Highland FireBy: Elizabeth Thornton
Deeside, the Highlands of Scotland, 1814
“Don’t run away. I’m supposed to catch you. That is the object of the game, is it not? At least, that’s what they told me.”
The voice from the shadows was coolly amused. It was also cultured, English cultured, with that hint of arrogance the native-born Scot so detested. The leap of alarm which had set Caitlin’s heart to thundering gradually subsided. She recognized the voice as belonging to her grandfather’s nearest neighbor. As was his habit before he had taken up soldiering, Iain, Lord Randal, had come to his Scottish estates for the hunting season. On the morrow, he was due to return to his regiment. To her certain knowledge, his gentlemen friends had arranged a surprise party in his honor up at the house. Evidently, Lord Randal had become bored and had slipped away.
Sighing in frustration, cursing her ill luck, Caitlin turned slowly to face the man who had accosted her. In the split second that it took her to make the turn, she made a lightning decision. At all costs, she didn’t want this man to know her identity. If he chose to, he could make a great deal of trouble for her. Better by far to pass herself off as a common cotter’s lass.
Peering into the darkness, drawing the snood of her cloak forward to shield her face, she forced herself to speak calmly. “Lord Randal, what are ye doing here?”
As a delaying tactic, her riposte was hardly brilliant, but it gave her a moment or two to take stock of her position. The contraband whiskey was no longer in her possession, having been safely delivered not five minutes before to his lordship’s deserted boathouse. She debated confessing that she was a smuggler and decided it was too risky. She could not be sure the whiskey was not destined for Lord Randal’s servants. For all she knew, the Randal might take a dim view of smuggling. Then what reasonable explanation could she offer for trespassing on his estates at an hour when all decent women were safely cloistered in their homes?
He chuckled, and something in the sound brought a flutter of unease to the pit of Caitlin’s stomach. “Lass, if you like elaborate games, I’m willing to indulge you. I think I get it. Are you supposed to be Little Red Riding Hood?”
Never having heard of Little Red Riding Hood, Caitlin was stymied. She presumed the Randal was making reference to some drama or other which he’d taken in when last in London. When he wasn’t off soldiering in Spain, the Randal spent a good deal of his time in London and everyone on Deeside knew why.
In that Sodom of the south, Lord Randal was in his element. He was a sophisticate, a dandy who, if rumor was to be believed—and where Lord Randal was concerned, Caitlin accepted every scandalous tidbit as though it were gospel—fancied himself something of a ladies’ man. With his blond good looks, he was a virile figure of a man in the English manner. Caitlin might have forgiven him that. What she could not forgive was that Lord Randal, the hereditary chief of her own clan, largely neglected his estates in Scotland except in the hunting season.
With good reason, they called him “the English laird.” The Scottish strain in his blood was so diluted as to be almost nonexistent. Only his name and title were Scottish. In all other respects, the Randal was an English thoroughbred to the tips of his long fingers. Educated in England, he had vast holdings in Sussex. Deeside was merely his playground, a masculine preserve where he passed a few weeks every other year hunting and fishing in convivial masculine company. To the welfare of his tenants and cotters, the English laird hardly spared a thought.
Considerably fortified by her unpleasant reflections, Caitlin glared at the dark shadow which loomed over her. “I know nothing of Little Red Riding Hood,” she snapped.
“Then permit me to enlighten you. She was almost gobbled up by a big bad wolf.”
His reference to a wolf was more easily understood. Scotland’s history was littered with men who had won that telling sobriquet—untamed, rapacious creatures who preyed on innocent victims, especially women. The Wolf of Badenoch came instantly to mind. Nervously transferring her wicker basket from one hand to the other she began to edge away.
He sighed theatrically. “Am I to take it that the chase is still on? Wouldn’t you rather submit gracefully? This really isn’t my style, you know. I’m too old, or perhaps my palate is too jaded for these titillating games. I prefer a more straightforward approach. You, me, bed.”
Somehow the infuriated gasp came out as a girlish titter. Sheer nerves, of course, but the Randal wasn’t to know it. He moved in closer. Though the darkness was so comprehensive little could be discerned, she knew that he was smiling. And she discerned something else. He had been drinking. For the first time since he had stumbled upon her, Caitlin began to experience real fear.
“Come here, little girl,” he said.
His voice had taken on a different color. He was either as drunk as a lord, decided Caitlin, or falling asleep on his feet. “Why should I?” She stalled, girding herself for flight.
Dark or no dark, she saw the hand reaching for her and instinctively batted it away. “Don’t touch me!”