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Authors: Kerrigan Byrne

The Highwayman

BOOK: The Highwayman
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To Darlene Ainge

You're the reason he survived.

 

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

Writing can be a very solitary vocation, and the right people to offer support, critiques, and encouragement are more than priceless. Cynthia St. Aubin, Tiffinie Helmer, and Janet Snell, thank you for being there morning and night. I've been able to count on you personally and professionally and it's meant the world to me.

One of the best days of my life was when my agent, Christine Witthohn, called to offer me representation. She's not only a stellar agent, but an incredible friend.

I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Monique Patterson, Alexandra Sehulster, and the team at St. Martin's Press for their patience and their incredible hard work on behalf of this series.

And thank you to my love. My very own hero. You are my everything.

 

C
HAPTER
O
NE

Scottish Highlands, County Argyle, 1855

Blood ran down Dougan Mackenzie's forearms as he crouched against the ancient stone wall separating the grounds of Applecross Orphanage from the wild mountains beyond. None of the other children ventured here. The wall protected the stooped and faded headstones that rose from thick carpets of moss and heather fed by the bones of the dead.

Chest heaving, Dougan took a moment to catch his breath before sliding down to sit with his knobby legs drawn against his chest. Carefully, he opened his palms as far as the broken skin would allow. They hurt worse now than when the sharp switch had bitten into them.

Black emotion had kept him from crying out as Sister Margaret tried her level best to break him. It kept the tears from falling until now. He'd met her cold, bright eyes with his own, unable to stop his blink as the strap had come down again and again until the welts on his palms had split and bled.

“Tell me why you're crying.”

The slight voice seemed to calm the intemperate wind into an invisible ribbon that carried the gentle words to him.

The craggy black and green highland peaks jutting from behind the gray stone of Applecross formed the perfect backdrop for the girl who stood not three spans away. Instead of lashing at her, the stormy wind tossed and teased at ringlets so astonishingly blond, they appeared a silvery-white. Round, pale cheeks, slashed with red by the cold, dimpled over a shy smile.

“Go away,” he snarled, tucking his smarting hands beneath his arms and kicking a clod of dirt at her clean black dress.

“Did you lose your family, too?” she queried, her face a study in curiosity and innocence.

Dougan still couldn't manage to form words. He flinched as she lifted the hem of her white apron to his cheek, but he let her ever so carefully wipe at the tears and grime she found there. Her touch was light as butterfly wings, and entranced him so thoroughly, he stopped trembling. What should he say? Dougan had never spoken to a
girl
before. He could answer her question, he supposed. He had lost his mother, but he wasn't an orphan. In fact, most of Applecross's orphans weren't children but terrible secrets, hidden away and forgotten like the shameful mistakes they all were.

Whose secret was she?

“I saw what Sister Margaret did to you,” the girl said gently, her eyes gleaming with pity.

Her pity lit a fire born of humiliation and helplessness in Dougan's chest and he jerked his head to the side, avoiding her touch. “I thought I told ye to leave.”

She blinked. “But your hands—”

With a savage snarl, Dougan surged to his feet and lifted his hand, ready to strike the pity from her angelic features.

She cried out as she fell backward on her rump, cowering on the ground beneath him.

Dougan paused, his face tight and burning, his teeth bared and his body coiled to strike.

The girl just looked up at him, horrified, her eyes locked on the bleeding wound on his open palm.

“Get out of here,” he growled. She scrambled away from him, gaining unsteady feet, and scampered a wide berth around the fenced graveyard, disappearing into the orphanage.

Dougan slumped back against the rocks, his trembling knuckles brushed the back of his cheek. The lass had been the first person to ever touch him in a way that wasn't meant to hurt. He didn't know why he'd been so nasty to her.

Dougan ducked his head against his knees and closed his eyes, settling in for a right proper wallow. The chilly moisture on the back of his burning neck felt good, and he tried to focus on that instead of the stinging pain of his hands.

Not five wretched minutes passed before a bowl of clean water appeared in the space between his feet. A cup, this one full of a liquid the color of caramel, joined it.

Astonished, Dougan looked up to find that the girl had returned, except now she brandished a long and dangerous-looking pair of scissors and a determined wrinkle between her brows.

“Let me see your hands.”

Hadn't he sufficiently frightened her away? Dougan eyed the scissors with suspicion. They looked both gigantic and sharp in her tiny hand. “What are those for? Protection? Revenge?”

His question produced that gap-toothed smile of hers, and his heart did a little leap and landed in his stomach.

“Don't be silly,” she chided gently as she set them aside and reached for his hands.

Dougan jerked them both away from her reach, and scowled as he hid them behind his back.

“Here now,” she coaxed. “Give them over.”

“Nay.”

Her brow puckered further. “How am I supposed to doctor your wounds if you insist on hiding them from me?”

“Ye're not a doctor,” Dougan spat. “Leave me be.”

“My father was a captain in the Crimea,” she patiently explained. “He learned a little about doctoring cuts so they didn't fester on the battlefield.”

That arrested his attention. “Did he kill people?” Dougan asked, unable to help himself.

She thought about this a moment. “He had good many medals pinned to the coat of his uniform, so I think he must have, though he never said so.”

“I'll bet he used a rifle,” Dougan said, diverted by thoughts he deemed manly and grown-up. Thoughts of war and glory.

“And a bayonet,” the girl supplied helpfully. “I got to touch it once when he was cleaning his weapon by the fire.”

“Tell me what it was like,” he demanded.

“Let me tend your hands, and I will.” Her sea-storm eyes sparkled at him.

“Very well.” Cautiously, he pulled his wounded hands from behind him. “But ye have to start from the beginning.”

“I will,” she promised with a solemn nod.

“And doona leave anything out.”

“I won't.” She picked up the cup of water.

Dougan leaned forward and extended his palm toward her.

She winced at the broken flesh, but cradled his wounded hand in both of hers like one would a baby bird, before reaching for the bowl of water to trickle it over the cut. When he snarled in pain, she began to describe her father's rifle to him. The way the little coils fit together. The clicking noises of the levers. The silt and stench and sparkle of the black powder.

She poured the alcohol over his wounds, and Dougan hissed breath through his teeth, trembling with the effort it took not to snatch his hands away from her. To distract himself from the pain, he focused his blurring vision on the droplets of moisture collecting like diamonds in her abundant curls. Instead of making her hair heavy and straight, the rain seemed to coil the ringlets tighter and anoint the silvery strands with a darker gloss of spun gold. His finger itched to test the curls, to twirl and pull them, and see if they bounced back into place. But he kept absolutely still while she wrapped the strips of her petticoat around his palm with painstaking care.

“Tell me yer name,” he demanded in a hoarse whisper.

“My name is Farah.” He could tell the question pleased her because a tiny dimple appeared in her cheek. “Farah Leigh—” She cut off abruptly, frowning at the tidy knot she'd just produced.

“Aye?” he said alertly. “Farah Leigh—what?”

Her eyes were more gray than green when they met his. “I've been forbidden to utter my family name,” she said. “Or I'll get me and the person I told into trouble, and I don't think you need any more trouble.”

Dougan nodded. That wasn't so uncommon here at Applecross. “I'm Dougan of the Clan Mackenzie,” he announced proudly. “And I have eleven years.”

She looked properly impressed, which ingratiated her to him even more.

“I have eight years,” she told him. “What did you do that was so wicked?”

“I—swiped a loaf from the kitchens.”

She looked appalled.

“I'm so bloody hungry all the time,” he muttered, not missing her flinch at his profanity. “Hungry enough to eat the moss off those rocks.”

Farah tied off the last bandage and leaned back on her knees to inspect her work. “This is a lot of punishment for one loaf of bread,” she observed sadly. “Those welts will probably scar.”

“It's not the first time,” Dougan admitted with a shrug more cavalier than he actually felt. “It's usually my arse that gets blistered, and I'd rather that. Sister Margaret said I'm a demon.”

“Dougan the Demon.” She smiled, thoroughly amused.

“Better than Fairy-lee.” He chuckled, playing with her name.

“Fairy?” Her eyes twinkled at him. “You can call me that if you want to.”

“I will.” Dougan's lips cracked, and he realized that for the first time in as long as he could remember, he was smiling. “And what will ye call me?” he asked.

“Friend,” she said instantly, pushing up from the damp ground and brushing loose earth from her skirts before she picked up her bowl and cup.

Peculiar warmth stole into Dougan's chest. He didn't quite know what to say to her.

“I'd better go inside.” She lifted her wee face to the rain. “They'll be looking for me.” Meeting his eyes again, she said. “Don't stay out in the rain, you'll catch your death.”

BOOK: The Highwayman
4.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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