Feature – Highland Guard by Hannah Howell


HIGHLAND GUARD – On sale March 3, 2015

About the book

New York Times bestselling author Hannah Howell brings back the daring Murray family in a brand-new tale of dangerous love rekindled. . .

Lady Annys MacQueen has no other choice. The deception that enabled her to keep her lands safe is on the verge of being revealed by a cruel kinsman. To shield her young son from the sword and her people from devastation, she must turn to the one man she could never forget. . .

He lives for duty and honor. So the only way Sir Harcourt Murray could repay the laird who saved his life was to agree to father a child with Sir MacQueen’s wife. . .Lady Annys. Now the passion he still feels for the lovely strong-willed widow is as all-consuming and perilous as securing her lands. But to convince her that his love is forever real means confronting her most wrenching fears–and putting everything they treasure most at stake. .

Excerpt
“So what is this danger ye fear is stalking Glencullaich, m’lady?”

Harcourt relaxed in his seat, his belly pleasantly full of good food, and sipped at the strong wine he had been served. He could see that his abrupt question had startled her, but only for a moment. She recovered her composure with an admirable quickness. There was now a look in her eyes that told him she was very carefully considering her reply as she signaled a young page to take Benet from the hall. He wondered what she wanted to hide. Or why she would bother to hide anything. She had sent for him after all.

“Did Ian nay tell you?” she asked and clasped her hands together in her lap in what she prayed appeared to be a stance of complete calm.

“Not in much detail, nay. Ye have someone troubling you with petty intrusions, thefts, and some threats. Since such things could be seen to weel enough by the men ye have here, I am thinking ye fear the trouble will soon grow far more severe.”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Joan wave away the women who had slipped back inside the hall and was pleased to see them go. Her people were increasingly uneasy. The things she had to discuss with Sir Harcourt would only make them more so.

“Our trouble has a name,” Annys said. “Sir Adam MacQueen, cousin to my late husband and a man who would have been the heir to Glencullaich if David had had no son.”

“But David did have a son.” Harcourt was not surprised at how difficult it was to calmly name David as Benet’s father.

“Adam doesnae accept Benet as David’s son. He doesnae believe a woman should be acting as laird here, either. It is his loudly stated opinion that the lad needs a mon to tend to his inheritance. That is, if the lad actually has one. Adam believes he should tend Benet even as he tries to prove Benet is nay the heir yet doesnae see why that is ridiculous. I am nay sure his opinion on who should be acting as the laird here would change e’en if he finally has to accept that Benet is David’s heir and naught will change that. Naught will change his mind that it is wrong for a lass to act as a laird either.”

Harcourt shrugged. “A complaint we have heard before,” he said and his men nodded. “’T’will get the mon nowhere. Did David nay name some mon to stand for ye then?”

“He named Nicolas Brys as his second several years ago,” she replied and nodded to the man seated on her right. “Then, when David began to grow so ill, an illness he couldnae shake free of, he named Nicolas as the mon he wished to oversee the protection of Glencullaich as weel as Benet. He also stated the wish that it be Nicolas who trained Benet in all a laird must ken to be strong enough to protect his lands and people.”

“And Sir Adam disagrees with that as weel?”

Annys nodded. “Quite vehemently. At first he attempted to have Nicolas removed but that did not work. It is verra difficult to get the courts to ignore the stated and witnessed last words of a laird. E’en those in power who leaned to Sir Adam’s side didnae want to do that for they wouldnae want anyone to think it could be done to their wishes after they are gone. After that failed, he made the claim that Benet wasnae David’s true son. He hasnae succeeded with that, either.” Although she hated to reveal Sir Adam’s latest game, Annys knew she had to tell Harcourt everything. “He now spreads the tale that I killed David.”

The way the men all grew still and stared at her made Annys both angry and embarrassed. It was hurtful enough that not everyone Adam voiced his accusation to had shrugged it aside as nonsense. She did not like to think that these men, ones who had come to help her, might now be suspicious of her. It embarrassed her to repeat Adam’s false accusations. It angered her that anyone would even briefly consider that such accusations might be true, and that anger grew stronger every day. Unfortunately, so did her fear that Adam may have finally found a way to be rid of her and take Glencullaich, perhaps even be rid of her son for, as a convicted murderer, she would not live long.

“Is anyone listening to him?” Harcourt asked after glancing at his companions and seeing only a recognition of the threat such accusations carried.

“A few.” She hastily took a drink of cider, attempting to ease the dryness of fear from her throat. “David was kenned weel by many in power, and weel liked. He didnae die in battle or”—she smiled just a little, knowing it was mostly bitterness and not humor that curved her lips—“in some monly accident. He died in his bed like a sickly old mon.” She shook her head. “In the end, he bore a likeness to one as weel.”

“A wasting sickness?”

“Who can say? David was ne’er truly robust yet he was ne’er what ye would call sickly.” She pushed aside a sadness that always twisted her heart when she thought of her husband’s slow, painful death. “I cannae say what afflicted him nor could any of the others I sent for in the hope of finding some help, some cure, for him.”

“But nay one of those fools kenned what ailed the laird or how to help him,” said Joan. “Most often they just wanted to purge the poor mon or bleed him. That was the verra last thing our laird needed. He was naught but skin and bone in the end.”

Annys reached out to pat Joan’s hand, clenched tight on top of the table. Joan had grown up with David, the daughter of his mother’s maid. He had been as much a brother to her as he had been her laird and Annys knew the woman grieved for him as deeply as she did.

Harcourt frowned. “It sounds akin to a wasting sickness.”

“And so it may have been, yet I remain too uncertain to name it so,” Annys said.

“What were the signs of his illness?” asked Sir Callum.

“The one most clearly marked were the pains in his belly,” she replied. “He couldnae keep food down. E’en the plainest of broths would have him retching. Then it would pass for a wee while and we would think he was regaining his health, only to have it begin all over again. And, aye, ’tis true that purging and bloodletting were the worst things to do since he was so weak, yet there were times, after a purging, that David recovered for a while.”

“Ne’er after a bleeding though,” said Joan.

“Nay, that ne’er seemed to help him,” agreed Annys.

“What else?” asked Sir Callum. “Was there more?”

The intent way the man watched her as he asked his question made Annys wary even though she could see no hint of condemnation or accusation in his expression. “David would complain about burning pain in his hands and feet, at times e’en in his throat, although all that miserable retching could weel have caused that.”

“He began to lose his beautiful hair,” Joan murmured.

Annys nodded. “And his skin would be covered in a rash and then it would peel away. The most frightening times were when he couldnae move at all, but that, too, would then pass. In the end he had such fits it would take several of us to hold him down and e’en then it wasnae easy. Ye must see how difficult it is for us to put a name to the disease which ended his life. There are too many things it could have been and, just when one thought one kenned what it was, there would be something that didnae fit.”

“There is one ye may nay have considered,” said Sir Callum. “Poison.”

The blood drained from Annys face so quickly that she became dizzy and welcomed Joan’s steadying hand on her arm. “I didnae poison my husband.”

“Of course ye didnae,” said Sir Harcourt. “That isnae what Callum was saying, is it, my friend,” he said to Callum, giving the younger man a hard look.

“Nay,” Callum said quickly and smiled faintly. “I didnae say ye did it, m’lady, or e’en considered that ye had, but I do believe the mon may have been poisoned. ’Tis an old poison, if I am right in what I now believe, and one that has been used before at least once within my own family. It was but a few year ago that a distant MacMillan cousin of mine was poisoned by his wife’s lover. The signs of his illness sound verra much akin to the ones your husband suffered.”

“Did he survive?” Annys asked.

“Aye, though it was a verra long time ere the mon healed. But, with care, he was soon strong enough to see his wife and her lover hanged.”

Annys winced at his hard words but understood. Those people had tried to murder one of his kinsmen. She also agreed with the punishment. It was just one that always made her shudder just a little. She had seen one hanging in her life, stumbled upon it by accident while wandering the streets of a village near her home. It had been a spectacle that had held her horrified attention despite how sick it had made her. It was not an easy way to die.

“How did ye ken that was what was wrong?” she asked.

“Caught the one putting it into his drink. He, too, would seem to become better now and then. Most often after a hard purging. I think that clears out a great deal of the poison thus starting a cure. Then the one with the poison just doses them again.”

“Which means it would be someone close enough to dose his food or drink.”

It was a horrifying thought. That meant that someone in the keep, one of the people they trusted, had murdered David. It was hard to think that anyone at Glencullaich would do so. David had been well loved by his people, respected and honored. She could think of no one who had ever shown any sign of being angry with him or hating him.

“I have no idea how we would e’er discover who may have done it,” she said as she rubbed her forehead. “David was beloved. I cannae e’en think of who could be persuaded by anyone to do it. And, e’er ye ask, Sir Adam was ne’er here in any way that would have given him the opportunity to do it.”

“It is just something one should consider, I think.”

“Aye,” agreed Harcourt. “Sad to say there can be many a reason for someone to turn on their laird, e’en one as weel loved as David. They could simply be someone easily convinced of some lie or given some promise that made them do it e’en if they may have had regrets for their actions afterward.”

Annys studied him for a moment, thinking on how careful he had been with his words. “Ye think it may have been some woman.”

Harcourt sighed and gave her an apologetic smile. “Poison does tend to be a lass’s weapon.”

Considering the other ways there were to kill a man, she supposed he was right. There was something less intimate, less violent about poison. Women could be violent but they had the disadvantage of usually being smaller and weaker than a man. Poison required neither strength nor stature. Yet, again, she could think of no one who would do that to poor David.

“Could it not have simply been as we thought? A sickness, some kind of wasting illness we had just ne’er seen before?”

Sir Callum smiled. “It could be. It was just that the signs ye mentioned sounded akin to what my cousin suffered.”

“And that means it would be wise to consider the possibility,” said Harcourt. “Ye ken weel that there is one who wants what David had, who has always wanted it. He may nay have been close enough to easily do the poisoning himself, but there is always the chance he found someone within these walls who did it for him. Through lies, promises, or threats.”

Annys nodded. “Ye are right. It would be wise to consider it. If only so that we keep a keen eye out for any hint that it is happening again.”

“And to take some time to watch those who would have had the chance to do it,” said Joan.

“Ah, Joan, I dinnae want to do it. I ken it, but it must be done. If that mon has convinced someone in this keep to do his sinful work for him then we need to find them.”

“Now that David is gone there remains you and the lad in his way. He could decide to set that ally on either of ye.”

That was the fear she had tried to ignore. It was foolish to do so. Ugly though it was, if there was even a small chance that someone inside Glencullaich helped Sir Adam, he could turn that person against her or Benet next. It was only wise to accept that hard truth and act to protect herself and her child.

“Agreed,” Annys finally said. “Mayhap we shall be fortunate as someone will be so crushed with guilt they will simply confess. Then we will have them and Sir Adam.”

“I will wish ye luck in that,” said Harcourt and briefly raised his tankard in a toast before taking a drink. “Howbeit, I would like ye to make up a list of those who would have had the chance to slip some poison into David’s drink or food.”

————————————

About the author
Hannah D. Howell is a highly regarded and prolific romance writer. Since Amber Flame, her first historical romance, was released in February 1988, she has published 25 novels and short stories, with more on the way. Her writing has been repeatedly recognized for its excellence and has “made Waldenbooks Romance Bestseller list a time or two” as well as was nominated twice by Romantic Times for Best Medieval Romance (Promised Passion and Elfking’s Lady). She has also won Romantic Times’ Best British Isles Historical Romance for Beauty and the Beast; and, in 1991-92 she received Romantic Times’ Career Achievement Award for Historical Storyteller of the Year.

Hannah was born and raised in Massachusetts (the maternal side of her family has been there since the 1630’s). She has been married to her husband Stephen for 28 years, who she met in England while visiting relatives, and decided to import him. They have two sons Samuel, 27, and Keir, 24. She is addicted to crocheting, reads and plays piano, attempts to garden, and collects things like dolls, faerie and cat figurines, and music boxes. She also seems to collect cats, as she now has four of them, Clousseau, Banshee, Spooky, and Oliver Cromwell.

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Giveaway
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