“An author to watch for…amazing mixtures of passion, history, and humor.”
“A bright new talent…Ms. Kurland seems destined for a most promising career.”
Praise for the novels of national bestselling author
Stardust of Yesterday
“Lynn Kurland has created a true knight in shining armor who will capture your heart the moment you meet him. This is a brilliant first novel you won’t want to miss.”
—New York Times bestselling author
Constance O’Day Flannery
“Lighthearted…a fine effort.”
A Dance Through Time
“One of the best…a must read.”
“Lynn Kurland’s vastly entertaining time travel treats us to a delightful hero and heroine…a humorous novel of feisty fun, and adventure.”
—A Little Romance
This Is All I Ask
“Both powerful and sensitive, this is a wonderfully rich and rewarding book.”
“A medieval of stunning intensity. Sprinkled with adventure, fantasy, and heart, This Is All I Ask reaches outside the boundaries of romance to embrace every thoughtful reader, every person of feeling.”
—Christina Dodd, bestselling author of A Knight to Remember
Titles by Lynn Kurland
STARDUST OF YESTERDAY
A DANCE THROUGH TIME
THIS IS ALL I ASK
THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU
ANOTHER CHANCE TO DREAM
THE MORE I SEE YOU
IF I HAD YOU
MY HEART STOOD STILL
FROM THIS MOMENT ON
A GARDEN IN THE RAIN
DREAMS OF STARDUST
MUCH ADO IN THE MOONLIGHT
WHEN I FALL IN LOVE
WITH EVERY BREATH
TILL THERE WAS YOU
ONE ENCHANTED EVENING
The Novels of the Nine Kingdoms
STAR OF THE MORNING
THE MAGE’S DAUGHTER
PRINCESS OF THE SWORD
A TAPESTRY OF SPELLS
THE CHRISTMAS CAT
(with Julie Beard, Barbara Bretton, and Jo Beverley)
(with Casey Claybourne, Elizabeth Bevarly, and Jenny Lykins)
VEILS OF TIME
(with Maggie Shayne, Angie Ray, and Ingrid Weaver)
(with Elizabeth Bevarly, Emily Carmichael, and Elda Minger)
LOVE CAME JUST IN TIME
A KNIGHT’S VOW
(with Patricia Potter, Deborah Simmons, and Glynnis Campbell)
(with Madeline Hunter, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Karen Marie Moning)
TO WEAVE A WEB OF MAGIC
(with Patricia A. McKillip, Sharon Shinn, and Claire Delacroix)
THE QUEEN IN WINTER
(with Sharon Shinn, Claire Delacroix, and Sarah Monette)
BERKLEY BOOKS, NEW YORK
Come to me in dreams, and then
One saith, I shall be well again,
For then the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.
Nay, come not thou in dreams, my sweet,
With shadowy robes, and silent feet,
And with the voice, and with the eyes
That greet me in a soft surprise.
Last night, last night, in dreams we met,
And how, to-day, shall I forget,
Or how, remembering, restrain
Mine incommunicable pain?
Nay, where thy land and people are,
Dwell thou remote, apart, afar,
Nor mingle with the shapes that sweep
The melancholy ways of Sleep.
But if, perchance, the shadows break,
If dreams depart, and men awake,
If face to face at length we see,
Be thine the voice to welcome me.
Table of Contents
“COME TO ME.”
His deep voice echoed in the stillness of the great hall. He held out his hands, waiting.
She looked at the man standing before her, a warrior tall and powerfully fashioned. The firelight from the huge hearth played over the rugged features of his face, glinted off his long, dark hair, turned his eyes to a deep, fiery green. His gaze locked with hers, warming her, imprisoning her.
She walked to him, slowly. She reached out and put her hands in his. There were calluses on his skin, hard places where the sword had left its imprint. He ran his thumbs over her palms, caressing her hands before he took them and slipped them up around his neck. She caught her breath as his arms came around her and pulled her hard against him.
“Och, but you’re a bonny thing, my Elizabeth,” he said, in a husky voice.
He lowered his head and covered her lips with his own. He plundered her mouth, ravaging it with kisses that made her knees buckle. She clung to him as waves of desire crashed over her, leaving her weak.
A ringing began, intruding on the sounds of wood crackling in the hearth and the harsh rasp of the man’s breathing. She ignored the bell-like noise, but it continued, persistent. She turned to see what it was, then felt herself falling. She looked back at the man in disbelief.
“Nay, do not leave me,” he said, clutching her more tightly to him.
She stared up at him, mute, unable to stop the feeling of plunging into nothingness. She slid through his arms and felt a sharp pain…
Elizabeth Smith winced as her elbow connected with a solid wood floor. She opened her eyes and blinked a time or two.
Then she lay back and let out an anguished groan. Falling out of bed was not how that dream was supposed to end.
And that ringing had been the phone. She reached up and groped for the receiver on her nightstand. This had better be some kind of emergency, or she was going to kill whoever had ruined the best kiss of her life.
“Hello?” she croaked.
“Yeah, is this Eddie’s Breakfast Pizza?”
Elizabeth lifted her chin and peered up at her clock, squinting to make sense of the glowing numbers. Good grief, it was only nine A.M.
“Wrong number, buddy,” she mumbled and hung up the phone. She had been snatched from possibly the most perfect dream of her life for some idiot wanting pizza for breakfast?
Hopefully it wasn’t an omen.
She lay back on the floor and stared up at the ceiling, still wrapped in the remains of her dream. She could almost feel the man’s arms around her, hear his rich voice washing over her, taste his lips on hers. Her name from his lips had been a caress, a possessive touch that branded her his. If he only could have been real! No more putting up with men who could take her or leave her. There was a man who would be more interested in her than TV or sports. How distressed he had sounded when she had started to slip away from him! Of course she’d found him in a dream. Somehow, it just figured.
Well, there was nothing she could do about it. She groaned as she forced herself to sit up and face reality.
It was enough to make her want to go back to bed.
Her apartment, furnished as it was in early starving writer, was a sty. It was a minuscule Manhattan garret, and every available surface was covered with a stack of something. Her table, which served both as a place to eat and a place to write, was piled high with research books, drafts of her novel and a collection of soda cans. Dishes were piled in her sink. Clothes were strewn from one end of the place to another. It was a complete disaster, one she had put off dealing with for weeks.
Well, there was no sense in postponing the inevitable any longer. She hauled herself to her feet, then walked purposefully across three feet of floor to her table. To fortify herself, she took a gulp from the cola can she’d opened the night before, then sat and reached for the notebook that contained her list of things to do.
Finish cover letter for manuscript. She paused. Writing a novel was hard enough. Pitching it in three paragraphs or less was murder. Maybe she’d give herself another day to come up with something brilliant. She crossed the item off her list with a quick swipe of her pen.
Exercise. Oh, definitely not. She squelched the small stab of guilt over crossing off that reminder.
Clean apartment was number three. She was fairly certain there were no unpaid bills lurking anywhere, so maybe there wasn’t much sense in wasting time getting organized. She was sure she still had some clean underwear in her drawer, so what was the point in straightening up when the place would just get messy again anyway? Especially since she had much better things to do with her time this morning—mainly fantasize about that man from her dream. She tossed her notebook onto a handy pile of research materials, then sat back, ready to give her imagination free rein.
She closed her eyes and struggled to bring back his image. Tall, dark-haired, green-eyed. The feel of his arms around her was something she was certain she would never forget.
She opened her eyes suddenly, wondering why it hadn’t occurred to her before. She would write a book about him. If she couldn’t have him in the flesh, she could certainly have him in print. It made perfect sense, being that her passion was romance. Reading about it, writing about it, thinking about it: it didn’t make a difference to her which way it came. As long as there was a love story and a happy ending involved, she was all for it.
It had all started innocently enough. She’d begun by rewriting in her head endings to all the great tragedies. After she’d seen Romeo and Juliet settled in a quaint little Italian villa with five kids, she’d moved on to tampering with Ophelia’s head and Hamlet’s timing. Somehow, all of that had led her to thinking perhaps she should start from scratch with her own characters.
Her first attempt had wound up as kitchen shelf liner. But the manuscript sitting on her table was different. She had agonized for months over it, putting her whole soul into the fashioning of the characters. And now it was finally finished and ready to mail except for her letter of introduction. She paused and stared at it thoughtfully. Maybe she really should finish it up before she started on anything else.
Come to me.
Elizabeth froze. Her apartment was too small for anyone to have sneaked in without her knowing as much, unless they’d done it sometime during the night. Maybe they had, and they were just waiting for her to notice before they did her in. She took a deep breath. She might as well know now. She turned in her seat slowly, fully expecting to come face-to-face with the business end of a lethal weapon.
She came face to face with a month’s worth of dirty laundry.
She shook her head, as if by so doing she could clear up her sudden hearing problem. Her apartment was empty, but she had heard a voice, just as surely as she was sitting there.
Come to me. Wasn’t that what the man from her dream had first said to her?
Chills went down her spine, and her skin erupted into goose-flesh. Either she was losing her mind, or somebody was trying to tell her something. Maybe that incredibly sexy man was calling to her. Did he really want his book written? She nodded to herself. That had to be it. She had a vivid imagination. Her characters were taking on a life of their own and demanding their due. That happened to other people. It could happen to her.
Make haste, Elizabeth.
She squeaked in spite of herself. All right, either she was hearing things, or her apartment was haunted. Whatever the case, it was obviously a sign; she had no qualms about taking it as such. If the man wanted his book written right away, who was she to say no?
She jumped up and began shuffling through her piles of papers. Last week her fiancé had happened upon a few books he thought she might find useful. Though he was helpful and accommodating, he wasn’t exactly thrilled by her choice of careers. But since he wasn’t exactly her fiancé, he really didn’t have the right to say much about what she did.
Stanley Berkowitz worked at the New York Public Library. She’d been loitering in the reading room one day, poring over a lithograph of King Duncan’s dining table when Stanley had seen her. He’d recommended more books to her, then, as time went on, smuggled others out to her. He’d wooed her with research materials and Godiva chocolate. How could she have resisted two of her favorite things? When he’d presented her with a proposal and a diamond, she’d said yes to both. So he wasn’t her dream man. He was nice. There was a lot to be said for nice.
Or so she’d thought until last night. She’d begun to feel concerned that Stanley hadn’t exactly committed to a wedding date. Pushing him about it over chicken marsala had revealed he wasn’t all that interested in getting married any time soon, but he was interested in maintaining an engagement because it got his mother off his back. How she’d held onto her composure through chocolate decadence pie was beyond her. She’d accepted Stanley’s latest book offerings, but she hadn’t accepted his offer to come in. It was all she could do not to club him over the head with the biography of Robert the Bruce he’d handed her. That man from her dream certainly wouldn’t have been so blasé about her, no sir. No phoney engagement for him.
Elizabeth sat down with a thump. She was losing it. How would she know what that man would or wouldn’t do? She was taking her dreams way too seriously. It was a bad thing to start. Who knew where it could lead?
Like that, she nodded to herself. Not only was she starting to hallucinate in broad daylight; her hallucinations were starting to order her around. It was a very bad sign.
“All right,” she said out loud. “Keep your pants on. I’m working on it.”
She searched through the stacks, flinging papers, magazines, paper plates and red pens onto the floor, looking for those books Stanley had brought her the week before. They were on Scotland. Though her current novel was set in England, that wasn’t where her passion lay. Aye, ’twas Scotland that fascinated her. She dreamed of Scottish moors and fields of heather, of gloomy keeps with fierce lairds—ruthless warriors the size of linebackers who wielded swords against their enemies and wooed their ladies with sweet words and gentle kisses. It wasn’t that she didn’t already have linebackers. She did, in the persons of her five brothers. There were times she was sure she’d scream if she had to sit through another college fourth-and-goal story. But that was where big ended and the rest of her current situation began.
She had come to New York, sure the city would inspire her to write wonderful books. She’d found inspiration, but she hadn’t run into any ruthless warriors who had demanded she allow them to woo her. She had, however, been approached by that balding librarian who wanted to use her ring finger.
Elizabeth, by all the saints…
The hair on the back of her neck stood up without permission. Okay, so her hero was getting really impatient. She lifted up a collection of newspapers and hit the mother lode. She shoved the rest of the table-top contents onto the floor, then spread out the books in front of her and looked over the titles: Rulers of Scotland; Scotland: An Historical Perspective; Fact or Fiction: Scotland’s Turbulent Past; Life in a Medieval Hall; Scottish Lairds and Their Clans. She picked up the one on medieval life and glanced through it.
The keep was definitely the place to be. At least a body got clothes and a meal now and then. Bathing, though, didn’t seem to have been a priority. Elizabeth could only speculate as to the smell of not only the keep, but the unwashed bodies inside. Living on savings and the small amount she could bring herself to accept from her parents was tough, but at least she had her own bed, free from bugs and secure from men with rape on their minds. Nope, medieval life was not for her. She pitied the women who’d had to endure it.
The book on Scottish rulers caught her eye. She flipped through the centuries, from Kenneth MacAlpin to James IV. Robert Bruce? He had ruled from 1306 to 1329. For some reason, the dates appealed to her. Yes, this time period would surely suit the man from her dream. Now all that remained was to find a clan for him to rule over. Of course he would be a laird; a man of her warrior’s stature would find himself nowhere if not at the head of a company of equally fierce warriors.
She reached for the volume on Scottish clans. It fell open to a page on the Clan MacLeod. A chill went through her, as if Fate had come up behind her and blown softly on the back of her neck. She devoured all she could about the clan, their history, their wars and their enemies.
At the end of the chapter was a pen and ink plate of a forest. The familiarity of the place struck her like a blow. It looked so real she was half afraid to touch it, for fear some elf would reach out, snag her hand and pull her into his magical world.
Ridiculous. She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder and make sure there weren’t a dozen bogeymen there, winking at her from the shadowy corners of her apartment—along with her very vocal dreamboat, of course. No, the forest looked familiar because she had seen it in another book. Goodness knows she had read enough about Scotland.
But that didn’t explain away the whispers of magic in the air. Maybe it was her grandfather’s fault. He had filled her head full of tales of Scottish enchantments from the time she was small and somehow, in the back of her mind, she almost believed them. That and the gift of his Gaelic language was his legacy to her. Perhaps weaving a bit of enchantment into her story in his honor wasn’t such a bad idea. Even though nothing magical ever happened to her, there was no reason her heroine couldn’t enjoy a different fate.
All right. Now that she had found a time and place, she needed to immerse herself in what she’d learned and seen and let her imagination run away with her. Maybe she should get dressed and go for a walk to get her creative juices flowing.
Aye, come to me, my love.
Elizabeth jumped as if she’d been stuck with a pin. She had the insane desire to get dressed in the bathroom so whoever insisted on talking to her wouldn’t watch.
She shook her head. Ridiculous. There was no one in her apartment. Maybe all that was calling to her was that emergency box of truffles under the couch.
Well, whatever it was, it was something she definitely needed to get away from. She yanked on a pair of jeans, an oversized blue sweater, tennis shoes, and a leather jacket she had recently appropriated from her brother’s wardrobe. Alex was a big mucky-muck corporate attorney, making far more than even he could spend on clothes. Elizabeth made herself at home in his closet as often as possible.
She checked her pockets for her key and sundries, then ran from her apartment. She wasn’t afraid to be there by herself, just because her characters were talking out loud to her. No, not at all. She just needed some fresh air. Yes, that was it. A nice walk to Gramercy Park where she could plot her story in peace.
She pulled her collar up around her ears as she walked down the street. The chilly fall wind whipped her hair around her face and scattered leaves in front of her. There was a tingle in the air, as if the world held its breath, waiting for something magical to happen. Not that she believed in magic. She was a practical girl with her feet planted firmly on the ground. Which was, no doubt, why she spent most of her time writing about men who existed only in her imagination.
By the time she reached the park, she was ready not for a plot line, but a bagel and something hot to drink. She was also starting to feel a little silly. She had a very vivid imagination. That coupled with Stanley’s bombshell the night before had just sent her for a loop. Dream lovers were not loitering in her apartment, commanding her to come find them. She could go home any time and feel perfectly safe and perfectly foolish.
Well, maybe later. There was no sense in wasting fresh air. She nodded to herself in agreement. A half an hour meditating on a park bench, then a nice breakfast and cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream on top. Maybe she’d also look up that number for Eddie’s Breakfast Pizza.
First things first. She looked around, noted the mothers with small children and the apparent lack of thugs, then made her way to her favorite bench. It was unoccupied, in the sun, and free of bird droppings. Elizabeth smiled. Life didn’t get much better than that.
She stretched out and closed her eyes. The bench back blocked the wind, and the sun was warm on her face. This was the life. Much more comfortable than a musty-smelling castle. Her hero might have had to put up with it, but she didn’t. Nothing like fresh autumn air to really make you glad you’re in the twentieth century.
As she relaxed, the image of the forest she’d seen came back to her, filling even the edges of her mental vision. It just seemed so real. Where in the world had she seen it? She’d read countless books on Scotland, but surely she would have remembered such a beautiful place. It was probably even more beautiful in person. She needed to get herself to Scotland. What did heather really smell like? And who was to say she wouldn’t run into some handsome Highlander with a horse at his disposal and lots of time on his hands? She could imagine worse ways to see the countryside.
Now, if she’d just been able to run into that man from her dream, she would have been truly content. What a tour guide he would have made!
A shiver went through her. She pulled her coat closer around her. The bench back was supposed to be blocking that chill. Maybe the wind had changed. She turned her face to one side, then brushed away the annoying blade of grass that tickled her ear.
She sat up, her heart thudding against her ribs. She looked around her slowly, her eyes noting every clump of weeds, every scrap of bark on the trees and forest floor, every pile of molding leaves. Realization dawned, then reverberated through her, as if she’d been a gong struck by an enormously angry orchestra member. She trembled from her heart out to the ends of her fingers and toes. Her surroundings looked frighteningly familiar, and there was a simple reason for it. It was the same forest she’d been looking at in the book.
Only now she was in it.
She lay back down, willing herself to feel the hard wood of the bench beneath her back. She was dreaming. Or she was delirious. Yes, that was it. Twenty-four years of sneaking cola drinks for breakfast had finally taken its toll, and she had been tossed into a sugar-induced hallucination. No more soda for breakfast. She crossed her heart as she made that vow. That box of truffles was definitely going into the Dumpster. No more peanut butter and jelly either. Who knew what sorts of terrible things peanuts could do to a person’s mental state? And pizza? She’d never touch the stuff again.
Unfortunately, all her solemn vowing didn’t help her ignore the mounds and dips of the uneven forest floor beneath her back and legs.
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes again. The sky was just growing light. Well, yes, that was sky. She had seen sky before and knew what it looked like. She sat up and reached out to touch the grass. It was stiff and resilient under her fingers. She plucked a blade of grass and bit into it. It tasted real enough. She rose unsteadily to her feet, turned and put a shaking hand on the tree. The bark was rough under her fingers.
She looked down at herself, hoping she would see she had sprouted wings or something else that would convince her she was dreaming. She still had on the same jeans she had put on that morning, the same pair of shoes, the same baggy blue wool sweater and Alex’s leather jacket.
But no wings. No shiny monster scales. No pointy toes.
She checked her pockets. She had her house key, her driver’s license and her American Express card. Her dad always told her never to leave home without it and, since he paid the bill at the end of the month, she followed his advice religiously. But she had no hard cash. Not even a tissue in case she became hysterical. She tried not to think about that appealing alternative. Well, at least she had warm clothes. That was a plus. She could have lost her mind with her shoes off.
But that was where the pluses ended and the minuses began. She slowly pressed her forehead against the tree, putting her hands on the bark in an effort to regain her balance. All right, so she had a fantastic imagination and it was currently running away with her. Soon she would wake up in the park and feel very stupid for having panicked. Right?
Right. She was dreaming. Wow, what an imagination she had. She envisioned a self-help book in her future entitled Sugar and Historical Research—Never Take Them Together.
After another deep breath, she pushed away from the tree and looked around. And as this was just a sucrose-induced delusion, what did it matter what she did? She would simply put one foot in front of the other and walk until she was tired. At least she wasn’t hearing voices anymore. It wasn’t a bad trade-off.
The early morning sun spilled down into the woods, the beams separating into soft threads of light as they fell through the trees. The air was cold and crisp. Elizabeth rubbed her arms as she walked. Strange. She had never had such a discernible sense of temperature in a dream. Maybe she should add last night’s bedtime helping of Deep Chocolate—Chocolate Chip ice cream with hot fudge sauce over it to her list of Forbidden Sweets. She definitely didn’t want a repeat of her current situation.
She walked until the trees began to thin on her right. She paused. Well, she was where she was. No sense in not having a good look around.
A beautiful meadow opened up before her. She stared at it for several minutes in pure enjoyment. Delicious, flowery smells wafted past her on a current of air that was sharp and clean. She lifted her eyes to the far side of the flat expanse and saw another forest of tall trees, equally as beautiful as the forest behind her. Then she looked to her left.
She almost fell over in shock.
Rising up from the meadow, at the base of a craggy mountain, was a castle. Not an elegant French castle like Versailles, nor a comfortable English castle like Buckingham Palace, but a medieval castle. And it wasn’t the remains of a hall that sat so sternly on the face of the land; it was a hall in perfect condition. Smoke rose from the towers in thin streams, and distinguishable figures moved about in the village outside the castle walls.
The ground began to buck under her feet, and she realized belatedly that she was trying to faint. She sat down with a thump and put her hands on her head to stop it from spinning. Fantasy was fine, but this was going too far.
The earth continued to tremble. Elizabeth looked up in time to see two horsemen bearing down on her. Dream or no dream, there was no sense in being trampled. She jumped up and ran for her life.
Seconds later she felt the ground come up to meet her. Abruptly. A heavy body pinned her facedown in the grass. She lost her breath, unable even to gasp at the pain of the lumpy field digging into her hips and chest. Good lord, I am going to die, she thought with a sudden flare of panic. Twenty-four years seemed too short a time to live, but who was she to argue with Fate?
The weight was suddenly gone, but she was far too stunned to move. She got help. She was hauled to her feet, and a rough hand grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back. If she’d had any breath left, she would have cried out at the pain, then gasped in surprise at what she saw.
A man no taller than she stood disconcertingly close to her, wearing the grimmest expression she had ever seen. His hair was reddish blond and hung down past his shoulders. While there was a tiny bit of hair braided on each side of his head, the rest was a tangled, matted mess. He was not handsome, and his angry expression made him appear positively gruesome.
As he looked at her, his expression changed. This new expression alarmed her even more than the first.
“Och, but you’re a fetching wench,” he rumbled.
He yanked her against him and crushed her lips under his. Elizabeth choked at the foulness of his breath. The man shoved her to the ground and fell on top of her. He fumbled with her clothes, then swore in surprise when he encountered her jeans. Before Elizabeth could open her mouth to beg for mercy, he had rolled off her and drawn his knife. She sat up and backed away, but not swiftly enough to evade the hand that grabbed her jacket.
“Stay where you are, wench.”
“Enough, Nolan!” another voice called from behind him.
“Go to the devil, Angus,” the first man snarled. “I’ll cut her clothes from her an’ have her just the same.”
“Jamie willna like it,” the other said firmly. “Put away your blade and leave her to me. I’ll take her to Jamie and he can decide her fate. Better that he give her to you than you take her and risk his wrath.”
Elizabeth’s breath came out as a half sob when the knife disappeared.
“You’re a comely wench,” the man called Nolan said. “Where’re you from? Where’d you find these garments?” He tugged at her coat.
Elizabeth could only look at him, too shocked to speak. Good grief, this was no hallucination!
Nolan suddenly heaved himself to his feet and spat in disgust.
“Take her, Angus. I canna abide foreign wenches, no matter how comely they be. Though I’ll have a go at her after Jamie’s done.”
Elizabeth put her face in her hands and shuddered. Nolan’s curses receded, and she felt the ground tremble beneath her as he rode away. The sound of a knee popping and the feel of a callused hand under her chin made her pulse race all over again. She lifted her gaze warily.
“What’s your name, little one?” the man asked.
She swallowed, and almost choked on the fear lodged in her throat. “Elizabeth,” she managed.
“A fine name, lass,” he said with a smile, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he did so. He had a tooth or two missing and looked to be about fifty years old, though that was a guess at best. All she knew was his eyes were kind and his expression was gentle. Instinctively, she knew she had found an ally.
“Who are you?” she asked.
He smiled again. “Angus, my lady. Come, and I’ll take you to the MacLeod.”
The MacLeod? Elizabeth felt her trembles begin again. Angus helped her to her feet, then took her arm.
“’Tis not safe for a young lass to be out wandering so. Have you lost your lord?”
“Ah,” she stalled, “I have no lord.”
“How did you come here?”
“I wish I knew.”
He looked at her appraisingly but commenced walking toward the castle, his hand firmly under her elbow. His horse followed like an obedient dog. Elizabeth felt terribly conspicuous as they passed through the village, even though Angus had obviously chosen a back route. The villagers who looked at her crossed themselves. She didn’t want to speculate on the reasons why.
Angus led her through a set of heavy wooden doors and into a dark cavern. Ah, the Great Hall. Elizabeth took one look and started to wheeze. Rushes were strewn over the floor. Dogs lay near the enormous hearth that dominated the room. Wooden tables were set up around the hall, and torches hung along the walls in heavy metal brackets. The very smell of the place was blinding.
“Here, lass,” Angus said softly. “Take your seat and rest for a bit.”
Elizabeth sank down gratefully onto a hard, wooden chair near the fire, then accepted a metal goblet. She sniffed at the contents. Wine? Angus put his hand around hers and tipped the cup toward her.
“Drink, child. It will soothe your nerves. I’ll be back to fetch you soon.”
Elizabeth heard Angus walk away, but she didn’t look up. She could feel other pairs of eyes staring at her. She focused on the cup in her hands and the chilled wine sliding over her tongue and down her throat. There was absolutely no way she was going to look up and see who might be giving her the onceover. She pulled her feet up into the chair with her and tried to hide her jean-covered knees under her brother’s coat. Concentrate on the fire, she told herself, turning toward the hearth and paying attention only to the heat that whispered against her face. With any luck, whoever was running this place would be a kindly old elf who would take her back to the forest and show her the way out of her hallucination.
As if in answer to her prayer, the front door opened.
And closed with a resounding bang.
“Someone fetch me ale!” a voice thundered. “Angus!”
Elizabeth prayed the creator of such a bellow would overlook her. She sat perfectly still in hopes that she would blend in with the furniture.
A heavy tread came her way and she held her breath. Bruising hands grasped her arms and hauled her to her feet. She looked straight ahead, finding that the top of her head came to the man’s chest, right at the collarbone. She tilted her head back and looked up at his face. She sucked in her breath and dropped her cup. If her captor hadn’t had hold of her arms, she would have collapsed in a heap at his feet.
It was the man from her dream.
Now she was sure she was hallucinating. The being standing a hand’s breadth away from her was tall and built like her brothers. His dark hair was thick, hanging well past his shoulders. The firelight flickered over his finely chiseled features, highlighting his cheekbones, his firm lips and his unyielding jaw. Though his face was beautifully sculpted, his eyes were what drew her gaze. They were still the color of pine, framed by long sooty lashes. His eyelashes would have been the envy of any woman.
His mouth had gone slack, and an expression of amazement sat squarely on his features. He stared at her for several moments, his mouth twitching, as if he struggled to speak.
“Who are you?” he asked, finally.
What a voice he had. Dark, warm, rich. She had the insane desire to curl up in his arms and ask him to tell her a very long story, something that would require him to talk for hours on end. She stared up at him, unable to speak.
And he was staring at her as if he’d just seen a ghost.
“Your name,” he said, that look of astonishment still plastered to his face. “I think I asked your name.”
“Elizabeth,” she whispered.
The man looked even more startled.
“Elizabeth?” he echoed.
She nodded. “Elizabeth Smith.”
He continued to stare at her for what seemed an eternity. Elizabeth could only stare back, speechless. It was the same man. His accent was the same. The way he said her name was the same. His eyes, those beautiful green eyes, were just exactly how she’d dreamed them. She could have looked into them forever.
She looked at his mouth and saw it was moving. She shook her head to clear the attack of the giddies she’d just had.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I wasn’t listening. What did you say?”
“I said, you sound English and we’ve no use for English here,” he said, with a frown, “except as serfs.”
“Huh?” Elizabeth said, snapping back to reality.
“Serfs,” the man repeated, his frown deepening. “If that.”
It was then she realized he too had shaken off whatever trance had held him initially. His look of astonishment had been replaced by one of displeasure.
“But, I’m not English,” she protested quickly. Good grief, that was the last thing she needed—to be mistaken for serf material. “I’m American.”
“American?” he repeated. “What is american?”
“United States? Below Canada?” She frowned at his blank expression. Good grief, what kind of backwoods delusion was this anyway? “We won our freedom from England two hundred years ago?”
He grunted, obviously dismissing her answer. “Be that as it may, still you trespass on my lands. How did you come here?”
“I’m not exactly sure how I got here,” she said, defensively. “I didn’t ask to get dumped into this dream.”
“Your accent is passing strange,” he rumbled. “Who are you? Damn you, girl, are you a Fergusson?” He shook her. “Speak the truth, if you’re capable of it.”
Gorgeous though he might have been, the man had just pushed one of her buttons. Elizabeth stiffened in spite of herself at the arrogant tone of his voice. It was the same tone her brothers tended to use when verbalizing their doubts about her intelligence and/or common sense.
“Who are you?” she retorted, sticking her chin out.
Mouthing off to a man twice her size wasn’t very diplomatic, nor was it exceptionally wise, but she had grown up in a houseful of boys and knew how to hold her own. Show them from the beginning that you aren’t afraid, unless you never want to live down cowardice.
“I am James MacLeod,” the man said, his tone curt.
She looked at him blankly.
“The MacLeod!” he shouted. “Damnation but you are an insolent wench. A good beating might serve you well.”
Well, his manners had certainly been better in her dream. This wasn’t working out at all. He was supposed to be crushing her in his arms and telling her not to leave him. He was not supposed to be eyeballing her as a potential slave, nor was he supposed to be planning to do her bodily harm.
What she needed to do was get out of his hall until she could figure out what was going on. Maybe she’d drop him a line from a nice little hotel and suggest they meet over a cappuccino.
Elizabeth shook off his hands with an effort.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just be going.”
“You’ll not move—”
All right, so being polite wasn’t going to cut it. Elizabeth brushed past him and walked swiftly toward the door. His heavy tread followed her. Fortunately none of her brothers were around to call her chicken for what she was about to do. Without another thought, she left her pride behind and fled.
The rushes weren’t cooperative. Not only were they uncooperative; they were wallowing in a layer of slime. Before Elizabeth knew it, her sneakers had become as slick as new dress shoes on carpet and she was out of control.
She felt herself falling, right toward the wooden bench that looked a great deal like the picnic table in her parents’ back yard, right through the MacLeod’s strong arms, right down into nothingness.
She felt a sharp pain as her head connected with the wood, and her elbow connected with the stone floor beneath the slime…
Willingly, she surrendered to the blackness, her last thought a prayer that she would wake up on her comfortable, dirty apartment floor.
JAMES MACLEOD, LAIRD of the Clan MacLeod, peerless warrior, bastion of strength and courage, felt weaker and more skittish than a newborn colt. There was a woman in his house. There was a woman on his bed. Just what, by the sweet name of St. Michael, was he supposed to do now?
He paced the length of his room one time, two times, finally losing count after twenty. He was a learned man and could count much higher than that, but he found himself completely unequal to the task of determining just how many times he had crossed from the trunk at the far wall to the bed and back.
A woman. There hadn’t been a woman in the hall since his mother died in his fourth year. He was now a score and ten years on God’s green earth and in all the years since his mother’s death, a woman had never crossed the threshold of the MacLeod keep. His father wouldn’t tolerate it. After his father had died during Jamie’s sixteenth year, Jamie had kept up the tradition. No women past the doors of the hall.
Until today. Angus had brought her in and set her down in Jamie’s chair as if she belonged there. Damn him anyway, Jamie thought with a black scowl. The old busybody deserved a thrashing on the field and he’d have it, just as soon as Jamie figured out what in hell’s name he was going to do with the creature lying atop his blankets.
He stopped at the foot of the bed and looked down at her. By the saints, her beauty stole the very breath from his body. Her dark hair was spread out over the pillow in glorious disarray. It begged to be touched, smoothed, wrapped around his hands and kissed. Ah, then there was her face. Her skin was very fair and her features pleasing, exceedingly so. He remembered the flush in her cheeks when she had denied being English. Aye, she was full of fire when she was irritated.
But that hardly atoned for her other flaws. Jamie folded his arms over his chest and recaptured the frown that had somehow escaped his attention. The woman’s clothing was scandalous. Horribly so. He could hardly believe her lord had allowed her to roam about in such a fashion. Her cloak was fine indeed, but it was fashioned strangely. And her hose! Just what was she hoping? To pass herself off as a squire? Not bloody likely with those fetching legs.
She shifted on the bed and Jamie jumped back, startled. He quickly crossed himself. Perhaps she was a witch. She was surely like no Englishwoman he had ever met, and he’d met enough in his travels to last him a lifetime. Her clothes and her beauty were things she had conjured up to tempt him.
There was also the dream to consider. Had she not appeared to him the night before? The vision of her had haunted him from the moment he awoke. Her voice had echoed in his ears; the touch of her lips had lingered on his mouth. Saints, even his poor arms had ached to hold her again.
And had he not known her name was Elizabeth even before she spoke? That alone was enough to turn him gray before his time.
She was a witch. He nodded. ’Twas the only thing that made sense. How else could she have materialized from his very dreams? She was a beautiful witch, but a witch nonetheless. He turned away and walked to the hearth. She would have to be put where she couldn’t work her enchantments. The dungeon would serve well enough for now.
And then he would follow the only sensible course he could.
He would have her burned.
Elizabeth awoke, her head pounding. What a dream. She could still remember the sight of James MacLeod’s hall sitting in the meadow; she could still feel the cool breeze that had teased open her coat and slid icy fingers beneath her sweater. In fact, it was still cold. The furnace was probably on the fritz again. Mr. Perkins would heave his usual long-suffering sigh when she called, then trudge down to the basement to work his miracles.
The only thing that puzzled her was the smell in her apartment. Maybe it was time to look under the couch and dig out the crusted-over paper plates she’d let accumulate during the last draft of her novel. The smell was suffocating. She sat up and rubbed her eyes wearily. The sooner Mr. Perkins was called, the sooner she would have her furnace…
After blinking a time or two, she began to shake. She was in a musty-smelling room illuminated by light from the window and fire from the hearth. The mattress she was sitting on was lumpy, and the blankets and furs under her fingers were covered with what looked to be years of living. The conclusion was hard to accept, but there was little use in denying it.
She wasn’t dreaming.
A long, deadly looking blade winked in the firelight. She followed the sword up past the hand that held it, up past an enormous chest and massive shoulders to meet the hard eyes of James MacLeod. The MacLeod.
“Up, witch,” he rumbled, gesturing with his sword for her to rise.
“Witch?” she echoed. Great, first she was a serf and now she was a witch.
She froze. A witch?
Elizabeth eased herself up to her feet carefully, her eyes never leaving his face. “If you’ll just let me by,” she began, her voice shaking as badly as her body, “I’ll leave.”
His eyes narrowed. “And have you cast your spell on me once my back is turned? I think not.”
“I’m not a witch!” Who knew what they did to witches in this place? Elizabeth felt her way to the end of the bed, ignoring the quicksilver fear that raced through her veins at the sight of the long, sharp sword in those enormous paws. James MacLeod held the sword easily and probably wielded it just as easily. She swallowed convulsively as she imagined just how intense the pain would be when he either slipped the blade between her ribs or used it to sever her head from her neck.
She would run back to the forest. She could make other plans once she was there. Perhaps she could ask someone for directions to the local loony bin, as she was certain she had just lost her mind.
Her captor stepped toward her suddenly and she shrieked. She caught sight of the door and bolted for it. Before her hand reached the latch, a powerful arm grabbed her about the waist, lifting her off the floor.
“Please, let me go,” she gasped, her breath coming so hard it hurt her throat. She tried to force her fingers between her coat and his arm. Superglue wouldn’t have held his forearm against her middle any tighter. She changed tactics and tried to twist around in his embrace. If she could just get her knee within striking distance…
She heard the clatter of metal against wood as he threw his sword aside. Then he bent and dumped her suddenly over his shoulder. He grunted the first time she kneed him in the belly, then merely wrapped his arms around her legs and carried her out into the hallway. Elizabeth pounded on his back as he thumped down a flight of stairs. Good grief, didn’t he feel her fists? She sank her teeth into his back right over his kidneys, a move that had always guaranteed her freedom from her brothers in the past. It didn’t phase the man carrying her.
After descending another flight of stairs, he stopped and dropped her to her feet. The first thing she noticed was the dampness. Then the darkness. Then the pit in the middle of the floor. Another man pulled up the trapdoor before Elizabeth could find her wits to scream.
“No, please,” she gasped, looking up at the MacLeod’s unyielding expression.
He took her hands in one of his. Without ceremony, he pushed her toward the gaping hole.
“I’m not a witch!”
He ignored her.
“Please,” she begged, “don’t put me down there. We can work this out. Let’s just talk, and I’m sure we can come to some kind of understanding. Please!”
She clung to him with every limb available. She wrapped her legs around one of his thighs and pleaded, her movements growing more frantic the closer he moved to the pit. With a mighty jerk, he pushed her away and lifted her off the ground, holding her up by her hands. He lowered her down into the hole. Elizabeth caught the edge with her feet, pulling herself back toward him.
“Cease,” he commanded. “Saints, think you I take pleasure in this? I only do what I must.”
And with that, he pushed her feet away from the lip of the pit and dropped her.
It was a long way down. Elizabeth fell into the soft ground and then pulled her hands up swiftly out of the muck, wincing at the pain in her wrist.
There was no ladder in the pit and no illumination. The trapdoor closed above her with a clang. She jumped to her feet and shuddered violently. She stared up at the ceiling, catching the faint light of a torch. She heard the slow, heavy tread of booted feet recede, and then there was silence.
She wiped her slimy hands on her jeans, then wrapped her arms around herself. She was just a simple writer, trying to write a simple romance novel. Why in the world had she been consigned to hell?
Something slithered over her shoe. She jerked her foot up, slipped in the mushy floor of the pit and lost her balance. She went down into the mud with a heavy slap, then scrambled back up to her feet. Something crawled up her heel; she shrieked and shook her foot violently. She stopped long enough to feel something else wiggle up the front of her other shin.
She began to scream.
“Bring her up,” Angus said quietly.
Jamie took his fingers from his ears and glared at his steward. He winced at the sound of the pitiful wails that floated up from the cellar. He was tempted to plug his ears again so he wouldn’t have to listen.
“She’ll stop screaming soon enough,” he said. “I want to wait until she’s good and tired before I burn her.”
“Now, Jamie,” Angus chided, “you know the lass is no witch.”
“I say she is,” Jamie growled. “You saw how she was dressed. And I’ve a thing or two to say to you about bringing a woman into this house. You know it isn’t allowed.”
“Jamie, lad, your father wouldn’t allow women in his home because he couldn’t bear to have anything about that reminded him of your sweet mother. You’ve no need to carry on the tradition.”
“Women do nothing but whine and complain,” Jamie said, disgruntled. “And weep. Like the witch. Listen to her wail like a newborn babe.”
“You’d be wailing too if you were down in the pit. Have you no idea of the vermin crawling about down there? Bring her up. She’s been there the whole of the afternoon.”
Jamie turned his face away. “Her fate is to be burned. I hardly care what happens to her before then.”
There were several moments of silence, during which time Jamie pointedly ignored the reproachful noises Angus was making.
The hall door banged shut, and a man cursed.
“By the saints, what is that horrible noise?”
Jamie glared at his cousin Ian.
Ian rolled his eyes. “When have we ever had a witch on our land? The poor lamb sounds as if she’s screamed herself hoarse. Fetch her up out of that bloody pit, Jamie.”
Jamie ignored him. Ian might have been his closest kin and his most trusted ally, but he had no sense when it came to women. Jamie wasn’t about to let a bloody romantic tell him what to do with a woman who could easily put his entire clan under a spell. Ian would likely bring her up and wed her. Jamie frowned again. Aye, it was best to keep Elizabeth and Ian as far apart as possible. Somehow the thought of Ian wooing that beautiful woman made Jamie want to grind his teeth.
Angus cleared his throat. “She came out of the forest, Ian.”
“All the more reason to burn her,” Jamie muttered darkly.
“Saints, Jamie,” Ian exclaimed. “Have you lost all sense? You’ve no idea where she might truly have come from—”
“But I know where she’s going, and that’s to the fire,” Jamie said, standing suddenly. “And if either of you still possesses any wits at all, you’ll leave her be. She’s mine to deal with.”
“See?” Angus said, throwing up his hands. “There’s no reasoning with him.”
“Aye,” Ian agreed. “I can see that well enough. I think I’m for riding the border this afternoon. I can’t stomach the thought of watching any of this.”
Jamie watched Ian leave, then stared Angus down, daring him to say anything. Angus opened his mouth to speak, but Jamie interrupted him.
“I’ll set fire to the wood myself,” he promised.
Angus turned and walked away. Jamie turned to stare into the hearth, watching the flames licking at the logs. Flames would soon lick at the long limbs of the witch in his dungeon. Would she magically escape harm, or would the fire blacken and char her fair skin as he had seen it do to others?
The witch’s screams had died down to pitiful moans that echoed eerily in the keep. Jamie’s heart wrenched inside his chest at the sound, despite his resolve to remain callous.
He cursed and began to pace the length of his great hall. So she could still spin her enchantments while captive. Never in his life had he felt anything but lust for a woman. The thought of actually feeling pity for one infuriated him. He slammed out of the hall and headed for the stables. A long ride would clear his head.
He rode to the edge of the forest, then simply sat and stared into shadows. Now, here was a place to be reckoned with. He’d lived on its border for the whole of his life and had nothing but abhorrence for it. He’d heard the tales in his youth, tales of enchantments and magics. Though he’d never believed them, he’d been unsettled by them just the same. Of course that had been before his younger brother had wandered off into the forest one day and disappeared. Jamie had searched for weeks in spite of his unease at riding under those haunted boughs. He had come home each time empty-handed.
Until one fateful morning. Jamie had been out riding, a few months after Patrick’s disappearance, when he had seen his brother standing at the edge of the woods. He had ridden to him immediately, overjoyed. Patrick had felt real enough and had hugged Jamie until he thought his back might break. Then Patrick had babbled on and on about the place he had been, where men did things Jamie could not for the life of him fathom. How was it a man could journey to the moon and back again and live to tell the tale? And the other things: wagons that moved without horses pulling them, strange new weapons of war, healers who could fair bring a man back from the dead—aye, they were nothing more than the ramblings of a madman. Patrick had been driven daft by his wanderings in what he claimed was the future. Jamie could count to 1996, but he certainly couldn’t imagine the world lasting that many years.
Patrick had bidden Jamie farewell, saying he had a woman he needed to return to, a future girl who would bear him a child in a few weeks. Jamie had pleaded with him not to go, but Patrick had turned and vanished into the trees. Jamie had been convinced it had been nothing more than a dream.
But now the forest had yielded something else to him, a woman who had been nothing but a dream but was now clothed in flesh. Was she recompense for having lost Patrick? Was she spirit made flesh, or was she a demon? Or was she from the future, that unimaginable place Patrick had been to? Did she perhaps know his brother?
He rubbed the back of his neck, torn. The sensible thing to do would be to pull the girl out of the pit and send her back to the forest, then forget she had ever wandered into his hall. He certainly didn’t want a woman in his life, fouling it with her meddlings. The last thing he needed was a woman who had materialized from his very dreams. Seeing her, touching her, finding that she was indeed alive did nothing but trouble him. He could ill afford such a distraction.
But it was possible she might know something of Patrick. She had come from the forest. Her clothing was very odd and her accent strange. It could have been a coincidence, but he was desperate enough to believe it might not be. If there were even some slim hope she might know his brother, it was worth keeping her to question her.
He turned his horse back to the keep.
Angus was sitting in the great hall by the fire, nursing a cup of wine when Jamie strode past him.
“Find her proper clothes. I’ll wait for you below.”
He ignored Angus’ exclamation of triumph and stomped across the floor, grimacing at the layer of scum built up under the ancient rushes. Dog piss, spit, rotten bones, table scraps—the thought of what lay beneath his feet had never bothered him before. He cursed as he walked to the stairs. Perhaps the girl was a witch after all; before her arrival he had certainly never cared about the condition of his floors.
There was no noise coming from the pit. He squatted down and strained to catch even the sound of breathing.
“Angus!” he bellowed.
Angus came down the stairs at a dead run, skidding to a halt next to Jamie.
“Is she dead?” he asked, concern written all over his wrinkled face.
“How would I know?” Jamie snapped. “Go down and bring her up.”
Angus paled. “Jamie, I feel for the lass, but I’m not about to go get her.”
“Call me what you wish, but you’ll not goad me into descending into that hellhole.”
With a curse, Jamie jerked up the trapdoor and shoved the ladder down into the darkness. He flinched as he felt it sink into something soft; hopefully that something had not been his captive. He snatched a torch off the wall and took a deep breath. Though he had no great love of pits either, it was obvious no one else was about to do this deed in his stead. He descended the ladder carefully, ignoring the chill and the miserable dampness. The torch spluttered and went out. Damn Angus for bringing the wench home! Jamie cast his eyes about, trying to locate the prisoner in question.
Elizabeth was huddled miserably on the floor. Or what should have been the floor. A shiver went down Jamie’s spine when he saw how the ground shifted. Vermin of all kinds and varieties slithered, crawled and oozed in the mud. He stepped down to the last rung of the ladder and reached out, trying to grab hold of Elizabeth’s arm. She was too far away.
“Elizabeth, give me your hand.”
She didn’t respond. She did nothing but sit listlessly in the mud, her eyes unfocused and unseeing.
Her head snapped up. Merciful saints above, there were creatures in her hair! Jamie thrust his hand out again.
“Come,” he commanded.
With a cry, she jumped up and threw herself at him. He caught her to him with one arm and mounted the rungs with speed he would have been proud of, had he been thinking of anything besides the vermin that were crawling off her onto him.
Once they were out of the pit, Jamie thrust her away from him. He didn’t recognize half the things she was covered with. Half the things he was now covered with. He pulled her away from the gaping hole and pushed her strangely fashioned cloak down her arms.
“Leave us,” he barked to Angus and the guard who stood nearby.
“But—” Angus protested.
Jamie waited only until their backs were turned before he pulled at Elizabeth’s heavy tunic, a strangely fashioned garment that looked like thick, woven wool. Elizabeth grabbed hold of the hem and struggled to pull it back down. Jamie ignored her struggles and pulled the tunic over her head. Her breasts were covered in some odd, flimsy material, but he ignored that too. He also forced himself to ignore her beautifully fashioned form. He concentrated on her hose and found them to be completely beyond his scope of experience.
“Take them off,” he said.
“Oh, no,” she moaned. “Now rape?”
Jamie cursed as he pulled off his plaid and dropped it at her feet.
“I’ve no mind to take you. Cover yourself with that.” He waited. When he realized she wasn’t going to obey him if he watched, he cursed and turned his back to her.
“Be quick,” he growled, steeling himself against the feelings the sound of her soft sniffling created in him. By the saints, he had no use for a bawling woman! “The sooner your clothes are gone, the sooner you’ll have a bath.”
Several minutes passed during which time he heard every sound she made as clearly as if a dozen maids had been making like sounds. He scratched his chest, suppressing the impulse to bellow for her to hurry so he could be free of what was crawling over his skin.
“I’m finished,” she whispered.
Jamie turned around and picked her up in his arms. He ran up the stairs and through his hall, through the back garden, out the gate and straight for the pool near his keep. He didn’t care what a sight he made in only his shirt and boots. By St. George’s knees, there were vermin in his hair!
The lake was a small affair, fed by mountain streams and usually too frigid to swim in. Jamie gritted his teeth and plunged in, carrying Elizabeth wrapped in his plaid. He didn’t even bother to take off his boots.
Leaving her shivering in the shallows, he swam out further and scrubbed himself vigorously, wishing he’d had the time to snatch a bit of soap on his way. Once he had finished, he looked back to find Elizabeth standing in the same place, trembling. He swam back to her and then pulled her out into the deep water. She didn’t protest when he stripped away the covering of his plaid, nor did she protest when he dunked her under the water and washed the creatures from her hair. He assumed she was too distraught by what she had just been through to care. Until, that is, he tried to wash the rest of her. The flat of her hand across his cheek shocked him so, he could do nothing but gape at her.
“Don’t,” she whispered.
“I think I won’t,” he grumbled, rubbing his cheek in annoyance. Then he noticed the way she held her wrist to her chest as though she tried to protect it from something.
“Let me see,” he demanded.
Either she didn’t understand, or she was ignoring him. Or she was too frightened to think clearly, he thought grimly. He carefully pried her arm loose and groaned when he saw her swollen wrist.
“You fell on this?”
She nodded, her teeth beginning to chatter.
He took her other hand and began to pull her to shore. “I’ll bind it with stiff cloths once we return to the keep.”
She struggled to pull away. “I have nothing to wear,” she said, crossing her other arm over her breasts. “Once we get out,” she added, so softly he came close to missing her words completely.
Jamie sighed in frustration and wondered if his soggy plaid would dry before she died from the chill.
“Jamie,” Angus called, “bring her out. I’ve clothing here for her.”
Jamie pulled Elizabeth behind him and glared at Angus, who stood on the shore.
“Leave it there and go back to the keep. You’ve no need to embarrass the lass by gaping at her. Go on,” he shouted when Angus made no move to leave.
Angus shot him a warning look before he turned and trudged back up the path. Jamie vowed to wring the older man’s neck at his first opportunity. As if he now planned to rape the girl!
“I’ll turn my back,” he threw over his shoulder at her. “Follow me out and wrap up in that plaid.”
He kept his word and did not watch until she said she was finished. Jamie then waded back into the pond and dove under to retrieve the clothing that had sunk to the bottom. He made a haphazard attempt at washing the garments, then crawled up to shore where he tossed his tunic and plaid over bushes to dry.
He dropped down next to Elizabeth and looked at her closely. She was staring off over the water numbly, still shivering. He pulled her hair from under the blanket and spread it out over her shoulders. Och, but she was a beauty. He tucked a lock of her long, dark hair behind her ear, then pulled his hand away when she flinched at his touch.
What do you expect, dullard? he grumbled to himself. The girl had spent probably the most terrifying afternoon of her life locked in his dungeon and now he wanted her to long for his touch?
And somehow, beyond reason, he wanted that very much.
He let his gaze roam over her face. Her eyes were the most beautiful shade of blue he had ever seen. In fact, they were almost more green than blue. Her nose was slim and well formed; he could still remember how she had looked down that nose at him the day before, when she had demanded to know who he was. There was fire in that soul, and, despite himself, he had been fascinated by it. The women he knew did nothing but cower. Even his bastard son’s mother had lacked fire. She had accepted Jamie in her bed in the village, resigned herself to the fact that she would never see the inside of his hall, borne him a son and died. Jamie had the distinct feeling Elizabeth would never have tolerated the like.
“Are you real?”
He jumped slightly and looked at her mouth, realizing she had spoken to him.
“What did you say?”
“I asked if you were real,” she repeated, looking at him with troubled aqua eyes. “Or are you a dream?”
Jamie frowned. A dream? Those had been his exact thoughts about her. Could she have dreamed him too? The feelings that had haunted him from daybreak returned in a rush.
Only now, the creator of those feelings was made flesh, and she was sitting a hand’s breadth from him.
“Of course I’m real,” he managed.
She nodded, a single tear slipping down her cheek. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
Her accent was the strangest one he had ever heard. There were many foreigners at the Bruce’s hall, but never had Jamie met one who spoke as Elizabeth did.
“Where are we?”
Jamie looked at her, startled. “The Highlands, of course.” Saints, had her time in his pit made her daft?
She paled. Jamie tensed, certain she was on the verge of swooning. He started to reach for her.
“What’s the year?”
Jamie froze, certain he’d heard her amiss. By the saints, she had lost her wits.
“ ’Tis the same year as it was yesterday,” he said, hoping to spark some show of sense.
She only waited, silent.
“ ’Tis the Year of Our Lord 1311.”
She looked as if he’d just slapped her. Then great tears formed in her eyes. She looked so miserable, he wanted to weep himself. He frowned to drive away the impulse as he awkwardly put his arm around her shoulders.
“There, there, lass,” he said, “you’ve no reason to weep.”
That was like a spark to a pile of dry wood. She burst into tears and leaned against him. He spluttered helplessly, but she seemed not to hear him. He looked around for aid, but there was no one there to give it to him.
That command did absolutely nothing to quiet her. In fact, it only made matters worse. She reached up and put her arms around his neck, sobbing into his chest. With a sigh of frustration, he patted her back firmly. When her tears did not cease, he tried to comfort her by using a bit more force.
“You’re going to break me,” she gasped.
“Oh,” he said in a small voice. He looked around quickly. If any of his men saw him, he would never live down the action he currently contemplated. Seeing that the glade was empty, he put his other arm under Elizabeth’s legs and drew her onto his lap. His son had liked to be rocked when he was a wee bairn. Perhaps that was what Elizabeth wanted.
Her sobs lasted for hours, or so it seemed to him. The grief in her voice wrenched at his heart. Had she lost her family? He thought about that for a goodly time, and then a more disturbing thought occurred to him. Perhaps she had lost more than her wits. She could have lost her husband. He felt up behind his neck, and his fingers encountered a ring on one of her fingers. He felt a deep scowl settle over his features. So she was wed. Or betrothed.
Jamie started to push her away, but then he realized her tears had stopped. He slowly pulled his head back to peek at her. She was asleep. The pang of jealousy he felt toward the man who possessed her came out of nowhere and stuck him sharply in the heart. With an effort, he forced aside the feeling, along with the accompanying desire to keep her in spite of her lord’s possession.
He laid her gently on the ground and then retrieved his clothing. He pulled his wet shirt down over his head and then belted his damp plaid around him. Carefully, he picked Elizabeth up in his arms and carried her back to the keep, marveling that she still slept.
He stopped still as he put his foot over the threshold of his hall. If she just didn’t look so peaceful and content in his arms…
Nay, the tradition was a fine one, and he would continue it. After Elizabeth woke. He carried her through the hall and up the steps to his chamber, ignoring the astonished looks he received from his men. He laid Elizabeth down on his bed and covered her with a blanket. Satisfied that she was comfortable, he made his way down to the cellar to retrieve her clothing. There was no sense in having garments lying about that might mark her as a witch to a less intelligent man.