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?
Praise for Adrienne Basso's Bride of a Scottish Warrior
“Well-developed characters and a strong sense of time and place are just a few of the pluses readers will encounter in Basso's latest smartly written medieval romance.” —Booklist
“An impossible-to-put-down read!” —RT Book Reviews
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The Highlander Who Loved Me
By ADRIENNE BASSO
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Adrienne Basso
All rights reserved.
Dunfermline Abbey, Summer, 1329
"I can scarcely believe he's dead," the young knight whispered, his voice low and respectful.
"Aye. 'Tis a sad day in the Highlands as well as the Lowlands to be burying such a great king," Sir James McKenna answered as he pushed his way into the crowded church.
A burst of unease passed through James as he searched, and failed, to find an empty seat. All his life he had heard tales of his king, the heroic Robert the Bruce. Firsthand accounts from his father and uncle who had fought beside their king as Robert broke the iron fist of English rule and united the clans of Scotland.
The tragic defeat at Methven, the victory at Loudoun Hill, the triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn. All were fine examples of the king's courage, cunning, and audacity. But today the warriors of Scotland were not here to celebrate the king's victories or remorse over his defeats — today they were gathered to bury their leader.
James craned his neck, trying to get a better view of the solemn ceremony. As his eyes scanned the pews, he spied the back of his father's head, and beside him, the dark-hued hair of his older brother, Malcolm. As befitting an important chieftain, Laird McKenna was seated in the front of the chapel, his eldest son and heir, Malcolm, beside him. And, as usual, James was left to fend for himself at the back of the church, with the lesser nobles and other second and third sons.
Still, his McKenna height gave James the advantage of a clear sight line in the abbey. He felt the wave of sorrow washing over those in attendance as the king was interred beneath the high altar, his remains placed beside his queen, Elizabeth. Then one by one, the warriors filed past, paying their final respects, bidding their final farewells.
The somber mood lifted as the mourners gathered in the courtyard, but the talk quickly turned to politics. Though the king had been ill for over a year, the clan chiefs were restless and uncertain of the succession. The king's only son and heir, David, was a mere lad of five years old. The Earl of Moray had been appointed as the boy's guardian and would rule until David was old enough to rule on his own.
Some were reassured by this decision; others were not. Scots were independent thinkers by nature and many clans had solid claims to the throne. All were wary now, wondering if anyone would make a bid for the crown and upset the hard-fought peace among them.
Never one to be overly interested in politics, James had mixed feelings on the matter. A war might give him the chance to better his position in life, mayhap even gain a keep of his own. That was if he fought for the winning side in the conflict — and somehow survived it. A risky business at best.
"I'm glad to see ye made it, James," a deep male voice cried out. "It would have been a slight on my honor not to have my two oldest sons attending such an historic event."
James pivoted around at the sound of that familiar voice and gave his father a rueful grin. "I'm certain that no one took notice of me cramped in the back of the chapel."
"Ye stand a head taller than most of these warriors," another male voice chimed in. "And the McKenna plaid is neigh impossible to miss."
"Uncle Ewan!" James broke into a wide smile as he embraced his uncle-by-marriage. James had been fostered at Ewan's castle as a young lad and had many fond memories of that time. He was also very aware that he owed a goodly portion of his prowess with a sword and his leadership skills to his uncle. "How do things fare at Tiree Keep?"
Ewan shrugged. "All is much the same as when ye were with us. Young Cameron begged to come along on this journey, but yer aunt wouldn't hear of it."
James smiled in understanding. His aunt Grace was fiercely protective of her children. James had always found her to be a reasonable, sweet-tempered woman, but she also possessed a stubborn, hardheaded determination that characterized those who carried McKenna blood.
"My sister coddles her sons," Brian McKenna declared. "I cannae believe that ye allow it, Ewan."
Unoffended by his brother-in-law's remarks, Ewan merely shrugged. "I prefer peace in my home. Yer sister rarely disagrees with me, but when she does, I've learned 'tis to my advantage to do as she asks."
Brian McKenna scoffed and James lowered his chin, hiding his smile. His father could bluster all he wanted, but he indulged his wife's whims far more than most other husbands, for Aileen Sinclair McKenna would have it no other way. His mother was a formidable woman and over their years together, his father had developed the good sense to realize it.
The conversation ceased as a group of chieftains approached. James blended respectfully into the background, while his older brother, Malcolm, moved forward, placing himself at their father's side. The pang of resentment stabbed sharply at James, then quickly faded. His brother was being groomed to one day lead the clan; 'twas fitting that he be a part of this discussion.
James recognized many, but not all, of the men who gathered together. Some were stoic, others looked unsettled, and a few were openly defiant. James could hear his father's voice raised above the others as they spoke of the future of Scottish independence and the treachery of the English.
Brian McKenna seemed unfazed by the uneasy talk that swirled around him, but James knew his father was concealing his true feelings. He had been a loyal king's man for too many years to simply stand idle while others questioned the boy king's right to rule.
Sir James Douglas approached the group and joined in the discussion. He was a broad-shouldered man who carried himself with a distinct air of self-importance, yet he did not appear to have the same influence over the others as Brian McKenna. James noticed several of the men shifting on their feet while the Douglas spoke. Once he was finished, most walked away.
James angled his face toward the cloudy sky, then looked to his father, wondering if he wanted to start their journey home now or linger and try to ensure that some of the other clan chiefs would support the boy king.
"Malcolm rides with the Douglas clan," Brian McKenna said as he came to stand beside his son. "I'd like ye to accompany the Armstrongs as they ride home to their lands, James, and stay as long as they have need of ye."
James turned in surprise. "'Tis fitting that Malcolm rides with the Douglas clan, since his betrothed is a Douglas lass. But why must I to go with the Armstrong clan?"
"Ye're always pestering me about the dull routine at McKenna Castle. Well, lad, here's yer chance to have an adventure."
His father gave him a tight, even smile, but James was not fooled by this sudden jovial manner. There was something more to this request than a simple show of friendship. James felt certain of it.
Brian McKenna was used to being obeyed without question, but the expression on his son's face somehow prompted further explanation.
"Alliances are more important now than ever," his father confided. "Did ye happen to notice the chain around Sir James Douglas's neck and the silver casket dangling at the end of it?"
"'Tis the king's embalmed heart that's locked inside."
James winced. "I heard one of the other knights speak of it, but I thought it only a rumor."
"Nay,'tis the truth. The loyalty of the Douglas clan to the boy king and the monarchy willnae be questioned by such a show of devotion."
James glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone was near, then lowered his voice. "Is that devotion genuine?"
"I think the Douglas clan will happily support the king fer as long as it benefits them," the McKenna replied bluntly.
"What of the Armstrongs? Are they not loyal to the crown?"
"Laird Armstrong is cautious. 'Tis understandable, yet we cannae allow any breech in the clan alliance. At the first hint of weakness, the English will pounce and our hard-fought independence will be at great risk." The McKenna cleared his throat and sniffed. "I want Laird Armstrong to know I value him as an ally and will offer my support to him if he ever has need of it. Sending ye home with him is a clear sign of my good faith."
James forced his face into calm, so as not to betray his excitement at being charged with such an important task. "If ye believe my presence will help, I'll gladly do as ye ask."
The McKenna nodded approvingly, then rewarded his son with a genuine smile.
James felt his chest swell. As always, even the smallest crumb of approval from his proud, distant father produced this sort of reaction. But it wasn't just pride in himself he felt; 'twas also a newfound respect for the man who had raised him.
The McKennas were a powerful, wealthy clan. James had always believed that was due to his father's strong leadership and unmatched skill with a sword, but he now realized his father's cunning and political acumen played an important part in the clan's success — and survival.
"I guess this is farewell for a while, brother. Father said ye are to go with the Armstrongs."
James looked over at his brother, Malcolm. He had been blessed with the best features of their parents — their father's height and broad, muscular build and their mother's expressive blue eyes and winsome smile. He carried himself with the confidence and swagger of a man comfortable in his own skin. James felt a twinge of envy, yet remained hopeful he, too, would one day feel the same.
"And ye will be riding with the Douglas clan," James replied.
Malcolm grinned, then playfully punched James in the upper arm. "Dinnae make a pest of yerself, little brother."
James grumbled under his breath, then threw a sly glance at Malcolm. "Ye'd best heed yer own advice. I'm not the one with a betrothed making cow eyes at me all the time."
Malcolm's eyes strayed to the area where the Douglas clan was gathered. A burst of female giggles could be heard clear across the yard. "She's a comely lass, my Margaret."
"And a bold one, too. I'd wager that she'd not protest too much if ye've a mind to anticipate yer wedding night." James jostled his brother's shoulder teasingly, but Malcolm did not smile.
"Hmm, I fear ye may be right. I believe I have more care fer Margaret's honor than she does."
James's brow shot up. His sexual experience was limited to a few willing McKenna widows and while he found the dalliances satisfactory, he always wanted more. The idea of turning away a lovely, willing lass seemed to be the height of foolishness.
"Do ye not find her attractive?" James asked.
"She's pretty enough, but much too eager to please."
James scratched his head. What could possibly be wrong with that? "I should think ye'd want an amenable lass as yer wife."
"Och, the innocent words of an untried youth." Malcolm clapped his brother on the back. "The thrill of the chase makes the capture of the prize all the more enticing."
"Ye want Margaret to resist ye?"
Malcolm smiled ruefully. "I'll follow Father's lead and out of respect willnae take any other women to my bed once I'm married. But I fear life can become rather dull and boring with such a docile, obedient wife."
"Yer brain is addled, Malcolm."
"And ye, little brother, are thinking with yer cock." Malcolm leaned over, his expression serious. "There's more to a woman than the pleasure she can bring ye in bed. Ye'll do well to remember that when ye choose a bride of yer own."
With a nod of farewell, his brother walked off, leaving James to ponder his final remarks and wonder what sort of female he would want for a wife. Pretty and eager to please seemed a fine combination to James. How characteristic that Malcolm did not appreciate the good fortune that so easily found its way to him.
Only two years apart in age, they had been inseparable as lads, but their close friendship had eased through the years while the competition between them had risen. Malcolm was the heir, his father's favorite and James hadn't openly regretted it, but at times he could not help but be envious of it.
Laird Armstrong's sharp tone drew everyone's attention as he called for his men to make ready to leave. After a quick good-bye to his father and uncle, James obediently hurried toward his horse. The ground was wet. Fat, heavy drops had fallen as the king's funeral service began, slowing to a trickle when it ended. James glanced skyward, mindful of the gray clouds forming on the horizon. 'Twould be a miracle if they remained dry before they either reached a dwelling to shelter them or made camp for the night.
James mounted his horse with ease, turning the animal into position. As he did, he caught a glimpse of the three women riding in the contingent, each carefully placed in the center of the column for maximum protection. The older female was obviously Lady Armstrong and the two younger women had to be her daughters, though their coloring was as different as night and day.
One daughter was a small brown wren and the other a glowing blond swan. They were both slender and well formed, but his eyes were immediately drawn to the golden splendor of the young woman sitting so tall and straight on her horse. Her face was heart-shaped, her cheekbones high and well defined, her mouth wide, with soft generous lips. She was a rare beauty who had the power to capture the attention of every male orbiting in her sphere.
Well aware of the attention she was receiving, the blonde tossed her head, causing her blond braid to shimmer, even on this cloudy day. Then she smiled, at no one in particular, a calculating affectation that lacked warmth and honesty.
His interest immediately began to cool. James recognized that knowing look — a woman flaunting her beauty, spinning a web in which to trap any male who was foolish enough to be drawn to her.
He pressed his knees against his horse's flanks and the animal obediently turned. They splashed along the muddy grass as James took his place near the head of the column. The Armstrong men gave him a courteous nod, but kept to themselves. James understood. He was an outsider. He would be tolerated but not accepted unless he proved himself.
A light drizzle began as they made their way out of the churchyard. James hunched over his mount and plodded onward, easily keeping pace. They rode at a fast clip on the flatter ground, then made a slow and careful climb along the rocky face of a steep hill. Once they reached the other side, the signal was given to make camp.
Deciding to see to the needs of his horse before his own, James followed the sound of water through a small patch of forest. Finding the source, he let the animal drink its fill. As he turned to leave, he noticed a woman walking purposefully toward the stream, a wooden bucket in each hand.
Recognizing her cloak, he realized it was one of the laird's daughters. The hood was drawn over her head, but he suspected it was not the blonde goddess, but rather the little brown wren. His suspicions were confirmed when she knelt by the water's edge. She slowly dragged one of the buckets through the stream. Her hood slipped back and he saw the dark hue of her hair.
"Ye should have asked one of the men to fetch the water fer ye," he said, stepping forward.
She let out a small shriek of surprise and dropped the buckets. One caught on the current and floated downstream. James bent down and plucked it from the water, then moved forward and scooped up the other. He filled them, then set each on the ground, just within her reach. Yet she made no move to retrieve them, instead staying crouched at the water's edge.
"Ye startled me," she declared, wrinkling her brow as she studied him cautiously.
"I beg yer pardon," he replied, squirming slightly under her accusing gaze. "I dinnae expect to find a lady hauling water like a servant. One of the men should have seen to yer needs."
Her eyes widened and she dipped her chin. James thought he saw the hint of a smile, but could not be certain.
"The men are busy setting up camp and attending to other matters," she replied. "I dinnae want to be a bother. Besides, my aunt prefers that I make myself useful. She and my cousin will need fresh water to wash the dirt from their hands and face and since we brought no maids with us, I was charged with the task."
"Cousin? The other young woman is not yer sister?" he asked.
"Goodness no," she replied with a quick shake of her head. "Joan is my cousin. Our fathers were brothers, mine being the younger of the two."
"Aye. He died five years ago; my mother, too." Her voice trembled slightly at the words and a trace of sadness gathered in her eyes.
"Yet the wound is still fresh," he said sympathetically.
Excerpted from The Highlander Who Loved Me by ADRIENNE BASSO. Copyright © 2016 Adrienne Basso. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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