Julia Brodie gripped the handle of her suitcase, the muscles of her arm and back straining as she lugged the heavy piece of luggage down the ancient stairs of the inn deep in the Highlands of Scotland.
“Can I help ye with that, lass?”
Julia grimaced. The question was almost certainly directed at her, since the voice came from directly behind her, but she ignored the question as she ignored the man, whoever he was. At five foot two and a hundred and five pounds, she might look as fragile as a butterfly, but she wasn’t. She could lug her own damned suitcase.
“Aye, lassie,” came a second voice. “Let us be helpin’ you with that. ’Tis too heavy for you.”
Julia growled under her breath and glanced back to find two yokels she recognized from her cousin’s wedding reception. “I’ve got it,” she said tersely.
Ignoring her, one of the men closed the space behind her, his hand brushing hers on the handle.
“Let me help ye with that.”
Julia clamped her hand tighter around the handle. Did the moron not understand English? “Back off. I don’t need your help.”
The man made a sound of disapproval deep in his throat, but backed off, as she’d ordered, muttering about rude Yanks.
As if it were her fault he couldn’t take no for an answer.
But as she neared the bottom of the stairs, she looked up to find her cousin Catriona watching her, soft rebuke in her odd, mismatched eyes—one brown, the other pale green. Eyes the exact colors of Julia’s own.
“Off so soon?” Cat asked as Julia set the suitcase on the worn carpet and pulled up the handle. “I thought your flight wasn’t until tomorrow.”
Though they shared the mismatched Brodie eyes, their similarity in appearance ended there. Catriona was tall and curvy, with a shining mass of long, dark curls. Julia was flat-chested and short, with straight blond hair she’d recently cut into a chin-length bob.
“My flight is early tomorrow morning. I’ll stay at the Glasgow airport tonight so I can roll out of bed and onto the plane.” Besides, she’d had all the family she could handle. Especially since her aunts had apparently decided she needed to be the next one married and had been pushing nice Scottish lads at her for three days straight. Yokels, every one.
She’d made it more than clear she wasn’t interested. Most of them were giving her a wide berth by now. The two on the stairs had been the exception, with had being the operative word.
Cat clucked her tongue softly as the men strode off, clearly put out with her. “Ye push them all away, Julia. Someday yer going to have to let one get close.”
“Don’t count on it. I don’t need a man, Cat. I don’t need anyone.”
Catriona cocked her pretty head. “Even your favorite cousin?”
Julia rolled her eyes. “Who says you’re my favorite?”
Cat laughed. “We both know it’s true. Just as you’re my favorite.”
Julia looked up at Cat in surprise, but then frowned. “Right.”
“’Tis true, Julie. I ken ye, aye? I understand you better than you think. Better than you do yourself, I’m thinking.”
“Oh, I know myself just fine. I’m a bitch.” Julia grinned. “A happily single bitch.”
But Catriona didn’t smile in return. “Nay, lass. Underneath it all, you’re fine, Julia. Fine and bright and good. But ye hide it from everyone. Mayhap even yourself.”
Julia’s smile died. “Favorite cousin or not, you’re overstepping yourself, Cat.”
“Aye.” Catriona reached for her hand and squeezed it. “But ye’ll remember what I said, Julie. Just remember.”
“Sure, whatever. I’m fine. I always knew that.”
“’Tis not the fine I meant.”
Cat turned as if to give her a hug, but Julia stiffened and pulled back. She didn’t need this shit. Catriona might be her favorite cousin, but she didn’t need hugs or cousinly advice.
Why had she come to Scotland at all? She’d asked herself that question at least a dozen times since she got here three days ago.
“I have to go, Cat. Good luck with your marriage and stuff.”
Catriona’s expression sobered, her eyes turning razor sharp. “Wait, Julia. I need you to do something for me. I need you to take something back to America with you. It’s . . . a gift.”
“You don’t have to give me anything, Cat.”
“No, I do. I truly do. Come with me, please? ’Twill not take five minutes.”
Julia stifled her impatience and nodded. Another five minutes with family wouldn’t kill her. After all, she’d flown all the way from New York to attend Cat’s wedding, acting on some odd and errant need for a dose of family. And since her dad’s Scottish relatives were the only ones she had, family meant Scotland.
If he hadn’t died last fall, she’d probably have sent her regrets in response to Catriona’s wedding invitation. But there was something about knowing that she didn’t have anyone else that had spurred her to accept the invitation and book the flight.
She doubted she’d do it again. It had been ten years since she’d seen any of them, not since her sophomore year at Princeton, and she hadn’t enjoyed the visit. They all knew one another as if they’d lived together all their lives. Which they practically had.
And she barely knew them at all. Or they her, despite what Cat claimed.
Cat was right, though. The two of them had hit it off that first summer Cat joined the family, the summer Julia was ten and Cat was thirteen. At least they’d hit it off as well as Julia ever hit it off with anyone. Probably because for a short while they’d both been outsiders.
No one knew who Cat was or where she’d come from. Not even Catriona herself. She’d appeared at the gates of the family home one spring, twenty years ago, dirty-faced and lost, remembering little but her name. Her parents had never been located, but there’d been no denying she was a Loch Laggan Brodie with those mismatched eyes, and she’d been swept beneath the collective family wing.
A world removed from that lost kid, Catriona led her to the back of the inn where the stylish bride and her new husband had spent their wedding night. Soon the couple would be leaving for a honeymoon on the isle of Orkney in the Hebrides. While most apparently thought they were nuts for not flying to Spain or southern France for a spot of September sunshine and warmth, Catriona preferred to remain in Scotland.
There was something about Cat’s love of her homeland that Julia understood, despite having turned into a jaded city girl. There was something about the wild, rugged land that pulled at her, as if her Scottish blood recognized the place. And maybe even longed for it.
Which was too damn bad. Julia hadn’t always been a New Yorker, but she was a New Yorker now, and no way in hell was she ever moving again.
Cat led her into the room as her husband, Archie, zipped up the suitcase on the bed.
“Have ye the stone?” she asked him.
“Aye.” He looked at Julia with speculation, then reached into the outside pocket of a duffel bag and pulled out a small fabric pouch pulled closed by an attached silk cord. He didn’t hand it to Cat, but instead placed it on the bed beside her.
Catriona glanced at the pouch, then at Julia, but made no move to reach for it. “I want you to have this, cousin. Put it in your purse and don’t touch it until you get home.”
Julia raised a skeptical brow. “What is it?”
“A necklace. It was mine, but I want you to have it, now. Don’t ever bring it back here.”
Cryptic words. “Do you mind explaining why not?”
“I do mind, aye. Why isn’t important. Just do as I say, Julia, please?”
Julia nodded slowly, deciding she was probably taking some unwanted jewelry off their hands. A gift from an old boyfriend or something.
“Okay.” Julia picked up the small pouch and slipped it into her purse. “Thank you.”
Catriona’s gaze met Archie’s and something passed between them, a look of profound . . . relief?
But when Catriona turned back, the smile that slid across her pretty face was so pure, Julia found her own mouth tilting up into a wry smile.
“Someday you’re going to have to tell me the whole story, cousin. You know that.”
“Aye.” Catriona smiled broader. “Some day when we’re old ladies, I’ll tell ye everything.”
Julia pursed her lips and nodded. “Deal.”
This time when Catriona opened her arms, Julia allowed herself to be swallowed in the hug. With a wave, she said good-bye to Cat and her new husband, one of the decidedly non-yokels, then retrieved her luggage from the foyer and headed for her rental car.
Hours later, as she sat in stalled traffic, waiting to get around an accident on the A9 on her way to Glasgow, she rued not spending the extra money for a flight out of Inverness. Looking for a diversion, she reached for the small pouch Catriona had given her, curious about this necklace that her cousin no longer had any use for. She opened the pouch and dumped the small pendant into her palm. The stone was small, oval, and purple, about the size of her fingernail, in a fine silver filigreed setting. The stone reminded her of a purple garnet she’d once drooled over at the jewelry store. A pretty little necklace, if badly in need of some silver polish.
Julia rubbed her thumb across the face of the stone, watching the sunlight catch in the facets. Very pretty. The delicate chain didn’t have a clasp, but looked to be long enough to fit over her head.
She stared at it for two seconds as she remembered her promise to Catriona to wait until she got home to put it on. As if anyone would know.
With a grunt, she pulled it on over her head, letting it settle between her breasts. It was a little long, but looked good against the moss green turtleneck sweater she’d donned that morning.
Finally, the traffic started to move again. It was dark by the time she pulled into the car rental lot at the Glasgow airport. She turned off the engine and was about to reach for her coat and purse when she realized there was still a light on in the car.
With confusion, she looked down, seeking the source . . . and stared. What the hell?
The purple stone was glowing.
“Great. Just great.” The thing was probably radioactive. Either that or Catriona had turned into a practical joker. Either way, she wasn’t wearing a glowing necklace in public like some ten-year-old kid. She reached for it, startled to feel heat. What in the heck was this thing?
Before she could pull it off, she was hit by a violent wave of dizziness that made her stomach roll. Around her, the car began to spin. She grabbed for the steering wheel, desperate to ground herself. If this didn’t stop soon, she was going to be sick all over the rental car. Which was bound to cost money.
The warmth from the stone began to seep through her sweater. If she didn’t get the thing off soon, it was going to burn right through the fabric. But she couldn’t bring herself to let go of the steering wheel. An illogical fear gripped her that it was the only thing holding her tethered. If she let go, she’d spin off into God-knew-where.
Catriona’s words rang in her ears. Don’t touch it until you get home.
How was the necklace doing this?
Come on. That’s ridiculous. The dizziness doesn’t have anything to do with the necklace.
But a strange, crawling sensation began to blossom all over her skin. A buzzing sounded in her ears. Ridiculous or not, her instincts told her the dizziness and the stone were connected.
Putting on Catriona’s necklace had been a terrible mistake.
Talon strode purposefully down the passage deep within Castle Rayne, his white chaplain’s robes brushing his legs, hiding the knives he had strapped around either calf. In one hand he held a lantern against the darkness. In his other, a carafe of holy water. For a bloody fortnight he’d walked these passages, visiting every room, pretending to bless the castle and cast out the evil spirits residing here.
In truth, he searched for the treasure he’d been sent to find.
Or at least some small clue to its whereabouts.
“Ye worthless piece of metal and rock,” he muttered under his breath to the amethyst ring that had clung to his finger for the last score of years. He pushed open the door of yet another bedchamber that would remain empty until the lord and his retinue returned. “Ye tell me to come to Castle Rayne and here I am. Here I linger. Have ye deserted me, now?”
The sounds of drunken laughter lifted from the Great Hall below and he thought of the dram of whiskey he’d begged from the ring earlier that very eve and moments later found dripping through the floorboards at his feet.
Nay, the ring had not deserted him. The irksome thing toyed with him, as it had always done.
The lost whiskey had been his own fault. He’d long ago learned not to ask the ring for anything directly. Hegarty had warned him as much when he gave him the ring years ago. It’ll be givin’ ye what ye need, lad, but not always in the way ye want, aye?
Never in the way he wanted, was more the truth, though he’d learned to get his way more often than not. If he needed silver, he couldn’t ask for silver. Or money. He had to ask the ring to fill his belly. Nine times out of ten, he found silver in his purse afterward. On occasion, the spiteful stone would send him food. Real food, and he’d feel his sporran fill with oats, or leak with soup.
But if he was hungry and in need of food, he only got sustenance if he complained to the ring he was growing weak and demanded the ring strengthen him.
Setting the lantern on the washstand, he searched for the Fire Chalice of Veskin, or anything that might tell him where to find the treasure that was his latest mission. The bloody amethyst had sent him to Castle Rayne for a reason.
None knew he had the ring, for none could see it but him. His fist closed tight. The ring might be a pain in his arse, but he’d not give it up, even if Hegarty returned for it as he’d promised he would. The ring was his life now. Everything had changed for him that dark day all those years ago.
The Wizard had been born.
He’d learned to manipulate the magic, soon realizing no task was beyond him. At seventeen, having gotten his growth at last, he’d left home and sold himself and his talents to the highest bidder. None but him knew he actually possessed magic. They simply believed him a man who could do anything. For the right price.
Over the years he had indeed accomplished an abundance of impossible tasks. He’d delivered a brigand to his hanging, a lost child to her mum, a cache of gold to one who sought to steal his enemy’s treasure. Talon cared not who hired him or why.
The Wizard never failed.
A fortnight he’d tarried in this castle with no success. Now only two weeks remained of the month he’d been given to find the Fire Chalice of Veskin and deliver it as promised. But the damnable ring refused to cooperate. Every day, ten times a day, in every way he could think of, he asked the ring to show him how to find the chalice. So far, all it had done was tell him to come to Castle Rayne.
He grabbed the lamp, left the chamber, and started up the narrow, twisting tower stairs, the firelight flickering along the whitewashed stone as he rose.
“All right, ye worthless piece of rock. How can I put this that ye’ll understand? How about this . . . help me find what my client, Niall Brodie, seeks?” His words held a hard, frustrated edge, for he was fast running out of patience. The Wizard never failed. Never.
Yet he was utterly dependent on the ring, for without it, he had no chance of finding the chalice. The Brodie chieftain knew only that it had been stolen sometime within the past twenty years, but not when, nor why, nor by whom. The chalice could be anywhere. But he was willing to pay a king’s ransom in silver to get it back.
And the Wizard had promised to do just that.
Bloody, traitorous ring.
Talon continued up the tight, turnstile stair, then stopped suddenly as the familiar prickle of magic rushed over his skin. With a leap of his heart, he stilled, waiting for the slight change in the air that presaged the ring’s magic. But the air dropped to frigid, charging as if he’d stepped into the heart of a thunderstorm.
The hair rose at his nape and his pulse began to pound. He was well used to the feel of magic by now, but this was different. Like a winter gale instead of the usual spring breeze.
From far below, he heard shouts of fear and knew he wasn’t the only one feeling it. Excitement and anticipation raced through his blood.
“Chaplain!” The voice echoed from far below, seeking his chaplain’s cross, no doubt, to ward off what they would believe was evil.
He made no move to answer, but held his lantern high as he stood poised on the stairs.
The firelight flickered. The magic burned through him in a quick, tingling rush. And suddenly he was not alone.
His pulse raced as he stared at the woman. She appeared into empty air a half-dozen steps above, bent as if sitting, then sat hard on the step behind her with a yelp. Her head jerked up, her gaze wide as the moon as she stared at him with the strangest eyes he’d ever seen—one brown, the other pale green. Though clearly a woman grown, she was a wee bit of a thing with shorn golden hair that just brushed her jaw, and odd, male clothing that molded to her slender form.
Scrambling to her feet, she faced him with a wild confusion of fury and terror. A bonny, bonny lass.
Slowly, he raised the ring to his lips and kissed the stone. “I take back every bad thing I’ve said about ye.”
God in heaven, the ring had sent him an angel.
“Chaplain!” The steward’s voice rang over the stone, nearer now. By the sound of it, he was climbing the stairs a couple of floors below.
Bollocks. He needed to hide the lass and he didn’t have much time. Her appearance would raise too many questions, questions he was neither inclined nor able to answer. Who she was. What she was. How she’d gotten here.
“I have to hide ye,” he told her, wondering if she spoke Scots or English.
“Where am I?” she gasped in a strangely accented English, her voice at once demanding and quaking. Her pale face was losing color by the second.
“Come.” He grabbed her arm, and raced up the remaining stairs, pulling her with him into the nearest chamber. The space was small and dusty—belonging to one of the lady’s maids—but it would have to do.
The lass stumbled and he grabbed her to keep her from falling.
“I’m going to pass out,” she gasped.
“Aye. ’Tis for the best.”
“No!” She fought the weakness, struggling to free herself from his hold.
From below, he heard the steward calling for him again.
“I must leave ye, lass.” She needed to be out and he feared she’d not go willingly. With a sigh, he set down the lantern and clipped her under the chin with his fist, hitting her just hard enough to knock her unconscious.
He caught her as she went down and lifted her into his arms, marveling at the lightness of her. “My apologies, lass.” With quick steps, he strode into the window alcove and deposited her on the cushioned bench, deep in the shadows where none would find her unless they searched. “I’ll be back for ye.”
At last, the ring had sent him the tool he needed to find the chalice and complete his mission. But . . . a woman? From whence had the amethyst pulled her? Questions knotted in his head. Was she even human? Foreboding wound through his gut.
His jaw clenched tight, he grabbed his lantern and hurried back down the stairs, reaching the chapel just as the steward stormed out.
A man of medium height, little hair, and sharp, suspicious eyes, the steward scowled at him. “I felt magic, Chaplain. Black magic.”
Talon gathered the cloak of the chaplain’s serenity about him and smiled calmly. “Nay, my good man. Not magic at all, but the gates of hell opening to accept the evil souls fleeing this place. ’Tis as I told ye, aye? Bad spirits haunt Castle Rayne. What we felt was the first lot of them leaving. My work hasna been for naught.”
As always, the ring had provided him an alias when he arrived at his destination. A role. But, although the steward had accepted him and allowed him entrance, he’d never entirely trusted him.
A smarter man than most, unfortunately.
As a bead of sweat rolled between his shoulder blades, Talon clenched his jaw, needing the steward to believe in him a wee bit longer. Especially now that the ring had answered his plea.
“”Tis the work of angels that I do here. Soon, all of the evil spirits will be returned to the hell from which they sprang.”
The steward eyed him sternly. “One more day, Chaplain, then ye’ll leave us. The lord is due back at any time.”
Talon struggled to retain a serene expression. “Aye. ’Twill be enough.” Now that he’d been sent the lass, he believed it might be so. Perhaps, finally, the ring would reveal the purpose for him being here. He’d know he’d found that purpose when the chaplain’s robes and the full beard on his face disappeared with the role, as all ring-given tools vanished once he’d used them to the amethyst’s satisfaction.
The moment the steward was out of sight, Talon retraced his steps to the room where he’d left the lass. Pushing through the door, he strode to the tiny window enclosure where she now lay in a pool of moonlight, sleeping her unnatural sleep. Jesu, but she was a strange and bonny thing. He reached for her, lifting a silken lock of soft, golden hair. Aye, an angel. An angel with missing wings, shorn hair, and lad’s clothing.
Was she human? His skin prickled at the thought she might be other.
That was the problem, he supposed. Though he’d used the ring’s magic for more than twenty years, he’d never understood its source. Just as he’d never been certain who or what Hegarty was. Until now, he’d given the question only passing thought, for what did it matter so long as the ring’s magic was his to control?
But now he found himself fiercely curious and more than a little wary as he stared at the woman. A lass, he was most certain, who was not of this world.
End of Excerpt
Read the excerpt from the first book in the The Jewels of Time Series »