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THE HIGHLANDER WHO LOVED ME
THE HIGHLANDER WHO LOVED ME
Released Dec 29th, 2015
A HIGHLANDER IS ALWAYS WORTH WAITING FOR
Scottish Highlands, 1329. Sir James McKenna, second son of the powerful McKenna Chief, knows he has found his destiny when he falls in love with sweet Lady Davina Armstrong, niece of the Armstrong Chief. Orphaned in childhood, Davina has always felt like an outsider, and with James finally feels that she belongs. But their plans for a happy future are shattered after a brutal attack by a band of rogues. Horrified, Davina’s overprotective family quickly shelters her from everyone—including James…
Five years later, James is a changed man. His fighting skills sharpened to perfection, he is hardened by the war and destruction he’s endured as a Scottish knight—and by the loss of Davina. Weary, he returns home—and is shocked to find Davina there. Is it too late for them to start anew, or will the past dare to lay claim to their future once more?
Davina awoke with a cry, gurgling and gasping for breath. Merciful God! It had been many months since she had been tormented by such terrifying dreams. No doubt the notion of leaving the safety of Armstrong Castle had brought them roaring back to life.
She closed her eyes and took several small, steadying breaths. She could feel the moisture gathering behind her lids, yet Davina refused to allow the sobs to come, knowing if anyone heard them, they would tell her aunt and uncle, proving that she was not strong enough to make this journey.
Her breathing still ragged, Davina slowly got to her feet. She walked across her small chamber—nearly tripping over her packed belongings—settled herself into a chair, and bowed her head. Are Aunt Isobel and Uncle Fergus right? Will leaving home cause the fear that lurks so close to the surface to consume me?
Wincing, Davina lifted her head and glanced at the small wooden box tucked into a stone shelf in the corner of the chamber. Inside the box was a bottle of the medicine she took whenever her nerves became overset. ’Twas a brew the clan healer had created especially for her. Encouraged by her aunt, she had taken it several times a day after the attack, welcoming its mind-numbing effects, drinking bottle after bottle for months on end.
Gradually, however, Davina realized she was becoming far too dependent upon it. At first,’twas impossible for her to abandon it completely, for her fears were so vivid and strong, yet she managed to discipline herself to use it only when her need was most dire. The hardfought results were gratifying and she was proud of the fact that not a drop of the potent brew had crossed her lips for many, many months.
Feeling agitated, Davina walked to her small window and pulled back the leather cover. The cold air hit her square in the face, but the bracing wind was not enough to clear her head. Hastily, she moved away, glancing again at the box. I need it or else I’ll never find the courage to leave in a few hours.
Lips pursed, she allowed her feet to carry her across the chamber. Staring hard, she waited a long moment before lifting the lid and removing the bottle.
Only one wee sip.
The medicine tasted bitter on her tongue and theurge to take a large swallow was strong, but Davina resisted. With a determined shudder, she pressed the cork tightly back into the neck and was rewarded with a feeling of control. Yet instead of returning the bottle to its proper place, Davina slipped it carefully into her small trunk.
The first day of her journey to McKenna Castle passed quickly, with little incident. Uncle Fergus and Aunt Isobel were silent and stoic as Davina bid them farewell. Though Davina hated to see the hint of hurt upon their faces, she pointedly ignored their disapproval and acted as if all was fine. Davina’s knuckles were white beneath her leather gloves as she approached the gates of the castle. Five years. Five years since I have been on the other side.
Gritting her teeth, Davina pressed her knees against her horse’s flanks, encouraging the mount to increase its speed. An icy quiver of unease prickled up the nape of her neck and she felt every eye in the bailey staring at her, but Davina kept her gaze forward and her back straight.
“Well done, milady,” Colleen whispered.
Davina turned to the older woman riding beside her and gave her a small smile. The breath she had been holding released in a rush. I’ve done it!
The urge to shout the news with triumph overcame her, but Davina tempered her response. ’Twas only the first of many challenges she would need to conquer. Still, it felt rewarding to have success and the boost to her courage was much appreciated.
Quietly, Davina savored her victory, thankful also that Sir Malcolm was busy ordering his men into formation and therefore unaware of the swirling tension surrounding the significance of her passing through the gates of Armstrong Castle.
The weather was cold, but free of snow. Davina wore her warmest gown and heavy woolen cloak, yet the occasional gust of wind tore through her with a chill that reached her bones. Sir Malcolm rode at the head of the column, leading his men, though every now and then he would turn to look over his shoulder at her.
Each time his gaze met hers, her heart would nervously trip over itself, yet she managed to bestow a pleasant smile upon him, hoping to convey that all was well. She appeared to succeed, for Sir Malcolm would then nod his head and return his attention to the road. After a few hours they made a brief stop to water the horses and eat a bit of crusty bread and cheese, washed down with wine. Sir Malcolm approached as Davina pulled her aching body back atop her mount.
“We must travel until nearly dark in order to reach Montgomery Abbey, where we will take shelter fer the night,” he explained. “Will that pose any difficulty fer ye and yer companion?”
Nay, we shall be fine,” Davina muttered, averting her gaze so he could not see the doubt in her eyes.
It had been many years since she had ridden for so long and her cold, stiff muscles were
already protesting. But she refused to complain, refused to slow their progress.
'Twas only after hearing Colleen groan as she settled herself upon her own horse that Davina felt a pang of worry.
“Och, how thoughtless of me, Colleen, fer not asking how ye fared before answering Sir Malcolm. Shall I call him back?”
Colleen shook her head. “Nay, milady. I might be older, but I am used to riding in the cold weather. Far more than ye.”
The truth of those words rankled, but Davina lifted her chin. “I fear ye are right, but ’tis past time I became used to it again.”
Her determined words, and many fortifying deep breaths, gave Davina strength to endure the bone-jarring afternoon. Taking her at her word, Sir Malcolm paid her no heed, turning his attention to other matters. For that, Davina was grateful, for she was uncertain she could adequately hide the extent of her physical discomfort if he scrutinized her too closely.
After what felt like an eternity, salvation arrived. Bathed in the glow of the setting sun, Davina caught a glimpse of the spires of the abbey, admitting they were the most welcoming sight that she had seen in a very long time. Spirits buoyed, she stretched the soreness from her back and shoulders and urged her mount onward.
The abbot stood in the yard, ready to greet them and Davina realized that Sir Malcolm must have sent one of his men ahead to make certain all would be ready. ’Twas a small thing, yet showed surprising consideration.
James would have done the same. The truth of that notion brought a wistful smile to her lips. Sir Malcolm leaped gracefully down from his horse, then turned to assist Davina. A bolt of alarm sank into her gut. She started shivering, mostly from the cold, but also at the notion of Sir Malcolm placing his hands upon her.
She attempted to scramble off the horse on her own. Sir Malcolm noticed her trembling and, assuming it was due to the cold, insisted they get inside at once. Without waiting for a reply, he reached up and encircled her waist. She jumped, but his grip was firm and never faltered.
She swayed slightly when he set her on her feet, her heart drumming so loudly she was certain he heard it. She raised her arms, struggling with the intense urge to bat his hands away. Fortunately, he released her before it was necessary.
Still, she could feel his eyes upon her, staring at her, and she could only imagine what he was thinking. Hoping to distract him from her odd reaction, she gave him a quick smile of thanks, but inside she felt wooden. The physical contact had left her with a feeling of panic so severe it nearly robbed her of breath.
Perhaps this was a colossal mistake. Leaving the shelter and familiarity of her home was too much for her delicate nerves. No doubt she would make a fool of herself many times over before they even arrived at McKenna Castle. And the good Lord only knew what else she would do there before the visit ended.
As they walked into the section of the abbey reserved for overnight travelers, Davina
considered feigning an illness and requesting that she be brought home in the morning.
Yet as quickly as the thought appeared, Davina dismissed it, clenching her fingers into tight fists, angry with herself for having such cowardly thoughts. Nay, she would not flee. She would see this through and fight for her independence.
But not this evening.
“We are grateful fer yer kind hospitality,” Davina said as the abbot showed her the simple chamber that she and Colleen would share. “We shall partake of our meal in here and then go directly to sleep.”
The abbot looked momentarily stunned, but recovered quickly. “We are not a restricted order. Women are welcome to join us in the hall for the evening meal.”
Davina felt herself blushing and she turned her head away. Sir Malcolm’s eyes were practically boring a hole into her, making her even more determined to avoid him.
"Thank ye, but I fear we are too tired to be good company. I bid ye all good night,” she said hastily, before fleeing to the safety of her chamber, Colleen following obediently behind her.
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Adrienne Basso is the author of over ten Zebra historical romances. She lives with her family in West Plainfield, New Jersey. Readers can visit her at adriennebasso.net.