Saxford Castle, Northumbria, 1394
“Your decision, my lord?”
The thief held Tristan’s gaze. This man’s death, or even his excommunication from Saxford, would cause hardship for his wife and child.
Tristan turned his attention from the thief to Gerard, the look he offered his steward ensuring there would be no further interruptions. He understood the man’s desire to see these men out of their hall—it had been a long day—but he would not be rushed.
“You understand,” he said to the cowering accused, “that the merchant’s loss was substantial? Your life could be forfeit to pay for it.”
Tristan watched the man’s eyes as he blinked and finally looked at the merchant whose cloth he’d stolen. He had heard the thief’s plea for mercy—he had a new son—as well as the merchant’s demand for retribution. Looking at both of them now, he finally came to a decision.
“Aye, my lord. I understand.”
“Consider yourself grateful, then, to work for the merchant any time he passes through Saxford. Whatever he needs, for a period of five years, you will offer him. And if you are caught relieving anyone of their hard-earned goods again, your son will be without a father.”
Tristan waited for the judgment to penetrate and was neither surprised nor affected by the merchant’s confusion and the thief’s cries of thanks. He motioned for Gerard to usher the accused and accuser from the great hall and sat back in the wooden chair that had become mighty uncomfortable.
Tristan tilted his head back and closed his eyes. He waited for the inevitable, knowing it would come any moment. Three, two, one . . .
“A punishment of service?”
“Gerard, I’m tired—”
“’Tis unheard of. The cost of the cloth—”
“Which was returned.”
“I should not question your judgment—”
“Then don’t.” Tristan was hungry, tired, and in need of a woman. He’d returned from the border that morning to learn the manorial court would be held that day. A timely return for the thief, who may have lost his hands or his life had Gerard been his judge.
By the time Tristan opened his eyes, a stream of men-at-arms and servants had already replaced the petitioners who’d sought his judgment. They’d been waiting for the court to end so dinner could be served. He stood from his chair, which would be moved behind the head table for the meal as the trestle tables were moved from their positions along the walls and arranged in the center of the room. Gerard followed him out of the hall and away from the preparations.
They were about to enter the covered passageway that led to the south tower when Gerard stopped and looked back.
“I’d know the outcome of your trip, but Lorelle—”
“I tire of your fawning, as well as hearing her name. Bed the woman and be done with it.”
His trusted advisor and longtime friend was not amused.
“She is not the kind of woman—”
Tristan’s head began to ache. He rubbed his temple. “She’s unmarried.”
“Aye, you know she is.”
“We’ve not discussed—”
“Of course you have not. Lorelle,” Tristan said, “is neither married nor titled. So—”
“But she is the kind of woman—” Gerard interrupted.
His head was getting worse. “Do not say it.”
Gerard did. “That a man could marry. I’ve been considering—”
Tristan did not mean for his laugh to be quite so derisive. “You have gone daft, old man.”
In truth, Gerard was only one year his elder. And at three and thirty, the steward was not exactly close to the grave. But if he thought to bind himself to a woman, one woman, for the rest of his life, then his friend and advisor must truly be losing his memory.
Gerard ignored him. “I promised to assist her—”
“There you are.”
Tristan turned to the newcomer—Walter, Saxford’s marshal—whose quick breaths indicated he had been running. He’d never seen his marshal in such a state of agitation.
“What’s wrong?” Tristan asked. He only realized he’d unsheathed his sword when both men looked down at it. From Walter’s expression, Tristan guessed it would not be needed, so he returned the broadsword to its sheath. Their enemy had not come for them yet.
“There’s a woman,” Walter said in a rush of words, “along the shore.”
Tristan and Gerard exchanged a glance.
“Aye, my lord. Lying along the shore. We do not know if she is dead or alive—”
Tristan didn’t like Walter’s expression. Why did the man look so worried? A lone woman lying along the shore should not pose a threat. “How could you not know if she’s alive? How did she come to be there?”
Walter shook his head. “I know not, my lord. But none of the men will approach her.”
“What is wrong with them? With you?”
The man took a deep breath. “She is . . .”
His marshal’s evasiveness was not improving the pain in his head. “What in the name of—”
“Her attire.” Walter shrugged. “’Tis odd. And the men are afraid she may be some sort of witch.”
He was finished with this nonsense. Before Walter finished speaking, Tristan turned and made haste toward the shore. A witch. Though he did not personally believe such nonsense, some of the men were quite superstitious. He could hear footsteps behind him, but did not slow his pace toward his horse, which was already readied for him. A woman with odd attire? Had the marshal been hit in the head? What attire could possibly have frightened the men so?
Reminded of the pain in his own head, Tristan prayed he could be finished with this matter quickly. He had more important things to worry about, like the end of the truce and, more pressingly, his rumbling stomach.
* * *
Hannah breathed in the salty air and concentrated on the sound of distant seagulls with relief.
She was home.
Back in Mayport Bay, no longer in Scotland somehow, but home—
Except . . . she wasn’t.
When she opened her eyes and finally focused, it took only the briefest of moments for her to realize this was not Maine and she was most certainly not at her family home. She sat up, her joints as stiff as if she were ninety-eight rather than twenty-eight.
What the hell?
The castle looming above her was what had given it away. The only castle she knew of in New England was the one in New Hampshire where she’d attended a wedding once. What was it called? Did it really matter? She’d somehow ended up on a beach, alone, instead of—
Caroline? Allison? Where were her sisters?
Heart racing, Hannah tried to stand, but a wave of dizziness forced her back onto her sandy seat. It came back all at once. The waterfall. Their jump. She’d been pulled under, and while she’d expected to float up toward the surface at any moment, it hadn’t happened. There’d been a brief moment of panic before . . . nothing. There was nothing after that but darkness, and now this beach.
How had she come to be here? And where were her sisters?
Too weak to stand, Hannah put her head in her hands, trying to piece it together. They’d left the inn late for their hike to Leannan Falls, the driver profusely apologetic for having been caught in traffic. She had been uncharacteristically quiet, staring out at the rolling hillside and thinking about the end of their trip, and had only piped up when Caroline first broached the subject of cliff jumping.
Allie, her more practical, saner middle sister, had immediately objected. There was no way either of them would jump off a cliff. Hannah was afraid of heights, and she’d only agreed to hike the falls, not to jump from them. And yet somehow, less than two hours later, she had joined hands with the only two family members she had left in the world and jumped.
Where in God’s name were they?
She spun around, her eyes widening.
“Stay there,” a man yelled from his horse. The vehemence in his voice startled her. It was as if she’d done something wrong. He had three companions, all on horseback too, all lined up behind her as if they’d been there awhile.
Hannah made another attempt to stand, and the man in charge, or at least she assumed he was in charge, rode toward her.
“Hold!” he yelled again, dismounting.
She blinked in confusion. All four men were dressed up in medieval garb. The one in the lead was older, probably over fifty, but his companions all looked younger.
The most likely explanation was that they were reenactors, employees from the massive castle perched along the edge of the nearby cliff. After nearly two weeks in Scotland, she’d seen more castles than she had during a lifetime in the States.
She was already beginning to think like a European. The thought might have amused her if not for the men gathered in front of her. They looked absolutely appalled.
Hannah’s hands began to tremble as she struggled to make sense of it all. As her head cleared, panic began to set in.
“Where am I?” she asked.
“Do not move,” he repeated.
She’d heard some thick accents in the past few weeks, but his was positively dripping. Hannah could barely understand his English.
“My lord will speak to you—”
“My lord?” she interrupted. “You mean the owner?”
Dumb Hannah. The owner was also likely a lord. Was this one of those castles that people still lived in when it wasn’t being traipsed on by tourists like her? But why would the owner want to speak to her? Was he pissed that she was trespassing?
Hannah didn’t get scared very often. She was the strong one, a role that was more important now than ever. But there were exceptions, of course, like when she was in a tall building looking down. Or, God forbid, on a Ferris wheel or something of the sort.
Jumping off a waterfall and waking on an unfamiliar shore certainly qualified for that list. Hannah’s hands couldn’t stop shaking and her heartbeat pounded in her ears.
“Who are you?” the man demanded.
He looked like an older version of that tour guide from Inverglen. Bearded and shaggy, what you’d imagine a Highlander to look like. Though, to be fair, most of the Highlanders they’d met didn’t look much different from most men. Well, other than the ones who wore kilts . . .
Focus, Hannah. Something is not right here.
“Who are you?” she demanded back.
Her question seemed to startle them as much as her appearance obviously had. It was a simple question really. And why were they looking at her as if she were wearing a clown suit? Hannah followed their stares to her shorts and hoodie. You’d think she wouldn’t need it, this being July and all, but one thing she’d learned quickly about Scotland was that summer didn’t always mean warm. Especially now that she was completely drenched.
Hannah took off the only relic she had of her alma mater, with the exception of her college loans, which would never let her forget that she’d chosen a Yale degree, and began to wring out the gray sweatshirt. Until she caught their expressions.
“OK, what is going on?” she demanded. Hannah was beginning to feel a bit more like herself despite the fact that she was still completely lost with no recollection of anything after jumping into the falls. “You’ve been less than helpful. I have no idea how—”
The men turned at the sound of a few approaching riders. Literally, riders on horseback, dressed similarly to the others. They sped toward them like bats out of hell. The one in the center was huge. As the others stopped, he just kept riding. Closer and closer . . .
Was this maniac going to stop?
He finally did, jumping from the biggest horse Hannah had ever seen in her life. He stalked toward her as if he meant to kill her. When he got close enough that Hannah could see his features, she swallowed.
Holy hell. If this guy was a reenactor, then she was joining their troupe tomorrow.