Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

In From The Cold

Nora Roberts

  Chapter One

  Contents - Prev | Next

  His name was MacGregor. He clung to that even as he clung to the horse's reins. The pain was alive, capering down his arm like a dozen dancing devils. Hot, branding hot, despite the December wind and blowing snow.

  He could no longer direct the horse but rode on, trusting her to find her way through the twisting paths made by Indian or deer or white man. He was alone with the scent of snow and pine, the muffled thud of his mount's hooves and the gloom of early twilight. A world hushed by the sea of wind washing through the trees.

  Instinct told him he was far from Boston now, far from the crowds, the warm hearths, the civilized. Safe.

  Perhaps safe. The snow would cover the trail his horse left and the guiding path of his own blood.

  But safe wasn't enough for him. It never had been. He was determined to stay alive, and for one fierce reason. A dead man couldn't fight. By all that was holy he had vowed to fight until he was free.

  Shivering despite the heavy buckskins and furs, teeth chattering now from a chill that came from within as well as without, he leaned forward to speak to the horse, soothing in Gaelic. His skin was clammy with the heat of the pain, but his blood was like the ice that formed on the bare branches of the trees surrounding him. He could see the mare's breath blow out in white streams as she trudged on through the deepening snow. He prayed as only a man who could feel his own blood pouring out of him could pray.

  For life.

  There was a battle yet to be fought. He'd be damned if he'd die before he'd raised his sword.

  The mare gave a sympathetic whinny as he slumped against her neck, his breathing labored. Trouble was in the air, as well as the scent of blood. With a toss of her head, she walked into the wind, following her own instinct for survival and heading west.

  The pain was like a dream now, floating in his mind, swimming through his body. He thought if he could only wake, it would disappear. As dreams do. He had other dreams—violent and vivid. To fight the British for all they had stolen from him. To take back his name and his land—to fight for all the MacGregors had held with pride and sweat and blood. All they had lost.

  He had been born in war. It seemed just and right that he would die in war.

  But not yet. He struggled to rouse himself. Not yet. The fight had only begun.

  He forced an image into his mind. A grand one. Men in feathers and buckskins, their faces blackened with burnt cork and lampblack and grease, boarding the ships Dartmouth, Eleanor and Beaver. Ordinary men, he remembered, merchants and craftsmen and students. Some fueled with grog, some with righteousness. The hoisting and smashing of the chests of the damned and detested tea. The satisfying splash as broken crates of it hit the cold water of Boston Harbor at Griffin's Wharf. He remembered how disgorged chests had been heaped up in the muck of low tide like stacks of hay.

  So large a cup of tea for the fishes, he thought now. Aye, they had been merry, but purposeful.

  Determined. United. They would need to be all of those things to fight and win the war that so many didn't understand had already begun.

  How long had it been since that glorious night? One day? Two? It had been his bad luck that he had run into two drunk and edgy redcoats as dawn had been breaking. They knew him. His face, his name, his politics were well-known in Boston. He'd done nothing to endear himself to the British militia.

  Perhaps they had only meant to harass and bully him a bit. Perhaps they hadn't meant to make good their threat to arrest him—on charges they hadn't made clear. But when one had drawn a sword, MacGregor's weapon had all but leaped into his own hand. The fight had been brief—and foolish, he could admit now. He was still unsure if he had killed or only wounded the impetuous soldier. But his comrade had had murder in his eye when he had drawn his weapon.

  Though MacGregor had been quick to mount and ride, the musket ball had slammed viciously into his shoulder.

  He could feel it now, throbbing against muscle. Though the rest of his body was mercifully numb, he could feel that small and agonizing pinpoint of heat. Then his mind was numb, as well, and he felt nothing.

  He woke, painfully. He was lying in the blanket of snow, faceup so that he could see dimly the swirl of white flakes against a heavy gray sky. He'd fallen from his horse. He wasn't close enough to death to escape the embarrassment of it. With effort, he pushed himself to his knees. The mare was waiting patiently beside him, eyeing him with a mild sort of surprise.

  "I'll trust you to keep this to yourself, lass." It was the weak sound of his own voice that brought him the first trace of fear. Gritting his teeth, he reached for the reins and pulled himself shakily to his feet.

  "Shelter." He swayed, grayed out and knew he could never find the strength to mount. Holding tight, he clucked to the mare and let her pull his weary body along.

  Step after step he fought the urge to collapse and let the cold take him. They said there was little pain in freezing to death. Like sleep it was, a cold, painless sleep.

  And how the devil did they know unless they'd lived to tell the tale? He laughed at the thought, but the laugh turned to a cough that weakened him.

  Time, distance, direction were utterly lost to him. He tried to think of his family, the warmth of them. His parents and brothers and sisters in Scotland. Beloved Scotland, where they fought to keep hope alive.

  His aunts and uncles and cousins in Virginia, where they worked for the right to a new life in a new land.

  And he, he was somewhere between, caught between his love of the old and his fascination with the new.

  But in either land, there was one common enemy. It strengthened him to think of it. The British. Damn them. They had proscribed his name and butchered his people. Now they were reaching their greedy hands across the ocean so that the half-mad English king could impose his bloody laws and collect his bloody taxes.

  He stumbled, and his hold on the reins nearly broke. For a moment he rested, his head against the mare's neck, his eyes closed. His father's face seemed to float into his mind, his eyes still bright with pride.

  "Make a place for yourself," he'd told his son. "Never forget, you're a MacGregor."

  No, he wouldn't forget.

  Wearily he opened his eyes. He saw, through the swirling snow, the shape of a building. Cautious, he blinked, rubbed his tired eyes with his free hand. Still the shape remained, gray and indistinct, but real.

  "Well, lass." He leaned heavily against his horse. "Perhaps this isn't the day to die after all."

  Step by step he trudged toward it. It was a barn, a large one, well built of pine logs. His numb fingers fumbled with the latch. His knees threatened to buckle. Then he was inside, with the smell and the blessed heat of animals.

  It was dark. He moved by instinct to a mound of hay in the stall of a brindled cow. The bovine lady objected with a nervous moo.

  It was the last sound he heard.

  Alanna pulled on her woolen cape. The fire in the kitchen hearth burned brightly and smelled faintly, cheerfully, of apple logs. It was a small thing, a normal thing, but it pleased her. She'd woken in a mood of happy anticipation. It was the snow, she imagined, though her father had risen from his bed cursing it.

  She loved the purity of it, the way it clung to the bare branches of trees her father and brothers had yet to clear.

  It was already slowing, and within the hour the barnyard would be tracked with footprints, hers included.

  There were animals to tend to, eggs to gather, harnesses to repair and wood to chop. But for now, for just a moment, she looked out the small window and enjoyed.

  If her father caught her at it, he would shake his head and call her a dreamer. It would be said roughly—not with anger,
she thought, but with regret. Her mother had been a dreamer, but she had died before her dream of a home and land and plenty had been fully realized.

  Cyrus Murphy wasn't a hard man, Alanna thought now. He never had been. It had been death, too many deaths, that had caused him to become rough and prickly. Two bairns, and later, their beloved mother. Another son, beautiful young Rory, lost in the war against the French.

  Her own husband, Alanna mused, sweet Michael Flynn, taken in a less dramatic way but taken nonetheless.

  She didn't often think of Michael. After all, she had been three months a wife and three years a widow.

  But he had been a kind man and a good one, and she regretted bitterly that they had never had the chance to make a family.

  But today wasn't a day for old sorrows, she reminded herself. Pulling up the hood of her cape, she stepped outside. Today was a day for promises, for beginnings. Christmas was coming fast. She was determined to make it a joyful one.

  Already she'd spent hours at her spinning wheel and loom. There were new mufflers and mittens and caps for her brothers. Blue for Johnny and red for Brian. For her father she had painted a miniature of her mother. And had paid the local silversmith a lot of pennies for a frame.

  She knew her choices would please. Just as the meal she had planned for their Christmas feast would please. It was all that mattered to her—keeping her family together and happy and safe.

  The door of the barn was unlatched. With a sound of annoyance, she pulled it to behind her. It was a good thing she had found it so, she thought, rather than her father, or her young brother, Brian, would have earned the raw side of his tongue.

  As she stepped inside the barn, she shook her hood back and reached automatically for the wooden buckets that hung beside the door. Because there was little light she took a lamp, lighting it carefully.

  By the time she had finished the milking, Brian and Johnny would come to feed the stock and clean the stalls. Then she would gather the eggs and fix her men a hearty breakfast.

  She started to hum as she walked down the wide aisle in the center of the barn. Then she stopped dead as she spotted the roan mare standing slack hipped and weary beside the cow stall.

  "Sweet Jesus." She put a hand to her heart as it lurched. The mare blew a greeting and shifted.

  If there was a horse, there was a rider. At twenty, Alanna wasn't young enough or naive enough to believe all travelers were friendly and meant no harm to a woman alone. She could have turned and run, sent up a shout for her father and brothers. But though she had taken Michael Flynn's name, she was born a Murphy. A Murphy protected his own.

  Head up, she started forward. "I'll have your name and your business," she said. Only the horse answered her. When she was close enough she touched the mare on her nose. "What kind of a master have you who leaves you standing wet and saddled?" Incensed for the horse's sake, she set down her buckets and raised her voice. "All right, come out with you. It's Murphy land you're on."

  The cows mooed.

  With a hand on her hip, she looked around. "No one's begrudging you shelter from the storm," she

  continued. "Or a decent breakfast, for that matter. But I'll have a word with you for leaving your horse so."

  When there was still no answer, her temper rose. Muttering, she began to uncinch the saddle herself.

  And nearly tripped over a pair of boots.

  Fine boots at that, she thought, staring down at them. They poked out of the cow stall, their good brown leather dulled with snow and mud. She stepped quietly closer to see them attached to a pair of long, muscled legs in worn buckskin.

  Sure and there was a yard of them, she thought, nibbling on her lip. And gloriously masculine in the loose-fitting breeches. Creeping closer, she saw hips, lean, a narrow waist belted with leather and a torso covered with a long doublet and a fur wrap.

  A finer figure of a man she couldn't remember seeing. And since he'd chosen her barn to sleep, she found it only right that she look her fill. He was a big one, she decided, tilting her head and holding the lamp higher. Taller than either of her brothers. She leaned closer, wanting to see the rest of him.

  His hair was dark. Not brown, she realized, as she narrowed her eyes, but deep red, like Brian's chestnut gelding. He wore no beard, but there was stubble on his chin and around his full, handsome mouth. Aye, handsome, she decided with feminine appreciation. A strong, bony face, aristocratic somehow, with its high brow and chiseled features.

  The kind of face a woman's heart would flutter over, she was sure. But she wasn't interested in fluttering or flirting. She wanted the man up and out of her way so that she could get to her milking.

  "Sir." She nudged his boot with the toe of hers. No response. Setting her hands on her hips, she decided he was drunk as a lord. What else was there that caused a man to sleep as though dead? "Wake up, you sod. I can't milk around you." She kicked him, none too gently, in the leg and got only a faint groan for an answer. "All right, boy-o." She bent down to give him a good shake. She was prepared for the stench of liquor but instead caught the coppery odor of blood.

  Anger forgotten, she knelt down to carefully push aside the thick fur over his shoulders. She sucked in a breath as she saw the long stain along his shirtfront. Her fingers were wet with his blood as she felt for a pulse.

  "Well, you're still alive," she murmured. "With God's will and a bit of luck we might keep you that way."

  Before she could rise to call her brothers, his hand clamped over her wrist. His eyes were open now, she saw. They were green, with just a hint of blue. Like the sea. But there was pain in them. Compassion had her leaning closer to offer comfort.

  Then her hand plunged deep into the hay as he tugged her off balance so that she was all but lying on him. She had the quick impression of a firm body and raging heat. Her sound of indignation was muffled against his lips. The kiss was brief but surprisingly firm before his head fell back again. He gave her a quick, cocky smile.

  "Well, I'm not dead anyway. Lips like yours would have no place in hell."

  As compliments went, she'd had better. Before she could tell him so, he fainted.

  Chapter Two

  Contents - Prev | Next

  He drifted, on a turbulent sea that was pain and relief and pain. Whiskey, the good, clean kick of it, warming his belly and dulling his senses. Yet over it he remembered a searing agony, a hot knife plunged into his flesh. Curses raining on his head. A warm hand clutching his, in comfort. In restraint. Blissfully cool cloths on his fevered brow. Hateful liquid poured down his throat.

  He cried out. Had he cried out? Had someone come, all soft hands, soft voice, lavender scent, to soothe him? Had there been music, a woman's voice, low and lovely? Singing in Gaelic? Scotland? Was he is Scotland? But no, when the voice spoke to him, it was without that soft familiar burr, but instead with the dreamy brogue of Ireland.

  The ship. Had the ship gone astray and taken him south instead of home? He remembered a ship. But the ship had been in port. Men laughing among themselves, their faces blackened and painted. Axes swinging. The tea. The cursed tea.

  Ah, yes, he remembered. There was some comfort in that. They had taken their stand.

  He had been shot. Not then, but after. At dawn. A mistake, a foolish one.

  Then there had been snow and pain. He had awakened to a woman. A beautiful woman. A man could ask for little more than to wake to a beautiful woman, whether he awakened live or dead. The thought made him smile as he opened his heavy eyes. As dreams went, this one had its virtues.

  Then he saw her sitting at a loom beneath a window where the sun was strong. It glistened on her hair, hair as black as the wing of any raven that flew in the forest. She wore a plain wool dress in dark blue with a white apron over it. He could see that she was wand slender, her hands graceful as they worked the loom. With a rhythmic click and clack she set a red pattern among deep green wool.

  She sang as she worked, and it was her voice he recognized. The same v
oice had sung to comfort him when he had toiled through the hot and the cold of his dreams. He could see only her profile. Pale skin of white and rose, a faint curve to a mouth that was wide and generous, with the hint of a dimple beside it, a small nose that seemed to tilt up just a bit at the tip.

  Peaceful. Just watching her gave him such a full sense of peace that he was tempted to close his eyes and sleep again. But he wanted to see her, all of her. And he needed her to tell him where he was.

  The moment he stirred, Alanna's head came up. She turned toward him. He could see her eyes now—as deep and rich a blue as sapphires. As he watched, struggling for the strength to speak, she rose, smoothed her skirts and walked toward him.

  Her hand was cool on his brow, and familiar. Briskly, but with hands that were infinitely gentle, she checked his bandage.

  "So, have you joined the living, then?" she asked him as she moved to a nearby table and poured something into a pewter cup.

  "You'd know the answer to that better than I," he managed. She chuckled as she held the cup to his lips.

  The scent was familiar, as well, and unwelcome. "What the devil is this?"

  "What's good for you," she told him, and poured it ruthlessly down his throat. When he glared she laughed again. "You've spit it back at me enough times that I've learned to take no chances."

  "How long?"

  "How long have you been with us?" She touched his forehead again. His fever had broken during the last long night, and her gesture was one of habit. "Two days. It's the twentieth of December."

  "My horse?"

  "She's well." Alanna nodded, pleased that he had thought of his mount. "You'd do well to sleep some more and I'll be fixing you some broth to strengthen you. Mr…?"

  "MacGregor," he answered. "Ian MacGregor."

  "Rest then, Mr. MacGregor."

  But his hand reached for hers. Such a small hand, he thought irrelevantly, to be so competent. "Your name?"

  "Alanna Flynn." His was a good hand, she thought, not as rough as Da's or her brothers', but hard.

  "You're welcome here until you are fit."

  "Thank you." He kept her hand in his, toying with her fingers in a way that she would have thought flirtatious—if he hadn't just come out of a fever. Then she remembered he had kissed her when he'd been bleeding to death in her barn, and carefully removed her hand. He grinned at her. There was no other way to describe that quick curve of lips.

  "I'm in your debt, Miss Flynn."

  "Aye, that you are." She rose, all dignity. "And it's Mrs. Flynn."

  He couldn't remember a swifter or weightier disappointment. Not that he minded flirting with married women, if they were agreeable. But he would never have considered taking it further than a few smiles and murmurs with another man's woman. It was a bloody shame, he thought as he studied Alanna Flynn.

  A sad and bloody shame.

  "I'm grateful to you, Mrs. Flynn, and to your husband."

  "Give your gratitude to my father." She softened the order with a smile that made her dimple deepen. He was a rogue, of that she hadn't a doubt. But he was also a weak one and, at the moment, in her care.

  "This is his house, and he'll be back soon." With her hands on her hips, she looked at him. His color was better, she noted, though the good Lord knew he could use a good clipping on that mane of hair he wore. And a shave wouldn't have hurt him. Despite it, he was an excellent-looking man. And because she was woman enough to have recognized the light in his eyes when he looked at her, she would keep her guard up.

  "If you're not going to sleep, you might as well eat. I'll get that broth."

  She left him to go into the kitchen, her heels clicking lightly on the plank floor. Alone, Ian lay still and let his gaze wander over the room. Alanna Flynn's father had done well for himself, Ian mused. The windows were glazed, the walls whitewashed. His pallet was set near the fire and its stone hearth was scrubbed clean. Above it was a mantelpiece of the same native stone. On it candles were set and a pair of painted china dishes. There were two fowling pieces above it all and a good flintlock, as well.

  The loom was under the window, and in the comer was a spinning wheel. The furniture showed not a speck of dust and was brightened a bit by a few needlepoint cushions. There was a scent—apples baking, he thought, and spiced meats. A comfortable home, he thought, hacked out of the wilderness. A man had to respect another who could make his mark like this. And a man would have to fight to keep what he had made.

  There were things worth fighting for. Worth dying for. His land. His name. His woman. His freedom. Ian was more than ready to lift his sword. As he tried to sit up, the cozy room spun.

  "Isn't it just like a man?" Alanna came back with a bowl of broth. "Undoing all my work. Sit still, you're weak as a babe and twice as fretful."

  "Mrs. Flynn—"

  "Eat first, talk later."

  Out of self-defense, he swallowed the first spoonful of broth she shoveled into his mouth. "The broth is tasty, mistress, but I can feed myself."