Turn the Page
By Ditter Kellen
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Copyright © Ditter Kellen All rights reserved. This copy is intended for the original purchaser of this book ONLY. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without prior written permission from Ditter Kellen. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Image/art disclaimer: Licensed material is being used for illustrative purposes only. Any person depicted in the licensed material is a model.
Published in the United States of America.
Ditter Kellen P.O Box 124
Highland Home, AL. 36041
This book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
For Cathe Green, one of the most beautiful women I have ever known. The impact she has had on my life is astounding and I will always hold a place for her inside my heart. Here’s to her happy ever after…
Catherine Grier buttoned her coat and slipped on a pair of worn green gloves she’d gotten for Christmas some years back. The forecast was calling for sleet that morning, and she had a six-block walk to work ahead of her. She dreaded the cold almost as much as she dreaded her birthday.
An image of her college sweetheart’s laughing face floated through her mind. “Come on, Cathe. It’s your birthday…it’ll be fun. I’ll be careful.” If only she’d said no and insisted they wait for the storm to pass before climbing on the back of his motorcycle, maybe he’d still be alive…as would their unborn child.
Jeff a; nd Cathe had been inseparable as only first loves could be, and not a day went by that she didn’t miss him. The unplanned pregnancy had been a shock to Cathe’s religious family, but she and Jeff had been determined to keep the baby and had even begun picking out names.
A wave of sorrow passed through her with the memory of waking in intensive care, only to realize that Jeff was gone and she no longer carried their child. Cathe hadn’t celebrated her birthday since their deaths on that very day, twenty-seven years ago.
Forcing her thoughts aside, she checked her appearance in the mirror on her way to the door. At forty-seven years old, she was still very attractive. Her blonde hair hung in layers to her shoulders, and aside from a few small laugh lines, her face was devoid of wrinkles. She’d managed to keep her girlish figure and received compliments daily on her striking blue eyes.
The icy wind stung her cheeks as she made her way outside, dipping her chin deeper into the pale green scarf wrapped around her neck. Puffs of smoke escaped her mouth with every breath she took, only to be swept away on the frigid February wind.
Winters in the panhandle of Florida were usually tolerable, but every few years the temperatures would drop to the low twenties or high teens. And this happened to be one of those years.
With a slight wave of her hand, Cathe hailed a taxi and climbed into its warmth without apology. It was a tad bit too cold to walk to work.
“Where to?” The cab driver checked his mirrors before pulling out into the busy Pensacola Beach traffic.
“Fisher’s Bookstore on Warrington.”
“That building is still there? I heard they’d demolished it awhile back.”
“They were going to before I bought it. It’s being renovated now and will be as good as new in no time.”
Cathe had moved to Pensacola Beach, Florida from St. Augustine shortly after Jeff’s death. With nothing left for her back home, she’d decided to finish school and obtain her law degree somewhere that didn’t remind her so much of what she’d lost. Besides, she’d spent several summers in Pensacola growing up and had always loved the place.
After retiring from family law where she’d been an attorney since graduating from college, Cathe had decided to purchase the old bookstore and restore it back to its original state.
“That’s great. My wife has been buying books from there since she was a teenager,” the cabbie remarked, weaving in and out of traffic.
Cathe smiled at his reflection in the rearview mirror. “Books are magical. They provide an escape from a world full of sorrow and pain.”
The driver laughed. “Sounds like you love to read.”
“More than anything.”
Fisher’s Bookstore came into view a moment later. Cathe paid the driver and climbed out into the blistering cold with keys in hand.
With a slight shiver, Cathe let herself inside and turned the Open sign on before making a beeline toward the old thermostat on the far wall.
It would take at least half an hour for the temperature in the room to raise enough to warm the place and another half an hour for her body to thaw.
The bell over the door chimed, letting her know she had an early customer. “I’ll be right there!” Cathe called, switching on the lights to the back of the store.
“Take your time. I’m just looking.”
Making her way back to the front, Cathe turned the small key on the register until it clicked, unzipped the blue bag she’d removed from her purse, and took out an assortment of bills to fill the cash drawer.
She glanced up, acknowledging the woman perusing one of the aisles. “Good morning. Let me know if I can help you with anything.”
“Thank you. Do you have any historical romance?”
“I sure do.” Cathe meandered over and pointed out the meager selection. “Someone traded in a box of historical books yesterday, if you’d like to look through them.”
“That’s okay.” The woman took down a book and flipped it over to read the back. “I’ll take this one.”
After paying for her purchase with a promise to return soon, the lady left.
Cathe picked up the box of books she’d gotten the day before and set it on the counter to price them before putting them on display.
What is it about romance novels that women find so appealing? She plucked one from the box, grinning at the handsome model on the cover. That would explain it.
The day went by in a flurry of people looking for their next literary fix. Cathe could sympathize. She’d been addicted to reading since childhood, and it had stuck with her throughout her adult life as well. She read everything from the Bible to paranormal and everything in between.
Thunder rolled in the distance followed by a web of flashes that streaked across the sky, signaling the impending arrival of the weather channel’s predicted storm.
Cathe decided to close up early, hoping to make it out of the store and arrive home ahead of the rain.
The chime sounded on the door just as she made it to the thermostat on the back wall. “One second!” she yelled out, hoping to be heard over the thundering outside.
She switched off the heat and hurried back to the front. An elderly lady stood at the counter wearing a long wool coat that had seen better days, a tattered knitted hat, and a pair of thick glasses with lenses so dingy, Cathe wondered how she could see out of them. Her shoes were well worn, and a piece of duct tape hung from the side of one.
Cathe’s heart went out to her. “Sorry about that. May I help you?”
“Just returning a book,” elderly lady rasped, keeping her head down.
Cathe cleared her throat. “The library is two blocks over, ma’am. This is Fisher’s Bookstore.”
The ancient old woman glanced toward the door. “I’ll never make it there ahead of the rain. You’ll see that it gets back to the library?”
Cathe peered down at the book and ran her fingers over the lettering on the light brown cover. A raised, brass key symbol rested just below the title, giving it an ominous appearance. “Turn the Page,” she read aloud. “How clever.”
She carefully opened it to the first page and pulled out an old, faded library card. There were at least two dozen names written there, each one crossed through with ink. She glanced at the last name and the date listed next to it.
“Oh, wow, ma’am? Maybe you should just return it when you can. It was due back twenty-seven years ago.”
When no answer came, Cathe looked up in time to see the woman exiting the store. “Wait!” she called, rushing around the counter and out the front door only to find the sidewalk empty. The tiny old lady had disappeared.
Cathe clutched the book to her chest and carried it back inside, carefully depositing it into her purse before shutting down the register. She grabbed her keys and switched off the lights on her way out. It would be dark soon, and with it another temperature drop. She made a mental note to return the book to the library on her way to work the following morning.
Catching another cab, Cathe rode home in silence, staring out the window at the gathering clouds. How ironic that it would storm on the day of Jeff’s death, exactly as it had all those years ago. She hugged her purse to her chest…the heavy feel of the book inside felt oddly comforting.
A sprinkling of rain had begun to fall as Cathe arrived home. She quickly paid the driver before jumping from the cab and sprinting to her door. A cup of hot tea and a nice long bubble bath were just the things she needed.
Cathe stepped from the tub and briskly dried off. She grabbed her favorite robe, wrapped herself in its fluffy softness, and trailed off to the bedroom to fall across her bed. The electric blanket she’d turned on before her bath assured her of its warmth.
The phone rang, but she ignored it, pulling the old book free of her purse and crawling under the covers to scope it out. It was probably her older sister calling to check on her, anyway.
As far as families went, Cathe had a good one, and on any other day, she would have answered the call. Not today. Her emotions were riding too close to the surface, and the last thing she wanted to hear was, Happy birthday.
She took a deep breath and fought back the tears, well aware she should have stayed in therapy as recommended. Normal people moved on with their lives after the death of a loved one, but not Cathe. She grieved still, almost thirty years later.
Perhaps it was her fault for not letting go as she knew she should, and yet something deep inside refused to do that very thing. Her relationships had always suffered. It seemed as if she couldn’t give what was needed, always holding back a part of herself, the part where pain was created and born…her heart.
The decision of settling down and having children had been taken from her years ago, along with any notion of a happily ever after. No one could replace Jeff, and no other child could ever take the place of the one she’d lost.
It wasn’t that there weren’t plenty of wonderful men in the world, Cathe thought with a sigh. They just didn’t deserve to be saddled with someone that couldn’t give them children or any kind of happiness.
She glanced around her room, admiring the antiques and expensive furniture. She’d worked hard for everything she had and obviously didn’t need a man to take care of things for her. No, she’d done just fine on her own…hadn’t she?
Cathe shook off her thoughts and opened the book, skimming over the acknowledgements and publishing information to the first chapter. She was determined to lose herself in someone else’s story for the night, no matter how briefly.
Two hours and many eye-watering moments later, Cathe found herself lost in the tale of the legendary, Lord Bryne Adair, Earl of Hallensberg.
Originally from Westminster, London, Lord Adair had recently married Maria Alontra, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz’s lady-in-waiting. Maria died of diphtheria shortly after giving birth to Adair’s first-born son, and the child had passed not long after his mother.
Adair had been ordered by George William Frederick, King of England, to surrender his lands in exchange for a sizable castle in St. Augustine, Florida, for the questioning of his allegiance.
When Adair refused, he’d been put on a ship with his belongings, and his castle had been burned to the ground.
Sources later revealed that Bryne Adair was thought to be the King’s illegitimate brother, but the accusations couldn’t be proven and the only evidence in existence was assumed to have been destroyed along with Adair’s family home.
Bryne’s father, the Marquess of Hallensberg, had taken his own life not long after Bryne’s deportation to the Americas, leaving his title and legacy of shame to his only son.
Cathe yawned while blinking to keep her eyes open. She wondered how much of what she’d read so far was fact or fiction. The thought of losing a family home that had been passed down through generations, on some bogus allegiance charge astounded her. But the loss of Adair’s wife and child was felt to her soul.
Her heart fluttered with the very description of the man as she continued to read. Why hadn’t some other available female swooped in and claimed him after his wife’s death?
There had to be more to the story, she concluded, turning the page…
Cathe jerked awake as the crack of lightning exploded somewhere nearby. She peered into the darkness, shivering against the cold. The power must be out.
Climbing from the bed, she glided her feet around in a circle in search of her slippers, only to come up empty. She’d obviously left them in the bathroom.
While holding both hands out in front of her, she inched across the room toward her dresser, hoping to find the candles she’d always kept in the top right-hand drawer.
“Ouch!” she cried, hopping around on one foot after slamming her toe into an immovable object. There shouldn’t be anything in the middle of her floor.
More lightning struck, temporarily illuminating the room.
Cathe froze. Her heart began to pound, and an overwhelming feeling of confusion paralyzed her brain. She wasn’t in her bedroom or anyone else’s that she recognized. And the woman staring back at her from an antique mirror…was far too young to be her.
She lifted trembling hands to her face, tracing her fingertips over soft, smooth skin. How had she erased twenty years from her life in one night?
Panic took hold, making it hard to breathe. Her hands continued to shake as she wandered aimlessly toward a giant door she’d caught a glimpse of during the brief lightning strike.
She must be dreaming, she decided, feeling her way along a rough wall. That was it. She’d fallen asleep while reading the book the old woman had left in the store, and was now in the throes of strange dream where she’d traveled back to her youth.
“Move, and I’ll gut you like a pig,” a man’s voice growled in her ear. Something sharp pressed against her throat, and she bit back a scream.
This sure doesn’t feel like any dream I’ve ever experienced. “Please don’t hurt me. I’m lost, I swear. I have no idea how I came to be here, and if you will point me in the right direction, I will be out of your way this instant.”
“What gibberish do you speak?” He pressed the sharp object more firmly against her skin.
“Gibberish?” She couldn’t place his accent. It was prominently English with an American undertone, if that made sense, which it didn’t. Maybe she imagined gibberish as well as spoke it.
“Move.” He gave her a shove, pushing her forward, never easing up with his sharp weapon.
“I…I can’t see. Look, there’s been a huge mistake. I don’t understand how I got here. Please, if you can just call me a cab, I’ll be out of your hair and we can forget this ever happened.”
The pressure slowly disappeared from her throat, and she nearly dropped to her knees in relief.
“What is this cab?”
Cathe blinked. “Seriously?” When he didn’t answer, she continued. “You know…a taxi. The yellow car that transfers people from one place to another.”
“What manner of speech is this? I do not know what taxi you speak of.”
What manner of speech? “It doesn’t matter. I can get a ride home if you’d be so kind as to show me to the door.”
A light from an oil lamp suddenly flickered and came to life, illuminating the room in a warm glow. Cathe turned to face the man whose bed she’d awoken in, and her breath caught.
His dark hair hung in waves, resting on the biggest pair of shoulders she’d ever seen. His lips were twisted into a frown that didn’t deter from their attractiveness in the least. But it was his gunmetal-gray eyes that held her attention the most.
Too bad he happened to be the world’s biggest jerk. “Where am I?”
“In my home,” he growled, his beautiful eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I’m not dreaming?” She glanced down at her smooth, young hands. This couldn’t be happening to her, but it was. The evidence of it stared back at her in shocking affirmation.
“How did you get into my home?”
“I don’t know how I got here or even who you are, for that matter.”
“I am Lord Bryne Adair.”
Cathe’s heart stuttered. “Did…did you say Lord Bryne Adair?” She had to be dreaming or at the very least the star of someone’s joke.
“Who sent you?” He leaned in close, and his sweet, warm breath fanned across her face.
“Please, listen.” She gripped the lapels of her robe and pulled them together, effectively hiding her chest from his view. “I fell asleep in my bed while reading this book about you. I don’t know how I came to be here. You have to believe me.”
“Trickery,” he growled, gripping her arm. “I will deal with you in the morning. Now, walk.”
“Where are we going?” His clean, fresh scent suddenly surrounded her, engulfing her in its unique essence.
“Tonight, you sleep with Ansel.”
“What’s an Ansel?” When he didn’t answer, she tried again. “I don’t want to sleep with an Ansel. Please, there’s been a mistake.”
They entered a large hall made of stone with sconces attached, holding small oil lamps that burned every fifteen feet along the wall.
“Is this some kind of a joke? Because if it is, it’s not funny,” Cathe whispered, taking in everything with a quick glance.
“You will return to William in the morning with a message.” He squeezed her arm for emphasis. “The next witch he thinks to send here will be sent back without a head.”
“You’re hurting me,” she ground out between clenched teeth. “The only William I know is my ten-year-old nephew, and I’d rather pass on becoming acquainted with your Ansel thing, thank you very much.” Anger was quickly replacing her fear.
He turned her around and crossed his arms over his massive chest. “Where is this book you speak of?”
“I was reading it in bed before I fell asleep.”
He grabbed a lamp from a holder on the wall and moved back into the bedroom, stopping at the foot of the bed. “There is no book.”
Cathe followed close behind. “That’s because that isn’t my bed. Look. I don’t know how I came to be here or even what this place is. All I know is that an old lady dropped a book off this evening in my store. There was a brass key on the cover beneath a title that read Turn the Page. That book was a two hundred and fifty-year-old story, and it was about Lord Bryne Adair. You have to believe me.”
He leaned down until their noses nearly touched. “Lies.” Gripping her arm once more, he propelled her forward.
“Wait!” she cried, digging her heels in. “Just hear me out. My name is Catherine Grier, and I live at 2201 Santa Rosa Street in Pensacola Beach, Florida. I own Fisher’s Book Store and my telephone number is 850-555-3003. Call the cops; they can verify who I am.”
“I know not what a cop is or these numbers you refer to.”
I’m in the Twilight Zone.
“I don’t know what is going on, okay? I only know that I went to bed last night in the twenty-first century, reading that book, and I awoke to this.” She threw her arms out in a wide arc. “I’m freaking out as much as you are.”
He led her back to the hall and gave her a little shove. “Walk.”
Cathe wondered if maybe she’d died in her sleep and she was now in purgatory. “Am I dead?”
“Not yet, but that could change depending on Ansel’s mood.”
“Listen. You don’t want to do this Ansel thing. If you will show me to the door, I’ll find my own way home.”
He didn’t answer, just continued to shove her forward.
They reached a flight of precarious-looking concrete stairs with no handrails, and the drop off the side had to be at least twenty feet in height.
Petrified, Cathe froze. She’d always been afraid of heights. “I—I can’t.”
He spun her around, bent, and threw her over his shoulder.
The wind rushed out of her on impact as his shoulder slammed into her abdomen. “Put me down,” she gasped, squeezing her eyes shut in an attempt to block out the visual of the floor below.
He disregarded her plea and practically jogged down the incredibly steep steps.
“I’m going to be sick,” she moaned, gripping his shirt for support.
The sting of his palm against her rear jerked her out of her nauseous state. “That hurt!” she yelled, slamming her fists against his back.
“Keep your mouth shut and do not think to be sick or perhaps I’ll change my mind and toss you over the side instead of taking you to Ansel.”
Anger took hold. “Put me down this instant, you Neanderthal. And you can go on knowing that I will be pressing charges when I get out of here.”
The deep rumble of his laughter further enraged her, but she kept it to herself. There would be plenty of time later to watch him suffer behind bars.
They arrived at the bottom of the stairs, and he set her on her feet. “In there.” He pointed to a half-open door with a fireplace burning in the back.
“Please listen to—”
“Go!” he roared, cutting her off.
Cathe ran into the room without a backward glance, jumping at the sound of the door slamming behind her. She spun around and reached for the doorknob, only to find a strange contraption resembling a brass spoon resting above a skeleton keyhole.
She drew back her fist, preparing to pound the walls down if necessary. Hopefully she could make enough noise to draw someone’s attention. Someone other than Lord Jerk Adair, that was.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you.” A nasally voice drifted from somewhere nearby. “The master don’t like that sorta thing.”
Cathe sucked in a breath and spun to scan the room. “Who’s there?”
“Name’s Ansel.” A tall, lanky man came limping from the shadows, holding a candle in one hand and a rope in the other. “Get away from the door.”
Nausea rolled once again as she caught a whiff of his stench. The guy obviously didn’t believe in bathing. “If it’s money that you want, I have plenty of it. I just need to run to my house and get my purse. I can write you a check or—”
“Shut up,” he snarled, moving closer, setting the candle on a lopsided table.
“Please. You have to help me. I’m not supposed to be here. There’s been some kind of a mistake. I—”
He gripped the back of her head with one hand and covered her mouth with his other. The rope he held dug into her scalp while his putrid scent invaded her senses, triggering her gag reflex.
Her sudden bout of dry heaves forced him to take a step back. “What’s wrong with ya, woman?”
She couldn’t answer as another heave caused her eyes to water and her mouth to tighten with the effort of holding onto her earlier dinner. She shook her head instead.
He grabbed a wooden chair from nearby and forced her to sit as he jerked her wrists behind her back and bound them with the rope he held in his hands. “What he send ya down here for? Catch ya stealin or somethin?”
“He’s crazy. I didn’t do anything wrong, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“Well, I ain’t listenin’ either. So shut yer trap before I shut if for ya.”
“Please untie my hands. I have no weapons on me.” She pulled at the restraints, but there was no give to the ropes. “Why are you doing this to me?”
The man known as Ansel left the room for a few minutes. She could hear voices outside the door and recognized the deep timbre of Bryne Adair’s.
Ansel returned carrying a dirty strip of cloth, and Cathe’s nerves ran up her stomach straight into her head. “What is that for? Surely you’re not going to—”
A scream trapped in her throat as the nasty material was suddenly stuffed into her mouth, cutting off her words. The unwelcome gag reflex abruptly appeared once more.
Ansel stepped around the chair, stopping in front of her. “It don’t matter much to me who ya are. It only matters who the master thinks ya are.”
Cathe pleaded with him through her eyes, the only weapon she had left since he’d restrained her arms and gagged her. She might as well be pleading with a stump for all it got her. If she truly was in a bad dream, she’d give anything to wake up.
Bryne Adair threw open the shutters and stared out his bedroom window at the inky sky beyond. Images of his intruder plagued his mind, making sleep unobtainable. She’d said her name was Catherine Grier from Pensacola.
What was a young, blonde female doing in a place occupied mostly by Spanish and Indians?
She didn’t strike him as a courtesan or even a common street girl, and though her hair hung loose around her shoulders and boasted of different shades of the same color, it looked right on her.
He did like that she didn’t make her face up with kohl and powders as most of the women of the ton did. Of course they weren’t in England, and judging by her strange talk, she wasn’t from there either.
Witch. That had to be it. The king had sent a witch to seduce him in hopes of obtaining his hidden documents—the evidence of his birth thought to have been destroyed along with his castle back in England.
Bryne ran a hand through his hair as he climbed into his oversized bed. He’d have plenty of time on the morrow to get the answers he sought after a good night’s rest.
He was tired. Tired of fighting and tired of politics, but most of all tired of not taking what was his. His thoughts drifted to his sister back in Westminster; if not for the threats against her life and the lives of her children, he would have stayed and risked being burned along with his castle.
Cathe realized the moment that Ansel returned. His smell preceded him into the room, demanding her notice whether she lifted her head or not.
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out as he wrapped a hand in her hair, yanked her head up, and pulled the nasty cloth loose from her mouth.
“Who sent ya?” His breath settled over her like a rotted corpse, suffocating her.
“No one sent me. I told you already. I woke up here,” she reiterated, jerking her face to the side.
“I heard ya the first time, but I ain’t believin’ it.”
“Please. I’m telling you the truth.” Cathe noticed his clothes. The shirt he wore, hung open at the collar with ruffles running the length of the front. Though dingy, it had obviously been white at some point and was now in desperate need of some bleach. His pants were too short, and he wore no socks with his shoes.
He released her bound hands. “I’ll get the truth from ya one way or another.”
“What are you going to do?” Anxiety tightened her gut once more.
“Get up,” he demanded, yanking her arms at an awkward angle.
Cathe gritted her teeth. “You don’t have to manhandle me. I can stand on my own.”
“Get goin’ then.” He shoved her through the open door to the left of a massive dining room with an oversized table situated near an enormous fireplace.
Dark-colored drapes hung from long, narrow windows, and beautiful rugs were resting haphazardly around the floor.
“What is this place?”
“Shut yer mouth and keep movin’.”
They came to a pair of giant wooden doors with golden handles and a sliding bar for a locking mechanism. Cathe barely had time to take in their antique beauty before the doors were thrown open and she was pushed outside into the chilly winter wind.
The sight that greeted her as she stumbled down the concrete steps stole her breath. She stood in a courtyard surrounded by a huge wall with cannons embedded in the sides at least every thirty feet.
“What in the world…?” The building was square in shape with stairs that ran along the inside, leading up to a ledge that bordered a massive wall. It had to be the most intimidating structure she’d ever seen. “It’s a castle,” she breathed in awe.
“Course it’s a castle. What else would it be? Master thinks yer a witch. What ya got to say for yerself?”
A nervous giggle bubbled up. “A witch? Your master? What century do you think this is?” she asked with a sarcastic tone. “Look. My name is Catherine Grier, I live in Pensacola Beach, and I was born in Arlington, Texas. Do an online search and see for yourself. I’m no witch. “
Ansel spun her around, his facial features twisted into a frown. “I never heard of Arlington, Texas, ya crazy witch.” He pointed to a pillory erected at the other end of the courtyard. “That’s where you’ll be stayin’ for the rest of the day. Or ‘til ya can admit the truth.
Cathe braced to run, but he grabbed hold of her arm and twisted it behind her back. “Ain’t gonna happen, witch lady.” He propelled her forward, stopping in front of the medieval-looking contraption. “Step up.”
“I can’t be locked in that thing,” Cathe pleaded. “You don’t understand. I’m extremely claustrophobic. I’ll die if you put me in there.”
“Jump up there,” he barked, twisting her arm to the point where she thought surely it would break.
She stumbled onto the platform, scanning the grounds for anyone who might help her. “Please.”
He ignored her plea, forcing her head and wrists into the pillory and snapping it closed. The loud click that followed cemented her fate.
“Yell all ya want. Ain’t nobody gonna help ya.” He strolled back toward the castle doors, disappearing from her sight before she could process what had just happened.
Cathe couldn’t feel her feet. Panic had long since disappeared and in its place settled acceptance. She was going to die out there in the middle of a courtyard, in a strange place.
Her legs gave out, and she momentarily sagged, sending shooting pain through her arms and neck before locking her knees once more. That was the intended torture of the device, she assumed. It involved physical as well as mental anguish.
She turned her head and studied her right hand once again. The youthful appearance of her skin astounded her. How was it possible? Had the book she’d fallen asleep reading the night before been cursed? She didn’t believe in curses or magic…so how had she come to be there?
Footsteps sounded nearby, and Cathe strained to see around the sharp angles of wood on her torture device. “Hello?”
When no answer came, she tried again. “Can you hear me? Please. I just want to ask you a question.”
“Yer that witch. I ain’t supposed to talk to ya.” A woman stepped into Cathe’s line of vision, wearing a black and white dress that flowed to her ankles and an apron tied around her waist. Her blonde hair was tucked up under a frilly white cap that had seen better days.
“I’m not a witch. I’m just lost,” Cathe muttered, thinking that the woman would be pretty with the help of a pair of tweezers, a brush, and a good scrubbing.
“That ain’t what Ansel says. He says yer soft in the head and don’t know what century it is.”
With an inward sigh, Cathe pasted on a smile. “Okay, then why don’t you tell me what year we are in?”
The woman’s head tilted to the side, and she stared back at Cathe as if she truly were addled. “This is the month of February, 1767.”
Cathe’s heart stuttered and her vision faded. The ground tilted momentarily before righting itself. “Did you say 1767?”
The woman nodded. “Seems to me that yer insane. They should’ve put ya down instead of displayin’ ya out here for all to see. Inhumane, if ya ask me.” She meandered off before Cathe could question her further.
It’s 1767? So it’s true. I fell asleep reading that book and awoke in a different time. But how is that possible? Did it have something to do with the elderly woman who’d brought the book to Cathe’s store? Could she have been an angel, disguised as an old crone?
If Cathe would have been told that time travel was possible and someday she would be a victim of it, she would have thought that person crazy. She doubted her own sanity at this point. But there she was in the center of a courtyard locked in a pillory in the eighteenth century, slowly freezing to death.
Her teeth began to chatter and not just from the cold. Something inside that book held the power to send her back in time nearly two-hundred-and-fifty years, and if she didn’t find it soon, she had a feeling she’d be stuck there. If she didn’t die first.
Bryne Adair wandered over to the window just after daybreak when the fog rolling in from the Matanzas Bay was at its thickest. He watched as the mist drifted by, reflecting off the glow of a distant lighthouse.
Though, St. Augustine wasn’t his home, he’d grown fond of the place with its warm summer winds and tolerable winters.
He stared out over the water, admiring its beauty and serenity before settling his gaze on the curious blonde witch restrained in his courtyard.
His gut tightened with pity when he noticed she wore no shoes. He told himself, he didn’t care if she froze to death. It was far more humane than burning her at the stake. But he knew it to be a lie the moment it entered his mind. Bryne didn’t relish the thought of torturing any female…witch or not.
With a scowl on his face, he marched back toward his bed and pulled the thick golden cord hanging from the ceiling to signal a servant.
Betty rushed in almost immediately, tucking a stray blonde curl back into place and pinching her cheeks. Her hair color wasn’t as bright as the witch’s, he noticed.
“What can I do for ya, Master,” she purred, sashaying across the room with her feet bare and showing far too much skin.
Bryne scarcely noticed, his thoughts too wrapped up in the deceptive female freezing to death in his courtyard.
“Have my bath drawn,” he ordered, turning to stare out the window once more.
The maid sidled up behind him. “Want some help with yer bath, Master?”
“No, thank you,” he muttered dismissively, never taking his gaze from his prisoner. “Have Miss Grier brought to my room also.”
“Miss Grier?” the maid questioned, backing up a step.
“Yes. She’s locked in the pillory. Bring her to me.”
She ran from the room without another word, and for that, Bryne was grateful. Out of all the servants he employed, she was the most talkative one.
Bernie and Walt came in a few minutes later, followed by a couple of teenage boys carrying pails of hot water, which they promptly poured into the tub.
Bryne thanked them and clapped Bernie on the shoulder. “Congratulations on the baby boy.”
“Oh, thank ya, Master. His name is Wiley,” Bernie proudly announced with his chest puffed out more than usual.
“Wiley. That’s a good name,” Bryne praised, stepping back as more servants entered with pails of hot water.
“It’s my wife’s dead father’s name, Sire.”
“Well, it’s a good name, Bernie.” Bryne waved his hand at the rest of the servants. “That will be all. I’ll ring if I need any further assistance.”
“Yes, my Lord,” the men chorused as they filed out one by one.
Footsteps echoed off the surrounding walls, making it difficult for Cathe to gauge which direction they came from.
She shifted her gaze toward the main door of the castle and noticed a blonde woman dressed in a flimsy nightgown. Her hair was hidden under a pink cloth cap, and the bosom of her gown was cut far too low for Cathe’s taste.
The look on her face reeked of anger, and the closer she got the more it seemed directed at Cathe.
“It’s yer lucky day,” the woman sneered, stopping next to Cathe with a set of skeleton keys.
Releasing the lock, the stranger lifted the heavy wood, freeing Cathe’s hands and neck. “Come with me.” The blonde turned to go without waiting to see if her prisoner would follow.
Cathe stumbled forward before falling to her hands and knees. Pebbles and dirt dug into her skin, wrenching a cry from her.
“Get up.” The woman turned around, gripped Cathe by the hair and yanked, forcing her to her feet.
It took everything Cathe had to keep from crying out in pain. There was no way she would give the troll the pleasure of hearing it.
“Mornin’, Betty!” a man leading a horse toward a stable yelled out.
“How ya doin’, Walt?” Betty responded with a wink.
The guy muttered something that Cathe couldn’t understand before disappearing inside the stables.
“Go on,” Betty demanded, shouldering Cathe up the steps and inside the castle doors. “Up the stairs.”
Cathe’s stomach tightened in dread. She was once again going to have to brave those steep, horrifying stairs.
The climb to the top took forever in Cathe’s mind with Betty following closely on her heels. She kept expecting the strangely dressed woman to push her over the side, the higher up they went. Not that she would feel it, she silently acknowledged. She’d probably lost her feet to frostbite.
The two of them finally emerged onto the top landing and entered the same hallway that Cathe had been in the night before. Maybe Lord Adair has come to his senses and decided to let me go.
Betty knocked on his bedroom door before throwing it open. “In there.” She elbowed Cathe in the back, forcing her over the threshold.
The sight that greeted Cathe as she stumbled into his room shocked her speechless. If she were a cartoon character, she’d be manually rolling her tongue up off the floor for the next ten minutes.
“Thank you, Betty. That’ll be all for now,” Bryne ordered, his gaze zeroing in on Cathe.
“My Lord,” Betty bit out before turning on her heel and pulling the door shut behind her as she left.
“Take off the robe.” His deep voice penetrated Cathe’s shocked brain, but did nothing to steer her eyes in a different direction.
“You— You’re not fully dressed?” she stuttered before clearing her throat to try again. “I’d prefer you at least put on a shirt.”
His answering grin was more daunting than his bare chest. “I was about to take a bath.” He tilted his head toward the tub. “Join me.”
Cathe’s face grew hot with embarrassment. “I’d rather not.”
He took a step toward her. “It was not a request.”
“I realize that you were born in barbaric times and are used to getting what you want, but I’m not one of your servants. And I’m certainly not bathing with you.”
He raised an eyebrow while continuing toward her. “Barbaric times?”
She forced her gaze to remain on his face.
Taking her by the wrist, he gently pulled her forward until her body bumped into his. “Either you remove the robe, or I will remove it for you. Do not think to fight me on this and do not bother trying to escape. There is no one to help you, witch.”
Cathe’s chest hurt, whether from chills or fear she wasn’t sure. “You’re going to force me?”
A muscle ticked along his jaw. “I do not force women against their will.”
“It’s against my will to get in that tub with you.”
He leaned down until their noses touched. “Get in the bath before the water grows cold.” He pulled her sash free and opened her robe.
“Don’t.” Cathe grabbed for the lapels, but he was faster, yanking the robe down her arms and off before she could finish her sentence.
Grateful for the shift she wore, Cathe stepped over the side of the tub and sank down into the warm water. Her shivering stopped almost instantly. “How dare you.”
“Slide forward,” he demanded, entering behind her. He sat, pulling her back against his front. “Relax against me and use my body heat to remove your chill.”
“If you’re trying to demean me in some way, you’ve made your point,” she bit out between clenched teeth.
He picked up a bottle of shampoo that smelled of strawberries sitting next to the tub. “Dunk.”
“Wet your hair.”
“I can wash my—”
Her mouth filled with water as he gripped her shoulders, forcing her head under. She came up sputtering. “Your butt water got in my mouth.”
Booming laughter startled her, and she stared straight ahead, afraid to move. It sounded rusty as if laughing was something he rarely did.
He finally calmed. “Butt water. I like the way you think.”
Cathe sat completely still while he poured some of the strawberry liquid onto his palm and began massaging it into her scalp. “You wear your hair as a courtesan and yet you do not act as one.”
“A courtesan? Cathe couldn’t believe that she was sitting in a tub with a man she didn’t know, having a conversation about eighteenth century prostitutes.
“Tell me how you came to be here, Catherine Grier. Speak the truth, and I will consider sparing your life.”
The truth. Yeah, like he’s going to accept the truth. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Here goes nothing, Cathe thought, taking a deep breath and launching into everything that had happened over the last twenty-four-hours. “My name really is Catherine Grier. My friends call me Cathe.” She paused.
“I’m not a witch, nor do I know exactly how I ended up here.”
“I too am puzzled as to how you managed to infiltrate my home.”
“Not here in your castle. I meant here in your century.”
The hands massaging her head subsided. “You say that you are not a witch, and yet you claim to be from another time. How are the two different?”
How indeed? Cathe couldn’t think past the feeling of his hands in her hair and his stomach touching her back.
“My Lord?” a voice called from outside the bedroom door.
Cathe stiffened in mortification as the spell surrounding her was suddenly broken. She couldn’t believe that she was sitting in a giant tub with Lord Bryne Adair, in the center of his bedroom, in a castle…in the eighteenth century, no less. And secretly enjoying it.
A low growl came from her bath companion. “What is it, Bennie?”
The door opened, and a short, skinny man with salt-and-pepper hair stepped into the room.
Cathe sank as far down into the water as she could get.
“Sorry to bother, my Lord, but you have a visitor,” Bennie announced, keeping his eyes downcast.
Bryne wrapped his arms around Cathe, keeping her hidden from view. “Who is it?”
“A messenger of the king, my Lord.”
“See to it that he is made comfortable, Bennie. I will be right down.”
“Very good, Sire.” With a quick bow, the servant ducked out the door, pulling it shut behind him.
“I will have clothes brought to you shortly. Stay in my room and wait for my return. I am not finished with you.”
Stepping from the tub, he grabbed a towel lying on the foot of his bed, and quickly began drying his chest.
She rinsed her hair and picked up the soap sitting next to the tub to finish her bath. “How long will you be gone?”
“Not long. I will return as soon as I can. We have much to discuss.” He strayed over to the dresser, muscles bunching and moving across his shoulders. Cathe found herself hypnotized by the water droplets trickling down his back. “I need to go home.”
He was immediately in her face with her chin in his hand. “A guard will be positioned in the hall with orders to secure you in the pillory once more if you think to leave. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” she ground out, staring at him with as much contempt as she could feign.
“That is better.” He leaned in and kissed her nose before she could stop him. Straightening, he dragged on a shirt.
Cathe was seething again by the time he stepped into his boots. How dare he touch her against her will.
It wasn’t completely against her will, she admitted to herself. What had taken place in the bathtub had been consensual, and had he kissed her, she couldn’t honestly say she would have fought him.
Cathe stood, scanning the room for a towel the second Bryne disappeared into the hallway, but found only the one he’d recently used, lying beside the tub.
The door abruptly opened, and Betty stormed inside carrying a bundle of clothes in her arms. Cathe threw the towel around her body and promptly stepped from the tub. “Have you ever heard of knocking?”
An agitated-looking Betty thrust the clothes at her. “The master sent me up here with these. If ya ask me, he should have borrowed some of Walt’s boy’s clothes for ya. Ya ain’t nothin’ but bones and eyeballs as far as I can tell.”
“No one asked you, Betsy,” Cathe shot back, silently fuming.
“It’s Betty,” she retorted with her hands on her hips.
“Betsy, Betty. Whatever. And if you ask me, you could stand a good bathing.” Cathe gripped the maid’s shoulders and shoved her over the rim of the tub without thinking.
Betty came up spitting and sputtering, a horrified look on her face. Her bottom lip began to tremble and tears sprang to her eyes.
Regret was instant. “I’m so sorry, Betty. Here, let me help you.” She extended her hand toward the trembling maid.
“Leave me be.”
“Please?” Cathe knelt next to the tub, keeping her palm outstretched. “I don’t know what came over me.”
The maid stared back at her in suspicion.
“No tricks, I swear.”
Betty tentatively slid her palm against Cathe’s before wrapping her fingers around her wrist…and giving it a yank. Cathe wound up face-planting into the giant tub alongside the disgruntled maid.
She sat up with a gasp and pushed her wet hair back from her eyes. “Betsy!”
“It’s Betty!” she snapped, splashing more water into Cathe’s face.
Too shocked to speak, Cathe stared back at her in stunned disbelief until the humor of the situation finally sank in. An unexpected giggle burst free and then another.
Betty soon joined in, and the room was instantly filled with side-splitting laughter.
Cathe laughed until her ribs hurt, until tears of mirth dripped from the corners of her eyes. She hadn’t laughed like that in years. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d experienced such a humorous moment.
And there, amidst a tub full of used bath water, in a castle from the eighteenth century…an oddly, unorthodox friendship was born.
Lord Adair pinched the bridge of his nose and read the king’s message once again. “The gall of that man,” he growled, lifting his gaze and pinning the messenger with a stare usually reserved for his enemy.
“’Tis not his fault, my Lord,” Walt intervened from behind Bryne’s shoulder.
“I know where the fault lies.” Adair shifted in his seat and jerked his chin toward the nervous messenger. “See that he has food and a place to bed for the night. And Walt?”
“Have some food sent to my room for our guest also.”
“Yer going to feed the witch, Sire?”
Bryne ground his teeth in frustration. It wasn’t in his nature to explain himself to the help or anyone else for that matter. “Aye. Her name is Miss Grier.”
“Yes, my Lord. Will ya be planning on sendin’ a reply to His Majesty?”
“Perhaps,” Bryne responded, glancing at his quill. “It would seem the king has decided to visit our neighboring lands.”
Walt’s eyes grew huge. “Ya mean the king is here, Sire?”
Adair nodded. “It appears that he has called a meeting with Governor Grant, and my presence has been requested.”
“But he’s not to be trusted, my Lord.”
Bryne was all too aware of the king’s shortcomings. “That’ll be all, Walt.”
“Sire.” The servant bowed and motioned for the messenger to follow him toward the castle doors.
Taking a deep breath, Bryne grabbed the quill and penned a response to the king.
Most High and Mighty Sovereign,
In obedience to Your Majesty’s commands and with submission to superior judgment, I hereby confirm the attendance of myself along with my second-in-command at Fort Matanzas on the tenth day of February, 1767.
Your obedient servant,
Lord Bryne Adair III, Earl of Hallensberg.
Bryne folded the letter, heated the wax, and sealed it with his family crest. He would have it sent back to the king first thing the following morning.
Stretching his legs out in front of him, he leaned back in his chair and let his mind drift to the witch. Her twinkling, blue eyes, soft, pale skin—
“My Lord?” Walt’s sudden reappearance brought Bryne out of his reverie.
Bryne quickly sat up. “What is it, Walt?”
“I took the food to your room just like ya told me to, but the woman ain’t there.”
“What?” Bryne growled, jumping to his feet. “Who let her out?”
“Weren’t me, Sire,” the servant called out to Adair’s retreating back. But Bryne was no longer listening. His witch had somehow escaped from under his nose, and that bothered him more than he wanted to admit.
“Close the gate,” Bryne barked over his shoulder. “No one leaves or enters the grounds without my knowledge. Understood? No one.”
Bryne took the stairs two at a time to the top-floor landing. He burst through the door to his room only to find it empty. Puddles of water surrounded the tub as if there had been a struggle.
He picked up Cathe’s robe lying in a heap at the foot of his bed and brought it to his nose. Her sweet scent invaded his senses, bringing to life feelings he’d forgotten existed.
“Where is Betty, Walt?” he asked the servant now stumbling out of breath through the door.
“I ain’t seen her since she brung the clothes up here for the witch, my Lord.”
“Her name is Catherine Grier, and you will address her as Miss Grier.”
“I want you to go over every nook and cranny of this castle until she is found. Check the servants’ quarters also.”
Walt bowed and scurried from the room without a backward glance.
Bryne wandered over to the window in a daze. What was it about the woman that toyed with his mind? He shouldn’t care what happened to her or where she went, but he did.
A thought suddenly occurred to him, and he turned from the window in a rage. She’d vanished shortly after the arrival of the king’s messenger. That was it, he seethed, gripping the handle of his sword. Catherine Grier, the beautiful witch of his dreams, worked for the king.
Was she the king’s mistress? Or perhaps she was in love with him and would do anything to please George, even steal for him?
Bryne shook off his thoughts before the fury now sneaking its way in suddenly consumed him and forced him to ride to General Grant’s in search of the king’s head.
Why did it enrage him so much to think of Catherine with George? It wasn’t as if Bryne had known her for any length of time or that she’d betrayed him in some way. She’d awoken in his bed only the night before with an insane tale of being from the future.
Bryne preferred her futuristic story over her being the king’s paramour. He’d even take her as a witch…anything but George’s mistress.
He should be glad she was gone and not his problem any longer. At least she hadn’t discovered what she’d been sent to retrieve. Or had she? he wondered, stalking over to his dresser and pulling it forward to step behind it.
Bryne slid his hand along the wall, feeling his way over the rocky surface until he found what he sought. There amid the layers of uneven stones lay a loose, flat rock. Applying gentle pressure, he tugged the rock free and retrieved the folded parchment tucked safely inside.
Relief was short-lived however with the realization that the witch would go back to the king empty-handed and possibly lose her life.
After returning the document to its hidden home and replacing the stone, Bryne pushed the dresser back against the wall and rushed from the room.
“Ansel!” he roared, descending the stairs and storming toward the castle doors.
The lanky, unwashed servant staggered into the great hall with huge eyes and his bushy white hair standing on end. “My Lord?”
“I need a dozen soldiers saddled and ready to go immediately.”
“Yes, my Lord.” The servant followed his master into the courtyard.
“I will be riding Reaper. See that he is set.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Bryne glanced at the pillory where Cathe had been held in the freezing weather earlier that morning, and his stomach clenched. His head told him that she was a witch and needed to be destroyed, but his heart cried out against it. Perhaps she’d cast a spell on him, blinding him to her evil. He shook his head, questioning his sanity…or lack thereof.
“Haskell,” Bryne called before rapping his knuckles on the man’s door. “Virgil, open up.”
“Is something amiss, my Lord?” Virgil Haskell pulled the door open and stepped back to allow Adair entrance.
“I need you to ride with me to Governor Grant’s.”
“Virgil’s eyebrows shot up. “Of course, my Lord.“
“Enough with the formalities… You are like a brother to me.”
“As you are to me,” Virgil concurred. “What is at the Governor’s, and how many weapons do we need?”
Bryne took a deep breath and rubbed the back of his neck. How was he supposed to explain the witch to his second-in-command? “It is not what is at the Governors’, Virgil; it is who.”
Another eyebrow lift from Virgil stretched Bryne’s patience. “Ready yourself. I will explain on the way.”
Cathe fought a yawn as she sat on the seawall and let her feet dangle above the water. She smiled at the minnows fighting over the bread crumbs that she and Betty had recently fed them. “This feels like home.”
Betty’s short, plump legs swung next to Cathe’s. “Where is yer home?”
“I live in Pensacola Beach now, but I’m originally from St. Augustine.”
“Are ya really from the future?” The maid’s eyes were comically huge.
Cathe simply nodded, turning her gaze to the sky. “And I need to return soon.”
“How ya supposed to get back?”
How was she supposed to go home? “I wish I knew.”
“Well, how’d ya come to be here?”
Cathe recited the day’s events that led up to her arrival in Lord Adair’s bed. “And he won’t listen to a thing I say. He thinks I’m a witch sent from the king to spy on him.”
“Am I what?”
A laugh bubbled up. “Only in the mornings before I have my coffee.”
Betty stared at her for a long moment before chuckling also. “I get it.” She continued to study Cathe’s face until it was beginning to grow uncomfortable.
“What?” Cathe queried. “Do I have something in my teeth?”
“No, course not. I just didn’t know wellborn ladies drank coffee, is all.”
“Well born? Listen, Betty. I came from the twenty-first century, and in my time, we are all equal. There is no wellborn versus lowborn unless you’re considered royalty, then you’d find yourself floating in Numbskull’s boat, thinking like Numbskull, and looking like the Numbskull.”
Betty burst into a fit of giggles. “What’s a numbskull? “
“Basically, an idiot.”
Does my Lord know ya call him a numbskull?” Betty asked, the grin still plastered in place.
“I still have my head, don’t I?”
“That ya do. For now, anyway.” Betty pushed to her feet and extended her hand. “We better get ya back before I get my head lopped off alongside of yers.”
Cathe accepted Betty’s outstretched palm and stood. “Where can I get something to eat around here? My stomach feels like it’s eating my backbone.”
“I have some stew simmerin’. Yer welcome to eat with me.”
“Thank you, Betty. That sounds divine.”
“Why are we taking only a dozen men on this excursion? It could be a trap,” Virgil pointed out on his way through the gate.
“If George wanted me dead, I most likely would be by now. I have something he wants, something of great value to him, and as long as it is in my possession, we are in no danger of the grave.”
“He could have you arrested and tortured for said information, Sire. You are not immortal, you realize. As much as you seem to think you are.”
“Easy, Haskell…I can still kick your butt without breaking a sweat.”
Virgil glanced over at his friend and overlord. “You wish, old man. You forget I am far younger than you.”
“By only a month or two,” Bryne corrected. “Now close that hole beneath your nose and ride. We are wasting daylight.”
Virgil Haskell was a giant of a man. He and Bryne had become friends in their youth and remained the closest of friends, still. Haskell had saved Adair’s hide on more than one occasion, and Bryne trusted him with his life.
They had barely made it a mile outside the gate when the sound of a horse whinnying could be heard coming from the trees. Bryne lifted his arm to halt his men. “Stay where you are,” he ordered before turning to his second. “Virgil, come with me.”
Bryne steered his horse to the water’s edge, following the seawall to a clump of trees in the distance. Dismounting, he tethered his stallion to a lowlying limb and slowly crept toward a saddled mare that carried his brand.
“Looks like one of yours,” Virgil whispered from close behind. Bryne wouldn’t have heard the guy’s approach if he hadn’t been expecting it. For someone of his size, Virgil moved as quietly as the natives.
It was said a Mocama Indian could sneak up on a man standing in a bed of dried leaves. Bryne was inclined to believe it after watching Virgil in action.
Neither of them spoke as they crept silently through the trees, coming to a stop at the sound of feminine voices.
“Are ya gonna tell me if ya succumb my Lord or not?”
“Succumb him? You mean become intimate with him?”
Adair recognized Catherine’s voice immediately. He glanced at Virgil and put a finger to his lips, eager to hear the witch’s response. He didn’t have long to wait.
“You couldn’t pay me enough money to be intimate with him.”
“But why not? He’s a comely one.”
Bryne grinned at the maid’s description of his looks.
“Lord Simpleton doesn’t impress me in the least,” Cathe shot back.
A soft snicker behind him assured Adair that Virgil had heard the insult also. He threw a dirty look over his shoulder before storming from his hidden spot beneath the trees. “It is not enough to insult my appearance, but you must insult my intelligence as well?”
“Cathe took a step back, her eyes huge in her face. “Adair. I didn’t hear you come up.”
“So it would seem.”
“We was just headin’ back in, my Lord,” Betty interjected. “The miss here is hungry.”
“You may return home, Betty. Miss Grier will be riding in with me,” Bryne stated, daring either of them to argue.
“Yes, my Lord.” Betty shot Cathe an apologetic look before clambering off to find her horse.
Cathe couldn’t believe Lord Numbskull had just dismissed Betty as if she were nothing. The world sure had come a long way from the eighteenth century, she thought, staring into Adair’s arrogant eyes. He would never survive in her time…not with his attitude. “Must you treat people as if they are beneath you?”
He tilted his head to the side as if confused by her question. “You refer to Betty? She is a servant.”
His matter-of-fact attitude further enraged Cathe. “Because you were born in caveman times and clearly don’t know any better, I’m going to let that disgusting comment slide.” She stepped around him and nearly walked into a tank of a man.
“You must be the witch.” The tank smiled, showing off a dimple. “I am Virgil. It is a pleasure to meet you.” He took hold of Cathe’s hand and brought it to his lips, brushing a kiss across her knuckles.
Cathe easily returned his smile. He had a friendly face and warm demeanor. “Nice to meet you too, Virgil. I’m Catherine, but you can call me Cathe.”
Bryne suddenly took her by the arm. “It is time to go.”
“Come on, old man. I was only becoming acquainted with the lady. I will see that she gets home safely.”
“She rides with me,” Bryne growled, yanking her closer to his side.
Virgil held up both hands. “I surrender for now. Perhaps on the morrow we can—”
“Easy, Haskell.” The quiet finality of Adair’s voice sent shivers down Cathe’s back.
“As you wish, my Lord,” Haskell responded with a wink. “I will see you at dinner.”
Adair visibly relaxed. “Cathe and I will be dining alone this evening.”
“Until next time then.” Blowing a kiss in Cathe’s direction, Virgil digressed back to the trees.
Cathe snatched her arm from Bryne’s grip. “Let’s get something straight, my Lord. You do not own me, and you most certainly cannot and will not dictate who I see or become friends with. Understood?”
He bent until his nose was an inch from hers. A move he seemed to do a lot. “If I find out that you have touched or been alone with Virgil Haskell or any other man for that matter, I will spank your bottom until you cannot sit down and then permanently lock you in the tower. Understood?”
“I’d like to see you try,” she shot back and stormed off in the direction Virgil had recently departed in.
Bryne caught up to her in three easy steps, bent, and locked his arm behind her thighs before throwing her over his shoulder once again.
“Put me down, you imbecile,” she demanded through clenched teeth.
Easily mounting his horse, he slid into the saddle and tugged her down in front of him until she sat on his lap with her legs hanging off to one side.
She could smell his unique scent, and her stomach fluttered. She hated that he had that effect on her.
The heat from his body penetrated her clothes, stealing her very breath. Cathe wanted to bury her face in his neck and breathe him in, but she couldn’t. She needed to remember that he was a barbaric animal with barbaric tendencies. She inched as far away from him as the saddle would allow.
“Be still. You are killing me.” He tightened his hold on her.
“You think this is comfortable for me? Your saddle horn is digging into my thigh,” she snapped, attempting to put some distance between them.
“That is not all you will feel digging into your thigh if you do not stop moving.” He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword.
Cathe stilled, realizing the implication of his words. He wouldn’t stab her, would he?
As if reading her thoughts, he released the handle of his sword and wrapped a hand in her hair.
“Witch,” he softly growled, tugging her head back.
His lips took possession of hers, in a soul shattering kiss that dissolved her will along with any reservation, she’d had.
The feel of being in his arms, his hands in her hair, his lips possessing hers was unbelievably intoxicating, and she wanted more…but more what? More time in the pillory? More humiliation and confinement? Not likely.
She broke off the kiss, sitting up so fast her head bumped his chin. “Please don’t do that again.” The husky sound of her voice unsettled her.
He had the audacity to laugh. “Do not do what again? Make you desire me?”
Another gasp escaped, this time along with a few choice words. “The only thing you make me is livid, Lord Idiot. And you have clearly mistaken disgust for desire.”
“That is the second time you have referred to me as such. As for mistaking your desire for me? I think not.”
Gripping her by the chin, he slanted his mouth across hers once more.
The crack of her palm against his face reverberated throughout the trees, sending birds scattering in different directions.
Bryne gripped her wrist in a tight hold and stared down at her with a forced smile. The muscle ticking along his jaw told her he wasn’t unaffected by her reprimand. “Do not ever strike me again, witch, or I will take you over my knee in front of the entire castle.”
She jerked her arm free, quickly wrapping her hands around the saddle horn. “Just hurry and take me back. I have things to do.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Everything that takes place on my lands is my business. You would do well to remember that.”
Bryne had never been more astounded or challenged by a female in all his life. This woman…witch, whatever she was, could rile him faster than anyone he’d ever encountered.
He gazed down at the top of her head in wonder. She spoke to him as if he angered her, and yet her body told a different story. She felt something for him…that much he was sure of.
What sort of things could she possibly have to do on his property, in his home? If she thought she would slip around and search for his personal documents, she was in for a rude awakening. Of course he could just let her look. There would be no way in Hades that she would locate them.
“Why did the king send you to me? Did he think you would learn my secrets by seducing me?”
She blew out an irritated breath. “As I have said before, I have never met your king, nor do I care to. And I certainly don’t know of what secrets you think I am after.”
“Why do you refer to His Majesty as my king and not our king? And you know very well what secrets he sent you after.”
“Because he isn’t my king. I told you that I came from the twenty-first century and we don’t have kings or queens in America. We have presidents.”
Though her speech sounded strange and she spoke of treason, Bryne couldn’t help but be curious. He wasn’t sure if his interest lay more in the treacherous words she spoke or the mind they originated from.
“If you truly did come from the future, what are you doing in 1767, and most importantly, why are you here with me?”
She tilted her face up where he could see her amazing blue eyes. “I told you; I fell asleep reading that book and woke up in your bed. I have no idea why I’m here, only that I need to get back.”
Either the woman was crazy or she really was a witch from the future, Bryne decided, gazing at her sincere expression. “If you honestly read this book about me, how can you not know of the documents I speak of?”
“I fell asleep about six chapters in. Give me a break.” A wrinkle marred her brow. “Wait. I think I remember reading something about a paper you hid.”
“I am listening.”
“Like I said, I only read a few chapters, but you stashed some important papers in one of the servant’s quarters, and then later carved out a stone in your bedroom wall to hide it behind.”
His heart began to pound. “You could not possibly know that.”
“Well, I do. As I’ve said before, I speak the truth.” She paused. “The king offered you the lands in St. Augustine in exchange for the letters your mother left you on her deathbed. Among the correspondences was a document from Frederick, Prince of Wales…your biological father.”
“Biological. Your blood father.”
He nodded his understanding. “Continue.”
“It would seem that Prince Frederick had left specific instructions of what was to become of his illegitimate son upon his death. According to the document, you were to inherit a large sum of gold along with Castle Montabon, the neighboring land bordering your Westminster holding.”
Bryne’s jaw ached from grinding his teeth. She’d just recited everything in the hidden document. Perhaps she’d read the paper and returned it to its hiding place with intentions of coming back for it later? Unless she really was a witch, he mentally concluded. “Then you are aware of George’s order that burned my castle?”
“Yes. I read—”
“And that my wife died shortly after giving birth to our firstborn child?”
“You are sorry? You speak of my past as if you were there, as if you knew me in some way. Everything I owned or had ever known was taken from me in less than a fortnight. Do not pretend to be sorry, Catherine. I much prefer your pride over your pity.”
Bryne wasn’t sure why he’d verbally attacked the witch. Nothing she’d said made sense, and yet she knew entirely too much about him to allow her to leave.
She quickly turned her face from him, but not before he saw the tears swimming in her eyes. “Catherine?” Lifting his hand, he tucked her hair behind her ear. “Cathe...”
“Will you just take me back now?”
“Why do you cry?” He’d always had a weakness for a woman’s tears.
“I am not crying,” she barked, stiffening her shoulders. “I’m tired and hungry and I really want some of Betty’s simmering stew.”
His lips twitched. Attitude, he could handle. “As you wish.”
They rode back to the castle in silence with Cathe’s hip, pressing against Bryne’s stomach. Everything about her unsettled him.
If he were honest with himself, he’d been turned inside out since the moment he had awakened to find her in his bed.
He turned his thoughts in a different direction.
Cathe watched Adair slide from his horse and hold his hands up for her. She gripped his shoulders as he lifted her from the saddle and swept her into his arms once again.
“I can walk on my own,” she muttered, settling into the warmth his body offered.
“Horace!” Bryne’s voice boomed, nearly deafening her.
A teenage boy instantly burst from the stables, wearing a thin black jacket and pants that were inches too short. “My Lord?”
“See to it that Reaper is taken care of.” He handed the kid the reins. “Have him ready to ride in the morning at sunrise. Miss Grier and I will be leaving promptly after breakfast.”
“Will the lady be needin’ a horse saddled, Sire?”
“No. She will be riding with me.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Horace bowed and led the stallion toward the stables.
Cathe was once again agitated by the time they reached the castle doors. “Where are we going at daybreak, and why must I ride with you?”
Bryne ignored her, careening through the giant doors and heading toward the dreaded stairs.
Cathe squeezed her eyes shut and buried her face against his neck. If she were going to spend any length of time in that godforsaken place, she would demand they build some kind of safety railing on the terrifying stairs.
Why was she thinking in future terms when it came to Adair and his castle of doom? She had no plans of staying there any longer than necessary. The old crone had to be there somewhere, Cathe prayed, gripping Bryne’s neck in a tight hold. She just had to find the old lady and demand she send her home.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” Bryne announced, barreling into his room. He sat her on the side of his bed and began removing her borrowed shoes.
“I told Betty I would eat with her.”
“We do not eat with the help.”
That did it. “How dare you!” She snatched her feet from his hold. “We do not eat with the help? Think about how that sounds for a minute. Betty is a human being with feelings and a soul. So are all the other people that work here.”
He didn’t speak, just watched her as if she had grown another head.
“Look. I realize it’s not your fault that you were raised to believe yourself above others, but you have to understand that you’re not.”
“I am not what?”
“Above anyone else.” Why was she attempting to change a custom in one day that had taken the world centuries to overcome? She blew out a defeated breath. “Forget it.”
He suddenly straightened. “I am going to check in with Ansel. I will see you in the dining hall after you have changed. I took the liberty of having some things brought in. I trust that you will find them to your liking.” He nodded to an armoire against the far wall before departing the room.
Cathe inched off the bed and curiously advanced toward the armoire, running her fingers over the intricate designs adorning the front. Why was she here? she wondered, pulling the doors open. Not just the year she’d awoken in, but the place…with this particular man?
“Oh, wow.” Her breath hitched. Hanging inside were some of the most beautiful dresses Cathe had ever seen. One in particular caught her eye—pale blue in color with an iridescent layer of silk covering the top half of the skirt, giving it a pearl-like appearance.
The smell of fresh pine wafted out as she lifted the dress from the bar it hung from. The hanger itself was made of wood with an iron hook at the top, much like the ones used in the twenty-first century.
“The master sent me to help you, my Lady,” a voice announced from behind her.
Cathe spun around in time to see an elderly woman amble into the room holding a tray of ribbons. Her gray hair was swept up under a bright red cap, with a few strands escaping the sides. Her clothing, though faded, appeared neat and clean save for the apron she wore. She’d obviously been cooking.
“Hi.” Cathe smiled and extended her hand. “My name’s Catherine, but you can call me Cathe.”
“Oh, no, my Lady. The master would have my head if I called you by your given name.” She gave a quick curtsy. “I am Wilma.”
Cathe let her hand fall away, realizing that history couldn’t be altered. Events had already happened that would mold the world into what it was today. No one could change the past—not the book, and certainly not her. But that didn’t mean she had to like it. “It’s nice to meet you, Wilma.”
“Likewise, my Lady.”
“Your accent sounds different than Betty’s,” Cathe pointed out, laying the dress across the foot of the bed.
“I came over from England with the master. Betty was born here.” She moved toward the bed. “That is a lovely dress, if I may say so.”
Cathe thought so too. “Did you mean that Betty was born in Florida, or that she was born in this castle?”
“Her parents served the previous owners, and Lord Adair let her stay on after he took control. He allowed everyone to stay that wanted to.”
Cathe filed that away to think on at a later time. “Will you help me with my dress?”
“Oh, yes, my Lady.”
“Okay, listen. I’m really uncomfortable with being called my Lady. I am merely an uninvited guest of Lord Adair’s. Please, just call me Cathe.”
Wilma appeared anxious. She glanced toward the door before meeting Cathe’s gaze. “Will you settle for Miss?”
With an inward sigh, Cathe nodded. “Thank you.”
The maid beamed and set the tray of ribbons on the dresser. “Turn around, and I will help you out of your clothes.”
“Really, I can undress myself.” Cathe reached behind her for the zipper, only to remember the dress laced up the back.
“Nonsense.” Wilma brushed her hands aside. “Let me.” Within seconds she had the dress undone and pushed off Cathe’s shoulders. “There, now step out of it.”
Thankful for the shift that Betty had given her, Cathe stepped from the dress and tossed it onto the bed.
Wilma handed her the beautiful baby-blue vision that Cathe had taken from the armoire. “Where is your corset, Miss?”
“I’d rather not wear one, if you don’t mind. I tried it on earlier and couldn’t breathe.”
“But you can’t go without it, my Lady. It is not heard of.”
Cathe gave her a warm smile. “It’s okay, Wilma. I’m only going downstairs. It’ll be fine; I promise.”
The maid stared at her so long Cathe thought for sure she would argue more. “Put your dress on and give me your back so I can lace you up. Then have a seat on the bench, and I will turn you into Cinderella. Not that it will take much on my part. You are simply beautiful, Miss.”
Heat flushed Cathe’s face. She’d never been one to take compliments very well. “Thank you.”
Twenty minutes later, Wilma stepped back and clasped her hands in front of her. “Have a look.”
Cathe stood and trailed over to a floor mirror in the corner of the room. “Oh, Wilma.” Strong emotions washed through her as she took in the reflection staring back at her.
“You are breathtaking.” Wilma preened, meeting her gaze in the mirror.
Cathe’s long blonde hair was piled loosely atop her head with pale blue ribbons weaving throughout the silky strands, matching her eyes and dress. A touch of pink lined her lips while a dark shade of kohl adorned her eyelids. Even the soft blue shoes were comfortable. But the twenty-something years that had been erased from her face was still the biggest kicker of all.
“How old are you, Miss? If you do not mind me asking.”
“Forty-seven, as of last week.”
Wilma paled. “Did you say forty-seven?”
Realizing her mistake, Cathe quickly amended. “Did I say that? I meant twenty…three.” How old was she? She had no idea, but she appeared to be somewhere between twenty and twenty-five years old, if her reflection was any indication.
“No matter. You look beautiful, and his Lordship is going to be well pleased.”
“We certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to displease His Bully-ship, now would we?”
“My Lady!” Wilma gasped, clutching her throat. “We mustn’t speak of the master in such a way.”
Cathe instantly felt bad. It wasn’t Wilma’s fault that Cathe had landed in their time, in their castle, any more than it was Lord Adair’s. Then why did he get under her skin so much? “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Wilma merely nodded. “Shall we go?”
“Right behind you,” Cathe confirmed, following the maid out the bedroom door to the staircase from hades.
Keeping one hand on the wall, Cathe somehow made it to the bottom without falling to her death. She breathed a sigh of relief the moment her foot touched the ground floor.
Cathe’s heart lurched at the sound of Adair’s voice. How could he have such a monumental effect on her? Blanking her expression, she turned to face him. She wasn’t about to let him see the impact his nearness had on her. “Bryne.”
“You are a vision to behold, my Lady.” Stepping forward, he held out his arm. “Allow me.”
“My Lord?” Wilma questioned, wringing her hands. “Shall I set the table now?”
Bryne sent Wilma a warm smile, telling Cathe that he must be fond of the maid. “That won’t be necessary, Wilma. Take the night off. I can handle it from here.”
With a quick curtsy and a grateful smile, Wilma hurried from the room, disappearing through an enormous archway off to their left.
Cathe hesitated a second before looping her arm through Adair’s. “Where are we going?”
“To dine.” The sun had just dipped below the horizon as the two of them made their way outside and down the castle steps.
She squinted against the setting sun. “How come you haven’t remarried?” Where had that come from? she wondered with more than a little embarrassment.
“You read my fictitious book,” he sarcastically replied. “You tell me.”
“I didn’t get that far. Why not just answer the question?”
He stopped in front of a small wooden door nestled into the side of the castle and turned his body to face hers. “I could ask the same of you, Miss Grier.” With a grin, he rapped his knuckles lightly on the door. “You are rapidly on your way to becoming a spinster.”
Cathe let the insult roll off her like water off a duck’s back. “In my world it’s called independence. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? Lord Bigot.”
A muscle ticked along his jaw. “If you think—”
“My Lord?” Betty interrupted, opening the door with a wooden ladle in hand.
Adair abruptly bowed at the waist. “Do you have room for two more? Miss Grier and I would rather enjoy some stew this evening.”
Cathe’s mouth fell open in surprise. Betty wasn’t unaffected by his words either if the size of her eyes were any indication.
“May we come in?” Bryne asked as the maid continued to stand there gawking at him.
“Please, my Lord.” She stumbled back, pulling the door wide. “My home is yer home.”
Covering Cathe’s hand with his, he led her over the threshold.
The place was small yet clean. Two neatly made pallets lay in the far right corner of the room, and Bryne made a mental note to have a couple of cots sent over as soon as possible.
A tattered couch sat against the far wall with a wool blanket thrown over it, and a dark green chair sat opposite of it. An old wooden table made up the dining area with four chairs parked underneath and a short bench was situated against the wall behind it.
“Something smells wonderful,” Bryne remarked, glancing toward a cast-iron pot simmering over an open flame in the fireplace.
“It’s beef stew, my Lord.” She sent a nervous glance toward Cathe before focusing once again on Bryne. “Can I get ya something to drink, my Lord?” Betty fidgeted, ushering them into the compacted dining area. “Have a seat while I fetch ya some stew.”
A knock suddenly sounded, leaving the maid to glance between Adair and the door.
“Go ahead, Betty. We can seat ourselves.” Bryne pulled out a chair for Cathe before settling next to her and leaning in close. “You thought I had no civility?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. I won’t be here long enough to care.”
“But you do care. You’re even concerned about what happens to Betty…a servant.”
“You say ‘servant’ like it’s a bad thing.”
“I do not think they are bad; quite the contrary, which is why I pay them above what is expected.”
Several of Bryne’s men entered the room carrying trays of food—everything from a giant glazed ham to mashed potatoes and green beans. Bryne’s stomach promptly growled.
“You pay them?” Cathe began. “I thought—”
“I know what you thought.”
“Sire?” Betty whispered, wringing her hands once again. I ain’t complainin’, but I don’t know why yer here. Have I done somethin’ wrong, my Lord?”
“You were kind enough to invite the lovely Miss Grier to dinner this evening. And since I am no longer allowing her out of my sight, I had no choice but to personally extend the invitation to myself as well.”
“Oh no, Sire. Your Lordship is always welcome here.”
Bryne waved a hand toward the remaining chairs. “Please, have a seat; we are in your home.”
Betty slightly paled. “But—”
“The men will serve us tonight. Now, sit. I insist.”
Two small boys came barreling through the front door just as Betty settled into her seat. She immediately sprang to her feet, nearly toppling her chair over. “Albert! Joseph! The master’s here. Go wash up and wait by yer pallets while I make yer plates.”
Both kids nodded and spun on their dirty, bare heels, heading back the way they came.
Betty returned to her chair. “Sorry bout them. They didn’t know we was havin’ company. They’re good boys, I swear.”
The maid continued to nervously drone on about her kids, but Bryne wasn’t listening. Cathe’s sweet scent had drifted up his nose to settle in his heart. He wanted her more than he’d imagined possible. “How old are your lads, Betty?”
“Albert is six, my Lord, and Joseph is five.”
Plates of ham, potatoes, and green beans were disbursed among them all by the neatly dressed guards standing at attention behind their master. The pot of stew was set in the center of the table to be dipped into at will.
The food was delicious and the company even better, Bryne silently admitted, watching Cathe openly interact with his maid. The witch was an anomaly to be sure, and he couldn’t wait to learn just how much of an aberration she truly was.
After finishing their meal with more than a little gusto, the kids darted back outside to enjoy the last remaining hour of play before bath and bedtime.
“Are they always so rambunctious?” Cathe asked with a grin.
“Always, my Lady.” Betty returned her smile. “You would make a wonderful mother,” the maid pointed out while dipping another bowl of stew. “How many children do ya plan on havin’, if ya don’t mind me askin’?”
Something shifted in Cathe’s gaze seconds before she abruptly stood. “Will you excuse me, please? I need to use the restroom. I mean the lavatory.”
Bryne stood also. “Are you not feeling well? I will escort you back to my room.“
“I’m fine. I’ll just use the one I saw on the way here.”
“In the courtyard, Catherine? That is for the servants and soldiers, not for—”
“Don’t say it,” Cathe interrupted. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Enjoy your meal.” With that, she rushed out.
Bryne had yet to see her react in such a way. He went back over Betty’s comment in his mind, but nothing the maid said should have upset Cathe so. He reluctantly sat and continued with his meal. “Your stew is divine, Betty. You should be working in the kitchens.”
“Did I say somethin to hurt the Miss, Sire? Me and my big mouth. I’m always talkin’ without thinkin’.”
“I am sure it was nothing you said.” He patted her hand and changed the subject. “What happened to your children’s father?”
“He died of the pox when Joseph was still in the womb.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” Bryne would raise her earnings first thing in the morning.
Bryne picked up his fork and returned to his meal in silence. He couldn’t seem to get the look in Cathe’s eyes, out of his mind. Something Betty said had affected her. But what?
The door abruptly opened, and the maid’s youngest son ran inside before skidding to a stop next to Bryne’s chair. The kid’s lower lip quivered as he stared up at Adair with huge eyes. “Him hurt her.”
“What did you just say?” Bryne’s heart lurched. Surely he’d heard the boy wrong.
“Him’s hittin’ her,” Joseph repeated before bursting into tears.
Bryne’s sword was in hand before his chair finished toppling over behind him.
The sprint through the courtyard felt like an eternity to Bryne as he stormed toward the lavatory as fast as his legs would carry him. The door standing ajar told him what he dreaded most. Cathe was gone.
“Cathe!” he shouted, scanning the courtyard in search of some kind of movement— anything that would lead him to her.
Doors were suddenly thrown open and dozens of servants rushed outside with swords drawn.
“Catherine Grier has been taken,” Bryne bellowed, heading toward the stables. “I need every available man mounted and ready to go. I want her found immediately. Now, move.”
“Yes, Sire,” they chorused, scattering to do his bidding.
Who could have done this? Adair seethed as he entered the livery and raced to Reaper’s stall. Bryne would choke the life from the man with his bare hands when he found him. And he would find him, no matter how long it took.
“Over here, my Lord,” a soldier called out from near the well in the center of the courtyard.
Bryne released the latch on the stall door and sped back the way he’d come, not stopping until he reached the castle’s well. There, lying face down on the ground was his beautiful witch.
He dropped to his knees beside her and gently rolled her over. Dirt and grass mixed with blood were smeared along the side of her face. Rage poured through him with a force that was staggering.
“Virgil?” he growled, gently lifting Cathe’s limp body into his arms. He stood, turning to face his second-in-command. He knew Haskell was near without needing a visual. The man had always been there when Bryne needed him.
“Sire?” Haskell stepped forward, fully dressed, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
Always at the ready, Bryne silently acknowledged. “Take as many men as you need and scour the surrounding area. The ones left are to search the grounds. I want no stone left unturned.”
Haskell briefly clasped Adair’s shoulder before striding briskly toward the stables, barking orders as he went.
“Ansel?” Bryne shouted on his way to the castle doors.
“Yes, my Lord?”
“Send the doctor to my room. Have him hurry. Miss Grier has been hurt.”
“Doctor Peadmire ain’t here, my Lord. He’s deliverin’ a baby over at the Bickford’s place. Left early this morning.”
Bryne burst through the castle doors, taking the stairs two at a time to the second floor with Ansel tight on his heels. “Ansel?”
“Get me some warm water, a washcloth, a towel, and some bandages. Be quick about it,” Bryne ordered, entering his bedroom. He unsheathed his sword and propped it against the headboard within easy reach.
“Yes, my Lord,” the servant responded in a high-pitched voice before spinning around and scurrying back toward the stairs.
Bryne laid Cathe’s limp body in the center of his bed and adjusted the oil lamp on the bedside table, flooding the room with light.
“Cathe, can you hear me?” He gently touched the uninjured side of her face. “You are going to be fine. I will find the man that did this and make him pay. I vow it.”
Her pink lips slightly parted, and a soft moan escaped. “Bryne…”
“I am here, love. Can you tell me where you are injured?”
She reached up and touched the side of her head, wincing as she probed at an angry-looking lump near her hairline with blood seeping from it.
Bryne found it difficult to control his rage, knowing that someone had dared to touch her, to harm her in any way. He prayed the guy didn’t run, thereby robbing Bryne of the pleasure of torturing him slowly.
“Easy now. Ansel will be back shortly with bandages. I will have you fixed up in no time.” He gently brushed her hair from her face. “Did he touch— Are you—” Taking a deep breath, he tried again. “Were you hurt anywhere else?”
Relief poured through him when she shook her head. He was never allowing her from his sight again. She could have been forced, stabbed, or killed if Betty’s son hadn’t happened along.
Ansel returned with an armload of supplies. “Where shall I put these, my Lord?”
Bryne nodded toward the bedside table. “That will be all, Ansel. Thank you.”
“Just tug the cord if you need me, Sire.” After emptying his arms of their burden, Ansel left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.
Dipping a cloth into the warm water, Bryne set out to cleanse Cathe’s wound, wiping the blood and dirt from her face as gently as possible. “You are very fortunate, Miss Grier. A little lower and—”
“I could have been killed,” she finished for him. “So, now it’s Miss Grier?”
Adair paused, his gaze dropping to her striking blue eyes to find them open and staring back at him.
His heartbeat picked up its pace the longer he studied her guileless expression. He could lose himself in those eyes, and that scared him more than the thought of her being attacked. “You prefer witch?”
“I think the question is, do you prefer witch?”
Was she watching his mouth? He slowly lowered his head. “I prefer you, Catherine Grier, witch or not, as long as you are alive and here with me.”
“But what if—”
His lips covered hers, cutting off any doubts she was about to voice. He didn’t want her doubts, uncertainties, or any other negative thoughts she might have. No, he only wanted her—Catherine, the witch—bared to him, open to him and belonging to him.
Surrender had never tasted so good, he thought as she sighed into his mouth, her body going lax beneath him. Nor had it ever felt so right…
Cathe’s stomach was alive with butterflies. It wasn’t that she’d never been with a man before, but the few she’d had experience with paled in comparison to Bryne Adair, from the gentle way his lips moved over hers to the feel of his hands in her hair.
It made no sense, and maybe it was wrong in some way, but God help her, she wanted him, wanted him touching her and loving her. But most of all, she wanted him to make her feel alive—something she hadn’t felt since Jeff.
He broke off the kiss and dragged his lips across her jaw to her ear. “Feel me, Catherine. The real me. Not the lord or the tyrant you think I am, but the man, the man that needs you right now, this moment in time, more than breath.”
All doubt dissipated with Adair’s vulnerable declaration. It didn’t matter that she had to return home or that she couldn’t take him with her when she did. No one was promised tomorrow. She’d found that out the hard way when the love of her life and unborn child had been taken from her all those years ago. “Yes.”
He lifted his head, brushing his lips across hers once again. “Are you sure?”
The door suddenly crashing against the wall cut off any response she would have given.
“Give me one reason why I should not lop off your insufferable head,” Bryne snarled, jumping from the bed and wrapping his fingers around Ansel’s throat.
“The king and his army are nigh, my Lord,” the servant wheezed, his beady eyes bulging.
Adair released him but didn’t step back. “How far out are they?”
“Less than a mile, Sire. Ya must make haste.”
“I run from no man,” Bryne growled, going for the servant’s throat once again.
Cathe almost felt sorry for Ansel. Almost. He did, after all, leave her to freeze to death in the courtyard pillory.
Ansel’s bulging gaze briefly swung in her direction before settling on his master once again. “It ain’t my Lord that he comes for. It’s the witch.”
“What does he want with me?” Cathe threw her legs over the side of the bed, immediately regretting it. Dizziness assaulted her and nausea rolled through her stomach.
“It makes perfect sense,” Bryne answered for Ansel, taking a step back. He slowly turned to face Cathe. “He has come to retrieve his property.”
Pain settled inside her heart to replace her earlier euphoria. “I’m not his property. I’ve told you before; I have never met the man. Why won’t you believe me?”
“See that she does not leave this room.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Snatching up his sword, Adair stormed out without a backward glance, leaving Cathe alone with Ansel once again.
“He ain’t gonna be able to save ya, ya know,” the servant taunted, sauntering closer.
Something in the guy’s eyes set off warning bells inside her brain. “Save me from what?” Her gaze scanned the room for something, anything that she could use as a weapon.
“From this.” He tugged a dagger from his boot, continuing toward her with an eerie look on his face.
Cathe scrambled across the bed, jumping to her feet on the other side. “What did I ever do to you?”
Ansel smiled, revealing rotted teeth. “It ain’t what ya did; it’s what ya can do. Witches are worth a pretty penny in these parts.”
“You’re planning on selling me?” She couldn’t believe what she’s just heard.
“I done sold ya to the king, and now he’s come for ya.” Ansel laughed—an ugly, unnatural sound that gave Cathe the creeps.
“You will never get away with this. I’ll tell Lord Adair what you’ve done, and he’ll rip your head off.”
“Ya think he’ll believe a witch over a trusty servant?” Ansel skirted the bed, stalking her into a corner.
“I’ll scream,” Cathe threatened, backing against the wall.
“No one will hear ya,” he sneered, twisting the dagger handle in his hand.
A muffled thump, and the sight of Ansel’s body dropping at her feet brought her out of her terrorized state.
“Are ya all right, my Lady?”
“Betty? Thank God!” Cathe cried, wrapping the maid in a tight hug.
“We must hurry, Miss. I don’t know how long he’ll be out,” Betty whispered, pulling back. She grabbed onto Cathe’s hand. “Come with me.”
A million things skated through Cathe’s mind as she ran as close to Betty as possible. The maid paused at the stairs and glanced over the side before pulling Cathe along down the steep flight.
They didn’t stop until they reached the bottom, entering Ansel’s room undetected. Betty closed the door behind them and leaned against it. “We ain’t got much time, Miss, so listen good. There’s an underground tunnel just beyond that fireplace.” She pointed toward the back of the room. “Run to the end of it and wait for me. I’ll be along shortly with a horse. Now move before ya get caught.”
Cathe’s heart pounded hard enough she thought she could see it pumping through her dress. “How did you know about Ansel?”
“My boy told me who hit ya.”
Thank God for Betty and her son, Cathe thought, staring into her newfound friend’s eyes. “Where will I go? I don’t know anyone here.”
“Ride east for about a mile until ya come to a cabin sittin’ next to a cornfield. That’s my brother’s place. His name’s Ellis. Tell him I sent ya. I’ll check on ya as soon as it’s safe.”
“What if I run into the king and his soldiers?”
“Ya won’t. They come from the north. Hurry! Ya ain’t got much time.” Betty opened the door and left without another word.
Cathe’s legs threatened to buckle beneath her. How she had gotten herself into this mess was beyond her. She darted across the room to find her escape route.
A narrow, wooden door was situated to the right of the fireplace. She gripped the handle and pulled it open.
Cobwebs hung across the opening, blowing in a nonexistent breeze that could be seen but not felt. “I hate spiders, I hate spiders, I hate spiders,” she chanted, brushing the webs aside to enter the dark portal.
If there were two things in the world that Cathe had a problem with besides running for her life, it was claustrophobia and arachnophobia.
“For the love of Pete,” she whispered, stepping into the tunnel and pulling the door shut behind her, casting the underground shaft in total darkness. If she got out of there alive, she would hunt Ansel down and lock him, naked in the pillory, and drop a beehive next to his feet.
Keeping her hands out in front of her, she stumbled along for what seemed an eternity until a small sliver of moonlight ahead sent relief pouring through her in great waves of gratitude.
She crept to the crack and peeked out into the shadows beyond. Her breath continued to come in rapid bursts, echoing off the walls of the tunnel to drown out the ringing in her ears.
“Miss,” Betty abruptly called in a hushed tone. “Are ya here, Miss?”
Cathe could hear the rustling of bushes before easing the door open and glancing around. “Is it safe to come out?”
“Yes, Miss, but ya must make haste.”
“Where are we?” They were definitely outside the castle walls.
“This is the only unknown passage into the castle. It’s kept hidden and is always guarded from the top of the wall there.” She jerked her chin upward.
“I’m assuming it’s Ansel’s job to guard the wall?”
“Yes, Miss.” The maid backed up a step and waved her arm out to the side. “Here’s a horse. I packed ya enough supplies for a few days. Ellis will make sure that ya have plenty to see ya through until I can figure out how to get ya out of this mess.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“You was good to me when most weren’t. Now climb up there and don’t stop till ya see the cornfields.”
Cathe threw her arms around the woman and hugged her once again. “Thank you, Betty. I won’t forget you for this.” She mounted the horse before she changed her mind and cowered back inside the spider cave.
Betty slapped the horse’s rear, leaving Cathe no choice but to ride or fall.
Bryne Adair pulled up on his reins and lifted his arm for his men to follow suit as he waited to be addressed by his king.
“How fare thee, Adair?” George greeted from behind a wall of soldiers.
“I am well. I trust that I have found you to be prosperous?” Bryne watched as George’s horse ambled to the front line with the slightest knee command.
“Prosperous indeed.” His gaze scanned the army of men behind Adair.
Bryne being more of a get-to-the-point person…did exactly that. “If you have come to accompany me to the meeting with Governor Grant on the morrow, I do not see or feel the need for an escort, Sire.”
George’s scowl could be seen in the moonlight. “You dare to speak to your king in such a manner?”
“You dare to enter my lands under false pretenses with the intention of taking what belongs to me?” Bryne shot back, rage boiling beneath the surface.
“Stand down before I have you hanged.”
Bryne would die before allowing George to get his pompous hands on Catherine. Then again, he may have already had his hands on her, Bryne’s mind whispered. The thought of that arrogant pig touching her enraged him.
A horse came galloping to the front line, carrying one of Bryne’s men. “A word, my Lord?”
With a nod, Bryne broke away from the group, stopping just out of hearing range. “What brings you here?”
“She is gone, Sire,” the guard panted, glancing toward the king and his men.
Bryne saw red. “What do you mean she is gone?”
“Wilma sent Doctor Peadmire to have a look at Miss Grier upon his return. Instead, he found Ansel on the floor with a whopping knot on the back of his head, but no sign of the woman, Sire.”
“I want every available man out looking for her. She could not have gotten far on foot.”
“Yes, my Lord.” The guard swung his horse around and sped back toward the castle, kicking up dust in his wake.
Bryne returned to the front line and faced his king. “It would appear that you have wasted a trip, Your Majesty. Now, if you will excuse me, I have something quite urgent to attend to.”
George broke away from his soldiers, signaling for Bryne to follow. They stopped several feet out of ear shot. “I do not know what you think to gain by hiding the witch or the documents. Think of what would happen to your sister and her children if it were known that her brother protected a witch.”
The unveiled threat to his family wasn’t lost on Bryne. It took an enormous amount of effort to keep his sword in its sheath. “Think of the scandal to your own family if the throne were to receive word of our father’s dying wish for his illegitimate son.”
“You would not dare.”
Bryne kept his face blank. “I am sure that Governor Grant will understand my absence on the morrow as I tend this pressing matter, Your Majesty. Please give my apologies.”
The obvious threat infuriated George, if the look on his face was any indication. “Retreat,” the king ordered without taking his gaze from Adair. “It would appear that our services are no longer needed,” he bit out, turning to go.
“Perhaps another time, brother,” Bryne taunted, bowing his head.
“Count on it.”
Adair waited for the last of the king’s men to disappear over the rise, gripped his reins, and turned his horse back toward home. He glanced over at his second-in-command, riding close by his side. “We have to find her, Virgil. She has no idea what dangers lie in wait out there.”
“I will not rest until she is found, my Lord. You have my word.” Virgil shifted in his saddle. “How did you manage to keep George from the castle?”
“He is unsure of how far he can push me. And besides, with all his arrogance, he does not want to see me dead.”
“You must have good reason to believe this.”
Bryne thought of the documents safely tucked away inside his castle walls. “I do.” He changed the subject. “It will be dark soon, Haskell. The Mocama—”
“The likelihood of Miss Grier, encountering a native in this area is highly unlikely, Sire. Rest easy, old man. We will find her.”
“Thank you, Virgil. And for the thousandth time, it is Bryne.”
Haskell only smiled and spurred his horse into a gallop, leaving Bryne to catch up.
The moon was high in the sky as Cathe arrived at the top of a hill looking down on the biggest cornfield she had ever seen. Trees were scattered along the right side of the property while corn covered the left for what seemed like miles.
A small cabin situated between the two could barely be seen for the dense canopy of trees it rested beneath. Smoke from a chimney swirled its way through the foliage to dissolve in the chilly February air.
Cathe froze as a low voice sounded from close behind her. “Who are you and what are you doing on my land?”
“My name is Catherine Grier.”
“State your business.”
“I need your help.”
The owner of the voice stepped up next to her horse, pointing a rifle in her direction. “What makes you think I would help you?”
The guy was a handsome young man with light-colored hair and hazel eyes from what Cathe could see in the moonlight. He looked to be about six feet tall, but she couldn’t be sure from her position on the horse. “Are you Ellis?”