The Vale of Leven, Strathclyde, Scotland 1071
Catrìona stepped to the edge of the crag perched high above the vale. Wind whipped her auburn hair and umber cloak behind her as she raised her gauntlet and let the falcon fly free.
Spreading his long wings, Kessog soared into the air over the blue waters of Loch Lomond.
Her heart soared with him.
This land of tall peaks and deep lochs was her home. Gray clouds might hover over the tops of the mountains, but bright yellow wildflowers graced the steep slopes and the foothills were clothed in the green velvet of spring.
In the distance, the falcon shrieked as he arrowed toward the loch’s crystalline waters, then flew in tight circles over a flock of teals, seeking his prey. The clouds parted and a golden shaft of sunlight reflected off the ducks’ wings and shimmered in the waters of the loch.
Thoughts of her future filled her mind and her excitement rose in anticipation of the arrival of her intended, Domnall mac Murchada. This very day he would come by ship from his family’s lands in Leinster to meet with her father and seal their betrothal. Domnall’s home in Ireland was a place she had heard much about, but had never seen.
In her mind Domnall appeared a most handsome man, except for his nose, which was thin with a high ridge. His wavy light brown hair was always neatly combed and his darker beard invariably neatly trimmed. His eyes were pale blue. But it was not his appearance that had made her father choose Domnall. It was his noble Irish lineage and the trade between Leinster and the Vale of Leven.
During Domnall’s visits, she had been keenly aware of his pale blue gaze following her. In his eyes, she had glimpsed desire, flattered he wanted her and not just the trade with her father. Her cheeks flushed to think that one day she would bear his children.
In the distance, Kessog streaked toward a duck, but missed his strike.
Catrìona watched the falcon for a while until a sharp gust of wind made her shiver. She had a sudden urge to return to her father’s hillfort.
Tuesday, May 30, 1893, Newport, Rhode Island
Imagine being sent to a party with a gun pointed at your head. You might look bewitching; you might wear a proper
pale blue gown, with its gathered skirt and off-the-shoulder neckline. You might sport the perfect pair of ivory silk ballroom slippers. Your fiery hair might be dressed in coils and feminine curls.
But inside, underneath the pleats and the padding, knowing about your father’s possible ruin, I bet you’d feel frightened.
You might believe this to be your last party. You might sense your short life flash before your eyes—the leisurely days of riding horses till your thighs ached, the long nights of
preparing French verb conjugations till your fingers cramped up, or helping the Ladies Auxiliary return stray cats to their owners.
Try as you might to shut your eyes to the hard facts, to the sudden unmooring of your destiny, you’d know that when friends asked how you were faring, you wouldn’t say much, hoping you might get by with some idle pleasantries or banalities about the weather.
1. Past (2002-2007)
When I was fifteen I left the smoky, wide-open skies of Dallas, Texas, for the rain and the thick, grey clouds of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It was less than a year after the twin towers in New York had fallen, and I’d spent that year living with my father before deciding, finally, to return home to live with my mother in a little apartment block somewhere on the city’s east side.
That year, I kept mostly to myself, managing a tenth grade quick and painless, turning sixteen along the way. Then, sometime through the eleventh grade I fell in love with my thirty-something Spanish teacher, Karen Thoreson, through the twelfth grade starting an affair with her. It was an involuntary act for both of us, to fall in love, and it scared me more than I’ve ever been scared of anything else. But even after all that’s happened, after all the suffering it’s caused and all the lives it’s destroyed, I still don’t know if I can say I’d have given up what we had.
It’s not that I don’t think we made no mistakes. There were a lot of things that happened that I would’ve done differently if I could go back and do it all over again. It’s just that what we had, for the time we had it, was so beautiful that I would never give back that feeling of having been with her.
Anna Cameron had spent too many hours in an airline seat tighter than a respectable dress, and that had done nothing to improve her mood. Used to being impeccably groomed, she felt crumpled, grubby, and even more like a failure as she stepped off the jetway with a wine-stained blouse and naked face. But flying business class was not in her future anymore.
As an unemployed lawyer—aka fired with no hope of ever practicing law again—she needed to manage on a tighter budget.
Honestly, she was lucky to be in Scotland now at all. If her Aunt Elspeth hadn’t been desperate for help with the Beltane Festival and willing to pay her way, Anna would have been stuck in the Cincinnati suburbs instead, hiding out in the kitchen she’d worked so hard to escape, while her mother delivered yet another lecture on the topic of her middle daughter’s many failings. With two broken engagements and a colossal screw-up behind her, Anna was officially a “disappointment.”
Mostly to herself.
But enough. She was determined to be positive. Her old life in Washington, D.C.—and Mike and his new fiancée—were three thousand miles behind her on a different continent. She had dreamed of coming to the Scottish Highlands all her life. Now she was here for an entire month, visiting with her favorite aunt. As a bonus, there was the possibility of turning her knack for organizing events into a new career—one she badly needed.
Shrugging the straps of the four-year-old Louis Vuitton Keepall she’d gotten as a law school graduation present into a more secure position, she set off on long, slim legs toward the baggage claim, her dark tumble of curls bouncing around her shoulders. She even refrained from stopping at the duty-free shop to buy a Toblerone.
But then it happened. An ocean away, and she still could not escape.
“Stand and deliver!”
The demand came loud and clear, as Lady Caroline Godwin’s coach came to a sudden stop. She sucked in a deep breath, holding onto the sides of her bench seat to brace herself against falling off. Her maid did the same, looking up at her in fright. “Oh, my lady. It’s a highwayman. I knew we shouldn’t have travelled at night.”
Lady Caroline couldn’t have agreed more. However, upon receiving news that her father was gravely ill and had lost a fortune at cards again, she knew she must leave London and return home. Travelling at night to get there as quickly as possible had seemed worth the risk. Not only did she need to know exactly how much her father had lost, she knew that her mother wouldn’t be able to cope with the situation. Her father had suffered a stroke immediately after losing and was currently bed bound.
Lady Caroline tried to reassure her maid. “I need you to be calm, Maisie. If we do as the rogue asks, we will come to no harm.” Yet after the initial shout, there was no sign of the highwayman. Furious both at her father for gambling away his money, and for getting stopped like this, Lady Caroline was feeling brave rather than scared. She was about to get out of the coach and see what was going on, when there were a few muffled curses from above them, a few thumps and then silence. She frowned, straining her ears to hear more.
“He’s going to kill us all!” cried Maisie fearfully, before fainting.
Lady Caroline looked at her maid lying in a crumpled heap on the bench seat opposite and couldn’t help feeling even crosser. “For heaven’s sake,” she muttered. And what has happened to my coachman and footman? “Frank? George?” she called out. She was met with silence.
She gasped as the door was suddenly pulled open and a tall, masked figure appeared, holding a pistol. The man, dressed all in black and with a tricorn hat on his head, looked around the coach, before returning his gaze to her. The pistol was aimed at her. “Good evening, my lady.”
Lady Caroline stared at him. The moonlight shone down on him, but didn’t reveal much, due to his dark clothing and black eye mask. She could make out sensual lips though, her gaze drawn to them because it was the only part of his face she could clearly make out. Then her gaze dropped to the pistol aimed at her and she felt renewed anger.
Oklahoma, January 15
The flabby man had stayed crouched for hours in the same shadowy corner of the library where Isa Telwyn worked, which was odd, because it was obvious that he didn’t know how to read.
The large encyclopedia looked tiny in his huge, warty hands. He hadn’t turned the page since he’d arrived, but he kept peering over the top of the book at Isa like he was trying to figure out if he knew her. But the really strange part was that he didn’t seem to realize he was holding the encyclopedia upside down.
Closing time was minutes away, and he didn’t look like he was going anywhere soon. His bulbous body sat folded into a creaky oak chair that strained to hold his mass. The cowboy hat he wore was too small for his round head, but it shaded his face, leaving only an impression of sagging skin, wiry whiskers, and oddly-shaped eyes.
Wind howled outside as the winter storm front closed in. Tiny pellets of ice clicked against glass panes that had protected the books for so long they were rippled with age. The smell of old paper and aging wood wafted through the building as the fierce wind worked its way in through drafty cracks in the aging brick and plaster walls.
The buzzing fluorescent bulbs overhead hadn’t been replaced in years. There weren’t as many as there should have been, thanks to cost-cutting measures, leaving the whole space a labyrinth of shadowy mazes with high bookshelf walls. Even the utilitarian carpet on the floor seemed to absorb light as well as it did sound. Footsteps were muffled, but the creak of aging boards underneath was easy to hear all the way from the back wall to the check-out desk.
Mrs. Bird, the library’s oldest employee, shuffled toward the front desk, eyeing the strange man. Her white hair had thinned, but she still twisted the little wispy bits into a bun that was more bobby pins than hair. She settled her crooked hands on the back of a rickety chair too large for her shrinking frame. “It’s seven,” she said to Isa, confusion clear in her tone. “Why is he still here? Everyone knows we close at seven.”
“I don’t think he’s a local,” Isa said. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “In fact, I don’t think he can read. I bet he’s been sitting over there all day, trying to work up the courage to ask about our classes.”
“Classes are on Saturday. It’s Tuesday.”
Isa stifled a grin at the seriousness of Mrs. Bird’s statement. She’d lived in Silver Gulch her entire life, and after eighty-eight years had a hard time remembering there were other places on the planet where people could exist. This town—this library—was the center of her universe, and Isa feared that if she didn’t get out of here soon, she would end up just like Mrs. Bird sixty years down the line.