Alcoholic fumes and the painful memories they evoked nearly unnerved Claire Starke as she entered the masculine domain of the Bull and Beast.
Steeling her resolve, she pushed forward into the first of nineteen pubs that lined a short stretch of Oxford Street. Nineteen pubs, each filled with men who thought nothing of drinking away their day’s wages, to the detriment of their wives and children. Had these men no conscience? No more productive way to spend their time?
“Think of your hungry children,” she whispered to one man deep in his cups. She placed a pamphlet by his hand.
“Free worker’s lunch at the Sober Society,” she murmured to another, who was nursing a glass of Old Tom gin. He grunted, and she quietly moved on.
“The needs of the household are greater than your need for drink,” she said to the well-dressed man sipping from a glass of amber liquid. An open bottle of Scotch whisky, that most foul of liquors, sat near his elbow.
“What?” Vacuous eyes lifted to her face, trying to focus. “What do you know of my needs?”
“You!” the burly barkeep shouted, pointing a finger at her. “Are you one of those Sober Society troublemakers?”
A group of men slurring their way through the lyrics of a bawdy drinking song stilled. A few tankards of ale smacked wooden tables with loud thuds. Reddened, runny eyes turned her way, while an unnatural silence descended.
Claire slowly straightened, smoothing her hand over her simple black skirt. Defiantly, she shifted her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I believe in temperance. Yes.”
Jeers and whistles rose in response. She raised her voice to a near-shout. “These men need to understand that drinking their wages leads to poverty and malnutrition. Their wives and children—”
“Your face would drive me to drink!” one man yelled. Laughter and cheers encouraged others to join his verbal assault.
“Her nose looks like a beak! She must be a crow,” mocked another.
A chant began. “Crow, crow, crow . . .”
Even though she knew the men very likely couldn’t see her clearly, the insult stung. She knew she was no beauty, and didn’t require the reminder. The taunt about her nose was a familiar one, though, which sadly suggested it was true.
“You can’t distribute that trash in here,” the barkeep snarled. “Leave now before I throw you out.”
It wasn’t an idle threat. She’d learned that from experience, and so kept a knife tucked in her boot. A woman physically ejected from a tavern held a strange attraction to those prowling outside. After one such frightening episode, she’d determined never to be so vulnerable again.
But if she could avoid being placed in such jeopardy, she would. She turned, then peaceably walked toward the door, tossing pamphlets on the tables as she passed. Her pace quickened when she sensed the barkeep behind her. She burst onto Oxford Street a moment before he could catch her.
She paused to catch her breath and clear the stink of pub vapors from her throat. But the scent of rubbish in the street wasn’t much better.
“One down.” She sighed. “Eighteen more to go.”
A tug on her skirt startled her. Looking down, she met the pleading glance of a young boy, perhaps seven, peeking out from a filthy cap. Worn, dirty clothes hung from his thin frame. Beside him, a small black-and-white terrier cocked his head. The two sets of eyes tugged at her heart.
“Please, ma’am. Did you see my pa inside?” The boy glanced to the door of the Bull and Beast. “My ma said to bring ’im ’ome before he drinks the rent. But I’m scared . . .”
It may have been a ploy for money—begging had given rise to talents worthy of Drury Lane—but something about this lad spoke true. Not so long ago, she’d been the one checking the pubs, hoping to find her drunken father.
Sadly, the recent sale of her father’s prized pocket watch had netted less money than she’d anticipated, but she had great expectations of winning the fat prize purse offered by the Sober Society. Thus, she felt she could be generous with the young lad.
“Here, boy.” She placed some coins in his hand. “Take this home to your mother, and don’t tell your pa, or he’ll drink that away as well.”
The boy’s eyes brightened as if lit by one of those newfangled electric lightbulbs. He tipped his filthy cap. “God save you, miss. Thank you so much. Thank you.” Then he turned and disappeared down the street.
She glanced down, noting that the dog had remained.
“Go on,” she prodded. “Off with you.”
The dog didn’t move. She sighed. Another stray. What was it about her that called to all the stray children and animals of the world? Sometimes she suspected that they recognized her as one of their own.
“Come along, then. We’ll see about getting you a bone. Looks like we’ve enough time to be evicted from a few more establishments.”
Two hours later, Claire pushed through the door of the Crescent Coffee Palace while her canine companion continued down the street with a new bone locked firmly in his jowls. That was the way with strays. They stayed for a meal or two before independence pulled them away.
The Crescent Coffee Palace had been a gin parlor before the Women for a Sober Society transformed the building into a respectable and popular meeting place for refined ladies. Claire had served on several of the Society’s committees, helping to advance the temperance cause. She hoped her efforts would be remembered when the Sober Society chose their prize recipient. Heaven knew she could use the money. While the sale of her father’s photographic equipment had netted a tidy sum, financial resources were dwindling, with sparse hope of replacement.
“There she is,” a familiar voice called. Sarah, the oldest member of the Rake Patrol, waved her handkerchief. “Over here.”
Four women had originally formed the Rake Patrol to warn and rescue innocent women duped by fraudulent and misleading personal ads placed in the Mayfair Messenger. One of the women, Sarah, worked at the paper and offered unique insight into those placing an advertisement. While Claire was the only one involved in the temperance movement, she couldn’t deny that she enjoyed this noble and rewarding venture even more. She was convinced they had saved numerous women from destroying their lives. In the process, she’d found her dearest, best friends.
Claire sharpened her focus. Something was amiss. Their ranks had been reduced by one, as Edwina Hargrove had recently wed Mr. Ashton Trewelyn and was now enjoying a honeymoon cruise floating down the Nile. Thus, there should be only one other person at the table with Sarah. Yet now there were two.
“Claire, I’m so glad you’re here,” Sarah said. “Perhaps you can convince these two of the foolishness of their plan to—”
“Allow me to introduce my friend, Miss Patricia Townsend,” Faith interrupted, with an anguished glance toward Sarah. “Patricia wishes our advice after the receipt of some recent correspondence.”
“Correspondence?” Claire asked, her eyes narrowed.
The mousy woman to her right looked to have one foot in the grave and yet had already laid claim to Faith’s friendship. Suspicious of the newcomer’s intent, Claire looked to Sarah. “Have we moved beyond personal ads? We now consider correspondence?”
“I replied to a personal ad last week,” Miss Townsend explained. “Perhaps you recall this?” She reached into her reticule, then handed Faith a tightly folded scrap of newsprint. Faith spread the paper on the table, then read it aloud.
“‘A Gentleman Desirous of Marriage.
‘A prosperous, handsome gentleman, 29 years of age and of a healthful constitution, is desirous of marriage to a suitable woman of elegance and grace, who would willingly serve as hostess and companion. Ability to withstand the northern climes essential. Reply to Box 23, Mayfair Messenger.’”
Claire stifled a shudder. Even in London, she was always cold. A legacy from her childhood, when a penny was too precious to waste on coal. The thought that someone would voluntarily withstand a colder climate seemed downright nonsensical.
“I remember the man who placed that ad. He had an ugly scar.” Sarah’s finger sliced a path across her face from her temple to the corner of her lip. “I always thought it misleading that he advertised himself as handsome.”
“A scar itself would not render the advertisement false,” Faith interceded. “There are more attributes assigned to ‘handsome’ than the features of one’s face. He might have a lovely disposition or handsome manners or—”
“That may be true,” Claire said, interrupting Faith’s lecture. Those gifted with beauty, as Faith was, often overlooked the advantages of their appearance. However, Claire understood the reality of life without those gifts and it wasn’t all sugar and sunshine. She turned toward Miss Townsend. “I believe you mentioned something about correspondence?”
The woman smiled. “My response to this initial advertisement generated an invitation to interview the gentleman at his home. While I was assured that a chaperone would be present at all times, I’m leery of making such a trip alone.”
“As well you should be,” Claire agreed with a sharp nod. “Refuse him.”
Pleased that her guidance had saved yet another innocent from the clutches of some unscrupulous cad, Claire prepared for a different discussion. While she was proud to be part of The Rake Patrol, she’d hoped to talk about new members and perhaps solicit her friends’ thoughts about that Sober Society contest.
“Only the lowest sort of gentleman would insist that you interview at his home as if you were a servant,” Sarah interjected. “That advertisement has run on several occasions, if I recall. The next time that scar-faced man appears, I’ll tell him—”
“He lives in Scotland,” Miss Townsend said. “That concerns me more than the interview.”
“Scotland!” Claire couldn’t repress her shudder. It would take more than a coal fire to warm her in that desolate place.
Faith’s delicate brows knit together. “If he has come to London on several occasions to place an advertisement in the Messenger . . .”She hesitated before twisting her head toward Miss Townsend. “Why would he insist you travel to Scotland? He could just as easily interview you here.”
“I’m surprised he lives in Scotland,” Sarah said thoughtfully. “The scar-faced man has an English accent, not Scottish.”
“Refuse him,” Claire insisted again, with her Sober Society committee voice. Unsure why they were continuing to discuss this obviously unsuitable ad, she glanced at Sarah. “While I understand you can not decline to run this ad in the future, perhaps the Messengershould demand some sort of disclosure about the trip to Scotland. That alone should discourage unsuspecting innocents from placing themselves in jeopardy.”
“I want to go,” Miss Townsend said quietly.
Claire stared in disbelief. Did the woman not understand the danger of traveling alone so far from home? While she admired the woman’s determination, that was not sufficient reason for such a foolhardy decision.
“I’m not as young as I once was,” Miss Townsend explained. “My opportunities for marriage are diminishing. If there’s a possibility of an amenable future in Scotland, then I don’t want to dismiss it without meeting my potential husband.” She glanced around the table. “I’ve given this a great deal of thought, and my mind is made up. I’ve a cousin in Edinburgh, though I’ve never been to Scotland to meet her, and I’m curious . . . but I’m not so foolish as to go alone. I was hoping one of you might accompany me . . .”
“One of us?” Sarah’s mouth gaped. “We can’t very well pack up and go to Scotland at the drop of a hat.”
“I think you misunderstand the nature of the Rake Patrol,” Claire patiently explained with a pointed lift of the brow. “We investigate the men who place personal ads to see if they are worthy of the women they seek. If they are not, we work to discourage women from blindly falling into their clutches. It seems to me that this Scotland fellow is the latter, and you have been duly warned.”
Sensing that her words had little impact on the pouting Miss Townsend, Claire narrowed her eyes. “Do you not recall ‘The Maiden Tribute,’ which ran in the Pall Mall Gazette?”
“W. T. Stead’s series on white slavery.” Sarah’s head lifted. She turned toward Miss Townsend. “He wrote about women being lured to London with promises of well-paying positions, only to be forced into brothels.” She scowled a moment and then glanced at Claire. “Of course, Stead was drawn into scandal over that piece.”
“Yet no one has denied that white slavery exists,” Claire stated with authority. If London’s wickedness could support nineteen drinking establishments on Oxford Street, then it could support brothels filled with innocents as well. “Stead’s downfall was his showmanship, not his accuracy.”
“But I’m already in London,” Miss Townsend protested. “And the offer is for marriage, not employment.”
“It’s the same ruse.” Claire shook her head. “If men live in Scotland, I imagine brothels exist there, just as they do here.” She looked around the circle. “I propose we move on to other business. Our group has been diminished by Edwina’s absence. I don’t know if we’ll ever find another who could break codes as easily as Edwina, but we should consider finding someone with her investigative resources.”
“I miss Edwina,” Faith said with a sigh.
“I do, too,” Sarah added. “Reading the personal column is just not the same without her explaining what the coded ads really said.” She looked over at Faith. “Have you heard from her recently?”
“Indeed, I have! I received a letter just as I left.” She fished in her reticule. “I’d quite forgotten it in the discussion surrounding Miss Townsend’s dilemma. Here it is!”
Claire settled back in her seat, accepting that no further business would be enacted at this meeting. They would all listen to Edwina’s latest exploits and then disperse due to the advancing hour. She missed Edwina as well but realized she was living her dream, honeymooning with the unquestionably handsome Ashton Trewelyn. Some people were fortunate to find a life companion. Others, like herself, had to accept that theirs was to be a lonely lot in life.
Perhaps that was why she was determined to leave a mark on the world. Without a husband, she certainly wouldn’t have offspring to do it for her.
Movement caught her attention. Her eyes narrowed as two women took seats at the table behind Faith. One of them was Mrs. Ledbetter, a woman younger than Claire, but her fiercest rival for the Sober Society purse.
Ever since she’d overheard Lucy Ledbetter laughing and joking about Claire’s spinster status, the other woman had become Claire’s bitter enemy. Even if Lucy traveled in high society, Claire considered her no better than those men calling her crow this morning. Lucy had a whole host of alcoholic relatives that she would trot out at various Sober Society meetings to talk about the woes of drinking. As impressive as that was, Claire hoped her pamphlet distribution in drinking establishments might have an equal impact on the judges. Still, she needed something extra, something to put her over the top in commitment. If she could think of a suitable project—
A sharp kick to her shin ended her woolgathering. Claire glanced to her side. Sarah’s face tilted toward Miss Townsend.
“It’s been a pleasure meeting with you, ladies. Especially you, Miss Starke.” She stood, maintaining a tight smile. “I appreciate your fierce warning and pragmatic advice.”
“You’re welcome,” Claire replied. As soon as Miss Townsend was out of earshot, she turned to Sarah. “Do you think she listened?”
“I don’t know.” Sarah shrugged. “It’s difficult to ignore the opportunity of improving one’s condition through the procurement of a husband.”
“The likelihood of finding a husband through a personal ad would be akin to finding a golden crock at the end of a rainbow.” Claire sipped her tea. “She’d be foolish to hang her hopes on this fellow.”
“I don’t know,” Faith said wistfully, watching the Crescent’s door close behind Miss Townsend. “Edwina followed her rainbow, and look what happened.”
Though tempted to point out that Edwina had not actually answered the ad that ultimately led to her marriage, Claire held her tongue. A whimsical milieu of hope and romance had surrounded the table, and Claire didn’t wish to dispel it with harsh reality.
The following week, Claire returned to the Crescent.
“They’re gone,” Sarah said, her voice cracking. She sat alone at the table where the three friends were to meet.
“Who?” Claire asked, suspicions already forming a lump in her throat.
“Faith and Miss Townsend. They left for Scotland on the nine fifteen.” Sarah gazed up at Claire with worry-filled eyes. “I have a bad feeling about this. I think Faith had a premonition as well. Why else would she send me the address where they were going? She must have wanted someone to know, just in case . . .”
“And where exactly did they go?” Claire asked, shocked by Faith’s involvement.
“A place called Ravenswood on Loch Rannoch.”
“Loch Rannoch?” There were so many lochs and glens in that godforsaken place.
“It’s in the Highlands. She mentions a place called Beckmore near Pitlochry.” Sarah pulled Faith’s letter from her reticule. “They’re to visit Miss Townsend’s cousin in Edinburgh first, then they’ll go on to Ravenswood.”
“Let me see.” Claire took the letter from Sarah’s shaking fingers, then examined it for the particulars.
“It gets worse,” Sarah said. Even through Sarah’s spectacles, Claire saw moisture gathering in the corners of her eyes. “I saw that man again.”
“What man?” Claire asked absently. She mentally configured the timetable of the two women. Why would Faith go on such a foolish venture, especially to Scotland? Why, the place was rife with drunken sots full of the Devil’s whisky. Hadn’t she listened to Claire’s warning?
“The one with that awful scar,” Sarah said. “The one who placed the personal ad. I saw him after we met last week. I had planned to tell Faith about it today.”
“Tell Faith what?” Claire’s patience was truly wearing thin. Action needed to be taken, and yet Sarah was blundering on about men and scars.
“He was standing outside a brothel. I was thinking about what you said about Stead and his exposé, so when my carriage drove by Flower Street, I peeked through the curtains . . . and there he was, talking to one of those women.” Her tears brimmed over to track down her cheeks. “He’s a white slaver, I know it. We’ll never see Faith again.”
Never see Faith again. Those words carried a physical blow much like those she’d suffered at the hands of her drunken father. Claire gasped at the thought of losing her friend, her closest confidante. The white slavers would delight in capturing such a beauty, and Faith, dear Faith, would have no knowledge of how to extricate herself from their grasp. She hadn’t the experience of dealing with intoxicated fathers or the brutish barkeeps who ruled Oxford Street.
Claire folded the letter, then tucked the paper in her reticule. She stood to leave.
“Wait.” Sarah grabbed a fistful of her black skirt. “We have to talk. What are we going to do about this? Where are you going?”
Claire glanced down, surprised that the answer wasn’t obvious. “To rescue Faith, of course.”
Cameron Macpherson sank his head in his hands. Even the colors from his office’s stained glass windows dancing across the wide ledger pages failed to brighten his distillery’s dismal bank results. Rebuilding Ravenbeck Whisky had taken all of last year’s profits. His extravagant mother’s move back to Scotland threatened to consume all of the current year’s profits. He’d need to talk to her again—not that she’d listened during their previous conversations.
Peat’s shaggy head lifted signaling imminent interruption. It was just as well. An interruption would be a welcome relief. As expected, a knock sounded.
Cameron bid them enter while he slipped the foot-long ledger into a desk drawer and locked it with a key. There was no need for anyone else to worry about the sad state of Ravenbeck’s finances. When he glanced up, it was directly into a young laddie’s face. The boy’s stubborn jaw lifted defiantly, while his angry eyes desperately tried to hide his fear—qualities Cameron himself knew well enough. Those eyes were too old for one so young. His gaze drifted higher, to the man with a firm grip on the lad’s shoulder.
“What’s this about?” Cameron asked quietly.
His foreman slapped a long copper tube topped with a string and a cork onto the scarred wooden desk. “We’ve a thief in our midst. I caught him sneaking out the gate. A young ’un, to be sure, but a thief no the less.”
The lad looked no more than twelve. Yet he had a dog, as the device was commonly called, which was used to pilfer small quantities of whisky. At the moment, the lad’s gaze fixed on a different sort of dog. Cameron’s massive deerhound opened his mouth to let his tongue lull.
Cameron removed the cork and sniffed. Fumes of fresh spirit tinged his lungs. Years in an oak cask would eventually turn this fiery liquid into a mellow whisky, but at this stage, the liquid was barely palatable. Cameron squinted at the lad. “A bit young for a hardened criminal. Do ye have a name?”
When no immediate answer was forthcoming, Hamish shook the lad and snatched the filthy cap from his head. “Show some respect. That’s the laird who’s asking.”
Cameron bit the inside of his lip to control the resulting flinch. Even after seven years, the reference to a title that by rights belonged to another still stung.
“Ian,” the boy mumbled. “Ian Docherty.”
“Docherty?” Hamish scowled. “Didna a Docherty drown three months ago?”
The boy’s gaze drifted back toward Peat, but not before Cameron noted his hollowed cheeks and thin arms. The lad hadn’t had a full stomach in some time. “My da.”
“Should I call the magistrate?” Hamish raised his eyes to Cameron. “A thief is a thief. A stint in reformatory will do the lad some good.”
Ian’s head jerked up, his eyes widening. “Please, sir. I won’t do it again. I stole it for my ma. With my da gone and the bairns hungry, we needed money.”
“You won’t be getting money where you’re heading,” Hamish said with a stern shake of the boy’s shoulder. “Thieves go to prison first, and young thieves to reformatory after.”
Cameron held up a restraining hand to Hamish, but directed his gaze at the boy. “You’d be more help to your ma if you stayed in school and got an education. Then you could get an honest job. Did ye consider that?”
“Aye,” the lad replied solemnly. “But my ma says I need to earn more than I need to learn.”
Self-sacrifice for one’s family—another concept with which Cameron was painfully familiar.
“I don’t abide ignorance in my employees,” he said. “If I hear you’re no trying your best, or if I find you here when you ought to be in school, then Hamish will dismiss you first, and then feed you to my hound.” He nodded toward Peat, who instinctively licked his lips.
“Dismiss?” Confusion chased the anger from the boy’s face.
“There’s always more work than men to do it,” Cameron said, though it was questionable whether this lad would qualify as a man. At issue wasn’t so much the quantity of work available but rather the money to pay for it. The dismal state of the financial records bore witness to that. Years of inherited debt, combined with rebuilding the distillery, had taken a toll difficult to repay.
The boy pushed his shoulders back and stood a little straighter. An honest wage did that for a boy as well as a man. Hamish removed his heavy hand from the boy’s shoulder, but lightly cuffed the lad on the side of his head. “You’ll thank the laird, Ian Docherty, if you know what’s good for you. Not everyone gives a thief a second chance.”
The boy mumbled his gratitude with a sharp nod of his head.
“Wait in the hallway while I speak with Mr. Gilchrist. He’ll show you who to report to in the yard and where to collect your wages.” The boy’s eyes widened at the mention of wages, but he turned and left the room as he’d been instructed.
Cameron tossed some pound notes across the desk. “Feed the lad, Hamish, and see that he gets some food for his family. Hunger causes desperate acts among honest men.”
Hamish scooped up the notes. “Aye, I will. But don’t be surprised if I bring him back by the scruff of the neck. I think he’s a rebel, that one.”
A nostalgic smile crept across Cameron’s face, remembering that he’d been called the same once or twice. “We’ll have to see about that.”
The foreman squinted his way. “You all right? You look like you haven’t slept in a week.”
Cameron wasn’t aware that his restless nights had left a mark. “Strange dreams. Nothing of concern.”
The man turned to leave but stopped at the door. “I almost forgot.” He fished a folded blue linen note from his pocket, grinned, then after sniffing the paper, handed it to Cameron. “She’s at it again.”
The tips of Cameron’s ears heated. All of the men at Ravenbeck knew of his mother’s efforts to find him a wife. She only sent her distinctive notes when she’d lured another desperate, spineless Englishwoman to ride the train to Scotland.
Hamish left the office, but not before Cameron heard him grumble, “You’d think a Scottish lassie would be good enough.”
Which was the crux of the problem. While Cameron hadn’t the time to seek out a wife of any particular nationality, his mother continued to lure Englishwomen to Beckmore. The village folk thought she did so at his direction, as if he didn’t value the local lasses, and questioned his loyalties. No matter how many times he mentioned the problem to his mother and requested she leave his marital plans the hell alone, she continued to place those ridiculous ads in a London paper.
He opened the note, which, as expected, carried a plea for him to return to the house in a timely manner. Two women would be arriving from London to make his acquaintance. Two! Rather than cease this ridiculous pastime, she’d gone and doubled her quota! Cameron crumbled the note in his hand.
As much as he loved his mother, the time had come for sterner measures to end her interference. Action, as opposed to talk, was warranted. He looked about the office, trying to devise some sort of plan.
His gaze came to rest on the copper dog, containing potent new spirit and . . . inspiration. A shameless plan began to form, a brazen and rude undertaking that might shock and embarrass his determined mother. But if the scheme worked to end this endless parade of pale but proper pieces of British milquetoast to his front door, then it would be worth it.
“Are you one of the laird’s women?”
Claire had just fashioned a damp seat amid the tarp-covered supplies on a pony cart when the boy holding the reins posed the question. Cold, wet, and miserable, she thought the boy’s question was the first bright spot in her journey. She must be on the right track.
“One?” She fastened the buttons higher on her Prince Albert coat to shield against the miserable drizzle that chilled her unprotected cheeks and nose. “Have there been others?”
Over an hour ago, the train had deposited Claire and her carpetbag on an empty platform in the middle of a gray fog before it continued to Inverness. She’d learned during the Edinburgh stop that a modern hotel had been erected near Pitlochry to take advantage of the scenic views and cold waters of River Tay. Scenic views. She’d almost laughed. Scotland was a poor country indeed if gray fog was considered scenic. While she’d hoped others would exit the train with her, she’d been the only passenger deposited in the cold drizzle on the empty platform. She shouldn’t have been surprised. It was hardly suitable weather for a river swim.
While she might have attempted to walk to Ravenswood, she’d had no idea of direction or distance. After an hour’s contemplation of her dilemma, she’d waved to the first conveyance she saw traveling the road, a pony cart filled with lumpy sacks, and inquired about a ride. Which brought her to this point, trying to wrangle information from a boy who was too young to recognize the sort of debaucheries that occurred right here in his community.
“Did two others arrive recently?” she asked the boy, hoping for confirmation that she was following on the trail of Faith and her friend.
The boy shrugged. “My ma says that the laird’s ghillie picks them up at the train stop, then bundles them off to Ravenswood.” He tilted his head toward Claire. “Why didna he come for you on a dreich day?”
He held his hand out to the drizzly rain. “This. It’s a dreich day.”
Huddling deep in her father’s old coat, Claire supposed the word suited the wretched weather perfectly. In fact, it summed up her entire opinion of Scotland. It was a word she’d remember.
“I’m unexpected,” she answered truthfully. “What’s a ghillie?”
The boy looked at her as if she were daft. “One who knows all about hunting and fishing. They’re deerstalkers, and care for the land.” He thumbed proudly at his chest. “I’m going to be a ghillie when I’m older.”
“You like to hunt and fish?”
The boy nodded. “Do you?”
Claire considered a moment, her hands gripping the sides of the cart as they turned another tight curve. “I don’t really know . . . I’ve never tried either.” She could make out green pastures in the mist, and every now and then, fat white sheep with black faces. A darker form of gray, which she assumed must be mountains, loomed in the distance. Even in the cold mist, it was peaceful. Open. And not a building to be seen. The surrounding countryside was so unlike her familiar London that she was suddenly filled with uncertainty. Even if she managed to rescue Faith and Miss Townsend, would they be able to find their way back to the train stop?
“Why did you come here?” the boy asked with a sideways glance. “For the laird, I mean. My ma says he already has people to cook and clean.” A sheepish look crossed his face. “What do you do over there?”
“Perhaps you should ask your mother.” They were about to cross a pretty stone bridge over a swiftly flowing stream. Claire used the span of straight road to rub her hands and blow her heated breath on them.
“I did.” The boy grimaced. “She boxed my ears and said my arse was next if I asked again.”
Claire set her back teeth. That confirmed her suspicions, at least. A mother wouldn’t have responded that way unless the answer involved intimacy. She gripped the side of the wagon in frustration. Still, her unexpected arrival might work to her benefit. The element of surprise would help her rescue Faith and Miss Townsend from the man determined to do them hard. She would whisk them off to safety. Assuming, of course, that it wasn’t already too late . . .
“How do you know the way to Ravenswood?” she asked, suddenly concerned she might be heading in the wrong direction.
The boy laughed. “Everyone knows Ravenswood. The draff from their distillery feeds our cattle.”
“Distillery?” She shouldn’t be surprised that demon alcohol was behind the evil scheme to lure women to their ruin. “They make gin this far north?”
The boy laughed. “You are daft! It’s the single malt. The whisky.”
“You feed your cows whisky?” She was totally confused. Granted, she had lived in London all her life, but surely that couldn’t be right. Still, she thought about the English cows she had seen through the windows of the train, peaceably kneeling in bright green fields. Were they so unlike the men slumped in taverns?
She grabbed her journal to make a note. She might be able to fashion a temperance slogan with that image. Slogans, she’d decided on the train ride north, would be the key to winning the prize purse. Lucy Ledbetter would never be so creative. She doubted Lucy could even find a rhyme for cow.
“The draff is the barley mash. No whisky there.” The boy laughed. “You don’t know about whisky, do ya, miss?”
Claire settled deep into her coat, embarrassed that her lack of knowledge was evident to so young a boy. “I know enough. You just mind the road.”
The boy flicked the reins to urge the pony faster. “Ravenswood is ahead. I’ll leave you at the gate. You just follow the lane to reach the castle.”
“Castle?” Her eyes widened. “He lives in a castle?”
The boy laughed. “He’s the laird. He owns all this.” The boy spread his arm out to encompass the sheep pastures, the forest, the pretty stone bridge crossing the stream. “Where else would he live?”
Cameron stood before the mirror in his kilt, waistcoat, shirt and jacket, then draped a ratty, damaged wolf pelt across his shoulder. Clumps of fur were missing—probably lining some vermin’s nest—while something akin to a dried mold dotted the underside of the pelt. As wolves had been hunted to extinction long ago, the pelt was a surprising discovery in an abandoned crofter’s cabin, but the poor condition of the relic rendered it of little value . . . until tonight. He splashed whisky liberally on the pelt, letting the warm, spicy notes fill the air. Damn waste of good Scotch, that, but if the generous application did the job, it would be worth it.
Peat, a wee bit shy of three feet tall, pulled himself off the floor to investigate the furry addition. However, his attention was quickly diverted to the bedroom door. His soft whine began a moment before the knock sounded.
“I don’t know why you need this,” a familiar voice called. Cameron swung the oak door wide and took great pleasure in the shock on his ghillie’s face. “But I brought what you asked for.”
Peat became more animated, excited by the glass canning jar in James’s hands. Cameron took the jar, squinting at the innocuous bit of brown fur inside. “What is this?”
“The tarsal gland from the hind leg of a deer.” James rubbed the end of the scar that bisected half of his face, then scowled at the wolf hide over Cameron’s shoulder. “Where did you find that disgusting thing?”
“Don’t you remember? We cleared out that abandoned crofter’s cabin last year.” Cameron gestured for him to come into the room. “I hadn’t thought I’d ever need it.”
“You should have left it in the cabin.” He sniffed at the air. “Jesus, Cameron. Is it you or the hide that’s been drinking?”
“Relax.” Cameron grinned. “I’ve devised a plan to convince my mother to halt her matchmaking ways. She’s ignored my earlier requests, so now I’m taking action. If she’s suitably embarrassed, she’s likely to forget about advertising for a wife.” He unscrewed the jar lid.
James’s warning came too late. Cameron had plucked the bit of fur and had barely managed to smear it across the wolf hide before his eyes began to tear from the vile odor it unleashed of urine, musk, sweat, and rot. Peat, normally a quiet dog, barked excitedly. His long tail whipped like a weapon as he raised to his hind legs and pushed on Cameron’s chest. The dog’s five-stone weight nearly knocked him over.
“Good God in Heaven, man,” Cameron said, tossing the fur piece back in the jar, then re-screwed the lid. “Does this attract something more than dogs and flies?”
“It does if you’re a buck in rut.” James pulled out a handkerchief and held it over his nose. “A little travels a long way. It’s a good thing it’s not rutting season. Still, I’ll warn you to be hesitant to venture outside.”
“If this smell chases those frail little lassies back to England, it will have done its work. My mother will be suitably embarrassed and will abandon those ridiculous ads.” Cameron stretched his neck to put as much distance as possible between his nose and the smelly pelt, but it wasn’t nearly enough. “Shall we get this over with?”
“Let me put Peat in one of the bedrooms.” James reached for the dog’s collar. “He’s too attracted to the scent to sit quietly in a corner.”
James returned a few moments later without the dog and paused in the doorway as if to say something. Instead, he shook his head and headed down the stairs. As per tradition, he entered the parlor before Cameron.
“Ladies, may I present the much honored Cameron Macpherson, laird of clan Macpherson and master of Ravenswood Castle.” James stepped aside.
Cameron stepped to the door, a proud Highlander. His lips formed a grim line, his hands fisted on his kilted hips, while his eyes fought back the sting of the pungent aroma. Heads turned in his direction, feathers and finery bobbing like fishing lures. One of the ladies, a classic beauty in a soft blue gown, wrinkled her brow, then plucked a rose from a vase of flowers, holding the bud near her nose.
“Good Lord, Cameron, what is that terrible stench?” his mother asked as he strode into the room. All three women swiftly set their fans in motion.
James stood near the newcomers. As sensitive as he was about that scar, Cameron suspected that only the overwhelming odor could drive him so close to feminine strangers.
A mousy brunette in a green gown turned a pasty gray, a testament to her lack of substance. Such a fragile lass would never stand up to a Scotland winter. Why they rushed to Scotland in answer to a stranger’s advertisement, he’d never know.
Accusation glared from his mother. As evidenced by the hard set of her jaw, she knew what he was about. Good. Later, when they talked about these two husband-hunters, he would announce that the wolf hide would reappear should she bring other marriage-minded lasses to Ravenswood. That should put an end to this charade, and he could turn his attentions to more important matters, like the future of the distillery.
The heavy front door swung open with a sound akin to a gunshot. Cameron turned toward the welcome rush of fresh air to discover a dripping young woman, clasping luggage and dressed in black.
“Not another one,” he groused. He’d hoped to frighten the women away, not attract new ones. Though based on the murderous intent in her eyes, he doubted she had marriage on her mind. Interesting.
“Claire!” the blonde beauty behind him called.
In that instant, the stranger’s face softened and brightened, a fascinating transformation. Unfortunately, she chose that moment to sample the air. Her eyes widened. She dropped her bag, then covered her nose.
“Don’t breathe, don’t breathe!” she shouted. “It’s a noxious vapor to render you unconscious!”
A thud behind him gave proof to her words. He glanced over his shoulder to see the mouse had collapsed to the carpet. Good God, he’d only meant to embarrass his mother, not kill an invited guest.
James and the beauty immediately attended the poor woman. The newcomer in black swooped past him like some predatory bird, urging her more colorfully attired peers to escape before it was too late.
His mother merely turned her face toward him and arched an eyebrow. “And I thought this evening might be frightfully dull.”
When no one rushed for the door or reacted to her impassioned cries to flee, Claire realized to her extreme embarrassment that the logic that had prompted her flight to Scotland may have been a bit flawed.
The supposed captives were not huddled in distress, but rather were dressed to the nines, as if for a party. Instead of bustling the fallen Miss Townsend to a secret, locked chamber, a man with a long scar carefully placed her in a comfortable chair. The matron present produced a vial of smelling salts that Faith waved beneath her friend’s nose. Finally, the startlingly handsome man she suspected was the laird did not restrain her in any way. In fact, he ignored her as he strode past her into the night, giving his guests the liberty to remain or leave. These were not indications of men intent on snaring innocent women for nefarious purposes.
And if that wasn’t enough, the annoyance reflected in Faith’s glare confirmed Claire’s suspicions that she’d made a serious error in judgment.
“What are you doing here?” Faith fumed. “You’re supposed to be in London.”
“I thought you were in danger.” Claire stiffened her back. Her intentions were honorable, even if her presumptions were not. “I thought I’d find you held captive to a white slaver.”
“The laird? A white slaver?” The man with the scar chuckled. “He’s been called many things, but that’s a new one.”
Miss Townsend stirred and opened her eyes, causing fresh administrations from Faith and the scarred man. Even the matron who had stood outside the circle joined the press of bodies to tend to Miss Townsend’s needs.
Feeling foolish and excluded, Claire slowly backed from the group. Perhaps she had overreacted, even though she had valid reasons for her supposition. She had felt certain that Faith and Miss Townsend had walked blindly into a trap. Hadn’t the boy on the pony cart confirmed those very suspicions when he talked about the many women who came here?
She glanced toward the doorway, where she’d dropped her carpetbag. Would they notice if she left? She’d brought sufficient funds for a return fare, but how would she get to the train stop? Maybe she could—
Her backside registered something immobile. A wall? But then a wall didn’t have two powerful hands that gripped her elbows and held her in place.
“A white slaver, lass?”
His Scottish burr slipped in her ear and set her bones to tingling. Flushed with embarrassment, she pulled from his hold, then turned. That was a mistake. She stood face-to-face with the laird himself. His dark brown hair was wild and free, so unlike the short, well-ordered styles in London. His eyes sparked with intelligence and assessment. The vibration that had started with his words shifted downward. A handsome devil if ever she’d thought to see one. The ad had been honest in that.
“Why?” Humor crinkled his eyes, not anger. Some of her tension dissipated, but certainly not all. Her body recognized the feral nature of the beast, barely attired in a shirt and kilt, and responded with an undeniable attraction. Ridiculous, she scolded herself. Past experience had proven that virile men such as the one before her had no interest in practical women such as herself, though the reverse certainly wasn’t true.