An American Dreams Novel
Rory Maclean cursed and scratched surreptitiously at a suspicious itch beneath his arm. Beneath the coarse wool of his decrepit coat, his stained leather jerkin and threadbare homespun shirt stank from hard use and no washing. Why the devil he had decided to make this trip was far beyond his capacity to comprehend. The country that had branded him an outlaw for all these years would scarcely welcome him with open arms now—even less so if they knew he was more of a criminal now than he had been when he left. But his family had worked hard to obtain his pardon, and it seemed only fair that he should thank them personally.
His ship had landed off the coast of Cornwall. His men were unwilling to risk the British Navy in closer ports. Glaring over the desolation of a Cornish mining town, Rory knew he was in for a long and tedious ride to London.
The gray colors of day were fading to twilight, and he yawned. He could have chosen to arrive in a little more grandeur than his usual disguise, but he preferred to keep the connection between himself and the ship undetected. The men had their orders and would carry them out well enough without him for a while. And they would be ready when he was. This courtesy visit should not last overlong.
Sometime after midnight the coach rattled to a halt to change horses and take on passengers, but by this time he was sound asleep.
When he woke again, Rory found the opposite seat occupied by two daunting women who glared at him as if he had threatened rape at knife point. One was so obese as to make the act physically improbable. The other wore the prim attire and thin-lipped mien of a spinster. Maliciously Rory winked and watched her shiver in horror, before he returned to watching the passing landscape.
The barely perceptible evergreen scent of heather in springtime gradually reached his senses. Rory wondered if one of those damn fleas had given him the fever. Springtime would not have reached the Highlands yet, and he was a long way from those lovely hills.
The soft rustle of a page turning jerked his attention back to the far occupant of his seat. Since she was not in his direct field of vision, he had not bothered to examine the passenger blocked by a large merchant snoring between them.
Adjusting his position so his long legs nearly touched the skirts of the wide-eyed spinster, Rory glanced over. The cloak the small passenger wore was as disreputable as his own and totally enveloped her. The fabric might smell of the stables, but the scent of heather had to be coming from somewhere.
The smooth white hands turning the pages revealed she was as much a fraud as he—more so, he suspected. But the fact that she was a fraud wasn’t what fascinated him. It was the hands. He hadn’t been this close to soft hands like that in years. The women he knew lived harsh lives, and the toil showed in the brown filth and calluses. These hands didn’t appear to have ever lifted anything heavier than roses or touched anything dirtier than crystal. They were slim and soft. He wondered how they would feel against his skin, but remembering the unshaven bristles of his jaw and the work-hardened coarseness of his own palms, he turned to stare out the window again.
By evening Rory was cursing himself for three sorts of a fool for not just sailing up the Thames and disembarking in London for all the world to see. He was unaccustomed to sitting still this length of time. He contemplated buying a horse to complete the journey rather than continuing to suffer this torture. The merchant had descended at noon, but the three women lingered. If he had to sit idle any longer, he would go mad.
At their stage stop, he had stationed himself where he could see the pretty one when she descended to visit the necessary, and he had finally caught sight of the vision beneath that musty wool.
The glimpse had been brief but revealing. Light eyes the gray-blue of a misty Scottish morn gazed from a round-cheeked face of palest snow, with just a hint of rose to her cheeks. A beauteous cloud of ebony hair swirled about her brow and throat despite some attempt to control it with combs and ribbons. He still could not see her figure, but the way she moved across the yard told him all he needed to know. She was an angel down from heaven, and as such, far from the reaches of a devil such as himself.
Lapsing into drowsy cynicism as night closed in, Rory ignored temptation and tried to sleep on the rough wooden bench of the public conveyance. Before he reached that happy goal, the frantic cry of the driver and the sudden unexpected jerk of the coach threw him forward, nearly landing him in mounds of flesh. A faint wailing sound arose from the other passenger’s throat as Rory righted himself by using her knee as a brace.
The coach ground to a halt, and the spinster shrieked in terror at some sight in the forest beyond. The angel finally surrendered her book to the gray light and looked outside as if to discern the status of the elements. Rory pushed her back against the seat and leaned across her to find the cause for this unscheduled stop.
From this angle he could see a mounted man holding the bridle of the lead coach horse. Another horseman held a blunderbuss pointed at the driver, while a third had dismounted, pistol in hand, and approached the coach. That didn’t require much problem-solving.
With several million books in print and New York Times and USA Today’s bestseller lists under her belt, former CPA Patricia Rice is one of romance’s hottest authors. Her emotionally-charged contemporary and historical romances have won numerous awards, including the RT Book Reviews Reviewers Choice and Career Achievement Awards. Her books have been honored as Romance Writers of America RITA® finalists in the historical, regency and contemporary categories.