About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Praise for the novels of New York Times bestselling author Lynn Kurland
Much Ado in the Moonlight
“A pure delight.”
—Huntress Book Reviews
“A consummate storyteller . . . will keep the reader on the edge of her seat, unable to put the book down until the very last word.”
—ParaNormal Romance Reviews
“No one melds ghosts and time travel better than the awesome Kurland.”
“A terrific paranormal romance.”
—Midwest Book Review
“Paranormal elements, a large cast of diverse characters, [and] plenty of humor.”
—Romance Reviews Today
“Touching time-travel romance with humorous characters and sparkling dialogue.”
Dreams of Stardust
“Kurland weaves another fabulous read with just the right amounts of laughter, romance, and fantasy.”
—Affaire de Coeur
“Kurland crafts some of the most ingenious time-travel romances readers can find . . . Wonderfully clever and completely enchanting.”
“A masterful storyteller . . . will enchant you with its spellbinding plot, fascinating characters, and sizzling sensuality . . . [a] mesmerizing novel.”
“One of our most beloved time-travel authors and deservedly so. Each new book is cause for celebration!”
“A terrific time-travel romance.”
—ParaNormal Romance Reviews
A Garden in the Rain
“Kurland laces her exquisitely romantic, utterly bewitching blend of contemporary romance and time travel with a delectable touch of tart wit, leaving readers savoring every word of this superbly written romance.”
“Kurland is clearly one of romance’s finest writers—she consistently delivers the kind of stories readers dream about. Don’t miss this one.”
—The Oakland Press
From This Moment On
“A disarming blend of romance, suspense, and heartwarming humor, this book is romantic comedy at its best.”
“A deftly plotted delight, seasoned with a wonderfully wry sense of humor and graced with endearing, unforgettable characters.”
My Heart Stood Still
“Written with poetic grace and a wickedly subtle sense of humor . . . the essence of pure romance. Sweet, poignant, and truly magical, this is a rare treat: a romance with characters readers will come to care about and a love story they will cherish.”
“A totally enchanting tale, sensual and breathtaking . . . an absolute must-read.”
If I Had You
“Kurland brings history to life . . . in this tender medieval romance.”
“A passionate story filled with danger, intrigue, and sparkling dialogue.”
The More I See You
“The superlative Ms. Kurland once again wows her readers with her formidable talent as she weaves a tale of enchantment that blends history with spellbinding passion and impressive characterization, not to mention a magnificent plot.”
Another Chance to Dream
“Kurland creates a special romance between a memorable knight and his lady.”
The Very Thought of You
“[A] masterpiece . . . this fabulous tale will enchant anyone who reads it.”
—Painted Rock Reviews
This Is All I Ask
“An exceptional read.”
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Both powerful and sensitive . . . a wonderfully rich and rewarding book.”
“A medieval of stunning intensity. Sprinkled with adventure, fantasy, and heart, This Is All I Ask reaches outside the boundaries of romance to embrace every thoughtful reader, every person of feeling.”
A Dance Through Time
“An irresistibly fast and funny romp across time.”
“Vastly entertaining . . . feisty fun and adventure.”
—A Little Romance
“Her heroes are delightful . . . A wonderful read!”
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
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
FALL IN LOVE
To my family
Table of Contents
First and foremost, briefly, heartfelt thanks must go to my agent, the lovely and talented Nancy Yost. She’ll know why.
To my editor, Kate Seaver, for being such a joy to work with.
To my publisher, Leslie Gelbman, for her many kind words, her accessibility, and her gracious, continued support.
To Gail, because I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.
To my cousin-in-law Claire for introducing me to the RTO, and her husband, Bjarne, for giving us the pleasure of listening to a professional violinist make the instrument truly sing.
And last but not least, to my family, who puts up with my crazy hours, crazy characters, and the general chaos that reigns the closer I get to a deadline. They are my joy and delight. I can’t imagine life without them.
Cast of Characters
JENNIFER MACLEOD MCKINNON
Victoria McKinnon MacDougal, Jennifer’s sister
Connor MacDougal, Victoria’s husband
Megan MacLeod McKinnon de Piaget, Jennifer’s sister
Gideon de Piaget, Megan’s husband
John McKinnon, Jennifer’s father
Helen MacLeod McKinnon, Jennifer’s mother
Mary MacLeod, Jennifer’s grandmother
NICHOLAS DE PIAGET
Robin de Piaget, Nicholas’s brother
Anne de Piaget, Robin’s wife
Amanda de Piaget Kilchurn, Nicholas’s sister
Jake Kilchurn, Amanda’s husband
Miles de Piaget, Nicholas’s brother
John de Piaget, Nicholas’s brother
Montgomery de Piaget, Nicholas’s brother
Rhys de Piaget, Nicholas’s father
Gwennelyn de Piaget, Nicholas’s mother
Joanna of Segrave, Nicholas’s grandmother
KENDRICK DE PIAGET, EARL OF SEAKIRK
Genevieve Buchanan de Piaget, Kendrick’s wife
THE BOAR’S HEAD TRIO
Fulbert de Piaget
I did lock that door when I left this afternoon, didn’t I?
Jennifer MacLeod McKinnon stood in the hallway of her charming Upper East Side brownstone and looked at her apartment door. It wasn’t secured with the four deadbolts that she locked religiously no matter what side of the door she was standing on. It wasn’t even shut tight in a way that might have encouraged her to lean on it and rely on its strength.
It was ajar.
Ajar in a way that suggested strongly that someone had been inside. Someone who wasn’t her.
Jennifer frowned. That was not the kind of thing a girl wanted her deadbolt-encrusted door to be suggesting when she was out alone in the hallway well after midnight with only Mrs. Delinski and her brace of terriers across the hall to help her.
She leaned in a little closer, on the off chance that she might have been mistaken, and heard nothing. Well, that wasn’t quite true. She could hear Mrs. Delinski’s television, a police siren outside, and someone having a fight upstairs. But in her apartment?
It was possible that she had forgotten to lock the door. Possible, but not likely. It was Manhattan, for heaven’s sake. She locked the door when she talked to Mrs. Delinski out in the hallway.
She considered her options. She could call the police, but this was the third time this month her apartment had been broken into and she wasn’t sure she could face the thought of filling out another police report. She could leap inside and bean her potential intruder over the head with her violin case, but her violin was worth a lot of money so the odds of her being able to really put some oomph into the beaning were not good. Or she could call her sister Victoria and see if Victoria’s very intimidating husband might be willing to come take a little look-see inside to make sure that her apartment was thug-free.
Now, that was an appealing idea. Connor MacDougal loved trouble. Intruders were his favorite kind of trouble, though he was willing to settle for muggers and petty thieves when he had to. He’d done damage to all sorts of lowlife, to the endless despair of her sister, who was continually trying to convince him that swords, and just fake ones if you please, were better reserved for the stage. Connor did use swords on stage in his flourishing acting career, but Jennifer suspected it grieved him slightly that no real blood ever flowed.
And it probably wouldn’t matter to him that the odds of there being anyone still inside were very slim. He liked the role of protective older brother. There was no sense in not giving him the chance to play it. She pulled her phone out of her evening bag and called her sister’s cell. Victoria picked up on the first ring.
“We’re almost to your place,” she said without preamble.
“You are?” Jennifer whispered. “Why?”
“Connor had a bad feeling.”
“Wow, he’s good,” Jennifer murmured. “Why can’t I find myself a guy like that?”
“You’re looking in the wrong place. So, why did you call and why are you whispering?”
“My front door’s open.”
“Again? Did you forget to lock it?”
“Of course not!” Jennifer exclaimed, then she paused. “At least I don’t think I did.”
“Wait for us downstairs.”
Victoria hung up.
“Was planning to,” Jennifer finished. What did her sister think she was, nuts? She had an intimidating brother-in-law to do her dirty work for her; she wasn’t going to do it herself.
She put her phone back in her purse, picked up the hem of her beaded gown, and walked carefully down the stairs. She had to walk carefully so she didn’t scratch the shoes that could have passed in a pinch for glass slippers. They had seemed like the appropriate accessory to match an evening that had promised to be nothing short of a fairy tale in the making.
She’d been asked at the last minute to fill in for the fabulous Victor Bourgeois who had been slated to play Paganini’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D Major with the Wildly Terrific Orchestra, an edgy group that wasn’t nearly as famous as the New York Philharmonic, but in her opinion almost as good. She could thank her agent, the fabulous and very long-suffering Charles Salieri, for the chance. He’d happily taken her on while she’d still been a student at Juilliard, ignored her complaints of burnout after she’d graduated top of her class in violin performance, and only sighed lightly as she’d jumped into business with her mother instead of leaping into the musical pond as he thought she should have.
Fortunately for her, his nagging and Victoria’s hounding had resulted in her spending a great deal more time practicing over the years than she’d let on. That had resulted in the invitation that she’d thought just might be the start of a new direction for her.
So, she’d donned her Cinderella duds and headed toward the concert hall where the evening had been as glorious as she’d hoped it might be. She had played flawlessly, even by her own exacting standards. Clicking her glass heels together a time or two had resulted in yet another fairy tale happening, mainly the very talented, enormously gorgeous Maestro Michael McGillicuty, WTO’s brilliant conductor, asking her after the concert if she might like to share a cab home. It had seemed too good to be true.
Unfortunately, it had been.
Being forced to plant your fist into your Prince Charming’s nose because he had been less than a gentleman was not exactly the stuff dreams were made of.
She stepped out into the frigid March evening and wished for something more substantial than her flimsy shawl. She leaned against the iron stair railing and breathed as deeply as she dared. There she was in a fairy-tale gown with fairy-tale shoes; where was her knight in shining armor, riding up on his white horse to rescue her from all the creeps?
A cab screeched to a halt in front of her apartment and interrupted her gloomy ruminations. Victoria and Connor piled out and hurried over to her.
“How open was your door?” Victoria began without hesitation. “A lot? A little? Just your imagination imagining the extent of its openness?”
Jennifer scowled at her. “The door was open in a way that strongly suggests that a thief had recently been inside and had his arms too full of my stuff to really close it properly on his way out.” She looked at Connor. “Do you want to go up and check?”
Connor flexed his fingers. Jennifer thought he might have chortled as well, but she was shivering, so that could have been her teeth chattering.
“Aye,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ll ascend and see.”
Jennifer watched her brother-in-law bound up the stairs and into the building. The door shut behind him. She stared after him thoughtfully for a moment or two, then turned to her sister. “Vic?”
“Why did Connor have a knife stuck into the waistband of his jeans?”
“Damn it,” Victoria said in exasperation. “I really should have a metal detector installed on the front door.”
“How can you ride across town in a cab with a man and not know he’s packing an enormous knife in the back of his pants?”
“I was distracted.”
“Were you worrying about me?”
Victoria actually blushed. “Not exactly. I was otherwise occupied.”
Jennifer laughed. “Vic, you’re married. It’s okay.”
“It’s humiliating. I was trying to put my arms around him so we could make out properly in the back of that cab, but he kept grabbing my hands and kissing them.”
“Romantic,” Jennifer noted.
“Ha,” Victoria snorted. “He said my hands were so beautiful and expressive, he couldn’t let them go. Now I see he just didn’t want me finding something better left under his pillow.”
“He’s good,” Jennifer said.
“He would definitely agree. He might also make use of that knife if we’re not there to stop him.” She took Jennifer by the arm. “Come on. We’ll follow at a discreet distance.”
“You know, there’s probably no one inside.”
“I know,” Victoria said with a wink. “I’m humoring him.”
Jennifer smiled and walked with Victoria back inside, up the flight of stairs, and along the hallway with the exposed brick until they stopped in front of her now wide-open door. Connor appeared suddenly in the doorway.
“Empty,” he said, sounding very disappointed.
“What do you mean by empty?” Jennifer asked. “Empty as in no stuff, or empty as in no thief?”
“No thief,” he said glumly.
“Better luck next time,” she said, giving him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. She walked inside her luxurious 400 square feet of apartment and looked around. At first glance it didn’t seem like anything was missing, but considering the state of things, it was a little hard to tell.
Her apartment looked like a fabric shop, with material she used in her mother’s business stacked on every available surface and most of the floor. She did have a bare spot over by the window where she practiced and an exposed bit of kitchen counter on which she stacked take-out. The rest of the place, however, was a disaster.
Victoria put her hands on her hips. “Why does someone keep breaking in? You don’t have anything to steal.”
Jennifer shrugged. “Who knows? My building seems to be prone to it. It’s annoying, but at least no one ever seems to get hurt. Maybe it’s just Fate trying to tell me something.”
“Get another apartment would be my guess,” Victoria said.
“I’m beginning to think the same thing,” Jennifer said. She started to work on a dangerously listing pile of fabric. “Maybe I need to get something a little bigger.”
“Smaller,” Victoria countered. “You’ll have less room for all Mom’s junk that way. Oh, and speaking of junk, guess who we saw on our way over?”
“I hesitate to ask.”
“Did you indeed?”
Victoria smiled. “Yes, we did indeed. He was stomping back down your street, directing an unseen orchestra playing a symphony of disgust.”
Jennifer pursed her lips. “How poetic.”
“His nose was dripping blood.”
“That’s poetic, too.”
“We rolled down the window and asked him what had happened to him.” Victoria smirked. “He said he’d run into a wall.”
“He ran into my fist,” Jennifer said shortly. “And that wasn’t because he was trying to grab my violin.”
“Stop dating musicians,” Victoria advised.
“I wasn’t dating him. I was contemplating dating him.”
Victoria looked her over. “Then he’s an idiot for blowing it. You look like Cinderella. Why can’t you find a decent guy to match that dress?”
“I have no idea.”
“You should go to Scotland,” Connor said. “Your Gaelic is flawless. You might find a braw lad there in the Highlands.”
“It’s very tempting,” Jennifer said. “Do you think Granny would mind me marrying a guy who packed a sword?”
“That would probably be a prerequisite,” Victoria said. “Call her tomorrow and I’m sure she’ll tell you as much. Now, do you have anything to eat in that little corner masquerading as a kitchen, or are we going to have to order take-out again?”
“Take-out,” Jennifer said. “Mr. Chin delivers all night. The number is—”
“Probably the only thing listed on your speed dial,” Victoria interrupted. “I’ll take care of it.” She paused. “By the way, you were fabulous tonight.”
Jennifer smiled. “Thanks.”
Victoria smiled in return. “Go see what’s really missing this time.”
Jennifer nodded. She no longer had a toaster or a microwave, courtesy of the first break-in. The second go-round had resulted in the loss of all her electronics. Victoria was right; there really wasn’t much else to steal. She walked over to her small armoire, looked inside, then swore.
Everything was gone. All her clothes, all her jewelry, all her shoes. Not even her ratty flip-flops from last summer or her matted and quite disgusting sheepskin slippers had been left behind. She put her hands on her hips and frowned fiercely. What was she supposed to do now, run around looking like an extra from a kid’s fairy tale theater production?
Maybe Fate was trying to tell her something.
She sighed, then turned around, sat down in her empty closet, and gave thought to her sorry, clothesless, shoeless life. There she was, a successful designer of baby clothes who was preparing to leap headfirst into the kind of music career people would have killed to call their own.
Somehow, the thought of it just wasn’t as satisfying as it had been that morning.
She looked at her sister talking on the phone, then at that sister’s husband. Connor was leaning against the now-closed front door, watching Victoria with a small smile on his face. Jennifer smiled to herself. He might try to disguise it with jeans and a sweatshirt, but anyone with eyes could see he was Hollywood’s idea of the perfect medieval Scottish laird.
And he loved her sister to distraction.
Jennifer watched Victoria hang up the phone, turn, and catch sight of her husband watching her. She smiled as well, the satisfied smile of a woman who was adored by a magnificent man.
Jennifer had to look away. She was closer to tears than she wanted to admit. She realized with startling clarity that what she wanted was what Victoria had. How in the world was she going to find that when her choice of Prince Charmings included the likes of Michael McGillicuty?
She sat there in her cramped, cluttered apartment and suddenly felt more discouraged than she ever had in her entire life. She didn’t want to be alone anymore. She didn’t want that door to close behind Victoria and Connor. She didn’t want silence to descend inside, silence that would be not quite silent because she was surrounded on all sides by people and stereos and televisions. She didn’t want to spend any more nights pacing, tripping over stacks of material and feeling the walls close in on her.
She didn’t want to be wearing the perfect dress, with the perfect shoes, and find that there was no hope of a happy ending to go with it.
This was not the life she wanted.
She pushed herself to her feet and started to pace. She looked around desperately for a distraction and found herself suddenly staring down at the extra phone she’d bummed off her mother after the second break-in. The light was blinking.
Blinking in a very significant way.
Jennifer reached out to turn on her messages, then realized her hand was shaking. She took a deep breath, flexed her fingers, then pushed the button. Her other sister’s voice filled the room.
“Jenner, it’s Megan. I know this probably isn’t possible, what with the way your career has suddenly taken off—” Megan laughed a little. “And yes, Victoria told me so. Anyway, we’re going to be at Artane next month and it just popped into my mind to call and invite you to come along. We’re having a little de Piaget family reunion and I need you to keep me company. You will come, won’t you?”
Jennifer caught her breath.
She could see rolling hills covered with forests and sheep and bordered by charming stone fences. She could hear the sound of endless waves against the beach and feel the damp, medieval stone beneath her fingertips as she wandered Artane’s hallowed halls. How would it be to have room to walk for miles and not see another soul, or have the space to actually touch raw earth and see unobstructed clouds? What would it be like to have peace and quiet where she could actually think?
And who knew that she might not find a bit more than she was looking for? Vic and Megan had found their heart’s desires in England.
“Hey,” Victoria said suddenly, “you look far too contemplative for your own good.”
Jennifer looked at her sister. “I need a change.”
“A new apartment? I agree.”
“No,” Jennifer said, standing up slowly, “I mean a big change.” She smiled suddenly. “I’m going to England.”
Victoria looked at her in shock. “But you’re embarking on a new stage in your career.”
“It’ll keep. This is Fate.”
“This is post-performance letdown,” Victoria corrected. “Besides, Dad will have a fit. You know he doesn’t like his offspring heading across the Pond. It means that if you find a reason to stay, he’ll have to head across the Pond as well and he doesn’t like chips and peas with his fish.”
“Artane has a great chef.”
“He won’t care.” Victoria looked at Jennifer seriously. “This is just a vacation, isn’t it?”
“I’ll take my violin with me.”
“It’s a sixty-thousand-dollar Degani, Jenner. You take it to the bathroom with you.” She peered at Jennifer for a moment or two, then sighed. “You’ve already made up your mind.”
“Vic, there are sometimes you sound like a stage mother.”
“And there are sometimes you sound like Paganini.”
Jennifer laughed. “In my dreams. I appreciate the vote of confidence, but right now I want to go land on Megan’s doorstep and feel the sea breeze in my hair.” She looked at Connor. “What do you think?”
“When change is in the air, you should follow it,” he advised. “Change was in the air when I met your sister.”
The look he shot Victoria almost singed Jennifer where she stood. She laughed.
“There’s my answer. Vic, you don’t dare argue with him.”
Victoria looked a bit faint. In fact, she fanned herself. “I won’t.”
Jennifer smiled, then rubbed her hands together briskly.
“Do you know any guys?”
“I know lots of guys. What do you want them for?”
“To bring some boxes for a couple of things, then carry everything left over to the nearest Dumpster.”
“And then what?”
“I’ll go crash with Mom and Dad for a few days,” Jennifer said. “The less stuff I have to put in the back of a cab, the better off I’ll be.”
“True enough,” Victoria said. “I’ll find you guys tomorrow. We’ll stay tonight and help you pack up.”
“Don’t you have rehearsal tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow—or today, rather—is Sunday and even Evil Stuart Goldberg takes a day off now and then.”
“What are you rehearsing again?” Jennifer asked.
“Connor and I are starring in Taming of the Shrew, which you knew already,” Victoria said severely, “so don’t make any jokes about it.”
“Me?” Jennifer said with a smile. “Never.” She winked at Connor. “Fun for you.”
“It shows Victoria’s fire in all its most attractive lights,” he said solemnly. “How can I resist?”
Jennifer whistled. “You are good.”
“And you’re about to lose your help packing,” Victoria said pointedly. “Where’s dinner?”
“Give Mr. Chin a chance.”
Jennifer erased the message, then went to pull her Murphy bed down. She was relieved to find her pink flannel pajamas still under her pillow. Her thief might have had no standards when it came to shoes, but he also had apparently been too lazy to see what might be tucked under bedclothes. She went into the bathroom and changed out of her gown.
Maybe she would go to Scotland first and roam through the heather. Then she would head south and catch up with Megan. It would be wonderful. The calm before the storm. The big breath before leaping into the deep end of the musical pool. A chance to decide once and for all if performing was really for her. That wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do, despite all of Charles Salieri’s text messages and his promise of a full schedule of concert dates in the near future.
Besides, for all she knew she might find a fairy godmother waiting for her. Maybe she would find her knight in shining armor there as well.
One who would actually like to listen to her play. One who had an ounce of chivalry in his soul. One who would love her forever.
It could happen.
But it wouldn’t until she’d gotten herself out of her present situation. She would call Charles in the morning and let him know about her trip, dump her few belongings on her mother’s doorstep, then head for the airport. It was the right thing to do.
She took a deep breath, then left the bathroom, put away her gown and glass slippers, and got down to work.
Ambrose MacLeod flattened himself against the wall that led to the kitchens and wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t found himself in like situations before. One could not be the laird of a mighty clan like the MacLeods and not find himself encountering the odd, dodgy situation or the occasional brush with death. He had gone through more than his share of perilous predicaments and lived to boast of their success.
Still, old habits died hard, as the saying went, and a canny sixteenth-century lad out for a lark in someone else’s castle didn’t simply walk down the passageways as if he had a right to. When assaulting the bowels of someone else’s keep, subterfuge and stealth were always the order of the day.
He held his breath as a stout, plain-faced woman of advancing years came down the passageway, rubbing her hands and complaining to herself about the price of fish. He waited until she’d passed and disappeared the other way before he stepped away from the wall and continued down the passageway, his kilt swinging about his knees in a saucy fashion and his mighty sword slapping against his thigh as it always did.
He walked into the kitchen and looked about him for lights that he might see to. He lit a handful of torches of his own making and found that even here at Artane, the kitchen could be counted on for a shiny black Aga holding court. He conjured up a chair, pulled a mug of ale out of thin air, and sat down with a sigh. Perhaps there were some comforts that could be enjoyed, no matter the location.
He had just settled back to enjoy those comforts when the sound of a cat being strangled assaulted his ears. The front two legs of his chair hit the floor with a thump as he leapt to his feet. His sword came from its sheath with the kind of hiss that bespoke serious business intended.
He waited, bouncing on his heels a time or two, as the sound approached. Who knew what it boded? Was he to be reduced to rescuer of large, very loud felines now? It wasn’t beneath him, of course. Chivalry was chivalry, after all, and no damsel in distress was beneath his notice—be she of the feline kind or not—
He stared, openmouthed, as the sound—and its maker—entered the kitchen. The point of his sword clanged against the stone of the floor. He thought that he just might have to sit down soon.
Or at least stick his fingers in his ears.
“Hugh,” he said weakly. “What, by all the saints above, are you doing?”
Hugh McKinnon, laird of the clan McKinnon near the turn of a particularly medieval century, took the violin from under his chin and made Ambrose a low bow. He straightened, swished his bow through the air a time or two in a manly fashion, then smiled a gap-toothed smile.
“I’m practicing,” he announced proudly.
Ambrose resheathed his sword with difficulty, then felt his way down into his chair. “Practicing what, pray? Terrifying the locals?”
“The violin,” Hugh said indignantly. “Can’t ye see that?”
“Of course I see that,” Ambrose said. “What I don’t see is why.”
“I was thinking that perhaps my wee granddaughter Jennifer McKinnon might play a duet or two with me when she arrives.”
Ambrose was very rarely without some sort of kind word, or a bracing suggestion at the very least, but he found that, in this instance, all he could do was nod, mute. The thought of a musician of Jennifer’s caliber playing with this tormentor of ghostly strung steel was almost beyond comprehension.
Hugh pulled up a chair and sat down with a satisfied sigh. “I’ve already had my first performance, you know,” he said.
“Have you?” Ambrose asked.
“Aye, for that Mr. Victor Bourgeois.” Hugh paused. “He didn’t much care for it, I daresay.”
“Victor Bourgeois?” Ambrose echoed. “The violinist Victor Bourgeois?”
“The very same,” Hugh said with a nod. “Of course, I told him that if he didn’t like my playin’, it meant he was just lackin’ in a bit of good taste.” Hugh scratched his head. “I don’t think he took it well. He checked himself into a madhouse that very night.”
Ambrose suspected Hugh’s playing might drive any sensible soul into madness. He fingered his mug thoughtfully. “And that led to Jennifer’s playing in his stead,” he mused. “I had wondered how that had come about.” He looked at Hugh approvingly. “Well done, Hugh.”
“Shall I serenade you as I did him?” Hugh asked, his eyes alight with pleasure.
“Er, perhaps later,” Ambrose said quickly. “Let us await the arrival of our other comrade in this adventure—”
He would have said more, but he was interrupted by a horrendous clanging coming from inside the Aga. He leapt to his feet, his sword coming from its sheath with a hiss, and tensed, prepared to meet any sort of foe. He noticed that Hugh had tucked his violin under his arm and taken a firmer grip on his bow. Aye, they were both as ready as could possibly be expected—
The door to the oven suddenly burst open and something popped out onto the floor.
Ambrose looked at it in surprise. It was, and he could hardly believe he was about to identify it as such, a genie’s lamp.
Ambrose looked at Hugh. He was staring at the thing with an expression of surprise that Ambrose was sure matched his own. What to do now? Hack at it with his sword?
The genie’s lamp began to wiggle as it sat in front of the stove.
Hugh hopped up on his chair.
“’Tis a lamp, not a mouse,” Ambrose said sternly. He stood and looked down at the brass lamp. “I’ll grasp it quickly and we’ll see what lies within—”
The stopper flew off the top of the lamp and a black, choking smoke poured out. Ambrose used his sword to fan it away. All too soon, the smoke dissipated and all they were left with was Fulbert de Piaget standing there.
Dressed in purple silks.
“Fulbert!” Ambrose exclaimed in horror. “Where is your proper garb, man? Hose, tunic, boots!”
Fulbert scowled fiercely. “Artane is me ancestral home. I thought me entrance deserved a bit of flair.”
“Flair, perhaps. Genie flounces, definitely not,” Ambrose said, resheathing his sword. “This is serious business here.”
Fulbert folded his arms over his chest. “I’m experimentin’ with a new persona.” He straightened his silks importantly. “Fairy godfather.”
“Och, but in different gear,” Hugh pleaded. Then he paused. “How does a body dress for that sort of assignment?”
“Not thusly,” Ambrose said. “You can still act the part without dressing in . . . well, in things that would better suit a beautiful woman. Which, I might add, you are not.”
Fulbert grunted, then in a blink of an eye, he was wearing his usual attire of hose, doublet, and sensible boots—more pedestrian, sixteenth-century fashions befitting his station as a nobleman. He pulled up his own comfortable chair and sat down. After satisfying his thirst in the depths of his mug, he dragged his tunic sleeve across his mouth and belched.
“Good to be home,” Fulbert said, looking about the kitchen as if he reflected on pleasant memories. “Second son though I was.”
“But second sons tend to be the cannier of the two, don’t they?” Ambrose said. “While the lord’s heir has all to look forward to, the second son must often make his own way and rely on his wits. As you did.”
Fulbert looked at him in shock at the unexpected compliment, but regained his composure quickly enough. “Aye, there is truth enough in that. Indeed, consider the second sons in just me own illustrious family. Nicholas, Kendrick, Gervase, Christopher, and, well, Fulbert,” he said modestly. “Today even Gideon de Piaget comes nigh onto surpassing his elder brother, what with him bein’ the CEO of an important international conglomerate.” He paused. “As it were.”
“Do tell,” Hugh said. “I’ve heard the name Kendrick nosed about, but I thought the lad bearing that name was the current lord of Seakirk.”
“He is,” Ambrose said. “Interesting coincidence, isn’t it?”
Fulbert looked at him from under bushy eyebrows and snorted. “There is no coincidence, but that is a tale better left for another time. Give me a name besides his and the burden will rest upon me to do his exploits justice.”
“What of that first lad?” Hugh asked. “Nicholas de Piaget?”
Ambrose was tempted to leap in, but he forbore. After all, this was Fulbert’s ancestral home and ‘twas right that he have all the glory of it. Besides, he suspected that his ability to jump into much of anything on this caper was going to be sorely limited.
That, too, was something to be thought on at a later time.
“Ah, Nicholas,” Fulbert said, warming to his subject, “Nicholas was, as you might expect, the very epitome of all knightly virtues, things perhaps a Scot would know nothing about.”
“Hugh,” Ambrose said patiently, “you’re clutching your bow, not your sword.”
Hugh looked down, swore, then set his bow and his violin down on the floor. He then put his hand on his sword hilt and shot Fulbert a look of promise. “I am skilled in many knightly sorts of things,” he boasted.
Ambrose blew out his breath and looked heavenward.
“And so was Nicholas,” Fulbert said. “Women adored him, men were forced to admire him, kings lusted after his strength of arm and keen wit. He spoke half a dozen languages, traveled extensively, hobnobbed with kings and peasants alike, and burnished his reputation more with each year that passed. He lived a life any man might envy mightily.” He looked at Hugh. “Why did ye want to know?”
Hugh shrugged. “Just curious.”
“Speaking of curious,” Fulbert said, setting his mug aside and rubbing his hands together, “who is it we are set to see settled? Kin of mine?”
“My granddaughter,” Hugh said. “Jennifer—”
“MacLeod,” Ambrose added.
“McKinnon,” Hugh finished. He picked up his bow and pointed it threateningly at Ambrose. “And the lad had best be a fine one, else I’ll have something to say about it.”
“Who is the lad?” Fulbert said. “And why is it I find meself in these pleasant quarters when I could be back at the inn watching you have yer wee parley with the fetching Mrs. Pruitt?”
Ambrose squirmed. “Jennifer is arriving here tomorrow. I thought it would be easiest to see her if we were on site, as it were.”
“Leaving ye,” Fulbert said with a glint in his eye, “comfortably far from our good innkeeper who’d like to do more than just see ye.”
Ambrose wanted to avoid the subject, and indeed he had been avoiding Mrs. Pruitt, the innkeeper at the Boar’s Head Inn, for several months. She had somehow gotten it into her becurlered head that he was the man for her and she was going to woo him, come hell, high water—or present incorporeal status.
Of course, he hadn’t left the inn simply to elude her. He had business at Artane. He needed to watch over his granddaughter, several generations removed of course, and aid her when necessary.
“The lad,” Hugh prodded. “I say a Scot.”
Fulbert shook his head. “A lad from Artane. One with the spine to survive her headstrongness—”
“She isn’t headstrong!” Hugh bellowed.
“Aye, ye have that aright,” Fulbert groused, “that would be yer other granddaughter, Victoria. Young Jennifer is merely opinionated.”
“I daresay she isn’t that, either,” Ambrose said mildly, forcing Hugh back into his chair by means of a pointed stare alone. “She’s passionate and kind and intelligent—”
“All the more reason for an Artane lad,” Fulbert said. “Someone who will appreciate her.”
“And a Scot wouldn’t?” Hugh huffed.
“She deserves someone with courtly manners,” Fulbert said, casting Ambrose an arch look. “Wouldn’t ye agree?”
“For a change, I daresay I would,” Ambrose said slowly. “An Artane lad might suit her very well.”
“What of Stephen?” Fulbert asked. “The current lord’s son? He’s a fine lad, if not a little too fond of his texts.”
“Aye,” Ambrose agreed, “I daresay his time will come, but he is not for Jennifer. She deserves someone who will appreciate her music—”
“Her sweet temperament,” Hugh interjected.
“Her ability to recognize a fine man when she sees one,” Fulbert finished. He paused. “Though I hear that isn’t her strong suit.”
Ambrose smiled. “We’ll see to it this time for her.” He stretched, quite satisfied about the events about to be set in motion. “A fine lad, full of chivalry and good humors.”
“Does such a lad exist these days?” Hugh asked.
Ambrose rose and tossed his mug into the fire. “I daresay he doesn’t.” He smiled at his companions. “I’m off for a walk on the roof. Until tomorrow, gentlemen.”
“I’ll accompany your leave-taking,” Hugh said quickly. “On me fiddle.”
Truth be told, he bolted, but with dignity, of course.
He wasn’t sure what was louder in the noises that floated along behind him, Hugh’s vile playing or Fulbert’s screeching.
He paused at the edge of the great hall. He could see it as it had been in times past, full of music and beautifully garbed souls. Surely it was a place that a woman of talent and beauty would be comfortable in.
He smiled and continued on his way.
Jennifer suspected that despite her excellent map-reading skills and the fact that she had a very good sense of direction, she was completely lost.
There was no reason for it. It wasn’t jet lag. She’d been in Scotland for the previous month and was well acclimated to the change in time. It also wasn’t that she wasn’t well rested. She had spent that wonderful month in Scotland basking in the simplicity of a lifestyle that could have been re-created from former times. She’d gone on lots of nature walks, spent lots of time socializing with cousins, and had the luxury of time to practice and play just for pleasure. No, she was rested and awake, just really turned around.
She hit the brakes when she saw a sign for Wyckham Castle. Well, at least there she could sit in the car park and figure out where she was on the map. With any luck there would be a visitors’ center as well and she could get a snack. Considering the superior nature of British chocolate, she had every reason to hurry up.
She turned off onto a small road and drove through rolling hills and woodlands. She continued on until the road deadended in the car park. She turned off the engine and reached for the map. It took her quite a while to find Wyckham Castle on it, but when she found it, she realized her mistake. She was too far south.
She wasn’t sure how that had happened, but now that she knew where she was, it would be an easy thing to get herself to Artane. She set the map down, leaned back against the headrest, and looked out the front windshield.
And she froze.
The next thing she knew, she was standing outside her car without really knowing how she’d gotten there. She locked the car by feel and started toward the front gates in a daze. She walked into the courtyard, clutching her keys and willing herself to feel the metal in her hand. Somehow, that just didn’t help the incredible feeling of déjà vu she was having.
She had been here before.
Yet she knew she hadn’t.
She shivered as she looked around her, trying to fix on something that would explain why she was suddenly so flipped out.
The keep itself was large, with several walls remaining. The courtyard was quite spacious as well, with the stone footings for several outbuildings still visible in the grass. She could almost see the buildings as they had looked in times past. The stables had been there, the chapel over there, the blacksmith’s hut over in that corner—
She rubbed her arms at the sudden chill in the air. It was crazy. Obviously she’d been in Scotland too long and the rain and the surroundings had had a deleterious effect on her common sense. She’d never been to Wyckham before; her imagination was just getting the better of her.
Still, as she walked across the courtyard, she couldn’t shake off the impression that she was floating instead of walking. She didn’t dare blink for fear that if she did, she would find herself thrust back in time hundreds of years.
She walked around the end of the keep proper and came to an abrupt halt. She had to reach out and hold on to the corner of the keep to steady herself as she looked at the stretch of ground in front of her.
The garden had been there.
It took her a moment to realize that it was only natural to suspect such a thing—it wasn’t a sign of otherworldly activity going on. The patch of ground was the best location for a garden, given its proximity to what had no doubt been the kitchen in times past. It would have been convenient for the cook that way. It was also easy to imagine how it might have looked with a pretty path meandering through herbs and bushes and trees.
It was spooky how well she could see just how it had looked.
“And ridiculous,” she said aloud, turning away suddenly. She just had a great imagination; it was currently running away with her.
She stopped in front of the keep itself and found that she just couldn’t tear her gaze from it. She also couldn’t help the wrench at her heart just looking at it gave her. There was no reason for it. It was just a pile of stones.
Yet somehow it was just dreadful that such a beautiful place should have fallen into disrepair.
She walked up the stairs and over the threshold, then continued on over grass that had been recently mowed. There on the left was an enormous fireplace set into the wall. She walked over to it and sat down on a large stone that seemed to have been placed there for just such a purpose. She stared into the hearth and wondered about the families who had passed their evenings next to it. Had there been music? Laughter? Children? Had they all been happy together?
She speculated on that for much longer than she should have. She looked up at the sky, finally, and realized that the afternoon was passing and she had no answers, nor even any good theories. Castles were expensive to maintain. Maybe the last family to live there had run out of money. Maybe they’d found themselves on the wrong side of a war. Maybe they had moved.
She didn’t know. What she did know was that she’d stayed far longer than she’d intended. By the time she managed to crawl to her feet, she was very stiff. She groaned as she hobbled over to the front door and went outside. At least the pain of a stiff back was enough to distract her from her troubling thoughts. Wyckham wasn’t hers; she didn’t have to stress over what had happened to it over the years.
Of course, the distraction of sore joints only lasted until she left the front gates and had a good look around her.
All right, so it was a little silly to get teary-eyed over a view, but if ever there had been a view made for it, the one in front of her qualified. The countryside was idyllic: rolling hills covered with trees and meadows and fences made of stones. From where she stood, she could see a little stream that meandered toward the castle, then turned away before it reached the walls.
She wandered a little, finding that the sight was almost too beautiful to take in. She loved the ocean, but this land . . . it was full of life and dappled shade and possibility. It was exactly what she’d dreamed about, standing in the middle of her cramped, cluttered apartment in New York. How fortunate Wyckham’s inhabitants had been to have their home in such a place.
She made herself move, finally. She rounded the south end of the outer castle walls and came to a sudden halt. There, just peeking out of a little grove of trees, was a cottage, snug and charming.
Maybe it was a National Trust office and she should have paid to tour the castle. She would now and get a guidebook while she was at it. If nothing else, she could look at it when she was back in a new closet of an apartment in Manhattan, trying to find some silence.
The cottage was locked and seemed to be empty, obviously not a National Trust office. Whoever owned it certainly hadn’t gotten around to furnishing it, though it didn’t look untended. It would have been a charming place to live, right there where the castle could be seen every day.
How would it be to own it?
The thought came out of nowhere and left her breathless. It was very tempting to figure out a way to buy it herself. After all, she did have a pretty decent savings account. And she had a very valuable violin. Maybe between the two, she could scrounge up enough money to buy a small cottage near a ruined castle—
She shook her head. What was she thinking? She had a career to go back to. Her life was full of noise, busyness, lights, city smells. She didn’t have time for an idyllic castle in the charming English countryside.
Or for a little house that sat just outside idyllic castle walls.
No matter how much she suddenly wanted to.
She turned away before she thought about it any more. She didn’t look at the castle as she passed by it. She didn’t dare. It had affected her more than was reasonable and the sooner she put it behind her, the better off she would be. She walked back to her car only to find that she wasn’t the only person who apparently thought Wyckham was a great place. An older British couple had parked next to her and were unpacking gear for a picnic. She smiled.
“Lovely spot,” she offered.
“Yes, quite,” the older woman agreed.
Jennifer started to get in her car, then hesitated. “You wouldn’t know who owns this, would you? Did I miss it on the National Trust property list?”
“Oh, it isn’t National Trust, miss,” the man said with a smile. “It belongs to the Earl of Seakirk. ‘Tis said he owns the cottage as well.” He looked at his wife and lifted a shoulder in a half shrug. “Perhaps it was once in his family.”
“Whatever the case,” the wife added, “he doesn’t seem to mind the odd picnic hamper cluttering up the courtyard, so we come now and then.” She smiled at Jennifer. “A good day to you, then.”
“And to you, too,” Jennifer managed.
She looked only at her car as she got in and started it up. She backed out and looked only at the road in front of her as she got under way. She just couldn’t bring herself to look back at the castle. It had been too unsettling the first time.
She turned back onto the regular road and headed east. She would catch the A1 and head back up the coast. If she hurried, she would be at Artane well before dark and she might actually get some dinner.
It took her a good hour and a half to backtrack and reach the village. She promised herself several visits to the local fish-and-chips shop later, then continued on her way up to the castle itself. She was stopped at the gate, but allowed to drive inside.
She parked her car where she saw others clustered, then grabbed her violin and her suitcase and headed across the courtyard and up the stairs to the front door. Megan opened it before she could knock and threw her arms around Jennifer.
“Where have you been?”
“Lost in history,” Jennifer admitted, hugging her tightly in return. “I took a wrong road and ended up where I hadn’t intended to go. But I got to see a great castle, so I can’t complain.”
Megan took her suitcase from her. “Tell me about it later. For now, let’s get you settled.” She smiled. “You look like you’ve just had a month in the Highlands with nothing to do but endure the MacLeod version of medieval boot camp and occasionally play for your supper.”
“How did you know?” Jennifer asked with a laugh.
“Rumor,” Megan said, “not personal experience. I have no desire to learn medieval survival techniques, though I will admit that Gideon’s been tempted a time or two. Endless days in the Highlands, pretending you’ve gone back in time hundreds of years. It’s pretty tough to resist.”
“It’s impossible to resist, especially if you make the mistake of walking inside Jamie’s gates,” Jennifer said dryly. “I just went up for a nice family visit. Instead, I learned how to ride a horse and eat weeds—courtesy of Patrick MacLeod, the man all wild greens in Scotland fear.” She paused. “I think I’m hungry.”
“We’re having steak for dinner.”
“Thank heavens,” Jennifer said, with feeling. “I was hoping for real food.”
Megan took Jennifer by the arm. “I’m so glad you came. I have lots of company, but there’s nothing like a sister.”
“I understand completely. Now, where’s that gorgeous daughter of yours?”
“Snoozing in her father’s arms. Let’s get your stuff put away, then we’ll go see her.”
She followed Megan to a very nice guest room that looked out over the ocean, dumped her suitcase on the bed, then propped her violin up between the armoire and the wall. Megan handed her a key. Jennifer took it with a smile.
“You know me too well.”
“I know how much your violin cost,” Megan said dryly. “Lock it up and let’s go.”
Jennifer locked the door behind her, then walked with her sister down a maze of hallways, down more stairs, then down a short passageway to a very old doorway.
“We’re in the lord’s solar tonight,” Megan said as she put her hand on the door latch. “You’ve been in here before, haven’t you?”
“I’ve peeked in,” Jennifer said, “but that’s it.”
“Lord Edward doesn’t use it very often,” Megan said. “He has an office and another family room where we usually gather, but tonight I think he’s trying to impress you.”
“I’m impressed already,” Jennifer said, then followed her sister inside to a good-sized but incredibly medieval-looking room. There was a hearth to her left in which currently roared a substantial fire. Behind a very, very antique-looking table was a window with a deep casement that showed just how thick the walls were.
But after that, things took a decidedly modern turn. There was an obviously expensive rug on the floor. Half a dozen overstuffed, faded chairs were placed strategically for conversing, and a chessboard and pieces were set up in one corner with two hard chairs ready there for those so inclined.
Jennifer held out her hand to Lord Edward, the current Earl of Artane, and made him a curtsey, which made him laugh.
“Good evening, Jennifer, my dear,” he said, patting her hand.
“And to you, my lord,” Jennifer said with a smile. “And to you, my lady,” she said turning to Helen, the Countess of Artane. Then she looked at Gideon. “My lord.”
Gideon smiled. “Genuflecting will win you a turn with Georgianna anytime.”
“Why don’t you call me ‘my lady’?” Megan asked pointedly.
“I remember you trying to stuff peas up my nose when I was two,” Jennifer said with a snort as she took Megan’s daughter Georgianna into her arms and sighed in pleasure. “I’ve forgiven you for it, but it ruined any hope of you having any genuflecting from me.” She sat down and snuggled the sleeping baby close. “She is beautiful.”
“She looks like her mother,” Gideon agreed. “Hopefully all our children will be so fortunate.”
“She is indeed beautiful,” Edward said enthusiastically. “And so good-natured. And that is just the beginning of her fine qualities.”
Jennifer listened to the four of them discuss the numerous perfections of Georgianna de Piaget and felt a rush of gratitude that Megan had found such a wonderful family to marry into. It wasn’t easy having Megan in London, but it wasn’t such a bad flight from JFK to Heathrow. At least Gideon’s family was lovely and they obviously thought Megan was wonderful. If she had to live across the deep blue sea, it was best that she be with people who loved her.
Eventually a discreet tap sounded on the door. Lady Helen rose and led them into the family’s private dining room. Jennifer found herself eating a hearty meal that she certainly wouldn’t have found out in the wilds of James MacLeod’s pasture and she was grateful for it. Artane’s chef was indeed without peer; even her father admitted that.
She fully expected to be asked to play after supper and she willingly fetched her violin from her room without hesitation. It was a small price to pay for the luxury of staying in the ancestral seat. Jennifer knew she was getting to touch things that the National Trust folks probably despaired of ever getting their hands on, so she was more than happy to humor Lord Edward.
She put her violin case on the lord’s table at the back of the great hall, took out her violin and tuned it, then joined Megan and her in-laws as they sat near one of the enormous hearths set into the wall.
“Any preference?” she asked Lord Edward.
He sat with his Schnapps and only shook his head. “I’ll leave the choice up to you, my dear. We’ll just be grateful for the free concert. I imagine there aren’t many so fortunate.”
Jennifer considered briefly, then began. She chose Mozart mostly because she knew that Lord Edward had a particular fondness for his music. After that, she just played what she liked and was happy to have such a great hall to perform in.
Until she realized that things were starting to feel a little odd.
It wasn’t every piece, and it wasn’t a consistent thing, but the déjà vus that washed over her were becoming increasingly hard to ignore. She had never brought her violin to England before, having preferred to leave it behind in the round-the-clock care of her mother’s older sister, so it couldn’t have been that. She closed her eyes and concentrated on letting her instrument sing, but even at that she wasn’t completely successful. She wasn’t accustomed to not being able to block out absolutely every sort of distraction that could be thrown at her.
But now, she was cold.
As if she stood in a medieval great hall—not one that had been softened over the years until it was a relatively comfortable place.
She had to open her eyes periodically to make sure she was still standing there in a modern hall in a pair of month-old shoes and casually dressy skirt and sweater, playing for the current lord of Artane.
Well, sort of playing.
She stopped in the middle of her favorite encore and found that tears were running down her cheeks. She looked at Megan, then at Megan’s in-laws.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Let me try that again.”
She tried again.
She didn’t make it eight measures into the piece before she found that she simply couldn’t play it. She tucked her violin under her arm and found that she was shaking.
“You know, my dear,” Lord Edward said kindly, “you’ve been traveling for a pair of days now. Perhaps it’s catching you up.”
Jennifer nodded, forcing a smile. “I’m sure that’s it. I’ll try again tomorrow.”
“We’ll look forward to it, but tonight was brilliant as it stands. I’ve never heard anything I enjoyed more. But now, children, I’m for bed. Gideon, lock up if you would.”
“Of course, Father,” Gideon said cheerfully.
Lord Edward rose, collected his lady, said his good-nights, and left the hall.
Jennifer looked at Megan after they left. “I think I’m scaring myself.”
“You’re tired,” Megan said, getting carefully to her feet with a baby who had fallen asleep again. “Get a good night’s sleep and don’t worry.” She smiled. “You haven’t lost it.”
“I’ll say,” Gideon said, standing and rubbing his hands together. “Father’s right. I haven’t heard anything to equal it.”
“Flattery of that sort will get you a performance every night,” Jennifer said with a smile. Then she looked at her sister. “I think I do need a good night’s sleep.”
“Want me to wait for you to pack up?”
Jennifer shook her head. “I’ll be fine.”
“The front door’s bolted,” Gideon said, putting his arm around Megan, “and the kitchen is secured. I’ll come back down and see to the lights.”
“Thanks,” Jennifer said. She hugged Megan around the baby, gave Gideon a hug, then pretended to focus completely on putting her violin away.
In reality, she thought she just might be losing it—really. First that very weird afternoon at Wyckham, and now this. She’d never not gotten through a performance, not even that disastrous recital she’d finished by sheer willpower alone when she’d been five.
She cleaned her violin, loosened her bow, and closed up her case with a sigh. Maybe a good night’s rest was what she needed. Everything would no doubt look better in the morning and she would be back to normal.
She started for the stairs, then paused. She turned slowly and looked over the great hall. She could see it suddenly, peopled with women in glorious medieval gowns and men in finely embroidered tunics. There, on one side of the hall, she could see a collection of skilled medieval musicians, playing a lively tune for the dancers. The rest of the hall was filled with servants, pages, squires, and onlookers. She could hear the music and smell the smoke from the fire.
Then she blinked.
And the hall was as it had been. Empty, very old, and steeped in history.
She shook her head wryly. Definitely too much time in Scotland. Apparently being at Artane was going to be just as hard on her common sense. She looked at the hall one last time. It must have been glorious to be in a place where there was money for fine clothes and skilled musicians. Gideon’s ancestors had been fortunate indeed.
But it wasn’t for her. She turned away and walked up the stairs to her twenty-first century bedroom, leaving the hall and its glorious past behind her.
Nicholas de Piaget sat at the lord’s table in his father’s keep and wondered why it was that the bloody hall before him couldn’t have been empty for a change. He was just as able as the next man to appreciate a beautifully dressed woman, or a fine cup of wine, or a well-played ballad, but there was a limit to the number of times he could be expected to appreciate the like. If he had to endure another evening of food, wine, and capering about to even the admittedly excellent music being played currently, he would lose what few wits remained him.
Unfortunately, there seemed to be no end to the torture in sight. His grandmother, Joanna of Segrave, was determined to fill Artane’s great hall with maidens of marriageable age and attractive dowries to tempt him, lure him, vex him, or befuddle him to the altar.
Presently he was being tormented by five of his grandmother’s findings. There was a child of no more than twelve summers who he actually hadn’t seen completely as she seemed determined to hide behind her mother’s skirts. Another wench sat in a chair near one of the hearths, watching him with a calculating look that made him want to go hide behind his mother’s skirts. A third was speaking to his grandmother in a voice so shrill that even the excruciatingly proper Joanna of Segrave was looking about for a means of escape. Nicholas would have led her to one, but he was sitting between the final two ladies and politeness demanded that he not leave the table until they did. He suspected that, given the way they were working their way through their meals and his, too, they would not be leaving anytime soon.
“What a fine hall your father has, my lord,” remarked Adelina of Cladford, the fair-haired woman on his right. She looked over said hall with a practiced eye. “So richly furnished. And what a fine table he sets.”
“Ah,” Nicholas began, but found that his thoughts on the matter were unnecessary.
“Aye, I agree,” said Herleva of Kirton, the equally lovely black-haired woman on his left. She reached over him to stab a particularly succulent piece of meat on his trencher with her knife. “Though it seems to be rather thin here before us, don’t you agree, my lord?”
“Um,” Nicholas said, wondering if she might stab him next if he answered amiss.
Fortunately, whether he agreed or not did not seem to matter. The two began a very thorough and detailed assessment of the supper, the wine, and the desserts that were coming now from the kitchens. Nicholas half feared the women would turn to him and then spend the rest of the evening deciding how best to divide him between them.
Actually, the longer he sat there, the more he suspected that such would not be his fate. The ladies of Cladford and Kirton talked over and around him as if he hadn’t been there. And once all the food had been seen to and they were left with their goblets of wine, he learned a great deal about the proper cut of sleeve required at court, how best to determine how far the hair should recede off the brow to give a suitable look to the headdress, and which mistresses of which lords had moved on to richer coffers and better laid tables.
Adelina tapped him suddenly on the arm.
“We’ve run out of wine,” she announced.
Nicholas caught the eye of one of his father’s pages who ran off immediately toward the kitchen. He smiled politely at Adelina.
“Not long now.”
She considered him. “You’re not enjoying this overmuch, are you?”
“Are you?” he countered.
Adelina shrugged. “I am here to humor the lady of Segrave and my father both. Enjoyment is not the desired result.”
“Nor for me,” agreed Herleva.
“And you’re here for no other reason?” Nicholas asked, amused.
“Oh, you are handsome,” said Adelina.
“And rich,” added Herleva.
“But, you’re not for me,” Adelina finished. She looked at him unflinchingly. “You have a murky past, my lord.”
“Some would consider that an asset,” he said lightly.
“Aye, if you want a lover,” said Herleva, looking at him in much the same way she had the boar not an hour ago, “but not if you’d like a husband.”
“Tsk,” said Adelina. “Too much time at court, Herleva. That wasn’t polite.”
Nicholas waved away her words. “I’ve a thick skin,” he said easily. “But no need for a lover at present.” He stood up, pushed his chair back, and made way for the wine. “If you ladies will permit me, I have a message to carry to my father.”
Aye, that I’ve bloody had enough tonight and ‘tis his turn to come make an appearance at the table with these vultures.
The women waved him on while holding out their cups to be refilled.
Nicholas turned and walked into his elder brother before he saw him. He could tell by the set of Robin’s jaw that he had heard the last exchange. Nicholas clapped a hand on his shoulder and turned him around.
“Ouch, damn you,” Robin said in annoyance, prying Nicholas’s fingers off him. “I was going.”
“Good. I’m following.”
And he did, pushing Robin ahead of him until they had reached the entrance to the passageway that led to their father’s solar. Then Robin stopped and looked at him, his eyes glittering in the torchlight.
Nicholas shook his head with a smile. “How gallant you are, brother, to defend my abused honor.”
“Murky past, my arse,” Robin snorted. “I’d be more worried about their pasts. Were they maids, do you suppose?”
“I try not to speculate on that sort of thing.”
“Wise,” Robin agreed. Then he paused. “Shall we go? Stare at them from the shadows and discuss their flaws? That might pass the rest of the evening most pleasantly.”
Nicholas suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. The only thing possibly more irritating than his grandmother’s enthusiasm over the prospect of seeing him wed was his elder brother’s delight in inspecting what goods arrived as inducements.
“I think I’ve looked enough,” Nicholas said, “but if you’ve the stomach for it, I won’t stop you.”
“Alone?” Robin said with a delicate shudder. “Thank you, but nay. I just came to rescue you. You know, you look hungry.”
“I am,” Nicholas said, but Robin had already trotted away with the lightness of step only a man safely wed and free from Joanna of Segrave’s piercing gaze could possibly manage. Nicholas turned back to look out over the hall, wondering how best he might have something to eat without returning to the festivities. If his grandmother saw him, he was doomed.
Not that all her sojourns to Artane had been so unpleasant. Indeed, he’d been a bit surprised at all the beauties she had been able to produce over the past year. Some of them had even been old enough to be considered women and not children.
Unfortunately, even the children had been far more interested in the state of his purse than the condition of his heart. Was it possible to find a woman who could actually see him, not his riches, nor his titles, nor his reputation?
He remembered his sister complaining about the same thing. At the time, he’d thought her complaints to be too many and too loud. Now, he understood completely. Fortunately for Amanda, she had found a man who hadn’t cared less about her dowry.
He was beginning to fear he wouldn’t have such a happy ending to his own tale.
“Ah, Nicky, love,” a weathered voice said smoothly. “Come and be sociable.”
Nicholas cursed under his breath. Caught, and so easily, too. Unfortunately, he couldn’t glare at his grandmother; she would have pinched his ear at a most inopportune moment as repayment. He also couldn’t glare at her because she was a delightful old woman who had always loved him unreservedly; there was little she could not prevail upon him to do. So he sighed, put on his best courtly manners, and offered her his arm.
Joanna put her hand on his sleeve and smiled up at him. “Come and look what I have brought you to choose from.”
“Grandmère, I’ve already looked and I’m not interested.”
“How can you deny an old woman her wish to see her favorite grandson wed?” She squeezed his arm with a grip that would have frightened a man of lesser spine. “And you’d best make up your mind quickly, Nicky, before I’m dead. Ah, look you here,” she said suddenly, and quite loudly, “there is the lady of Clyffe and her lovely daughter who has overcome her shyness to make you a curtsey. Here is my grandson, Nicholas, lord of Wyckham. Nicholas,” she muttered under her breath, “smile, damn you.”
She pinched his ear anyway.
* * *
It took another hour, but he finally orchestrated an escape. He had spewed out in one evening more insincere compliments than any man could reasonably have been expected to voice during the course of an entire year, then pled a bit of manly business as his excuse and fled without a backward glance. Supper could wait. He strode down the passageway to the lord’s solar and burst in, slamming the door behind him.
His family was there, looking comfortable and content. Nicholas scowled, booted his youngest brother out of a chair, then sat with a curse. He glared at his father.
“I told Grandmère you were anxious to come and see to her guests.”
Rhys looked faintly panicked. “Surely I cannot. It would be unchivalrous of me to leave your mother here.”
“Take her with you.”
“The company would weary her.”
Nicholas scowled. “Feeble excuses, Father. Admit it. You’re afraid.”
“Terrified,” Rhys admitted promptly. “And I hesitate to decide what frightens me more: the ladies or your grandmother.” He shivered. “The saints be praised I am safely wed.”
“You are fortunate indeed,” Nicholas grumbled.
“You should find a wife,” Robin suggested. “Your humors will improve.”
“I would,” Nicholas said through gritted teeth, “if I could find a woman who didn’t hide each time I looked at her!”
“There are many women who look forward to the sight of you,” Anne said, smiling at him.
“Ah, but those aren’t the kind of wench Nick dares show to his mother—”
“Robin!” Anne exclaimed.
“Nicholas,” Rhys warned.
Nicholas was halfway across the chamber, his hands outstretched to throttle his brother. Robin merely sat in his chair, grinning evilly. Nicholas straightened, smoothed down the front of his tunic, and resumed his seat with as much dignity as possible. He looked at Anne. “Your husband is a dolt.”
“Robin, do not,” Rhys warned.
Robin waved his father away. “That was but a weak insult; not even worth getting up for. But I think it illustrates the deeper problem here. His humors are unbalanced—likely a result of still being unwed. Obviously, we must renew our efforts to find our lovely Nicky a bride.”
“He’ll find the right woman at the right time,” Gwen said placidly.
“Apparently not without help,” Robin said. “’Tis baffling, isn’t it? Surely there is at least one wench in England to suit him.”
Nicholas had to sit on his hands to keep from throwing something at his brother.
“You would think,” Robin added.
“As usual, you shouldn’t,” Nicholas said shortly. He turned to his mother. “I can bear this madness no longer. I must escape. Perhaps I will go to Wyckham and make repairs.”
“Not the roof again,” Robin groaned. He rose and reached down to pull Anne to her feet. “Let us leave him before we must listen to yet another endless list of all the activities his stone masons have been about. This is why he is not wed. He bores his potential brides with tales of stones and mortar.”
He flicked Nicholas companionably on the ear as he passed. Montgomery, John, and Miles soon followed, taking Isabelle with them.
Rhys sighed and rose from his chair. “I suppose I should go attempt to appease Lady Joanna.”
Gwen smiled up at him. “You know she loves you well.”
“She has never forgiven me for bringing you so far north. My meals at her supper table are proof enough of that.”
“She thinks rich fare is unhealthy for a warrior.”
Rhys grunted. “And so she feeds me oats and carrots as if I were a horse.” He leaned over and kissed his lady. “I’ll go humor her yet again and see if it earns me at least a sweet upon our next visit.”
“I’ll come in a moment or two,” Gwen said with a smile. “To save you from her, if necessary.”
Rhys muttered something Nicholas was just certain wasn’t complimentary about his lady’s mother under his breath as he left the solar.
Nicholas watched his father go, then turned to look at his mother. She was studying him gravely.
“What?” he asked with a faint smile.
“I wish you were happier,” she said.
“I am happy.”
Gwen shook her head. “If it were merely a bout of foul humors, I would not worry, but I fear it is more than that.” She paused. “I wish you could find what your heart seeks.”
“A dry spot in front of my own fire?”
“You will not be serious about this, but I vow, Nicky my love, that there is a part of your heart that needs tending that none of us can provide.”
He shook his head. “I am merely weary of the endless parade of females that do not interest me.”
“What are you looking for?”
That was the question indeed—and one he’d never truly given thought to until his grandmother had begun her siege. Now, he had a list.
He wanted a woman who could appreciate a finely tuned lute, a well-crafted bit of poetry, a beautiful tapestry. He wanted a woman who had a thought in her head besides what was put there by her sire or the asps at court. He wanted a woman who could see him, not his wealth or his reputation. Even the women who had tempted him slightly had looked at him with the sort of calculation that said he’d best be damned rich for them to overlook his murky past.
Of course, he could tell his mother none of that, so he settled for a smile.
“I have had the good fortune of knowing many strong women—”
“Or the misfortune,” Gwen put in mildly.
Nicholas shook his head. “You know you do not mean that. You and your daughters are without peer. Poor fool am I to want the same kind of woman for myself.”
Gwen rose, leaned over to kiss the top of his head, then put her hand under his chin and lifted his face up. “When you fall in love, it will be with someone extraordinary, someone much more remarkable than anyone your grandmère can produce. I have no doubt you’ll find her.”
Nicholas nodded, but he couldn’t answer. He couldn’t agree and he wasn’t going to argue with the sentiments of a woman who loved him.
“Did you have supper, son?”
“I couldn’t bring myself to fight my table companions for it.”
“Poor Nicholas,” Gwen said with a rueful laugh. “I’ll see some sent in to you.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Nicholas said. He watched her walk out the door, then turned toward the fire.
In one thing she spoke truly and that was that he would never find a woman to love in a great hall peopled by women of his grandmother’s choosing. He was beginning to despair of finding a woman in any other country. If the ladies Joanna had found were any indication of what he could hope for, he would be better off contenting himself with merely being uncle to his nieces and nephews and father to none.