Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR LYNN KURLAND
“Clearly one of romance’s finest writers.”
—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
Table of Contents
The author gratefully and with proper auntlike pride acknowledges the aid of Jana Clara Gardner, a paragon of little girldom, a former toddler of unparalleled cuteness and intelligence, who taught the author most of what she knows about three year olds.
The author is also quite grateful that Jana forgave her for cutting off her “long, pwetty bwown hay-uh,” something the author’s husband has yet to do.
And lastly, but by no means leastly, a hearty thanks must go to the author’s husband who was, despite his insistence on referring to Margaret of Falconberg’s minstrel as “Bardric the Bald,” a veritable font of poetic inspiration.
THE HIGHLANDS, SCOTLAND
THE HORSE SCRUNCHED UP HIS NOSE, TOSSED HIS HEAD IN obvious discomfort, and then sneezed.
Alexander Smith opened his mouth to curse, then realized the precariousness of his situation. He grasped the top edge of the stall door and very deliberately clamped his lips shut. He blinked furiously to clear his eyes of a substance he didn’t want to examine too closely.
He should have stayed in bed.
He’d known that, of course, from the moment he’d woken. His first clue had been the sound of rain on the roof—day fifty-six of the Scottish deluge. His next warning had been shivering through a cold shower, courtesy of his younger brother. The final straw had been counting on a breakfast of sausage, eggs, and fried potatoes only to find nothing but dangerously aged cottage cheese and on-the-verge-of-turning-green bread in the fridge. By the grease stains on his brother’s chin, Alex had known immediately where to lay the blame.
And now this.
He looked down at his snotty shirt and wondered just how long it would take for it to crust over so he wouldn’t drip all over the house.
His horse, looking much more comfortable and rather contrite, bumped him companionably with his nose.
“Beast, Beast,” Alex said, carefully dragging his sleeve across his mouth, “do you really think I can go out looking like this? What if we run into some beautiful Scottish girl? What kind of impression are we going to make?”
Beast ducked his head in obvious shame.
Alex grunted. “That’s right. Well, have a nice day. I’m sure you will, now you can breathe again. I’m going back to bed.”
It seemed the safest alternative.
He wiped his face with a patch of clean shirttail, then left the stables and walked across the courtyard. The castle rose up before him, an impenetrable wall of gray stone relieved only by a few windows on the second floor. His brother-in-law Jamie had spent a fortune seeing the keep restored and the results were chilling. Alex could almost see medieval Scottish clansmen bursting out the front door in their plaids, brandishing their swords and screaming like banshees.
Alex entered the hall and pulled the door shut behind him with a bang. Once his eyes adjusted to the interior light, he saw his younger brother sitting in front of the hearth, warming his toes by the fire. Alex marched across the great hall, prepared to give the runt a second installment in the berating he’d given him earlier. He didn’t want another Saturday starting out like this—sans hot water and saturated fat.
Zachary glanced up from his book, took one look at Alex, and started to laugh.
“Gggrrrr,” Alex said, wondering if strangling his brother would be half as satisfying as just contemplating it was.
“Good grief,” Zachary gasped out between guffaws. “What’d you have—an encounter with the Blob?”
Alex gritted his teeth. “How’d you like to have an encounter with my fists?”
“Eeuw,” Zachary said with a shudder. “Maybe after you clean up.”
“As if I could,” Alex growled.
“What’s your problem? I had plenty of hot water.”
Zachary only blinked innocently. Then he rubbed his disgustingly well-fed belly. “There’s nothing left in the fridge, you know,” he said.
“And whose fault do you think that is?” Alex demanded.
Zach sighed again, the mournful sigh of a man left home alone with nothing to graze upon. “Man, I hate it when Jamie and Elizabeth go out of town. The least they could have done was leave Patrick or Joshua behind. Josh makes great desserts.” He looked at Alex narrowly. “Why’d I get stuck with just you? You won’t even keep the fridge stocked.”
Alex relived briefly in his mind some of the more choice experiences he’d had pummeling his baby brother. His irritation momentarily soothed by those warm and fuzzy memories, he managed to speak very calmly. “And what’s wrong with you that you can’t go to the store?”
Zach settled himself more comfortably into his chair and moved his toes closer to the fire. “I’m too busy. You go instead. And get something good. None of that health food garbage.”
Alex mentally counted to ten. When that didn’t work, he set his sights on a larger number.
“Oh, and Alex? I’d go shower first if I were you.” He looked at Alex and started to grin again. “Really. I think it would be the right thing to do.”
Alex wanted more than anything to wring his brother’s neck in payment for ruining his Saturday morning and to stop the brat’s giggles. Unfortunately, his shirt was beginning to crust over and he was starting to itch.
“I’ll go to the store later,” he growled, contenting himself with giving Zachary a murderous look and a smart cuff to the ear on his way to the stairs. With any luck there would be hot water by now.
He rummaged around in the armoire for clean clothes, then headed for his bathroom. He was just reaching into the shower for the taps when the phone started to ring. He ignored it and turned on the water. He hesitantly put his fingers under the spray and smiled in faint surprise at the increasingly warm temperature. Maybe things were starting to look up.
He started to strip when he realized he had no towel. He had a vague memory of having flung it into the hamper in disgust after his earlier foray into chilly waters. After turning off the shower to conserve what precious hot water there was, he opened the bathroom door only to hear the phone still ringing. Alex growled in frustration.
“Zach, get the phone!” he yelled.
The phone continued to ring. Alex cursed as he gingerly rebuttoned his shirt, then made his way into his brother-in-law’s study.
“What?” he barked into the receiver.
“Nice to talk to you, too, buddy,” a male voice said with a laugh. “All that lovely Scottish scenery getting to you?”
Alex rolled his eyes heavenward. His day had just taken a decided turn for the worse. “Tony, what do you want?”
“What, no chitchat?”
“Not with you, thanks anyway.”
“How’s Elizabeth?” Tony continued. “The baby? Your barbarian brother-in-law?”
“My sister’s fine, her baby is fine, and Jamie is fine. Now what the hell do you want?”
“Well, since you asked,” Tony said with a strained laugh, “I’ll get right to it. We need your services.”
Leave it to Tony not to mince words. Alex took a deep breath.
“Tony, I quit eight months ago. I haven’t changed my mind.”
“But you haven’t heard the deal on this one, my friend.”
“I don’t want to hear.”
Tony made a sound of impatience. “It’s the sweetest takeover I’ve ever seen. Smooth, easy. They’ll never see it coming. I’ve already got controlling interest. I just need you to come in and close the deal. It will make you richer than your wildest dreams.”
“I’m already richer than my wildest dreams, Tony.”
“You can always use more—”
“No. Don’t call me again.”
“Don’t.” Alex hung up the phone.
He leaned back and let out his breath slowly. Was it possible he had ever enjoyed any of this?
Unfortunately, he could remember all too well just how enjoyable it had been. And he remembered just as clearly how it had all started. Anthony DiSalvio had hired him fresh out of law school, when Alex had still been green and full of chivalry. He’d become a lawyer to save the world from injustice. And then Tony, a senior partner, had come to him with a special assignment. Alex had been flattered beyond belief. A little corporate raiding, a takeover done by the book; it had been a rush. He’d saved all the little guys by getting rid of the big bad guys.
He’d been a smashing success.
It had gone to his head.
He’d woken up seven years later. It had taken his sister’s mysterious disappearance to make him take a good hard look at what he was doing with his own life; he hadn’t liked what he’d seen. He had become a pirate—a very rich pirate, but a pirate nonetheless. The little guys had become lost in the shuffle. Alex had raided just for the sheer sport of it, and for the money. He’d started out to save the world from injustice; instead he’d wound up being the cause of more injustice than he cared to think about.
So he’d walked away. Far away from New York and London and all the places where he’d hoisted the skull and crossbones. Leave it to Tony not to take his blunt and offensive resignation seriously.
“I need a change of scenery,” he said to the contents of Jamie’s study. “To somewhere sunny, like the Bahamas.”
Maybe Jamie had a few travel books on the shelf above his desk. Alex put off his shower a few minutes more in deference to Jamie’s private library. Surely there was some destination detailed there that would interest him. He had the time for a vacation. He certainly had the need for one.
He ran a finger along the spine of each book above Jamie’s desk, mentally checking off the ones he’d read.
Then he stopped.
Trails Through Time. Now, this was a new one. Alex pulled the book down and opened it. He read the inside jacket. “In Trails Through Time author Stephen McAfee takes the reader on a marvelous journey down roads in Britain, from Roman times to the present day.”
Interesting. Alex flipped through the pages, then stopped when something slipped out and landed on the desk with a soft plop. Alex put the book aside and reached for the folded piece of paper. It was very worn, as if it had been folded and unfolded dozens of times. He gingerly straightened it out, then looked at it in astonishment. It was a treasure map. Considering the day he was having, he was fairly impressed with his ability to recognize that.
Not that he should have been surprised. He’d been an Eagle Scout, after all, and one famous for his mapmaking skills. Add to that the board and plunder skills he’d acquired after law school and he had the piracy category all sewn up. This was, however, one of the oddest maps Alex had ever seen in his long and illustrious career.
There were the normal things, of course: requisite directional arrows, landmarks aplenty. In fact, the landmarks looked suspiciously like the surrounding countryside. Yes, Jamie’s mountains were there to the north. The castle sat prominently in the middle of the map, with the meadow below it due south. There was the forest to the west and another part of forest to the south. And that squiggle over there had to be the stream that fed into the pond not far from the garden. Alex stared at it for several minutes wondering what looked so strange.
Then it hit him.
There wasn’t just one X marking the spot. There were several.
To another man, such a flagrant disregard for treasure-mapmaking standards might have only indicated slight befuddlement on the part of the mapmaker. But Alex wasn’t just another man. And the mapmaker was his brother-in-law, James MacLeod. And Jamie wasn’t befuddled, he was an honest-to-goodness, former mediev—
Alex put on the mental brakes before he traveled any further down that well-worn path. Traveling down any path Jamie was associated with was hazardous to one’s health. Maybe Jamie had just been scribbling in his spare time.
Unfortunately, those didn’t look like scribbles. Alex looked at the map again and frowned at what was very deliberately scrawled next to the X’s in Jamie’s bold handwriting.
17th Century Barbados.
It couldn’t mean what he thought it meant. The map was just Jamie’s doodles. People didn’t just walk over certain spots in the ground and up and disappear.
Though Barbados didn’t sound too bad at the moment. At least it would be sunny there. And look, there it was, due north of Medieval England. Alex left the map sitting prominently on top of the book where Jamie couldn’t help but notice that Alex had seen it. He would realize he’d been caught, and Alex would enjoy the opportunity to give Jamie a thorough ribbing. Heaven knew he deserved it.
Could it be true? Alex turned the possibility over in his mind. Barbados at least would be a pleasant change of scenery. What could it hurt to just go have a look and indulge in the fantasy for an hour or so? He had a great imagination. He could hang out under a tree and pretend he was loitering on some sunny beach. Maybe he’d even pretend he’d traveled there, just to see if he could rattle Jamie. Yes, the morning was starting to shape up nicely.
Alex left the study, grabbed his coat, and headed downstairs. He was still covered with horse snot, but there was no sense in getting cleaned up now. He wouldn’t need his shirt much longer because he’d be sunning himself on a nice beach, watching bikini-clad women strut their stuff in front of him—or at least pretending to do so. Given the fact that he hadn’t seen blue Scottish sky in weeks, Barbados was starting to sound mighty nice.
If there just wasn’t that disconcerting seventeenth-century business attached.
Alex plowed into his brother at the bottom of the steps.
“Hey,” Zachary said, annoyed, “watch it. You’re going to get me dirty and I have a date.”
Alex steadied himself with a hand on the wall. Zachary had a date? Alex hadn’t had a date in eight months, and he was the owner of a huge portfolio and worked out every day to keep his body from turning to fat. Zachary was a semi-starving former student who ate junk food in front of the television and grew things on paper plates under his bed. How was this possible?
“With whom?” Alex asked, stunned.
Zachary smirked. “Fiona MacAllister.”
Alex reeled like a drunken man.
“Fiona?” he gasped.
“Yeah,” Zachary said with a shrug. “You snooze, you lose, bro. And I wasn’t snoozing. I gotta go get cleaned up.” He gave Alex’s crusty shirt a pointed look before he mounted the stairs and disappeared out of sight.
Alex shook his head. Fiona MacAllister was the grocer’s daughter. Alex had been planning to ask her out for weeks. He’d just been waiting until he thought she might be used to him. After all, he was a rich and powerful former corporate raider, and he hadn’t wanted her to want him just for his money.
Alex pushed away from the wall. There was something very wrong in the world when his brother could get a girl to go out with him and he couldn’t.
He made one last detour to the kitchen on the off chance that some undiscovered cache of junk food was hiding there. He rummaged through the pantry and found his secret box of Ding-Dongs still safely hiding behind a container of oatmeal and a bag of rice. It was a good thing Zachary never came close to anything resembling a raw ingredient. Alex indulged himself immediately and tucked a second snack into his coat pocket. One never knew what one might find for dinner on the beach. No sense in not being prepared.
He shut the hall door behind him and put on his coat. As he walked across the courtyard to the stables, the rain increased with every step he took. It wasn’t a good sign, but he ignored it. Within minutes he had Beast saddled and was heading out the front gate.
He turned back to the north to look at the mountains behind the estate, with their last dustings of snow. Spring was right around the corner. He could smell it. He followed his nose as it pointed him to the west where a little stream ran into the pond which sat serenely next to the garden. Jamie had certainly done a good job reproducing that stream on the map. And there lay Barbados just past Medieval England on the other side of the pond.
Alex felt an uncomfortable tingle in the air and frowned. He could believe anything of the forest on the other side of the keep, but this bit of ground in front of him? There were no gateways to the past lurking under those boughs. Maybe his sister Elizabeth was just using the map for one of the romance novels she wrote.
Alex urged his horse forward, wondering as he did so just what he thought he was doing out in the rain on a horse who had a cold, following directions on a map made by his lunatic brother-in-law. He was losing it. It was the only answer. His breakfast of fermented cottage cheese had obviously had adverse effects on his common sense. Even the thought of mentally spending a morning in Barbados was starting to sound unappealing. He would probably be better off calling a travel agent.
But he had already come this far; there was no sense in turning back now. He continued on his way under the boughs of the rowan trees. The silence was palpable. A chill went down his spine. Alex pulled his collar closer to his neck and gave himself a hard mental shake.
All the same, he wondered just how Jamie had discovered all that business about those little gates.
Probably better not to know.
The trees thinned and suddenly gave way to an intimate little glade. The forest floor was carpeted with moss and clover and a large circle of plants. Elizabeth called it a faery ring. Alex looked narrowly at it. Was this the gate? Was it possible? He shook his head. It just couldn’t be anything more than a very simple ring in the grass.
Alex pulled out his spare infusion of chocolate and lard and munched thoughtfully. He’d traveled back to the fifteenth century through Jamie’s forest, but he didn’t remember having felt this kind of tingle in the air. Though at the time he’d been too worried about keeping his head on top of his neck to think much about the mechanics of the process.
Alex looked at the silver ball of foil in his hand and smiled faintly. It could be his version of the breadcrumb trail. He dropped it outside the ring, then patted his gelding’s neck.
“Well, Beast, we’re here so we may as well give this a try. We’ll sit here for a few minutes, pretend we’ve hiked on over to blue ocean and white sands, then we’ll go home and see what we can do about putting Zach out of commission. I’ll run to the market myself and take some action on this thing. Maybe Fiona just needs to know I’m interested. And if by some miracle we wind up on the beach, maybe Jamie will see our Ding-Dong trail and come get us. But not right away,” he added, nudging Beast forward until they were standing in the middle of the circle. “I could really use a dose of sunlight.”
Something whistled past his ear and Beast reared. Alex fought to stay mounted but it was a hopeless battle. He crashed to the ground, feeling a sharp pain in the back of his head. Then he saw stars, lots of them. He gritted his teeth as he struggled to stay conscious. He should have told Zach where he was going. Well, at least his brother would eventually realize Beast was gone. Maybe the brat would have the good sense to come after him before he drowned in the rain.
Through the haze that clouded his vision, he could have sworn he saw an arrow quivering in a tree above him.
This was not a good sign.
He felt the definite nudge of a foot in his side. A booted foot. A very ungentle foot.
He tried to focus, but the pain in his head was blinding. Then he felt cold steel press against his neck. Now he knew he was losing it.
“You trespass on my lands,” a husky voice snarled. “Give me your name and your business.”
Alex blinked against the rain that had suddenly started up again with renewed vigor. All right, so some yahoo had wandered onto Jamie’s estate and had decided to rob him. If he could just buy time enough to let his head clear, he could deal with this. He started to sit up, then got help. He was hauled into a sitting position by the front of his jacket and he groaned involuntarily at the agony the motion sent flooding to his brain.
“Just a minute,” he said. He put his hand on his attacker’s shoulder to steady himself and forced his eyes to focus.
Big, brown eyes stared back at him from the shelter of a chain-mail coif.
A chain-mail coif?
Alex took in the rest of the boy’s outfit. He was sporting chain mail head to toe, topped by a surcoat, leather cross-garters over boots, and crude leather gloves. One gloved hand currently gripped a sword. Alex looked back at the young man’s face. It was a face far too beautiful to have been wasted on a boy. Maybe the kid got teased a lot.
“Your name, you fool!” the boy demanded.
It was then that Alex realized fully that something was dreadfully wrong. He was still cold, there were still trees around him—but he was being shaken by what looked to be a knight in full battle gear.
“Hey,” he said, “I was heading for Barbados!”
“If that is your word for hell, then indeed that is where you will be going if you do not answer me!” the young knight said angrily. “Must I cut your name and business from you?”
Alex was too stunned to answer. Damn it, he’d wandered straight into Medieval England!
“Just let me sit here for a minute, okay?” Alex said. “And stop shaking me!”
The knight shook him again anyway. “I should slit your throat to save myself the trouble of having you on my land.”
Alex watched the boy lift his sword to do that, when from the trees behind the knight there came the sound of merry whistling. His captor released him so quickly that he fell back again, smacking his head smartly against the ground.
“Count yourself fortunate you are so near the border,” the young man snarled, “else I would slay you and not be sorry.”
Alex was vaguely aware of the knight leaving the clearing. He stared up at the sky and let the rain fall on him unimpeded. Well, at least it might eventually soak his shirt enough to get it clean. No sense in time traveling when he was looking less than his best.
His horse ambled over and nudged him with his nose.
“This is all your fault, Beast,” Alex said. “If you hadn’t had a cold, I never would have gone into the house and never would have found that damned map.” Alex tried to sit up, but it was just too much effort. “Just a few more minutes,” he promised himself. “I’ll lie here for a few more minutes.”
He frowned as the singing came closer. This bozo couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. The singing stopped abruptly to be replaced by a gasp. Alex heard the snorting of another horse and the jingle of spurs. Alex stared up at the sky until the gray was blocked by the sight of another man in chain mail.
“This is merely hypoglycemic trauma brought on by lack of junk food,” Alex said firmly, closing his eyes. “I need Twinkies. I need Moon Pies.” He groaned. “Damn it, Jamie, I’ll get you for this!”
“My lord, allow me to assist you.”
“Go away,” Alex said crossly. “And stop singing. You suck.”
Soft laughter greeted his ears. “Good sir, you’ve had a fall that has addled your wits.” The scrape of metal and creak of leather preceded a firm hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Can you sit?”
“The question is, do I want to? And the answer is no.”
“You certain do not wish to remain here. We are too near Margaret of Falconberg’s land. Very fortunate are you that she hasn’t sent one of her men to slay you already.”
Alex was torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry. Damn it, why hadn’t Jamie locked that map up? Or at least put some kind of decent warning on it? Alex decided that when he managed to make his way back to 1998, he would strangle his brother-in-law and enjoy every minute of it.
With a heavy sigh he opened his eyes and looked up. “Who the hell are you?”
The man’s smile deepened into a grin. “Edward of Brackwald, at your service. Be you thankful I am so even-tempered, else your insults would have forced me to challenge you.” His grin didn’t fade. “Fortunately for you, I committed adultery with the countess of Devonshire a se’nnight past. My penance was to do a good turn for one in need.”
Alex sat up with a groan and gingerly touched the back of his head. “If ever there were a man in need, it’s me.” He looked at Edward of Brackwald and winced. Chain mail. A surcoat. Cross-garters covering hose and boots. Alex sighed. “Let me guess. England, right?”
“Ah, you’re one of King Richard’s lads, eh?” Edward said with a soft laugh. “No Saxony or Normandy for you and your kind. Though I daresay you speak English with the lack of skill only a Norman could boast of.”
“My French is even worse,” Alex sighed. He rubbed the back of his neck with his fingers, grimacing at the pull. “Well, the scribbles didn’t lie. Twelfth-century England. Jamie did this one up right.”
“Who is Jamie?”
“My brother-in-law. It’s a very long story.”
“I have nothing but time on my hands. Let us return to my brother’s hall. I can see by the condition of your garments that you’ve been traveling for quite some time.”
Alex didn’t bother to correct him. “I’d really love to, but I need to be getting home.” He closed his eyes and conjured up an image of Jamie’s keep.
No, that wasn’t working. All he could imagine was his fingers around his brother-in-law’s throat. Satisfying, but not very positive. He turned his thoughts to his car, but all he could see was it wrapped around a tree with Zachary standing next to it looking sheepish.
’Tis my experience that a body cannot come home until his task in the past is finished.
Jamie’s words hit Alex with the force of a wrecking ball, and he gasped in spite of himself. If what Jamie had said was true, the ramifications were startling.
First, he might not be able to get home until he’d done what he was supposed to do in medieval England.
Second, Jamie had been doing more research on the subject than was good for him.
Either way, Alex knew he was doomed.
“I think I would appreciate some help. For the moment,” he said, as a reminder to himself. He’d get rid of his headache, then he’d go home and kill Jamie.
“What is your name, my lord?”
Alex smiled. “Of Seattle, originally.” Maybe it was just as well he didn’t admit to any Scottish connections for the moment.
“Ah,” Edward said wisely. “From the continent, I assume. Very well, then. Let us speak French. That will soothe my brother. He’s of a mind that the English tongue should be executed along with its Saxon speakers.”
Then he launched into a long, drawn out tale only a portion of which Alex caught. He might have been fluent in Gaelic and fairly respectable in Old English, but his French was so poor as to be almost nonexistent. Too bad he hadn’t landed in ancient Rome. His Latin was excellent. Next time he would head over to that X. Damn, but he’d really wanted to wind up in Barbados. If he’d known the map was accurate, he would have worked a little harder at following it. White beaches, naked women, tasty rum. Why hadn’t he headed north instead of south?
“Sir Alex? Or should I call you lord? Is your father a nobleman?”
Alex had the distinct feeling Edward wouldn’t understand if he learned Robert Smith was a pediatrician. Best not to explain. Indulging in delusions of grandeur couldn’t hurt, could it?
“My father is a very important man in, ah, Seattle.”
“Ah, a nobleman. Then you are a knight?”
“Um, sure,” Alex lied. No sense in labeling himself as a serf from the start.
Edward looked at Alex’s feet. “But where are your spurs, Sir Alex? And your sword? By the saints, have you been robbed?”
“Well, not exactly. I sort of left them at home.”
“Ah,” Edward said, “I see. A dangerous way to travel, to be sure, but each man must act as he sees fit. Let us away to Brackwald and perhaps other gear can be found for you there.”
“Sounds good to me,” Alex said as he accepted Edward’s hand up. He heaved himself up into the saddle and gritted his teeth at the flare of pain in his skull. Edward started babbling again in French.
“Not so fast,” Alex begged. “My French is very poor.”
“How can that be,” Edward asked, “if your kin are from the continent?”
“I’ve been traveling most of my life.”
Edward’s ready smile was back. “Of course, Sir Alex.”
Alex followed Edward’s lead and poured all his energies into staying conscious. He was stuck and Jamie was responsible. Medieval England. Of all places.
Well, maybe it wasn’t a complete loss. He’d hang around for a few days, soak up some culture and then head back to the faery ring. He would blink a couple of times, mumble a few old Celtic names as a spell, then be home. Jamie probably was just theorizing about that whole task in the past business. Damn him and his Scottish philosophizing. Alex pushed thoughts of bodily harm out of his mind and concentrated on his return. Maybe he’d manage to get home in time to head off Zachary before he went on his date with Fiona.
He felt himself begin to slip from the saddle, but found he didn’t have the energy to do anything but go with it. He landed in the mud with a bone-jarring thump.
As his last coherent thought flashed across his brain, it occurred to him that Jamie and Elizabeth had been coming home after long weekends looking quite tanned. Alex had the feeling he knew just where they’d been going on their little overnighters.
And here he was in soggy old England.
Damn them both!
MARGARET OF FALCONBERG STOOD ALONE ON THE BATTLEMENTS and looked out over the countryside before her. She stood perfectly still in spite of the cold—and the fear she refused to acknowledge.
As far as she could see was the land her grandfather had claimed for his own. Her father had then held it in turn, adding to it with his skill and wits. Now, despite how any number of men might view things, it was all hers, to hold or lose. And hold it she would, or die in the attempt.
She shielded her eyes against the setting sun. The view might have been pleasing at another time. Even tonight it might have been a fair sunset had it not been for the smoke from fires which obscured the evening sky. Damn Brackwald! He grew bolder with each passing week. A fortnight earlier he had stolen a quarter of her herd. The sheep had been recovered but at a cost. The animals had been sent back intact, herded by sheared, naked knights. The five men had been so humiliated, she had released them early from their yearly turn of service to her.
And now the peasant huts. Only two of them, but even that simple act had displaced two families. Nine people who had been given temporary shelter in the keep. It was just another in a long line of injustices wrought upon her and her people.
Perhaps what was most insulting was that Ralf of Brackwald did not simply come at her openly. That she could have borne. Indeed, she could have retaliated with an offensive that would have made the king himself take notice. But Brackwald didn’t intend to lay siege to her holdings. He’d made it painfully clear that he found her too unworthy an opponent to do the like. Nay, petty thievery and thinly veiled insults were what he thought she deserved. He thought to wear her down, belittle her so much and for so long that she finally broke down and threw herself, weeping, at his feet to pray for his mercy.
“Bastard whoreson,” she muttered under her breath. She would never give him the satisfaction of seeing her cower. She might have been born a woman, but she had the courage and stamina of a man. Neither her father nor her brothers would have given in to Brackwald; she wouldn’t, either.
At least the fires were beginning to die out. There would be more. Brackwald wouldn’t stop until he had all her lands and the very mail off her back. She lifted her eyes and shook her fist toward the east, where Brackwald lay. Let him try. He would find out that the last of the Falconbergs was not the least by any means.
Margaret turned to find her garrison captain standing some ten paces from her. His weathered face sported a crusty frown. Margaret sighed silently at the sight. What new havoc had Brackwald wreaked?
“Aye?” she asked.
“The peasants have been settled and men sent to reconstruct their homes. A score more sheep were lost and a field looted. This was pinned to a tree with an arrow.”
Margaret took the missive and struggled by the last light of day to make out the words she already knew would damn her.
Spare yourself and your people while you still can. A woman is not capable of standing against a man; something your father should have taught you. I have been gentle in the past, out of respect for your gender. I will be gentle no longer. A month is all the time you have to resign yourself to your fate. At that time I will expect to see you open your gates and meet me, dressed properly. I have spoken to Prince John regarding the matter and he has agreed ’tis well past the time you had a husband to control you. He has agreed I should be that man.
Ralf de Brackwald
Margaret looked at her captain. “He has gone to John,” she said flatly.
Sir George made a noise akin to a grunt. Margaret wasn’t sure how he did it, but somehow he managed to convey without words his opinion of her and her situation. Unfortunately, she knew exactly what he thought, for he’d told her often enough.
Each time she held a sword in her hands, she knew he would rather she were holding a needle. Each time she planned a stratagem, she knew he thought she ought to limit herself to planning the meals. He believed her place was sitting at a tapestry frame, not a council of war—no matter that he’d watched her learn the arts of warfare right along with her brothers, and no matter that she’d taken over the running of the keep after her brothers, one and all, had perished and her father fallen ill.
But, despite his thoughts, he had never once failed to stand behind her. When her father had died, he’d turned to her without so much as blinking, gone down on one creaking knee and held out his sword hilts to her. To her, a fifteen-year-old girl who had no spurs. She’d never said it, but that act of trust had given her the confidence she’d needed over the years to keep to the path she’d chosen.
And keep to it she would. Because of Sir George’s fealty and in spite of his grunts.
“Bloody hell,” she said, staring out over her fields. “The wretch hasn’t the spine to come against me openly. How dare he go behind my back to the prince!”
George leaned his elbows on the wall next to her. “You’ll have to wed eventually, my girl.”
“Not to him. George, he’d beggar Falconberg inside a year!” She shook her head. “Even if I wanted to wed, which I do not, I would never choose Ralf of Brackwald. By the saints,” she said, slapping her hand down atop the rock wall, “I can hold this keep without a man’s aid!”
George grunted. “Hardly among the skills a chatelaine should possess.”
“But they’re my skills, and I’ve paid dearly for the learning of them.”
He inclined his head just the slightest bit. Margaret knew, because she’d been watching closely enough for it.
“A pity men are too stupid to appreciate my training,” she said tightly, “else they might send me their sons to page.”
George cleared his throat. “We do well enough with what we have. Now, how is it you see yourself escaping from this plight?”
“I’ll stave him off ’til Richard returns.”
“And if the rumors of the king’s return are false?”
Margaret looked over her land and felt the noose begin to tighten about her neck. “Then I’ll beggar Falconberg myself to buy John’s favor. Bribing his henchmen has worked well enough so far. Not a one of them has ever demanded to see my father. If Ralf hadn’t discovered the truth of it himself, I would still have my peace.”
George shook his head slowly. “Lucky you are that both Ralf and John think your sire has only recently passed on. How we’ve managed to keep his death a secret all these years, I don’t know.” He looked at her. “It couldn’t have lasted much longer, Margaret.”
“Then I will find another way,” she said firmly. “I have yet a pair of fortnights to think of a scheme. I must, for I’ve no intentions of wedding with that wretch. If only I hadn’t bested all my potential allies in the lists—”
“My lady, my lady! Come quickly!” A young page stood at the tower door. “He’s begun again, and we’ve had no time to prepare.”
Margaret whirled toward the kitchen lad—nay, the page, she corrected herself. Timothy had seemed a promising enough young boy. The saints knew it wasn’t as though she had that many to choose from. Others would scorn her for whom she trained as pages and squires, but she did what she could with what she had.
“My lady, please!” Timothy called frantically.
Margaret wanted to throw up her hands in despair. First Brackwald, now this. What could the day possibly throw at her more before complete darkness fell?
“Come, George,” Margaret said, with a sigh. “We may as well descend before the hall is littered with piles of thread.”
“I’ll wait here,” George said, clinging to the rock wall like so much stubborn lichen. “Just to save your place,” he added.
“You will not,” she said, grasping him by the elbow and pulling. “If I must go, then so must you.”
“I’ll be of no aid,” George protested.
Margaret glared at him. “If I must endure the rampage that awaits below, then so must everyone else in the keep, including you.”
She thumped down the stairs as quickly as possible, sprinted down the passageway with as much haste as her mail would allow, then descended the final set of circular stairs to the great hall. She pulled up short at the silence there, a silence only broken by George’s huffing as he tromped down the steps behind her.
“Oof,” she muttered as he plowed into her back. She threw out a hand to steady him and to cut off his apology. By the saints, she should have been more attentive. It was obvious by the looks of strain on the faces of those gathered in the great hall that she had indeed come much too late.
Baldric the Bard was atop his small stool, scratching his wrinkled, stubbled cheek. Aye, ’twas a very bad sign indeed.
Margaret started across the hall floor slowly, so as not to bring notice to herself, nor interfere with the bard’s concentration.
He was rubbing his jaw now. By the saints, ’twas an action of evil portent!
“Flower?” she offered as she came to stand near his stool.
He looked down at her with annoyance and gave forth a disdainful huff.
“Sword thrust?” she ventured, watching his expression for any sign of hope.
He shook his head.
Margaret swept the other souls gathered there with a questioning glance. To a man, they looked back at her helplessly.
“My lady,” Timothy whispered up at her, “he begun ’afore we could gather. No warnin’ at all. Just up on his stool, he was, and halfway through ’afores I could blink.”
Baldric looked down at her with a frown. “You missed the start of it,” he announced, sounding rather put out.
Margaret dredged up a look of contrition. “Other concerns kept me, good Baldric.”
“Womanly concerns,” he said with a scowl. “By the sweetest of saints, you women are too troubled by such things!”
She nodded. “Aye, ’tis true. I beg sincere pardon, good sir, for surely ’tis my fault we were not properly gathered before you chose to delight us with another verse or two. Perhaps you would begin again?”
“My heart breaks that I did not hear the beginning of your song.”
“Hmmm,” he said, sounding slightly appeased. “Very well, then.” He cleared his throat, hacked, and then spit over his shoulder into the fire.
Margaret resisted the urge to put her face in her hands and groan. Why one of her brothers hadn’t taken Baldric crusading was a mystery. Not only had she inherited her father’s estates, she’d inherited his minstrel—who was as daft as a duck. He had long since ceased to have any sense. The saints only knew from which font of madness he dredged up his verse forms, for they were like nothing she’d ever heard before. But create such verse he would, if it killed them all to listen to it.
“Ahem,” Baldric repeated, looking at her sharply.
Perhaps he wasn’t as daft as all that, Margaret thought with a wince.
One bright shining morning in June,
Young Margaret her true love did seek.
She roamed over hill and o’er dale,
And in every small stream she did peek.
“Sounds as if you’ve gone bloody fishin’,” George muttered from behind her.
Baldric shot George a look that could have wilted a hardy bloom at fifty paces. Margaret heard her captain grumble something under his breath, then felt him move behind her, out of Baldric’s sights. Margaret couldn’t find fault with that, for she surely wished to do the same thing. By the saints, she had no stomach for listening to lays about her searching for a bloody lover!
Along came a man swathed in black,
Who wielded his sword with great skill.
He clapped eyes on our wandering lady,
As searched she atop a small hill.
As on yon sweet maiden he gazed,
A smile soon replaced his dark frown.
He said, off with us to a priest!
And our Meg said . . .
“‘I’d sooner drown,’” Margaret muttered.
Baldric harumphed, sounding thoroughly offended.
And our Meg said, I fancy men in brown!
He finished the verse curtly, casting her a withering look.
Margaret struggled to appear contrite, but it was all she could do not to turn tail and flee. Why, by Saint Michael’s gnarled toes, had Baldric chosen this subject for his verse today?
He offered our lady his sword,
And told her to take him by force,
For have her he would or feign perish.
She said, Nay, but I’ll have your horse.
So Margaret rode home with his mount,
And thought the day quite a success,
When home, she fed dear Baldric all the
sweets he loves best for he was a very
Margaret held her breath. Already he was losing his sense of meter. The saints only knew what would come next.
Then she said to herself, I am . . .
I am . . .
Baldric frowned in concentration. The entire group leaned forward in anticipation, as if by their very movement they could inspire him to greatness. Margaret leaned forward as well, willing the old bard to find his last rhyme. There’d be hell to pay otherwise. He scratched his cheek. Then he took to rubbing his chin. When he started to flex his fingers, Margaret knew the time for action had come.
“I am blest,” she said suddenly. “See, Baldric, there it is. Well done.”
“That wasn’t what I wanted,” he growled. “It doesn’t rhyme.”
“Oh, but it does. Try it, my friend, and see.”
He scowled at her, then turned his attentions inward and muttered under his breath for several moments, seemingly trying on different words to judge their fit. Then he put back his shoulders and said, proudly,
And she said to herself, such largesse!
“Of fine minstrelsy,” he added modestly.
“To be sure, my friend,” she said, clapping politely. When the rest of her household didn’t do the same, she swept them with a glare. They immediately took up the cause. No matter that he’d botched that last line. For the most part it had been a tolerable piece of work, the subject aside. As if she’d ever search over hill and dale for a lover!
Margaret helped Baldric down from his stool. “Sit you at the table, gentle sir, and sweets will be forthcoming immediately.”
“Two of every kind,” he stated, every inch the proud bard having just finished a rousing evening of entertainment for his lord.
“Of course,” Margaret agreed.
She started back to the fire to George’s side, when she noticed the three new men who had rotated in for their forty days’ service. They were young men, freshly knighted and sent by their fathers to serve her, though no doubt under much duress. They were staring at her as if she were naked.
Margaret looked down at herself quickly. The surcoat and over tunic hid her mail shirt well enough. She was certainly well clad. Perhaps they had never seen a woman in mail before. Idiots, she scoffed silently. She was the only thing that kept their holdings secure. Let them try their hand at holding all Falconberg lands, in spite of everything.
Perhaps it was her person that they found laughable. What did it matter that she stood taller than most men in the keep? Her father had been very tall, as had been her brothers. It was a family trait she was proud of. She viciously suppressed the urge to roll her shoulders down and slump. She was a Falconberg and Falconbergs stood tall. Her father had said that so many times to her that she could hear his voice in her mind as clearly as if he’d been standing next to her. She was not ungainly. Her men were to be blamed for being shorter than she.
She turned her face toward the hearth and strode over to her captain. He looked at her gently and she could see understanding in his eyes.
“Cease, old fool,” she said sharply.
“Margaret . . .”
“Enough,” she said. “Use your wits for something more useful than idle thoughts.”
“After what we’ve just heard, my wits aren’t worth using.” He shook his head. “He was just as unskilled in your sire’s day. Worse, he had more wind for speaking.”
“Saints, you chatter as incessantly as he does,” Margaret groused. “If you cannot think of a way out of this tangle, be you silent and allow me to.”
George sighed. “A pity we’ve no army at our call to put forth a show of force. Perhaps then Brackwald would think twice about coming against us.”
Margaret shook her head. “And what would we do? Capture his holdings?”
George smiled. “Why would we want them? He’s used his lands so ill, there’s nothing left of them.”
“Aye, there is truth,” Margaret agreed. “’Tis a wonder he manages to feed his household. I daresay he doesn’t do it very well.”
“No doubt,” George said, “else you could hold his larder for ransom.”
Margaret almost smiled, but her straits were too dangerous for jesting. A pity there was nothing Ralf valued.
She froze, then slowly looked at her captain.
“He has Edward,” she breathed.
George blinked, then his mouth fell open. “Margaret, you cannot think—”
“Aye,” she said, feeling the weight lift from her shoulders. “’Tis perfect!”
“You’ve gone daft,” George exclaimed. “You cannot ransom him.”
“And why not? I saw him wandering over my land this morn. If he’s fool enough to do so today, no doubt he’ll be fool enough to do so in the future. I’ll nab him while he’s napping under a tree.”
George shook his head. “He was returning from London. He likely won’t leave Brackwald once he’s there.”
“Then I’ll go into Brackwald and fetch him out.”
“By the saints,” George spluttered, “have you lost your wits?”
“I daresay I’ve finally found reason,” she said, feeling a surge of good humor flow through her. “If I have something that Ralf very much wants, then I possess something with which to bargain. When I greet him at my gates in a month’s time, ’twill be with my blade across his precious brother’s neck. We’ll see just how quickly Ralf vows to leave me in peace when that sight greets him.”
George sighed deeply. He looked at her from under his bushy white eyebrows and frowned. He sighed again, very heavily.
Margaret waited. Of course, she would do what she pleased anyway, but having George’s aid would be a boon.
He frowned again, gave forth another deep, long sigh, then looked at her stealthily, as if he searched for a faltering of her will.
She continued to wait, unmoving.
“We’ll have to bribe his gate guards,” he grumbled finally.
Margaret fought not to grin. “Easily done.”
“And we’ll need a cooperative servant or two. I’ve been inside Brackwald only once and that was years ago.”
“I’ve gold enough for that.”
Margaret wanted to laugh out loud with relief. For the first time in months she felt as if she might manage to keep her home.
“Done,” she said.
George shook his head. “This is madness, Margaret.”
“You have a better idea?”
He pursed his lips. “Your father would have me flogged if he knew I had agreed to this scheme.”
Obviously, he had no better idea. Margaret smiled happily.
“He would instead praise you for your bravery. He loved nothing more than a good abduction.”
He grunted. “Then I suppose we now know where you come by your notions. You’d best be off to the table and shore up your strength. We’ve much to do in the next few days.”
Margaret nodded triumphantly and took her place at the lord’s table. Her heart was so light she was able to completely ignore the stares of her new knights. Let them think what they wanted. Her permanent garrison didn’t pay her any heed. The others would learn to do the same quickly.
For once, being either stared at in horrified fascination or ignored did not trouble her. Freedom was within her grasp. If she could thwart Brackwald once and for all, her life would finally be peaceful. She could concentrate on the training of her men and the efficient running of her keep. Aye, she might even feel safe enough to sleep without her mail on. That would be a welcome pleasure.
As she sipped at her wine, she turned over in her mind her memories of Edward of Brackwald. Where had the man come by such strange clothing? And such a breathtaking pair of aqua eyes?
It did not matter. He would be the coin she used to buy her freedom. She didn’t have any more use for him than that.
ALEX SAT ON A STONE BENCH AND, FOR THE FIRST TIME in his thirty-two years, felt like a complete pansy. He’d never found himself in that situation before and he realized that he didn’t care for it one bit.
He had four brothers, the elder two of which had gone to great lengths to toughen him up for kindergarten and the ensuing school years. He’d also played football and he hadn’t been a wimpy quarterback hiding behind his front line. No sir, he’d been a defensive tackle and he’d taken down men twice his size. He’d never once backed away from a fight on the field or in the boardroom. But now things were different.
“Can you not be persuaded to lift a sword?” Edward asked, looking just as uncomfortable as Alex felt. “A light one, perhaps?”
“It isn’t that I can’t lift one,” Alex said defensively, “it’s that I won’t.”
“Ah, I see,” Edward said, looking very confused. “Some sort of holy vow?”
“Something like that.”
Edward gave him another perplexed look, as if Alex and his motivations were just beyond the comprehension of any sensible man. And they probably were far beyond the experience of any man from the year 1194. Alex shook his head with a grimace. Well, at least Jamie had gotten the time period right on his map. Alex would have to congratulate him the next time they met. It would be a great precursor to familial murder and mayhem.
Edward was still regarding him quizzically. Alex didn’t dare enlighten him. After all, how was it you told a medieval knight that you had methodically taken over and destroyed multimillion-dollar companies for a living? That you’d had very shady dealings with people who were less than solid citizens? Probably even less comprehensible would be choosing to leave it all behind to turn over a new, more wholesome leaf. No, it was better just to let Edward think what he wanted about Alex’s vows of chivalry.
But still, there might be some way to salvage some of his reputation.
“Look,” Alex said, “I’ve fought in battles before.”
“As you say,” Edward said doubtfully.
“Numerous ones,” Alex added. “Just a few months ago my brother-in-law and I laid siege to a keep in Scotland. There was a whole lot of fighting and rescuing going on. I know how to fight; I just don’t do it anymore.”
“Then how do you defend yourself?”
Alex shrugged. “I do my best to stay out of trouble.”
Edward shook his head. “I won’t pretend to understand this, but I won’t press you further. Indeed, I admire you for the firmness of your convictions.”
Actually, Alex thought, you think I’m a wuss. And he was beginning to think the same thing. But once he picked up a sword, it would be just that much easier to use it.
And his first thrust would be right through Ralf of Brackwald’s heart.
Alex’s teeth ached from gritting them too hard, and his hands were in knots from having clenched them too tightly. He’d been at Brackwald for over a week, and during that week he’d seen more injustices than he had in seven years of corporate piracy. Hell, Ralf even made him look lily white.
“Then perhaps instead of training we might seek something to ease our thirst,” Edward offered.
“That I can do,” Alex said, grateful to be on his feet and moving. He’d been sitting on a bench against the inner bailey wall all morning, watching Brackwald’s garrison train. The men were almost as vicious as Ralf himself. How could Edward stand to come back to this?
The stench of the great hall hit Alex full in the face the moment Edward opened the door. Not even Zachary’s room smelled this bad.
A loud smack echoed in the room, followed by a weak whimper.
“I’ll teach you to refuse me,” a voice snarled.
Alex’s eyes adjusted to the smoky interior, and he followed the sounds to find Ralf pounding on someone. Alex thought it might have been a boy until he saw Edward’s brother haul the being up by long hair. Rage flashed through him.
I’ll never harm another human being.
His own promise to himself mocked him. Harm? He didn’t want to harm—he wanted to murder! What right had Ralf to raise a hand to anyone? And to beat a woman senseless?
Alex felt his blood pressure go up several notches. He wanted to rush across the room and stop what was happening. But he couldn’t. He’d ruined his share of lives, too. And if he beat Ralf senseless, was he any better than the volatile lord of Brackwald?
He looked at Edward. Edward’s face was expressionless. Alex wondered how many times Edward had witnessed the same thing before.
Edward turned to him. “Let us be off. You’ll want to see the countryside.”
Alex looked back at the far end of the hall, where Ralf was finishing his work. Then he turned away, despising himself for both his rage and his lack of action.
A half hour later he was riding with Edward away from Brackwald, away from hell. Slowly he felt the anger seep from him. It was for the best. He couldn’t interfere anyway. Who knew what sorts of ramifications he would cause if he changed Ralf’s ways, not to mention what might happen if he killed Ralf with his bare hands.
His fingers flexed of their own will. The latter was almost too satisfying a thought.
He stared up at the gray sky and let the drizzle wash away his turmoil. He’d wanted a change of scenery. He could have been in Barbados, naked, tanned, and rummed. Lolling about in the surf with half a dozen equally naked, tanned, and rummed women. But instead, where did he find himself?
Facing his own demons in medieval England.
In February, no less.
“We’re near Falconberg land,” Edward remarked. “Perhaps we might manage to keep our heads even if we filch something to fill our bellies. I fear we left the keep without doing so.”
“We didn’t leave soon enough,” Alex muttered.
Edward reined in his horse and looked at Alex gravely. “I cannot act against him, you know.”
Alex smiled grimly. “I never said you should.”
“Nay, ’tis my own heart that condemns me,” Edward said.
“You couldn’t change him, Edward. You’d have to kill him to stop him, and then you’d be no better than he is.”
Edward nodded silently, then looked off over the field. “He wants this land, my brother,” he said quietly. “And he’s willing to do anything to get it. Even marry Margaret.”
Alex couldn’t help his smile. “Is she that bad?”
Edward looked at him and smiled in return. “Many years have passed since I saw her last, but I remember her being very tall and very full of choler.” His smile faded. “She has humiliated my brother. I fear if he actually succeeds in forcing her to the altar, he will repay her in full measure.”
“She humiliated him? How? I’m sure I’ll enjoy hearing all about it.”
“Supper first, my friend, then the tale.”
Edward found a site he thought sheltered enough, then went in search of game while Alex busied himself with a fire. Finding dry wood was no easy task, but Alex had been an Eagle Scout after all. At least some of his training could be put to good use.
As he waited for Edward to return, he decided it was past time he returned home. He certainly couldn’t do any good here. If he spent too many more nights under Brackwald’s roof, he was going to do something he would regret. Screwing up history was not something he wanted going on his record. The list was long enough as it was.
Edward returned before long with a pair of hares. Cooking them took longer than Alex would have liked. He’d run into a Falconberg knight and had vivid memories of a boot digging into his ribs.
“Are we on her land?” Alex asked around a mouthful of spitted hare.
“Aye, but do not fear. We’ll send a maid with a few coins tomorrow to appease her.”
“Not up to going yourself?”
“And possibly find myself facing the woman over lances?” Edward shook his head, wide-eyed. “I wouldn’t think of it.”
“All right, let’s have the whole story. What’d she do to Ralf?”
Edward leaned back against a log. “She entered one of his little private tournaments.”
“I thought the church had outlawed tournaments.”
Edward smiled dryly. “This is my brother we’re talking about, aye? Why would he trouble himself over the possibility of excommunication when there was gold to be made or sport to be enjoyed? The king is locked away safely in Leopold’s keep and John was in the south eating barrels of peaches. Ralf did as he pleased.”
“And Margaret got herself invited?”
“Oh, nay, there was no invitation issued to her. Many unknown knights entered, hoping to hold others for ransom and fatten their purses. It was easy enough for her to arrive unnoticed.”
“And then what happened?”
Edward grinned. “She unseated every man she rode against, then finished off her day with the lance by dumping Ralf himself into the mud.”
“I don’t believe it,” Alex said, intrigued in spite of himself. Now, there was a woman with industrial-sized cajones.
“Ah, but ’twas Margaret indeed who took the field that day.”
“What a woman,” Alex said. “And just how was it she revealed herself?”
“She took off her helmet, of course, and stood over Ralf as he wallowed in the muck.”
“I’m sure he was thrilled,” Alex said dryly.
“I think he would have done her in if there hadn’t been so many witnesses, and if she hadn’t already had her blade to his throat. Word spread, of course, to the prince, who abruptly ceased sending men to Falconberg to court her.”
Alex shook his head in wonder. “Why should he, when she could best them all in the lists? She must be built like a tank—ah, a very large knight.” Alex winced mentally. It was bad enough he was butchering French. Slipping in little Americanisms wasn’t helping.
“As to how she is built, I cannot say. ’Tis most difficult to discern a woman’s figure when she is sporting chain mail. Not that I’d dare try.” Edward shivered. “She’d cleave me in twain for daring the like, no doubt.”
“Then what makes you think Ralf will ever succeed in marrying her? It sounds as if she’s already let him know what she thinks of him.”
Edward looked at him for several moments in silence. Then he shook his head, a puzzled frown on his face.
“Where exactly is Seattle, Alex? Have you no king?”
Well, this ought to take some explaining. Alex knew there was no way he could tell Edward all the truth, but maybe some of it would help.
“Seattle is a very long way from here, and no, we don’t have a king. I’ve been living in Scotland for the past little while, though.”
“Ah,” Edward said, as if that had suddenly cleared up the mystery for him. “Then I marvel at the fineness of your garments. I’ve never been north myself, but I understand your countrymen are somewhat on the, um, free-spirited side. That must be why you don’t understand Margaret’s danger,” Edward said, nodding. “You see, my friend, she has no choice. If the king wills her to marry Ralf, she must do so, else he will take away her lands.”
“Doesn’t Richard know what kind of man Ralf is?”
Edward shrugged. “He has been gone from our shores for many years. What happens in such a small shire is likely of little import to him. All that matters is how well he thinks Ralf can hold both Brackwald and Falconberg. If he thinks it can be managed, he will not hesitate to command the alliance.”
“Doesn’t Margaret have any other family?’”
“Nay. All her brothers, save the eldest, went crusading. The eldest was gored while hunting, and her sire fell ill several years later. She’s held the keep alone for the past year.”
“How old is she?”
Edward shrugged again. “A score and five? Too old to be wed easily. She could only be desired for her lands. I know ’tis the only reason my brother considers her.”
Poor Margaret. Alex didn’t even know her, but he felt sorry for her. No woman deserved that. She might have a face like a sow and the cuddliness of a porcupine, but she was a woman, after all.
Edward sighed and threw his last bone into the fire. “Again, ’tis none of my affair. I’ve heard rumors that the king’s ransom has been paid. He will likely return to England to see to his affairs here, and I mean to rejoin his company then.” He looked at Alex. “Do you care to come? We could use another blade in the French wars—” He stopped, then grimaced. “Forgive me. I forget myself and your vow.”
“Never mind. I need to be getting home anyway. I think I’ll start out tomorrow.”
Edward nodded. “Fortunate are you to have only one more night to spend in that hellhole. I envy you.”
Alex scattered the remains of the fire and watched as it died out. He couldn’t blame Edward for his sentiments. He was very lucky that he had a home to go to where there was love and affection.
And it was well past time he started his own family. He nodded to himself as he swung up into the saddle. So he’d put away his sword for good. That didn’t mean he couldn’t lay a siege. Fiona MacAllister had no idea what she was in for. He was a much better prospect than Zachary. He could cook. He had his pilot’s license and owned half of Jamie’s Lear. He could fly her anywhere she wanted to go and have enough change left over to take her out to dinner. Maybe he’d go home and fly her to Barbados.
That was the only way they were going to get there. They certainly weren’t going to be two-stepping it over any of those damn X’s.
* * *
IT WAS EARLY evening before he and Edward returned to Brackwald. Alex left the dinner table as soon as he could and escaped to his room before he inflicted bodily harm on his host.
He knew he was fortunate to have a private chamber, and he had gone out of his way to thank Ralf for it. So what that the room was smaller than his bathroom at home; it had a door and a makeshift mattress. He couldn’t have asked for more.
He lay down on the straw mattress and put his hands behind his head, staring up at the cracks in the wooden ceiling. What was going on above him was very distracting. By the grunts and moans, he had little trouble figuring it out. Man, what a life.