Read Just in Time for a Highlander Online

Authors: Gwyn Cready

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Time Travel, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Highlander

Just in Time for a Highlander (19 page)

BOOK: Just in Time for a Highlander
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Thirty-three

The plan was set. With the help of a bribe, Rosston’s men would procure the area’s most recently deceased body, dress it in Kerr-appropriate attire, and stow it under a blanket on a horse. Duncan felt a little guilty for the desecration of the deceased, but on the whole he thought God and the dead man would approve of an act meant to save others from dying. The man’s family might have a different point of view, however.

Abby would draft the communiqué that would make the army think the Kerrs were planning an attack. Duncan and Jock were to equip the man with the other sorts of personal items—money, weapons, notes—that would heighten the verisimilitude when he was found. Where to plant him proved to be the biggest obstacle. Since England planned to attack soon, a quick discovery was critical. And they wanted the body to be found by a soldier, not a civilian, to ensure the information got to Bridgewater as fast as possible.

They finally decided on a tiny sliver of land just along the border known to be patrolled by the English army but little used by others. It was a risk because both countries claimed the land, which was why England patrolled it so heavily. So, the army would not greet trespassers with kindness, especially trespassers from the clan the army was planning to attack.

Duncan, Jock, and Abby climbed the great stairs of Kerr Castle in silence. They were to execute their tasks and meet again in two hours at a prearranged spot in the forest.

“Shall we sit down in my office?” Jock said to Duncan.

“Aye.” He cast a sidelong glance at Abby. He wanted desperately to speak to her alone. “Let me gather some things in my room. I’ll be there straightaway.”

Jock nodded and made his way down the hall.

“We are under watch,” Abby said under her breath. “Talk quietly and keep a respectful distance.”

Talking quietly and keeping a respectful distance was the last thing Duncan wanted to do. But he obeyed.

“You know about Rosston’s sentry, then?”

“Aye,” she said. “Trust is not his greatest strength. But I understand his motivation even if I don’t care for it.”

She looked so beautiful, standing in the streaming sun like some angelic visitation. Her hair was pinned, but a few chestnut wisps had escaped, framing her face. He had promised to buy her freedom for her, but he had no way to do it. And now he had to tell her, even if it meant he was pushing her into Rosston’s arms—that is, if she hadn’t cast her fate with Rosston already.

“I need to speak to you about last night,” he said.

Her eyes flashed, half-cautious, half-amused. “Which part?”

“The part I need to apologize for.”

“Ye ken that still gives you a pretty wide field of choice.”

“It does. I was thinking in particular of my engagement with Rosston.”

She raised a wicked brow. “Now you’re engaged to him too?”

Duncan’s heart dropped to the bottom of his chest. “Did ye accept him, lass? I dinna blame ye, ye ken. If I were ye—”

“You are not me. And I am not a fool.”

His heart stood poised on the precipice between relief and despair. “Then you are not engaged? I thought after last night—”

“That I should accept him? Indeed, you would be right. If I was in my right mind, I would. But I’m afraid I am almost as much out of my senses as my da. I am willing to believe a stranger from God only knows where, who holds my heart in his hands, will save me and my clan.”

She smiled, such a sweet, trusting smile, it hurt him to see it. “Regarding that…” He cleared his throat.

“Aye?”

“I have found out from Undine that…” The words caught in his throat, and he swallowed them whole, knowing they’d destroy the perfect happiness he’d found. “…that the spell is stronger than she knew. It may be a while before I can return.”

Even the tiny clouds of concern that rose in her eyes were too much for him to bear.

“You needn’t worry, though,” he said quickly. “We have Sir Alan returning from Carlisle on Thursday. I promise we will convince him to invest in your canal.”

“Then we best ensure the army doesn’t make a move until then, I guess.” She clutched her skirts, gave him a worried smile, and swept away.

Thirty-four

Duncan had been told that the bright crimson plaid he wore would not be a welcome addition to the group of travelers, who needed to progress as covertly through the woods as possible. As such, he had switched to a more muted green one and was just trying to decide what if anything to do about a loose button on his cuff when Nab opened the door.

“Have ye heard of knocking, ye wee whelp?” Duncan said.

“I kent ye were alone.”

“What is it? Spill it before I box your ears.”

“Her ladyship held a secret meeting today.”

Duncan hid his smile. “Did she?”

“Aye. With her top advisers.”

He was a top adviser now. “What was the meeting about?”

Nab shook his head. “I couldn’t find out.”

“Half pay for you. Tell me, do ye recognize this hand?” He slipped the note that had been wrapped around the arrow out of his sporran and handed it to the boy.

Nab frowned. “I don’t. Was it for you?”

“Who else? It came wrapped around an arrow.”

“Bloody hell.”

“Does your mum know you talk like that? Who here can shoot a bow and arrow?”

“Most everyone, I’d say.”

“I mean straight and true. As if it were one of Zeus’s thunderbolts.”

Nab thought. “Her ladyship, of course. She’s the best—though she canna shoot as far as Rosston. He can reach the larch by the river from the battlement wall.”

Interesting. “Anyone else?”

“No one else worth remarking on. Do ye think Rosston wants you to leave?” he added eagerly.

“I’m certain of it. But I just don’t see him resorting to arrows and secret notes, do you?”

“His fists didn’t do much good.”


Och
, it takes more than a few punches to get through to a MacHarg.” Duncan folded the note and put it back in his sporran. “We’re far too stubborn.”

“What’s in the parcel?”

“What parcel?”

Nab pointed to the bedside table. Curiosity piqued, Duncan took a seat on the bed and examined the paper-wrapped object. There was no note on the outside or any indication the item was for him. He untied the string around it. Given the wide variety of feelings the inhabitants of Castle Kerr had for him, it could be anything from a bag of sheep shite to a— “It’s a sporran!” Nab cried. “A bonny one.”

It
was
a bonny one. His grand-da’s had gleaming white horsehair and three black tassels tumbling down the front. This one was not as dressy, but a skilled artisan had made it and the attention to detail was obvious. The leather had been tooled with Celtic knots and tiny silver beads then burnished to a rich golden brown, and the flap was covered with the thickest, darkest fur he had ever run his fingers through—
Beaver.

A fiery heat raced up his neck to the tips of his ears.

Nab gave him a narrow look, and Duncan tried desperately to think of anything but his night with Abby.

“It’s from her, isn’t it?”

“Never you mind, eh?”

Nab rolled his eyes.

With a happy tug, Duncan removed his grand-da’s sporran and put the new one in its place. Then he emptied the contents of the first—his broken pen, a pencil he’d picked up somewhere, a slip of paper, Undine’s twist of paper—and placed them inside the second.

“I’m going to be gone till nightfall,” Duncan said, “perhaps a wee bit longer.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s not what you think—not that you should be thinking anything, ye evil-minded mumper. I want ye to earn the other half of your pay today. Nose around. Without revealing why you’re asking, see if can find out who in Castle Kerr keeps a bow in easy reach.”

“If you’re going where I think you’re going, an arrow will be the least of your worries. Rosston will be aiming a mortar in your direction.”


Hm
.”


Hm
, yourself.”

Duncan tugged the sporran in place and headed for the door. “Take care, laddie. I’m on my way to see Jock about a few things.”

“He was up working most of the night last night.”

“Well, ye ken the man never stops working.”

“Oh, he stops. I saw him with a whore a couple of days ago behind the tavern in town. He was hopping around like a man with a hot coal in his boot.”

“Perhaps she was giving him a dancing lesson.”

“If so, that’s the third lesson she’s given him this month. My cousin works in the stables there.”

“Some men are verra slow learners. Now, shoo.”

*

Duncan looked at the small assemblage of belongings on Jock’s desk and clucked his tongue.

“Coins, a small knife, a pencil, a bannock, a hunk of cheese, and, when Lady Kerr is done, the battle plans,” Duncan said. “Is that enough?”

“I think the man must have a love letter from his sweetheart too, don’t you?”

Duncan eyed Jock with curiosity. He didn’t appear to be a man with much interest in love. On the other hand, he didn’t appear to be a man with much interest in dancing either.

“I think a wee note would be appropriate, aye. Er, shall we have Abby draft it?”

“Oh, no, we can do it fine. Anyway, her hand will be on the attack plans. It canna be on the love note too. We can’t have Colonel Bridgewater thinking the chief of Clan Kerr is in love with her courier.”

God
forbid. Or a man of even less substance.

“All right,” Duncan said uncertainly. He was no expert at love letters—or of thinking like a woman, an activity he’d found to require considerably more intuition, diplomacy, and quick wit than he’d ever possessed.

Jock drew a sheet of paper from his drawer and slid it toward Duncan.

“Me?”

“My hand is pretty well-known here.”

Duncan swallowed and reached for the quill. Dipping it in the inkwell, he said, “What exactly do you think Archie’s lass would say to him?”

Archie was the name they had bestowed on their yet-to-be-gotten body. Duncan had already begun to think of him as a man of great determination and bravery, willing to sacrifice for the good of his countrymen.

“We need the lassie’s name first, aye?”

“Why?” Duncan asked. “Oh, aye, for the signature at the end. How about Catriona?” His girlfriend’s name at university.

Jock shook his head. “Sounds a bit wild.”

Duncan couldn’t disagree.

“Jean,” Jock suggested.

Duncan’s mother’s name. “Too old-fashioned, aye?” He would definitely not be able to craft a love letter with his dead mother’s face lodged in his brain.

Jock shrugged. “Jenny?”

“That’ll do.” Duncan began to write:

Dear Archie,

Now
what?
He gazed at the paper, utterly devoid of ideas.

“Come, lad,” Jock said. “You’re young. All this flowery language should still be in your head.”

Duncan rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder and put the pen to paper.

I am writing to you today, my darling,

He paused. “Do ye think she kens Archie well enough to call him
darling
?”

Jock pursed his lips. “Are they engaged to be married?”

Duncan pictured Archie volunteering to deliver the battle plans to the nearest allied clan chief, and Jenny pacing the river near her home, worrying for her absent love. “No, but I think she knows they’re going to be. He’s saving to get her a pair of earbobs before he asks—those red ones lassies seem to like.”

“Rubies?”

Duncan shook his head. “Too expensive. The other kind.” He snapped his fingers twice, trying to force his brain to unlock the word.

“Garnets?” Jock offered.

“That’s it!” Duncan had had great success with a pair of garnet earrings for one girl and a dainty garnet bracelet for another. There was something, he thought, about the warm crimson of the stone…

With a thoughtful noise, Jock settled back in his chair. “She should call him
darling
then.”

I am writing to you today, my darling, because I was thinking of you

“‘—and the last time we were together,’” Jock offered.

Duncan nodded.

and the last time we were together. I smiled enough then to provide me with smiles for the rest of the summer. I’m counting the days till your return.

“That’s when he’s going to ask, ye ken,” Duncan said.

And dearest Archie, please know I do not regret a thing.

Duncan smiled a little at that. He could almost see the empty field in which the two had done their joining, feel the sun on his face. He hoped Abby had no regrets about him. It seemed the best possible assurance a woman could give a man.

Jock leaned forward. “Do ye think they have…?”

Duncan nodded. “I do.”

Jock laced his fingers together and tapped his thumbs against his lips. “Aye. I think ye may be right.”

Hurry back to me. I cannot bear to think of you walking the hills alone.

All my love,

J.

Duncan tapped the corner of the paper, unwilling to meet Jock’s eyes. He hoped poor Archie had enjoyed a love as sweet as Jenny’s before he died.

“Those bloody soldiers better not pass this around,” Jock said, with an avuncular scowl.

“They won’t. They’ll be too busy hightailing the battle plans to Bridgewater.” Duncan sprinkled sand on the paper and shook it off. Then, folding the paper and running the edges back and forth over an account book to simulate wear, he looked at the collection on the desk. “What else would a man have in his sporran?”

Jock said, “’Tis more than I have in my own.”

“It needs a touch of the inexplicable. It’s almost too perfect. The English were—” He stopped himself. He could hardly be telling Jock the English were expert at sniffing out German spies during World War II because the Germans insisted the IDs and paperwork their spies carried be perfect. “The English will be quick to spot anything that looks too good. It’s the mistake or spot of inexplicableness that will make the deception believable.” He looked around and spotted the loose button on his cuff. With a quick tug, he jerked it free and tossed it with Archie’s other possessions.

“See,” Duncan said. “Inexplicable.”

Jock laughed. He brushed the items into a small rough cloth sack and looked at his clock. “It’s too early to head to the woods. Do you have a pistol? The soldiers are unlikely to engage us with fists, ye ken.”

“Aye, I have a pistol—and a sword.”

“Good. We may need both. Bridgewater has quietly spread the word that a band of marauding Scots may be just what is needed to convince the queen to lift her ban on an attack. He’d be happy to slaughter us all and say his troops were under siege. Our best bet is to avoid the soldiers altogether, which is going to be a hell of a lot harder in daylight. They want Scotland, and nothing will stand in their way. Lady Kerr’s canal will just be the fruit on the tart.”

“Since you’ve mentioned the canal,” Duncan said, stretching his long fingers to quiet the low-level fear tingling through his body, “what can ye tell me of the estate and its taxes?”

Jock’s brows went up. “We pay what we owe, though it kills me to see it done.”

“So you havena been hit with a big wallop recently?”


Och
, no. Just the same slow bleed. I dinna know how they expect us to feed our people and grow when they take as much as they do.” Then, sensing that he had not put Duncan’s curiosity to rest, he added, “Would you like to look yourself? ’Tis no more than you’d find in the royal tax rolls.”

“Could I?”

“Ye may.” He pulled a large blue leather book from his shelves and put it in front of Duncan. “This is every year since 1511. Before that, the Gordons owned the estate.”

“And what happened to the Gordons?”

“Ye dinna want to know.”

For close to an hour Duncan followed the Kerr accounts, from the Scottish defeat at Flodden (debts unpaid and a near bankruptcy for the estate), through a visit by Mary, Queen of Scots (“bedstead, ebony inlaid with silver and pearl, worthy of Her Majesty, £2,3”) through the fourth Lord Kerr’s elevation from baron to earl (investiture ball, commissioning of a set of solid gold plates with the revised coat of arms), to the present day (the failure of the canal, divestiture of land in Arran and Argyll, and the sale, piece by piece, of the gold plates.) No outrageous outlay for taxes (though taxes, as Duncan knew, had been quite high) and nothing obviously amiss. Just a slow descent into near bankruptcy that began around the beginning of Abby’s time as chieftess.

He closed the book and sighed. If Lachlan’s hint about taxes had been more than the words of a man out of his senses, Duncan found no evidence to support his assertion, or of any sort of monetary mismanagement, in the accounts.

“An amazing overview of the family’s history,” Duncan said, handing the book back to Jock, who had spent the time going through correspondence.

“You canna tell the story of the lowlands without telling the story of the Kerrs.”

Duncan looked at the clock. The witching hour. “Shall we head out to see how the next act unfolds?”

“Let us hope Shakespeare is’na involved. I shouldna care to find myself dead on a field like Hotspur.”

BOOK: Just in Time for a Highlander
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