Excerpt: Plaid Tidings
The Spirit of the Highlands, Book 2
“Three hundred years seems a long time when one is looking forward. Looking back, it’s but a watch in the night. Our chance of redemption slips away with each passing sunrise. Until a son of Scotland who has once disowned his true self finds that self again, the curse on Bonniebroch Castle canna be lifted.”
From the secret journal of Callum Farquhar,
Steward of Bonniebroch Castle since the Year of Our Lord 1521
December 1821, Somewhere off the coast of Scotland
The Agatha May rolled with a monstrous swell. Lord Alexander Mallory splayed his hand across the coins and banknotes in the center of the table to keep them from cascading to the plank floor. It was a good thing the table was bolted to the teak or the whole thing might have toppled over.
“That’s one hundred pounds to you, MacMartin,” he said. The stakes of this poque game were ridiculously high, but Alexander had his reasons for allowing it to spiral out of control.
Sir Darren MacMartin dabbed his face with a perfumed handkerchief. At any other time, Alexander might have had sympathy for MacMartin since he suffered so from mal de mer; the man had spent the better part of the voyage leaning over the gunwale. But MacMartin’s seasickness made it more difficult for Alexander to read him when he bluffed.
MacMartin tossed down the required bet and stared at his cards, his face immovable as Gibraltar despite the pinpricks of perspiration blooming on his brow. “So what will you do with yourself in Edinburgh, Mallory?”
“Clarindon and I will help Lord Rankin prepare for the royal progression next August,” Alex said cautiously. “What’s your interest in a Christmastide visit to Scotland?”
“I’ve an estate there which requires my immediate attention,” MacMartin said, frowning at his cards. “Bonniebroch. Means ‘lovely tower,’ or some such silly thing. All in all, it’s a tidy barony, though.”
Alexander already knew that. The estate was the whole point of the game.
“So while you’re in Scotland, you’ll go by Lord Bonniebroch instead of Sir Darren?” Alexander asked.
“I should, especially once the king arrives next summer, in order to show that I hold honors on both sides of the border. He likes that sort of thing, I’m told,” MacMartin said. “I suspect Lord Rankin picked you for this assignment because of your Scottish connections. Should smooth the way, what? If memory serves, your mother was a MacGregor, wasn’t she?”
Alexander’s mouth tightened. The man knew damned well she was. His friend Clarindon tried to change the topic of conversation, but MacMartin returned to worry it like a dog on its last bone.
“Surely that whole sorry business doesn’t still distress you, Mallory. My apologies, if it does. Didn’t mean to bring up . . . I mean, I didn’t think you’d be bothered after all this time.”
Of course, you did. Distracting other players from their hands was MacMartin’s gaming strategy. Alexander waved away the false apology. Besides, it really shouldn’t matter anymore.
Except that it did. And for a blinding second, he was four years old again, weeping over the bit of unconsecrated ground that was his mother’s grave.
“Stop your sniveling,” his father had growled at him. “She doesn’t deserve your tears. Remember, your mother chose to leave us.”
Alexander ran a hand over his eyes and consigned the memory back to the vault where he kept all such disturbing recollections. Occasionally, they crept out to torment him, but he always shoved them away. Someday he hoped he’d be able to make sense of his mother’s end, but he doubted it.
Clarindon tossed in his hand, leaving just MacMartin and Alex still playing. Alexander upped the bid by another two hundred pounds.
“I shall give you my vowels,” MacMartin said as he pulled out a scrap of paper and began to scribble an IOU.
“Sorry, old chap,” Alexander said. “We agreed to a cash in hand game.” Then he purposely scratched his nose, the gesture he’d been using as his tell throughout the game and hoped Sir Darren would rise to the bait.
The man scowled furiously, twisted off his signet ring and slammed it down on the pile of bank notes. It was a barbaric piece, fashioned of heavy gold with a cabochon ruby carved intaglio style. “I will not allow you to buy this pot. That ring signifies the title and estate of Bonniebroch, which is better than cash. Now throw down.” He tossed his cards onto the table face up.
“Three queens,” Alex said with a gulp. “A formidable hand.”
Sir Darren flashed an oily smile. “Show your cards, sir.”
Alex laid them down one at a time, four eights in a lovely row, which handily beat three queens. Then he picked up the signet ring and slipped it on his forefinger. It was much heavier than he expected.
Scottish titles at the rank of baron weren’t dependent upon bloodlines. They could be bought, sold or won in a game of chance, as Alex had just done. The estate at Bonniebroch would give him the pretext he needed to remain in Scotland till the royal visit next August. And would mask his true purpose for being there.
Sir Darren stared at the cards in disbelief. Then he rose shakily to his feet, his eyes narrowing. “Enjoy your winnings while you can, Mallory, much good may they do you.”
“That sounds suspiciously like a threat. Do you feel yourself ill-used? If it’s satisfaction you crave, as soon as we reach dry land, I’m at your disposal.”
“My satisfaction will come from seeing how poorly you fare as Lord Bonniebroch,” MacMartin said. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Alex chuckled. “Warn me of what? Is the ‘tidy barony’ nothing but a tumbled down croft with sheep grazing on the roof?”
“You may laugh now. You won’t be laughing after you’ve spent a few nights with the weeping woman. You may not believe in Scottish curses, but I promise you, they are real. Clarindon, I bid you good day.” He bowed to Alexander’s friend and weaved from the cabin, looking greener around the gills than usual.
“Hope he makes it to the rail this time,” Clarindon said as he helped Alex scoop up the impressive pile of winnings. “What do you make of his talk of curses?”
“We’re within spitting distance of Scotland, aren’t we?” Alex glanced out the porthole, catching a glimpse of the hazy coastline of his mother’s homeland before another swell washed over the heavy glass. “I’d only be surprised if there was no talk of a curse.”
“Mr. Farquhar, sir, are ye all right?” Mr. Lyttle stood frozen in place, wringing his hands with fervor.
“Of course, I’m no’ all right,” Callum Farquhar replied. “I’m still dead, ye ken.” Indeed, Farquhar had not been counted among the living for almost three hundred years.
While few people could actually see Farquhar, the old steward of Bonniebroch Castle made sure the butler of the estate was one of them. Over the centuries, Farquhar had learned to approximate the normal motion of the living to an uncanny degree. When he moved across the room, one had to look very closely to see that his high-heeled boots didn’t quite touch the broad plank floor.
“But, for a moment, ye seemed . . . more dead than usual, beggin’ yer pardon. Ye faded so I feared ye were about to wink out entire.”
Even though Farquhar was a ghost, he was still the steward of the castle. Barons came and went, but since 1521, Farquhar had remained. Lyttle and the rest of Bonniebroch’s residents depended upon him for daily direction in the running of the place.
“There’s been a disturbance of our plans, a transfer of sorts,” Farquhar said, a hand pressed involuntarily to his chest. “Bonniebroch has a new baron.”
“A new baron? We didna even have a chance to get used to the old one. What does this mean? Will he still come for Christmas?” Mr. Lyttle shifted his weight from one foot to the other like a squirrel on a slender branch, not certain it would hold him. “We havena much time.”
“Peace, Lyttle. Let me think.” The impending deadline for the curse’s fulfillment hovered over them all like the Sword of Damocles. Farquhar had pinned his last hope on Sir Darren MacMartin. He had Scottish roots, but his family had moved south when he was a child and he’d lived as an Englishman all his life. He met the curse’s requirements on the surface. But now the man had somehow let the castle and the title slip from his index finger. A new name formed in Farquhar’s mind.
Lord Alexander Mallory.
“I need to discover what I can about the new Lord Bonniebroch,” Farquhar said. “Carry on, Mr. Lyttle.”
Then, quick as lightning, Farquhar shot across the room and passed through the silvered glass of a long mirror as if it were water. The surface wavered for a heartbeat after his passage, and then went still as a becalmed sea.
“I hate the English.” The muttering masculine voice curled around Lucinda MacOwen’s ear. She and her sisters, Aileen and Mary, huddled under an oversized umbrella waiting at the quay with the assembled gentry. The trifling drizzle wasn’t enough to send them inside. The chance to see a king’s envoys, even an English king’s envoys, was too delicious to pass up over a few raindrops.
“The Sassenachs used to turn up when a body least expected them,” the voice went on, “but now when they give notice of their intent to appear and ye can prepare yerself a bit for the insult of it, the bloody English canna even be bothered to arrive in goodly time.”
Lucinda resisted the urge to tell Brodie MacIver to be quiet. It wasn’t as if anyone else could hear him and she didn’t fancy letting her sisters know she could. Besides, the poor ghost had enough to worry about what with the wind threatening to blow him into the next shire.
“Your teeth are fair chattering, Lucy.” Her sister Aileen was ten months Lucinda’s junior but that didn’t stop her from trying to manage the other MacOwen sisters as if she were the eldest. “It doesna seem that cold to me. Would ye take my shawl then?”
“No, I’m fine,” Lucy said. It wasn’t the soft rain that chilled her. It was Brodie MacIver’s invisible hand on her shoulder, cold as naked iron in January, which was only natural since one couldn’t expect a ghost to be warm. She really ought to be used to it since the specter had been her companion since she was a child.
When she was six, her brother Dougal and his friends had locked her in the cellar because she wouldn’t stop dogging them. In the dark and damp, Lucinda had cried herself hoarse, but no one came to free her. Then just when she was about to go wild with fear, a soft burr of a voice whispered, “Och, little lassie. Ye dinna have to cry so. Ol’ Brodie’s here wi’ ye.”
When Dougal finally came to set her free he’d expected to find her thoroughly cowed, but she and Brodie had passed a tolerable time together there in the dark. The spirit had been with her ever since.
His presence was sometimes annoying, sometimes a comfort, but just now his spectral hand on her was merely cold. She shivered again.
“Are ye sure ye dinna want me shawl?” Aileen said. “A chill might give ye a case of the sniffles.”
Lucy hated to cover her pale blue muslin gown and rabbit-trimmed pelisse with Aileen’s garish red shawl, but she accepted it. Her sister’s redingote was of thick wool so she could spare the shawl.
Lucinda should have been warm without it from sheer excitement. Today she’d meet her betrothed for the first time. He was a passenger on the Agatha May along with the English envoys.
Betrothed. Even now she scarcely believed it.
Though the marriage contract was as firm as a gaggle of Glaswegian lawyers could make it, she didn’t want her husband-to-be to look upon her with disfavor at their first meeting on account of a drippy nose.
The Agatha May wallowed up to the quay and ropes thick as a man’s arm were tossed to waiting dock men. As soon as the vessel was made fast, passengers crowded elbow-to-elbow along the ship’s rail. A short fellow in full Highland regalia made his way to the front of the ship where the gunwale was constructed of neatly spaced spindles instead of solid wood.
“Oh, look. There at the prow. Could that be the king?” Lucinda exclaimed. The man was portly, as the English monarch was said to be, and was swathed in a belted plaid of startling Stewart red.
“Canna be,” Aileen said. “King Georgie isna due till August. Must be one of his men. Dearie me, what’s he wearing beneath his kilt then?”
Lucinda’s youngest sister Mary squinted up at the Englishman. “Looks like . . . bright pink pantaloons, tight enough to mold to his knees.”
“But everyone knows a man should sport nothing beneath a kilt but what the Lord God gave him,” Aileen said. All the MacOwen girls were green-eyed redheads, but only Aileen’s eyes perpetually sparked with mischief. “And if those pantaloons are meant to be the color of his flesh, the fellow must be part lobster.”
“I, for one, consider the pink pantaloons a mercy.” Mary laced her fingers primly before her, fig-leaf fashion. “That kilt is far too short for modesty. Especially from this angle.”
“Weel, since the English are to be among us for so brief a time, the more we see of them the better,” Lucy quipped.
Aileen giggled, but Mary shot them both a withering glance that would have done credit to their decrepit Great Aunt Hester, who had let the foul weather keep her safely indoors. The old biddy was fooling no one. She wasn’t sweet enough to melt.
Lucy stood tiptoe to peer over the shoulder of the rotund matron in front of her. The MacOwen family wasn’t sufficiently important to rate a place directly before the cordoned-off disembarkation space.
“Which one do you suppose is him?” Lucinda didn’t need to explain who she meant by him. Her intended was foremost in all their minds since her pending marriage affected the entire family.
“‘Tis no’ likely he’s a handsome braw lad, worse luck for ye, Lu. The best ye may hope is that he’s still got his hair.” Aileen crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. “And maybe his teeth.”
“I dinna think that matters.” Though Mary was the youngest MacOwen sister, she was also the most frightfully practical. “Even if he has a hump like Old Man MacClintock, Lucy will still have to marry him.”
Lucinda’s spine stiffened. “It was to be Maggie, remember, not me. Have a care with your ill wishes, sisters dear, lest I leave my bridegroom to one of ye.”
Mary gave an unladylike snort. “Maybe Margaret saw a miniature of Lord Bonniebroch and that’s what sent her haring off.”
They hadn’t heard from their oldest sister Margaret since she took flight with the man-of-all-work from a neighboring estate.
“I doubt it, but ’tis fair awkward for me, and that’s God’s truth,” Lucinda said. “I’ll no’ say I blame her though. Maggie loves Duncan Fraser and there’s no help for it.”
“And there’s no help for the fact that one of us has to wed this Lord Bonniebroch, either,” Aileen said. “Even if his kilt hides a forked tail!”
Intermediaries had negotiated the marriage agreement in secret, combing through the particulars about grazing rights and stud fees for the two families’ combined herds, about Erskine MacOwen’s patented for improvements to the weaving loom, along with Lord Bonniebroch’s financial support of the invention. Then their father and the laird had finally signed the contract and that was that.
Fortunately, Erskine MacOwen hadn’t stipulated which ‘daughter of the house’ would be offered up on the matrimonial altar to seal the deal.
“I’m glad ’tis ye and not me being trotted out to honor Father’s word,” Aileen said to Lucinda. “But honestly, he might have spared his daughters a passing thought before he made this bargain.”
“‘Tis no’ Father’s fault, really,” Mary said, loyal as a basset.”
“Whose fault it is that he canna manage his own affairs?” Aileen gave a little sniff of disapproval.
“‘Tis a small matter now. The deal is done,” Lucinda said, lifting her chin. She wouldn’t let her sisters see how she chafed at being an unspecified commodity in the transaction, of less import than the prize-winning Blackface ram Lord Bonniebroch also demanded. The sheep, at least, had its long pedigreed name specified in the documents.
But if the family was on firm financial footing and she bore a “Lady” before her name, then the chances of Aileen and Mary making happy matches shot up like flock of pheasants rousted by a hound.
“Weel, it isna as if ye had a beau, Lu,” Aileen said. “There’s a mercy.”
Lucinda flinched as though her sister had slapped her, but Aileen was right. She’d never had a beau. Brodie MacIver ran off every lad who tried.
This “made marriage” was the best she could hope for and she knew it. And since the contract was binding, Brodie couldn’t do a thing about it.
Which probably accounted for the ghost’s general surliness of late.
She was all he had.
“Just because I havena got a beau doesna mean I won’t hand Lord Bonniebroch to ye if he turns out to be the hairless, toothless wretch ye’ve wished on me,” Lucinda said with a sidelong glance at Aileen.
“Ye’ll not be leaving Lord Bonniebroch to one of us, and ye know it. ‘Tis not your way. Even before she met Duncan Fraser, Maggie was always the flighty one. But ye’ve grit enough for ten sons, Lu. Father always says so.” Aileen pointed toward one of the Englishmen leaning on the ship’s gunwale. “But I’ll take your Lord Bonniebroch if he favors that fine fair-haired laddie there. Are there any pictures provided in that Knowledgeable Ladies’ Guide to Eligible Gentlemen, Lu?”
Before her engagement to Lord Bonniebroch was finalized, Lucinda had pored over the leather-bound listing of bachelors and wondered at the sometimes outlandish advice the book’s author recommended for capturing one of them. Now she supposed she’d have to hand the book over to her sisters.
“Dinna point, Aileen,” Mary said, batting at her sister’s upraised arm. “‘Tis impolite.”
Lucy followed the invisible line from the tip of her sister’s finger. When she spotted the young man Aileen pointed to, her jaw went slack.
She’d never seen such a dazzlingly handsome man. Or one who could set her heart a-clicking from such a distance.
His skin was fair after the manner of wellborn Englishmen, his sandy hair a bit on the longish side, which made it more striking. The severity of having it slicked back by the wind accentuated his bone-deep good-looks. A plaid sash in blue and red, proclaiming a clan affiliation, was draped over his broad shoulders so he must have some Scottish blood as well. If someone had asked Lucinda to conjure up a prince for the Folk of the Hollow Hills, he’d look exactly like that stern, forbidding, utterly beautiful man.
Her belly fizzed as if she’d downed a frothy syllabub in one gulp.
The man stood a few inches taller than the dark-haired fellow at his side, but they both carried themselves with the dangerous grace of fighting men. The brunet said something and the handsome man laughed, a smile bursting over his features like sunrise on a cloudless morn.
Something threatened to burst inside Lucinda as well. She was suddenly hot and achy beneath the bones of her stays. She usually didn’t give a man’s appearance much thought, but now that she faced the prospect of crawling into bed with one, the subject had pushed itself to the forefront of her mind.
Would it hurt anyone in the grand scheme of things if Lord Bonniebroch turned out to be a man who made her pantalets bunch like this one did?
Aileen turned her sly gaze on Lucinda. “Well? Isn’t he fine?”
Lucy released a pent up breath. “He sets me belly a-jitter, for certain sure.”
“Och! That’s indigestion, most like,” Mary said. “Ye’ve been off your feed for days. More parritch tomorrow, I’m thinking. That’ll set ye to rights.”
The stout man in the red kilt turned away from the gathered crowd, and waddled toward the gangplank. It was probably disrespectful to imagine the king’s envoy waddling, but Lucy thought he resembled nothing so much as a fattened gander as he strutted along. Her gaze didn’t linger on him though. Instead, Lucinda tracked the handsome Englishman’s progress along the ship’s rail as he followed in the kilted fellow’s wake.
“Weel, when you do meet Lord Bonniebroch,” Aileen said, “just be sure you dinna mention Dougal till after the knot is tied good and tight.”
Lucinda’s lips drew together in a tight line. “I thank ye kindly for your advice, Mistress Readily Apparent.”
It was clear during the nuptial negotiations that Lord Bonniebroch had no idea Dougal MacOwen was mixed up with the Radicals’ cause. The less said about their felon of a brother and his troubles the better.
Once Lucinda was safely married, she’d expect her powerful new husband to help his brother-in-law avoid the noose. Since the laird of Bonniebroch was traveling home from London on the same vessel as the king’s advance party, it stood to reason he’d acquired some valuable connections during his recent trip to the English court.
“There’s the boggle I’ve been waitin’ for,” Brodie MacIver’s voice rumbled in her ear again. “He’s the spit of Cormag MacGregor, the thrice-cursed offspring of a diseased swine.”
“Who?” Lucinda whispered. It made her seem a trifle daft when she answered Brodie while others were present, but sometimes the ghost was hard to ignore.
“Only the man who damned me to this half-life of misery,” Brodie went on. “This must be one of his spawn or else Cormag made a deal with the devil to live on in this world forever unchanging. Wouldn’t put it past him, stinkin’ offal of a mangy dog that he is.”
“Who?” she said a little louder this time.
“The blatherskite wearing the sash of MacGregor plaid over his shoulder, o’ course. Is it blind ye are?”
Attaching specific tartans to specific clans was one of Sir Walter Scott’s brainbrats. Lucinda loved the blue and green Black Watch plaid that marked the MacOwen family as part of the Campbell clan, but she hadn’t had leisure to commit all the other distinctive weaves to memory yet. Brodie, for whom time was no object, obviously had.
“Who?” she hissed again.
“Who, who, who? Fancy yourself a wee owlet, do ye?” Aileen said. “Patience, sister. I’m sure Lord Bonniebroch will make himself known to ye.”
The man in the red kilt paraded by and the crowd surged forward to get a closer look. Kilts had been outlawed since 1746, so this one excited much notice. Lucinda only wished a finer figure of a man was wearing it.
Brodie’s grip tightened on her shoulder. Then before Lucinda could stop him, he propelled her forward, shoving her between Lady Beaton and Lady Dalrymple. Aileen’s shawl slipped from her shoulders. The thick velvet cording that nominally held back the crowd didn’t impede her momentum one tiddly bit. She stumbled forward onto the scarlet carpet, a blur of blue and red tartan and a pair of shiny black boots filling her vision.
Then at the last moment before she would have landed with a splat on the wet wool, a pair of strong arms snatched her up. She was yanked back upright and clasped to a chest so muscular she could feel the hardness and strength of it even through the layers of clothing separating them.
“Alexander, my lad. Found a lass already, I see,” the dark-haired gentleman chided. “Why am I not surprised? Women in London throw themselves at you with regularity. This Scottish miss undershot the mark a bit, but you seem to have the matter well in hand.”
Lucinda’s cheeks burned with embarrassment as the gentleman erupted with laughter. She looked up into the face of her rescuer. It was that impossibly handsome Englishman.
If only she could melt away into one of the standing puddles, she’d never ask for another thing in all her life.