Read Blue Bonnets Online

Authors: Marie Laval

Blue Bonnets (3 page)

‘They're only a couple of hours ahead of you,' the landlady at the coaching inn said as she poured him a mug of strong, steaming hot tea.

‘One of the horses had to be re-shod at the blacksmith. It was just as well they had a long break, if you ask me. Their lady passenger was very poorly.'

Bruce put his mug down on the counter and frowned.

‘What was wrong with her?'

‘She was in shock, poor lamb, crying and shaking like a leaf no matter how much hot tea and scones I fed her. I believe she saw Morven and his gang evict crofters this morning.' She looked at him, her face grim. ‘I heard they burned the hamlet and two women died.'

Well, well…so Rose had seen for herself how McRae treated his tenants. She must have been so ashamed of him and his callous methods she hadn't even told the landlady who she really was.

The landlady finished wiping the counter with a damp cloth and looked up.

She gave him an appraising glance. ‘Is she a friend of yours?'

He nodded and replied without thinking.

‘She's a lot more than a friend.'

Rose was his security for the future of his estate against McRae's dishonest, underhand practices.

The landlady's eyes gleamed, she smiled and a sigh shook her generous bosom.

‘Then she is a lucky lady.'

Damn. The woman had misunderstood him.

‘No, it's not what you think. I mean, she is…'

The woman put her hand on his forearm and leant over the counter.

‘You don't have to explain, Lord McGunn. She is very pretty, and very sweet.'

He opened his mouth to set her straight then sighed and shook his head. It didn't matter after all, let the woman believe what she wanted.

Light was fading when he left the inn. Looking up at the greyish-blue sky, he gathered he had about an hour of daylight left, which should be enough to catch up with the coach. He would get Rose out, and return with her to spend the night at the inn in Borgie. They would make their way back to Wrath in the morning – whether she wanted to or not.

Now, where had that bonnet gone?

Rose looked around the carriage, on the floor and between the seat and the side panel. Her blue bonnet was nowhere to be seen. She should never have taken it off to have that nap after leaving Borgie…

‘Please my lady, hurry,' the coach driver called again from his box seat outside.

She glanced towards the window and frowned, then opened the carriage and stepped down.

‘Where are we?'

She looked in dismay at the cluster of cottages and derelict outbuildings that huddled together in a forest clearing.

‘Surely we're not stopping here for the night. The place looks abandoned.'

The post-guard averted his eyes and fumbled with the fastenings of his coat without answering. Rose examined her surroundings once again. No smoke came out of the chimneys. No light glowed behind the grimy, broken glass or the wooden shutters covering the windows. No sound broke the thick silence of the forest except for the harsh crowing of ravens from the tree tops.

‘Don't you worry, my lady, I know the people who live here. They'll look after you.'

People? What people? Before she could object once again, the post-guard grabbed hold of her bag and started towards a small cottage on the outskirts of the hamlet.

Rose turned to the coach driver who hadn't moved from his seat.

‘Can we not return to the inn at Borgie? I don't like it here.'

The man shrugged but didn't look at her. ‘It's too far.'

The mail guard stopped and turned round.

‘Are you coming?' He too sounded impatient.

Puzzled, she followed him to a thatched cottage with shuttered windows. He lifted the bar off the hooks and opened the door then stepped aside.

‘This way.'

She looked at him. ‘Aren't you coming in too?'

‘I forgot something in the coach. Make yourself comfortable, I won't be long.'

He handed her the bag and Rose took a tentative step inside. The cottage was dark inside, and even colder than outside. She breathed in dust and mould and sneezed.

‘Wait a minute. No one lives here. You said there were peop…'

She didn't have time to finish. The post-guard gave her a hard shove in the back and slammed the door behind her. She heard the scrapping of a piece of wood being slotted into position to bar the door. By the time she realised she was being locked inside the old cottage, it was too late.

‘Hey! What are you doing? Come back!'

It didn't make sense. Why would the guard abandon her?

She stuck her ear to the door and held her breath. Was this the sound of the coach rattling away on the path as it left the village? She pounded her fists on the door and gave frantic kicks, screamed for the men to come back.

No one answered. Silence and darkness soon fell, smothering like a thick blanket.

She turned away from the door, crossed her arms on her chest to stop herself from shaking and forced a few deep breaths down, but shivers of panic crawled all over her skin like spiders. This was her worst nightmare. She was trapped in total darkness, with not even the slightest glimmer of light filtering through the shutters. Her heart hammered hard against her ribs.

Perhaps she could make a fire…

She took a few cautious steps, her arms stretched out to feel for objects in the way. Her foot kicked a tin pot. The noise echoed like the ringing of a bell in the empty house. Biting her lip, she carried on and this time rammed her hip hard into the corner of a table.

‘Bedbugs and stinky camels!'

Shouting wouldn't help. And neither would crying, she thought, as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. She had to keep her wits about her, make a fire, and get some light.

After fumbling in the dark for what felt like an eternity, she found the fireplace and knelt down on the cold, uneven stone floor. Her fingers touched a metal grate, burnt twigs and a pile of cold ashes. Whoever had made the last fire had long gone…

Frantic now, she rose to her feet and groped around for a piece of candle, a box of matches, a lamp. Please let there be something that she could use to light a fire!

There was nothing. As her eyes got used to the darkness, she could make out the shapes of furniture: a table and chairs, a dresser, and a bench along one of the walls, or perhaps it was a bed…

What had happened to the people living here? Where had they gone? A chilling thought went through her mind. What if they hadn't left but died and their decayed bodies still lay there? She could brush past them in the dark and wouldn't even know it.

No! Don't think about that. Think about nice things. Think about riding out on the plains in the sunshine, about the flowers in the garden. Think about Bou Saada…

Bou Saada. Home. Thousands of miles away from here.

She sat down on the flagstone next to the fireplace and wrapped her arms around her knees. It was so cold she couldn't stop shivering. It was so dark she could hardly breathe. Yet somehow she would have to survive the night, the cold, and the fear of the darkness.

Where the hell were they? He should have met the coach by now. He'd ridden as far as Melvich where no one had seen the coach yet. He had then gone back on himself, asking travellers along the way. Every time the answer was the same. No one had seen the post-coach, it was as if it had disappeared from the surface of the earth.

He came to a stone cross marking a crossroads and reined Shadow in. The horse neighed softly. Its breath steamed in the cold night. Bruce narrowed his eyes to survey his surroundings. Damn, it was cold. He pulled his flask out of the bag, unscrewed the top and drank a sip of whisky.

A feeling of dread weighed down on his chest. Something was wrong. Even if the coach was stranded with a broken wheel or an injured horse, he would have come upon it by now. No, something else had happened.

Shadow stumbled over a rock. Bruce patted its neck, issued a few reassuring words. The horse was exhausted and he ran the risk of causing it a serious injury if he rode any longer. He would spend the night at Leckfurin or Bettyhill and resume his search at first light. He drank a little more whisky, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and put the flask back in the bag.

Then he heard it – the unmistakable rattling of a horse-drawn carriage driving at speed on the road. It was them, at last.

He jumped to the ground and stood in the middle of the road. The coach driver and the post-guard might need a little persuading to relinquish their passenger. Willing or not, Rose McRae would come back with him, and he wouldn't let anybody stand in his way.

It wasn't long before the mail coach appeared on the track.

‘Hey you! Move off that road.' The driver bellowed as he reined the horses in and the coach slowed down to a walking pace, then came to a creaking halt.

‘I said move off.' He waved his whip and the lash whistled as it sliced through the air.

‘I want to speak to your lady passenger,' Bruce shouted back.

‘What passenger? We have no passenger.' The driver shook his head. ‘Stand aside at once. It's a criminal offence to delay the mail coach.'

Bruce stood his ground. ‘You have a lady passenger and I mean to speak to her. I'm Lord McGunn, damn it. Do you not recognise me?'

The driver nodded, shifted on his seat. ‘Aye, but…'

‘Then you should know better than to argue with me.' He started towardss the side of the coach.

‘What's going on, Angus?' A voice called from the back. The post-guard, no doubt.

‘Lord McGunn says he wants to speak to the lady,' the driver replied in a slightly shaky voice.

‘Tell him there's no lady on board,' the voice shouted back.

‘There you are,' the driver spoke again. ‘I told you. It's just the guard and me tonight.'

‘You don't mind if I take a look, do you?'

Without waiting for an answer Bruce stepped forward and swung the door open. Rose was on board. She had to be.

The coach was empty, but there on the floor, stuck between the seat and the carriage's side panel, was a blue bonnet – the very same she'd worn at the church service the day before. He picked it up, shoved it in his coat pocket and jumped down.

‘Where is she? What have you done with her?'

‘I don't know who you're talking about.' The driver's voice shook even more.

‘You know exactly who I'm talking about,' Bruce growled as he climbed onto the first step and reached out to grab the man's collar.

‘You really don't want to make me angry.' Bruce pulled him close. ‘This is the last time I'm asking you. Where the hell is she?'

The driver opened his mouth a few times but no sound came out.

‘There's no need to shout, Lord McGunn.' The post-guard walked up to him.

Bruce let go of the driver's collar and turned to face him.

‘The young lady wasn't feeling well so we left her at the inn in Bettyhill,' the man said. ‘The landlord there promised to look after her.'

Bruce frowned. It was possible, of course, but he couldn‘t help feeling the man was lying.

‘Then we'll go back to Bettyhill together,' he said, calling their bluff.

The driver let out a loud gasp. ‘If we do that, we'll be late arriving in Melvich and…'

‘You're late anyway. A couple of hours won't make much difference now. Lead the way and I'll follow.'

He turned his back to the post-guard and started walking towards Shadow, his hand resting lightly on the butt of his pistol as he braced himself for the attack.

Sure enough, he heard the rapid footfall behind him. One, two, three…fool!

He twisted sideways, lifted his arm up and struck the post-guard with a single blow to the face. The man fell backward, unconscious.

‘I wouldn't if I were you.'

Bruce pulled his pistol out and aimed at the coach driver who was trying to get a rifle out of his box seat.

With a curse, he lifted his hands up in the air.

‘It wasn't my idea, I swear, Lord McGunn. Everything's his fault!' He pointed at the post-guard lying on the ground. ‘He said we'd share the reward.'

So the two rascals wanted to trade Rose for a ransom. Bruce armed his pistol.

‘What did you do with her?'

At his feet, the post-guard moaned and tried to move but Bruce stuck his boot across his throat and pressed down hard until the man let out a hard cough and stopped moving.

He narrowed his eyes and focused once more on the driver. His vision suddenly blurred and he blinked a few times.

‘We left her in a cottage in an abandoned hamlet south of Borgie,' the driver answered.

‘Where exactly?' Bruce raised an impatient hand to his forehead and wiped beads of perspiration.

Damn, the headache had come back with a vengeance. He was having another attack. His throat was dry, his heart pounded, his head felt like it was squeezed in a vice.

‘I asked you where she was.' His voice now sounded weak and hoarse.

‘
Sith Coille
.'

Bruce nodded. Fairy Wood. He knew where that was. His hand started shaking so badly he had to concentrate hard to keep the pistol aimed at the driver.

‘Who's with her?'

The coach driver shook his head.

‘Nobody. The hamlet is empty. It was cleared last summer. We thought she'd be fine there on her own for a day or two.'

Bruce took a few deep breaths and wiped his forehead with his sleeve this time.

‘You mentioned a reward,' he said.

‘Aye. It was Morven who told us to keep hold of the young lady. He said she was a troublemaker and that his Lord McRae would be very grateful and pay us handsomely if we held her up and stopped her from reaching Westmore.'

Nothing the man said made any sense. Why would Morven want to stop Rose from being reunited with her husband? Never mind that, he'd think about it later.

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