Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Highland Chieftain - Hannah Howell (Zebra - Oct 2016)

Series: Highland - Murray Clan (Book 23)

Responsible for protecting her younger siblings from their abusive father, Bethoc Matheson is in no position to rescue another soul in Scotland. Yet when she sees a bleeding man on the verge of drowning, that’s exactly what she does, securing him safely in a cave where she can return day after day to tend to his wounds.

Sir Callum MacMillan can scarcely believe such a slight lass as Bethoc could save him from the grasp of death. But he knows the telltale marks of an angry fist on her skin, and he knows she has the soul of a fighter within her feminine frame. Raised to be a protector of the weak by his Murray clansmen, Callum would prefer to be the one saving her -- and save her, he will. If he can first survive the treacherous attack that led him into her irresistible arms . . .

This is the first Murray book I have read in a while and I loved it, as it reminded me of why I like these books so much. There is a lot that happens throughout the book. It opens with our hero fighting for survival, as he was beaten and tossed in the water to die. He's too stubborn to go out that way and manages to get to shore before collapsing in pain from his injuries, including a broken leg. He is found by Bethoc, who is out walking with her little sister. She manages to get him to her safe place, a cave where he can hide while recovering. She promises to come as often as she can to care for him.

Bethoc is the oldest child of her household, followed by five brothers and her baby sister. Their father is an abusive man, who beats them often. She would like to escape, but can't leave her siblings unprotected, so she endures. When her father brings home yet another "brother" to help with the farm, she finally begins to question where the boys have come from. The mystery gets deeper when she discovers that the new lad is the same boy that Callum had been protecting.

There is a connection between Bethoc and Callum from the very beginning. In spite of the abuse she has received, she instinctively trusts Callum. Both of them have dark pasts that have affected their lives. Callum was one of the boys rescued in an earlier book (Highland Angel) who had suffered from terrible abuse. Since his rescue he has become a staunch defender of women and children, frequently taking in orphans and finding them new homes. His temper can get the best of him when he sees abuses happening, which reinforces his belief that he has a dark soul. Bethoc's own abuses have taught her to be cautious. Her mother's deathbed confession that Kerr is not Bethoc's father has made her wonder about the man who is, but she has no way to find out. Bethoc has become very protective of her "brothers" and her little sister.

Over the weeks that it takes Callum's leg to mend, Bethoc visits as often as she dares. Callum learns a lot about Bethoc's life and is unhappy that he is in no condition to rescue her. He is shocked to discover that he knows her true father, a member of the Murray clan, and tries to convince Bethoc that she must meet him. Callum's friends find him part way through the healing process, and agree that he is probably safer where he is while they try to find the men who attacked him.

The attraction between Callum and Bethoc continues to grow. He can't stop himself from kissing her, and it isn't long before things progress even further. Bethoc believes that this is something that will only last until he is well enough to leave. Callum knows that he should leave her alone, but can't seem to help himself. He also keeps trying to figure out ways to keep her with him, even though he doesn't know why he wants to. Just when it looks like he's able to take Bethoc and her brothers and sister to his home with him, the men who attacked him make a reappearance.

This time they have tortured and killed her stepfather, and framed her for the murder. The things that she endures as she is held and "questioned" by the local sheriff are horrifying. She has no idea if Callum will be able to find and rescue her before it is too late. This section of the book is intense, with the danger to her increasing by the minute. I loved Callum's determination to save her. It was quite satisfying to see how he pulled it off, with the aid of his friends. In the midst of the tension, there are a few lighter moments that relieve the intensity. There are a couple of twists that cause a resurgence of the danger, with rescue this time coming from an unexpected source.

A quick visit to meet her father is followed by Callum taking her and some of her brothers to his home. They continue as lovers, with Callum happy to have her with him, but feeling like there is something missing. Various family members question his intentions, but he doesn't know what to tell them. I was a little frustrated with Callum by this point because he is so oblivious to what is going on inside him. He knows he wants to keep her with him, but can't figure out what it means. Even talking to his friends, he is stubbornly blind to what they try to tell him. Meanwhile, Bethoc has realized that she loves Callum, but wants more than what he seems willing to give her. She doesn't want to lose him, but she can't go on like this forever. I loved his friends' last ditch effort to get him to see the truth. His big moment at the end was sweet and a bit awkward as he finally realized his fear and faced it. A great epilogue brought it all together.

I loved the secondary characters. Callum's friends, who are as protective and honorable as he is, provide support and some of the lighter moments of the book. I loved seeing each of them try to make Callum see the truth about his feelings for Bethoc. I loved their protectiveness toward Bethoc and the others. Robbie was especially nice to watch as he found his own future. Bethoc's "brothers" were terrific. I enjoyed seeing how they watched out for and protected each other. Their protectiveness reached new heights as their "father's" abuse grew worse. The most engaging was wee Margaret, with her stubbornness, sweetness and loving nature. She has several scene-stealing moments that had me grinning in delight. After the discovery that he was Bethoc's father, I expected a little more involvement from Brett Murray. I found his hands off attitude a little puzzling, and expected at least a little pressure put on Callum to "do the right thing". I liked seeing some of the other Murray couples again, especially the ladies' acceptance and support of Bethoc and her "gift".

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