Louissa sat on her bed in the early morning sunlight. It had been three days since the incident and exactly nothing had happened. She had expected the authorities to pound down the front door, or worse, the private army of the new English lord. She had not heard he had an army, but if he did, it was sure to come take her in the dead of night. Nothing. She also expected her uncle to summon her to his study for a very loud dressing down at best and a horrific punishment at worst. Nothing. The unease of it all might cause her to go mad. If the Lord had died, she was certain her uncle would have heard, but if he was not dead, he must be livid and want justice. Isn’t that what all the important men wanted?
She reached down her bodice to pull out the red ruby locket that had belonged to her mother. If her uncle ever saw the piece of jewelry, he would sell it. It was the only thing she had left. She could remember her mother putting it around her neck and then pulling her up in her lap in front of the looking glass. She would say, "This heart is your family, sweetie. With this heart, you will always be able to prove who you are." She remembered the days following her parents' drowning. She cried day and night. So much so that she had been sick. One morning when she woke, she felt something heavy and cold on her chest. In the night, someone had taken the necklace, which Louissa had assumed went to the bottom of the sea with her mother, and had put it around her neck inside her night rail. Instinctively, Louissa hid it away and never shared with a soul she possessed it. It now shown warmly a red hue that spoke of love and family. She turned it to finger the back where there was an inscription and a divot. At first, she thought it was broken, and that a piece at some point had been broken from it, but Louissa knew differently.
It was where another item would fit to open the locket, but until she found such an item, she would not know. She kissed it, said a prayer to her parents and sent love to her brother before putting it back safe and sound inside her bodice. The small ritual made her feel connected to someone, something, and not so alone in the world.
After taking a long ragged breath, she decided her plan had to move forward faster. She could not control what her uncle, the Laird of Loc Landon did, or more to the point, forced her to do. Not to mention, having no control over a complete stranger who may or may not know her secret. She would need to find the other letters Lady Margaret assured her she had hidden to prove her uncle planned to kill her family. If she was able to find one, there must have been more.
She also needed to find a way to get to a small fishing village south of Eyer's Meade, where she believed her brother to have been raised. If she could just get one person, just one to say they remembered, she would be buoyed and able to continue her search.
Her uncle wouldn't be going out for another few days, so she would have time. Often, when Darius arrived, he would persuade her uncle to ride out and check his operation in the other ports on the Eastern side of Scotland, so she might even have some time alone.
Buffeted by the thought of her uncle leaving for a few days, Louissa stood, brushing off her dress and those feelings of foreboding for that which she could not control yet, and moved about her room tidying and planning. She would have to attend to Bethany, her only friend. She would ask questions about where Louissa had run off. She would have to work on a reliable story for that.
As for getting to that small village, she would need to wait until after her uncle was gone. So, that left looking for the other letters. She exhausted any possibilities of them being in this house. She had searched top to bottom, but it made sense that her uncle was not aware of their existence. If he thought proof of his crimes existed, he would not stop until he was in possession of them. She had also searched her parents’ manor, which stood dark and in disrepair since her uncle had it boarded up years ago.
The one place she needed to search was the one place from which she should attempt to stay away. Laird Margaret Colcord of Loc Moore’s estate was a dear close friend of her parents and the one who gave her the first letter. Unfortunately, she passed last year. To make matters worse, her British nephew, a certain dusty haired, blue-eyed buck with lazy curls and a wicked smile, held up residence now. Yes, she should stay away from there.
She had already almost fileted the poor man, but the heated flush she felt when she remembered him in the moonlight was enough to convince her that it was dangerous. She noticed the room getting warmer and let out an exasperated breath. "Oh, for the love of Cesar," she chided herself, "ye, don't have time dreamin' of men ye'll never have." Ridiculous notions had no place in her current predicament.
Perhaps after-- once her brother was found safe and she was free from her uncle and his plans, well then she would pour some hot tea, butter a scone, and sit down fantasizing about a certain English Lord all afternoon. As for now, other, more pressing matters required her attention.
Going to the slant in the wall above her cot, she counted over seven planks, poked her finger in the knothole in the eighth plank and quietly slid it free. Connected to the inside of the piece of wood hung a rope tied to a nail. The box attached to the other end of the rope popped out of the hole as she pulled the rope up.
The proof was held inside the hand carved box, or what proof she had of her uncle's deeds against her family. She just needed to check one thing, and while her uncle was still eating his morning meal would be as good a time as any. Her time was running out. If she didn't find her bother alive soon, there would be no point in it at all. Quickly, she skimmed the parchment in her hand and there on the page in her father’s elegant penmanship it stated that he was beginning to fear his brother was plotting against the family. The document was not enough for a court to see as proof, but it was all she needed. Gently, Louissa refolded it. With remembered touches, she retied and replaced the box in her wall. This one letter was what kept her going, kept her digging.
She fixed her bonnet and checked her one nice gown in the looking glass. "Well, it looks much nicer than black breeches and a mask," she said to no one except herself.
Leaving her room, she turned right to head down the back stairs. If she were quick, there would be biscuits left. Then, she would hurry through the back gate to Bethany's. The vicar’s wife was truly the only person Louissa trusted. It was also the only place now where she felt welcome and safe. The safety she knew was an illusion, but it was all she had.
Was it true everything looked better in the light of day? The fear she felt every time Uncle Gareth forced her to get on her horse and guard the Milford road was gone come sunrise, but Louissa still felt the angry finger of blame pointing at her like a beacon of light to a ship. No one could possibly know it was she. They would be doubling their efforts now that she wounded a man. His eyes flashed into her memory. Deep pools of intelligence. She could have sworn he was enjoying himself at least until he was wounded. Men.
Crossing the field, the sharp crunch of the long grass made way to much softer grass as she neared the small church and Bethany's home. She would stop and leave her offering to the poor on her way past the church. Her conscience would then be wiped clean as always. Well, not this time. This time, she had hurt someone. It would take more than a tiny bag of coins to relieve her guilt.
Coming back out of the church, the sun blinding on the warm morning, Louissa saw Bethany taking linens from the line while arguing with Mortomer the cat, over the corner of what looked to be her good table cover.
"Who is winning?” Louissa called with a wide wave as she made her way to the small back garden.
"Oh, that blasted cat is, that's who! Give me that Mortomer!” Bethany's words were softened by the gentle way she picked the fat cat up and placed him behind her. "I hadn't expected to see you this week. Didn't you say your uncle was planning a trip?” She asked going back to folding to protect the other corners from Mortomer's playful paw.
"Yes, well fortunately, Darius has appeared to update Uncle Gareth on his other holdings, so I have heard that he decided to postpone his trip,” Louissa answered as truthfully as she was able. Bethany was her friend, but she was also a vicar’s wife. She knew that lying to her had to be a sin. She sat on the ground leaning on the stump of a tree, now holding a basket of fresh laundry. Mortomer found his way to her lap and after some adjustment, curled up and began to purr.
"That does sound fortunate for you. I can't see how you are ever able to travel as you do. I would find it exhausting,” Bethany commented. "It will also give you ample time to keep searching. Any more luck yet?"
"Shhh! Bethany, I told you, you must keep quiet about my suspicions, please. I never should have told you. It is too dangerous.” Louissa looked around, as if someone might be lurking in the bushes.
"Posh, I haven't told a soul! Nicolas doesn't even know. I do think, however, he could better guide you in your hunt. I am ever nervous about your safety.”
As am I, Louissa thought.
"The vicar could be of no real help and as for my safety, I am the one who knows how to use a blade. Do not fret over my trivial matter. Truly, I am fine.” She had to convince Bethany to leave her husband out of this. She had confided in Bethany when Margaret died, because, well, she needed someone to talk to. It was selfish, she realized now. If Nicholas knew, it would only make him a target of her uncle, which she didn't want. "Where is your husband today? I cannot hear his whistling."
"Yes, isn't it blessedly quiet?" Bethany chuckled. "I love him dearly, but there is something to be said for silence every now and then.” Both women laughed. The vicar had a habit of whistling to himself as he worked. It didn't matter the job either. He could be writing a sermon or tilling the garden. "He has gone riding. A very old friend paid a visit today and asked his help in a private matter. At least that is what I am assuming. Knowing this gentleman, it will have to do with a woman."
"Ah, a rakehell is he?” Louissa asked, not that she thought any man would be anything but. Her question garnered a slight blush from her friend and a twitter of laughter.
"I can only imagine, but as he was not raised here, I cannot say. There.” Bethany grabbed the basket from over Louissa's head and headed toward the door. "If the two of you follow me, I might be persuaded to find you each a treat,” she called over her shoulder.
"What say you, Mortomer? I am hoping for some cakes. I would bet you are hoping for a nice morsel of fish, so up you go.” The cat leapt off her lap and with a shake sauntered toward the door.
The kitchen of the small parsonage was bright and overly warm for such a morning. Many baskets were spread over the worktable and open floor space. Every Wednesday when able, Louissa would assist Bethany with filling baskets for the poor. It was the one social entertainment she was allowed and hated to miss catching up with the local women and children as they delivered them. Not sure how many more of these days she would have, this one would have to be remembered.
An hour later, the baskets were filled and ready to pile on the wagon. The gentleman in question must be very well off and know the life of a clergyman, because he brought a horse for the vicar to ride. His own horse would not be able to keep up with his friend, Louissa assumed. "Louissa, can you go to the barn and get Tilly? I will begin to carry these baskets to the wagon."
Louissa grabbed two baskets to place in the wagon on her way by. The barn was dark and cool, but Tilly whinnied her location. She heard the thunder of hoof beats echo through the old wooden walls as she led the older horse out to the wagon. Even from a distance, she could tell which man was which. The unknown gentleman cut an impressive figure. Considering her future, she was jealous of any woman who might be allowed to give him problems. Her future husband looked more like Tilly than the man galloping toward her, she had been told.
With a snort at her thoughts, she continued hitching Tilly to the wagon, making sure her back was turned against the view.
"Well, good afternoon, gentlemen. I trust you enjoyed yourselves," Bethany called as the men rode up.
"That we did, my dear. I have not had such an exhilarating jaunt in quite some time.” Louissa heard one of the riders dismount and walk toward Bethany.
"May I assume you also solved all the world's problems?” She chuckled. Louissa didn't have to see the two of them to know they were kissing. She loved the affection she saw between them. It reminded her of her family and her old life.
"Well, I am not sure about all the problems, but if Parliament calls, we can assist in a good handful,” came another unexpectedly familiar voice.
Louissa froze. No, no, no, no, no. She snuck a peek of the other gentleman hoping her every nerve had simply gone into a fit. But, no, it couldn't be that, it had to be him. All right, he's alive. You didn't kill him. That was where the good news stopped. What in blazes would she do now? She couldn't be introduced. Even if he didn't recognize her, she would give herself away, and she knew it. The baskets. That was it. She would go and hide until he left. Or, better yet, go after the baskets and just keep going. Turning, she ran as fast as her skirts would allow around the corner of the house and out of sight.
"Bethy, who was that? Have you been hiding all the young impressionable damsels from me?” Clive asked as he watched a streak of skirt, ankle, and long black silky hair disappear behind the house. When he turned back toward his friends, they both looked more confused than he did. He had a suspicion the woman fleeing was fleeing because she recognized him.
"Was that Louissa?" Nicolas quizzed his wife.
"Yes, but I cannot for the life of me begin to know what is in that girl's head," Bethany replied with exasperation. "Skittish as a barn cat," was her only explanation.
"I hope I didn't scare her," Clive responded with concern even though all his instincts were telling him otherwise and to punctuate the fact, both his friends began laughing.
"Louissa might be the one to frighten even the likes of you, but you my friend, would not make her bat an eyelash. Pure steel that one," answered Nicholas in a dismissive tone. "Come, let us go to my study and talk more on that mystery I was telling you about." Nicholas slapped Clive on the shoulder unknowingly eliciting a pain-filled grunt.
"Are you all right?" Bethany asked only to be assured by both men that Clive was just jesting with his old friend about his brute strength. Clive was certain, however, that the woman did not believe one word of the rubbish her husband was trying to throw at her. As the men turned toward the house, Clive leaned toward the corner of the barn. She wasn't there. He knew to his bones, once spooked, his little felon would flee and not hang about.
"I'll be in with some tea and biscuits before I leave with the baskets," Bethany called to them as they entered the house. It was apparent his mystery woman had been helping with baskets for the poor, as there were still many left, yet to be loaded on the wagon.
"Here," Clive handed Nicholas two of the baskets, being careful not to aggravate his injured arm. The men finished filling the wagon to help Bethany after chasing her only labor away. Nicholas didn't complain, just gave Clive an approving smile. Clive suspected Nicholas would naturally help his wife, but never would have suggested such a thing with Clive in attendance. Again, growing up with a gaggle of women made him more inclined to understand the work that women do and appreciate their efforts.
Finally, ensconced in the small, untidy study, he asked the one question that had been taunting him since they got back to the parsonage. "I need to ask, Nicholas, who was that woman? She fits the description."
Nicholas sat behind his well-worn desk, steepling his hands in front of his face. The only sound was the constant ticking of the clock. He was no doubt considering what he could divulge to Clive. They knew each other as children, but not as much since becoming men. This kind of situation was one Clive didn't care for. He knew he wouldn't stand up to too much scrutiny. Eventually, perhaps this very moment someone was going to realize he was an imposter. They would figure out he was not the man his father was, and in fact, was not a worthy man for any lordship. He didn't bend, however, at the intense consideration his friend was making. Finally, Nicholas had made his decision.
"As a man of God, I am beholden to keep knowledge of certain events to myself."
"I am not asking you to break your vows. At least that wasn't my intent, but if that girl is involved, she is well and truly in danger from at least my little gaggle of gentlemen, no telling who else," Clive answered with a grave but respectful tone, he hoped.
With a heavy sigh, Nicholas leaned forward putting his elbows on his desk and began talking. "You might well be the man who can help them both."
"Both who?" All Clive needed was one more body to be responsible for. Hadn't God come across the knowledge that he was bad at this sort of thing?
"Louissa and her brother," Nicholas said with a grave tone. "They have not been afforded the same luxuries most of us were. They lost their parents in an accident when Louissa was eight years old. Her brother was five at the time."
"Losing both parents must have been devastating." Clive knew how the loss of one parent, before he was old enough to remember him could affect your life. Two would have been unbearable he was sure. Bethany's knock stopped the conversation as she bustled in with tea and cakes.
"Thank you, dear. We can pour. You go along and deliver your baskets."
She looked with question at both men, not believing that two men could figure out the teapot, but nodded and kissed her husband, not forgetting to give Clive a quick embrace before leaving, closing the door behind her. Once they each had a cup of tea, with a little something from the bottle in Nicholas' desk and a handful of cakes, Nick continued.
"The two became wards of their only surviving relative. Their uncle, Gareth Adair. He was never a good person and becoming a caregiver didn't bring out his tender feelings. Those children were dragged onto his boat and were carted halfway around the world time and again." Clive could hear the anger in his friend's voice. "At one point, both became ill from a fever and their uncle separated them when her brother took a turn for the worst. Louissa was told a week later that her brother perished."
Clive felt his stomach drop. First to lose her parents, then her only sibling? He couldn't imagine life without even one of his sisters. He had considered it in the past, but that was only when he felt his sanity might be preserved. He figured that was the way of siblings. Clive made to ask Nicholas to continue, but a knock on the door stopped him.
Nicholas moved from around his desk to peer out the window. He excused himself and made his way into the main room. Clive heard the door, then some voices, but couldn't make out the words. Nicholas returned with a stout farmer, hat in hand, following.
"Lord Breakerton, this is Malcolm McSteven. He has a farm just outside of the village.” Clive shook the man's hand and the man bowed. "I am sorry, Breakerton," switching to the more formal name in mixed company, "but I must go to Malcolm's. His mother isn't well, and she is asking that I be at her side."
Clive did not want to end this conversation, but knew the import of his friend to the people in this area. "Of course," he answered.
"Expect a visitor within the next three days. You will get all the answers you need, that is, if I have a promise you will help."
Clive didn't know what he was being asked to do. "You know I will assist if I am able, but I cannot blindly agree without knowing the circumstances."
"Fair enough," Nicholas answered, as he brushed by Clive to grab his hat off the edge of the desk and move back out into the main room. Clive followed with Mr. McSteven following behind impatiently. "I wouldn't expect you to blindly agree to anything. That would be foolhardy and dangerous. You are not that type of man. Your willingness to listen is enough."
The men said their good byes and as McSteven and Nicholas headed north, Clive rode out to the east and home. He now had more questions than answers. Not how he had wanted this meeting to go.
Now he would have to wait for three days at least, before he got any answers at all, and it might not help him even then. Why could one thing in all this not go easily? Who was this other person he was helping? Nicholas said himself that her brother died. Perhaps Nicholas meant helping the family legacy. Also, who was this stranger? His mother and sisters would be in residence soon. Clive was not happy to be waiting on strangers to arrive.
His shoulder pounded from the exertion of riding. Perhaps he should have heeded his valet's warnings about over-doing. Fatigue was getting the better of him, and he decided it best to stop at the stream up ahead to rest and get a drink, than to ride on home and then pass out. Clive slowed his mount and found a suitable stump nearby to help him get off and eventually remount. He dropped the reins to let the horse wander the field, knowing it was a good horse and it would not leave him.
As he made his way to the streams edge, he caught a glimpse of the cause of all his strife as of late. His highway woman. Why Clive started calling her his was puzzling, but he pushed that aside and moved ahead. At the moment, she looked nothing of the sort. Sitting with her knees pulled to her chest and her chin resting on them, she looked small, almost child-like. Not being fooled, since he knew how quickly and deadly she could be, he chose not to walk too close when he made himself known.
"Good day, my Lady," Clive said loud enough to be heard, but he hoped not so loud as to scare her. "I don't mean to bother you, but I was hoping to get a drink if you do not mind."
She turned toward his voice and her hair fell from her shoulder down behind her back exposing a high cheekbone and large almond shaped eyes, rimmed with thick lashes. If he hadn't seen any other part of her, he would remember those eyes. He noted she stiffened, but held her composure. Had he not been looking for it, he would not have known she recognized him. Best to play along until he knew the game better.
After a moment, she answered, "Of course, I was just leaving."
"Oh, no please, I will be only a moment." He walked to the edge and knelt a safe distance from her. Safe for her or him, Clive didn't know. The water tasted fresh and clean as Scottish water always did. It was strange how there was a slight flavor that hinted at heather from the moors and pine from the mountains. This drink also tasted sweet as if his companion had dipped her toe. At the thought, he nearly choked on the mouthful. After recovering and coughing some out, he tried to dismiss it. "I guess I should have made sure I hadn't sucked in any rocks in my haste."
To his delight, her face softened and she smiled. Not a laugh or giggle, but a start. "A wise thought," she warmed to the topic. "You should carve that into a stone and leave it here as a warning to travelers. It could be your legacy."
"Ah, a cheeky one." Clive enjoyed a woman with a sense of humor.
She smiled and he noticed one small dimple dip into her cheek, giving her a mischievous air.
"I am being terribly rude, I am sorry. Lord Breakerton, at your service," Clive, still kneeling bent at the waist in an unsteady, but admirable bow.
"Tis nice to meet you, my Lord." She, however, did not offer her own name in return.
"Were you not just at the vicar's cottage?" Clive asked nonchalantly he hoped.
"Oh, then I must have you confused. You women all wear such similar clothing, I am sure I just became confused." He would not be getting any information from her this day, and fatigue was tugging at him. He had made an introduction and that would have to be enough. "Can I escort you home, perhaps? I do not like to see a lady such as yourself out alone on the countryside."
"Thank you, but no. I am sure hearing your accent; I have spent more time on this countryside than you, my lord.” She rose and made to leave.
"Ah, but you have not yet given me your name, sweet lady. How am I to speak of my morning events if I do not know your name?"
"Just don't tell anyone. I know I don't plan on saying anything of our meeting," she said with an incorrigible grin and turned giving him her back as she walked briskly down the path and out of sight.
"Cheeky." Clive chuckled and made his way back to his mount. He could have engaged more, but then she might have witnessed the scandal that was he, mounting his horse. He was certain it would not end up in an article in the Times as an example of exemplary horsemanship, but then most of those dandies wouldn't be doing it with a sword wound either.
Of one thing he was certain, she was in eminent danger and it didn't appear she had any champions banging down her door. He would wait for this mystery guest to appear, and in the meantime, decide just how fully he was willing to become embroiled in whatever nefarious act was afoot.
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