By Amy Jarecki
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She’ll put her life on the line for him . . .
When Akira Ayres finds the brawny Scot with a musket ball in his thigh, the healer has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to save his life. Even if it means fleeing with him across the Highlands to tend to his wounds while English redcoats are closing in. Though Akira is as fierce and brave as any of her clansmen, even she’s intimidated by the fearsome, brutally handsome Highlander who refuses to reveal his name.
Yet she can never learn his true identity.
Geordie knows if Akira ever discovers he’s the Duke of Gordon, both her life and his will be forfeit in a heartbeat. The only way to keep the lass safe is to ensure she’s by his side day and night. But the longer he’s with her, the harder it becomes to think of letting her go. Despite all their differences, despite the danger-he will face death itself to make her his . . .
“Readers get all the benefits of a modern road trip (forced proximity, lots and lots of dialogue, and uninterrupted time for the hero and heroine’s love to grow) without technology or secondary characters interrupting the main story arc. About halfway through there is a pretty darn huge plot twist, too. This book kept me on my toes and anxious for more.” — Book Riot
Hoord Moor, Scotland. 21 August 1703.
The dead Highland soldier stared vacantly at the thick, low-hanging clouds. Akira clutched her basket tight to her stomach. Concealed in the tall moorland grass, this man needed no healing. Now only the minister could offer help to redeem the hapless warrior's soul.
Death on the battlefield bore none of the heroics she'd heard from fireside tales. Death on the battlefield was cold and lonely, dismal like the mist muffling the shrill calls of the buzzards.
And for naught.
Gulping back her nausea, Akira turned away. A breeze rustled through the eerily tranquil lea as if putting to rest the violence that had occurred not more than an hour ago. She scanned the stark meadow, searching for men who might have need of a healer's attention. She cared not whether they were Government dragoons or clansmen from Highland regiments. Anyone suffering from battle wounds this day needed tending, regardless of politics.
A deep moan came from the forest beyond the tree line not ten paces away. She jolted, jostling the remedies in her basket. "Is s-someone there?"
When no answer came, she glanced over her shoulder. Her companions had moved on—women from the village of Dunkeld who had helped tend the wounded before red-coated soldiers marshaled the men into the back of a wagon. Where they would go from there, Akira hadn't asked, but she hoped they wouldn't be thrown in a prison pit, at least not before their wounds were healed.
The moan came again and, with it, a chilly gust that made her hackles stand on end.
Cautiously, Akira tiptoed into the trees, peering through the foliage to ensure she wasn't walking into a trap. A telltale path of blood skimmed over the ground, leading to two black boots beneath a clump of broom. Had the man dragged himself all the way from the battlefield to hide?
"Are you injured?" she asked warily, her perspiring palms slipping on the basket's handle. Could she trust he wouldn't leap up and attack?
"My leg," said a strained voice.
There was no disguising the pain in his tone. "Goodness gracious," she whispered, dropping to her knees in the thick moss and pulling away the branches and debris that covered his body.
Vivid hazel eyes stared up at her from beneath a layer of dirt. Wild as the Highlands and filled with agony, his gaze penetrated her defenses like a dagger. She'd never seen eyes that expressive—that intense. They made her so…so unnerved.
"What happened?" she asked.
He shuttered those eyes with a wince. "Shot."
Akira's gaze darted to his kilt, hitched up and exposing a well-muscled thigh covered with blood.
"You a healer?" he asked, his Adam's apple bobbing.
"Aye." She peered closer. Puckered skin. A round hole. "A musket ball?"
His trembling fingers slid to the puncture wound. "'Tis still in there. It needs to come out."
Care of musket wounds far exceeded her skill. "I-I'll fetch the physician."
Opening his eyes, the man clasped her arm in a powerful grip. The pressure of his huge hand hurt. Gasping, she tugged away, but his fingers clamped harder, and those eyes grew more determined.
"No," he said in an intense whisper. "You do it."
She shook her head. "Sir, I cannot."
He released her arm, then pulled a knife from his sleeve. "Use my wee dagger." The blade glistened, honed sharp and shiny clean against his mud-encrusted doublet.
She shied away from the weapon. "But you could die."
The mere thought of performing surgery after the loss of her last patient made her stomach turn over. And it had been Dr. Kennedy who'd carved out the musket ball in that unfortunate patient's knee, though she'd tended the lad through his painful decline and eventual death. Regardless of the physician's role, the man's passing had taken a toll on her resolve.
"Do it, I say." For a man on the brink of death, he spewed the command like a high-ranking officer. "I cannot risk being found. Do you understand?"
Licking her lips, she stared at the wound, then pressed her fingers against it. He was right; the ball needed to come out now, and if he refused to let her find a physician, Akira was the only healer in Dunkeld skilled enough to help him.
He hissed in pain.
"Apologies." She snapped her hand away. "I was feeling for the musket ball."
She glanced to her basket. "I've only herbs and tinctures."
"In my sporran."
The leather pouch rested askew, held in place by a belt around his hips. Merciful mercy, it covered his unmentionables. Moreover, he was armed like an outlaw, with a dirk sheathed on one side of his belt, a flintlock pistol on the other, and a gargantuan sword slung in its scabbard beside him. Who knew what other deadly weapons this imposing Highlander hid on his person?
His shaking fingers fumbled with the thong that cinched the sporran closed.
She licked her lips. "You expect me to reach inside?" Goodness, her voice sounded shrill.
"Och," he groaned, his hands dropping. "Give a wounded du—ah—scrapper a bit o' help, would you now?"
Akira scraped her teeth over her bottom lip. The Highlander did need something to ease his pain. Praying she wouldn't be seen and accused of stealing, she braced herself, shoved her hand inside the hideous thing, and wrapped her fingers around a flask. She blinked twice as she pulled it out and held it up. Silver? Gracious, a flask like that could pay for Akira and her family to eat for a year or more.
She pulled the stopper and he raised his head, running his tongue across chapped lips. "Give me a good tot, lass."
His fingers trembled while he guided the flask in her hands, drank a healthy swig, and coughed.
"I'm ready," he said, his jaw muscles flexing as he bared his teeth—straight, white, contrasting with the dark stubble and dirt on his face. Dear Lord, such a man could pass for the devil.
The faster she worked, the less he'd suffer. With a featherlight touch, she swirled her fingers over the puncture and located the hard lump not far beneath the skin. Thank heavens the musket ball had stopped in his flesh and hadn't shattered the bone.
Though she'd never removed a musket ball before, she had removed an arrow. Steeling her nerves, she gripped the knife and willed her hand to steady. "Prepare yourself, sir." But still she hesitated.
He grasped her wrist and squeezed, staring into her eyes with determination and focus. "You can do this, lass."
Setting her jaw, she gave him a sharp nod. Then she returned her gaze to the wound, quickly slid the knife through the musket hole with one hand, and pushed against the ball with the other. The Highlander's entire body quaked. But no sound other than a strained grunt passed his lips.
Blood gushed from the wound and soaked Akira's fingers. Gritting her teeth, she applied more pressure, pushing the knife until she hit lead.
I cannot fail. I will not let him die.
She gritted her teeth and forced another flesh-carving twist of her wrist. The ball popped out. Blood flooded from the wound like an open spigot.
The man jerked, his leg thumping. Akira dove for her basket and grabbed a cloth. Wadding it tight, she held the Highlander's leg down with her elbows while she shoved the compress against the puncture with all her might. Looking up, she stared at his eyes until he focused on her. "Hold on," she said. "The worst is over."
Though he never cried out, the Highlander panted, sweat streaming from his brow. Not blinking, he stared at her like a yellow-eyed wildcat. "Horse."
Akira pushed the cloth harder, the muscles in his thigh solid as steel. "The soldiers took all the horses."
"Damnation!" he swore through clenched teeth, his breathing still ragged. Then his stare intensified. "I will…purchase…yours."
The man could die with his next breath, yet he still issued orders as if in charge of an entire battalion of cavalry. His tone demanded she respond with instant agreement, but she could not.
"I can barely afford to feed my siblings. I have no horse. Not even a donkey—not that I'd let you have it if I did." There. She wasn't about to allow this Highlander to lord it over her as if he were the Marquis of Atholl.
His eyes rolled to the back of his head. "Buy one."
"I told you—"
"There is…coin…My sporran."
Akira glanced at the man's sporran again. She'd have to sink her fingers deeper this time. Though she might be poor, she was certainly no harlot. Fishing in there was as nerve-racking as carving a musket ball out of the man's thigh. With a grimace, she tried shifting his belt aside a wee bit. Curses—the sporran shifted not an inch.
And he was still bleeding like a stuck pig. "Even if I did purchase you a horse, you couldn't ride. I'd wager you'd travel no more than a mile afore you fell off and succumbed to your wound." Still holding the cloth in place, Akira reached for her basket. "Let me wrap this tight and I'll call the soldiers. They're helping the wounded into a cart."
"Absolutely not!" His eyes flashed wide as he gripped her wrist. The man's intense stare, combined with the hard line of his jaw, wasn't the look of a pleading man—it was the look of a man who would not be disobeyed. "Atholl's men must not know I'm here."
She gave him her most exasperated expression while she wrapped the bandage around his thigh. Asserting her authority as a healer, Akira squared her shoulders. She was in charge, not he. "You ken they can help you."
"The Government troops? They're murderers." He winced. "They'd slit my throat for certain."
Since the battle's end, she hadn't seen anyone slit a throat…but then she hadn't asked where the soldiers were taking the injured. She'd just assumed to the monastery to be tended by the monks. But the pure intensity of this man's cold stare told her to do as he said. Beyond that, she believed him.
The hairs on her nape stood on end as she twisted the bandage like a tourniquet and tied it while questions needled her mind. If this man was as important as he seemed, why had he been left alone? "Who are you?"
"Merely…merely a Highlander who needs to haste back to his lands"—he drew in a stuttering breath—"a-afore the ill-breeding curs burn me out."
She narrowed her gaze. A man of property? Akira wasn't daft—especially when her mother's larder was bare. "I'll fetch you a horse if you pay me a shilling."
"Done," he said, as if such coin meant nothing. "Make haste and tell no one I'm here."
Gulping, she glanced down to the sporran. She'd been in there once before. Besides, the Highlander was in no shape to do anything untoward. If it wasn't for the need to care for her mother and three sisters, she'd call over the dragoons and let them see to this man's need for a mount. But for a shilling? Ma would be so happy.
Akira's fingers trembled.
Taking a deep breath, she reached inside the sporran. Her hand stuck in the neck, forcing her to twist her wrist to push deeper. Something hard flexed against her fingers. She froze. Holy hexes, she was shoving against the rock-hard wall of his inner thigh. She had no choice but to look down.
Dear Lord, please do not let anyone venture past us now.
With her hand completely buried in the man's sporran, she looked like an alehouse harlot toying with his…unmentionables.
"Are ye having trouble, lass?" The man's deep burr lulled with a hint of mischief, practically stopping her heart.
"No." With a blink, she wrapped her fingers around a number of coins and forcefully drew her hand free.
Akira's tongue went dry. Three silver shillings and two ten-shilling pieces filled her palm. She'd never seen so much coin in her life. No, she should not feel badly about asking for payment. After dropping one shilling in her pocket and returning all but one of the other coins, she held up a ten-shilling piece. This ought to be enough.
Standing, she hesitated. "What is your name, sir?"
A deep crease formed between his brows. "'Tis no concern of yours."
He didn't trust her—not that she trusted him, either. The only man she'd ever trusted was Uncle Bruno. "I won't reveal it." She crossed herself. "I swear on my grandfather's grave."
His lips thinned. "You can call me Geordie. And you, miss?"
Geordie is no given name I've ever heard. Odd.
She curtsied. "You may call me Akira." Blast, she wasn't going to say "Akie." Only her sisters referred to her thus. And "Ayres" would make him suspicious for certain. Her family might be descendants of Gypsy stock, but they'd given up their heathen practices generations ago. If Mr. Geordie wanted to hide his identity, she certainly would hide hers.
* * *
After the healer left, George Gordon closed his eyes and prayed the woman had enough sense to keep her mouth shut. After Queen Anne had rejected the Scottish Parliament's proposed Act of Security, the entire country was in an uproar—and ready to strike against the Government at last. Yes, he'd agreed to stand by his cousin and challenge the Government troops. The queen's Act of Settlement was nothing but a sham, created to subvert the succession of the rightful Stuart line behind the guise of Protestantism.
Thank God he hadn't worn anything to reveal his true identity. He'd even kept to the rear beside his cousin William. After he was thrown from his horse, the skirmish had raged on and the clansmen had charged ahead across the moorland, leaving Geordie for dead.
Once he'd dragged himself into the brush, he must have lost consciousness until that wisp of a healer found him. He thanked the stars it had been she and not a redcoat. His lands would be forfeit if Queen Anne discovered he'd ridden against the English crown.
James Stuart may be exiled, but he is the only king to whom I will pay fealty. I would take ten musket balls to the thigh if it assured his coronation.
Geordie's leg throbbed—ached like someone had stabbed him with a firebrand. But through the pain, he must have dozed again, because it seemed that Akira returned in the blink of an eye.
He eyed her sternly, as he would a servant—an inexplicably bonny servant. "Did the stable master ask questions?" he demanded, forcing himself to sit up. God's teeth, everything spun. The sharp pain made his gut churn.
"Pardon?" she replied in a tone mirroring his own. Never in his life had he seen such a haughty expression come from a commoner. "'Tis a bit difficult to conceal a horse beneath my arisaid. Besides, I didn't steal the beast." She thrust a fist against her hip. "He asked where I came up with that kind of coin."
Gordon licked his lips with an arid tongue. "How did you reply?"
Akira's fist slid down to her side—a more respectful stance for a wee maid. "I told him I'd received handsome payment from His Lordship for tending his cousin."
"The Marquis of Atholl, of course."
Smart lass. "Do you ken the marquis?" Bloody hell, he hoped not.
"If you call paying him fealty knowing him, then aye. So does everyone around these parts. He's lord of these lands."
And he supports the Government troops, the bastard.
Geordie needed to mount that damned horse and ride like hellfire. If anyone recognized him, he'd be shipped to the Tower of London, where they'd make a public mockery of his execution.
He leaned forward to stand. Jesus Christ! Stars darted through his vision. Stifling his urge to bellow, he gritted his teeth.
The lass caught his arm. "Allow me to help."
His insides clamped taut. Must she look at him with such innocent allure?
He gave a curt nod, hating to accept any help but knowing it was necessary. "My thanks."
Clenching his teeth, he slid his good foot beneath him. Akira tugged his arm while he pushed up with the other.
"Christ Almighty!" he bellowed from the depths of his gut before he had time to choke it back.
She slung his arm over her shoulder. A lot of good that did. The lass might make a useful crutch for a lad of twelve. "If they didn't ken you were here before, they do now."
"Ballocks!" he cursed, trying not to fall on top of the woman. Then he looked at the damned nag. "No saddle?"
She held out a few copper farthings. "There wasn't enough."
The urchin narrowed her eyes at him. "I'll not be cursed at like a doormat whilst I'm merely trying to help you."
Geordie grumbled under his breath and removed his arm from her shoulder. He took quick note of the surroundings. They needed more cover for certain. He pointed deeper into the wood. "Lead the beast to the fallen tree, yonder."
She didn't budge. "Oh my," she said with a gasp. "Your leg is bleeding something awful."
He swayed on his feet. Good God, he couldn't lose his wits. Not until he had ridden to safety. "Can you stanch it?"
"Give me your belt."
He slid his hands to his buckle, when a twig snapped behind them.
"Who goes there?" demanded a stern voice.
Akira's eyes popped wide.
The beat of Geordie's heart spiked. With a wave of strength, he grabbed the lassie's waist and threw her atop the horse. Taking charge of the reins, he urged the beast into a run, steering it beside the fallen tree. Agonizing pain stabbed his thigh, but the pressing need to escape gave him herculean energy.
In two leaps he landed astride the gelding, right behind the lass. Slapping the reins, he kicked his heels into the horse's barrel as he pointed the beast down a narrow path. Stabbing torture in his thigh punished his every move.
Musket fire cracked from behind.
Geordie leaned forward, demanding more speed. He pressed lips to Akira's ear. "Hold on, lass, for hell has just made chase."
After them!" roared Captain Roderick Weaver, leader of the Marquis of Atholl's regiment of Government troops. He dug in his spurs and whipped his reins. With a grunt, his steed pinned his ears and broke into a gallop, white foam leeching from his neck and withers. Roderick wasn't about to let another cowardly Jacobite escape into the Highlands.
"The horses are spent," yelled Corporal Snow from the rear. The beetle-brained halfwit forever bemoaned the comfort of the damned horses, though he never thrust his sword into the air and hollered for the men to follow him—unless he was heading for the mess tent.
"Onward!" Roderick boomed, ignoring the corporal's warning.
The horses were beasts of burden. If the animals fell, he'd sequester more from the locals. There was a reason Atholl hired Roddy from Yorkshire to quash the rebellion. A staunch supporter of Queen Anne, he'd relentlessly chase these traitors to the end of the earth. For a price.
True, Roderick's entire body ached with fatigue just like everyone else's did. The battle had been fierce and the cleaning up after was laborious. But they'd found a runner, someone the captain would like to use to make a statement. Show Jacobites throughout Scotland what would happen, not only if they crossed the queen, but worse, if they crossed him.
No one crossed Roderick Weaver. Not ever.
On and on he kicked his horse while the beast snorted louder and louder. The tree branches whipping past and stinging his face only served to heighten his ire.
Roddy glanced over his shoulder. The corporal's shouts combined with the thundering hoofbeats, making him impossible to understand, though Roddy had definitely heard the word lame.
Miserable bleeding heart.
Returning his gaze to the path, he saw a fallen tree three paces away. No time to change course. Roddy slackened the reins, gave the horse his head, and prepared to jump. He leaned so far forward, his torso suspended over his mount's mane as together they soared.
This old gelding can run all day.
The front hooves hit the ground. But the hindquarters of the horse kept going.
Sailing through the air, Roderick curled into a ball, ready for impact. With a jarring thud, his hip slammed into the earth. Hard. Every muscle in his body tensed. Dammit, he hated looking like an arse in front of his men.
Corporal Snow hopped off his horse and dashed to Roddy's side. "Are you all right, sir?"
The captain jerked his fists away from his face. Dear God! Sharp pain shot from his hip down through his leg. "Of course I'm all right, you maggot. Quickly, we must continue after them."
The corporal gestured behind him. "Your horse is spent."
Roderick peered around the coward. Blast, the beast was lame as well, and appeared to be limping on all fours. Sitting up, he pulled his pistol from his belt. "We'll have to shoot him." He waved the weapon at a pair of sentinels. "Muldoon and Grey, ride double. I'll take Grey's horse." That chestnut gelding was the most spirited of the lot.
"With all due respect, sir. Every last horse is finished. They need food and water, as do the men."
Snorting, their heads down, the horses looked like a mob of nags ready for the slaughter yard. "Bloody hell!" He jammed the pistol back into his belt. Damnation, there was no use whipping horses to gain a few miles only to have them all go lame. "But mark me, we ride at dawn. I want that bastard's neck swinging from Atholl's noose."
When they arrived at back at the clearing, Roderick dismounted, limping from being thrown by that miserable excuse for a horse. "I want to know the name of the bastard's accomplice."
Corporal Snow kneeled beside the bloodstained earth. "Looks like he's injured pretty bad."
"With that much blood lost, I doubt he'll make it through the night," said Grey.
"Good." Roddy grinned. "'Twill make our job on the morrow easier, though I'd prefer to find him on the brink of death rather than dead."
"What's this?" The corporal reached under a clump of broom and pulled out a silver flask.
"Give that to me." Roderick snatched it from Snow's hand and examined the engraving. "I'll be damned. If I'm not mistaken, 'tis the Duke of Gordon's coat of arms."
Snow stood and looked over Roderick's shoulder. "I'll wager that's worth a year's pay."
"Aye." Grey licked his lips. "But the duke's army didn't march against us—there was no Huntly pennant."
"His cousin, William Gordon of Strathdon, was here for certain," said Snow.
Roderick turned the flask in his palm. "The duke could have ridden with them."
"A duke ride without his army?" asked Sentinel Muldoon. "It would be far too risky for a man of Gordon's station to ride alone, especially into battle. His lands would be forfeit, not to mention his head."
Corporal Snow scratched his chin. "Right. Mayhap the flask was a gift?"
"A bloody generous one." Roddy had to agree with Muldoon. It was unlikely that the Duke of Gordon would have ridden into battle without his impressive clan of fighting Highlanders behind him. Regardless, whatever the culprit's clan, the runner wasn't long for this world.
Two more sentinels marched up and saluted. "Word is the woman was a healer from the village. She purchased a horse. Came up with the coin out of the blue, sir."
"Akira Ayres—a thieving tinker."
Roderick snorted. "At least there's no need to worry about staging a rescue. The wench is as guilty as our mysterious, wealthy Highlander."
* * *
Racing through the forest so fast, everything passing in a blur, Akira hunched over the horse's neck as she dodged vines and sapling branches. The wind howled in her ears as if a tempest was brewing. Bless it, if Akira's heart would stop beating so fast, she might be able to think. She wove her fingers through the horse's mane and hung on for dear life, with the crazed Highlander leaning over her, demanding more speed with each kick of his heels. Every bone-jarring gallop made Akira's head hit the man's wall of a chest, while her seat slapped up and down behind the poor animal's withers.
"Stop leaning on me," she yelled. If only she had the nerve to let go and reach for the reins, she might be able to turn the beast around and head for home.
"Bit further," Geordie replied, his breathing ragged, his voice choked.
Akira chanced a backward glance. Oh no, his face looked as white as bleached linen. "Are you all right?" she hollered.
- "Readers will admire plucky Akira, who, despite her poverty, is fiercely independent and is determined to be no man's mistress. The romance is scintillating and moving, enhanced by fast-paced suspense."—Publishers Weekly
- "An action-packed Highland adventure set against the backdrop of the Jacobite rebellion [that] puts readers right into an exciting romance."—RT Book Reviews
- "This story was so much more than a romance, it was full of intrigue, excitement and drama. ... a fantastic read that I fully recommend."—Buried Under Romance
- "The Highland Duke is a rich, romantic story from start to finish."—Romantic Historical Reviews
- On Sale
- Mar 28, 2017
- Page Count
- 384 pages