About the book
A sea of whisky couldn’t intoxicate him as much as her smell did.
Beatrice Turner owes a lot of things to the Ballantine Circus, her own life amongst them. Until an unfortunate accident during a performance leaves her body and her heart at the mercy of a handsome Highlander.
Jeames Abernathy, son of the Laird of the MacKenzie clan, is set to be betrothed to a Lady he could never love. When he sets eyes on the beautiful equestrienne, he is bewitched. After a fall lands her in his arms, he is certain he has been blessed by fate.
Torn between two worlds, Jeames must choose his heart or his duty. Until suddenly, Beatrice makes the choice for him. Ballantine Circus has a dark secret, and she knows it’s time to pay her debt. A price that could be her undoing once and for all: her life or his.
Beatrice Turner stepped down from the covered cart that she had been riding in and onto the main thoroughfare of Aberdale. It had been a long ride from the last town. She stretched her long, supple limbs, groaning slightly in relief at having arrived at the Ballantine Circus’s latest destination.
The rest of the circus procession had reined their brightly colored carts and mounts in at the edge of the town. Her fellow performers – jugglers, sword-swallowers, jesters, trapeze artists, bear trainers and all the rest – disembarked in the paddock that their Ringmaster and owner, William Ballantine, had selected as the place in which they would pitch their great striped tent.
Beatrice and a few of the other prettier circus performers had been tasked to ride ahead into town to start generating talk amongst the locals. Chatter was key when it came to a successful opening night for the Ballantine Circus. More talk meant more money. A circus coming to a Highland town was news in its own right, but it could never hurt to get people more excited if you could.
“Well,” said one of the contortionists, Fritha, coming to stand next to Beatrice. “It’s certainly pretty enough, as towns go, don’t you think?”
“You’re quite right there, Frith,” Beatrice replied.
The town was undoubtedly gorgeous, despite its remoteness in this far-flung part of the western Scottish Highlands. The main street was lined by tall houses, gabled roofs steeply pitched so as to allow the winter snows to slide off of them. There was a myriad of cozy-looking shops, their wares displayed proudly in trays outside or in windows with the wooden shutters thrown wide.
“Shall we split up?” Fritha asked.
The other girls in the circus always looked for guidance from Beatrice, despite the fact that she was only twenty-one years of age.
She had been in the circus practically her whole life, ever since her parents had died and left her an orphan at the age of six. Unlike many orphans, she had been lucky enough to have been saved from poverty by William Ballantine, whose newly-established circus happened to be passing through Beatrice’s hometown.
The then thirty-year-old Ballantine had caught Beatrice thieving food from one of the baggage carts one evening. He caught her red-handed, as she attempted to get away with a small wheel of cheese and a loaf of bread. Beatrice, her wrist caught in Ballantine’s iron grip, had thought that the man would beat her. Instead, he had knelt down beside her.
“You’re stealing from my cart, girl,” he had said. “Why?”
Beatrice had told the stern-faced Ringmaster that she had nowhere to go, no one to look after her, no way to buy food.
“I see,” Ballantine had said. “You’re desperate. Desperate people find themselves doing things that they never thought they’d be capable of. Desperation is dangerous. Do you know what happens to thieves in this part of England?”
Beatrice had shaken her head.
“No, I don’t suppose you do. If you did, you might have thought twice before trying to steal my bread and cheese.”
Beatrice had stood trembling in Ballantine’s vice-like grip. She had been more terrified than she could ever remember being, as the man had regarded her through his serious green eyes. Even as a child, she had been able to recognize the eyes of a man whom it would be very foolish to try and cross.
The jade-colored eyes had weighed the young Beatrice for what had felt like an eternity. Then Ballantine had asked her a question that had irrevocably changed her life.
“Do you want to work in my circus, girl?”
Beatrice had been stunned. She had not known what to say.
The circus! Me!
She had been so surprised that she hadn’t realized that Ballantine had released his grasp on her wrist.
“You’ll have to work hard. Do everything that I ask of you,” Ballantine had said, spotting the light of interest that his question had kindled in the child’s eye.
Beatrice had nodded.
“Mucking out horses, fetching and carrying, helping the performers with their face-paint and costumes before a show. Packing and unpacking and packing again. Do you think you could do that, girl?”
“In return,” Ballantine had said, bestowing a cautious smile on her. “I can offer you a home. Food. Companionship. You’ll travel all over England and Wales, maybe even so far as Scotland!”
He leaned forward then, his green eyes sparkling. “If you like, one day you might even become a performer yourself!”
And Beatrice had followed William Ballantine towards the great tent, which was in the process of being taken down, and she had never looked back.
Beatrice blinked and came back to herself.
“I’m sorry, what?” she sighed, smiling a dazed smile and shaking her head.
“I said, should we split up?” Fritha asked again.
“Oh. Yes. Yes, split up. Wander about, ladies. Make sure that you are seen. Spread the word. You all know how best to entice the customers. Remember, though, stay out of trouble!”
“How long will we be here for, if anyone asks?” one of the other girls, an acrobat named Erica, asked.
“The same as usual,” Beatrice said. “A few weeks. That gives everyone a chance to get word to their kith and kin in outlying farming regions that we are here, and that there is a show to see.”
She winked at the other performers and said, “Now be off with you, and spread the wonder of Ballantine’s Circus!”
The girls giggled and went their separate ways, their garish outfits contrasting against the peaceful palette of browns and whites and blacks that was usual for a Highland town.
Beatrice began to stroll through the center of Aberdale. She had to admit that she was quite enamored of the little town.
It’s busy enough to have a sort of cheerful bustle to it, but small enough not to have the problems of a city.
Townsfolk hurried to and fro on their numerous errands, glancing curiously at Beatrice as they passed her, dressed as she was in her tight-fitting equestrienne’s outfit of leather and suede.
Beatrice stopped to pat a horse that stood tied to a post outside of a silversmith’s shop.
I’ve always had a soft spot for a fine-looking piebald beast, especially one so strong and tall.
She ran a hand over its velvet nose, stroked its cheek. The animal nickered gently and nuzzled her open palm.
“Just like my very first show horse, you are,” she whispered to the animal.
She had a natural affinity with horses. Something that had become clear within a few months of starting her new life in Ballantine’s Circus fifteen years before. It was this instinctive trust and bond that she seemed to form with horses that had led Ballantine to put her under the tutelage of Rose, his best equestrienne.
Within a year, Beatrice was standing on the back of horses, riding them around the circus ring as if she had been doing it all her life. It was not long after that that Ballantine decided to use her in real performances, showcasing her as a wonder-child that had been born on horseback. The crowds had flocked to see her.
Beatrice patted the horse and continued on her way. She meandered through the town’s streets, stopping every now and again to exchange pleasantries with the locals and inform them that the circus had arrived in Aberdale.
“Circus, ye say?” said one old woman carrying a fresh loaf in a wicker basket, who had grabbed Beatrice boldly by the arm as she hobbled past on her way back from the baker’s.
“What in the world’s a circus doin’ out these ways?”
“Come and spend a few pennies for the show and you will see, madam,” Beatrice said with an ingratiating smile.
“Will I just?” the old woman replied. “And what is that ye do fer the circus, lass?”
“I’m an equestrienne,” Beatrice said.
“I’ve nay idea what ye mean, dear,” the old woman said, though Beatrice could see the glimmer of interest in the rheumy blue eyes.
“I ride horses,” Beatrice explained. “Ride standing on their backs, whilst standing on my hands, that sort of thing.”
The old woman looked taken aback. “Well, I’ll be!” she said, bestowing a gap-toothed smile on Beatrice. “Now, there might be a sight worth seein’. I may just see ye there, lass.”
“I will keep a sharp eye out for you, madam,” Beatrice said, and gave the old woman a little bow before she hobbled away.
When she told someone about Ballantine’s Circus, she couldn’t help picturing a fire starting in their minds.
Like a spark of gossip that ignites a rumor, the flame of chatter spreads from one person to the next, until the whole town is ablaze with it.
Beatrice’s eyes wandered over the neat, well-kempt, whitewashed houses and out into the breath-taking expanse of tors and mountains that surrounded the town.
Encircled by a ring of stunning low peaks and rolling pastureland that stretches away to the horizon and the sky, Aberdale, you are pretty!
Without quite thinking of where she was going, she allowed her feet to pick their own path. and she found herself wandering out of the town and into the hill country.
She walked along a rough road, worn by the wheels of carts and horses’ hooves, which led into the mouth of a vale. The sides of this valley were carpeted in rich, purple flowering heather. It swayed in the constant breeze that blew down from the higher Highland peaks, moving and undulating like a sea of mauve.
Beatrice stood for a while, simply watching the movement of the heather. Scents that seemed to encapsulate the new country in which she stood filled her nose.
Rich dark earth, moss and coming rain.
Up on the side of one particularly rugged tor, a rivulet tumbled down from the heights. It looked, from where Beatrice stood, like a strand of silver yarn threading its way down the side of the crags to be lost in a lush, green nest of fern below.
She continued walking, her feet following the path of least resistance, along the road, up into the hills. There was no one around, nobody she could tell about Ballantine’s Circus. There was only the wind dancing across the rocks, and the breathy sigh it gave as it blew through the wild pastures of meadowsweet, marsh marigold, and vibrant yellow gorse.
A lonely, heart-wrenching cry echoed across the desolate beauty of the Highlands as Beatrice’s footsteps brought her to the crest of a hill. She looked up and saw a red kite floating in the heavens. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight.
“Beautiful,” she muttered. “What must it be like to have such freedom?”
Even from so far below, she could tell that the bird must be huge, with a wingspan far wider than she was tall. She watched it, mesmerized, as it hung in the ether. Then, with a barely discernable twitch of its wings, the great bird of prey dove out of sight behind a far hill.
Beatrice’s eyes followed it, and as her gaze dropped from the blue vault above to a promontory below her.
Is that a castle? How majestic! What a perfect setting for it!
The castle glowed in the sun and was ringed by a thin belt of splendid-looking noble pines; the bark of the handsome trees looked almost silver-purple in the strong light of the midday sun.
Ever since Beatrice had walked in to find her mother and father dead in their little cottage–having been robbed and murdered by faceless thieves–she had done everything in her power not to let fear rule her life. She had made a decision, as a child, that she wouldn’t allow herself to be put off doing anything just because she was afraid that she would get in trouble for doing it.
Conquer your trepidation, seek adventure in the everyday whenever possible.
And so, she set off down the boulder-strewn hillside, intent on taking a peek at this regal edifice. Her intrepid feet picked their way nimbly over the treacherous ground until she made it to the edge of the wide copse of noble pines.
She paused then to get her breath back and suck in a few gasps of the sweet, resinous air.
The air is so clean here! Almost as if I was drinking a draught of some sort of revitalizing potion with each breath.
She closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of the forest all around her. Somewhere off to her left, a brook ran. The eternal music of water chattering over rock was soothing to her ears. She heard squirrels scurrying in the tree branches above her, the hammering of an enthusiastic greater spotted woodpecker going about its business in the distance and…
Someone humming to themselves!
Beatrice’s eyes snapped open. She could not see the source of the tuneless humming.
But it sounds as if it were coming from off to my left…
As one might expect of a woman whose job it was to perform feats of acrobatics whilst standing on the back of a moving horse, Beatrice was agile of foot and could move like a cat when she needed to. Ducking into a crouch, she moved off into the trees, towards the sounds of human presence.
She located the source of the noise only a short distance from where she had been standing, listening to the sounds of the woodland. She peered slowly and cautiously around the trunk of a great sycamore and her hazel eyes narrowed.
There it is! The font of the humming!
A young man sat propped against the bole of another sycamore tree. He was sprawled carelessly in the leaf litter, his head propped on an outthrust root, the very epitome of idle content. He held a handful of sycamore seeds in his hand and, as he hummed unmusically to himself, he sent seeds spinning one by one in the direction of his booted toes.
In the unconscious manner of someone who is far more used to, not to mention far more interested in, appraising horses than men, Beatrice ran her hazel eyes over the reclining stranger.
Tall, fit, muscular. He looks as if he was born to run through these glens. He seems just as at home here as the Scots pine or the red deer.
Another part of her mind, a part that wasn’t often called upon for advice, put forward something just then.
He is a handsome man, too. I am hard-pressed to think of a time when I laid eyes upon a man of such rugged and strong appearance.
It was true. The young man’s hands and face were tanned a healthy shade of brown, as if he spent much of his time out of doors, in the wind and the weather. His hair was thick and black, and held back with a leather thong. Stubble covered his jaw. His eyes, though closed at the moment, had slight lines in the corners. a sign, perhaps, that here was a man who spent much of his time smiling and laughing.
He is well-clothed, too. Boots of good, supple leather that fit him well. A kilt of finely woven tartan. Fresh linen shirt. These all suggest he is a man of considerable means.
It was as her eyes ran up the Highlander’s body, taking in his attire, that they came to rest on the man’s chiseled face. Beatrice realized that the man’s eyes, which were the deep, dark brown of Highland peat, were open now.
And they were turned in her direction.
Beatrice froze like a started deer. Her eyes widened and her heart seemed to pause within her chest. She was dressed in her tight, brown equestrienne leathers, which blended well with the bark and bracken of the forest surroundings.
Has he seen me? Do I run? Do I stay?
These questions flickered through her mind with the rapidity of a swallow over a lake.
Before she could formulate an answer to any of them, however, the young man had got nimbly to his feet and taken a step in her direction.
“Hold,” he said, in a commanding but gentle voice, colored with the gorgeous burr of this part of the world. “Hold, lass. Who are ye, and what’re ye doin’ watchin’ me here?”
Beatrice could not find the words to answer. Now that the man gotten to his feet, he seemed even more handsome than before. He was broad across the chest and shoulders, and Beatrice could see the clearly defined muscles of his upper arms even through his linen shirt.
“Ye daenae have tae be afraid, lass,” he said, his arms out to the sides, his voice low. “I’m nae goin’ tae hurt ye. What’re ye called?”
He smiled then and the dimness under the canopy of leaves seemed to lift slightly. Beatrice, poised as she was to flee, felt her bunched muscles relax a little.
As if he was able to sense her feelings and read the thoughts running through her head, the stranger said, “That’s right, lass. Me name’s Jeames Abernathy, and if this is a dream then I’d like tae thank ye, for it’s the sweetest dream I’ve ever had.”
When Jeames had opened his eyes and seen the hazel eyes peering out from around the trunk of a sycamore not five meters from him, he had assumed that he had nodded off and was dreaming. The eyes seemed to appraise him in minute detail, running up his body, all the way from the tips of his toes to his face.
After blinking firmly, and even going so far as to pinch himself hard on the thigh, he had come to the conclusion that he was not asleep and that he must truly be being watched by somebody.
Perhaps it’s one of the brownies… Could it be possible that the fairy folk dae actually exist? I cannae believe it.
After he had hailed the person, and seen the eyes widen in sudden terror and suspicion, he had been forced to believe that it was a mere woman hiding in the forest watching him, and no mythical creature.
Jeames was an experienced hunter. He’d been stalking deer, wild boar, and goats throughout these Highland hills ever since he had been old enough to ride and shoot a bow. He had a knack for reading creatures and a nose for knowing how close he could get before they might flee.
At that moment, he could tell that the furtive, hidden female figure was right on the edge of running for it.
“It’s alright, lass,” he said soothingly. “There’s nothin’ tae be gained by runnin’ blindly off in this country. Ye’ll just as likely end up in a peat bog or break yer ankle fallin’ down a rabbit hole than get away. Now, just come out and tell me what ye’re doin’ on these lands.”
He still half-expected the woman to vanish into the trees without a sound. Instead, slowly, easing out from the dappled shadows of the tree in which she hid, the mysterious figure padded out towards him.
Me God, but what a bonnie lass!
The figure that emerged from the cool shadows may very well have been one of the fairy folk, such was the way in which her beauty smote Jeames’s heart.
She had a slender, firm body, and walked with the wary grace of a deer or vixen. He could see that if she chose to run, he would have a hard time catching her, no matter how well he knew these woods. She was wearing a strange outfit of tight-fitting leather, the likes of which he had never seen any woman wear in the Highlands or out of it. Every line of her body spoke of an athleticism and speed that he doubted any lass that he had ever met could rival.
“Who are ye?” he asked yet again, his words colored with wonder. He felt like a moth that’d just slipped through a keyhole and found itself face to face with a star.
The woman cocked her head at him, weighing him.
“Why should I tell you that?” she asked in an English accent.
Her voice was gentle and warm as honey but edged with distrust.
“Well, I suppose ye don’t have tae tell me at all, really,” Jeames replied. “Might be that it’s considered polite tae tell the man onto whose land ye’ve strolled yer name at least, though.”
“Didn’t look like you were doing much protecting of it just now. Are you a guard from the castle?”
Jeames grinned. “Aye, I s’pose ye could say that I’m a guard o’ sorts. Though I’m off duty at the moment.”
The woman looked about her. “You’re charged with protecting this forest?” she asked.
Jeames rubbed self-consciously at the back of his neck. “Aye, and a lot more besides. About two-thousand acres or so of land.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose at this. “Who are you?” she asked, boldly.
“As I said, me name is Jeames Abernathy. As ye guessed, I live down at Castle MacKenzie. These are the MacKenzie lands that ye’ve wandered onto by the way, lass.”
The woman looked about her, her head flicking from tree to tree as if she expected soldiers to spring out from behind them.
“I told ye,” Jeames said. “Ye’ve nothin’ tae fear. So long as ye come with sound motives and a pure heart to this place.”
I doubt a purer heart ever set foot in these woods. Not since this part o’ the land was shaped.
“So, that castle that I saw from the hilltop, that’s, sort of, your home?”
“Aye, that’s right. That’s the seat of the MacKenzie clan. Will ye nae tell me yer name, lass?”
The feeling had come upon Jeames that he must find out the name of this radiant beauty that had strayed like some wood nymph out of a dream. He somehow felt that his future happiness depended on it.
He was aware, though, that to push for information at this point might do more harm than good. He wanted nothing more than for this paragon of female loveliness to stay a little while longer.
Man alive, is this what me mither means when she talks o’ a bolt from the blue? What in the world brought her to this corner of my land? I daenae ken anythin’ about this lass, nae even her name, but I’d trade me claim tae the lairdship tae find it out.
In silence, he watched the young woman, unsure what to say to make her tell him her name; he did not want to scare her off with an inappropriate word.
He held the woman’s gorgeous hazel eyes whilst all around them the animal residents of the forest continued their chattering and the brook that ran through it chuckled in its stony bed. Jeames felt that he could have stayed in that moment forever and been quite content.
“I can’t,” the oddly dressed woman said, breaking the spell.
“Sorry? Ye can’t what?” Jeames asked.
“I can’t tell you my name.”
“Why?” Jeames said. He took a step towards her.
“I–I just can’t,” the woman replied and, in the twinkling of an eye–or so it seemed to the befuddled Highlander–she had turned on her heel and vanished into the bracken and low scrub.
“Wait!” Jeames called after her. “Wait! Who–who are ye?”
There was no answer. Only the sounds of the woodpecker tapping industriously away in the distance, the creek running amongst the roots of the trees and the occasional cry of a rook in the treetops.
Overcome with a sort of heartfelt desperation that was entirely new to him, Jeames cupped his hands to his mouth to form a tube and called, “I will search fer ye, lass! I’ll search fer as long as it takes! I will find ye, if it’s the last thing I dae!”
The echoes of his voice rebounded from the trunks of the trees that surrounded himself. His words reverberating from stone to stone, from crag to crag, each one of them suffused with a passionate fire that he could not contain.
What’re ye doin’, ye fool? Have ye nay sense in that thick head o’ yers? Ye’re betrothed tae be married, man! There’s nay hope in pinin’ after some nameless lass! Especially not one who just appeared tae ye in a wood!
Jeames did not sleep a wink all that night. He had sat through dinner without saying a word. He had not been in a foul or depressed mood, but his mind had been so consumed with the memory of the beautiful stranger who had appeared to him in the thicket that it left him unable to attend to any conversation for more than a few seconds at a time.
“Are ye quite well, lad?” his faither, Andrew Abernathy, had asked him as Jeames got to his feet and made to go to bed with his platter of venison left practically untouched.
Jeames had barely had wits enough to form a coherent answer as he’d left the hall.
He sat outside on a low wall and watched the sun rise orange over the eastern hills. His thoughts were still on the woman, his mind’s eye going over every detail of her face that he could recall: the angular and inquisitive eyebrows, the hazel eyes, and aquiline nose. His memory traced itself down her slender neck, along the outline of her lithe form in the figure-hugging outfit.
His reverie was broken by the sudden swelling of the dawn chorus, as what sounded like every bird within hailing distance of the castle broke into a riot of sound at the dawning of another day.
He sat down to break his fast with his father. His mother preferred to take her own morning meal a little later in the Laird and Lady’s chambers, but both father and son were early risers.
The Laird piled a few fresh-baked bannocks onto his plate and passed the basket to Jeames.
“Are ye feelin’ a bit more yerself this mornin’, son?” Andrew Abernathy asked.
“Hm? Oh, aye. Aye, I’m fine, thank ye, Faither.”
“Are ye sure? Ye’ve the look about ye of a salmon that’s just been pulled from the stream. Shocked like.”
Jeames chuckled at this description, and his father laughed with him. It was, in truth, a fair depiction of how he felt.
“Nay, I’m fine. Just had a wee bit of a surprise in the woods up on the hill the other day. Saw somethin’ I didnae expect tae see.”
“Nae that big buck that we saw up on the heath last week?”
“Nay, this was nay buck.”
The Laird opened his mouth to ask a question, a quizzical look on his face. Before he could say anything though, an errand rider was ushered into the hall by one of the Laird’s guards. With a bow, the rider proffered a sealed scroll to the Laird and was then ushered out of the hall by the same guard that had showed him in.
Jeames’s father broke the seal and unrolled the scroll.
Jeames slathered a warm bannock in honey, took a bite, and chewed thoughtfully as he watched his father scan the missive.
“Hm,” the Laird said, after only a few moments. “It’s more fer ye that it is fer me, lad.”
Jeames swallowed the bannock and said, “How’s that, Faither?”
“It’s a message from Laird Brùn of the Ross clan.”
Jeames, who had been about to take a bite from another bannock, lowered the biscuit from a mouth gone suddenly dry. Laird Brùn was the father of Margery Brùn, the woman who Jeames had been betrothed to be married to for most of his adult life. The two of them had been promised to each other by their fathers, the pact between the clans to be sealed after Jeames’s twenty-fifth birthday.
“Oh, aye,” he said, trying to affect a nonchalance that he felt not at all. “What does his Lairdship wish of me?”
Andrew Abernathy gave his son a penetrating look from under his bushy gray brows.
“He writes on behalf of his daughter, Margery,” the Laird said.
Jeames took a hasty gulp of mead and spilled some of it down his chin.
His father raised an eyebrow at him.
“She requests yer company tae a performance by a circus that’s taken up residency in a paddock just outside o’ Aberdale.”
This time Jeames almost choked on his gulp of mead.
“She wants me tae what?” he said.
His father, thumping him on the back, said, “Ye heard me, lad. She wants ye tae go wi’ her to the circus out near Aberdale.”
“Accordin’ to this, the performance is this evenin’.”
It was not the news of the circus arriving that had thrown Jeames into a coughing fit. It was more the thought that Lady Margery wanted to go at all, and also that she wanted him to accompany her.
Although they were betrothed to be married, he had only met Margery Brùn a handful of times during their childhood and adolescent years. On every single one of those occasions, Jeames had parted from her feeling that he was about as welcome in her presence as Lucifer might be in a church.
Things had not improved since they had reached adulthood. Jeames was a rugged outdoorsman, with dirt and blood under his fingernails and calluses on the palms of his hands. He spoke his mind, whether it was prudent or not, and believed that a hard truth was better than a soft lie, come what may of speaking it.
Lady Margery, on the other hand, believed that a Laird’s heir was beneath picking up anything heavier than a goblet. She was a dry and unsmiling woman, who had never shown the slightest enjoyment of anything that Jeames could recall.
To cover the incredulous disbelief he felt at trying to imagine Lady Margery spectating a circus, Jeames said, “When did the circus arrive?”
“I heard tell of it last night after ye’d gone tae yer bed,” the Laird said. “Can’t have been there more than a day, I reckon.”
“And ye’re sure that Lady Margery has asked me tae attend wi’ her?”
The apple had not fallen far from the tree when it had come to Jeames and his father. Laird Abernathy was also a man for whom the bending of the truth came hard.
“I’ve a feelin’ that it’s more of a bequest that stems from Laird Brùn than it does from Lady Margery, lad.”
Jeames exchanged a knowing look with his father. He snapped a bannock in half and absentmindedly dipped it into his cup of mead.
“Aye, that sounds more likely a scenario,” he said, trying to keep the gloom out of his voice.
“Ye’re obliged tae go, son,” his father said to him in a gentle voice.
“I ken it, Faither. I’d not shirk me duty to our clan.”
The Laird clapped his son on his shoulder. “I ken that well enough, lad. It says a lot fer yer character.” The older man gave him an understanding half-smile. “Look on the bright side, Jeames,” he said. “Ye might see somethin’ truly special at under that big tent. Ye might see somethin’ that takes yer breath away.”
The weather that evening was close and heavy. Great clouds had gathered in from the surrounding hill country and sat ominously over Aberdale. Every now and again, a low rumble of thunder would issue from the brooding heavens, a deep bass growl that sounded more like a slumbering bear than anything else.
Beatrice gazed up at the great striped dome of the tent. It never ceased to fill her with a childish excitement and awe, no matter how many times she saw it packed away and then erected again. It looked particularly striking this evening, set as it was in the lush green paddock with a backdrop of mighty fells behind it.
“Beatrice, my dear!” came a great booming voice from behind her. Beatrice turned and saw the familiar, larger than life figure of William Ballantine striding towards her.
“William,” she said, beaming.
“Are you all set, my dear?” the imposing man asked. He was dressed in a dashingly cut red frock coat, sable trousers, and black leather boots polished to a high sheen. His graying hair was brushed neatly back and his thick moustache was waxed to perfect points. Though fifteen years had passed since he had picked up the orphaned Beatrice, Ballantine had lost none of his commanding swagger. His bright green eyes shone with their old, formidable light.
“All set, William,” Beatrice said.
She had come to love the Ringmaster as a surrogate father. The man had basically raised her after all. Like all fathers, he had spent much of his time yelling at her and making her do things that she had not wanted to do at the time. However, there could be no denying that, all in all, he had helped her unlock a future that she had never dreamed she could have.
Ballantine squeezed her shoulder and then stood next to her, looking up at the magnificent tent.
“They don’t know it yet,” he said. “But these Highland folk are about to witness magic of a sort this night.”
It was the same sort of thing that he said on every opening night, whenever Ballantine’s Circus played for a new town or populace.
“They’re going to see things that they never considered human beings capable of,” Ballantine continued. “Those of ‘em who were too lazy or too cynical or too broke to attend whilst we were here, will rue it. We shall give these Scots something that they’ll be able to talk about for years to come.”
“That’s right, William,” replied Beatrice said, dutifully. “Even if it’s just for an evening, we’ll take their hands and lead them to a place where dreams meet reality.”
“For this night, we point their faces up from their work, from the earth in which they dig, the bowls at which they mix, the anvils at which they hammer, and aim them at the stars.”
Beatrice beamed more widely. It was the same speech he had given her on her very first night as an equestrienne. Still, it sent shivers racing down her spine. A nervous joy that she had never known in any other facet of her life.
When Jeames arrived on his horse, along with his four-guard retinue, the paddock in which the circus tent was set up was already swarming with people. Half-heartedly, he hoped that in all the confusion, he would be unable to locate Lady Margery and the two of them would be able to spend far more agreeable evening sitting on opposite sides of the ring.
However, it seemed that Fate had other plans in store for him.
“Master Jeames,” one of his guardsmen said. “I believe I caen see Lady Margery’s carriage drawn up yonder.”
Jeames followed where his clansman was pointing. There, sure enough, parked on the side of the paddock nearest the town of Aberdale, was a smart-looking four-horse carriage.
“Aye,” Jeames said, his face a mask of optimism. “Aye, that looks like her alright.”
It was not much later – though already it felt to Jeames as if Margery and he had been in each other’s company at least half a day longer than was necessary – when he and the daughter of the Laird of the Ross clan sat down together in a couple of the prime seats within the enormous circus tent.
Lady Margery could well have been pretty, had it not been for the way she constantly had her nose turned up in disdain of everything going on around her. Her eyes were the deep blue of a Highland mere, but hard and cynical. Her features were angular and sharp, her eyebrows pointed in a constant frown of disappointment and her raven hair was pulled back tight.
Margery was just as prickly and aloof as Jeames remembered her being. He had greeted her with as much enthusiasm and with all the propriety that he could muster. He felt though, that, very much like a wolf or a horse, Lady Margery could smell his fear and his reticence at being there. She gave him the coldest of nods when they met and then allowed him to usher her through the throng to their seats.
The show was, as far as Jeames’s opinion went, as good a circus extravaganza as he had ever seen. There were all the usual performers: jesters tumbling over one another, jugglers tossing flaming brands about the place, knife-throwers landing their blades within a hair’s breadth of their human targets, and strongmen lifting women from the audience over their heads to raucous applause.
Jeames could not help but grin when he imagined the look on Lady Margery’s face, if she was seized and lifted above an enormously muscly man’s head like a cut log.
Might do her a bit o’ good. Open her eyes a little.
There was a rather excellent performance of a man fighting a bear, followed by some tightrope walking that had many of the audience members covering their faces with their hands.
After the applause had died away at the conclusion of this act, the Ringmaster reappeared.
What a splendid looking fellow.
It was not the first time that Jeames had made the observation to himself.
“What d’ye think of this chap’s uniform, Lady Margery?” Jeames tried, leaning over to speak quietly to his companion.
Margery gave him the sort of withering stare that was more at home on the countenance of the sourest of old spinster aunts.
“Gaudy,” she said, in a chilly voice.
The smile slid off Jeames’s face like cold gruel.
“Aye, quite,” he said.
“Ladies and gentlefolk!” the Ringmaster bellowed. “You have borne witness to some truly astounding feats this evening, but our next act is something truly special!”
The man paused, ratcheting up the tension under the great stretched dome of canvas.
“Yes!” continued in his great booming voice. “Yes, this next performer will stun you three times over. For, up until now, we have seen men and women demonstrating prodigious skill in a host of human endeavors. What you are about to see next, though, is an example of what happens when the world of man meets the world of the beasts!”
A murmur ran around the crowd at that. A hushed muttering, as ominous as the thunder that continued to rumble over their heads.
The Ringleader threw up his arms to quiet the muttering.
“I know what you’re thinking, my good people! Perhaps, he alludes to some sort of vile offspring born of man and beast? This is not so. Simply put, this is what happens when a young woman is raised on horseback. This is what happens when the grace of humanity mingles with that of our most trusted and valued animal companion! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Equestrienne Goddess!”
There was a loud roar of applause as the canvas curtain on one side of the tent opened and a woman on a horse galloped into the circle of grass that had been flattened with boards before the show.
The horse was a stunning white gelding, so pure a color that it almost seemed to glow in the dimness of the circus tent. It was sixteen hands high and looked to be in the bloom of health. In short, it was one of the most magnificent horses that most of the members of the audience had ever laid eyes on.
As beautiful as the horse was, however, it was nothing compared to the woman riding it.
Jeames’s mouth dropped open, his jaw hanging slack in his amazement. The Equestrienne Goddess was none other than the woman from the woods.
She was dressed in the same figure-hugging clothing as she had been when Jeames had seen her the day before. Only now, in the softly lit interior of the huge circus tent, it seemed far less outlandish than it had out on the fells above Castle MacKenzie. Rather than look strange, the woman now looked even more captivating than Jeames could ever have imagined.
Truly, a goddess.
He watched as she rode the gelding around the circle. It was strange, he was watching this woman perform some astounding feats on the back of her horse, and yet her mere appearance eclipsed every trick and act she pulled off.
Jeames’s eyes were glued to her. He felt transfixed, as if he would never be able to look away–even if he had wanted to.
The woman hopped up from a sitting position, into a crouch. Then she sprung backwards, somehow performing a backwards somersault and she landed her on her hands. She held her handstand for two full circuits of the arena, whilst the crowd roared their approval and amazement.
Jeames’s own hands stayed folded in his lap, his expression one of utmost concentration.
Good grief, but I’ve ne’er seen a bonnier thing than her. How bloody well she rides. He glanced sideways at the stern figure of Margery Brùn sitting next to him, as if carved from marble, to compare the two women. And what joy she shows in what she does!
He had never wanted to talk to, to spend time with a woman as much as he did the nameless stranger riding the white gelding. Something about her called to his soul, set his skin afire.
“Who are ye?” he muttered to himself, as his eyes followed the rider around the circle. She was now pirouetting around in tight circles on the animal’s back. “Who are ye?”
“Are ye quite alright, Master Abernathy?” Margery said, her voice dripping with reserved scorn.
“Thank ye, yes, Lady Margery, I’m fine. I was just wonderin’ aloud how such a thing is possible.”
Margery sniffed. “A pointless exercise, if ye ask me. How much time must it take tae learn tae perform such feats? Surely, the time would have been spent better in serious study, or religious contemplation?”
I wasnae even thinkin’ about the horse riding. I was thinkin’ solely about how a girl like that can arouse such passions in a man.
Beatrice beamed out at the crowd as she rode. Her smile was one aspect of the act that she never had to fake or add any sort of shine to. The thrill and enjoyment that she felt when riding around the arena in front of all those enraptured faces was no less than it had been the very first time that she had done it.
She balanced on one foot, lifting her other leg up, up, up, until she was performing a standing split, whilst the horse cantered along below her. The big, white horse was the star of the show really, although most people did not see it. She ran around the circus circle with a wonderful even gait, never letting the screaming audience put her off her stride. All the while allowing Beatrice to jump around on her back.
Beatrice had only worked with a handful of horses since she had started as an equestrienne with Ballantine’s Circus. Ballantine was a man who cared for his performers and animals as if they were his family. He took pride in the fact that his circus did not mistreat animals like other, less caring circus outfits did, and kept them only for as long as they could work.
Respect. It is all about respect. Mutual respect between rider and horse. It’s why I’ve never been thrown.
In fact, she had never fallen off at all whilst performing to a paying crowd. In practice, whilst trying out some new trick or maneuver, yes. But never ever during a live performance.
The crowd applauded as Beatrice switched legs. Then, she stood on the horse’s rump and performed a graceful, slow handstand.
It was whilst she was upside down that Beatrice caught sight of a face in the crowd, a face that looked familiar.
Familiar? You don’t know anyone here. Everyone who is familiar to you is backstage. The only person you’ve seen is…
These thoughts popped into her mind as her legs arched over her back and she dropped into a sort of human bridge position on the horse’s back.
It can only be…
She flowed up to her feet in one sinuous motion that had the audience applauding delightedly.
The handsome man from under the tree!
The realization hit her just as she pulled herself to her feet, her iron-hard stomach muscles tensing under the leather of her outfit. And, for the first time in her circus career, Beatrice lost her focus. Her eyes flicked over to where she thought that had seen the man–Jeames, his name was Jeames–and her head turned ever so slightly.
Her keen hazel eyes picked out his face in the crowd within a second or two. He was sat next to an austere looking woman who looked as if she would rather be anywhere else than where she was currently.
The man was watching her with an utterly rapt expression; his mouth was slightly open and his eyes were gleaming. There was no doubt that he recognized her. Whilst the crowd around him clapped and laughed and jostled one another, pointing out what Beatrice was doing as if their friends could not see it for themselves, this Jeames sat stock-still and his gaze never left Beatrice’s own face.
Beatrice felt a squirming in the pit of her stomach, a pulling sensation, as if her life’s course had just taken an unexpected turn.
Her foot shifted.
And, for the first time ever, she felt herself slip on the back of the perfectly behaved horse.
Time slowed, as if the seconds were fighting their way through molasses. She experienced the bizarre feeling that she was floating slightly above herself, watching the events unfold. She saw random faces in the crowd start to contort into expressions of shock and surprise and delight.
The man, Jeames, looked to be surging slowly to his feet, as if he had already anticipated what was about to happen.
I can’t fall. I do not fall.
Thunder boomed overhead. The sort of thunder that sounded as if God was moving furniture around in Heaven. A sound that heralded the sky breaking and the rains pouring down.
She toppled from the back of the mount, falling sideways and spinning as the foot that was still atop the running horse’s back was whipped out from under her. The world blurred, spun, turned to a haze of arbitrary colors. Instinctively, she flung her arms out to break her fall–something that her teacher, Rose, had told her never to do if she fell.
“Tuck your arms,” she had set. “Protect your elbows and wrists. Let your shoulders take the brunt. Shoulders are hardy things.”
But Beatrice had never fallen, and so that advice had sat and gathered dust in the back of her memory.
She hit the ground hard, on her right side, arm outstretched, the breath knocked out of her in a great exhalation. Her wrist buckled under her and a sharp pain shot up her right arm. Then something cracked her against the left ankle–the horse’s hoof as it carried on cantering–and she cried out as her foot went instantly numb.
Then there was only the smell of crushed grass in her nostrils as she lay on the ground, and the buzzing, rumbling sound of the audience as it surged to its feet to get a better look at her breathless body.
I fell. I can’t believe I fell! How embarrassing! What will William think?
She tried to roll onto her back, but the pulsing pain in her wrist and ankle convinced her that a few more moments lying just as she was would not hurt. Instead, she tried to get her breath back. She had not noticed how badly she had been winded until she tried to take a breath and couldn’t.
All of a sudden, she was turned gently but irresistibly over by a pair of strong hands. She hissed through her teeth as the pain in her two injured limbs flared and then settled down.
“It’s alright, lass,” came a familiar soothing voice. “Hold steady now, I’ve got ye.”
Beatrice’s vision was blurry with tears of pain and humiliation. She blinked them away and her good Samaritan swam into focus.
It was none other than the ruggedly handsome Jeames Abernathy.
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