Home > The Highwayman (Victorian Rebels #1)

The Highwayman (Victorian Rebels #1)
Author: Kerrigan Byrne

CHAPTER ONE

Scottish Highlands, County Argyle, 1855

Blood ran down Dougan Mackenzie’s forearms as he crouched against the ancient stone wall separating the grounds of Applecross Orphanage from the wild mountains beyond. None of the other children ventured here. The wall protected the stooped and faded headstones that rose from thick carpets of moss and heather fed by the bones of the dead.

Chest heaving, Dougan took a moment to catch his breath before sliding down to sit with his knobby legs drawn against his chest. Carefully, he opened his palms as far as the broken skin would allow. They hurt worse now than when the sharp switch had bitten into them.

Black emotion had kept him from crying out as Sister Margaret tried her level best to break him. It kept the tears from falling until now. He’d met her cold, bright eyes with his own, unable to stop his blink as the strap had come down again and again until the welts on his palms had split and bled.

“Tell me why you’re crying.”

The slight voice seemed to calm the intemperate wind into an invisible ribbon that carried the gentle words to him.

The craggy black and green highland peaks jutting from behind the gray stone of Applecross formed the perfect backdrop for the girl who stood not three spans away. Instead of lashing at her, the stormy wind tossed and teased at ringlets so astonishingly blond, they appeared a silvery-white. Round, pale cheeks, slashed with red by the cold, dimpled over a shy smile.

“Go away,” he snarled, tucking his smarting hands beneath his arms and kicking a clod of dirt at her clean black dress.

“Did you lose your family, too?” she queried, her face a study in curiosity and innocence.

Dougan still couldn’t manage to form words. He flinched as she lifted the hem of her white apron to his cheek, but he let her ever so carefully wipe at the tears and grime she found there. Her touch was light as butterfly wings, and entranced him so thoroughly, he stopped trembling. What should he say? Dougan had never spoken to a girl before. He could answer her question, he supposed. He had lost his mother, but he wasn’t an orphan. In fact, most of Applecross’s orphans weren’t children but terrible secrets, hidden away and forgotten like the shameful mistakes they all were.

Whose secret was she?

“I saw what Sister Margaret did to you,” the girl said gently, her eyes gleaming with pity.

Her pity lit a fire born of humiliation and helplessness in Dougan’s chest and he jerked his head to the side, avoiding her touch. “I thought I told ye to leave.”

She blinked. “But your hands—”

With a savage snarl, Dougan surged to his feet and lifted his hand, ready to strike the pity from her angelic features.

She cried out as she fell backward on her rump, cowering on the ground beneath him.

Dougan paused, his face tight and burning, his teeth bared and his body coiled to strike.

The girl just looked up at him, horrified, her eyes locked on the bleeding wound on his open palm.

“Get out of here,” he growled. She scrambled away from him, gaining unsteady feet, and scampered a wide berth around the fenced graveyard, disappearing into the orphanage.

Dougan slumped back against the rocks, his trembling knuckles brushed the back of his cheek. The lass had been the first person to ever touch him in a way that wasn’t meant to hurt. He didn’t know why he’d been so nasty to her.

Dougan ducked his head against his knees and closed his eyes, settling in for a right proper wallow. The chilly moisture on the back of his burning neck felt good, and he tried to focus on that instead of the stinging pain of his hands.

Not five wretched minutes passed before a bowl of clean water appeared in the space between his feet. A cup, this one full of a liquid the color of caramel, joined it.

Astonished, Dougan looked up to find that the girl had returned, except now she brandished a long and dangerous-looking pair of scissors and a determined wrinkle between her brows.

“Let me see your hands.”

Hadn’t he sufficiently frightened her away? Dougan eyed the scissors with suspicion. They looked both gigantic and sharp in her tiny hand. “What are those for? Protection? Revenge?”

His question produced that gap-toothed smile of hers, and his heart did a little leap and landed in his stomach.

“Don’t be silly,” she chided gently as she set them aside and reached for his hands.

Dougan jerked them both away from her reach, and scowled as he hid them behind his back.

“Here now,” she coaxed. “Give them over.”

“Nay.”

Her brow puckered further. “How am I supposed to doctor your wounds if you insist on hiding them from me?”

“Ye’re not a doctor,” Dougan spat. “Leave me be.”

“My father was a captain in the Crimea,” she patiently explained. “He learned a little about doctoring cuts so they didn’t fester on the battlefield.”

That arrested his attention. “Did he kill people?” Dougan asked, unable to help himself.

She thought about this a moment. “He had good many medals pinned to the coat of his uniform, so I think he must have, though he never said so.”

“I’ll bet he used a rifle,” Dougan said, diverted by thoughts he deemed manly and grown-up. Thoughts of war and glory.

“And a bayonet,” the girl supplied helpfully. “I got to touch it once when he was cleaning his weapon by the fire.”

“Tell me what it was like,” he demanded.

“Let me tend your hands, and I will.” Her sea-storm eyes sparkled at him.

   
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