By Amy Jarecki
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He has sworn to protect her…
Captain Reid MacKenzie, Earl of Seaforth, is a man of his word. During a harrowing battle at sea, the heroic Highlander makes a vow to a dying friend to watch over the man’s daughter. His plan: send the child to boarding school as quickly as possible so he can continue his mission. But Reid’s new ward is no wee lass. She’s a ravishing, fully grown woman, and it’s all he can do to remember his duty and not seduce her himself.
But he might be her greatest threat…
Miss Audrey Kennet is stunned by the news. First this kilted brute tells Audrey her father is dead, and next he insists she marry. But as Reid scours England for the most suitable husband, Audrey soon realizes the brave, brawny Scot is the only man she wants–though loving him means risking her lands, her freedom, and even her life.
The North Sea, off the coast of England, 14 May 1711
The gale blew through the English Channel like a savage rogue, making foam gush and spray from the sea’s white-capped swells. Reid MacKenzie released a long breath. He’d navigated the treacherous crossing without incident. But his relief was short-lived. In his wake, a Royal Navy tall ship was gaining speed.
Nicholas Kennet lowered his spyglass. “They’re following us, I’ve no doubt now.”
“Stay the course,” bellowed Reid. He wasn’t only an earl, he was captain of his eighteen-oar, single-masted galley, and he’d dive to his death at the bottom of the sea before he allowed one of the queen’s vessels to bully him into dropping anchor and submitting to an inspection. These were precarious times. A man must keep his opinions secret lest he be misunderstood. And in Queen Anne’s Britain, misunderstandings led to ruination—not only of one man’s wealth, but to the annihilation of entire clans.
Reaching inside his cloak, Reid smoothed his fingers atop the leather-wrapped missive he carried in his doublet. A missive for those loyal to the cause to ensure the succession of James Stuart to the throne. “No cause for alarm. Many a nobleman has traveled to France to meet with His Highness.”
Not a seafaring man, Mr. Kennet turned a ripe shade of green. He was a wealthy coal miner from northeast England and had proved his loyalty to the Jacobite ideals by helping to finance the expedition.
“The Royal Buckingham approaching portside, m’lord,” said Dunn MacRae, chieftain of his clan and Reid’s most trusted ally.
“Damnation.” Reid pulled out his spyglass and trained it on the upper deck of the navy ship. The red-coated officers were watching them for certain.
“Shall we heave to?” asked Dunn.
“God, no. That would only make us appear guilty.” He snapped his glass closed and regarded his crew. “Stay the course. Maintain present speed. Let the bastards sail past and find someone else to chase. We’re nay pirates, and we’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Then why are you not flying your pennant, my lord?” asked Kennet.
The corner of Reid’s mouth twitched. “That galleon might outrun us in the open sea, but if we can keep her guessing until we reach the estuary of the River Tees, I’ll have you sitting by home’s hearth before the witching hour.”
“Seaforth,” said MacRae, his voice steady—too steady. “She’s opened gunport one.”
Reid didn’t need his spyglass to make out the black cannon pushing through the open port like a deadly dragon. He swiped a hand across his mouth. “How near are we to the Tees?”
“Two leagues, Captain.”
“Tack west. Aim for the shallows.”
“Aye, Captain!” bellowed every man aboard the galley as the oarsmen increased their pace. Reid might be an earl when his feet were on land, but at sea, his clansmen called him captain.
“Surely they will not fire.” A gust of wind blew Nicholas’s hat and periwig to the timbers, and he scrambled over a bench to retrieve them.
Dunn pulled on the rudder while the boom swung across the hull, shifting the single sail. Ignoring the Englishman’s question, Reid watched the galleon as it sailed alongside them. “They’ll most likely launch a warning shot across our bow.”
“Dear God. This is preposterous,” said Nicholas, shoving his wig and hat low on his brow. “If I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I never would have believed Her Majesty of such piracy.”
The flicker of a torch flashed inside the gunport. “You’d best believe it, my friend.” Reid turned with a scowl. “Bear down on your oars, lads!”
The barrel of the cannon flared with fire and smoke before the sound of the blast boomed through the air. Reid’s skin crawled with the high-pitched whistle from the approaching cannonball. He ducked below the hull, praying the British ship had set her sights correctly for a warning shot.
With his next breath, the bow of his ship splintered into a thousand wooden shards. Water gushed into the hull, instantly soaking the men and pulling them into the frigid whitecaps.
“Swim for your lives!” Reid yelled as he climbed atop the rowing bench. Casting his cloak aside, he prepared to plunge into the icy swells of the North Sea.
“Help!” Nicholas shouted, his voice strained.
Taking a quick glance over his shoulder, Reid’s blood turned cold. Dear God, a spike of wood at least a foot long protruded from Nicholas Kennet’s chest.
“Jesu.” Reid waded through the rushing water of his sinking ship and hefted his friend into his arms. “Hang on. Shore’s in sight. I’ll have you to safety in no time.”
Strengthening his grip, the Earl of Seaforth clenched his teeth and leaped into the frigid sea. Air whooshed from his lungs, and the current dragged him downward, threatening to tug Nicholas from his grasp. Bearing down with a surge of power, Reid kicked fiercely, battling the undertow, his lungs screaming for blessed air.
If the briny deep claimed him this day, it would not be without a fight. Reid learned early on that even a man born of privilege must be fitter than his worst adversary. More cunning as well.
His head broke through with a desperate inhale filling his lungs. Arching his back, he shifted his grip under Nicholas’s arms to ensure the man could breathe as well.
The freezing water sapped his strength, but he clenched his teeth and refused to stop. Swimming on his back with Nicholas secured against his chest, Reid propelled them toward the shore.
Behind, his ship was gone, sunk into the North Sea’s merciless depths without a trace. The galleon had hove to as if the men on deck laughed at the poor Highland sops who fought to reach the shore before the sea swallowed them in her swells.
With his next breath, Reid looked to the coast as his teeth chattered uncontrollably. Hope infused his muscles with renewed power. But when the next thundering wave broke over their heads, the taunting sea gave Reid no choice but to clutch his arms around Nicholas and pray to God they’d bob to the surface before the air in his lungs expired.
Fighting with every fiber of his body, his head broke through the surf. He managed to gulp precious air before being pulled under once again. When they resurfaced, the next thunderous wave spat them out onto the beach like a pair of dead mackerel. Salt water blew through Reid’s nose while he staggered to dry sand. Coughing and sputtering, he dragged Nicholas in his wake.
“Good God,” Dunn hollered, running up beside him to lend a hand. Once clear of the surf, they rested Nicholas on his back.
Sucking in gasps of air, Reid dropped to his knees and placed his hand on his comrade’s forehead. “We’ll have ye set to rights in no time, mate.”
Dunn caught his eye, thinned his lips, and gave a shake of his head.
The stake protruding from the man’s chest was akin to a deathly blow from a bayonet.
“Please,” muttered Nicholas, his voice weak. “Swear you will care for my daughter.”
Reid’s gut clenched. “Daughter?” Shite.
“She’s alone—her mother gone.”
“Are there any other heirs?”
“Christ.” The last thing Reid needed was a ward.
Nicholas gasped and clutched Reid’s cravat. “Swear it.”
He had no choice but to give a stiff-lipped nod. “I give you my word. The lass will be cared for.”
As if a great weight had been lifted from his chest, Nicholas Kennet released his last breath with an eerie sigh that faded into the rush of the waves.
“He’s dead,” said Dunn, now surrounded by men drenched and shivering.
Reid moved his hand to the man’s nose and felt not a thing. Such a pity. And for naught. He glanced to the galleon, looming in the deep water. Through the shroud of early dusk, the wind again filled the sails as the naval ship resumed its course and got under way. “Is the crew accounted for?”
“Aye,” said Graham MacKenzie, lieutenant and navigator. “Davy has a gash on his arm, but no other casualties.”
“Thank God for that.” Reid stood and looked to the town of Hartlepool. “Quickly. The tower of a church stands yonder. We’ll take Kennet’s body there for a proper burial.”
The MacRae chieftain gave a somber nod. “Then you’d best find something to occupy his daughter. You’re far too important to the cause to waste your time acting at guardian.”
Reid ground his back molars. Dunn was right. He needed to think of some way to see to the heiress’s maintenance without becoming involved. And fast.
* * *
The brass knocker on the Coxhoe House door hung from a lion’s mouth. Reid had used it once before, but during that visit, he hadn’t been introduced to Kennet’s daughter. They’d been in too much of a hurry to sail across the channel for their meeting with the exiled king.
Exhausted and sore from sleeping in a copse of trees, he clenched his fist before knocking. With the missive from King James still secured in his doublet, the last thing he needed at the moment was to take on the role of guardian for a spoiled heiress. He had no doubt the lass had been cosseted—after all, she was the only child of a wealthy widower. Though her pampered world was about to shatter. He would break the news, make arrangements for her to be looked after, appoint a trustee to oversee her affairs, and that would have to suffice. Reid’s role in uniting the clans to prepare for the succession was far too critical to the cause.
“Go on. Have it over with,” said Dunn from behind as if speaking Reid’s conscience.
Affixing a somber frown in place, he gave the knocker three good raps.
The door slowly opened with an interminable screech. The gaunt butler regarded them, eyes peering over a pair of round spectacles. “M’lord?” He drew his graying eyebrows together as he craned his neck and looked beyond the men. “This is a surprise.”
“Good morrow, sir.” Reid took in a deep breath. “I bring grave news.”
The butler drew a hand over his heart as his face blanched. “Do not tell me Mr. Kennet…”
“He perished off the coast of Hartlepool. One of Her Majesty’s galleons attempted to fire a cannonball over our bow.”
“But the bastards missed and sank His Lordship’s sea galley,” finished Dunn.
“Dear God.” The man stumbled backward and ushered them into the entry. “Forgive me, my lord. I am afraid this news comes as quite a shock.”
“Understood.” Reid grasped the man’s shoulder with a firm hand. “Do you need a moment, Mister…?”
“Gerald, my lord,” the man said, slowly drawing a hand down his face. After a deep breath, he regained his composure. “The pair of you look as if you could use a bit of respite, if you don’t mind my saying so, my lord.”
Reid glanced at his clothing. Matted by salt water, peppered with sand and dirt, he looked a fright. But nothing could be done about that now. “Aye, we could. After being forced to swim for our lives, we took Mr. Kennet’s body to Saint Hilda’s for burial, then slept in a copse of trees eight miles east.”
Gerald glanced eastward, his eyes growing wide. “Do you believe it is safe to come here, my lord?”
Reid gave an annoyed nod. “I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t. They’ve nothing on us. The galleon even continued on her voyage. I think the warning shot was an attempt to make us heave to so they could board my galley and try to implicate me for some misdeed. To speak true, I have far more grounds upon which to seek damages than they have to accuse me of a traitorous plot.” He didn’t utter the word Jacobite—strange walls had a way of hearing things they shouldn’t, especially in England.
“I reckon they kent it as well,” said Dunn.
The butler nodded, his face drawn.
MacRae gave Reid a nudge.
He shot an annoyed leer at Dunn, a chieftain who not only paid him fealty but also acted as Seaforth’s henchman. Dash it, Reid knew his task was not yet finished, not by half. “Forgive me, I ken you must be sorely smote by this news, however ’tis my duty to inform you that Nicholas Kennet’s dying wish was for me to see to his daughter’s maintenance.”
“Aye,” agreed Dunn. “The earl vowed a sacred oath.”
“You, my lord?” Gerald scratched his chin, the furrow between his brows growing deeper. “I might have thought Mr. Kennet would have appointed someone a bit older.”
Swiping the sand off his sleeve, Reid gave the man a scowl. Regardless of his age, the oath he’d sworn was an inconvenience, but duty was duty. “Och, if only the Earl Marischal of Scotland had been there, rather than me.”
The butler cringed. “Yes, my lord.” Gerald didn’t need to say a word. The look on his face spoke volumes about his doubts, the pompous curmudgeon.
Reid guffawed and grabbed his lapels. Hell, he was one of the wealthiest, most hardy men in Scotland, and an elderly butler was frowning at the prospect of an earl’s suitability for the role of guardian? Suitability wasn’t remotely in question. “That’s enough chitchat. Bring the wee lassie to me. I must notify her of this unfortunate turn of events forthwith.”
“Straightaway, my lord.” Gerald started off, but stopped before he reached the stairs. “Perhaps it would be best if she heard the news from me first. After all, I have known Miss Audrey since the day she came into the world.”
Reid arched his eyebrows at Dunn. It certainly would make his lot easier if he didn’t have to tell a child she was now an orphan. “If you think that’s best, then I shall allow it.”
Bowing, the butler gestured to a pair of double doors. “Thank you, my lord. If you gentlemen would kindly make yourselves comfortable in the parlor, I shall have refreshment brought to you straightaway.”
“Very well, but I should like to speak to Miss Audrey as soon as she is able to receive me.” Since the butler had referred to the lass in the familiar, Reid figured it was best if he started doing so at once. After all, a guardian should be on a first-name basis with his ward.
Dismissing Gerald with a bow of his head, he led Dunn into the parlor. Decorated with Parisian plasterwork, the hearth posed the centerpiece, surrounded by an ornate relief depicting vine and leaves and painted porcelain plates. The gilded chairs’ seats, arms, and backs were embroidered with countryside scenes. Reid chose the largest with a high back, near the fire. Dunn took a seat on the other side, crossing his ankles.
Weariness caught up with him as he brushed the sand off his doublet. He needed a meal, a bath, and a bed in that order.
“Have you given any thought as to what you’ll do with the lass?”
Reid’s gut twisted into a knot. He didn’t have many options. He most certainly didn’t need a child disrupting order at Brahan Castle—especially when he was away more often than not. “Boarding school, of course.”
“Brilliant. I should have thought of that.”
It wasn’t brilliant, though it was where most heiresses went for finishing in this day and age.
The tension clamping Reid’s shoulders had almost eased when a high-pitched scream resounded above stairs. The sound wasn’t that of a young child, but one of a feral animal in deathly agony.
Dear God, what have I drawn myself into?
Audrey flung herself across the bed and wailed into the pillow. In a heartbeat her entire life shattered.
How could this have happened?
No, no, no. Not Papa. He was kind and giving, and the only person Audrey knew who understood her. Who understood what it was like to be deathly shy.
She’d only arrived home and had done nothing but plan the summer together with her father. There were outings and riding excursions and hunting quests yet to be enjoyed.
Never to be enjoyed.
“Nooooooooooooo!” she cried, her insides shredding with her grief.
He cannot be gone.
Completely unable to control her sobs, Audrey rocked back and forth, clutching the pillow. How could she carry on? She was now an orphan. There were no aunts, no uncles. Her grandparents had passed away years ago.
Her chamber door opened, but Audrey didn’t care. She couldn’t move, let alone look up to see who it was.
“Please, Miss Audrey.” Mrs. Hobbs’s voice sounded strained. “The Earl of Seaforth has been awaiting you in the parlor for over an hour.”
Gasping and taking staccato breaths, she tried to calm herself enough to reply. “Can he not come back on the morrow? I am too distraught to receive guests.” Audrey knew nothing of this man who’d brought the news of her father’s death. What was a mere hour? For pity’s sake Gerald had only just delivered the news and now she was expected to compose her person and meet a complete stranger? Mrs. Hobbs moved to the bedside. “I’ve brought you a tincture of chamomile to calm your nerves. You are the mistress of the Kennet estate now, miss. You mustn’t keep the earl waiting.”
I don’t want to be a mistress at the age of nineteen. Audrey buried her face in the pillow.
The maid swirled a soothing palm over Audrey’s shoulder. “I know, dear. But we all must see to our duty.”
Taking a deep breath, Audrey willed herself to gain a modicum of control. She swiped her eyes and sat up, clutching the pillow to her abdomen. “I’d prefer to be left alone.”
Mrs. Hobbs reached for the cup. “Have a sip of my tincture. It will help calm your nerves before you venture below stairs.”
Nodding, Audrey accepted the cup and drank. At least the warm liquid soothed the burning in her throat.
“Have a brief chat with the earl, and then I’ll draw you a warm bath.”
“I don’t want a bath. I want Papa back.”
“I think we all do, miss. ’Tis a most unwelcome shock.” Mrs. Hobbs sniffed and gave Audrey a kerchief.
With a sigh, Audrey cast the pillow aside, wiped her eyes, and sat a bit taller. Across the chamber, she caught her reflection in the full-length looking glass. She looked a fright with flyaways sticking out every which way, her eyes red and swollen like plums. Hiding her face in her hands, she shook her head. “I cannot possibly venture below stairs looking like this.”
“Come.” The maid took Audrey’s hand and pulled her from the bed to the washstand. She poured a bit of water over her hands and shook them into the bowl. “I’ll just pat your hair down and pinch your cheeks, and you’ll be right to go.”
“I would prefer to remain here and wallow in misery.”
“But you must. Your father would have expected it.”
The mention of Papa brought on a wave of melancholy that Audrey stifled by clapping a hand over her mouth. “You are right. I admit. The sooner I get this over with, the better.”
* * *
Unaccustomed to being made to wait for anyone or anything, Reid paced in front of the hearth. An hour ago, he’d sent Dunn and the men out to ensure they hadn’t been followed. Though he was confident the naval threat had passed, Reid never left anything to chance. With a bit of effort, in as little as a fortnight, he could ensure the estate’s affairs were in order and send the lassie to the nearest boarding school. He’d have to see her on holidays and whatnot, but by then he’d have a chance to arrange for a governess and whatever staff the young gel needed.
When he finally heard footsteps coming down the stairs, he faced the entry with his most somber expression, ruing the task before him. Even in all the time he’d been waiting, he still hadn’t come up with any gentle words to deliver the worst news this little girl—no doubt cossetted all her life—had ever heard.
With a bowed head and folded hands, the lass stepped into the parlor.
“Lord Reid MacKenzie, Earl of Seaforth, allow me to introduce Miss Audrey Kennet,” said the butler before taking his leave.
Reid blinked in utter astonishment. Then he gulped. This was no wee lass. A woman fully grown stood before him, staring at her clasped fingers. “Ah…” Remembering his station, he bowed. “Miss Kennet. Please allow me to offer my most heartfelt condolences.”
Her gaze flickered up and met his with a pair of very red and swollen eyes. Flinching as if mortified to be in his presence, Miss Audrey quickly looked to her hands again as if those slender fingers provided her salvation. The lass’s nose was redder than her eyes, and her blonde tresses appeared as if she’d just lost a fight with a wildcat. But the thing that twisted Reid’s gut into a knot was that he’d completely underestimated the enormity of the promise he’d made to this lassie’s father. Wee Miss Audrey could be no less than sixteen years of age, and quite possibly older.
He gestured to a chair, waited for her to take a seat, then sat opposite.
“Can you tell me what happened, m’lord?” she asked tremulously, almost in a whisper.
“We were returning from France…” He explained it all, including the fact he believed the navy ship had only intended to fire a warning shot across the galley’s bow. All the while, Miss Kennet kept her eyes averted and listened quietly while she twisted a kerchief between her fists. “Your father’s last request was for me to become your guardian and—”
“Guardian?” she said, her voice shooting up. A blush spread across her entire face, but she continued to keep her gaze lowered, twisting her kerchief as if she could wring it to death.
He adjusted his scratchy, sea-salt-encrusted cravat. “I assure you. I am of sound means and quite capable.”
Her lips disappeared into a thin line, but she didn’t look up. “I fear I am too old to have a guardian, my lord,” she whispered.
He regarded the lass with a more critical eye. “What, pray tell, is your age?”
“If you must know, my nineteenth saint’s day came a fortnight past.” She raised her chin.
Merciful Father, it was a good thing Reid was sitting. He’d taken a solemn oath to be the guardian for a woman past her majority? What in God’s name was he supposed to do with a woman fully grown?
“Indeed, ‘guardian’ isn’t the right word in this instance,” Reid spoke aloud. “Mayhap my role is more one of benefactor in this instance. I did give your father my word I would see to your care.” His mind raced to come up with a solution. “Have you attended finishing school?”
“Of course.” She rolled her eyes aloft—very dark blue eyes. “I graduated only last month from Talcott Ladies’ Finishing School.”
Given she was nineteen years of age, his question had been rather absurd. Nonetheless, the sooner he was relieved of this burden, the better. “What about marriage prospects? As an heiress, I’d imagine you’ve been to court?”
She twisted the kerchief so tight, her knuckles were white. “Court is mortifying.”
“Have any gentlemen come to call…ah…recently?”
“I’ve only been home for a few sennights, and most of that time, Papa has been away.”
Good Lord, what was Reid to do with an heiress past her majority who had no marriage prospects? “What about male relatives? I ken you have no brothers, but do you have any cousins, or an uncle, perchance?”
This time her shoulders drooped with the shake of her head. She sniffed, looking like she was about to burst into tears. If there was one thing Reid could not endure, it was sitting idle while a female cried. He’d already felt helpless enough.
“Not to worry,” he said in his most soothing voice, resisting the urge to hop to his feet and do something daft like draw her into an embrace. “’Tis why I’m here. We’ll set everything to rights in no time.” God willing.
“I beg your pardon, but everything will not
- "Magnetic, sexy romance is at the heart of this novel, made complete with a cast of richly depicted characters, authentic historical detail, and a fast-moving plot."—Publishers Weekly on The Highland Guardian
- "A true gem when it comes to compelling, dynamic characters. ... With clever, enchanting writing, elements of life-or-death danger and a romance that takes both Reid and Audrey completely by surprise, The Highland Guardian is an historical romance so on point it'll leave readers awestruck."—Book Page
- "A must-read new release. Seriously complex and historically detailed, this book kept amazing me with its unassuming tenderness and sweeping prose."—BookRiot
- "The Highland Guardian is a captivating historical fiction romance; crafted with emotion, witty dialog, and well-developed characters."—Write-Escape
- "Romantic! Exciting! Suspenseful! This book reached out, grabbed me by the heart and dragged me back in time to Scotland during the early stages of the Jacobite movement. Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. ...It is fast-paced, chilling, heart-wrenching and - yes - romantic. What a ride!"—Flippin' Pages
- On Sale
- Dec 19, 2017
- Page Count
- 384 pages