August 22, 1753
Torchlight flickered over a monster of a man sitting on the ground, his braw arms manacled to the wall of Marshalsea Prison’s strong room, the outbuilding for troublesome criminals. The floor reeked of piss. Night soil’s scent clogged the air. Rebellion had a cost, and it was paid for in the shed. Anne crumpled a handkerchief doused with lavender oil against her nose and stepped gingerly inside.
The warder’s bruised eyes searched her hooded face. “There’s less beastly men I could show ye, miss.”
“No, he’s the one I want.”
Chains clinked, the cold noise rippling over her skin. The sleeping beast stirred, shifting a tattered MacDonald kilt on massive thighs, and the bottom of a hairy ballock swung into view.
“See what I mean?” The warder sniffed. “Not fit for the kindness of yer bosom.”
She was eyes on the beast, a generous purse dangling from her fingers. “It’s my bosom, Mr. Ledwell. I’ll thank you to keep your concern to yourself.”
Grasping hands cupped the offering. “Yer payin’ a lot for one worthless highlander.”
In the shadows, eyes of molten gold glared through lanky hair, riveting eyes that stripped lesser souls. The brute was bound but not defeated with his head tipped back and arms resting in fetters as if he took his ease. The English could never conquer him. He’d rotted on a prison hulk at Tilbury Fort for his part in the Jacobite Rising of ’45 and lived to tell the tale.
But this imprisonment he’d done to himself.
She winced behind her scented cloth. Untended cuts and nasty bruises showed through his torn shirt. Still, he was a sight. Blond-brown hairs glinting on rock-hewn thighs. A thickly carved chest whittling to a lean waist. With his size came a large nose and a wide, once familiar, mouth. Passionate, soft (the only part of him that was), and utterly kissable.
But those eyes had the power to mark a woman. Brash on his best day, moody on his worst. Spite flashed in their depths at the warder sifting a bony finger through the purse.
Ledwell raised a polished coin to the light. “A Queen Anne half guinea. Don’t see much of this fair lady.” His thumb rubbed the stamped profile. “Looks newly minted too.”
“You have thirty pieces of gold, as agreed,” she said.
“No’ thirty pieces of silver?” Mocking words climbed out of the dark.
He speaks. She stepped closer, dank straw submitting to her foot.
“Ledwell is greedy, but he’s no Judas.”
Husky laughter floated from the floor. “And I’m no savior.”
The warder’s face scrunched in confusion. The beast, however, fixed a keen gaze on her. With her hood pulled forward, a single torch lighting the shed, and a cloth muffling her voice and hiding her face, Will couldn’t know it was her. Yet, for all her confidence, his presence tied her in knots, and he was the one in chains.
“What makes ye think ye can handle him? Three men couldn’t.” A leering Ledwell slid the purse into a pocket inside his coat. “Countin’ on yer feminine wiles to get that filthy rag off him?”
She bristled at the unseemly question. “Where did you find him?”
“At the Ram’s Head on London Bridge. Tavern maid said he sauntered in wearing his kilt, demanding ale. She obliged him ’til he was drunk as David’s sow. That’s when the Night Watch was called.”
“Raised the hue and cry, did she?”
“She did, an’ two Watchmen hauled him here in a cart.” Ledwell hiked up sagging breeches and sniffed. “But it was me who bound him to the wall.”
Preening man. There was no need to glory in the downtrodden. It was bad enough the Dress Act of 1746 outlawed kilts.
“If he was tied up, how did you come by those bruises on your face?”
Ledwell’s chin jutted at two large feet covered in loose leather boots, the tops folded under big square knees. “Kicked like a madman, he did, when we tried to cut off his kilt.”
“Try cuttin’ it off again, and I’ll break your nose,” the highlander boomed.
“It’s within my rights.”
The two were ready to brawl, and manacled or not, she knew who’d win. She’d witnessed the former MacDonald enforcer train with one or both hands tied behind his back. Will’s booted feet had probably knocked sense into the Watchmen’s witless heads when they tried to cut off his kilt, but the skirmish was less instructive for Ledwell. He paced the shed’s tight confines, arguing his point.
“The man can’t be gaddin’ about in a torn kilt. It’s an affront to the crown.”
“I daresay the king would be more bothered by a naked man roaming Southwark.” She smiled thinly against her handkerchief. “Now, I believe you owe me a key.”
“It isn’t proper,” he blustered.
Her patience waned. “That is not your concern, sir. It’s mine.”
Ledwell planted his legs wide. “A prisoner died yesterday. Big man, he was.” Squinty-eyed, he sized up Will. “His breeches might be large enough—”
“I’ll no’ wear a dead mon’s clothes.” Will’s snarl was deep.
“Ye will if I say so!”
She tucked away her handkerchief with the utmost care. Men. Strength was their vernacular. They lived and breathed it. She wasn’t born with that knowledge, but being a fast learner, she’d acquired it as one must to survive London. For that reason, casual as you please, she reached into her lacy cuff and freed a knife with lightning speed.
“When you tried to cut off his kilt, did you use something like this?” She buried the knife tip in Ledwell’s soiled neckwear.
Hot breath steamed her blade. Eight inches of sharp metal kept Ledwell against the wall, hands high and his bloodshot stare on the weapon under his chin.
“Here now, miss. I’m only doing what’s proper for women. Keeping a man covered an’ all.”
“Proper?” Now that amused her. “What delicate sensibilities you have.” She dragged the knife down his waistcoat, the metal clack, clack, clacking over wooden buttons. “Let me assure you, any woman roaming the streets at this hour has seen a Man Thomas or two.”
Ledwell’s eyes bulged when her knife stopped at his Man Thomas.
“You, sir, have a problem—my blade on your baubles.”
Throaty laughter rumbled in the dark. “She’s go’ you there.”
Ledwell gulped. “Ye made yer point, miss.”
“I fear I haven’t. You’ve wasted my time carrying on about breeches and kilts. Why, I feel quite ignored, and men who do that do so at their own peril,” she said in a voice one saved for difficult children. “Let me remind you of our arrangement. You get a bag of gold, and I get the key to unlock the prisoner.”
“Y-yes—it’s—it’s here.” Ledwell’s shaky hands searched his waistcoat and produced a time-worn key.
She snatched it. “Leave.”
The warder quit the room, muttering about unruly highlanders and unrighteous women. She sheathed her knife, confident Ledwell wouldn’t return with reinforcements. If he did, the boastful man would have to explain how a woman had bested him.
Beyond the shed, terse footfalls echoed in the night. She listened, head cocked, until a door banged shut.
Finally. She was alone with the former enforcer of Clan MacDonald of Clanranald.
Steel infused her spine. She’d need it to face the man whose stare burned holes in her back. Foggy wisps curled through the doorway, the damp chill welcome. It’d keep her alert. Her purpose was clear: his freedom, her proposition, and a promising future for the people who depended on her. Well-laid plans, all of them, yet they wavered like a stack of children’s blocks about to fall when she swung around and faced the smirking highlander.
“Go’ any more weapons I should know about?” he asked.
“Only the knife.”
The weapon was snug against her skin, security in an insecure world. The blade left an awful slash for those who didn’t understand the word no. Tonight she needed the former enforcer to say yes, a Herculean task since she would do the asking.
“You’ve gone to an awful lo’ of trouble to see me, lass. Why no’ come closer?” Head lolling on the wall, he hitched up a knee, and shorn wool separated over a swath of hairy thigh.
A spark burst inside her. The boor wanted to scare her off.
“That’s rude, Will MacDonald. Even for you.”
Mischief played on his face. “Have we met?”
She squeezed the key, its metal teeth biting through her glove.
“Yes. A long time ago.”
He shrugged and stared at the wall, indifferent to her presence. The younger, hot-blooded highlander she once knew was gone; the older one who took his place was rougher and dangerous with his careless air.
An unpredictable man. A challenge, to be sure.
She gathered her skirts and crouched boldly between his legs. Will grunted, shock warring with irritation across handsome features. A wealth of unbound gilded gold hair draped giant shoulders. With the key in hand, she brushed back those gnarled locks, admiring his breastbone’s dip in the middle of a meaty chest.
“My name is Mrs. Neville.”
Stern eyes slanted when she toyed with a strip of his shirt. He resented the intrusion, but his body didn’t. Brown nipples tightened. Skin pebbled in waves of uninvited pleasure. Grit covered Will, adding to what made him attractive, the gruff man unafraid of getting dirty and twice as nice when he cleaned up.
“Beg pardon, lass, but our meetin’ must no’ have been a memorable night.” He rattled the chains, his smile none too friendly. “As you can see, I’m in no position to make this one any good.”
Will’s voice was pure Western Isles, full of softened vowels and hints of Gaelic behind every relaxed turn of a phrase. He could recite a tax roll, and a woman would count herself content, listening to his whisky-smooth brogue.
“Aren’t you the brazen one.”
His scrutiny swept each stitch and fold of her cloak. “Forgive my bad manners. A mon gets few social calls in the shed.”
She dropped the cloth strip. “Have you had female visitors? In here?”
“You’re the only one.”
His chin tilted, cocky as the first day she’d laid eyes on him eight years past in Edinburgh. A strapping young man of twenty then, Will had stood on her father’s doorstep, took one look at her sooty apron and the rag fisted on her hip, and he’d flirted outrageously, mistaking her for a charwoman. She’d let him carry on until he announced he was Anne Fletcher’s protector for the journey to Skye—to meet her betrothed, Angus MacDonald.
A forbidden spark had been lit, and damn her eyes, it burned hotly still.
The years had been kind to Will, having chiseled away youthful arrogance to reveal solid male. Yet something was amiss. Chained to the wall, he wore assurance with a touch of . . . madness. Up close, his eyes gleamed in the same manner as the lost souls hauled off to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. Nor did he question a woman purchasing his freedom at midnight.
“Gossips say you’ve never lacked the companionship of women.”
A half-crazed smile split his face. “Rumors, lass. Just rumors.”
“I heard you were a busy man, protecting London’s wealthy widows.”
Really, there was only one. The Countess of Denton. She fought the vile taste that woman’s name left in her mouth.
Will’s smile went cold. “State your business, or I’ll yell for that bodach Ledwell to give you the boot.”
A warning twitched inside her. They both wore old wounds. What good was there in poking them? Will had done what he had to do to survive, so had she. Everyone, rebel or not, had paid a price for the Uprising.
“My business?” She checked the door, survival’s reflex. “I dare not explain all the details here. But the truth is you need me as much as I need you.”
By the devil-take-you shine in his eyes, Will didn’t share the same conviction.
She held up the key. “You are mine now.”
He snorted and gave her the once-over. “You’re a scrap of a lass with nothin’ more than a needle up your sleeve. What makes you think I’d give you the time o’ day?”
“Because you are a man of intelligence who knows the wisdom of listening before rendering judgment.”
Lines bracketing his nose deepened. A moment crawled by, but her fine appeal must have struck the right note.
“It’s your gold.” Iron-clad wrists knocked the wall. “I’m a captive audience. Start talkin’.”
An ugly shiver skipped across her back when a beady-eyed rat tottered out from a pile of straw. Before setting out for Marshalsea, she’d thought about what to say and how to say it. Facing Will, those practiced words crumbled on her tongue. Nothing was right. Her gaze slid over hair in need of washing, a jaw in need of a shave, and eyes a touch fevered.
All she could manage was, “I want to hire you.”
His glower was monstrous. “Those days are over. I won’ work for a woman.”
Insufferable man. “This is not about you warming my bed. I need your talent for . . . finding things.”
“Finding things?” Disdain twisted his mouth. “You go’ to do better than that.”
“You would be well paid. Ten times your earnings from the docks.”
Torchlight flickered on unconvinced features.
“Ledwell gave me your arrest record.” She rummaged for the rolled-up document tucked inside her pocket. “I can burn it tonight, and you would be free.”
“Free is a questionable word these days.” A shake of his head and, “Find another mon.”
“No. It must be you.”
His scowl deepened. “Why me?”
“Because only a highlander will do.”
Tension thrummed in her veins. Fierce, knowing eyes searched her hood pulled low as if he had an inkling of her identity. Beside her, one thigh shook a wide strip of tartan to cover Will decently. The beast was getting down to business.
“Now why would a Sassenach ask so prettily for my help?” His tone was deceptively soft. “Time to show your face, lass.”
Her soul’s frayed parts called for readiness.
She scraped back her hood. “Because a Sassenach isn’t doing the asking.”
His gaze smashed into hers. Startling. Incendiary. A glare to blast her back into the night. The shed’s wretched air suffocated, yet Will’s nostrils flared and his chest rose and fell with ragged breaths. His only sign of life. Otherwise, he didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t blink.
She was hanging by a thread.
“Anne Fletcher MacDonald,” he said at last.
“Anne Fletcher MacDonald . . . Neville. Mrs. Neville to you.”
Will’s brows thundered. “You married an Englishmon?”
She braced herself. “Yes.”
Teeth bared, he blistered her ears with a string of Gaelic curses. She flinched but held her ground. Having spent much of her childhood in London with her English grandmother, tutors had scrubbed her diction clean, though not her vocabulary. Her brothers had made sure of that.
Will’s face was inches from hers. “Ask your English husband to protect you.”
“I can’t. He’s dead.”
“Like the first one?” Wildness glittered in his eyes.
The jibe struck hard. She quaked with emotion stuffed behind a cool facade, an inborn skill she’d honed to perfection. By the sour sentiment twisting Will’s rugged features, she could no more talk sensibly with him now than she could eight years ago.
If her heart had turned to ice, rage had flamed in his.
“We share too many secrets,” she said.
“Secrets, you say?” His laugh drew blood. “No’ secrets, lass. We share mistakes. Too many of them.”
Torchlight lit half of Will’s face. The other half was murky and hostile, belonging to a feral creature who should be left alone to lick his wounds. But this was the beast she needed, a man to exact justice. Little by little, tendons on his neck relaxed. Will slumped against the brick wall, his mouth set but calmer. Anger taxed a body, even a dauntless warrior. Humbled, she stuffed the arrest papers in her pocket and fingered the crude medallion hanging from her neck. Memories of distant, tear-stained faces seared her.
Their suffering . . .
Will had borne his share of suffering too. A wee bit of compassion would not be out of order. A bucket of what looked to be barely touched water sat near his hip. She filled the ladle and set a peace offering to his lips.
“I will have to burn these skirts, you know.”
Will guzzled water, his vivid eyes singeing her. He finished and shook his head at having more. “Too much, too fast and I’ll retch.”
“When was the last time you ate?”
“The night I was arrested. Though I recall more ale than food goin’ down my gullet.” His brogue was heartwarming and his half grin cocky.
“That would be three nights past. And now, though it pains me, I am asking for your help. In return, I can help you.”
“No.” He shook his chains. “I’m otherwise detained.”
His jaw was mulish behind a mud-flecked beard. The truth was he’d rather not be indebted to her. The jaunty angle of his head told her as much. Though sorely tempted, now was not the time to respond in kind. She set the ladle in the bucket and chose her words with care.
“You understand, if you stay here, you will be dragged before the magistrate, and you will be given six months imprisonment. Wear the kilt again, and you will be transported to the colonies—to serve seven years on one of the king’s plantations.”
“No’ a bad idea,” he said, studying the ceiling. “Been thinking about going to the colonies. My father’s there.” Will met her gaze with a taunting glint. “It’ll be my pleasure to sail on King George’s coin.”
“We shall make it worth your while.”
“We is it?” His brows shot high. “Go’ another Englishmon waitin’? Husband number three?”
She massaged her forehead. “No.”
Lavendar oil smeared under her nose was losing its effectiveness. Whiffs of Marshalsea and Will’s unwashed body assaulted her. Not half an hour in the shed and she was in danger of casting up her accounts. How did he survive three days? He’d not stay, not if she had any say in the matter. The Dress Act was too bitter an edict to swallow.
“Be as stubborn as you like,” she muttered. “But I will set you free.”
She rammed the key in the manacle, and their bodies brushed.
Fine hairs on her arms lifted, a rush, delicate and soft. Very out of place for the man she was nose to nose with. She did her best to quash the flutter.
“You truly want to go to the colonies?”
Will’s lashes dropped half over his eyes. “It’s time I leave, lass.”
His graveled voice sent cracks across her heart. He was leaving her. It made no sense. They’d not seen each other in years, yet she knew it in her bones.
Pinching the key’s bowhead, she tried to force it. The lock’s internal mechanism wouldn’t budge. Like her, it was a little rusty about opening up.
“You’re still freein’ me?” Will’s head was at her shoulder.
Molars gritting, she cranked the key. “I cannot turn my back on you.”
“You did once.”
She froze. That hurt. Deeply.
There was no reason to explain her choice. Will wouldn’t believe her; he was too busy clinging to his version of the past, and she was too busy fighting for her future. So many people depended on her. Pushing up on her knees, she steeled herself and twisted the key again. Iron grated iron until the metal bracelet opened. Will hissed at his sudden release, his gaze digging into hers, bright with pain.
Three days in chains would leave a man stiff and sore. She cleared her throat and reached for his meaty shoulder. Under the circumstances, rubbing it wasn’t out of the question.
“This will help,” she murmured. “Warm you, ease the hurt.”
Will absorbed her profile. She flushed the more he watched, rather demoralizing for a woman who lived a shade outside the law. By the slash of his brows, the monster of Marshalsea’s shed was unpleasantly baffled too.
“I canna believe you’re here.”
The highlander was wistful, his voice set to the shush of leather rubbing skin. Will’s body was a familiar map of ridges and furrows. Bigger than most, he was brute force in the flesh. His livelihood required brawny arms to careen ships and powerful legs to turn a quayside treadwheel. A creature of that world. Skin darkened at his elbow, a laborer’s stripe. She traced that suntanned line, careful not to look him in the eyes.
“You roll your sleeves here. When you work the docks.”
Will’s breath stirred hair by her ear. “Of all the women to walk through that door . . .”
His voice was achy and soulful, the timbre striking tender notes.
“You know, it’s not just me who needs you. There are others, Aunt Maude and Aunt Flora.”
“Those two are in London?”
“They live in my house,” she said, bundling her skirts.
She straddled Will’s leg and reached for the other iron clamp. Her inner thigh glanced his. Masculine leg hairs tickled her. She aimed the key at the lock and missed.
“Careful, lass. Don’t fall on my account.” Even in chains, he hinted at humor and seduction.
Embers sparked on tender skin above her garter. Sinister little hairs. Will’s leg skimmed hidden places, featherlight under her petticoats.
She took a bracing breath, fit the key into its hole, and nudged her thigh away from his.
He nudged his closer. “I’m no’ complainin’. You’re warmin’ me nicely.”
Will. He’d flirt with the devil if the devil was a pretty woman.
Years ago, she’d loved the highlander passionately. Young and foolish, both had believed they could be together. But ardent, youthful promises didn’t stand a chance against the tide of war and family obligation. Worst of all, Will had been for the rebellion. She and her family had not.
When she gripped the key harder, a big dirt-smeared hand covered hers.
Will’s hand. Long fingered, scarred, the knuckles scratched and bruised. His hands were good at wielding clubs and pistols, yet gentle enough to woo a headstrong virgin into giving heart, body, and soul to him.
Nodding mutely, she pushed off the ground and swallowed an angry cry when he got up on one knee and his ripped shirt split wide. His back was a weave of purple welts, likely from cudgel strikes.
The beating he took . . . all in the name of donning his kilt.
She was in a daze when the second chain clinked against the bricks. Will stood to full height, his brooding eyes watching her while he nursed his newly released arm.
“I cannot believe you won’t help us,” she said.
“You’ll no’ guilt me to your biddin’ because of Aunt Maude and Aunt Flora.” Will stretched his neck, the bones cracking. “Find another mon.”
“I need you.”
His eyes dulled. “Never thought I’d hear you say that again.”
Chin high, she was done asking. He’d never forgiven her for what happened in the ruins of Castle Tioram years ago. Truth be told, she’d never forgiven herself. It made Will’s sudden touch on her jaw all the more poignant.
“Who did this to you?”
The pads of his fingertips were warm and rough grained. With murderous fury in his eyes, it took her a moment to understand. The bruise on her temple. She’d forgotten about it. When they were on the ground, Will couldn’t have seen it for the shadows.
“It happened a few nights ago when I was alone in my warehouse.”
“I didna ask when it happened. I asked who did it.”
She jerked her chin free. “I don’t know.”
Torchlight guttered beside her. Life stopped—no past, no future. No right or wrong. She was a woman with a man. Will had to feel it. He searched her bruised hairline, her eyes, her mouth until a subtle veil dropped. She lost Will again—if she ever truly had him in the first place. One summer of sex and endearments wasn’t love. It was . . .
A formative experience?
Freedom for a young woman expected to put family first?
Within her cloak, papers crinkled. Will’s arrest record. She pulled it from her pocket and fed the document to the fire. Ashes floated bit by bit like fall leaves until it was gone. Will ground those gray scraps under his heel.
“You’re a riddle, madame. What kind of trouble follows you that your head is bruised and you wear a knife up your sleeve?”
Dignity squared her shoulders. “The less you know, the better.”
Will was proud. Forlorn. Mighty as ever, filling the room with his torn shirt and shredded kilt over naked thighs. A quick stride would flash his male parts. The tartan’s untouched back hung long and properly pleated, but if he gave it to a laundress, she’d heave it into a fire. There was no saving it. Could be there was no saving Will.
She grabbed her petticoats and headed up a short stack of stairs. Will wasn’t far behind, his shoulders brushing the door frame. He watched her scrape muck off her shoe, stark hunger lighting his eyes, but he’d made it clear she was not the woman to feed him.
“Shaking off the dust of your feet?” he asked, a touch belligerent.
“What I do is the least of your concern.” She raised her hood with an eye to the moon-drenched road beyond the open gate. “The better question is, what are you going to do now that you are free?”