I'm thrilled to announce that My Fierce Highlander won an EPIC Award in the historical romance category this past weekend! It was announced at the EPIC conference. Since they knew I wasn't attending, they mailed the award to me. Wow was it a thrill to open the box on Friday and pull this out! :)
It's my first award as a published author and an incredible honor. I'm thrilled the judges enjoyed the book. Judges, if any of you are reading this, thank you!!!
For those who haven't read the book yet, here's an excerpt:
Alasdair MacGrath was fair certain he’d never before awakened to such stabbing pain in his head. He loved good sherry and whisky but never overindulged, so it couldn’t be the drink banging on his head.
A voice sifted through his agony. A high-pitched, senseless prattle.
“I’ll get you, you worthless MacIrwin bastard.”
Those words didn’t go with that innocent voice.
Another voice, rougher yet still the same growled, “You’re a no-good MacGrath coward. I’ll run you through.”
What the devil is going on? Alasdair cracked one eye open. He lay on the hard-packed earth floor of some sort of dark room that spun around him. Straw and the smell of aged cow dung told him it was a byre. He squinted toward the open doorway, trying to steady his vision. A wee lad with fair hair sat in the patch of brilliant sunshine.
He continued to act out the battle scene between two man-shaped twigs. “Take that, you puny toad-spotted whoreson!”
If not for the piercing ache in his head—in his whole body—Alasdair would have laughed outright. As it was, he only managed a snort without doing himself in.
The lad sprung up, whirled around, and gaped at him with wide blue eyes. “You’ve awakened.”
“Aye,” Alasdair uttered, his throat dry and voice raspy.
“Ma! Ma!” The lad screamed and sprinted from the byre.
A skewer to the ear would’ve been more pleasant. Alasdair’s thoughtless attempt to shield his ears from the child’s hellish noise brought gripping pain to his upper body.
By the saints! What happened to me? He groaned and glanced down at himself. A woolen plaid blanket and a pile of straw covered him. He lifted the blanket and the scent of strong medicinal herbs reached his nostrils. A healer’d had hold of him? Various cloth bandages littered his torso. Other than that, he was naked.
Where are my clothes?
And where are my sword and dagger? Cold fear settled in his chest.
Someone appeared in the doorway, blocking out the light—the small frame of a woman. Though he couldn’t see her well, he felt her staring at him a long moment. “How do you feel?” she asked.
“As if I took a wee tumble from the peak of Ben Nevis. Where am I?”
In that moment three things occurred to him—she was English, he was back from the dead, and he lay helpless on enemy land with no weapons. God’s bones.
A flash of returning memory distracted him—he’d thrust his sword at a grizzly, outraged red-haired man. Something, or someone, had hit him on the head. The powerful blow had knocked him from his mount and all went black.
“Does Donald MacIrwin ken I’m here?” His sore muscles tensed. Wincing at the pain, he forced himself to relax.
“No.” The dimness hid her expression, but wariness colored her tone.
“Where are my clansmen?” He prayed his cousin, Fergus, and all the others had survived. But he knew that was impossible. He’d seen some of them fall.
“About five or six died on the battlefield. The others must have returned home.”
He didn’t even know which ones had perished yet. Dear God, not Fergus or Angus. Fortunately, his brother Lachlan had not accompanied them that day.
“I don’t understand how I came to be here instead of with them.”
“After the skirmish, I went to see if I could save the lives of any of my kinsmen, but you were the only man I found alive.”
“You’re a MacIrwin, then?”
She crossed her arms. “The MacIrwin is my distant cousin. My grandmother and his grandfather were brother and sister.”
He’d best tread softly until he determined whether he could trust this relation of his enemy. “You’ve the speech of a Sassenach.”
“I grew up in England, yes.”
“Why would a MacIrwin, even an English one, save the life of a MacGrath? We’ve been enemies for nigh on two hundred years.” Alasdair tried to sit up, but a spasm of burning pain latched onto his lower belly. “Mo chreach!” He fell back.
“Do not get up.” The waif-like woman rushed forward and knelt beside him. The pleasant smell of fresh air and green herbs clung to her.
She placed a cool hand against his upper chest and pressed him back. After shoving aside the straw and lowering the blanket to just below his waist, she examined the stitched wound on his abdomen.
“You’ve started this bleeding again.” She flicked a glare of censure at him from her vivid blue eyes.
“Pray pardon,” he said, then wondered why he’d apologized.
She could not have much MacIrwin blood in her veins, else she would’ve left him to die on the battlefield. She was nothing like Donald MacIrwin. This was the second time the bastard had deceived them, under oath, into thinking he wanted to sign a peace treaty, when in truth he wanted to murder those bearing it. Alasdair craved peace for his people so badly he’d become too trusting.
While the healer examined his injuries, he studied her captivating face. Was her creamy skin as silky as it looked? She frowned as she worked, and some of her light-brown hair escaped the knot at the back of her head. He wanted to wrap the straight, wispy strands around his fingers. Why didn’t she wear the kerch head-covering favored by married Highland women? Perhaps she wasn’t married, though she had a child. A widow, then. No rings adorned her fingers, but that told him naught since Highland women only wore their wedding rings on special occasions.
One thing was sure, she’d undressed him and seen him naked. Wishing he could’ve been awake for that, he suppressed a grin.
She caught him watching her, and her skin turned pink. Ah, but she was a bonny Sassenach. He smiled. What was she doing here in the Highlands tending his wounds? Mayhap she was an angel or a fairy and not a human woman at all.
Her cool, efficient hands felt soothing on his skin, overheated from the wool blanket. Indeed, soothing, but her touch slowly coaxed a new heat to life within him, a different sort of tingling heat he had suppressed for some time and was surprised to feel now with such strength.
“Are you in much pain?” Her eyes were guarded when they met his, and he pushed his irrational interest in her away. His very life was in danger and he best focus on that.
“Nay.” He had endured far worse. Perhaps it was her gentle touch that eased his aches.
She covered him again with the blanket. “You must lie still.”
“Aye. Did I not arrive with any weapons?” He felt more naked without those than without his kilt.
“A dagger. I have it well-hidden.” She rose.
“I would have it back to defend myself, if you don’t mind. If the MacIrwin shows up, I’ll be helpless as a wee bairn.”
“How do I know you won’t use it on me?”
He scowled. “I wouldn’t harm you. Are you thinking I’m daft?”
She studied him with intelligent, watchful eyes. “I’ll consider it.”
He released an impatient breath. “How long have I been here?”
“Since last night.”
Not long, but likely his clan thought him dead because Donald MacIrwin didn’t take hostages. Lachlan wouldn’t relish taking over as chief. He was probably even now cursing Alasdair for being so careless.
“You hit your head on something,” the woman said.
Alasdair moved his head on the straw-filled pillow, and a pain shot through his skull. “Or something hit me on the head. I reckon ’twas the broad side of an ax…which I much prefer to the sharp side.” He stroked his fingers over the sore lump on the back of his head. “God’s bones, ’tis the size of a sheep’s hoof.” He laid his head back on the pillow and gazed up at her. Surely she was his guardian angel. “You saved my life.”
“Most likely.” She glanced away as if it were nothing.
“I thank you.” It seemed so little to say. How would he ever repay her? “But why would you care if I lived or died?”
Her gaze examined his eyes, dropped to his mouth, his bare shoulder, then lifted again. She shrugged. “I’m a healer. ’Twas the least I could do for a fellow human being.”
“What? You don’t think me a savage?” He was certain he looked greatly uncivilized to her English eyes…eyes which now gleamed with blue ire.
“No. The only thing savage is this senseless fighting over nothing!”
“Well, I would see it stopped but your clan will not let it be. When we’re provoked, we fight as any clan would. The MacIrwins have committed many a crime against us.”
“Two hundred years in the past.”
“Nay. More than I can recount during my own lifetime. Including murder.”
Her gaze locked to his. “What?”
“Aye, your fine cousin—oh, never mind. Why am I telling a woman? I must be on my way.” What a waste of time this all was. He must get back to his own clan.
Such a forceful command from the wee lass? He couldn’t help but gape at her militant expression.
“You shall not get very far with a broken toe,” she added.
“Oh, is that all?” He moved his feet and a stabbing pain ricocheted up his left leg. “God’s bones!” With a grunt, he ground his teeth and stilled, praying the pain would go back into hiding.
“You see?” She placed her hands on her hips and glared down at him as if he were a wayward lad. “We didn’t even know your big toe was broken until it turned black and swelled.”
He released his held breath. “Mayhap ’tis but a sprain.”
“God willing, you will be so lucky. I cannot understand why men do this to themselves.” A spark of anger flashed in her eyes, and this distracted him from his own agony. Her fire had a definite appeal.
“Och, we’re lacking a wee bit in the tower.” He wanted to tap a finger against his head, but dared not move too much. Instead, he attempted to relax. “What of your husband? Does he ken I’m here?” He prayed no men of the clan knew of his presence, else it could prove his downfall.
“My husband was killed in a skirmish three years ago,” she said in a wooden voice.
Without doubt, she was not yet done grieving the loss. He well knew how mourning could linger. Even after two years, he still missed his wife.
“I’m sorry to hear it. And he was…?”
The healer’s gaze speared him. “I’m certain you didn’t know him. What is your name?”
“Angus MacGrath,” he lied, thinking she’d likely recognize his real first name.
She frowned, but curtsied nonetheless. “A pleasure. You are chief of the MacGrath clan, are you not?”
How had she figured that out? Mayhap his clothing had given him away. Or his ring—the weight of it was missing from his finger, but he dared not ask her about it. He studied her curious expression. For his own protection and that of his clan, he must seem like an unimportant person. She might deliver him to the MacIrwin if she knew his true identity.
“Nay, I’m the cousin of the chief.” Since he had a cousin named Angus MacGrath, he’d simply pretend to be him.
She surveyed him with narrowed eyes.
“Disappointed, are you, that I’m not the earl and chief?”
Gwyneth studied the smirking Scot, unsure whether to believe him. She’d been almost certain he was the chief. He’d had the seal ring, fine clothing and the treaty on expensive parchment. If he were trying to mislead her, she’d let him think he’d succeeded, while she figured out what he was up to. Maybe he feared she’d turn him over to Donald.
The longer Angus MacGrath talked to her, the more flustered she felt. He had a noble, pleasant way about him that should’ve put her at ease. But it didn’t.
His steady eyes were unreadable, penetrating and mysterious. Dark as she’d imagined. And at times amused and gleaming with sensuality. If she had to be in his presence much, such a man would be dangerous to her sanity and soul. Not wanting him to see into her thoughts, she erected that familiar defense wall about herself. The wall that had protected her from Baigh Shaw or any other man who thought to intimidate her.
“I ken you must fear your cousin will find out I’m here,” he said. “I owe you my life, so if anything happens, I’ll protect you.”
What was wrong with the big lout? He couldn’t even rise to his feet, much less defend her. “A lot of good that will do me now. If they show up, I’ll have to protect you.”
“You would do that for me, m’lady?” His dark brown eyes twinkled, teasing yet still suspicious. His strong accent turned lady into leddy, an address she’d only been called with a derogatory slur while in the Highlands.
“I’d prefer you not call me that.” Though still a lady in truth, she didn’t think of herself as such, nor had she for six years.
A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth, shadowed by a new growth of black whiskers. She couldn’t gaze at him overlong. His eyes had a look in them she didn’t trust, a look of mischief and interest she dared not think about.
He sobered and shifted his gaze away. “Our clan didn’t come here to fight. We were to meet with the MacIrwin and establish a peace agreement. He invited us to his home, and then attacked us. His word means naught.”
“Are you saying Laird MacGrath wants peace?” She suspected it was true, but she wanted confirmation.
“Aye, m’lady. Above all else, he wants peace for the clan.”
A hint of relief flowed through her. “I found the peace agreement in your doublet,” she confessed.
“’Tis not worth a wee pebble in the River Spey now. Burn it if you will. ’Haps it will provide fine heat to cook your porridge.”
How could he be so pessimistic and give up so easily? “Will you not try again for peace?”
He snorted. “’Tis useless. There is no peace to be had with Donald MacIrwin. They ambushed us—fired pistol shots at us from the cover of the brush, then came out with their swords. As you can see, ’tis the reason we fight. They understand no other language. We must protect what is ours—our clan, our land, and our cattle. We won’t let him run roughshod o’er us.”
“Of course not.” She well knew how ruthless her cousin was. He had always dealt with her in a wretched manner. Without a doubt, if she did something to displease him, he would have no qualms about killing her. That was why she now questioned her judgment in helping a MacGrath.
How many of those tales of the cold-blooded, murdering MacGraths were true? If what this man said was true, Donald and the MacIrwins were the ones who kept the blood feud going. Which meant she was more in danger from her own clan than this enemy.
“You must leave here as soon as you’re able.”
“Aye, I won’t argue about that.” He glanced aside. “Come on in, then. Don’t be bashful, lad.”
She followed his gaze to the door and found her son standing there, white-faced and wide-eyed.
“Rory, please stay in the cottage.”
“I heard horses—lots of horses coming.”
She froze. “Oh, dear God. ’Tis Donald!
My Fierce Highlander, copyright 2011 Vonda Sinclair
Thanks so much!! :)