Excerpt: The Highlander Who Protected Me

The Highlander Who Protected Me

CHAPTER ONE

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.”

 

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