May 12, 1822
The inn’s wide oak door slammed open, the icy wind swirling snow across the uneven, rough plank floor. Almost as one, the inhabitants of the room looked at the newcomer, a heavily bundled-up young lady obviously offended by the dire weather.
Shivering from head to toe, Mary Hurst grabbed the door with both gloved hands and struggled to close it. Her maid appeared and they finally secured the door, both panting from the effort. “Thank you, Abigail.”
“Ye’re welcome, miss.” Abigail rubbed her arms and looked around the room with interest. “Gor’, miss, there do be a lot o’ folks in this establishment.”
Mary undid the scarf that covered her chin and ears from the harsh elements and blinked at the gazes locked upon her. The harsh weather had driven all other travelers inside the only available inn on this particular stretch of long and lonely Scottish roadway.
Mary stepped through the wide arch that led to the common room. “I’ve never been so cold in all of my life.”
Abigail rubbed her gloved hands together. “Aye, ’tis as cold as a witch’s teat!”
Mary’s face warmed to a hot burn as the two farmers and a well-bundled tradesman who sat around a table by the window guffawed. A clergyman who sat at the long buffet table sent Abigail a hard stare before he hunkered down over his plate. Meanwhile, in the far corner, two rough-looking laborers chuckled boisterously, winking when Mary sent a reprimanding glance their way.
“Abigail, please watch your language.”
Unabashed, Abigail grinned. “Aye, miss.”
She unwound her muffler and looked about the room with interest, her broad face brightening with an even broader smile.
“Gor’, miss, do look at all the gentlemans!”
Mary turned a stern stare on her enthusiastic maid. “Abigail, ladies do not stare in admiration at strangers. So let’s not look at all of the gentlemen.”
Abigail’s smile dimmed. “Very well, miss, but—”
“No ‘buts.’” Mary removed her scarf, shaking off the melting snow. As she did so, she caught the gaze of the final occupant of the taproom. Dressed head to toe in unrelenting black, the man sat in the only chair beside the crackling fireplace. Larger than any other man in the room, he had broad shoulders and long legs that made even the heavy chair seem too small.
He was still wrapped in his coat and a heavy muffler partially concealed his face. That was a pity, for he had a most striking appearance: dark hair that fell over a noble brow; a strong, acquiline nose; and pale green eyes that caught and held her gaze.
Abigail said in an audible whisper, “Miss, I thought we wasn’t supposed to stare at the gentlemans.”
Mary’s face burned, certain that the man had heard her maid’s unwelcome comment, but he merely favored them both with an indifferent glance before turning his gaze back to the snapping fire, his face a study of disdainful boredom.
Piqued by such an obvious dismissal, Mary turned her back on the stranger and yanked off her wool-lined gloves.
It was a most inhospitable welcome. There were no available chairs and not one of the male occupants had stood when she and her maid entered, much less offered up their seats.
But she could endure this and more for her brother. This is for Michael. I cannot let him down.
She had a special place in her heart for her youngest brother. He had been sickly from the time of his birth until well into his teens, when, miraculously, he had ceased catching every illness that came through their village. Within a year, he’d lost his worrisome cough, gained a golden tan, and grown four inches.
Though he’d recovered fully, the long years he’d been ill had shaped him in many ways. The hours he’d been forced to lie upon the couch had left him with little to do but devour book after book. When his health had improved enough that he could attend school, he found he was far ahead of his classmates and, somewhere along the way, had become a scholar.
To his family’s surprise, he’d taken his fluent Greek and Latin, his advanced knowledge of sciences and histories, and had become the one thing none of them had expected… an Egyptologist.
Mary said the word in her mind, savoring it. It was a new term, come to usage only since Napoleon’s Nile campaign. His troops had ravaged the Nile valley, and after Napoleon’s defeat, their acquisition of a large number of ancient Egyptian treasures had enriched the coffers of the British Museum. Michael was a member of Britain’s Royal Society, an organization founded in 1660 and comprised of energetic scientists who valued empirical evidence over everything else. The members took their role as the leading experts in the study of Egyptian artifacts very seriously indeed.
But Michael hadn’t joined the society just to search for Egyptian artifacts. He was on a special quest that only the family knew about: to recover the Hurst Amulet, which had been stolen from an ancestor and gifted to Queen Elizabeth I. History suggested that the intrepid queen came to fear the amulet, thinking it possessed magical qualities, and had passed it on to a courier from a foreign land.
The problem was, no one knew which land. Over the years, Michael had become convinced that the amulet had ended up in Egypt, and he was determined to find it.
Mary was eager to hear what new clue Michael had unearthed. His life was so exciting, she thought wistfully. He was doing the very things she wished she could do—adventuring, exploring, finding and purchasing historical artifacts for private and public collections. She, meanwhile, was the sole child left at home, and the care of their parents had fallen on her.
Not that she regretted it. She loved her parents and the vicarage, but sometimes her soul longed for excitement.
Right now, though, she could do with a lot less adventure, and a lot more warmth. Her hands and feet were freezing; she couldn’t feel her toes at all.
She straightened her shoulders and gazed about the inn’s common room in the way she imagined Michael would, coolly and without fear, meeting the gaze of every man present.
The farmers and tradesman in the corner lost their grins immediately, dropping their heads and muttering to one another under their breath. The clergyman turned bright red, then sniffed and returned to reading his well-worn Bible. The rough laborers stopped guffawing and shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Only the darkly garbed man by the fireplace didn’t acknowledge her, but continued contemplating the flames as if searching the glow for the last book of Ramesses.
Fortunately, she didn’t need him to pay attention to her. She’d tamed the common room with just one look. “Come, Abigail. Let’s bespeak a hot meal and see to hiring an escort to New Slains Castle.”
The clergyman’s head snapped in their direction. “New Slains?” Thin and slight, he was almost swallowed by his frock coat and slouched muffler.
“Yes, New Slains Castle.”
“Och, ye canno’ wish to go there.”
“But I do. I must speak with the Earl of Erroll.”
“But—” His gaze flickered past her, then back. “The road is impassable. No one will take ye there.”
“Someone will have to, for I’ve very important business to conduct with the earl. Besides, the roads cannot be that bad; the ostler said it had only been snowing an hour or less.”
“Yes, but before that it was raining, so there’s sure to be ice. The road is very steep in places and treacherous.”
Abigail made a distressed noise. “Miss, mayhap we’d best bespeak a room fer a night or two until—”
“No.” She’d come so far to fetch the item Michael needed to win his freedom, and she wasn’t about to give up.
“But, miss, ye’d have t’ have yer head up yer arse to—”
“Abigail!” This is what came of traveling with a companion one had barely met.
Normally when Mary traveled, she took one of the serving girls who helped clean the vicarage, both well trained and genteel. Unfortunately, influenza had raced through their small hamlet just before Michael’s urgent letter had arrived and both maids were ill. Mary had been left with no choice but to accept the only available female willing to travel to Scotland on such short notice, her groom’s niece.
Abigail blinked in mild surprise. “What’s toward, miss?”
“That phrase is vulgar.”
“Th’ one about stickin’ yer head up—”
“Yes. It’s not an appropriate expression.”
“Nay? Even when ’tis the truth?”
One of the farmers snickered loudly. Mary glared at him until he covered his mouth, though his shoulders still shook.
“It’s not proper ever.” She tucked her gloves into her pocket. “Now, we must find the landlord and—”
The outer door opened and a short, squat man came into the entry hall behind them. He was swaddled in a huge coat, a prodigious number of mufflers, and a thick woolen cap. Stomping his boots upon the floor, he paused on seeing Mary and her maid standing in the common room. “G’day. Can I help ye? I be Mr. MacEllis.” The thick Scottish brogue was barely understandable.
Mary dipped a curtsy. “I am Mary Hurst and this is my maid, Abigail. We would like to bespeak a private parlor, if one is available.”
He tsked. “Och, miss, we dinna have such a thing. ’Tis the common room or none.”
Mary forced a smile. “Fine, then. We’ll find some chairs here. We’d like some dinner as well. We haven’t eaten since this morning.”
“I’ll bring ye out some Cullen Skink.” At Mary’s blank look, he explained, “’Tis stew made of finnan haddock, potatoes, onions, and whatnot.”
“Ah! That would be lovely.” It sounded appetizing and she loved stew, especially on cold days. “All we need is a seat, then.”
The innkeeper went into the common room and looked around. His gaze flickered over the farmers and tradesmen and fell upon the gentleman by the fire. “Why, ’tis—”
“MacEllis, there you are,” the man said in a deep, rumbling voice. “I came to try your whiskey, if you’ve any left.”
The innkeeper shot a side-glance at Mary and her maid. “O’ course we do, er—”
“Mr. Hay, then. I’ll bring ye a good tipple.”
“Thank you. After, of course, you’ve seated your new guests.”
“Aye.” The innkeeper turned toward the wide bench by the buffet table. “Vicar Turnbill, would ye mind scootin’ yerself down a wee bit? We’ve guests, as ye can see.”
The vicar looked as if he did indeed mind, but he gathered his Bible and plate and slid to the far end of the table, where he sat stiff-backed as if afraid his very air might be tainted by their presence.
The innkeeper gestured to the plank bench. “There ye go, miss! I’ll fetch yer stew and some bread.” With that he hurried off, leaving them alone with the men in the common room once again.
“Oh, I do hope there is a lot of stew, fer I’m hungry enough to eat a hog’s head all by meself.” Abigail swung her cape from her shoulders and hung it on a peg by the door.
If every eye had been fastened upon them before, they were glued now, for Abigail’s plain gray gown accentuated her astounding figure.
Abigail smoothed down her gown as she cast a winsome glance at the clergyman. The scrawny man gulped, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he turned bright red. With a sputtered deprecation, he ducked his head into his Bible.
Abigail grinned as she took her seat, making certain she was facing the men in the room, whom she now favored with a simper.
Mary clutched her pelisse tighter and wished she could toss a muffler over Abigail. Never had there been such an attention-seeking maid. Resigning herself to the inevitable comments and stares, Mary took her seat at the end of the table.
As she did so, she found herself meeting the sardonic gaze of the stranger by the fire, his green eyes glinting with mockery. Her face heated and she resolutely looked away.
Mary wished she could teach Abigail a bit of decorum, but the girl was addicted to the attention her figure solicited, and Mary couldn’t completely blame her.
Mary wouldn’t mind being so blessed herself. She had the ample breasts, but the rest of her was ample as well.
It wasn’t that she was fat, but she was healthy. She lacked both the slender, willowy figure favored by fashion and the hourglass figure that Abigail enjoyed. Mary’s shape was more… squarish, a shape enhanced very little by the current style of gowns with their tiny puffed sleeves and waistlines directly beneath the breasts.
Stop thinking about such silly things! You need to focus on your mission.
Her throat tightened at the thought of her brother. His letter had assured them that he was well, but she knew from experience that his letters were often carefully edited for their parents’ eyes. Later on, when it was just him and Mary, he would tell her the real tales of danger and deception, excitement and—sometimes—tedium.
She knew more than any of their other siblings just how far some of Michael’s letters were from the real truth, and it frightened her now in a way it never had before.
He was not doing well; she could feel it in her heart.
It would be a relief when they finally reached their destination, recovered the artifact from the earl, and met up with William, who should be sailing from France now to meet them at the dock in Whitby. William had gone to collect one of Michael’s best friends and compatriots, Jean-Francois Champollion, to serve as a guide for the delivery of the artifact to Michael’s captor. No one knew Egypt like Champollion.
If everything went as planned, Michael would be free within the next six weeks—which was far too long to be a captive, but the best they could do.
The innkeeper returned carrying two bowls of steaming stew and a hunk of thick bread already buttered. Despite her worry for her brother, Mary’s rumbling stomach welcomed the lovely stew.
As she ate, the travails of the last few weeks seemed to melt into insignificance. She was truly blessed to be able to make such a journey. Had either of her other brothers been home, it would have fallen to William or Robert to make the trip. Fortunately, Mary had been the only one available. Eager to go, she had overridden her parents’ objections with a calm assuredness that she hadn’t always felt once the journey had begun.
Their travels had been far more difficult than she’d expected. They’d suffered a broken wheel on their third day, and then faced two days of slogging rain that had left the roads treacherously muddy and travel painfully slow. There were times she’d thought it would be faster to walk than remain in the creeping carriage.
Then, as they’d passed through Aberdeen, the rain had turned into snow, which had made traveling impossible until it eased up and the road became visible once more.
Abigail hadn’t helped, either. The woman had chattered nonstop about things Mary had never done or thought to do—lies she’d told, men she’d allowed to kiss her, and how she’d once stolen a penny from a man who hadn’t bought her a big-enough present.
Mary was certain Abigail had a good heart but wished the maid possessed more moral refinement. Oh no, I’m beginning to sound just like Father. That will never do. What I should do is focus on solving the latest dilemma of our travels.
Mary pushed her empty bowl away and collected her courage. “Excuse me, please.” Her crisp voice interrupted the low murmured conversation of the others in the common room.
She waited until all except the dark stranger by the fireplace turned her way.
She cleared her throat. “Excuse me.”
He slowly turned his head and regarded her with a cool stare.
Much better. “I beg your pardon, but my maid and I need a guide to the castle.”
Silence settled upon the company, an odd, heavy sort of stilted air.
The innkeeper, who’d been brushing the coats hanging on pegs by the door, blinked. His gaze flickered past Mary and then back. “And why do ye wish to go to the castle?”
“I must speak to the earl.”
“I dinna know aboot that. The earl dinna take well to visitors.”
“Aye,” said a man by the window. “He’s a recluse.”
His friend added, “He ne’er comes to Aberdeen, neither. Not seen ‘im there once’t.”
That was disheartening.
Abigail put down her spoon. “Why’s that? He ain’t maimed, is he?”
An awkward silence followed this.
MacEllis cleared his throat nervously. “O’ course the earl ain’t maimed. He’s—”
“Scarred,” came the deep and rich voice of the dark stranger. “He was injured in a fire many years ago. He does not like being seen.”
Abigail wrinkled her nose. “Disfigured, is he? Pity, that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mary said impatiently. “I mustspeak with him. ’Tis a matter of grave import. My brother’s life depends upon it.”
A cold smile flickered across the man’s face. “That is certainly dramatic.”
She met his gaze evenly. “It’s true, too.”
“Does the earl know this brother of yours?”
“Yes. My brother is Michael Hurst.”
The innkeeper started. “Michael Hurst? The adventurer as writes them articles in the Morning Post?”
“You’ve heard of him, then.”
“Aye,” MacEllis said in a reverent tone. “The vicar borrows the paper from Lord Erroll and reads us Hurst’s adventures e’ery time one is in the paper.”
The vicar fairly beamed. “The columns are very well written. Hurst is a modern-day hero.”
Several of the men nodded.
Mary smiled, feeling proud. Only she and Michael knew the truth about his columns: that she had written every one of them.
As Michael’s exploits became more well-known, the editor of the Morning Post had approached Michael at a meeting of the Royal Society and requested that he submit to the newspaper a personal account of one of his trips to acquire an historical artifact. Between trips at the time, Michael had agreed to do so, but within two days was offered the opportunity to embark on yet another adventure.
As a result, the story was never written, but the editor refused to allow the matter to die. He wrote constantly asking for the promised article.
On a whim, Mary offered to pen it to quiet the editor’s clamor. Michael had encouraged her, saying she could keep the profits if she promised to write him taller than his mere six feet one inch. Laughing, she’d agreed. She’d not only made him taller, but she’d used her fertile imagination to push the story far beyond the boundaries of reality.
The resulting article was a huge success and the editor had demanded more stories. With a bank check for an astonishing five pounds in her hand and Michael’s encouragement, Mary had done so.
The innkeeper cleared his throat, doubt plain on his broad face. “Miss, meanin’ no disrespect, but ye canno’ be Michael Hurst’s sister. He dinna have any.”
Her smile faded. “He does, too. He has three, in fact.”
One of the men by the window said in a voice of authority, “He dinna mention a sister in his columns.”
She narrowed her gaze and said in a sharp tone, “He doesn’t mention his mother or father, either, yet I can assure you he was not found as a fully formed babe beneath a cabbage leaf.”
This caused some snorts of amusement. But it was the quick, appreciative glance from the dark stranger that made her smile.
“Hurst has had some amazin’ adventures.” MacEllis rubbed his chin and eyed her thoughtfully. “Did he really wrestle a python wit’ his bare hands?”
“Yes.” But Mother didn’t know about that one; Michael had hidden the newspaper when it arrived.
The vicar leaned forward, his thin face alight. “If—when ye see Mr. Hurst, pray tell him that we here in Aberdeen are faithful followers of his.”
“I’ll mention it to him the next time I see him.” Please God, let that soon. What if he doesn’t come home—ever?
She had to swallow a lump in her throat before she could speak again. “It’s because of my brother that I must see the Earl of Erroll.”
The innkeeper shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, his gaze flickering past her and then back. “Miss, ye canno’ just—”
“I will take you,” said a deep voice, husky with a Scottish accent.
Mary turned toward the dark stranger. “You?”
He stood and she realized how truly large he was. He was larger than any other man in the room, even larger than her brother William, who stood at six feet three inches.
Abigail let out her breath in a whoosh and said in a whisper that was no whisper at all, “Whooo, missus, but he’s a fine un, ain’t he?”
There was no disguising the admiration in her tone, and Mary had to agree.
The emerald eyes glinted at her; his hard, fine mouth was firm above his scarf; his black hair was a stark contrast to his golden skin. “I happen to be traveling up the cliff road and I can take you directly to the castle.” One brow lifted. “If you wish.”
Mary collected herself. There was something about the man’s husky dark voice that sent a shiver of almost recognition through her. “How much will you charge for the assistance?”
“How much do you have to pay?” he answered without hesitation.
Abigail giggled. “Gor’, but ye do be a cheeky one!”
The man’s gaze flicked across Abigail but seemed to find nothing of interest, for it returned immediately to Mary. “We shall have to leave immediately. I’ve no wish to arrive at my own destination late.”
Mary was relieved that he wasn’t impressed with Abigail’s busty charms; that could have made their trip even less comfortable.
She gripped her hands together. It was a bit of a risk to allow this stranger to escort them, but what choice did she have? It was either pay this man to assist them, or stay here and perhaps be snowed in for days. And Michael was counting on her.
Green eyes narrowed in impatience. “Well? Do you wish to go to New Slains or not? I don’t have all day to stand here whilst you make up your mind.”
“I appreciate the offer, Mr. Hay. I will pay you two shillings to drive us to the castle.”
“Fine.” He strode to the door, moving with an easy grace.
Mary stepped forward. “But—we can’t leave this very second.”
He stopped and pinned her with a hard look. “Why not?”
“Our horses have not yet rested and—”
“I shall have your things transferred to my carriage. My horses are rested and ready to go.”
“But I don’t think we should—”
The door closed behind him.
“There ye go, miss,” Mr. MacEllis said, looking satisfied. “I’ll pack ye a wee mite t’ eat upon the road. It’ll take ye three hours at least to reach the castle, maybe more in this weather.”
Mary supposed there was little she could do; she just wished she didn’t get such an ominous shivery feeling from the stranger. There was something about him—the way his eyes rested upon her, the manner in which he moved… He was a man’s man, bold and hard, with little time for the frivolities or warmth of life. Her only reassurance was that his voice was more cultured than those of the other men here. Yet his clothes were too common for him to be the earl’s social equal. Perhaps he was a landowner who lived near the earl? That was possible. Still…
She turned to the clergyman and moved closer so they wouldn’t be overheard. “Excuse me, sir.”
He looked up, his gaze suspicious. “Yes, miss?”
“I hate to bother you, but… the gentleman who is taking us to the castle. I—I don’t know him and I was hoping you—” She could see from the man’s confused expression that she was muddying the waters with her hesitation. “Sir, would you vouch for him? Will I and my maid be safe?”
He looked astounded. “God bless ye, o’ course ye’ll be safe! Why, he’s—” The clergyman nodded his head. “Ye need have no fear. He’s a good mon, he is.”
Her fears calmed, Mary dipped a curtsy. “So I thought, too, but I wished to be certain. Thank you, sir.”
She hurried back to the door, where Abigail was shaking out her damp cloak. Mary realized that her unease with the stranger was merely because of her own fears and worries, not because of the stranger’s character.
“Well, miss, this worked out well.” Abigail tugged her cloak about her shoulders. “I wish we could sleep here a mite before we pressed on. I’m powerful tired, I am.”
“So am I, but at least we’re not hungry. We must be grateful for what we have.” As Michael was fond of saying, Excitement is never comfortable. When it comes, you just hang on and hope you don’t fall off.
“Come, Abigail.” Mary gripped her cloak closed and shoved open the heavy door. “I wish to make certain our trunks are transferred and not set in the snow where they might get wet.” She stepped out into the windy, icy snow, which stung her face.
“Lor’, miss! ’Tis horrible weather.”
So it was, but one did what one could. Michael, just hold on. I will not let you down. Head down, she trudged toward the large coach that sat on the other side of the inn yard, noting with surprise that her trunks were already lashed to the back. Their rescuer was nowhere in sight, but a small, spry fellow in a heavy black wool coat opened the door and gestured for them to enter.
Mary hesitated, staring at the darkened interior for a second. Then, putting her head down against the weather, she climbed in.
Letter from Michael to his sister Mary, from a caravan heading for the Sahara Desert:
I can’t thank you enough for sending the books I left beside the bed when I was visiting at Michaelmas. What would I do without you looking after me?
Mary, I know you feel that you are tied down with Mother and Father growing older, but you forget that they themselves have always been travelers. If they had the chance to go somewhere, they would take it and they would expect the same of you. Traveling is a family affliction and we all have it.
One day, when I’ve finished my search for the elusive Hurst Amulet, I want to take you to see pyramids so high your neck will hurt for trying to see the top, rivers so black and deep that you would believe in the River Styx, and verdant fields set among miles of desert sand as if magically transported there.
One day, Mary, we shall see all of that and more.
© 2010 Karen Hawkins