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Tailing Oxford | Afternoon, Thursday 22nd


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To keep himself busy, and to keep his word to Lord Kingston, Duncan decided to begin his subreptitious activities by shadowing the Earl of Oxford. Oxford was chosen because the Scot had never been introduced to the man and he was not as close to the King as Arlington. Besides, Arlington was bound to be watched by his grace Buckingham’s spies, which meant that the man would be extremely careful and, if he wasn't, those same spies would report on his activities.

To make himself as invisible as possible, the viscount had his valet procure a set of servant’s clothes, let his hair fall to the sides and front of his face, and donned a nondescript wide-brimmed felt hat. There was no one less noticed than a servant in a place where an army of servants was coming and going at all times. To disguise his height a little, and to portray a proper attitude, he stooped and fixed his eyes on the floor as much as possible. Dressed in worn clothes of faded earth colours, he would probably pass as an English servant if he did not speak. If he had to, he would probably say that he was in the employ of either Hamilton or Lauderdale (the pox on that man!), depending upon who did the asking. He had considered dressing in livery, but that would be too easy to identify, so he decided against it. Finally, his gaunt look would probably work in his favour.

After making sure every detail was as it should be, and after hiding a pair of daggers in different places of his body, placing a stone in his pocket, and removing his mourning ring, the Scot directed his steps towards the second floor of the Octagonal Tower, where the earl and his family were lodged. William McAulay, his valet, accompanied him. The plan was for William to stay with his master and within sight of Oxford's door until the suspect earl left his quarters. From that moment on, if it came to be, Duncan would be alone.

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It was near ten o'clock when John Burgoyne approached the door and knocked. The servant admitted him readily as Burgoyne was Oxford's aide.  It was about an hour later that the pair emerged from the quarters and walked towards the stairs to the ground floor.  Once there, the pair headed towards the stables.  A groom had two horses saddled and ready for the pair.

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Duncan followed them from a distance, cursing himself for not having foreseen that a horse could be required. Sighing, he waited until Oxford and Burgoyne left - so he would know what direction they took - before approaching the groom.

"May God grant you a good day!" He said jovially. "My lord Melville asked me to exercise his horse this morning, as he has not been up to it of late. May I ask where Earn is? He is a steel gray, even-tempered stallion, but he gets feisty when he is not exercised enough, and my lord does not want to deal with that next time he rides".

Hopefully, that would be enough. The horse would recognize Duncan, of course, and if there were suspicions still that he was not authorized to take the horse, the viscount could always ask that a servant be sent to Lord Melville's room, to ask if those had been his instructions.

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The groom greeted Duncan cordially.  There were several grooms on duty, all hoping to gain gratuities for saddling horses.    "Earn is it?"  As the horse was described further, the groom ushered Melville to a stall in the back.  "Is this the one?" he asked.  It was.  Earn recognized its master and nickered in hopes of a treat not being far away.

"The saddle and tack are all here," the groom reported dutifully.  There were small cabinets on the wall and a sawhorse holding the saddle.  "If you need some help, I am available to assist."

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“This is the one”, Duncan said as his horse recognized him. “Do you have a carrot or an apple? Earn loves a bite before exercising. It puts him in a good mood”. The Lowlander rubbed the horse’s head with one hand as he produced two pennies with the other. “Would you help me saddle him, please?” He held out the coins for the groom to take.

Although the viscount was more than able to do it himself, a product of his years of soldiering in the Continent, it would be faster if it was done by two people. God! May Oxford keep a leisurely pace!

The viscount would make sure everything was done properly, just in case the groom did not.

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The groom was happy to take the lead, and fished a small apple from his pocket for Earn.  It would take several minutes to saddle the horse and all was done with an understanding that there seemed to be some urgency.  The pennies were collected and Earn was ready to mount.

Oxford had left through the main gate that would have taken him towards the town, and London, but he could have easily turned left and ridden the road towards the woods.  Duncan would need to decide the best way to trail the duo that now had a healthy head start.

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Thinking that following Oxford to London would be of no use, he directed Earn through the main gate and towards the woods. He started at a walk for a few minutes, increasing the pace to a trot, and finally to a canter, a pace the animal could keep for quite a while. It would be difficult, but the Lowlander hoped to see signs of two horses passing recently. Perhaps tracks on the ground, perhaps signs of disturbed underbrush, perhaps a broken twig or small branch. He had had to lead patrols in the forests of the Continent, so he knew a few things to look for.

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The road towards the woods was less traveled than the road through the town.  It was more commonly used by farmers and huntsmen.  In fact, Duncan encountered a stream of wagons heading for the castle.  One had potatoes, another barley, and there were at least five wagons of hay and firewood.

It was hard to canter against such traffic unless one left the center of the road.  There was no sign of any horsemen ahead that might be aristocrats.  That did not mean that there weren't gentlemen ahead.

The Scotsman increased speed, hoping to overtake Oxford.  There was a lone rider coming his way, but he looked to be carrying a message.  Curiously, there seemed to be little traffic going his way.  Once he had gone a mile or so, Duncan would see a trail break off deeper into the woods, most likely leading to some hamlet or farms. 

If Oxford had gone this way, Duncan had yet to overtake him.  It was then that Duncan heard the report of a musket.  To his trained ears, it seemed like the shot came from down the trail ... .

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Taking a mental note as to what the apparent message carrier looked like, just in case the detail proved relevant later, Duncan continued his ride. Then, as he was beginning to lose hope, he heard a sound he would recognize even in his sleep. Muskets made a distinctive sound, quite distinctive from the sound of a pistol or a blunderbuss.

That must be them, perhaps hunting… or seeming to be. No one would think twice about a nobleman hunting. It was such a common activity for the leisure class that it would not be considered suspicious. The perfect cover for a meeting…

Dismounting, Duncan led Earn by the reins. If stopped and asked what he was doing, he could truthfully say that he was exercising the horse and had heard the firearm going off. Commoners were bound to be curious where the nobility were concerned. It should not raise suspicions. He did not intend to approach whoever was ahead, though. He just wanted to observe from a distance, himself remaining unobserved.

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A musket shot. A riderless horse. A form on the floor. Tying Earn’s reigns on the closest bush, and producing a dagger from its hiding place, yet keeping it hidden, Duncan approached the horse as silently and non-threateningly as he could. The hairs on his neck told him he was in very real danger but, if that was a man that had been shot, help could be needed. Delaying such help could prove fatal. Be Thou his Aid in this hour of need, he prayed silently as he approached.

Still, that a man may have been shot did not mean the Lowlander could be careless. He moved silently, as if on patrol in the forests of the Continent. He would hide behind the nearest tree or drop to the ground at the first sign of danger.

For a moment his prey was forgotten. There was a more urgent matter to take care of.

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The figure on the ground was a woman, dressed in the simple clothing of a commoner. Her face was turned away from Duncan.  Rays of sunlight brightened the red in her hair. As he approached, she moaned and rolled over. A trickle of blood ran down the side of her face.  Her eyes were closed.

 

Duncan would recognize her immediately.  It was Fiona MacBain!

 

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Were it not for his military training, a curse would have escaped his lips. That would have given away his presence to any nearby stalker though, and then the hunter would have become the hunted. But years of discipline were not easily forgotten, and the Lowlander remained silent and alert even though every fiber of his being wanted to move quickly without regard for noise and check if the young lady was hurt.

Lass! What have you gotten into? Your sister is going to kill you if you are hurt, and me for bringing the news to her!

Much later, once imminent danger had passed, Duncan would smile at the irony of both noble Scots being disguised as commoners. But that would be much, much later, musing over a glass of mulled wine in the warm safety of Windsor Castle.

The viscount kept his dagger hidden but ready as he listened to his surroundings. As a junior officer he had learned that when on patrol it was not only the things you heard but, more importantly, the ones that you should but did not that alerted you to the presence of the enemy. So, although his impulse was to check the young lady for serious wounds and ask her if she was alright this last more to check if she was in shock than anything else he would wait until he was certain there was no danger.

I should have brought a pistol with me. I would feel much better with a firearm. His eyes moved to Fiona's horse, checking the saddle for any weapons tied to it.

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The bushes on the other side of the trail rustled. A few seconds later, a rabbit emerged, hopped across the road, and disappeared into the forest. The leaves in the trees soughed gently. Overhead a bird flew, followed by others who had been frightened away by the musket shot. Their songs filled the air. It seemed as if Duncan was quite alone.

 

Except for Fiona. She lay completely still. There was nothing on the horse but its saddle and a piece of green cloth that had been ripped from her gown and hung from the saddle, swaying softly in the breeze.

 

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They are gone, whoever they are.

The dagger disappeared into his clothing as silently and as quickly as it had appeared. Duncan then moved quickly, kneeling at Fiona’s side. God, may she be alright!

With as much tenderness as he could muster, the Lowlander brushed any hair covering the young lady’s face. Then, almost whispering, with as calming a voice as he could, he spoke. “Fi, it is Dunc… Duncan Melville. Are you hurt?”

It was the viscount’s intention to take Fiona to her sister’s house in Windsor town as quickly as possible. Even if Cat were out, master Jack and perhaps others would recognize him. But before doing that, he needed to ascertain how hurt she was. It would be far easier if she could ride by herself. Slower if she needed to ride with him, but very slow and dangerous if she was hurt and needed to be transported carefully.

What have you gotten into, lass? Who is trying to kill you and, most importantly, why?

His mind’s gears turned furiously. There was one question arising. Are the attacks on her related to the attacks on Kingston and Buckingham? Did she see or overhear something that made her a liability to be disposed of? And, if it is not that, what is it then? There was much to ponder... later.

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Fiona stirred when Duncan brushed away some auburn strands that had fallen over her face. Blood still ran down her cheek from a cut on her forehead. Her eyes opened, but there was a glazed look to them. “Duncan?” she asked, squinting up at him. Ordinarily, she would have used his title instead of his given name.

 

She blinked a few times and her vision cleared. “My head hurts and so does my ankle. Maybe I lost it.”

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Posted (edited)

At least she is able to speak. Duncan was relieved. That she called him by his given name was unusual, but given the circumstances it was not something that meant much. Fiona had recognized him, and that was good. The cut on her forehead was evident, so Duncan took a closer look, wanting to make sure it was a cut produced by the fall, and not the result of a grazing bullet. He also wanted to make sure the wound was not deep.

”Aye lass, it is I, Duncan Melville”. The mention of the head and the ankle was a good sign. The maybe I lost it not so much. Is her mind dazed, or did she really lose something? That was a question that needed answering.

”Which ankle is the one that hurts, Fi?” Duncan would examine the ankle if allowed. “And what is it that you may have lost?”

If Fiona tried ti sit up, the Lowlander would help her the best he could.

Edited by Duncan Melville
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The cut on Fiona’s forehead was shallow. She had fallen face down and the culprit was most likely a sharp rock.  “The left one,” she replied. Her shoe had fallen off and her ankle was swollen to twice its normal size. “It aches dreadfully.”

 

She allowed Duncan to assist her in sitting up. Dizziness and nausea assailed her and she grasped his arm tightly. Fiona lifted her other arm. It appeared that her wrist was swollen too, until she pulled up her long sleeve, revealing the glittering emerald bracelet encircling it. It was quite extravagant and probably quite expensive. “I was afraid I lost this,” she said. “But I didn’t.”

 

She looked up at him. “I’m so glad you came, Lord Melville. If you hadn’t, I would probably be dead by now.” As reaction set in, she began to tremble. “Somebody tried to kill me!” Had Cat told him about the other attempts on her life, she wondered?  He was one of her sister's close friends, so it was possible.

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“Lady Lochend, it seems to me you were either travelling incognito or running away. Peasants do not wear emerald bracelets…” for a moment, Duncan was inclined to ask if the bracelet was hers or Cat’s but decided against it. It was not the place nor the time to enter a possible argument. Besides, the way Fiona had sat up indicated her balance was not what it should be. “… Yet I am glad you did not lose the bracelet. It seems to be very valuable”. He let the topic rest… for the time being.

As the young lady began to tremble, Duncan took her into his arms. “You are safe now, Fi”, he said almost in a whisper. “Whoever tried to kill you is long gone. Besides…”, his mouth turned into a feral grin as he spat in a heavy Lowlander accent, “… to get to you they now have to get through me!” The topic would have to be discussed in detail later, after she was no longer in shock. Meanwhile they had to get to safety, and quickly.

So, after she stopped shaking, he continued, “I would not risk riding by yourself, unless there is pressing need of it, especially with that ankle”. She could fall and hurt herself. “My lady, may I be so pretentious as to ask you to ride with me. Easier for me would be for you to ride behind me, but safer for you would be to ride in front of me. That way I can make sure you do not fall”. Earn was not a racing horse. The animal was a strong and cold-blooded animal bred for the battlefield. It had enough strength and stamina to carry them both for long distances. What it would not be able to do was to outrun horseback pursuers. “We can tie your horse’s reins to my saddle, and I can carry you to my horse and lift you to the saddle”.

Duncan threw his hat away, tied his hair in a queue, and affixed a Melville coat of arms on his left arm. If stopped, he could truthfully say he was on the Viscount de Melville’s business. If pressed more than he was comfortable with, he could ask for Lord Kingston. Not many would lay a hand on Fiona after a gentleman of the King was mentioned... and not while I am alive.

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Fiona clung to Duncan, not caring how they might look to passersby. There was nobody around to see them anyway. Her stalker would not have chosen a public place to assassinate her. How foolish she had been to come.

 

As her mind began to clear, she tried to figure out a way to undo the damage she had already done. Duncan had noticed how expensive the bracelet was. It was not something she was able to afford. She shouldn’t have shown it to him at all, but she’d had no choice.

 

“I wasn’t running away,” she said. “I came here to meet somebody. I should have known it was a trap.” Fiona gave him a wan smile when he dramatically vowed to protect her. “I know I am safe with you.”

 

She pulled away slightly while he spoke about how to get her home. “I will go along with whatever you think is best, Lord Melville.” She watched as he attached his coat of arms to his sleeve. For the first time, she noticed that he, too, was dressed as a commoner. Though she was curious as to why he was pretending to be his own servant, she decided not to ask.

 

“Please don’t take me home yet. I don’t think I can face Cat right now. I need some time to compose myself first. And I could really use some whiskey.”

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“Cat appraised me of the possibility of danger, but this…” Duncan looked around them, “this is far more dangerous than I expected”. Duncan remained fit, even if his and his wife’s health problems had him leaner than doctors would like. So, he attempted to lift Fiona in his arms and walk towards his horse, with the intention of placing her on Earn's saddle. “Do you know how to use a dagger, Lady Lochend? It is a most ladylike weapon”. If she answered affirmatively, he would give her one of the daggers he carried, keeping the other ready at hand. Since she left to him what the best way to ride would be, he decided to have her ride in front of him. That way, if they were pursued, his body would protect her from weapon fire.

“If you do not want to go home yet, what about the Toes? Even dressed as we are, we could say that we are trying costumes for the masque. Their whisky is not the worst, the food will do us good, and a doctor could see you there, if needed”. Duncan had been to the Inn before, and if he was not recognized, he could send word to his valet… or to Lord Kingston, if needed. And a room could be rented if you need it, but I am not going to tell you that… yet.

“While we are on our way, why don’t you tell me the story, from the beginning? I want to hear it from you, without anyone interrupting your train of thought”. Although the Lowlander thought that everything was probably Fiona’s fault, he wanted to hear her version of the story with as impartial a mind as he could. Having Cat or Douglas present would not make things easier. “Please, leave no detail, as minor or unimportant as it may seem, out of the telling. I can only protect you from the things I see, hear… and know”. The Scottish viscount was not lecturing Fiona. He sincerely wanted to keep her from harm, and his military logic had come to the foreground. Plans needed information before they could be formulated, and that information needed to be as complete as possible.

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Fiona winced in pain when Duncan lifted her in his arms. Bright lights danced in front of her eyes. “I thought that he had given up. The threats stopped after I moved in with Lord Langdon.” She supposed that Cat had told him about that too.

 

She smiled wanly when he asked if she knew how to use a dagger. “I know how to stab them with the pointy end. It doesn’t matter, though. The attacker is long gone. He probably fled when he saw you coming. He covers his tracks well.”

 

He placed her on his saddle so that she would be riding in front of him. “Yes, let’s go there,” she agreed, flinching again. “Maybe my ankle should be taken care of before I go home. I’d rather not have Cat fussing over me.”

 

As they began to ride toward town, Fiona explained what had been happening to her lately. She was pleased that Duncan wanted to hear her side of the story. “It started last season. I received letters from a secret admirer. He didn’t write them himself but cut out words from a book or newspaper and pasted them on a piece of paper. All he did was describe what he saw when looking into my bedroom window. I was flattered and began to put on a show for him every night and the letters became more flirtatious.

 

“One day I went out riding and I fell from my horse.” Her smile was wry this time.  "But nobody shot at me then. A strap had been damaged. I thought it was just an accident. My secret admirer continued to send me suggestive letters. Then a box of expensive chocolates was left on the doorstep. One of the maids found them and ate one. The glass inside it cut her mouth and that’s when I knew that somebody was trying to kill me.

 

“The letters now became threatening, claiming that I would pay for what I had done and that he wanted me to live in fear of his final move. He threatened to harm my sisters if I told anyone. He knew their names and that they were in Scotland. I was scared and didn’t know what I should do. When I received a beautiful silver box, I took it to Lord Langdon and told him exactly what I just told you.

 

“He opened it and an asp slithered out. He killed it before it could bite either of us. So I stayed with him for the rest of the season and during recess because I knew he would keep me safe. He wrote to Cat and told her I was in danger and she came back and made sure that our house was well-guarded and we never went out alone.” Fiona rolled her eyes. “I was soooo bored and sometimes I managed to sneak away dressed as a commoner like I am now.

 

“Last night before I reached the house, a man who looked like a soldier approached me and handed me a note requesting a meeting on the trail today. I thought it came from Lord Langdon and that he might have some information about the assassin. But obviously, the assassin himself sent it and I rode right into his trap.”

 

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Duncan would have rolled his eyes if it had served any purpose. But it would not, and there were more pressing concerns, like remaining alert to their surroundings. She may be the most unwise young lady I have ever met, but she is a MacBain. That meant the viscount would protect her, even on pain of death.

No one had ever hinted that they knew, and Duncan seldom spoke of it, but Duncan was under a blood debt. One London night, on their first season at court, the viscount had almost been crushed to death by the closest the Lowlander had seen to a monster, and Adam MacGregor had saved his life by sliding a dagger into that man’s kidney. Adam was dead now, and if he had told Cat she had never mentioned, but a blood debt was a blood debt. When the Highlander had disappeared at sea, his Lowlander friend had taken upon himself to protect his widow, and the widow’s sisters and daughter by extension… unto death if need be. A life for a life.

After Fiona finished her tale, Duncan kept silent for a few minutes, thinking things through. Lightning Langdon living up to his name yet again. He misses no opportunity! Duncan was certain the English earl had not deflowered Fiona. He had heard gossip about her libertine ways long before that. “I am not your father, your brother, or your husband, Fi, so I will not lecture you…” he said in a protective tone, “but please do be careful. Shona and Aileen would be devastated if anything happened to you. Cat too. Even though she would swear it was not so, she would cry herself to sleep over you. So, may I suggest you lay low until we find whoever is stalking you? Perhaps you should go out only with Cat, Douglas, or myself, unless escorted by master Jack. I trust him to put himself between you and harm”. Duncan was going to stop there, but he needed the girl to understand the seriousness of the situation, so he added, “whoever is doing this will have to be hunted and put down Fi. Until now, it was like a game. A dangerous game, but still a game. But after that shot was fired back there, it became something entirely different. Unless…”

Unless a very angry woman is trying to kill her.

“Please forgive my ungentlemanly words, Fi, but have you bedded any married or betrothed man, one whose wife or betrothed could have decided you were better off dead?” It was a long shot, but he needed to be thorough in his questioning. Hopefully, Lady Lochend would respond truthfully. “Two more questions. First, have you overheard anything political that could make you become a liability? Especially if it has to do with the Royal Family, His Grace Buckingham, or the Church of England. Please think long and hard about this before answering”. Lord Melville prayed to God that was not the case, but the possibility needed to be explored. “London, and Windsor by extension, are not Clan MacBain, Clan Melville, or even Clan Lindsay lands. There, people would help us, but not here. Here we are among Sacsannach”.

One last thing…

“Lastly, Fi, what were you doing wearing that bracelet? Lord Langdon does not need the money, so it was not for him. Were you trying to pay whoever is stalking you, so they leave you alone? Or were you running away?” Duncan did not mention that if she changed her story, it would mean she had lied to him before. It was far more important to get enough information to keep her safe than to scold her for lying. So many questions needed truthful answers. So little hope that she would be truthful. Still, he had to try his best. The more forthcoming she was, the more Duncan could help.

Duncan stopped the horse for a moment, so that she would turn around and he could look into her eyes. “Fi, I am on your side, I swear, but I need the truth. I am willing to die defending you, if need be, but I need to know what it is I am risking my life for”. He spurred the horse into moving again. “By the way, call me Duncan. I am your friend. I hope that you will become my friend too”.

May God help me!

But blood debts were blood debts, and they had to be repaid, whatever the price.

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Lord Melville didn’t admonish her after she told her story. In fact, he said nothing at all. His silence seemed to last an eternity to Fiona. Did he not believe her? Everything she had said was true.

 

When he finally spoke, he did not chastise her, but offered her advice about staying safe. “I am always accompanied when I left the house, except on the rare occasiona I sneak away. I know I am in danger and that Cat is trying to protect me. But sometimes …” She sighed. “A girl needs some privacy, you know. The note I was given sounded urgent and I knew that if I asked somebody to go with me, I would not be allowed to leave at all.”

 

The horse's gentle jouncing was making her a bit nauseous. Fiona had not considered it before, but Duncan was right about the attack on her starting out as a game. The last two attempts had been deadly serious.

 

She thought carefully about his questions, analyzing what she remembered doing and hearing last season. Well aware of how Scots were perceived in England, she knew that they would never have the kind of support system that could assist them if they were in Scotland. The MacBains and the Melvilles needed to stick together.

 

The horse abruptly stopped. Fiona’s stomach lurched. She turned to look at Duncan, wondering why he had halted. His offer of defending her with his life was touching and she knew that he meant what he said.

 

“I was seeing a Baronet for awhile, but he would not have proposed to me if he had been married. He took it well when I turned him down and we both moved on.  I don't even remember his name. My only other lover was Lord Langdon. Contrary to what Cat believes, we were better friends than lovers. It has been several months since we slept together.”

 

She paused again, her mind and her stomach churning. “I don’t remember overhearing anything political. I’m not interested in politics, so I might not have known even it if I did.  I already told you that I was not running away. The bracelet was an anonymous Christmas gift.  I still have no idea who sent it.   I knew that Cat would not let me keep it so I hid it. Every now and then I take it out to admire it, which I did this morning. When I was ready to leave for the meeting, I saw it glittering and realized that I hadn’t put it back. There was so much on my mind. Time was running out so I took it with me so that none of my sisters would find it. Aileen is a dreadful snoop.”

 

Fiona looked down and her voice lowered. “Don’t risk your life for me, Duncan. I am not worth it.”

 

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Posted (edited)

Lady Lochend seemed not to be able to see the possible results of her actions. As much as Duncan wanted to help her see how her little escapades could get her killed, by violent shaking of her body if necessary, he had known Fiona long enough to know that if he treated her like Cat would, she would clam up and he would get no more information, probably ever. So, he decided not to fight the never leave the house unescorted battle for later. For the time being, perhaps a bit of advice would do. “I understand that a house full of young women does not lead to privacy. But for now, please endure it as much as you can. If you really must go somewhere, and you do not want Cat to know where, please ask Douglas or myself to go with you. Your safety, your very life, depends on it”.

That the girl did not remember the name of the baronet said much. From what the viscount had been told about her, Fiona probably rejected the suit because the man was merely a baronet, and she felt entitled to an earl at the very least. If I could only help you see that life owes us nothing, and we are entitled to precisely that, nothing, you would be so much happier! It was a lesson the Scot had learned in war, a lesson that had been repeated losing his wife. Lady Lochend seemed not to have learned that lesson, to her detriment.

So, nothing political… or so it seems.

“How did the bracelet reach you? When exactly? Was there a note with the bracelet? If so, what did it say? What was it written on? What was the colour of the ink?” Once again, his military analytical mind was taking over, and he was asking far too many questions at once. But there was so much that was unknown, so many details that could slip through the cracks… “Aileen has a very inquisitive mind, yes. She sees you three, all older than her, all beautiful, all full of life. She wants to know what that is about. Her curiosity drives her. She needs her sisters now more than ever”. He would live it at that.

“Perhaps you would allow me to examine the bracelet? It very well could have been a gift from your stalker. I wonder if a clue or two could be gleaned from it. Did the tone of the messages change after you received it?” It was an avenue worth exploring.

Suddenly, the viscount fell silent. An idea had crept into his thoughts. An idea he prayed was not true. “Would the name of the baronet you mentioned be Sir John? Sir John Burgoyne?”

If it was, things had just turned from bad to worse.

And then she said she was not worth it. To hear those words broke what was left of Duncan's heart. All he could do was to hug her tightly as he whispered, "yes you are, lass; yes, you are. I may disagree with some of the things you have done, but your present, and your future, is not defined by your past actions. You will learn from your mistakes, you will grow as a person, and you will become one formidable daughter of the land of the Scots". A brotherly kiss followed, to her forehead if possible, to the side of her head, if not.

Edited by Duncan Melville
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Duncan’s rapid-fire questions made her head spin and did nothing to ease her queasiness. Fiona shut her eyes and there was a look of concentration on her face for a few moments. “It’s been such a long time ago, but I do remember how it got to me. During the New Year’s ball, I had to …” She almost told him she had to use the loo but he probably didn’t want to know that much detail. “I was pushing my way through the crowd and a small box was shoved into my hand. When I got … where I was going … I opened it up and saw the bracelet. There was a note that said nothing but ‘Lady Lochend,’ so I knew it was meant for me. It was written on a piece of paper and the ink was probably black, since I didn’t notice the color. I’m not sure I still have it. If I do, it’s back in London. I didn’t bring it with me.”

 

She said nothing to his comments about Aileen. He didn’t know her sister like she did.

 

When Duncan asked to see the bracelet, Fiona pulled it from beneath her sleeve, slipped it off, and handed it to him.  It was made of gold and emeralds.  Other than its obvious value, there was nothing remarkable about it.   “I received the bracelet last Christmas.  The messages didn’t start arriving until spring.  The gentleman who gave me the bracelet wrote my name on the note, but the messages used letters cut from books or newspapers. I never thought that the two incidents could be related. Do you think they are?”

 

Fiona shook her head when he mentioned Sir John Burgoyne. “No, it wasn’t him."

 

Duncan wrapped her in his arms and kissed her forehead. Those simple gestures comforted her considerably, as did his words. “You have more confidence in me than I have in myself,” she murmured. “I don’t mean to cause trouble. I try my best to act like a proper young lady, but it never works. It's like I have no control over my adventurous impulses.  I hope you're right and I grow out of it."

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The anonymous gift could or could not have something to do with the stalker. Not being able to determine if it did with the information he had available was frustrating. “May I keep it for a few days? I want to take a closer look under better conditions”, Duncan asked Fiona. “I will give it back as soon as I do, you have my word”.

A moment of silence to collect thoughts. “That the messages started arriving months after the gift would lead me to believe that the two are not connected. We should keep it hidden and out of the public eye just in case, though”. If she is telling me the whole truth, there is not much to go on, and if she is not, applying pressure will only make her clam up.  “That the note with the bracelet was handwritten, while the menacing ones were made of pasted cutouts lead me to believe they are not connected, but better be safe than sorry”. Her life was at risk, after all.

Not Sir John. Good! It would get a lot more complicated if it were. How would I explain to His Grace Charles that I killed Lord Oxford’s secretary because the man was stalking Lady Lochend? I would be exiled after being told he was of more value to the realms than her!

“I believe one has the ability to make or break one’s life, Fi. I also believe each and every one of us makes enough mistakes in life to get us in serious trouble more than once. Success comes from growing beyond our mistakes and learning from them. You do that, and you will be fine”. A husband might be the best thing that could happen to you right now, though, It would help you to grow up faster… and a few children to show you joy in other aspects of life… and perhaps a few seasons away from court… and… Duncan had to will himself to stop. He remembered what he was like at her age... and shuddered. Too bad she cannot join Dumbarton's!

“How does your head feel, Fi? And what about the ankle? Hopefully we will get to the Toes soon”.

She needs a doctor to take a look at her, and soon.

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