Highland Masterby Hannah Howell
Lady Triona McKee's life is under desperate siege. The marriage she thought would answer her dreams has left her struggling alone to provide for her people, while an arrogant kinsman/i>
New York Times bestselling author Hannah Howell returns to the unforgettable Murray family with this all-new tale of perilous trust igniting irresistible desire. . .
Lady Triona McKee's life is under desperate siege. The marriage she thought would answer her dreams has left her struggling alone to provide for her people, while an arrogant kinsman prepares to take her land. But one look into the cynical green eyes of her cousin's boldest knight warns Triona that even a promise of help is just as dangerous. . .
Betrayal taught Sir Brett Murray to make protecting others his only life. Still, the growing desire he can't help but feel for this entrancing widow makes him long to earn more than her trust. But in trying to save all she cherishes, he can't see how an honor-scarred knight can stay in her world and her heart. . .unless he risks everything to prove his love is now and forever always. . .
Praise for Hannah Howell and her Highland novels. . .
"Few authors portray the Scottish highlands as lovingly or colorfully as Hannah Howell." --Publishers Weekly
"Expert storyteller Howell pens another Highland winner." --RT Book Reviews
Read an Excerpt
By HANNAH HOWELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Hannah Howell
All rights reserved.
"Six riders at the gate, m'lady."
Triona looked up from the shirt she was mending and stared at young Angus, her heart pounding with a fear she struggled to control. It had been quiet for weeks, a long span of peace they had all enjoyed. Now she feared it was at an end. Even telling herself that six warriors were no real threat even to her poor garrison did not immediately put to rest the unease that now gripped her. Banuilt was weak. She knew it, and any seasoned warrior who looked around would quickly know it, too.
"The Grants?" she asked as she hastily set aside her sewing, almost hoping it was the neighboring laird and his men, for those men would at least not try to kill them all.
"Nay. One of the riders is a woman. She claims she is your cousin." Angus scratched at the few thin red hairs on his pointed chin, which he proudly declared his manly beard. "Lady Arianna."
"Arianna?" Triona frowned as she struggled to recall her cousin by marriage—and a few times removed, if she remembered correctly. "She is in France."
"Nay, m'lady. She be at the gate."
Triona fought the urge to rub her temples where the pinch of a headache began to bloom. "Lead me to them then, Angus."
He shrugged his bony shoulders. "I be willing, though I am surprised ye dinnae ken where the gates are by now." He strode toward the door leading out of the great hall, waving at her to follow him.
The headache grew a little larger as she followed him, resisting the strong temptation to kick him in his scrawny backside. If she had not known him since he was little more than a child, she would think the violent fever he had survived two years ago had burned away half his wits. Triona then silently scolded herself for those unkind thoughts. Angus was not sharp-witted, never had been, but he was goodhearted and an astonishingly fierce and able fighter. There were too few of those left at Banuilt, all the best having fled to France to fight for coin. Despite how difficult it could be to have a conversation with Angus, she often wished for a few more of his ilk. All the trouble they had been having lately had not cost them any lives yet, but she feared that could all too easily change.
Her attention was swiftly caught by the riders just beyond the gates, all irritation with Angus forgotten. Triona recognized Arianna immediately despite the many years it had been since she had last seen the woman, for there was no forgetting those golden eyes of hers, but her interest was caught firmly by the five men who rode with her. They were all big, strong men and well armed. No matter why her cousin had come to Banuilt, Triona prayed the woman intended to stay for a while and keep her guard with her. If nothing else, she might be able to get Arianna's men to spend a little time training hers.
"Triona!" cried Arianna. "Tell your men to stand down, please. I desperately need to dismount."
"All is weel, men," Triona said. "Let them in and help them with their horses."
It was hard, but Triona pretended that she did not notice the envy her men displayed over the fine horses and weaponry as they moved to help her guests. All of Banuilt's best weapons and horses had gone to France with the garrison when it had left, and she did not have the means to replace them. The women who moved out into the bailey, now that it was obvious there was no threat, were overtly interested in the five strong warriors riding with Arianna. Triona was silently preparing a speech to give the women of Banuilt concerning the need to remain chaste if only because they needed no more fatherless bairns to care for, when her cousin reached her side. The moment Arianna hugged her, Triona's concern about the morals, or lack thereof, of the women of Banuilt fled her mind. Arianna was with child. She prayed that was not why her cousin had suddenly decided to visit, for she did not need some angry man arriving at the gates, demanding his child.
"Cousin?" Triona stepped back a little, grasped Arianna's hands, and looked at the unmistakable rounding of her cousin's belly. "Ye are with child."
"Aye, but I will tell ye all about it later, if I may," Arianna said. "Right now I truly need to use your garderobe." She laughed. "Or a bucket in a corner. E'en a bush to squat behind. Anything. Now!"
The only woman near them was Angus's sister Mary, and Triona sighed. "Mary, love, would you please take Lady Lucette ..."
"'Tis MacFingal now," Arianna said, "but we can talk about that later, too."
"Oh, aye, that we will."
"My companions will need beds. Most of them are my kin."
"Mary, take her ladyship to a bedchamber so that she might refresh herself."
"Which bedchamber?" asked Mary.
"Whichever one is empty and clean. And we shall need water heated so that all our guests may wash away the dust of a long journey."
"And they are going to be needing bedchambers, too?"
"Aye, just as her ladyship said, but someone else will see to that. Ye will see to her ladyship and call for heated water, please."
"How do I do both?"
Noticing that her cousin was beginning to look pained, Triona said, "Just tell one of the other lassies as ye take her ladyship to her chambers. Now!"
The way Mary's eyes widened told Triona that her growing annoyance had been clear to hear in that one sharp word. To her relief, Arianna took Mary by the arm and pressed the girl to get her to a bedchamber, chattering away so continuously that Mary had no chance to ask any more questions, and led the woman away. It was wrong to be cross with Mary, and Triona knew it, but some days she just grew weary of no longer having well-trained servants around, if only because it meant so much more work for her. After taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Triona turned her attention to the chore of seeing that Arianna's escort had their needs tended to.
One look at the five men standing in the midst of her own men told Triona, more clearly than anything else ever had, that Banuilt was sadly prepared to fight the troubles besetting it. Her men were either aging or very young. There were good fighters amongst them, but it was not a strong force, for they had had little training and she could see the recognition of that sad fact in the expressions of the newly arrived men. It was a good thing that they were allies, she decided as she began to snap out orders. She just wished her cousin had taken the time to introduce her to the men. Knowing a name made it a great deal easier to order someone around.
A tall, black-haired man stepped up to her, his green eyes shining with amusement, and bowed. "Sir Brett Murray, m'lady. Necessity robbed our Arianna of her usual precise courtesy."
Triona curtsied. "I am Lady Triona McKee. Welcome to Banuilt."
"Thank ye for that welcome. Now, my companions here are my brother Sir Harcourt Murray, Sir Tamhas Cameron, Sir Uven MacMillan, and Sir Callum MacMillan," he said as he pointed to each man named and each one gave her a quick bow.
Five knights, Triona thought, praying that she did not look as dazed as she felt. Five big, strong, trained, and honored knights. And all far too handsome for any woman's peace of mind, she decided as she forced herself to calm down and glanced from one man to another. Two black-haired Murrays and three red-haired men, and four of them with differing shades of green eyes. The only man who did not have green eyes was Sir Harcourt, and his amber eyes reminded her all too much of a wolf's. She hastily prayed that his nature did not match those feral eyes. What truly alarmed her, though, was that her gaze did not linger on any of the four men with Sir Brett despite their fine, manly looks, but quickly returned to rest upon him. Just the sight of his tall, lean form made her pulse quicken, and she wanted none of that.
Despite the vast difference in their ages, her husband, Boyd, had made her pulse quicken and she had often wondered if it had just been a foretelling of trouble to come. Now, as a widow of five and twenty and a mother, she told herself she was far too old and sensible for such nonsense. Responsibility also weighed too heavily on her now. Quickening pulses were better left to women who did not have so many people depending on them for their next meal, for everything they needed to survive.
"Allow me to show ye to your bedchambers," she said even as she turned and headed up the steps into the keep. "I fear ye may find them poor accommodations, less than what ye are accustomed to, but they will be clean."
"I am certain they will be all that we need," said Sir Brett.
The man's voice was deep, with just a hint of roughness. Triona had to bite back a shiver of pleasure as it washed over her. The one time that had happened to her before, she had ended up married to a good man, but one who had little true passion or love for her. She had seen kindness and interest where there had been only a lack of emotion and a need for her dower. Holding firm to that sad reminder, she stiffened her backbone and did her best to get the men settled in their chambers as quickly as possible.
"Did it seem to you that the Lady McKee just scampered out of the room like a rabbit hearing the bay of a hound?" asked Harcourt as he began to shed his travel-stained clothing.
Brett stopped staring at the door Lady Triona had just fled through and walked to the chair near the fireplace. The bedchamber was clean but sparsely decorated, the furniture simple and plain. The hearth was a sign that there had been money once, or money newly gained and used to improve the large fortified manor attached to an old peel tower. He did not doubt that the high, thick walls surrounding the place had emptied the coffers as well.
"She may be unused to guests," he said as he sat down and took off his mud-splattered boots.
"True." Dressed in only his braies, Harcourt walked to the window and looked out. "But there is something nay quite right here."
"Do ye refer to the fact that the men are all young or old? That there is a veritable small army of children running about? Or, mayhap, that the village we rode through is half-empty?"
"All of those things and the fact that nay many of them acted as if they had been weel trained or even trained a little, but simply handed a sword and told to guard the place."
"Nay, they didnae, did they. Most of them acted much like youths who have but begun their training. One or two actually dropped their swords when they tried to unsheathe them. Arianna did say her cousin was a widow. Mayhap the highly trained men, the knights, sought out a new place when they were left with naught but a woman holding rule over them."
"Could be. There are men who cannae abide that. Any objection to my finding out all I can about her ladyship, Banuilt, and its people?"
"None at all. Arianna is here and she needs to be protected. Brian is going to be half-mad when he discovers she left. I have nay wish to see him completely insane because we didnae care for her safety with all diligence."
A hard rap at the door drew Harcourt away from the window. When he opened the door, half a dozen boys on the verge of manhood hurried inside with a large wooden tub and buckets of water. A girl who was barely a woman, blushing furiously at the sight of Harcourt partially undressed, ran in, dumped some linen on the bed, and ran out again.
Brett watched her flee and shook his head. Even the servants appeared to be new to the work. Something was definitely amiss at Banuilt.
He thought about simply confronting Lady Triona and asking her what was troubling the place, but hesitated. Not only did he not know her well enough to be certain if she would answer truly, but he was not sure he wanted to be in her presence very often. She made feelings stir to life in him that he thought he had killed a long time ago. She made his blood run hot.
And that surprised him. There was nothing particularly alluring about Lady Triona, nothing that would make a man who had known far more women than he should have, intimately, find her attractive. She was neither tall nor short, nor plump and well-rounded, nor too thin, and her hair was neither brown nor red, though it was certainly long, thick, and healthy. Even her eyes defied description, as they were neither blue nor gray but an odd shade somewhere in between. She did have a lovely face, but he had seen many that were far lovelier. Yet something about her caught his interest and refused to release it.
He inwardly cursed. For the past five years he had had little to do with women, despite what his family believed, and despite his best efforts to change that, especially during a time of drunken abandon for two years before that. It was difficult to give in to lust when doing so roused the ghost of a woman he had loved and lost. Nothing could kill a man's desire faster than that, he suspected. That and the guilt over her death, which still ate at him even after seven long years. He did not wish to lust after any woman now but had the uneasy feeling that he could easily begin to lust after Lady Triona McKee.
It was not hard to bring the image of his Brenda to mind, for she was always there; and far too often, that memory was all too real. Lady Triona was nothing like Brenda, so he could not blame that for his sudden, strong attraction to the woman. Brenda had been beautiful, with her golden hair and sky-blue eyes, her body soft and with the sort of curves that made any man ache to hold her. She had also been sweet, graceful, gentle, and loving. Unfortunately, her family had had plans for her that had not included marrying a knight with few riches and no land. He supposed he should not be surprised it had all ended so tragically.
Shaking away that sad memory, he washed up and put on some clean clothes. It would have been better if Triona were actually Arianna's blood cousin, for he could have placed that familial connection firm in his mind and seen her only as another member of his large family. It was something he could still try to do, however, even if he doubted it would be successful. He had never been very good at lying to himself, no matter how much he sometimes wanted to.
Just as he moved to stand beside Harcourt, who was staring out of the window again, Callum, Uven, and Tamhas entered the room. "Ready to find out a bit more about who and where we have delivered Arianna?" he asked them.
"Aye," replied Callum as he sat on the end of the bed. "Something isnae quite right here."
"That is what Harcourt says."
"Though it fair chokes me to say so, he is right." Callum grinned when Harcourt just laughed. "The first odd thing I noticed was the many children running about, many actually working without an adult about to direct them. Also a great many women with a welcoming eye."
"That should not seem strange to you," Harcourt said. "Ye get that look a lot."
Callum just shrugged. "This welcome appears to come because we are some of the very few adult men here. There are older men, some nay too hale. And a lot of verra young lads, some of whom could be considered men, but much too young for the lasses looking at us as if we were a rich slab of roasted venison and they were starving."
"I, too, wondered at the lack of armed, and trained, men to greet us," said Tamhas, leaning against the bedpost and crossing his arms over his chest. "We may have been a small party approaching, giving no sign of a threat, but there still should have been men of equal strength to greet us and ask our business with the lady. I dinnae think the sight of Arianna was all that made the difference in how we were met at the gates. No one builds such strong walls and then leaves the gates so weakly defended."
"Verra true," agreed Brett. "We need to look around, gather what information we can. I dinnae like Arianna staying in a place where the defenses are so weak. Harcourt has already decided to look round and discover what he can, but I think it would be best if we all do. We will gather what truths we need so we will ken a lot faster that way."
"Agreed," said Callum, and the rest nodded.
"Then let us go down to the great hall and see what food has been set out for us. We can s food has been set out for us. We can start our watching and listening right there. Do we need to collect Arianna?"
Excerpted from Highland Master by HANNAH HOWELL. Copyright © 2013 Hannah Howell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Angela Dawe is originally from Lansing, Michigan, and currently calls Chicago home. In addition to audiobook narration, she has worked in film, television, theater, and improvisational comedy.
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