An Angel for the Highlander (Preview)
Glencoe, Scotland 1768
“Ye heard of the latest attack?”
“Aye, brutal it was. Those Maguires willnae be happy until the entire MacLaren clan is dead, ye mark me words.”
Elliot stopped walking abruptly, turning his head to listen to the conversation, hoping he wasn’t too obvious. The men who were gossiping about the raiding Maguires didn’t seem to notice Elliot’s presence. He walked past their table in the main part of the ale house and then turned to stand nearby, looking out of the window into the town, hoping no one would pay him any attention.
Aye, nay one will recognize me. They daenae ken what their Laird looks like.
His choice of garb certainly helped the illusion of him being just like any other man that walked into the place from the grey cobbled street. He was wearing a pauper’s frock coat, thin and tatty with patchworked sections; beneath was a white linen shirt that smelled, making his nose curl. It was not like the posies of lavender and bergamot he was used to finding amongst his clothes; this smell distinctly reminded him of the farms and the horses’ stables. His buckskins were worn too, and the boots so torn that they were practically falling off his feet.
I certainly daenae look like a Laird now!
“I am tellin’ ye, the Maguires will see us all dead.” The first man spoke again, whipping his hand across the front of his neck in demonstration of what he thought. “They’ll cut yer throat as soon as look at ye.”
“Ye exaggerate, ye old fool,” the younger man beside him said as he sipped from his ale. It was the middle of the day, yet the alehouse had drawn quite a crowd from visitors to the market in the center of town. Out of the window, Elliot could see the few trees that bordered the town square bristling in the breeze—orange leaves falling with each rustle of the branches.
“Aye, ye think so? Pah! What do ye ken, laddie? Ye are nae one of the men that have to go and fight these Maguires each time they come callin’.”
“Is that nae the soldiers’ job? They that work for our Laird?”
“Ye think our Laird worries himself with such small towns like ours? Naïve, that’s what ye are. Our Laird notices the people of this town nay more than he does the ants beneath his boots.”
Elliot froze, his body flinching at the words, and looked down. To his horror, there were indeed ants running between the floorboards of the building and under his boots. He consciously adjusted his feet, doing his best not to stand on the ants anymore.
“Ye talkin’ of the Maguires, Ken?” a third man called.
Elliot looked away from the window, peering toward the gossiping men another time, doing his best to watch and listen without being seen. When one man looked his way, he was forced to turn his gaze back to the view from the window. They were in the very center of Glencoe town, set within a valley between three mountains and to the side of a river that meandered into the blue ocean beyond. The town was well constructed and had grown considerably since Elliot had last visited it as a child. Each tall building was a narrow townhouse, some white with sash windows, others red and bordered in white brick. The town hall, the most important building in Glencoe with a white-pillared frontage and grand steps leading up to the doors, was set opposite the alehouse. In front of the town hall, the market was set up. Busy today, it was full of farmers and fishmongers trying to sell their wares.
“Aye, ye dragged yerself away from the market long enough for a drink?” Ken, the first man, said to the approaching incomer.
“Perhaps for a wee one,” the third man laughed, taking a proffered tankard from Ken’s hand and downing it as quickly as he could. “Ye heard of what happened only two days ago? Thanks to the Maguires.”
“What?” Ken and the young man asked together.
“They attacked a wee village on the edge of the clan in the shadow of old Ben Nevis; there was nae a soul to help them. The village was burned to the ground. The women and children turned up here two days later lookin’ for shelter.”
“What of the men?” Ken asked.
“They didnae come. The Maguires didnae let them.”
There was a collective gasp followed by curses, prompting Elliot to lean against the window of the alehouse and ruffle his hands through his brown hair.
Is this possible?
He hadn’t long taken over the lairdship, barely two months, if that. Yet he’d had enough council meetings to bore many a man into sleep, and at none of these meetings had anyone mentioned attacks by the Maguire clan. He’d even had a council meeting that morning before he had managed to persuade Andrew, one of his captains, to give him some old clothes to go out secretly in Glencoe.
“I am glad I did,” he muttered to himself, wondering why it seemed the council was intent on hiding the troubles with the Maguires from him. Had it not been for his outing that day, he would have had no idea about these attacks.
Elliot looked back, seeing that the three men were talking of yet more tales of the Maguires. He was debating whether to approach them and ask to hear more stories when something caught his eye through the window.
In the market over the way, there was a commotion. What had been stall holders catcalling to promote their wares had abruptly come to a halt.
“Fresh ham! From the butcher’s this mornin’!”
“Haddock, smoked, aye, one bob a fish.”
“Marchpane – goin’ fast!”
“Eh – what’s goin’ on there?”
Elliot tried to see what all the other stallholders were staring at. There was one particularly small stall in the middle of the market, standing in the shadow of the clocktower in the center of the square. There had been apples and herbs strewn across a clothed table, but a hand had pushed them away, scattering them all over the ground.
“I said nay.” A woman’s voice came strongly. It was husky, deep, yet lyrical and inviting, rather like listening to some fine instrument. It made Elliot want to see her face, but she was hidden by the gathering crowd.
“Why say nay? I warrant a lass like ye doesnae have many offers.” The man’s voice made something in Elliot’s stomach curdle.
His eyes flicked to the man who had spoken. He was a hulking brute of a figure, with short red hair and a nose that resembled the snout of a pig. He moved around the stall toward the woman, forcing the spectators back and revealing her face at last.
She was a dark beauty, with long, dark-brown hair that was braided and hanging over her shoulder, skin that looked like caramel, and dark eyes with strong eyebrows. Elliot found his feet walking away from the alehouse window, heading through the oak door and straight toward the stall as if he was being drawn by something.
“I said nay, Travis. Do ye nae speak English?” she asked, walking the other way around the stall. “I am tellin’ ye nay, and ye will listen to me.”
Travis went back the other way around the stall, cutting her off and stamping over all her fresh herbs, dirtying and crushing them so they were no longer sellable.
“Let me teach ye how to say aye, lass.” The words were an implicit threat as he reached for her, grabbing her wrist.
Why is nay one helpin’ her?
Elliot looked around at the other stall holders who were still much closer to her than he was, and in a position to help, yet none of them did. Some busied themselves with their own stalls, firmly looking away, and others just gawked, their eyes wide.
What is wrong with them all!?
“Let go of me!” the dark beauty cried, trying to be free of the man, yet he wouldn’t let her go. As she tried to escape the other way around the stall, he took her other wrist too and backed her up to the tabletop, trapping her in.
Elliot picked up his speed, running toward the table. Before he could reach them, the woman acted. She brought her knee up firmly between Travis’ legs, making him howl in pain, like a wounded sow. As he released one of her wrists, she brought her hand up and slapped him across the face.
Aye, maybe the lass doesnae need help. Elliot smiled at the idea and slowed his speed, though he still walked toward the two of them.
Travis looked down at her again, lowering his hand from his face which was smarting and bright red.
“Ye want to feel somethin’ rough, do ye, lass?”
The words must have filled her with terror because she tried to push past him to run around the stall, only for him to grab her waist and pull her back again.
“That is enough!” Elliot roared, getting closer to the two of them. The dark-haired beauty flicked her head toward him as she fought with Travis, but Travis didn’t seem to notice.
Elliot took hold of the scruff of Travis’ jacket and jerked him back, yet he didn’t let go of the woman, causing her to yelp and fall forward.
“Release her,” Elliot warned, reaching for something in his belt, hidden beneath the patchworked frock coat.
“Step away, stranger. What I do with her is nae yer matter.”
“It is now.” Elliot pulled the pistol from his belt and pointed it straight at Travis’ chest. “Release. Her.” He slowed his words, uttering the syllables clearly. He didn’t care if not many peasants carried a flintlock pistol; at this point, he was willing to blow his disguise just to keep this woman safe.
He could hear her breathing heavily as Travis’ eyes flicked down to the pistol, clearly trying to decide whether he could beat a bullet. He must have thought better of it, for he released the woman’s wrist and backed off. Elliot took the opportunity to move between the two of them, blocking off Travis’ access to the woman again.
“Leave. Now. Or I take ye to the nearest constable and have ye locked up for assault.” Elliot’s threat seemed to be enough as Travis began to back away, slipping between the other market goers. Around them, the stallholders and their customers watched on, all wide-eyed and staring at the pistol as if Elliot had waved the hand of God in the air. “Shameful,” Elliot muttered, looking at them all, thinking how strange it was that they wouldn’t help the woman.
Only when he was certain that Travis was gone, exiting the courtyard and running down a street near the alehouse, did Elliot turn around to see the woman. She was leaning on the stall behind her for support, breathing heavily, her braid swung over her shoulder, and her dark eyes fixed on the pistol Elliot had now lowered down to his side.
Those eyes…the color of chestnuts.
“Are ye all right, lass?” he asked, stepping toward her. She flinched, clearly still scared after what had happened. Elliot hurried to replace the pistol in his belt and held up his hands, showing he meant no harm. “I will nae hurt ye, ye have me word. I…” He paused and looked around the stalls, still shaking his head in bemusement. “I daenae understand why nay one would help ye.”
Her dark lips turned up in the smallest of smiles.
“Ye daenae?” she asked. “Nay one here would ever do that. That’s why I am so baffled.”
“Baffled?” he asked, watching as she tilted her head to the side, clearly examining him.
“Why did ye help me?” she asked.
“What kind of monster would leave ye to be hurt by that man?” he asked, being careful to raise his voice so that others around could hear him. Plenty of men abruptly busied themselves with tidying up their stalls, looking dutifully ashamed.
“A monster ye find everywhere ye look,” she said wryly and walked around the stall. She bent down to the cobblestones and tried to collect the herbs and apples from where they had fallen. Elliot went to help her, bending down and collecting the wares too, returning them to her table. She paused in her work, looking at him, those chestnut-colored eyes shining in the bright sun.
“I rather think I have surprised ye again,” he pointed out, earning another flicker of a smile from her.
“Thank ye,” she said, moving toward him and reaching for his hand. The touch was soft, and then he felt the warmth of her hand sliding against his palm. “I’m sorry. I should have thanked ye right away, but I was too…”
“Ye daenae need to apologize for that,” he assured her, lifting his other hand. Warily, he took her shoulder, patting it in comfort but with restraint. “Anyone would be in shock. Ye are surely in need of a wee dram of somethin’ to calm yer nerves.” He released her shoulder and looked to the alehouse nearby, aware that she hadn’t removed her hand from his yet. He glanced back to her, seeing her chew her lip as she looked down at their connected hands.
“Thank ye,” she said again, rather breathless. He patted her hand in his.
“I am only sorry I couldnae reach yer side sooner. Though I have to say, ye have a good slap on ye, lass. Many a man would have quivered at that.” His praise worked to bring a smile to her face, and she released her hand from his. He instantly missed that warmth from his palm as he went back to picking up her wares.
“Please, daenae trouble yerself. They are ruined now anyway; I cannae sell them.”
“That man should pay for the damage he has done to yer day’s business.”
“It is nay matter.” She slowly stood to her feet, and Elliot followed her, using the minute that he had to admire her figure. She was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt with a belted arisaid over the top; it was a dark sapphire blue and emerald-green plaid that complemented her perfectly. Elliot found himself standing slowly, finding it mightily difficult to stop himself from admiring the curve of her waist belted by the are said or the slenderness of her fingers as she flicked her dark braid over her shoulder.
Be a gentleman, ye fool! He snapped his gaze back to her face.
“I think ye are right,” she said, lowering her hands and gazing at them, showing her fingers were trembling. “A tot of somethin’ might do me some good.”
“How about the alehouse?” he said, pointing across the courtyard.
“Aye, if…ye let me buy ye an ale or somethin’? As me way of sayin’ thank ye.”
“Ye daenae need to thank me for anythin’,” he said hurriedly, but she was shaking her head rather animatedly as she walked toward him. Feeling her so close, he abruptly stopped talking, thinking of how close those dark eyes were and taking in the intoxicating scent of bilberries and cowslips that came with her.
“Please,” she said, her tone truly pleading. “As ye can see…” She gestured around the market. “Nay one else would have done what ye did. I’d like to show me gratitude.” She collected the apples and herbs from the table into two bundles and threw them over her shoulder—wares that could no longer be sold. Elliot took one to carry it for her, but she took the bundle out of his hand and added it to her own shoulder.
“If ye wish,” he said, following her toward the alehouse, watching the curve of her dress as it swayed in the autumnal breeze.
Why can I nae stop lookin’ at her? I am a betrothed man!
Yet it didn’t seem to stop him, and he followed her regardless.
“What is yer name?” the handsome stranger asked as Keira brought back the two tankards to the table. They sat in the corner of the alehouse, under dark timbers and on settle benches with high backs that hid them from the other customers.
“Keira,” she said, hanging her head over the tankards as she sat down opposite him. She pushed the ale toward the stranger and picked up the small cup that held the tot of whisky, taking a big gulp indeed. It burned her throat as she tipped her head back, causing her to close her eyes and indulge in the taste before she opened her eyes once again to look at the stranger.
“I havenae seen many women enjoy a whisky quite like that,” he said with a humored smile.
“I am told me faither could drink more whisky than any other man.”
“Ye daenae ken yerself?”
“Nay,” she said quickly, unwilling to tell a man she had just met that her father had died shortly after she was born. “Yet as he was an English man, it isnae a boast many men around here like to hear.”
“Ha! I can well imagine,” the handsome stranger said as he sipped his ale. The silence as they drank allowed Keira to admire the man before her.
He was rather unusual for these parts. Glencoe was filled with fishermen, farmers, the occasional soldier, clerks, and one or two loftier merchants, who styled themselves wealthy and liked to wear white wigs beneath their caps. The man before her didn’t fit into any of those roles. Yes, he was certainly dressed like any other peasant with his tatty frock coat and shirt sleeves that were torn, hanging down from the cuffs of the coat, but there was something about the man beneath the clothes that didn’t fit.
The light brown hair was coiffed and cut well, with teasing locks that Keira could imagine running her fingers through, feeling their softness. He was well groomed too, with his beard cropped so short it was basically stubble, lining the square jaw of his handsome features. The eyes were what fascinated her most—dark green, rather like the ocean on a stormy day.
“Thank ye. Again,” she said, lowering her whisky to look at him over the brim of the pewter cup. He smiled a little, holding his tankard in one hand and staring back at her.
“Ye have already thanked me more than once. With words and this drink. Ye daenae need to thank me again, Keira.” There was something in the way he said her name that made her sit forward on the paneled settle bench. He didn’t say her name with disgust or fear as some did. It was as though he liked her name, indulging in saying the syllables. “I still daenae understand why nay one else would help ye.” He grimaced as he sipped from his ale again.
Keira rolled her eyes, deciding it was high time to point out the elephant in the room.
“Look at me,” she said, quite firmly. The stranger did as she asked, with a smile on his face.
“Quite happily,” he said softly. The words made her laugh, cracking her firmness instantly.
“I wasnae expectin’ ye to say that.”
“I suppose I shouldnae say such a thing, but it came out anyway,” he admitted, still smiling at her.
“Nay, strangers really look at me,” she said, making her tone gentle indeed. “For to people in these parts I bear two curses. Me faither was English, that is one curse. The other was the color of me faither’s skin. A lass like me doesnae belong here, or anywhere, in truth. What man would risk himself tryin’ to save an outcast like me? Well, except ye, stranger.”
“I see nay outcast before me.” His voice was deep, much deeper than she had been expecting. She had first noticed it when he had roared at Travis to let her go, but now, sitting quite alone on this settle bench in a dark corner of the ale house, it was even deeper.
“Then ye may have some trouble with yer eyes,” she said playfully. “Care to tell me how many fingers I am holdin’ up?” He laughed warmly at her jest.
“Three,” he confirmed as she lowered her hand back to her pewter cup. “Still, I see nay outcast. I see a beautiful woman who feels she has to hide in public. That…well, I cannae describe quite how that makes me feel.” His fist had clenched around his tankard though, a physical demonstration of exactly what he did feel.
Keira paused with her lips on her cup, thinking about the man before her. He was kind, that was the immediate word for him, and kindness was not something she was used to meeting. Look at Travis! She didn’t doubt he would be back to try his luck again.
The stranger may nae be there to help me next time.
“Why are ye nae runnin’ from me?” she whispered into the air. Her words struck the stranger like a bullet, and he sat upright on the bench.
“Why would I run from ye?”
“Even children have run before, sayin’ I was a dark witch or a blackened demon.” She chewed her lip, pausing after the words.
“I am nay child that believes tall tales.”
“Old men have run from me too, well, hobbled as much as their old legs will carry them away; some women have pointed their sticks at me, sayin’ I am cursed and will bring darkness on them all.”
“Good Lord, ye have met some vile people in yer time, havenae ye?” he said, shaking his head with apparent earnestness.
“I have met good people too, present company included, I’d say.” At her words, he smiled another time.
“In me experience, Keira, how one looks doesnae say who they really are. I have kenned people who are adored for their looks, and they turn out to have the evilest of hearts. I once saw a man who was ostracized for a deformity on his face, sleepin’ on the street with only a dog for company, and yet he would give up his blanket to keep the dog warm rather than himself.” He paused with his tale and lowered the tankard back down to the table, leaning a little toward Keira over the tabletop. She found she matched the position, leaning toward him too. “It’s the heart that matters, Keira, and nay one can see that at first glance.”
She smiled softly as she downed the last of her whisky, enjoying the burn. Her trembling hands were slowly becoming steady, but she wasn’t sure it had so much to do with the whisky.
More because of the company.
“Ye daenae think like many people around here, stranger.”
“Then I am glad ye and I met today, so I can show ye we are nae all the same. Now, can I get ye another drink?” he asked, standing to his feet.
“Oh, nay,” she said hurriedly, marking the poor state of his clothes, as poor as her own. “I couldnae ask –”
“It is nay trouble,” he assured her, already stepping out from their table. “Yer cup is empty, and an empty whisky cup is a sad thing indeed.”
He wandered off to purchase the whisky, leaving Keira to sit alone on the settle bench. After a minute, she grew aware of the eyes looking at her and turned her head. A table nearby was staring at her, as people were wont to do, some with curious looks, others with glares. When they saw they had been caught, they flicked their heads away, talking quickly again, pretending they had not been staring at all.
“Here ye are,” the stranger said as he sat down opposite Keira once more and pushed the whisky toward her. “Aye, two whiskies, that will settle anyone’s nerves.”
“Thank ye,” she said, taking the whisky and drinking it eagerly.
“If ye daenae mind me askin’, Keira.” He paused and leaned on the table again. “Why is everyone in this alehouse speakin’ of the Maguires? They talk of them like they are minions of the devil.”
“Ha! Are ye in earnest?” Keira asked in surprise.
“Ye must be new to Glencoe, that can be the only explanation for it.”
“Ye could say I am new,” he admitted with a slow nod. “Spent many years in Edinburgh before comin’ back home. What have I missed?”
“Stranger, this clan’s way of life is soon to be over!” she said with such drama that the stranger froze, his hand hovering over his tankard and his green eyes fixed on her.
“What do ye mean?” he asked, his voice quieter than it had been before.
“Ye will soon see it for yerself now ye are here.” She leaned her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand, deciding it was best to tell the newcomer the story. “Ye should be prepared for what ye will find and what ye will hear. Any village on the border with the Maguires is bein’ attacked at present. They burn the houses down, take the women, and the cattle too. Farmers on the outskirts of the villages are raided; cattle rustlers take their livelihood, unafraid to hurt the farmers in the process.”
“Is it truly so bad?” he asked, still not picking up his ale.
“Aye, Glencoe is busier these days than it used to be. Those who live in the villages near the border have come here for safety.”
“It surely cannot be…” He was muttering something, leaning forward and pulling on his light brown locks with frustration. Keira grew distracted, thinking once again what it would be like to entwine her own fingers in those locks.
What am I doin’!?
It seemed she was developing a fancy for the man who had saved her from Travis.
“What of the Laird and the soldiers?” he asked, so warily it was as if he was afraid to find out the answer.
“Pah! A Laird? What Laird?”
“Ye have a Laird.”
“Aye, but some Laird he is,” she scoffed. “His faither was too ill toward the end to do much about the Maguires. It’s whispered in these streets that the Maguires took advantage of that weakness. As for the new Laird, well, I havenae heard much about him. What I have heard suggests he keeps to himself in his castle, busyin’ himself with what will be on his table for his next meal rather than the state of his people. Perhaps if we were served up as food, he would care more about us.”
She smiled at her own jest, then noticed the stranger did not smile too. He was staring down at his tankard as if glaring at a growing storm.
“Ye all right, stranger?”
“I…” He couldn’t quite form a sentence. He repeated the stressed action, tangling his hand in his hair. “Is that what everyone thinks of their Laird? That he’s so entitled and does nothin’ for them?”
“People in Glencoe and the villages nearby, aye,” she nodded with her words, for there wasn’t a doubt in her mind. Silence descended between the two of them. The more she watched the stranger, the less she could understand what was on his mind. He seemed unable to settle himself, fidgeting and restless. “Are ye sure ye are well?”
“Aye,” he said, though it was obviously a lie.
“Well, there is clearly somethin’ botherin’ ye. I would like to cheer ye up. After the service ye have done me this afternoon, I owe ye a lot.”
“Ye owe me nothin’,” he said with feeling, leaning over the table again. “It is merely that me heart is troubled at this moment. That is all.”
“What troubles it?”
“Well, perhaps I am sorry I will have to leave ye soon.” He revealed another smile.
“Ha! Now, I ken ye must be lyin’.”
“I am nae.”
“Truly?” She was still laughing at him. “Many people run from me, stranger.”
“I am nae runnin’ anywhere.” The deepness of his voice made her look to him over her whisky cup another time. “I am only sorry that I must go soon.”
“Will I see ye again?” she asked. She was uncertain why she had asked the question; it came from somewhere deep inside her, a part that longed to see him another time.
“I wish it could be so, but…” He didn’t say anymore. She frowned, not understanding him.
“I thought ye said ye were new to the area?”
“In a way.”
He said no more, his body going rigid as a figure entered the ale house. The man was hooded with a black cloak pulled over his face. As he turned to scan the crowd, Keira caught a glimpse of something in the light that filtered through the window—the image of a silver brooch fastened to a dark blue coat.
“I must go.”
“Now?” she asked, not wanting the stranger to part. She stood as he moved to his feet. He was the first person in a long time to sit down and talk to her as though she didn’t have barnacles growing on her face; she didn’t want the experience to end.
The stranger abruptly turned his back on the hooded figure and walked around the table, reaching her side where he took her hand. It was warm, sending off a spark in her stomach before he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. She was painfully aware of how coarse her hand was in his, but he didn’t seem to notice it. As he kissed her hand, he held her gaze. In that kiss, it was as if something passed between them. Something Keira could not put into words.
“I…” She could say no more.
“Goodbye, Keira.” He lowered her hand. “I truly wish I could see ye again.”
With that, he turned away, holding her hand for as long as possible before his fingers slipped from hers. Keira watched him leave, holding her hands to her stomach as if by touch she could quell the churning beneath that had been caused by his parting.
He walked out with the hooded figure and glanced back at her just once through the alehouse door, his handsome features offering her one last smile.
Who was he? I never asked him his name!
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