Saving Her Highland Traitor
Time to Love a Highlander – Book 5
She wanted a new beginning. Not love or a life with a man about to be executed three hundred years in the past.
Twenty-first century tour guide Mila Carthson and her godson Robbie are excited to launch their first tour of the season in their brand new minibus. They made it through a horrific year of him being bullied and three deaths in the family. Now it’s spring and time for new beginnings. Things can only get better.
But after hours on the road with tourists who act worse than spoiled toddlers, Mila begins to wonder. Surely, a sack lunch surrounded by Glencoe’s beauty will improve the day. She gets the group settled, then she and Robbie climb to higher ground for some badly needed peace.
While they’re eating, the strangest storm blows in and makes her and Robbie so ill, all they can do is hug it out while the wind and rain batters them. When the weather lifts, everything is different. Not just different, but changed beyond belief. And someone is coming. On horseback. At a thundering, breakneck speed.
The last thing eighteenth century Chieftain Teague MacDonald needs is an unforeseen interruption in his interception of the Campbell clan’s favorite whisky. But his greatest weakness is taking in strays. Especially comely wenches. And this one is that. Fiery as a freshly lit torch, too. So, even though persecuting the bloody Campbells, smuggling, and quietly strengthening the Jacobite cause keeps him busy, this lovely lass is too tempting to ignore. And the longer he is around her, the more he wants her and wishes she would let him save her from whatever terrible secret set her and the lad on the run in the first place. One way or another, he will win her trust. And with any luck, he will win even more.
Mila has been many things. Tour guide. Substitute mother. Grieving friend. But the eighteenth century transforms her into something she never expected: a woman in love like never before. Except she knows Teague is going to be executed soon. She read about it while researching his castle’s remains back in the twenty-first century. Somehow, she has to keep him alive. But can the history books and destiny be rewritten?
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Ten ladies, all exhibiting varying levels of grumpiness, waited beneath the canopy at the rear of the Old Town Hostelry.
“They look pure dead miserable,” Robbie said as Mila brought the minibus to a halt.
“That they do.” She put on her best smile and nodded for him to do the same. “But we shall make their day better, aye?”
His dubious scowl mirrored her doubts.
She opened the door and hopped out to greet them. “Good morning, ladies. Are ye ready to enjoy Scotland’s many wonders?”
“I am ready for the rain to stop,” said the one with the hood of her bright pink raincoat pulled so low that all that showed was her wrinkly frown.
“Och now, it’s already faded to a wee mizzle. Sure to stop soon.” Mila motioned them forward. “Think of it as future whisky and fresh water to sate yer thirst.” Her cheeks ached with the forced smile as, one by one, they grumbled their way onto the bus. “I am Mila Carthson and in the seat behind mine is my assistant, Robbie Abernathy. It is our pleasure to meet each of ye.”
None of the ladies bothered to respond with a smile, a nod, or their names.
“If I don’t sit in the front, I will vomit. You know that, Mildred.” The scowling lady in the hot pink raincoat bared her teeth at a purple-haired woman cloaked in a crinkly black poncho. While the fuchsia rain slicker woman appeared petite and fragile, she stubbornly straddled both front seats on the right side of the bus.
Each time the poncho-clad Mildred tried to shove her way into the aisle seat, Ms. Pink pushed back and refused to let her sit.
“There are two seats, Winona. Since when does hogging two seats cure motion sickness?” Mildred pushed closer so the last pair of the group could squeeze past her, then she angled back into the center of the aisle, glaring down at her travel mate.
Unable to get past Mildred and into the driver’s seat, Mila stood on the steps. “We usually rotate seats at every stop so everyone gets an opportunity to sit in front.” She cast a gently shaming frown at Winona. “And everyone gets one seat. Not two.”
“I have to stay in the front the whole trip or you’ll be cleaning up barf.” Winona shoved back her hood and jutted her powdered chin higher.
“If ye would be so kind as to scoot over so yer friend can sit, we will be on our way.” Mila noticed the rest of the group seemed enthralled by the stand-off, as though it was their favorite form of entertainment.
“She is not my friend, and I got here first.” The woman jerked a nod and resettled her outstretched position. A tittering of laughter rippled through the bus.
“Kindly shove over, Ms. Winona, or I shall have to ask ye to get off the bus and make other arrangements for a tour.” Mila stared the woman down. This was not the way to start the day. While she didn’t want bad reviews, she refused to tolerate such unreasonable behavior. And she also refused to be bullied. Gasps and mutterings rippled through the seniors.
“You can’t talk to her like that.” Mildred squared off her cloaked girth like a great black crow guarding a bit of roadkill.
“That’s right,” shouted someone from the back. “Customers are always right, you know!”
For the first time that morning, snarly pink lady Winona gleamed a broad smile and scooted over. “Thank you, Mildred.” She twisted in the seat and waved at her supporter in the back. “Thank you, Doreen.”
“You are quite welcome.” After a smug, snorting huff, Mildred seated herself with a haughty flounce of her crackling black wrap.
It was going to be a very long day. Mila composed herself with a slow, deep breath, climbed into her seat, and buckled in. She flipped on her mic and announced, “We shall take a brief turn around Edinburgh and then head to Stirling.”
“Turn on the air!” The barking demand came from the one called Doreen. The individual who had supported Winona earlier.
“No way! We are soaked to the skin and it will be too cold.” Mildred swiveled around and shook a finger at Doreen, who wore rhinestone-tipped glasses that made her look like an oversized beetle.
“I don’t care. I am boiling back here!” Doreen rose and lumbered into the aisle as if ready to brawl.
Mila stopped the vehicle, unbuckled, and stood to face them. “I would ask that everyone remain seated while we are in motion. For safety reasons, ye ken?”
“What is that supposed to mean? Ye ken?” Doreen waggled her head back and forth like a cobra preparing to strike. She wrinkled her bulbous nose, making her sneer even more pronounced.
“Ye ken means do ye understand?” Mila stood her ground. “I want no one injured on our outing today.”
“Afraid we might sue you?” The woman snapped her head with every word, making her sparkly glasses bounce to the end of her nose. “Because we could, you know? Rita’s son is a lawyer.”
The more Doreen talked, the more it confirmed that hauling this group of belligerents back to the boarding area and refunding their money was the best choice for all concerned. “Today is entirely up to yerselves, ladies.” Mila paused, struggling to keep a professional tone. “Shall we all settle in and enjoy Scotland with a bit of civility or return to the hotel? The front desk keeps several guide cards on hand. I feel certain ye could find another tour that would be more to yer liking.”
Doreen’s mouth twitched as though holding back a torrent of ill-mannered replies. But instead of spouting off, she plopped back down into her seat. Several of the others peered out the window, while a few stared down at their laps. No one made eye contact nor offered a response.
Mila refused to take this sudden shift to meekness as an answer, knowing full well the snarling beasties could return at any moment. “What do ye wish to do, ladies? Continue this tour or return to the hotel?”
Mildred waved her toward the driver’s seat. “Let’s go. And you can turn on the air for Doreen. We’ve already burned through all the other guides. You’re our last resort.”
“Well, isn’t that lovely,” Mila uttered under her breath.
Robbie unbuckled, climbed up onto the seat, and pulled two lightweight blankets down from the overhead rack. He offered them to Mildred and Winona, adding the sweetest smile as he held them out. “If ye get chilled, these will knock the air off ye.” He turned and addressed the rest of the women. “If anyone else would like one, we’ve got one for each of ye.”
“I would like one, young man,” said a lady from midway on the bus.
He pulled free another plastic-wrapped blanket, hopped down from the seat, and took it to her. “We have them cleaned after each trip and sealed like this, so ye know nothing is lurking in the cloth.”
“I am sure they’re quite clean.” The silvery-haired woman offered a genuine smile as she opened the blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders.
Mila released the breath she held. Perhaps they could salvage the day and make it enjoyable after all. She settled in, fastened her seatbelt, and waited for Robbie to do the same. As they headed through Edinburgh, she pointed out the Royal Mile, Princes Street Gardens, the castle, and several other sites. “Our lovely Edinburgh is best enjoyed on foot,” she said. “For days and days, if yer itinerary permits it.”
“You try walking days and days with arthritis and a hip that needs replacing.”
A glance in the mirror failed to show her the commenter, so she ignored it. But it did make her wonder why they had chosen Scotland as their vacation destination. After all, so many of the sites were best enjoyed with sturdy walking shoes and the determination to soldier on and explore.
Stirling castle proved to be somewhat of a struggle since the mobility car was not in service. Ramps helped in some areas, but the ladies still found fault with everything. The cobbled courtyard was too rough, the grassy areas too wet. The adapted toilets failed to suit them. Every room was either too cold, too damp, overcrowded, or hot. The concessions and souvenirs were overpriced and dared to require British Pound currency rather than U.S. Dollars. When Mila suggested they pay by credit card whenever possible because the exchange rate was usually less, they stared at her as if she had sprouted a second head.
After enduring all she could stand, she ended the tour of the castle earlier than scheduled. The promise of a picnic lunch while viewing the beauty of Glencoe appeared to put a bit of spryness into the ladies. One thing she had discovered early on was that these ten women ate more than a dozen good-sized men. Both snack boxes on the bus were emptied in the first hour. She had to send Robbie for more while she led the group around Stirling. It was about a two-hour drive to Glencoe. She prayed they had enough to keep the group pacified until lunch.
“Are there any more cookies?” Winona rattled an empty wrapper at Robbie as they bounced along.
“Aye. I’ve got shortbreads, parlies, and some Empire biscuits. Which would ye like?”
“Just pass over some of all three. Mildred will help me eat them.” The woman drained her water bottle, then tossed it at him. “And more water too.”
Robbie kicked the back of Mila’s seat.
She made eye contact with him in the mirror and slightly nodded for him to do as the lady asked. After all, if Ms. Winona had a mouthful of biscuits, she was less likely to complain. Mila only hoped the woman’s tendency toward motion sickness had been an empty threat.
She drove along in silence, having given up on her usual informative commentary about the countryside. Sharing the history of the area had turned out to be like poking an ill-tempered bear. The seniors took it upon themselves to dispute everything she said. Never had she led such a self-proclaimed group of experts on Scottish history. So she went silent. After all, who was she to argue with American Hollywood’s depictions of her native country?
“Our lovely lunch setting is just up ahead, ladies.” Mila sent up a prayer of thanks and made a mental note to give Robbie half the take of today’s tour. The lad had saved the day and held his tongue admirably.
“I see no restaurant, no tables, or benches,” Doreen said.
“There is a fine area to pull off where we can eat our lunches and admire the beauty of the Three Sisters: Aonach Dubh, BeinnFhada, and Gearr Aonach.” Mila gauged the murkiness of the sky. It looked to be lightening nicely with the sun peeking through more and more. With their blankets on the large, flat boulders overlooking the glen, surely the women would be content or at least quiet for a wee bit.
Mila clenched her teeth and forced a smile. “Aonach Dubhmeans Dark Ridge. BeinnFhadais for Long Hill, and Gearr Aonach means Short Ridge. These peaks radiate from BideannamBian’s ridges. But the Gaelic is more romantic. Do ye not think so?”
Robbie kicked the back of her seat again, but she ignored it. There was no way out of this. They were both trapped with these grumblers until Fort William. There the ladies would spend the night, then take the train back to Edinburgh.
“And here we are.” Mila halted the minibus alongside the stones intended to serve as their lunch tables and seats. If the rain returned, they could easily reload everything back inside. But if there was an ounce of mercy anywhere in the universe, the rain would hold off so she and Robbie could climb to their usual perch and have a few moments of peace while the others bickered and complained over their meal.
“Here? On those rocks?” Mildred bobbed her head up and down while squinting out the rain-spattered window.
“Aye.” Mila hopped up from her seat and smiled at them all. “Everyone grab yer blankets to spread across the stones. Ye will find them the perfect height for sitting. Robbie and I will bring out the sandwiches, fruit, and chips.” She knew better than to call the chips crisps. It would only resurrect the ladies’ conversation of why Scots called so many things by stupid names.
Each of the grumbly grannies shot her a withering look as they ambled past. They hitched their way down the steps, then stood scowling at the boulders.
“Why did they even come to Scotland?” Robbie whispered while helping her slide the coolers of food and drink off the bus.
“I dinna ken, but mind yer tongue.” She shot a glance over her shoulder and quickly scanned the group. “They claim they canna hear, but I would lay odds they can pick up a mouse’s fart clear back in the States.”
Robbie laughed and nearly dropped the drink chest. “But we can still eat on our ledge, aye?”
“Definitely.” With his help, she placed the food coolers on top of the largest rock and opened the lids. “I shall leave ye to it, ladies. There are egg and cress sandwiches. Corned beef and pickle. Treacle. Even some ham, cheese, and ketchup pieces, too.” She grinned. “Sorry. Pieces are what we Scots call sandwiches. I am sure ye think that’s silly, too.” She pointed at the rest of the feast. “Fruit, chips, and wee fairy cakes in this box and nice cool waters in the drink cooler.”
All of them stared at her with upturned noses and lips quirked into a snarl.
“Disgusting,” came from somewhere in the back.
Mila didn’t catch which one said it. And it didn’t matter. She threw up her hands, unable to believe their level of ingratitude and rudeness. “This is all there is, ladies. If ye canna choose something, then ye will have to wait ’til we reach Fort William.” She couldn’t resist a bit of smugness as she added, “And ye have eaten all the snacks. So there will be nothing to nibble on during that wee jaunt of roughly thirty minutes.”
That spurred a few of them forward. The rest soon joined in, half-heartedly pawing through the food. Mila fully expected a brawl to break out at any moment, like dogs scuffling for a bone.
She turned to ask Robbie to fetch their packs, only to discover he had already done it. With a big grin, he handed over hers then slung his to his shoulder.
“Are ye that hungry?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“Nah.” He took the lead. “Ready for a wee stretch of my legs and some quiet.”
“Ye have done well, my fine brat. I am proud of ye.”
He ducked his head. “I feel a mite sorry for them. They must be verra unhappy to be so sour all the time.”
“That they must,” she agreed.
“Where are you going?” Mildred shouted while shouldering her way deeper into the food chest.
Mila pointed up the ridge. “Higher ground to watch the weather. That way, we can warn ye before it hits. Dinna worry. We willna go far.”
“Watch the weather?” Robbie repeated with a snort.
“Hush it or ye can eat with the ladies, ye ken?”
He grinned and continued climbing.
They forged even higher than their usual spot, putting more space between themselves and the carpark below. The trying day warranted it.
“This should be good enough.” Mila turned and made sure she still had a clear view of the minibus and the ladies. A prick of uneasiness made her pause and reconsider. As irritating as they were, they were seniors. What if a medical emergency occurred while she and Robbie were perched halfway up the mountain? Of course, even though she had training for minor issues, anything severe would be beyond her skills. And the ladies had survived the trip from their beloved Cobeak, Illinois, to Edinburgh, Scotland. Surely, they would be all right.
“What’s wrong?” Robbie plopped his backpack onto the ground, then sat beside it.
“Nothing.” She joined him and unzipped her pack. “Just checking to see if they’ve started brawling yet.”
“I think that’s how they communicate with each other,” he said around a bite of sandwich. “Like when animals growl, but dinna mean anything by it.”
“Ye are a wise lad.” She unwrapped her egg and cress sandwich, frowning at its mangled condition. “Look at this. The ice pack smashed it flat as a griddle cake.”
“It’ll still eat just the same.” He grinned. “Least ye can lick the squished egg off the paper.”
“True enough.” She poured them both a cup of tea. As she handed him his cup, she noticed him frowning at something and turned to see. A thick bank of dark clouds, its swirls and billows flickering with lightning, was bearing down on them. The speed of it was impressive. She unleashed a frustrated groan. “Bloody hell. Look at that storm coming.”
“Aye.” He shoved the rest of his sandwich in his mouth and started repacking his bag. “Be here in a flash.”
She did the same, squinting as the wind whipped her ponytail into a wild frenzy. She cupped her hands around her mouth and bellowed at the tour group below, “Take cover!”
With all the debris spinning about, she could hardly make out anything past an arm’s length. She hoped the women heard her warning, or at least noticed the storm and got back into the bus. As she slung her pack to her shoulder, her stomach lurched as if some unseen force had punched her. A cold sweat peppered her upper lip. Wave after wave of nausea washed through her. She dropped to all fours and threw up, heaving so hard it felt like she was turning herself inside out.
Even though the wind had reached a deafening howl, she vaguely picked up on the sound of nearby retching. Robbie. Sick as well. Fighting the storm and blinding dizziness, she crawled over to him. “Robbie!”
He shook his head, then threw himself into her arms, convulsing and gagging.
She closed her eyes and held him tight. No way could they make it down the hillside. Wind and rain lashed against them, but the worst part was the awful falling sensation. The relentless storm swallowed them whole and sent them spinning down its dark gullet. At least if they died, they died together. A terrible, high-pitched keening screamed and whistled all around. She covered Robbie’s ears while tucking her head against his. Never in her twenty-eight years had she ever experienced such a raging tempest.
Once the roaring squall died, it took her a while to realize it. Nature’s attack had numbed her. Made her feel fuzzy-headed and not sure of anything. Rain still peppered down, but nothing like before. The sky had softened to a murky blanket of grayness. The lightning-filled blackness of the angry cloud bank had passed. She straightened but kept a tight hold on Robbie. Thankfully, both nausea and dizziness had left her. After swiping her soaked hair out of her face, she gently patted the lad on the back. “The worst is gone. I think so, anyway. Are ye feeling any better?”
He slowly uncurled and lifted his head, squinting up into the rain. Water streamed down his face, plastering his short, dark hair to his skull. While he was still somewhat pale, she took heart at the two faint patches of pink highlighting his cheeks.
“I dinna feel sick anymore,” he said. “My eggs didna taste as if they had turned. Did yers?”
“No.” She pushed herself up and helped him stand. “Mine tasted fine and if it had been food poisoning, I think it wouldha lasted longer.”
“It wouldha,” he said. “Mama got it once after some bad clams. She was sick for a few days.”
That was the first time he had spoken about either of his parents since the auto accident, but Mila didn’t draw attention to it. She merely took heart, hoping that meant he was slowly healing from their loss. She waved him forward. “We best go check on our ladies, aye?”
He made a face. “Ye know they’re going to be madder than wet hens?”
“I know. But there is no avoiding it.”
“Ye go first.” He adjusted his pack across his shoulders and grinned. “In case they start throwing shite.”
She started to correct his language, then found herself unable to speak. Even through the rising fog and mizzling rain, she could tell something was very wrong. Their surroundings were entirely too quiet. “Robbie.” She swallowed hard and pointed. “The bus is gone.”
He stepped up beside her, his thumbs looped through the straps of his pack. “Uhm—so is the road. And the grumpy hens.” He stared up at her, his voice cracking with the same panic strangling her. “Where is everything?”
“I dinna ken,” she whispered, hugging him close. “I dinna ken what has happened."