An Unexpected Guest
The Scottish Highlands. Christmas Eve 1690.
Isobel Kincaid did not know what she was going to do. Wee Rory was so very ill, and she was on her own, much as she’d been since that horrid day in June of 1689, when Ket MacGaurie had left Balcraig to join Viscount Dundee’s army in the rebellion against the new British king. Her heart still quaked, all these months later, when she thought of Ket lying dead on the battlefield at Killiecrankie.
She’d called him an arse and worse for leaving her, for leaving their clan to fight for a cause that was doomed to fail. Ach, aye – Isobel wanted King James back on the Scottish throne. Who didn’t? But had that cause been worth his life?
Ach, how she wished she could take back her angry words now, for they were the last Ket had heard from her. ’Twas just that she’d been so very frightened. He was the son of the MacGaurie chieftain, and a prime target for the royalist forces. She’d been terrified that he would be targeted by the enemy.
That she’d been right was of no comfort to her. None at all.
Her poor bairn would grow up without a father now, for there’d been no one like Ket, nor would there ever be another. Isobel had loved him with every fiber of her being. Even now – after more than a year – she could hardly believe he was gone.
And if missing Ket was not bad enough, being cast out and shunned by his mother – and the rest of the clan who followed her, of course – had broken what little piece of her heart had been left after the news of Ket’s demise. The woman even refused to recognize Rory as her grandson, when ’twas well known that Ket and Isobel had had eyes for no others before he’d gone to fight with Dundee.
Only Una MacGaurie denied it. She’d despised Isobel’s mother for being Laird MacGaurie’s first choice for a wife. And her animosity had not abated even when Isobel’s mother had chosen Angus Kincaid and married him instead. In subsequent years, Una’s rancor had extended to Isobel, refusing to accept her as Ket’s choice.
This was nearly the worst Christmas Isobel could remember. Last year, her grief over losing Ket had been raw and overwhelming. ’Twas only through her grandfather’s care and acceptance that she’d survived her pregnancy and moved past the utter devastation of Ket’s loss. This year she had Rory, at least. But Grandfather was gone.
The wind howled and whipped ’round the eaves of Isobel’s croft – the home she’d shared with her grandfather who’d succumbed to age and an assortment of ailments just before the harvest. Somehow, Isobel had gone on, bringing in their crops, and shoring up the cottage against their usual harsh winter. But now, with Rory ill, Isobel was loath to leave him alone, even to visit the privy.
But there was no more peat on the hearth. She needed to go out to the shed to get some more, before the storm got even worse.
She rocked her son in her arms until he drifted off to sleep, then placed him gently on his bed and covered him with a warm woolen blanket. He’d been restless, and Isobel knew he would not sleep for long. But at least his fever had abated and his color was better. She prayed he was on the mend. She quickly wrapped herself in her grandfather’s heavy plaid, pulled on some thick mittens and let herself outside.
The snow was a good many inches deeper than only a few hours before, when she’d ventured out the last time. Now, ’twas up to her knees, and still coming down in thick waves of cottony white. She could barely see the trees on the slopes above her, and couldn’t see the peaks across the valley.
Isobel filled her basket with as much peat as she could carry, but as she turned back toward the cottage, she saw what looked to be a shadowy figure in the distance. ’Twas not easy to make it out, but Isobel was sure the figure was not just a tree. She knew every inch of this land by heart, for she had lived there with her grandfather ever since… well, ever since Ket’s mother had cast her out of Balcraig and caused the clan to shun her.
Isobel could not bear to think of those days, when her own clan had turned its back upon her. ’Twas bad enough that Una MacGaurie had called her a liar and a whore, and refused to recognize her handfast marriage with Ket, the woman had turned her back upon her own bonny grandson.
Isobel put the past behind her and strained her eyes toward the figure in the distance. She decided it must be a man on horseback, though what he would be doing out in the high country during a blizzard was a mystery. Mayhap he’d been on his way to Balcraig and gotten lost in the storm.
Isobel was gripped by a moment of alarm, but as she looked closer, she could see that the rider was slumped over the horse’s neck. He was hurt, or possibly ill. Mayhap he was frostbit, for ’twas bitter cold.
She quickly let herself into the cottage and placed her basket on the hearth. She checked on Rory, and found him still sleeping, his breathing sounding far more normal than it had in days. Moving quietly, Isobel pulled her blanket off the bed and carried it outside.
The horse and man were closer now. ’Twas as though the horse sensed a place where it could shelter, and was coming for it, despite its rider’s inaction. Isobel trudged down the snow-covered trail toward the man, and when she reached him, she tossed the blanket over his shoulders. She went to his far side and pulled the heavy wool down over him, then took the horse’s lead.
The way uphill was a challenge in the wind and snow, and Isobel was worried that her nine month-old bairn would awaken and find himself alone. She moved as fast as she could and somehow managed to get them to the cottage where she helped the man slide down. He stayed on his feet, but just barely, leaning heavily upon Isobel for support.
She pushed open the door and let him in, and he staggered toward the fireplace. In half a second, he was lying down before it, shivering violently.
“I-I’ll be right back,” she said, a bit nervously.
She was reluctant to leave the stranger with Rory, but could not ignore her visitor’s horse. The man appeared to be no threat. At least, not now. She left the cottage and hastily led the beast into her shed where it nickered a greeting to her own gelding. Removing the saddle, she made sure their water was not wholly frozen, and put out some feed for both horses. Then she went back into the cottage.
The man had not moved. He lay huddled under the blanket on his side by the fire, still trembling with the cold.
Isobel tried to get a glimpse of his face, but he was heavily bearded and the blanket covered most of his head. She worked ’round him to add more peat to the fire, and then she heard him groan.
“I know you must be frozen to the bone,” she said. “I’ll heat some—“
“S-stay.” His hand shot out and grabbed her arm.
Isobel yanked it back. “I do not welcome your advance, sir, and if you persist, I will turn you out into the cold to fend for yourself.” Her grandfather’s muzzle loader was hanging over the bedstead and she could have it loaded and ready to fire before her frozen guest could rise to his feet.
“You may stay here and thaw, but then you must be on your way. Balcraig is only a few miles north. You will find more hospitable lodgings there.”
Isobel took a cautious step back when the man pushed himself up. The blanket fell away from his head, and with trembling hands, he fumbled to cover one of his eyes with a circle of cloth that hung ’round his neck.
Or what was left of it.
Isobel did not recoil at the sight of the man’s scarred face. She’d seen many a clansman return from battle with terrible wounds – lost limbs, horrid scars, damaged or lost eyes.
Her visitor was scarred, too, and when he looked up at her with his one good eye, Isobel’s heart lurched and she dropped to her knees before him. No living man had eyes so very green or black lashes quite so long. No one but her own wee bairn.
“Ket?” she whispered, afraid even to think of the possibility. “Oh dear Lord. Ket?”
It could not be. Not when their clansmen had come home from Killiecrankie, vividly recounting his mortal injuries and death on the field of battle. She clutched her chest where her heart tattooed impossibly hard and fast. Her throat thickened almost painfully.
He took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. “I did’na think you would know me, lass.”
She let out a sob and reached for him.
He opened the blanket and pulled her into his arms. “Belle.”
She wept against his chest. “How?” She felt her tears running into his plaid, but did naught to stanch them. She thought never to hear anyone call her Belle again. “They said you were killed at Killiecrankie.”
He gave a jerky nod, still shivering from the cold. “I was w-wounded. Badly. B-but someone found me and took me to a surgeon. They said I was close to death for weeks—”
“When I came to, I could’na remember my own name.”
Isobel cupped his beloved face in her hands and kissed him, enveloping him in the heat of her body. He drew her closer still, and kissed her with the kind of passion she remembered, though it seemed an eternity since she’d felt it.
She pulled back a wee bit, just to look at him, touching his cheeks, his chin, his mouth. ’Twas all too much to take in. “Oh Ket, I missed you so.”
“Aye, lass,” he said. “And I you. I’d hoped to g-get back to you by Ch-Christmas. Did I m-make it?”
“Oh aye, Ket. You’ve made this the best Christmas of my life.”
He frowned. “But what are you doing up here in your grandfather’s croft? Why are you not in Balcraig?”
None of that mattered now. Ket was home, and that was all Isobel cared about. “We’ll speak of that later, love,” she said. “We’ll warm you, and then there’s someone I want you to meet.”
If you enjoyed that, you might also like The Warrior Laird, my most recent book from Avon.
I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
*This was originally posted as part of the An Historical Christmas Eve blog event on Not Another Romance Blog*