An Inconvenient Visitor…

The Sorceress and Lusty Hound Inn, Ridiculous O’ Clock…

Amelia dragged her bone-weary body up the rickety stairs of The Sorceress and Lusty Hound Inn. It had taken the entire day and most of the evening to travel here…all of it on horseback. She was tired, grumpy, and utterly and stupendously filthy. Even pigs would turn their noses—er, snouts—up at her.

Amelia chuckled at the imagery.

Of course, as soon as she had arrived, she’d paid the innkeeper an exorbitant sum to have a hot bath prepared for her in her room while she waited in the taproom downstairs; she was NOT going to carry the mud and dust from her travels into bed with her no matter how tired and sore she was.

Yes, tenacious could be another candidate for her middle name.

Now that her room, and more importantly, her bath, was ready, she headed upstairs, barely able to wait a moment more to submerge herself in warm, clean water.

Mere minutes later, Amelia closed her eyes as she soaked. The warm liquid soothed her aching muscles. Her mind drifted away with the steam, content and at peace for the first time in a very, very long time.

But of course, all too soon her faithless mind wandered unerringly toward one big, strapping highlander: Alaistair MacLeod.

Amelia smiled as she imagined his reaction to her note. Would he be furious? Would he finally laugh…perhaps, smile…at her audacity? He’d certainly scratch at his chin, a habit of his she’d picked up on the night before as she watched him watch her in the stuffy taproom of The Quiet Witch Inn. Oddly enough, she wondered about his laugh…would it be hearty and drawn out? Clipped and understated? He’d probably have a deep, rumbling laugh that would reverberate across her skin like the rumble of a large, beating drum, leaving her arms and legs tingling with feeling.

Without conscious thought, she imagined the two of them meeting in better, happier times. It was a delightful thought, full of awareness and oddly enough, laughter, which always had the effect of leaving her feeling comfortable and content. Being an orphan, she imagined her mother had laughed often when she was a babe, causing her to be attuned to the action in others.

Refusing to traverse that line of thinking, Amelia opened her eyes and glanced around her room, or what she could see of it, from her corner behind the large, moveable dressing screen. It was still dim, almost dark, the sun just beginning to make its presence known to the inhabitants in this part of the world. The fire danced in its grate, having been started by one of the inn’s maids as part of preparing her room.

Amelia watched as the flames cast interesting, writhing shadows on the walls and ceiling. She couldn’t resist holding up one arm to catch the light and add her own shadowy puppet to the mix but her intended dog came out looking like a squealing duck, and she gave up trying, content to watch the fabulous light display.

Suddenly, she noticed one rather large silhouette, which appeared to climb over the screen and darken the nearby wall, probably a shadow created by the tall bureau she recalled stood sentinel next to the bed. It reminded her of a fairly broad man…

A broad, angry man…

One particular man, in fact…

One over-sized, muscular, particular, broad…

“MacLeod!” Amelia sat bolt upright and shouted his name.

Right away, she winced and reached around to rub her backside, her still sore buttocks making their presence painfully felt with her sudden jolt. She’d been in the saddle for so long, she was sure her bottom was one giant bruised blister, a complaint she was all too happy to lay at the booted feet of one over-sized highlander, which was clearly why her thoughts kept returning to him.

Amelia laid back and closed her eyes once more, encouraging her mind to relax. She’d have plenty of time to think about…and face…her Highlander…later.

She breathed in and out, forcing herself to take a slow, deep breath.

A sudden knock at the door almost made her jump out of the water in one giant leap, proving that she was not very successful at relaxing. Already, her heart galloped in its place.

Could it be MacLeod?

It was certainly possible.

Amelia was practically squirming as she called out, “W-who is it?”

A muffled voice called back, “Emily, the maid, miss. I’ve brung ye towels…”

Amelia swallowed the obvious shift of disappointment that somersaulted in her chest and called out, “Oh, of course, come in.”

The maid opened the door. A few moments later, she stepped around the bathing screen, a couple of towels folded over her crossed arms. “I’ll set these on the chair, shall I, miss?”

“That’ll be fine, thank you.”

A thump against the wall from the neighboring room made them both jump, the maid with her hand to her chest and Amelia setting her bathwater to lapping against the side of the tub once again. It seemed she wasn’t the only person on edge this evening.

Both women smiled in relief and nearly laughed at their obvious skittishness. The maid stepped back to the edge of the screen. “D-do you require anything else, miss?”

Amelia started to answer but stopped when she heard the door click, the sound like the crack of a gun at this early morning hour to a mind already jumpy. A heavy tread marched a slow and steady beat across the floor. The maid peeked back around the screen. Her face lost all its color as she reached for her throat. “S-sir. You cannot be…”

“Get oot!” growled the disembodied, gruff brogue.

The maid squeaked and bolted, presumably for the door. It slammed in her wake. Amelia heard it but couldn’t see it happen from her corner of the room, concealed behind the screen.

After the maid’s loud departure, the ensuing silence was deafening. She heard nothing, now…no one rifling through her things, no one walking across the floor. Only the crack and pop of the fire in the nearby grate. Her heart beat faster with every second that passed as she waited for MacLeod to say something, anything. Or at the very least, to appear around the edge of her screen. She stared ahead in anticipation, her body flushed with emotion, her heart galloping.

Amelia willed her hands to stop shaking, while her mind flittered from thought to thought as she considered how best to respond to his arrival. Should she pretend to be surprised? Elated? Angry? Expecting?

Seconds felt like hours.

Amelia held herself as still as possible. Waiting. Anticipating. Thinking.

Her bathwater rippled in time with his heavy tread as he finally approached.

One step. Another. And another. Then, silence…

She was going to die. Honestly. Her heart couldn’t take this.

“Who the hell are ye, really, lass?” came a tight brogue from over her shoulder.