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THROUGH THE VENEER OF TIME
by Vera Bell


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_______

Prologue

Physical. Sexual. Mental.

Crimes against women take different forms,

but the ultimate effect on the survivors is always the same: lasting damage.

 

How lasting?

 

Some women learn to live with it. Some do their best to cope and move on.

But for others, the only way out is through settling the score.

Even if it takes more than one lifetime.

Even if they don’t know it yet.

 

In this life, my name is Siena Forte Casey.

This is my story.

_______

PART ONE

The Past Comes Calling

I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again,

that the living spring from the dead,

and that the souls of the dead are in existence.

– Socrates

_______

Chapter One

The Beltane Fires

May 1, 1556, Ulster, Ireland

 

His gaze pierced me through the blinding glitter of torches and the thick coils of woodsmoke. And without warning, hope glimmered—I might just have what could never be mine.

What foolishness! Aedan O’Neal never asked for my hand and never would. A son disowned by the King of Tyrone, with no title, land, nor cattle, he was no match for me, a chieftain’s daughter. But if the whispers of his impending tanistry proved true, then I, a mere daughter of his subject, would be no match for him.

I bit the inside of my lip, fighting for control. He could have been Belenus himself, returned to light his roaring bonfires and grant favors to his mortal subjects. Why did he have to stand so ruthlessly in my line of sight?

He wasn’t standing there alone, for he suffered no lack of worshippers. Two tittering girls had attached themselves to him like bees to a honeycomb. One craned her neck to murmur in his ear, fingers grazing his shoulder. The other touched his arm, skirts brushing against his léine. But our eyes remained locked as his deepening gaze held me in thrall, making me oblivious to anything that wasn’t him.

My mother elbowed me, scandalized. “A son out of favor—he’s no match for you, Neave! And look how he carries on with those lowborn wenches. Rid your head of the notion before it takes root there.”

But the festivities were in full swing now, the Beltane fires flaring bright as the flame they’ve rekindled inside me.

He couldn’t have recognized me, of course, but I remembered him well from my visit to his place of fosterage, Castle Caulfield, five years past. I’d been nearly eleven, a half-baked, gangly lass with a body like a boy. It wasn’t so with him. Tall and broad even at fifteen, he looked every bit a man. And robbed of his station or not, his poise redeemed his father’s wrongdoings—he exuded strength that transcended rank and custom.

One glimpse was all it took to know he was made for greatness. One glimpse was all I could handle at that tender age. Silent and imposing beside his older foster brothers, he’d commanded the meeting without uttering a word. The endless whispers rang true. His every aspect declared him the hero Cú Chulainn come to life, sent to us by Danu herself to save Ulster from the English.

And now, his stare sent my heart reeling and my color blazing.

Don’t. I blinked. I’m not for you, and you’re not for me.

His gaze swept my face before he turned away, taking all my peace and joy with him.

A sudden dread chilled me to the core and made me sway on my feet. I squeezed my eyes shut, but my heart only thudded louder, and breath came faster in my chest, choking me—

I stopped when he wheeled round, his eyes boring into mine. I’ll prove you wrong. 

_______

Chapter Two

The FBI Case and the Mural Project

May 2, 2009, Washington, D.C.

 

My heart raced from the adrenaline surge as I lay in Ryan’s arms after he woke me from my dream. I hated this dream: the invisible vortex pulling me into unknown depths, the quick thrill shifting into dread, my inexplicable urge to get to the bottom. A beckoning light and a menacing shadow—only a spin away. Yet always elusive.

Ryan awakened me every time, the lightness of his words clashing with the distress in his eyes. But what roused me before I met him? I frowned, tracing his Ouroboros tattoo. Nothing. This dream started after our meeting.

He pulled me close, his warm hands traveling the length of my body, deep voice reverberating in my every corner. “You smell so damn good, Siena…”

I inhaled the intoxicating bouquet of his deodorant and my perfume, ran my fingers down the hard plane of his back—

His phone chimed.

“Damn, hang on.” He released my backside and reached for the nightstand, too ready for the horrors of his job.

The screen lit up with a message, and he angled it away, eyes hardening and jaw tightening.

“What’s wrong?” I touched his arm.

He put the phone on the nightstand. “I’m back on that case, the one from four months ago.” His voice faltered. “That girl found s—uh—” He rubbed his forehead. “You know, dead—last week in NoMa. Anyway, there are some similarities between this and the Ghost.” 

I swallowed. As if the Washington D.C. neighborhood murder wasn’t disturbing enough, there was something menacing about it. Something he’d almost let slip.

“Shit.” He winced.

But I only needed to read the news to learn about the Ghost, a working name for his recent case. This I wouldn’t do. Two young women had been murdered in cold blood with no witnesses, fingerprints, or evidence of any kind. The Ghost was only too fitting—whoever had done it had vanished into thin air. But there was more. In all the time I’ve known Ryan, he managed to leave his work at our condo’s door. It was different with the Ghost. Grim and silent, he worked day and night, yet always came up short. Still, his gloominess was understandable. Until the Ghost, his success rate was a close one hundred percent.

Our situation as a couple was ironic. Here I was, married to an FBI agent who dealt in criminal homicide, armed robberies, and violent kidnappings, yet I had no stomach for these things. Especially for one thing, which aggravated my unfounded, incomprehensible phobia.

Rape.

The word was like an arrow, loosed into some vulnerable, hidden place inside me. I dug my fingernails into my palms and squeezed my eyes shut. But my heart only thudded louder, and breath came faster in my chest, choking me—

Stop. Nothing is happening.

Stop. Nothing has ever happened.

Stop. Nothing will ever happen.

I stopped hyperventilating, dizzy with the effort. This was the reason I quit reading the headlines last week. A woman turning up dead in the nation’s capital, where I lived—no, thank you. Hard pass.

A small groove formed between Ryan’s eyebrows. “You okay, love?” 

I shook my head and turned away. He came with his job. I knew this from day one.

“C’mon.” He pulled me in tight, arm rigid as a rock. “I got this. You know it’s only a matter of time—” He grabbed his phone again. “Real quick, let me call a meeting with my VCMO guys.” 

I stared in front of me as he tapped on his screen. As time passes, acronyms obscure the meaning of the words they comprise. Not this one. When taken apart, each word in VCMO is a crash of a falling ax: Violent. Crime. Major. Offenders.

“Hey.” Ryan gathered me into his arms again. “All three murders happened in deserted places—” He ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t go anywhere by yourself. For now.”

Holy. Crap. This from the elite FBI unit commander was the equivalent of a flight attendant rushing to buckle up. 

A deafening silence filled our bedroom.

“Last night—holy shit, Sie.” Ryan switched the subject, sealing it with a warm, lingering kiss.

Resigned, I peered into his narrowed eyes. When did I grow so accustomed to this insane verbal juggling?

“So goddamn hot.” He smoothed a strand from my cheek, his firm touch extinguishing his case, my fears, and the world outside. “And that lingerie—” His lopsided grin made him appear younger than thirty-two. “You sure know what gets me.”

Darkness dispelled by the shining light on his face, I beamed back and gave myself a mental high-five. Last night was our third wedding anniversary, and I wore some risqué undergarments bought on a hunch for the occasion. The effect was nothing short of sensational.

“I expect more of those small lacy things.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Now that you’ve upped the ante.”

I’ve upped the ante?” I examined my wrists—no marks.

“Either way—” Ryan got up. “It’s been upped.”

As his tall, athletic form disappeared into the bathroom, I forced myself to focus on the day ahead. I had no right to complain. How many starving artists could boast a commission at the National Gallery of Art? A full-scale mural for a special collection exhibition was an outstanding project to add to my portfolio, so I should have been excited. And was, until my excitement had turned to anxiety. First sketch review around the corner, I’d hit the bane of every artist’s existence—the dreaded creative block.

The culprit must have been the mural’s subject matter. I just couldn’t find inspiration for something as dreary as medieval weaponry. In truth, it filled me with gloom.

An hour later, I sat at my computer as Ryan’s German shepherd, Guinness, settled at my feet. Punitive raids, bloody sieges, pitched battles. But I’d already googled the veritable hell out of medieval warfare. Unless—I stared at the useless search results—I’d overlooked some crucial search word.

Biting the inside of my lip, I typed in the first thing that came to mind: medieval life.

Feudal system, noble lords, dainty ladies. But I’d already seen all this in history books. Cursing under my breath, I almost swiped onto the next page when I noticed an oddball link: past life regression.

This had nothing to do with my commission, so why did my fingers itch to click on it?

Annoyed, I stared at the predictable dreamy images and a prominent title inquiring: Have You Lived Before?

Who reads this stuff? Still, I continued, finding an implausible four-step guide to a past life self-hypnosis. Apparently, all a person needed to do was breathe in and out some, abandon all thought, count from ten to zero, then open their mind to past life experiences, and voilà! I rolled my eyes and closed the page. Evidently, I read this stuff.

After contemplating this nonsense for a few unproductive minutes, I doodled an Irish triquetra. Then, I put down the sketchpad and clicked on the DNA site link—to see if anything changed in the last few weeks. It hadn’t. My entire reason for taking the DNA test loomed as pointless as ever: Irish: 0.0%.

I couldn’t explain, couldn’t rationalize this lifelong, undying affinity for Ireland. A pull powerful enough to convince myself of having some Irish DNA. The test was to confirm this, but it confirmed nothing. Lucky for me, Ryan viewed my idée fixe as an amusing sign we were meant to be together. His heritage traceable without any tests, the man was as Irish as a pint of Guinness. Speaking of which, it was time to walk the dog.

Leash in hand, I stopped by Guinness’ favorite patch of grass and looked up. It was hard to imagine something sinister lurking on this sunlit day. Gentle and warm, the sunrays breathed across the glittering sky, brushed against the blooming trees, and caressed their blushing branches. No wonder the ancient Celts welcomed May with their fiery Beltane ceremonies, and the Irish observed it well into the nineteenth century. The beginning of summer, both nature and humans replete with fertility and its passionate rituals.

How perfect that Ryan and I met on Beltane. 

A strange, wing-shaped cloud eclipsed the sun, but I kept on walking. Anything beat staring at the untouched sheet of white. Besides, being alone in a public place was perfectly safe.

_______

Chapter Three

The Stuff of My Nightmares

May 6-7, 2009, Washington, D.C.

 

The last four days brought no progress, so I decided on a change of scenery. Not that I expected to find inspiration at a coffeehouse, but I was grasping at straws.

It was a small shop, and if the wall art was any indication, the owner was obsessed with rebirth. Not this again. My gaze lingered on a butterfly-turned-shieldmaiden as I inhaled the invigorating aroma from my paper cup and got to work. Or thought I did. Thirty minutes later, my sketchpad remained as blank as my mind.

Shit. I flipped the loathsome thing over and grabbed my phone. Due to the growing distress over my apparently permanent creative block, I’d fallen behind on the local happenings. I should have kept it that way.

I almost dropped the coffee in my lap at the first headline:

FBI Joins Search for Serial Killer.

I froze, conjuring up the tension in Ryan’s arm, his hesitation answering my question.

“I should move on like I always do,” I muttered—and tapped on the article.

The FBI is joining D.C. officials in search of a male in his thirties, the only confirmed identifying information to date. The body of what appears to be his newest victim was found last week. The circumstances of the crime scene are almost identical to the two murders that took place in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore four months ago. All three victims had been brutally raped, then strangled.

Oh, God.

The FBI is asking for the public’s help. Residents are encouraged to remain alert and call the toll-free tip line 1-800-CALL-FBI with any information.

I grasped my neck as if something braced it, suffocating me. Raped, then strangled. I made a vain attempt to take a full breath, fighting against a darkness that threatened to swallow me whole. Three victims. I dug my fingernails into my palms to the point of pain.

Stop it.

I ordered myself to unclench my fists, then grabbed my coffee and took a labored sip.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.

I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. I’ve never been a victim of sexual assault, or sexual harassment, or sexual anything. Why this inexplicable hyperventilating at the mere mention of rape? This terror when reading about it, the near hysteria at rape scenes in the movies?

I stared, unseeing. Ryan’s Ghost case was the stuff of my nightmares, and my avoidance of the details would not change that. On impulse, I texted the article to him and raised my head. On the loose, here, in D.C.—he could be anyone. A clean-cut guy in a business suit tapping on his phone? No, too corporate. The tattooed hipster with funky hair paying at the register? As though sensing my gaze, he turned. No, too young. A portly man on his way out? No, too old.

Would I ever feel safe again?

A text notification made me jerk so hard, I almost pulled a neck muscle. It was from Ryan, voice to text:

I should’ve told you sorry love but I got this I’m so close I can feel it.

***

Swords, javelins, axes, daggers. I was thumbing through a medieval weaponry book when Guinness exploded in his exuberant welcome. I lurched violently.

“Hey there, buddy.” Ryan’s voice reached me from the hallway. “I love you, too, pal.”

I closed my eyes as Ryan’s rich baritone turned soft and gentle. A thump—Guinness had rolled over for a belly rub, something he did only for his favorite human.

“Have you taken good care of our girl, like I told you?”

I smiled despite myself, the day forgotten.

“I’m counting on you, buddy. God…” he exhaled in a whisper. “One sick fuck.” A new note in his voice made my eyes go wide. He’d never sounded so raw. And dangerous. “I’d wring his neck in that same way… Christ… But I’ll find him, buddy. I’ll go to hell and back if I have to.”

His footsteps approached in unison with the dog’s nails on the hardwood floor.

“Hey—” He froze. “I thought you were in your studio. You okay?” He sat beside me, calm and composed aside from his disheveled hair.

I shook my head.

“I’m sorry this has to be part of our life, Sie.” He traced my jaw with the back of his hand. “But it’s what I do.”

I pulled away. With an undergraduate degree in criminal justice from the University of Pennsylvania, a law degree from Cornell, and a stellar work record, he could have had a career in politics or law. Instead, he’d picked one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation.

“Why do you do this?” I blurted before I could stop myself.

He raked his dark blond strands. “I don’t know, love. Why do you paint? It’s a calling, I think, like a compulsion. Something I always knew I had to do. And the Ghost—” He took my hand, squeezing a little too hard. “I can’t explain it. It’s like I’m right where I should be.”

I must not have done a good job of controlling my face.

“Promise you’re not going to worry about it.” He gathered me into the safety of his iron hug. “I’ll find him. No one can hide long nowadays.”

I studied him after we’d gone to bed: one hand under his head, another on his abdomen, muscular legs occupying the better portion of the bed. Even asleep, he projected unshakable determination. He’d stay on this case until the bitter end.

I stared into the darkness. Medieval warfare, serial killer in D.C., castle sieges, three victims, drawn swords, raped, then strangled.

Perhaps my avoidance of the case isn’t the answer.

The unexpected resolution took my mind off the subject, but sleep remained a distant possibility. As did any chance of meeting the museum deadline.

I groaned. What a waste this day had been. If I could travel back in time, I’d shut off my phone, enjoy my coffee, and maybe even produce the winning sketch. Or better yet, I’d travel to a life with no commissions and no first sketch reviews—as prescribed in that ridiculous past life tutorial. I turned on my side. The whole thing was in line with all the other outlandish material floating out there: astral projection, paganism, the occult, and who knew what else.

Adjusting my perfectly adjusted pillow, I counted sheep when remembering the tutorial instructed counting backward from ten. This didn’t matter, of course. I wasn’t the intended audience for such nonsense. Rolling my eyes, I took a few deep breaths and tried to push aside all thought, focusing instead on my breathing, the oh-so-important prerequisite to time travel.

Despite my inner smirks, I counted, relaxed and curiously detached.

Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.

Was my mind now open to receive past life experiences?

“A Niamh, a chailín chinn-óir!” A deep voice jolted me from my pleasant state.

I bolted upright, heart hammering. The voice was palpable, not at all dream-like. But Ryan was sleeping beside me, and nothing had changed in the room.

Holy crap, did the hypnosis work?

I shook my head. No doubt, I’d fallen asleep to one of my vivid dreams. Still, the voice had left a trace. Although the man spoke in a foreign language, it sounded familiar. And beautiful. Delightful, really, like apple pie fresh from the oven.

***

I woke up late, something unfinished hovering at the edge. My mural project? Ryan’s Ghost case?

A Niamh, a chailín chinn-óir!

The memory stirred me from my remaining slumber. It was a good voice, deep and kind, full of life and vigor. The voice of a father. Right. I pursed my lips and got up. I needed to get something—anything—sketched.

But the universe had other plans for me.

A Niamh—of course! A flash of recognition struck me like a lightning bolt. A quick search on my computer produced: English: Neave. Irish: Niamh. Mythology: the daughter of the sea god Manannan was known as Neave of the Golden Hair.

The hair on the back of my neck standing on end, I dove into a new search like my life depended on it. Thrown, I stopped this outrageous waste of time, grabbed my sketchpad, and drew some medieval-looking weapons, a random stag, and idiotic hunting dogs. After inspecting this, I tossed the sketchpad aside.

Should I just call the museum and decline the commission? It would be a certain relief, and also definite career suicide.

In the evening, Ryan walked into my studio to find me doodling on my sketchpad. Steel shields and burgonet helmets. Battering rams and harquebuses. A Niamh, a chailín chinn-óir!

I abandoned my task. “Any leads?”

He shook his head, rubbed his neck. “None.” 

My desire to know more about the Ghost had mostly dwindled—except for one disturbing question.

“Did the victims die quickly or… was it prolonged?” I swallowed, hoping to God it was quick. Then, I could stop imagining the drawn-out horrors and console myself with the imbecilic idea that these women didn’t suffer long. Would that bring relief? No, it wouldn’t.

“C’mon, Sie.” He shot me a glance. “You don’t want to know.”

I stood. “I do. Not knowing makes it worse.”

“It was quick.” He pressed his mouth into a hard line.

No, it wasn’t.

“What did he do to them, Ryan?”

He placed his arms around me, holding tight. “Hey, I’ve put all my other cases on hold to work on this. Nothing is more important to me right now. I’ll find him.”

I pulled free and sank into the couch. Why did I press him for details? Would I feel better if I knew? No, I’d only feel worse. 

“What do you think of the name Neave?” I switched the subject. In truth, I couldn’t stop thinking about that either.

“Neave?” He blinked, sitting beside me. “An old Irish name. Why?”

Why did I ask?

“Oh, I’d come across it, you know,” I lied. “Just thought it was cool.”

I wished I could tell him about my DIY hypnosis, but I didn’t want him to think I’d lost my marbles. Which I likely had.

“Neave…” His eyes locked with mine, bright sunshine on a dark pond, dotted with sky-blue and edged with forest green.

I shivered, smoothing an errant strand from my face.

“Such a beautiful name.” He leaned in with a slow grin. “Maybe if we have a girl, we’ll name her Neave?”

I suppressed a frown. We’d agreed to start trying after I turned twenty-nine, which was half a year away.

“Let’s try.” He tipped my chin, and a stunning bouquet of fresh linen, light deodorant, and him made me tingle all over.

“I’m still on the pill, baby,” I whispered against his lips, his warm breath filling me with a deluge of sparkles. “But we can practice.”

He leaned back, large hands firm on his knees. Commanding even when sitting. “Get up.” 

I stood, dizzy under his deepening gaze—an electric shock through my body.

“Take off your dress.” He tilted his head to the side, voice low and even.

Breath hitched, I untied the sash of my flowy sundress and let it pool around my feet. 

His gaze swept the length of my body like a heat wave, then rested on my face. “Bra.”

I unclasped two lacy cups to the quickening rhythm of my breathing and let my bra fall to the floor. 

He leaned in, his eyes so bold, I flooded with goosebumps. “Panties.” 

He said no more as he hoisted me on top of him with one swift motion. His tongue invaded my mouth as his body rocked mine in a perfectly choreographed dance. His hands pressed into my hips. My fingertips dug into his hard shoulders. We fit together as if made for each other. As if we always were and always would be. In any place, in any time, in no time. Because the flow of time had ceased to exist. And I, too, vanished along with it, dissolving into a string of sensations and sounds interspersed with his name. 

The brilliant flames between us glowed, mounted, flared. The conflagration blazed and shattered, following, then breaking all laws of physics. It shimmered around us and within us.

Then, time started again.

As I lay awake later, my hand worrying the edge of the blanket, I wondered whether something was wrong with us. How many couples go from discussing rape and murder to making mind-blowing love without so much as a blink of an eye?

A Niamh, a chailín chinn-óir!

“Fine,” I muttered to no one, “have it your way.”

Then I closed my eyes and prepared for the countdown.

_______

Chapter Four

Neave McConway of the Golden Hair

May 7, 2009, Washington, D.C. • May 7, 1559, Ulster, Ireland

In truth, I knew all along I’d plunge right into it. Why? I didn’t have an answer. But it wouldn’t be long now before it arrived.

Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.

There was no fatherly voice this time. Only the familiar sensation of a vortex pulling me into unknown depths.

Faster. Closer. A thrill. A dread. An arrival—

A weak ray of sun filtered through the narrow window into my dank chamber. I shivered, eyeing my woolen cloak, but I’d not be caught dead bundled up like an ancient crone. I’d sooner freeze. I’d sooner take ill. I’d sooner die.

Aine handed me my looking glass. With its jewel-encrusted gold frame, it has long been a source of Isibeal’s envy and the endless gossip of the servants. They’d even whispered of its magic powers, but it was only a piece of glass my father purchased from a Venetian merchant—

Back in my warm Washington D.C. bed, I clutched the blanket like a lifeline, heartbeat thundering in my ears.

Holy crap, what a bizarre dream.

I shook myself and closed my eyes— 

The glass felt cold and heavy in my bejeweled hands. Was that the clatter of hoofbeats in the courtyard? A cloud of thyme and rose perfume wafted from my hair as I jerked my head toward the window. Outside, naught but the patter of rain—

I lurched in my bed. Outside, a screech of tires on the pavement. Was it raining? No, it wasn’t. My single wedding band glinted in the moonlight. My hair smelled of lavender and vanilla shampoo. I was done with this dream. I closed my eyes—

Everyone made such a fuss of my elflocks, they’d better live up to expectation. I surveyed my reflection. Thanks to Aine, they would do. She’d pinned two thick golden plaits in the back, tossed another two over my shoulders, and secured the rest of the unruly mane with a sapphire-set comb. A clever choice of stone to match my eyes—

I lay still, despite my thudding heart, my brown eyes wide open. A hallucination. A psychosis? Oh, God… I dug my fingernails into my sweaty palms. Next to me, Ryan was deep asleep, the cadence of his breathing slow and even. I blew out a labored breath, then another. I’m finished. Done.

But when I closed my eyes, I was back in the dank chamber, and no earthly power could bring me back.

Aine contemplated me with a bleak expression. Could she feel the weight of her years on such a day as this? True, her russet strands now sparkled with silver, and the creases round her eyes had deepened, but she scarcely looked old enough to have been my wet nurse. 

I studied my outfit for the hundredth time. The billowing sleeves of my white léine were the right length to display my rings. The embroidered blue kirtle brushed the tips of my new goatskin shoes. I released a shuddering breath. The tight lacing made my waist wispy thin, and the plunging neckline hugged my womanly curves.

But he’d never seen me up close!

“My nose needs more venetian ceruse.” I stared at Aine, unblinking. “If his aim is truly to… I cannot appear with all these freckles.”

Quiet as a mouse, she sprinkled more white powder onto my nose, her peculiar silence doing nothing to help the thuds in my chest.

“You’ve been so quiet.” I touched her arm. “Tell me what’s on your mind, anamchara.”

She chewed her forefinger. “No use in hiding it, Neave. A king doesn’t pay personal visits to his subjects, save for personal matters.” She straightened. “The new O’Neal is putting your father in a bind, like as not. Should he accept, he’d be subjecting you to a life of misery. And should he refuse, well, he’d be laying our clan open to the man’s wicked fury.”

I dug my fingernails into my palms. Was I a fool to have fallen for the man infamous for debauchery and ill temper? 

“Father leaves the answer to me.” I swallowed.

“At eighteen, he trusts you’re wise enough to refuse, a leanbh, and you must!” Aine threw up her hands. “King or no, you cannot wed such a man. The whispers…” She dropped her gaze.

“I’ve heard all those whispers, and I care not a whit for them!” What were foolish whispers compared to his look at the Beltane fires?

“You’ve not heard them all, then.”

I went still. “What is it, Aine?”

“I know not, a leanbh.” She circled her arms round me. “I can scarcely make sense of it. They say he’s a lover like no other in the same breath as—other things. Strange things!”

My chest heaved with outrage. “Those whispers? Tales his foes spin!” I pushed her away. “Repeat them not in my hearing!”

I dashed to the rain-streaked window, swallowing tears. I couldn’t reconcile my memory of a strong, noble lad with distasteful talk. Besides, I’d not go downstairs with a tear-stricken face. 

“May Brigid watch over you.” Aine’s voice grew thick with worry. “May Danu protect you from the darkness.”

“Forgive me, anamchara.” I turned, searching her eyes. “It cannot be helped, for—” 

But Aine’s emerald gaze had already traveled past my cold chamber, the familiar chant making the air still:

Now and always, glorious Danu 

Give me help in all that I do…

There have long been whispers of Aine herself, but only I knew of her clandestine worship of the Tuatha Dé Danann, her hushed incantations on full-moon nights, her mysterious rituals with herbs and stones of virtue.

“Don’t, Aine!” I leapt to her, breaking the spell. “It cannot be helped, for I love him.”

***

My father’s great hall had a lofty ceiling and walls brightened with clan banners. In the center stood a wooden table, laden with every conceivable dish, polished cutlery, and all manner of finery. On the raised dais at the head of the table, my father, chieftain Cormac McConway, raked his copper beard. On his right sat my mother, Lady Bevin McConway, her thin, worried face framed by tendrils escaped from her headdress. My four younger sisters sat beside her, all flushed with excitement, save for one. Pale and sullen, Isibeal appeared to be consumed with sweating sickness.

Father stood. “Neave, my golden-haired lass! Took you long enough, but what a lovely sight you are, daughter.”

Unbeknownst to Aine, he came to my chamber a fortnight back to announce a man of great station was coming with a visit. Arms crossed, I’d stared at him unblinking. Surely, this was another offer of marriage, and great station meant old age.

“It’s worse than you think, a leanbh.” He winced. “It’s the new O’Neal himself.”

I gaped. Did I hear him right? Since Aedan O’Neal’s inauguration, everyone expected a conjugal alliance to profit his rule. But whispers persisted—the intractable young ruler of Tyrone paid no heed to his council, for he’d set his sights on his subject’s daughter. The talk of the “unnatural courtship” and lamentations of wasted policymaking had turned to open speculation of who the fortunate—or misfortunate—bride might be.

“You gather the meaning of this visit, don’t you, a leanbh?” Father sat beside me.

I gulped. I dared not fancy it was me.

“I’d cast my vote for Aedan, mind. Everyone had. The Lord knows, Ireland has not seen a ruler such as him for too long—More-Than-a-Man he is indeed. It doesn’t mean he’ll make a proper husband.” He raked his beard. “You’d heard the whispers, haven’t you, Neave?”

I whirled to my garment chests to hide my reddening face. “D’you credit them, father?”

“I’ve it on good authority he’s a philanderer with boundless appetites. So far as the other talk, I’ve no way of knowing and no wish to find out.”

“Did he say he’d ask for my hand?” I choked out.

“He’d no need to. The King of Tyrone doesn’t travel with visits to his vassals, save for personal affairs. I ought’ve known it’s you he is after. The tales of your beauty have reached greater ears than his.” Father shook his head. “Would that I accepted another offer, but I’d not wed you to an old lecher. Now, I might have to give you to a young one, and to whom we owe fealty, withal.”

I smoothed my skirt with a sweaty hand. “You’d not refuse him, then?”

“What’s this? I’d not give you to such a man without a fight! Listen here, a leanbh.” He raised his hand to stop my objections. “A sure way to end his courtship is to have him hear it from you. If he sees you don’t fancy him, he’ll move on, proud as he is. I intend to have you present upon his arrival. And no need for demureness, Neave. Say you refuse and beg his forgiveness. He’ll not press suit.”

“Father, please—”

“Fret not, my golden-haired lass.” He’d stood and headed to the door. “I’ll not let him near you if I can help it.”

His booming voice brought me back to the great hall. “… they’ll be here any moment, so sit tall and proud, daughter! King or no, you’re a high prize to be won, a rare gem for any crown.”

I didn’t feel a gem. My lacing was suddenly too tight, my braids chaffed my skin, and the venetian ceruse burned my face. I rubbed at it with the back of my hand when the O’Neal’s bard Seamus O’Givney entered ahead of his party.

“It is with eternal awe and humility I declare to this noble gathering the fervently awaited arrival of this Rightful King of Tyrone,” he began in a clear, ringing voice. “The Descendant of many High Kings before him, the Unrivaled Chieftain of Ulster, the Peerless Warrior and Commander, the Venerated Lord Aedan O’Neal, who has benevolently deigned to grace this house with his unequaled presence!”

Stomach fluttering, I scanned the space behind the bard. It was empty.

“Also in attendance,” he continued with reduced flourish, “are Lord Kian O’Neal, Lord Fillan O’Donnelly, and Lord Ronan O’Donnelly, the O’Neal’s incomparable high commanders and personal retinue.”

The space behind the bard remained empty. 

I squirmed in my seat. I am a high prize to be won, not the other way round.

_______

Chapter Five

Lord Aedan O'Neal, the King of Tyrone

May 7, 1559, Ulster, Ireland

The flowery announcement was unnecessary. He blotted out everything and everyone like the sun. A god towering over mere mortals, his gaze was the will of an ocean, his body the might of a storm. More-Than-a-Man. He’d earned the moniker while still in fosterage, thanks to the venerable brehon Senan Fleming’s extraordinary stories. Aedan O’Neal carried a fifty-pound salmon on his shoulders from the Great River to Lough Gall. Aedan O’Neal saved two cattlemen from four robbers with only his horse and a scian. Aedan O’Neal bent an iron rod with his bare hands. Aedan O’Neal—the great hero Cú Chulainn reborn.

“She always gets the best of everything, doesn’t she!” Isibeal leaned in, swift as an arrow. “And I shall wed some ugly old man!”

Mother’s eyes flashed. “You shall be locked in your chamber for a sennight if you don’t quiet down.”

My sister’s cheeks burned with ill-concealed rage, eyes flooded with tears, and chin quivered with an imminent outburst. She jerked her hand away when I tried to squeeze it under the table. A mortifying spectacle ready to unfold.

“Please, sister.” I bent to her. “Remember Caitlin’s tale of her wedding night?”

But I was being disingenuous. Ghastly as our cousin’s tale was, I’d wondered how it might have been with Aedan O’Neal instead of her aging husband. Still, Isibeal ceased her antics at once, cheered by the notion of my impending misery.

I studied our guests. Lord O’Neal was dressed according to rank: saffron léine synched with jewel-encrusted belt, fur-lined blue mantle flung back from his broad shoulders, gilded sandals laced round muscular calves. On his right side, he wore a long scabbard with a ring-pommel sword, and on his left, a shorter sheath with a scian. As the guest of honor, he sat beside my father on the dais.

His eyes, the color of a cool ocean on a hot summer day, met mine, and a frosty wave chilled me to the core. Where was the deepening gaze, the searing look of the Beltane fires? Extinguished. Gone. Replaced with a courteous nod and a restrained smile. Heart sinking, I stared at Aine. He wasn’t here to ask for my hand, for the whispers were always only that, and I was no match for him.

Father stood. “It is the McConway clan’s honor to host our distinguished guests today. M’lord, I trust our food and drink shall be to your liking.” He dipped his head. “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts…” 

The Lord’s gifts were lavish: a whole salted pig, boiled ox-flesh with cabbage and corn, venison with roasted hazelnuts, salmon, grouse, and pheasant, all manner of sausages and puddings, wheaten breads with honey, and even seal-flesh. But I had no stomach for food. I sat still as the man of my dreams feasted with enviable relish and laughed at father’s jests in a deep, catching laughter. Not once did he look at me.

While the O’Neal didn’t come here to sup with us, whatever his reasons were, I wasn’t one. I pushed away my untouched plate and took a long draft from my cup, longing for my chamber, where I could weep to my heart’s content. I’d try to forget him, for he wasn’t for me, nor I for him. I’ve known this for many years now and was getting too old to pine for a man who could never be mine. I’d wed the next suitor who came through the door—the older, the better to complete my misery.

“I thank you for your hospitality, Cormac.” Lord O’Neal’s voice stirred me from my brooding. Deep and velvety like rich ale, it reverberated in the great hall, silencing the din.

Everyone grew quiet—he’d reveal the reason for his visit now. It would surely be about increased military levies, or some new tribute dues, or who even knew what.

Give me strength, Brigid. I strained to keep my face impassive, feeling an utter fool for having no power to give up hope.

“But I’m not here today as your overlord,” he said, and I stopped breathing—his eyes, fixed on mine, burned with blue fire. “I’m here to ask for Lady Neave’s hand in marriage.” He took his gaze off me and trained it on my father.

The silence that followed was thick enough to be sliced with a knife. Could everyone hear the booming thuds of my heart? Another moment, and it would leap from my chest.

Father dipped his head. “I’m flattered, m’lord, but Lady Neave is a woman grown and fit to come to her own decisions.” His somber glance almost shattered my resolve. “Give your answer then, daughter.”

He turned to Lord O’Neal, his mouth a straight line. “M’lord, I beg that you accept Lady Neave’s choice—whatever it may be. One cannot force the matters of the heart.”

Lord O’Neal shifted his gaze to me, his stormy eyes burning holes in my face.

Silently, I begged my father’s forgiveness. “I accept, m’lord,” I said in a trembling voice, drowning in his turbulent pools of blue.

If the silence upon his proposal was thick, the one following my consent was deafening. I risked a glance at my father. The muscles in his neck stretched tight as a bow, but he raised his cup, knuckles white against his florid skin.

“To the forthcoming union of the O’Neal and McConway clans.” He regarded me with such unconcealed anguish, I lowered my lashes.

“To our wedding, Lady Neave.” Lord O’Neal drained his cup. “To take place in four weeks’ time.”

He bent to whisper in my father’s ear, who stiffened with indignation, a vein bulging on his forehead.

“Lord O’Neal wishes to get acquainted with his betrothed,” he bit out to the stunned silence. “You’ve my permission for a stroll in the gardens or a short ride, daughter.” He threw a glance at Aine, who rose, only to be stopped by Lord O’Neal’s shake of the head.

The strict custom of not leaving the betrothed alone until the wedding day was as revered as the Scripture. But the new King of Tyrone appeared intent on breaking every rule.

He was at my seat before I knew how he got there. Speechless, I placed my arm under his, strong and solid, and with that, we walked outdoors.

***

Castle McConway was a powerful fortress of four rounded towers adjoined by tall, cut-stone walls. It stood on high ground, commanding the lake on one side and rolling hills on all others. The day was warm, the air soft after the rain, the sun dancing on the water in dizzying sparkles of emerald and sapphire. Well past the festivities of Beltane, the approaching summer breathed across the sky and brushed against the glittering grasses and the blooming trees.

“Your father expected you to decline.” Lord O'Neal’s chestnut hair gleamed with auburn in the afternoon sun. “But you didn’t.”

“I didn’t, m’lord,” I echoed as if in a dream, giddy at the notion of walking beside him, let alone marrying him in four weeks’ time.

“I paid no heed to my council, and you disobeyed your father—a fine beginning, m’lady.” He gave me a wry smile. “A ride, then? The weather seems promising for once.”

The groom brought Lord O’Neal’s magnificent bay stallion alongside my white filly.

“Tuireann.” Lord O’Neal patted the steed’s broad shoulder as he flagged his tail and kicked his hind legs. “My trusted companion of six years.” 

“A fitting name.” I drew back from the wild beast and stroked my filly’s graceful neck. “Fionna. She’s been with me since her birth.”

I needed no help saddling up, but Lord O’Neal thrust out his large hand for me to step on. Without warning, he circled his fingers on my ankle, warm and steady, and a rush of sparks shot into my every corner. I glanced at him, hoping he hadn’t noticed—only to be met with a fleeting half-smile.

He swung upon his stallion with admirable grace and motioned to his bodyguard of four deadly gallowglasses.

“I’ve a mind to take you to a place in the woodlands, m’lady. To ask for a blessing for our marriage with you beside me. It isn’t too far a ride, half a league at most.”

Although his eyes held a question, his tone made it sound a done deal. A man accustomed to issuing orders and having them followed. On the whole, I didn’t much care for orders. I also wasn’t at all certain my father would approve of riding so far with a man not yet my husband. I contemplated my imperious riding companion: chiseled profile, straight back, hands firm on the reins of the half-wild steed underneath him. In any event, father didn’t specify the location of the ride.

After a trot on the undulating hillside, we entered a wooded stream valley, water rushing through the creek and mist hanging like a blanket. As the woodland grew denser, the babble of the tumbling water grew louder, and the mist grew thicker.

As we came upon the most magnificent waterfall in all of Ulster, Lord O’Neal motioned to his guard to hang back. Majestic in beauty and brutal in force, the Niall waterfall stood over forty feet tall. Its torrent cascaded into the pool below, and the mixture of fresh water, moss, and the blooming flowers scented the air. Still far from setting, the giant golden orb tinted the sky, glittered in the pool, and sparkled on every leaf and blade of grass. A sacred site, where the gods and the fair folk dwelled, their presence far and wide, their quiet observation above and below.

Lord O’Neal led me to a small carn by an ancient oak tree at the side of the pool. “My ancestors, the high kings of Tyrone, came here to pray and offer sacrifice.” He raised his voice over the roar of the gushing stream. “This place knows me.”  

The oak quivered with a flicker of a movement. Aengus Óg come to lay eyes on the newest O’Neal bride or only a stag?

“D’you come here often, m’lord?”

He chuckled in a gleam of white, leaning in against the crush of water. “I visit now and then. I’ve been in need of a few blessings.”

In a cloud of mist, he went down on one knee and motioned for me to kneel beside him. Eyes fixed on the waterfall, he dipped his hand in the pool and made the cross of Christ upon his palm, then took my hand and bowed:

May the blessing of the Father be ours,

May the blessing of the Son be ours,

May the blessing of the Spirit be ours,

Pouring for us gently and plentifully.

May the Spirit content us with the water of grace.

May the peace of the Father be to us,

May the peace of the Son be to us,

May the peace of the Spirit be to us,

And to our children.

I closed my eyes and reached out to Danu, the great mother of gods, the majestic earth goddess of the fairy hills:

Now and always, Glorious Danu,

Give me help in all that I do…

But I was never any good at it. I opened my eyes to find the King of Tyrone’s steady gaze on my mouth. A faint silver scar adorned his lower lip—a perfect imperfection. My fingers ached to touch it. I smoothed a mist-soaked strand from my face instead. Did he look this way at every woman he bedded? He leaned in, and his piercing eyes, framed by dark lashes, locked on mine. His hair tickled my cheek, lips skimmed my ear, and warm breath sent shivers down my spine. His words were a startling mixture of divination and longing: “Just you… and me.”

Then we stood. His powerful build towered over me as he cupped my chin, the query in his eyes so earnest, it took me by surprise. Gentle as soft rain, he pulled me closer at my silent reply. The rasp of his beard. The brush of his lips against mine. His tongue made them part as everything inside me caught fire. But he withdrew, tracing my jaw with the back of his hand. Then, his lips were firmer, tongue grazing, invading. His mouth was as sweet as the air about us. A flare surged through me. My body pulsed and ached—a warm, supple creature. I haven’t lived until now. His firm hands reached under my hair, traveled down my back, seared the skin through my gown. He closed the distance between us. His every rigid bend crushed against me.

“Christ…” he breathed into my mouth, halting.

I grasped the back of his head. Don’t stop. My body melted into his, my fingers stroked the column beneath his thick hair, my ungoverned hands made free with the hard, broad shoulders of the King of Tyrone. My husband to be in four weeks’ time.

He had no intention of stopping. He cupped my chin once more and tilted my head to the other side, his renewed kiss harder and more urgent.

 

_______

Chapter Six

The Afflatus

May 8, 2009, Washington, D.C.

 

Ryan’s alarm went off, and Lord O’Neal’s face disappeared.

“You were talking in your sleep.” He searched my eyes in the dim of the bedroom.

I shook myself, disoriented, half-expecting to see the Niall waterfall crashing into the pool.

“What… did I say?” I gathered my scattered faculties, struggling to form words.

Ryan shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you. It was unintelligible.”

Just you… and me. I’d bet he hadn’t expected a highborn lady of eighteen to respond in the scandalous way I did. The daughter of a prominent chieftain, having a full make-out session with the man she got engaged to only hours ago. Which one of us was the lecher?

I stared in front of me. I was Siena Forte, married to Ryan Casey, whose hot behind flashed as he got up to get ready for his work at the FBI.

But what a dream—or was it? I closed my eyes and touched my lips, still reeling from the longing brought on by that mind-blowing kiss.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were speaking Irish.” Ryan’s voice cut through my fog. “Damn, have I ever told you of my great-grandmother’s angry rumblings? Scared the shit out of us.”

Irish? Me? I gaped, unseeing.

“You okay, love?” He sat beside me and smoothed an errant strand from my face.

“Just a weird dream.” I reached for his lips, which parted and closed around my fingertips, warm and firm.

 

“I’m fine.” I glided my hands down the hard plane of his back; the vision—if not the feeling—gone.

“I’ve got to be at the bureau in ten minutes,” he breathed into my mouth, pulling me to him. “But I’ll be thinking about you all day.” 

I released a long breath at the click of the front door lock. In all seriousness. What in the freaking hell was that?

Cautiously, I took stock of my family’s medical history. As far as I knew, no one had suffered from schizophrenia, hallucinations, or any major mental disorder. It didn’t seem fair it should start with me.

Could it have been a dream? It could not. No dream had ever felt this realistic and detailed. But there was more. That medieval girl, Neave, was as elegant as a grace in Botticelli’s Primavera, as regal as Hughes’ Ophelia. With long strawberry-blonde hair and sky-blue eyes, she looked nothing like me. Still, despite the total improbability of it, she was also somehow me. Even worse—I squeezed my eyes shut, but it didn’t help—I knew her entire life story.

I pressed my lips together. There could be an explanation not yet obvious to me. Some medical condition that wasn’t full-on madness. A nervous breakdown caused by my creative block. Because certainly, I didn’t transition into a past life via counting from ten to zero. I snorted with relief—of course not. It was a dream. A crazy, vivid dream and nothing more!

I headed to my studio—I had a deadline to meet and no time to spare on this nonsense. Sketchpad in hand, I threw an anxious glance at my calendar. It was the flip kind my friend Emma gave me, each month featuring a tarot card illustration. This month was the Wheel of Fortune, hard and uncompromising. My mural presentation was in four days, and I still didn’t have a sketch.

I closed my eyes, only to have the tingling memory of my vision highjack feeble ideas rattling in my head. It seemed a little blurry around the edges now. Definitely a dream. A dream with Lord O’Neal’s large, firm hands on Neave’s back. The proximity of his gorgeous body. His warm, sensual mouth relentless on hers. How in the hell was I to focus on medieval weapons? It was high time to admit my glaring failure.

Through the window, a strange wing-shaped shadow eclipsed the sun.

Maybe you should draw him.

Him? I stared at the Sphinx presiding over the Wheel of Fortune. My dream was of the Middle Ages variety, and who better to portray medieval weapons than a fabled warrior going into battle?

I seized my graphite, my memory compensating for the absence of hue. Piercing steel-blue eyes fringed with dark lashes. Straight nose of just the right size. Angular jaw with a neat beard. His incredible mouth. I held my breath and added a small scar underneath his sensual lower lip. 

From the sheet of white, Lord O’Neal’s narrowed eyes locked on mine, steady and intent.

I gasped. Making him appear in broad daylight felt like sorcery.

The composition sprang to life as if guided by an otherworldly force. Lord O’Neal sat atop Tuireann in boiled leather armor, bronze chest plate, and chainmail, his flowing hair a match to the stallion’s chestnut mane. In his right hand he held a long javelin, in his left a convex shield, and at his belt rested a large sword in a square-tipped scabbard. A perfect epitome of medieval weaponry.

I sketched Castle McConway amidst the rolling hills and added thunderous gray clouds to mirror the somber mood. Developing the story, I drew the formidable Mórrígan, the Irish goddess of war and victory. Her black hair blowing in the wind and a hooded crow perched on her shoulder, she guarded Lord O’Neal’s left side with sword in hand, ready to take on the enemy of her people. Next, came Lugh, the Irish sun god and a fierce warrior, standing sentry at Lord O’Neal’s right side. His golden hair sparkling despite the absence of sun, Lugh held his Invincible Spear while commanding the thunderstorm above.

I worked all day and had gotten so lost in the scene, I didn’t hear Guinness’ happy bark.

“Holy shit.” Ryan startled me, approaching the sketch. “Who is the guy?”

I considered my work through his eyes—I’d put my heart into this drool-worthy, traffic-stopping depiction of male beauty. Thank heavens I never blushed.

“No one in particular.” I shrugged, cringing. But was it dishonesty? He wasn’t even real. 

Ryan stood motionless, as if glued to my drawing.

I pursed my lips. “I had a breakthrough!” 

“Yeah, you sure did.” Ryan fixed me with his green-brown gaze. “Is he someone I know?”

“I don’t think so, baby. He doesn’t exist.”

Something about those three words caught my breath.

“He seems familiar.” He studied me through narrowed eyes.

What’s gotten into him?

I put down my brush. “How was your day? Any progress on the Ghost?” 

“Some.” He threw another glance at my sketch. “I don’t think I told you. The first two victims were sex workers. My guys had followed the trail but came to a dead end. He must have used a fake name.”

Ryan rolled his neck, like the effort of talking about it wore on him.

“This last one appears to be a random victim.” He straightened. “Wrong place, wrong time. She was only eighteen. We did locate a witness, although somewhat unreliable. He saw a man chatting with the victim the night she was murdered. Thought the man looked suspicious.” Ryan handed me his phone. “Here’s the composite sketch based on the witness’ description.”

A stranger’s face stared at me from the small screen. The man resembled scores of others like him: unremarkable jaw, narrow lips, common nose. A baseball cap shrouded his eyes, making his face even harder to read. The forensic artist didn’t glean much information from the witness. The only distinguishing feature was his dark eyes, hiding in the cap’s shadow.

Ryan took his phone with another glance at my sketch. “I’m close, Sie. I can feel it.”

At night, I contemplated him at our narrow double sink. His athletic body was too big for our bathroom. A dusting of silky hair on his chest tapered into a narrow, happy trail and shimmered down his long, muscular legs. In addition to possessing good looks, he was kind, bright, capable, and in love with me. Indeed, my husband was everything I could wish for. I ran the brush a little too hard through a tangled strand, pulling out a small bunch of hair. 

Then why was the man in my dream calling to me like a siren?

“I need to fix something in my sketch.” I hoped my smile wasn’t tinged with guilt. 

Wordlessly, Ryan surveyed my camisole and bikini and pulled the spaghetti strap down my shoulder.

Torn between his heated gaze and an overwhelming need to see Lord O’Neal, I lifted the strap. “Ten minutes,” I promised, making a dash for my studio. “Don’t fall asleep!”

I was finishing a Celtic knot above a raincloud when he walked in thirty minutes later. Without saying a word, he picked me up from my stool and headed to the bedroom.

“I need to wash my hands,” I breathed. “I’ve got graphite all over.”

“You won’t need your hands.” He placed me on the bed and pulled the camisole over my head. “You thought I’d fall asleep after watching you prance around half-naked?”

He kissed an unhurried trail from my neck to bikini line, lingering at the small triquetra tattoo I’d gotten on a post-graduation trip to Ireland.

The memory of that trip was forever imprinted in my heart, too. As I took in the rainbow-decked hills and the sparkling ocean for the first time, a sensation stole over me, reaching out and pulling me in. I wandered through the stunning landscape in a daze, drinking in the fresh, misty air and the rare bursts of sunshine. Unable to shake a strange, wistful longing. I gasped—and not because Ryan’s lips traveled south. It had been a sense of having brushed with something once known, but forever changed and lost.

Could my dream have been something more?

Ryan’s firm hands landed on my thighs, and his warm mouth found other sensitive regions nearby. I forgot all about Ireland and my college days. With my eyes closed, I clasped my hands together to keep from burying them in his hair as the world fell away.

I washed my hands in the end, wondering if I could conjure the vision again via the breathing/counting routine.

“Like a moth to a flame,” was my last coherent thought before the vortex pulled me into its depth.

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