From his vantage point in the middle of a brambly thicket-which, Jack noted gloomily, had torn his best buckskins-he could just see the road through the branches. He’d ridden hard the last hour, pushing his horse to stay a mile ahead of them. He gulped down air as he watched the two men trot by, their hats pulled low over their eyes, their greatcoats draped over the rumps of their Highland ponies and wearing scarves about their necks that were definitely plaid.
Diah, they were Scots! The old man in Crieff had been right-the prince’s men had hired Scots bounty hunters to help find him.
Bloody, bloody hell. He’d put himself in quite a quagmire this time, hadn’t he?
Jack waited until he was certain they’d passed and moved down the road a piece before picking his way out of the thicket, cursing beneath his breath when another thorn caught his buckskins. He untethered his horse and tossed the reins over the mare’s neck and swung up onto the saddle.
Jack really didn’t know where to go from here. He’d been running from the prince’s men for more than a month, fleeing England the moment he’d learned he’d been accused of adultery with the Princess of Wales, running deep into the Highlands.
Adultery. Jack snorted as he rubbed the mare’s neck. Imagine, taking the Princess of Wales to his bed! It was preposterous to believe he’d do such a thing! Yet Jack couldn’t help the wry smile that curved his lips as he spurred the mare up onto the road.
He’d never taken the princess to his bed, to be sure-but he was guilty of participating in more than one vulgar activity at her residence.
In spite of his innocence, when Jack was warned that men accused of bedding the princess were being rounded up for questioning and would likely face charges of high treason-a hanging offense-he’d decided to decamp to his native Scotland. Those sorts of accusations flung about in the midst of a royal scandal rarely played out well for a Scot in England, and Jack Haines, the Earl of Lambourne, who was no stranger to moral transgressions and shocking behavior, knew a bad scandal when he saw one.
On the road again, he paused to look up at the tops of the Scots pines that seemed to scrape a stretch of sky the color of blue China silk and inhaled deeply. It was clean, crisp air that swept down the glens and hills that made up the Highland landscape…glens and hills that seemed endless and exasperatingly uninhabited.
Jack reined his horse north, in the opposite direction of the bounty hunters. He had four, maybe five hours of daylight left and would need to find a place to bed down for the night. Diah, he dreaded the thought of another night in a bloody cold barn. But a barn was a good sight better than the frigid forest floor.
The air was so still-he could hear the breath of his mount above the clopping of her hooves.
The only thing he could recall this far north was Castle Beal, and that was several miles away across some questionable terrain, a two-day hard ride from Lambourne Castle, just south of here. He was trying to recall the best route-it had been eleven years since he’d spent any time in Scotland other than the obligatory annual fortnight at Lambourne-when he heard the faint but unmistakable clop clop of another horse’s hooves on the road…or worse, a pair of horses.
Jack reined up and listened. Damn their eyes-the bounty hunters had turned back. There wasn’t a moment to spare. Jack dug his spurs into his mare, but she was fatigued and he spurred her too hard; he winced when she whinnied as loud as if he’d stuck her with a hot poker and broke into a run. The bounty hunters had surely heard it and would realize they were on Jack’s heels.
Indeed, they had gained ground on him throughout the day in spite of wretched terrain and the prime horseflesh he rode. Christ Almighty, where had the prince found these men?
Jack sent the mare crashing into the woods and its thick undergrowth, leaping recklessly over the trunk of a downed tree. A deer path led off to the right; Jack reined her in that direction. The mare careered up the path, splashed through a running stream, but balked at a steep embankment. Jack quickly wheeled her around, pointed her toward the embankment again. “Move on, then-move!” he urged her, bending low over her neck and digging his spurs into her flanks.
The horse gave it all she had; they crested the top of the embankment-and she reared at the sight of two men on horseback. Jack hung on and managed to yank her around with the intention of going back down the embankment, but saw the bounty hunters crashing through the stream and heaving up behind him.
He reined his horse tightly as the four men encircled him. He quickly looked around for an escape, any escape, but saw only a pair of shotguns leveled at him. The mare’s spittle was foaming and her breathing labored-she’d not sprint, and even if she did, she’d not get far.
Jack looked again at the shotguns leveled at him as his heart began to pound in his chest. There was no out-he’d been caught. “Mary queen of Scots,” he uttered irritably as he eyed the one with the largest gun. “I donna suppose we might have a chat, then? I am a wealthy man.”
His answer was the cock of the gun’s trigger.
“All right, all right,” he said, slowly lifting his hands. “You have me, lads.” And he braced himself as they closed in, entirely uncertain if today would be his last.