Authors: Victoria Alexander
Angie glanced at the gilded title gleaming dully on the cover and laughed. “She doesn’t know you very well, does she?”
“She knows me very well.” Tessa retrieved the book and studied it carefully. “This is really intriguing. The cover looks like it’s maybe a hundred years old or so. It’s still fairly easy to find works from that era.” Carefully she opened the book. “But the pages seem much older. I wonder how that happened?”
“Maybe somebody replaced the cover at some point?” Angie said helpfully.
“I suppose…Still, it’s strange.” Tessa turned the pages slowly. “This looks really, really old. Take a look at that print.”
Angie glanced at the page. “It’s a cursive style, like
handwriting instead of block print.” Her gaze met Tessa’s. “So what?”
“I don’t know. Since the cover’s been replaced it’s probably not terribly valuable.” Tessa pulled her brows together. “But it is interesting.”
“Interesting?” Angie clapped her hands to her cheeks in an exaggerated expression of surprise. “Why who would have thought, our very own Ms. St. James would have found that particular subject interesting in the least little bit.”
“Knock it off.” Tessa laughed. “It’s the book I find interesting not the subject.” She laid it gently on the desk. “I’ll look at it later. Let’s go get something to eat.”
“It’s nice to know you believe in something.” Angie stepped to the door.
“Oh, yeah? What?”
Angie tossed her a smug smile. “Food.”
“You’ve caught me. I’m a believer. Now let’s go.” Tessa pushed her out the door in a good-natured manner. She’d examine the book more closely later today. It was weird though, this particular volume arriving when it did. Probably no more than a bizarre coincidence. Still, like a song she couldn’t get out of her head, the book’s title throbbed in the back of her mind:
My Life and Times
The Story of Merlin
Wizard Extraordinaire and Counselor to Kings
Tessa arched her back and stretched her hands over her head in a vain effort to relieve some of the stiff
ness in her joints. It seemed like she’d been sitting here forever. Alone. Exactly why she loved the stacks in the old wing of the university library. People rarely came into this area and, since Tessa had a tendency to talk to herself out loud when she concentrated, this was the perfect place for her. There were no windows back here, nothing to really mark the passage of time and it was easy to focus on whatever work was before her She glanced at her watch and straightened in surprise. It was nearly eight o’clock. She’d been here all day.
“And what have we managed to get accomplished? Not much.” Tessa stared ruefully at the array of books scattered across the broad expanse of the scarred, ancient oak table. She’d pulled almost every reference the university had to offer on dating antique books.
The Story of Merlin
defied them all and through the course of the day, the mystery had become an obsession.
She was fairly confident about the age of the cover though. It dated to the late 1800s at the earliest. There was nothing particularly special about it except that it was in remarkably good condition. A little wear around the corners seemed to be the extent of any damage. No, it wasn’t the cover that fascinated her.
She flipped open the book and turned the pages one by one. The paper was like nothing she’d ever seen. It bore a striking resemblance to a very fine parchment. Tessa had examined books that dated back five hundred years before but that parchment was brittle and fragile and stiff with age. The pages in this book were supple and flexible as if they were new. But of course that was ridiculous. Even in the 1800s no one used parchment. Beyond that, after more than a hundred years, parchment too would lose its pliant properties.
The pages themselves weren’t half as intriguing as the words printed on them. At least she thought it was print. It could well have been actual handwriting. She shook her head in frustration. That made no sense at all. She ran her finger lightly over one page. If this was written, no matter how old, there would be a difference in the feel of the page, with subtle ridges and indentations in the surface, as compared to a sheet of mechanical printing. As far as she could tell, it was flat.
But it was the illustrations that took her breath away. In a style that seemed more realistic than the nineteenth century, the colors, vibrant and alive, defied any test of time. Each depiction was more glorious than the last. Here was a painting of a knight pitted against a dragon, so evocative she could almost feel the heat of the dragon’s breath on her face and shiver with the fear of the valiant knight. There was a court scene, a great hall draped in the banners of the king’s men with the laughter of a hundred lords and ladies echoing through the chamber. She turned another page and caught her breath. How had she missed this picture? It was the most stunning illustration yet.
A knight knelt in prayer before an altar, his hands clasped, his gaze turned toward the heavens. He wore some kind of tunic, with a massive sword in a scabbard at his waist. A red jewel glittered in a ring on his little finger. A single shaft of light from a window that was little more than a slit in the wall illuminated his upturned face. His hair was dark, nearly black, the color of night. His profile was classic: a straight, noble nose, lips firm and full, a touch of defiance in the set of his chin, eyes deep and lit with a burning passion. She couldn’t really tell from the picture but somehow she
knew his eyes were blue and nearly as dark as his hair. He seemed to fill the tiny chapel with his presence. Strapping. That’s what he was. Strapping. She drew a shaky breath. Wow. What a hunk. And what a shame he belonged in the one legend she didn’t particularly like. Of course, somebody like this could change her mind. She grinned. “Too bad he isn’t real.”
Reluctantly she turned a page. Strange. This had to be the fourth or fifth, or maybe the fiftieth, time she’d gone through the book today. Yet, she seemed to see something new each time she leafed through it. Like the picture of Sir Hunk. She laughed, the sound unnaturally loud in the quiet of the stacks. He really wasn’t her type, anyway. Now if he were a Greek god…
She flipped back to the beginning of the volume. She’d already tried and failed to find a single page with any kind of copyright date or publishing information. Maybe she’d just missed it. She seemed to be overlooking quite a bit in this little book.
The title page opened before her and again she read:
My Life and Times
The True Story of Merlin
Wizard Extraordinaire and Counselor to Kings
Nothing there. She turned the page and her hand froze.
The True Story of Merlin
She flipped back and stared. There it was. It did say
“I must be getting tired,” she muttered. “I could swear that word wasn’t there before.” She rubbed her eyes and turned the page. Again, she stared in disbelief.
Here was another picture she’d obviously skipped right over. Although how anyone could was amazing. Piercing, imperious, black eyes stared out at her from beneath a blue wizard’s conical hat. White hair curled around his head and a long beard lay in waves on his chest. His robes matched his hat, a deep royal color with gold planets and stars dancing across the fabric. She glanced at the caption at the bottom of the page:
Merlin, Wizard Extraordinaire and Counselor to Kings
“And modest too, eh pal? But what do you expect from a myth?” Tessa laughed softly and bent forward for a better look. The eyes of the image drew her closer. A glimmer of amusement lingered there. Funny. Her initial impression had been one of hauteur not humor. The old guy kind of looked like someone she knew, too. Short of Santa Claus, she didn’t know anybody who even vaguely resembled this guy. Her gaze drifted down the page to the caption at the bottom:
I am not a myth
Tessa gasped, jerked her gaze away and bolted upright in her chair. “I didn’t see that.”
She tried to fight it but couldn’t resist the compulsion for another quick peek.
You did too.
“Whoa!” Tessa slammed the book shut and jumped from her chair. Panic surged through her and she struggled to stay calm. She drew three deep breaths. “Okay, relax. There’s no problem. I’m just tired, that’s
all. I’ve been here way too long, staring at small, tight print, in bad light, and my eyes are going.” She glared at the innocent looking volume. “Or my mind.”
Tessa quickly gathered up the research materials scattered across the table. “I’ll turn these in, go home and relax. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”
By the time she’d finished methodically stacking and restacking the library’s reference books, the beat of her heart and pace of her breathing was nearly normal. Merlin’s book sat on the table untouched. Her reluctance to pick it up again was ridiculous. She simply hadn’t read the captions correctly, that’s all. There was nothing more to it. Add to that the end of a long day, her growing excitement over her upcoming trip, even her mother’s whimsical note about magic, and it was no wonder she was seeing things.
“Don’t be an idiot, Tessa.” She nodded sharply and reached for the book. Her hand shook and the volume slipped from her grasp, tumbling to the floor to land with its pages spread open and flattened, its cover facing up. “Damn.”
No matter what else this book might be it was obviously old, possibly valuable and deserved to be handled better. She picked up the ill-treated volume, ignored a strong desire not to look at it, and flipped it over.
The book had opened to the illustration of the knight in the chapel. Once again, the vividness of the picture struck her. The skin tones of the knight were so warm and real, she almost thought she could reach out and touch the pulse throbbing in his throat. The coolness of the stone walls and the deep serenity of the room itself was so well portrayed it seemed to seep from the picture to envelope her. The brightness of the sun stream
ing through the window was nothing short of lifelike. The brilliance captured her and held her mesmerized. Dust motes danced in the light. The beam itself grew more and more intense. She raised her hand against the blinding ray but couldn’t seem to turn away.
What was going on here? She couldn’t wrench her gaze from the picture that pulled her inexorably closer although she never took a step. Fear clutched at her stomach and she fought against whatever force held her in its grip. What was happening to her? Dimly, in the back of her mind she likened the sensation to a classic movie technique. A pan-zoom, she thought it was called. The camera moved forward while the lens moved back, creating a disorientation of space and distance. The effect had always made her dizzy on screen, but caught in its grasp here and now, nausea swept through her. She hurtled toward an image that swelled until it encompassed her vision, her senses and, finally, her world. Tessa struggled against a shock that stole her breath and stilled her heart. She covered her eyes with her hands and battled to regain control. Abruptly, the turbulent atmosphere encompassing her quieted, as if an off switch had been thrown.
She kept her hands pressed over her eyes. What in the hell was that? Was she sick? Dead? Had she had some kind of attack or seizure?
She stood unmoving for a long moment. Her heart thudded in her chest. She couldn’t remember ever being scared like this in her life. Oh, she had known fear now and then but never sheer, unadulterated terror. At least not aside from an occasional nightmare. But terror gripped her now. What would she see when she uncovered her eyes? Once more she sucked in a deep
breath. Whatever else she was, Tessa St. James had never been a coward and she was not about to become one now. She dropped her hands and stared at the vision in front of her.
A knight knelt in prayer before an altar, his hands clasped, his gaze turned toward the heavens.
“Now, now, my dear, your language. This is a chapel, you know.”
Tessa whirled toward the voice. An older gentlemen leaned against the stone wall in a nonchalant manner. His accent was slightly British, his jacket was traditional herringbone, his short hair silver and his steel-gray goatee trimmed to perfection. She gasped. “You! You’re—”
He broke into a perfect step-shuffle-ball-change that would have gladdened the heart of her third-grade tap dancing teacher.
Tessa stared in confusion. “Fred Astaire?”
“Nope.” He executed a few more perfect steps. “But people tell me”—he finished with a flourish—“ta-da. I look like him.”
Her eyes widened with disbelief. Between Sir Hunk over there and the Fred Astaire look-alike obviously expecting applause, this had all the makings of a nightmare. “Somebody pinch me, I must be dreaming.”
At once pain shot through her upper arm. “Ouch!” She clapped her hand over the affected limb and glared
at the Fred Astaire impersonator. He hadn’t moved an inch but Tessa had no doubt he was responsible. “That hurt!”
He shrugged. “You said to pinch you.”
“Well, I certainly didn’t mean it!”
“If you didn’t mean it, you shouldn’t have said it.”
“It’s just one of those things you say. You know, like don’t cry over spilt milk or don’t lock the barn door after the horse is gone or,” she narrowed her eyes, “crazy as a loon.” Once again pain twinged through her arm. “Hey!”
“Sorry.” He favored her with a pleasant smile. “I slipped.”
“I’ll bet.” She rubbed the spot of his slip in a vigorous effort to ease the ache. “Who are you anyway?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “I daresay, I should be quite offended you don’t recognize me.”
“I recognize you, all right. You interrupted my class this morning.”
“Come, come, my dear, it was hardly an interruption. I did nothing more than ask a simple, and quite pertinent, question.”
“Fine. Maybe it wasn’t an interruption.” She aimed an accusing finger at him. “But you weren’t supposed to be there. The administration is expected to notify instructors of any outside visitors. Those are the rules. That’s what the university has conceded as part of the collective bargaining agreement.”
He raised an insolent brow. “I’m not part of any collective bargaining agreement. And the only rules I adhere to,” his eyes sparkled, “are my own.”
“I don’t care!” Damn, this man was annoying. On the other hand, her irritation had displaced most of her
fear. “All I care about is the answer to my question. So one more time, Fred, who are you?”
He sighed. “Are you certain you don’t recognize me?”
“Yes, yes, yes!”
“Perhaps I need a little help on the public relations front,” he murmured.
“Perhaps,” she ground out the words through clenched teeth, “you need to put your ego away for a moment and just answer the damn question!”
“Tessa,” he said softly. “Remember the chapel.”
“I don’t care about the chapel!”
“That’s rather rude of you.”
“Rude?” She choked with indignation. “Rude?”
“You said that, my dear.” His tone was as patient as if he dealt with a small child.
“I’m not rude. I’ve always been…polite. That’s it.” She drew herself up to her full, if somewhat limited, five-foot, three-inch height and stared at him loftily. “I am unfailingly polite.”
He snorted in disdain. “Not today.”
“And whose fault is that? You don’t even have the common courtesy to introduce yourself.” She cast him a triumphant glare.
“Quite right, my dear. My apologies. Very well. Allow me to introduce myself.” He swept an elegant bow, straightened and caught her gaze with his. “Wizard Extraordinaire and Counselor to Kings, I am Merlin.”
She stared for a long moment then laughed at the sheer absurdity of his statement. “Oh yeah, right, pal.
And I’m Glenda, the good witch of the North. Come on.”
His eyes narrowed but his voice was mild. “You do not believe me?”
“Well, duh. Of course I don’t believe you.” Her words were confident but a ribbon of panic curled in her stomach.
“Look at the book, Tessa.”
She tried but couldn’t resist the gentle command of his voice. Her gaze dropped to the volume she still held in her hands. It opened of its own accord to the page with the picture of Merlin. Tessa drew her brows together in confusion. The image of an old man with white hair and a conical blue hat had vanished. Now the illustration was of a distinguished older man with a neatly trimmed goatee and a herringbone jacket. The book slipped from her hands. The ribbon widened.
“Very good.” She struggled to keep a tremble out of her voice. “Nice trick. But any ten-year-old with a magic kit could probably pull off the same thing.”
“Do you think so?” Again his brow climbed arrogantly toward the heavens.
“Sure.” She lifted her chin in a show of confidence she didn’t feel. The ribbon in her stomach grew into a solid, heavy knot and fear clutched at her heart.
“Really? Gracious, I had no idea modern children were so skilled. Do you suppose a ten-year-old could do this as well?” He raised his arms as if reaching for the sky, then allowed them to fall softly to his sides in a motion fluid and hypnotic. She watched and his features changed so slowly it seemed almost natural. The steel-gray goatee whitened and lengthened. The neatly trimmed silver hair grew in waves, snowy and
long. The herringbone jacket melted to a smooth, shining silk, blue and intense with gilded stars and planets scattered over the fabric. It looked exactly like a music video. What did they call it? Morphing?
She swallowed the lump that lodged in her throat. “That would be harder.”
“Indeed.” His eyes twinkled.
“Merlin. At your service.”
“Great.” The terror that had gripped her earlier returned in a swell so strong it stole her breath. The kind of terror she’d only ever known in bad dreams. Before today. What was going on here? What was this all about? At once the only logical answer flashed through her mind. “That’s it! Why didn’t I think of it sooner? What a relief.”
“What’s a relief?”
“Of course. It’s so obvious.” Her words tumbled out faster and faster spurred by a niggling fear that she might, just possibly, be wrong. “I’m asleep. I fell asleep right there in the library, looking at that stupid book. This is just a dream, all of it. Watch.” She stepped to the wall and smacked her hand against its cold, hard, and extremely realistic surface. “Okay, no problem.” She’d more than half expected her hand to go right through. “That may have felt real but it isn’t.”
She glanced at Merlin. He still wore that Disney-character outfit. “If I close my eyes, you’ll go away and I’ll wake up. Here we go.” She squeezed her lids together tight. “One, two, three”—she’d wake up by the time she got to ten—“four, five, six”—was he gone yet?—“seven, eight, nine”—she snapped open her eyes—“Ten.”
Merlin stood right where she’d left him, a smile of amusement quirking his lips.
“Damn.” She groaned. Merlin opened his mouth as if to say something. “I know, I know, you don’t have to say it. It’s a chapel. I’m sorry. But it’s not a real chapel, so it doesn’t matter. It’s all in my mind.” She cast her gaze around the room. “I do have a wonderful imagination, though. Look at all this.” She waved at her surroundings. “The walls, the sunlight coming in the window, even Sir Hunk over there, it’s pretty authentic. Especially when you consider I don’t even like this time period.”
“A disgusting, crowded, filthy, smelly period. Full of plague and pestilence. I believe those were your words,” Merlin said in a casual manner.
“Exactly! See. How would you know that unless this was a dream?”
“Or I was Merlin, Wizard Extraordinaire and Counselor to Kings.”
“No way, no how. You’re not real. This is a dream.” She shook her head vigorously. “And even if it wasn’t a dream, you still wouldn’t be real because Merlin never existed. You are a figment of my imagination. An impressive figment—”
“—but a figment nonetheless. The closest you could come to reality would be as a stand-in for Fred Astaire—”
“Taught him everything he knew,” the figment murmured.
“—but even that wouldn’t count because I’m asleep. Period. So…” She shook her hands in front of her as if they were wet, a nervous gesture she’d had since
childhood. Her voice rang perilously high. “Why can’t I wake up?”
“Well, I’d say the answer was obvious.”
“You’re awfully smug for someone who doesn’t exist,” she snapped. “And what do you mean, ‘obvious’? I don’t think—dear Lord!” She clapped her hands to her cheeks. “I’m in a coma, aren’t I? That explains why this doesn’t quite feel like a dream. But I don’t remember anything? Maybe I was hit by a car—”
“In the library,” he said wryly.
“You never know. Cars crash through buildings all the time.”
“You were on the third floor.”
“Fine.” She glared. “Maybe it was the snow. Maybe the roof collapsed and I’m buried under a ton of snow. That would explain why I don’t remember anything.” She paced the room, stepping around Sir Hunk, who didn’t move a muscle. Just her luck. Her mind comes up with a man like this and he’s stiff as a board. And not in a good way. “So, the roof collapsed and I—oh damn!” She stared at Merlin and tears welled in her eyes. “I’m dead, aren’t I? I’m dead and this is hell. They’ve sent me to spend eternity in the Middle Ages with a gorgeous man who’s frozen solid and you.” She widened her eyes in realization. “If this is hell that means you’re—”
“I most certainly am not.” His voice thundered with righteous indignation. “I quite resent your assumption. Oh, certainly, I have not been perfect in the last few millennia but I am more than confident I shall not be spending eternity, let alone presiding over it, in anyplace substantially warmer than perhaps a nice, lush Caribbean island. Aside from that, you are not dead.”
“Thank God.” She breathed a sigh of relief and absently pulled the clip from her hair, ran her fingers through it, then reclipped it in a low ponytail at the base of her skull. “Then it must be a coma. Maybe I fell? That makes sense. I fell and hit my head on that table. Sure—big, heavy, oak table. I hit my head and now I’m in a hospital somewhere. People are taking care of me. I probably have tubes in my arms and all that stuff. But I can’t be hurt! I’m going to Greece in three weeks. What if I don’t wake up in time? What if I don’t wake up at all? What if—
“Ouch!” Once more the unmistakable pain of a pinch shot through her. “Why did you do that?”
“I suspected it was preferable to slapping you across the face.”
“Yeah, if those are the only available options.” She glared at the alleged wizard, who returned her stare with a tolerant smile.
“Are you quite finished?”
“No,” she snapped and rubbed her arm. “Okay. Now I’m finished.”
“Excellent. If you have managed to get your emotional outburst under control, we have quite a bit to chat about.”
“I usually don’t lose it like that,” she muttered.
“I know, my dear. I must admit I was quite surprised.”
“You were surprised? Jeez.” Her gaze shot to his. “I’m so sorry.”
“And sarcasm too. Tsk, tsk.” Merlin shook his head and sighed.
Annoyance swept through her. You’d think if she was going to make up a vision as far-fetched as Merlin,
Wizard Extraordinaire, etc., her subconscious could come up with someone a little less irritating. She clenched her teeth. “I know I’m going to regret this but why are you surprised?”
“You are an adult, twenty-six years of age I believe.”
“Indeed? Hmmm. I stand corrected.” He raised that superior brow again. “And as yet unmarried?”
Tessa groaned to herself. The tone in his voice was distinctly reminiscent of her mother’s whenever the subject of marriage came up. Leave it to her mom to influence even the invention of her subconscious mind. “As yet.”
“I believe I had also considered you to be relatively intelligent—”
“—considering your gender and the times you live in, of course.”
“Of course.” Terrific. Her figment was a medieval sexist and a history snob.
“It has nothing whatsoever to do with sexism or snobbery, although I freely admit, your era is not one I’m particularly partial to.”
“Don’t tell me you can read my mind, too?” She smacked her palm against her forehead. “Of course you can. You’re
He cast her a pitying glance. “My dear young woman, this will no doubt be a great deal easier, on both of us I might add, if you would simply accept the truth.”
“The truth?” She studied him for a long moment. If she wasn’t asleep or in a coma, and she had to admit,
nothing had ever seemed so real in her life as this room and this weird little Fred Astaire clone, then she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted the truth. Still, what choice did she have? She drew a deep, steadying breath. “Okay. Let’s have it. What is the truth?”
“It’s really quite simple.” His eyes gleamed. “I have pulled you from your moment in time to one of my own choosing.”
“You’ve pulled me through what?” Her breath caught.
“Time.” The word throbbed through her.
“I believe I just said that.”
“I’ve traveled through time?” Her heart thudded in her chest.
“Like what’s-his-name on
? Or that one Star Trek movie about the whales? Or H. G. Wells?”
The figment shrugged. “Drivel.”
His bushy brows pulled together. “We shall never get anywhere if you insist on repeating everything I say.”
“Well, excuse me, Mr. Wizard,” she said sharply. “I’m having a tiny little problem here grasping this entire concept.”
“Very well. I daresay I should have expected this. It happens every time.”
“Every time? How often do you do this?”
He released an impatient sigh. “Do sit down and try to remain calm and I shall endeavor to explain.”
Tessa glanced around the chapel. Aside from the
altar and colorful wall hangings, the room was bare. “And just where do you suggest I sit?”