Authors: Marie Laval
It was the longest, most frightening night of her life and she almost wept with relief when the first blue and grey hint of daylight filtered through a crack in the shutters. Leaving Lord McGunn's side, she walked across the room, light-headed with fatigue, and opened the door onto a white world.
The abandoned village and the forest had all but disappeared, swallowed by the howling blizzard. As she stood at the door with the icy wind whipping her cheeks, burning her eyes and taking her breath away, the reality of her predicament finally sank in.
What if the storm lasted for days, weeks even? What if they ran out of food? What if Lord McGunn died despite all her efforts? She stepped back in, closed the door against the storm and leaned against the wooden pane.
He was in a bad way, in turns feverish or shaking with cold. His heartbeat was fast and loud or so faint she could hardly feel it when she pressed her hand against his chest, and she feared he would die.
She took a deep breath. She wouldn't let him die. She would put her dislike for him aside and take care of him even if she had no idea what ailed him and all she could do was give him sips of water or warm tea, mop his forehead, or make sure he wasn't too hot or too cold.
Armed with fresh resolve, she combed her curls back with her fingers and twisted her hair into a tidy plait. Next she blew the candle out and slipped her cloak on. The flask of whisky on the table caught her eye. She took it and walked out, making sure the door was securely shut behind her.
Bruce McGunn might disagree, but that whisky was pure poison. She tipped the contents of the flask in the snow, wrinkling her nose at the smell. It must be strong to have affected Bruce McGunn so much last night. He couldn't have drunk that much, the flask was more than half-full. Well, he wouldn't drink anymore nowâ¦
She slid the empty flask into her pocket, removed the shutters from the window to let daylight flood into the cottage, then struggled through knee-deep snow towards the stables. Shadow neighed softly when she let herself in. It was the tallest, the most impressive horse she'd ever seen, much taller than the Arabians she rode at home. A little apprehensive, she reached out slowly to pat its neck before readjusting the blanket on its back. She left with the promise of returning later with a treat â an apple or two from his master's supplies.
Back in the cottage, she gathered the largest pot she could find and went out again to get water from the stream at the far end of the village. It was icy and her hands were soon red, raw and freezing. Soon her boots were wet too, her feet numb and her face stung as if pricked by thousands needles.
It was a relief to return to the house, close the door and put the heavy pot on the table. It was a greater relief still to see that Lord McGunn was still alive.
She made some hot tea then tiptoed to the bed, a steaming cup in her hand, and called his name.
He growled to leave him alone.
She ignored him.
âAnd how are you feeling this morning?' she asked in a bright and cheerful voice.
âLike hell,' came the muffled reply as he turned to face the wall.
âAt least you're alive. Here, I made some tea.'
âI don't want anything.'
She pulled the plaid down, lay her hand on his shoulder and felt the strong, hard muscles beneath the linen shirt.
âYou need to drink something.'
He turned to look at her and her throat tightened at the sight of his bloodshot eyes surrounded by dark shadows.
âYou won't leave me alone until I drink that tea, will you?'
She shook her head.
âI thought so.'
He sat up and leant against the wall to blow gently on his tea before sipping the liquid. His shirt had come unfastened during the night and hung open on his muscular chest. Rose caught a glimpse of his oddly shaped medallion and of the blue tattoo he called his curse.
He drank the tea, and gave her the empty cup back.
âWill you go away now?'
âWhat about something to eat â some oat bread, an apple maybe?' She frowned, âalthough you can't have them all, I did promise a couple to Shadow.'
He closed his eyes. âAll I want is to sleep. I'll be better in a couple of hours, if you can keep quiet for that long.'
âI'm only trying to help, and have a polite conversation. If you think for one minute I am enjoying being stuck in this little house with a grumpy man and a howling gale for companyâ¦'
âI don't care whether you're enjoying yourself or not. Find something to do, anything, as long as it doesn't require talking.'
She pursed her lips and stomped away from the bed.
âNever fear, Lord
, you shall have your wish. I'm leaving you well alone and won't utter anotherâ¦'
âRose,' he warned, softly this time.
ââ¦word,' she finished, tossing her plait over her shoulder and trying to ignore the way her heart had flipped when he'd said her name.
After a breakfast of cheese, crumbly oat bread and tea, she searched the cottage for supplies, and couldn't repress a shriek of joy when she discovered a couple of jars filled with what looked like preserve at the back of the dresser. She opened the lid, stuck a finger inside the jam, gave it a cautious lick and smiled. It was delicious, sweet and fruity.
Unfortunately there was nothing else.
Maybe McGunn had brought more food? She emptied his bags on the table, found two dozen hard biscuits, another bag of tea, a few more small wrinkly apples and an oddly shaped, almost flat and smelly parcel she lifted out of the bag with a grimace.
âWhat is that stink?' she muttered, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the pungent smells of rotten seaweed, brine and salt.
She untied the thin cord, lifted the sides of the cloth and uncovered four yellowing fish fillets, no doubt carried from Wrath Harbour. She wrapped them back up quickly. She would have to be very hungry to eat them!
The other bag contained no food but a couple of changes of clothing â thick shirts, trousers, and men's undergarments she quickly tossed back into the bag â as well as a box of ammunition and a short knife in a thick, black leather scabbard. Right at the bottom of the bag her fingers touched a pair of shoes which were tucked under thick woollen socks.
She pulled them out and her eyes widened as she recognised her purple velvet slippers, the very ones she had lost in Wrath outside the Old Norse's Inn.
Thoughtful, she put them into her bag. Why had McGunn bothered to retrieve them from the village and bring them with him? The man really was surprisingâ¦
Sounds of snoring made her turn her head towards the bed. He was asleep again, but for the first time his breathing was slow and regular.
Perhaps she should saddle Shadow and ride away, straight to Cameron.
Her heart beat faster. Could she actually escape and leave McGunn on his own? She looked out of the window. Outside the storm still raged outside. Leaving now would be pure folly, especially since she didn't even know how to reach Westmore.
No, she was trapped here. At least she had a roof over her head and the cottage was warm. There was nothing else to do but rest, so she sat near the fire and closed her eyes.
Rose pressed her nose against the grimy window pane. She had heard people in the clearing. Two men stood in front of the cottage, wrapped up against the cold, with hats covering their hair, scarves hiding their face from the gusts of freezing wind, and bundles tied to their back. Behind them a one-horse cart creaked to a stop. A woman climbed down and gestured towards the empty houses.
Since her cloak was still damp from the various outings she'd made during the day to fetch water and check on Shadow, Rose grabbed McGunn's black coat and slipped it on. It was far too big, of course, but at least it was warm.
âHello,' she called, as she opened the door, shouting over the howling blizzard.
The woman let out a piercing shriek and hid behind one of the men who held out his stick and pointed it to Rose's chest.
âPut your stick down, Garbhan. Can't you see it's only a wee woman?' The other man said.
âAye, I can see that now.' The man called Garbhan dropped his stick to the ground and pulled the scarf down from his face.
âSorry about that, lass. I didn't mean to scare you but you startled me. I thought
had been cleared by Morven and his gang last summer. I'm Garbhan McKenzie by the way, and this is my father, Angus,' he added, pointing to the old man.
The woman who had screamed peeked timidly from behind him.
âHere's my wife, Alana,' he carried on. âAnd back there in the cart, there's my mother andâ¦'
âDad!' Two small girls and a tall, lanky lad jumped down from the cart and ran towards them.
âThese three rascals are our children, Ross, Lorna and Ina.'
The McKenzie family stood facing her, with an expectant look in their eyes. Rose cleared her throat and took a deep breath.
âI am Rose,' she started, unsure of how to introduce herself. The last thing she wanted was to tell the family she was Lady McRae. God knows what they would make of her presence here alone with Lord McGunn and what awful rumours they might spreadâ¦
âWhere are you travelling to in this dreadful weather?' she asked.
The friendly smile on Garbhan McKenzie's face was replaced by a glum expression.
âInverness probably, or anywhere where we can find work and a place to live.'
Behind him, Alana let out a sob and buried her face in her hands.
âDon't start crying again, woman.' He wrapped his arm around her shoulders. âWhat's done is done, and crying won't bring our house back now that Morven's thrown us out.'
Rose's heart tightened. Like so many other families in Westmore, the McKenzies had been evicted by Cameron's factor.
Garbhan gestured to the cottages.
âWe heard that
was abandoned and decided to stop here a day or two to sit the storm out and avoid the gangs of bully-boys roaming the roads. Drunken thugs, all employed by Morven.'
âI'll kill Morven and McRae one day for what they've done to us,' the boy growled, pulling himself up tall. âWhen I'm big and all grown up, I swear I will.'
âWatch your tongue, Ross lad,' his father scolded sharply.
Shocked by the steely hatred in the boy's eyes and the determination in his voice, Rose stepped forward.
âYour father is right, young man, but don't you worry, Morven will get his comeuppance. I will tell Lord McRae about him and he'll make sure he's punished for what he's done.'
The boy narrowed his eyes, doubtful. âWhy should McRae listen to you, even if he cared?'
Her mind was made up. She would tell them her name, right this instant, and give them the assurance that they would soon get justice.
âMorven's days are numbered, I promise you. And I can assure you that Lord McRae does care and that he'll listen to what I have to say because, you see, I am hisâ¦'
âWhat are you doing out there in the cold,
?' McGunn's voice interrupted, gruff and loud.
She swung round.
He stood in the doorway of the cottage. With his shirt hanging loose, his face pale and half hidden by his dark beard and framed by his long hair, he looked like he'd just got out of bed â which of course, he had. What did he think he was doing, calling her sweetheart in front of these people?
âIt's freezing out there,' he added. âCome back inside and keep my bed warm.'
Rose's heart stopped. Had he gone completely mad? There was no way she could tell the McKenzies she was Lady McRae now.
âWho's that?' Garbhan McKenzie frowned and pushed his children behind him.
âHe isâ¦ he isâ¦' Rose swallowed hard, unable to think of what to say next.
âI'm Bruce McGunn. Rose and I areâ¦ ahemâ¦ good friends â very good friends, in fact â aren't we, sweetie?' He winked at her.
Shock and fury rendered her speechless.
Angus McKenzie opened his eyes wide.
âYou're Lord McGunn, from Wrath,' he said in a slightly trembling voice. âWe won't impose on you and your young lady, my lord. We'll leave straight away.'
Garbhan nodded and gathered his children in front of him and pushed them towards the cart.
âDon't be daft,' McGunn replied sharply. âYou can't travel in this storm, not with little ones. There are plenty of empty houses here for you to stop by tonight, but firstâ¦'
He flashed Rose another smile. âMy sweet Rose has a lovely fire going in our little cottage, so why don't you all come in and get warm? I'm sure she'll make us some tea too.'
His sweet Rose? How dare he? She would show him exactly how sweet she was feeling right now and what he could do with his tea!
âThen we accept, with heartfelt thanks.' The old man was unable to hide his relief. âCome on, son, let's take care of the horse and unload a few supplies for tonight.'
âWill you give us a moment?' Rose asked the women in a clipped voice before stomping up to the cottage, with McGunn's coat flapping around her.
She followed him inside and slammed the door behind her. Melting snowflakes rolled down her wind-whipped cheeks, and droplets of water trickled down her neck. Her hair had worked its way out of the plait and hung, wild and tangled, around her face. In the giant coat, its sleeves well past the tips of her fingers, she probably looked half-crazed, and completely ridiculous.
She was far too angry to care.
âThe fever must have addled your already weakened brain!' she started. âHow dare you let these people think we areâ¦ we areâ¦'
âLovers?' he suggested, arching one eyebrow. âIt's for the best, believe me. I heard what they said about being displaced by Morven and his gang. You don't really want them to find out you're married to McRae â the man who caused them to lose everything, do you?'