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The Highland Groom
Loch Katrine, Scotland
"Did you hear that?" Patrick MacCarran glanced up the long Highland slope as a gust of wind stirred the tail of his dark frock coat, and sent a few loose pebbles scattering. "I'm sure I heard footsteps over the rocks somewhere above us."
Standing beside her brother, Fiona turned to look around and then up the steep hillside toward the towering mountain, with its limestone cliffs and dark scrub. "Bogles," she said. "Haunts or fairies. Or small stones shifting along the slopes in the wind."
"Or smugglers," he muttered. "Had I known we would climb so far into these hills in search of your rocks, I would have brought a firearm."
"I thought smugglers only came out at night."
"They're men, not bats," Patrick drawled. He walked away, looking around as if he suspected criminals to be hiding behind the boulders and tall trees farther up the hillside.
Fiona turned, looking down the slope toward Loch Katrine, which edged one side of Glen Kinloch, where she intended to stay for a couple of months as a teacher in the small local school. From her vantage point, the smooth surface of the loch was misted over, and fog drifted in patches over the hills that nudged against its shores. Here on the upper end of the long loch, the hills were remote and rugged; where the small glen met the loch, the landscape was beautifully wild. Fiona wanted to linger and explore further, but she knew that Patrick had scant patience left after the lengthy afternoon stroll they had taken.
And he seemed distinctly uneasy. She frowned, watching him. For the lastfew months, her youngest brother had acted as an excise officer at the distant southern end of Loch Katrine; now he seemed alert to trouble everywhere he went. Being a government agent in the Highlands had matured his character quickly, though she was grateful that his true lighthearted nature remained.
"Surely it was the wind, Patrick," she said.
"Or free traders evading customs officers such as myself," he said, inclining his head. "Fiona, are you ready to go back yet?" Sounding hopeful, he picked up her canvas knapsack to carry it.
"Not quite. I've found some excellent trilobites here, and I want to keep looking." A cool updraft lifted the ribbons of her gray bonnet and made the skirt of her gray woolen gown, pale as the mist, dance over her ankles and the tops of her leather boots. Raising a gloved hand powdered with dirt and rock dust—her cheeks and nose were no doubt dusty, too, but she did not mind—Fiona turned to look at the Highland slopes that surrounded them. The hillsides were brown and dreary, their spring greening only just begun, and the air had a wintry nip. Another gust of wind made her shiver slightly, and she glanced around. "This place is so . . . remote."
"Exactly. And that makes it is easier for smugglers to slip cargoes of their whisky through the hills down to the lochs and rivers," he answered. "I have said this before, but I do wish you had not been so eager to stay in this glen for the next few weeks. There are rogues about, I guarantee it."
"I have promised to teach here," she said. "And I intend to fulfill my part of the conditions in Grandmother's will."
"Those clauses may prove the bane of all of us, but for James," Patrick said. "Come back with me—you could be back in Edinburgh by week's end. You know Eldin would lend his barouche if you needed it. Our cousin has always been fond of you, when he seems to dislike most people."
"I do not need his charity or his barouche. I will stay until summer with Mrs. MacIan."
"Mary MacIan can barely see or hear, talks endlessly, and drinks whisky like a man."
Fiona laughed. "It is acceptable for Highland women to take a dram with the men, or even on their own, as she does. I think she is a delightful sort, and quite unique."
"She's no fit companion if you mean to walk the hills around here. Promise me you will not wander about alone. There are rascals about in this godforsaken place."
"As an officer of the government now, you suspect a smuggler at every corner."
"Not without reason," he said quietly. "I am concerned for your welfare."
"As I am for yours," she pointed out. "I know you were bored as a Signet clerk in Edinburgh, and that you were willing to take the risks when you were appointed as a customs officer along Loch Katrine. Sir Walter Scott confided to me, the last time we had supper together with Aunt Rankin before I came north, that the work of pursuing smugglers is stressful and dangerous," she went on. "And so as your older sister, I worry on your behalf."
"But I rather like the adventure of it. I've learned a good deal in my apprenticeship months here. And the region is populated with rogues, remember that." He frowned at her. "In the ten miles or so of Loch Katrine's length, from the southern end up to this more remote area near Glengyle, most families run private stills."
"Anyone can produce whisky, up to five hundred gallons or so; you told me so yourself. When we were small in Perthshire, there was a private distillery on the home farm to supply the estate. Father very much liked the brew they made," she said, glancing away as she made a rare reference to their father, who had passed away years ago, along with their mother, leaving the four children—the twins, Fiona and James, and the younger boys, William and Patrick—in the care of their relatives, as well as the overbearing guardianship of Lady Rankin, their great-aunt, on whose estate Fiona presently lived, just outside Edinburgh.
taxes posed by the Crown."The Highland Groom. Copyright © by Sarah Gabriel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.