A Scot Worth Having
Gortlick Manor, Scotland
April 16, 1746
“He’s coming here?” Cailin MacLeod dropped the towel he’d been using to wipe blood and grime off his face and stared at his uncle in disbelief. “Here to Gortlick? Now? We are to gather at Ruthven in Badenoch two days hence for a general review. The coward ordered as much as he fled the battlefield.”
“Guard yer tongue, lad,” Lord Lovat grumbled around the mouthful of mutton he’d gnawed off the bone. “’Tis the son of our future king ye speak of.”
“Och, ye dinnae believe it will come to that any more than I,” Coll scoffed as he flung his claymore and scabbard on the table. Sitting at the far end of the table, he reached for a platter of meat. The blood shed that day had turned his stomach. The sacrifices made left his innards in such knots he might well cast up his accounts with a single bite. However, his body was in need of sustenance. Weeks…nay, months of following the drum with only the most meager meals had taken its toll on him.
On them all.
This day it hadn’t been only his body that had been weakened. It was his spirit. His faith and confidence that all he had sacrificed for would come to pass.
“I do believe it. I maun,” his uncle countered. “Charles Edward and his men are on their way. Ye will treat him wi’ deference. We will all treat him wi’ deference.”
“He disnae deserve our deference, uncle.”
Coll stared down at the leg of mutton then to the pool of red on the platter around it. Pushing it aside, he reached for a glass of whisky instead. He’d sworn his fealty to Prince Charles Edward Stuart. After the skirmish at Falkirk, the future had appeared promising. In the aftermath of today’s defeat? Coll’s confidence in the prince’s ability to lead a nation—much less a rebellion—was shaken.
“It was a debacle right from the start. He kent it. I swear to God he kent it,” he told his uncle. “Do ye ken what he said? ‘’Tis nae matter then. We shall meet them and behave like brave fellows.’ One would laugh at the irony if the outcome had no’ been so devastating.”
Downing his whisky in a single swallow, Coll held it aloft for a waiting servant to refill. He lifted it to his lips once more, then paused to stare down at the amber liquid with some disgust. Not for the quality of the drink but for the needless yet overwhelming loss on the Drummossie Muir that day. The carnage haunted him.
“Ye were no’ there to witness it, uncle. He allowed our men to be pummeled by grapeshot and case for nearly twenty minutes by my watch before ordering our advance.” The words tasted of the same acrid bitterness he’d experienced while amidst the fight.
His glass hit the table with a thud, its contents sloshing over the side. The disorder of their troops had been appalling. Their center charged without orders while the MacDonalds to their left would not advance even under direct command.
“In the end, he ran from the battlefield wi’ his tail between his legs. Left behind thousands of men knee deep in the marsh to spill their blood in his name.”
Without spilling a drop of his own. The prince swore he’d fight to the end. That Cumberland would never take him alive. Aye, right. That much was true, at least.
“His gross incompetence is unforgiv—”
Lovat sat back with a slash of his hand to cut Coll off. He picked a chunk of mutton out of his teeth with a scornful look as voices rose in the adjacent hall. “They’ve arrived. Ye’ll be keeping yer thoughts to yerself, lad.”
“Prince Charles Edward Stuart, my laird,” Lovat’s steward announced from the door.
“Yer highness, welcome.” Lovat pushed away from the table and stood with a subtle flick of his hand that compelled Coll to do the same.
Torn between disenchantment and loyalty, he complied with a bow for his aspirant sovereign.
That morning the prince had been prettily turned out. A kilt and coat in the bright red Stuart tartan, his cuffs and collar of purple velvet with gold braid. He’d worn a blue silk sash across his chest and matching bonnet upon his bewigged head. Now, his short blond hair was uncovered, his linen skewed and stained by sweat and dirt. His pale cheeks ruddy. Without his fripperies, he appeared more a lad still wet behind the years than royalty. Every bit the Pretender the royalists christened him.
Charles Edward circled the table to take Lovat’s place at the head. His Irish bootlicker quartermaster John O’Sullivan, who’d served as a colonel in France, headed to the opposite end with four other Irishmen, Robert O’Shea, Sir Thomas Sheridan, Sir John MacDonald, and the Reverend George Kelly close behind. Coll recognized William Murray, Marquis of Tuilbardine and an Englishman, Francis Strickland, among the others, along with Coll’s cousin Alexander MacLeod’s man, Edmund Burke, and Aeneas MacDonald, a younger brother of the Laird of Kinlochmoidart and a Paris banker who’d played a prominent role in securing the financing necessary for Charles Edward to launch this catastrophe.
“Lord Lovat, many thanks for your hospitality. We are grateful.” The prince’s tone carried a pretentious lisp. He immediately contradicted his words by rejecting the whisky offered him and demanding brandy instead. “It is my deepest regret we haven’t had a chance to meet before under more fortuitous circumstances.”
Lovat grudgingly took a chair next to Coll at the prince’s right hand. “Aye, my ill health has kept me from joining yer progress, I’m saddened to say.”
Coll rolled his eyes at that. Ill health had nothing to do with it. Joining the prince simply wouldn’t have offered his uncle any benefit. Reason enough for Lovat to remain within Gortlick’s four walls.
When his drink was delivered, the prince held his goblet aloft to toast his host. “Drink well, my friends. It has been a long day for us indeed.”
“Shorter for some.” Lovat’s glower stilled Coll’s tongue.
Charles Edward nodded solemnly and lifted his drink again. “To those valiant men whose lives were cut short this day.”
That wasn’t to whom Coll had been referring. The prince may not have recognized the slight, but from the way O’Sullivan’s eyes narrowed, his quartermaster did. “Yer highness, we should discuss our next course of action.”
“Surely the prince will journey to Ruthven where his men await him,” Coll said earning a jab in the ribs from his uncle and a low hiss of warning.
O’Sullivan shook his head. “Nay, his safety is paramount. Best he return to France in all haste.”
“Nay,” Aeneas MacDonald spoke. “We should retreat to the mountains. Pick off the Sassenachs one by one on our own terms.”
Coll didn’t know MacDonald well, but he liked his thinking. Even while he’d helped drill the Jacobites in the military methods of the English and French, Coll had argued for the same. Use the Highlander’s natural skills and familiarity with the terrain to their advantage to defeat their enemy.
“I agree wi’ O’Sullivan.” Of course, Lovat would agree with the Irishman. On the one hand a staunch Catholic desirous of ousting the Protestant king from the throne, on the other, he’d been granted contracts to supply said crown with mutton and wool. Until he could guarantee his future fortunes, it suited his uncle’s private interests to bundle the prince back to France. “An insurgent campaign cannae be sustained wi’out money and ready supplies.”
“Lord Murray suggested stockpiling provisions for such a purpose months ago.” Again, a rational point from MacDonald.
“Such defeatism is for the weakhearted,” Charles Edward clucked his tongue to dismiss the idea. “We are the righteous hand of God, are we not? He demands we defeat Cumberland and advance into England.”
Again torn between his allegiance and grim reality, Coll bit his tongue rather than mention their catastrophic failure in the attempt to execute such a plan that very day. Besides, one did not simply ascribe cowardice to the face of the rightful heir to the throne. Coll may not have been a courtier but he knew that much.
“We would have won the day,” the prince continued. “We should have.”
“Aye, yer highness, we would have tasted victory today had our cause not been betrayed. There must be a traitor among those who claim to be loyal.”
“A traitor,” the prince repeated. “Yes. It is the only possible explanation for our defeat.”
Coll could think of one or two others.
“Ye need to regroup, sir,” O’Sullivan insisted. “Return to France, hold King Louis to his promise to deliver more aid and troops. Then return to fight again when the odds are in yer favor.”
As he had over the past months, the prince put more weight behind the Irishman’s suggestion than that of his true subjects. The deferential treatment only proved how vulnerable Charles Edward was to flattery and praise. No Highlander with an ounce of pride would toady like this to another, even to a would-be king.
On and on the argument went. Back and forth as they weighed the pros and cons. Not once was there mention of joining the rendezvous at Ruthven leaving Coll puzzled as to why. Was the misguided counsel the prince had taken into battle today still influencing his decisions? Was the prince using his troop’s movement to disguise his own escape? After witnessing the prince’s failure to adequately lead his men that morning, Coll couldn’t help but see this as an example of the prince’s disloyalty to his steadfast followers.
His shaky conviction in the righteousness of their movement slipped another notch.
The last of the meat was devoured, a bottle of whisky emptied, and a decision made. Prince Charles Edward would abandon his cause in favor of a retreat to France. A messenger would be delivered to King Louis requesting a ship be sent to transport the prince back to France. The rendezvous point would be Arisaig, the same site in western Scotland on Loch Nan Ceall where the prince had first landed the year before to begin his campaign to win the English crown.
“My nephew will join yer escort.” Lovat’s unexpected announcement left Coll momentarily speechless.
“My current escort will suffice,” the prince insisted.
“Nonsense. Even Burke dinnae ken this land as well as my nephew.” Coll opened his mouth to protest but his uncle carried on undaunted. “Cailin MacLeod has been steadfast by yer side this past year, aye? Sworn an oath to serve ye. I ken the lad’s devotion to ye would never allow him to rest until ye’re seen to safety, yer highness. There’s nae one better, nae more loyal a Highlander to accomplish the deed.”
“Quite an impassioned recommendation,” Charles Edward said after a long silence.
Aye, rather over the top in Coll’s opinion. Nicely done to box him in.
Burke, who’d remained silent through it all, spoke up. “Young MacLeod’s assistance would be maun appreciated, sir. We could use all the help we can get.”
O’Sullivan nodded. “Night has fallen. Best to have someone who knows the area well if we are to travel under cover of darkness. If Burke believes MacLeod can aid our escape, we should accept Lord Lovat’s kind offer, yer highness.”
“If you believe it best.”
“My steward will show ye where to refresh yerselves and provide food for yer journey.” Lovat waited until the last of their visitors filed from the room. “Stay wi’ him, lad. Make sure he returns to France. It is in our clan’s best interest to see him gone.”
“Ye mean yer best interests, uncle,” Coll spat. Bugger it, he’d experienced the darkest day of his life. There was nothing he wanted more than to return home and shed the cloak of misery that dragged so heavily upon his soul after the events of the past year. “I want nothing to do wi’ this.”
“Yer allegiance to king, country, and kin demands it,” his uncle retorted.
The reminders of loyalty and oaths gnawed in his already unsettled gut. Perchance it was nothing more than a combination of fatigue and grief that currently undermined his fidelity. Even so, today of all days, no avowal was compelling enough to coerce Coll into escorting a suspicious, deranged, and pampered prince to safety while that of so many of his kinsmen remained in question.
Not a chance in hell.
For the third time in as many minutes, Ginny Hughes’s phone rang. And for the third time in as many minutes, she sent it to voicemail. Voicemail she would delete without listening to as she had all the rest. A deluge of recordings containing any or all of the following: name calling, accusations, ultimatums, and a few rhetorical questions to ice the cake.
What the fuck, Gin! Why did you skip town?
He should know the answer to that. To get away from him. To find some measure of peace away from a man who’d been promoted from mere asshole to stalker over the past five months. Dealing with her ex-husband had become an uphill, losing battle.
So, what had she done? Traded one battlefield for another. She grimaced at the irony and stared out over Culloden Battlefield. Her most recent stop on her journey toward avoidance—both origin and destination—and the barren wasteland her life had become.
In truth, beyond the vast visitor center, Culloden was little more than that. A field. A broad, flat expanse of grass waving in the wind. For all her close Scottish heritage and the numerous trips her family had taken to Scotland to visit Granny throughout her childhood, they’d never visited the historic site. Perhaps her parents thought three young girls would grow restless without something more engaging or exciting to view. Two out of three might have. Jane and Brontë were not great lovers of history. Ginny would have been the exception. Unfortunately, though she was the baby of the family, her wishes had rarely been catered to.
Now, she couldn’t believe she waited so long to visit.
The desolate landscape, almost absent of tourists on a rainy spring morning, roused emotion so powerful she was reluctant to tread on its grounds. Instead, she opted for the path to the right that circled the field instead of forging straight in. The grind and crunch of her footsteps as she followed the graveled trail were the only sounds to break the silence other than the whisper of the wind through the trees and grass.
Farther afield, rows of wide-spaced blue and red flags marked the formations of the Scottish and British troops respectively. It was difficult to imagine this nothingness as a battlefield with armies assembled, one across from the other. Uniformed figures in red and white to the one side. A motley, mismatched bunch of proud—and yes, arrogant—Scotsmen to the other.
Had they truly thought to win?
According to the exhibits inside the visitor’s center, it had only taken an hour for the Jacobites to lose. An hour for the blood of thousands of Highlanders to seep into ground. As slow, measured steps carried her down the path, a solemn chill seeped into her and sadness settled into her chest. It was almost as if the tragedy of the past called through time, a silent cry heard not with the ears but with the heart.
Pain. Loss. Sorrow.
A few steps down the path, a thatched cottage stood alone in the shade of a quartet of squat, rounded trees. According to the marker in the yard, Leanach Cottage, built in the early eighteenth century, was the only remaining example of the common structure of the time. Given its position in relation to the battle, it was thought the cottage might have been used as a field hospital. Despite the academic appeal to learn more, the call of the field beyond cast an undeniable lure.
Ginny circled the cottage. A gust of wind whirled around her, whipping her long hair across her face. She pulled a strand from her mouth and secured the tousled mass with an elastic she kept around her wrist as she continued to the south where the flat moors began to undulate in the rise and fall of random mounds covered with tall grass. Some small, some larger. The trail bent to skirt them and her steps lagged with something akin to dread weighing heavily in her chest. This was hallowed ground beneath her feet. The profundity of all it had experienced, all the blood that had soaked into it….
Pain. Loss. Sorrow. They pressed against her and melded with like emotion that weighed on her already.
Farther down the pathway, a couple stood close together. They were a wonderfully attractive pair, she noted, thankful for a distraction to whisk away an ounce of her sadness. The woman, a willowy redhead, clung to the man’s arm as he pointed to one of the many stones that dotted the shorter grass along the pathway. As tall as she was, the man towered over her. Braw, burly, and bonny with black hair tousled by the wind. Had he worn a kilt, he would’ve embodied any woman’s wildest fantasy of the quintessential Scotsman. Even Ginny, for all her shattered ideals, couldn’t help but sigh.
Yet, something in the set of his broad shoulders as he bent his head to speak to the woman bespoke grief. Even heartache. Ginny paused on the pathway, unwilling to intrude on the peculiarly mournful moment. A few seconds later, the man lifted his head, running a hand through his dark hair and down over his face as if surreptitiously wiping away a tear. With a short nod, he nodded to the woman who set a posy of wildflowers at the base of an upright stone.
They moved along the path, but Ginny waited until the couple put some distance between them before she resumed her course and paused where they had moments before. His sorrow lingered there, engulfed her, and became her own.
The rounded, roughhewn stone with the flowers nestled at its base was about half a meter tall and wide and carved with the inscription Clan Urquhart. Similar stones were scattered across the vicinity. Wooden, she looked from one to another. Clan MacKintosh, Clan Donald, Clan MacLean, Clan Frasier.
Then, Mixed Clans.
Across the footpath, a tall stone cairn had been erected. A marker set into the front of it explained their significance.
The graves of the gallant Highlanders who fought for Scotland and Price Charlie are marked by the names of their clans.
The mounds in the field weren’t natural.
The dead, identified only by the tartan they wore, had been buried in mass graves. Anonymously, along with their fellow clansmen.
Numb, she continued down the trail, pausing to acknowledge each stone and the loss it represented. Toward the center of the battlefield, a bench was inlaid with a gold plate.
We followed you, prince, to this ocean of flatness and bullets.
She pressed her palm against the engraved words as she stared out over the desolate breadth of the Drummossie Moor. She may not have been able to picture the battle, but she swore she heard the cries of war and agony. The clash of swords and roar of guns and cannons. Most assuredly, she sensed the echo of what had been left behind.
Pain. Loss. Sorrow…and anger.
Looking across the field, Ginny saw—or rather, imagined she saw—the ghostly figure of a forlorn, kilted highlander. His lips moved….
The word came to her on the wind, filled with anguish.
Haunting anguish, that was what had clung to her since she set foot to path. It hung heavily over the battlefield, tangible as a morning fog.
It had always been the same for her since she was young. Historic sites roused an empathetic pang in her heart, as if she shared the emotions of people long dead. Patriotic righteousness and triumph during the days she’d worked at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Defeat and misery at Gettysburg Battlefield. The torment, frustration, and fury in Selma where the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had been met with brutality and bloodshed. Death.
It had taken years for Ginny to realize that not everyone experienced the same vicarious sympathy to the history around them. They didn’t experience the same ache in their hearts as she for those who had suffered loss, or pulse-racing excitement for those who’d found victory. She often felt the truth of history called out to her.
If only because she listened.
She’d studied it, taught it, and cherished it for its lessons despite the heartache. Content to never let the past die.
Now, when she wished more than anything for the past—hers in particular—to fade away, she’d been unable to shake away the memories that haunted her.
Culloden had seen blood and tears. Victory on one side and defeat on the other. They were nothing more than a whisper of the past. Gone but for the remembrances of a few.
How she wished she could put her past behind her and simply let it all go.
Home of Violet Graham
“Virginia Hughes, oh my blessed Lord!”
Ginny rolled her eyes but couldn’t suppress a smile as Violet Graham smothered her in a tight embrace. “Hello, Granny.”
“Why didn’t you tell us you were coming?” her grandmother asked as she drew back to look into Ginny’s face with a beam of pleasure before squeezing her close again. “I would have picked you up at the airport if I’d known.”
“It’s fine,” she assured the older woman. “I flew into Glasgow anyway. Besides, I didn’t want to trouble you or Brontë.”
Having her older sister assigned to the task would have meant an hour or more with no escape as she was pummeled with unanswerable questions. A couple of months ago Brontë wouldn’t have had a pedestal to stand on, given her own troubled past with relationships. Regrettably, these days her sister had not a mere boyfriend, but a fiancé. Now, there was sure to be a patronizing oration about how lucky she was to have found the “perfect man”—as if that were a real thing—while Ginny failed to do the same. From there, maybe a neat segue into how someday Ginny might be as fortunate as she.
The usual standard practice of sisterly superiority. Brontë meant well, but no thanks.
“Even so, you should have called. Everyone deserves a happy face waiting when they finally see themselves freed from a giant metal tube after nine bloody hours of captivity.”
Ginny grinned at that. Her grandmother was notorious in the family for her hatred of flying, which was why they’d come to Scotland to see her so often over the years rather than the other way around.
Violet’s soothing gaze sobered despite Ginny’s fixed smile. Her cool fingers trailed down Ginny’s cheek as a frown furrowed her brow and her lips turned down in a moue. “What is it, dear? You have such sadness in your eyes.”
Immediately Ginny closed them, cursing their betrayal…and her grandmother’s uncanny ability to read her granddaughters’ moods. “I’m fine, Granny. You look great, by the way.”
Her grandmother didn’t take the hint. “You’re not still mourning that ex of yours, are you? You’re better off without him.”
“I know.” She opened her eyes again and summoned another stalwart smile. “I know,” she insisted under Violet’s dubious stare.
She did know. Life without Luke Jorgenson was a million times better than it had been with him. Problem was, it had taken the humiliation of divorcing him after less than a year of marriage to realize it. No, that wasn’t quite right. It had taken less than a month after marrying him for her to realize it, but months more to worm her way out of it. The real problem was in Luke’s inability to come to the same conclusion about her. If there was one thing more mortifying than being married and divorced by the age of twenty-three, it was having an ex-husband who refused to accept the finality of it all. In the five months since the divorce was finalized, he added stalker to the list.
He hadn’t merely driven her from him and their home. He’d driven her out of an entire country. Hence, her hasty trip to Scotland, the land of her mother’s birth. Hence, the plethora of calls and texts that had gone unanswered. She didn’t want him to know where she was. Didn’t want to share the air she breathed with him ever again.
Unfortunately, in her rush to get away from him, she’d put herself within earshot of her grandmother and the inevitable series of lectures beginning with I told you so and If you had listened to me in the first place that she would undoubtedly be blessed with in the near future. Granny had been the only one who hadn’t been charmed by Luke. The only one who had warned her.
Ginny could only hope that Violet would parse those sermons out over the days and weeks to come rather than heap them all upon her while Ginny stood in the foyer with her backpack at her feet.
All the more justification for her circuitous route between here and the airport. Granny didn’t need to know that she’d spent the last four days hiking across the country in an effort to delay this dreaded moment.
“What’s keeping ye there, Vi?”
To Ginny’s surprise, an aged yet sprightly Scotsman joined them in the entry hall. His age was difficult to pinpoint. The many wrinkles on his face and thinning hair were at odds with his ease of movement and the animated twinkle in his blue eyes. He could have been sixty or an octogenarian like her grandmother.
He caught her hand with an engaging, impish grin. “Och, what have we here? This must be another of yer bonny granddaughters, aye Vi?”
“I am.” Ginny gazed down at him as he was a few inches shorter than she, shaking his hand. “And you are?”
Her granny cleared her throat. “This is my…friend, Donell. Donell, this Virginia.”
Friend? Was that a blush on her grandmother’s cheeks? OMG, did Granny have a boyfriend?
“Call me Ginny,” said granddaughter corrected. “How did you two meet?”
Violet hemmed and hawed. “Oh, here and there! We’ve known each other for years.”
“It was autumn of ’75,” Donell countered with a faraway but fond expression. “Bumped into one another quite literally at a conference on sex discrimination at St. Andrews.”
With a slow blink, Violet nodded. “My goodness, that’s right. You convinced me to join the protesters outside Parliament….”
“Where ye walloped some puir bobby’s noggin wi’ yer sign….”
“And you bailed me out of jail,” Violet finished with a nostalgic smile. “I’d almost forgotten about that.”
My God, Ginny thought, they’re finishing each other’s sentences. Granny did have a boyfriend. Incredible.
Donell turned his grin upon her. “Yer dear grandmother helped pass the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, ye ken?”
“I never would have been there if it hadn’t been for you,” her granny told him.
“That’s me.” He offered a modest shrug. “Pulling the strings of history.”
Ginny’s droll response hid the fact that she actually did find it fascinating. She’d love to hear more about it, but at that moment, she was dead on her feet from days of walking. Emotionally exhausted from her escape from New York and trek around the Highlands. More than anything she wanted a shower, a hot meal, and a nap. In that order.
“Do you mind if I go up to my room, Granny? I’m pretty tired.”
“Jet lag.” Violet nodded sympathetically. Ginny didn’t correct her assumption. “We can catch up later. Brontë and Tris are away on one of their trips at the moment, so there’ll be plenty of peace and quiet for you.”
Ginny’s phone buzzed in her pocket as if reminding her of the conflict she’d fled from. Yes, that sounded perfect. Kissing her grandmother’s cheek, she hugged her close for a moment. “Thank you, Granny.”
* * *
Peace and quiet lasted about as long as her shower. Ginny was just getting dressed when there was a hard thump against the wall followed by muted conversation. She finished dressing and went down the hall to investigate.
“Just cut the string then. A girl needs to breathe.”
In the next bedroom, her sister stood in the middle of the room with her back to the man behind her. Brontë’s long hair was pulled over one shoulder, but it didn’t begin to cover her curious costume. Or the stays that cinched her waist.
“What are you wearing?”
Her sister’s head popped up, expression shifting from astonishment to joy in the blink of an eye. She ran to Ginny with her arms wide, and with no deceleration, flung her arms around Ginny, momentum carrying them back several feet before they teetered and fell to the floor.
“Oh my God, I’ve missed you!” Her sister’s effusive enthusiasm was lost to laughter as she kissed Ginny’s cheek and smothered her in a hug that rocked from side to side. “What a surprise! Why didn’t you text me and tell me you were coming to visit?”
Maybe because the last time Ginny had seen her sister was when Brontë had come to New York to be a bridesmaid at her wedding to Luke. No embarrassment there. Brontë had been living in London at the time prior to moving to Edinburgh to stay with their grandmother after an accident the previous year that had left Granny confined to a wheelchair with casts on both legs.
Back then, Brontë’s life had been as bleak as Ginny’s in many ways. With nothing good to report on either end, they’d hardly texted at all until recently, much less visited.
Brontë’s demeanor expressed none of the despondency her texts once had, a tenor that changed a few months ago when, out of the blue, she announced her engagement to a man the rest of the family had never even heard a whisper about. In person, she exuded enviable bliss encompassed by an aura of contentment her former boyfriends had never been able summon. Laughing in a way that seemed to come from the inside and radiate outward, she climbed to her feet and helped Ginny up.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you have classes to teach?”
The presence of another person in the room unbalanced Ginny sufficiently to send whatever excuse she was considering spiraling into oblivion. If this was the reason for her sister’s happiness, she could completely understand the rapid progression of their relationship. He was gorgeous. Beyond gorgeous.
“Oh! Ginny, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Tristram MacKintosh.” Ginny cast Brontë a curious glance as her perky tone shifted to one of peculiar formality. A quick look only. She turned back to the handsome man as her sister continued, “Tris, this is my younger sister, Ms. Virginia Hughes.”
As Violet had, Brontë kindly dismissed the Mrs. and the Jorgenson that had been fleetingly attached to her. Ginny offered her hand. To her surprise, he didn’t shake it. Rather he engulfed it between his in a far warmer welcome. He topped it with a slight bow over their clasped hands that should have come across as pretentious but suited him perfectly.
“Ms. Hughes, I am delighted to make yer acquaintance at last. Brontë has told me many stories about ye.” He punctuated it all with a smile that reached all the way to his muted green eyes and made her believe he was actually delighted to meet her. Not a mere platitude, but sincerity.
“And I am equally delighted to make yours,” she responded, realizing it was the truth.
There was something rather delightful in knowing there was an honest to God man out there who could bring such happiness to a woman, her sister most especially. When their eyes met, however brief, the look conveyed intimacy and affection. Envy wrapped its ugly little fist around Ginny’s heart for an instant before she kicked it to the curb. Curious and skeptical of the haste of the couple’s courtship prior to her arrival, she now found herself thrilled for Brontë.
She also found herself eager for her sister’s lecture on relationships so long as it came with the assurance that the good fortune that had befallen Brontë would soon come her way.
She’d be ecstatic to be so lucky at love for a change. If this wonderfully tall, dark, and handsome Scot and the equally impressive one she’d seen at the battlefield were any indication, there might be a man worth having in Scotland.
What were the odds of finding one?
“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me from Brontë, but I have to say, I haven’t heard anything about you yet,” Ginny said.
Tris grinned and crooked his arm in Ginny’s direction. “We’ll have to remedy that straightaway. I would also be interested in hearing yer perspective as a teacher on the modern school room. First, may I ask after yer journey? I hope it was without incident.”
She cast Brontë an inquisitive look, but her sister only gazed upon him with dazed adoration. “I’d rather talk about yours. Granny said you were travelling. To where? A renaissance festival?”
Her sister was bound in tight, rigid stays over a loose blouse with a drawstring neckline and billowing sleeves. Her bottom half was covered by a full, floor length tartan skirt, the rich blue wool plaid crossed with lines of black, red, and green. A black bodice and cloak were tossed across the foot of the bed. Tris was clad in dark green knee breeches and a matching wool coat with bright gold buttons, and stockings as white as the folds of the cravat peeking out from the neckline of a black waistcoat. While the exceedingly retro style sat ill on Brontë’s shoulders, Tris seemed oddly at ease with the formality.
Having been a costumed historical interpreter—aka tour guide—at Colonial Williamsburg once upon a time, Ginny could place the period clothing with pretty fair accuracy to the pre-revolutionary era of the mid-1700s. Not the sort of stuff one wore around the house.
Or around the century.
“Seriously, why are you dressed like that?”
Brontë crossed her arms over her compressed bosom with a blatantly guilty look. “Don’t tell Granny.”
As good as a confession that something was up. It was an unspoken fact in the family that Brontë loved Granny perhaps more than she did their parents, and vice versa. The pair had their little secrets for as long as Ginny could remember, but never from each other.
Her eyes widened even more when out of the corner of her eye she saw Tris sweep a small pile of coins on the dresser into the top drawer out of the corner of her eye.
Along with—a handgun? Something that was pretty damned illegal in Scotland.
“Is that a gun? What the hell, Brontë?”
Brontë closed the door with a hiss. “Shush, Granny doesn’t know we’re back yet.”
“Wow, that bad, huh? What have you gotten yourself into?”
Though her sister looked awash with guilt, Tris merely chuckled under his breath and pressed a kiss to Brontë’s temple. “Ye’ve always been a terrible liar, lass.”
“I’m an excellent liar!” Brontë protested.
“No, you’re not,” Ginny and Tris responded at the same time.
Still smiling, Tris opened another drawer and pulled out some clothing, then retrieved a shirt from the wardrobe. “Ye might as well tell her, lass. Meanwhile, I’m going to change and then fetch some refreshments for us all. I have a feeling we’ll be needing some fortification, aye?” He paused by the door and executed a bow in Ginny’s direction. “A pleasure, Ms. Hughes.”
“Please, call me Ginny.”
“And ye must call me Tris. I’ll return shortly.”
When the door closed behind him, silence rang through the room. Ginny wanted to pelt her sister with questions about what she was hiding, but she was more curious about Tris. His demeanor and the formal cadence of his speech were charming, but completely abnormal. And his reference to the modern school room?
“Where did you find him?” Ginny asked as she plopped down on the end of the bed. “Don’t tell me at the local pub. I won’t believe you.”
“Why not? Tris loves a good pint.”
“There isn’t a Scotsman born who doesn’t, I’d wager. That’s not the point. There’s no way you just happened to stumble upon a guy like that in the wild. He’s so…too…” The words trailed off as she tried to identify exactly what it was that made coming across a man like that at ladies’ night at the local bar or on a dating app an absolute impossibility. “Too polite…” No, that wasn’t it. Plenty of people were polite. Rare, but still. “Courteous? No, proper. That’s it. Proper.”
Brontë offered a slight wince at the word, though her expression lit with a different sort of mischief. “I can assure you, Tris is not at all proper.”
“Come on. You know what I’m talking about. That formality? That polish? It’s not normal.”
"He’s working on it.”
“Why would he have to work on it?” she pressed. “I know there’s something you’re not telling me. Spill.” Ginny’s phone rang just then. “Shit.”
She pulled the phone from the rear pocket of her denims and rejected the call without looking at it. As always, the sender had been identified with the apt herald of John Williams’s “Imperial March” from Star Wars. She flipped the button to put the phone on vibrate.
“Yikes, who’s so low on your shit list that they were assigned that for a ring tone?” Brontë asked. “Let me guess, Luke?”
“No, you’re not getting out of it that easy. We were talking about you. What’s going on?”
“Why don’t you block him? Or at least turn off your phone?”
There was no way she was going explain. Leaving her phone powered on left her subject to Luke’s incessant calls, true. But it also kept her appraised of his movements. Better to have fair warning than to be left in the dark. Telling her sister that would only lead to more questions.
“I’ll tell you if you tell me what’s going on here first,” she lied.
Gnawing her lower lip, Brontë only turned her back to Ginny. “Can you untie this for me, please? Tris couldn’t get the knot out.”
“Fine, I’ll unknot. You talk.”
“Hey, who’s the older sister here?”
“Alright, but you’re never going to believe me.”
Ten minutes later, Ginny stared down at the flat oval object her sister offered up as testament of her outlandish explanation. Not a button or dial to mar its surface, it looked harmless enough. Under her fingertips, the white ceramic was smooth. With a touch, however, a bright neon blue circle appeared with the current date and time below it right down to the second. It counted them off for about ten seconds before the lights faded away.
If Brontë were to be believed, this device somehow opened a microscopic quantum portal through time. Through time! She’d traveled into the past numerous times, met their great-great-grandparents, saved their lives, and met Tris in the process before bringing him home with her. Not only that, Brontë and Tris planned to continue traveling back and forth between their two times, living two lives simultaneously.
“Didn’t I say you wouldn’t believe me?” Brontë grinned in a blasé manner that said it didn’t matter one whit what Ginny believed. That was her story and she was sticking to it.
Thing was, the time travel portion of her explanation in and of itself wasn’t what Ginny found preposterous. Fantastical, maybe. A stretch of the imagination, certainly. But she possessed imagination enough to believe many things existed in the world that she hadn’t seen for herself. The presence of such an unusual person in her sister’s bedroom nailed that reality home for her.
No, what confounded her most was the notion that Brontë somehow managed to stumble upon the perfect man in the process. Just like that. Even time travel couldn’t explain that sort of karmic, convenient good fortune.
Honestly, it wasn’t doubt or disbelief that kept Ginny agog at the miraculous device in her hands. It was envy that engulfed her, pure and simple. A different sort than she’d experienced earlier upon meeting her sister’s new beau or even for that cosmic good luck in finding him to begin with.
It was something stronger. Greener.
“What was it like?” The question emerged in a fragile whisper.
Brontë frowned. “Which part?”
“Being in another time.”
Being a witness to history. Not through books or documentaries or revisionist movies but to be granted every true history lover’s heartfelt wish to view it in the first person. To explore it with all five senses. See with her own eyes the color, the movement. Hear the voices, the bustle of life in action. To smell it. Taste it. Touch it. Weigh it like a tangible object in her hands.
To live it.
Damn, but she envied her sister that more than anything else.
“I have pictures,” her sister offered. “I’ve been dying to show them to someone.”
“I’d love to see them.”
Knowing there was the possibility of so much more, though…
Ginny knew pictures wouldn’t be enough.