—The Oakland Press
“Both powerful and sensitive . . . a wonderfully rich and rewarding book.”
—#1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs
“A sweet, tenderhearted time travel romance.”
“A story on an epic scale . . . Kurland has written another time travel marvel . . . Perfect for those looking for a happily ever after.”
—RT Book Reviews
“[A] triumphant romance.”
“A perfect blend of medieval intrigue and time travel romance. I was totally enthralled from the beginning to the end.”
—Once Upon a Romance
“Woven with magic, handsome heroes, lovely heroines, oodles of fun, and plenty of romance . . . just plain wonderful.”
—Romance Reviews Today
“Spellbinding and lovely, this is one story readers won’t want to miss.”
—Romance Reader at Heart
“Breathtaking in its magnificent scope.”
—Night Owl Romance
“Sweetly romantic and thoroughly satisfying.”
“A pure delight.”
—Huntress Book Reviews
“A consummate storyteller.”
—ParaNormal Romance Reviews
“A disarming blend of romance, suspense, and heartwarming humor, this book is romantic comedy at its best.”
“A totally enchanting tale, sensual and breathtaking.”
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
ONE MAGIC MOMENT
ALL FOR YOU
ROSES IN MOONLIGHT
The Novels of the Nine Kingdoms
STAR OF THE MORNING
THE MAGE’S DAUGHTER
PRINCESS OF THE SWORD
A TAPESTRY OF SPELLS
GIFT OF MAGIC
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)
A TIME FOR LOVE
“TO KISS IN THE SHADOWS” from TAPESTRY
I would like to express gratitude to the following individuals:
Tricia Barile, for sanity-saving postpartum advice and for an enlightening discussion of fevers and wounds;
Claire Lorimer and Ashley Beazer, who contributed a great deal to making the completion of this book possible;
Leslie and Ashley, for the use of their family name;
And to the remarkable musicians whose influence upon me at pivotal times in my life cannot be measured: Judith Jane Wright; Richard Lee; Jeff Cooke; Dr. Ronald J. Staheli; Dr. David H. Sargent; Ray L. Arbizu; Dr. Clayne Robison; Randy Kartchner; Dwight Ostergaard; and Matthew Curland. Thank you. My life is better for having known you.
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in the dust away!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Table of Contents
Jessica Blakely didn’t believe in Fate.
Yet as she stood at the top of a medieval circular staircase and peered down into its gloomy depths, she had to wonder if someone other than herself might be at the helm of her ship, as it were. Things were definitely not progressing as she had planned. Surely Fate had known she wasn’t at all interested in stark, bare castles or knights in rusting armor.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to examine the turns of events that had brought her to her present perch. Things had seemed so logical at the time. She’d gone on a blind date, accepted said blind date’s invitation to go to England as part of his university department’s faculty sabbatical, then hopped cheerfully on a plane with him two weeks later.
Their host was Lord Henry de Galtres, possessor of a beautifully maintained Victorian manor house. Jessica had taken one look and fallen instantly in love—with the house, that is. The appointments were luxurious, the food heavenly, and the surrounding countryside idyllic. The only downside was that for some unfathomable reason, Lord Henry had decided that the crumbling castle attached to his house was something that needed to remain undemolished. Just the sight of it had sent chills down Jessica’s spine. She couldn’t say why, and she hadn’t wanted to dig around to find the answer.
Instead, she’d availed herself of all the modern comforts Lord Henry’s house could provide. And she’d been certain that when she could tear herself away from her temporary home-away-from-home, she might even venture to London for a little savings-account-reducing shopping at Harrods. Yet before she could find herself facing a cash register, she’d been driven to seek sanctuary in the crumbling castle attached to Lord Henry’s house.
There was something seriously amiss in her life.
A draft hit her square in the face, loaded with the smell of seven centuries’ worth of mustiness. She coughed and flapped her hand in front of her nose. Maybe she should have kept her big mouth shut and avoided expressing any disbelief in Providence.
Then again, it probably would have been best if she’d remained silent a long time ago, maybe before she’d agreed to that blind date. She gave that some thought, then shook her head. Her troubles had begun long before her outing with Archibald Stafford III. In fact, she could lay her finger on the precise moment when she had lost control and Fate had taken over.
Piano lessons. At age five.
You wouldn’t think that something so innocuous, so innocent and child-friendly would have led a woman where she never had any intention of having gone, but Jessica couldn’t find any evidence to contradict the results.
Piano lessons had led to music scholarships, which had led to a career in music that had somehow demolished her social life, leaving her no choice but to sink to accepting the latest in a series of hopeless blind dates: Archie Stafford and his shiny penny loafers. Archie was the one who had invited her to England for a month with all expenses paid. He had landed the trip thanks to a great deal of sucking up to the dean of his department. He didn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the good old boys who clustered with the dean and Lord Henry every night smoking cigars into the wee hours, but maybe that’s what Archie aspired to.
Jessica wondered now how hard up he must have been for a date to have asked her to come along. At the time he’d invited her, though, she’d been too busy thinking about tea and crumpets to let the invitation worry her. It had been a university-sponsored outing. She’d felt perfectly safe.
Unfortunately, being Archie’s guest also meant that she had to speak to him, and that was something she wished she could avoid for the next three weeks. It was only on the flight over that she’d discovered the depth of his swininess. She made a mental note never to pull out her passport for anyone she’d known less than a month if such an occasion should arise again.
But like it or not, she was stuck with him for this trip, which meant at the very least polite conversation, and if nothing else, her mother had instilled in her a deep compulsion to be polite.
Of course, being civil didn’t mean she couldn’t escape now and then—which was precisely what she was doing at present. Unfortunately escape had meant finding the one place where Archie would never think to look for her.
The depths of Henry’s medieval castle.
She wondered if an alarm would sound if she disconnected the rope that barred her way. She looked to her left and saw that there were a great many people who would hear such an alarm if it sounded. Maybe she wouldn’t be noticed in the ensuing panic. Apparently Lord Henry funded some of his house upkeep by conducting tours of his castle. Those tours were seemingly well attended, if the one in progress was any indication.
Jessica eyed the sightseers. They were moving in a herdlike fashion and it was possible they might set up a stampede if she startled them. They were uncomfortably nestled together, gaping at cordoned-off family heirlooms, also uncomfortably nestled together. Marcham was a prime destination spot and Jessica seemed to have placed herself in the midst of the latest crowd at the precise moment she needed the most peace and quiet. She had already done the castle tour and learned more than she wanted to know about Burwyck-on-the-Sea and its accompanying history. Another lesson on the intricacies of medieval happenings was the last thing she needed at the moment.
“—Of course the castle here at Marcham, or Merceham, as it was known in the 1300s, was one of the family’s minor holdings. Even though it has been added to during the years and extensively remodeled during the Victorian period, it is not the most impressive of the family’s possessions. The true gem of the de Galtres crown lies a hundred and fifty kilometers away on the eastern coast. If we move further along here, you’ll find a painting of the keep.”
The crowd shuffled to the left obediently as the tour guide continued with his speech.
“As you can see here in this rendering of Burwyck-on-the-Sea—aptly named, if I might offer an opinion—the most remarkable feature of the family’s original seat is the round tower built not into the center of the bailey as we find in Pembroke Castle, but rather into the outer seawall. I imagine the third lord of the de Galtres family fancied having his ocean view unobstructed—”
So Jessica and he heartily agreed with the sentiment, but for now an ocean view was not what she was interested in. If the basement was roped off it could only mean that it was free of tourists and tour guides. It was also possible that below was where the castle kept all its resident spiders and ghosts, but it was a chance she would have to take. Archie would never think to look for her there. Ghosts could be ignored. Spiders could be squashed.
She put her shoulders back, unhooked the rope, and descended.
She stopped at the foot of the steps and looked for someplace appropriate. Suits of armor stood at silent attention along both walls. Lighting was minimal and creature comforts nonexistent, but that didn’t deter her. She walked over the flagstones until she found a likely spot, then eased her way between a fierce-looking knight brandishing a sword and another grimly holding a pike. She did a quick cobweb check before she settled down with her back against the stone wall. It was the first time that day she’d been grateful for the heavy gown she wore. A medieval costume might suit her surroundings, but it seemed like a very silly thing to wear to an afternoon tea—and said afternoon tea was precisely what she’d planned to avoid by fleeing to the basement.
Well, that and Archie.
She reached into her bag and pulled out what she needed for complete relaxation. Reverently, she set a package of two chilled peanut-butter cups on the stone floor. Those she would save for later. A can of pop followed. The floor was cold enough to keep it at a perfect temperature as well. Then she pulled out her portable CD player, put the headphones on her head, made herself more comfortable, and, finally closing her eyes with a sigh, pushed the play button. A chill went down her spine that had nothing to do with the cold stone.
Bruckner’s Seventh could do that-to a girl, given the right circumstances.
Jessica took a deep breath and prepared for what she knew was to come. The symphony started out simply. She knew eventually it would increase in strength and magnitude until it came crashing down on her with such force that she wouldn’t be able to catch her breath.
She felt her breathing begin to quicken and had to wipe her palms on her dress. It was every bit as good as it had been the past 139 times she had listened to the same piece. It was music straight from the vaults of heav—
Jessica froze. She was tempted to open her eyes, but she was almost certain what she would see would be a big, fat rat sitting right next to her, and then where would she be? Her snack was still wrapped, and since it really didn’t count as food anyway, what could a rat want with it? She returned her attentions to the symphony. It was the London Philharmonic, one of her favorite orchestras—
Wreek, wreek, wreeeeeek.
Rusty shutters? Were there shutters in the basement? Hard to say. She wasn’t about to open her eyes and find out. There was probably some kind of gate nearby and it was moving thanks to a stiff breeze set up by all the tourists tromping around upstairs. Or maybe it was a trapdoor to the dungeon. She immediately turned away from that thought, as it wasn’t a place she wanted to go. She closed her eyes even more firmly. It was a good thing she was so adept at shutting but distractions. The noise might have ruined the afternoon for her otherwise.
Wreeka, wreeka, wreeeeeka.
All right, that was too much. It was probably some stray kid fiddling with one of the suits of armor. She’d give him an earful, send him on his way, and get back to her business.
She opened her eyes—then shrieked.
There, looming over her with obviously evil intent, was a knight in full battle gear. She pushed herself back against the stone wall, pulling her feet under her and wondering just what she could possibly do to defend herself. The knight, however, seemed to dismiss her upper person because he bent his helmeted head to look at her feet. By the alacrity with which he suddenly leaned over in that direction, she knew what was to come.
The armor creaked as the mailed hand reached out. Then, without any hesitation, the fingers closed around her peanut-butter cups. The visor was flipped up with enthusiasm, the candy’s covering ripped aside with more dexterity than any gloved hand should have possessed, and Jessica’s last vestige of American junk food disappeared with two great chomps.
The chomper burped.
“Hey, Jess,” he said, licking his chops, “thought you might be down here hiding. Got any more of those?” He pointed at the empty space near her feet, his arm producing another mighty squeak.
Rule number one: No one interrupted her during Bruckner.
Rule number two: No one ate her peanut-butter cups, especially when she found herself stranded in England for a month without the benefit of a Mini Mart down the street. She had yet to see any peanut-butter cups in England and she’d been saving her last two for a quiet moment alone. Well, at least the thief hadn’t absconded with her drink as of yet—
“Geez, Jess,” he said, reaching for her can of pop, popping the top and draining the contents, “why are you hiding?”
She could hardly think straight. “I was listening to Bruckner.”
He burped loudly. “Never understood a girl who could get all sweaty over a bunch of fairies playing the violin.” He squashed the can, then grinned widely at the results a mailed glove could generate. Then he looked at her and winked. “How’d you like to come here and give your knight in shining armor a big ol’ kiss?”
I’d rather kiss a rat was on the tip of her tongue, but Archibald Stafford III didn’t wait for the words to make it past her lips. He hauled her up from between her guardians—and a fat lot of good two empty suits of armor had done her—sending her CD player and headphones crashing to the ground, pulled her against him, and gave her the wettest, slobberiest kiss that had ever been given an unwilling maiden fair.
She would have clobbered him, but she was trapped in a mailed embrace and powerless to rescue herself.
“Let me go,” she squeaked.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you interested in my strong, manly arms?” he said, giving her a squeeze to show just how strong and manly his arms were.
“Not when they’re squeezing the life from me,” she gasped. “Archie, let me go!”
“It’ll be good for research purposes.”
“I’m a musician, for heaven’s sake. I don’t need to do this kind of research. And you are a . . .” and she had to pause before she said it because she still couldn’t believe such a thing was possible, given the new insights she’d had into the man currently crushing the life from her, “a . . . philosopher,” she managed. “A tenured philosophy professor at a major university, not a knight.”
Archibald sighed with exaggerated patience. “The costume party, remember?”
As if she could forget, especially since she was already dressed à la medieval, complete with headgear and lousy shoes. Why the faculty had chosen to dress themselves up as knights and ladies fair she couldn’t have said. It had to have been the brainchild of that nutty history professor who hadn’t been able to clear his sword through airport security. She’d known just by looking at him that he was trouble.
If only she’d been as observant with Archie. And now here she was, staring at what had, at first blush, seemed to be one of her more successful blind dates. She could hardly reconcile his current self with his philosophy self. Either he’d gotten chivalry confused with chauvinism, or wearing that suit of armor too long had allowed metal to leach into his brain and alter his personality.
“I’ll carry you up,” Archie said suddenly. “It’ll be a nice touch.”
But instead of being swept up into his arms, which would have been bad enough, she found herself hoisted and dumped over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
“My CD player,” she protested.
“Get it later,” he said, trudging off toward the stairs.
She struggled, but it was futile. She thought about name-calling, but that, she decided, was beneath her. He’d have to put her down eventually and then she would really let him have it. For the moment, however, it was all she could do to avoid having her head make contact with the stairwell as Archie huffed up the steps. He paused and Jessica heard a cacophony of startled gasps. Fortunately she was hanging mostly upside down, so her face couldn’t get any redder.
“I love this medieval stuff,” Archie announced to whatever assembly was there, “don’t you?”
And with that, he slapped her happily on the rump—to the accompaniment of more horrified gasps—and continued on his way.
Jessica wondered if that sword she’d seen with the armor in the basement was sharp. Then again, maybe it would be just as effective if it were dull. Either way, she had the feeling she was going to have to use it on the man who chortled happily as he carried her, minus her dignity, on down the hallway to where she was certain she would be humiliated even further.
• • •
She was trapped for almost an hour at the costumed tea before she managed to escape. She had Lord Henry to thank for her liberation. He’d removed her from Archie’s clutches with a firm “tut, tut, old man, don’t monopolize the girl,” escorted Jessica to the door, and brushed aside her heartfelt thanks.
“Go walk in the garden, my dear,” Henry had said with a kind smile. “I’ll occupy him well enough. We’ll discuss Plato.”
She had taken the time to find a bathroom, wash her face, and remove the wimple she’d put on earlier in the day. She studiously ignored the fact that when she’d first seen her postparty self, her headgear had been sliding off her head. That was thanks to Archie’s unruly transportation of her person; she’d been too flustered to try to adjust anything once she’d reached the party.
Just another reason to find a dull blade and whack the goon with it.
She tucked the wimple into her belt and left the bathroom. The garden sounded like a good idea. It was October and already a chilly one, but the paths were smooth and wide and she didn’t need dozens of blooming roses to soothe her spirit.
She paused at the top of the cellar stairs and wondered about the advisability of leaving her CD player down there. She shook her head and turned away before she could give it any more thought. It was stuck behind a suit of armor and wasn’t going anywhere. Besides, she just wasn’t up to facing that dark pit again. Maybe one of Lord Henry’s staff could retrieve it for her later.
She turned and made her way to the gallery where she’d left the tourists reeling from her ride on Archie’s shoulder. Large French doors opened onto the garden at the end of the room. Jessica started toward them purposefully, fully intending to ignore all Lord Henry’s treasures.
But, in spite of herself, she found herself pausing in front of the painting of Burwyck-on-the-Sea.
The view was from the sea. The water churned ferociously against the stone foundations of the castle. At one corner of the castle a large round tower sat atop the rocks, looking almost as if it had grown out of them. The castle might have been comfortably large, but Jessica suspected it was very drafty and quite chilly.
It was definitely not the place for her.
She walked away quickly. What she needed was some fresh air and then maybe a return to her room for some hot chocolate enjoyed behind a locked door. She opened one of the French doors and stepped out into the evening air.
She pulled the door shut behind her, leaned back against it, and took a deep breath. The sun was setting, the air was still and thick, and for the first time in days she felt herself start to relax.
She needed a vacation from her life, sans Mr. Stafford III and his hoisting ways. She’d secretly been hoping the trip to England would give her a chance to get some perspective on the Big Picture. She’d envisioned some free time spent holed up in her room, again sans Mr. Stafford III, sorting out her innermost goals and desires. She’d been certain cucumber sandwiches would have aided her greatly in coming up with just what was missing.
She wrapped her arms around herself and wandered down the path through the manicured bushes. Maybe it was all much simpler than she wanted to believe. It was true that she had a wonderful career as composer-in-residence at a small, exclusive university, she had a great sublet in Manhattan, and she still had her high-school waistline.
But what she didn’t have was a family of her own.
She stopped suddenly as she caught sight of a statue to her left. Some ancestor of heroic proportions stared down at her from his perch atop a marble horse. His features were fixed in an eternal sneer.
“Well,” she said defensively, “marriage is the natural state of man.”
He remained seemingly unimpressed.
“Ben Franklin said so,” she added.
The statue refrained from comment. Jessica shrugged and continued on her way. That had been her father’s favorite saying and his marriage to her mother had been proof of it. They’d been happy and fulfilled, so much so that her mother still seemed sustained by that happiness, even though Jessica’s father had passed away almost two years earlier.
And maybe that was part of her discontent. Life was short. It seemed a shame to waste it on just herself if there might be something she could do to change that.
It looked like more blind dates were in her future.
She sighed and looked heavenward. If only there were an easier way to meet a decent guy who might be interested in settling down and producing a bit of offspring. She picked out a star and wished on it.
“A decent guy,” she began, then shook her head. She was wishing. Why not go all the way?
“All right, since we’re here in England, I’ll have a fair and gallant knight,” she amended. “One with lots of chivalry. And I’d like one with a steady job, an even temper, and a house with room enough for a concert grand piano. And I’d like this man to love me at least as much as he loves himself. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?”
The heavens were silent.
Jessica sighed and continued down the path. Archie was living proof that all those things were just wishful thinking. Just once, if only for a few days, she wanted to meet a man who would look on her as an equal. Surely there had to be someone out there with a hint of true chivalry in his black soul. The face of a pirate and the heart of a poet. Other people found men like that. Why couldn’t she?
She could, and she would. She would tell Archie in no uncertain terms that the winds had shifted and were definitely not favorable where he was concerned, then she would return to New York and make a conscious effort to get herself set up with better blind dates.
She shivered, suddenly realizing how cold it was outside. Warmth from righteous indignation lasted only so long after the fog rolled in. Then she frowned. They were an awfully long way from the coast for fog to be rolling in. Maybe there was a serious storm brewing. The thought of her cheery fireplace in Lord Henry’s house was sounding very nice all of a sudden. Maybe just another few minutes to really get uncomfortable, then she would head back and treat herself to an enormous cup of hot chocolate.
A hound bayed in the distance.
Jessica tripped over a loose stone and barely caught herself before she lost her balance. She straightened and took a shaky breath or two, wondering how stones had suddenly found their way into the garden. She bypassed the stone, then stopped again just as suddenly.
The garden was gone.
Well, the land wasn’t gone, but the nicely tended beds certainly were. Jessica frowned. Could she have been so irritated that she had walked to the edge of Lord Henry’s garden without realizing it? The garden was a great deal bigger than that and she was sure that what had lain beyond it looked nothing like the rocky, poorly tilled bit of soil in front of her.
More hounds bayed. Hounds? She didn’t remember Henry having had hounds. Maybe she had lost herself in the mist and wandered onto a neighbor’s property. A neighbor with dogs that sounded as if they hadn’t been fed in a while. A horn sounded closer to her, mingling with the renewed barking.
The fog began to lift. She could have sworn she heard a faint jingling sound, not the sound of bells, but the sound of metal against metal. She knew she wasn’t imagining the voices, or the renewed horn calls. She realized, with a start, that standing out in the middle of a field with what sounded like a hunting party approaching wasn’t very intelligent. The best thing to do would be to turn around and go back the way she had come. She started to when she caught sight of dogs racing across the field toward her, followed by horsemen.
She was very tempted to stand there and gape. Fortunately some small part of her brain was acting on instinct; she turned and ran almost before she realized she needed to do so to avoid being trampled.
As she fled with her skirts hiked up to her knees, she comforted herself with the knowledge that the mist had been playing tricks on her. She’d wandered farther than she had thought. If she just ran fast enough, she would run right into the house and avoid being doggie dinner. Then she would have Lord Henry find out just who was riding over his fields with big, slobbering hounds and reprimand them politely for scaring the sh—
She shrieked as she felt her feet leave the ground.
Her captor snarled something at one of his companions and was answered with a raucous laugh. Jessica would have tried to sort that out, but she was too busy looking down between her dangling feet and watching the ground fly by. This was almost as unpleasant as being dumped over Archie’s shoulder. Hopefully there wasn’t an army of tourists watching her wretched rescue.
Rescue? What was she thinking, rescue? She’d probably been kidnapped. She had been kidnapped and was being carried who-knew-where to have who-knew-what done to her. She looked around wildly only to find filthy, cloak-begarbed men riding with their attentions fixed on whatever the hounds were chasing.
One thing was for sure: she didn’t see any kind of shiny knight on a white charger heading toward them to defend her abused self.
“It was a stupid idea anyway,” she muttered under her breath as she marshaled her strength to make a bid for freedom. She would just have to take care of herself by herself. She put her hand under her captor’s arm and shoved with all her strength.
“Merde,” he growled.
Jessica’s head snapped up of its own accord. Merde? Well, it was just a good thing her grandmother wasn’t around or the guy would have found his mouth washed out with whatever cleansing agent was handy.
The men started yelling at each other again and this time Jessica listened more intently. Yes, it was French, but it was the wackiest accent she’d ever heard. She’d spent a year after college wandering through France—and apologizing to her grandmother’s relatives for her grandfather’s having married and carted said grandmother off to the States after the war—and during those travels she had done a great deal to improve her knowledge of the language her grandmother had so diligently taught her. But in none of her groveling visits had she heard French spoken quite like it was being spoken now.
The horse came to an abrupt halt and Jessica almost sighed in relief. Now she could apply herself to the task of getting down and getting away.
Her relief was short-lived. Before she could move, she was grasped ungently around the waist and plopped down sideways over the front edge of a high saddle, leaving one leg over the horse’s withers and the other leg over a man’s thighs.
And it was at that precise moment that she knew something was terribly, dreadfully wrong.
Never mind that she’d somehow lost the manor house in the mist. Never mind that the men around her were speaking some strange French dialect in the midst of the English countryside. No, what really bothered her was that the saddle horn she was holding between her thighs looked uncomfortably like those medieval ones she’d seen in Henry’s castle. Just who the heck would have swiped something like that? The thug who held her captive? She didn’t want to take a look at him, but she knew she’d have to do it sooner or later. No time like the present to determine the direness of her straits.
She took a deep breath and looked up.
Whatever breath she’d been holding, she lost immediately.
He was, and she had to swallow very hard to keep from choking, the most terribly beautiful man she had ever seen. He had a long, wicked scar that traveled from his temple down his cheek to the side of his chin and below his jaw. Somehow, though, it just didn’t detract from his handsomeness, dark though that was. His face was all planes and angles, harsh even in the deepening gloom. His hair was dark and his eyes were full of cynicism.
Before she could wonder about that, she felt herself jerked backward off the horse thanks to a hand in her hair. She couldn’t have said how, but somehow the man holding her managed to keep her in his arms and dismount, all without missing a beat. Jessica grabbed her hair close to her head and held on, trying to spare herself any more pain. She was set on her feet and then there was the distinct sound of fist against flesh.
She looked up in time to see a mounted man jerk back upright with a curse. As he was holding a very bloody nose, she could only assume he’d been the one to grab her hair—and the one to receive his just deserts for doing so.
He had light hair and a very unpleasant face. That face, behind his bloodied nose, of course, was scrunched up in anger and he was shouting something at her rescuer. Jessica decided right then that this was a man she had no desire to get to know any better, especially when he let go of his nose long enough to draw a sword and brandish it. He swung it around his head, but he did so in a manner that made him look less than sober.
Jessica felt her mouth slip open. Either she was dreaming or her blood sugar had just taken a decided dip south. She watched the man on the horse wave his sword around as if he meant to do business with it, then she realized something else.
The man she was standing next to hadn’t bothered to respond in kind. He had a sword. She knew that because the hilt was digging into her side. That her rescuer—and by now she certainly preferred to think of him as such, if the alternative was casting her lot with the nasty-looking sword wielder—was even wearing a sword was enough to make her want to sit down until she could sort things out properly.
She pondered that for a moment or two, then realized that her non-sword-drawing acquaintance was speaking and by nothing more than the tone of his voice he made it clear that being in his sights was a very unhappy place to be. Jessica decided right then that confrontation would be her last resort. Maybe she could make off with his horse while his attention was elsewhere. She eased behind him. No sense in not using him as a shield while she could.
Jessica looked around his shoulder at the man who still sat astride his horse, his flashing broadsword uplifted. That one seemed to make a decision of some kind. He shoved his sword back into his scabbard and jabbed his heels into his horse’s side. The beast cried out and jumped forward. The rest of the mounted men thundered past. It was only after the dust had dispersed that Jessica realized she’d been holding her breath. Then she realized something else.
The man with the iron grip around her wrist had faced down a man approximately the same size who was sitting on a horse with a drawn sword, yet he had come out the winner apparently using only words as his weapon.
He turned and looked down at her. Smiling in the face of that grim mask was more than she could manage. But words weren’t beyond her.
“Thank you,” she said, and it came out a croak. “I think.”
He shrugged, apparently noting her apology and then dismissing it. He put his hands on her waist and Jessica jerked back in surprise.
“Let go of me,” she said, struggling to push him away. “I mean it, mister. I appreciate the help, but I’m fine now. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
She gasped in surprise as the man lifted her easily and cast her up onto his saddle. Before she’d even had time to arrange her skirts to sit astride the horse, the man had vaulted up behind her onto the gelding’s rump.
Things were not going the way she’d planned.
But before she could protest, the man reached for the reins, then spurred his horse forward. Jessica clutched the front of the saddle and prayed she would get back to the house in one piece, assuming they were heading back to the house. The sun had definitely set and the twilight was fading quickly; she did her best to calculate where they were going. In that at least she found some relief. It felt like a return to Henry’s house.
Sounds reached her before she could make out shapes. She could hear livestock complaining. There were men shouting and laughing. Other voices were raised, speaking in a language she couldn’t understand. The sounds reminded her of an open market with merchants vocally advertising the excellence of their goods. But these sounds were completely out of place. Lord Henry’s garden was quiet and she certainly didn’t remember the town being this close. Besides, the tourists were long gone by now.
“What in the world did Lord Henry do . . . ah, to . . .” Her voice trailed off as something very large began to materialize from the mist.
No, it wasn’t large, it was enormous.
It was at that moment that she was faced with the overwhelming urge to scream.
It was a castle. It was a castle sitting where Lord Henry’s manor house should have been. In fact, she suspected that it looked a great deal like the castle she had been so ignominiously carried from by Archie not a pair of hours before.
And there, right there where the garden should have been was a drawbridge. A working drawbridge, with men and horses traveling over it and torches lighting their way. Jessica lifted her eyes up walls that were at least three stories high and jerked back when she saw the men walking atop them. Soldiers with helmets that gleamed silver in the light from the moon.
There was, however, no sign of that lovely Victorian mansion she had grown so attached to in such a short time.
Jessica tried to jerk out of the saddle but the man squeezed her between his forearms. She grabbed the reins in front of where his hands were and gave them a substantial tug. The gelding reared and the man swore. Jessica pulled back again, trying to turn the horse around. She dug her heels into his side for good measure. The beast reared again and Jessica released one rein long enough to give her companion a healthy shove. He teetered. Another jerk on the reins and another shove sent him right off the back of the horse. Jessica forced the horse around and slapped her heels against his flanks.
“Go, go!” she shouted. “Allez, you stupid horse!”
Blessed beast, he responded immediately. Jessica gave him his head and let the sharp wind in her face still her panic. She would get out of this just as soon as she could find a road and follow it to a pub. All she had to do was find a phone. Lord Henry would straighten this out.
She heard the shrill whistle and groaned even before she felt the gelding skid to a halt. She went sailing over his head, completely out of control. She knew there was nothing she could do but enjoy the ride. So she did, for the space of a breath or two.
She landed flat on her back and the wind was knocked completely from her. She gave a passing thought to the fact that she hadn’t hit her head on a rock before she concentrated on the fact that she couldn’t breathe. At all.
She tried valiantly to suck in air, truly she did. She kept her eyes open and trained on the stars above her, willing her body to respond. Then her view of the sky was blocked out by a man who planted himself over her with a foot on either side of her body and glared down at her, his chest heaving. It didn’t matter that he was the most ruthlessly beautiful man she’d ever seen. It didn’t even matter that he had a sword belted at his side. Not even his frown or the way his frown emphasized his harsh scar fazed her.
What did bother her, though, was his damned horse, who seemed determined to make up for throwing her by snuffling her hair and drooling on her forehead. The man slapped the horse away and grumbled in apparent disgust.
A man who would love her as much as he loved himself.
Jessica smiled wryly. That’s what she’d wished for, wasn’t it? Yes, and there was also that saying that generally went along with wishing: Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.
Her world began to spin before she could give any more contemplation to the irony of those words.
Richard of Burwyck-on-the-Sea had passed better days than the current one over the course of his score-and-ten years. Yet at the moment he was beginning to wonder if these sorts of miserable days were to be his lot in life from now on. He looked down at the woman senseless on the ground between his feet and added her to the events that had imposed themselves upon him since the sun had risen four days earlier.
The first sign of trouble had been a request from his younger brother, Hugh, asking for aid in the resolving of a fierce dispute. Normally Richard would have sent one of his men to do the like, but he’d been plagued by a nagging impulse to try to repair the breaches in his family wall himself—those walls being rickety at best. Perhaps a wiser man would have left matters be. One of his sisters he had not spoken to since she’d wed ten years earlier, as her husband didn’t care for her family. His other sister and her husband had both died of consumption whilst he was traveling and he had not wanted to make the effort to return home for their burying.
That left him with but two brothers, Hugh and Warren. Hugh had inherited the estate of Richard’s dead sister and her husband, partly because their father had willed it so and partly because ’twas such a miserable place that no one else wanted it. It was only because Hugh was family that Richard had even considered his request. He scowled. Damned family loyalty. He had succumbed to the desire for familial accord as if to a fever, cast aside his better judgment, packed up his gear to travel to Merceham—all for the noble purpose of fostering what family affection he could.
He’d arrived to find Hugh senseless in his bed, apparently overcome by the ample charms of a castle whore. Richard had done the fool a favor by rolling the wench off him. When Richard had learned the whole tale, he wished he’d let Hugh suffocate under that abundant bosom, for the fierce dispute had turned out to be nothing more than a pair of freemen haggling over a hen. Hugh had still been suffering from the aftereffects of too much ale and bosom the next day to offer any decent explanation for why he hadn’t been equal to solving that problem on his own. Richard suspected that Hugh’s purpose had been to make a fool of him.
Richard had not been amused.
He’d indulged his brother’s offer that day for a hunt, not out of a desire for diversion, but rather to see what was left of Merceham. With Hugh as steward of the soil, one never knew. Richard had toyed with the idea of perhaps letting an arrow or two miss their mark on supper and find their way into Hugh’s arse in repayment for his sport at Richard’s expense.
Yet instead of supper, Richard had caught this.
He looked down at the woman and scowled. Well, at least she wasn’t dead, though he suspected she might wish to be with the pain in her head she’d have when she woke. When he’d seen her go flying over Horse’s neck, he’d been certain he would find her crumpled up in the midst of a clutch of rocks. He’d cursed his stupidity the moment the whistle had left his lips, but damn the wench, what else was he to do? Let her ride off with his mount? At least his guard had ridden on ahead and spared themselves the sight of their lord landing ungracefully upon his backside.
He stared down at the horse thief. She was fair enough, he supposed. Indeed, if one were given to judging such things, one might decide that she was bordering on handsome. Her features were well formed and her skin free of any blemish. He was momentarily tempted to check her teeth, then he reminded himself that she was a woman and not a horse.
He had been, perhaps, too long out of polite company.
He turned his attentions to the mystery of her identity. She carried herself like a highborn lady yet spoke the peasant’s English with an accent that not even the lowliest serf could match. She’d also managed to blurt out a few words in his language, but he’d had trouble understanding her there as well. What was he to divine from that?
“You’re to divine nothing, dolt,” he muttered shortly. As if he had time to do anything but finish his business at Merceham and be on his way. Already he’d wasted more time humoring his younger brother than he should have.
And now a helpless woman to care for. He should have let her be trampled. Now he had no choice but to see her to safety.
“Bloody knightly vows,” he grumbled as he ran his hands over her body, checking for broken bones. They never served him save to poke and prod him until he relented and dragged out his rusty chivalry for use upon some soul who likely would have been better off without his aid.
Well, at least the wench had suffered no injury he could find. He slipped one arm under her shoulders, the other under her knees, and lifted her with a grunt. She wasn’t excessively heavy, but she was tall and that made for a somewhat awkward burden. Not that a tall woman troubled him. He was tired of women he had to fold himself in half just to kiss, never mind kissing them while he was bedding them. Taking a tall woman to his bed would likely cure him of the kink in his neck that plagued him.
Not that he was thinking about doing anything akin to that with this wench. He had no idea who she was. She was surely old enough to be someone’s wife or widow. She could have been some nobleman’s daughter with a tongue too shrewish to be borne by a husband.
He sighed. Perhaps he would just take her back to the keep, pack his gear, and be on his way. The thought of leaving a defenseless woman in his brother’s care did not sit well with him, but he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about carrying her back to his hall with him either. Besides, what was she to him? He’d saved her from Hugh’s dogs. She couldn’t ask for more than that.
Richard stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Damn you, Horse, come! You needn’t feel guilty about tossing her.”
Horse trotted up dutifully and bumped Richard’s elbow, as if to grovel a bit more to the woman draped over his master’s arms. Richard cursed his mount fluently for each jar; the last thing he wanted to do was think about the dead weight in his arms. Damnation, the last thing he wanted to do was think at all! How much simpler life had been before word of his father’s death had reached him. There was much to be said for shirking one’s responsibilities under the guise of mercenaryhood. France was lush, Spain was sunny, and Italy was far enough away from England that Richard had almost forgotten his inheritance. He never should have come home. He wanted none of this gloomy England and the ghosts of memories that haunted his hall.
He sidestepped a steaming pile of manure on the drawbridge and held his breath as he carried the woman inside the bailey. Returning to his own keep seemed more appealing by the moment. Burwyck-on-the-Sea would be a good place once he’d finished rebuilding it. The sea breezes continually washed away the stench of daily living, unlike this hellhole Hugh called home.
Richard kicked open the door of the great hall and strode inside. The rushes were a slimy, noisome marsh and he struggled to keep his footing. He carried his burden past the huge fire in the center of the room and blinked at the smokiness of the chamber. The new Burwyck was being built more sensibly, with flues that would carry the smoke outside. His eyes would never burn again.
“Did I give you leave to bring her here?” a voice asked sharply.
Richard slowed to a stop, then slowly turned his head and looked at his younger brother. “I beg your pardon?”
“This is my hall, Richard,” Hugh said. “I say who enters my doors.”
A young man jumped up from the chair next to Hugh and bolted for the stairs. Richard watched his youngest brother, Warren, disappear to the upper floor. At least someone in the family had some sense left to him. A pity the same couldn’t be said about Hugh.
Richard turned and walked to the high table. “You were saying, Hugh?”
Hugh looked at the woman and Richard felt a chill go down his spine in spite of himself. Nay, he would not be leaving this poor woman here, damn her anyway. As if he had time to indulge in any rescues at the moment!
“I saw her first,” Hugh said, his eyes burning with a feverish light. “I think she’s a faery.”
That was the other thing about Hugh: He was what a kinder soul would have deemed mad.
Richard sighed. “She is no faery.”
“She sprang up from a blade of grass,” Hugh said. “I know what she is.”
Hugh crossed himself, made a handful of signs Richard had no desire to determine the purpose of, then spit a glob of mucus over his left shoulder.
Richard tried to clamp his lips shut, but he couldn’t stop the words. “Right shoulder, Hugh,” he said grimly.
“’Tis the right shoulder for faeries.”
Hugh looked as horrified as if he expected the wench to wake and eat him whole. “Is it?”
“I’m sure of it,” Richard said. Damn, he should have remained silent. The very last thing he needed was to start his brother on one of his paths of madness. But the desire to repay Hugh for the journey to Merceham had been stronger than his common sense.
Hugh, Richard decided with finality, was much more tolerable when he was drunk. Fortunately for his people, that was his usual condition.
Hugh spat several times until apparently the effort was too much. Then he sat back and looked at the woman.
“I still think I should keep her,” he insisted.
“Nay. Your first instinct was to leave her to your dogs.”
Hugh dragged his gaze away from Richard’s burden and looked at his brother. “So it was. But I’ve changed my mind.”
“’Tis my land,” Hugh insisted. “I say what happens here.”
“’Tis your land by my good graces,” Richard said.
“I earned this,” Hugh said, starting to shift uncomfortably in his chair. “I earned it—”
“Aye, by kissing Father’s sorry arse before his death and by my not wanting the burden of this hovel after-ward.”
“I don’t need you—”
“You do,” Richard interrupted. “You do indeed, or have you forgotten how life works in this England of ours?”
“I’ve forgotten nothing,” Hugh said, slumping down in his chair and scowling like a child. “And even if I had, I wouldn’t need your help in understanding it.”
“And I say you would, and you do,” Richard said tightly. “Let me remind you how these matters of hospitality proceed. When my liege Henry deigns to grace my hall with his presence, I bow and scrape before him, kiss his hands, offer him the finest of my larder, and see that he is served well at all times by pleasing wenches. And I do this, repeat this with me, Hugh, because he is my liege-lord and I am his vassal.”
Hugh was silent.
“Now,” Richard continued, “though you seem to have difficulty in remembering this, I am your liege-lord. All this”—he cast a sweeping glance about Hugh’s hall—“all this finery you enjoy is because of me. Remember, brother, that all you have, from your randiest mistress to your most insignificant cooking pot, comes from me. And I can take it away in less than a heartbeat.”
Hugh opened his mouth, but Richard gave one brief, sharp shake of his head. “Do not. There are several of my knights who would make finer vassals and care more skillfully for what is mine than you. And if you think I lack the stomach for such a deed, you are sadly mistaken.”
“Father would never forgive you for it,” Hugh muttered.
Richard lost what little patience he had left. Had he ever entertained the thought that he had family he wanted to see?
By the saints, he was a fool.
“Never make the mistake of mentioning him to me again,” Richard said coldly. “He’s dead and rotting in hell where he belongs and you’ll rot alongside him if you push me further this day. Send water for washing to my chamber and edible food if you can find it. And send up a cloak for the woman—one without vermin, if that is possible in this place,” he added as he strode away from the table.
“I saw her first,” Hugh insisted. “I saw the faery first and I’ll have her yet!”
Richard ignored him. He had little patience for Hugh or for his foolish ideas. Richard didn’t believe in faeries, or in the ghosts that supposedly haunted the forests between Merceham and Burwyck-on-the-Sea. He had enough to trouble himself over without worrying about things he could not see and did not believe existed. A pity Hugh could not say the same.
He felt Hugh’s gaze bore into his back as he walked to the stairs, but he ignored that as well. Let Hugh think what he would. Richard had no fear of his brother’s puny rages.
Richard continued upward and almost tripped over his youngest sibling, who was hugging the wall in the turn of the stairs.
“Stop cowering, you fool,” he snapped. “Come open the door for me, then seek out Captain John. I’ve a mind to leave at sunrise.”
“I’m not staying behind, Richard,” Warren warned, running lightly up the stairs before him.
“You’ll do as I tell you.”
“I’m ten-and-six, by God, and I’ll do as I please!”
Richard would have booted his youngest brother in the backside if he hadn’t had an armful of woman hampering him. Yet in truth, he couldn’t blame Warren for wanting to leave. Having passed ten years in the company of their father, Geoffrey, then with Hugh after their father’s death had to have been hell. Richard knew he should have sent for Warren sooner, but he’d had his own demons to wrestle with and no time to see to a child.
He walked into a chamber and laid his burden down gently on the bed.
“Saints, she’s fetching,” Warren breathed. “You don’t want her, do you?”
Richard caught his brother by the back of the tunic and pulled him away. “Nay, and neither do you. We know nothing of her and I’ve a feeling there’s more to her than we suspect. For all we know, she’s someone important. That puts her comfortably out of my reach and yours.”
“Is she a faery, do you think?”
Richard cast his brother a look he hoped would need no words.
Warren gulped, then turned his attentions back to the woman. “You’re right,” he said. “She’s a noblewoman. Look you how she’s dressed.”
Richard put his hand on his brother’s head, turned him toward the door, and gave him a healthy push. “Get you gone and do as I bade you.”
Warren paused at the doorway. “Why didn’t you come for me, Richard?”
Leave it to the child to cut to the heart of the matter without any preparatory banter. Richard felt his guilt rise in his throat. He should at least have found a place for Warren to go foster. Aye he’d been remiss and he felt the fault of that weigh heavily upon him. He looked down at the bed, at the wall, at the window—anywhere but at his brother.
“I’ve had things to do.”
“But you’ve been home three years and nary a word!”
“I’ve been busy.”
Warren was silent for a good long while, long enough for Richard to grow mightily uncomfortable. By the saints, he had been busy. He’d had a keep to rebuild, memories to forget, drink to avoid. He hadn’t had the stomach for the keeping of a youth who likely should have been sent away to foster at some other man’s keep years before now.
A sniff sounded suddenly in the stillness of the room and Richard stiffened. Tears? Nay, not tears! Warren was too old for tears, wasn’t he? Richard suppressed the intense urge to flee.
“Don’t leave me here,” Warren pleaded hoarsely. “I beg you, Richard.” He threw himself suddenly to his knees and groped for Richard’s hand. “I beg you, brother. If you have any mercy . . .”
Richard pulled his hand away immediately. “Nay, I’ll not leave you to rot here. The saints only know I couldn’t last more than a se’nnight. Find John, then pack your gear. We’ll leave at first light.”
Warren leaped to his feet and hugged Richard quickly. He jumped away before Richard even gathered his wits to shake the boy off.
“As you say, my lord!” he exclaimed joyfully. “I’ll see to it all immediately!”
Richard waited until the door banged shut behind him before he looked down at the floor. The imprint of Warren’s knees showed in the rushes; Richard scowled at the sight. Sentiment. What a waste of energy! Nay, he had no time for the like. Sentiment had never served him in the past. The only emotion his father had ever showed him had been by virtue of his fists or a strap. Had there ever been any tenderness in Richard’s soul, it had been beaten from him long ago.
He walked over to the window and threw open the shutters, hoping for fresh night air to clear his head. Instead, he found that it was raining and the rain only magnified the stench of the bailey surrounding the stone keep. But he breathed of it just the same, deeply. Aye, he had little time for sentiment. He had his hall to rebuild. He wanted nothing more than that. A fine hall overlooking the sea where he could be at peace.
He’d spent eighteen years traveling. First it had been as another man’s squire, then as his own man, with men looking to him for leadership. For months on end he’d slept in a different place each night, in a bed when he was lucky, on the ground when he was not. He’d known fear, he’d known hunger, and he’d known lust. And he’d had a bellyful of the lot of them. What he wanted now was to settle down in an orderly, clean keep and let the rest of the world go to the devil. In a year or two he’d take a docile child to bride, get her with child, then send her off to one of his other holdings where she couldn’t trouble him further. He’d have his heir and his peace.
And then, for the first time in thirty years, he would be happy.
His captain called to him from the passageway and Richard turned and walked back to the door. He paused and cast a look at the bed. The woman was handsome enough. And spirited, if her success in ousting him from his place atop his gelding’s rump had been any proof.
But she was certainly no docile child, and that made her the very last thing he could use.
He sighed. He would have to carry her home with him, that much was certain. Perhaps he could spare a moment or two to question her and decide where she belonged. Or he could have Warren see to the task.
Aye, that was most sensible. It would give his youngest sibling something to do and it would keep the woman out of Richard’s way. Already he had wasted more thought on her than he had to spare. He would have her identity discovered then send her on her way.
And then he would turn his full attentions back to his keep, whence they never should have strayed in the first place, damn Hugh to hell.
With a curse he left the chamber.
Jessica woke to the feeling of someone tugging at her clothes. Those maids of Lord Henry’s certainly were diligent, but she really didn’t need to take her clothes off. She could return to oblivion perfectly well with what she had on. And return to it she certainly intended to, only this time she wasn’t going to dive back into that horrible dream. What a nightmare! Hounds hollering, men with swords, castles and horses and whistling. Maybe it was time she stopped indulging in so much chocolate. Who knew what sort of detrimental effect it had on a person’s dreams?
She pushed the offending hands away and tried to burrow more fully into that pretty yellow-and-green floral-print comforter.
“Got to sleep more,” she mumbled. “Terrible dream.”
A low laugh answered her, followed by something that sounded remarkably like, “I’ll give you aught to dream about, wicked creature from the grass.”
Jessica frowned. That was not the voice of Henry’s crisply starched housekeeper.
In the space of a heartbeat Jessica came suddenly and fully awake. It was morning. She recognized that right off because the window at her left was open and a breeze straight from Antarctica was blowing right at her, unimpeded by the rustic shutters. Or maybe she was just cold because her dress had been unlaced to the waist and there was a great deal of flesh exposed.
She looked to her right to find a man standing there in a shirt alone. She looked down. Apparently the arctic breeze was having no effect at all on his condition. It didn’t seem that his inebriation was any impediment either—even though he almost knocked her flat with his breath alone.
Then Jessica looked up and realized she’d seen that nose before.
Either she was still dreaming, or she had just entered the Twilight Zone.
She looked around frantically, but Rod Serling didn’t seem to be popping out from behind any of the ratty tapestries.
Damn. She was in trouble.
Before she had time to contemplate that any further, the snarly, aroused one lunged at her and she had to make a quick roll off the other side of the bed to escape. She would have managed it, too, if he hadn’t snagged another handful of her hair.
“Ouch!” she said, grabbing her hair near the roots to stop the pain. “I really hate that!”
“Ah, but you’ll like what’s to follow,” he said with conviction as he hauled her back toward him.
She tried to reach behind her to deal him some sort of debilitating blow but that only earned her a box on the ears that set her head to ringing like an abused church bell.
One thing was for sure: she’d had better mornings.
The next thing she knew, she was flat on her back, he was straddling her hips, and his hand was coming toward her. She covered her face, already wincing. She’d never been struck before, but she had the feeling she wouldn’t be able to say that much longer.
The blow never came.
The weight of the man was suddenly off her. She opened her eyes in time to see him go flying against the wall. He slumped to the floor, looking dazedly up at whoever had thrown him.
Jessica rolled off the bed before she took the time to do the same. She was halfway to the door before she allowed herself to look at who had rescued her.
It was him. The horse-whistling one. So maybe it wasn’t a dream after all. Either that or she was stuck inside her dream, trapped forever with characters she had no desire to get to know any better.
She hesitated, her hand on the door, and watched her rescuer haul the man who had woken her up so warmly to his feet. He dealt him one blow. Her attacker slumped back down to the floor, senseless.
Then the man turned and looked at her. His expression was no lighter than it had been the night before. In fact, it was, if possible, even more displeased.
“You,” he said distinctly, “are, I am quite certain, going to be more trouble than you are worth.”
There went that wacky accent again. Fortunately, by the disgruntled tone of his voice, she had little trouble understanding the gist of his message.
Then she realized what he’d said and scowled. Well, at least she knew where she stood with her captor/rescuer. Very freeing, truly. Jessica gave him her best attempt at a smile.
“I appreciate the rescue. You were rescuing me, weren’t you?”
His expression darkened. Ah, no sense of humor. Jessica made a mental note to remember that in the future, should she find herself unfortunate enough to encounter the man before her again.
She realized then that the front of her dress was still gaping open, so she gave the laces a firm tug, tied the ends of the strings into a double bow, and rubbed her hands together expectantly.
“I’ll be off now,” she said briskly, as if she really did have to be going. “Things to do, you know.”
“And where is it you’ll be traveling to, mistress?”
She paused. “Home?”
“And that would be—nay,” he said, holding up his hand, “I’ve no time to hear of it. Come with me. You’ll tell my brother Warren your tale. He’ll have more stomach for it than I will, I’m sure.”
Right. As if she would really go heaven-knew-where with him just like that. She put her shoulders back and tried to look confident.
“I think I’ll stay, thank you just the same.”
The man looked at her less-than-pleasant alarm clock still in a heap on the floor, then back at her.
“All right,” she conceded, “I probably won’t be staying right here, but that doesn’t mean I’m going with you. There’s got to be a road nearby. I’ll just find it and start walking.”
“Then, lady, you will be walking a very long time, for there is little here about that you would find to your liking.” And with that, he turned and strode from the room.
Well, that didn’t sound all that promising, but who was to say that he was telling her the truth? She would just have to see things for herself. And if he was right about the distances, she would just have to borrow a horse.
Jessica scrambled to catch up with him. She trailed after him down the stairs, doing her best to negotiate the tight circular staircase. It reminded her sharply of how difficult Lord Henry’s castle stairs were to descend, only these were certainly better preserved. There were no grooves in the stone from hundreds of years of feet tramping up and down them.
She paused on the last step, stunned by the realization.
The stairs were in perfect condition.