A Laird to Hold
“And in other news, shocking photos have emerged of actress Scarlett Thomas being escorted out of Dunskirk Castle earlier today by a group of people including three unidentified men and a woman. Speculation has run amok since her mysterious disappearances. If you’ll recall she’d vanished for almost a month in September. The most recent episode spanning these past five days following her bizarre behavior where, according to one employee of the castle, the actress—and I quote—‘haunted’ the castle daily for several weeks following her first disappearance.”
“I dinnae ken how ye can watch such nattering gossip,” Hugh Urquhart muttered as he entered the terrace house he and Sorcha recently purchased on Douglas Row in Inverness overlooking the River Ness. From the door he could see his new wife ensconced on the sofa, her eyes glued to the telly as if the reporters spouted the secrets of the universe.
“I can hear you, you know,” Sorcha called out with a hint of laughter in her voice. “And I only watch it when you’re not here.”
“I’m here now.”
“I’ll only turn it off if you didn’t return empty handed.”
“I would no’ dare.” He presented the bag he’d been sent out to buy to her as if it were a tufted pillow bearing the crown jewels. “A bag of crisps for my fair lady.”
“Let’s call them what they are. Good old potato chips.” She tore the bag open and dug into what she referred to as salty goodness.
“Yer appetite is appalling.” Yet it didn’t stop him from bending to kiss her cheek.
“No making fun of the pregnant lady,” she retorted around a mouthful of crisps as she snuggled back against the cushions.
“Och now, why would I put my life in such peril?”
“Speaking of which, what took you so long? You were gone forever.”
“I blew a tire on my return from the grocer.”
Sorcha tore her attention from the telly with a frown. “Again? That makes two tires and a rock through the windshield in the last month. I might have to take your keys away.”
“’Tis no’ my fault. I’m an excellent driv—” Hugh cut himself off before his wife might accuse him of sounding once again like this Rain Man she constantly compared him to. As yet he hadn’t been able to determine whether the comparison were insult or compliment. Depending on the situation, it could be either one. “The circumstances were beyond my control.”
She grinned up at him with an offending level of doubt. “Of course they were… oh, shush, shush.” Her eyes locked once more with the television.
“I thought ye were going to turn that blasted machine off.”
“In a second. Shush.”
She waved him into silence as the newsman, if he might legitimately be called one, on the telly continued. An inset image at the man’s shoulder scrolled through a variety of pictures of a bonny young woman with dark auburn hair.
“The actress,” the reporter went on, “best known for her portrayal of Finley Adams in the blockbuster Puppet Wars franchise, made her last public appearance at the opening of the Dunskirk Castle historical site dedication in August before disappearing from the public eye. Rumors abound as to the state of her mental health as her physical appearance today raised questions in everyone’s minds.”
The female reporter at the desk nodded in agreement as the camera shifted to her. Hugh rolled his eyes and turned his back on the screen.
Adapting to life in the twenty-first century was a trial in acclimatization on a daily basis. Seven months had passed since he’d been swept from his own time by a dark portal and landed in this one. Five months since he’d escaped his captors at Mark-Davis Labs, and with Claire’s help, had won his freedom.
After all that time, new discoveries still awaited him around every corner. Most changes he could live with. Some he could not. The telly ranked first and foremost on the list of negatives. He exercised tolerance as Sorcha enjoyed watching so much. Occasionally a historic drama might manage to pique his interest, but these gossip rags on the other hand, only grated on his nerves. As tireless as the sniping of the king’s court in eighteenth century Paris had in his previous life.
In that comparison, some things remained remarkably the same between those days and these. But at least then, he’d been able to find reprieve from blather in his private apartments. Here, there was no escape. The constant criticism and intolerance at all levels of mankind were disconcerting.
Hugh focused on putting away the rest of the small bag of groceries he’d picked up in anticipation of another of Sorcha’s cravings, but couldn’t tune out the sound of the gossip’s nasal voice.
“That’s correct, John. As you can see from the photos taken today by tourists at Dunskirk, Ms. Thomas’s general appearance is a far cry from just a week ago. Let’s compare to that appearance at the castle two months ago, shall we?”
Returning to the living room with a bottle of juice, he saw another picture come up of the same woman immaculately groomed with cropped hair and a long flowing white gown Hugh now knew was referred to as a maxi dress.
“Her hair, short a few days ago, is now longer, leading many to believe her short haircut nothing more than a wig, calling her out for a shameless publicity stunt,” the female reporter continued. “But there is no denying the other obvious changes. I’m not one for fat shaming, of course, but she seems to have gained a radical amount of weight in such a short time. So much so some gossip columnists are speculating Ms. Thomas was attempting to disguise a secret pregnancy beneath her slouchy, over-sized… Wait, wait.”
The woman touched her ear, listening. When her eyes returned to the camera, malicious glee burned bright in them. “We have gotten word that Scarlett Thomas has just been admitted at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary Emergency Department. Let’s take a look at the newest video coming…”
“What nonsense,” he murmured, shaking his head as the still photos were replaced by the grainy cell phone video showing the woman tucked protectively against the side of a braw man in a full kilt while two other men tried to push back the crush of the gathered crowd.
Sorcha sighed. “I know you hate it. I should have turned the TV off the minute you returned. But I just love Scarlett Thomas. Terrible for them to pick on her. Not fat shaming? That’s exactly what they’re doing.”
“She’s the actress in those dragon movies ye made me watch, is she no’?” he asked. “The ones that made nae sense?”
“They weren’t dragons, they were aliens,” his wife clarified sternly, though her lips twisted with suppressed humor. She never tired of taking a measure of wicked pleasure when he was taken aback by some element of this time period. “You simply haven’t come to appreciate the finer nuance of fantasy and science fiction yet, but I have faith.” She glanced back at the screen, her expression somber. “I do hope she’ll be okay, though. Something unusual must be going on for her to be dressed like that.”
Hugh directed his attention to the telly once again, studying the woman as the Scotsman continued to force his way through the throng of onlookers. She wore a full-skirted blue gown with what appeared to be a darker blue woolen plaid wrapped around her shoulders. The same pattern tartan as the kilt of the man who had his arm around her. Her face buried in his shoulder as she clung to him.
“Dressed like what?”
“Not exactly the current fashion even in modern Scotland. Maybe it’s for a play or a movie…? She caught the roll of his eyes. “Fine, I’ll turn it off.”
Sorcha reached for the remote control just as one of the kilted men swung a sword at the crowd. They all leapt back in fear and the first man swept the actress into his arms and surged forward. Something on the screen caught Hugh’s eye. “Nay, wait. Stop. Can ye… bluidy hell, can ye reverse it?”
“Go back. Back… There. Stop.”
Hugh stared at the paused image, himself as frozen to the spot. A curl of dread… no, fascination stilled his breathing. His blood pounded in his ears.
“What is it?” Sorcha’s gaze shifted between him and the screen with a frown. “Hugh?”
“Look.” The word was a nothing more than a croak, a gasp of sound that managed to escape the knot in his throat. His entire being denied function in its shock. He cleared his throat. “Look there and tell me what ye see, lass.”
“A mad man swinging a sword? The entertainment show you make fun of me for watching?” The question wry but curious. “What?”
“Just there.” He stepped forward and pointed out a spot in the background behind the blurred arc of the silver blade. “Tell me what ye see.”
The actress’s fisted hand clenched the man’s shirt, pulling the white linen taut across his shoulder and baring a portion of his chest.
Revealing a chain and the golden disk hanging from it.
Hugh touched the vague outline in the center of the circle as if he could trace the raised image. Feel it.
“That’s…” Sorcha trailed off with a whisper.
“We need to go to Edinburgh.”
“And do what?” she argued, though she was already in motion. “It’s not like you can just stroll in there asking questions and expect to get in to see them, you know. She’s a celebrity. There will be guards.”
“Still giving me lessons, lass? I’ve been in this time for many months now.”
A trace of amusement lifted the corner of her mouth. “Well, I guess that makes you an expert, doesn’t it? So how do you expect to get in there?”
“I dinnae ken yet, but I guarantee nothing will stop me.”
“I don’t like this,” Connor MacLean, Earl of Strathclyde, murmured under his breath as his wary gaze swept the surrounding area.
He helped his bride of just a few months down from the carriage, keeping a secure hold on her hand. Emmy was thankful for the assistance. She’d gotten much better dealing with long skirts and limited mobility over the last couple months, but still occasionally tripped over them now and then when she was distracted.
As she was now. As they both were.
The queasiness of the motion sickness the extended carriage ride took a back seat to the uneasiness their journey incited. From Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull to Dunskirk Castle outside the small hamlet of Achenmeade, the mystery of why they were there and what awaited them weighed on their thoughts.
“Well, we’re here.” Emmy pursed her lips and stared up at the looming façade of Dunskirk Castle. “So where is Donell?”
“I’m fast learning to never trust a man who can come and go in the blink of an eye,” Connor observed wryly, as if such men were commonplace and not the utter mystery Donell was. “I dinnae trust him, lass. No’ a wee bit. We shouldnae e’en be here knowing what he might do to us.”
The unspoken word sent a shiver through Emmy.
A week past, she and Connor had been leaving their rooms to go to dinner when she’d walked around a corner and straight into Auld Donell. The shock of seeing him had quickly been overridden by fear.
Fear that the odd, elfin little man who’d wielded power over her destiny might decide to brandish his clout again. Taking her away from all she loved. As he had once before.
However he’d managed it, Donell had taken Emmy from the twenty-first century and transported her through time to the nineteenth century. Into the life and arms of Connor MacLean. She’d fought her circumstances, questioned her destiny… and had fallen in love. Only to be torn away from a life with him without her knowledge or consent. It’d taken weeks to find her way back once more. Weeks of heartache and anguish, believing she’d never see Connor again.
All at the whim of the enigmatic man known as Auld Donell.
And now she was bending to his will again, without knowing entirely why.
All she knew was that he’d appeared at Duart with a plea for their help.
Or as immediate as life and transportation in nineteenth-century rural Scotland would allow. For some reason Emmy still couldn’t quite fathom, she’d agreed to help with no details other than her urgent help was needed for a delivery.
The doctor in Emmy couldn’t deny the call to duty, despite her continued trepidation over Donell’s unexpected reappearance.
Was it any wonder when he’d shown up again just months after she thought herself safe and secure with the man she loved, she’d feared the worst?
He’d really rattled her, but for all her worry for her own welfare, knowing another’s might hang in the balance took precedence. It had forced her to set fear aside and bend to the old man’s wishes despite Connor’s argument against doing so.
Questioning the old man’s motives, Connor was as apprehensive while remaining ever diligent and watchful. His muscular body rigid and ready to pummel Donell should he sense a threat.
He wouldn’t, couldn’t lose her again, he’d vowed, and insisted on accompanying her on this journey Donell required of her.
Yet, after a day on a train from Oban in western Scotland to this castle on the southern border and several hours more in the carriage, neither of them could figure out Donell’s motives.
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s home.” Emmy studied the castle again. No one had appeared at the door when their carriage approached, nor was there any sign of life around the grounds.
Empty perhaps but not abandoned. Someone lived here or at least maintained the building and grounds. While the main section of castle appeared to be medieval in age and style, parts were more obviously more recent, historically speaking. The many angles of the curtain wall were punctuated by six turreted towers clearly built more for effect rather than function. The pair of decorative spires that flanked the gated front doors shooting more than fifty feet into the air awash in sunlight against the blue sky couldn’t have been more than a few decades old.
“I dinnae like this,” Connor repeated, as dark as the day was sunny. “Tell me again why ye agreed to do as Auld Donell asked.”
“You once told me he was harmless.”
Her husband snorted, a mixture of humor and irony. “That was before he snatched ye away from me. Now I dinnae trust him one whit.”
Her trust levels weren’t one hundred percent in the old Scotsman’s favor either, but Emmy didn’t feel now was the moment to mention it. “He said someone needed help. And I suppose I owe him a favor since he did help me find you.”
Rocking to the side, she bumped her shoulder against his. The corner of his mouth quirked up as his big hand closed around hers. A little quiver of warmth shot through her when he lifted her fingers to his lips. “Aye, for that. But only that.” He frowned at the castle as if it could answer all their questions. “I wonder what he thinks is so important about this woman?”
Emmy shrugged. “We could knock and find out.”
“Oh, I wouldnae do that.” They both jumped at the gravelly voice. “No’ just yet, in any case.”
“Jesus H. Christ, Donell!” She pressed her palm to her thundering heart. “Don’t do that!”
“Gi’ ye a start, did I?” The old man chuckled, his blue eyes twinkling with merriment.
“I’d like to gi’ ye a start or two,” Connor grumbled and drew Emmy behind him as if he might somehow protect her from the little man.
“Och, none of that now. I’ve nae intention of hurting yer lass. I need her.”
“Who is this woman?” the question had been eating at Emmy. “Another one of your little projects?”
“No’ another one. The one,” Donell grumbled beneath his breath. “Now, time’s a wasting. We need to hurry on.”
“Hurry? But it doesn’t even look like anyone’s home.”
“Nay, no’ anymore but…”
“What do you mea—” A gasp of horror cut short the word. “Oh, no you don’t!”
There was the light, like a flash sunlight reflected off the air around them. A sensation Emmy recalled with nauseating detail and no small amount of apprehension. Just like when she’d first moved through time from the Duart Castle of 2011 to the same spot in 1895, the walls of Dunskirk castle lost their patina of age, growing lighter, brighter. But to her astonishment, most of the castle walls vanished completely. The soaring spires, gone. The massive center hall, gone. The ornate crenellations of the curtain wall diminished in height until they were shorter but far more battle-ready proportions. A few seconds later all that remained within the confines of the wall were the keep and one stocky tower to the west.
Gone was the sunny day, too. The sky crowded with clouds until it was a tumultuous gray overhead, rain threatening. Or perhaps snow given the sudden chill.
A shuddering inhale shook her from head to toe. “Holy sh…shite buckets,” she exhaled with a visible breath.
Connor’s warm hand splayed comfortingly at the small of her back and he bent his head to hers. “Ye’ve really been working on yer propensity to swear, lass. I’m proud of ye, but I think in this instance the moment calls for a sound profanity.”
His protective proximity and humor eased some of her shock. “No, I think I’m good for now.”
His chuckle brushed her cheek. “I may no’ be though. This is…”
“I know, right? Maybe now you’ll think back upon my arrival in your time with a little more sympathy.” She tucked her hands into the crook of his arm for added warmth. “At least you knew it was coming… well, at least you knew it was possible.”
“Aye, I wisnae considering probable, however.”
“Aye, aye, ‘tis a bluidy marvel,” Donell groused, and with an impatient wave of his hand, started forward through open gates of the smaller curtain wall. The front door they’d been about to enter no longer existed wherever…or whenever they were now. “We dinnae hae all day.”
“Sometimes I wonder how you can say things like that,” Emmy mumbled to his back as they followed. “It seems to me you have all the time in the world.”
“It disnae work that way, lass.”
Emmy arched a wry brow. “How does it work then? I’ve always been curious.”
The old man flicked his hand, the motion ripe with irritation. “I cannae just pick people up and move them aboot."
“I though that’s exactly what you did.”
“Through time but no’ space.”
Emmy frowned. “Not space? Of course, you do.”
Donell merely flicked his wrist again and pounded insistently on the door of the low keep as they reached it.
“So about the space thing…”
Emmy might have persisted in her questioning, but the door was answered by a man who would make any rational woman’s mind blank for a minute or two. Even one as insanely and passionately in love as she. She was only human after all.
The low expletive earned her a suspicious scowl from Connor. Not that Emmy saw it, only sensed it. Still, she couldn’t look away. Not just yet.
This man was massive, bigger in every direction than even her brawny, bulging spouse. His tawny brown hair was a little lengthy for her taste however the short beard setting off every plane of his angular, dazzling face more than compensated. Piercing silver eyes studied them.
But his kilt was what snagged her full attention. The full regalia, blue and yellow tartan over a partially unbuttoned black velvet jacket with an unlaced linen shirt to reveal a tantalizing expanse of bronzed chest. For all the elegance, he was magnificently untamed.
“You know,” she murmured under her breath, close to Connor’s ear. “You haven’t worn your kilt in a long, long time.”
The kilted man’s penetrating gaze had gone first to Connor. Gauging a possible threat no doubt, now he turned to Emmy, his fierce expression softening a fraction.
The man’s stare moved then to Donell. A mixture of reactions chased each other across his face. Delight fell to suspicion then concern. He shifted glancing over his shoulder and Emmy finally tore her eyes away to glance up at her husband with an alluring smile.
“I think you should.”
The corner of Connor’s mouth quirked. “Should I now?”
“Oh, believe me, I think we’d both get a lot out o—”
Emmy gasped as a young woman in a fur-trimmed, deep blue gown joined the man at the door. An all too familiar looking woman with lively brown eyes and auburn hair, but not one she’d ever expected to meet. Certainly not under these circumstances. “Ho-ly fu…fud… fudg… Geez, I’ll just say it. Holy fuck. You’re Scarlett Thomas, aren’t you?”