Romancing the Scot – May McGoldrick

For the bird that struggles to fly, the Lord finds a low branch. How many times had those words come back to Grace in her eight and twenty years of life? It had to be true. How else would she have been able to live without a mother or a permanent home, or siblings, or aunts or uncles or cousins? She’d never had any real family to call her own beyond this father who once stood tall and strong as an oak. And now even he was withering quickly before her eyes. “Damn this blasted leg.” Grace paused from wrapping the wound and looked up at Daniel Ware. His blue Irish eyes were glazed with pain. Two years had passed since he’d been badly injured leading his regiment of dragoons against the English at Waterloo, where so many innocent lives had been wasted. He’d lived, as tens of thousands had not. But the colonel’s leg had never been treated properly, and his wound had continued to fester. He’d fought it—and ignored it—for a long time, but on this journey back from America, infection had again begun to spread. The knee and the entire lower leg were now bloated and discolored. “Where is our bloody carriage? We must continue on to Brussels. I have no desire to tarry here.” “The carriage is coming with the trunks from the ship,” she assured him, motioning to the valet to give her father another dose of the laudanum.

“This is taking too bloody long.” The colonel tried to stand, but sank back in the chair. “Father, you must sit still and let me finish.” Grace worked hurriedly to bind the leg. Traveling through rough seas and frequent rain squalls, the journey from America had been grueling, to say the least. Their cabin—one of only twenty on the ship—offered far more comfort than steerage, where poorer travelers huddled together in the darkness and the damp. But her father had still suffered greatly. He’d only been able to leave their room once, carried in his chair by two manservants to the deck. Grace looked after him while he was awake, but whenever he slept, she’d escaped to the deck. There, even in bad weather, she found respite and occasional conversation with fellow travelers.

“This medicine is too weak,” the colonel complained. “I need more.” Grace shook her head and gestured to the valet to put the bottle away. “You know the laudanum requires several minutes to take effect. I’ve given you two teaspoons, and that’s all you can take.” “I’ll have it, by God!” he snapped. “You won’t,” she replied. “Don’t doubt me, Father. You must give it time to work.” Before preparing the concoction of opium and alcohol herself in Philadelphia, Grace had read every medical treatise she could get her hands on.

She had the unique ability to recall every word she read; she could quote the dosages verbatim. She knew how strong the medicine was and how to use it. And she’d packed enough bottles in their trunks to last until they reached Brussels. “Think of something else,” she said more gently. Grace knew he had plenty to occupy his mind, aside from his own health. Although Daniel Ware didn’t speak of it, he was carrying a message from Joseph Bonaparte to his wife, Julie, in Brussels. Since the emperor had been imprisoned on St. Helena, his brother —the former king of Naples and Spain—had been living in America in the guise of the Count of Survilliers. Messages went back and forth all the time between those still loyal to the Bonaparte family. He frowned fiercely at her.

“So where’s the blasted carriage?” She smiled back at him. “That’s my courageous father.” The doctors in Philadelphia had offered no hope for recovery. They told her that his leg should have been amputated immediately after Waterloo. That was the only thing that could have saved his life. Tough and obstinate, the colonel wouldn’t allow it then. And now they both knew it was too late. They had half a day’s carriage ride remaining to reach Brussels, and Grace knew it would be hell for him. She pulled the stocking up over the dressing. She touched her father’s brow.

His skin was clammy and hot to the touch, and his pulse was too quick. The fever had been growing worse for days. She’d questioned his decision to continue on immediately after arriving in port, but he’d been adamant. She feared for him trying to manage this final stage of the journey. A fist tightened around her heart, but Grace stubbornly blinked back tears. She didn’t want to lose him. She couldn’t imagine her life without him. But she couldn’t think about herself right now. She had to be strong for him. An unsteady hand reached out and he touched a strand of her hair.

“Even in these dingy rooms, your hair glows like gold,” he said gently. “You’ve come to look so much like your mother.” It had been so many years since Janet Macpherson passed away. Grace had no memory of her. But in recent months, as the wound continued to slice away at her father’s vitality, he talked of her more often. “Have all our things been conveyed from the ship?” His words slurred as the laudanum started to take effect. She was glad of it. There was no point in him suffering needlessly. “I’ve taken care of it.” “Of course,” the colonel said.

“You manage everything so well. What a fine officer you would have made.” Before they left, she had orchestrated every stage of the journey—from packing their six chests, to hiring the boatmen in Bordentown for the trip downriver to Philadelphia, to the arrangement of the cabin for the ship’s passage. “You have my directions?” he growled in a low voice. “Portugal code.” “You know me, Father. Your orders are locked in my memory.” Under the effects of the laudanum, his mind was again wandering back to his fighting days on the Peninsula. She was one of his subordinates, and he insisted on her knowing the orders. Grace kissed his hand and nodded at the valet, who was waiting to help her father into his boots.

Above the din rising through the open windows outside, she heard the wheels of a carriage approach. She glanced at the two manservants standing ready to bring the colonel’s chair down to the street. Going to the window and looking out, she espied the vehicle she’d hired. “Something’s wrong.” Drat, she cursed silently. No luggage had been secured on top of the carriage. She peered down at the driver. It was definitely the same man with whom she’d arranged for their transport. She’d directed him to take charge of their chests as they were unloaded from the ship, but he hadn’t brought them. “Wait here.

Don’t bring him down yet,” she said to the valet before touching her father’s hand. “I’ll be right back.” Grace stormed along the dark, winding hallway. This was unacceptable. She wanted to be on the road to Brussels now, while the laudanum made the trip easier for her father. She descended the battered back staircase to the odorous, garbage-filled alley that ran along the side of the inn. As soon as she exited the building, a gang of street urchins left off their play-battle for a barricade of broken crates and ran to her. “Hullo, boys,” she said, taking a breath to calm her rising temper. It didn’t matter if she were in Antwerp or Naples or Madrid or Paris or Philadelphia; these ragged children of the streets existed everywhere. She pulled a handful of coins from her pocket and distributed them as she strode quickly toward the front of the inn.

The boys moved with her to the end of the alley like a swarm of bees, thanking her profusely. When she reached the carriage and looked inside, the driver climbed down from his perch and joined her. “What happened to our trunks? I told you to bring them from the ship.” “But I was told they were to come in the other carriage.” “I hired no other carriage.” Grace felt the blood pulsing in her temples. They didn’t need this complication. Now they would need to return to the pier and locate their belongings. “Who told you such a thing?” “The other gentleman.” The driver’s face fell.

“You mean he wasn’t amongst your party, m’lady? He said he was traveling with you. He seemed to know you. His servants took the luggage.” “I gave you explicit directions. Instead of following them, you gave our trunks to a stranger.” “I’m so sorry, m’lady.” He looked helplessly back toward the docks. Grace quickly ran through her options. She’d send one of their manservants running ahead to the pier. Perhaps this “other gentleman” had realized by now that he made a mistake and had returned the trunks.

She glanced up at the windows of the inn, knowing that was too much to hope for. “Wait here,” she ordered. Grace went down the alley and took the back stairs. Her mind was racing as she hurried along the dim hallway. Turning the corner by their rooms, she slipped on something wet and nearly fell. She held on to the wall. Her father’s valet lay motionless at her feet, his blood pooling around him. Bile rose in her throat. Horror locked her knees. She stared, stunned and chilled, unable to fully comprehend what had happened.

From inside, she heard the muffled sound of men’s voices. Fear for her father slid like a blade between her ribs and pierced her heart. Grace forced herself to step past the valet and looked in. They’d been traveling under an assumed name, but trouble had been waiting for them here in Antwerp, after all. Men were searching the room. Chairs were upended. One of the manservants lay sprawled across the table and the other had rolled against the wall. Directly ahead of her, she stared aghast at the body of her father slouched in his chair, his blue eyes staring lifelessly at her. The room tilted and began to spin. She could not tear her eyes from the center of the maelstrom.

He was dead. Her father was dead. They’d killed him. But it couldn’t be. She’d spoken to him only moments ago, touched his hand, tended to his wounds. Denial battled with the truth. Anger roared in her head. A fierce and urgent desire to attack and slash at these villains rushed through her even as the peril struck home. She was powerless against these killers, and frustration fueled her fury. A man’s curt order cut into the moment.

“Get her.” They’d spotted her. Grace turned and raced down the hall. Taking the stairs, she tripped at the bottom and tumbled out into the alley. They were coming after her, their tread heavy on the steps. Instantly, the battling street urchins were beside her, pulling her up. “Hide me,” she cried out to the wide-eyed boys. Without another word, they took her hands and began to run. They raced through a warren of alleys and boatyards, between gray stone buildings and rotting timber shanties. Grace was like a stolen trinket in the hands of experts.

She could hear her pursuers behind them, shouting and cursing at the obstacles the boys were throwing up every chance they had. The boys pulled at her, keeping her going as they bounded across rickety wooden bridges and into the shadows beneath low arches. Soon she began to tire. She felt the helplessness of a forest animal running pell-mell ahead of a raging fire. Still, they forged on, her young crew crying out to her, encouraging her. Stinking alleyways filled with refuse became passages to freedom, if only she could make herself run faster. Smoke from cooking fires, derelict houses, and backs of shops crowding her on every side became a watery tapestry of blurred colors and shapes and smells. Somewhere in the edges of thought, Grace wondered how her pounding heart continued to function. A hot, jagged blade of loss had lodged itself in her chest. Tears coursed down her face.

Tears for her father and for the other men who lay dead around him. But she pressed on, struggling to keep up with her gallant helpers. As they followed a crumbling wall along a narrow canal, the shouts behind them rang out louder. The killers were almost upon them. “This way.” She hurried with them, up a set of slimy steps and into a sunless alley. They crossed a cobbled road and out onto a long pier lined with buildings. As the other boys ran on to draw off their pursuers, one pulled her into the low side doorway of a warehouse. Grace looked around her. The place was filled with barrels and crates of all sizes.

Planks were stacked along the walls, and a smoky fire burned at the far end of the barnlike structure. Just outside two large open doors, a loud and boisterous crowd of men stood and smoked. She could see a ship tied to the wharf beyond them. The boy motioned to a large open crate on a cart. “Hide in here till they go.” He pulled aside a tarp to reveal a huge basket. Without hesitation, she climbed in and sat. “I’ll be back,” he murmured, covering her and sliding the top of the crate into place. “Thank you,” she whispered in the dim light. Her relief was short-lived.

Running footsteps passed her hiding place. Calls and responses. Two men stopped beside her crate. The voices were muffled. “Search everywhere,” the leader said in English. “We can’t let her get away.” Grace held her breath, praying the boy had escaped. Other voices reached her. She hoped it was the workers coming back into the warehouse. Almost immediately, the sounds of hammering and sawing began.

Cart wheels rolled heavily across the stone floor. In the distance, a crash and curses. A shout came from somewhere above her, and another answered. The cart jostled as someone climbed onto it. Terrified that she was about to be discovered, Grace stifled her cry for help. The killers could still be nearby. “Seal it up.” The concussion from the hammer nailing down the top of the crate stunned her for a moment. Then the reality of her situation seized her. The thought of dying in the hold of a ship at sea had to be a far worse fate than fighting for her life here in the open.

Panicking, she struggled to push back the tarp. “Wait. I’m here. Wait!”

.

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