Declan Sinclair is a Highlander who believes his dreams never lie. When he spots Caya at a public house, he knows instantly she is the woman in his dreams
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Spring 1817, Wick Harbour, the Highlands of Scotland
Declan Sinclair would have called to his wife, but he didn't know her name. They hadn't met. Not yet. Nevertheless, the pretty blonde seated on the far side of the tavern was his wife. Or would be. Soon. She was the wife in his dreams, and his dreams never lied.
A steady stream of people seeking shelter from the spring storm poured into the Crown Tavern. Declan and his two cousins had stopped here for the night before heading home to Balforss. Boisterous shouts of welcome and calls for whisky echoed through the hall. The place smelled of peat smoke, wet wool, and roasted meat. He should eat his lamb stew before it got cold, but all he wanted to do was marvel at the lass seated across the room.
In his dream, his wife was surrounded by gowans, the flowers the English called daisies. Her long yellow hair hung loose down her back, and her arms spread wide to touch the tops of the white petals circling her body. Each time, the dream would end the moment before she turned to reveal her face. Now, wide awake on a rain-drenched night in this crowded tavern, he was positive the lass seated at the corner table was the same woman in his dreams, his wife.
Declan jabbed his cousin Magnus in the arm. "That's her." He chucked his chin at the object of his affection.
Magnus twisted his massive torso around in his chair. "Where?"
"The lass sittin' in the corner. The one with the yellow hair and the green frock."
"Oh, aye. What about her?"
"She's the one I dreamed. The one I'm to marry." His heart stumbled when he said the word "marry."
"Go an' boil your head," Magnus said. "You never seen that woman before in your life."
"I have in my dream. It's her. I know it."
Cousin Alex flopped into a chair next to Magnus, his fat head blocking Declan's view.
"Move, move. You're in the way." Declan flapped his hand sideways.
Rather than move, Alex looked over his shoulder. "Why? What's amiss?"
"The numpty thinks he's spotted his bride." Magnus rolled his eyes and returned to his stew.
"What? Yon bitty lass in the corner?" Alex asked.
"I said move aside. I cannae see." Declan kicked Alex under the table.
Alex feigned an unnecessary show of injury before he scooted his chair sideways. "There. Better?"
Much better. He could see her again. She wasn't a dream. She was real. Declan consumed every detail of her face — the curve of her cheek, the fullness of her lips, the freckles sprinkled on her nose. How fortunate that he should have such a bonnie wee wife.
"Why do you think she's the one?" Alex asked.
"He dreamed her," Magnus said without looking up from his bowl.
Alex turned back to the lass. "Oh. I see."
They scoffed, but Alex and Magnus believed in Declan's dreams, even if they pretended not to. He had saved their lives more than once during their time in the army. His dreams foretold future events with accuracy. Like at Salamanca. The 42nd Foot might have been outflanked by the French that day in July, but Declan had dreamed of the battle the night before, and they were ready for the enemy.
No. His dreams never lied.
Declan leaned forward with interest. His future wife's brow had crinkled with concern. What was the trouble? A woman shouldn't be left alone without a companion, without a guardian. He should go to her and offer his help, but what would he say?
He'd made two attempts at romance in the past — the kitchen maid at the Latheron Inn, and the butcher's daughter, Gertie MacDonald — but they hadn't been for him. He had all but resigned himself to being a bachelor when one night three years ago, right around the time Alex had met and wed Lucy, he'd dreamed of his wife-to-be, and everything had changed.
Declan had prepared for married life straight away by building his own whisky distillery. He'd also built a house for his future wife — not a cottage, a big house — one she would be proud of. In fact, he'd come to Wick to collect a lady's bathing tub he'd purchased from a trader who dealt in goods imported from France by way of the Netherlands.
The increased frequency of his dream had signaled their meeting was fast approaching, so it was no shock to find her sitting across the tavern from him this evening. What did have his heart beating in his throat was her bonnie face. He hadn't expected one so pretty and so dainty. He could tuck her inside his coat and carry her home like a kitten.
As he considered the best way of conveying his new bride back to Balforss, she turned her head his way and their gazes locked. His chest seized, and his heart forgot how to beat. But she didn't turn away. Neither could he. To his delight, there was no reproach or indifference in her blue eyes. Quite the opposite. She continued to look upon him with equal interest as if she had expected to discover him here at the Crown. Had she dreamed of him as well? Did she recognize him just as he recognized her?
She looked away for a moment. Should he call to her? Win her attention again? Then her eyes flickered back in his direction. His heart stuttered back to life, and he smiled. The ghost of a smile formed on her lips, her pretty pink lips.
A man carrying two bowls of stew approached the lassie and shattered Declan's trance. He tensed, an overwhelming sense of possessiveness taking hold of him. The man set the bowls down and took a seat at her table. Declan got his legs under him, ready to spring, but Alex laid a hand on his forearm.
"Easy, man. Bide awhile. Looks like the lass is taken."
Alex's low rumble carried with it sincere regret. Declan didn't like hearing his cousin's words. He didn't want to believe that, having finally found his bride, he'd lost her. Then, after watching the exchange between his wife and the stranger, Declan eased back into his chair.
True. To see the man and woman together, their familiar way, one might assume they were a couple. But he knew better. His dreams never lied. Hadn't his vision of his own whisky business come true? And hadn't he been right when he dreamed Alex and Lucy would have a girl child?
"That's no' her husband," he announced.
"How do you ken that?" Alex asked.
"Because I'm her husband," he said with newfound certainty.
"Excuse me for pointing out the obvious, man," Magnus said. "But dinnae ye have to meet the lass first?"
* * *
Every time the tavern door opened, another blast of cold wet air swept over Caya Pendarvis. She clutched her reticule closer. It held six shillings, all she and her brother Jack had left to their names. If Mr. O'Malley didn't meet them tomorrow as planned, they might not have the means for another day's room and board.
She wished Jack would return to the table. The tavern was loud, and there were three men who kept looking at her. One dark-haired man in particular had been staring ever since she sat down. His intense gaze made something flutter inside her stomach. Didn't he know it was ungentlemanly to stare at a lady? Though she knew it was unwise for her to return his look, she found it difficult not to stare back at him.
Her heart beating at a frightening tempo, Caya tore her gaze away and searched for a glimpse of Jack's blond hair. Wherever he was, she hoped the food he purchased from the tavern maid would be edible. She was hungry. They'd been nine long days aboard the ship from Cornwall to Wick Harbour. Like most passengers, she hadn't been able to keep anything down because of rough seas. When she had mustered the courage to eat, the food had been unidentifiable.
She spotted her brother and exhaled her disquietude. "There you are."
"Lamb stew." Jack plunked two steaming bowls on the table. "Doesn't smell too bad." He pulled spoons from his coat pocket, handed one to Caya, and tucked in.
She polished her spoon on her sleeve — Lord only knew what else lived in Jack's pocket — and cast a furtive sideways glance across the room at the dark-haired man. "I'm not sure I like this tavern. Are you certain this is the one Mr. O'Malley recommended?"
Jack shoveled a large chunk of meat into his mouth, then huffed and waved a hand to cool it. Twenty-two years old and he still forgot to test his food first. The silly incident would no doubt sour his mood.
He blinked back tears of pain. "What the devil's wrong with this place? I checked the rooms like you asked. They're clean. The food's good."
She ignored his petulance and leaned in. "Don't turn around now, but there's a man at the table over there who keeps looking at me. I said, don't —"
Jack looked anyway. She winced. What if the man mistook Jack's glance as an invitation to come over to their table and chat? She didn't like talking to strangers. And everyone in Scotland was a stranger.
Eyes dull and mouth twisted, Jack said, "What would you have me do? Demand they stop looking at you?"
"Do you want me to start a fight with one of them?" Jack jerked his chin at the three Scots. "They look like ruffians. I'd probably get my teeth kicked in. Would you like that?"
"Of course not." Caya felt her own temper rise. Jack was tired and hungry. Well, so was she. There was no reason for him to take his frustration out on her. "Forget I said anything," she said, putting an end to the conversation. She knew what he was like. Arguing in the middle of this crowded tavern in front of those suspicious-looking men would be unwise.
After a silence, she prodded Jack with an innocent enough question. "Tell me again what Mr. O'Malley is like."
Jack lifted his head as if it took great effort. "I only know what the solicitor who arranged the marriage contract told me," he said wearily. "O'Malley's a herring merchant. Out at sea most of the year."
"But did the solicitor say anything about his nature? Is he a kind man?"
"Because I'm to marry him, of course." She reined in her frustration and added calmly, "I appreciate that you've found a suitable arrangement for me. I do. But what if, when we meet him tomorrow, he's nothing like what the solicitor said? I can still decide against the union, can't I?"
"No." Jack dug his spoon into the stew. "The contract is signed and money has exchanged hands."
"But you told me —"
"I told you what you needed to know and no more. I received half your marriage payment upon signing and I'll receive the other half tomorrow."
"I see." Caya's appetite ebbed. Somehow, everything had happened so fast, it was hard to believe it was real. She'd agreed to marry O'Malley at a time when Jack was desperate for money. When Jack's creditors had threatened him with debtors' prison, he'd used the last thing of value he had left: her. He'd met a solicitor who, for a small fee, arranged marriages. The solicitor knew a man named Sean O'Malley, a herring merchant, who would settle Jack's debts in exchange for a wife. All Jack needed to do was deliver Caya to O'Malley in Wick Harbour, Scotland, by the first week in May, and their problems would be solved.
She'd swallowed her anger and asked him, "Why? Why should I do this for you after what you've done?"
"Marry him, Caya, and I promise on Mother's grave, I will never gamble again."
She had wanted to tell him damn it and to hell, but of course he would remind her of the promise she'd made to their mother to take care of him. This was her brother, her only family. She loved him. How could she let him go to prison?
What choice did she have?
"I'm doing this because Mother and Father would wish it, and because I love you. But if you break your promise to stop gambling, we're quits, Jack. Do you understand?"
Despite her fear of traveling so far from home, despite her aversion to marrying someone she'd never met, Caya had agreed to the union. So, here she was, three weeks later, sitting in a crowded pub surrounded by rowdy Scots, waiting to meet and marry a stranger named O'Malley.
Caya felt an emptiness in her heart, a wanting for something different, something more than home and family. Was it comfort, security, love? Or something she dared not name? She glanced across the room at the man with the black hair. He was still staring. There was no hint of menace in those dark eyes, nor did he make any rude overtures. Yet, he held her captive with his unwavering gaze, so warm, so familiar, and so ... full of longing. Was he yearning for the same thing as she? Her heart tripped an irregular beat inside her chest. She should turn her back, ignore the stranger. But she couldn't look away.
* * *
Jack used the tip of his little fingernail to tease a few stray bits of lamb from his teeth. He let his gaze roam around the room. Dock workers, fishermen, farmers, and merchants, the peasantry of Scotland. He was not likely to find his own kind in this establishment. His sister clapped a hand to her heart and gasped. What had frightened her this time? She'd been on edge the entire voyage, jumping at every sound.
"What's the matter now?"
"That man. He's still staring."
"Perhaps if you stop returning his look, he'll stop staring at you."
"I can't help it. He looks at me as if he knows me, yet I'm sure I've never met him." She tore her eyes away from the stranger. "Do you recognize him?"
Jack stole another glance at the dark Scot who was troubling his sister. Given the size of the fellow and the intensity of his gaze, he understood her concern. "Never met him before in my life. I can tell by his dress he's a man of no consequence, a Highlander of lower stock. Pay him no mind." That should assuage his sister's fears. He needed her calm when they met O'Malley in the morning. He didn't want the flighty girl spoiling the deal he had with the man.
Caya's brow loosened. "It's late. I think we should get some sleep."
"Give us a coin and go on ahead without me. I'll have a brandy before my bed."
She narrowed her eyes at him.
Devil take her. Why had he agreed to let her hold the money? "You have a few coppers left. One brandy, Caya. I'm restless."
He knew damn well what he'd promised. He'd promised to find her a suitable husband, but did she thank him? No. Criticism was his only compensation for all his efforts.
"One damned brandy." If he ground his teeth any harder, they might crack.
She tossed two coins on the table. "There. Enjoy yourself." Her words sounded as if she'd snipped them off her lips with garden shears.
Caya shot to her feet, triggering a sudden chain reaction. Chairs scraped and clattered as patrons rose and tensed. In an instant, the entire tavern fell deadly still like a herd of cattle sensing danger. All focused on the three Scots standing like towers of stone, hands on the hilts of their knives, glaring at Jack. What? More accusations?
A room full of wary eyes darted from Jack to the tall trio, back to Jack. He assured himself no one would dare harm a man of his station. No cause for alarm. He rose cautiously and turned to his sister, frozen in place like a rabbit. "Good night, my dear." He brushed a kiss on her cheek.
The hum of the tavern patrons resumed, the one kiss having altered the atmosphere. He waited until Caya disappeared up the stairs, then approached the monoliths. After all, one must constantly remind the lower class of their place.
"How do you do, gentlemen?" He gave the slightest bow. "My name is Jack Pendarvis. As you probably deduced, my sister and I are new to Wick."
All three giants relaxed the grip on their knives. An odd exchange took place between the redhead and the black-haired one who had been staring at Caya.
"I'm Alex Sinclair," the red-haired one said and added, "These are my cousins, Magnus and Declan Sinclair."
The one introduced as Declan said, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Pendarvis."
Of course, he was. Commoners were always pleased when gentry like himself took an interest in them. A glimmer of an idea formed in the forefront of his mind. "Jack. Please call me Jack. I was about to order a brandy. May I join you?"
"Thanks. We'll have a wee dram," the one named Alex said.
It was cheeky of the bastard to assume Jack had offered to pay, but he had to admire the man's gall. Alex was the tallest of the three and, as he acted the spokesman, perhaps the most astute. Magnus, the fellow who resembled a bear, looked like a dimwit. Though sharp-eyed, the one called Declan was likely a simpleton as well. He'd been warned most Highlanders inherently lacked intelligence.
Jack signaled the barmaid and ordered a brandy and three whiskies. All four sat at once.
The simpleton, Declan, grinned at him like a fool. "Where ye frae?"
Was the dullard incapable of speaking proper English? "I beg your pardon?"
"Where are you from?" Alex interpreted.
"Ah. Cornwall. I've brought my sister to Wick to be married."
The simpleton's smile faded. Jack sighed. Mingling with the rabble was a mistake. He should finish his drink as soon as possible and excuse himself from their company, but the promise of easy money was too much for him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Betting the Scot"
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Trethewey.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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