Excerpt: Romancing the Scot by May McGoldrick
Looking the shipping crate over for damage and seeing none, he retrieved an iron crow from a workbench. Jo was standing inside the doors, eyeing the box doubtfully from a safe distance.
“Come closer. It won’t bite.”
“Not a chance. From the smell of that thing, a person would think you’re importing cadavers. Have you also taken up being a Resurrectionist as a hobby?”
He patted the crate affectionately. “This sweet thing has been sitting in the bowels of a ship from Antwerp. You know what the hold of a ship smells like?”
“Actually, I don’t.” She held a handkerchief to her nose and drew closer. “But I think you’re correct with the reference to ‘bowels.’”
Hugh took the first nail out. “Well, stand back, since you’ve become so prissy. Though I recall a younger version of you leading the rest of us through bogs and marshes that smelled no better.”
“Of course! But as I recall, we had frogs and turtles and the occasional dragon that needed hunting,” she replied with a smile. “Very well. Open it and let’s see this treasure of yours.”
Prying off the top took him only a moment. Throwing it to the side, he pulled back the tarp that covered the basket and then stared curiously at the dark green rags bundled at the bottom.
Leaning in, Hugh’s enthusiasm evaporated as a horrid realization settled in. This was no pile of old clothing. A shock of blond hair. A shoe. A hand. The body of a dead woman lay curled up in the gondola.
“What is it?” Immediately, Jo was at his side. “Good God!”
Hugh climbed in and crouched beside the body. He took her hand. She was cold to the touch. His heart sank. The crate had been shipped from Antwerp. To be trapped for so many days with no water, no food, in the cold and damp of the ship’s hold. He had no idea who this woman was or how she came to be in here.
The thought struck him. Perhaps it wasn’t an inadvertent act. Perhaps she was murdered and her body had been dumped into the crate.
Dismay and alarm clawed at him as he pushed away the matted ringlets of golden hair. She was young. He lifted her chin. The body had none of the stiffness of postmortem. He stared at her lips. He may have imagined it but they seemed to have moved.
“Bright . . .” The whisper was a mere rustle of leaves in a breeze.
The fingers jerked and came to life, clutching at his hand.
“She’s not dead,” he called to Jo, relieved. “Send for the doctor. I’ll take her to the house.”
His sister ran out, calling for help, and he lifted the woman. She emitted a low groan. Her limbs had been locked in the same cramped position for so many days. Hugh propped her over the side of the gondola.
“Stay with me,” he encouraged. “Talk to me.”
Holding the woman in place, he clambered from the basket and then gently lifted her out, cradling her in his arms. She weighed next to nothing.
As they went out into the rain, he feared she was about to die. The exertion of trying to breathe showed on her face. He’d seen this on the battlefield. The final effort before death.
Starting up the path, he stumbled, not realizing the woman’s skirts were dragging on the ground. He staggered but caught himself before they went down. Her head lolled against his chest, her face gray and mask-like. She appeared to be slipping away. It would be a shame that she’d survived the crossing only to perish now.
A dagger point of anger pierced Hugh’s brain as he recalled another dismal day when he’d lifted two other bodies, wrapped in burial shrouds, from a wooden box.
“Talk to me,” he ordered. “Say something.”
As he made his way up the hill toward the house, a bolt of lightning streaked across the sky above Baronsford. Thunder shook the ground and the sky opened, unleashing fierce torrents of rain on them.
His wife. His son. Hugh hadn’t been there for them. They’d died as he and the British army were being chased by the French across Spain. He’d been trying to save his men’s lives, not knowing that those most precious to him were suffering.
“You’ve survived a horrifying ordeal. Give me the chance to save you.”
The woman struggled weakly in Hugh’s arms, and her head tipped back. He watched as her lips parted, welcoming the wetness of the falling rain.
“We’re almost there.”
“Bright . . .” she murmured.
He looked into her face and saw she was trying hard to open her eyes.
“Yes, brighter than that crate,” he said, encouraged by her effort. Any movement, however small, gave him hope. “And you’ve been in there for Lord knows how long.”