Again - Diana Murdock - ebook
Opis

ONCE UPON A TIME… LADY CATHERINE, a medieval noblewoman has it all: Beauty, wealth, and a handsome, valiant knight whose love for her knows no bounds. Though secretly holding out for a love that would consume her, she acquiesces her fate to wed this knight, a man she loves no more than she could a brother. But a chance meeting with a devastatingly handsome merchant shakes the very foundation of her world, compelling her to act and think in ways she never thought possible. LOVE CAME BACK TO HAUNT HER… ERYN REXFORD, a modern-day photographer, has everything many women dream of: Beauty, wealth, a sexy and successful husband, a career she loves, and a beautiful house nestled in a community of beach homes. But passionate love, the one thing she longs for, she learns to live without, until recurring dreams and visions spark memories of a life lived long ago and of a man whose love promises to follow her through time. Eryn recognizes a whisper of that promise in the eyes of a handsome stranger who stays close enough for her to notice, but not close enough for her to remember. LOVE HAS NO BOUNDARIES… Two women, born centuries apart, both accept lives of obligation and responsibility; lives without passion, with men who would claim them for their own. Until, that is, a chain of events complicates things in ways they never imagined, all because of one man’s love for a woman…a love that crosses through centuries to find her Again.

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Again

––––––––

Diana Murdock

Table of Contents

Title Page

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

AUTHOR'S NOTE

THE LEGAL SMALL PRINT

Chapter 1

Eryn scrubbed intently at the residue baked on the casserole pan, as if doing so would uncover some sort of hint.  Her head ached from the tight knit of her brow, and still she was no closer to an explanation.

For the fourth time that week, the date on her computer was off.  Way off.  Hell, by like 500 years.  January 1501, to be exact.  It didn’t matter that she kept changing the computer clock to the right date and virus scans kept coming up empty.  January 1501 would be there every time she would turn on the computer.

It was too big a coincidence that the glitch had started the day before the dream.  Unlike her other easily forgotten dreams, this one was different.  This dream wouldn’t let her forget.  It invaded at will, regardless of what she would be doing.  It would press against the back door of her mind, pushing until the door gave way.

The mundane task of washing dishes was certainly no match for the dream now.  It merely nudged everything out of its way and played center stage again, as if it had a life of its own...

~~

She and Bryce were sitting at a table somewhere.  His words were a simple request.  “Look at his eyes,” Bryce said. “They look like stars.”  Eryn studied the calm face of her husband.  Normally so jealous and possessive, it was totally unlike him to ask her to look at another man - and even stranger for him to make such a poetic statement - so she could hardly resist.  Eryn turned to face the stranger sitting next to her.  But he was no stranger. Well, she didn’t know him in the conventional sense, but he was familiar somehow.  She knew him from...where?  She couldn’t be sure.  A slight shift in the air around them whispered his name...Jonathan.  She let the name brush across her lips as her gaze slid over his clothes.  His shirt, she thought, was the kind that a pirate would wear.  It hung loosely over his broad shoulders and tucked into black pants, and the shirt’s billowing sleeves flowed down his arms and closed snugly around his wrists.  The sun-darkened skin of his face, chest, and hands contrasted sharply against the whiteness of the shirt. Thin laces across his chest were lazily tied, granting her a glimpse of the strong muscles underneath.  Her nails bit deep into her palms as she fought the urge to trail her fingertips down his chest.  Somehow she knew exactly what it would feel like.  Smooth and powerful.  Her gaze slid upwards.  She loved the way his dark brown hair fell freely, a little past his shoulders, brushed back from the smooth skin of his face.  His hair had a bit of a wave to it, adding to the thickness of his locks.  The curve of his lips was kind, and at the same time, so sensual.  His amber eyes, fringed with thick, long lashes, were warm and gentle.  And they sparkled. Yes, she thought, definitely like stars.  He sat there quietly while she looked into his eyes.  He didn’t have to say anything.  She could feel he loved her -  and she loved him back.  She just wanted to stay there forever, looking into those depths.  There in those eyes she felt at home, safe and accepted.  Those eyes held so much, almost as if they were keeping memories for her, things he wanted her to remember.  But he would be patient, she knew, until she was ready.

And one of those memories managed to find a way into her mind.  Just one.  Like a seed dropped into fertile soil, it grew quickly.  A dawning of sorts gave way to realization.  She drew in a quick breath as it became clear.  He was the one she had given her soul to so many centuries ago and it was in that moment she realized that he still had her heart.  His smile grew wide as he saw that she understood.  She suddenly felt embarrassed to stare so long and so she dropped her gaze for a moment. When she looked up again, he was gone...

~~

Tom Petty’s music rattled her cell phone to life behind her and Eryn’s attention jerked back to the bright-lit kitchen.  She stood at the sink, her limp hand now barely hanging onto the soapy dishrag.  Outside the bay window, the sun was breaking over the rooftops across the street, throwing long shadows across the grass, the rich blue skies deepening in color with each passing moment.

Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, Eryn dropped the dishrag and dried her hands on the back of her shorts.  She yanked on the knot holding her hair from her face and let the long, soft strands cascade down her back in a downpour of bronze before picking up the cell phone.  Her brows pressed together into a frown.  With her mind still saturated with the dream, it was hard to focus on the incoming phone number.  She gave up and flipped the phone open. 

“This is Eryn.”

She held her hand out to touch Bryce’s when he walked into the kitchen.  A hint of a smile managed to find its way to the corners of his lips, but only after she mouthed good morning to him. 

Silence on the other end of the phone, begging for some kind of response, drew Eryn’s attention back.  She had no idea what had been said. 

“Can you just fax that to me and I’ll look it over?” Eryn asked.

Their fingertips brushed lightly as Bryce walked past her.  She sighed.  Their marriage seemed solid enough, but there were definitely things about it that lacked.  It was too hard to explain, even to herself.  It was nothing tangible, just some underlying current she couldn’t quite grasp.

Eryn absent-mindedly adjusted the strap of her tank top. “I’m sorry, what was that?”  She pressed the phone hard against her ear.  “Yeah, that’s fine.  Hey, when do you have the decorating crew coming out?”

Her attention wandered again as she watched her husband pour his coffee.  Where Eryn’s beauty complemented any space she stood, Bryce’s body completely possessed the room.  Strong, yes.  Silent, yes.  Commanding, definitely.  And he looked good.  Today he wore his jet-black hair slicked back, the ends loose.  His black button-down shirt hugged his impossibly strong shoulders and rode the line down his slim waist and disappeared into gray pants.  The role of the successful, most sought-after young architect suited him well.  He handled everything in his personal life like he did his work - deliberately and calculated.  Even the task of pouring his coffee.  Always in control. 

A big breath escaped her again.  Too much control, she thought.  “I’m sorry.  I was distracted.  What was that again?”

Bryce turned his head slightly as he locked onto her conversation. 

She grabbed a pencil and paper and turned to the counter before Bryce could see her face.  “Ten o’clock.  Friday.  Great.  Okay.  Thanks.  Bye.”  She scribbled a few more notes while things were still fresh in her mind, trying in vain to focus on something other than Bryce.  During the entire time they’ve been together, she always felt like he harbored some kind of resentment, maybe some anger towards her, but for what, she hadn’t the slightest idea.  She did whatever she could to make him happy, but it never seemed enough.

Two deep breaths later, she turned to face him.  She knew he would be standing exactly as he was now, leaning against the counter, one hand in his pocket, the other holding his cup to his lips.  He looked at her as if she was a jigsaw puzzle and he was trying figure out where to place the next piece.  She hated it when he did that.  It made her feel uncomfortable, like maybe she did have a piece missing.

Intent on distracting him, she gestured across the kitchen.

“Your breakfast is warming in the oven.”

He made no attempt to move or even look away.

“Going to have to pass today.  Meeting with some builders this morning.” A perfect mix of blue and gray, his eyes refocused.

An exasperated breath rushed over her lips. “You passed on breakfast yesterday.”  She walked back to the sink and resumed scrubbing the casserole pan with a vengeance.  “And the day before and the day before,” she mumbled under her breath. 

She didn’t mean for him to see how annoyed she was, but she couldn’t help it.  He never asked for breakfast.  She just wanted to make it for him.  But this was the third time in a row he refused it.  Still, as annoyed as she was with herself, she knew she’d probably do it again.

“I did, didn’t I?” He took a few swallows of his coffee before pushing away from the counter.  “I’m sorry.”  He reached around her and placed his cup in the sink.

Her mood dropped a notch to resignation in one heavy breath.  “You don’t need to apologize.”  She dropped the dishrag into the sink and turned to face him.  Her pale blue eyes held no challenge to his gray ones.  “Really, you don’t.  It’s my fault.”

His hands slid down the length of her arms until he held her hands in his.  Stooping a little to level his face with hers, he said, “Don’t think I don’t appreciate what you did.”  He took her silence as understanding. “I don’t always have time to sit around and eat.”

“You could take some time off,” she suggested, but she knew it was pointless to have said it.  He seemed perfectly content to immerse himself in his work.  “Sorry.  Stupid thing to say,” she mumbled, and turned away.

He cupped her chin in his hand, turning her back, giving her no choice but to look at him.

She hated it when he gave her no choice.

Intense focus darkened his eyes.  “I’m doing this for you.  For us.”  He held her face until she nodded in acknowledgement. “Good.”

Releasing her, he grabbed his keys and wallet from the counter and headed towards the garage. “Don’t forget about Montgomery this morning,” he said over his shoulder. The door slammed behind him, sharply cutting off his reality from hers. 

It never ceased to amaze her how quickly the atmosphere around him could change so fast.  Predictably unpredictable. 

With her lips pressed together in a tight line, she tried to reel in her thoughts.  Don’t do it to yourself.  Don’t do it.  Eryn closed her eyes tight against the tears that burned.  I’ll never get used to this, she thought. 

She never knew exactly where she stood with him.  A long time ago she convinced herself she was willing to wait, but now she finally had to admit defeat.  Defeat in a battle that would continue as long as their marriage did. What went wrong? She pressed her fingers to her temples. Were we not meant to be together?  Where did the love go?   She straightened up and turned to the kitchen window.  The brightness of the morning was starting to fade.  The fog was rolling in like a smoke screen, eating up everything in its path, turning everything of which she was so certain of into gray shades of nothingness.

She now dared to think of the one thought she had been denying for so long. Maybe the love had never been there in the first place.  Maybe this was all a big mistake.

For the second time that morning, Tom Petty yanked her thoughts back to the kitchen.  Snatching up the phone and flipping it open, she answered. “This is Eryn.”

“Hello, this is Sonja from Mr. Montgomery’s office calling to confirm today’s photo sitting for Mr. Montgomery.”

Eryn tried to picture the type of person Sonja was.  Perfectly composed face, impeccable makeup, long nails that were painted red.  Probably a silk blouse smoothed over a nylon-mix fabric skirt.  Older, trying to look younger.  Eryn rolled her eyes at the image she conjured up in her head.

Corporate.  Ugh.

“Yes,” Eryn dug her planner out of her purse and flipped the pages.  “Let’s see.  Tuesday.  Right.  I have him down for 1:00 this afternoon at my studio.”

Sonja reconfirmed the address before expressing a perfectly polished goodbye.

Biting her lip and drumming her fingers on the counter, Eryn stared hard at her planner, trying to concentrate on her schedule.  She finally gave up and turned to face the thick gray that was drifting past the bay window.  She shivered just thinking about being in the fog.  The way it muffled and distorted everything, always gave her the sense of dreariness and gloom.  Despite that, though, she loved living at the beach.  Something about it just kept her there.

She glanced at her watch.  Good, she thought.  She’d have time to get in a run.  The dishes can wait.  She needed to get outside. 

Her bare feet felt cool on the tile that stretched from the kitchen into the living room.  The house, designed by Bryce, reflected his preference for open space and windows.  Lots of windows. To Eryn, it lacked intimacy and had a certain coldness about it.  The cream-colored furniture that dominated the house was broken up with blotches of bold color in the paintings, lamps, and sculptures scattered throughout the rooms.  Bryce spared no expense.  She felt guilty for not appreciating how much work he put into the construction and the elaborate furnishings, but sometimes she thought it was just too much.  If she had her choice, she would be happy with a little cottage on the beach, something plain and simple.

Running her hand along the smooth mahogany rail as she slowly climbed the stairs, she remembered how often Bryce said he wanted her to have the best in life.  The best of the tangible things, she thought, dryly.  What about the things you can’t touch?  Like unconditional love.  Romantic love.  The kind of love that makes your insides rage like an inferno only to be quelled by the waves of passion.  The kind where you can’t wait to see each other again.  When every touch and every glance means something.  The same kind of love in my dream.  She smiled as it drifted in and swirled around her mind again.  She sighed.  I could get used to a love like that.

She took the rest of the stairs two at a time to get her blood pumping.  Only slightly winded, she breezed to her room and sat in the middle of the floor, stretching her long, toned legs in front of her, reaching well beyond her neatly manicured toenails.

Forming a mental checklist, she planned out her day.  After her run she would take the portrait of Montgomery, grab some salmon from the store on the way home, edit the pictures and get them out in time for corporate approval so they could hang it up on the board members’ wall.  He would be just one of a handful of board members she would be photographing this week.  They were the heavy hitters at World Commerce Bank and her pictures would document their status for the world to see.  Well, maybe not the entire world, but their world anyway.  New pictures for a new building.  The very building that Bryce designed.  He worked hard to prove himself, but whether he wrapped himself around his work for her or because of her, she wasn’t completely sure.

She got up and stripped off her clothes.  Brushing past the line of designer clothes she rarely wore, she headed for the back of the closet where her chest of drawers stood in the corner.  This was where she placed her stash of favorite clothes - soft, worn, comfortable clothes.  She pulled out a pair of black sweat pants, a sports bra, and a bleached-out sweatshirt.

“Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about,” she said out loud.  After she quickly threw on her running clothes, pulled on a baseball cap, and slipped into her old running shoes, she ran down the stairs.

A glitter of light caught her attention as she dashed past the kitchen, compelling her to slow her pace and stop.  She knew what it was.  She had seen it a hundred times.  But since her dream, it had become another reminder.  She looked over her shoulder at the crystal hanging in the kitchen window.  It had taken hold of a few shards of determined sunlight and threw out flashes of white across the room.  Like bursting stars.  Like his eyes.  Eryn let the delicious warmth of her dream run over her for only a moment before she stopped herself. 

Run, she thought.  Get out and run.  But she knew that miles of running would never let her escape the memory of Jonathan’s eyes.

Chapter 2

The Year of Our Lord 1501

Emelie stopped short, catching her breath.

Lady Catherine turned and stared down at her maid. “What is it?” she demanded.  The afternoon sun was too warm, putting Catherine in a slightly foul mood.

Not put off by her mistress’ tone, Emelie stood with fists clenched to her stomach, her whisper strained with excitement.  “It is him, milady.  The merchant Elizabeth and I spoke of.”

Catherine rolled her eyes at Emelie’s melodramatic air.

At fourteen, Emelie was perched on the edge of womanhood, and she took notice of any and all males.  Compared to Catherine, one would consider Emelie plain.  Where Catherine’s thick auburn tresses fell heavily over her shoulders down to her waist, Emelie’s fine, pale blond hair was braided and wound tightly about her head.  Emerald green eyes adorned Catherine’s beautifully delicate face, while her maid looked at life through eyes of muted brown.  Emelie’s still developing shape was flat in places where Catherine, at 17, had developed curved hips, rounded breasts, and long, shapely legs.

To humor the girl, Catherine turned her attention to the groups of village folk milling busily around the port where merchants regularly came and went to sell their wares, restock goods, or to wait out foul weather.  Catherine often came here for the diversion it held as well as the variety of goods the many merchants brought with them from lands Catherine had never dreamed existed outside her world.  It was here that her hunger for the finer things in life was often sated.

Lady Catherine and Emelie now stood on the fringes of a circle of village women crowded around one merchant in particular. Catherine followed her maid’s gaze to the man who stood alone before the titillated throng.  Without effort, he lifted bulky rolls of fabric and displayed them for the women who stood shoulder to shoulder, two or three deep, constantly shifting themselves for a better view.

He reminded Catherine of the traveling performers who visited the castle from time to time - animated, carefree, playing to the crowd. The air about him was charged with energy.  Standing a full head above everyone, but without a hint of superiority about him, his mere presence commanded attention.

Twittering laughter assaulted her ears.  Catherine’s lip curled in annoyance as she looked upon the women before her.  None of them seemed the least bit interested in this merchant’s goods. Young or old, it made no difference.  All of them openly ogled this man and giggled like nervous girls. Some clung to each other as they swooned.  Others blatantly adjusted their dresses in hopes of enticing him. It all seems incredibly carnal, Catherine thought contemptuously.

The merchant’s deep laugh drew Catherine’s eyes back to him as he leaned closer to one of the women, a large-breasted blonde.  The woman looked at him from under lowered lashes, twirling a strand of hair around her finger. As he leaned closer to her, his dark, rich brown hair flowed easily across his broad shoulders while his unlaced white shirt with its billowing sleeves, revealed a well-muscled, smooth chest, with skin darkened by the sun.  Catherine strained to hear his words, but they were smothered by the chatter. 

One voice suddenly rang out above the others, “What of payment with a kiss?”  Shouts of approval welled up from the crowd.

His smile broadened as he raised his voice to be heard, “A fine payment, indeed.” His eyes now focused on the one who stood on her toes in order to be seen. “But as tempting as that is, my good woman, these lips are for another.”  A mix of laughter and groans of disappointment rippled through the air.

Catherine’s eyebrows arched.  A merchant with scruples?  She might not be well versed in what happened between men and women in the bedchamber, but she was not so naïve as to be unaware of what occurred when the merchants came into port.  She had heard stories of late night gatherings and most questionable behavior.  Could this man be different than the rest?  Could he possibly be loyal to only one woman?

Mirroring her thoughts, the villager beside Catherine leaned toward her and said, “Whoever his mistress is, she must be awfully good for a toss in the hay!”

Catherine turned sharply to face her, her eyes narrowed.  “You dare speak to me in that manner?”

The crowd fell silent as Catherine’s words cut through the gaiety.

The woman’s face drained of all color and her eyes widened, her hand flying up to stifle her quick inward breath. Stumbling backwards, she dropped into a deep curtsey.

“Forgive me, milady!” Her voice quivered. “I meant no disrespect!”

Like a ripple through water, the other women curtsied and quickly stepped back, distancing themselves from Catherine, some managing to slip away.  Catherine’s scathing look raked those who remained.  No one dared look at her - save one.  And now Catherine met his gaze, her chin set, challenging him.

His eyes held hers briefly before his gaze traveled down the length of her, clearly enchanted by what he beheld.

“Milady,” he said, bowing deeply. “You grace me with your beauty.”  When he looked at her again, his eyes sparkled with a light that shone like the brightest stars in the night.  Their depths were as intense as their color rich, amber with flecks of gold adorning the borders.  They beckoned her to come closer.

A chill ran the length of Catherine’s spine, causing her to stiffen.  Blinking several times, she could not stop the way the noise of the village or brightness of the sun dimmed when her eyes locked with his. This stranger reached out and enveloped Catherine without so much as touching her.  Her pulse quickened and her skin tingled as if his fingertips traced the very curves of her body. She caught her breath as her body responded in a way she didn’t understand, tightening in some places, weakening in others.

The sound of Emelie clearing her throat finally broke Catherine’s gaze. She looked around at the village women who stood unmoving, staring, waiting in anticipation.

Catherine squared her shoulders and stepped closer, ignoring the whispers that followed in her wake.  Uncertain if her knees would continue to hold her were she to look at him again, Catherine instead tried to focus on the jewelry, brushes, trinkets, and fabrics that lay before her.

Be not a fool, Catherine!  Remember who you are!  She was legendary for the number of her potential suitors who called on her, all of whom she rebuffed.  This was partially due to their boorishness and partially because Galen, her companion since childhood, intimidated them.  His size and possessiveness was enough to send them scampering away. 

Not one man has ever done so much as to give Catherine pause, let alone enrapture her in the way she was experiencing right now.  Why was this man so different?

She gave into her curiosity and let her gaze wander upward.  Her eyes touched upon his trim waist and moved their way up to his broad chest barely concealed by the shirt that clung to his wide shoulders.  She nervously licked her lips as she imagined sliding her arms around his bronzed neck, kissing the strong line of his jaw.  She closed her eyes abruptly and clenched her jaw hard.

Fabric, she chided.  Look at the fabric.  Not him.

Eyes still held tight, she said, “I could not help but notice your magnificent fabric.”  Her words were strained, struggling against the tightening of her throat.

She opened her eyes to the fabrics that lay before her and gasped in astonishment.  For the moment all else was forgotten.  The fabric was truly something to behold. There were layers of brilliant, vibrant colors glowing in the sunlight, with textures so soft and shimmering, like nothing she had ever felt before.  The rich-colored fabrics of blood red, deep green, royal blue, and pale lavender glistened under her touch.  She could almost feel what it would be like to be wrapped in a dress made from such exquisite material.

“Magnificent,” she whispered.

“Milady recognizes fine quality.”

She looked up and met his eyes that were studying her so intently. Control slipped and her pulse quickened.  She fought to focus once again on the fabric spread out before her.  She then looked to the sky.  By the saints, how can one shiver when it is so impossibly hot in the sun?

“Might I suggest the jade? It matches your eyes.” His voice was soft.  Though the other women still lingered around them, he spoke to her as if she was the only one in his world that mattered.

She chided herself for being weak.  It was so unlike her to allow her feelings to have free rein.  This situation in which she found herself truly chafed her to the core.  Taking a deep breath, she tried to look at him again, this time with cool assessing eyes, free of emotion.

He stood with his hands on his hips with an impossibly contagious smile curving his lips.

Her resolve faltered as an unfamiliar feeling of surrender muddied her thoughts. Like a caged bird, her heart fluttered desperately in her chest, rising to her throat.  She struggled to maintain an impassive expression as a battle raged within her.  How could this merchant, with one look, take away her control? Ire gripped at her now as she realized this man who stood before her was not even trying to win her favor, that just his presence alone caused her body to betray her mind.

“Milady?” His voice was questioning.

Oh, how this one made her feel so vulnerable. Her soul felt naked under his gaze.  Somehow he managed to erase the line between their social classes.  They were man and woman, not lady and merchant.

Fighting the urge to settle herself in his eyes again, her gaze flickered here and there, focusing on nothing in particular.  She wanted to press her hands to her ears to shut out the pounding of her heart. 

“Yes, yes.  Of course.  I would like the jade.  All that you have.”  She felt the words rushing out. “Have it delivered to Elderidge castle.”  Catherine fumbled in her purse and held out a stack of coins, horrified to see her hand shake ever so slightly.  She still refused to look at him.

The merchant glanced at Catherine’s maid questioningly. 

Emelie, who had been staring at him unabashedly, giggled.  “May I present the Lady Catherine, sir.  Daughter of Lord Roberts.”

Once again his eyes took in Catherine’s entire form, but unlike the lust she saw too often in other men’s eyes, this man held open appreciation, sincerity, and genuine interest in something other than her wealth.

“The fair Lady Catherine.  I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”  He bowed low.  “I am Jonathan.”

His eyes spoke words not heard, but felt, as they penetrated to her soul.  She sensed that not only did he understand the way she was feeling, but that he was drawn to her as she was to him.

She released a breath of impatience as she continued to hold out the coins, her control sorely tested.

He lifted his hand to take what she offered. Though she steeled herself against further assault of unbidden feelings, she was unprepared for the sensation of his touch as he took the coins from her hand. A shock like a lightening bolt sent a flame through her body, and she recoiled in surprise, swallowing hard.  How could she be such a fool?  She was not some commoner who crumbled at the feet of a man!  So why was it that with a simple look, an innocent touch, this man had the power to take all that away?

Jonathan smiled.

And she shivered. Again.  Oh, that smile will surely be my undoing.

He turned around and called to a man not far off. 

For the first time Catherine took notice of the men working behind Jonathan who were organizing, sorting, and tending to his ship.  In sharp contrast to Jonathan’s refined and confident presence, the crew was haggard and weather-worn.  A certain camaraderie flowed in and out of their conversations, but it was clear Jonathan was the master.

“Will there be anything else, milady?” Once again, he turned to address her.  His brows arched with encouragement and perhaps a bit of hope.  “You have only but to ask.”

“No.” She shook her head, suddenly wishing she was anywhere but where she stood. “Nothing.” It unnerved her that she couldn’t trust herself, yet she made no attempt to stop him when he reached down and placed her hand in his.  Ivory white against bronzed skin met with a sizzling burn.  Time meant nothing to her as she watched him bring her hand upwards, his lips branding her knuckles with a mere whisper of a kiss.

“Perhaps then, we shall meet again?”  His easy smile triggered a fluttering in her stomach.

Catherine withdrew her hand quickly and stepped back, bumping into Emelie. “I doubt that.  Good day, sir.”

Walking quickly through the marketplace, Catherine hardly noticed the other merchants and villagers.  She walked past those calling her, waving perfumes, gems, and cloths.  She rubbed the place on her hand where Jonathan’s lips kissed her.  The softness with which he held her hand, the tenderness of his kiss upon her skin, the warmth that spread through her body as he looked at her, fogged her thinking.  This is madness. ‘Tis a blessing Galen is not here to see me falter this way.

She sighed.  Galen had been her champion since they were children, swearing an oath of loyalty to her when they were but eight years old.  How could she be so shallow as to already forget the devotion he had shown her this morning?  He had been so pleased when he presented to her a small sapphire brooch with diamonds circling the gem.

Catherine trailed her fingers along the contour of the brooch that was now pinned to her dress.  Solid like the gem, Galen had been her rock, her pillar of strength, and as close to her as if he were her own brother, but for months now she knew his affections for her were growing far deeper than that.  Everyone expected them to wed, being as close as they were, and they should have by now, but it was Catherine who begged to wait.  She was still waiting for that spark, the telltale sign that love was true.  She wanted the same kind of love that permeated the castle when her mother was alive, a soul-searing love that bound together her mother and father.  Theirs was a love that knew no bounds.  And yes, they had shared lust, too.  Catherine’s mother never hid her shivers of desire when Lord Roberts brushed his lips against her cheek or atop her hand.  Much like the desire Catherine, herself, felt today with...

A ripple of uneasiness swept through Catherine as she realized her mind refused to dismiss this merchant. She shook her head.  At this moment she was no different from the women in the village.  The same heated desire ran through her blood as did theirs, only she needed to escape those eyes and the touch that would have her stay.

“Enough!” Catherine said, shaking her head.

“Milady?” asked Emelie, running along at her side, trying to keep up with Catherine.

“Nothing, Emelie.”  She released a ragged sigh.  “I have had enough for today. Let us fetch our horses.”

“There you are, Catherine!”

Catherine turned to the sound of Galen’s voice.  Relief washed through her.  Galen’s presence would make it easier for her to control her wandering thoughts, so she did not object when he put his hands around her waist and drew her to him.  Catherine felt Galen’s strong arms through his tunic as he held her close.  She tensed with agitation, finding herself wondering if the merchant’s arms were as strong.  She simply could not help but compare the two men - Galen so fair with his blond hair framing high, strong cheek bones, a slender nose and strong chin, serious eyes, and lips that promised passion; the merchant, with dark locks that flowed freely, softer, yet oh-so-masculine features, and laughing eyes that showed no trace of regret, sadness, or pain.

Galen held her at arm’s length and searched her face. “Catherine!  Is anything amiss?”

He knew her only too well.  She forced the thoughts of Jonathan back and mustered a smile. 

“No, of course not, Galen.”  She rested her forehead on his chest, hiding her face. “I merely wish to go home.”

He lifted her chin.  His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “You are certain you are well?  Has anyone upset you?”

The memory of Jonathan’s eyes hung in her mind as she looked back at Galen.

“Really, Galen, I am well,” she said, pushing herself from his arms. “I believe I have spent far more time in the sun than I should have.”  Hooking her arm through Galen’s, she tugged him in the direction of the horses.  “I have arranged for my purchase to be delivered to the castle, so we need not dally here any longer.”

“But I am here now.  I will fetch your goods myself.”

“No!” she said quickly.

Galen’s raised eyebrows invited an explanation from her.

She thought quickly.  Had he any knowledge that another man filled her senses the way Jonathan had, he would put an end to it.  It would take but one word from her and Galen would see to it that the merchant maintained a fair distance from her, but no such hint passed her lips. 

“Emelie will fetch it.”  She turned to her maid and gestured in the direction of the ships.  “Quickly, Emelie,” she hissed.

“Wait but a moment, Emelie.”  Galen turned to Catherine.  His words were deliberate and measured.  “I shall accompany Emelie to make certain that your purchase is handled properly.  These merchants cannot always be trusted.”

Catherine’s mouth went dry as she squirmed under his gaze.  She knew that her eyes, nay, her entire body, was betraying her.  The heat in the air was palpable as a bead of sweat trickled agonizingly down her spine.  It helped her not that Emelie’s own face had gone pale, her lips pressed into a thin line.

“Aye, that would be best,” Catherine whispered.

“I pray you wait for us here, then,” Galen said.

He looked at her a moment longer before turning and motioning for Emelie to lead the way. 

Catherine could not still the frantic beating of her heart as she made her way to her horse.  She would not wait.  She could not face Galen until she could once again gather her wits.  Feeling like a coward, Catherine mounted her horse and spurred the mare homeward, anxious to once again be safe within the castle walls.

Chapter 3

God, what a long week, Eryn thought, as she stretched her arms to link her fingers behind her back.  Almost like some supreme being shoved a few extra days in just for laughs.  She had spent the better part of the week taking pictures of the board members of World Commerce Bank, editing and re-editing until she was satisfied with the results. All of them were far wealthier than anyone she knew.  Also more pompous than anyone she knew. Their air of superiority filled her studio, making Eryn grimace at the stench.

She could never understand how people thought money could make one person superior to others.  In her opinion, money had become a wall that separates one human from another, drawing the line between the Haves and Have-Nots, never giving the Have-Nots the chance to prove themselves as worthy or lovable a human being as the Haves.  It gave everyone the excuse to ignore each other and not get involved.

Though jobs like this corporate photo shoot paid her well, she preferred the simplicity of the average person, the innocent child, the spontaneous event, and capturing life in action.  Given the choice, that would be her world, but it wasn’t.  She lived in Bryce’s world, filled to the top with corporate royalty. 

He led.  She followed. 

He fit in.  She didn’t. 

Tonight she would have no reprieve.  In less than twelve hours, their house would be filled with the banking elite, puffing on their expensive cigars, boasting of their latest acquisitions, bemoaning the plight of the world between bites of caviar.

She sighed.  Maybe she would invite Brandi when she saw her later this morning.  If anyone could shake up a party, it was Brandi.  Outspoken, brash, playing it just like it is.  Brandi definitely had her own way of doing things.

But now, this moment was for Eryn.  The beach was her temple.  Her runs were her meditation.

Reaching high above her head, she stretched her arms, shoulders, and back, releasing the tension that seemed to have found a permanent place in her life.

She set herself in motion, feeling the firm sand at the water’s edge give way easily to her strides.

It had been dark when she slipped out of bed that morning, too early for Bryce to be up.  She liked to be on the sand at the precise second when night struggled for control one final time before shrinking silently behind the growing strength of the day.

Now as she began her run, the sun was peeking over the horizon, reaching its rays towards the few people who walked the beach and the surfers who dotted the early morning waves. Eryn liked the solitude at this time of day, the unobstructed view down the beach, and the soft lull of the ocean.

Her puffs of breath kept pace with her steps, carrying her further down the beach, away from the life that waited for her just a few streets away. She closed her eyes as she ran.  She’d learned to trust her instincts, to sense rather than see. She felt a rush of anticipation as she dared herself to take a few more steps in her darkness. Feeling her feet hit softer sand, she opened her eyes to see that she had strayed from her straight line. She looked behind her to see her footsteps in the wet sand, her trail zigzagging, and then heading up past the water line. “Geez, I’m glad nobody was watching me,” she laughed, checking around to make sure.

Her run slowed to a walk and her smile dimmed as she looked down the stretch of beach that lay before her. Something about it stopped her, even though the wet sand ahead was empty, save for sandpipers pecking for crabs and a few seagulls swooping in disorganized formation.  The hair on the back of her neck prickled at the eerily familiar sensation and her brows pulled together hard. 

She could see, though a ghost of an image, a big wooden rowboat with tall sides approaching the shore.  She squeezed her hands into fists, trying to bring the image closer...

She stood on the beach, close to the cliffs that she had carefully descended with her horse moments before. The strong waves made it easier for the boat to lift onto the wet sand. Three men jumped out to drag the boat higher on the beach.  Before they had it pulled completely ashore, one of the men let go and came running toward her.  Her heart pounded in her chest, beating faster the closer he got. Just a breath away now, he stopped in front of her.  Unable to contain her joy, she threw her arms around his neck.  A rush of relief consumed her as his strong arms tightened around her waist, his lips finding hers...

Eryn quickly drew in her breath and the specter was gone, just like that. She stood there, eyes searching, body frozen, unable to release her breath. The pounding of her heart swelled to a roar in her ears and she pressed her lips together to stop their tingling.  As streams of sunlight, no longer soft, devoured the magic of the morning, replacing it with harsh reality, she fought to keep the vision alive, playing it over and over in her head. The boatman who ran up the beach had worn black pants and his white shirt hung loosely over his strong chest and arms.  His brown shoulder-length hair flung against his face, shadowing his eyes from the sun.  She focused on his beautiful face, his sensual lips. His eyes were so full of emotion!  And the kiss – ah, that kiss! – had stopped all too soon.

“What the hell?” she said out loud, finally breathing. She squinted against the sun, turning in place to scan the beach once again.  Only the squawking of the circling seagulls answered her. Her heart beat unreasonably fast.

One thing was undeniable.  The man who sat next to her in her dream and the man who ran up the beach in the ghostly vision were definitely the same man.  This time it was so real, though.  She could still feel his firm lips on hers; could still feel the excitement of seeing him again.  Again? That same sense of familiarity surrounded him, as if she knew him.

She took a deep breath while turning around and walked back to her car, willing her still-racing heart to slow down its pounding.

“It’s got to be stress,” she said to a seagull that landed near her.  She wanted desperately to believe it.  A reaction to stress would make it easier to explain the incident away.  But something told her it wasn’t just that.  She didn’t have enough stress to trigger hallucinations or even a minor breakdown.  Besides, she highly doubted a breakdown would come in the form of an extremely sexy pirate with eyes in which she could lose herself.

She couldn’t help but glance back over her shoulder.  She actually hoped to catch another glimpse of him!  Ok, maybe a little counseling wouldn’t hurt.  She picked up her pace and ran as hard and fast as she could.

#

Brandi wrinkled her nose as Eryn plopped in the chair across from her. “Did you by any chance go for a run this morning?”

Young, energetic waiters and waitresses flitted around cloth-covered tables like bees, sweeping up empty plates, laying down fresh linen and silverware, and jotting down orders, all while instinctively dodging busboys and hostesses.  Perky staff, perky greetings, perky smiles.  Sometimes the place was too perky for Eryn, but the coffee was good.

“How’d you guess?”  Eryn countered sarcastically.  She quickly guzzled the water the waiter had placed in front of her, then reached for her coffee.

“For one thing, the sweat stains, and for another thing, the smell of sweat.”

“Yeah, well, exercise does have some drawbacks,” Eryn said, shrugging.

Brandi shuddered.  “A lot of drawbacks, I’d say.  My way is a whole lot easier.”

“Popping diet pills may be easier, but not smart.”  Eryn studied her friend.  Only a few months younger than Eryn, Brandi’s face reflected the effects of her lifestyle.  Too much booze had turned her skin so sallow and pale that she had to cover it with a thick layer of concealer dusted over with bronzer.  Her blond hair, with carefully touched-up roots, was pulled into a loose ponytail, accentuating her slightly sunken cheeks.

“If you would just go running with me....”

Brandi waved her hand in dismissal.  “Not a chance.  Besides, serious competition in the acting world calls for drastic measures.”

Eryn knew there would be no conceding on Brandi’s part. They’d had this conversation too many times before and it always ended up the same.  It was easier just to change the subject.

“So what’s up with you?  Got anything brewing?” asked Eryn over the top of her coffee cup.

“Oh, you know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”  Brandi’s hands gestured animatedly. “I’m up for a part in a new sitcom and I’m waiting to see about a print job for a catalog.”

Eryn's eyebrows raised ever so slightly. “Really? That’s great! What kind of catalog?”

“Oh, it’s a new one.  Fashion...you know.”  With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the subject.  “Hey, guess who I saw last night.”  Brandi didn’t wait for a response.  “Cole Hamilton.  Boy, is he a hottie!  I sure would like to get together with him!”

“Isn’t that the guy in that new vampire movie?”

Brandi nodded enthusiastically.

“A little young for you, don’t you think?”  Eryn teased.

“Hey, I’ll take whatever. I haven’t had a serious relationship for a long time.”  Brandi shrugged, pulling a cigarette out of her purse and putting it between her lips.  “I’m desperate.  What can I say?”

“You know you can’t smoke in here.”

“Oh yeah.  Damn rules.”  Brandi shoved the cigarette back in the pack.  “Speaking of hotties, how’s Bryce?”

Eryn’s stared at her coffee. “Oh, he’s fine.  Business as usual.”

Eryn looked up in time to see Brandi raise one brow high.  It curved in a much-too-perfect arch.  Eryn wondered if she practiced that look.

“What wrong?”  Brandi leaned closer, her chin resting on a fisted hand.  “I mean...really.”