Diamond in the Rough
Unable to watch Candace wed another man, Andrew is about to leave the festivities only to be stopped by a young party crasher. A part of him wants to ignore the woman but something draws him to discover who she is.
Her clan’s chieftain has sent Tessa to the next village to bring back one Andrew Fletcher. It’s not the sort of errand one assigns to a scullery maid but what the chieftain wants, he gets.
In completing her errand, they realize time is not as it should be. While trying to correct historical events, the misfit pair discover a mutual attraction they hadn’t expected. Can a growing love see them through the challenges they must face?
The maid stood aside and took in the activity of the huge, hot room. As hearths go, the one in this kitchen was big enough for a half dozen soldiers to stand in shoulder to shoulder. Not that they’d be fool enough to do so since the fire was going almost constantly. It was allowed to die every now and again so that the ashes could be cleaned, but other than that there was always something cooking.
Two boys about ten years of age were in charge of slowly turning the spit to keep the meat from becoming charcoal. The maid hurried past, ruffling the hair of one of the boys and noting the annoyance in his eyes. He and his companion were mindful of their duty and paid close attention to the crackling and spitting of heated fat that fell drop by drop onto the burning wood. If they didn’t, Dodie the cook would be the first to remind them with a swat to the back of their heads—Dodie’s touch was never an easy one. The boys would have preferred to be elsewhere, like in the bailey where they could watch a few of the soldiers practice their fighting skills.
Dodie’s husband, Jacob, was a tall, thin man. He shoved a wooden paddle into an oven and slid out the source of a delectable aroma—several loaves of crusty bread—which was then dropped onto the nearby table to cool. The kitchen maid ducked and neatly avoided being smacked with the passing paddle when Jacob turned to remove more bread before it could burn. Never missing a step, the maid approached another table and set down the basket she carried. Herbs and freshly cut flowers added to the symphony of scents. She glanced about, amazed that more people didn’t collide into one another within the tight confines of the kitchen. The space was about one third the size of the great hall, but even then, when it got busy, there wasn’t much room for getting around.
She set the flowers aside then took a sharp knife to chop the herbs. Each went into a separate small bowl according to type. She liked working in here amid the hustle and bustle of preparing meals and the frequent disagreements that didn’t always directly involve the chores that went on. Sometimes the arguments were of a more personal nature...like the one currently brewing between two of the girls who were supposed to be plucking feathers.
“No need for disputes, children,” the maid chided them. “There’s more than enough work to go around and not enough time to get it done. Leave the arguing for when you have a chance to do it properly.” Both girls, she noticed, had crimson faces, but she wasn’t sure if it was from the light-hearted scolding or the heat of the kitchen. Since they always had work to keep them busy, the maid knew the quarrel would soon be forgotten.
The maid looked up to see a young boy making his way around tables and the kitchen staff in an attempt to reach her. He was out of breath when he finally stood before her. “What is it, Jemmy?” She waited until the lad had caught his breath before getting a response. He must have been running all the way from wherever he’d come.
“Himself...says...you are to present yourself...in the council chamber...immediately...if not sooner.”
Tessa patted Jemmy on the shoulder and gave him a brief smile. Oh, lord, what have I done this time?
Andrew Fletcher watched the other guests as they laughed and had a good time. After glancing at his half-filled glass of punch, he decided it was time to leave before he became any more maudlin than he already was. He didn’t begrudge the bridal couple their happy day: heaven knew they deserved it. The problem, rather, was with him and his propensity for being attracted to the wrong women. Not that there was anything wrong with Candace. At least not anymore. He just had the bad habit of being enchanted by women who had no real interest in him.
Andrew finished his drink and, without giving it any serious thought, he refilled his glass with punch, wishing that it was something stronger. Ale wouldn’t do anything for the ache he felt. If it weren’t for the children running around, or the curious tourists, there might have been a keg or two of whiskey available. Local law, however, didn’t allow for open kegs where minors were present. The harder stuff would be brought out only after the children were taken home.
Once Andrew got through this day, he’d start over. Only this time he’d make sure not to let his heart get involved with anyone. Again. The only thing left to do was to wish the couple well before making a quiet retreat. That determination fled more quickly than it had taken for the thought to form in the first place; his feet refused to move in the direction of his cottage hidden by the far side of the castle. He took a deep breath, released it, then glanced over the feast spread upon the table. Despite the variety, nothing tempted him.
Given a choice, he would have preferred being in the castle overseeing the tour groups, but that wasn’t an option today. The laird and his lady had closed the castle to tours in honor of the wedding. While tourists had been invited to witness the traditional ceremony, the real festivities hadn’t started until only the employees and family were left. Security had then discouraged strangers from coming around the back of the castle out of curiosity.
Andrew thought back to that morning, before all the hoopla had begun. It hadn’t been easy trying to explain to his boss the reasons for his recent behavior. He could have waited for a better time to address the issue, but the laird’s wife thought differently. His explanation could have been better, too, he supposed.
“My father, as luck would have it, is nothing but a rogue. I am tired of constantly being mistaken for him, so I’ve dropped his name in favor of my mother’s family. If nothing else, it tells people of the distance I’ve placed between him and me and that they shouldn’t ask any questions. It’s unfortunate I grew up to look just like him.”
“Might that explain why you’ve lost so much work time as of late?” Bonnie-Jean had asked him. Andrew had seen the amused smile she tried to hide. He didn’t find much amusing about the situation.
He’d shrugged at her observation. “That’s part of it. The rest is of no consequence.” There had been no need to say more. The woman was more intuitive than most; she’d understood.
That bit of legal wrangling topped off by a portal opening in the portrait gallery just before the wedding hadn’t exactly made his day. The only good thing was that there was now one less banker in town—one less source of trouble for Candace.
Andrew moved away from the buffet and found an isolated seat on a tree stump. He was six feet tall with a lanky frame that reminded others of a scarecrow. He’d heard all the cruel remarks while growing up. Now, at thirty-two, he’d pretty much given up ever meeting a woman who could accept him as he was. He would never be one of those muscular hero-types women always seemed to go for, but nor was he quite as bad as the similarly-described fictional schoolmaster from American literature.
Andrew sipped his drink and watched the happy couple engage in their first dance as husband and wife. A lock of dark brown hair fell across his forehead, and he pushed it back with a long-fingered hand. As he studied Nathan and Candace, he felt an unexpected twinge of jealousy. Andrew had always had a soft spot for the bride, but Candace only ever saw him as her supervisor and someone with whom to flirt. She never took him seriously... not that he’d ever actually told her of his interest. It was just as well, he supposed. The fact that she’d wed the laird’s older brother was a surprise to everyone, but it was a good match. No one had ever seen her so happy and, for her sake, Andrew hoped that it would last. Nathan seemed the type who would be more than capable of keeping a firm hand with her.
The mystery of Nathan’s disappearance as a child had never been told publicly since his return. The laird thought it best to keep tales of portals away from the general public. Candace was one of a few people who knew all the details, but then, she was the one who had been caught up in one of them before meeting her new husband. After briefly looking into the matter, Nathan and his younger brother, David, concluded that there was just something about their home that created the anomalies. When they had more time they intended to do an in-depth investigation. Most of the staff could only guess at what had happened, but a handful did actually see a portal that morning, staring in shock when Colin vanished into it. There were a couple of people who doubted the witnesses’ claims, but even their questions had been put to rest based upon the strong resemblance Nathan bore to his father.
Andrew’s view of the dancers was suddenly blocked by a woman standing before him. She was dressed in village costume. One slim hand was placed lightly on a slender hip while the other toyed with a curl hanging over her shoulder. “Are you going to sit there looking as if you’ve just lost your best friend, or can a girl ask for a dance?” Her voice was soft, sultry.
Andrew’s gaze moved upward to a face surrounded by curls. The rest of her hair was thick and wavy, partially tied back by a wide, red ribbon that he noticed when she glanced back over her shoulder at the bridal couple.
“And you are?” he asked.
“I be Lauren Sinclair, the village butcher’s daughter. Seeing you sitting here all alone, with no one to talk to, I was thinkin’ you might be of a mind to dance.”
Andrew thought the girl was rather pretty and found himself tempted—almost. After Candace’s flirtatious ways, though, he reminded himself that he’d learned his lesson, especially since this woman was another blonde. On top of that, the idea of dancing made him shudder. He always looked more like a marionette whose strings were being pulled and jerked.
“No. Thank you. I don’t dance.”
Lauren tried again to cajole him into joining her by reaching for his free hand, but Andrew eased it out of her grasp. “I do not dance,” he reiterated irritably, “so you would do better to find a partner elsewhere.”