The clean scent of the sea teased her awake. Without opening her eyes, she breathed deeply. The room was very quiet. Somewhere in the distance CC could hear the bleating of sheep punctuated with the call of gulls and the crash of waves on rock. She felt her body tremble with need. That's where she should be. That's where she wanted to be. The ache was lodged deep within her, like an unbearable secret. She opened her eyes and her gaze was instantly drawn to the window. She rose unsteadily, as if her legs weren't exactly sure how they should work, and tottered to stand under the high, open window. Even with the height of her new body stretched as tall as it could, she couldn't quite see out.
CC looked around the barren room. There was a large chamber pot that had been placed next to the bed. Thankfully, it was empty. She dragged it over to the window and turned it upside-down. Grasping the window ledge for balance, she stepped up.
The wall of her room made up part of the outside wall of the monastery, and it faced directly out to the ocean. The view was breathtaking. Under her window there was only a few feet of open ground, then it looked like the earth fell away and a steep cliff dropped to give way to the majesty of the ocean. CC could see the rocky shoreline below and the frothy caps of the playful waves. Her knuckles whitened as she clung to the window ledge, forcing herself to ignore her body's insistent longing.
Two quick knocks against the door forced her attention away from the window, and she hurried clumsily to put the chamber pot back in its place.
"Yes?" she called as she sat on the bed.
"It is Isabel, my lady." The door opened slowly, and the woman limped into the room, giving CC a tentative smile. "I see you look well rested."
"I feel much better." CC was happy to see that Isabel carried a bundle of her newly cleaned and dried clothing.
"Abbot William asks that you join him for the evening meal if you are recovered enough."
CC's stomach growled, and she realized suddenly that she was starving. "Do I have to wait for evening to eat?"
Isabel looked surprised. "It is evening now."
CC felt a rush of foreboding. "How long have I been asleep?"
"You have slept for two nights and into evening of the second day," Isabel answered. "If you allow me to help you dress, you can join the abbot immediately."
Almost as if she was detached from her body, CC let Isabel help her into the gown. No wonder her body ached so badly. This was the third night. She had to find a way to get to the water tonight so she could change back into her mermaid form. Just the thought of that transformation made her heart hammer against her chest.
"There, my lady," Isabel said as she tied the last of the laces. "Please follow me."
They left the room and turned down the long, dark corridor that CC had glimpsed between half-closed eyes two days before. She was relieved that the more she walked, the stronger her legs felt, because even though Isabel moved with remarkable agility for an old, lame woman, CC had to struggle to keep up with her. They stepped out of the hall and headed across a grassy courtyard, at the far side of which was the closed gate through which CC had arrived.
Directly in the middle of the courtyard was a large, round well, made of the same ponderous gray stone as was the rest of the monastery. As they walked by it, CC felt a rush of cold air, and she was overcome with dizziness.
"Princess Undine!" Isabel called in alarm when she noticed her charge was no longer beside her.
CC rubbed a hand over her eyes. "I feel strange."
Isabel's arm went around CC's waist. "You are still weak from your ordeal. Let me help you." The two women stumbled forward together.
After a few steps the dizziness passed and CC was able to walk on her own again. She thought she must be so hungry her glucose levels were messing with her equilibrium, and she sniffed the air hopefully, trying to catch a whiff of something cooking.
They left the courtyard through a low, arched doorway and entered a room that was filled with long wooden picnic tables. Seated at the tables were monks, all dressed in the same drab cream-colored woolen robes belted with huge wooden rosary beads. CC quickly estimated that there were probably twenty or thirty monks in the room, but it was unnaturally silent for a room filled with that many people. The only sound of conversation came from the head table, at which sat a slightly built man whose robes were brilliant crimson instead of cream, two monks in the more typical lightly colored robes, and the knight, Sir Andras.
The instant the knight saw her, he leapt to his feet and hurried to her side. CC was struck anew by his strong masculine features and his easy charm.
"Princess Undine," he said, taking her hand and kissing it gallantly. "I am pleased to see you looking so well." He linked her hand through his arm and led her to his table. "Princess, I am honored to present you to an old family friend, Abbot William. Caldei is his monastery."
Instead of greeting CC, the abbot ignored her and smiled warmly at Andras. "Sir Andras, truly Caldei belongs to you as well as to me. It was your great father who gifted it to our Holy Order. I would be pleased if you thought of Caldei as your home while you visit us." Finally, his gaze shifted to CC and all traces of warmth instantly died.
Something about the coolness of the man's expression told CC not to offer him her hand. Instead, she decided it - would be best to drop into a quick, impromptu curtsey.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Abbot William. Thank you so much for your hospitality."
The abbot was a short, slender man with well-defined features and a severely receding hairline. His hands were very white, small and soft looking, and CC noticed that he liked to use them to punctuate his gestures when he spoke. He wore a large, square ring on the middle finger of his right hand, which he tended to hold solicitously straight, like he was afraid it might slip off. The square, rust-colored stone that was set in the middle of the ring caught the dim light in the dining room and winked with a fierce brilliance. But the priest's most striking feature was his eyes, which were an unusual shade of brilliant blue. CC thought that he would have been considered a nice-looking man, had his expression not been so pinched and hard-looking.
"The pleasure is mine." The priest's smile was tight. "Please, join us." He gestured at an empty place setting across from him. "You must be hungry."
Andras returned to his seat next to Abbot William. The other two monks sitting at the table nodded briefly at her and then returned to their meal. An old woman hurried up and ladled a generous portion of aromatic stew onto CC's plate. When she smiled her thanks at her, the woman shot her a surprised look before she rushed away.
"There have been no other survivors found, Princess."
Abbot William's voice was soft and seemed gentle, but when CC met his eyes, his expression was flat and guarded. She forced herself to take a bite of the stew and chewed carefully, buying time as she tried to choose how best to respond to this intimidating-looking stranger.
She had never been a very good liar, and her seven years in the air force had only reinforced her dislike for lies. Dishonesty led to problems—usually career-ending problems. She had decided early on that it was better to tell the truth and deal with the consequences than to be a dishonorable person. Unfortunately, she thought, that lesson was not much help in her current situation. She glanced at Abbot
William. She had a feeling that telling him the truth would probably get her burned at the stake.
The next best choice was to stick as close to the truth as she could.
Swallowing, she said, "I am sorry to hear that, Abbot. I was hoping another survivor could help me remember more about my past."
"Then you still have not regained your memory?" Sir Andras asked. Leaning forward he reached across the table and took her hand.
At Andras's gesture, CC saw a dark flicker in the priest's eyes. Now there was definitely a man who had issues with women—major issues. CC didn't want to antagonize the priest, but Gaea had made it clear to her that she had to find a man to love her. Right now Andras was her best, if not only, chance at that. And, she admitted to herself, the knight was certainly handsome and obviously interested in her.
In the back of her mind the memory of the merman's kiss lingered enticingly, but she pushed it away. Gaea had said man, not merman. And beside that, Dylan was long gone somewhere out at sea and could be of no help to her. Trying her best to ignore Abbot William's hateful look, she smiled warmly at the warrior and squeezed his hand before releasing it.
CC squinted, like she was trying hard to think. "No. I remember my name, but I can't remember much else." She bit her bottom lip. "I don't even know what year it is." She blinked innocently at them while her heart raced.
"It is the year of our Lord, one thousand and fourteen. You are on the island of Caldei near the mainland of Cymru." The abbot's voice was as hard as his eyes.
CC gulped. Trying not to show her shock at hearing it confirmed that she was, indeed, smack in the middle of the European Dark Age. She flashed the abbot a grateful smile. "Thank you. The more I know, the more I might be able to remember." She paused. "I do also remember a terrible storm and a giant wind." She let her eyes widen. "It picked me up and dropped me into the ocean. I remember I was drowning," CC said truthfully and reached for a goblet of wine with shaking hands.
"After such a horrible ordeal it is understandable that your memory has fled," Andras said quickly.
"Can you remember nothing more about your journey, Princess Undine?" Abbot William enunciated her name carefully. "Or perhaps why you were so near our island?"
CC could feel his eyes studying her, and she forced herself to meet them, while she shook her head sadly.
"No. I wish I could."
"And you can remember nothing about your family nor your home country?"
CC couldn't tell which irritated her more, his fluttery hand gestures or the cruel edge to his condescending tone. The modern woman in her wanted to snap at him to stop being such a jerk, but she quickly squelched that impulse. She wasn't in the modern world; she was in ancient Wales, and this man was providing her sanctuary. And wasn't it perfectly natural for him to be wary of her? She had literally washed up at his doorstep; he really knew nothing about her.
She met his cold blue eyes with a sweet, apologetic smile.
"I remember my name and that my parents love me very much. I truly wish I could remember more." Then she added, "I am sure that my family will be looking for me, and that they will reward anyone who has helped me."
The priest pressed his lips together. Their edges turned up in a parody of a smile. "Those of us who have chosen the priesthood seek a reward that cannot be found in this world."
"Of course not, Abbot," CC agreed quickly, stung again at the man's cold, disdainful tone. "I didn't mean to imply anything except that I'm sure my family will be very grateful to you for helping me."
"I will send inquiries to the nearby ports on the mainland. Perhaps there will be word of your family there," the knight said.
"You won't leave, will you?" CC asked. She definitely didn't want to be left alone with the abbot.
Sir Andras took her hand again and smiled. "I have pledged to be your protector. If you would have me stay, I will send my men in my stead."
Not looking at the priest, CC nodded. "I would like that."
"Yes," Abbot William's's tone was ingratiating. "I would welcome your visit. I get so little news from inland. And you haven't told me, what brought you to our island?"
Andras shrugged nonchalantly. "My father was holding Tournament and, as a boon to a friend, I agreed to complete a quest to the sea." Then he smiled warmly at the abbot. "When my quest took me near Caldei, I knew I could not continue until I had ferried here and greeted my old teacher." Then he turned his gaze to CC. "And how was I to know that my sea quest would yield such a treasure?"
"Ah, the Caer Llion Tournament." Abbot William's eyes sparkled, and he pointedly ignored Andras's last comment. "How well I remember those fine games. You must tell me of all who attended."
While the priest monopolized Andras's conversation, CC concentrated on eating, glad that for the moment she didn't have to fabricate any more answers. As often as she could, without seeming ridiculously obvious, she sneaked looks at the warrior. He was definitely a gorgeous man. Today he wasn't wearing the chain mail or the silver helmet. Instead, a plain brown tunic made of fine linen draped over his strong body and belted at his waist. CC had a hard time stopping herself from staring. She just wasn't used to seeing such a blatant display of male muscles and strength. Yes, there were handsome, well-built men in the military, but they didn't just sit around partially bare and bulging, unless they were working out at the base gym. And this certainly wasn't a gym.
She also wasn't used to the way Andras kept looking at her. If she had been having a hard time remembering that the body in which her soul resided was a beautiful stranger's, this handsome knight's blatantly appreciative glances were all the reminder she needed. Their eyes met, and CC felt color heat her cheeks as she realized he had been speaking to her and she didn't have any idea what he was saying.
"I'm sorry, Sir Andras, my mind was elsewhere. What did you say?"
"I asked if you would consent to take a short walk with me before retiring to your chamber."
"Do you think that is wise?" Abbot William asked in a voice that CC thought was just a little too tinged with sarcasm to be considered concerned for her welfare. "The princess has yet to recover from her ordeal."
CC wiped her mouth on her napkin and stood. "Thank you for your concern, Abbot, but I think a walk would do me good. I believe in exercise."
"Does that mean that you are remembering more about your life, Princess?" the priest shot back.
"No," CC said, smiling energetically into his frozen eyes. "It means I'm healthy." Placing her hand on the arm Andras held out to her, she inclined her head graciously to the priest. "Thank you for the lovely meal." In a swirl of skirts, CC allowed the warrior to lead her from the dining room.
"Shall we walk around the courtyard, Princess?" Andras asked.
CC looked across the green expanse to the closed iron gate. The perfect lawn was broken only by the large stone well which sat in the middle of the courtyard. A breeze stirred the air around them, and CC breathed in the alluring scent of saltwater.
"Actually, Sir Andras, I would like to see the view." She looked determinedly toward the gate.
"Oh," he sounded surprised, but recovered quickly. "Certainly, Princess."
"I would like it if you called me Undine," CC said as they started across the courtyard.
"I would be honored, Undine." He looked intimately into her eyes as he repeated her name. "And it would please me if you did not address me formally, but simply called me by my Christian name, Andras."
"Then I will." They smiled at one another.
They were walking by the well when a sharp chill passed through CC. It was so intense that it was painful, and she felt the blood drain from her face. Her knees felt weak, and she tripped. If it hadn't been for Andras's strong arm she would have fallen.
"Undine! What is it?"
"I just need fresh air," she managed to whisper, and the knight helped her over to the gate.
After walking a few feet, the chill left her and she could feel the color coming back into her face. What was wrong with her? Was this part of her body longing for its true form? CC didn't think so. This feeling was different from the ache that seemed planted permanently within her.
"Perhaps Abbot William was right, you are not recovered enough for our walk." Andras's eyes were bright with worry.
"No, I'm better now. I was just feeling a little dizzy. I want to walk; the exercise will be good for me. And if I keep a hold of you, I'm sure I'll be fine." She smiled and squeezed his arm.
He placed a warm hand over hers. "Then I will simply have to be certain you do not release your hold on me."
Trying to shake off the creepy feeling that seemed to have rooted itself in her spine, she walked forward. Andras unbolted and opened the gate for her.
The road that led to the front gate was lined with tall, exotic-looking pines, and it looked vaguely familiar, like CC had visited it in a dream. But it wasn't the road or the trees that interested her. Like a homing pigeon, her feet found a little path that hugged the side of the monastery's outer wall. She pulled Andras with her.
"Undine, this path can be dangerous. It leads to the face of the cliff. The drop to the ocean is treacherous."
"I'll be careful," she promised breathlessly. She had to force herself to walk slowly when everything within her wanted to rush around the bend in the path and drink in the sight of the ocean.
Finally, they turned the corner and CC felt a thrill of pleasure. The endless ocean was swallowing a huge, shimmering sun, which painted the waters with gold and amber. Like giant teeth, rocks peppered the rugged shoreline, and even in the fading light CC could see the foamy caps of the crashing waves. She wanted to climb down the steep side of the cliff and let the water carry her body away. Then the never-ending aching inside of her would stop—she would be where she belonged.
"It is so beautiful," CC said, unable to hide the longing in her voice.
"Yes, I have never seen anything as beautiful."
Andras's voice had deepened, and she pulled her eyes from the ocean to see that he was staring intently at her. Something moved within his eyes, and his gaze flared with a heat that took CC completely by surprise. With a choked moan, he grasped the hand that she had wrapped through his arm and lifted it to his lips. Closing his eyes, he kissed her hand as if he was dying of thirst and her skin was water.
His lips were warm and soft, and CC appreciated the passion he was demonstrating. She studied the strong lines of his handsome face and enjoyed the way his chest flexed as his breathing deepened. But that was it. His touch awakened nothing inside of her except a detached appreciation for his masculine beauty.
Andras raised his face from her hand and his eyes captured hers. Lust flared so blatantly there that for a moment they glowed with an unnatural light. It even seemed his features shifted and darkened. His breath came in ragged gasps. CC felt a tremor of foreboding. This man wasn't the chivalrous knight who had rescued her and pledged his protection. He was a powerful stranger whose expression was filled with barely controlled lust. CC gasped at the change in him.
Instantly, a shadow lifted from the knight's eyes. He dropped CC's hand and took a step away from her, blinking in confusion.
"Forgive me, Princess," he said, mopping a hand across his brow like he had been sweating profusely. "I did not mean to take advantage of you."
"You didn't take advantage of me, you just kissed my hand," CC said nervously, trying to keep her tone light.
"If I frightened you—" he started to say, but CC interrupted him.
"No, you just surprised me." She was relieved that he appeared to be himself again, but she continued to watch him carefully. He looked dazed, like he had just awakened from a bad dream. Again, CC felt a tremor of warning shiver through her stomach.
"You are not angry with me?" the knight asked.
"No, I am not angry."
"Then you will forgive me? I assure you that my behavior is not usually so dishonorable."
"There is nothing to forgive. You only kissed my hand." But even as she said it, a part of her mind whispered that there had been more to the knight's actions than an impulsive kiss.
"Thank you, my Lady," Andras said, inclining his head in a small bow. "Would you care to continue our walk?" he asked hesitantly.
CC glanced down the path and then back at the knight. She really did need to continue their walk. It was the third night; she had to study the land around the monastery and figure out how she was going to get to the ocean. The knight appeared to be his normal, gallant self again, his eyes had quit flashing, and his breathing was back to normal. Maybe she had overreacted. After all, she hadn't had very many men react so passionately to her. Okay, she admitted, she had never had a man react so passionately to her.
And wasn't she supposed to be finding true love? How the heck was she going to do that if she ran from a man's desire? Get a grip on yourself, Sarg! CC took a deep, steadying breath.
"Yes, I would very much like to continue our walk."
Almost reluctantly, he offered her his arm and they continued walking down the path, which curved gently until they came to an area where the cliffside dropped away almost directly under their feet. CC halted there, staring out at the beckoning sea.
Andras didn't speak, and CC pretended to watch the sunset, the knight's presence almost forgotten as her mind raced with possibilities. Behind them the monastery sat dark and silent. The view from where she was standing was familiar enough that CC was sure that one of the windows on the nearby wall must be the window to her room. Rocks and fallen logs rested against the side of the monastery. Climbing in and out of her window would not be impossible. She studied the face of the rocky cliff. From her room, it had looked too sheer and imposing to scale, but now that she was closer, she could see that it was riddled with little trails that crisscrossed down to the ocean. In the distance she could hear the ever-present sound of bleating sheep and silently thanked them for liking to climb rocky cliffs. If she was careful, she could use the trails to get down to the water. As if echoing her thoughts, in a last burst of light, the sun sank into the ocean.
"We should return, Undine," Andras said.
CC nodded reluctantly and let him lead her back the way they had come. She was so busy considering all that she would need to do that night that she was surprised when she and Andras had stopped in front of the door to her room.
"Thank you for the honor of your company this evening, Undine."
His motions were formal as he bowed to her. He turned to leave so quickly that she had to reach out and grab his arm to stop him. At her touch he stiffened, but he turned back to her.
"I haven't thanked you for saving me." She stretched up on her toes so that she could kiss his cheek softly. "Thank you."
His frozen look thawed a little, and he smiled at her. "I am only glad my actions have brought you into my life."
CC knew that then would be the right time to say something encouraging to the knight, but the memory of the change that had come over him earlier still seemed to hang in the air between them. When she spoke, all that she could make herself say was, "Good night, Andras. Could you please send Isabel to me? I am very tired."
"Of course. You must rest and regain your strength. I will see you tomorrow." This time his bow was accompanied by a warm smile. "Rest well, Undine."
"Thank you, Andras. You are very kind," she said before entering her room. She closed the door and leaned against it. What was wrong with her? Andras was handsome, sweet and obviously interested in her. Yes, for a moment he had been a little scary, but couldn't it have been her own inexperience that frightened her?
"But I didn't feel anything when he kissed me," she whispered. "At least nothing good." His kiss had been a little like visiting a museum and admiring a lovely statue. It had been nice enough to look at, but she certainly didn't want to get in bed with it.
"Well, Gaea didn't say anything about me having to love the man back. Maybe the spell will work if he just falls in love with me," CC said to the silent room, but she was afraid that it was a futile wish. Gaea had said Lir wouldn't break the bond of true love, and CC didn't think "true love" and "one-sided, infatuated lust" were anywhere near synonymous.
I'll try harder to care about him, she promised herself. Next time he kisses me, I'll make sure it's on my lips and not my hand. And I won't let his passion scare me. She shook her head at herself. She wasn't a skittish teenager. She was a sergeant in the United States Air Force, and she certainly wasn't afraid of men.
Unbidden, the memory of the merman's kiss burned through her mind. Just the memory caused her body to tingle in response.
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