Her Highness and the Highlander(2)By: Tracy Anne Warren
A twig cracked only feet away.
Her entire body tensed, the scent of male sweat and leather coming to her nose. Another scent came as well, sharp and metallic.
She trembled and squeezed her eyes closed.
Boots crunched against the undergrowth, and she sensed rather than saw her pursuer survey the area.
“See any sign of ’er?” said a voice as another man joined the first.
“No. Must be an animal. These woods are teeming with ’em.”
Another lengthy silence descended.
“Let’s keep lookin’. She can’t ’ave gotten far.”
Still, the pair didn’t immediately withdraw; another minute ticked endlessly past before they finally gave up and moved away. But Mercedes didn’t relax, her limbs too paralyzed with fear to function.
How long she sat huddled, frozen, she had no idea. Gradually daylight began to fade, shadows lengthening through the already dappled light of the forest glen.
Only when it began to rain did she finally gather the courage to creep soundlessly from her hiding place. Needles stabbed her cramped muscles, the pain excruciating from her having been crouched in one position for far too long. She swallowed the cries that rose to her lips, fearing even now that they might come back, that they might still find her.
When she thought she could walk, she glanced carefully around to make certain she was alone.
Only then did she venture onward, thankful for the drenching downpour and the concealment she prayed it would provide.
“Another ale, sir? Or could ye do with somethin’ a wee bit stronger?”
Major Daniel James MacKinnon, late of His Majesty’s Royal Highland Regiment, looked up at the serving maid who waited expectantly beside his table. He had no trouble reading her expression and the unmistakable invitation in her pale blue-gray eyes. Her generous breasts were thrust eagerly beneath the well-worn brown cotton of her gown, and her hips tilted toward him with the confidence of a woman who knew the power of her own sensuality and wasn’t afraid to show it.
His mouth turned up in an appreciative half smile despite the fact that he had no intention of accepting her offer. “My thanks, lass, but this’ll do for now.” Lifting his tankard, he gave the amber brew a lazy swirl.
The maid wasn’t daunted, her smile widening to display a set of surprisingly even teeth. “Well, ye’ve only tae ask, ye know. ’Tis a raw night out fer all it’s summer, what with this rain pourin’ so fierce-like. Night sech as this, a body could do with a wee bit o’ comfort, I always say. Give me a shout if ye change yer mind.”
She paused, clearly hoping he would indeed change his mind. Instead, he raised the tankard to his mouth and drank in slow and silent dismissal.
She gave an audible sigh of disappointment and reluctantly sauntered away.
Most would say he was a pure idiot to refuse the soft comfort of the serving girl’s arms and bed. In his younger days, he would have accepted, and gladly. But he was no longer young—or rather he didn’t feel young—even if he was only eight and twenty years of age in the chronological sense. But after years of fighting and suffering and loss, there was none of the boy left in him, only a man who was weary in both mind and spirit. Yet finally he was going home to the blue-green vistas of Skye.
But will it still feel like home? a part of him wondered. He had lost so many there as well in the decade he’d been away. The most painful loss was that of his mother, who had died while he’d been mired knee-deep in siege mud in Spain; he’d eventually learned of her passing by letter weeks after the fact.
Raising his tankard again, he swallowed deeply and wondered whether he ought to have the serving maid bring him another ale after all.
In the next moment, the inn’s door opened on a gust of rain and wind, with the most curious tumble of skirts and water blowing in over the threshold.
A young woman—if that was indeed what she was. It was nearly impossible to accurately determine her age beneath the wet tangle of long dark hair plastered to her head and face; she resembled nothing so much as a drowned cat.
And a none-too-clean one at that.
Her dress was a tatter of rags, the ruined fabric hanging in limp folds that were stained an indiscernible color somewhere between moss and muck. She was covered in grime as well, bits of twigs and pine needles caught in her hair, although it looked as though she had made an attempt at some point to comb them free. As for her feet, they were encased in a pair of thin, muddy slippers that were clearly inadequate for the terrain, the edge of her little toe showing through a rent torn along one seam.
Daniel saw every head in the taproom turn her way, as every pair of eyes fixed on the sorry creature who had wandered into their midst. A few whispers floated on the air.