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Authors: Karen Ranney

A Borrowed Scot

BOOK: A Borrowed Scot
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A Borrowed Scot

Karen Ranney

Dedication

To Survivors

And you know who you are. . .

Keep up the good fight!

Chapter 1

Early spring, 1866

London

T
he damn fools were chanting.

He felt like an idiot, and Montgomery Fairfax wasn’t partial to playing the idiot.

The circle of men in their brown monks’ robes and cowls were muttering together as if they’d practiced this ritual for months, if not years. He could swear he heard beads clicking together as they shuffled into a circle.

Only two beeswax candles illuminated the drawing room. The candles, accompanied by various incense burners and a large brass statue of a naked female figure, sat on the mantel of a cold fireplace at the far end of the room. The incense was strong, a convergence of scents at once flowery and spicy, mixed with the warmth caused by too many people in too small a room.

He should never have listened to his solicitor.

“I’d recommend you take the mirror to the Mercaii, Your Lordship,” Edmund Kerr had said. “They can properly determine its provenance and origin.” Edmund had procured him an invitation to this gathering as well as providing him directions to the townhouse.

From that conversation, he had been given to believe the Society of the Mercaii was comprised of reasonably intelligent men whose purpose was to investigate, then dispel, anything abnormal or irrational.

Instead, he faced a group of chanting monks.

The robe he’d been given to wear was too short and the wool cowl made his face itch. He done what they’d asked, and pulled it close so he would remain anonymous. For that fact alone, he was grateful. At least no one of his recent acquaintance would learn of this idiotic exploit.

He knew enough Latin to recognize it was the language the men were chanting. Their voices were low, melodic, and not one of the so-called monks slipped in his recitation.

The circle parted, forming two half-moons. He clenched his hands, forced himself to relax even as he felt his heartbeat escalate.

He didn’t particularly like the unexpected.

A figure separated from the others, walked to the mantel, taking one of the candles. With great ceremony, he lit the candles the other men held in front of them. Because their hoods were drawn forward, he couldn’t see any of their faces, even after their candles had been lit.

The chanting grew louder; the flames flickered as a door opened in the opposite wall. A tall, black-robed figure entered, moving to the center of the group.

The man—the leader?—spoke Latin in a deep, rumbling voice. The monks answered him in one voice. The gathering had taken on the solemnity of a religious ceremony, but that wasn’t the only reason Montgomery was becoming increasingly uneasy.

According to instructions given him, he should have remained in the anteroom until officially summoned. He would have done so if the monks hadn’t passed him, chanting. His curiosity had made him follow, but now he wished he’d stayed in the other room, or even opted to leave.

The damn mirror could have remained a mystery for all he cared.

Another door opened, one he hadn’t noticed until that moment. A figure, clad in a blue robe, was supported by two monks and led through the circle to stand before the leader.

Mumbling something in Latin, the man in the black robe stepped forward and pulled the cowl from the supplicant’s head, revealing a woman with tumbling chestnut curls.

The crowd surged toward her, the atmosphere abruptly changing from a religious ceremony to one more predatory. A hungry and expectant pack of wild dogs ready to set upon a wounded deer.

He took a few steps to the right, to see the woman more clearly. Her face was pale, her profile nearly perfect. Pale pink lips were curved in a half smile; her eyes blinked slowly as if she had recently awakened.

She didn’t belong there but, then, neither did he.

Another brown-robed figure brought a bench into the circle. The woman was made to kneel upon it, and place her folded hands on the small ledge in front of her. A lit candle was placed between her hands, her fingers molded around it when she couldn’t hold it on her own.

From the way she was responding, he suspected she’d been drugged. Otherwise, she would have comprehended the danger implicit in the sudden eagerness of the men around him.

“Do you surrender your will to the Society?” the leader said, addressing the woman in clipped English.

She shook her head, then reconsidered when one of the men at her side bent to whisper something in her ear.

“Yes,” she said softly, almost too softly for him to hear.

He pushed past the first row of garbed members, ignoring the murmur of protests around him.

The woman was oddly ethereal, kneeling as she was, candlelight illuminating her face. She was looking up at the leader, an expression of solemn wonder on her face, her green eyes clear and guileless.

“Do you submit to the Society of the Mercaii?”

Again, she hesitated, then shook her head as if to clear it.

The leader bent forward, whispered something he couldn’t hear.

When she didn’t answer, the leader bent forward again. This time, his voice was louder. “Say: I surrender myself to the Society of the Mercaii.”

She closed her eyes, her head dropping forward.

Montgomery took another step toward her, knowing he couldn’t let the game play out to its conclusion.

The crowd around him pressed closer, evidently eager to see the rest. The men behind the leader parted, revealing a table draped with a white cloth.

He placed his hand against the pistol tucked into his jacket. A four-year-old habit of never going anywhere unarmed would prove helpful tonight. Reaching into his robe, he grabbed the handle of the mirror. If nothing else, the damn thing would serve as a second weapon.

Glancing at the woman, then the door, he calculated the distance. From what he’d seen of the British, they weren’t an overly confrontational sort. A Fairfax man knew when to fight and when to walk away.

He had to save the woman, but damned if it made him happy.

V
eronica found it difficult to sit upright, let alone kneel. She was forced to look up, and the position made her dizzy. The flame atop the candle she held was surrounded by a bright white halo.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have taken the drink they’d given her.

“It’ll take away the chill of the evening,” someone said, when she’d entered the house.

“I don’t drink spirits, sir,” she’d replied.

He’d smiled. “It isn’t spirits, my dear, just something to warm you.”

The man had been so kind and handsome, with blue eyes reminding her of a summer sky in Scotland. She’d not wanted to appear rude, so she’d taken the cup and finished it.

Had it contained spirits? Would that explain her sudden wish to sleep?

The members of the Society clustered around her. She wished they’d tell her what she needed to know. A happenstance, to have overheard a soft-voiced discussion at the tobacconists, when she’d gone to get Uncle Bertrand’s favorite tobacco. Against all rules of decorum, she’d addressed the man before he left the shop.

“We should be happy to have you in the Society,” he said, smiling. “We’re having another meeting the first Tuesday of next month. Would you be able to attend?”

“I will, thank you.” He’d given her the address, and she’d memorized it. She had no privacy at Uncle Bertrand’s house.

The days had passed too slowly until tonight, when she’d waited until everyone was asleep before creeping down the servants’ stairs and out the kitchen door. She’d made her way to a busy street, where she’d hired a carriage, behavior shocking enough to warrant punishment.

Now, she looked up at the leader of the Society, the same man she’d met at the tobacconist’s, and congratulated herself on being there. He would tell her everything she needed to know.

If she weren’t so very tired, she would ask him.

He took the candle from her, her palms missing its warmth immediately. She was icy inside, like a snowy winter night in Scotland. Would they give her a blanket if she asked? The words formed, then sat on her lips, falling into nothingness before being voiced.

She raised her hand, then stopped, fascinated by her fingers. All she had to do was think, and her fingers moved. She raised them in front of her face and wiggled each one, feeling the most absurd wish to giggle.

A lady didn’t giggle in the middle of company.

“Stand.”

He’d given her an order, and she would have obeyed, but her legs wouldn’t support her. She waved her fingers, instead. The men on either side of her helped her stand, then moved the bench out of the way. She smiled her thanks, amazed when her lips felt numb.

Both men gripped her elbows tightly, moved her closer to the leader. When they released her, she swayed on her feet. Glancing down, she saw the beautiful crimson carpet and thought it looked like blood pooling at her feet.

Where were her shoes?

The leader—had she ever learned his name?—leaned toward her like a buzzard perched upon a limb, waiting for its prey to die. He said something to her, but the words were lost in the curious fog surrounding her mind.

A chill was spreading through her body. She felt as if she were becoming slowly frozen. Everything was slower than it should have been, including her comprehension. When the two men led her to a table covered in cloth, a warning bell pealed, but any sense of danger felt distant and obscure.

The leader came and opened her robe, pushing it back from her shoulders. She no longer felt any kindness from him. Instead, he reminded her of something dark and dangerous and sharp: a cat’s claws, a parrot’s beak, a knifepoint. She took a step backward and realized that both men were standing stood behind her, blocking her escape.

Laughter came from far away. Were they laughing at her innocence or her gullibility? Or for her sheer naïveté to believe something good might come from her foolishness?

She should never have come. She should never have left Uncle Bertrand’s home.

A man ran a knife from the top of her collar all the way down her bodice. He cut through each successive layer of her clothing, ruining the expensive whalebone corset she’d inherited from her mother, as well as her only shift, one of the few garments she’d brought with her from Scotland.

When she was naked, she was lifted on to the table. Staring up at the rosette of plaster above her head, she told herself it was a dream. A garish sort of nightmare in which she was imagining horrible things.

People were looking at her. She could feel their gaze. The cloth was cold on her back, her buttocks, and thighs. Could she be cold in a dream? The tips of her toes were frozen, and her nose felt the same.

She heard the sound of laughter again. She was Veronica Moira MacLeod, the daughter of a Scots man of letters and his beloved wife. Her father had always told her that a question was the purpose of a trained mind. Why, then, was she being ridiculed for wanting answers to her questions?

The room was spinning, and the cold was growing worse. Was she dying?

She felt the brush of cloth against her feet and managed to raise her head. He was standing at the end of the table, stroking the back of the knife up her leg. She felt herself tremble, but couldn’t seem to move.

His hand was scorching on her skin, parting her knees.

The howl of a wolf startled her into semi-awareness. Wolves didn’t live in London. A blur of motion jarred her, made her jerk. She turned her head to see a man wrestling with the leader. He was shouting. Something bright and metallic caught her eye, like a pretty talisman dangling in the air.

Two men joined the fight. Thunder sounded, so close she couldn’t hear for a moment. The sky separated, rained down, pieces of it falling on her.

God had come, then, to rescue her. Thank You, God.

Her eyes were so heavy she could barely keep them open to see the struggle.

God was winning, but of course He would.

Suddenly, she was upright. No, not upright, but slung over someone’s shoulder. Did God carry a sinner in such a fashion?
Oh, God, I have sinned. Please forgive me.
Something hard was digging into her stomach, dislodging the ice. She wasn’t feeling very well suddenly and wanted to warn God.

She was miserably uncomfortable, her stomach lurching, her head whirling. Her bottom was cold.

He set her back on her feet, better for her stomach but worse for her head. The room was spinning again. She reached out and gripped God’s sleeve only to realize it wasn’t God at all, but a man, a stranger.

She tried to get her balance, realizing she wasn’t in the same room. Instead, she was in a hallway, being draped in a scratchy brown robe.

The stranger was gripping her wrist with one hand and pulling her after him. She stumbled behind him, wishing he would stop. They were descending steps, long, steep steps that made her dizzy. She flailed for the banister, heard an oath just before she was upended again.

A black cloud was falling over her, something dark and frightening and overwhelming, stripping her of thoughts and feelings.

She succumbed to it with a sharp feeling of regret.

BOOK: A Borrowed Scot
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