Monday, October 11, 2010

Footnotes To History by Jennifer Mueller

Chapter One

The great hall of Castle Am Binnean was a huge room, with soaring stone walls and giant beams, each holding a huge wrought iron medieval chandelier. Giant fireplaces though were the focal point, no one could miss the holes in the walls large enough to stand in. The table was of an old style with the ends far across the room from one another. A few large stag horns soared high above their heads on the 20-foot walls. Several ancient tapestries covered the cold stone making the lead mullioned window set in the thick wall stand out even more. Ayda Sinclair stared at the hole appearing in the wall. The worker cursed as he dropped the chisel and hammer to grab a torch.

“I’m sorry Countess Ravensgard. It’s supposed to be eight feet thick, that’s what it was just there,” he apologized, pointing to the other channel he had chipped out earlier not a few feet away.

Half hidden in the mist stood the castle Am Binnean with only a nineteenth century bridge linking it to the rest of Scotland. Hovering ghostlike, the castle sat on an island where an ancient blockhouse had protected the bridge from being crossed, in addition to the castle battlements.

In far off times, it had been the proverbial drawbridge allowing access to a castle. They were chiseling channels to run wires for a new security system. Certain rooms had been turned into an art gallery with the oldest art and antiques housed within them. From the new exhibits came new attention from magazines and books that never cared before. With a distillery grand opening in mere days there would be more tourists coming for visits, not to mention Christmas a week later. The entire castle needed protection now.

“What’s behind it? The old kitchen? That’s about where we are,” Ayda asked as the man peered through with the torch.

“No, looks like stairs actually, My Lady. What I can see anyway.”

“Please not My Lady. It’s Ayda.”

“What’s this? I heard a crash.” A hand slipped along her waist and Ayda leaned back against her husband, Hunter. The future Duke of Cairnmuir was gorgeous to a fault, with dark blue eyes and thick brown hair streaked with blond. The sweater couldn’t hide his solid lean build, but it showed off the reddish brown tan of a man who spent a good deal of time outdoors, even if it was winter. In that, he and his brothers took the same description, and yet none looked alike. That he was all hers still surprised her.

“I swear, Sir, it’s supposed to be eight feet thick here. On the old exterior walls all along here it has been, but. . .”

Hunter started laughing. “No foul done. There’s still an old priest’s hole we’ve lost track of over the years, I doubt it’s the only place with all the building additions. Open it up then, if there’s something behind it.”

A few hard blows with the hammer and Hunter’s mother came quickly. Ayda always felt underdressed when Janet Sinclair, Duchess of Cairnmuir, was in the room. Even when she was just in the other room playing with her grandsons, she looked like she should be in a French society page and yet she was also the one who made Hunter, the former RAF pilot, take Scottish dance lessons as a child. A contradiction indeed. “What happened?”

“We seem to have found a mystery. Stairs going down,” Hunter replied.

The duchess walked closer, trying to see over the workman’s shoulder. “Is it another way into the dungeon? This is the oldest part of the castle.”

The workman shrugged his shoulders and then thought better of it. “No idea, Your Grace.”

“Wouldn’t it rather defeat the purpose of a dungeon to have another way in?” Ayda muttered.

“Besides Mother, the dungeon is under the tower over there,” Hunter added, pointing to the opposite corner of the room. There weren’t many records of people being thrown there, but the gated hole still had a lock just in case.

The duchess smiled. “I’m impatient, I know. I wonder if it was put in when the French Comtess married into the family.”

When Ayda had arrived at the castle four years earlier, it was to work on the art collection for one summer to finish up her doctoral thesis. Before the summer was up, she and Hunter were sharing a bed, but he had offered her the permanent job taking care of the collection, too. He was even willing to put aside bed, if that was what it took to keep her there. She’d been smart enough to listen that she could have both, a man fast falling in love with her and a job most dream of.

The castle history had never really been put down before, other than vague details—trying to get her paper finished, they started telling her stories they knew. It was the only way to hear the past with the holes in the bits written down, there were dates enough but the stories gave the castle life. Old stories told by the cooks around the kitchen table on cold Scottish winter nights. Those were a bawdy lot. All the clan books had been changed with her digging into the past anew. Only rumors had remained from those early days of good marriages among people, but what people, how well—those questions could not be answered.

“Hunter, help the man,” the duchess ordered.

“Aye, Mother.”

“Ayda, don’t you want a torch?” The duchess was asking when a huge dark gaping hole filled the wall before Ayda.

Ayda came back from her thoughts. “Of course, I wouldn’t miss it.”

Hunter only shook his head as his impeccably dressed mother went first down the ancient stairs. Cobwebs everywhere, dust from centuries covering each step. The cleared opening was only two feet wide and six feet tall, Hunter had to duck his head to descend. There was no chance the opening would fall though, the way was covered in stonework. Someone had spent a good deal of time preparing it. That, right there, seemed to rule out being part of the dungeon, a room little more than dug in the very stone that made up the island she lived on now. But there at the bottom of the stairs she stared at another room dug into the very rock almost as large as the old kitchen that was now her workroom. At least what she could make out with just dim torches. It wasn’t a small room and the light vanished into the gloom.

“When do you think it dates from?” the duchess asked.

“Another mystery for you to solve, Ayda. I better get used to you hiding on me again,” Hunter joked.

Ayda wanted to shove him or something, but there was too much to see. “Very funny. If you Sinclairs would just keep better records, there wouldn’t be any for me to solve. How a family doesn’t know there is a Titian hiding in a storeroom I’ll never understand. Or that there was a Viking Princess in the family?”

“At least we knew about the ghost or you might have run off before you ever got me in bed.”

Ayda stuck her tongue out. He never let her stick her tongue out unless she was prepared to use it. With his mother there it was a taunt—he couldn’t do anything about it. “You never did say when you thought it might be from. You’re the one keeping track for restoration purposes.”

He was silent for some time just looking around. The walls were finished, but some of the mortar lay about on the ground where it had fallen onto the flagstone floors.

“The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not on any plans I’ve ever seen.”

“Which means?”

“Ye ken it’s bluidy auld.”

Hunter could turn the accent on and off at will. He always sounded Scots with a burr to his voice that could seduce her even reading the newspaper, just not always like a highlands hermit. “Cute. You can tell me the entire history of the construction of this castle from memory; I really don’t think you overlooked something like a room.”

“There is that priest’s hole we lost. Ciaran and I have been looking for it since we were kids.” Hunter was distracted as he said it, his flashlight aimed at the ceiling.

Ayda couldn’t stop from grinning. “Probably some story made up to keep you busy and out of their hair.”

“Well maybe.” Hunter let a smile grow. “I was known to be a stinker when I was a bairn.”

“A stinker? You were a terror.” The duchess threw out, her laugh echoing in the stone cavern of a room. “I keep waiting for the day Brendan starts up acting like you.”

“Act like me?” Hunter didn’t laugh even though his mother had meant it as a joke.

Hunter and his siblings were all packed off to the castle to be raised by Grandma and Grandpa. Ayda had been with the family for some time before she realized that the duke and duchess lived in London, only visiting the castle when forced. Their jetsetter lifestyle was not carried out well in the highlands of Scotland. The family’s dirty little secret was that Hunter’s parents were too busy to raise their own kids, even with a governess in the house to do the work. Even now they were only in the castle for the grand opening of the distillery that Hunter had worked his arse off to get going over the last four years and Christmas a week later.

“I know all the tricks and how to stop him, he won’t have to make the same mistakes.”

Ayda only shook her head. “What mistakes are those?”

“That’s for a father to teach a son, not for a wife to hear.”

The duchess’s light caught something shiny. “Wait, move back there just a bit,” Ayda ordered. Three lights soon shown as one, illuminating a long shelf filled with strange contraptions along one wall. Bronze perhaps, cogs, wood.

“This is older than the French chapel built in the 1400’s. It’s not from the later construction either,” Hunter whispered.

“Then you know what these are?” the duchess asked.

Hunter shook his head and the duchess turned to Ayda.

“No, no clue.” Ayda muttered before she could ask the question as she barely touched one bronze looking machine with a small ball on top of it.

“How do you know then, Hunter?” the duchess asked.

“Just the look of the work seems older. The new work was finished smoother, the older section rougher. The construction is different on the Viking tower too. You can tell almost every addition by differences in the stone work.”

“Here we are. This should help,” the workman announced as he appeared behind them.

A work light and extension cord soon removed the gloom, but it still wasn’t easy to see every corner. A simple bed was near the far end of the room where a large fireplace stood. Other than a set of shelves and a chair, there was little furniture in the large room.

Hanging on the wall was a small embroidery panel, hand wrought in the style of the Bayeux tapestry. Only two feet square perhaps, but in such detail that she could see individual men dying. There were no names or dates, just one word, Acre. Ayda touched the panel carefully and found it was remarkably preserved.

Hunter stuck his head to look up the fireplace. “How can I see light? We should be under three floors of castle.”

“What on earth did you find?” David Sinclair asked, bringing up the rear.

The duke looked like John Forsythe. Hunter took after his grandfather more than his parents. Military man, outdoorsman, hunter, world traveler, there were pictures of Hunter’s grandfather Broderick, the man his brother was named for, hunting with Indian Rajas before World War II.

David was the jet setter, a partier looking for dinner with the rich and famous, certainly not the military. The duke was a good-looking man, but if he was the one Ayda’s age and around when she had arrived, nothing ever would have happened. Hunter alone could make her give up her life’s plans.

Now she worked on the castle’s art collection, taught a few art classes in the village, played with Brendan. Once or twice a year she helped Jerry Hutchins with a class or two on difficult conservations. Am Binnean castle, if nothing else, certainly had its share of projects.

It was the perfect life. All the work she wanted and all the free time to enjoy it.

The tables were filled with…what? Vials? Flasks? It was hard to tell under all the dust. Fabric by the look of a pile on one table. The duchess picked up a piece and it crumbled to dust.

“It’s a laboratory.” Ayda finally said. “But from when?”

“Is that a trebuchet model?” The duke asked pointing to another little contraption.

Ayda couldn’t stop staring with vague thoughts that she had seen some of them before in books. They were ancient no matter what they were.

“I’ll go get my camera and call Jerry to get us a textile conservator. I don’t want that panel damaged trying to move it.” Ayda looked around at a sight she never thought she would see. This was history frozen in time. Centuries unaffected, except by dust and cobwebs. “I’ve heard how your ancestors paid to build the castle, but before World War II so many houses were sold off because there was no money to keep them up. There’s North Sea oil money now, but what about then?”

Hunter leaned near her ear. “My great-grandmother, Marjorie of the clan Ross, inherited a chemical factory fortune and she wanted a title. There was talk she was relentless in pursuing poor great-grandfather, the only unmarried duke at the time. If there was an impoverished Prince lying around, she would have changed alliances at the drop of a hat. Money isn’t the only thing that can make you mercenary.”

Ayda stopped by the library on the way to find her camera, a two-story room of mahogany paneling surrounded her, shelves from floor to ceiling, while a railed walkway gave access to the second floor books. The shelves were filled with rare and old classics of Scottish history and law, many in ancient leather bindings.

A huge carved Renaissance mantle surrounded the fireplace. She had first seen the ghost there, as well as the painting of Marjorie Ross hanging over the renaissance era fireplace, an ethereal painting from the beginning of the 1900’s. The past of that picture didn’t seem so romantic any longer. A title whore and her son married an American commoner without a penny who had been a spy during World War II. Divine justice perhaps.

****

While everyone sat at breakfast, her nephew Duncan suddenly let out a screech, and knocked over his chair as he ran for the doorway. A red head if there ever was one, at almost eight it seemed to grow darker red with every year that passed.

“Da!” He cried as he was picked up by a well-built man and hugged tightly. Tall and lanky, Duncan was dwarfed by his father, Lorne.

Duncan was sent off to be raised at the castle too, but not out of “couldn’t be bothered”. When Alice ran off leaving their nine-month-old son behind with Lorne, there was no one to raise him. Lorne had been commissioned as an officer only a few months before and in a commando unit of the Royal Marines. The government wouldn’t be too sympathetic to a duke’s son getting out of anything because he had yet to marry the woman he knocked up.

Not that it would have changed anything, she still would have run, it just would have made it harder to sever ties. Despite Hunter all but raising him, Lorne had transferred to a unit headquartered in Scotland and he was home as often as he could make it, even if he had been overseas. Certainly more often than the duke and duchess saw their children growing up. Ayda gave her own three-year-old son, Brendan, an extra kiss on the top of his curly mop of black hair thinking about it. Hunter never let his nephew feel like he was put away while the parents played.

“Lorne you didn’t tell us you were coming home,” the duchess cried.

Grinning at his mother, he had a smile that Ayda swore made the rough and tumble Marine Commando look thirteen. “I didn’t know I needed permission to come home.”

Lorne was the youngest of Hunter’s three brothers. Broderick had married some months after Ayda had come to the house. He was in Australia for the moment, studying Marine Biology after leaving the Navy. While military was a common if not expected interest for work in the family, living on an island also fostered other interests, such as the sea. Their sister, Gemma, had married Jack MacGregor and settled in Edinburgh with several children even before Ayda knew the family. The wild child of the family had surprised everyone when she settled down with the Honorable Jack MacGregor. No one would have thought him enough of a partier for her taste.

“You don’t…” the duchess got out before she realized he was teasing. “Oh stop, Lorne.”

“How long are you here for?” the duke asked before Lorne could answer.

Lorne shook his head. “Fine welcome I get. No one even remembered that my commitment is up. Duncan, you’ll have to put up with me full time now.”

The yell Duncan let out kept the room from answering as he hugged his father again.

Hunter did however reach down by his chair and hold something out as his brother walked by. Lorne took the bottle from his hand and let out a low whistle. “Not everyone forgot little brother. Bottle of the best year the distillery has, can’t celebrate proper without some first class booze. And you get to put that stinker in the bath now and have him push you in. I wash my hands of the task.”

Lorne messed Duncan’s hair as he sat down with the boy in his lap. “I thought I told you to stop doing that.” Duncan only laughed. “So what is this room, some secret dungeon?”

“We don’t really know. It looks like a laboratory, to tell the truth. Someone must have lived down there as well, there’s a bed. I haven’t studied it too close, there is an embroidered panel, but it only says Acre.”

Hunter and Lorne both smiled. “Crusades,” they answered in unison. Military school came in useful sometimes.

Ayda narrowed her eyes. “Yes, but is it commemorating when Acre was taken by the crusaders, when it was taken by the Moslems, or any of the 200 years in between?” So did a doctorate in Art.

“You married a smart woman there, Hunter,” Lorne answered as he filled his plate.

“I have a textile conservator coming soon. I want it stabilized before I even touch it, before I even clean.”

“Well then Duncan, let me get my things put up, and we’ll go on an expedition to the secret room.”

A Guide To Magical Cant by Shayne Carmichael

Chapter One

“You’ve been kicked out of the university?” Kella asked in an incredulous tone.

“No.” Maer replied, continuing to pack his clothes. While his father refused to pay Maer’s school case and ordered Maer home, it wasn’t the same as being banned. “Drusi wants me home.”

“Oh.” Kella lost interest with the mundane explanation. “Too bad you’ll miss the Mid-Moon drills.”

Maer had other more important matters occupying his thoughts. As Kella chattered on, Maer folded his clothes and tried to figure out what Drusi was up to. It wasn’t like his father wanted Maer’s company, because a growing son reminded Drusi too much of the man’s aging.

When Kella fell silent, Maer looked up and saw Tri Ellen standing in the doorway. Kella jumped from the bed to bow to the teacher as Maer did the same.

“I would like to talk to Maer privately.”

“I was just leaving, Tri Ellen.” Kella side-stepped the teacher and ran out the door.

“I heard you won’t be attending the next case, Maer.” She shut the door, then approached Maer.

“My father wants me home.”

“So I’ve heard.” Her dry retort spoke volumes.

There wasn’t anything Maer could say to the comment, and he resumed packing. “Maybe I’ll be able to come back someday.”

“That’s why I’m here. I want you to have these.” Three books materialized in the teacher’s hand.

Maer stared at them in surprise, realizing Tri Ellen couldn’t have permission to give them to him.

“They will help you keep up until you can return to the university, Maer. I’d hate to see you suffer through no fault of your own.” The air of subterfuge fit ill on the older woman, but Maer was grateful for the unexpected aid.

“I don’t know what to say.” He took the books and buried them in his pack.

“I’m doing this because you have considerable skill. You must return for additional training.” An unusual warmth softened the stern features. A second later Tri Ellen spun around and stalked out.

Maer hadn’t thought about his chances of returning. The money his deceased mother had paid into his account had been used up, and his father refused to pay for Maer’s case.

Frustrated and unhappy, Maer finished packing. Although he knew his father’s coach waited for him, before he left he was determined to stop at the school store. There was still a small amount in his account he could use for supplies. The gods only knew when he would get another chance.

He glanced around the room, biting at his lip. The exclusive halls of Misteria were empty. The rest of his schoolmates were still in their classes, so he didn’t have to deal with their questions. After shouldering his pack, he went out into the corridor. It took a great deal of effort for Maer to act calm and composed.

Other students, in between classes, were heading to the Great Hall for the mid-meal. Maer waved to a couple of his friends before entering the supply center. Tears weren’t far from the surface, and Maer blinked them back as he selected what he might need and could afford.

“What are you doing here? I thought you were in Tri Hamel’s class.” The jovial voice of his friend, Travis, interrupted Maer’s concentration.

“Drusi sent for me, Travis. I have to go home.” He answered in a low voice.

“Why would he do that?” He looked flabbergasted, mouth agape like a fish.

Maer winced at the brutal question. Travis had a reputation for being blunt and living with his foot in his mouth. Though older than Maer, they had always gotten along well.

“I have to leave now.” Before he could protest, Maer found himself enveloped in a bear hug.

“You better send messages, Maer, or I’ll hunt you down.”

When Travis released him, he murmured, “I will. I promise.” He gathered his supplies and stuffed them in his pack.

Travis stood, watching him without a word. He gave his friend a small wave before he walked out to the main corridor and to the outside drive where the coach waited. A servant helped him into the carriage, and the horses trotted forward with the coachman’s whistle.

Once outside the main grounds of the school, the neighborhood became blocks of two and three level gray stone tenements crowding the street. The walks were filled with people disrupting the traffic of coaches as they crossed the street with little heed for their own safety.

Part of Maer resented being pulled out of school; another side of him clung to a more optimist hope that his father had good reason to take him out. Drusi might very well lack the funds to pay for Maer’s account, though as far as Maer knew there had been no reversal in his family’s fortunes. Maer couldn’t imagine Drusi’s reasoning.

The street began to smooth, jolting the carriage far less as they drove past the well-to-do homes. A number of Maer’s friends were from the Diast district. He’d visited several homes during his vacations. Drusi hadn’t known, and Maer knew the man would never approve of the friendships.

No doubt he would be able to sneak out of the house to visit some of them when he could. As the house came into view, Maer noticed it still had the same sterile, immaculate lawns and flower beds. Drusi prided himself on his entire household and its grounds being neat and well ordered.

The house itself had been built of gray crystal stone and reflected the light of the low sun. The circular five-story tower rose above the main rectangular structure of the house. The tower had been his mother’s work space, and Maer could still remember the times he’d spent helping her. High arched windows were set in the fa├žade of the house, and blue and green stone moss crept up the side wall except for the three bay windows lining the front wall. The side section of the house had been built in a pentagon pattern with a set of wide stairs leading to the entrance. A recessed door to the tower was just visible.

The carriage stopped and a footman opened the door for him, offering Maer a hand. He waved him away and got of the carriage. The butler stood at the head of the steps, directing the other servants to take care of the luggage.

“Averon.” Maer greeted him with a smile.

“Welcome home, Lord Maer.” The warm smile was the same as he remembered. The elder butler had always been kind to him. “Your father isn’t expecting you to attend to him, but he does want you to join the young people in the blue drawing room.”

“Already?” He winced. After taking off his jacket, he handed it to Averon. “Not even a chance to change?”

His drab gray pants and pristine white shirt were not acceptable for the drawing room of his father’s house. However, it wasn’t like Maer had anything appropriate for any kind of socializing; all of his clothes were school uniforms. At the sympathetic shake of Averon’s head, Maer sighed and walked to the blue drawing room.

One of young maids sprang forward and opened the door for him. The room itself was an ostentatious display designed to intimidate visitors. Every available surface was covered with the gaudiest, most expensive trinkets and paintings; the furniture carved from black Vista wood and covered in the most luxurious upholstery. Its message meant to remind others its owner had far more gold than most of them could dream of. Drusi wasn’t the wealthiest man in the kingdom for nothing, and all of the public rooms were the same.

The chatter of the boys and girls in the room stilled when Maer entered. There were five girls and two boys of varying yerls; one looked close to Maer’s age. They were dressed far more richly than Maer, and every face turned to him with various expressions of interest or boredom.

“You must be Lord Maer.” The leader of the group seemed to be a brunette clad in a form-fitting, sparkling blue dress as exquisite as she was. Ringlets of dark curls danced around her features, and her blue eyes matched her dress. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

She patted the seat beside her, inviting Maer to join her before she introduced herself and the others. “I’m Sarma Ihklom. The blonde girl in the green dress is Teka Esacoh, and the twins next to her are Fasha and Neshe Adael. The last three are my youngest sister, Arlet, and two brothers, Ase and Loro.”

The red-headed twins eyed Maer’s clothes with contempt, but Maer took no offense. Compared to their sartorial splendor, he was positively dowdy. The elegant cream and emerald half-length dresses suited the warm beauty of both girls, and the confection of flowers and lace decorating their coiffed hair perfected the vision.

“Can you do magic?” Arlet asked in an excited whisper. The young girl was similar in looks to her older sister. She seemed to be as warm and friendly, and a twinkle lit her brown eyes.

“Arlet.” Sarma protested her sister’s rude manner.

Ase gave Maer a sympathetic look but remained as silent as his brother. Both of the young men were dressed in finery that rivaled their female counterparts.

The haughty looks faded from Fasha and Neshe’s faces as they shifted in their chairs, waiting for Maer’s answer.

“Yes, I can.” Maer refused to lie no matter what his father thought or said.

“Can you make me a love potion?” Neshe questioned Maer.

“I will pay you for a potion to make me more beautiful.” Arlet chimed in. The small rosy splotches on her face were noticeable. It was the only thing Maer could see that might bother the young girl. “I can pay you fifty gold.”

Teka piped up. “I can pay you more for a love potion. I need one, too. Is one hundred gold enough?”

Maer’s brow rose, and he saw an incredible opportunity he hadn’t expected. Very few of the elite and upper class people in society could perform magic, and those things were easy enough and cheap to make. However, most people misunderstood how love potions worked.

“Of course I can make potions for you, and I would be happy to, but love potions aren’t what you think.”

Wisely, the other males in the room remained silent as a couple of the girls jumped from their seats to surround Maer and question him. Arlet pressed ten gold pieces in Maer’s hand. “Is this enough to buy the ingredients? I can visit you tomorrow and give you the other forty.”

“That’s fine, Arlet.” Maer smiled, slipping the money into his pocket. I can have the potion for you tomorrow.”

“So quick?” Delighted, Arlet clapped her hands together and beamed at Maer. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“What did you mean about love potions?” Teka interrupted to ask.

“A love potion doesn’t make someone fall in love with you, Teka.” It was a common misconception among non practitioners, and Maer didn’t want any misunderstandings about what the potion he made would do. “If you drink the potion, anybody already in love with you or fond of you will admit to their feelings. That’s all it will do.”

There were potions that could force someone to fall in love with another, but Maer had no desire to manipulate another person in such a distasteful way.

“That’s fine. I think Ehet likes me, he’s just too shy to tell me.”

“A lot of my friends will want potions and lotions from you.” Fasha chuckled and Sarma laughed with her. “So will mine.”

Each of the girls gave him several pieces of gold, and Maer took out his small notepad to write down what they wanted. He planned on milking this for all it was worth and for as long as he could. With any luck he might be able to return to the university after all.

The door opened and Maer half turned to see Drusi standing in the doorway, eyeing him with a surprised look. His father’s expression returned to its habitual unflappable calm as Drusi spoke. “Children, your parents are waiting for you.”

Still chattering, they gathered their things and headed for the door. Once the door shut and silence returned, his father’s contemptuous gaze ran over Maer. “I’m surprised to see the young ones have taken to you. It should serve you in good stead.”

“They were kind to me, Drusi.” His father hated to be referred to in any other way by his son, and Maer wasn’t about to tell Drusi what his new friends had been talking about.

“I see you need new clothes. I suppose I should have expected it. Well, it will be a necessary expenditure much as I hate to have to. It can’t be help, and I expect you to be grateful, Maer.” Impeccably dressed, Drusi exuded the confidence and air of a gentleman of his station. His titian hair was sleek and tied back, a few well-placed curls framing his face His silver eyes were as cold as the darkest winter moon. While Maer might resemble his father, Drusi found no favor in it.

“Why did you bring me home?”

“I have better use for you here.” Drusi had never been kind or loving to Maer. It simply wasn’t in him. The fact Drusi would part with any of his gold to spend on Maer was near blasphemy to the man. He circled Maer, examining his son with a critical detachment.

For a brief moment, the overwhelming need for his mother threatened to break through Maer’s outer reserve. He hadn’t dealt with his father’s coldness or been hit by the sudden void of his mother’s absence for a very long time. Maer’s hands curled into fists and he shoved them in his pockets. His nails dug into his palms, helping him control and compose himself.

“You are far behind others of your own age in society. I blame your mother for raising expectations in you and sending you to that awful school, but she never would listen to me.”

“My mother hoped I would take her place with the Council Elders, Drusi.” Maer spoke in a monotone. He refused to allow his father to get to him, to touch him in any way.

“The Council has no importance to us.” Drusi dismissed them without second thought. “Tieral will take you shopping after the low moon meal. You will dine in your room unless we have guests.”

He turned away from Maer, movements smooth and leonine. A certain satisfaction laced his voice in his last words to Maer. “You won’t be in this house for long, child. Make the most of it.”

Uncertain of what Drusi meant, Maer followed behind him and stayed silent.



* * * *



Maer stood off to the side, doing an excellent job of not drawing attention to himself. After the last several suns of being properly primped and dressed, Maer wasn’t in much of a mood to stand in the middle of a ballroom.

He watched the happy, whirling couples on the dance floor below. At that moment, he felt the acute difference between them and him. This had never been his world, and he had no clue how to fit in with them. He’d made a number of friends among them with his potions, but this portion of it was beyond him.

Before, his days had been taken up with classes, his nights with long sessions of studying. The frivolous activity he saw would have no place in the halls of Misteria. Now he looked more like the couples below, but he didn’t feel like them.

The ballroom itself was an architectural dream, and he examined it, avoiding any gaze directed at him. Sand-colored marble pillars, with green accents along the carved surfaces, circled the outer edges of the room. Arches high above connected the pillars across the ceiling, and the high polished floor reflected the colorful dancers above it.

“Maer?” A low voice sounded close to his ear.

He jumped then whirled to see Berne standing in front of him. The sight surprised and delighted him. He hadn’t expected to see one of his classmates. The familiar red, unruly mop of curls made Berne distinguishable in any crowd. “Berne? What are you doing here?”

She laughed at Maer’s question. “I’m the daughter of the Vice Royal. Father makes me attend these things every chance he gets. You hiding up here, too?”

Maer winced at the way she put it. “I guess. I’m just not used to this kind of thing.”

She draped her arm around Maer and stood at the railing, glancing down at the others. “Can’t say I’m surprised since I never thought I’d see you at one of these things. Why aren’t you at Misteria?”

“Drusi pulled me out, and he doesn’t plan on letting me return.”

Berne gave him a long, measuring look. They’d been friends ever since he’d started school so Berne had always been pretty good at reading him. “Are you planning on doing anything about it?”

“I’ve been selling potions.” His wry smile matched his tone. “Society girls will pay a great deal of gold for love potions and creams to make them beautiful. If I’m lucky I can pay for my own account.”

“Never thought of selling my talents to this lot.” Her speculative gaze swept over the assembled crowd below. “They’re amusing in their own ways once you get used to them, Maer. I bet I could steer some of my friends into giving you more gold.”

Maer knew she’d understand his predicament. “I never realized high society would be such a goldmine. Some parents visit me too.”

“Most practitioners prefer to work in the capitals, Maer, where there’s more gold to be made. The smaller provinces have to make do with traveling magicians. You didn’t have the Practical Application classes yet. It’s one of the classes Tri Larist teaches.”

The touch of superiority in her voice for knowing more made Maer grumble. “I would be in the class if Drusi hadn’t taken me out.”

“Hey, I have faith in you, Maer. You’ll get back to Misteria.” Her hand tightened around his in encouragement. “You know I’ll help out where I can.”

“Can you teach me to dance, Berne?” He asked dryly.

“What?”

“I’d like to learn to dance. Drusi neglected to get me lessons.” Maer doubted whether Drusi cared or not.

“No wonder you’re standing up here. Sure, I can teach you.” Her expression became rueful as she added, “I assumed you knew, but how could you? You never left Misteria. I’ll stop by tomorrow and give you a lesson.”

Even grateful for her aid, Maer rolled his eyes. “You never do think much, and you’re as tactful as a brick, Berne.”

“Nobody pays me to. Now come on. I’ll introduce you to some of my friends.”

Laughing, he followed alongside her as she led him down the stairs and to a group of people standing near the exit to the back gardens. Several of them greeted Berne as she pulled Maer into their midst.

“Who’s your friend, Berne? I’ve never seen him around.” The others turned in their direction when one of the men questioned Berne.

“Everybody, this is Lord Maer Devril, a friend of mine from the university.” As she introduced him, she ran through a list of names Maer knew he’d never remember.

At Maer’s dazed look, one of the women laughed and said, “Don’t worry, Maer. You’ll get to know our names. I’m Lady Asterlia Noas in case you missed my name in that garble.”

Berne glanced around before he asked, “Where did Tameh go?”

“You promised to dance with her brother, and she thinks you forgot. So she’s mad at you. She was in the refreshment room last time I seen her. Go find her and leave us alone, Berne.” She imperiously waved Berne off and returned her attention to Maer. “I heard about you from Fasha Adael, and I was hoping to meet you.”

Without saying anything, Berne deserted Maer and hurried off in to the direction of the refreshment room.

“Most of us have already heard about you, Lord Maer. Arlet Ihklom can’t keep her mouth shut. My name is Sasta Apor.”

“Nice to meet both of you.”

“Lord Maer, there you are. I thought Lord Drusi said you were going to be here, and I was looking for you.” Sarma walked up to them, smiling warmly at Maer before she greeted the other two. “Hello, Sasta and Lady Asterlia.”

“We were about to tell Lord Maer about Arlet.” Sasta gave him a mischievous grin.

“Great Lords, she is in alt, Lord Maer.” Sarma chuckled as she explained, “Ehet approached our parents to talk to father. Their companion ceremony is being arranged as we speak. She is telling everybody it was the doing of your potion.”

Asterlia lowered her voice to a conspiratorial level. “You have no idea of how many of the others are dying to get their hands on their own potions. Some of the men are in great fear of you.”

“I hope Arlet explained the potion can’t make anybody fall in love. No male has anything to fear unless they already love somebody.” Torn between dismay and laughter, Maer wasn’t sure what his reaction should be.

Berne returned with another friend in tow and interrupted them. “Sarma, I need you at Lord Maer’s house tomorrow after the mid-meal. Can I count on you?”

“Yeah, sure. I can be there, Berne. I have a list of requests for Maer, and I planned on dropping it off.”

“Lord Maer, would it be possible to concoct a special fragrance for me? I heard some of the sorcerers and sorceresses in Proteria have special ones that react with the owners and create their own scent.”

“The ingredients are very expensive, Sasta.” Maer hesitated because it would cost at least three hundred gold for the necessary components.

“I know. My cousin said she was charged two thousand gold for her perfume, so I know how much it will cost me.”

“Could you make one for me as well?” Asterlia spoke before anyone else could, and a moment later, Sarma jumped in. “Count me in as well. I’ve wanted one ever since I heard Sasta’s cousin talking about them.”

Six thousand gold minus the cost would be more than enough to pay for at least one case at the university. Maer couldn’t believe his luck. “I would be happy to make them. It will take me a bit of time to brew them, but I can have them ready by the new moon.”

“You are such a good friend, Lord Maer.” Sarma thanked him with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Sasta took Maer’s hand, squeezing it. “I agree with Sarma, and I add my gratitude. Thank you, Lord Maer.”

“It is very kind of you.” Asterlia added her thanks too.

“You are welcome. All of you. Now I better find Drusi.” Maer excused himself, then turned to head into the Queen’s chambers. He knew right where his father would be. Drusi sat near Queen Iroba, and their ethereal looks complemented one another like moon and sun.

The Queen’s blonde tresses glittered with numerous jewels, sparkling in brilliant hues in the light. Large, blue crystal stones were sewn on the pale blue lace of her dress, and they winked with her every movement. The woman wore more precious stones than most families bought in a lifetime, and Drusi rivaled all of them.

Green crystal stones dripped from Drusi’s coronet and covered the imperial robe he wore. Drusi always dressed to remind one of his royal back ground. A woman stood behind his father, hand resting on Drusi’s shoulder.

Maer had never seen her, but had a feeling she was close to Drusi from the looks she directed at his father.

She looked younger than Drusi, her face sweetly beautiful and unlined. Dark brown hair brushed her shoulders and when she looked over at Maer, he noticed her eyes were as dark as her hair. From her petulant expression, he figured she didn’t care for the sight of him as he stopped in front of them and curtseyed to the Queen.

“Good low moon, Maer.” The Queen greeted him in a gracious manner. “You’ve arrived in time. Your father was just speaking of leaving.”

Maer suppressed a smile, seeing Drusi wince at Queen Iroba’s reference to your father. An amused light gleamed in the Queen’s eyes, signifying she’d noticed as well.

“Good low moon, your Highness.” Maer couldn’t help the twitch of his own lips as he addressed the Queen.

“Niot, I will see you later.” Drusi stood and curtseyed to the Queen, then straightened. A moment later he motioned impatiently for Maer to follow him.

Born To Fly: You Save Me by Aliyah Burke

Chapter One

The club was loud; the music shook the very floor beneath her feet. Delaney wove in and out of the gyrating bodies to the bar. The bartender, a tall hunk of a man, turned toward her and lifted his chin in silent question.

“Two beers please,” she said loudly, leaning along the shiny black bar top.

Within moments, he’d placed them down before her. “Here you go, gorgeous.”

He winked and dragged the cloth from his shoulder across the counter before taking the bill she handed him. A smile curved up his mouth, showing her a dimple in his left cheek. Damnation, he’s fine. She took the change he handed her and slid a tip back across to him. With another wink, he slipped the bill into his pocket.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No, thank you,” she replied, toasting him with her beer and then, grabbing the other, slipped back into the crowd.

Delaney made her way back to where her friend Heather Trells sat at a table, her long leg across the other chair to keep it for her. “Here you go, one beer, courtesy of the hunky bartender.”

Heather glanced up and smiled at her. “Oh thank God you’re back, I’m thirsty. Wait, hunky bartender? Is that what you said?”

Sitting down, Delaney took a drink of her beer and laughed. She stared at her friend. Heather’s brown eyes sparkled with humor. Her dark brown skin had some leftover glitter on it from the earlier party she had been to. Her outfit was tight and she looked hot. But then Heather always did. Delaney hadn’t gone to the first one but had come here to meet her.

“Yes, he was good looking.”

“And?”

“And what? I got the beers.”

“Hooking up with him?”

Beer almost spewed from her mouth. “Are you crazy? Why would I do that?”

“He’s hunky, or so you said.”

“I don’t sleep with guys just because they look good.” Well, not anymore. As if reading her mind, Heather merely arched a plucked brow. “What? Fine, since I’ve gotten back to the States I don’t do that anymore.”

“Had more fun in Japan though, I bet.”

“It was a onetime thing,” Delaney said with a slight snap.

“Right, if you say so. Ever think there is a reason you’ve never done such a thing again? Perhaps because that man with the black hair, kickass body, and sapphire blue eyes meant something more to you? But, if you say it was a onetime thing, I’ll let it go. Doubt it, but hey what do I know? I mean, you kept a by-all-accounts gorgeous Marine pilot enamored with you without even trying. So this is me letting it go, if you say that’s all it was, who am I to argue?” Heather tipped up her bottle and drank.

An attorney who does a damn good job arguing for a living. “I say so, Heather,” she said, rolling her eyes.

Her friend held up a hand and Delaney knew she would say no more on it for the night. Heather backing off was barely a twenty-four hour deal, but she’d take what she could get. A man came up and asked Heather to dance; Delaney watched her go with him, pulled her friend’s beer closer and hooked her boot around the leg of the chair.

Holding her own drink to her mouth, Delaney paused and remembered the man she’d had the fling with. Fling, can we really call it that? First Lieutenant Garrick Stark. Handsome. Texan. Marine pilot. And damn good with his hands, mouth, and other parts of his body. The way Heather talked it was like she’d done the one night thing all the time while in Japan. She hadn’t. Her “thing” with that one guy had started as that but she couldn’t get enough of him, so one night had turned to two and that turned into a year until she came back to the States. Just up and left without a word to him, of course he’d been deployed when she had the chance to move back. They did very few things as a couple, for the most part it was sexual between them. Hot and heavy. Not that she minded, but she did long for something more every now and then.

A few songs later Heather came back all smiles. “Do you mind if I go with him?” Heather asked, reaching for her beer.

Delaney lifted a brow. “I’m not your mom. If you want to go with him then fine. Just make sure you know what you’re doing.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Heather said, setting the bottle back down.

“Be careful.”

“Always am, sweetie.” She leaned over and pressed their cheeks together. “Sorry for bailin’ on you.”

The man walked up and stood behind Heather. Delaney made sure to capture his gaze before she said, “I’ll expect your call in the morning before we have to be in court.”

Heather stood up and nodded. “I’ll talk to you then, hon. Good night.” With a wave they slipped off into the crowd.

With a sip of beer, Delaney sighed. Just my luck. Get dragged out to a bar and then left alone. She sat until her drink was gone, then she headed back out onto the floor. It didn’t take long for her to get lost in the pounding rhythm of the music. When she needed a drink, she slipped through to the bar again. The same guy was there and he looked at her with a grin.

“Back already? You must have missed me.”

She chuckled and nodded sagely. “That could be. Or it could be I’m thirsty.”

“Well, I’m here to serve. Two beers again?”

“No, not this time. One water please.”

“One? One implies you are alone.”

“Does it now?” She leaned against the bar. Maybe Heather has a point and I should find someone for a no-strings attached night of sex. It’s been eight months.

“You know us bartenders analyze things.” He handed her chilled bottled water. “On the house.”

“You sure?”

“Just save me a dance, will you?” he asked.

“You stuck back there for a while?”

Glancing at his watch he grinned. “Ten minutes too long?”

“I think I can handle that. Come find me when you’re done.”

“You can count on it,” he said.

She’d finished her water and had gone to the bathroom by the time the bartender showed up at her side. His brown eyes twinkled in the lights as he stared down at her.

Facing him completely, she asked over the music, “Do I at least get to know your name?”

“Rafe,” he answered, leaning closer. “What about your name?”

“I’m—”

“Delaney Kiojah Byrd.” A masculine voice floated out from the music and wrapped around her, causing goose bumps to explode up all over her skin.

Oh shit. It was a tone she knew well. A deep and thick lazy Texas drawl that could turn her from a respectable woman to hussy craving his touch all over her. What the hell is he doing here? I must be imagining things. The way her body was reacting, Delaney knew there was no such luck for her on that front.

Rafe stared behind her, one eyebrow raised. “And you are?”

“The one who will hurt you if you don’t walk away right now.” Masculine assuredness flowed from the tone.

Without turning around, Delaney sighed. “Let me handle this, Rafe. I’ll come find you in a few.”

He glanced between the two of them. “Are you sure?”

“She’s sure,” the one behind her answered.

“I’ll be at the bar,” Rafe told her and walked off.

Spinning around ready to blast the speaker for his highhanded arrogance, Delaney promptly lost her breath. Before her stood the man she’d spent a year with. The only man on the face of this earth who knew her body as well as she did, perhaps better. A few inches over six feet, muscular body, tanned skin, black hair kept in a close marine cut, and dark sapphire blue eyes which could—and did—turn her into mush. Marine pilot Garrick “Paladin” Stark.

“First Lieutenant Garrick Stark,” she said, doing her best to ignore the pull this man had on her. “How nice to see you again.”

His gaze blazed with possessiveness as he ran it over her body, making her want to shift and tug on her clothing. Or remove it all together and jump his fine ass.

“Actually, it’s Captain Stark now.”

Captain Stark. Ohhh, that sounds so much better. “Congratulations on your promotion. If you’ll excuse me—”

“No. I don’t think so, sugar.”

She bit back her whimper at his endearment. Before he’d entered her life, she’d despised names like that being attached to her, but when they rolled off his tongue, with that toe-curling Texas twang, it was all she could do to stop the flood of moisture from escaping. “I don’t really care what you think; I owe the bartender a dance.”

His black lashes lowered and hid his eyes but not the fire that shot from them. “You go dance a dance with your pretty boy bartender. I’ll wait.”

Lifting her chin, she glared at him. “You seem to be under the impression I’m going to be going anywhere with you.”

“You are.” Garrick stepped closer and her body tingled and grew wetter with unrestrained desire. “Either walking at my side or tossed over my shoulder.” Lowering his face to hers he whispered, “One dance, sugar. And dressed the way you are, there’d better be a hell of a lot space between y’all. Or I’ll rip the parts of his body that touches you off him.”

It took all of her willpower not to close the minute distance between them and kiss his bow-shaped lips. “Arrogant...” she muttered before stomping off. He wasn’t ever jealous or possessive like this back in Japan.

Soon she had found Rafe and they were out on the floor dancing, but even as she moved with the handsome man her mind was upon Garrick Stark. Captain Garrick Stark. After the dance, she exchanged numbers with Rafe, but made her way to the side.

I can’t believe I’m letting him tell me what to do. I’m a grown woman for cryin’ out loud. Setting her jaw, Delaney prepared herself for a battle. Hot or not, I’m in charge of my life, not him. Even she didn’t believe that.



Garrick leaned against a pillar and watched as Delaney Byrd moved across the room toward him. Arms crossed he had a hard time staying to the side while she danced with that damn bartender. His gaze moved up her form. Damn her! His cock was harder than the floor of which he stood upon. Delaney wore a leather mini skirt, with full length side zippers, a tight cut-off shirt the same color as her wine hued boots, which showed her flat belly. Her dark brown hair with its coppery red highlights was gathered up and left to fall free down her back. Knee-length four inch heeled leather boots made him realize how much he’d missed her legs wrapped around him. The urge to smash every man’s face in was right under the surface.

How dare they look at my woman! She’s lucky I didn’t drag her out of here the second I laid eyes on her, with her wearing that. Who the hell did she come dressed like that for?

Her skin had a light flush from dancing. She looked up at him and lifted a brow. “What do you want?” she demanded.

“Same thing I wanted in Japan. You, sugar. Why’d you run with no word?”

Her tongue snuck out and dampened her lips, his cock pulsed in response. Garrick dug his fingers into his palms to keep his hands to himself.

“We were sleeping with each other, Garrick. That’s it. You were gone when I had the chance to come back to the States. Was I really supposed to put that on hold for a man who was deployed for an uncertain amount of time? Besides, short of coming up for air in between bouts of sex, it’s not like we had a real relationship beyond the bedroom.” Delaney lifted her shoulders. “What does it matter, really?”

“I cared,” he growled, stepping closer, wanting desperately to remove her from everyone’s vision. “And for the past eight months I’ve not been able to get you out of my mind.” I hate it that she’s right. I should have made more of an effort to do things with her other than sex.

There was disbelief on her face. With a shake of her head, she opened her mouth to say something when another voice broke in. “Come dance with me, baby.” Garrick snapped his gaze over to the man reaching for Delaney. “Get lost,” he growled.

“Dude, this is a club, you come here to dance. You’re not dancing with this hottie, so back off.”

He saw red. Not just any red, a deep vicious, angry red. There was no warning and like a snake his hand shot out to enclose around the man’s neck. Only it never made it. Delaney stopped him, her light brown hand curled around his wrist. Meeting her gaze, he saw the slight shake of her head and he barely managed to rein his anger back under control.

“Sorry, man,” she said. “I’m not dancing anymore.”

“You with him?” the guy asked as if unaware how close he’d been to death.

“Yes, she is,” Garrick bit out.

This statement earned him another glare from Delaney. He didn’t care. That year had been phenomenal and he’d been all turned around when she’d disappeared upon his return. Now that he’d found her again, there was no way he was letting her go.

“Let’s go get this damn chat over with,” Delaney groused.

Garrick almost chuckled. Almost. As if talking to me for five minutes will make me go away.. Still, in the back of his mind there was doubt. Placing his hand against the small of her back, he led her towards the door. Her body heat singed his palm. His stared ahead, making sure she had a clear path, knowing full well all bets would be off if he stared at her tantalizing brown skin any more. Or the way she moved. Hell, even the way she smells. Delaney had always smelled like a roaring waterfall to him, fresh, clean, and pure. Like the adventure life should be.

She hesitated at the door but he refused to let her stop. He led her right to his truck. When they reached it, he turned her, pressed her luscious body up against the side of it and covered her mouth with his. With a rumble of primal lust he thrust his tongue deep into her mouth, her addictive taste flooding him. Mine! You are mine, Delaney! He couldn’t get enough and he held her tighter, his hands sliding down over the smooth supple leather of her skirt to rest on the curve of her hips.

Tongues stroking against one another, Garrick grunted his approval when her hands slid up over his tee shirt, her nails raking as they went, her passion as great as his. She looped her arms around his neck and purred into his mouth, the height of her heels giving him better access to her mouth. His erection dug into the material of his pants, desperate to be released and find relief. The kind of relief he could only find with the woman in his arms. The kind that superseded just the physical.

Need, raw and primitive, tore at him. Garrick moved one hand to the side and began lifting the zipper of her skirt. His fingers touched her thigh and he felt his cock throb. Slowly ending the kiss, he drew back just enough to stare into her eyes; the parking lot lights emphasized the intermittent gold streaks in the pale green irises.

“Delaney,” he murmured, his voice deepened by desire.

She swallowed and dropped her hands. Pushing against him, she tossed her head and stared at him. “That isn’t why I came out here. What did you need to say to me?”

“Did you think of me after you left?” He stepped closer and rubbed his erection against her. “Did you ever relive what we shared with one another in Japan?”

Her pupils dilated and her nose flared. “That was the past.”

“I never forgot, sugar. Never.”

“Are you stationed here?” she asked.

“Yes. I’ve just got assigned here to Pensacola. MATSG Pensacola if you want to be specific.” Garrick lowered his head and licked the outer shell of her ear, delighting in her shiver.

“Answer me, Delaney. Did you think of me?”

“Yes, Garrick. I did. Are you happy now?” Delaney ducked her head and crossed her arms over her midsection.

“Happier,” he said. “Look at me, Delaney.” Garrick waited until she did, her gaze wary now. “I don’t know why you ran. We had something special. Rare. I want it again. I’m telling you now. Lord knows I want to take you home with me and show you what your outfit does to me. Hell, better yet, take you right here against my truck.” He nuzzled the side of her neck. “I want you so bad, Delaney. Will you come home with me?” I am more than willing to sneak her into my room on base.

“I...I...”

“Say yes, sugar. It’s been six months since I got back, eight since I’ve seen you.” He cupped her face.

“Is that what this is about? A booty call? Because we both know there are sluts that hang out around the bars near base for that very reason. Go get one of them.”

Garrick could hear the anger lining her tone. “No. Sugar, I hear your voice and I want you. I smell your scent, the smell of waterfalls all pure and fresh, and I want you. It’s more than sex. I want you, Delaney Kiojah Byrd.”

“Have you thought that I might be in a relationship?”

His gaze narrowed. “No way.”

“And what’s so wrong with me?” she snapped.

Garrick raked his gaze over her attire. “Nothing, sugar. Not a damn thing. But that outfit you’re wearing, and you being here alone. There’s no man.” And I’d kill him for you belong to me.

“You always were cocky.”

“Yes, I can’t argue that.”

“I need to get some sleep, Garrick. I wasn’t even planning on coming out tonight. I had a hellish day.”

“Why did you come out then?”

“Heather. She won a big lawsuit today and was out celebrating. She called me from her office party and said she was coming here, so I came to spend time with her.”

“I didn’t see her with you. Is she still in there?” Garrick asked, remembering her speaking about her friend, Heather Trells, and he’d seen some photos of her. Beautiful woman. Not the one he wanted though.

“No, she left me for some guy she met on the dance floor.”

“She sure that was wise?”

“Heather’s a lot more dangerous than she lets on. She’s careful and he knows I’m expecting to hear from her in the morning.”

He frowned but kept his mouth shut. “Will you call me tomorrow, Delaney? So we can meet and talk?”

“And if I say no?”

“I’m takin’ you home with me tonight.”

“You still get up early for your run?” Her hands settled back upon his chest, her movements so automatic, he wasn’t sure she realized she was doing it.

“I’m a creature of habit.” He inhaled sharply and closed his eyes against the lust in his veins.

“You’re a Marine.”

“I’m your Marine,” Garrick corrected.

“That assumes I want one.” Staring into her eyes, he lifted a brow. With a sigh, Delaney gave him her address. “I’ll have breakfast ready by six. But this time, Garrick. I want the truth of what you’re after. This isn’t Japan anymore; I’m done with fucking for the sake of fucking.”

Good. So am I. Brushing his lips over hers he waited until they parted. Garrick backed off and drawled, “You’d better strap your boots on, sugar, I want it all.”

He watched her walk away and step up into a GMC Denali. Garrick licked his lips as her firm ass disappeared from view. Without moving, he stared until she left the parking lot. Resting his arms along the back of his dark Chevy Silverado, he sighed.

“This time will be different, Delaney. I’ll be damned if I let you go again.”

“You a marine?” a disturbingly highly pitched female voice asked beside him.

Turning his head, Garrick saw a slender blonde with whose clothes were more gone than there leaning against his tailgate. He looked her up and down, not even remotely turned on by the breasts which were barely contained in her skimpy halter top or the skirt which should have been a pocket for all it covered.

“What gave it away,” he said slowly, “the words ‘Semper Fi’ written in red on the tailgate? Or the big thing in the back window that says ‘United States Marine Corps’ on top of the American flag?”

A slight smile lifted her mouth, as if she were unsure whether or not he joked. “Looking for some company?” she asked.

“Nope.” Not from you anyway.

Digging for his keys, he unlocked his truck and started it. The woman had barely moved from the back before he pulled out of the parking lot and headed back to his apartment, after driving by the address Delaney had given him. In his room on NAS Pensacola, Garrick kicked off his boots and rubbed the short hair on his head. He’d arrived in Pensacola eight days ago. It had taken him that long to run into someone he’d known from when he’d been with Delaney in Japan. That man had grinned and asked him if he’d hooked back up with Delaney since she was in town.

The news she was close by had nearly floored him. Getting the name of the clubs she’d been seen at, he went out and as luck would have it, he’d found her. The second one he’d stopped at. No one knew how much she’d affected him. Least of all her. But this time around he had to change all that. This time it would be different. This time it would be forever.

“Delaney,” he whispered as he stood in the shower. Curving his hand around his rigid erection, he stroked himself to release, her image in his mind.