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About the author:
Michelle is an author, professor, wife and mother of five! She writes several genres, but her passion has always been for historical romance, especially those highlanders!
What inspired you to write your book?
I am a huge fan of historical romances, Highlander romances, and of Gabaldon's Outlander. When I finally decided it was time to pick up my pen for fiction, that is the direction I headed!
Here is a short sample from the book:
Auchinleck Castle, East Ayrshire, 1307
Another victory over the English meant even more drinking and celebrating. From his vantage on the second story of the Dumfries keep, recently freed from English dominion under the Earl of Pembroke Aymer de Valence, he watched his men, the faithful clans of Scotland in their bright and earthy plaids sing and cheer, and oh, how the whiskey and ale did flow.
Only King Robert the Bruce didn’t celebrate with them. He sat alone in the second-floor study, a low fire casting fearsome shadows on the coarse stone wall. He hated what he had to do next, but there was no choice. ‘Twas nay the same as MacCollough’s sister, he tried to justify to himself. That Scottish lass had been a loyal woman, sister to a loyal Laird, one of the King’s closest advisers. And if MacCollough’s sister managed to outsmart the Bruce and wed a clansman she cared for, well, he could nay fault her for those actions. Said man was a loyal Scot as well.
But this? With the de Valence sisters? ‘Twas different. This time ‘twas not a loyal woman. ‘Twas not the sister of a clansman and close adviser and friend. Aislynn de Valence was the niece of the now defeated Aymer de Valence. She and her sister, Agnes, must be sent north, whether as captives or for future bargaining, the Bruce didn’t yet know. All he did know was he wasn’t about to let these assets go.
He flicked his eyes to the sturdy door, waiting for the knock. Asper Sinclair would be none too happy at this assignment, yet ‘twas necessary. Someone needed to take the lasses far into Scotland, hide them from the English, keep their location secret. A brave, honorable man who could keep the lasses safe. And so, what if the Bruce was selecting men sworn to bachelorhood as their escorts? If any of the Sinclair men found their way into the hearts of the lasses, matrimony would only solidify the Bruce’s position as king. And, perchance, form an alliance with the English instead of fostering an enemy.
The sharp rapping at the door finally arrived, and the King bade the man to enter. Asper Sinclair strode in, his head of thick red hair peering around the door before his battle-hardened body followed.
“My King. To what do I owe this honor?” His deep voice rumbled across the shadows of the study as he gave a curt bow. The King kept his eyes on the celebratory men below.
“Dinna call it an honor, yet, Sinclair.”
Aislynn’s slender arms clutched at her sister’s muscular shoulders, trying to shake some sense into the young woman. Though Aislynn was but a year older, and the women resembled each other well, sharing the same light-brown hair and peridot and hazel eyes, sometimes she felt more like a mother than a barely older sister.
And now she pleaded with Agnes, begging her to reconsider as she looked on her sister’s costume with horror. Agnes, dressed in a man’s dusky tunic and baggy brown braies that gathered at her calf and tucked into loose-fitting leather boots, neatly passed as a fresh lad.
With her hair hacked off by a dull knife and tucked under a dirty bonnet, Agnes felt secure in her appearance. No man would think her a lass or try to assail her. She could move freely across the lowlands before the pretend king decided her fate, which is exactly what she wanted. Aislynn tried to convince her otherwise.
“Please, Agnes, you will not make it dressed as a lad! You were raised as a lady! Please don’t try something so dangerous!”
“Dangerous?” Agnes screeched, her high pitch causing Aislynn’s panicking eyes to flit to the door, convinced someone had heard. “‘Tis much more dangerous to remain here and have the Bruce imprison us, or worse! The man is a villain, bent on the destruction of all things English, including us!” Agnes breathed in and tempered her anger, her face softening as she lovingly begged her sister. “Aislynn, I would feel safer if you came with us. We can make it to England, to our uncle, King Edward, and find sanctuary with his court.”
Aislynn looked over her shoulder – was someone at the door? Her sister’s bold gesture was playing tricks on her nerves. “Nay, please, I’ve heard the Bruce is considerate, that he —”
“After Uncle Aymer kept that bastard’s wife and daughter captive for so long? Do you think he will have mercy for any de Valence?” She shook her head and yanked her arms away. “No, sister, there’s nothing for us here. Look.” Agnes jerked her head to the window. “The men are below. We can ride for England. But we must leave now.”
Agnes was always the impulsive, impetuous one, the tiny sister who got into trouble then looked to Aislynn to help her get out of it. While this time was no different, Aislynn was terrified she wouldn’t be able to do that. Here, under the command of the Scottish King, Aislynn knew there was little she could do to help either of them.
Then Aislynn did hear something on the other side of the door – the sound of heavy footfall on stone. Scotsmen were coming down the hall. Aislynn turned back to her sister, her eyes wide with fright and confusion. Indecision rooted her to her spot.
“Then you remain here,” Agnes told her. “You’ve made your choice, such as it is. Let them do with you what they will. I will return with King Edward’s army and find you.” Agnes lunged toward Aislynn in a quick move, kissing her cheek. “I love you, sister. Look for me to return for you.”
Then Agnes was gone, slipping over the windowsill, down a rope made from ripped sheeting the women had torn from the bed. Aislynn leaned out the window, eyes wide with terror as her sister worked her way down and leapt onto the waiting horses below. Two English soldiers, men loyal to Commander Aymer de Valence and the English cause, followed her, riding off into the slippery night. Aislynn sighed and unwrapped the cloth from the bedpost, letting the fabric drop to the dirt of the bailey. The door flung open with a crash, and Aislynn spun around.
“Ye must come with us,” the monstrous men in strange, skirted clothing commanded, stepping into her chamber. “The Bruce will see ye now.”
One man grabbed her arm and hauled her toward the door. The second man peered around the room, on the far side of the sturdy, four-poster bed.
“Where is the other one?” his guttural voice boomed.
Aislynn feigned ignorance, shrugged, and kept her mouth shut. While she may not agree with her sister’s actions, she wasn’t a traitor. They would have to beat the information out of her.
And as the Scotsmen dragged her toward the study at the far end of the castle, Aislynn paled, praying it wouldn’t come to that.
The bare-legged giants all but threw her into the study, where she landed unceremoniously in a hunter-green tiretain pile at the foot of the infamous Robert the Bruce. Aislynn rose with as much grace as she could muster and brushed at her lush gown. Her eyes remained downcast, but she did catch the Bruce giving a dirty look to the men at the door. He waved them off, and they slammed the door, leaving her alone with the false king.
Or, at least she thought she was alone. Keeping her eyes away from the Bruce – just as she would never look at the Devil, she couldn’t bring herself to look this vile man in the eye – Aislynn let her gaze drift around the rest of the study. Her mind churned in a heated rush, trying to figure out her fate at the Bruce’s hands, when her eyes caught the leather-wrapped feet of a man standing in the shadowy corner. Aislynn started. So, she wasn’t alone with the Bruce.
The man was a Scot, ‘twas no doubt as to that. His plaid draped around his shoulders and hips haphazardly, as if he dressed quickly and in the dark. How is it these Scots run around in little more than a blanket? The indecency of their bare legs and chests? Why didn’t they dress like real men? Aislynn judged the man before her eyes even moved past his chest.
Which wasn’t bare, much to her surprise. He wore a rough-hewn, woolen tunic under the plaid, with wide sleeves that didn’t hide the largess of his muscled arms or chest. Fear forced bile into her throat. Would this savage man be the one to punish or kill her?
Her dreadful thoughts didn’t stop her from taking in the rest of him, especially the shock of deep red on his face and hair. And was his hair shaved on the sides? Oh, it was. Just when she believed her position couldn’t get worse – the man in the room was an uncivilized heathen, what she’d heard the Lowland Scots call Highlanders, and Aislynn knew this man was not present to aid her in any way.
She was shaking in her thin slippers by the time she finally turned her head to the pretend king. Compared to the barbarous man in the corner, the Bruce appeared normal, almost plain. The King’s brown hair was brushed back in smooth waves, and he wore civilized trews like a man should. The only garment that made him stand out as nobility or royalty was the heavy black cape edged in black fur and secured at his neck by a detailed brooch. When he gazed at her, his own brown eyes were soft, not harsh, and Aislynn had an inkling that the King might be more forgiving than the uncivilized brute in the shadows.
Robert remained silent, evaluating her as though she were a piece of meat served up on a platter. Unsure of what else she should do – how did one engage with a false, heathen king? – she curtsied low.
“Rise, my lady,” the King’s rich voice commanded kindly.
Aislynn obeyed, keeping her head bent, watching the Bruce from under hooded eyes. The King shifted his attention to the door, as if waiting for something. After a moment, his deep brown eyes flashed at Aislynn.
“Where is your sister? Didn’t she accompany ye here?”
Aislynn shook her head. The King didn’t even have to move, as the other Scotsman jumped at the door, yelling for the two Highland guards in the hall to search for the other English lass. The men, both Asper and the King knew, would send soldiers out in search of the errant lass without delay.
“Where is she?” His voice sounded less kind. Aislynn’s knees knocked together under her gown.
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly, her voice a light whisper. “She slipped out the window with some soldiers, riding for safety.”
The king’s groan of displeasure was unmistakable, but he gathered himself and returned the inquisition back to Aislynn as the large, austere, red Scot resumed his position in the corner of the room, crossing his trunk-like arms over his chest. The men shared a knowing look before the King continued.
“Your uncle, he has retreated north, supposedly to Bothwell Castle, and barricaded himself inside. I am no’ surprised, but I am mildly interested as to why he left ye and your sister behind. ‘Tis less than considerate to leave women exposed to the bloodthirsty conduct of men. Did he nay fear for your safety or your virtue?”
Aislynn had no voice. In truth, ‘twasn’t possible for her to defend her uncle. He had left her and her sister behind, the remnants of his beleaguered army riding for Bothwell without them. Her dismay regarding her uncle marked her milky face. Aislynn was never one to mask her emotions, nor did she want to. She grimaced at the thought of him and despised her uncle for this predicament in which he placed her.
Her only hope was that the time she spent in the presence of this northern king was enough for Agnes to escape. This king may seem sensible, but who knew what he may do when crossed. Men’s behaviors were fickle when it came to power, Aislynn understood well enough.
“‘Tis especially troublesome,” the King continued, “as your uncle has my wife and daughter imprisoned with Longshanks. If I were your uncle, I would worry that the King of Scotland might want to extract a measure of revenge on his own kin.”
There it was, the threat Aislynn had been waiting for. A white flash of fear burst through her whole body, every inch of her shaking. Was this the end for her? Would the King strike her down here and now? Or worse, imprison her in a cage? Toss her to his army?
“Tis fortunate for ye, lassie,” the King resumed, “that we Scots are nay the brutal manner of men your English brethren have shown themselves to be. Rest assured, neither your sweet life, nor your virtue, will end this day.”
Aislynn exhaled the painful breath she had been holding as she awaited the King’s decision. At least ‘twasn’t death. But what retribution would come? Imprisonment in some dank, Scottish dungeon? Held for ransom? Bartered as an indentured servant? Perchance there were other punishments worse than death or dishonor. Aislynn kept her head bowed, trying to hide the panic and tears that threatened to spring forth.
The king exhaled his own breath, coming to terms with his decision. Laird Sinclair wouldn’t care for it, undoubtedly. But he would do what Robert asked because he was a fierce supporter of the Bruce. The King was fortunate in men like Sinclair and his kin.
“I canna return ye to your family, that ye well ken. And until my wife and daughter are returned to me unscathed, ye shall remain under my protection, in the far northern Highlands with my man, Laird Sinclair, and his family.” The King gestured to the Scot in the corner.
“What?” The ruddy Scot bellowed, what skin that could be seen above his beard flaming more red than his hair.
“What?” Aislynn echoed.
The Highlands? The far north Highlands? Aislynn’s head swam in a faint, and her fingers reached for the desk to brace herself. Her whole life had been spent in the borderlands, the Lowlands of Scotland, where people at least spoke a passable English. The Highlands were home to barbarians, large monstrous people who spoke a strange, guttural language. And she must make the journey with the prodigious red Scot in the corner? The room swam before her eyes at that prospect.
“His kin shall watch o’er ye,” the King spoke as though he heard nothing, “protect ye, and aye, ye will have to work – we all work hard in Scotland. No spoiled nobility here.”
Aislynn scoffed under her breath at his assessment of English ladies.
“But ye will be treated with respect due any other clansman or woman. Ye shall have no contact with your family. Once my wife and daughter are returned, we shall escort ye back to your uncle’s home, wherever and whenever that may be.”
King Robert waved his hand toward the glowering Scotsman in the corner. The man moved to the door again, recalling the Highland soldiers.
“My men will take ye back to your chambers, where we shall ensure your windows are tightly barred.” He sent a wry look to the Sinclair, who only shrugged at the king’s implication. “When we find your sister, she shall be sent to another clan in the north. Dinna fret for her safety.”
The King jerked his head, and the two Highlanders returned to Aislynn’s side, forcibly accompanying her back to her chambers where they fitted the window slit with wooden planks to prevent her from following her sister. Their grip on her arms was almost welcome, for surely, she would have swooned to the floor without them. They slammed the door on their way out, and she heard a clunking sound – they were barring the door from the other side. She was locked in.
Her sister was wrong. Aislynn hadn’t made any decision. Once again, for a number of times so high she couldn’t count, the course of her life had been decided for her.
Abandoned by her uncle, despondent that her sister had escaped, and scared of what her future held, Aislynn threw herself on her lush brocade bedding and cried herself to sleep.