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Alone on the edge of the clearing, Ninian Malcolm Siddons sat on an overturned stone from the circle that had once dominated this hill and contemplated the bonfire and dancing couples laughing below. It was a very lonely business being a Malcolm. Tonight, she'd much rather dance and sing and shout for joy in the firelight like everyone else. She wanted to scream and yell, "I'm here! Here! It's just me!" But there was danger in achieving that kind of attention. She could not indulge her volatile nature and throw tantrums at the unfairness of life; it would only enhance the village's fear of her. As her grandmother had taught her, she must remember who she was, what she was, and be proud of it. She had a gift and a talent no other had been granted, and she must use them wisely. Making the villagers fear her was not wise.
She sighed and rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Gifts" and "talents" weren't quite as valuable or exciting as the magic in fairy tales. If only she possessed real magic, she could summon a lover to dance with her. She smiled as the fantasy formed in her mind. What kind of lover would she summon? Dark and passionate? Fair and loving? One who would give her fat, jolly babies?
One who would dance with her.
She'd never even considered sharing her life with anyone until Granny died last winter. Given her circumstances, it didn't pay to consider it now. She must dedicate her life to the people of Wystan just as Granny had done-or deny her heritage and forfeit everything as her mother had. The bonfire leapt higher into the starry May night as someone added new brush to the flames. With the aid of the moon above, the glade sparkled with the silvery glow of a thousand candles, filling the night with enchantment. Beltane was a night to celebrate the earth's richness, to throw off the dark of winter's cold. She should exult in the promise of spring, not fret over what she could never have. It was time to shrug off her grief over her grandmother's death and go on with the business of living.
If only she knew precisely what that was. Tending her herbs, healing the sick, and delivering babes did not hold quite the promise she'd hoped now that she faced those tasks alone. Eagerly, she sat up as an excess of hilarity and high spirits buffeted her with the approach of the dancers.
"Have you heard? Lord Ives is repairing the castle!" Tom, the wheelmaker's son, crowed as he and several others gathered to catch their breaths.
"We'll all be rich!" Alice, a farmer's daughter, expressed her excitement with glee.
"This time next year, we'll have fat pigs in our pens and geese on our tables." Son of a sheep farmer, Nate passed his cup of ale to the next person.
The return of an Ives to Wystan after all these years worried Ninian. She'd thought the legend in her grandmother's storybook little more than a fairy tale and had never feared it, until now, with the recent return of the mysterious nobleman.
According to the story, long, long ago, Ives and Malcolms had been the nobility of this land, building castles and protecting their people. But according to the legend, disaster destroyed their happy land upon the marriage of an Ives lord and a Malcolm lady. Prosperity had fled, the Ives lords moved away, and only Malcolms remained to care for the people as best as they could. As others left to seek riches elsewhere, the village shrank, and there was no need for more than one Malcolm here. So even the Malcolms left. Ninian's aunts had followed their aristocratic husbands and moved on to better things. Ninian's particular gift fared better in the isolation of the village, so she had chosen to stay behind.
Why had a legend walked out of her storybook as soon as her grandmother died? And if this Lord Ives could make the village wealthy, would they need Ninian at all? Or would he bring the tragedy the storybook predicted?
Clamping down a frisson of fear and blocking out such silly superstition, Ninian watched the unaccompanied bachelors expectantly as the musicians struck up a new song.
Nate grabbed his companion's hand, and Gertrude giggled and ran off with him to join the dancers. As the other young men chose partners and laughing couples dashed toward the revelry, leaving Ninian behind-again-her dimples disappeared and her shoulders sagged with the weight of loneliness.
It shouldn't matter that they didn't ask her to dance.
They were simple, uneducated village boys, and she was a Malcolm. Malcolms were not only witches, but nobility, educated far beyond the means of simple farmers. She understood.
She really did. But the music was so lively and the moon so beautiful...
An old lady laughed as Gertrude slapped Nate's face and flounced off. "That one has aught but one thing on his mind," the old one said to her companion.
All the village girls knew about Nate's hot hands and sweet words. Still, even well plied with ale, he danced a fair step, and Ninian wouldn't have minded one whirl about the fire.
It wasn't as if she expected love.
A pagan fertility rite, how appropriate.
Standing in the deepest shadows of the forest's edge, Drogo Ives, Earl of Ives and Wystan, crossed his arms and watched as the bonfire in the clearing blazed skyward. The hypnotic notes of flute and fiddle carried on the wind along with the sounds of laughter.
He'd come to this deserted outpost of northern England in hopes of studying the stars, not human behavior. Heaven only knew, he had sufficient specimens for study in London should he wish to take up the science of people, but he preferred the distance and mathematical precision of stars. At least stars were predictable.
The bonfire had aroused his curiosity when he'd seen it from his windows. He'd spent a long and grueling day over the estate accounts, correspondence, and decisions regarding his brothers' latest escapades, and inexplicably, he'd been drawn to the sight of the leaping flames.
A lone figure lurking in the half shadow between him and the convivial couples in the clearing captured his curiosity.
He might not be from these parts, but he had sufficient knowledge of folklore to recognize the village's celebration of Beltane. As spring fertility rites went, this one was fairly tame. He even recognized the primitive urge within himself to procreate. The warmth of a new May eve, the hum of nature's nocturnal creatures seeking mates, the gravid fowls and burgeoning plant life of spring stirred even the most stoic of mankind into desiring to create replicas of themselves within a woman's womb.
Drogo clanged a steel door shut on that thought as he watched the solitary figure in the clearing.
Her pale hair glimmered with moonlight, curling in wild ringlets over her shoulders and halfway down her back, uncovered by cap or cloth. He had caught a glimpse of her face earlier as she exchanged words with some of the couples. She had a round face of ivory purity with mysterious light-colored eyes he could barely discern in the silver swath of moonlight.
And she had a figure men would kill for. He surveyed her ample bosom and trim waist with jaundiced gaze. Country beautiful, built for breeding. Why then was she not a part of one of the amorous couples cavorting around the fire? She should have men dancing attendance at her fingertips.
He had no intention of becoming so involved in village affairs that he might ask. He craved a solitude he couldn't achieve in London, and he didn't need another woman mucking up his life or his mind. He'd do better to return to his studies in the tower or to the tedious stacks of frantic messages from London.
The silver goddess turned just enough for him to perceive the yearning in her expression, a yearning that so matched his own, the loneliness of it nearly crippled him.