North of Glasgow, Scotland
Evelyn Worthington curled her fingers under the edge of the leather seat cushion, bracing herself against the carriage wall as they dipped in and out of another rut in the road. “God’s teeth,” she whispered, reaching forward to keep her lady’s maid, Molly, from being dumped into the dark crevice separating the two facing seats.
“My teeth are about shook from my skull,” Molly said. The thin young woman righted herself, pushing back into the growing shadows engulfing the interior. “Thank you, milady.”
Evelyn peered out the draped window. “The rains have made the road even worse.” Straight, soaring trees and bramble flanked the road, hiding wolves, highwaymen, or whatever monsters lived along the growing hills and rugged landscape of Scotland. They’d traveled north with English regiments whenever possible, keeping to well-traversed roads during daylight hours. Night was creeping in, but Evelyn wasn’t willing to spend the time, nor the coin, to stop at another inn. After three weeks of slow coach travel, she was determined to sleep in her Scottish castle that night. It was a good thing their coachman, James, carried two prepared muskets with him atop, and the horse boy, Thomas, kept a bayonet with him on the back of the conveyance.
Evelyn glanced at her sister, Scarlet, who occupied the seat with her. Scarlet twisted, half out the window, to scan the road behind them, as she’d been doing periodically the entire journey from Lincolnshire, England. “No one follows us, Scarlet,” Evelyn said.
Tucking her deep auburn curls behind her ears, Scarlet threw her back flat against the padded seat and stretched her stockinged legs across. “By now all of Lincolnshire, and possibly London, must know I’ve fled.”
Evelyn squeezed her sister’s hand where her fingers clutched the seat in the dark. “Nathaniel will have told anyone asking that we’ve taken holiday on the Southern coast. By the time we are truly missed, we will be successful school matrons in our very own castle in Scotland. We will send back exaggerated reports of raising the local girls to literacy and enlightenment while managing Nathaniel’s new sheep enterprise.”
“Nathaniel will give us away,” Scarlet whispered, pulling the lap robe higher on her legs. Even though it was nearly summer, the farther they traveled north, the more they slid backward into winter.
Evelyn sighed. “Our brother is fully capable of holding his ground with father’s nosy advisors from parliament.”
Scarlet snorted softly. “With King Charles shutting down parliament, they all have too much time to think of trivial things, like a scandalous girl running to Scotland.” Her lips pressed hard together.
“In truth, Scar,” Evelyn whispered. “If they are talking of anything, it’s likely how to evict Charles off the throne.” The Merry Monarch, as Charles II had been labeled, preferred to woo, sleep with, and lavish expensive jewels on attractive women rather than run his country. He was a not-so-secret Catholic who, despite his father being executed when Charles was a young man, was growing enemies within the government. When parliament demanded that the king give up most of his power to parliament, Charles dissolved it.
“Nathaniel will likely take the seat Father vacated, if parliament reconvenes,” Evelyn said. Their father, Sir Benjamin Worthington, had represented Lincoln Township in the last parliament reinstatement until his death at Christmastide. “Nathaniel will be as influential as Father. He will say we’ve gone on an extended holiday, and no one will know that we’ve…journeyed north for a new start.”
Scarlet cast narrowed eyes at her. They seemed almost obsidian in the dimness. “You mean fled north. A broken woman doesn’t just journey, she flees.”
Guilt niggled at Evelyn’s middle. Had she taken the opportunity of Scarlet’s flight from the royal court to fly herself? Convincing her sister to uproot to Scotland? Selfishly dragging Scarlet with her as she dodged the persistence of Philip Sotheby’s marriage proposal? No. This was the best thing they could do to help Scarlet heal from whatever secret ordeal she was keeping locked up inside. They would start new lives together.
You have three months to show you can live independently, Evie. I cannot stand you being destitute. Her brother’s words tumbled within her. I can hold Philip off for only three months. Father’s will is very specific about your future. Good Lord, their brutal father was still tearing her life apart from the grave. Evelyn must find a way to make a profit in Scotland, so she wouldn’t have to sell herself in marriage in order to survive. Otherwise, she would no longer be a Worthington, legally, anyway. At least her father couldn’t strip her blood from her veins.
Evelyn leaned back, imitating Scarlet by stretching her legs, propping her stockinged heels on the other side of Molly. She studied her tight-lipped sister. After begging Scarlet for days to confide in her about why she’d woken Evelyn to leave Whitehall Palace during the night, she realized she needed to give her sister some time to heal with her silence.
“We are all broken in some fashion, Scar,” Evelyn said. Good God! Wasn’t that the bitter truth? Though she’d held her back straight when in the presence of her dictatorial father, Evelyn swore that each word from his pinched mouth cracked her just a little bit more, so that a casual wind might actually shatter her. She fought her guilt over her relief that he was no longer able to torment her.
Evelyn sighed. “And I suppose we are all fleeing, even Molly here.”
Molly nodded, a pleasant expression on her smooth face. “I prefer to flee with you up to Scotland than stay behind, milady,” she said, her words hushed as if she told a secret. “Just lock me away in a cupboard where I can nibble on a biscuit with the mice.”
Evelyn frowned. Molly said the strangest things. “No one is locking you up,” Evelyn said. “You are free and encouraged to attend my school. Every woman should know how to read and write.”
“I’m so grateful,” Molly whispered, her pale face like a long moon in the shadow. “Mice are known to gnaw on toes when the biscuits are gone.” She turned to the window as both Scarlet and Evelyn shared a questioning glance.
Evelyn looked out the window at the cloudy sky. “We must be almost there. After three weeks of sleeping on God knows what vermin, we will stretch out on our own beds tonight.” Evelyn could hardly keep the excitement from her voice. Starting anew in Scotland meant a chance to taste freedom for the first time. Freedom from societal pressure to play the perfect, courtly, marriageable daughter. Here she could put her plans in motion to help the women in the world, starting in this country town. The ladies of Breadalbane would be so fortunate.
“Nothing is likely to be ready for us,” Scarlet said, crossing her arms. “We may be sleeping on dusty, old, straw-filled mattresses, with our own rats.”
Evelyn squeezed her hands together, smiling broadly. “All the rats should be out after I suggested the local English commander smoke the castle.”
Molly turned wide eyes to her. “The castle was overrun by rats?”
“Nathaniel’s solicitor said that the English captain in the area wrote that he couldn’t oust all the Scottish vermin at Finlarig,” Evelyn said.
Scarlet snorted. “Big rats wearing kilts, perhaps.” She glanced back out the window.
Evelyn grinned. “Actually, I said the same thing. Goodness! Kilts!” She shrugged. “A rat is a rat. Heavens, they could be English rats that defected north.” She laughed. “Anyway, I researched about such problems and had the solicitor recommend smoking them out. Hopefully Captain Cross took care of the matter, and the castle will be ready for us. We can always air it some more.”
Evelyn sighed, a smile across her face. “Tomorrow we will clean and begin setting up our Highland Roses School.” Without anyone telling her how her plans would fail. Without anyone berating her for her modern ideas on women’s education and abilities. No cutting remarks and furious cuffs across the cheek and jaw. Giddy hope made her perch happily on the seat despite the aches from the long journey.
Evelyn caught the rumble of far-off thunder, but a storm couldn’t dampen her spirits. “My students will leave our school knowing how to pour a proper tea, sew embroidery, cipher numbers, read, and write. They will know how to maintain an intelligent conversation and perform a trade, such as tapestry making, weaving, herb cures, or midwifery. There will be no life-or-death need and pressure to marry well. I will open their minds to the idea of an independent life.”
Scarlet snorted. “What girls really need to learn is how to geld a man.”
Molly smiled. “I once saw a bull gelded,” she whispered as if that made her experienced in the surgery. “It was quite bloody.”
Evelyn huffed. “Maybe we can add man-gelding to the curriculum.”
Scarlet laughed darkly. “I’ll be the first to enroll. And if Philip Sotheby finds out you’ve flown, you may need to take a class yourself to get him to run back to London.” She raised her gloved hand to Molly. “Or if he turns out to be a bull, Molly can help.”
Philip. Just the name of the quiet, always-watching gentleman, to whom her father had promised her before he died, sent a tendril of unease through Evelyn’s middle. Still fairly young in his late twenties, Philip seemed to yawn at life outside the English court. He was the opposite of her boisterous, brutal father, but Philip Sotheby’s apathy about everything except government could never warm a girl’s heart. Yet Evelyn was ordered to commit her life to him, act interested in all his feeble-spirited pursuits, bed him, and give him heirs. Absolute torture! Sitting in his townhouse in London, serving tea to other uninterested and lonely wives who have nothing to do but stare at their embroidery, gossip, and talk of the weather.
But Nathaniel was giving Evelyn a chance to escape. If she could show in three months that Finlarig castle and its surrounding acres could be profitable, she would become an independent woman. There was no if about it. The alternative to success was too great a nightmare to ponder. She would build up a prosperous school for ladies while managing Nathaniel’s new sheep business, and Nathaniel would get her out of the betrothal her father had contracted.
Life could be simple if properly planned, and Evelyn had been planning her school for seven years, ever since she’d graduated from her tutors’ lessons at the age of seventeen. A lifetime of living under their mother’s tutelage had seen both Worthington daughters educated in the social arts as well. And now Evelyn could benefit others with all the knowledge she had acquired. Grateful young ladies would look up to her, and her brother would see what she could never make her father understand. Women were more than workhorses, decorations, and broodmares. Education would help them rise to the same level as men one day. No matter what her father yelled or how he’d lashed out against her when she spoke of it. Women were oppressed in society, and Evelyn was determined to help them rise.
“Milady,” James called from above. Without slowing the horses, he bent over so that his forehead jutted through the drape at the window. She could just see the top of his white head and squinty eyes. “We be entering the edge of Killin.” He righted himself, disappearing.
“Killing?” Molly asked. “A town named for murder?”
“There is no ‘ing.’ It’s pronounced Kill-in. ’Tis the name of a village in Breadalbane region, which sits in the southern part of the central Highlands of Scotland,” Evelyn said, peeling her lap robe away from her legs. “Near the edge of the lake they call Loch Tay.” She smiled at Molly and Scarlet. “Which means, we are almost to Finlarig Castle.” She dropped her feet to slide them into her slippers.
“Who used to live in the castle, milady?” Molly asked.
“The Campbells of Breadalbane,” Evelyn answered.
“Did they all die gruesome deaths?” Molly asked as if anticipating a horrid tale.
“No disease or a bloody slaughter,” Evelyn said. “The solicitor said something about King Charles taking it for retribution of treasonous acts.” She shrugged. “I know nothing more than that.” Evelyn had spent the few weeks leading up to their departure planning her school from the décor of the classrooms to the food she would acquire for her students.
She’d seen a drawing of the castle, with measurements and acreage, when the sale had gone through. Evelyn had memorized every corner of the castle that would hold her school. She knew exactly which room on the top floor was hers, where the students would be housed, and where the library would hold her books and classes would be taught.
Evelyn placed her hand against her chest and smiled. “My heart is beating so fast.”
She peered into the twilight, the cool air refreshing her cheeks. Thunder rumbled deeply, and the wind shifted, bringing with it the tang of rain and smoke. The wheels cracked against the pebbles as they turned, carrying them down the narrow road.
“I see cottages ahead,” Molly said, leaning out the opposite window.
“I don’t see a schoolhouse,” Evelyn said. “And every parish must have a school, according to the Education Act of 1646. Nathaniel’s solicitor assured me that Breadalbane had no school, so we are indeed needed.” She would teach the young boys as well, but they would not live in the school. She imagined a group of young women walking the halls together, climbing the stairs to the grand library or music room, where notes of a harp or clavichord would weave into the polite conversation.
She smiled as they rolled between a cluster of squat, thatch-roofed cottages, their glass windows lit faintly from within. So quaint and peaceful. Nothing like the stench and hustle of London. Trees, just beginning to bud, created a high archway. It would be comfortably shady in the summer.
Crack! Evelyn jumped at the thunder, the lightning illuminating several more cottages with interlocking stone walls around their perimeters.
“Whoa there,” James called from above as the horses jerked against their bits.
“Hopefully we can get inside before the rain drowns poor James and Thomas,” Scarlet said. She took a full breath and held the window drape aside. “I wonder if lightning hit a tree. I smell smoke.”
Evelyn tugged on one of her stockings. “The smithy.”
“Was dark,” Scarlet answered. “Everyone seems locked up for the night.”
Molly’s eyebrows rose. “I’d be hiding, too, if I lived in a town named after murder.”
“They’ve likely taken cover from the oncoming storm,” Evelyn answered. The crunch of the wheels softened as they turned up a grassy lane past a weathered wooden sign that read Finlarig Castle. “Maybe the castle has its own smithy.” A soft patter of rain tapped the top of the carriage.
They neared a thick wall that likely surrounded the castle, a defensive structure from the times of raids and pillaging. Now it would be used to keep the sheep from fouling the yard where her students would walk for exercise. The carriage rolled within, and Evelyn’s gaze fastened on a splintered iron gate flung off to one side. She frowned. How many shillings would that cost to fix?
“No gate?” Scarlet said. “Convenient.”
“It’s broken,” Evelyn murmured, leaning farther out the window as the looming four-story castle came into view. Finlarig Castle was a Z-shaped stone fortress, with a central square formation and two towers, set on diagonals from each other. With enough rooms to house up to twenty girls, it was the perfect place for the school.
“Blast, it’s so dark,” Evelyn said, squinting at the bulk. The rain had increased, giving the air a smoldering, wet smell.
Scarlet’s voice was muffled as if she, too, spoke from halfway out the window. “No one here to greet us. We’ll be sleeping with rats or in ashes of rats.”
As her last word ended, lightning splintered across the sky above the surrounding trees, illuminating the bailey, bright as day. Crack! Thunder followed, covering the loud gasp that flew from Evelyn’s open mouth. Not from the show of God’s mighty ability to strike them down if desired, but from her first brief view of Finlarig.
“No,” she said, her eyes transfixed on the shadowed form as she waited for another lightning bolt to confirm what she’d seen.
A cracking boom rang out over Scarlet’s question. In that instant, Evelyn’s stomach dropped as if the very ground struggled to wrestle it from her body. She sucked in a breath. “It’s…burned.”
Black soot scorched upward around the door, the glass windows burst out, the remaining shards like jagged teeth set in a series of open-mouthed screams. Had the captain mistakenly set her castle ablaze? She flattened her hand to her chest and straightened as James came to the door.
“The storm is upon us, milady. Best to get you three inside. I will help ye in while Thomas holds the horses.”
“Thomas won’t be able to hold the horses by himself if they spook,” Evelyn said, placing her hand in James’s. “We will be fine.” Had he not seen the soot? Perhaps it had been a trick of the shadows. But the smell of smoke was no shadow.
“Scarlet,” Evelyn said as a sprinkling of rain misted her face. “The school…the castle…” Astonishment made her mind race faster than her mouth could form words. What had happened? How could she make a profitable school and sheep farm if the castle was uninhabitable? Please let only the outside be scorched.
Her sister climbed out, Molly bringing up the rear, and then James and Thomas hurried to the horses. With the storm upon them, they would unhook and shelter the animals, retrieving the carriage when it had passed.
Evelyn stood waiting for another flash of lightning. “’Tis impossible to see anything,” Scarlet called as more rain shot down. “Hurry.” She linked her arm in Evelyn’s as they strode toward the steps leading into the keep. Large pines and winter-bare trees, which grew just outside the wall, bowed and bucked overhead. The horses whinnied as Thomas and James led them around to what looked to be stables. Rocks bruised Evelyn’s feet through her slippers, and she shot up the first step, her bare fingers on the wet stone.
Looking up, Evelyn stopped.
God’s teeth, indeed. Standing at the top of the steps, illuminated by a flaming torch, was a man dressed in a kilt, his arms and chest bare. Perhaps it was the darkness around him, or the fact that she stood below on the steps, but the man looked larger than any human she’d ever seen, like a Scottish legend come to life. Broad across the shoulders and tall, power radiated out from his braced stance. His arms were corded with muscle. She couldn’t tell the color of his hair, but it was dark and free of the wigs that were so popular in England. Her heart sped at the obvious strength and finely wrought features of his fierce face. With this man at the school, they’d have no worries about bandits or thieves. Perhaps she could hire him.
“Hello, sir. I am Lady Evelyn Worthington of Hollings Estate in Lincolnshire.” He held a torch where he stood under the eaves, frowning. Had she woken him? She blinked against the brightness of the flame and the rain in her eyes but managed a smile. “Are you the caretaker of the castle?”
His voice came as if from the storm above: hard, cold, and booming. “Get the bloody hell out of my bailey.”