The Gentleman and the Maid by Martha Keyes

1

Glengour Inn, May 1763

There was never enough time in the day—and there were certainly never enough hands. Even with the two additional maids recently hired on, the kitchen at Glengour Inn was a chaotic place. Glenna Douglas shuffled behind the cook, Dorcas, and reached for the bowl she had just filled with porridge, handing it to one of the maids.

“Take that ta the man sittin’ by the fire,” Glenna instructed. “He’s been waitin’ a fair while for it, so be certain ta apologize.”

The maid, Morna, nodded and left the kitchen, and Glenna hurried over to readjust the peat brick on the fire, which was billowing thick smoke.

“Och, what a mornin’!” Dorcas said, wiping her brow with the back of her forearm.

“Aye.” Glenna leaned away from the smoke and turned her head to avoid it. “Can ye imagine if we didna have Morna and Grace?”

Since Hamish and Ava Campbell had left to take up residence in Dalmore House, the pace at Glengour had been frenetic. It had been for some time, though, in truth. Glenna felt as though she hadn’t stopped moving except to sleep a few hours at night since she had started working at Glengour two years ago. She had worked hard as a maid at nearby Dunverlockie Castle, but the pace had been nothing like the one she was forced to keep now.

Dorcas began gathering up the dirtied dishes. “Never say it, lass. Just thinkin’ of bein’ without the maids makes me shudder. And if the laird wishes me ta last ta reach my fortieth year, he’ll let us hire on three more maids!” She sent Glenna a significant look. “Ye might ask him when he comes this week.”

Glenna gave a little laugh. “What right have I ta ask him such a thing?” She prodded at the peat more, and it fractured, tumbling into pieces around the hearth.

“More right than anyone else here, that’s for certain. Ye ken the inn better than any of us—better than him, for that matter.”

Glenna stared at the flames licking up at the pot that hung above. It was true, but if she garnered the courage to ask anything of Lachlan Kincaid when he came, it wouldn’t be a request for three more maids—at least not yet.

She shut her eyes, hearing her father’s words. Ye’ve got a good thing, Glenna. Keep yer head down and do yer work as best ye can.

He had said something to that effect many times over the years. He would have been dismayed to know what his daughter was considering asking of Mr. Kincaid. And perhaps she was a fool—an overambitious one, which was the worst kind, in her father’s eyes. Ambition was not for the likes of the Douglases.

“I want him ta make me innkeeper,” Glenna said.

Dorcas swiveled around toward her, the porridge-covered wooden spoon she held suspended in mid-air as she stared. “Innkeeper?”

“I ken,” Glenna said, turning back to the fire. “’Tis no’ normally done.”

A glob of porridge fell to the floor, and Dorcas hurried to wipe it up with a rag. “Aye, and for good reason. A young woman runnin’ an inn with the likes of the MacKinnon men traipsin’ through? And no husband ta protect her?” Her eyes widened tellingly.

Glenna set the poker back in place. “I could hire on a man ta see ta maintainin’ order, servin’ drink, and doin’ all the heavy liftin’. ’Twould be easy enough.”

“Or”—Dorcas jabbed the spoon at her—“ye could yerself find a nice lad ta marry.”

“Or you could yerself find a nice lad ta marry,” Glenna retorted.

Dorcas waved a hand. “Och, what need have I for a husband? I dinna seek ta become Glengour’s innkeeper. I’m content where I am, m’dear, and besides, I was never bonnie or well-liked as you are.”

Glenna shook her head, picking up the broom and beginning to sweep the pieces of peat that had escaped back into the fireplace.

Dorcas was still watching her. “None of yer modesty now, lass. Ye ken as well as I do ’tis yer kindness and charm that brings so many of the men back here again and again. Take Mr. Guthrie out there.” She jerked her head toward the coffee room. “He could easily go ta The Maidenhead, but he chooses ta come out of his way here.”

“Aye, for mutton pie.”

Dorcas smiled slightly. “That certainly doesna hurt, but he doesna like the service at The Maidenhead, and he’s no’ the only one.” She set the spoon down on the table, shaking her head. “No wonder with Angus MacKinnon ownin’ the place now. People need a pleasant place ta take their whisky.”

Glenna smiled. “Ye’re no’ makin’ a verra strong argument against me becomin’ innkeeper, are ye?”

Dorcas pursed her lips and walked toward Glenna, putting a floury hand on her shoulder. “Ye’re a capable young lass, Glenna. I ken that better than most. But”—she looked at her with sympathy in her eyes—“ye canna read or write, love. How would ye manage the books?”

Glenna swallowed. She was well-aware of the points where she was lacking. “I learned a fair bit with Ava. Fine, a start, at least. But I could learn the rest.”

“Aye, but when? And from whom? I’d teach ye meself if I had a moment where my hands werena covered in flour”—she dusted them off—“or mutton or heaven only kens what else.”

Glenna turned back to sweeping. “Nay, Dorcas, ye’re far too busy. I ken that, and I would never ask it of ye.” Much as she loved the cook, Glenna didn’t think Dorcas would be a particularly good teacher, either. She could be testy with the new maids when they asked questions in the kitchen.

Who would Glenna ask it of, though? Mark, Morna, and Grace all lacked the ability, and even if they hadn’t, Glenna couldn’t ask them to prolong their labor-heavy days to teach her. Besides, Glengour needed an innkeeper soon. They couldn’t wait for Glenna to learn what she needed to know to make the case for taking over.

Dorcas was looking at her with what Glenna suspected was pity, and she avoided the cook’s eye. Pity was the last thing she wanted.

“’Twas a silly thought.” Glenna swept a small pile out of the back door. “Forget I ever mentioned it.”

“Nay, then, love. I never meant that.” Dorcas wiped her hands on her apron and pulled Glenna to face her. “The idea surprised me at first, aye, but there’s a great deal of sense ta what ye say. Ye ken this work better than anyone, and I dinna doubt ye’d do a fine job.”

Glenna looked at her, trying to gauge her sincerity. “I do think I could.”

Dorcas smiled and lifted a shoulder. “There’s no harm in askin’ Mr. Kincaid. He’s a good, kind man. He’ll no’ hold it against ye, even if he says nay.”

Glenna pulled in a large breath. She didn’t want Mr. Kincaid to think she was ungrateful for what she had—for what her family had. It was only thanks to his father that they had been permitted to stay where they were when so many other families had been forced off the land under the last laird.

But the truth was she wanted more—for herself, yes, but mostly for her family.

* * *

Glenna stood on the threshold of the kitchen door that led out into the inn yard behind Glengour, watching the rain fall steadily onto the muddy ground. It had rained all night and morning, and she had put off going out to collect the eggs with the hope that it might stop—or at least come down with less force. A glance at the thick blanket of gray clouds told her that it would be continuing for some time to come, though.

With a little sigh, she hurried outside and toward the small chicken coop Hamish had built before his departure. It housed the five chickens they had acquired a few days ago. Her boots squelched and stuck in the mud as the rain pelted her hair and snood.

She went to the coop door, opening it and eliciting a scurry of activity within.

“Wheesht.” Glenna pushed the chickens back with a hand to prevent them from coming out. She was still getting to know the hens—each one had its own personality, but they were uncannily similar in appearance.

Adjusting to the dark within, her eyes went to the three eggs spread amongst the swaths of straw where the hens usually roosted. “Well done, lasses.” She reached for two eggs and, pulling up her apron to act as a makeshift basket, placed them within. They were still warm. She stretched out her hand for the last egg just as one of the hens brushed past her and out into the rain.

“Och!” She let the door down in a hurry and turned to run after the hen, whose wings were lifted as though she might take flight at any moment in the midst of her teetering, waddling run.

Glenna slowed, one hand holding the hem of her apron to keep the two eggs safe, the other raised in evidence of the fact that she meant no harm.

The hen’s run eased to a walk, and Glenna stepped forward gingerly. But the mud acted like suction on her boots, making a subtle approach all but impossible. “I’ll no’ hurt ye. But ye canna stay out here in the cold and rain.”

The hen took no heed of her, taking another few steps forward, which brought her to the back corner of the inn, where she lowered her head to peck at something on the ground.

Glenna took the opportunity to draw nearer, aware that she had only one hand with which to take hold of the chicken if she hoped to keep the eggs in her apron safe.

She didn’t have the opportunity to try, though, for with her next step, the hen set off running yet again. Glenna went in pursuit, cursing as the eggs dropped and cracked on the ground. Better to lose two eggs now than to let her escape, though, sacrificing many future eggs.

The chase took them across the flagstone yard and all the way to the puddle-pocked mire that was the road. The chicken’s foot stuck in a particularly gummy patch of mud, allowing Glenna to gain on her. She reached out both hands, but the chicken flapped her wings, and Glenna lost her balance, falling onto her hands in the mud.

She looked up and cursed again as a man approaching on horseback suddenly appeared in the foggy blanket of falling rain, his mount’s hoofbeats muffled by the pattering on the soft mud. She scrambled up in time to avoid him as he pulled up on his horse to spare the chicken running madly across the road. He hurriedly swung down from the horse, letting the reins drop as he came to Glenna’s side.

“You look as though you could use some assistance.” He raised his voice to make himself heard over the sound of the rain and supported her arm while she gained as solid footing as she could manage in the sludge.

She looked up at him, blinking as she tried to take stock of her helper amidst the downpour. His clothing was sodden and, along with his face, splashed with mud, making it difficult to discern his features. He wore a cocked hat, but Glenna suspected that, at this point, even the hair beneath was drenched. Her own clothing and hair hung heavy on her.

She looked back to the chicken, who seemed unbothered by the pounding rain, exploring her new territory. “’Tis kind of ye, sir, but I can manage.”

“I insist,” he said genially, as though there was no reason at all to wish to be anywhere but outside in torrential rains.

Glenna considered protesting more, but she had been taught not to counter those above her, and any man able to ride such a fine horse or afford such a fine coat was certainly above her, so she kept her peace.

“Where she means ta go, I couldna tell ye.” Glenna watched the hen with a keen eye, hoping she wouldn’t fly over the hedge and into the brush. “She has a cozy, dry coop awaitin’ her.”

“She wants adventure,” the man said, and his upbeat tone told her that he could sympathize with the desire. “Come. You approach her from that side, and I will do so from here.” He spoke with a decided Scottish lilt, though his manner of speech was more polished than most who passed through these parts.

They cornered the hen and, in a skirmish that sent mud flecks flying, wings flapping, and limbs flailing, they pursued the fowl together. Finally, Glenna managed to get both hands around the chicken.

“Thank you, sir,” Glenna said breathlessly, keeping a firm hold on the hen’s wings as she set her in the crook of her arm. The chicken’s feathers were streaked with mud, and her heart beat wildly against her feathered chest as her efforts to escape grew more feeble.

The man gave a breathy chuckle, wiping at his face with the back of his wrist, which only served to streak mud across his cheek. His bright smile stood out amongst the dirt. “My pleasure.” He walked over to where his horse stood and took the reins back in hand.

The hen wiggled, and Glenna resettled her, looking at the man through narrowed eyes as a thought occurred to her. “Were ye comin’ ta Glengour, sir?”

“Dunverlockie,” he replied, though his eyes had brightened at her question. “Is that Glengour, then?” He nodded at the bit of the inn that was visible behind Glenna.

“Aye.” Her gaze raked over his face, looking for evidence that the suspicions now forming in her mind were correct. Underneath the mud, she thought she could see a resemblance . . . .

He reached a hand to her shoulder and gave a bracing smile. “You have no notion how welcome the sight of you is!”

She blinked at the familiarity of the gesture, but he hardly seemed to notice, dropping his hand and glancing at the inn again with an incredulous shake of the head. “I have been lost for the past two hours and more.”

“Och,” she said. “I’m sorry ta hear that, sir, but ye’re just a matter of two miles from the castle, Mr. . . . ?”

“Innes,” he said. “Alistair Innes.”

She had been right. He had finally come.

“And you are . . . ?” he asked.

“Glenna Douglas, sir. I work here at the inn. ’Tis a pleasure ta meet ye, Mr. Innes. Yer arrival has been awaited with great anticipation.” She blinked as the rain fell more quickly. It occurred to her that they were still standing in the middle of the road—and in the pouring rain. “Will ye come inside? I’ll pour ye a dram and find ye somethin’ ta eat as a way of thankin’ ye. Ye can warm yerself by the fire afore goin’ on ta the castle. Perhaps the rain will slow by then.” The hen made another, sudden attempt to free herself, and Mr. Innes reached over to lend his assistance, bracing Glenna’s hands with his own gloved ones.

The hen surrendered again, and Mr. Innes looked up at Glenna with an amused grin. “You will have to keep an eye on this one.”

She nodded somewhat absently, dazzled by his charming smile. She had heard a great deal about Alistair Innes, and she knew to be on her guard.

“I gladly accept your generous offer”—he reached for his horse’s reins—“but perhaps we should see your charge back to her coop first.” He put out a hand to invite Glenna to precede him.

She hesitated a moment then began walking. “Ye’re too kind, sir. There’s no need for ye ta stay in the rain. I’ve already covered ye in mud.”

He looked down at himself. “Covered me a second time, you mean? I was wearing a fine coat of it when I arrived.”

She glanced at the streak of mud on his face and smiled reluctantly just as Mark ran out of the stables to meet them.

“This is the mistress’s brother,” Glenna said to Mark. “Mr. Innes.”

Mark greeted him and took the reins. “I’ll see ta yer horse, sir.”

“Thank you,” Mr. Innes replied in an affable voice. “You needn’t worry about cleaning her. Undoubtedly both of us will become dirty again when I leave shortly, and I would rather you not waste your efforts.”

“As ye wish, sir.” Mark nodded and left with the horse, and Glenna and Mr. Innes continued toward the back of the inn. The hen, seeming to sense where she was being taken, increased her efforts to escape once again.

“Feisty thing!” Mr. Innes put a hand on either side of her as they walked. “Is this a regular occurrence? Or how have you managed to keep her from flying away till now?”

“We’ve only had her a few days—she’s still becomin’ accustomed ta Glengour. But she’s been cooped up all day, and I dinna think she fancies it verra much.”

“Ah,” he said. “And these are casualties of your battle, I take it?”

A few feet in front of them, the yolks of the two cracked eggs had diluted and were spreading with each drop of rain.

“Just so, sir,” Glenna replied, feeling another flash of annoyance at the hen.

When they reached the coop, Mr. Innes lifted the latch and opened the door just enough for Glenna to set the hen back inside with her fellows, who again crowded the door.

“Victory,” Mr. Innes said, setting the latch in place and brushing off his hands once she was safely inside.

Glenna suspected that, failing Mr. Innes’s help, one or two of the others might have made the same attempt, and that would have surely been a lost cause.

She wiped her hands on her apron. “Now, sir, for that dram and food I promised ye.” She led the way back to the front of the inn, and, once they had wiped their shoes as well as they could, she led him to the table nearest the fire.

He stepped up onto the hearth and closed his eyes, letting out a little groan of contentment. “So heat does still exist!”

It was easier to see him now that the pounding rain was no longer obscuring Glenna’s vision. With everything so wet, it was difficult to tell, but Glenna thought he was lighter in coloring than either of his sisters—or perhaps it was the good-humored tilt to his mouth and the laughter lines at the edges of his eyes that gave such an impression. And though he was not as broad in the shoulders as Hamish or Mr. Kincaid, he was built on steady, strong lines and stood a good six inches taller than Glenna.

He looked over and smiled at her, taking off his hat to reveal a head of wet, brown hair which, though pulled into a queue at his neck, was in a state of disarray, with varying degrees of wet and curl. It suited him—a high compliment, given the specks and streaks of mud on his face. Glenna suspected there was precious little that wouldn’t suit Alistair Innes.

“If ye’d like ta remove yer coat,” she said, “I’ll set it out ta dry for a bit.”

“Thank you,” he said, beginning to wriggle out of the heavy, mud-caked garment. He struggled as the water-logged fabric resisted his efforts, and after a moment of hesitation, Glenna went to his aid.

It wasn’t the first time Glenna had helped a customer out of his coat, but it was certainly the only time doing so had quickened her heartbeat as she helped strip the coat fabric from his wet sleeves. Once she felt he could finish the task on his own, she stepped aside, turning her gaze away from the way his white shirt clung to his arms and chest and directing her eyes instead toward the fire.

“Thank you, Miss Douglas,” he said as she took his coat from him.

She set it over the nearest chair back, which she pulled nearer the fire, arranging the coat so that the heat would distribute as evenly as possible. “Just Glenna, if ye please, sir.”

“Just Alistair, then, if you please.”

She swallowed. Little wonder that smile had taken so many women’s hearts hostage. Glenna could feel the way her own fluttered, trying to escape her chest just as the hen had escaped the coop. She kept a tight hold—a strangling one, even—on it. “I’ll just go fetch yer food and drink, then.”

She took deep breaths as she made her way to the kitchen and, in a decision meant to put her heart in its place, instructed the maid, Grace, to serve Alistair—Mr. Innes, rathera dram and a plate of mutton pie.

She didn’t allow herself to return to the coffee room, keeping to the kitchen where she caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection of a pot. Her eyes grew large. She hadn’t expected to find a trim and tidy appearance after the events of the past hour, but things were worse even than she had guessed, with mud and rain plastering her hair to her face.

She hurried to wipe the dirt away with a rag, and to Dorcas’s questions about the abundance of mud she had brought in with her, Glenna responded with a short answer about one of the hens getting loose, leaving out the bit about Mr. Innes’s role in capturing it.

Her face was cleaned easily enough, but the mud in her tangled hair would have to be washed out later, so she retied her wet snood and tucked the escaped locks of hair into her plaits as well as she could to allow her to continue about her work, content that she wouldn’t see Mr. Innes again tonight. Perhaps not ever. He would be at Dunverlockie, with little reason to venture to Glengour.

An hour later, Grace returned to the kitchen with a mug and plate on her tray. “Mr. Innes is leavin’, miss.”

Glenna glanced at Dorcas, whose head had whipped around, and she hurriedly looked away as Grace set the tray down on the table.

“He said he wishes ta see ye afore he goes, though,” Grace said. “I’ll just go tell Mark ta ready his horse.”

Avoiding Dorcas’s eye, Glenna nodded and, resisting the impulse to straighten her skirts and tuck her hair behind her ear, she left the kitchen.

Mr. Innes was still seated, his hands stretched out toward the fire. He looked up as she approached, and the sight of his clean face made her blink. Grace must have brought him a wet rag, and Glenna was certain she would have been better off with only his muddy face to remember.

“You abandoned me,” he said without a trace of resentment.

She stuttered as she tried to come up with a reasonable excuse for handing him off to Grace, but he stood and chuckled. “I am teasing. A terrible and incurable habit of mine, I’m afraid. I had thought you might wish to warm yourself by the fire, as well, after our little adventure outside, but I imagine you had more important things to do.”

Flustered, Glenna hurried to say, “Nay, sir. I’d no notion . . . .” The thought of sitting with Mr. Innes for an entire hour brought warmth to her cheeks that had nothing to do with the fire before them.

“Do not give it another thought,” he said amiably. “I only wished to express my gratitude before leaving. I am feeling much better prepared to face the elements again, thanks to you. I have one final request, though.”

“Of course, sir,” she said.

“Apparently, I am capable of misunderstanding even the simplest of instructions. I need you to point me in the right direction and tell me how I can arrive at Dunverlockie in a way that leaves no room for mistakes. Do you think you can help me with that?”

She laughed. “Aye, sir, I can.”

He raised his brows. “And you promise I will not have to rely upon mythical signs to point me there?”

Glenna shook her head. “Nay, sir. There are no signs between here and Dunverlockie. There’s no need for ‘em. Ye canna miss the castle.” She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head. “What do ye mean, though, about mythical signs?”

He grimaced as he shrugged on his coat, and Glenna felt simultaneous relief and disappointment that he managed it without needing her assistance. “My sister’s letter told me to take the right fork at each crossroads until I reached the sign directing me to Glengour Inn, which would instruct me to go left.”

Glenna nodded.

He stared at her for a moment. “There was no sign instructing me to go left.”

Her brows drew together. “Nay, sir, yer sister was correct. There’s a sign a mile or so afore ye arrive here. Perhaps the rain obscured it.”

He shook his head, straightening the ruffled jabot at his neck, which was limp and wrinkled from his journey and failed to cover his strong neck. “There may have been a sign at some point in the past, but I assure you, it exists no longer.”

Glenna frowned more deeply. Just a few weeks ago, they’d had a sign posted where the road forked toward Dunverlockie one way and toward Craiglinne the other. It had been done in the hope that it would alert more travelers to an alternative to The Maidenhead in Craiglinne. So far, the sign seemed to have been successful. At least, they had certainly been seeing new faces.

She suspected that Mr. Innes had simply missed the sign, but she wouldn’t suggest such a thing to him. Her heart might be more ambitious than her father would like, but the deference to authority he had taught her was deeply ingrained.

“I’m verra sorry about that, sir.”

He cocked a brow as he set his hat atop his head. “Alistair.”

Lips pressed in a line, she nodded and walked him to the door, which he opened for her. The rain had lessened slightly, a slow but steady pattering on the wet flagstones. Once Mr. Innes had his horse in hand, Glenna walked him to the road, where the signs of their struggle with the hen were becoming obscured with the oozing mud, and there she explained to him how to reach Dunverlockie.

“That does seem easy enough.” He climbed into the saddle, situating himself in a way that displayed his ease on horseback.

Glenna bid him farewell, hoping for her own sake that she would have no occasion to see him again.

She had other things to focus on, after all. It was no small task to gather her courage to speak with Mr. Kincaid whenever he next came. To do so would mean risking her dreams being crushed, of course, but if there was any chance at all that he might agree to her suggestion, she had to try. With a cottar for a father, six younger siblings, and precious little money to share amongst them, Glenna felt an obligation to do anything she could to improve her family’s circumstances, even if her father would have advised her against it at first.

He wouldn’t complain if it was successful, certainly. And if it was unsuccessful . . . well, he need never know she had even asked.