Liquid harp notes floated down the wind, gentle as a dream. The faery lord listened with closed eyes as the melody twined warmly around him. The harpist was a young mortal female, and she had played her haunting tunes in his wood many times. At first he had merely enjoyed the music. Then, when the winter chill kept her from the wood, he had realized how much more satisfying it would be to make the harpist his own. Then he would always have music.
When she returned to the wood in the spring, he had studied her and woven his plans. Today he would put them into motion. Impatient to begin, Ranulph of the Wood opened his eyes and set off toward the glade where the girl played her instrument with a power and passion that made the leaves and sunbeams dance.
At the edge of the glade, he paused in the shadows to study his quarry, Leah Marlowe. She sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, caressing the small Celtic harp like a lover as her fingers rippled out a tune that pierced the heart.
Slight of build with pale skin and straight brown hair, the girl was not a beauty even by mortal standards. Compared to a lady of Faerie, she was positively plain. Yet there was a sweetness about her, and she had a magical gift for music. He would have that sweetness and magic for himself. Beguiling her would be an easy task, for she was shy and lonely. Perhaps, if he was lucky, he would have her in his gilded lair this very night.
He smiled at the thought, and prepared to step into the glade.
“Why don’t you leave the child alone?”
Jolted out of his reverie by the husky feminine voice, Ranulph whirled, his hand falling to the hilt of his sword. A scant two yards away, a female of unearthly beauty lounged gracefully against an oak.
She was of Faerie, of course, for few mortals could see him until he revealed himself. But her complexion was dusky, not the snow-pale hue of the Folk, and silken hair of raven-wing black floated around her shapely form and cascaded to her heels. Her garb was as exotic as her person, a length of shimmering fabric that wrapped around her in a most revealing way, exposing one flawless shoulder and slim bare arms circled with dozens of gilded bangles.
Ranulph’s gaze went over her appreciatively. Even by the standards of Faerie, she was stunning. “What is your name? I’ve never seen a faery like you.”
“My name is Kamana.” She smiled with feline amusement. “Most assuredly you have seen no one like me, for none of my Folk have ever journeyed so far. I come from the other side of the world, from the land of Hind.”
“India,” Ranulph said, intrigued. “So Faerie extends even there?”
“Faerie is everywhere, for we are of nature, not man.” Kamana bent to pluck a sprig of woodruff, her bangles tinkling musically. “There are differences from land to land, of course. The mortals of Hind reflect us, just as your Anglish humans reflect you.”
“English,” he corrected.
“As you wish, my lord.” She crushed the woodruff stem, releasing a scent like new-mown hay. “And what is your name?”
“I am Ranulph of the Wood. How did you manage to come so far? Did you travel through Faerie?”
She shook her head. “No, for that is a dangerous shifting way, more perilous even than the lands of men.”
“Surely the mortal world was even worse!” he exclaimed, appalled. “Such great spans of desert and sea would be lethal to one of the Folk.”
“I traveled with a shipment of shrubs and flowers brought back by an Anglishman who had lived many years in Hind. Townley filled half a ship’s hold with his specimens, letting in the sunlight when the weather was fair. It was near enough to a garden for me to survive.” Kamana’s eyes, a shade of dark gold as unique as the rest of her, darkened to pure night. “For eight long months, I dwelt in that hold as the ship ran before the winds and rolled between the seas. I know now what human hell must be!”
Ranulph nodded, understanding how wretched such confinement would be for one of the Fair Folk. “Why did you undertake such a perilous passage?”
She shrugged, her garment shimmering with the iridescence of a butterfly wing. “From curiosity. For amusement.” Light sparked again in her slanted eyes. “For destiny, perhaps, Lord Ranulph.”
“Destiny,” he snorted. “In this land, we forge our own fates.”
“Or think you do,” she said cryptically. “In Hind, we know that all beings dance to the measure of the weaver of the web, whether they recognize that or not.” Her gaze went to the clearing, where the girl still played her harp, oblivious to the fact that she was observed. “The child plays exquisitely.”
“It’s hard to believe she is mortal,” he agreed.
Kamana’s eyes narrowed. “I suspect she has some faery blood in her. See the shimmer of magic when her fingers touch the strings?”
The cursed female was right. Irritated that she had seen what he had not, Ranulph said shortly, “Whatever her blood, soon she will be playing her music only for me.”
“You mean to ensorcel her?” Kamana arched her dark brows. “In Hind, we cannot bind a mortal unless he or she consents to be placed in our power.”
“The law is the same here.” His possessive gaze went to the girl again. “I shall offer her the dearest wish of her heart. She will accept, and soon she will be mine.”
Kamana frowned. “You shame yourself to enslave an opponent so unequal to you. She is but a child.”
“She will be my consort, not my slave,” he said brusquely.
A faint expression of distaste showed on Kamana’s exquisite face. “Among my Folk, it is considered . . . vulgar to take mortals for mates. Oh, lying with them is all very well—indeed, it’s a great pleasure. But for consorts, we keep to our own kind. Surely there are ladies of Faerie who would suit you better.”
“In this land the Folk are of two types, those who live in courts and celebrate together, and the solitaries, like me.” He thought of the Love Talker, another solitary who’d been a friend of sorts until the lecherous fool had gotten himself exiled from both Faerie and the mortal realm as well. Voice clipped, Ranulph went on, “Oh, there are court ladies willing to come and share my bed for a night or two, but none would ever consider becoming consort to a solitary.” He knew that for truth, because more than once he had invited one of the gilded court ladies to share his life, and been laughed at for his trouble.
There was flicker of brighter gold deep in her eyes. Then she nodded gravely. “It is the same in my own land. But the price for a mortal to leave her own kind and dwell in Faerie is high.”
“So are the rewards.” He moved his hand impatiently. “Begone, lady of Hind. I’ve work to do.” He turned his back and moved into the glade. But behind him he heard laughter, and perhaps a trace of mockery.
Eyes closed and small body rocking gently, Leah flowed with her music, losing herself in the pulsing rhythms of the harp. In music, there was no loneliness or sorrow, only sweet abandon.
She came to the end of a long ballad and bent her head with a sigh. It was almost time to return home, and to drab reality.
Very near, someone cleared his throat. Her eyes flew open. To her surprise, a man of terrifying elegance stood right beside her. He was incredibly handsome, his immaculate London garb not concealing the strength of his tall frame.
Instantly tongue-tied, she clutched her harp and stammered, “A . . . are you lost, sir?”
He bowed, sweeping his hat so low that it brushed the verdant turf. “Not in the least. I came to find you, Leah, and in that I have succeeded.” His hair was golden, and when he straightened, she saw that his eyes were a startling true, clear green.
She held the harp even more closely. “Why would you want to find me, sir?”
“I have often heard you playing your harp in my wood, Leah. Because of the pleasure I’ve had from your music, I’ve come to give you a gift.”
“They are not your woods,” she said politely. “This land is part of Marlowe Manor, so it belongs to my father, Sir Edwin Marlowe.”
The stranger smiled, a chancy light dancing in his eyes. “There are many kinds of ownership, Leah. The wood is mine in a way that it will never belong to Sir Edwin.”
“I have not given you leave to be free with my name.” She stood, her harp in her arms, and began to edge away warily.
“I shall not harm you, Leah,” he said as if reading her mind. “I desire only to grant your dearest wish.”
Her mouth twisted. The late child of elderly parents, she had known she was an unwanted nuisance before she learned to walk. If she had been pretty and charming, she might have won her parents’ hearts, but she had been as nondescript as the faded wallpaper in the hall. She had caused no trouble, and in return was treated with absentminded courtesy. And this man spoke of granting her dearest wish! She wanted to be lovely and lovable, but even a London gentleman could not give her that.
“Ah, but I can,” he said softly. “I am Ranulph of the Wood, a lord of Faerie. I can give you beauty so great that it will bring all mortal men to their knees. Wealth, fame, the love of heroes—you can have whatever, or whomever, you most desire.”
She gaped at him. He was mad; there could be no explanation. Or perhaps she was merely dreaming.
“This is no dream.” Ranulph took her right hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a cool kiss on her tense fingers. “It is a sign of your own magical gift of music that you can see me. Usually only sorcerers or simple country people can see the Folk, but sometimes artists and poets and musicians can also.”
She pulled her hand away, beginning to wonder if by some wild chance this encounter could be real. The woods around her had always had an uncanny reputation, and the villagers avoided the area. Leah came to this glade to play because the music inside her was always most powerful here. “If you’re a faery, prove it.”
He shook his head sadly. “So skeptical, you modern mortals.” He reached inside his coat and drew out a small looking glass. Then he extended it to her, his fingers trailing sparkling light. “See what you might be.”
Leah looked into the glass, and almost passed out with shock. The image revealed was stunningly beautiful. Her mousy brown hair had become a mar velously thick, glossy mane streaked with sun-kissed blondness, while her nondescript, gray-green eyes were a striking shade of green. Her fair skin seemed almost to glow and her features had been refined to exquisite perfection. Yet eerily, the face was still hers.
The image shimmered, and suddenly it showed plain Leah Marlowe again. She gave a small whimper of protest at the loss of that vision of loveliness.
Ranulph lowered the mirror. “You can look like that, Leah. Say the word, and you will be able to go to London as an acclaimed beauty and take your choice of the finest gentlemen in Britain. You shall be declared a diamond of the first water. Become a duchess, perhaps, if that is what you wish.”
“Such beauty would be wasted, for my parents would never take me to Town.” She tried to sound as if that deprivation did not bother her.
“There is more than one way to get to London.”
Nervously she brushed back her hair, torn between disbelief and the palpable reality of her surroundings. The scents and sounds were of the familiar glade, and this Ranulph seemed as genuine as anyone she’d ever seen.
He smiled at her. “I am as real as you, though of a different nature.”
He could also read her mind, which certainly supported his claim of being a faery. Warily she said, “You will give me so much simply because you’ve enjoyed my music?”
He gave a world-weary shrug. “You would also have to make some small future payment when I come to claim it.”
She looked into his eyes, and suddenly believed that he was what he said, for there was something deeply alien in those green depths. Something ancient beyond words, even though his face was that of a man in the prime of his life.
“You want my soul,” she said flatly. “There are stories of faeries stealing human souls because they have none of their own.”
He laughed, as charming as the London gentleman he resembled. “You mustn’t believe all those old tales. I have no interest in stealing your soul.”
“Do you have a soul of your own?”
“I really don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “The Folk live so long that the issue is not one I have considered. But I assure you that even if I lack a soul myself, I wouldn’t know how to take yours, much less what to do with it.”
Oddly, she believed him, even though this conversation was increasingly bizarre. “If not my soul, what would you want of me?”
He shrugged again. “I haven’t decided.”
Relieved to have a good reason to deny his gift, she said, “I can’t possibly agree to something when I don’t know the price to be paid.”
She started to move away, but he caught her gaze with his. “When the time comes, I will give you three choices. I shall not ask for your soul or your life—my oath upon it,” he said with cool deliberation. “Surely one of the choices offered will be something you shall not mind paying.”
She hesitated, knowing she should leave, but unable to deny the mesmerizing lure of his green eyes. Trying to sound firm, she said, “No.”
“You will be beautiful beyond words, Leah,” he said softly. “Men will offer you their love, their wealth, their devotion. Heroes will lay their glory at your feet. You will be the most envied woman in the land.”
To be loved, not alone. To be beautiful. She thought of that entrancing image in the mirror, and wanted to weep with longing.
Seeing that she was weakening, he said in a voice like honey, “I am not asking you to do evil, my dear girl. You have blessed me and my wood with your music. I simply want to give you a token of my gratitude. But according to the laws of my world, a faery cannot give a gift without some kind of exchange. I say again, you will not have to forfeit your soul, or your life. You’ll have three choices, Leah. Surely one will be the merest trifle for you to pay.”
Treacherously, he raised the mirror again. The beautiful Leah was there, garbed in silk and lace instead of the drab, worn gown that the real Leah wore.
She looked into the eyes of her false image, trying to find evil or corruption. But she saw only herself, happy and beautiful. She ran her tongue over dry lips. To be lovely and loved . . .
With sudden reckless passion, she knew that she wanted love at any price. Even if she possessed it for only a handful of days, it would be better than the emptiness of her present existence. She drew a ragged breath. “Very well, Lord Ranulph. I will accept your offer of beauty and love. In return you will give me three choices of repayment, and will not ask for my mortal life or immortal soul.”
His smile was dazzling, though his teeth were rather . . . pointed. She reminded herself firmly that cats had pointed teeth, and she was very fond of them. She still missed her old tabby, gone since the last winter.
With a glitter of light, a silver dagger materialized in his hand. As she stiffened, he coolly sliced the center of his left palm. A crimson line appeared. Before she could retreat, he caught her hand and made a matching cut in her palm. Strangely, even though blood formed along the wound, it did not hurt. Rather, it stung like ice against bare flesh.
He pressed his palm to hers. “Flesh to flesh, blood to blood, a faery bond is formed.” His voice was soft, but in his piercing eyes was a wild, alien light.
She gasped and snatched her hand away. “What wicked magic have you done?”
Lord Ranulph smiled, a sophisticated London gentleman again. “It was the merest formality, my dear girl.” He took her hand again, but this time he only bowed elegantly over it. “You will not regret this, Leah. Go home now, and enjoy the blessings of faery magic.” He straightened and gestured across the glade at a bird perched on a branch. “Very soon you shall take flight like that turtle dove.”
Her gaze followed the fluttering wings as the dove rose into the air. She watched until it soared out of sight among the trees, then turned back to Ranulph of the Wood.
He was gone, leaving not so much as a single footprint or broken blade of grass.
She drew a dazed breath and sank onto the fallen tree trunk. The cool wind slid over her heated face. Had the faery vanished, or never existed?
She looked at her left hand, but there was no trace of a cut. Pressing her cheek against the silky wood of her harp, she bent her head and closed her eyes. The encounter must have been some sort of dream. She had dozed, and dreamed of a magical offer that would bring her happiness. She’d had many such fanciful daydreams as a child, though never one so realistic.
Face taut, she stood and slung her harp over her shoulder. Now she was grown and knew that happiness did not come with the swish of a magic wand—or the slash of a magical dagger. The reality was that eventually she would inherit a comfortable independence and would never want for anything. She was a fortunate woman, for she did not need a husband or children or passionate, romantic love.
It had only been a dream.
Leah entered the manor house quietly and headed for the stairs. Her dream of Faerie had delayed her, and she barely had time to change before dinner.
Then her mother called, “Leah, dear, come in here, please.”
“Yes, Mother.” Leah smoothed a hand over her wind-whipped hair, then slung the harp as far behind her as possible. Her parents approved of her skill on the pianoforte, but they had never understood her strange passion for a common, old-fashioned harp.
The instrument had been the gift of the old Irishman who had been her father’s forester until his death the previous winter. McLennan had taught her to play. He’d also filled her ears with tales of the Fair Folk, of how they loved music and how he himself had once spent a midsummer’s night listening to the wild melodies of faery harpers. Then he’d nod and say that Leah had the same gift.
The memory relaxed her. It was McLennan’s tales that had produced that strange—dream? Hallucination? A faery in the woods! She must have been mad.
Leah entered the morning room, where her mother reclined on a brocade sofa. “Do you need something, Mother? Your shawl, perhaps?”
Lady Marlowe, gray-haired and chronically vague, but still retaining some of the frail prettiness of her youth, looked up from the letter in her hands. “ ’Tis the most extraordinary thing. This has just come from your father’s cousin, Lady Wheaton. She’s one of your godparents, you know.”
Leah nodded. Her ladyship had sent her goddaughter an elaborate silver christening cup twenty-one years before. That was the extent of their relationship.
“Andrea wishes for you to join her in London for the Little Season. She’s a widow, you know, and she’s decided that it would be amusing to present a girl to society.”
Leah gasped. “London—me? I . . . I would have no idea how to get on.”
“Nonsense,” her mother said reprovingly. “You’re well bred and a very handsome girl. You shall be a great success. Your father and I have often discussed taking you to London, but . . .” Her shrug delicately explained that such a project had been beyond her strength.
Leah scarcely noticed, for she was stunned by the remark that she was a very handsome girl. Apart from an occasional sigh after studying her daughter’s unprepossessing countenance, or perhaps a remark that it was a pity Leah resembled her father’s side of the family, Lady Marlowe had always been silent on the subject of her daughter’s looks.
Weakly Leah said, “I have no clothing suitable for fashionable society.”
“You’ll need a new wardrobe, of course. Andrea shall select it for you.” Lady Marlowe refolded the letter neatly. “Since you will be taking few of your own clothes, it won’t take long for you to pack. You can leave tomorrow morning. Andrea is most anxious to welcome you.”