May McGoldrick's Sweet Home Highland Christmas is a 2018 RITA® finalist for Romance Novellas!
Freya Sutherland is a desperate aunt trying to keep custody of her precocious young niece, Ella. After the death of her father, Freya is willing to do anything to prove she's capable of being Ella's guardian, even if if means marrying for security instead of love.
Recently retired from the military, Captain Gregory Pennington wants nothing more than to make it home in time for Christmas. When his brother hears of his plans to return to the family estate for the holidays, he asks Penn to escort some travelers to the bordering estate.
When Freya and Penn meet their chemistry is instant. Once they realize he's their escort for the journey, there's no escaping their attraction. But Penn has plans that do not include a wife and child. And Freya has responsibilities as Ella's guardian, no matter her growing discontent with her upcoming marriage. With Ella conspiring to get them together, Penn and Freya might just experience a little magic during the holidays.
About the Author
Authors Nikoo and Jim McGoldrick (writing as May McGoldrick) weave emotionally satisfying tales of love and danger. Publishing under the names of May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey, these authors have written more than thirty novels and works of nonfiction for Penguin Random House, Mira, HarperCollins, Entangled, and Heinemann. Nikoo, an engineer, also conducts frequent workshops on writing and publishing and serves as a Resident Author. Jim holds a Ph.D. in Medieval and Renaissance literature and teaches English in northwestern Connecticut. They are the authors of Much ado about Highlanders, Taming the Highlander, and Tempest in the Highlands with SMP Swerve.
Read an Excerpt
Sutherland, the Scottish Highlands
December 11, 1817
Captain Gregory Pennington put down the knife and fork and glanced around at the crowded coffee room. Where were these blasted people he was to escort to Baronsford?
With only a fortnight till Christmas, he had every right to be impatient. The ice and wind had made the trip down the coast road to Helmsdale difficult, and the rest of the journey south to the Borders didn't promise to be any better. They'd need most of those days to reach the family estate, and he was anxious to get there.
The room buzzed with voices and activity. Thick clouds of tobacco hung beneath the blackened rafters, and the warm damp smell of wet wool and salty sea air filled his senses. Travelers from a northbound coach were huddled by the roaring fire, stamping their feet and warming themselves, and every table was filled. It appeared that everyone on the east coast of Scotland was trying to get home.
Home. Penn thought about the changes at Baronsford. Of anywhere in the world, the old castle was always home. He and his brother and three sisters had spent every summer there on the River Tweed — running through the forests, riding and swimming and sunning themselves on the rock in the lake. It had been a splendid place to grow up.
Change was an inevitable factor of life. He knew that, and Baronsford had undergone change, to be sure. After the deaths of his brother Hugh's first wife and son, an eight-year chill had descended over the place.
But, as winter eventually turns to spring, life had finally returned to Baronsford. His brother and his new wife were making it a home again. Penn had seen it when he attended their wedding this past June. It was a happy change. The house once again glowed with warmth and sunshine. And now Grace was with child. Another generation of Penningtons was about to begin.
Penn's thoughts lingered on his family. Every Christmas, they all went home to the Borders. Regardless of the clergy's position on Yule celebrations, Baronsford hosted one of its two annual balls the day after Christmas. So many members of the realm's leading families braved northern England's and Scotland's often fierce winter weather to attend the event. And every year, along with the festivities, Penn faced the inevitable teasing from his mother and sisters about marriage.
He still held the opinion that he'd never marry until he put down solid roots in a place of his own. As the second son of an earl, he'd thrown himself into forging a life. A builder by nature, a commission with the Royal Engineers had provided him with a career he needed. Until now.
Lately, he'd grown discontented with military life, with the lack of permanence — both in location and in relationships. He was increasingly conscious of how tired he was of being unable to plan his own life with the same precision that he built roads or bridges. And with the wars with France finally over, the government was focusing on its colonies abroad. There was a great deal to do in India and Canada and Australia, but he wanted no part in that. Not any longer.
Penn had already given his notice to the corps of his plan to relinquish his commission. He needed a new adventure. A new life. He was ready to look for a place to settle down and build a home and perhaps practice the profession that he still loved. Then, he'd entertain the idea of marriage.
The destination he had in mind would be certain to cause a stir with his family. Boston in America. A growing city that was, by all accounts, bursting at the seams. Though he'd never been there himself, the Penningtons were no strangers to the place. His uncle and wife and his cousins lived there, so Penn had connections. Still, it was far away.
He planned on announcing the news of the move to the family this Christmas.
Penn looked around the coffee room. So where were these people? If he'd ridden south as he planned, he'd be halfway to Baronsford by now. But his brother's letter — along with a carriage — had reached him the day before he was to leave. It was a curious note. As lord justice, Hugh was painstakingly explicit, but the message had been uncharacteristically cryptic. Penn was to connect up with four adults and a child in Helmsdale. They were traveling from an estate in Sutherland to the Borders to meet with Lady Dacre, a neighbor of his parents in Hertfordshire.
A door opened and a gust of wind carried a coachman inside.
"Ceathrú uaire! Fifteen minutes afore departure north!" the man shouted, clapping his wool-clad hands and glaring about him. "Be in yer places or be left!"
A barmaid pushed by Penn, carrying food to a young couple sitting with their hands entwined at a table in the corner. Newlyweds, he thought, wondering where home was for them.
Penn's eyes roamed from table to table, searching for the people he was to convey to Baronsford. A few travelers were moving toward the door, wrapping their mufflers and coats around them in preparation for the next stage of their journey.
The sensation of being watched drew Penn's gaze around the room again until he saw, standing right at his elbow, a child bundled in a mulberry-colored greatcoat. Inside the fur-trimmed hood, brown curls framed a small, rosy-cheeked face. Little as she was, the girl lit the grey room with color. Alert, slanted brown eyes, dark as night, stared intently at him. She didn't wait for him to speak.
"How old are you?" the cherub asked gravely.
Penn looked around for the child's family. There was little chance of a lass getting lost in a place like this, but he was relieved to see a wafer-thin woman keeping an eye on his visitor from a nearby table.
"Thirty." Penn pushed his plate away. "And you?"
"Do you have children?" she continued, ignoring his question.
The woman watching them began to rise just as the barmaid delivered plates of food to their table.
"None," he replied. "That I know of."
An eyebrow cocked slightly. "Any wife ... that you know of?" Penn wondered if he'd been mistaken thinking this tiny female was a child. Though she appeared to be no more than five or six, she seemed to understand more than she should for her age.
"No wives," he told her. "That I'm sure of."
"Are you a pauper, then?"
"A pauper?" Penn repeated, trying not to smile. Echoes of similar conversations he'd had with his sisters rang in his ears.
"It's a simple question."
"No, I'm not a pauper."
"Then why haven't you married? You're old enough. You wear a uniform. You're not a pauper."
"Has my father sent you?" he asked. "Or was it my mother?"
She stepped a little closer and curled her finger at him. Penn leaned down as she lowered her voice and asked in a confidential tone, "You're not a papist, are you?"
Penn shook his head, afraid he'd laugh if he tried to reply and sensing that his interrogator might have been offended at such a response.
"Giùlain thu fhèin, Ella. Behave yourself," the woman said, coming up to the table. "I'm sorry that she's bothering you, Captain. This wee miss can be a bit troublesome, I fear."
"Not at all," he replied.
"This is my nursemaid," Ella told him.
"I see." Penn nodded politely.
"Come, lassie. You've a hot plate of stew waiting for you at our table." The woman tried to take the child's hand, but Ella squirmed out of reach.
"May I have just ten minutes to converse with this gentleman?"
"Nay. It's time to eat."
"Two minutes. He said I'm not bothering him. Please, Shona," the young girl drawled with the practiced skill of an actress who knew how to win her audience. "Two. Only two. I have something to say to him. Please."
The maid's exasperated expression told Penn that this was a regular episode. She shook her head.
"Give me one minute, and I promise I'll finish my dinner and sit quietly until the next stop."
"We both know there's about as good a chance of that happening as ..." Shona looked apologetically at Penn. "If you're certain she's not bothering you, Captain. I'm right there. Please just send her on her way if she gets to be too much."
Penn was entertained. His lifestyle excluded any regular interaction with children. What he knew of them was through the stories his men shared. The infants didn't sleep. As soon as they could walk, they were prone to bumps and bruises and were constantly underfoot. Five-and sixyear-olds? He didn't know what that age was like, but whatever his impression might have been, this child didn't fit it.
Ella waited until the nursemaid sat at the adjoining table before she spoke.
"Shona is married to Dougal. He's outside now, looking after our luggage. They married three years ago." She held out three fingers. "The reason why they don't have children is because I fixed them."
"Fixed them?" he asked, giving up trying to hide his smile.
"A wee bit troublesome?" She shook her head gravely. "I am a lot troublesome."
And amusing. Penn wondered what the parents of this little one were like. The child's intelligence and independent spirit had to be a challenge. He recalled his brother's letter. He was to accompany four adults and a child to Baronsford. He wondered if this was the child.
"Where are you traveling to from here, Miss Ella?" he asked.
"I don't think it would be quite proper for me to answer, do you?" She didn't wait for his answer and shrugged. "Fie says we must be on our best behavior during this journey. Grandfather told her that's not bloody likely."
"Your grandfather said that, did he?"
The girl bobbed her curly head once.
"Perhaps if I introduced myself, we could converse more properly," he said. "My name is Captain Gregory Pennington, but to my friends I'm just Penn."
"Well, I'm Ella, which is what everyone calls me. Except Grandfather. He has a number of names for me that Fie says I mustn't repeat."
Remembering that she needed to curtsy, she did so. As a smile pulled at her lips, two dimples formed in her cheeks.
Before he could respond, the door to the coach yard opened and a taller, older version of his miniature inquisitor sailed into the coffee room. Brown eyes that matched Ella's swept the crowd and the woman's hood fell back, giving Penn a clear view of the red-cheeked beauty. He had no doubt to whom the little girl belonged.
Cloaked in a blue greatcoat, the woman paused inside the door and pulled gloves from her hands as she looked for her party. From the balanced stance to the set of her jaw, everything about her indicated strength and confidence, and only served to enhance her beauty. A high forehead and clear eyes dominated her perfectly symmetrical features. Her full pursed lips stirred something in him that he preferred not to be entertaining, considering the circumstances.
Aware that Penn's attention had been diverted, Ella turned and saw the woman by the door.
"That's Fie," she told him, running between tables toward her.
"Fie" lifted the child as small arms wrapped around her neck. The two presented a mirror image. A quick kiss, and then matching dimples formed in their cheeks as they looked into each other's eyes. The woman whispered a few words to Ella and pressed a kiss on her forehead. The little one planted a return kiss on her forehead. Kisses were required on each cheek, and returned in kind. Penn recognized a ritual when he saw one. They made a beautiful pair, and he realized others were staring at the two, as well.
As he watched her put the child down, Penn waited to see the lucky bastard who was due to follow Fie in from the yard. No one came in. So where was the husband? The two came hand in hand to the table where the nursemaid waited.
Penn couldn't help himself. His attention was riveted to their table.
"Cá bhfuil sé?" the nursemaid asked in Gaelic. "The colonel isn't here?"
There was a slight shake of the head as the younger woman tried to encourage Ella to sit at the table.
"What'll you do, mistress?"
Fie sent another silent plea to the nursemaid to divert the conversation, but it appeared to be too late.
"He's not here?" Ella blurted, looking up.
"No, my love," Fie responded. "But don't worry. We have to make many stops along the way. He has ample opportunity to catch up to us."
"But that won't do," Ella said, raising her voice and scrambling off the bench.
"Don't worry yourself, sweetheart. Why don't you —" "No, Fie. No. We have a great deal to worry about." She glanced at Penn and tugged on her mother's arm. "But I can fix this. Come. Come with me."
He watched as the young girl tried to turn the woman toward his table.
"He's thirty years old, not married, and not a pauper. And I like him better than Colonel Richard."
The woman leaned over the child. "Honey, you have no reason to fret. We'll be —"
"No, Fie! Listen to me!" Stamping her foot, she pointed at Penn. "You have to ask him to marry you. Please. Then you can keep me."
* * *
Then you can keep me.
The sudden shock of embarrassment before this stranger was immediately replaced by the clawing pain she felt at Ella's unhappy outburst. Freya Sutherland had made every effort to shield her niece from the potential outcome of this trip, but the lassie saw and heard everything. She was everywhere. And she was a five-year-old going on twenty-five.
For over a month now, the Sutherland household had been in an uproar regarding the Dowager Lady Dacre's request and how it would affect all of their futures. She realized now it was foolish to think the anxiety they were feeling would go unnoticed by the child.
Freya crouched down until she was at eye level with Ella and placed the tip of her finger on the girl's trembling chin. Brown eyes met hers, and Ella reached out, replicating the gesture. Freya hadn't realized that she herself was on the verge of losing control.
Neither of them was prone to shedding tears. They were aunt and niece, but they could as well have been mother and daughter. Ella was only a week old when Freya's sister, Lucy, died of complications after childbirth. The infant's father was off fighting Napoleon on the battlefields of Spain. On her deathbed, Lucy had entrusted her bairn to her sister, and Fredrick Dacre was more than amenable to the arrangement, having been cut off by his family at the time of his marriage. It still bothered Freya that he'd never lived to see his own daughter.
For five years, the Sutherlands had lived in peace, thinking the final letter from the child's father was enough to assign the guardianship of Ella to them permanently. But now, everything was about to change, one way or another. Fredrick's mother, widow of the late Duke of St. Albans, was insisting on the assurance that her granddaughter's future was secure with Freya and "those Scotch people." Courts sided with wealth, so Ella's future needed to be decided through diplomacy and not legal battles.
"You won't let me go, Fie, will you?" the child asked.
"Never," Freya whispered, pulling Ella tightly into her arms.
"But you need to marry to keep me."
"I'll marry," Freya whispered against the soft curls. "You're staying with me."
"But Colonel Richard isn't here. He was supposed to meet us, wasn't he?"
"He'll join us in Dundee," Freya lied, hoping the weather and the condition of the roads were the cause of Dunbar's delay. "The colonel is very excited that I've finally accepted his offer. He'll join us, and I'll marry when the time comes."
Ella pulled out of her arms. "But you don't like him."
"Of course I like him," Freya lied again, upset that her feelings were so transparent.
She had to marry. There was no other way. Even though her father, Sutherland of Torrishbrae, was in perfect health, he was getting older. With no son, the estate she'd spent her entire life on was destined to go to a distant cousin, Colonel Richard Dunbar, a conceited, arrogant, military commander. Everyone in Scotland knew the colonel's interest in Freya lay mainly with her own fortune, and she'd been putting off responding to his offer of marriage for years. But now, with the dowager's stipulation that Ella must have a permanent and stable home, as well as secure provisions for in the future, Freya had no choice.
"I like him well enough," she said again, trying to sound more definite.
"You're being a bloody martyr," Ella said.
"What did I tell you about using your grandfather's bad language?" Freya scolded, pushing to her feet.
"You said I had to stop talking like Grandfather when we get to Baronsford."
In the periphery of her vision, she saw the red-coated officer at the next table stand and approach.
"I meant now, forever. You very well know you need to act your age."
"Only if you act your age."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sweet Home Highland Christmas"
Copyright © 2018 Nikoo K. and James A. McGoldrick.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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