Fantasy men do exist – they might not be in your time period though.
Ainsleigh Darling is back at the top of her game. She’s got her next album in the can and is ready for a little rest and relaxation before the whirlwind promotional tour. Her intention to take this breather in a Scottish castle, also where she’d finally broken through her writer’s block, leads her to the most unexpected place. The Veil is going to take her on a trip to twelfth-century Scotland and thrust her into the arms of her dream man.
Adaem MacPherson has lived more than his fair share of life. Born on the wrong side of the sheets, he’s been forced to fight for every snippet of respect he could garner. On top of his unfortunate birth, he’s also living beneath the stigma wrought from wild words that there’s a prophecy hanging over his head. None of it is true, but the mysterious woman who appears in his keep might just shake out the real reason his step-mother began the vile rumor that he’s cursed.
Intrigue and danger are around every corner, but can Ainsleigh adapt to life in medieval Scotland or has this once high-flying celebrity finally hit the rock bottom of a grave?
Be happy while you are living, for you are a long time dead.
A conspiracy of timeless proportions.
Castle Kielkierney, the Highlands of Scotland, present day.
She was back.
Ainsleigh Darling strode into the massive Great Hall of Castle Kielkierney feeling as though she could walk on air. And, she wanted to scream her thanks to God for giving her the insight to know she needed to get some inspiration.
This medieval megalith was where her long path out of depression had started.
A little over a year ago she'd been trapped in a mire of writer's block, where her head clanged and her stomach churned daily because her record company wanted to see some progress on the next album. Progress would have been nice. Her parents’ constant phone calls to get an update and give her useless advice had her even more tied in a knot.
It was the instinct of having to better the group's first album that turned insurmountable. At times, she'd told people that working through the process was akin to jerking words out of her brain with a pair of dentist's pliers. Of course, there had been no anesthetic involved.
Then, after talking to her road manager she'd considered just getting away from the rat race of Los Angeles and the demanding calls from Black Rose Records. She hadn't given her destination any thought when she visited the travel agent except she didn't want to visit a place even remotely high profile. It was when she was perusing the colorful brochures lined up like soldiers in their wall stands that she'd stumbled across Castle Kielkierney.
Located on a small island just off the coast of the Isle of Skye, the place could only be reached by a narrow causeway, which was washed out during high tide. Two impervious walls strategically circled the castle providing even more protection. The idea of complete isolation for a few hours a day appealed to her. The realization she could be trapped there with members of the paparazzi almost changed her mind.
The travel agent sympathized with her and gave her a bit of advice. She should book two trips. The first to her preferred destination and the second would be a decoy. Then, she could let it slip to the media how she was traveling to the decoy.
The plan had worked perfectly a year ago. She’d escaped and found a font of inspiration here.
She bit her lip to keep from lauging aloud while the memories of photographers flocking to the Caribbean rolled through her mind. Little did they know that she’d quietly boarded a flight for the Highlands. Two weeks of bliss followed that initial vacation.
The familiar scent of lemon oil and beeswax tickled her nose as she strode through the Great Doors. Here I am again. This time it was to show her appreciation to the people who worked in the castle and the whatever it was that helped her get away from her writer’s block.
“Welcome back, Ms. Darling.”
Ainsleigh greeted the clerk who had checked her in last year with a nod. Absently, she walked across the worn-smooth stone floor until she stood in front of the massive mahogany reception desk. “Hello, Rory, how are you?”
“I'm fairing well,” he responded.
She smiled when he returned his focus to the computer terminal hidden beneath the high counter of the desk. “Sorry about all the chaos.” The apology tripped from her lips, but her contrition was palpable.
Rory shook his balding head. “No issues. We're thankful you chose Kielkierney as the location for your music videos.”
“A little capitalism never hurt anyone?” Ainsleigh teased. She already knew about how Kielkierney was on the chopping block because of the exorbitant cost of upkeep. In fact, she'd fallen so in love with the castle that if she'd had the resources she'd have bought the place during her initial trip.
“Ya have that right, Ms. Darling. We've never been this full before. There are people in the village who have taken to renting rooms to the media.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Ainsleigh said, sobering. “I'll have the security detail informed once they arrive.” She'd also have to confess about how she'd made the place out to be a five-star spa even though she knew her band and road crew would figure out it wasn't on their own the moment they entered Kielkierney.
She'd also have to tell the entourage about the supposed curse surrounding the island. Considering how jaded most of them were, they'd probably just shrug it off as Scotland’s version of urban fantasy. Hell, she could hear her lead guitarist calling the well-known rhetoric Highland Castle Fantasy.
Even as the pang of guilt struck her, she remained remorseless. The lies were easy to come up with. Her opinion was simple, if her band mates and the production crew didn't shut up and cope, that was their problem.
The video producers wanted earthy, wild, untamed. She'd convinced them with pictures from her holiday there was no place more untamed than Kielkierney. She also had a simple ulterior motive. She wanted to come back to where she'd regained her stride, and thank the people of the town for their hospitality.
Yeah, my motives are pure, but the media circus sucks. The paparazzi bothered her most. “Have any of them come from the mainland to inquire about the accommodations?” In other words, 'were they snooping around for gossip like the scum-sucking fish they were'?
“A few, but I didn't pay them any mind. We don't have time for nuisances such as them. We got a business to run, and our own lives to see after.”
Listening to the printer kick on, Ainsleigh drummed her fingers in agitation. It wouldn't be so easy to dodge her shadows this time. “I'm sorry if they were rude. I'll try to get my publicist to put out a statement or something.” She was willing to do anything to avoid a media blitz in the middle of the video productions.
“That would be in your best interest. The causeway will be closed earlier now, with it being winter and all.”
“Do you think the lack of accessibility will stop them?”
“Nay, Ms. Darling, I don't, but it will give you some time to yourself.” He laid the receipt on the counter top, slid a pen to her, before he handed her a pamphlet on the history of the place. The glossy tri-fold flier, meant to pique tourists' interest into going on the castle tour, made her smile.
Scrawling her name across the bottom of the receipt, she heaved a sigh. “I don't need another. I still have the one from last year.” On top of cherishing the hour-long tour, she needed to hold the memories close. Hundreds of pictures just weren't good enough, so to satisfy her hunger for the emotions the castle evoked, she'd gone ahead and bought a few books on medieval castles off the Internet, even buying a set of 'teach yourself Gaelic' audio CDs.
So far, she'd done well with the lessons. Unfortunately, she didn't have a lot of time to put her nose to the grindstone. Arch Angel, her group, would always take precedence in her life.
Even so, there was something alluring in the heaviness of the language; the way it rolled off the narrator's tongue got her going in the sexual sense which had translated into some of the songs she'd written since completing album number two. Freakier than that, she often felt disjointed from her body when she listened to them, longing for a man's arms around her.
She lusted for a man who was out of her reach, yet so close she could almost smell him.
Her dream man who would give her deep kisses and thorough loving, he'd pay homage to every inch of her body until she quaked for an orgasm – an earth-shattering explosion she'd share with him and only him.
Cool it. The last thing you need is a lover.
Hell no and no fucking way.
A friend with benefits was what she had. It was what she'd enjoy until she was out of her contract. Then, if she weren’t on some suicide mission of her own creation, she'd think about settling down. If she was feeling extremely adventurous, she might even throw a baby into the mix.
Oh yeah, right, like I'd do that to a kid.
Some of her friends warned her she was too jaded for her own good. Maybe she was, but coming from the industry notorious for dashing dreams with the same crashing alacrity as plates breaking at a Greek wedding, she knew she wouldn't put her child through the same loneliness she’d suffered as the only daughter of Manny and Sherilynn Darling, rockers par excellence.
Pulled back to the present when Rory cleared his throat, Ainsleigh tilted her gaze to his wrinkled countenance. Worry shimmered at her from his hazel eyes. There wasn't a damn thing she could do about her quick shifting emotions. The stress of recording the second album combined with the impending tour, add to those two major factors the anxiety of the videos was about to send her into a tailspin, which was why she'd come to the castle a few days early. She was going to rejuvenate her batteries, so to speak. “Thanks,” she said, taking the key from his hand.
“Do you remember the curse?”
A bit stunned by the question, Ainsleigh took a single step away from the counter before returning her attention to him. “I think so.”
Rory stared at her for a pregnant pause. “Tell me.”
Ainsleigh searched her memory, her heart pounding in her chest like the reverberating thump of a timpani drum.
'From the sins of the father is born,
A curse as old as the land.
Unto the son the burden is worn,
Until a lass heals the broken stand.'
“Very good,” Rory commented. His gaze remained critical.
Feeling literally lifted off a proverbial tenterhook; Ainsleigh sent him a relieved smile. “Yeah, it's a cool little rhyme, not that I understand it that well. I guess I don't have enough information to put it into context, you know? The whole 'lass heals the broken stand', throws me off.” She shrugged as she walked toward her luggage piled on a brass-plated cart. Not that it mattered if she got the gist of the curse or not. Even so, something about the mystery behind what she figured was a marketing ploy did weird things to her blood pressure.
//You will understand soon enough.//
The voice came out of nowhere drawing her attention to the massive Great Doors. A shadow-thin whisper she chalked up to the winter wind blowing off the sea. An involuntary shiver raced the length of her spine. “Oh,” she muttered under her breath, her lips trembling when her body shook.
//You’ll find the true meaning of happiness.//
Hugging herself, she motioned for the bellhop to lead the way. It's okay. You're fine. You're just tired. Silently reaffirming her reasons for coming back to Kielkierney, Ainsleigh trailed after the porter, her step heavy, weary, reluctant.
Her worry grew as they passed the room she'd stayed in before and headed for a steep staircase cut into the stone. “I booked room #7,” she belligerently complained as the porter loaded her designer baggage into an over-sized dumbwaiter. The contraption was an obvious addition, stuffed into a corner; she could see the difference between the stones making the smaller elevator shaft and the original construction.
“I'm just following orders, ma'am. Rory asked you be put in our best suite, and the owner agreed. That be the Laird's Room. You'll find it comfortable. Aside, it's the best protected in all Kielkierney. The only way to the suite is the staircase.” He pulled the gates closed on the dumbwaiter, lowered the door then punched the button to initiate the lift. “It's for the best, I'm thinking.”
The tiny spurt of anger she'd felt when the young man informed her in his thick-as-lamb-stew accent of the change died before it had a chance to really take hold. “I'll have to thank him for his consideration.”
Of course, she understood this was a matter of the infamous Highland hospitality. Hell, she recalled the stories of enemies requesting sanctuary from their rivals and that clan would have to give it. In a sad way, the practice sounded naïve and dangerous to her, but she supposed hundreds of years ago they really didn't have to worry as much about someone verbally—or literally—stabbing you in the back.
Or perhaps not. She could picture a medieval banquet and a lord partaking of a plate of poisoned meat or a lady getting herself raped due to the custom. There was only one way to find out. “Excuse me,” she began as they climbed the stairs. “I'm sorry, I didn't get your name.”
“Connor, in the ages when this castle was built, why would the rules of hospitality be followed? Wouldn't it place the people at risk?”
“In cases it did, in other cases it didn't. Some lairds would use our ways to defeat an enemy, but the people thought that cowardly. Mostly, the reason people would ask for sanctuary was simple and a matter of survival. They were asking for safety from a stronger clan. Kielkierney often found herself welcoming enemies over the years when Laird Adaem ruled.”
Laird Adaem, the cursed leader of the Clan MacPherson. More questions rolled through her head but Connor had reached the small landing in front of the Laird's Room. Handing over the immense key, she gripped the railing. Taking in the small flat space on which Connor stood, she shifted her eyes down the narrow, steep pitch of the staircase. The defensive aspect of the area was obvious. It would be easy to push an enemy back since the Kielkierney warriors would be on the floor of the landing and the room.
“Will you require an unpack?”
“No, that won't be necessary,” Ainsleigh told him. “This is nice.”
Gorgeous was a better description. The suite took up an entire floor of a monstrous tower. Walking to the windows, she stared at the rocky precipices making up the coastline.
“From the Gallery, you can see the sea.” Connor pulled her luggage from the dumbwaiter. “It's a sight to behold at dawn and dusk.”
“I can imagine.” Turning in a slow circle, Ainsleigh swept her gaze over her accommodations. The suite had been sectioned off with the sitting room being the first area you entered. Heavy, ornately carved furniture dominated the space. Her hand fell to one of the throne-like chairs. She traced her fingers along the rope molding caressing the curved back.
The next room was the bedroom. “Oh my,” she whispered in a gushing breath. The bed wasn't only immense. Oh, hell no, the piece of furniture also epitomized luxury. She'd be lucky not to get lost underneath the jewel-tone linens and pillows. Her heart swelled with a sense of comfort when she walked around the curved wall. She stopped to warm herself in front of the fire roaring in the stone and mortar fireplace. “Rory and the owners are too kind. This room has to be worth twice what I’m paying.”
“Ms. Darling, leave be.” Connor showed her to yet another room. “This is the West Gallery. Laird Adaem had it created for his lady.”
Ainsleigh looked out over the dried grass until it fell off, even from here, she could see the island's western coastline. A wave broke against what she knew from her last visit was a sheer drop off, sending a plume of white water into the sky. “I thought he wasn't married.”
“He died before the cure to the curse was realized. The story goes that his mother consulted a seer who foretold how her son's bride would come across the sea. She'd come from the west to lift the Dark Servant's pall. Lady Isobal had every island searched for a woman who fit the description given by the seer, but to no avail.”
“I find that hard to believe. I mean there had to have been at least a few women who fit the ticket.”
“They found many with blonde hair and grass-green eyes, but they couldn't locate one with a birch leaf-shaped birthmark on her upper thigh.” Connor pointed to his khaki-clad leg. He plucked a long, brown cassock from the padded bench and threw it over his shoulders.
She slapped her hand over her jean-clad thigh. The strawberry patch of skin she'd carried all her life sort of looked like a leaf. Overwhelmed and awed, Ainsleigh opened her purse, intent on tipping Connor. She hoped he took the hint and left. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched him open the central pane. His lips moved quickly, almost silently. Blasted by frigid air, she stumbled away from the gushing wind, the fistful of money fluttering out of her grip to swirl around her. “What are you doing?”
A scream built in her throat. She grasped for an anchor but all her hand connected with was the teeming, ion-charged air.
* * * * *
Castle Kielkierney, December 13, 1110
“What the fuck are you doing?” A woman screeched.
Adaem MacPherson, Laird of the Clan MacPherson, scowled at the racket coming from his buttery. He motioned for the celebrants to continue their revelry with a wave of his hand. 'Twas the first of the twelve days of Christmas. The Yule Log blazed in the Great Hearth and many a clansman had joined the festivities. Pushing away from where he leaned against the mantel, he headed for the screen partition. He shook his head when his second-in-command rose to accompany him.
“Will you knock it off?”
He couldn't understand the language, but the incessant tone forced his feet to move at an uncommonly fast pace. “Cease,” Adaem commanded before he rounded the hinged wood panels. His steps faltered when he caught sight of a woman staring down a priest. Her fists were planted on her hips and her vibrant green eyes threw daggers at her adversary. She was quite fetching with her long blonde hair. Her skintight clothing was indecent in his opinion. “What do you here?”
He pinned the lass to her spot with a pointed glare as she opened her mouth to argue. “Enough of your squawking, woman.”
“Milord, I have brought you your bride,” the priest said in a rush. “She carries the mark your mother has spoken of. The birch leaf rides her leg.” He pointed to her thigh.
Suspicious of any man who would speak to him of the curse or Lady Isobal's preoccupation with it, he waited for the priest to continue. His distrust of the newcomers grew. Adaem steered his gaze to the priest. “Where do you hail from?”
“I was born in Bin Brison, but have performed my duty to the church in Ireland.”
“You are a long way from home, Father.” Adaem wrapped his hand around the woman's arm when she tried to sneak past him. Ignoring her pathetic attempts to free herself, he heaved a sigh when she kicked him in the shin. “Woman, you'd do well not to tempt my anger.”
“Aye. The trip has been long and treacherous. It has made her surly.” The priest nodded his head to tell him he meant what he said. “There is many a greedy man who would paint a mark on a woman's body to win the reward your mother has promised. More who would murder even a priest in good standing with the church to gain the true bearer of the cure.”
“I see.” The hell he did. 'Twas a point of unrest amongst the clan when Lady Isobal continued her single-minded desire to find this mystery woman some charlatan professed would lift the supposed curse from the laird. Her promise of coin ludicrous at best since most of the Highlanders knew the Clan MacPherson didn't have aught but a few pence in their coffers. 'Twas a whole other tangle to have a priest appear out of thin air to say he had the woman with him.
A foul taste filled his mouth. “Why did you come here?” he finally asked. He held his finger to his lips to shut the chit up. “Do not speak. My men will become concerned and investigate.”
“She doesn't understand you, milord. She speaks a dialect foreign to the Highlands.”
“Then 'tis in your best interest to explain the precarious situation she's in. I wouldnae wish my men to brand her a witch when they believe she speaks in tongues. Only you know if this is true, but we've not had a burning here in a long time. I willnae have one now because of a confusion.”
“At once, milord.”
As the priest hurriedly talked in her native language, Adaem watched her eyes grow to the size of saucers. A pang of pity welled in his soul for her. She'd been stripped away from her people and brought to a land he assumed was far different from her own.
He waited for the priest to finish his explanation before he re-entered the conversation. “You are welcome to stay within the Keep until the weather clears. Then, you will take the lass home. I will not marry her against her will.”
“The mark, milord.”
“Means naught, Father. There is nay curse upon me.”
The priest hesitated for a few minutes. A heaviness filled the air. “If we could speak somewhere in private, milord, this is very important.”
“Aye,” Adaem allowed. He escorted them to the rear of the buttery and the stairway he used to enter the tower. Like his father, he believed in the art of subterfuge within the Keep's walls. The staircase off the Great Hall led to a trapdoor where his unmarried warriors resided. They also had another escape path on the western side of the second tower. A long ladder led them to the cutaway path to his turret. From there, they could go far down beneath the castle into the tunnels.
Nodding to his guards, he allowed the priest and woman to enter the torch-lit space first. He followed, his gaze feasting on the lass's arse. An unwanted and uncontrollable lust tightened his muscles until they twanged with desire. His fingers itched to stroke her skin.
Pulling up his discipline, he waited until they stood in the Laird's chamber before he turned on the priest. He slammed the bolt home. “I would have your name, Father.”
The man took his good time lowering his cowl to reveal a face hauntingly familiar to Adaem. “I am your descendant, Connor MacPherson. I've come back in time through the anomaly called the Veil to rescue our family from an eternity of unhappiness and early death.”
“The curse...” Adaem began, his scowl returning ten-fold.
“Is real,” Connor admitted. “It began with your father, and has been handed down through your offspring like a hereditary disease. I have to do something to stop the cycle.”
“Are you so cowardly that death frightens you?”
“Nay, milord, I fear for my daughter.” Connor produced a simple bi-fold leather case and a picture of his child. Adaem stared at the miracle he held. The cover was slick, the portrait refined and more lifelike than aught he'd ever gazed upon.
“Continue,” he ordered. Handing back the odd-shaped purse, he leaned his shoulder against the door. His gaze darted to the red-faced with anger woman. “I would hear it all.”
“My daughter is the first female born to your direct bloodline. We can't explain what is happening to her, but it's obvious she has thrown the curse off kilter. She suffers from disease, mental challenges and she'll die before long.”
“My line will die with her.”
“Is that a tragedy?”
“'Tis when you can stop this tragedy by falling in love with Ainsleigh.”
“'Tis her name, milord.”
“You ask much from me, young MacPherson. Love is not an emotion I hold strong allegiance to.” What good did the soft feelings do him? Nay, he answered himself. Love, like compassion, never became a part of his life. They weren't fitting of a warrior or a laird. 'Twas blatantly true considering the many stories he'd heard from the bards regarding his own sire. Both the nuisance female emotions had led his father to sin against God or to offend the Dark Servant living in the forest and finally go mad from his many transgressions. “Tell me true or I will have you removed from Kielkierney.”
“I ask you to save my child from a painful death, milord. There isn't anything the modern surgeons can do to save her. She's only six years old.” Connor held his hands out to him. “My wife cries herself to sleep at night as our daughter's health wanes.” He fell to his knees. “I beg you, Black Laird of the Highlands, help me save her.”
Adaem adjusted the plaid riding his shoulder. “Love is beyond my ken.”
“You could try.”
“Aye, I could.” Adaem took in the fuming young woman. She was bonny enough, but to love her? 'Twould take a miracle. Young MacPherson, you donnae know what you ask of me. “I will try for your lass, but I make nay promises.”
“From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, milord.”
“Donnae thank me yet.” Adaem strode to the Gallery. “She cannae understand me, nor do I think she'll settle into our ways.”
“She's open-minded. Ainsleigh is smart, witty and talented with music.”
“All the character flaws the English wish for in their women.”
“She's well versed in the ways of the bedroom.”
“You'd marry me to a whore?”
“I'd marry you to one who will love you with all her soul.”