Highlander’s Gypsy Lass (Preview)
The covered wagon bumped and sloshed through mud and over rocks. The highlands unrolled around the small traveler caravan making its way towards Loch Awe of Argyll, Scotland. Her feet bouncing as she sat on the back of the wagon, Rosalie watched the passing of the burnt sienna and pale green glens blanketing the slender winding trail on either side. She pulled her travel cloak tighter to shield the child against the light drizzle and gentle breeze. As they approached the settlement banking along the loch, the smell of juniper and myrtle awakened her excitement.
Dogs barked alongside the wagons. The wheels creaked and moaned as they cut through thick mud and rattled over uneven rocks. The clang of pots and falling items from within the caravan made Rosalie bite down on her lip and cringe.
“How much further?”
Magda braved walking through the rocking vehicle to hear the young woman speak. Rosalie looked up tenderly at her adopted mother as the old woman braced herself against the arched frame for support.
“Patience, Rosalie, patience,” Magda’s aged voice cracked. “Aye, not much longer, ma dear. We’ll pro’ably settle o’er there. You know, as much as I do, it’s up to Alexander.”
Rosalie smiled up at Magda, taking a moment to appreciate the wise eyes framed by shocks of gray and white streaking her thick, dark hair. The two women peered over the landscape. They could see the first signs of civilization sprouting over the meadows and pastures. There was always uncertainty about what a new place would bring.
Alexander, the eldest man, had traveled through most of the country at one time or another. Regardless, each place he brought them back to was a gamble. Time changed people and their opinions of their kind. Some welcomed the travelers and the trades they offered, bringing their wares for repair, or enlisting the services of the women to mend and sew new gowns. Other times, they were met with the prejudices and fears of the villagers, driven off like rabid dogs before they could prove their good intentions.
“I have a good feelin’ about this place, Magda.” Rosalie rubbed out the folds of her wool gown, warming the flats of her hands against the rough-spun cloth.
Magda agreed, but the young redhead could see uncertainty twisting her cracked lips. The ancient eyes remained trained on two men tending a field nearby. They paused their work to watch the caravan roll through. Neither of them waved, just stared, passing unknown words to one another as they watched the procession tumble through.
In the distance, a castle tower arose, twisting five stories high into the air. “There’ll be work ‘ere. They can afford a castle; they can afford labor.” Magda turned to shield her aching bones from the early autumn cold in the shelter of the rounded wagon. “Get that damned dog ‘fore it keels over. An’ mind your gown.” Her voice trailed off, but Rosalie could hear her mutter something about the girls’ carelessness and making a decent impression.
Rosalie offered no response, and Magda waited for none before disappearing inside. Rosalie lifted the hem of her skirt as she jumped down, mud splashing up and sucking around her leather boots. The dog stopped at her feet, panting relentlessly from the hours it had spent alongside the wagon. Rosalie tried her best to mind its paws as she scooped the creature in her arms and ran to catch the back of the wagon once more. She tossed the dog up and took one more glance at the men nearby before clambering in herself.
“Kin’ o’ handsome that one is, ay dog?” She scratched behind the animal’s ears as the two men disappeared behind them. One was tall, about her age, with red hair a shade lighter than her own. The other was an older man, older than even Magda.
Although they habitually kept a low profile, it was impossible to go unnoticed as their caravan passed the humble homes stretching out from the loch and castle. It took them over an hour to reach the tree line cloaking the mouth of the Awe River. Juniper, willow, birch, and the thick underbrush of late summer enveloped them. Rosalie stayed on the back of the wagon, stroking the tired dog, as the caravan stopped and started while the men checked out spots for them to set up camp.
In the heart of the woods, they found a clearing large enough for their vehicles. Through the vegetation, the young girl could still hear the roar of the river nearby, although it was no longer in sight. The wagons moved in a large circle, creating a protective ring around the camp. The rain let up, but despite the bright sun and clear blue skies, moisture still hung in the air, nipping at noses and cheeks.
“Get on it, girl. Go help Anna,” Magda called out.
Rosalie felt flush with excitement. Exhilaration always filled her when they came to a new place. Her heart pounded with hope and excitement as grand fantasies of adventure played out in her mind. She found Anna already picking the site clean of twigs and brush, piling it in the center, where the men would dig out a pit for the fire.
Anna was Rosalie’s childhood friend. Although Rosalie was unsure of her own age, as Magda had adopted her in infancy, she guessed Anna was a year younger than her. She always felt envious of Anna in the most loving way possible, admiring her olive complexion, rounded curves, and the contrast of her dark, thick hair against light amber eyes.
Rosalie dove into her duties, creating a makeshift basket out of her apron. “Did ye see the gentleman we passed?”
“Aye,” Anna grinned. “Ye fancy him?”
Rosalie blushed, wishing Anna hadn’t said anything. There was no point in entertaining such thoughts. To marry an outsider would mean exile from the ones she loved.
“Why? Did you?” Rosalie shot back.
Anna smirked and shrugged. “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em. Those arms…” she shuddered playfully.
Rosalie giggled and shushed her friend, looking around to make sure no one heard their banter as they worked. The men set to their duties, and Rosalie let out a sigh as she realized no one was close enough to listen to them. Anna was bolder than Rosalie. She admired her for that, but there was less risk for Anna.
Rosalie never quite fit into either world. Her auburn hair, bright green eyes, and fair complexion were a daily reminder she did not belong. Outsider’s blood coursed through her veins. She was destined to a life never entirely fitting in with the travelers, yet always cast out by the rest of the world as well.
“Y’know Enoch is sweet on ye.” Anna saw Rosalie grimace. “Wha’, you don’ like him?”
Rosalie was not sure how to answer. There were few choices for marriage, and her time was approaching—lest she wanted to be a maid for the rest of her life, or say goodbye to those she loved. Enoch was a handsome man, dark and about as tall as Rosalie, but growing up in the small community, she knew things about him.
“You know how he is.” Her face grew dark as she thought of the few times she’d overheard him boasting to his friends about some of the ways he came into revenue for the Roma community. It was men like him that gave travelers a criminal reputation, and whether Magda and Alexander knew of his nighttime occupations, Anna and Rosalie had heard his proud stories of bravado and treachery.
“Aye,” Anna nodded, dipping the second jug, “I do, but he’s strong, Rosie. He’s got good blood in ‘im, an’ ye know he’d keep ye safe and provided fer. Isn’t tha’ what matters?”
As if he could sense them speaking, Rosalie looked up to see Enoch approaching them. She gathered her skirts and rose, not wanting to deal with both of them at the same time.
Anna’s mouth fell open at Rosalie’s sudden change of course. “Where’re you off to?”
“I’m goin’ to help Magda with the wash.”
Anna looked over her shoulder. She saw Enoch closing in on them and stared Rosalie down, pursing her lips. She knew what her friend was thinking. It was foolish for her to throw away such blatant opportunities for marriage. It did not matter what she felt about him. All that mattered is if he could protect her and her future children from the dangers of the world.
“Suit yerself, Rosie,” Irritation underlined every word as Anna stood, “Ye could think aboot others fer once. Maybe spend a li’l less time alone in the woods.”
As Anna turned away from her, Rosalie snatched her wrist with the speed of a viper. “I’ll think on it.” She met her friend’s amber eyes, wishing to qualm her fears. It was enough. She watched Anna’s anxiety lift a bit, and the smile return to her eyes.
“Good; ye’d be a fool not to.”
Rosalie hurried away, stealing a glance over her shoulder at Enoch. Their eyes locked for a moment. He gave her a look like a wild cat crouched and ready to pounce on her. It sent a warning up her spine, telling her not to let him catch her alone or test his temper. Disturbed, she ran to find Magda, still feeling his eyes boring into her back.
Magda was waiting for her. Whatever grief Anna gave her, her mother was worse. She had watched the whole thing from beneath the canopy stretching from the wagon. Rosalie cursed under her breath; the old crone was cross.
“Are ye daft, girl?”
Rosalie knitted her brows. She could feel her patience thinning. There were too many people nagging her—and she was too tired to coddle the lot of them. “No.”
“Yer sure actin’ like it. He was comin’ right to ye. What’re ye thinkin’?”
“I was thinkin’ the life o’ a spinster sounds nice.” She couldn’t help but smile as she heard Magda’s sharp gasp.
“Don’ joke, Rosalie!”
Rosalie started to gather the laundry, Magda, right on her heels. “Aye, it’s no joke. The way I figure it, I can save a whole lotta time if I skip the family bit. Get a nice sheep or two—”
“Bite your tongue.” Magda looked around to see if anyone could hear, and Rosalie let out a peal of laughter. The woman’s hands shook. “You’ll be the death o’ me, child.” She was downright mad, and Rosalie knew better than to push her too far, “Tomorrow, yer goin’ with him into town. No excuses. You hear?”
“Aye, I hear,” she heaved the basket into the crook of her arm and stepped out of striking range, “but today, I’m lookin’ at sheep. Ye think the clan’ll notice if their flock’s down a few?”
“Ohh…” her hand grasped at her chest in a dramatic gesture. “I swear, the devil gave ye that red hair. Get out o’ here. Go on!” Magda picked up a small rock and threw it at Rosalie’s feet. “Get! I cannae look at you right now!”
Rosalie smiled to herself as she watched Magda fret. She paced, cursed, and prayed to God for help with her daughter. It was too easy to give her a hard time.
Yet the joy slipped away as soon as she was alone in the woods. All jokes aside, she knew she would have to marry another traveler if she wished to remain in the Roma’s good graces. The thought of exile was too much for her to bear. The idea of leaving Magda and Anna tightened her chest until she couldn’t breathe.
Her thoughts circled over and over until she pushed them out. With a small prayer, she decided to let fate take care of the situation. The woods calmed her. Being alone out there awakened her sense of adventure, and helped her forget about everything else. Out there, without fear of judgment, she could be herself.
The river was just far enough away from camp to give Rosalie complete privacy. She was grateful for the clear skies and bright sun fingering through the trees. The traveler followed the shoreline until she came to a bend extended by large boulders. Someone had pushed a log across this part of the river to make a footbridge.
It was an ideal location for her to spend the rest of the day. She washed the clothes, beating them against the rocks until her hands were dark red from the cold water and her arms trembled. Before hanging them to dry, she double-checked the sky. Even though it looked promising, she knew the weather could change in an instant.
There was always a large number of clothes to wash following a move. It was Rosalie’s favorite chore because she could be alone for as long as she wanted. For the first hour or so, she rested, twisting daisy chains for crowns and letting her muscles relax in the warming sun. As the moments passed by, she became more and more curious about what lay on the other side of the river.
By noon, she couldn’t help herself. She was careful, hopping between the water-slick boulders to reach where the log bridged over. With a quick shake, she checked its stability. It was only as wide as her shoulders, forcing her to inch across, toe-to-heel. The bark was worn, and slicker than she thought, but the idea of turning around scared her more than continuing forward.
The rapids below roared, capped in angry white swirls. Rosalie’s heart pounded as the sound deafened her. She focused on the opposing bank, her hands outstretched for balance.
A strong wind gusted over the churning rapids. Rosalie teetered. Her feet slipped. Her balance failed, and dark water beckoned. She screamed.
The world spun around her. Her chest slammed against the log, knocking the air from her lungs. In a moment of desperation, she managed to cling to the trunk. The ice-cold water suffocated her. The smooth flats of her boots touched the river’s bottom. Her feet skated over the slick rocks. The current dragged her legs beneath the log, threatening to yank her under it.
There was no one within shouting distance. She tried to think of a way out, but it seemed hopeless. No matter how much she pulled, her arms were too weak to lift herself from the current sucking her down. The tip of one of her fingernails broke as she clawed at the bark. She clung for dear life as the cold froze her to the bones. Her already tired arms wouldn’t hold out long. Tears choked her as her fingers started to slip over the log anchoring her. Just when she thought all hope was lost, a hand gripped her wrist.
Someone yanked her from the rapids, and before she could register who… or what was happening, was dragged to the safety of the boulders. Disoriented, wet and panting, she fell against the strong muscles of a broad chest. Her hands fumbled for stability and sank into a damp linen shirt. When she finally looked up, she blinked in shock at her savior.
“Are ye alright, lass?”
Deep blue eyes, shades darker than the river, stared down at her with concern. It was the man she’d seen in the fields earlier in the day. His strong arms cradled her close. Rosalie became aware of the intimacy of the position, which seemed to scare her more than the rapids. She tried to yank herself away, but her balance was still off, and she almost fell right back into the water.
The man was a foot taller than her, taller than anyone from her community. He made her feel small and fragile, and his hands kept a firm hold on her. A warmth seemed to surge from every place he touched.
Rosalie’s cheeks flushed hot with embarrassment. Her sudden feeling of vulnerability in this stranger’s embrace ignited her temper.
“Let go o’ me,” she snapped.
The man obeyed and sidestepped. His hands remained outstretched to catch her if she fell. She could not look at him as she tried her best to scramble back to solid ground. Her body shook violently beneath her heavy, soaked gown.
“What were ye thinkin’?” His brows furrowed in both concern and slight anger. “Were ye tryin’ to kill yerself? To think if I hadn’t heard ye scream—if I hadn’t been ridin’ by—”
Rosalie felt tears burning at the corners of her eyes. She could hardly breathe, and looking at him was almost blinding. The fact that he was attractive made it worse.
He must have seen how shaken she was because his features softened. “Sit down.” He took his coat from his back and spread it over the grass.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” The words rushed out. She didn’t want to seem rude, but she was overwhelmed.
“Aye, nice way tae thank me for savin’ yer life. Sit down.” The tone of his voice carried authority she could not protest. It sent shivers through her that weren’t from the cold. She looked at the jacket and decided to sit on the grass beside it instead.
“Yer stubborn, ye ken?” There was nothing cruel in his voice—merely amusement as he pulled his coat back up from beside her. “Mos’ people would say thank ye for comin’ to their rescue.”
Being so shaken in the presence of a stranger made Rosalie madder than ever. She considered storming off and heading back to camp, but the thought of Magda’s response to a drenched Rosalie bereft of laundry, kept her glued in place and shivering to the bone. Her teeth chattered, and she was both relieved and dismayed to see the man walk off into the tree line. Rosalie immediately set to removing the wet clothes from her body before she froze to death.
The fabric stuck to her arms, tangling her. In her frustration and panic, she tried desperately to free herself, fighting against the wet cloth. Her heart froze when she heard something drop behind her.
“Please tell me that’s not you,” she squeaked. She swallowed hard, hoping it was just an animal snapping twigs in a hurry to get away.
“I-I’m sorry, lassie. I didn’t mean tae—I was jus’ gettin’ wood. I didn’t ken, I swear it.”
Rosalie groaned in embarrassment. She peeked over her shoulder, and some of it melted away when she saw the shocked look on his face. Her people didn’t hold the same shame of the human body as outsiders did. Modesty was expressed through intention and action, not from a complete aversion to nudity, even when the situation required it. He was dumbfounded, and the control it gave her mingled with nerves enough to awaken her playful mischief.
The few sticks he still held in his arms tumbled out. “S-sorry, lassie.” Crimson flooded his cheeks. His eyes fell to the ground, shielded by one of his hands. He turned away. “I meant no ‘ffense.”
Rosalie freed herself from her dress, and with brazen confidence, walked across the open expanse to where the clothes dried in the sun. The dress she pulled on was still damp, but not nearly as soaked as the one she’d pulled off. She was surprised to see he wasn’t peeking and took a moment to admire his broad shoulders and strong frame.
“Ye act like you’ve never seen a woman before,” she teased, fishing for more information about him.
“I have, jus’ not one so…” His words dried in his throat.
“Aye.” He let out a heavy sigh and nodded in a way that made Rosalie giggle.
Her voice came out like the tinkling of glass blown in the wind, light and delicate.
“Ye can turn around now if you like.”
The demure way he peeked over his shoulder, making sure she was decent, made her heart skip a beat. He couldn’t look at her directly and melted any nervousness or anger from moments before. The young man scrambled to collect the wood and set to start a fire, avoiding her blazing emerald eyes. She sat down across from him and openly admired his curly red hair and pronounced jawline, enjoying the way her ogling made him visibly nervous as he attempted to light the fire.
When the spark caught, he cleared his throat, trying to regain his composure. “Ye shouldn’t be dressin’ like that out in the open. What if it wasnae me, lassie?” His words simmered with authentic anger.
“An’ who are you to tell me what I can and cannae do?”
He looked at her, mouth hanging open, aghast. He started to defend himself, rattled by the chain of events, but then he saw the smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. A great, contagious laugh burst out.
“Yer cheeky, lass, ye ken that?” He shook his head. A single dimple revealed itself as he smiled, feeding sticks into the growing flame, “I cannae say I’ve met anyone like you ‘fore.”
“Oh, aye? An’ is that a bad thing?” Rosalie was genuinely curious but tried her best to cloak her insecurities. She pulled at the sleeves of her gown and rubbed the cold from her arms.
The way he looked at her then made her feel more naked than she was before. Those sapphire eyes met hers, and she felt her heart race to twice its usual speed. “No,” was all he said. It made her blush, and heat rose in her cheeks. She tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear and looked down, trying to hide the flame blossoming in her stomach and warming her heart.
Silence passed between them. It was alive with the sounds of the rushing river, Rosalie’s heartbeat roaring in her ears, and the crackling of the open fire. She tried to think of some way to break the silence, the nervous tension building between them. The chattering of her teeth only seemed to intensify instead of subsiding.
“Yer still cold.”
Although relieved for the break, she didn’t like to see him frown. It was new for her to have a stranger, or any man for that matter, be genuinely concerned with her wellbeing.
Rosalie rubbed her arms and nodded. “I best get o’er it. Magda’s goin’ tae kill me.” The young woman sucked in through her teeth and shook her head, noticing the dusk stealing color from the world around her.
The stranger stood. Rosalie remained glued in place as she watched him walk around the campfire, slipping his jacket off once again. “Please,” he said. She pulled back from him, as much afraid of giving him the wrong idea as afraid of the way her body would react to his touch. Still, with each gust, she felt as if the wind cut her to the bone. She nodded her consent.
She did not look at him as he slipped it over her shoulders. It was heavy leather and instantly shielded her from the cold. His fingers grazed her shoulders, and the touch sent rippling waves down her spine.
“Thank ye,” she whispered, glancing up at him. He paused for a second, as though losing his stream of thought. As though it had crashed somewhere behind them, he snapped back to the present, cleared his throat, and took a seat next to her—so close… it almost felt as if they were touching.
“I don’t even ken yer name.”
“Nor I, yours.”
“Declan,” he said, and tossed a small twig into the shrinking flames. “Declan o’ the Gregor clan.”
Rosalie nodded. She had many names. One only her community knew, ones she used in different towns, and then the common one, which seemed to be the public catch-all. For a moment, something about him made her want to tell him her real name. It was a foolish thought.
“Rosalie. No clan.”
“Yer different than the other gypsies.” He said it with an innocence that kept Rosalie from taking offense.
“Aye,” she nodded. “I was adopted. An no,” she smiled, knowing all the rumors whispered about her kind, “I wasnae kidnapped by ‘gypsies.’”
He looked relieved to see her smiling. “Why were ye adopted? If that’s nae too personal.”
“I think we’re past personal, Declan,” she winked. His name tasted sweet on her tongue. She paused for a moment, the cheer slipping from her as she weighed whether to tell him the truth or not. She looked at his calm, strong features, and felt a pang in her heart as she realized it didn’t matter what he thought of her. This was the closest they would grow. She decided to tell him the truth. “If ye didn’t judge me a‘fore, here’s somethin’ tae scare ye off. I’m a bastard.”
Rosalie thought she saw embarrassment in his features. She stared at him, waiting for a response.
“None o’ that’s yer fault, lassie. An’ I dinnae think it makes ye who ye are.” And then, when he looked at her, she could feel their heartbeats sync. “Do ye ken who yer parents are?”
“No.” Their eyes deadlocked. “I’ve ne’er asked.”
“An’ why is that? I’d be curious, if it were me.”
“It seemed taboo, I guess. Scared Magda might take it the wrong way—think I weren’t grateful.” Maybe it was the knowing that they would never see each other again, but something about Declan opened her up. “I used to dream me mother were a lady, though, when I was a wee bairn. Silly, ain’t it?” She only gave a half-smile before breaking away from his mesmerizing blue eyes.
“No,” Rosalie startled as his fingers touched the side of her face, guiding it toward him. “Ye look like a lady.”
She closed her eyes as his fingers grazed the globe of her cheek. It first soothed her like a balm, but then her heart pattered with nerves. Part of her wanted to push into the palm of his hand, savoring how safe and accepted she felt in that moment, but couldn’t set aside reality. He touched one of the tight-wound curls. Rosalie squeezed her eyes tight and took a deep breath. She could smell sweat and dirt on him, mingling to create a unique, pleasant musk.
The young traveler slid her fingertips over the top of his hand, taking in the marks of hard work carved into his skin. She could hear his heartbeat quicken, and his breath shorten. If she let this go any further, all hope of coming out unscathed would vanish. As she pulled his hand away, a floodgate burst in her mind. A million thoughts drove her back to reality. If she let this go any further, it would only hurt her.
Besides, she didn’t even know this man. Enoch’s retelling of his conquests, how he seduced such maidens as herself, came to the forefront of her mind. When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t imagine he could play such treacherous tricks—yet fear would not let her forget.
“Still, we shouldn’t be doin’ this,” she said. The young woman withdrew, pulling her knees up to her chest and tightening the leather jacket around her shoulders. “I shouldn’t even be talkin’ to ye. If Magda found out—”
“What? If she found out I saved ye…” His brow wrinkled, but his voice remained calm. “She’d be relieved, no?”
Rosalie bit her lip and shook her head. “Please,” she begged with her gaze, “please don’t tell anyone we’ve met. If ye see me ‘gain, ye cannot know me.” She gripped his hand tight.
“I’ll see ye, though?”
“Not like this.” Rosalie shook her head. “Nothin’ good ‘ill come of it.”
“I ken ye feel it too. There’s a connection here. Ye cannot deny it, lassie.”
“Which is why if ye like me at all, you’ll stay away from me. There is no future fer us. Not o’ bein’ friends, or, or…” she did not want to say it out loud. It was presumptuous of her, a fantasy she couldn’t afford to entertain.
“Meetin’s like this don’ jus’ happen ev’ry day, ye ken.” He went to touch her hair again, but she pulled back.
Laughter came up from within her, partially from nervousness and partly from disbelief. “Like you don’ have plenty o’ appropriate women to pursue.”
That did it. It was clear she offended him. Color rose from his neck, reddening his face about as much as his hair. He just looked at her, and his expression said it all—his feelings were sincere.
A stick broke from somewhere within the darkening forest. Both of them tensed and looked back. Panic froze her.
“Rosalie!” It was Enoch.
He was further down the river, looking for where she’d been working. Rosalie looked around at the darkness and was shocked time had slipped by as fast as it did. Her eyes flew open.
“Ye have to go.” She stood and presented his jacket. “Please, if ye like me at all, ye have tae go ‘fore he sees ye.”
The anger subsided into concern. He looked towards the sound of Enoch growing closer, yelling her name, and trudging through the brush. “Tell me I’ll see ye ‘gain.”
Rosalie shook her head. “Please,” fear threatened to make her cry. Enoch was closer. “Please, jus’ take yer horse an’ forget aboot me.”
“I cannot. Promise me I’ll see ye, an’ I’ll go.” He stood, towering above her, making her feel small.
“Rosalie! Answer me!” Enoch screamed. Any second, he would appear and be able to see them together.
“All right, all right, I promise.” She slammed the jacket into his chest and started towards his horse, “Jus’ get outtae here. If they knew—” she held out the reins for him and looked over her shoulder again.
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