Lady Lindsay MacNeil bolted awake at the landing trumpet, and her heart surged to pounding. A sleepy smile touched her lips, and it spread across her face as the thin, tinny notes reporting the arrival repeated, wafted from above by the sea wind. He’d come. Alasdair an Dubhar MacNeil, Earl of Cruachan and Laird of Eilean Aonarach, had returned, recognized by the castle watch by the arms painted on his sails. How had she missed the first sighting? She should have heard the trumpet long before now. She sat up in the enormous silk-dressed bed and peered toward the window at the far end of the room, a rectangle of small panes made bluish by the pre-dawn light. Early yet; perhaps there had been no sighting in the darkness, or there had been fog. Perhaps the sentry had been asleep and not sounded the sighting call. Or maybe she herself had slept through the announcement of an approaching boat, and that shamed her.
In any case, she slipped from beneath the heavy bedcovers, hurried to poke the fire to life and feed it a log, then plucked a small, yellow, spring wildflower from the arrangement of purple, white and yellow sitting on the table near the window. She leaned into the deep stone sill and pulled open the glass to look out. It was a far reach across the thickness of wall in the slanted sill, the rough stone cold on her bare belly, and she shivered. But her heart lifted at the view of the barbican and quay below, and when she shivered again it was a thrill of joy.
Her husband’s ships stood at the quay, already unloading men and horses. Two large black dogs, lanky young animals that resembled what would one day be called a Scottish wolfhound, bounded up the steps to the keep at a gangly, playful lope. They were littermates, born the summer before, and had attached themselves to Alex. The earl had named them after his brothers back home: Carl and Pete. They went everywhere with him, had accompanied him to Cruachan, and now announced his presence with their barking and wrestling. His voice called to them, but in spite of their size they were still puppies at heart and they ignored him.
Alex’s figure below, familiar by his build and the way he moved hurrying up the steps to the keep, caught Lindsay’s eye and she let the flower drop at just the right moment. She made it in time, and it floated gently downward, to land only a few feet ahead of Alex trotting up the steps. He slowed to pick it up, pushed his mail coif back from his head so it lay about his neck in a collar of metal, grinned at her, and put the tiny blossom to his nose. His hair was awry from the coif, and his chin bristled with dark stubble of several days, but his cheeks glowed pink with health. No sickness, no wounds while he’d been gone. Her heart lifted with joy for that. Then he resumed his hurry into the keep, surcoat flapping, spurs and chain mail jingling. Lindsay withdrew to the room, closed the window, and turned to wait for him. He was but a moment.
Alex came straight to the chamber, followed by the dogs, who bounded into the room and settled themselves in their accustomed spot atop sheepskins near the hearth. Pete sniffed and snuffled at the air, and Carl curled up immediately to sleep. Alex bolted the door behind him, a little breathless from the steep climb but his grin bright and steadfast. His eyes shone with the pleasure of seeing her, and she guessed it was because she wore not a stitch and it had been two months since he’d left for his other island, Cruachan. For a moment he regarded her, then said in modern English for the sake of privacy from the servants in the anteroom, “Saucy wench.” Lindsay thought his American accent mellifluous. Exotic, and she treasured it the more because she was the only one to whom he spoke in it, for she was the only one in the household-and nearly the only human in this century-who could understand it.
She resisted a grin, and went wide-eyed with feigned innocence. “O bold knight, you have misjudged me terribly. I am but a poor girl without proper attire-”
“Nor attire of any sort, it would seem.”
“Indeed.” She lowered her head as if ashamed of her situation, then peeked at him from under her eyelashes and continued, “I place myself at your mercy and pray you to be gentle.” Her hands went to the small of her back and she shook her shoulders so her breasts would sway. His gaze went to them, and his grin widened. He licked his lips, then bit his lower one as he stared. She stepped closer to him. “Please do not ravish me too harshly. You are so large and strong, and I am but weak and mild.”
That brought a snort of amusement, for they both knew she was stronger than most men and might even beat him in a fair fight. She held in laughter of her own, and her chest jiggled with it. With a theatrical swagger Alex unbuckled his sword belt and set the weapon against the side of the stone hearth, his iron-plated leather gauntlets were discarded to the floor next to it, then he began untying the opening of his surcoat. It went straight to the floor in a mound of red and black silk. Lindsay closed the distance between them and slipped her arms around his neck for a kiss. The mail was cold and bumpy against her skin, a hardness that excited her. Alex was warm and breathing inside the hauberk, flesh and blood and bone protected by the mesh of iron rings. He held her tightly and they pinched a little. It gave her goosebumps. She murmured into his ear, “Take care, bold knight.”
“Beware, tender maiden. I cannot make promises, for my lust is too great.” His breaths came heavily with that genuine lust and he pressed his mouth to her neck.
“Would you take me unfairly?”
“Would you offer yourself, then break your promise?” His eyelids drooped and his lips touched her forehead as she helped him off with his coif and hauberk, then let them slip to the floor. Off came his spurs and boots, and when the belt that held up his trews was unbuckled they and his drawers also went to the floor, leaving him in nothing but his knee-length linen shirt. He took her in his arms and pressed himself against her, and she slipped her arms around his neck again. Warm and breathing. And whole. Each time he left the island, each time he donned his sword belt, each time she fought alongside him, she feared for him and prayed for his safety. Today he’d returned to her whole and not bleeding, and that was cause for thanks. Even celebration. She brought her leg up around his waist, gave a hop, and he lifted her to his hips. He was enormous and hard against her as he carried her to the bed.
She lay back, and he climbed onto the bed with her to kiss her hard. Her knees parted and he settled between them. She wanted him inside her, but he dallied, teasing, as he sometimes did to make her beg. His face was at her chest, all bristly stubble and nibbling teeth. The roughness made her gasp. Her voice went thin, but she found it and said, “O…” It gave out for a moment, then she gathered her wits and continued, “O bold knight, I promised myself to you and I am yours. But I tremble at your touch.” She pressed her hips to his belly in a smooth, rocking rhythm. “I quake under your gaze.” A moan escaped her. “I fear you will overwhelm me.” Her fingers raked through his hair. “Despoil me.” Her breaths became panting. “Ruin me for any other man.” She captured his mouth with hers and her knees lay flat against the feather mattress in desperate invitation.
Alex broke away and lifted his head, looked into her face, and said, “I will have you, and no argument. I say to you, fair, gentle…demure maiden, lie back, close your eyes,” he grinned and uttered a snort that was nearly a giggle, “and think of England.” Then with one hand he guided himself into her and was home.
England was quite the furthest thing from her mind.
Trefor MacNeil stared at the hole in the root-riddled earth ceiling above. It was a tiny circle of light amid the shadows cast by the fires in this chamber, dripping with what Trefor could only surmise was rain from the world above. He’d been down here an awful long time, it seemed. Without the sun to inform him, he only knew it as cycles of tiredness and rest, hunger and satisfaction. And, of course, longing for Morag and getting no satisfaction. If she was around, she was keeping away from him. Or the faeries were keeping her from him. But she was one of them. Sort of. Enough to be in cahoots with them, in any case, and he was coming to learn that might not be such a good thing.
And now he looked at the hole, visible in the ceiling for the first time since he’d fallen through it however many months-or years–or centuries-ago. He knew enough about these guys to know that time had no meaning for them and if he managed to find a way through that hole there was no telling whether he might find dinosaurs or space ships. That knowledge made him not so eager to leave. Nevertheless he stood, staring upward, unable to take his eyes off the circle of light. It had appeared a moment ago-what he perceived to be a moment in any case-and now seemed to mock him, as if it had always been there and there must be something wrong with him that he’d not seen it before. Though he’d looked. Oh, how he’d looked. Searched. Prowled the caverns in this faerie hole, looking for a way out. There it was, and enough twisted, winding tree roots along the walls and ceiling for him to climb out.
If he dared.
Brochan came into the chamber, climbing over and around gnarled columns and rises of root and earth, cocky as ever, and cried out, “Are ye praying, then, lad?” Hair askew and tunic raggedy and poor, he made a bad impression as king of his realm. Trefor gathered he was pretty much standard for an Irish petty king, though, and knew Brochan and his people hearkened back to nearly prehistoric times.
Trefor looked at him and asked for the thousandth-or maybe millionth-time, “Where’s Morag?” Though he was conversant in a dozen or so languages, including medieval Gaelic and Middle English, he spoke modern English because he knew it irritated the little faerie.
“She’ll come when you’re ready.” He always said that. “And when she’s ready as well.” He always said that, too.
Trefor scratched an itch on his thigh, and tugged at the tunic they’d given him to wear. It was too short, and there were no trews, so he was forever struggling to keep himself covered. Like wearing a hospital gown. A dirty one made of rough, poorly-spun linen that itched. “So, when will I be ready?”
“You are now. I dinnae ken where your lady is off to. She should be here.” He glanced around in a show of looking for her. “I’m guessing you’ll be wanting to leave without her, though.”
It took a moment for what the faerie king had said to sink in, and when it did Trefor felt a moment of dizziness. This was too good to be true. “Ready? I’m done here?”
“Prince Trefor of the Bhrochan is ready to greet the world. If he cares to venture out.”
“No more training? No more conjuring the maucht and memorizing the foliage?”
“Are ye disappointed?”
Hardly. That stuff bored him to distraction. But he’d learned it for the sake of one day being released. He had little regard for any of the wee folk except Morag, who was more human than not in any case. He cared nothing for the magic, for it had always come at a high price for him. Though his pointed ears proved him to be part faerie, and his mother was distantly descended from the Tuatha De Danann, the blood was thin in him and he’d been raised in twenty-first century Tennessee, far from these small Bhrochan folk who now called him “prince.” Whatever that meant to them. What it meant to him was that the things he’d learned here seemed to make it all easier. Magic wasn’t such a mystery as it had been, and there were fewer surprises from these psychotic leprechauns. So it wasn’t as if his time here had been a waste. The headaches had stopped as well, and he no longer had to weigh so much pain against working the craft. “I would move on with my life if you don’t need me any more.”
“I never needed you. ‘Twas Morag who wanted ye here.”
“Then where is she? What’s going on here?”
“Do ye care? Does it matter to you at all what her purpose is in you?”
Trefor hesitated in his reply. He’d become accustomed to Brochan’s riddle-me-this sort of talk, and knew there was always more to it than craziness. The faerie was trying to tell him something, and he would probably do well to know what it was. He admitted, “I care.” Morag had lured him here. Had led him from as far away as twenty-first century Tennessee, and then left him to the mercy of this crazy faerie who was a distant relative of hers. He’d once thought himself in love with her, but these past months had put a question to that. She would be here if she gave a damn.
Brochan stuffed his thumbs into his belt and sat on a handy bulge of tree root, polished by the bottoms of many faeries before him. “Have ye thought much about where she’s been?”
Trefor muttered, “Yeah.”
“Not here, aye?”
“No, not here.”
“Do ye think she’s forsaken you?”
“Do ye think she had a purpose in bringing you here?”
“You keep saying she did. You’ve been saying for months that I’m meant to be the prince of this place.” He looked around and knew he wanted nothing more to do with this dank hole in the ground. “I’m supposed to use what I’ve learned here and fulfill a mission of some sort. Is all that nonsense her idea?”
“All that nonsense is your fate. You’re meant to do certain things, and we’ve given you the means to do them. For it would hardly be sporting for us to send you out to the fray without the knowledge required to accomplish your destiny.”
“Aye. The struggle’s the thing, don’t ye know. I see the spark of concern in your eye; are ye afraid?”
Trefor blinked, then shut his eyes against intrusion from this guy, who always seemed to know too much. “No. I fear nothing.” Not in a long time, anyway. It was as a child he’d lost his sense of safety, and with nothing else to lose there was little any more that truly frightened him. Losing Morag had once come close, but even that was waning. He looked Brochan in the eye. “So tell me what lies ahead. What’s my destiny?”
The little man laughed, a high, munchkin-like giggle. “Were I to tell you, it couldnae happen. Destiny requires you to learn for yourself what will be.”
“Nae so free.”
“But that doesn’t make sense.”
Frustration made Trefor snort, and he looked around the room and shifted his weight with impatience. “Okay, how about a hint? If I climb out that hole, where will I find myself? Which way should I go? Is my father still out there, or has he died of old age? Turned to dust, maybe?”
Brochan gave another laugh. “No, the time hasnae flown for you as it might have, for not only are you Danann but you ken the ways of the folk. Alasdair an Dubhar is still there,” he raised a finger of warning, “but not so close as you imagine.”
“He’s not aged any?” More important, had his mother not aged? Last time he’d seen his parents, after being raised apart from them, they’d been less than five years older than himself and his mother had rejected him for it. The hurt smoldered in his gut, and some nights he lay awake with the pain. He had faeries to thank for that, too, for the Bhrochan had brought him to this century and deposited him in it three decades too early for comfort.
“They’ve aged no more than you have, young Trefor.”
That was a disappointment. “And what is expected of me when I leave? I don’t imagine you taught me your magic tricks for the fun of it.”
“Och, but it was for fun! If ye think I ever do anything for aught but the fun of it, ye cannae know me very well!”
“But you have an agenda. You’re a man with a plan, and don’t tell me there isn’t something ulterior in everything you do.”
Another giggle, and Brochan said, “Were ye my son, I couldnae be more proud of ye, lad, Danann though ye are! Aye, I must confess I have a wish. And the only thing I’ll tell you of it is to seek out the king, Dagda Mór of the Tuatha De Danann.”
“And then what?”
“That’s for you to learn, lad.”
“I’ve already told ye too much.”
“You’ve told me nothing.”
“Find the king, and all will come clear.”
“And if I choose not to look?”
The bright light of a bird’s eye came to Brochan’s grinning face, and he said, “There is no free will, Trefor MacNeil. Not truly. You cannae not go looking. ‘Tis not in you to not look.”
“Och, aye, I will. I live for it.”
Trefor’s lips pressed together. “All right. Be my guest.” He looked up at the hole again and figured it was time to go. The sooner the better. He reached for a handhold on one of the tree roots. “See ya later.”
Brochan waved to him. “Hasta la vista, baby.”
Trefor paused and frowned at the crazy faerie, surprised once again at the lack of time-sense in the creature, though he shouldn’t have been. It had been this way since his arrival. Then he began the climb out of the faerie realm and back to the world Brochan had promised would be little changed from when he’d left.
Right, like he could trust what that nutcase would tell him.
Alex lay beside Lindsay and knew well why he’d always found it easy to resist the temptation of other women. Okay, maybe not so easy, but worth the effort at least. Whenever he was honest with himself the word “besotted” occurred to him, and even after two years of marriage he took teasing from James Douglas and Hector MacNeil for allowing his wife to own his heart. Certainly neither of them had ever let a woman in where she could do damage.
But he cared little about what they thought on that subject. Those guys didn’t know Lindsay. They’d never understood the power and passion a strong woman could bring a man. And he guessed, by the medieval culture that prized social status over love, neither had ever been with a woman who loved him. Alex thought that fairly pathetic. Those guys didn’t know what they were missing.
In spite of the high fire in the hearth, chill air moved him to draw the corner of the down comforter over himself and his wife. The room had warmed up from the revived fire, but the castle was drafty and the early spring morning played over his skin. Exhausted though he was from his voyage-not to mention the greeting he’d received-he didn’t sleep but instead lay with Lindsay in his arms to feel her breathe. Each rise and fall of her chest against him eased his soul. He’d missed it these past weeks. Normally she would have gone with him, to be by his side and fight there if necessary, but this trip to Cruachan had been only administrative, was short, and she’d been needed at the keep to oversee those household knights who had been left behind for security. It was her first time ramrodding the troops without Sir Henry as her proxy, and Alex was curious to find out how it had gone. But the warmth of her and the soothing rhythm of her breaths lulled him.
Just as he dozed, Lindsay disengaged herself from him and slipped from under the comforter, donned her dressing gown, and went to the anteroom door to ask after breakfast. Alex heard as if distant the murmuring voice of her maid, who informed her the meat was nearly ready and the household would gather soon in the Great Hall above. The master could be served there, or in his chamber if he preferred.
Lindsay raised her voice to ask him, “Which do you fancy, Alex? Do you think your courtiers will require their earl’s presence right away?”
Alex replied, sleepy, low and dull. “No. Bring me my breakfast here and tell them I’m chasing my wife around the bedchamber. That’ll amuse them more than watching me eat would.”
Lindsay chuckled, and ordered breakfast in, then returned to the chamber and stoked the fire again. Maintaining such things within the lord’s sanctum was a chore, but the alternative was to give up privacy and allow the servants free access to the chamber. Their modern sensibilities balked even more at that than at doing for themselves. The locals, particularly those living on these islands so far removed from the mainland and the Scottish upper classes, didn’t seem to care for the attitude, as they disliked anything that was unfamiliar. It raised commentary that the earl and countess required their servants to sleep in the anteroom, to knock before entering the bedchamber, and to perform cleaning duties only while the room was unoccupied. “Strange ways,” they said in whispers sometimes overheard. “They’re Hungarian; I think I would dislike to live in the eastern mountains, for it would be too lonely.”
Alex knew they would be even more horrified if they knew the truth of his origins: that he and Lindsay had come from the twenty-first century. As a U.S. Navy fighter pilot he’d once routinely commanded enough fire power to lay waste to every farmhouse on this island in minutes, and the closest he’d ever come to the “eastern mountains” was flying air patrols over Kosovo in search of surface-to-air missile sites.
He rolled over in the bed to watch Lindsay poke the fire. Her movements were smooth, lithe, and he knew her to be as deadly to her enemies as the large cat she resembled. That excited him in ways he’d once thought impossible. Not long ago Lindsay had killed a man in a fair fight, then cut off his balls before he was quite dead. Appalling in its cold-bloodedness, but in the final analysis Alex knew this was a woman he wanted on his side, and he was proud to be the one she called “husband.” He lusted for her even now, though he was unable to do anything more about it. Nevertheless he enjoyed feasting his eyes. “Why did you bother getting dressed?”
“You know why.”
He cast his glance toward the anteroom. “They wouldn’t care.”
“I would. Besides, it’s cold.”
“Come here and warm up, then.” He held up the covers in invitation, but she only came to sit by him on the mattress and he laid them back down.
She asked, “Do you reckon we’ll be needed in the Borderlands this summer?”
“I think we can count on a summons, either to the Marches with Douglas, or Ireland with Robert. Given a choice, I’d rather go to Ireland. It’s been too long since Robert has laid eyes on me. Don’t want him to forget why he made me an earl.”
“He made you an earl because James Douglas likes you. God knows why; you treat him like a disease.”
Alex gave her a sideways glance. She new why he didn’t like Douglas. The man was a rake, and entirely too friendly with Lindsay. Even before she’d been outed as a woman, he’d liked her way too much, and Alex didn’t want him around. Better to ride with Robert, who was as horny as Douglas, but had prospects among noblewomen of far higher status and greater conventional beauty than Lindsay. Robert certainly had no interest in Alex’s Hungarian commoner wife.
She waited for him to reply, but he wasn’t about to. They’d been over this before; further discussion was unnecessary. She changed the subject. “How did the trip go?”
“Henry Ellot has a handle on things now. I hate to lose him as my X.O., but I need a tacksman on Cruachan and he’s all I’ve got I can trust.”
There was a silence, and Alex knew they were both thinking the same thing. Trefor should have been that tacksman. Finally, Alex said, “Any word from the kid?”
“He’s hardly a kid.”
“He should be.” A note of bitterness crept into his voice, and he tried to cough it away, but it was no good. “By my reckoning, he should be about six or seven months old. He should be nursing, drooling and crapping in diapers.”
“In that case he would hardly be much good administrating your lands on Cruachan, would he?” Lindsay smoothed the hair away from his forehead.
Alex lay back on his pillow and grunted. Then he glanced sharply up at her, the monthly question in his eyes, but she shook her head.
“No. Not yet.” No baby, though they’d been trying since last summer.
He grunted again and looked past her to the fire. “Well, I thought he wanted to be part of things here. He was all hot to plant himself in my household, call himself cousin, and be my tacksman. Where is he?”
“His men are all wondering the same thing.”
“Have any of them left for greener pastures and a less impulsive master?”
“He might be dead. We can’t know for certain what has happened to him.”
Somehow that thought struck Alex’s heart as sharply as if he’d known Trefor the entire twenty-seven years of his life and raised him as he would have if Trefor had not been stolen from his crib. “He’s not dead.”
Lindsay didn’t reply to that, and Alex wondered whether she cared one way or the other. She said, “In any case, Henry will serve well on Cruachan and you’ll find another second in command. Myself, perhaps.”
“You know that can’t happen.”
“I know no such thing.”
“The men barely tolerate your presence on the field as it is. They’d be mortified to take orders from you during a battle.”
Her face set to the hard anger he knew meant she was no longer listening to him. Arguing further would be pointless, but she pressed. “They took orders from me this past month.”
“Was the castle ever under attack?”
“I told you it wasn’t.”
“Then you’re still untried. Nothing matters to these guys except battle.”
“They know I was giving orders to Ellot during the MacLeod/Breton rising, and they respect that.”
He sat up and rested an elbow on one knee. “They accepted it because no mistakes were made. Furthermore, they assume no mistakes were made because Ellot was here. Unless you plan on being pure D perfect all the time, you’ll need a mouthpiece for dealing with the men. I can’t have you for my second. You can fight, but you can’t lead because they won’t follow. Not gonna happen.”
“It’s humiliating to ride behind the squires.”
That made him chuckle, for she sounded exactly like the other knights, who wouldn’t be caught dead at the rear of any battle. She was one of the guys in more ways than anyone thought. “It’s the way it’s got to be. I can’t help it.”
“Would you if you could?”
That made him blink, and he cast about for what she could have meant by that. “What, you think I’m afraid of you? That I’m holding you back? That I would bother holding you back?”
Her expression was a firm scowl, and he took that as a “yes.”
“Think about this, Lindsay.” He bent his head to look her in the eye. “Just for a moment, think hard about the reality here. In this time-this culture-your status hangs entirely on mine. As long as I’m alive, you can’t take my place. There would be no point in holding you back.”
Her eyes hardened further, for she disliked the fact of her position, and he wished she would just accept it and move on. There was nothing either of them could do about the times in which they lived. Not any more. “You don’t take me any more seriously than they do.”
“I still don’t know why you want to fight.”
“We’ve been over this before, and you do, too, know why. I want it for the same reasons you do.”
“It’s my job, and I’m good at it.”
“I’m good at it also.”
“But it’s not your job. Yours is to keep the castle from going to hell.” He glanced at her belly, then away, but it was too late to pretend he hadn’t almost said her job was also to have children. Harder to accomplish here than it had been in the twenty-first century where Trefor had been born, and the image that often came of Lindsay on horseback, wielding a sword, with a hauberk bulging at the front with pregnancy, appalled him. Even more frightening, if she were to conceive in these circumstances she might lose the baby before ever knowing about it.
The anger rose from Lindsay in palpable waves, and she rose to go sit in a chair by the hearth. “Stop treating me the way An Reubair did.”
Now it was his turn to be angry. “Don’t you say his name in this house.” Castle. This was his castle.
She peered sideways at him. “He wanted me to marry him and make babies for him, just like you.”
“I said, I don’t want to hear it.”
“Of course, you don’t. You don’t want to hear anything that annoys you, or reflects badly on you. All you want is to have everyone around the fire carrying on about what a great warrior is Alasdair an Dubhar MacNeil. God forbid there should ever be a murmur of criticism.”
In an effort at appearing insouciant, he resisted the urge to leave the bed. He swallowed his rage. The hand draped over his knee wadded into a fist and he dug his nails into his palm. He said, “I just don’t want to hear about that Danann ass.” His voice gave him away, he was sure. Even he could hear the temper in it.
She fell silent, and he trusted it was because she had nothing more to say about the faerie knight. She was part Danann, but more human than faerie and she’d not even known of it until six months ago. He counted on her loyalty. An Reubair was an arrogant pig, a border raider like Douglas. Alex had to have faith that Lindsay saw Reubair for what he was. He struggled to hold it, but faith in anything came hard any more.
Buy now on Bookview Café…because you can never have too many ebooks