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The Highland Commander
By Amy Jarecki
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She cannot resist the man behind the mask… As the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish earl, Lady Magdalen Keith is not one to partake in lavish balls or other frivolities. Yet at her father’s urging, she agrees to dance with the battle-weary officers at this year’s holiday masquerade. It’s practically her civic duty! But when one such officer–whose dashing good looks cannot be disguised by a mere mask–sweeps her off her feet and into his arms, the innocent lass can’t help herself. Her lips are his for the taking.
But will he betray his country for a kiss? Navy lieutenant Aiden Murray has spent too many months at sea to be immune to the charms of this lovely beauty. Even after he returns to his ship, she lives in his dreams. But when he discovers Maddie’s true identity-and learns that her father is accused of treason-will the brawny Scot risk his life to follow his heart?
“This book hit all the right notes for me: swoon-worthy hero (oh, so, swoon-worthy); a sympathetic and capable heroine; intrigue and action scenes (fast paced); witty dialogue and banter; and sensual love scenes that grow the relationship. An excellent read.” — The Romance Dish
Stonehaven, Scotland, 31 December 1707
Night made darker by dense clouds drew attention to the fireballs. They rolled down Allardice Street, illuminating men dressed in black who levered iron rods to push barrels of blazing tar toward the harbor. Lit only by flickering fires, the players' faces took on hollow shadows akin to the grim reaper.
Ghostly and cadaverous.
Atop the hill on the edge of Dunnottar Parish, Lady Magdalen Keith watched the spectacle below. She shuddered while her teeth chattered. During any Hogmanay celebration, Highland players were meant to look like Death, representing the old year's passing to give rise to the new. Maddie never cared to think about morbid endings. She preferred to look to the future.
Though she clutched her hands together inside a sealskin muff, the icy cold of winter made her shiver all the more. Over the fur-lined collar of her cloak, she glanced at her father. "What do you wish for in the year of our Lord 1708?"
Dressed in dashing finery, the earl smiled, his eyes glistening from the light of the brazier burning beside them. "Perhaps 'tis time to bring the true king back from exile and boot his half sister off the throne?"
Maddie laughed. She could have predicted such a response. A consummate Jacobite, William Keith, Earl Marischal of Scotland, wasn't one to hide his true allegiance from his illegitimate daughter, though he did represent Aberdeenshire in the new British Parliament.
Regardless of his predictability, Maddie harbored her own reasons to agree with him. "I wish the queen would remove the vile dragoons patrolling the north. Two more women arrived at the hospital this morn—set upon by those beasts." Rape and pillage weren't new to the northeastern village of Stonehaven, but the miscreants had changed through the ages. Red-coated dragoons infesting the Highlands believed they had the right to take anything they pleased, including local women. Since before she was born, the entire island of Britain had been embroiled in war and unrest. And the present state of affairs had spurred Maddie to open a hospital as soon as she reached her majority two years past.
Da placed a firm hand on her shoulder and squeezed. "You're providing an honorable service. Of that you can be proud."
She pursed her lips. "I'd rather see our women safe than be prideful."
"That is why we must continue to fight for the cause." He gestured toward the dark outlines of two frigates moored in the harbor. "We shall think on that no more. Tonight we celebrate the new year. Have you your mask?"
"'Tis in the coach." Maddie glanced over her shoulder at the waiting team of horses. "Thank you for inviting me."
"Thank you for attending." His nostrils flared officiously. "I do wish we could spend more time together."
Rarely did Da ever make such a comment. Unaccustomed to words of affection, Maddie blinked to push away the sudden sting at the backs of her eyes. She'd been on her own since the age of seven, and though her father rarely denied her anything, he was a capricious presence in her life. Due to his station, he was oft away in London. Otherwise he spent his time with his new wife and children. Regrettably, the countess, Lady Mary, refused to include Magdalen as part of the family.
Thoroughly snubbed, Maddie had pledged her life to proving her value to society—not to the aristocracy, but to the people who comprised Scotland's backbone. True, she'd maintained the title of Lady Magdalen Keith, but she didn't feel very ladylike. Nor did she feel aristocratic. In fact, she communed far better with those who frequented her small hospital than she did with her father. Regardless, she appreciated the time Da spared for her, and his unfaltering maintenance, which supported her cause of the care of battered women.
Moon glow shone through a break in the clouds over the harbor. She pointed to bobbing skiffs ferrying men from the ships to shore. "It looks like they'll catch the end of the fireball parade."
"Are you excited for the dancing?" Da asked.
"Mortified is more apt." She cringed. "I've only ever danced with Tristan."
"You'll be fine. As a matter of fact, I recall the old guard was quite light on his feet in his day."
"Aye? So says Agnes."
Da always gave Maddie a sideways look when she mentioned her lady's maid, though Agnes had been Magdalen's companion since birth. He tweaked his daughter's hood. "A masque is a delightful way to flirt with society incognito. I know you to be a lady of sober character. However, you can be as unabashed as you please on the dance floor this eve and none will be the wiser." He offered his elbow. "I suggest you dance with the officers. They'll be wanting to kick up their heels. I daresay an officer in the Royal Navy would be a good catch for you, my dear—something to think on for certain."
Placing her hand in the crook of Da's arm, Maddie sighed. "Mayhap, as long as he's a Scot and doesn't mind living in Stonehaven." Which she doubted would be the case. Sailors were renowned for being adventuresome. Elsewise who on earth would be able to tolerate such deplorable conditions while living aboard a ship, constantly at the mercy of the sea?
After riding from Stonehaven Harbour to Dunnottar Castle, First Lieutenant Aiden Murray stepped out of the coach and stretched. Dear Lord, it felt good to be off the ship.
"Bloody oath, 'tis so cold my cods are about to freeze," Second Lieutenant MacBride said. He must have received top marks in complaining at university, for he never ceased to have something unpleasant to say.
"Then you'd best keep moving, else someone else will be plowing your wife's roses," said Captain Thomas Polwarth. God love the man, he could be counted on for a stern retort to any complaint.
As Aiden turned, his jaw dropped. Aye, he'd heard tales of the magnificence of Dunnottar, but even beneath the cover of darkness, he was awestruck as he beheld the dramatic fortress dominating the expansive peninsula ahead. A steep path led down to the shore, and from there torches illuminated hundreds of steps climbing to the arched gateway, looking like something straight out of medieval folklore. On the wall-walk above, sentries stood guard, their forms lit by braziers with flames leaping high on this chilly eve.
"This way." Aiden beckoned, leading the men down the steep path.
"Would you have a look at that," said Third Lieutenant MacPherson, Aiden's wayward cabinmate. "Christ. How in God's name did Cromwell take this fortress? I reckon our cannons would miss her curtain walls by a hundred feet from the Royal Mary, even with all guns cranked to the timbers."
"She has stood the test of time for certain," Aiden called over his shoulder, speeding the pace. "Quit your gawking and make haste. I'm starved." He was, too. He'd been on duty until the ship anchored and missed his meal to catch one of the last skiffs to shore. With the promise of something tastier than the Royal Mary's pickled herring, there was no bloody chance he'd miss the fare the Earl Marischal would serve this Hogmanay eve.
"Have you been here afore, Your Lordship?" Aiden's superior officer, the captain, used his formal address only to be an arse.
"I would have thought the duke and the earl would have been kissing cousins."
Aiden looked skyward with a shake of his head. "I beg your pardon, sir. My da's a Whig and the earl sides with the Tory party."
"Bloody Whigs," said MacPherson.
Aiden chose not to respond. Since the Act of Union one year past forced England's merger with Scotland's navy, he'd grown more sympathetic with the Tories as well. Though he'd rather not let his loyalties become common knowledge at the moment. He'd be the one to break the news to his father in due course.
As they started the steep climb up to the gates, Polwarth slipped and crashed into Aiden's back. "God's teeth, 'tis slicker than an icy deck."
Steadying the captain with his elbow, Aiden chuckled under his breath. Fit as a stag, he could sprint up the steep slope to the gate even with ice making the stone steps slippery. And it was all he could do to suppress his urge to run. Officers didn't race through castle gates like wee lads. But by the saints, he'd been aboard the Royal Mary for the past month without setting foot ashore. Bloody oath, he intended to kick up his heels this eve—swill ale, swing the lassies in a reel—mayhap he'd even find a bonny lass he fancied.
Damn the cold.
Damn political posturing.
Damn the war.
And whilst I'm at it, damn the queen.
This was Hogmanay—a pagan Scottish holiday—and he would enjoy the piss out of it for once in his miserable highborn life.
Before he reached the gate, he stopped and looked to his companions, thirty paces behind and looking like a gaggle of old men. "Put on your bloody masks."
"What?" sniggered MacPherson. "Do you not want to hear your name boomed throughout the hall?"
MacBride laughed. "The Right Royal and Very Miserable—"
"Don't forget Honorable," piped Captain Polwarth.
True, Aiden could tolerate a ribbing from his mates, but the captain? Good God, he was sunk.
"Aye, the Miserable yet Honorable Lord Aiden Murray," MacBride finished.
"Shut it." Aiden tied his bandit's mask in place just beneath his tricorn hat. The officers had received masks from groomsmen once they'd reached the shore—compliments of the earl, as were the coaches that had ferried them to the castle. "Last I checked I was First Lieutenant Murray, division officer of the watch."
Stepping beside him, Captain Polwarth clapped his shoulder. "Nay, tonight you're a courtier behind a mask, m'lord."
"A rogue," said MacBride.
MacPherson snorted. "A rake."
"I'm a bloody maker of merriment." Aiden gave him a shove. "Give me a meal and a tankard of ale and I'll be in heaven."
"Not me. I'm looking for a woman to ignite my fire." MacPherson secured his long-beaked mask in place. At least Aiden didn't have to put up with a crook on his face that looked like a phallus.
MacBride pushed to the lead. "Ye ken what you need, Murray?"
Aiden followed beneath the sharp-spiked portcullis. "I ken I bloody well do not need you to tell me."
"Och aye?" MacBride snorted. "'Tis on account of you're too embarrassed."
"You're full of shite." Aiden threw his shoulders back and clenched his fists. He could best every one of them, and showing an iota of fear now would only serve to illicit a month of jibes in the officers' quarters—but he knew what was coming, and the twist in his gut only served to increase his dread.
"I agree with MacBride." MacPherson jabbed him in the shoulder. "Young Aiden here needs to dip his wick."
"Ye miserable, ox-brained maggot." Aiden could have slammed his fist into the papier mâché beak on the bastard's mask. They'd all guessed he was a virgin, though he'd never admitted it to a soul. How was he supposed to sample the offerings of the finer sex? He'd gone to university at the age of seventeen, spent three years with his nose in volumes of books, and from there joined the Scottish navy, where he'd scarcely had a chance to step ashore. Aye, the whores in port always tempted him, rubbing their buxom breasts against his chest, but it took only one peek at a flesh ulcer to turn his gut inside out.
At the age of two and twenty, the last thing he needed was to contract the bloody pox.
Regardless of his experience or lack thereof, Aiden refused to allow MacPherson's remark to pass. Oh no. There wasn't a self-respecting sailor in all of Christendom who wasn't man enough to come back with a retort. "And whilst we're ashore, make certain you go shag your mother."
Take that, ye bastard.
Before the braggart could take a swing and start a brawl on the icy gateway steps, a yeoman stepped between them. "Welcome the Royal Scots Navy."
Aiden shot a look to Captain Polwarth and grinned. "It seems news of the Act of Union hasn't reached this far north."
"Beg your pardon, sir," said the yeoman. "Only the Royal Mary and the Caledonia are moored in our harbor. Mark me. No bleeding English warships would be welcomed to a Hogmanay gathering at Dunnottar."
"I would think no less from the Earl Marischal," said the captain.
"Indeed." The yeoman gestured to the gatehouse. "Gentlemen, if you'll check your weapons, we shall escort you to the gallery."
Once they were inside the enormous fortress grounds, a sentry ushered Aiden and the other officers past the old keep to the north range, where stood the more modern buildings of the castle. Luck rained down upon him when he found the dining hall spread with platters piled with meats and slices of fine white bread to fill his gullet. Aiden continually ate like a glutton, yet never managed to put on an ounce of fat.
Tankards of ale in hand, he and Lieutenant Fraser MacPherson headed from the dining hall to the long gallery, where the music had already grown jaunty. Though constantly at odds with him, Aiden always stepped ashore with the stout Highlander, the son of the MacPherson laird. They quarreled like brothers, though if Aiden had to choose anyone from the crew to watch his back, it would be Fraser MacPherson… or the captain.
Aiden jabbed his mate in the ribs. "Why did you choose a beaked mask? You look like a charlatan."
"Isn't that what a masquerade is about?" MacPherson's grin stretched under the ugly black nose. "Besides, the lassies like charlatans."
Aiden rather doubted such wisdom. "Do they now?"
"Aye, but you wouldn't ken anything about that, young pup."
"Two years my senior and you're so much wiser in the ways of the world, aye?" Pushing through the crowd toward a gathering of more masked gentlemen, Aiden took a healthy swallow of ale.
"Too right." MacPherson slapped him on the back, making froth slop down Aiden's doublet.
He brushed away the mess. "Well then, why is it I outrank you?"
"That's easy. Your father's a duke."
Nothing like a cutting slight to make Aiden's gut clench—most every officer in the navy was the second son of a noble lord. "You ken as well as I my da has nothing to do with my rank." Holy Christ, how many times must he prove himself? Being the second son of a duke should have made his lot easier, but thus far his birthright had only brought a heavier burden. Aiden had learned early on that he had to be better skilled with a sword, have better aim with a musket, be wittier at the captain's table, and sing like a lark while doing it all.
His biggest problem?
Aiden hadn't yet perfected the art of being a rake.
According to every officer he knew, Aiden should have established his reputation in every port in Britain. Unfortunately, thus far he'd failed miserably. Of course he blamed the Royal Mary's ridiculously long stints at sea. How in God's name was a sailor supposed to gain experience in the boudoir when aboard a ship full of foulmouthed, smelly men?
"Jesus, I've died and have gone to heaven." MacPherson's jaw dropped like a simpleton's while he gaped at the dancers.
Aiden followed his friend's line of sight. He inhaled sharply, and his fist tightened around his tankard's handle. The woman dancing a reel smiled as if a dozen torches formed an archway around her. She wore a shimmering blue gown, and her fair tresses curled down the back of a slender neck, secured by a plume of feathers. Though a bejeweled mask hid part of her face, by the smile on her rosy lips, Aiden could tell the lass was bonny—possibly the bonniest woman in the gallery. In an instant his breathing turned ragged, his curiosity sizzled. If only he could slip behind her and untie the mask's bow and reveal all of her face. Was her porcelain skin completely flawless?
She skipped and twirled like a nymph. Above the drum and fiddle, Aiden caught her laughter. Not high-pitched like a silly gel's, but sultry, stirring a base desire that had become familiar.
His heart practically leaped out of his chest.
MacPherson gave him a nudge. "I saw her first."
Aiden arched an eyebrow. "Stand down. That's an order." Being a senior officer did have its merits, and before the braggart could make a move, Aiden strode straight to the line of dancers. He tapped the lady's partner on the shoulder. "Cutting in."
The man gave a haughty cough. "I beg your pardon? Have you officers forgotten your manners whilst at sea?"
"Forgive me, sir. I meant no impertinence, 'tis just that the ship sets sail at dawn and I haven't much time." Perhaps the rake in him had finally come to call. Aiden handed the man his tankard of ale, then stared directly at the lady, who stood aghast with her hands on her hips while the other dancers skipped in a circle. He bowed slowly and politely. The last thing he needed was to ruin his chances before he even kent the lassie's name. "Forgive me, m'lady. Regrettably, poor sailors must make merry when the opportunity arises. Have mercy on a young lieutenant. On the morrow I'll be back at sea for months on end, leagues away from civilization." And such sweet visions as this lass.
Gripping the tankard with white knuckles, the man didn't budge. "Do you approve, my dear?"
The beauty gave Aiden a look from head to toe. "Very well. After all, you told me to ensure the officers enjoy the merriment this eve."
Aiden sized up the man. Far older, he was nearly as tall and broad shouldered as Aiden. He wore finely tailored velvet and sported a periwig that had not a hair out of place. Recognizing nobility, Aiden again bowed. "I thank you, m'lord."
The lass resumed the reel, regarding Aiden with an enormous pair of blue eyes peeping through her mask—blues as enchanting as shimmering crystals.
He quickly joined the men's line, thanking his mother for her interminable enforced hours of dreary dancing lessons.
"You're light on your feet for a sailor," the lass said as they moved together and joined elbows. Heavens, her voice sounded alluring, like nothing he'd before heard.
"Thank you." A subtle grin played across his lips. "But my polish is nothing compared to your grace."
She actually laughed out loud—quite audacious for a lady. Nonetheless her laughter tickled him on the inside. "Do not tell a soul, but this is the first time I've danced with anyone besides my frumpy old guard."
He threw his thumb over his shoulder. "That man was your guard?"
"Nay." A delightful laugh pealed through her lips. "He doesn't count."
Aiden liked that even better—it sounded as if she had even less experience than he. At least he'd stolen a kiss or two in his youth. Perhaps he'd steal another this night. He grasped her hands and sashayed through the two lines, a line of men facing a line of women. "Then I am even more impressed."
"Which is your ship?" she asked, her fair eyebrows arching above her mask.
"The Royal Mary."
"It must be exciting to see exotic places."
A frigate, the Royal Mary mainly patrolled the waters of Scotland, and now England. Not exactly exotic. "Aye, but 'tisn't much fun when you're under cannon fire."
Those blues grew rounder beneath her mask. "Cannons?"
"Aye, we are at war, miss." His shoulders fell when the dance commanded he take a place in the men's line and wait for the next couple to sashay through. Across the aisle the young lady seemed enlivened by their separation, smiling and clapping. Though poised like a queen, she had a warmer, more common quality about her. Possibly it was that she actually looked as if she was having a good time rather than donning aristocratic airs and pretending she merely endured the dance.
The tune ended and Aiden dipped into a bow.
"Mind if I step in?" asked Fraser MacPherson from behind.
"Yes, I do mind," Aiden said in a strained whisper, careful of his language given the present company.
The lovely masked lady across the aisle clasped her hands together. "My father said there wouldn't be enough partners for the officers and encouraged me to dance with any gentleman who asked."
The only problem was that MacPherson was no gentleman. He'd spirit her to some dingy cellar and seduce her with charm until he had her skirts hiked up around her thighs. The innocent lass would succumb to the rogue's wiles before she realized what was happening.
Aiden groaned. Throwing a fist was out of the question.
She wanted to take a turn with the beak-masked ugly varlet? Holy crosses, MacPherson was shorter than she by a half inch at least. But Aiden bowed. No use causing a stir over a silly reel—though he'd be watching his cabinmate closely. "As you wish, m'lady."
When he turned, slender fingers wrapped around his wrist. Cool fingers softer than brushed doe leather. "Thank you, sir." Oh yes, and a voice smoother than melted butter.
Heaven help him, Aiden couldn't stay irritated when a smile as radiant as hers lit up the entire hall. "Perhaps another turn anon?" he asked.
"I'd be honored," the lass said as the piper launched into another country dance.
Fraser nudged him out of the line. "Go on and assuage your thirst."
"And you watch your manners." A little lighter on his feet, Aiden took a goblet of wine from a passing servant and surveyed the hall. Indeed, the men outnumbered the women by at least two to one. But what could a sailor expect so far north, with two ships in port? True, several other lassies danced gaily, though there was only one from whom Aiden could not pull his gaze.
Sipping, he watched the nymph from behind his goblet. Though her eyes were shadowed behind her mask, he thought she glanced his way.
His heart thrummed when she met his stare a second time—a direct meeting of the eyes for certain.
He straightened his neckerchief, wishing he'd spent a bit more time in front of the dingy looking glass he shared with MacPherson—the same toad with whom the lady still danced.
With his next blink, Aiden's gut clamped hard as a rock. Heat flared across his nape as he took a step toward the dancers.
Had Fraser's hand nearly skimmed her breast? It happened so fast he couldn't be sure, but those thick fingers came awfully close.
Grumbling under his breath, Aiden took a healthy swig of wine. If the lieutenant made any move aside from kicking up his heels for a sashay, Aiden would bury his fist in the bastard's beak, and not the one on his mask.
Aboard ship the braggart had gloated plenty about his conquests. That might be acceptable talk around dockyards and at sea, but MacPherson had best keep his kilt hanging down around his knees when it came to courting ladies. Besides, the man was merely a chieftain's third son.
"The maid is quite lovely, is she not?" The gentleman who had been dancing with the lass earlier stood beside Aiden. His black mask appeared menacing under the curl of his periwig, and he maintained a tilt to his chin as if he held a position of great importance.
Given the present company, Aiden didn't doubt the man's exalted rank, though he was starting to abhor masquerade balls. He preferred to know to whom he spoke. By the lines etched around the nobleman's mouth, he appeared older, but before another word was said, a question had to be asked. "Have you spoken for her?"
"Hardly." The lord laughed, relaxing his stance. "Let us just say I have a vested interest in the maid's welfare."
Hell, that could mean anything. Worse, the words vested interest added layers of complexity to Aiden's simple desire to dance with the lass and prevent his mate from raising her skirts. "Forgive me, m'lord, but may I ask your name?"
A wry grin played across the man's lips. "Och, this is a masque, son."
"Right—perhaps it is not the best of ideas to invite a parcel of naval officers to a masquerade. Mind you, these officers have been a month at sea without setting eyes on a woman." Aiden leaned in. "And I can tell you right now the beaked mask dancing with your vested interest is looking for more than a wee turn on the dance floor this eve."
Periwig-Nobleman stroked his fingers down his aristocratic chin. "You are outspoken for such a young fellow."
Aiden raised his goblet. "I was brought up to speak my mind."
"Well then, if you must ken, I am your host."
Good God, he'd just launched into a war of words with an earl, telling him his gathering was a bad idea? Could he jam his shoe any farther into his throat? Lord knew the square toe was about to end up in his own arse. Aiden bowed. "Forgive me, m'lord. I spoke out of turn."
"Honestly, I've thought the same myself. I was young once and I'd recognize a licentious pup from a hundred paces. Why, that fellow Maddie is dancing with had best slip his tongue back in his mouth and pay a mind to his footwork."
Aiden swiped his hand across his lips to ensure his tongue was in its proper place.
Maddie? Is she a Matilda? Madeline? Mary?
"'Tis why I'm watching him, m'lord… ah, to ensure his hands and his tongue remain where they belong." Aiden wouldn't tell the earl that when it came to women, he didn't trust Fraser MacPherson any further than his nose, but he certainly could pledge to keep an eye on the rake.
The earl's gaze narrowed. "Pray, what is your name… ah… Lieutenant, is it?"
"Aye, first lieutenant and master of the watch, Lord Aiden Murray." Sliding his foot forward, he bowed.
"Second son, m'lord."
"And the man dancing with my… um… vested interest?"
"Third Lieutenant Fraser MacPherson. His da's a chieftain."
"Is he the heir?"
"Third son, m'lord."
"Hmm." The earl clapped Aiden on the shoulder. "I do believe the maid looks a tad flushed. Might I suggest you offer her refreshment?"
An awkward flurry spread through Aiden's stomach. "It would be an honor… if I can pull her away from the dance floor?"
"Leave that to me." The earl started off, then turned. "And keep her away from that MacPherson fellow. If his choice in masks is any indication, I'd prefer it if the lass had no more interaction with him."
No sooner had the music stopped than the crowd all but swallowed up the officer in the beaked mask. Maddie breathed a sigh of relief. The man had gripped her waist with a heavy hand and tugged her much too close during the promenade. He reminded her of an overly anxious, drooling deerhound.
"Would you care for a refreshment?" a deep voice asked. Though low, it was clearly audible, as if a man had come up from behind and pressed his lips to her ear. Maddie turned. Gooseflesh pebbled over her skin. Goodness, the tall, slender officer with a bandit's mask grinned as he held out a goblet. "'Tis watered wine."
"My thanks." She took the offering and sipped, happy he hadn't tried to give her something more potent.
- "Sizzles with romance... Jarecki brings the novel to life with vivid historical detail."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jun 27, 2017
- Page Count
- 384 pages