Authors: Bess McBride
“I do!” I said, almost chuckling at his use of the term “Colonies” and thrilled that he was taking me to an American. Not that the Scots weren’t great, but an American could understand what it felt like to be lost in a country that was not my own.
“I’m looking forward to meeting her. Did she marry a Scottish lord?”
“Aye, Laird Colin Anderson. They are great friends of mine. I was just this night at Gleannhaven for supper and music.”
“Was that you playing the bagpipe? I heard some music a short while ago.”
“I was just playing a few tunes to while away the time as I rode home,” he said with a warm laugh. “I meant to leave Gleannhaven earlier with good light, but the ale was flowing, and I overstayed. Black and Robbie ken the way home, and I have little to do but play the pipe while I ride.”
“You play wonderfully,” I said. “There was a bagpiper in the pullout, a middle-aged man, kind of thinning reddish-brown hair, a thick mustache, red kilt. Do you know him?”
“I dinna ken such a man as ye describe. I canna say that I ken what this ‘pullout’ is of which ye speak.”
“You know...on the road. A pullout? Like when cars pull over to see the mountains or the valley?”
“Nay, I dinna ken of such, but ye do remind me more of Beth with every word ye speak. She will ken such things.”
“Oh, good!” I said.
The horse, Black, did indeed seem to know his way in the dark, and the ride was smooth. Fortunately, this was not my first time on a horse, but it was my first time being held in the arms of a strange man.
I had at first tried a rigid pose, keeping my back from melding into his warm chest, but I soon gave that up as both painful and impractical. Now, I rested against him and felt the steady thudding of his heart against my back. The occasional tingle ran up and down my spine.
“So, you live nearby as well?” I tried to focus on anything but the sensation of being in his arms.
“I do,” James said. “At Castle Lochloon. It was my grandfather’s place. I grew up in the north, but upon my grandfather’s death, I inherited the castle. My mother wished to return to her ancestral home when my father died, and she lived there for some years before she passed. I live there now.”
“Are you married? Do you have family?”
“Nay, I havena yet had the pleasure.”
I chuckled then, the sound loud in the darkness.
“What makes ye laugh?” His baritone purred against my ear.
“Oh, not everyone would see marriage as a pleasure, that’s all.”
“I would,” he said, his voice quiet and sincere.
The tingle ran up and down my spine again, and I changed the subject.
“What do you do for a living, James?
“For a living?” he repeated. “I manage my estate.”
“Oh!” Well, clearly he was rich. He lived in a castle, didn’t he? And he must have had enough land to keep him busy. So why was he riding a horse home? Didn’t he have a car? Or was riding horses between neighboring estates just the norm here in the Highlands?
“Do you have a car?” I asked.
“A car?” he repeated, almost as if he’d never heard the word. “I canna say that I have such. Is that something particular to yer country?”
I laughed. He was eccentric, if nothing else.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll leave that alone. How much farther is it to the castle?”
“We have a bit yet to travel. I imagine ye would appreciate a horse wagon just now, but I wasna expecting company.”
“No, I’m thankful you came along, on horseback or otherwise.” I tried hard to avoid thinking about the feel of his arms around me. Sam wouldn’t have appreciated my thoughts.
“Did ye say ye were traveling with yer cousin? Julie, I thought ye said. She must be fair worried about ye by now.”
“Yes, I think she must be. I don’t know if she’s still waiting by the road or whether she headed on to our hotel in Glasgow. Somehow, I think she’s probably either still waiting or she called the police.”
“The police? It is several days to Glasgow, even by horse. She canna have reached Glasgow yet if ye just misplaced her.”
“What? Sure, she can...in the car. We had a rental car. I mentioned that, right? We weren’t hiking across Scotland.”
“Nay, I dinna think ye were. That would be a long hike for two ladies.”
I looked up at James, wishing I could see his expression. I suspected he was laughing at me the entire time, playing the Highlander as he was, but I couldn’t tell in the darkness. I didn’t mind. He was helping me, and if he wanted to have a little joke at my expense, that was fine.
At some point, we turned left and crossed over a small bridge. The hum of the river faded, and I knew we headed away from it, probably toward the mountains. Though I was still tucked safely in James’ arms, I shivered with both a chill and fear of the unknown.
“Are ye cold, lass?” James asked me. He wrapped a length of cloth around me, the material still warm from his body.
“Is that better? I should have realized ye were cold, and shared my plaid with ye at the outset.”
I realized then that he had wrapped part of his kilt around me, the same kilt that appeared to still be attached to him.
“Yes, thank you,” I said. The horse ambled on, and the physical intimacy between us seemed magnified by our shared covering. I felt cocooned in his embrace, certain that this was going to be one of the most remarkable nights of my life.
“We are almost there,” James said out of the darkness. I startled at the deep timbre in his voice. For the past fifteen or so minutes, I’d been reclining against him in the darkness, lulled into a dreamy state by the warmth of his body.
“Oh, really?” I heard the disappointment in my voice, and I gave myself a quick shake and straightened. What on earth was I thinking? Of course I wanted to be somewhere—to find shelter, warmth, a telephone, Julie!
“Are ye still chilled?” James asked, apparently responding to my shake.
“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m toasty warm.”
I heard him chuckle, a pleasant sound that I knew I wanted to hear again.
“Is it late?” I asked. I had no idea what time it was.
“A bit,” he said. “But they willna hold that against us.” He tightened his embrace around me, and I pressed against him instinctively.
I caught sight of a glow in the near distance, partially obscured by the branches of some tall trees.
“That is Gleannhaven Castle,” James said.
We continued toward the light, and the trees fell away to reveal what appeared to be a large building, rectangular and multistoried—if the flickering lights reflected in the windows were anything to judge by. Turrets flanked each side of the castle.
James drew the horse up and pulled his plaid from my shoulder before dismounting. He lowered me from the horse, and I slipped into his arms. I drew in a sharp breath as I looked up at him.
“I dinna ken what Colin and Beth will say to yer trews, so I will just wrap ye in my plaid again. It willna cover all of ye, but it will have to do.”
He grinned and slipped both his arm and the thick material around my shoulders. Unsure of what to make about his concern regarding my jeans, I turned to look at the castle. I balked as James attempted to guide me forward.
“Come, lass. There is naethin to fear.”
“Oh, I’m not really afraid. Just in awe! Look at the size of this place. Now I see why they call it a castle.”
James chuckled again. “Aye! Colin’s grandfather built it to protect his family and lands from some greedy clans.”
I looked up at him, the golden lights of the house enabling me to see his face more clearly. He gazed at me with a wide even-toothed grin. Still having fun, I guessed. I smiled back.
His face was more angular than I had first suspected, with a firm chin. Deep dimples creased his clean-shaven cheeks. His eyes, probably blue, regarded me with laughter.
He pulled me toward the entrance, a set of stone steps fronting a large wooden door, and he banged on the door with the side of his fist.
A dog barked somewhere, and Robbie responded in kind.
The front door flew open, and another man in a kilt, as tall and handsome as James, but with dark-black hair and slate-blue eyes, blinked at the sight of us. I could have sworn he ran a curious gaze down my legs, but thought I must have imagined it. The candle in his hand gave him a gothic appearance.
He gave his head a shake and smiled. A sheepdog almost identical to Robbie greeted James’ dog with a sniff and a bark.
“Did ye lose yer way, James?” the dark-haired man asked. “Come in. Come in!” He pulled the door wide and beckoned us inside a large foyer flanked by two wooden staircases leading to the upper floors. Shining oak floors reflected the light of his candle. A silver-haired man, also carrying a candle, trotted toward us from the interior of the house. Unlike the kilted man, he wore charcoal-gray slacks.
“Yer lairdship,” the elderly man said with a quick bow as he caught the door. “Ye’re back!” He caught sight of me under James’ plaid and seemed to do a double take, as had the kilted man.
“Aye,” James said, dropping his plaid from my shoulders. I wanted to cling to his side, but instead straightened my shoulders and eyed the two men facing us.
“And whom do ye have here?” the kilted man asked. Again, I thought I caught his eyes on my legs, and I wondered why. I glanced down at my jeans, but they were zipped up. Nothing to worry about there!
“May I present Mistress Margaret Scott?” James said with a surprisingly courtly bow. “Mistress Scott, this is Colin Anderson, Earl of Halkhead.”
Tempted as I was to respond with a curtsey—which I’d never done in my life—I resisted, and instead stuck out my hand.
Laird Anderson, his brows drawn together, took my hand in his. His expression didn’t suggest that I was unwelcome so much as a surprise.
“My pleasure, madam,” he said. He turned to the older man.
“George, please ask her ladyship to hasten back to the drawing room. She will want to meet Mistress Scott as soon as possible. And ask Mrs. Agnew to have tea sent to us.”
“Verra good, yer lairdship.” George hurried up one of the staircases and disappeared from sight.
Laird Anderson set my hand lightly upon his arm and led us down a hallway and into a room that most certainly looked like what I thought a “drawing room” in a castle should. Lit only by candles in wall sconces, I noted that the room was softly decorated in tones of rose and green. The silk, velvet and brocade furnishings were a stark contrast to the harshness of the gray stone walls. Carpets covered much of the wooden flooring. The dogs, apparently allowed the run of the house, bounded in behind us and dispersed to take up positions near the legs of their respective owners.
“Sit yerself here,” Laird Anderson said as he settled me onto the velvet rose sofa and bent to stoke the dying embers of a fire in the large white-mantled fireplace. Clearly, someone had been using this room recently.
I looked up at James, who lowered a canvas bag from his shoulder and set it by the door. I saw a pipe sticking out of the top, and now realized where he had stowed his bagpipe.
I watched him drape the comforting extra length of his kilt over one shoulder and secure it with some kid of brooch. Handsome was simply too weak a word to describe James, with his shoulder-length chestnut hair now gleaming under the candlelight. His eyes were indeed blue, a teal blue that matched the color of his kilt.
He caught me staring at him and tilted his head as if to study me in turn. I blushed under his scrutiny. He seemed about to speak, when the earl rose from his kneeling position by the fire and lit a candelabrum on the mantel, casting even more light into the room.
Clearly, this family didn’t waste much money on electricity. Nowhere in the room did I see radiators or vents, and I wondered if they heated the castle with fireplaces only. That seemed far-fetched to me, but so did the entire evening.
The laird turned to us just as the door opened. A beautiful, petite auburn-haired woman entered, her eyes flying straight to me. She stared at me for a moment before she looked toward James. Both dogs rose and trotted to her side. She patted their heads absentmindedly.
“Oh, dear,” she said. Beth, as I recalled James had called her, exchanged a glance with her husband.
“What have you brought us, James?” she said almost under her breath.
“Lady Elizabeth Anderson, may I introduce Mistress Margaret Scott?” James asked. “I found Mistress Scott lost down by the river, and I thought it best to bring her here rather than take her to my place. I believe she is from the Colonies, as are ye, Beth.”
Beth threw her husband another look and nodded.
“Yes, I’ll bet she is.”