Scotland, 1335 The unconventional Lady Katherine McKenna has been granted a rare privilege: the right to choose her own husband. It’s a more difficult task than she expected. When at last she agrees to a betrothal, it quickly goes awry, leaving Katherine alone in the wilds...and rescued by Laird Lachlan MacTavish. She’s captivated by the proud, brooding chief who shows her such tender care. But with their clans on the brink of war, the honorable Lachlan resists his attractionuntil Katherine proclaims to her family that they will wed. Although stunned by her boldness, Lachlan is intrigued by Katherine’s beauty and spirit, and the MacTavishes will benefit from an alliance with the powerful McKennas. But with family discord, treachery, and deceit in their midst, can they save a marriage that is destined to blossom into incomparable love?
|Product dimensions:||6.04(w) x 5.04(h) x 1.13(d)|
About the Author
Adrienne Basso is an experienced author and librarian who has published over ten historical romance novels. Having loved storytelling since fifth grade, she left a job in accounting to pursue writing full time. She currently lives with her husband and two kids in New Jersey. For more information, visit adriennebasso.net.
Ruth Urquhart is a professional narrator, actor, and producer with over twenty years of experience in theater, film, television, and education. She has toured internationally and appeared in the Irish sitcom Give My Head Peace. When not narrating, she runs her own theater company. Born and raised in Scotland, she currently resides with her partner, two children, and their animals in Yorkshire, England.
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Highlands of Scotland, Winter, 1335
"I'll marry him," Katherine McKenna declared in a quiet, somber voice. "I'll take Laird Drummond's eldest son, Sir Hamish, as my husband."
"At last!" Sir Brian McKenna, fearsome warrior and powerful laird of Clan McKenna, slapped his hand on the wooden table in obvious delight. The lines at the corners of his eyes deepened as he smiled broadly at his daughter. "I'll send a servant to tell Laird Drummond the good news. With luck, the first banns can be read before the snows start to melt."
Katherine sighed inwardly. Her father's smile of approval gave her confidence a much needed lift, helping to quash the sudden flush of panic that gripped her belly.
Yet before the McKenna could open the chamber door to summon one of his retainers, a female voice echoed through the room.
"Hold!" Lady Aileen McKenna's mouth twisted in skepticism as she cast a piercing look at Katherine. "Are ye entirely certain that it should be Hamish?"
"Aye, Mother." Though she kept her expression steady, apprehension nibbled at Katherine. Nay, she wasn't entirely certain, but the business of choosing a husband had been all consuming, plaguing her for years. Being unmarried at her advanced age of twenty-two had become an embarrassment to herself and her clan. She needed to be done with it and Hamish seemed a reasonable choice.
"Sir Hamish is but a few years older than I and has much to recommend him," Katherine continued. "Most important, Father insists the alliance with the Drummond clan will be of benefit to us."
"If all we sought was a political alliance, I would have allowed ye to be married at sixteen," Lady Aileen said dryly.
The McKenna's head snapped up, his eyes burning into his wife. "Damnation, Aileen, dinnae be putting doubts into the lass's head. I've waited far too long to hear these words pass from her lips."
"Och, ye always were an impatient man, Brian McKenna," Lady Aileen retorted crisply. "I'll not have my only daughter marry unless she is ready."
"Ready? Ready?" The McKenna's voice rose as his famous temper reared. "Most females her age have a parcel of bairns clinging to their skirts. Others who have suffered the loss of their husbands have been blessed with a second marriage. 'Tis past time fer Katherine to be ready."
The truth of her father's word made Katherine cringe. 'Twas highly unusual for a woman of her station and age to be unmarried, unless she had committed herself to the church. From the time of Katherine's birth there had been countless offers from men young and old to contract the McKenna's daughter in marriage and all had been refused, thanks to a promise Lady Aileen had somehow extracted from her husband.
Katherine would not be married unless she agreed to the match. In essence, she had been gifted with the rare power of being able to select her husband. Many of the Highland lairds thought the McKenna must be going soft in the head, allowing such an unheard of arrangement —though none dared to voice the sentiment within his hearing.
Being given a choice had made the selection of a husband a far more daunting task than Katherine could ever have imagined. Raised with three brothers, she was used to the roughness and directness of males, but she quickly learned that men could be duplicitous as well as charming when they wanted something.
Some who came courting declared their undying love within minutes of meeting her, claiming to be struck by her luminous beauty and charm. Others appeared more interested in her breeding capabilities than her feelings, while a few were clearly enamored of the size of her dowry.
Yet all became peevish and annoyed when she refused them, leaving Katherine to wonder if this choice her mother had fought so hard to give her was more burden than gift.
Her parents continued arguing. The louder the McKenna bellowed, the quieter and more tightly controlled her mother spoke. Their squabbling barely registered in Katherine's mind. 'Twas a common occurrence for her parents to bicker — and even more common for them to hastily retreat to the privacy of their bedchamber once the matter had been resolved.
Once she was old enough to be aware of it, this unrelenting passion between the pair had fascinated Katherine. She had witnessed it time and again, along with the joy, laughter, love, and respect that somehow never wavered between the couple. Her eldest brother, Malcolm, always said that their parents were bound together by a thread so strong that no matter how hard it was pulled, it never seemed to break.
Malcolm and her second eldest brother, James, appeared to be on the road to achieving a similar relationship with their own wives, furthering Katherine's dreams of one day creating this type of marriage for herself. All she needed was the right husband.
Was it Sir Hamish? Katherine lifted her gaze to the heavens and whispered a prayer of hope, then felt a stab of guilt for such a selfish request. There were far more serious matters in this world for the Almighty to be troubled with than her happiness.
The squabbling between her parents abruptly ceased. The McKenna paced restlessly about the chamber while Lady Aileen pinned her husband with a scathing look. He stilled suddenly, signaling that he had succeeded in bringing his agitation under control.
Her mother relaxed her stare and turned toward Katherine. Smiling, Lady Aileen reached over and stroked the stray wisps on her daughter's temple that had escaped her braid. Katherine's tresses were one of her most striking features; streaks of red, the same shade as her mother's, mixed in with the darker brown hues of her father.
Katherine was in truth a combination of both her parents, physically and emotionally. She hoped she carried the best of each, yet was honest enough to admit she possessed her mother's strong, vibrant spirit and her father's unrepentant desire to have his own way in all matters.
"'Tis settled?" Katherine asked, her voice unusually timid. She glanced anxiously from one parent to the other. "I'll marry Sir Hamish?"
The McKenna nodded firmly, yet waited for her mother to announce the decision.
"Aye," Lady Aileen proclaimed. "We'll send a message to Laird Drummond this very afternoon."
Katherine bit back the urge to sigh. If her mother sensed any hesitation, she would pounce and the business of a husband would remain unsettled until the spring — or longer.
Nay, 'twas past time that she move forward with her life. Being a wife — and hopefully, God willing — a mother one day, was what Katherine desired. If all went according to plan, then it appeared she was finally going to have a chance to fulfill those dreams.
* * *
Two days later an impressive contingent of McKenna retainers set out for Drummond Castle. Katherine and her mother, along with several female servants, rode in the center of the long column, surrounded by the fiercest of the McKenna warriors. Her father rode at the front, leading his men, her youngest brother, Graham, at his side.
At her father's insistence, they had gotten an early start, leaving before the sun rose, thus ensuring they would arrive at their destination before darkness prevailed. The McKenna set a grueling pace, yet Katherine and her mother, as well as their female servants, had no difficulty keeping up with the McKenna warriors.
Their mounts were among the finest horseflesh in Scotland, bred for speed and endurance. Lady Aileen had chosen her female companions wisely, taking those who had skill with hair, clothing, and riding. She had always relished the opportunity to show her husband — and her clansmen — that women were as capable as men in many areas of life.
Despite the fast pace and cold temperature, Katherine found the journey enjoyable. They rode beneath a cloudless blue sky and her fur-lined cloak protected her from the biting wind. Her eyes glinted with pleasure at the sight of the snowcapped mountains in the distance. The ethereal beauty of the stark landscape intrigued her and she drank in her surroundings with interest.
She had been raised with far more freedom than many other females of her class, leaving the confines of McKenna Castle often throughout her childhood. Yet this journey felt different, for it was going to change the course of her life.
Once the marriage contracts were negotiated and signed, Katherine would return home to prepare for her wedding. Her mother had hoped to wait until the spring, but her father had already declared that the best way to break the confines and boredom of winter was to have a celebration.
While hardly the ideal season to host a large feast, Lady Aileen had concurred that the fall harvest had been bountiful and there was enough food and drink in the storerooms to provide a proper meal for their guests. Katherine knew that meant in all likelihood she would be married by the end of the month.
They stopped only twice during the journey, to water the horses, hastily eat some brown bread, oatcakes, cheese, and dried fruit, drink some ale, and attend to personal needs.
Just as the sun began its descent, Drummond Castle came into view. Katherine's heart skipped as she gazed ahead. My future home. Strategically set on the edge of a bluff, the four-story stone fortress blocked the view of anything beyond it. Though not as large as McKenna Castle, 'twas an impressive structure, boasting a tall, square watchtower surrounded by a thick curtain wall.
Even from a distance, Katherine could clearly see both soldiers and archers atop the parapets, pacing to and fro, alert to any potential threats. The drawbridge was open, yet well guarded, with several heavily armed men positioned around it.
As they descended into the valley, the clang of a warning bell rang throughout the land.
"Raise our clan banner higher," the McKenna shouted. "I want to make certain those archers know who we are or else we'll be starting a feud instead of negotiating a marriage contract."
The circle of warriors around Katherine and her mother closed ranks. They rode for a few tense moments until they received several friendly waves from the guards on the wall. Katherine felt the stiffness in the men surrounding her ease. She smiled in relief, took a deep breath, and settled back in her saddle.
Word of their arrival spread quickly through the village that was nestled at the base of the castle. Men, women, and children stood in the lane and peered at her with open curiosity. Katherine could feel even more sets of eyes fastening upon her as they crossed the drawbridge and entered the bailey. She offered a gracious smile to a gathering of women; a small wave to two children. They returned the gestures eagerly and Katherine's nerves began to calm.
Still, she felt a surprising jab of uncertainty when she spied Laird Drummond standing at the end of the bailey, surrounded by a gaggle of clansmen. There would be no turning back now. The laird's eager smile made it clear he was very pleased to see them and no doubt anxious to negotiate the terms of her marriage contract. Once signed, her fate would be sealed.
Katherine's eyes searched the men who stood beside their laird, looking for Sir Hamish. She had only met him three times, spending no more than an hour in his company on each occasion. She had found him to be a pleasant companion with a biting wit and a charming manner.
At last she spotted him in the crowd. There were four other clansmen between him and Laird Drummond and she wondered why he wasn't standing beside his father. The men around Sir Hamish were talking to him, but he didn't appear to be listening. Nay, he was gazing up at her with a thoughtful expression on his face.
The deep blue cloak he wore reflected the blue of his eyes and highlighted the golden streaks in his hair. His features were plain, nondescript, but his smile had the ability to transform his face, giving it an almost handsome countenance.
He smiled often — a trait that Katherine found most appealing. His jovial temperament was what had drawn her to him initially, had given her cause to seriously consider his suit.
Disappointingly, he was not smiling now.
The McKenna party came to a halt and dismounted a few feet from the entrance to the great hall. Her parents greeted the widowed Laird Drummond, speaking for a few moments in quiet tones, their words undistinguishable.
Katherine curtsied when Laird Drummond raised his head and glanced at her, his eyes bright with interest.
"Welcome, welcome!" Laird Drummond said with a beaming smile.
"We thank ye fer yer gracious invitation," Lady Aileen replied.
"'Tis an honor. We are pleased to have ye here to discuss such an important matter," Laird Drummond declared, rubbing his hands together vigorously. "Hamish, after ye've greeted our guests, ye must show Lady Katherine yer mother's private garden."
Sir Hamish weaved his way through the crowd. Frowning, he looked at his father. "There's naught to see. The plants and bushes are bare and there's three inches of snow covering everything."
Laird Drummond narrowed his brow in annoyance, glaring pointedly at his eldest son. "Lady Katherine has been in the saddle fer hours. A walk in the garden will be a welcome relief to her cramped limbs."
Katherine cleared her throat. Her limbs were not at all cramped; truthfully, she could ride for several more hours. She lowered her eyes modestly. Did Sir Hamish not realize his father's intent was to give them time alone?
"Lady Katherine." Sir Hamish gave her a surprisingly elegant bow at the same moment Katherine's father gave her a nudge.
With a startled cry, Katherine pitched forward. Sir Hamish bolted upright, catching her before she tumbled to the ground.
"Fergive my clumsiness, Sir Hamish," she mumbled, feeling the heat rising in her cheeks.
"Ye are not clumsy, Lady Katherine. The ground here is rough and uneven," he replied gallantly, casting a scolding eye on those around them who had broken into delighted chuckles.
Katherine righted herself and Sir Hamish promptly removed the arm he had wrapped around her midriff.
"Where is the garden?" she asked.
"This way," he replied.
There were too many pairs of eyes to count trained upon them as they left. Nervously, Katherine knotted her fingers into fists at her side, hoping she looked dignified. Literally falling into Sir Hamish's arms was hardly the impression she was hoping to make to him and his clan.
Sir Hamish remained silent, leading her around the main keep to a half- walled plot that extended beyond the kitchen door. The ground was indeed covered with a layer of snow; the trees planted along the south side stark and barren.
"I can assure ye, it looks far more impressive in the spring and summer," he said. "Even in the fall there is beauty to be found here."
"Laird Drummond said this was yer mother's garden?"
"Aye, 'twas her pride and joy. She supervised the planting of every tree and bush, deciding which herbs and flowers would be included."
Katherine ran her fingers over the branch of a snow-covered bush. "Naught is in bloom, yet I can see she did a fine job with the design."
Sir Hamish nodded. "She loved seeing things grow. Though all lies dormant now, I feel her presence most strongly when I am here," he added, his voice tinged with sadness.
"Ye miss her," Katherine said quietly.
The pensive look in Sir Hamish's eyes deepened. "I do. Her death was so sudden. She complained of a headache one afternoon and took to her bed, asking fer quiet so she could rest. Her maidservant found her a few hours later, prostrate on the floor, her body cold with death."
His expression was laced with sorrow. "'Twas more than three years ago. At times it seems so long ago, at others, like it was yesterday," he said, his voice quivering.
"I'm sorry fer yer pain," Katherine said sympathetically.
Sir Hamish turned his head abruptly, avoiding her gaze. "Fergive me. I should be welcoming ye to Drummond Castle, not regaling ye with maudlin tales."
Katherine rested her hand upon his arm. She didn't mind the awkward conversation, for it gave her a glimpse into his emotions and she liked what she saw.
"Grieving the loss of someone we love is hardly maudlin, Sir Hamish. 'Tis noble."
He released a quiet sigh. "I believe my mother would have liked ye, Lady Katherine. Very much."
"Och, but would she have approved of me marrying her son?" Katherine said, squeezing his arm playfully.
"Aye, she would. 'Tis a good match that will forge a strong bond between our two clans." His smile faded and his expression grew solemn. "Are ye certain?"
Katherine could feel the heat of a blush rise in her face. "I know 'tis said that I am a fickle woman, changing my mind like the ever-moving direction of the wind. But once decided, I stand firm. And I have decided."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bride Chooses A Highlander"
Copyright © 2019 Adrienne Basso.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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