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A gifted healer who is compelled to help anyone in need, sheltered Irish lass Rhiannon Fitzgerald falls for infamous warrior Captain Lionel Redmayne, whose secrets threaten her life as well as her heart. Original.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Kimberly Cates lives in Illinois with her family. She is currently working on her next romance for Pocket Books.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The fairies were whispering the faintest of warnings, which tingled along Rhiannon Fitzgerald's freckle-spattered cheeks and settled deep into her bones. She braced herself against the rocking of her rainbow-hued gypsy caravan and gripped the reins more tightly. Eyes the warm green-gold of a forest primeval searched the wild, rocky landscape swept clean of afternoon mist. The ghostly ruins that had once been the village of Ballyaroon kept unearthly watch over the quiet hills, standing stones with their well-kept secrets, just visible above the verdant green of the next rise.
"Don't let your imagination run wild, Rhiannon," she chided herself, dashing a wayward lock of cinnamon hair from her cheek. "There is nothing amiss. You're only reacting to this place. Echoes of old pain, old sorrows. They grow louder when you're alone." The thought should have offered more comfort.
After all, her reasoning might be valid enough. From the dawning of her first memory, Rhiannon had felt as if an invisible ribbon stitched into her breast bound her to the heartbeat buried deep in these timeless hills, a link carrying piercing sweetness, sorrowful yearning, a joy and a curse. Stark awareness of things seen and unseen beyond the drab veil of most people's reality -- ghost-shadows of ages long vanished, silent cries of wounded woodland creatures, the fragrant magic of healing herbs white witches had gathered when the earth was new, and the irresistible pull of tides called destiny.
It was the gift of the fairy-born, her da had told anyone who would listen. Her mother's parting boon before she returned to the magical kingdom of Tir naN Og, leaving her mortal lover and her child behind.
There were times when Rhiannon wished most fervently her mother had seen fit to leave her something a little less troublesome -- a pretty locket, perhaps, or a letter Rhiannon could read -- precious words that might bring to life the woman she'd never known.
"The least she could have done was leave instructions on how to turn this -- this 'gift' off once in a while so I can have some peace," Rhiannon complained to the soft-eyed vixen peering between the slats of an overturned basket beside her. But her vague attempt at humor fell flat. The unsettled feelings only intensified as she peered into that pointed little face, so wise yet so vulnerable beneath wisps of russet fur.
"Perhaps I'm just feeling strange because I'm going to miss you, mo chroi," she said, her throat tightening. A sense of pride and impending loss tugged at her as she shifted both reins to one hand and eased her finger into the basket to stroke a silky ear. "Your foot is all mended now. It's time to set you free."
Free. Far away from the foxhounds that had nearly killed her, or their rich masters, chasing after in a mad rush of wind and scarlet coats and blooded horses, delighting in the hunt.
She gazed at the rocky, wild terrain about her, deserted except for ghosts of rebellions past, a place far distant from any of the great houses that would host the blood sports. Not even the most intrepid foxhunter would dare traverse such rugged land. Out here the little vixen would have a fighting chance to survive.
So just let her go here, now, and turn around, a voice inside Rhiannon whispered. Don't venture deeper into whatever disturbance is troubling you. What possible difference could a few more miles make? All the difference in the world. She could always feel when the place was right to release her creatures, sense it, a tingling in her chest. She'd been so certain the standing stones here above the ruins of Ballyaroon would be perfect, felt herself drawn toward them. Was she listening to warning whispers now, or had she merely discovered the handiest way to postpone releasing her little charge for as long as she could? The creature nibbled, delicate as a duchess, on her finger.
Rhiannon blinked back tears. Yes, that had to be what was troubling her. From the time she'd carried her first wounded bird home to be mended, she'd both loved and hated the day she released her charges back to the wild. But it had been different, back at Primrose Cottage. Papa had been there to drive her out to the small parkland surrounding their modest estate in his gig. Her cousins had scampered about, Orla's eyes round with wonder and excitement as she and Triona pilfered the picnic Cook had prepared. Warm gingerbread and sour lemonade to take away the bite of sadness Rhiannon felt when she let her creatures go.
Now there was only the wide, empty sky, the whickering of Socrates the dray horse, the bumbling of Milton the foxhound as he ran into anything in his path, and the self-satisfied purring of Captain Blood the one-eyed feline with a pirate's heart. The family that had delighted in those soft summer skies was long gone.
No, that wasn't true, Rhiannon thought. She could still feel their presence in the mist. Hear the echo of their laughter in the wind. Sometimes it was almost as if they touched her. Papa, stolen by the hungry waves of the sea. Mama, that beautiful misty woman who lived only in her imagination. But she could call back so many precious memories, finger them like polished stones. And she could visit Triona and her new husband, John, whenever the silence got too loud or the road too solitary.
Her mouth curved, a little wistful at the memory of Triona's pleas that she stay on at the MacKenna farm forever, the worry in her cousin's eyes warming Rhiannon's heart. "You shouldn't be alone out there with Uncle Kevin gone," Triona had said. "Something could happen. You could get hurt, grow sick, and no one might know until it was too late. And there are men -- desperate men who might -- "
"You know I don't have to be afraid, Triona," Rhiannon had replied. "The fairies look after their own."
Triona's brow had crinkled, troubled. "'Tis a lovely story, being fairy-born, Rhiannon, but...but you can't still believe it's true."
Taken by a mischievous streak, Rhiannon had stared at her cousin with wide-eyed innocence, protesting that she accepted her father's tale as gospel. And yet she'd realized long ago that, pretty as the story was, it was also the perfect way to ease the pain for a little girl whose mama had abandoned her and never looked back. And it had softened the pain, at least a little, with glittering magical possibilities.
She had brushed aside Triona's concerns but held fast to the precious gift of love that lit her cousin's eyes. And she tried hard never to forget how very lucky she was.
Besides, she knew something Triona couldn't understand. She was never really alone. She smiled, stroking the fox's ear one last time. "One thing I can be certain of, little one. Your basket will be filled before I know it. It won't be long before the fates will put another wounded creature in my path."
With wry humor, she turned her attention back to her driving, uncertain where she would find herself. Socrates was given to taking shameless advantage of his mistress's notorious lack of concentration, veering off course to munch any patch of likely-looking clover he could sniff out. Once she'd been roused from daydreams to find he'd followed a hay cart halfway to Dublin! But in an uncharacteristic burst of obedience, the beast had stayed on track, almost as if he, too, felt the tug of their destination.
She looked up in surprise. The shattered cottages of the village had fallen behind her, and the towering fingers of the standing stones reared up before her, so close she could see the ancient symbols carved into their gray surfaces, hear the echoes of bards' songs still tangled about them.
She'd always felt fascination when stumbling across the fairy forts and dolmens, the passage graves and crumbling castle ruins that dotted the land. But this time there was something different in the haunting melody of the wind, a pulsing rhythm more urgent.
She tried to grasp it, hoped to unravel its meaning, but suddenly Socrates dug his hooves into the turf, balking so abruptly he nearly overset Rhiannon. She clutched at the overturned basket, just managing to keep it from flying off the seat, the vixen darting about in alarm as pans hanging from the ceiling inside the caravan crashed against each other in a resounding cacophony of clangs.
"What in the name of heaven?" Rhiannon choked out, trying to calm the horse as he tossed his head, trying to shy sideways. The unease she'd done her best to explain away flooded back, more insistent than ever.
"Whist, now, Socrates, whist," she murmured in the special voice that had soothed countless wild things. The horse pricked his ears, stood still, but she could see the fine tremor skating beneath his disreputable gray hide.
Carefully she got down out of the cart and tied him to a low-hanging branch. The last thing she wanted was to have to go chasing after him. She doubted he could rouse enough energy to run very far, but there was no point in taking any chances.
She grabbed another basket dangling from the side of the cart. If there was something wounded taking shelter hereabouts, she didn't want to give it a chance to slip away. And she'd learned from bitter childhood experience that she wouldn't do the creature any good if she scooped it up with her bare hands and got the blessed daylights chewed out of herself. But even such reasoning didn't ease the trembling in her stomach. She'd made this journey countless times. Why did this time feel so different?
Rhiannon moved toward the ring of stones, her bare feet soft and soundless as the vixen's paws, her gaze searching every clump of gorse and heather, every shadowed nook, looking for the tiniest glimpse of fur or subtle gleam of a wary eye.
But she found nothing, no velvet-eared rabbit, no broken-whiged hawk or lame fawn. Then why did she feel so -- so odd? Her arm ached. Her left leg threatened to crumple beneath her. And her chest...a cord seemed to be tightening about it until it became difficult to breathe, her heart pounding so loud it seemed the birds overhead must hear it.
She frowned, listening for the slightest stirring that might betray a hiding place, but she heard nothing. Perhaps if she climbed to a higher vantage point, she might be able to see better. That overturned slab near the largest crossbar of stone looked like a promising spot.
She moved toward it and was knee deep in a tangle of gypsy roses the glorious mauve of a sunset when she scented something far different from the sweet flower fragrance or the meadow winds. The metallic tang of freshspilled blood. Burned sulfur...gunpowder. And pain -- blinding red.
Caution vanished in its wake. She scrambled toward the stones, certain that something injured lay nearby. Had some hunter found this place? Had his prey eluded him, dragged itself away to die? Wild creatures had a gift for hiding themselves, quietly bleeding to death where nothing and no one could find them. The thought of any living thing suffering alone, possibly dying without so much as a comforting touch to soothe it, ripped at Rhiannon's heart, more than she could bear.
She hadn't spoken the plea since she was a girl, full of rich imaginings, still believing everything her papa had told her. But the aura of pain was so strong, the desperation so fierce, the hopelessness so deep, she couldn't help but use it.
"Help me, Mama," she whispered to the wind. "Help me find -- " The words died on her lips. She halted, a cry tearing from her throat as her foot nearly tramped on a man's bloodstained hand.
She blinked fiercely, still scarce believing her eyes.
Why in God's name hadn't she seen him from a mile down the road? His red coat gleamed like a fresh wound in the hill. The merest glimpse of the uniform sent spikes of unease shooting through her.
An officer. English. Up here in these wild lands, alone. What could he possibly be doing here? She caught her lip between her teeth, hesitating, wary. Few times in her travels had she been afraid, but twice she and Papa had stumbled across soldiers reeking of whiskey and hostility. The first time Papa had distracted them with magic tricks he'd learned from Gypsy travelers, the second an officer with a Yorkshire accent and the loneliest eyes Rhiannon had ever seen had driven them away before more than a few pots had been broken. And yet she'd never forgotten the bitter taste of fear in the back of her throat, the sense of helplessness.
Yes, an English soldier could be more dangerous than a pain-maddened wolf, and far more unpredictable. For an instant, just an instant, she wished she could turn, run back to her cart. No one need know she had ever found the officer. For all she knew, he deserved the bullets that had wounded him. And yet...even as the thought formed, she shook herself fiercely.
He was hurt. Be he human or beast, English or Irish, that was all that mattered. She'd been given the gift of healing, not the power to decide who was worthy of life or death.
Fighting to steady herself inwardly, Rhiannon dropped to her knees beside him, pressing her fingertips to the pulse point of his throat. The faint thrum of heartbeat against her skin jolted through her with the unearthly sizzle of lightning splitting a druid tree. It breached something deep inside Rhiannon, left her shaken.
In that instant his features seared themselves into her consciousness. Silvery-blond hair tangled about a face no one could look upon and ever forget. Papa had told her once of a prince so beautiful no one could ever tire of looking upon him. They'd buried him in a magical coffin of glass when he died. She'd thought the tale absurd until now.
Power emanated from every line and curve of the man's countenance even in unconsciousness. Strength and intelligence etched the broad brow, ruthlessness and arrogance shaped the angle of prominent cheekbones, yet there was just a hint of softness about his parted lips, so subtle few would have been able to discern it.
This was absurd! she raged at herself. She had to tend his wounds, see how he'd been injured. Just because he was alive at this moment didn't mean he would remain so while she stood here gawking at him like a dolt.
Scrambling to gather her wits, she searched for the wounds -- a torn and bloodied sleeve. Another ragged, glistening tear in his left thigh. The large amount of blood told her that this wound was obviously worse. Cursing herself for her ridiculous hesitation, she ripped off a strip of her petticoat and wrestled with the deadweight of his injured leg as she tried to tie it above the wound to stop the bleeding. Then, fishing in the pouch she ever kept tied at her waist, she took out her papa's penknife and worked to cut the fabric away from the wound.
The slightest groan squeezed from between the soldier's white lips, and he shifted, trying to get away from the pain. If he awakened, the process of baring his wounds would be all the more painful. He might hurt himself or fight her -- and he had the look of a man who could overpower her in a heartbeat, wounded or whole.
Voice unsteady, Rhiannon...
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