The Highlander Who Protected Me
The six brothers of the Kendrick clan, introduced in Vanessa Kelly’s Improper Princess series, now get their own books, beginning the third-eldest brother of the family, Royal.
Royal Kendrick meets the self-assured yet very pampered Lady Ainsley Matthews when they’re seated beside one another at a society event; he’s captivated immediately by her wit and beauty and they drift away to talk in private. Royal still suffers pain from a severe leg injury sustained at Waterloo, and is a homebody who loves reading and peace and quiet more than anything, so the societal whirl of the ton doesn’t impress him. Their flirtation and banter leads to a fight and a kiss, but Royal and Ainsley are interrupted by the melodramatic Leonard, Marquess of Cringlewood, who turns out to be Ainsley’s betrothed – a man she’s not attracted to nor seems comfortable with.
Fourteen months later, Royal is still ensconced at his brother Nick’s Castle Kinglas, specifically its library. Nick and his new bride Victoria (hero and heroine of The Highlander’s Princess Bride) are accommodating and kind, but they’d prefer he got on with the business of living and leave them to the business of being newlyweds, and suggest he visit Underhill Manor in Cairndow to see Ainsley, proper invitation or no. Ainsley’s engagement to Cringlewood is no more, but Victoria is worried about Ainsley’s well-being, especially as her letters indicate that Cringlewood might be threatening her, so Royal goes to Cairndow to check on her.
Royal finds the people living near the estate to be closed-lipped; for good reason, as the village, the team of elderly and eccentric servants caring for the place and even Ainsley’s whimsical aunt, Lady Margaret Baird, are all protecting a secret – Ainsley has run away into seclusion; she’s pregnant as a result of being raped by Cringlewood.
On the first night of Royal’s visit, Ainsley goes into labor and gives birth to a daughter, and during the labor Royal’s attraction to Ainsley blooms into full-out love. When Ainsley insists that Royal take the girl away to safety but rejects his proposal of marriage because she fears for his life and the baby’s should Cringlewood find them, he agrees to take the infant with him, lying to a surprised family that she’s his biological child and naming her Tira after his mother. For six months he raises Tira and deals with the stresses and pressures of his brothers’ lives. Then Ainsley returns to see her daughter, and when she proposes to him he’s shocked beyond words. It seems that she needs protection from a resurfaced Cringlewood, who threatens to ruin her reputation if she doesn’t marry him by the end of the month – then threatens to sue her for breach of promise if she won’t. While Ainsley and Royal settle into marriage, they have to figure out whether they’ve plunged themselves into a love match; or if the scars lying between them run too deeply to be healed.
The Highlander who Protected Me has a decent dramatic sweep and a very nice central romance, but its problems are too irksome to be overlooked.
The characters are mostly winning, but it takes a while to warm up to Ainsley, who goes from being spirited and pushy with Royal to making the most ridiculous mistakes possible. There’s literally no reason for her not to marry him when her daughter’s an infant other than to pad the book’s length, and no reason for her to keep several secrets from him other than to provide last-minute twists to the story. In fact the book suffers from several unnecessary incidents that inject drama into an already overly dramatic story, including Ainsley losing control of her horse and thinking she’s accidentally killed Royal, only to discover that he naps with his eyes open.
Royal is a wonderful hero; true, intellectual, tough and self-deprecating, and one of the best Kelly has ever written.
Our hero and heroine are indeed very spirited as a couple, though their pride endlessly gets in their way. They frustrate each other, make each other happy, and support each other without question. There’s the typical ‘no-sassenach wench shall touch our good Scottish boy/eww Scottish men are oafish and evil’ stuff in the beginning, (because of course, it’s a romance set in Scotland), but that fades out over time.
There are some good supporting characters, especially the wonderfully horny Aunt Margaret (who has a thing for Royal’s roguish younger brother Logan) who doesn’t get enough page time, and Granddad Angus alternates between being adorable and frustratingly in the way. Our villain, the awkwardly-named Cringlewood, is appropriately slimy and evil. None of the brothers really jumped out much for me – I liked Victoria best of all among the Kendricks.
As others have noted, Kelly has a tendency to time-skip in her writing, which leaves the reader frustrated. Months will pass by or we’ll be told in passing something major has happened through dialogue or recollections, which leaves the reader to play catch-up. Kelly does handle Ainsley’s recovery from her rape very well and never fails to see her as a full person, and Royal is excellent and patient with her, as are most of the characters who learn of the assault – even though her parents display attitudes that were – sadly – common to such violations back in that era.
What I can’t agree with is the way the novel ends. I can’t tell you HOW it ends, but I can tell you it ends most unsatisfyingly, with deliberate hooks left behind for the next book in the series. It’s fine to have a big, sprawling universe, but fictional vacuums should not be left behind, especially when they leave our hero and heroine happy but still with a slight possibility of danger before them. In any event, The Highlander who Protected Me is adventurous, a good love story, and a decent way to pass the time, though I can’t fully recommend it.