"Take thirty days off or you’re fired." To twenty-first-century surgeon Dr. Evie Wortham, her hospital's ultimatum of thirty days' leave in the calming wilderness of the Scottish Highlands so she can get a handle on her anger issues means one thing: unbearable boredom. But she agrees out of pity for her best friend who Human Resources nominated to pass out the punishment. So, she heads to the outskirts of Inverness for a month of hiking, biking, and becoming one with nature. But a climb behind a waterfall to rescue a kitten permanently strikes the word boredom from her vocabulary. Instead of finding the cat when she emerges on the other side, she discovers a man with a bloody gash in his head floating face down in the pool below.
When Chieftain Quinn MacTaggart opens his eyes to the lovely, but strangely dressed Englishwoman, he's certain the enemy has captured him. He'd put nothing past Edward I's arrogance and determination to break Scotland. But when the sharp-tongued lass turns out to be an extraordinary healer and confesses England has banished her, honor demands he not only offer her the protection of his clan, but the added safety of taking his name. After all, she did save his life. And not only is she fearless and filled with fire, but bonny as a prize filly. What better choice for a wife?
Contains mature themes.
Release date: December 16, 2021
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 259
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Taming Her Highland Legend
Near Inverness, Scotland
July 28, 2019
Evie savored the last bite of the bacon and sausage sandwich she had purchased at a cozy little shop in Rosemarkie. She rarely indulged in such delicious greasiness, but this tasted the kind of wicked good that made you shiver. Self-control waning, she barely resisted the urge to lick any remains off the sandwich’s wax paper wrapping.
“How scrummy was that?” she announced to the surrounding woods. Also, how ironic? She lectured patients every day about avoiding too much fat.
“I shall walk it off,” she informed the birds overhead as they chittered about her hypocrisy. Shouldering her backpack in place, she trudged onward.
Quite pleased with the route she had chosen, she tromped through the area, enjoying the shade offered by the pleasant wood filled with beech, rowan, and oak. Maybe Maggie was right about Scotland being a proper place to relax. She laughed out loud at what her friend might think about her deciding she liked the country. Maggie would admit her for psychiatric evaluation.
A creature of some sort scurried deeper under the bushes alongside the trail. Another amused snort escaped her. Perhaps it was a woodland fairy. She shook her head at the silly thought. All that tasty grease from her lovely sandwich was going to her head.
As a gentle breeze rustled through the leaves, she pulled in a deep breath and blew it out. No, she must never admit to Maggie or Finchcrest’s Admins that perhaps this wasn’t such a dreadful punishment after all. They’d think her over the edge, for sure.
The steady thundering of rushing water up ahead pulled her forward. She checked her phone, but with the spotty signal, it took forever to load the map and reveal the location of the first set of falls. With it powered down to spare the battery, she zipped it into the side pocket of her backpack. A few pics of her woodland stroll had already been sent to Maggie, so both her friend and personnel should be satisfied for a while.
She chose not to follow the path to the footbridge and endure more nauseating displays of affection from the couple up ahead. Instead, she veered off into the woods to enjoy a unique vantage point of the falls. After all, she wasn’t the average touristy hiker. She was here for intense therapy. The steady shushing of the cascading water dared her to risk getting closer. Moisture filled the air from the rising mist as the stream tumbled down to the pool below. She maneuvered closer, balancing on moss-covered boulders and shelves of limestone, finally reaching the point where all she heard was the water’s deafening song.
From her seat on the rocks, she drew up her knees and hugged them, watching as the pool swallowed up the tumbling water and spit out the spray. How long since she had sat this still and listened to nothing but her thoughts? Forever, really. She avoided the state of quiet solitude like the plague. Her mind kicked into overdrive and too many memories reared their ugly heads when she sat still.
An insistent, pitiful mewling managed to break through the water’s hypnotic hold. She turned toward it, peering under ferns and bushes, and scanning the primrose carpeted embankment. The feline cry grew louder, as if the tiny mite needed rescuing.
“Where are you, kitty?”
It answered, making her edge closer to the falls. She eyed the shelf of water-soaked rocks with apprehension, not relishing the idea of getting her feet or anything else soaked. Then she spotted the crying beastie. A black and gray tiger-striped kitten clung to a swaying branch kept in motion by the stream snagging hold of its tip. The mighty oak stretched across the water, yearning for the sunlight shining down into the pool.
“Bad life choice, cat.” Evie climbed higher. If she got close enough and coaxed the mite toward the body of the tree, she just might reach it. “Come this way. Here kitty. Come here and I’ll help you.”
The cat flattened its ears, flipped its tail, and hissed.
“Really? Is that nice? I’m trying to help you here.” She sidled farther along the rock shelf that disappeared behind the tumbling water. “Come this way.” She wiggled her fingers, stretching to steady herself against the branch. “Come on kitty. I promise to take you to a nice comfy cottage and feed you.” Surely, Gertrude stocked a bottle or two of cream at the cottage.
The small cat crept closer, then sat and glared at her.
“Now see here, I can’t help you if you don’t work with me.” Evie wiggled her fingers along the limb, hoping to tempt the uncertain beast into pouncing close enough to be nabbed. She loved cats. Always had. But couldn’t foster one because of her long hours at the hospital. If she rescued this one, she’d care for it during her holiday, then find it a suitable home before heading back to London. “Come on, kitty. Come on,” she wheedled in a singsong voice.
The feline charged forward, leapt down to the stone ledge beside her, and shot behind the wall of water. Then it cut loose with a furious yowling.
“You cheeky little…” Evie stared after the cat. If the silly thing liked water that much, Godspeed to it. She crouched to work her way down from the ledge and head back to level ground, but then she heard it again. It carried on with louder pitiful crying as though realizing the error of its daredevil ways.
“Oh, bloody hell.” She couldn’t leave it. That pathetic sound would haunt her for days. With her pack propped on another ledge, she unzipped one of its multitude of pockets and yanked out the compact square of her folded, clear raincoat. She shrugged it on, pulled up the hood, and settled her pack back in place, snugging the straps tight around her shoulders.
“You better appreciate this,” she called out to the feline. “And if you scratch or bite me, we shall have words.” Thankfully, her hiking boots possessed extra rugged tread. She prayed that also meant a better grip on wet rocks. Her face to the cliffside, she hugged the solid backdrop of earth and rock as she sidled behind the curtain of water. Her kind heart would be her undoing. Or so nanny had told her many times a long time ago.
Halfway across the width of the watery tunnel, she pondered the error of keeping her pack on her back and facing the cliff. It was waterproof and had survived a stint with Doctors Without Borders, so it would be okay. But the full gear pack stretched from just below the top of her head down to her hips. Spray wouldn’t soak through it, but if the space narrowed anymore and the force of the water hit it, it might pull her backwards off the ledge and send her tumbling. A sideways glance assured her the broad extension of the walkway remained the same. At least, she thought so. The misty half light behind the falls distorted everything. With the louder drumming of the water, she no longer heard the cat, but it had to be up ahead. Where else could it go?
Her right foot slipped and shot off the ledge. She fumbled to regain her footing, grabbing hold of the cliffside, and landing hard on one knee. The falls pounded across her heel, threatening to jerk her downward. Heartrate revving, stomach churning, her choice of that delectably fatty sandwich no longer seemed so wise. And the worst of it was, if she leaned either way to vomit, she’d lose her balance as well as her lunch.
“Ease up, old girl.” She pressed her forehead to the cool, wet wall of rock and sucked in deep breaths. “That sandwich cost you five quid. You don’t want to chunder it now do you?” The thrum of the rushing water pounded all around, making her head feel like it swelled to the point of exploding every time she opened her eyes.
She had known it would be some noisier this close to the deluge, but she never expected this strange pressure closing in on all sides. She held her head, pressing the heels of her hands against her temples to keep everything in place. This was worse than any migraine ever.
“Dear God, maybe I’m having a stroke.” Bile burned the back of her throat, unleashing more nausea. “Or an aneurysm.” She patted her face, flexed both hands, then forced her eyes open. “You are being a hypochondriac, Eves. Just like that time in Afghanistan. Now suck it up, find the damn cat, and get the hell out of here.”
Waterfalls. Soon as she got back to London, she’d tell Maggie that the next time she wanted to help—don’t. She had rather they fired her than go through this. Jaws clenched; she forced herself to look to the left. Where was that stupid cat? Nowhere in sight. Probably scampered away and took off through the woods. Served her right for being so softhearted. Damn cat.
Inching sideways on her knees, she continued her journey. Her shaky balance took the possibility of standing off the table. “Keep moving,” she chanted to herself, focusing on getting to the opposite side. The churning disorientation seemed to ease, and her lunch remained in her stomach. Bloody miracle that was, but she accepted it with gladness.
When she emerged from the watery tunnel, she tumbled off the ledge and hugged the ground. Thank God. She made it. After several deep, calming breaths, she pushed herself up and looked around, praying there wasn’t a gaggle of tourists enjoying the show of some fool bumbling out from behind the falls.
Immediate uneasiness shoved away any lingering sheepishness. The surrounding woods seemed different somehow. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. After a hard blink and a rubbing of her eyes, she looked around again. It was so strange. The place was the same, but… not. She massaged her temples, inhaled deeply, then blew the air back out. Probably some silly residual trauma from almost tumbling into the water. How could it not be the same place?
Removing the plastic rain jacket, she shook it out while studying the area. The smattering of tourists annoying her on the main trail were gone. She knew she’d made her own path into the woods, but they should be somewhere close. At least within earshot. This area looked empty of hikers. Not just empty—deserted. She heard nothing other than the crashing water, occasional birdsong, or skittering through the leaves and bushes of some woodland creature. An eerie feeling took hold of her. It was if she was the last soul left on earth. A loud splash that didn’t fit the rhythmic sound of the falls drew her attention downward to the pool.
Instinct and years of training took over. Backpack in tow, she charged down the rise, praying the man still lived. He floated in the water, face down and arms outstretched. A dark, bloody cloud swirled around his head. After dropping her pack on the shore, she sloshed into the pond and turned him face up, thankful for the buoyancy of the water. Nothing small about this chap. Muscled like a bodybuilder, he was tall enough to pull thunder from the clouds.
“Bloody hell, they grow them big in Scotland.” A determined groan came clear from her toes as she dragged him up the bank. The wound on his head looked vicious, but her immediate concern was his breathing. If he drowned, the gash in the back of his head wouldn’t matter.
Wedging her knee behind his shoulders, she propped him on his side and pulled her bag closer. “Lucky for you, my fine fellow, I am mental about always being prepared.” She unzipped and laid open the pack. “I’ve got a complete emergency unit in here.” With the stethoscope she never left home without, she listened, pressing it in several spots across his broad back and muscular chest. “Got a bit of water in there, my friend, but at least you’re breathing, and your heart is strong. Let’s keep you on your side for a while, shall we? With any luck, you’ll cough it up in a bit.”
Out of habit, she popped the stethoscope out of her ears and looped it around the back of her neck before grabbing a rolled-up t-shirt. She placed it under his head, then positioned her pack behind him to keep him somewhat on his side. “Now, let’s check that head of yours.” Her peers at Finchcrest always teased her about keeping up a line of chatter with unconscious patients. But who knew? They might hear her and focus on living. She had developed the habit during her charity service abroad. Anything that helped a patient, no matter how odd or silly, always mattered.
As gently as possible, she parted the thickness of his dark mane that looked as though it reached past his shoulders. “Like your hair long, do you?” She went silent and frowned at the gash. It wasn’t as bad as she had first feared, but it needed sutures. Head wounds always bled like the dickens, even from the smallest nick. However, this was not a split from diving and hitting a rock. A clean slice of a blade had split his flesh. From the early swelling at the upper end of the cut, whoever had done it either possessed poor aim or a weak swing. Instead of opening his skull, they’d hit him with a glancing blow and knocked the daylights out of him. “When you wake up, you’re in for one hell of a headache, my friend.” Even though the injury’s severity appeared less than she first assumed, the man needed to be airlifted to the hospital just to be on the safe side.
She found her phone, powered it up, then scowled at the screen. “Of course, there’s no service here.” All she could do was stabilize him and pray a hiker turned up. They could run for help. It was a fine summer’s day, and the place was busy enough. Surely, someone would be along soon.
“Well, let’s get that cleaned up, shall we?” She forced herself to use an uplifting tone, even though the delay in getting the man proper aid frustrated her. “Lucky for you I nicked a bottle of povidone-iodine for my trip.” Wearing the gloves also liberated from the hospital’s supply room, she washed the wound with the golden-brown liquid. Once satisfied with the emergency disinfection, she sutured the gash. “Just temporary stitches to keep you nice and clean, my friend.” After padding it with an antimicrobial dressing, she wrapped gauze around his head and secured it with cloth tape. Proud of her handiwork, she smiled. “Aren’t you glad I’m quite the thief when it comes to keeping my emergency supplies stocked?”
A second glance at the serene surroundings compounded her anxiousness to get the man more help. Still no tourists. Several vehicles had sat in the car park when she arrived. Yet no one came upon them? When she returned her stethoscope to the bag, her penlight peeping out of its slot caught her attention. Might as well do a more thorough exam while she waited.
Evie knelt in front of him, eased open one of his eyes, and flashed the light. “What glorious eyes you have, sir.” She checked the other one. “So brown they’re almost black.” Both pupils dilated at the same rate. That consoled her somewhat, but he still needed more care than she or her backpack provided. She sat back on her heels and frowned down at him. “What am I going to do with you ’til help comes?”
For the first time since pulling him out of the water, she noticed his odd clothing. “What’s this garb you’re wearing? Are you a re-enactor or something?” His linen tunic, almost transparent from its soaking, reached to mid-thigh of the snug black pants he wore tucked into knee-high leather boots. “It’s a wonder those boots didn’t drag you to the bottom of the pool.” That’s probably what his attacker intended. This would be a perfect place for hiding a body. Luckily for this brown-eyed hulk, he’d hit the water at a shallow spot and stayed afloat.
She leaned forward and dried his face with the tail of her t-shirt. “You’ve been in scrapes before, haven’t you?” A thin silvery scar split one of his sleek black brows, and a smaller one ran up the side of his chin. “I wish I had your lashes.” She pressed the backs of her fingers against his cheek and smiled. A little warm, but not too bad. And very striking in a handsome, squared jaw sort of way. An additional scar at the base of his throat caught her eye, making her pull open the loose neck of his tunic and glance at his chest. “Poor man, you’ve been through it. Are you in the military?” What else would explain all those scars?
He jerked and kicked, rolling toward her with uncontrollable choking.
She sprang into action, supporting his head and shoulders as he lunged forward, coughing and spewing out the water she’d heard sloshing around inside him. “Well done, you!” she bragged, thumping her fist between his shoulder blades to keep the fluid moving outward. “That’s it. Bring it up. All of it now.”
“God’s beard!” He yanked away from her and rolled back, baring his straight white teeth as he clutched his head.
“So, you are a Scot.” She caught hold of his prying fingers as he discovered the bandage wrapped around his head. “Leave that be, now. You’ve a nasty wound we need to keep clean until we get you transferred.”
“Transferred?” he repeated, flinching as he eased back down onto the rolled shirt. He cracked an eye open and sneered up at her. “I willna go without a fight.”
Lovely. He’d lost the plot because of the blow to his head. She hated when patients got combative but wasn’t surprised. Especially not with this type of injury. Someone had obviously attacked him. “I would never assume you would go anywhere you did not wish to go.” Experience had taught her that agreeing with them sometimes helped.
“Where are they?” he growled, still glaring at her as if she had been the one who axed him.
This one was turning into quite the challenging puzzle. She shook her head and flipped a hand at the surrounding woods. “Look around. I have no men.” Then she smiled. “It’s just you and me. I promise.”
That knotted his dark brows over his narrowed eyes. “Just yerself then? All alone?”
“Yes.” She pointed up the hillside toward the rock shelf protruding out from behind the falls. “In my effort to save an ungrateful cat, I ended up there.” Then she jabbed a thumb toward the pool beside them. “I heard an odd splash and spotted you floating face down and bleeding everywhere.” With an apologetic shrug, she shook her head. “I tried to phone for help but there’s no signal here.” Leaning closer, she peered into his eyes. “Are you able to focus?” She fluttered three fingers in front of his face. “No double vision? Everything clear?”
“In the water,” he repeated, eyeing her as though he thought her a liar. “Who pulled me out?”
“I did.” If not for the man’s injury causing him confusion, she'd be insulted. “Pulled you out, cleaned that head of yours, and closed you up with some temporary sutures. I’m sure they’ll remove them to give you a proper cleaning once we get you to the hospital.”
“I dinna understand half ye’re saying.”
“Well, you have had a rough time of it.” She pulled out her penlight and clicked it on.
The man’s eyes shot wide open, and he floundered away her. “Witch!”
“No, although I have been called something that rhymes with that. Quite a few times, in fact. Be still now.” She leaned closer. “I know the light might hurt, but I need to look in your eyes again now that you’re conscious.”
“Nay!” He batted her away, his panic and sudden pallor concerning her. “Take it away.”
“Fine. Fine. Calm down.” She clicked it off and shoved it into the back pocket of her jeans. “I promise I mean you no harm.” She gave him her best consoling smile. “Why else would I have saved you?”
“Because I am Chieftain Quinn MacTaggart, ye ken? A valuable prisoner.”
Delusions sometimes accompanied head wounds. The man obviously thought himself someone quite important. Better to play along to keep him calm. She gave a polite nod. “It is an honor to meet you, Chieftain MacTaggart. I’m Evie Wortham. A surgeon at Finchcrest Hospital in London.” Modesty forbade her from telling him she was Finchcrest’s best surgeon. She offered him another smile.
Poor, befuddled chap stared at her like she spoke in a language he didn’t understand. Disbelief and confusion curled a corner of his mouth higher, revealing a dimple dead center of his cheek. She loved dimples. When he remained silent, she did her best to reassure him. “Mind you, I don’t feel you’ll need surgery, but that’s for further testing to decide. Swelling is our greatest concern at this time.”
“Swelling?” He held his head and closed his eyes. “Be a helpful lass and fetch me some whisky, aye?”
She clamped her mouth shut, trapping a curt retort behind her teeth. No. With his cognizance a bit dodgy because of the injury, the man deserved some indulgence. The situation warranted niceness. For a while. “I do not recommend whisky for head injuries.” She rose and fetched her water bottle. “Here. Just a few sips, mind you. Especially if you’re still feeling queasy.”
He glared at her. A fierce glare, as if trying to intimidate her. She almost laughed out loud. This man had no idea how many go to hell looks she had not only faced in her lifetime but also given right back. “Go on then. Take a sip. It’s just water with some electrolytes added. It’ll make you feel better.”
After a sip, he curled his nose and shoved it back at her. “That doesna taste like water.”
“I tried the guava flavor packet. You don’t fancy it?”
“It tastes like piss.”
“I wouldn’t know. Mind you, I don’t drink piss.” She replaced the cap on the bottle, but not before spotting the hint of a smile from him. Well met. He’d started relaxing around her and his awareness was improving. Seated cross-legged beside him, she looked around for the umpteenth time, still unable to believe not a single soul had appeared.
After blowing out a heavy sigh, she decided to keep him talking. He mustn’t sleep. At least, not for a while. “So, do you remember what happened? How were you hurt?”
He scowled and made to rise, then sagged back on the makeshift pillow, clutching his head. “Do ye see my horse?”
“Sorry, no.” She wondered if the horse was real or imagined. Concerned that shock might set in, she pulled a thermal blanket from her pack and covered him. “I promise to look as soon as help comes.”
His jaw hardened and hatred flashed in his eyes. “English?”
“Does it matter?”
“Aye, it does.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, but right now I’d settle for any nationality with a stronger cell phone signal than mine.”
“Ye are a verra strange woman.”
“You have no idea,” she said as she powered down her phone again and shoved it back in her pocket. “But I’m all you have for the time being.”
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