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DESCRIPTIONFrom birth, Alain and Alina Alastair are a scientific phenomenon—identical male/female twins—a biological impossibility. Wishing to avoid notoriety, Lord and Lady Alastair whisk their miracle children to their island home isolated by a two-hour ferry journey from the mainland of England. It is at Alastair Keep that their destiny unfolds to the constant percussion of a restless sea. As a young man, Alain craves escape from the seclusion.EXCERPTAlain tucked the in-flight magazine into the seat pocket and gazed out the window. The distance from one life to another vanished with the clouds fleeing beneath silver wings. The new 777-200 transported him from a sunlit future to a misty past…from a black-haired beauty to a fair-haired princess. Sunlight broke through cloud striking steel, blinding him for an instant.Someone was going to get hurt.Already he hurt—a low throbbing like a toothache. If he returned to Portugal, Alina would be devastated. His father would disown him. If he picked up his discarded heritage, a part of him would die and Maritza would grieve. For a time. He wasn’t vain enough to think she’d pine for him forever.The choice lay in his hands.Damn, life got complicated when he tried to declare independence from The Keep. He shifted his long legs cramped beneath the airline seat. He preferred not to think, but fragments of memory plagued the corners of his eyes.A vivid picture of Alina supplanted images of recent days drenched white-hot by a Portuguese sun. His twin’s presence was more corporeal than the woman sitting to his left. Welcome or not, Alina was there inside him, the mere thought of her a compulsion. He sensed her anticipation mounting as the miles melted. Expectation tingled over him. In self defense, he grasped at a memory of riding the splendid Lusitano stallions, their beauty and majesty a temporary refuge. Like Maritza. As he pictured his lover framed in an arbor of roses, his heart dived. Grief mingled inseparably with the mounting excitement.His seat mate muttered something. He smiled vaguely at the tiny movie screen where imaginary figures acted out their roles. The film would end happily; every desire fulfilled. He hated the silver screen people. Things never turned out right—except in the movies.The roar of jet engines and the spattering of conversation became a distant echo. Alina was journeying. When his sister took flight, despite the distance, she’d lead him down the path her imagination chose. Alina had always been the leader. Or is that a cop out to ease my own guilt? He laid his head back on the seat and closed his eyes. Why fight the inevitable?The rumble of the sea surrounded him. July sunshine warmed his face. The light of home was different from any other place, diffused, like sunlight filtered through a special camera lens. He stood on the top tier of the formal garden, looking down on another sweeping flagstone terrace. A brisk waterfall sprang from an aperture in rock to feed the swan pond. Even in summer the water rippled clear, green, cool.
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by Bianca Swan
Published by Lot’s Cave
Her Brother’s Wife, © 2017, Bianca Swan
Cover by Morgaine Wrightman
All Rights Reserved
All Characters In This Book Are Age 18 Or Older
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this ebook with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this ebook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to the Lot’s Cave website and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A Lot’s Cave Novel
The Child Within
Sunshine rainbows and innocence danced in the mirror. Hand-in-hand, two children, a boy and a girl, laughed as they raced along the cliff by the sea. Below, the surf thundered against the rocky shore. A salt-scented breeze whipped their pale blond hair behind them.
As if the looking glass were magic, the images of the past shimmered and dissolved.
The woman the little girl had become ran a silver brush through her hair. If eyes were windows to the soul, surely she’d glimpse a shadow of the secret she sometimes allowed to haunt her. Most people lacked the courage to go where Alina had gone. Taking that first step required a certain sort of valor. You had to be brave to look within. She possessed the daring to search the internal landscape of her mind and, so had mapped the geography of her soul. The journey had left no visible scars.
Childish laughter floated through arched doors open to an ocean-fresh morning. The lilting sound seemed as distant as those summers of yesterday. With a farewell glance at the reflection of Alina Alastair Cooper—wife, mother, daughter and sister—she rose from the gilded dressing table and strolled to the window. Today, they celebrated her husband’s twenty-fifth birthday. The Lions of Alastair Keep—Alain, Alina and Rory—were born under the astrological sign of Leo. They were sleek, graceful and powerful by chance of birth—or fate.
The house and grounds of Alastair Keep were festively dressed for the occasion. At fifteen to eight, the orchestra tuned up on a raised dais. A breeze wafted party smells, flowers, food and the salty perfume of the sea that had provided ever-present percussion to her life. The clatter of a helicopter announced the arrival of the London caterer. The Keep was a two-hour ferry ride from the mainland. Mother had arranged for the Great Giovanni—grandiose name!—and his staff to be air-lifted. Cases of French champagne, wines, fine Scottish whiskey for Father and any beverage wanted were on offer at the three bars on the lawn. Two of their college friends would be on hand to surprise Rory and Alain. At Cambridge, her brother and his flat mate, now Alina’s husband, had called their elite band of intellectual misfits Hedonists to the Twenty-First, a tribute to the new millennium.
Excitement shivered over Alina. She rubbed the gooseflesh leaping over her arms. Her brother was thinking of her. Somewhere in that wide azure sky, a plane winged Alain home. She felt the miles of separation melting, knowing her twin would mirror the sweet anticipation of reunion. As children, often they’d behave synchronously. They’d speak the same words in identical voice patterns. Mother believed they were telepathic. She was right, more or less. Feelings blazed between them clearer than thought. An invisible chord bound them. It was that way with twins.
And the tie between them would never fray. Separated yet never apart.
She closed her eyes and a vision of her brother, as clear as if she sat in the seat beside him, played through her mind. He’d bound his thick mane of pale hair into a severe ponytail. His serious topaz gaze devoured a magazine article, but Alain’s mind wandered to thoughts of home. A dog’s frantic yapping, childish giggles and Rory’s melodious laughter called her back to the sunny balcony. She opened her eyes. Her own twins tumbled into a writhing heap with Spud, an incongruous half-Chihuahua, half-pug mongrel. Her heart gave a happy skip as it always did when she saw her husband.
“Morning all.” She waved as Rory scooped a blonde cherub under each arm. “Oh, Rory, they’re filthy. Look at that grass stain on Beau’s khakis.”
Her husband shook back wind-tossed hair and laughed. “Look at poor Spud! Anyway, hun, a little dirt sweetens the pot before scrubbing and imprisonment in Sunday clothes.”
The twins wriggled and shrilled, “Mummy! Mummy!”
Alina didn’t care if her children ran bare-arsed through the party as she and Alain had once done. It had been a day such as this—dreamy, idyllic, sea-blue, a happy day until Father almost spanked her brother for an escapade that had been her idea.
“I’ll be up in a jiffy.” How Rory managed such an elegant bow while holding two volatile children amazed her.
With a squirming boy under one arm and a squealing girl under the other, in tan shorts and a stained white shirt, he still managed to look quite elegant. Her husband was a Charleston, South Carolina blueblood. His soft, slow accent tugged at her heartstrings.
He straightened, holding tight to his bundles and aimed a sultry smile at her. “Maybe we can find something to do before we dress for the party.”
“Like bake cookies?” Alina smoothed the robe over her distended belly. “We already have a bun in the oven.”
“Do you want to see a grown man cry?” His face screwed into a grimace.
He draped a child over each shoulder. Tiny grimy hands immediately tangled in his hair. Yes, Rory belonged to Alastair Keep. The wind whipped streaky blond hair over a face chiseled by a master. Alina folded her hands to her lips. Her husband was six-feet of slender grace. His eyes were sea green and, often lately, they were as stormy as a restless sea. Love ached in her heart when she looked at him.
A shadow wafted over her, a plane passing above. A shiver rippled down her spine. Her gaze drifted across the lawn spotted with white tables, dotted by yellow canopies. Once, she and her twin had dreamed of escaping the loneliness of the island. When they had escaped, she’d longed for the restless sea, the castle perched atop a sheer, wind-carved cliff. In this day of instant, global communications, isolated by a two-hour sail, The Keep remained a world unto itself. Finally, after they’d returned from university, Father had allowed computers and the spotty internet connection. In the beginning as in the end, isolation had proved their salvation, even if Alain did occasionally rebel and run away.
Memories buzzed like bees in the August air. Once she’d believed everyone capable of tapping into the great wealth of memory. She’d been shocked to learn most people recalled little of childhood. To Alina, the past was a river of sensation, not yellowed photographs crinkled by age. She could relive the warmth and safety of the womb shared with Alain and birth tearing them asunder. Eyes closed, she journeyed to meet him. A moment more and she’d revive the way they were.
When the two of them were sequestered in utopia.
Alain tucked the in-flight magazine into the seat pocket and gazed out the window. The distance from one life to another vanished with the clouds fleeing beneath silver wings. The new 777-200 transported him from a sunlit future to a misty past…from a black-haired beauty to a fair-haired princess. Sunlight broke through cloud striking steel, blinding him for an instant.
Someone was going to get hurt.
Already he hurt—a low throbbing like a toothache. If he returned to Portugal, Alina would be devastated. His father would disown him. If he picked up his discarded heritage, a part of him would die and Maritza would grieve. For a time. He wasn’t vain enough to think she’d pine for him forever`.
The choice lay in his hands.
Damn, life got complicated when he tried to declare independence from The Keep. He shifted his long legs cramped beneath the airline seat. He preferred not to think, but fragments of memory plagued the corners of his eyes.
A vivid picture of Alina supplanted images of recent days drenched white-hot by a Portuguese sun. His twin’s presence was more corporeal than the woman sitting to his left. Welcome or not, Alina was there inside him, the mere thought of her a compulsion. He sensed her anticipation mounting as the miles melted. Expectation tingled over him. In self defense, he grasped at a memory of riding the splendid Lusitano stallions, their beauty and majesty a temporary refuge. Like Maritza. As he pictured his lover framed in an arbor of roses, his heart dived. Grief mingled inseparably with the mounting excitement.
His seat mate muttered something. He smiled vaguely at the tiny movie screen where imaginary figures acted out their roles. The film would end happily; every desire fulfilled. He hated the silver screen people. Things never turned out right—except in the movies.
The roar of jet engines and the spattering of conversation became a distant echo. Alina was journeying. When his sister took flight, despite the distance, she’d lead him down the path her imagination chose. Alina had always been the leader. Or is that a cop out to ease my own guilt? He laid his head back on the seat and closed his eyes. Why fight the inevitable?
The rumble of the sea surrounded him. July sunshine warmed his face. The light of home was different from any other place, diffused, like sunlight filtered through a special camera lens. He stood on the top tier of the formal garden, looking down to the second wide flagstone terrace. A brisk waterfall sprang from an aperture in rock to feed the swan pond. Even in summer the water rippled clear, green, cool.
The warp and woof of the present unwound, trailing satiny threads of the past over him. He exhaled a sigh only slightly shaded by regret and found himself a boy of five tender years.
Sailing away from the white swans, the black cob glided across the water. Night was the different one, the tame one. He and his sister had named the dark male Midnight, but everyone called him simply Night. Alain loved Night and claimed him for his own.
“Nye, a biscuit please. Night is coming for his treat.” He wriggled free from the old man’s embrace to sit up straight, his hand outstretched.
Nye turned his pockets inside out. “Sorry, I forgot to bring treats for the swans.”
Alain frowned. “But… he’s there by the shore, and we’ve nothing to give him.”
“Not to worry, young man, a treat another day,” Nye said.
Alain finger-combed the long hair stuck to his neck and squinted at the sun. “I’m hungry.”
His twin and Nye were stretched out on their backs on the grass. He liked Nye better than Father even though he’d never show it. The servant was nice to him and could always be trusted to find a licorice drop in his pocket.
Nye lifted his head. “We’ll take lunch presently. Come, lie down.”
Alain flopped on his back. The old man hugged him close.
“The sun is at zenith. A powerful moment. Do you feel it, children?” Nye’s faded brown eyes stared a question at Alain.
“Feel what?” Alain shrugged.
Alina clapped her hands. “I do,” she said proudly, shot Alain a glance and closed her eyes. “It feels like a shiver.” She shuddered. “Looks like colors dancing.”
Alain wriggled free and scrambled to his feet. “Alina, you do not.” He didn’t see any colors and it was too hot to shiver. “I’m going swimming with the swans.”
Nye laughed, ruffling Alain’s hair. “Ah, my son, your vision is linear while your sister… well anyway…” He fell silent, staring at the sun.
Alain’s starched white shirt followed the dark blue shorts into a heap on the grass. “Well anyway what?”
“Things will change.” Nye helped Alain shed his underpants. “One day you’ll wake up. Your sister will be the one who quickens you.”
“If there’s a storm, she wakes me. Crawls into my bed.” Alain grinned at his sister. “She’s a scaredy-cat. She doesn’t feel anything. She’s fibbing.”
Alina tugged at Nye’s sleeve. “I do so feel it.”
A smile crinkled Nye’s eyes, and he gave her a quick hug. “Moon power. The woman—Bringer of Life—senses the male power of the sun. My princess, you’re wise beyond your years. But that’s to be expected.”
“Moon power,” Alain huffed. “You’re weird, Nye. Father says so all the time.”
His sister lurched to her feet. Anger spotted her high cheekbones. She pointed a rigid finger at Alain. “Father thinks you’re weird.”
Tears stung his eyes. His face crumbled. “You’re mean.”
His sister’s lip trembled. Tears clung to her lashes.
“Peace, children.” Nye climbed to his knees. The sun drew tiny white lines in his gray hair. “You’re both special indeed. And loved beyond all imagining.”
Alain arched a brow. He wasn’t at all sure Father loved him. “I want a sticky bun.” Now naked, he folded down cross-legged on the grass. “There’s lots of food at the party. Why can’t we go?”
“Not that a sticky bun would hurt you.” Nye trailed a strand of the milk-white hair flowing down Alain’s back through his fingers. “Your sister must be routing you out of the feed bin, Son. But the party is a grownup party. We’re not invited.”
Alain watched the black swan gliding across the pond. “Nye, I really want a pony for Christmas. Ask Father, please.” He clasped his hands beneath his chin. “I’ve asked Father Christmas forever and ever. I’ve asked Mother, too.”
Nye drifted down beside Alain. “I wish I could get you a pony.”
“Pony-schmony. I’m going to tell a story.” Alina dropped to Nye’s side, nuzzling her face against his shoulder. “Once upon a time, there was a place where light always shone. There is never any darkness here. Everywhere, there are lakes bluer than the sea. The people swim in the lakes to get away from the hot sunshine. The twins are tall and slim. Their hair shines. They are so beautiful. If they had wings, they’d be fairies.”
Nye clutched his heart.
Alina swayed in the breeze. “Oh, and at their middle is a ball of light! Each pair has the same color ball that glows through their skin. Right here.” She touched the old man’s middle, and he flinched. “Your ball, Nye, is like a pearl, and so is your twin’s.”
Nye squeezed his eyes shut, his breathing quick. “The ball is an orb.”
A tight, hot knot ached at the top of Alain’s ribs. Fear rippled over him. “Lina, stop.”
“Mine’s the prettiest.” With her finger, Alina drew circles in the air. “I don’t know how to describe the color, but Alain’s is the same.”
“The color no longer exists.” Nye stared into space.
“Oh, Nye.” Eyes pinched shut, Alina gripped the old man’s shirt. “Light’s gone. Lakes are black. Cold. Dark. Balls flickering out. Two by two, the twins are dropping to the ground.”
Pain shot through Alain’s stomach, his head and his shoulders. “Stop, Alina.”
“Open your eyes.” Nye shook Alina gently. “Come out of the story. You’ve created a lovely world, but we mustn’t dream too much.”
The pain at his middle drew Alain double. His sister’s eyes snapped open. They were almost black, and she looked blind. Terrified for her, he gasped for breath as she gulped in air. His hands lifted, reaching for her shoulders.
Her eyelids flickered. She clutched his hand, grinning as big as could be. “Was that a good story?”
Nye traced Alina’s chin with a fingertip. “You’re quite the storyteller.”
“I didn’t like it.” Alain shuddered, reliving the darkness, the dead lakes. “I hate that story and you keep telling it to me.”
Alina brushed a tear from Nye’s wrinkled cheek. “Why are you crying?”
“Too long staring at the sun.” The old man’s grin slid sideways.
Alina leapt to her feet, grabbing Alain’s hand. “Race you to the pond.”
At the bank, they slid to a halt, and Alina stripped off her flowered sundress. Alain glanced over his shoulder. Nye had buried his face in his hands.
“I don’t think Nye likes that story either,” he said as Alina slithered out of her panties.
His sister tapped his shoulder. Together, eyes open, they dove into the cool, green water. Clouds of pale smoke, their hair mingled. He kicked hard, swimming for the surface. Alina grabbed his leg and tugged him down. Laughter bubbled from her lips.
Her eyes dared him as she asked in their silent language, You want a sweet?
Yes. Alain nodded.
Swim. She smacked his bottom hard.
Legs churning, he battled for the surface. Side by side, their heads broke the water. Again, she slapped at his butt, but he whirled. Her hand struck his little thing. He winced, frowning at his sister.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
Together, they swam for the shore, skittered up the bank. She seized his hand, tugging him along behind her. Rocks bruised his bare feet, but Alina didn’t seem to notice. His sister was brave—too brave sometimes. When the trees gave way to manicured lawn, she snatched him to a halt. Alina didn’t have to look up into his eyes. She was only a couple of inches shorter than he.
“When I say go, run as fast as you can.” She pinched his ear.
“What’re we going to do?” He tugged his hand from hers.
“Hide under the sweets table, you ninny.”
He held back, arm stretched as she pulled at him. “Father thinks I’m weird?”
“He thinks you look like a girl.”
“I do not.” He swallowed hard, gulping down shame. “Do I?”
“You look like me. I’m a girl.”
“I’m not a girl.” He stamped his foot.
“You look like me with a boy’s face.”
“Father will hit me.”
“I won’t let him. Go!” As the starting signal, she hit the back of his head.
They darted from the trees to the wail of bagpipes. Alain glued his gaze to his sister’s back and ran as fast as he could. The lush grass of the formal garden was a welcome relief to his feet.
“Oh, dear, sweet Harry, the little heathens are naked,” Cousin Gillian screamed.
“Damn it all to hell.” Alina quoted Father, clutched Alain’s arm and hurled them toward a table groaning with pies, cakes, cookies, trifles and candies.
Except for Alain and Alina speeding across the grass, everything came to a breathless halt. The snap of mallets on croquet balls stopped. The bagpipes screeched a dying breath as Alina ducked under the tablecloth, pulling him after. His head struck something sharp. He reached to touch the warmth tingling on his scalp. Alina caught his hand.
“It’s only a scratch. Be quiet.” She clamped her other hand over his mouth.
Alain was glad of the pressure on his lips. He was so scared he wanted to hurl. There was only a buzz of voices and no music. His heart hammered his ribs, sounding as wild as the drums Father liked. Everyone had seen them hide under the table. He flinched and swallowed his stomach as the cloth lifted. The world stood still. Not even the insects chirped.
Mother knelt, her dress a white spill on the grass. She smiled. “Darlings, what are you doing?”
Alina sat very straight to betray him. “Brother wanted a sticky bun. He’s hungry.”
Alain said nothing. Fear knotted in his throat. Father was going to cane him. Their mother rose, her alabaster dress swirling gracefully. For a breathless pause, the sun shone of her long dark and so soft curls. Then the too white tablecloth dropped back into place. He shivered in the stuffy heat trapped by the linen table dressing brushing the grass. No air stirred in their refuge, and he felt he couldn’t breathe. Mother’s face reappeared, and he gulped a breath. She handed him a nut-encrusted, caramel-coated treat. His stomach rumbled, but he was sick to death. He lifted a hand but fisted the culprit beneath his chin. The dreaded moment came. Father knelt beside their mother.
“Take it, dear.” Mother turned, draped an arm around Father’s shoulders. “Aiden.” She glanced at him, but she smiled at them, her gentle gaze pale green. “Our darlings couldn’t resist the dessert table.”
“Alain.” Father always made his name sound like a bad word.
Alina grabbed the bun, offering it to Father. Both of them spoke at the same time. “Spoil our lunch?”
“You may have it if you like.” Father answered Alina, ducked low and seized Alain’s wrist, hauling him into knee-shaking terror.
He bumped his head again. The sun seemed too bright. The faces floating around them blurred. He blinked at tears that would make Father even angrier.
Father shook him. “Where are your clothes, young man?”
Mother gripped Father’s elbow. “He’s only a baby.”
Alina clamored from beneath the table to stand at Alain’s side, a unified front against the man with red hair and red eyes. “We left our clothes by the pond.” Again the same words in twin voices. “We were swimming.”
“Stop speaking together. You’re not one person.” Father pressed his face close to Alain’s, his breath smelling of whiskey. “Where’s that worthless servant who’s supposed to be watching you?”
Alina tugged on the hem of Father’s jacket. The excuse that sprang to his sister’s lips bubbled in Alain’s throat, but he gulped it down with a wave of bitterness.
“We ran away.” She spoke alone, frowned at Alain and added words he hadn’t heard in his mind. “It’s my fault. Alain was hungry.”
The guests turned as Nye sped across the lawn. Alain watched him running, his gray hair dancing. How he hoped rescue came before Father marched him away and spanked him. He felt like he were in a bubble where time stood still. Lina held the sticky bun, the icing melted on her hand. He dared not look around, but as Nye stopped, facing Father, he looked gratefully to his savior. The old man wasn’t even breathing hard.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll take the children now. I apologize for being lax in my duties. I must have fallen asleep.”
Father stared at Nye for the longest time. “Very well then. I’ll speak with you later.”
As Nye shepherded them to safety, Alain heard his mother say, “You’re too hard on him, Aiden.”
“You spoil him,” Father said. “He intentionally does things to irritate and embarrass. And you remember what the doctors said about that XXY configuration.”
“That’s nonsense. He is not effeminate. He’s all boy. He’s your son and heir.”
“Sometimes I wonder, Glynnis. He’s nothing like me.”
That night in the claw-foot bathtub, Alina parted juniper-scented bubbles to point at the boy thing floating between Alain’s legs. “If twins are just alike, why don’t I have one of those?”
“Perhaps,” Alain blew bubbles off his palm, “they cut it off. They tried to cut mine off. They said I wouldn’t remember, but I do.”
“Can I touch it?”
“If you wish.” He sat quite still.
Another thing about Alain, he could be still as a cat.
Alina hated to be still. Like sleeping, it was a waste of time. She rolled his thing between her fingers. She liked the softness and the rope-like muscle core. When she pulled, the skin moved. “Does that hurt?”
“No.” He stared at her with dark gold eyes.
Time rippled the way it did in her stories. A shiver glided over them.
“You’re moaning in your sleep.” The voice called Alain from his dreams and a touch on his arm snapped him upright. “Are you okay?”
Memories still marched in his peripheral vision. Gradually, he became aware of the hum of jet engines and the woman sitting beside him. Her hand rested on his arm. An enormous diamond ring glittered in the pencil-thin light. He frowned, trying to surface from the past.
She jerked her hand back, folded them in her lap and smiled uncertainly. “Sorry I bothered you. You were calling someone’s name, I think.”
“What name?” He shook his head, rattling images of faces.
“I couldn’t hear.”
“I’m very tired. Sorry I disturbed you.” He smiled to ease her discomfort.
The woman actually had the audacity to smooth a strand of hair back from his face. He didn’t like strangers touching him, but the sorrow in her eyes intrigued him. He gave her his name, asked for hers. She introduced herself as Donna from Dallas. He grinned at the rhyme and led her into a conversation about Texas, a place he’d never been. Her drawl enchanted him.
“You’re obviously English,” she said.
He nodded. “I’ve been in Portugal for six months.” Maritza glided across his mind. “I went to Portugal to buy a horse.”
“A rider. I love horses.” She looked like she wanted to touch him again. “I’m a doctor.”
“Are you?” He was instantly alert and passionately interested. “What kind of doctor?”
“Oh.” It came out a sigh. “I wanted to be a doctor. Once upon a time.” Why had he told Donna from Dallas of his long-buried dream? “Yes, well,” he stammered, reclaiming composure, “I’m going home with a birthday present for my brother-in-law. Long night, you know. Big party. My birthday, too, soon.”
“How old?” She smoothed a very puffy hairdo.
“In two weeks, my sister and I turn twenty-five.”
“You’re a twin?”
He couldn’t resist tossing a genetic puzzle at the doctor. “Identical twins.”
“That’s impossible.” Her lips formed a red O. “The only monozygotic twins ever born different sexes were the Alastair twins.”
A thrill zipped through him as he nodded. “I am.”
Dr. Donna gaped at him. “Good Lord.”
He had the most incredible urge to take her sadness from her, leave her with peace. There’d be no peace for him in the coming days. Best not to think of that now. How could one anticipate yet dread the future? Dismissing his troubled thoughts, he concentrated his entire attention on Donna. He sensed that she was kind, but deeply hurt. Alain wanted to heal the physician. He placed his hand over hers.
Like a caress, her hazel eyes met his. She smiled as if he’d touched her deeper than the skin. “The Alastair twins disappeared shortly after birth.”
“Our home is an island fortress. No one comes to The Keep without an invitation.” No one escapes.
“There’s so much I want to ask you.”
“I can’t explain. No one can explain us—the phenomena of us. Countless have tried.”
Her pain sizzled through his fingertips. He exhaled it slowly.
She glanced at his hand on hers. “What kind of doctor did you want to be?”
His brows flickered wickedly, and he whispered a teasing laugh. “A gynecologist.” He looked away, shaking his head. “Not really. I wouldn’t wish to become jaded to feminine mystery. Actually, I wanted to be a surgeon.”
She tilted her head and frowned. “So why didn’t you?”
“A matter of station. Like it or not, I shall be Lord Alastair.” Sarcasm colored his voice. “The Lords of Alastair, it seems, must never contribute anything worthwhile.”
“Your family wouldn’t let you study medicine?” She sounded personally offended. “That’s a shame. You’ve got healing hands.”
Nye agreed with Donna. The old gent, more a father than Aidan Alastair would ever be, always insisted that Alain had a gift for healing. Now, in a plane bound for a secret kind of loneliness, a stranger echoed that sentiment.
“You’re an amazing young man. Extraordinarily handsome.” She caressed his hair as women always did. “I’ve never seen hair this color. Or eyes like yours. I feel like you’re looking straight into me.”
Perhaps, Donna’s bold honesty embarrassed her. Her gaze slid off his, and he withdrew the caress of his hand.
“You’re too kind,” he said.
She sighed. “Not kind at all. It’s the truth.”
From the tactile contact, he’d glimpsed the roots of her sadness. Love—the great destroyer. Alain flexed his fingers. Like a surgeon washing blood from his hands. Of the regrets that plagued him, surrendering the dream of healing had inflicted the most damage.
Long-buried memories swam to the surface. The woman’s sympathy reminded him of a disappointment that, at the time, he’d thought beyond enduring. One did, it seemed, survive the death of a dream. He closed his eyes and surrendered to the past.
All Our Yesterdays
For an anxious seventeen-year-old, a fortnight was an eternity. Every day since he’d applied for the summer medical program, Alain had waited at the door for the postman. He hoped to intercept the response and prepare a speech for his father. Surely, being a Cambridge man, Father would be delighted if he spent three months at the university. Finally, the letter arrived.
Trembling fingers ripped the envelope. “Oh, my God, I’ve been accepted.”
Clutching his future, he bounded through the house in search of his sister, rounded a corner and collided with Nye.
“Whoa, Son.” Nye grinned. “Where’s the fire?”
Unable to contain his excitement, he shook the letter, the crisp stationery rattling. “I’ve been accepted to the program at Cambridge. Do you know what this means?”
The servant embraced him. “That you’re an extremely bright young man.”
Alain squeezed the old man in a fierce hug. “It’s a dream come true.”
“This is wonderful. I’m proud of you.” Nye patted his shoulder. “You’ll make a fine doctor. You have the hands of a true healer.”
Alain hugged the old man again. “I can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. Have you seen Alina? I must tell her at once.”
“She’s reading by the sea,” Father answered from the shadows, then stepped into their path.
Alain stiffened, glanced at Nye’s pained expression and held his breath, waiting. Weak wintry sunlight leaked through the leaded glass windows. His father tapped the morning newspaper against his palm. Fear danced along Alain’s jangling nerves.
His hand fell to his side, eyes pinned to the floor. “Good morning, Father.”
“What’s too good to be true?” Aidan gave him a rare smile.
Alain’s stomach did a slow, queasy roll. He resisted the urge to hide the letter behind his back. Such an action would bring an immediate, ugly reaction.
Cold fingers confiscated the envelope. Colder gray eyes scanned the typed page. “Very proud of you.”
Alain’s hopes brightened. “Thank you, Father. I’ll work extremely hard.”
“It only proves what we’ve known all along.” Father folded the letter, returning it to the envelope. “I’ve always known you can excel at anything you put your mind to. Come into my study, son. Let’s discuss this.”
Alain followed his father down the dark-paneled corridor under the watchful eyes of his ancestors in their gilt frames. Did their painted faces mock? His tense back ached, his mouth and throat dry. His footsteps sounded too loud in the expectant silence. Heart pounding his ribs, he raced to compose a speech. What could he say that wouldn’t sound like begging? Father opened the door to the dreaded study. Reluctance balled in Alain’s stomach.
Father spent most of his time in the study. Here the twins were brought for any chastisement. Single-malt whiskey and cigarette smoke scented the large room. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases brimmed with leather-bound volumes that Alain had never seen his father read. Waiting to be invited to sit, he glanced at the classical titles. One thin misfit caught his eye. The small, florid print read Illustrated Sex.
Father sank into the executive chair behind his mahogany desk and lit a cigarette. “Sit.”
Alain perched on the edge of his seat, studying the neat desk. Dread crawled down his spine. Ashes dropped on the envelope.
“Alain.” The accusation of his name.
He looked up into hard gray eyes. Hope perished. Could he rebel? Who’d pay for his education? He could work his way through school, but he had no skills.
Father tapped a rigid finger to the acceptance letter. “When will you focus that formidable intellect on something useful? In August, you turn eighteen.”
The hair at Alain’s nape prickled. Defiance blazed through him. “What useful thing would you have me do?”
A dark frown tightened the other man’s brow. “Your duty, young man. You’ll never have to work a day in your life, other than to manage The Keep. For that privilege, you owe the family a responsibility.”
What of Aidan’s dreams had Grandfather Adam trodden beneath his hunting boots? What had made this man—his father—unyielding as hard-packed clay? For an instant, he actually pitied his father.
“I thought that becoming a surgeon would make my family proud.” He bit his lip before he could say, “And I’d be happy at last.”
Father unbuttoned his tweed jacket, loosened his tie and leaned across the desk. “What is your chief duty?”
Alain tensed. “To manage The Keep. I could do that from London or anywhere…”
“An heir.” Father’s fist struck the precious letter.
A sickly chill climbed Alain’s neck, standing the hair at his nape on end. “I’m only seventeen.”
“And a virgin.” Father smirked. “By the time I was your age, I’d fathered a child.”
Rebellion flashed hot in his eyes, but he dared not say, “A bastard, not an heir.” Anger and bitter disappointment betrayed him. “How did you get out of that one?”
Father rubbed his thumb to his index finger. “Money buys certain privileges.”
How pleased he looked, a cat licking cream from its whiskers. For Christ’s sake, they were talking about a woman with a heart, her desires tied to the kicking heals of a bastard.
“As it turned out, she had a miscarriage.” Father’s face softened. “The medical bills were paid, of course.”
“Of course.” Alain glimpsed a streak of pain in the chill gray eyes. “What happened to the girl? Did you love her?”
Silence drummed for a long, tense moment. Father’s hands worked into fists, relaxed. Finally, he shook his head. “There’s love. There’s lust. Not the same. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Most men would say the same.”
Alain tensed for what he knew was coming, but he couldn’t bite back the words that would bring down the wrath of God. “I’m not most men.”
“Yes, well, we know that.” Disgust curled Father’s lips. “But you are heir to Alastair, and you will be a man for this House. Do you understand?”
“I understand.” Inside, he shook. Outside, he knew he looked cool and calm. “Perfectly.”
Father leaned back in his chair, folding his arms. There was another beat of silence—a dramatic pause. “I don’t think you do.”
Something awful was coming, building in the air like the thunderstorm rolling in from the sea. Alain felt cold and hard as the stones guarding the island shore. Sometime, somewhere, he’d stand and fight. He was fully grown, much taller than Father. He was agile and toned, the other man stockier, not as lithe, and somewhat softened by age. None of this mattered. Even if he hated him, he couldn’t strike his own father, so he sat motionless, scarcely breathing.
The serpent struck. “Right then, Alain, how do we get an heir?”
“I marry and…” The accusation rushed out of him. “Father, if you never allow me to leave this island, who the bloody hell shall I marry?”
“Leave that to me.” Father stubbed out his cigarette. “Your part of the bargain is to learn how to sire an heir.”
“I should think that comes naturally.”
Father treated him as if he weren’t a man, didn’t have urges. There were only three girls on the island, one of them only five years old. The gardener’s daughter was pretty. Lately, Mary appeared everywhere he went. When she moved, her big breasts swayed enchantingly. Imagining touching them or thrusting into her in the dark gave him a painful erection. Father didn’t know—and wouldn’t discover—how thoughts of Mary tortured his nights.
Alain’s father ran a hand through his thick salt-pepper hair. “Do you get a tickle in your drawers when you see a pretty girl?”
Alain frowned, embarrassed. “Of course. What do you think?”
He didn’t understand this conversation, but then he’d never understood his father.
“I’ve been remiss in my fatherly duties. Shall I tell you how to please a woman?”
Alain lifted his hands, fingers spread. “No, please, this isn’t necessary.”
Father gripped his hands, grinding bone on bone. “Your bloody middle finger is as long as my weapon. Is your tool box as well equipped?”
Humiliation drove down through Alain, flaming his cheeks, but his lips curved in a defiant smile. “Shall I show you?”
“For God’s sake, boy.” Aiden Alastair looked as if his son had suggested they strip and play doctor.
Alain stifled a mischievous surge of amusement. Father shot to his feet to pace behind his massive desk of darkest mahogany. The scent of too much single malt followed him back and forth, and Alain’s heart sank lower. Thunder boomed, announcing the storm Alain had felt building. Lord Alastair, king of this island, strode around the desk and glared down at him. Defiant gold met steel gray. The moment strained to breaking.
Father grabbed a handful of Alain’s hair, jerking his head back. “Cut this damned mop. You look like a girl. You look like your sister.”
The barbs drove deep. He lifted his head into the pull. “If I shaved my head, I’d still look like my sister. We are identical twins.”
“Not quite identical. I hope you have,” the other man measured six inches between his fingers, “something about that long that Alina doesn’t.”
Hurt pride and anger made Alain reckless. He didn’t care if Father struck him. Physical pain, he could endure. “More than that. Try nine.”
Father threw back his head and belly-laughed. “There’s not a man alive who hasn’t slapped a ruler on his tool to see how he measures up. Get a haircut, son,” he said, not unkindly. “You’re too pretty. Women don’t like girly men.”
“I’m six-three. My shoes are size twelve. If I wore a dress, no one would mistake me for a girl.” His wicked tongue ran away with him again, courting disaster big time.
Aiden turned, glared at Alain, then buried his face in his hands. “And this is my son. Every night I prayed and you are the answer.” He whirled. “My cross to bear.”
Storm winds howled at the towers.
“You can be rid of me soon enough. Please allow me to attend the summer program. I’ll be gone the entire summer.” He uttered one last, desperate plea. “I’ll make you proud. I vow it. I don’t like to beg, Father, but please. This is so very important to me.”
Father ripped the letter of acceptance and tossed the confetti in Alain’s face. “No son of Alastair will become a common doctor.”
Sick and miserable, Alain burst from the kitchen door. Running blind, he flung himself down the rocky path bordered by yellow daffodils. The cries of gulls echoed from above and far out to sea. Waves crashed against the island’s rocky shore. Everyday sounds, everyday pain. Why did Father hate him? He’d never done anything wrong. On the island, opportunities were rare.
More angry than hurt, he cursed, “Damn, why didn’t I stand up to him? I’ll take my trust fund from Grandfather Adam and run away. It’s my life, damn him. He’s no right. No bloody right.”
At the shore, he slid to a halt. His sister looked up from her book, her smile misted by paper-page fantasies. “Hullo.”
He’d been dying to tell her the good news but now couldn’t speak around the lump in his throat. Marooned in a soul-deep sadness, he shook his head. She shuddered, and the tears he couldn’t cry spilled down her cheeks. His bottom lip quivered. Lina tossed her book aside, and he fell into the silent invitation of her open arms. As naturally as the sun unfurled from behind the blue horizon, they folded into a twin-tangle of long arms, long legs and long hair. Stroking his rigid back, she crooned wordless comfort. He snuggled his face into the crook of her shoulder. Her yellow blouse smelled of jonquils.
Compulsively, he caressed Lina’s bare arms, her skin like cool satin. “I love you.”
“And I love you,” she breathed against his hair. She held him back to assure, “More than anyone or anything in the world.”
Cruel time took a long breath, but the sea breeze rose with the sun. Behind his cloak of hair, Alain drifted on the scent and feel of his Lina. His hands were on her back. Her hands were on his, the gentle pressure a comfort, stability in a shattered world. Those touches, innocent as they were, soothed him. Last night, like most nights, he hadn’t slept well. His eyes flickered closed on the sound of Lina’s voice. While he glided into sleep, she crooned a story.
Alain awoke with the sun beaming down on his face. In his sleep, he had rolled on his back. He squinted up at Alina. She’d retrieved her book and was reading, but one hand rested on his chest to maintain the physical connection. Spiritually, they were never parted.
“Hullo, sleeping beauty.” She bent over him, shading him from the sun, and pecked a kiss to his lips.
Hopelessness rushed back like a tide rolling in. He climbed to his feet to gaze across the channel that separated them from the real world. “I have to leave this place.”
“In August, we’re eighteen. You can go then.” Delicate fingers wrapped around his ankle. “May I go with you?”
“Of course.” He folded, tucking his long legs under him. “I’ll never leave you. I couldn’t bear it.”
A ship crawled across the horizon. Surf crashed against the craggy shore. To the north behind the castle, steep steps hewn from natural stone wound down to the harbor and a tiny slip of beach. Here boats could approach without being gored on submerged rock. There was one way in and one way out of Alastair Keep. For some, there was no way out.
“In America, in certain regions of the Appalachian mountains, the dialect is almost word-perfect with the English of Britain at the time of colonization,” he said. “The inflection as well as the period slang has been preserved. The mountains isolated them, marooned them in the past.”
“Oh, Alain, without The Keep, the doctors would still be sticking needles in us.”
Today, the wind was gentle, stroking his hair, kissing his face. At times, the wind was brutal, battering their world with fury, howling ominiously at the walls of the castle.
Alina slid an arm around his shoulders. “Remember the day we stood at the Leap and vowed that we’d always be together?”
He grinned and tousled her hair. “We were six.”
The next thing he knew, he was flat on his back with Alina sprawled on top of him. Like spilt cream, her hair washed over his face. He was pinned to the ground by his sister’s slender body. A slight effort would flip her off him, but he wanted to stay where he was. Here, together, he was a peace.
With a fist, she tapped his chest. “Remember the rest of the vow?”
He held up his hand to complete a childhood ritual. “We are one.”
“We are one.” She clapped her palm to his. “It can be no other way.”
“It can be no other way.” He clasped her hand and kissed her fingertips.
“Forever.” Her eyes sparkled deep and dark as topaz stones. The shine was tears.
He knew because his eyes stung. “Forever.”
The gentle wind caught the vow from his lips and blew it away.
Alastair Keep did not recognize the clock. The pages of the calendar flipped by without change. After the disastrous meeting with his father, Alain’s life resumed the same boring rhythm, but he stopped reading medical books and studied classical horsemanship.
At fifteen, he’d finally been given a horse. If he’d chosen a dream, he’d do his damnedest to make it come true and must be the best at it.
Late afternoon sunlight slanted through the mullioned windows, drawing geometric shapes over Alina lying on her stomach on the floor. She read aloud from a novel about a unicorn. Long legs bent at the knees, her feet swung in hypnotic rhythm to her voice. Alain’s length draped the brocade sofa from arm-to-arm. Lazy and peaceful, he closed his eyes, visualizing the unicorn kneeling to rest his head on the virgin’s lap. He imagined the silkiness of the mane sifting through the girl’s fingers and smelled the warm horseflesh.
His clothes smelled of horses. Before dawn, he’d ridden out alone and returned to find Alina waiting for him with a picnic basket of cheese, fruit, a French baguette and a split bottle of wine. The tutor had one of his migraines and had canceled the day’s lessons. There’d been no time to change from his riding clothes. They’d taken the small boat, cruised to the far side of the island and whiled away the day in heated conversations, in silence, in dreams.
Alain opened his eyes. He hated when people asked him if looking at Alina was like gazing into a mirror. Actually, he and his sister were very different. Their faces were not dissimilar, but, of course, his features were male and hers decidedly female. Usually, she sensed when he was looking at her, but she was engrossed in the fairytale.
His favorite game was people watching. When the rare chance arose, he liked to paint a mental picture of strangers’ lives and guess what they were thinking. With Alina, he didn’t have to conjecture. He knew what she was thinking. But not now. She was away from him, lost in her book.
Propped on her elbows, chin cradled in her hands, her hair hid her face. Alina hadn’t bothered to change clothes either. A pleated gray schoolgirl skirt rode high on her thighs. Their holiday in Spain had tanned her long legs. One slender hand reached up to tuck her hair behind her ears. Dreaming her dreams, Alina looked like an angel. Since they looked so much alike, was that an arrogant thought?
Her voice droned, insect song on a summer night. Languid waves of desire washed over him. He shifted, folding his arms behind his head. Alina flipped on her back, holding the book above her. Her hair, spread on the Persian carpet, looked like sunlight made corporeal. She sighed, as the story, which she’d read to him many times, turned its inevitable way toward the end—the death of the unicorn. His thoughts drifted to the morning.
By lamplight, he’d slithered into old black riding breeches and a white cable knit sweater. When the sun rose, he intended to be at Lydia’s Leap to see his great aunt’s ghost. The servants loved to tell Lydia’s tale of lost love and how she’d calmly walked off the cliff to die on the rocks below. As he’d rushed out of the tack room, saddle astride his arm, bridle looped over his shoulder, he’d collided with the gardener’s daughter.
“Sorry.” Mary laughed, rescuing the bridle from clattering to the cobbles.
Annoyed, he frowned. What is she doing here at this time of morning?
She threaded the bridle carefully over his shoulder, her thumb exploring the muscles in his forearm. A shock of sensation shattered his focus on the upcoming ride. The fragrance of honeysuckle tickled his nose as she leaned nearer and patted his arm. Her low-cut sweater parted on a glimpse of cleavage. Those nights in bed thinking of shafting Mary spun in his head. His body tingled, his cock heating.
“There. All better.” Her hot gaze swept him, pausing on the knot in the tight breeches.
He smiled, throbbing under her bold scrutiny. “Yes. Thank you.”
Mary was older than the twins. She and her brothers were frequent sights around the island. He’d noticed how pretty she was, but he’d never seen her anywhere near the stables. When he happened to ride past her, she stepped back as if she were afraid of horses.
A sexy shrug rotated her shoulders, bobbing her breasts. “So, you going riding?”
The tight red sweater and painted-on jeans molded voluptuous curves. Mary was definitely not wearing a bra. Pert nipples stretched the ribbed fabric. She whispered a sultry laugh, and he tore his gaze from her breasts. Mischief sparkled in her eyes. She inched closer, invading his comfort zone. Her perfume made him lightheaded. His face and hands were hot. The saddle astride his arm felt heavy, and an erection made his breeches feel too tight. Damn, the snug pants would show her the effect she had on him.
“Here, let me help you.” Mary reached for the saddle, her fingers brushing the knot to the left of his zipper.
Caught completely off guard, he stiffened. She smiled and winked. If he bent and kissed her, would she stroke him harder?
Mary cocked a denim hip, smiling as she settled the saddle on a rack. “You’ve grown very tall over the summer.”
“Yes.” He imitated her bold gaze.
She ran a finger down the front of his shirt. “Yes, quite tall.” Her gaze followed the caress, drifting to his erection. “Those breeches fit you like a glove.”
He swelled hotter, desire muddying his thoughts. “Riding breeches must fit or they’d chafe.”
“I see.” She lowered her head, gazing at him through her lashes. “How old are you? Sixteen? Seventeen?”
“We’re eighteen in August.” The master trembling before a servant? Alain squared his shoulders, gazed down at her from the social distance separating them.
Mary winked, shot him a wicked grin and swung her best asset. “You’re a beautiful boy.” Her fingers boldly explored his cock. “Who dresses to the left.”
What should I say? Do you want me to whip it out and let you play with it? Shyness gripped him. Shock paralyzed him, but his heart thundered. He imagined Mary spread-eagle like the girls inthe men’s magazines. His hand lifted to touch her breast, but she danced back.
His voice came husky. “What do you want, Mary?”
“Give it another six months and we’ll see.” The gardener’s daughter laughed low in her throat, whirled and undulated away, swinging her hips like a cat in heat.
Frustration rode with Alain to the craggy north point. Sex so far had consisted of nude photos in magazines and satisfying himself in the dark. He didn’t feel guilty about masturbating, but if he’d known how to ask, Mary had offered him the real thing. He slid from the saddle, looped the reins around his arm and waited for Great Aunt Lydia’s shade to walk the cliff, poise and plunge into the roaring surf.
Alain didn’t see the ghost, but he did see his seed gush over his pumping fist.
Alina thudded down astride Alain’s hips. “You aren’t listening.”
As she swung the book down, aimed at his head, he dodged, lifting his hands. “The pen is mightier than the sword in your hands.” He wrestled the hardback from her grasp, letting it thud to the floor.
“When I read, you listen.” Her fingers dug into his ribs. “Or I’ll tickle you to death.”
In silent, breathless agony, he writhed, grinding his head on the sofa’s brocade arm. Sucking breaths between gasps of tortured laughter, he bucked and contorted. Gouging his ribs, Alina rode his convulsions. A sudden silence and the fingers stopped torturing him. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he opened his eyes.
Eyes squeezed shut, Alina looked like she was in pain. Her head was drawn sharply back. She gasped for breath between parted lips. Her body convulsed on his dying erection, reawakening the beast. The damn thing had a mind of its own. It reared its head at the most inopportune times and could even survive a bout of tickling. If Alina discovered his interest in sex, she’d tease him unmercifully.
She stiffened, exhaled a jagged little cry. Afraid to move, he lay very still. Slowly, Lina’s head fell forward until her chin rested on her neck. She opened her eyes to stare at him as if she’d never seen him before. Two, three ticks of the clock. Her breasts rose and fell with her rapid breathing.
“Oh,” she inhaled, “dear.” And lurched to her feet.
He reached for her hand, but his fingers merely grazed the hem of her skirt as she whirled away. She glided through spotty sunlight to the window.
His body thudded hard, tight. What had happened? Why was she angry?
He swung his legs over the side of the sofa and rose. “Lina?”
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