The Protector ( Highland Brides , Book 1 )E-Book Published by Escape Publishing (Harlequin Enterprises Australia
Released: 08/12/2015 (ISBN: 9780857992895)
Allison Butler kicks off a brand new Scottish historical series with brave lowland warriors, spirited highland brides, and what exactly goes on underneath those kilts. The Scottish Highlands meet The Bachelorette in this new historical romance.
Heiress of clan Gordon, Mairi has been given a gift: the choice of her husband. Her father has found three worthy suitors and each is coming to the Keep. She will spend time with every man and make her decision. But love is not a luxury Mairi allows herself: she is driven by duty, driven by the memory of the failure eleven years earlier that cost her father everything. She will choose a worthy husband, one who will serve the clan wisely, and take nothing for herself especially not the dark-haired stranger tasked with her protection while she makes her decision.
Lowlander Duff may not know his origins, but he knows how to wield his sword. Granted one years leave from his duties to the Elliot Clan, Duff travels to the Highlands in search of his past. Instead he finds an arrogant beauty in need of rescue. Impressing her father, the head of clan Gordon, he is named her temporary protector and must keep her safe as she is courted by three potential husbands. What Duff doesnt expect is the low hum of jealousy and the rising wave of attraction that makes protecting Mairi easy, but keeping his distance impossible.
A must read book that is full of seduction, change and acceptance. If youre looking for a highland adventure this has it all a sexy Scot, a woman who needs to be taken seriously and a family who thinks they know best - Goodreads reviewer
It was time to go.
Duff drew his horse, Duncan, to a halt at the top of the highland mountain and stared out over the sprawling valley beyond. It was time to leave all hope of discovering who he was behind.
The unfamiliar taste of failure soured his tongue. He never failed. Ever. Why then had he failed in this one thing, the only thing he ever really wanted?
He swallowed, hard. Morning sunlight splashed the mountain faces to the west, while clumps of oak trees formed small woods dotting the valleys shadowed floor. Duff tipped his head back and watched an eagle soaring high in the blue of a cloud-scattered sky, searching for food amongst the brush below.
Duncan tensed beneath him. Duff lowered his chin in time to see his horse turn his head to the right. Brown ears flickered and then pricked forward. A slight movement halfway down the slope caught Duffs eye.
They werent the only souls on this particular mountain.
Six men huddled in a cluster of alders. Each man sat a horse and carried a sword. Three also carried a dagger. Dirt smeared the colours of their plaids but not enough to hide the fact that none were the same. Frayed cuffs, one too long, two far too short in length for the arms they were meant to cover. All six wore leather vests, but three were drawn too taut across shoulders and back.
Their ill-fitting attire defined the type of men these were, more so than if Duff had shared a meal, a cup and a blether while breaking his fast with them this morn. Everything about them declared they were up to no good. Much like the hungry eagle stalking its prey, the groups attention was fixed solely on something at the base of the mountain.
Duff peered down, his gaze settling on four riders heading away from the rising sun. They rode two abreast, and despite the distance and shadows, their bearing and formation screamed their high station. And their caution.
This is not your concern.
True. His year of leave was drawing to an end. It was time to head south. Away from this glen, from the Highlands. The place in his chest where his heart should be felt hollow, empty. He squared his shoulders. Hed survived twenty-six years being an orphan, without a family name, hed survive another twenty-six years and more.
His gaze brushed the mercenaries and then the travellers below. Six against four was hardly fair. The fingers of his sword arm twitched, demanding justice where it could be found. Hed discover nothing more of his origins, but here, now
Soon. First hed even the odds.
He scanned the lay of the land. The path the small group travelled ended at a sharp rise in the valley floor. The peak formed the lowest part of the pine-dotted ridge to his right. A good place to strike from behind.
Hooves ed off the hard-packed ground as the riders passed directly below. There wasnt much time before they reached the rise.
The band of mercenaries grew restless, then suddenly spilled down the side of the mountain. They announced their presence with a combined roar. The four unsuspecting men wheeled their mounts about.
Duff reached behind him and wrapped his fingers about the trusted hilt of his sword. He drew the blade from its sheath at his back. His blood quickened. He inhaled slowly. The calming breath slowed his heartbeat.
He settled his weapon across his thighs and tightened the leather reins about his free hand. Then leaning back, gripping his mounts flanks with his knees, he rode over the edge of the mountain.
He passed the halfway mark down, but still no one below registered his presence. Like a shepherd watching over his flock, Duff kept a close eye on the four travellers. The rebels drew their blades, theyd almost reached their targets. The travellers drew their weapons in preparation for the fight to come. Duff lifted his sword skyward and filling his lungs with fresh, Highland air, cried the Elliot call loud enough to be heard in the Borders.
A score of startled eyes turned his way. The thrill of the pending battle momentarily masked Duffs disappointment at failing to discover his origins. At least he never lost a swordfight.
One of the rebels broke away from the rest and headed toward him. Duff assumed a battle-fierce scowl, briefly pitying the fool for believing he could best him on his own.
Duff dropped the reins, pulled the dagger from his waistband with his left hand whilst brandishing his sword in his right. His attacker charged, his blood-hungry gaze fixed on Duffs long swinging blade rather than watching Duffs eyes.
Their mounts galloped closer. Duff swung his sword in a sideways motion, the sharp edge positioned to slash his opponents belly. A purely distractive move. The mercenarys weapon angled to block the impending blow.
Blades clashed. Taking advantage of his purposeful distraction, Duff stretched his left arm across his mounts neck, and with a flick of his wrist slashed open the rebels upper arm with his dagger.
A deafening scream rang out, then faded as his victims horse bolted. The rebel would survive his wound, but would no longer play a role in this days attack.
Duff turned his attention to the battle unfolding before him.
Both mercenaries and their prey had collided, the clang of steel against steel stole the innocence from the new day. Three from each group fought one on one, the remaining two rebels had singled out the eldest of the travellers.
Anger rushed through Duffs veins. It took two of them to tackle a man twice their age. The scene reminded him of when five older lads had set upon a young orphan named Callum. Rage filled Duff now as it had back then, moments before hed plunged into the group of bullies and sent them home whimpering.
He spurred his mount forward. One of the curs turned to greet him, his sword slicing a path through the air in perfect alignment with Duffs throat. With a mighty swing of his blade, Duff knocked the offending weapon aside and quickly followed through with a thrust that earned a painful grunt from the man who now sported a gash in one thigh. This rebel too would live, if the wound was treated immediately.
Duff turned and matched the fierce glare cast at him by the second cur. Unkempt black hair hung in clumps to his shoulders, and his mouth formed a feral snarl through the thick stubble covering his jaw. Without taking his eyes from Duff, he called, Away, to the rest of his mercenary band.
They gathered together and rode toward the slope to the right. Duffs first victim joined the others, his injured arm dripping his lifes blood into the soil.
The sound of laboured breathing grew louder as the travellers approached Duff, but he continued to watch the thieves retreat. Hed not look away until they disappeared from his sight. Not when hed glimpsed hatred blazing in the eyes of their leader. The battle had been short, Duffs part small, but hed gained a lifelong enemy for his interference.
Pity he wouldnt be in the area long enough to test his skills against the cowardly filth.
The rebels reached the start of the incline. Two mounted figures from the opposite direction suddenly topped the rise at a swift pace. Horses screamed in protest as their surprised masters pulled them up fast.
The thickset rider to the left managed to control his horse. The tall, slim, cloaked figure didnt fare so well. The glossy black beast reared, its front hooves flailing wildly. The hood fell from the riders head, revealing a long plait of golden hair.
Mairi Gordon pulled hard on the reins and then choked off a gasp as her startled horse reared for a second time. She twined the leathers about her hands, cutting off the flow of blood to her fingertips.
Even in the midst of danger, with her blood flowing faster than a Highland waterfall, she had to remain in control.
Down, she ordered, throwing her weight forward along her mounts neck.
Waves of the black mane slapped her cheeks. The thud of front hooves colliding back on solid ground couldnt drown out the battle cries filling the glen.
She straightened in her saddle and assessed the mounted men in the shallow valley. Six were positioned halfway up the incline and were heading towards her. She didnt need to see their ragged clothes or their fierce expressions to know they posed the most danger.
A dark-haired man was riding toward them from the rear. Her gaze skimmed the four riders further back and a head of thick, white hair snared her attention.
A shard of fear pierced the cast-iron barrier shed built around her heart. A long-ago memory of blood and helpless sorrow flashed through her mind. Her worst nightmare. All over again.
She blinked it away. Shed come to welcome her father home from delivering his invitation to her third and final suitor. She refused to lose her father, too. But how best to help him?
Shed left her weapon of choice at home, if being forced to choose could be deemed a choice at all. Without her bow, her options were limited. She could ride into the melee
Before the idea had fully formed, a familiar figure secured her reins. Through the haze of her fiery determination and the feeling of helplessness, her personal guards beloved face swam into view. Worry deepened the lines already marking Balfours kind face.
Your father is able to care for himself, he yelled. He would expect you to think of your own safety. Break and ride for Gordon. Ill come to you when I can.
Mairis restless mount jerked its head, threatening to pull her arms from their moorings.
I cant leave him, Balfour.
You must. Your father would want it so. Go now while you can. He released her reins. Ill see to the laird.
Father. How best to aid him?
Stay or ride for help?
Another mighty roar sounded. She turned from Balfour. Her heart froze.
A fair-haired man broke free from the closest group and rode toward her, closely followed by the dark-haired man whod ridden from the rear. He leaned low over his mounts thick neck, his attention seemingly fixed on her. Despite her fear, another idea formed. To give her father a better chance of survival, she could draw these two away, outride them and then go for help.
Mairi looked at her personal guard, Be safe, Balfour. She turned her horse. Ill see you at Gordon. Her mount shot forward into full stride.
The winds cool fingers whipped her face and slipped through the opening of her cloak. Refreshing. Awakening. Her horse galloped across the sparsely wooded valley floor, heading toward the distant rim. Once over the rise, Gordon lands sprawled in every direction, far beyond what the eye could see.
She glanced over her shoulder. Two riders followed. Two less for her father and his men to fight. Satisfaction slid through her. If they thought to capture her to ransom later, shed have to disappoint them. Shed been riding these hills since she was a small child and knew all the secret paths and inhospitable valleys. Theyd never catch her, but shed lead them a merry chase.
The rim was in sight. Only she knew of the path to the left. A path that led into the next glens rambling wood and to safety.
She would make it.
She threw another glance over her shoulder. And stiffened.
The fair-haired rebel had drawn nearer to her. The dark-headed man rode not far behind him, sword in hand. She turned from the sight of the blade.
She could make it.
Doubt prickled low in her belly. What if she didnt? And why did the dark-haired rebel seem more dangerous to her when the other man was closer? There was something about the grim cast of his features that spoke of an unrelenting determination.
He is just a man.
She drew a calming breath.
She had to make it. For her father. For her clan.
She turned back for another look. Hed gained ground. On her other pursuer and on her. She spared the fair-haired rider a glance and turned to the front.
oments later, the clash of steel rang in her ears. She twisted about in her saddle and found her pursuers attacking one another. Were they both so desperate to catch her that they were willing to cut down one of their own?
Mairis stomach lurched. She faced forward, silently begging her mount to run faster. This time, she wasnt a child. This time, there was no one to protect her. It was up to her. She needed to make good her own escape and outride these strangers.
A pained cry split the air. She didnt look behind, didnt need to see that only one man now followed. Didnt need to look behind to know the determined, inky-haired barbarian had triumphed. She just knew.
She had to make it to the rim. Ride over it. Lose herself in the dense wood where her pursuers larger size would make it difficult to follow her into the thick greenery.
Her heart pounded in time with her horses urgent stride. Nearly there. Almost
Thundering hooves approached. She pulled the reins hard to the right, veering away from her pursuer, and her escape route. But it made no difference. Her actions proved useless. No matter what she did he was always there, with her, closer.
Her hearts reckless beat thudded in her ears, battered her temples.
The ridge loomed closer. Not far now. A tug about her throat made her gasp. The rebel had caught the trailing end of her cloak. Her chest tightened.
With a swift pull she loosened the ties about her neck and the garment slid free of her body.
She heard his deep-voiced command. Shed escaped his hold, but not the man. Did he expect her to stop because he asked her to? Was he mad?
he cast a quick look his way. Glimpsed his full, shapely mouth. Saw the dark stubble crowding his granite-hard jaw. Was close enough to look deeply into his thick-lashed brown eyes. Deepest, darkest brown.
I wish you nae harm.
His shout brought her to her senses.
Then leave me
Her horse stumbled. She faced forward. No, not now. Dont slow. She must never give
A strong arm snaked about her waist. Mairi lost her breath. Her shocked gaze dropped and caught sight of a tanned forearm a moment before she was plucked right out of her saddle.