Castles Ever After Series, Book 3
On the cusp of her first London season, Miss Madeline Gracechurch was shyly pretty and talented with a drawing pencil, but hopelessly awkward with gentlemen. She was certain to be a dismal failure on the London marriage mart. So Maddie did what generations of shy, awkward young ladies have done: she invented a sweetheart.
A Scottish sweetheart. One who was handsome and honorable and devoted to her, but conveniently never around. Maddie poured her heart into writing the imaginary Captain MacKenzie letter after letter … and by pretending to be devastated when he was (not really) killed in battle, she managed to avoid the pressures of London society entirely.
Until years later, when this kilted Highland lover of her imaginings shows up in the flesh. The real Captain Logan MacKenzie arrives on her doorstep—handsome as anything, but not entirely honorable. He’s wounded, jaded, in possession of her letters… and ready to make good on every promise Maddie never expected to keep.
“Dare’s latest begins with a fairy-tale twist of fate, then leads readers on a mesmerizing and intense emotional journey that explores love in many forms and the powerful pull of dreams.
A brilliant, enchanting, and soul-satisfying romance.”
~Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews
“With sharp, clever banter, breathtaking sensuality, colorful descriptions, and solid cultural detail, this compelling, often hilarious escapade puts a refreshing spin on the ‘imaginary lover’ theme and adds another winner to Dare’s riveting Castles series.”
~Starred Review, Library Journal
“Marvelous … Dare’s swiftly moving plot is enhanced by the seamlessly developed romance, and the sensuality is heightened by the slow awakening of the unlikely pair’s mutual attraction.”
~Starred Review, Publisher’s Weekly
Enjoy this preview of Chapter One from When a Scot Ties the Knot!
Maddie’s hand jerked.
Ink sputtered from her pen, making great blots on the wing structure she’d been outlining. Her delicate Brazilian dragonfly now resembled a leprous chicken.
Two hours of work, gone in a heartbeat.
But it would be nothing if those bubbles signified what she hoped.
Her heart began to beat faster. She set aside her pen, lifted her head just enough for a clear view of the glass-walled seawater tank, and went still.
Maddie was, by nature, an observer. She knew how to fade into the background, be it drawing-room wallpaper, ballroom wainscoting, or the plastered-over stone of Lannair Castle. And she had a great deal of experience observing the mating rituals of many strange and wondrous creatures, from English aristocrats to cabbage moths.
When it came to courtship, however, lobsters were the most prudish and formal of all.
She’d been waiting months for Fluffy, the female, to molt and declare herself available to mate. So had Rex, the male specimen in the tank. She didn’t know which of them was the more frustrated.
Perhaps today would be the day. Maddie peered hard at the tank, breathless with anticipation.
There. From behind a broken chunk of coral, a slender orange antennae waved in the murky gloom.
That’s it, she silently willed. Go on, Fluffy. That’s a girl. It’s been a long, lonely winter under that rock. But you’re ready now.
A blue claw appeared.
“Stop being so missish.”
At last, the female’s full head came into view as she rose from her hiding place.
And then someone rapped at the door. “Miss Gracechurch?”
That was the end of that.
With a blub-blub-blub, Fluffy disappeared as quickly as she’d emerged. Back under her rock.
“What is it, Becky?” Maddie called. “Is my aunt ill?”
If she’d been disturbed in her studio, someone must be ill. The servants knew not to interrupt her when she was working.
“No one’s ill, miss. But there’s a caller for you.”
“A caller? Now that’s a surprise.”
For an on-the-shelf Englishwoman residing in the barren wilds of the Scottish Highlands, callers were always a surprise.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“It’s a man.”
Now Maddie was more than surprised. She was positively shocked.
She pushed aside her ruined dragonfly illustration and stood to peer out the window. No luck. She’d chosen this tower room for its breathtaking view of the rugged green hills and the glassy loch settled like a mirror shard between them. It offered no useful vantage of the gate or entryway.
“Oh, Miss Gracechurch.” Becky sounded nervous. “He’s ever so big.”
“Goodness. And does this big man have a name?”
“No. I mean, he must have a name, musn’t he? But he didn’t say. Not yet. Your aunt thought you had best come and see for yourself.”
Well. This grew more and more mysterious.
“I’ll be there in a moment. Ask Cook to prepare some tea, if you will.”
Maddie untied her smock. After pulling the apron over her head and hanging it on a nearby peg, she took a quick inventory of her appearance. Her slate-gray frock wasn’t too wrinkled, but her hands were stained with ink and her hair was a travesty—loose and disheveled. There was no time for a proper coiffure. No hairpins to be found, either. She gathered the dark locks in her hands and twisted them into a loose knot at the back of her head, securing the chignon with a nearby pencil. The best she could do under the circumstances.
Whoever this unexpected, nameless, ever-so-big man was, he wasn’t likely to be impressed with her.
But then, men seldom were.
She took her time descending the spiraling stairs, wondering who this visitor might be. Most likely a land agent from a neighboring estate. Lord Varleigh wasn’t due until tomorrow, and Becky would have known his name.
When Maddie finally reached the bottom, Aunt Thea joined her.
Her aunt touched a hand to her turban with dramatic flair. “Oh, Madling. At last.”
“Where is our mysterious caller? In the hall?”
“The parlor.” Her aunt took her arm, and together they moved down the corridor. “Now, my dear. You must be calm.”
“I am calm. Or at least, I was calm until you said that.” She studied her aunt’s face for clues. “What on earth is going on?”
“There may be a shock. But don’t you worry. Once it’s over, I’ll make a posset to set you straight.”
Oh, dear. Aunt Thea fancied herself something of an amateur apothecary. The trouble was, her “cures” were usually worse than the disease.
“It’s only a caller. I’m sure a posset won’t be necessary.”
Maddie resolved to maintain squared shoulders and an air of good health when she greeted this big, nameless man.
When they stepped into the parlor, her resolve was tested.
This wasn’t just a man.
This was a man.
A tall, commanding figure of a Scotsman, dressed in what appeared to be military uniform: a kilt of dark green-and-blue plaid, paired with the traditional redcoat.
His hair was overlong (mostly brown, with hints of ginger), and his squared jaw sported several days’ growth of whiskers (mostly ginger, with hints of brown). Broad shoulders tapered to a trim torso. A simple black sporran was slung low around his waist, and a sheathed dirk rode his hip. Below the fall of his kilt, muscled, hairy legs disappeared into white hose and scuffed black boots.
Maddie pleaded with herself not to stare.
It was a losing campaign.
Taken altogether, his appearance was a veritable assault of virility.
“Good afternoon.” She managed an awkward curtsy.
He did not answer or bow. Wordlessly, he approached her.
And at the point where a well-mannered gentleman would stop, he drew closer still.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, anxious. At least he’d solved her staring problem. She could scarcely bear to look at him now.
He stopped close enough for Maddie to breathe in the scents of whisky and wood smoke, and to glimpse a wide, devilish mouth slashing through his light growth of beard. After long seconds, she coaxed herself into meeting his gaze.
His eyes were a breathtaking blue. And not in a good way.
They were the sort of blue that gave one the feeling of being launched into the sky or plunged into icy water. Flung into a void with no hope of return. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation.
“Miss Madeline Gracechurch?”
Oh, his voice was the worst part of all. Deep, with that Highland burr that scraped and hollowed words out, forcing them to hold more meaning.
He said, “I’m come home to you.”
“H-home … to me?”
“I knew it,” Aunt Thea said. “It’s him.”
The strange man nodded. “It’s me.”
“It’s who?” Maddie blurted out.
She didn’t mean to be rude, but she’d never laid eyes on this man in her life. She was quite sure of it. His wasn’t a face or figure she’d be likely to forget. He made quite an impression. More than an impression. She felt flattened by him.
“Don’t you know me, mo chridhe?”
She shook her head. She’d had enough of this game, thank you. “Tell me your name.”
The corner of his mouth tipped in a small, roguish smile. “Captain Logan MacKenzie.”
The world became a violent swirl of colors: green and red and that stark, dangerous blue.
“Did you …” Maddie faltered. “Surely you didn’t say Cap—”
That was as far as she got. Her tongue gave up.
And then her knees gave out.
She didn’t swoon or crumple. She simply sat down, hard. Her backside hit the settee, and the air was forced from her lungs. “Oof.”
The Scotsman stared down at her, looking faintly amused. “Are ye well?”
“No,” she said honestly. “I’m seeing things. This can’t be happening.”
This really, truly, could not be happening.
Captain Logan MacKenzie could not be alive. He could not be dead, either.
He didn’t exist.
To be sure, for nigh on a decade now, everyone had believed her to be first pining after, then mourning for, the man who was nothing but fiction.
Maddie had spent countless afternoons writing him letters—missives that had actually just been pages of nonsense or sketches of moths and snails. She’d declined to attend parties and balls, citing her devotion to the Highland hero of her dreams—but really because she’d preferred to stay home with a book.
Her godfather, the Earl of Lynforth, had even left her Lannair Castle in his will so that she might be nearer her beloved’s home. Quite thoughtful of the old dear.
And when the deceit began to weigh on her conscience, Maddie had given her Scottish officer a brave, honorable, and entirely fictional death. She’d worn black for a full year, then gray thereafter. Everyone believed her to be disconsolate, but black and gray suited her. They hid the smudges of ink and charcoal that came from her work.
Thanks to Captain MacKenzie, she had a home, an income, work she enjoyed—and no pressure to move in London society. She’d never intended to deceive her family for so many years, but no one had been hurt. It all seemed to have worked for the best.
Now something had gone terribly wrong.
Maddie turned her head by slow degrees, Miss Muffet fashion, forcing herself to look at the Highlander who’d sat down beside her. Her heart thumped in her chest.
If her Captain MacKenzie didn’t exist, who was this man? And what did he want from her?
“You aren’t real.” She briefly closed her eyes and pinched herself, hoping to waken from this horrid dream. “You. Aren’t. Real.”
Aunt Thea pressed a hand to her throat. With the other, she fanned herself vigorously. “Surely it must be a miracle. To think, we were told you were—”
“Dead?” The officer’s gaze never left Maddie’s. A hint of irony sharpened his voice. “I’m not dead. Touch and see for yourself.”
Oh, no. Touching him was out of the question. There would not be any touching.
But before Maddie knew what was happening, he’d caught her ungloved hand and drawn it inside his unbuttoned coat, pressing it to his chest.
And they were touching.
A stupid, instinctive thrill shot through her. She’d never held hands with any man. Never felt a man’s skin pressed against her own. Curiosity clamored louder than her objections.
His hand was large and strong. Roughened with calluses, marked with scars and powder burns. Those marks revealed his life to be one of battle and strife, just as surely as her pale, ink-stained fingers told hers to be a life of scribbling … and no adventure at all.
He flattened her palm against the well-worn lawn of his shirt. Beneath it, he was impressively solid. Warm.
“I’m no ghost, mo chridhe. Just a man. Flesh and bone.”
He kept using those words. She wasn’t fluent in Gaelic, but over the years she’d gathered a few bits here and there. She knew mo chridhe meant “my heart.”
The words were a lover’s endearment, but there was no tenderness in his voice. Only a low, simmering anger. He spoke the words like a man who’d cut out his own heart long ago and left it buried in the cold, dark ground.
With their joined hands, he eased aside one lapel of his coat. The gesture revealed a corner of yellowed paper tucked inside his breast pocket. She recognized the handwriting on the envelope.
It was her own.
“I received your letters, lass. Every last one.”
God help her. He knew.
He knew she’d lied. He knew everything.
And he was here to make her pay.
“Aunt Thea,” she whispered, “I believe I’ll be needing that posset after all.”
So, Logan thought. This is the girl.
At last he had her in his grasp. Madeline Eloise Gracechurch. In her own words, the greatest ninny to ever draw breath in England.
The lass wasn’t in England now. And pale as she’d grown in the past few seconds, he suspected she might not be breathing, either.
He gave her hand a little squeeze, and she drew in a gasp. Color flooded her cheeks.
There, that was better.
To be truthful, Logan needed a moment to locate his own composure. She’d knocked the breath from him, too.
He’d spent a great deal of time wondering how she looked. Too much time over the years. Of course she’d sent him sketches of every blessed mushroom, moth, and blossom in existence—but never any likenesses of herself.
By the gods, she was bonny. Far prettier than her letters had led him to imagine. Also smaller, more delicate.
“So …” she said, “this means … you … I … gack.”
Much less articulate, too.
Logan’s gaze slid to her aunt, who was somehow exactly as he’d always pictured her. Frail shoulders, busy eyes, saffron-yellow turban.
“Perhaps you’ll permit us a few minutes alone, Aunt Thea. May I call you Aunt Thea?”
“But … certainly you may.”
“No,” his betrothed moaned. “Please, don’t.”
Logan patted her slender shoulder. “There, there.”
Aunt Thea hurried to excuse her niece. “You must forgive her, Captain. We believed you dead for years. She’s worn mourning ever since. To have you back again … well, it’s such a shock. She’s overwrought.”
“That’s understandable,” he said.
And it was.
Logan would be surprised, too, if a person he’d invented from thin air, then cravenly lied about for close to a decade, appeared on his doorstep one afternoon.
Surprised, shocked … perhaps even frightened.
Madeline Gracechurch appeared to be no less than terrified.
“What was it you mentioned wanting, mo chridhe? A poultice?”
“A posset,” Aunt Thea said. “I’ll heat one at once.”
As soon as her aunt had left the room, Logan tightened his grip around Madeline’s slender wrist, drawing her to her feet.
The motion seemed to help her find her tongue.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“I thought we covered that already.”
“Have you no conscience, coming in here as an imposter and frightening my aunt?”
“Imposter?” He made an amused sound. “I’m no imposter, lass. But I’ll admit—I am entirely without conscience.”
She wet her lips with a nervous flick of her tongue, drawing his gaze to a small, kiss-shaped mouth that might otherwise have escaped his attention.
Wondering what else he might have missed, he let his eyes wander down her figure, from the untidy knot of dark hair atop her head to … whatever sort of body might be hiding under that high-necked gray shroud.
It didn’t matter, he told himself. He hadn’t come for the carnal attractions.
He was here to collect what he was owed.
Her hand went to her brow. “I can’t understand what’s happening.”
“Can’t you? Is it so hard to believe that the name and rank you plucked from the air might belong to an actual man somewhere? MacKenzie’s not an uncommon name. The British Army’s a vast pool of candidates.”
“Yes, but I never properly addressed anything. I specifically wrote the number of a regiment that doesn’t exist. Never indicated any location. I just tossed them into the post.”
“Somehow they found their way to you.” She swallowed audibly. “And you … Oh, no. And you read them?”
He opened his mouth to reply.
“Of course you read them,” she said, cutting him off. “You couldn’t be here if you hadn’t.”
Logan didn’t know whether to be annoyed or grateful that she kept completing his side of the conversation. He supposed it was habit on her part. She’d conducted a one-sided correspondence with him for years.
And then, once he’d served his purpose, she’d had the nerve to kill him off.
This canny little English heiress thought she’d come up with the perfect scheme to avoid being pressured into marriage.
She was about to learn she’d been wrong.
“Oh, dear,” she muttered. “I think I’ll be sick.”
“I must say, this is a fine welcome home.”
“This isn’t your home.”
It will be, lass. It will be.
Logan decided to give her a moment to compose herself. He made a slow circle of the room. The castle itself was remarkable. A classic fortified tower house, kept in a fair state of repair. This chamber they currently occupied was hung with ancient tapestries but was otherwise furnished in what he assumed to be typical English style.
But he didn’t care about carpets and settees.
He paused at the window. It was the surrounding land that interested him. This glen was ideal. A wide, green ribbon of fertile land stretched alongside the clear loch. Beyond it lay open hills for grazing.
These were the Highlands his soldiers had known in their youths. The Highlands that had all but disappeared by the time they’d returned from war. Stolen by greedy English landlords—and the occasional fanciful spinster.
This would be home for them now. Here, in the shadow of Lannair Castle, his men could regain what had been taken from them. There was space enough in this glen to raise cottages, plant crops, start families.
Rebuild a life.
Logan would stop at nothing to give them that chance. He owed his men that much. He owed them far more.
“You,” she announced, “have to leave.”
“Leave? Not a chance, mo chridhe.”
“You have to leave. Now.”
She took him by the sleeve and tried tugging him toward the door. Unsuccessfully.
Then she gave up on the tugging and started pushing at him instead.
That wasn’t any help, either. Except, perhaps, as an aid to Logan’s amusement.
He was a lot of man, and she was a mere slip of a lass. He couldn’t help but laugh. But her efforts weren’t entirely ineffectual. The press of her tiny hands on his arms and chest stirred him in dangerous places.
He’d gone a long time without a woman’s touch.
Far too long.
At length, she gave up on the pulling and pushing, and went straight to her last resort.
Pleading. Big, brown calf’s eyes implored him for mercy. Little did she know, this was the least likely tactic to work. Logan wasn’t a man to be moved by tender emotion.
However, he was a man—and he wasn’t unmoved by a pretty face. What with all her exertions, he was starting to see a flush of color on her cheeks. And an intriguing spark of mystery behind those wide, dark eyes.
This lass didn’t belong in gray. With that dark hair and those rosy lips, she belonged in vibrant color. Deep Highland greens or sapphire blue.
His own smile took him by surprise.
She was going to look bonny wearing his plaid.
“Just go,” she said. “If you leave now, I can convince my aunt this was all a mistake. Because it was a mistake. You must know that. I never meant to bother you with my silly ramblings.”
“Perhaps you didna mean to. But involve me you did.”
“Is it an apology you want, then? I’m sorry. So very, very sorry. Please, if you’ll just give me the letters back and be on your way, I’ll be most generous. I’d be glad to pay you for your troubles.”
Logan shook his head. She thought a bribe would appease him? “I’m not leaving, lass. Not for all the pin money in your wee silk reticule.”
“Then what do you want?”
“That’s simple. I want what your letters said. What you’ve been telling your family for years. I’m Captain Logan MacKenzie. I received every last one of your missives, and despite your best attempts to kill me, I am verra much alive.”
He propped a finger under her chin, tilting her face to his. So she would be certain to hear and believe his words.
“Madeline Eloise Gracechurch … I’ve come here to marry you.”