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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?
His face haunted her dreams, the memory of their love whittled away at her soul. Once she had believed they would marry and fill their home with children. But a cruel, unforeseen act of violence had denied her that happiness.
Disgusted with her weakness, Davina angrily turned away. Her days were so often a struggle against her natural inclination to run and hide from the world and she fought that as best she could. Victories were rare, however. Oh, she managed with the members of her family, with the household servants she knew, even with one or two of the older Armstrong warriors that took their meals at the table nearest hers in the great hall.
But she struggled mightily with unknown men, became shy and tongue-tied around women when first making their acquaintance. Hoping to spare her this distress, her family had encouraged her to withdraw, to protect herself from this pain by keeping away from the cause of it.
Directly after the attack, this simple solution had been a balm to her bruised mind, but as the days turned into weeks, then months and finally years, the loneliness of living such a sheltered existence began to eat away at Davina, enveloping her like a shroud. And the cowardliness of this isolated life began to shame her.
I must not allow the fear to paralyze me—I must not, she told herself. But she also needed to learn how to stop the brooding. It did her no good, thrusting her further into the darkness of her mind.
The weak evening light spilling into her chamber dispelled some of Davina’s gloom and strengthened her resolve to find a way to move beyond the circumstances that surrounded her. It had taken her far too long to come to the realization that she could not change the horror that had ravaged her past, but neither did she have to remain a prisoner to it.
The healing had in fact begun three years ago when she received a letter from Lady Aileen McKenna, James’s mother. Davina’s skill at reading and writing were rudimentary, but she was able to decipher the brief message, which inquired about her health and ended with prayers and good wishes. Oddly, it had brought such a calming sense of comfort that Davina felt compelled to reply.
The next message from Lady Aileen spoke of her worry for her son, James, who had gone with Sir James Douglas on Crusade. It ended with an invitation to visit McKenna Castle. The idea of traveling such a distance to stay with strangers was terrifying, so of course Davina promptly declined.
Thankfully, Lady Aileen took no offense and continued to correspond. Davina continued to answer. The invitations to visit also persisted, though they were not in every letter. And then somehow, Davina still was uncertain exactly why, when she answered a missive a few weeks ago, she felt emboldened to accept Lady Aileen’s invitation to come to McKenna Castle and celebrate the Christmas holiday.
Well, bold or desperate, Davina was honestly unsure which emotion was strongest. It was only several days after she had said yes that the reality of her actions took hold in her mind. And as she grappled with the events she had set in motion, she continued to do as she always did—keep her own counsel.
But now several weeks had passed and it was beyond time she told her aunt and uncle of this impending journey. Pressing her hand against the knot forming in her stomach, Davina walked with long, purposeful strides to the great hall in search of them. She located the pair easily, gathered with several of the local tradesmen in front of the blazing fireplace.
Hanging back in the shadows, Davina waited until before approaching. Closing her eyes for a brief moment, she took a deep breath, blurted out her news, and then braced herself for their shocked reaction. “Ye plan on going where?” her uncle asked incredulously.
“To McKenna Castle, to celebrate Christmas,” Davina repeated. “Lady Aileen has invited me.”
At her announcement, everything went silent. Not a sound could be heard, except for the crackling and hissing of the fire burning in the large fireplace at the center of the great hall.
“Why, I’ve never heard of anything more preposterous,” Aunt Isobel sputtered. “Ye haven’t ventured beyond the walls of this castle fer five years. How can ye possibly make such a long journey? And if somehow ye were able to get there, how will ye possibly manage in an unknown place, among strangers? Among strange men. Ye need to have the safety of these strong walls around ye and the solace of yer family about ye, to chase away yer gloomy thoughts and fears.”
“That’s why Lady Aileen suggested I visit for the holiday, when there will be the added merriment of celebration.”
“Ye told that good lady about yer affliction?” her aunt asked. “Have ye no pride left?”
Davina felt her cheeks begin to heat with shame. “I wrote nothing specific. I merely mentioned that at times I suffer from melancholy. She confessed to the same and suggested that perhaps we could offer each other comfort.”
In truth, Davina had merely hinted at her suffering, but Lady Aileen had been quick to address it, offering sympathy and support.
“What of her son?” Aunt Isobel asked, whispering in Davina’s ear. “Will James McKenna be at the castle, celebrating with his family?”
The genuine worry lurking in her aunt’s eyes brought on a rush of emotions, bringing to life Davina’s memory of herself sobbing in her aunt’s arms the fateful morning when James was preparing to leave Armstrong Castle.
“I heard tell that Sir James wishes to marry ye, Davina,” her aunt had said. “Uncle Fergus will speak with him, if ye agree to the match?”
“I cannae,” had been Davina’s muffled reply.
Aunt Isobel had clucked her tongue in sympathy, but refused to remain silent. “Circumstances force me to be blunt, Davina. Sir James might be yer only chance at having a husband, and one day, God willing, children of yer own. There willnae be many men offering fer yer hand after what happened.”
“’Tis best. I fear I cannae be a proper wife.”
“Those feelings shall pass,” Aunt Isobel had insisted.
Davina’s head had shaken violently. “Nay! The very idea of being intimate with a man repulses me. Even with a man that I love.”
“Hush, ye’ll make yerself ill with all this weeping.” Aunt Isobel had gently stroked her hair, bringing on a fresh bout of tears, for the kindness was both unexpected and desperately needed. “We shall not force ye to do anything that brings such fear and sorrow to yer wounded soul.”
Nay, they had not forced her. In fact, they had done their best to protect her and keep her safe. Perhaps that was why she now felt an odd sense of guilt, as if her desire to break free of her fears was somehow a betrayal of their years of care.
“Just this morning we received a message that Joan intends to come to home with her husband and baby fer the holiday,” Uncle Fergus said. “She’ll be sorely disappointed when she arrives and discovers that ye aren’t here.”
Davina shrugged, meeting her uncle’s eyes with bland innocence. Four years of marriage to the Fraser laird had not mellowed Joan’s self-serving, spoiled ways. It was always decidedly unpleasant for Davina when Joan and her family came to visit. Little did her uncle realize that avoiding her overbearing cousin was an enticement to leave, not stay.
“I can spare only a few men fer an escort,” Uncle Fergus muttered.
“By the Saints!” Aunt Isobel screeched. “The journey to McKenna Castle will take days. Davina willnae step foot outside our walls unless she has a full complement of our best warriors at her side. I’ll not have her traveling on unsafe roads with only a few men to protecther. Especially at this time of year. Food is scarce when the weather is cold. Who knows what sort of thieves and brigands lurk on the roads, eager to prey on unsuspecting travelers?”
“Exactly!” Uncle Fergus scowled. “Another reason why ’tis a daft idea. I forbid ye to go, Davina. Ye shall stay here with yer family, where ye will be safe and protected.”
Uncle Fergus and Aunt Isobel turned expectantly toward her. Davina swallowed hard, knowing they were waiting for her to agree. “Lady Aileen is sending an escort.”
“What?” Aunt Isobel’s jaw lowered.
“How many men?” Uncle Fergus asked.
“Never mind the men,” Aunt Isobel interjected. “Is she also sending a maid? We have none to spare and ye cannae be left alone in the company of a group of McKenna soldiers fer so many days and nights.”
Unable to answer, Davina lifted her hands in a helpless gesture and shrugged. Her aunt clucked her tongue in disapproval. Her uncle snorted in derision and the two began listing a myriad of hazards that she could encounter, one more distressing than the next.
The more they talked, the faster Davina’s panic started to rise. Biting her lip, she looked from one dismayed face to another. Are they right? Am I mad to consider such a journey?
The idea of going to McKenna castle had been so bold, so freeing, but now it was feeling like a bad, impulsive decision.
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.