The Highlander Who Protected Me

The Highlander Who Protected Me

Clan Kendrick Book One
Kensington Books
October 2018

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Bestselling author Vanessa Kelly returns with an enthralling new series about the men of the Kendrick clan—and the women who claim their hearts . . .

Lady Ainsley Matthews, heiress and darling of the ton, was expected to make a magnificent match. Instead she’s hiding on a remote Scottish estate, terrified that her vicious former fiancé will use her pregnancy to force her into marriage. One man can help her—Royal Kendrick, son of a distinguished Highland clan. Though a mistake drove them apart long ago, Royal is the only person Ainsley trusts to protect her baby—even if that means agreeing to never see either of them again . . .

Scarred in body and soul by war, Royal suddenly has a purpose—caring for an innocent babe and thereby helping the woman he can’t stop loving. But when Ainsley ultimately returns to Scotland, determined to be a real mother to her child in spite of the risk, there’s only one solution: marriage. And only one likely outcome: surrendering to the desire that’s simmered between them for so long, no matter how dangerous it may be . . .

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“Brilliantly written, deeply emotional, altogether splendid!” ~ USA Today Bestselling Author Collette Cameron

“Sensuous romance, elaborately developed characters, and a fast-moving plot make this historical very satisfying.” ~Publishers Weekly

“Kelly continues the story of the honorable Kendrick men, who fight to protect the women they love. While Ainsley fights her attraction to Royal with sarcasm, Royal quietly builds a fire in her that neither can resist. Enjoyable.” ~Historical Novels Review

“Readers won’t be able to put this unforgettable book down…it has a wonderful setting, amazing dialogue, hilarious secondary characters, as well as brilliant main characters.” ~5 stars, Celtic Barb’s Tartan Book Reviews

“Ms. Kelly has launched a brilliant start to this series where the chemistry between this couple was tangible and off-the-charts from the moment they come face-to-face.” ~4.5 stars, Harlequin Junkie, Recommended Read

“This was a great read, one with lots of passionate moments from our characters, and I’m not talking about romance scenes. Those were good too, but it was cool to see the interactions and lives come off the pages of this book.” ~5 stars,

“When Ainsley does return to claim her baby and her man, the ensuing passion is almost too hot to handle. This kick-off to the Clan Kendrick series is definitely one you don’t want to miss—or read without a tall glass of water nearby.” ~A Love So True

“A non-simpering, strong-minded heroine, and a wonderful romantic hero…I’d definitely recommend this to anyone after their own handsome highlander, or at least the company of a fictional one for a couple of hours. This was a fun read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.” ~Jennifer C. Wilson, Historical Fiction With Spirit

“The magic ingredient in this story has to be the witty banter. The clever, romantic sparring created sparks that brought Royal and Ainsley alive on the page. Sometimes seductive and sometimes playful, it painted such a brilliant picture of these characters.” ~4 stars, Buried Under Romance

“Kelly dreams up a stunningly captivating tale of heartache, bravery and romance.” ~4 stars, I Love Romance

“Genuinely enchanting, delightfully humorous, and deeply romantic!” ~4 stars, The Book Review

“A refreshing change of pace…the characters were all utterly delightful.” ~4 stars, Pass Me That Book

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February 1816

In the spare winter moonlight, she glowed with a beauty that lit up the corners of Royal Kendrick’s battered soul. He felt alive again.

Lady Ainsley Matthews also possessed a lethal wit, one famed for sending even the most arrogant popinjay slinking off to the nearest corner. But to Royal, she was perfect, like a challenging book or complex piece of music. So perfect he’d never dared hope. He’d only dreamed—and feared, believing her notice of him was rooted in pity.

Earlier tonight, fate had placed them next to each other at dinner, a crowded affair noisy enough to give the illusion of privacy. An elderly, deaf matron had been seated to Royal’s left, while Ainsley’s other dinner partner was a rotund gourmand who cared only for his food. Left to their own devices, Royal and Ainsley had talked of everything and nothing, able to focus—for once—on each other.

When he’d proposed an escape from the overheated ballroom for a stroll along this quiet, dimly lit corridor, she’d said yes. Now, without hesitation, her steadfast gaze was letting him know she wanted this moment, too.

Royal wanted more than a moment. He wanted the pale, smooth skin, the shining obsidian hair, and the dark dramatic brows that framed the most impossible gaze in the world. Her eyes were the color of violets, a rich velvet-blue and so vivid he wondered they didn’t cast a light of their own. Just gazing at her vibrant beauty made his heart ache even more than his leg. That was a bloody miracle, given that his damn leg had been trying to kill him ever since that appalling day at Waterloo.

Another body part ached too, and with unseemly intensity thankfully hidden by the drape of his kilt. Insanely, Royal desired the brightest diamond of the ton more than anything he’d ever wanted—more than a leg restored to health, more than a family resurrected from emotional ruin, more than a life untrammeled by war. His yearning for Ainsley made no damn sense, because they made no damn sense.

She studied him, her expression revealing an unspoken question.

“What?” he asked.

“Sir, we can sit down in that alcove if you’d like to rest your leg.”

Whenever he heard Ainsley’s voice, he imagined lying in a field thick with pansies that matched the color of her eyes. It muddled his brain, making it impossible to think.

Her frown deepened. “You look ready to topple over. That would be distressing for both of us, especially me if you fell in my direction.”

That was pure Ainsley. Why the hell was he so smitten with the bloody woman? Some might say it was his cock, but it was more than simple physical attraction and he knew it.

“There’s no need to coddle me like an infant, my lady.” Not that anyone could imagine Ainsley coddling babies.

“Then please cease acting like one. Your limp is worse today, and you’ve gone quite pale.”

He liked the fact that she paid attention to details about him. He didn’t like that those details made him appear like an invalid.

You are an invalid, you idiot.

She took matters into her own hands, steering him toward an alcove with an Italianate bench. “Sit before you fall down.”

Royal cast an eye down the long stretch of corridor. The hall was currently deserted, but servants or even guests could happen by at any time. Though he and Ainsley were still on the right side of propriety, sitting together in the secluded alcove, half-hidden by heavy brocaded drapes, might slide them over the line. His reputation didn’t matter a tinker’s damn, but hers certainly did.

When her pretty nose twitched, much like a rabbit’s, it made him want to laugh.

“Mr. Kendrick, do you wish to return to the ballroom?” she asked rather tartly.

“God, no. It’s mobbed with buffoons, as you pointed out a few minutes ago.”

“Well, your reluctance to sit suggests that you find my company less than scintillating.”

“An obviously impossible occurrence.”

“Obviously. So why are you still standing?”

“Because you’re still standing. I’m no pattern card of decorum, but I do know that ladies are supposed to sit first.”

She scoffed. “You’re from Scotland. You haven’t the faintest idea how to behave with decorum.”

“You wrong us, Sassenach,” he said, placing a dramatic hand to his heart. “No man on earth is more courtly than a Highlander in the throes of romance.”

She paused for a moment before answering. “Mr. Kendrick, are you flirting with me?”

Of course he was. Rather badly, if she needed clarification.

“If I say yes, will it get you to sit down on that confounded bench?” His leg was killing him, blast it.

Ainsley floated onto the seat in a graceful flutter of skirts. “You only had to ask.”

“I thought I did.”

“You most certainly did not.”

He shook his head. “Never mind. I was somewhat confused.”

“You are overcome by my presence, no doubt. Men always are, so there’s no call to feel embarrassed about it.”

Ainsley shifted to make room for him as he carefully sat. The bench was small, crowding them close.

“No, it’s because I can’t follow your convoluted mental processes,” he said.

She whacked him on the arm with her fan. “Can you not even pretend to be charming? My other suitors at least have a go at it.”

He managed not to grin at the notion that she considered him one of her suitors. “We both know I never pretend to be charming.”

“It’s rather a nice change,” she said with a rueful smile. “Being surrounded by men desperate to flatter does get a bit cloying, especially since I can never tell whether it’s me or my fortune they’re principally after.”

Her damn, great fortune stood between them like Hadrian’s Wall.

Don’t think about it.

“Poor Lady Ainsley,” he said, returning her smile. “I shall make a point of being rude to you at least once a day, just to lighten your cruel burden.”

“I don’t think you need to make a point of it. You come to it quite naturally.”

“And I consider it one of my best assets.”

“The hostesses of London might not agree. Just ask Lady Bassett. You managed to insult her before we even sat down to dinner.”

Royal hadn’t meant to offend their hostess, who seemed like a perfectly decent woman. He’d been looking around for Ainsley, and hadn’t noticed that her ladyship was speaking to him.

“I did apologize,” he said. “That has to count for something.”

When she shrugged, a few tendrils of hair drifted down from her coiffure in silky wisps. Royal had to repress the impulse to brush them aside and set his lips to her smooth, graceful neck.

“It doesn’t really matter how rude you are,” she said. “Your brother is a wealthy, unmarried earl, even if he is a Scotsman. So if the ladies of the ton wish Lord Arnprior to put in an appearance, they have to put up with you, too. His lordship never goes anywhere without you, it seems.”

That was true. Nick was an absolute tyrant when it came to forcing him back into society. Royal would have been happy to spend his nights at their rented town house in Mayfair, alone with a good book, but big brother had decided it was time for him to start living again. Royal had vociferously disagreed, since attending dreary parties and fending off impertinent questions about the war hardly counted as living. He didn’t even have the consolation of being able to twirl a pretty girl around the dance floor.

It felt like he’d escaped the killing fields of Waterloo only to die of utter boredom at the hands of the beau monde.

Ainsley poked him again with her dratted fan. “You’ve gone back to scowling, and since we know you couldn’t possibly be scowling about me, there’s something else bothering you.”

Her imperious attitude made him smile. “You can be incredibly annoying sometimes, my lady.”

“You’re describing yourself. Everything about me is perfect. If you weren’t such a thickhead, you’d realize that.”

Oh, how he realized it. If there was a more beautiful, self-assured girl in London, he had yet to meet her. Ainsley’s family pampered her like a princess, and her suitors slavered over her like witless fools. Thankfully, she rarely took herself seriously, and took her legion of beaus even less so. Her odd combination of arrogance and wry self-awareness gave her a confidence he found enormously appealing.

“I have no doubt you could wave your hand and split the Thames, like Moses parted the Red Sea,” he said.

She wrinkled her nose. “Thank you, but I’d rather walk on top of it. Then I won’t have to see all the nasty things lying at the bottom.”

He started to laugh but ended up biting off a curse when a muscle in his thigh picked that moment to spasm painfully.

“Your leg is bothering you,” she said with a concerned frown. “We should go back to the ballroom. I’m sure this corridor is too cold for you.”

Royal forced a smile past his gritted teeth. “Are you cold? Because you’re the one who should be shivering in that silly gown.”

She was wearing an absolute frippery of a dress, with tiny cap sleeves ready to slip from her shoulders with the slightest encouragement. Her gauzy skirts were the height of fashion, but it was an insane outfit for the dead of winter.

“I never get cold. You, however, are still recovering your health and should not be loitering in drafty hallways. I don’t know why I let you talk me into coming out here in the first place.”

When she started to stand, Royal wrapped a hand around her wrist and gently pulled her back down. “As I recall, you were the one who talked me into leaving the ballroom.”

“Nonsense. And there’s no call to manhandle me, sir,” she said, sounding a trifle breathless.

“You call that manhandling?” he said, surprised.

“I do. Clearly, you do not know your own strength.”

Actually, he did, though most days he felt like a pale reflection of his former self. If he turned sideways he feared he might even disappear.

“Then I sincerely beg your apology,” he said.

“Fiddlesticks. You’re not sorry at all.”

“When you grow up with six brothers, you tend to skip over the social niceties and the apologies.”

“Especially when you’re Highlanders, I imagine. My maternal grandmother was born in Inveraray, and she was forever talking about the wild men of her clan.”

Royal perked up. “No wonder I’m smitten with you. You’re part Scot, and from my part of Scotland, too.”

She looked slightly taken aback by his honesty but flashed a mocking smile. “I’m only one-quarter Scot, and I try to conceal the fact. Granny Baynes was wonderful, though. She told the most outrageously tall tales.”

“Scots are prone to dramatic license, especially when it comes to family history. But my brothers and I certainly had our share of adventures growing up.”

She shifted to face him more directly, brushing her delightfully plump thigh against his good leg. His leg, and other parts of him, approved.

“Did you often get into trouble, Mr. Kendrick?”

“On a regular basis. I remember an incident involving the local parish priest and the communion wine that probably earned us a decade in purgatory.” He let out a rueful laugh. “I don’t know how my mother put up with us. We were a great handful, to say the least.”

“It sounds like you had tremendous fun,” she said in a wistful tone.

“We did.”

Until their parents died, and everything went catastrophically wrong. He shifted on the hard bench, wincing at the ugly memories.

Ainsley cast him a worried glance. “Are you sure you’re not catching a chill?”

Bloody hell. Next, she’d be asking if he needed a flannel waistcoat and a hot toddy.

“Lass, I grew up in a drafty old castle in the Highlands. Trust me when I say you don’t know the meaning of cold.”

Her nose twitched again, a clear sign of irritation. “There’s no need for you to get snappish.”

“And there’s no need for you to pity me.”

They glowered at each other for a few moments before she jabbed a finger at his chest.

“One. I do not pity you.” She jabbed two fingers. “Two, you are obviously in pain, as any dimwit could tell, and I am far from being a dimwit. I suspect you could be suffering the torments of hell and you’d still insist you were fine.”

“I’ve already suffered the torments of hell. Once you’ve done it, everything else seems tame by comparison.”

“And three,” she added, “I have no wish to be held responsible for a relapse. Your brother would probably murder me with his dirk or some other equally horrifying Scottish weaponry.”

He mustered a smile that might look more like a grimace. “I’ll sign an ironclad waiver absolving you of responsibility if I do relapse.”

She eyed him in silence.

“Really, there’s nothing to worry about,” he said in a softer tone.

“It’s not that, precisely,” she said.

“Then what, precisely?”

“It does hurt a great deal, does it not? Even though you pretend the opposite.”

“Yes,” he said reluctantly.

“Worse than usual, too. I can tell.”

That startled him. “How?”

Even when the pain clawed at him like a thousand demons, he schooled his expression and forced a consistent gait. The new exercises were helping in that regard. Nick had finally found a doctor who seemed to know his business, unlike the other high-priced quacks they’d seen since their arrival in London. The first physician had morosely shaken his head and recommended a stout cane and a lifetime of laudanum. The second had actually had the nerve to suggest Royal’s leg be amputated.

That particular appointment had not ended well.

“Because when your pain is worse, you go white around the lips,” Ainsley said. “And your right eyelid often twitches.”

Royal gaped at her. He knew he often turned pale as a ghoul when his pain was particularly bad, so that was no surprise, but noticing the tic in his eyelid? No one had ever picked up on that except for his grandfather. Not even Nick, who watched him like a bloody hawk.

She shook her head. “The fact that you never complain is amazing to me.”

“There’s little point in complaining, since it won’t change anything,” he said gruffly.

Ainsley slowly unfurled her fan to study a painted scene of nymphs cavorting amongst a ruin. “You never boast about it, either,” she said in a thoughtful tone. “Most men would. After all, you’re a legitimate war hero.”

“Only a bloody coxcomb would boast about something that all but killed him.”

She shot him an irritated glance. “I’m not talking about your injury, you booby. I’m talking about the sacrifices you made for your country.”

He snorted. “Sacrifices that got me and all the other poor fools nothing but pain and suffering. When you’re bleeding out on the battlefield, it doesn’t matter one damn bit what you’re fighting for. English or French, the blood runs the same red.”

He’d seen rivers of the stuff, including his own, leaching into the dirt and mud. It had rained the night before that last battle, and Royal could still feel himself sinking into the horrendous, foul-smelling muck. Too weak to even turn himself over, he’d almost drowned in a shallow ditch before an infantryman had dragged him away to the temporary shelter of a British line.

Ainsley stared at the opposite wall. “This was a mistake,” she said in a flat tone.

His heart cramped, but he managed a sardonic smile. “I realize that penniless, crippled soldiers are not in your usual style.”

She shot him a resentful look. “You can be remarkably unpleasant at times, Mr. Kendrick.”

“So I’ve been told.” And he hated himself for it, hated that anger and sarcasm seemed the only defenses left to him, other than despair.

She clambered to her feet. “Do you need help getting up?” she asked, half turning away from him.

“I’m not helpless,” he gritted out as he pushed himself to stand. “You’ve done your duty by the poor invalid, my lady. You can return to your friends with a clear conscience, knowing you’ve accomplished one good deed for the evening.”

Ainsley flinched, looking set to flee to the refuge of the glittering lights and laughter of the ballroom. It was certainly what she should do, what part of him wanted her to do. Then the inevitable rejection would finally be over, and he could get on with the business of forgetting how much he adored her.

Instead, she squared her shoulders like a grenadier, and Royal braced for the cutting words that would surely flow from her beautiful lips. God knew he’d earned them.

But when he saw the tears in her eyes, glittering like star sapphires, his heart blackened with shame.

“You’ve got it so wrong,” she choked out. “I don’t pity you. I admire you.”

A startled laugh somehow escaped his tight throat. “Why, for God’s sake? I’m an ill-tempered fool without a shred of courtesy. You should find a vase and smash it over my thick skull.”

She shook her head so hard her curls bounced. “You don’t hide from your pain, but you don’t make a show of it, either. You just . . . live with it, as if it doesn’t matter. I don’t think I could ever be that brave.”

Oh, it mattered. Pain was now the cornerstone of his life. But as for living with it, what choice did he have? Nick had defied his superior officers and risked his own life and career to save Royal from certain death. Because his brother and the rest of the family needed him, Royal would bloody well keep on surviving for their sakes.

How could Ainsley ever understand that? And why did she even care?

“My lady, I don’t know what you want from me,” he said.

She swallowed before answering. “I . . . I like you, that’s all. If you can say that to me, why can’t I do the same?”

He shook his head, afraid to even think what she meant.

“Besides, I’m trying to be nice,” she added, sounding rather surly. Inexplicably, that tone eased the tightness in his chest. “I can be nice, you know, despite what people say about me. And I choose to be nice to you, specifically, you dreadful man.”

As he took a step closer, Ainsley held her ground, meeting his gaze with one both defiant and curiously vulnerable.

And Lady Ainsley Matthews was never vulnerable.

He gently rested a hand on her ridiculous poof of a sleeve. Royal longed to touch the smooth, bare skin just beyond the frill of lace and silk, but he didn’t yet dare. They barely knew each other, and yet the connection between them was battering through his rib cage, forging a path straight to his heart.

When she didn’t pull away from his touch, he found his voice. “I don’t need you to be nice to me, either.”

She stared up at him, her violet, wide-eyed gaze shimmering with vulnerability and longing. Longing for him? It seemed impossible.

“What does that mean?” she whispered.

He left the safety of her sleeve, brushing across her soft skin to cup the back of her neck.

“This,” he whispered as he lowered his head to her parted lips.

He sank into a cloud, into a soft whisper of passion with the promise of more to come. Though their lips barely touched, their breaths became one, a press of silken heat between one heartbeat and the next.

Those heartbeats were enough to know he was forever changed, no matter what happened next.

Drawing in a steadying breath, he reluctantly let his hand drop away, straightening to put some room between them. It was still much too close for propriety’s sake, since her breasts—God, those magnificent breasts—all but brushed the front of his coat.

Ainsley breathed out a little sigh that he swore was one of regret, then her eyelids fluttered open.

He waited for her to speak—or haul off and slap him—but she simply gave him a dreamy, sweet smile. It was so unlike her that he was tempted to laugh. Or collapse from the joy and astonishment flooding through him.

He was struggling to find a safe path through the emotional earthquake. “Lady Ainsley, shouldn’t you apologize for taking advantage of me? I am quite shocked, I must say.”

She blinked, the smile fading as her expression turned blank.

He was a moron of the first order to make a joke of their first kiss—a confounded, stupid joke.

Then she giggled, a charming ripple that drifted around him like butterflies on a summer breeze. Everything about her was magical. She transformed the air he breathed and made him dizzy.

She playfully tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr. Kendrick, if you think—”

“What the devil is going on here?” blared an aggrieved voice from behind them.

Ainsley jerked away, the backs of her knees connecting solidly with the bench. Royal shot out an arm to steady her, but his damn leg chose that exact moment to buckle and he staggered. She slapped her hands on his chest, bracing him against a humiliating tumble.

“Are you all right?” she gasped.

“Yes,” he ground out. He glanced at the tall man charging at them like a boar with a spear in its rump. “Who the hell is that?”

“The Marquess of Cringlewood,” she said in a tight voice.

“Never heard of him.”

She shot him a grim look. “You’re about to hear quite a lot, I fear. And please, Mr. Kendrick, let me do the talking.”

Ainsley stepped forward, as if to protect him. While Royal would have liked nothing better than to pull her behind him for safekeeping, his energies were directed toward staying on his blasted feet.

“My lord, what a surprise,” she said as their intruder stalked up to them. “I didn’t expect to see you back in town so soon.”

Her cool, well-bred elegance acted like a shield. Still, Royal could read her tension by the hike of her shoulders. He could feel it, too. If he wasn’t mistaken, Ainsley was more than embarrassed. She was downright nervous.

“Lady Ainsley, what are you doing out here?” Cringlewood demanded, glowering like a stage villain. “And who the devil is this person?”

Royal finally took Ainsley by the arm as he moved up by her side. She all but jumped out of her shoes.

“Remove your hand, you cad,” Cringlewood hissed.

Royal repressed the impulse to roll his eyes at the man’s absurd theatrics.

“My lord, there is no cause for alarm,” Ainsley said, pulling her arm away. “Mr. Kendrick simply offered to escort me out to the hall for some cooler air. The atmosphere in the ballroom was stifling.”

The marquess still eyed her with heavy disapproval. “Without a chaperone? I cannot imagine your parents would be pleased to see you wandering about unprotected. Nor, might I add, am I.”

Royal gave him a smile that was mostly teeth. “Her ladyship is not unprotected. She’s with me.”

Cringlewood ignored him. “Your mamma is waiting for you, Ainsley. She’s grown concerned by your absence.”

So, the aristocratic blighter was on a first name basis with her. That was a painful revelation, especially since he was tall, handsome, and dressed with an expensive elegance that Royal could never hope to match. Even worse, he was evidently hale in all limbs.

When Ainsley sighed and gave a resigned nod, Royal frowned. She never catered to any man but her father, the Earl of Aldridge.

He laid a gentle hand on her arm. She glanced up at him, startled, but then gave a tiny shake of the head, as if to warn him.

But warn him of what?

“My lady, perhaps you might formally introduce me to your friend,” Royal said. “He seems such a charming gentleman.”

Consternation flashed across her features before her control reasserted itself.

“Of course. Mr. Kendrick, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the Marquess of Cringlewood.” She gave the marquess a bland smile. “Mr. Kendrick is the brother of the Earl of Arnprior.”

The man barely managed a nod before holding out an imperious arm to Ainsley.

Bloody ponce. Even his name was ridiculous.

“Delighted, I’m sure,” Royal said. “And now that we’ve got the niceties out of the way, I’m happy to return you to the ballroom, Lady Ainsley.” He lifted an eyebrow at the marquess. “Your assistance is no longer required, sir.”

Cringlewood’s nostrils actually flared. The man really did have a promising career on the stage if he ever decided to give up life as an aristocratic idiot.

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Kendrick,” Ainsley quickly replied. “I’m more than happy to return to the ballroom with Lord Cringlewood.”

Despite the words, she looked anything but happy. In fact, she looked all but ready to break out in hives from a severe bout of nerves.

“Are you sure?” Royal asked quietly. “If you’re uncomfortable with him, I’ll escort you to your mother.”

Cringlewood immediately adopted another outraged expression. “Since Lady Ainsley is to be my wife, she obviously does not feel uncomfortable with me.”

The floor tilted under Royal’s feet. He must even have staggered a bit, because Ainsley put a hand under his elbow.

“Be careful,” she said.

“Is it true?” he asked.

“Of course it’s true,” the marquess snapped. “We’re to be married by the end of the Season, as anyone with a brain in this town surely knows.”

“You get ahead of yourself, my lord,” Ainsley said coldly. “There has been no formal announcement, as you are well aware.”

Something in Royal’s chest seemed to explode. He almost thought to look down and see a gaping hole where his heart had been.

He took a step away from her that felt like a retreat back into darkness.

“So, you are betrothed.” He forced a little bow. “Allow me to offer my congratulations.”

She shook her head. “It’s not what you think. I mean . . .” She cast the marquess a frustrated glance as her voice trailed into silence.

“I demand to know what’s going on here,” Cringlewood said angrily.

After Ainsley maintained a tense silence, Royal shrugged. “I’m sorry to say, my lord, that your fiancée is a determined flirt who enjoys leading unsuspecting fools to their doom. As anyone with a brain in this town surely knows.”

She gasped, but he refused to spare her a glance as he limped away as quickly as his blasted leg could carry him.


Castle Kinglas, Scotland
April, 1817

Clearly, not even his brother’s library could provide safe haven.

With a sigh, Royal glanced up from his book when his sister-in-law marched into the room. Though the former Victoria Knight was now Countess of Arnprior, and wife to the chief of Clan Kendrick, she was still very much a governess in spirit and looked ready to box his ears.

He raised a polite eyebrow. “Is there something I can do for you, my lady?”

She ached an eloquent brow in return. Perhaps they could conduct this sure-to-be-unpleasant discussion entirely through facial expressions.

No such luck, he thought, when Victoria raised an imperious finger.

“Indeed there is. I want you to stop moping about the castle. You’ve been doing it all winter, and it’s become ridiculous.”

She was never one to mince words or shy away from an unpleasant task. And now that she’d sorted out his brothers, she’d clearly made Royal her special project.

“I’m not moping. I’m reading a very good book.”

Victoria glanced down at the leather-bound volume, then plucked it from his hand and turned it right side up.

Royal winced. “I was just giving my eyes a rest.”

“Of course you were,” she said dryly.

He’d barely glanced at the blasted thing, a history of the Punic Wars he’d ordered last month. After starting it with a fair degree of enthusiasm, he’d quickly lost interest. Today, he’d read only a few pages before his attention had wandered to the windswept vista of craggy peaks hulking over the loch behind Kinglas. Not even the dramatic beauty of the Highlands had the power to soothe him—not like it once had.

He supposed he could go fishing, which he normally enjoyed, but that hardly seemed worth the effort.

“At least join us for a cup of tea,” Victoria said in a coaxing voice, switching tactics. “Taffy made her special seed cakes for you. She said you barely touched your breakfast. Or your lunch, for that matter.”

He glanced over to see a generous tea service set up on the low table in front of the library’s fireplace. He hadn’t even noticed the footman lug the damn thing in.

His sister-in-law’s understanding gaze—along with the fact that Taffy, the castle’s housekeeper, thought he needed coddling—triggered an irrational spurt of irritation.

“I’m not one of your pupils, Victoria. Don’t try to manage me with promises of treats.”

“True. My students invariably displayed better manners.”

“She’s got you there, old fellow,” said Nick from behind the ledgers stacked on his desk. “You have been moping about. More than usual, that is. It’s time you do something about it.”

When Nick and Victoria exchanged furtive glances, Royal had to repress a groan. Clearly, they’d planned this little ambush.

He put his book aside and glared at his older brother with predictably no effect. The Earl of Arnprior was well used to his obstreperous siblings, since he’d all but raised them after the death of their parents. Although the most generous of men, Nick was the proverbial unmovable object when it came to deciding his family’s best interests. And once he made a decision, it all but required an Act of Parliament to change it.

“I repeat, I am not moping,” Royal said. “And don’t you have enough to worry about without fretting over me like a granny with gout?”

As usual, Nick was buried under the mountain of work that came with managing the estate, not to mention a large and sometimes fractious Highland clan. Any normal man would founder under the load, but he never failed to rise to the challenge. And now that he’d married Victoria, Nick had finally found the richly deserved happiness so long denied him.

Royal couldn’t help feeling envious of having a loving wife and a sense of purpose—the feeling that one’s life mattered. A compelling reason to wake up in the morning had been lacking in his life for a long time.

Nick had once relied quite heavily on Royal’s support for everything from running the estate to managing the younger lads. But Victoria now appropriately filled that role, as well as still tutoring Kade, the youngest Kendrick. The boy had struggled for years with ill health, but under Victoria’s loving care, he grew stronger by the day.

Aye, she was a blessing, was the new Countess of Arnprior, though not entirely for Royal. His sister-in-law was as bad as her lord when it came to wanting to repair the broken things around Castle Kinglas, including him.

“And you needn’t regard me as if I’m falling into a decline,” Royal said to her. “I’m perfectly fine. Better than ever, in fact.”

Instead of contradicting that obvious load of bollocks, Victoria smiled. “Of course you are, dear. But I would feel better if you had something to eat.”

She held out a hand.

Sighing, he took it, because today he did need help getting to his feet. The pain was always worse in blustery, damp weather. Some days Royal feared he was losing ground with his recovery. Though he faithfully followed the regime of rest and exercise prescribed by the London sawbones, his pain somehow seemed linked to the heaviness in his heart.

“Need help?” Nick asked.

“I’m not a cripple,” Royal gritted out, even as he struggled to stand.

“And you know I’m stronger than I look,” Victoria said to her husband.

“Aye. Skinny but strong as an ox,” Nick said with a grin.

“If that’s the sort of compliment you employed to woo the poor girl, it’s a wonder Victoria ever married you,” Royal said as he found his footing.

Victoria laughed. “That’s what my grandfather used to say when I was a young girl hanging about the stables of his coaching inn. I loved helping with the horses.”

“He was right,” said Royal. “For such a wee Sassenach, you’re quite hardy.”

“I have to be to survive a houseful of wild Highlanders,” she cheerfully replied, watching Royal carefully to make sure he wouldn’t topple over. “I know. I’m an old mother hen.”

When his gaze strayed to the decanters of whisky behind his brother’s desk, she waggled a finger. “Tea and something to eat first, Royal.”

“Old mother hen is an understatement.” He patted her on the shoulder. “You do realize you cannot fix everything, no matter how hard you try.”

“I know, and it’s just about killing me.” When he started to laugh, she jabbed him in the arm. “But don’t think I’m giving up, either.”

“Thank you for the warning.”

Nick joined them at the tea table, dropping a quick kiss on his wife’s head after she took her seat. “I think we’re being a bit hard on you,” he said. “You’ve done a splendid job organizing the family and estate papers, and we all know they were in…quite the state.”

“Catastrophic disarray is the phrase you were searching for,” Royal said.

“Don’t let Angus hear you. He all but flayed me alive when I took the job from him and gave it to you.”

“So I heard. My ears are still ringing.”

Nick laughed. “Aside from the fact that Angus is a disaster when it comes to paperwork, the old fellow’s getting on in years. He’s earned his rest.”

“I hope to God you didn’t tell him so,” Royal said. Their grandfather would be devastated if he thought they were putting him out to pasture.

“Since my instincts for self-preservation are quite good, I did not,” Nick replied.

When Nick and Royal were away during the war, Angus had managed affairs at Kinglas, watching over the younger Kendricks and serving as estate steward. He’d done his best, but with mixed results. The old fellow had an abiding mistrust of modernity—which to him meant anything after the last Stuart monarch.

“Angus did mention that you did a passable job organizing the papers,” Victoria said as she poured them each a cup. “Which from him is high praise, indeed.”

“Seriously,” Nick said, “I can’t thank you enough for taking that on. I know it was gruesome.”

Royal shrugged and reached for a seedcake. “I was happy to do so.”

Oddly enough, that had turned out to be true. His big brother had dragooned him into taking on the job, determined to get Royal “off his arse.”

“You need to accept that your military days are over,” Nick had said, adopting his most lordly manner. “It’s time to figure out what you wish to do with your life and then simply get on with it.”

The problem was, Royal still didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do.

All he seemed to be good for was mooning over Ainsley Matthews and wondering what might have happened between them if he hadn’t been stupid enough to abduct her back in January. He’d kidnapped her with the best of intentions, determined to save her from an arranged marriage she was trying to avoid. Of course, he would have gained the only woman who’d ever made him feel truly alive, but that was beside the point. He’d done it for her, and any benefits accruing to him would have been merely accidental.

Still, he knew that reasoning was utterly insane. Ainsley hadn’t wanted to marry him only slightly less fervently than she hadn’t wanted to marry the Marquess of Cringlewood. She’d made that clear in language so caustic it was a wonder he hadn’t been reduced to a pile of smoldering ash.

After Ainsley departed for her great-aunt’s manor house a few hours north of Kinglas, Royal had descended into an even gloomier mood alleviated only by drastic amounts of whisky. Fed up, Nick had finally shoved him into the dusty old estate office and ordered him to work. And wonder of wonders, reading through the history of his family and clan had been absorbing. Putting those records in order, watching the ancient story unfold over the centuries, had given Royal a renewed appreciation for his heritage. The proud Kendricks had fought hard for their rightful place in the history of Scotland, and their story was worth remembering.

For a while, the Kendrick sense of pride had even rubbed off on him.

“For all the good it’ll do me now,” Royal muttered into his teacup.

“What’s that?” Nick asked.

Royal waved off the question. “As I said, I was happy to help, especially since it put an end to your incessant nagging.”

His brother adopted an air of mild offense. “I never nag anyone. I simply pass on a suggestion now and again.”

Victoria choked on her tea.

Nick gently patted her on the back. “Are you all right, sweetheart?”

“Just a little something in my throat,” she said as she exchanged amused glances with Royal. Though the Earl of Arnprior always had everyone’s best interest in mind, whether the rest of the family agreed with his determination of best interest was another matter.

Victoria put down her teacup. “The fact remains that unless we intend to start Royal on the laundry lists, his task has been completed.”

“I suppose that’s why you’ve taken up brooding again,” Nick said. “Nothing else to occupy your mind.”

Except for the debacle with Ainsley was the clear implication.

“You make it sound as though I’ve made a hobby out of it,” Royal said.

“You rather have, dear,” Victoria said.

“And you’re bloody good at it,” Nick wryly added.

Royal mentally winced. “Everyone’s got to be good at something.”

“You’re good at many things,” Victoria said. “Besides brooding,” she added when Royal lifted a pointed eyebrow.

“Yes,” Nick said with an encouraging smile. “You were a fine scholar before your soldiering days. And you’ve always been the best in the family when it comes to fencing, riding, and training horses. You managed some horses no one else could get near.”

“You forgot I was also the best sword dancer in the county,” Royal responded dryly. “But my leg prevents me from taking up that mantle again, or training horses for a living. And since I have no intention of burying myself in a library for the foreseeable future, a life of scholarship is out, too.”

When Nick and Victoria exchanged another worried look, he sighed. “I’m sorry. I know you’re only trying to help. It’s just that…”

“You were forced to give up soldiering, which you excelled at,” his sister-in-law said. “Believe me, I understand. When I stood accused of murder last year, I was deathly afraid I’d never be able to teach again.”

Before she married Nick, Victoria had planned to open her own seminary for young ladies.

“Do you miss teaching?” Royal couldn’t help asking.

“Sometimes I do, although I’m fortunate I can still tutor Kade.” She flashed her husband a quick smile. “But I found something else to love even more than teaching.”

Like her, Royal thought he’d found something new to love—something more important than even his military career. Too bad he’d been wrong about that, too.

Nick raised Victoria’s hand to his lips. “Perhaps we’ll have a schoolroom full of Kendrick children you can teach someday,” he murmured.

She blushed and gave him a shy smile.

“Would you like me to leave the room?” Royal asked politely.

Victoria wrinkled her nose. “Too much?”

“You are rather making me lose my appetite.”

She laughed. “Point taken. Let’s get back to you.”

“On second thought, I think I’d rather see you two act like romantic idiots,” Royal said.

“We can do that anytime,” Nick said. “Besides, we’ve been avoiding a discussion of your situation for too long.”

Royal eyed his brother with distaste. “You are incredibly annoying.”

“If so, it’s for your own good. Now, given that you did such a splendid job with my paperwork, I have a suggestion to make.”

“Just one?”

Nick, as usual, didn’t rise to the bait. “Since we’ve now uncovered your talent for organization, you should consider working with Logan. You know he’d be thrilled to have your help.”

Logan, the second oldest brother, had recently returned to Scotland after years of self-imposed exile in Canada. And now he was rich, owning a successful company trading in fur and timber. Logan was setting up an office and warehouse in Glasgow and had offered a job to any family member who wanted one. Royal had briefly pondered accepting the offer before deciding he’d rather put a bullet through his good leg than spend the rest of his life touting up columns in a dusty warehouse.

“I have no intention of becoming a glorified clerk,” he said. “Besides, I’m not much of a city man. After a few weeks in Glasgow, I’m ready to crawl out of my skin.”

That feeling had intensified after coming home from the war. The noise, the crowded streets, the bustle and hurry…sometimes he could almost imagine the buildings closing in on him.

“You don’t seem particularly enamored with the country these days, either,” Nick pointed out.

Royal simply lifted his shoulders in another vague shrug.

Victoria studied him over the rim of her teacup. “Have you heard from Lady Ainsley recently?”

Royal had been about to take another seed cake, but he put down his plate and cautiously regarded his sister-in-law. “No. Why do you ask?”

“Since Glasgow is apparently not to your liking, it might be nice if you made a trip to Cairndow to visit her. The poor girl has been cooped up in that small village for the entire winter with only her great-aunt for company. I’m sure she’d love to see you.”

Royal and Nick stared at her as if she’d lost her mind.

“What’s wrong with making a little visit?” she asked. “After all, it’s less than a day’s ride from Kinglas. In fact, I’m quite surprised none of us thought of the idea until now.”

“One generally waits for an invitation first,” Royal said sarcastically.

“She’d probably shoot you if you showed up at her door unannounced,” Nick commented. “You didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Royal muttered. Yes, she’d still been furious with him about the failed elopement, but she’d also given him an astonishing, bone-crushing hug before shoving him away and stomping out to her carriage.

“And she has written to you over the winter,” Victoria pointed out.

Nick glanced at Royal, clearly surprised. “Really? With the exception of Victoria and Kade, she made it clear she thought the rest of us were idiots. Especially you.”

“Chuckleheaded nincompoop was her exact description for me,” Royal said.

“Then, why—”

The door opened and his grandfather stomped in, sparing Royal the need to explain Ainsley’s erratic conduct. He wasn’t really sure why she’d written to him, except that she’d sounded rather lonely and bored. But her tone had also made it clear she harbored a lingering irritation with all things Kendrick.

“Ye all look as queer as Dick’s hatband,” Angus said as joined them at the tea table. “What’s afoot?”

“My dear wife has just suggested that Royal visit Lady Ainsley Matthews as a cure for his melancholy,” Nick said.

Their grandfather’s bushy eyebrows bristled like agitated tomcats. “What? That bloody woman can tear the hide off a man just by lookin’ at him—that’s if she doesn’t stab the puir lad first.”

“She’s not that bad,” Royal said, irritated by his grandfather’s somewhat accurate assessment.

“Indeed not,” Victoria added. “Lady Ainsley is a lovely girl.”

“She’s a looker, I’ll grant ye,” Angus said. “But have ye forgotten her behavior on the elopement? Because I have not.” He directed his scowl at Royal. “Her high and mightiness treated us like muck on her boot heel.”

“Of course I remember. I was there, wasn’t I?”

It was all etched in Royal’s mind with hideous clarity. In addition to Ainsley, his grandfather, and his idiot twin brothers, Royal had been dealing with two other young ladies from Glasgow who the twins had been courting for several weeks. The lasses had initially been enthusiastic elopement participants.

Ainsley, however, had not been willing, and Royal had completely misread her. After he scooped her up that fateful night and dumped her into his carriage, she’d exploded in a fury of thrashing arms and legs, all but unmanning him. Fortunately, her foot had landed on his bad thigh instead of an even worse spot. Royal had practically passed out from the pain, but at least it had brought her up short.

Once he’d recovered himself, he’d explained the plan to a still furious Ainsley. She had then surprised him by declining his offer to return to Glasgow, saying she’d rather be ruined forever than marry the Marquess of Cringlewood. An aborted elopement with Royal, she’d decided, would be enough to generate the sort of scandal necessary to ruin her reputation and convince Cringlewood to leave her alone.

She’d then spent the rest of the trip north ordering his family about like a bunch of lazy servants and fighting almost constantly with Angus.

“One can hardly blame her for being angry,” Royal said. “After all, I did kidnap her.”

“And then subjected her to three horrible days caring for a castle full of sick people,” Victoria replied in a humorous tone. “It’s a miracle she didn’t shove you off the battlements as repayment.”

On top of everything else, one of the twins had slipped off the coach step and broken a leg on the way to Kinglas. After their arrival home, half the family and staff had promptly come down with a severe cold, pitching the entire household into chaos. Nick and Victoria, who’d followed the elopers in hot pursuit, had ably managed the crisis with assistance from Royal and—surprisingly—Ainsley, who’d turned out to be a rather competent nurse.

“Angus, even you must admit Lady Ainsley acquitted herself well under the circumstances,” Victoria said.

“I’ll give ye that,” the old man grudgingly acknowledged. “The lass did better than I expected. But I still say she’s a Sassenach harridan, and our Royal shouldna have anything to do with the likes of her.”

Victoria shook her head. “I’m concerned about her. She said a few things while she was here that quite worried me. I regret I didn’t have the opportunity to follow up on them.”

“You were too busy getting arrested for murder,” Royal said, “so I think you can be excused for the oversight.”

Nick frowned. “The less said about that incident, the better. I will not have anyone upsetting my wife with reminders of that exceedingly unpleasant time.”

“Yes, dear,” Victoria said in soothing tones, patting his arm. “Although everything did turn out for the best, so all’s well that end’s well.”

Nick’s mouth quirked up. “Now you’re just managing me, love.”

“She manages all of us, in case you haven’t noticed,” Royal said. “Which is a good thing, since we cause more trouble than we’re worth.”

“Speak for yerself,” Angus said in a lofty tone. “I’m a paragon compared to the lot of ye.”

“If you’re a paragon, then I’m Robert the Bruce,” Royal said. “And I do believe I left my crown in the drawing room. Will you fetch it for me, Grandda?”

Angus bristled with indignation. “Now, see here, laddie—”

Nick interrupted the impending Angus Eruption. “We’ve wandered some distance from the original topic of Royal’s future. He cannot spend his time moping around Kinglas. He needs to find something useful to do with his life.”

“Well, I’ll not be thankin’ ye to give him any more of my work,” the old man said. “Ye’ll not be puttin’ me out to pasture just yet.”

Their grandfather was understandably touchy, on the lookout for any hint that he wasn’t contributing to the family’s wellbeing or was in any way a burden. Royal knew exactly how he felt.

“It’s just that Royal seems at loose ends,” Victoria explained. “We’re trying to decide how best to address the situation.”

“And do I actually get a say?” Royal asked sardonically.

They ignored him.

“Running aboot after that stuck-up English miss is the last thing he should be doin’,” Angus said. “Besides, I doubt she’d even see him.”

Royal thought about Ainsley’s last letter to him a few weeks ago, the one where she’d sounded…sad. “Actually, I’m not sure she’d mind a visit.”

Nick put down his teacup and stood. “You’ll make your own decision, of course. But I would be grateful if you would at least consider working for Logan.”

“And ye’ll no be turnin’ the lad into a glorified clerk, either,” Angus objected. “He’ll be stayin’ right here at Kinglas, where he belongs.”

His grandfather meant where he could keep an eye on him, since he constantly feared Royal might suffer a relapse of some sort or the other.

“It’ll be fine, Grandda,” Royal said. “Don’t fash yourself.”

“Of course I get fashed,” Angus said gruffly. “After all, ye almost died fightin’ for the stupid English.”

“Ahem,” Victoria said loudly.

Nick clamped a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Come along, Grandda. I want to take a look at the south wall of the stables. It might even need rebuilding, and I’d like your opinion.”

“Of course, lad,” Angus said, instantly diverted. “I’ve been thinkin’ the same myself.”

“Then let’s get to it.” Nick started to propel Angus toward the door.

“Laddie, don’t be makin’ any plans without talkin’ to me first,” the old man called to Royal before he disappeared.

“Thank God,” Victoria said with a sigh. “I do love the old fellow, but sometimes he can be such a trial.”

“But you manage him exceedingly well.”

“As much as Angus can be managed. I admit that sometimes I’m tempted to clobber him with his own bagpipes.”

When Royal laughed, Victoria gave him a relieved smile. “The discussion was getting rather fraught, wasn’t it? I’m sorry we made such a fuss. I know you hate it.”

“A fuss is entirely unnecessary, I assure you. I’m perfectly well.”

A moment later, his youngest brother came rushing into the library.

“Nick just told me Taffy made seed cakes,” Kade said as he plopped down next to Victoria on the settee. “Oh, good. You saved me some.” He promptly crammed one into his mouth.

“Dear, there’s no need to wolf it down,” Victoria said, handing the lad a plate and a serviette. “Remember your manners.”

Royal leaned over and ruffled his brother’s hair. “If you’re not careful, someone will mistake you for one of the twins.”

“Taffy hardly ever makes seed cakes, so you can’t blame me. And Graeme and Grant aren’t nearly as bad-mannered as they used to be,” Kade said around a mouthful.

“Swallow before talking, please,” Victoria admonished.

“The twins have become marginally civilized thanks to you, Victoria,” Royal said. “We were all barbarians until you came along.”

“Oh, you weren’t that bad,” Victoria said.

“Oh, yes, we were.”

She grinned. “All right, the twins and Angus were quite appalling at first, and you were only slightly less objectionable. I still have nightmares about my first days at Kinglas. Kade, though, was perfect from the outset.”

The boy leaned affectionately against her shoulder, throwing Royal a smug glance that made him laugh. It was grand to see Kade doing so well after years of ill health and suffering.

“What were you talking about when I came in?” Kade asked, reaching for another cake.

Victoria hesitated, eyeing Royal. He shrugged.

“We were discussing whether your brother might like to visit Lady Ainsley,” she said.

Kade fastened an earnest gaze on Royal. “So, why don’t you?”

Royal waggled a hand. “I’m not entirely sure she’d want to see me.”

“She would,” Kade said before biting into his seed cake.

“You’re sure about that, are you?” Royal asked dryly.

After swallowing another enormous bite, his brother nodded. “I think Lady Ainsley likes you. A lot.”

Royal ignored the jolt to his heart. “She certainly liked to scold me.”

Kade shook his head. “She didn’t mean it. It was just her way of dealing with you. Sometimes you can be quite gruff, you know. So she pushes back.”

“Kade’s opinion makes a great deal of sense,” Victoria said.

Royal thought so too. Although only fifteen, Kade had a perception that was beyond his years and probably greater than the rest of the Kendrick males put together.

“Besides,” the boy added, “I like her, because Lady Ainsley always says exactly what she means. Adults usually don’t.”

“She’s honest, I’ll give you that,” Royal said.

“Regardless of your rather fraught past with Lady Ainsley,” Victoria said, “I agree with Kade. She might have trouble admitting it, but I’m sure the girl is very fond of you.”

He’d been sure of that at one point, too, and look where it had got him.

“Maybe,” he said in a neutral tone.

“If nothing else, she’s your friend,” Victoria said. “And I have the feeling she could use a friend right now.”

“Even one of us blasted Kendricks?”

“One Kendrick in particular,” she said firmly.

He finally allowed himself to seriously consider the idea. Seeing Ainsley again would be a challenge. They were often like two comets colliding, generating a good deal of heat, noise, and smoke. They also tended to leave a pile of rubble in their wake, which was not pleasant for anyone who happened to be within the blast range.

More to the point, Royal couldn’t figure out what she wanted from him. More than once she’d come to him, as if needing comfort and protection, but then she’d pushed him away and claimed she never wanted to see him again. The confounded girl was as mysterious as the bloody Sphinx.

Then again, she had written to him three times this winter, hadn’t she?

Victoria’s gaze was astute. “You will never know how she feels unless you ask her directly.”

“She’ll probably demonstrate her feelings by smashing a vase over my head.”

“That is a distinct possibility, I admit,” said Victoria. “But whether she is worth the risk is a question only you can answer.”

“Lady A has my vote,” said Kade, “despite what anyone else says about her. She’s a corker, if you ask me.”

Clearly, a second Kendrick male had fallen under the spell of Ainsley Matthews’s considerable charms. And since the lad was probably the smartest of them all…

“As it so happens, little brother, I agree with you.” Royal hauled himself to his feet, a surge of unfamiliar energy coursing through his body. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must pack a bag for my trip.”

“Oh, good,” Kade said, reaching for the tea tray. “More cake for me.”

The Highlander Who Protected Me

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