Scotland , 1807
It wasn’t easy being an enemy of the Duke of Colster, Charlotte Cameron thought bitterly as she clutched any handhold she could find to keep herself from being tossed and bounced around the inside of the ancient coach being pulled by shaggy, half-starved horses through the highland storm. If not for the Duke, she wouldn’t have had to accept a position as a governess for Laird Mackey’s children. She’d be back in London —where it was spring —and not in fear of the coach being blown over into some rocky gully.
In truth, the suddenness and ferocity of the highland storm had caught her completely by surprise. The day had started pleasantly with a promise of spring in the air. The wind had been strong but, she had been assured, nothing out of the ordinary.
She and the Laird’s drivers Klem and Fergus had left Fort William on the North Road . Apparently the Laird lived at the farthest north point of Scotland where, “Not even the Vikings dared to disturb us,” Fergus had informed her with pride. “This is a wee breeze compared to the winds off the Atlantic .”
His promise was not reassuring. Charlotte wasn’t certain she wanted to go to a place where even Vikings feared to tread—especially once the heavy winds kicked up into a storm that caused the coach to sway so strongly she feared they’d all toppled over into one of the rocky gorges on either side of the road. The road disappeared into two muddy ruts. She didn’t understand how the horses could continue pulling them forward.
But the worse part of this whole situation was that she was trapped inside the coach like a mouse caught in a cage. When the storm had first hit, she’d attempted to convince the drivers to pull over and stop until it had passed but they were apparently under Laird Mackey’s orders to get her to him as soon as earthly possible and were determined to do so. He was probably paying them handsomely for their dedication. After all, he had paid her first quarter’s wages to her in advance. That money had been her main reason for accepting the position, that and her pride. Now, she wondered if she may have been too hasty. It was as if they were in a mad race to reach Griorgair, but Charlotte didn’t know whom they were racing against.
If she lived through this storm—and that was a big if –she want to know why the Laird was so desperate for a governess he’d ordered his men to deliver her posthaste. The answer could be simple. He might be just an overly generous man. Or his children could be hellions who tied governesses to their beds and terrorized their parents.
Or he might have a more sinister motive, one in keeping with the character of the two drivers he had sent for her. Klem and Fergus both enjoyed her discomfort a bit too much. There were moments over these past two days when she’d sensed they shared a joke that didn’t bode well for her–
The earth seemed to drop out from under one side of the coach. Charlotte felt the wheels leave the road. She screamed, realizing they were in danger of tipping over.
Outside, her drivers cursed. One yelled, “Weight on the other side, weight on the other side.”
Charlotte grabbed her precious knitting bag and scrambled best she could toward the opposite door, bringing every ounce of weight at her disposal toward the task of preventing the coach from flipping.
For one breathless second, the vehicle seemed suspended over disaster.
And then, it jerked as the horses surged forward. The wheels hit the road with a teeth jarring bounce and the coach rolled to a stop.
Charlotte didn’t move. She was too busy thanking God that she was still alive.
The small door in the roof that served as a means of communication between the driver and the passenger slid open. “Did that give you the frights, miss?” Klem asked. In the gray light of the stormy day, his face appeared even more baleful.
“I did, Mr. Klem,” she responded, thankful that her voice was strong.
He cackled his pleasure. “Scared me, too.” His brogue was heavy. She had to listen hard to understand him. “The road had washed out. Fergus said we couldn’t go through it but I was out to prove him wrong. I should have listened to him.”
“You should indeed,” she agreed dryly, her pride refusing to let her yell at him for his stupidity. “Where is he now? I don’t hear him gloating.”
“He fell off.”
“Good heavens, is he all right?”
Rain splattered in though the door opening as he grinned at her. “He splashed around a bit but he’s climbing aboard,” he answered with his characteristic rustic humor. The coach gave to one side as she sensed Fergus climb back up into the seat.
“We must pull over and wait this storm out,” she insisted.
“No, can’t do that,” Klem assured her. “The laird would not be pleased.” He shut the door before she could argue. A beat later, she heard Fergus giving Klem the devil for his driving. Klem’s response was that he could have left Fergus back there. With a jerk, they were on their way again.
Her fingers trembled as she pulled out her knitting needles and wool and set to work. She knit when she was uncertain and when she needed to think a problem through. She knew she ran a risk of getting a bit sick by knitting while she traveled but feeling ill appeared to be the least of her problems.
She hated not being the one making decisions. She felt trapped in this coach like a mouse caught in a cage and Charlotte wasn’t one who enjoyed obeying another’s authority. She shouldn’t have been so eager to take Laird Mackey’s offer until she’d asked a few questions about him. Her pride that had pushed her to accept the position–but then, what other choice had she had?
Seven months earlier her sister Miranda had jilted the Duke of Colster by eloping with another man. Society had been scandalized. Apparently no one would ever think of rejecting a duke, especially one as powerful as Colster.
They obviously didn’t know Miranda.
Actually, it had never been Miranda’s idea to leave the Ohio frontier where she, Charlotte, and their youngest sister Constance had been raised and return to England . Charlotte had bullied her into it. Charlotte had wanted something more for herself and her sisters than living in a backwoods trading post their father had run. Their mother had been the daughter of an earl—a bankrupt one, but titled all the same. They had a heritage waiting for them in England and Charlotte wanted to not only claim it but escape the physical, often violent life in the wilderness. Ever since her mother and baby brother had been murdered by Indians, her one dream had been to escape.
The plan had been to send Miranda, the most lovely of the three of them, to England first to see if she could catch a wealthy husband who would then see to bringing Charlotte and Constance to over. It had been a good plan. Miranda had caught Colster’s eye, and she would have married him for the sake of her sisters. But then, Charlotte realized expecting Miranda to give up Alex Haddon, the man she truly did love, was wrong.
Charlotte would have explained it all to Colster if he hadn’t been so angry. She would have apologized and told him she knew how he felt. She’d once been jilted herself. She understood what it meant to be so publicly rejected.
Unfortunately, Colster had been beyond rational thought. Miranda and Alex were safely at sea, probably in the Orient or some other exotic place. However, back in England , Colster was doing everything in his power to see all doors were closed to she and Constance. No one would even speak to them. He was also attempting to close the doors of the firm Severson and Haddon, Ltd.
Well, Colster wasn’t the only one with pride. Charlotte could not stand the thought of the Seversons suffering for being kind to her and her sister. She also had to protect nineteen year old Constance at all costs. She’d found a school in Scotland that would take Constance and teach her what she needed to know to be a lady. Granted it was an unfashionable location, but it seemed Colster’s authority didn’t extend to the farthest regions of the kingdom, and perhaps that was another reason Laird Mackey’s offer appealed to her. First, she would have her own income and secondly, she doubted Highlanders had even heard of the Duke of Colster, let alone cared to follow his orders–
Suddenly, the coach came to a halt.
Charlotte braced herself. Now what?
“I need a ride to the next village,” she heard a man’s voice say outside to her drivers. An English voice, one with a note of authority as if he were a soldier or accustomed to being in command. He must have waved the coach down. “My horse lost his footing on the road and fell. Can you help me?”
“Where’s the horse now?” Charlotte heard Klem ask.
“Broke his leg. I had to put him down,” the man answered, his words terse. She could tell he was unhappy. “I’ll pay well for the ride and not trouble you once we reach an inn or village where I can hire a mount.”
The rain had let up a bit but it was still a wet, miserable day. Charlotte would not want to be stranded in this place. The man was probably knee-deep in mud. She waited for Klem or Fergus to answer.
They didn’t. They seemed perfectly content to make the stranger stand in the rain and beg.
After a few seconds of silence, she reached up and knocked on the trap door.
Klem slid it open. “Yes, Miss?”
“Give the man a ride.”
For a second he stared at her before drawling, “Are you certain, Miss?”
Charlotte couldn’t understand why he was challenging her. On the frontier, a person didn’t hesitate to help another in distress. “Of course I’m certain.”
“Aye then.” He closed the door and she heard him say to the stranger, “The lady says you can join her in the coach.”
That wasn’t exactly what Charlotte had said, and she was irritated that Klem had phrased it that way.
However, the gentleman was grateful. “May I put my saddle and tack in the boot?” he asked.
Klem must have nodded because a moment later, Charlotte felt the lid lift on the storage boot located on the other side of the wall behind her seat, then slam shut. His footsteps squished in the mud.
The horses were restless to get moving in the rain. They took a step or two forward and Fergus shouted at them to quiet.
The door opened.
Gathering her knitting into its bag, Charlotte slid across the seat to give him room.
The coach gave under his weight as he climbed in, his hatless head bowed against the elements. “Thank you,” he said, taking a moment to shake out the drenched great coat he’d removed before joining her. “I was afraid I’d have to walk for miles on this lonely road before I’d see anyone–”
He stopped, obviously as surprised to see her as she was him.
Charlotte couldn’t speak. She could barely think. Here was Colster, as wet as a drowned rat and looking every inch the Duke.
His grace appeared equally surprised. He didn’t pretend not to recognize her. His mouth flattened and he reached for the door to climb back out.
However, with the crack of the whip, Klem set the horses in motion. The coach jumped forward, propelling Colster forward to land on top of Charlotte .