Ruadri – Hazel Hunter

STANDING ALONE IN the medieval highland forest, Emeline McAra didn’t see snow drifts. Somehow winter had transformed the world into a bridal boutique stuffed with wedding dresses. Dozens of them surrounded her, all big, beautiful confections of white satin and lace waiting to be donned and admired. Ice and frost became ruffled hems, beaded trains, and crystal-sequined headpieces. Beyond the gowns the river had frozen into an ivory carpet of sparkling light, down which wand-thin beauties might solemnly saunter as they modeled the latest gown trends: off-the-shoulder bodices, plunging V-necks, side cutouts, and statement sleeves. Winter, Emeline decided, hated her. “Healer McAra?” Emeline might ignore the dark beauty of Shaman Ruadri Skaraven’s impossibly deep voice, but she couldn’t escape his presence—or the emotions he brought with him. Even before Emeline became a nurse she could sense other people’s feelings, probably from the years she’d spent caring for her taciturn elderly parents. Since being taken with four other women to fourteenth-century Scotland, the dial on her gift had been turned up to full blast. Time traveling had turned Emeline’s natural, gentle empathy into a nightmare. Since she’d arrived in the Middle Ages, the emotions of others came to her in a synesthetic jumble of colors, textures, sounds and scents. Depending on who projected the feelings, their anger could be a bright red hammer pounding inside her head, or an icy black torrent drenching her skin. Another person’s worry enveloped her in a too-small straitjacket of stifling, damp wool. Fear tasted metallic and sharp, like licking a honed knife, while pain smelled of the aftermath of such a foolish act: tears and blood. During Emeline’s first week as a prisoner of the mad druids and their bizarre inhuman guards, the bombardment had never let up.

Every time one of the other four women panicked, Emeline had been jolted and pummeled and smothered by their terror. Their situation had grown so desperate that the cacophony of fear from the others had made her constantly retch. She’d only just learned how to block the worst of the sensory attacks to protect herself, but she first had to be prepared for them. Emeline had never been ready for anything about this man. To look at him wrenched at her heart, just as it had the very first moment he’d walked out of the shadows last night. “Do you want for something?” Ruadri asked from behind her. That question almost made her laugh out loud. How she wanted for something—so many things. To be held, comforted, and loved. To know if she would survive this insanity.

To discover what it was like to be kissed. To tell him that she had never believed in love at first sight. To punch the shaman square in the nose for making her a believer. “No, thank you,” she said. The words hurt her tight throat as she built the blockade in her mind to keep out his emotions, while keeping a tight grip on her own. Emeline had no intention of making a ninny of herself, so she went back to her memory of the bridal shop in Inverness. All the magnificent, snowy gowns there had resembled an army of delicate, unsullied confection. They seemed silently smug, too, as if they knew she’d never have a reason to wear any of them. The mist around her combined with the pale sunlight glittering on the tree branches to become veils adorned with crystals and silk flowers, also forever out of her reach. The air in the shop had smelled of roses, but here every breath was so cold and clean, so pure.

Almost too beautiful for her to breathe. “But why can’t you try on the bloody dress?” Meribeth Campbell demanded from her memory of that last day in the twenty-first century. As always, her gleaming blonde curls had lovingly framed Meri’s pretty face, even when it went rosy with temper. “The blue is perfect for you. I even got the high neckline you fancied. Really, Em, there’s nothing wrong with it. You’ll look lovely.” “I ordered a size eighteen, Meri,” Emeline said, eyeing the sapphire bridesmaid’s dress brought in for her fitting. Judging by the dimensions, she might be able to squeeze one leg or arm into it, if she first starved for another month and then buttered herself. “I think they missed a digit.

” The shop clerk checked the tag and grimaced. “It is a size eight, Miss.” “Of course, it is,” Meribeth said, throwing her hands in the air. “How long until you can get the right size?” She scowled as the clerk went to consult with the seamstress who was waiting to do any needed alterations. “I can’t believe this. My bloody wedding is next week.” This might be her last chance to get out of making a spectacle of herself, Emeline thought. “You have four other bridesmaids, Meri. You’ll not need me.” “What I need is… Oh, damn, I know what happened.

” She retrieved her mobile and pressed some buttons. “Lauren, it’s me. Did Bride’s Blush deliver your gown? What size is it? Och, the wallapers. No, don’t send it back, it’s Emmy’s. She’s yours here.” She dropped her voice to a fierce whisper. “No, she hasn’t tried it on, you goose. How could she?” Meri didn’t have to say it was half Emeline’s size. Everyone knew how fat she was. Especially their coworker Lauren Reid, who dropped sly digs about her weight whenever she could.

Ironically Emeline had been on a strict diet for the last eight weeks in order to slim down enough to get into an off-the-rack dress. No one had noticed, not even Meri. Still, as her best friend and worst enemy nattered on, Emeline kept her forced smile firmly riveted in place. So what if she was black affronted by two reed-thin women who’d never know what deliberate starvation was like? She had to stop making this about her. It was all for Meri. Emeline reached up with a trembling hand to grasp the cross she no longer wore, her fingers curling against her sternum. “Healer McAra,” Ruadri said as he came closer, the snow crunching under his boots. “Does your chest pain you?” Tears burned in Emeline’s eyes as she was yanked back to the present—or the past— or whenever she was. “No,” she said, her voice unsteady. “I used to have a necklace…” When she realized her hand had curled into a fist, she dropped it to her side.

“Havenae you yet slept?” the shaman asked her. “I’m no’ tired.” And now she was lying. She’d tried to sleep, but the pain of her side wound and ankle combined with thoughts of him had made it impossible. She should tell him that since coming here last night she’d never been more hurt, exhausted, or anxious. The last was his fault. Since the first moment she’d seen him he’d made her as nervous as a drunkard in a minefield. “’Tis cold,” Ruadri said as he stopped just behind her. His scent rolled over her. He smelled of something darkly decadent and spicy, like a chocolate spiked with serrano.

“You should come inside, out of the wind.” Come inside with you, and find a dark room, and throw myself at you, yes. Oh, please, yes. The chill seeping through the wool cloak Emeline wore was suddenly biting, or was it his worry, growing sharper? He doesnae care about me. I’m just a great bausy nuisance. “I’m no’ a bairn.” “Aye, that I ken,” Ruadri said as he came to stand beside her. He held out his huge black and amber plaid tartan. “You’re shivering. Wrap yourself in this.

” He was too close now, and any moment he would touch her with those large, strong hands that looked so capable and clever. Emeline didn’t think she could stand that, and then the sensory wall inside her head begin to crumble. “No, thank you.” Blast her ankle, she had to get away from him this instant. Emeline limped away, stopping at the edge of the river to pull back her hood and look down at the blurry reflection of herself in the ice, made only more vivid by the sunrise. For weeks she’d been a battered, starved prisoner, and it showed. So many snarls tangled her black hair it resembled a mass of poorly-done dreadlocks. The yellowish-brown bruises on the puffy side of her face made it look like a moldy cheese wheel. Her mouth seemed like a smear of faded red paint beneath the sunken hollows of her eyes. Death oan a pirn stick, her grandmother would have said.

Emeline had to admit she did look deathly sick. A shadow stretched over her reflection like the wings of some fallen angel. “If you keep walking in that splint you may shatter that ankle, Healer.” Before she could stop herself, Emeline turned to face the shaman’s broad chest. Well over two meters tall, and as wide as two caber tossers, Ruadri completely dwarfed her. She wondered if she simply talked to that wall of muscle that this time she might maintain her composure. But no, she couldn’t see the shaman and not look up into his striking face, or his enigmatic gray eyes, the color of moon shadows. Silver spilled from his temples into his hair in two wide swaths, chasing the blue-violet glints that dawn had painted on some of the black strands. Handsome men made Emeline nervous. Ruadri stunned and terrified her.

“I’m no’ cold. My ankle’s mending. I’ve told you I’ll look after myself.” She realized her voice had risen almost to a shout, and quickly dragged in a steadying breath. “I’ve been through an ordeal, Shaman. All I wish is to be left alone.” “I cannae do that,” Ruadri said. “Ever.” He sounded so grim that it should have frightened her. The shaman’s stature and bulk begged the inevitable comparison to the biblical Goliath, but when he moved he seemed more feline than giant.

He also made no noise when he did. Everything about him radiated calm and quiet, except his eyes. He looked at her as if she were the only person in the world. It reminded Emeline of how she’d felt the moment she’d first seen him, soundlessly approaching her in this very same spot, and her hands curled into fists. He doesn’t want you. He’s an immortal, like Cadeyrn. You’re weak and worthless. No one wants you. “Why willnae you leave me alone?” “Visitors arenae permitted to leave the stronghold without an escort,” Ruadri told her, as if she were asking a genuine question. “’Tis the chieftain’s orders.

” Of course, it was. The man wouldn’t be chasing her unless commanded to. “What does Brennus imagine I’ll do? Run away, with a broken ankle?” Without waiting for an answer, she hobbled around him and headed back to the rockfall spilling down one side of the plateau. The shaman followed her to the cluster of weathered stone tors that formed Dun Mor’s labyrinthian front gate. Like the other rescued women Emeline had been shown how to navigate through its narrow channels. Still, every time she banged a shoulder or knee on one of the stone columns it infuriated her. Why did the Skaraven insist on keeping these ridiculous safeguards when they were out in the middle of nowhere? Hadn’t the door been invented yet? The end of her cane slipped on an icy patch of stone, and Emeline pitched forward, throwing out her hands to break her fall. A brawny arm sashed her waist from behind and clamped her back against the shaman, who with a single motion swung her up against his massive chest. Emeline would have told him to put her down, but wordless torrents of emotions cascaded into her own seething temper. Physical contact with another person now plugged her directly into their emotions.

She floundered in Ruadri’s feelings as they whirled through her. A honeyed flood of melting amber desire spread out beneath mists of dark blue frustration, stroking and clutching at her simultaneously. Sparkling tangerine enchantment spangled an endlessly flowering wall of green frustration. Holding her made his golden need expand to engulf the negative emotions, but not before something bubbled up inside her. Murky mists filled a corner in her head, but black instead of dark blue like his, and hers kept growing and spreading. “Please put me down,” she begged him. When he did she staggered backward into the stronghold, nearly collapsing again. Breaking the physical contact ended most of the empathic connection, but remnants of Ruadri’s cognizance still pulsed inside her, softer now as they sifted into her own feelings. He’s so strong and kind and fetching. I cannae have him.

I’ll never have anyone. And there was the true reason she hated the bridal shop in Inverness: because she’d never be loved. No man would ever want to marry her. Once he saw she was steady Ruadri nodded and retreated to the chamber where he practiced his dubious healing arts. With him he took his emotions, finally releasing her from the connection. The relief Emeline expected didn’t come. Instead she was even more wretched. Was she mad to want to follow him, and reach out to him, and beg him to help her? Or was it the blackness growing inside her? Something had changed her, eating away at her normally placid temper and making her lash out. It roiled in her heart, restless and hungry, and made her do things she’d never have done. Every hour she spent at Dun Mor it grew worse.

Standing there at the front of the clan’s great hall, Emeline felt the weight of watching eyes, and took in the dozens of immortal medieval warriors gathered to work there. Dressed in basic, primitive tunics and trousers that didn’t quite fit their big, heavilymuscled frames, the Scotsmen looked like a small army of stone lifters from some ancient highland games day. All of them possessed an alertness about them, as if prepared at any moment to engage an enemy on the battlefield. Yet they gave close attention to their tasks as well. The clansmen honed blades and spears, cut belts and purses out of leather, and even mended tears and rents in garments with bone needles and thick thread wound on sticks. Some were watching her, as palace guards did tourists, but most only spared her a glance before returning to their tasks. Their collective curiosity curled and thrummed around her like a huge, purring tabby. Emeline could block the feelings of a large group easier than those from a single person, so she reinforced her emotional walls. She might be nothing to look at, but she was a woman. Until Althea had married Brennus and joined the clan, the Skaraven had never had any contact with females.

The shaman carrying her in probably hadn’t set well with the clansmen, either. In this era men did not put hands on any woman unless he was marrying or burying her. She felt an urge to go and find Althea and the Thomas sisters, but what would be the point? They didn’t care about her, not really. I’ve no friends here. That thought made her miss Meribeth even more. They’d both worked at Fleming’s Hospital since they’d graduated nursing school, and they’d had such a lovely friendship. That had been thanks to Meri, who charmed everyone she met, made everything fun, and had insisted on including Emeline in everything she did. Since her parents had passed away she’d been like a rowboat set adrift, so she’d felt privileged to have such a friend. How dismal and lonely her life would have been without Meri. In the future her best friend had gotten married without her, and by now had returned from her honeymoon in France to set up her new house.

Meri’s wealthy neurosurgeon husband had also convinced her to quit nursing, so she wouldn’t be at Fleming’s. She had no idea that crazy time-traveling druids had stolen Emeline from Inverness just after she’d left the bridal shop. Meri would be immersed in her wonderful marriage. She certainly wouldn’t spare a thought for a best friend who couldn’t be bothered to show up for her wedding. Jealous of their closeness, Lauren would have encouraged that. Emeline could even hear her nasal voice tearing her to pieces: After all you’ve done for that stupid cow, Meri, she disappears on the most important day of your life. If she’d done that to me I’d never speak to her again. None of the Skaraven would speak to her, either. How self-satisfied they were in their masculine perfection. Emeline wished she had been born male, so she could pick a fight with one of the great haughty beasts and skelp him senseless.

The grand, glorious Skaraven might be the finest warriors of all time, but they were still men. She knew exactly where to stick a dagger to slice through the– What are you thinking? She couldn’t kill any of the Skaraven. No one could. They had all been made immortal. They were also good, decent men. Their war master, Cadeyrn, had risked his life countless times to rescue her and the other women. She’d be dead if he had left her behind, which he never had. But he’d thought about it. That was why he looked at me so often during the escape. Even if I didnae feel it, I saw it in those cold eyes.

Each time deciding if I was worth all the trouble… “Emeline.” The slender, copper-haired woman who called her name rushed to her, followed by the dark, imposing figure of her husband, Chieftain Brennus Skaraven. “You look so pale. Haven’t you been able to sleep?” Althea Jarden knew better than to touch her, but looked all over her, her worry plain in her aquamarine eyes. “Did you hurt yourself again?” I never hurt myself, Emeline wanted to shriek. Those demented druids and their brutes did this to me. So did the other women and the Skaraven and every damned person around me since I left that huddy bridal shop. I’ve done naught but help others the whole of my life and still all of you DID THIS TO ME. “I’m well enough.” It took every scrap of her self-control to get those three words out.

She swallowed all the hateful things she really wanted to scream in the botanist’s face. How much longer could she keep holding them back? She could also feel the wet warmth on her wounded side, which meant the gash from the spear had begun bleeding again. Althea shivered and wrapped her arms around her waist. “You should try and get some rest.” In that moment Emeline really saw how effortlessly beautiful the other woman was. No wonder Brennus had fallen so hard for her. Compared to Emeline she looked like a goddess. Meribeth had never pitied Emeline like this, although now their friendship seemed very odd. The other nurse had been obsessed with keeping her own body very trim, almost to the point of gauntness. Why would she want to be seen with a walking lardy cake? Of course, Emeline thought, swaying a little.

If you want to look a skelf, befriend a bulfie lass like me. They should never have been friends. Meri had worked in surgery, while Emeline had been firmly entrenched in geriatrics. A sleek, fashionable girl from the city didn’t take up with a girl from a village so small they had yet to pave the roads. All Meri liked to do on her off days was shop, have her hair and nails done, and throw parties or go clubbing. Taught by her parents to live their ideal of a quiet life, Emeline read books, knitted and gardened.


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