About the book
He laid his life down for her, but she resurrected him with her kiss…
With her awful husband in the grave, Lady Victoria Seifried is finally free to pursue her true calling: become a healer and help everyone that comes seeking aid. Even a wounded soldier, who both irritates her and excites her in spellbinding ways.
Leaving his former clan to fight in the Jacobite Uprising, Camdyn McKay knows that this battle is over. Injured and on the run, he collapses outside the house gates of the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. But there is a catch: she is the enemy.
Harboring a known Jacobite brings forth countless problems and the bounty on Camdyn’s head is not the deadliest one. Even walls have ears and some spiders are known to carry whispers...The same past Victoria thought she’d left behind returns with a vengeance: the executioner’s sword hangs right above Camdyn’s neck, and Victoria can do nothing about it...
The Highlanders and the Lowlanders raised broadsword and firelock, those who preferred the savage bite of metal banging their carved hilts against the hardy targes of the Jacobite infantry: the circular shields that provided the front line of defense against bayonets and pikes. The long steel spikes that protruded from the center of the shields glinted in the muddied sunlight.
Camdyn McKay, standing tall and defiant alongside his regiment, tightened the leather strap that lashed his targe to his muscular forearm, and checked the balance of his broadsword with a few restrained practice swings. He eyed the layer of red fabric that adorned the inside of his shield. Torn from the red coat of a fallen English solider, as a bloody token to remind Camdyn what he was fighting for and to remind the English of what their fate could be.
Bonnie Prince Charlie as King. A Stuart on the throne. The Jacobites in a position of power, rewarded for all the blood we’ve shed in this campaign.
So why did he feel so nervous, as he stood upon the boggy expanse of Culloden Moor and looked toward the assembled redcoats?
“Watch for ‘em pokin’ to yer left and right, lads, to get out the way of our targes,” one of his fellow soldiers warned, with an ominous exhale. “They’re nae so green as they are cabbage lookin’.”
The mood of the five regiments reflected Camdyn’s apprehension, after the bombardment of artillery that had been volleying between both sides for the better part of half an hour. Little more than a show of force that kept the warring factions at a standstill, no one advancing, the shots too far out of range.
But now, the gunners had ceased, and an anticipatory lull drifted over the battlefield, peppered only by the drumbeat of the Highlanders. Ordinarily, the percussion of sword hilts on shields stirred up his vigor and his fighting spirit, but on this dreary afternoon, it sounded more like a death knell.
Falkirk fell back to the English. The night raid on Nairn were nothin’ short of a mess, leavin’ two-thirds of us knackered, even with the English half-cut on the Duke of Cumberland’s fancy birthday brandy.
If the Duke of Perth’s regiment had not turned back, they might have stopped the Duke of Cumberland from advancing to this moment. They might have taken victory under cover of darkness. But a wrong choice had been made, and now it was up to these warriors to fix it.
“At least the snow stopped,” another soldier, much younger than Camdyn’s thirty-six years, grumbled.
A grizzled, scarred bear of a man nodded sagely. “Aye, and the hail, though ye should all watch yer footin’ when the call to charge comes. The ground disnae look it, but it’s churned up to buggery.”
The warrior directly on Camdyn’s right took a shallow breath. “It will nae be long now, lads.”
No sooner had he spoken, like a weathered and wizened oracle, than three riders began to thunder along the infantry line. Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, come to give the order. Not pausing in his proud ride, he called to each regiment in turn, in the resonant voice of a true King, “Advance on the English!”
A great roar erupted from Camdyn’s regiment, as the men broke into a run, their blood up, their kilts flapping behind them like flags atop the Scottish castles of home, moving as one indomitable force toward the enemy.
Time for ye to taste Highland steel…
Camdyn kept pace with the men on either side of him, his nerves draining away as he settled into the steady thud of his boots. Mud snagged at his feet, trying to drag him down, but he had clambered across mountains and picked his way through treacherous, sucking peat bogs since he was knee-high to his father. This terrain was where the Highlanders had their advantage.
Suddenly, the ground exploded off to his left, a geyser of dirt and grass and viscera shooting upward where, moments before, a man had been running. Another explosion erupted on his right, prompting him to adjust his advance into a weaving motion. Soon enough, deafening bangs surrounded them as though the earth itself were cracking apart, drowning out their defiant battle cries.
Camdyn’s heart banged harder in his chest, for he knew what this meant—the English gunners had switched to canisters and he was now careening at the enemy under a hailstorm of heavy fire.
To make matters worse, the formerly distinct regiments appeared to be converging into one confused, seething mass, corralled like cattle by the ceaseless burst of canister blasts. The English had not yet set foot out of their orderly lines but, somehow, they were controlling the flow of the battle, like puppeteers tugging on marionette strings to get the Scottish to do what they wanted.
“MacGillivray and Macbean are down!” Camdyn heard someone shout in despair.
“Inverallochie has fallen, and all!” another voice bellowed back, though he could not decipher the speaker in the suffocating throng.
“Lochiel is alive, but his ankles are broke!” a third blow of bad news rained down harder on them than the canister fire, splintering apart the morale of the men. They were a mere few hundred yards from the enemy, and everything seemed to be going to pot.
Just keep runnin’. That’s all I can do, Camdyn told himself, as he tried to dart and feint through the ever-thickening crowd of bemused and exasperated fighters. He could barely get a few paces forward without almost tripping over someone else’s foot or having to duck under the shining blade of a broadsword that was still fruitlessly being held aloft.
Somehow, he managed to break away from the cattle market of men and glanced to his left and right to make sure he was not alone in his advance. He was all for bravery, but there was a reason lone wolves died faster than a pack, and he did not feel like being heroic artillery fodder.
“Let’s take them redcoats, aye?” The scarred bear, who went by the name of McTavish, gave him a nod as more trickles of soldiers broke away from the turbulent, churning white water of the tangled regiments.
The ground beneath Camdyn’s feet sped away in a blur, until he could see the collective white sclera of the English front line. The canisters were firing from further back, to avoid them being hacked to bits by broadsword and sheer grit, but at least Camdyn was out of their range now. The English batteries would not fire so close to their own men. Or so he thought…
He was within two or three pikes’ distance of the enemy, when the ground disappeared beneath him. He did not even hear the bang of the canister until his body had already been launched up into the air, where he seemed to float for a few frantic moments, before he came crashing back down.
At first, he felt nothing but the winding impact of the muddied moor rising up to slam into his back. Then, the pain came, hot and unbearable, racing through his veins like wildfire. A sluggish wetness trailed down the side of his face, his abdomen pulsating in a peculiar manner, as though it were trying to eject something from his intestines.
He howled like a wounded animal. At least, he thought he did. His mouth opened and he felt the pressure in his lungs, and the scrape in the back of his throat, that suggested he was crying out. But he could not hear a thing. He could not hear the bombardments, or the war cries, or the clash of steel and the outburst of firelocks that he knew was taking place all around him. Yet, to him, they were all moving in a silent performance, as eerie as a nightmare.
McTavish appeared above him, his bearded mouth moving, but he could not hear a word of what was being said. He only felt himself being roughly hauled to his feet by the fellow’s gigantic hand, and the blinding pain that followed, shooting through his belly and up to his chest, while the back of his head throbbed as though there was something lodged in his skull.
It’ll pass, he told himself fiercely. I will nae be deaf forever. It’ll pass.
He staggered along a few strides with McTavish’s aid, his hand miraculously still grasped around the hilt of his broadsword, though half of his targe had broken off, the other half still lashed to his forearm. Although, he did not know how he was supposed to fight the English when he felt as though he had been sliced in two, a great gash in his abdomen bleeding out through his loose hemp shirt. Nor could he put much weight onto his right foot, though it still seemed to be attached to the rest of him, which he counted as a success.
Suddenly, McTavish dropped him like a sack of potatoes. Camdyn’s head twisted to see what had happened, and found the old bear lying flat in the quagmire below, with blood pouring out of a ragged wound to the throat. A redcoat with a bayonet appeared to be the culprit, though he had already moved on to his next victim.
Digging deep into whatever reservoir of strength he had left, Camdyn raised his broadsword and targe, and lumbered into the fray as infantry clashed, man on man, Scottish on English, Jacobite against government forces.
Perhaps it was because he could not hear the screams of dying men around him, to feel their fear or the direness of the situation, or perhaps it was because he knew he would not survive the injuries that had been inflicted upon him, but Camdyn fought like a warrior possessed, his pain transforming into rage, his sword taking over until he did not know where he began and it ended. For why would he fear death by an enemy hand when it was already too late, the shadow of his demise slithering within him, dulling the fire of his life, spark by spark?
Bloodied and battered, his vision distorted by a red veil of his blood and that of others, he did not see the Englishman’s bayonet until it struck him in the chest. He did not even feel the pain of it, only the impact. Thinking fast, he reached for the dirk in his boot and managed to return the favor, his hand gripping the enemy’s shoulder, while the Englishmen slumped against him.
The unexpected weight, and Camdyn’s exhaustion, made his legs buckle, the two men toppling backward into the mud. For a few moments, Camdyn writhed to try and free himself from the dead weight on top of him, but the man was too heavy, and Camdyn appeared to have lost all the strength that had been driving him.
Help… Someone, get me up and get me fightin’ again.
He felt sure that he shouted, but perhaps he did not, for no one came to his aid. He wheezed to try and catch a full breath, but his lungs would not cooperate, struggling as though they were filled with liquid.
And soon, that translucent veil of red over his eyes was replaced with an oddly calming, misty black, that rolled over his vision like morning fog. The battlefield faded away to nothing, and Camdyn McKay lay still, all of the fight gone out of him. A sputtering lantern, among a sea of extinguished flames.
It had come as quite the surprise when Camdyn had awoken to find himself alive and somehow still breathing, upon the gloomy expanse of Culloden Moor. He did not know how many hours had passed, but there was still daylight to see by, and the spit of rain to add insult to his injuries.
The Englishman who had fallen on top of him had already been taken away, presumably by his people, who cared how their own soldiers were put to rest. Yet, the bastard’s bayonet wound still throbbed in Camdyn’s chest, just down from where his shoulder joined with his collarbone.
As for the Scots… Camdyn had almost lost his breath again as he looked around the battlefield, now strewn by the crush of abandoned corpses. He did not need to be told what had happened. It was as clear as day—the Jacobites had lost, and they had lost badly. A massacre of good soldiers, whose wives and children would never see their husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles, again.
How many are left? How many got away? Where did they all go?
Camdyn had no one to answer his questions as he plodded along in the gloaming, now a fair distance away from that fateful moor.
He had encountered nobody from either side as he had abandoned the battlefield, heading north-west toward the Moray Firth, where he planned to follow the coastline down to Inverness, where he had resided for the last few years, in-between skirmishes and battles. There were faster routes, but he knew they might be teeming with English, determined to take a few more Jacobite lives while they still had a taste for it.
“They will nae get me,” Camdyn muttered encouragement to himself as he walked, his entire being feeling as though it could come apart at the seams at any moment. Although, there was one silver lining to be found—he could hear again, though the sounds were fuzzy and distorted, as if he were submerged in water.
“I cannae stop. I have to keep goin’.” He repeated the sentiment as minutes shifted into hours, until he no longer knew if he was even on the right path. Wounded and alone, he knew he would be easy pickings for any Englishman who might cross his path. As such, he kept to the shadows of the glistening, dripping trees that lined his tiring road home, not caring about the icy splashes that pattered down onto him.
“What if it is nae even me home no more?” he said quietly, blinking deliberately to try and stave off the heaviness of his lids. If the English had ridden for Inverness after their success, he realized he might be heading directly into the lion’s den.
Several times on his lengthy trek, he thought about turning around and walking north, all the way back to the Highlands and Castle Venruit—the place he had once called home before he came to fight in the Jacobite campaign. He felt certain that Laird Young and his wife, Bernadine, would welcome him with open arms, and he would have relished the opportunity to see his family again.
I cannae do that, though, can I?
Common sense prevailed time and again.
I’d die afore I reached it, in this state. Even if someone found me body on the side of the road, they wouldnae bury me. I’d be left for the crows to feed on.
And, deep down, past the combined torture of his injuries, he could not deny he felt a touch of shame.
“How could I face ‘em again?” he grumbled miserably, speaking aloud as though he were out in the forests near Venruit Castle, trying to scare off any lurking predators in the nearby shadows. “I left ‘em, promisin’ I’d be comin’ back victorious. Laird Young even tried to talk me out of it, but I wouldnae listen, would I?” He sighed, fighting to ignore the pains in his chest. “I’d do nothin’ but bring ‘em danger, if I went back now. Until the English have said what they’re goin’ to do about us Jacobites, I cannae risk it.”
Still, despite the threat, he had not been able to part with his broadsword, which now bounced against his tender back, wrapped in some sackcloth that he had pilfered from the battlefield in an attempt to disguise it.
Finally, with his stomach gnawing from hunger and his legs growing more like lead by the minute, he saw the glisten of the Moray Firth ahead of him. There would be another few hours of walking to go, given his laborious pace, but there was a comfort in the sight of water. If any Englishman happened to come by, he could throw himself into the Firth’s icy embrace, and swim from the danger. At least, that was his plan, if it came to it. Whether his broken body would cooperate was another matter entirely.
I could even rest awhile on the shoreline or beg a scrap of bread from a farmhouse along the way.
The prospect cheered his equally wounded mentality as he hobbled the last few yards to the worn trail that meandered alongside the water. He could not remember the last time he had slept for more than a couple of hours, or the last time he had filled his belly to satisfaction, but there was nothing like a bit of kip and a hearty meal to make a man feel more like himself again.
However, it appeared as though the farmhouses and cottages along the road had already been informed of the Jacobites’ failure, and the risk of scattered retreaters calling on the generosity of strangers. Every single window stared darkly out at him like blinded eyes, taunting him with the lack of welcome. And on the few doors that he knocked upon, he received nothing but silence.
Nae matter. I’ll eat and sleep when I get home. It is nae far now.
Tricking himself into believing that was true was the only thing he could do, with nowhere to pause for a brief reprieve from his suffering.
Trudging on, his steps slowed until he barely felt as though he was moving. His right foot could no longer bear any weight at all, prompting him to take his broadsword off his back and use it as a walking cane, wedging the bar of the hilt under his armpit.
Accompanied by the harsh rasp of his arduous breaths, he did not know if he had it in him to reach Inverness. Nevertheless, he kept his head down and ploughed on, focusing on nothing but the slow shuffle of his limping gait. It distracted him from the rest of the agony that screamed through his body, though he knew he would have to face the brunt of that later, when he finally had to stop for rest.
Camdyn blinked furiously as he raised his weary head. In the near-distance, he spied the tell-tale glowing lights of civilization, floating like the will-o’-the-wisps that lurked on the perilous paths of Highland marshes.
Relief washed over him, for he realized that home was now within his reach. Here, regardless of what had happened today on Culloden Moor, he knew there were people in Inverness who would help him. They would not bar their doors and snuff out their lights to deny him a morsel of sympathy.
“Murdock will fix me up,” he said, trying to pick up his pace now that he was so close to his destination.
Murdock McLachlan was a baker by trade, though he possessed a heart as courageous as any warrior. Camdyn knew the man would have joined the Jacobite campaign, had he not been coming into the winter of his life. Indeed, Murdock had tried to protest that he could still fight, but Camdyn had managed to persuade him not to put his life in peril. Now, he was glad that he had, for he sensed that friends would be few and far between, having lost so many on the moor.
Before long, he came to a cluster of grand houses, just on the outskirts of Inverness itself. Beautiful structures of pale gray stone with dark slated roofs, and sparse-leaved oaks and apple trees that would flourish in the summertime, contrasting that muted gray with vibrant greens and yellows, and the blush of ripe fruits.
And yet, Camdyn hated the very sight of them. He did not care how pristine they looked, nor how meticulously they were built, for they had been constructed by the hands of wealthy English lords and merchants. To him, that meant the very foundations were rotten the core. What right did an Englishman have to build anything on Scottish soil? None, as far as he was concerned.
Friends and good men are dead because of ye, ye bastards!
He wanted to stop in the street and roar his loathing for everyone to hear.
Of course, he knew that battles and death were as entwined as volatile lovers, but that did not mean he could not despise those responsible for what had transpired today. The English had thrown money at this conflict from the beginning, while the Jacobites had scraped together what they could, relying on determination instead of wealth. The English had even called 12,000 troops back from the Continent, to make sure the rebellion was quashed.
Before today, Camdyn had taken pride in the fact that, even with those stakes leveled against the Jacobites, they had still proven themselves to be worthy opponents, but that pride had turned sour now.
“How can ye call that a fair fight, eh?” he spat. “Ye’re naught but cowards, the lot of ye!”
He dragged himself closer to the nearest house, gripping the bars of the tall, wrought iron gate for purchase as though he had already been imprisoned for his part in the rebellion. As he glowered up at the illuminated windows, a rising rage flooded through his bones, where his ancestral hostility toward these Sassenach invaders had first taken root. It was part of him, part of any Scotsman or woman worth their salt.
“Look at ye, safe in yer ill-gotten houses, tramplin’ over our land and its people, thinkin’ ye’ve got any cause bein’ here.” He clenched the bars until his knuckles whitened, flecked with dirt and rusty streaks of dried blood. “We ought to round ye all up and march ye to the border, and hoof ye across it with a warnin’ never to return. Our ancestors did it to them Romans. Why should ye be any different, eh?”
His breath shifted to shallow, sharp gasps that did nothing to satiate his lungs, his eyes bulging with the vehemence inside him. Without warning, his hands slipped from the bars and he crumpled in a heap in front of the gate, his body slumped against it while his broadsword slipped through the bars and clattered onto the flagstones beyond.
For a soldier who had just lost everything, the potency of hate could be a venom to the blood, and Camdyn had received a felling dose.
A widow at thirty-three years of age, the Countess of Desiglow, Victoria Seifried, had little to occupy her time of an evening, especially when there were no desperate men and women knocking upon her manor door to implore her aid. A skilled healer, well-versed in the medicinal arts, she relished the opportunity to put her lifetime of research and learning to charitable use.
Evening had fallen, and the day had passed without a single patient to give Victoria purpose, and now she had to figure out what to do until she finally retired to bed. Certain that she would become bored if she tried to read or rearrange her various vials of pungent liquids and pouches of herbs for the thousandth time, Victoria turned her attention to her most reluctant, and longest suffering patient—her lady’s maid, Genevieve.
“I know it smells as vile as marsh water, but you will grow accustomed to it. I have an excellent feeling about this one. Soon enough, we shall have you leaping about the place like a spring lamb!” Victoria cheered enthusiastically.
Genevieve cast her mistress a dubious eye. “I haven’t been anything close to a spring lamb for almost three decades, as you well know.”
Victoria waved away the pessimism, as she continued to diligently apply a thick poultice of murky greenish sludge to the considerable swell around Genevieve’s knees. An arthritic condition that always troubled the older woman more in the colder months, though she never complained and was, actually, remarkably spry considering she was verging toward fifty.
“It has been devilishly quiet today, do you not think?” Victoria said as she worked. She had been applying poultices since she was a child, taught by her mother, and could have done it with her eyes closed, but she was determined to get the placement just right for optimal treatment. A fiddly business that, secretly, she adored.
Genevieve nodded. “I’d have thought we’d be inundated, considering what happened up at Culloden Moor.”
Victoria paused in her application. “Pardon?”
“The Duke of Cumberland and his men clashed with those pesky Jacobites. I hear it was nothing short of a massacre for the latter. 2,000 dead on their side, and more captured. Barely 50 dead on our side, though many with injuries that you’d have no troubling repairing,” she replied, pinching the bridge of her nose against the stench of the poultice.
Victoria took up a clean bandage and began to wrap it over the pasted layer beneath, her eyes wide with horror. “I had no idea! If I had known, I would have ridden there directly to offer my services to anyone that needed it.”
She did not specifically say that she would have been happy to help the Jacobites, as well, but Genevieve evidently understood the subtext, for she gave a quiet, resigned sigh. After all, when it came to healing human beings, there was no such thing as a right side or a wrong side, in her mind.
“Why do you think I didn’t tell you until now, when the remainder of the rebels have long-since retreated, and the injured from the proper side are already being tended to?” Genevieve cracked a mischievous smile.
Victoria frowned at her lady’s maid, though she was more of a friend or a grandmother to her, in truth. “I could have helped.”
“You would have been turned away for being a woman, regardless of your skill. It would have been a wasted journey,” Genevieve insisted. “Besides, those who know of you, and still have need of your aid, will find their way to your door eventually, anyway.”
Victoria tied a neat knot in the clean bandage. “Maybe I should take a walk, to see if there are any lost stragglers out there.” Standing up, she walked to the window and pulled aside a heavy drape of weighted cream silk, embroidered with golden fleur-de-lis, which seemed almost traitorous considering the ongoing squabbles with the French.
“I’ll get up out of this seat and bar the door if you even consider it,” Genevieve chastised.
But… what if there are people in trouble?
Victoria knew better than to say such a thing out loud, so she sent her worries silently out into the dusky world outside her window.
In truth, she had always felt somewhat guilty about the wealth and luxury that surrounded her here, at Desiglow Manor. Being a sought-after healer in Inverness, she often visited with the people who called upon her—Scottish and English alike. So many of them lived poor existences, whole families crowded into single-room lodgings or tiny residences where sanitation left a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, she always got to return to this grand manor, and it had only taken an arranged marriage to receive it.
Her eye was drawn to a figure moving along the street in the low light. Dressed in a tartan kilt of earthen colors, one fold of it pinned over his left shoulder, and a torn shirt that might once have been white, she knew immediately that he was a Scot. And not only a Scot, but likely one who had fought at Culloden Moor.
A Jacobite. He must be.
His dirtied face, almost camouflaged against in the gloom, held a pained expression as he came to a stop in the middle of the street, not far from her front gate. He certainly looked injured, considering he appeared to be leaning on a cane of some kind, but there seemed to be more to his visible pain that physical wounds. His mouth twisted up in a grimace of anger, and she could have sworn she heard him say something.
“There is a man out there,” she said quietly.
Genevieve gasped. “Where?”
“In the street. I think he might be a soldier.” Victoria squinted to get a better look. Her curiosity swiftly turned to panic as the man turned and approached her gate, prompting her to duck back beneath the drape. After a moment or two, she dared to peer around it, and saw the man staring right through the gaps in the bars.
Has he seen me?
She did not know, but her keen, healer’s eyes immediately sought out the ripped flesh of a muscled abdomen, poking through the tear across the front of his shirt. Dried blood, lying like war paint against the right side of a handsome, ruggedly angular face, though she could not make out the color of his eyes or his tangled mane of hair.
“I should see if he needs help,” she declared, not disclosing the part about him being a Jacobite to Genevieve, who would not approve.
He must have suffered terribly. If he is here, then he has not been caught. Does that mean he is a fugitive?
She found she did not care. The politics and conflicts of men held no sway over whom she treated, and she had always vowed that it never would, letting empathy guide her instead.
Before Genevieve could even attempt to rise from her armchair, Victoria hurried from the upstairs library that she had turned into her own personal surgery and raced along the landing. Grasping the banister, she ran down the stairs as fast as she could and threw open the front door, ready to offer the wounded fellow something to eat and drink, a place to take shelter, and treatment for his wounds.
She had taken only a few steps out into the cold evening air, when the man collapsed right in front of the gate, something clattering loudly on the stones of the manor’s courtyard.
Terrified for his welfare, she whirled around and ducked back into the house, crying out at the top of her lungs, “Help! I need your help! There is man out here who is in need of assistance!” Knowing the servants would heed her call, she retraced her steps at double the pace and barreled across the courtyard toward the downed soldier.
Reaching the gate, she slid back the formidable bolt and wrenched open the side that he was not leaning against. Walking around to the back of him, she slid her arms underneath his armpits and tried her very best to heave him into the courtyard by herself, but he was much too heavy.
Helpless to do anything but wait for the servants to arrive, she crouched down in front of him and gently shook him by the shoulders.
“Excuse me? Can you hear me?” Frowning, she placed two fingers against the dip beneath his square jaw, where it connected to his neck and checked for the steady throb that would tell her if he was alive or dead.
“Oh, thank goodness,” she whispered, feeling the faint push against her fingertips. It was weak, but it was there, and that meant there was still hope. “You do not look well, sir. No, you do not look well at all, but you have come to the right house. I will fix you if I can, sir, you may be assured of that.”
A moment later, hurried footsteps approached. Four of her hardiest servants came to a halt in front of the gate, their eyes widening in shock as they saw who they were expected to carry into the house. However, with all of them being Scottish themselves, she hoped it meant they would not balk at the idea of aiding a fellow native.
“Deliver him upstairs, and have hot water and fresh towels sent up,” Victoria instructed. The visible shock subsided, and the quartet of servants rallied their efforts to pick the wounded man up, two supporting his legs while the other two supported his shoulders and head.
Victoria made sure to lock the gate behind her as the servants headed for the house, though she did not lock it in order to keep out any wandering rebels. No, she locked it to prevent the English from coming to claim the life of this Jacobite, who had clearly escaped further torment. At her manor, everyone could claim sanctuary.
Satisfied that no one would be able to gain entry without her permission, she sprinted back to the house and closed the door, before charging up the stairs to see to her neediest patient.
If my husband were alive to see this, he would die all over again. A Jacobite inside his own house! And his lady wife tending to him!
She did not mean to be macabre in her humor, but she found it to be a medicine, in and of itself, when dealing with her situation as a widow. Too past her prime to be considered an eligible prospect, yet not too old to be content with solitary spinsterhood.
Indeed, it was another reason why she abhorred the wars of men all together, for her husband had died in a battle against the Scots, some two years ago now. His deep-seated hatred for the Scots had driven him to uproot his life here to Inverness from England, where he could be in a position to go and fight when called upon. And she had been forced to watch him leave on each occasion, until the last, all the while thinking him foolish for loathing other people, simply because of the country they came from.
They had not begun with love, and he had been a harsh man with a fickle temper, but after a decade of being married to him, she had eventually come to care for him. Now, he was gone, and she was only sorry that she had never been able to bear them a child, so she would not feel so alone in this manor, in a country that was not hers.
This is the true cost of marriage… Being abandoned far from home, trying to survive alone for the sake of a legacy that has already been severed.
Had the situation not been so continuously turbulent between England and Scotland, she would have returned to her family in England a long time ago, but there was nothing so dangerous to a woman as traveling alone through hostile territory. She may not have held any prejudices or hatreds toward the Scots, but she knew they had every right to have those feelings toward the English, after their ceaseless invasions over the centuries.
Breathless from the unexpected exertion, Victoria returned to her modified study, where the wounded soldier had already been laid out on a chaise-lounge of pale blue jacquard.
“Has someone gone to fetch the water and towels?” she asked he gathered servants, who were staring rather rudely at the patient. She weaved through them to reach the man, while pushing the sleeves of her casaquin to the middle of her upper arm.
The footman, a young man called Derrin, gave a shy nod. “Genevieve is bringin’ it up now.”
“Then, you may go, unless I call for further assistance.” Victoria paused. “And, I know I need not say it, but I would prefer it if you did not breathe a word of this to anyone outside this household.”
The four of them gave a nod. “Aye, M’Lady,” they chorused. She did not doubt their sincerity, for though she was an Englishwoman herself, her staff were loyal to her. Indeed, there was not one among them who had not been healed or saved in some way by Victoria and her talents.
Alone with the soldier, Victoria went directly to her private collection of medicines, and selected several vials and pouches, gathering them into the crook of her arm before returning to the man’s side. There, she deposited the collection on the floor and knelt beside the chaise.
“What happened to you, hmm?” she whispered, tearing away the torn remains of his shirt with both hands. She grazed her teeth against her bottom lip as she beheld his rippling torso, the muscles tensed from the pain, though he was not conscious. Her heart quickened its pace, for she did not think she had ever seen a man so seemingly heaven-crafted in his physique.
Truly, she was anxious for Genevieve to arrive with the water and cloths, so she could sweep the dampened fabric gentled over every defined contour of his warm skin and conflict-hardened body, as though she were washing clean a magnificent statue, to make it fit for admiring once more.
“You poor thing.” She resisted the urge to press her ear to his broad chest, to listen for his heart beating. She had already felt beneath his jaw for that, and regretted not choosing the more direct method. As her eyes observed every inch of him, she wondered what it would be like to nestle into him.
Goodness, what is the matter with you?
She scolded herself, for he was in no position to be admired so shamelessly.
Gathering her faculties, she reached up and pushed aside some of the blood and mud-matted strands of his hair so she could better see his face. He did not look peaceful, as most did when they were slumbering. His forehead was creased, his mouth set in a tight line, as though he were having a nightmare.
“Goodness, you are handsome, aren’t you? Even with all of this detritus and that angry look on your face.” She lay her hand gently against his forehead, feeling for his temperature.
A quiet gasp escaped her throat. He was burning up.
Throughout the long night, Victoria and Genevieve toiled without pause, relying on a carousel of fresh water and towels to help in their work. And when the towels ran out, the household used whatever they could find—clean cloths from the kitchen, old linens, and even Victoria’s collection of fine napkins that had been a wedding gift.
“He’s not going to make it,” Genevieve fretted, replacing the cold compress that lay across the man’s forehead.
“Yes, he is,” Victoria replied, without even looking up from her last meticulous stitch. It had been a long time since she had sewn up a wound of this size, but if she had allowed the large gash across the soldier’s stomach to remain open, she knew it would never heal. He had bled through the poultices and bandages she had tried to use, giving her no option but to take a needle and thread to him.
Taking a damp cloth, she wiped the injury to remove the latest trickles of stubborn blood, and observed her handiwork. Discreetly, her gaze moved upward to look over the clean contours of his diligently washed torso. Broad shoulders lent themselves to firm muscles, as carved as a statue, that showed the strength he must have possessed when he was healthy, and she hoped that strength would help him to pull through this, too.
She marveled at the toned indents of his ribs, beneath his impressive pectoral muscles, and noticed the silvery shine of old scars that cut through the light dusting of curly hair on his chest as it rose and fell.
“It won’t be enough,” Genevieve said, nodding to the stitched wound. “If he’s got a fever, then the cut has already turned. It’s poisoned his blood; you mark my words.”
Victoria flashed Genevieve a determined look. “The tonic I gave him will prevent the wound from festering further, and this poultice will leech the bad humors out of him.” She picked up the mortar and pestle at her feet, where she had been mixing a fresh batch of her secret concoction, known to reduce fever, stave off infection, and to purify tainted blood. It had never let her down before, and she would be damned if it let her down this time.
Without further argument, she set to applying the poultice to the now stitched wound. She had already dealt with the smaller gash at the top of his chest, though it looked far worse than it was. Had the bayonet struck him lower, it would have punctured a lung, or even his heart, but whoever had driven it into him had missed anything vital.
“And what if he doesn’t survive this?” Genevieve went on, smoothing the damp strands of hair out of his face. For someone who did not approve of the Jacobites, the older woman was showing a great deal of care and concern.
Victoria clenched her jaw. “We shall cross that bridge if we need to. Until he is dead, and there is nothing more I can do, let us keep trying our best to ensure that he stays alive.”
“He looks more comfortable, at least.” Genevieve sank down into a chair that she had pulled close to the chaise-lounge, her own poultices still working their magic on her stiff knees.
Victoria looked at the man’s face. “He does. Perhaps, he knows that he is being well taken care of.”
Now that the angry edges of his features had softened into a relaxed, almost peaceful expression, all of the blood and dirt cleansed away, she could see just how extraordinarily handsome he was. A strong brow gave way to a wide nose that suited the masculine proportions of his face, while sharp cheekbones added dimension, and plump, rosy lips with a deep bow added a touch of femininity and softness. Russet-colored hair, more brown than reddish-toned, framed his face and stopped at his shoulders in gentle, natural curls.
She would have liked to run her hands through those wavy locks, though it was his lips that held her attention the longest. Even asleep, they had a swollen pout to them, that made them look ripe for kissing. It was a foolish notion, and one she would not have dared to act upon, but, just for a moment, it left her wondering what it would feel like to have those lips against her skin.
Her gaze lifted to his closed lids, to chase away such improper thoughts.
I just wish I could see your eyes. I can only guess what color they must be.
Although, part of her feared how they might look at her, knowing that she must be an enemy in his eyes.
That one seemingly never-ending night of tireless work gave way to several days, and several days turned into a week. And though the soldier’s heart continued to beat, and his chest continued to rise and fall, Victoria could detect no change in the heat of his brow. More often than not, she found herself daubing away a sheen of perspiration that came back as quickly as it could be washed from his tanned skin.
He had been moved into one of the guest bedchambers, where Victoria watched over him with hope, praying that he would awaken soon. And where hope was not enough, she used everything in her medicinal arsenal to tend to him: concocting tonics, replacing his poultices, always ensuring he had a fresh compress, and dribbling small quantities of milk and melted butter into his mouth, to try and urge some sustenance into his weakened body.
“You will ruin my reputation as a healer if you do not wake up,” she said, on the morning of his eighth day of unconsciousness. “I do not think I have ever had a patient so stubborn, but I trust that means you are too stubborn to die, also.”
She had never really intended to learn the ways of healing, but she had happened across a diary of her mother’s when she was younger and had found a whole world of ingredients and instructions within its pages. When she had asked her mother what it was, her mother had explained that it was an heirloom, passed down through the female line. A compendium of medicinal knowledge, to be added to by every generation.
After that, Victoria had become obsessed with learning everything there was to know about combatting illnesses, diseases, and how to repair wounds, and even how to help a woman suffering through all different kinds of childbirth, from the straightforward to the complicated. Over the years, she had added her own input to the book, having absorbed all she could from local healers, and books she had discovered in her husband’s libraries.
“It seems your fever has finally eased,” she remarked, checking his forehead with her palm. “And about time, too. I was beginning to think you were naturally that warm, which would be quite impossible.” She chuckled to herself, once more seeking comfort in dark humor.
Leaving his bedside, she went to the window and peered out at the cold, clear morning, a fine layer of frost glittering on the lawns. She had given him a bedchamber at the back of the manor, with a view over the extensive gardens. In truth, she did not know why, for it was not as though he could enjoy the scenery.
“I hope you will find my home beautiful, when you do open your eyes,” she said, more to herself than to him. “How funny… I have never really thought of it as my home before. I always speak of my family home as my actual home, but I have been here for several years now. I suppose I must come to terms with the fact that I am to remain here, until it is safe to do otherwise.”
A soft, masculine groan drifted toward her.
Startled, she whipped around and raced back over to the soldier’s bedside, perching right up on the comfortable mattress so she could better reach his position in the center of the bed. He still wore no shirt, and the sight still thrilled her, but she had not been bold enough to remove his kilt for the sake of his comfort. Still, the fact that he wore such a garment meant she had been able to treat the swelling on his ankle without too much personal embarrassment.
He has such defined calves. They are like unripe pears hiding beneath his flesh.
She chased away the mortifying thought, for it was not appropriate at such a time as this, when he might be about to awaken.
“Sir?” she said, staring down at his closed eyes, willing them to open. “Can you hear me?”
An odd, hissing sound slipped between his lips.
“Sir?” she repeated. “My name is Victoria. I found you outside my gate, half-dead. Can you hear me? Do you feel any discomfort?” She rambled out of nerves, worried as to how he might react.
His eyelids fluttered, and that hissing sound took greater shape. “Sassenach.”
“Pardon? I do not understand. Do you speak English, or do you only speak… um… Gaelic, is it?” She had heard of faraway clans in the misty, mysterious Highlands who spoke only that ancestral tongue, yet she felt sure that she had heard him shout out in the English tongue, when she had first spotted him on the road outside her house.
“Sassenach,” he hissed again, his eyes slowly creaking open.
A smile of pure elation spread across her lips. She had waited for this day for a week, determined to believe that he could survive his injuries. Nothing could have ruined this for her. And though she did not understand the word that he spoke, she hoped it was some form of thanks, or introduction.
“You are awake! Oh, thank heavens! I was so worried you would not.” She clasped her hands together in excitement, eager to learn more of this handsome stranger who had toppled at her door. He might not have been awake for it, but she felt surprisingly close to him, after all of the care she had put into his recovery. Indeed, she was certain she knew every contour of his torso, down to the slicing scars that cut across his supple skin, and she had certainly memorized every feature of his face.
“Your eyes!” She realized she had not even looked at their color. “They are… such a rich shade of brown. I did not know if they would be. I had a feeling they might be hazel or even green, but… no, brown suits you perfectly.”
The man stared at her. First with curiosity, which shifted into confusion, and then with a furtive darkness that she did not like one bit. It hardened every edge of his formerly peaceful features, returning that angry expression that she had seen on that first night.
“How do you… um… feel?” She was determined not to show any sense of intimidation or fear in front of him. After all, she had done nothing wrong.
He sat up sharply, his face contorting in a mask of pain as his hand shot to his abdomen. “Ye wretched Sassenach!” he rasped, glaring up at her through long, dark eyelashes as he clutched his stomach. “Ye’ve nae right to keep me here! What have ye done to me?”
“You have to stay still, sir. If you do not, you shall tear open your stitches!” she replied frantically, reaching forward to try and push him back down onto the bed.
Snarling at her, his free hand snatched for her wrist, gripping it savagely with the strength she had known he would possess. “Get yer filthy hands off me, Sassenach!” he roared, his face turning scarlet with fury. “I’d rather rip me whole body open than have one of ye lay a hand on me!”
“Please… you have to lie back. You will hurt yourself if you do not,” she urged, panic evident in her trembling voice. This man could snap her like a branch if he wanted to, and with his hand gripped so tight around her wrist and that pure hatred flashing in his umber eyes, she had the awful feeling that was precisely what he intended to do.
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