Glenroe Forest, Scotland, 1735
They came at dusk, when the villagers were at their evening meal, and the peat fires sent smoke curling from the chimneys into the chill November air. There had been snow the week before, and the sun had beaten down and then retreated until the frost had set hard as rock under the bare trees. The sound of approaching horses rang like thunder through the forest, sending small animals racing and scrambling for cover.
Serena MacGregor shifted her baby brother on her hip and went to the window. Her father and the men were returning early from their hunting trip, she thought, but there were no shouts of greeting from the outlying cottages, no bursts of laughter. She waited, her nose all but pressed against the window glazing, straining for the first signs of their return and fighting back her resentment that she, a girl, was not permitted to join hunting parties.
Coll had gone, though he was barely fourteen and not as skilled with a bow as she herself. And Coll had been allowed to go since he was seven. Serena's mouth became a pout as she gazed out through the lowering light. Her older brother would talk of nothing but the hunt for days, while she would have to be content to sit and spin.
Little Malcolm began to fuss and she jiggled him automatically as she stared down the rough path between the crofts and cottages.
"Hush now, Papa doesn't want to hear you squalling the minute he walks in the door." But something made her hold him closer and look nervously over her shoulder for her mother.
The lamps were lighted and there was the scent of good, rich stew simmering over the kitchen fire. The house was neat as a pin. She and her mother and her little sister Gwen had worked all day to make it so. The floors were scrubbed, the tables polished. There wasn't a cobweb to be found in any corner. Serena's arms ached just thinking of it. The wash had been done and the little lavender sachets her mother loved so much were tucked in the chests.
Because her father was laird, they had the best house for miles around, built of fine blue slate. Her mother wasn't one to let dust settle on it.
Everything looked normal, but something had set her heart to racing. Grabbing a shawl, Serena wrapped it around Malcolm and opened the door to look for her father.
There was no wind, no sound but the horses' hooves beating against the hard frost on the path. They would ride over the rise any moment, she thought, and for a reason she couldn't name, she shuddered. When she heard the first scream, she stumbled backward. She had already righted herself and started forward when her mother called out to her.
"Serena, come back in. Hurry."
Fiona MacGregor, her usually lovely face pinched and pale, rushed down the stairs. Her hair, the same red-gold shade as Serena's, was pinned back and caught in a snood. She didn't pat it into place, as was her habit before welcoming her husband home.
"Hurry, girl, for God's sake." Fiona grabbed her daughter's arm and dragged her inside. "Take the bairn upstairs to your sister. Stay there."
"It's not your father."
Serena saw then, as the horses crested the hill, not the hunting plaid of the MacGregor but the red coats of English dragoons. She was only eight, but she had heard the tales of pillage and oppression. Eight was old enough to be outraged.
"What do they want? We've done nothing."
"It's not necessary to do, only to be." Fiona closed the door, then bolted it, more out of defiance than of any hope it would keep out intruders. "Serena—"
A small, slender woman, she gripped her daughter's shoulders. She had been the favored daughter of an indulgent father, then the adored wife of a loving husband, but Fiona was no weakling. Perhaps that was why the men in her life had given her their respect, as well as their affection.
"Go upstairs into the nursery. Keep Malcolm and Gwen with you. Don't come out until I tell you." The valley echoed with another scream, and with wild weeping. Through the window they saw the thatched roof of a cottage rise in flames. Fiona could only thank God her husband and son hadn't returned.
"I want to stay with you," Serena's wide green eyes overwhelmed her face, damp now with the beginnings of tears. But her mouth, the one her father called stubborn, firmed. "Papa wouldn't want me to leave you alone."
"He would want you to do as you're told." Fiona heard the horses stop at the door. There was a jingle of spurs and the sound of men shouting. "Go now." She turned her daughter and pushed her toward the stairs. "Keep the babies safe." As Malcolm began to wail, Serena fled up the steps. She was on the landing when she heard the door burst in. She stopped and turned to see her mother face a half-dozen dragoons. One stepped forward and bowed. Even from a distance, Serena could see that the gesture was an insult.
"Serena?" little Gwen called from the stairs above.
"Take the baby." Serena pushed Malcolm into Gwen's pudgy five-year-old arms. "Go into the nursery and shut the door." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Hurry—keep him quiet if you can." From her apron pocket she dug a sugarplum she'd been saving. "Take this and go before they see us." Crouching at the top of the stairs, she watched.
"Fiona MacGregor?" said the dragoon with the fancy stripes.
"I am Lady MacGregor." Fiona kept her shoulders back and her eyes level. Her only thought now was to protect her children and her home. Since fighting was impossible, she used the only weapon at hand—her dignity. "By what right do you break into my home?"
"By the right of an officer of the king."
"And your name?"
"Captain Standish, at your service." He drew off his gloves, waiting, hoping, to see fear. "Where is your husband… Lady MacGregor?"
"The laird and his men are hunting."
Standish signaled, sending three of his men on a search of the house. One overturned a table as he passed. Though her mouth was dry as dust, Fiona held her ground. She knew he could order her home torched, as easily as he had her tenants' cottages. There was little hope that her rank, or her husband's, would protect them. Her only choice was to meet insult with insult, and calmly.
"As you've seen, we are mostly women and children here. Your… visit is ill-timed if you wish to have words with the MacGregor or his men. Or perhaps that is why you and your soldiers come so bravely into Glenroe."
He slapped her then, sending her staggering backward from the force of the blow.
"My father will kill you for that." Serena flew down the stairs like a bullet and launched herself at the officer. He swore as she dug her teeth into his hand, then swept her aside.
"Damn devil's brat drew blood." He lifted his fist, but Fiona flung herself between him and her daughter.
"Do King George's men beat small children? Is that how the English rule?"
Standish was breathing fast. It was a matter of pride now. He could hardly let his men see him bested by a woman and child, especially when they were Scottish scum. His orders were only to search and question. It was a pity the sniveling Argyll had convinced the queen, in her role as regent, not to enforce the Bill of Pains and Penalties. Scotland would indeed have been a hunting ground if she had. Still, Queen Caroline was furious with her Scottish subjects, and in any case she was hardly likely to hear of an isolated incident in the Highlands.
He signaled to one of the dragoons. "Take that brat upstairs and lock her up." Without a word the soldier scooped Serena up, doing his best to avoid her feet and teeth and pummeling fists. As she fought, she screamed for her mother and cursed the soldiers.
"You raise wildcats in the Highlands, milady." The officer wrapped a fresh handkerchief around his hand.
"She is unused to seeing her mother, or any woman, struck by a man."
His hand was throbbing. He would not regain his men's esteem by thrashing a puny child. But the mother… He smiled as he let his gaze wander over her. The mother was a different matter.
"Your husband is suspected of involvement with the murder of Captain Porteous."
"The Captain Porteous who was sentenced to death by the courts for firing into a crowd?"
"He was reprieved, madam." Standish laid a hand lightly on the hilt of his sword. Even among his own kind he was considered cruel. Fear and intimidation kept his men in line; the same would work with one Scottish whore. "Captain Porteous fired on a group of rioters at a public execution. Then he was taken from prison and hanged by persons unknown."
"I find it difficult to sympathize with his fate, but neither I nor anyone in my family know of such matters."
"If it's found differently, your husband would be a murderer and a traitor. And you, Lady MacGregor, would have no protection."
"I have nothing to tell you."
"A pity." He smiled and moved a step closer. "Shall I show you what happens to unprotected women?" Upstairs, Serena beat on the door until her hands were raw. Behind her, Gwen huddled with Malcolm and wept. There was no light in the nursery but for the moon and the flames from the fired cottages. Outside she could hear people shouting, women wailing, but her thoughts were all for her mother—left below, alone and unprotected, with the English.
When the door opened, Serena stumbled back. She saw the red coat, heard the jangle of spurs. Then she saw her mother, naked, bruised, her beautiful hair a wild mass around her face and shoulders. Fiona fell to her knees at Serena's feet.
"Mama." Serena knelt beside her, touched a tentative hand to her shoulder. She'd seen her mother weep before, but not like this, not these silent, hopeless tears. Because Fiona's skin was cold to the touch, Serena dragged a blanket from the chest and wrapped it around her.
While she listened to the dragoons ride off, Serena held her mother with one arm and cuddled Gwen and Malcolm with the other. She had only the vaguest understanding of what had happened, but it was enough to make her hate, and to make her vow revenge.
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Brigham Langston, the fourth earl of Ashburn, sat at breakfast in his elegant town house and frowned over the letter. It was certainly one he'd been expecting, one he'd been waiting and watching for. Now that it was here, he read each word carefully, his gray eyes serious and his full mouth firm. It wasn't often a man received a letter that could change his life.
"Damn it, Brig, how long are you going to keep me waiting?" Coll MacGregor, the quick-tempered, redheaded Scot who had been Brigham's companion on certain journeys through Italy and France, seemed unable to sit quietly while Brigham read. In answer, Brigham merely lifted one narrow hand, white-skinned and foaming with lace at the wrist. He was accustomed to Coil's outbursts, and for the most part enjoyed them. But this time, this very important time, he would hold his friend off until he'd read the letter through again.
"It's from him, is it not? Damn you to hell and back, it is from him. From the Prince." Coll pushed away from the table to pace. Only the manners hammered into him by his mother kept him from tearing the letter from Brigham's hand. Although the knowledge that, despite the difference in size and girth, Brigham could hold his own in a fight might also have played a certain role in his decision. "I've as much right as you."
Brigham looked up at that, letting his gaze pass over the man who was now striding around the small salon with enough force to make the china rattle. Though his muscles were tense and his mind was shooting off in a dozen directions, Brigham's voice was mild.
"Of course you do, but the letter is, nonetheless, addressed to me."
"Only because it's easier to smuggle a letter to the high-and-mighty English earl of Ashburn than it is to a MacGregor. We're all under suspicion of being rebels in Scotland." Coil's sharp green eyes were alight with challenge. When Brigham merely returned to the letter, Coll swore again and dropped into his chair. "You're enough to try a man's soul."
"Thank you." Setting the letter beside his plate, Brigham poured more coffee. His hand was as steady as it was when he gripped the hilt of a sword or the butt of a pistol. And, indeed, this letter was a weapon of war. "You are quite right on all counts, my dear. The letter is from Prince Charles." Brigham sipped his coffee.
"Well, what does he say?"
When Brigham indicated the letter with a wave of his hand, Coll pounced on it. The missive was written in French, and though his command of the language was not as good as Brigham's, he struggled through it.
As he did, Brigham studied the room around him. The wallpaper had been chosen by his grandmother, a woman he remembered as much for her soft Scottish burr as for her stubbornness. It was a deep, glassy blue that she'd said reminded her of the lochs of her homeland. The furnishings were elegant, almost delicate, with their sweeping curves and gilt edges. The graceful Meissen porcelain figurines she had prized still stood on the little round table by the window.
As a boy he'd been allowed to look but not to touch, and his fingers had always itched to hold the statue of the shepherdess with the long porcelain hair and the fragile face.
There was a portrait of Mary MacDonald, the strong-willed woman who had become Lady Ashburn. It stood over the crackling fire and showed her at an age very close to what her grandson claimed now. She'd been tall for a woman and reed-slim, with a glorious mane of ebony hair around a narrow, fine-boned face. There was a look in the way she tilted her head that said she could be persuaded but not forced, asked but not commanded.
The same features, the same coloring, had been passed down to her grandson. They were no less elegant in their masculine form—the high forehead, the hollowed cheeks and full mouth. But Brigham had inherited more than his height and his gray eyes from Mary. He'd also inherited her passions and her sense of justice.
He thought of the letter, of the decisions to be made, and toasted the portrait.
You'd have me go, he thought. All the stories you told me, that belief in the lightness of the Stuart cause you planted in my head during the years you raised and cared for me. If you were still alive, you'd go yourself. So how can I not?
"So it's time." Coll folded the letter. In his voice, in his eyes, were both excitement and tension. He was twenty-four, only six months younger than Brigham, but this was a moment he had been awaiting for most of his life.
"You have to learn to read between the lines, Coll." This time Brigham rose. "Charles is still holding out hope of support from the French, though he's beginning to realize King Louis would rather talk than act." Frowning, he twitched back the curtain and looked out at his dormant gardens. They would explode with color and scent in the spring. But it was unlikely he would be there to see them in the spring.
"When we were at court, Louis was more than interested in our cause. He has no more liking for the Hanoverian puppet on the throne than we," Coll said.
"No, but that doesn't mean he'll open his coffers to the Bonnie Prince and the Stuart cause. Charles's notion of fitting out a frigate and sailing for Scotland seems more realistic. But these things take time."
"Which is where we come in."
Brigham let the drapes fall back into place. "You know the mood of Scotland better than I. How much support will he get?"
"Enough." With the confidence of pride and youth, Coll grinned. "The clans will rise for the true king and fight to the man behind him." He rose then, knowing what his friend was asking. Brigham would be risking more than his life in Scotland. His title, his home and his reputation could be lost. "Brig, I could take the letter, go to my family and from there spread word throughout the Highland clans. It isn't necessary for you to go, as well."
One black brow rose, and Brigham nearly smiled. "I'm of so little use?"
"To hell with that." Coll's voice was bluff, his gestures wide. Both were as much a part of him as the rumbling cadences of his homeland and his fierce pride in it. "A man like you, one who knows how to talk, how to fight, an English aristocrat willing to join the rebellion? No one knows better than I just what you can do. After all, you saved my life more than once in Italy and, aye, in France, as well."
"Don't be boring, Coll." Brigham flicked at the lace at his wrist. "It's unlike you." Coll's wide face folded into a grin. "Aye, and there's something to be said for the way you can turn into the earl of Ashburn in the blink of an eye."
"My dear, I am the earl of Ashburn."
Humor kindled in Coll's eyes. When they stood together like this, the contrasts between the men were marked. Brigham with his trim build, Coll with his brawny one. Brigham with his elegant, even languid manners, Coll rough-and-ready. But no one knew better than the Scot just what lay beneath the well-cut coats and the lace.
"It wasn't the earl of Ashburn who fought back-to-back with me when our coach was attacked outside of Calais. It wasn't the earl of Ashburn who damned near drank me, a MacGregor, under the table in that grimy little gaming hell in Rome."
"I assure you it was, as I remember both incidents very well."
Coll knew better than to banter words with Brigham. "Brigham, be serious. As the earl of Ashburn you deserve to stay in England, go to your balls and card parties. You could still do the cause good here, with your ear to the ground."
"If I'm going to fight, I'd like to have you beside me. Will you come?"
Brigham studied his friend, then shifted his gaze up and beyond, to the portrait of his grandmother. "Of course." The weather in London was cold and dank. It remained so three days later, when the two men began their journey north. They would travel to the border in the relative comfort of Brigham's coach, then take the rest on horseback. For anyone who remained in London during the miserable January weather and chose to inquire, Lord Ashburn was making a casual journey to Scotland to visit the family of his friend.
There were a few who knew better, a handful of staunch Tories and English Jacobites whom Brigham trusted. To them he left in trust his family home, Ashburn Manor, as well as his house in London and the disposition of his servants. What could be taken without undue notice, he took. What could not, he left behind with the full knowledge that it probably would be months, perhaps even years, before he could return to claim them. The portrait of his grandmother still stood above the mantel, but on a sentimental whim he'd had the statue of the shepherdess wrapped for the journey.
There was gold, a good deal more than was needed for a visit to the family of a friend, in a locked chest beneath the floor of the coach. They were forced to move slowly, more slowly than Brigham cared for, but the roads were slick, and occasional flurries of snow had the driver walking the team. Brigham would have preferred a good horse beneath him and the freedom of a gallop. A look out the window showed him that the weather to the north could only be worse. With what patience he'd learned to cultivate, Brigham sat back, rested his booted feet on the opposite seat, where Coll sat dozing, and let his thoughts drift back to Paris, where he had spent a few glittering months the year before. That was the France of Louis XV, opulent, glamorous, all light and music. There had been lovely women there, with their powdered hair and scandalous gowns. It had been easy to flirt, and more. A young English lord with a fat purse and a talent for raillery had little trouble making a place in society.
He had enjoyed it, the lushness and laziness of it. But it was also true that he'd begun to feel restless, fretting for action and purpose. The Langstons had always enjoyed the intrigue of politics as much as the sparkle of balls and routs. Just as, for three generations, they had silently sworn their loyalty to the Stuarts—the rightful kings of England.
So when Prince Charles Edward had come to France, a magnetic man of courage and energy, Brigham had offered his aid and his oath. Many would have called him traitor. No doubt the fusty Whigs who supported the German who now sat upon the English throne would have wished Brigham hanged as one if they had known. But Brigham's loyalty was to the Stuart cause, to which his family had always held true, not to the fat German usurper George. He'd not forgotten the stories his grandmother had told him of the disastrous rebellion of '15, and of the proscriptions and executions before and after it.
As the landscape grew wilder and the city of London seemed so far away he thought once again that the House of Hanover had done little—had not even tried—to endear itself to Scotland. There had always been the threat of war, from the north or from across the Channel. If England was to be made strong, it would need its rightful king.
It had been more than the Prince's clear eyes and fair looks that had decided Brigham to stand with him. It had been his drive and ambition, and perhaps his youthful confidence that he could, and would, claim what was his. They stopped for the night at a small inn where the Lowland plains started to rise into the true Highlands. Brigham's gold, and his title, earned them dry sheets and a private parlor. Fed, warmed by the leaping fire, they diced and drank too much ale while the wind swept down from the mountains and hammered at the walls. For a few hours they were simply two well-to-do young men who shared a friendship and an adventure.
"Damn your bones, Brig, you're a lucky bastard tonight."
"So it would seem." Brigham scooped up the dice and the coins. His eyes, bright with humor, met Coll's. "Shall we find a new game?"
"Roll." Coll grinned and shoved more coins to the center of the table. "Your luck's bound to change." When the dice fell, he snickered.
"If I can't beat that…" When his roll fell short, he shook his head. "Seems you can't lose. Like the night in Paris you played the duke for the affections of that sweet mademoiselle."
Brigham poured more ale. "With or without the dice, I'd already won the mademoiselle's affections." Laughing thunderously, Coll slapped more coins on the table. "Your luck can't hang sunny all the time. Though I for one hope it holds for the months to come."
Brigham swept his gaze upward and assured himself that the door to the parlor was closed. "It's more a matter of Charles's luck than mine."
"Aye, he's what we've needed. His father has always been lacking in ambition and too sure of his own defeat." He lifted his tankard of ale. "To the Bonnie Prince."
"He'll need more than his looks and a clever tongue."
Coll's red brows rose. "Do you doubt the MacGregors?"