Beatrice can handle a troubled young duke -- but the boy's dangerously appealing cousin Devlen is another matter entirely ...
Kilbridden Village, Scotland
"I'll work very hard, I promise."
"Gimme your hands."
Beatrice Sinclair stretched out her hands. Because she was trembling, she placed them palm up on the bar.
"You've got calluses all right. But you look like you'd fall over after a few hours of good work. I need a healthy lass, one who can be on her feet twelve hours."
"I'll be your best worker. I'll even work for free the first week to prove it."
"Can you wipe a table down in the wink of an eye? Or give a little saucy wiggle to the patrons?"
"Laugh at my customers' jokes, even if they be sorry ones?"
"You don't look the type my customers like. You're too pale, and you've got an air about you." He frowned. "Are you sick?"
"I'm very healthy."
"Then why are you shaking?"
"I'm just cold."
He didn't look as if he believed her.
"Who told you I was looking for another tavern wench?"
"The owner of the Sword and Dragon."
"Went there, did you? Bet he wanted someone younger."
"He said he didn't have need for another helper."
"That's not true. His business has been near as good as mine. For the last half year, at least. Before that, no one came to drink or talk." He began to wipe down the bar with a spotted rag, looking as if he were thinking about the matter. "Did you have the sickness?"
She shook her head again, afraid to tell him the truth. But all the assurances in the world wouldn't matter. The minute the tavern maid entered the room Beatrice knew she'd lost the post. She couldn't wear a blouse that revealed all her assets or a skirt that bared her ankles. Nor was she given to simpering smiles or coy looks. While she didn't object to dispensing spirits, she wasn't about to sell herself along with them.
The innkeeper grinned. Several teeth were missing, and the effect was more of a leer.
"Go up to Castle Crannoch. They'll have a job for you."
She'd heard of Castle Crannoch ever since coming to Kilbridden Village, but she'd never considered it a source of employment.
He jerked his chin toward the ceiling.
"Aye, where the duke lives. Go ask the duke for a job. He'll give you one, but I won't."
Beatrice tightened her hands on her reticule and thanked the tavern owner with as much grace as she could muster. She'd come all this way for nothing.
She left the inn and stood outside. The cold rain seeped through her thin dress, a reminder that she'd traded her cloak for a sack of flour and a few eggs a week ago. Beatrice tightened her shawl around her hair, held it closed with one hand at her neck, and looked up at the mountain in front of her.
Castle Crannoch stood at the very top, overlooking the village. The fortress dominated the countryside, visible to anyone approaching, a sentinel of the past that looked capable of protecting its inhabitants well into the future.
Occasionally, word would seep down from the top of the mountain as to the lives of the occupants of Castle Crannoch. There had been tragedy there not long ago, she recalled. But her own life had been so difficult that she'd paid the gossip little attention.
The castle was oddly shaped, constructed as if it were a large box with a smaller box pulled from inside it. The two square buildings sat adjacent to each other atop the mountain, the smaller structure in stages of disrepair, the larger box topped by four turrets. The only way to the place was up a long and winding road. Not only did her legs ache but the climb looked to be a frightening one.
A voice, sounding too much like her father's, spoke against the fierce wind. Do not go, Beatrice. No single woman of good character would seek employment there. There...