Somer's Rising Book Two of the McRaidy Clan
Misting rain soaked Somer’s earthy plaid. With a tug, she mantled the thick cloth tighter over her head and shoulders for protection. An uncontrolled shake started at her fingertips and vibrated down her body, pooling at her slippered feet. If the rumored time line stayed true, the fearsome group of warriors would begin their decent from Caldersted ridge any moment. Laird Liam, the McRaidy Chieftain was coming home to rest with his wife Christiana and their unborn child. Somer leaned against her mare and the warm breath from her horse’s nostrils heated the side of her face. Two of her dogs, sitting sentry on each side of her, provided a sense of security. She waited for a glimpse of today’s tragedy which required a patience that, at best, was difficult to find. Would life be better or worse for her now?
A nudge from her black dog alerted her to movement. High above the valley the solemn army of soldiers appeared. In a steady pace, Conner led his men and the massive horse with his father draped over the back. A white stallion Liam hand chose. The grandson of Bristola, Christiana’s treasured mare. Even in the distance, Conner’s confidence and size were impressive. Yet there was a noticeable difference in him. Maybe only to her but his broad shoulders carried a defeated posture to them. Why wouldn’t they? He led the animal carrying his dead father. From this day forward Conner would be The McRaidy Chieftain, Laird over the highly populated clan. Demands for his time and guidance would infiltrate every waking moment and keep him from full nights of rest. Days of sneaking away for a few hours to visit Somer would be gone. More so, because of her status in the clan, it would be sacrilege to openly associate with her. The excuses of choosing dogs for training to accompany the warriors to battle and lead the hunters to prey were now finished. They both knew when he took over the clan as groomed, they would have to forever decide their relationship.
Focused back on the soldiers, Somer watched the large men with stoic faces. As the last warrior crested, she looked back at Conner. Sure his eyes would search for her, she backed up the incline to have a better look and be more visible to him. Behind the McRaidy army, a steady trail of Highland Lairds and their warriors followed. Hundreds of men on foot and horse kept pace. Conner was already at the bottom of the decent and still more men topped the ridge. A death procession of such magnitude left her numb. Proof of the power and prestige of the McRaidy’s. Maintaining those hard-earned reputations now became Conner’s responsibility.
The only echoed sound in the air came from the crunch under the hooves of the horses. Everyone stayed silent. Straight ahead of her on the valley floor Conner stopped to allow the remaining riders time to gather. No man would be left behind in peace, war, or death. His tense profile squeezed her heart. With slow precision, he turned his head toward her and stared. A meaningful look but one she couldn’t interpret because of the distance. Without thinking, Somer started down the hill until she caught Conner’s barely perceptible shake of his head. She wasn’t welcome to join the clan during this time of grieving.
Cautious to maintain the respect required, Somer held her ground until the last of the procession passed. She had no reason to be proud but held herself with dignity and followed each passerby with a level gaze. Humiliation radiated inside her soul to know she was nothing more than a McRaidy reject. Not even a Highlander. A worthless orphan because her birth father was an English coward and Liam McRaidy was a man of honor. Continually treated coldly by the tribe, Liam sent her here to live in isolation. The clan’s craftsmen built her a small cottage and a larger dog stable for her animals. Liam gave her the protection of calling her a McRaidy. No person would ever harm her for fear of retribution.
With all his tokens of favor, the McRaidy Chieftain couldn’t stand the site of her. She was the birth child of an Englishman who contributed to the death of his beloved wife, Christiana.
Unable to bear the memories of her childhood, Somer trudged up the hill to her home. Gathering several pieces of split wood to warm her abode, she turned and watched the last of the men pass through the open portal into the holding. A clear visual was exactly why her cottage sat on a low rise across the planting fields. She could see the Keep and her Laird could have the wall guards watch her dwelling. It was for her safety. Safe but unwanted.
“Black, go gather the pack,” she ordered her alpha dog. Without hesitation, he raced to the property’s perimeter and rounded up her personal dogs. Her female pet stayed sentry with her. Within minutes, Black and her other six animals raced toward her. They came to halt at her feet and looked at her with expectation. Helpless to stop it, a smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. They wanted a treat for no other reason than they were spoiled and greedy. Trained to kill, hunt, and protect, they were still her pets.
She pushed open the heavy wooden door and waved them in. Each took their regular positions in front of the oversized fireplace and waited quietly for warmth and a treat before taking a nap. They guarded the clan borders all night and they wouldn’t have slept. When she reached for a cloth sack hung from a peg on the wall and their ears all perked up. Such an instinctive response amused her. The bag held snacks they loved so Somer drew out the process of selecting homemade nuggets of grain and dried meat for her babies. She tossed each well-heeled animal their prize.
Her throat tightened while she watched them gobble the food. These would be the only children she would ever have. Trapped between a woman destined for marriage and, for all intensive purposes, a prisoner with no future left her lost. No worthy Highlander would marry her because of her birth heritage and no Englishman would because they considered her a Scot. Age now became a factor because she was at least five years past bridal age. She sighed aloud. It didn’t matter anyway. If she couldn’t have Conner, a life parenting dogs would have to do.
Bundled up in dry clothes, she quietly slid out the cottage door leaving her pets to nap. She started for the dog stable. Her afternoon and evening would be consumed training the pups and checking her bitches to make sure they were having healthy pregnancies. Memories saturated her today and she finally gave in to them.
Past thoughts of being a small child squeezed her chest. She lacked playmates save Conner and those times were restricted. Lonely, Somer played with the various dogs populating the McRaidy property. Even as little more than a toddler, the guards allowed her to leave the safety of the walled yard and chase puppies in the tall grasses. One puppy in particular that she had a special attachment to, raced across the drawbridge on a frigid snowy day. Somer followed, intending to save him. The further into the woods the mutt ran, the farther from safety she trailed.
Hours later, shaking in the snowfall, Somer howled tears of fear. A group of oversized hounds paced around her, corralling her. For some reason she trusted them but in retrospect, it was more desperation than faith. They guided her to a small cave and once Somer curled up in a ball on the dirt floor, they stretched out and lay with her. Warm from their fur and bodies, she slept in the cocoon they provided. Even at such a young age, she knew no one would look for her for days if they by chance noticed her absence at all. Finding a way home was impossible. Days passed with only melted snow to drink but those Herculean sized dogs made her feel safer and more loved than she’d ever known. Each of her animals and breeder dogs were decedents from that pack.
Somer shrugged off the memories. She called her five grey and brindle colored dogs and started drilling them. Sending them at a full run, she gauged their response to her verbal commands. Now ready to begin training with only hand commands, she recognized they were her finest group and would become excellent warrior companions. Eventually each would be assigned to a soldier and their lives spent going to war and stopping the enemy. Stealth and quick vicious killing was what she bred this line for.
Somer smiled in pride with her accomplishment. The color of their fur helped them become invisible in the dark forests and mountains. They would sneak up on unsuspecting men and shred their throats before moving to the next.
She spun around at the hoarse whisper. Conner stood a few feet from her. She launched herself at him and relished his strong arms snatching her close. “I’m so sorry Conner. Your father was such a great man and the loss is devastating.”
“It was how he wanted to go. Fighting the filth who murdered my mother. They are together at this moment in a joyous reunion. Those were his final words to me. He saw her waiting for him.”
Somer understood the words were meant to console him more than her. Conner was the cherished son of Liam but more so, a true confidant to his father. A tight and trusting bond she respected.
“When will the Laird be buried?”
“Tomorrow. I want you there but you understand my duties will be my priority. I need to maintain harmony and console the members of my clan. I’ll have to prove myself to our allies. We expect to spend the next year warring to exhibit my control and power. My warriors are preparing at this moment. The Glary Clan will attack tomorrow to undermine the burial of my father.”
His factual description was without a doubt an educated summary.
“I’ll be there and will take my usual position in the clan.” Somer swallowed hard to keep the emotions at bay. Her position would be in the back and separated from everyone. No one would want her to stand by them. The hatred would escalate toward her because an Englishman killed their beloved leader but she would attend at Conner’s request.
“How many animals do you have ready to war?” he interrupted her self-pity.
“This group is still a few weeks away and then another few weeks to bond with their soldier. My browns are ready though and there are a dozen of them. They’ve been working with their soldier and are prepared.”
“How many can you bring with you for the burial? There will be our clan, as well as our allies, and the King will attend. My warriors will provide protection but they are grieving. However with so many outsiders on our land, I want a good sized pack there to give advance warning of the attack.”
“Of course. I’ll bring all of them except my pregnant bitches. Are you positive an attack will occur during the burial?”
“Don’t question me,” he snapped. “I will protect my father’s dignity and my clan at all costs. My expectations are not guesses.” He frowned.
“No, of course not. I’m sorry to seem as though I’m challenging you.”
He scrapped his fingers through his long, dark hair and clenched his jaw. Conner had something else to say.
“What is it?”
“My father never gave me the blessing to marry you. Because of the omission, it has already been suggested I will need to marry to further the power of the clan.”
Somer knew the approval to wed wasn’t given and expected to hear this but not today, maybe not for months. A burn seared her heart while the rest of her body went cold. “It is your duty,” she mumbled.
“I know but it doesn’t mean I like it. The clan could revolt if I acknowledge I planned to marry you. I believe my father intended to give his blessing and I needed it to ease the clan’s acceptance. As the Laird, I am no longer my own man. I have to put their needs first and make choices which uphold their respect. I’m sorry.”
Unable to meet the hurt in his searching gaze, Somer looked down and stared at the worn tips of his deer hide boots. Desperate to have inner strength, she blinked back the tears flooding her eyes and said a brief prayer in her heart. Please God, don’t let me fail him by causing him guilt. Please!
Long moments of silence drug on. There wasn’t anything more to say but neither of them could end it. Hurt beyond words with the truth of their situation, she waited for Conner to do the hard part and walk away.
“I have to leave. If you need help with your dogs, I’ll send some men.”
“I don’t need help. They are well-trained.”
“Still, even with your skills, twenty or more animals are a lot to control.”
“I don’t control them, I train them to control themselves,” she snapped the comment, straightened her shoulders, and locked her stare with his. Unfearful, Somer let the anger show in her eyes. Not even Conner understood what she did for the betterment of the clan. They still all thought her just a fool with too many dogs. No matter how much gold she added to the coffers from the sale of her hunting dogs, it was just a fluke to them. She never sold her warrior dogs, those were for the exclusive use of the McRaidy army, yet not one person ever grumbled a simple thank you.
“Of course. You know what I meant.”
“What will be your first duties?” She changed the subject.
“I have no idea beyond the funeral. I can’t explain the hollow feeling in my belly. To know that I am responsible for everything and everyone overwhelms me at the moment. Truthfully, I’d like a few days to come to terms with my father’s death and establish a protocol to deal with my new duties but there is no opportunity.”
She rested her palm on his cheek and caressed her thumb along his cheekbone, “You’ve already been leading the clan. It will be the same duties. Whether you realize it or not, your father turned the responsibilities over to you several years ago. He just stood back in case you needed him. Think about it. You’ll know I speak the truth.”
“Aye, you’re right. I should have known you would find the logic and truth for me. Kiss me one more time,” he requested.
A kiss, who would that harm other than her? She moved closer and slipped her arms around Conner’s waist. Lifting her mouth as his descended, Conner’s masculine scent surrounded her. The moment her lips brushed against his, a throaty growl rumbled from him and he squeezed her tight.
Threat to Our Forever
Maybe sunglasses weren’t necessary indoors, but they effectively hid the black mascara smudged under Lilly Kendell’s eyes. Her two youngest children each clung to one of her shaking legs while they stared through the plate glass at their fifteen-year-old sister. Lilly rubbed the tops of their heads and glanced out the window. Clouds hung low over the busy city, dark with impending rain. Their family and friends didn’t expect Carly to live and had sent a suffocating amount of flowers in condolence. To prevent contamination, the bouquets weren’t allowed inside the hospital room. With nowhere else to put them, Lilly lined the flowers along the counter of the small sink vestibule outside Carly’s door. An eerie chill trickled down Lilly’s spine at the display, as though everyone had lost hope. Unable to watch the doctor’s poke and prod anymore, she stared at the cream walls. Focused on the linen-looking wallpaper, she tried to eavesdrop on the conversation inside.
The lead neurologist continued to shake his head. Sick with the thought of her daughter dying, Lilly stood frozen. Incapable of crying for fear of screaming, she found the one thing moving her forward was the frantic need to find answers. The culprits partially responsible for her daughter’s brutal injuries hovered close together in the hall with their parents, ashen faces full of guilt. Every person here knew what had happened.
Hatred shook her while she glared at James, Carly’s boyfriend. The smug nineteen-year-old wasn’t so smug now.
His gang affiliations culminated in a kidnapping, beating, and then her daughter being dumped out of a car. This could have turned out so much differently had that selfish pig tried to help Carly. But he hadn’t. More concerned with his pre-planned fight, he had urged Carly to crawl to him. He should have scooped her up out of the street and protected her. Now Lilly’s baby lay in a coma with very little hope of recovery.
As the police reports detailed, the car she’d been thrown from had stopped and the occupants repeatedly shot at her. In the officer’s professional opinion, Lilly’s girl became target practice for unknown drug-induced assailants. The detectives just couldn’t pinpoint who they were exactly, other than the cops didn’t think they were anyone from the gangs present. Deep down, Lilly knew the detectives were doing their best, but without cooperation from the gang members, they couldn’t lock down a suspect. At this point, none of those boys would say any more than they already had.
Realizing their family priest spoke to her, Lilly looked at him but didn’t completely listen. The crack in his whispered voice matched the tears rolling from his eyes. He couldn’t possibly believe the spiel of ever-lasting life healing those left behind, either. If Father Falton had such a close relationship with their Maker, why didn’t he ask the Almighty who did this? Why were they still stalking the streets? Furthermore, why did he insist on discussing the afterlife right now?
She lowered her eyes to her six-year-old twins. Based on their concerned frowns, they had a good idea what was going on, but clearly didn’t understand. For God’s sake, as an adult, she barely understood. Their consistent questions of when Carly would come home only escalated as Lilly repeatedly attempted to explain that their older sister may go to Heaven instead.
Her husband, Sam, stood in stoic shock. The invincible man could barely function. Somewhere in her mind, Lilly always thought he would take care of them in the worst situations.
Outside, reporters hovered within photo range. Sam Kendell was news and the possible death of his eldest child had turned the media into piranhas. Their presence during such a personal and painful time bordered on sinful in Lilly’s bitter opinion.
As with most girls, Carly latched onto a man she thought was as strong as her father. Sam Kendell was a bad ass, not just a boy pretending. His profession made him somewhat of an absentee father and husband. They spent years trying to be a normal family. But his commitment to what he considered the greater good was what made all those efforts a waste. At best, their marriage barely survived and, if he weren’t so adamantly opposed, Lilly would have filed for divorce long ago.
“Lilly?” A stroke on her arm brought her back to the reality she hoped to forget for just a moment. Her friend’s brow creased with concern.
“I’m as fine as I can be, Tammy.”
“I’ll take the girls and head to my house to get the food ready.”
Lilly nodded. The physicians had already informed her and Sam they might be asked to make a decision whether or not to remove their daughter’s life support. It seemed ridiculous to feed people during a tragedy. What for? Ham and salads weren’t going to change Carly’s condition. Relatives and friends fumbling for the right words wouldn’t help.
Kneeling on the cold floor, Lilly hugged the girls before nudging them toward Tammy. Getting to her feet, a wave of dizziness blurred her vision and made her knees weak. She braced her legs slightly apart to stop the sway. Her miniature daughters lifted their innocent gazes to her. Their little heads tilted to the side and their small brows crinkled in confusion during a long stare. Unsure what to say, Lilly leaned down and kissed their smooth foreheads. Both turned away, walked into the room, and boldly neared the bed cradling their sister. Their small hands gingerly touched the gold-trimmed blanket over Carly’s legs and stroked it with loving care. Maybe they really did understand. In a final gesture, they blew soft kisses before looking back at Lilly for approval.
Unable to stand any longer, Lilly lowered herself to a cold, metal, folding chair and, without shame, dropped her face into her hands, and cried. The warm hand on her shoulder didn’t soothe her, but it added a bit of security. It kept her from crumpling to the floor, if nothing else.
Her husband squatted in front of her, lifted her face, and softly pressed his mouth to hers.
“I’m sorry, baby,” he whispered.
In need of comfort, Lilly stood and accepted another of Sam’s gentle kisses. She wanted anything that would make her feel better for just a moment.
Unable to verbalize her pain, she tucked a shoulder under his strong arm and leaned against his side, her hand fisted in the lapel of his black wool coat. They were the last ones at the hospital and the pain of leaving Carly to face the night alone killed Lilly. She would stay, but the doctors asked them to go home for a few hours of sleep. It had been three long days and Lilly couldn’t remember the last time either she or Sam had eaten or slept.
Sam nudged her forward and guided her out of the hospital and to his car.
The drive in silence wasn’t cathartic. It simply allowed Lilly time to focus on revenge and hatred. The calculated plan to kill every man involved in her daughter’s attack grew and multiplied. Sam was a trained killer with both domestic and foreign government blessings. Would he extract revenge? Probably not. He may be a hired gun—utilized by heads of state, billion-dollar companies, militias, and wealthy clients—but he wasn’t vengeful. His fame came from brave rescues of kidnap victims, thwarting terrorist plots, and the effective eliminations of drug cartel armies who held villages and towns hostage. When governments couldn’t do it, they hired Kendell Enterprises.
Only Because It Was You, Gus McRaidy
With a narrowed gaze, Ann watched the never-ending flow of vacationers pour through the security gates. Hundreds of people waited to board airplanes, chattering and giggling about their plans. Scattered among the throngs of revelers were business people like herself. No weekend fun; no life other than a few stolen days at home. It was tiresome and lonely, but the success was sweet. Working hard all these years paid off in terms of respect and finances. However, with it came moments of regret and such a moment weighed her down today. Her daughter Kathy's call announcing her continued intention to move in with Mike McRaidy didn't settle well. Weeks of trying to get Kathy to change her mind failed miserably because Ann spent too much time traveling in Europe with hit-or-miss phone services. She was not at home where she should be to pin down Mike's father and put a stop to this.
Torn between throwing her phone, screaming, or maintaining a little composure, Ann opted for the latter. She inhaled slowly through her nose, let the breath exhale through her mouth, and pondered her situation. Gus McRaidy appeared to be as obtuse as his son. How difficult could it be for the father of that over-confident young man to return a simple phone call? Weeks of unanswered calls and ignored messages escalated her irritation to that of a moody teenager.
Most people knew the McRaidy family and what they were like; five adopted sons who spent most of their time in court, jail, or at their attorney's office. No decent mother wanted their daughters in the hands of one of those five. They were possessive young men who thought they were the princes of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Their father was the king of womanizing. If Gus would bother to talk to her, his son wouldn't be an issue.
A plan was what she needed. Scrolling through her electronic calendar, Ann estimated she should arrive home in a couple more hours. She would stay put for a few days. If that man didn't return her call when she got home, she'd plop her ass at his trucking company and intimidate him. It wasn't as if she hadn't done the same to numerous men in her business and personal life when the occasion required it. One more phone call was all Gus McRaidy had coming.
Motivated to clean up all the pesky issues nagging her, she attended to a final detail before she headed to her gate. She wanted to end her latest relationship. Hopeful Devon's voicemail would pick up, she rolled her eyes when he answered in his happy drawl.
"Ann! It took you two weeks to return my call," he said in a teasing manner.
"I know. I've been busy with work and back-to-back meetings. Anyway, I appreciate the offer you made of a short vacation, but I'm going to decline. To be honest, I'd like to part as friends if we could."
"Why? I thought it was going well with us."
"I just don't have the time or the inclination to have a relationship with anyone." Sensing this could drag out, she started to scan the contract for her next meeting while he explained his reluctance to accept her decision.
"Are you listening to me at all?" His abrupt accusation interrupted her reading.
"I am, but I won't change my mind. I need to get to my flight. Don't dwell on it because I don't plan to. Take care." Without waiting, she ended the call.
She gathered her contract, briefcase, and purse and strolled to her gate. Feeling the vibration of her phone, she saw Devon's number on the display screen. Good grief; he wants to drag this out. Ignoring the persistent buzz, she pushed him out of her mind and decided to call Gus again.
Her McRaidy Chieftain
Silence shouldn't have a sound, yet it was almost deafening by anyone's standards. Mindful of the curt order for quiet from the McRaidy chieftain, Christiana stared at his rigid shoulders. She focused on the plethora of scars that crisscrossed his back. Regret for the horrific fights that caused them settled deep in her stomach. Raised tissue of iridescent grey skin gave evidence the lacerations hadn't been stitched. Over the past years of battling, he'd left them to heal on their own. She shivered in concern as blood snaked its way around the scars--the gaping wound on his right shoulder pumped fluid with each clop of the horse's hooves. She craved to care for him, but he would refuse. The almighty Liam McRaidy, Laird over the massive McRaidy clan, would reject even that small gift today. His anger was still discernible, his demeanor unforgiving of the small mistake she'd made.
He lifted his clenched fist in the air and she halted her magnificent white mare. Biddable as always, her horse stood still. The mare had been a loving gift from Liam, conditioned with Christiana's safety in mind. The slow turn of Liam's head revealed a tense profile that put her on guard. His gaze searched the heavily forested area for the danger that lurked. Drawing in a deep breath, Christiana calmed herself. With a series of hand motions from Liam, his elite warriors and trusted friends surrounded her, pressing in so close the air became oppressive. Adjusting slightly in her saddle to ease the ache in her hips, she earned a reproving glare from Liam. Obedience wasn't her strong suit, but she would never challenge him in a dangerous situation. Liam would die for her and very easily could have, only a few hours ago. No, she would acquiesce without question to her mesmerizing Laird. At his signal, his warriors resumed their positions in line and continued to file along the narrow trail. It would be a long, tense ride home.
Christiana needed a rest. It was well past midnight, and they still continued the climb deep into the Highlands. Unfortunately, a bright moon shone without a cloud to dim it, allowing for night travel. Christiana's thighs quivered. She had been mounted astride since early morning, and she couldn't endure the pounding any longer. Done being patient, she snagged a pinecone from a tree and threw it at Liam's back, careful to hit his clothing and avoid the exposed skin. Let's see if he'll ignore that. Pulling back on the reins, he spun his black stallion in a half circle to face her.
"Did you require something, Chrisee?"
"Yes. My legs hurt and I need a moment of privacy." She forced a smile, teeth gritted against the discomfort.
"You'll have to wait."
"No, I will not, Liam. I'm stopping with or without you," she snapped.
Before she could swing her leg over the saddle, Liam snatched her from the top of her horse and dragged her past a thicket of bushes. With a jerk, she tore her arm from his grasp. His arrogant ass would pay for this.
"Stop handling me." She brushed the clinging leaves from her white gown, irritated that she found dirt and--Good Lord, what the hell was that brown goo on the hem?
"Look what you've done." She pointed to her dress. "You dragged me through horse shit."
A scowl marred his features. He pinned her with a stare. "I've had all I intend to tolerate from you today. I haven't slept in three days and that alone chafes me. Not to mention your latest occurrence."
"Occurrence? That's what you're referring to this as?"
His face turned to stone. "Go take your piss and get back on your horse."
"Liam, we need to--" She abruptly shut her mouth when he leaned close and stopped within an inch of her nose.
"Stop talking. We don't need to do anything at this moment."
"As you request, Laird."
With his usual cocky swagger, he disappeared through the trees.
She hiked up her dress, lowered her behind to the ground, and took a few minutes for herself. What a mess. Within days, Liam's holding would be under siege. No matter what she said at this point, there was no turning back. If he could only understand she wanted to protect him and his clan, this would be much easier. A man, no matter how powerful, couldn't steal the betrothed daughter from the King of England's most favored Duke, Cheston of Kendall. Not without retribution.
"Are you ready?"
Startled, Christiana bowed her head. Still, things needed to be said.
"Leave me here, Liam. I'll be safe and my father's army won't harm you or your people."
"You'll ride with me. You can sleep."
"Don't ignore my request."
As if she hadn't uttered a word, he grasped her hand and dragged her behind him. It was difficult for others to believe--but never for her--yet this ferocious warrior adored her. He loved her with every fiber of his soul. What a horrible flaw for Liam McRaidy to have.
Cradled in his strong arms, she rubbed her cheek against the light furring on his chest. If he hadn't slept in days, he must be close to collapsing. She stole a quick peek at the other twenty warriors. Not one of them, including Liam, looked close to tired. She couldn't do this to him anymore. This was the third time Liam had retrieved her from her father, and that greedy bastard would be close behind. A distant loch of water--the surface so still it reflected the stars overhead--brought back memories of the first time she'd seen him. Fading to a doze, she remembered...
Christiana sat perched on a log, crying over her predicament. How had she ended up lost in a strange country? She had no sense of direction. The ground rumbled under her aching feet. Interrupting her self pity, Christiana scanned the horizon, searching for the cause of the noise. A horrific sight forced a scream from her tight throat. As if rising from the earth, Liam led an enormous group of warriors over the top of a knoll. Fearful of the herd of bare-chested savages, she gathered her skirts and ran in the opposite direction. The farther she ran, the harder he rode towards her. He bellowed a command for her to stop, but all the stories about Highlanders she had heard over the years terrified her. She burst through prickle bushes--and the ground fell away from her feet. A brief gasp, a resounding snap and agonizing pain, and then the blackness of unconsciousness engulfed her.
She woke long after that--weeks, if memory served her correctly. Her body shook with excruciating hurt. Unable to move without whimpering, Christiana focused her gaze on the same giant warrior who had chased her. His lean hip pressed close to hers as he sat on the side of the bed. He gently stroked back her hair and held a bitter-tasting liquid to her mouth. She gagged, forcing her throat to swallow the foul-smelling tonic. Sleep clouded her mind, but the throb in her body subsided.
"What is your name, lass?" he asked in a gentle tone.
Confused, Christiana stared at his chiseled face shadowed by long dark hair. She tried to reach up and push the curtain of black silk back for a better look. The movement started another flurry of pain. Tears rolled from the corners of her eyes, scalding her cheeks.
"Do you remember your name, sweetheart? Can you tell me anything?"
"I know you do. What do you remember that you can tell me? I need to send for your family."
"Chr..." She was on the verge of dozing off.
"A little more, lass."
"Chris...hee." With a final exhale, she surrendered to the weight of her heavy eyelids. Her inability to tell him her entire name was the reason he called her Chrisee now, instead of her given name of Christiana. In time, she had come to adore the special name this powerful warrior had given her. He wouldn't allow anyone else to use the nickname.