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Autumn in Scotland
By Karen Ranney
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Karen Ranney
All right reserved.
As homecomings went, this one would rank among the strangest.
Dixon Robert MacKinnon felt as if ghosts welcomed him, trailing their cold and lifeless fingers over his skin, greeting him with soft, almost soundless moans as if to warn him away from his destination. Yet the whole of Scotland was a place of ghosts, each hill and glen carrying memories of bittersweet victory or poignant loss. He'd forgotten how damp the air felt, as if the earth had wept and was now resting between tears.
How strange that he'd come halfway around the world for this moment and now he dreaded arriving at Balfurin.
He sat back among the cushions and surveyed his companion. Matthew was wedged into the corner of the carriage, arms crossed over his embroidered silk jacket, his gaze fixed at the tops of his pointed shoes. He'd been silent ever since yesterday when Dixon had announced it would be weeks before they left for Penang. In fact, it was very likely they would remain the winter in Scotland.
Dixon tapped on the ceiling, a signal for the coachman to slow. Another tap, and he felt the horses being walked to the side of the road.
"Come and have a look at Balfurin, Matthew," he said.
"I will remain here, if you do not mind, master," Matthew said, refusing to look in his direction. "The storm will be upon us shortly."
"Agood Scottish storm takes the fire out of the blood."
"I have no more fire in my blood, as you say, master. I have spent too much time being cold and wet for any fire to survive."
Dixon stifled his smile, exited the carriage and closed the door, not remarking to Matthew that a carriage would be no protection in a Scottish thunderstorm. He might as well stand in the lee of the wind and delight in its fury with no shelter at all.
Dixon walked some distance from the carriage, feeling as if the years fell away with each step.
His parents had died in a boating accident on the River Tam, and he'd been brought to Balfurin for his uncle to raise. His mother's home had soon become his. How many times had he raced around the ruined tower? Or run up the steps to the battlements themselves? He'd played Robert the Bruce or Hannibal, Caesar, or a host of other warriors, and all during those pretend battles, he'd been the Earl of Marne, not George. Even as a child, he'd been envious of George's position in the world. Not just that his cousin had inherited the title, but that he would forever be known as the Laird of Balfurin.
The red streaks of sunset were a perfect backdrop to his first view of Balfurin. In the distance, the sky was already black, but not from nightfall as much as an approaching storm. An omen, perhaps, that Balfurin didn't welcome him back home with much enthusiasm.
He should have heeded the warning.
Balfurin was nothing like it had been. Dixon stared down at the glen, barely recognizing the castle.
The ruined tower wasn't there. Somehow, it had simply disappeared from the landscape. Had it finally crumbled and been carted away in a hundred barrows? Or better yet, had it been used to build the new addition to the east? A three-story building, rectangular and plain, seemed to have no relationship at all to the existing castle except for the fact it shared the same courtyard.
The curtain wall had been shored up, and the gate holding the portcullis had been repaired. The battlements looked as if their crenellated tops had been sharpened and there was a flag flying there, one that he couldn't make out from this distance.
The courtyard was filled with a hundred lit torches along the curtain wall. Candles outlined the path from the portcullis to the broad stone steps. Hundreds of flickering flames sat in every window of Balfurin, giving the impression that the castle itself was on fire.
A long line of carriages took turns before the steps, each set of passengers being escorted up the stairs by a girl dressed in a long flowing white gown.
Females of all ages, each identically dressed in the same type of gown, were milling about the courtyard. A few were lining up in a queue. One, her hand holding the end of her hair, was racing to the three-story building to the east, as if distraught over a ruined coiffure.
"Is it a church?" Matthew asked. Dixon turned to find the other man at his side.
"I've never known George to be religious," he said. "But a decade can change a man."
"A man wills his own change," Matthew said. "Time does not matter."
Dixon stifled both his smile and his comment.
"Is this what you need, master?"
He glanced at Matthew.
"To ease your heart. Will it help?"
"We've agreed, Matthew. You will not speak of it."
Dixon looked down at Balfurin again. Would George welcome him home? Or would their rift, of a decade's standing, continue? Only the next few minutes would tell.
They returned to the carriage and Dixon gave the signal for the driver to begin the long descent to the glen.
"Well, what do you think, Maisie? Will I do?"
Charlotte MacKinnon, Countess of Marne, stared at herself in the mirror.
"I think you look absolutely stunning, your ladyship," Maisie said.
What had she expected? Maisie had been Charlotte's fiercest supporter since the day she had hired her as maid four years earlier.
Maisie was always smiling, the small space between her front teeth and the dimple in her right cheek giving her an impish expression. The young maid found the world to be a pleasant place, all in all. However, being around Maisie was sometimes a trying experience, especially on those days when Charlotte wasn't in the mood to be excessively bright and cheery. But right at the moment she was appreciative of the girl's effusive disposition.
Excerpted from Autumn in Scotland by Karen Ranney Copyright © 2006 by Karen Ranney. Excerpted by permission.
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