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FAE VILLAGE, CAIRNGORMS FOREST, SCOTLAND
At the sound of a knock on the wooden door, I lifted my gaze from the parchment in front of me where I’d scribbled my journal entry. I laid my pen on the oak desktop and stood up, catching a glance at my outfit as I did so, and I had to laugh.
One fact about the fae and fae communities in general was that magic ruled. When you were in a fae village, and if you happened to be female, fae magic dictated you be dressed in what looked like Renaissance garb. My dress had an empire waist and was so long that it skimmed the ground. The material was light and gauzy, off-white, and bedecked with pink ribbon piping around the waist, the bust, and the wrist-length sleeves. I didn’t even have to look at my hair to know it was three times its usual length, now grazing my butt in a mass of golden sausage curls, kissed by pink cherry blossoms.
I’d gone into battle dressed in stretch pants and come out of it looking like Rapunzel.
I pulled open the door and found Rand standing be- fore me. His chest was bare, revealing ripples of sinuous muscle. Rand’s physique is nothing short of awe inspir- ing, but his muscles aren’t the type you’d find in the gym. He’s not into lifting five hundred pounds and grunting as loud as he can to make sure everyone knows he’s lifting five hundred pounds. No, Rand’s physique was sculpted from hard work and training with were- wolves, master vampires, and fae kings.
I couldn’t help but stare as my eyes trailed his beautiful upper body and rested on his blue-and-green-tartan kilt. While fae magic bedecked women in gowns, the same magic endowed men with kilts. It was like living in the book covers of every Highlander romance in existence.
Rand still wore the filth and misery of the war—blood and dirt staining a face that surpassed all others in its beauty. Well, maybe the master vampire Sinjin Sinclair (who just happened to be Rand’s detested ally—long story) could compete with Rand’s good looks, but at the moment I wasn’t thinking about vampires. No, instead, I was getting drunk on the beauty of a warlock.
Rand is tall enough, maybe six-two or six-three, but he appears even taller by the proud way that he carries himself. He has chocolate-brown hair, cropped short. If you took that same chocolate, melted it, and added just a touch of cream, you’d have the color of his eyes. His complexion is what could only be called sun-kissed, without interruption by freckle or mole. And his face is pretty angular—a strong jaw, cleft chin, and high, sharp cheekbones. The beauty of his lips—full and plump under his strong nose—is on par with his gorgeous eyes. When he smiles, his dimples light up his entire face until you would swear you were beholding someone heaven-sent.
Neither of us said anything for a second or two. We just stood there, staring at each other as if we were from different planets and unable to communicate. And it made sense because, although we definitely loved each other, the best way to describe our relationship was as an emo- tional roller coaster. As such, I still didn’t know where we stood—whether we were together as in boyfriend– girlfriend or . . . not.
It was Rand’s voice in my head—complete with his thick English accent—a form of communication he and I have shared ever since we first met at my shop in Los Angeles two years ago.
“Rand.” I said his name out loud and suddenly his arms were around me, holding me tightly. I felt the heat of his skin against my cheek as he pulled me close. He smelled like spice and sweat, the scent of masculinity, the embodiment of Rand. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, wanting nothing more than to fill myself with his very essence.
“I lost you,” he whispered with a strained voice. He was referring to my death, when Gwynn’s blade had pierced my stomach. He pulled away from me, and his eyes were glassy. “I will never forget the pain of watch- ing you die. It will stay with me forever.”
I didn’t want to think about pain. I’d known my fair share but I also couldn’t deny him the ache in his eyes. I wanted nothing more than to soothe him, to promise we would never be apart again. “Mercedes brought me back,” I began. I’d only really been dead for a second or two, so did it really even count?
He crushed me against him, almost as if he was trying to remind himself I was truly flesh and blood, and not some figment of his imagination. He held me incredibly tightly, as if he could erase the past twenty-four hours by smothering me.
“I don’t know whether to be indebted to Mercedes or furious with her,” he said. I wasn’t sure where my feel- ings leaned on the subject either. I had a damn good hunch that Mercedes knew beforehand that I was going to die—there didn’t seem to be much of anything she didn’t know. But at the same time, she was the one who brought me back to life, so how mad could I be?
“Let’s put it behind us now,” I whispered.
“You said Mercedes was the prophetess,” Rand continued. “Are you sure?”
I nodded. If I was sure of anything, it was that Mer- cedes was the prophetess—the fabled and legendary witch to end all witches. The prophetess was rumored to be able to change history, something Mercedes had art- fully demonstrated by pulling me back to 1878. Her magic was so potent, it was scary.
“Yes, I’m positive.” The image of her manipulating the sky came to mind. “Didn’t you see how she ended the battle?” I mean, hello, if that wasn’t proof I didn’t know what was.
He nodded but didn’t say anything else, just continued to hold me, stroking my head like I was a child. Finally he spoke, and his voice was soft.
“And what is this about you being Queen?”
That was a tough subject, and I could read lots more into Rand’s question than the mere fact that he asked it. Rand wasn’t crazy about any form of monarchy, no offense to the Queen Mum. He’d rebelled against Bella’s plans to become Queen of the Underworld, and even though he and I were allies and I was as different from Bella as day is from night, I couldn’t imagine he’d be any more eager to see me ascend to the throne. No, Rand believed in the ideals of democracy and justice. Even though he was as English as tea and crumpets, he could easily have been an American revolutionary from the eighteenth century based on his feelings about equality, liberty, and freedom. And he did make a mean apple pie. “I don’t know,” I answered, which was sort of the truth. I mean, I didn’t know what Mercedes had in mind for me, and although Rand had been there to witness everything she had to say about me becoming Queen, there hadn’t been much. In fact, as I recall, she said I’d become Queen and it was my destiny to unite the creatures of the Underworld, and that had been that. “Mercedes made it sound like prophecy,” Rand continued, eyeing me as if he thought I knew more than I was letting on.
“You heard everything I did,” I answered simply. “I don’t know what to make of it or what it means, but I imagine Mercedes will fill me in at some point.”
“You have freedom of choice, Jolie. If you don’t want to be Queen, you don’t have to.”
How ironic—this was the first time “freedom of choice” had ever been mentioned with regard to the Underworld. Freedom really wasn’t something that came easily to Underworld creatures. Their society wasn’t structured like ours—a lesson I’d learned the hard way. “Mercedes assumes I have no choice in the matter.” I sighed, not really wanting to shatter the beauty of the moment with thoughts of my new career path.
“She said it was my destiny to unite the creatures. And if it is my true destiny, how can I avoid it?”
Rand was quiet for a second or two before he shook his head. “Let’s not think about it right now,” he said, pulling me closer. “We can figure out all of the details later.” He kissed the top of my head. I closed my eyes as I held him, but it was a false sense of security. As if foreseeing my own future, I realized Rand would most likely oppose me if I chose to follow my destiny to become Queen. It wasn’t a reality I wanted to face.
The sound of cheering and laughter broke my reverie. I was suddenly aware that our alone time was nearing its end.
“What’s going on out there?” I asked, although I wasn’t really all that interested. Instead my mind was teeming with all the discussions I needed to have with Rand—centering on a turn of events in 1878. So much had happened, and unfortunately what happened in 1878 couldn’t stay in 1878.
“A celebration, Jolie. That’s why I came to get you—to escort you to the festivities,” Rand answered absent- mindedly, as if the last thing he was interested in was celebrating. He and I were on the same page.
A celebration. I hadn’t even considered it. The overall tone after the gruesome battle was one of mourning and charity as our soldiers cared for their fallen, separating our dead from the maimed and injured and bringing them to this fae village.
One of the benefits to having me on Rand’s side was the fact that I could reanimate all of Rand’s deceased soldiers. It was going to be a long and arduous job, but I had promised I would do it, to myself as well as to our legion—those soldiers who had stood beside us from the beginning and vowed their loyalty to Rand. And it was something I wanted to do—something I needed to do. As far as I was concerned, death was no longer permanent; it was merely an inconvenience to be overcome.
“How many are dead?” I asked in a hollow voice.
“No final count yet,” Rand responded in the same barren tone. He secured a stray tendril of hair behind my ear and grazed my cheek with his fingers. “Everyone is asking after you—apparently word of your death spread, causing quite a bit of anxiety. I want to prove to everyone there isn’t anything to be worried about.” He paused, and a sweet smile lit his face. “I know you’re exhausted, but it is important for both of us to make an appearance. Will you oblige me?”
I really had no choice but to oblige him. Rand was the captain of our legion and as such, he had to be there, congratulate his men, and play his role as their leader. And so would I. I needed to promise the family members of the fallen that I would bring back their dead. I’d have to hobnob with Mercedes and introduce her to everyone as the prophetess, the highest of all witches. Most suspected she was only a legend. Little did they know.
“Yes, of course,” I answered with as sincere a smile as I could muster. The truth of it was that I was beyond exhausted, physically and emotionally. And times like this called for nothing more than an amaretto sour and an early night.
The war and reanimating our fallen legion weren’t thoughts I wanted to address at the moment. Not when I was in the arms of the one man I loved with all my heart. And, more so, there was so much I had to tell him. Before my little excursion back in time, things with Rand had been strained. Although we loved each other, our relationship had never been an easy one. Rand had begun our affiliation as my benefactor/employer and consequently, he restrained his carnal feelings for me, fearing he’d be taking advantage of the situation. As that became less of a problem, we were faced with the issue of bonding.
Ah, bonding . . . what a bitch.
When witches love each other, they form a bond that is like a marriage on crack. Bonding lasts forever— there’s no divorce. And witches live longer than humans, by a few hundred years at least, so bonding is definitely a long-term commitment. When witches bond, their powers increase tenfold, but so do their vulnerabilities. So if one bonded party dies, the mate also dies. And bonding isn’t something you can actually choose—it’s as if your body decides for you, usually right about the time you’re getting hot and heavy. And I know this from personal experience. Talk about a buzz kill . . .
Prior to the war, when I was still in the present time, Rand and I had succumbed to the heat of the moment— and just when he’d been ready to seal the deal, he’d freaked out and proceeded to take a cold shower, literally. Later he explained that we’d nearly bonded, which in turn freaked me out. And scared as I must have appeared, Rand looked like he’d just gotten up close and personal with the headless horseman. Needless to say, all sexual bets were off and we were relegated to star- crossed lovers who couldn’t get it on.
To say I’d been sexually frustrated for the last two years of my life was the understatement of the century.
Sexual frustration or not, this is where my story gets even more complicated. Part of the reason Rand was so freaked out about bonding with me was the fact that he’d bonded with a witch in his past and had nearly died because of it. It had taken Mathilda, the wisest and oldest of the fairies, to keep Rand sane and alive. Little by little, she nursed him back to health, using her magic to make him forget the details of the witch he’d bonded with until he could no longer recall her face, name, or anything else about her. He survived, but only by a thread, and the fact that he endured the “death” of his bond mate was testimony to Rand’s incredible strength and stamina.
But there’s more. On my tour de 1878, I met Rand during his initial steps in warlock training. To make a long story short, we both fell madly in love and bada bing bada boom, we had the best sex ever and yep, you guessed it, we bonded. Our happy little tryst didn’t last long, though. Before I knew it, Mercedes insisted that I return to my own time, saying I had to save the world or some other such crap, and I reluctantly had to leave my Rand of 1878 behind.
If you’re following my story, you probably just figured out the whole thing. If not, let me spell it out . . . I was the witch Rand bonded with, and my departure nearly killed him. It was a truth that had been hard for me to digest . . . one I had to share with Rand.
“What happened out there, Jolie?” Rand asked as he glanced down at me. “Where did Mercedes come from? And why were you wearing my mother’s ring?”
It was the same question he’d asked me when I died on the battlefield. God, it felt weird to say that. I didn’t imagine I’d ever get used to it.
I swallowed hard and glanced down at my hand, where I still wore his mother’s ring. Suddenly I wanted to cry over the injustice of it all: Rand had once loved me and given himself to me and I to him. He’d also asked me to marry him and I’d said yes, although I knew all along that I would have to return to my own time. He’d given me his mother’s ring and forced me to promise him that he and I would reunite in my own time. Even as I made him that promise, I’d wondered if I’d be able to keep it; if I’d be able to convince the Rand of today that we were meant to be together.
“Something amazing happened,” I said simply and racked my brain, trying to figure out the best way to explain.
Sometimes the best route is the direct one. “I traveled back in time, Rand,” I said slowly, hoping the words would sink in.
“And?” he prodded, as though my comment was completely understandable. That was one thing I could appreciate about Underworld creatures—nothing really surprised them. When you got hairy during a full moon or had a hankering for O negative, it only made sense that what might be considered unusual by some standards seemed little more than commonplace and ordinary.
“I traveled back to 1878. Mercedes is the one who orchestrated it.”
He nodded but didn’t seem to get the gist of what I was saying, so I figured I should start from the beginning.
“It was wintertime, Rand, in England. Even though it was summer when the battle here began—”
“About that,” he interrupted in a scathing tone. “You knew I didn’t want you anywhere near that battle, Jolie.”
Yeah, that was true. But I was stubborn and I’d made up my mind to fight even though Rand had forbidden it. I was determined if nothing else. I’d also been smart about it, though, realizing I would need some form of false identity in order to deceive Rand into letting me participate in the battle. With the help of Mathilda, I had managed to drum up a spell that changed my out- ward appearance so Rand wouldn’t recognize me. I fought alongside him, alongside our legion, and none of them was the wiser. That was before I nearly died. Once that happened, and I’d been transported back in time, all my careful spell preparations had been for naught because my false identity was stripped from me. Upon my return to my own time, with Mercedes in tow, I was again sans my disguise, and of course Rand had recognized me instantly.
“Rand, that’s in the past,” I reminded him, not up for being chided about something that really didn’t matter now.
“If you had listened to me, none of this would have happened.” His tone wasn’t angry, more wistful than anything, as if he were imagining a completely different outcome, one in which he’d been spared from witnessing my death.
I shook my head and smiled up at him. “No harm, no foul.”
“So stubborn.” He chuckled. “Jolie.” He tilted my chin up and gazed down at me lovingly. “It’s been too long since the last time I kissed you.”
Before I could even respond, his warm and sumptuous lips were on mine and I melted into him, feeling my body wilt against his. He chuckled and held me more firmly, running his hands through my hair as I felt his tongue enter my mouth. Suddenly, in my own mind, I was transported back to 1878 when Rand loved me freely and neither of us had to hold back. The thought depressed me so much I thought I might start crying. So I pulled away, thinking I should focus on the rest of my story. I had to get it out in the open, just to get it over and done with.
“I nearly froze to death when I arrived in 1878 but two maids helped me. One was named Elsie.”
Elsie had been one of the attendants at Pelham Manor, the same manor Rand now inhabited and owned. But in 1878, it had belonged to Rand’s best friend, William Pelham. Upon Pelham’s death, William had bequeathed his property to Rand. Either way, the name Elsie wasn’t ringing any bells in Rand’s head. I could tell by the blank look in his eyes.
“It was Pelham Manor, Rand,” I admitted finally. “Mercedes was responsible for bringing me back in time to Pelham Manor.”
He blinked for a few seconds and then eyed me inquisitively. “Pelham died in 1878. I was in residence at the manor.”
Hmm, about Pelham dying—that was another issue I had to address with Rand, but it wasn’t at the top of my list. I’d sort of taken it upon myself to heal Pelham while I’d been his guest. As it was told, Pelham had died of cholera, but the ailing man I’d cured seemed to be dying of something else; his symptoms were different from those of a cholera patient. Well, I’d have to shelve that subject for another day. Now I had more serious stuff to get off my chest. Big stuff.
“Yes,” I said firmly. “You were there.”
“I was there?” he repeated, his eyes narrowing as he considered my words.
“You gave me your mother’s ring.”
He shook his head as if he was finding it difficult to believe. “I have no recollection of any of this,” he said and pulled away from me, beginning to pace as he al- ways did when agitated. “When I first met you in your store, there was nothing that seemed in any way familiar about you.”
I nodded, but I had no clue what the laws were about time travel either. “I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe I didn’t seem familiar because you didn’t know me yet at that point? Maybe technically you hadn’t met me yet?” “But if you traveled to 1878, we had already met—over one hundred years earlier.”
I shook my head. Somehow I had to tell him that we’d bonded. But suddenly it was like a figurative light switch went off in my head. Rand and I were no longer bonded. Of that I was convinced, because when you’re bonded with someone you’re one with them—you can feel the same emotions they do, hear their thoughts. And I couldn’t feel any of Rand’s emotions. Nor could I hear his thoughts, and it didn’t appear that he was cognizant of mine. In traveling back to my own time and Rand nearly dying, the bond between us had to have been destroyed . . . We were two separate beings. With this discovery I felt nothing but an isolating numbness.
I swallowed hard as I further considered it. There was a big chance that Rand might not take news of our bonding very well. Bonding had nearly killed him, and I didn’t imagine that would be easy to swallow, especially since over the past one hundred years he’d carried with him the void of believing that his partner had died. So, really, wouldn’t it be better not to tell him, better not to dredge up something that was so incredibly painful to him? I mean, we weren’t bonded anymore, so maybe it was better just to let that conversation die and focus on the future? Focus on a fresh start? Besides, Rand had made it pretty clear that he wasn’t interested in bonding again, not after the first time around nearly killed him.
“Rand,” I began.
“Rand an’ Jolie, where be ye?” The voice boomed from outside and seemed to rattle the walls of my make- shift cottage room.
“Odran?” I asked Rand with a smile, referring to the fact that the baritone voice could belong to none other than the King of the fae.
Rand nodded with a sexy grin. “You and I have a party to attend. Are you ready?” He held out his arm and I took it with a nod, pushing thoughts of bonding conversations to the deep recesses of my mind.
From the Paperback edition.