Highland Fire

By: Elizabeth Thornton


Colonel Lord Randal, “Rand” to his intimates, stretched out his long legs. Idly observing the glutinous mud which adhered to the soles and sides of his boots, he frowned and wondered how he could introduce the subject on his mind without making himself sound like some green boy suffering from an incurable dose of calf love. It was no such thing. It was simply that with David’s arrival, he had been given the perfect opportunity to clear up the mystery of the girl’s identity. In the months since she had happened in his way, she continued to intrigue him. She was an enigma, and Rand hated enigmas.

He coughed. “I was wondering, David…”

“Yes?” David Randal, in his mid-twenties, and the younger of the two by a good five years, looked up with interest. His hair was dark and fell in disordered tendrils around a rather sensitive face.

Doggedly, Rand continued, “I was wondering…eh…how our mounts will weather the mud out there during tomorrow’s battle?”

“Mmm.” David nodded absently and lapsed once more into a reflective silence. Some minutes were to pass before he observed, “It’s a matter of family pride and tradition.”

“What is?”

“Us…here…serving with the Scots Greys. According to my father, there have been Randals serving with the Scots Greys since the founding of the regiment.”

“True, but that was when the Randals really were Scottish. We are Englishmen, David, and I, for one, don’t mind admitting it.” Rand laughed and shook his head. “If I had known, when I first joined Wellington in Spain, that Scotland Forever was the regimental battle cry, I would have moved heaven and earth to serve with the Guards.”

Smiling, David said, “You are more Scottish than you know, in spite of your cultured English accent.”

“Am I?” murmured Rand quizzically.

“You are a Scottish peer, are you not, and the chief of Clan Randal? You can’t get around that. You may not like it, Rand, but I’ll wager there’s a Highlander lurking somewhere inside that tough hide of yours. One day, you’ll find out.”

“I see what it is. You have been bewitched by that summer you spent at my place in the Highlands. Deeside will do that to you. Come to think of it, it did seem that you were in a bit of a daze a good deal of the time. I don’t remember you joining in any of the entertainments I had laid on for my guests.” Rand’s smile deepened, and he went on easily, “Lazy days spent hunting and fishing with friends, and nights given over to the fair Cyrenes I had especially imported from Aberdeen.” He let out a long sigh and slanted his cousin a questioning look.

David regarded Rand for a long moment. Gradually a wicked glint kindled in his eyes. “You are not going to get the girl’s name out of me, Rand, so you can stow the charm.”

“Did I ask for a name?”

“I know you. And we’ve had this conversation before.” David was smiling.

So was Rand. “Did I really kick up a ruckus, later, when you refused to give me her name? I have no recollection of it.”

“You were like a man demented. It took three of us to restrain you. Madam Rosa and her girls were so alarmed they locked themselves in one of the upstairs chambers. You certainly know how to put a dampener on a party, cousin.”

A dryness had crept into Rand’s tone. “Yes, well, if you remember it was my party, paid for out of my own pocket, even supposing my friends had kindly arranged the thing without my knowledge.”

David’s eyes were bright with laughter. “What else are friends for?”

Rand returned a mellow smile. “There never was a ‘sodger’ who was courting her, was there?”

Silence.

“And there were other things I should have questioned at the time. A country girl wouldn’t have taken such pains to conceal her identity. This girl must be someone with a reputation to protect.”

“You have a strange idea of country girls.”

“And her accent—there was something odd there.”

“Was there?” murmured David. “I didn’t notice.”

“Oh yes. If I had not been slightly inebriated, I would have spotted it at once.”

“You were three sheets to the wind,” retorted David, not mincing words.

Ignoring the taunt, Rand continued, “When she forgot to play her part, her English was as pure as yours or mine, allowing for the more melodious Highland inflection, of course.”

“If you say so, Rand.” David was enjoying himself enormously and didn’t mind showing it.

“Were you her lover?”

“What?” David came abruptly upright.

“I said—”

“I know what you said. Good God, she’s not that kind of girl. We were friends, nothing more.”

“Every girl is that kind of girl.”

“You don’t know…” He stopped himself just in time. Pressing his lips together, he shook his head. At length, he laughed. “You devil! Look, I promised her on pain of death that I wouldn’t reveal her name. Why do you care? You haven’t conducted yourself like a monk in the last several months. I’m perfectly aware that, at this very moment, the divine Lady Margaret is ensconced, at your expense, in a snug little house in Brussels awaiting your return. And when you were in Deeside, you showed not the slightest interest in cultivating the acquaintance of any of your neighbors.”