If this is a tomb, then where’s the body?” Beth swept her flashlight over the empty bier against the wall. The couch was big, bronze, and impossibly well preserved. The Celt buried here must have been at least six foot. She could imagine his strong limbs and broad shoulders resting atop the soft furs. She stifled an impulse to stroke the downy pelts. Everything inside the mound was too fresh, too pristine, too perfect, from the spirals and whorls carved on the passage walls to the brightly woven tapestries decorating the central chamber, which should have crumbled to dust at the first whispered breath of outside air.
“Grave robbers,” Frank said with a dismissive shrug. It was an economical gesture, the slightest twitch of shoulders neither broad nor muscular. Funny how she hadn’t minded his narrow shoulders—or his narrow mind—when they were married. All she had seen was his boyish charm and dark good looks.
Frank had no imagination. But when Beth stepped inside an ancient tomb, she could close her eyes and see the past, conjure whole lives out of shards of pottery and heaps of ash.
The first time it had happened, she’d been seven years old, playing in her mother’s jewelry box. The iron brooch had drawn her like a magnet. It was surprisingly delicate for such heavy material, a circle of black metal chased with swirling knots, fastened with a pin through the center. In the past her mother had warned her not to touch it, but this time her mother wasn’t there and Beth couldn’t resist.
When her fingers closed around the cold metal, a shock traveled up her arm and visions filled her head: a woman, a stone circle, the forest floor. The images rushed past her, and it was only later, after years of work, that she learned to control them, to search them like the pages in a book, to speed them up and slow them down like a film.
Not that she had to work hard at the moment. This find was unprecedented. More lavish than any Celtic burial she’d ever seen—if it really was a burial.
The grave goods were all here: the bier and the wagon, the drinking horn and cauldrons. They were standing beneath a symmetrical, man-made hill, sixty meters across, inside a vaulted chamber eleven meters square. It all fit with what they knew of thousands of years of Celtic burial practices. It even smelled right. Like green grass above and new-tilled earth below. But it felt wrong.
She strobed the burial wagon with her flashlight. Gold. Lots of it. Bright yellow, high karat. A pair of daggers, several torcs, a set of shoe ornaments, and a two-handed sword with a hilt of hammered gold. Symbols of a potent, vibrant masculinity, extinguished two millennia ago. The weapons of a chieftain or a warrior king. They were dazzling, but they shouldn’t be here, not neatly laid out in the bed of the burial wagon, not if the tomb had been raided before. It didn’t add up. “Grave robbers don’t steal bodies and leave gold behind.”
“Then the body was eaten by scavengers. Wolves, maybe,” Frank offered. He fingered one of the glimmering neck rings lying on the wagon.
Nothing destroyed artifacts faster than handling. The first rule for touching ancient objects was don’t. Frank knew that, but Frank thought rules were for other people. When she’d been a young and impressionable graduate student, she’d thought that was cool. Part of Frank’s sophisticated appeal. She knew better now.
“Wait,” she said. “Use my gloves.” She tucked her flashlight under her arm and dug into her jacket pocket. No gloves. She shifted, tried her pants pocket, and dropped her flashlight.
It hit the floor and went out.
The darkness was absolute. Beth felt the massive weight of the hill above them, the deep chill of the stone walls. She’d never been skittish underground before, but she was unsettled now.
She needed the flashlight. It couldn’t have rolled far, but the darkness scrambled her bearings. She reached for the wall—and brushed Frank’s groin instead.
She jumped back, but he grabbed her wrist and tugged her hand over his crotch. “I should have remembered. Burial chambers make you hot. The bier looked sturdy enough if you feel like a trip down memory lane.”
That was a street she’d rather not revisit. She had worked too hard to learn to resist Frank’s allure. “No thanks.” She yanked her wrist back. “This is all wrong. It’s a Stone Age monument filled with Bronze Age treasure, as though this tomb remained in use for thousands of years. And no one is buried here. This place was sealed tight as a drum. It hasn’t been robbed or scavenged, but it’s got everything a burial needs, except a body. Doesn’t that bother you?”
She could hear him moving about the chamber. “Nope. Collectors don’t buy mummies, Beth. They buy objets d’art. Corpses don’t fund university chairs, and they don’t underwrite expeditions. They don’t get you invited to lunch with the minister of culture. Gold does.”
She couldn’t see him, but he must have moved closer again, because she felt a breath tickle her neck. It was disturbingly arousing, which was bizarre, because while she’d always felt attracted to Frank, drawn by his almost hypnotizing charm, she’d never found Frank’s attentions arousing. She only understood that in hindsight, of course. What she had felt, during their courtship, was flattered. She’d basked in the attention of her idol and thought she was special.
A hand ghosted over her breast and her nipple hardened. She bit back a moan. “Stop that.”
The hand was gone.
Click. Light bloomed in the darkness. Frank had the flashlight. On the other side of the tomb.
The hair on the back of her neck rose. “I need to go outside.”
Frank looked at her, puzzled. “What’s with you?”
“Nothing. I just need air.” She tried to get herself under control. There was nothing to fear underground. She’d climbed down into a dozen burial mounds in her career. Archaeology wasn’t for the easily spooked, or the claustrophobic. She tried to tell herself that the breath on her neck, the hand at her breast, had been air currents. Or Frank messing with her. But the air in the room was completely still, and she’d never seen Frank move that fast for anything.
Frank smirked. “The locals have you rattled, don’t they? With all that talk about fairy mounds and the bowls of milk and honey they leave outside their doors. You spend so much time writing down their superstitions, you’ve started to believe them.”
“Their folk ways,” she said, finding comfort in the familiar, arguing with Frank, “are what helped me identify this tomb.”
“Satellite photography identified this tomb,” he replied. “And all the others we’ve found.”
But they both knew that wasn’t true. Beth didn’t need aerial photographs to find Celtic sites. Maps would do, even crudely drawn ones. All she needed was an idea where to look. Folklore always pointed the way. When a village said the nearby hill was a fairy mound or the clearing in the woods was a Druid circle, Beth could touch the spot on the map and know. A shudder would pass through her and something low in her belly would clench.
It was why Frank—handsome, sought-after Frank—had courted and married her.
“None of this gold,” she said, putting the past from her mind, “will end up on the antiquities market, or in the university museum. We signed strict agreements with the Irish government before we started digging.”
Frank shrugged once again. She didn’t like that shrug. He was caught last year in Mexico City trying to board a plane with his pockets stuffed full of Mayan seals. Naturally the university had pulled strings to smooth the whole thing over. They couldn’t have their golden boy spending the night in a Mexican jail.
She would have to watch him. Catalog the mound as quickly and thoroughly as possible before anything went missing. She had a feeling that if they took anything that didn’t belong to them from this tomb, they’d face someone—or something—much more dangerous than the police.
The digging woke him. He sent his mind out through the roots and the soil, to the west slope of the hill, where sometimes a sheep wandered and a shepherd followed, though not for many years now.
The locals knew better than to disturb his sleep. They preferred the Good Neighbors quiet beneath their hills. The Fair Folk, the Beautiful People, the Lords and Ladies; the Irish had many names for his kind because they were afraid to call the Aes Sídhe what they were: bored, cruel, wicked, and soulless. Conn knew he was all three, his humanity worn away long ago, because immortality bred contempt for life. But he judged he’d slept long enough to rekindle his appetites, to dull some of the viciousness—the fatal flaw of the undying—he’d sensed in himself when he’d last walked in the world.
He knew it when he felt the girl.
She wasn’t a child of the local earth. He could sense that. But she had the old blood, dancing hot beneath moon-pale skin. His cock stirred. Appetite. Desire. He would have her. The villagers would offer her up with the milk and the honey, glad he wasn’t asking for one of their own. They had to. There was no one to gainsay him. Their new priests had no power over the earth or the trees, no power over the Fae.
He liked her hair. Chestnut. Her curves, soft like the hills. And her eyes, bright, brown, cow-like. He had not encountered a woman so appealing to him in decades. Her beauty was not the passing flower of youth, but the enduring elegance of classical proportions. Full breasts, a defined waist, and lush hips. She climbed the hill with a hunter’s stealthy, athletic grace, and he imagined how sinuously she would move beneath him in his bed.
She had a man with her, another foreigner—slender, almost pretty, but not of the blood, and weak. Brother, father, husband, he couldn’t tell. The man’s aura was clouded like bog water. Unlikely to fight for her, but easy to kill if he did. The sort who failed to defend his woman’s honor, then asked for compensation when she was ravished.
He smiled at the thought. Firm, warm, living flesh beneath him, engulfing him. Digging through the sweet green grass to reach him. Her eagerness was touchingly human. He would enjoy spreading her, drinking in her pleasure and her release. If she pleased him as much as he hoped, he would keep her for a time. And then he would leave her, unable to taste mortal food or enjoy a mortal man’s bed, because he could not change his nature. Ancient, cold, tethered to the world only through the vicarious pleasure and pain—the one had no savor without the other—of humans.
Yes, he would have her, but he must satisfy more basic appetites first. He took his spear and his knife and passed through the hill—earth, wood, water, grass—changing from one thing to another, channeling his essence through each living particle, because all living things were one with his kind, to emerge in the wood at the other side of the village, and hunt.
Beth couldn’t shake her unease or, if she was honest with herself, her unwanted arousal. She tried to tell herself that her concerns were real and mundane: Frank and the gold. She’d hired a watchman to camp at the site overnight and planned to return first thing in the morning to catalog the contents of the tomb before her ex had a chance to palm anything, but that wasn’t why she was still sitting in the curtained window seat in the taproom of the inn where they were staying, nursing her half pint of bitter. Worrying about Frank’s sticky hands shouldn’t make her nipples hard and the place between her legs throb.
The pub attracted a rough crowd at night. She normally didn’t stay this late, but after the incident in the tomb, the thought of returning to her room alone was unappealing. She wanted lights and people.
But not company. She’d already fended off the advances of an unsavory local, a granite-dusted young quarryman who hadn’t taken her rejection kindly. Now he was nursing his drink and his resentment at the bar.
Of course Frank and his current “research assistant” were there, too.
When Beth and Frank were married, he was more discreet with his graduate-student hookups. He never picked the youngest or the prettiest ones, and at least maintained the pretense of evaluating their credentials. But no longer. Christie Kelley wasn’t bright. She didn’t have brains, or brawn, which would at least have been useful on a dig. She was whip thin and, Beth suspected, starved herself to stay that way. Fragile. A decided antidote to Beth’s feminine curves.
Beth had been naive enough, the first time one of her “hunches” paid off, to allow Frank to take the credit. It had been a remarkable find, a hill fort that had at one time contained at least thirty houses. Wind and weather had so changed the topography that the outline was no longer visible, even in aerial photography, but Beth had felt it there when her fingers brushed the site on the map. She had known.
Frank had convinced her that the university would never fund them if she led the dig, never publish their findings if she authored their paper. She was only a graduate student, after all, and didn’t have Frank’s Ivy League pedigree; plus he was already a full professor and a name in the field.
Her hill fort had made his career.
She’d been living with him when they’d started their second expedition and too besotted with her idol to argue for credit. He knew so much about their field, had met so many of the heroes in her professional pantheon, traveled to so many of the places she longed to go. Just being with him, she could feel a little of his personal glamour wear off on her.
By the time of their third major discovery they were married, and from the outside their partnership appeared perfect. They were a globe-trotting academic couple, invited to lecture at cultural institutions around the world. When Beth’s name appeared as coauthor of their treatise on the new findings at Hallstatt, everyone assumed that her role was that of devoted academic spouse: editor, cataloger, subordinate. When she insisted on an equal share of the credit, he began sleeping with his students again, and she refused to identify any more sites for him. Then he betrayed her in an act that still turned her stomach whenever she thought about it. After the divorce, she found herself shut out of grants to dig unless she partnered with her ex-husband.
Beth almost felt sorry for Christie Kelley, nestled in a corner table at the other side of the taproom with Frank, sipping her half pint and staring up at him with starry-eyed adoration. She could remember feeling like that about him.
Beth had never met anyone before him who’d shared her fascination with the ancient Celts. She had not connected them with the iron brooch in her mother’s jewel box until she was fourteen, on a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when the guide had led them past a gallery that Beth had known she had to enter. The compulsion was so strong that she’d been parted from the group and was standing alone in a vast hall in front of a massive glass case before she’d even realized what had happened. Her teachers and classmates, oblivious to her defection, had continued on to the Greek and Roman galleries.
In the hush of that empty chamber Beth had felt it, the same thrill her mother’s brooch had given her, magnified a hundredfold. Though the brooch had been snatched away and hidden, Beth had always continued to be aware of its location. There were similar brooches in the case. Several in iron, two in silver, one in gold. Pennanular, she later learned. Moon shaped. She’d pressed her fingers to the glass, longed to touch them, then gone home, searched out her mother’s brooch, and started to learn to harness her strange ability. That summer she’d begun volunteering every weekend at the museum, desperate for a chance to touch the objects in that gallery.
Christie Kelley wasn’t enamored of Frank for his knowledge of Celtic archaeology, though. That wasn’t even her specialization. Her thesis was focused on the early Maya. No, she was attracted by Frank’s charm, his fame, his power in the department. His patronage could make or break her career. No wonder she stared up at him with such slavish adoration.
But Frank wasn’t looking at Christie now. He was looking straight across the room at Beth, smiling. He winked, then produced one of the glittering torques from the tomb out of his pocket. He slid it around Christie Kelley’s twig-like neck, then basked in her fawning praise. Beth had fallen for the same tricks when she was his student. Frank playing the great archaeologist, Schliemann, decking his wife in the jewels of Troy.
Only, this wasn’t the nineteenth century, and archaeologists didn’t loot graves. They cataloged them, preserved them, wrote about them for the public. The torc belonged in the tomb. She contemplated getting up and retrieving it. With a sinking feeling, she realized she couldn’t. Not here, in public. She would look like a shrew. The jealous ex-wife snatching jewelry away from the pretty young girlfriend. Ugh.
The hairs on the back of her neck rose. There was something behind her. Something outside the window. She tried to tell herself that the inn was old and the windows drafty, but the danger was real, and she knew it in her bones. Whatever was out there, it had power over her. It intensified the low throb between her legs and made her breasts ache. She had to get out of the bar, away from the window.
She stood, jostling her table and sending beer slopping over the rim of her glass. The bartender darted a quick, worried glance her way. Of course he did. She was behaving like a drunk. But the couple at the next table was also staring at her as was the quarryman at the bar. Was her blouse unbuttoned? She looked down to check, felt even more foolish. Her nipples were pebbled, visible through the soft cotton of her blouse.
She looked back up. Now the quarryman and his buddies were smirking, but the bartender and the old-timers near the fire were studiously looking the other way. Was she imagining all this? She felt flushed, awkward, self-conscious. She couldn’t remember a moment like this since middle school—everyone aware of her and ignoring her at the same time. Except Frank and his floozy in the corner, too absorbed in themselves to notice.
She edged out of the window seat and ran smack into the quarryman. And his friends. Five of them. “Don’t leave yet. Stay and have a drink with us,” he drawled, backing her into the alcove. She could smell whiskey on his breath. She darted a quick look at Frank, still absorbed in Christie Kelley. No help there.
“No thanks. I was just leaving.” His friends were sliding onto the bench behind her, cutting off her retreat.
And the thing outside the window, the danger her body could feel like an icy wind, was growing closer. She had to get out of there.
There was no room to maneuver, but she knew from her earlier clumsiness that the table wasn’t screwed to the floor. She grabbed the apron of the heavy wooden top and shoved. The bastard menacing her swore and jumped back, and she scrambled past him.
She fled from the room, into the front hall, and straight into the neat, silver-haired landlady. “I’m so sorry,” Beth murmured, trying to steady the tottering innkeeper. Mrs. McClaren was one of her best sources of local folklore, had talked for hours about the fairy mound when Beth had first visited last spring. The woman was tiny and frail, eighty years old if she was a day, but her grip on Beth’s wrist now was like a vise.
“I’ve got to change your room, dear,” she said. It was an ordinary enough statement, but Mrs. McClaren sounded as spooked as Beth felt.
“Now isn’t a good time, Mrs. McClaren,” Beth said, trying to loosen the woman’s hold.
“I’ve got a nice room right across the hall with an iron latch on the door,” she persisted.
“An iron latch won’t keep him out.” Beth recognized the speaker. The old man sitting behind the desk was Mr. O’Donovan. The locals accounted him a great authority on the sídhe, the mythical, semidivine inhabitants of the fairy mounds, but when Beth had approached him on her first visit to Clonmel, the man had refused to speak to her. When she’d returned with Frank, the old man had marched up to them and told them to leave the mound alone. Then he’d marched off and never said another word. Until now.
“Who are you talking about, Mr. O’Donovan?” Beth asked.
His eyes were wild and his smile was gleeful. Beth didn’t like that at all. “You know who. You came here looking for them. You woke the worst of a bad lot. I warned you not to dig in the mound, but you wouldn’t listen, and now he’s come for you.”
“Bite your tongue, old man,” Mrs. McClaren said, and turned to Beth. “Pay no mind to him. Sit here for a minute and I’ll have your things moved across the hall into the nice room with the batten door. An iron latch and iron bands. Old as the inn. Strong in the earth,” she said, as though she was recommending chocolate biscuits or vanilla cake, something ordinary and pleasant.
“Won’t keep him out,” the old man cackled. “It would take iron windows and iron walls and an iron floor and a roof of iron to keep him out. And even then, he’d get to you. And it’s no more than you deserve. No decent woman goes searching for the likes of them.”
It was too much. Beth bolted. Up the stairs, into her room with the brass doorknob, and the brass bolt, and the brass window latch. She locked all three, then took a deep breath and rested her forehead against the cool glass of the window.
“Don’t let them frighten you.” The voice was musical. Wind in the forest. Deep and primal. Musky sweet like honey. It compelled her to turn and behold the speaker, who leaned casually against the door she had just locked.
The man was well over six foot, and his skin was the ivory of Viking raiders and Celtic heroes. His hair was pale gold and arrow straight, woven in slender braids. She recognized the silver dagger at his hip, twin to the blade in the tomb, tucked into a wide leather belt that cinched soft fawn trousers. His linen tunic was embroidered by the same hand as the tapestries in the burial chamber, and around his neck was a torc finer than the one Frank had palmed that afternoon.
Strong limbs and broad shoulders in soft pelts. It flashed through her mind, and though the rational academic in her said no, the woman in her said yes, this is him. The Celt from the tomb. Rational Beth said, It’s some local joker playing with you, but irrational Beth, the Beth who could feel the old places through maps and pictures, heard a voice whisper, The Good Neighbors. The Fair Folk. The Lords and Ladies who dwell in the earth. The Sídhe.
You’ve always known they would come for you.
Conn had chased the deer for miles, not because he had to, but because he enjoyed feeling the grass beneath his feet and the wind in his hair, and because prey deserved the dignity of the hunt. He roasted and ate his fill, washed in the stream that ran down toward the mill, and left the carcass hanging outside the mill door so that word might spread. “Bring your tithe to the mound,” they would say. “Keep your daughters inside. One of the Old Lords walks abroad, and requires meat for his table.”
The inn he remembered. He could feel the age of it in the timbers, could read its history through the wood. A stand of living trees four hundred years ago, hewn and new, rooted to this place. He had liked it then, with its thatched roof and shuttered windows, better than the stone buildings the invaders brought. He liked it less now. The building was the same, but it stank, inside and out, of black iron and burning smoke. The filthy tar of the long dead beasts under the earth was poisoning the living wood and clay, driving the clamorous engines that rumbled past at unnatural speed, drowning out the sounds of the birds in the trees and the wind in the meadow. The girl was here. And her weak man. And another foreigner, a different woman. Younger. Callow. She smelled of base metals and dead beasts, too, bright and clattering like the smoke engines.
He entered the low door of the inn, and the old man sitting by the fire nodded. “I warned her,” he said. “She wouldn’t listen to an old man. But here you are, come to claim her. And it’s no more than she deserves.”
“Quiet!” The old woman curtsied, the creak in her arthritic knees audible as the snap of the fire. She tried to keep her eyes downcast, but her gaze was drawn to him. He knew the glamour he cast, irresistible even to a woman long past youth, wondered what it would be like to be obliged to woo a woman, to win trust and affection, rather than receive them as his due.
He followed the trail of the woman, his woman, her scent now spiked with fear, into the common room. The crowd fell silent as he entered. all save the granite-dusted men clustered in the window seat, where she had been. He could feel her lingering warmth there, see the print of her lips on her unfinished glass of ale.
He strode to the table, lifted the beaker, and licked the taste of her mouth from the rim. Summer fruit and honey wine.
He addressed the biggest of the quarrymen. “Where is the woman who was sitting here?”
The big man stood. Almost as tall as a Fae. Conn caught another tendril of the woman’s scent, all panic and indignation, clinging to the man’s clothes.
“What’s it worth to you, pretty boy?” the man asked. His friends laughed. Memory, it seemed, was growing short in Clonmel. The quarryman reached for a lock of Conn’s hair, and faster than the human eye could see, Conn seized the man’s wrist and broke it. Beneath the skin, the two long bones jostled and splintered like dry kindling.
The man screamed. His nearest friend swung a fist at Conn. Foolish. But this one hadn’t touched the woman, so Conn decided not to maim him, and merely picked him up bodily and dropped him onto the table, shattering it.
The rest thought better of challenging him.
“Where is the woman?” This time he addressed the room at large.
“Upstairs,” said the bartender.
The callow girl who smelled of metal, and was, he noticed with amusement, wearing one of his lesser ornaments filched from the mound, tugged at the sleeve of the foreigner. “Frank,” she said. “What’s going on? Why doesn’t someone call the police?”
“She’s right,” Frank hedged, nodding at the bartender. “You should call the police.”
“For the love of God, shut up,” said the bartender.
But the woman persisted. “Aren’t you going to do something? He’s threatening your ex!”
This was entertaining. Conn watched as the foreigner—Frank—deliberated. The man wished to keep both women, not because he valued either one, but for status. The arrangement was an old one, a woman to make his home, and another to warm his bed. But this Frank was a fool. He had made a queen out of his concubine, and a drudge out of an empress. No good could come of it, and he deserved to lose both.
“I’ll go check on her,” Frank said to the woman. But Conn held up a hand, and two strong villagers—memories apparently in good working order—grasped the outlander’s shoulders and held him there.
Conn smiled. He enjoyed seeing the man humbled. It was one of the delights of waking. Food and drink and sex and the taste of mortal emotion. Salt and sweet. Anguish and joy.
He took the stairs two at time. The hall was long and dark, the only light coming from beneath the door at the end. Her room. He crossed the hall and passed through the door.
She stood at the window, her temple resting against the smooth pane, her fingers wrapped around the brass latch. She thought it would keep him out. He would show her otherwise.
“How did you get in here?” she asked, wondering at what point it would be appropriate to scream. If this was a prank, some tasteless joke cooked up by Frank, she would look like a fool.
Her question seemed to amuse him. “I passed through the door.”
“Get out,” she said. She ran through all the possible explanations for this man in her head. A crazed reenactor. One with an improbably thorough knowledge of the grave goods she’d excavated only hours ago, and a lot of free time to spend at the gym. A thief who had plundered her discovery, and then come straight to visit her, decked in the loot. None of it made any sense.
Unless she was delirious. She’d contracted malaria in the Yucatán last year, but an attack in this climate seemed unlikely. Perhaps she was really out of her mind with fever and this was all a bizarre dream, her mind conjuring a hero to fit the discoveries she’d made in the tomb, a body to fill that empty bier.
And what a body. Biceps she wouldn’t be able to circle with both hands, whorled with sinuously inked tattoos. Thighs like tree trunks, sturdy, muscled, virile. The drumbeat between her legs sped faster.
She realized she was staring, openmouthed, at his body. Just short of panting.
Over a complete stranger who was probably some local lunatic with a fetish for Celtic jewelry and—dear God, were his nipples pierced beneath that shirt? And why did the thought make hers contract to hard points? What was happening to her?
“Speak your name.” That voice again.
She obeyed before she realized what she was doing. “Beth.”
“Beth,” he repeated. “It tastes like a meadow after rain. Beth. It pleases me. Show me your breasts.”
She reached for the shoulder of her blouse, started to push it down, then stopped. What was she doing?
“Go ahead,” he instructed. His voice was music that reached deep into her soul, made her want to join the dance.
She shook it off, said, “No,” but it was like the tide, lapping at her, and the urge came back even stronger. She wanted to expose her breasts. Because she wanted him to touch them. She fought it.
He knew. “Why resist,” he asked, “when surrender will bring so much pleasure? When you want to be on your back, beneath me, filled.”
She almost came from the thought alone and remembered with frightening clarity that she had never experienced a climax with another person in the room. She’d never come with a man. Or, at least, she had never come with Frank, the only man she had ever been with. And this one was a total stranger, and probably deranged. The thought was a tiny spark of sanity, and she clung to it. “Who are you?”
“I’m Conn.” As though that explained everything.
That seemed to amuse him. “Of the Aes.”
“Aes,” she repeated the syllables. “That just means ‘people’ in Gaelic.”
“You are pedantic as a Druid,” he said drily, but he also sounded amused. He crossed the room and touched her hair, stroked it. And she let him. She enjoyed it, was lulled by it. And by his voice, which went on, “You came to the mound looking for me. Surely you knew what you would find there. Only the Aes Sídhe, the people of the mounds, the Tuatha Dé Danann dwell in the hills.”
He was smug, like Frank, because he was handsome and women threw themselves at his feet. She hated that. And herself, a little, because she’d fallen for it, once. She latched on to her irritation, tried to use it to keep her head clear. “I am not some gullible tourist. I have a PhD in archaeology,” she snapped. Or tried to snap. It came out more of a moan. She leaned into his touch, so sure, so deft. “The Tuatha Dé Danann are not real. They’re a myth. The old Celtic gods recast by Christian monks as early Irish kings and heroes. The Fair Folk. The Good Neighbors. The Lords and Ladies . . .” she trailed off, blinked, looked down to find his hands at her collarbone. “The Fae.”
“Who worship beauty. Their own,” he said, sliding the soft cotton off her shoulders, letting it rasp her nipples, exposing her to his hungry eyes, “and that of others.” His skin brushed hers, an electric jolt, accompanied by a whisper in her mind.
Never let them touch you.
She ignored it. Nothing had ever felt so sweet as his hands on her breasts. Lifting them, testing their weight, rubbing the sensitive curve beneath the areolas, thumbing the tight nipples. Murmuring approval and admiration. Frank had always called her breasts teats and jugs, said they were too large to be tasteful. Had handled them roughly, as though annoyed with himself for being drawn to them despite their gaucheness.
This was different. This was . . . worship. This man—no, that joy-killing voice whispered, this is not a man—compared them to summer fruit, then bent his head and tasted them, his tongue latching on to her swollen buds and suckling, first gently, then with greater force. A hint of teeth, sharp, smooth, scraping over her sensitized flesh.
She was losing herself to his touch and his voice. “Your man leaves you wanting,” he murmured. “Let me ease you.” He pressed her down to the bed and she went willingly. Or part of her did. Another part of her was screaming inside, telling her this was all wrong, that she had to stop him, that something irrevocable would happen if she didn’t.
But the mischievous voice, the voice that wanted to know what it was like to enjoy a man, said, he’s a handsome stranger. You are having a casual hookup. Women do it all the time. Frank cheated you of this in college, stole your youth. Take it back.
“Frank isn’t my man,” she said, wondering why it was so important she tell him that.
“Lie down,” he coaxed. God, he was gorgeous. He was kneeling on the bed, his golden braids falling like silken ropes over her breasts. His eyes had appeared amber when she first saw him, now they were golden, catlike, feral. Wrong. But she no longer cared if this was wrong, so she didn’t look in his eyes. She looked at his chest—strong, muscular, only the finest scattering of golden hair over his pecs, leading down, down, where her hand wanted to go.
She pushed at his shirt. He obliged her and pulled it off, smiling down at her. His regard warmed her, made her feel alive and free and comfortable in her body. Beautiful, even. Though nothing could be as beautiful as his body. She ran her hands over his torso. Yes, those were tiny golden rings in his nipples. And a swirling pattern of scars, whorls, and dots that stirred some memory she could not quite grasp, over his rib cage. She ran her fingers over the rings and he hissed, a sharp intake of breath that told her he was pleased, and that made her feel powerful.
She couldn’t stop herself. She spread her legs, felt him push her skirt up and cup her sex. His touch felt like fire through her wet curls. She writhed, and her hand brushed the iron bedstead.
Cool and rough. Cold iron. Cleansing. She opened her eyes to see the creature poised over her with crystal clarity. Still blond. Still beautiful. With his hand between her legs. But fox faced. Cruel. It hurt to look at him. His eyes were cold, the planes of his face sharp and merciless. A perfection so alien it stopped her breath.
His fingers stroked. So good. She wanted this. Her grip loosened on the iron. His image blurred, became seduction itself, and she teetered on the edge for a heartbeat. Then she gripped the bedstead hard and screamed.
The words that came out were not English, and the sound was not her voice. But the meaning was clear: GET OFF ME!
Her cry threw him across the room. He hit the wall like an earthquake.
And the bastard laughed.
She’d tossed him across the room with the force of a geological event and all he did was throw his shoulders back and laugh. Never mind that she had no idea how she had done that.
He wiped a trickle of blood away from the corner of his mouth, then licked it off his hand, seeming to savor the taste and the violence at the same time.
She shivered, frustrated desire and revulsion making her sick. “What are you?” she asked.
He smiled. “You know what I am. And you were enjoying it. But the question is, what are you?”
“I’m an archaeologist,” she said, although it was hard to stand on her dignity with her arms wrapped convulsively around the iron headboard. Topless. “And I’m done with your little role-play. I’m sure the Lord of the Fae thing goes over big at your D and D game, but I’m an academic, not some American rube susceptible to your made-up Celtic mysticism.”
“Then let go of the iron.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Because you know that cold iron has power. It lets you see clearly, hear clearly, think clearly. It cuts through glamour like a blade.”
He was right. His voice did sound different. It was still musical, but no longer a haunting melody, more like listening to an orchestra tune, when you could hear all the individual instruments. And some of them were shrill, ugly, dissonant.
“Fine. I’m sure this is a dream or a delusion, but we’ll play by your rules. The iron has power. I can see you clearly now. And I don’t want you.”
Without his glamour, his face was far more expressive. More human. And right this second, a surprising mix of disbelief, wounded pride, and puzzlement. “Then why did you come to the mound?”
The floorboards outside her door creaked. “Beth?” It was Frank, his voice muffled by the door. “Is someone in there with you?”
Conn raised an eyebrow. “Your man has found his courage.”
The doorknob rattled.
“I told you. He’s not my man.”
Then a higher pitched voice, Mrs. McClaren’s, said, “I can’t be giving you keys to another guest’s room.”
“She’s not another guest; she’s my wife.”
Her Celt raised an eyebrow. “We’re divorced,” she said in response.
“Then he has given up his right,” her mad Celt came to the bedside, “to see you like this,” and pulled up her blouse, then stepped away. Her hands were still wrapped around the iron, so his proximity had only a muted effect on her, but the casual kindness of the gesture made her want to cry for all the years of her life when she had received none. And this, from a mad stranger.
The key scraped in the lock. Conn stepped back and settled his wide shoulders against the cracked wall. A casual pose, entirely at ease, like he owned the place. Like he owned her.
The door opened.
Frank barreled in, ready to play the hero, then stopped when he saw Conn. “What the hell is going on here?”
Mrs. McClaren bustled in. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t stop him,” but she said it more to Conn than to Beth, and she said it with decided deference, and that was decidedly odd.
“I’m fine, Frank. We were talking about the mound. And the Aes Sídhe.” Both true. “But we’re finished here,” she said.
It was a dismissal.
Mrs. McClaren drew in a sharp breath and held it. Frank looked confused. And her enigmatic visitor cocked his head. “If you wish to know more about the mound, you know where to find me.” He bowed. It was a small gesture—courtly, rigid, and fraught with hurt pride. Then he walked out the door.
Beth watched him go, and felt bereft.
“You could have answered the door, Beth.” Frank chided. “That guy broke somebody’s arm downstairs.”
“I’m fine,” Beth said. She wasn’t, but the last person she wanted help from was Frank. She wasn’t certain herself whether she’d almost had a one-night stand or nearly been assaulted. But his concern surprised and touched her.
“That’s what you get for picking up locals in bars,” Frank said.
So much for his concern. Frank turned on his heel and left.
Mrs. McClaren lingered and cast a knowing eye over all the things Frank had missed: the crack in the wall, the drooping shoulder of Beth’s blouse, her white knuckles still clutching the iron bed frame.
The old woman sat on the edge of the mattress, her expression puzzled. “He let you go. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“Do you know him? Conn?” Beth loosened her grip on the iron headboard but found she wasn’t ready to let go altogether.
“That one, no. He hasn’t been about since before my time. His kind, yes. And I can tell you this: they’re as rotten inside as they are beautiful without. I always envied my sister her looks, until she captured the fancy of one of them. She went off with him in sixty-eight. They could hide in plain sight in those days, with their fancy clothes and their long hair. But our mother knew what he was. She tried to warn her, but my sister wouldn’t listen. When I finally caught up with her, she was living on the street in Dublin, nothing but skin and bones. Wouldn’t eat or drink. Didn’t sleep. Just sat there waiting for him to come back. There was nothing to do but bring her home to watch her waste and die.”
Then she looked Beth straight in the eye and said, “Lord only knows what possessed him to let you go tonight, but you can’t count on his mercy if you should meet him again. Run. Now. As far and as fast as you can.”