On the run from the wrathful Prince of Wales, Jack Haines, Earl of Lambourne, is taken prisoner by a Highland laird who makes him an unusual offer: if Jack handfasts his niece, then his life will be spared. The old Highland custom—a marriage lasting only a year and a day, unless both partners agree to make it a lifelong vow—sounds preferable to Jack to being dragged to London in chains, and when he meets lovely Lizzie Beal, his dilemma starts to seem positively enjoyable. Until the hellion vents her fury...on him! Detesting the scandalous match that will end all her chances of making a respectable marriage, Lizzie can't abide living intimately with a fugitive nobleman bent on seducing her and then running off. But in teaching her the pleasures of a wife's duties, Jack sparks within them both a passion that will make him wish he could stay with Lizzie for much longer than a year and a day.
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
They kept him locked away in a dark and dank room, where he could hear what sounded like a herd of cattle being driven on the floor above. Beal said it was to keep him out of sight until the prince's men had left, but Jack was beginning to despair he'd ever see the light of day again.
At last a pair of large Highland men appeared wearing the Beal plaid. They roughly escorted him upstairs, dragging him into the bitterly cold night air.
A crowd had gathered in the upper bailey, Jack was chagrinned to see. He was paraded through it like a fat Christmas goose to a cacophony of cheers and jeers. The laird had seen to it that the assembled throng had plenty of ale; the smell of it filled his nostrils, and his boots sloshed through more than one spill.
He was ushered through small wooden doors that deceptively marked a grand hall. Dozens of candles blazed inside and the hall was teeming with people. Frankly, Jack marveled that there were this many Beals and Beal tenants living in Glenalmond.
"Felicitations, milord!" someone shouted happily, holding a tankard aloft.
Jack was practically dragged across the great hall toward a raised platform at the far end of the room, where musicians would sit during a ball. Tonight the platform was empty save the laird and a man of the cloth. Jack was deposited on that platform directly in front of Carson Beal. "You did no' make clear all the bloody Highlands would be on hand to witness," Jack complained.
"You'll be grateful to know that a small army assembled by the prince's men are riding hard to the south to Lambourne just now," Beal retorted, and leaned forward. "But a single word from me will bring them back."
Jack's reply was lost when a raucous cry went up. He turned to see what the shouting was about and saw a woman in a gray, homespun wool gown being dragged by two men to the dais. She was not dressed for a handfasting. She wore a plaid shawl around her shoulders, and her dark, auburn hair was tied up in a thin, long ribbon she'd wrapped around her head. As they reached the dais, one of the men grabbed her around the waist and bodily carried her up, putting her down next to Jack.
Jack was surprised she was comely. Her eyes were blue, her lashes thick and black, and she looked at Carson Beal with what Jack instantly recognized as a woman's white-hot fury.
She was so furious, in fact, that she scarcely seemed to notice Jack or the vicar, who took her arm and held it out from her body, the palm of her hand turned up.
"Good evening, Lizzie," Beal said, as if she'd come for tea.
"Uncle, donna do this!" she said angrily. "I'll think of something, on my word I shall, but this...this is madness!"
Beal held up a thin strip of red ribbon. She tried to pull her hand away, but the vicar held it steady.
"It's no' legal!" she insisted as Beal quickly wrapped the ribbon around her slender wrist.
"I argued the same. Apparently it is," Jack said.
She snapped that stormy blue gaze at him, and Jack had the uneasy sense that she would have kicked him square in the knees if she could have managed it.
"Lass," Beal said as he knotted the ribbon, "the constable is here now. He's come to speak with you about your debts. I can send him away, or I can send him to Thorntree to speak with Charlotte."
The young woman froze.
"Sir," Beal said to Jack, indicating his hand. "Take her hand in your right hand."
Jack did not move as quickly as Beal liked; he was struck with a fist in his back at the same moment someone grabbed his arm and pushed his hand onto hers. There was no point in fighting it he'd given his word, and Highland mercenaries surrounded him. He folded his fingers around the young woman's. Her hand felt delicate but rough, and if he weren't mistaken, there was a callus on her palm.
Beal tied the knot, binding them together. Satisfied with his handiwork, he stepped back, gesturing impatiently to the vicar. "Make it quick," he ordered.
"We stand here today to witness the handfasting of Miss Elizabeth Drummond Beal," the vicar said, "to Jankin MacLeary Haines, the Earl of Lambourne."
Jack heard the lass's small gasp of surprise as the man droned on, but she did not look at him. She was looking up, staring helplessly at a pair of ancient shields hanging above them. He could feel her pulse in her fingers her heart was beating at a rapid clip. He hoped to high heaven she didn't swoon. He'd have this over as soon as possible and a dramatic swoon would only prolong it.
The vicar asked her if she agreed to the handfasting for a year and a day. Elizabeth Drummond Beal did not respond. Jack glanced down, arched a curious brow at the same moment Beal hissed, "Lizzie! The constable?"
She glared at him. "Aye," she muttered.
The vicar looked at Jack. "Milord ?"
"Aye," he growled.
It was done. A paper of some sort was thrust at them, and they were forced to put their names to it, at which point the vicar announced their troth plighted for a year and a day. They were turned about and their bound wrists lifted for the crowd to see. Cheers went up; tankards clashed, and from somewhere the corridor, perhaps? a pair of fiddles began to play.
The Highland brigade Carson Beal had assembled to enforce the handfasting pushed Jack and Lizzie off the platform and made them walk along at a rapid clip, causing Lizzie to stumble. Jack caught her elbow and held her up; she slapped his hand from her arm.
They were propelled through the crowd. "Well done, Lizzie!" one man shouted. "Who'd have thought it, Lizzie?" another called out with a laugh. "Is the hunting so bad in London, milord?" someone else shouted, earning the guffaws of several.
They were steered into a narrow corridor, and when Lizzie faltered, Beal barked, "Keep on, keep on!" from somewhere behind them. Several of the witnesses followed along behind them as well, breaking into a bawdy Gaelic wedding song. The men who swept Jack and Lizzie along picked up their pace when they reached a flight of stairs that spiraled upward, filling the narrow passageway with the sound of belts and boots scraping against the stone walls.
At the top of the stairs they came to an abrupt halt at a closed door. They were at the top of one of four turrets, Jack realized.
Beal pushed past Jack and stood on the top step, facing the revelers. "Join me, lads," he said, motioning for his men to turn Jack and Lizzie around to face the crowd, "in wishing the Earl of Lambourne and my lovely niece many happy nights in complete conjugal felicity!"
"Uncle, no!" Lizzie moaned at the very same moment Beal opened the door at their back. The crowd, facing the open door, let out a cry of glee. Jack glanced over his shoulder, as did his bound companion.
"Diah," she muttered.
Even Jack felt a flicker of surprise. The small, circular room was basking in soft candlelight. The brocade bed curtains had been pulled and belted around the bedposts and the bedlinens turned down. On a table in front of the hearth sat a dome-covered platter and decanted wine. Winter rose blooms were scattered on the floor and across the bed.
"There you are, milord!" someone shouted from the back. "A bit of romance to put her in a proper mood!"
"And a bit of wine if the romance does no' help!" someone else shouted to much raucous laughter.
"Oh, ye of little faith," Jack drawled, earning another round of laughter.
Lizzie closed her eyes.
"Go on, then," Beal said sternly, and pushed Lizzie into the room, and by doing so, forced Jack to follow her. He shut the door quickly behind them; a bolt on the outside slid into a lock. Jack could hear Beal tell the revelers that there was more ale and food in the banquet hall. More helpful and lewder suggestions were called through the door as the happy crowd began the trek downstairs.
It wasn't until he heard their voices far down the spiraling staircase that Jack looked at Lizzie.
"Get it off," she said, jerking their bound wrists up and holding them up under his nose.
"I thought perhaps we might at least introduce ourselves," he said lightly.
"Get it off!"
"What shall I call you?" he asked as he pulled her to the table and removed the silver dome on the platter. Mutton stew, by the smell of it. Not a single knife to be had. "Lover?"
"Rest assured you'll never need to call me anything at all!" she said with admirable conviction.
"You may reduce your rancor and save it for when you might need it," he said calmly. "I am as enchanted by this arrangement as you are. May I remove your brooch?"
"Your brooch," he said, looking at the small gold ring-shaped brooch that held her shawl on her shoulder.
Her eyes narrowed.
Jack knew that look and gestured to their wrists. "Rein in your thoughts, lass. I need something to get it off."
"I'll do it," she said tersely, and lifted her hands. Naturally, his went along with hers, and his fingers brushed against her breast. It was encased in thick wool, but it was a breast nonetheless, and little Miss Lizzie blushed furiously.
She quickly unfastened the pin and pushed it into his hand, managing to spear his palm in the process.
With a slight grimace, Jack took the pin and began to scrape at the sliver of red ribbon between their wrists. "Lizzie, is it?" he asked as he worked.
"Please hurry," she said.
"Perhaps you prefer Miss Beal," he said. "Although that seems rather formal, given that we've just been bound to each other for a year and a day."
"Here then, shall I do it?" she demanded, trying to take the pin from his hand.
"Patience," he urged her, and lightly pushed her hand away with the back of his. He continued scraping until the fabric of the ribbon was threadbare. He then put his hand on hers and jerked their hands apart, ripping the last bits of ribbon and freeing them.
Lizzie Beal instantly rubbed her wrist, then put her hand out, palm up.
Jack looked at her hand, then at her. She really had remarkable blue eyes. The color of a Caribbean sea.
"My brooch, if you please."
He bowed unnecessarily low and placed it carefully in her palm.
Lizzie Beal spared him not as much as a glance. She marched to the single window in the room, shoved aside the heavy drapery, and then pushed the window open. She braced her hands against the casing and leaned over, looking out.
As it was black as ink outside, Jack couldn't imagine what she might possibly see. "It's quite cold," he said, and turned to the table. "Come and have some mutton stew. We may as well relax, for it looks to be a long night, aye?"
He expected a maidenly protest, but he heard what sounded like the scrape of a shoe against the wall. When he turned round, he started at the sight of Lizzie Beal crouched on the casing and fitting her body through the narrow window. "Diah, have you lost your mind?" he exclaimed. "Come down from there before you hurt yourself!" He surged forward to stop her, but Lizzie Beal never even looked at him she just jumped.
Horrified, Jack lunged for the window and thrust his head through, expecting to see her crumpled form in the bailey below.
She was not the least bit crumpled; thankfully, she was crawling off a terrace below the turret's window. As with his own castle, additions and restructuring through the years had added a room just below the turret's window. From the roof of that room, it was but a short distance to the parapet walk, onto which Lizzie lowered herself like a wood nymph, disappearing from view.
"Foolish chit," he muttered, and straightened up. He had no idea where she was going, but it was hardly his concern. He'd held up his end of the bargain. Jack pulled the window closed and divested himself of his greatcoat. He was ravenous he sat down at the table and ladled a generous helping of mutton stew into a bowl. "No doubt she's taken a stable boy as a lover and got herself into this predicament," he uttered aloud. "That's what is wrong with Highlanders. They've no respect for the natural order of things."
He ate quickly, and when he'd finished the meal, he stoked the fire, then propped himself on the bed, his legs crossed at the ankles, and folded his hands behind his head.
His belly was full, he was warm, and while he found himself in yet another unwelcome situation, he believed that he might at least have a proper night's sleep.
He'd think what to do on the morrow.
Unfortunately, Jack never managed to sleep. A commotion in the hall brought him to his feet. The door was thrown open before he could reach it, and the barrel of a shotgun was pointed at his head.
He sighed, put his hands on his hips. "Diah, what is it now?" he demanded of whoever held the shotgun.
In response, someone shoved a disheveled Lizzie Beal into the room. She stumbled headlong into him; Jack caught her and quickly put her behind him as Carson Beal strolled into the room along with the very large fellow who held the shotgun. Beal's nostrils were flared, his jaw clenched. He glared at Lizzie, then at Jack, and pointed a long, menacing finger at her head, which, Jack realized, was peeking out around him. "If she escapes again, Lambourne, you will hang," he said tightly. "It is as simple as that."
All this talk of hanging tossed about willy-nilly was beginning to grate. And this wretched handfasting! Not an hour old and already a bloody nuisance!
Jack felt the lass move, and had an inkling she meant to make matters worse. He clamped a hand on her arm behind his back, squeezing just enough to warn her not to speak. He clicked his heels, said, "Aye, aye, Captain," and flippantly saluted Beal.
Beal's expression darkened. He stared at Jack, assessing him, but at last lifted one hand. His bear of a companion stepped out of the room. "Mind you keep her close, milord," Beal said ominously, and quit the room, slamming the door behind him and then sliding the bolt into the latch and locking them in once more. Copyright © 2009 by Dinah Dinwiddie3