University Sleep Disorders Clinic
Los Angeles, California
â€œI was there,â€ Mac said amid the tick and hum of instruments. â€œReally there.â€
Kennedy waited for his eyes to brighten and a grin to surface his weary face. Nothing. Not even a flicker of humor. Dropping the smile that was as false as the hair sweeping her brow, she said, â€œSorry, Mac, Iâ€™m not buying it.â€ She turned to the bedside table and peered at the machine that would monitor his sleep cycles.
â€œYou think Iâ€™m joking?â€
Of course he was. For all the horror MacArthur Crosley had endured during the Gulf War, he was an incorrigible joker, but this time he had gone too far. She unbundled the electrodes.
â€œIâ€™m serious, Ken.â€
Her other subjects called her Dr. Plain, but she and Mac went back to when she had been a doctoral student and he was her first subject in a study of the effects of sleep deprivation on dreams. That was four years ago and, at this rate, it might be another four before she was able to present her latest findings. If she had that long. . .
Feeling the snugness of the knit cap covering her head, she said, â€œSerious, huh? Iâ€™ve heard that one before.â€
The familiar squeak of wheels announced his approach. â€œIt happened.â€
Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking, the minute hand climbing toward midnight.
â€œListen to me, Ken. What I have to tell you is importantâ€”â€
â€œTime travel through dreams, Mac?â€ She uncapped a tube of fixative and squeezed a dab onto the electrodesâ€™ disks. â€œHow on earth did you hatch that one?â€ Though she might concede some dreams prophesied the future, time travel was too far out there. â€œLetâ€™s get you hooked up.â€
â€œThatâ€™s not what Iâ€™m here for.â€
She turned and found herself sandwiched between the table and the wheelchair that served as his legs.
â€œIâ€™ve been holding out on you, Ken. I would have told you sooner, but I couldnâ€™tâ€”not until I was certain it wasnâ€™t just an incredibly real dream.â€
â€œCome on, Mac. Itâ€™s midnight, I havenâ€™t had dinner yet, and Iâ€™m tired.â€
He clamped a hand around her arm. â€œIâ€™m dead serious.â€
Though she knew she had nothing to fear from him, alarm leapt through her when a tremor passed from him to her. Never had she seen Mac like this, and certainly he had never taken his jokes this far. Was it possible that what he said was trueâ€”rather, he believed it was true? If so, he was hallucinating, a side-effect not uncommon among her subjects, especially beyond sixty hours of sleep deprivation. But she had never known Mac to succumb to hallucinations, not even during an episode four months back when his consecutive waking hours broke the two hundred mark. That had complications all its own.
He released her and pushed back. â€œSorry.â€
Kennedy stared at him. The whites of his eyes blazed red, the circles beneath shone like bruises, the lines canyoning his face went deeper. Forty-five years old, yet he looked sixty, just as he had when his two hundred and two waking hours had put him into a sleep so deep he had gone comatose. But he had reported eighty-seven waking hours when he called an hour ago.
He had lied. Kennedy nearly cursed. She knew what extreme sleep deprivation looked like, especially on Mac. True, he had cried wolf before, convinced her of the unimaginable to the point she would have bet her life he was telling the truth, but this came down to negligence. And she was guilty as charged.
She consulted her clipboard and scanned the previous entry. Five weeks since his last episode, a stretch considering he rarely made it three weeks without going a round with his souvenir from the war. But why would he under-report his waking hours? Because of the safeguard that was put in place following his coma, one that stipulated all subjects who exceeded one hundred fifty waking hours were to be monitored by a medical doctor?
Knowing her own sleep would have to waitâ€”not necessarily that she would have slept since she was also intimate with insomniaâ€”she said, â€œHow many hours, Mac?â€
He pushed a hand through his silvered red hair. â€œEighty. . .nine.â€
â€œNot one hundred eighty nine?â€
â€œWhy would I lie?â€
â€œYou tell me.â€
â€œI would if youâ€™d listen.â€
Realizing she was picking an argument when she should be collecting data, she rolled a stool beneath her. â€œOkay, talk.â€
He dragged a tattooed hand down his face. â€œThe dreams arenâ€™t dreams. Not anymore. When I went comatose, I truly crossed over, and thatâ€™s when I realized it was more than a dream. And I could have stayed.â€ He slammed his fists on the arms of his wheelchair. â€œIf not for the doctors and their machines, I would have stayed!â€
Pain stirred at the back of Kennedyâ€™s head. â€œYou would have died.â€
â€œIn this time. There I would have lived.â€
Then he truly believed he had been transported to the Middle Ages of his serial dream. Interesting. â€œI see.â€
Was this more than sleep deprivation? Had Mac snapped? â€œI know it seems realâ€”â€
â€œCut with the psychobabble! Sleep deprivation is the key to the past. Itâ€™s a bridge. A way back. A way out.â€
She took a deep breath. â€œOut of what?â€
â€œThis.â€ He looked to the stumps of his legs, wheeled forward, and tapped her forehead. â€œAnd this.â€
Stunned by his trespass, Kennedy caught her breath.
He sank back in his wheelchair. â€œIn my dreams, I have legs again. Have I told you that?â€
She gave herself a mental shake. â€œMany times.â€
â€œI walk. I run. I feel my legs down to my toes. Itâ€™s as if the war never happened.â€
She laid a hand on his shoulder. â€œIt did happen.â€
â€œNot six hundred years ago.â€
She lowered her hand. â€œWhat makes you believe this isnâ€™t just an incredibly real dream?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know the places in this dream, and Iâ€™ve never seen any of the people.â€
That was his proof? Though dreams were often forged of acquaintances and familiar landscapes, it wasnâ€™t unusual to encounter seemingly unfamiliar ones.
He reached behind his wheelchair, pulled a book from his knapsack, and pushed it into her hands. â€œI found this in an antique book shop a while back.â€
It was old, its black cover worn white along the edges, all that remained of its title a barely legible stamped impression. She put her glasses on. â€œThe Sins of the Earl of. . .?â€
â€œSinwell,â€ Mac supplied.
Kennedy forced a laugh. â€œCatchy title.â€ She ran her fingers across the numbers beneath. â€œ1373 to 1399. History. . .never my best subject.â€
â€œHeâ€™s the one.â€
â€œFulke Wynland, the man who murdered his nephews so he could claim Sinwell for himself.â€
Macâ€™s dream adversary. Though he had told her the dream arose from a historical account, he hadnâ€™t named the infamous earl or the British earldom for which Wynland had committed murder.
â€œIâ€™m in there.â€ Mac nodded at the book.
Kennedy raised an eyebrow.
â€œLook at the pages I marked.â€
A half dozen slips protruded from the book. She opened to the first and skimmed the text. There it was: Sir Arthur Crosley. Okay, so someone in the past had first claim to a semblance of MacArthur Crosleyâ€™s name. What proof was that? She read on. With the King of Englandâ€™s blessing, the errant knight pledged himself to the safekeeping of orphaned brothers John and Harold Wynland. She read the remaining passages, the last a single sentence that told of Sir Arthurâ€™s disappearance prior to the boysâ€™ fiery deaths.
Kennedy set the book on the bedside table. â€œYouâ€™re telling me youâ€™re Sir Arthur?â€
â€œMac, just because your nameâ€”â€
â€œWhen I first read it, there was no mention of Crosley. His nameâ€”my nameâ€”appeared only after the dreams began. And when the book says I disappeared, guess where I went.â€
Pound, went her headache.
â€œThatâ€™s when I came out of the coma, Ken.â€
Worse and worse. â€œBut youâ€™ve reported having these dreams since then. If what you say is true, where are those experiences documented?â€
â€œTheyâ€™re not. Though Iâ€™ve returned four times since the coma, the present keeps pulling me back before I can save the boys from that murderer.â€ Fury brightened his eyes a moment before his gaze emptied.
â€œFifty waking hours isnâ€™t enough, not even a hundred. It takes more.â€
This explained the man before her whose years came nowhere near the age grooving his face. â€œTwo hundred?â€
â€œItâ€™s a start.â€
She held up a hand. â€œThe truth. How many hours?â€
â€œTwo hundred seventeen.â€
She came off the stool as if slung from it. â€œYou know how dangerousâ€”â€
â€œBetter than anyone.â€
He didnâ€™t look like a madman, but he had to be. â€œYouâ€™re forcing it, arenâ€™t you? You could have slept days ago, but you wonâ€™t let yourself.â€
Kennedy reached to rake fingers through her hair, but stopped mid-air. There was too little left beneath the cap, stragglers that served as painful reminders of her former self. She laid a hand to Macâ€™s arm. â€œYouâ€™re going to kill yourself.â€
His smile was almost genuine. â€œThatâ€™s the idea.â€
Over-the-edge crazy. Deciding her efforts were better spent admitting him to the university hospital, she straightened.
â€œIâ€™m not going,â€ Mac said.
For all his delusions, he could still read her like a book. â€œPlease, Mac, you have to.â€
â€œItâ€™s my way out.â€
Pound. Pound. â€œYou think Iâ€™m just going to stand by and let you die?â€
â€œYou donâ€™t have a say in it.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re my patient. I canâ€™tâ€”â€
â€œYou think I like living in this thing?â€ He gripped the arms of his wheelchair. â€œWhen I lost my legs, I lost everythingâ€”my wife, my boys, my career. All I do is take up space, and Iâ€™m tired of it. You have no idea what itâ€™s like.â€
Didnâ€™t she? Her world was crumbling, and though she had no choice as to whether tomorrow came, he did.
His gaze swept to her cap, and he muttered a curse. â€œIâ€™m sorry, Ken.â€
She crossed the observation room and stared through the window at the monitoring equipment.
â€œHowâ€™s the chemo going?â€
She tossed her head and achingly acknowledged how much she missed the weight of her hair. â€œItâ€™s going well.â€ A lie. There had been progress early on, but the tumor was gaining ground.
â€œThe truth, Ken,â€ he turned her own words against her.
She swung around. â€œThis isnâ€™t about me.â€
â€œYouâ€™re wrong.â€ He wheeled toward her. â€œMy dream is a way out of the hell Iâ€™m living. And it could be yours.â€
Nuts. Positively nuts.
He rolled to a halt. â€œNot my dream, of course. Something of your own choosing.â€
Pound. Pound. Pound. She stepped around him. â€œI need to take something for this headache.â€
â€œYou think Iâ€™m crazy.â€
She looked over her shoulder. â€œIâ€™ll be back in a few minutes, and weâ€™ll discuss this some more.â€
After a long moment, he said, â€œSure. Can I borrow your pen?â€
She tossed it to him and steered a course to the washroom where she gulped down the pills prescribed for just such reminders of her tumor.
Though she rarely did more than glance in the mirror, she searched her features: sunken eyes, ashen skin, pinched mouth, the hollows beneath her cheeks evidence of her twenty-pound weight loss. As for the hair sweeping her brow, it and the knit cap to which the strands were attached was a gift from her well-meaning mother. She looked almost as bad as Mac, far from the green-eyed â€œlookerâ€ she had been called before. . .
Almost wishing she was as crazy as Mac, she hurried to her office. After being reassured two orderlies were on their way, she returned to the sleep room. It was empty. â€œNo.â€ She groaned. â€œDonâ€™t do this, Mac.â€
She ran down the corridor, through the reception area, and out the glass doors into the balm of a Los Angeles summer night, but there was no sign of Mac or the cab that had delivered him to the clinic. Where had he gone? It would be a place where no one knew him, where he wouldnâ€™t be bothered if he didnâ€™t show his face for days. Unfortunately, the possibilities could run into the thousands.
What about the cab? If she could find the company he had used, perhaps she could discover where they had taken him.
She went back inside and, in the sleep room, saw the pen Mac had borrowed on the bedside table, beneath it his book. He had forgotten it. Or had he?
She opened The Sins of the Earl of Sinwell. If not that she recognized Macâ€™s handwriting, she would have flipped past the inscription on the inside cover. She slid her glasses on. Ken, it read, think of this as a postcard. Your friend, Mac
â€œOh, Mac.â€ Try though she might, she knew that if she found him it would be too late. But knowing it and accepting it were two different things. Keeping an eye closed against the pain hammering at her head, she tucked the book under an arm and hurried to her office
A way out.
Macâ€™s words of a month ago whispered to Kennedy as she stared at the reflection of a woman she recognized less each day. Radiation and chemotherapy had taken the last of her hair. And for what? The hope she could beat unbeatable odds. Four weeks, eight at the outside, Kennedy Plain, twenty-eight years young, would go out with a whimper.
â€œA way out,â€ she muttered. â€œCrazy Mac.â€
She tightened the belt of her robe and crossed her living room to the glass doors of her condo. A quarter mile out, waves battered the rocky beach, swept sand in and dragged it out again. Stepping onto the balcony, she sighed as cool morning air caressed her bare scalp. It was just what she needed to get through another waking hour. How many was she up to? She glanced at her watch. Seventy-two, meaning it was Monday.
Since forced to take medical leave two weeks ago, she had found it increasingly difficult to track her daysâ€”until this past Friday when she began marking time by the hour.
She turned back inside. The journal lay on her desk on a pile of paperwork that represented eighteen months of research. Research that would molder in some forgotten closet if the clinic director had his way. But she wouldnâ€™t let that happen. If it killed herâ€”ha!â€”she would conclude her study with data culled from her own dream experiences.
She dropped into the desk chair and reached for the journal. It would be her fourth entry, likely the last before her self-imposed sleep deprivation compelled her to sleep. With a quaking hand, she wrote:
8:25 a.m. Seventy-two waking hours. Not sure I can make it to ninety-six. Hands trembling, eyes burning, headache worsening, nauseated. No hallucinations, some memory lapses. Canâ€™t stop thinking about Mac.
She lifted the pen and recalled the night he had borrowed it. For four days she had clung to the hope he lived, but on the fifth day, his lifeless body was found in an abandoned warehouse.
Kennedy swallowed hard. â€œWherever you are, I pray youâ€™ve finally found peace.â€ She rested her forehead in her hand and squeezed her eyes closed. Like a thief, sleep reached for her.
She jumped up and steadied herself with a hand on the chair. â€œTwenty-four hours,â€ she murmured. Could she do it? Her chronic insomnia having never exceeded sixty, she was ahead by twelve, but another twenty-four?
What she needed was a good book. Unfortunately, as her library consisted mostly of textbooks and periodicals, the best she could do was The Sins of the Earl of Sinwell. She eyed it where it lay on the sofa table. It had to be less dry than her other choices.
Sliding on her glasses, she retrieved the book and fingered the ridges and recesses of the worn title, then opened past Macâ€™s inscription to the first chapter. â€œ1373,â€ she read aloud as she began to walk the room.
An hour later, she gave up. Not because the reading was dry, but her comprehension was nearly nil. One thing was clear from the little she had learned about Fulke Wynland, the Earl of Sinwell: he had no conscience. Not only was he suspected of having a hand in the accident that killed his brother, the Earl of Sinwell, but as a military advisor during the â€œHundred Years War,â€ he had been party to the atrocious massacre of men, women, and children following a siege on the city of Limoges. So what chance had two little boys, aged four and six?
She trudged into the kitchen, opened the freezer, and stuck her face into it. Frigid air returning her to wakefulness, she congratulated herself on that bit of genius and closed the door. â€œAnd caffeine will do it one better,â€ she murmured.
After the coffee maker sputtered its last, putting an exclamation mark on the smell of freshly brewed coffee, Kennedy carried the pot to her cup with a hand that shook so violently that nearly as much made it on the counter as in the cup. When the caffeine kicked in on her third serving, she reached for Macâ€™s book.
The seventh chapter, marked by a slip of paper, held a scant introduction to Sir Arthur Crosley. Then came the mysterious Lady Lark and a color illustration of the type of clothing a fourteenth-century lady might wearâ€”a pale yellow gown with fitted bodice and long flowing sleeves, a hair veil secured by a tiara set with red and blue jewels, and flat-soled shoes with ridiculously long toes.
Kennedy returned to the text. According to the author, Lady Lark made her first appearance at King Edward IIIâ€™s court in 1372. No one knew where she came from, her surname, age, or whether she was of the nobility. The only thing for certain was that the king wasted no time numbering her among his mistresses.
During the summer of 1373, two months after appointing Sir Arthur Crosley to watch over the Wynland boys, King Edward dispatched Lady Lark to Sinwell to care for the motherless children. Though it was suggested his other mistress, the ambitious Alice Perrers, had worked her influence over Edward in order to rid herself of a rival, the author was more given to the belief that the king had simply tired of Lady Lark.
Kennedy trudged past the sofa, pushed her glasses up, and rubbed her eyes. She resettled the glasses.
On the approach to the castle of Brynwood Spire where the boys resided, Lady Larkâ€™s baggage train was attacked and her entourage murdered. Of the lady herself, no trace was ever found. The one responsible for the carnage: Fulke Wynland, the author suggested. Sir Arthur Crosley, fearing for the boysâ€™ lives, spirited them away that very day. . .
Kennedy didnâ€™t recall reading this particular passage at the clinic, and there was no slip of paper to mark its reference to Sir Arthur. Likely, Mac had lost the marker without realizing it. However, when she dug further into the book, she found three other unmarked references. Odd, especially as they were more significant than the ones Mac had asked her to read. But nothing compared to the final reference near the end of the book. She read it twice. Hadnâ€™t Sir Arthur disappeared at bookâ€™s end? Not according to this passage that stated that, following two weeks of pursuit, Wynland overtook him. Swords were drawn and the knightâ€™s life severed by the man who would be earl.
Of course, it was a month since she had read the passages. Was that it? Or was she delusional? She shrugged off the niggling at the back of her mind and, a short while later, slammed the book on Wynlandâ€™s ascension to â€œearlâ€ following the deaths of his nephews in a fire of unknown origin.
â€œMurderer,â€ she muttered. And caught her toe on the sofa table. The book flew from her hand and landed on the floor at about the same time she did. It should have hurt, but she was too numb to feel anything but relief at gaining a prone position.
Get up, walk it off. Only ten hours to go. She forced her head up. Seeing the book had fallen open to Macâ€™s inscription, she pulled it toward her, read his scrawled inscription, and pressed her forehead to the carpet. â€œA postcard, Mac?â€
Donâ€™t close your eyes. But she was too busy melting into the carpet to give more than a glancing thought to hooking herself up to the EEG she had borrowed from the clinic. Sleep descended, scattering her thoughts here, there, everywhereâ€”until they met the enigmatic Lady Lark.
What would it have been like to live in an era of knights and castles? To have been of the privileged class? To dress in gowns with beautiful bodices and long flowing sleeves? To be the mistress of a mighty king? To travel across country in a baggage train with an entourage? Imagine that. . .
The sweet smell of earth, the breath of a breeze, a gentle tapping against her cheek. Wondering who disturbed her, Kennedy opened her eyes. Not who, but what. She stared through the hair fluttering across her faceâ€”thick, dark, sprung with wave, the likes of which she hadnâ€™t seen in a long time. A tremor of expectation swept her, but she let it go no further.
This was a dream. When she awakened, not a single strand would remain. She fingered the darkness and lingeringly pushed it out of her eyes. There was something silken at her forehead and, above that, a metal band encircled her head. She drew the former forward and stared at what appeared to be a veil.
A moan sounded from somewhere nearby, and she pushed the veil aside. Only then, with a forest spread before her, did she realize she was prostrate. Where had her dreaming taken her to this time? And what was the vibration beneath her cheek?
She rolled onto her back and stared up at a canopy of trees. It was beautiful the way the sunlight pierced the leaves, thrusting shafts of light into a place that might otherwise appear sinister. There was the twitter of birds and, somewhere, the babble of a brook. It was vibrant, as ifâ€”
A mordant scent struck her, causing the dream to veer in a direction she preferred it didnâ€™t go. She sat up and caught her breath. Twenty or more feet out, the bodies of a dozen men were gored and grotesquely bent, most conspicuously two draped across an overturned wagon. And there was more. She felt it, feared it, tried to ignore it, but looked around. Behind her lay a horse, its teeth bared in death, its rider pinned beneath, the manâ€™s chest sliced open and his arm nearly severed.
Kennedy clenched her teeth and lowered her gaze to where the blood of beast and man pooled on the ground. It spread outward, running in rivulets toward her. Nausea rose as she followed its path to the skirt of her dress. Knee to ankle, crimson saturated the pale yellow fabric, causing it to adhere to her skin.
Not a dream. A nightmare.
She scrambled to her feet.
â€œMy lady?â€ someone croaked.
Kennedy forced herself to look among the bodies. Had she ever before had such a vivid dream? Swallowing hard, she settled her gaze on the man beneath the horse who stared at her through half-hooded eyes.
â€œMy lady. . .are you. . .?â€ He reached with his uninjured arm.
She knew she ought to flee before her imagination transformed him into something more heinous, but she couldnâ€™t turn her back on him. Too, this was only a dream. Though it might cause her to awaken in a cold sweat, that was the worst she would suffer.
When she dropped to her knees beside the man, she saw that, though he had closed his eyes, his wheezing chest told he still lived.
â€œWhat can I do?â€ she asked.
â€œI saw the miscreantâ€™s. . .device.â€ His thick accent sounded almost British.
â€œHad his medallion. . .in my hand.â€ He spread his empty fingers. â€œUpon it a wyvern. . .two-headed. . .above a shield. . .bend sinister.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry, I donâ€™t understand.â€
He lifted his lids. His eyes, pinpoints of pain, traced her face. â€œYou are not my lady.â€
He caught hold of her arm. â€œWhat have you done with her?â€
For a man about to die, he exhibited incredible strength. â€œI donâ€™t know what youâ€™re talking about.â€
He dragged her toward him, affording her a close-up of his death mask. â€œYou come to steal from the dead,â€ he spat, flecking her with saliva.
A more morbid dream Kennedy could not recall. She wrenched backward and broke free, but not before he tore the veil from her hair.
She shot to her feet and nearly tripped over her hem. Why was the dress so long? And why was she wearing something like this in the middle of a forest?
Once more, she felt the vibration through the ground. It was stronger. Nearer. Horses? From which direction?
She whipped her head to the side and the breeze caught her hair, sifting it across her face and into her eyes. Though she longed to pause and relish the feel of it, something bad was coming.
Itâ€™s only a dream. Stay put and get it over with, and youâ€™ll be awake in no time. But she couldnâ€™t. Heart pounding, she gathered her hair high at the back of her head, knotted it, and hiked up her skirt.
As in the days before her illness, she sped across the ground, vaulted over debris and fallen trees, and nearly forgot the reason she ran. She thrilled to the rush of blood and tightening of her lungs, the strength in her calves and thighs. The only thing missing was a decent pair of running shoes.
When a shout resounded through the trees, she glanced over her shoulder. A horse and rider bore down on her. She pumped her legs harder, but she was no match for the four-legged beast that drew so near she could hear its breath.
Wake up! she silently called to where she lay sleeping. Open your eyes! Though a thread of consciousness often allowed her to talk her way out of disturbing dreams, her pleas went unanswered. Thus, she veered right, seized a branch from the ground, and whirled around.
Her pursuer reined in his horse, scattering leaves and dirt, and guided the animal sideways to look down at her. Clad in metal neck to toeâ€”a jangling, clanking get-up that sounded with each quiver of his horseâ€”he stared at her out of eyes so blue she knew her imagination was in overdrive. Though her dream had neglected to place a helmet on his head, it had made sure there was a sword at his side.
Only a dream. He can cut you in two and youâ€™ll awaken whole. At least, as whole as a person with a death sentence hanging over her head. . .
â€œYou do not need that.â€ His voice was deep and accented, though of a more precise nature than the dying man who had mistaken her for his lady. â€œYou have naught to fear from me.â€
Of course she didnâ€™t. He was only a figment, though from where he had originated she had no idea. But with those cheekbones, shoulder-length blond hair, and closely clipped beard and moustache, he was likely a belly-button-bearing model from a billboard she passed on her way to the university.
She blinked, then nearly laughed at the realization she had dreamed herself into the mysterious lady of Macâ€™s book. What was the year? 1373? As for this behemoth, was he Fulke Wynland? He had to be. Forget that he was blonde rather than darkly sinister as she had imagined, that his eyes were blue, rather than bottomless black. He was surely the one responsible for the carnage to which she had awakened, not to mention the death of his nephews and the disappearance of the kingâ€™s mistressâ€”the same woman he mistook her for.
She jabbed the branch at him in hopes it would send horse and rider back to wherever they had come from.
The animal rolled its huge eyes, reminding her of the one time she had ridden a horse, a mistake that culminated in her missing a barbed wire fence by inches.
â€œI am Lord Wynland of Brynwood Spire.â€
And beneath his armor he probably wore a medallion with a two-headedâ€”what was it? Wyvern? â€œStay back!â€
â€œI am King Edwardâ€™s man. Be assured, no harm will befall you.â€
She swung the branch. â€œIâ€™ll brain you!â€
He frowned deeply, as if her words were foreign, as if her subconscious had not formed him from the pages of an old book. â€œAfter what you have seen, my lady, â€™tis natural you would suffer hysterics.â€
He lowered his gaze over her. â€œYou are injured?â€
No sooner did she follow his gaze to her bloodied skirt than he lunged, seized hold of the branch, and used it to haul her toward him.
Kennedy let go, but not before he caught her arm. Handling her as if she were a child rather than a woman who topped out at five foot eight, Wynland lifted her off her feet and deposited her on his saddle between his thighs.
She reached for his face. Unlike her hair, she hadnâ€™t dreamed herself a set of long nails, and she fell short by the split second it took him to capture her wrist and grip it with the other.
She strained, kicked, bitâ€”and got a mouthful of metal links that made her teeth peal with pain.
â€œCease, else I shall bind you hand and foot!â€
Before or after he killed her? She threw her head back and got a closer look at her version of Fulke Wynland. Not model material after all. As blue as his eyes were, his face was flawed. A scar split his left eyebrow, nose had a slight bend, and the jaw visible beneath his beard was mildly pocked as if from adolescent acne or a childhood illness. Handsome? Definitely not. Rugged? Beyond. Deadly? Ever so.
Realizing her best hope was to catch him off guard, she forced herself to relax.
Wynland gave a grunt of satisfaction, reached down, and yanked up her skirt.
Horrified that her dream was taking a more lurid turn, she renewed her struggle.
The horse snorted and danced around, but neither Kennedy nor the skittish animal turned Wynland from his intent. His large hand slid from her ankle to her calf to her knee.
It was then she felt the draft and realized that, somewhere between reality and dream, she had lost her underwear.
When his hand spanned her thigh, she opened her mouth to scream, but just as quickly as the assault began, it ended. He thrust her skirt down and smiledâ€”if that wicked twist of his lips could be called a smile. â€œWorry not, my lady, I place too high a value on my health to risk it with you.â€
What, exactly, did he mean? That she was promiscuous? Diseased? Of course, she did portray a kingâ€™s mistress. . .
â€œWhose blood if not yours?â€ Wynland asked.
That was why he had touched her? She didnâ€™t know the manâ€™s name, only that he had rejected her as being his lady. She frowned. How was that? If she was Lady Lark, why had one of the players in this dream not recognized her?
â€œWhose?â€ he growled.
She shifted around to fully face Wynland. â€œWhat does it matter?â€
His lids narrowed. â€œA soldierâ€”nay, a dozenâ€”bled their last to defend you. What does it matter who they were? Who their wives and children are?â€
When he put it that way. . . But she wasnâ€™t the villain, he was. Those men were dead because he had ordered it. Or done it himself. â€œPut me down.â€
â€œWhat befell your escort?â€
Why the pretense when he meant to kill her? Or did he? According to Macâ€™s book, no trace of Lady Lark was ever found. Had Wynland allowed her to liveâ€”for a while, at least?
Itâ€™s a dream!
Though she knew he was only smoke floating about her mind, she detested him for the sins of the man after whom she had fashioned him. â€œWhy donâ€™t you tell me what happened to my escort?â€ She was bold, and it felt good, so like her old self before this thing in her head pulled the life out from under her.
Wynlandâ€™s face darkened. â€œYou think I am responsible?â€
â€œIf the shoe fits. . .â€
Confusion slipped through his anger. â€œWhat shoe?â€
One would think she had truly hopped back in time. If this was anything like what Mac experienced, no wonder he thought it was real. She only hoped that when she awakened she would remember the outlandish dream long enough to record it. â€œYou donâ€™t want me at Burnwood.â€
â€œBrynwood, and, nay, I do not. But I assure you, had I wished you dead, we would not be having this conversation.â€
Nothing came between him and what he wanted, including his nephews. The deaths those little boys had suffered incited Kennedy further. â€œJust goes to show that if you want something done right, do it yourself.â€
He puller her closer. â€œIf you have anything else to say to me, my lady, you would do well to choose your words carefully.â€
His hands on her, thighs on either side of her, and breath on her face, were almost enough to make her believe he was real. Only a figment. He holds no more power over you than the next dream.
â€œDo you understand?â€
â€œWhat is there not to understand?â€
He stared at her, then released her arms and turned her forward. Before she could gulp down the view from atop the horse, he gripped an arm around her waist and spurred the animal through the trees.
She was riding sidesaddle. How much worse could it get? Though she tried to shut out memories of her last horse ride, she remembered exactly how bad it could get. She squeezed her eyes closed. Where was Wynland taking her? And if murder was on his mind, why the stay of execution? No one would hear if she cried outâ€”
He wasnâ€™t alone. The thundering of hooves had surely been of many riders, meaning others could have seen her flight. Fortunate for her, unfortunate for Wynland.
She opened her eyes. Trees sped by at breakneck blur, the forest floor rose and fell, shafts of sunlight blinded.
She retreated behind her lids again and was all the more aware of the hard body at her back and the muscled arm against her abdomen, the sensation so real she felt the beat of Wynlandâ€™s heart through his armor. She chalked it up to it being a long time since she had been in a manâ€™s arms, which was more her fault than her ex-husbandâ€™s. Graham would have held her if she had let him, but the marriage had coughed its last long before the onset of her illness. Kennedy Huntworth was no moreâ€”not that she had gone by her married name. At the urging of Grahamâ€™s mother, she had retained her maiden name for â€œprofessional purposes.â€ In the end, it had worked out for the best. Or was it the worst?
Wynland dragged his horse to a halt, and a grateful Kennedy opened her eyes, only to wish she hadnâ€™t.
He had returned her to the gore, the smell of butchery. Add to that twenty armored men who moved among the dead, impervious to the horror, it should have awakened her in a cold sweat. Instead, the dream gripped her more fiercely.
One of the soldiers, a man who aspired to just over five feet, stepped from the upset wagon. Like several of the others, but unlike Wynland, he wore a white sleeveless shirt over his armor, the breast embroidered with a green shield dissected by a black cross. Perched on the shield was something like a dragon.
The man shook his head. â€œAll dead, my lord.â€
Kennedy searched out the one who had spoken of the medallion. He stared wide, but he had seen his last living day.
â€œThieves?â€™ Wynland asked.
The soldier strained his neck to look up at him. â€œâ€™Twould appear so, my lord. The kingâ€™s men have been stripped of armor and weaponry, their horses taken and, excepting a trunk beneath the wagon, all of the ladyâ€™s belongings are gone.â€
â€œYou have searched the attackersâ€™ bodies?â€
â€œThere are none to search, my lord. More, the ground is bloodied only where the kingâ€™s men lie.â€
Kennedy felt Wynlandâ€™s disbelief. He probably hadnâ€™t expected his hitmen to fare so well against the kingâ€™s soldiers. How convenient for him.
â€œâ€™Tis like nothing I have seen,â€ the soldier said. â€œAs ifâ€”â€
â€œâ€”they knew their attackers,â€ Wynland finished, then more gruffly, â€œIs that how â€˜twas, Lady Lark?â€
His charade was for the benefit of his men, but as much as she wanted to set the fools right, she knew it was a battle best left for when Wynland wasnâ€™t so near. She looked over her shoulder. â€œI donâ€™t recall.â€
His left eyebrow arched on either side of the scar, forming a sinister M. â€œDo you not?â€
â€œI. . .hit my head.â€ She rubbed a spot above her right ear.
â€œYou were attacked?â€
Kennedy feigned offense. â€œYou ask that with all this carnage?â€
â€œI ask it when none but you survived.â€
It was strange, but this was a dream. â€œMy injury occurred when the wagon overturned.â€ She pointed at it.
â€œYou were in that wagon?â€
Apparently not. A carriage, then? She didnâ€™t see one, though that didnâ€™t mean there hadnâ€™t been a carriage prior to the attack. What about a horse? Had ladies in this age travelled on the beasts?
She sighed. â€œYes, that wagon.â€
â€œRegardless of what you are, have been, or nevermore will be to the king,â€ Wynland bit, â€œâ€™tis difficult to believe Edward would have so little regard for the woman he chose to care for my nephews that he sent her to Brynwood in a baggage wagon.â€
Kennedy shrugged. â€œIâ€™m not a horse person.â€
His regard sharpened as if he saw Kennedy Plain past Lady Lark. Then, with one fluid move, he swung out of the saddle and dropped to the ground. Tall as a smoggy Los Angeles day was long, he strode toward the wagon.
That was it? He was going to leave her sidesaddle on an animal that surely sensed her fear? However, as much as she wanted to call him back and ask for help in dismounting, pride wouldnâ€™t allow it. Nor the possibility of escape.
She eyed the horse. Surely she need only nudge it with her heels? Though she hated the idea, she had nothing to lose but the fast-fading memory she would have upon awakening. She grabbed the saddle horn and swung a leg over the other side of the horse. When the long dress fought her, making a good case for riding sidesaddle, she hitched up the skirt, scooted back, and reached her feet to the stirrups. She was on the tall side, but Wynlandâ€™s legs outdistanced hers.
The stirrups werenâ€™t necessary, were they? She lifted the reins and jabbed her heels into the horseâ€™s sides. Nothing. She snapped the reins, dug her heels deeper. The horse shifted its weight. She leaned forward. â€œCome on, big guy, show me how itâ€™s done.â€
The horse tossed its massive head and issued a snort suggestive of laughter.
â€œYou are thinking of leaving?â€
Kennedy looked around and saw Wynland approach at a leisurely pace indicative of the confidence he placed in his trusty steed.
He halted alongside her. â€œHe answers only to me.â€
Kennedy straightened. â€œI had to try.â€
He lowered his gaze down her leg. â€œThe king may enjoy such brazen displays, Lady Lark, but you are at Sinwell and such behavior will not be tolerated.â€
She looked down her leg and did a double-take, though not because of any sort of indecency. The shoes that had served so poorly during her flight from Wynland were pointed and three inches too long, just like the ones illustrated in The Sins of the Earl of Sinwell. So that was where her imagination had gone to outfit her. . .
â€œCover yourself,â€ Wynland ordered.
She glanced at him, then looked down again. Above the shoe, a thick sock pooled around her ankle. Higher, a stretch of bare calf was visible. She could use a shave, but she was hardly brazen. Certainly not by twenty-first century standards. The prude! She reached down and tugged the hem of her skirt, but it was no use. In straddling the horse, there wasnâ€™t enough material to cover her legs.
She shrugged. â€œI tried.â€
Wynland scowled and thrust something at her. â€œYour veil and circlet, I presume.â€
Air trembled through the white gossamer, sunlight ignited red and blue jewels set in the gold wire band he called a circlet. Remembering how she had lost them, Kennedy glanced at the soldier. His eyes were no longer open. Had Wynland closed them?
â€œI am curious as to how the kingâ€™s man came to be in possession of these,â€ Wynland said.
She took them. â€œI was trying to help him.â€ She tried, but failed, to put images of the encounter from her mind.
She pulled the veil through her fingers. â€œAnd I removed them.â€
â€œFor what purpose?â€
She draped the veil over her upswept hair and settled the circlet over it.
His lids narrowed again. â€œClearly, you are unaccustomed to such manner of headdress, my lady. Tell me of your maid.â€
Lady Lark had one?
â€œSurely you did not set out from London without one.â€
â€œI. . .yes, I had one.â€
â€œWhere is she?â€
Kennedy looked past Wynland, but searched no further than the nearest fallen solder, a man far from whole. She swept her gaze back to blue.
â€œThirteen lie dead,â€ Wynland said, â€œbut none amongst them is a woman. What befell your maid?â€
â€œI must not have brought her with me after all.â€
His teeth snapped. â€œYou wish me to believe the king not only set you upon the road in a wagon, but did not have a maid accompany you?â€
He thought her a flake or a liarâ€”or disoriented. Falling back on her feigned injury, she touched her head. â€œIâ€™m not thinking straight right now.â€
Clouds stormed his eyes. â€œYou fear the wrong one.â€
So he thought she played dumb because of her distrust of him. That would work. â€œDo I?â€
A humorless rumble rose from him. â€œYou think you have no enemies, Lady Lark? A woman who tried to displace the grasping Alice Perrers?â€
Though Macâ€™s book had speculated that the kingâ€™s favored mistress might have been responsible for Lady Lark being sent from court, there the speculation ended. Had this Perrers woman taken it a step further? A possibility, but Kennedy thought it was more likely Wynlandâ€™s attempt to throw her off his scent.
â€œHow convenient you were in the neighborhood and able to come to my aid so quickly,â€ she hazarded.
With what sounded like an obscenity, though she had never heard the word, he caught her wrist. â€œNeither I, nor my men, were near when this happened. A villager brought tale of the attack to Brynwood.â€
As she looked into his anger, she had the feeling it cost him dearly to defend himself. Odd he should feel the need to do so with a woman for whom he had such low regard. Of course, Lady Lark was the kingâ€™s mistress. He wouldnâ€™t want Edward gunning for him.
He released her and put a foot in a stirrup. Like rain on a metal roof, his armor rang against the quiet of the forest as he swung up behind her.
Expecting him to try to turn her back to sidesaddle, Kennedy clamped her thighs against the horse. However, Wynland put an arm on either side of her, took the reins, and guided his horse to where his men gathered near the wagon.
Kennedy was disturbed by the looks that came her way, from surprise to lewd appreciation to affront.
â€œSir George,â€ Wynland called.
The man stepped forward. â€œMy lord?â€
â€œDivide your men and search the demesne. I want the murdering thieves found.â€
Tempted to tell the man to look no further than his lord, Kennedy bit her tongue.
â€œAfter I have delivered the lady to Brynwood, I will return with more men.â€
How stilted Wynlandâ€™s speech sounded. A few contractions here and there would go a long way to remedying the problem.
As Sir George returned to his men, Kennedy was surprised to discover that none of them was any more familiar than Wynland. Odd. Where had she seen these faces that she would unknowingly store them in her memory? And what about their voices? Though, on occasion, she had been around British accents, these werenâ€™t quite the same.
Mac had said he didnâ€™t know the people in his dreams. Though Kennedy hadnâ€™t achieved his level of sleep deprivation, she guessed this was analogous to what he had experienced.
Oh, please, let me remember just one tenth of this when I wake! Unfortunately, the likelihood of doing so was hampered by the fact she hadnâ€™t hooked up to the EEG. If she had, the alarm rigged to awaken her following REM sleep would have facilitated her recall. Now she was dependent on luck.
â€œGain your mount, Squire James,â€ Wynland called.
Kennedy saw a young man hasten from the gathering and swing into his saddle. He also wore a sleeveless shirt, but it bore a beast that was half-eagle, half-lion. Why two different coat of arms? Did the eagle-lion belong to Wynland, the dragon to his deceased brother?
Wynland guided his horse through the maze of dead and, once clear, fastened an arm around Kennedy and let the animal run.
Kennedy watched as they passed from forest to open meadow. To the edge in the distance, lush vegetation filled the eye and was capped by skies so blue that the cirrus streaking it could not dampen its radiance. Blankets of wildflowers undulated color amid greater green, towering trees stood sentinel over the bordering forest, sheep dotted a hill like a thousand tiny clouds come to ground. And the scent? Like a hundred Carolina mornings rolled into one. How incredibly removed it was from the glass, concrete, and metal that sprouted from Los Angeles, the smog that burned her eyes. But nothing prepared her for the fairy tale edifice that jagged the sky. Gait by gait, its white walls grew to immense proportions, beat by beat, its spires sharpened. Brynwood Spire.
Built on a hill, the castle stood guard over a walled city jutting to the left. Black on green flags flapped from spires, sunlight on armor flashed silver atop the walls, and from the center of the castle arose a building with towers in each corner. Although the structure should have appeared out of place against the pristine countryside, it seemed as much a part of the scenery as the grass and trees. Storybook perfectâ€”except for the two little boys murdered within those walls.
Kennedy pondered the man who held her. How could he order the deaths of innocent children? It was evil. To have lived during the Middle Ages must have been to live a nightmare. She couldnâ€™t imagineâ€”
Couldnâ€™t she? This was a dream, every crumb fallen from things and people forgotten in some deep crack in her memory.
As Wynland guided his horse onto a forty-foot span of bridge raised above a rushing river, Kennedy remembered the young man who had trailed them throughout the ride, and only because of the clatter of hooves that joined theirs.
A soldier was at the far end of the bridge, motionless until they were nearly upon him. His gaze on Wynland, he said with a deferential nod, â€œAll is quiet, my lord.â€
With a spur of heels, Wynland guided the horse onto the beaten path that wended upward to the castle. Shortly, they crossed another bridge over what Kennedy guessed was a moat. That was where the fairy tale took a sharp turn off the page. Who knew what pestilence the fetid muck harbored?
Shouts drew her regard overhead. Several men leaned out of recesses in the upper wall and called greetings to Wynland, welcoming his return as if he had been gone days rather than hours. In silence, he directed his horse beneath the arched entrance and through a shaft outfitted with not one but three sets of doors three times the height of a man and bounded by soldiers.
If the rest of the castle was as well-manned, no one came or went unchecked. That included Kennedy. Though all were quick to give Wynland their attention, they stole furtive glances at her. Did they know of the attack on Lady Larkâ€™s entourage? Was that behind their interest? Or was it her appearance? The blood on her skirt and her straddling of the horse that revealed a bit of leg?
A clamor reached Kennedy in advance of their exit from the shaft, but she was unprepared for the flurry of activity in the courtyard they entered. People dressed in the clothes of common folk were everywhere, along with dogs, horses, wagons, contraptionsâ€”one that looked like an enormous grinding wheel. From the far left came the sound of metal being struck. To the right, a glowing fire radiated enough heat to work up a sweat.
Kennedy could hardly believe the depth of imagination that had concocted such a fabulous dream, especially considering her limited knowledge of history.
There were more shouted greetings, nods, gap-toothed smiles, arms raised in recognition of the man who plotted a heinous act to assure his ascendancy to earl. Although Kennedy couldnâ€™t imagine these people cared for him, he certainly had their respectâ€”likely through fear.
Wynland ushered his horse beneath a portal and into another courtyard. It also teemed with laborers. In one corner, women bent over immense barrels, some stirring, others scrubbing on what looked like washboards. Opposite, teenage girls hung strips of red cloth from a clothesline stretched overhead. In the middle of the courtyard stood a small building open on one side, the man inside working amid rows of candles.
â€œMâ€™lord, mâ€™lord!â€ A smudge-faced, wild-haired boy bounded into Wynlandâ€™s path.
He jerked the reins and Kennedy wondered what harsh words he would speak.
â€œTell the tale, mâ€™lord,â€ the boy implored with lit blue eyes. â€œHow many did ye kill?â€
Oh, about a dozen.
To her surprise, Wynland leaned down and ruffled the childâ€™s fair hair. â€œNone yet, Jeremy.â€
Disappointment shrunk the boyâ€™s brow, reminding her of someone. Finally, she had placed a person in her dreamâ€”sort of. Jeremy was familiar, but she didnâ€™t know where she had seen him.
â€œNot even one, mâ€™lord?â€
â€œThere were none to kill.â€
Jeremy propped his hands on his hips. â€œYeâ€™ll not let the brigands go, will ye?â€
â€œYou know I will not.â€
With a grin that revealed he was short a front tooth, the boy turned his gaze on Kennedy. â€œWho is that, mâ€™lord?â€
â€œâ€™Tis Lady Lark come to care for John and Harold.â€
With wide eyes and a mouth to match, Jeremy said, â€œMâ€™lady is most fair. Not at all what John and Harry feared.â€
Kennedy had to smile. Not since before her illness had she received such a sincere compliment.
â€œHave ye something for me, mâ€™lord?â€
Wynland tossed a coin to him, and the boy snatched it from the air with a greasy fist. Hooting with joy, he spun and disappeared among the many.
â€œYour new home,â€ Wynland said, â€œBrynwood Spire.â€
Kennedy looked up at the building at the center of the castle. Though impossible to overlook, that was what she had done, engrossed as she was with the activity before the grandiose structure. Six stories high, as many wide, its top edge notched all around, it gave new meaning to her notion of how a castle should look.
â€œItâ€™s. . .â€ She shook her head. â€œ. . .big.â€
â€œYou expected less?â€
She looked around. â€œActually, I hadnâ€™t thought much about it.â€
â€œThen you ought to. The earldom of Sinwell is vital to Englandâ€”strategically located, fertile, and among the wealthiest.â€
And arenâ€™t you just dying to get your hands on it? â€œIâ€™ll keep that in mind.â€
Wynland urged his horse forward and reined in before a long flight of steps that led up to what she assumed was the entrance. He dismounted and passed the reins to Squire James who waited for him. â€œI will be gone but a few minutes. See that my horse is watered and ready to ride when I return.â€
â€œAye, my lord.â€
My lord this, my lord that. Was it really necessary?
â€œLady Lark.â€ Wynland raised his arms.
Tempted as she was to refuse his help, Kennedy leaned toward him. His great hands gripped her waist and lifted her down. No sooner did her feet touch ground than he released her and turned toward the steps.
He probably feared he would catch something from her as he had earlier alluded. Trying not to feel the warm imprint of his hands, she lifted her skirt and followed him. Dozens of steep steps later, she caught up with him at the top landing. Feeling deep appreciation for whoever had invented the elevator, she looked to Wynland and found him studying her as if she were a one-thousand piece puzzle he must put together without a picture to guide him.
â€œA moment,â€ he said and lifted the circlet from her head. He adjusted the veil that hung longer on one side and resettled the circlet.
â€œThank you,â€ Kennedy murmured.
He looked like he might smile. â€œSo you do know something of propriety.â€ Before she could concoct a comeback, he turned his back on her. â€œCome, my mother will wish to receive you.â€
Had Macâ€™s book mentioned Wynlandâ€™s mother? If so, either the reference was obscure or Kennedy had been too tired to store the information.
The two soldiers who stood guard at the massive doors offered the usual â€œMy lord,â€ gave Kennedy the once-over, and pulled the doors open.
Inside, Wynland allowed her only a cursory examination of her surroundings before he struck out across the stone floorâ€”not that more was needed. The entrance hall was stark, nothing extraordinary about it. So what had happened to the run of imagination that had brought her this far?
â€œBrother!â€ someone called. Descending a stairway was a man whose resemblance to the one he called â€œbrotherâ€ seemed limited to hair color and build. Younger than Wynland by five or so years, his features were more handsome, eyes darker, and when he stepped off the stairs she saw he was shorter by several inches. â€œWhat news do you bring?â€
â€œThey are all dead, excepting Lady Lark.â€ Wynland stepped to the side to reveal Kennedy.
Surprise shot across the manâ€™s face. â€œLady Lark?â€ His gaze traveled down her, but when it returned to her face he had regained his composure.
â€œLady Lark,â€ Wynland said, â€œmy brother, Richard Wynland, Baron of Kinsey.â€
Before Kennedy could respond, Richard demanded, â€œWhat of the attackers?â€
â€œGone.â€ Wynland began to ascend the stairs.
Richard looked to Kennedy again, allowed her a glimpse of what might pass as dislike, then motioned her to precede him.
Donâ€™t take it personally. Itâ€™s just the stuff of dreams. She stepped forward. This stairway was less imposing than the first, and she soon found herself in a room so immense, so fabulously furnished, and so alive with the people of this era that she halted.
Brightly painted pillars supported an arched ceiling splashed with vibrant green, black, and gold. Tapestries around the walls depicted lovers in a garden, battling knights, and a dragon perched on a shield like those on the shirts worn by Sinwellâ€™s men. A fireplace the size of her spare bedroom was fueled by enormous logs. And the men and women, with their aristocratic deportment and splendid costumesâ€”the men in shirts over hose and pointed shoesâ€”looked as if they had walked off a movie set. But what was hay doing on the floor? Were they expecting cows?
An older woman wearing an ivory dress with sleeves that fell from her wrists to her calves, appeared in a fog of perfume that made Kennedy wince. â€œLady Lark?â€ Her voice was so melodious it could have been an instrument.
This had to be Wynlandâ€™s mother. She was petite, but there was no mistaking the resemblance, from the blonde hair encased in strange wire cylinders on either side of her head to intense blue eyes to soaring cheekbones.
Kennedy stuck out a hand. â€œYes, Iâ€™m Lady Lark.â€
As if a handshake was beneath her, the woman frowned.
Remembering another time, another place, another woman who had made her feel ten inches tall, Kennedy stole a glance at Wynland where he stood beside his mother. His expression was all the confirmation needed that a handshake was not how things were done here.
She lowered her arm. If they hadnâ€™t shook hands back thenâ€”nowâ€”how had they greeted one another?
â€œI am Lady Aveline, Lord Wynlandâ€™s mother.â€
â€œA pleasure to meet you.â€
Another frown, then a sniff as she noticed Kennedyâ€™s bloodied skirt. â€œMy son has assured me you are uninjured.â€
â€œI was fortunate.â€
Something flashed in the womanâ€™s eyes that gave Kennedyâ€™s memory a painful stir. Her ex-mother-in-law, Celia Huntworth, hadnâ€™t liked her either. But then, the womanâ€™s carefully plans for her debutante-destined son had been ruined when he stepped out of his â€œclassâ€ by marrying Kennedy.
â€œI am sure King Edward will be relieved to learn of your well-being,â€ Celiaâ€™s fourteenth-century counterpart said.
Kennedy nodded. â€œYes, he will.â€
Wynlandâ€™s mother waved someone forward, and a woman rose from a chair before the fire. Though her dress was less fine than Lady Avelineâ€™s, her sleeves also trailed. â€œThis is my daughter, Marion.â€
Unlike her mother, the thirty-fiveish Marion was no little thing. Though she wasnâ€™t tall by twenty-first century standards, she topped her mother by half a foot and carried ten to fifteen pounds more on her big-boned frame than insurance companies liked. Eyes blackest brown, hair straight and dishwater blonde beneath a veil, mouth wide, she was as different from Lady Aveline as summer was from winter. Not homely, but plain. From her posture to the color staining her cheeks, she appeared to lack her motherâ€™s self-possession.
Marion inclined her head. â€œLady Lark.â€
â€œLady Marion.â€ Had she got that right?
â€œMy daughter will show you to your chamber where you can bathe and rest,â€ Lady Aveline said.
Happy to put distance between herself and Wynland, Kennedy followed the woman. Although the others in the room resumed their conversations, she remained an object of interest. Not until she was before a winding stair did it occur to her something was missing. She spun around, scattering hay, and saw that Wynland strode opposite with his brother.
â€œMr. Wynland, what about. . .â€ What were their names? â€œ. . .John and Henry?â€
He turned. â€œJohn and Harold.â€
Right. â€œWhen do I get to meet the boys?â€
â€œLater.â€ He resumed his course.
â€œCome, Lady Lark,â€ Marion beckoned.
Kennedy lifted her skirt and climbed the stairs. Up and around and around they went, to a stone-laid corridor.
â€œYou have been given the east tower room,â€ Marion said as she led the way forward, a spring in her step that had not been there before. At the end of the corridor, she pushed a door inward and stepped aside to allow Kennedy to precede her.
The furnishings consisted of a bed, a stool, a small table with a bowl and pitcher, a raised iron pot that looked like a small barbecue, and a lit candle. Kennedy chuckled. She had dreamed herself into a place over which any self-respecting twenty-first century inmate would have filed a lawsuit.
â€œIs there anything you require, Lady Lark?â€
A bath? She searched the room again and noticed a narrow door that had to be the bathroom. She opened it. The room measured three by three feet and was bare except for a ledge against the back wall. And in the center of that ledge was a hole. An indoor outhouse. Wrinkling her nose at the odor, she closed the door.
â€œSomething is amiss, my lady?â€
Kennedy looked to the woman in the doorway. â€œI was hoping for a bath.â€
Marion frowned. â€œI directed the servants in the preparation of your chamber. All should be in readiness.â€ She crossed to the table and dipped a finger in the pitcher. â€œThe water is still warm.â€ She poured some into the bowl. â€œAnd here is your towel.â€
A bowl of tepid water and a hand towel was her idea of a bath? Hoping she didnâ€™t sound ungrateful, Kennedy said, â€œI was thinking of a long soak.â€
â€œIn a tub?â€
â€œYou have one, donâ€™t you?â€
â€œTwo, in fact.â€ That last was spoken with pride. â€œUnfortunately, all of the fires in the kitchen are taken with preparations for the nooning meal, so â€˜tis not possible to warm water for a bath.â€
No plumbing. Kennedy sighed. â€œOf course.â€
â€œI will leave you to your ablutions.â€ At the door, Marion turned back. â€œI hope we shall be friends.â€
Her words seemed so genuine Kennedy smiled. â€œSo do I.â€
A grin brightened Marionâ€™s face. â€œThen we shall.â€
Obviously, this Marion and the one she had first met were not the same.
â€œMayhap you will share with me tales of your life at court.â€
Never before out of the twenty-first century Kennedy Plain? Whose only experience with â€œlife at courtâ€ was two hours spent in traffic court last summer? â€œIâ€™d love to.â€ Chances were she would be long awakened from this dream before she had to make good on that.
â€œRest well, my lady.â€ Marion stepped into the corridor and pulled the door closed.
Kennedy crossed to the left of the bed and opened the single shutter. A shaft of light slanted across the floor, lighting the dust motes and the stain on her skirt. Though she didnâ€™t have clothes to change into, she decided the slip beneath would suffice. As it hit just below the knee, it had escaped the fate of the dress.
To her frustration, she soon discovered there were no buttons or zippers to release her from the dress, only laces at the back. After much contorting and grunting, she captured the trailing end of one lace and pulled. The bodice loosened, and she quickly vacated the dress. Surprisingly, the slip was pleated, embroidered around the neck, had long sleeves, and was made of what felt like silk.
Kennedy slipped out of the shoes and tugged off the socks. As she washed the blood from her calves, she pondered the boys. â€œLater,â€ Wynland had said. Could he do that? Or, as the king had appointed Lady Lark to care for them, could she demand to see then immediately? Of course, it wasnâ€™t as if the boys were without a protector. They had Sir Arthur Crosley. For a moment, she wondered if he bore any resemblance to Mac. Ridiculousâ€”unless her subconscious decided to cast Mac in the role he had tried to convince her was his.
Kennedy unknotted her hair and raked fingers through it. It took time to get it to the place where she could braid it, but she enjoyed every moment. Funny, only now that she had it all back did she appreciate what she had too long taken for granted. Day in, day out, she had confined her long hair to a bun or ponytail and silently threatened to whack it off each time it fell into her eyes. Leave it to cancer to take care of the problem. . .
Kennedy let her sectioned hair slip through her fingers. Deciding to enjoy it for the short time she had it, she shook her head and let the waves fall over her shoulders. No wonder Mac had wanted to believe his dreams were real. If she were just a bit mad, she might herself.
She lay down on the bed and, certain she would awaken on her living room floor, mumbled, â€œGood riddance, Mr. Wynland.â€
No woman he had ever known was worth dying for. Yet thirteen men had given their lives to protect this oneâ€”the kingâ€™s leman.
A lovely leman, Fulke admitted as candlelight danced through dark hair and skipped across a face rendered innocent in sleep. Though he knew he should not, he pushed the door wider. The movement made the links of his hauberk ring, but Lady Lark did not awaken. Gaining a full view of where she lay on the bed, Fulke slid his gaze to her throat, then over the thin material of her chemise.
He clenched his hands in an attempt to turn back the attraction he had first felt when he had carried her before him on his horse. The effort was in vain, for the sight of her, looking as if she had fallen asleep awaiting a lover, stirred him to discomfort.
One could hardly fault Edward for taking her to mistress, for she was beyond lovely, and without aid of rouge or powder. And her scent. . . No perfume had assailed him when he breathed her during the ride to Brynwood. She had smelled of light and airâ€”
He berated himself for such fanciful thoughts. Fulke Wynland, Baron of Trune, protector of Sinwell, was not fancifulâ€”though once he had been. He lifted a hand to knock as he had earlier done, but Lark murmured and turned fully toward him, causing her chemise to rise.
What Fulkeâ€™s hand had known his eyes quickly learnedâ€”muscled calves and firm thighs. It was as if her days were not spent at needlework, but on the training field. Not possible, but he had seen her run. Never had he known a woman to move as she did, and while wearing a gown lifted high. Such strength and stamina were not acquired running around a kingâ€™s bedchamber.
He considered the dwindling candle and reflected deeper on this woman thrust into his life by an aging king determined to upset his vassalâ€™s ordered lifeâ€”first with the appointment of Sir Arthur Crosley, now this woman. Why had Edward done it? It was something Fulke had questioned a dozen times since receiving word of Lady Larkâ€™s impending arrival. How many nursemaids did two children require?
Of course, if he was honest, the boys had been adrift until the coming of Sir Arthur. Following the death of Fulkeâ€™s half-brother, the earl, it had been necessary to discharge the woman who had cared for John and Harold since birth. For two months, Fulke had disregarded the womanâ€™s impertinence and reports of her speculation over his role in his brotherâ€™s death, but when he had come upon her warning the boys against him, his forbearance had shattered.
Determining his mother should care for the boys, he had sent to Trune for Aveline, but they were not her grandchildren and she had been unable to hide her disdain. As for Marion, in her uncertain state she was unfit for such responsibility, though she did spend much of her day in their company. However, he had but to advance the possibility of wedding his sister away and she deteriorated more rapidly than a rose in frost. He oft wondered about that.
With none to properly mother the boys, the king had twice taken it upon himself to ensure Sinwellâ€™s heir was cared for. But why this woman? Though surely apt at putting a man to bed, it was far different from tucking children in at night and soothing away their worries and fears. It must be as it was said: Edward had simply used the opportunity to rid himself of her. But what had wearied him? Her peculiar behavior? Her forward disposition? Her sharp tongue? Surely not those legs.
Stirred again, Fulke forced himself to recognize another reason Edward might have sent her. No, the king would not presume so far. Lady Lark was stained, and not even Edward could make her clean again. Still, if she came to him, and she might now that her bed was cold, could he send her away?
He cursed. If she was as free with other men as she had been with Edward, she was likely diseased. If not, there was the matter of her refusal to tell him what had befallen her escort, her claim to a head injury of which he saw no evidence, and her allusion to him being responsible for the attack.
Regardless, this was not the place to question a woman like her. Fulke turned away.
He looked around and saw she spoke out of her sleep. Was Graham another lover?
â€œToo late. . .â€ she breathed.
Was it light? A scent? A sound? The chill in the air? Whatever it was, it woke Kennedy. She lifted her lids and caught her breath at the sight of the man who filled the shadowed doorway head to toe, shoulder to shoulder.
She was still in the fourteenth century of a dream that had turned night, and no amount of shadow could disguise her visitor. It was Wynland, and she doubted he was here to ask whether the accommodations were to her liking.
In the flickering light of the candle, she sat up. In spite of the chill from the open window, she resisted the temptation to drag the slip over her bare legs. After all, as the kingâ€™s mistress she had a reputation to live up to. And it wasnâ€™t as if she didnâ€™t show more skin in a bikini.
She tucked her feet under her. â€œWhat do you want?â€
He stepped into the light. Still wearing armor, the small room magnified his size, making him appear even more a behemoth. â€œâ€™Tis time we spoke.â€ Metal on metal, he strode to the window and closed the shutter.
His gaze lingered on her legs. â€œHas no one ever told you, Lady Lark, that which is kept hidden from a man is more intriguing?â€
If she understood him to mean it was better to leave something to the imagination, it would be her mother who had told her that. Kennedy curled her fingers into her palms. â€œWhat do you want to speak to me about?â€
Though clearly displeased by her disregard for his suggestion that she cover herself, he said, â€œYour attackers have gone from Brynwood as if they never were. If I am to run them to ground, I need to know what befell your escort.â€
She supposed he did have to expend some effort to throw suspicion off himself. â€œYou think that whatever I saw may be of use in apprehending the. . .murderers?â€
She touched her left temple. â€œIâ€™m afraid I still donâ€™t recallâ€”my head injury, you know.â€
His lids narrowed. â€œIt has spread to that side, my lady?â€
Caught. Not that he had believed her the first go around. â€œHmm. It seems so.â€
His hands clenched. Would he keep them to himself?
A scuffling arose in the corridor.
Wynland snatched up the cover and whipped it over her legs and chest. â€œDue modesty, my lady, lest my men take your wantonness for an invitation.â€
Wantonness? She, who had been a virgin until the age of twenty when she met Graham, the man she later married?
Two soldiers appeared in the doorway, a trunk between them. â€œMy lord,â€ they spoke in unison.
Wynland motioned them inside. â€œThere.â€
Eyes averted, they set the trunk at the foot of the bed. As suddenly as they had appeared, they disappeared, leaving Kennedy alone with a man she would have feared if he were real.
â€œWhen you do recall what happened,â€ he said, â€œI trust you will come to me.â€
â€œIf I recall.â€ She sighed. â€œI suppose this means the end of your search?â€
A muscle in his jaw jumped. â€œHalf my men are still out there. At first light, I will lead a second contingent to the eastern border.â€
She frowned. â€œWhy did you come back?â€
â€œI answer to no one, Lady Lark, but for you I shall make an exception. As I told you, Sinwell is vital to England. Thus, until John comes of age, I am lord and responsible for the demesne and its people. What happened today is serious, but I will not leave Brynwood Spire too long to avenge men whose lives are already forfeit.â€
End of story, and so convincingly told that if she didnâ€™t know better, she might believe him.
â€œNow clothe yourself.â€ He pivoted. â€œMy mother will expect you at table for supper.â€
â€œHow am I supposed to do that when my dress is bloodied?â€
When he came back around, his left eyebrow once more formed an M. â€œThe trunk would be a good place to start.â€
She looked to the end of the bed. This must be the trunk that had been trapped beneath the wagon. She tossed the cover back, swung her feet to the floor, and padded to it. â€œLady Larkâ€™s?â€
Silence. Had he gone? She looked around and met his suspicious gaze.
â€œYou speak of yourself as if you are not present, Lady Lark.â€ He leaned a shoulder against the door frame. â€œWhy is that?â€
Because she is not present, and I am having a hard time keeping her hat on. But she couldnâ€™t tell him that. Or could she? How would this man of her dreams react? What words would her subconscious put in his mouth? Tempted as she was to find out, she didnâ€™t dare.
Hadnâ€™t Macâ€™s book said no one knew where Lady Lark came from? And her surname, age, and social standing were as much a mystery. â€œHardly a world traveler, are you, Mr. Wynland?â€ Kennedy said with renewed confidence. â€œWhere I come from, one often uses the formal to refer to oneâ€™s self.â€
Disbelief. â€œWhere is it you come from, Lady Lark? Not England, I wager.â€
â€œYou are right.â€
â€œAnd certainly not France with an accent such as yours.â€
Had he picked up on the drawl that had once mapped her Southern roots? As she had left North Carolina at the age of thirteen following her parentsâ€™ divorce, she had thought it long gone.
â€œWhere?â€ he pressed.
â€œThat is between the king and me.â€
His gaze held hers long and hard, then he straightened and strode down the corridor.
Obviously, the king was a good card to play with Wynland. Come to think of it. . .
She ran to the door. â€œMr. Wynland, I will expect your nephews at supper.â€
He turned, retraced his footsteps, and set his six foot three of bone and muscle over her. â€œWill you?â€
â€œThey are the reason King Edward sent me.â€
â€œAs I heard tale, you were sent that he might rid himself of a tedious mistress.â€
Kennedy raised her chin. â€œMy relationship with Edward is none of your business. Suffice it to say that I am here to carry out his orders that I care for your nephews.â€
â€œAnd how do you intend to do that? By exposing yourself?â€ He caught the neck of her slip and pulled her forward. â€œBy going about wearing naught but your chemise? Tempting my men?â€
Though Kennedy reminded herself this was only a dream, there was nothing dream-like about Wynlandâ€”the condemnation in his eyes, the masculine scent of his sweat, the prickling sensation where his rough fingers brushed her throat, the body heat radiating across the space between them.
She swallowed. â€œI assure you, no harm will come to John and Harold while they are in my care. Can you say as much?â€ That last slipped out. How a dream could rub her so wrong, she didnâ€™t know, but this oneâ€”this manâ€”did.
Wynland reeled her in until they were nose to nose. â€œI was wrong. You should fear me, Lady Lark.â€
As much as she tried to convince herself her fear was unfounded, it was all she could do not to put it out there for him to see. â€œLet me go.â€
He released her.
â€œThe king will hear of this, Mr. Wynland.â€
â€œI am Lord Wynland. See that you afford me my title in future.â€ Once again, he strode opposite.
Kennedy glared at his back. He would never be her lord. If he didnâ€™t like â€œMr.â€ she had some choice alternatives.
When he entered a room halfway down the corridor, she grimaced at the realization it was likely his bedroom. She closed the door and returned to the trunk. Kneeling, she lifted the heavy lid. Inside were two dresses made from bright cloth, a long slipâ€”or chemise, as Wynland called itâ€”a pair of thin-soled pointed shoes, thick socks, two belts, a veil, a silver circlet, and a comb.
Kennedy chose the emerald green dress over the red. Fortunately, it had laces down both sides, but how on earth would she manage the dozen buttons running the sleeves from elbow to wrist? She eyed the red dress. It didnâ€™t have buttons, just those long sleeves, but it laced in back. No wonder ladies of this age had needed maids.
Kennedy pulled off the slip, reached for the clean one in the trunk, and froze. She had breasts. Though her weight loss had robbed her of their fullness to the point she hadnâ€™t needed to wear a bra in months, there they were. She was whole again. No headaches, no illness, everything the way it had been. She could get used to this.
But that was the trap Mac had fallen into. If she wasnâ€™t careful, she would end up marked for the loony bin. Not that her sentence would be lengthy. . .
Kennedy pulled the slip on, followed by the green dress, and discovered the buttons were the least of her worries. The dress didnâ€™t fit. The sleeves were short by an inch, the skirt hit above her ankles in contrast to the trailing length worn by Wynlandâ€™s mother and sister, and even if she didnâ€™t lace up the sides, it would be snug.
What to do? By twenty-first century standards, the slip could pass for a light dress, but from Wynlandâ€™s reaction, it was inappropriate. She held the red dress against her. Same size. The green would have to do. She snugged up the side laces as much as possible, tied them off, and struggled through the buttons on the sleeves. Since the shoes were too small, she pulled on the ones that had served her so poorly during her flight from Wynland. Lastly, she tackled her hair. And despite the mess, it was a joy.
The draft alerted him, its chill pricking his bare feet and legs. Fulke dropped the hose he had been in the process of donning and pulled his misericorde from the belt that lay on the bed. The daggerâ€™s blade reflecting torchlight, he pivoted, swept the tapestry aside, and fell on the intruder.
The man cried out, but not until the misericorde was at his neck did Fulke realize it was Marion.
â€œGodâ€™s patience!â€ He lowered the dagger. â€œFor what are you skulking about my chamber?â€
Though it was dim behind the tapestry, torchlight slipped in and curved around the hand she held to her throat. â€œRemind me not to steal upon you ever again, brother.â€
He looked to the door through which she had entered the solar. Behind it and a dozen more lay the passages that ran the inner walls of the keep. It was years since he had negotiated them himself, and usually it had been with Marion close behind.
â€œIf I must remind you not to steal upon me again, you will deserve what ill befalls you.â€
She scowled. â€œI do so miss the boy.â€
The boy he had been and would never be again. Their days of mischief, games, and shared imaginings were long over. He thrust the tapestry back, tossed the misericorde on the bed, and returned to his hose.
â€œMy!â€ Marion feigned shock. â€œHad I known you were without dress, I would not have entered your chamber.â€
She made it sound as if he was nude when he had but to don hose and boots. He rolled the left hose up his leg.
She lowered to the edge of the bed. â€œDid you think I was Cardell?â€
Cardell who would prefer him dead. â€œIn such circumstances, Marion, one does not think. One acts.â€ He tied the top of the hose to the braie girdle beneath his tunic. â€œBut had you been him, you would be no more.â€ As he pulled on the opposite hose, he rued the responsibility bequeathed to him by the death of his half-brotherâ€”especially the dissension that had risen from it.
â€œThe people like you,â€ Marion slipped into his thoughts as she was still able to do, â€œas do several of the barons.â€
But not Cardell and half a dozen others. Fulke jerked his above-knee tunic down over his hose. â€œWhat do you want?â€
She rose and crossed to the trunk, removed a jeweled belt and shoes, and held them out to him.
Fulke turned away. His sword belt would better serve, as would boots. He slid the misericorde in its sheath, girded the belt, and dropped the lid on the trunk. Seating himself, he reached for his short boots.
Marion lowered beside him. â€œI am wondering what you think of Lady Lark.â€
He shoved his feet into the boots. â€œShe is the reason for your trespass?â€
â€œOne of the reasons. What do you think of her?â€
â€œI think she is lovely.â€
â€œYou expected the kingâ€™s leman to be otherwise?â€
Marion leaned back on her hands and gazed at the ceiling as if it were a canopy of stars. â€œDo you remember when, as children, we dreamed of the one we would one day wedâ€”all the while mother and father spat at one another?â€ She turned her gaze to him. â€œWe were going to be different.â€
â€œThey were dreams, Marion. Never meant to be.â€
He stood. â€œSupper awaits.â€
She eyed him. â€œYou would make a fine husband, Fulke.â€
Unfortunately, he could not say she would make a fine wife. â€œWhen you are wed, dear Marion, mayhap I shall get me an heir.â€ In which case, it might never happen.
The sister he knew disappeared from her eyes and was replaced by one he preferred not to knowâ€”someone whose mind had twisted long ago.
Casting her emptied gaze down, hands beginning to tremble, she muttered, â€œAye, supper awaits.â€
An ache in his chest, Fulke slid a hand beneath her elbow and raised her to her feet. â€œCome.â€
Kennedy stepped off the torch-lit stairs and into a room she hardly recognized. Had she taken a wrong turn? She remembered the tapestries, the painted ceiling, and the fireplace. It was the place Wynland had brought her through earlier, but transformed by tables, benches, servants bearing platters of food, a multitude of people who had not been present upon her arrival, and a clamor that was almost deafeningâ€”until a hush fell.
Heads turned and eyes widened. Did she look that bad? There hadnâ€™t been a mirror.
Although she longed to head back upstairs, she determined she would face these people and their disapproval, and do it with styleâ€”hopefully. Sensing Wynlandâ€™s gaze, she looked past rows of tables to a table raised above the others. He sat at its center, as if in judgment of her, and beside him was his brother.
She put her shoulders back and walked forward. There were whispers, snickers, snide comments, a lewd grunt, but she didnâ€™t falter.
Nearing Wynland, she noted he had changed into a black shirt embroidered around the neck and his unruly hair was secured at his nape. He cleaned up well, appearing less sinister than he had in armor. Until she looked into his eyes. His silent regard was all the warning she needed that he would extract payment for whatever sin she had committed. Let him try.
She stopped before him. â€œWhere would you like me to sit?â€
When he didnâ€™t speak, Marion said, â€œBeside me, Lady Lark.â€
Since the woman was three places removed from her brother, one from her disagreeable mother, Kennedy said, â€œThank you.â€ She stepped onto the raised platform, skirted the table, and lowered to the bench.
Marion turned to her. â€œWere you able to rest?â€
â€œYes, I got some sleep.â€
â€œSplendid.â€ Marion lifted a metal goblet and sipped.
Realizing how thirsty she was, Kennedy looked to the table. No goblet, but the good news was that interest in her was waning.
â€œHow was your bath?â€ Marion asked.
â€œIt was. . .different.â€
â€œI imagine at court you had the luxury of a tub bath once a sennight. I enjoy them myself, but I am able to indulge only once a fortnight.â€
However long that was, it didnâ€™t sound good.
Lady Aveline leaned forward, stirring the air with perfume, the abundance of which probably had something to do with bathing being a luxury. â€œFor all the horrors you endured this day, you appear to have fared well, Lady Lark.â€
Kennedy wondered how to respond. Though she didnâ€™t think she would ever forget the terrible images, it could be nothing compared to what the real Lady Lark must have endured. â€œI was fortunate.â€ Lame.
â€œLady Lark sustained a head injury, Mother.â€ Wynland netted Kennedyâ€™s gaze. â€œShe is unable to recall the incident.â€
â€œIs that so?â€ Lady Aveline mused.
â€œHow terrible,â€ Marion murmured.
Richard Wynland merely shined his dislike on Kennedy.
A server appeared. Cheeks pink from exertion, the woman set a goblet in front of Kennedy and poured a dark liquid into it.
Wine? Though, on occasion, Kennedy enjoyed a glass of wine, water was her poison. â€œExcuse me, can I get a glass of water?â€
Surprise came at her from all sides, though it was most prominent on the servantâ€™s face. â€œWater, mâ€™lady?â€
â€œFrom the tap is fine.â€
The womanâ€™s confusion deepened. â€œBut. . .â€
â€œSurely you jest, Lady Lark,â€ Marion said. â€œEveryone knows water is an evil drink.â€
Now Kennedy was confusedâ€”until she recalled the advice for traveling in third world countries. Water must not be safe in medieval England either. She smiled at the server. â€œMilk?â€
Still the woman looked disconcerted. â€œI shall fetch some, mâ€™lady.â€ She hurried away.
Lady Aveline harrumphed. â€œEven John and Harold choose wine over milk.â€
Children drank wine?
â€œWhere are John and Harold?â€ Wynland asked.
â€œâ€™Tis likely Sir Arthur again,â€ Lady Aveline grumbled.
â€œSquire James!â€ Wynland called.
The young man rose from a lower table. â€œMy lord?â€
â€œCollect my nephews and bring them and Sir Arthur to the hall.â€
â€œAye, my lord.â€
Marion leaned near Kennedy. â€œThey hate each other.â€
â€œTheyâ€ being Wynland and Arthur Crosley. Pretending ignorance, Kennedy asked, â€œWhy?â€
Before Marion could answer, a plate was set between her and her mother, on it a large scooped out round of bread filled with what looked like stew. Marion picked up a spoon and took a bite. As did her mother.
They were not the only ones to share a meal, a practice that was hardly hygienic. But when a plate was set between Kennedy and the heavy man beside her and she realized he was to be her partner, she was too hungry to object.
â€œFor some reason,â€ Marion finally said, â€œSir Arthur believes my brother plans to out the heir that he might take the earldom for himself. Try though I do to convince him he is wrong, he refuses to believe me.â€
If only she knew. Kennedy looked to her shared meal. Seeing the man was halfway through it, she snagged a spoonful of chunked vegetables. And was surprised. Though she hadnâ€™t held much hope for the offering, it was tasty.
â€œUnfortunately,â€ Marion whispered, â€œhe is not the only one to believe ill of my brother.â€
Kennedy spooned up another bite of her rapidly diminishing meal.
â€œCome mirth, come woe, Baron Cardell opposes Fulke.â€ She inclined her head opposite. â€œYou see him? He sits two past Richard.â€
Kennedy looked beyond Wynlandâ€™s brother to an older man who made her startle. The mass of curling black hair that sprouted from his jaw resembled a skunkâ€™s tailâ€”black on either side of a gray streak that ran chin to chest. â€œThe one with the beard?â€
â€œThat is him. Ere our brotherâ€™s death, the baron was the earlâ€™s confidante. He does not boast such an esteemed position with Fulke.â€
â€œHe and Fulke do not like one anotherâ€”never have, methinks never shall.â€
Tempted as Kennedy was to suggest Baron Cardell might have a good reason, she said, â€œWhy donâ€™t they like one another?â€
From Marionâ€™s eyes rose a depth of wisdom far different from the face she had thus far revealed. â€œBecause Fulke cannot be controlled. Of courseâ€â€”her voice grew more hushedâ€”â€œthe baronâ€™s true enmity lies in the kingâ€™s decision to grant wardship of John andâ€”â€œ
â€œHush, Marion,â€ Lady Aveline snapped. â€œEat your meal.â€
Back into her shell Marion went.
Kennedy took a spoonful of the stew, but hardly had the vegetables hit the back of her tongue than her partner cleared his throat and turned his flushed face to her.
â€œCareful lest ye strain yer seams even more, my lady.â€
He was one to talk! Twoâ€”maybe threeâ€”of her could fit into him. Kennedy dug deeper. When her milk arrived, she took a gulp and nearly spit it out. It was thick and tasted as if sweetener had been added.
â€œAbout your clothes,â€ Marion said a while later.
â€œYour gown is beautiful, but rather lacking.â€ She smiled apologetically. â€œUnless it is the new mode at court?â€
Could she get away with that? Perhaps with Marion, but not with her mother who also awaited an explanation. And though Wynlandâ€™s attention appeared to be elsewhere, she wouldnâ€™t be surprised if he was tuned in.
â€œNothing like that. Itâ€™s just that Iâ€™m a bit of a yo-yo with my weight. Size six, eight, sometimes ten.â€ Actually, with the onset of cancer, the opposite was trueâ€”eight to six to four. But that was in the real world, a place to which she didnâ€™t have to return for however long this dream lasted.
From the confusion on Marionâ€™s face, it was as if Kennedy spoke a foreign language. â€œItâ€™s a weight thing,â€ she tried again. â€œI gain some. I lose some.â€
Marion nodded. â€œWhat of the surcoat?â€
â€œYour overgown.â€ She touched her own garment with its trailing sleeves, beneath which tight-fitting sleeves buttoned down to her wrists.
Now Kennedy understood. The red dress with its back lacing was to be worn over the green. â€œI. . .donâ€™t care for layering.â€
Marion frowned. â€œAnd of the length?â€ She leaned in. â€œI could see your ankles.â€
What a shock she would have if she were dreaming in Kennedyâ€™s world. â€œTerrible, isnâ€™t it? If Iâ€™ve told my maid once, Iâ€™ve told her a hundred timesâ€”cold water.â€
â€œShe caused your gown to shrink?â€
â€œIt would appear so.â€
Lady Aveline looked around her daughter. â€œCould it be the dress is not yours, Lady Lark?â€
â€œOf course itâ€™s mine.â€
Lady Avelineâ€™s lids narrowed. â€œMy son tells me you were not traveling with a maid. Can that be?â€
Where was this second degree going? To the lie about the maid shrinking her dress or her assumed identity? In the next instant, Kennedy was struck by the possibility she was playing the part of someone other than Lady Lark. It would certainly explain the dying soldierâ€™s rejection and the contents of the trunk.
That was probably it, but she couldnâ€™t admit it since it would mean Wynlandâ€™s wrath and questions she couldnâ€™t answer. She would have to play along, especially as it seemed far better to be a lady than a maidâ€”or a criminal.
â€œThatâ€™s correct. My maid was unable to accompany me.â€
The dragon ladyâ€™s plucked eyebrows arched.
Kennedy turned her regard to Marion. â€œDo you know what a wyvern is?â€
Once more, puzzlement came to roost. â€œA type of dragon. Surely you know that?â€
Kennedy nearly laughed at her recent assessment of Lady Aveline. â€œOf course.â€ She glanced at the enormous tapestry on the wall behind. â€œLike that one.â€
â€œNay, a wyvern has but two legs. A true dragon has four, like the one on Sinwellâ€™s shield of arms.â€
â€œOh.â€ And it wasnâ€™t two-headed as the dying soldier had spoken of. So much for evidence of Wynlandâ€™s guilt. â€œYour brotherâ€™s shield of arms is different from Sinwellâ€™s, is that right?â€
â€œAye, Fulke bears the gryphon.â€
The half-eagle half-lion Kennedy had glimpsed on his squireâ€™s shirt and several othersâ€™ when she had come downstairs.
â€œMy lord, my lord!â€ A woman ran across the hall, the veil on her head askew, eyes wide, Squire James following. â€œHe has taken the children!â€ She stumbled to a halt before Wynland. â€œTaken them and gone from Brynwood!â€
He stood. â€œHow?â€ he roared above the buzz caused by the womanâ€™s words.
She raised a hand to reveal the rope dangling from her wrist, grasped the cloth encircling her neck. â€œHe bound and gagged me, my lord.â€
â€œThe beast!â€ Lady Aveline hissed.
Kennedy looked to Wynlandâ€™s sister and thought she glimpsed hurt in the womanâ€™s eyes. What was going on? Hardly had the question formed than the pieces fell into placeâ€”Squire James, who had returned empty handed. . .the book that said Sir Arthur had stolen the boys from Brynwood following the attack on Lady Lark. How could she have forgotten?
â€œWhen?â€ Wynland demanded.
â€œAfter you rode from Brynwood this morn, my lord.â€
His nostrils flared. â€œI shall wash my hands in his blood!â€
Not an idle threat. Poor Sir Arthur. His only crime was trying to prevent the murder of two innocents. â€œHe wonâ€™t hurt them,â€ Kennedy said.
Wynlandâ€™s eyes pinned her like a fly to fly paper. â€œHow do you know that?â€
Because she knew Mac andâ€”no! Mac had nothing to do with this. It was the account she had read of Crosley. This, in a way, made her something of an authority. â€œBecause I know Sir Arthur.â€
Wynlandâ€™s lips curved, but it was hardly a smile. â€œI am sure you do.â€
Amid snickering, Kennedy said, â€œHe wants only to protect your nephews.â€
â€œAnd who, do you think, seeks to harm them?â€
The murmur grew louder.
Kennedy glanced at the people, saw dislike in some of their eyes, uncertainty in others. They had no idea what their â€œlordâ€ was capable of. â€œWhoever has the most to gain, of course.â€
Wynlandâ€™s gaze hardened further. There had never been a possibility they would be friends, but still she had blasted the nonexistent bridge to kingdom come.
He strode from behind the table, causing Kennedy to startle at the sight of him. If ever a man looked good in hose, it was Fulke Wynland.
â€œAll of youâ€â€”he swept a hand around the roomâ€”â€œto your horses!â€
Richard Wynland and thirty or more men stood, several in hose and above-knee shirts, though none cut quite the figure their lord did.
â€œLord Wynland!â€ a booming voice halted them. Baron Cardell unfolded his stout frame.
â€œCardell?â€ Wynland said.
â€œWhat of Brynwood?â€
â€œIn my absence, it will not be without. Richard!â€ Wynland searched out his brother. â€œThough I know you were to return to Kinsley on the morrow and would prefer to aid in my search, I ask that you remain here in my stead.â€
The younger manâ€™s jaw tightened. â€œAs you wish.â€
Wynland returned his attention to Cardell. â€œReady yourself and your men.â€
â€œI would remain here.â€
â€œYou ride with me.â€
â€œElse await my return in a prison cell.â€
Time stretched, but finally the baron said, â€œI am your man, my lord.â€
It didnâ€™t take a genius to fathom the lie just told. And from Wynlandâ€™s caustic smile, he was aware of it. He resumed his course.
A hand closed around Kennedyâ€™s wrist, nails dug into her that she traced to the woman who reached past Marion.
â€œHow dare you accuse my son of seeking to harm those boys,â€ Lady Aveline hissed. â€œYou know naught!â€
No mother wanted to believe her child capable of the atrocity hers had committedâ€”would commit. Deciding the best way to defuse the situation was to appeal to the grandmother in her, Kennedy said, â€œAll I know is that your grandsonsâ€”â€
â€œJohn and Harold are not of my blood, just as their father was not of my body.â€ The words flew off her tongue with such passion there was no doubt she felt no love for the boys.
So she had been a second wifeâ€”maybe a third or fourth. â€œMy apologies, Lady Aveline. I am simply concerned for the welfare of your sonâ€™s nephews.â€
â€œThen look to the one who has taken them from their beds!â€ Lady Aveline released her.
Kennedy glanced at the half moons scoring her flesh.
â€œIs it true you know Sir Arthur?â€ Marion whispered.
â€œI. . .yes, I do.â€
â€œYou are friends?â€
Did she detect jealousy? â€œIn a manner of speaking.â€
â€œIn a what?â€
â€œMake ready, Lady Lark,â€ Wynlandâ€™s voice skinned Kennedyâ€™s.
He was advancing on her. Unsettled by his return and this stuff about â€œmaking readyâ€ she said, â€œWhat?â€
â€œYou shall come with me.â€ He stepped onto the platform and put his palms on the table. â€œAs you profess to know Crosley, methinks you may prove useful in our search.â€
She knew from historical account that Crosleyâ€™s flight would take him to the monastery of Farfallow where he would be slain, but she had no intention of aiding this man. â€œI donâ€™t see how I can be of help.â€
â€œStill, you will come.â€
Another wild ride? â€œAre we talking horses?â€
He leaned so near she could smell wine on his breath. â€œTime is of the utmost, Lady Lark. Thus, there will be no carriage or, in your case, baggage wagon.â€
â€œI told you, Iâ€™m not a horse person. I canâ€™t ride. Iâ€”â€
â€œYou cannot ride?â€ Marion exclaimed. â€œHow can that be?â€
â€œPray tell, Lady Lark,â€ Lady Aveline said.
Surprisingly, Wynland came to her rescueâ€”in a manner of speaking. â€œFive minutes. If you are not ready, I will take you as you are.â€ He stalked away.