Highland Heather Romancing A Scot Series, #4
She can see the future. Dare she tell what she knows?
A determined Scottish lady
Seonaid Ferguson, a lady of Craiglocky Keep, is through with the London Marriage Mart. After learning she has the second sight, the haut ton attempts to exploit her abilities. Even though it means she condemns herself to spinsterhood, Seonaid sets a desperate course to rid herself of her gift turned curse. As she rushes home from England, a snowstorm strands her in a crowded inn with the last man she ever wished to see again. A handsome French baron who once thought her a courtesan. And just her misfortune, only he stands between her and certain harm.
A desperate French nobleman
Jacques, Monsieur le baron de Devaux-Rousset, ventures to Scotland to oversee his new investment; a silver mine near Craiglocky. Only a handsome profit will save his family’s destitute estate in France. But when the mine is beset with one problem after another, Jacques must instead search for an heiress to wed. He certainly should not be falling in love with the lovely, spirited sister of Laird Ewan MacTavish, a lass whose dowry is insufficient to restore his ancestral home. Nor should he consider, even for a moment, her risqué, but tempting scheme to rid her of the second sight.
A danger most dire
Matters are torn from their hands when a dangerous adversary vows to expose Seonaid as a witch, just as Jacques’s problems at the mine escalate into deadly violence. Is it by chance, or a dark design, that both of them are beset at once …? Dare Jacques and Seonaid throw caution aside and forge a future together?
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A Miserable Stretch of Road
Early December 1818
“God above, save us.”
“Laird have mercy on our souls.”
Unlike the post chaise’s other occupants, Seonaid Ferguson swallowed her alarmed yelp and, wedging her back firmly into the corner, gripped the shabby seat with white-knuckled determination. Setting her jaw against the teeth-cracking ride, she took several measured breaths.
The laboring coach tilted at an alarming angle before righting, once more ricocheting the four occupants about like billiard balls upon a felt tabletop.
More frightened shrieks and fervent petitions to the Almighty resounded within the closed confines as her timid-mouse-of–a-chaperon, Mrs. Thomasina Wetherby, clung to her with the tenacity of a barnacle on a rock.
This time, her pulse hammering in her ears, Seonaid, too, sent up a silent plea for protection.
Struggling to breathe, she commanded her heart to vacate her throat and return to its proper place at once. She didn’t expect the palpitating organ to resume a regular rhythm while the chaise bucked and jerked like an unbroken stallion, but at least she could inhale a trifle easier.
Only when they reached the Hare’s Foot Inn, would her pulse and breathing return to completely normal. After a bracing cup of whisky-laced tea. The chaise shuddered and groaned, and the wind shrieked furiously, doing its utmost to pummel the vehicle into tinder.
Perhaps two cups were in order.
More whisky than tea.
Face as white as the dense snow swirling about the sturdy coach and battering their courageous drivers, Mrs. Wetherby seized Seonaid’s hand. Trembling, her button-sized pupils expanding in terror, the chaperone wept noisily and buried her face in Seonaid’s shoulder.
Possessed with more fortitude, Una, Seonaid’s abigail, clenched her hands and pressed her mouth into a thin, white-lipped line.
Arthur Fletcher, the dour-faced cleric sitting beside Una, clutched his prayer book and, eyes tightly shut, muttered unceasingly beneath his garlicky breath. A mixture of dirty wool, greasy hair and worn, stinky leather wafted throughout the carriage’s already musty interior each time he shifted the slightest.
Una scowled before angling her shoulder in his direction and deliberately pointing her nose in the opposite.
At the last stop, after Seonaid and her companions stretched their legs and ate a small repast, they’d prepared to board the chaise. Two passengers weren’t continuing on to Craigcutty, and she’d quite anticipated a less crowded conveyance for the trip’s remainder.
Until Reverend Fletcher dashed that hope.
Claiming he could only sit in the right, forward facing seat lest he become ill, he proceeded to scramble into the vehicle first, practically shoving the women aside.
Once seated, a trio of critical gazes trained upon him, he fidgeted for a few awkward moments. Then, with an arrogant thrust of his weak chin, declared himself Craigcutty’s new rector.
New rector? Whatever happened to Reverend Wallace?
Seonaid’s brother, Ewan McTavish, was laird of Craiglocky Keep and the surrounding lands and village, including Craigcutty. None of her family had mentioned anything about a new vicar in their letters. But then again, they’d no doubt believed her too occupied enjoying her first Season to be interested in trivial matters from home.
On both accounts.
The Season had been an experience, she’d prefer not repeat. Ever.
Shocked and saddened by the loss of Reverend Wallace, a beloved family friend, Seonaid had murmured a cursory greeting and quite forgot to mention her connection to the village.
A few minutes after the post chaise resumed its grueling journey, she’d been glad her manners had temporarily deserted her. Otherwise, she might have been obligated to attempt conversation with terse cleric.
After he’d finally settled his gaunt frame into a corner and thoroughly scrutinized the women, he’d closed his eyes and either slept or prayed.
The latter, aloud. Frequently and vehemently.
A ferocious wind gust rocked the coach, stealing Seonaid’s breath and slamming her against the side. Her head smacked the window, and she winced as Mrs. Wetherby’s ample girth rammed into her, pinning her against the holey padding.
Her companion’s ongoing squeals muffled a crude noise that escaped the vicar and sounded suspiciously like a curse.
Gingerly touching her throbbing temple, Seonaid positioned herself more securely against the seat. Barring freezing first, bruises would cover her, head to hip.
The chaise bounced again, and she flinched when a brick banged into her foot.
Make that bruised toes and ankles too.
Used for warming the passengers’ feet, the bricks had long since grown cold. With the conveyance’s labored movements, they pelted back and forth, further scraping the scuffed floor and wreaking havoc on anything in their way.
How much farther to the posting house?
Would they reach the inn?
Not by coach, Seonaid feared, and walking in this snowstorm meant certain death. She rubbed the window’s ice-covered glass, straining to see beyond the raging white.
Nature’s wrath at her worst. And they were squarely in the middle. Too far along to turn ’round now, and God alone knew how much farther to their destination.
Biting her lip, she closed her eyes for a moment against the panic squeezing her lungs.
This is what you get for being hasty and impulsive.
First time she’d ever heaved good sense and caution aside, and look at the outcome?
Surely the Hare’s Foot must be near. Peering harder into the gloomy gray, she willed the posting house to appear amid the swirling, white dervish.
They’d traveled over three hours in this wretchedness. Though with her nerves stretched taut as a gossamer thread, Mrs. Wetherby’s incessant whimpering, and the vicar’s calamitous predictions, the duration seemed intolerably longer.
Pure folly to have traveled on after changing the team, but how could anyone have predicted the occasional pretty snowflake feathering from the sky would become a fierce winter storm, making the road virtually impassable?
Where was her bothersome an dara shealladh when she needed the second sight? Her fey, sight of a seer, whatever one wanted to call the prophetic episodes, plagued her frequently enough of late.
She had no control over the unsolicited visions and more than once she’d tried to stop an onset, to no avail. The images came without warning, whenever they chose, and often—though not always—portended something ominous.
Still, if she must endure the apparitions’ burden, as she had these past ten years, she would welcome helpful foretelling of horrid, blood congealing snowstorms such as this.
Reverend Fletcher’s gruff muttering drew her reluctant attention.
And smelly, uppish passengers.
The chaise’s rear wheels skidded, and outside, a harsh oath rent the weighty silence that accompanied heavy snowfall. How the drivers managed was beyond her. They must be near frozen through.
Accepting the Needhams’ offer of their traveling chariot would’ve been wiser. The sleeker, cleaner conveyance made better time, and Seonaid could’ve avoided this inhospitable weather and Reverend Fletcher’s trying company.
She hadn’t wanted to inconvenience her hosts, though, and a fortnight without their main source of distance transportation would’ve been difficult. So, much to her regret, she’d declined their generous offer, hired a hack, and made arrangements to have her remaining possessions sent to Craiglocky later.
Another violent lurch toppled Reverend Fletcher’s dilapidated Bible onto the floor. “Devil’s work this frigid storm be, I tell ye.”
Una grunted and with a minute, exasperated shake of her head, gathered her simple cloak tighter, aiming her irritated gaze ceiling-ward. Her periodic toe tapping revealed her nearly spent patience.
“Or an evil curse by one of Lucifer’s handmaidens.” Retrieving the cracked, leather-bound volume, the vicar’s hooded, suspicion-filled hazel eyes focused on each woman in turn.
Coldness didn’t cause the shudder puckering Seonaid’s skin.
Fletcher certainly wasn’t the jovial, kind Reverend Wallace. In fact, something peculiar lingered about Fletcher—a mien she couldn’t quite identify, but made her leery, nonetheless.
Una’s profuse auburn eyebrows vaulted skyward, and her full mouth jerked in incredulity. Descended from Celts, she steadfastly observed many traditions and rituals the Kirk once considered pagan. A few Scots clerics still disapproved, although nowhere near the number as in England’s Church.
To Seonaid’s relief, her superstitious maid didn’t scoff aloud, just tapped her toes faster, pursed her lips, and exchanged a knowing glance with Seonaid. Observant and intelligent, Una had also elected to use discretion near the reverend.
If he learned of Seonaid’s second sight, he’d not be the first to misinterpret it, or try to exploit her in the same manner as a gypsy fortune-teller or a parlor oddity.
Really, people could be utterly ignorant and ridiculous.
One fey episode while in London and the next day, she’d received six invitations to entertain guests and perform readings.
Readings, indeed. Claptrap.
Honestly, what did le bon ton think? She could glimpse inside their haughty heads, conjure a revelation, and recite it like a tidily penned eulogy or a snippet from a gossip rag?
“Why yes, Lady Clutterbuck.
“It’s as obvious as those five wiry hairs protruding from your chin that you’re a tenacious gossip who delights in spreading tattle with the same abandon as a farmer hurling slop to his hogs.
“And, my dear lady, given your propensity to stoutness, you really oughtn’t to eat four maid of honor tarts whilst hiding in an alcove after you filled your plate three times during dinner.”
Seonaid’s parents would share the Needhams’ outrage if they learned what she’d been subjected to, and she supposed sympathy prompted the Needhams to yield to her decision to travel with only two female companions.
Mrs. Wetherby peeked from her lap robe’s folds and squeaked, “Handmaidens, Vicar?”H
Been ruminating on that mad assertion, had she? No doubt more bothersome dramatics would result.
“Aye, handmaidens, ye ken?” Caressing his Bible with his spindly glove-clad fingers, his reedy voice deepened eerily.
Wasn’t there something in the Bible about daft fellows too?
“Sorceresses. Seers. Soothsayers. Witches. The good book,” he pounded the Bible, “warns believers to beware of vile seductresses and their wicked wiles.”
Yes. Definitely lacking in the upper works.
Harshness coloring his last few strident words, he stared intently at Seonaid.
At his denunciation, she arched a brow. Pray God no fey visions came upon her while in his company. In a blink, he’d have her tied to a stake, a blazing torch in his hand, as he condemned her soul to hell.
“Hmph. And I believe it also says we’re not to judge others, especially by their appearances or circumstances.” Folding her arms across her substantial bosom, Una pinned him with a bland stare, despite the superior, darkling scowl he directed at her.
Ire flashed in Una’s eyes, and she opened her mouth to speak again, but Seonaid gave a faint negative shake of her head.
For once, Una snapped her mouth shut without voicing her thoughts. Their situation was strained enough without a full-on argument in the confined space.
Reverend Fletcher’s thin lips bent into a triumphant smirk.
Foolish man if he supposed his glare had silenced Una. She’d spared him a verbal lashing for Seonaid’s sake. Given her mutinous expression, even now, Una longed to unleash her sharp tongue on him.
If he didn’t cease, Seonaid might very well permit Una the privilege.
“I shall pray for our deliverance from this tempest.” Bending his neck once more, his reverent entreaties focused on calling God’s wrath down upon Satan’s daughters and condemning them to eternal hellfire and damnation.
Unduly bloodthirsty for God’s servant.
In what moldy crevice had Ewan found this man?
Seonaid promptly chastised herself for her unkind thoughts. Their journey had been trying. Cold, hungry, and more than a touch anxious, no one within the carriage was at their best.
As the horizon acquired a deep pewter hue, the storm relentlessly pounded the chaise, and although only afternoon, the sky appeared near gloaming outdoors.
Face pale as death, Mrs. Wetherby’s grip tightened until Seonaid’s fingers tingled, then grew as numb as her frozen feet had hours before. She wiggled her toes in her woolen stockings and serviceable half-boots, grimacing when hundreds of needle-like pricks tormented her.
At least she could still feel her feet.
Despite her lined, kerseymere pelisse, double layered mantle, three lap robes, and a fur muff, icy arrows prodded to her bone’s marrow.
The poor drivers, outrider, and horses must be suffering much worse from the cold, yet the chaise daren’t stop. In moments, the snow would encompass the vehicle and obstruct the roads. Their only hope was to push onward before the way became blocked.
A ferocious blast slammed into the chaise, rattling the windows and her taut nerves. Even Una blanched this time, and Reverend Fletcher squeaked like a terrified toddler.
“We’re going to die. Freeze to death. Our bodies won’t be found for days. Weeks.” Mrs. Wetherby dove deeper beneath the lap robes. In the grayish half-light blanketing the interior, a half-crazed glint shone in her eyes, and her panicked panting produced tiny puffs of frozen air. “Oh, whyever did I agree to accompany you, Miss Ferguson?”
Why, Mrs. Wetherby?
You begged to, because you needed the money and travel accommodations to your sister’s.
Mrs. Wetherby’s head disappeared beneath the robes for a moment.
Taking another swig from the flask she stashed in her cloak’s interior pocket, no doubt. That detail—the frequent libation of strong spirits—she’d forgone mentioning during her lengthy interview with Seonaid and the Needhams.
More muffled murmurs about dying emerged from the lap robes.
Die? Absolutely not.
Seonaid refused to perish on this wretched stretch of Highland road in the company of a cursing rector and a whining sot.
Forcing in a steadying breath, she patted Mrs. Wetherby’s mittened hand. Though thirty years her senior, the woman trembled and sniveled like a wee bairn.
“We’re not going to die. An inn lies a little farther along, and we’ll seek lodgings there. A toasty fire to warm us, hot food in our stomachs, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and soon this will seem like a grand adventure.” Not likely, but the words sound reassuring. “Surely this storm will have abated by tomorrow.”
A horse whinnied, and more yelling echoed from the drivers.
Leaning forward, Seonaid scraped at the window, vainly trying to dislodge the frozen coating.
A twinkling later, all movement stopped.