Authors: Amy Jarecki
Highland Defender Series ~ Book One
Copyright © 2016, Amy Jarecki
The Fearless Highlander
First Release: March, 2016
Book Cover Design by: Amy Jarecki
Edited by: Scott Moreland
All rights reserved. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work, in whole or part, by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, is illegal and forbidden.
This is a work of fiction. Characters, settings, names, and occurrences are a product of the author’s imagination and bear no resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, places or settings, and/or occurrences. Any incidences of resemblance are purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
To my Mom and Moriah for their ever-present support and inspiration.
Fort William, Scotland, March, 1691
The door of the surgery burst open and two sweaty dragoons scooted inside, straining to carry a Highland prisoner sprawled atop a canvas stretcher. Charlotte clasped a cloth between her hands and watched while the soldiers rolled the enormous man onto a cot and chained his leg irons to the metal footboard.
“Another one?” asked Doctor Munro, Fort William’s army physician.
“Fevered just like the blighter yesterday and he smells worse than a heap of sh—” The soldier looked at Charlotte and cringed. “Apologies, Miss Hill, but this lump of rancid mutton stinks.”
Charlotte’s cheeks burned as she looked down at the cloth in her hands and nodded, her fingers twisting the piece of Holland so taught, fibers frayed. Her father’s men could be overly insensitive when it came to the Scottish prisoners—and there she stood nodding in agreement.
Blast my shy streak, I cannot allow this heartlessness to pass
. “Truly?” She stepped forward. “And this man is so dangerous he must be chained to the bed? He’s unconscious, for heaven’s sake.”
“I’d not be taking any chances with a blighter the size of Goliath.” A gutless dragoon raised his palms. “Who knows what he’ll do when he wakes?”
The physician held a kerchief to his nose while he bent over and examined the Highlander. “Why in God’s name did you bring him here? He’s half dead already.”
The two dragoons inched toward the door. One carried the stretcher upright and inclined his head in the direction of the fevered man. “The prisoners made such a ruckus, hauling him to the surgery was the only thing to get them to shut their gobs.”
Doctor Munro snorted. “So now we’re allowing murderers and thieves to tell us what to do? Colonel Hill received orders to send the lot of them to the gallows—and in short order.”
“No!” Charlotte snapped. “Papa is awaiting a pardon from the king.”
The physician smirked. “You think the king cares about a handful of bedraggled Jacobites rotting in a remote outpost? Why let these criminals run free? A dead man cannot return and thrust a knife into your back.”
A twitch of his eye was the only outward sign the Highlander may have heard Doctor Munro’s caustic opinion. By the saints, he was unusually large. The soldiers had propped up his shoulders to prevent the man’s legs from overhanging the cot. Oh yes, they were well formed, quite muscular legs at that.
Blinking away the image of the Highlander laying atop the cot like an effigy of Richard the Lionheart, Charlotte picked up the ewer and poured a stream of water into a bowl. “I daresay they were right to demand he be seen,” she whispered, hoping no one could hear. So unpopular her point of view, any public expression of it would only invite a terse rebuttal. But her insides roiled with a tempest. How could they all be so unfeeling? Was she the only person at Fort William who cared an iota about the living conditions of the poor prisoners? It wasn’t the Highlander’s fault he smelled a tad unpleasant. She’d continually asked her father to provide water and lye for the prisoners to bathe, yet he always responded with the same terse remark.
Dear Charlotte, you are too kindhearted. These men are convicts—animals. And Fort William is no bathhouse of luxury
The physician stood, and with brisk flicks of his fingers, folded his kerchief and replaced it in his sleeve. “You men are dismissed.” He watched them leave, then turned to Charlotte. By the pinched purse of his lips, he’d overheard her remark. “If I may be so bold Miss Hill, you are too gentle to be tucked away in such a disagreeable outpost. In my opinion, a young woman such as yourself should not be exposed to foul lowlife akin to this man, or any of the other riffraff incarcerated in this prison. ’Tis just not proper.”
“Oh please.” She dared meet his gaze. She hated looking Doctor Munro in the eye because he always stared at her with the most intense expression—just as he did right now. Curse his gunmetal-grey eyes. But rather than shy away, Charlotte squared her shoulders. “You speak to me as if I’m but a delicate flower.”
He stretched his fingers toward her cheek, but when she leaned aside, he quickly snapped his hand to his hip. “Oh, how delicate you are, indeed.” He took a step closer. “Your father should have at least sought a post nearer to Edinburgh where
people reside. This outpost is no place for a lady as well-bred as you.”
Charlotte regarded the bowl she’d just filled with water and bit the inside of her cheek. “Indeed?” After taking a hesitant look at the patient, she hastened for the door. The unconscious man could use tending, but presently she wasn’t about listen to the physician utter another word about what he thought of her gentility. The man had been growing bolder with such remarks. She took in a sharp breath. “Pardon me, but my father serves the king where he is needed, not where it best suits me.” Besides, if Charlotte moved anywhere away from Papa it would be London—where she was born. Placing her hand on the latch, she curtsied. “I shall see you at the evening meal.”
“Very well—” he said as she closed the door before he could utter another opinionated word.
At the top of the stairs, Charlotte stopped and drew in deep breaths as she turned full circle. Good, no one was about, as was usual in this part of the fort. Most everyone gave the surgery a wide berth, which she suspected was why her father allowed her to assist Doctor Munro. The physician wasn’t too terribly horrible. Though he was teaching her to be his assistant, he watched her with too much intensity beneath his beetle brows. Of course it was only natural for him to scrutinize her closely. He was even somewhat amenable, except when it came to ministering to prisoners. There, his manner was decidedly stiff and insensitive.
She ducked behind the wood stack and waited.
As she expected, it wasn’t long before the physician locked the infirmary and headed off. Doubtless, he hadn’t taken a second look at his fevered patient. Doctor Munro had the same opinion about the prisoners as everyone else in the Government Army. They were all but wild animals locked in chains where they ought to be.
But Charlotte vehemently disagreed with them. For the most part, she kept her opinions to herself, except when it came to her father. Inordinately shy, she hated the way the soldiers looked at her when she spoke at all, let alone expressed her unpopular beliefs. Of course with Papa she knew what she could and couldn’t say. The others? She shuddered. Merely speaking out came with great risk, and a charge of sedition would not only see her hanged, it would ruin her father’s prospects for advancement. With civil war an ever-present threat across England, Ireland and Scotland, no one knew what spies lurked at every turn.
Fishing the surgery key from the purse at her waist, she waited until Doctor Munro’s footsteps faded. On tiptoes she crept from behind the wood stack and peered in all directions to ensure she hadn’t been spotted. Then she lifted her skirts above her ankles, and as fast as a rabbit, pattered down to the surgery and slipped inside.
With the lamp snuffed, the light was dim, and Charlotte stood against the door keeping her hand on the latch while she waited for her eyes to adjust. The Highlander’s breathing wheezed. Her heart sped. Tightening her grip on the latch, she nearly fled. But the outline of the man became clearer. Lying on his back, she could see only his profile. A massive warrior, he didn’t have a hooked English nose, but his forehead angled to a proud Norse-shaped nose—straight, noble-looking. Like all of the other prisoners, his beard was rather unruly.
The unfortunate soul. By the saints, Papa will send this man to the gallows over my dead body—and I will see to it he survives.
Taking a deep breath to still her jittery nerves, Charlotte lit a candle and placed it on the table nearest the Highlander’s cot. She set the bowl she’d filled with water on the table and fetched a small cup of claret. Resting the back of her hand on the Highlander’s forehead, she tested his temperature. The patient was afire.
After dousing the cloth, she cleansed his face and neck with swirling strokes. Once she’d cleared the grime, she stood back for a moment. He had a handsome face—rugged as the Highlands. His dark hair was the color of well-oiled leather, and he’d braided his moustache hair into his beard—to keep it clean, she supposed.
How wretched for anyone to be housed in the bowels of Fort William
At the age of twenty, Charlotte had grown weary of biting her tongue and blindly accepting the brutal treatment of prisoners of war. Goodness, she’d been at Fort William for a month. How much longer must she remain silent? As far as she knew, they had done nothing wrong but fight on the losing side of a battle. The men sharing the dank hold were not common murderers or thieves as Doctor Munro had accused this man of being. They were warriors.
She studied him while curiosity fluttered in her breast. Of course, her concern for his wellbeing is what had her insides flittering about. Unusually captivating, he had lines etched into the corners of his eyes like a man of perhaps thirty. Was he married? Did he have a family? Would she be in danger if he weren’t unconscious?
A colossal hand in repose atop his belly sported thin white scars. She’d seen such marks caused by nicks from the sparring ring. His fleshy fingers were long, artistic, but moreover, they looked so powerful, Charlotte had no doubt he could crush her much smaller hands without even a grimace.
Nonetheless, sick with fever and flat on his back, he did not appear too terribly dangerous.
Is he a murderer? No. By the stirring of my blood, I do not believe him to be.
With an exhale Charlotte’s gaze trailed lower. His shirt laces were open, revealing tufts of mahogany curls. Licking her lips, her gaze meandered down the length of the loosened laces. His chest rose and fell with his breathing. She dunked the cloth in the basin and wrung it out. He smelled better already, but she would cleanse that which she could reach.
“I’ll run the cloth through your beard and over your chest,” she said as if he could hear. Heaven forbid he wake and startle.
Charlotte’s hand trembled a little after she moved from his beard to his chest. The Highlander’s flesh was nearly as hard as stone—far more muscular than she’d imagined a man would be—especially a prisoner.
Of course, she’d seen her father without his shirt, but at the age of two and sixty, Papa’s chest was—well, it wasn’t nearly as solid as this man’s.
Clearing her throat, she drew her hands away.
That should suffice
As she turned to the bowl, the Highlander coughed.
With a backward leap, the cloth flew from her hands, over her head, and landed on the poor man’s stomach. “A-are you awake?” Cringing, she tiptoed toward him and snatched the cloth away.
“Mm,” the Highlander’s deep voice rumbled, but his eyes remained closed.
“You’re terribly fevered.” Biting her knuckle, she glanced toward the door. She really ought to be dressing for the evening meal. Then she regarded the poor soul chained to the cot. It would be ever so cruel to leave without doing something to ease his suffering.
She picked up the cup of claret and placed one hand under the base of his skull. “You need to drink. I’ll lift your head now.” Goodness, merely his head weighed a stone. But she held him steady and moved the cup, tipping it up ever so slowly until the red liquid touched his lips. He opened his mouth just wide enough to take a small sip.
His Adam’s apple bobbed. “More.”
“How long have you been awake?” she asked, testing to see if he was well enough for conversation.
“Please,” he grunted.
“Yes, of course.” She offered another sip, and this time he took in a mouthful and swallowed it with a gulp. Charlotte eased his head back to the cot.
He sputtered and coughed. “Forgive me.”
“You needn’t apologize for being ill, sir.”
Before she could draw away, his eyes flashed open and those enormous fingers wrapped around her wrist, squeezing so forcibly her fingers went instantly numb. Holy Moses, it hurt but Charlotte clenched her teeth and froze.
“Help me,” he growled through his teeth.
“I-I’m trying to.” She attempted to pull away, but his grip held fast.
Then as if Satan possessed him, his hand dropped and his eyes rolled back, shuttering his haunting stare with inordinately long lashes. By the saints, the color of his eyes gave her pause—treacle brown like liquid pools of unfathomable depth. How on earth a man as fevered as he could be so expressive with a look, she had no idea. In that moment when their gazes connected, aside from her heart flying to her throat, she’d read so many things. Without a doubt this prisoner had suffered inconceivable pain and hardship. But he wasn’t a common crofter. Oh no, there was something special about this Highlander. If only Charlotte could put her finger on it.
Hugh’s head pounded like someone had taken an iron hammer and bludgeoned him to within an inch of his life. But God’s bones, after enduring one year and seven months in the bowels of hell, this woman’s voice soothed him as if she spoke with the sweet tenor of an angel. No red-blooded Scotsman could allow such temptation to pass without a mere glimpse even if he was close to death.
He willed his eyes to open. At first the fair-haired beauty posed a blur to him. With all the concentration his fevered head could muster, he forced himself to focus. His heart actually fluttered. Oh, Lord in heaven, such a gift he’d been given in these final moments of life. Her wide-eyed gaze expressed her surprise, almost as if she feared he’d do something ungentlemanly. No, no, no, never in his life would Hugh act out against a woman—especially one with bonny wisteria-blue eyes. He guessed with such an expressive countenance, she’d never be able to keep a secret—not with blues the size of silver coins.