Kilbridden Village, Scotland
“I’ll work very hard, I promise.”
“Gimme your hands.”
Beatrice Sinclair stretched out her hands. Because she was trembling, she placed them palm up on the bar.
“You’ve got calluses all right. But you look like you’d fall over after a few hours of good work. I need a healthy lass, one who can be on her feet twelve hours.”
“I’ll be your best worker. I’ll even work for free the first week to prove it.”
“Can you wipe a table down in the wink of an eye? Or give a little saucy wiggle to the patrons?”
“Laugh at my customers’ jokes, even if they be sorry ones?”
“You don’t look the type my customers like. You’re too pale, and you’ve got an air about you.” He frowned. “Are you sick?”
“I’m very healthy.”
“Then why are you shaking?”
“I’m just cold.”
He didn’t look as if he believed her.
“Who told you I was looking for another tavern wench?”
“The owner of the Sword and Dragon.”
“Went there, did you? Bet he wanted someone younger.”
“He said he didn’t have need for another helper.”
“That’s not true. His business has been near as good as mine. For the last half year, at least. Before that, no one came to drink or talk.” He began to wipe down the bar with a spotted rag, looking as if he were thinking about the matter. “Did you have the sickness?”
She shook her head again, afraid to tell him the truth. But all the assurances in the world wouldn’t matter. The minute the tavern maid entered the room Beatrice knew she’d lost the post. She couldn’t wear a blouse that revealed all her assets or a skirt that bared her ankles. Nor was she given to simpering smiles or come hither looks. While she didn’t object to dispensing spirits, she wasn’t about to sell herself along with them.
The innkeeper grinned. Several teeth were missing, and the effect was more of a leer.
“Go up to Castle Crannoch. They’ll have a job for you.”
She’d heard of Castle Crannoch ever since coming to Kilbridden Village, but she’d never considered it a source of employment.
He jerked his chin toward the ceiling.
“Aye, where the duke lives. Go ask the duke for a job. He’ll give you one, but I won’t.”
Beatrice tightened her hands on her reticule and thanked the tavern owner with as much grace as she could muster. She’d come all this way for nothing.
She left the inn, and stood outside. The cold rain seeped through her thin dress, a reminder that she’d traded her cloak for a sack of flour and a few eggs a week ago. Beatrice tightened her shawl around her hair, held it closed with one hand at her neck and looked up at the mountain in front of her.
Castle Crannoch stood at the very top, overlooking the village. The fortress dominated the countryside, visible to anyone approaching, a sentinel of the past that looked capable of protecting its inhabitants well into the future.
Occasionally, word would seep down from the top of the mountain as to the lives of the occupants of Castle Crannoch. There had been tragedy there not long ago, she recalled. But her own life had been so difficult that she’d paid the gossip little attention.
The castle was oddly shaped, constructed as if it were a large box with a smaller box pulled from inside it. The two square buildings sat adjacent to each other atop the mountain, the smaller structure in stages of disrepair, the larger box topped by four turrets. The only way to the place was up a long and winding road. Not only did her legs ache but the climb looked be a frightening one.
A voice, sounding too much like her father’s, spoke against the fierce wind. Do not go, Beatrice. No single woman of good character would seek employment there. There were rumors about Castle Crannoch.
She no longer had a choice.
Slowly, she began to walk up the winding road, praying for endurance. She wouldn’t allow herself to look up at the castle again. Doing so would only make the task seem interminable. She concentrated, instead, on putting one foot in front of the other, leaning into the rain.
Her shawl was sodden, but she tightened it around her head, holding it close at the neck. How long had she been walking? Hours? Surely not that long.
She heard the sound of the carriage and eased closer to the parapet. In the darkness she couldn’t see the drop, but her imagination furnished the distance in her mind, adding jagged peaks and huge boulders at the bottom of the ravine.
The approaching carriage was a blur of motion, a dark shadow against the wall. Four horses pulled the ebony shape, the lead pair adorned with gleaming silver appointments. Twin lanterns, also silver, sat on either side of the door, but they were unlit, leaving her to wonder if the occupant of such a magnificent carriage wanted privacy. Or secrecy.
The coach took up the full of the road, forcing her to the edge. Beatrice gripped the wall with her frayed gloves, and felt them tear further. Was God punishing her for her daring, for her journey, for the thought of working in such a place as the duke’s lair?
Only the curving half wall stood between her and the abyss. She held her breath as the carriage passed her, the stallions from hell blending back into the shadows, their silver appointments winking out of sight.
Was it Black Donald, the devil himself?
If so, it appeared he was not quite ready to abandon her.
The carriage halted on the next curve as if waiting for her. She gripped her reticule with both hands in front of her as if the small bag was able to offer some protection. She debated waiting until it moved forward, but the rain was getting heavier. She had to make it to Castle Crannoch tonight.
Just as she would have walked by, the door abruptly opened. She stopped, halted not only by curiosity, but by fear. She was cold, wet, and exhausted, but cautious all the same.
“The road is dangerous.” A human voice, low and deeply pitched. “You could easily have been run down by my horses.”
The coachman didn’t turn but remained huddled beneath his greatcoat.
Beatrice took one step forward. “Your horses were taking up the center of the road, sir.”
“They are skittish of heights, and since they are so valuable, they are allowed to travel down the middle of the road if they wish.”
“As opposed to people, sir, who must travel at the edge of it?”
“It’s raining. The least I could do is offer you safe passage to Castle Crannoch.”
She almost asked if he worked there before the foolishness of that question struck her. He was riding in a luxurious carriage, pulled by magnificent horses. He was probably the duke himself.
She would be foolish to accept a ride in a strange carriage. Almost as foolish as declining such an offer. The heavens growled overhead as if to convince her. The door opened wider, and she entered the carriage, stepping over his long legs to sit opposite the stranger.
Two small pierced silver lanterns illuminated the interior. As the flame flickered, dots of light danced across the blue cushions and silk of the ceiling.
“Why are you going to the castle?”
He wasn’t the least reticent about prying into her concerns.
She debated whether or not to answer him and then realized his curiosity might well be the payment she owed for the ride up the mountain. She looked down at her clasped hands.
“I had hoped to obtain a position.”
“Had you? They are notoriously parsimonious at Castle Crannoch. Did you know that?”
She shook her head.
He was, her rescuer, a man she would have noticed in any setting. His face was absolutely faultless; the nose, chin, and forehead perfectly crafted like the sculpture of an archangel she’d once seen. His hair was brown with touches of gold, and his eyes were so dark a brown as to appear black, and so arresting she felt as if he could pin her to the seat with his gaze.
One corner of his mouth curved up slightly, in amusement or a wry acknowledgement of her examination. Surprisingly, a dimple appeared in his cheek, and it was this particular feature she studied with great care.
Surely a man with a dimple could not be evil?
“Have you seen enough?” he asked finally.
“I have noted your appearance, sir. But appearance does not matter in this world.”
“No doubt a homily told to you by an ugly woman. Ugly women are the only ones who think appearance does not matter.”
“Have you ever heard of the story of the Ant and the Chrysalis?”
He looked intently at her for a moment, as if attempting to ascertain whether or not she’d lost her wits.
Without waiting for a response, she began to speak. “Once upon a time there was an ant and a chrysalis. It was very nearly at its time of change, and the only thing visible in the shell was a long tail that attracted the attention of an ant. He saw that this strange being was alive, and walked up to it and addressed the shell.
“I’m very sorry for your fate. I’m an ant, you see, and able to walk and run and play if I wish. Poor you, for being trapped in such an ugly shell.”
The chrysalis didn’t bother to respond. All of its energy was spent in its transformation.
A few days later, however, the ant was climbing a small hill, allowing himself to fall, and then running up the hill again laughing at his own silliness.
He felt a breeze upon the back of his head and turned to find a large blue and purple butterfly hovering in the air. “Dear ant,” the butterfly said. “Do not pity me. I can fly whereas you can only walk.”
The moral of this story is that appearances are deceptive.”
“And you thought me a butterfly?”
“No. I thought you were Black Donald.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Satan might be a tempting master, but he demands eternal servitude.”
He laughed, the carriage filling with the sound.
When she didn’t respond to his amusement, a corner of his lip curved up in an almost smile.
“Does your virtue shelter you, then? Is that why you don’t appear afraid? If I were Black Donald, I would think you’d be trembling in terror.”
“Do you often do this? Insist upon demonstrating an act of kindness only to ridicule the person foolish enough to accept it?”
“Do you often chastise your hosts?”
“Stop the carriage and let me out. I shall trouble you no more.”
“Don’t be foolish. It’s night and not safe for a lone female. Besides, we’re there.”
In the next moment, the carriage slowed and then stopped.
Beatrice slid her finger alongside the leather shade, peering into the darkness. A face leered at her, one so startling that she dropped the shade.
“Has something frightened you?”
“No,” she said, not altogether certain the face she’d seen was real. Perhaps it was something she’d only seen in her mind.
The man opposite her reached over and opened the carriage door.
She hesitated, unwilling to face the monster outside the carriage. Her rescuer took her delay for the fear it was, but it was obvious he didn’t fully understand it.
“I have not gnawed on a pretty virgin for many years. You’re safe enough with me.”
She doubted any virgin was safe with him, but she didn’t stay to argue the point with him.
Instead, she pointed one toe out the door. The cold night air caressed her ankle, reminding her that time was passing too quickly. It was already dark and she had to meet with the duke. She still had to make it down the mountain again, but she doubted she had the strength to walk the five miles back to her cottage. She’d probably have to find shelter on the side of the road in the rain. The thunder overhead punctuated that thought with a dull, ominous roar.
As she emerged from the carriage, the wind tugged at her dress revealing her petticoat. A hand flew to her bonnet to keep it anchored, while the other pressed against her skirt.
The creature materialized as she navigated the last step, He was tall and chunky, with thick bands of muscle where his shoulders would be. The uniform he wore was ill-fitting, his wrists hanging beyond the cuffs. His face was misshapen, as if the bones of his face had been broken once and never properly healed. His eyes, however, were alert and kind, his gaze now fixed on her face.
“Bienvenu a Chateau Crannoch,” he said, in soft but perfect French.
Surprised, she only nodded back at him.
He translated his words, bowing slowly to her from his impressive height. “Welcome to Castle Crannoch.”
“Merci,” she said. “Il est mon plaisir.” How much of a pleasure was doubtful, especially since the giant had made no effort to open the tall oak arched doors. Beatrice doubted if she could manage one of the iron studded pair by herself.
“How may I assist you, mademoiselle?”
Must she get through this giant to reach the duke himself? Her stomach rumbled, vying in sound with the approaching storm itself.
“I have come to speak with the duke about a position.”
The giant looked at her curiously but said nothing. Instead, his attention was drawn to something behind her. Without turning, Beatrice knew the stranger had emerged from the carriage.
Her stomach clenched as he moved to stand too close behind her. She straightened her shoulders, avoiding the temptation to turn and ask him to move aside. He would be waiting for her to do something just that foolish. Or perhaps he was goading her to do so.
“The duke is not available, Mademoiselle.”
“It’s all right, Gaston, I’ll see to the lady.”
“If you’re sure, Mr. Devlen.”
She turned to face him. He smiled down at her, nearly as tall as the giant, Gaston.
“Devlen?” His name was too close to devil. She had been transported here by Black Donald himself.
“Devlen Gordon. And you are?” He inclined his head, waiting.
“I’ll take Miss Sinclair to see my father, Gaston.”
“Your father is the duke?”
“No, but be certain to address him as such, it would please him immeasurably.”
He offered her his arm, leaving Beatrice with the choice of refusing his chivalry or touching him. After a moment, he dropped his arm, ending her indecision and her options. She had no alternative but to follow him as he strode up the steps.