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Authors: Barbara Longley

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“I won’t ask again, Thomas. I’m sorry.”

He took her face between his hands and looked deep into her eyes. “I failed you that day.” His voice was filled with anguish. “My loyalties were torn between duty to my laird and his lady and my duty to you.” Thomas pressed his forehead against hers. “Never again will I let anything or anyone come between us. I vow it upon my very soul.”

His eyes were so full of pain and desperation her heart broke for him. “I’ve changed my mind. Let’s shop for rings,” she whispered, wanting nothing more than to take the pain away and to see him smile.

Thomas held her a moment longer, and kissed her with a fierce possessiveness. “I would have bought one anyway. If any man looks at you while I’m gone, I want him to know you’re mine.”

“Do you have to return to Scotland with Dermot? Couldn’t you stay here with me until it’s all over?”

“Tempting, but I must be there to be released from the curse. And you’ve yet to learn how it came about.”

Sighing, Zoe settled herself against him and laid her head on his shoulder. “Tell me.” She leaned her head back to gaze at him. “Let’s finish this ancient story so we can start a new one together.”

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard since you suggested this afternoon’s…activities.” He winked and drew her tighter against his side.

“As I recall, this was your idea.” She nudged him, pleased to see his mood lighten. “Finish the story, and we can engage in
activities
again.” She wagged her eyebrows at him, ran her hand down his chest and kept going.

“Zoe.” Thomas put his hand over hers. “If you continue in the direction you’re headed, the tale is no’ likely to be told today.”

Giggling, Zoe settled herself against him. “Okay. Go on.”

“We were attacked before dawn. First our enemies started the stable on fire. Our clan gathered quickly to put out the blaze. We had no idea it had been started as a diversion. None of the guards on duty saw anything amiss. We found out later we were betrayed from within our own ranks.”

“Did you learn who started the fire?”

“Aye. The man did no’ live through the day.”

Zoe shivered.

“Are you cold,
leannan?

“No. I’m getting goose bumps all over, like I remember some of the horrors of that day.”

“Some part of you
does
remember. You were there.” He rubbed the length of her bare arm. “Once the clan had gathered, the attack began. Mairéad had been ordered to stay inside the keep when we all rushed to put out the fire. She was too far along in her pregnancy to be of any use, and Dermot did no’ want her in harm’s way.”

“Alone?”

“Nay, with one guard and a companion.” He shook his head. “None suspected an attack. One guard seemed sufficient at the time since she was behind the wall. Once the battle began, Dermot sent several men back to the keep to protect her.” Thomas sighed and kissed her forehead. “Mairéad was the true target all along. Our enemies envied our alliance with the
Tuatha,
and they wanted the advantage eliminated.”

“Oh, man. That’s harsh going after a pregnant woman like that. Wicked harsh.”

“Wicked harsh, indeed.”

“Did the one guard left behind survive?”

He nodded, his expression distant. “I’m certain they thought him dead. Lachlan had been knocked senseless in the battle against Mairéad’s attackers.” He twined their fingers together. “We fought all morning before managing to turn the tide. By the time we made it back to the keep, it had been set ablaze, and Mairéad lay dying on the floor in the Great Hall.” He turned to face Zoe. “What transpired then between Dermot and Mairéad is too intimate to impart. I wish to God I’d no’ been there to witness it myself. We had to drag Dermot away from her as the building burned down around us.”

“She died.”

“She did. That night Áine appeared. Dermot and she had a terrible row, both blaming the other for Mairéad’s death. Dermot had summoned Áine for help, and she failed to heed his pleas. Áine was livid that we failed to protect her daughter during the attack.”

“Dermot
summoned
her? How do you mean?”

“It’s complicated. Part of the alliance included creating a pathway of sorts for communication between Dermot and the
Tuatha Dé Danann.
Have you ever heard of astral projection?”

“Sure, out-of-body experiences you mean?”

“Aye. Dermot says their form of communication is similar. He sends mental energy on an astral path created by the
Tuatha
for that purpose.”

Zoe propped herself up and beamed at him. “Wow. Can anyone learn how to do that? Just think, we could communicate all the time when we’re apart.”

“I do have a mobile phone, Zoe, and an international carrier. I’ll put you on my plan and see that you get a new phone.”

“Oh fine.” She plopped back down, disappointed. “It would’ve been cool to have our own channel of communication.”

Thomas chuckled. “I doubt the
Tuatha
wish to share their secrets. They are a race of beings far more advanced than we are. When they wish to, they exist in a separate dimension unknown to us.”

“Goodie for them,” she grumbled. “So, Áine and Dermot fought. Is that when she cursed all of you?”

“Nay. She left that night and came back the next day bearing wine from the land of the fae as a peace offering, or so she claimed. The discussion that evening turned to vengeance. Áine demanded that we see her daughter’s murderers vanquished. We agreed. She said she wanted to seal our vow with a toast and filled our goblets with the faerie wine.” Thomas paused to shake his head. “I tell you, lass. I knew we should no’ have partaken. We had already consumed quite a bit of ale that evening, and our judgment was impaired.”

He turned to face her. “I expected Áine to kill us that night. What need did she have for mere mortals to avenge her daughter, when she could easily accomplish the deed by herself? What she did to us was far worse than death. She cursed us with immortality.”

The muscles in his jaw twitched. “At first, none of us realized the repercussions of her perfidy. Some saw our immortality as a blessing. God, we couldn’t be defeated by any foe.” He shook his head. “Then you watch your relatives age and die, their offspring age and die. So much loss. Nothing but loss, century after century.”

Thomas threw off the covers and got up to pace. “Then there’s the problem of hiding your immortality. Moving frequently, counterfeiting birth certificates, death certificates. I tell you, lass, no’ a man among us wishes to continue this way. Dermot should never have married Mairéad.”

Zoe struggled not to be distracted by Thomas’s magnificent body as he paced. Lord, he didn’t have an ounce of flab on him. All muscle and gorgeous male, and he was hers. All hers. “Are you saying you blame Dermot?”

“Aye.” His eyes took on a haunted look. “Nay.” Thomas raked both of his hands through his hair. “I canna say for certain. He should have stayed with the Druids. He did no’ know his own people when he took his father’s place.”

“Who would’ve been laird if he hadn’t returned?”

Thomas walked across the room and shoved the drapes open to stare out the window. His body rigid, he made no reply. She’d hit a nerve, and she suspected she knew the answer. “Back to the story. You think there was something in the wine, and that’s what made you immortal?”

“Aye,” he said to the window.

“Thomas, come back to bed. I don’t like the idea of the rest of St. Paul being privy to that…um…
view
of you.”

He glanced over his shoulder at her with a blank expression as if her words hadn’t registered.

“How did you find out you were cursed with immortality?” she asked.

“After we all lifted our goblets and partook of the faerie brew, Áine rose from her place and made some kind of runes in the air before her. She told us we were cursed for failing to uphold our end of the agreement—a curse with no way out.”

“Wait. If the curse had no out, how can it be lifted now?”

“Dermot appealed to Dagda Mór, Áine’s father.” Thomas returned to the bed and sat on the edge. “The high king of the
Tuatha Dé Danann
does no’ involve himself in the affairs of mortals. He was displeased with his daughter and no’ happy to be drawn into her quarrel with Dermot. However, Mairéad was his granddaughter, so he agreed to listen to both sides. Once he had, he rendered judgment.”

“Which was?”

“He judged both parties grieved, though not in equal measure. Because we failed to protect Mairéad, we had to bear the brunt of Áine’s wrath. But because Áine failed to heed Dermot’s summons in time to save Mairéad, he also forced his daughter to provide us with an out.”

“Which is?”

“We must return Mairéad’s reincarnated soul to the exact place her murder took place on the anniversary of her death.”

“Why?”

“Who can say?” Thomas shrugged. “Everything’s a game to the
Tuatha.
Faerie politics are beyond my ken, lass, but I’m certain Dagda Mór had his reasons.”

“So, Sidney is Mairéad,” Zoe muttered.

“Aye, and once Dermot discovered she’d been reborn, the clock started ticking. We have only this one chance. If we fail, we remain immortal forever. As of tomorrow, we have only fifteen days left.”

Chapter Seven

Sidney wiped the condensation off the medicine cabinet mirror with a wash rag and wondered how long she could hide out in the bathroom. The Macy’s box from Dermot tormented her from its place at the end of her bed. Resisting the urge to tear it open had consumed her from the moment she’d arrived home from work.

Two hours until Dermot came to pick her up. Certainly she could control herself for two hours. Then she’d return it to him. Unopened.

“Hey, Sid. Some of us out here are waiting for the bathroom.” David knocked on the heavy wooden door.

“Can’t a girl have a little peace?”

“Sure. In her own room, which is down the hall and to the left.”

She belted her terrycloth robe and opened the door, sliding past David in a cloud of steam. “Brothers.”

“Sisters.” David shut the door behind her.

Zoe had stayed at Panache until closing, so she couldn’t enlist her aid. Not that she’d be any help. Zoe would’ve opened the box and had the dress on Sidney in a heartbeat. Standing in the middle of the kitchen, she considered making a fresh pot of coffee to distract herself. She didn’t really need it. Her stomach was jittery enough without the caffeine. “Oh, the hell with it.”

She made a beeline for the box, lifted the lid and peeled the tissue back. “Oh, my.” Running her fingers over the sumptuous fabric—was it cashmere?—she stared at the gorgeous dress inside. She lifted the copper-colored garment halfway out of the box. Her mind flew to the black leather high-heeled boots she’d bought a year ago during a moment of weakness. They sat unused in her closet along with the perfect black leather belt that formed a V in front. This dress would cling to her body like skin, so tempting. She checked the label—designer and way out of her price range. The fabric
was
cashmere, and the finest she’d ever felt.

“No.” She started to put the dress back and noticed a velvet jewelry case tucked underneath. “Damn.” Her hand shook as she reached for it. Opening the case slowly, she gasped. A strand of multicolored freshwater pearls gleamed up at her—copper, black, yellow, with matching earrings. “Damn, damn, and double damn.”

“What are you cursing about in here?” David poked his head through her doorway. “Whoa. What’ve you got there, Sid?”

“Gifts.”

David sauntered in to take a closer look. His eyebrows rose when he saw the pearls and dress. “From MacKay?”

Sidney nodded.

“Things are moving along between you two?” He studied her face.

“No.” She shook her head. “I agreed to have dinner with him on the condition he’d come clean about why he’s here.”

“So, he sent you these? The man doesn’t miss a trick, does he? He even knows your favorite color.” David ran the fabric of the dress through his fingers and whistled. “I think it’s pretty clear what he’s after.” He shot her a look. “And it’s not your business.”

“He can be after me all he wants. It won’t do him any good.” She couldn’t tear her eyes from the luminous pearls. She itched to put them on and imagined how they’d feel against her skin. “I’m returning all of this when he arrives.”

“Not even going to try them on?” David grinned. “I remember how much you loved to play dress-up as a kid.”

Sidney snapped the velvet case shut and tossed it into the box along with the dress. She turned away and took the towel off her wet hair. “I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve got to get ready. Close my door on your way out please.”

“Okay. If you need me to tell you how you look in the dress, give me a holler.” He laughed at the glare she sent his way and shut the door behind him.

Memories of Dermot’s body so close to hers on the treadmill sent heat curling through her. He’d thought about what would look good on her and had chosen this dress. The notion pleased her far more than it ought to. The color, the correct size, everything about it was cloud-soft perfect.

She could wear her hair in a French braid to show off the pearls. Her mind drifted to other images, like Dermot slipping the dress off her body, running his hands down her sides, his mouth against hers. “Damn that Druid. He’s laid some kind of spell on me.”

Sidney took a seat at her grandmother’s maple vanity and started to blow-dry her hair while mentally choosing lingerie and makeup. She finally had an occasion to wear the gorgeous boots, and she didn’t want to give that up. “No, no, no,” she muttered.

On the other hand, what harm would there be in trying everything on? It would be silly not to.

Her hair dried and braided, Sidney slipped out of her robe and into black lace panties and matching bra. The sweater dress had a scooped neckline with draped fabric forming a ruffle that matched the ruffle around the cuffs of the sleeves. She slid the cashmere over her body, reveling in the feel of the rich softness against her skin. Next she reached for the pearls. Once the belt was in place, Sidney opened her closet door to check herself in the full-length mirror on the back side.

“Damn, damn, and double damn.” She looked good, really good. Now that the dress was on, no way was she taking it off. Disgusted with her lack of willpower, Sidney reached for the boots and swore she was dressing to please herself, not Dermot.

 

Dermot took the stairs to Sidney’s apartment two at a time and knocked on her door. He couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off his face. Would she be wearing the dress and pearls? His pulse quickened at the thought.

David opened the door. “Dermot, come in. Sidney will be out in a minute…or thirty.” He nodded toward the living room. “You might want to have a seat.”

“Not necessary,” Sidney said, walking toward them. “I’m ready.”

“Gods.” His breath caught in his throat as he surveyed her from crown to toe. “The color suits you.” The dress he’d chosen clung to her gorgeous body. The copper shade emphasized her coloring to perfection, and the neckline drew attention to her generous breasts. She wore makeup. For him?

The graceful sweep of her neck drew his attention. She wore the pearls and the dress. She looked as if she’d been wrapped up just for him. He tried to swallow.
Mine to unwrap.
“You look lovely this evening, Sidney.”

“Let’s go, MacMud.”

Dermot raised one eyebrow. “You’re no’ pleased with the gifts I chose for you?”

“Oh, I like them well enough.”

Sidney walked over to the hall closet and pulled out a wool coat and a black leather purse. He took them from her and held the coat as she slid her arms into the sleeves.

“Don’t forget your promise, and I’m dressed to please myself, not you. It’s not every day I can wear these heels and not tower over my date.”

“So, you admit this is a date?” He winked at David as Sidney made a muffled snorting sound. He took her arm and ushered her through the door.


Try
to have fun, Sid,” David called after them.

“When a man pays you a compliment, isn’t it customary to thank him?” He loved provoking her, loved how quick-witted she was with her comebacks. Who could have predicted such a thing?

“Thank. You.”

He leaned close to whisper in her ear. “Why do I suspect your gratitude is less than sincere?”

She whispered back, “Could be because you’re more perceptive than most.”

“Och, lass.” He chuckled. “I’ve looked forward to spending this evening with you all day.” They walked out into the chill November evening. “Ah.” He took a deep breath of autumn-scented air. “The moon is full, and the night is clear. Perhaps we can walk a bit after we dine.”

“It all depends on why you’re here. I…” She cleared her throat. “I really do love the dress, and the pearls are exquisite.” She glanced at him as he opened the SUV door for her. “I just don’t understand why you’d buy them for me. We’re strangers.”

He helped her settle into the passenger seat and crossed to the driver’s side. He buckled his seat belt, started the engine, turned on the seat warmers and waited, certain she’d not let it go.

“Well?” she persisted.

“Well, what?”

She shot him a disgruntled look. “Why did you buy these very expensive gifts for me?”

“You’re a beautiful woman. You should have beautiful things.” He ran a knuckle down her cheek, pleased by the sudden intake of breath his touch elicited. “I think I prefer your hair down.” He pulled away from the curb. “You have the kind of hair a man loves to run his fingers through.”

Sidney fussed with the gloves she pulled from her pockets. “Yeah, that’s what they all say.”

“They?” Dermot’s body tightened. “All?” The thought of her with other men turned him inside out. He was not a man given to strong emotion. Years of training with the Druids had seen to that. Yet the mere mention of other men near her sent him spiraling. “No more.”

“Excuse me?” She frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

“Ah, I meant—”

“Do you think you have some kind of claim on me because I decided to wear the dress and pearls?”

“Nay.”

“Good. Because you don’t. I do date when the occasion presents itself. I want to marry and have a family someday.”

“Do you?” The notion of her married to someone else settled like lead shot in his gut. “The words slipped out, Sidney.”

“Hmm.” She adjusted her coat and purse. “Where are we having dinner?”

“We’re going to the St. Paul Grill. It’s in the hotel where I’m staying.”

“In your hotel?” Her eyes grew wide.

“Aye.” He canted his head at her. “I’m no’ familiar with the area.” He shrugged. “The food there is very good.”

“Lots of red meat?”

“Aye. There’s a thirty-two ounce prime porterhouse that—”

Sidney’s laughter filled all the dark empty places inside him, and he couldn’t help smiling back. “Too much?”

“I can practically hear you drooling, Druid.”

“Do no’ call me that.” He hadn’t intended to sound so harsh, and a glance revealed she’d been hurt by his rebuke. She went quiet and stared out the window. “Och, lass, call me whatever pleases you.”

“Why does it bother you if I call you Druid? Thomas does it all the time.”

“Aye, and every day I tell him no’ to.” They’d reached Rice Park and Dermot circled the square, heading toward the valet parking. “It is a painful reminder of my past.” And of the things he’d never had: a father’s love, brothers to look out for him and to play with in his youth, his cousins nearby, kinship and a home.

Instead of the things that give a child security and comfort, he’d had the cold detached instruction of ascetics, hours of imposed mental exercise, memorizing rituals, history, math, astronomy, alchemy, potions and mage craft. Instead of a mother’s gentle touch, he’d spent grueling hours training with uncles more concerned about his rightful standing within his clan than who he was on the inside.

“Where’d you go, Dermot?” Sidney’s voice softened, and she placed her hand on his arm. Was it concern? No one other than Mairéad had ever shown an ounce of concern for him. Her earnest gaze did things to him, melted his insides. She had him wanting to tell her everything, had him yearning to surround himself in her honey-scented heat. “Sorry. I lost myself in memory, is all.”

“I’d like to know what those memories hold for you. You looked so sad.”

“Did I?”
Gods, man. Pull yourself together!
He cut the engine at the valet stand, got out and crossed to the passenger side. Dermot opened Sidney’s door and helped her out. “Here we are.” He handed the keys to the attendant, accepted the claim ticket and led Sidney inside.

“Do you know anything about this hotel’s history?”

“Nay. Should I?”

She nodded. “This building was once the federal courthouse and post office for the upper Midwest. I’ve always loved the lobby.” She glanced at him. “I like how it doesn’t feel like a huge chain hotel. It’s very old, you know, built in 1902.”

Dermot snorted. “You call that old?”

“You don’t?” She looked at him in question.

“My castle harks back to the thirteenth century, and I do no’ even call
that
old.” The restaurant was situated inside the first set of hotel doors to the right. Dermot ushered Sidney through the entrance to the coat-check inside and helped her out of her coat.

“You must have a different standard for time than I do.”

“You might say that,” he murmured. He put the claim check in his pocket and headed for the host’s stand where he gave his name. They were led past the booths with black-and-burgundy leather seats to a room in the back. Their table, situated in an intimate corner, held an arrangement of red roses in the center of the white linen tablecloth.

“Our table has roses. None of the others do.” Sidney took the seat he held out for her and buried her nose in the flowers.

Dermot hesitated. Should he take the seat next to her, or sit opposite? He wanted to be near her. “I had the bouquet delivered earlier.”

Her gaze flew to him and then flitted around the room. “Oh.”

He took the seat opposite. Women had always been a puzzle to him, and Sidney St. George soared to the top of his list of unfathomable creatures. “You don’t like the roses?”

“I didn’t say that.” She continued to study the room.

Their waiter arrived and handed them menus. Turning to the server, Dermot ordered, “We’ll start with two glasses of your Ferrari Carano Chardonnay, and for appetizers, I’ve pre-ordered the crab cakes and a shrimp cocktail. They should be ready.” He noticed Sidney’s raised eyebrows and wondered if he’d impressed or annoyed her.

Sidney opened her menu and made odd little sounds of exclamation as she read.

“What is it, lass?”

“Oh. My. God. They really do have a thirty-two ounce steak, and it’s seventy dollars.” She gave him an incredulous look. “That’s not even the most expensive entrée, and they don’t even come with anything. Everything is à la carte.”

“It’s no’ a problem. Please, choose whatever you wish.”

Sidney closed her menu and frowned at him. “What is all of this leading to, Dermot? Why are you here?”

“I’m here because I had hoped to enjoy a good meal with a lovely woman.”

“I don’t mean
here
here, and you know it. I mean in the U.S., in Saint Paul, Minnesota.”

“Let’s order before we discuss it.” He felt like tearing his hair out.

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