1684, Scottish Highlands
It’s become abundantly clear to Scarlet Worthington that England no longer can offer her anything good. With few other options, she flees to the wilds of Scotland to help her sister, who has created a place where women learn to protect themselves. There is something special about the Highlands. It could be the lush rolling hills, the clean air, the feeling of doing something good… or maybe it’s the fierce Campbell warrior she’s recruited to help.
Aiden Campbell has spent months recovering from burns he sustained in a fire set by English soldiers. Finally, he’s healed enough to take temporary command of his clan. Between the fire and his own ghosts, there is no love lost between him and the English. So why does he say yes when the new Englishwoman in town asks for his help? And why does she have the power to distract him so much?
When Scarlet’s past stalks her all the way to Scotland, her nightmares become real and the things Aiden has taught her are put to the test. And as Aiden fights the heat of passion that grows between them, a different kind of wildfire threatens everything.
Each book in The Campbells series is STANDALONE:
* The Scottish Rogue
* The Savage Highlander
* The Wicked Viscount
* The Highland Outlaw
About the Author
Heather McCollum is an award winning, historical paranormal romance writer. She earned her B.A. in Biology, much to her English professor’s dismay. She’s a member of Romance Writers of America and the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood of 2009 Golden Heart finalists.
When she is not creating vibrant characters and magical adventures on the page, she is roaring her own battle cry in the war against ovarian cancer. Ms. McCollum recently slayed the cancer beast and resides with her very own hero&3 kids in the wilds of suburbia on the mid-Atlantic coast. For more about Ms. McCollum, please visit www.HeatherMcCollum.com.
Read an Excerpt
Finlarig Castle, Killin, Scotland
Scarlet Worthington lifted a crimson-colored piece of broken china from the pile in the basket. The thin red edge was chipped and jagged, reminding her of broken teeth. "I suppose I will just throw the pieces away," she said to her sister, Evelyn.
Evelyn tsked, staring down into the basket of collected remnants. "They were beautiful tea bowls and fine pottery and plates before Lieutenant Burdock destroyed them when setting the castle on fire. I can't stand to throw them away."
It had been months since Scarlet and Evelyn had journeyed to Scotland to start Evelyn's Highland Roses School for ladies. After the initial battle for ownership, Evelyn and Grey Campbell, the chief of the Campbells of Breadalbane, had wed, uniting the chiefdom with the school.
Scarlet held the piece up to the light that filtered through the glassed windows along the upper walls of the great hall. The entire great hall and part of the second floor had been scorched. Although all the tapestries had burned, leaving discolored walls, Evelyn, Grey, and the Highland Roses School students and instructors had replaced the furniture and scrubbed the soot away.
Scarlet picked up another piece of red china. Turning it in several directions, she tried to hold it against the first shard, but they didn't fit. "Once shattered, the pieces are useless." Was it the same with people? She exhaled, tamping down the self-pity. She despised the gnawing ache of it. "I will be rid of them while you are gone."
Evelyn touched her arm, ducking her gaze to catch Scarlet's. "Broken things can be put back together."
Scarlet gave her a weak smile and shook her head. "Some things can't be fixed." She turned out of her sister's grasp to toss the pieces back into the basket. They clanked against the other remains of china and pottery, their colors mixed into a pile of brokenness.
"Scar," Evelyn said, obviously not willing to drop the subject. "Everyone is shattered in some way." Scarlet glanced toward her. "But," Evelyn said, "if we pick the pieces up and dust them off, we can make them into something even more beautiful." Evelyn nodded with encouragement. "You're the artist, Scar. I'm sure you can create something lovely if you try."
Were they still talking about the fractured tea bowls and plates? Of course not.
The door of the keep opened, letting in a shot of winter air. "The coach is ready," Molly, their maid from England, said, hustling in to grab a wool blanket. "You'd best take this to keep warm," she said. "The pixies in the hills are liable to trick you into rolling about in the snow, freezing you into an icicle." Molly nodded, her eyes wide.
"There is no snow," Evelyn said, knowing better than to argue with the slender woman's strange ideas.
"It will come," she said with resolute confidence. "Mark my words."
"It is nearly December," Scarlet said. "And those pixies are tricky." She smiled at Evelyn, who took her arm.
Evelyn leaned close to Scarlet. "I will be plenty warm." She lifted the edge of her skirt to show the trousers that one of their students, Kirstin, had made for her last spring. "Between these and Grey, cold will not be a concern."
Scarlet smiled, letting loose a small chuckle. "If you can keep them on you with that vigorous husband nearby."
Evelyn joined in the quiet laughter. They walked through the dark entryway, stepping out under heavy clouds. "Are you certain you are fine with me leaving for London with Grey and Nathaniel? If King Charles hadn't sent word that he was coming to see the heads of the traitors, I wouldn't think of traveling back to England."
She glanced at the carriage where two bound lumps sat anchored to the roof. "As it is, the thought of riding with two severed, decaying heads tied to the carriage makes me shiver. I would much rather remain here, but I don't trust Grey to not get himself killed or arrested while trying to clear his parents' names with the king."
Scarlet looked at the stone facade of the massive castle, hiding the unease in her middle behind a practiced smile. "I will be perfectly fine and busy. I will keep up the lessons with Alana's help — and welcome the onslaught of female students who will surely come knocking at the gate any day now."
Evelyn quirked her smile into a wry grin. "We have two students now, besides Alana, Kirstin, and Isabel. And I'm this close" — she held up her gloved fingers, pinched close together — "to getting Cat to come for formal lessons." Cat was Isabel's older sister, who lived alone in the forest, an angry, completely freckled redhead who was the only experienced healer around Loch Tay.
Scarlet nodded. "I will welcome any that come before you return. Especially if they have money to pay."
"We will teach them without funds."
"Certainly, but to buy supplies for the students, eventually we will need coin," Scarlet said, patting Evelyn's arm. "But I will welcome and teach all the uneducated ladies in the land while you are away."
Their brother, Nathaniel Worthington, walked up, catching the last of their conversation. "If any sheep wander by, welcome them, too." He had plans to graze sheep on the fertile land around Finlarig, since the wool trade was becoming a highly profitable business.
"Yes, brother," Scarlet said, smiling as he bent to kiss her cheek, his dark hair matching her own. "I'll round up any stray sheep walking about." He smiled widely, gave a nod, and walked back to the coach where Evelyn's husband stood.
"That would mean you will step beyond the walls of the castle?" Evelyn asked, her voice low as she searched Scarlet's eyes.
It was true that Scarlet hadn't left the grounds except for an occasional festival in the meadow where she was surrounded by people. Instead of riding daily, as she had growing up in England, Scarlet had busied herself in the garden by the kitchen. "I might,"
Scarlet said without adding that it was unlikely. "Though I prefer to stretch my legs inside."
"Pish," Evelyn said, sliding her arm through hers. "You used to ride every day, roaming the lands around Hollings Estate."
Scarlet slid her gaze to the thick stone walls that gave her a tangible sign that she was safe. "I'm not accustomed to the wilds here."
Evelyn sighed but didn't ask her usual questions. What happened the night of the St. Valentine's Ball? Did I hear you crying during the night? Was it another nightmare? Why do you watch the gate like you're afraid someone sinister will show up?
Scarlet pulled her sister close, appreciating Evelyn's silence. They walked toward the carriage that had carried them to Finlarig last spring. Just approaching it made Scarlet's stomach tighten, remembering their hasty escape from England. "I don't like you going back down there," she said to Evelyn, her words low. "Especially to court. There are dangers everywhere, Evie."
Evelyn squeezed back. "I think Grey is as determined to keep me safe as I am to keep him alive. And Nathaniel will be there. Charles is bound to be pleased that we've foiled the assassination plans and brought him a gift of two heads." She snorted, but then her gaze grew serious as she lowered her voice. "If I see Harry Covington —"
"Say nothing of me," Scarlet cut in, the man's name kicking her pulse high.
"He will ask where you are, though he likely knows by now."
Scarlet clasped her hands before her. "He means nothing to me, Evie. If he asks, say I am happy and well, with no plans to return."
Evelyn nodded, and Scarlet exhaled, shaking off the taint of Harry's name. "You must be back by Christmas Day," Scarlet said, watching a flock of chickens pecking the ground. It seemed the coop was overflowing with hens. "We will have a grand celebration."
"The Scots don't celebrate Christmas, Scar," Evelyn said.
Scarlet frowned, pinching her lips. "Well, I do."
"The country is very Protestant, and most view Christmas as a Catholic celebration or a pagan one. We can exchange gifts like they do on the eve of the new year, on Hogmanay."
Scarlet frowned. "Hmph."
"We don't want to offend anyone," Evelyn said.
Scarlet's gaze slid to the open portcullis as a white horse trotted into the bailey, a tall Highlander sitting proudly on its back. "Some offending can be good for people," she said, watching the most offensive Highlander that she'd met since they'd arrived in Scotland. "Jostle them out of their ill humor."
"Scarlet," Evelyn said in warning, but Scarlet was too busy observing Aiden Campbell dismount, his long, powerful legs taking his weight easily as he jumped down. He stroked a strong hand along the horse's neck and tossed the reins to a stable boy who had just led Grey's dappled horse out.
Aiden held his usual frown and stared straight ahead as he strode toward them, making his handsome face look as if it were chiseled from the granite boulders that poked up through the grasses across this wild country. His hair, the rich color of wheat in the sun, was sheared short, growing out from being burned away in the castle fire seven months ago. Evelyn said the man would always carry the burn scars across his back and shoulders, but Scarlet hadn't seen them.
Aiden walked with power evident in each stride. He wore an undyed shirt, tied at the neck, and a blue and green plaid kilt with black leather boots. A scabbard held his long sword, strapped to his side. It moved with him as if it were part of his body. Even though he'd nearly died in the fire, it was obvious that he'd recovered his strength.
Scarlet's heart thumped a little faster, a simple awareness of a rugged, powerful man. She'd felt this awareness before as a naive fool, months ago in the gilt ballroom at the court at Whitehall Palace in London. Fear followed the memory up her throat, making Scarlet cough into her gloved fist.
Evelyn frowned at her, but Scarlet waved off her unspoken concern. "Some dust," she said, and pulled the mask of wry happiness across her features. One could hide almost anything behind flippant comments and a coquettish smile. Scarlet forced a small laugh and cleared her throat. "A price one pays for roaming the yard with chickens." Her gaze wandered back to the large Scotsman.
Aiden stopped before his chief's horse and pulled a small apple from his pocket. Rubbing the horse's muzzle, he let the animal lip the treat from his palm, ran a hand down the stallion's neck, and turned to Grey and Nathaniel. Scarlet couldn't pull her gaze away when she saw the relaxed grin on Aiden's lips.
She leaned close to whisper into Evelyn's ear. "I'm fairly certain I've never seen surly Aiden Campbell smile."
Evelyn hid a chuckle in her gloved hand. "He's smiled at his sister, Rebecca, and of course, Grey. But you are correct. He's made it quite clear he despises the English, which unfortunately includes us. Luckily, Rebecca doesn't seem to be as stubborn in her view of us."
The wind whipped about the bailey, whistling as it shot through the arrow slits high up along the roof walkway of the four-story castle. Scarlet shivered, pulling her shawl tighter around her arms. The freezing temperatures were a good distraction from the foolish warmth the man elicited in her on the few occasions she'd spotted him.
"Good Lord, it is cold," Evelyn said. "Scar, you should open my Hogmanay gift now to keep you warm. It's in the trunk at the end of Grey's bed in our room, under my smocks. It's bound by a ribbon."
"I will if needed." Scarlet gave her sister one more hug.
Evelyn pulled back. "And when I return, we will figure out a way to celebrate all the holidays without offending the good people of Killin."
Scarlet let out a small laugh. "Very well, but unless I keep to my bedchamber, I'm sure to offend people before you return. Another reason I should stay within the walls of Finlarig." They walked toward the carriage. Scarlet breathed through her parted lips even though Nathaniel had said the severed heads of Philip Sotheby and Captain Cross were frozen solid and free of the stench of death.
The three men stood close together, the white fog from their breaths making clouds as they spoke. "Ye will live here at Finlarig then? Rule in my stead?" Grey asked Aiden.
Scarlet's gaze snapped to Grey and then to the frowning Highlander. Aiden? Living at Finlarig? With her? Her heart thumped hard, but she smiled past it. After all, Aiden hadn't shown any interest in her.
"Aye. I'll defend the seat of our clan," Aiden answered, looking at Grey. "From all the bloody English."
Nathaniel frowned, his lips tight. "Now that Captain Cross is dead, and Ensign Morris has been made the lieutenant at the English encampment north of Finlarig, you shouldn't have to worry about the English invading Finlarig," Nathaniel said in his clipped British accent.
Scarlet watched Aiden's jaw harden as if he clenched his teeth. He held Nathaniel's gaze with sharp conviction. "I will always be on guard against English invading Finlarig," he said, his gaze slipping briefly to Scarlet before going to Grey.
God's teeth. The man still despised them for taking Finlarig Castle, even if Nathaniel gave it back to Grey when he and Evelyn wed. Of course, Aiden had been recovering through the whole battle between them and the traitorous English commander who'd planned to use Finlarig as a place to assassinate King Charles. But surely Grey had explained it to his friend.
Despite being English, the Worthington family had done nothing to jeopardize or thieve away the Campbell stronghold. Evelyn would continue the Highland Roses School for ladies at Finlarig, but the castle was still the seat of the Campbells of Breadalbane parish and the village of Killin.
"I will keep the castle ready for war," Aiden said to Grey.
"Lord," Scarlet said, glancing at Evelyn. "It will be all parties and frivolity with Aiden Campbell in charge of defense."
Evelyn let a small chuckle slip before curling her lips inward to suppress more. Grey pulled Evelyn into his side. "Let us go then," Grey said. "The quicker we give Charles his traitors and explain my parents' innocence, the quicker we return." Grey leaned in to kiss Evelyn on the mouth, the heat between them evident despite the months of wedded play.
"I will ride your horse, Campbell," Nathaniel said with one raised brow. "I have no desire to be enclosed with the two of you in the carriage."
"Nat," Evelyn said.
Grey produced a wicked grin, making Evelyn swat at his arm before he guided her to the carriage. He whispered something in her ear that made her smile up at him, the look on her face full of unabashed love. Scarlet had never been a jealous creature, but watching her sister and brother-in-law tugged at the annoying pocket of self-pity Scarlet tried not to notice within herself.
She would miss her sister, but it would be nice not to have to announce herself about the castle to avoid walking into the kitchen or pantry or library to find them loving each other with passionate abandon. Even the noises the two made could inflame one's body, which was something Scarlet had sworn never to let happen to her again. Maybe she should revisit the idea of joining a cloister. No men, no passion, and no leaving the grounds. It certainly had its merits.
The carriage rolled out under the raised teeth of the gate. Nathaniel gave her one last tip of his head. Next to her, Aiden raised his arm to Hamish in the gate tower. The portcullis began to lower, the chains rattling as they released the iron bars to bite into the dirt below.
Aiden stood next to her like an unmovable mountain. Had she ever been this close to the ornery Highlander? He'd been healing for months, but even when he was visiting Grey at the castle, he'd leave when she'd enter the room. "You are ordering the gates shut?" she asked.
"Aye." His brief answer was punctuated with a pivot on his heel to walk toward the keep. He nodded to the boy, who walked his horse toward the stables.
She grabbed her skirt to follow quickly. "During the daytime?"
"Aye," he said, continuing on.
"I have students coming." She hurried, cutting through a cluster of chickens and making them squawk and dance about with their wings extended. Where had all these chickens come from, anyway?
"Aye," he answered a third time.
"God's teeth, Aiden Campbell. If you persist in giving one-word answers, make them informative words."
He spoke without looking back, his strides long and sure. "'Tis a precaution. Neighboring clans and the English north of us will have heard that the chief was leaving this morn."
Scarlet tried to keep up with the blasted man. "Stop running away from me."
Aiden halted on the second step to the keep, turning on his heel. His usual frown looked even more fierce. "I do not run away. From anything."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Protector In The Highlands"
Copyright © 2018 Heather McCollum.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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