Highland Fire

By: Elizabeth Thornton

She reined in the mare, turning in a half-circle. On the open moor, there was no cover to conceal her pursuer. Her first impression was that she was right. The rider the moon picked out was a big man, as MacGregor was big. She tsked under her breath and was opening her mouth to warn him off when she noticed something else. It was no Highland pony he was riding, but a great charger worthy of the proverbial young Lochinvar.

Fear tightened her hand on the reins, and her pony plunged sideways, tossing its head to protest the sudden pressure of the bit in its mouth. Recovering quickly, Caitlin wheeled her mount and whipped the reins across the mare’s haunches, at the same time kicking her heels against its flanks. The pony shot forward. In a few leaping bounds, they were galloping hell-for-leather across the moor.

She did not think about what she was doing, where she was going. Instinct had taken over. Knowing that her pony could not outdistance the stranger’s steed in a flat-out race, Caitlin had turned her mount’s head downhill, toward the abandoned quarry. At this point, the moor changed character. There were obstacles to be got around—stunted trees clinging to the hillside, clumps of bramble bushes, gorse and broom, huge boulders and loose rocks—and all of them a menace to the unwary rider. It slowed her speed, but not so much as it slowed the speed of her pursuer.

When she gained the edge of the quarry, it took all of her willpower to draw rein and pause, giving him a clear view of her. This was the dangerous part, not for her but for the man who was so tenacious in his pursuit. If he came after her at any other point, both horse and rider would go plunging to their deaths over the edge of the quarry. Here, and only here, there was a scree slope. No horse could keep its footing on the loose scree, not even a Highland pony. Horse and rider would take a tumble, but not a fatal one.

She chose her moment with care; heard the man’s violent curses, saw the whites of his mount’s eyes and the taut muscles straining as it checked for each obstacle before she kicked in her heels. Three short steps and the little mare obediently vaulted the dense screen of brambles, landing with a soft thud on the narrow track on the opposite side. Caitlin’s left hand tightened on the reins, swinging the mare’s head up and around, checking her momentum. The mare reared up, almost unseating her rider, then, finding her stride, she veered off to the left.

At any moment, Caitlin expected to hear her pursuer’s cry of alarm as he took a tumble on the scree. Not a sound reached her ears except her own ragged breathing and the muffled pounding of her pony’s hooves as they sent stones and heather flying in every direction. It was as though her pursuer had vanished into thin air.

Panicked, she leaned forward in the saddle, giving her mount free rein. It seemed to take them forever to reach the bottom of the quarry. Only a little way farther and they would come to the tree line. Once the pines swallowed them up, she would be safe.

He came at her with such speed, such stealth, that there was no time to take evasive action. The blow caught her squarely between the shoulders, and Caitlin went tumbling off the mare’s back.

Dazed, winded, for a long moment she lay helplessly on a cushion of heather, blinking up at the stars. When she heard him dismounting, she made an effort to pull herself together. Ignoring her protesting muscles, she dragged herself to a sitting position and touched a hand to her aching head. Her cap was loose. As she scrambled to her feet, she pinned it securely to her hair, keeping one eye on her attacker. When she saw the quirt in his hand, she gasped and involuntarily reached for the dirk in her hose.

He advanced, she retreated, half-crouched over, keeping her face to him, shifting her dirk from one hand to the other as Daroch had taught her to do. It was all show. She did not know the first thing about hand-to-hand combat. Oh God, he was backing her into the quarry and there was nothing she could do about it.

Now that she had a closer look at him, she recognized him. His fair, sun-streaked hair was longer than she remembered. He moved like a predator, and that surprised her too. Lord Randal, for all his years with Wellington, was thought, in these parts, to be something of a dandy. He never traveled without a valet, and no one had ever seen him looking anything less than immaculate. It didn’t seem possible that this awesome figure, twelve stones of outraged masculine virility, was the same handsome fop who made all the Deeside lassies’ hearts beat just a little faster when he flashed them one of his slow grins, or made them an elegant leg. No one ever doubted that the Randal had an eye for the lassies. And she knew it more than most.

When he spoke, it was evident that his anger could hardly be contained. She could almost hear his teeth grinding together. “I thought you were party to an innocent prank,” he said. “But I was wrong. You tried to murder me, up there.” He jerked his head, indicating the top of the quarry. “You tried to trick me into jumping to my death. If I had not known about the quarry, at this moment I would be a dead man.”

The violence in his eyes seemed to leap out at her. She opened her mouth, but no sound came. Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth and she began to shake. This was not the man she remembered from the night he had caught her trespassing on his property, nor was he the man whose virtues David endlessly extolled. As David would have it, Rand was the flower of English manhood. To her furious charge that the Randal was not worthy to be chief of a great clan, David had replied with a chuckle that Rand was English bred and found Highlanders with their blood feuds and vendettas a tad too uncivilized for his taste.