ONE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE.
ONE MYSTICAL CLUE. When Caitlin O'Shaughnessy's stepfather world-renowned Medieval English professor Magnus Armstrong is abducted in Scotland, she jets across the Atlantic to help find him. Her only clue: a teardrop-shaped charm on a broken chain left behind in the struggle. The authorities in Edinburgh are useless, but Caitlin soon finds a partner in her desperate search sexy playboy Dominic Fortune, who's funding genetics research at the university. Traveling to the Mediterranean island of Calix, where the charm originated, they share a journey full of danger, passion, and magical surprises. But Dominic carries with him more than a few secrets about his identity, about the dynasty that has ruled Calix for more than 2,000 years, and about the charm's link to the quest for eternal life. Racing against time and surrounded by people she's not sure she can trust, Caitlin must use all her wits and an ancient magic to save her stepfather and herself and to uncover the many mysteries of the man by her side.
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Assistant Professor Caitlin O'Shaughnessy surveyed the semi-comatose freshmen who'd shown up for her nine o'clock calculus lecture, and seriously considered setting off the sprinklers. She loved mathematics; she loved teaching mathematics, even bonehead calculus. She'd prepared a kick-ass lecture on the mean value theorem, including a real-life economic interpretation designed to engage the business majors currently dozing in the back row. Spring had sprung, and hormones were running amok, which made for late nights and groggy mornings.
She glanced down at her new pointy-toed, stiletto-heeled Ferragamos, the same lovely shade of butter yellow as her skinny, narrow-ribbed sweater. A cold shower might wake up her students, but it would almost certainly ruin her shoes. So forget the sprinklers. She'd go with Plan B.
"Take out a piece of paper," she said, "and number from one to three."
A collective groan went up at the promise of a pop quiz. "This totally sucks" seemed to be the consensus. Caitlin wanted to laugh at her students' outraged expressions, but she kept her facial muscles under rigid control. At least the whining proved that, contrary to appearances, the majority of them were still alive.
"We're going to play a word association game. When I say a word, you write down the first thing that comes into your head." She paused. "Any questions?"
The students exchanged bewildered looks as if wondering if they'd somehow been zapped out of Math 20 into Psych 101.
"No questions. Excellent. First word, closed." She gave them a second or two to scribble their answers. "Second word, open." Again she waited for the pencils to stop moving. "Third word,mean."
"Noun or verb?" a lanky blond kid asked.
"Don't think. Just respond," she told him.
He wrote something on his paper.
Caitlin stifled the impulse to grin. "Okay. Responses? Closed circuits? Closed doors? Closed minds? Closed what?"
"Closed windows?" a girl in the front row suggested.
"Closed bars!" yelled some bleary-eyed joker in the back row. Several people laughed.
"Think math, people. Closed what?"
"Closed interval?" the blond boy said.
"Bingo! Okay, second word. Open."
"Open up and say 'ah.' "
"Open bars!" the comedian in the back row yelled, but this time no one laughed.
"Open mouth, insert foot," someone muttered, and a few people snickered.
The comedian flushed.
"Come on," she said. "Don't give up now. Look for a math connection."
"Open-ended?" someone ventured.
"Close, but no cigar."
"Open interval!" the comedian yelled suddenly.
"And the synapses fire! We have a winner." Caitlin gave him a standing ovation, then let her gaze drift across the classroom. "All right, my young brainiacs, we're down to the wire." She tapped out a drumroll on the edge of the lectern. "And finally...our third and final word. Mean."
"Mean value theorem," half a dozen voices chanted in unison, and the rest of the class applauded.
Hands on hips, head cocked to one side, Caitlin studied them. " 'Fess up now. You practiced that."
Laughter rippled through the classroom.
Amen. She had their attention. "Which brings us to the topic of today's lecture..." She paused expectantly, arms extended, palms up.
"The mean value theorem," the class recited on cue.
Dominic Fortune sat slumped in the driver's seat of a nondescript rental car, his driver's cap pulled low, his face hidden behind a copy of today's Scotsman. Across the street a black Lincoln Town Car with diplomatic plates pulled up to the gated -- and well-guarded -- entrance to the Calixian consulate. The driver lowered his window to display his credentials, and the car was waved through just as it was every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at this time. Barring bad weather, the diplomatic pouch arrived on the 10 A.M. flight from Tavia to Edinburgh and was then transferred via official car to the consulate.
The problem was, this was Tuesday and Dominic knew for a fact that the consul general and most of his staff were golfing at St. Andrews.
Apparently someone else knew about the planned outing and had taken advantage of the consul general's absence to smuggle something into the country. The question was, what?
Dominic reached for his cell phone and punched in a number. Inside the consulate, Quinton Gilroy answered on the first ring.
"Your hunch was spot on," Dominic told him. "Something definitely came in on the ten o'clock flight. The car just drove through the front gate. I'm not positive -- hard to say with the smoked glass -- but I think there may have been someone in the back seat. Check it out, would you? That is, if you can bear to drag yourself away from that mail room clerk you've been chatting up. Charlotte, is it?"
Quin muttered a noncommittal syllable that Dominic took to mean he couldn't talk, most likely because Charlotte and/or the rest of the mail room staff were within earshot.
"And hurry it up. Janus is waiting." Janus, code name for the head of the Calixian Intelligence Service, the agency for which Dominic and Quin did occasional contract work, was not known for his patience.
Dominic rang off and settled down to wait. Most people equated covert operations with James Bond-esque derring-do. Prior to being recruited, he'd thought that himself. The truth was, even in the course of a really dicey job, he spent eighty percent of his time pulling surveillance, fifteen percent waiting for the phone to ring, and a measly five percent on the risky adrenaline-rush bits.
Twenty minutes later Quin came strolling out of the consulate. The big, broad-shouldered redhead crossed the street, walked past Dominic's rental car as if he hadn't seen it, and shoehorned himself into a decrepit Morris Minor that had not been designed to accommodate an eighteen-stone former rugby player.
Dominic's phone trilled. "Yes?"
"No sign of the pouch," Quin said, "but I spotted your mystery passenger. Hector Yuli."
"Yuli? Any relation to Leo and Orson Yuli, the 'fishermen' the Calixian Coast Guard caught running drugs last year?"
"Younger brother," Quin said. "I gather Hector's cut from the same cloth. Rumor has it he nearly beat a man to death in a bar fight a couple months back."
"So what's a thug like that doing in Edinburgh?" Dominic wondered aloud.
Quin grunted. "And how the bloody hell did he secure a seat on the Royal Air Express?"
"Friends in high places?" Dominic said.
Quin grunted again and rang off.
Dominic traded his cell for the satellite phone with its built-in scrambler. Janus, his voice mechanically altered, answered on the second ring.
"Quin guessed right," Dominic said by way of greeting, then filled his superior in on the details.
"Hector Yuli," Janus said thoughtfully. "Interesting."
"Do you want me to follow him?"
"No, you're too high-profile. I'll put someone a little less noticeable on that job. I have something else in mind for you."
Janus, apparently in no hurry to explain Dominic's new assignment, ignored the prompt. "Did either you or Quin see what was in the pouch?"
"No," Dominic said. "Quin managed to get into the mail room, but the pouch never showed up. Shunted off to some restricted area presumably." He paused. "I thought perhaps you might have an idea what was inside."
Janus sighed. "Specifically, no, although I can tell you that over the past few months items -- priceless and irreplaceable artifacts -- have been disappearing from both the palace and the royal treasury."
"But the guards, the sensors...How can anything get past security?"
Janus laughed, though he sounded more bitter than amused. "Obviously, there's an inside man. Or men."
"That's what I'm trying to find out." He paused. "Whoever the thief is, chances are he's running scared. Have you seen the latest issue of the Edinburgh Expose?"
"I don't read tabloids."
"Make an exception," Janus said. "This week's Expose features a story about a manuscript recently acquired by Erskine Grant, a professor of medieval literature. The professor claims the manuscript -- purportedly written by the great magician Merlin -- reveals the secret of immortality and speaks of a treasure beyond price."
"Sounds like typical tabloid nonsense to me," Dominic said.
"To be sure," Janus agreed, "but the manuscript itself is real enough, part of the Calix Chronicles, a priceless piece of Calix's cultural heritage." He cleared his throat. "Our people have inventoried the palace library; the manuscript's definitely gone missing."
"So if whoever's behind the pilfering saw the Expose article, he'll realize the cat's out of the bag."
"Yes," Janus agreed. "Talk to the professor. Find out where he got the manuscript."
Caitlin and her current boyfriend, Tony DaCosta, had caught a late afternoon flight to Vegas and were checked into a terrace suite at the MGM Grand by 6:00. By 6:02 they were exploring each other's erogenous zones. By 7:30 Tony had hit the shower.
Caitlin lay on the rumpled sheets, basking in the afterglow of multiple orgasms and trying to work up the energy to move. She needed to take a shower, too, and get dressed. They had dinner reservations at Le Cirque for 8:15, which she would have canceled in a heartbeat in favor of room service. But she suspected Tony had planned a surprise for her birthday. Tony was big on surprises.
Self-warming condoms. Who knew?
She stretched and her body gave a residual zing of pleasure. Happy birthday to me, she thought.
The phone rang. Grinning like a fool, she rolled onto her side to answer it. "Hello?"
The phone went on ringing.
Not the room phone, she realized. The cell phone Tony'd left on the nightstand. Caitlin hung up and grabbed the cell. "Hello?" she tried again.
"Tony?" the woman on the other end said.
Geez, did she sound like Tony? "No, but I can get him for you."
"Shelley? Is that you, you fucking bitch?"
Shelley, no. Fucking bitch? Um, maybe. "Who is this?"
"You know damn well who it is, slut!" The woman burst into noisy sobs. "I knew the bastard was lying to me. I knew it."
And apparently lying to Caitlin as well.
"Said he had to go to Vegas on business. Business, my ass! He's off screwing around while I'm stuck here in San Jose with four sick kids and a goddamn TV that doesn't work." The woman's furious words dwindled to a sputter of incoherence. But it was the choked, hiccuping sob that followed that pricked Caitlin's heart.
"Tony's married." It wasn't a question.
"Damn straight," Tony's wife said.
"I didn't know that. I'm sorry."
"Not as sorry as Tony's going to be. That bastard will wish he'd never been born."
Caitlin suspected the threat was sheer bravado. If Tony had been married long enough to father four children, chances were slim this was the first time he'd cheated. And if his wife hadn't dragged him through divorce court the first umpteen times she'd caught him screwing around, she wasn't going to do it this time, either.
Caitlin, however, wasn't quite so forgiving. Her first impulse was to deliver a swift kick where it would hurt the most, but upon reflection, she realized humiliation trumped physical pain any day of the week. By the time Tony emerged from the bathroom on a nearly visible cloud of aftershave, cologne, and testosterone, she'd worked out the details of her plan.
"Hey, babe," he said. "Why aren't you dressed? I thought you were hungry."
"I am," she said, "just not for food."
"Sweetheart, you just had a three-course meal," Tony protested.
"But I have my heart set on dessert. Al fresco." She nodded toward the private terrace below.
"Yeah, but what about Uncle Sal? He pulled strings to get us that reservation. If we don't show up, he's gonna kill me."
Caitlin wrapped her arms around his neck and dragged his mouth down to hers.
Tony was the first to pull away. He rested his forehead against hers, breathing hard. "Holy Christ, woman."
"So...do I get my dessert?" She rubbed herself against his arousal.
"Hell, yes." Tony's expression -- sheer, unadulterated lust -- turned her stomach, but she couldn't allow her revulsion to show. Not yet.
Forcing herself to smile, she grabbed his hand, led him down the stairs to the main level and then out onto the terrace, where she shoved him roughly onto a lounge chair.
Tony smirked. "I didn't realize you were into domination."
"There's a lot you don't know about me, Tony." She picked up a length of drapery cord she'd liberated from the living room and dangled it in front of him. "Ever tried bondage?"
His eyes danced. "No, but I'm open to new experiences." He joked the whole time she was tying him to the chair.
"How's that?" she asked when she was done. "Too tight? Too loose?"
He gave his bonds an experimental tug. "I'm at your mercy, babe."
"That's right. You are." Liar. Cheater. Caitlin studied Tony's face. He had a very sexy smile, which perhaps explained why she'd never before noticed the weakness of his chin or the shiftiness of his eyes.
God, what was wrong with her? Why did she keep picking these losers?
Tony's smirk grew into a full-fledged leer. "Is this the part where you bring out the whips and chains?"
Caitlin frowned. "I liked you, Tony. I really did."
"Liked?" He shot her a wary glance. "Past tense?"
"I thought you were a nice guy."
"I am a nice guy."
"Not according to your wife."
"My...? What the hell?"
"She called a while ago."
A muscle twitched just below his left eye. "Damn it, Caitlin, the marriage has been over for years."
"You just stay together for the kids, right?"
"Oh, shit." The oh-man-I-am-so-screwed expression on his face should have been laughable. So why did Caitlin feel like crying?
She turned blindly toward the sliding glass door.
"Hey! What are you doing? Where are you going?" Tony's voice grew shrill as it dawned on him she was leaving.
Without a word, she stepped inside and locked the door behind her. Fifteen minutes later, she left the suite, dragging Tony's wheeled carry-on along with her own.
Out on the terrace, Tony was still yelling.
On the flight back to San Francisco, Caitlin started worrying that Tony would try to retaliate, and the thing was, she didn't know him that well -- obviously, since she hadn't had a clue he was married with children. The bastard could have mob connections. Not that she was paranoid enough to think that everyone with an Italian surname and an Uncle Salvatore belonged to the Mafia, but damn it, Tony had taken her to Vegas.
And he knew where she lived.
On the other hand, she had a good head start on him. Unless his shouting alerted someone or he managed to free himself, he was stuck on that patio until the maid came in to clean tomorrow. And even then, he was going to have problems. She'd locked his luggage (including every stitch of clothing he'd brought with him) and his wallet (containing all his cash and credit cards) in the trunk of his rental car, a car she'd abandoned in long-term parking at the Las Vegas airport.
So with any luck, she should have plenty of time to go to her place, pack enough stuff for a week or so, and then move into her stepfather's house for a few days. Her stepfather, Magnus Armstrong, might have asked a few embarrassing questions had he been home, but as it happened, he wasn't, having left last Saturday for two weeks in Scotland. As a professor emeritus in the English department at Stanford, he'd been invited to participate in a symposium on medieval literature sponsored by his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. He'd even -- would wonders never cease? -- asked her to accompany him.
Admittedly, Caitlin, whose passion was math history, had little interest in medieval literature, but she'd always longed to visit Edinburgh, to see Holyrood Palace, the Royal Mile, and most especially, Merchiston Castle, ancestral home of sixteenth-century mathematician -- and rumored sorcerer -- John Napier, the focus of her dissertation.
In retrospect she probably should have accepted Magnus's invitation. She could easily have arranged for someone to cover her classes. But traveling with Magnus meant spending time with Magnus, talking with Magnus, discussing things she refused to think about, let alone analyze. And besides, she'd already agreed to go to Vegas with Tony...
Who even now might be plotting her demise. Or at least a serious bitch-slapping.
Her plane touched down a little after midnight; she was fitting the key to the lock on her front door just under a half hour later.
She swung the door wide and flicked on the entry light to find an untidy pile of mail littering the tiles. Looked as if she'd been gone a week instead of a few hours. She dumped her carry-on, shut and locked the door, then gathered up the envelopes -- mostly bills and junk mail -- and tossed them on the kitchen counter.
The message light on her phone was blinking an urgent SOS, so she kicked off her heels and padded barefoot across the room to see what was so damned important.
"Happy birthday to you," sang her best friend, art gallery owner Sabrina "Bree" Thatcher, the digital recording tinny but recognizable. "Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Caitlin. Happy birthday to you. Give me a call when you get in."
The machine gave the date and time, then beeped and went directly to the next message, this one a wrong number from someone named Jerry. The third and final message was Bree again. "Look, Caitlin, please call me as soon as you get back. It's important. I heard something today, something about Tony. I'm afraid he's bad news."
Bad news. That could mean "He's married" or "He's a Mafia hit man." Or both. Plus everything in between.
Caitlin glanced at the mail on the counter, decided she didn't have time to read it now, and stuffed it into the side pocket of her overnight bag.
Ten minutes later she let herself into Magnus's shingled Craftsman-style house in Professorville, an exclusive enclave of pricey historic homes within walking distance of both Stanford University and downtown Palo Alto. With her car hidden inside the detached garage, the doors locked, and the security system engaged, she felt safe for the first time in hours.
Safe and hungry.
Unfortunately, all she could scrounge from Magnus's kitchen was a plate of carrots, raisins, and rice cakes spread with peanut butter. She sat down with her meager dinner and began sorting through her mail. Junk mail went in one pile, bills in another. The one oddball was a notice from the post office saying that they'd tried and failed to deliver a package at 2:43 P.M. but that she could pick it up tomorrow during regular business hours or call to arrange for delivery. Birthday present from Magnus, she'd bet. Hard to guess what he'd sent, though. Knowing Magnus, probably not jewelry or clothing. No cairngorm brooches or tartan shawls. A book maybe. Or a piece of antique silver. Magnus was big on antiques.
Crunching thoughtfully on a carrot, she punched in Bree's phone number.
Her friend picked up on the fourth ring. "Professor Armstrong?" She sounded out of breath, as if she'd just run a four-minute mile or was in the middle of some very athletic sex.
"No, it's me. Caitlin. Magnus is in Edinburgh. I didn't interrupt anything important, did I?"
"I was on the treadmill. Didn't hear the phone at first. Then when your stepdad's name came up on caller ID, I thought, oh geez, something's happened. Are you all right, Caitlin? Tell me you're all right."
"Then why are you calling from Magnus's house? I thought he was on your shit list."
"He's not on my shit list, as you so eloquently put it. We just have issues, that's all. And anyway, he's out of the country."
"Which still doesn't answer my question. What are you doing in his house?"
"Hiding from Tony DaCosta."
"Oh, Lord. What happened?"
"Believe me, you don't want to know. What's your big revelation? What did you find out about him?"
Bree exhaled noisily. "He lied to you."
"He not an executive at HP. He's a waiter at Spago."
"A married waiter," Caitlin said.
"With four kids."
Bree muttered an assortment of colorful pejoratives under her breath. "I'm sorry -- sorry Tony turned out to be a schmuck and sorry your birthday ended in disaster."
"You don't know the half of it," Caitlin said. "I'm starving, and Magnus's cupboards are emptier than Old Mother Hubbard's."
"Now that I can fix," her friend said. "How does leftover lasagna sound?"
"Like the answer to a prayer."
"I'll be right over."
Caitlin dumped her makeshift meal into the garbage disposal, then fired up her laptop. Might as well check her e-mail while she was waiting for Bree and the lifesaving lasagna.
Lots of junk in her in-box. Viagra ads. Mortgage refinancing. About ten messages from her Yahoo Groups math history Listserv. All of which she deleted. Which left only a memo from her karate instructor reminding her that he was out of town until a week from Thursday.
Nothing from Magnus, which was a little strange. Absentminded as he was about some things, Magnus was very good about remembering her birthday. She'd expected a cheesy e-mail greeting card at the very least. Of course, there was that package waiting for her at the post office -- most likely from Magnus -- but it still seemed odd that he hadn't e-mailed. He'd begun his trip with regular, twice-a-day updates on the symposium, but now that she thought about it, she hadn't heard anything from him since early yesterday.
Was it merely a case of out of sight, out of mind? Was he too busy pub-hopping with his old University of Edinburgh cronies to keep in touch? Or was something wrong? A trickle of unease ran down her spine. When the doorbell rang, she jumped and nearly knocked her Dasani bottle off the granite countertop.
Damn it. Magnus always said she had too much imagination for her own good. Maybe for once he was right. She closed her laptop and got up to go let Bree in.
July 1617 Near Drumelzier, Scotland
Hamish MacNeill heard the rumbling and thought at first it was his stomach. He and Maggie Gordon -- pretty, wanton Maggie who, with one flirtatious flutter of her thick black lashes, could make him weak with need -- had spent the afternoon on the banks of the River Tweed in the shade of an ancient oak. They'd been much too busy supping on each other to bother with the food still rolled up in a cloth and tucked away in his saddlebags.
Again he heard it, that low rumble, and this time he opened his eyes to peer up through the tangled branches at the curdled gray sky. A thunderstorm had slipped up on them. One fat raindrop splatted his forehead. "We must go, Maggie."
She raised her head from his chest and gave him the saucy dimpled look that had attracted him from the first. "Not yet. It's early. Robert won't be home for hours." She raised herself to sit astride his hips, her skirts rucked up 'round her thighs, her bodice undone. Long dark hair tumbled over her shoulders. She lowered her lids halfway and gave him a provocative smile. "Think, Hamish, what we might accomplish in hours."
Her breasts were small and pert with rosy pink nipples that seemed to beg for his touch. He'd just lifted a lazy hand in answer to that silent entreaty when the wind kicked up. Thunder boomed, much louder this time, much closer.
"No," he said. "A storm is coming. It's not safe."
"And since when has safety been your paramount concern? If the need for safety governed your actions, you'd have seduced someone else's wife. You know as well as I that if your uncle catches you, he'll cut off your balls and fry them up for his breakfast."
His crotch tingled unpleasantly at the thought. Robert Gordon, his mother's brother, was an ill-tempered brute and a devil with a dirk. Though if the old man ever, God forbid, figured out what Hamish was up to, castration would be the least of his worries. Gordon was much more likely to lop off Hamish's head -- nephew be damned -- and hang the gory trophy from the bridge at Drumelzier. He'd done as much earlier this spring with the heads of a pair of cattle thieves.
Maggie leaned forward and nipped at his lower lip. "Concentrate, Hamish. I can't do this on my own." Or then again, perhaps she could. She rubbed herself against him with a delicious friction and he felt his cock grow hard again.
"Ah, Maggie," he said on a sigh as she slid down to sheathe him in liquid warmth. A fiery and demanding lover, her passionate nature was wasted on Robert, who cared more for his cattle than for his young wife.
Hamish gave himself up to the pleasure, ignoring the nervous neighing and stamping of the horses, ignoring the rain coming down now in earnest, ignoring the thunder, so close that it sounded like cannon fire. Maggie squealed in delight as he rolled her beneath him. He quickened the pace, thrusting again and again.
His heart raced. His nerves tingled. Every hair on his body stood up. Gasping for breath, he trembled on the verge of a gut-wrenching climax.
And then the earth shattered with an earsplitting crack, exploded into a million fragments, all fierce, blinding light and deafening noise. The pain came next, excruciating and all-encompassing. A massive jolt blasted through his knees, his palms.
His muscles convulsed, jerking and twitching in uncontrollable spasms that seemed to last forever. Then finally, finally, some semblance of normalcy returned. The pounding rain and rumbling thunder impinged once more upon his senses.
He shoved himself up on his elbows. His hands were tender, the skin raw, burnt. Likewise, his knees. "What on earth...?" he asked Maggie, but she didn't answer. He peered more closely at her face -- pale, beautiful, and unnaturally still. "Maggie?"
She made no sound. No movement. Her wide blue-green eyes were open. The rain, slackening off already as the storm passed, gathered in fat drops on her lashes, then dripped into her eyes. She didn't blink.
Horrified, he shrank away from her. Oh, God. He made a noise, a faint keening wail, quickly swallowed by the wind.
Was this God's punishment for their sins? He stared at Maggie's limp body in disbelief.
And then he saw the tree...or what was left of it.
The lightning must have struck the oak dead-on, splitting it down the middle and denuding the gnarled branches of leaves and twigs. Acrid smoke curled in thin wisps from the blasted trunk.
Hamish stood up and fastened his trousers. He ached from head to toe, as if he'd been pummeled senseless in a tavern brawl. But aside from sore muscles and the burns on his knees and his hands, the lightning had done no harm.
Maggie was another story. She'd absorbed more of the jolt than he. He knelt at her side and pressed an ear to her chest. No heartbeat. Not even the faintest whisper of respiration. Already her skin was growing cold.
He slumped beside her, dazed and sick. How could she be dead?
And then, oh God, the realization hit him. He was dead, too. Robert would finish what the lightning bolt had started. Unless...
With clumsy fingers, Hamish fastened Maggie's bodice. "I'm sorry," he whispered. Sorry she was dead and sorry for what he must do to protect himself from a similar fate. Bending low, he kissed her cold, wet cheek one last time.
Her pony was tethered nearby. He set it free to make its way home. No need for him to get involved. Robert's servants would find her body soon enough.
The damaged tree glared at him in silent reproach.
"And what would you have me do then?" he demanded. "Carry her home myself? She's dead. There's no saving her now, but I still have a chance. No one saw us together. But if I show up with Maggie's body...The old man's no fool. He'd know at once what we'd been up to. Isn't one death enough?"
The tree stood mute and disapproving.
Shock, fear, and guilt roiled his gut, then spilled over as rage. He flailed at the great oak as if it were responsible for his predicament. He pummeled and kicked, inflicting at least as much damage on himself as on the ruined tree.
Exhausted, he dropped to his knees and pressed his palms flat against the oak's trunk. "Damn you," he said softly, not certain whom he cursed. God? The tree? The storm? Perhaps all three. Or perhaps himself. If only he'd insisted they leave when he heard the first faraway roll of thunder.
The rain stopped and the wind died suddenly; the silence was almost palpable.
He felt it then in his fingertips, a faint throbbing that seemed to emanate from the bark of the tree.
Startled, he jerked his hands away and stared at what was left of the great oak. The two halves leaned drunkenly askew.
Hamish didn't really hear the words. No sound had disturbed the hush. And yet somehow those words had insinuated themselves into his consciousness. Vita aeterna. Latin for "eternal life."
He trembled. Could it be the voice of God?
But why would God choose to speak to him, a nineteen-year-old sinner, when the world was full of pious men worthier than he?
He stood, swaying unsteadily.
But if not a sign from God, what? Had he gone mad? Had the lightning strike turned his brain?
Once again the words entered his mind unbidden, a silent whisper. He shook uncontrollably and would have fallen had he not braced himself against the oak.
And again he felt the pulsing, as strong and steady as a heartbeat. Only trees didn't have hearts...
He pulled away. "You fool," he said aloud. "Are you afraid of a tree?"
He circled the oak, studying it from all angles before he moved closer, close enough to peer inside the great cleft trunk.
For a moment his brain couldn't make sense of what he saw. But gradually, the shifting patterns of light and shadow resolved themselves into a comprehensive reality. Impossible, unbelievable, but nonetheless real. He leaned forward and touched it. Still partially embedded in the splintered heartwood, a human skull stared back at him.
Copyright © 2005 by Catherine Mulvany
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The book has a rather elaborate plot design which becomes more apparent towards the end. All in all a very entertaining read. The characters are tied together through close-knit bonds and intricate plot twists. There were some parts of the plot which were kind of sketchy, which is why I give it 4/5 instead of a perfect score.
Janus the head of security for the Mediterranean Sea island monarchy Calix, informs his agent Dominic Fortune that someone is stealing artifacts from the palace library. Of most concern is that American medieval literature Professor Erskine Grant has obtained a copy of a sacred Calixian document. Dominic is to retrieve it from Grant who is in Edinburgh attending a forum. --- Dominic finds Erskine dead and another visiting professor Magnus Armstrong missing. Magnus¿ stepdaughter Math Professor Caitlin O¿Shaugnessy received a package from Magnus for her birthday. When she learns he is missing, accompanied by her closest friend Bree Thatcher, she flies to Scotland where Dominic meets her at the airport. As he tries to keep her safe from several attempts to abduct her, Caitlin begins realizing that she possesses the missing manuscript sent to her by Magnus. She also knows she loves her protector who reciprocates her feelings, but first must solve the case of the seventeenth century manuscript in order to rescue Magnus from a villain who seems invincible. --- SHADOWS ALL AROUND HER is a fantastic romantic suspense thriller with fantasy and horror elements that enhance the delightful story line. Readers will root for the lead couple to rescue the tortured Magnus from a clever adversary pulling everyone¿s strings. Romance readers will enjoy the relationship between Dominick and Caitlin as well as that between Bree and another protection expert. Still the plot is loaded with intrigue from the beginning to the final chaos theory twists that will have the audience seeking more works from talented Catherine Mulvany. --- Harriet Klausner