Excerpt from Kissing the Countess
Firelight and warmth and gentle hands upon him, a kind touch lending comfort. He did not know who she was, or how long he had been here. But he was grateful to be alive.
The girl’s hand brushed back his hair, and she was singing in breathy Gaelic. The sound was peaceful. He sighed.
Opening his eyes, Evan watched the young woman move away to dip a wooden spoon into an iron kettle set over a small hearth fire. Her hair gleamed, a coppery halo in a loose, long braid. Firelight flowed over her like red gold.
Tall and long-limbed beneath a moss-green gown, her body was curved and lovely, full yet slender. Despite his weariness, he felt his body contract as he saw her womanly shape. He glanced away, looked around.
The shelter was a small, crude stone house in sad repair. Bitter cold leaked inside, and the roof had collapsed in one corner. The place looked otherworldly, enchanted, the girl stirring a magic cauldron, her song rising with the steam from the kettle.
Dimly he recalled his fall while climbing. He frowned, tested his memory—Evan Mackenzie, lately of the Lowlands, born in the Highlands. Viscount Glendevon, recently Earl of Kildonan. Engineer. His father was dead seven months.
His brain was intact, at least. Good. Now if he could only summon strength to speak, to move.
The girl looked at him, her features delicate, her head surrounded by that glorious bright hair. Her eyes were large and blue. She had simple beauty, gentle hands, a lovely voice.
She smiled, stirred whatever was in the kettle again. The calmness about her made him feel steady, more relaxed.
Evan lifted a hand to his head and felt a cloth bandage over a tender spot. He ached head to foot as he lay wrapped in the warmth of a plaid blanket.
The girl smiled again, impish, quick. She had the strong-boned handsomeness common in the Highlands. She spoke in Gaelic, then in English. "You are awake. Good."
He felt foggy. He remembered coming up to the Highlands for a bit of mountain climbing—then falling, slamming his head against a rock. Somehow he had crawled to a hill to walk downward.
But he did not recall coming here, or finding her.
She tilted her head. "Parlez-vous francais?" she asked. "Capiscol italiano, abbastanza bene.... Sprechen-Sie Deutsch?"
Now here was a surprise. The Highland angel was multilingual. Evan blinked, bemused.
"That is more than my brainpan can handle just now, lass," he murmured. "I believe I fell... quite a distance."
"Ah! You are an English holiday climber?" She spoke the lilting, precise English typical of a native Gaelic speaker.
"A climber. A Scotsman."
"You sound English."
She nodded, then blew on the spoon to cool its steaming contents before leaning forward to offer him a taste.
He swallowed, closing his eyes with pleasure at discovering a hot, good brose. The healthy dash of whisky mixed with a thick oaty broth slid down his throat, warm and welcome.
Looking around again at the ruined little hut, he could smell earth, stone, sweet musty peat, and the cold snap of wind and snow. Icicles hung from the hole in the roof, and he saw a magical night sky swirling with snowflakes that drifted inside.
The little hearth fire gave off some heat nearby, but the hut was cold as an icebox. And the girl was shivering. She wore a green dress plump with petticoats, but no coat or cape.
And he was snug inside a plaid. Looking down, he realized that he was wrapped in her shawl, a tartan of soft color on a creamy background, the sort a woman would wear. Seeing her shiver, he felt a pang of guilt.
"Miss—" he began.
"MacConn," she said. "Catriona MacConn."
"Pleased to meet you, Miss MacConn. It is... Miss?"
"I am not married," she affirmed, stirring the kettle again.
His spinster-savior-angel was cold, and he had the only blanket in sight. He must be a gentleman, if he could manage to move a little. He opened the plaid, his arms stiff and sore. "Miss MacConn, meaning no disrespect—sit beside me and be warm."
"I am fine." She chafed her arms with her hands. Her breath frosted in the air.
"Lass, don't be a fool. You’re shivering and will perish of this winter chill." Evan beckoned. He would not play wolf to her lamb, and he would not watch her suffer on his account. "Miss MacConn, it is ungentlemanly for me to sit here comfortable, while you are over there shaking with cold."