Traitor or Temptress
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Astley Priory was situated in one of the most delightful settings that could be found north of York. Once a priory of the Augustinian order until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, it was now the home of Lady Sarah Barton, Lorne McBryde's maternal grandmother. Her father had sent her to live with her grandmother following the affray in Kin-lochalen, and Lorne now considered Astley Priory to be her home where, in the care of her grandmother, she enjoyed a free and protected life.
One bright but cold morning, Lorne left the house with her cousin Agnes to take some exercise in the gardens. Since her father had been killed fighting for King William at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland in 1690, Agnes and her mother, Lorne's Aunt Pauline—her mother's sister—had lived at Astley Priory. To ward off the chill, long cloaks covered their pretty dresses. With arms linked and spirits soaring, smiling broadly, they were in frivolous mood as they excitedly discussed their forthcoming visit to London. Ever since their grandmother had told them she was to take them to the capital for their nineteenth birthdays, after weeks of waiting, the time for them to leave had finally arrived.
Devoted to each other, Agnes had been just what Lorne had needed to shake her out of the sullens when she had come south, where everything was so very different from her life in Scotland. Despite her father's and brothers' constant bluster-ings and their barbarous way of life, she had missed them terribly at first. For a long time, what had occurred in Kin-lochalen had been a private nightmare, painful memories that came to her in the dark like unloved friends with hostile faces and ugly smiles.
'Perhaps we can persuade Grandmother to take a London residence,' Lorne said gaily, feeling absurdly happy and an odd burst of pleasure at the thought of going to London, 'then we could go there more often.'
'She won't. You know how she detests crowds and that awful smog, which she says makes her wheeze and her head ache. She much prefers the country.'
'But we cannot remain in the country for ever. Perhaps if Lord and Lady Billington didn't make us so welcome whenever we go to London, she might be persuaded. Oh, Agnes—London is going to be so exciting,' Lorne enthused. 'People only wake up after midnight—so I'm told. It's a shame that when we were there before we were considered too young to be allowed out after dark.'
'Fifteen, as I recall.'
'I know, but this time it will be different. There will be theatres to attend, and balls where we can dance the night away and wear our best gowns.'
'And handsome young men all vying with each other to dance with us,' Agnes giggled, her eyes sparkling as she became caught up in the excitement of the occasion. 'Let's just hope that Rupert Ogleby won't be in town—his military duties should be keeping him occupied elsewhere,' she said, looking worriedly at Lorne, knowing the effect this particular young man's name always had on her cousin.
The name sent a blaze of animosity jolting through Lorne's entire body. 'I sincerely hope he is not there,' she replied vehemently. 'You know what my feelings are for that particular gentleman.'
'I do. He treated you most shamefully, and if he knows what's good for him he won't come within a three-mile radius of you. He almost ruined your reputation.'
'Afraid that Robert might order me back to Scotland, Grandmother never did inform him of the incident. Still,' Lorne murmured quietly, giving Agnes a brief, distracted glance, before shifting her gaze and resting it sightlessly on the trees ahead of them, her eyes hard and remote with an expression of sadness, regret, and something else mingled with memory when she thought of her brother, 'I don't think Robert would have given it much attention anyway. He would have been too busy fighting one of his clan wars to worry himself over what his sister was doing.'
Thrusting back the dark images that were trying to worm their way into her mind, Lorne laughed and linked her arm through her cousin's once more. The happiness they felt about their forthcoming visit to London barely concealed beneath the brim of their bonnets, the two of them strolled through the park, unaware that their grandmother was watching them from a window of the second-floor drawing room.
Lady Barton's face was white. In her hand she held the opened letter that had just been delivered from Scotland. It bore the bold writing and elaborate seal of her grandson, Robert McBryde. When his father had been outlawed back in '91, feeling deeply the disgrace and dishonour of the sentence issued by the Privy Council in Edinburgh against his father, Robert had followed him to France, leaving Drumgow under James. There he took part in the war that broke out against the Protestant powers in Europe. After the recently declared peace, he had returned to Scotland in disgust, angered that the French King, Louis XIV, had humbled his pride and abandoned King James VII of Scotland and II of England, and recognised the Protestant William III as King of England and Scotland.
After all these years—years in which Lady Barton had deluded herself into thinking Robert and James, and even Lorne's father, had forgotten about Lorne—Robert had sent for her. He demanded that she leave for Scotland to be married to a Highland Laird, Duncan Galbraith, without delay. One thing Lady Barton had learned when her daughter had married Edgar McBryde was that the McBrydes were inflexible and obeyed no law but their own. It would cost her dear to return her darling granddaughter to her brothers, but with her father outlawed and in France, Robert was Lorne's legal guardian, and as such would exercise his right.
Lorne felt the blood draining from her face as she tried to assimilate what her grandmother had told her. She stared at the older woman in confused shock, her long fingers clutching the back of a chair as the room began to spin with sickening speed. She was to go back to Scotland, to Drumgow—a place she never wanted to set eyes on again—to marry Duncan Galbraith. She shivered, yet she was not cold. It was a physical reaction to what was expected of her.
Closing her eyes against the scalding tears that stung her eyes, she shook her head, a blaze of animosity and shock erupting through her entire body. 'Never. It's impossible. I cannot—will not—wed Duncan Galbraith. He is the last man in the entire world I could ever marry.'
'Robert writes that there will be no discussion on the matter,' Lady Barton said quietly. 'Since the death of the two older Galbraith brothers—both he and James have decided that this match is for the good of both families.'
'My brothers do not know what they ask of me.'
'Oh, my dear, I'm so dreadfully sorry. If I could, I would defy Robert and James and keep you with me—but I cannot. Robert is your legal guardian whose wishes must be regarded as law.'
Lorne stared at her. 'Then I am lost,' she whispered.
'I learned long ago, my dear, that it is best to live for the present and to leave the future in the lap of the gods.'
Lorne raised her head, a spark of resistance igniting in her emerald eyes. 'Nothing my brothers can say or do will induce me to marry Duncan Galbraith.'
Lady Barton shook her head sadly. There was about her granddaughter the same gentle qualities her mother had possessed, but there was also the implacable stubbornness and steely determination of the McBrydes.
In a matter of days, and after tearful goodbyes, with a heavy heart Lorne departed for Scotland in her grandmother's big travelling coach. The coachman and two grooms perched on top were heavily armed, for highwaymen did constitute a major hazard. Her grandmother had placed her in the care of a single maidservant, Mrs Shelly, who had been at Astley Priory for as long as she could remember. They were to travel to Edinburgh, almost two hundred miles away, where James would be waiting to meet her. There she would leave Mrs Shelly, who would return to Astley when she had delivered her charge safely into her brother's care.
Because of the frustrations of inland travel in Scotland, when it could take up to a week to travel fifty miles with a horse and cart, Lorne and James would journey the hundred or so miles on the cattle-droving roads to Drumgow on horseback. Roads were few; with the ever-constant danger of being attacked by wild beasts in the forests—and wild clansmen— James would have a party of men with him.
The coach travelled slowly north, stopping occasionally to take refreshment and to rest the horses. The quality of the service offered at the coaching inns was highly variable. Some were comfortable and welcoming, others less so, and their frequency and comfort deteriorated when they crossed the border at Berwick.
The gentle hills of the Lowlands were spangled with crimson and gold, the trees already shedding their autumn foliage. When they were just twenty-four hours from Edinburgh, Lorne was swamped with gloom and foreboding. Not in the least tired after finishing her meal at the inn in which they were to spend the last night of their journey, she rose from her seat at the corner table in the crowded wainscoted room.
'Excuse me, Mrs Shelly,' she said. 'I find it rather stuffy in here and would like some air before I settle down for the night.'
'If you must, but just for a minute, dear—and don't wander away from the inn. All manner of wild men and beasts could be lurking in the darkness.'
Lorne suppressed a smile. Mrs Shelly was a lovable, fussy old thing with an overactive imagination, who was convinced that Scotland was inhabited by wild savages and had fancied certain death awaited them when they crossed the border.
Stepping outside, she was disappointed to find the inn yard still busy with ostlers and stable boys going about their work. Ignoring Mrs Shelly's warning, she stepped into the road and left the inn, glad of the quiet and solitude as she allowed her thoughts to concentrate on her future. The road was illuminated by a half-moon and the cold air nipped her face under the voluminous hood, but Lorne was too unhappy to notice. The closer she got to Drumgow, the more she thought of what awaited her.
She would appeal to Robert and James and make them understand that she couldn't possibly marry Duncan. With a sigh, she peered into the darkness of the trees on either side of the road. Somehow the thought of being eaten by a wolf seemed a better prospect than that. James, who had shown her gentleness and kindness when she had last been at Drumgow, might be persuaded, but Robert, whom she remembered as being a tough, forceful man, with the same proud arrogance and indomitable will that had marked all the McBryde men, was a different matter entirely.
A gentle rustling and a hint of movement among the trees caught her eye and she paused, suddenly uneasy, having wandered further away from the inn than she had intended. When the rustling continued, she hurriedly began to retrace her steps, totally unprepared when two phantom figures lunged out of the darkness, slamming into her. Knocked off balance, she started to fall, her cry broken as she hit the ground. In no time at all she found herself gagged, tied, swung into the air and unceremoniously flung over a horse. One of her assailants then climbed up behind her.
She found herself in total suffocating blackness, chafed and extremely uncomfortable as she was bounced along over the saddlebow of the galloping horse with her bottom facing heavenwards; the waves of fear and hysteria crashing through her were palpable. Unable to know why this was happening to her and who these men could be, she had the impression that she was caught up in some strange dream, but the discomfort she was being forced to endure told her that it was all happening, all unmistakably real. One thing was plain. She was being kidnapped. But by whom? And to what end?
Without respite they rode on. Lorne lost all track of time, her torture—both physical and spiritual—increasing with each passing mile. Just when she thought she would faint away, mercifully her assailant slowed his horse to a walk and fell into conversation with his companion. Their voices sounded muffled through the sacking that covered her head, but on hearing the occasional English word she assumed they must be Lowlanders.
Anger and revolt were already brewing in her spirit when the horse clattered over a cobbled yard and finally halted. After being dragged roughly fromits back and flung over someone's shoulder, she was carried inside a building. On hearing more male voices, she was aware that they were no longer alone.
'So, John, ye're back then,' Lorne heard someone say. 'What happened to ye and Andrew? One minute ye were with the hunt and the next ye'd disappeared. Rode after quarry of yer own, I see.' The man laughed, which was accompanied by his hand slapping Lorne's rump. Hidden from view, she seethed with the indignity of it.
'Aye—of the two-legged kind,' someone else guffawed. 'What ye got there, John? Come—let's see what ye have. Something to eat, is it?'
'Nay, but what I've got is lively enough—and makes up for our lost time.'
Without more ado John dropped Lorne's wriggling form on to the hard floor, removing the sacking and loosening her bonds before taking the gag from her mouth. Shrouded by her cloak and quivering with fury, Lorne struggled to sit up, her body stiff and sore from the rough treatment she had received.
Making a brief sweep of her surroundings, she saw she was in the hall of some ancient castle, although it had a distinct air of dereliction about it. Ancient timbers supported the high ceiling and the walls were bare but for festoons of spiders' webs. It smelt stale and musty and damp. A combination of firelight and candlelight illuminated the features of a large number of men seated around the room, drinking from flasks being passed round. Some were dressed in kilts, their tartans in a variety of colours, their plaids slung across their chests.
Lorne suspected they were a hunting party a long way from home and staying the night in this ruined castle. No doubt they would resume their sport at first light. In a huge open hearth where a fire was sustained by one massive burning log, meat was being cooked on a griddle, and something bubbled and steamed in an all-purpose three-legged black pot, the appetising aroma pervading even the darkest corners of the hall. Someone said something that Lorne could not understand, and the laughter that ensued was coarse and loud, adding fuel to her rage.
Harlequin; December 2009
288 pages; ISBN 9781426844836
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Title: Traitor or Temptress
Author: Helen Dickson
288 pages; ISBN 9781426844836
, or download in or
Title: Traitor or Temptress
Author: Helen Dickson
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