Excerpt #2: The Highlander’s Christmas Bride

The Highlander's Christmas Bride

Chapter Two

Logan Kendrick eyed the tiny but implacable force blocking him like Cerberus at the gates of the underworld. Carmelite nuns weren’t exactly his forte, but he’d give it a try.

“Sister Margaret,” he said, smiling, “you understand that Miss Haddon should depart as soon as possible. We must reach Perth by nightfall.”

The nun tucked her hands into the wide sleeves of her brown habit. She seemed to be returning his smile, but it was hard to tell given how wrinkly she was. The old gal, at least eighty, carried herself with ramrod dignity and looked capable of hauling him out back and paddling him for bad behavior.

“As I explained, Miss Haddon is at chapel with our sisters, who are praying for her safe travels. When the service is concluded, she will join you.”

Logan gazed pointedly at the plain bracket clock above the small and decidedly empty fireplace. It was bloody freezing in the old-fashioned parlor, although the old nun seemed immune to the cold.

“And do ye ken when that might be, Sister?”

He could practically see her scoring another black mark on his soul. Cheeky behavior was clearly not welcome in the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

“When Reverend Mother deems it over.”

He gave her an apologetic smile, which he thought showed remarkable forbearance on his part. The last thing he wished to do was play nursemaid to Donella Haddon, an almost-nun who’d failed to make the grade.

Logan was currently negotiating a series of critical financial arrangements with Lord Riddick, the girl’s uncle. If he were successful, it would greatly benefit his company, Kendrick Shipping and Trade, by substantially increasing its size. So, when he had happened to mention to Riddick that he was travelling to Perth on business, the old fellow had asked for help in dealing with a wee family matter.

His lordship had been as closemouthed as a bear trap when it came to details, however. He’d simply said that his great-niece would be returning home, hopefully for good, and that he’d consider it a great, grand favor if Logan would make a slight detour to Dundee and escort the lass to Blairgal Castle.

“Well, Sister, I will simply have to possess my soul of a little patience,” Logan said.

“A challenge for you, no doubt,” she tartly responded.

“Perhaps I can ask the good Lord for help.” Unable to resist the temptation, Logan gave her a wink. “Will you pray with me, Sister, and ask God to take pity on a poor sinner like me?”

She snorted. “I think our Lord has enough on his hands. But perhaps I can offer you a cup of tea while you wait.”

It was clear that the nuns were richer in spiritual than temporal possessions, so he’d not have them wasting their precious tea and sugar on him. What he truly wanted was a dram.

“Thank you, but I’ll just step out to speak with my groom and make a few arrangements for our journey. Miss Haddon can signal when she’s ready, and we’ll be on our way.”

Sister Margaret nodded her approval, leaving him to duck out the low front door and into the courtyard.

Gazing up at the ironwork cross atop the old building, Logan wondered at the courage it must have taken Miss Haddon to defy her family. She’d chosen to become not only a Papist but had entered a bloody convent to boot. Catholics were a rarity in Scotland, mostly tucked away in remote corners of the Highlands. It was no wonder, given the level of bigotry and suspicion they often encountered. Now Miss Haddon would be reentering a world hostile to the likes of her and would have little to look forward to but a quiet spinsterhood on her uncle’s country estate.

The woman would never be accepted back into polite society, especially not in hidebound, staunchly Protestant Glasgow.

And neither would Joseph.

Logan scowled at his boots, shoving his hands deep into his coat pockets. His son would have no chance of a good life in Scotland. As much as he missed his boy, best that Joseph stay in Canada, where he was safe, cared for, and loved.

With an effort, he forced away the pain that gripped him whenever he thought of his son. Instead, he focused on the opportunities before him, now that he was back in Scotland. Whatever their faults, Glaswegians were good at business and so was he. His success in the Colonies had opened a fair number of doors since his return, ones that would have otherwise remained closed to a reprobate like him.

It didn’t hurt that he now had the backing of his brother, Nick, Earl of Arnprior. Soon, he hoped, he’d have Lord Riddick’s, too. With Nick’s influence and Riddick’s investments, Logan had little doubt his company would soon dominate the timber and fur trades in Scotland and a good chunk of England as well.

That was the plan anyway, if he could ever get out of this bloody village in the middle of nowhere and back to Glasgow where he belonged.

He turned at the sound of a quick footfall from the road. Davey hurried through the convent’s iron gates to join him.

“Sorry to bother ye, Mr. Logan,” the young man said. “Foster sent me up to see how much longer ye might be.”

Foster was Riddick’s coachman and Davey was one of Blairgal’s grooms. Logan had offered to hire a post-chaise, but Riddick had insisted that his niece would be more comfortable with Blairgal servants she’d known her entire life.

Having already waited over an hour, Logan sighed. “God is apparently working in mysterious ways today, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

Davey looked dubious. “Whatever ye say, sir.”

“Has Foster been able to secure a suitable team at that laughable excuse for a local inn?”

“Just job horses, sir. He ain’t well pleased, ye ken, but he said the inn don’t see much in the way of traffic.”

“I’m shocked to hear that.”

Davey smiled. “Aye. It’s that hard to imagine our Miss Donella holed up in a dreary place like this, although I suppose I shouldna be sayin’ such a thing.”

Logan propped a shoulder against one of the stone porch columns. “I’ve been wondering the same thing. You were working for Lord Riddick when Miss Haddon joined the convent, weren’t you?”

“That I was, sir.”

“That decision must have put the cat amongst the pigeons.”

“Aye, the family was fashed, I can tell ye. And then puir Miss Donella up and got—”

Davey suddenly caught himself, wincing a bit.

Logan had found everyone to be tight-lipped about the lass. There was obviously a bit of a mystery when it came to Miss Donella.

“You were saying?” he prompted.

“Nothin’, sir.”

They both turned at the sound of thumps from inside the guesthouse. It would appear the lady of the hour was finally about to make an appearance.

“Ah, at last. Have Foster bring the carriage around, Davey.”

“Aye, sir.”

The young man hightailed it out of the courtyard, as if relieved to escape further questioning.

Not that it had been much of an interrogation. Mostly it was just idle curiosity on Logan’s part. He’d every expectation that the next two days in the company of a spinsterish, pious lady would be utterly flat.

When the door to the guesthouse opened, Logan adopted a smile, ready to be as sympathetic as the situation demanded. The poor girl would be sadly pulled, no doubt. He could only hope she wouldn’t spend the entire trip weeping into her handkerchief and bemoaning her fate. If she did, he’d have to retrieve the flask of very fine whisky he’d stowed in his travel kit for a necessary fortification.

A tall young woman wearing a stunningly ugly bonnet stalked out to the porch and stopped short when she saw him. Her gaze scanned him from head to toe, and then her tight-lipped expression transformed into one of outright disapproval.

For his part, he could do nothing but stare back at her like a chucklehead.

Good God.

Miss Donella Haddon looked neither pale nor morose, and not particularly nunlike. In fact, she was the most beautiful girl Logan had seen in a long time.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you going to stand there gaping at me all afternoon? Will I have to go down to the inn and fetch the carriage myself?”

She had a bonny voice, as clear and musical as a rippling Highland stream. At the moment, it was as chilly as one, too.

Sister Margaret appeared from inside. “Gracious, Donella. Remember what Mother told you about intemperate language.”

“As if I could ever bloody forget,” Miss Haddon muttered.

When Logan choked back a laugh, she shot him a lethal stare, as if daring him to say a word.

“I’m sorry, my child,” Sister Margaret said in a long-suffering voice. “I do not believe I heard you correctly.”

Miss Haddon closed her spectacular green eyes and sucked in a deep breath. Naturally, that pulled Logan’s attention to her bosom, which seemed a little too large for her ill-fitting, drab pelisse.

Why she was so poorly dressed? As Riddick’s niece, she needn’t go into the world looking like a charity case.

Even with the deplorable outfit and her irate glower, Donella Haddon was a true Scottish beauty, with pale, perfect features, an enchanting spray of freckles across her nose, and bright auburn hair peeking out from under her bonnet. Her tall, elegant figure also possessed enough curves to satisfy the most exacting of men.

Why the hell hadn’t anyone told him the girl was so bloody gorgeous? He’d been expecting a dreary little miss, and instead he’d been saddled with a beauty, something he surely didn’t need.

Logan had sworn off women for some time now. He was too busy for one thing. For another, he had no intention of getting married again. Taken together, they meant avoiding any eligible lasses that wandered into his orbit.

Ineligible lasses were off-limits, too. Nick would murder him if he engaged in that sort of nonsense, especially in a city as small and gossipy as Glasgow.

Unfortunately, he was not immune to the lure of a pretty girl—far from it, in fact, given his monklike state. He could only hope that her chaperone for the trip was the most dour and suspicious of nuns.

He pulled himself together. “Sister Margaret, I’d imagine the poor girl is distressed to be saying good-bye to you and the others. It’s no wonder she’s fashed.”

When Donella opened her eyes, her frustrated expression suggested she’d like to cosh him over the head.

Sister Margaret obviously read the same message and laid a gentle hand on Donella’s arm. “I’m sure you’re upset, my child. But Mother gave you excellent advice that will help you to face this particular challenge with a lighter heart. Is that not so?”

The girl visibly collected herself before giving the elderly nun a sweet smile. “Yes. Thank you for the reminder, Sister.”

“You must do more than remember, my child,” Sister chided. “You must act on it, too.”

Donella’s expression changed again, and for a long moment she looked like a sad, lost little girl. Logan had to resist the insane urge to pull her into his arms for a comforting cuddle.

“I will do my best to take Mother’s advice to heart,” she said.

Sister Margaret nodded her approval. “We all have our crosses to bear, my dear. Try to bear yours with a glad heart, and never forget that our heavenly Father will provide.”

Lord Riddick certainly would, anyway. Logan hoped the old fellow would do it without piling on the lectures. That would be adding insult to injury at this point.

“Can’t blame her for being a wee bit snippy, Sister,” he said. “I’d probably feel the same if I found myself tossed out on my—”

Logan caught himself just in time. While the nun regarded him with mild horror, Donella’s gaze was cold enough to send his balls into full retreat.

“There’s no need to linger, Mr. Kendrick,” Sister Margaret said. “We sent Miss Haddon’s trunk down to the inn this morning so it will already be in the carriage.” She glanced up at the sky. “Dusk will come soon enough.”

“I do believe I made that point an hour ago,” Logan replied with polite sarcasm.

When the ladies stared at him again, he mentally winced. Taking potshots at nuns was hardly sporting, even if one of them was now an ex-nun. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Not that I minded waiting,” he added.

Donella turned her back on him, bending gracefully to hug the old woman. “I’ll miss you, Sister. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

Sister Margaret sketched a blessing over her. “Write and tell us how you get on, my dear. And God bless you.”

With a stern nod to Logan, the nun disappeared into the guesthouse.

“Is the carriage waiting outside the gates,” Donella asked, “or down at the inn?”

“It should be here soon. And we’re still waiting for your chaperone, are we not?”

Donella looked blank. “I don’t have a chaperone.”

Oh, hell. “Isn’t one of the sisters coming as an escort?”

“That seems rather redundant. I’ve got you to escort me and, presumably, my uncle’s coachman and grooms.”

“We’ll be on the road for two days. You need a chaperone.” He waved a hand. “You know, to prevent gossip.”

She rolled her eyes. “No one is going to gossip about me, sir. Aside from my immediate family and the servants, no one even knows I’m leaving the convent.”

Logan’s irritation broke free. “I bloody well know, and I have no intention of spending two days on the road with a gently bred spinster.”

Donella regarded him with patent disbelief. “Your virtue is quite safe with me, sir. I just spent the last three years in a convent. Until last week, I was actually a nun.”

She turned on her heel and marched out the convent gates. Logan yanked off his hat, rubbed the back of his head where a headache was gathering, then jammed it back on and started after her.

“I don’t care if yer the Blessed Mother herself,” he said when he’d caught up with her. “Ye canna travel without a proper chaperone.”

When he was annoyed, his brogue tended to surface. And right now he was very annoyed.

Donella flicked a dismissive hand, not breaking stride as they headed down the dusty road toward the inn. The wind kicked up dirt devils and tossed his hat from his head.

Repressing a curse, Logan swiped it up. The lassie, naturally, didn’t wait for him, and he got an excellent if brief view of her pretty ankles when the wind off the nearby firth whipped her dress up around her shins.

Where the hell was the carriage? Foster should have picked them up by now, but he was nowhere in sight. That fit in with every other blasted thing gone wrong today.

He quickly caught up to Donella. “Don’t you even have a maid to accompany you?”

She stopped dead in her tracks, forcing him to skid to a halt.

“What?” he asked in response to her glower.

“I repeat. Until last week I was a nun. Nuns do not have maids.”

“No servants at all?” While he knew little about convents, she was the bloody niece of a rich, influential earl.

“I realize there are many silly myths about Catholics, but nuns do not have servants. And there are no mad monks, wailing ghosts, lurid orgies, or any other of the nonsense you might have heard.”

He swallowed the temptation to joke about orgies. “Och, lass, I have nothing against Papists. In fact, my—”

“I don’t care.”

When she stomped off, Logan couldn’t blame her. He’d sounded like a complete moron. But he was still debating what to do with her. They would spend two nights on the road without a chaperone. He couldn’t believe Lord Riddick hadn’t anticipated this rather pressing need. Did the old fellow really think the girl’s former status would protect her from the way gossip flew about the Highlands? Not likely. Not when she was travelling with a Kendrick male—especially this Kendrick male.

Donella glanced over her shoulder. “Are you coming? Because as you so aptly pointed out, the less time we are together, the better.”

Once again, he easily caught up with her, despite her long stride that ate up the ground. No mincing about for her. She was all business and as tart as a lemon ice.

Logan was quite fond of lemon ice.

“You are a snippy lass, aren’t you? Is that why the nuns kicked you out?”

Her glare aimed to turn him to stone, but she kept her mouth—it was a very pretty mouth, rosebud pink—firmly shut.

“I’m Logan Kendrick, by the way. In case Sister Margaret didn’t tell you.”

“I know exactly who you are,” she said with a disapproving sniff.

“Ah, so you’ve heard of the Kendricks.”

“Of course. With the exception of Lord Arnprior, you are generally considered a bad lot.”

“You’re behind the times, lass. We’re all reformed now.”

“Huzzah for you.” She tilted her chin to peer up the road from under the brim of her oversized bonnet. “And where is the carriage, for heaven’s sake? At this rate, we’ll hardly get out of here by nightfall.”

Since they were almost at the inn and no carriage was in sight, Logan could only assume some mishap had occurred.

He couldn’t resist the impulse to tease her. “Aye, it’s late. Maybe we can have a nice, friendly chat to pass the time. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“The only thing I intend to do on this benighted trip is pray, Mr. Kendrick.”

“Then I do hope you’ll say a few prayers for me, Miss Haddon.”

“I will pray that you keep your blasted mouth shut.” She quickened her pace, all but scurrying away from him.

The entire day had descended into a staggering farce. It was bound to be an interesting trip back to Blairgal, if Donella Haddon didn’t murder him before the day was out.