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She wanted to die. It was her only coherent thought when she found herself huddled with three other women from her village. The only women left from her village. Several took off into the woods when the Duke abandoned the estate, leaving with the village defenseless. Others had taken their own lives, thinking it a better to be dead than to be beaten, tortured and raped.

Claire had been seeing to a birth and refused to leave Mary, a young teen giving birth to her first child. Her arms were still covered in her blood, and that of her stillborn child. She’d held Mary as the soldiers entered her small infirmary, and sobbed as her friend’s lifeblood went still in her grasp. The soldiers hesitated as first, before one came forward and grabbed her by the back of her neck and dragged her outside. She remembered clawing at the dirt, digging her heels into the rocks and sod in an effort to squeeze away from the firm hand on her bodice.

She felt herself lifted and thrown on the ground and felt herself bounce with a sickening thud. Her vision blurred as she felt her skirts torn from her thighs…and then nothing. Shouts and venom passed overhead in growling tension…and then she woke here, wanting to die. Her hand slid down to the tear in her skirts, confirmation of her memory and the attack she had survived. But why?

Her answer arrived a few moments later when a group of men gathered around her and the other women. She shrunk back against them, only to feel herself be pushed forward away from the group.

“Take her!” One of the older women yelled. “She’s the gypsy witch. Take her if you must have one of us!”

A dark chuckle emanated through the men as Claire fell onto her elbows, anger and betrayal burning through her veins as one man lifted her by her hair to her knees.

“She’s too bonnie to be a witch, aye?”

“They’re no’ ugly Angus. That’s what makes ‘em so evil.”

“Still, there’s no harm with a taste, aye?

Claire felt a pair of lips on her neck as another hand wrenched her hair back. An air of gasps and raised shouts filled her ears but didn’t stop her from digging her fingers into her attacker’s face. A howl and laughter followed before the grip on her hair went slack.

“Serves ye right, Alex. Ye know he’ll no be pleased—”

“Silence!” A voice roared over the crowd, though Claire could feel his approach louder from her position on the ground. The earth seemed to tremble as her eyes came to rest on a dirt-covered boot, with clean hose tucked over the brim and a kilt pleated neatly to the knee.

“I claim this woman as mine, and any who touches her from this point forth will answer to me.” Jamie swept his eyes over the men and saw each bow their head in acknowledgment. Only Alex did not back from the challenge.

“You’ll claim a Sassenach when ye haven’t claimed a Scots woman in years? What sort of dishonor do ye plan to bring on us cousin?”

“I’m free to claim who I wish, Alex. One at a time, aye? I believe your mistress lays in your tent so what argument have you here?”

“It’s no right!” Alex shouted. “An English whore should be on her back for our use, not flaunted on your arm.” Alex grabbed at his arm and pulled James close, stepping over Claire to do so. “Forget this one cousin. There are many women at home eager to warm your bed. I know ye don’t approve of how I handle the Sassenachs but I’ll go easy—”

“Nay,” Jamie barked and pushed his cousin back. He starred back at Alex, willing him to question him again so he could lay him flat on his back. Alex seemed to understand Jamie’s patience had come to its end and bowed his head at last.

“Aye then. Take the blacksmith’s daughter to see to the horses and see that the other mends the tents. The men began to disperse and Claire looked up at the hand extended towards her.

Christ but he was a huge man. His hand connected to an arm of muscle and sinew stretched in ropes over his frame, and with a few days growth on his chin, he seemed to shine in the flickering campfire. His blue eyes cut through her, cold as they were, as he shook his hand impatiently for her to take. She ground her teeth but took the hand he extended to her.

“I belong to no man.” Claire seethed.

Claire was covered in dirt and blood mud, and stood more than a head below his height, but Jamie felt a lesser man would have considered her words. Nor could he deny that the flint lighting her eyes golden tempted him to prove her wrong.

“You’ll know the truth of it soon enough, my Sassenach,” Jamie said as he snatched her close and before she could blink, secured a tightened rope around her wrists and waist. A moment later Jamie scooped her into his arms and made his way to his horse with his wriggling prize.

“You bloody Scottish bastard! Let go of me n—”

Jamie fixed a neat sack over her head before he heaved her up onto the horse’s back. Swinging up behind her, he pulled her close against his chest and felt her fingers clench around the sleeve of his coat.

“Good lass. Hang on now.” Jamie whispered to her as he sent his horse into a gallop.