A Yuletide Highlander
Highland Heather Romancing a Scot Series, #7
A gentlewoman afraid for her life. A Scottish warrior who’d die for her. A love that overcomes all odds.
Having fled her childhood home, noblewoman Sarah Paine has one thought when she barges into Gregor McTavish’s office… Escaping the blackguards chasing her. She never expected the brawny Highlander to endanger his life to help her, or that his gallantry and kindness would earn her trust and eventually win her heart. Neither could she anticipate the impossible choice she’d have to make…Her love for Gregor or her brother’s safety.
When Gregor left Scotland to start a new life in England, he gave up his dream of becoming a doctor. A year later, bored and no closer to finding the contentment he sought, he reluctantly decides to return home. Until a desperate, bonnie lass interrupts his plans. He convinces Sarah to trust him and accept his protection, but what was meant as a distraction becomes something much more meaningful, and he doesn’t ever want to let her go.
For the first time in his life, Gregor anticipates celebrating Christmas, but the madman pursuing Sarah casts a shadow over the holiday. Can the Yuletide work its magic, allowing Gregor to apprehend the fiend and at last bring him and Sarah the love and peace they desperately seek?
Though this book can easily be read as a stand-alone, most readers prefer to read the series in order.
Contains adult content and language.
See what readers are saying!
“This is a delightful tale with baddies, hardships, deceit, generosity, love and a HEA.” ★★★★★ ~ HeyerFan
“A sweet story of meeting the right person at the right time.” ★★★★★ ~ Élodie Nicoli
“Collette has done it again and wrote a heartwarming tale. This story unfolds at a sweet and charming pace. There is suspense, bad villains, twists and a sweet road to HEA.” ★★★★★ ~ NavyWave62
“I love this delightful holiday story with a very merry ending. “ ★★★★★ ~ Peggy
“The pace never falters & the final chapter is heart wrenching but in a good way as all ends are tied up.” ★★★★★ ~ Janet
Chapter One Excerpt
East India Docks, London England
The oak entry to Stapleton Shipping and Supplies flew open, and a wet young man bolted inside, his chest rising and falling as he gasped for breath. Panic pinched his thin face as he swiftly shut the door behind him. He grasped a small blade wedged into the worn leather belt encircling his navy bridge coat as his frightened gaze careened from corner to corner of Gregor McTavish’s office.
Gregor had seen that same terrified look in the ebony eyes of a fox caught in a snare. Still grasping the quill hovering over his account books, while gripping the dirk he’d yanked from his boot when the youth dashed inside, he relaxed his tense posture.
This scared spitless waif, his back angled toward him while peeking at the pier around the window sash, wasn’t a threat. Scrutinizing the dreary, water-soaked gray docks, Gregor lowered the quill while slipping his blade back into his boot.
Rain pelted a trio of burly, unkempt thugs heatedly arguing several yards away. Wrath contorted their apparent leader’s face, and he flung a stocky arm toward a narrow alley a block farther along the wharf.
The largest of the other men shook his head, and the brute drove his open hand into the man’s chest then smacked the shorter, swarthy-skinned sailor on the side of the head with enough force to send him stumbling backward a few steps.
Fists balled, the other man took a menacing step forward, but the bully puffed out his chest and yelled something. Whatever he said stalled the other man mid-step. After a slight pause and exchanging infuriated glances, his two companions thundered off.
Where to, and why did every instinct suggest the lad would know? Gregor veered a swift, hooded glance toward the boy before refocusing his regard on the sailor.
Only three buildings opened directly onto this section of docks. Was his uninvited visitor fleeing those thugs?
His hands on his hips, a fierce scowl pulling the corners of his eyes and mouth downward, the remaining sailor rotated slowly to the left and then to the right. He obviously searched for something. Or someone. His acute gaze swept past Stapleton Shipping and Supplies then slowly gravitated back.
Even from his seat, Gregor recognized the shrewdness quirking the sailor’s mouth and gleaming in his narrowed eyes fixated on his office.
His nape prickled.
He stood, pushing his unfashionably long hair over his shoulder. In the Highlands, he seldom tied it back, and he oft’ forgot to do so in the morning since moving to London almost a year ago. He rather enjoyed the shocked expressions his blond mane caused the stuffy upper echelons of society.
The boy’s narrow shoulders and back quaked. From cold or fear?
“Can I help ye?”
The lad spun to face him, his frightened gaze ricocheting about the office once more.
Nae, no’ a laddie. A lass. A comely one at that.
“I’m Gregor McTavish.” He introduced himself, careful to keep his tone calm and soothing in the hopes he might alleviate some of her fright. “My cousin’s wife owns these buildin’s and this establishment.”
“Those men attempted to abduct me.” Still breathing hard, she motioned toward the window. “Might I stay here for a few minutes until the last one leaves?”
“Aye, of course.” Brutes, like those outside, had no honorable business with bonnie lasses.
At first glance, because of her height, bulky, dark blue overcoat, and sailor’s cap, Gregor had mistaken her for a boy. She wasn’t as young as he’d first believed either, though she certainly was not on the shelf. About the ages of his Ferguson step-cousins—somewhere in her early to mid-twenties, he’d guess.
Another inspection of the dock sent alarm, sparking up his spine.
The unsavory fellow tramped across the wooden walkway, straight for Stapleton Shipping.
“Quick, lass. Come here. He’s comin’.” Gregor made an urgent gesture. “Hide beneath my desk. Now.”
In a blink, she dashed across the room, and he stepped back to allow her to crawl into the kneehole.
No sooner had Gregor resumed his seat and dipped his quill in the inkwell than the office door sprang open again. With deliberate intent, he took his time and finished the entry. His mind on the terrified woman crouched inches from his knees, he almost swore upon realizing he’d recorded two hundred and fifty barrels of molasses instead of twenty-five.
The sailor blocking the entry roughly cleared his throat and angrily stamped his feet. The wind blasted rain into the entrance, yet the man made no effort to shut the door.
The blighter earned himself a longer wait. Gregor suppressed a grin and dipped the nib into the ink again.
“Give me a moment,” he muttered, taking far longer than a child’s first attempt to form the letters of each word. After scribbling a few more lines—he might’ve ordered more flour than the whole village of Craigcutty could consume in a year—he finished and set the quill aside.
Twisting his mouth into a thin, hard smile, he rested a forearm on the desk and took the blackguard’s measure from greasy brown hair, unshaven face and stained clothing, to his even filthier boots. The man’s rank odor wafted across the room, and despite the open entry, Gregor’s nostrils twitched in protest.
“Come to apply for one of the crew openin’s, have ye?” He nonchalantly cradled his jaw in his palm. “Have ye any experience?”
Upon hearing Gregor’s Scot’s brogue, a sneer curled the man’s upper lip. “No. I’m lookin’ for a fugitive. She stole a large purse from my employer and was last seen runnin’ in this direction.”
“Och,” Gregor murmured with mock understanding.
The sailor’s astute, accusing eyes searched every inch of the office, lingering for a long moment on the half-open door leading to the stairwell and Gregor’s apartment. Suspicion flared the man’s nostrils before he tore his distrustful scrutiny away.
“I can assure ye, nae lawless lassies have entered this buildin’ today.” He leaned back and flung a casual look about the tidy office. “As ye can see for yerself,” he waved a languid hand, “there’s naebody here but Cat and me.”
Upon hearing his name, the long-haired white and orange tabby opened his citrine green eyes and yawned, then arched his back before padding over to Gregor and hopping onto the desk. Purring, and with complete disregard for the ledger he stood upon, he pushed his head beneath Gregor’s hand, demanding he be petted.
Gregor sliced a pointed look to the open doorway, water dripping from the overhang and wetting the floor.
“If ye’ll excuse me.” He tapped the ledger with the fingers of his other hand. “I’ve much work to do. Monthly reports, ye ken. Inventory to take. Supplies to order.”
Lasses to protect.
“Receipts to record.”
Riddin’ my office of stinkin’ horses’ arses.
“Och, my employer is most demandin’,” he rattled on, giving a woeful shake of his head and wholly enjoying the impatience creasing the sea tar’s weather-worn face.
Cat, now sprawled full-length across the register, his eyes half-closed in lazy contentment, made a mockery of Gregor’s claim he’d work to attend.
He’d rescued the starving kitten from the hard life of a wharf cat after he first arrived in London. Loneliness had compelled him, though he’d never admitted as much to a soul. For the first time in his life, there wasn’t the pleasant chaos of a dozen or more people around at any given moment.
The spoiled beast didn’t hesitate to show his gratitude. Although at times, his affection embarrassed Gregor. Cat lazily lifted a paw and patted his hand as if to say, “I require your attention. A belly scratch, if you please.”
“Nae, I’ll no’ be rubbin’ yer belly.” He gathered the cat, frowning at the smudged entries, and placed the ball of sharp-clawed fluff on the floor.
With a dismissive flick of his impossibly long tail, and a few fresh ebony ink stains accenting his silky coat, Cat sauntered to the stairs.
When the man continued to lurk in the doorway, Gregor summoned his most formidable look. The one that usually sent men scuttling away.
“Yer sure I canna talk ye into applyin’ for a position? I have a ship sailin’ to Africa in a fortnight that needs hands.” He scratched the back of his head, raking his gaze up and down the man’s form. “Can ye cook?”
The sailor’s mouth skewed into another wide sneer, revealing missing, broken, and yellowed teeth. He folded dirty fingers, one by one, around the bone knife hilt protruding from his belt and, spreading his legs, ticked his chin upward as brutes of his ilk were wont to do when bent on threatening others.
“You best be tellin’ me the truth, you bloody Scot.” He settled another doubtful look on the stairs.
Was the man a lackwit that he dared come in here and hurl insults? This Sassenach piece of horse shite had just tipped the scales from patience to annoyance.
The sailor wasn’t a puny weakling, but Gregor and his twin had been called giants on more than a few occasions. And for good reason. Standing well over six and a half feet and massively built, even at three and thirty, no man had ever bettered him in a physical challenge—except for his twin.
Only because of the terrified young woman huddled beneath his desk had he kept a tight rein on his temper and tongue. Otherwise, this codpiece would’ve already found himself sprawled on the dock—unconscious and arse up.
“Cap’n Santano doesn’t take kindly to people interferin’ in his business,” the blighter pressed.
Why wasn’t Gregor surprised to learn this sod worked for Santano?
The captain’s nefarious reputation preceded him, and six months ago, Stapleton Shipping and Supplies had refused his request to enter into a commercial relationship. Infuriated and full of his own self-importance, Santano had taken his business elsewhere.
Leisurely rising, and wholly unrepentant, Gregor used his immense size to intimidate the churl. He spoke slowly and deliberately as if addressing a simpleton. “If I tell ye nae thief entered this establishment, then nae thief is here.” He made a show of lifting his clenched fists waist-high. “Do ye ken?”
The shady fellow’s eyes shifted back and forth several times, and he nervously fingered his scraggy tobacco-stained beard with one hand while the other flexed upon his knife handle. He gave a grudging nod, his bluster disappearing in the face of someone capable of pounding his ugly face into pulp.
“Well, if you do see a tall, skinny blonde wearin’ a peacoat, notify the cap’n at once.” He half-turned and examined the pier. “While in port, he’s usually aboard the Mary Elizabeth, at the Seven Seas Alehouse or,” a lewd smile curved his mouth. “Madam Mionnet’s.”
Ah, the infamous brothel. No man valuing his ballocks sampled those whores. Most were fraught with disease.
“The chit usually has a scrawny, crippled whelp with her, about this tall.” Santano’s henchmen raised his hand midriff high. “You’d best take care, or she and that street rat will pick your pockets clean.”
Gregor remained silent as he maneuvered around the corner of the desk. In about thirty seconds, he’d toss the bloody bugger out the door. Mustering what scant patience he had left, he managed to keep his annoyance from showing. “What’s yer name, sailor, in case I needed to reach ye?”
“Yeates.” After spearing him another hostile glare, he left, not bothering to shut the door behind him.
“Bloody rotter.” Gregor closed the door, and though it was only just after two in the afternoon, turned the key in the lock and slid the bolt home, as well.
Rustling alerted him to his fugitive’s intention.
“Stay where ye are. He’s still watchin’ the buildin’. I’m nae sure he believed me when I said ye weren’t here, lass.”
Her sharp intake of breath revealed she believed her appearance had fooled him into thinking she was a male. Hadn’t she glanced in a looking glass of late?
He made a pretense of adjusting the three model ships displayed in the bay window then rearranged a telescope and a couple of maps before turning away.
“Have you a back entrance?” Refinement, but not the haughty cold tone of privileged nobles, colored her voice.
“Aye, but I think ye should stay here for an hour or two.”
Gregor placed a sextant atop one of the maps and then, for good measure, added an open compass, positioned just so. Standing back, hands on his hips, he admired his handiwork. No’ bad.
“You don’t understand. My brother’s out there. Alone and scared.” On all fours, she peeked ’round the side of his desk, a few fair tendrils dangling on either side of her face.
Cleaned up and with a bit of meat on her bones, she’d be a right bonnie lassie.
He bent and flicked a couple of dead flies from the windowsill. Brushing his hands on his trousers, he casually turned halfway around. “Where is he?”
“I left him hiding amongst some barrels outside the cooper’s.” She jerked her head in that direction. “I attracted those ruffians’ attention to lure them away.”
One eye on the marina, Gregor ran a hand over his jaw. “I dinna believe ye stole anythin’, so why are they after ye?”
At once, a shuttered expression masked her pale face. She pulled her soft mouth into a tight line and fixed her attention on the floor, her gold-tipped lashes fanning her hollow cheeks. Her short nails dug into the floor said what she feared to.
She didn’t trust him.
Gregor couldn’t blame her, and compassion welled behind his ribs. Survival on London’s unforgiving streets meant never trusting anyone.
He eyed her covertly from beneath half-closed eyes. What dire circumstances had forced her and her brother to this life? He hadn’t a doubt she’d not been born into it. Everything about her so far suggested she came from a genteel background.
There were few things he liked more than solving a challenging mystery, and this young woman was a puzzle, to be sure. Och…a good fight was always enjoyable, but on occasion, he preferred using his brains rather than brute strength. Only on occasion, mind you.
On hands and knees, the lass edged to the room’s farthest corner before scrambling to her feet. Wise on her part. No one outside could see her in the lengthening shadows.
Since becoming his cousin-in-law Yvette McTavish’s manager for her London warehouses, his life had been nothing short of mind-numbingly dull. He’d only accepted the position because he was ready—och, bloody damn desperate—to do something, anything, different than continuing at Craiglocky Keep, his cousin’s castle.
Until just short of a year ago, Craiglocky was the only place Gregor had ever lived, and his sole purpose had been to serve his laird, Ewan McTavish. He’d loved both, still did, but discontentment ate away at him, growing and growing and growing…
Except for him, everyone at the Keep had married. And truthfully, he left as much to escape his extended family’s matchmaking attempts as to try his hand at something new. At one time, he thought to become a doctor, and he still dabbled in the healing arts from time to time when called upon to do so. But there hadn’t been any real need for his services after Yvette commissioned the building of a local hospital.
Gregor had also believed he’d marry Lily Ellsworth, but several years ago, she’d fallen in love with another. He hadn’t been altogether shocked to realize he wasn’t heartbroken. She’d been too young for him, in any event. Feeling much older than he was, he’d decided to leave the Highlands for a time.
Someday, he’d return. Scotland was as much a part of him as the blood tunneling through his veins at this very moment. He missed the fragrant heather, the craggy rocks, the hairy cattle, and the bright green meadows. He even preferred the Highland’s harsh, unforgiving weather to London’s perpetual stench and coal-laden skies.
“Mr. McTavish, I must find my brother right away. He’ll be frightened.” A tinge of fear peppered her impatience.
“Aye, lass, of course ye do. I’m just thinkin’.” Not about rescuing her brother, but what he’d chosen to leave behind. Those musings were a waste of time, and before him was an opportunity to relieve the tedium his life had become as well as to help someone in desperate need. “We canna be too careful with the likes of those blackguards.”
She muttered something unintelligible but which sounded distinctly unflattering.
One hand on his hip, he pulled his ear, trying to read her. He’d likely regret becoming involved, but if it brought a dose of excitement into his existence, well, damn it, it’d be worth it. “Ye can wait upstairs and have yerself somethin’ to eat while I fetch yer brother.”
Arms folded, she eyed him warily. “Why should I trust you?”