Highland FireBy: Elizabeth Thornton
When the kiss ended, as if there had been no interruption, Lord Randal said easily, “This one is spoken for, John, but if that sample was anything to go by, you’ve caught yourself a rare one.”
The girl made a moue of disappointment, and reached for him again. Laughing, he swatted her on the backside. “Later, perhaps, if I’m up to it,” he said, winning a roar of approval from the man called John and two other young blades whose curiosity had drawn them over.
“Good Lord,” exclaimed one, looking over the Randal’s shoulder, “never say that is one of Ma Rosa’s girls?”
“She’s no one o’ us,” disclaimed the nymph whom the Randal had newly kissed.
As he spun on his heel, Caitlin took several backward steps into the shadows. In her confusion, she let loose a torrent of Gaelic. He was on her in two strides, his hands reaching for the snood which concealed her face.
“Rand! What the devil has got into you?” The voice which prevented Lord Randal from exposing Caitlin to public view belonged to a young man on horseback. He was David Randal, cousin to the Randal and his junior by a number of years. His voice was rich with mirth. “Since when have you taken to ravishing innocent young virgins?”
Edging his way into the clearing, reaching down, he laid a restraining hand on the Randal’s shoulder and spoke in an amused undertone. “If she is who I think she is, cousin, you’d best let her go. Touch her and you’ll have the whole of Deeside out for our blood. Worse, you might find yourself shackled to the girl for life. Is that what you want?”
Lord Randal received the warning with a drowsy smile, a slight curl at the corners of his lips. As though debating with himself, he continued to finger the edges of Caitlin’s snood. “Are you innocent, little mouse?” he asked whimsically.
David Randal’s voice was less sanguine. “Rand, let her go.”
Though Lord Randal addressed his cousin, his eyes remained on Caitlin, as if he would penetrate the shadows that hid her face. “I’d have the girl speak for herself. Sweeting, you see how it is. I’m a reasonable man. Help me understand why you are trespassing on my lands at this hour of the night.”
Caitlin faltered a little, then said in a rush, “If it please yer lordship, I was courtin’ wi’ my sweetheart.”
“But it doesn’t please me, sweet. Who is he, and why is it necessary to meet him in the dead of night?”
The Randal’s face was so close to hers that Caitlin could feel his warm whiskey-soaked breath against her lips. When his hands closed around her shoulders, instinct held her motionless. Her mind was frantically groping for answers. The fingers on her shoulders tightened and Caitlin quickly got out, “Johnnie, his name is Johnnie. He is a sodger, a Gordon Highlander, and my da refused tae let him court me.”
She sensed that her answer had not pleased the Randal and she was unsure whether or not it was in her favor. His hands suddenly released her and he stepped back.
“A soldier,” he said. “Now that puts a different complexion on things. I’ll not add to a soldier’s burdens, no matter how great the temptation.”
A few of Madam Rosa’s girls, deciding that the little drama in progress was having a decidedly dampening effect on the party, chose that moment to liven things up. Squealing like banshees, they threw themselves on Lord Randal, endeavoring to carry him off. A moment later, Lord Randal and the girls were rolling on the ground.
David Randal made good use of the diversion. Reaching an arm down to Caitlin, he hauled her up, pillion-fashion, behind him. For her ears only, he bit out, “For God’s sake, Caitlin, have you no sense? I warned you there was to be a party tonight.”
Caitlin’s reply was equally tart. “Your cousin is…” Words failed her, and she finished lamely. “Just get me out of here, David.”
Those sentiments were seconded by Lord Randal. He had dragged himself up to a sitting position, each arm draped around a squirming girl. A squirming amorous girl, Caitlin noted dourly. The light from the lanterns and torches illumined his features. In that moment, his strikingly handsome face looked almost boyish. “David,” he said, “you can wipe that stupid grin off your face. There will be another time, another place, I promise you. Now get her out of here before I change my mind.”
With a laugh and a cheery wave, David Randal dug in his spurs and decamped with alacrity.
The rain was unrelenting, and dripped through the sodden tent like great gobs of melting wax. Outside, on both sides of the conflict, men were charging about, dragging hundreds of cannon into place for the morrow’s battle. Cavalrymen were testing the mettle of their double-edged sabers or practicing the parry and slash which, God willing, would carry the day against Napoleon’s lancers. In nearby cottages, up on the ridge, grim-faced surgeons were laying out their instruments in preparation for the grisly aftermath.
Inside the tent, the only light came from a sputtering candle. The two occupants, young men both, had donned their cloaks and sat in watery state amid the trodden rye. What could be seen of their red tunics and gold lace indicated that they were officers of a Scottish regiment—the Scots Greys. They were seated on folding chairs at a folding table—all army issue—and each was engrossed in his private thoughts.