The Scottish Highlands
Capturing the princess would be his last conquest.
The pirate planned to win this woman just as he had won countless past prizes -- with outright deception.
Flying false colors had worked well enough for him before. Hoist a Spanish merchant flag and sneak past the galleon's guard. Steal the treasure without wasting a single pistol ball. He'd always preferred a battle of wits to one of weapons, and, after all, he was dealing with a woman.
The woman was innocent. She had been protected from scoundrels like him all her life. Accustomed to easy victories, he did not anticipate 'twould take him long to win her.
Assumming he did not make an utter ass of himself.
Yet deception could be a dangerous game. He knew this too from experience. The princess was to be his personal victory, but he did not wish to hurt her as he had hurt others. Too many black marks had been tallied against his soul as it was.
Clouds passed over the moon. A wind blew up across the battlements. The breeze shredded the layer of mist that enveloped the stalwart towers of Castle Dunmoral. A deep sigh built in his massive chest.
He was an impostor, and he felt it to the very marrow.
Four solemn figures watched him. They waited for his deep baritone voice to issue orders. They were as uncomfortable as he, venturing into these hazardous waters of social convention. They did not know the primary rules of play.
"She should have been here by now," he said to no one in particular. "Why did I not ride out earlier to escort her? She could be lost. We got lost our first time here. The roads are impossible to follow."
"The reivers, Douglas," a young feminine voice said behind him. "They ruined everything. It couldn't be helped. We'd have been able to meet her if we hadn't wasted the day chasing cows."
His face darkened at the reminder. Early that same day, in the wee small hours, a band of outlaws had struck the defenseless village of Dunmoral again. They had stolen cattle needed to see the clansmen through the cruel winter months ahead. They had assaulted a young woman. The impoverished king could not afford to maintain armies in these distant Highlands. The feuds and raiding begun two centuries ago had flared up again.
Douglas had spent seven hours futilely pursuing cows into the hills when he should have been planning a reception for the princess.
The raiders had fled, promising to return. Their leader, Neacail of Glengalda, deerstalker and unsuccessful claimant to Castle Dunmoral, had declared open war on the new earl. Douglas had galloped back to the castle, frustrated that he had been unable to prevent or avenge the attack.
The biggest of the three other pirates on the battlement approached him. He was a baldheaded mountain of a man who acted as Douglas's bodyservant and man-at-arms. Actually, Dainty hadn't held either position until a month ago, when word reached them of the princess's imminent arrival. Before then he had served as first mate on the pirate ship Delight.
But the Cornish giant had looked so misplaced in the castle that Douglas had been forced to give him an official title.
"Aidan and I could ride out to find her, sir," Dainty said.
Douglas's gaze flickered to the austere face of the second man leaning against the wall. "I dont think that's a good idea," he said with grim humor. "The pair of you are enough to give anyone nightmares, let alone a princess. We'll wait until Willie and Roy come back from their patrol.
Aidan shifted, his hand moving to his sword. His hair stirred in the wind, restless, unable to hold still like the man himself. Shadows obscured his expression, but Douglas believed there was a gentleness deep within the young pirate's heart. "The reivers are still out there, sir."
"I am aware of that." Douglas's contemplative gaze lifted to the outline of hills above the land he had been entrusted to protect. "I shall go after the princess myself. Someone has to stay here in case there's more trouble."
Which there would be. The promise of it hung in the air. His men sensed it too, Douglas had never met a pirate who didn't possess the devil's instinct for disaster.
"Disaster," he said under his breath. "And here we are courting it in spades, pirates masquerading as gentlemen. Dear God, why did I think this would work? 'Twould be easier to civilize a pack of wolves."
Dainty shook his bald head. "We don't need to be civilized, sir. Nothing wrong with our manners to begin with."
"Not a blessed thing," Douglas said. "Baldwin spits on his hair to give it shine. Willie cracks walnuts under his armpit. Roy puts a peeled grape in his empty eye socket to scare children." He paused with an ironic smile. "And you, Dainty, well, who could ever overlook your ability to consume one-hundred and eight pickled onions in a row, followed by a rendition of 'Greensleeves' belched in perfect pitch? How could the princess fail to be impressed by such spectacles of human refinement?"
"'Tis a hundred and ten," Dainty said, unperturbed by the criticism.
Another sigh escaped Douglas. Concern emphasized the creases that bracketed his finely molded mouth. He pivoted on the walkway of the watchtower. He seemed immune to the cold air that chafed his hard-lined face, the rugged planes carved into sharp relief by moonlight. How did a pirate go about pleasing a princess?
In truth, he was not even supposed to be a pirate anymore. To his shame, however, stealing what belonged to another had become a habit he could not easily break.
As of seven months ago, Douglas Moncrieff, the Dragon of Darien and Scourge of the Spanish Main, had been rendered null and void by royal decree. Soon he would be lost and forgotten in the mists of folklore and infamy. His days of sailing under a letter of marque from an exiled king had fizzled to an unremarkable end.
May the Dragon rest in peace. Douglas wouldn't miss him at all. In fact, he was appalled by the monstrous deeds attributed to his brutal alter ego. Unfortunately, however, more than a few of those monstrous deeds could be well and truly laid at his door.
The Stuart king had regained his throne. Douglas's reward for his rich contributions to the royal coffers was an earldom with an obscure castle buried in the Scottish Highlands. The golden age of piracy had taken on a tarnish. Freebooting had become an embarrassment to the British Crown. He had been asked by his sovereign to behave.
This might prove easier said than done.
The short Scotsman named Baldwin, with crimped reddish-gray hair and protruding ears, stepped forward. A worried frown wrinkled his sun blistered forehead. The middle aged man had been Douglas's quartermaster from the very beginning and he wasnt happy about his demotion to castle steward.
"I dinna know why we need a hokery-pokery princess anyway," Baldwin said. "Not unless we're going to hold the lass fer ransom. Women are always more trouble than they're worth."
"We are not holding Princess Rowena for ransom," Douglas exclaimed. "Have I not made myself clear? Earls do not hold women hostage. Where would you get such a ungodly idea?"
"From yerself." Baldwin scratched his scraggly whiskers. "Are ye forgettin' we ransomed Doña Maria in Cartagena? Her papa paid a pretty penny to get her back, and we didna have to go to all this bother."
"Those days are gone." Douglas drew his hand over his eyes, deliberately keeping his expression stern. "We are not holding the princess prisoner. She is to be our honored guest."
"What if the princess is as homely as hell?" Baldwin wondered aloud.
Douglas frowned. "My brother would not court an unattractive woman."
"But what if she is just plain ugly, sir?" Dainty asked, glancing around to wink at Aidan.
"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Douglas said. "Now cease your stupid questions, and do as you are told."
"We'll do whatever you want us to do, Douglas." His sister Gemma spoke up again, but the girl was only seventeen; she'd spent half of her life in a brothel, the other on a pirate island. She knew no more about royal protocol than Douglas.
The three men behind her subsided into silence, their weather-beaten faces mirroring Douglas's own uncertainty. They were the thorn in his side, the crew members of the Delight who'd shadowed him like a malodorous smell to the Highlands because they couldn't find gainful employment elsewhere.
Douglas didn't know how to get rid of them so he'd given them various jobs in the castle. They still held hopes of getting him back on a ship. They still dreamed of gold and adventure.
He said, "God willing the princess will be safely arrived within the hour. Remember there are to be no references to the past. No mention of pirating, ransoms, or stolen booty. Is that understood?"
"Aye, aye captain," Baldwin said.
"Not 'Aye, aye, captain.'" Douglas glowered at the man from beneath his heavy black eyebrows. "'Tis to be 'Yes, my lord,' from now on. I am the third Viscount Strathkeld, and ninth Earl of Dunmoral -- "
"Eighth, Gemma said. "You're the eighth earl."
"A little polish, sir, and she'll never notice that we're the dregs of society," Dainty said with another grin.
"Mary MacVittie, the doctor's sister, has been giving us all little lessons in proper behavior," Gemma said proudly. "She was a seamstress's assistant at court a year ago. She sewed for the Duke of Buckingham's nursemaid."
Douglas glanced down at his own costume, tartan trews and a dark blue-green belted Highland plaid that fastened at the shoulder with a silver stag's-head brooch. Buckled shoes, a dirk and sgian-duth, a short knife, completed the image. His shoulder-length black hair was tied back in a leather thong. Mrs. MadVittie had assured him that this was the correct attire for a castle laird to greet a foreign princess.
Now he was a nobleman dressed by a nursemaid's assistant.
The woman wanted to help him because Douglas had promised to help the people of Dunmoral. Her quavering voice echoed in his ear.
"The plaid was made for men built like warriors such as you, my lord. You canna wear those garish waistcoats and tight black leather breeches to greet a princess. She'll appreciate a touch of tradition for a first impression."
A touch of tradition to hide the uncouth scoundrel beneath.
His scowl deepened. It amazed him that he'd sunk Spanish galleons with less forethought than he had put into impressing this Rowena of Hartzburg who, by the way, wasn't traveling day and night to meet a disgraced pirate, but rather the pirate's respectable half brother, Sir Matthew Delacourt, a former Grenadier Guard.
"She probably won't even spend a single night when she finds out her Sir Galahad isn't here," he said darkly. "She'll scamper home like a frightened squirrel the moment she realizes I am the black knight on the chessboard."
"Perhaps not," Gemma said encouragingly. "We still don't know why Matthew arranged to meet her in Dunmoral when they both have lodgings in London at their disposal."
But Douglas knew. Matthew had been boasting of his personal relationship with Rowena for years. He had described her in great detail, her warmth, her charm, her wealth. He was proud to have fought for Rowena's family when rebels threatened to attack her palace.
Saint Matthew, the dragonslayer and polished courtier.
Douglas, the dragon and social outcast.
"Do you think he was hoping to woo her?" Gemma asked curiously.
Douglas arched his brow. "I would bet my astrolabe on it. I think he means to use this castle as a stage for his seduction. He knows I am in no position to pass judgment."
"Shame he's stuck in Sweden with a broken leg," Aidan said from the shadows.
"Isn't it though?" Douglas's voice was softly mordant.
Gemma sighed, too innocent to understand the undercurrent of sarcasm. "Matthew probably meant to marry her in the Highlands."
Not if I have my way. Douglas straightened his wide shoulders as if preparing for the challenge. He had accepted this earldom in the hope of finding an antidote to his inner pain. He'd wanted to forget the lives he had ruined in his blind passion for power and riches. Instead, he had stumbled upon a village of people more in need than he, ravaged by civil wars, famine and raiders. The princess would help him accomplish this.
"Poor Sir Matthew." Dainty gave a tragic sigh. "And him so brave, trying to rescue an injured horse from a ravine."
Douglas laid his hand over his heart. "A hero in the truest sense of the word."
"Only a pirate would take advantage of another's misfortune," Aidan murmured.
"A pity we aren't pirates anymore." Douglas's voice was solemn, but devilish lights danced in his obsidian eyes. "As subjects of the Crown, we are expected to welcome the princess in my brother's place with open arms."
"If you say so, Douglas," Gemma said, shaking her head. "But don't forget we lost everything except our garters when the Delight was wrecked. We're paupers living in a grand castle. I still think you should swallow your pride and accept Matthew's offer of a loan."
"A loan, Gemma." He reached down to ruffle her glossy black curls. He flashed her a smile of sheer wickedness. "I think we can do even better that that, lass -- if our honored guest ever arrives.
"Dinna fret, sir," Baldwin said. "Someday yer princess will come."
Copyright © 1999 by Maria Gardner