The Highlands, late October 1712
The sign on the alehouse door caught Janet’s eye as Kennan carried her across the muddied street.
Samhain Gathering, 7 o’clock, Inverlochy Hall, Friday, 31st October.
No spurs. Weapons must be checked at the door.
Her stomach fluttered at the thrill. The best part of the fete was the gathering after the livestock auction. There’d be a feast of roast pork, music, and dancing.
A great deal of dancing.
Two drovers brushed past them, nearly knocking Janet’s hat from her head. The enormous red plume adorning it batted her in the eye.
“Watch yourselves, ye maggots,” Kennan growled as the two men pushed inside. Her brother could be overly protective, though he was as lovable as a puppy. Strong, too. He didn’t miss a step, not even when the drovers practically ran them over in their haste for a pint of ale. If Kennan felt any strain from Janet’s weight, he showed no sign of discomfort. But she knew better. The wool of her riding habit alone most likely weighed a stone.
Janet straightened her tricorn bonnet, shifting the feather out of her line of sight while Kennan gently deposited her on the footpath. “Those men must have a terrible thirst,” she said.
He glanced toward the door, busy with people entering and exiting. “Thirst or not, a month of droving is no reason for a man to be careless. What if I’d dropped you in the mud?”
“But you didn’t.”
Kennan took her hand and led her inside. Janet had attended the fete at Inverlochy during Samhain annually as far back as she could remember, but she’d never seen the town this crowded. “Every year there are more people at the harvest.”
He scowled at another brash drover heading for the bar. “And more bloody scoundrels. Stay close to me.”
Any other week, Inverlochy was a quaint and quiet town, but right before Samhain, clans and kin descended from the hills or sailed from the Hebrides to peddle their livestock and goods. It was only fourteen miles from the Clan Cameron seat at Achnacarry, and Janet and her kin visited two or three times a year to purchase supplies. Though not large, the town boasted a haberdasher, a modiste, and a tanner who made saddles as well as shoes.
At the center of town was the alehouse. The only establishment that served meals, it catered to all manner of fellows. A lady must never enter unaccompanied, lest she be mistaken for a harlot. Judging by the way her brother had clamped his fingers around her hand, Janet need not worry about being mistaken for a woman of easy virtue, though she wouldn’t mind if Kennan weren’t quite so protective. After all, she did have an ulterior motive for visiting the fete without her father. Da hadn’t before missed the Samhain gathering, though much had changed since he’d taken a new bride.
Needless to say, Janet was relieved to enjoy a wee respite from Achnacarry and her imposing stepmother, awkward as things had become.
“I wonder where all these people will stay,” she said as Kennan pulled her deeper into the crowd.
“Tents, the alehouse, the loft in the stables.” He raised his voice to be heard.
Through the haze of pipe smoke, Janet looked to the rafters, doubting the wax had been cleaned from the chandeliers since her visit six months past. “Aye, Mrs. MacNash couldn’t possibly take in the half of them.”
Kennan grasped Janet’s elbow and led her to an area near the back where respectable-looking patrons gathered. “Fortunately, we have a long-standing booking at the boardinghouse.”
“Thank heavens.” She scanned the faces of the rugged Highlanders dressed in kilts with their plaids pinned at their shoulders. Gazes shifted her way. Interested gazes. Brows arched. A ruddy man winked. Janet’s cheeks burned as she tried not to smile.
With luck, she might meet someone who struck her fancy. Her stepmother had already started mumbling about finding Janet a husband, and in no way did she want that woman meddling in her affairs. By the eel-eyed way the new Lady of Lochiel looked at Janet, dear Stepmother would hog-tie the first poor sop who happened past their lands and force her stepdaughter into a life of misery.
Please, Lord, help me to find someone I like. If there actually was a man out there with whom she could fall in love. At the age of two and twenty, she hadn’t given up hope, but she had grown anxious. And unfortunately, according to Her Ladyship, Janet was unduly particular.
“If it’s not the Camerons!” a familiar voice called from a table in the corner. “Och, I haven’t seen the likes of you since we were wed. Come, share our table.” Dunn MacRae, chieftain of his clan, stood and beckoned them.
Janet’s heart soared. One of her dearest friends, Lady Mairi, daughter of the Earl of Cromartie and Dunn’s lovely wife, waved. Returning the gesture, Janet hastened to follow her brother to the table. The two men shook hands while she slid onto the chair beside her friend. “I’m so happy to see you. I was afraid I would be following Kennan to and fro for the entire sennight.”
“What about John and Alan? Did your younger brothers not come?”
“Nay, they are both away at university.”
“Then I agree, spending all your time with one brother for a sennight would be miserable.” Mairi grasped Janet’s hand, grinning and stretching the splay of freckles across her nose. “I’ve ever so much to do. I would be delighted to have you accompany me.”
“To the haberdasher?”
“Indeed, that will be our most important stop.”
Janet nearly squealed. “We might need a whole day just for that shop.”
“Oh, this will be fun. Though I must drop the woolens I’ve knitted at the Highland Benevolent Society first.”
“Bless your heart, dearest. ’Tis very kind of you to always be thinking of the unfortunate.”
Dunn flagged a barmaid. “Ale, bread, and pottage all around, if you please.”
The woman, looking haggard, gave him an exasperated nod. “Aye, sir, but it will be some time. We expected half these numbers.”
An icy chill crept over Janet’s skin when the door opened with a whoosh. All eyes shifted to soldiers dressed in scarlet. Not a one smiled as they sauntered inside with muskets slung over their shoulders and daggers at their hips. The laughter transformed into intense silence.
People scuttled away while the officer leading the retinue turned full circle, his heels clomping against the floorboards. “I am Lieutenant Winfred Cummins, in charge of keeping the peace at this uncivilized, pagan gathering.”
Low murmurs of dissent rumbled through the hall. Janet knew him, unfortunately. He oft called into Achnacarry when his regiment rode out on “peacekeeping sorties.”
He stopped and glared directly at her. “All disturbers of the peace will be escorted to Fort William and face the magistrate. There will be no malicious maiming of cattle, no poaching, no begging without a license, and all persons caught with a blackened face after dark will promptly be led to the gallows.”
Janet drew her hand to her chest, leaned toward her friend, and whispered, “I have no idea why he’s looking our way. He should be speaking to the drovers at the bar.”
Mairi opened her fan and held it over her mouth. “He’s looking at you, lass.”
Janet slipped lower in her chair. “Heavens, no. That man is a snake.”
“You know him?” Mairi asked while the soldiers shouldered through the crowd.
“Aye, as does everyone who lives within twenty miles of Fort William. He’s notorious.”
“I do not doubt it.” Her Ladyship snapped her fan shut. “When a dragoon dons a red coat, it seems his mind is instantly addled.”
“You have a way with words, wife,” Dunn said.
Again Janet’s attention was drawn to the opening door. A wee gasp whispered through her lips while butterflies swarmed through her stomach just as they’d done when Robert Grant had ridden his enormous black horse into the stables earlier that day. She clenched her elbows to her sides, making the queasiness stop. The man was too unnerving. Especially today. He was unshorn and unkempt, and his hawkish eyes shifted across the scene as if assessing everything.
Janet brushed a hand over her curls. “That man is simply barbaric.” Barbaric and nerve racking. Every time their gazes met, he made her too self-aware. Curses to his braw looks, Mr. Grant was diabolical. And why was it that the most handsome of men always behaved like complete brutes?
“Aye, Grant looks as though he’s been mustering cattle in the Highlands for months,” Her Ladyship agreed.
Kennan snorted. “That brigand is mad—looks it, as well. As we were arriving, he had the audacity to accuse my kin of thieving his cattle.”
Dunn looked to the bar, where the big Highlander had shouldered in beside the other drovers. “Grant is a mite mistrustful of neighboring clans. He has cause, after all. But he’s a good man.” When Kennan guffawed, MacRae clapped him on the shoulder. “Though he’s wrong about the Camerons.”
“What do you mean, sir?” Janet leaned in. “I do not believe Mr. Grant to be a good man at all.”
“Och, you’ll find a heart of gold under that rugged exterior, lassie.” MacRae winked. “I’ll tell ye true, there’s no man I’d rather have fighting beside me in battle. Robert Grant’s loyalty may be hard to win, but once earned, you will not find a man more steadfast and true.”
Mairi gave Janet a nudge. “I thought you found him a wee bit braw.”
She snatched her fan from her chatelaine and cooled her face. “Pleasing to the eye, mayhap, but I could never be on friendly terms with a Highlander who accuses my father of thievery.”
“Thievery, did I hear?”
Her shoulders tensing, Janet hid her cringe behind the fan as Winfred Cummins moved to their table and blocked the view of Mr. Grant. Honestly, Janet liked nearly everyone, but today the alehouse seemed to be filled with the most churlish gentlemen she knew.
“It seems some of Laird Grant’s cattle were stolen. Some of Clan Cameron’s went missing as well,” Kennan explained.
“Is that so?” Flicking a bit of lint from his doublet, the lieutenant appeared unimpressed and disinterested.
The barmaid pushed in and placed four tankards of ale in front of them. “Your pottage will be along shortly.”
“My thanks.” Dunn reached for a drink and sipped. “So, Lieutenant, what news?”
Cummins shifted his gaze to Janet while she clasped her hands in her lap and stared at her fan, heat spreading up her face. “Things have been quiet,” he said. “Though I’m skeptical they’ll remain so with so many miscreants in town.” He didn’t bother to look at Mr. MacRae, to whom he was speaking—the lieutenant continued to ogle Janet as if she were on display in a shop window.
“Miscreants? Hardly,” said Mairi.
At last Lieutenant Cummins shifted his attention and arched an eyebrow at Her Ladyship. “Whenever large numbers of Highlanders gather, there’s bound to be trouble.”
Casting her inner revulsion aside, Janet squared her shoulders and inhaled. “I certainly hope not. I came to Inverlochy to enjoy the Samhain celebrations, not rue them.”
“And that’s where you err, miss,” said Lieutenant Cummins. “You Highlanders refuse to cast away outdated and pagan fancies. This gathering ought to be called the harvest fete, or something more civilized.”
“That would be quite dull, indeed,” said Mairi.
“I agree.” Emboldened by Her Ladyship’s support, Janet nodded. “There’s a certain tradition in our Celtic heritage I think should never be lost, no matter who is on the throne or what religion is in vogue.”
The lieutenant shifted his leering eyes to her again. “Do you speak blasphemy?”
“Hardly.” This time, Janet wasn’t about to feign meekness and look at her lap. She narrowed her eyes and stared at him directly. “I speak the opposite. I speak of freedom.”
Kennan pushed his chair back. “Pay no mind to my sister. She is a strong-willed lass, passionate in her convictions.”
A wry grin played on the lieutenant’s lips. Still wearing his tall grenadier hat, he was a man of average height and acceptable appearance with gray eyes and a big mole on his right cheek. He leaned across the table and lowered his voice. “I should like to observe such passion at the Samhain dance—it would certainly liven up a dreary evening.”
“Aye, Lieutenant Cummins?” Janet continued to hold his stare, refusing to show any sign of the abhorrence roiling inside. “It is my opinion that the dancing at Samhain shall be the most vigorous in the Highlands.”
“I hope you are right.” He straightened before he bowed. “Good day.”
Mairi leaned in. “‘Most vigorous’?” she whispered.
Janet sniffed, wildly fluttering her fan. “What should I have said? I could not sit idle and allow him to degrade our traditions.”
“But vigorous?” Mairi giggled.
“Aye, Sister.” Kennan gave a pointed look. “I agree with Her Ladyship. Keep mum when in the presence of that man—or any dragoons. They have a knack of turning anything you say against you.”
Janet grasped the handle of her tankard. “I intend to stay away from all soldiers.” Cummins most of all.
As she sipped, she watched Mr. Grant follow a barmaid out the back toward the bathhouse. Over his shoulder, the brawny Highlander cast a tortured look Janet’s way. A look filled with hunger. Had Janet blinked, she would have missed the glance from her father’s sworn enemy. Oddly, the shudder coursing through her far exceeded the brief duration of his glimpse. How could a man impart such heated intensity within a mere heartbeat? Good glory, she could scarcely breathe.
Oh, to be in the barmaid’s shoes. Janet would douse the laird under his bathwater until he admitted the Camerons hadn’t stolen his miserable beasts.
Robert Grant without his clothing.
Janet gulped, her skin afire.
Perhaps she’d best confront him on the matter some other time.
* * *
“’Tis sixpence for a bath and shave. The men’s tubs are behind the curtain,” said the wench. “Would you like me to launder your shirt and kilt?”
“Please.” Robert set down his cup of whisky, opened the thong on his sporran, and fished out a handful of coins.
“A penny for the shirt and two for your plaid.”
He dropped the change into her palm. “Is the water hot?”
“The lad is bringing a kettle from the kitchen anon.” She dropped the coins into a pocket hanging from her apron. “Shall I help you disrobe, sir?”
“Nay, just ensure the lad hastes with the water.”
“Very well. I’ll return later with the shaving kit.”
Normally Robert enjoyed having a female unwrap his tartan. He liked the thrill of having a wench’s eyes on him—her tongue slipping to the corner of her mouth, her cheeks growing rosy. Occasionally breasts would heave, and the boldest lassies would pay a compliment, or make a proposition—usually a welcome one. But Robert was still annoyed by his confrontation in the stables with Kennan Cameron. Worse, the man’s sister had stood by, glaring at him as if he were Lucifer, and now the lass was dining in the next room. Blast her. He could feel Janet’s accusing eyes boring into his back as he’d left for the bathhouse. The heat from her gaze still lingered on his skin. Must his nemesis have a daughter sent from hell to torture him?
If only the Camerons hadn’t come. And why do they not leave their womenfolk at home?
He shouldn’t have been so forward with Cameron when he’d confronted him at the stables, but his shepherd had been positive about the cattle thieves. Cameron men had been spotted nearby and no one else. Of course, Kennan had denied his clan’s guilt and Miss Janet had grown indignant at Robert’s accusation, insistent upon her father’s virtue. And she’d stood beside her brother like a Viking princess, her rich blue eyes intense and far too confident—as if she were accusing him of poaching. Further, she’d had the audacity to point out her kin had sustained hefty livestock losses as well.
But the yearlings hadn’t disappeared on their own. Someone was responsible for poaching Robert’s cattle, and he intended to find out who.
Hell, I ken who.
Camerons and Grants had feuded for centuries, and it would have been too bloody tempting for Lochiel’s men to ride on without pinching a few of Robert’s head. But they hadn’t left it at a few. The bastards had poached six and sixty yearlings—enough for him to consider putting Achnacarry to fire and sword. But first he needed more proof. With all the redcoats swarming through the Highlands, gone were the days of reiving without first securing a testimony.
Robert retrieved his whisky and took a healthy swig, then pushed through the curtain. A pair of men reclined in tubs, smoking pipes. He gave them a nod, wishing tobacco were banned from the bathhouse. He didn’t enjoy the smoke. To him it reeked, and the odor clung to his clothes. Which is why he set his satchel on a chair and left his only change of clean clothes inside.
After the lad came with the hot water, Robert lowered himself into the tub and sighed aloud. Weariness built up after a month traversing the Highlands, sleeping on rocky ground and freezing his arse most nights; the big wooden tub was akin to heaven. He took another sip of whisky and slid down farther, resting his head back and closing his eyes.
By the time he finished his drink, the lass had reappeared with razor, bowl, and brush. “Are you ready for your shave, sir?”
“Aye.” He beckoned her forward, examining her form. She was of sturdy stock, full bodied, the way women ought to be. Then she smiled, revealing a missing tooth right in the front. Wisps of mousy-brown hair poked from beneath her coif, and when she bent over him with the brush and bowl, her breath smelled sour.
Robert wiped his hand down his face. “Be careful with that blade, lassie.”
“I always am,” she said, as if she’d shaved hundreds of faces—most likely she had.
He raised his chin and submitted to her choppy ministrations, feeling like a sheep in the shearing shed. She hummed pleasantly, but her hand was anything but gentle. Robert winced when she nicked the back of his jaw.
The lass snapped her hand away. “Och, forgive me, sir. I’m sorry.”
He wiped the cut, then rinsed the blood off in the water. “Do you have some other place you need to be?”
“Are you not satisfied with your wages?”
“My wages are adequate. Why do you ask?”
“You’re nay cleaving a slab of mutton here. I suggest you relax. Shaving a man is easier if you’re not tense.”
“Sorry,” she apologized again before taking another swipe along his jaw, slower this time. “Ah…would ye be needing some company this evening?” she asked, her voice unsure.
He opened one eye and looked her up and down. The woman had not a line on her face, making it impossible to determine if she’d reached her majority. In the dark the missing tooth might not matter, but Robert had no intention of bedding a novice.