Kissing The Countess
Susan King

Excerpt

Catriona MacConn glanced up at the rocky precipice that soared beside the hill, its dark bulk veiled in mist. The drover's track she followed on her way home through the mountain pass skimmed over high slopes that were merely foothills to the massive, ancient mountain. Above, the towering snow-covered crags were often wreathed in clouds. Legends wove through those crags and caves like bright threads in a tapestry, told in the stories and songs that Catriona had heard all her life.

Shivering, she drew her woolen plaid over her head to cover her hair, tucking her copper-sheened braid over her shoulder. Sleety rain had begun on her way home to Glen Shee, and snow would soon follow, for the wind had a bitter edge, and the sky was a dense gray. Home was four miles away, and she must hurry. Her father and brother would fret if she did not return soon.

The ice turned the path treacherous in places, so she went carefully. Aware that weather could change in an instant in the remote Highland mountains, she wondered if she should have stayed the night with the Highland family she had visited that day. Old Morag MacLeod had said the ache in her bones foretold a winter storm that night, but Catriona had departed despite the warning.

She began to hum one of the songs that Morag had taught her that day, a haunting melody with Gaelic verses about a lost lover. The singing distracted her from a strange sense of dread, and she repeated the verses to fix them in memory. When she reached home, she would write them down in Gaelic and English, as she had written down all the songs she had learned, adding to her growing collection. She had taken a few notes already today, the pages thick in her pocket.

The light was failing rapidly, and though she knew the way well, she suddenly tripped over something at the edge of the path. Glancing down, she saw a gloved hand and tweed- covered arm/

A man's body stretched out beside the path.

Gasping, she stared, stunned. He lay face down and motionless, one arm flung out, his body half-hidden by a cluster of boulders. In sleet and low light, his clothing had blended with rock and grass.

Sinking to her knees, Catriona reached out, then hesitated, afraid he was dead. When his gloved hand moved, she sighed in relief and touched his shoulder.

"Sir?" she asked. "Sir!"

He was dark-haired and hatless, his body tall and long- limbed. His face had a firm, handsome profile, and she noticed that he was well dressed in a suit of good, heavy tweed, gloves of supple leather, and his boots had hobnailed soles. A knitted scarf was draped around his neck, and a leather knapsack rested on his back, its single strap crossing his torso.

He must be one of the holiday climbers who sometimes visited the glen, intent on challenging themselves on the mountain, she thought. Surely he had friends who would search for him.

But they seemed utterly isolated up here. The only sound was that of sleet pelting stone, and the moan of the rising wind.

Resting a hand on his back, she felt him breathing. Gingerly she swept back his dark hair, silky cool. Blood from a gash darkened his brow. Seeing that, she gasped in pained sympathy.

Tucking his scarf over his mouth to warm his breath, she frowned. The man was unable to walk on his own. He was tall and hard-muscled, and she could not support him all the way down the icy slope, though she was tall and strong herself.

And the nearest house, her father's rectory, was four miles away. If she left the man to fetch help there, he might die of his head wound, or from the freezing temperature. As it was, she did not know how long he had been lying unconscious.

Touching his cheek, she thought his skin felt far too cold. She had to help him. Remembering that a shieling hut was further down the slope, she resolved to get him there somehow. Easing the knapsack from him and setting it aside, she took him under the arms. Managing to turn him, she began to drag him down the slope.

His head lolled on her hip, and his weight--while not overmuch for his height--threatened to take her down. She went slowly and with great care, finding her way awkwardly through the mist, snow, and twilight.

The whipping wind pulled her plaid from her head and stung her cheeks, and she slipped once, falling hard to one knee, though somehow she kept his limp head and shoulders elevated.

Resting her head on his soft, dark hair for a moment, catching her breath, she rose again to her feet. Aching with the effort of pulling him, she found strength in sheer determination.

Years ago, her eldest brother had fallen while climbing another mountain. With no one to help him, he had died alone of injuries that need not have killed him. She could not let that happen to this man, no matter what it cost her.

At last she saw the little stone hut, a hundred feet or so off the path in a turf clearing, standing in the lee of sheer, soaring rock. Pulling and huffing, Catriona dragged the traveler along, his heels digging snakelike tracks in the new snow.

Built of stone and thatch, the place had not been used for a long time, she knew, for it had been abandoned as a summer hut used by shepherds. The Earl of Kildonan, despised until his death months ago, had owned Glen Shee for decades. He had replaced their Highland sheep with thousands of black-faced sheep who needed tending by only a few men. With cold-hearted cruelty, he had evicted Highland families, forever changing life in Glen Shee. Catriona's father, as kirk reverend, had stayed on to minister to the new men who had settled in Kildonan's employ.

The door sagged open on broken hinges, and Catriona dragged the stranger through the doorway. A portion of the roof had collapsed, with old thatch and broken rafters piled in a corner. Chill winds and sleety snow burst through the opening, but even a ruined shelter was better than remaining outside.

Straining, Catriona maneuvered the man across the room toward the cold hearth and laid him on the earthen floor. Removing her plaid, she wrapped its warmth around him and wadded some of it to cushion his head. He opened his eyes slightly, heavy lashes black against his pale cheeks, and mumbled something. She glimpsed the startling hazel green of his eyes before his eyelids closed.

Taking one of his gloved hands in hers, she rubbed it for warmth, shivering herself. She could start a fire, and the hut might hold some supplies from years past. But she feared that she and this stranger might not survive this bitter, dangerous night.

Firelight and warmth, and gentle hands upon him. He knew that touch, somehow was familiar with that kind, strong presence. Certainly he felt grateful for such grace and comfort while he lay helpless. He did not know how long it had been, or where he was, or who she was. But he knew she was every bit of an angel.

Her hands lifted and she turned away. She was humming, the breathy Gaelic soothing, although he did not understand the words. Opening his eyes slightly, Evan watched the young woman.

She turned away to stir something in an iron kettle over a little fire, dipping a wooden spoon into its contents. Wavy hair formed a coppery halo, sweeping over her pale cheek to twist and gleam in a long braid. Firelight flowed over her like red gold.

She seemed young--scarcely in her twenties, a decade younger than himself--and her body was sturdy, curved like an hourglass, slender in the waist and full at hip and breast, and long-limbed beneath a brown dress. Despite his weariness, his body contracted lustily to see her shape, but he glanced away, for he should not stare with evident desire at his nameless and lovely savior.

Had he not known better, he would have thought himself caught in the Middle Ages, or in some legend, with an enchantingly beautiful girl stirring a magic cauldron, her soft chanting song rising with the smoke of the fire.

He was dimly aware that he had fallen while mountain climbing, was injured, and had somehow come to this place. The accident existed only in vignettes, torn bits of memory, so he tested himself further--Evan Mackenzie, lately of the Lowlands, born in the Highlands. Viscount of Glendevon, recently Earl of Kildonan after the death of his father, whom he had scarcely known past boyhood. He sighed. His brain was intact, at least.

She ended her song and turned toward him. He looked up at that bright, soft hair, and saw the flawless oval of her face, pale and madonna-like, with large, grayish-blue eyes. She had a fresh honesty in face, form, and manner that he liked, and he wanted to hear her sing again.

He was glad she had not babbled on to cheer him, as some women of his acquaintance might have done. And she did not shy away from the work of a nurse, for there were bandages around his brow and his torso, where his side ached sharply.

The girl knelt beside his pallet, the wooden spoon in her mittened hand. Seeing him awake, she smiled, and her face brightened in an unexpectedly impish way. He smiled to see it.

She spoke in Gaelic, and he only looked at her. "You are awake," she said then, in English. "Good. Now you must eat."

Still he stared, foggy with weariness and the shock of his ordeal. He remembered a terrifying fall from the mountainside, resulting in a final slam against rock, followed by pain, disorientation, and the exhaustion of crawling toward a path and collapsing. He recalled sleet, ice, and unforgiving winds.

He did not recall how he came to be here with this girl. He blinked at her and nodded.

She tilted her head. "Parlez-vous francais?" she asked. "Capisco l' italiano, abbastanza bene....Sprechen- Sie Deutsch?"

Now here was a surprise. His Highland angel was multi- lingual. "That is more than my brain can handle just now, my friend," he murmured. "English will do."

"Ah," she said. "You are an English holiday climber?"

"A Scotsman."

"Aye? You sound English."

"Eton," he explained. She nodded in understanding, and offered him the spoon.

He swallowed, closing his eyes at the bliss of hot liquid, a mixture of watered oats and a good dash of whisky, from what he could tell. It slid down his throat like fire.

She turned away, and he glanced around. The room was small and dark, a dank ruin. He smelled stone, earth, the sweet must of old peat, and the clean, cold snap of wind and snow.

Snow had drifted inside a gap in the roof, blanketing the floor. Evan was glad for his plaid cocoon, and he could feel some heat from the small fire in the hearth. Otherwise, the ruined hut, open to the winds, was as cold as an ice-box.

The girl was freezing, too, he saw. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, the delicate tip of her nose was pink, and she sniffled. Her skirt, plump with petticoats, and her jacket, which conformed nicely to her full bosom, would not provide needed warmth in such keen and killing cold.

He, on the other hand, was comfortable enough inside the plaid. Judging by the swirl of snow outside, and the deep ache in his head and side, they would be going nowhere tonight, and would have to stay warm to survive. Watching her tremble while he lay swathed gave him a distinct pang of guilt. "Miss--" he began.

"I am Catriona," she said then. "Catriona MacConn. I live in the glen at the foot of the mountain."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss MacConn. It is Miss?"

"Aye. I'm not wed," she said curtly, looking away. "My father is the kirk minister, and I am the only daughter. I am what is called...well, the plain girl." She shrugged. In Highland families, he knew, one daughter often remained unwed to care for the parents. He realized that must be her situation.

Spinster or plain girl, she was an angel to him, and she was shivering mightily. He opened the plaid in invitation.

"Miss MacConn," he said. "Meaning no disrespect, of course, would you care to get warm in here with me?"

She shook her head. "I am fine." Her jaw shivered as she spoke, and she chafed her upper arms with mittened hands.

"Girl," he said, "don't be a fool. I'm far too weak to be a threat to you. And besides, no one will know about this but us. Come over here and get warm before you perish of the cold."

She stared at him, then edged forward.