Authors: Victoria Alexander
He plucked an invisible bit of lint off his sweater. “It wasn’t much fun for me.”
“Fun? I thought it was great fun then and even better with the progress of another hundred years. And I, for one, love it.” She narrowed her eyes. “So what triggered you this time? Microwave ovens? Cellular phones? The Internet?”
He crossed his arms over his chest in a petulant manner. “Computer animation.”
“Are you telling me we’ve traveled back centuries because moviemakers can create realistic dinosaurs?”
“Something like that,” he muttered.
“That’s nonsense and I have had quite enough.” She clenched her teeth. “We’re going home. Now!”
“No, we’re not.” He set his lips in a firm line that brooked no argument. By the stars above, if only she did have the power to imprison him or at least defeat him at his own game, the man would be a toad right now.
“There is nothing in your modern world that can compare to the excitement and adventure of a great quest undertaken for the glory of God and country. Galahad is going on his quest. Tessa is going with him and you and I shall be rapt spectators right here.”
She stared for a long moment. “Why did you pick this woman?”
“Galahad needs help to find the Grail.”
“So give him Arnold Schwarzenegger, not a short, blonde schoolteacher.”
“He’s busy,” Merlin muttered. “Besides, Tessa doesn’t believe in me.”
She raised a brow. “And you think Arnold does?”
He ignored her. “Tessa doesn’t believe in Galahad or Arthur or any of this.”
“Pick any ten twenty-first-century residents and nine and a half of them don’t believe.”
“There is nothing more powerful in the universe than the faith of the converted.”
“There is nothing more annoying in all of creation than a man who dances around a question.” She glared. “What aren’t you telling me?”
He sighed in resignation. “There’s magic in her.”
“Magic?” Viviane widened her eyes. “She’s one of us?”
“Not quite. But there is a touch of fairy in her lineage. On her mother’s side. Lovely woman. Recognized the value of my book,” he said under his breath.
“Even so, they can’t possibly succeed.”
“She has what he needs to find the Grail.” There was that matter-of-fact confidence again, a most annoying characteristic. “Neither of them realize it at this juncture but they will fit together like halves of a whole—”
“More like oil and water.” Still, opposites did tend to attract.
“We shall see.” A self-satisfied smile quirked the corners of his lips. “I don’t suppose you’d care to lay a small wager on it?”
“What kind of wager?”
“I don’t know.” He paused to consider the possibilities. “If I win…we return to this time period as often as I wish for as long as I wish, even permanently if I so desire, and,” his smile changed to a definite smirk, “and you can’t utter one single word of protest. And if you win—”
“If I win”—the excitement of a lucky spin of the wheel rose within her—“we say good-bye to the Middle Ages forever. We lay the past to rest. And,” her eyes narrowed, “you never use the phrase Wizard Extraordinaire and Counselor to Kings again.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “You promise not to cheat?”
She crossed her fingers behind her back. “I told you. I don’t need to cheat. I’m good.”
“It’s agreed then?”
“Agreed.” She nodded.
Poor Merlin. Cheating was in many ways in the eyes of the beholder. There was no way Viviane would lose this bet, because there was no way Viviane was coming back here again. Not until time itself ceased to exist. And even then under protest.
This may have been Merlin’s heyday but she had been a mere inexperienced novice sorcerer, a star-struck girl head over heels in love and not substantially more than his consort. No, she would not go through all that again.
It was a shame that Galahad and Tessa would end up as pawns in this magic gambit but it simply could not be helped. Hopefully, they would survive. It wasn’t her problem. Not really. Viviane had never been particularly callous where the lives of mortals were concerned but this was different. This was now a wager.
And at this moment, she’d bet anything she’d beat the summer tourists back to Monte Carlo.
waken, fair Tessa.”
Tessa rolled away from the voice intruding on the odd dream lingering in her head and snuggled deeper beneath her covers. “Go away.”
“’Tis time to face the new day.”
The voice was strong, insistent and way too loud. She ignored it, hugging her pillow tight against her.
The voice was a shade more impatient now. And familiar. She’d heard it before but where? Of course. Her dreams. Strange bizarre fantasies staring Fred Astaire dressed in a blue bathrobe and a gorgeous, dark-haired hunk the size of a small oak and a castle built of stone and magic and—
A slap smacked across her rear end through the covers. She rolled over and jerked upright, abruptly awake and annoyed. “Who hit me?”
Galahad stood grinning down at her. He swept a graceful bow. “Good morrow, my lady.”
“You!” Everything since the moment she opened that damned book in the library rushed back to her and she aimed a shaky finger at him. “You’re real!”
“I should be disappointed indeed, were that not true.” He appeared to consider her comment. “Although I have heard of any number of creatures who are not at all what you and I would consider real. Trolls and gnomes and fairy folk and the like. I would not wish to offend any of them by implying—”
“You hit me!”
“’Twas but a pat to pull you out of your slumber.” He shrugged. “Merlin said ’twould take some effort to awaken you. You have lain here for three full days and ’twas past time—”
“Okay, okay, I’m awake. Three days, huh?” She glanced around the room. Spacious with cool stone walls and high coffered ceilings, there was a fireplace big enough for her to stand in, a large wooden chest, table and chair. It looked pretty much like she’d expected a room in a castle to look, although a bit Spartan for her taste. “Where am I?”
“Your chambers? Then,” nerves fluttered in her stomach, “this would be your bed?”
“Indeed, my lady.”
She groaned and flung herself backward, pulling the covers over her head. Any dream, no matter how weird, was preferable to this very questionable reality. “Go away! I’m going back to sleep and when I wake up you’ll be gone. All of this will be gone. I’ll be in some nice, pleasant hospital room with nice, pleasant tubes—”
His laugh echoed around her. “You are indeed a stubborn wench but I think not, my lady.”
“Go away! I’ll get up if you just go away. I don’t have any clothes on.”
“You could scarce rest well, clothed as you were.” She could hear the grin in his voice.
She sat up and pulled the covers around her. “Tell me you’re not the one who took my clothes off.”
He shrugged. “I would tell you that if you wish. But ’twould be a lie.”
“Don’t you people have servants? Ladies’ maids? Something like that?”
“Indeed.” He stared down at her. “We are a civilized country. ’Twas no one here to wait on you when I brought you to my bed. I thought it best to do the deed myself.”
“What about chivalry, huh? Wasn’t it some kind of violation of the rules to take the clothes off an unconscious woman?”
“I was quite courteous in the disrobing,” he said thoughtfully. “’Twas nothing untoward in the act.”
“I’ll bet. And why am I in your bed anyway?”
“You did not complain at the time.”
“I was asleep. Passed out. Something along those lines anyway.” She shook her head. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”
He dropped down on the edge of the bed and she struggled to keep from rolling toward him. “Merlin says your long sleep was necessary to combat the vestiges of enchantment from your mind and clear your head for the task that lays ahead of you. Are you quite recovered now?”
“Recovered is relative. I’m still here, aren’t I?” She combed her fingers through her hair. “Did Merlin say what task?”
“No, the wizard keeps his own counsel and a wise man does not overly question the methods of a sorcerer.”
He drew his brows together and studied her. “But only a fool would not seek answers where he may.”
“What do you mean?”
He leaned his elbow on the bed. “While you have rested, I have considered your presence here. I have many questions, my lady Tessa, and I think you may well have the answers.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
“There is much that is odd about you. Your appearance, your speech and manner, your purpose here.” His dark blue eyes were thoughtful and considering. “This land of yours, where men believe the world is a spinning top, where does it lie?”
“I told you.” He was way too close. Uncomfortably close. Why, she could reach out and run her hand along the rough, shadowed side of his face if she wanted. Which she didn’t. She shifted away, pulling the covers closer. “Over the ocean. Really far from here.”
He shook his head. “’Tis not the answer I seek. It rings of truth yet I suspect there is more to your tale than that.”
She plucked at the covers, avoiding his gaze. She had no idea just how much she should tell him but for now, keeping her mouth shut seemed the best thing to do.
“And I further suspect your purpose here, the task Merlin has set you to, is one that I should be told of.”
“Oh?” she said as innocently as she could manage. Galahad was obviously far more perceptive than she’d given him credit for and probably a lot smarter as well. Medieval apparently didn’t equate with stupid. She was going to have to rethink some of her opinions about this era and its people. But later. Right now
there was no way she was going to be the one to tell him about the quest. Not her. That was Merlin’s job or the king’s or whoever’s. It didn’t take a genius to realize this specimen of the Middle Ages would not take kindly to the news that his dream of a quest was about to come true but with a mere woman in tow. “I really wouldn’t know.”
“Hah! Women.” He stood and paced the room. “I should have known the moment you appeared. ’Tis obvious the true reason why you have been thrust into my keeping.”
“It is? Feel free to fill me in.”
Long-suffering exasperation crossed his face. “Do not play the innocent with me. It does not suit you. You are far too old for maidenly manners—”
“I should not have thought it of Merlin but he is perhaps no better than the lot of the court. Meddlers, each and every one. Not content to let a man live his life as he chooses. Why, the king himself has long urged me to take a new wife.”
“A wife?” She gasped. “Who?”
He glared in reply.
“Me?” The word squeaked out of her.
“There is no other explanation.” His voice was hard. “I had not expected the magician to be in league with those who wish to see me wed but the mind of a wizard is a mysterious thing. He well knows it would take a woman of a unique and extraordinary nature to lure me to wedlock once again—”
“Extraordinary? You think I’m extraordinary?” She grinned in spite of herself. “You’re not all bad yourself.”
“Nonetheless, I have no desire for a wife!”
“Well, you don’t have to be so nasty about it. Personally, while I can see the appeal you might have in the eyes of a more primitive woman, you’re not my type either.” She smiled sweetly. “I wouldn’t marry you if my life depended on it.”
He stopped in mid-step. “I can scarce believe that. I am an unmarried man with considerable stature in the eyes of the king. My heritage is noble. My honor unquestioned. ’Tis not for you to turn me down.”
“My, we do have an overinflated opinion of ourselves, don’t we? I guess you’ll just have to consider this a new experience then.” She slid to the edge of the bed, wrapped the blanket tightly around her and got to her feet. “Now,” she surveyed the room. “I assume my jeans are still in Merlin’s questionable care, so where is that ugly yellow dress of mine? Merlin!” she yelled. “Get your butt here right now!”
Galahad smirked. “’Tis not the way to call a wizard. Besides, he will not come. He said I am to show you the ways of this land and its people and only then will he return.” He nodded toward the door. “You will find your clothing in the rooms allotted you.”
“Oh, so I’m not staying here?”
He raised a brow. “Disappointed, my lady?”
“Not at all,” she said quickly. “I’d rather have my own place anyway, thank you.” She hobbled across the floor, the long blanket trailing behind her. “If you’d show me to my room?”
He bowed in an exaggerated manner but not before she noticed the twinkle in his eye. “As you wish.”
She stepped toward the door. Her feet caught in the
twisted blanket and she stumbled. At once he was at her side, scooping her up in his arms.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Merlin said you would be weak. Since he has placed you in my charge ’tis my duty to see to your well-being. I will carry you to your chamber.”
“I can walk, you know.” Her voice carried an indignation she didn’t quite feel. It was almost nice to be snuggled up against him like this. Almost but not quite.
“I know.” He shifted her in his arms and pulled open the door. “There will be a maid to help you dress and bring you food.”
“Great. I’m starving.” How long had it been since she’d eaten anyway? “I haven’t had anything since I grabbed a piece of pizza and a salad for lunch at the student center.”
He glanced down at her, his gaze considering. What was going on in that macho little head of his? “I shall return to fetch you shortly but I give you fair warning, Tessa.” He strode down the corridor. “I shall not marry you.”
“No problem, Big Guy. I don’t want to marry you either.”
“’Tis difficult to believe,” he said dryly.
“What’s difficult to believe is the size of your ego,” she muttered.
He ignored her and continued down the corridor without hesitation. Jeez, her weight didn’t even faze him. Maybe just a tiny bit of that ego was deserved.
“And further, if ensnaring me in marriage is not your true purpose or that of the wizard’s, I shall not rest until I uncover the truth you hide.”
“I don’t have anything to hide,” she lied.
“We shall see,” he said with determination.
She sighed. “I just bet we will.”
Galahad stalked through the long halls, his smile fading. He’d left the Lady Tessa in the competent, if somewhat brusque, hands of Oriana, one of the queen’s own maids and one of many ladies in the castle to cast a flirtatious eye upon him since his return to Camelot. Oriana was usually the worst of the lot. Past an age when she should be wed, she was unrelenting in her determination to make him her own. Galahad grudgingly conceded the damsel’s charms were exceedingly tempting but he had no desire to marry. No desire to have a woman’s fate, nay her very life, in his hands ever again.
He clenched and unclenched his fists in a restless manner, nodding absently to those he passed, who eyed him with speculation. No doubt word of Lady Tessa’s unique appearance had already traveled throughout the castle and possibly the entire kingdom as well. Judging by the knowing smiles confronting him, gossip had concluded Tessa was indeed here to provide him a wife. It was the only explanation that made sense. She had, after all, been placed in his care and in his chambers. But in spite of his comments to Tessa, Galahad did not believe it for a moment.
He pushed through a heavy outer door and strode toward the stables. Oh, in spite of her advanced years, Tessa would make a fine mate for any man. Strong and determined with an intelligence rare among most women of his acquaintance, she would be a match well worth making. He’d watched her sleep these past
days, studying the rise and fall of her chest beneath the blankets, wondering at the vulnerability revealed by slumber, a defenselessness hidden when awake by the fire in her eyes. Although not a great beauty she was indeed lovely, with a fine, ripe figure. He couldn’t suppress a smile at the memory: a form well made for pleasure.
Galahad nodded at a stable lad and the boy jumped to saddle the knight’s horse. The huge, black palfrey pawed the ground, as if as impatient as his master to race across the countryside. Within moments Galahad was astride the powerful beast and headed out the castle gates.
He wielded the horse away from the town and toward the meadow and the woods beyond. Galahad spurred his mount and the animal shot forward, eager for the release promised by the vast stretch of gently sloping fields. They passed within inches of the only tree to break the expanse of meadow, a scant third of the way to the forest. The young oak had marked the finish line for foot races and the target for archery contests and had served the various and sundry other uses imaginative boys could devise for as long as he could remember.
Man and beast melded as one and thundered across the verdant pastures. The fresh scent of spring and promise of summer yet to come filled Galahad’s senses, as always cleansing his demons and renewing the life surging through his veins.
He gave the stallion his head until they were nearly upon the line of trees that marked the boundary between the sunlit grasses and the shadowed forest. Galahad pulled sharply on the reins and slowed the
animal to a walk. There was no need to guide the horse. He knew, as well as his master, the way.
They wandered for long moments, each step deeper into the serenity of the woods leaving the bustle of Camelot behind, little more than a distant memory. At last they stepped into a slight clearing. A sparkling stream splashed into a small pool. Galahad slipped from his horse and breathed deeply.
Calm poured over him. He’d discovered this spot as a lad and had claimed it for his own. Through the years it had never failed to imbue him with a sense of peace. He’d wondered, in his more fanciful moments, if this tiny glen was a place of magic. It had always soothed his soul. When he was a boy and longed for affection from a father too busy with his own concerns as friend and companion to the king to heed the needs of a child. Or when he was a man seeking to understand the death of a son never known, and the devastating loss of a love. And countless times in between.
He settled himself on a rock overhanging the pool, the stone contours fitting to him like the welcome of an old friend. And indeed it was this very rock that had borne witness to his frustration at the hard, demanding training of knighthood or his confusion at the vagaries of the minds of women or his contemplation of the stars that danced above him in the heavens. Merlin had long ago shown him the constellations, and the mystic lights in the night sky captured his heart as nothing else ever had.