Something rustled behind the tree. Arabella tensed. She knew it was dangerous out here. Thoughts of what could happen to her flashed through her mind and she froze in place, her heart thumping like a bellows, pale cheeks flushed.
The country was, more or less, at war. She was an earl's daughter – an earl known to support the Jacobites. Even if she wasn't, she was a young woman alone in woods that housed enemies, thieves and plain ordinary vagabonds. She could die, and no one would even know she was dead. She could go missing and no one would know she was gone.
I am a fool. I should never have come out here alone.
It had seemed so innocent – a trip into the margin of the woods round Duncliffe Manor, to collect some thyme for Francine's sore eyes. It could cost her life.
Now another twig rustled. She had no doubt about it anymore. There was something in those bushes. Or someone.
Absolute terror ran in her blood. What could she do? The list of options ran through her head, almost empty. All she could do was to stand still and hope nobody noticed her.
She stood still, counting to ten and then took a step back. Then another.
That was when whatever it was stepped round behind her.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and something cold touched her neck.
She would have screamed except that she was about to faint.
The hand met the place where her red hair touched the collar of her dress. She could feel the blade of a knife pressing to her skin.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please.” She closed her eyes.
She heard someone gasp. Suddenly, someone moved to stand in front of her. She stared.
The man was tall, with black hair. His eyes were blue, the color of the sky at sunset. He held her gaze. He looked, if anything, as astonished as she. He was also handsome. A thin, fine-boned face, a well-molded mouth, a face with big, dreamer's eyes.
“Please,” he said in Lowland Scots. “No screaming?”
She felt the ludicrous element of that request. She wanted to suddenly laugh. She knew that if she did she might go hysterical.
“Fine,” she managed to articulate. “No screaming. Just go.”
He stepped away. The knife went into his belt. She sighed.
“Good,” she said. Her legs almost collapsed under her with relief.
It was only when she'd said it that she realized she's switched to Lowland Scots herself. At home, she spoke Gaelic, though she also had been tutored in English and French. A nasty thought struck her.
“You speak English?” she asked, switching to that language.
The man went white. He nodded.
She covered her mouth with her hand.
She was right.
The man was an Englishman, possibly a soldier.
She considered him. He was dressed simply in doublet and hose, a plain linen shirt. However, that didn't mean he wasn't a soldier. Or a spy.
“Go,” she whispered.
“You won't tell?” he said back. Gray-faced with tension, his eyes wide with pleas, the man was clearly terrified. Rightfully so. If her father or even her brother found him here, they'd kill him.
Arabella nodded. “You spared me. I shall spare you. Just go.”
She didn't know where the words had come from, but it felt right. Like a promise. It was fair.
She saw the man stumble, his legs going weak with relief. She knew the feeling. A moment earlier, she had felt it herself.
As she watched, he stepped backward. He took one step, then another. Then he turned round and ran. She let out a long sigh once he was finally away.
She walked slowly back to the edge of the woods, feeling dizzy and disoriented. She couldn't quite believe she had done that. She had let the man go. What had she been thinking of?
She walked back to Duncliffe, looking up at its familiar gray walls with a shudder. It was her home, but, in her own special way, she had just become a traitor.
She had a duty to her family, to the Jacobite cause, to tell them what she had seen.
As she looked back toward the forest, she realized that there was no way she could fulfill that duty. She recalled the terrified look on that gaunt, handsome face, the terror in those bright blue eyes. There was no way she could be the instrument of that man's death – and if her family found him, if they gave him to the guards, it would be a slow death for him. She would not do that.
She owed her heart a greater duty, and that was silence. As well as compassion.
She went slowly inside and up the long, wooden stairway to her bedchamber. There, she sat down heavily with her long oval face buried in her hands. She had made her choice and nothing would change it. Her choice was silence and fulfillment of his trust.
She knew that she would never forget that moment, or the strange man with the pale eyes and that hesitant, halting smile.