Highland Heiress - By Margaret Moore
Scottish Highlands, 1817
He had been too long in the city, Gordon McHeath thought as he rode along the crest of a hill toward the village of Dunbrachie. He drew in a great, deep breath of the fresh air. After so many years in Edinburgh, he’d forgotten how clean and bracing the air of the Highlands could be. He’d become too used to the smoke and the smells, the noise and the crowds, of a bustling city. Here the silence was broken only by birdsong and the occasional bleating of sheep or lowing of cattle.
The north-facing slope on his left was covered with gorse and bracken, the one on his right with a wood of birch, alders and pine. The needles of the pine were deep green and their scent came to him on the breeze, making him think of Christmas and dark winter nights, although it was only September. The leaves of the other trees were already turning brown and gold, and he guessed the ground beneath would be muddy and damp and thick with mulch. Through the trees he spotted a fast-moving river rushing between rocky banks that probably teemed with salmon in the spring.
Unfortunately, he’d also forgotten how cold a Highland breeze could be, and those heavy, gray clouds in the distance were definitely moving closer. Unless he wanted to be caught in a downpour, he had to get his hired light brown nag moving faster than a walk.
As he went to nudge his horse into a trot, a dog’s furious barking broke the country quiet. It wasn’t the baying of a hunting hound—more like a watchdog sounding an alarm. A shepherd’s dog, perhaps, or a farm dog guarding a crofter’s hut.
Gordon rose in his stirrups and looked around. He could see no herd of sheep, no crofter’s hut or anything that might require a watchdog.
“Help! Help me!”
The woman’s plaintive cry from somewhere in the wood was barely audible over the barking and rushing water, yet there was no mistaking the words, or the desperation.
Punching his heels into the horse’s side, Gordon tried to make it leave the road and head toward the sound of the woman and the dog, to no avail, for the beast had the toughest mouth of any horse he’d ever ridden and refused to obey, as if it were more mule than horse.
With a muttered curse, Gordon dismounted, threw the reins over the branch of a nearby bush and began to make his way down the rocky, slippery slope between the trees as quickly as he could.
He tore the sleeve of his three-caped greatcoat on a holly bush. His riding boots were soon covered with mud that dirtied the hem of his coat. His hat got knocked off by a dangling branch he didn’t see until it was too late. Reaching down to pick up his hat, he slipped and landed hard and started to slide, until he managed to grab a tree limb.
The dog kept barking, and the woman called out for help again, closer this time, thank God, although he still couldn’t see her.
He scrambled to his feet and as he did, he caught sight of the largest, most vicious-looking black dog he’d ever seen at the base of a tall, slender, golden-leafed birch not far from the bank of the river. The dog of no breed Gordon could name was one of the ugliest he’d ever seen, with a huge head and jaw, wide-set eyes and small ears. It stood with legs planted aggressively, growling, a dribble of saliva dripping from its mouth.
Despite that, Gordon was fairly certain it wasn’t a mad dog. He’d seen a rabid dog once, frothing and wild-eyed, moving with an uneven sideways gait, and he would never forget it. Nevertheless, he would keep as far from the beast as he could.
“Are you hurt?” The woman’s voice came from the same direction as the dog, her accent telling Gordon she was no peasant or shepherdess.
“No,” he called back.
Who was she? Where was she? He couldn’t see anyone near the dog, or that tree, unless… As he came cautiously closer, he peered up into its branches.
There she was, her arms wrapped around the trunk, standing on a branch that, although she was slender, looked barely able to support her weight.
Despite the circumstance, he couldn’t help noticing that she was also exceptionally pretty, with fine features, large, dark eyes and dark curls that peeked out from beneath a daffodil-yellow riding bonnet. Her whole riding habit was that same