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England, Summer 1837
Scrambling around the damp, dank interior of a stone crypt while a thunderstorm raged outside and floods threatened, Clio entertained the thought that she would have been wiser to stay in bed. Not that she could have done so. The floods put at risk the artifacts she had begun to uncover earlier in the day. She would not rest until they were protected.
The crypt was beneath the manor house of Holyhood on the southeastern coast of England. It was a remnant of a much earlier residence dating, she believed, from the ninth century. That alone made it an extraordinary discovery and well worth studying, even if no one else thought so.
Scraping away with the garden trowel, working as fast as she could by the light of a lantern, Clio ignored the muddy water sloshing around her boots and carefully placed a shard of pottery in the basket she had brought along. Several more pieces of what she thought might have been a clay pitcher were still in the dirt. Determined to get them all, she kept digging as the rain poured down and the water on the floor of the crypt continued to rise.
It was up to her ankles when she finished. With a sigh of relief, she grabbed the basket and turned to go, only to stop abruptly. Hesitantly, not really crediting what she thought she saw, she raised the lantern higher and peered into the shadows at the far end of the crypt.
A man was watching her. He had thick black hair to his shoulders, hard features, and a slashing grin. Incongruously, he was sitting on the floor on the other side of the crypt. His long legs, bare below a short tunic, were stretched out in front of him. He appeared untroubled by either the rain or the water he was sitting in.
But then, he also looked completely dry.
A finger of ice moved down her spine. Clutching the lantern in one hand, the basket in the other, and her courage in both, Clio took a step forward. "Sir . . . you startled me. . . ."
The man did not respond. Indeed, now that she saw him more clearly, he appeared to be looking not at her but beyond her, as though something on the opposite side of the crypt in the direction of the stairs commanded his attention.
His keen, intense attention.
The man rose and came toward Clio. He was very tall, well over six feet, and supremely fit. The gleam in his eyes was most disconcerting. . . .
As was the fact that he walked straight through her.
Not around, not past. Through.
Clio screamed. She was not, as a general rule, a screamer. Indeed, if pressed, she could not have recalled the last time she had screamed. She was, however, quite good at it, if the measure of a scream is its volume and duration.
She was still screaming when she gained the ancient stone steps leading from the crypt, took them two at a time, and hurled herself out into the silent garden of Holyhood.
Her lungs finally empty of air, the scream petered out. Bent over, clutching the basket and lantern, she struggled to inhale. Her entire body shook, her heart hammered, and the roiling of her stomach suggested the imminent reappearance of the dinner she had enjoyed several hours before.
That would not do. She was, after all, a princess and princesses do not go about losing their dinners because of encounters with men who are not there.
As reason reasserted itself, she set the basket down and looked back toward the crypt. In the narrow circle of the lantern light, the entrance to it appeared like a black mouth dark against the storm-tossed night.
"Oh, for heaven's sake." Her imagination was running away with her to a disgraceful degree.
There was no man in the crypt. There could not possibly be. And certainly there was no man who could walk straight through her, not there or anywhere else. To do that, he would have to be a ghost.
Clio did not believe in ghosts.
On her native Akora, she lived her daily life in the same places where people had lived for centuries and even millennia. Her private quarters were in a part of the palace that had stood for over two thousand years. Princesses of Akora through all that time had occupied her very bedroom. Their joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies had played out within the same walls where she sometimes lay awake at night, wishing the voices of the past truly could speak to her. Not once had she caught so much as a glimmer of a lingering presence.
There was no man, but there had to be an explanation for what she had seen. To find it, she would have to return to the crypt. The choice did not come easily. The echoes of terror still resonated within her, but they were muted by the impossibility of ever yielding to cowardice. Water was dripping off her nose when she moved slowly back in the direction from which she had come.
Holding the light high, Clio descended one step . . . another . . . The stones were slick beneath her feet. She resisted the impulse to call out. One did not address a figment of the imagination. Even so, she breathed a sigh of relief when she found the crypt empty.
No figment there, just muddy ground and the traces of her digging. She was ready to go, satisfied to put the incident down to fatigue and distraction, when a glint of metal caught her eye. Forgetful of all else, she went to investigate it.
At the sound of a scream coming from the vicinity of the house, the Earl of Hollister turned his horse away from the stables and spurred the big roan gelding back down the gravel path. It was very late. He was wet, cold, and hungry. So, no doubt, was Seeker, who was as good a mount as a man could want and deserved better than to be turned away from a warm stall. All the same, the scream could not be ignored.
The path led along the back of the graceful three-story manor built several decades before on the site of a far older residence. Indeed, if legend was to be believed, there had been a manor at Holyhood for a thousand years or more. William gave that scant thought. His mind was on his widowed grandmother, living alone in the house with only her devoted servants for company.
But his grandmother had the sense to be snug in her bed on such a night, and the scream had sounded like the voice of a much younger woman.
One of the servants come to some harm?
He drew Seeker to a halt near the far corner of the house. The storm that had caught him was passing quickly. Behind it, the moon emerged. By its light, he could make out the entrance to what he knew to be a stone crypt under the house. A faint glow emanated from within the crypt.
Swiftly he dismounted, tossed the reins over a nearby hedge, and moved toward the steps leading to the crypt. He was a big man, broad of shoulder and long of limb. Had he not known to bend his head, he would have struck it on the ceiling above the steps.
Descending the stairs, he paused halfway and took the measure of what awaited him. He had played in this place as a child, arranging toy soldiers, imagining long-ago battles. It was a favorite hideaway on the hot summer days that could sweep over Holyhood despite the nearness of the sea. So far as he knew, no one else ever went there.
Certainly no one would venture there in the midnight hour of a storm-filled night.
Which explained his surprise at the sight of a woman on her knees not far from where he stood. She wore a cloak that draped her body. Her head was bent, but he could see that her hair was long, loose, and a deep, rich red. She was digging furiously.
"What are you doing?"
The woman froze. Very slowly she raised her head and looked at him. The glow of the lantern, the light of which had drawn him into the crypt, fell fully on her face.
For a moment, William neglected to breathe. The woman was . . . beautiful, certainly, but beautiful women abounded in his world. Here was something more. Her features, clearly and delicately formed, appeared illuminated from within. Her eyes were very large, all the more so for being very wide. Her mouth was enticingly full, her chin firm. Stillness settled over her as she looked at him.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"William, Earl of Hollister. Who are you?"
To his surprise, she looked immensely relieved. Quickly, she got to her feet and made a futile effort to brush the mud off her cloak. "William . . . I know you. Or at least I did."
"You have the advantage, madam." Yet there was something about her that was familiar, if only to a small degree. It was years ago . . . a little red-haired girl playing in the garden of Holyhood. She had come with her parents, the Vanax Atreus, ruler of the legendary kingdom of Akora, and her mother, the Lady Brianna, who was related to his own family.
That child grown to such a stunning woman? It didn't seem possible, yet nature was known to work such wonders.
He came to the bottom of the stairs without taking his eyes from her. Close-up, she was even lovelier, for all that she was clearly wet and bedraggled. "Princess Clio?"
Her smile was immediate and genuine. "Please, just Clio. You know we are not so fond of titles on Akora as people are here in England."
He did know that, or at least he had heard it, for all that he had never been to Akora. His grandparents had made several trips there over the years, but they were among the very few outsiders invited to visit the legendary Fortress Kingdom, which was situated in the Atlantic beyond what the ancients called the Pillars of Hercules.
"Clio, then. What are you doing here?"
"Digging," she said as though it should be obvious. When he continued staring at her, she elaborated. "I have been digging for several days and I've found some wonderful things. When the storm started, I was afraid those still left on the surface or near to it would be damaged, so I came down to get them."
Later he would try to understand why a lovely young woman--a princess, no less--was digging in the dirt floor of an empty stone crypt and what sort of "wonderful things" she could possibly have discovered. Just then, he had other things on his mind.
"I heard you scream."
Her creamy skin brightened as though a tongue of flame had moved over it. "I'm terribly sorry. I was . . . startled."
He half-expected her to mention a rat or something of the sort, when she surprised him. "A man, or at least what I thought was a man. There wasn't actually anyone there." Hesitantly, she added, "When I saw you on the steps, I thought you were him again."
"The man you saw looked like me?"
"There was no man, and no, he didn't look like you, not really. He was as tall as you and fit the way you are, but he was dressed very differently and his hair was much darker. Yours is auburn, his was black and somewhat longer."
"This man who did not exist?"
She made a small gesture, whether waving away her own inconsistency or his persistence, he could not tell.
"I was asleep when the rain woke me," she said, "and I realized the artifacts I had found could be endangered. When I got down here, I think I was still less than fully awake. Under the circumstances, it is not so surprising that my imagination overtook me."
"Perhaps not. What are these artifacts you speak of?"
Proudly she held out her basket. He peered into it and frowned. "Those are broken bits of pottery."
"A clay pitcher, I think. There is writing on them."
"That signifies? . . ."
"I am not absolutely certain of the script, but I think it is Anglo-Saxon, from the era of Alfred the Great."
"That would be old, indeed, but why would it interest you?"
"It's what I do . . . dig up the past." When he did not reply, she sighed. "I don't expect you to understand. People think the only objects from the past that matter are great monuments and the like, not the remains of ordinary life."
"You believe otherwise?"
She nodded and gestured to the basket. "From these, I may be able to confirm that this crypt is as old as I think it is and even what it was used for."
"Storage," William said.
"It was used for storage, except for the time when it very briefly became a prison for captured Vikings."
"How could you possibly know that?"
He shrugged. "It's an old story, part of the lore of Holyhood. This is not the time to speak of it. You are soaked through and covered with mud."
She gathered her cloak more closely around herself. "I am aware of that."
"Then you must also be aware that you should retire." He offered his arm.
Briefly, she considered refusing. The glint of metal that had drawn her attention came from an iron bar that was revealed by the water washing down into the crypt. She was eager to examine it more closely, but she knew by experience that being metal, it was likely to come apart in flakes as soon as she tried to move it. Excavating it safely would be a delicate process, not best undertaken by lantern light when she was already weary.
Instead, she covered it again with soil, carefully marking the spot before accepting William's assistance. As they emerged from the crypt, she caught sight of Seeker and smiled. "He is yours?"
"Or I am his. We have not settled the matter." He took the reins with his free hand. The gelding followed them.
"How do you happen to be here at so late an hour?" Clio asked as they approached the back entrance of the house.
"I was delayed coming down from London."
Something hovered beneath his words, but she could not place it. His sudden appearance had shocked her. For just a moment, she truly had thought she was looking at the same man she had seen before. But that was not the case. Besides the difference in dress and hair color, the features were different. Yet both men bore the stamp of strength and determination. Both reminded her of the men of her own family and the men of Akora in general, good men to be sure and warriors to the bone.