Exclusive Excerpt – The Highland Commander (Highland Lords Novel Book 2) by Amy Jarecki

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?

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Watch the trailer for The Highland Commander here:
https://youtu.be/MAjkG0fx_9U

 

Exclusive 1st Chapter

Chapter One

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 fire‑ ball 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 men‑ tioned 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 some‑ thing 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. “Never, sir.” “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 high‑ born 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.”


About Amy Jarecki

A descendant of an ancient Lowland clan, Amazon Bestselling Author Amy Jarecki adores Scotland. Though she now resides in southwest Utah, she received her MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Winner of the prestigious RONE Award, she found her niche in the genre of Scottish historical romance. Amy loves hearing from her readers and can be contacted through her website at www.amyjarecki.com (where you can also sign up for her monthly newsletter).

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