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Виггс Сьюзен


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On ev’ry hand it will allowed be,

He’s just—nae better than he should be.

—Robert Burns

After the landing, Ian stood on the rocky shore, oblivious to the movements around him, oblivious to the delighted shouts of young Robbie, oblivious even to Miranda, whose presence had consumed him since the moment he had laid eyes on her.

He simply stood, feeling the solid earth beneath his feet and trying to get his mind around the fact that after an exile of fifteen years, he was home. In Scotland.

How much had he changed, he wondered, from that wounded boy, skulking to freedom by hiding in a ship’s hold?

He was staggered by how deeply he had missed his homeland. He drew the feeling in through his pores, and into his lungs with each breath, and the very essence of the land began to pulse through him. This was Scotland, his birthplace.

Here, he had suffered the torments of the damned—but also, in that early misty time of his youth, he had known his greatest joy. Had known the crystal sharp air of the craggy Highlands as he’d raced across the moors after a stray lamb. Had known the sweet, warm scent of a mother and the hearty affection of a father.

Ah, how long ago that had been. The boy who had gamboled through glens and boggy moors, who had fished for trout in the icy streams and chased squealing girls in the kirkyard on Sunday, was as good as dead.

Ian MacVane knew the name of his murderer. Adder, like the snake. Mr. Adder, the sly-eyed Englishman. He had swept like a storm into Crough na Muir, claiming that the crofters were trespassing on his property. And so they were, on land relinquished to him by the laird whom Adder had beggared at the gaming table.

Ian drew in another breath of Scotland. He felt as if he were falling, falling back into the hideous past, squarely into the night Adder and a troop of mercenaries had swooped down upon the croft of the MacVane...

He heard a sound that didn’t belong to the night. Below the living quarters, the cows blew gently in their sleep. Then the sound came again. It was a soft whistle—not an owl or a nightingale, but a human sound. The dog reacted first, leaping down from the loft, yapping wildly.

He heard a sickening thump, and the dog fell silent. By then Ian’s father was up, pitchfork in hand, but it was too late. Too late...

Miranda broke his fall. She did it with something as simple and as complicated as the brush of her hand on his sleeve, a tilt of her head, a querulous smile. “You were a thousand miles away, Ian,” she said. “And it was a sad place.”

He fought the urge to shake her off, to lash out like a wounded wolf, to recoil from her compassion. Instead he managed a wry half smile. “Reading my moods, are you?”

“Didn’t I always?”

“Of course.” Christ, but this was absurd. Inventing a past for them, pretending they had a future.

No one’s future was assured so long as fanatic Bonapartistes kept hatching their plots in England. Ian wondered how the British could be so blind. They and all their allies were convinced that Napoleon would rest content in his defeat in exile. But Ian understood the brilliance and determination of the emperor, the loyalty of his followers. Exile at Elba was surely but a temporary state for such a man. Bonaparte would be back. Already he was coiled like a snake, poised to strike.

Impatience stirred within Ian. He had best make quick work of the marriage—a handfasting would do—and hasten back to London.

“We’ve always been of one mind, lass,” he said, forcing gentleness into his voice as he lied to her. “And my guess is, you’re of a mind for a good bath and a meal.”

“I am.”

Duffie and Robbie had gone on ahead with the baggage. Ian scanned the road that wound up and around the great rising hills. He had not stood on this spot since he was a lad. Yet he knew people would still remember him in the village.

A part of him still dwelt there.

He started toward the settlement, old and tumbled and comforting as a tattered blanket.

After walking along the dusty road for a quarter mile, Miranda stopped him. “Ian.”

“Aye, lass?”

“I don’t remember my own past, save what you’ve told me. But I know nothing of your past, either.”

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