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The Highlands of Scotland
Grimm paused at the open doors of the study and gazed into the night. The reflection of stars dappled the restless ocean, like tiny pinpoints of light cresting the waves. Usually he found the sound of the sea crashing against the rocks soothing, but lately it seemed to incite in him a questing restlessness.
As he resumed pacing, he sifted through possible reasons for his unrest and came up empty-handed. It had been by choice that he remained at Dalkeith as captain of the Douglas guard when, two years ago, he and his best friend, Hawk Douglas, left Edinburgh and King James's service. Grimm adored Hawk's wife, Adrienne—when she wasn't trying to marry him off—and he doted upon their young son, Carthian. He had been, if not exactly happy, content. At least until recently. So what ailed him?
"You're wearing holes in my favorite rug with your pacing, Grimm. And the painter will never be able to finish this portrait if you won't sit down," Adrienne teased, jarring him from his melancholy reverie.
Grimm expelled a breath and ran a hand through his thick hair. Absentmindedly he fiddled with a section at his temple, twisting the strands into a plait as he continued to contemplate the sea.
"You aren't looking for a wishing star out there, are you, Grimm?" Hawk Douglas's black eyes danced with mirth.
"Hardly. And anytime your mischievous wife would care to tell me what curse she laid upon me with her careless wishing, I'd be happy to hear it." Some time ago, Adrienne Douglas had wished upon a falling star, and she steadfastly refused to tell either of them what she'd wished until she was absolutely certain it had been heard and granted. The only thing she would admit was that her wish had been made on Grimm's behalf, which unnerved him considerably. Although he didn't consider himself a superstitious man, he'd seen enough odd occurrences in the world to know that merely because something seemed improbable certainly didn't render it impossible.
"As would I, Grimm," Hawk said dryly. "But she won't tell me either."
Adrienne laughed. "Go on with the two of you. Don't tell me two such fearless warriors suffer a moment's concern over a woman's idle wish upon a star."
"I consider nothing you do idle, Adrienne," Hawk replied with a wry grin. "The universe does not behave in a normal fashion where you're concerned."
Grimm smiled faintly. It certainly didn't. Adrienne had been tossed back in time from the twentieth century, the victim of a wicked plot to destroy the Hawk, concocted by a vindictive Fairy. Impossible things happened around Adrienne, which was why he wanted to know what bloody wish she'd made. He'd like to be prepared when all hell broke loose.
"Do sit down, Grimm," Adrienne urged. "I want this portrait finished by Christmas at the latest, and it takes Albert months to paint from his sketches."
"Only because my work is sheer perfection," the painter said, miffed.
Grimm turned his back on the night and reclaimed his seat by Hawk in front of the fire. "I still doona get the point of this," Grimm muttered. "Portraits are for lasses and children."
Adrienne snorted. "I commission a painter to immortalize two of the most magnificent men I've ever laid eyes upon"—she flashed them a dazzling smile, and Grimm rolled his eyes, knowing he would do whatever the lovely Adrienne wished when she smiled like that—"and all they can do is grumble. I'll have you know, one day you'll thank me for doing this."
Grimm and Hawk exchanged amused glances, then resumed the pose she insisted displayed their muscular physiques and dark good looks to their finest advantage.
"Be certain you color Grimm's eyes as brilliantly blue as they are," she instructed Albert.
"As if I don't know how to paint," he muttered. "I am the artist here. Unless, of course, you'd like to try your hand at it."
"I thought you liked my eyes." Hawk narrowed his black eyes at Adrienne.
"I do. I married you, didn't I?" Adrienne teased, smiling. "Can I help it if the staff at Dalkeith, to the youngest maid of a tender twelve years, swoons over your best friend's eyes? When I hold my sapphires up to the sunlight, they look exactly the same. They shimmer with iridescent blue fire."
"What are mine? Puny black walnuts?"
Adrienne laughed. "Silly man, that's how I described your heart when I first met you. And stop fidgeting, Grimm," she chided. "Or is there some reason you want those braids at your temples in this portrait?"
Grimm froze, then slowly touched his hair in disbelief.
Hawk stared at him. "What's on your mind, Grimm?" he asked, fascinated.
Grimm swallowed. He hadn't even realized he'd plaited the war braids into his hair. A man wore war braids only during the blackest hours of his life—when he was mourning his lost mate or preparing for battle. So far, he'd worn them twice. What had he been thinking? Grimm stared blankly at the floor, confused, unable to vocalize his thoughts. Lately he'd been obsessed with ghosts of the past, memories he'd tossed savagely into a shallow grave years ago and buried beneath a thin sod of denials. But in his dreams the shadow corpses walked again, trailing behind them a residue of unease that clung to him throughout the day.
Grimm was still struggling to answer when a guard burst through the doors to the study.
"Milord. Milady." The guard nodded deferentially to Hawk and Adrienne as he hastily entered the room. He approached Grimm, a somber expression on his face. "This just came for ye, Cap'n." He thrust an official-looking piece of parchment into Grimm's hands. "The messenger insisted 'twas urgent, and to be delivered into your hands only."
Grimm turned the message slowly in his hand. The elegant crest of Gibraltar St. Clair was pressed into the red wax. Suppressed memories broke over him: Jillian. She was a promise of beauty and joy he could never possess, a memory he'd consigned to that same uncooperative, shallow grave that now seemed determined to regurgitate its dead.
"Well, open it, Grimm," Adrienne urged.
Slowly, as if he held a wounded animal that might turn on him with sharp teeth, Grimm broke the seal and opened the missive. Stiffly, he read the terse, three-word command. His hand fisted reflexively, crumpling the thick vellum.
Rising, he turned to the guard. "Prepare my horse. I leave in one hour." The guard nodded and left the study.
"Well?" Hawk demanded. "What does it say?"
"Nothing you need to address, Hawk. Doona worry. It doesn't concern you."
"Anything that concerns my best friend concerns me," Hawk said. "So give over, what's wrong?"
"I said nothing. Leave it, man." Grimm's voice held a note of warning that would have restrained a lesser man's hand. But the Hawk had never been, and would never be, a lesser man, and he moved so unexpectedly that Grimm didn't react quickly enough when he whisked the parchment from his hand. Grinning mischievously, Hawk backed away and uncrumpled the parchment. His grin broadened, and he winked at Adrienne.
"'Come for Jillian,' it says. A woman, is it? The plot thickens. I thought you'd sworn off women, my fickle friend. So who's Jillian?"
"A woman?" Adrienne exclaimed delightedly. "A young, marriageable woman?"
"Stop it, you two. It's not like that."
"Then why were you trying to keep it a secret, Grimm?" Hawk pressed.
"Because there are things you doona know about me, and it would take far too long to explain. Lacking the leisure to tell you the full story, I'll send you a message in a few months," he evaded coolly.
"You're not getting out of this so easily, Grimm Roderick." Hawk rubbed the shadow beard on his stubborn jaw thoughtfully. "Who is Jillian, and how do you know Gibraltar St. Clair? I thought you came to court directly from England. I thought you knew no one in all of Scotland but for those you met at court."
"I didn't exactly tell you the whole story, Hawk, and I doona have time for it now, but I'll tell you as soon as I get settled."
"You'll tell me now, or I'm coming with you," Hawk threatened. "Which means Adrienne and Carthian are coming as well, so you can either tell me or prepare for company, and you never know what might happen if Adrienne comes along."
Grimm scowled. "You really can be a pain, Hawk."
"Relentless. Formidable," Adrienne agreed sweetly. "You may as well give in, Grimm. My husband never takes no for an answer. Believe me, I know this."
"Come on, Grimm, if you can't trust me, who can you trust?" he coaxed. "Where are you going?"
"It's not a question of trust, Hawk." Hawk merely waited with an expectant look on his face, and Grimm knew he had no intention of relenting. Hawk would push and poke and ultimately do exactly as he'd threatened—come along—unless Grimm gave him a sufficient answer. Perhaps it was time he admitted the truth, although the odds were that once he did, he wouldn't be welcomed back at Dalkeith. "I'm going home, sort of," Grimm finally conceded.
"Caithness is your home?"
"Tuluth," Grimm muttered.
"Tuluth," Grimm said flatly. "I was born in Tuluth."
"You said you were born in Edinburgh!"
"Why? You told me your entire family was dead! Was that a lie too?"
"No! They are. I didn't lie about that. Well ... mostly I didn't lie," he corrected hastily. "My da is still alive, but I haven't spoken to him in more than fifteen years."
A muscle twitched in Hawk's jaw. "Sit down, Grimm. You're not going anywhere until you tell me all of it, and I suspect it's a tale that's long overdue."
"I doona have time, Hawk. If St. Clair said it was urgent, I was needed at Caithness weeks ago."
"What relevance has Caithness to any of this, or to you? Sit. Talk. Now."
Sensing no possibility of reprieve, Grimm paced as he began his story. He told them how, at the age of fourteen, he'd left Tuluth the night of the massacre and wandered the forests of the Highlands for two years, wearing his war braids and hating mankind, hating his father, hating himself. He skipped the brutal parts—his mother's murder, the starvation he'd endured, the repeated attempts on his life. He told them that when he was sixteen he'd found shelter with Gibraltar St. Clair; that he'd changed his name to Grimm to protect himself and those for whom he cared. He told them how the McKane had found him again at Caithness and attacked his foster family. And finally, in the tone of a dreaded confession, he told them what his real name had been.
"What did you just say?" Hawk asked blankly.
Grimm drew a deep breath into his lungs and expelled it angrily. "I said Gavrael. My real name is Gavrael." There was only one Gavrael in all of Scotland; no other man would willingly own up to that name and that curse. He braced himself for the Hawk's explosion. He didn't have to wait for long.
"McIllioch?" Hawk's eyes narrowed disbelievingly.
"McIllioch," Grimm confirmed.
"Grimm stands for Gavrael Roderick Icarus McIllioch." Grimm's Highland brogue rolled so thickly around the name, it was a nearly unintelligible burr of r's and l's and staccato-sharp k's. "Take the first letter of each name, and there you have it. G-R-I-M."
"Gavrael McIllioch was a Berserker!" Hawk roared.
"I told you you didn't know so much about me," Grimm said darkly.
Crossing the study in three swift strides, Hawk bristled to a stop inches from Grimm's face and studied him, as if he might uncover some telltale trace of a beast that should have betrayed Grimm's secret years ago. "How could I not have known?" Hawk muttered. "For years I'd been wondering about some of your peculiar ... talents. By the bloody saints, I should have guessed if only from your eyes—"
"Lots of people have blue eyes, Hawk," Grimm said dryly.
"Not like yours, Grimm," Adrienne remarked.
"This explains it all," Hawk said slowly. "You're not human."
Adrienne leveled a dark look at her husband and linked her arm through Grimm's. "Of course he's human, Hawk. He's just human ... plus some."
"A Berserker." Hawk shook his head. "A fardling Berserker. You know, they say William Wallace was a Berserker."
"And what a lovely life he had, eh?" Grimm said bitterly.
* * *
Grimm rode out shortly thereafter, answering no more questions and leaving the Hawk immensely dissatisfied. He left quickly, because the memories were returning of their own accord and with fury. Grimm knew he had to be alone when full recollection finally reclaimed him. He didn't willingly think about Tuluth anymore. Hell, he didn't willingly think anymore, not if he could help it.
Tuluth: in his memory a smoky valley, clouds of black so thick his eyes had stung from the acrid stench of burning homes and burning flesh. Children screaming. Och, Christ!
Grimm swallowed hard as he spurred Occam into a gallop across the ridge. He was impervious to the beauty of the Highland night, lost in another time, surrounded only by the color of blood and the blackness of soul-disfiguring desolation—with one shimmering spot of gold.
Is he an animal, Da? May I keep him? Please? He's an ever-so-glorious beastie!
And in his mind he was sixteen years old again, looking down at the wee golden lass. Memory swept over him, dripping shame thicker than clotted honey off a comb. She'd found him in the woods, scavenging like a beast.
He'd be fiercer than my Savanna TeaGarden, Da!
Savanna TeaGarden being her puppy, all one hundred forty pounds of Irish wolfhound puppy.
He'd protect me well, Da, I know he would!
The instant she'd said the words, he'd taken a silent vow to do just that, never dreaming it might one day entail protecting her from himself.
Grimm rubbed his clean-shaven jaw and tossed his head in the wind. For a brief moment he felt the matted hair again, the dirt and sweat and the war braids, the fierce eyes brimming with hatred. And the pure, sweet child had trusted him on sight.
Och, but he'd dissuaded her quickly.
From the Paperback edition.