Highlander’s Adopted Daughter by Alisa Adams

Prologue

When Laird Craig was laid to rest in the Laing clan’s tomb next to his long-deceased father, many hundreds of people attended the funeral services. Not just the Laing kinsmen, but their sworn allies as well: the Brodies, the Campbells, and the Hamiltons.

Craig had been a well-loved leader, family member, and friend. He had not been especially known for his boldness as a warrior; rather, it was his good sense, his kind heart, and his sense of tact and diplomacy which had made him so popular with the people of that land. He had assisted the Campbells in retaking Dunscaith Castle, and he had ruled with cleverness and decency ever since then, with his loyal wife Freya Campbell by his side.

And he’d been a father to Leana. A bloody good one, too.

Which was why, while the noble-born lairds and ladies in attendance were delivering their eulogies and remembrances in front of the tomb, she hung back a fair distance from the other mourners, sobbing softly to herself.

When she’d been just seven years old, Leana’s village had been sacked and set aflame by a pack of vicious brutes called the Gales. It was they who had inhabited Dunscaith for years before then, having stolen it from the Campbell clan’s ancestors. They’d hunkered down and waited there for generations before venturing forth again under cover of night to raze and ruin their neighboring townships with impunity.

They had shattered and destroyed everything within Leana’s childhood home. They had slaughtered her parents right in front of her, and torched the place. There was little doubt that they would have likewise murdered Leana even despite her tender age had a friend of her mother not taken her by the hand and rescued her.

Leana had been forced to hide beneath a pile of dead and bloody bodies for hours until the raid was over.

The pile had included the corpses of her own mother and father.

To say that Leana had been traumatized by these events would have been the grossest of understatements. She spent days after that trembling uncontrollably, unable to speak, unable to be left by herself even for a handful of seconds without shrieking and falling apart. The other women and children who had managed to escape the onslaught did their best to look after her, but there was not much they could do for her when they could barely take care of themselves. There was no food, no healer to treat their wounds from the raid. They wandered listlessly, and several among them perished along the path.

Then they encountered Freya, one of the five noble-born siblings of the Campbell clan.

One of the women from the village begged Freya to take Leana. At the time, Leana supposed she should have been upset by the notion of being separated from what was left of her own people—sent off with some utter stranger who might be mean to her or worse. But she hadn’t cared then. She’d had a hard time caring about anything, even whether she lived or died. She wasn’t entirely sure she belonged in a world where savage men like the Gales could emerge from the night like murderous hobgoblins and tear her entire life to pieces in the span of less than an hour.

So Leana went along with Freya, who turned out to be a wonderful adoptive mother to her, just as Laird Craig had been a marvelous father figure. She had delighted in their company and did all she could to help them raise their own children—Margaret, Isabella, and Alexina—later on.

It had been a good life with them these past twelve years. A peaceful life.

Then violence had reached out from the shadows once more to cruelly snatch a loved one away from her.

Just as Freya and Craig had been readying for bed several nights before, Keith—the captain of Craig’s guardsmen—had reported that dark riders had been spotted near the edge of the clan’s property. From what Leana was told later, Craig had considered this news for several moments, then insisted upon being led to the site where these cloaked men on horseback had been seen.

Why had he chosen to accompany his guards as they investigated these trespassers? No one seemed able to say for certain. He could just as easily have sent his men on his behalf, and surely, no one would have thought less of him.

Except, perhaps, for himself.

That was the only theory Leana had about it, that after a dozen years of peace, Laird Craig had felt as though he had something to prove to himself and his people. That he wanted to be seen as a warrior, and the kind of ruler who would ask no risks of his men that he would not take on himself.

Lairds like Aodh Campbell and Fergus Brodie would not have felt as though they had to make such needlessly valiant displays. Alas, Craig had always been somewhat different from other men in his position. He’d always had the love of his clansmen…but he fretted at times about whether he had their respect as well, their belief that he would be a worthy laird for them to follow if war ever broke out again.

So Laird Craig went out that fateful night a living man and returned a lifeless body slung across his saddle.

The wail of grief that had emanated from Freya and her trueborn daughters upon seeing Craig’s body would haunt Leana’s nightmares forever, alongside the shrieks and death rattles of her long-dead parents.

The speeches concluded, and Leana realized she’d barely heard a word of them. It did not matter. She knew what a good man Craig had been. He had always been an attentive and supportive father to her. When she had chosen to spend all of her free time learning to excel in archery instead of concerning herself with dresses and flowers and gossip as most girls her age did, including her sisters, he had never expressed disapproval.

“You have all the benefits of a noble upbringing,” Craig had told her more than once. “Good education and breeding, a life of relative comfort and luxury, and many delightful prospects ahead of you. However, you are also free from the constraints of noble blood. You may marry for your own reasons instead of anyone else’s and live a life unbound by the stuffy conventions of a noble title. In some ways, dear girl, I envy you.”

It had always warmed her heart to hear those words from him.

Now she never would again.

The mourners lined up to place flowers upon Craig’s crypt, and Leana saw many people she did not recognize—which was to be expected, of course, since so many had journeyed from so far to pay their respects.

There was one among them, however, who aroused her curiosity.

He was a tall man with a build that appeared to be strong but lithe, like that of a dancer. He was clean-shaven and dressed in a dark cloak, not clothes of bereavement from what Leana could tell, but the dusty and well-worn garb of a traveler. His face was handsome, but there was something furtive about it, as though he were privately wishing he might pay his tribute in private. His eyes were a vivid green, but there were shadows lurking behind them.

And then there were the scars.

Even with the cloak covering most of the man’s body, the old wounds were still visible on his hands, his neck, and part of his jaw. Cuts, burns, scratches—they told tales of a life filled with hazards and hardships.

How, then, had that life brought him here? How had he been connected with Laird Craig?

Leana did not know. She could only tell from the depth of feeling in the man’s eyes that their relationship could not have been a casual one, even though, as far as Leana knew, they hadn’t seen each other since she’d been living with Craig Laing, and that had been twelve years.

The stranger withdrew, and Leana tried to follow him to ask who he was, where he had come from, how he’d known her adoptive father. She ran as fast as her legs would carry her, trying to push her way through the throngs of mourners.

But when she emerged from the crowd, he was nowhere to be found.

The mystery of him continued to plague her for the rest of the day.