The Earl of Christmas Past – Kerrigan Byrne

FATE HAD BEEN Vanessa Latimer’s foe since she could remember. She was the most unlucky, ungainly person of her acquaintance, and had resigned herself to an early death. However, she always imagined said death would be glorious, as well. Or at least memorable. Something like tripping and accidentally sacrificing herself to a volcano in the Pacific Islands. Or perhaps becoming the unfortunate snack of a Nile crocodile or a tiger in Calcutta. Meeting her end as a human icicle in the Scottish Highlands had never made it on the list. Not until the angry blizzard turned the road to Inverness treacherous, and something had spooked the horse, sending the carriage careening into a boulder the size of a small cottage. The driver informed her that the wheel was irreparably damaged, and that she must stay in the carriage while he went for help. That had been hours ago. When the dark of the storm became the dark of the late afternoon on this, the shortest day of the year, the temperatures plummeted alarmingly. Even though Vanessa had been left with furs and blankets, she worried she wouldn’t survive the night, and set off along the road with a lantern and the most important of her luggage. Now, huddled on the landing beneath the creaking shingle of Balthazar’s Inn, she clutched her increasingly heavy case to her chest, shielding the precious contents with her body. The surly innkeeper’s impossibly thick eyebrows came together in a scowl as he wedged his bulk into the crack of the open door to effectively block any attempt at entry. Even the gale forces didn’t save her nostrils from being singed by his flammable scotch-soaked breath.

“As ye can see, lass, ye’re not the only traveler stranded in this bollocks storm, and I let our last remaining room to the other rank idiot not clever enough to seek shelter before the storm fell upon us. So, nay. Ye’ll have to try elsewhere.” “Was that rank idiot a shifty-eyed man in his fifties named McMurray?” she asked, forcing the words out of her lungs like a stubborn bellows to be heard over the din. The wind buffeted her skirts this way and that, plastering them to her trembling legs. “Aye,” he said with a self-satisfied smirk as he also managed to leer. “But doona think to be offering to share his bed; we’re a reputable establishment.” “Never! I wouldn’t—that isn’t—what—” Vanessa gaped and shuddered for a reason that had nothing to do with the cold. Her driver had left her out there to freeze to death while he’d purchased a room with her fare? She should have listened when her instincts had warned her off hiring him. Her case, growing heavier by the moment, threatened to slide out of the circle of her arms and down her body, so she bucked it higher with her hips and redoubled her efforts to hold it aloft with fingers she could no longer feel.

“Is there somewhere nearby that might take me in?” she called, coughing as a particularly icy gust stole her breath. “Aye.” He jerked his chin in a vaguely northern direction. “The Cairngorm Tavern is not but a half hour’s march up the road.” He said this as if the angry wind did not threaten to snatch her up and toss her into the nearest snowdrift. Swallowing a spurt of temper and no small amount of desperation, Vanessa squared her shoulders before offering, “What if this rank idiot can pay you double your room rate to sleep in the stables?” She pointed to the rickety livery next to the sturdy stone building. ’Twas the season and all that. If it was good enough for the baby Jesus, who was she to turn her nose up? At this he paused, eyeing her with speculation. “Ye’ll pay in advance?” A knot of anxiety eased in her belly as she nodded dramatically, her neck stiff with the cold. “And triple for a warm bath.

” He immediately shook his head, his jowls wobbling like a winter pudding. “Doona think I’ll be spending me night hauling water for ye and yers.” “J-just me,” Vanessa said, doing her best to clench her teeth against their chattering. “N-no mmine.” “No husband? No chaperone?” For the first time, he looked past her as the storm finished swallowing the last of the early evening into a relentless chaos of white snow and dark skies. “I’m—I’m alone.” Vanessa told herself the gather of moisture at the corner of her eyes was the sole fault of the untenable weather. Not her untenable circumstances. A banshee-pitched shriek sliced through the wail of the storm. “Rory Seamus Galbreath Balthazar Pitagowan, ye useless tub of guts and grog!” The door was wrenched out of the innkeeper’s hand and thrown open to reveal a woman half his height but twice his width.

She beat him about the head and shoulders with a kitchen towel, the blows punctuated by her verbal onslaught. “Ye’d leave this child to freeze to death? And the night of the solstice? If no one were here to witness, I’d wake up a widow tomorrow, ye bloody heartless pillock! Now go make up Carrie’s chamber, lay a fire, and heat water for this poor wee lass’s bath.” Mr. Pitagowan’s arms now covered his head to protect it from the stinging abuse of his wife’s damp towel. “Carrie’s chamber? But…me love…it’s haunted. And what if she—” “I’m sure the bairn would rather sleep with a ghost than become one, wouldn’t ye, dearie?” At this point, she’d sleep next to the Loch Ness Monster if she could get warm. Besides, the very idea of a haunted bedroom in an ancient structure such as this one couldn’t be more tempting. She would be warm and entertained. “Oh, I don’t really mind if—” “And tell young Dougal to put a kettle on!” Mrs. Pitagowan hollered as her husband plodded away, looking a great deal shorter now that his wife had cut him down.

Arms truly trembling now, as much from the weight of her burden as the cold, Vanessa took a step toward the door, which remained blocked by a large body. “Do you mind very much if I come insi —?” “Are ye hungry, lass?” Mrs. Pitagowan’s hand rested atop her ample belly, which was accentuated by the ruffles of an apron that might have struggled to cover a woman two stone lighter. “I’m actually colder than any—” “The wee mite is starving to death, just look at her!” she shouted after her husband, snatching the case from Vanessa before she could so much as protest. “So, make sure to set aside a bowl of stew and bread!” Panicking about her case, Vanessa held her arms out. “Oh, do be careful, that’s ever so fragi—” “Well I doona ken why ye insist on standing out there in the cold, little ’un, come in before I can snap yer skinny wee arms off like icicles.” The round woman carried her burden like it weighed a bit of nothing as she waddled into the common room. Vanessa shivered inside and closed the door behind her, struggling with the ancient latch. She knew she was a rather short and painfully thin woman, but at eight and twenty, she’d not been addressed as child, bairn, wee mite, or little one for longer than a decade. If ever.

Turning to the common room, Vanessa swallowed around a lump of anxiety as she noted that, indeed, the place was filled to the exceptionally low rafters with wayward travelers. Most of them male. All of them staring at her. A glow from the over-warm room rolled over her as a blush heated her stinging cheeks. “G-good evening,” she stammered, bobbing a slight curtsy before brushing quickly melting snow from her cloak. The only other woman looked up from the table where she tended her husband and four unruly children to send her a pinched and sour glare. No doubt she made assumptions regarding Vanessa’s vocation due to her lack of chaperone. She was aware unfortunate women traveled to such taverns looking to pay for their lodgings with their company and favors. And after what Mr. Pitagowan had said in front of the entire assembly, Vanessa couldn’t exactly blame the woman for her speculation.

Besides, she was used to it. Her attempt at a smile was rebuked, so she turned it on the handful of men clustered in overstuffed chairs around the hearth, nursing ale from tankards that might have been crafted during the Jacobite rebellion. “Bess!” a kilted, large-boned man crowed, wiping foam from his greying, ill-kempt beard with the back of his hand. “Tell ’er if she’s afraid to bed down with the ghost, I’ll be happy to offer an alternative arrangement.” His eyes traveled down Vanessa’s frame with an uninvited intimacy that made her feel rather molested. “One that would keep the wee lass warm, but I canna promise ye’d be dry.” As she was wont to do, Vanessa covered her mortification with all the imperious British pomposity she could muster, lifting her nose in the air. “You needn’t speak as if I were not standing right here. I am capable of understanding you exceptionally well, sir. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I highly doubt you’ve ever had a woman accept such a crass and ridiculous proposition.

One you didn’t have to offer recompense, that is.” The men gathered around the fireplace all blinked at her, dumbstruck. “I thought not,” she said. “Now I’ll thank you not to make such ill-mannered and indecent suggestions in the presence of children.” She gestured to a grubby lad of perhaps eight, who promptly tossed a piece of bread into her hair. The boy’s father boxed his son’s ears, and the child let out an ear-splitting wail, setting her teeth on edge. “English.” A thin, pockmarked highlander harrumphed the word into his ale glass. “The night’s too cold for a frigid, prickly wee bundle of bones, Graham,” he said to her harasser. “Aye, she’s hardly worth the trouble.

” Another spat into the fire, and the resulting sizzle disgusted her. “Ye barbarous Douglasses behave!” Mrs. Pitagowan thundered over her shoulder as she turned sideways to squeeze herself down the aisle created by the six or so tables in the common room. “Or ye’ll find yerselves arseways to a snowdrift and make no mistake! Now follow me, lass, and let’s get ye out of those wet clothes.” Vanessa turned to obey, cringing at the Douglasses’ disgusting noises evoked by the innkeeper’s gauche mention of her undressing. She passed a long bar, against which two well-dressed men in wool suits picked at a brown stew and another grizzled highlander wore a confounding fishing uniform in the middle of winter and leagues away from the ocean. She’d heard tell the Scots around these parts were an odd lot, but she’d underestimated just how truly backward they might be. Balthazar’s Inn, at least, was charming. Though the pale stone walls were pitted with age, a lovely dark wood wainscoting rose from the floor to waist height, swallowing some of the light from the lanterns and the fireplace to create a rather cozy effect. In observation of Christmas, boughs of holly and other evergreens were strewn across the hearth and over the doorways, tied in place by red ribbons.

Similar braided wreaths moated the lanterns on each table, filling the room with the rather pleasant scent of pine. “Thank you for taking me in, Mrs. Pitagowan.” Vanessa remembered her manners as she followed the woman through a chaotic scullery. “Call me Bess, everyone else does,” the lady sang. Vanessa jumped out of the way when Bess’s grumpy husband threw open an adjoining door and stomped past them carrying an empty cauldron and muttering in a language she’d never heard before. “Bess, then. I appreciate your generosity—” Turning in the doorway, Bess narrowly missed smashing the case against the frame, causing Vanessa to blanch. “Doona get the idea I’m being charitable, lass. I heard ye offer thrice the room rates.

And I’ll be needing payment afore I ready the room.” Right. Vanessa sighed, digging into the pocket of her cloak for her coin purse. “How much?” “I’ll take half a crown what with the bath and stew.” Vanessa counted out the coin, fully aware she’d pay half as much at any reputable establishment in London, but she was beyond caring, what with a bath and a hot meal so close at hand. “You called this Carrie’s room before,” she mentioned, more to make conversation than anything. “Is Carrie the name of the apparition who will be keeping me company?” A dark, almost sympathetic expression softened Bess’s moon-round face as she used a free hand to tuck a pale lock of hair back into her matronly cap. “Oh—well—that’s just a bit of local superstition, isn’it? Nothing to worry about. A lady like ye’ll be perfectly safe.” Local superstition was exactly what drew her to the Highlands for Christmas, but Vanessa thought it best not to disclose that to Bess just now.

What had the woman meant, a lady like her? Someone wealthy, perhaps? English? Or female? Either way, fate had left her little choice but to find out.

.

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