Scot and I
by Elizabeth Thornton
Publisher: Berkley Publishing
Pub. date: June 2009
Castle, July 1885
The moment he set eyes on her, Alex knew
that this woman was going to be trouble. Though she was pretty enough
and trim enough to catch the eye of any red-blooded male, that was
not the kind of trouble he had in mind. He was thinking about the
case he was working on, wondering if she could be the one.
It was the blond hair that made her stand out. In this corner of the Highlands of Deeside, the natives were mostly dark haired Celts like himself. This young woman had the look of an English rose. He was sure that her eyes would be blue.
She turned her head quickly, as though she realized
that someone was studying her, and their eyes brushed and held. In the split
second before she tore her gaze from his, he felt it, a ripple of recognition,
like a tiny electric current passing through his brain. Strange when he knew
that he had never met the woman.
Watch her, Hepburn, he told himself.
After watching her wander among the assembled guests as though she were looking for a friend, Alex dismissed her from his mind. She seemed harmless enough. Besides, it wasn’t a woman he was looking for but a man. Ca
bheil sibh, Mac an diaboil? Where are you, son of the devil?
A voice at his elbow said softly, “Her Majesty is about to make her entrance. What happens now?” The speaker was Alex’s brother, Gavin. Though the resemblance between them was striking, Gavin’s manner and expression possessed a charm that was entirely lacking in Alex.
“Now we wait,” Alex responded.
His gaze traveled the crush of guests in the castle’s ballroom, noting that the cream of Scotland’s Highland society had come to pay its respects to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. There would be no dancing at this reception. Since her husband’s death, the queen had retired into semi-obscurity. Frivolity was now frowned upon.
A silence fell as the doors to the queen’s gallery opened and Her Majesty entered, flanked by her kilted guard of honor. Alex had positioned himself to watch the guests. He was scanning faces, seeking out anything and everything that struck him as odd. He hoped that his counterpart on the other side was not as vigilant because he’d soon deduce that this trumped-up drama was a lie, a carefully choreographed trap to ensnare a traitor.
The “queen” was not the queen but only someone who resembled her; the ‘footmen” in their dark green coats and tartan sashes were not footmen but police officers. He was not part of the official operation, but worked alone and reported only to his section chief, Commander Durward, and in his absence, as now, to Dickens, the local man in charge of security.
Gavin had no part in the operation. He was one of the guests, but he’d known that something was up when his elder brother had arrived at the family’s fishing and hunting lodge the week before. They expected trouble at the queen’s reception, Alex had told him. He’d also told Gavin to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open, and that was the only part Alex would allow him to play. At the moment, Gavin was weaving in and out of the guests, doing much the same as Alex was.
As the queen and her escort began to process slowly down the aisle that her aides had cleared for her, every head was lowered. The ladies skirts rustled as they made their curtsies. Alex’s bow was perfunctory. When he looked up he saw the blond haired woman moving quickly toward him. The thought had hardly registered when she raised a revolver that had been concealed in the folds of her skirts and pulled the trigger. He heard the deafening report of the gun going off, felt the whizz of the bullet as it missed him by a hair, heard the groan of someone behind him who had been hit, then he braced himself as the crush of screaming guests surged and ebbed like waves on an angry sea. It was a relief to see that the queen’s guard had closed ranks around “Her Majesty” and were hustling her look-alike up the gallery stairs and out of the reception area. When a second shot rang out, however, and hit the chandelier overhead, making it teeter alarmingly, the panicked crowd rushed for the set of French doors giving on to the gardens. The “footmen” could do nothing to hold them back.
Alex scanned the pulsating wave of people forcing their way out. There was nary a sign of the woman with blond hair.
“Gavin,” he shouted above the din, “look for a woman with blond hair. Don’t let her get away.” He gestured to the exit he thought she would have made for.
Gavin nodded and pushed his way through the crowd.
Muttering a furious curse, Alex went down on bended knee to tend to the wounded man. He was younger than Gavin by a year or two and his face was vivid with color. “Did you see that?” the young man demanded. “Someone tried to murder me!”
The bullet had lodged in his arm, just below the elbow, and though the wound was bleeding profusely, he did not appear to be in any danger. After fishing in his pocket for his handkerchief, Alex folded it into a pad and told the young man to use it to stem the flow of blood.
He was beside himself with fury. He’d misjudged the scheming bitch. He’d been confident that, even if she were the assassin—and it didn’t seem likely that a woman would be up to the job—she wasn’t in a position to get off a clear shot at the queen. It had never occurred to him that he would be her target. And he had no doubt that it was he and not the man whom she’d accidentally shot. With him out of the way, she’d have a clear shot at her real target. That bullet had missed him by a hair. It was a miracle he was still breathing.
A moment or two later, breathless from his exertions, Gavin returned. In his hand, he held a blond wig. “I found this on the terrace,” he said. “It’s possible that she’s one of the guests the footmen are rounding up for questioning, or she may be panicked and making for the river.”
“She won’t be.” She was too cool and too clever not to have a well thought out escape route in place. He got up, helped the wounded man to rise and, taking the wig from Gavin, stuffed it into his pocket. “Get this gentleman—what is your name, by the way?”
“Ramsey.” The young man grimaced in pain. “Ronald Ramsey.”
“Get Mr. Ramsey medical attention, then meet me in the courtyard.”
“Lean on my arm, Mr. Ramsey,” said Gavin soothingly. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Gavin Hepburn and the gentleman you just met, he of few words, and all of them orders, is my brother, Alex. We are the Hepburns of Feughside. Are you visiting in the area? I ask because I don’t recognize your face.”
As Gavin led Ramsey away, Alex strode for the exit. He admired his brother’s tactics. Gavin might appear to be engaged in a casual conversation, but he was, in effect, getting the man’s statement. There would be many statements taken tonight, and many frayed tempers before these exalted guests could get to their beds.
On the terrace, he cleared his mind and took a moment to study the lie of the land. In the Highlands, the sun set early. Off to his left, he could see the sun’s rosy rim as it disappeared behind the peaks of the Cairngorms. In front of him was the path to the river. A forest of trees obscured the view as did the forest of guests who were now being herded back into the castle.
He closed his eyes and shut off the active part of his brain.
All his senses were humming, but the one sense that might be of use to him, his sixth sense, had obviously dozed off.
His sixth sense. It wasn’t a joke. It was a legacy from his granny, the celebrated Witch of Drumore, as the superstitious country folk called her. Much good it had done him. He couldn’t read minds or hear voices. The best he could say about it was that it sometimes pointed him in the right direction. But when he needed it most, such as now, it would desert him like a fickle woman.
Where was the wench? How did she know that he was the one to take down before trying for the queen? He was supposed to be a secret service agent, for God’s sake. He was supposed to blend in with the crowd. But more important than any of that was where was the woman now?
He dug in his coat pocket, produced the blond wig and crushed it between his fingers. He felt it again, a ripple of recognition, like a tiny electric current, passing through his brain. He rubbed it against his cheek and the current became stronger, more compelling.
His dark brows snapped together as he tried to recall every small detail of the woman who had bested him at his own game.
Average height. Delicately sculpted features. A slender figure set off by a gown that wasn’t showy but was suitable for the occasion, a gray-blue silk, as he remembered. Her eyes were blue . . . no, not blue, but gray, as gray and clear as the waters of the river Dee on a fine day. She baffled him and intrigued him. Why had he singled her out? Was it his training as an agent? Was it his sixth sense? Or was it something else? And why hadn’t he acted on his first impression, that this woman was going to be trouble?
He put the wig to his face and inhaled.
A picture formed in his mind. He saw a young man, a boy really, in tartan trews and bonnet, kneeling beside a spring of crystal clear water. The boy scooped some water into his cupped hands and drank greedily. Behind him rose the peaks of the Cairngorms.
That was better. His sixth sense was working just as it should. He couldn’t read minds or get premonitions from his dreams as others with his gift were able to do. His gift was most potent when he touched objects that belonged to his quarry. And that was what the blond woman was now, his quarry. The boy in his vision was surely her accomplice.
“So there you are.” Gavin’s voice came to him as though from a great distance. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
The picture in Alex’s mind instantly dissolved. He thrust the wig into his pocket. “I was lost in thought. Did you find anything out from Mr. Ramsey?”
“Damn little. He says that he didn’t see anything. He’s quite shaken up. Well, he would be, wouldn’t he? All he wants is to go home and forget the whole thing.”:
“He must have seen the woman with the gun.”
“He insists that he didn’t see anything. One moment he was looking at the queen and the next, a bullet slammed into his arm.” Gavin propped one elbow on the parapet and peered up at Alex. “Are you sure it was a woman?” When Alex turned his head and gave his brother a straight look, Gavin shrugged. “Sorry I asked. Of course, you’re sure. It’s just that it seems criminal to me to involve a woman in this kind of dirty work.”
“Gavin, ” Alex’s voice was pleasantly modulated, “they are criminals, traitors, in fact, and the woman must be one of their prime operators. She is bold, brave and resourceful. I’ll tell you something else. She meant to kill me, not Mr. Ramsey. With me out of the way, she’d have a clear shot at the queen.”
Gavin stood stock still. Finally, he said irritably, “What’s going on, Alex? You’ve told me very little. I’m picking things up in dribs and drabs.”
“I’ve told you as much as you need to know and only because you’re my brother and I trust you implicitly.”
“You’re not acting as though you trust me.”
Their eyes met, one seer of Grampian to another. Gavin’s gift was to put ideas into his subjects’ minds. Alex knew that if he wasn’t careful, he would be blabbing like a baby, telling Gavin all his secrets.
Smiling a little, Alex replied, “I’m up to all your tricks, brother, so don’t even think of meddling with my mind. I trust you more than I trust anyone. Let that suffice.”
“Don’t you trust your colleagues?”
“Up to a point.” He was becoming irritable, and when Gavin opened his mouth to say more, Alex cut him off. “Look I shouldn’t be telling you anything. You’re not in the game. All I’ll say is that someone took a pot shot at me tonight and I mean to find her.”
These somber words were followed by a long, reflective silence. At length, Gavin said, “I don’t suppose that erratic muse of yours can show us which way she went?”
“That depends.” Alex looked toward the peaks. “Tell me, Gavin, where are we most likely to find a spring of ice-cold water?”
“In the mountains.” Gavin took one look at Alex’s expression and said slowly, “Where did that idea come from? Your muse?”
“Where else would I get a damn fool idea like that? We’d best get a move on.”
“Are you joking? It will soon be as black as pitch out there and it gets damn cold in these mountains. Why can’t we wait till morning?”
“And give her a headstart? Not on your life.”
A slow grin creased Gavin’s face.
“What?” Alex demanded.
“In spite of your words, brother, I think I’ve just been invited into the game.”
A little later, Gavin observed, “The castle is locked up like a prison. They’re not likely to give us horses. We’re supposed to be guests, remember? They’ll want to question us.”
“They’ll give us horses,” said Alex, “or Her Majesty will want to know the reason why.” He held up his hand. “Watch me, little brother, and see how it’s done.”
“The last time you said that to me,” replied Gavin moodily, “I broke my arm when I fell out of our tree house.”
Alex’s only response was a grin, but it soon faded. As they struck out toward the stable, he was thinking of the woman, remembering another time and place, when another pretty woman, a blond, no less, had led him and three of his agents into a deadly trap.