Maggie Chase gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white as she navigated the tiny car through a torrential downpour. The windshield wipers swished back and forth at a speedy rate—which, due to the pouring buckets of rain, turned out to be not so speedy after all. Her bright lights reflected off the sheets of rain and she squinted, as if that would help her see through the dark deluge.
“Please, God,” she muttered under her breath. “Get me through this in one piece.”
She had resorted to verbal prayer instead of a silent one, hoping that God would hear her even though He hadn’t heard a word she’d pled over the last few harrowing hours. So she drove on, desperate to be off this bumpy, one-lane road. Maggie could feel the tires slipping in the muddy road, causing her to grip the steering wheel tighter. Fear was the only thing keeping her from slamming on the brakes.
“You think you’re so smart, Mags,” she mumbled, staring hard through the windshield. “Coming out here looking for evidence of a guy who’s been dead for over six hundred years.”
Oh, sure. Traveling through Scotland sounded like a grand idea. A student of medieval literature in grad school, she was completely fascinated with Sir Derron, a fourteenth-century knight and one of Europe’s most romantic jousting champions. Seeing the actual site of the tournamentwould make it easier to unravel the story of his mysterious life and death. She’d found it strange the man seemed to have no surname.
The car jostled violently as Maggie hit a huge, muddy pothole. She cringed, sucked in a sharp breath at the loud crunch. That can’t be good. There was an immediate thump-thump, thump-thump and she quickly found keeping control of the steering wheel was a feat beyond her abilities.
Maggie depressed the brake with as much ease as possible, slowing the ailing car to a bumpy crawl. Even with the swishing wipers, rivulets of rain streamed down the windshield.
She snatched her cell phone but the battery neared the red mark, desperate for a charge. Not that it mattered. She couldn’t even get a call out since she was in a dead zone. Tears blurred her vision as she thought of calling her dad, wanting to hear his friendly voice and whine to him. “Um, Dad? I’vetaken a wrong turn somewhere around Dumfries and I’m completely lost. Oh, and by the way, I’m stuck on a deserted road in the driving rain at night, all alone.”
Dad would have sympathy for a few minutes before telling her she should have stayed home. She should have known the trip would be doomed from the start when an Icelandic volcanic eruption interrupted her flight departure. Then her best friend and traveling partner, Beth, came down with the flu the day before theywere to leave.
But Maggie was determined to go anyway, even though her father had begged her to stay.
“Don’t go, magpie,” he said. “It’s a sign.”
“You always say that.” At the time, she’d rolled her eyes at him. Now she wished she’d listened. It was a sign. Even the universe was trying to tell her to stay away.
“Maybe I do, but this time I feel it in my bones. Stay here at least until Beth is well enough to travel with you.”
“I can’t wait, Dad. I have to go. I promise to check in every day. Twice a day,” she added for extra emphasis.
He relented but he still didn’t like her going alone. She hadn’t been immune to the worried crease on his forehead. It felt like Maggie’s one and only chance to finally find out who Sir Derron was and what had happened to him. Now she stared through the foggy glass into the dark night and thumped the wheel in frustration. Maybeshe could wait it out.
Ten minutes turned into twenty and twenty into thirty. It didn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.
“May as well get it over with, Mags.”
She didn’t even have an umbrella.
Heaving a sigh, she switched off the wipers and cut the motor. When she flung open the door, the rain poured in and she grunted, stepping onto the muddy earth. Immediately soaked to the bone, she did a quick survey of the four wheels.Nothing looked out of the ordinary.
Perhaps there was something broken under the car. With a grimace, she squatted, trying hard not to fall into the mud, and peeked underneath. Of course, in the dark with no flashlight, she couldn’t see a thing. She stood and kicked the tire as hard as she could.
“I hate you.” As if that would make it all better.
Then another thought occurred to her. She grabbed the front wheel and gave it a hard yank. Her hands slipped off the wet rubber and she fell backward in a puddle of mud with a splash.
The last thing Maggie expected to see was her front wheel slanting away from the car at an odd angle. She was no mechanic but she guessed it meant her axle was broken.
“Damn it,” she shouted. Even if no one heard her, it sure made her feel better.
The only option she had left was to start walking. But to where, she had no clue.
* * *
Maggielugged her suitcase up the steep incline, her wet hair plastered to her head and dripping in her eyes. She cursed the weight of the thing, but knew she couldn’t leave it and her purse in the broken car. Besides, she had dry clothes inside the suitcase. Once she got wherever she was going, she could change.
In the morning, she vowed, she would call the rental company and tell them what happened and hope they wouldn’t send her a bill for the damages. Maybe they could send anothercar out to her. Then she would call Dad to let him know she was still alive and well.
Maggie’s arm muscles burned from carrying the suitcase. Over the rocky, muddy terrain, the wheels were no use. She was wet, tired and hungry, and not even sure she could take one more step.
A streak of lightning split the night sky, outlining a huge castle on the top of the hill. She blinked, confused. She was nearly standing in front of it and she hadn’t even seen it. She stared at the dark space in front of her, trying to make out the building. She wiped a hand over her wet face, but it didn’t help. It wasn’t there.
Another bolt and then it was there again. With high turrets and a yawning opening, beckoning her inside. It looked ancient. In the second she saw it, she could see crumbling walls. Once the light had faded, though, she couldn’t see it anymore. If only she had a flashlight.
Maggie slung her purse over herhead so the strap crossed her body. She hefted the suitcase in both arms and held it against her chest. She waited, holding her breath, for the next flash of light.
And there it was again. Standing against the inky blackness like a beacon of hope. She bolted into a run, headed directly for it. Once the light faded, she couldn’t see it again, as if it had disappeared from the horizon. Still, she ran for it, rain pelting her face. Her feet splashed in puddles, adding to hersogginess.
Her breath huffed out in clouds and she realized the temperature had suddenly dropped. Not only wet, now she was chilled to the bone. Her teeth chattered and she couldn’t stop the uncontrollable shivering. The castle she’d seen was her only salvation out of this dreadful Scottish weather.
Maggie paused, her lungs stinging from her mad dash. Her arms ached from holding her suitcase. Her legs burned from the exertion. Now at the top of the hill, she glanced around, perplexed. No castle. Had she officially stepped into the Twilight Zone? Had she merely hallucinated the castle in her desperation to get out of the elements?
She waited for the next flash of light. Perhaps she had misjudged and blindly ran the wrong way. Her heart throbbed painfully as she waited.
Overhead, thunder rumbled. Maggie stared hard into the darkness, holding her breath in anticipation of the lightning that was sure to follow. Secondslater, not one but two flashes came. She was only ten steps from the entrance of the castle.
She ran toward it as the glow faded and smacked into the wooden door. She nearly bounced off but managed to maintain her footing. Even so, her suitcase slipped out of her hand, landing with a muffled thud at her feet. She reached out and ran her hand down the solid wood. It was real. She wasn’t hallucinating. Should she knock? Would anyone answer? It seemed deserted. Couldn’t hurt if sheopened the door and stepped in. Right?
The hinges groaned with displeasure as the door swung open wide. Inside it was dry. Dark, but dry. Maggie picked up her suitcase and stepped across the threshold of the deserted castle. Instantly, warmth surrounded her as she stood in the doorway. Her clothes dripped on the stone floor, the only sound in the deafening silence.
No answer. But something made her shiver. And it wasn’t merely the cold rain running down her back.
She glanced left and right. No furnishings, no nothing. It would also mean no telephone and no hot meal. Or blankets. Or running water.
Still, it was better than nothing. To her left, she saw the flicker of yellow and orange light, which beckoned her. Had it been there before? She didn’t remember seeing it when she first stepped inside. She shrugged and headed toward it, looking forward to drying off and warming up. She hoped she wasn’tabout to get shot for trespassing. But as she ventured farther inside, she saw no signs of life.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” Her voice echoed through the empty depths.
Maggie stepped into a room with a gigantic hearth on one side. She’d had a fascination with castles from the time she could imagine herself as a princess waiting at the top of the highest turret for Prince Charming to come riding to her rescue on his white steed. Seeing pictures and being inside onewas very different. This seemed to be the great hall, where those past inhabitants sat at long wooden tables feasting on roast boar, loaves of crusty bread, wheels of cheese and roasted vegetables. At least, that’s what her stomach and imagination thought.
The room was empty except for a warm fire blazing in the hearth, crackling with life and lifting her spirits. She dropped her suitcase and wrung out her hair, squeezing the excess wetness out of it.
Thunder rumbled and Maggie was very glad she was inside, creepy castle or no. At least she was out of the cold. But how could there be a fire in a deserted castle? It didn’t make sense and she was too tired and too soggy to go searching about. She hoped whoever she shared her warmth with was friendly.
In the morning, she would have to explore the ruins. The historical junkie in her couldn’t walk out of here without at least taking a few notes and pictures. Her new digital camera, bought forthe trip, was tucked neatly under folds of clothes inside her suitcase.
Remembering technology still existed she fumbled in her handbag for her cell phone. She scowled at the words NO SERVICE at the top of the screen. It figured.
Finally, she plunked down on the cold stone floor, stretching her hands toward the fire. She would have to stay here tonight. Despite the warmth, a chill ran through her. Gooseflesh rose on her arms and the hair on the back of her neck stoodat attention.
She peered into the shadows and strained her ears to listen for any faint sound. She saw no one. She heard no one. The castle was dead silent save for the cracking fire. Even though it stood to reason whoever built the fire was still nearby.
“Is there anyone here?” she called again.
Was she insane to stay in the middle of a ruined castle all alone? What if there was some vagrant spending the night here? What if they were a serial killer? What if she didn’t wake up in the morning?
Get a grip, Mags.
She chastised herself for allowing her thoughts to run away into the dark and dangerous. The place seemed deserted.
When silence was her answer, she shrugged off a shiver and reached for her suitcase. Glancing around the shadows, she flipped it open and rummaged around until she found a cardigan, a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and dry underwear. She peeled out of her wet, muddy clothes,dumping them to the side, and quickly pulled on the dry clothes. She double-checked to make sure her camera was indeed safe and dry.
She took another pair of jeans, rolled them up and wrapped another sweater around the pair. It would have to do as a makeshift pillow. She bunched it under her head and lay down on the hard stone floor. As she gazed at the warm fire, her eyelids became heavy and soon she was fast asleep.
* * *
Sir Finian McCullough watchedthe lovely lass from his prison in the spirit world as she entered the castle. The moment she stepped across the threshold, he couldn’t stop watching her. He wanted to touch her, to feel that creamy, damp skin on his. Och, to feel anything. This lass was the one who’d come to be his savior. She was here because she could see the castle, which was invisible to all but the one person who could break the curse.
I curse you to live in solitude until someone with a noble heart comes to right your wrongs.
She was tall and lithe and wet. Dripping from head to toe. Her long dark hair hung limply down her back. Her clothes clung to all her curves.
The castle—his family’s castle—was nothing but a ruin on the hilltop. Uncared for, unloved, unneeded. He had felt the same, becoming long forgotten through the pages of history. Or so Elyne said. She had made sure of that. Penance, she’d said, for she constantly reminded him,for killing her lover. As if his curse of being stuck between the Otherworld and the human world wasn’t penance enough, he had to be stalked by the Fae princess.
The girl’s voice was soft but with a sexy undertone that made him wish he was human again. Oh, the things he could do if he weren’t but a wisp of air.
The lass stared into the darkness, her clothes dripping circles all around her and leaving water spots on the stone flooring.Mayhap she looked for signs of life. He inched closer to get a better look, reaching out a wispy hand to touch—
“Don’t even think about it, Finn,” Elyne said, making him stop short.
The bloody princess of Faery always showed up at the most inopportune moments. He suppressed a growl of annoyance.
To his surprise, the lass shuddered as if she’d heard the warning.
“Ah, but look at her, Elyne. The poor wee lassie is cold and wet.”
Elyne snapped her fingers and the fireplace in the great hall flamed to life. The woman picked up her case and walked toward it.
“Like a moth drawn to a candle flame,” Elyne said, shaking her head. “She shouldn’t be here, Finn. You know that.”
“If you dinna want her here, why then did you let her see the castle?”
“I didn’t let her see it,” Elyne protested, propping her hands on her hips. “She saw it on thehill of her own accord.”
Finn clucked his tongue. “Och, lass, dinna lie. ’Tis verra unbecoming.”
Elyne furrowed her blonde brow, fire flashing in her cornflower-blue eyes. “All right, so I did. She was stranded. Her car broke down. I couldn’t leave her out there in the rain.”
As if on cue, thunder rumbled the castle.
“Alas! So ye do have a heart,” Finn said. “And here I thought ye lacked one.”
“If I do, it’s because of you.” Elyne folded her arms and scowled.
Six hundred and sixty years in ghostland would cause lesser men to go mad. But not Finn. No, he had to be saddled with the Faery crown princess who followed him everywhere in this empty, drafty castle who never let him forget he’d killed her love, a Fae knight.
Hard as he’d tried to convince her otherwise, Elyne couldn’t be persuaded the knight’s death had been an accident. Finn’s lance had been tipped to make it look like murder. He’d been framed by someone he loathed, someone to whom he owed a great deal of money. He’d paid for it with his own life and, in death, Elyne had cursed him. Trapping him for eternity in his invisible castle, which—blessedly—wasn’t so invisible to this bonnie lass.
Finn followed the pretty stranger into the great hall, Elyne hot on his trail. Orange and yellow light flickered on the lass’s pale features. She had highcheekbones and a straight, narrow nose. Her damp hair hung down to her waist, and when she wrung it out, it made a large puddle on the floor. Then she held some strange silver device, peering at it before tossing it back into her bag. The lassie plunked down, stretching her hands to the fire.
Finn glanced at Elyne, who narrowed her eyes at him. “What?”
“I was thinking…”
“Always dangerous,” Elyne interjected.
“You said one with anoble heart would come to break the curse. She’s the only one that’s stepped foot in this castle in centuries.”
“So?” Elyne shrugged one thin shoulder.
“Are ye going to tell me she isna the one?” Finn demanded. “She is here, is she no’?”
Elyne flushed a deep crimson, the color high in her cheeks. “Ah…aye, she’s here.”
“Or did ye tell me a falsehood? Is the curse real?”
“Oh, no falsehood. The curse is very real. It’s that…I…well…” She paused, her forefinger curling around one long tendril of pale hair.
“Out with it.”
“I’m not sure how to break the curse.”
“What do ye mean?” Finn thundered. He clenched his fist, his jaw tight. “Ye cursed me and now ye canna uncurse me?”
“I’m rather a novice when it comes to curses, Finn. And I really never thought this scenario would play out.” She flashed asheepish grin.
“Och, so ye thought to put me in this purgatory for eternity? For killing yere knight? That wasna even my fault. I was set up.” He paced back and forth. “If I wasna nothing more than a wisp o’ air, I’d wring yere Faery neck.”
“Well, you are and you can’t.” Elyne folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips. “I made a mistake, all right?”
“Aye and how do ye intend to fix it?” he demanded.
“I’m working on it. The girl is here, though. She can clearly see the castle so at least that’s a start.” She chewed on her lower lip, looking thoughtful. “There is…one thing I could do.”
“Aye? What is it?”
Ignoring him, she shook her head, waving away whatever she’d been mulling over. “No, no. I can’t do that. ’Tis forbidden. Against every law of magic there is. And aside from that my mother will kill me.”
“I’ll kill ye if ye dinna stop babbling tell me what it is,” Finn demanded.
“’Tis a crazy idea,” Elyne said. “And if I do this then I could get into serious trouble in the Otherworld.”
“Do you mean to use yere Faery hocus-pocus?”
“There is magic involved, aye.” Elyne nodded. “But what I’m considering, Finn, has major repercussions.”
“Well, out with it then. I’ll be the judge of that.” He pinned her with aglare.
“The curse states you’re doomed to live out eternity alone until someone with a noble heart can right your wrongs. Well, here is your someone.” She pointed to the girl in the great hall. “One could only guess she has a noble heart to help right your wrongs.”
“And so I’m thinking she can help you. The past you, I mean. At least that’s how I’m interpreting the curse. I could send you back in time. With the girl.”
Finnwas silent as he considered. He hovered near her, enjoying the view. A bonnie lass, to be sure. Her face was like porcelain, as if carved by the angels themselves. Her eyes were the color of green jewels winking in the firelight. She shivered then and hugged herself, glancing around. Her gaze met his. But of course she couldn’t see him.
“Is there anyone here?”
When she spoke, her breath came out in white plumes. Her voice shook. He hadn’t intended to give her a fright and backed off, moving away so she couldn’t feel his presence. She shrugged, then, and opened her strange case, rummaging through it.
He watched her with interest as she pulled out garment after garment. He never really expected her to take off her wet clothes and he chided himself for his surprise. Of course she would. She thought she was alone.
A warm yellow glow flickered over her glistening skin, her beautiful body. Her breasts were small and round withperfect pink peaks. Below that, she had a flat stomach and long, muscular legs. He couldn’t find one flaw.
He longed to feel her warmth, her touch. Finn watched as the woman, now dressed, curled up on the stone floor, pillowing her head on rolled up clothes in front of the fire.
“Well? What do you think?” Elyne asked, snapping him out of his longing.
“What are these…repercussions?” he asked.
“Sifting humans to their past isforbidden, for one thing.”
“Och, but think of it, Elyne,” he said, never taking his eyes off the girl. “With the bonnie lass at my side, things will be different. Going back, I willna kill yere knight with the tipped lance. Ye will get him back and I willna be cursed. ’Tis perfect.”
Returning with what he knew already, he could stop things from happening before they happened. He’d know his lance was tipped and could do something about it before going into that round.
“Oh, but there’s one teensy little problem. If—and I do mean if—I send you back, you won’t remember a thing about the last six hundred years. That’s one of the inevitable side effects about, you know, time travel and Fae magic.”
So much for going back with his memory intact. He scowled as he looked at Elyne, his mind working. If he wasn’t allowed to keep his memories, he’d need another way.
“Then ’tis no’only up to me, lassie. ’Tis up to you, too.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Yere coming with us.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Oh aye, ye are. And yere going to help her see how great I am. The bonnie lass will keep me out of the gambling tents, I’ve no doubt.”
“I am not going to play matchmaker.” She said this in her best haughty tone.
“It shouldna be too hard for ye. All ye have to do isgive her a nudge in my direction. My charms will work after that.”
“You are an overconfident jackass. I won’t do it.” She crossed her arms, looking indignant.
“Ye will if ye want yere knight to live.” Finn lowered his eyes, glaring at her but keeping his voice calm.
“Bloody hell,” Elyne muttered. She huffed out a long, exasperated sigh. “If she fails—”
“She willna fail,” Finn said. He would make sure of it…though he wasn’t sure how he would make sure of it.
There was a long pause as Elyne hovered nearby. She propped her hands once again on her rounded hips, watching the woman sleep. “I should have never brought it up. It’s against Fae Law.”
“Ye wouldna mention it had ye not already made up yere mind. Ye willna give up yere one chance at having yere love back, will ye?” Finn pressed on despite Elyne’s huffing.
Elyne scrunched her face in a scowl,knowing Finian had her right where he wanted her. She’d agree to the idea, they’d all go back in time and he wouldn’t kill Derron. Then Elyne could send the lass back once all was done and she would be happy while Finn would live out the rest of his days in his castle.
“You really push me too far, Finn.”
He shrugged. “’Tis up to ye. But seems to me it’d be worth a try.”
“You know I’ll do it and you know why I’ll do it. But I warnyou, Finn, kill him a second time and you will cease to exist. Understood?”
“I canna agree to that when I willna remember it on the morrow.” He flashed a wicked grin.
“Oh fear not, sir knight. You’ll remember. Eventually. I’ll make sure of it.”