Lowlands of Scotland
May 4, 1217
Many things should have occupied his mind at this moment: three dead men, his betrothal contract that would bring much needed wealth, the fate of his clan, the fate awaiting him, or even the dawning of the new day. Instead, Ian, Laird of the Draig clan, sat mesmerized by the sight before him. He’d heard the tales his whole life, the stories of passages that brought people from other places, and had always assumed these to be the imaginings of the old ones, just stories to brighten a dark winter’s night. Never would he have believed that his ancestor had truly created these passages without seeing the truth before him.
Haloed on all sides by early morning light, the door-sized opening was dark, yet small patches of torchlight revealed her to him. The lass wore an odd, wee gown that exposed her bare arms, shoulders, and even her long, slender legs. The fabric shimmered like moonlight. Thick brown hair flowed to the middle of her bare back. How he loved a lass’s hair unbound. She turned just enough for him to see her face. Even with the distance between them, her beauty called to him. She had high cheekbones and large dark eyes which, combined with full lips and fair skin, made his body long to touch hers. The lass took his breath away. She smiled as she walked along a wall, with her hair blowing in a breeze he could not feel.
Ian saw the man stalking silently behind her before she did and easily read his intentions. He wanted to shout a warning. As the man shoved the woman up against the brick wall, Ian felt like weeping with frustration. Her fate hurt his soul. While every fiber in his being screamed to help her, to save her, he could not.
He could do nothing. He was gagged and securely bound to a tree. He couldn’t even save himself.
Phoenix, October 5, 2012
Claire was officially her own worst enemy. It was her own fault she was here. Every move had been carefully coordinated to leave her in this place, trapped. Trapped was a bit extreme, but she had no one but herself to blame for making the arrangements for the evening, the ones that placed her in this loud, music blaring hell. One phone call to her new stepfather, David, and there had been no waiting at the hottest club in town. No lines, just a quick check on the VIP list and Claire and her friend were in.
Unfortunately, this was where they had stayed throughout the evening. While this was Brook’s idea of a perfect Friday night, it was far from hers. Shifting her feet in three-inch heels in an attempt to ease the ache, she let out a heavy sigh. The night was supposed to have been an evening to celebrate Brooke’s job promotion. Instead, it had become another evening with Brooke attached to her latest conquest.
“Did I tell you your mom invited me to her surprise birthday party?” Brooke shouted as she leaned across the table.
Claire smiled and nodded her head in acknowledgment. “David is very sweet but lousy at keeping secrets. This whole surprise party thing was his idea.” With a grin, she said, “But I’m glad you’re coming. We’ll make a night out of it.” The invitation didn’t surprise her at all. Brooke had been a constant part of Claire’s life since kindergarten.
Claire’s fingers smoothed down her silver dress as she yelled over the music, “Mom bought me this dress for the party. Can you believe my conservative mother bought me something silver, plus so short and backless?”
Brooke chuckled at the question. If there was one thing Brooke and her mother had in common, it was the agreement that Claire needed to date. Her schedule at the dojo and her class load kept her too busy for socializing. She had one more semester to go, and the accounting degree would finally be hers. The fact that it was self-funded only added to the victory to come.
As she pulled down the short skirt, Claire had only regret for the impulsive decision to wear the new dress to the club. She felt far too exposed. The open back, not to mention the lack of a real bra, didn’t help. The outfit screamed single and available. Unfortunately, the wrong man had heard the cry.
“Here, I bought you another beer.” The tall blond sounded very pleased with his offering to Claire. She really didn’t mind if Brooke liked to meet men in a bar, but they always had a friend who wound up talking to her and expecting a bit too much.
She stifled her groan as the man she dubbed Smelly Cowboy came back to their table. He reeked as if he had bathed in cheap cologne before coming to the trendy dance club wearing a western shirt, giant belt buckle, and cowboy boots.
“Thanks, but I wasn’t drinking beer, Peter,” Claire said with a forced smile. If he had spent any time listening or observing he would have known that. Instead, most of his concentration had been spent staring at her cleavage.
Claire practically jumped when she felt him slither up against her and put his hand on her ass. That was the last straw for Claire. She was done playing wingman for Brooke. Leaning over to separate Brooke from the male face she was currently attached to, Claire yelled over the music, “I’m leaving now.”
“Oh no, you can’t leave yet. The fun is just beginning,” Brooke said as she displayed her patented pouty face.
“Pouty face won’t work tonight. I’m done. Peter keeps grabbing my ass, and I need to get up for work in the morning.” Brooke seemed to be enjoying the attention from the guy at her side too much to notice Claire’s discomfort.
“Hands on ass can be fun, Claire. Don’t you like Peter? He’s kind of hot!” Brooke replied with a devilish grin. “Besides, I thought you were coming back to my place to sleep over. I know you have yoga pants in that giant bag of yours.”
Claire couldn’t hide her grin as she looked at the giant purse by her feet; she did have her sleepover gear. She loved a slumber party.
“No, I don’t like Peter. All he does is stare at my boobs and talk about how his last girlfriend was a fool for breaking up with him.” She left out how Peter gave her the creeps. Claire’s instincts said he was bad news. Challenging her friend, she said, “Fine, Brooke. Tell me you actually plan on going home tonight and I’ll stay.”
The two friends stared at each other until both burst out laughing. Brooke broke free from the male arms circling her waist and hugged Claire. Yelling in her ear, Brooke said, “You know you should try it! You may like it. I mean no one is going to be perfect. That dream guy of yours does not exist.”
At that moment, Claire regretted telling her friend everything. She vowed from then on she would keep her recurring dreams private. “Enough with my dreams. I’m not looking for some fantasy guy. But Peter is so not going to work for me.” Besides, I didn’t spend this long waiting for the right guy to settle for drunk, stinky, and convenient.
Brooke let a grin cover her face as her eyes surveyed the club. “Then let’s find you a different guy. Why should I be the only one who is having all the fun?”
Claire could only laugh. That was Brooke, always having fun. “Going home with strangers isn’t my idea of a good time. Call me tomorrow.”
“Thanks for coming out tonight and for getting us in here. Call me after work, maybe Tex-Mex for dinner tomorrow?” After a quick glance at the guy behind her, Brooke amended, “Or maybe Sunday night?”
“Tonight was great.” Claire managed to say with a straight face, though Brooke’s laughter acknowledged the white lie. “We’ll talk in the morning. Remember, text me the address where you end up. I can always come get you.” Claire made the offer, knowing Brooke would comply.
“I will.” After they hugged goodbye, Brooke was back on her new man, literally.
Claire couldn’t get out fast enough.
Claire smiled as she walked behind the club to the parking lot. The night hadn’t been so terrible. Brooke had a great time, which was what mattered most. As a bonus, she had managed to get out without Smelly Cowboy touching her again. Being out in the fresh air was what she needed to find balance after hours of ridiculously loud music.
She raised her face to enjoy the warm breeze but was immediately shoved into the back wall of the building. Just before her face hit the bricks, her hands braced against the wall in a move that was pure instinct. Someone grabbed her hands and yanked them in place over her head. Her heart raced, and her sense of smell identified her attacker: too much bad cologne and breath that reeked of beer.
“You left without saying goodbye, Claire,” Peter said into her ear as he pressed roughly against her back. “This could have turned out differently, but you had to be difficult, didn’t you?” Pausing to smell her hair, he said, “But I’m willing to forgive you. My car is around the corner. Let’s go back to my place.”
Claire knew something was not right with Peter. However, she hadn’t thought he was dangerous, but being a good judge of people only worked if you paid attention. She had also ignored her surroundings in the dark parking lot, which doubled the mistake.
With an attempt at levity, Claire joked, “This is really not a great way to ask me out.” Not feeling any slack in his hold on her wrists, anger surged through her veins. Finding a false calm voice, Claire said, “I’m only going to warn you once. You’re making a mistake, Peter. I’m giving you one chance to back away . . . now.”
Peter’s hold on her hands tightened painfully. Rocking into Claire’s backside, Peter started to laugh. “What if I don’t want to back away, baby?”
She felt her anger rising at the laughter, and her face flushed with silent fury at being accosted. “You didn’t pay attention to a word I said, did you?” She knew if he would talk, she could distract him. If he loosened his grip, she could push him away. If not, shame on Peter. Years of training pushed the emotion aside; all she needed was a single moment to end this threat.
“Sure I did, baby, I heard it all. Blah, blah, blah, you are a bookkeeper, blah, blah, you still go to school, blah, blah, out with friends, blah, blah.” Leaning into Claire’s ear, Peter harshly whispered, “All that matters is how fantastic you feel.” After securing her hands in one of his, he ran his hand up her bare thigh. “Maybe I don’t want to stop. You are just like all the rest. You don’t want me to stop, do you?”
Claire shuddered with revulsion at his clammy hands on her flesh. “Last chance to let me go.”
As Peter shifted his grip to grab at her skirt, Claire seized the moment. Raising her foot, she kicked backward to connect with Peter’s shin. Wrenching her right arm free, she tilted her arm up and elbowed him in the side of his face. Turning quickly, Claire grabbed his shoulder, pulled him forward and down so her knee could meet his chest hard, twice for good measure. She pushed him backward as her foot stepped behind his ankle, tripping him. He hit the ground hard. She even winced when she heard his head smack the pavement.
Glaring down at her attacker, Claire said, “No, you didn’t listen, asshole. I’m a bookkeeper for a martial arts academy. If you have any sense at all, you will stay down.” She assumed Peter couldn’t get up now if he wanted to. She figured she should call an ambulance.
Walking to grab her phone from the dropped bag, Claire saw a man. She turned to Peter, still lying on the pavement. “You sick bastard, what have you done? Why did you tie that guy up?” Given the fall to the pavement, she wasn’t surprised he was unable to reply. Claire spoke the thought aloud, “But you didn’t do this, did you? You were in the club.”
Claire stared at the man sitting gagged and tied to a tree. His surroundings looked too bright, like the bound man sat bathed in sunlight. But how can that be? It’s after midnight. Something about the situation didn’t add up. Claire moved to close the gap between her and the bound man. He stared at her while pulling against his ropes. Even with the distance between them, she knew there was no choice; every fiber of her being screamed to save this man. Without hesitation, she stepped into the light.
Claire stepped through what appeared to be a doorway and fell to her knees. Her stomach rolled, and she felt like she was going to be sick. She gasped in shock as cool grass and sharp stones dug into her palms and knees. Cold, damp wind blew her hair back from her face as she took a deep breath of the rich, earthy-smelling air. Goosebumps rose on her skin as she stood on shaky legs to face the bound man less than ten feet away. His green eyes stared at her, eyes that were almost electric. Long, dark hair fell to his massive shoulders. The captive’s face was covered by a short beard. He was disheveled at best and still made Claire’s breath hitch in her throat. Mess or not, the man was very attractive, even wearing a filthy shirt, tattered plaid, and leather boots.
Claire closed the distance between them on unsteady legs. “Who did this to you?”
Realizing the man couldn’t answer, she bent down to lower the gag, pulling her hand back quickly when she saw his smile. She had been lost in the tingle in her fingers from the sensation of his warm skin after the cloth had dropped.
Speaking with a dry throat and a deep baritone, he said, “Cut my bindings, lass. They will be coming back soon. My dagger is next to me in the ground. Left there to torment me, out of reach, yet in sight.”
Following the motion of his head, Claire spied the dagger sticking out of the earth. Several things dawned on her at that moment. She was standing in the woods, not in the club’s parking lot, and it was cold and damp, not desert warm. The man spoke in what could only be described as a Scottish brogue. It was early morning here, definitely not the midnight sky she had just seen. So many things were so very wrong.
Grabbing the dagger, Claire noted it felt very solid in her hand, even if the pattern felt strange on her palm. The metal of the handle was engraved with some type of dragon, with a head on each end and no tail. Reestablishing a firm grip on the weapon, she pointed it at the bound man. “What the hell is going on here? Where am I?”
As the man stared at the point of his blade, the response was soft but commanding. “Lass, cut the ropes. I mean no threat to you. Keep the dagger. Just do it with haste. The men who captured me will be back soon.”
Should I trust him? The bound man was obviously trying to keep her calm, and she was already reaching for the ropes that held him, as if by instinct. Giving in to her urgings, she stepped behind the large old tree to cut the ropes. As Claire leaned into the bindings for more leverage, the man’s smell caught her by surprise. Even though he wasn’t at his best, he still made her senses reel. He was a heavenly combination of earth, fresh air, musk, and something she couldn’t name. The rational part of her brain quickly chastised her lack of focus. What I need is to get the heck out of here, not to inhale him like he’s the best smelling person I’ve ever met. As the ropes fell away, the man stood to full height, stretching his sore limbs. He stood at least six foot two and looked to weigh more than two hundred and forty pounds.
He turned to face Claire. “Lass, I am Ian, Laird of the Draig clan, and I am in your debt.” His bold green eyes never left hers as he moved to stand in front of her.
Claire just stared. She knew this was wrong and she shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t right. You don’t just wind up in the forest from a door in a parking lot. You don’t untie men like this from trees. Now is the time to go back. Where is that door? Her head turned to see the door just to her right, and through it, a view of the world she knew. She moved toward it. As Claire reached the threshold, Ian gently clasped her hand.
“Your name, lass?” Ian asked as his eyes studied her face.
Caught in his gaze, she had trouble remembering who she was. After managing to mumble it, she stumbled on her heels.
“Claire,” Ian repeated with a small smile.
It seemed to Claire as if Ian savored the sound of her name in his mouth, spilling them gently from his lips. She couldn’t stop staring at his lips. Enough! She knew she should go.
Ian reached gently for her face. He moved very slowly, and his face inched closer to hers. She looked up at him, unsure of his intention. Ian leaned closer, gently brushing his lips against hers, just the softest of kisses.
Delighting in the feel of his mouth against hers and the rush of sparks that shot through her limbs, Claire could only let the kiss blossom into something more, enjoying the tingly warmth it created. She was unable to stop her soft whimper as Ian broke the kiss. She found her cheek cupped in his warm hand and Ian tilting her head up so that he could see her. His soft smile was replaced by something different, an intense gaze that all but screamed raw sexual desire. She stepped back abruptly. She needed to leave.
Appearing all too pleased with her response, he said, “Go back, Claire, with the knowledge you will always have my thanks.” Ian released her hand.
She immediately missed the feel of his hand, even as her lips wanted more of what he had offered. Claire shook away the unbidden thoughts; she needed to get back home. She looked at the view of the parking lot and did not trust herself to speak. With a small smile, Claire handed Ian his dagger and stepped into the door, but nothing changed. The tall, budding trees were still there as the smell of fresh earth assaulted her senses. The feel of grass and small rocks under her feet were not the expected blacktop. Her heart pounded as she hoped she had simply done something wrong. Refusing to give up, Claire quickly turned back to try again and again. Nothing. There was no change in her surroundings. Her heart slammed against her chest as her way home failed. The door seemed a mirage with no solid footing in reality.
A rustling noise in the trees came toward them and captured her attention. Ian’s voice came out in a harsh whisper. “Lass, get behind me. We tarried too long, and they are back.”
The three men who entered the clearing were revolting; their hair was dirty and matted, and filth covered them from head to toe. They each wore coarse woven pants and were armed with swords. The surprise that their captive was free lasted only a moment. The man in front commanded, “Get the laird, or we lose our coin. And it was quite thoughtful of him to present us with a lass.” The other two laughed and moved in to circle Claire and Ian.
Ian pushed Claire behind him. She wanted to argue that the small dagger he wielded was hardly appropriate against three men armed with swords, but she didn’t dare, as the three men circled and the leader gave instructions for her to be captured alive.
As one of the men pulled her away from the shelter of Ian’s back, she cried out in protest. She ceased all struggle as cold steel pressed against her throat. Claire was aware of how she was being held, her back to the attacker’s front. She felt a sudden sense of confidence at the realization that there was no other grip on her and the attacker depended solely on the threat of the sword. Holding her arms up in surrender, she carefully placed one arm under her attacker’s arm that held the sword.
Claire winced as the man bellowed in her ear, “Dinna stand there, fools, get him!”
Taking advantage of the man’s distraction, Claire moved fast. The mock surrender became her attack. She grabbed his sword hand, twisting it away from her as she pivoted in the other direction. Her momentum corkscrewed the man to the ground. Using the energy of the move, the strength she’d always held back while taking classes, she forced his wrist to snap backward, and the sword fell to the ground.
Lunging for the weapon, Claire yelled to Ian and threw it toward him. The dazed expressions told her that she had surprised them all. Ian had the good sense to catch the weapon and turned to face the other two attackers. A harsh smile covered his face; it would seem the laird had no issue taking vengeance.
She held her ground as her attacker rose from the forest floor. The obvious pain from the broken wrist slowed his movements. Claire yelled at him to stay down and then to back away. As he lunged for her, she reacted with years of training. The sidekick to his chest knocked him back down to the ground. Quickly straddling his chest and holding him locked in a firm front mount, his arms and legs were effectively pinned. She offered him one last chance. “Stop now.”
His body bucked beneath her hold. She knew it was only a matter of moments before her advantage was gone. He spoke his threat clearly. “You will suffer before you die.” Just before the man broke free, Claire struck. Her hand rose with knuckles pointing out, and the knuckles struck him hard in his throat. She held him firm to the ground as he struggled for air that would not come until he ceased all movement.
Feeling Ian standing behind her, Claire rose from the man lying on the ground. She muttered, “He wouldn’t stay down . . . I had no choice, he just . . . kept getting up.” Claire’s eyes were large and unfocused as she stared at the dead man at her feet. She tottered in her heels as the realization struck her.
I killed someone.
Stumbling away from the body, Claire fell to her knees as the bile rose in her throat.
“Lass, there was no choice, ever. If you had nay killed him, it would have been you lying upon the ground. But how did you do this? You have no weapon.” The surprise was more than evident in Ian’s tone.
The reply came from memory. “I am the weapon.” The words spoken during so many martial arts classes were delivered with a flat voice. Looking up at Ian, but not seeing anything, she explained, “I punched him in the throat, and I broke his windpipe so that he couldn’t breathe.” Ian’s hand reached out to help her from the ground. Refusing to be distracted by his touch, she rose on her own. She brushed the pebbles from her knees as she wobbled on her heels.
“For such fine skill, I will always be grateful. Claire, I have no words to express my thanks. You fought for the weapon I hold in my hand and saved me from recapture. But we are nay safe yet. There were better-trained men with these fools. I fear that they will soon arrive. We need to leave and leave now. I will keep you safe, but we must ride.” Facing away from her, Ian gave a loud whistle. A black horse trotted into sight. “Samson is very wise, lass, and he had the good sense to avoid capture, unlike his master.”
Claire saw the giant black stallion, and panic followed. “I can’t leave. My passage home is here. Maybe I just need to keep trying.” Turning to face home, she stopped in mid-step. There was no door. There was only the forest as far as the eye could see. She stood and stared, unable to move as her heart hammered in her chest.
“I just want to go back,” she whispered.
Ian led the horse to Claire’s side and spoke gently. “Come, lass, we need to go. The danger is too great in this place.” Not waiting her for approval, he lifted her gently onto the stallion.
“I need my bag.” Claire’s voice was hollow, void of any emotion as she settled onto the animal’s back. Ian grabbed the black bag from the ground and handed it to Claire. She gripped it tight, grateful for something familiar in her hands. Ian’s large body filled the space behind her, and she stiffened as his arm wrapped around her waist. Her pulse raced as his face dipped and he inhaled deeply of her hair. For just a flash of a moment, her breath stuck in her throat as the feel of muscular thighs against her legs brought to mind thoughts that should not be. Not now and definitely not here. A foolish attempt to straighten the short skirt, to put some fabric between her and the man with his plaid riding high on his thighs on the horse, only earned Claire a small chuckle from the man seated behind her.
With a soft voice, Ian spoke against the shell of her ear. “We need to ride hard and fast, Claire. The men will soon offer chase. Be at ease, you are under my protection. Besides, I would take only what is offered.” He inhaled her hair one more time. “You smell sweet, lass.”
Attempting to pull away from him, Claire retorted, “I am offering you nothing.” She ignored the breathy quality to her voice, refusing to acknowledge whatever this was between them.
Ian tightened his grip on her waist. “Then I will seek to take nothing.” As Claire ceased her weak struggle, he said, “You have saved my life, let me save yours. We ride now, lass.” Not waiting for a reply, Ian kicked the horse into motion. As the horse broke into a run, her body was forced to accept his, at least for now.