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Start Reading for FREE: Book 2, INTO THE LURE OF TIME by Vera Bell 

Updated: May 2


Into the Lure of Time: Irish Time Travel Romantic Suspense
Into the Lure of Time: Irish Time Travel Romantic Suspense

INTO THE LURE OF TIME: IRISH TIME TRAVEL ROMANTIC SUSPENSE


_______

Prologue

A plan gone wrong. A rash decision. A thoughtless act.

The past always and forever hovers near.


I never thought I could become my own perpetrator.

I never dreamed I would be my own victim.

I never expected to turn into a villain.


But every crime carries a punishment.


In this life, my name is Siena Forte Casey, and mine, I cannot bear.

_______

PART ONE

Innate Delusion

Why am I going there now? Am I capable of that? Is that serious? It is not serious at all… It's simply a fantasy to amuse myself; a plaything! Yes, maybe it is a plaything.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment”

_______

Chapter One

An Enticing Offer

Neave, November 23, 1563, Ulster, Ireland

“Six thousand pounds!” Aedan pursed his lips to halt a snort. “Six…” He held up a hand, which did nothing to curtail his growing merriment.

I hid my face in my cup at the burst of his catching laughter. Still, my unseemly giggle escaped into the council hall.

Aedan wiped at his eyes, breathing hard. “And Lady Neave…oh…you’ve a rival, from the looks of it!”

The giggle died away though I kept a smile pasted on my face. 

“The English queen would play a matchmaker!” He slapped the calfskin parchment on his knee. It reeked of scheming and the detestable heavy perfume of roses on the verge of decay.

“She’ll have a suitable match for me upon my arrival. Enticing, indeed!”

I forced a wider smile. May the gods take a liking to the Tudor queen, and soon.

Aedan turned to his secretary. “Write, Bradan.”

The council hall fell silent.

“Your Grace’s keen notice of Ulster’s unrivaled prosperity under my rule warms my heart,” he dictated in his perfect English.

I twisted my Claddagh ring, my hands cold and stiff at the sound of it.

“Indeed, my towns are plentiful, trade—foreign and domestic—grows every day, and houses and schools increase steadily in number. So booming a place Ulster has become that scores of farmers flee the Pale to dwell here and tend my lands. Thus, I regret to inform your Grace, I am presently rather engaged at home, and on the account of my duties being first and foremost to Ulster, haven’t time to spare for faraway travels.”

He made a derisive noise in his throat.

“This is not to say I cannot be enticed when the timing is favorable—say, with a castle, such as Balgriffan. (Your Grace may remember it belonged to my late father, Earl I of Tyrone.) And while I thank your Grace for your generosity, my previous conditions remain: eight thousand pounds for the expense of my journey and a safe-conduct guarantee for my person, my guard, and my retinue, written in your Grace’s hand and sanctioned with the seals of Ireland and England.

“As to the moonlight raids in the Pale, it is with heavy heart I learn of their persistence.” He snorted, not even trying to suppress it this time. “But upon my word, your Grace, I shall work tirelessly to uncover the culprit. And should any of my subjects be discovered the miscreants, I will myself ensure that such persons are punished to the highest degree.”

Kian drained his cup and elbowed Fillan, who chuckled into his hand. 

“I’d pay half my requested amount to look upon the Tudor bitch when she reads this.” Aedan switched to Irish, taking a large swig from his cup.

 “Regarding your Grace’s most gallant concerns as to the matters of my matrimony, engaged as your Grace must be in your plentiful matters of state, my private affairs must have escaped notice. As such, I am glad to advise your Grace I am wed—” He winked at me. “And not seeking a new wife.”

I shivered against a piercing chill, swayed at the precipice of an unfathomable abyss. A woman’s sharp, metallic laughter trilled in the mist—her self-satisfied glee of triumph, ringing beyond the confines of the council hall, foretelling of doom and ruin. Cold all over, I pressed my hands to my ears, but she only laughed harder.

“That said,” Aedan continued, “should my circumstances change, I will be certain to apprise your Grace outright. For who better to teach an Irish savage your Grace’s refined ways than a noble English lady? An enticing offer indeed.” He widened his eyes, eliciting a few knowing laughs. “Your most obedient servant, Prince of Ulster…”

The air was gone. All of it. An iron brace gripped my chest. I fought to draw a breath against it.

At the edge of my vision, the parchment flittered between Aedan’s fingers. His hand faded, then he receded from view, along with the map-covered table and the council hall—all of it falling into a bottomless void.

The woman’s laughter shuddered to a halt. Your wife’s bed is getting cold…

“Christ—” Aedan grabbed my arm. “My Neave, are you unwell?”

I hugged myself to thwart the plummeting darkness, thick and heavy.

Aedan shot to his feet. “This meeting is not yet adjourned.”

He carried me from the council hall, up the stairs, to our bedchamber. Unblinking, he laid me on the bed and placed his hand on the slight swell of my belly. “Is it the babe, a rún?”

“Give me…” I choked out, my voice hoarse and shaky. “Give me your word, a chroí… Swear to me you’ll not go to London. Never. Never, my Aedan.”

He pressed his lips to my forehead. “A fainting spell. I’ll send Betha to tend to you.”

I bolted upright. “I’m not ill!” My breath emerged in swift huffs, fluttering and hot. “Cease these…these billets-doux with the queen. Say you will, my Aedan.”

Billets-doux!” He released a long sigh, the sides of his mouth dimpling with mirth. “By God, you had me worried, my Neave. I must return to the council hall. The lads will be waiting.”

_______

Chapter Two

Problem Unsolved

Siena, May 26, 2011, Washington, D.C.

I removed my nursing bra and stood in front of the mirror, surveying my new curves. The last fifteen pounds clung to me despite my banishment of junk food and daily runs with the stroller. But Ryan loved my mommy body, and had his flight not been delayed twice, he’d have been home for at least two hours to appreciate it.

Yawning widely, I donned a slinky ivory negligee and headed to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face and brush my hair. Skin still damp, I stepped back into the silence of my bedroom. Through the narrow window, the waning crescent had reached its zenith and shone like a bright sickle above the earth. Its light filtered in and caressed the little white bassinet at the side of my bed.

My chest flooded with warmth. The most beautiful baby in the world slept in it, his dimpled arms resting alongside his sweet head, tight fists just touching chubby cheeks. Austin Patrick Casey was born almost four months ago with a shock of blond curls and a pair of cornflower-blue eyes. My mother-in-law, Peggy, had assured me his hair would eventually darken to Ryan’s dirty blond and eyes would turn either his hazel or my brown before his first birthday. But even platinum-blond and blue-eyed, Austin was the spitting image of his father.

I checked the clock, stifling a yawn—ten minutes until arrival, then half-an-hour drive from the airport. Austin’s incessant teething had made for a rough night, and I should have napped while he did, but I’d run out of time.

Suppressing another yawn, I sat on the bed and eyed my cool plump pillow. Only a quick nap.

I woke with a start—Austin wasn’t in his bassinet.

The room swayed. The walls rushed toward me.

Cold all over, I bolted to the door. Tripped on something.

The living room—empty. Guinness was gone, too. Heartbeat thundering in my ears, I dashed back to the bedroom, tripping again—over Ryan’s travel bag.

I grabbed my phone with a trembling hand. The screen lit up with four text messages and one missed call.

Just landed.

Austin ate all his baby cereal.

Walking Guinness.

Austin is with me.

The last message was sent at 6:44 AM. I stared at the clock: 7:18 AM. Holy crap. Guinness’ exuberant barking and Ryan’s hands pulling me in and traveling the length of my body weren’t a dream. 

Breath slowing, I pressed a hand to my breasts and winced. They’d gone up at least a size and were hard as a rock. Austin had never slept through the night before.

Five minutes later, the excited German Shepherd burst in, followed by my husband with a baby carrier attached to his torso. An indignant, piercing voice punctuated tiny flailing arms and legs.

My heart melted at the sight. Everything I loved most in the world had walked through that door.

“I tried to keep him out, so you could sleep.” Ryan shrugged, a bit flustered. “But he needs you, Sie.”

I needed the baby, too. So while Ryan was taking him out of the carrier, I settled in the nursing chair at the foot of the bed—only to discover the absence of my nursing bra. I let the negligee fall to my waist as Ryan turned around with Austin in his arms.

“Holy shit.” He approached, eyes wide. “Can’t you give him something to tide him over?”

“It’s breakfast time.” I took the baby and brought one heavy breast to the hungry little mouth. “He wouldn’t want anything else, anyway.”

“Can’t say I blame him,” muttered my husband, planting himself on the bed to face me.

We sat in silence, Ryan watching me nurse and Austin stroking my face with his soft, little fingers as he suckled. I settled my foot on the edge between Ryan’s legs.

Before I could blink, he brought it to his mouth. “So hot—”

I snatched it away like it had caught on fire. “Seriously, you have a problem!”

Given some of our less than orthodox carryings-on, I considered myself open-minded. But a baby on my breast and anything sexual was like oil and water.

Ryan caught hold of my foot again and pressed it into his erection. “I do have a problem.”

Lips pursed, I moved the baby to the other side. “Half-way through.”

He leaned back and propped himself up on his elbows in the silence that fell, his steady gaze tracing the shape of my body.

Our eyes locked as Austin finished nursing.

“I’ll take care of him.” Ryan stood, his body rigid as a board. “Don’t move, love.”

I chewed on my lip as he changed Austin’s diaper and set him up with toys in the bassinet. This big, tough man—so heartbreakingly sweet and gentle with our tiny baby. It was almost indecent how quickly motherhood receded into the back of my consciousness.

Moments later, he emerged from the bathroom shirtless, wiping his hands on the sides of his jeans. Then, he was carrying me to our bed, the negligee slipping off and falling to the floor.

“God, I missed you,” he murmured into my hair, gathering me in amidst disarranged pillows, blanket, and coverlet. “We can just cuddle…if you need a break?”

I pulled him closer: light deodorant, a trace of laundry detergent, and him. His need was a hard and pressing thing, ricocheting into my every corner.

“You might break if we just cuddle,” I breathed.

Ryan’s problem solved, he kissed the top of my head and drew me into his arms. “When are you starting, love?”

I’d finished three of the four projects I’d committed to prior to learning about Ryan’s transfer to Dallas. All that remained was a three-wall mural at senator Connor Reat’s private residence, scheduled to start seven months ago. But he kept moving the date, which had worked out well with Austin’s birth. It was now bordering on absurd, however.

“The meeting is in three weeks.” I compressed my lips. “They sounded pretty firm.”

Ryan raked his hair. “So, three weeks plus what—three-four months of work? I’ll start looking for a nice, large house to rent in two months. The Sham will take a while.”

I frowned. The Sham, an uber high-profile case that required Ryan to join a special task force couldn’t have come at a worse time. It also took up all his time. After reaching dramatic heights, a Dallas-based Fortune 500 company had experienced a financial collapse and declared bankruptcy, causing gargantuan losses to both investors and employees. That raised red flags large enough not only for the FBI, but also for the IRS, the SEC, and the DOJ to join forces to investigate. And Ryan was in the middle of it all, leading thousands of searches and interviews.

“Don’t look yet.” I bit the inside of my lip. “In case he moves the date again.”

Ryan plopped down on his back, glowering at the ceiling. “I hate this guy. It’s like he’s keeping you from me.”

I shivered with a weird hint of a déjà vu, buried my nose in Ryan’s hard shoulder to cut it short. He smelled like home. “A few more months, and we’ll be together. I promise, baby.”

He stroked my hair, his hand a little uncertain. “I’m done with my last case here, Sie.”

I raised my head, unblinking.

“I won’t be able to get away as much—maybe on the weekends.” He rubbed his forehead. “Definitely on the weekends.”

A strange, inexplicable darkness spread deep inside me, thick and heavy.

“I’ll fly to Dallas,” I said, pushing it down. “Austin can travel, right?”

He blew out a long breath. “Do you think…you can cancel? He’s moved the date so much, the contract is null.”

The darkness dissipated. Yes, it was technically null, but we needed all the money we could get. Besides, this could be my last project in who knew how long. When would I start working again in Texas?

“There’s a lot of money there, baby.” I winced. “It’s only another few months. We’ll make it work.”

Ryan smoothed an errant strand from my face. “I figured you might start flying, so I made a copy of my apartment key for you. It’s on the dresser.”

Twelve hours later, we stood embraced in front of our condo complex in the falling evening. Dark clouds crept across the thin crescent, the wind picking up before the rain. 

“Safe flight,” I whispered into his chest. “Text me when you land.”

“I might fly back in a week or so.” He pulled me in tight into his warm, solid body. Another moment, and he’d be gone. “Did I tell you I have a new partner? Could make it easier to get away for the weekend.”

It started to drizzle as the taxi drove away. I gnawed on the inside of my lip. Each of Ryan’s visits was like a tiny iceberg in the endless sea of loneliness, spaced farther apart every time. And his tentative promise to come back in a week meant he wouldn’t. It meant he was buried knee-deep, and I may never see him again unless I flew to Dallas myself. 

A strange fiery butterfly hovered near the door when I headed inside. It didn’t fly away when I approached but alighted on the wet flowerbed of yellow hyacinths and sat there with wings thrust apart, as if glaring at me.


Don’t butterflies hide from the rain? I shrugged and went inside.

“This is the senator’s last chance,” I muttered before closing my eyes at night, vainly trying to push away the approaching vision. “He moves the meeting again, and I’m done.”

_______

Chapter Three

Mine

Neave, June 2–28, 1564, Ulster, Ireland • Siena, June 2, 2011, Washington, D.C.

“Christ, my Neave…” Aedan approached the bed with Ronan at his side, their unblinking gazes trained on the wee candle-lit bundle in my arms.

Golden hair, sky-blue eyes, chubby pink cheeks. Were it not for her diminutive size and delicate features, our daughter would have been the spitting image of the child I cradled here four years past. How big Ronan seemed now, yet their resemblance was uncanny.

“The babe is strong and healthy, m’lord.” The midwife flicked her helper a look toward the door. “Beannacht Dé girthy.”

Aedan’s eyes shimmered ocean blue, his voice low and strained. “I’d have returned sooner had I known.”

He dipped his head in silent prayer, but I read it on his lips. I thank you, Lord, with all my heart.

“She’s lovelier than I could have dreamt. Like you…” he said aloud. “Like…our son.”

Two words to end all doubt. Two words to set us free.

We peered at each other for a long moment before he scrubbed a rough hand over his face and bent to Ronan. The little boy, who’d been surveying the babe with the most somber expression, didn’t stir.

“Meet your sister, then, lad. Have you a name for her, a rún?”

“Aine,” I said without hesitation. “Aine ingen Aedan O’Neal,” I added, each name a thrush’s song trilling in our bedchamber. “Say hello, Ronan. Isn’t she lovely?”

My son looked from the babe to me, fists tightening and nostrils flaring. “Put her back in your belly, mama!” His wail was like the first roar of a bear cub. “I do not want her!”

I clasped a hand to my mouth, startled by the change I hadn’t dared admit hitherto. His eyes had grown a few shades darker and a shade cooler. His nose was no longer a button, but a straight wee blade. And while his jaw held the soft outline of a small child, it showed clear beginnings of a square shape.

My heart swelled with so much warmth, it would have overflowed if not for the unbidden flashback of Ida’s waning-moon brew on my night table five years past.

“It’s no easy feat to share mama—I know, lad.” Aedan shot me a glance. “But your sister is here to stay, so you’d better welcome the notion.” 

“I do not wish for her to stay!” Ronan’s tears, hot and unrestrained, streamed down his round cheeks. “I do not! My mama! Mine! Mine!

Aedan tossed me another look and placed his hands on Ronan’s shoulders. “Come now, lad. Rein it in.”

Since wrenching from his father’s iron grip proved futile, Ronan only wailed harder.

“You’re my firstborn, a leanbh,” I reached for his golden head, but he jerked away. “I’ll love you always, my wee love. Always-always and forever.”

“I loathe her!” He stomped his feet with all his might, small fists clenched at his sides. “And I loathe you, mama! And da!” He yanked at the hem of Aedan’s léine. “Both of you! And her! Put her back, mama!”

“Christ.” Aedan turned to Ronan’s nursemaid, Siobhan, who stood a distance behind.

“I’ll take him for a stroll.” She took the screaming child firmly by the hand. “Come, Lord Ronan. I’ve honeyed blackberries waiting for you, I do.”

As the door closed, Aedan raked a hand through his hair and released a long breath. Through the window, the full moon shone bright in the cloudless summer sky, illuminating his eyes—a mere shade darker than Ronan’s.

“I never credited my nursemaid when she said I had to be dragged away, kicking and screaming, after Kian’s birth.” He shook his head. “I do now, my Neave.”

“I had no notion of his ill temper.” I pushed away tears, along with the absurdity of weeping with joy at my child’s hideous display of poor humor.

Aedan sat on his haunches, his gaze on me sure and steady. “I’d expect nothing less from a son of mine.”

“A son of yours.” I smiled through the blur in my eyes.

Wee Aine made a squeaking noise and began to root. 

“Six weeks, is it?” Aedan eyed my breast as I settled the babe on the pillow before me.

I gave him a stern look. “Go to your son, my Aedan. He’ll have need of you more than ever henceforth.”

***

Austin’s wailing cut through the vision, sharp and loud. I checked my phone: 2:30 AM—his usual waking time. That single night he’d slept through was a definite fluke. Still, I closed my eyes in near bliss, settling with him in the nursing chair—his warm little body tucked into my arms, our perfect silence disturbed only by the sound of his rhythmic suckling.

Was he wee Ronan reincarnated? Ronan, who from his steel-blue eyes to his terrible temper was Aedan’s son through and through? Aedan’s. My eyes prickled with tears. Worgen had always been a liar. And his bizarre claim of the O’Neal’s visit to the English queen—another lie. Aedan had laughed at her letters even as she steadily increased her concession for his trip’s expenses. He amused himself with outrageous demands and thinly veiled taunts. He’d never go.

After Austin had finished, I returned to bed and took a deep, cleansing breath. I need my rest—I’m going to sleep now.

But the universe was already propelling me, unwilling, into the vision.

***

Aine’s fussing had once again delayed my arrival to supper, so I was the last to enter the great hall. The rich scent of the steaming venison stew made my mouth water, and I closed my eyes at the first taste—an explosion of tender meat, fresh herbs, and delicate spices.

“And how would you make it known to her, brother?” Kian’s troubled voice cut through my bliss. 

Aedan’s gaze swept the gathering. “I’m thinking on it.”

A commotion at the door revealed the captain of the house guard with an apologetic look on his face and a sealed parchment in his hand.

“A messenger from Dublin, m’lord.” He dipped his head. “An urgent missive from London, for your eyes only.”

My appetite vanished. Each missive from the Tudor queen was urgent and for the Prince of Ulster’s eyes only.

“Speaking of the devil.” Aedan lifted a brow, breaking the loathsome bronze seal.

He pursed his lips in mock concentration, as he always did when he read her letters. But when he raised his head, his playful expression was gone. 

I forced down the bit of stew that got wedged in my throat.

“Nine thousand pounds.” He tossed the parchment to Kian. “One thousand over asking. The queen is near begging me to come.”

I stopped breathing. For four long years, the threat of this madness was an axe waiting to fall—this abhorrent notion of his visit to the English court. Yet it’d been only a game Aedan and the queen played together. He lavished her with blandishments while raising the stakes for his safe passage while she displayed eagerness to meet the conqueror of Ulster, but at a smaller cost. Until now.

“She yearns for peace.” He pointed his chin at the perfumed parchment in Kian’s hands. “We await the unconquerable O’Neal at our court… We shall confer a favor of comity upon him, commensurate with his submission.”

I pushed away my plate. It stopped short of knocking over my cup as it crashed into it with a resounding clack.

“The Tudor bitch is after your submission, is she?” Kian’s curled lip brought on an unexpected resemblance between the brothers. 

“Ulster is mine and will remain mine. No gall can touch it while I live, queen or no.” Aedan pierced a hefty chunk of meat with his scian. “But I could tell her about Rykeworth myself. She’ll not doubt the truth of it then. And a sure hanging or beheading for him after—mayhap even quartering—for plundering her coffers while she can scarce make ends meet. It is well past time he answered for all the evil he’d done to us.”

I stared from man to man, heart pounding. My alarm was written in everyone’s tight jaw and furrowed brow.

“But what of your safety, brother? A thousand Rykeworths aren’t worth it.” Fillan gave it voice.


“You’d be walking into a lion’s den to parley with a gang of murderers and poisoners.” Tomas shook his head. “The Tudor court is famed for perfidy.” 

Aedan chased his stew with a long draught of whiskey. “I’d not endanger myself—if I go. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll have the brehon and the dean weigh in on this. A delicate matter, but it could change the course of Ireland’s history.”

I grabbed my cup with a trembling hand and drained it. For four years, I swallowed Ida’s bitter tincture to keep from swelling with a child. I took it faithfully, for despite Aedan’s jesting and banter, a small voice told me to be ready to accompany him if it came to it. But he’d wished for another child—a child that was, without doubt, his. And I wished for one, too—mayhap for the same reason—so I stopped drinking the tincture. 

I dug my fingernails into my sweaty palms. I couldn’t come with him and leave a suckling babe behind, and neither would I bring her to London to imperil her.

At the dawn of the next day, Aedan awoke me with a soft kiss on my lips and a resolute word at my ear. “Rise, a rún. We’re to ride across Tyrone today.”

If his aim was to clear the air of my grim muteness the night before, he’d failed. Not a word had passed between us after we left Benburb, for I kept my eyes on the path, affecting not to hear him. I’d not credit the talk of going to London by giving it heed. 

His guard stayed a respectful distance behind when we spotted a small house half-concealed in the lush grasses. Upon a closer inspection, it proved to be an abandoned hunter’s hut wearing away with disuse: a gnarled door with rusted hinges, walls and chimney crumbling with neglect, the northern side of the roof sprouted with moss.

“It was in use when I passed here as a lad.” Aedan reached to touch my arm. “Let us have a look inside.”

In its best days, the dwelling had been a humble one. The hearth—meager and cracked—contained a small, rusted cauldron. The furnishings consisted of a coarse wooden table with a bench and a narrow bed shoved into a corner. Its modesty notwithstanding, the hut must have offered a welcome shelter for a weary hunter—a fire to cook a stew and a roof to pass the night. But it stood cold and dank now, the gloom of abandonment seeping through every derelict crack and clouding two broken windows. The hay, too, had long vanished from the dirt floor.

I shivered, stepping over a small muddy puddle—and nearly slipped.

Aedan caught me in his arms, traced my jaw with the back of his hand. “Still fuming, a rún?”

I shook my head. “I’d not call it fuming.”

“Good.” He lifted a wry brow. “I’d be hard pressed to find a place less ladylike.”

I pursed my lips at the too-familiar mischievous blue twinkle.

He locked me against his rigid contours. “I shall take my leave now. Await me here, my Neave, unclothed and with your hair spilling about your shoulders and trailing down your breasts to your honeyed slit.” 

I gulped despite myself, my body flooding with warmth.

He bent to my ear, his breath warming my skin. “An illicit tryst of star-crossed lovers—”

“Aedan—” My voice emerged too breathy for my liking.

 “I’ll not be long.” A crooked grin touched his lips. “Or I might be.”

My heart skipped a beat. Our love games had grown wide and varied, but this rang more unsettling than thrilling. Or was it both?

“And if I refuse?” I whispered as he placed a featherlight kiss on my jaw.

He untied my laces and skimmed his tongue over each nipple. “Then, you shall find yourself lonely and malcontent.” He shot me a wink before stepping out and closing the creaky door.

For a long while, I waited unclothed near the rough wall, trembling with equal parts chill, desire, and unease. The moss had made its way to the ceiling beams and crept into the gaps amid the stones. Pitiful remnants of a tallow candle lay discarded on the rotted table. The bed stood strewn with tattered homespun and moldy straw. I hugged myself against a sudden gust that penetrated every crack—where had he gone?

“So help me, Brigid,” I muttered into the chill, “how long am I to await my doomed lover?”

I yelped as a large, booted foot kicked open the door, making it groan and smack into the crumbling wall.

Without uttering a word, Aedan pushed me against the wall and took me hard and fast, my hair wound about his wrist, my legs circled round his waist, his hands cupping my behind to shield it from the ragged stone. 

“You fancied it, ready as you were…” he murmured when our breaths slowed in unison. He drew back when I didn’t reply. “Did it give you a thrill, my Neave?”

He never failed to thrill me, but I said nothing. And neither did I speak of the queen’s last missive as he held me in his arms, a small groove creasing his brow. I’d no need to, for he could always read my thoughts.

“You heard me, a rún.” He smoothed an errant strand behind my ear, his fingers sure and warm. “I’d not put myself in danger. If I go, I’ll have every conceivable guarantee of safe conduct—and every inconceivable. The queen is clever, but I’m no fool, my Neave.”

If I go.


I pressed myself into his broad, hard chest, wishing to fuse with him, so he could never be ripped from me. For he would go, and he would not be safe. I knew it when I daydreamed the sharp, metallic laughter, delighting in obscene victory.



_______

Chapter Four

The Cowboy

Sina, June 17, 2011, Washington, D.C.

Ryan didn’t fly back in a week. Or in two. He didn’t know when or if he’d be flying in because he was working around the clock. His boss—an unmarried, childless woman named Regina Korol—was a life-long workaholic and expected her underlings to outshine her. According to her, Ryan was a year behind on his starting day.

At least the only thing in danger now was his lunch hour.

I checked on the sleeping Austin and tapped my playlist. The soft strains of an Irish song about a lover’s futile longing filled the bedroom. I sighed and swiped to the text app. The last message was an impersonal one-liner from Connor Reat’s office: 

The senator will see you tomorrow at noon. 

He hadn’t moved the meeting this time although I’d prayed he would. Now that Ryan’s business trips to D.C. had ended, I discovered I didn’t want to do the mural, great pay or not. The only thing I wanted was to pack up and move to Dallas, so I could be with my love, so our little son could have his father, and so Guinness would stop howling at the front door every night.

Too late now.

Looking forward, I texted back. 

I’d have to work extra fast. I scoffed. A fast pace would be a near impossibility with a three-wall mural. Why did it have to be three walls? Perhaps I could convince him to do just one. From what I saw, Connor Reat appeared to be given to convincing.

Young for a senator, he’d made a name for himself despite having switched both parties and positions on several critical issues in a stretch of six years. I searched an image of him. Tailored suit and celebrity features: mahogany gaze—friendly and direct, well-defined jaw with slightly jutting chin that gave him an air of confidence, an archetypical Roman nose, lustrous hair with specks of silver for additional gravitas. He had enough poise and charisma for the entire U.S. Senate.

I tapped on an older image: top shirt button undone, adorable infant son in his arms, pretty wife with two toddlers at his side. His opponent didn’t stand a chance three years ago—Connor Reat had gotten every female vote.

I put my phone on the nightstand and took out the silky black pouch from the drawer, contemplating the firm shape inside. It arrived yesterday wrapped like a present with a pink bow on top of the box and a small card inside with a single sentence written in Ryan’s hand:

Don’t touch until I say so or else…

I pulled the string and took the toy out. It was pink like the bow and felt pleasantly velvety to the touch. The little lever to the battery compartment gave way, and I dropped in the batteries, thoughtfully included in the gift box. The thing came to life with a soft buzz when I pressed the button. Now, I could tell Ryan I’d touched it. Then maybe he’d get on the plane to carry out his “or else…”

My phone chimed with a new message, and I winced. A perfunctory reply from the senator’s office. But when I saw the text, I dropped the toy into the pouch.

It was from Ryan: Video call.

In a sec, I replied, rushing to my vanity. A quick coat of mascara and some lip gloss would have to suffice. I shrugged, checking my reflection. It boggled the mind how these rare video calls had become like our first few dates six years ago.

After settling in bed, I fluffed my hair in the camera and tapped Ryan’s number.

He sat on his bed shirtless, holding a half-full whiskey glass. He looked good enough to eat.

“Is Austin asleep?”

“Yep.”

He took a swig. “Got the package?” 

Wordlessly, I reached for the pouch and dangled it.

“Did you touch it?”

“Maybe.”

Ryan peered at me for a long moment. “Take off your top, love.”

“What, now—?”

He nodded.

I propped the phone against a pillow and pulled my t-shirt over my head.

He took another swig. 

“Okay?” I sucked in my stomach and promised myself to restart my gym membership first thing tomorrow.

“Bra.” He motioned with his chin.

Holy crap, I’d never done long-distance sex with Ryan—or anyone. With or without a sex toy. I removed my bra, throwing a sidelong glance at myself in the camera. My breasts resembled two large white pumpkins, nipples taut and pornographically pointed from all the nursing.

Ryan drained his glass. “Leggings. And panties.”

I pursed my lips. I wasn’t ready for this—not at all—although, clearly, I should have been. I didn’t think it would be over a video call. I’d have hopped in a shower if I knew.

“C’mon, love, I don’t care.” He grinned. “You’re so goddamn hot either way.”

“Fine.” I yanked both down, wishing for a sip of his whiskey. 

“Take your new friend and lean back.” Ryan put down his empty glass and pulled down his briefs.

I gasped at the sight. The camera added inches where none were needed.

“I wish you were here.” My teeth sank into the inside of my lip.

“I wish to see.” He placed a hand on himself, looking like a bona fide porn star. “Turn it on, love.”

The toy had a multitude of settings, but I soon found one I liked—it felt fractionally like Ryan. He must have done some research. The thing was high quality—quiet and efficient. 

“As good as the real thing?” He chuckled a bit later, lying on his back, his phone camera hovering above his face.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I breathed, thinking that perhaps I should name it.

“You understand you may only use it when I call?”

“And if I don’t?”

“Well.” He raised an eyebrow. “Then, you’ll have to face the consequences.”

“But how would I face them when you’re in Dallas?” I picked up the toy and ran my fingers along its velvety, flexible length. I would name it Cowboy.

“You’ll need to fly out. I’d like for you to meet my partner, anyway.”

“Right.” I tossed the toy aside. “What’s he like?” 

“She.”

“Hm?”

“It’s a she.”

I blinked, struggling to keep my face neutral. The phone screen was suddenly too bright. A familiar dull ache—an infrequent carryover from my head trauma, usually caused by stress—spread into the center of my forehead. 

I lowered the brightness with a stiff forefinger. “What’s she like?”

“Seems fine. Impressive pedigree and good experience.”

I breathed a surreptitious sigh of relief. She sounded older.

“How old is she?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“Oh, okay.” I stared at the Ouroboros tattoo on his shoulder, the snake forever eating its tail. 

The throbbing in my head intensified. This woman, a year my junior, would be spending every waking hour with my husband—while I was thirteen hundred miles away, stuck painting a stupid three-wall mural for a sleazy politician.

I forced a smile. “Well, I’d love to meet her.” 

Ryan was silent for a beat, studying my face. “Hey, she is my partner.”

“Of course!” My voice was so high-pitched, I wanted to kick myself. 

He shook his head. “I know this whole thing sucks, but c’mon, love, let’s not lose our minds here. We still have a way to go before your move.”

I ordered my teeth to leave my lip alone. Yes, I was jealous—of his new job, his new furnished apartment, his new partner, his new life that didn’t include me. But I shouldn’t have let him see me insecure. Even if that was precisely how I felt for some unfathomable reason.

“Besides.” He winked, interrupting my aching brooding. “She’s not at all my type.”

_______

Chapter Five

A Great Guy

Sina, June 18, 2011, North Virginia

I stood in my closet, contemplating my uniform of black skinny jeans and a crop jacket. Too casual? It wasn’t that I felt intimidated—far from it. Thanks to my father’s career in political consulting, I learned long ago that despite the fame of some and the notoriety of others, behind their public personas, the politicians were regular people—with all their prosaic character flaws and hidden desires.

Therefore, the idea of meeting with such a prominent senator as Connor Reat didn’t intimidate me in the slightest. I only needed to dress the part for his fancy residence.

After deciding on a black pencil skirt, a maroon button-down shirt, and tan heels, I applied a coat of mascara and lip gloss, arranged my hair into a neat bun at the nape, and grabbed my handbag.

My mom sat on the living room couch with smiling Austin in her lap and a board book in her hand.

“Your shirt is too tight. And too red.” She frowned at my outfit.

I shrugged. “All my shirts are too tight nowadays. And red is an assertive color.”

“It’s not right, Siena.” She shook her head. “You should be packing, not going to business meetings.”

I dug my fingers into my handbag strap. “Thanks again for watching Austin, Mom. You’re the best.”

My taxi waited outside when I came out. The day was uncharacteristically gloomy—the sky murky with rainclouds and the air thick with the promise of a downpour. It began to rain sideways ten minutes into the drive; ugly, long streaks hitting the windshield at an unnatural angle.

Although the gig was technically in North Virginia, the trip took only half an hour. But it may as well have been a world away. I’d seen a mansion or two in my life, but Connor Reat’s estate dwarfed them all. The place was a modern-day palace, sitting on endless acres with rolling mountain views, glittering ponds, and manicured gardens. The security detail, solemn and dressed in black like in the movies, escorted me from the heavy iron gate to the house, holding an oversized black umbrella very precisely over my head.

The first bolt of lightning cut through the sky in a deafening explosion the moment I reached giant frosted double doors with two square knobs.

I went still when the senator opened the door himself. He appeared imposing on the screen in his fitted designer suits and crisp oxford shirts, his chin always clean-shaven, hair perfectly styled. But I felt overdressed now that he stood there in his gym clothes, which consisted of clingy black shorts, a gray t-shirt, and black tennis shoes. Although he was in early forties, he didn’t look a day over thirty-five. 

My hand flew up as if of its own accord to tug at my hair bun. There was something almost familiar in his face, beyond what I saw on the screen. I brushed this away. I’d probably come across him at one of my father’s take-your-daughter-to-work days or ran into him at a bar or at a restaurant.

“Hi—” He blinked, returning a confused gaze. “You must be…the artist’s agent?”

“I’m the artist.” I extended my hand, ordering myself to get it together. “Siena Forte.”

“Well, shoot.” He cleared his throat, though his handshake was firm and perfectly timed. “I’m sorry. You don’t look like an artist. Geez, I’m being rude, aren’t I? Please come in.”

“What do artists look like?” My laughter emerged a bit strained as I followed him into the foyer the size of my entire condo. 

“I mean, I thought you’d have spiky hair, weird tattoos.” He had a smooth voice and a nice smile, warm and genuine. “Sorry, I’d just gotten off a treadmill, I should have changed—” He laughed. “I’m rambling, aren’t I?”

“Oh, it’s okay,” I mumbled.

What in the world? Senator Connor Reat seemed friendly and pleasant. He was also tall, fit, and much better looking in person. Which was saying a lot because he was very good-looking in the pictures.

“Anything to drink? Water, soda, wine?”

I shook my head. 

“I’ll get a water if you don’t mind. A little dehydrated after my workout.”

His ridiculously overscaled kitchen was straight from the pages of a well-known architectural magazine. It had to have been published there more than once. I stood, gaping, as he sauntered to an enormous designer refrigerator and took out two cobalt-blue bottles. “In case you change your mind.”

There was something stealthy, almost catlike in his gait as he brought over the bottle. And for some unfathomable reason, it made my skin crawl.

“Mind if I call you Siena?”

“Not at all, senator.” I twisted off the aluminum cap.

“Please—” He made a face. “Call me Connor. I need a break from work here.”

“Okay, Connor.” His name pricked the roof of my mouth.

He took an indulgent swig from his bottle. “Listen, thanks for your patience. I am very, very sorry this thing has gotten so delayed. My schedule is simply insane, but we’ll iron it all out, and you can get going as soon as you like.”

I followed him down a long, wide corridor, gaping at the original Pollocks, Warhols, and Lichtensteins peppering the pristine white walls. At the end hung a limited edition of Hopper’s “Morning Sun,” bleak and somber beside its cheerful companions. 

After passing several bedrooms, we entered an enormous playroom with three adorable tow-headed children inside—two girls and a boy, all under the age of seven. On the large plush sofa sat a woman who looked nothing like Connor’s tall, elegant wife.

“Here she is!” Connor beamed at his brood as they ran to him, squealing. “A magical fairy who will turn your playroom into an enchanted place!”

That was quite a high bar, but I discovered I was up to the challenge. Each kid wanted their own fairytale-inspired wall: Rapunzel and Cinderella for the girls and a dragon for the boy. It was all very straightforward, and I calculated that if I worked every day, five days a week, I’d be finished in about three months.

The children grew excited as they described their visions, talking over each other despite their nanny’s futile attempts to bring some semblance of order to our meeting.

“And also…”

“And then…”

“No, my turn!”

I nodded and smiled at their earnest little faces as I took notes on my phone, trying to make sense of their convoluted descriptions.

“Why don’t we head back to the kitchen to go over the specifics.” Connor touched his elbow to my arm. “It’s a bit quieter there.”

After pulling out a bar stool that appeared to be upholstered in real zebra, he took out a bottle from a giant wine storage. Whistling, he produced two glasses from a gleaming designer cabinet and poured a generous measure into each, sliding one toward me over the slick Carrera marble counter. 

Something about his hushed whistling gave me the goosebumps. What in the heck? To distract myself, I studied the bottle—a fancy Italian Pino grigio, and no doubt, very expensive. I didn’t want to be rude. Besides, the complex bouquet emanating from the glass made my mouth water. The breast pump that hadn’t yet made it out of the box would come in handy today.

“I’m famished.” Connor returned to the refrigerator. “I hope you don’t mind if I have a bite while we chat.” 

He brought over several lidded containers and two square white plates. “Please, help yourself, Siena. There’s always way too much food here.”

The containers were filled with gourmet sandwiches and appetizing salads that made my stomach growl. I reached for the turkey with cranberry and popped the lid open.

“First things first,” Connor said between the bites, taking a stack of papers out of a drawer. “Since you’ll be working at my private residence, I’m going to need an NDA. Kind of a nuisance, but—” He waved with his ham and cheese sandwich.

“Not a problem.” I put down my lunch and wiped my hands on a napkin.

“No, no—” He raised his free hand. “Please—take this home and sign at your leisure. Just bring it back on your first day. We don’t have to be so formal.”

I picked up my sandwich again. It was ridiculously delicious with his chilled Pino.

“Good stuff, right?” He took an indolent sip. “Anyway, the gist of the NDA, Siena, is that my wife and I are separated. This is, obviously, not public knowledge.”

I nodded. This explained her absence.

He gave me his disarming smile. “Look, I’m not supposed to tell you this before you sign, but I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed. I only have the kids on the weekends—when I’m here. So, you can work Monday through Friday if you like. Either way, I’m rarely around, so really, almost any day is fine. Also—” He poured himself more wine. “I think some artists keep odd hours, so if you prefer to work late, you’re more than welcome to stay in the guest bedroom that’s next to the playroom. It’s got its own bathroom and everything you might need.”

He touched the bottle to my glass, but I shook my head. Delicious as it was, one glass was one too many for Austin. I was already regretting it.

“The fridge is usually stocked with food and drink. And this thing—” He pointed his chin at the wine storage, “is always full. You’re more than welcome to help yourself any time you like. Really, I encourage you to. Meryl—my nanny-slash-housekeeper—she’s always here, so you’ll never be completely alone. I know that can be a little uncomfortable.”

The odd feeling had passed, and I couldn’t help but like Connor’s easy, unassuming manner and friendly air. Good thing I didn’t give up on this commission. A great client with a generous pay and a pleasant project for three adorable kids. A sweet way to exit my professional life in D.C. What more could I ask? 

After we agreed I’d start on Monday, I grabbed my phone to call a taxi.

“No need, Siena—” Connor held up his hand. “My chauffeur will take you home. He’ll drive you both ways while you’re employed here.”

“It’s no problem.” I drew back, flustered. “I’m used to the taxi—”

He grinned, cocking his head to the side. “I’ll have my office send you his contact info. Very excited to finally get this done for the little rugrats. They’ve been begging me for ages.” 

What a great guy. I smiled to myself ten minutes later, leaning into the soft leather cushions of his souped-up SUV.


_______

Chapter Six

A Love Curse

Siena, June 18, 2011, Washington, D.C. • Neave, July 18, 1564, Ulster, Ireland

I lay in bed wide awake, chewing on the inside of my lip. For the last few hours, I’d been rewinding the meeting in my head scene by scene, like an old movie. Connor’s mellow whistling had turned into an earworm. It crept under my skin and took residence in my brain. Was it his prominence combined with his obscene estate, or his good looks multiplied by his celebrity?

I released my lip and flounced over, face to the window. The rugged edges of the waning gibbous moon appeared ominous against the clear sky.

Connor’s looks and position didn’t matter, and neither did his whistling. I’d been hired to paint the murals, and he was only another client. Besides, he’d rarely even be there—he said so himself.

I blew out a long breath. Thank heavens for that.

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I reached for it without looking—and snatched my hand away like it’d caught on fire. The name on my screen said, Lindsey, Jason’s wife. I’d need to change that, or better yet block it. Jason had a new wife, and her name was Emma. 

“This is going straight to voicemail,” I muttered. But as if taken on a life of their own, my fingers grabbed the phone and swiped to answer.

“Hi, Siena.” Lindsey sounded as surprised as I felt. 

“Hi.”

“Be right back, babe…” Her voice faded before she returned to me. “How’s everything?” 

I pursed my lips, pissed at myself for answering. “What can I do for you, Lindsey?”

“Oh, nothing, actually. Do you know who Peter Beischel is?”

“No.”

“He’s with the Towhees—you know—the baseball team?”

I stared ahead. Why in the hell did I answer? And more importantly, why hadn’t I blocked her?

“Search him up, you should. Peter B-e-i-s-c-h-e-l.”

Just end the call. I typed the name into my search engine instead. Curiosity killed the cat. A man’s face popped up on my screen: square jaw, longish chestnut hair, steel-blue eyes.

“Kind of looks like your warrior, doesn’t he?” Lindsey’s smirk was audible.

I stared at my wedding picture on the dresser. “What do you want, Lindsey?”

“Pete is my fiancé, Siena!”

“Great.” I shook my head. “Congrats?”

“Thank you.” Lindsey chuckled. “How do you like being a single mother?”

I froze, squeezing the phone in my hand.

“A little bird told me Ryan has moved on without you.”

I unclenched my fingers. “You were told wrong.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” she snickered before I could end the call.

After blocking her number, I sank down into the bed and stared at the ceiling, cold all over. She’s not at all my type. Ryan’s words flew back at me for the hundredth time. His voice when he said that was a little too emphatic, his response a little too eager. Why say it at all? Why even bring it up?

My eyes burned, and I swiped at them with a trembling hand. What possessed me to agree to this project? I should have declined while I could.

I grabbed the phone again. Ryan picked up right away.

“Hey, love…” He sounded distracted.

“Are you home?”

“No, at work.”

“It’s 9:30 at night.”

“Swamped. You okay?”

“I miss you,” I whispered, the miles between us suddenly unbearable.

“Hey.” His voice came through more present. “Don’t fall apart on me now.”

He didn’t say he missed me too. Was he even at work? I shook myself. When did I become so insecure?

“Listen, I can’t fly out—” His words were punctuated by a series of keyboard clicks, which brought on an unhealthy wave of relief. “You need to come and visit here, Sie.”

He was right. I needed to visit him. I needed him.

“Can you do a video call?” I said on a whim.

“Shit, I’m stuck here for another couple of hours.”

“Uh-huh.” I reached into my nightstand drawer for the silky black pouch. “I’m touching my Cowboy.”

Ryan chuckled after a weighty pause. “Your Cowboy?”

“It did come from Texas.”

“I didn’t say you could touch it.” His voice deepened with warning.

“Well, I am.”

My phone chimed with a video call request. Ryan was sitting in a black office chair, his shirt sleeves rolled up and tie loosened. His hair looked the way it did in the morning—soft and tousled. He must have been raking it all day. I pulled in my breath. What I would give to burry my hands in that hair.

“Strip.” He reclined, eyes trained on me.

There were only my tank top and panties to remove. I settled the phone against a pillow and knelt in front of the camera, sliding the Cowboy from my neck down.

“Damn. You’re getting a little too good at this.” He leaned forward once I reached a certain point. “Spread your legs.”

I complied, circling the toy downward, the circles getting smaller and smaller. The thing was like a rocket on steroids.

“Ohmigod, Ryan…” I breathed, eyes locked on his.

“Hey, Casey, did you hear my ping?” A woman’s perky staccato cut through my escalating bliss.

Ryan jerked up his head.

“Oh, shit,” she added with a laugh, “are you on a call?”

He blinked. “Wrapping up, have a seat.” 

“Go ahead,” he said to me.

“Now?” I whispered with rounded eyes.

“Let’s finish this thing.” He appeared so impassive, he could have been talking about a work report or the weather.

“Reviewing certificates with accounting,” he said to whoever was sitting across from him.

I wanted to finish, too, so I started the Cowboy again, hoping he’d turned down the volume. He kept his eyes trained on me the entire time I fell apart.

“Thanks, that’s perfect.” He flicked me a nod when I’d finished. “Talk to you later.”

I froze, my stomach hard and tight. I thought he’d say something only the two of us would understand or at least promise to call back.

The screen flittered, then blurred and darkened. 

“What’s up?” His voice carried muffled and distant.

He forgot to end the call. I bit into my lip until it hurt. He never forgot anything.

“Certificates with accounting! Were you having video sex, Casey?” The woman’s voice mused from a distance.

I suppressed a gasp and stared at the screen. It flickered with the same blurry image of what was probably Ryan’s desk.


INTO THE LURE OF TIME


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