Donella eyed the man sitting across from her in the carriage. With his hat tipped over his eyes, arms crossed over his chest, and long legs stretched out, he looked ridiculously comfortable. She, however, was crowded against the side of the coach as she tried to avoid jostling into him.
She couldn’t really blame him for taking up room. Logan Kendrick was a veritable giant. But she could blame him for being cavalier, high-handed, and incredibly annoying. In fact, Donella was fairly certain she already hated the man.
Thankfully, at least he’d stopped talking. She fully understood the awkwardness of their situation, but she had no intention of offering an apology for any inconvenience. It wasn’t her fault that neither Reverend Mother nor her uncle had thought to provide a chaperone. Unfortunately, it had never occurred to her to ask about such a pertinent detail, either.
In fact, she’d had no control over the travel arrangements whatsoever. She’d told Mr. High and Mighty Kendrick exactly that after yet another delay in setting out. After all, how could she be blamed for one of the horses throwing a shoe just as Foster was pulling out from the inn to come fetch them?
As for the lack of a chaperone, well, what did it truly matter? As far as Donella was concerned, her life was as good as over. She’d failed at being a nun, and after working so hard at it, too. Just like she’d worked so hard at everything else in her life before joining the convent.
It was perplexing, because she used to be good at things, whether it was managing a large household, helping the local vicar in his charitable work, or excelling at her studies and music. These days she seemed to be stumbling about in the dark without a clue what to do next.
The carriage jolted through a large rut, forcing Donella to grab for the strap. Her companion stirred not a jot.
Mr. Kendrick was big, bold, and swaggering, with a self-confidence that set her teeth on edge. He was also quite handsome, with thick black hair, strong features, and eyes the blue of a mountain loch—deep, clear, and so penetrating they stole one’s breath.
When Donella had first emerged from the guesthouse, those eyes had swept over her in frank appraisal, no doubt because she looked like a perfect dowd in her ridiculous bonnet and gown. The sisters had done their best, but her old clothes had long since been given to the poor or ripped apart and refashioned for other purposes. She hadn’t cared one whit about her appearance during the week she’d wandered about the village and surrounding countryside, worrying about her future and waiting for her escort to Blairgal.
But she had cared when Logan Kendrick fastened his sardonic gaze on her, sizing her up and obviously finding her lacking. The notion that he would think her attractive was ridiculous, which rendered the need for a chaperone entirely moot. He’d probably shoot himself before engaging in a flirtation with her, much less putting her in a situation that would necessitate he do the honorable thing by offering marriage.
She scowled at his sleeping form. “I’d boil myself in oil before I married the likes of you,” she muttered. “Just like one of the early martyrs.”
When Kendrick tipped up his hat to look at her, Donella almost slid off her seat.
“Careful, lass, or you’ll end up arse over teakettle,” he said, after thrusting out a hand to stop her slide. “Now, what were you saying? Something about marriage and martyrdom?”
Donella righted herself with as much dignity as she could. “You misheard me. I was praying to Saint Valentine.”
Oh, God. She’d pulled the first martyred saint she could think of out of her frazzled brain. The fact that Valentine was also the patron saint of romantic love was incredibly embarrassing.
“That makes perfect sense,” Kendrick said. “No lass in her right mind would ever think to equate marriage and martyrdom.” “Really? Why do you think there were so many convents in the first place?”
“Maybe those poor ladies just didn’t meet the right man.”
He was clearly twitting her. She had the urge to stick her tongue out at him.
To avoid the temptation, she made a point of lifting the shade and squinting out against the setting sun. Would they never arrive at their inn? She wanted to crawl under a pile of covers and sleep, desperate to forget for a few hours what a mess her life had become.
“It’s not much longer,” Kendrick said in a more sympathetic tone. “The Perth Bridge should be only a few minutes ahead.”
“We’re stopping in Tibbermore, correct?” A small village, Tibbermore was a more secluded and private stop than the bustling market town of Perth.
Kendrick rolled his broad shoulders, trying to stretch in the tight quarters. “Yes, and not a moment too soon. I’ve had enough of carriages for one day.”
“We’ll have a long day tomorrow, I’m afraid.”
“Aye, but then we’ll reach Blairgal fairly early the day after.” He smiled. “I’m sure you’ll be glad to get home.”
She wondered if Blairgal or Haddon House, her brother’s small estate, would even feel like home anymore. She’d never expected to see either place again.
She forced a smile. “Yes, of course.”
“And happy to see your family, no doubt.”
“Why would you assume otherwise?” She tried not to bristle, but why did he even care?
His eyebrows ticked up. “I’m simply trying to make conversation to pass the tedium of the journey.”
She winced. Clearly, her nerves were getting the best of her. “I apologize, sir. I suppose I’ve fallen out of the habit of polite conversation.”
He regarded her with a softer eye. “Carmelites observe the Great Silence, do they not?”
Donella was surprised he would know such an arcane detail. “Outside of chapel or meals, we observed silence. Only in the most pressing of circumstances did we break it.”
“Did you like it, all that quiet?”
She thought about it for a few moments. “I grew up in a noisy family, and there was a great deal of clan business taking place and visitors coming and going at the castle. The quiet was something of a relief.”
In particular, Donella’s mother had dragged chaos in her wake, making life a trial. But family history was certainly not something to share with a stranger—or anyone.
“Right,” Kendrick said. “Your uncle is a clan chieftain, I believe. The Haddons are one of the larger Sept families in Clan Graham.”
She’d almost forgotten how nice it was to talk to a true Highlander. Few people understood the complicated and sometimes-frustrating tangle of relationships and clan ties.
“Malcolm Haddon, one of my father’s brothers, is the current chief. And Lord Riddick, my great-uncle, is heavily involved in clan business. Gatherings were held at least once a year when I was growing up, and there were always celebrations around holidays and marriages. It was quite…lively.”
“That’s one way to describe the gathering of the clan,” he replied. “Barely controlled mayhem would be more accurate.”
“It sounds like you didn’t much care for them, either.”
He gave a small shrug, a shifting of those impressive shoulders. “I did when I was young. What lad wouldn’t be fond of drinking, feasting, and dancing with pretty Highland lasses?”
She didn’t think she imagined the hint of self-mockery in his tone. “What changed for you, then?”
His sudden smile was charming—and insincere. “Nothing changed. I simply grew older and wiser. So, you enjoyed your peaceful life in the convent, did you? Coming from a large and noisy family myself, I can almost envy such a thing.”
Donella recognized the polite dodge. “I didn’t always enjoy it. The silence, I mean.”
“It was too quiet sometimes. You could practically hear a fly crawling across a windowpane or the stones of the building settling into the ground. At night, you might think you were entirely alone, with not another soul in the world.” The memories of her cloistered life rose before her, poignant, complicated, and as painful as one’s first love.
“Sometimes I imagined I could hear voices from the graveyard, calling to me from under the earth,” she murmured, almost to herself.
Then she actually registered those words and heat flooded her face. “And now I do sound like a character from one of those lurid tales.” She gave an embarrassed chuckle. “How silly of me.”
In fact, she sounded mentally unhinged like her—
Donella slammed the door on that thought.
Kendrick simply raised an eyebrow. “Ah, so there were mad monks and shrieking apparitions wandering about the place. You’ve been holding out on me, Miss Haddon.”
“It was a convent, Mr. Kendrick, not a monastery. No monks of any sort. Or apparitions. Reverend Mother wouldn’t allow it.”
He grinned. “I do hope the cemetery was at least appropriately gothic, with morose angels leaning sideways over crumbling gravestones.”
His smile was so likable it was hard not to return it. Logan Kendrick could exude charm as easily as whisky flowed from a bottle. Fortunately, she was immune to that sort of thing.
“Nothing of the sort, I’m afraid. The previous owner kindly donated the manor house and grounds to the church when he built a new mansion near Edinburgh. Many generations of his family are buried on the grounds, so he stipulated that the sisters must maintain the graves as long as we remained in residence. My room overlooked the oldest part of the cemetery.” She flashed a wry smile. “When the wind blew through the trees on a stormy night, it felt like the dead were whispering to each other, moaning from beyond the grave.”
“Can’t say that I blame the poor devils. Must get rather boring down there in a moldy old box.”
“You do realize that the souls of the dead are long departed. It’s only dust and bones in the ground.”
“I’m a Highlander, lass,” he said. “Ye ken we believe in ghoulies and the fae folk. It’s our birthright.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that,” she dryly replied.
He studied her with a slight frown, as if trying to puzzle something out.
“And what about all that praying? Nuns and people like you pray all the time, especially for blighters like me. That’s why you’re all so holy. Someone has to do it to make up for the rest of us.”
She blinked at his sudden change in demeanor. “I never said I was holy, Mr. Kendrick. And nuns are people, as good or as flawed as anyone else. There’s nothing extraordinary about us.”
He waggled a hand. “Of course nuns are different. Not like regular women at all.”
Was he deliberately trying to annoy her? If so, it was working. “That’s ridiculous. Nuns are no different from other women, not in the essentials.”
“Except for one thing. They don’t like—” He caught himself, as if suddenly rethinking the nature of their conversation.
He looked out the window. “Sorry. Forgot what I was going to say.”
Now he wanted to call a retreat? I don’t think so.
“We don’t like men, you mean? Believe me, you wouldn’t be the first to say it. Men generally think we’re dried-up old spinsters, hiding away from the world.”
Of course, in her case it just might be true. Not the dried-up part, but the hiding away part. It was probably why she found his remarks so annoying.
“That was not what I was going to say,” he said defensively.
“It doesn’t matter.”
She made a show of pulling back the shade and peering out the window. “I do believe we’re about to cross the Perth Bridge. Did you know it’s quite the landmark in this part of Scotland?”
“It has eight arches, from what I understand. Quite the engineering marvel.”
“Miss Haddon,” he started again through clenched teeth.
He was cut off when they come to a jolting halt.
“Now what?” she exclaimed. “This is getting to be ridiculous.”
“I’ll find out. You just stay put.”
She glared at him. “Sir, if I wish to step out of the carriage for a breath of fresh air, I will do exactly that.”
He muttered something that sounded like bloody woman before reaching for the door handle. He was halfway out the door, ducking low under the frame, when he froze.
“Goddammit,” he cursed. “Sir, taking the Lord’s name in vain will not help the situation, whatever it is.”
He looked over his shoulder, his expression so grim that any further reprimand died on her lips.
“Unfortunately, Miss Haddon, my language wasn’t strong enough.”