The Highlander Who Loved Me (The McKennas) by Adrienne Basso
Publication Date: December 29, 2015
Genre: Historical Romance
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?
James awoke with a start, wincing as a stabbing pain sliced through his throbbing skull. He turned his head only to find himself struggling to overcome an attack of light-headedness. Blackness whirled around him, forcing him to shut his eyes and press his head against the pillow.
Deep breaths, deep breaths.
Gradually, the fog surrounding him eased, replaced by an onslaught of agony so sharp it stole the breath from his body. Every inch of him, from his scalp to his toes, ached and throbbed with a fiery pain. Dizzy and sweating, James pulled himself into a sitting position, only to immediately slump back down.
Bloody hell, what’s wrong with me?
He did not want to open his eyes, but finally, slowly, he did. Thoughts churning, he lifted the blanket covering his naked body. James glanced down and cringed, his blurry eyes taking in the sight of bloody bandages swathing his arm, chest, belly, and legs. He blew out another puzzled breath, but then suddenly his throat seized as faint memories of the attack filled his aching head.
“Davina,” he whispered.
Tears filled the corners of his eyes. He eased himself upright, the ropes beneath the mattress squealing in protest when he moved. The sound tore through his head, but he fought through the pain.
Leaning gingerly against the headboard, James searched his scattered memory for details. They had met on the hilltop, in their secret place. Davina had smiled and teased and kissed him with her usual passion and excitement. His heart had been near bursting with emotion when he asked her to be his wife and when she had agreed—och, his joy had been boundless.
But then . . . then . . . they had been set upon by brigands. A foul group of outlaws intent on causing them harm. He had fought fiercely, had killed several of them, but there were too many to defeat. He remembered striking his final opponent in the heart with his dirk, but after that there was only blackness.
What happened to Davina? Had she escaped? Been kidnapped? Been killed?
Ignoring the pulsing pain racking his body, James again whispered his beloved’s name, then began shouting,
The bedchamber door flew open. The silhouette of a burly man loomed in the doorway. “Are ye awake?”
“Aye,” James croaked. He felt appallingly weak and confused.
“I’ll get the laird.”
The man left before James could question him. Frustrated, James forced himself to remain calm. Finally, laird Armstrong entered the chamber, two men at his side. James recognized one of them as the captain of the guard. The other was unknown to him.
“I see ye’ve decided to join the living again,” Laird Armstrong said, his booming voice rattling James’s aching head.
Ignoring the expression of discontent clouding the laird’s features, James asked, “Where is Davina?”
“She’s confined to her bed.” The laird’s eyes grew dark. “She’s in a terrible, disgraceful state. Bruised and beaten. She shudders with nightmares, cries out in terror. My men found ye both miles from the castle, struck down and bleeding. What happened?”
Davina lives! James’s heart beat with elation, followed swiftly by sadness. Alive, aye, yet badly injured.
“We were attacked,” James replied.
“My men saw no one. There was no looting in the village, no crops destroyed, no cattle stolen.” The laird lifted his brow. “What can ye tell us of them?”
James took a deep breath, shuddering at the searing pain it caused in his chest. “There were six men. None wore plaids or carried shields with clan markings. They surprised us.”
“I can only imagine what ye were doing in such a private, secluded place with my niece that caused ye to be so distracted,” Laird Armstrong growled.
James grit his teeth and jerked his head in denial. He would not stand for Davina’s honor to be questioned, even by her own kin. “I love Davina. I would never do anything to compromise her honor or virtue.”
Laird Armstrong snorted in disbelief. “Six men trained his men better.”
He did. Guilt, swift and sudden, stabbed through James. He lowered his chin in shame. “The men were on foot, not horseback. They had the advantage of surprise when they ambushed us.”
The laird’s eyes sparked with sudden anger. “We’ve not had any trouble with brigands on our lands fer years.”
“Not while Robert the Bruce was king,” the captain of the guard added.
James nearly shouted in frustration. He had no care for the political implications of the attack. His main concern was finding the criminals and punishing them for hurting Davina.
“It could have been a group of English scum,” the other man suggested.
“We’re too far north for the English to be troubling us,” the laird insisted.
“Nay, they were Scots. I could tell by their swords; to a man they carried Claymores.” James’s voice felt choked and tight. “I killed two of them and wounded two others. After that . . .” he said, his voice trailing off in confusion.
“We found no bodies,” the captain of the guard challenged. James drew in a ragged breath, fighting the need to argue. “They must have taken the dead and wounded away.”
“Two men took four others away?” the laird asked incredulously.
James shook his head and stared across the chamber. He had no answers to give, no explanations that made sense. “What did Davina tell ye?”
The laird shot him a sidelong look. “She cannae speak of the incident without becoming hysterical.”
James cursed. “The last thing I remember was an explosion of pain inside my head.”
The captain of the guard nodded. “Ye’ve got a fine, swelling bruise on the back of yer skull. Ye must have been struck from behind.”
James lifted his arm and ran his fingers over the growing lump behind his right ear. At the touch, he felt a ferocious, nearly blinding pain so strong that it turned his stomach. He bowed his head and fought the sickness, not wanting to disgrace himself further in front of these men.
They were still scrutinizing him, some openly, some covertly, but all with grave suspicion. James saw the looks that passed between them. They spoke among themselves, their voices deliberately low, so he could not hear the conversation. ’Twas a stark reminder that he was not a member of the clan, but rather an outsider.
No matter that he was a McKenna, the son of a powerful and respected chieftain. He had lost their trust when he failed to protect Davina.
God, he needed to see her. But he feared he could not leave this bed without aid and he was too proud to show further weakness in front of these warriors.
The discussion continued, with frequent glances in his direction. The chamber was soon brimming with tension, yet James found that he didn’t really care. He rubbed a hand over his brow, trying to ease the pounding in his forehead. His eyelids grew heavy and slowly closed. He struggled to reopen them, succeeding, but within seconds they closed a second time.
He had the sensation of someone drawing closer to his bed, speaking to him, but the words made no sense. There were waves of pain crashing through his head. But even worse, over and over the image of Davina falling prey to those brigands flashed before his eyes.
And then suddenly, mercifully, there was only darkness. And silence.
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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.