Authors: April Holthaus
Heart of the Highlands
Protectors of the Crown Series:
Edited by: One More Time Editing, LLC
Published by: Grey Eagle Publishing, LLC
Cover Design by: Zak Kelleher
Printed in the United States
First Printing: July 2015
All rights reserved.
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Copyright © 2015 April Holthaus
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual events or persons are purely coincidental. No part of this publication is allowed to be reproduced without the author’s written permission.
To all of those who have helped me improve my writing. Your insight and advice has helped me become a better writer! And thank you to those who support me by helping me spread the word about my books!
To my husband for your love and support.
To my son…I do all of this for you so you can have a bright future!
Janet Greaves, what would I do without you? Thank you very much for all of your help and insight and for being such an awesome person and friend!
Denise Marie Stout Holcomb, thanks for being a part of the story and giving Keira her name!
One More Time Editing, thank you for all that you do! I am very glad to have you as part of my team!
Other books by the Author
About the Author
Heart of the Highlands: The Beast
Protectors of the Crown
This was not her mother’s gown. Keira looked at her reflection in the mirror one last time. Standing still as if she posed for a portrait, the image she saw was as distorted as if created out of broken fragments of glass. She imagined this wedding would be more of a public affair than the simple wedding she’d always dreamt about.
Instead of her mother’s white lace gown, she was draped in dark, red velvet with rich-colored gold trim and felt as if she were to be put on display like a trophy instead of a virgin bride. The waistline fit her snugly and the bodice had been laced so tight she could barely breathe. The skirt flared out like the wings of an eagle; so wide she wondered if she was even going to fit through the door. It was a dress fit for a queen, though she was nothing of the sort. On most days, she barely passed for a lady.
Keira was everything a daughter of a powerful chieftain should be. She was well educated, trained in the domestic arts, and quite popular among the eligible bachelors at court, but at heart, Keira cared little for the glamour and attention that went with her title. Keira’s father had spoken at great length about maintaining a certain appearance at court, but she knew that this dress was nothing more than a ruse to mask the truth about their clan. Keira desperately did not wish to play a part in his theatrical absurdity. She did not feel they belonged among the nobles as her father believed, but he refused to see reason.
After a series of poor investments and a midsummer drought, her clan was on the verge of poverty and at risk of losing everything. Due to her father’s questionable business decisions with several other Scottish Lairds, it was Keira who had to pay the price. Doubly cursed as the laird’s firstborn and the eldest of the laird’s five daughters she was the first to be wed.
If only her mother were still alive, Keira would never be forced into marriage. Especially to a man she had never met. Her parent’s marriage had a similar beginning. Arranged marriages were not uncommon. The only exception was that her father had known and loved her mother very much, even before their marriage was arranged, while her mother had despised her father as long as she’d known him. Was that Keira’s fate as well, to walk in her mother’s footsteps to end up miserable and unhappy with an unfaithful husband? Even the advice from her father’s countless mistresses about the joys a marriage could bring did not calm her nerves.
Keira only learned of her father’s desire for her to marry less than a week ago. The news came when the tax collector last visited the castle. Her father had not collected enough coin to pay the monthly tax and after much deliberation, they settled on a marriage contract to make up for the loss by finding a wealthy benefactor. Keira’s father, Magnus Sinclair, told her that if it were not for the King’s good grace they would have had to surrender more land, and they only had a meager few hundred acres as it was. She felt it was unfair to be a pawn in her father’s political game, but what other choice did she have? It was her lot in life to be ultimately ruled by her father.
Keira was well aware of her father’s wishes, and the import of an alliance between her clan and another. Her father did, however, allow her to choose between three respectable suitors who’d decided to pursue her hand in marriage: Abraham, Ennis, and Thomas.
Abraham, Chief of Clan Gunn, was older than her father. He was a widower with two wives already in the ground. His clan was directly to the south and only a short ride from Castle Sinclair, but his promiscuous lifestyle was far beyond what Keira felt would make a suitable husband.
The second man was Ennis, the son of the Earl of Strathaven. He was a younger man of only fifteen summers. Keira did not find much comfort in the idea of marrying a man who was more than three years her junior, not to mention no one could understand him. The heir to Strathaven spoke with a horrible stutter.
The third, and in her opinion, the best choice of her three options, was Laird Thomas Chisholm. Thomas was well-respected by her father. He was a man of means and wealth, and according to her younger sister Alys, who had seen him once at court, he was a handsome man. Keira had never laid eyes on him herself. She knew nothing of him, except for the stories her father told her of their times together on the battlefield.
Keira chose Laird Chisholm, frankly based on the simple fact that he was the only one not in need of an heir. He had several children from his previous marriage, as well as a good handful of illegitimate ones scattered throughout the Highlands. Surely, a man with eight bairns already was not in need of another.
It was not that Keira did not wish to bear a child of her own; she had a secret fear that she would suffer her mother’s fate and die a terrible death during childbirth. Had she her own way, she would have given her life to God and to the church. The life of a nun seemed far more appealing than that of a wife.
Keira stood, gazing at herself in the mirror. From this moment on, the life she had always known would forever change and she would no longer be Keira Sinclair. Amazing how a name could be so important. It was as if she were losing a part of herself.
A familiar sadness bloomed in her heart as a single tear fell to the floor. Wiping her tears away with the back of her hand, she thought that even though she would have preferred not to wed, she would not have wished this fate on any of her sisters, either. As the oldest, this duty fell on her. She prayed her father would allow her sisters to have the opportunity to find their own husbands, though the chances of that were as slim as a strand of hair.
Raising her head high, she fought back her tears. At nineteen, she was nearly a spinster, and according to her father, it was time for her to wed.
If she were to survive her misfortune, she had to be her mother’s daughter. Before her untimely death in delivering her youngest daughter Abby, Catriona was a brave and noble woman. She was the strongest woman Keira had ever known. Catriona never backed down from a fight or an argument and she never allowed people to question her morals. The daughter of a powerful chief, she helped lead Clan Sinclair to great victory, though Keira’s father would deny every word of it. After Catriona’s death, Keira’s father had led their clan into a whirlwind of debt and turmoil.
Since Keira was the oldest, she had helped her father raise her four younger sisters. To keep their mother’s memory alive, Keira often regaled her sisters with stories of their mother so that they would never forget her. Keira, however, was already starting to forget. She had forgotten the exact brown of her hair and couldn’t remember if the blue in her eyes matched the sky after an afternoon rain or the mist that lingered over the ocean before dawn. She had even forgotten her smell, a mixture of sweet primrose and rosemary.
Keira turned from the mirror when she heard commotion outside the chamber door. She shuffled toward it, picking up the long train that dragged on the floor behind her, thinking it felt as if bricks had been sewn into the hem. Turning the handle slowly, and thankful for the well-oiled hinges, she poked her head out and peeked down the long hall. The light was dim as only two of four sconces were lit.
As she turned her head to look in the other direction, she saw her father silently follow a man into the room right next to hers and close the door.
With the hall empty, she scurried out of the room, but rather than rushing down the hall as she’d intended, she stopped at the door through which her father had just passed. She put her ear against it, curious about with whom he spoke.
The thick hardwood made it next to impossible to hear the muffled voices rumbling behind it. Keira pressed her ear against the door to block out the noises that echoed within the corridor. Straining to listen, all she heard from within the room was the rise and fall of her father’s booming voice. Silently making the sign of the cross, she prayed her fortune had changed.
“Keira, what are ye doing?” her sister, Alys whispered as she crouched down by the door next to Keira.
Startled by Alys’s unexpected presence, Keira bumped the door with the side of her head and froze with fear that her father would open the door and see both her and her sister pressed up against it. When several moments passed and the door remained closed, Keira hushed her sister with a wave of her hand. After several more minutes, Keira righted herself and stepped back from the door, keeping her eyes on the dark wood planks and the iron handle, even when Alys spoke.
“What has gotten into ye? Sneakin’ about and eavesdropping like a wee ferret. Tis no’ like ye to behave in such a manner.”
Not that Keira needed reminding. A well-bred lady simply did not snoop about. But she could not help her curiosity. Not when it was her fate being decided just beyond that door.
“I saw our father walk into this room wit’ another mon. I wondered if it was my betrothed. But I cannae hear through this wretched door.”
“Of course ye can no’ hear through it! Trust me, I have already tried! Besides, that is no’ yer betrothed in there wit’ Father. Tis one of Inverness’s guards.”
Keira looked over her shoulder at her
sister. They had only taken residence at Inverness Castle for the past two days and somehow Alys knew more about this place than the keep’s maids, as if she had been there for years. No doubt she acquired her knowledge from some guard she has already swooned over. Next in line to wed, it should have been Alys in this costume of a dress and not Keira. Alys was the outgoing one who was eager to find a husband and start a family; too eager, in Keira’s opinion.
“And how do ye know that?”
“Patrick! I met him this morning in the stables. I think I am in love.”
“Ye always think ye are in love!” Keira replied, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling.
Alys’s smile was painted on her face. It was nice to see the lass happy in love; or in lust rather. Love for Keira was something of a myth. The matter of love was best suited for tall tales and children’s stories; for it was out of duty and honor that she’d agreed to the bloody union with Chisholm in the first place. Love had nothing to do with it. She only prayed that their father would hear out her sisters’ wishes when it came time for them to wed.
At the sound of the metal door handle turning, both Keira and Alys bolted upright and ran down the hall. As they neared the end of the corridor, they waited as their father and the man that he spoke with exited the room.
Keira could see her father but the man stood in the shadows with his back to her. She could hear they were still speaking in hushed tones, but could not make out the words. Her father nodded his head. His thin lips, pressed tightly together, looked as if they held back his words. Clearly, he was angry. The unknown man continued heading toward the stairs; Keira never got a good look at him.
Signs of distress, anger and frustration could be seen on her father’s face as if the emotions themselves were written by some unseen hand on his forehead. Keira let out a deep sigh. Pulling the tight collar of her dress away from her neck, she loosened its choke hold on her neck. The collar was trimmed with lace and was as itchy as the hemp of a hangman’s noose against her innocent skin. It was just one more reason why she hated having to wear the ridiculous thing.
Together, the two girls stepped out of the shadows of the hallway and toward their father. Cursed with no sons, he had little choice but to marry off his five daughters in order for their clan to thrive. Keira had not taken into account the burden he must feel at having to agree to this union, especially to a man with suspicious motives and a questionable family lineage.
Their father let out a short, deep breath through his nose making his nostrils flare. Keira imagined that if he had been a dragon, he would have burned the entire castle down in just one breath.
“What are ye two up to?” her father asked, his deep voice echoing in the hallway.
“Nothing Father,” Keira submissively replied.
“Well then, finish getting ready. Ye are to leave within the hour,” he advised her.
“Leave? Am I no’ to marry?” she asked, feeling a bit of relief.
“Laird Chisholm has requested yer presence at Erchless Castle. He has been unexpectedly detained so he has sent two of his men to escort ye.”
“Just me? Will ye no’ be attending?”
“Ye are yer betrothed’s responsibility now. I have other matters that need my immediate attention. I do no’ have the time to travel all the way there and back.”
Though Keira did not share as close a relationship with her father as she had with her mother, her heart twisted. Forcing her to wed was one thing, but forcing her to marry without her family was entirely different. A woman’s wedding day was supposed to be a celebrated union and now it was as if it were just a union of convenience. She would even be denied the pleasure of her wedding feast and the brief revelry before her life sentence with a man she neither knew nor loved began. Hot tears filled her eyes.
“What of my sisters? Will they be allowed to come?”
“Ye will see them in time. Now say yer goodbyes. Alys come,” her father ordered as he coldly walked away.
Keira hugged Alys tightly, not wanting to let go. She felt the trembling of her hands travel to her other limbs.
“Dinna be afraid, sister. I’ve heard good things of Laird Chisholm. He will be a good mon and a good husband to ye,” Alys said, trying to reassure her.