, fragile part of her still capable of hope insisted that once he recovered from the shock he would be pleased and willing to keep her with him.

Peering around the edge of her cloak hood, she lifted her gaze heavenward. Père, please let him want me, for what will I do, where will I go, if he sends me away?

The boot hatch slammed closed, startling Claudia back to her immediate problem. The driver started down, a burlap sack slung over one shoulder. "Look, miss, I dinna ken how it is folk travel where ye come from, but ye're in Scotland now. Even if the roads was dry as bone, we'd no get verra far wi' only three workin' wheels."

Claudia's command of Scots vernacular was imperfect at best, but sarcasm was easy enough to recognize in any language. Throat raw from raising her voice, she waited until his big feet met the spongy ground with a squishy thud before snapping back, "There is a forgeron, a blacksmith, in this misérable village, is there not? But of course there must be. You have only to call for him to repair the wheel and we can be on our way."

"Ask Tam McBride tae come out in this weather!" He tossed back his great, grizzled head and guffawed, nearly unseating his burdens. "Like as no the auld sot's inside, drunk as David's sow and toastin' his toes by the fire." The flinty gaze tucked beneath the jutting brow lost its mirth as he added, "Where I've a mind tae be if ye'll cease yer haverin' and kindly step out o' my way."

But Claudia had only begun to "haver." Hoisting her chin, she fixed him the stare that once had cowed a Parisian street mob bent on bloodletting. Transferring her luggage to her left hand, she held out her right palm up. "Alors, since you refuse to honor your word, I must insist you return my fare."

Once the rain lightened, she would hire a hack from the stables and be on her way. Traveling alone would render her an easy mark for bandits or worse but she had a small knife tucked into her right boot; in Paris she had proven to herself that she could draw it if the need arose. Even so, images of her last weeks there, the remembered feel of rough hands dragging her toward the swinging noose amidst shouts of "À la lanterne!" drew a shudder that owed nothing to the biting wind.

"No a chance, unless…" He hesitated, running his tongue over wind-cracked lips, and Claudia's heart leapt with hope. "Unless, that is, ye're minded tae earn it. Let's 'ave a look at ye." He reached for her, knocking back her hood.

"Non!" The sudden dump of rainwater on her bared head was a shock, but a small one compared to the terror of seeing that large, thickly gloved paw coming toward her. With no conscious thought beyond her body's instinct to preserve itself, she hauled back her curled hand and struck.
The blow clipped him below the chin. He blinked, surprise and the weight on his back sending him staggering backwards.

Steadying himself, he shook a fist in her face. "Bloody Frog scut! Stay out 'ere all the bloody night if ye've a mind, only see ye steer clear o' me." With that, he turned and plodded across the inn yard.

Shaking with reaction, Claudia fixed her senses on the heavy slap, slap of his retreating footfalls and drew several calming breaths. Chaos gradually ebbed, leaving her aware of throbbing knuckles and the rivulets of icy rainwater streaking down her back.

Yanking the hood over her wet head, she vowed, "I will walk to Linlithgow if I must. Oui, if I must, then that is what I will do."

But first she would have a word with the blacksmith. The one thing she had learned about this miserable island since her arrival was the fickleness of its weather. The skies could change from brilliant blue to deepest black and back again within a few short minutes. Despite the gray skies overhead, it was still light and the accursed coach was equipped with lanterns, after all. If she could find this Tam McBride and convince him to repair the wheel, then surely her fellow passengers, now fortified with food and drink, would join her in demanding their driver carry on? While he might ignore one havering woman, five disgruntled passengers, two of them men, would be considerably more difficult to dismiss.

Contemplating the coachman's face when he realized that she'd raised his entire human cargo to mutiny, Claudia felt a small smile, her first in weeks, curve her lips. She took firm hold of her bag and started forward. Unfortunately her feet failed to follow. Falling headfirst, she let out a shriek, her free hand flailing for purchase on the nearest solid object, the coach door. Saved, she stared down. Merde. Only the very tops of her boots were visible, the laces encased in a sticky paste of mud and grass, the heels and soles sucked below the bog. Muttering one of the more elaborate curses that her former protector, Phillippe, had shouted when he was vexed at her, she yanked one foot free then the other, hiked her waterlogged skirts to midcalf, and slogged across the yard to the inn.

*** ***

Life, the inn's taproom teemed with it. His day's business discharged, Jack settled the clay pipe between his back teeth, stretched his long legs out in front of him, and sent his senses on a slow, lazy expedition about the low- ceilinged room. Peadair and Pol, both veterans of the Battle of Prestonpans and weathered as ancient stones, squinting over a draughts board and trading tales of bygone glory days. A table of young rowdies, cheeks ruddy with drink and voices raised, making a muckle mess of the tavern puzzle known as Satan's Stirrup. A party of Sassenach travelers holed up in a corner booth chattering like monkeys. Picking up a thread of their conversation, he gathered that the mail coach they'd arrived on was mired in the inn yard with a broken wheel.

Hating the thought of venturing out into the rain again, he nonetheless started up, thinking to find the driver and offer what help he might. Then young Rabbie Campbell, a cousin thrice removed on Jack's mother's side, unglued his snub nose from the window overlooking the inn yard and twisted about to shout, "'Tis him. 'E's coomin'."

The boy's exclamation acted on the sleepy late afternoon assembly like a battle cry. Men and even the few women present abandoned their benches and rushed to the rear of the tavern. The door to the outside was yanked open, sending a current of damp chill knifing through the oily warmth. A man of middling years wearing a coachman's caped greatcoat and with a burlap mail sack slung over one crooked shoulder stepped inside. Greeters clinging to him like fleas on a dog, he made his way to the bar.

Knowing there would be no letter for him, Jack settled back into his seat. As he listened with half an ear to the commotion of correspondence being claimed by those who could afford the cost of postage, he was aware of a rare prickle of envy. Loneliness had been a feature of his existence for as long as he could remember; accepting the mantle of lord high executioner after Seumas's retirement had widened the gulf between himself and his fellows, but not appreciably so. As a bastard and half English, he'd been born to the lot of outcast much as he'd been born to red hair and the physicality of a broad, six-foot-four-inch frame. Growing up, wherever he'd gone, whatever he'd done, the whispers and dagger looks had dogged him. By the time he reached manhood, he'd acquired the knack of closing off not only his eyes and ears but his heart as well. If half the village kent him to be a clot-head and the other half a bloodthirsty Sassenach devil, then so be it. At nine and twenty years of age, he'd just as soon shrug and be on his way than argue the point.

The present pull to sleep, however, was not so easily shrugged aside, for it had been more than twenty-four hours since his head had met with a pillow. But then he never slept the night before an execution. Not because he was troubled by guilt, he wasna, but because he liked to mull over each and every detail of the proceedings in his mind. No matter how heinous the crime the condemned had committed, a long drop, a quick clean snapping of the vertebrae was ever Jack's aim. He'd only missed his mark once and through no fault of his. A coiner from Dundee who'd slit his crony's throat had been teary-eyed as a wean and twitchy as a cat. At the critical moment, the wee fool lost his nerve and backed away from the chalk line, with the unfortunate result that he'd gotten caught up in the rope, twisting to and fro like a tattered sail. When Jack had stepped forward to cut him down, the sheriff had ordered him to hold his place on pain of death. For the first time in his life, Jack had wanted to strangle someone for the pure pleasure of it, and it hadn't been the condemned.

That morning's business, however, had gone off without a hitch. Warm, dry, and with a tankard of the inn's finest ale filling his belly, he could feel relaxation begin to unknot his muscles and loosen his taut limbs. His eyelids felt as heavy as the weights he'd used to test the trap, his eyes as scratchy as the sand with which he'd filled the bags.

Slipping the pipe into his pocket, he glanced down at his wolfhound, Elf, sprawled beneath his chair. Smothering a yawn with the back of one hand, he addressed the dog, "I've a mind to wait out the rain and have a wee nap myself before we head for home."

Elf lifted her gaze to his face but kept her big head glued to the hearthrug, confirmation that she didn't mind their tarrying in the least.

Accordingly, he folded his arms across his chest, closed his eyes, and prepared to cast off into the sea of nonvisual sensation. Floating on the edge of sleep, he was dimly aware of the solid feel of the wooden chair beneath his bum; the collective hum of competing conversations; the rich pungency of burning peat, damp wool, and the sweat of honest labor. He heard the main door screech open once more, felt the chilly rush of rain-soaked air prick the back of his neck just before it closed again, this time with a definite slam. Inhaling the fragrance of flowers, he let his heavy head fall forward.

Flowers? Eyes closed, Jack lifted his chin from his chest and took a good whiff. Hyacinth, or perhaps lavender, with a strong undercurrent of roses. Aye, roses to be sure. Hereabouts, the only plants village folk cultivated were for eating, and this late in the season the frost had taken care of most vegetation, decorative or otherwise.
Perfume? A highwayman from Liverpool he'd turned off a few years back had slathered himself with the stuff on the morning of his execution. The sickly sweetness was so potent that arranging the noose about the man's neck had sent Jack into a fit of sneezing. But few Scots, certainly none of the crofters he knew, had coin to spare for fripperies like bottled scent. And yet both the fragrance and the ticklishness teasing his nostrils seemed to grow stronger with each breath drawn.

Deciding that his curiosity could wait but sleep couldn't, he ignored the sounds of Elf stirring beneath him and tucked his arms across his chest. He was halfway to bliss when something cold and wet struck the bridge of his nose. Making a mental note to tell Alistair, the innkeeper, about the hole in the thatching, he unfolded his arms and rubbed the edge of his thumb over the spot.

A second drop fell, catching him on the cheek. He cracked open an eye.

"Monsieur, réveillez. Wake up." Bent over him and dripping like a faucet, the wee woman seized his right shoulder in a pinching grip and attempted to shake it.

Both eyes now open, he looked up the fine-boned face hovering bare inches from his own. Dark hair, possibly black, plastered pale high-boned cheeks, emphasizing the determined set of mouth and jaw.

Beneath his chair, Elf emitted a low warning growl. Jack reached down and laid a calming hand on the hound's neck. "Wheesht, the lass means us no harm."

"Certainement, I…" Her voice dropped off and she swallowed hard, sending a nervous ripple down the long ivory column of her throat. Holding one blue eye on Elf, she very slowly withdrew her hand from Jack's arm and straightened. "I only thought… you are the blacksmith, are you not?"

French, he decided, scarcely registering her question. Though he hadn't any of the language himself, her accented speech sounded much like what he recalled from the handful of French émigrés he'd encountered on his forays into England. And something about the shape of her nose, long and straight and just a wee bit arrogant, struck him at once as utterly Gallic and delectably feminine.

French or no, she hadn't a clue as to who he was or how he earned his living. Anonymity was a pleasant novelty and one he found he wasn't eager to relinquish.

Shamelessly prolonging the interlude, he asked, "And what need have ye for a blacksmith at this hour, milady? Your horse, it dinna throw a shoe, did it? Or is it the coach that brought ye?"

The fabric of his sleeve bunched beneath the tension in her slender fingers. "Oh, oui, yes, the coach." An enthusiastic bobbing of her head sent fresh rainwater spraying his shirtfront and wool jerkin. "The wheel, it is broken, and stuck… in the mud," she added as if that last bit of information were essential to his understanding. "You will come with me to fix it, yes?" She took back her hand, but her eyes, the rich, deep blue of cobalt, still held his. "Please, monsieur, you will come?"

He hesitated. Whoever she was, she was desperate. Travelers were common enough in the summer and early fall, but only the heartiest undertook the trek north this late in the season-and the lass looked anything but hearty. Jack had seen too many prisoners on execution eve to miss the bruised crescents carved beneath those lovely eyes or the haunted look reflected in their violet blue depths.

Squinting through the haze of smoke to the room beyond, he honed his gaze on the coachman. The man had shed his greatcoat and was taking his ease at one of the long, planked tables lining the room. A glass of whiskey in hand and several empties already lined up before him, he didn't look disposed to budge anytime soon. Even if he were amenable, Jack wouldn't trust him to navigate a coach and four through foul weather and washed-out roads.

He looked back to the girl and shook his head. "I dinna ken who it was told ye I was the blacksmith, but-"

"Personne… No one told me. I…" Her gaze fell on the breadth of beefy shoulder she'd just released.

So that was the way of it. Jack felt his pleasure in the moment burn off with the swiftness of a Highland mist. Deliberately exaggerating his Scots burr, he said, "A big, rough brute such as I maun be the blacksmith, aye? Och, woman, d'ye no ken that a strong arm can be put t' uses besides striking hammer t' anvil?"

Her eyes went blank, high forehead bunching into a frown. Watching her, Jack knew the exact moment when she strung together a sufficient number of words to ken his meaning.

Her perfectly shaped black brows arched, then snapped together. "Are you or are you not Monsieur Tam McBride? A simple yes or non, s'il vous plait."

As always, the mention of his stepfather's name caused the stiffness to settle into the back of his neck. Unable to keep the edge from his voice, he answered, "Seeing as ye put it that way, so simple and clear like, I'll have to say nay, I'm no him."

"Oh." Directing her disappointed gaze on the room beyond him, she rose up on her toes. "In that case, you will be so good as to point him out to me?" She reached up with both hands, presumably to shield her eyes against the sting of burning tallow and smoke.

It was common knowledge that Tam was abed with the ague. Jack opened his mouth to say as much when the front of her cloak fell open and he found himself on eye level with a firm and delectably full bosom. He sucked in his breath. For all she was small, with a wee waist he could span with his two hands, she wasna small everywhere. The bodice of her sprigged muslin frock, pale yellow and rendered to transparency by the rainwater, molded to her like wallpaper. Nipples that looked to be a shade somewhere between coral and pale rose pressed against the thin fabric, leaving no doubt that aye, the lass was cold.

Jack, however, felt very warm indeed.

The sudden, swift image of how easy it would be to lean forward and bury his face in that sweet, soft pillow flared without warning. It had been a considerable while, years in fact, since he'd found himself this close to a woman, at least one who was comely and younger than sixty odd. He'd come to regard the physical urges that reared from time to time as a manageable nuisance, no match for an ironclad will bent on upholding a twenty-year vow. But now sparks of desire fired through his lower belly and groin, making his balls ache and his heart yearn.

She yanked the ends of her cloak together. "Close your mouth, monsieur. Were it summer, you would be in danger of admitting the flies." Her regard raked over his face, telling him she kent just where he'd been looking.

Jack clamped closed the mouth he only now realized he'd left hanging open. Clot-head! Gomeral! Ears hot and certain to be rimmed in red, it was all he could do to croak out the words, "Tam, he's no in the-"

She cut him off with an irritated huff. "I will find him myself."

Dropping her gaze, she glared at his big, booted feet, apparently blocking her preferred path. Before he could draw them back, she stepped over, her muddy skirts mopping the legs of his breeches.

Light-headed as if he'd drunk a keg of ale instead of a single pint, he watched her trot off into the crowd, lovely nose pointed north and back held ramrod straight.

Remembering himself, he staggered to his feet, narrowly avoiding treading on the dog in his haste. Cupping his hands about his mouth to amplify the sound, he called after her, "Hold, milady! Tam, he's no here. He's…"

It was no use. Tiny as a faerie and every bit as nimble, she'd already moved beyond earshot. Or perhaps, given that he'd been gaping at her bubbies like a bloody slack-jawed idiot, she was choosing to ignore him. Either way, she didn't so much as look back his way.

Fresh humiliation heating his cheeks, he reached into his sporran, plunked several coins beside his empty tankard, and signaled to Elf to rise. "Ah, well, she'll find out for herself soon enough, aye, lass? 'Tis home for us, and it's a bonny fire I'll lay once we're there."

The dog cut him a sour look but dutifully rose, lingering only to stretch before coming to attention by his side.
His bill of fare settled, there was no cause to dally, but the nervous twitch in his gut bade him turn back for one last glimpse. Standing head and shoulders above the other patrons gave him the advantage, and he soon sighted his mystery woman working her way toward the front of the room. Ducking beneath raised arms and squeezing through tiny alleys of exposed space, she seemed not to see the male heads turning in her direction nor the appreciative glances that followed long after she swept past.

But Jack saw them and more. Lolling along the benches of one of the planked tables set nearest the bar, the party of drunken young men numbered a half dozen. Between quaffing ale and shouting abuses to all and sundry, they'd found time to pull down several of the tavern puzzles hanging from pegs on the wall behind them. Too bleary-eyed to piece them back together, they'd been using the disjointed pieces to torment those unfortunate enough to come within arm's length of their table. Alistair had been over once to urge them to hold their peace, but to no avail. Now it seemed that the French lass would succeed where the innkeeper had failed. As she stepped out into the open, a collective hush swept down their line. Six heads swiveled in her direction, eyes popping like wine corks.

Jack swallowed hard, forcing himself to hold back. The wee lass might be foreign but she was no fool, he'd give her that. Seeing what she'd walked into, she cut a sharp left, veering off toward a stack of brandy casks.

The ringleader, a tousled mop of brown hair hanging low over one eye, turned to address the table at large. Jack was too far away to overhear his remarks but, whatever their nature was, they drew a chorus of ribald laughter from his cronies.

Jack, however, was not amused.

The brown-haired one rose from the bench. Weaving slightly, he started after the French girl. She cut a quick backward glance and quickened her steps, now directed toward the main door. He caught up with her before she could reach it. Grabbing her by the elbow, he yanked her roughly to him.

Holy Mother of God. Jack had seen more than enough. He plunged into the thick of the crowd, narrowly avoiding colliding with his friend Milread, the barmaid, and her tray of ale. Calling out an apology, he pushed onward, using his mass to carve a path across the room.

He was halfway to his goal when a female voice rang out, "Cochon! Pig! Take your filthy hands from me."

"Wheesht, lass, be still. I'm only wantin' tae see if ye're other pap be as soft as this one."

The brown-haired one had caged her into a corner, a hand braced on the stones on either side of her slender shoulders. Suddenly he jerked backwards. "She cut me! The shewolf cut me!" He hauled back his hand and struck.

The slapping sound of flesh striking flesh sliced through the fragile ribbon of Jack's self-control. He launched forward, the raw rage inside him exploding in a deep, guttural growl. In one fluid motion, he wrapped his arm about his quarry's neck, tore him from the girl, and sent him hurtling into the onlookers. The latter obliged by parting to either side like the Red Sea, consigning the unfortunate to crashing into the far wall. With a ragged groan, he slipped down the stones and landed in a heap on the earthen floor. The hanging tavern puzzles, jarred free from their pegs, rained down on his head in a jangle of metal, drawing small but audible moans.

Sweat rolling down his sides, Jack swung around to the girl. Pale and shivering though she was, she was still on her feet, which was more than could be said for her attacker.

Claudia caught her breath as her rescuer closed the distance between them. At first glance she had thought him handsome albeit in a rough, peasant sort of way; now the raw, savage beauty of him striding toward her stole her breath. The top of his red-gold head nearly reached the timbered ceiling, his broad shoulders tested the fabric of his homespun shirt to the point of renting, and his snug- fitting breeches hugged his tree trunk-size thighs and muscular calves like a second skin.

Drawing up in front of her, he reached out one large hand to touch the side of her face where she'd been struck. From habit she flinched away, but his blunt fingers were gentle as he stroked them from her cheekbone to jaw. So gentle that she found herself staring with open longing at his other hand, still held at his side, the broad back of which was dusted with red-gold hairs that looked like they must feel very soft, a sensual contrast to the faint roughness edging his fingertips. Phillippe's hands, she recalled, had been soft as a woman's and bald as an egg, yet his touch had been impersonal at best, hurtful at worst.

The Scotsman drew his hand away and Claudia felt the absence of its warmth like the loss of a cherished friend. "Are ye hurt, lass?"

He was tall, so tall she had to tilt her head against the stones to meet his concerned, brown-eyed gaze. She shook her head, as much to answer him as to confirm to herself that it still rested on her shoulders. "I do not think so."

His lean face registered relief. A tiny trickle of perspiration wended its way down the side of his face, from temple to the high, flat plane of his Viking cheekbone to his square jaw. Trailing its progress, she had the absurd thought that, under more promising circumstances, she might like to catch the bead of moisture on the tip of her tongue.

He dropped his regard. "In that case, ye'll no be needin' that wee dagger."

She followed his downward gaze to the knife she held in a tight-fisted grip at her side. Seeing the dull sheen of crimson tipping the blade, she choked on a gasp. "Mon Dieu, I have killed him!" Her fingers went as weak as her knees and it was only the Scotsman's quick action in extricating the knife from her limp grasp that saved it from clattering to the floor.

"Dinna fash." He tucked the weapon inside the leather belt cinched about his tapered waist. Broad of shoulder yet lean about the middle and hips, he put Claudia in mind of the statue of Atlas she once had glimpsed in the gardens of Versailles. "He'll be havin' the devil of a headache on the morrow and the wee cut on his shoulder willna feel verra pleasant either but otherwise he'll no be the worse for wear, which is more than I can say for you." A small smile tugged one corner of his mouth higher than the other, revealing a fleeting glimpse of teeth that looked to be both strong and white.

Something about that smile seemed to drain the last of the resistance from Claudia's body. Boneless as an eel, she sagged forward, reaching for him to ground herself as she had the coach door earlier. Cheek pressed against the rock- hard casing of breastbone and ribs, she felt the wave of shock ripple through him, the muscles of torso and arms tautening with tension.

For a moment, she thought he would cast her aside, then his big arms enfolded her, closing off her view of the curiosity seekers gathering about them like hungry crows. "Och lass, you're all but dead on your feet. We've to get you to bed and soon."

The words dragged her from the fog into the present. As much as she would like to go to bed, either alone or with him, she could not.

Linlithgow. Father. She lifted her head from his chest and looked up. "I cannot. I must…" She started, a dog's sudden growl alerting her to the flicker of movement from behind.

Peering around the broad slope of the Scotsman's shoulder, she saw her attacker rise to a half-crouch, one hand clutching the scarlet blossom on the shoulder of his shirtsleeve.

And the other fisted about the hilt of a small but lethal- looking knife.

She opened her mouth, and a woman's voice, her voice, rang out, "Attention! Look out!"

The room seesawed and Claudia with it. Black, spidery shapes crawled about the edges of her vision, reducing her savior's stunned face to a jumble of colors and shapes. Like a snuffed candle, a single poof extinguished the last of the light, leaving fathomless blackness.

Claudia fainted.

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Copyright Hope Tarr, 2002