Authors: Gwyn Cready
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Time Travel, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Highlander
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Copyright © 2015 by Gwyn Cready Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Gene Mollica
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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For Jeanne Lowther, who called me a good girl.
With a shriek of frustrated bloodlust, Duncan jerked to a stop as the crossing signal turned red. The musket-wielding French soldier he’d been chasing sprinted to the safety of the opposite sidewalk, nearly knocking down two young women carrying Macy’s bags in the process.
Duncan thought with irritation.
There’s only one thing you can count on with Frenchmen: they run better than they fight.
One of the women looked at Duncan and grinned. At six foot one with flaming red hair and a Scottish burr, he was used to being noticed. However, the kilt—his grand-da’s from the Korean War—inevitably turned the looks into something more prurient. A gust of wind blew down Pittsburgh’s Grant Street, and he palmed the wool against his thighs. Sometimes he wished he lived in a world where a man’s bare legs weren’t the object of such fascination.
“Reenactor?” the woman called.
He lifted his carved wooden sword and blank-filled pistol and gave her a lopsided grin. “Battle of Fort Duquesne.”
A roiling gray now edged the blue sky. Duncan hoped the storm they were predicting would hold off until after he was in the air tonight. He hadn’t been home to Scotland since Christmas, and by all rights he should have skipped the reenactment since he could only spare a week of holiday time. But there were so few battles in North America in which the Highlanders had fought, he’d hated to say no. His grand-da was his last immediate family member still around, and the old guy was in his eighties. Duncan knew a visit was in order, and he fought off a wave of guilt he knew he deserved for putting the reenactment first.
The walk light turned green just as a band of Seneca warriors, bows drawn, emerged on Fourth Street. In this particular battle, they were allied with the French and therefore his enemy. Not only that, but their leader, a blustery fellow named Dylan, had been a complete arse the night before in a debate over rugby versus gridiron. The Senecas spotted him and Duncan’s adrenaline surged.
With a nod to the women, he lifted his sword and flew directly into the hail of rubber-tipped arrows.
God, how he loved a battle.
“Nothing could happen to make this day less perfect.” Smiling, Abby wiggled her toes in the cool grass, happy that, for once, her clansmen had lost themselves in the joys of a late summer afternoon rather than in the potential it held for a clash with the English.
Undine smiled and shook her head. “That is an invitation to trouble if ever I heard one. Besides, do you not see those clouds? There is a blow coming to be sure.”
“Bah. I have no interest in your portents, my friend. This is 1706. We have abandoned the world of superstitions, potions, and charms, or have you not heard?”
abandoned them. But there are more than enough believers among your clansmen and on England’s side of the border to keep my coffers full.”
The bodhran’s beat echoed, slow and steady, across the field, and the tin whistle’s seductive notes hung in the air like summer cherries on a tree.
“You are right, of course,” Abby said. “And I would never begrudge you an income, though I cannot help but wish it were different. I tire of fighting their superstitions.” She sipped Undine’s velvety smooth pear wine. Undine was a renowned fortune-teller and conjurer. Pear wine was the least potent of her elixirs. “This is wonderful,” Abby said, “but different than the last. What did you put in it?”
The corner of Undine’s mouth lifted. “No more than you can handle.”
Abby watched with longing as the young couples made their harvest dance promenades across the freshly cut field, their eyes aglow and hands held fast. That sweet, besotted time held a faraway charm in Abby’s mind, like a childhood pleasure one had outgrown. No more than half a dozen years separated her from the dancers, but at times it felt as if it might be a thousand.
“Don’t they just look as if they might burst with the pleasure of it all?” she said with a sigh.
“What you need is a dance.”
“What I need is a man.”
Undine’s brows rose. “At last, something I can help you with. I know a lover’s spell that will—”
“Not that sort of a man.”
“A husband then? Of the two, I can tell you which I’d recommend.”
“Ha! If I needed a husband, we both know where I might find one.”
As if he’d heard her, Rosston Kerr, Abby’s cousin and leader of the family sept that had broken from Clan Kerr in Abby’s youth, lifted his gaze from the circle of men at the far edge of the dancing area and met Abby’s eyes.
Undine sat up, inserting herself neatly between Rosston and Abby, though Abby was certain Undine could not have seen him from where she’d been lying.
Undine drew up her knees, wrapping her arms around them. “Help me understand, my friend. You do not want a husband, and you do not want a lover. For anything else, I recommend a dog.”
“But I have a dog, don’t I, Grendel?” Abby scratched her beloved wolfhound’s ears, and he lifted his head briefly and made a wuffle. “What I need is an agent. A strong arm. A fist. A mind possessed of ideas.”
“So few parts of a man are truly useful, and you have not mentioned a single one of them yet. There is, of course, Rosston.”
Abby grimaced. “And a will that lacks a selfish motive.”
“I am intrigued,” a voice said, interrupting. “Were such a man to be found, he would be the object of every free-thinking woman between Edinburgh and the Irish Sea.”
Abby turned. A woman her age or slightly older with bright red hair, deep blue eyes, and an open smile stood behind them.
“I’m Serafina Fallon. I am here to seek help.” She gave them an anxious smile.
Miss Fallon’s hair had been pulled into an efficient knot but a few loose tendrils framed her face, and the contrast of the copper against the pale skin was striking. Abby was reminded of a Norse goddess.
“I beg you to rest easy,” Undine said, standing to offer her hand. “I’ll be able to help you.”
Miss Fallon hesitated. “How can you know? You do not even know what I seek.”
“I know what you seek, just as I know what finding it will mean to you.”
Abby was not surprised to see Miss Fallon’s forehead crease. Despite Undine’s gentle air and willingness to help, she had a way of making those who sought her counsel uneasy.
Undine, sensing too late the impact of her words, said, “But, here. Join us. The wine is cool, the cheese is sharp, and the grapes, plump and sweet. I am Undine, which you undoubtedly know, and this is my friend, Abby Kerr.”
“So you’re a part of Clan Kerr then?” Miss Fallon said. “Your musicians are wonderful. I was told I would be well entertained here. Please tell your chief he has exquisite taste.”
“I’ll be sure to pass along your compliments,” Abby said, giving Undine a private smile.
Undine handed their visitor a mug of wine. “Here. Sit down. Relax a bit before we turn to the business that brought you here. We were talking about the sort of men we would choose if describing them were as easy as finding them. I was just about to tell Abby my own requirements.”
Abby gave Miss Fallon a smile. “This should prove interesting. Never in life have I heard Undine express the need for a man.”
Miss Fallon’s gaze went immediately to her boots.
“Ah,” Undine said with a wry chuckle. “I knew you had heard of me. One can hardly be the whore of Cumbria without generating some sort of reputation.”
“Do not let Undine mislead you,” Abby said. “She is no more a whore than I am the queen of France. Such a reputation is the blind behind which she hides her true profession.”
“Which is…spell casting?” Miss Fallon said, with a note of both hope and uncertainty.
“Spell casting, aye.” Abby smiled. “And other things.”
“Oh, I am glad,” Miss Fallon said. “For I, too, am in need of a man.”
Undine twirled a lock of her pale hair. “Three lovely women, each in need of a man. If the Kerr clansmen had the slightest inkling, we’d probably be bowled over by the fiercest charge Scotland has seen since the days of William Wallace.”
Abby laughed. “Hang on to your mug, Miss Fallon.”
“I shall. Oh, but please call me Serafina.” She took a quick sip of wine. “I’m afraid my situation might be a bit different than yours. I want a husband, ’tis true, but only for a night.”
Undine choked, and Serafina flushed.
“The situation you describe is hardly unique,” Abby said, and Undine added, “If we could only find the man uniquely hard for it.”
Serafina whooped, then immediately slipped a hand over her mouth when two nearby clansmen turned. “Bah,” she said under her breath. “Hard I have had. I cannot recommend it. Give me biddable any day.”
Abby snorted, and one of the clansmen lifted a disapproving brow.
“You are a widow, then?” Abby said. But the look of discomfort on Serafina’s face made her wish she hadn’t asked.
“My fiancé left me,” Serafina said flatly. “And the blackguardly bastard left me with a pile of debt so steep I can hardly—” She stopped herself. “But this is not the time. You have been gracious enough to invite me to sit with you. The ride here was long, and the wine and music are wonderful. Please, continue. I should consider it a great kindness to listen to something for a quarter of an hour other than the sound of my own complaints.”
Before Abby could respond, she spotted Murgo, one of her clansmen, striding toward her. The way his hand rested on his hilt made her certain the day’s pleasantries were over.
“I beg your pardon, milady,” he said. “We have received a report of a party of English soldiers on foot two miles south of the Greenlaw Bridge.”
Abby groaned inwardly. Colonel Bridgewater of the England’s northern armies would not rest until the clans were obliterated. He was a prig, more concerned for his own glory than the safety of England’s citizens. Men like that were dangerous—sometimes more dangerous than the most bloodthirsty opponent. She weighed her options. “Tell the men to gather in the field beyond the river. I will give my orders there. Everything here should be ended and the families taken to the castle.”
He gave her a pained look. “I dinna think we need to go to such an extreme over a handful of English soldiers.”
“Is it a handful or a party?” she demanded, reaching for her boots. “There’s a difference. And even a handful of English soldiers can be the harbinger of something more.”
“The clansfolk are enjoying your family’s hospitality. Why don’t we wait until the dancing is over?”
hospitality they enjoy, not my family’s, and they may continue to do so within the confines of the castle, where they will be safe from attack.”
A hint of rebellion rose in Murgo’s eyes, but he held his tongue. “As you wish, Chieftess. In the field beyond the river, as soon as possible.” With a quick nod to the other women, he hurried off.
Abby felt the blood rise in her cheeks. He wouldn’t have argued if he’d been talking to her father.
Serafina regarded her with shock. “You are the head of the clan?”
Abby would never get used to the surprise this caused. She felt like the cadaver of the three-eyed pig the surgeon in Coldstream kept on his shelf in a jar. “Aye. For nearly two years now. I want you to follow Undine back to the castle. Undine, will you please tell Bobby to bring me my horse.”
Serafina looked at the growing line of men heading in the opposite direction. “Surely you’re not planning to join them in battle…”
Undine snapped her fingers. “Grendel, come.”
The music had stopped, and the men were dousing the fires. Mothers with babes were hurrying their children toward the castle, which stood to the east, outlined against the darkening sky.
Abby brushed the dirt from her gown. She wished she’d been wearing a riding skirt. She also wished she’d thought to bring a weapon. The soldiers’ appearance was likely to be nothing, but no one would take Clan Kerr by surprise. Not while she was in charge.
By the time she reached the river, the men were standing in informal lines, arranged by family, those on horses in the back. Rosston and the men from his family stood closest.
“I did not expect your invitation to include a battle, Cousin,” he said from his mount as she passed. Given his height and the preternatural size of his steed, it was like a bit like walking before Apollo.
“Let us hope it does not,” she replied. “I shouldna like to be considered an unwelcoming host. I thank you and your men for standing with Clan Kerr.” She gave a grave nod to the clansmen at his feet.
“Never let it be said that the Kerrs of Linton do not support their fellow Kerrs. We have not forgotten the old alliance.” He bowed deeply, his blue eyes sparkling.
The faces of her own men were bright with emotion. In a few, especially the younger ones, she saw fear. In others she saw suspicion, though she did not know if it was a response to her or the threat of Englishmen a few miles from their village. In most, however, what she saw was desire for direction from the leader who would drive them into the fight. She would gladly serve them in this role. Unfortunately, it was Rosston upon whom their eyes were trained.
“We do not seek battle,” she said, raising her voice to be heard by those at the farthest edges of the gathering.
A few groans rumbled through the crowd, and Rosston opened his mouth to silence the noise, but a pointed look from Abby stopped him.
Dammit, where is my horse?
She felt like a child, standing before the men on their mounts.
“We do not seek battle,” she repeated, “but we will not tolerate an act of aggression by the English. Not on the Kerr lands. Not ever.”
The men cheered.
“We must hope for the best but prepare for the worst. That is the only way. Are you ready?”
The sound of hoofbeats made her turn. It was Undine on Abby’s mare, Chastity.
“Bobby had her tied at the gate,” Undine said, dismounting.
Abby ground her teeth. Even the groomsmen denied her the respect she deserved. She took a deep breath to arm herself with dispassion, letting it wrap around her chest and limbs like chain mail. From her saddle, only a bow and quiver hung—no pistol. But she’d cut out her tongue before she’d let the men know her groomsmen had failed to prepare her mount properly.
She lifted a boot into the stirrup.
“Wait.” Undine reached in her pocket and brought out one of the distinctive twists of orange paper she used for her magic herbs.
“Not this,” Abby said. “Not now.”
“I know you do not believe in my herbs,” Undine said a touch hotly, “just as I do not believe in your war. But I have no doubt my herbs have kept you safe.” She loosened the paper and touched a finger to the powder then ran it across Abby’s cheek. “In any case, your clansmen
believe, and they like to see their chief so anointed. Look at them. They watch
now—not Rosston—every last one of them.”
Undine was right. Abby could feel their eyes upon her. Perhaps the power of the concoction was not in the spirits it evoked, but in the belief. “Thank you,” she said meekly.
“On the other hand, they may simply be imagining you without your gown.”
Undine clapped her hands twice, releasing a puff of powder over Abby’s head. Then she placed the paper in Abby’s hand. “The rest is to be used for your strong arm.”
“The man you seek.”
“Good Lord, Undine. This is hardly the time.”
“Nor is it meant to be used now. Keep it with you. When you’re ready, sprinkle a tiny pinch in front of you. Dissolve another pinch in wine, then drink—only a thimbleful.”
Abby could feel the odd warmth of the contents. “What’s in it?” She began to open the paper.
Undine clapped her hand over Abby’s. “Not here! Great skies, not with so many people around. Use it in an enclosed space, when you are undisturbed, with the thought of the strong arm in your head.”
A dirty floor and an upset stomach were the only things Abby could imagine being the results of such an exercise. Nonetheless, she dutifully refrained from rolling her eyes and slipped the paper into her pocket. She put her foot back in the stirrup and mounted Chastity, whose large brown eyes shone with anticipation.
Undine said, “Be safe, my friend.”