Feeling the heavy sway of the horse beneath her move from side to side, darkness was all Maggie could see as her eyes cautiously opened. Jumping at the bellowing sound of the stranger's deep voice, she silently cursed herself for making it known she was no longer sleeping.
"Where's Lyall?" she meekly asked.
The rugged man held out his arms, her cue it was no longer time for traveling. With nothing more than a shrug of his broad shoulders and a scowl on his face, Ian simply replied, "Dead."
Standing with both feet planted firmly on the ground, his muscular arms crossed at his chest, Maggie felt his eyes watching her every flicker of emotion. Even though it was dark, she could easily see the outline of his face. With his square jaw line and hair just below his ears, Maggie tried making out the rest of his features, but was unsuccessful. As he walked away without saying another word, her mind was left reeling with unanswered questions, the most important being: Was she now a captive of these men?
It didn't feel as if they wanted to harm her, she hadn't been bound by the wrists or threatened as of yet. Deciding it best to test her boundaries, Maggie slowly wandered aimlessly around the area they were preparing for the night. She couldn't help but notice every man working together. It was a far cry compared to what she had seen of Lyall and his group. Maybe if she were lucky, her current companions would be kind enough to share a bit of food and the warmth of their fire.
The eldest of the five stood not more than three feet away, watching Maggie with questioning in his dark, hazel eyes. He was wondering the same thing everybody was. Who is this woman, and where did she come from?
"Excuse me," Maggie whispered. "Would you mind if I found some privacy? I could really use a moment to myself, if you understand my meaning." Maggie stared at him with pleading eyes. Hopefully he wouldn't make her matters as public as Lyall had.
The graying man looked at her as if she were a complete lunatic. Feeling as if an eternity had passed, Maggie was surprised the moment when he took a hold of her chin with a calloused hand and turned her head in order to inspect her temple wound. "The man sure did one on ye, didn't he?" he said, clicking his tongue. "Ian! The lass has private needs to be met. Would ye like me to escort her?"
Ian, the giant she felt most uneasy about, spun around and gave her such a cold look it made the night air seem pleasant. "I'll handle it, Tavish. Finish up with the fire while I'm gone."
Ian grabbed Maggie by her bruised arm. Flinching as a horrendous pain shot through her body, she insistently tugged her arm from his grasp and stopped walking. Ian let go, his eyes resting where his hand had been placed. Leading her to a part of the woods not more than fifty feet away from camp, he turned his back to face her and walked several paces away. "All right, do what needs to be done."
Maggie stood still for a long moment, hoping he would give up and leave her be. "I know how to get back to the camp. There's no need for you to stay here. I'm not going to run if you think that's what I'm trying to do."
Ian snorted at the thought of Maggie in the woods by herself.
"I'm afraid ye wouldn't get very far."
"I might surprise you," she drawled.
Ian gave a long sigh. "What makes you think I care if ye do run from us? You're no' my responsibility. Besides, it's not us you need to fear. It's the wolves, wild boars, men like what had captured you."
Maggie rubbed the back of her head, wishing she had a couple ibuprofens and a bottled water handy. While definitely regretting the move she made on Lyall, she finished her much needed duty and turned to face the highly intimidating man before her.
I will not be frightened. I will not be frightened.
Crossing his arms over his chest and eying her with unease, Ian's voice turned harsh, causing her to back up a step. "I am Laird Ian MacLachlan. Explain to me why you carry a MacLachlan brooch yet no one here has ever seen you before?"
Maggie could feel the courage inside her diminish by the second. Knowing the question was inevitable, she wasn't quite ready to answer that one yet.
"I... well, it's kind of an amusing story actually."
"Does it really look as if I'm in the mood for an amusing story? I want to know who ye are, and I want nothing less than the truth."
Maggie, beginning to have had enough encounters with bossy men to last her a lifetime, blurted out, "My name is Maggie. Maggie Harris." Instinctively making the mistake of raising her right arm for a handshake, Ian did nothing but look at her, puzzled by her action.
His eyes narrowed. The man seemed to be searching for answers as he stared at her for a long moment. It was rather unnerving, almost as if he were finding a way to reach her soul. "Why are ye here, Maggie?"
Now that was the million dollar question. Assuming any answer she had was not going to be good enough, she meekly stated, "I... I have absolutely no idea."
"Well, how did you get here?"
"Ah... I don't exactly know that either." Obviously not a good enough answer by the annoyed look appearing on his face, she added, "There was a man selling jewelry at a festival I attended. He was very persistent about me trying on the brooch and plaid. Not long after, I looked up, and he was gone."
Maggie knew her explanation didn't qualify as a lie. The old man did disappear from her sight as soon as the white light appeared.
"Can you at least tell me where you came from?"
"Well... I came from North Carolina." In the twenty-first century.
"I've never heard of North Carolina," Ian stated, unconvinced. "May I take a look at the brooch?"
Maggie had a funny feeling that if she'd said no, he would have found a way to retrieve the piece of jewelry no matter what. Carefully taking the brooch off of the plaid and handing it over to Ian, he began to examine it.
With his brows furrowed together and inspecting every minute detail, a look of panic appeared on his face as it vibrated in the palm of his hand. Watching his arms shake nervously and his strong demeanor turn to hysteria, Maggie quickly stepped back several paces.
"What's wrong?" she asked, fearing his answer.
He did nothing but stare into the distance, his attention focused elsewhere. It was as though the man wasn't hearing her, almost as if he were in some sort of trance.
Not making any sudden movements, she cautiously stood before him, waving a hand in front of his face. He didn't flinch.
"Excuse me," she whispered. Ian slowly turned his head down to look at her, his mind seeming lost in thought. "May I have my brooch back now?"
Squinting his eyes, his lips curled into a frown. Ian heaved his arm back and threw the brooch as far as it would go. Gasping at what he'd just done, Maggie watched her much needed treasure fly through the air, hearing a soft kerplunk as it landed in water.
Rushing to the shallow part of the stream, she frantically placed herself in the water, searching for the one reason she had landed four hundred years in the past.
"Why did you do that?" she spat. "Do you always disregard other people's belongings so casually, or is it just me?"
Thinking she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Maggie looked up from her quest, surprised to find Ian in the state he was in. The color of his skin was pale under the moonlight, and perspiration had begun to break out on his forehead.
"Are you okay?" she asked, forgetting all about the brooch.
Ian looked at Maggie as if she were the biggest threat he had ever endeavored in his life. "I want you to get as far away from me and my men as possible. I don't want you near any of us."
A look of confusion fell across her face. "But...but I don't understand. I—"
"Just do it! Head east in that direction and keep walking. Maybe the next clan will be kind enough to take in a witch."
A witch. The man thinks I'm a witch.
It felt as though every ounce of blood drained out of her body at once. She knew exactly what they did to witches in this time period, and it wasn't something she wanted to envision happening to her.
"Maybe if I explain things a little better to you, you'll understand. I assure you I am no witch. I—"
"I want you out of my sight. Leave!"
"You saw something, didn't you? When you picked up the brooch, you saw something. What was it?" Maggie walked closer to Ian, and he instantly backed away. Her temper began to fare. She was hungry, thirsty, tired, bruised up, and completely at her wits ends. "Tell me now! I need to know."
"You need to know nothing. Now be gone, or I will show you exactly how we treat witches on MacLachlan lands."
Tears of frustration began to pool in Maggie's eyes. There was no possibility of finding the brooch in the darkness, especially with the laird looming over her, watching her every move. She took a deep breath and slowly walked in the opposite direction.
"You fool, I am no witch."
Having absolutely no idea where she was headed, the one thing she did know was that she was completely alone in a time that was not her own.
Upon his return to the campsite, Ian found four eager pairs of eyes glancing around him, all hoping to catch a glimpse of Maggie.
"Where's the lass, Ian? You didn't lose her, did ye?" Reid asked, all laughing at such an amusing thought.
Ian silently cringed at his brother's question, knowing it was going to be hard for Reid to understand his actions.
"Nay, I made her leave."
All four looked at Ian, waiting for him to drop the jest and truly tell them where she was hiding. Realizing he was being serious, their grins instantly turned to frowns.
"What do ye mean you made her leave? Are ye out of your mind? She'll freeze to death or be eaten by a boar, not to mention she's probably starving."
Just as Ian had suspected, Reid disagreed with his decision.
"I'm sure she'll find a way to manage."
With eyes wide with wonder, all they could do was gape at him. It wasn't like Ian to be callous to a woman. He thought he even heard his brother Niall mutter under his breath about what an oaf he was, which was odd coming from Niall, considering he hated most women.
"I felt it was the right thing to do. I don't trust the lass. I certainly don't want to see her living among our clan when we don't know anything about her. Haven't any of you noticed the odd way she dresses? Her speech is not an accent I recognize, and not to mention she fights like a man."
Obviously it wasn't enough to sway his men, finding they were still looking at him as if they were a group of children and he had given away their favorite pet dog.
He held up his hands and groaned. "I no longer wish to discuss this matter. I chose to send her away because I felt it was in our clan's best interest if we didn't have her around."
Feeling as if he were in a losing battle, Ian hunkered down on the ground with his plaid to make his bed for the night, his men's strong disapproval lingering in the air.
"Ian, don't ye think that maybe—"
"I don't want to hear another word about it!" Ian shouted at Reid. "We need to get a good night's rest for tomorrow's journey. Leave the matter be."
His point well taken, each man found themselves bedded down for the night, wondering what could possibly have happened between Ian and the mysterious girl to make him react the way he had.
Her feet quickly moved one in front of the other, trying hard to not slip and fall on the wet, forest foor. She needed to get away from the beast lurking behind, following her every move. The sound of branches cracked beneath the animal's paws. It was close; she could hear it breathing. The forest was too dark. Even with a minimal amount of light fowing down within the trees, it was nearly impossible to see the path before her. Tree branches caught her clothing, hindering any escape that may have looked like a possibility. Grunting as she dug her fingers into the soft ground, she climbed as fast as she could up the muddy hill, hoping it was no longer hunting her down. Nearly to the top and completely out of breath, the girl's feet suddenly slipped out from under her, causing her to fall down the hill. Landing at the bottom in a pool of water, her red tunic was now the color of mud, her body shaking with fear as she eyed the hungry beast standing before her. The wolf, circling her body and baring his long, white fangs, emitted a low growl. He knew he had caught his prey. He wasn't about to let her go. The terrifed girl let out an earth-shattering scream as his mouth fercely came down, making contact with her fesh.
Ian bolted straight up from his plaid, realizing he'd just had one hell of a nightmare.
"By the saints! What have I done?"
Shaking his head and rubbing his eyes, he wanted so badly to get the vision of Maggie and the wolf out of his head. Her words echoed in his mind: You fool, I am no witch. Was it true? It would be nearly impossible to find the lass in the dark of the night without even a clue as to where she'd traveled. At first light, he and his men would set off toward home, keeping their eyes open for Maggie. Surely she couldn't be too far away from them. How far could one mere woman get in unknown territory without the help of a man?
He was running out of patience. With it already being midmorning and riding since dawn, there had been no sign of Maggie. No visible footprints. No shreds of clothing. Not even the slightest piece of evidence existed that could lead Ian to her. Not wanting the others knowing he was brimming with guilt over his insistence to make her leave, Ian figured they had already come to that conclusion on their own. All morning his mood had been hard and short-tempered. Any person with half a mind would sense his regret at treating her the way he had. Knowing his luck, she had probably chosen to walk in the opposite direction he had pointed her toward just to spite him. She seemed to be that kind of woman. Worrying that she may end up in the hands of men more sinister than the ones who had originally captured her, Ian began listing all possible scenarios she could currently be facing. Thought after thought escalated in his mind. He was going to drive himself mad if he didn't quit thinking the way he was.
A loud whistle forced Ian out of his foreboding thoughts as he reined his horse to a halt. "What is it?"
Tavish pointed to a grove of trees in the far off distance and yelled, "Over there, the red in the trees!"
He couldn't believe his eyes. How had she managed to travel so far in the night, not having any clue as to where she was going? What the crazy woman was doing so far up in a tree posed another intriguing question altogether. Nearing closer, they found Maggie was laying face down, straddling the tree branch, fast asleep. Ian rushed off his horse and stood directly under the branch, his arms braced at his hips. Watching Maggie's plaid foat to the ground, her feet dangling in the air and twitching in her sleep, Ian became alarmed. She was about to fall from the tree. Looking at his men, his eyes round with worry, he held up his hands. "What do I do?" he panicked.
Startled out of her sleep at the sound of a man's deep bellow, for a split second, Maggie had forgotten where she was. Immediately letting go of the branch and letting out a squeal, she fell toward the hard ground. Fortunately, Ian had his two arms open, ready to catch her in time.
"Are ye daft, woman? You could have broken your neck falling from that tree!"
It took a moment for Maggie to catch her breath and realize exactly who had caught her. After unwrapping her arms from around his shoulders, she batted at his hands, struggling against his tight hold.
"Well, if you wouldn't have yelled at me, I wouldn't have been startled enough to have fallen from this tree," she chided. "You know, you can put me down now. I do remember how to walk, thanks to you."
Feeling his chest rise and fall as Ian took a deep breath, Maggie shrieked as he dropped her to the ground. Watching him stammer about uncontrollably with a scowl on his face, she winced at the sound of Ian's loud groan.
His eyes, the color of sparkling emeralds, contrasted against his sun-tanned face and dark, brown hair. A man who could easily make any woman melt at his feet, stared at her with such loathing it made her insides squirm.
"Are ye always such an ungrateful wench?"
"Are you always such an argumentative ogre?"
Ian's jaw dropped open. The air became still. Not one person dared to move. Knowing she had pushed him too far, Maggie put on her best smile and looked towards his men.
"If I seem unappreciative, I do apologize. I don't mean to sound discourteous."
Raising a brow, the color of his skin quickly fading back to a normal shade, Ian grunted his approval of her apology.
"I also wish to thank your men for getting me out of my predicament last night. I was running out of options, and they seemed to show up just in time."
The group of men nodded their heads in acknowledgment, accepting Maggie's showing of thanks. Ian, standing across from her and looking deserving of it as well, crossed his arms and turned his head to the side.
"You're welcome," he remarked.
"I didn't say I thank you, Laird MacLachlan. You seem to be highly mistaken."
Maggie watched Ian's arrogance diminish to confusion and embarrassment. His cheeks turned a light shade of pink as his eyes wandered to his men. Flustering the giant in front of others wasn't what she had deliberately intended.
Squinting his eyes and cocking his head to the side, he asked, "Of all the places to sleep, why a bloody tree?"
Maggie shrugged her shoulders and sighed. It should have been obvious to even the weakest of minds. "Wild animals; mean, lurking men waiting to capture me."
Fingering the stubble of hair on his chin, Ian stared at her blankly. "Oh, come on!" she said, waving her hands in frustration. "I thought it would be safe!"
Bracing both hands at his hips, he asked, "But...how did ye get yourself up there?"
"I climbed, genius."
Every one of his men were grinning from ear to ear, none being used to seeing a woman rouse his temper.
His jaw was clenched. Maggie could clearly see the veins in his thick neck bulging, a sign she had annoyed him too much.
"You'll be riding with Reid."
Placing his hand on Maggie's shoulder, he began nudging her closer toward the horses, confusion lining her face. It was only last night he had sent her off in the cold, dark night by herself with nothing more than the clothes on her back. What was making the huge savage in front of her change his mind? Did he actually have a heart?
"What? What makes you think I'll be going anywhere with you?"
Ian shrugged at her question, all built-up tension draining from his shoulders. "You will."
Maggie stood her ground, shaking her head. "You can't treat a person lousy one moment and expect them to be compliant the next. Sorry... this girl doesn't work that way."
Ian rolled his eyes and let out a deep sigh. "What are ye planning to do then, Maggie? You haven't the least idea as to where ye are. You're no' properly dressed. And for some ungodly reason, ye seem to attract all kinds of trouble like what you were in last night. I'll no' have your life on my conscience, if ye don't mind."
"That's what this is all about, your conscience? Well, you certainly weren't bothered by it last night."
"I had my reasons, and you know why."
Just thinking of the word 'witchcraft' caused goose bumps on Maggie's fesh to rise. Having been deemed a witch only hours earlier, she shook her head "no".
"I think I'll go my own way."
Maggie rattled off several obscenities as Ian picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. "I'm not exactly sure what a putz or a jerk is, but I know it can't be good. If ye don't quit cursing like a man, I'm going to place ye over my knee and paddle your arse like a child."
Maggie gasped at the thought. "You wouldn't!"
"Don't tempt me."
Maggie stood silent, facing the man she assumed was named Reid. She only had to look at him once in order to come to the conclusion that he was a definite womanizer. She'd met his type before, a perfect chiseled face, broad shoulders, confdence brimming from head to toe. Alarm bells instinctively began to go off in her head the moment he smiled at her with his twinkling blue eyes. A girl could get lost in those if she weren't careful.
Stay away from this one, Maggie. Stay far away.
"Reid, take this from me... please." Ian hauled Maggie's body up onto the horse, situating her in front of Mr. Too Wonderful, scowling as he walked away.
With an ornery grin and a wink to go with it, Reid responded with charm, "Not a problem, Ian. Glad I can be of assistance."
She was in an unfamiliar place and time with no food, shelter, money, or friends. Things were looking pretty grim. He had made his point, and it was her reality; if she wanted to survive, she had no other option but to take refuge with Ian and his clan.
"What's making ye so quiet? My name is Reid, by the way."
"I gathered that much."
Maggie was in no mood for small talk coming from a man that looked as if he belonged on the cover of a magazine, half naked. Having no idea where to start on how she could possibly get back to her time was beginning to drive her crazy. Ian, seeming to be deep in conversation, would every now and then turn and look at her with a scowl on his face. Knowing his foul expression was directed toward her, Maggie sunk lower into Reid, trying to will Ian's brooding eyes away from her own.
"Is he always so grumpy?" she asked.
"Ian?" Reid nodded his head. "He's laird, lass. My brother takes everything seriously."
A proud and uplifting smile appeared on his face, making it hard for Maggie to believe the two were related. From what she could tell, both had completely opposite personalities from the other.
"Niall is our half brother as well." A mischievous look rounded the corner's of Reid's mouth. "He's the other grumpy man riding next to Ian."
"So your father was laird before Ian?"
"Aye, he died almost two years ago."
"All three of you shared the same father?"
"Ian and I lost our mother tragically when we were very young. Our father remarried Niall's mother not long after."
"And your stepmother is still alive?"
"Good god, yes!" Reid gave his answer with so much distaste Maggie was beginning to regret her question. "Lorna is very much alive."
Maybe it was the way Reid reacted to her curiosity, but Maggie couldn't help but feel a sense of unease at the mention of the name Lorna. It was obvious he didn't care for his stepmother in the least. Deciding it was best to leave that particular subject alone, Maggie found herself becoming increasingly sleepy. After all, she did walk half the night through a dark forest, the whole time not knowing where she was going. She got the impression Reid wouldn't mind if she relaxed and fell asleep. If she slept, she wouldn't have to answer any tricky questions that were sure to come.
Evening fast approached, the last bit of daylight glimmered into darkness behind the Highland mountains. Leaning against a tree, Maggie watched Ian's exhausted men make a camp for the night. Grasping the idea that she had traveled through time, she wondered what year it could be. She couldn't ask. They would think her crazy for sure. After last night's incident with Ian, Maggie wasn't about to say anything that would infuriate the man.
"What are you thinking of, lass?"
The gray-haired man named Tavish stood above her, staring at her curiously. There was something familiar about the him. His calm, soothing mannerisms, his soft spoken voice. Tavish reminded Maggie of her father. A tear pooled in the corner of her eye, her fingertips catching it before it fell down her cheek. Maggie smiled at Tavish, hoping he hadn't noticed.
"It's nothing, really."
Tavish's lips curved a tiny smile, his eyes searching for the truth.
"I don't believe you."
Maggie shrugged her shoulders and looked towards the ground.
"I'm not sure why I'm here."
Tavish looked at her sincerely. "It'll be alright, Maggie. I'm certain of it."
Watching him leave her side, Maggie closed her eyes and sat in silence. The aroma of rabbit cooking over the fire caused her stomach to grumble. It had been too long since she'd had anything to eat.
Dried leaves crunched under slow, approaching footsteps. Sensing their hesitation, Maggie lifted one eye, not surprised at finding Ian's overly large body looming over her. Eying her with his normal lack of enthusiasm, he handed her a hunk of meat.
"Hungry?" he asked, as she dived into her food.
"Mmm... tastes good," she said. "Thank you."
Noticing Ian move to the opposite side of the fire, eating his portion of meat in silence, Maggie assumed he wished to be as far away from her as possible.
Sweeping in to steal a spot next to her, Reid happily offered her his drink.
"What is this?" she asked, nearly choking. Reid's chest shook with laughter, gaining everyone else's attention. "Mulled wine."
"Oh... of course."
Maggie looked up at the sky, the chilly breeze making her shudder. "I don't remember ever seeing so many stars!"
Ian smirked, his opinion of her apparently still low. "Maybe you should try stepping outside every once in a while," he drawled, sipping on his own wine.
"Well I do, but where I come from they just don't seem quite as bright. It's beautiful."
"Maggie, what is it you do where you come from?" Fergus asked. A strapping lad of not more than eighteen years of age, huddled into his plaid while leaning against a log.
"What do I do?" she asked.
"Aye, what kind of tasks do you perform to earn your way around the keep?"
"Oh... I'm a healer."
Witnessing Ian roll his eyes to the back of his head, Maggie cast him a disgusted glance. It was becoming late. Too late to deal with the laird and his pompous behavior.
Leaning against a tree, Maggie placed her red hoodie over her head and cocooned her body up in her plaid. The air was cold, but at least tonight she had a fire for warmth. Sleep quickly began to take over her tired body. Hearing the comforting sound of laughter rise and fall as Ian's men heckled one another, Maggie smiled. They reminded her of her brothers, pieces of her family she wasn't sure if she'd ever see again.
Peeking her eyes open, she caught a glimpse of Ian standing alone by the fire. Warming his hands above the fames, he cocked his head back and closed his eyes. Even tough guys get cold, Maggie thought.
His pleased expression turned stony and callous once he realized she had been observing his every move. Quickly looking away, she wondered if Ian knew how unnerving his appearance could be. His unyielding scowl, the way his eyes bored into his opponents, it was enough to make any normal person twitch with fear.
Maggie had agreed to live amongst his clan. Needing to seek out answers to questions that seemed unimaginable, she had not one idea where to start. The only thing Maggie was certain of: she and Ian were not destined to get along.
©2011 Brandy Grandberg