A Thief in a Kilt

 

Chapter 1

 

Stirling Castle
1411

 

 

Oh, to be back in England where I belong. Aye, and with a substantial bowl of bread pudding before me at that.

Despite the evening chill racing through the open windows at her back, beads of sweat trickled between Katherine Templeton’s breasts as she scanned Stirling Castle’s crowded great hall for the one man who could be her undoing: Scotland’s infamous Thief of Hearts, Ian MacKay.    “Should you find yourself in Stirling be on the watch for an extraordinarily tall and handsome man with flaxen hair, whose laugh sounds like thunder. Under no circumstances,” Sir Gregory had warned, “are you to engage this man’s interest. He’s Albany’s man and therefore your enemy.”

Why King James’s ancient guardian had felt compelled to say ‘engage the man’s interest’ was beyond understanding. Standing nearly six feet tall and weighing ten stones, Kate had never engaged a man’s interest—much less that of a reputed rogue’s—in all her four and twenty years. Well, perhaps more than a few men have stared—referred to her as “the cow” behind her back—but none had ever expressed an interest. Praise the saints none save her grandmother knew of her gift of sight or her life would truly prove unbearable.

Feeling a hand on her arm, Kate jerked and found her escort, Charles Fraser, frowning up at her. “Madame Campbell, are ye nay feeling well?”

Oh, mercy, how long had the old man been trying to get her attention? Calling her Madame Campbell? She really needed to pay more heed. “I’m quite well, my lord, although a bit nervous, this being my first visit to your illustrious court.”

Sir Charles, a balding, sallow-skinned man who had found her beating on his keep’s door—looking for all the world like a drowned cat after she’d lost her map and thus her way in a torrential rain—chuckled in gravelly fashion. “‘Tis a sight I’ll grant ye. But then again, it canna be much different from the French court, now can it?”

Praying she had not been misinformed, Kate assured him, “Yes, but it is.” According to her father, France’s king had more dust in his coffers than gold thanks to his taste for war and opulence, whilst these Scots—particularly the Lowlanders Sir Douglas and Sir Donald—were hip-deep in obvious prosperity, which did not bode well for her mission: to find Lady Margaret Campbell, Sir Gregory’s wife, and to learn why the Scots were allowing their king to languish in the Tower of London.

Hoping she sounded calmer than she felt, Kate murmured, “Truth to tell, Sir Charles, I find your ladies far fairer than mine. I fear Robbie’s family will find me quite lacking.” Sir Gregory had insisted her gowns be altered so that they clung to her every abundant swell instead of hanging the way she liked them, all loose and comfy. Augh.

Sir Charles’s watery gaze shifted from her face to her gown’s scooped neckline. “Trust me, my lady, you havena reason to fash on that account.”

Oh, good heavens, she’d opened herself up for that observation, now hadn’t she? Were she in London, she would have bristled like a hedgehog and stared the old man down. But she wasn’t at home but deep within enemy territory, thanks to her blasted gift and conscience.

Hoping to redirect Fraser’s gaze, Kate pointed to the large group to her right. “Who is the tall man dressed in black leather and plaid?” She had no idea who among the throng were her supposed relatives-by-marriage, and she had to find Lady Margaret Campbell as soon as possible.

It took an uncomfortable moment for her aging escort to pull his gaze from her overflowing décolleté and to look at the man she had indicated. “’Tis the MacDougall.”

Not a Campbell. Oh, well. At least she had correctly assumed from his garb that the man was a Highlander. “And the lovely lady in green at his side?” There was something familiar about the woman, which of course there couldn’t be-—or rather shouldn’t be.

Charles’s brow furrowed. “That would be Lady Beth, the MacDougall’s fourth wife.”

“Fourth?” The poor man.

“Aye. His first-—a distant cousin of yer dearly departed husband’s—died in childbirth. The MacDougall’s second wife committed suicide and the third died under mysterious circumstances.”

Hmmm. Watching the MacDougall chieftain slip a protective arm around his new wife’s waist, and then grinning, whisper in her ear, Kate nearly sighed. “A love match this time?”

Fraser snorted. “Kenning the MacDougall as I do, I doubt it, but then again they do appear quite taken with each other now that ye point it out.”

A twinge of jealousy skittered across Kate’s heart as Lady MacDougall, a willowy woman well into her third decade, suddenly blushed under her handsome husband’s close scrutiny.

Would such a man ever look upon her in such fashion? Not likely, what with her standing a full head higher than most, her king included. Heaving a resigned sigh, Kate cursed her raiding Norse ancestor for the hundredth time and then her gift of sight, the very thing that had brought her here.

Some gift. Ugh.

Cursed since birth, she had quickly learned to keep her insights to herself. Her Norman-bred and deeply religious father had regularly chastised her gifted mother, the daughter of a Romany fortuneteller, until the day she told him that she would die on the morrow—and did, trampled by a team of runaway horses during a London food riot.

Now, should Kate happen to sniff the air and absently mutter, “Rain is coming,” her father would question her to the point of madness. To her sorrow his inquisitions were usually the only attention he ever paid her.

As tutor to the imprisoned James I of Scotland, her father had been charged by King Henry six years ago with “correcting the Scottish brat’s misconceptions.” To instill the concept of feudal law and to make a proper English subject out of the boy or die trying. By default, she had become poor James’s only female companion. Eight years his senior, she had initially provided comfort and distraction when the terrified eleven-year-old had arrived in the Tower. But as time passed and James matured, their relationship grew strained. Now sixteen years and nearly a man, James was decidedly distant and hostile.

So she’d kept her concerns to herself until that dreadful day—King James’s birthday—when she had visited him in the Tower. After a stilted greeting, he had reluctantly opened her gift, what she’d hoped was an accurate rendering of his homeland. As he studied the details she had painstakingly created, images she had garnered from the stories he’d related over the years, his eyes filled with tears. He then threw his arms about her. To her horror, the sudden image of her young friend as a ferocious and vengeful adult nearly blinded her. And the atrocities he would commit—

She shuddered, willing them away.

With absolute certainty she knew then that she could no longer keep her fears to herself. To save her friend from the man he would become, to save the innocent he would destroy as he sought revenge on those whom he believed had abandoned him, she had confided in the one closest to James, Sir Gregory, the old man who had been captured with him.

Which is how she came to be in Scotland, posing as the French widow of Sir Gregory’s youngest son.

“Would you care to meet the MacDougall and his bride?”

Startled out of her reverie, Kate sputtered, “Yes, yes, my lord, I would indeed.” The MacDougall was one of the men she very much needed to speak with. Alone.

As Fraser guided her through the throng, Kate again scanned the crowd for the Thief of Hearts. Finding a tall blond man on the far side of the room, her steps faltered and her pulse quickened.

Oh Lord, is that the Thief?

As if hearing her thoughts, the man standing before the enormous stone hearth glanced to his right, giving Kate a clear view of his profile: one ravaged by pox. Nay, that can’t be him. Blast and the devil take it!

How could she avoid MacKay if she didn’t know precisely where he was? Perhaps Albany had sent the letch on a distant mission. Could she be so fortunate?

Please, Lord, let the Thief be in Flanders or Rome, anywhere but here, so I might do what I came here to do and be gone, with Albany and MacKay none the wiser.

At her side Fraser murmured, “Laird and Lady MacDougall, may I introduce our guest Madame Katherine Campbell, the widow of Sir Robbie Campbell.”

On shaking legs Kate managed a respectable curtsy before the handsome MacDougall liege lord and his lady. “My lord, my lady, ‘tis a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

The MacDougall, a dark-haired man a full hand higher than she, grinned as he took her hand and helped her to rise. “Ah, another coigreach to our land like my Beth. Welcome to Scotland.”

Coigreach? Ah, Sir Gregory had used the word as he taught Gael to James. It meant foreigner. Praying Lady MacDougall wasn’t French, Kate murmured, “Thank you, my lord.”

“May I be so rude as to ask to which Robbie Campbell you were married to? My apologies, but we have so many.”

“To Sir Gregory Campbell’s youngest son.”

The MacDougall’s eyebrows shot up. “Truly?”

Oh, dear! Why does he find this questionable? “Yes, we met in Rhone and were married just three month’s prior to his being killed.”

“My condolences on the match.”

Huh?

He was offering his condolences not on her supposed loss but on the match? Her stomach quivered, wondering what on earth Sir Gregory had neglected to mention about his son.

Before she could form a probing question, Lady MacDougall murmured, “I apologize for my husband, Madame Campbell. I am sure he did not mean for his words to come...umm, as they did. My sympathy.”

The woman then clasped both of Kate’s hands. Before Kate could pull away, a formidable ache roared to life behind her eyes. With the pain came the sounds of battle and the image of Lady MacDougall, keening and covered in soot, clutching four terrified children to her breast as flames crackled and shot up all about them.

Oh, dear God. No wonder I thought the lady familiar. I’ve glimpsed some of this before in dreams.

Hoping she viewed a moment from Lady MacDougall’s past, but suspecting it was a flash of the lady’s morrow, Kate battled the pain and tried to memorize every detail before the image faded.

Before she could gleam the location, Lady Beth let go of her hands and the troubling vision evaporated. She then heard Lady Beth murmur, “Oh, Duncan, now look what you’ve done. You’ve made Madame Campbell cry.”

Kate blinked and felt tears slip down her cheeks. Embarrassed, she dashed them away. “Please pardon me. I fear I’m easily discomposed of late.”

The MacDougall, looking totally contrite, muttered, “My apologies, Madame Campbell, I didna mean to upset ye, but what with Robbie Campbell having a had harelip, a bald pate and the temper of a wild boar, I had simply assumed ye might be happier now than before...if ye catch my meaning.”

What?

Looking as appalled as Kate felt, Lady Beth slapped the back of her hand against her handsome husband’s middle. “Duncan! For God’s sake—”

The blood drained from Kate’s head.

Lady Beth had spoken in English-—oddly accented to be sure, but still English! Bile rose in Kate’s throat.

Oh, Lord have mercy! I never should have agreed to come here.

She was either losing her mind or these people were already aware of who she really was and were merely toying with her.

Before she could utter a word, inexplicable heat infused her back from nape to buttocks and a warm, deep-throated murmur—one carrying the scent of mint and heady male musk—asked, “Now who have we here?”

Kate’s heart slammed against her ribs and her knees buckled. Without turning her head she had no doubt who stood so close that she could hear his heart. Or was that hers?

As if to confirm her worst fears, Lady Beth exclaimed, “Ian! How wonderful to see you again.”

Wishing with all her might that she was truly in her grandmother’s Salisbury cottage where her father thought her to be, Kate slowly turned her head.