Treasure Me Excerpt
Loch Ness, Scotland 1888
Vanessa made her way quickly through the noisy pub and took a seat at an empty table. Heavy wood paneling covered nearly every surface in the room. The floor currently acted as a small pool for spilled ale. But she needed to eat.
Gingerly she opened Jeremy’s notes and smoothed her hand across them. This was precisely the sort of place that Jeremy would balk at entering. He would despair at even laying his precious notes on the sticky surface. So she did it regardless, knowing that he wouldn’t be needing them anymore. Furthermore, he shouldn’t have left them lying around while he was off dallying with Violet.
All around her, large and hairy Scottish men sat at the tables slamming their mugs together, cursing and picking fights with one another. Were it not for her considerable practice at ignoring noise to focus on work, she might have been more distracted.
So Vanessa was quite used to pretending that nothing around her was meant for her attention. A skill that had come in handy on more than one occasion when she’d been stuck beside a bore at a dinner party. Or been persuaded to dance with an arrogant, yet ignorant, oaf at a soiree. She’d learned such a skill at home with her family where her mother and sisters spoke of nothing more than the next social engagement and which fabrics best complimented their coloring. Of course, they tried to include her, but Vanessa found none of that the least bit interesting. Instead she wanted to read or study, or more precisely, she wanted to dig. But until this very trip, she hadn’t yet gotten the opportunity.
Now Vanessa was finally here. Here in Scotland where the history was mixed heavily with myth, and the soil was rich with undiscovered fossils, all waiting for her to unearth and categorize them. First thing tomorrow morning, she would hike over to those castle ruins and find her way into the caverns beneath. Jeremy was wrong about Mr. McElroy’s discovery, and if the poor Scotsman were still alive, she’d find him to tell him so. It had been a point of contention between her and her would-be-husband, but he’d taken the time to listen to her argument. She’d thought he’d been weighing her hypothesis. Now though, she believed that he’d merely been humoring her. Well, she would prove him wrong–him and the rest of the scientific community who believed her to be utterly unqualified.
She had tried to argue Mr. McElroy’s point by sending in several letters supporting his theory that the bone belonged to what the Scots called the water kelpie. But not one of them had been printed in any of the scientific journals. No, Vanessa didn’t believe a mystical creature still lived in those peat-stained waters. But something had lived there many years ago, and the evidence was just waiting for her discovery.
She put the tip of her pencil between her teeth as she collected her thoughts, then she jotted down a note.
“What’s a purty lass like you doin’ all alone?” A large necked man plopped into the empty chair adjacent to hers. His thick brogue, laced with inebriation, took some concentration to understand. As he looked over her notebook, his nose wrinkled. “What are you doing there in that book?”
She closed the pages over her hand to mark her spot and glanced at him above her spectacles. “I am working, sir, and you are disturbing me.” Perhaps she should have stayed in her room. But she’d been hungry, and the barmaid had said this was the only place she could eat. So she’d sat to wait for her lamb stew.
He laughed, a gritty, dark sound. “Disturbing you, am I? Well, we’ll see about that.” He reached over, and with one swift pull, he’d yanked her onto his lap, knocking the notebook to the floor in the process. She struggled against him, kicking at his legs and trying to pound on his chest, but he clasped both her wrists in his vice-like grip.
“Unhand me, sir!” she said loudly, continuing to fight. She eyed Jeremy’s notebook lying facedown on the filthy floor. As gratifying as it might be to destroy something of his, she needed that research. “I must collect my notes!”
“I don’t think so. You’re a nice little morsel, aren’t you?” He buried his face in her hair. “And you smell real nice. Like flowers and honey.”
Vanessa’s heart thundered in her chest, the sound reverberating to pound in her ears. She had not carefully weighed the situation before she’d acted. She’d been so focused on her research, so intent on her own purpose, that she hadn’t bothered to think about this new environment. This was not the sort of place that a well-bred lady would travel alone. Yet here she was. Not very smart of her, she now acknowledged. This was precisely the impetuous behavior that her mother found so taxing.
But there was no need to panic; that’s the reaction her sisters would have. Vanessa, though, was level-headed and generally good at sizing up challenging situations. This one would be no different. She merely needed to stay calm, keep her wits about her, and figure out a way to escape. Perhaps she should simply jerk herself away and run up to her room. But with the current hold the man had on her, freeing herself was impossible. She could call for help. Perhaps people simply didn’t realize that she wasn’t interested in being handled by this man. Certainly a crowd this size would not allow this man to truly harm her.
But as three other large Scots stood and moved to her table, each of their expressions more lascivious than the next, she began to doubt her convictions. These men would not protect her. They would assist her assailant. She saw the great error in her logic. She had grossly underestimated her situation, and now she was in serious trouble. She doubled her efforts. Her legs kicked out, trying in vain to wiggle free from the man’s hold.
“What do we have here, Angus?” one man asked as he straddled a chair next to them. He ran a rough hand down Vanessa’s cheek.
She frowned at him and tried to pull away from his offensive touch. Had her hands been free, she would have walloped him good. Boxed his ears, or poked him in the eyes.
“A fine piece of muslin,” another man said. He moved his eyebrows up and down in a move that Vanessa could only assume meant he found her attractive. The irony of the situation was not lost on her. Finally she had a man sexually interested in her, something her mother had spent hours fretting about. But eligible, appropriate men, they were not.
The man who’d imprisoned her on his lap–Angus, the other man had called him-was trying to run his hand up her leg, but she managed to deflect his efforts with an elbow to his abdomen. The man next to him yanked on her hair, pulling her head back so she could see his grimy face above hers. His yellowed teeth smelled foul, a mixture of ale and rot. Her eyes watered.
“Oh there you are, love,” another voice said from behind her. “I’d ask you kindly to remove your hands from my intended.”
She could not see the owner of the voice, but this man sounded different from the others. While his voice still had the lilt of a Scottish brogue, his tone was more refined, cleaner around the edges. Though his words were polite, his tone was edged with a threat.
“Your intended?” Angus asked.
“Aye. I said let her go.”
“As you wish,” the man said, then he dumped Vanessa onto the hard wood-planked floor.
Vanessa landed with a thud, her wool dress splayed around her, revealing both ankles. A hand reached out to pull her to her feet. She snatched her notebook on the way up.
She looked up and found herself staring into the most alarmingly handsome face she’d ever seen. His long brown hair hung to his shoulders in a wild and unkempt way, but she could tell he’d washed it recently, not at all like the greasy, matted manes of the other men. A day’s worth of beard covered his cheeks and chin, but did nothing to hide his sensual mouth, which quirked in a subtle grin. But it was his crystal clear green eyes that seemed to void her vocabulary. She nodded like a simpleton.
He held her close to his side. So far, no one had resorted to fisticuffs, but two of the Scots still held a stance that suggested they might swing a punch at any moment. Vanessa found herself holding her breath, so she exhaled slowly.
“So, English,” Angus said, sizing up her rescuer. “You’ve come back to the wilds of the hills, have you?”
“Fits you’d find yourself a pretty Lady to wed,” another said. “What’s the matter, the local skirts aren’t good enough for the likes of you?” Guffaws of laughter surrounded them.
This close to her rescuer, she could smell him. A delicious combination of soap and leather and the pure smell of the clean Highland air filled her nose. She caught herself before she closed her eyes to inhale.
“Did you bring her home to wed her properly?” Angus asked with a wide grin that highlighted his foul teeth.
“None of your damned business,” her savior said. But she noted a slight tick in his jaw line.
“A true Scot would wed her here and now,” Angus taunted with narrowed eyes.
“Wed her, then bed her,” the other agreed with a grin.
“What’s the matter, English?” another asked.
Vanessa noticed how the man at her side clinched his fist that rested at her waist. Her savior never once met her gaze as he looked at the other men in the tavern. They were all slightly smaller than he, but two of them were as broad. Still he was only one man.
“English won’t do it,” Angus said.
“He ain’t a real Scot,” the other said. “Too much blue blood.”
The taunting reminded Vanessa of her young cousins who teased and quipped back and forth, goading each other into doing something unpleasant. Children’s folly, nothing more. But suddenly she realized how quiet the room had fallen. It had been so loud, full of boisterous voices and music coming from an old harpsichord in the corner of the room. Everyone waited, listening for what would happen between her defender and the wretched men who’d attacked her.
“Mavis,” Angus yelled. Then he held up his hand. A moment later, a rope soared across the pub, and he caught it in his fist. He took a step toward them. “Well, are you a real Scot or no’?”
“Nah, he’s an English,” the other man said.
At long last, the man protecting her, glanced down and met her gaze. His pure green eyes met hers, and her mouth went completely dry. She’d never been one to become lathered by the appearance of men. Her sisters had certainly fallen into fits of hysteria when handsome men had expressed interest in them, but Vanessa had never looked up much to take notice. But with this man, his rugged handsomeness was hard to ignore. She pushed her spectacles back up the bridge of her nose.
“We’ll do the ceremony,” he said in his low baritone voice. “I’ll marry her right now.”
Before Vanessa could ask any questions, she found herself facing the large stranger and both their right hands were tied together with the rope. The man before her repeated vows, and then nodded to her when it was her turn.
Vanessa tugged on her hand and realized it was indeed tied quite firmly to the man with the beautiful green eyes. The stench of the other men around her assaulted her senses. “Marry this man?” she asked softly, more to herself than anyone in particular.
Loud cheers surged around her, and if she wasn’t mistaken, she’d just accidentally married a Scotsman.
“Well, kiss her then. Kiss your bride,” the man said.
Graeme took a long look at the woman standing before him. She was not exactly a wee thing, though she was most definitely smaller than him. But for a lass, she was tall. And pretty, with her bright blue eyes and dimpled cheeks. Though her beauty was understated because she hid behind drab colors and spectacles.
With his right hand tied to hers, he used his left to pull her close. Then he bent and pressed his lips to hers. It was intended to be a brief kiss to seal this foolish ceremony. Instead, the instant their lips touched, he forgot about the fact that he didn’t even know her and kissed her soundly. Her soft lips opened, and her warm breath mingled with his own. And in that moment, it felt as if they’d kissed a hundred times before.
He abruptly ended the kiss. Still she stood before him, eyes closed, lips parted. Damn if she wasn’t beautiful. He needed to get her out of here and soon, before he ended up doing to her precisely what he was trying to rescue her from.
“Get these bloody rags off our hands,” Graeme said.
“Eager to get to the bedding,” one man shouted. Raucous laughter followed.
The man unwrapped their hands. Graeme slid his hand protectively around his counterfeit bride to guide her out of the pub. She halted, slid her hand out of his and turned to face him.
“Thank you very much for coming to my rescue. I can assure you it is most appreciated. I was not certain what those wretched men had planned to do with me, but I knew I was not in the least bit interested,” she said, her tone filled with indignation.
Did the lass actually believe that he’d leave her here? Alone?
She nodded once, then turned in the direction of the stairs that led to the sleeping quarters.
He moved them in the direction of the stairs, trying to ignore the bawdy shouts around them. “You cannot stay here,” he said.
“And why not?” she asked. She placed her hands on her hips and eyed him defiantly.
“Because had I not interfered those men would no doubt have taken turns with you,” he paused to see if she understood his meaning. When her blue eyes rounded and her head tilted, he wagered she’d comprehended perfectly. “Staying here would only give them an invitation to do so in your room instead of the dirty pub floor.”
Her mouth formed a silent “o.”
He turned her back in the direction of the door.
“My belongings,” she whispered as she came to a stop.
“The items I brought with me are in a room upstairs. I had intended to stay here,” she said.
“Let us collect your things,” Graeme said. “And then we need to remove ourselves from this place. Those men believe us to be husband and wife, and they might expect us to prove that.”
Again her eyes widened. Then she hurriedly made her way up the stairs.
He followed behind her, enjoying the way her skirt cupped her backside as she climbed upward. Her height intrigued him; her legs must go on forever. He’d best stop the direction of these thoughts. But before he did, he took a moment to imagine what it would be like to press her up against the door and kiss her again.
He reached over and assisted, sliding the key into the lock and turning hard to the left. He’d seen the way that she’d handled herself with the other men. She was smart, but foolish in not knowing her own limitations and what a dangerous situation she’d been in.
It was a tiny space with only a narrow bed, the mattress no doubt stuffed with moldy hay, and what Graeme could only guess was a washbasin.
“How long were you intending to stay here?” he asked.
“As long as it took,” she said as she gathered her belongings.
“As long as what took?” he asked.
She closed the trunk, then stood there glancing first at the trunk and then the door. “Do you suppose I could call a footman?”
He plucked her trunk up off the floor. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Right.” She surveyed the room, presumably searching for anything that she might have left. She chewed at her bottom lip, then shoved her spectacles up further on her nose. “My research.” She turned to face him, a small shoulder bag pressed against her chest. “Precisely where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere safer than this,” he said.
“How do I know I can trust you? That you’re not simply leading me out of here so you can ravish me?” she asked. Then she rounded her shoulders and eyed him across the top of her glasses.
He suppressed a laugh. “You don’t.” He stepped closer to her, his large frame looming over her. “But I would wager I smell better than those blokes downstairs.” He made to put her trunk back on the floor. “If you’d prefer–”
She held a hand up. “No.”
He braced the trunk on his shoulder, then turned for the door. “Follow. And stay close.” Quietly they crept down the stairs, then out the door. The cold night wind had calmed, but the chill still hung heavy in the air.
“What am I supposed to call you?” she asked.
“Husband,” he said.
She caught up to walk beside him. She opened her mouth to say something, but words failed her.
“My name is Graeme,” he said interrupting her protests. She was more than annoyed by their little ceremony and being removed from her room; he could see the perpetual frown settle on her brow. He had to admit though that seeing her with her feathers all ruffled was vastly entertaining.
“Graeme. Very well, and I am Vanessa.” She fell into step beside him, still clutching her bag to her chest.
“It’s not far, where we’re going. Just over that small rise,” he said gesturing up ahead.
They walked in silence for a few moments before he spoke. “Research?” he asked, curiosity getting the better of him. “What sort of research does a lady of good breeding busy herself with?”
She cut her eyes at him, and he knew instantly that he’d somehow offended her. “Fossils. And old bones.”
“Bones,” he repeated, unsure whether he’d heard her correctly.
“Precisely.” She juggled her bag to try to better grasp it, and he realized that two rather large volumes had been stuffed into the bag. Briefly, she paused to straighten her glasses. “They are most fascinating.”
“Indeed.” She was a most peculiar female. Beautiful and obviously intelligent, in a bookish sort of way, but fascinated by strange things. Granted people could say the same of him, some had. “They call that study Paleontology, I believe,” he said, then wondered why he’d tried to impress her.
Her eyes brightened, and she gave him a brilliant smile. “That is correct. It is a relatively new science compared to other fields of interest.”
He reached over and grabbed the bag out of her arms and slung it over his other shoulder. Now weighed down with both her trunk and her bag, he silently wished that he’d brought his horse. But there really wasn’t much farther to walk.
“Thank you,” she said, sounding surprised. “Might we talk about that ceremony?”
“It wasn’t real,” he said, finally ending her misery.
“I beg your pardon?” She turned around to look back in the direction of the pub. “But those men said–”
“I know what you heard. Fools,” he said. “Handfasting is an old Scottish custom, but it’s not widely practiced anymore. It’s not a legally binding ceremony.”
She stopped walking, and her hand came up to her chest. “So we are not married? Oh, that’s a huge relief. Not that you’re not husband material, though certainly not husband material for me.” She began moving forward again. “Not that I’m looking for a husband because I most assuredly am not. In fact, I only recently escaped from my own unwanted betrothal only to stumble into our little union.”
She took a great gulp of a breath, then flashed him a blinding smile. “In any case, I do appreciate you coming to my rescue. Though I’m certain I would have escaped unscathed somehow, it was much easier, not to mention faster, that you came along to save me.”
Graeme was relatively certain that she hadn’t taken nearly enough breaths to get through all of that. Not only did she speak incredibly fast, but her thought process jumped from one subject to the next with nary a pause.
So she didn’t believe him to be husband material. Was it because she thought him a dirty Scot? Oh, perhaps he was more passable than the others from the pub, but not as refined as a stodgy Englishman that was more to her taste? He’d be a liar if he said that didn’t offend him, but he was used to the English judging him by his Scottish heritage as well as the Scots ridiculing him for his English title.
She was full of surprises though, and that certainly kept his curiosity piqued. From studying fossils to breaking an engagement, she had him wondering what she’d reveal next. Damned if instead of finding her behavior annoying, she made him smile. Annoyed by that revelation, he forced a frown.
“Escaped your own wedding?” he asked. They crested the hill, and down the path sat his mother’s white stone cottage. The stones reflected the moonlight, taking on a nice sheen. Though he knew the inside was spotless and tidy–his mother took to heart the old proverb that cleanliness was next to godliness–the cottage would be a far cry from anything Vanessa was used to in London. Though she had been willing to stay in that pitiful excuse of a room at the tavern, he reminded himself.
“I did. Just yesterday,” she said. “Got on a train and immediately came up here.”
“Old or fat?” Graeme asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your groom. Was he old or fat?”
She chuckled. “Neither, actually. He was rather pleasant in appearance, and I thought we would make a brilliant pair. He is a researcher as well. He’s an American though.” Then she shrugged. “But I did not hold that against him.”
It was his turn to laugh. “Kind of you.” He waited a few more steps before asking, “If you were so perfect for one another, what happened?”
“I found him in bed with my younger sister,” she said without even pausing. “Well, on the floor in front of the hearth in the study to be exact.”
Graeme released a low whistle. Evidently that fiance of hers was a complete and utter idiot. Though Vanessa was certainly not your typical English lady, she was beautiful and definitely more interesting than the rest of them. Perhaps American men were even more foolish than Englishmen.
“I suppose it’s not entirely surprising,” she continued, not pausing to pity herself. “Most men can’t walk away once they’ve seen Violet. She’s lovely.” She sighed. “But Jeremy had seemed so level-headed. Above all that passion nonsense.”
Graeme bit back a laugh. He stopped in front of his mother’s cottage. Despite the late hour, two lanterns still burned bright, welcoming any visitors. Come springtime, the front of the house would be covered with brightly colored flowers, and in autumn, the hills behind the house would be bright purple with heather. But now in the dead of winter, the earth slept, and the grounds around them were nearly colorless. Though it wasn’t a sprawling estate, it was a sizable house with several bedrooms and a study that he used when he visited.
“We’re here,” he said.
“We’re where precisely?” she asked.
“My home. My mother’s home.” It occurred to him in that moment precisely what he’d done tonight. Yes, he’d rescued the girl from a dangerous situation. But he could have done so without allowing Angus and the rest of those men to goad him into a worthless ceremony. He could have simply swept the girl out of the room and brought her to another, safer inn closer to Inverness.
But instead he’d brought her home.
Copyright © 2011. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.