Highlander Ronan Maclaren must marry, but he’s in no particular hurry. He’s perfectly happy as the laird of his clan, running the Maclaren Whisky Distillery, and besides, he just hasn’t found the right woman.
Lady Imogen Kincaid has cleverly avoided wedlock for years. Men, she has learned from painful experience, are not to be trusted. Determined to remain independent, she takes an indecent amount of pleasure in making herself as unattractive to potential suitors as possible.
When desperate measures are taken by their parents and a betrothal contract is signed, it’s loathing at first sight. They each vow to make the other cry off—by any means necessary. But what starts out as a battle of wits…quickly dissolves into a battle of wills.
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About the Book
What a Scot Wants
by Amalie Howard and Angie Morgan
Tartans & Titans Series
Adult Historical Romance
August 26, 2019
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WHAT A SCOT WANTS
A Tartans & Titans Novel
© 2019 by Amalie Howard and Angie Morgan
Maclaren Estate, Scotland, 1831
“I’m no’ marrying a bloody stranger!”
Ronan Maclaren, Duke of Dunrannoch and Maclaren laird, slammed the sheet of fine vellum onto the desk. He glared at his mother and solicitor gathered in the study at Maclaren.
“Father’s will said nothing of an arranged marriage.” His eyes shot to Mr. Stevenson, who sat to Lady Dunrannoch’s left, his leather case in his lap. The room was cold, the stone walls and floor absorbing the wintry Highland chill outside, and yet the man’s brow beaded with sweat.
“At his lordship’s express instruction, I was not to mention the additional codicil until two years after his death,” Stevenson said. “At that time, if you hadn’t secured a wife on your own, I was to present the rest of the terms and the…er…bridal agreement.”
Scowling at him, Ronan clenched his hands into white-knuckled fists. “In which I’m betrothed to a lass I’ve never met, against my own will.”
It had nearly knocked him back on his arse when Stevenson had disclosed the new terms: An alliance between the Duke of Dunrannoch and the Earl of Kincaid was to be put into effect two years after the duke’s death, should Ronan fail to procure a wife for himself.
A few years before, the former duke had nearly succumbed to a wasting illness, but his health had made a miraculous rebound and he had continued to thrive. So when he had not awoken one morning two winters ago, the loss had cut the entire Maclaren family off at the knees. However, it seemed the wily Duke of Dunrannoch had been prepared for his own exit and had made some alterations to his will since his initial brush with death. Namely, an amendment stating that the heir to Maclaren must wed, which hadn’t troubled Ronan. He had to marry at some point. Though he was not aware that the marriage amendment had included a sodding ticking clock.
A clock that had just wound down and stopped entirely.
“She’s not exactly a stranger, dear. Lady Imogen is a lovely woman,” Ronan’s mother, Lady Dunrannoch, said. Only a slight tightness at the corner of her lips betrayed her expression of tranquil confidence.
But Ronan didn’t care if the woman was the loveliest rose in all of Scotland. According to the duke’s codicil, he now had no choice but to wed the Earl of Kincaid’s daughter—or he would forfeit his family’s distillery, Maclaren’s main livelihood and the business he’d poured his blood and sweat into for the last two decades.
Ronan bit back a hiss of frustration. His crafty devil of a father would not have decided upon this scheme alone, not something this precise. That took a woman’s touch. He pinned a hard stare on his mother, who met it with cool reserve.
“Ye had a hand in this. He wouldnae have done it without ye.”
Lady Dunrannoch canted her head. “Your father amended the will shortly after he began to feel well again. Your reluctance to marry was perfectly clear, as was the reality that he would not be duke forever. You must understand his reasoning—”
“As draconian as the previous ultimatum was, I did understand it,” he interjected coldly. “But this is nothing more than a marriage of convenience!”
“As are most marriages in the aristocracy,” the duchess replied.
He brought his fist down onto the desk and shook the massive hunk of carved Scots pine. Stevenson startled, the leather case slipping from his lap to the floor. His mother, however, didn’t so much as flinch. She kept her chin level, though one eyebrow crept up in a manner that made his ears burn. He was a grown man of seven and thirty, and she could still make him feel the sting of her displeasure without a word.
“Are you telling me you wish to marry for love?” she asked.
Ronan grit his teeth. She was leading him into a trap; he could feel it. He was as far from a romantic sop than anyone he knew, but hell…the idea of wedding a woman he didn’t even know or esteem turned his stomach. He flattened his lips.
“I understand you’re upset, dear, but the Kinleys are a fine family of exceptional pedigree,” she said. “Lord Kincaid is an earl, and Lady Imogen is an acceptable match.”
“I am capable of choosing my own wife, damn it.”
“Then why haven’t you?” Her eyebrow lifted infinitesimally at his oath. “This is for your own good, my son.”
He knew his reputation—stringent and particular to a fault. The hushed whispers that no lady, no matter the alliance benefits, the size of the dowry, or even her own personal endowments, would ever be good enough for Ronan Maclaren, Duke of Dunrannoch. But the plain truth was he’d hoped to meet a woman who stirred his blood, or at the very least intrigued him. When he took a bride, he’d at least like to feel some spark of affection for her.
He couldn’t stand still another moment. Ronan turned from the desk and went to one of the tall casement windows overlooking the keep’s inner courtyard. He’d been born and bred to be duke, a role he’d prepared for all his life and one he took seriously. His clan and his family had always come first. Always.
Right now, however, he felt under attack, and by his own kin. The betrayal cut into his chest like a dull and rusty dirk.
“You’ve had plenty of time to choose for yourself,” his mother went on, also standing. “I didn’t agree with your father when he asked Mr. Stevenson to draw up the betrothal agreement and the codicil surrounding it because I’d hoped that you would take the first change to his will seriously.”
“You’ve turned away several sound matches,” she went on. “And Maclaren cannot have a bachelor duke.”
“It also cannae lose the distillery,” he growled.
“And it won’t—if you see to your duty as duke and laird.”
Devil take him, the woman was a battle-ax. Resolute and intractable. But she was right, as had his father been when alive. Clan alliances were integral to the strength and growth of a family’s holdings and power. His brothers and sisters had all wed for those very ends, and beyond his sister Makenna’s first marriage to a brutal laird—something neither Ronan nor any other Maclarens had known about until after the man’s death—they had all married out of affection, if not alliance.
Ronan felt something tighten inside his chest. He’d thought himself in love once, long ago. But such folly was a double-edged sword—pleasure on one side, pain and suffering on the other. It had nearly destroyed him, and he hadn’t trusted another woman since. He glanced at the duchess. Perhaps it was his own fault for waiting so long, but no one had ever appealed enough for him to propose marriage. And now, a veritable stranger was being foisted upon him. He felt cornered by duty and circumstance, and he did not like it.
He raked his fingers through his hair. “Say I sign this contract,” he said, refusing to look in his mother’s eyes. “What if the lady”—what was her name; Imogen or somesuch?—“refuses the match?”
“Lord Kincaid has already agreed. He did so when your father presented the offer.”
Ronan bit back his scowl. “So for clarity, if I refuse to sign the marriage contract, or if I break the signed contract, I forfeit our entire livelihood and the future of our clan.”
Stevenson glanced to Lady Dunrannoch, who gave an imperceptible nod that Ronan didn’t miss. “Correct.” The solicitor cleared his throat. “And if Lady Imogen decides she will not marry you, she, too, will forfeit something of equal import,” he went on, tapping his case. “It’s all here in writing.”
“It seems Father thought of everything,” Ronan said.
“He was thinking only of your future. Of Maclaren’s future,” the duchess replied.
Ronan met his mother’s gaze. Again, the sick swell of betrayal roiled in his stomach. He felt manipulated. Bent to someone else’s will. He knew it was only to benefit Maclaren and the ducal line, but he resented it more than he dared put into words. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t do his duty. He was a Maclaren, and that came before everything.
He would not allow the distillery to fall into the hands of some outsider. It galled him beyond measure that either of his parents would see it so, just to see him wedlocked. He’d worked too damn hard for the last twenty years to build the distillery up from a single still in a ruined crofter’s cottage to a successful enterprise that employed nearly all of his clan.
They depended upon him. Trusted him. Him, not some citified fop from Edinburgh who’d never stepped foot on Maclaren lands.
“I willnae break the contract,” he said, a familiar resolve settling within him. One made of grim determination and steel will. Maclaren and its people would be secure. And his honor would remain intact.
But as his mother nodded, the barest hint of regret in her expression, Ronan thought of this Lady Imogen, his future bride. The beginnings of an idea spun into existence. His honor would not fall into question and the distillery would remain in Maclaren hands if she were to cry off from the betrothal. She would pay a steep forfeit for rejecting him, but he’d be free of this marriage of convenience.
In fact, he’d just have to make certain of it.
Lady Imogen Kinley’s eyes fluttered closed, tears pricking the backs of them.
Though she’d witnessed it a handful of times, the miracle of birth never ceased to amaze her. Humble her. She gazed at the infant wrapped in blue swaddling and marveled at his wrinkled, perfect, pink face. She cooed at the baby, soothing him with a finger and breathing in his sweet scent.
The child’s mother lay in the middle of the bed. Mary was little more than a child herself. A scullery maid in a lord’s household, she’d been turned out on her ear, no matter that the lord in question had committed the wrongdoing in the first place. Imogen scowled. Men in their world simply did not get punished.
She’d opened the doors to Haven, a sizeable terrace house in Edinburgh, when she’d come into the first portion of her inheritance on her twenty-fifth birthday, and had invested heavily in turning the place into a home for women just like Mary. Women like her beloved governess, Belinda, who’d faced a similar malfeasance from a man. When Belinda had died in childbirth, the shelter house had become Imogen’s life’s work. Her heart twisted at the thought of what had befallen the young governess…and the scoundrel behind it.
Silas Calder—a man they had all trusted. A man she had trusted.
Her fingers curled into her palms as she shoved the dark memory away. Silas had fooled them all, and while Imogen had narrowly escaped his clutches, Belinda had not been so fortunate.
At least one good thing had come out of it. Haven had saved the lives of dozens of women caught in similar struggles. Over the years, Imogen’s education about what men were capable of had taken a sharp turn, and nothing could shock her anymore. And while Haven had expanded to offer other services like lodging and basic schooling, most of their efforts like finding homes for orphans or securing new placements were still funded primarily by Imogen’s own money. Which was dwindling.
No matter. She would come into the final portion of her dowry in one year, on her thirtieth birthday. They would have to make do and stretch every guinea as far as it would go until then.
Imogen savored the squirming feel of the bundle in her arms and the innocent look on his face. What a gift it was to not have a care in the world beyond satisfying hunger and being warm and comforted. With some reluctance, she handed the baby back to Emma, overseer of the shelter, part-time midwife, and her longtime friend. Marriage and motherhood were not in Imogen’s plans. This was her place. These women, her family.
She would never marry if she could help it.
“He’s beautiful,” she said to his mother.
“Thank ye, milady,” Mary said again. “I would be on the streets if it wasnae fer ye.”
“Mary,” Imogen said with a glance at Emma. She gentled her voice, but it had to be said. “This is the third position we’ve found for you, and your second birth. You cannot just keep allowing yourself to be seduced by the lord of the manor.”
The girl had the grace to blush. “I dunnae mean to.”
“At least use some form of protection against conception,” Emma interjected, scrubbing her hands after checking the babe and giving him to one of the waiting wet nurses. “Sponges and the like. It’s no’ all on the men, ye ken. ’Tis yer body.”
“Try to get some rest,” Imogen said, then turned to Emma with a sigh of utter exhaustion.
Emma had been a part of Haven from the start, handling most of the pregnant mothers, until they’d had to expand and hire a small staff of nurses and an additional midwife. She’d also helped manage the money and its allocation. They had met at finishing school, and though Emma had a head for numbers, her passion had always been medicine. A passion gained from her physician father, who had indulged her desire to learn.
“It gets harder and harder to say no. We don’t have enough beds as it is.”
“Mary is the exception,” Emma said gently. “The women ye help truly need it. Haven has become a safe harbor for many who have nae place to go and nae one to turn to.”
“I want to do more. Expand the schooling and extend it to boys as well.” Imogen pursed her lips as they walked back to the small office she kept for herself on the first floor. “Change and education start with both genders. And the flash houses in the city have been getting worse. Children need an opportunity to make a better life for themselves than petty thievery, or worse.” She eyed Emma. “How much money do we have left?”
Emma drew a breath. “Enough for a while if we’re careful, but no’ to cover additional expenses like those.”
“I will talk to my parents.” Imogen sighed. “Perhaps they’ll consider giving me the rest of my dowry early. It’s not like any more marriage proposals are forthcoming.”
“Ye truly do no’ wish to marry?”
“No.” And she didn’t. A husband was a shackle she did not want or need.
“I’ll talk to my father tonight,” she said to Emma, packing up her satchel. “My parents know by now I’ll never marry. I’m a certifiable, unwanted old maid.”
“Ye’re no’ old,” Emma said staunchly. “And if ye’d give yer suitors half a chance, ye wouldnae be unwanted orunwed.”
It was probably true. Despite her apathy toward marriage, gentlemen with marital offers in hand had come in droves, attracted by her obscene dowry. But Imogen had refused to allow that money to go to some man who would get it simply by offering up his name. Her inheritance was meant for bigger things. More important things. And it was hers. And so, she had turned every one of them away by any means necessary.
“Why would I want to marry?”
“To have a family?” Emma returned.
“I already have one.”
“To fall in love, then?”
Imogen rolled her eyes. “Love is useless. Just ask Mary and the men who profess their undying affection, only to run the other way once the fruits of their pleasure have ripened.”
“Ye are much too cynical, my friend.” Laughing, Emma waved her finger in a circle. “Though, one day, when ye least expect it, love will find ye and knock ye head over heels.”
Imogen gave a mock shudder and slipped through the front door, where her carriage was waiting. “God, I hope not. Good night, Emma dear.”
“Love will find ye,” Emma singsonged behind her.
“Not if I can help it!”
Imogen was still grinning and shaking her head when she entered the coach and rapped for the driver to depart. Hinley waited without fail at the same time every evening, whereupon he drove her back to her residence—her parents’ residence—where she had dinner with them before retiring.
Early on, she’d made the decision not to live at Haven herself. It was a large home with many bedrooms, but she wanted every last one of them open for whoever needed them. And as much as she loved her work, she did need space to breathe. The Kinley home was spacious enough for her to live comfortably with them. She had her own wing and enough privacy. Why change a good thing?
Smoothing her dress, she descended from the carriage and climbed the steps.
“Papa? Mama?” she called, divesting her cloak, bonnet, and gloves and handing them to their butler. “Thank you, Burns. Are my parents at home?”
“In the study, dearest,” her mother’s tense voice floated back before Burns could make his reply.
She entered the room, her smile fading at her parents’ unusually somber faces. Was something amiss? Had something happened?
“My goodness, what is it?” she asked, lowering herself into the leather chair and peering at her mother, whose face remained pinched. “What has happened? You look upset.”
Her mother, standing by the hearth, her hands clasped nervously together in front of her skirt, was first to speak. “No, dear, not upset. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Maclarens are in town. Lady Dunrannoch is an old friend, and well, it’s about the duke’s engagement, you see. The Maclaren family’s solicitor has reached out to let us know that it has been put into effect. We wondered if it ever would be, but honestly, I’d assumed…well, he’s also a Highlander laird, and I’ve never heard of any laird choosing not to wed…”
Imogen attempted to follow her mother’s breathy, rambling sentences. Maclaren? The name was well-known. They were a wealthy, influential family, and the duke was rumored to be a strict, ruthless sort of man. But she could hardly see what their arrival in Edinburgh or his engagement had to do with her, so she relaxed somewhat.
“What your mother is trying to say,” Imogen’s father cut in, though Imogen herself had already closed one ear to her mother’s chirping and slipped into her own thoughts about Haven and its dangerously slim funds, “is that a decision must be made. We want only for your happiness, but we must take into account your security as well. You will forever be taken care of so long as I am alive, my dear, but my title and holdings are all entailed. Once I am gone, you will be dependent upon whichever one of my cousins is still alive to inherit.”
Imogen closed her eyes. She didn’t want to imagine what would happen after her parents were gone. She couldn’t imagine a world without them. Her inheritance, properly managed, would be more than enough for her and Haven.
Suddenly, the rest of what her father had said sank in.
“Wait. What decision needs to be made?”
“Your engagement, dear.” Her mother’s brows drew together. “Haven’t you been listening to a word we’ve been saying?”
She blinked, her lungs shriveling and her ears beginning to pound like a distant tide. “Pardon, Mama…did you say my engagement?”
“Yes, your betrothal agreement, Imogen. To the Duke of Dunrannoch, Laird of Maclaren.”
No, no, no. That couldn’t possibly be right. Her brain refused to cooperate to form a coherent response. A protest. Anything at all. Nothing would come. Her body went cold with fear and dread. The first, and last, time she’d been engaged had been a disaster.
Silas Calder had been one thing on the surface and something quite different beneath it. Even now, her parents didn’t know the depth of his deception, and she hoped they would never find out. Silas was out of their lives for good. The last she’d heard from her friend Shane McClintock was that he’d been run off to Italy. She hoped she and her family would never lay eyes on the man again.
But now, even the thought of marrying another made her feel ill.
Her mother finally moved from the hearth, toward her. “I know you’ve been against marriage ever since Silas—”
“Do not say that name!” Imogen was on her feet before she knew what she was doing. The blood rushed from her head to her ankles, and she felt dizzy. But the brewing anger stayed firmly in place.
“Ever since you broke off the engagement because you didn’t suit,” her mother forged ahead. “But Imogen, your father and I have discussed it at length, and we have a duty to see you protected and secure.”
“I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I don’t need to wed to be secure.”
“We know you are capable, dear,” her father said, “but when the late duke approached me with his proposal a few years ago, I couldn’t see the error in it. The alliance would benefit both of our families, considering his son’s own reluctance to wed, and your mother and I would not have to worry about your future if you remained on the solitary path you seemed to favor. After the debacle with Silas, we’d hoped you’d accept one of the other suitors who called on you, but…”
He didn’t finish, though his chiding tone was enough. Imogen’s staunch refusal to court any of the men who’d called on her had been tolerated, but as she’d slipped into her late twenties, she was well aware her parents had become anxious. How could she explain that the thought of marriage to anyone made her physically sick. Then she would have to tell them about Silas, and that she could not do. The devil had hurt enough people. It would kill her father to know what the man he’d trusted like a son had done.
Imogen had thought this was all water under the bridge—an independent and happy future in her grasp—only to be faced with this calamity.
An arranged marriage! She couldn’t fathom the current Duke of Dunrannoch, given his reputation, would want this any more than she.
Imogen grasped at that. “Why on earth would the duke accept such an agreement?”
“Because if he doesn’t, he stands to lose his family business. A whisky distillery,” her father said, standing up from the sofa.
For the second time that day, Imogen felt the burn of tears behind her eyes. She felt deceived. Misled. By the two people whom she trusted the most. She suddenly felt like a stranger in the room, as if she didn’t know the man and woman standing before her at all.
“His Grace has agreed,” her mother offered, her voice purposefully light and optimistic.
“Of course he has,” Imogen said, her throat tight with a notion of what sort of man this Maclaren laird was. “That Highland boor would probably marry a tree stump if it meant he wouldn’t lose his precious whisky stills.”
Her mother reached for her, and Imogen flinched away, ignoring the hurt on her face. “We just want you to be happy, darling.”
“I am happy,” she said. “I don’t need a man for that to be the case.”
“He’s a duke. You’ll want for nothing,” her father said.
“And if I refuse?” she asked, her jaw firming.
“You cannot refuse, Imogen.” The look on his face stopped her cold.
Oh, good Lord, what has he done?
“Why?” Imogen asked with some trepidation, and a minute later, after her father had explained the terms of forfeiture, she stared in utter disbelief at her parents.
“You would give him my inheritance?” she whispered.
Her father nodded. Imogen’s heartbeat slowed, and she felt lightheaded. How could they do this to her? If she lost the remainder of her dowry, she would be destitute and completely at the mercy of whichever male was in line for the earldom. And worse, Haven would suffer. Perhaps even close its doors for good.
Her parents were leaving her with absolutely no choice. They were backing her into a corner and setting fire to the rest of the room. She could barely breathe from the injustice of it. A whisky distillery! That was all the man would forfeit—
Imogen blinked, and the fury ringing in her ears suddenly quieted. She peered at her parents, remembering that the duke had something to lose as well, according to what her father had said. Dunrannoch’s forfeiture had to be of comparable worth. “Is it a very large distillery?”
“One of the largest in Scotland,” her father replied.
If so, the distillery had to turn a staggering profit. She could do many things with that income. The purchase of a second building. Expansion for a school. Imogen grew dizzy thinking how many more women she could help. This could be a windfall, not the calamity she’d initially assumed—so long as the laird broke the marriage contract, and not her.
“Very well,” she said. “You leave me little choice. I’ll honor the agreement.”
Imogen had spent a decade successfully deterring the affections of men. And when this thickheaded and entirely too desperate Highlander duke finally cried off, she’d take his reparation payment and put it to excellent use.
Haven and her independence would be secure forever.
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About Amalie Howard
AMALIE HOWARD grew up on a small Caribbean island where she spent most of her childhood with her nose buried in a book or running around barefoot, shimmying up mango trees, and dreaming of adventure. 25 countries, surfing with sharks, and several tattoos later, she has traded in bungee jumping in China for writing the adventures she imagines instead. She isn’t entirely convinced which takes more guts.
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About Angie Morgan
ANGIE MORGAN is the author of several critically acclaimed young adult and middle grade books written under two other names (Page Morgan and Angie Frazier), and is now thrilled to be taking a much-anticipated leap into the world of adult romance. My Rogue, My Ruin is the first of three books in her new Lords of Essex series, co-written with good friend and fellow author, Amalie Howard. Angie lives in New Hampshire with her husband, their three daughters, and a menagerie of pets.
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