They're rebels, scoundrels, and blackguards-dark, dashing men on the wrong side of the law. But for the women who love them, a hint of danger only makes the heart beat faster.
Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne, is a notorious Highlander and an unrelenting Lothario who uses his slightly menacing charm to get what he wants-including too many women married to other men. But now, Gavin wants to put his shady past behind him . . . more or less. When a fiery lass who is the heiress to the land he wishes to possess drops into his lap, he sees a perfectly delicious opportunity.
A marriage most convenient
Samantha Masters has come back to Scotland, in a pair of trousers, and with a whole world of dangerous secrets from her time spent in the Wild West trailing behind her. Her only hope of protection is to marry-and to do so quickly. Gavin is only too willing to provide that service for someone he finds so disturbingly irresistible. But even as danger approaches, what begins as a scandalous proposition slowly turns into an all-consuming passion. And Gavin discovers that he will do whatever is necessary to keep the woman he has claimed as his own.
About the Author
A native of the United Kingdom, Audie and AudioFile Earphones Award winner Derek Perkins's audiobook narration skills are augmented by a knowledge of three foreign languages and a facility with accents. He has narrated numerous titles in a wide range of fiction and nonfiction genres. He is a member of SAG-AFTRA.
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Gairloch, Wester Ross, Scotland, Autumn 1880 Twenty years later
"So, it's true. The Earl of Thorne made a deal with the devil." The unique Scots-Irish brogue slid through the night like a sharp dirk through supple skin.
Even on the Sannda Mhòr, the wide swath of beach leading down to Strath Bay, Gavin St. James recognized the deceptively light footfalls of the large man behind him before he'd spoken.
"Wouldna be the first time," he retorted mildly as he clasped Callum Monahan's sturdy forearm in welcome. "Willna be the last. The devil has been many men to me. Here is only one more."
Even by the dim light of the fire, Callum's swarthy, sun-weathered skin contrasted with eyes so golden, they shone with an otherworldly luminescence. They matched the irises of the falcon perched on his left forearm as they studied him from beneath a woolen cowl. "Despite everything we've been through, you've not the look of a man who's dealt with many demons."
"And yet ..." Gavin summoned his signature rakish grin, letting his insinuation drift into the shadows. Callum knew Gavin's demons were darker than the black waters between Isle of Longa and the shores of the Sannda Mhòr. That Gavin's immediate family — all half brothers — consisted of a hanged traitor, the king of the London Underworld, and a certain Mackenzie Laird all the empire had literally termed the Demon Highlander.
"Ravencroft might actually see you hanged this time, if he discovers us." The man the locals christened the Mac Tíre joined Gavin in scanning the moonless night for a sign of the incoming cargo. Mac Tíre in the old language meant Son of the Earth. Master of Beasts.
Gavin thought of his brother. Liam. Now the Laird Ravencroft. He'd not only inherited their father's title, but his temper and proclivity for violence, as well. "One of us is like to kill the other before long. Seems to be the fate of the Mackenzie men." Gavin made an ironic sound, and crouched to add another log to the fire. He idly wondered what it would do to the Demon Highlander to have to witness one more brother kicking at the end of a rope. "Ravencroft never ventures this far north. He gives Inverthorne Keep, the village of Gairloch, and all of Strath Bay a wide berth. He may be the Mackenzie Laird, but this is my land. And well he knows it."
"Which makes it a perfect cove for smuggling." Callum's raptorlike eyes shone with the gleam of a man looking forward to the sin he was about to commit.
"Aye," Gavin agreed. "So it does."
In the unnatural stillness of the night, the unmistakable sound of oars sluicing through water announced the arrival of a longboat.
"Speak of the very devil." Callum strode to the edge of the tide, nearly beyond the glow of the fire. A gentle wind stirred his dark cloak and kilt like shadows around his body until he seemed more specter than man. "The Rook approaches."
"How he can navigate this craggy cove in such darkness boggles the mind," Gavin remarked. "Most use a lantern, at least."
Callum slid him a mysterious look over his shoulder. "The land has its demons, and so does the sea." The Mac Tíre whispered something to the falcon, and released it into the air with several powerful beats of its wings. "I trust that Sannda Mhòr is secure, but Manannan Mac Lir will alert us to an unwelcome presence all the same."
Gavin nodded and drew up next to his oldest friend as the gentle surf stole some of the sand from beneath his boots. He lifted the lantern he'd been holding, and signaled a welcome in the direction of the approaching vessel. "What I canna ken, is why a hermit who lives in a cave and sleeps with sheep has a connection to the most notorious pirate since Sir Francis Drake."
"It's more a shieling hut than a cave," Callum protested. "And I defy you to tell Angus and Fergus to sleep outside." At Gavin's droll glance, he continued. "I met the Rook some time ago in Tangier. I assisted him with the movement of some exotic animals for a wealthy local warlord, and in return he ... helped me recover something I'd had taken from me."
"'Tis a good thing ye're not vague," Gavin muttered.
"'Tis a good thing you're not your brother." Callum chucked him on the shoulder.
"Amen to that."
Callum took a flask from his cloak and knocked it back before offering it to Gavin. "To Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne. The profligate black sheep of the Mackenzie Clan."
Gavin drank deeply, welcoming the burn of the Irish whiskey Callum favored to ward off the chill seeping in from the sea. He silently thanked the gods that it wasn't Ravencroft Scotch. He'd had enough of that to last a lifetime. Returning the flask to the man he'd known since they'd romped about the Highland moors of Wester Ross as wild children, he said, "It occurs to me that to be labeled a black sheep in my family, ye'd ironically have to be a good man."
"I see no good men here." A dark, cultured English voice, more menacing than the night surrounding them, hailed over the sound of the lapping water as the tide delivered the boat onto the Sannda Mhòr.
"And ye'll find none," Gavin replied.
"This pleases me, as I have no use for them."
A shadow in a long black coat jumped from the bow with a handful of men, and assisted Gavin and Callum as they dragged the burdened boat farther onto dry sand. That accomplished, they gathered at the fire to conduct their business.
As the son of a notoriously violent man, Gavin had perfected the skills of observation and obfuscation well and early. He could read any man in a matter of seconds. He could tell if they were dangerous, armed, afraid, or compensating, and just how much rope he had to hang himself with. He knew which buttons to press to cause a volcanic eruption, or which levers to pull to release steam and defuse a situation.
As he studied their conclave of criminals, his entire being focused on only one man.
Here stood the kind of chap that sent Gavin's hand inching toward his dirk. It wasn't the Rook's size or height that put him off, as Gavin sensed he easily matched him in strength and stature. Nor was it his menacing scars or the palpable vibrations of danger seeming to throw shadows over the firelight.
It was his eyes. His eerie black eyes.
They were not wild like Callum's, nor skillfully indolent and impassive, like his own. They conveyed no greed, no rage, no approbation, nor scrutiny. They held neither devilish gleam nor demonic malevolence. And what Gavin could read in the pirate's eyes had him reassessing his dealings with the man.
They were dead.
Gavin stood convinced they were not the eyes of a man, but a shark.
The Rook was a creature of the sea, after all. A consummate killer known for his powerful, lethal precision and no natural predators. All the armadas of all the governments in the world had tried to best him.
Yet here he was.
Gavin could tell any that stood before him were not men, only meat.
I see who ye are, he thought. I have yer measure. But ye doona see me.
No one did. No one ever saw him. Never knew him. Not his fears or his flaws. His thoughts or his needs. Not his motivations or desires.
And they were legion.
Though the Rook's empty, unblinking stare disturbed Gavin, his own gaze never wavered. He knew the pirate caught his meaning before any word was exchanged between them.
This is dry land, my land, and ye're not alpha predator here.
After a moment spent taking the other's measure like titans on an ancient Olympian battlefield, the Rook finally addressed him. "The Earl of Thorne, I presume?"
"Aye." Gavin nodded. "Welcome to Gairloch."
"You've pretty features, for a barbarian lord."
"I wish I could return the compliment." Gavin smirked at Callum's hastily indrawn breath. The Rook was obviously not a vain man, and so this was neither censure nor challenge. It was a language men like him spoke fluently. Quid pro quo.
Gavin wouldn't have called the pirate unsightly, per se. The strange disfigurement reaching from beneath his collar marred a great deal of the right side of his face, but didn't hide his strong, broad features bladed by sharper, almost aristocratic lines. The Rook had midnight hair and eyes to match.
In fact, he reminded Gavin of a Mackenzie.
Though where Gavin was handsome, and Callum savage, the Rook was nothing more than arresting. Striking. Remarkably so, and the scars surely added to his menace, and thereby his appeal as the terror of the high seas.
The corner of the Rook's mouth twitched with the ghost of amusement. "I must say, noblemen rarely rouse themselves to meet me during nocturnal escapades. They generally send a servant to collect their thirty pieces of silver."
"What happens on my land is my responsibility. Also, I require proof the cargo is not human as I'll have no part in that."
The Rook pulled back the heavy canvas to reveal several stacked, unmarked square crates, each too small to hide a person, even a child.
Appeased, Gavin nodded. "This way."
Loading the cargo into the carts was backbreaking work, and it impressed Gavin that the Rook matched him burden for burden, load for load. The dark silence of the moonless Highland night pressed upon them like a shroud as they took the old road along low sea cliffs to Inverthorne, and stored the crates in the old Jesuit caves beneath the keep.
This finished, the Rook declined Gavin's offer of a conveyance for his men back to the beach. He made a gesture, and one of his crew stepped forward with a bag of coins for Callum, and a larger one for Gavin, as the cargo was to be stored on his land for a very specific amount of time.
"I'm rather new to pirating, but is the exchange still the doubloon? I'd assumed currency had changed since the eighteenth century." Gavin shook the heavy bag of coins, wondering if the Rook was unaware of the rather less weighty pound paper note.
The Rook seemed neither perturbed nor entertained. "In your hands is pure undetectable gold coin. It can be claimed by no government, trade organization, nor even traced to a mine. It is not bound to any certain economy, nor do you have to worry about an exchange rate."
"In that case, it's a pleasure doing business with ye." Gavin nodded.
"I'll return in one year's time to collect my cargo."
Calum turned to Gavin. "What are you going to do with your share, I wonder?"
A blood-chilling cry sounded from above, before Manannan Mac Lir dove to reclaim his place on Callum's forearm.
"We're not alone." Callum pulled a pistol from beneath his woolen cloak just as a copse of elms and ash trees rattled nearby.
Gavin counted the clicks of seven gun hammers behind him, each pulled a hair slower than his own. He hoped to be spared the indignity of a death in the dark by friendly fire.
"Show yerself," he commanded the interloper, and was instantly obeyed.
By a brindled long-haired Highland heifer who noisily waded from the underbrush to nose at some tender clover.
A release of the instant tension was followed by a discharge of pistol hammers and a few relieved grunts and chuckles.
"There's yer answer." Gavin smiled. "That's what I'm doing with my share."
"Highland cattle?" Callum snorted. "Tell me you're joking."
"Nay. I'm going to sell my part of Ravencroft Distillery to my brother, and buy the abandoned Erradale Estate and its bounty of cattle from the late Mrs. Ross's daughter, the one raised in America."
"Alison Ross, ye mean?" Gavin could feel more than see Callum's dumbfounded expression in the darkness. "It'll be the greatest land acquisition the Highlands have seen in centuries."
"That's rather the point."
"But ... the Mackenzie have never been cattle folk."
Gavin noted that the Rook and his men had already melted into the night, and his hand tightened around the gold in his grasp.
"Nay," he agreed. "The Mackenzie have never been cattle folk."
But as soon as he could, he'd no longer be a Mackenzie. Not only would he have the St. James surname, a non-Mackenzie title, and an income all his own, but after the crown granted the emancipation he'd requested, the bulk of his land would no longer be considered the purview of Laird Mackenzie of Wester Ross.
He'd be free of the Mackenzie clan once and for all. Among all his numerous desires, that one burned the brightest.
Union Pacific Railway, Wyoming Territory, Fall 1880
Samantha Masters squeezed the trigger, planting a bullet between her husband's beautiful brown eyes.
She whispered his name. Bennett. Then screamed it.
But it was the woman in his grasp she reached for as he fell to the ground.
Though they'd known each other all of twenty minutes, she clung to Alison Ross as though the younger woman were the most precious soul in the entire world, and they sank to their knees as their strength gave out.
Alison's hold was just as tight around her, and their sobs burst against each other's in a symphony of terror, shock, and abject relief.
What in the hell just happened?
Not twenty minutes ago, Samantha and Alison had been no more to each other than amiable fellow passengers on an eastbound train, chugging across the wintry landscape of the Wyoming Territory.
What were they now? Enemies? Survivors?
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Samantha repeated the words with every short, sobbing exhale. Though she couldn't have said who the apology was to, exactly. To Alison? To Bennett? To whoever had been shot on the other railcars?
This morning she'd been the irate, disillusioned wife of a charming and dangerous man. An insignificant and unwilling member of the outlaw Masters Gang.
This afternoon, she'd been the new acquaintance and confidant to Alison Ross, commiserating over childhoods spent on secluded cattle ranches.
This evening, because of what she'd just done, of what they'd all just done ... chances were good that she'd be hanged.
This train job was supposed to be like any other. Each of the Masters boarded on the last platform for miles and miles. To avoid detection or suspicion, Bennett, Boyd, and Bradley Masters would each take a seat in separate passenger cars.
Samantha would be placed in the least populated car, usually first class, as it was also the least dangerous. Once civilization completely fell away, the signal was given, and the men would strike, rounding up all passengers into one car.
This was done for the safety of the passengers as much as the Masters brothers themselves, as the gang didn't generally rob people. Cash, jewelry, and personal items were never as valuable as actual cargo. The Union Pacific Railway didn't only deliver citizens across the vast American continent. It delivered goods, sundries, and often ... federal funds.
Even in these modern times, when it seemed all the gold had been mined from the rich hills of California, American currency was still minted in the east. Which meant everything from company payrolls, to government bonds, to cash and precious metals were transported by transcontinental railways.
And the Masters brothers, aspiring entrepreneurs, had decided that if the government wouldn't allow them land, nor the banks grant them loans ... Then they'd take what they needed.
This was supposed to have been their fifth and final train job. It was supposed to have gone like the others.
No one harmed or robbed. Merely a bit inconvenienced and perhaps a little shaken. The Masters brothers would escape with a few bags of money that the government could simply print again, a "frightened" female hostage as played by Samantha herself, and the papers would have an exciting story to publish in the morning.
The signal, both to each other and to the passengers, was one shot, fired at the ceiling, and then a command to disarm, get moving, and a gentle promise that all this would be over before they knew it. Samantha's job was to act like any other passenger, and incite them to obey. Then, if necessary, act as the hostage to force compliance.
"People are sheep," Boyd had always said. "They'll follow a sweet thing like you to their doom."
On this job, Samantha had been more comfortable than any other. At this time in October, with winter settling in but Christmas still a ways off, travel wasn't foremost on the mind of the average American.
Her railcar had only two occupants other than herself. Alison Ross, a lively, bright-eyed San Franciscan socialite, and a well-dressed businessman more interested in his paper than conversation.
At first, Alison's friendly overtures had vexed Samantha, as she found it hard to concentrate on responses when her blood sang with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. But, she realized, to not engage would be suspicious, and before long she'd found herself enjoying Alison's company.
She'd not known many women her own age, least of all friendly ones.
Samantha imagined that in another life, she and Alison could have, indeed, been friends.
Had she not been about to rob the train.
Excerpted from "The Scot Beds His Wife"
Copyright © 2017 Kerrigan Byrne.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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