Monday, January 4, 2016

Review: The Highlander Who Loved Me by Adrienne Basso

The Highlander Who Loved Me 
by Adrienne Basso
Pub. Date:  Dec. 29, 2015
Publisher:  Zebra / Kensington
Pages:  352
Format:  eARC
Source:  NetGalley


My Rating:  
Sultry Scale:


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? 

The Highlander Who Loved Me is a solid Highland historical romance set in 14th Century Scotland right after the death of Robert the Bruce. Sir James McKenna, a second son, is sent to travel with the Armstrong clan by his father to both solidify their clan alliance, and spy a little along the way to see if there is talk of challenging the new young king's rule. James quickly falls for Davina Armstrong, an orphaned niece of the clan laird. However, just as James and Davina agree to solidify their relationship, they are attacked brigands. The aftermath of the attack drive James and Davina apart.

I really liked James' character. He won brownie points right off the bat by noticing that the beauty held by Davina's cousin, Joan, was only skin deep. James was honorable in his treatment of Davina, refusing to seduce her without marriage vows. Then after the attack, Davina's rejection and James' overwhelming guilt for not being able to protect her drive him off to the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. James returns 5 years later as a hardened warrior, bitter and jaded.

For the five years while James was away, Davina's has kept herself shut away in the Armstrong hold, refusing to leave the protection of the castle. She is skittish around men and unknown situations. So it's surprising to everyone that Davina accepts Aileen McKenna's invitation to McKenna keep for the Christmas holiday. I had a good emotional connection to Davina's character from the start of the book, but it waned a bit as the story continued. I was pulling for her to overcome her fears, but I didn't really like the love triangle aspect with James' brother, Malcolm.

The plot conflict involving the repeated attacks involving Davina was what really drove the story. I kept turning the page trying to discover who the actual villain was, and didn't figure it out until almost the end. I would have like to known what happened to the brigand leader, as that part of the story seemed to dangle at loose ends. The one thing in the story that I was uncomfortable with was the rivalry that existed between James and Malcolm. Right from the beginning, James resents Malcolm as the heir and is quick to let that jealousy show. For me, this cast a shadow on his character as it was not in line with the honor I saw in how he treated Davina. Things became even more complicated when that love triangle arose. However I believe if Malcolm had known the history, he would not have pursued Davina with such dogged force.

Overall this was a solid read that I enjoyed. It was perfect ending to this holiday season as I enjoyed reading about the Highland Christmas traditions and the legend of the mistletoe. I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

View all my reviews


About the Author

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.


Author Links: Website | Facebook | GoodReads


Giveaway


Excerpt

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 appreciatethe 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 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, awooden 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 blond 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 ask 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.”
            “Was?”
            “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.
            “There are times that I feel the loss more keenly than others. I suppose attending the king’s funeral was a stark reminder of the finality of death and in turn I’ve felt the pain of the loss anew.” She curled her bottom lip between her teeth. “Ye must forgive me fer being so emotional. My cousin Joan often reminds me how annoying that can be and says that five years is more than enough time to heal the wounds of loss.”
He disliked hearing the defeat in her voice. How could her kin be so cold and unfeeling to her pain?
            “A true heart suffers more than a false one,” he said kindly.
            She lifted her chin a notch and James felt a rush of admiration. She was so determined to appear strong. His eyes met hers, and suddenly he could not pull away. The warmth and emotion shining forth from those sweet brown orbs seemed to reach inside his chest and wrap tightly around his heart.
            God’s bones, she was pretty. She did not have the mesmerizing golden beauty of her cousin, but her features were delicate and refined and wholly pleasing. An oval face with a generous mouth and smooth skin the color of fresh cream.
            Her dark hair was neatly tied in a braid that cascaded down her back, ending in the middle of her shapely backside. It glistened in the dull light that filtered through the branches and leaves. There was a clean, fresh fragrance emanating from it that drew him closer. With effort, he suppressed the urge to reach out and touch it, knowing it was both rude and inappropriate.
            Instead, he squatted down to his haunches, commanding her attention with his eyes. They were a glimmering shade of golden brown, fringed by long lashes and framed by finely arched brows, but it was the open honesty reflected in their depth that pleased him more than he could say.
            “We have shared a confidence and yet I dinnae know yer name, milady,” he said gently.
            “I am Davina.”
            “James.”
            “Aye, I know.”
            He stood, then reached out his hand to help her gain her feet. She frowned in puzzlement, then blushingly placed her bare hand in his. James could feel the delicate bones of her fingers as he drew her upward. For a wicked instant he thought to pull her off balance, so she would need to steady herself against his body, but he resisted such an unchivalrous notion.