When an eagle cried overhead, Kade Kendrick glanced up from his book. The magnificent bird drifted, held aloft by the invisible eddies of the summer breeze off Loch Fyne. The scent of roses and lilacs filled the air, along with the crispness of recently mown grass. The gardens behind the castle shimmered with color in the bright summer sunlight. The lovely afternoon had beckoned Kade to slip away to read and he’d found the perfect place in a secluded nook under a stand of oak trees.
After the incessant fog and drizzle of the last three days that had confined most of the guests to the castle, the sunshine was a welcoming gift. In Kade’s experience, clan gatherings were loud and rambunctious affairs, best held outdoors. At this one, Campbells had been cooped up with MacDonalds, Kendricks, and other bits and bobs of clan families invited to the Duke of Argyll’s gathering.
Not everyone got along, as last night’s argument between Kade’s grandfather and Lord Kinloch had demonstrated. Grandda was a MacDonald, as was the wife of Lord Kinloch. But that kinship tie hadn’t stopped them from brangling at earsplitting volumes. The argument had been about some fusty old battle and the role of Clan MacDonald. Grandda had taken offense over some minor detail and had ended up challenging Lord Kinloch to a duel. The Duke of Argyll, along with Kade’s oldest brother, Nick, had been forced to intervene. The combatants had been separated and had then received a stern lecture from the duke, resulting in an uneasy peace.
The peace hadn’t lasted. Two hours later, the twins—Kade’s older brothers—had accidentally set a small outbuilding on fire when they’d tried to produce homemade fireworks. Poor Nick had rather blown his top over that one, especially after Grandda had defended the twins. Even the duke’s patience had run out, and the twins and Grandda had been banished to their bedrooms for the rest of the evening.
Kade loved his family, and they usually made him laugh with their antics. But this time it was all rather embarrassing.
He returned his attention to his book. At least he wouldn’t cause Nick any trouble. Still, his brother worried about him all the time. Everybody worried about him, mainly because he was sick so much, which sent everyone into a tizzy. Fortunately, he was so much better these last few months, which was the only reason Nick had let him come to the clan gathering.
Now Kade wished he’d stayed home at Castle Kinglas, where he could have studied in quiet and practiced his music. But Grandda had thought it would be a grand treat for him to spend time with the clans instead of holing himself up in the castle’s quiet schoolroom with a bunch of moldy old books, as his grandfather called them.
“Ye might learn somethin’ aboot being a proper Highlander, laddie,” Grandda had said. “Instead of pokin’ about on that piano and playing ditties by all those bloody Sassenachs and foreigners.”
When Kade had pointed out that he was studying the great Mozart, Grandda had scoffed that Germans were as bad as Sassenachs. He’d also waved off Kade’s attempt to explain that Mozart had been born in Salzburg, not Germany.
“Clan gatherings are stupid,” Kade muttered as he refocused on his book.
He started to slip once more into the history of music as the peace of the garden settled around him. But then quick footsteps scrunched on the gravel path. Someone was coming his way—probably a maid sent to tell him to come inside and get ready for dinner. Or maybe it was just another guest out for a stroll in the gardens.
He hoped if he kept his head stuck firmly in his book, the guest would leave him alone.
“There you are,” said a girlish voice. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Resigned, he looked up to see little Charlotte Stewart standing a few feet away, fists propped on her kilted hips. The daughter of Lord and Lady Kinloch actually wasn’t that little, since at eleven she was only two years younger than Kade.
Charlotte, something of a scrapper, was not like any girl he’d ever met. She wore kilts, for one thing, and never seemed to care about her appearance. Today, she had on a short jacket over her kilt and a pair of scuffed riding boots on her feet. Her shiny gold hair was pulled back in a messy knot, and there was a smudge of dirt on her jacket. She’d probably been out riding—or maybe mucking about in the stables. Charlotte loved horses and had even gone riding with the twins. Kade’s brothers had said she was a regular corker, taking every hedge without a smidge of doubt or fear.
She also drove her mother mad with her boyish ways, and Lady Kinloch seemed to deliver scolds to Charlotte on a regular basis.
“Why were you looking for me?” he asked.
Charlotte plopped down beside him on the wrought iron bench. “Because I wanted to talk to you. Why are you hiding out here? What if you fell down and hurt yourself? No one would be able to find you. Except for me, of course. I always find what I’m looking for.”
That was another thing about Charlotte. She liked to talk. He didn’t really mind. Sometimes he thought she was a bit lonely, even though she was always tumbling from one adventure to the next.
“I’m hardly likely to fall while just sitting on a bench,” he replied. “I’m not that clumsy.”
“Of course you’re not clumsy. It’s just that . . .” She trailed off.
Kade stifled a sigh. “It’s just that I’m rather sickly? I know everyone worries about me, but I’m quite well. Really.”
“Of course you are,” she stoutly said. “It’s just, well, you know. People worry over the stupidest things.”
In his case, worrying wasn’t so stupid. He’d almost died from fever when he was younger and had been sickly ever since. He did think he was getting better, though. At least he hoped so.
“I know my family worries about me,” he admitted. “I hate it.”
She scrunched up her nose in sympathy. “It’s because they love you, of course. So that’s not such a bad thing, is it? I think it’s rather nice, to tell you the truth. No one ever worries about me.”
“That’s because you’re indomitable.”
Charlotte looked puzzled. “I don’t know what that means.”
“It means you’re fearless.”
She seemed to ponder that as she absently plucked a piece of straw off her sleeve. “That’s nice, too, I suppose.”
They both fell silent as a pair of songbirds flitted in the branches of the oak tree above, warbling a cheerful song.
“Why aren’t you out playing or riding with the others?” he finally asked.
“The Campbell boys, you mean? Because they’re boring.”
“You’ve been knocking about with them since you got here, though.”
“It’s better than being cooped up inside that gloomy castle. I’d rather be out in the rain than have to listen to Mamma scold all day.”
Kade grinned. “She does scold a lot, doesn’t she?”
She comically crossed her eyes. “Rather. Which is also boring.”
“I’m quite boring, too, Charlotte. All I do is sit and read books, and you like to . . .” He waved a vague hand. “Do things.”
“Please call me Charlie. Everyone else does. Except for Mamma and Melissa, my little sister.”
He tilted his head to study her. “I heard some of the boys call you Charlie. I thought it was a joke.”
“My father started calling me that long ago, and it just stuck. He wanted a boy but got me instead.”
Kade frowned. “That’s odd. You do have a brother, don’t you?”
“Johnny didn’t come along for several years after me and Melissa. Anyway, the name doesn’t bother me, since I don’t much like girl things. It’s more fun to be with Papa. He even lets me go with him when he visits his tenant farmers and such. And I like spending time in the stables, learning everything I can about horses. They’re fun.”
“The Campbell boys seem like more fun than me,” he carefully said.
She emphatically shook her head. “No, they’re very dull compared to you. You’re smart and you’re nice. I’m not sure that Richard and Andrew are really very nice.”
Kade felt a warm glow in the center of his chest. Not that her praise really mattered, of course. Once the gathering was over, he had no idea when he might see her again. But if only for a few days it was nice to have a friend, someone other than one of his brothers or the Kinglas servants, who watched over him with an eagle eye.
Charlotte wasn’t the sort to make a fuss, and he found that refreshing.
Kade smiled at her. “Thank you. And I agree that Andrew Campbell doesn’t seem very nice.” Andrew was the oldest brother. “Richard seems all right, though.”
She shrugged. “I suppose. But he’s . . .”
Charlie flashed a smirk and then leaned over and tapped the open pages of his book. “What are you reading?”
“It’s a history about opera. I found it in the duke’s library, and he was kind enough to let me borrow it. It’s a bit dry, I’m afraid. I’m not sure you’d find it very interesting.”
He had found it so interesting that he’d stayed up half the night reading it. But he doubted Charlie would be able to sit quietly to discuss the differences between Handel and Gluck. She was so restless and full of energy that Kade could almost imagine lightning shooting from her fingertips.
She twisted sideways to face him, and her chestnut brown eyes fastened earnestly on his face. The first time he’d met Charlie, he’d been struck by the color of her eyes because they were such an unexpected contrast with her golden hair.
“I think I would, though,” she replied. “I love music, but I really only know the old Highland reels and jigs. Mamma never plays anymore—she says married ladies never do—and Melissa wants to learn the harp.” She rolled her eyes. “I think the harp is stupid. Only girls want to play the harp, because then boys will think they’re like angels or something dumb like that. But it’s not nearly as nice as the piano or the fiddle, if you ask me.”
He smiled at her artless chatter. “I have to agree with you, because I play both the piano and the violin.”
“I know. I heard you playing the fiddle in the east drawing room the other day. You’re so good. I wish I could be play something that well.” She screwed up her mouth for a moment, as if pondering. “Yes, the fiddle. I’d quite like to play that.”
“If you want to play the violin, er, fiddle, why don’t you?” he asked.
“Girls don’t usually play the fiddle, do they?” she replied in a dubious tone.
He smiled. “You don’t seem like someone who would be put off by such a thing. Is there anyone in your village who could teach you?”
She sat up straight, her gaze brightening with eagerness. “Yes, actually. Our vicar plays the fiddle, and he’s very good, too.”
“So ask him to give you lessons.”
Charlie seemed to deflate a bit. “Mamma wouldn’t like it. She doesn’t want me doing anything girls aren’t supposed to do.”
Kade grimaced in sympathy. Despite her rough-and-tumble exterior, Charlie was terribly sweet. And he’d bet a bob that she actually was lonely, stuck between two worlds.
“Then why don’t you ask your father? I bet he’d say yes.”
She waggled a hand. “It depends on how much he wants to avoid annoying Mamma.”
“Nick didn’t want me to play the piano, at least not at first. He thought it would wear me out. But I knew it would make me better, so I just kept asking until he finally gave in. So maybe you should keep asking your father until he finally says yes.”
She studied him, her head cocking in that funny little tilt he was beginning to recognize. For some reason, it made him want to smile.
“And did it make you better?”
He nodded. “When I play, I forget about being sick, and I always feel better afterward.”
Charlie flashed him a cheeky grin. “Then I will ask Papa, although I won’t tell him it was you who suggested it. He’s still mad at your grandfather, so—”
Loud, scuffling footsteps interrupted her. They both looked up to see the Campbell brothers pelting toward them, kicking up gravel from the path in their wake.
Kade mentally groaned. While he didn’t mind Richard, Andrew was a different story. Although only a year older than Kade, he was half a head taller and very athletic. He excelled at sports and seemed to dominate most of the games the boys played.
And he was a bully.
“Oh, thunderbolts,” Charlie muttered.
“There you are,” breathlessly exclaimed Richard as the brothers skidded to a halt in front of them. “We’ve been looking for you. Don’t you want to go riding with us? It’s a sunny day, so for once we won’t get all muddy.”
His big brother shoved him. “Charlie doesn’t mind mud. She’s a regular goer.” He fixed his gaze on her. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“No,” she replied. “Although I don’t know why you had to shove Richard to make that point.”
Andrew shrugged. “Because he was whining.”
“I was not,” Richard said as he rubbed his arm. “And you didn’t have to shove me so hard. That hurt.”
“Baby,” Andrew sneered.
“I’ll go riding with you, Richard,” Charlie said, pointedly ignoring Andrew. “I’ll meet you in the stables in a half hour. I want to finish talking to Kade first.”
Andrew snorted. “What’s there to talk about with him, besides books or that stupid piano he’s always playing? That’s so boring.”
Charlie’s narrow shoulders lifted in a casual shrug. “He’s not what’s boring me at the moment.”
Kade bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
Andrew glared at her for a moment and then shifted his gaze to Kade. A nasty smirk spread over his features.
“Or we could go listen to Kade’s grandfather while he bangs on about some stupid battle. It would be boring, but he’s such a fusty old quiz that a fellow can’t help but laugh. Everyone does, you know. Laugh at him, I mean. Really, how do you all put up with him?”
Anger flared in Kade’s chest. Andrew was trying to bait him, but he refused to fall into that trap.
“My brothers and I love and respect our grandfather,” he calmly replied. “After my mother died, he helped raise us, especially me. Besides, he knows a lot about Scottish and clan history, and that’s important.”
Andrew snorted. “Clan history is only good for old coots stuck in the past. Nobody cares about that anymore.”
“I wouldn’t let the duke hear you say something so stupid,” Charlie put in. “After all, he is the chief of Clan Campbell, and you’re a Campbell.”
“She’s right, Andy,” Richard said. “Papa said we have to show the proper respect to the duke, remember?”
Andrew gave his brother another shove. “Who asked you, anyway?”
Richard glared at him but was clearly unwilling to stand up to his bully of a brother. Not for the first time, Kade sent up a prayer of thanks for his brothers. Some of them might be rambunctious, but they all had the kindest of hearts.
Andrew switched his attention back to Charlie. “Well, are you coming riding, or not? If you don’t come right now it’ll be too late. We have to be back in time to change for dinner.”
“I don’t,” Charlie replied. “I’m still too young to have dinner with the adults, remember?”
“I wish I was,” Kade wryly said. “They’re awfully long affairs. I’d much rather have dinner with you and the other children.”
“That’s because you’re an idiot,” Andrew contemptuously said.
Charlie jabbed a finger at him. “That’s an incredibly mean thing to say.”
“Who cares?” Andrew replied. “It’s just stupid Kade. All he does is sit around and read books.” Then he grabbed Charlie’s arm and hauled her to her feet. “Now come along before it gets too late.”
“Let go,” Charlie snapped as she tried to yank her arm from his grip.
“No,” Andrew replied as he began to try to drag her away.
But Charlie dug in her heels. She was a slip of a thing, but she was stronger than she looked. Still, seeing that bully trying to force her made Kade’s insides twist with fury.
If there was one thing a Kendrick hated more than anything, it was a bully.
He put aside his book and jumped to his feet. “Let her go, Andrew. Charlie will come if she wants to, not when you demand it.”
“And I suppose you’re going to make me, are you?” Andrew sneered.
Kade took Charlie’s free hand, and she threaded her fingers through his, holding tight.
“If I have to, yes, I will,” Kade replied.
The big bully snorted—much like a pig—but then let Charlie go.
Kade nodded. “Thank you—”
Instantly, Andrew came at him and shoved him hard in the chest. Kade went flying onto the wrought iron bench, banging his hip on the edge. Though pain shot through his body, he refused to cry out.
Even worse than the pain was the stunned look on Charlie’s face.
“I say, Andy,” exclaimed Richard. “No need to hurt the poor fellow. He’s not very well, you know.”
“I’m fine,” Kade gritted out as he struggled to right himself.
“Here, let me help you,” Charlie said, offering him a supporting arm.
Kade felt a humiliating heat flare into his face. Being shoved was bad enough, but did she think he was so weak that he needed her help to get to his feet?
He shook his head and stood. Nobody pushed a Kendrick around and got away with it. Kade knew that one should never back down from a bully, no matter the consequences.
He stepped into Andrew’s path and narrowed his gaze on his stupid, smirking face. He tried to put ice into his expression, like he’d seen Nick do a thousand times to bounders and fools. Nick was famous for intimidating people with his cold, calm stare, and Kade hoped he’d inherited that talent.
Amazingly, Andrew blinked, as if genuinely taken aback. He peered at Kade, seeming unsure what to do. For a delirious moment, Kade thought he might actually apologize.
Then the big bully let out an ugly laugh. “Bugger you, Kendrick. And get out of my way before I knock your stupid block off.”
“No, bugger you,” Charlie retorted.
Quick as a flash, she threw a sharp punch that caught Andrew right on the nose. The boy let out a muffled shriek and staggered back as he clapped a hand over his face.
“You hit me,” he exclaimed.
Charlie grimaced a bit and shook out her hand. “And I’ll do it again if you don’t leave us alone.”
Then she turned to Richard, who was gaping at her.
“Richard, please take your brother back to the house. His nose is bleeding.”
Blood leaked out from between Andrew’s fingers as he cradled his nose. The rest of his face was almost as red, mottled with fury, as he glared at Charlie.
“How d . . . dare you hit me!” he blustered.
She shrugged. “You deserved it.”
The boy took a step forward, but Richard finally intervened.
“Stop it,” he snapped, grabbing Andrew’s arm. “You’ve caused enough trouble for one day. Let’s just get back to the house before you bleed all over yourself.”
As Richard dragged him away, Andrew threw an angry glance over his shoulder.
“I’ll get you for this,” he yelled at Charlie.
“I doubt it,” she called back. Then she turned to Kade, a concerned expression on her elfin features. “Are you all right?”
He stared at her for a moment. “I’m fine. Are you?”
“My hand’s a little sore. I’ll ice it when we get to the house.”
Kade let out a disbelieving laugh. “Really?”
Charlie rolled her eyes. “He’s not the first boy I’ve hit, and he probably won’t be the last.” Then she looked vaguely alarmed. “You don’t mind, do you? Did you want to hit him first?”
“I did, rather, but I suspect you’re better at it than I am.”
“I’ve probably had more practice.”
Then she plunked back down on the bench and picked up the book. “Now, where were we? You were going to tell me about your book.” She glanced at the page. “Gluck. He wrote some famous operas, didn’t he? I’ve never heard an opera. I’d quite like to, one day.”
Kade sank down next to her, letting her sweet, girlish voice flow over him. He should be embarrassed that he hadn’t acted quickly enough to defend himself, forcing her to step in. But he wasn’t. Charlie obviously didn’t see him as either or weak or an invalid, unable to stand up to a bully. She simply saw him as . . . a friend.
And that was splendid.