“A Black beginning maks aye a black end.” Scottish Proverb
Near Aboyne Castle, Aberdeenshire, Autumn 1608 Jeannie went to the loch on a whim, which was notable in itself. Rarely did she give in to an impulse or flight of fancy. If the apple had been Eve’s downfall then “that little voice” in the back of her head barraging her with “good ideas” had been Jeannie’s. Over the years she’d learned to ignore it, leaving little of the impetuous girl who’d come so perilously close to ruin. Whenever Jeannie felt the urge to do something, she forced herself to stop and think, and invariably ended up reconsidering.
But not this time. The pull of an unusually hot day so close to Samhain, and the knowledge of how refreshing it would feel to swim in the cool waters of the loch before the sun gave way to the gray of winter proved too tempting. As was the thought of escape. Just for a little while. To carve out a moment of peace and solitude where the troubles of the recent months could not find her.
It was only a swim. For an hour, no more. She would bring a guardsman. And her pistol. Something she kept close to her side of late.
She couldn’t stay locked away forever, a prisoner in her own home. The short outing to the loch was just what she needed. She was almost out the door when a voice behind her halted her in her tracks. “Going somewhere, Daughter?”
The sharp voice of her mother-in-law, teeming with censure, set her teeth on edge. If mourning the death of her husband wasn’t enough, Jeannie had been forced to contend with the oppressive presence of his mother, the formidable Marchioness of Huntly, for the past few months as well.
She clamped her lips together, biting back the ready retort that it was none of her blasted business. Taking a deep breath she turned around and even managed a smile—albeit one that stuck to her teeth. “It’s so lovely outside today I thought I’d go for a quick swim in the loch. I’m taking a guardsman with me,” she offered, anticipating the objection.
She didn’t know why she was explaining herself. Nothing Jeannie did ever met with the Marchioness’s approval. Jeannie had never been worthy of her son when he was alive, and now that he was dead could never hope to be. Why Jeannie still bothered trying to please her, she didn’t know. But she did. To do otherwise was to admit one more failure to her husband and that she could not contemplate.
The Marchioness returned a smile that was every bit as forced as her own. Her mother-in-law might have been an attractive woman at one time, but over the years the sourness of her temperament turned outward, taking a toll on her countenance. Sharp lines of disapproval were mapped across her face, and the corners of her mouth turned down in a perpetual frown. Tall and frail—from the constant fasting she did to prove her discipline as well as her devotion—she looked like a strip of salted herring left to dry in the sun.
Jeannie had always hated herring.
“Are you sure that is wise?” It was criticism masked as a question—a particular skill of the Marchioness’s. The woman seemed to take distinct pleasure in questioning—and by implication, criticizing—everything Jeannie did. It was ridiculous. Jeannie was nearly eight and twenty, but standing before the older woman she felt like a recalcitrant bairn. The Marchioness shook her head and tisked in a poor attempt at motherly fondness. “You know what happened last time you went off by yourself.”
Jeannie clenched her fists at her side, resenting the implication that the recent abduction attempt was in any way her fault. Though they’d been beset by cattle reiving since Francis’s death—a widow being perceived as an easy target—bride abduction hardly followed. How could Jeannie have foreseen that her regular morning ride would be seen as an opportunity to claim her wealth and lands by such a barbaric practice? “I have my pistol and, as I said before, Tavish will be with me. Another score of guardsmen are well within shouting distance. The loch is barely beyond the castle gate.”
“A woman alone is always a temptation. You need more protection than a simple guardsman can provide.”
Jeannie knew where this was heading and she would not allow the Marchioness to browbeat her into remarriage to a man of her choosing. Jeannie hadn’t had a choice in her first marriage—it was either that or disgrace—but she had no intention of marrying again. “I’ll be fine.”
“Of course, you know best, dear,” her mother-in-law said chirpily, but Jeannie wasn’t fooled. “Francis did always say that once you put your mind to something it was like trying to stop a charging boar.”
But Francis had said it with love and affection, not with condemnation. For a moment Jeannie wavered. Then she realized how ridiculous this was. She’d worked hard to atone for her past mistakes, and she’d be damned if she would be made to pay for them forever. “It’s only a swim.” She almost added “for God’s sake,” but knew the satisfaction of the blasphemy would be dulled by the week of reparation that would follow to her intensely devout mother-in-law.
“Of course,” the Marchioness said, quite put upon. “I was only thinking of your welfare.”
Jeannie repressed a groan. Guilt was another particular skill of hers. “I appreciate your concern, but there is nothing to worry about. I’ll be fine.”
And before she could change her mind, Jeannie stepped through the door and out into the sunshine. She trotted down the stairs and crossed the yard to where Tavish waited. As they made they made their way across the forested glen to the loch, Jeannie tried to put her mother-in-law out of her mind. The Marchioness might have put a damper on the spontaneity of her outing, but Jeannie had every intention of enjoying herself.
A short while later she had her wish. From the first moment she’d jumped from the rock perched a few feet above the loch into the shock of icy water she’d felt reinvigorated. Freed from the grief and guilt she’d been mired in since her husband’s death. Now, with the warm afternoon sun beating down upon her face, floating aimlessly atop the pool of blue-green, she felt relaxed. The gentle sway of the undulating water lulled her into a state of peace that she’d not felt in a long time.
She paddled around on her back a little longer, though the hour she’d initially allotted had come and gone. A soft wind swept over her, the wet skin of her exposed chest prickling with gooseflesh. Suddenly, the warmth on her face vanished, replaced by a dark shadow. Opening her eyes, she gazed up into the sky to see the clear blue stretch of sky marred by a thick roll of clouds.
A sign, it seemed, that her moment of peace was gone.
She rolled over and plunged through the water one more time, diving deep and swimming the twenty or so feet to the edge of the loch before bursting through the glassy surface in an explosion of water and light.
Trudging through the hip-deep water up to the shore with the goopy silt of the loch floor squishing between her toes, the hint of a smile curved the corners of her mouth. She felt lighter. Happier. Almost refreshed. For the first time since Francis had died, Jeannie felt as if she could breathe. The horrible smothering tightness in her chest finally had loosened its virulent grip.
She’d been right to come. For once an impulse had not led her astray.
Emerging from the water, she wrapped her arms around her chest in a futile attempt to ward off the blast of frigid air. Teeth-chattering, she gazed down and blushed. Every inch of her body was very clearly revealed in the sodden ivory linen plastered to her damp skin. She glanced around, hoping that Tavish had kept his promise to watch over her from afar. If not, he was certainly getting an eyeful. In her current state, as her old nursemaid used to say, very little was left to the imagination. But it was remarkably still . . . and quiet. Almost unnaturally so.
A whisper of disquiet swept across the back of her neck.
No. She pushed it aside. The Marchioness’s doom and gloom would not spoil this day.
She ran the last few steps to her belongings and snatched a drying cloth from the top of the pile to wrap around herself. Going right to work, she rubbed the swath of linen over her face and limbs, removing as much of the water as she could from her skin before using the cloth to squeeze some of the excess from her hair. But the long, thick waves would take hours to dry even sitting before a fire.
Cursing her strange apprehension, which she fully attributed to her mother-in-law’s interference, she glanced around one more time to make sure she was alone, then yanked her wet sark over her head, letting it drop at her feet, before reaching for a fresh one.
Bent over, naked as the day she was born, Jeannie heard a sound behind her. A sound that turned her blood to ice and made every hair at the back of her neck stand up in fear.
The guardsman never saw it coming.
Engrossed in ogling the woman swimming in the loch, he crumpled at Duncan’s feet like a poppet of rags. Out cold, blood trickled from the gash at his temple.
Duncan could almost feel sorry for him. It wasn’t the first time this woman had been the cause of a man’s fall from grace.
Not that it was any excuse for such an egregious failure in his duty. If he were one of Duncan’s men, there would be severe consequences beyond a knock on the pate for the lapse. His men were revered for their discipline and control, as much as they were feared for their dominance on the battlefield.
Bending over the prone man, Duncan quickly divested the fallen warrior of his weapons, and then returned his own dirk to the gold scabbard at his waist. The blow from the heavy, jewel-encrusted hilt wouldn’t do any lasting damage, but the pain in the man’s head when he woke would give him something to think about. But that wouldn’t be any time soon, buying Duncan time enough to complete his unpleasant task.
This was a meeting better had alone—and without interruption.
From the Paperback edition.