Scotsman.” The cool English voice cut through the darkened room like an icy wind ruining a fine summer morning. “Speak to us, and I will ensure that your death is less agonizing.”
Lord Will Mackenzie opened his eyes.
Nothing had changed. He remained seated on a stool in the cavern of an old kitchen, hands bound behind him, ankles also roped. No fire filled the hearth in the freezing room, and the only light came from windows high in the ceiling.
That light fell upon a major in the British army who sat on a hard chair, legs crossed, the man elegant in the dark red and silver braid uniform of an infantry officer. His hair had been tamed into a sleek queue, and his polished boots bore no speck of the mud that lay six inches thick around the makeshift army camp.
Major Haworth, a highborn gentleman, would let nothing, not even interrogating a stubborn Scottish traitor in the middle of nowhere, lower his standards.
The captain at his side was another matter. A hothead—a man who’d clawed his way up the ranks and instantly despised anyone his commanders pointed out as the enemy. Red-faced and foul-mouthed, the captain lounged against the stone wall with coat unbuttoned, his light brown hair straggling from the tail he’d pulled it into.
Will looked straight into Major Haworth’s blue eyes and said in Erse, If you think I even know anything to tell you, you’re a gobshite idiot.
The major and captain didn’t understand a word. Haworth knew Greek and Latin and spoke perfect French, but Erse was a barbaric language, in his opinion, that needed to be stamped out. He’d expressed this sentiment more than once during the interrogation.
The captain’s cheeks grew redder. “Speak a civil tongue, ye bloody Scots pig.”
He drew back his hand to deliver a blow, but Haworth’s cool voice stopped him.
“As you were, Captain.”
The captain glared at the major but let his hand fall and dropped himself onto a wooden stool.
Will found it interesting that while the captain vented his frustrations with violence—demonstrated by the many bruises on Will’s face and neck—the collected major was the more dangerous man in this room. Except for Will himself, of course.
Major Haworth reached long fingers to a silver bell on the rustic kitchen table. “Perhaps a light repast.”
The furniture in this room, plainly made chairs and stools, matched the table. The bell was an incongruity, cast by a master silversmith, with a crest etched on one side, its handle fashioned of entwined silver snakes. The major had brought the bell with him.
He rang it now, its sound more appropriate for an elegant drawing room than an abandoned crofter’s cottage.
“Woman!” the captain bellowed. “Bring us ale and be quick about it.”
Footsteps sounded, and the wooden door swung open. The maidservant on the threshold bore a tray that held a delicate porcelain cup and saucer and tall silver pot—more of the major’s belongings—and a dented tankard that obviously came with the house.
In the cant of a Londoner born and bred, the woman said, “I guessed ye might be thirsty, sir. It’s hot work with these Scots, innit?”
Dark eyes swept over Will Mackenzie, and he did his damnedest not to react.
She wore the garb of a farm woman, a simple chemise covered by a laced overdress in drab homespun. Will had seen her in these kinds of clothes before, but he’d also known her in the sumptuous silks of a lady, her hair in soft curls, her bosom bedecked with jewels.
Beneath today’s shapeless clothes lay the lush body he’d first seen in his brother’s studio, when Alec Mackenzie had been scowling around his canvas at his newest artist’s model, admonishing her not to move.
Will had been the one frozen as he’d beheld beauty lying before him, her scarlet drape covering very little.
In a sultry voice that had fired Will’s blood, she’d said to Alec in her French-accented English, “You press your bum to cold marble for an hour, my lord, and see how much you squirm.”
She was supposed to be in London. Supposed to be safe in the boarding house where Will had left her, looking after her daughter. Alec and Celia had said she was in London.
What on earth was Josette Oswald doing in the middle of Scotland in an army camp full of murderous British soldiers?
The major examined her in suspicion—clearly he’d expected someone else. “Who are you, madam?”
Josette poured a stream of dark liquid—drinking chocolate by the smell of it—into the porcelain cup. She handed the cup to the major before depositing the tankard for the captain on the kitchen table.
“Mrs. Smith,” she said glibly. “Me man runs the tavern in the village yonder. Sent to offer the best ale to the lads here, bless them. Nice to see Englishmen in this back of beyond.”
The captain grabbed the tankard, took a greedy gulp, and then spat out the liquid. “Ye call this the best ale? Horse swill will do for a name, madam.”
“I’m certain it’s the finest they have,” Major Haworth said quietly. The captain subsided and took another sip, which he swallowed. Then another. He’d decided not to let it go to waste, Will saw.
“Thank you, good lady,” the major said. “And thank your husband.”
Josette curtsied, but instead of beetling off, she turned her thoughtful gaze to Will. Her cheeks were as round and pink as they’d been nearly a dozen years ago when she’d portrayed Helen of Troy rising from her bed the morning after she’d eloped with Paris. Alec had been full of grandiose ideas for paintings in those days.
“He don’t look like much,” Josette said critically. “You sure this was one what gave you so much trouble at Culloden?”
“Appearances are deceptive, madam,” Major Haworth said. “He is tamed for now, but believe me, these Highlanders are the very devil. The sooner they are all hanged and their ways stamped out, the better.” He took a sip of chocolate. “Ah, well prepared. Thank you. If you’d brought your own supplies, Captain, you wouldn’t have to rely on village goods.”
The captain snorted but he continued drinking the ale. Josette lingered while Major Haworth took several more slow sips of his chocolate, as though she would take away pot and cup as soon as all were empty.
“Now then, sir,” Major Haworth said to Will, clicking his cup to his saucer. “Let us start again. My patience is wearing thin, and I will give you over to my men soon if you do not speak. Please tell me all you know. Or be drawn and quartered—alive—for raise … raising … arms against your … your rightful king.”
His words began to tangle on his tongue, and he shook his head as though trying to clear it. Behind him Josette quietly closed the door and drew a bolt across it.
The captain took another long gulp of ale, and choked. The major turned to him, his movements too slow. The captain fell from his chair to his knees and then did a prolonged topple to the floor, landing on his face.
The major rose jerkily, drawing a long knife that hung at his side. He stumbled as he rushed at Josette, and his cup fell to the floor in a porcelain smash.
“Damn you.” Haworth glared at her. “That was a gift from my mother.”
The major might be prissy, but Will had seen that he was a deadly fighter. Josette quickly sidestepped as the major struck, but she would not be fast enough.
Will sprang from the stool, still bound, and slammed his body into Major Haworth’s. The major swung the blade at him, but only caught Will’s loose shirt as whatever potion Josette had put into the chocolate gripped him.
The knife went slack, and the major, all six foot three of him, tumbled to the dirt floor in a heap of long limbs.
Josette snatched the knife from his hand and had Will’s bonds cut in seconds.
“God’s balls, woman.” Will kept his voice a whisper, but it rang with rage. “What the devil are you—”
“Shout at me later,” Josette said softly but fiercely, the London accent dropping away. “Follow me now.”
Will growled as Josette caught his numb hand and pulled him to the back of the kitchen, making for an alcove near the fireplace he’d already spied as a potential way out.
Before Josette could duck into it, Will caught her around the waist, pulled her to him, and kissed her hard on the mouth.
Josette started, then her lips parted and her hands landed on his chest, her mouth softening to kiss him back. Her body warmed his, moving the blood that had been cut off by the ropes. Will’s limbs burned as her fire swept through him.
The kiss grew stronger, memories pouring in with it: Josette’s shy look as she, as Helen of Troy in Alec’s studio, sent Will a tiny smile. Will had winked at her, hiding his sudden and overwhelming longing.
Seeing her weeks later in regal finery at a salon held in Alec’s honor by the cardinal who’d commissioned the painting. Josette’s ready acceptance to help Will uncover the cardinal’s secrets—for money, of course. Josette had been raising a daughter and was always in need of funds.
Years later in Salisbury, when she and Will had posed as man and wife to discover the plans of a certain high-placed English lord who could expose a Highland plot. Josette had been a fine actress, playing a slightly dim but devoted wife smitten with her husband.
Their nights in bed, when they’d forgotten about playacting and spying, and simply enjoyed each other, knowing their time together would soon be over.
The Salisbury ploy had been the last, and had ended stormily. The boarding house in London had been Will’s gift to her, a safe place for her to make a living and raise the irrepressible Glenna.
Will tasted Josette’s heat in this drafty farmhouse kitchen with his captors lying senseless on the other side of the room. She’d done that—for him.
He abruptly broke the kiss. Josette gazed up at him, her fists on his chest. She was a dozen years older than when she and Will had first met, but the passing time had turned the desperate young woman into a beautiful and capable lady. Josette’s face was as soft as he remembered, her dark eyes as glowing, her hair as sleek, her lips as ripe.
The kiss and their locked gazes lasted only a few seconds, though time seemed to slow to a trickle.
But they had to escape before the major and captain awoke. Will seized Josette’s hand and pulled her through the narrow door beside the fireplace to the tunnel beyond.
Josette shook off his grasp and slid past Will to guide him through the darkness with confidence. The cords had cut off blood to Will’s feet, but at least the captain hadn’t taken away the old shoes Will had found to complete his guise as a poor farmer.
Josette warned him of a short flight of stairs that delved into the earth before he fell down them. This must be a smuggler’s tunnel, built to let the farmer who’d lived here move whisky, brandy, and even men—anything those in the village wished to hide from soldiers and the excise men.
Josette had obviously explored the tunnel, because she led Will unerringly through twists and turns, down more stairs, then up another flight.
When at last she pushed open a gate—hinges oiled and silent—and began to step into the cool Scottish night, Will stopped her.
“They’ll be scouring these hills once they find me gone. Best we hide a bit.”
“I’ve got transport,” Josette said, her voice a bare whisper. Her breath warmed his cheek. “It will take us to safety.”
In the darkness, Will squeezed her hand. The late evening air felt heavenly, but he had no intention of diving out into it, his red hair like a beacon to all those searching for dangerous Highlanders.
“We wait until dark,” Will said. “I know a place where we can go to ground while they search. They’ll give up after a time. The major is not one for living rough.”
Once in hiding, Will would interrogate Josette as to what she was doing here, where she’d left her daughter, and why she’d been on hand to rescue him. The interrogation would be thorough and intense and might involve a night together, the pair of them wrapped in shared blankets.
“We go now,” Josette said. “My transport won’t wait forever.”
“Then let him go. We’ll compensate him later if need be.”
“No, Will.” Josette’s voice turned hard. “Ye need to come with me. Now.”
Will blinked at her. In the half light, her face was set, eyes determined.
“I’m sorry, Willie.”
He knew there was someone behind him, stepping out from shadows before he could register the danger. He noted a flurry of movement and turned in astonishment before a single, very hard blow rendered him senseless.