Home » , , , , , , » Forbidden, The Bittersweet Vampire Chronicles, Book 1 by Ava Ivy

Forbidden, The Bittersweet Vampire Chronicles, Book 1 by Ava Ivy

Kaid--the future warlord of clan MacDonnel--vividly remembered the day his whole life changed for the better…when his six year old heart was ripped from his body and eagerly placed into the tiny hands of its new owner—a sweet but mischievous little girl with an easy, contagious laugh—who had apparently been sent to save him from his life of sickness and despair.
Forbidden, The Bittersweet Vampire Chronicles, Book 1
Forbidden, The Bittersweet Vampire Chronicles, Book 1 by Ava Ivy
Ariel appeared to be about two or three years old when she officially became a MacDonnel. Her mother--who’d been born into another clan--had died. So, it was deep in the heavily-forested Highlands, late one afternoon, when Kaid’s father accepted responsibility for her--a small, gorgeous child with a shining fall of soft, pale ringlets and big, violet eyes. As the handsome chieftain continued to kneel down, gently questioning the little girl, Kaid finally started to push his way through the deep foliage from behind which he had been curiously eavesdropping on them. The rustling of bushes and crackling branches had the other child immediately turning to see who was behind her. When the young girl’s vibrant gaze met Kaid’s sky blue one, she gasped in delighted surprise at the blonde-headed boy who was the mirror image of his attractive father, only much, much smaller. Her luminous eyes bright with joy, the pretty child hurried over to Kaid, then expectantly stood there, eager little arms up in the air like it was something she did every day, obviously wanting a very young, very withdrawn Kaid--who was still grieving from the loss of his own mother--to carry her. Lord MacDonnel smiled indulgently and let out a soft, knowing chuckle, obviously amused by the sweet child’s instant fascination with his oldest son. Unfortunately, his grumbling offspring didn’t seem to feel the same way. Disgruntled by the girl’s absurd request, Kaid--who was six years old, but big for his age--mutely shook his head in silent dismissal and backed away, wanting absolutely nothing to do with a silly little girl child, no matter how cute and charming she might appear. Plus, he’d already observed her speaking with his father. She could barely say any words, a fact that had classified her in his mind as a baby. Sighing at his oldest son’s weak and sullen ways, Lord MacDonnel leveled him with an admonishing look. “Watch Ariel for a moment, Kaid,” he instructed. It was a casual order, but there was steel beneath the surface. After giving the boy another meaningful glance, the large warrior turned away, silently moving through the wall of trees to ready their horses. Still looking genuinely surprised by Kaid’s blatant refusal to pick her up, Ariel’s beautiful eyes were wide with hurt and confusion, which swiftly started changing to a slightly stubborn look in which her brows furrowed, her cheeks flushed, and her full, little mouth pinched together. Intrigued by her abrupt change in demeanor, Kaid perked up, watching in fascination as a shaft of sunlight through the overhanging leaves made the girl’s eyes appear to be glowing. Her determined look should have warned him that something was about to happen, but Kaid was far too distracted by the myriad of emotions playing in Ariel’s expressive gaze and was totally caught off guard when the small girl unexpectedly leapt forward, confidently tackling him with quite a bit more force than he would’ve ever expected from such a wee, little thing. Wincing as his back hit the forest ground, Kaid lay there, completely dumbfounded for a few heartbeats, his vision blocked by a radiant abundance of big, pale curls as he haphazardly drew in weak, shallow breaths to try and fill his sickly, air-starved lungs. Then, under the shelter of the overhanging trees, the little girl popped her head up from where she lay atop his chest and peeked down at Kaid’s face. With a smile of startling sweetness, her violet eyes twinkled adorably into his bewildered bright blue gaze. Giggling at his startled expression in an enchanting, melodious way, she cinched the noose around his heart by poking his chest with one tiny, stubborn finger, and declaring, “Mine!” In the next instant, Kaid was completely shaken by the force of his reaction to her touch. It felt as if the permanent, overwhelming tightness in his chest--which had always caused him to wheeze and struggle to catch his breath--had finally dissipated and now he could actually expand his chest up and out and breathe freely for the first time in his young life. He was amazed by the transformation. Shock still widened his eyes as his unwavering gaze continued to watch her, his jaw slack. “What did you just do to me?” he demanded in a fascinated whisper. Before she had a chance to respond, a low-flying black bird suddenly glided right above their heads, loudly squawking as it went past. The girl nearly jumped out of her skin with fright as she squealed in surprise, diving down next to Kaid and burrowing her whole body against his side. The little vixen that had just been filled with such laughing mischief was now visibly trembling in fear, her little fingers clutching at his tunic. Sliding her a curious look of amusement, Kaid was unable to prevent a soft chuckle as he finally sat up, easily moving her small form onto his lap as she continued to huddle close to him. In the back of his mind Kaid was silently marveling over how easily his chest was rising and falling with each breath he took. It was truly a miracle. Humor still teased the corners of Kaid’s mouth as he quietly surveyed this girl named Ariel. She was a very pretty creature, delicate and fragile looking. When she cautiously peered up at him, her bottom lip trembling a bit and her big eyes sparkling with tears, he caught his breath. The sight of those unshed tears shimmering in her eyes had Kaid suddenly remembering that this tiny lass didn’t have a mother to help her, either. That miserable thought had him instinctively pulling the quaking little girl tighter against him. “It’s just a bird,” he explained patiently, a touch of caring in his tone. “You’re not scared of silly ol’ birds, are you?” he demanded with mocking gravity, as if that was the worst thing he’d ever heard. Ariel’s eyes instantly sobered as she silently stared up at him. Then, as if suddenly realizing that he’d just dared to challenge her level of bravery, Ariel’s lips mulishly pinched together again. Obviously gathering her courage, the petite girl took a deep breath and then resolutely stretched her arm out to the side, extending one small finger and scrunching her eyes closed, as if in concentration. A spark of surprise lit Kaid’s eyes as that same black crow immediately flew back towards them. Chills ran down his spine as it circled over their heads for a moment before calmly landing on her outstretched finger. Keeping her face as far away from the animal as possible--as if she were still a bit wary of the feathered creature--Ariel slid a hopeful glance to Kaid, the expectant light in her gaze indicating that this deed was definitely proving that she wasn’t afraid of silly ol’ birds. “Whoa! That’s a really tame bird!” Kaid breathed in amazement, reeling from the visual shock of such a lovely wild animal landing on the girl’s hand. Then he touted, “You see! There’s nothing to be afraid of...” But as he confidently reached out to pet their new feathered friend, the bird’s sharp beak impatiently struck the back of Kaid’s small hand right between two fragile bones. “Ouch!” he bellowed. Ariel let out a long belly laugh that quickly faded away when she noticed Kaid’s rising panic. Almost immediately, the black bird extended its wings up high, swiftly lifting into the air in a flurry of movement and flying away. When Ariel then reached out to touch Kaid’s hand, he jerked back. “Don’t touch it!” His words were nothing less than an order, his warning tone ringing with an impressive amount of authority for one so young. Face growing pale, Kaid held out his hand and there was genuine distress in his voice as he tremulously whispered, “I’m bleeding!” With grave dignity, Ariel obediently set her hands in her lap, obviously not understanding his fears as she patiently waited, curiously watching the crestfallen boy as he continued to stare down at the injury in silent horror. “It’s going to turn an angry red color soon. Then I-I’m going to die…just like my mother,” he whispered, eyes tortured as if Death was already whispering in his ear. Kaid’s last statement seemed to make Ariel impatient enough to chance reprisal. Letting out what sounded like a tiny growl, she reached out and firmly grasped his wrist. Though he tried to pull away, her strength felt like that of a full-grown man and she easily brought his injured hand in front of her face, putting her other small hand on top of his for two heartbeats. When she released him, Kaid slid her a grumpy, disapproving look for daring to touch his injury when he’d specifically ordered her not to, causing a guilty, almost sheepish smile to flit over her sweet features. But then he looked down at his wound and blinked several times, staring in stunned amazement at the smooth, unmarred area of skin on the back of his hand and then over to the clever, good-humored child, not quite believing his own eyes. “Now how did you do that?” Giving him a small, pleased grin, Ariel gently poked his chest again, inflexibly repeating, “Mine!” Then the sweet girl smiled somewhat sleepily as she wrapped her arms around his middle and gently nestled her head against his young chest, causing him to draw in a quick breath as he felt the utter silky softness of her cool, pale curls against the side of his face. His mother’s hair had been soft, as well, and he had adored playing with the long, smooth strands. Overcome with emotion, he loosely wrapped his arms around her and then rested his cheek on the glossy curve of the small child’s head. Kaid had loved his mother so much and he missed her every moment of every day. He bitterly resented his new step-mother who was constantly sending him disapproving glares, only pretending to care about Kaid when his father was in the same room. She was not much friendlier to his two younger brothers, either. It was obvious that his father’s new bride could barely abide any of them. In that instant, Kaid’s eyes slowly rounded and his small mouth dropped open in a silent gasp as his young mind suddenly made a desperately needed connection to the stunning child sitting on his lap. Obviously his mother was still watching over him from Heaven. So she’d sent someone special to care about him and help him get stronger…someone who needed his help, as well. Kaid drew in another sharp breath as that thought sunk in, causing his handsome little face to brighten. All of a sudden, his heart was filled with such hope. But then alarm wormed its way in, causing Kaid’s arms to abruptly tighten around the tiny child in a possessive, bone-crushing hold, as if he was afraid that Ariel would suddenly disappear, just like his beloved mother had, leaving a dark ember of bitterness and anger in his gut. But the spell of fear was abruptly broken when the little girl gurgled out a long torrent of delicious giggles, as if she found his attempt to aggressively squash her utterly fun and hilarious. Kaid’s eyes warmed at Ariel’s easy sense of humor. She was definitely a happy little thing. Rubbing his cheek against her sweet-smelling hair, Kaid whispered, “I’m going to be in charge of protecting you from now on, Ariel, because my mom sent you to me. So that makes you mine.” “Mine!” she mimicked in a playfully serious, growly tone, apparently very fond of saying that word. Turning to point at Lord MacDonnel’s returning form, Ariel conspiratorially whispered, “That Sephy’s!” Then she softly laughed under her breath in such an amused way, as if she’d just said the funniest thing. For such a clever, intelligent child, whose bewitching eyes seemed to assess everything around her, Kaid still found her lack of speech a bit odd…but he supposed that it was also rather endearing, especially now that he’d claimed her as his own. “Who’s Sephy?” he demanded quietly. “Is that the dog that’s with you? The one that’s bigger than Father?” he half mocked. Her eyes lit with excitement. “My fin!” “Muffin?” Kaid repeated slowly, his eyes warily sliding to the huge, mangy-haired brown dog that sat in a soft spot of grass a few yards away. The beast’s assessing gaze seemed to be watching the two of them very closely. “So where’s Sephy?” “At home,” she explained cheerfully, blinking up at him. Lord MacDonnel returned, his intelligent eyes warming and a faint smile tugging up the corners of his chiseled lips at the unexpected sight of Kaid carefully clasping the small child to his chest. “Thank you for being so friendly to Ariel, Kaid,” he praised affectionately. ”She’s a sweet baby girl, isn’t she? All we have at home are boys. You’ve never had a little girl around to play with like Bran, with his three sisters.” Bran was Kaid's best friend, who loyally waited with Kaid when he was having breathing problems and never ran on ahead to play with the other boys. Moving towards Kaid, he instructed, “Here, hand Ariel to me and I’ll hold her on the ride back.” “N-no,” Kaid stammered, quickly rising to his feet with the yawning little girl still clutched almost desperately in his arms. Though he knew better than to openly defy his father in front of the clan, there were no other clansmen around at the moment and he felt very strongly about this situation. “She will ride with me,” he insisted, taking a few steps back to put more distance between he and his father. The mere thought of the girl being taken away from him was evoking visceral fear. Lord MacDonnel shook his head, his tone final. “She will wiggle and you might drop her.” He moved forward, closing the distance that Kaid had desperately wanted to keep between them. When his father again reached out with the intention of taking her, Ariel softly grunted in protest, her small arms tightening as she burrowed her face against Kaid’s neck, obviously wanting to stay with him. Almost incoherently, she whimpered, “Kaid…” as if she desperately needed him to save her, pronouncing his name in such a scared, warbling little tone that his heart felt like it swelled up in his chest. In that instant, something snapped inside Kaid and his intense blue eyes flared with fury and a newly discovered purpose. Protective instincts suddenly flowed so strongly through his young body that he could feel the blood pumping in his ears and face. His tone held a thread of the famous MacDonnel temper, more forceful than his father had ever heard it, as he gritted his teeth and defiantly growled, “No! She’s my baby girl and she wants to ride with me!” Though he was clearly surprised by his son’s unusual intensity and determination, Lord MacDonnel pursed his own lips in disagreement, showing off the sharp angles of his strong jaw. He still seemed worried over the little girl’s well-being. “Be reasonable, Kaid! She’s a very delicate looking thing. It would be a near-certain death if she fell off a horse. Plus, you can barely get on your own mount without huffing and puffing! How are you supposed to manage a wiggling child the whole way back?” Not bothering to argue further, there was a distinctly satisfied expression on Kaid’s young face as he confidently walked to his expensive, docile mare and easily climbed on, while still clutching his prized package against his chest with one arm. In utter amazement, his father stood there staring at a son whose weak lungs had affected him since birth, a son who was not even wheezing or out of breath right now for the first time in his young life. Instead, the boy displayed a proud demeanor as he sat back on the elegant beast, his eyes clear, his small cheeks flushed with good health. “Very well, she may ride with you,” the warlord finally relented, his voice oddly gruff. Then Lord MacDonnel watched in open fascination as Kaid adjusted the girl in front of him, looking strangely vibrant with excitement now that he was officially in charge of her well-being. With the utmost care, the boy dusted a smudge of dirt from the sleeve of her costly outfit, then plucked and discarded a leaf from the girl’s curly hair before he reached into his saddle bag and pulled out a blanket. “Ariel, can you hold on tighter to me while we ride so you won’t fall off?” Obediently nodding, she laid her cheek against his chest, and then visibly squeezed her arms around his middle, so much tighter that it caused Kaid to let out a surprised, grunting squeak. That funny sound caused Ariel to immediately ease her hold on him as she looked up and let out a long peal of helpless giggles, making Kaid laugh, as well. His handsome little face was bright with an adoring smile as he gazed down into her angelic little face. Lord MacDonnel couldn’t help but grin, even as he continued to watch, completely charmed and captivated by this newfound bond of theirs. Wrapping the blanket firmly around Ariel, Kaid covered her bright curls, as well, before tying both loose ends of the blanket in a way that would keep her securely in place. Glancing over at his father, Kaid explained, “I don’t want anyone to see Ariel and try to take her away from us. Plus, the blanket will block the wind from her face. She’s very young, so breathing in too much cold air might make her sick.” Kaid’s explanation was given with such a strong sense of responsibility and maturity that his father blinked--once again taken by surprise--before slowly nodding in agreement. “That’s very wise, son,” the older man praised, attempting to sound firm. Pride, joy, and a deeper emotion were shining in Lord MacDonnel’s gaze as he took a long, stabilizing breath and then turned away. If Kaid hadn’t known better, he would have sworn he’d seen tears glistening in the older man’s eyes. From that moment on, Kaid was a fanatic about having Ariel within his view or near at hand. He would have it no other way. Anyone who tried to interfere with their close friendship in the least little bit got the brunt of his ferocious temper, which was quite legendary, even at a very young age. To be fair, Kaid did initially try to let his new little friend sleep on her own at night. The first evening she stayed with them at the castle, he personally walked Ariel to her very own upstairs bedchamber, put her to bed and tucked her in, telling her that his own room was right next to hers if she got scared or needed help. She was lying on her back, her wide eyes riveted on him as he slowly walked out. Kaid glanced back several times before exiting and leaving the door all the way open. When he unexpectedly popped his head back into the room and made a funny face at her, Ariel was still faithfully watching the door and snorted out a delighted giggle. Then Kaid walked, rather loudly, to his own room, leaving that door ajar, as well. To his utter relief, a few moments later he heard her small footsteps coming closer. Happiness exuded from him at the knowledge that Ariel was coming to find him, that she needed him. The sound sent warmth spreading through Kaid’s veins, melting the ice from his soul, the ice that had seemed permanently lodged in the center of his being ever since his mother had taken her last breath, leaving him devastated and feeling alone, even amongst his own family. Putting his hands behind his head, Kaid lay in bed, being completely still, and feeling very sneaky as he pretended to be asleep. When he heard Ariel let out a comical little grunt as she hoisted her small body up the side of his bed, Kaid had to press his lips together to prevent a grin. Then her tiny form quietly slipped under the covers, slowly wiggling closer to him until her small back was firmly snuggled against his solid, warm side. After Ariel settled into her comfy spot, he let her lay there for a moment or two and relax. She was not expecting it when--in one smooth, swift motion--Kaid rolled toward her, giving a muffled roar as his arms clamped around Ariel, lifting and jostling her about in the air for a moment as if he’d “caught her.” She squealed and then gave such an amused, choppy-sounding belly laugh that Kaid was still grinning with pleasure long moments later when he moved her to his other side, which was farthest from the door, so that he could protect her from intruders. Then he snuggled Ariel firmly against the side of his body and let out a soft, contented sigh, feeling happy and looking forward to waking up in the morning for the first time in forever. Glancing over at the empty spot on the bed next to her, Ariel slung her little arm out to claim it as she asked him, “Sephy’s spot?” “Sure,” he agreed neutrally. “Ariel, is this Sephy person a boy or a girl?” “Sephy’s at home,” she replied unhelpfully. “Alright,” he murmured, pulling her tighter against him and refusing to worry about someone who wasn’t even around. Ariel snuck to his bedroom each night for the next few days until one night, when Kaid waited and waited, straining to hear the little slapping patter of her feet, yet, she never appeared in his room. Racked with worry that someone had stolen his new, little friend, whom he’d sworn to protect, he quickly returned to Ariel’s bedchamber, relieved but a bit exasperated to see her sound asleep, steady puffs of air coming from her small form. Well, she had seemed very sleepy when he’d put her to bed earlier. But this behavior of her not constantly seeking him out for protection was highly unacceptable to someone of his volatile nature and he was secretly afraid it might become an annoying habit. Pulling back the blankets to gently lift her into his arms, he held her tightly against his chest, an action that was becoming second nature since her arrival. When Ariel stirred and automatically curled her arms around his neck, contently mumbling what sounded like her version of his name as she cuddled her face into the crook of his shoulder, Kaid let out a pent-up, emotional breath. “I’ve got you,” he assured her in a calm whisper. “I won’t let any harm come to you, I promise.” Then he left Ariel’s bedchamber, firmly shutting the thick wooden door and never intending to take her in there again. Kaid stubbornly decided that she needed to sleep in the safety of his own room until she was better able to defend herself. That was the end of it. Since that first day, when he’d claimed her as his own in the forest, Kaid rarely let the adorable, loyal, little girl, who had wrought such a change in him, out of his sight. He watched over her like the fiercest of protectors, enjoying the fact that he was the first person she always ran to for everything. As Kaid endeavored to instruct and train her in every aspect of weaponry, Ariel caught on so easily that it was an extremely gratifying process. Kaid was Ariel’s fierce defender and she was constantly by his side. They were like two of the brightest stars, each reveling and growing under the warm, approving light of the other. And, as she grew older, Ariel gently challenged and spurred Kaid along to even bigger and better feats, so intelligent, lithe, and quick-witted that he had to remain continuously focused on developing his own skills and abilities, meticulously practicing anything and everything, just to stay one step ahead of her. And, even though he’d gained an abundance of confidence over the years, especially after she’d healed his breathing ailment, Kaid had formed an unwavering habit of looking to Ariel for her valued opinion and approval. For instance, if he soundly beat an older, more seasoned warrior at swordplay, it wasn’t his father that he looked to for praise. No. His broad shoulders still heaving with exertion from the battle, Kaid’s serious eyes would automatically find Ariel’s face in the crowd. Once he saw her excited smile and the approving twinkle in her lavender eyes, his own would alight with warmth at his achievement. Full lips twisting with satisfaction, he’d give her that smug chin lift and then turn to accept the congratulations of his peers, finally savoring his triumph. Kaid was not the only one who was competitive, however. Ariel delighted in trying to beat him at anything and everything they did together. For instance, if they were at the pond and she caught a bigger fish, Ariel took such joy in teasing him over her momentary victory. And even though Kaid laughed at her jests and enjoyed the intoxicating happiness Ariel illuminated over momentarily beating him, nothing could pry him away from the water’s edge until he caught a fish that was a good deal bigger than hers. In the meantime, however, Ariel charmed him with playful taunting by holding their two fish up for comparisons and miming, as if her much bigger fish was eating his wee little tiny fishy. Or she would suddenly gasp and point to the shallow part of the pond in front of her, claiming that his fish had escaped, and then pretend to realize that she was wrong, that it must have been a different minnow. Her quips were endlessly amusing. But once he finally caught a superior fish, Ariel would teasingly scowl at how unbelievably heavy the new fish felt, grumbling that she was going to have Cook check to see how many stones Kaid had stuffed in its mouth when Ariel wasn’t looking, and inadvertently making him feel good about his successful day. Because of Ariel, Kaid strived for excellence in everything he did, knowing that she would delight in mischievously pointing out any possible error in his ways. If they’d never brought her home, Kaid doubted that he’d be half the warrior he was today. Chapter 2 [Ariel-present] Rolling his wide, powerful shoulders in agitation, Bran looked big, imposing, and very grim. “Good grief, Kaid! Why do I always have to help watch over your little sister?” his deep voice gruffly boomed throughout the dark, campfire-lit grounds where tired MacDonnel clansmen were preparing to bed down from the excitement of the first day of their annual hunt. Although her slender hands fisted in exasperation at Bran’s niggling words, Ariel pointedly ignored the young, overly-aggressive warrior, wondering if he even realized the amount of intense emotions his flashing green eyes were putting off as he prowled in front of the central fire. The bright sparks in the darkness and popping of the settling logs behind him seemed to emphasize the hostile feelings roiling inside the hardened warrior. His lovely square jaw was clenched as he restlessly paced, obviously trying to pick a fight with Ariel as she moved across the forest clearing, gently weaving a path through the lounging clansmen, her hips femininely swaying in the baggy boy pants and long tunic she wore. That annoyingly attractive male--who happened to be her secret ex-boyfriend--could go jump off a cliff for all she cared! Alright…alright…so occasionally she might care…a little. But most of the time she was fingering the sturdy hilt of her favorite blade, imagining his quick demise. Bran MacDonnel couldn’t goad her or growl spiteful things under his breath when his thick throat was cut, now could he? A very pleasant thought, indeed. With the shadow of a smile playing at her lips, Ariel discretely turned her head, sliding the huge warrior a look beneath her long lashes. And, since his eyes had never left her moving form, he immediately noticed. As their gazes met, a jolt of energy seemed to surge between them and Ariel silently caught her breath. Bran’s lips curved with a cruel edge of challenge, his gaze slashing over her with loathing and something else Ariel couldn’t quite put her finger on. Just to annoy him, she reached up and scratched her shoulder with just her pinky finger…a secret gesture that she’d previously used to signal him to meet her behind the old stables later. His eyes widened in surprise and she couldn’t help but smirk because she’d caught him off guard, which did, indeed, annoy him. They were far from home and he’d have to walk a long way to get back to the old stables. With an inward sigh, she wondered if the big brute ever ached for her lost friendship like she ached for his. Ariel’s heart used to leap at the idea of spending time with Bran. Stolen moments with her strong, handsome warrior had been the best part of her day. Now, any time spent around his simmering anger was the worst. Ariel still felt the warrior’s sharp gaze on her back as she halted beside their three-person makeshift bed, just big enough for Kaid and Bran with her literally squashed right in the middle for warmth and protection, the same as every year. Except Bran used to secretly love Ariel, or maybe he’d just been pretending…until she’d made that mistake. Now the massive warrior seemed to utterly despise the very air she breathed. Bending low, Ariel slipped her long legs into the overindulgent pile of blankets and lush furs, easing in next to Kaid, her best friend and oldest half-brother. Ariel secretly thought her deceased mother must have lied when she’d claimed Lord MacDonnel had fathered her, apparently willing to say anything to secure her daughter a safe home. But Kaid usually became moody when Ariel mentioned those opinions, so she rarely spoke her worries aloud anymore. From Ariel’s long curves, pale curls, and soothing violet eyes—plus all the weird tricks she could do—nothing of her angelic face or form matched Kaid’s tall, hulking build, strong jaw, intelligent blue gaze, or the straight, dark blond hair that dusted his overly-broad shoulders. Kaid was several years older than her, would someday be the leader of clan MacDonnel, and he continuously watched over Ariel with a warm, overprotective devotion that bordered on obsessive. He was her haven, a place where she found friendship, affection and companionship. And Ariel didn’t mind in the least that her best friend tended to coddle and indulge her. She’d never known any different. Presently, Kaid’s alert blue eyes were grim as he sat up and carefully rearranged the layers of coverings over Ariel’s slight frame for maximum protection against the cold chill. When she tilted her head back, impishly smiling up at her handsome best friend, his look finally softened into warm amusement. Quirking one eyebrow, his sarcasm was evident as he questioned, “Is this bed soft enough for you?” “It’s amazing,” she purred, thoroughly enjoying the padded softness of the furs she now lay upon. “I didn’t think you could make a better bed than last years but you’ve managed to surpass even that.” He shrugged one broad, powerful shoulder. “I have to sleep here, as well,” he gruffly negated the effort, though she could sense the pleasure her words had given him. “I’ve seen what you take for bedding on your other hunts!” she argued. “You cover up with only your plaid at night like some foolish person.” He snorted. “I don’t need a lot of coverings. I’m not a scrawny little female who will freeze stiff during a single Highland night. And it’s my job to protect you.” “Yes, it is!” she agreed, her soft, melodious voice teasing as she affectionately wrapped her arms around his middle and laid her cheek against his hard chest. “Thank you, Kaid.” He grumbled something under his breath, acting as if she were being impossibly silly as he lovingly cupped the back of her head with one large hand. Trying to distract herself from any thoughts of her vindictive ex, Ariel decided to tease her overly-proper best friend who didn’t handle criticism very well…at all. “Mmm…” she sighed. “I just can’t get over how soft this bedding feels!” Mischievously, she pinched Kaid in the stomach, insinuating that he was a bit padded around the middle, even though there wasn’t a spare bit of flesh on him. Kaid’s eyes lit up, brows raising a fraction. “Reeeally?” he purred then narrowed his gaze into a mock scowl. “Are you sure?” What he was asking was if Ariel really wanted to take this path that would lead to pain and suffering. Her pain and suffering. Nervous excitement buzzed through Ariel’s veins at the casual tone he’d used, a tone which normally indicated that he was going to kill her…right after he calmly tortured her. Trying to hide her mischievous grin, Ariel bit down on her lower lip and gravely nodded. Her lovely eyes were wide as she stared up into his well-defined, arrogant features. “Mmhmm…” Pinch. “Very, very soft!” Her best friend was a hard worker, able to focus and relentlessly practice to excel at anything he chose to accomplish. The young, brawny warrior had a great sense of humor, but sometimes Kaid sunk into a dark, volatile frame of mind, his angry explosions almost unmanageable. These bouts of temper usually came about when Ariel was not near enough at hand for his liking or if she and Kaid had quarreled. And—surprise, surprise—their spats were almost always based on the fact that Kaid felt she was neglecting him for long periods of the day to callously tend to any ailing clan members. From as far back as she could remember, the task of keeping Kaid from getting too moody had always fallen on Ariel’s shoulders. Even their strong-willed, clever father could not seem to coax, growl or command Kaid out of one of his darker tempers. So, even if Ariel was busy elsewhere, like when she helped with the birth of a new babe, her father never hesitated to send a soldier to retrieve her, post haste. Kaid’s bad moods were legendary and so frightening at times that she had long ago made it a habit to be playful and tease him as often as she could, thus keeping his spirits light as she showered him with constant affection. He adored when her attention was solely focused on him and no one else. Slowly moving his large hand, Kaid positioned it right underneath Ariel’s ribs in a silent, threatening gesture, letting his fingertips heavily rest on her flat belly--like a big, awful, thick-legged spider--ready to bite. Ariel drew in a sharp breath, her eyes widening with the realization of what was to come and she immediately gasped out a correction, “You’re not soft! You’re strong and handsome and cunning and wonderful!” “That’s more like it!” he rumbled, easing his hand away. Smiling with relief, Ariel looped a slender arm around his waist again. Then went ahead and anchored her leg over, as well, grateful that she had loose boy pants on for this trip. Kaid raised one curious brow at her actions and then shook his head in resignation, his eyes twinkling with mirth because he knew her competitive, mischievous nature all too well. Trying to look sweet and innocent, Ariel purposefully moved over as close as she could to the young warrior so that his hand would no longer be able to fit in between their bodies. Then, feeling much more secure, her reckless tongue proceeded to aggravate him again as she goaded, “Even though you are a bit knob-kneed and bony.” Kaid barked out a laugh. “Bony, am I? I’ve never been accused of that before!” he exclaimed good naturedly. No matter the insult, his hand swiftly returned for vengeance. His grip was strong and--although Ariel ducked her head into his body, squealing as she ardently clung to his muscular frame--he made quick work of peeling her arms away and pinning her wrists above her head. Ignoring her protests, his hand returned to dig into her stomach right where she was the most ticklish. Erupting into a long tide of uncontrollable laughter, Ariel had to wait for a lull in the torture to gasp out, “Jesting! I was only jesting!” Kaid immediately paused. “Are you sure this time?” he questioned sternly, staring down into her lovely flushed face, a pale cloud of soft curls fanning out around her. “Yes!” Ariel laughed, her eyes sparkling, all personal problems momentarily forgotten. Thankfully, Kaid had mercy and did not continue his torment. “I thought so.” Beautiful white teeth flashed in a cocky grin of satisfaction as his thick arms protectively drew her back against his chest. With a silly smile, Ariel curled into him like a contented kitten while he affectionately pressed his lips to her temple, kissing it twice. Suddenly tensing, Kaid pushed just far enough away so that he could look down into her sweet face. “How is your side?” he demanded gruffly, his face starting to lose color. “Did I hurt you?” Ariel could feel the worry and remorse suddenly radiating off of her good friend. She’d been seriously injured during a sword match several months back. Unfortunately, she was their clan’s main healer…but her maid, Mary, was a practiced caretaker, as well, so Ariel had been in good hands. “No. You didn’t hurt me,” she quickly assured him then pulled a face. “But my side is a bit sore from the long ride today,” she exaggerated, just to appease him. If Ariel told him that she was fine, Kaid always accused her of not telling him the truth, so she’d learned to complain of small, easily-curable ailments for his peace of mind. Noticeably less worried now, Kaid gently laid one large hand over the area of her injury, near her hip, patting it lightly as if in apology, which made Ariel smirk. Starting to become a bit worried about her own peace of mind, Ariel was a little too aware of the empty spot on the other side of her to fully enjoy the luxuriously soft nest Kaid had put together for their comfort. Soon, this coziness would be filled up with Bran’s overgrown, frustratingly muscular body packed in right next to hers. As the leader’s daughter and the only female ever allowed to go on this annual hunt, Kaid and Bran had always flanked her on both sides at night for protection, their big bodies shielding her smaller form from the harsh bite of cold wind and any unexpected attacks. Ugh! How awkward that she had to sleep with Bran’s muscular back pressed up against her for warmth when he seemed to dislike her so fiercely. During the previous few hunts, when their secret relationship had been developing, it had been quite exhilarating to be snuggled up against him right under Kaid’s nose…even though she’d had to discretely swat at Bran’s large, roaming hands last year. But now that the huge, overbearing warrior was actively despising her with every seething breath, it was a bit…uncomfortable. Kaid and Bran were two of the top warriors in their clan. The same age, they had grown up, shoulder to shoulder, the best of friends. Both males were smart, very aggressive, and extremely dangerous if you got on their bad side. Neither one of them forgot or forgave easily. Unfortunately, Ariel was currently planted firmly on Bran’s bad side. And yet she was Kaid’s most coveted treasure. The combination of extreme love and hate in these two best friends, whom she was daily forced to be around, left Ariel’s emotions a bit chafed and raw by the end of every evening. Chapter 3 [Kaid~present] Taking a deep breath, Kaid reluctantly leaned up on his side in the makeshift bed, his blue eyes warming with humor and affection as he stared down at Ariel’s sweet profile. She had always had that effect on him. All he had to do was look at her from across the room and he would smile for no reason. She was full of mischief and life and when he woke her up in the mornings, she was super clingy and such a cranky, little bear, that some of her grumpy antics could keep him chuckling to himself throughout the day. Protectively re-adjusting the covers, he then smoothed an adoring hand over her pale blonde curls, wondering how in the world she managed to grow more stunning every day. Casually glancing towards Brandos, Kaid registered--with some amusement--that his male best friend was still fuming because he had to sleep on the other side of Ariel in their makeshift bed, as was their yearly tradition. Kaid’s two best friends hadn’t been getting along these past few months but seeing them sparking fire off of each other on a daily basis was quite diverting. Last year he’d had some worries after coming upon them in the stables clasped in an embrace. Those flames of worry had been doused somewhat when they’d begun fighting so publicly and then completely smothered out when Bran had wounded her, almost fatally, in a contest of swords. Now Ariel’s attention was solely focused back on Kaid, as it should be. Pulling himself out of his own thoughts, Kaid finally addressed Bran’s earlier remark, his deep voice echoing through the large clearing, a calm tone that nevertheless rang with authority. “You know it’s safer for Ariel if there’s one of us on either side of her. She’s the only lass here, so it’s doubtful that all of your grumbling is garnering you much sympathy from any of the other men.” A round of nods and an amused murmur of agreement went up from the multitude of warriors now lounging quietly in their beds, talking amongst themselves. Those soldiers who were further away leaned up on elbows to watch the handsome, dark-haired young man—one of the clan’s most brutal warriors—who stood by the fire, his expression intimidatingly displeased. Despite the scar that ran down one cheek—proof that someone, at some point in time, had bested him—Brandos “Bran” MacDonnel was one of the cockiest, most self-assured warriors in their clan, with enough cold-bloodedness to make you wary of making him angry. But tonight, the big, aggressive male was obviously raring for a battle of wits with their leader’s daughter. [Ariel~present] Ariel sighed to herself, wondering why Bran even bothered bullying her. There was no point in it. He was the one who’d broken off their relationship. Not that anyone had even known they’d been together. They’d had an unspoken agreement to keep their relationship a secret, mainly to preserve Bran’s relationship with his best friend, her half-brother, Kaid, who was extremely protective of her. To someone outside her clan, it might mistakenly appear as if Bran were trying to get Ariel’s attention when he harassed her, like when you were little and you whacked a cute boy with a stick, trying to get him to notice you. Ariel knew that it was nothing like that, however. Everybody in their clan knew. Bran just flat out hated her. This hatred had seemed to start a few months back, the day after Kaid had left on a three-day trip with some elders in the clan. [Ariel~past] The first day, she and Bran had been having a relaxed picnic in one of their favorite hideaway spots in the forest. Bran had been so charmingly affectionate and attentive, his white teeth flashing in constant amusement. And, as he casually leaned back against the trunk of a tree, those intense green eyes had lingered on her in a very admiring way which had told her that he most definitely appreciated the view. All in all, she found those heated looks to be quite gratifying and knew her own gaze probably mirrored his. Some females might have been intimidated by the intensity and aggression he constantly seemed to exude but Ariel had always enjoyed his vicious personality and all his peculiar habits. Since he was around Kaid just as much as her, he was one of her closest friends. Bran was easy to confide in and extremely appealing. But the next day…. Glowing with excitement about the good news she was sure to hear from Bran, Ariel had eagerly headed to the quiet spot behind the old stables where she normally met up with her handsome friendly-friend, as she teasingly called him. Discovering her male in a terrible mood when she arrived, Ariel had been wide-eyed and mute as she listened to him speak, finding it difficult to comprehend that all of his simmering anger seemed to be solely directed at her as he bluntly began to inform her of the various reasons why their relationship was over. Basically, Bran said that he was tired of being responsible for her just because she was Kaid’s sister and the chieftain’s daughter. He growled that he was done babysitting her, callously demanding to know how he could possibly respect someone who continuously threw herself at him in such a pitiful, desperate way, when all he felt for her was a mild, tepid friendship inter-mixed with a growing disgust and revulsion for her unnatural abilities. If his viciously cutting tone and ugly, hurtful words hadn’t convinced Ariel that he was no longer interested in being in a relationship with her, the pretty light-skirt walking up behind Bran and wrapping her arms around his waist had done the trick. Oh…and the long, open-mouthed kiss he’d given his new lass...which had added just the right touch to have Ariel angrily spinning on her heels and walking away. It’s not like she could’ve argued with him about their relationship with another clan member standing right in front of them. Bran had known that. Obviously, he hadn’t wanted to discuss the end of their relationship. He’d just wanted it over and done with so that he could move on to court girls who were—apparently--more worthy of his attention. Unfortunately, the brutally swift way in which he’d detached himself from Ariel had made it painfully obvious that he no longer cared one whit for her or trying to at least salvage their longtime friendship. [Ariel~present] Although Ariel’s pride absolutely refused to let her show it, she was still shaken by the force of her emotions from that day’s events. The feelings of betrayal, jealousy, and cold, paralyzing hurt had been so piercing and overwhelming to her. Besides Kaid, Bran had been her next closest friend. She’d shared different things with him than she had with Kaid and she’d often felt that he knew her even better than anyone else. Yet, he’d obviously found her extremely lacking to such an awful extent that he hadn’t cared one wit about sparing her young feelings during his brutally-honest tirade. Normally, if someone got on his nerves, Bran would indifferently ignore them as he might ignore a peasant, though he’d occasionally give the person a nod of acknowledgment if confined in a close area with them. But Ariel was apparently not even deserving of the silent treatment or the respectful nod. Nope. Since the day he’d broken up with her, Bran had begun treating Ariel with such open contempt and loathing that every member of their clan had noticed. It was humiliating when they questioned him on his hateful attitude. Even Kaid, upon his return from the trip, had immediately demanded to know what Bran’s problem was. And Bran always gave the same general response: I just don’t like her. She irritates me. A tiny part of Ariel still felt resentment towards Kaid for not protecting her against Bran. She had half expected Kaid to kill him when Bran had first started treating her so badly. But he hadn’t. Kaid had merely crossed his arms over his broad chest and looked over to Ariel to see what she intended to do in retaliation. So Ariel had quickly learned: the more flagrant, outrageous and quick-witted her retaliation, the more approval would shine from Kaid’s eyes. And, since the moment of Bran’s rejection, she seemed to have developed a pathetically desperate need for approval. Every day since their break up, Bran went out of his way to remind Ariel of just how much she completely disgusted him, just how much he wanted any other female but her. He liked to come up close behind her while they were both out on the training field. When Kaid was distracted, Bran would casually lean forward, his warm breath on her neck as he whispered some random criticism in her ear. He often commented about the absurdity of her big curls, and how odd it was that no blade was strong enough to cut her pale, colorless locks. Usually, he made up stories and sly digs about her glowing eyes and unnatural abilities. Like informing her that he’d seen someone else on MacDonnel land that had glowing eyes…then eventually meeting her hopeful gaze to contemptuously inform her that it had been the hairy demoness that legend said haunted a dark forest nearby. Or he’d insinuate that certain parts of her body looked larger that day. Then he’d verbally dismiss the idea that it could possibly be from pregnancy, basically insinuating that nobody wanted to sleep with such a bizarre individual…or marry her, for that matter. But what Ariel hated the most was when he’d whisper comparisons between her and the current girl he was courting. Bran would comment on how vibrant and colorful the other lass’s hair was, how well she could kiss, how good she felt pressed up against him, and how sweet she smelled. Obviously he preferred someone who hadn’t been out sweating on the training field with men all day or in the barn stepping on horse dung. Ariel was not a defenseless victim, however, and often had cutting retorts and criticisms of her own with which to retaliate, not to mention her quick reflexes that enabled her to deliver a mean pinch. Nip someone in the same spot a few days in a row and they often grew wary of getting too close. Unfortunately, Bran soon realized that her excellent hearing ensured that even when he sing-songed her name behind his hand from anywhere on the training field, her ears instantly perked up to hear more. Unfortunately, the irritating warrior could not hear her quick retorts from a distance, which was immensely frustrating for her. Even worse was that she couldn’t go straight over to tell him her response without looking like she was the one starting problems. So, she often pretended not to even hear him, but she could, and his words always hurt her already-wounded little feelings. Though she hated to admit it to herself, Bran’s reasoning and actions the day of their breakup had completely shattered her heart and irreparably marred her self-confidence. Her wide, violet eyes now held a vulnerability that had never been there before. And with each consecutive girl that Bran had courted, complimented and kissed right in front of her during these past few months, Ariel had then put up a new stone on the wall she was building around her silly, oversensitive, fragile little heart. It was an impossible situation—a necessary learning experience, perhaps--that had taught her how strong she could be and how brightly she could smile even through the pain of heartbreak, disillusion and betrayal. Ariel just wished Bran’s continuous harassment didn’t devastate her self-confidence on a daily basis. Every once in a while, however, Ariel would see glimpses of the old Bran and wonder if he might still have some sort of feelings for her… [Ariel~past] As was her habit, if a warrior was injured, Ariel would tend to him by the side of the training field, putting special ointment on the wound before carefully wrapping it. If she took too terribly long with one of the unmarried warriors, Bran would noticeably huff and even growl under his breath when the male gave her any sign of affection or appreciation. One day, she was kneeling in the grassy area on the outskirts of the training field, gently prodding the injured shoulder of a very well respected, large young warrior named Alec, who was kind and had a very impressive physic. “How are you supposed to beat up Bran for me if you’re injured?” she’d absently teased him, in the habit of talking freely with this serious-minded warrior since he was more of an easily amused listener, rather than a talker. Ariel knew that anything she mentioned would never be repeated in a gossipy way, even if he was one of Bran’s closest friends besides Kaid. Plus, she could always tell that Alec liked when she chattered to him about this or that or waved to him in passing. Seated in the grass, he casually glanced over his shoulder at where she knelt behind him, his dark brown gaze meshing with hers as he calmly asked her, “So you don’t think you and Bran will be getting back together, then?” Ariel’s heart practically froze in panicked disbelief as she absently continued to work on the warrior. “Back together?” she repeated with just the right touch of incredulity in her tone. His inquisitive eyes never left her as he gave a small snort, chiding her in a low voice, “Just because Kaid was blind to what was going on, doesn’t mean everyone was, though I fully understood why it was kept a secret. Kaid would not have been pleased. And some of the looks Bran used to give you when Kaid was distracted could have melted rock. Being such a pretty little thing, I’m more prone to watch you than anyone else, so I didn’t miss very many of your subtle interactions with Bran.” Desperate to divert the conversation, Ariel breathlessly teased, “I’m the only female that’s ever out here for very long, so that’s not saying much when there’s no competition. Plus, there are quite a few swaggering warriors who might dispute your claim that I’m the pretty one out here.” That made him chuckle but then a moment later he grew serious again, whispering, “What happened?” Looking decidedly uncomfortable, Ariel realized that it would be foolish to continue trying to deny anything to this observant warrior. Trusting him more than most, Ariel swallowed and admitted in a low, disappointed voice, “It was my fault. I messed up.” He looked doubtful. “Nothing can be that unforgivable.” Ariel swallowed, her eyes skittering away from his as she shrugged uneasily. “Apparently, it was.” His lips curled into a wry grimace. “Well, he did not exactly win your affection in a fair contest. Do you realize how hard it is to compete with Bran for your attention? Especially since he’s the only male that Kaid ever lets anywhere near you.” He paused looking a little bit uncomfortable before he admitted, “Bran and I are good friends…but if I thought I had a chance against his ghost, I’d court you.” Perking up, Ariel gave him a dazzling smile. “Really?” she whispered, her voice filled with admiration, disbelief, and pure delight. He teasingly groaned, her pleased response warming his serious eyes. “I fear that your flattering reaction has just stolen my heart…and I may never get it back.” With a sinking feeling, Ariel realized that the young man was probably just being flattering in order to make Ariel feel better about her unmarried, hopeless situation. But it was still an enjoyable conversation and she appreciated his efforts. He slowly exhaled and then ruefully admitted, “I’ve always thought that anyone who could beat Kaid in a swordfight would surely earn enough of his respect to be allowed to court his favorite sister. I fight him fairly often but he’s a monster in the ring.” Ariel gasped as an idea came to her. “How about I distract him the next time the two of you are in the ring?” she suggested helpfully. A pleased, boyish smile lit up his face. “You are so incredibly sweet,” he praised. “If anyone could distract him it would definitely be you. Everybody knows that he loves you more than anything or anyone else in his life.” He sighed before reluctantly inquiring, “Can you possibly distract Bran, as well? I’m sure he would be the next in line that I’d have to fight to gain your hand.” “I can try,” she offered, losing a bit more hope. Alec was an amazing fighter but it was doubtful that he could beat either one of those warriors, much less both, even if she was successful in distracting them. “Bran’s really violent when he fights,” the warrior explained, as if she wasn’t out here watching the men almost every day. “When you’ve grown up watching someone fight in the ring, you can usually anticipate which move they are going to make next.” The male shook his head. “Brandos is unpredictable, and he always has that almost crazy look in his eyes when he’s fighting, like he’s really going to enjoy killing you. She let out an almost wistful laugh. “At least Bran only gives you that awful look when you’re in the ring together. These days he gives me that look all day long, every day.” Alec shook his head. “I’ve watched him. Sometimes he actually looks at you like he used to.” Ariel’s curiosity was definitely lit. “Like when?” she whispered with far too much interest. Why pretend? Alec sent her a knowing look before humming in thought. “Well, he seems to revert back to his old self when you’re teasing his best friend…like the times when you’re completely focused on Kaid and the two of you are laughing. Also, the other day when you had that little boy with the small wooden sword snuggled up in your lap and you were chattering away with him while kissing his injuries all better. I could tell that Bran liked that scene. He would look away, like he could care less, and then his eyes would immediately slide back to watch the two of you as if he were mesmerized. And, when you were trying to make the boy feel better for crying and you made up that long, funny story about Bran sobbing like a baby after he got hurt once, Bran tried to look annoyed, but I caught him chuckling to himself when he thought the other warriors weren’t looking.” Ariel frowned, her face growing serious. “That was a true story,” she lied. Alec blinked and then gave her an expressive look that had them both smothering laughter. Ariel’s grin remained in place as Alec shrugged. “Other than that, he normally looks like he’s plotting your murder…a very aggressive, bloody one,” he confirmed grimly. Ariel gave a half-hearted snort. “Well, that’s Bran. He’s aggressive about everything he does,” she muttered almost wistfully. The warrior hummed his agreement. “Friends or not, if you were mine, I would have killed him already.” Alec shook his head, his annoyance more than apparent. “The way he treats you…he takes things too far.” This male was not teasing. He was serious. Ariel rarely blushed…but for some reason, the smoldering outrage in Alec’s eyes combined with his words made her cheeks flame to a deep, rosy hue. Letting out a soft laugh, Ariel wished she wasn’t so close to the training field area where anyone could glance over and see her red face. “Oh…” she breathed out awkwardly. “Well, his parents are wonderful people and for some silly reason they’re quite fond of the big brute, so I wouldn’t want to see him harmed…too much. That might make them sad.” His sober, brown gaze did not leave her face. “Well, I’m not the only one who is growing weary of seeing you looking so nervous and unhappy all the time.” Casually reaching over, he squeezed her small hand with his big warm one. Even though Ariel could hear someone approaching, she allowed the affectionate gesture. Suddenly feeling very honored and cherished, Ariel gave Alec a teasing, mischievous look. “Even though killing him is out of the question, perhaps you could just…” The sound of someone loudly clearing their throat interrupted Ariel’s sentence and then Bran’s deep voice was clipped as he demanded, “How is the shoulder?” Confused by the suppressed fury and jealousy radiating off of Bran’s calm exterior, Ariel tried to free her hand but the other warrior stubbornly refused to release his hold on her. She could have gotten away if she’d really wanted to, of course, but Ariel always preferred to act like she had the strength of a normal girl. “The shoulder is doing better, I think,” Ariel assessed casually. “But Alec is proving to be quite difficult.” “What do you mean?” Bran demanded impatiently, still pointedly staring at their joined hands. Ariel’s gaze twinkled mischievously as she teased, “Well, apparently paying someone to punch you in the throat hard enough to damage your ability to speak is going to cost me more than four gold pieces. I was just about to up my offer to five when you rudely interrupted.” Chuckling, Alec helped Ariel to her feet, wrapping her in a brief hug before tousling her hair. “Thanks for rubbing ointment on my shoulder. I think it actually feels better than it did before I pulled it,” the warrior murmured in amazement. Then he cast Bran a look, giving the other male a brief nod of acknowledgment as he murmured, “Bran.” Tossing a playful wink at Ariel, Alec walked off, flexing his fully healed shoulder in appreciation as he went. Rolling his own wide, powerful shoulders in agitation, Bran looked big, imposing and grim. After giving his longtime friend a menacing look, he turned back to Ariel, resting his hands on his hips. Contained fury was written in every line of his face and his voice throbbed with leashed violence as he growled under his breath, “Have you found yourself a new friend?” Ariel didn’t know why Bran was so angry but she breezily ignored his words as her face suddenly brightened. “Bran, can you do me a favor?” she conspiratorially whispered, clasping her hands in front of her chest. His narrowed eyes regarded her with suspicion. “What favor do you need?” he finally snapped out when she failed to elaborate on her own. Ariel’s tone was innocently hopeful as she leaned in closer to him. “I need to borrow something from you.” He shook his head dismissively. “I do not loan out my possessions.” Ariel’s teeth chewed on her lower lip. “But what if I promise to give it back and I’m really careful? Please…?” she coaxed as she held her clasped hands in front of her and even leaned her forearms against his chest as she pleaded, surprised when he didn’t step back or push her away. But Ariel knew that he secretly still enjoyed seeing her in very high spirits or excited about something. With a sigh that was bigger than the Highlands, he grumbled, “Fine! What do you want to borrow?” She gave him a smile of startling sweetness, her voice filled with delight. “Really?” she laughed, happier than she’d been in a month. He was actually agreeing to lend her something? That was a big step in their long journey back to friendship, especially for Bran. Just to be extra annoying, she exuberantly wrapped her arms around his middle, serenely indifferent to the wild attention they were receiving from the warriors on the field who were turning to gape at them. “Thank you!” He left his hands on his own hips, not hugging her back, but Ariel could tell he didn’t mind her display of affection. Once again, he asked evenly, “What is it that you want to borrow, Ariel?” With a disarming smile, she whispered, “One gold piece.” Bran stiffened, his lips tightening in disapproval. His expression was so unamused that Ariel couldn’t contain her helpless mirth. Letting her forehead fall against his chest, she burst out laughing, not even knowing why it was so funny but the outlet of emotions was a welcome respite. Over the sound of her own laughter Ariel thought she heard a suspicious cough. Finally looking back up at him, Ariel was wiping beneath her eyes, still trying to muffle the small sounds of amusement in her throat. His lips were still pinched with displeasure as he took a deep breath and stretched his neck to one side and then the other, punctuated by faint cracking sounds. Ariel was well aware that he was trying to rein in his immense frustration with her so she stepped back and goaded him even further. “Well?” she demanded, holding up her palms. “Do you have any extra gold pieces lying around that you’re not using?” His continence seemed to darken even more. “No!” came the low, surly reply. For some reason she sensed that Bran didn’t like the fact that she’d moved away from him. His large hand wrapped around her upper arm, his iron grip ominously pulling her closer--practically nose to nose--as he bent his head to hers. There was a cold blade of anger in every soft word as he reminded her, “I asked you a question.” Bran didn’t like repeating himself. Ariel blinked up at him, feigning confusion as she raised one delicate eyebrow. His words were chillingly courteous as he slowly asked her, “Are you seeing Alec?” His awful tone of voice had Ariel suddenly growing nervous. Sensing something in his manner that boded ill for Alec, Ariel instinctively set about diffusing those cynical intentions, even at the cost of her own bruised and battered pride. Rolling her eyes in feigned annoyance, Ariel pursed her lips and sounded quite grudging as she quietly clarified, “Don’t worry, Bran. He’s far too civilized for me.” Her voice lowered a bit more as she confidentially whispered, “Plus he doesn’t kiss as well as you…not nearly aggressive enough for my liking.” Bran drew in a sharp breath, his jaw tightening and green eyes smoldering in an emotional riot, obviously surprised by her words. He seemed oddly pleased with the favorable comparison and yet annoyed that she’d apparently kissed someone else. Fortunately, the subtle compliment had dispelled any aggression she’d felt him aiming toward poor Alec, “the terrible kisser”. Turning away, Ariel’s eyes immediately searched out Kaid. She was not surprised to find her best friend watching them from a distance, his arms crossed over his thick chest, his face solemn, his intense blue gaze unwavering as he took in the scene. With bran following right behind her, Ariel calmly strode over to re-join Kaid, who looped his arm around Ariel’s shoulders, pulling her in to kiss her temple as she smiled and wrapped both arms around his neck—a better hug than Bran had gotten. She knew that’s how Kaid would see it, at least. He thoroughly enjoyed having her full attention as she jokingly grumbled to him about how terrible and selfish and awful Bran was for not agreeing to loan her one measly extra gold piece so she could hire someone to punch him in the throat. This had Kaid tossing back his head in laughter, his straight white teeth flashing in amusement. When Ariel slid a glance over to her arrogant ex, she could have sworn that his emerald eyes and the set of his lips held a touch of satisfied humor. [Ariel~present] Banishing her memories to the back of her mind, Ariel once again focused on the here and now… Responding to Kaid’s words, Brandos gave a growl of irritation deep in his throat. “But I don’t want to sleep anywhere near her!” he gritted, clearly being overdramatic in order to goad the Lord’s daughter. “She snores!” “She does not!” Kaid laughed, as he continued to try and stop this budding argument. Twisting up on her elbows, Ariel warily glanced at the handsome warrior standing by the fire. She wasn’t afraid of Brandos…most days. “What’s that saying about he that protests too much?” she asked with cutting sweetness. Bran’s glittering gaze slashed over her with ill-concealed dislike. “No one would say that to me if they’d ever been jolted awake from a very peaceful sleep by those icicles you call feet!” That surprised an irrepressible bout of soft giggles from Ariel’s throat. Her sweet laughter filled the forest air, an uplifting, soothing sound amongst the men’s rich chuckles. Though few people were aware of it, Ariel had exceptional eyesight during the day or night and she thought she saw an answering spark of humor in the warrior’s eyes—a brief sardonic curve to his chiseled lips—but quickly negated that notion. Bran had no humor left where she was concerned. None! Shifting around to sit up, Ariel didn’t notice how many eyes were drawn to where her breasts momentarily pressed snuggly against her boy tunic. Ariel’s body was exceptionally feminine—long, slender, yet curvy at the same time. As she pushed her mass of tousled blonde curls off of her face, Ariel’s hands momentarily faltered, her amused gaze sobering in painful remembrance as her mind temporarily flashed to the image of Bran kissing a new lass in the darkened hallway yester eve. An overwhelming ache shot through Ariel’s chest at the raw, tumultuous memory, a memory that she’d repeatedly pushed to the back of her mind during their journey here today. Quickly, Ariel blinked away the humiliating threat of tears as her violet eyes softly lit with more accusation and betrayal than she’d ever felt towards Bran. With an indignant tilt to her chin, she lifted her eyes to lock with his vibrant green gaze. Ariel immediately saw certain emotions flash over his scowling face, a spark of genuine surprise in those shrewd eyes, as well as, confusion. Good. He hadn’t seen her last night when she’d accidently come upon his intimate tryst and then quickly ducked back into the shadows. Otherwise, the obnoxious, arrogant brute would be smirking with amusement at her jealousy. The fact that he’d been kissing her very unpleasant younger half-sister was actually kind of fitting. Priscilla had always gone out of her way to be hateful to Ariel. Before their breakup, when Bran would hear or see Priscilla being spiteful to Ariel, he would mutter ugly things under his breath about the shrewish girl, things that would make Ariel cringe and then softly laugh. Though the names he’d called Priscilla were always quite vulgar, definitely unrepeatable and very unkind, hearing them had always made Ariel feel a bit better about her circumstances as the despised illegitimate child whose step-mother and half-sister hated her. The fact that he was now apparently courting Priscilla--was now on her side--was like another dagger to Ariel’s silly little heart. It made a lump of emotion form in her throat, one that she couldn’t seem to swallow down. Bran’s initial rejection had made her feel as if a part of her had been broken and destroyed…but seeing him being affectionate with her sister had made Ariel feel as if a part of her had withered up and died. Ariel’s lip curled. The two of them would make the perfect couple. With a trace of fire flashing in her eyes now, Ariel gave Brandos a look of pure distaste, her gaze slashing over him with blazing contempt. Apparently Bran saw her ill-concealed loathing of him. It was an expression she had never bestowed on him before, even after they had broken up. And, obviously, by the narrowing of his shrewd gaze and the tightening in his jaw, her disenchantment didn’t sit well with him. Not one bit. Folding his arms over his chest, he continued to watch her, a deep frown furrowing into his brow. From the expression the aggressive warrior had worn all evening, Ariel knew there was going to be a war between the two of them this eve. It would be a cozy bedtime battle of wits to amuse the grown men. Then he was going to want to know what that look had been for. She knew him. He was far too curious and he prided himself on knowing what every different shade of her eyes meant when they were aglow. From what Ariel had seen in the mirror last night, when she’d returned to her room after seeing the two of them kissing, he would have no clue because--for the first time ever—there had been a white streaks mixed in with the purple. Five shafts of white in each eye, almost like a star, had shown through the purple glow, transfixing even her when she’d seen it. But it had scared her, as well. Instinctively, Ariel knew that these strong, overwhelming emotions involved her soul, almost as if it was being irreparably scarred forever by these feelings of complete betrayal. Faint mockery laced her voice as she offered, “Perhaps I have an idea that might help with your aversion to sleeping next to me.” Though he looked a bit distracted, as if he were still wondering about her eyes, Bran lifted one dark brow. “Does this plan involve my hands wrapped around your puny little neck?” “Surely that wouldn’t make you happy!” she stated with biting sarcasm. “Immensely,” he remarked, with a derisive grin. She made a face. “Then, no, it doesn’t!” “A pity!” “But perhaps someone here will make you the happiest man alive,” she hinted, her voice loud enough to carry. Brandos willingly took the bait. “And how would another warrior help me? Someone to guard those lethal feet of yours?” “Well, in order to make you happy, I will kindly ask if there is another warrior here who might be willing to completely take over your nighttime guarding duties during this year’s hunt. I would like someone new and wonderful who will enjoy our beds overstuffed comfort even though they will have to endure me snuggling up so close to them every night.” Clearly not expecting this suggestion, Brandos stiffened, his eyes narrowing at her in warning. A low growl sounded in his throat as he noticed a dozen unmarried men, quickly fumbling out of their thick covers and bedding, eager to be considered for the assignment of sleeping next to their Lord’s pretty daughter. “I do not think that will be necessary,” Brandos bit out between clenched teeth, looking at her as if she had just taken leave of her senses. “Well, perhaps we should try it all the same!” she mocked with cutting sweetness. “I don’t want you to feel forced into doing something you obviously don’t want to do!” “Lord MacDonnel assigned me to this task himself!” Bran pointed out. Ariel waved off his argument. “Oh, that was years ago. My father would understand that you have grown weary of the duty.” Turning her head, Ariel quickly surveyed her choices, her agile mind already at work considering and discarding options. Inevitably, she intended to pick whoever would irritate Brandos the most. With a joyous inward smile, Ariel easily decided upon Robert—a dark, smoldering warrior with a lean, amazing body and impressive skills on the battlefield and, apparently, other places. Unfortunately, the man had no—I’m talking zero—discrimination when it came to women. Overall, he tended to prefer discretely flirting with the married or taken ones. Ariel felt her insides brighten at this glorious option which could not have turned out better for her. A month or so back, Robert had unwisely charmed away a girl whom Brandos had been courting. This fact made Ariel’s selection that much the sweeter. “Uuummm….” she murmured, giving a cute wiggle of indecisiveness. “It’s a hard choice!” she declared amiably, making sure her voice carried so all of the men could hear her. “I thiiiiiink…Robert…would serve me very well as Bran’s replacement.” A horrified cacophony of muffled laughter and choking coughs burst forth from the other warriors. Brandos’ eyes flared incredulously and his mouth fell open to reply before snapping shut when he saw Robert give Ariel a smolderingly gorgeous, very approving half-smile accompanied with a flirty wink. Turning his dark head, Bran’s bright green eyes glared his murderous intentions at Ariel. In response, she gave Bran a sweet, tranquil smile, unfazed by his deadly stare. Widening her eyes, Ariel innocently shrugged before loudly proclaiming, “I have heard that Robert is a very diligent…worker.” No one—not even Kaid—tried to hide their hoots of amusement this time and the whole assemblage of men roared with laughter, including Robert, who smirked humorously and charmingly ruffled the back of his hair in another confident gesture that showed off sculpted arm muscles--a move designed to have all the females sighing. Brandos’ nostrils flared, his bright green eyes crackling with outrage as he waited in stony silence for the laughter to die down before he clipped out orders for all of the annoyingly-eager volunteers to get back in their own beds. None of the men argued, although a few looked like they wanted to, but Brandos’ quelling frown quickly silenced their protests. When his eyes landed on Robert, Brandos threateningly purred, “So help me, if you even look at the Lord’s daughter, I’ll break every bone in your hands and feet. Then your knee caps…” Distracting Ariel from Bran’s next words, which very descriptively detailed what he would do with Robert’s male parts, Kaid wiped the tears of mirth from under his eyes and whispered in amused reproof, “Did you have to go and get Brandos riled up right before he beds down next to us? It will take forever for his temper to cool off!” Ariel turned her palms up in a gesture of innocence. “I was merely trying to help the poor boy find a replacement so he didn’t have to put up with me!” “Oh yes, I could tell!” Kaid chuckled and then paused to let out another long, uncontrolled laugh. “Good grief! Did you see the look on his face? He is going to slit your throat while you sleep!” She gave an indignant snort. “He started it!” “Aye, but did you have to pick Robert?” “Actually, yes! If I had picked any of the other men Bran would have let them switch with him just to be irritating.” “Why? I saw no one so terrible.” Ariel cast him a disbelieving look. Lowering her voice, she patiently counted the worst ones out on her fingers in a whisper, “Allen snores like a dying warthog. Last year I could barely sleep and he was all the way across the pasture. John is known to drool overmuch. I’ll spare you the details.” She shuddered. “Smithers can’t shut up long enough to go to sleep and I would end up stabbing him with my dirk. Then I would have to heal him and listen as he thanked me the rest of the night.” She heard Kaid chuckle. “Randall hasn’t taken a bath in six months. And Phin still sucks his thumb when he sleeps. Loudly.” Kaid glanced down at her, an admiring look in his clever blue eyes. “I’m impressed that you got all of that from glancing at them one time.” “Well, Bran is not one of the nicest people. And since you won’t consider killing him off for me, I’ve had to learn how to anticipate his moves.” Kaid snorted at her jest. “Aye, well, nice or not, you got out your wee stick and poked the bear, so now you’d better be ready to do some serious groveling to make it better or you’ll not hear the end of his lectures tonight and I’ll not save you. I will be over here with my back to the both of you, sound asleep.” Her violet eyes reflected how upset his lack of concern made her. “You’re going to let him hurt me?” Kaid’s strong jaw clinched. “He will not hurt you.” “But he’s always so hateful to me and it makes me nervous,” she whispered apprehensively. To everyone in the clan, Ariel acted clueless as to why Bran had abruptly started hating her. But she knew. And apparently the menacing warrior was not planning on ever forgiving her mistake, even though she had sorely regretted it every day since. Kaid lightly tapped her under the chin. “It’s a good balance. He toughens you up and I coddle you overmuch.” Ariel snorted. When they’d begun building a relationship, Bran had always antagonized her in front of Kaid, slaying her about this or that in an effort to get Ariel riled up. Neither one of them had wanted Kaid to get suspicious and think that anything else existed between them besides friendship. After the breakup, Bran’s antagonistic barbs had become downright mean. And it was extremely vexing that Kaid did not protect her from his friend’s tyranny. “Not all the time! You’re insufferable during our training sessions! And you left me all alone in the room last night! I was unprotected as I slept!” she grumbled, giving him a dirty look. “You deserted me!” His laugh was husky and amused. “Obviously, I was busy preparing for the trip.” Ariel crossed her arms over her chest and glared into Kaid's handsome, amused face. “Mm-hmm! I’m sure you were!” He gave her a cocky grin. With a loud huff, she pinched her lips together and rolled onto her side, giving him her back. He chuckled softly, obviously liking her disgruntlement. Half covering her body from behind with his own, Kaid affectionately buried his face in the unbelievably soft mass of bouncy curls at her neck. “It was only one night. Did you miss me?” “Not! At! All!” she muttered, making him chuckle again. Although Kaid had left her alone last night, it was rare. He normally guarded her as if he feared she would disappear into thin air. Ariel knew that Kaid’s obsessive, overprotectiveness stemmed from the fact that he had never gotten over the unexpected loss of his own mother. He’d been born with an almost debilitating breathing problem and his mother had constantly fussed over him. They’d had a very close bond. But when he was five, Kaid’s mother had unexpectedly died from a reddened, inflamed wound that had refused to heal and Kaid had been completely devastated. So, on the rare occasion that Ariel was injured, she was very patient when Kaid continuously checked and re-checked her cuts with an unnatural intensity. “You were sound asleep when I left the room but even if you did wake up, surely you can sleep by yourself every once in a while.” Ariel was annoyed enough with him to chance reprisal. “I don’t know. I didn’t try!” she sniffed irritably. Although she’d never let on to Kaid, Ariel had the unerring ability to tell people’s true emotions. An ability that she had long since realized was not normal. [Ariel~past] Not until one occasion, when she’d stubbornly sat on her father’s lap while he presided over the clan disputes in the packed open courtyard, had Ariel realized that she was even more different than everyone else… She’d been about six at the time. Kaid had been away for three days and she’d been missing him terribly. Her other half-brothers, Philip and Simon had occupied her attention during the two previous days but Ariel had unwaveringly decided that her father had to be Kaid's replacement for that particular day and then she’d refused to budge from the warlord’s side. Although the very handsome Lord MacDonnel had probably looked strange with a tiny blonde child squished in next to him in his big, ornately carved chair, Ariel’s father had lovingly indulged her as he always did. Then, during one case, when her father seemed to rub his chin over-much, worrying and warbling back and forth over a decision of guilt, Ariel had nonchalantly brushed her face against his side as she whispered who the guilty party was. They were far enough back from the huge crowd of people that no one heard her speak. Plus, her thick, shiny curls had covered her mouth from view. When Lord MacDonnel had gently asked why she thought the single farmer had switched his broken plow with the farmer who had eleven children, Ariel had sleepily answered “greed,” that the single farmer had known someone would feel sorry for the farmer who had all those kids and help him fix it. But nobody would’ve helped the single man who didn’t want to spend his own coin on a new plow. Listening to the clan’s disputes was not one of her father’s favorite things to do, so when she felt his overwhelming relief at having come to an answer for the current dispute so easily, she helped him with the rest of the disputes, as well. So, after each party had given their side of the story, Ariel would signal who she sensed was guilty by casually shifting her left or right hand forward a bit on her leg, depending on which side the guilty person was standing. One time, she sensed that neither of the accused was guilty. And, although Lord MacDonnel’s brows had risen up ever so slightly when she’d discreetly whispered that fact, he’d seemed very wise when he’d announced to his clan that he didn’t feel either party was guilty of repeatedly stealing the older lady’s prized pies, that there was someone missing from the hearing. Ariel had then whispered that it was nobody there at the packed presiding’s, that maybe it was an animal. In his charismatic way, her father had quickly turned the case into an entertaining unsolved mystery and a new pie was set out with practically half the clan staring at it from afar to see a fat, wily raccoon swinging haphazardly down from the tree above and taking the delicious delicacy right back up with him. It was quite the topic of amusement and her father endeared himself to the clan further when he displayed a bit of dramatics at the following month’s clan meeting, where Ariel was once more firmly planted by his side. Towards the end of the disputes a case was put forth, where one clansman was accusing the other of stealing his wife’s ruffled underpants off their clothesline, Lord MacDonnel had slammed his fist down on the table with mock anger. When everyone gasped and fell silent, he’d glared out towards the crowd for a long moment and then ominously declared, “That wily raccoon did it!” The clan had hooted with laughter and her father had chortled right along with them. Ever since that day, whenever something came up missing, the humorous response was always, “That wily raccoon did it!” [Ariel~present] Ariel’s mind returned to the sudden unnerving silence coming from behind her, and the wave of crackling anger she now felt rolling off of Kaid. “Where were you if you were not sleeping alone in my room, Ariel?” The hairs on her arms rose when she heard him use that soft, deceptively-easy tone with her. Ariel nervously swallowed. She was going to die. It was the same tone Kaid used when he was truly furious, but actually trying to rein it in. She warily backtracked, “Well, actually, I did try to stay in your room but it was impossible to fall asleep again after I realized that you weren’t right next to me like normal! I had no one to snuggle with!” A long, long pause. “Where…were…you?” He made very little attempt to hide the threat in his tone this time. Ariel stiffened at his imperious tone. “I was in Philip’s bedchamber,” she defiantly responded before taking her life in her own hands to flippantly goad him. “I will probably start sleeping in his room at night since you are obviously now wanting more time with your special friend,” she mentioned thoughtfully, acting as though the idea really held appeal to her. Ariel knew it would sorely irritate Kaid that she’d sought comfort from a different brother, even though she’d studiously been back in his large bed this morning way before he’d silently slipped in next to her, his hair still damp from a wash in the bathing room by the kitchen. Her dread flamed higher when she felt Kaid’s fury rapidly increase. He was livid. [Ariel~past] Ariel had long ago given up trying to understand all the quirks Kaid had where she was concerned. For instance: Ariel had always sensed that he secretly didn’t like when she called him her brother. Kaid liked it much better when Ariel referred to him as her best friend. Kaid didn’t like when she sought comfort from any of their other brothers, either. Only him. And…she’d known at a very early age that Kaid utterly loved and cherished her. Their bond was a strong emotional attachment, more powerful than any other relationship in his life. He was a lethal force and she was his only weakness. Their friendship was close to unbreakable. He adored...when she publicly chose him over all others for help or comfort. He adored…when she tiredly wrapped her arms around his neck, hiding her face against the curve of his shoulder, wanting him to hold her. He adored…when he got to coddle her awake before dawn. Ariel was an utter bear in the early mornings before fully coming awake and Kaid was dreadfully cheerful. He thought it hilarious that she said and did some of the rudest, out-of-character things to people if they got on her nerves while she was slowly waking up. He adored…when Ariel woke up in the middle of the night, realized she and Kaid weren’t touching and made a tiny, grunting whimper while she crawled over to him, laid her face against his chest and then let out a few more disgruntled noises just to show him her displeasure. Her grumpy sounds always woke Kaid but he never cared. With a sleepy, well-pleased grin on his handsome face, he would wrap her up in his rock hard arms while murmuring soothing phrases to gently coax her back to sleep. And--although he pretended not to adore it--Kaid liked that Ariel came over to where the men were talking around the castle’s hearth fire at night and gave her father a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Then, she would go around to each of the elders near the hearth, wrapping her arms around their necks in affection and kissing them on the cheek, as well. Kaid enjoyed the warm looks of appreciation this garnered her from the hardened older warriors who looked forward to her loving, affectionate gesture each night. And Kaid liked most of all when she always came back to where he was sitting, loyally curling up next to him and eventually nodding off against his chest as the men were mulling over that day’s events. He adored everything about her. His love for her was complete and binding. If anyone but Brandos dared to mess with her, Kaid was like the grim reaper. [Ariel~present] But right now Kaid was silently furious and Ariel suddenly realized that this might not be the best time to have her strongest ally mad at her when Brandos would soon be over here squishing her like a bug. Rolling back to face Kaid, she noted that he was leaning up on his elbow, jaw clenched, visibly fuming. Another quirk: Kaid liked when she was jealous. Weird…but true. And Ariel decided that she needed to ruthlessly exploit that penchant now so he wouldn’t be upset with her. Moving closer to his warmth, Ariel pressed her forehead against Kaid’s broad chest, her voice accusatory as she pouted, “Philip kept kicking me last night and now I have bruises from his awful bony knees. And it’s all your fault!” She heard Kaid's snort and lightly pinched him. “And every time I crawled out of bed to come see if you had returned, you were not back yet. And that’s all Kristin’s fault!” she exaggerated, casting a hurt look up into his handsome, square-jawed face. Kristin was the pretty blonde serving wench that Kaid currently favored with his attentions. Again, Ariel rolled away from him in a most convincing sulk, lying on her stomach, her face buried in her folded arms. “Apparently you don’t even want me around anymore. It’s clear that you like spending all of your extra time with her and not me,” Ariel accused in a sad, forlorn voice, being tediously overdramatic because she knew Kaid would absolutely eat it up. Ariel had no problems with Kristin. In fact, they had once been really good friends, but the girl seemed to dislike her greatly now. No doubt, Ariel’s constant companionship with Kaid had made the servant envious. Ariel could understand that. Her best friend was big, brutal and stubborn but he had a good, loyal heart and would someday make an amazing leader. As Ariel had anticipated, her resentful words, smacking of jealousy, had Kaid instantly softening and capitulating. Sitting up, he reached over and easily lifted her slender form, tugging her onto his lap. His arms possessively wrapped around her, holding her tightly against his chest. It was the way she had always preferred. “You will always be my favorite lass,” his deep voice reassured her earnestly. “Never doubt it.” She felt him sliding one hand under her thick mass of hair to wrap around the back of her neck in a deliberately threatening gesture of control. “But do not sleep in Philip’s room ever again. If he starts running his mouth that he’s now your favorite, I will do him bodily harm.” Ignoring his high-handed tactics, Ariel wrapped her arms and legs around him, like she knew he adored. “Even though you have callously discarded me for someone new, you will always be my most cherished possession,” she claimed outrageously. “Because…” she jabbed him in the chest three times—like she always did--as she said her next words “you…are…mine! And that is that!” she huffed stubbornly. Then she tucked her face into the side of his neck out of habit, grumbling, “This is my spot! Mine!” He chuckled at her sweet declarations, good mood fully restored. “Stop your fussing,” he grumbled cheerfully. “You know how precious you are to me. Every single day you do some silliness that makes me love you even more.” “I’m not silly!” came her muffled reply. “Listen,” he ordered in a tone of authority and calm, keeping his deep voice very low, “fix this with Bran. I’m serious, Ariel. Smooth it over so he won’t be grumpy all day tomorrow. He has always been overprotective of you, even though he loathes the idea of admitting it. You trapped him into showing that weakness tonight and he hates when you get the better of him. Understand?” “But he did start it!” “Ariel…” he purred, his tone containing a silky thread of warning. Easing back, he cast her a severe look. Keeping her chin tucked down, Ariel refused to meet Kaid’s gaze as she muttered, “Perhaps I will try...” Pretending to be too busy scraping a non-existent spot off of Kaid’s tunic with her fingernail, Ariel continued to ignore her best friend as he silently stared her down. When she finally widened her violet eyes and slowly peeked up into Kaid’s uncompromising face, her full lips twitched in mirth and she immediately conceded, leaning forward to loudly kiss his cheek. “Alright! I will try since he’s your friend and because you always share your sweetcakes with me on these trips when I run out of mine,” she inadvertently bargained, waggling her eyebrows. His brows rose in dark speculation. “Is that what it’s called when you steal sweetcakes from me?” His tone was stern. “Sharing?” Brows furrowing at this unexpected turn in the conversation, Ariel tipped her chin back down, this time in grumpy contrition as she continued to play with his tunic, absently twisting the material in her fingers now. Her discomfort was obvious, as Kaid had intended. “I’m sorry,” she finally muttered. Surprisingly, he gave a crack of laughter that turned into a broad, attractive grin. “You’re not one bit sorry!” Burying her face in his chest, she stubbornly argued, “I am too sorry! I just thought you liked apples better. Now, I know.” He let out an even longer burst of amusement. Lowering his mouth to her ear, humor was evident in his gruff tone as he chastened, “You are such a little liar!” Then he burrowed his face against her, rubbing one day’s worth of stubble against her cheek as she squeaked, trying to squirm away. His grin held deep affection when he finally took pity and released her. As they separated, Ariel abruptly sobered, a lump of apprehension thickening within her as she suddenly remembered something that she’d overheard a group of warriors talking about earlier. “Kaid,” she whispered, “are…are you betrothed to someone?” Her best friend stiffened, his piercing blue eyes guardedly slanting her way as he gave her a long, curious look through half-lowered lids. Then he slowly nodded with a great deal of satisfaction, his mouth lifting into a wide grin of anticipation. “Aye, it will be announced once we return.” Under his breath, he added, “I have waited long enough.” Ariel’s breath hitched. “How long have you known about this? Why did you not tell me?” she whispered, her feelings unbelievably hurt. “Is…is it to Kristin?” she demanded hesitantly, failing to keep the distaste from her tone. Kristin hated Ariel and the thought of a future where Kaid’s door was always closed to her, even if she just wanted to talk to him, made her chest ache. His eyes warmed. “Nay, it’s definitely not to Kristin.” Ariel almost melted with relief. “To whom, then?” she continued to press, looking up at him expectantly. “You know I wanted you to meet my friend Sarah! The two of you have never even been properly introduced! She would be perfect for you! I just know it!” He gave her a strangely tender look, his gaze riveted on her coaxing smile. “It’s not Sarah, either, but you will have to be patient for the answer.” [Kaid~past] Even though Lord MacDonnel insisted that it was safer for Ariel if they kept up the farce that she was his illegitimate daughter, she was actually not blood related to their clan, a fact only known by Kaid and his father. All those years ago, on the journey back from a two week trip, Lord MacDonnel had been the one to discover the body of Ariel’s beautiful, richly dressed mother in the forest. Her throat had been cut, but the young lady had not been stripped of her expensive possessions. When Ariel was found soon after, having wandered much farther into the woods, Lord MacDonnel had privately questioned her. Fearing that it had been no thief who had performed the treacherous deed, but rather someone the pretty woman had trusted, Kaid’s father had secretly accepted responsibility for the little girl until he could find out more about where the pair of them had come from. That same night, Ariel’s mother had been carefully buried in their family cemetery, her lacerated throat hidden from view with a neatly wrapped swath of expensive cloth. The basic information that Lord MacDonnel had given his clan, was that he had met Ariel’s mother a few years back in a village, and when the young woman had started to sicken, she’d sent Lord MacDonnel a letter, informing him that she’d had a child by the leader and asking for the little girl to be given a safer home once she died. Lord MacDonnel had never divulged where he’d supposedly met the mother, even though many clansmen had curiously inquired about her origins over the years. And since Ariel looked more and more like her beautiful mother every day, she had never been allowed to meet visitors that came to their castle, in case one of them recognized her true identity. Ariel was always relegated to her room for the duration of their visit, which she had never understood, and always got miffed at Kaid over, since he made sure that his father’s orders were enforced. He didn’t want anyone taking her away from him. If not for that tiny wild streak of stubbornness that he’d seen flashes of when Ariel was mad at him, Kaid would have already told her that they were not truly blood related, as he’d been tempted to do a thousand times over. But a small part of him obeyed his father’s dictates because Kaid feared that she would leave him in order to meet her true family. [Ariel~present] Ariel gasped in dismay. “You can tell me! You know I won’t tell anyone! I promise!” she cajoled, gazing appealingly at him with her wide violet eyes. Seeing how worked up she was becoming, Kaid caught the back of her neck again. “Calm yourself, Ariel. Look at me,” he ordered soothingly, his discerning blue eyes instantly connecting with the much beloved purple fire of her own. “Everything will be fine, I promise. I would never marry someone without considering how it would affect you. But at this point, Father has vowed me to silence.” She cast him a look of sheer misery. “Ariel,” he sighed, his eyes unintentionally starting to warm with pleasure as he tried to explain again. “I have always loved my betrothed and I’ve only grown more in love with her as we’ve grown up. Unfortunately, there are many secrets surrounding our relationship and Father wants to speak with her about it first. I know she loves me, as well. I just don’t know if she can love me that way.” Ariel made a face, feeling even grumpier. “How could she not like you that way? Good grief, Kaid! The castle serving wenches and the village girls are embarrassingly forward and they’re always trying to attract your attention but you never pay them any mind!” A sardonic curve twisted his lips. “You exaggerate, like always,” he goaded. Ariel drew in a long outraged breath. “Exaggerate?! Kaid!” He cut off what was sure to be a rant. “The position as my wife comes with quite a bit of power which is always attractive. So even if I was fat, old and bald, they would still flirt with me,” he stated modestly. Her eyes suddenly lit up with a mischievous look. “Don’t say it!” he growled. Her eyes went round with innocence. “What?” He lowered his brows menacingly. “Whatever insult you were about to let tumble out of your brave little mouth, I wouldn’t if I were you. I will make you pay.” Ariel’s teeth bit at her smiling bottom lip as she caught his hand in hers. Although she had been about to abuse his ego, she decided to compliment him instead. “I was merely going to point out that all of my brothers have father’s square jaw, handsome features, and dark blonde hair. The three of you are the smartest and most handsome men in the clan. So, of course she will instantly fall in love with you!” He smiled indulgently at her then watched her expression closer. “What are you thinking?” Ariel quickly shook her head. “Nothing.” “What was that little frown for then?” Ariel sighed knowing Kaid would be persistent if she didn’t tell him. “It just bothers me...” “What bothers you? Tell me,” he coaxed, becoming serious. Ariel appreciated that quality in Kaid. He always took any problems she had very seriously, wanting to help her, to smooth her journey through life in any way that he could. “Well, it’s just that, even Priscilla looks like Father, although I can see a lot of her mother in her, as well. All four of you are easy to distinguish as his offspring.” Her lips tightened unhappily. “I am the only one that got none of his features.” Kaid let out a frustrated groan. “Please do not start worrying over that again. The last time you got all worked up, Father asked Mary to curl his hair with the heating iron.” Ariel gave a snort of laughter. “Seeing a grown man who normally has straight hair coming down the stairs with big ringlets was just…humiliating.” Kaid grumbled, slightly shaking his head as if in pained remembrance. “That was years ago on my birthday and I thought it was a very sweet gesture,” Ariel declared, laughing at the fond memory. Then her smile slowly faded and her brow furrowed again. “Priscilla says my mother lied, that I’m not even Lord MacDonnel’s daughter. Be honest. Do you think she’s right?” Priscilla was their younger half-sister from Lord MacDonnel’s current marriage. Both Priscilla and her mother despised Ariel and never missed an opportunity to let her know it. “Priscilla needs to mind her own business and shut her mouth!” Kaid growled. “You look just like your mother, so identical that it’s almost eerie.” Ariel whacked him on the arm. “Eerie? Now I am eerie?” He chuckled. “You are very beautiful, like your mother was, but you definitely inherited many of Father’s personality traits,” he carefully pointed out. Gasping, Ariel perked up, her eyes widening as they fixed on Kaid in rapt curiosity, desperately wanting him to continue. Running his hands down her sides, Kaid smirked broadly as he teased, “Well, you are a grumpy little bear just like Father,” he boldly lied. “And, without a doubt, you definitely inherited his stubborn streak.” Ariel’s mouth fell open on such a loud, indignant inhale that Kaid grabbed her up in a big hug, laughter already rumbling up from his thick chest. Her small fists were purposely ineffective as she whacked him on the back several times, not truly mad, just being tetchy. “His violent tendencies, as well,” Kaid continued to taunt. Acting thoroughly incensed, Ariel struggled to push him away. “You are certainly not my favorite brother!” she grumbled, pretending she was going to crawl out of their bedding. “Where is Philip? I’m going over to sleep next to him this eve!” “You’ll do no such thing and you know it!” he denied good-humoredly, pulling Ariel back over to him and kissing her on the forehead before gently setting her down next to him on the blankets. “You’d start shivering and come crawling back over here within a few moments. I’ll just keep you here now and save you the humiliation.” Looking cute and thoroughly disgruntled, Ariel turned her head and continued to glare up at him. A devilish grin split Kaid’s features as he stared down at her, complete adoration filling his eyes. “You look like a wee outraged kitten,” he mused indulgently, his big palm smoothing down one of her flyaway curls. Her eyes narrowed as she tried not to smile in return, but then her expression suddenly tensed and her hands latched onto Kaid's tunic. The retort she had been about to make died on her lips, as all the blood drained from her face. Eyes now wide in alarm, she immediately tossed herself over and behind Kaid, and slung the blankets on top of her head in order to hide. Kaid sat up, his sword whistling as it left its scabbard. “What is it, Ariel?” he demanded low, immediately on guard. Unfortunately, Ariel had become aware of a menacing presence moving closer. Since she had the innate ability to sense other people’s emotions, she knew it had to be Brandos and he was barely suppressing a violent, simmering rage. A few heartbeats later, she heard the deep tone of Bran’s voice as he told Kaid, “The guards are all in place for the night.” Then his attention turned to the tall lump of furs behind Kaid and he purred, “Lady Ariel, I think there are few things about the birds and the bees that you and I need to discuss.” Chapter 4 Ariel heard muffled laughter from the many warriors within hearing range who knew Bran’s penchant for lecturing her. Right as she pulled the blankets from over her head and moved to fling herself out of their bedding in order to gain temporary freedom, Bran’s muscular arm easily caught her around the waist, effortlessly hauling her up to him. With his other hand, he reached down and snatched up her fur covering. She heard several laughing remarks called out as he neatly pinned her to his side, his temper obviously on a simmering boil. She could feel the immense heat radiating from him. “Looks like Brandos found his dolly,” one older warrior teased. [Ariel~past] When Ariel was little, if she wandered off, Bran and Kaid had always been sent out to find her. If Bran found her first, he would carry Ariel home with her back pressed to the right side of his chest, his arm wrapped securely across her hips, her little hand tucked around his upper arm. With her blonde braids softly hanging on either side of her little dirt-smudged, angelic face and her dress and legs dangling down freely, many people had noted that it looked like he was carrying a doll, especially whenever he hit a growth spurt. Bran had always scowled at them for teasing him, but Ariel had never felt any true anger radiating off of him. If his tone had ever gotten too gruff in response to their taunts, she had just turned her head and glanced up at him, her big violet eyes watching his face for reassurance. If he was annoyed about something, he normally refused to return her look, but she would stare him down until he caved and glanced down at her. Then she would smile at him and his eyes would grudgingly warm as he shook his head at her. [Ariel~present] At the moment, several more clansmen called out to them as Bran stomped by. “I’ll be praying for you, Lass!” “Don’t let Brandos bully you!” “You can take him!” Ignoring the men, Bran purposefully strode towards the outskirts of the forest, out of earshot but still in view of some of their group. It was dark but their forms would still be visible. He finally set her down in front of a large tree. Out of habit, Bran pulled her fur covering tightly around her. Then, large hands resting against his lean hips, he began crowding her backwards until she felt the reassuring bark of the tree trunk against her back, even thru the fur. Bran’s cheekbones stood out starkly against the moonlit smoothness of his skin. The scar on one side of his face made him look even more dangerous as his eyes narrowed on her in antagonistic contemplation. [Ariel~past] It was a look she dreaded…a look Ariel had first seen on his face the day after she’d secretly gone to her father, happily informing him that she’d decided who she wanted to marry someday. How was she to know that Bran would take exception to her request to spend the rest of her life with him? They’d never spoken about such things. Whenever an opportunity had come about where they were able to share a few private moments together, talking had been the last thing on their minds. They’d normally been too busy doing other activities…most of which had involved Bran’s tongue in her mouth. Brandos had stolen hundreds of kisses from her before their falling out, all when there was no way anyone else would see them. But they had gotten caught in the stables one time… The scene had consisted of Bran leaning back against the wall, his dark head bent down, lips locked with Ariel’s as she leaned against him, hands on his chest. Thank the Heavens it had been during a very sweet, very chaste kiss. From somewhere behind her, Ariel had suddenly felt such an emotional wave of surprise, anger, and fury that her heart had practically frozen in terror. Without turning around, she’d known who had silently walked into the barn through the side door. Kaid. Stepping back as quickly and nonchalantly as possible, Ariel had continued to face Bran as she dramatically put her hands on her hips. “Well, it wasn’t that great,” she’d covered for them in a relatively calm, sarcastic voice “but it was less torture than having to clean your entire bedchamber!” They’d once discussed that if they got caught kissing by anyone and needed a cover, they’d use the kissing game as an excuse. Ariel had never felt so much raw fury coming off of Kaid before, especially not aimed at her or Bran. So she’d continued with her ruse. “You have to promise not to teach Kaid that stupid kissing game or I’ll end up doing all of his worst chores for him!” she told Bran, who’s gaze was casually looking past her, his eyes locked with Kaid’s, an arrogant smirk firmly in place on his chiseled lips. “What is this?” Despite the fact that she’d known he was there, Kaid’s low voice—a harsh, grating tone that Ariel had never heard him use in her presence—made her jump and gasp in surprise as she’d whirled around to face him, eyes wide with fright. The hairs on Ariel’s arms had risen at the sheer force of Kaid’s strong emotions and her tiny, delicate claws had even come out in reflexive protection. Ariel was still amazed that Brandos--without missing a beat--had let out a deep husky laugh at Ariel’s surprised expression. Ignoring the anger emitting off of Kaid, he’d proclaimed that it was too late now, that Kaid had already heard her say it. Then Bran had coolly looked over at a very violent-looking Kaid and calmly claimed that he was merely trying to teach Ariel how to play the elaborate kissing game that he’d learned while visiting his father’s boyhood clan the previous summer, the same place where he’d gotten the slashing scar which he’d refused to discuss with anyone. With a straight face, Bran had wisely grumbled that Ariel was being a slow learner, which hadn’t even earned him a pinch from her because Ariel was too uneasy about Kaid's formidable expression. When Bran insisted that Ariel would have to partner with Kaid to teach him this kissing game--because Bran sure wasn’t going to be Kaid’s partner--Kaid's temper had finally started to dissipate and cool, his curiosity and interest peeking as Bran had begun to explain the rules. Basically, when someone told a tale, you could accuse them of lying and then demand they play the Vampire’s Truth Kissing Game with you. At any time as your opponent pecked kisses on your forehead, then cheek to cheek to lips, and down your neck, they could suddenly dart to either side as if they were going to bite your neck, trying to get you to flinch. If you flinched, it meant that you had lied. Whoever won, by either not flinching or by making someone else flinch, could either demand a kiss from the other person or make them do some hideous chore, like cleaning their bedchamber. Unfortunately, Kaid had immediately adored the game and always wanted to play, demanding that Ariel tell him a story or accuse him of lying when he told his own tale. Ariel was so ticklish that she was abysmal at the game and was constantly getting stuck with new chores or forfeiting kisses to Kaid and Bran for flinching. She jumped every time. Suffice it to say that Kaid had not had to do any unpleasant chores in a very long time. About a month ago, after the evening meal, Bran and Kaid had both been laid out on Kaid’s oversized bed, Kaid’s hands behind his head, discussing clan issues… Bran was leaning back against the headboard, alternating between listening to Kaid, re-reading a book during lulls and throwing an occasional glare at her. Ariel was stuck with the chore of cleaning Kaid’s room again and she was really not in the mood. Sick to death of dusting, she abruptly pounced on top of Kaid, which he didn’t seem to mind in the least if his big grin was anything to go by. With a mulish set to her mouth, she entwined her hands with his. Then, whacking one set of their hands backwards onto the soft bed to emphasize each of her words, she growled out, “You...will…flinch…this…time!” That had both males chuckling and Bran smirked as he rolled over on his side to watch. Leaning back to sit on Kaid’s stomach, Ariel bared her teeth, including her tiny fangs at Kaid. “Do you see these?” she whispered slowly, running her tongue along the upper edges of her teeth. “They are very, very sharp!” “They look sharp,” Kaid placated her with a nod, trying to hide his amused half grin. With a determined twist of her lips she scowled at him. “I am going to bite your neck so hard this time that you will flinch every time we even mention this game in the future and then I won’t have to do your silly, stupid chores ever again! Do you understand me?” “Yes, ma’am,” he drawled, his twinkling blue eyes bright with affection and amusement. Her eyes narrowed in mock anger. “You don’t look scared.” Widening his eyes in mock fear, Kaid stuck out his tongue, his speech garbled and funny as he spoke around it. “I am tho thcared. Pleath don’t hurt me with your tharp teethies.” Bran chuckled and Ariel’s scowl deepened to prevent her lips from cracking a smile. Skipping the part where he was supposed to tell a story, she slowly leaned forward and laid out on his chest, her elbows next to his ears, fingers still entangled with his. She began by chicken pecking his forehead three times, then moved to each cheek, her lips feathering lightly over his warm sun-bronzed skin. Bran’s eyes narrowed on her, the intense green color smoldering with annoyance as his hard jaw flexed irritably. “Don’t be so brutal,” he scoffed, his tone sounding almost bitter. Surely that wasn’t a touch of jealousy she felt coming off of him. Ariel ignored her antagonist and moved to peck above Kaid’s upper lip then right below his lower lip. His chin. Then she kissed down his throat. When she got to where his neck met his shoulder, she opened her mouth wide and slowly let her teeth sink into him, biting down…hard. Surprised by the strength of her bite, Kaid’s broad back bowed unexpectedly and he let out a harsh expletive. With a soft growl and a tiny animalistic shake of her head, Ariel bit down even harder and he groaned out another ear burning phrase. After that, she finally released him, her head popping up as she happily celebrated, “You actually flinched!” Bran coughed. His face looking a little flushed, Kaid rolled her over, lying just a bit on top as he gruffly said, “You don’t have to finish cleaning my room, Ariel. Just leave it for tomorrow and I’ll take care of it.” Getting up and immediately turning towards the door, he muttered, “I’ll be back in a little while.” Ariel didn’t ask where he was going. She was too excited that she’d finally won. When she looked to Bran, he was just smirking at her and shaking his head. “What?” she demanded indignantly, though her good mood was unbreakable. “I finally got him to flinch!” she celebrated again, this time with a happy little dance. “And he took losing rather well for once!” she voiced in breathy amazement. Brandos just rolled back to his spot against the headboard. “Mmmhmm…” he murmured with another wry look, lifting his book back to eye level. Unconcerned by his odd response and excited that she didn’t have to do Kaid’s chores, Ariel hurriedly slipped under the covers and then wiggled over next to Bran for her required sleep companionship, her back pressing into the side of him. Ariel’s wariness for sleeping alone overshadowed the disquieting fact that Bran thoroughly despised her. Even though he was lying above the blanket, it was still comforting to feel his solid form as she let her eyes drop closed. She was just glad Bran hadn’t gotten up and left yet because she knew Kaid would be gone a while if he was going to see Kristin. Maybe Ariel could fall asleep quickly before Bran went to his own room. She didn’t see the grudgingly bemused warmth that filled Bran’s gaze when he peered down at the petite new occupant snuggled up against his hip in bed. Her breathing had soon grown calm and rhythmic. Sometime later that night, Ariel awoke, a little surprised but not concerned to find Brandos dozing right next to her in bed, his body now under the covers. He had removed his tunic and the top of his broad, sculpted shoulders reflected very nicely in the dying firelight. He was lying on his stomach, his head turned away from her on the pillow, his thickly muscled arm tucked about her waist, holding her firmly to his side. It was a reluctantly endearing gesture. Rolling towards him, Ariel brushed a soft kiss on his smooth, bulging shoulder as she moved further up in bed. An amused smile tugged at her full lips as she continued to angle herself so that her head would lie right next to his on the pillow, knowing that her sharing his pillow would, no doubt, annoy him in the morning. With her hair piling up in a mass of big pale curls, which overflowed onto the back of his head, she finally lay her face down and let out a soft, wistful sigh. Then she absently pulled the covers around both of them and snuggled in closer. Her dreams of marrying Bran had long since died but Ariel wholeheartedly wished that they could at least be friends again. When his arm suddenly tightened around her waist, Ariel silently gasped in surprise, but it was the name that he sleepily murmured next that made her freeze. “Emily…?” Emily was the girl he was currently courting. She was sweet and kindhearted and Ariel actually liked her. Barely swallowing past the lump in her throat, Ariel slowly began to lift her head and ease away from Bran when she heard him let out a light chuckle, right as his arm locked her in place against his side. Without even turning his head to look at her, Bran’s deep husky voice penetrated the darkness. “I knew it was you, Ariel. Now go to sleep and quite kissing my shoulder.” Outraged that she’d been caught giving him affection, Ariel grumbled, “Well, maybe if you didn’t bully people around all day, your shoulders wouldn’t be so freakishly huge that my mouth couldn’t even get by without bumping into them! I probably loosened a tooth!” “Mmmhmm…is that how it happened?” he countered sarcastically, seeming oddly pleased. “Yes!” she whispered stubbornly, somehow managing to feel mortified, embarrassed and still unbelievably sick on the inside from when he’d mentioned the other girl’s name. She was furious with her heart for even caring. Turning in his tight hold, she lay there stiffly with her back not touching him, feeling an intense weariness start to settle over her. “Relax and go to sleep,” he ordered after a moment. When Ariel didn’t obey, she heard him move towards her, then felt his chest pressing into her back. His voice was much closer as he intentionally tried to irritate her. “Are you crying?” For once, Ariel’s answer was not an immediate denial. “Yes!” she lied in a grumpy whisper. “Obviously, my tooth hurts!” He let out a low, husky chuckle. “Do you want me to check your tooth for you?” “No. Just stay away from me,” she growled, momentarily forgetting that telling Bran not to do something was like waving a red cloth in front of a bull. Bran’s big hand moved to cup her jaw. Taking a deep breath, he bent down, pressing his mouth to her cheek and blowing, which produced a weird bubbling noise. It was another endearing gesture that he had often pretended to use as punishment when she was younger and up to mischief. His actions caused a long gurgle of laughter to spill from her throat. “It’s all better now,” he gruffly assured her, keeping his chest pressed up against her back, with his arm firmly around her waist. After a moment, his voice broke into the darkness. “I’m not marrying Emily.” Ariel harrumphed, not believing him. “Why would you be courting Emily if you already know you aren’t going to choose her as your wife?” “Trust me, there are other reasons,” Bran murmured evasively, seeming almost embarrassed. “She’s very pretty and kindhearted,” Ariel offered generously, trying hard not to be jealous. “I like her better than any of the other ones you’ve dated.” “Well, I’m not marrying her,” he firmly repeated. “If you say so. Just…well…try to be nice when you end the relationship, alright?” Ariel cautioned a bit awkwardly. “Don’t tell her how horrible you think she is…or that you wish she’d never been born…or anything else charming like that. It would hurt her heart.” He hummed in thought. “Do you think I could tell her that I’m breaking up with her because--when I eventually have children--I would prefer them to turnout somewhat intelligent?” Bran offered teasingly. Ariel tried and failed to suppress a horrified snort of laughter. “Bran! No!” she gasped. “Do not say that to her! That would be so rude!” She could feel him shaking with laughter behind her and smiled. “Emily is actually very smart, Bran. She just has no interest in what interests you. She has no desire to discuss swords and fighting techniques with you all day.” Even though he didn’t have to, he explained, “Sam broke it off with Emily to start seeing one of Priscilla’s catty friends… someone who is not suited for him whatsoever and only started flirting with him because Priscilla was mad at Emily. I offered to secretly pretend that I’m courting Emily in order to make Sam jealous.” “Oh…!” Ariel whispered, the tight pressure in her chest easing a bit. “That’s actually very kind of you, Bran. I’m impressed.” He grunted. “In exchange she’s going to embroider a tunic for me. My sister has been too busy lately with her children to embroider a new one the way I like it done.” “Ah…that makes more sense,” Ariel murmured. “Emily is far too nice and sweet for you.” Bran bit her lightly on the shoulder for that comment and then muttered sternly, “Now, go to sleep!” “I won’t tell anyone,” she assured him in a whisper. “I knew you wouldn’t,” he replied quietly. Ariel smiled into the dark, blinking back a tiny bit of emotion over the fact that he still somewhat trusted her, at least. Slowly easing away from him a little, she gasped when his thick, muscular arm firmly clamped her back against him. “Stop moving,” he growled. “I can’t help it. My tooth is still bothering me,” she whispered just to be difficult, smiling when she felt his hand move from around her waist to wrap around her jaw again. She couldn’t help it. She was partial to his cheek kisses from when she’d been a small child. They made her feel immense affection towards the big tyrant. And…she had missed his playfulness. Ariel was already scrunching her neck and giggling softly when his big body threateningly leaned over hers. A surprised noise came out of her throat when his mouth didn’t land on her cheek, however. Instead, his lips came down and covered hers in a very thorough, deep kiss. When he pulled back, his voice was husky as he demanded, “Better now?” “Hmm?” she mumbled absently, almost in a daze. He gave a very male sound of approval and slowly elaborated, “Does your tooth feel better now?” Taking in another big draw of air, she croaked, “Yes!” “Good. Then go to sleep, baby girl,” he ordered smugly, seeming oddly pleased with himself, especially since he’d mockingly used one of Kaid’s pet names for her. He only used one of those when he was in the best of moods. As he adjusted his body right behind hers, Ariel was torn with conflicting emotions. She was pleased that he’d kissed her and yet she wasn’t. Since their break-up, Ariel had figured out that if he happened to be more kind to her one evening, it would change nothing on the morrow. He would still be just as mean to her as ever, usually worse. [Ariel~present] Ariel snapped her thoughts back to the predicament that she was currently in…standing under a dark night sky, sheltered beneath a canopy of leaves with her ex-boyfriend’s big, muscular frame crowding her against a tree. Even though Bran’s face was currently very close to hers, she knew he had absolutely no interest in playing a silly kissing game with her…or kissing her at all, for that matter. This was the closest she’d been to Brandos in forever. [Ariel~past] Normally, in the great hall or while they were on the training field, Brandos was the epitome of indulgent dark charm and control to everyone, except her. He didn’t even want her looking at him. And if he caught her eyes on his face during a meal, he would go out of his way to embarrass her, verbally picking and goading Ariel until she finally lost her calm demeanor and retaliated. Several times he had made her so unbelievably angry that she’d slung the contents of her tankard of ale in his face, then run for her life through the dining area, swerving around tables as he slowly stalked after her, flashing green eyes anticipating his wicked intentions as he wiped his face off with a cloth, the MacDonnel clansmen grinning in amusement and chuckling at their distracting antics. For the past few months, Brandos’ seething dislike of their Lord’s good-natured daughter had been a topic of much speculation. But no one truly wanted the damaged relationship to be mended because their heated, quick-witted verbal confrontations and aggressive acts of mischief toward one another were an anticipated source of entertainment and hilarity that were always repeated with much mirth and chatted about for days. Sometimes, when Brandos caught her, he’d fling her over his shoulder and then march down to the closest pond and toss her wiggling, protesting form in. Those were on days that she was drained with fatigue from healing other people’s ailments. [Ariel~present] Now…bending even closer to her, Bran began his disgruntled questioning. His tone was a barely controlled hiss as he demanded, “Tell me that you haven’t taken a fancy to Robert!” She made a face. “Perhaps in the past I’ve shown extremely poor taste in men, but my standards have never been that low.” “Then why did you pick him so quickly?” Ariel was unable to prevent an amused smirk, her tone full of sarcasm. “The two of you are such good friends. Surely I would have been safe with him.” Bran’s face darkened as he mistakenly took her statement seriously. “He may be part of our clan and I am duty bound to protect him with my life, but he is no friend of mine. And you are most definitely not safe in his presence.” Even though Ariel had assured Kaid she would smooth things over with Bran, she postponed doing so for just a wee bit longer so she could sweetly point out, “Well, it seemed as though Lauren felt quite safe around Robert.” Leaning down to her ear, he growled, “Apparently you are feeling very safe tonight, as well, little one.” She took note of the muscle ticking in his jaw. A fleeting thought that Brandos had been jealous when she’d chosen Robert was immediately dismissed. Bran had thrown their relationship and longtime friendship away like an unwanted apple core and--just like a shriveled remnant of fruit--he would never want her back. Unfortunately for Ariel, this warrior was extremely appealing. The one man she’d always imagined marrying. “Hmm…” she purred. “I guess I’m feeling all coddled and loved after your unusual display of overprotectiveness earlier.” Her mockery was evident, her teasing smile, impish. “You are Lord MacDonnel’s daughter. It’s my duty to protect you,” he bit out. She snorted. “Well, your normal method of protecting me leaves a lot to be desired and I am beginning to grow tired of it,” she retorted peevishly. “Are you?” he purred, amused for some reason by her irritation. Then his face sobered. “So…are you infatuated with Robert now? Do you have your sights set on him?” Ariel took in a deep breath and let it out. “No matter how I respond you are going to choose to think the worst of me. You always do,” she muttered aloofly. His voice dropped to a low rumble. “Have you been seeing him in secret?” Ariel went very still, mauling her bottom lip with her teeth as she mischievously decided to live very, very dangerously. With wide violet eyes, she innocently glanced up at him, lowering her voice to a confidential whisper, “Is it very obvious?” Ariel heard his loud indrawn breath right before his big hands clamped down on her, practically strangling her upper arms. She gasped when her feet left the ground as he effortlessly brought her nose-to-nose with his gorgeous, scowling face. “I was only teasing you!” she whispered laughingly, thoroughly amused. “Put me down!” In utter silence, Brandos continued to stare at her face in the moonlight, apparently assessing whether or not she was telling him the truth. Ariel knew why he doubted her, for they’d led their own secret relationship for years. [Ariel~past] It had started small, with Bran being affectionate and playful with her when no one else was looking. Like secretly helping her with her saddle…gently tugging a lock of her hair…or giving her an affectionate shove every now and then. Not to mention all the fake injuries Bran had feigned just so he could trap her in a hug and affectionately kiss the top of her head. Their first kiss had occurred one night in the dimly-lit, deserted stables while Kaid was away, traveling with Lord MacDonnel on clan business. Brandos had unsuccessfully been trying to drag a cantankerous older horse down the center isle of the large structure and into its stall. Unfortunately, Bran had lost the rope tugging contest when the wily horse had unexpectedly taken several steps forward, causing him to fly backwards, slamming Ariel’s willowy frame to the ground, and landing right on top of her. Bran had been horrified that he’d seriously harmed her, but Ariel--with her odd sense of humor about certain things--had limply laid there in the fresh pile of hay, laughing uncontrollably for several long moments at the memory of the comical, shocked look on Bran’s face when he’d rolled over and realized who he had plowed down. While she laughed, Bran had worriedly smoothed his large hands over her slender frame, checking for any broken bones. As a result, his eyes had gradually begun to warm in appreciation. A moment later, when he’d reluctantly started to rise, Ariel had set her hand on his forearm, stopping him. Then she had admitted that she actually was hurt. An anxious look had come over Bran’s face once more until she awkwardly glanced away, nervously licking her full bottom lip as she shyly whispered that her mouth kind of felt bruised and terribly battered. Then she’d slid Bran an impish look, one expectant brow tilting in challenge. Bran was several years older than her, so he had been much more experienced at kissing. A knowledgeable glint had suddenly entered his green gaze and he’d raised one dark, curious brow, observing her with bold interest. When his attention shifted to her mouth, the expression in his eyes had changed, causing her breath to hitch. Heart pounding in a wild beat, Ariel had been excited and alarmed at the realization that Bran was actually going to kiss her. Bending his dark head, Bran gazed at her for a breath-held moment. “Finally…” he’d whispered, surprising her with the amount of emotion in his tone. Then his lips were warm and gentle as they moved over hers, completely laying claim to her soft, generous mouth. He kissed her with a hunger she soon met, her mouth becoming more experienced with each passing moment of the embrace. When her arms wrapped around his broad back, Ariel didn’t realize that she was using supernatural strength as her fingers dug into his shoulders, until he gave a low growl of approval. She soon learned that he liked that evidence of strength. Their first kiss had been a very long one. And she had enjoyed it even more, when he’d deepened the kiss by angling his head and fusing his mouth to hers as he began a teasing game with his tongue which had left Ariel in a complete sensual daze afterward. [Ariel~present] Snapping her attention back to where she presently hung in the air, hoisted up by Bran’s strong arms, Ariel started trying to reason with him in a low whisper, “You know me too well to ever think that I would get serious with a male like that. If I was truly seeing Robert in secret, I would’ve killed him by now. Just yesterday Mary and another maid were discussing his current woman of the week. And that maidservant even admitted to being one of his conquests!” Her cheeks flushed with color but that didn’t stop her from whispering, “From what the maid told me, the reports that Robert is quite talented with his mouth are all true.” She waggled her eyebrows twice, just to be annoying. It worked. Between clenched teeth Brandos growled, “Mary should not be allowing you to listen to such gossip.” Ariel snorted. “If anything, I’m the one corrupting sweet Mary, not the other way around. Now…aren’t those feeble arms of yours getting tired yet?” she hissed, wiggling her dangling feet. “Put me down or I’m going to kick you. Or better yet, I’ll kiss you!” Her lips twisted in bitter irony. “And we both know you’d really hate that!” When he didn’t immediately do as commanded, she gritted out, “Fine!” Then she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, knowing it would irritate him and thus hasten her landing. Five quick, playful, randomly placed kisses on the scarred side of his face was how long it took before he stopped seeing red and abruptly plunked her back down on the ground. When she stumbled, he grudgingly caught her by the waist, steadying her. Still feeling disgruntled with him, Ariel abruptly pulled out of his hold. And, even though she could sense that her show of distaste for his touch had annoyed Brandos, she perceived that he was no longer furious with her. He was now wavering between confusion and…perhaps a touch of jealousy? She must be reading him wrong. Or there were lingering emotions over Lauren’s betrayal weaving into this discussion. “Be warned that there are now guards assigned to watch his movements all night, every night of this hunt.” Ariel wanted to end any thought in his mind that she liked that silly man. “Bran…” she started then quickly fixed her error before he could embarrass her with a reminder that only his friends called him Bran and she was not his friend. This normally caused her to insert foul words in place of his name when she addressed him, which caused all bystanders to laugh. “Brandos,” she began again with a sigh, “you go out of your way to make my life miserable on a daily basis. You act like I’m the worst person in all the Highlands. And you leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that you have little desire for Lord MacDonnel's awful, ill-mannered daughter. Yet, if given a choice, I would still pick you an infinite number of times over Robert.” Dark brows pulled together in a suspicious frown. “Why would you do that?” She sighed again and shrugged. “Believe it or not, there is a difference—even if it’s only slight—between a man who loudly proclaims that I’m worthless and one who flagrantly demonstrates it by sleeping with every other woman in the clan. I have no interest in a man like that.” Exuding more guilt than she’d imagined him capable of, he pushed a rough hand through his hair before grumbling, “It would not just be you. Men like that don’t change…for any female. And I don’t think you are worthless, Ariel. I know how much you have helped my father when his back ails him and you’re a good friend to all of my sisters.” Inhaling deeply, he blew out a breath. “Remind me to tell Kaid that when I die, you are not allowed to stand and pay tribute to me at my burial.” “It’s too late, I’ve already signed up as the first to speak,” she popped off. Despite her teasing words, the reminder of how worthless he constantly tried to make her feel, how many girls he’d flaunted in front of her and the ugly things he said to her on a daily basis, had Ariel withdrawing within herself to a well-guarded place where he couldn’t hurt her. Brandos didn’t like her gaze on him while they were eating in the hall but when they spoke alone, she was sure he preferred looking into her eyes. He had always adored her ever-changing violet gaze--that part of their relationship hadn’t been completely feigned on his part--so she refused to give it to him now. Crossing her arms over her chest she kept her gaze to the left of his shoulder and was more standoffish, even as she grudgingly admitted, “I have not forgotten the fond memories from when you used to consider me your friend. I would only say those.” He curiously watched her for a moment and then his voice was guarded as he coaxed, “Like what?” She answered with an indifferent shrug of her shoulders. “You can’t think of any good memories of us?” he cajoled, pursing his lips. Ariel let out a sigh, as though she were admitting defeat. “Does it even matter?” “Just wondering what you would say. I might need to tweak your answers,” he murmured in a low voice, almost as if he were trying to lighten her mood. Ariel ignored his teasing tone but then grudgingly admitted what she’d been thinking about earlier, “I suppose I’d mention when I was really little and you used to help Kaid search for me after I’d wandered off. You dutifully carried me thru the village and near the training fields but never truly cared a whit when people tossed out teasing comments at you all the way back.” He grunted. “Aye. Sometimes when a clansman is looking for you, they’ll still ask me if I know where my dolly is. You were a cute little mite back then.” “And then there was the time you didn’t tell on me for daring you to jump off the highest branch in the tree.” “When I broke my leg.” She rolled her eyes, denying his claim just to be aggravating. “You merely dreamed that you broke your leg.” He gave her an exasperated look. “The broken bone was protruding from my skin. It was a horrid sight that had me fainting like a wee lass. Then you healed it while I was blacked out.” “Your imagination,” she harrumphed. “Scared the hell out of me when I woke up and found your little body crumpled on the ground next to me but my leg was sturdy, unharmed and actually stronger than it had ever been. But I still got in trouble because you took forever to wake up and everyone thought I had dared you to jump out of that tree. Even Kaid--who knows you can jump like a gazelle--was mad at me for letting you get hurt. He didn’t talk to me for a week.” Ariel’s eyes sparkled with a familiar mischief. A small titter of amusement escaped as she finally looked at him, followed by a silent gasp of surprise when a devastating half grin spread across his full lips. It was so reminiscent of the adoring looks he used to give her on a daily basis that a sharp painful ache went thru Ariel and she had to look away again. “When you are not angering me, I guard you better than most anyone else,” he told her, far too smugly. “Oh, aye…like you did a few months ago when we were sword fighting on the training field and you sliced me in the side with your blade?” “I will do it again, too! You must learn to protect your side against stronger opponents,” he told her unapologetically but Ariel could feel the intense wave of guilt he emitted. He had not meant to hurt her. “I almost bled to death!” she huffed, thoroughly disgruntled. Kaid had been unbelievably irate, to say the least. “You will protect your side better in the future, won’t you?” Ariel glared up at him. “Aye,” she finally admitted grudgingly. He let out a puff of surprised laughter and racked a hand through his dark locks. “Admit that to Kaid in the morning, will you? I don’t think he has quite forgiven me yet. It’s only recently that he has begun speaking to me civilly again.” Sarcasm oozed from her as she stretched the truth in order to ease some of this warrior’s lingering guilt. “Sure, I will admit that to him…right after I inform him that I may have exaggerated my pain level from that incident.” Ariel hadn’t exaggerated the burning pain. It had hurt excruciatingly bad, physically and emotionally. She felt his large warm hand encircle her throat and threateningly squeeze, the aggressive action making Ariel gurgle with laughter. He bent to her ear and growled warningly, “Ariel…!” Muffling more laughter, she automatically slid her fingers between her throat and his encircling hand so he would release his hold. Letting go of her, he sighed. “That look you gave me right after it happened haunted me for weeks,” he murmured, tormenting his dark brown hair. “I thought I’d turned the sword so that the flat side would hit you. It was only when I’d looked down at my weapon afterwards that I saw the blood smeared on it.” He glanced away, letting out a long breath. [Ariel~past] Ariel didn’t know what look she had given him, but the sword fight had occurred about a month after they’d broken up. In that short time span, the notoriously unattainable warrior--who had spent the past few years seemingly indifferent to any female pursuit--had suddenly started parading around numerous giggling, excited females on his arm. He’d also begun verbally poking fun of Ariel in the great hall to such an aggressive extent that the two of them would always end up in dramatic arguments with food flying and her nimble little body finding new creative and humorous ways of escaping Bran’s brutish strength as he tried to chase her down in front of their audience. They were better than any hired act, singer or flutist as they loudly bandied back and forth. Bran’s dark, handsome good looks, flashing green eyes, square jaw and the simmering, hostile anger that made him do just about anything to her in retaliation, was exciting to everyone. And Ariel’s quick wit and biting, antagonistic remarks--which would make the warrior’s anger flame higher--were always a crowd favorite. So, when somebody suggested a spur-of-the-moment sword match between the two of them, the news spread like wildfire and clan members turned out in droves. During their contest, she’d been meeting his sword thrusts very easily for several long moments, to such a degree that people were beginning to whisper about it. Though she’d always pretended otherwise, Ariel was far more advanced than anyone else in this clan. Her speed, agility, quickness, eyesight and hearing were all far superior. Although inhuman strength was one of her characteristics, she always pretended to lose to the men in order to protect the clan’s pride, which was based on the strength of their warriors. Ariel knew that she needed to start visibly weakening soon lest people think her more different than they already did. And she hated being considered different. Unfortunately, she had chosen to start tiring on a hard downward stroke that Bran had put all his strength into and though she belatedly tried to put more power into deflecting it, the sword had come down, slicing deep into her side. Ariel had cried out in pain, her hand protectively flying to the spot as she gazed up at the warrior in horrified disbelief. With a snort of laughter, Bran had disdainfully asked, “Did that hurt? You’re so cold, you probably couldn’t feel it!” He had sounded so cruel and uncaring that heartache had tightened to a knot in Ariel’s throat and all her built-up, chaotic emotions had flooded to the forefront. Still clutching her injured side with one hand, her big, pain-filled violet eyes had begun to overflow with tears. The thought of this young warrior, whom she’d erroneously offended with her marriage proposal, now hating her so much that he’d intentionally injured her and then laughed about it, had set her lower lip to trembling. “Why did you do that?” she had whispered, her voice quavering. “Do you really hate me that much?” Her words were quiet but full of emotion. A sudden look of confusion had sobered his handsome features. “What?” His gaze never leaving her face, alarm had filtered into his lowered voice. “Ariel…?” Eyes dropping to the hand she was using to clutch her side, where the blood was starting to drench through her tunic, Bran had blanched in horror, suddenly understanding. Glancing toward his sword, he had seen the damning red and had dropped the weapon as if it had burned him, his face going white with shock. “Somebody find Mary!” he commanded hoarsely. The order was immediately repeated amongst the crowd and several young boys anxiously raced towards the castle to find Ariel’s maid. Even though Ariel had felt as if her knees were going to buckle under her, she had stubbornly turned, pulling away from Bran when he grabbed her shoulder, insisting that she needed to sit down. Although she had been trying to put up a brave front, her mind had been so filled with pain that she had barely been able to make any sense of her scrambled thoughts. She’d heard Kaid anxiously pushing through the crowd towards her but Ariel had blocked out his loud heated remarks to Bran as she continued to blindly walk through the parting crowd. Away from Bran. Away from her clansmen…but they still saw when she let her beloved sword slide through her fingers to quietly thump onto the grass. Then she’d slowly walked behind the nearby stables, still clutching her side as she carefully lowered her body to the ground and closed her eyes against the excruciating pain. Ariel knew Kaid would come help her in a moment. She hadn’t thought so many others would follow her or that they’d yell out in alarm when they saw her curled up on the ground, her actions indicating just how badly she’d been injured. Ariel had been in so much pain at the time that she hadn’t even cared about her silly pride. And she’d been relieved to feel a large male hand cover her own, helping stave off blood loss. It had been Bran’s father, whom she dearly loved. The whole clan knew that Ariel had a severe phobia about getting blood in her hair. Even a small drop of it would send her into a weird panic. So when she reached up in a protective gesture and put an arm over her head, her bloodied fingers digging into her scalp and hair in an inadvertent gesture of extreme agony, that’s when the realization that she was truly hurt had hit her clan members. Their wave of emotions--horror and fear--had washed over Ariel in a tidal wave. They loved her, aye, but Ariel was also their clan’s main healer, and she had saved countless lives, even from a very young age. If Ariel died, it would mean the death and suffering of so many more to come. [Ariel~present] Letting the disturbing memories fade back into the recesses of her mind, Ariel refocused on her current predicament… In her spot under the tree, she warily glanced up into Bran’s brooding face. “Well, you did prove that I could get hurt, just like everyone else. I think some of the clan thought I was invincible or something. Kaid is so watchful of me that I rarely get injured.” His brutal voice was a low murmur as he scoffed, “You don’t often get hurt because you are different and odd.” Bran always became extremely defensive and annoyed when the sword incident was brought up but Ariel was not going to let him take it out on her. “I am not! I--” He cut off her denial. “You try so hard to hide what’s glaringly obvious. Everyone just pretends ignorance so you won’t burn down the villages with your witchery,” he callously exaggerated. His words were like a physical blow. Feeling as if he had just slapped her in the face, Ariel immediately felt her eyes misting with tears. Why could this warrior always make her want to cry? Even when her half-sister, Priscilla, had repeated what she’d overheard Bran telling their father--the real reason why Brandos had not wanted to marry her--it had not hurt as much as his words did now. Bran was being hateful. From the moment he’d ended their friendship, until now, he had never thrown her peculiarities in her face during one of their public arguments. They were alone now, however, which was rare, and Kaid was nowhere around to overhear and get angry. “You, of all people, know that I am not a witch!” she whispered fiercely. He snorted derisively. “Why exactly is it a comfort to you that you’re not a witch?” “Witches are believed to be evil. They are shunned because most people believe that they use dark magic.” Then she repeated, “I’m not a witch.” He let out a low, mocking chuckle. “Do you really think it’s a good sign, that when you tried to visit the most powerful witch in all the highlands, she became so terrified at the sight of you—a small, beautiful, sweet-looking child—that she huddled in her house, screeching for you to go away and never come back?” Ariel looked away from him, distraught that one of the best memories she had of Brandos was being tarnished by his hatefulness. [Ariel~past] Years ago, when Kaid had been away for a few days, Ariel had snuck out to secretly visit the notorious witch that lived deep in the Highlands in order to see if the all-knowing woman could enlighten her on where her unique healing abilities stemmed. Ariel had been very young, around twelve or thirteen, certainly not old enough to traverse the dangerous woods alone. But when the old crone had spotted her approaching, the crippled up lady had practically sprinted towards the safety of her small, sturdy house, immediately locking it up tight. She wouldn’t let Ariel in her home nor would she answer any of her shy, politely spoken questions. The woman had repeatedly crept over and peered through the message slot on her front door, screeching for the young child to go away and never ever come near her again. Ariel had been hurt and offended that the lady had acted as if Ariel were some kind of monster, like she was evil. It was later that same day when Brandos had found Ariel dejectedly huddled behind a tree in the forest, her slender arms wrapped around her long legs, chin on her knees, eyes aglow with seething resentment, her pretty face streaked with dust and tears. Although he’d been furious with her for disappearing for such a long period of the day without telling anyone where she was going, Bran had seen how shaken and upset she had appeared to be. Without saying a word about her reprehensible behavior, he’d cautiously sat down next to Ariel and promptly curved the pretty, fragile-looking young girl into his oversized frame, coddling her against his chest and firmly patting her back as he’d seen Kaid do a thousand times before. Dejectedly laying her cheek against his chest, Ariel had felt so cold and withered on the inside that she had lifelessly laid there, not even caring enough to respond to the concerned questions Bran kept asking. It was not until she felt an increasing wave of fear coming from Brandos, as he realized just how despondent and traumatized his friend seemed to be, that she finally acknowledged his presence. Then, after quietly assuring her numerous times that he would never breath a word of her secret to anyone, Ariel had finally confessed where she had gone and what had occurred. A strong surge of fury and menacing intentions had sizzled over Bran’s young frame, right before he’d assured Ariel that he would go slay the foolish old hag for daring to treat his wee lass so abysmally. Though it had taken her quite a bit of time to convince Brandos, she’d eventually dissuaded her big, infuriated friend from harming the witch, making him promise not to hurt the older woman. Bran had always been a regular figure in her life, his twinkling green eyes seeming to sparkle a little brighter whenever he saw her. Dozens of times—when Kaid wasn’t near at hand--Bran had teasingly accused her of liking him, and then in the next breath he would casually give her orders that she was not allowed to like anyone else but him. And every time Kaid was away on a trip—even from a very young age—she had memories of Bran’s mom packing the two of them food before he led Ariel off into the woods for a secret picnic when they’d spend the whole day just exploring the woods together. But his willingness to go up against the powerful witch in order to avenge Ariel’s wounded spirit had ignited something inside of her that day--a secret crush of monumental proportion. From that point on, their relationship had subtly begun to change, slowly evolving everyday into something a little bit more special and exciting, though their friendly indifference had always been firmly in place when Kaid or anyone else was near at hand. [Ariel’s present day.] Brandos was still the only one who knew about her trek through the woods. However, he had never brought it up in such a confrontational way. “Even if the witch was scared of me, her opinion doesn’t really matter.” “And why is that?” His voice was devoid of emotion. “Well, because I’m not evil,” she whispered, her eyes locking with his. When he merely stared back at her with a look of cool disdain, not seeming to agree with her self-assessment, it tore at Ariel’s heart and she felt her confidence waiver a little. “Well, I know I’m not a bad person!” she stated impatiently, her tone indicating her displeasure. Bran still looked unconvinced. His clenched jaw and continued silence screamed his low opinion of her. At his wordless conviction of her character, some tiny flame of hope inside Ariel’s chest finally smothered and went out, leaving her nothing but bleak despair. Brandos apparently had not even the tiniest soft spot left in his heart for her. Ariel knew he actually had very good manners and was quite charming. She had seen him at holiday banquets, girls all around him, vying for his attention as he arrogantly smirked down at them. Ariel was the only one he now thought was too far beneath him to bother with courtesy. “Why are you always so mean to me lately?” she demanded, appearing visibly distressed now. “Because I don’t like you,” he broodingly answered, the same as always, dismissing her curiosity. “So that’s why you and I can’t be friends anymore?” She looked heartbreakingly vulnerable, her violet eyes unhappy, as she continued, “Because you think that I’m evil and bad and you find me annoying?” “I find you very annoying,” he confirmed brusquely. “Your selection of Robert earlier annoyed me.” Ariel let out a light, amused chuckle. “I could not resist. It was too tempting.” Her eyes twinkled with mischief. “Your face…” she giggled again. “Soo funny…” He merely scowled down at her. A sheepish look came over her face as Ariel stared up into his stern, reproachful green gaze. “I’m sorry,” she apologized with an exaggerated sigh. “Do you think that’s why I’m not married to anyone in our clan as of yet? Because I’m too annoying?” She knew better than to ask this blunt male such questions but was far too curious to see what demeaning comment he would come up with in response. His jaw clenched, eyes narrowing in what might have been jealousy. “You are not married because your father hasn’t paid anyone enough money to marry you yet.” Fixing him with a reproachful look, she berated, “That’s not very polite.” He shrugged broad shoulders, as if he couldn’t care less whether or not he was polite to someone like her. Ariel didn’t know why she continued to speak to Bran, it was as if she needed to discuss these things with him and she’d waited so long…as if she was inadvertently trying to get answers out of him with her remarks. She was still so confused about why he had abruptly turned on her. “Priscilla says Father is not going to provide me with a dowry.” Was that why he had ended up not wanting her? Had Bran thought he would get money for marrying Lord MacDonnel’s illegitimate daughter and then discovered that he wouldn’t? Brandos blinked in surprise and there was a genuine look of confusion and doubt in his green eyes. “I’m sure your father will provide you with a dowry,” he murmured. Then, as if realizing that he might have just made her feel better, he quickly added, “Otherwise, no one will have you.” Tilting her head in an unconsciously adorable fashion, Ariel slid him a withering look. When his firm lips twitched with suppressed mirth, amused by her expression, Ariel felt that even though this warrior wasn’t being very nice, he was secretly enjoying spending this time alone with her, just like he’d enjoyed their private days together whenever Kaid had been traveling. “I have a sack of coins hidden away. How much do you think a fair dowry would cost?” she ventured cautiously, half-serious. Something flashed across his face as he gave her a long, assessing look. “That depends on how high you are trying to reach. Who do you have in mind?” She shrugged, twisting her hands together nervously. “Well, lately several of the warriors have become more approachable and amusing when I’m around—probably because you’re not around me as much anymore. But I don’t want to mistake their welcoming behavior for more than it actually is.” Besides the brief narrowing of his eyes, Bran’s face masked any emotions beneath the surface. But Ariel was surprised to feel a wave of what might have been anger and bitterness. “So tell me about these overly-friendly males.” Brandos reached out and took her arm, pulling her a fraction closer, his look of irony clearly evident. “What are their names?” When she didn’t respond, he announced, “I’m sure Kaid will be very interested in hearing about them.” “They have not been overly friendly! Not how you are with your… friends,” she ended awkwardly. “I merely wanted to know how much you think a dowry would cost.” He snorted. “You will never have enough gold for that.” Ariel’s heart sank, all her hopes for the future being momentarily dashed. Mulishly pulling out of his grip, she crossed her arms and demanded testily, “Why would it cost so much? The girls in the village are always getting married!” His tone was heavy with sarcasm. “Yes, but your dowry will have to be much bigger than a pig or two chickens,” he goaded, just to rile her. Ariel stared at him a long time, reading no deception in his demeanor. “But…why?” There was an air of vulnerability about her. When Brandos remained silent, a look of wary confusion flitted over Ariel’s pretty, pale features. Then realization struck and she looked away, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment. “Oh…” Unable to hide the hurt in her eyes, she kept her lashes low, her gaze averted as she tried to swallow the lump in her throat before quietly admitting, “Now I remember...” He mutely stood there waiting for her to explain but Ariel merely moved to the side of the tree and took a cautious step back from him. “What do you remember?” he questioned impatiently, obviously annoyed that he was being forced to ask. Putting her hand on the back of the tree, Ariel quietly drug her claws down the rough bark, slowly but meditatively shredding it off in five straight lines to release some of her agitation, as she grumbled, “The reason why nobody wants to marry me…” She shook her head and gave a short laugh that contained no mirth. “Stupid of me to forget, huh?” “And what reason would that be?” Bran demanded, curiously watching her scratch the tree. If looks could kill, Bran would have been a smoldering piece of charred remains. “Because I’m illegitimate,” she reminded him in a neutral tone, proud of herself for not sounding bitter or accusatory. “That’s why it would cost so much.” Bran’s eyes lost all traces of calm. Jaw clenching, he stepped forward and grabbed her arms, practically shaking her in his anger. “Nooo!” he growled very low. “It’s not because you’re illegitimate! It’s because you’re irritating and annoying…like…I…said.” Ariel didn’t know what it was about his reproachful words, but it made the tension in her chest ease and a slow, unconsciously grateful smile spread across her pretty face. “Thank you,” she whispered softly. Her claws had already rescinded as she loosely set her hands on his waist, further surprising him when she tilted her head forward and cautiously laid her temple down on his chest in a very brief, chaste hug. She didn’t want to touch him too much. His accusation of Ariel constantly throwing herself at him, on the day they had broken up, was currently too fresh in her mind. When she moved to step back, Ariel felt broad hands flatten on her back, forcing her flush against Bran’s oversized chest for a real hug. Slightly turning his big body, Bran shielded her from anyone who could be curiously straining their eyes in the dark to watch them. With a tiny, reluctant smile, Ariel adjusted and laid her cheek against him, closing her eyes and momentarily enjoying his hard strength. Obviously trying to be antagonistic, his hands skimmed down her body underneath the fur covering, resting unexpectedly low around her waist. His thumbs notched under her hip bones while his huge palm and fingers slid around her body to clutch her backside. His almost silent rumble of approval drowned out her indignant gasp as his hands gave her a brief appreciative squeeze. It was extremely improper. Clearly enjoying her outraged expression, Bran let out a very male chuckle as he reluctantly moved his hands back up her body. Catching her breath, Ariel tried to pull back again but he stubbornly ignored her efforts, wrapping his arms around her middle and locking her back in place against him. Then he calmly buried his lips in the soft wealth of her hair, inhaling deeply--an affectionate gesture that had been all too common during their relationship. Ariel could hear the resigned tone in his voice when he grouched, “Are you having withdrawals from Kaid?” “Why?” she whispered, again trying to wiggle free but his arms remained locked around her, stubbornly holding her in place. Once again Ariel calmly laid the side of her face back against his hard chest, savoring this time when he was showing her affection. It wouldn’t last very long. “Because you’re starting to hug me like you normally hug all over him.” Ariel arched one blonde brow in silent bemusement. Bran’s words weren’t exactly accurate since she’d already made several attempts to break free and he hadn’t wanted to let her go. “The difference is that Kaid actually likes when I’m affectionate towards him. You know how temperamental he gets if I don’t immediately greet him every time I return from doing anything else.” Brandos chuckled. “He acts casual, as if it doesn’t matter if you come over to him first or not but whenever someone distracts you on your way to him he gets edgy.” Brandos let out another low laugh. “If you listen, you can actually hear warriors groaning under their breath in protest when some imbecile stops you for conversation.” Letting out a sigh, he admitted, “I don’t know what he’ll do when you finally marry. It’s very clear to anyone with eyes that he doesn’t like sharing your attention.” Ariel gasped, her arms finally circling his waist and excitedly squeezing as she demanded in a hopeful whisper, “Has he told you who he’s to marry?” His breath puffed against her hair and she actually felt regret coming off of him, as if he hated disappointing her. “No,” he informed her grimly “he won’t break his vow of silence to Lord MacDonnel.” Ariel deflated, utterly disappointment. “Well, you would think that he’d already be extremely overprotective of his future bride but I haven’t seen Kaid acting partial to any of the other lasses. Have you?” “Nay, only Kristin.” “He says it’s not Kristin, but what do you think?” At that Bran gave a snort. “Kristin flirted with me right in front of Kaid a few days ago, going out of her way to try and make him jealous.” Ariel stared at him open-mouthed. “What?” she whispered clearly horrified. Kaid was extremely possessive of anything that he considered to be his. Ariel had never even considered flirting with Bran--or anyone else, for that matter—in front of Kaid. She had known from a very young age that he did not like to share her attention. “Did it work?” “Not even a little bit. But you sort of thwarted her efforts when you walked thru the gate, coming up from the village. Kaid was too busy watching the two warriors by the guard post who had called out a question to you. He stomped off to meet you halfway and paid her no mind.” “Just one more reason for her to hate me,” Ariel sighed under her breath. “No one cares what she thinks,” Bran scoffed with a look of disgust. “I was just glad when you came back from the village on time for once.” Ariel snorted. “Why? You like me even less than she does!” “When you’re at the village overlong Kaid’s mood starts going downhill and you know it. Everyone has to tiptoe around his explosive temper.” “He’s not that bad,” she defended, just to be argumentative. Ariel knew how awful Kaid became when she was away. “Remember the tone of voice he used when he caught us kissing in the stables?” Ariel tilted her face up to look at him, her eyes wide as she warily nodded. “He’s like that.” She immediately shook her head in disbelief. “Kaid couldn’t be that bad. He was just really angry with us that day.” “Ariel, you wouldn’t know. Why do you think his tone in the stables didn’t faze me at all? He gets extremely aggressive when you’re not around to settle him down. But then he sees you and--even if he’s furious with you for being away from him too long--his expression brightens and relaxes. Though he tries to mask it, Kaid’s eyes tell everyone around him how much he adores you and how relieved he is that you’re back safely.” “He better adore me!” she grumbled. “I’m his favorite!” “But it’s as if all his happiness is connected to you being within his view. It was that way even when we were younger. Not even the older warriors wanted to be pitted against Kaid in a sword match if they knew you had wandered off to the village and he was anxious for training to be over so he could go and find you. Kaid quickly demolished anyone under those circumstances, even fighting dirty or injuring an opponent because then he’d have an excuse to locate you, so you could heal them.” “Well, it shouldn’t be that way but once he gets married it will obviously change,” she rationalized. “I hope so.” Pausing he gazed down into her upturned face, a wicked gleam entering his knowing green eyes right before he leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “And a word of warning, Ariel: When you’re hugging other men and Kaid is not around, keep in mind that they’re not related to you like he is. Their thoughts might not be so…pure.” Bran’s straight white teeth gently nipped her ear. Ariel caught her breath and pulled away from him, but not before his actions sent tiny, involuntary shivers racing up her spine. He gave a husky, knowing chuckle. Trying not to sound as breathless as she felt, Ariel scoffed, “Thanks for the warning—Father--but I’m pretty sure you’re the last person who would be having impure thoughts about me.” If Ariel hadn’t known how much he hated her, and how much he liked to play games with her heart, she would have thought his deep voice was genuinely affectionate as he leaned forward again to tell her, “Just because you don’t like a female, doesn’t necessarily mean that you stop thinking about her in ways that you probably shouldn’t.” Seeing the danger glittering in his green gaze, Ariel could feel heat stealing up her neck into her cheeks, but she continued to return his look. “Like naked thoughts?” she daringly teased, waggling her brows to break the intensity of their shared moment. The flash of his devastating smile combined with the aggressive, smoldering look in his eyes, sent a shiver of sweet anticipation through Ariel’s body. “Are there any other kind?” was his warm response. She let out a soft laugh. “Perfect! So we’re both contemplating the same thing…about Robert,” Ariel wickedly teased, winking at him as she backed away, removing her body from the proximity of temptation. Unfortunately, she was still wildly attracted to this handsome tyrant. As she turned to head back to their bedding she felt Bran gently tug her hair in reproof, as he’d done so often in the past when they were better friends. Chapter 5 As they wove their way between the sleeping forms of the MacDonnel clansmen, Ariel inhaled a deep breath of the cool night air, trying to sooth away any traces of the apprehension she’d begun to feel since gathering as a large group for the evening feast. Ariel had certain…abilities…some of which she’d rather not mention to anyone else. And earlier, the first stirrings of ‘death’ had softly whispered in her ear, rattling her calm. Surely that unusual wisp of a sound had just been a trick of her imagination. Yes, that was it. She was just tired. Nothing to worry about, she convinced herself. And yet, perhaps she should warn her loyal friend, Edgar, just in case. Ignoring Kaid, who propped himself up on one elbow when he heard their approach, she turned right and walked the outskirts of the slumbering men to find the guard that was her rock whenever she needed him. Though Ariel had learned to stumble around a little and pretend otherwise, she could see perfectly in the dark, therefore, she saw the giant bear of an older man grin when he recognized who was coming towards him, his eyes lighting up with warm affection mingled with a spot of concern. When she was close enough, he spread his arms, wrapping her in a big, burly, welcoming embrace. Ariel could always tell how pleased Edgar was when she sought him out for comfort just as she had when she was a toddler... [Ariel~past] Supposedly, the first time she’d heard him speaking from afar, in that oddly familiar, gravelly voice, she’d flown as fast as her chubby little legs could carry her, all the way down to the guard post by the gate, where he was starting his shift for the day. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Edgar had recently lost his wife and son in childbirth. When she’d finally reached him, her big violet eyes had stared up…up…up…in fascination at the tall-as-a-tree bearded man. Then she’d stretched her chubby little arms out towards him. The other warrior by the gate, and the two men in the guard post above, had insisted that he needed to pick her up. A bit warily, he’d finally plucked her from the ground, at which point, Ariel had immediately wrapped an arm around his neck. Then she’d analyzed his face, gently poking and inquisitively tugging on his scruffy beard and hair as she twisted the rough strands around her tiny fingers. They had soon drawn a small crowd, and even though Ariel smiled at the other men who curiously came up to gently talk to their lord’s newly-adopted daughter, when anyone made an attempt to take Ariel away from her newfound friend, she had mulishly turned her face into the huge man, holding on even tighter. From that point on, a sort of bond had formed. And for the next few years, until she outgrew naps, you could occasionally see a guard on duty at the massive gate, with a small child snuggly wrapped in a plaid and hoisted up on one burly arm, taking her afternoon nap against his chest. Sometimes Ariel had even crawled up to sit on his shoulders, piling her little plaid on top of his head so that it inevitably draped on either side of his face. Then she would lay her cheek on top of the plaid and fall asleep. [Ariel~present] The pair of them had been quite a sight to see. But during all of those interactions, as well as right now, Ariel could sense how pleased Edgar secretly was with her for singling him out, for making him feel needed and important to her. “What did those boys of yours do now?” he asked in that gruff, raspy voice that Ariel utterly adored. The tone was very similar to a voice that sometimes sang in her dreams. Even though nobody could overhear them, Ariel still lowered her voice as she assured him, “Bran was just goading me like normal, nothing new. I actually came over here to discuss a private concern I’m having.” He pulled back to look down into her sweet face. “And what would that be, lass?” Ariel absently rubbed his brawny upper arm. “Something isn’t feeling quite right to me this eve.” “Alright,” he nodded grimly, “anything specific?” Ariel shook her head. He gave another nod. “I will make sure everyone is extra vigilant and on alert.” Ariel smiled up at him. “I knew you would either way. Thank you.” He stared at her for a long moment. “Thank you for the warning.” “Well, hopefully nothing will come of it.” After wrapping her in another big bear hug for a moment of revitalizing comfort, they both knew it was time for Ariel to be on her way before the future Lord got too territorial. “Och, lass, now back over to Kaid you go, before he starts that fierce growling he’s known for. I’m sure he is but a breath away from stomping over here to drag you back, as it is.” With one last squeeze, she stretched up to give Edgar a peck on the cheek, then turned to go. Upon returning to her spot, Bran was already lying down, his broad back to her. Kaid was sitting up, impatiently waiting. He abruptly pulled Ariel down next to him. She could feel the anger rolling off of his muscular frame. Catching her jaw in his hand, his voice was full of lethal focus as he hissed, “I don’t like when you go to Edgar instead of coming to me when you’re upset!” Ariel felt the blood seep from her cheeks. Kaid was unbelievably harsh with anyone he felt was taking her affection away from him. That’s why she and Bran had kept their relationship a secret before. Knowing that she had to put on her most convincing argument, Ariel vehemently whispered, “I was only telling him good night! But don’t even bother pretending that you actually care about me anymore!” His brow furrowed in surprise. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he growled ominously, his hold on her tightening. “You don’t even want me around anymore! You disserted me last night because you like Kristin better than me! I’m just a burden that’s always in your way these days,” she exaggerated dramatically, trying to get Kaid on the defensive. Burying her face in his chest, Ariel whispered, “And now you’re planning on getting married and completely abandoning me!” A snort of amusement came from Bran. Ariel did not find this situation to be the least bit funny! She was trying to distract Kaid from his negative thoughts about her friend, Edgar. Swiveling in Kaid’s grip, she whacked her non-friend on the back with her fist, hard enough that Bran grunted in surprise, than burst out with even deeper chuckles of amusement. Rolling towards them, Bran assured her, “Just because Kaid wanted an extended time of privacy with another girl, doesn’t mean that he loves you any less. He still wants you around. He’s just getting on up in years and, after a while, dallying in the barn becomes hard on an old man’s knees and back.” “Careful,” Kaid inserted softly, his tone wryly amused. “Our boy hasn’t told me the name of his future bride, either, but I can already tell that he’s excited about whomever he’s picked. So we need to be happy for him.” “I’m happy for him,” Ariel grumbled sullenly and felt Kaid's ire completely cooling. She wanted to be happy that he would soon marry. She really did. Watching Kaid’s face with wide-eyed curiosity, she whispered, “Do you know if Father has made arrangements for me to marry, as well?” Kaid opened his mouth to speak, but no words immediately came out, causing Ariel’s shoulders to droop. “I’m sure he will find someone for you,” Kaid loosely extended. “If not, there’s always Bran,” he teased with a quiet laugh, the sound warm and deep. “At this point, I think Bran would prefer Robert over me,” Ariel muttered, just to annoy her ex. “Really?” Kaid chortled low. “That is new information that I’d never considered.” Ariel felt Brandos roll towards her again, his hands clamping around her waist in an aggressive gesture. “Darling, do we need to have another talk?” Bran’s tone was close to a growl. Taking advantage of this very rare opportunity to get Bran in trouble, she softly gasped at where he’d placed one of his hands…right at the area where she’d been injured by his sword. “Don’t…” Ariel breathed, arching a little as she cringed away from Bran’s hard grip. Ariel felt a burst of fury immediately flood thru Kaid as he growled orders for his male best friend not to touch her on that side again, that she was still healing from her sword injury. With a breathy whimper, Ariel hid her face against Kaid’s neck until she could stop smiling. She heard Bran’s disgruntled grumbling as he re-settled under the covers. A small amount of guilt tried to trickle through Ariel but she firmly flicked it away. Bran definitely deserved it, and Ariel had to garner revenge on the brute whenever an opportunity actually presented itself. This was for all the times he’d purposefully gotten her so angry that her eyes had glowed, just so that he could sneer under his breath how normal it looked. She should be grateful to him for training her to keep her emotions under control when she was in a volatile situation, but she didn’t feel like being thankful. Ariel just wanted her friend back…but it didn’t look like that would ever be a possibility. Wanting to calm her best friend, Ariel looped her arms around Kaid’s neck. “How about I keep you and Bran can have your betrothed?” she half teased, playfully pecking a kiss right next to his mouth and then exuberantly pressing her cheek against his as she tightened her arms around the big warrior’s neck. She could tell that her possessive statement and sweet display of affection had immediately dampened down any lingering anger and greatly pleased Kaid. Wrapping thick arms around her, Kaid held her against him as he patiently waited to see if she would continue. In a loud fake whisper, she added, “Maybe you could give your betrothed some coin to marry Bran.” Grinning, she leaned over and pressed a kiss near the other side of his mouth and then affectionately snuggled her face against his left cheek as she hugged him tighter again. He liked that. “It would have to be a lot of coin, though,” she teased, unable to prevent a muffled giggle from escaping because she knew Bran was becoming irritated. “Perhaps you could skip all that counting and just hand her a big gold bar. That amount might be enough.” An amused chuckle came from deep within Kaid’s throat. “Whatever you want, lass,” he gently rumbled, gazing down at her with adoring eyes. “Really?” she asked with feigned excitement. “Of course,” he replied generously. “I love you!” she whispered, sleepily laying her head on his shoulder and closing her eyes. Not loosening his grip, Kaid scooted further into the bedding and gently reclined with her resting against him. “You’re both addle-brained,” Bran muttered, waiting on Kaid to rotate Ariel to the middle before dutifully moving backwards and firmly squashing her between the two of them in an effort to keep her warm during the cold highland evening. Silently reaching back, Ariel gently pinched Bran for calling her addle-brained. She always retaliated. It was in her nature. His almost silent chuckle, however, confused her. He was in an odd mood. Sometime during the night, Ariel felt Bran carefully shift around and gently tug at the blankets on top of her slender form. His muscled arms carefully drew her out of Kaid’s slumbering hold, tucking her against his own side while he adjusted the furs around their bodies. Ariel was still in a dream-like state from last year’s hunt--during a time when they’d been far from enemies--so she snuggled her face into the crook of his shoulder, affectionately pressing her lips to the side of his warm neck. Ariel thought she heard a soft approving groan. “Bran-ny…” she drawled sleepily, her soft tone tinged with laughter as Ariel used the private pet name that she had only ever used when they were in a relationship, and alone, because he would always pretend that the name aggravated him. Then he’d lock his hands with hers, playfully shoving her backwards so that he could pounce. This always led to a lot of laughter, wrestling and a whole lot of kissing. When Ariel felt the large warrior suddenly stiffen, it jolted her out of her sleep-tranced fog, her mortification increasing as she slowly realized what she’d just said. Lifting her head a little, Ariel’s hair flowed across Brandos’ chest as she grumpily glared down at him, her gaze softly glowing. Pointedly wiping the back of her hand across her mouth to remove the kiss from her lips, she then childishly pretended to wipe it across Bran’s tunic. Green eyes narrowing, he immediately pinched her hard on the bottom in retaliation for the name and kiss removal, and she couldn’t help but be amused by his expression. She quietly laughed, her soft chest vibrating against the hard surface of his. Still smirking, she modestly pushed away, but he rolled to the side, his muscular arms relentlessly pulling her back on top of his warm, broad frame and holding her there. He really was acting weird but Ariel was too tired to care either way. Thankfully, he was not the only one who could be exasperating. Mulishly trying her best to annoy him now, Ariel adjusted her body on top of his chest, frog-style, with the sides of her knees pressing into his ribs. Flipping her hair, she angled long, soft curls to cover his whole face as she tucked her cold nose against his neck. Smiling wickedly, she then rested her head next to Bran on his beloved, spotless pillow. Disgruntlement quickly settled over her, however, when her actions failed to annoy him. In a last ditch effort to be tediously over-demanding, like the women Bran hated, she grumpily whimpered, “My back hurts.” “Liar,” Bran grumbled low in his throat, carefully moving her silky hair off of his face. Then his big hands slid down to cover her back, large fingers patiently kneading. Despite her irritation with his high-handedness, she softly moaned in approval. Feeling safe and secure in his strong hold, she sighed contentedly, and immediately fell back into a drowsy limpness. Her imagination was obviously playing tricks on her when she felt his mouth pressing against the side of her head before sleep completely overtook her again. [Ariel~past] Before their relationship had abruptly ended, Bran had often come into Kaid’s room after the evening meal to relax, dutifully asking Ariel if he could share “Sephy’s spot” before claiming the empty area on the huge, extremely-soft bed. Ariel didn’t remember who Sephy was, or even if Sephy was a boy or a girl. But every time Ariel left the front gate, she would stop and use her finger to trace a big ‘S’ on the outer wall in the same spot, as if that was some sort of signal to Sephy so that she/he/it would know where Ariel was staying. As she traced over the ‘S’, she would ask the guards if Sephy had come yet. When they teased her, inevitably answering no, she’d remind them to make sure to let Sephy in. Also, out of habit, she had continued to faithfully save Sephy a spot, even in the dining hall at the head table where Ariel sat next to Kaid. The spot was small, but Ariel loyally saved it for Sephy. She usually served Sephy a sweet cake in a small trencher and then later she’d decide that Sephy was full and eat it herself, which never failed to make Kaid’s lips twitch in amusement. Numerous times when Bran shared Sephy’s spot in bed, he’d end up feeling too comfortable to move and drift to sleep right there. Usually, the next morning Ariel would awaken, lying on her side with one strong, thick forearm crossed over the front of her chest and a huge hand latched onto her shoulder to keep her held to the warm, hard body pressing into her from behind. And, yet, whenever she opened her eyes to see Kaid asleep in front of her, his large hand clasping her arm or tangled in the long, curly ends of her hair, it had often baffled her for a few sleepy blinks of time, wondering who could be holding her. Then Ariel would softly smile, pleased with her boyfriend’s possessiveness. Gently easing out of the warrior’s tight hold, she would always have to move back over to Kaid in order to keep Bran from getting in trouble with his best friend. They had been lucky Kaid was such a deep sleeper. Since the day he’d broken up with her, Bran had only slept in Kaid’s room a few times. On one occasion, he hadn’t asked permission if he could share Sephy’s spot--a verbal request that Ariel had always required. When she’d pointed this out as he stood by the bed, he’d scoffed, “Sephy isn’t even real! And if this Sephy person was real, I wouldn’t want to meet him, or her, or it. No doubt Sephy is just as weird and strange as you are!” One moment Ariel had been sitting up in bed, the next instant she’d had Bran pinned to the wall by the throat, his feet slightly dangling off the ground. With her hair flying behind her in an unnatural state, her violet eyes blazing and her fangs bared, she’d slowly growled out, “If you ever say a bad word about my Sephy again I will hit you so hard that your jaw breaks and your teeth shatter and I will not heal you! I may be a freak but you will look like a freak. Do you understand me, Bran-dos?” “Aye,” he’d gritted out, thoroughly enthralled by her beautiful, angry visage and barely able to hear his own response because Kaid was laughing so hard. Ariel had abruptly dropped Bran to his feet and then negligently turned her back on him, as if she wasn’t the least bit worried about him trying to retaliate. Slowly straightening his tunic, Bran grumbled almost approvingly, “Someone is a bit…feisty…this evening!” Kaid was lying on the bed, holding his stomach, gasping for breath, still making loud chortles of amusement. “I’ve been waiting forever for you to spew off some insolent comment about Sephy!” he hooted. “Forever!” “Thanks for the warning, friend,” Bran grumbled almost disinterestedly, his eyes still securely fixed on Ariel, who was now calmly sliding back into bed. “If I had warned you, you would have done it even sooner. I figured I’d let you take your life in your own hands at your own risk. Plus, it gave me something to look forward to.” With an excessive amount of dignity, Bran had then inquired if he could share Sephy’s spot. Once Ariel disdainfully slid her eyes over to him, stared him down for a long moment, then regally nodded her agreement, Bran had climbed onto the bed next to her. After Kaid had fallen asleep that night, Bran had crowded in close to Ariel, his rock-hard arms wrapped around her from behind, one hand possessively resting on her stomach or low on her hips. And any time she’d tried to wiggle away, it had made him twice as aggressive. It was as if he’d wanted to silently claim her and the only way he knew how was by holding onto her as tight as he could. Another night, Bran had taunted her during the evening meal and she had immediately retaliated by “accidently” throwing a small, baby carrot across the table and hitting him right in the middle of his forehead. Ariel had pegged him so hard that the carrot had bounced back, at which point she had efficiently lifted her arm up and caught it in the air. The “Oops!” Ariel had sweetly exclaimed was followed by hearty, explosive laughter from the men around her and she just barely managed to dive backwards in time to avoid Bran’s murderous, lunging reach across the table. Kaid's amused, “You’d better hide well this time, lass!” had followed her as Ariel quickly fled outside into the moon shrouded darkness. Then--to avoid Bran’s pursuit of revenge--she’d used a talent that no one was aware she possessed. Ariel had jumped up to Kaid’s second floor window, gracefully bounding up and inside with very little extra effort. From her advantageous viewpoint, Ariel had smirked as she watched Bran get more and more frustrated while he meticulously searched for her in the courtyard and inner bailey. Several people had followed him out to watch the spectacle. With his back to the castle, Bran had stopped for a moment to slowly survey the walls for any movement and Ariel had actually been so bold as to shoot an arrow at him from her lofty perch. The sharp point had left two holes thru his favorite plaid as it plunged between the lower half of his upper legs and stuck into the ground in front of him. Ooohhh…he had been so furious. And the fact that the other clansmen had witnessed her small victory and hooted with laughter had not helped his arrogant pride one bit, or his temper. When Bran stormed into Kaid’s room later that night, he’d come to an abrupt halt, completely shocked to see her nestled in bed next to his sleeping best friend, especially since he’d had his most trusted and loyal companions watching every entrance for her return… Slowly pivoting around, Brandos radiated utter menace as he softly shut the door and very carefully placed the bar down. His eyes flashing green fire at her, he walked to the water pitcher and bowl, meticulously washing his hands and face before drying them off with a cloth. Apparently, Bran wanted to be neat and clean before he killed her. As he turned and locked eyes with Ariel, he was practically growling in anticipation of getting his hands on her. A little panicky, Ariel flicked the covers off and bounded out of bed. Bran froze in front of her, his green eyes fixated on the long, long legs that were now on display. “What are you wearing?” he hissed in a low savage voice. In a tone that indicated he was daft for not knowing, she replied, “One of Kaid’s old tunics.” His jaw clenched in muted fury. She sent him a baffled look. “Why does it matter what I wear to sleep in?” “You have nightdresses that are far more appropriate! That one doesn’t even cover your knees! Not even close!” “Well, I wasn’t going to announce where I was hiding by traipsing down the hall to my room to get a nightdress. Plus, I like this tunic. It’s not so confining.” “Obviously!” he grumbled, green eyes glowing dangerously. “It’s not like you’ve never seen my legs before, Brandos. We’ve been swimming together since we were little.” “You’re older now. It’s different.” “It was not that long ago that the three of us played chicken at the pond, me on Kaid’s shoulders and Lauren on yours. And when our legs were showing that day you didn’t complain one bit! And you sure didn’t seem to mind that her long legs were wrapped around your overly thick, pompous neck, either.” Her eyes narrowed in remembrance. A look of pure male satisfaction crossed the warrior’s face and he gave a soft chuckle. Ignoring her exaggerated insult, he purred, “Well, Lauren didn’t stay on my shoulders for very long once the game began, now, did she?” Instantly defensive at his tone, she rejoined, “The point of the game is to knock off the opponent on the other person’s shoulders!” The sparkle in his warm green eyes indicated how much he’d enjoyed her jealousy as he niggled, “I don’t think pulling her hair was very nice of you.” Ariel gave an indignant gasp. “She jerked my hair first and scratched me across the face.” “She was trying to get you to fall off. When you retaliated by slinging her across the pond by her hair, that was a little different.” Ariel suppressed a small giggle. “Kaid almost drowned, he was laughing so hard.” “Until he saw the blood running down your face,” Bran remarked with a sarcastic twist of his lips. Ariel cringed. “Umm…yeah…he has stated several times since then that I’m not allowed to ‘play’ with her anymore.” Brandos gave another low chuckle. “I don’t think she’ll ask you again.” “I told her I was sorry!” she muttered impatiently, her face flushing. “Kaid still growls under his breath sometimes when he sees her.” Ariel's expression softened with fondness. “He’s not very forgiving of someone who intentionally harms his baby girl,” he mocked, using one of Kaid’s oldest pet names for her. “Except for you!” she disputed indignantly. “He allows you to harass me all you want.” He shrugged wide shoulders, his tone matter-of-fact. “I’m his best friend. It’s practically my responsibility to pester his little sister.” Ariel nodded with feigned disinterest. “Yes, because you’re basically like another one of my brothers.” One darkly arched eyebrow contradicted her. “That’s how I think of you, at least,” she shrugged nonchalantly. “As the annoying fourth brother I never wanted.” She tittered at her own joke, savoring his pursed lips and feigned look of irritation. Ariel angled her body towards the bed. “You locked the door. Does that mean you’re staying in here tonight?” she casually asked, her tone deliberately indifferent. “If so, I suppose I can go ahead and lie down. I need to get comfortable before I listen to your long, heartfelt apology for being so mean to me earlier while I was trying to enjoy my evening meal.” His low chuckle was quite menacing. “Oh, do you?” Bran’s green eyes were fixated on her, an almost admiring look on his handsome face. Smiling impishly, Ariel nodded then started to turn away. Gasping softly, as if she had just thought of something good, she turned back to him, her eyes wide and sparkling with excitement. “Or, if you want…” she whispered, “…I could show you how I got away from you this evening.” Bran continued to stare down at her, obviously trying hard not to look intrigued. When he didn’t respond to her offer, she deflated a little and shrugged, but before she could turn away he grabbed her upper arms and pulled her into his chest, quietly hissing into her ear, “Alright! Fine! Show me!” He was obviously irritated with himself for being unable to resist his own curiosity. Bran’s green gaze suddenly narrowed on her lips and it seemed to Ariel that he held her for a few heartbeats longer than necessary, no doubt tempted to squeeze the life out of her, or something equally as fun. Wiggling free, Ariel walked across the room to her wooden chest and pulled out her boy pants. When she turned back around his eyes were definitely riveted on the long expanse of smooth, bared leg she was exhibiting. With a small, confused smile quirking her lips, she put on the boy pants beneath the tunic, then walked to where he still stood by the window. Lifting up on tip-toe, she set her hands on his muscled shoulders to whisper the rules by his ear. “You cannot tell anyone. You cannot wake up Kaid. And, you have to promise not to leave this room during my demonstration, even if something goes wrong.” Pursing his lips, he grudgingly nodded, used to her strange rules. Moving over to the uncovered window, she sat down on the wide ledge and pulled her legs up. “Be careful doing that,” Brandos cautioned, his chest lightly brushing against her body. “Don’t bump me or I will think that you’re really trying to murder me,” she teased. Leaning further out the window, she whispered, “I was just going to show you this medal loop where you can put a rope through…” With no warning, she abruptly tumbled out the window. Ariel heard Bran’s rough exclamation right as she felt her body bang against the side of the castle, her left arm caught in his frantic grip. Darn it! It was probably a bad time to get the giggles, but she couldn’t seem to stem her outpouring of humor as Bran’s muscled bulk easily tugged her light frame back up and over the window ledge, practically crushing the air from her lungs as his thick arms protectively locked her against his broad chest. She could hear his wild heartbeat. The big warrior obviously mistook her shaking with laughter for crying and soothingly patted her back. “It’s alright, lass. You’re safe now.” Wiping under her eyes, she lifted her face and grinned up at him as she chided, “Thanks for catching me, Brandos, but you messed up my trick.” “I saved your life!” he hissed indignantly. Staring at him with a fondness that stemmed from old times, she patted his chest consolingly. “Your reactions were amazingly quick and I appreciate your impressive efforts on my behalf…especially considering how much you dislike me, but I can jump out of the window and then back in all on my own.” He stared at her for a long moment, calmly digesting this new tidbit of information. “No rope?” “No rope.” He raised one dark brow, grudgingly impressed. “Do you want to see?” she offered, even though he still seemed to have a death grip on her. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly. “You could toss me out…” she offered cheerfully. Bran looked at her, his head cocking to one side, quiet amusement in his shrewd gaze. “Very tempting…” [Ariel~present] Way before dawn, something in the vast clearing of sleeping warriors, roused Ariel from sleep. Not ready to wake up, she snuggled in deeper and felt the hard, male arm tighten around her. Failing to go back to sleep, Ariel soon realized what had stirred her awake. The noise. It was a beautiful, soul-moving sound that struck both joy and utter terror in her heart. It was the sound that indicated an approaching birth…or an impending death. A sense of unease inched the length of her spine. Amongst her clan, Ariel was the only one who could hear it and she had learned long ago to pretend otherwise. Stiffening, Ariel breathed quick and shallow, her heartbeats thudding in her ears as she slowly lifted her head. The sound was a light clamor right now but oddly spread out above the large clearing where the MacDonnel warriors slept. She was the only female…so it couldn’t be a birth. She was far from pregnant. A sour thought. That meant it had to indicate death. From the multiplied sound, it meant that a whole wagonload of death was coming their way. She heard Bran’s low, sleep roughened whisper in the dark. “What is it, Ariel?” Tipping her head down, her eyes were filled with torment as she absently stared into his green gaze, her mind elsewhere as the magnitude of her precarious situation washed over her, leaving Ariel drenched in fear. “Bran…” she whispered almost despairingly, her voice a quavering mess. “What is amiss?” he demanded. Visibly steadying herself, she took a deep breath and gently shook her head. “I—I can’t tell you.” Her voice sounded strained and taut. “I don’t trust you with my secrets anymore.” “Why are your eyes aglow?” he drawled, determined to find out. She was pale but defiant. “Because that’s what the eyes of weird, evil people do. They glow,” she gritted out evenly. “Your wee claws are digging into my arm,” he mused idly. With a tiny gasp, Ariel released her hold and looked down at Bran’s wrist where five bloody cuts indicated that she had unconsciously hurt him. “I’m so sorry,” Ariel whispered awkwardly, agonized and embarrassed at what she had unintentionally done. Pressing her hand over the wounds, she easily healed the bloody gashes. Lifting her head, she found him watching her closely. “I think you did it on purpose,” he teased. Ariel shrugged. “Think what you want.” “What’s wrong with my favorite lil brat?” he persisted. Trying to hide the quaver in her voice, she negated his words with a stiff shake of her head. “I’m not your favorite little anything anymore, if I ever was to begin with.” “You were,” he confirmed quietly. A slight bitter tone entered her next words and she didn’t even care. “Your favorite gullible idiot?” A muscle knotted in his jaw. “The end of our relationship was a result of decisions that you made.” Ariel blanched, suddenly understanding. He was obviously talking about her marriage proposal again. When she’d gone to her father and told him that she wanted Bran for a husband. Her decision to do that had apparently turned him against her. The color drained out of her face, leaving her lips bloodless and trembling. The fact that he found her actions so offensive hurt Ariel’s heart. He thought she’d been reaching too high, and was insulted that she thought herself his equal. The turbulent emotions in her glowing eyes suddenly went away as she wearily closed her eyes and put a trembling hand to her head. “If you thought so little of me, you should not have wasted your time,” she told him flatly. “Not that it matters any longer. You’ve quickly made up for lost time by courting half the girls in the clan since our break-up.” Seething with resentment, Bran taunted, “You really think I waited until we’d broken up to start seeing other girls?” An icy finger touched Ariel’s heart at his hurtful admission and she recoiled away from him, paling even further. He caught her wrist. “And who have you been seeing?” he asked suspiciously. Ariel’s mind didn’t hear the suspicion, she only heard him pointing out what she had already figured out on her own…that nobody apparently wanted her. But Ariel’s pride prevented her from admitting that she’d been all alone since they’d broken up. Unfortunately, she couldn’t keep the unhappiness out of her tone. “I’m going to find a bush.” He didn’t like that at all. Grabbing her waist, he pulled her back down on top of his thick chest. Inwardly drooping with defeat, Ariel didn’t struggle against Brandos because she refused to let him see how much his admission had hurt her. She lay there limply as he tucked her head under his chin, one hand in her thick mane of pale hair, the other rubbing up and down her back. Ariel was once again grateful that Kaid was such a deep sleeper. It was his one shortcoming as a soldier but it had kept her and Bran from getting in trouble with him hundreds of times. Despite his harsh words, Bran’s actions seemed friendly enough and she allowed her body to once again relax into the security of his strong, well-made form, but she did not drop her guard against him. After waiting a few moments, she wordlessly pushed herself to her feet. When Bran made as if he was going to follow her, she hissed, “I need privacy!” As Ariel soundlessly wove through the mass of sleeping soldiers, she quickly analyzed which men had the humming noise above them and by the time she made her way past a perimeter guard, down a path, to the privacy of a bush, she knew that out of the four hunting parties they would split into when the sun came up this morning, it was her hunting party that was destined to meet their destruction. Thankfully, for the first time ever, Kaid and Brandos would be in a separate hunting party from hers. Today they were scheduled to have a highly anticipated contest of skills to see whose group could bag the most birds. Bran and Kaid were more than eager to see how their bow skills matched up to her unnaturally accurate archery abilities. Exiting her bush, Ariel came out to the darkened forest path and sat down, leaning against a small, sturdy tree and giving her back to the thoughtful guard who watched her closely from a good distance away. When she felt a wave of anxiety wash over her protector, she knew that Bran was approaching. No doubt her guard didn’t relish the thought of having to go toe-to-toe with that vicious, tall, bulk of muscle if Bran suddenly started in on her, like he normally did. “William,” she heard Bran’s deep voice acknowledge the young guard with a nod of respect. Then he was walking down the rock strewn path. Stopping next to her, Bran nudged her in the rear with his boot. In a stage whisper, she quipped, “Robert? Is that you?” “Very funny,” he growled, nudging her in the backside again for punishment. Although she had teased him, Ariel was worried and on edge. She flashed him a challenging look, her eyes glowing a warning that he’d better not press his luck. She felt a wave of approval from him before he gave a husky laugh. He loved when her eyes were aglow with evil intentions. She’d always liked that about Brandos. Her softly glowing eyes attracted him. His sarcasm heavy, he mocked, “You took a long, winding path to your desperately-needed bush.” She shrugged. “I’m not a child and it’s not your job to follow me.” He gave a low growl. “Just in case you haven’t noticed, you’re the only female in a huge group of males.” “There are guards on duty.” He snorted. “Yes, but any guards who are drinking spirits to keep themselves company sometimes don’t make the best decisions when they see a warm lass in their area.” “What does it matter to you? You’re not in charge of me and you’re not my babysitter.” Ariel felt the wave of annoyance that came over him. For some reason he hated when she threw his words back in his face from the day of their break-up and reminded him that he wasn’t her babysitter. “Tell me what has you on edge,” he demanded in a low, rumbling voice. “I’ve honestly never seen you that worked up. You were practically vibrating.” Looking back down at the ground Ariel absently traced a pattern in the dirt with a small stick. In a quiet voice that was deceptively neutral, she said, “If I’m going to tell you what’s bothering me, there’s a few questions I want you to answer first and you can’t just walk away and ignore me!” Thick arms crossed over his chest as he let out an impatient breath. “Fine. What are they?” “Who was the girl?” she asked quietly. He stared at her blankly. “What do you mean?” More than anything Ariel wanted to remain cool and detached. “Who was the girl you were dating when were still together?” she asked her ex-boyfriend frankly. Scratching his chin, he stood there tall and unfazed. “I lied about that,” was the blunt reply. “I was never seeing anyone else while we were together.” Ariel felt the relief pouring through her entire being. “Well, we were together a long time...” “I’m not a cheater,” he assured her smoothly. “I never thought you were until you said that earlier. I wanted to know how much more was a lie. I was so naïve and I still am.” She shrugged. “I thought that everything was fine between the two of us when we were together…so obviously I’m not a very good judge. But then that makes me wonder if I mixed up other things in my head.” She shrugged. “I mean, were we ever really in a relationship or did I just presume that since you were kissing me a lot?” He let out a little growl. “Of course we were in a relationship!” he hissed. “For how long?” “Is this really necessary?” he growled impatiently. Ariel silently waited for him to answer the question. “Years, alright? We dated for several years,” he finally admitted. Ariel visibly relaxed. “Well, at least I’m not completely crazy even though I obviously missed a lot of signs that you were not at all happy with me,” she admitted self-consciously. Her mind briefly flickered over the fact that they had been together for years and yet Bran’s lengthiest relationship since her was only a few weeks long. “Since you’re not very good at keeping quiet about anything that irritates you I guess I just assumed that you’d tell me if something was bothering you. Having all of your low-opinions dumped on me at the end wasn’t very easy for me to deal with.” She gave a small snort of laughter. “You should probably feel sorry for the next male that I start seeing. I will probably question his happiness constantly and send him climbing up and over the wall in order to escape me.” Even though Ariel could tell that one of her comments had spiked his anger, she didn’t care which one. Standing up, she took a deep breath and let it out. “We made a deal.” Not giving Bran a chance to say that he no longer wanted to hear what was bothering her, she looked up into his handsome face and whispered, “Alright Brandos, I need you to quietly mention to some of your most able-bodied men that you have an odd feeling in your gut. Tell them to be on their guard today and prepared for an unexpected attack. However, don’t make such a loud stink that Kaid will worry over my safety and rearrange our groups.” Hands on hips, he quietly looked into her mesmerizing eyes for a moment longer, before demanding, “An unexpected attack from whom?” With sorrow filling her eyes, Ariel shook her head. “A great amount of death is starting to link itself to our clan, Brandos, but I can’t tell in what form it will be delivered.” “Explain to me how you can tell,” he urged quietly, his tone very serious. Ariel took another deep breath. “Remember when I was little and you’d carry me back home thru the village?” She didn’t wait for him to nod before continuing, “Every once in a while I’d make you impatient when I wiggled free and ran up to a random hut. It’s because I heard something there, Bran. A beautiful song. It was like an increase of angelic presence in the spiritual realm right above that particular dwelling. Over time I realized what that sound meant. Within a day of that mesmerizing noise starting, either a babe would be born or someone was slated to die.” He stared at her for a moment. “Alright…” the warrior slowly nodded in easy acceptance, patiently waiting for her to explain further. Ariel’s eyes filled up with emotion at his calm, easy acceptance of what she was telling him. She had always cherished that character trait in Bran. He never questioned her instincts in supernatural areas or tried to tell her that she was wrong. When she was little, however, he had wisely cautioned her to avoid telling anyone else—besides him and Kaid--about her secrets and, for that, Ariel was immensely grateful to him. Kaid didn’t even know everything that she could do. Nobody did. “Brandos, when I was up in the clearing, I would have either guessed that a good number of us had contracted a deadly plague or that one of our groups would be slaughtered in an attack.” He watched her for another long moment before calmly asking, “Are you planning on mentioning this to Kaid, as well?” “To be honest, I don’t think we should mention it to Kaid or anyone else. If something does happen, it was never brought up.” That seemed to make him livid. Bran’s voice was low as he growled, “Kaid was put in charge of this hunt because your father wanted to give him more practice in a leadership role. Lord MacDonnel stayed home this year just for that purpose. Kaid has a right to know if something bad is coming.” Stepping forward, Ariel wrapped her hands around his thick upper arms--as much as she could, anyway--then calmly glanced up into his angry face. “Bran…let’s talk that conversation through, alright? Soo…I tell Kaid what I told you. He tells me that maybe it’s just my imagination or maybe the angels singing represent the amount of feathery birds his group is going to kill--because you and I both know that this is his favorite hunting area. We argue. He sulks. We argue some more. He gets angry, saying that we are a very well-trained clan and he believes any of his clansmen will be able to hold their own in a fight. I agree with him, but tell him --for some reason--fate is thinking differently today. He sulks some more. He grumpily mentions the idea of moving hunting areas to our large group of warriors, who all pitch a fit and don’t want to budge from where we’re currently located. I end up wanting to stab him. We go in separate groups. Something bad happens. He feels guilty forever. Or nothing happens, I never hear the end of it, and he has zero faith in my instincts from that point on.” Despite the severity of the situation, Bran lightened her mood by chuckling. “I see your point. And, you’re right. It wouldn’t just be Kaid. The group, as a whole, would not be willing to leave, nor would your father move locations if he were here.” Ariel nodded. “My instincts are also making me wary of playing with fate too much. I don’t know the consequence that could arise but the dread that fills my stomach tells me that it could be just as bad.” They spoke of their options for a little while longer before Brandos asked, “What of Kaid? Can you tell if he will be harmed?” “I’m almost certain that he will be fine but the spiritual realm was so full that I couldn’t pinpoint with total accuracy.” She pursed her lips. “If I can get him to take a walk with me in the morning, I will be able to tell for certain.” Bran snorted. “You know Kaid will follow you anywhere,” Brandos murmured, clearly relieved that his best friend would not be in danger. Then he quietly looked at her, curiously waiting. Ariel inwardly smirked, knowing that Bran was wondering about his own safety. With a straight face, she glanced down at his feet and asked inquiringly, “Are your feet bothering you?” “No,” he spoke negligently, obviously distracted, no doubt trying to figure out a subtle way of asking after his own welfare without giving up his grumpy disposition or having it look as if she were doing him a favor. Her brow furrowed. “That’s odd. Are they feeling warm? It almost looks like they’re glowing.” That got his attention. “Glowing?” he repeated, finally giving his boots more than a cursory glance. “Aye, it looks like there are bright candles starting to light up around your ankles.” She angled her head, pale curls brushing against the rosy softness of one cheek as she continued to stare. His brows drew down in confusion as he glanced back up at her. “Candles?” She shrugged in apparent confusion, her eyebrows lowering in grim concentration. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Casually placing a hand flat on her chest, she gave him a mock glance filled with concern. “I hate to speculate but it’s almost like flames are starting to move up your body.” Ariel bit her full lower lip. “Hmm…maybe if you are quick to repent and you start being nicer to me…” She heard his quick indrawn breath. “What do you mean flames are…?” He broke off when he saw her lips twitch and realized the rest of what she’d just said. Then he lunged for her, flinging her up in his arms in a cradled position and squeezing her painfully tight as she muffled her chortling laughter against his chest. “I am going to throttle you!” he growled into her ear. “You will not be able to sit down for a week! Maybe two!” Chapter 6 “You missed again, Philip!” Ariel whispered in amazement, slanting a curious look at her bemused half-brother, the middle son of Lord MacDonnel. His blue-eyes, dark blonde hair and square jaw were so similar to Kaid’s that it often times made her smile when she looked at him. Philip was tall, but he didn’t have his older brother’s great shoulder breadth yet, nor his overpowering presence. “I love hunting with you,” she teased him cheekily, her sharp eyes glancing through the deep canopy of trees that hung above them in the forest, searching for her next prey. Although Ariel could still hear the echoes of small gateway portals to Heaven opening wider above her hunting party, she had pushed it out of her mind, trying to enjoy her day despite the nervousness that she felt growing inside of her. Thankfully, her mind was somewhat more at ease now. Before the hunting parties had left this morning, she’d quietly gone to every one of the younger boys who were supposed to be in her group, and given them some excuse or another of why it was necessary that they go with one of the other three groups. Some had grumbled more than others but—when the day was over—Ariel knew that every one of them would be immensely grateful for their different group assignments. His confidence unscathed by her teasing words, Philip MacDonnel chuckled as he eyed his lovely younger sister with amusement. Since childhood, Kaid had fiercely guarded Ariel, dragging the cheerful little girl to and fro, inevitably training her in every skill a warrior would learn. Whatever their future warlord was practicing, Ariel had been right next to him, happily honing those same skills, as well. Inevitably, Ariel was an expert with the crossbow. Try as he might, Phillip was losing to her fair and square. Not that he would ever admit it, of course. “I take it that Kaid still doesn’t let you win very often,” he mused drolly. “Sometimes, when we were children, I’d forget how competitive he could be and get jealous that he never wanted to train with me like he did with you and Bran. “ Philip snorted and shook his head. Ariel blinked in surprise at his admission. “I remember you training with us on several occasions.” Philip muffled a chuckle. “Yes…and it only took being around the three of you for a few moments before my jealousy would completely evaporate and I’d remember why I didn’t train with your small group to begin with. Kaid and Bran are so highly competitive that it’s almost frightening at times. Kaid is obviously the worst, but at least you know how to handle him when he’s being difficult. If I had to see that casual, smug look come over his face after he bested me every day, I would’ve probably snuck into his room one night and put a pillow over his face long ago,” he admitted wryly. “Kaid never lets anyone best him at anything,” Ariel clarified wryly, pushing back her pale hair, which cascaded to her waist in a wild mass. “I’ve only beaten him once and that was merely because his bow broke and I wouldn’t let him use mine.” Her sparkling, impish smile indicated just how much that memory still pleased her. Philip quirked one eyebrow and virtuously mocked, “Refusing to let Kaid share your bow does not sound like a ‘favorite sister’ type thing to do.” Ariel laughed, and then clamped a hand over her mouth as several birds squawked, startled from their treetop perches. There was the sound of wings rustling against leaves, quickly followed by repetitive swishing sounds, as a dozen arrows were immediately dispensed into the air by her surrounding clansmen. As she lifted her own bow, she heard a few grumblings from the men who could already tell they had missed their intended target. Again, Ariel's aim was remarkably accurate. She sighed, almost out of arrows. She would need to collect some more in a moment. Turning back to her brother, she noticed that he was now looking a little smug. His aim had been accurate, as well. “Nice shot,” she praised before returning to their previous conversation as some of the men collected the fallen arrows and birds. “So you’re saying that if you were in the same situation, you would’ve let Kaid borrow your bow?” Philip’s eyes twinkled. “Heavens, no!” he scoffed. “Kaid is frustratingly lucky! However, there is one thing I would have done differently,” he began. Leaning closer, he admitted, “I would have been extremely mature as I skipped all the way to the blacksmith.” He moved his first two fingers in a skipping motion. “Then I would have instructed him to engrave that victory on my headstone when I die.” His hands went up in front of him as he visualized aloud, “PHILIP WON AGAINST KAID, written in bold letters for everybody to see!” Ariel suppressed a smile as she dead-panned, “What makes you think I didn’t?” He let out an unexpected snort of laughter and, trying not to scare the birds, they both muffled their amusement, thoroughly enjoying the rare, carefree fun of this beautiful day in the Highlands. The amused clansman fondly smiled at the witty pair. “Ariel, you know that Kaid will have to triumph over you at least a thousand more times to make up for your one victory against him.” “The bow incident occurred last year,” cut in a charming blond warrior from behind them. “I think that victory is a little worn and tattered from being overly flaunted.” Ariel flicked a look over her shoulder and softly smiled in acknowledgment of the warriors words. “Yes, and that’s why Kaid won’t let me win again,” Ariel chimed. “He knows I would enjoy it far too much.” Philip sighed long-sufferingly. “Then perhaps I will be generous and let you bring in the most birds today.” “She is fairing far better than any of the men in our group,” the blond warrior complimented. “Nay,” Ariel corrected with an amused glint in her violet eyes. “My dear brother, Philip, is letting me win. There’s a big difference, you know,” she teased, sending her brother a warm, sideways smile. “Perhaps I will let you win, as well,” the warrior proposed, gently nudging his horse up to stand next to hers, while smiling down at her appreciatively. A low, warning growl from right next to her, had the handsome, young man subtly pulling the reins to allow more space between he and Ariel. That unpleasant sound had come from Godwin, who was protectively placed near the chieftain’s daughter. Godwin was a giant, hardened warrior known for his silent ferocity and loyalty to Kaid. Philip chuckled. “I wonder how Bran and Kaid’s group are performing on their hunt. Surely we are beating them in this competition for the most birds.” One of the men spoke up. “Brandos and Kaid are two of the top archers in the clan. And Brandos really wanted to beat Ariel, so I’m sure their group is being very focused.” That caused a surge of knowing chuckles. “Aye, Brandos has been working for months on those arrows. His are some of the finest arrows I’ve ever seen. He tested out every one of them over and over again for accuracy.” There were murmurs of agreement from the men around them. Ariel smirked and slid the men a slightly mischievous smile. Admitting to a bit of foul play to amuse them, she began, “Well, this morning, when I was coming back from a short walk into the woods with Kaid, I noticed Bran’s young helper over by my supplies. He was taking the big mass of arrows that I had already laid out next to my bow and switching them out with different ones from Bran’s extra bag.” She heard outraged gasps and someone indignantly demanded, “Did you stop him?” With a delicate shrug, she announced, “Considering the fact that those were my collection of warped arrows, which he then walked over and emptied into Bran’s good arrow bag, I figured there was no harm in letting the boy proceed.” The men all gasped and gaped at Ariel as if she had just taken leave of her senses. If Brandos ever found out that she’d managed to trick him at his own game, she would immediately insight the fierce warrior’s wrath. Disbelieving chuckles and hoots of laughter filled the air, as all were visibly enjoying the anticipation of what would happen when the antagonistic warrior eventually found out the young chieftain’s daughter had duped him. “He will surely try to kill you for this, Lady Ariel,” drawled an amused warrior near her. “It was his fault for trying to take my good arrows!” Ariel charged, stating the obvious even though Bran wouldn’t care one whit whose fault it was. He would come after her in the aggressive manner in which he did almost everything. She couldn’t prevent the little shiver of excited anticipation that tingled up her spine at the thought. “I can imagine that there is steam coming out of his ears right now as he pilfers through all of those arrows, looking for ones that will actually shoot straight,” she giggled, not feeling sorry for Brandos in the least. “You had better hide well,” a gruff male voice called out, his tone full of amusement. Ariel tipped her head in a nod of agreement. “I already have my hiding spot picked out,” she boasted with a self-satisfied smile. “Are you going to hide behind Godwin, Bran’s dad, or your father?” someone inquired laughingly, knowing that those were basically the only truly safe spots. Ariel rarely looked to Kaid for protection from Bran, preferring not to pit the two best friends against each other. “Well, I have to save Godwin for…”Ariel’s voice suddenly faded away. After curiously tilting an ear up in the air, she suddenly went very still. Deathly still. With her enhanced senses, Ariel could hear the far-off sound of approaching horses. Considering her overwhelming worries for today, she did not wait a moment to appear more normal like she usually would have, but spoke up right then. Raising her hand in the air, and then fisting it in the sign their clan used in order to get everyone’s full attention, she quickly alerted, “We have visitors. They are coming in very fast on horseback.” There was a murmur of discussion before the men quieted down to listen. “Hundreds of horses…” she elaborated quietly, but with much feeling. “I can hear them,” one warrior said after a long moment. However, no one seemed to be too terribly worried about the situation as they waited to see who was approaching. Their own small group had split up to cover even more area and the other men were somewhere nearby. When Ariel heard the first yells and unmistakable sounds of clashing swords violently ring out in the distance, she gasped out in surprise, “They’re fighting with us!” “Well, they will soon regret picking a fight with our clansmen!” One aggressive warrior boasted confidently. At that the other men rallied, making loud noises of agreement as they began turning their horses around in order to help their battling clansmen. Even though Ariel had known that trouble was brewing, she felt as if a thunderbolt had struck her body when she heard a MacDonnel warrior in combat strangle out one lone word of warning. Ariel gasped in horror at what he’d said, completely thrown by this new turn of events. Casting an apprehensive glance over the gathering of warriors who were hastily preparing their battle weapons of choice, her voice was rough with emotion as she repeated the information, “Vampires…” The group of men all paused, several of them visibly swallowing as they lifted serious gazes to her, no doubt hoping they’d heard her incorrectly. Sounds of astonishment immediately went up from the group, followed by murmurs of disbelief. “Fraser’s…?” Phillip clarified incredulously, clearly shocked. “But we have no issues with their malicious clan. Why would they want to attack any of us?” “Lady Ariel, you must hide before they get any closer!” One of the elders of their clan ordered gruffly. Although his eyes gave away his worry, his tone was serious and focused as he boldly threatened, “And, if you even think about coming out early, I will ensure that your father gives you a fine beating!” Ariel shook her head a little frantically. “I cannot just hide and do nothing! Someone give me more arrows! I can shoot them from a perch in the trees!” she suggested with a note of desperation in her tone. “Ariel, get off your horse and hide in the bushes now!” Philip ordered fiercely. “Hurry! Women are not safe in the heat of battle. If they see you, you will be taken.” Distress creased her brow. “But I need arrows! Give me some of yours!” Two warriors willingly moved closer and handed her their bundles of arrows before heading away. Philip also handed his half-sister some of the ones he’d collected from the birds earlier. Then he added a dose of guilt to insure that she would stay hidden since he knew her stubborn streak could rival even Kaid’s. “Their stronghold is rumored to be impenetrable, Ariel. Many lives would be lost in a battle for your return because Kaid would never give up on rescuing you. And neither would the other warriors. Plus, we will need you afterwards to help with healing. Don’t come out for anything and don’t draw too much attention to your hiding spot with those arrows. Promise me?” he demanded with an impressive tone of authority. That threat had the desired effect. Ariel’s face paled, expression turning stricken. It was true. If she were captured, Kaid would stop at nothing, short of death, to bring her home. “I promise,” she swore solemnly, squelching down her inner rebellion. She should be helping them more but she knew better than to disobey her brother. He needed all his concentration focused on the battle ahead. She could feel her own heart pounding wildly as she quickly slid off of her white stallion. Branches tore at her tunic and boy pants, scratching at her arms and face as she crawled through an animal’s well-worn entrance into a broad, thick-leaved bush and fervently started to pray for her clansmen. Swarms of Fraser warriors almost immediately overtook the MacDonnel’s small number of men, outnumbering them by a gruesome number. Trembling, Ariel used up all of her arrows, firing them through the limbs when the enemy clan was farther off. Luckily she hit her target each time but there were so many of them and they just kept pouring into the clearing. Covering her ears, she then tried to block out the clamor and commotion of men in agony. Brave MacDonnel warriors, her friends, were being killed and her promise to stay hidden had rendered her unable to help. Their screams of pain were horrific. Unfortunately, she couldn’t bear to close her eyes and she continued to look through the thick clusters of leaves, her trembling increasing. She had never seen the ravages of war first hand. Through the concealing branches that speckled her fair hair with sunlight, she watched, covering her mouth with her hand to prevent a scream of frustration and terror from escaping. From one end of the forest to the other, the Fraser warriors devoured her clansmen with sword and fang. Shuddering, she watched, mesmerized, as her stout brother fought one Fraser warrior after another. When the last small part of their MacDonnel hunting party rode up to join the battle, Ariel sighed with relief, but soon realized that it wasn’t helping, either. The MacDonnel men were slain and trampled, falling quickly beneath the outnumbering onslaught of the vicious Fraser clan. Suddenly her thoughts turned even more chaotic, nauseating fear a pulsing fist in her throat. What if Brandos started to become uneasy and brought Kaid’s group back early? They would be slaughtered right along with the others. That thought brought about a sudden, paralyzing anxiety. No! She could not let that happen. Squeezing her eyes shut, Ariel focused on Bran, hoping to send him a message as she’d done several times when she was younger, when she’d just spoken in her head to him and he’d actually heard her. It didn’t seem to work every time but it was worth a try. Ariel knew his thoughts would probably be on her a lot today. [Ariel- Earlier that morning…] Ariel had seen the increasing unease in Bran’s expression this morning when their group had been preparing to depart. Then she’d seen a stubbornness set into his face and had known he was about to protest the fact that she was going in a separate group. Ariel had casually been sitting with Kaid on his horse, chatting with him before it was time to leave. She felt quite at ease in her boy pants with her knees pulled up in front of her, leaning back against Kaid’s solid form in a familiar, relaxed way. Kaid’s chin had been gently resting on top of her head, his arm casually looped around her waist in protection. Kaid's mount had been slightly set apart from the other warriors when Bran rode up almost next to them, his mount facing Kaid’s. Knowing that she wasn’t going to like what he had to say, she smiled impishly and tilted her head back to ask Kaid, “Can I show you the new trick I learned?” Kaid smiled indulgently, affectionately kissing the top of her head. “Sure.” “It’s actually not very new. Watch the trees over there,” she told them quietly, negligently pointing to her right but not looking in that direction. Both men turned their heads, interest peaking as they waited for something to happen. The only movement they saw was a small bird that emerged from the trees and was now flying towards them. As it got closer, it seemed to be heading straight for Brandos. Suddenly, a small plopping sound was heard right before it passed over Bran’s head. “You missed,” Brandos said blandly, trying very hard not to look impressed as Kaid chuckled softly, obviously amused. Ariel tilted her head to look down. “It looks like he had berries today and since those tend to stain tunics I didn’t think you’d want me to actually hit you.” She lifted one eyebrow in challenge, a double meaning in her next words as she told him, “But if you want to…argue…about anything, I can show you the definition of the word accuracy,” she purred. Bran’s eyes narrowed and he growled really low under his breath. “I know how hard it is to get those berry stains out because birds have pooped on me several times in the last few months…so much, in fact, that the other warriors warn me when they see birds flying too close to me.” Kaid chuckled. “And sometimes they yell out a false warning just to see how fast he can duck down.” Bran’s expression indicated that he wasn’t finding this the least bit amusing. “But Ariel wasn’t anywhere near you during the other occurrences,” Kaid pointed out. “She was never even outside.” Ariel smiled smugly. “He’s right. I was never anywhere around you when those other birds decided that you looked worthy of their offerings.” “Kaid…” Bran murmured. His tone indicated that Kaid needed to do something about his sister before Bran strangled her. Ariel was still smiling, relieved that she’d managed to anger Bran to the point where he had forgotten about trying to switch around the groups. Kaid’s deep voice was filled with worry and regret as he told her, “Well, we’d better be on our way.” Ariel’s eyes filled with fear and she quickly snapped them closed before she gingerly turned in her spot and wrapped her arms around Kaid’s neck, squeezing extra hard with emotion before planting a dozen kisses on his cheek. This had him chuckling in approval, his hug for her, just as tight. After she climbed down off of Kaid’s horse, anger was no longer coming off of Bran in waves. He was smart. There was no doubt about that. He’d already realized that she had been trying to distract him. Surprising both men, she quickly walked the few steps to Brandos, went up on tip-toe, and clutched his waist in a very brief hug as he sat astride his horse. Without looking up, she murmured, “Goodbye, Bran. Don’t let anything happen to Kaid or I’ll put a target on your head that will bring forth every bird in the area to pay you a special visit.” Bran ignored her bird comment but grated in feigned annoyance, “We don’t say ‘goodbye’, Ariel. We say, ‘I’ll see you again soon.’” Feeling a bit livelier, Ariel commented, “Well, you won’t actually see me again soon.” She stretched her arms out in front of her as if she were carrying a load of firewood. “I’ll be carrying too many birds.” “More like you’ll be covered in feathers from having to help clean them!” Kaid taunted her because the team that brought in the least birds had the fun-filled duty of de-feathering and preparing the birds for the evening meal. Ariel snorted and gave them both withering looks before she turned towards her own horse. [Ariel-currently in bush.] Refocusing her attention on her current situation in the green, leafy surroundings, Ariel pictured Bran in her mind. He was likely deep in the heavily forested highlands, miles away… one warrior among a whole line of men in the quiet forest, carefully pulling their bow strings back with an arrow and aiming with precision… “Bran!” She slowly yelled aloud in her head. “Bran! Do not come back towards camp early! We are under attack by vampires! Save…your…group! There are vampires here! Stay away! I’m hiding. Philip made me promise to stay inside a bush. Do not come back early! It’s bad, Bran! I’m sending birds your way now as a distraction. Keep Kaid safe!” Ariel repeated the message to Bran one more time in her head and then shifted her focus to sending as much distraction towards Kaid’s hunting party as she could. Outside of her bushes, a growing sound suddenly met the ears of the fighting men…a muffled, roaring noise that started to build and crescendo as birds from the whole surrounding area left their tree perches in one giant simulated whoosh. The force of will that sent them was so great that even small, woodland animals felt compelled to leave their hidden homes, darting in a continuous stream of small, furry masses across the feet of the fighting soldiers. The oddly mystical sight gave both the Fraser and the MacDonnel men a start. A wave of paranoid wariness joined their other emotions, as they wondered what evil could be approaching that would scare off such a large number of animals. As Ariel opened her eyes, once more focusing on the inside of her shelter of green leaves, she noticed that the dark haired Fraser, whose lower face was bathed in blood, momentarily paused, looking around the area before he lifted his sword, resuming his seemingly tireless fight. Unfortunately, he was currently fighting her middle brother, Philip, and their sparing was moving ever closer to the large overgrowth of bushes where she was hiding. Muffling a cry of anguish, Ariel watched as the huge man ran a sword through Philip’s stomach, causing her brother’s wide shoulders to slump over and his tall, muscular body to collapse on the ground a few feet from her, his hand clutching the grievous wound to his gut. Her heart flooding with loathing, Ariel moved her head, desperate for a better look at the enemy warrior’s face before he walked away from the mortally wounded MacDonnel, but tight clusters of leaves were blocking her full view. Once the Fraser turned away, leaving Philip to die, Ariel reached out, grabbing her brother’s lower legs. Then, with a strength born of anger, terror and her own supernatural abilities, she easily pulled him all the way into the animal’s din, concealing his body in her hiding spot. “Please, God, no!” she whispered tremulously, leaning over the beloved warrior. “Ariel…” he whispered hoarsely, his blue eyes, so much like Kaid’s, gazing at her through a mist of pain. Her violet eyes, glassy with wetness, reflected that agony. This was a fatal injury, Ariel knew, blanching as she saw all the blood seeping from his stomach. “Oh, Philip, it’s...it’s not so bad,” she replied softly after a shocked silence. “Do not talk. They will hear you,” he ordered hoarsely, his voice pained. Inhaling a deep breath, a surge of determination and power filled her body, strengthening her. He was not going to die! Not if she could help it! “Close your eyes, Philip,” she ordered quickly, her vision blurred by tears of futile rage. She could not let him see what she was about to do. “I have some ointment with me,” she lied. “I will put it on your wound,” Ariel soothed in the same confident tone she used on all her patients in the castle. A known healer, bit by bit, Ariel’s secret “ointment” always healed the sick. His eyes remained open as he groaned, “I’m afraid it will take more than your ointment this time, Ari. You must keep yourself safe,” he insisted weakly. To her relief, he closed his eyes but continued speaking, easing a serious moment with jesting. “No doubt Kaid will bring me back to life and then kill me all over again for letting such danger come anywhere near you today. He made me promise him, over and over again, that I would keep you safe.” “You have kept me safe,” she stated with absolute conviction, wanting to give him peace of mind. “You forced me to hide in this bush and that kept me from danger.” Forcing herself to block out his next words, Ariel gently placed her hands right below his rib cage. They immediately became covered with his blood. Letting her own lashes fall shut, she began to focus with chilling intensity, on the warmth moving through her body and into her hands. Her brother’s sudden intake of breath had her eyes snapping open to look at his handsome face. His blue eyes were wide open, his voice filled with wonder and awe. “Something is glowing!” Then almost to himself, he whispered, “Is my vision already filling with the Glory of Heaven?” “Please, Philip, shut your eyes for a bit longer this time and concentrate on taking deep breathes,” she insisted firmly, not wanting him to know how different she was from him. As if he had just become aware of the fact that his time on Earth was short, he ignored her request and quickly murmured, “You know I love you, Ariel, don’t you? I still remember the day Father brought you home. You were such a wee little thing, waddling around, smiling and laughing at everything. You were a blessing to our castle and everybody adored you. Well, except our new step-mother, of course,” he groaned with a laugh and then tried to smile at her but it looked more like a grimace. His voice was diminishing and behind his blue gaze, normally so filled with life and laughter, the emotions were becoming indiscernible. “I love you, too, Philip,” she whispered achingly, her violet eyes were both furious and sad at the same time. As her own lashes quickly fell shut again, Ariel returned her focus to her hands, which were still over his wound. She was unable to hold back any longer and all of the power and emotion poured out of her palms in a soft, healing light, almost jolting his body with its force. In the past, she had normally utilized her power in small increments at a time, to make it appear as if a wound was healing gradually. She had rarely let it surge out of her in such volume because it made her sleep for days. When Ariel tentatively opened her eyes and looked down, she gasped at Philip’s appearance. Her heightened emotions had clearly added more power to her healing because Philip’s skin was now softly glowing, making him appear almost ethereal in his sleeping state. “Philip?” she whispered, gently shaking his arm. “Philip?” she tried again, her tone indicating her rising sense of despair at his lack of response. Why was he not moving? Fatigue was almost overwhelming her from the amount of healing energy she’d released. Managing to rip a much larger opening in his tunic where the sword had first gone thru, she saw that his wound was cleanly healed without even a scar. Ariel’s eyes widened. In fact, two more large scars from previous scuffles he’d had as a boy were no longer visible on his upper chest, either. How odd. Ariel lifted her worried violet gaze to his face. He was so still and his radiance was already fading away. Oh, dear God, had she been too late? “Brother!” she appealed in a hoarse whisper, shaking his arm in an attempt to awaken him. Ariel’s efforts to rouse Philip appeared to be futile and her body suddenly felt so heavy, as if she’d been awake for a week and someone had just placed a heavy sack of flour on top of her back. There continued to be no response or movement. Terror raced through her. “No!” she whispered brokenly, leaning over him. “No! No! No! I cannot bear it!” Ariel felt so powerless, unable to believe that he could really be dead. So many of her clansmen were now gone, the enormity of her family’s loss was devastating. Pressing her cheek to Philips, she held him close, as deep despair and swamping fatigue finally overwhelmed her own body. Slowly going limp above him, Ariel allowed the darkness to pull her under into its comforting depths, her body protectively shielding her beloved middle brother, even in rest. A moment later the top of the large bush silently parted and piercing golden eyes curiously glanced down into the bushes interior. The fiery gaze blinked in surprise at the sight of such a delicate looking young female. Unfortunately, a great deal of blood covered the two pale figures who both rested as still as death. [Ariel…one year later.] “No!” came Ariel’s choked whimper, as she thrashed about in bed. Strong hands suddenly grasped her shoulders, firmly shaking her. But, as if she were still in her forest bush, and the surrounding woods were littered with her dead and dying clansmen while hundreds and hundreds of enemy warriors swarmed around the area like bees, searching for more MacDonnel’s to torture and kill, her voice was an eerily quiet whisper as she pleaded, “Philip…please don’t leave me! Please don’t die, too!” Her trembling body was suddenly clutched against a solid wall of muscle, covered in a thin, soft tunic. “Shh…it’s alright. You’re safe, now,” Kaid’s deep voice soothed, his tone rich with concern as his large hands splayed against her spine, rubbing up and down in a comforting motion. “It’s only a nightmare, little one. I won’t let anyone hurt you, Ariel. Shh…” Ariel felt Kaid’s muscles flexing beneath her as she suddenly moved, desperately clinging to his strength as she tried to suppress the sobs that racked through her, their intensity almost tearing her in two. Since that gruesome day, almost a year ago, when the Fraser’s had made their first unprovoked attack, Ariel’s sleep had become constantly plagued with nightmares. The parts that she hated re-living the most were the truly terrified screams of her brave clansmen. The high-pitched ‘final’ scream was horrifying…because it would turn to wet gurgles when the warrior’s throat was abruptly ripped out. All of her dreams were filled with the horrible echoes of men dying, as the demonic, dark-haired vampire seemed to take an enormous amount of angry satisfaction in bathing himself in MacDonnel blood. Finally, after several deep, calming breathes, Ariel sighed and laid her cheek against Kaid’s chest, the violent tremors coursing through her body starting to ease. The memories that had seemed so real only a moment ago, slowly faded back into the recesses of her mind. Seeing that she had sufficiently calmed down, Kaid smoothly swept Ariel up into his arms and carried her across the room to the window. Pulling the tapestry back to let in a startlingly cool blast of fresh air, he gently set his beloved friend on her feet, then took the pitcher and poured her a drink. With trembling hands, Ariel took the water from him and tilted the tankard back, obediently drinking every drop. As she let out a soft, little sigh of relief, Ariel felt Kaid’s appraising eye on her. Setting the cup down, she sheepishly smiled up at him, ignoring the worry in his gaze as he soothingly praised, “Good girl.” Knowing the routine, Ariel automatically lifted up on tip-toes, loosely wrapping her arms around Kaid’s neck in readiness for him to slide one burly arm under her knees. It was silly, and she could just as easily have walked, of course, but this was how he’d always coddled her when she was upset after waking up from a night terror. Effortlessly lifting her into his arms, Kaid moved back across the room. Trying to lighten her mood, he paused on the smooth stone floor next to the huge canopied bed that he’d shared with her since he was six years old. With very little effort, he tossed her up into the air like a sack of potatoes, adding a slight twisting motion. Her squeak of surprise was cut short when she landed face down on the big bed with a soft grunt, followed by a cascade of giggles. Ariel felt Kaid’s heavy sense of worry steadily being replaced with the soothing coolness of relief. With a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth, he pivoted, crossing the room to add more logs to the fireplace. “Such a demanding piece of baggage you are!” he muttered a moment later, climbing into bed next to her and pulling the warm blankets over both of them. “Will I ever get a full night’s sleep again?” he continued gruffly, contradicting his grumblings by firmly tucking her against his side and affectionately brushing a hand over her pale locks as he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’m sorry for being such a burden.” She gazed at him guiltily, but his blue eyes merely twinkled back at her in a conspiratorial fashion “Thank you for putting up with me, Kaid.” “Your nightmares seem to be getting better. Less frequent. You must keep reminding yourself that you’re safe now, Ariel,” he whispered reassuringly, wanting to put her tormented mind and heart at ease. Ariel inwardly sighed, fearing that her best friend was woefully misguided. No one was safe from the Frasers. As always, Ariel felt a wave of guilt coming from Kaid because he hadn’t been there during the attacks to protect her or his fellow clansmen. No matter what she said to try and relieve him of that guilt, it never seemed to help. [Ariel~past] From what Bran had told her, hours after the attack, he and Kaid’s hunting party--who had been far to the north of theirs--had received a message from one of the other groups, reporting what had happened to Ariel’s group. The anxious messenger had not been able to tell Kaid that Ariel was safe or that he’d even seen her. Kaid’s group had thundered back across the wild, rough terrain to help aide them. And while the well-trained warriors had quickly started to help tend to the slain and injured MacDonnel clan members, Kaid and Brandos’ desperate search of the area had produced no Ariel or Philip. The surviving clansmen had sworn that she and Philip hadn’t been taken. Kaid, Bran, and any other warriors who were not busy helping the wounded, had anxiously combed the thick woods, calling out their names. Despite Laird MacDonnel’s lifelong rule that none of his people were to ever set foot on Fraser land, when their search for Ariel proved unsuccessful, Kaid had stubbornly gone against his father’s restrictions. Riding as if the Devil himself were nipping at his heels, Kaid had traveled alone to the vampire stronghold to demand her return. By the time he’d almost reached the gate, he’d accrued a small horde of solemn Fraser warriors as his escort. Although the guards had not been friendly in the least, they had been wary of Kaid’s massive build and that crazy, determined look in his eyes when he declared he had to speak to their leader. Plus, he’d quickly made an example of any warriors along the way who had wanted to challenge him in front of their friends. He hadn’t killed the foolish few, but he’d dispatched even the strongest looking ones to the ground with humiliating quickness before remounting his horse and continuing on his path to the gate without so much as look back. Few words had been spoken between he and his collection of followers after each one had denied seeing any prisoners brought into the compound. To his surprise, right when the gate came into view, a large, eerily-still vampire had appeared on top of the tall perimeter wall. The creature’s nose had been lifted, as if scenting the air. Then the intimidating male had immediately leaped down and landed right in front of Kaid’s horse, as graceful as you please. His signal for the other men to give them privacy had been obeyed with such an impressive swiftness by the Fraser warriors that it had left no doubt in Kaid’s mind of the vampire’s cruel and powerful influence. Although Kaid had refused to tell Ariel anything more, she had overheard bits and pieces. Like when he later told Brandos that the vampire’s fiery eyes had actually seemed to flame brighter with intensity when Kaid had climbed down off his horse and told him the situation and that his sister was missing. Kaid had claimed that, if he hadn’t been so worked up himself, he would have been unnerved by the vampire and all the demanding questions that had followed. [Ariel~present] Inhaling a deep breath, Ariel slowly let it out, her mind veering to her own plans. Soon this horrible reoccurring nightmare would end. She had sworn an oath to herself when so many of her beloved clansmen had been murdered, vowing that she would avenge their unjustified death someday. In two days, Kaid and half their clansmen would ride out on their annual end-of-the-summer hunting trip, a trip she’d always lived for. But this year, she would unexpectedly be too sick to go. In three days, she would be living with the Frasers under false identity. But in this encounter with the brutal clan, she intended to be the victor. Ariel shivered. Just the thought of what Kaid would do to her if he ever found out that she’d gone to the Fraser stronghold made her chest tighten with unease, and her hands grow clammy. She knew her loyal maidservant, Mary, would cover for her while she was gone, but other than Mary, Ariel would never dare tell another soul about her secret trip. Never. Chapter 7 Three days later… Dawn had scarcely faded into new light when Ariel MacDonnel leaned over the shimmering stream. She was very convincing dressed in her guise as a boy, until she pulled down the hood of her mantle and shook out her mass of gently-curling pale hair, intent on washing her face and hands free of the dust from her long ride. The hidden dangers lurking in the forest prevented her from being able to give away the fact that she was a female for long, however. And she was immensely grateful for the well-made, expensive boy clothes she wore, which were of good quality and loose enough for Ariel to disguise her true gender. Methodically pulling her hood back up, Ariel tucked her shiny curls back in place while she silently contemplated the day ahead of her. If all went well, within a few hours she would ride through the castle gates where her enemies resided and curry favor with their loathsome warlord. There was nothing more to her plan than that. It was simple and straightforward. The worst part was, instead of immediately killing the Fraser chieftain as she desperately wanted to, she would have to sweetly smile and innocently charm the black-hearted beast into believing her sham story. Never must Ariel’s target guess her true intentions. Revenge. She smiled wistfully to herself. Too bad she was unable to seduce the brutal ogre. That would definitely give her dagger a closer proximity to his evil heart. One quick plunge and a pleasant twist of her blade and the simple deed would be done, the score that much closer to being even. But seduction was certainly out. She surely did not want a loathsome Fraser touching her. Absently, Ariel reached out to pet Muffin, her big, brown, wolf of a dog who was drinking from the stream. She hadn’t wanted to endanger her animal by bringing him along on this trip, but, truth be told, she was glad he was with her. Plus, her pet could find her anywhere. If she’d left him at the castle, he would’ve eventually caught up with her on her journey. His frenzied scratching at the castle drawbridge or trenching under the walls in an attempt to escape the MacDonnel castle grounds in order to follow her, would have made the guards on duty very suspicious. Most of the people there assumed that she was on the hunting trip. She’d waited to reveal her intentions of staying home until right before they were set to leave, declaring sickness as the culprit. Kaid hadn’t believed her, but he’d understood her fears and hadn’t made her feel bad as he’d lovingly tucked her back into bed, fussed over her for a bit, then kissed her cool forehead before he left. As she’d anticipated, he’d ordered her to remain confined in her room while he was gone, staying clear of their spiteful step-mother, who tended to abuse her power over Ariel when the men were away on a hunt. Her maid, Mary, was to sneak her meals, and no one else at the castle was to know that she hadn’t left on the trip. It was the perfect opportunity for Ariel to disappear for a few days. Too lost in her own thoughts, Ariel hadn’t been listening to the forest around her, only the soothing sound of the stream as it flowed over rocks. So Muffin’s low growl jolted her out of her quiet forethought. “You are trespassing on Fraser land!” stated a deep, chilling voice. Sucking in a silent gasp, Ariel’s heart fairly leapt through her chest as she stood up, sharply whirling away from the stream. Automatically tilting her face to see from beneath her concealing hood, Ariel’s gaze riveted first on the vivid plaid of the hated Fraser clan and then came to rest on the young stranger’s solemn face and massive build. Blinking in wary disbelief, Ariel stubbornly defied her body’s natural instincts to take a step back. A short distance away from her, beneath the overhanging tree limbs, was one of the most formidable Highland warriors Ariel had ever seen. He appeared to be several years older than her. His stance was unnaturally still and those sharp, predatory eyes were utterly focused on her hooded form. The tiny part of her observant brain that hadn’t immediately frozen in terror at the sight of him was wondering if he was even breathing. The young warrior had raven black hair that almost brushed his bronzed shoulders, a square jaw, and a chiseled face that was set in such a cold, emotionless look that it sent tremors of anxiety up her spine. Although he looked young, the magnificent breadth of his chest and shoulders, and the stoutness of his long, muscular legs, made it quite obvious that he was already a battle-hardened warrior--one who had, evidently, come out victorious. Ariel’s breath froze in her throat when her superior eyesight focused in on the color of his eyes. The distinct combination of light and dark golden hues was almost hypnotically appealing. They captivated your full attention. It was like seeing a newborn fawn in the forest…so clean and adorable that you catch your breath and smile at the small creature, unable to pull your gaze away. Except Ariel wasn’t smiling as her father’s words flashed through her mind: All three Fraser brothers have hair as black as sin and eyes like the flames of Hell. Dear God…Ariel silently breathed, in an instinctive, soundless prayer, as she struggled to recover her wavering composure. Was this warrior one of them? One of the monsters? Everyone speculated on whether or not the three brothers living in the Fraser stronghold were truly immortal. But there was no mistaking the detached authority and brutal strength that was apparent in every line of this young warrior’s powerful body. And, from the legion of tales she’d been told about the three mysterious siblings, she hadn’t expected one to be as young as this warrior. He appeared to be around Kaid’s age, so surely if he was one of the brothers, he would be the youngest sibling. Oh! He might even be a cousin! That thought was immensely comforting. Ariel inhaled a deep calming breath. Since childhood, she had been forced to deal with the unbending challenges Kaid set before her. As a chieftain’s daughter--illegitimate or not--she had always felt that it was part of her duty to perform at her best. Ignoring fear, Ariel had continuously accomplished whatever was required of her. Now, faced with an actual warrior from the notorious vampire clan, she refused to give in to that coward named fear. To her annoyance, Ariel jumped when the stranger’s harsh voice rang out through the forest, startling her. “Do you not realize the punishment for trespassing? That, and spying?” the Fraser demanded coolly, his sharp eyes continuing their indifferent survey of her robed form. Mentally cringing over her cowardly flinch, Ariel stubbornly made herself take the tiniest of steps forward. It was merely a slight shuffling of feet—in order to prove to herself that she wasn’t afraid of this scary stranger. Then she realized what he’d said. “Spying?” Ariel croaked hoarsely, her dismay growing. She really wasn’t here to spy. She didn’t care what the Fraser’s were doing as long as it didn’t involve her clan. She merely wanted the oldest one to cease breathing…if vampires even needed to breathe. Tilting his head to the side, the warrior crossed thick, muscular arms over a wide expanse of broad chest. His bold features looked harsh, unyielding and cold, as if chiseled out of ice. “Have you not heard tales of the unfortunate souls who have attempted to spy on Fraser land?” Her slow shrug had the young warrior quirking one eyebrow and grimly shaking his head. “It’s never pleasant. Even when I happen to overhear their gruesome fates being re-told by the locals, I find myself quite…frustrated.” His lips pursed disapprovingly. “You see, they never have to embellish the details.” He paused, gently rocking back on his heels. “Unfortunately, for the trespasser,” his hand turned palm up towards her, indicating that he had classified her as such, “the truth is horrifying enough.” Ariel nervously tried to swallow past the swift beat of her pulse, her heart feeling as if it was lodged in her throat. His intimidation tactics were very impressive and working quite well. “Now…” he began again, a quiet note of steel entering his voice “let’s try this again.” He held up one finger. “Clan name.” He moved a second digit up. “And what information you were sent to collect.” When she still gave no response, he chuckled, but it was emotionless, and the most grating sound she’d ever heard. “Obviously, you do not like this particular game. Let’s play another one…perhaps something more painful.” Ariel had been temporarily captivated into immobility by the sight of the fierce warrior. Plus, his deep voice was so unexpectedly appealing that she had felt compelled to merely stare at him as she listened, even if his icy tone and what he’d been saying hadn’t been painting a very bright picture of her future. Ariel didn’t want to wind up being just another dead trespasser for the townspeople to gossip about. Or just another scary story that parents could tell their young children to prevent them from wandering too far into the woods. Ariel suddenly gasped in surprise as the warrior slowly began stalking towards her, a menacing, controlled purpose in every step. Muffin immediately moved far in front of Ariel to block the vampire’s path, his protective stance intimidating, his warning growl starting low and then increasing in volume. Pulling herself together, Ariel automatically assessed her only escape option. Turning her head, she glanced towards her horse, Lady, who had been enthusiastically grazing on the lush green grass by the stream. She was disgruntled to see that her steed had wandered even farther away. Suddenly, Muffin let out such a terrible, heart wrenching series of yelps that fury immediately flooded thru Ariel’s veins. Protective instincts had her promptly pulling a knife out of her boot. Her teeth were clenched together in rage as she turned back to face her enemy. Letting it fly, she threw the blade with unnatural precision and even more force than normal. The stunning fact that the large Fraser easily caught her flying blade an inch before it would have embedded deep into his heart, surprised Ariel, but didn’t stop her. She quickly moved towards Muffin, dead set on putting herself between this monster and her beloved animal. Her pet was now curled up in a fetal position under a nearby tree, his furry body visibly trembling. The Fraser warrior, still holding her knife, paused in place to watch her approach, her protective actions apparently tweaking his curiosity. He was no longer walking towards her, but Ariel’s emotions were still in a viscous turmoil. Withdrawing two knives from her belt, she threw them simultaneously, desperately wanting to stab the merciless Fraser right in his putrid heart. Once again, the Fraser warrior easily caught both of her knives before they imbedded in his chest, his swift reaction eerily graceful as he seemed to pluck them right out of the air. One dark, sinister brow smoothly lifted, emphasizing the silent mockery on his face. “Thank you,” he murmured drolly. Ariel was becoming increasingly annoyed that her other strengths weren’t firing up around this dangerous enemy. She was naturally stronger than any mortal, but when she was truly angry--like when raiders attacked the MacDonnel village--she could be quite lethal. Unfortunately, those deadly instincts weren’t working right now. It was immensely frustrating. Blatantly demonstrating that he wasn’t worried in the least that a hooded stranger—who had just thrown three knives at him--stood only a dozen feet away, the vampire casually glanced down, studying the blades as he weighed them in his hands. There was a cynical twist to his lips when the black-haired devil glanced back up, narrowing his eyes to re-assess his opponent. “These are finely crafted,” he admired in mild surprise, obviously impressed. “I assume they were gifts that my father gave you? Are you one of his…subjects?” A spike of jealousy suddenly entered his emotions. “If you’ve secretly come to fight me in order to avenge his honor, save yourself the bother.” His eyes were cold and emotionless. Faint mockery laced his voice as he reputed, “My father has no honor. Plus, I would kill you before you drew in your next breath to scream.” Absently shaking her head in denial to his questions, Ariel stared at him in shocked disbelief as his words reverberated through her head. Father? What was he talking about? If the three vampire brothers had a living father that would mean that there were more than just three of the monsters. And if there were more than just three, how many more vampires were there in the Fraser clan? That unnerving thought had her swallowing uneasily. But his next words had her seeing red again. Purposefully being antagonistic, the vampire flipped one of her blades into the air and easily caught it behind his back. His words were almost begrudging as he praised, “I must say, everything about these knives pleases me. It’s odd but they feel so perfect that I don’t even want to put them away.” Slicing his gaze to her hooded form, he goaded, “I will enjoy practicing with my new blades later.” Bending down, he tucked all three blades into his right leather boot. Ariel's blood boiled over at his remark. The Frasers had already taken so much from her people. She was not letting this enemy warrior keep her favorite knives, as well. Fortunately, her best friend had taught her the importance of making strategically sound choices and staying calm during any fight. Unfortunately, that training flew right out of her mind as outrage flooded in. She wanted to fly at this brawny warrior and scratch his eyes out. Without thinking about the possible consequences, she grasped her final knife and hurled herself at the young warrior’s chest. As if bored, he caught her slender wrist, easily plucking the blade from her hand. His ultra quick reflexes were making Ariel feel unbelievably foolish. Forced to use a more basic form of protection—which happened to be the only option she had left--Ariel swiftly aimed a knee between his legs. With a foul oath exploding from his lips, the warrior hastily avoided her attack. Unfortunately, Ariel immediately regretted her reckless reaction when she felt the hard, quick cuff he delivered right above her ear. The force of the heavy blow wrenched her head to the side and a sharp pain radiated throughout Ariel’s neck and skull, ripping a distressed cry from her throat as she stumbled sideways, debilitating agony exploding in her head. Squeezing her eyes shut, as if trying to block out the pain, Ariel’s hand immediately flew to her head, inadvertently knocking her hood off in the process. Long, silky blond curls spilled free in wild disarray as she careened backwards, landing hard on a large fallen tree. A soft grunt involuntarily left her as she jolted to an unexpected stop against the rough bark of the huge dried-out tree trunk. Over the ringing in her ears, she heard the Fraser growl something low and harsh in Gaelic. Fearing this Fraser’s continued attack, Ariel quickly rolled to one side and blindly slid off the tree, not caring a bit about her pride as she plunked down on the flat, grassy area. In her weakened state, she barely managed to curl into a tight ball to protect her insides against any potential blows from the warrior’s heavy boots. Then she just laid there, both delicate hands clutching her pounding head and her eyes still tightly closed against the excruciating throbbing in her skull. She had known that a vampire would eventually attempt to kill her during this secret trip, but somehow she’d never imagined it would happen so quickly. A moment later, when she felt someone gently smoothing pale curls away from her face, Ariel was in so much pain that she couldn’t even manage to flinch away from the stranger’s touch. Her expression turned stricken as she warily opened her eyes just wide enough to see the stark disbelief written on the young man’s brooding features. With his big, muscular frame kneeling down next to her in the grass, he seemed quite a bit larger than she’d originally thought. And even through the haze of pain, she noticed how dark and sinister he appeared with that shoulder length black hair falling forward against his chiseled jaw and the unnerving focus of his intense, fiery gaze on her. Oh my… Unfortunately, Ariel’s mind was so consumed by the throbbing in her skull that she couldn’t focus on how attractive the male was for long, especially since he was probably about to finish her off. “Don’t touch me,” she breathed in a tremulous whisper, a note of desperation in her tone. Ariel had never felt this vulnerable in all her days and she didn’t like it. Thus far, the only emotion he’d really exuded was a cold wall of indifference. But now curiosity and an abundance of guilt radiated from the young warrior, both seeming to grow as she continued to lay there, helpless and unmoving. It seemed almost as if this emotionless Fraser actually felt bad for striking out at a female, even though that female had been dressed as a male. When he began to ease forward, his big body leaning over her prone figure, Ariel’s frantic heart skipped a beat, her gaze dimly taking in his striking features and well-built physic one more time before her eyelids closed again. To her surprise, she felt his large hand flatten on her lower back as his fingertips gently dug into her ribs. Slightly lifting her up, he completely removed the rough tree limbs from beneath her slender frame. The effortless way in which he stepped over her and chucked the fallen tree away had Ariel’s heart skidding to a complete halt, especially when she heard how far away the huge object had landed. That had been no light feather of a tree. It would have taken six normal men just to drag it across the clearing. The evidence of such great strength seemed to finally confirm in her hazy mind that this warrior was definitely one of the Fraser vampires. Unfortunately, that fact didn’t help ease her nerves. Uncontrollable panic started to set in and her breathing began coming out in short, choppy pants. Then her whole body began trembling and Ariel tensed up, trying to make it stop. When he immediately came right back to her side and knelt down again, Ariel could practically feel his inquisitive gaze on her once more and she cautiously lifted long lashes, her pain-filled violet eyes zeroing in on his grim expression. Unfortunately, in her weakened state, she couldn’t possibly manage to defend herself if he attacked her. Trying to calm her slender, shaking form and racing heartbeat, Ariel resorted to a trick she sometimes used at night when her mind wouldn’t slow down long enough to fall asleep. Completely ignoring the Fraser male, she looked past him and focused her gaze on a distant tree trunk, immediately letting its image blur in front of her. In this horrible moment, when there was nothing else Ariel could do but wait out the debilitating pain, she used all the imagination she possessed to relax and pretend that she was back at home, safely snuggled in Kaid’s huge comfy bed, with her big bear of a best friend possessively tugging her in closer to his side. Occasionally at night, if she couldn’t go to sleep, she would roll onto her side, facing away from Kaid. Acting disgruntled by her actions, he would then turn on his own side and wrap one burly arm around her ribs, pulling her back firmly against his strong chest. Then he would kiss her multiple times on the temple and cheek, which always caused Ariel to let out a soft, pleased giggle. Nuzzling his face into her abundance of hair, he would soon be fast asleep. After that Ariel would turn her gaze toward the tapestry that covered his window, letting the embroidered landscape slowly blur in front of her…and, like always, she would fall asleep to the sound of her best friend’s heart beating. Ariel’s unfocused eyes closed a little more as she distracted herself further by musing over Kaid’s nighttime behavior. [Ariel~past] Her warrior best friend would always grumble and grouch when she became overly tired while helping the villagers during the day, but Ariel knew that he secretly adored when she was completely worn out at night. In her exhausted state, she would boldly crawl right on top of his chest in bed, curl her arms around his neck, and snuggle in close, grumpily threatening to end his life with a dull, rusty blade if he even thought about leaving her alone in the room that night. Then she would fall into a deep sleep with his arms protectively wrapped around her and waves of happiness and pleasure rolling off of him. Kaid cherished the moments when she truly needed his comfort and protection. Ariel loved him and his peculiar, possessive nature so much. Unfortunately, Ariel’s blank, unfocused stare was starting to upset the overly-attentive vampire whose rapt gaze was solely focused on her. His strong, nauseating wave of fear, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of remorse, pulled Ariel away from her comforting imagination, and she let out a low, grumpy sound. The young warrior’s broad shoulders seemed to relax somewhat at the sound, but his brows were still formidably low, his expression grim and concerned. With grave uncertainties, Ariel watched in surprise as the vampire shifted until he was lying stretched out right alongside her, so close that a sense of unease inched the length of Ariel’s spine, making her wonder if this was what a wounded animal felt like when a vulture was circling overhead. As the big warrior began to reach out, obviously intending to examine the extent of the damage he’d inflicted, apprehension filled Ariel’s pretty gaze, and her heart started pounding in a wild beat. “No…” she faintly whispered, weakly lifting her hand to block him. His long fingers loosely encircled her forearm. “Let me,” he commanded in that deep, silken voice--a voice that had turned so chilling a few minutes earlier when she’d failed to respond to his questioning. His narrow-eyed threatening look wasn’t enough to guarantee her cooperation, however. In fact, it inspired the exact opposite. Refusing to let anxiety take a deeper hold, Ariel became extremely stubborn. Pulling her arm free from his loose grasp, she sent him a quelling frown, as she successfully covered the injured spot on her head again, and then grunted in childish satisfaction because she was preventing him from touching it. Unfortunately, her actions seemed to entertain the monster. “Don’t be such a baby,” he gruffly ordered with a surprisingly amused undertone. Reaching out, his big hand slid underneath her smaller one, carefully palming the side of her skull in an almost affectionate gesture, before moving over to gently probe the area where a bump had already taken shape. Closing her eyes, Ariel took a stabilizing breath. In an effort to distract her mind from a pain that didn’t seem like it would ever go away, she gently scolded him, “I’m sure I heard cracking when you bashed in my skull.” His tone was surprisingly defensive as he bluntly replied, “You’re quite the talkative little trespasser now, aren’t you? If you’d used that breathy little voice of yours earlier, it would’ve been much easier for me to determine your correct gender.” Reacting with interest to the aggressive tone of his voice, Ariel shifted her face a little, curiously watching the big warrior in narrow-eyed silence as he lay propped up on one elbow in the grass. Her eyes slowly studied every detail about him before meeting his serious, direct gaze once more. Her weak tone was full of sarcasm. “So…you prefer to speak with every trespasser before you strike them on the head as hard as you can?” A flicker of annoyance crossed his face. “That wasn’t as hard as I could have hit you. And most people choose not to trespass on Fraser land,” he pointed out dryly. Her sarcasm escaped without effort as she muttered, “Maybe because your welcoming tactics are sorely lacking in warmth and friendliness.” There was an ironic cast to his gaze. “We don’t want visitors of any sort.” She softly snorted and--just as she would have when talking with Bran--Ariel chose to be randomly argumentative merely to amuse herself. “Well, being strict about visitors eventually leads to all sorts of irreversible problems.” His dark brows furrowed. “What problems would those be?” he demanded curiously. “Well, never adding fresh blood to the clan will eventually result in inbreeding, which can ultimately lead to dull-witted, possibly violent people,” she informed him with a very pointed look. Ariel saw his dark eyebrow quirk with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. “I presume that you know this from close, personal experience with the issue,” he mocked dryly, pleasing her with his quick-witted response. “Nope,” she announced pertly. Although, sometimes, when Bran was truly being a brainless baboon, Ariel would get so frustrated that she would glance up at him and ask if he was sure his parents hadn’t been related when they were born? First cousins, perhaps? Brandos would give her such a killing look that it would send her into helpless giggles. Even though she always knew that he would make her pay for those unwanted comments later, riling up Bran was still fun. “Most people would consider it unintelligent to trespass on Fraser land,” the vampire rejoined cynically. In an innocently, hopeful voice she hinted, “Well…after you let me go today, I will inform everyone I see that—besides the head injury--it wasn’t so bad here. I’ll tell them that it got much better after you rubbed my injury and told me you were sorry,” she murmured with another meaningful glance. “Then you will have lots of new people swarming here for admittance into your dark, scary castle. I’m sure of it.” An almost dangerous calm came over the dark-haired vampire. His lack of reassurance that he was, indeed, going to let her go, made Ariel’s nerves flare back up. Her voice was low as she casually mentioned, “Your clan is sort of known for making people’s throats disappear.” She paused to swallow, her eyes filling with apprehension as she quietly questioned, “Is that what you’re going to do to me? Rip out my throat?” For a heartbeat of time, his hand paused in its ministrations, before he curtly replied, “Yes.” But something in his face told Ariel that he was lying and she snorted out a short laugh which made his formidable brows shoot up, fiery eyes flaring incredulously. Her alluring gaze widened as she negotiated, “I was supposed to speak to someone in your clan today, but if I leave Fraser land instead, could you possibly give me my favorite blades back and then wait to rip out my throat until the next time I visit?” “No,” he told her after a moment’s contemplation. Blinking up at him, she questioned, “Is that a no for the knives part or the throat part?” “Both,” he bit out flatly. Ariel’s lips pinched together in obvious displeasure and she closed her eyes before snippily muttering, “Well, I’m definitely going to stab you, then!” A strangled noise, almost like a choked off laugh, came from him and Ariel’s eyes creaked back open to glare daggers at the insolent warrior. “And how are you going to do that when I am in possession of all your knives?” he questioned lightly. Suddenly sobering, a deceptively guileless expression crossed her face. His eyes narrowed on her in contemplation. “Do you have another blade that I don’t know about? Trying to make him think that she was lying, her voice was small and innocent-sounding as she stammered, “No.” Dark brows lifted over enigmatic eyes. “You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” Wanting him to think her a terrible liar so that he would more readily accept any deception she feed him later, Ariel made a slightly grumpy, defensive face, tucking her chin further into her chest as she whispered, “You already have all of my knives.” It was a true statement. “You’re just being greedy!” Sliding a quick peek over to him, Ariel was a bit surprised when his chiseled lips were pressed together, obviously trying to prevent a smirk, his golden gaze twinkling back at her in a conspiratorial way, as if he found her apparent dishonesty amusing. For some reason that look actually made real guilt flicker over Ariel’s expression…especially when he grunted, pretending to believe her answer, his lips losing the battle as he finally smirked. Ariel sighed and rested her eyes again. Vampires were confusing. Long moments passed and his interest only seemed to increase further. She could actually feel his intense yellow eyes roaming over every inch of her as she lay there, still barely moving except to breathe. “Is the pain any better yet?” he queried almost solicitously, seeming in no hurry, as he continued his gentle ministrations. “No!” she instantly grouched. “Not even a little bit better?” Unexpected humor laced his tone. After a long pause, she grudgingly admitted, “Maybe a little.” Surprisingly, the throbbing pain in Ariel’s head was starting to ease somewhat as he continued to lightly rub her scalp, basically petting her head, as if that would make it all better. Eventually Ariel felt his hand leave her hair, his knuckles slowly caressing along her soft cheek, then her jawline, as a sense of fascinated wonder started overshadowing his other emotions. “Are you contemplating the best way to rip out my throat?” she demanded irritably, her eyes still closed. “It’s probably a bit smaller than the ones you normally encounter, so it shouldn’t be much of a challenge.” His tone was bland as he confessed, “Actually, your neck looks a bit deformed and puny. I don’t know that I want to touch it.” That surprised a long flow of muffled giggles from Ariel in helpless appreciation of his jibe and she could tell that her odd sense of humor secretly pleased the big male. “Different is beautiful,” she defiantly told him, quoting her adopted grandmother, Hannah. She heard him harrumph doubtfully. Then, almost soundlessly, he breathed, “You are beautiful.” She pretended not to have heard him, even though her heart did a stupid, little fluttery thing. He was a violent Fraser. She did not care what he thought. A moment later she felt an increased sense of confusion and opened her eyes to see that he held a long pale curl in one hand. He was rubbing the soft strands with a thumb, his brow furrowing as he closely examined the shiny lock. “I’ve never seen hair like yours,” he stated in open fascination, that deep voice of his doing odd things to her insides. Ariel felt herself bristle. “It’s just boring old hair, like everyone else’s,” she grumbled defensively, even though people had sighed over the beauty of her thick, blonde curls her entire life. “It’s like heavily-spun, pale silk and looks like there are tiny jewels reflecting along every strand.” “You have good eyes,” she muttered sourly. His disturbingly bright, yellow gaze flicked back to hers as he breathed, “What are you?” Ariel’s blood instantly ran cold, so startled by his horrifying question that she gasped in outrage. Insecurities that were rooted from early childhood onward made memories flash through her mind… [Ariel~past] The worried whisperings of her clansmen when Ariel could see who was coming from an unnaturally far distance. When she had run through the night as if it were daytime, while others stumbled around, their hands outstretched. When a fight had broken out between two brothers in the distance and Kaid had mentioned aloud that he wondered why the two big warriors were so upset. Ariel--being all of three-years-old at the time--had helpfully reported that one had tried to kiss the other ones girl. The people nearby had indulgently chuckled at her young imagination, until they’d later learned that what she’d said had been accurate. That was when their looks had turned cautious and guarded around her. Even as a very small child, Ariel had heard uncomfortable whispers after her mistakes and never made that same error again. She’d learned to adapt quickly, in order to fit in with everyone around her. [Ariel-present] A small growl purred in her throat before she gritted out, “I’m a normal girl!” “I’m aware that you’re female,’ he confirmed solemnly. “That fact is quite obvious to me now.” Ariel didn’t take note of his warm, appreciative look. She was too irritated. “Let go of my hair!” Quirking one bemused eyebrow, his thumb lingered on the silky strands a heartbeat longer before he reluctantly honored her request. Going up on her elbow, Ariel huffed and gave him a venomous glare, outrage blazing in her beautiful eyes. Drawing on her own burst of anger, she let all the helpless rage from the Frasers attack on her clan come to the forefront as she gingerly struggled to rise, stubbornly refusing to look at the despicable Fraser again. As Ariel made it to her feet, he did so, as well. And when she swayed, he chivalrously came to her aid, extending his arms as if to assist her. “No!” she shrilled in a hoarse whisper, shooing him off with her hand as she put a trembling hand to her pounding head. “Don’t touch me or my dog!” She thought she heard a low chuckle but wasn’t sure. Colors were still swirling behind her eyes and she felt slightly nauseated. Studying her with open interest, he answered frankly, “I didn’t lay a finger on your precious dog, if that’s what you want to call that beast, for I know of his kind.” Ariel didn’t quite know what he was trying to insinuate but she took exception to his mean name-calling. “You are the beast!” she spat, recklessly provoking him even though she sensed that he could be quite dangerous. “To hurt a defenseless animal is despicable!” His eyes narrowed at her insult. “Your wolf—though, even that name is too mild for him--is far from defenseless,” he corrected. “And I didn’t touch a hair on his overgrown, mangy head. I merely hissed at him,” he patiently explained, drawing his lips back over his white teeth in a soundless demonstration. “You lie!” she shouted, then winced at the pain shooting through her throbbing skull. Lowering her voice, she hissed out a warning, “Don’t look at my pet! Don’t talk about him! And don’t even breathe near him or I will kill you!” As if she hadn’t just threatened and insulted him, the Fraser sent her an arrogant look. “Just in case you haven’t realized it, yet,” he began, pausing long enough to tilt his head closer to her before continuing in a patronizing whisper, “You’re not very good at killing me. And your pet…” a smirk appeared on his handsome face, as if he was going to enjoying saying the rest of his sentence, “…he cowed down like a little pup.” Ariel didn’t take the insult well…at all. Steam was practically coming out of her ears. What was it about this male, whom she had just met, that made him so aggravating? He was too arrogant, she decided. A mean, arrogant Fraser! Thrusting her left hand on her hip in obvious agitation, she then silently held out the other hand toward her knife, the one blade of Ariel’s that this huge male had negligently slipped into his belt when he’d so rudely knocked her down. Glancing at her outstretched hand, and then back up to her face, he lifted one dark eyebrow in mild disbelief. With her lips pursed together in disapproval and his impending death written in her beautiful eyes, she wiggled her fingers impatiently towards the blade, silently insinuating that he should immediately give it back to her. Suddenly, an antagonistic grin of amusement twitched on the grim warrior’s full lips. Arrogant pride exuded from every line of his powerful body as he slowly pulled the knife free of his belt, his smug expression challenging her to use it as he confidently laid it in her outstretched palm. Then he purposely goaded her, blatantly insinuating that she was a coward, by mocking, “You would’ve known what happened to your precious animal if you hadn’t been bravely contemplating the quickest way to run away.” That tipped Ariel right over the edge to crazy. With murderous rage almost choking her, Ariel let out a low, continuous growl deep in her throat. Quickly adjusting the knife handle, she lifted her arm high and stabbed him. Chapter 8 Or, at least, she tried to stab him. The young warrior easily caught her wrist again. There was no mistaking his deep chortles of laughter. The good-looking brute was definitely amused by her antics, which flamed Ariel’s anger even higher. “You are quite strong for a normal girl,” he taunted huskily. Although he still had her wrist in his grasp and she couldn’t even move her arm, Ariel was too enraged to worry about how silly she looked as she repeatedly wiggled her knife-clenched fist up and down, up and down, in a mock stabbing motion, straining towards his broad chest with all the supernatural strength she could muster. When she saw his lips twitching in further mirth, she stopped and gritted out, “Let go of my wrist!” Looking completely captivated, he tilted one dark brow, his full lips quirking. “Why? So you can stab me with that very pointy-looking blade?” She paused for a moment, her breathing labored, before nonchalantly responding, “Perhaps...” Although it seemed like he tried to hold back his amusement, he barked out another laugh, the flash of his white teeth further emphasizing his brute strength & that raw virility she found so appealing in aggressive males. “Fortunately for you, I am finding your behavior to be an amusing distraction.” His expression abruptly chilled and his grip on her wrist tightened painfully as he jerked her forward so he could continue in a snarl, “I don’t believe I’ve ever let someone live who has called me a liar.” Ariel nervously gulped but did not step back. Easily plucking the knife from her grasp, he carelessly slid it into his boot with the others as he finally let go of her arm. Rubbing her wrist, Ariel resentfully glowered as he again took possession of another of her favorite blades. “That’s a Fraser for you,” she scoffed, her tone impertinent, “proud of himself for not killing a woman. How gallant!” Apparently that comment hit a nerve. “From what clan do you hail?” he gritted out, his tone imperious. Ariel crossed her arms and defiantly flattened her full lips together, her brows raised in a challenging expression. When his inquiry was met with complete silence, the warrior was obviously exasperated. “If you wish for any semblance of leniency, cooperate with me! Tell me your clan name and with whom you’ve come here to speak!” His tone was close to a growl. The severe irritation in his voice finally cut through some of her own stubborn anger, alarming her. “A lenient Fraser?” she scoffed warily. “I’ve never heard of such an oddity.” Standing in front of her, his gaze was fixated on her in open interest. Ariel could feel that he was furtively trying not to be impressed with the bravery she was displaying. At this moment, she was actually grateful to Bran for teaching her how to fight back, how to be just as obstinate as any pompous warrior you’d ever meet. In an attempt at intimidation, he moved even closer but she still didn’t back up. “Why are you here?” his deep voice rumbled threateningly. Swallowing, Ariel defiantly lifted her face up even further to glower at him. Immediately, she wished she hadn’t, because he was far too close to her for comfort, his attractive face mere inches from hers. Lord help her but he was even more gorgeous and intimidating up close. An odd expression crossed his disturbing features but she barely took note of it because his eyes had firmly captivated her full attention, robbing her of speech. They were even more unusual then she’d first believed. With yellow and orange streaks, they truly did look like fire, like the flames of hell. Ariel searched, but could find very little mercy in their depths. His lips curved, but this time, the smile held an edge of cruelty, a reminder of who he was and what he was capable of. “The punishment for horse thievery is being whipped and then hung.” Ariel blinked. “Ahh…more details regarding the gentlemanly treatment of the Fraser men and their nonexistent hearts,” she retorted, forgetting that she should be ingratiating herself to this Fraser instead of antagonizing him as if he were Bran. She’d grown up surrounded by males. Plus, she’d been defending herself against her ex-boyfriend for so long, that backing down from a confrontation did not come so easily to her. “From whom did you steal that horse,” he inquired brusquely. Ariel drew in a deep breath. His intense gaze unsettled her but she refused to show it. “That horse is mine!” she ground out indignantly. “I did not steal anything!” “From whom did you purchase her, then?” he asked slowly, his lips pressed tightly together, his eyes narrowing. “Lady was a gift!” The warrior’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?” he purred, looking over at the beautifully kept, expensive mare, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “That’s quite a generous gift.” Ariel didn’t focus much on his words. She was too busy trying to figure out why she didn’t mind the close proximity of this impressive warrior. It wasn’t proper…but that didn’t seem to dampen her growing curiosity about him. Lord MacDonnel never allowed her to meet the visitors that came to their castle, so she hadn’t met anyone new in so long. Ariel would die before admitting it to a soul, but she was kind of fascinated by this irritating warrior. “Was it your husband who gifted you with Lady?” he inquired in an oddly bored tone. Ariel automatically shook her head, her eyes widening in wonder when she felt a flood of relief pour off of him. Why was he glad that she wasn’t married? Why would he even care? Perhaps he didn’t like the complication of a spouse coming after him when he killed their mate. “Ahhh… so it was a special friend who gave you this costly mare?” he insinuated boldly, an appreciative male look gleaming in those fiery eyes as they raked over her slender but very female form. Ariel gasped, her eyes rounding with dawning comprehension as she gaped at him in horror. Mentally shaking herself out of her thoughts, she reprimanded him with her tone. “My uncle gave it to me!” she lied. Actually, her best friend, Kaid, had generously gifted her with one of his favorite horses after her spirited, white stallion had been stolen during the Fraser attack. The young warrior’s deep, resonant chuckle and sardonic expression told her what kind of uncle he thought she had, causing her face to flush with humiliation and anger. She was sorely tempted to slap him. Slowly, as if she were talking to a dull-witted child, Ariel ground out, “I am not a light-skirt, nor will I ever be!” “You are well-spoken and obviously cherished. Some lenient old soul has allowed you far too much freedom to speak your mind and yet you are claiming that you don’t have a price?” he harassed, clearly amused. “Mine comes with vows,” she stated coolly, her expressive eyes showing just what she thought of him. “Ahh…so marriage is what you’re vying for, is it?” he questioned thoughtfully. “Not with you!” she retorted firmly, her patience wearing thin. “I have an urgent need to speak with your Lord, which is why I am on Fraser land in the first place. And I’m sure he would be most upset if he knew that you had mistreated a young female in distress,” she bluffed primly, giving him a pointed look of reproof. He chuckled and something odd flickered in his remarkable golden eyes as he scrutinized her with growing interest. “So, you seek Lord Fraser, do you? Will he be offered a chance at your hand in marriage?” She sneered indelicately. “I wouldn’t marry your warlord for all the coin in the Highlands!” Golden eyes narrowed disapprovingly. “Really?” His lips curved slightly but this time it was not in amusement. “And why is that?” he asked quietly, his curiosity clearly piqued. Instinctively, Ariel knew that she had irritated this young warrior with her last answer. He had that same over-calm tone and stillness that Kaid got when irritated with one of the warriors he trained. Kaid! The thought of her over-protective best friend jolted her into action. Kaid would be back from hunting all too soon. She needed to get away from this overly-inquisitive warrior and head towards the Fraser stronghold immediately. Reaching up, Ariel began gathering her hair together before pulling her hood back in place as she absently spoke. “Well, to be honest, there’s a long list of reasons but I really must keep riding. I need to speak with your leader before it gets too late in the day. If he denies my request, I will need to find other lodgings before nightfall.” Abruptly turning, Ariel felt his exasperation sharply rising as she briskly walked away from him. In only a few strides, the warrior’s large hand locked painfully around her upper arm as he effortlessly slung her around to face him, making her hood fly backwards. Ariel should have been frightened as she glanced into his hard-set face, but instead, her own temper violently erupted. Flinging all thoughts of self-preservation out the door, she purposely threw a verbal jab in as she protested, “I have important things to do, Fraser! I don’t have time to play cat and mouse with a boy!” Her movements were furious as she jerked out of his grasp and put her hands on her hips, refusing to back down. “Boy?” he repeated, clearly disgruntled. His dark expression was so hilariously sour that amused satisfaction made her lips twitch and Ariel let out a long laugh of true amusement. When her lashes finally lifted, and she glanced at his irritated expression again, Ariel couldn’t help it, she bent over and laughed even harder, feeling some of the tension in her body melt away. “That word got to you, did it?” she finally asked, grinning up at him impishly, her eyes dancing with merriment. The Fraser’s face was fiercely solemn, his gaze a dark, glittering golden hue. With pinched lips, he continued to glower down at her, yet Ariel felt no true animosity coming from him. Finding his sore spot, she couldn’t resist hypothetically poking it. “I apologize,” she stated sweetly, her eyes wide and guileless. “You are probably far older than you appear! I would safely presume ten and seven? Ten and eight?” she estimated, her numbers purposefully low. Actually, he looked to be at least four or five years older than Kaid but his eyes looked knowledgeable far beyond his years. His sweeping glance of her was arrogant and almost bored. “I am over 200 years old,” he stated flatly. She let out a small, almost pleased laugh. “Ah, yes,” she stated in a soothing tone, completely unruffled by his declaration. “I’d forgotten about the whole immortal rumor,” she murmured, waving her hands as if to encompass all of him. Ariel felt his amazement growing when she shrugged her slender shoulders and looked up at him, her demeanor more serious now. “Though I am obviously as normal as anyone else, I might have a few unusual quirks in my nature that have drawn negative attention to me over the years,” she admitted self-consciously, her words grudgingly given in order to make him feel more comfortable--a feeling she had struggled with her whole life. “Like my hair, it’s really strong. I have never found a knife that can cut it. And it won’t break off unless I’m truly sick and close to death.” His brows furrowed. “You’ve been close to death before?” Though she tried to prevent it, her eyes gave away the depth of emotions those memories evoked. “A swordfight accident,” she confirmed, shrugging it away as if it were nothing. “But years…” she mused, shaking her head. “That is a long time to try and act normal around people who would otherwise be afraid of you. It must grow wearisome at times,” she pondered aloud, with more wisdom and insight than was usual for someone so young. Ariel stood perfectly still, forgetting even to breathe for a long moment, as his predatory yellow eyes silently engaged her soft violet ones most directly, riveting her to the spot. “You are correct. At times, it does grow tedious. And yet, I have not grown tired of acting normal in your presence as of yet.” He gave her an evil, threatening lift of one dark brow. “So, unless you want me to revert to my more…bestial…instincts, you will immediately begin explaining what you are doing here!” he bit out impatiently, done with being nice. Ariel gasped loudly, taken aback. “I am not scared of you!” she stormed, her temper rising to meet his. His hard hands ruthlessly grasped her wrists. “Perhaps…” he began in a low purr, “you will be more cooperative if a 200-year-old vampire kisses you.” His words had the desired effect on her nerves. Ariel gaped at him, letting out an indignant, “What?” Putting all of her weight into it, she furiously stomped on his foot with her heel, which wasn’t very effective. Then she twisted, vigorously trying to tug her wrists free from his grasp. His deep, rumbling chuckle made her pause in confusion. “Ahh…that word got to you, did it?” he mocked, throwing Ariel’s words back at her. She whirled back around to face him. Eyes narrowing, she noted the wide, amused smile on his face. No fangs were visible but the fact that his teeth were so startling white and perfectly straight up close, seemed to increase her irritation with him. Did this annoying young Fraser have no weakness or flaw, she wondered petulantly. He chuckled to himself again. “What is so funny?” she asked suspiciously, a slight frown creasing her forehead. “The fact that you think I would be attracted to a skinny, slip of a girl, like you,” he alleged, looking decidedly bored and uninterested. Surprised, Ariel gaped at him in stunned amazement, not quite sure she’d heard him correctly. “But you just said…” she started to remind him, feeling like a fool because his vengeful words had made her chest hurt. For some unexplainable reason, her stupid heart apparently wanted this dark, handsome young man to find her attractive. It unnerved her that his touch could make her pulse quicken and her breath come in shallow spurts. He was a six-foot-four arrogant Fraser, she reasoned. Without a doubt, he was her enemy and the thought of winning over an adversary was thrilling. That was the only reason she reacted so strongly to him. It was surely an ordinary reaction to meeting anyone new, she concluded mulishly. “Ask me to escort you to the castle,” he demanded brusquely, releasing her. She gave him an indignant, stubborn look, rubbing her wrists where his hands had bitten into her flesh. Heavily muscled arms crossed over his chest. “I’m not the only Fraser lurking in these woods and every single one of them will stop you on your journey.” “Well, perhaps I will like one of them better,” she stalled haughtily, still stung by his vexing comment. “Yes, and perhaps they will like you better, as well,” he pointed out suggestively. Glaring daggers at him, she stubbornly remained silent. A wicked smile played on his full lips. “Ask me.” He was confident, his smirk telling her that he had her cornered. Ariel surveyed him with a long, withering glance. “Fine!” she gritted out before tilting her head and giving him a fake smile that probably looked more like a grimace. “Dearest Sir,” she quipped sarcastically, “can you, please, take a break from your busy, busy life of harassing young, helpless females and their cute, defenseless pets and escort me to your dark, gloomy, fog encrusted fortress?” Pursing his lips, the large warrior waited a few heartbeats, pretending to ponder the request. “Well, there were a few more white fluffy bunnies that I wanted to terrorize in the woods before nightfall, but I suppose I can help assist you, just this once. Let’s try not to make it into a habit, though.” Ariel’s eyebrows lowered and her lips pursed in an effort to avoid the humor that was tugging at the corners of her mouth. Why did she find this annoying warrior so amusing? She shouldn’t. He was her enemy and she did not like him. “But first I will need to know a few things. Starting with your name and why you need to see Lord Fraser,” he demanded. Suddenly riddled with nerves at the mention of Lord Fraser, a cold infusion of fear seemed to fill Ariel’s whole body. Unexpectedly wanting this warrior’s comfort now, she reflexively moved over to his left side, as if she were going to impart a secret in his ear. Tilting her head, she looked up at him, her anxious gaze meeting his golden eyes. Ariel was so nervous about the next step she was taking that she could barely get the words out as she breathed, “I-I need to ask Lord Fraser…” She paused, a lump of apprehension growing within her at the thought of being anywhere near the brutal warlord. Her distress was clearly written on her pretty face as she tried to stave off her mindless panic. She hated having such a childish reaction of anxiety to any thought of the notorious warlord but she couldn’t seem to help it. Her choppy, panicked breathes increased and she unconsciously reached up, wrapping her hands around his muscled left forearm as if to anchor herself. “…for sanctuary.” The young warrior’s jaw clenched tightly, his yellow eyes starting to burn with evil intent. “What has occurred that would force you into asking for sanctuary?” he demanded in an eerily calm tone. Her eyes widened as she saw and felt the fury now emanating from his powerful body. “Oh…” she whispered, assuming his angry expression meant that his people didn’t like or welcome visitors, just as he’d claimed earlier. “So your clan doesn’t ever approve of giving strangers a place to shelter from danger?” she summarized quietly. Cowardly relief swept thru her, then a painful twinge of regret, as she realized that she would be unable to avenge her clan. Absolutely none of the ache in her was connected to the fact that she would be leaving this new, annoying warrior behind. None! Her fingers tightened, not ready to let go of him yet, but then she took a deep breath, forcing her fingers to slowly release his arm. Her emotions were in a chaotic mess. “I understand,” she whispered grudgingly, avoiding his gaze, her expressive eyes now illuminating with the tiny bit of hurt she felt at his unwillingness to aide her. “I will seek shelter elsewhere.” With growing resignation, she started to take a step backwards but he surprised her by immediately slipping a steely, uncompromising arm around her waist and easily bringing her body in even closer to him, neatly tucking her into his side. “What clan are you running from, mouse?” he demanded, his tone hard. “Tell me.” Panic assailed her once more and Ariel’s fingers clinched into his expensive tunic. “Why do you want to know that information now?” “Tell me!” he grated irritably. “No! You have refused to protect me from my uncle! You just want to send him a message to get me in trouble for attempting to stab you!” Ariel accused, the blood draining from her face at the thought of the torture Lord Fraser would probably inflict on her when his messenger came back confused and he finally realized that she had lied. His hand slid under her hair and wrapped around her nape in a comforting gesture. “Never would I do that!” he hissed softly, his tone vehement but oddly reassuring as he leaned his head closer to hers. “Now calm yourself, lass, and tell me what has you seeking a safe haven.” Looking into his patient, mesmerizingly-attractive eyes, she breathlessly admitted, “I’m a MacEwan. My name is Elizabeth,” Ariel stated, officially starting her charade full of untruths. It was a pretense that would enable her to seek the revenge her whole clan needed, but only she would be aware of. [Ariel~past] Ariel’s only true friend from the outside, Sarah, had visited the MacDonnel clan numerous times, telling Ariel stories about several of the clans her family frequently visited. Among the stories, Ariel had found the MacEwans to be a most tiresome lot, especially the Lord’s three insufferable sons. Over the past year, Ariel had asked Sarah hundreds of questions and had memorized every detail about the clan. The Frasers were not allies with the MacEwans and although the basic facts were right, it was doubtful that Lord Fraser would bother sending a messenger to the small clan to verify her relationship with them. Although she’d always remained hidden behind a cloak to keep her identity safe, Ariel had recently approached a familiar band of gypsies that went clan to clan selling their trinkets. In trade for healing one of their suffering elders--a chore her father had sometimes requested of her as a favor to the informative people--she had managed to have one of the older women secretly acquire a MacEwan plaid for her. She’d placed the plaid in the bottom of her satchel, proudly giving one more piece of credibility to her story. [Ariel~present] “Elizabeth,” he repeated softly, rolling the name over his tongue. “Why do you need sanctuary?” “To avoid my marriage,” she admitted evenly and felt his hold on her tighten. “So you are married?” he probed grimly, his jaw hardening. Ariel blinked at his darkening expression, uncomfortably aware of his sudden anger over something she’d said. “No, not yet…if ever,” she sighed with resignation, quietly distraught at her own reality. She had no marriage prospects within her own clan. Her sister, Priscilla, often enjoyed reminding Ariel of the fact that she was illegitimate, had no dowry, and would probably never be able to marry anyone. It was not a very uplifting situation. The warrior’s body seemed to relax somewhat and he let out a deep breath. “Continue…” he encouraged, with eyes that were much calmer than before, as his large hand started to casually massage the tension in her nape. Ugh! This Fraser had already found her weakness. The relieving pressure of his deft fingers on the back of her neck made all thought flee. Ariel immediately groaned, practically going limp because of his soothing administrations. This warrior’s hand was strong and sure on her as he worked out the tension. Another approving sound escaped as she helplessly leaned her forehead against the side of his chest, closing her eyes. She could feel his bemused pleasure at her reaction to him. “I cannot focus when you’re coddling me!” she protested but did not mind his spoiling her in the least. She was far more comfortable hugging people than the average person. It relaxed her and took the edge off of her built up healing powers to be close to others. She had always felt compelled to be near her clan members, to show affection and be loved in return. It made her feel complete. Ariel had inadvertently been trained from a very early age to seek constant comfort and companionship from her best friend, who wanted her at his side at all times. Unfortunately, the result of always coddling someone else is that you got used to being overprotected and cherished in return. Kaid was not a person to demonstrate his affection with anyone but her. So when he was traveling, she was at a loss and sought out and demanded more affection from her other brothers and father. But she was never as comfortable snuggling up next to anyone else as she was with Kaid. And yet, for some odd reason, it felt very natural to be next to this Fraser warrior. She would never admit it, but the feeling of rightness was so strong that she feared it might even surpass her comfort level with Kaid, which was unbelievably silly. Letting go of the Fraser’s tunic, she didn’t feel one bit awkward as she boldly wrapped her arms all the way around his middle, burrowing her face into his tunic in hopes of stilling her trembling form. Ariel didn’t see the Fraser’s face but she felt the bemusement and perplexity of emotions radiating from his muscular form at her endearing gesture. Fortunately, none of those feelings were of the negative variety and that made her relax even further. When his hand finally stopped its massage, she gave a final sigh, pulled back a little and quietly continued, “My uncle is the only remaining relative I have, which means I’m supposed to obey him, but I just can’t. He’s trying to force me into accepting an unwanted marriage with a man I do not want or love. He said he wants me to willingly concede and say yes but I don’t think he cares anymore if I am willing or not.” Ariel swallowed nervously. “I left two days ago because he was becoming so angry with me. I knew if I stayed it would only become even more of an awful situation.” He remained silent and she warily continued, “I-I know that you’re supposed to respect and obey your elders, but I refuse to spend my whole life with someone I don’t even like. I will not let my uncle’s greed for power destroy what happiness I could have in my life. And if I must find that happiness with another clan, then so be it. If Lord Fraser will not permit me to stay, then I will go elsewhere, to another clan.” “Who is the man he wants you to marry?” “Lord MacEwan’s eldest son.” “But then you would someday become Lady MacEwan,” he pointed out. Ariel made a face. “The warrior has always been protective of me but he has a cruel streak that turns my stomach, not to mention his womanizing and drinking. I would rather be a peasant and work in the fields then let him rule my life,” she scoffed. Lying was beginning to come quite easily to Ariel as she began to add new depth to the story she’d prepared. “And there is no other MacEwan clansman you would wish to marry?” he curiously questioned. “Nay,” she murmured, pleased now that she had gotten the opportunity to tell her story to someone else before she told it to Lord Fraser. It had given her a chance to perfect her tale. Ariel might even be able to shed a few tears in front of the cruel, inflexible Lord. “You said you left two days ago, where have you been staying?” “In the forest.” The warrior’s strong jaw clinched and irritation was apparent in his tone as he bit out, “The forest is too dangerous for a woman.” Ariel shrugged, secretly pleased with his show of concern. “I’ve done it hundreds of times when I needed to get away from my uncle for a day or two. Nothing has ever really happened. Well,” she corrected, giving him a pointed look, “until today.” Sighing, she pulled away from him and looked down as she nudged a small pebble with her foot. When she glanced back up at the warrior again, her pensive look was mingling with insecurity and hope. “Do you think he will let me stay?” she questioned softly, her violet eyes guarded and almost fearful. Pursing his lips, the dark Fraser looked as if he was contemplating the situation before stating, “Aye, he will let you stay, though I doubt he will let you work very hard.” She gasped. “I am a good field worker,” she assured him eagerly. “Lord Fraser will probably take one look at those amazing eyes of yours and decide that he wants to keep you.” Ariel appreciated his kind words. Mentally wrapping up his compliment, she gently tucked it away in the back of her mind to savor later. Then she made a face at him. “Why? Does he like women who are too skinny and look like boys?” Ariel quipped, throwing part of his earlier comment back at him. She seriously doubted that the notoriously coldhearted chieftain would find her one bit appealing. Her own clan members were always very courteous and friendly but no one had ever really shown much interest in actually courting her except for Bran. And even he had changed his mind in the end. The Fraser let out a low chuckle that sounded warm and deep. “You don’t look like a boy.” “You said I was too skinny,” she petulantly pointed out, determined not to take him too seriously. He gazed down at her for a long moment. “I don’t think Lord Fraser will be displeased with your appearance,” he stated brusquely. Grimacing, she scoffed, “I don’t care if my appearance pleases his mighty Lordship or not!” The warrior’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you seek Lord Fraser’s help when you clearly loathe him?” With a mischievous, convincing grin, she eased his suspicions by admitting, “Because, even though my uncle would never admit it, he is scared to death of Lord Fraser. He wholeheartedly believes all the tales of the Fraser brothers being immortal vampires. Those stories are whispered to all the children to prevent them from wandering in the woods after dusk.” Shaking her head, she murmured, “He will never think to look for me here.” Her grin spread into a glowing smile as if she were contemplating her uncle’s frustration. “Good, then you won’t have to deal with him again,” the Fraser murmured, gently smoothing the soft, disheveled hair off of her forehead. Searching his dark face, Ariel gave him an odd, tentative look. “What’s going on in that head of yours now?” he asked perceptively, as he meditatively continued to brush his fingers through her disheveled hair, trying to smooth down the silky, windblown curls, yet it seemed to make them even curlier. Solemnly, her gaze locked with his. “Your eyes disturb me,” she found herself confessing He cocked a brow questioningly. “The color, I mean,” she stammered, a little flustered by his nearness, especially now that he’d grudgingly admitted that she might have a few redeeming qualities. She didn’t want to do anything to mar his new opinion of her. “I don’t know very much about the Frasers. Your clan is very secretive. But I remember my uncle saying that Lord Fraser and his two brothers had hair as black as sin and eyes like the flames of Hell.” Ariel inwardly groaned, blushing furiously because she had not meant to repeat that much. Good grief! She’d better be more careful around this male lest she blurt out something that would get her immediately killed, like the fact that she was really a MacDonnel, his most hated enemy. “My uncle always did have a flare for the dramatic,” she stammered awkwardly and then relaxed when she saw his full lips curling up at the corners in amusement. He didn’t seem fazed by anything that she’d said. “It’s just that you have that same distinct coloring. Are you a cousin of the three brothers?” she asked her eyes wide with curiosity. “Nay,” he said solemnly, still sliding his fingers into her alluring hair and easing out any tangles. She clearly saw the arrogant pride in every line of his powerful body. “I am one of the brothers.” Displeasure registered on her face. And then on his. “What was that look for?” he demanded darkly. Taking a deep, stabilizing breath, she shrugged her shoulders and widened her eyes, trying to portray innocent indifference. Ignoring his question, she probed, “Are you the middle brother, then?” “Nay,” he murmured with an arrogant gleam in his golden eyes. She let out a long sigh, her shoulders drooping with relief. “Then you are the youngest brother,” she assumed aloud, smiling up at him and looking very pleased. “That means that you haven’t seen as many battles as your older brothers, which means that you surely haven’t killed as many men, either.” With a mildly disapproving look, she leaned closer and confidentially admitted, “I think your eldest brother is a little too excessive with his killing.” “Elizabeth?” he began grimly, his palms coming up to cup her sweet face. “Aye?” Ariel whispered curiously, eyes wide. Amazing eyes, he’d called them. Her silly little heart was still glowing happily over that tiny bit of praise. “I am not the youngest brother, either,” he stated. Ariel blinked, her forehead furrowing in confusion. “Nay!” she scoffed with an amused sound. “Because that would make you…” Her voice suddenly faltered. “Lord Fraser,” he provided helpfully, with an arrogant smirk. Chapter 9 Lord Fraser? Ariel’s eyes widened in reaction to his announcement and she silently gaped at him in open dismay. Then, before she could talk herself out of panicking, she instinctively bolted, blindly turning to run towards the thick line of bushes where she could just make out small fissures of white fur, assuming that that was her horse. It was confirmed when its white tail swished up and slapped back down. She’d been lucky that the warrior’s hands had been on her face or she wouldn’t have been able to get away. “Elizabeth!” the Fraser clipped impatiently, stifling a curse as she darted out of his grasp. Once more, he caught up with her in only a few strides. But somehow, right as he was grabbing her around the waist, she tripped over an uncovered tree root causing him to fall right along with her. He braced himself to pad her fall and even wrapped a stabilizing hand around the side of her face to keep her injured head from hitting against his chest instead of using it to halt his own rough landing. Once they stopped skidding across the grass and crunching leaves, he neatly rolled over, pinning her beneath him. Even though she had fallen on top of the Fraser, Ariel still got the wind knocked out of her. He wasn’t exactly the softest thing to land on. As she tried to catch her breath, she stared up at the huge barbarian, her eyes chaotic. He was completely pinning her body down to the soft forest floor, those flaming eyes intensely watching her almost as if he was afraid she’d escape him. Yet her body’s supernatural protective abilities were lying dormant right now. That alone told her that she could trust this young Fraser. If he was truly the notorious vampire Lord, her protective instincts would surely be rioting for her to get far, far away from him. Then it hit her. He was jesting! This exasperating Fraser knew that she didn’t like his warlord, so he was pretending to be that monster in order to get back at her for calling him a boy. Surely such a horrifying man as Lord Fraser wouldn’t have looked so young, nor would he have quietly listened while she’d said such dreadful things about him. The real Fraser warlord would have run her thru, or sliced her down, or strung her up by her fingernails! Something ominous like that. “I don’t believe you,” she admonished with a wry grin, her spirits soaring with relief. “You are jesting with me!” Biting her lip to ward off a smile, Ariel impudently lifted her hands and ran her fingers over the top of his head, thoroughly feeling his scalp. She was surprised that his thick hair felt so soft. “What exactly are you doing?” he inquired in bewilderment, his fascinated gaze fixed on the amused glint in her eyes. “I’m checking for horns,” she answered seriously. “Nope! No horns,” she announced, after methodically rumpling his hair. Moving her hands from his hair to his face, she put a thumb and forefinger on both sides of his mouth. “Let me see your teeth,” she ordered, baring her own in example. When he complied, she inspected his straight white teeth. “Nope! No permanently distended sharp vampire fangs dripping blood, either. You are a fraud!” she proclaimed, smiling warmly into his surprised golden eyes. Gently, she chided, “You almost had me there. I almost believed you.” Slowly shaking his head, he let out a low, rumbling chuckle. “You are the most unpredictable brat. Two-hundred-year-old vampires don’t go around with their fangs showing, Elizabeth.” Contemplating her with a lazy grin, he asked, “How old are you?” “How old would you guess?” she asked impishly, still glowing because this handsome warrior thought her humorous even if he was a stinky ol’ Fraser. She didn’t seem to mind or care that they were sprawled out in the lush, tree covered clearing. Or that he was still lying above her on the grass. “Hmm…you look old enough,” he mused quietly. “Old enough?” she repeated naively. “I am almost ten and six,” she murmured, unconsciously blushing, a little embarrassed because most girls her age were already married with at least one child by now. “But I can work in the field just as productively as any man,” she quickly re-assured him. “Probably better since my fingers are smaller and more nimble.” He shook his head. “I meant that you looked old enough to bear children,” he answered directly. Then he specified, “My children.” Even though she was completely stunned by his words, Ariel quickly shook her head. “Nay, I will not bear bastards. I intend to marry and then have children, in that order.” “Fine. You will marry me and then have my children,” he stated firmly. It was not a question. A sad smile flitted over her pretty features, her eyes filling with a pained vulnerability. “Oh, well…you don’t want me,” she admitted in a small whisper, not meeting his eyes. “I was born out of wedlock. I-I’m illegitimate.” He raised a dark eyebrow. “And…?” he demanded, waiting for her to elaborate. “My parents were never married.” “I know what illegitimate means, Elizabeth.” Then, somehow understanding her insecurities, he gently elaborated, “I’m just waiting for you to tell me why that should matter. Am I supposed to judge you off of your parents’ actions? Am I supposed to eliminate you as a wife choice because of mistakes they made? You are the one I want and that is final.” Her eyes sparkling with genuine fondness now, Ariel grudgingly smiled and then bit her lower lip. “Well…maybe I like you a little bit more now because of your thoughtful words,” she admitted lightheartedly, holding up her thumb and forefinger to show a tiny amount of space between them. “And maybe I will remember to include your soul in my nightly prayers every once in a while. But that does not change the fact that I cannot marry a Fraser,” she confessed honestly, clearly appalled by such talk. “Really?” he said with deceptive calm, gently stroking his thumb along the side of her neck. “You do realize that when you’re given sanctuary here you will be living with Frasers all around you, correct? Who did you think to eventually marry, if not a Fraser clansman?” “Well, I hadn’t really thought that far,” she admitted but then gasped when an idea popped into her head. “I know! If I meet one of your visitors that I like, I can marry him! Someone that’s tall and looks as strong as you,” she murmured approvingly, laying her hand on his upper arm, which was braced on the soft grass near her face. It was bulging with muscle. “But I would need someone who is nicer,” she emphasized, still not a bit concerned or bothered by the fact that a vampire--whom she’d just met--basically had her trapped, as he leaned over her prone form in the grass. She felt surprisingly comfortable with this new warrior. The Fraser scowled down at her. “I’m nice!” he growled. “I said,” she began, and then poked him in the chest twice as she sounded out, “ni-cer!” His scowl deepened. “Nicer doesn’t keep you safe.” “I don’t care!” He met her mulish expression with one of his own. “As I already said, you will marry me.” She gasped in outrage at his heavy-handed manner. “No!” she blurted. “Fraser’s are--are too violent! They’re always fighting!” Inspired, she threw in, “And I don’t want my husband dying and leaving me with ten kids to take care of all by myself!” “Ten?” the warrior chuckled, apparently relieved to have gotten to the bottom of her fears. “We are a fierce lot,” he agreed proudly. “But you will always be well protected even if something were to happen to me, which it will not.” Ariel stared up at the fierce-looking warrior in disbelief. His clear, intelligent gaze was wise, as if he really had lived longer than the age he appeared. Maybe he could be reasoned with. “Surely there is someone else you could marry! Someone you’ve known for a longer time period,” she suggested lightly, a little nervous by the determined set of his jaw, combined with the helpless position she was currently in. How was she ever going to get away from this aggressive, overbearing male? Ariel had known before she came here that there was a chance she might not make it home, but never in her wildest imagination had she expected a forced marriage to be the reason. Thieves accosting her in the forest…even getting lost…but never this! “There is no one else I would consider for the position of wife. Plus, I already have you in my clutches, so I suppose you will do well enough,” he teased matter-of-factly, lightly brushing his fingers through the bouncy hair by her ear. Ariel just stared up at him, unable to take it all in. Her own clansmen were all very friendly and affectionate with her, but never enamored enough to court her. Then, the first person she meets while off of her family’s land demands that she marry him? How terrifying…and exciting! Although loyalty prevented her from admitting it aloud, Ariel was having a very pleasant time flirting with this vampire. Sighing, she attempted to reason with him again. “You don’t really know me,” she gently reminded him. “I’m sure at one point the other women whom you’ve favored were quite interesting, as well, and now you have grown bored with them. The exact same thing will happen once you get to know me. So, you see, there’s no point.” “I have waited over 200 years to ask a woman to marry me,” he stated truthfully. Ariel’s eyes lit with secret relief. Although few details were known about the three vampire brothers, Ariel knew that the true Lord Fraser had been married before. She didn’t point the error out to this warrior but he had just contradicted himself, proving that he truly wasn’t Lord Fraser. “Why so long?” she whispered. He shrugged nonchalantly. “To be honest, I’ve never met anyone that I thought would make a good partner. Nobody outside my clan has ever heard my age and the fact that I’m a vampire and not instantly been afraid of me…until today. You, Elizabeth MacEwan, instantly accepted me for who I am.” His voice seemed to rumble with approval. “And, even though you were furious when I insinuated that you were more than just a girl, you finally admitted that maybe you were a little different, as well, in an attempt to make me feel better.” His eyes warmed at the memory. “Earlier, after your hood fell off and I was crouched beside you, I instinctively knew that you were that female--the only one for me--and I was terrified that I might have irreparably injured you by my own hand.” The warrior took a deep breath, as if he needed to ease the tightness in his chest from the remembered fear. Violet eyes wide, Ariel just stared up at him as she repeatedly reminded herself that he was a Fraser and she should not be flattered…at all. “Well, for your first attempt at a marriage proposal, that was fairly good,” she teasingly whispered, suddenly feeling all warm on the inside. “And now that you have gained practice, you will be even more persuasive and charming the next time you ask someone.” Dark brows lowering, he gave her a dire look, causing a small snort to escape her. Then an impish smile spread across Ariel’s lips. Patting his arm in a conciliatory way, she realized that her hands had been on him the whole time without her thinking twice about it. Ariel would have to stop touching him…right after she put in one more dig. “But maybe you should bring knives--your own knives--just in case the next girl you ask is resistant to your offer.” “Or maybe I can just use one of the fine blades you have generously gifted me with today,” he niggled, and then smirked approvingly at the narrowed glower that suggestion produced. Moving his arm, he reached back and pulled a knife from a sheath on his belt. “Or what of this blade? Will it work for when I’m trying to coerce that special female into marrying me?” Ariel gasped when she saw the bejeweled dagger he now held out in one wide palm. Reverently taking it from him, she came up on one elbow, starring at the blade’s unique carvings. “Oh, my...it’s beautiful!” she whispered, completely in awe of the costly, well-made dagger. A boyish grin spread across the vampire’s handsome face at her delighted reaction. “I am pleased with your appreciation of my toy. This blade is a matched set.” She gasped again. “Truly?” “Yes, the only difference is that this one is missing a ruby.” He pointed low on the handle where a square-shaped spot was empty. “Eww...I like that a stone is missing,” she defended. “It affords this one more character and mystery.” “People have been searching for that ruby since before I was born. It was predicted that the person who found it would marry me.” Her expression brightened with curiosity. “Who predicted such a thing?” “A witch.” Ariel’s eyes filled with twinkling mischief. “I hope I find it!” One dark brow lifted in surprise and then his eyes immediately narrowed with suspicion as he ominously growled, “Why?” With a delicious giggle at his withering expression, she plotted, “If I was the one to find it, I could hide in the barn and when the stable lad came in, I would flick it out in his path to find.” He made a serious effort to look annoyed but then he laughed down at her. “You are just not right in the head!” “Part of that might be your fault for hitting me so hard!” “That could be true.” He sounded so disgruntled that amused satisfaction made her lips twitch again. “I still can’t believe there are two of these. So the other one isn’t missing any jewels?” “No, this one was my mother’s. My father’s is still perfect. After the ruby came up missing, he enjoyed teasing her about not taking care of her possessions. My father loved that he could hang that over his wife’s head whenever he wanted.” He smiled unconsciously, obviously warmed by the memory. “My parents wore the daggers as adornments whenever we entertained guests at the castle.” That made her smile. “How striking they must have looked!” She carefully handed the dagger back to him. He re-sheathed it and then returned her smile. “Yes, they were both handsome people.” Distracted, she accidently admitted, “I was thinking they must have been very good looking.” Ariel stiffened when she realized what had just come out of her mouth. Golden eyes twinkling with humor, the Fraser raised one dark, inquisitive eyebrow and smirked at her obvious discomfort. Not letting the opportunity pass, he teased, “Really? And why would you think such a thing?” Though her cheeks heated with embarrassment, Ariel did not miss a beat, quickly recovering from her blunder. “Well, I’ve heard that handsome couples usually have the most hideous looking children,” she sniffed disdainfully. He scowled down at her and Ariel bit her lip to keep from laughing. “And those offspring are known for being mean!” With two pointy finger jabs to his chest, she elaborated, “Not nice!” His eyes were narrowed against laughter so his look grew even more ominous. She shrugged with one shoulder. “I’m just telling you what I’ve heard,” she defended herself. “In your case, it all seemed to match up,” she managed to say with a relatively straight face. “Weeeeell…” he began in a quiet, threatening tone, “I’ve heard that women who are ticklish are actually witches and should be burned at the stake.” It was Ariel’s turn to scowl. “I’m not ticklish!” she huffed, her lie becoming clear as she ever-so-slowly pressed her elbows into her ribs. His fingers began to move up her sides. “Hmm…maybe I should check you. Do not want a witch inside the Fraser stronghold.” A smug, devilish smile appeared on his handsome face when she immediately jerked, trying to roll to her side to escape him but his immense strength wouldn’t allow her to budge, his lightest touch already making her start to laugh. “No!” she squealed. Her laughter continued as his fingers gently moved back down her sides, ratcheting up a notch when he grasped her stomach, digging his fingers in. His smile broadened when her laughter burst out full force and she squirmed uncontrollably beneath him, sweet, melodious laughter echoing throughout the forest, causing leaves to rustle as small creatures skittered away or took flight. He finally stopped and she caught her breath. “I hate you!” she gasped again. “You’re mean!” she accused tiredly. He chuckled down at her, not looking the least bit contrite. “And I’m probably getting all dirty. We should probably get up now,” she suggested, putting her hands against his hard, muscled chest and lightly pushing to emphasize her point. “No,” he grumbled with almost childlike stubbornness, as if she was trying to end his fun too early. “I need to get a head start before you begin collecting tiny sticks for that witch-burning fire.” He didn’t budge, just stared down at her for a long moment before softly assuring her, “I would never harm you, Elizabeth.” His voice was oddly protective. Blinking in surprise, Ariel returned his level gaze. “Thank you,” she whispered with a soft, pleased smile. She felt a little guilty at the thought of her deception but firmly pushed it away. She was doing what she had to in order to ensure her clans future safety. And she had to be friendly to pull her plan off. That was all. In the next instant the Fraser warrior gently caught her hands, which were still pressing against his chest. Gently but firmly manacling her wrists, he gave her an almost, predatory smile as he slowly lifted them above her head. Then his lips descended down, closer to her mouth, his dark hair falling forward on one side. “I don’t think you should get up yet,” his deep voice was whisper-soft, almost coaxing. “Why?” she whispered, her beautiful eyes widening at his display of brute strength and the glimmer of raw virility in his bold gaze. Her eyes lowered to his mouth. It was a good mouth. Full bottom lip. She let out a sigh. A very good mouth. Leaning even closer he gently brushed the side of her mouth with his. Ariel gasped, cringing away from his touch. “I don’t think we should do that,” she whispered nervously, staring into those mesmerizing golden eyes where an unmistakable hunger burned. One dark eyebrow lifted. “Really?” “Yes, really,” she whispered firmly. “Why shouldn’t we?” “Well… I’m sure you’ve spent lots of time kissing other girls and I’d probably be a disappointment b-because I don’t think I’m very good at it,” she stammered uncertainly. “Not very good at…kissing?” he drawled. She blushed and looked away dejectedly. “I’ve only ever kissed one person…and I don’t know that it went so well.” At their isolated picnic spot in the forest, she and Bran had often times eaten and then ended up kissing for long periods of time until bran’s breathing would grow labored and his tight hold on her would leave bruises the next day. Brandos had kissed her like he wanted her more than his next breath but--after all was said and done--he had easily rejected her and never looked back. Obviously, she was lacking in many areas. “A little more practice will be good for you, then. I promise.” She gave him a doubtful look. “Surely my little mouse is not a coward,” he taunted. Seeing the challenging glint in his beautiful eyes, Ariel took a deep breath and pushed aside her fear of rejection. Taking matters into her own hands, she lifted her head, pressing her lips to his for several heartbeats before pulling back. Although she would never admit it, Ariel’s heart felt like it would break a rib and thump-thump right out of her chest. Good grief! She had just kissed a loathsome Fraser and his lips had actually felt quite…pleasant. The dark warrior looked wryly amused. “That will not earn you safe passage to the Fraser stronghold.” Realizing that he wasn’t going to get off of her until he was satisfied with their kiss, she audibly sighed. “So I must work and toil to gain safe passage to your little home?” she mocked. He gave her a wicked, heart-stopping grin. “Mm-hmm…on your back.” That outrageous statement startled a laugh from Ariel and had her cheeks flaming brighter. “What total drudgery,” she insulted. His golden eyes lit with warm promise. “You will not think so.” His mouth seemed to move closer to hers. Feeling slightly braver and secretly wanting to feel his lips against hers again, Ariel looked into his fiery gaze as he bent his head, taking her mouth in a long, lingering kiss. Ariel made a breathy sound of approval. Releasing her wrists, his big hands pushed into her silken hair, rubbing the silken strands through his fingers. When his tongue delved into the sweetness of her mouth, she was lost in the heady sensation as her own tongue shyly tangled with his. When he growled approvingly, she grew bolder and ran her hands into his clean, soft hair, grasping the dark strands. She heard the warrior groan, his hold on her tightening to a crushing degree as he shifted his body above hers, allowing more of his weight to press down on her. Ariel loved the feel of this huge warrior above her, his hard chest pressing into her softer strength. She whimpered, thoroughly enjoying the amazing sensations as he continued to angle his mouth over hers in deep, searching kisses that left her breathless but still yearning for more. Nothing compared to this. All thoughts that this was one of her sworn enemies were fading further away with every heartbeat. Suddenly, he tensed above her and swore softly. Before she could even open her eyes, he’d pulled them both up and onto their feet. It happened so fast that Ariel gasped at the unnatural quickness of his actions. “Horses are approaching. We must prepare to leave now,” he murmured. Then his strong arms wrapped around her shoulders and lower back, holding her as he looked down into her pretty face, his eyes fixing on her red, slightly swollen lips. Her breathing was not exactly steady as she automatically told him, “We cannot do that again.” His formidable brows lowered in momentary confusion and his arms seemed to tighten as he demanded, “Why not?” Cheeks burning, Ariel laid her forehead against his chest and gave a small wary laugh as she admitted quietly, “Because I liked it far too much.” Lowering his head to hers, he gave a low, husky chuckle as he nuzzled her cheek with his own, nudging her face up until their lips met once more for another intense kiss, his lips devouring hers in a tumultuous storm of desire. When he broke it off again, Ariel stood there in his arms with her eyes still closed. “We can’t do that again,” she repeated with a tiny smile on her lips. Once more, his mouth defiantly lowered for a quick peck. Her lips smirking even wider now, she peeked one eye open and whispered, “Never, ever again.” He grinned and kissed the tip of her nose, then her forehead. “Tell me that later tonight.” “No,” she instantly gasped just to be difficult. “Good,” he answered quite smugly. Realizing that she’d just been tricked by her own stubborn nature, Ariel’s eyes narrowed on him as she grumbled under her breath, “I don’t like you very much.” Laughing outright, he smoothed his hands down her sides, squeezing her waist as he huskily teased, “I could tell.” She gave him a venomous glare that only seemed to further amuse the hateful Fraser. Repeating his words from earlier, he told her, “Horses are approaching. We need to prepare to leave.” With one last possessive squeeze of his arms, he added, “You will ride on my horse with me.” Ariel was about to protest but then he started stroking his large, firm hands over her shoulders and down her back, meticulously cleaning the leaves and dust from her clothing. She groaned her approval when he seemed to linger overlong on her backside and legs. Mmm… now she knew why her wolf liked being stroked. With great difficulty, she finally disentangled herself from him, still a little annoyed by her reaction to this enemy warrior. Taking a deep breath, she breathlessly challenged, “I will ride my own horse.” When she managed to calm down enough, she finally heard the approaching horses, discarded her embarrassment from their kiss and looked up at him. A moment ago, his need for her had been naked on his handsome face. Now he looked as if he were made out of granite. Anxiety flashed in her pretty violet eyes and his stern look softened as he reassured her, “It’s only Fraser’s. No need to worry.” Ariel snorted derisively. “Only Fraser’s?” she mocked under her breath. “Fine!” she agreed almost petulantly, as if they had been arguing and she was being the better person by graciously giving in, “I will ride with you.” Although she tried to hide her fear, Ariel’s voice shook with anxiety at the thought of meeting even more Fraser’s. After he easily lifted her onto his steed, the dark warrior retrieved the four knives he’d confiscated and generously handed them back to her. That surprised a happy little gasp of joy from Ariel. “Thank you,” she whispered approvingly before turning and calling to her horse, Lady. As the Fraser watched the beautiful steed walk towards them, his admiration for the fine-looking beast was obvious in his eyes. Then she called out to her other pet and Ariel saw the warrior’s mouth fall open in disbelief. “Muffin?” he demanded in a gasping, choked voice. “You named that huge, mangy thing, Muffin?!” “I named him when I was two years old!” she defended, giving him a look that could have melted rock. She was used to people making fun of her pet’s name, but as the warrior’s guffaws of laughter echoed through the forest she saw the other two Frasers come into view. She knew they would ask why he was laughing and then all three of them would mock her beloved animal. “Be quiet!” she hissed. “It’s not that funny!” He was now leaning up against a tree, holding his stomach. He looked down at her dog, who had warily come over when she’d called him, then dejectedly laid down with his head on his paws as if he knew they were talking about him. “Muffin,” the Fraser gasped out again, before starting a fresh wave of laughing. “Stop it!” she growled out in frustration. Despite the fact that the two barbarians wearing Fraser plaid were a lot closer now and seemed to be picking up speed, Ariel’s temper got the best of her and she threw a knife towards the laughing young man. Not where it would harm him, of course, but where it would make a point. It stuck in the tree a few inches above where his head had been. However, as her arm had extended out, the whole forest had abruptly come alive with flashes of movement and suddenly the most blood-curdling sounds erupted around her. Ariel froze. Chapter 10 When everything came to a standstill, her new friend was blocking another Fraser from her. The other Fraser--fangs extended and golden eyes flashing murder--would have probably been latched onto her throat by now if her Fraser’s hand hadn’t been around the warrior’s thick, straining neck. For a moment, though, Ariel had almost gotten the impression that the new Fraser vampire was attempting to defend her, as if he’d been worried that her new friend would be angry with Ariel for throwing the knife at him. Surely her imagination was running away with her on this one. The sight of the new Fraser’s fangs should have frightened Ariel senseless but for some reason they didn’t even faze her. She had always known that the Frasers were monstrous, why should she be surprised when it was confirmed in front of her very own eyes. To be honest, the sight of his fangs quite pleased her. To the new Fraser’s surprise, Ariel sighed and smiled quite happily at him. She’d grown up with violet eyes that could glow when her emotions were running high and small delicate fangs that lowered from her gums when she was truly angry or had gone too long without eating. Ariel didn’t crave blood, so she’d always wondered why she had been born with fangs. It was such a confusing mystery to her. Ariel’s warrior released his clansman. “Get back on your horse!” he commanded, his low, very unpleasant tone made goose bumps rise on Ariel’s arms. She was glad that simmering anger wasn’t directed at her. Suddenly, Ariel realized that the horrid, low snarling sound hadn’t stopped. It was coming from right beside her. Muffin--no longer docilely lying next to her horse--was almost unrecognizable in his protective rage. His huge body seemed to have grown to twice his size, every hair on him crackling with evil intention. All his teeth were bared and his eyes were flashing an unholy blue. He looked fiercely demented, like the best dog ever! “Why is she throwing knives at you, Randolph?” the angry Fraser demanded hoarsely, inspecting the girl and wolf with guarded interest. Ariel blinked at the use of her Fraser’s name, secretly grateful that she now knew what to call him. Randolph. The secrecy and mystery surrounding the three Fraser brothers was immense, only increased by their clan member’s covert silence and unwillingness to share information with anyone outside the Fraser clan. She had never heard any of the Fraser brothers called by their individual names before. But her conscious had been sorely pricking her that she had been kissing a young man, when she hadn’t even known his given name. She noticed Randolph suddenly stiffen, his gaze immediately sliding to rest on her face. Penetrating, light yellow eyes surveyed her closely, as if wanting to judge her reaction to something. When Ariel raised one delicate eyebrow, giving him a patient, questioning look, his lips curled up on one side in smug satisfaction. Pursing her lips, she gently shook her head, judging his sanity to be sorely lacking. This vampire named Randolph was so strange. “Elizabeth, this is my brother, Connor.” Ariel’s eyes immediately shot to the other man, her pretty face suddenly drained of all color until he quickly clarified, “He’s my middle brother.” Ariel took a deep breath, giving an obvious sigh of relief. “Oh, good!” Despite what she might think of the Frasers, she had to grudgingly admit that masculine good looks obviously ran in the family. With those strong jaws, muscular builds, plus intimidating height, they both appeared quite formidable. The red-headed Fraser who had ridden up with Connor was introduced to her, as well. Hearing that his name was Ross, she turned her head and gave the burly man a shy smile of acknowledgement. Clever brown eyes beamed with amusement as he gave her a confident head nod. “Tis a pleasure,” he said by way of greeting. Giving the other two men an oddly pointed look, Randolph mused, “Elizabeth is not too keen on meeting Lord Fraser.” Connor’s eyebrows rose at this information, his golden gaze fixing on hers, so many emotions coming off of him that Ariel couldn’t even put her finger on one. “Why is that?” His tone was casual. Feeling flustered and hot all over from embarrassment, Ariel delicately shrugged her shoulders. “I’m afraid I tend to sprout a few chicken feathers at the thought of meeting your Lord. I’ve heard too many stories, I suppose,” she whispered breathlessly, nervously rubbing her clammy palms against her boy britches, not realizing how vulnerable and utterly adorable she looked in that moment. Connor, who smelled oddly comforting and familiar to Ariel’s keen senses, though she couldn’t quite decide how that would even be possible, suddenly shifted slightly and then went very still, as if he had instinctively wanted to move closer to her but had immediately thought better of it. Seeming unable to remove his eyes from her, he repeated, “Why were you throwing knives at Randolph?” “I was picking on her dog…Murphy,” Randolph explained to Connor, altering her pet’s name. At this point Muffin relaxed and sat back on his haunches, tongue hanging out. Tilting his huge furry head, he gave Ariel such a can-we-keep-him look that she laughed. Obviously, he liked the name change. She smiled down at her pet. He had always seemed almost human in his intelligence. “It’s not as if the lass could have hit me with that paltry blade of hers and those poor throwing skills,” the annoying warrior taunted mockingly. Ariel’s spine immediately stiffened at that, all traces of vulnerability disappearing as her violet eyes sliced Randolph a challenging look and she casually flipped out an extra knife. Before she had time to blink, Randolph was right next to Ariel, capturing her wrist warningly. She glanced down in time to see Muffin subtly lick his leg in friendship. “You traitor, Murphy,” she grumbled, altering his name as well. At which point, the now christened Murphy, opened his jaw as if to lock it around Randolph’s leg. Ariel laughed at his play. Peering around Randolph, she reassured the other dark-haired vampire, “I could have hit your brother if I had wanted to, Connor! But perhaps you could help me by tying his hands together…” Randolph interrupted, “I could still move my body out of the way.” “…and his feet …” “I could hop.” “And waiting for him to fall asleep might be quite helpful, as well.” “I sleep with one eye open.” Ariel glared at Randolph and then continued addressing his brother, “I do not see how someone so annoying has managed to live this long!” Randolph chuckled, thoroughly entertained, as the other two Frasers just gaped. When he could finally get a word in edgewise, Connor looked at Randolph, thoroughly bemused, “Did she just threaten to kill you in your sleep?!” “Aye, but I fear this one just escaped from the crazy house in the lowlands and one must always show compassion for the daft, right brother? We Frasers are known for our kind-heartedness,” he boasted with a self-satisfied smirk. Ariel snootily turned her head as if she were refusing to acknowledge his statement. “The way I see it, the Frasers have to show compassion. If you killed off all the senseless baboons in the area, you’d have no men left to defend your castle.” Connor’s mouth fell open, almost indignantly. “Did she just insult all of the men in our clan?” But Randolph, who still stood next to Ariel on the horse, was not listening. He had laid his head down on her upper leg, snorting with laughter. Ariel’s eyes brightened when she realized how inattentive Randolph was being. Very gently she touched the top of his head with the flat side of her knife and gleefully pointed out, “I could have stabbed you just now but I didn’t! You owe me!” Randolph’s head lifted and he took a deep breath. “You smell good,” he rumbled low. “Thank you,” she acknowledged, feeling slightly flustered, and nervously hoping that he didn’t intend her for his next meal. Negating her previous statement, he reminded her, “I saved you from my brother’s attack.” “But you tried to kill me earlier!” she pointed out. Looking cute and disgruntled as she gingerly rubbed her head where there was now a large, egg sized lump. “That was an accident,” he protested, looking as if his conscience was sorely pricking him. She gasped loudly. “Lifting your hand and striking me as hard as you could was an accident?” Connor eyed his brother in bewilderment “You hit a lass, Randolph?” “She didn’t look like a female!” Randolph grumbled. “She looks like a female to me,” Connor murmured approvingly. Ariel felt Randolph stiffen and watched his expression slip to reveal a cooler darkness. His lips curled slightly and it wasn’t with amusement. The glowing flash of pure evil menace he sent towards his brother had Connor letting out a low, throaty chuckle. Apparently, Randolph intended to protect her on their journey and for that, Ariel was extremely grateful but she also felt a strong need to break this new tension between the two brothers. Her somber gaze went from Randolph to Connor, her eyes widening innocently as she distracted them by tattling, “Randolph also told me that he fully intended to rip out my throat!” Obviously disgruntled, Randolph turned and looked over at her with an indecipherable expression on his face, as if he couldn’t quite decide whether or not to be amused or annoyed. While the other two warriors stared at him in amazement, their eyes alight with pleasure as if they were thoroughly savoring her new tales. Appreciating their absorbed fascination a bit too much, Ariel continued her animated chatter. “After he injured my head, I specifically asked him if he was going to rip out my throat and he said yes,” she informed them with sham gravity. “And, at that point, he already knew I was a female.” Her eyes wide, she lifted her brows, pointedly looking to Randolph to see what he had to say for himself, as she defiantly held his gaze. Ariel couldn’t help the little grin that tugged at the corners of her mouth as Connor and Ross again looked at her warrior friend as if he must have taken leave of his senses. Crossing his arms over a very thick chest, Randolph continued to give her a long steady look, his golden eyes gleaming with amused arrogance. “Are you enjoying yourself?” he demanded dryly. She actually paused for a moment to think about it. “You know…I am,” she acknowledged slowly, sounding sort of surprised by her own admission. “These two are quite an attentive audience,” she praised, angling her head to indicate Connor and Ross. “What else did he say to you, lass,” Connor demanded, his yellow eyes dancing with mirth. “Then I told her that I did not want to touch her throat,” Randolph quickly defended himself. Ariel gasped. “Because he said my throat was hideously disfigured and puny!” she exaggerated, feigning dismay. When the other men looked sufficiently appalled by her new statement, she turned and flashed Randolph a deliberately self-satisfied smile. Randolph’s brows lifted in mocking challenge then he shook his head and chuckled as if he could not help himself. “Elizabeth, you have turned everything upside down. You’re like a warm, hypnotizing light in an otherwise cold, dark world.” His voice lowered to a menacing purr as he slanted Connor a pointed look before adding, “You will never know how incredibly pleased I am to have found you in the forest. You are now in my keeping and under clan Fraser’s protection and we will eliminate anyone who poses a threat to your welfare.” Then he grumblingly added, “But…I think you’ve said enough.” She burst out laughing. Then he reached out and poked her hard in the side. “Ouch!” she squealed over-dramatically, squirming away. “You see! He is quite the violent sort,” she accused with absolute conviction. He leveled her with a reproachful look. “I apologize,” he muttered a bit waspishly. Ariel sucked in a sharp breath. “You’re not sorry at all!” she admonished in a fierce whisper, glowering at him. Randolph flashed a beautiful smile. “You’re right,” he silkily drawled. Eyes alight with humor, Randolph climbed up behind her on the massive steed. With her lower lip tucked in her teeth, Ariel twisted a little and looked back at him, secretly thrilled when his gaze swept to her face, his golden eyes hotly territorial as he positioned himself behind her in the saddle. Seeing the intensity of his gaze, she faced forward again, trying to keep from blushing with pleasure but the heat was stealing up her neck into her cheeks, a deep thrill running through her body as she came into full contact with the big warrior again. Taking a deep breath, Ariel sighed with an odd sort of contentment when he then wrapped one strong arm around her waist, allowing her to snuggle back against him as if they’d done it a thousand times before. Ariel would let this enemy clan shelter her, because in the end, she would find a way for the MacDonnel clan to be the victor over the cruel Fraser warlord and his people. Pointing their animals in the direction of the castle, their small group finally set off. THE END A Preview of FORSWORN Ava Ivy excitedly presents a preview of Book two in The Bittersweet Vampire Chronicles FORSWORN Chapter 1 As Ariel MacDonnel rode along the path through the thick Highland forest, she let out a long, silent breath of relief that all had gone better than she could have ever anticipated. The three enemy warriors she’d met in the forest earlier—two of whom were Fraser vampires--were currently escorting her to their infamous lair to insure that she arrived safely. Ariel was exhilarated by her success, nervous about what would happen when she finally met the terrifying Fraser warlord, and yet the steady rhythm of the horse’s movements and the strong Fraser warrior she was currently leaning back into, were combining to make Ariel’s eyes feel very heavy. Luckily the first vampire that she’d met in the forest earlier—a black haired, golden eyed warrior named Randolph Fraser, who was quite irritating in that annoyingly fascinating sort of way--had believed her false tale when she’d confessed to be in need of sanctuary to escape an uncle who wanted to marry her off to gain more power. He’d been a bit belligerent when she’d first met him and he’d never apologized for cuffing her--quite forcefully--on the head when he’d confused her for a male trespasser. But when her hood had fallen off and the vampire had realized that he’d just injured a female, the big warrior had acted completely out of character by stretching alongside her injured form in the grass and gently rubbing her head where it throbbed. This hadn’t made up for him hitting her but she supposed it was a kind gesture--for him. Not that his bullying had stopped with just a cuff, however. No, the Fraser had then informed her that he intended to rip out her throat and he followed that bit of rudeness up by trying to trick her into believing that he was the infamously cold-hearted Fraser leader…the one that he already knew she didn’t like. Unfortunately, other than the stories of their cruel exploits, Ariel knew next to nothing about the three vampire brothers who lead the Fraser clan. They were an extremely secretive clan who were forbidden from sharing information with outsiders. What she did know, however, was that the oldest vampire brother was a widower. In fact, her own clan had been erroneously accused of killing his wife just this past year during their annual hunting trip! So when Randolph had slipped up earlier and stated that he’d never been married, Ariel had inwardly smirked, knowing that he truly wasn’t the Fraser warlord. Even though it irked her that he was obviously trying to antagonize her, she was relieved that this male wasn’t really the eldest brother. For some silly reason, the thought of ending her new vampire friend’s life didn’t sit very well with her. The thought of killing his oldest brother, however, didn’t garner much sympathy insider of her. That monster definitely had it coming! Earlier, when the two warriors had belatedly joined up with Ariel and her vampire friend, Randolph had introduced her as Elizabeth to his middle brother, whose name was Connor. Although this new vampire—who was extraordinarily handsome--appeared to be acting very calm and casual as he regarded her, the emotional turmoil she had sensed coming off of him had told a different story. Connor’s interest and concentrated focus on her was almost unnerving and highly confusing to Ariel. Several times she would have sworn she felt burning jealousy push through his guard…but perhaps she was merely misreading the whole situation since she was not used to perceiving the emotions of supernatural beings, only humans. Connor and Randolph both seemed much more intense than the third young man, a burly red-headed warrior named Ross who was human. Ross had merely nodded in polite greeting when they’d been introduced, his intelligent eyes giving her a surprisingly thorough inspection and warming in what seemed like approval. Currently, Ariel was silently boosting her confidence up enough so that she wouldn’t go into a full-fledged panic when they entered the Fraser’s impenetrable compound, repeatedly telling herself that there was nothing to worry about as she rode in front of Randolph on his tall steed, his horse’s gait rhythmic and steady. Her new vampire friend’s arms were like rock around her, strong and secure. Unfortunately, Ariel was later thoroughly appalled with herself because, as they trotted along the Highland trails, the firm comfort of the big vampire holding her, and the steady cadence of the horse, had almost immediately put her to sleep. Ariel finally stirred to wakefulness when their horse came to a stop, their small group patiently waiting as the huge drawbridge was beginning to lower. The distant sound of rhythmically clanking chains broke through her deep slumber. During her nap, she had unconsciously snuggled back even further into Randolph, her shining pale hair splaying all over him in a thick, luxurious tumble. Her head had fallen over, resting awkwardly against his outstretched upper arm, which held the reins. Sleepily opening her eyes, Ariel blinked several times, her expression blank. The main reason that she should never have let herself fall asleep was because Ariel was extremely grouchy and unbelievably slow to gain full consciousness after waking, which usually caused her to be much, much grumpier and more emotionally volatile than her normal, happy, smiling self. At home, her cantankerous morning behavior was a constant source of amusement for her best friend, Kaid, who liked to sit up against the headboard in bed, pull her onto his broad chest, and soothingly rub her back while she sluggishly awoke. He was abysmally cheerful in the morning and would laugh at all of her hateful grumblings as she struggled to fully come to. Absently lifting her head, she blearily watched the massive drawbridge as it was slowly starting to lower and a hazy sort of panic suddenly began to swim through her sleep-fogged mind. Once they crossed the moat and the drawbridge went back up, locking into place, Ariel would be trapped inside this huge, fortified structure. She had her bizarre abilities for when she was truly in danger and needed to defend herself, but still, the thought of being stuck inside the lair of such a cruel vampire warlord made her a wee bit hysterical. The fortifying walls, alone, were astounding in their height and thickness. Twisting around, Ariel latched onto Randolph’s right forearm, unconsciously pulling it into her side. His dark eyebrows rose slightly as he moved the reigns to his left hand, letting his right hand wrap securely around her slender waist. His handsome face grave, he waited patiently for her to speak, a slight smirk forming on his full lips as he took note of her sleepy appearance. “You will not let him…um…anyone kill me, will you?” she demanded in a low, husky tone, her face and eyes still marked with sleep, her beautiful hair, endearingly tousled. By the slightly frustrated look that came over Randolph’s face, he had obviously not missed her slip of the tongue. He knew of her outrageous fears of the infamous warlord of clan Fraser. Tightening his grip around her waist, the vampire leaned his head down to her ear, his black shoulder length hair momentarily brushing against her thick, pale curls as he informed her, “No one will kill you.” One of her eyes widened, while the other suspiciously narrowed in a perfect parody of a deranged cat, as a sudden sleep-fuzzy thought had her insisting, “Or torture me?” Letting out a long-suffering sigh, he grudgingly agreed, “No one will kill or torture you under my care, Elizabeth.” “You promise?” she whispered in a drowsy, child-like way, her eyes searching his for assurance. He gave her a slightly reproving look. “My word is my word.” Slowly blinking, she continued to stare up into his dark, forbidding face and square, set jaw as she waited, groggily hoping he would give in and say the words that she needed him to say, but he looked quite mulish about it. With a slightly sour cast to her face, Ariel slowly turned back around, staring forward. Reaching up, she sleepily scratched the side of her head and then gave a gasping whimper of surprise as she inadvertently touched the goose egg sized knot on her head from where this vampire had whacked her earlier when he had thought she was a male trespasser. That irritating jolt of pain made her even grumpier. Letting out a huff of displeasure, Ariel’s tone was low as she bit out, “Fine! I’ll not go inside with you, then!” Her next grouchy movements were fascinatingly amusing to all on-lookers at the guard gate as she clamped one small hand around the vampire’s thick wrist, stubbornly trying to pry his despicable arm from around her waist as she simultaneously attempted to wiggle forward in the saddle, childishly trying to get farther away from him. Her breathing accelerated along with her sleep-fogged dissatisfaction and mounting apprehension. Letting out a noisy sigh, as though he was admitting defeat, Randolph ignored her fruitless endeavor to get free of him and wrapped his other arm across her upper chest, effortlessly pulling her back against his muscular form. His tone was wryly amused when he leaned down to press his cheek against the soft, smoothness of hers and then he murmured, “Even if you really deserve it, I will not let anyone torture or kill you, Elizabeth. I promise.” At this point, Ariel was too grumpy for her pride to allow her to bend so she sat there like a lump for a moment, inconsolably quiet before effortlessly lifting her legs--which were clad in loose boy pants—to her chest. With practiced ease--from doing the same thing with her best friend, Kaid-- she twisted around in the saddle to face Randolph and then lowered her legs back down to either side of the saddle. With a petulant look still on her face, she slowly leaned forward and laid her cheek against his chest in a grudging show of appreciation for his promise, leisurely wrapping her arms around him in a silently grateful hug. “You’re welcome!” The vampire pointedly prompted, both hands on her back, tangling in her unbelievably soft hair. His tone was so annoyed that it actually made Ariel give a small snort of laughter as she smiled against his tunic. Then, needing to pay him back for taking so long to promise, Ariel pinched him in the side. This had one of his dark brows rising in warning which had her bursting out in another muffled snort of laughter, her grumpy mood dissipating even more. Leaving her arms around him, she was half stretching as she leaned back a little to look up into his face. “How long was I asleep?” His eyes sparkled with a sudden burst of humor. “Let’s see…you fell asleep around the time that my horse started moving.” Pursing her lips, Ariel scowled up at him as her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “It takes me a while to trust people.” His good mood restored, he laughed, white teeth flashing a handsome smile. “Obviously.” From the stout, elegant horse beside them, Connor’s voice rumbled out, “Glad she’s finally awake! Her snoring was grating on my nerves!” Ariel gasped in outrage, looking over at the other yellow-eyed demon, who then gave her a slow, very friendly wink. She narrowed her eyes, lips twisting into another scowl. “I do not snore!” Her ex-boyfriend, Bran, liked to accuse her of snoring and, to be honest, Ariel was sick to death of it. She wasn’t about to allow these strangers to get away with such rudeness. Impertinently raising her eyebrows, Ariel confidently tilted her head and looked up to Randolph so that he could obediently agree with her and tell them that she hadn’t been snoring. Unfortunately, her new warrior friend gave her a slightly-pained expression, indicating that she had, in fact, been snoring. “It was a cute little sound,” Ross intoned thoughtfully from the horse on Randolph’s other side, “with a tiny whistling noise at the end.” Slowly turning her head, Ariel gave the rusty-haired young man a mutinous glare, as well, her hands unconsciously reaching for her knives before Randolph stopped her. “They are only teasing you, lass,” Randolph murmured, chuckling with the others. Pulling her in closer to him, the dark Fraser nuzzled the side of Ariel’s temple in a soothing gesture that had the other men blinking in surprise. “She’s an easy one to rile,” Ross murmured approvingly, “and violent, too.” His voice lowered into a mock whisper, “So maybe we shouldn’t mention the drool.” Ariel drew in a sharp, angry breath before aggressively burrowing her face into Randolph’s chest and letting out a long, frustrated growl. “Just one knife each?” she begged, her violet eyes pleading as she glanced back up at Randolph’s face. “No, Lass,” Randolph denied her with another chuckle, an oddly satisfied smirk on his handsome features. “Connor is not as fast as me and Ross is human, so you might actually kill them.” Her eyes were wide, her tone innocent. “And that would be a problem?” The men laughed at her bold cheekiness. As she heard the loud muffled thump of the huge drawbridge finally hitting the hard ground, Ariel breathlessly twisted back around to face forward, not wanting to miss a second of her adventure into this new clan now that she had Randolph’s promise to protect her. This clan’s security measures immediately intrigued her. The guard towers on top were much bigger and more elaborate than at her home and twice as many men were on post. If she had ridden up here without an escort, Ariel didn’t know if she would’ve had the nerve to approach this scene. Each warrior on guard looked as if he’d been hand-picked for his extremely-alarming appearance. Big, intimidating, hulking Frasers, all of whom, Ariel suddenly realized, were openly staring at her with fierce, undisguised interest. She could feel the weight of the warriors’ combined curiosity even from so far below their elevated perch. It was much more attention than she was accustomed to receiving. Did she look guilty? Did they already suspect her of foul play? Something about seeing so many Fraser plaids in front of her made Ariel’s heart suddenly race with an overwhelming sense of panic, reminding her of their attack on her family, when a devastating number of Fraser plaids had seemed to swarm through the woods as she’d kept her promise and stayed safely hidden in the bush . That memory, combined with having every one of their sharp, assessing gazes fully trained on her, had Ariel slowly shrinking back, burrowing hard against Randolph in an attempt to escape their unconcealed interest. Pulling his right hand from her hip, Ariel mulishly wrapped it around her waist until it was clutching her other hip in a show of ownership, almost defiantly declaring that she was with this big vampire. Although Randolph had initially tried to frighten her into believing that he was the awful Fraser warlord—the leader who starred in all of her worst nightmares—she had caught several of his slip ups and had eventually called his bluffs, declaring that he was obviously the youngest of the three vampire brothers and not the oldest. Looking exasperated, he hadn’t disagreed with her after that. At the moment Ariel was inwardly fighting off a nauseating wave of cowardice. She would give anything to give up and go home, back to MacDonnel land. But Ariel sternly reminded herself of the goal she must achieve. She couldn’t go home yet. If she did she wouldn’t be able to bear the guilt when the Fraser’s raided again and took more MacDonnel lives. Those lives could be saved in the next few days with her own possible sacrifice and bravery. It was up to her and her alone to kill the awful Fraser leader. Her plan was truly feasible but she was the only one that could do the gruesome deed and get away with it. Because of her father’s strange overprotectiveness—whereby, she was locked inside her room when guests came and not allowed to meet anyone from outside their clan---no one but her own people could pinpoint her as a MacDonnel. Plus, she was stronger than normal humans, especially when she was angry, which was quite an advantage when dealing with vampires. She must have made a tiny noise of protest at seeing so many staring Fraser warriors because out of the corner of her eye, she saw Connor make a curt, irritated gesture with his hand. Immediately, the soldiers looked elsewhere, their attention now fixated on anything else but her. Inhaling a deep breath, Ariel let out a sigh of relief. Turning her head, she sent Connor a grateful look. His steady, golden eyes flamed warmer at her gratitude, his cocky grin firmly in place. For some strange reason, this middle vampire acted as if he already knew her, like he was familiar with all of her little quirks. But that was ludicrous. Ariel had never met any of these Frasers. After the horses leisurely began moving forward, she nervously questioned. “Are any of those men vampires, as well?” “No. None of them,” Randolph answered. “But they all looked very…hungry.” Connor chuckled softly. “They were hungry, my dear, but not for blood.” “Well, perhaps they should be given more frequent breaks to eat. Or maybe someone could bring them a basket of food to hold them over until the next meal,” she suggested helpfully, not liking the thought of anyone going without proper nourishment. Ross snorted. Connor shot her a bemused look. “Just how sheltered were you at this clan you hail from that you have never seen that expression on a man’s face when he glanced over at you?” “I’ve seen that expression!” she replied indignantly. “I do like to make big batches of sweets sometimes and I always remember to take some to our guards on duty, but these soldiers don’t know if I’m good at baking or not.” “Good grief!” Ross murmured under his breath. Leaning down to her ear, Randolph’s voice was low and husky. “Remember how we kissed in the forest earlier? How good it felt? That’s what they’re imagining doing when they look at you.” By the end of his words, Ariel’s cheeks were flaming bright red. “Really?” she breathed, her tone tinged with disbelief. “All of them?” Glancing up as they crossed under the guard-post station, she caught one of the soldier’s side glances and he boldly winked at her. Her blush deepened as her gaze skittered away from the broad-shouldered, handsome blonde who reminded her of Kaid. “Well, I suppose I can understand why,” Ariel admitted to Randolph. “That felt really good,” she confessed languorously. Randolph let out a low groan, adjusting in the saddle so that he could pull her tighter into him. This was fine with Ariel, who relaxed even more, tilting her head back to give him a small, random peck on the cheek, just as she would have if he were Kaid. Her unconscious gesture seemed to greatly please him. As they rode through the outer bailey, people immediately stopped their daily chores and openly gawked at the lot of them. Ariel—whose powerful father had never allowed her to meet any of the visitors that had come to their castle--was so thrilled to be seeing a clan other than her own, that she forgot she was plotting against the Frasers and smiled shyly at the unfamiliar residents. Several times she even waved, which was mostly reciprocated, but sometimes not, especially if the person just stood there, looking befuddled, as they stupidly gaped at her. They acted as if they’d never seen a girl wearing boys clothing before. Earlier in the woods Ariel had been harassing Randolph about all the reasons why he should allow new people to visit and marry into his clan, including fresh blood increasing the intelligence level. So she continued teasing him again in a low, sarcastic tone, “Hmm… you’re right, Randolph. I’m definitely not seeing any signs that you need to allow more visitors to marry into your superior clan.” “Elizabeth…” Randolph warned drawing out the fake name she had given him in a low, extended growl, her sarcastic tone earning her an inconspicuous jab in the side. His aggressive poke had her bursting out in sweet, melodious laughter that had their other two companions grinning, as she innocently demanded, “What was that for? I said that I was definitely not seeing any signs!” To Randolph’s obvious chagrin, the pleasing, happy sound of her amusement had even more people stupidly gawking in their direction. One startled observer was in the middle of getting a drink from the bucket at the well when he looked over, his jaw dropping at the sight of them. He was so focused on staring at Ariel that the rest of his water poured out of the bucket and onto the ground. By the wave of irritation that she felt sweep over Randolph, Ariel knew he had seen the warrior’s not-so-intelligent blunder, as well. Brushing a lock of thick, blonde hair from her forehead, Ariel smoothly turned to look up into his brooding face, one pert eyebrow raised sardonically. Not quite suppressing a smile, she pursed her lips, feigning a look of pity as she gave him a reassuring pat on his upper leg, “A close relative of yours?” “What makes you think that?” he demanded grimly, trying to force her to say something mean so that he could reproach her for not being nice just like she had done to him in the forest. She twisted her lips in thought, vaguely admitting, “Well, I think it was something about your eyes.” “You said mine were the same color as the flames of Hell,” Randolph reminded her gruffly, then countered flatly, “His eyes are blue.” Ariel blushed hotly at the reminder of her descriptive slip-up earlier. “No, it’s definitely not the color. I think it’s something about the squinty shape,” she mused, wrinkling her cute, pert nose and scrunching her eyes almost all the way shut in an overdramatic demonstration of an unstable rodent. Randolph emitted a harsh sound of frustration, patently trying to hide his amusement as he caught her jaw in one hand, his fingers and thumb squishing into her cheeks as he planted a quick peck on her lips before releasing her. “Witch!” he grumbled petulantly as she easily laughed at his harsh expression. “I’m definitely reconsidering whether or not I should start collecting those tiny sticks for a witch-burning fire.” Ariel’s self-confident smile was wide as she shook her head. “You can’t burn me at the stake because I’m not a witch and because you promised not to hurt me,” she reminded him smugly, her pretty violet eyes sparkling with genuine happiness because of how safe she felt with him. Ariel was more than a little pleased that she had managed to survive the first part of her trip and was unconsciously shoving all thoughts of what her next actions would entail, to the back of her mind. She would think about those unnerving little details later. “I don’t know what is causing the biggest stir,” Connor chuckled sardonically, interrupting their conversation. “The pretty female who is currently cuddled up against you, laughing...or that huge, frightening animal walking beside your steed?” Knowing that she would have a better chance of surviving if she curried favor with both of Lord Fraser’s brothers, Ariel turned her head and smiled softly at Connor, suddenly shy, but pleased that he had called her pretty. Luckily Ariel seemed to be able to get along with all of the Fraser clansmen that she’d met so far. Well…when they weren’t trying to rile her up. As they reached the massive stone edifice, a huge, Fraser warrior came striding towards them, stutter-stepping when he caught sight of Ariel, no doubt fascinated by a female dressed in boy attire, just like his other clansmen had been. “There is a messenger, Sir,” the warrior’s deep voice reported almost absently, not hiding his interest in Ariel, his serious eyes seemingly fixated on her face and the abundant, pale cascade of thick, spiraling curls that hung down past her waist. “He is becoming more anxious as it grows closer to dusk and is eager to give you his missive and be gone from here.” The warrior’s tone was now matter-of-fact, yet held a hint of condemning arrogance and amusement. Somehow Ariel knew that Randolph would be smirking, as well, pleased that the Fraser name intimidated people so easily. After dismounting, Randolph reached up and wrapped his hands around Ariel’s waist, easily lifting her off of his black steed. Grabbing onto his thick forearms for stability, she gave him a disapproving look as he smoothly set her feet on the ground. Noticing her disgruntlement, he raised one well-shaped brow in silent inquiry. Ariel playfully narrowed her eyes at him. “You like being thought of as a bully,” she accused quietly. Although he was amused, his wicked smile held an edge of cruelty. “There’s never any doubt,” he began and then leaned down, his warm breath fanning over her ear, his husky voice sending shivers up her spine as he bluntly whispered, “I am a bully, Elizabeth.” Taking a step back, Ariel crossed her arms over her chest, pursed her lips in condemnation, and harrumphed. The brutality in his eyes eased and his own look softened as he closed the distance that her step had put between them. “A very nice bully, though,” he amended, his lips curling cynically as his hand lifted to play with one of the shiny pale locks of hair that was resting on her shoulder. Though she tried to resist, Ariel couldn’t help returning the bully’s smile. With a smug air about him, Randolph turned towards the soldier and inquired, “Was the messenger served refreshments?” Looking startled by the question, the warrior’s brows furrowed. “Of course!” Satisfied, Randolph returned his yellow gaze to her, raising one dark brow. “There is your proof! We are nice people!” Highly displeased that Randolph might have the last word—which could possibly indicate a character flaw that she needed to overcome…uhm…tomorrow--Ariel put her hands on her hips and easily came up with an argument to extend the conversation so that she could get the last word. Meeting the other warrior’s direct gaze, Ariel suspiciously inquired, “Did this messenger actually eat the food that was set before him?” The handsome warrior appeared torn as he looked to Randolph and then back to Ariel. Then his serious gaze gentled even further from the pleasing vision of her pretty features and wide, jewel-bright eyes as he honestly admitted, “No…” then with more confidence, “…but he drank several tankards of ale.” “You see?” Ariel chimed, raising a self-satisfied brow at Randolph. “He wasn’t even served edible food! You probably served him blood with goats eyes bobbing on top just so the poor man would go blab about his frightening experience at every bar and tavern along his journey home, thereby increasing your clans leverage of fear over the rest of us lowly peasants,” she teased with mock bitterness. Randolph’s eyes narrowed in thought before he grudgingly admitted, “That’s actually not a bad idea.” “Randolph! No!” Ariel gasped, trying not to laugh. “You want visitors to come here, remember?” she emphasized with a meaningful eyebrow raise. “Visitors are good.” With an ironic twist to his lips, he reached out and rested his big hands against the sides of her ribs, before leaning in closer to tell her, “For once, you might be right. It may not be so bad to have visitors here. Especially now, since I’m already pretty fond of having you around.” Seeing the intensity of his gaze, Ariel blushed a soft pink. He smirked and his eyes twinkled with a knowing look as he nodded towards the huge stone edifice which obviously housed the main bulk of their horses. “Connor and Ross are already tending to their horses in the smaller stables, which is full. While the messenger is here, you should go find your mare a clean stall in the larger stables. There are boys in there that will help you, if you wish it,” he told her lightly, What? He wanted her to walk down there all by herself? With Frasers swarming everywhere? One of whom could easily be his notorious older brother! Ariel’s eyes widened in terror and even though she tried to appear calm—as if panic wasn’t beginning to vibrate through her whole body—both her slender hands automatically reached out and nervously clutched the lower half of his costly tunic in a death grip, anxiously twisting the fabric. Ariel’s breathing became a little unsteady as she angled her face away from the male who had just spoken to Randolph. The warrior seemed to be lingering nearby for some silly reason but Ariel didn’t want him to overhear her nervous question. In a slightly-flustered whisper she stammered, “B-but are you going to meet me down there? I-I would hate to run into one of your…err…other relatives without being properly introduced first.” When Randolph didn’t immediately answer, Ariel turned her head back to glare at him and noticed that his dark head was slightly tilted down, his attention calmly riveted on the front of his tunic. With dawning horror, Ariel suddenly realized that her nervous fingers had reflexively untucked his tunic from under his belt and mindlessly twisted the material up to such an extent that the rippling muscles of his lean stomach were now very visible. Ariel’s breath caught in her throat as she gasped out a hasty, “I’m so sorry!” Mentally shaking herself out of her foggy stupor, she jerked her hands back from his clothing, as if it were on fire, wildly swatting at the bunched-up tunic until it was back in place, slightly rumpled, but covering his sculpted form. Then she looked away, her face flaming with mortification. “Eliiiiizzabeth…” Randolph purred with obvious pleasure. His amusement was so palpable that Ariel immediately wanted to stab him. She could feel the waves of wicked delight coming off of this big Fraser. Her eyes were narrowed, her lips pinched in extreme irritation when she finally tilted her face up to meet his twinkling golden gaze. In a low, annoyingly-taunting voice, he mocked, “Are you so eager for me that you would attempt to strip me bare right in front of my whole clan, lass?” Ariel hadn’t thought her face could get any more rosy hued. She was wrong. Emotions crashing through her like waves, Ariel threw her arms around Randolph’s neck, burrowing her face in the crook of his neck and shoulder. “I don’t like you!” she whisper-hissed as he guffawed with laughter, wrapping one strong arm around her waist, the other curving up against her back so his hand could gently palm the back of her head. “I’m so embarrassed!” was her muffled groan. “I didn’t think you were such an exhibitionist,” he continued to harass her in a low, mocking voice. “Ughhhhh!!!” she growled against him. “I’m going to cut you!” she declared vengefully. He hooted with even more laughter. When she moved as if to reach down for her blades, he grabbed her arms, his amusement still more than apparent by his lingering chuckles. “You are going to bleed!” she grunted, struggling against his hold on her arms. “A lot!” Finally caging her against him, her back to his chest this time, he purred, “I’m flattered…” She let out another low growl, her breathing erratic, as she still struggled to get free of him. Pressing his smiling lips against her temple, he soothed her, “Everything about you is utterly delightful, Elizabeth. It scares me how much I already adore you, and yet we have only just met today.” A stubborn frown briefly crossed Ariel’s delicate features. “Pretty words will not save you!” she grumbled, even though her lips were slowly beginning to twist up in a small, grudgingly pleased smile and she felt her frustration starting to ebb away. The deep rumble of his voice continued to sooth her. “Do you know that I have found more amusement in this one day than over the last decade?” His arms affectionately tightened. “For an irritating little mouse, you are already proving quite pleasant to have around.” Though she doubted any of their words had been overhead, Ariel could not help but notice that the warrior who had curiously lingered nearby wore an astonished expression on his handsome face. Angling her head away from the other man’s view, she insolently whispered out of the side of her mouth, “I’m still going to stab you!” Releasing her with another snort of amusement and a small, overfamiliar swat to her behind, he once more directed Ariel to the stables and then told her the young stable boy’s name and that she was to stay with her horse until he himself came and retrieved her shortly, his tone indicating that there would be a harsh punishment if she disobeyed. He also mentioned that they would soon be going into the great hall to partake of the evening meal with the rest of his people. Ariel obediently nodded and then quietly watched the two men disappear into the castle before she curiously looked all around her, memorizing every detail in order to tell Mary when she returned home. Ariel had done it! She was actually inside the Fraser stronghold!


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