The Highlander’s Excellent Adventure – Shana Galen

“She is an unmarried young lady,” her brother-in-law said. “It’s absolutely out of the question.” Ines narrowed her eyes in annoyance, even though neither Benedict Draven nor her sister, Catarina, could see her. She was eavesdropping. Again. She hadn’t meant to—not this time. She’d been passing by the drawing room and heard her name. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t eavesdrop on her sister and brother-in-law. They were married and deserved their privacy. But that promise did not apply in case of emergency. And this obviously qualified as an emergency as their discussion pertained to her future. “We cannot keep her here, under lock and key, forever,” Catarina said calmly. “She is young and wants some independence. It is not as though she is one of your fine Society ladies. She is a lacemaker.

” “She’s part of my family now, and I won’t have her living alone above the shop. Even if I thought it was safe, you know her temperament.” Ines bristled but restrained herself from interjecting as that would only prove Draven’s point. “I was a bit wild at her age too,” Catarina said, a smile in her voice. “If you remember.” Draven made a sound of dismissal. “That was war, and you were desperate.” “Yes, desperate to escape an arranged marriage to a cruel old man.” Ines nodded her head—she’d been facing a similar fate at one time. She’d run away with Catarina when, at the tender age of fourteen, their father had tried to marry her to one of his friends.

She didn’t like to think of how close she’d come to being trapped forever. Of course, when she’d escaped, she’d thought she was embarking on an exhilarating adventure. The reality was hours of detailed work in the back of a shop with other lacemakers. Her only excitement had been attending mass on Sundays. Ines ran a finger over a rough piece of paint on the wall and scratched at it as Draven spoke again. “Why don’t we see how things progress with Mr. Podmore?” Podmore. Ines almost retched aloud. Mr. Podmore must be the most tedious person in London, if not the whole of England.

Probably the entire world. He was forever going on about carriages. He was a successful cartwright, and his conveyances were known for their sturdiness and reliability. He’d once spoken for a quarter hour, uninterrupted, on the importance of wheel spokes. Ines had almost fallen asleep. She would never allow herself to be pushed into a marriage with a man like Podmore. She wanted passion, excitement…danger. “I am afraid the interest there is all on one side,” Catarina said. “But perhaps if they pursue an enjoyable activity together, it might help. I will suggest a ride in the park when he arrives today.

” Ines started. Podmore was to call on her today? Caramba! She had to escape before he arrived or she might be trapped with him for hours, and she simply could not listen to another monologue on wheel spokes. Ines stepped back and bumped into someone. She spun around and stared into the face of Ward, Draven’s butler. He was only a little taller than she. His head was bald, but a shadow of stubble darkened his cheeks. “Ward!” she hissed. “What are you doing there?” It was a ridiculous question. Ward was everywhere. One never knew when or where he would turn up.

The butler raised a brow. “I might ask you the same question, Miss Neves.” She blew out a breath. This was why she wanted to live above the shop. There was no privacy here. Her color rose as she realized how hypocritical that thought was considering she was the one eavesdropping. On the other hand, Ward was eavesdropping as well… Ines straightened her shoulders. “I will pretend I did not see you, if you pretend you did not see me.” “Happily, miss.” Ines started for the front door, but Ward cleared his throat.

She turned back. “What is it now?” “Mr. Murray will arrive and knock on the door any moment. I suggest you exit another way.” Ines had no idea how Ward always knew who was coming and who was going and when they would appear, but she was too stunned by the mention of Duncan Murray to say anything. The image of the Scotsman immediately flashed into her mind. All she had was his image as she had never been introduced to him. Ines had only glimpsed him through cracks in doorways. But those quick peeks had shown her quite enough to arouse her interest. He was tall, oh so wonderfully tall, and big and strong.

She liked big men, men who had to turn to the side to fit their shoulders through the door and duck under the lintel to avoid banging their head. Mr. Murray had thick arms and legs— she’d seen his legs because he often wore a kilt. They were muscled and covered by brown hair. He had quite a lot of hair. The hair on his head was long enough to pull back in a queue, which was how he wore it when he visited. But she imagined untying the piece of leather securing his hair and running her hands through the freed locks. Then maybe he’d kiss her with those lips that always seemed to give everyone a mocking half smile. She’d feel the bristle of his two days’ worth of stubble. She didn’t need to have met him to know he was a man of passion, excitement, and danger.

“Are you well, Miss Neves?” Ward asked. Ines realized she’d been standing still, staring off into space. “Yes, why?” she asked quickly. “Your face has gone red and your breathing has quickened.” “I am thirsty,” she said, putting her hands to her hot cheeks. “I think I shall go to the kitchens and ask for a cup of tea.” She walked away as rapidly as she could, certain Ward had known exactly what was causing her cheeks to color. Once in the kitchen, she didn’t see the cook, and she set about heating water to make her own cup of tea. She didn’t really want any tea, but she needed something to do while she calmed her thoughts. She had to hide somewhere until Podmore had gone.

But if she left, she would miss the chance to spy on Mr. Murray’s arrival. She would have to sneak around because Benedict always met with the Scot in private. Ines had once overheard—very well, listened in—when Catarina told Draven that Murray was wild and would be a bad influence on Ines. Benedict had said that of course he was. That was why the troop had called him the Lunatic. A description like that only made Duncan Murray more intriguing. She had to find a way to meet him one day. Ines heard a carriage stop outside the house and groaned aloud. Today would not be that day, obviously.

Murray always came on a horse. Podmore always came in a carriage. He had several—a gig, a curricle, a barouche. She knew all about them. She had to escape now or she’d be forced to spend the afternoon with him, and it was such a lovely afternoon—warm and sunny and far too pretty to spend with dull Mr. Podmore. If she could avoid him today, she would be spared his company for the next few days as tomorrow her family was to travel to the country for the wedding of the sister of the Duke of Mayne. Ines left the cup of tea brewing on the table, wiped her hands on the apron, and crossed the room to the courtyard door. She opened it, peeked out, and when she didn’t see any of the servants about, stepped outside and closed the door behind her. Sheets and table linens hung on a line to dry and a half-painted chair had been abandoned in a corner.

She could hide here for a little while, but a few sheets would not provide much cover. She had to find somewhere Catarina wouldn’t think to look. She heard a coachman speak to the horses out on the street, and an idea came to her. She would hide in Podmore’s carriage. No one would look for her there. She could hide inside until Podmore came back, then slip out the opposite side when he returned. She would miss his visit completely. Pleased with her plan, Ines opened the courtyard gate, slipped outside, and went around the side of the house, where she spotted the carriage. It didn’t look exactly like the one Podmore had showed her last time. It wasn’t as shiny and didn’t have gold accents.

This was much plainer, though she was certain he could make it sound like the most amazing carriage ever constructed. The coachman had left his box and was speaking with a deliveryman nearby. His absence made Ines’s task easier. She walked to the door of the coach, careful to stay low so the coachman would not see her through the windows. But even that was not a worry as the coach’s curtains were closed. She opened one door, slipped inside, and closed it again. In the darkness, she couldn’t help but smile at her own cunning. She sat back, prepared to wait until she heard Podmore returning. The squabs were comfortable but not as luxurious as she’d anticipated. Where was the velvet Podmore insisted upon? Perhaps he had realized that velvet seats in summer were far too warm.

The heat in the closed space was already making her uncomfortable and sleepy. A few minutes passed, and then a few more, and she heard the coachman climb back on his box. The coach started moving a few minutes later, which was to be expected. They were looking for her inside the house, and Podmore would not want his horses to stand for too long. Ines was rather used to riding in coaches now, though she had never even seen a coach in the tiny village where she’d grown up. But even after having ridden in coaches dozens of times the past five years, she still enjoyed the feeling of being carried by a momentum not her own. She closed her heavy eyes and waited for the horses to come to a stop outside Draven’s house again. She should probably hop out as soon as the coach stopped. Podmore would have given up on her by now and might be waiting for his coach to carry him home. She would exit on the street and try to sneak back into the house via the courtyard.

Catarina would scold her, but Ines was not sorry. She had told her sister she did not care for Mr. Podmore and that she did not wish to marry any man that she didn’t love. She wanted a man who could offer passion, excitement, and—Catarina usually cut her off by then. Her sister treated Ines’s pronouncement the same way she treated Ines’s requests to move to the little room above the lace shop: with a big sigh. Her older sister seemed to forget that when she had been only a little older than Ines, she had run off on her own and tried to find a husband to save her from the marriage her father had arranged. Not long after, Catarina had swooped in the night before Ines was to be married and offered to take Ines with her to Spain. Ines had agreed, eager to escape a life she hadn’t wanted. But now, when Ines craved a little freedom of her own, Catarina still treated her like the girl of only fourteen. The way Catarina babied her infuriated Ines, but emotional scenes did not sway Catarina.

They’d grown up with a violent father who often screamed and yelled for hours. That was before he used his fists. Catarina was not impressed if Ines yelled or stamped her foot or even if she cried. Ines was not ashamed to admit she’d tried all three tactics. Now she would have to think of something else. Perhaps if she took on more responsibility at the lace shop. She could prove that she could be trusted with greater obligations. She pondered that idea for a little while. She must have fallen asleep because when she jerked awake, she was surprised to find her muscles stiff, as though she had been in the same position for some time. Then she noticed the heat of the day had faded and the noise of London, a noise she had become so accustomed to, had quieted.

At the same time, she realized the carriage was still moving. Why was it still moving? Wouldn’t the coachman have just made a circle or two and returned to her home to collect Podmore? Ines snatched open the curtains closest to her and stared out into a field dotted with sheep. She opened the curtains on the other side, heart pounding, and stared at a small cottage. This was not London. This was not Podmore’s coach. STRATFORD Stratford Fortescue sat in a chair on a hill overlooking his family’s estate, the sun on his face, and the wind ruffling his hair. He could relax now that the baron had gone inside after the picnic lunch. His mother and aunt had strolled away, heads together as usual, but his cousins and siblings and their spouses were enjoying a game of lawn bowls at the base of the low hill. He had an excellent view of the prospect of Odham Abbey from this vantage point. The building was undeniably Georgian in design, though the original structure had been Tudor.

In the eighteenth century, the Tudor origins had been covered by granite and white paint and fashioned into a Palladian mansion. Even as a child, Stratford had liked the clean lines of the house and its perfect symmetry. A year shy of thirty, he was a man of logic and reason. He’d studied the art of war and was known for his ability to develop efficient yet ingenious strategies to win even when the odds seemed improbable. Stratford liked simple elegance in a house and in a plan. His older siblings had invited Stratford to join their games, but he had declined. He’d spent the last few months in London surrounded by inane conversation. He had no desire to subject himself to more if it could be avoided. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy the company at the country house. Indeed, he only ever came if there were guests.

Less risk of being alone with the baron then. But even in the midst of a house party, Stratford enjoyed his solitude. Besides, if he joined the group, someone would want something from him. He’d long ago been designated the lowest ranking family member; he was always the one sent to fetch and deliver and squire. Even his Aunt Harriet and his cousins ranked above Stratford in the unwritten family hierarchy. She was not really his aunt. She was related to his mother in some form or fashion—his mother’s second cousin or some such thing. It was easier to call her his aunt and her children his cousins. Before her husband had died, the so-called aunt and uncle had produced four females and a male. Not a one of the distant female cousins was married, and their brother was all of ten and off at school, which meant Stratford was always taking this Wellesley sister or that one to some ball or other.

He could use a moment’s peace. Of course, as soon as he thought it, one of the cousins started up the hill toward him. It was Abigail Wellesley, the youngest of the quartet of daughters. At fifteen, she was not yet out, but Stratford was certain she’d be dragging him about Town next Season. She smiled at him, her blue eyes bright against her pink cheeks. She wasn’t wearing her bonnet, and Stratford motioned to the white umbrella swaying in the breeze. “You’d better cower under that or your mother will have your head.” Abigail made a face. “I like a little sun on my cheeks.” But she sat dutifully under the umbrella.

When he didn’t say anything, she started in. “I tired of the game. Hester kept winning, and she has a bad habit of gloating.” “Behavior not to be borne,” he drawled. “I wish we could go back to London. There’s nothing to do here. Surely you wish you could go back to London, Stratford.” She meant because the baron didn’t want Stratford here. Even a girl of fifteen could see Stratford did not belong. “No,” he said flatly because even though things were awkward at Odham Abbey, he was used to it.

And he’d had enough of Town for the moment. He had enjoyed it while Duncan Murray had been there. The Scot was always interesting company. But Duncan was probably on his way back to Scotland by now, and though Stratford hadn’t really wanted to come home, when his mother requested his presence, he hadn’t been able to think of an excuse to stay away. “You’re like Emmeline,” Abigail announced. Emmeline was her eldest sister, the one his aunt despaired of ever marrying. She was also the other reason Stratford had come to Odham Abbey. He would not have missed the chance to spend a few days in Emmeline’s company for anything. Stratford did not take Abigail’s bait, so she fed him more. “She doesn’t like London either.

In fact, I heard her tell Marjorie she was not returning.” When Stratford still didn’t respond, Abigail said, “Can you imagine that?” “I am certain your mother will have something to say about it.” “She doesn’t know,” Abigail said. “No one knows what Emmeline has planned, except Marjorie and me, because I overheard.” Stratford was not really interested in what any of the Wellesley girls had planned. But he peered down at the lawn to catch a glimpse of Emmeline—just a glimpse. He was not so far gone as to watch her constantly or follow her about. He had his pride. Emmeline wasn’t with the others. He was not alarmed.

She’d probably gone inside. Except he didn’t remember her being at the picnic. Come to think of it, he couldn’t recall seeing her all afternoon. “Where is Emmeline?” he asked. “I can’t tell you,” Abigail said. Stratford sat straight and gave the girl his full attention. “What do you mean?” “It’s a secret. I wasn’t even supposed to have heard. Emmeline swore Marjorie to secrecy.” “Did she go to take a nap?” Abigail smiled.

“No. She’s not even here.” Her hands flew to her mouth, and she looked horrified. “I mean, I mean—” “Where is she?” Stratford asked, looking directly at Abigail. The girl shrank slightly. “I told you I can’t say.” But she’d wanted to tell someone. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have come up here looking for someone to confide in. Stratford’s skill was in strategy, but even he didn’t have to work very hard to figure out how to make Abigail talk. “Abigail, either you tell me where Emmeline has gone or I will fetch your Mama and tell her exactly what you were up to in London.

” Abigail’s eyes went wide. “How did you know?” she breathed. He hadn’t known, and he still didn’t know. The statement had been a calculated risk, and as usual it had paid off. “It’s my job to know things like that. Now talk or I call for Auntie Harriet.” “Very well! Emmeline has run away.” Stratford frowned. “Run away? Where?” Abigail tossed her dark curls. “To the posting house, of course.

There she will catch the coach.” Stratford’s heart nearly stopped. This was worse than he could have imagined. If it had been any of the other sisters, he wouldn’t have believed it, but Emmeline was just bold enough to do something like that. “Which coach?” “I don’t know. Whichever one would take her furthest from London. She said she would not be made to suffer another failed Season. She’d rather die. You won’t tell Mama now, will you? I told you what I know.” Stratford didn’t answer.

He was already striding down the hill and toward the stable. One of his brothers called after him, but he simply waved and went on. If he stopped to explain, he would surely miss Emmeline. He’d probably missed her already. Devil take that woman. He’d always known she had a mind of her own—everyone knew that—but she’d also seemed rather level-headed for a female. Why would she run off like this? Abigail must be mistaken. He hoped this was all a misunderstanding. Stratford flagged down a groom and in a few minutes rode away from the house and toward the posting house. When he arrived, it was as he’d expected.

He’d missed the coach. When he’d asked if the proprietor had seen Miss Emmeline Wellesley, the proprietor frowned. “What does she look like, sir?” “She’s beau—” he began. Then shook his head. What was he saying? She was Emmeline. Stratford cleared his throat. “She has dark hair, quite dark, almost black, in fact. It’s dreadfully glossy in the right light, and she wears it draped over one shoulder with a loose curl that falls down over one…” He cleared his throat. “Er—blue eyes, medium height, Rubenesque figure.” The proprietor, a man of sixty or so, with a weathered face and red hands, drew his brows together.

“What’s that mean?” “Never mind. Have you seen her?” “I didn’t see any fine ladies, but then I weren’t looking for any. I did see one female. She that seemed a bit out of place.” “How so? “It’s a warm day, but she were all wrapped up in her cloak. I didn’t get a look at her face.” Stratford did not want it to be Emmeline, but the description fit. A woman who hadn’t wanted anyone to see her face would wear a cloak on a warm day. Emmeline was a clever woman. The proprietor told him the coach’s next stop, which would be a brief one simply to change horses.

But he added, “Just follow the Great Northern Road. You’ll catch her.” As Stratford mounted his horse again, he reflected that he had been trying to catch Emmeline his whole life. He’d tried for years to catch her attention and her interest, but she never treated him any differently than she treated anyone else in his family. And he would rather keep his feelings to himself than be made a fool of by announcing them when they were not returned. And so he would bring Emmeline back, preferably before his mother or aunt realized she was missing. In that case he’d be sent after her anyway, but his departure would be accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. If he could bring Emmeline back quickly and quietly, all the fuss and theatrics could be avoided. Not that Stratford believed bringing her back would be easy. She had some reason for running away, but she was generally a sensible woman.

She didn’t disappear onto the terrace with men at balls and didn’t drink too much at garden parties or offer to show her skill at the pianoforte at musicales. In fact, Stratford thought as he spurred his horse to a gallop in the hope of catching the coach before it advanced too far ahead, except for her tendency to be outspoken, she was no trouble to chaperone at all. She was a wallflower. What had gotten into her? Unfortunately, at the next posting house, he was told he had missed the coach by a half hour. By now he had to change his own horse, and he thought better of continuing on without sending some word to his family. He penned a note to the baron, stating the facts and reassuring the baron (though truth be told it was his aunt he was thinking of as the baron did not deign to read missives Stratford sent) that he would bring Emmeline back safely in no time at all. He sent the horse back with the note and informed the lad he sent that the baron would pay when he arrived. Stratford was a bit light on coin as he hadn’t expected to be traveling any further than the dining room this evening. And by now evening was descending. The summer days were long, the light lasting until eight or nine, but his stomach told him it was time for dinner.

Ignoring that rumbling, he continued on, adding starvation to the list of grievances he would present to Emmeline when he found her.

.

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