Highlanders Never Forget Excerpt

Book 3 > Wicked Willful Highlanders

The Year of Our Lord 1263

Huntley, Scotland

Distant thundering hooves broke Alex Gordon’s concentration, which cost him. The sharp tip of Donnan’s sword cut into his shoulder with stinging precision, but years of training took over. He jerked backward so that not too much damage was done, even as shock slammed into his chest. When his gaze met his older half brother’s, Alex saw his own reaction mirrored in Donnan’s eyes.

“God above,” Donnan muttered. “I’m sorry. I should have pulled back sooner.”

Alex glanced down at the long line of blood that had already appeared. “’Tis my own fault. I allowed my attention to stray.”

“Or it could be that I’m the better swordsman,” Donnan said, his tone lightly taunting.

“Nae better, just more focused in the moment,” Alex retorted as he accessed the damage—minor—and wiped the blood away with his palm, then rubbed the residue on his plaid.

Donnan pointed the tip of his sword at Alex. “The ability to stay centered on the task makes me better. But if ye care to go again?” he asked with a challenging grin.

Alex grinned back. They’d been sparring like this for years, and it had gotten more competitive with each passing one. He was about to accept the challenge, but his younger half brother, Fingal, interrupted.

“Ye two are fools,” Fingal said from where he’d been standing by the stone well, reluctantly waiting to fight the victor. “Yer injury is exactly why we do nae spar with real swords,” he muttered.

“Yer concern over getting injured is exactly why ye should be on the strategic council and nae the guard,” Alex said.

“I agree,” Fingal replied. “If ye believe ye can convince Da…” he started and let the sentence trail off with a hopeful look.

“I already tried,” Alex said, his younger brother’s face falling. “Da does recognize that ye have a fine strategic mind, but yer mama insists ye be on the guard.” And their father always bowed to Moira’s dictates. Even if his father had not carried such great guilt for his dishonor with Alex’s mother, Fingal and Donnan’s mother Moira was heiress to Huntley Castle, and with that, she held the power to name the laird of the stronghold, and nothing meant as much to his father as maintaining his position.

“Mama fears my lack of fighting skill somehow reflects poorly on her,” Fingal said, his tone terse.

“Mama believes any flaw we have somehow reflects poorly on her,” Donnan added in a rare outburst regarding his mother.

Alex glanced at Donnan, and when their gazes met, Donnan reddened. “I should nae have said that.” Donnan shifted from foot to foot before stilling once more. “But she’s been especially grating of late with the news that there are two spots open on the Night Guard.”

It made sense that she would have become more difficult with the news. Gaining a coveted spot on the king’s personal guard was Alex’s only chance to build a future for himself. Bastards had little hope of attaining their own strongholds and warriors. But if he led a winning battle as part of the king’s Night Guard there was a chance the king would bequeath him a castle and lairdship. It had happened before to the current leader of the Night Guard, so Alex knew it was possible. Each clan could only send one warrior to represent them in the competition for the spots, and Alex intended to be the warrior his clan sent. Moira meant for Donnan to be that warrior, but Donnan didn’t need the spot as Alex did. As the eldest son, he could be laird of the stronghold one day. It was true that while Moira was alive, she had to appoint him if their da passed, but as Donnan was her favorite, it was assumed that she would.

“Every time I lose a match to ye, she shrieks at me for hours. I wish she’d seen me best ye moments ago,” Donnan said.

Alex didn’t take the comment as a personal insult. If he were Donnan, he’d be tired of his mother’s screeching, too, and hope to give her something to keep her silent. Guilt stabbed at him. He knew that if he did not win so many matches against Donnan, his brother would have an easier time with Moira, but Alex could ill afford to lose, and it would not make Donnan a better swordsman. It’d only be a disservice to him. “Yer mama just wants ye to shine,” he said, trying to be generous.

“Aye, so that we will appear better than ye.”

It was true there was nothing Moira desired more than for her two sons to be better in every way than her husband’s bastard, but Alex did not voice his agreement with his brother. He’d learned long ago that though Donnan tired of his mother’s constant pecking, he was also protective of her and did not take kindly to Alex’s agreement regarding Moira’s character, so Alex simply stood silent.

The silence stretched and became awkward until Fingal motioned to Alex’s shoulder and said, “Ye best hope that would does nae slow ye down in competition.”

Alex looked down at his shoulder, which was inconveniently bleeding again, and then at Donnan who had a sudden, sheepish look on his face. Donnan was the one who had suggested they train with real swords today since the Night Guard would be arriving this day to begin the competition for the open spots. Alex had agreed with the stipulation that they pull back if they saw their blade was going to meet flesh.

“I am sorry,” Donnan added again. “I did nae think my blade was near enough to cut ye. If ye dunnae want to spar with sharp blades again—”

Alex’s foolish pride flared. “I’ll go again,” he interrupted, even as the sound of the horses’ hooves that had originally distracted him grew so strong that it vibrated the air around them. He turned to see who was approaching. From the inner courtyard of the keep, high up on the moat, it was easy enough to view who was trying to cross the bridge to gain access through the bailey to the main keep.

Alex squinted into the bright sun to see the men who approached. The plaids they wore—black with a sword emblem of the Night Guard—flapped behind them. Anticipation filled his lungs and sped his heart. “They’re here.” His brothers would understand to whom he was referring.

Within a breath, Donnan and Fingal stood on either side of him. “Took them long enough to make their way to us,” Donnan grumbled.

Alex didn’t take his eyes off the approaching men. He stared in awe and hope at the king’s personal warriors as they rode fast toward them. “Aye. My time has finally come.”

“Nae if I win the spot,” Donnan said.

Alex met his older brother’s gaze. There was no derisiveness in Donnan’s dark expression, only an intenseness. “I intend to best ye in the competition, Brother,” Alex said, very serious, but he clasped his hand to Donnan’s shoulder and grinned, hoping to avoid any tension between them.

“I intend the same,” Donnan replied. “May the best warrior win.”

The men of the Night Guard dismounted in the inner bailey below, and his da appeared to greet them with Moira. Two women dressed in silk finery flanked her. “Who are those lasses?” Alex asked, motioning with his hand.

Only ladies of a grand keep wore such garb. He didn’t recall hearing word of any guests coming other than Laird Brodie and his men. He could not make out much about the lasses from this distance other than their hair color—pale blond on one lass and a deep shade of russet on the other, which reminded him instantly of wine.

The lass with the russet hair broke away from the other two women and rushed ahead to fling her arms around Laird Brodie, who had dismounted first and stood in front of his men. Alex recognized the head of the Night Guard by his size. He stood, like Alex, nearly a shoulder taller than most men. A massive white dog had trailed beside the lass when she’d rushed to Laird Brodie, and now, as he picked her up off her feet to give her a hug, the dog sat with her head tilted up toward them and cocked to the side, as if patiently waiting for the embrace to end so she could have the lass back.

“Those lasses are Laird Brodie’s daughters,” Fingal answered. “They arrived this morning when the two of ye were in the loch bathing.”

“Why did ye nae make mention of it?” Donnan demanded of his younger brother.

Fingal shrugged. “Why would I? Ye’ll meet them soon enough at supper.”

“Did ye meet them, or did Mama tell ye this news?” Donnan asked.

“I met them,” Fingal replied. “The one hugging Laird Brodie is Adeline. She’s the youngest.” Adeline was still in her father’s embrace, so Alex could do no more than study her from behind. She was tall for a woman, but she wasn’t nearly as tall as her da. She had buried her head against his neck, so that all Alex really could see, other than her height, were the thick, dark braids that wound around her head like a crown and then trailed over her shoulders like heavy ropes. Her da set her on her feet, she turned, and the smile on her face tightened his chest with the beauty of it. She patted her leg, and the white beast sprang to attention, trotting to her side as she stuck her arm through the crook of her da’s elbow. Alex found himself smiling at the scene.

“What’s the pale-haired lass’s name?” Donnan asked.

“That’s Elspeth,” Fingal replied. “She’s the eldest and the bonniest.”

“Ye can have her,” Donnan replied. “I’ve always preferred dark-haired lasses, and I dunnae need the eldest’s keep given I’ll inherit this one. But ye’ll need it, Fingal.”

“So generous of ye,” Fingal replied dryly. “Mayhap the youngest daughter will want Alex and nae ye,” he added and nudged Alex in the side with his elbow.

Alex snorted. “A laird’s daughter is nae going to want to wed a bastard.” He tilted his head toward the lasses. “They’ll wish to wed laird’s sons, like the two of ye.” He pointed at Donnan. “Ye will eventually have yer own keep and warriors, and ye—” he motioned to Fingal “—will be able to offer an alliance with the Gordon clan to any lass ye wish to wed. Nae to mention, ye will undoubtedly get a keep of yer own through Da’s negotiations on yer behalf.”

“Ye’ll bring an alliance with this clan to any marriage as well,” Fingal said, then glanced at Donnan with a pointed look.

“Aye,” Donnan replied. “Of course, but ye already ken that.”

“I do, but ye both ken that most lairds dunnae put much stock into alliances with bastards. We fall in and out of favor easily in clans, depending on the council and who is acting as laird.”

“Well, Donnan will be laird when Da is gone,” Fingal said, “and ye’ll be in his favor.”

“I dunnae want to spend my life having to rely on the favor of any man,” Alex said. “I hope ye can ken that,” he added to Donnan.

“Ye think Mama will sway me in regard to ye as she does Da?” Donnan’s words had a sharp edge to them.

Alex took a moment to consider how honest to be. He didn’t want to start a quarrel, but it was not in his nature to lie. “Mayhap nae as much,” he said slowly. After all, Donnan would not carry the guilt their father did, which affected his decisions, but Moira would still hold the ability to take away the lairdship from Donnan. “But I do think yer mama will try to influence ye in regard to me.”

Donnan’s nostrils flared. “Are ye saying I’m going to be easily manipulated? Is that what ye think?”

“I think,” he said slowly, seeing Donnan’s rising color, “that this argument is pointless. I’ll win the spot on the Night Guard, so I’ll be gone and ye’ll need nae argue with Moira about me.”

“As I’m the better warrior and will undoubtedly best ye in the tourney, the argument is nae pointless—”

“Enough boasting out of the two of ye.” Fingal unsheathed his sword and held it up. “Mayhap I’ll enter the tourney and best ye both.”

Donnan burst out laughing as he sent his blade against Fingal’s and knocked the weapon out of his younger brother’s hand. Fingal’s sword fell to the ground with a thud. Donnan chuckled again. “Enter the competition, will ye?” He shook his head. “Ye would first need to learn to keep yer weapon in yer grip.”

A surge of pity gripped Alex as crimson stained Fingal’s face, and irritation at Donnan flared. Donnan was simply trying to dissuade Fingal from a bad, and possibly dangerous decision, but he’d gone about it in the wrong way.

Fingal bent over to scoop up his weapon, and a grinning Donnan swung his sword to smack Fingal in the arse. Before Alex knew it, he’d sent his blade across Donnan’s weapon with so much force that it flew out of his hands, just as Fingal’s had moments before.

The sword swished through the air to land at Fingal’s side. His brother jerked upward, a shocked expression on his face, and Alex brought the tip of his blade to Fingal’s chest. At the same time, he pulled out a dagger and pointed it at Donnan. Both men stood gawking at him. “Ye,” he said to Fingal, “have more brains than brawn, and that is envious. Any man can build brawn, but we kinnae make ourselves more intelligent than we are. Ye will shine in the strategic council, nae on the field. ’Tis yer duty to find a way to do so.”

Fingal nodded and smiled.

“And ye,” Alex said, addressing Donnan, who had turned an angry shade of red, his blue gaze clouded and narrowed. His chest was puffed out, and Alex could see his blood pushing against his right temple. Donnan was angry indeed. “Ye are a good warrior, but ye are nae great because ye dunnae train enough to be exceptional, even with yer mama in yer ear to do so.”

Donnan opened his mouth to retort, but then his gaze flickered past Alex. The angry blush on his face darkened as his lips pressed into a thin line and his nostrils flared.

“Alex speaks the truth of it,” came the hard voice of Alex’s father from behind him. Regret seized Alex as his gaze locked with Donnan’s angry one. He’d not meant to shame his brother, and he’d especially never intentionally do so in front of their father. Though their father did not stand up for Alex against Moira, it was obvious to Alex that he was his favored son, which probably increased Moira’s hatred of him. “Yer brother’s dedication to training shows in his skill—unlike yers, Donnan,” their father added.

“Donnan has more important things to do than train every day for hours on end,” Moira inserted from behind Alex.

Alex had hoped perhaps it was just their father who had approached, but now that Moira was there, he had a dreaded feeling that Laird Brodie was as well. He forced himself to turn around and blinked in surprise at the group gathered there. Not only were his father and Moira standing there but beside them were Laird Brodie and his two daughters. Before Alex could think what to say, the large white beast beside the younger daughter broke from her side and trotted over to Alex, nudged her nose under Alex’s right hand, and looked up at him with eager blue eyes, the dog’s head in position for Alex to rub it.

A surprisingly rich, full belly laugh came from the lass Adeline. He drew his gaze to her, and her smile left him momentarily speechless. It was warm and open, and it transformed her from bonny to breathtaking.

She cocked her head, green eyes studying him for a breath from head to toe, then returning to his face before she said, “I’ve nae ever seen Sciath approach anyone like that. She likes ye.”

“’Tis nae a wonder,” Moira chirped. “He’s an animal just like she is.”

A frown swept Adeline’s beautiful smile from her rosy lips, and Alex found himself more disheartened by the loss of it than by Moira’s words. He was used to Moira’s venomous dislike of him.

“We’re all creatures of God’s hand,” Adeline said, drawing his attention to her once more. Their gazes clashed, and she offered him a hint of that glorious smile for one moment before she focused on Moira with a dark look. “With that in mind, Lady Gordon, I suppose we are all animals.”

“Adeline, mind yer tongue,” her father said, stepping forward and in front of her so that she was blocked from view by her father’s much larger body. Laird Brodie inclined his head to Alex, then Donnan and Fingal.

Laird Brodie’s dark gaze rested on Alex. “I hope ye’re planning on entering the tourney.”

Alex opened his mouth to respond, but Moira cut him off. “He’s a bastard, and I personally think that means he kinnae truly represent our clan.”

Heat singed Alex’s face, and Adeline gasped from behind Laird Brodie. Alex himself was not surprised. He’d expected some sort of protest from Moira, but the fact that Laird Brodie himself was a bastard and had gained all he had by securing a position on the Night Guard made Alex fairly confident this man could not be swayed by Moira the way Alex’s father was.

“He is my son, and therefore, he can represent our clan,” Alex’s father said with a quiet sharpness Alex rarely heard him use with Moira. His da looked to Laird Brodie. “I was going to speak to ye about this privately.”

Laird Brodie nodded. “Privacy for such delicate matters is always best.”

“Laird Brodie, I encourage ye to hear my opinion,” Moira said, her irritation obvious in the ringing of her hands.

Laird Brodie offered a placating smile. “I assure ye, my lady, I have heard it.” He suddenly clapped Alex on the shoulder, and a genuine smile came to the man’s weathered face. “Are ye as forceful with yer strike as ye are quick with yer moves?”

“Aye, Laird,” Alex said, his heartbeat quickening.

Laird Brodie turned to Alex’s father. “Are all yer sons such warriors?” the man asked, sweeping his gaze from Alex to Fingal to Donnan.

Alex held his breath in hopes his father would simply reply yes. It was one thing for Alex to have called his brothers out when he had thought they were in private; it was quite another for his father to do so in front of others. His father motioned to Fingal. “He’s a mind for warfare as I’ve nae ever seen before.”

Laird Brodie nodded as he looked at Fingal. “I am always searching for a clever strategist to serve me, if ye should ever be inclined to do so.”

“I would, Laird,” Fingal said eagerly. Then he added, “If it would please my da and mama.” Hope tinged his brother’s voice.

Their father nodded, but Moira scowled. “I had hoped both my boys would serve on the Guard in some capacity for the king to gain his pleasure.”

“My lady,” Laird Brodie said in a careful tone, “I assure ye the king places just as much importance on the men who plan the battle attacks as he does the men who fight them. Mayhap even more. After all, there are nae nearly so many men with minds sharp enough to strategize a war as there are with strong sword arms.”

Alex admired Laird Brodie’s cunning in how he had handled Moira. She beamed at him, then at Fingal. “I have always said Fingal should use his fine mind!”

Alex, his brothers, and their father all exchanged a quick look of amazement, but none of them contradicted her lie. After all, this way Fingal got what he wanted and what was best for him.

Alex’s father waved a hand at Donnan. “If this one would dedicate as much time to training as he does to the lasses, he could possibly be half as good as Alex.”

Alex glanced at Donnan, and the anger on his face was clear. And when Donnan’s gaze met Alex’s, he got the sense from how his brother’s eyes narrowed that at least some of that anger was directed at Alex. It was unfair, but he understood. Donnan had just been shamed.

Alex wanted to help, so he cleared his throat and said, “Da, Donnan is nae himself today, ’tis all.”

Alex’s father looked as if he was about to argue the point, but he nodded as he glanced at Laird Brodie. “Come, I’m certain ye must be travel worn and would like some food and drink.”

“That would be most welcome,” Laird Brodie said, and the men both turned to walk away, Moira and the lasses trailing behind them.

As soon at the party was out of earshot, Donnan jerked toward Alex, red-faced, and said, “I dunnae need ye sticking up for me as if I’m a wee bairn.” He swung up his sword and spat, “Come, let us go again, and I’ll show ye who is best.”

“Ye’re vexed, and ye’ll make mistakes because of it,” Alex said, attempting to brush past his brother, but Donnan set the tip of his blade to Alex’s side.

“Either fight me or admit ye’re afraid to.”

“I’m nae afraid, Donnan,” Alex said, his own irritation rising. “But nor do I want to fight ye when ye’re so agitated.” Alex shoved the tip of Donnan’s blade to the side and started to walk away, but he got no more than three steps before the flat of part of Donnan’s blade struck him hard on the shoulder.

“Donnan!” Fingal shouted. “Dunnae be a clot-heid.”

“Shut yer trap,” Donnan snapped. “Ye were nae the one humiliated.”

Alex sighed as he stared ahead toward the inner courtyard where the party had entered. The gate was still open, and Laird Brodie’s daughters had stopped at the entrance of the inner courtyard, though Moira, Laird Brodie, and Alex’s father seemed to have proceeded into the castle. He wished the guards would close the gate. He’d rather the lasses not witness the brewing quarrel.

“Fight me!” Donnan snapped and smacked Alex in the head with the flat of his blade. It was hard enough to rattle Alex’s teeth but not snap his control to make him act rashly. Donnan would make mistakes in this fight because of his temper, and Alex wasn’t about to risk injuring himself further, or his brother, to satisfy Donnan’s wounded pride. The only hope was to relieve Donnan of his sword.

Alex quickly slid his blade under Donnan’s, taking his brother by surprise. When Donnan tried to jerk his blade away, Alex swiveled his wrist to block Donnan’s action, and then sent his weapon into Donnan’s with a force that he knew would loosen his brother’s grip. Then he circled his blade over Donnan’s, forced it all the way to the ground, and stepped on the tip, which jerked the handle out of Donnan’s hands.

Donnan went to lunge at Alex, but Alex brought the tip of his weapon up to his brother’s chest. Standing to the side of them, Fingal was howling with laughter.

“I’ll kill ye!” Donnan yelled.

“Nae this day, Brother,” Alex said, not taking his brother’s threat seriously. Donnan had a great temper and a lot of pride. One had been riled and the other had been sorely hurt. When he had time to cool down, he’d feel bad about this showing. He always did.

“I’m better than ye!” Donnan roared. “And I’ll prove it!”

Alex didn’t have to think of a response that might not make his brother angrier because Donnan swung away and stormed through the still-open inner courtyard gate, not even slowing to speak to the Brodie lasses who were gawking at him.

Fingal slapped Alex on the back, and Alex turned toward his grinning younger brother. “He’ll be over it by supper,” Fingal said.

“Aye,” Alex agreed, even as weariness with the whole situation gripped him. “But he’ll be vexed all over again if I fight in the tourney and best him.”

Fingal nodded. “Nae if…when. Ye are simply better. And he will be vexed, and that may take him a long time to move past, but that will be his own fault. Ye dunnae see me acting like a bairn because I dunnae have yer skills.”

“Aye, but the difference is ye dunnae care to be the best warrior. Donnan does.”

Fingal shrugged. “I think he only cares because Mama pesters him so. Da was being generous earlier, ye ken. Even if Donnan practiced as much as ye, ye would still be better. Ye were given a gift from God. And ye’re wrong thinking I did nae ever wish to be the best warrior. Of course, I did. What warm-blooded man would nae want yer fighting skills? Ye’ll be a legend, and all the lasses will be swooning over ye.”

“I already told ye lasses dunnae swoon over bastards.”

“Do ye nae think Laird Brodie’s daughters will feel differently, given their da is a bastard?” Fingal asked.

“I dunnae. In my experience, all lasses hope to wed a man who they ken will better their lot in life, nae one who may be able to if he can accomplish a great deal first. I imagine Laird Brodie’s daughters are nae any different. In fact, I would wager that, given they probably lived through lean years when their father was trying to gain all he has now, they would prefer nae to chance having to live that way again.”

“I think ye’re wrong,” Fingal said.

“And why is that?” Alex asked.

“Because they’re both staring a hole in yer back.”

Alex waved off his brother’s comment. “Because they likely expected Donnan to best me.”

“The younger one talked to ye,” Fingal said.

“Momentary lapse of her sound mind,” Alex shot back.

Fingal smirked. “I propose a wager.”

Alex shouldn’t ask. It could lead nowhere good, but he was intrigued. “What sort of wager?”

“Turn around, look them both in the face, and whoever dunnae look away, ye have to ask to dance after supper.”

“Are ye trying to embarrass me?” Alex asked, recalling the time he’d asked Laird MacDonald’s daughter to dance and she’d told him she didn’t dance with bastards loudly enough for the entire clan to hear.

“Nay, I’m trying to prove a point. Nae every lass is Lara MacDonald.”

“Nay,” Alex agreed, “they are nae. But there was also the time I tried to give Marion MacKean my favor at her clan’s tournament, and she said much the same thing as Leeta. And then there was Meeka Donald—”

“Ye’ve made yer point,” Fingal said, holding up his hand. “Now let me make mine. Turn around, meet their gazes, and learn who’s the smartest of us, Brother,” Fingal said with a wink and a grin.

“On this particular matter, I’d gladly accept ye as wiser,” Alex said, turning, because though he believed both lasses would look away, he was never one to pass up a challenge presented to him.

The lasses stood side by side, and he met the gaze of the eldest one first. Her lips pressed together, and she averted her gaze. He snorted at that and blocked the sting before it could fully penetrate him. Then he met Adeline Brodie’s gaze. The sunlight in her green eyes shone like bits of polished stone. The color was magnificent, certainly enough to make a man look twice, but it was the warm openness in them that made him unable to look away. She studied him almost thoughtfully, and when he smiled, a lovely, rosy blush kissed her sculpted cheekbones and her lips tilted up into that smile that made his chest squeeze tight.

Fingal was standing beside him now. “I win the wager,” he crowed. “Ye have to ask the lass to dance tonight.”

“Aye,” Alex agreed, not at all sorry to have lost this particular contest. He just hoped he felt the same way after supper tonight.

Scroll to Top