At the Mercy of the Highlander (Preview)
Leanna Williamson needed to run.
She needed to run from the Williamson Estate and her family, the only home she’d ever known. Leanna Williamson was running to escape an arranged marriage with old and wrinkled Sir Benedict Harlowe, to whom her father had cruelly and indifferently sold her. She would not let such a fallacy stand. Instead, she would head out to Scotland to find her mother’s family and live in peace for the rest of her life.
Grabbing her portmanteau, she filled it with books on her shelf, leaving little room for clothes and shoes. She shrugged inwardly, squeezed a few gowns in between the books and decided that one pair of shoes was more than enough.
“Oh! Money!” she exclaimed to herself, slapping her head. She needed some but didn’t have any on hand. After all, what need had she of money? Her father paid for everything. Well, that was about to change.
Her heart sunk at the thought, and she stood up quickly, trying to keep her mind from how frightening it all was. She marched to her mother’s sitting room.
“Mother, I require some money,” she declared, clenching her teeth to stop her chin from trembling.
“For what, dear?” Her mother was in the middle of an intricate pattern and didn’t look up from her embroidery.
“I-I just do. Could you give me some?”
“How much, dear?”
“I’m not sure, mother.”
Her mother sighed deeply, still not looking up. “Well, you know where the purse is, go and take how much you need.”
“Thank you, mother.” She took the two steps and bent over carefully to kiss her mother on the cheek delicately. She swallowed a lump in her throat, realizing it might be some time before she saw her again.
Without a further glance, she walked out of the sitting room to see how much was in the purse. There were only a few silver coins, and she shrugged inwardly before taking them all. She saw that her mother’s jewelry case was open and took a ruby necklace, just in case.
Grabbing her portmanteau, she commandeered a horse from the stables and took off towards the border. The streets of Durham were alive with miners returning from a hard day’s labor at the coal mines. She ignored them, and thankfully, they ignored her too. Some of them might hold cottages on the Williamson estate.
Once she had left the town behind, she looked for an inn to spend the night and plot her course to Scotland.
“Excuse me, sir,” she asked the innkeeper, “How far is it to the border?”
The innkeeper frowned. “Where’s yer chaperone, young lady?”
Leanna floundered. “I um…I’m not a lady. Now, kindly answer my question.”
The innkeeper waved his hand. “About ten days ride on a good horse, I suppose.”
“Hmm,” Leanna smiled wanly, “Thank you.”
She realized she was barely equipped for the journey. Sure she had a few silver coins for food, but she was not sure how many inns dotted the landscape between here and the border, let alone across the border to wherever the MacClarans lived. She sighed with regret, realizing that she should have passed through the kitchens on her way out of the house.
She shrugged inwardly, “Well, it’s too late to worry now.”
“I beg pardon?” the innkeeper turned from where he was serving the people at the next table.
Leanna shook her head at him. “Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”
She wondered if she could beg some food for her journey. Maybe some bread and sausage from the kitchens. Slipping the bread off her plate, she rolled it into her shawl, for later. Just in case.
Lord Williamson was frowning in annoyance, knowing for sure there was something he was missing. He had a lot on his mind; it was true. He was in grave danger of losing his estate, and it had taken a lot of fast-talking and promises to make sure he did not.
Sir Benedict Harlowe was his long-time business partner. The Williamson Estates mainly earned money by producing mustard and renting out cottages to the local miners. But Lord Williamson had recently fallen into debt, forcing Sir Benedict to bail him out to avoid foreclosure.
Sir Benedict was not a man to be trifled with, and he demanded to know precisely how Lord Williamson planned to repay the debt. Harry, having nothing much to offer, proposed instead that Sir Benedict marry his daughter, Leanna. He had often seen the older man eyeing his daughter as she sat in the garden, lost in her world of books. He hadn’t thought much of it at the time, but now, she turned out to be his salvation.
Of course, she had put up a fuss, but at the end of the day, she was an obedient child, she would do what she was told.
So what was still nagging at him at the moment?
Leanna woke up the next morning, packed the bread in her pocket, took up her portmanteau, and climbed down the stairs.
“Oh, are ye leaving already, not-a-lady?” the innkeeper asked.
“Yes. I wondered if I could get some water for my bottle.” She held out the wooden bottle she’d found under the bed.
“Oh, yes, there’s a well out back. Ye can collect as much as ye like.”
“Thank you kindly. Er, what about some bread?”
“Well, I assume yer staying for breakfast?”
“Er, yes, of course, I am.” She nodded vigorously, glad to be filling her stomach before she left. Without asking, the innkeeper dropped a wrapped package by her plate as she drank her oat porridge. “Bit of ham – fer the rest of yer trip.”
She almost fell over herself, thanking him.
As soon as she finished filling her bottle, she got on the road. The rough cobblestones beneath her horse’s feet made her jostle from side to side, and she wished she had a carriage. Riding for a long distance was more exhausting than she was used to. It was also quite frightening being alone on the road with no protector.
I did not think this through. She sighed as she traveled and tried not to think about being thirsty. The road was long and empty, and she had nothing to do but think.
Her mind traveled back to her first interaction with Sir Benedict.
Leanna sighed, blinking rapidly to get rid of the tears in her eyes – lost in the memory of that time. She had felt so lost and alone, even more so when Annabella announced she was leaving to get married.
She had thought then that she was at the lowest she could ever be. That was until her father had informed her Sir Benedict had asked for her hand in marriage. The combination of terror, horror, and rejection had paralyzed her so that she could not respond. Her father had taken her silence for consent and immediately began toasting to the future of his daughter and Sir Benedict.
All she could remember from that night were his dark eyes on her, never shifting even for a moment. She had wanted to make herself disappear, but she had to stand straight, chestnut locks in a tight chignon at the back of her head, a pearl necklace that had belonged to her grandmother around her neck, drawing his eyes to the expanse of skin left exposed by her low décolletage.
She had bitten back tears, looking to her mother for help, but Lady Williamson was too busy being a good hostess, making sure her guests had a drink in their hands for the toast.
She had been told the dinner was to celebrate a new venture the estate was undertaking without being aware that she was the new venture. All their affluent neighbors had been invited. It was soul-crushing.
Sir Benedict had come up to her, drink in hand, and looked her in the eye. “Soon, sweetling,” he whispered, making her shiver, before taking a sip of his drink, eyes flitting to her bosom and then away again before anyone could notice.
Leanna felt as if she could not breathe.
“I have not seen our dear daughter for some time, Lady Williamson. Indeed, the last time I saw her was at the engagement. Do you have her running around preparing a trousseau, perhaps?” Lord Williamson asked.
Lady Williamson frowned. “I haven’t known you to be so concerned over your daughter’s whereabouts before.”
“Hmm, well…it turns out Sir Benedict would like to take her on a picnic. He has sent me a note.” He handed her a piece of paper, and she took it, her frown not dissipating.
“Well…” she took up the silver bell and shook it to summon the footman.
“Yes, milady?” the footman bowed respectfully.
“Would you have the lady’s maid fetch my daughter?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
He turned and left, Lady Williamson watching him with her frown firmly in place. Now that she thought about it, she hadn’t seen Leanna either. At the engagement party, she had seemed not quite herself, and Lady Williamson resolved to look into the matter.
They waited longer than expected before there was a tentative knock at the door.
“Enter.” Lady Williamson said.
The door opened slowly, and Leanna’s lady’s maid stepped into the room. “I’m sorry, m’lady, but Lady Leanna isn’t in her room. I don’t know where she is.”
Lady Williamson shot to her feet, “I beg your pardon? Since when?”
“I-I-I don’t know m’lady. She didn’t call for me yesterday, but she does that sometimes, so I didn’t think anything of it, but it doesn’t look like her bed was slept in.”
“What?!” it was Lord Williamson’s turn to screech, “And you’re just finding this out now?”
The lady’s maid quailed. “I-I-I’m sorry m’ lady. M’lord. I-I didn’t know.”
Lord Williamson was breathing like a grampus. “Find out where she is. Find out now, you hear me?”
“Y-yes m’ lord.” The lady’s maid scampered out of the room, and they could hear the commotion in the hall as she briefed the other servants.
“Why would she do this?” Lady Williamson asked, her face pale, “Didn’t she want to get married?”
Lord Williamson shrugged. “Who knows what modern ideas she has floating around that head of hers. I told you all that reading wouldn’t be good for her.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course, it wasn’t the books. My Leanna is a very sensible girl…” there was a pregnant pause, “Well…maybe not the most sensible, but she has her feet firmly on the ground.” She sighed again, shaking her head, “Well, no…but, she’s a good girl and would know better than to disappear?”
It was Lord Williamson’s turn to sigh. “I expect we shall find her by the pond, having lost track of time and fallen asleep among the fronds.”
Lady Williamson narrowed her eyes. “I do hope so, Harry. Because if she’s harmed in any way, I shall be highly disposed to blame you.”
“Me? What did I do?”
“Did you ask her if she wanted to marry that awful old man?”
“Well, of course not! She’s my daughter; she’ll do as I say.”
Lady Williamson harrumphed. “That has never been my Leanna, and you well know-” she stopped abruptly, remembering Leanna asking for money. She straightened up, all the color draining from her face. “Oh lord,” she cried, getting to her feet and hurrying out of the dining hall.
Running to her room, she grabbed her purse and looked inside. All the coins that usually nestled there were gone.
“Where are you, Leanna?” she cried in despair.
Leanna rounded the corner and saw the sign telling her she was now coming into Tynedale. She heaved a sigh of relief, tired of the endless moorlands, and hoping to find an inn. Last night she had been forced to huddle down in a rundown shack by the road. She had been too afraid to light a fire, so had huddled in her cloak, eaten cold bread and ham, and drank some water before curling up on the floor, hoping she’d tied her horse securely enough that it wouldn’t get loose and run away in the night.
Her heart pounded like a drum, and she could not settle in the cold, so it was difficult to get to sleep. She’d slipped into nightmares without even noticing. She dreamed that she was asleep in a bed piled high with blankets, but the window was open, and a cold breeze prevented her from sleeping. She’d pushed down her covers to get out of bed and close the window when she noticed that her mother was standing by her bed.
“Why did you do this to me, Leanna?” her mother’s voice was high and breathy.
“Wh-what? What did I do?”
Her mother pirouetted in a graceful gesture before collapsing on Leanna’s bed with her back to the girl. There was a long sharp knife stuck in her spine.
“You stabbed me in the back,” her mother said in a low, breathy tone, and was silent.
“Mother?” Leanna reached out a cautious hand and shook her, but her mother didn’t move. She began to scream and scream, waking up with her mouth open and a shuddering echo reverberating around the cold room. She looked around, blinking in confusion, realizing that the warm bed had been substituted for a cold floor; and that it had all been a bad dream.
She breathed in deeply, not knowing if it was grief or fear, before burying her head in her hands and bursting into tears.
I will indulge myself this once, and then never again. I’ll never cry again. She cried until there were no more tears left to fall before collapsing back into her nest and going back to sleep. In the morning, she packed quickly, not even stopping to eat, and continued on her way.
Tonight, she wanted to sleep somewhere warm and dry, loud and boisterous, free of nightmares and a sore back from lying on the hard ground. She spurred her horse on, urging it to go faster. She’d never been to Tyndale before, but she knew it wasn’t far from the border. All she needed to do was manage a few more days, and then she would be ensconced in the welcoming bosom of the Clan MacClaran. She still remembered the MacClaran that she’d met that fateful day at the fair. He had seemed to be a good man, and she couldn’t wait to find the rest of her mother’s people.
The inn was unimaginatively named ‘The Sportsman’s Arms,’ and she gave a tiny ladylike snort as she rode into the courtyard. It was busy with patrons entering and leaving in various states of inebriation. The majority of revelers were men, reminding her of the foolhardiness of traveling alone. With no protector, no chaperone,…anything could occur. She could not rely on their refined sensibilities to keep her safe, or fall on the kindness of the local gentry without letting them know she’d run away from home… Taking a deep and fortifying breath, she slid off her horse and led it to the stables where a groom took charge of it for a penny. Her stomach churned as she realized she was beginning to run low on coins.
She inched towards the door of the inn, peeking inside to see how noisy it might be. Several loud conversations were taking place as people ate and drank at the long tables that lined the inn’s main room. In the corner stood a small, round table set by itself, and shaded in the twilight. Slowly and carefully, she made her way to it, sinking onto the chair and hunching over as she looked around. She hoped she could eat and retire without incident. When she saw a serving girl whizzing by, a large tray held aloft; she waved tentatively. The girl caught the tail end of her hand movement and turned with a smile.
“Oh, didn’t see ye there. Hail and well met, traveler. What can I get ye?”
“Er, do you have some soup?” Leanna whispered.
The serving girl leaned close to hear, “What’d ye say?”
“Soup!” Leanna’s voice was suddenly louder, and a few men on a nearby table turned to look. “Sorry,” Leanna was back to whispering again.
“No problem, love. D’ye want that soup alone, or would you like anything else? Some bread? Ale?”
“Umm,” Leanna was unsure if her funds would stretch to accommodate anything else, and shook her head slowly.
“Are ye sure. Tis just two copper pennies.” The serving girl coaxed gently. “I’ll tell ye what; ye can give me one copper penny, and I’ll throw in the bread for free. How’s that.”
“Ye’re welcome. We girls have to help each other, eh?” she beamed at Leanna before wheeling around to return to the kitchen. Leanna watched her go with awe, impressed at her confidence. She was willing to wager that wild horses couldn’t have persuaded that girl into a marriage she didn’t want.
With a sigh, she dug into her purse for a copper coin.
“Excuse me, madam.”
Her heart stopped before starting up in triple time. A shadow fell over her as a scent wafted over her, a mix of cow manure, stale sweat and beer. She dared not look up, but blinked rapidly, closed her eyes, and prayed.
“Madam?” the man said again, leaning in further, “I was wondering if I might bother you for a-”
The last word escaped her comprehension but made her fearful – her breathing erratic. She began to sweat.
“G-go a-away,” she whispered.
The man was joined by a second and then a third. They surrounded her, making crude suggestions as they poked at her with their fingers, trying to get her to look up.
Breath hitching, tears rolling down her face, she clutched her purse tighter. “H-hel-help!” she wanted to shout, but it came as a mere whisper. She closed her eyes, wishing the serving girl would return.
“Come on, madam, let’s see what you got. Get to your feet. Come on,” one man said. She could see their feet – worn shoes, surrounding her. “Be a darling.”
“Ey, ey, what are ye doing over there?” she breathed a sigh of relief, hearing the serving girl’s voice. “Leave the puir lassie alone. Can’t ye see she’s scairt?” she scolded them, and the feet shuffled back a little.
“Oh, come on, Maisie. We didn’t mean any harm. Just a bit of jest. She didn’t mind, did you, madam?” One of them poked her in the back, and she shook her head to deny his words but realized she was agreeing with him.
“Y’ see,” one of the other voices said, “she doesn’t mind.”
“I do,” she said, but it was spoken in a hushed whisper, and she wasn’t sure anyone was listening.
Maisie clucked her tongue in annoyance. “Let her enjoy her soup in peace, y’hear me?”
There was a chorus of grudging agreement, and Leanna sighed in relief. It was short-lived, however, for as soon as Maisie returned to the kitchen, her tormentors were back. She sighed deeply, her chest so knotted that she could not eat. But she could not waste the food now that she had paid for it and tried to lift the spoon to her lips, but one of the men knocked it out of her hand.
“Aww, come on now, girl. I asked you a question,” he insisted, pushing his face into hers and flicking out his tongue like a dirty snake. “Give us a little kiss then.”
She let out a squeak of disgust, reaching out instinctively to push him away, but the man growled, and the two with him suddenly became much more threatening.
Leanna let out a scream, hoping Maisie would hear and come to her rescue.
“Now, now, now, what’s going on here?” It wasn’t Maisie’s voice. It was a man, parting her abusers like he was Moses.
She craned her neck back to meet his grey eyes. A tall, auburn-haired vision of strength and competence stood before her.
“Did ye no hear the lady say she wants to be left alone?” he growled… his white teeth on display, and Leanna’s heart sped up for a completely different reason.
“She said no such thing!” one of the men added and tried to pull her savior’s hand off his shirt, but was shoved away for his trouble, and then tripped and fell. The remaining men looked menacing, but her rescuer’s fist shot out and connected with one of the men’s noses. She jumped as she heard the impact of flesh on bone and the unmistakable crack as something broke.
“Ooh,” she breathed, a hand covering her open mouth. Her savior grabbed one of the men by his long straggly hair and the other by his ear. He smashed their heads together with a thwacking sound that echoed as they ricocheted and fell to the ground.
They looked winded, but already the first was getting to his feet and staggering toward her savior. She shouted, pointing urgently at him, and he turned and smashed his fist into the man’s face. The man took two unsteady steps back before swinging his own fist. It whistled as it swung past the others midriff, and propelled forward by the momentum, he crashed into her savior. The auburn-haired man wrapped his arms around his opponent’s waist, squeezing tightly. The man struggled, trying to break loose as he called his two companions to get up off the ground and help.
The auburn-haired man lifted his knee and crashed it into his attacker’s groin. The attacker’s legs buckled, and he screamed like a bleating goat as he crumpled to the ground, whimpering in pain. His two companions did not bother to get to their feet.
Leanna let out a little laugh, and the man looked toward her, returning her laughter with a smile. “Forgive them, for they ken not what they dae?”
Leanna got to her feet and curtsied. “I thank you for saving me.”
The man waved a hand, dismissively, “Think nothin’ of it.”
“Oh, but I cannot. How can I possibly repay you?”
The man smiled. “Ye can consent to join me at my table for dinner.” He gestured toward another small table wedged in another corner with three seats pulled in. The fourth-place held one solitary bowl.
“Oh, I’m sorry for disturbing your meal.”
“Think nothin’ of it. Will ye join me the noo?”
Leanna nodded, turning to scoop up her bowl of soup and plate of bread. Her savior reached over and picked up her tankard of ale, and they walked to his table.
“Oh, forgive me, I am La- uh Leanna Williamson. And you are?”
He gave her a sidelong glance. “Ye dinnae have tae hide that ye’re a lady. Tis obvious, at least tae me.”
“Oh,” Leanna’s cheeks filled with color.
“I’m Kaiden Carmicheal. Father Kaiden to ye.” He bowed with a smile.
“Oh!” Leanna felt her heart leap at his smile and then sink.
He’s a priest? What a waste.
She blushed, scandalized at her thoughts. She put her bowl down on the table and sat down, looking at him with a smile. “Then I really must thank you. It must go against your beliefs to fight.”
Father Kaiden barked with laughter, his eyes crinkling with amusement. His eyes brightened until they looked silver, and Leanna could not help but stare.
“I might be a priest, but I’m a Scot first.” He added with a wink.
Her heart fluttered helplessly.
“That’s…” she began to say but lost her words.
“So, tell me, Lady Leanna, what are ye doing out here in the middle of nowhere with nae chaperone? Why are ye all alone?”
Leanna inhaled deeply, her cheeks flaming.
If I tell him, he will tell me to go home and accept my fate. Won’t he?
He was watching her face intently, and suddenly, leaned toward her, his tone confidential. “I’m a priest, so ye can tell me anything. I willnae judge ye.”
She swallowed hard, feeling the warmth of his breath on her skin and wanting to move closer, perhaps place her lips on his. She jerked back quickly at the scandalous thought, feeling hot and bothered.
“I…, I ran away from my home because my father wanted me to marry a filthy old man.”
He narrowed his eyes as if he were studying her intently. “I see. And where are ye headed? Do ye have a lover in Scotland, perhaps?” His voice was sharp, disapproving.
She lifted her hands in negation, her spoon clinking to the side of her porcelain bowl as she let go of it. “No, no! I promise you it’s not like that. I’m going to find my mother’s family.”
“I see.” His brow furrowed, and he looked worried, “Do they ken ye are on yer way? Why have they sent no one to meet ye?”
Leanna cleared her throat with embarrassment. “I haven’t told them yet,” she saw his face fall and scurried to assure him. “But I will! I will write to them soon.”
“Were ye intending to travel by yersel’ all the way?”
“Yes, I was.” She knew what a foolish idea it had been, especially in light of what had just happened. She would do better to tuck her tail between her legs and return home.
The priest sighed. “Well, I suppose I shall have nae choice but to accompany ye.”
Leanna felt her soul brighten. “You will?” Her hand reached out automatically and covered his own that lay casually on the table. Both looked down at their linked fingers, and there was a pregnant pause.
“Er, aye, I will. I cannae in good conscience allow ye to travel alone.”
She took a deep breath, smiling at him, “Thank you so much.”
“Ye’re welcome.” He patted her knuckles before withdrawing his hand to his lap where she could not reach it. Not that she wanted to. She understood that he was a priest, and it would be wrong to harbor any romantic feelings for him.
They finished the rest of the soup in silence. Leanna had not asked for a room for the night. Perhaps she could get one close to the priest. She opened her mouth to ask him about it but then closed it again. She didn’t want him to think her forward.
“Where are ye sleeping tonight?” It was as if he could read her thoughts.
“I don’t know yet. I’ve not booked a room.”
“Oh, have ye no?” he hesitated, looking her over in a very ungodly-like way.
Wishful thinking, Leanna.
“No, I haven’t.” she leaned forward, eyes wide, ready to receive his suggestion.
“Will ye mind sharing a room with me? I willnae molest ye; I give ye my word.”
“Yes!” Leanna thought her agreement a little too enthusiastic and did her best to regulate her tone, “I would be grateful for the company.”
“Dinnae fash. We shall no’ share a bed. I’ll use a palette on the floor.”
Not only would it save her money, but she would feel safe. And he was a priest. It would not be considered improper. He was married to the church, and she was traveling incognito. No one would know, and nobody would care.
The priest got to his feet and went to speak with the innkeeper. Leanna looked around to see if her three attackers were still around, but they seemed to have left. She was safe at last.
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