A LONG, LONG TIME AGO…
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.
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there, eager little arms up in the air like it was something she did every day, obviously wanting a very young, very withdrawn Kaid--who was still grieving from the loss of his own mother--to carry her.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, happy giggles, making Kaid grin and laugh, as well. His handsome little face was bright with an adoring smile as he gazed down into her small, angelic 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.