My Brave Highlander
My Brave Highlander: Battle-hardened warrior Dirk MacLerie isn't who everyone thinks he is. He's Dirk MacKay, heir apparent to the MacKay chiefdom and Dunnakeil Castle on the far north coast of Scotland. When he returns home after a long absence, will his clan know him and will the duplicitous enemy who tried to murder him twelve years ago kill him in truth this time?
Lady Isobel MacKenzie is a beautiful young widow betrothed to yet another Highland chief by her brother's order. But when her future brother-in-law accosts her and threatens to kill her, she is forced to flee into a Highland snowstorm. When she runs into a rugged and imposing man she thought dead, she wonders if he will turn her over to her enemy or take her to safety.
Dirk remembers the enchanting, dark-eyed Isobel from when he was a lad, but now she is bound to another man by legal contract—an important detail she would prefer to forget. She wishes to choose her own husband and has her sights set on Dirk. But he would never steal another man's bride… would he? The tantalizing lady fires up his passions, testing his willpower and honor at every turn, even as some of his own treacherous clansmen plot his downfall.
Please enjoy this excerpt:
Scotland, November 1618
Dirk MacKay urged his horse into a gallop along the narrow, muddy road that led from Draughon Castle toward Perth. Praying he wouldn't be too late to see his father alive one last time, he squinted against the cool, misty rain stinging his eyes.
The meager light of dawn hidden behind thick, leaden clouds provided little illumination. Greenish-brown hills dotted with grazing sheep and rolling beige grain fields sped by on either side of the road. Tulloch carried him closer to the thatched-roof stone crofters' cottages situated before a small wood of bare-limbed trees. A faint white mist hung over the massive River Tay, hidden amongst the bushes in the distance.
Dirk hoped he'd slipped away before his two friends knew what he was about. They would insist on going with him and he couldn't allow them to make such a sacrifice.
Lachlan was recently married and a newly titled earl and chief. He would be daft to accompany Dirk on a dangerous trek through the snowy Highlands to the edge of the earth, leaving his wife and clan to fend for themselves.
Although Robert "Rebbie" MacInnis, Earl of Rebbinglen, was a Highlander with naught to tie him down, Dirk wouldn't put his life in danger, either.
It wasn't simply the severe cold weather of the north that made Dirk worry over his friends' safety. A murderer lurked amongst his clansmen… a murderer who wanted Dirk dead, and wouldn't bat an eye at killing one of his friends, as well. He shook his head. Nay, he'd done the right thing by not asking Lachlan or Rebbie to risk their lives by traveling with him to Durness.
The three of them had been near inseparable for the past few years, but Dirk needed to handle this on his own. He'd been living in limbo for twelve years, and now it was time to return to his real life… to follow his destiny.
Behind him, quick, rhythmic hoof-beats pounded the road and spattered through puddles. A sharp whistle pierced the chill, wet air. Dirk glanced back to find a dark-haired, black-cloaked man following him.
"Damnation." How had he known? Dirk slowed his horse, then halted and turned to face his approaching friend. Tulloch, snorting at the interruption to his gleeful run, danced about beneath him. "Whoa, lad," Dirk said, trying to calm the horse.
When Rebbie drew up and stopped beside him, Dirk asked, "Where are you going?"
"A better question is where are you going? You left without a word. Luckily, I heard the floorboards creaking as you slipped past my chamber this morn. Does it have aught to do with that missive you received last evening?"
"I'm in no need of help," Dirk said, skirting the disconcerting question.
Rebbie's black brows lowered. "Even if you did need help, you're likely too proud to ask for it. What's happened to cause you to slip away like this?"
"I must return home without delay." And, nay, it was not pride that kept him from asking for help. There were some things a man must face on his own.
Rebbie tugged on the reins of his fidgeting, temperamental bay. "Why?"
Gazing north, Dirk observed the mist-cloaked, brownish mountains in the distance. He would have to travel far beyond them to reach home. "An urgent family matter."
"Of what sort?"
"Damnation, Rebbie. Must you always ask a thousand questions?" Dirk hated the way his chest tightened every time he thought about the loss he might face once he returned to the castle where he grew up. The regret. The fear. If he hurried, he might still have time to see his father alive. "'Twould take too long to explain it now. I must be on my way."
Rebbie's frown deepened and his steady gaze grew darker. "How far are you traveling?"
Dirk hesitated, unsure whether he wanted to blurt out the truth. His friends thought he was someone he was not, but 'twas time to face facts. 'Twould no doubt spawn numerous other questions from his inquisitive friend. But there was no point in lying anymore. He was coming out of hiding and taking the bull by the horns—for a certainty, his life would be in danger once he reached Castle Dunnakeil.
"I'm going home to Durness," Dirk said, feeling more like his true self than he had in years.
"Saints, man!" Rebbie exclaimed. His horse flicked his ears and turned in an agitated circle. "That's where you're from? I thought the MacLeries were from Strathspey."
"Aye." His mother's clan lived in that area and he had spent much time there. But his true name wasn't MacLerie. It was MacKay. He couldn't tell Rebbie that now or he'd ask a thousand more prying questions.
Rebbie waited for Dirk to explain, and when he didn't, Rebbie raised a brow. "Durness, aye?"
Dirk nodded, a sudden gust of wind whipping his damp hair into his eyes.
"Well, at least come back to the keep for a few minutes. Lachlan can provide supplies, food and wool blankets. In this weather, 'twill take a long while to travel to Durness."
"I'm well aware. My plan is to ride west, through Stirling, then head up the west coast by galley or ship. If the weather is decent, I can travel most of the way by sea." But the wind and rain, which had been near unnoticeable when he'd left Draughon Castle a quarter hour ago, was now turning into a gale.
"I'm coming with you," Rebbie said, his determined jaw hardening.
Rebbie was a proficient and skilled former soldier, up to any battle that might come their way, but the harsh Highland winter was a different matter, and so was the murderer. "Nay, I think it best if you stay here and help Lachlan."
"Och! 'Tis not safe for anyone, even someone so fearsome and trained as you, to travel that far alone. There are highwaymen, savage pirates and outlaws. Sometimes large bands of them." Rebbie's brown eyes narrowed, giving him the look of the pirates he talked about. "Come. Let's discuss it back at Draughon, out of this rain. Rushing off unprepared will be of little help. You need supplies. Extra wool clothing."
Dirk's stomach clenched with dread. 'Haps his friend was right. He'd planned to buy supplies in Perth or Stirling. But taking them from here might be more practical; he wouldn't have to waste time looking for the items he would need.
"Very well." It was still early morn. If they didn't tarry too long, they could make much progress today.
They quickly rode back to massive Draughon Castle with its four, round, gray stone towers and large rectangular keep. The guards at the black iron gates allowed them entrance to the high-walled, stone-paved barmkin. They circled around the side of one tower to the stables.
Rebbie swung down, his feet landing with a clunk on the cobblestones. "Prepare our horses, along with two more, for a long journey," he told the stable lad.
"Two more?" Dirk asked, dismounting. "Lachlan can't leave Lady Angelique and his clan."
"I ken it, but the two of us will need servants to care for the horses, run errands and such."
Dirk rolled his eyes at the coddled nobleman. "I have no servants. And the fewer in our party the better."
Rebbie waved him off. "We'll discuss it later."
The two of them proceeded around the side and up the front steps of the keep.
Once inside the expansive, two-story great hall, Dirk approached the massive burning fireplace near the high table to warm his back, while Rebbie sent his manservant, George, to wake Lachlan. Dirk ran his gaze over the large tapestries depicting Drummagan family history that decorated the walls. They reminded him of the ones at Dunnakeil.
Female servants lit candles and carried food up from the ground level kitchens, preparing for breakfast at the long wooden tables.
Rebbie and Dirk pilfered a couple of buttered bannocks while they waited.
A few moments later, Lachlan MacGrath-Drummagan, wearing a belted plaid, emerged from the narrow turnpike stairway. "Angelique is sick," he murmured for their ears only.
"What's wrong?" Dirk asked.
Dirk and Rebbie exchanged a concerned but curious glance.
"'Haps she is with child," Rebbie suggested.
"Aye." Lachlan gave a wee joyful grin. "I'm hoping that's what it is." His sandy-blond hair glinting in the candlelight, he glanced back at the stairs briefly, making it clear he wanted to be up in the bedchamber with her. Facing forward again, he asked, "What are you two doing? Looks like you've been out riding in the rain."
"Aye, Dirk is headed to Durness and I'm accompanying him," Rebbie said. "We need provisions and supplies, if you can spare them. Wool blankets, mantles and enough food for a sennight."
"God's teeth!" Lachlan's light brown eyes widened. "Why in blazes would you need to go to the far north?"
"I'm not entirely certain." Rebbie looked to Dirk.
He merely grunted, heavy dread hanging over him like the dark gray clouds outside. He didn't mind his friends knowing, but it was the act of telling them he wasn't looking forward to. Talking about his past stirred up all sorts of painful emotions. He hated emotions because he felt them too sharply and too deeply.
Lachlan sent two kitchen maids in search of food Dirk and Rebbie might take with them—bread, hard cheese, oatcakes, dried fruit, wine and apples.
"We'll go into the library." Lachlan led the way down a short corridor, then closed the door behind them.
Though no fire burned in the small hearth, Dirk had always found this smaller, low-ceilinged room cozy and comforting, maybe because it reminded him of his father's library at Dunnakeil, a place he'd felt safe as a lad.
"Out with it, man," Rebbie said, dropping into one of the cushioned leather chairs. "We want to know what the missive said."
"You are demanding of a sudden," Dirk muttered, pacing before the cold hearth. He could hardly bring himself to voice the words he needed to say, but stalling was doing naught but wasting precious time. He cleared his throat, trying to relieve the slight ache. "My father is ill. My uncle does not expect him to live long." Speaking the facts aloud was almost like an arrow piercing his chest for he had always been close to his beloved father.
"Nay." Rebbie frowned, his eyes troubled.
An unexpected illness of some sort had taken hold of his father. Dirk should've returned to Durness months ago, but he hadn't known his father would become sick.
"I'm saddened to hear of it," Lachlan said in a comforting tone. "When did you last see him?"
Dirk was ashamed to admit how many years it had been. "When I was fifteen summers."
A weighty silence filled the room. Dirk stared into the black coals of the hearth rather than his friends' curious eyes. He knew what they must be thinking. Why so long?
"Was there some sort of rift?" Rebbie asked.
"You could say that." His friends needed to know the whole truth. A truth Dirk hadn't spoken of for twelve years. It seemed like forever. He was closer to these two men than he was to anyone, even his own family. If he couldn't trust them, who could he trust?
He inhaled a deep breath and released it. "When I was a wee lad, my mother died giving birth to my sister. My father remarried a year or two later and had two more sons. My stepmother, Maighread Gordon, wanted her oldest son to inherit. So… she tried to kill me—or have me killed—more than once."
"'Slud!" Lachlan rasped, his amber-brown eyes darkening and his face turning into a warrior's mask. "When you were but a bairn?"
"Aye. The last time, when I was fifteen, a man attempted to push me off a cliff onto the rocks far below in the sea. My cousin, a good friend, was with me. He died but I, by some miracle, managed to land on a wee ledge about fifteen feet down. The next morn, my uncle came to my rescue. My father thinks I'm dead, as does the rest of the clan. The only people who know I still live are my uncle, aunt, and two cousins."
"Saints," Rebbie hissed. "What a witch. Is she still alive?"
"Last I heard. Anyway, my uncle told everyone I died and took me to live with my mother's clan in Strathspey. I went to university a couple of years later." That was where he'd met Lachlan and Rebbie. "I've kept my identity secret for the past twelve years."
"What is your true name?" Rebbie asked.
"You're not a MacLerie? Why did you not tell us?" Lachlan asked.
"My mother was a MacLerie. And… well, it was simply easier and safer that everyone think my name MacLerie. My uncle ordered me to tell no one, for my stepmother comes from a powerful clan with a far reach."
"I see. Your father holds a title and property, then?" Rebbie asked.
"Aye, but nothing so remarkable as yours. He's a baron and a chief. MacKay lands are vast but contain little arable land. The holdings include a keep called Castle Dunnakeil, a manor house about twenty miles away and several hundred clansmen scattered over MacKay Country along the north coast."
"'Tis impressive," Lachlan said. "You will one day inherit, then?"
Dirk shrugged. "'Tis my duty and responsibility to lead and guide the clan when my father is no longer able. He trained me for this from as far back as I remember."
One of his first memories was riding a large horse with his father. Dirk must have been three or four at the time. One day this will be yours, Da had said. When I'm gone, I want you to take care of the clan as if they are your children. Do you understand? Dirk recalled looking up into his father's proud and noble face, with his russet beard and blue eyes. Dirk had nodded, even though he truly didn't understand. But his father had known that someday Dirk would remember and know what he'd meant.
Now, he didn't even know whether he'd see his father again. His throat ached.
"Did you get on well?" Rebbie asked.
Dirk nodded. "As well as could be expected. But Da was smitten with Maighread. Back then, he thought her the most beautiful creature on earth. He didn't believe me when I told him she was trying to kill me. He accused me of having too vivid an imagination."
"How did you ken 'twas her?" Lachlan asked.
"She threatened me from the first time she laid eyes on me, and took great joy in slapping me every chance she got, when no one was looking. She was not careful in what she said to me because she thought no one would believe me. She was wrong. My uncle believed me even if Da did not."
"Bitch," Rebbie muttered.
Dirk nodded, a sense of urgency coming over him. "I'm thinking 'tis time for me to take my leave. But first, I want to thank you both for your friendship these last ten years. You've become like brothers to me."
"Och," Rebbie muttered. "You ken we feel the same way."
"Indeed, brother." Lachlan stepped forward for a handshake. "Have a care on your journey north. And I must thank you also for your help in clearing up the mess we had here at Draughon last month. I wouldn't have survived without you both."
Dirk nodded. "That's what friends do. Help each other."
"Which is why I'm going with you," Rebbie said, standing.
"I must warn you that the weather, especially in winter, in MacKay Country is harsher than anywhere we've been thus far."
"I'm well aware. I've traveled to Thurso before."
"And my murderous stepmother might be just as inclined to kill my friends as she is to kill me."
"Och. Let her try," Rebbie grumbled.
"Well then, you've been warned. We'll need some warmer clothing and some wool plaids."
"I have some excess ones," Lachlan offered. "And we have the thick, shaggy wool mantles we wore back from Kintalon. They'll work well in the snow and wind."
Dirk nodded. "I appreciate it."
"I wish I could go too, but Angelique is not feeling well."
"You must stay here and care for her and the clan." Dirk clapped him on the shoulder. He'd never seen Lachlan smitten before, but his wee wifey had tamed the wild Scot.
"Send me a missive to let me know how things go there. If you need me, let me know and I'll be on the first galley north."
Dirk nodded. "I thank you."
"I hope your father is alive and well when you arrive," Lachlan added as they proceeded into the corridor.
Dirk prayed his da had a miraculous turn of health. At just over two-score and ten, his father was not an elderly man and 'haps that would work in his favor. Dirk had always imagined returning to Durness one day and seeing the surprised look on Da's face. He hoped he still would.
Reviewers love this Highland adventure!
"I REALLY enjoyed My Brave Highlander. Lots of action and sensuality--Dirk is so intense and yet when he's near Isobel the heat crackles and his defenses fall. The scenery is vivid and magical. I felt like I was in the midst of the Highlands, the snow falling and melting on my cheeks. Beyond the sizzling sensual tension (which Ms. Sinclair is an expert at weaving!) the adventurous plot had me on the edge of my seat. And Dirk's enemy--HATED with a passion. Ms. Sinclair has the unique ability to pull an emotional response from her reader on every single page.
"Filled with romance, I had a constant smile to my face, I got chills, the whole nine yards! This might be my favorite of all three books in the Highland Adventure series. Well done, Ms. Sinclair--I highly recommend this book! And I can't wait to read the next one!"
Eliza Knight, History Undressed
"I loved MY BRAVE HIGHLANDER! An intriguing tale of Love, Loss, Betrayal and heart stopping romance! A story you definitely DON'T want to miss! You gotta love those Highlanders!"
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