"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
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'
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
And the other fisted about the hilt of a small but lethal-
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.
Copyright Hope Tarr, 2002