The villagers think her one of the fairy-folk, for she was found wandering the Highlands at the age of four, able to communicate with the creatures of the moors. Now eighteen, Sarah quietly uses her gift to heal wounded animals. But when word of the lovely changeling spreads, her peaceful existence is shattered.
Convinced Sarah is his long-lost daughter, the powerful Duke of Argyll offers to bequeath her his estate if she will but take her place in society. Her first duty is to become a lady -- under the tutelage of the duke's erstwhile heir, the dangerously provocative Earl of Cawdor. Sarah savors the simmering passions the cynical earl arouses in her even as she suspects he is merely using seduction to secure his birthright. In this civilized world where desire and deception are one and the same, how can she ever trust in love?
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About the Author
Here is her story...When we first learn to read, it's a chore. It's a matter of deciphering words and trying to understand their meaning given the context of the sentence. Reading is something you have to do, not want to do. Until, of course, you read that special book, the first one to really grab hold of you and make you fall in love.
It happened to me in the fourth grade. Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series forever changed me. I solved mysteries along with Jupiter, Bob, and Pete, three boys who ran their detective agency out of a junkyard and spoke regularly to Alfred Hitchcock. Green ghosts, whispering mummies, moaning caves, screaming clocks-they haunted my nights as I hid under the covers with a flashlight and read well past the time I was supposed to be sleeping.
From there I graduated to just about every kind of book you could think of. I read Stephen King, Judy Blume, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Richard Matheson, Arthur Clarke...the list was endless. At some point I decided to try a Barbara Cartland, and once again, my life changed. As I put that finished book down, I knew romance was the genre for me. Laurie McBain's Moonstruck Madness was the first long historical romance I ever read and I'll never forget it. It spurred me on to other authors such as Kathleen Woodiwiss and Clare Darcy. Romance became the staple of my reading diet, occasionally supplemented by a Dean Koontz or Tom Clancy, and still is, to this day.
I've dabbled in writing from the earliest days of my childhood, always keeping a journal and making up these crazy stories to entertain my brothers and sisters. You'd think I would have made a career of journalism, but I didn't. I decided to try my hand at computer science until family obligations required me to quit my nine-to-five job. Although I left my career and steady income with a few tears, they were crocodile tears, because inside I was already gleefully planning that first novel. Several attempts later, I wrote Touch Not the Cat, a story that's been in my head for a long, long time.
For me, the inspiration for a new story comes from many places: art, music, old movies, books, newspapers. Occasionally, when I'm listening to a song or looking at a painting, I feel a intuitive jolt, an unexpected click. An idea about that painting or song sets my creative impulses to bubbling. I can always tell when I'm on the right track because excitement grabs hold of me and the skin at the back of my neck tightens. The ideas that give me some sort of visceral reaction are the ones that usually end up as my stories.
Stories about women and men who come together to love have always been my favorites. I must have been only 7 or 8 years old when I read my first romance, Sleeping Beauty, and I nearly wore that book out. I've been reading romance ever since. Particularly, I enjoy the happy endings inherent in romances...they leave me feeling uplifted at the end.
When I began to write seriously, I knew I had to write romance. I wanted to evoke the same kinds of emotions in a reader that romance had been evoking in me for many years.
I have a room in my home set aside as an office, and I've loaded it up with cheap furniture, metal filing cabinets, and bookcases overflowing with my all-time favorite novels and research books. For inspiration, I have a few candles scattered around, along with a genie's lamp (found in an antique store, but unfortunately not magical), golden bells on a silken cord, posters featuring Rob Roy: The Movie, plants, and CDs from various artists, which I occasionally play. The lighting is dim and the computer is rather slow and often cranky. It's very disorganized and completely mine, and this is where I write. Unless I'm in a rush to get something done, I write about six hours a day, in the morning and late at night.
I write historical romance with a paranormal twist, and I often set them in the 1800's, either Regency or Victorian time periods. Jane Austen's works have given me a particular appreciation for the language, social customs, clothing, and humor in the Regency era. I would enjoy living in Regency times, so why not write about them?
I also find the Victorian era fascinating. It was a time of great scientific achievement, giving rise to many of the traditional horror stories which have always thrilled me: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Theophile Gautier's The Romance of the Mummy, H.G. Wells' The Isle of Dr. Moreau, among others. This period is perfect for all sorts of paranormal events.
The thing I like most about writing romance novels is the chance to write a happy ending, one that leaves a reader feeling good after she finishes the book.
One of my first letters came from a reader in California. She'd had a really bad stretch of luck, including several visits to the hospital. Finally diagnosed with breast cancer, she was in the middle of radiation and chemotherapy treatments when she wrote to tell me how much she'd enjoyed my book Touch Not the Cat. The story took her away from the pain for a while, and her letter was the best, most touching response I could have ever wished for as a writer.
Please visit my website, www.tracyfobes.com, to learn more about me, or write me at PO Box 534, Yardley, PA, 19067. I love to hear from my readers!
Read an Excerpt
Wild, insistent knocking awoke Sarah Murphy from a sound sleep. Yawning, she pulled the shawl covering her legs off, struggled out of her rocking chair and walked to the door. A glance out the window revealed old Liam Porter on her porch, standing in the rain with his hat in his hand.
Dismay filled her. She'd had a tough day working with Mr. Whitney's sick cows and had nearly fallen asleep on her feet while dosing them with a draught of herbs. Even so, she swung the door open, allowing a bitter wind to sweep inside her small croft. Just as soon as Liam's feet touched the kitchen mat, she closed the door behind him. "Mr. Porter. What's wrong?"
"'Tis Mary," he gasped. "She's lambing and one of them is stuck."
Thunder pounded off in the distance, adding to the clamor of the first real summer storm since May had arrived. She looked doubtfully out the window. "Are ye certain the ewe's not just tired? Ye can give her a little help by tying a rope around the lamb's front legs and easing it out -- "
"I've tried everything. Nothing helps. Ye know she's my best Cheviot. I spent my savings on her."
Sarah frowned. The Porter family had gambled everything they owned on Mary, this sheep whose lambs would demand huge sums once they'd successfully entered the world. If she didn't help and Mary died, God forbid, they'd go under. She was going to have to brave the storm, and just after she'd managed to build a decent fire in her hearth, too.
Patting her pocket to make sure her panflute still nestled within, she hurried over to the hearth and poured just enough water on the fire to turn it to embers. "How long has the ewe been straining?"
"Bless you, Miss Sarah," Mr. Porter said, his eyes shining. "Mary's been at it for hours. These big mitts of mine can't squeeze in there tae bring the lamb out. I need yer lady's hands."
She glanced around her neat little home, with its homespun curtains and larder stocked with food, to make certain she'd left nothing burning, then yanked a shawl around her shoulders. She grabbed her satchel on her way out. Liam was already standing on the porch, waiting for her. She followed him into the driving rain and wind that seemed to want to turn her to ice.
When she saw his pony cart, she groaned. Apparently they would have no shelter on the entire ride to his farm. Still, she knew how important Mary was to his family, so she kept her silence. Mud sucked at her shoes and worked its way into her stockings as she crossed the yard and climbed into the cart.
Liam slapped the reins against the pony's rump and off they went, moving far too slowly for Sarah's comfort. The trip to Porter's farm, which was a tricky affair, required that they travel down into town and back up into the Highlands on the other side. Sarah held on to the sides of the box as they bounced and jolted their way along the lane, stopping several times for the fences and gates that intersected the moors.
"Are ye doing well, Miss Sarah?" he asked as they sped along. "Have ye all that ye need? We worry about ye, the missus and I."
"I'm fine, Mr. Porter. Please don't concern yourself over me."
And it was true. Her ability to tend sick animals and bring them back to health where others failed had brought her renown even beyond Beannach, the village where she lived. The farmers she assisted were infallibly generous, not only giving her coins for her help, but also insisting she accept bread, cheese, meat, and other household necessities. She had everything she could possibly need.
Nevertheless, they worried about her. They just couldn't accept the idea that a woman of one and twenty years would prefer to live alone, rather than find a husband to care for her. In fact, she'd dodged so many attempts at matchmaking that she'd become quite skilled at it.
But sometimes, in the darkest hours of the night, she found herself lying awake and feeling so terribly lonely. Years had passed since she'd moved into her own croft, and it had been longer since anyone had touched or hugged her. Once, she'd lain in bed for hours, with a pillow in her arms, and wondered if she were real. Lately, though, she'd been thinking a lot about what it would feel like to be kissed...by a man.
Bright morning light always banished such yearnings. She enjoyed her independence and, quite frankly, preferred animals to men. Animals didn't demand fine dinners and drink whiskey and throw stinking socks on the floor for others to wash. And animals couldn't get a woman with child. They hadn't an ounce of malice in their bodies, and were creatures of pure love.
"And the Murphys, Miss Sarah? How are they?"
"Very well, thank you. They've just purchased a few longhorn cattle, and Mr. Murphy is trying to mate them with the cows he keeps in the high pasture..." Sarah rattled on about farm matters, her thoughts only half on what she was saying.
The Murphys had found her wandering the Highlands when she was just a child of four years, and given her their name, but little else. Her next fifteen years had passed in a blur of household chores, which included washing Mr. Murphy's horrible socks and shepherding his flock of ragtag sheep. She'd enjoyed tending the sheep the most, and her care for them had shown in their fine wool coats and lack of illnesses. Indeed, word of the fine Murphy flock had slowly spread through Beannach and, soon, Sarah had found herself consulting with other farmers on the condition of their flocks and ways to improve them.
Almost before she knew it, Sarah had become the most popular person in the village, entertaining visits from farmers with sick animals at all hours of the day and night. Mr. Murphy hadn't approved of her activities, though, declaring that they interrupted his sleep and invaded his privacy. Sarah suspected they'd also made him feel less of a man, after repeatedly watching his face fall when farmers came asking for her advice rather than his.
Whatever the case, when she turned eighteen, Mr. Murphy had asked Sarah to move into the abandoned croft across the Murphy farmyard, so he could sleep without interruption and not be bothered with constant visits from his neighbors. Sarah had quite happily complied with his wishes, eager to be away from that stifling household and Mr. Murphy's constant disapproval.
Now, she paid the Murphys a nominal fee each month to rent her croft, and shopped in the Beannach general store, and visited the Murphys at least once a week, out of both respect and a desire to pacify them. After all, she did live in their croft and entertained all sorts of woolly creatures in her parlor. Beyond that, though, she focused her time almost exclusively on her patients. And despite the farmers' wives who kept trying to marry her off, she liked it that way. In her experience, a "family" had nothing to do with love; it simply meant more work. Her animals were the only kind of family she ever wanted to know.
Drenched right to the skin, Sarah finally arrived at Mr. Porter's farm. He drove past the farmhouse, which looked invitingly warm and bright, and went straight to a crumbling, ancient byre that reminded Sarah of a stone cairn. Deep, incessant baaing echoed from behind the barn door, coupled with a lamb's high-pitched cry. They sounded in serious straits indeed, fellow sufferers in a stormy night that seemed determined to offer only discomfort.
Sarah jumped from the pony cart and, Liam following close behind, hurried into the byre.
"We'll need hot water, clean sheets, soap," she instructed, but Liam, who'd lambed more than his share, was already heading out the barn door, having confirmed that the ewe hadn't progressed on her own.
Sarah knelt by the ewe and assessed the situation. A newborn was bawling on the hay at her hooves, but the ewe took no notice of him. Head hanging low, she was shaking with strain. Sarah noticed two hooves slip outward, then slip back in as the ewe stopped straining. She wondered why the ewe, a healthy, wide-hipped animal, wasn't able to birth the other lamb on her own.
Sarah placed the panflute against her lips and blew several calming notes, her fingers dancing nimbly across the wood, from hole to hole. Frequencies, most beyond the range of normal human hearing, vibrated across the moors. She blended them with more familiar, audible musical notes to create a harmony that the sheep, specifically, would understand.
People who'd listened in on her music said it sounded like two flutes playing -- one normal and the other slightly guttural. They'd described the effect as strange, yet subtle. But to Sarah, it was a language far older than civilization, from a time when wild and tame had no meaning.
Taking no notice of Sarah's melody, the ewe rolled her eyes until the whites showed all around. Feeling more than her own share of anxiety, Sarah took off her shawl. Lambing was dirty, if rewarding, work. She was rolling up her sleeves when Liam arrived shortly afterward with a bucket of warm water and soap.
Quickly she soaped up her arms and, just as she pushed the ewe's tail aside to discover why the lamb refused to be born, Liam stuck his head next to hers for a look.
He shook his head at the ewe's bulging, abused posterior. "She's in terrible shape."
"She's not too bad," she insisted, listening to the ewe's low bleats and watching her footwork. The ewe was speaking to her as sure as Liam spoke, and many years in the company of sheep, along with a bit of magic, had taught her how to translate. "She's hungry, and any ewe that can think of food is a ewe with a lot of fight left in her."
"Are ye certain?"
She shrugged. "There's no doubt."
He let out a prolonged sigh. "Thank goodness ye've come tae help me, Sarah Murphy. Ye're a wonder."
"I won't be a wonder until I have a newborn lamb in my arms."
He opened his mouth to say something, closed it, and then opened it again. His cheeks grew red. "Aren't ye going tae play that flute of yours for her again?"
Sarah observed him with a touch of amusement. Like all of the farmers, he suspected her flute lay at the heart of her ability to heal, and would badger her mercilessly to play it. And he was right, though not in the way he thought. While he assumed her music somehow drove the illness out, in truth, she used the flute to talk to animals and diagnose their illnesses.
The flute was part of her earliest memories. When the Murphys found her wandering the moors all of those years ago, it had been her only possession. Its trilling warble had delighted her and she'd taken to playing it for animals almost from the start. The flute had allowed her to communicate with her only friends, the creatures of the moors, and she'd talked to them endlessly, learning more from their replies than any school could teach her.
At first, she'd thought everyone could talk to animals in this way. On trips to the general store in Beannach, she'd occasionally told the villagers what their sheep thought of them or where a pet dog had buried his master's shoe. Often she told Mrs. Murphy that her cats wouldn't mind a scrap or two of beef, earning a chuckle from her. But then, rumors about her strangeness had developed, and Mr. Murphy had begun cuffing her on the side of the head every time she mentioned what an animal had said. She quickly learned to keep her mouth shut tight on the subject. As she grew, she discovered that not everyone had her skill, and even as she wondered at it, she understood that things would go more easily for her if she just pretended to be like everyone else.
Still, once she'd started healing the villagers' animals, which were often the lifeblood of a farm and whose loss could bring total devastation, opinions on her skills had changed -- for the better.
"I already played for the ewe," Sarah reminded Liam.
"Maybe ye ought tae give her one more song," the farmer coaxed.
Knowing better than to argue with him, Sarah sighed and took her panflute out. She reassured the ewe again, who baaed loudly in response, then began to strain.
Sarah shoved the panflute back into her pocket. Two hooves slipped out about an inch or so. She forgot Liam as she maneuvered her hand into the ewe and felt around for the lamb's head. A single set of legs and arms greeted her fingers, and a hard little lump that didn't feel at all like a head --
Because the lump is a rump, she realized triumphantly.
"Mr. Porter," she breathed, buried elbow deep inside the ewe. "We have one more lamb tae go, and I'm afraid we've a breech presentation on our hands."
"Ye mean arse first?"
"That's a fine piece of news," he grumbled.
The ewe tightened her muscles around Sarah's arm in an agonizing grip. Sarah took quick little breaths as her arm slowly went numb, and fumbled around until she managed to find the lamb's head. The lamb gave a quick jerk when she touched its mouth -- at least it was still alive. In any event, she could see why Mr. Porter had suffered so much difficulty. While the ewe was wide hipped, the lamb was unusually big, not leaving much room in the passage for both it and his large hands.
"We have tae turn it around," she gasped, and began to maneuver the lamb's small body into a better position. It trembled within the ewe, and she could imagine how terrible it must have felt, being pushed back in after an eternity of being pushed out.
Nearly an hour had passed before she had the lamb positioned head and front feet first, enduring each of the ewe's bone-cracking contractions with grimaces that become more unguarded as time went on. She felt Liam's gaze on her, but she didn't care what he saw. Birthing was an exhausting business, and she was feeling every moment of it. When at last the lamb began its journey down the passage again, and its hooves peeped out of the ewe, she grabbed them almost joyfully and pulled its small body into the world.
The lamb plopped into her skirt. Mist rose off its body. It didn't seem to be breathing. She held him upside down until he had coughed up a good deal of fluid and then settled him back into her lap, rejoicing in the way he took a few snuffling breaths before breathing easily. He began to wriggle in her arms, practically knock-kneed in his need to get to the ewe, and she laughed softly as she rubbed him down with the sheet.
"He's a fine lamb." She gave Liam a brilliant smile. "A real beauty. And sprightly, too. Ye'll have yer hands full with him."
"Ah, lassie, ye are a wonder." Liam nodded in contentment, then pulled a pipe from his waistcoat and lit up.
Sarah regarded him with something between dumb wonder and weariness. Here she lay, battered and bruised, covered in muck and filth, and he was going to smoke a pipe? Then again, such was the way with Highland farmers. A nasty piece of work like this was a part of daily life. Not much fazed them.
"Mr. Porter, I should be going now. Will ye take me home?"
"Oh, I almost forgot, lass. I saw Mr. Murphy in town just before I came tae get ye. He's been looking for ye. They've got visitors up at the farm who want tae meet ye."
Sarah sat up straighter. "Do ye mean that while I've been laboring away on yer ewe, Mr. Murphy and his guests have been waiting for me?"
"Aye, lass. Don't ye think the ewe was more important?"
"I suppose she was." She climbed to her feet and used a handful of hay to wipe herself off. "Ye'd better take me over to the Murphy farm right now. Ye know what kind of temper Mr. Murphy has, especially when he's been intae the whiskey."
"Aye, I do."
Together, they left the ewe, who was now contentedly slurping up water from the trough, and went out into the night again. The storm hadn't slackened at all, and Sarah was alternately blown to bits and hammered with rain as they zigzagged back through the Highlands and to the Murphy farm.
As soon as they reached the rough dirt lane that led up to the farmhouse, Liam stopped the cart and let her out. He thanked her and promised that she'd find a nice side of beef on her doorstep tomorrow. Wind slapping her tangled hair against her cheeks, she sent him on his way and hurried up the lane.
As soon as she rounded the barn, which blocked sight of the farmhouse from the lane, she discovered a very fine, high-sprung carriage sitting in the farmyard, next to the Murphy's dilapidated little gig and several broken buckets that needed mending.
Startled, she paused. She studied the carriage, wondering who had come to visit, and why. A curious gold emblem decorated the carriage's door. It looked like a shield. Something about the shield seemed familiar. For some reason, it frightened her. The fact that her fear was utterly groundless frightened her even more.
Self-consciously she glanced downward. Muck formed a dark brown stain around the hem of her dress. Fluid of an unknown variety decorated her bodice with splotches. Her hair lay matted against her head like an old hag's and she hadn't the slightest doubt that mud freckled her face.
She wasn't exactly in the best of condition.
Her stomach tightening, she raced back to her own little croft. The kitchen was warm and inviting, and for a moment she was tempted to stay within the familiar, safe walls. But she knew she couldn't. Mr. Murphy got a trifle mean when kept waiting too long, and she wouldn't be the cause of Mrs. Murphy's suffering.
Sarah plunged a cloth into a bucket of water near the front door and scrubbed at her face and hands. That done, she dragged a comb through her hair and managed to twist it into a fairly circumspect bun. She slung a clean plaid shawl over her shoulders to hide the worst of the stains on the gown's bodice. For the finishing touch, she yanked a clean plaid skirt off a shelf and drew it on over her gown, so that it might mask the mud stains at the hem. While she looked a bit bulky, at least she was presentable.
Her courage bolstered, she hiked up her skirts and dashed out the door, across the farmyard, and to the Murphys' front door. Before she could knock, however, a hushed yelp and a flash of red that looked almost gray in the darkness caught her attention. Sionnach.
Comforted only slightly, she made a cradle of her arms and called to him. The fox's hair bristled as he slunk into the open from beneath the steps, and then jumped into her arms. She ran a gentle hand across his head, and then withdrew her panflute from her pocket.
Softly she trilled a few notes, asking him who had come to visit.
Sionnach's reply, delivered in a growl deep in his throat, coupled with a complex paw maneuver, left her far from satisfied. He didn't know the identity of the visitor, and could only suggest she use diplomacy.
Use diplomacy? Whatever did he mean by that?
With a few more trilling notes, she pressed him for further details, but the fox growled no more. His dark eyes remained expressionless.
Frowning now, Sarah returned the panflute to her lips, knowing Sionnach wouldn't like her next question. Still, she had to know. A tiny bud of hope unfurling inside her, she asked him if he'd had any news of the white beast.
This time, the melody she'd blown on the panflute had a poignant quality. The fox's answer, however, had nothing emotional about it. He growled, clearly annoyed, and told her that he hadn't heard of the white beast because there was no such thing, and that she should forget the creature and live in the present.
Disappointment coursed through her. For years she'd been trying to find the white beast that haunted her dreams. And while she'd heard snippets of his existence from the birds who stopped to roost in the Highlands, and the mice and voles who built nests in the heather, she had never been able to find him.
"The white beast does exist," she told him softly, in human language, and the look in his dark eyes told her that while he might not comprehend her syllables, he knew exactly what she'd said. He let out a gravelly sigh that suggested his patience with her was thinning.
Sparing Sionnach a frustrated glance, she turned the doorknob and stepped into the kitchen. Although the fox thought her obsessed with the white beast and lately had refused to cooperate with her, he still remained her dearest friend. Over the years, she'd grown to trust his counsel and admire his cunning ways. Some of his methods she'd even adopted as her own. And yet, at times she found him the most aggravating animal she'd ever had the misfortune to encounter. She told him so frequently, much to his obvious amusement.
Sionnach wasn't amused now, though. The two old men standing in the middle of the kitchen floor had thoroughly captured his attention. His small body tensed in her arms.
Sarah froze, too, her eyes wide.
As if one, the two men turned toward her.
Silence filled the kitchen. It seemed to last an eternity.
Bewildered, she stared at them. The older man had a wealth of gray hair that hung nearly to his shoulder. A plaid tam o' shanter topped his head, much in the manner of days gone by. She estimated his age at well past fifty.
His garb, she realized, was very rich, and much finer than his companion's. An olive-colored coat of heavy wool cloth, with a deep collar and several shoulder capes, wreathed his thin form. His waistcoat was again of wool and his neck cloth was loosely tied. Highly polished, tasseled boots drew her eye away from his sticklike legs, encased in fawn-colored breeches.
Still, his eyes bothered her the most. Although they were very kind, she thought she saw a strange sort of hunger hidden behind his gaze. He'd locked his attention on her as though watching her would offer him insight into the mysteries of life and death.
That strange sense of familiarity washed over her again. She thought that she might have seen this man before. Inexplicably, she trembled.
She turned to stare at the richly dressed man's companion, who was studying her inch by inch just as she was examining him. His gray hair and wrinkled countenance marked him as well past fifty years of age, too. Though fine, his dress was much more severe, consisting of black coat and breeches, black shoes, and white stockings.
Their gazes locked. He assessed her with cold indifference, like a farmer contemplating a cow for purchase. At length, he winced and refocused on his companion. "I see no obvious resemblance."
Sarah raised an eyebrow. Uneasiness coiled in her stomach. Whatever did he mean?
"Sarah Murphy, where have ye been?" a male voice bellowed. His ponderous belly preceding him into the kitchen, Mr. Murphy clasped a whiskey glass tightly in his hand. Square of forehead, with thick eyebrows and mouth pursed disagreeably, he was a flabby and sour-looking man who kept his cellar well stocked with ale, rather than fruits and vegetables. "Christ, lass, ye look a mess," he declared.
"I've been helping Mr. Porter with his Cheviot," she replied calmly. "I only found out a half an hour ago that ye wanted tae see me." Her gaze fell to his feet, clad only in wool socks that had, as usual, begun to stink quite badly. She couldn't prevent a grimace of distaste.
An abrupt movement in the corner caught her attention. Eyes imploring, Mrs. Murphy was making a bending motion with her hand. With a spurt of dismay at her own lack of manners, Sarah realized what the older woman wanted. Forgetting about Sionnach, she began to bend into a curtsy. The fox dropped awkwardly from her arms and, with an angry yelp, ran beneath the curtain to the sleeping quarters.
Eyes narrowed, the richly dressed man grimaced and rubbed his chin with two fingers, as though he'd just witnessed something that had given him a turn.
His partner shook his head sadly. "I tell you most respectfully, Your Grace, that while the fabric may be very fine, it has been fashioned into a peasant's dress, cut and sewn in such a way that it can never be refashioned into a ball gown."
The sound of the man's cultured accents, though no surprise given the fancy carriage, reminded Sarah that she stood before some very wealthy gentlemen indeed. She forced her lips upward into what was no doubt a sickly smile and finished the curtsy.
The richly dressed man coughed. His companion frowned. Clearly she had disappointed them. Disgusted them, even. Why would they feel they needed to stand in judgment of her? Remembering the clearances that had plagued the Highlands for decades, she wondered if they'd come to turn them all out of their houses. She fought back an urge to sprint back to her croft, bar the door, and take up what puny arms she possessed.
"Sarah," Mrs. Murphy breathed, the pinched look on her face made more obvious by her widened eyes. "His Grace has been waiting for you."
"Aye, His Grace," Mr. Murphy confirmed, a gleam entering his eyes, one that immediately put Sarah on alert. The old farmer's gaze never sparkled like that unless he stood to gain something.
The severely dressed man took a step forward. "May I present His Grace, the Duke of Argyll."
Sarah stifled a gasp. Completely flustered, she curtsyed again. How could she have ever felt, even for a second, familiarity upon seeing him? "I'm very pleased tae meet ye," she managed.
At the sound of her voice, the duke's eyebrows drew together. His companion shuddered. The pair exchanged concerned glances.
"I am Phineas Graham, His Grace's man of business," the duke's companion went on to say. "We are here to investigate certain claims."
"Claims?" Her gaze never leaving the visitors, Sarah moved to Mrs. Murphy's side and took her hands. She wasn't surprised to discover that the older woman's hands trembled. Still, Sarah saw that her eyes were clear and alight with a serenity that came from facing years of marriage to a man like Mr. Murphy.
"Aye, claims," Mr. Murphy echoed. He tipped the glass of whiskey to his lips, took a long pull, and then set it on the kitchen table, empty. "This is the lass we found on the moors, just like we told the baron in town."
The duke glanced around their small stone kitchen, his attention sweeping past the butter churn and stoneware to settle upon a few chairs gathered around the open-hearth fireplace. "Why don't we all sit down, Mr. Murphy?"
"Of course, Yer Grace. Forgive me for not suggesting it sooner," Mrs. Murphy replied for her husband, and set herself to the unfamiliar task of serving a duke.
Sarah ushered their visitors toward the old rocking chair and straight-backed chairs that formed a half circle around the fireplace. Embers glowed within the grate, remnants of an earlier fire used to make green dye. They gave the room a cozy feeling without overheating the air. But Sarah felt cold. She tried to understand the secret she saw hidden in the depths of Mr. Murphy's eyes.
The duke watched her closely as he moved to a straight-backed chair. She selected a seat as far away from him as possible. Phineas Graham sat nearest the fire and, after serving them all cups of tea, her mother perched on the rocking chair.
"Show her the ring," the duke commanded.
Graham fished in his pocket and brought out a heart-shaped emerald ring. He held it up for all to see. Although only a single lantern lit the kitchen, the ring sparkled with green fire.
Recognition made Sarah stiffen. "My ring."
"It's my ring," Mr. Murphy corrected her. "I sold it tae the baron tae pay for my new longhorn cattle."
Sarah bristled. "But that ring was my only link tae my true past -- "
"It was mine, lassie, payment for taking ye in and feeding ye all those years."
Mr. Graham cleared his throat. "The Baron of Beannach brought your ring to Edinburgh. He sold it to a fine jewelry collector, whom the Earl of Cawdor routinely patronizes. The earl, who is distantly related to His Grace, recognized the ring while selecting a few pieces from the jeweler. He bought the ring and returned it to His Grace."
Sarah's throat had gone almost entirely dry. She felt a strange tension in the room, the same kind that directly preceded a birth...or death. "Why does my ring interest ye, Yer Grace?"
"First tell me where you found it," the duke commanded.
"'Tis just as I told the baron," Mrs. Murphy answered for Sarah, a trifle frostily. "Sarah was wearing it on her thumb when we found her wandering the moors, all of those years ago. An orphan, she was, thin tae the point of starvation and dressed in rags. My husband and I took her in."
"When was that?"
Mrs. Murphy paused, her forehead wrinkling. "It was a long time ago. I recall the weather being very hot. June, perhaps. Mr. Murphy was herding our sheep through grazing lands when he came across Sarah. A little bundle of rags, he called her, and brought her home in his arms. She almost died. I had tae nurse her night and day for nearly a month."
"How old was she when you found her?"
"Three, maybe four years old."
The duke sat forward in his seat, his eyes narrowed. "Why did you call her Sarah?"
"When we were nursing her back tae health, she said 'Sarah' over and over again. We figured Sarah was her name."
"And you say you found her with this ring."
"Aye, we did," Mr. Murphy chimed in, his eyes growing more bloodshot with each passing minute.
The duke looked at his man of business. "This young lady was found dressed in rags. My little Sarah wore only the finest of gowns."
Sarah stifled a gasp. His little Sarah?
"After a week or so of wandering the moors," Graham replied, "the finest gown might well be nothing but rags."
The duke nodded. "It could be her, Phineas. It damned well could be."
Her hand at her throat, Sarah stared at them. "It could be who?"
Ignoring her question, Graham focused on Mrs. Murphy. "Do you still have the clothes you found your daughter in?"
"They weren't even fit for dusting the tabletops. I burned them long ago."
Graham frowned. "Did you find any bumps or bruises on her?"
"She had a large goose egg on her head," Sarah's mother offered. "Her hair was bloodied."
"Was she carrying anything other than the ring?"
"She had a panflute made of reeds."
Sarah clasped the panflute in her pocket protectively.
The duke's eyes narrowed. "A panflute?"
He turned to Sarah. "Do you remember where you found the panflute?"
"Nay, I don't," Sarah lied. In fact, she had a hazy memory of the white beast giving her the panflute -- as a gift. Still, she wasn't about to discuss the white beast now. People invariably thought her daft when she did.
Ignoring everyone but his man of business, the duke murmured, "The panflute was probably a toy she played with. It is she."
"The ring proves little." Graham's voice had a warning tone to it. "She could have come by it in many ways."
"Don't forget," the duke insisted, "this young lady calls herself Sarah."
Graham frowned. "Perhaps she was having nightmares and calling out to her good friend Sarah."
He and the duke exchanged a long glance.
At length, the duke's lips tightened. "It is she. I know it. I feel it in my gut."
Another long moment passed, and when the duke finally spoke again, he sounded choked with emotion. "God has been merciful to me."
Sarah pressed a hand against her heart. Panic was mounting in her, along with a strange sort of wonder.
After a moment, Graham turned to Mr. Murphy. "Why didn't you report this child you found to someone?"
"We did." The old farmer lifted his feet closer to the fire crackling away in the hearth, renewing the stink of rotten wool in the room. "We told a few people in town. No one cared much."
"But the girl had an obviously expensive ring," the duke pointed out. "Didn't you wonder where she had come from?"
"Aye, I thought hard about it. I decided she must have been the child of some whore," Mr. Murphy stated baldly, "who'd birthed Sarah, then abandoned her on the moors when she started getting in the way of business. She probably gave Sarah the ring tae ease her conscience."
"An eminently reasonable explanation," the duke agreed, his face tight. "But I'm afraid it's completely wrong."
Utter quiet descended upon the Murphy farm kitchen. Her gaze flitting between her mother and the duke, Sarah's stomach churned into a tight coil. "I know ye, don't I?" she whispered.
The duke looked at her for one long moment that, for Sarah, seemed to last hours. Then, suddenly, he smiled. "You are my daughter."
Sarah felt her face drain of all warmth.
A long pause ensued. She tried to understand what he'd said, but his words had jumbled together in her mind. Cold rivulets of shock seeped through her, making her shiver. Her mouth dry, she stared with haunted eyes at this man, with his fancy clothes and smooth, cultured attitude, and eyes that wanted to own her. "It canna be true."
"My dear, I've been searching for you. You are my daughter."
"Ye're his daughter," Mr. Murphy added truculently from his corner of the room. "Don't ye deny it, lass."
Sarah forced herself to look at the duke again. Her throat growing tight, she marked the raw hunger in his gaze. She saw a different sort of hunger in Mr. Murphy's eyes and understood in that moment that the old farmer wanted to sell her to the duke. He thought she owed him and only needed her cooperation to close the deal.
"Sarah," the duke continued tentatively, "I want to bring you home with me. To Inveraray, where you belong."
Sarah jumped up from her chair and faced the duke. Did he really think that she would willingly trade the moonlight and the warm sheep smell of the stable for his gold? "How can ye be sae sure I'm yer daughter?"
Mr. Murphy moved close to Sarah and raised his hand in a threatening gesture. "Don't ye question it a second longer," he hissed close to her ear. "I'll see ye turned out of that old croft, and I'll make sure no one brings ye their animals. Ye're his daughter and tae his home ye're going. If ye stay here, ye'll starve."
Her voice equally low, she spat, "How much whiskey did the duke's money buy ye?"
"A damned good amount. Now pack yer things, and go."
Tears brimming in her eyes, Sarah looked at Mrs. Murphy. The older woman had to help her. If she lost her croft, her animals, and the friendship of a few farmers, she'd lose everything of value in her life.
The older woman shrugged. "I'm sorry, lass. I'll miss yer company sorely."
Copyright © 2001 by Tracy Fobes