Authors: Susan Carroll
Miri frowned as she bent to tend to the mare’s forelegs. “I am sorry to hear of such troubles, but there is one thing you have never understood, Simon. Faire Isle
different from the mainland or at least it was. This island was always a special place of peace and healing, a refuge that you destroyed. The women who fled have never returned and those who remain are cowed, their spirits withered like Josephine Alain.”
Simon rested one arm across Elle’s back and blew out a wearied sigh. “I know you’re not going to believe this, but I do truly regret much of what happened on Faire Isle. When I rode out here to find you, it—it disturbed me to see so many shops still abandoned, so many homes that have never been rebuilt.”
“I am not just talking about burned-out cottages and empty shops. There was a gentle spirit on this island, a magic that you crushed beneath your boot heel.”
Her lips thinned in a bitter smile. “But you are a witch-hunter. I always seem to forget that. Destroying magic is your mission, your sole purpose in life, is it not?”
Although Simon flushed, his jaw jutted to a stubborn angle. “You seem to have forgotten why I was obliged to come here to Faire Isle. I was the king’s appointed representative to investigate charges of sorcery. Your family attacked me and my men, burned down the inn where we were staying.”
“Because you had charged Gabrielle with witchcraft and were holding her hostage to trap my brother-in-law. You were going to hang Renard without even trying him first.”
Simon scowled at the reminder but he was quick to counter, “Perhaps that was wrong, but a trial seemed an unnecessary waste of time. The Comte was clearly guilty. He was caught possessing the
Book of Shadows.
And your sister wasn’t exactly innocent either. Gabrielle admitted to consorting with Cassandra Lascelles, a noted practitioner of black magic.”
Miri felt the heat rush into her cheeks, her anger compounded by the frustration of not being able to defend her loved ones as indignantly as she would have wished. Because Simon was right, blast him. Renard was a good man, but he had inherited an unfortunate fascination with the darker side of magic from his wicked old grandmother, Melusine. And Miri herself had been nervous of Gabrielle’s friendship with Cassandra, a sorceress skilled in necromancy and crafting amulets of alarming power.
Book of Shadows
had only tempted Renard because he had hoped to ease his wife’s heartache, find some safe way for Ariane to bear a child. And Gabrielle had only been seeking a way to protect her beloved Captain Remy, not understanding the true evil of Cass’s amulets until it was too late.
But Miri knew it would be useless trying to explain any of that to Simon, especially about Renard. Simon had long ago convinced himself that the Comte was a sorcercer. It was far easier to remind Simon of his own inequities instead.
“You told me that all you wanted was to see the
Book of Shadows
destroyed,” she accused. “You said that if I persuaded Renard to surrender that evil book, you would let both him and Gabrielle go free and like a fool, I believed you. But you continued to hound my family long after that night. You had the
Book of Shadows.
Why couldn’t you just get rid of it and leave us alone?”
“Because I never got the chance to destroy the cursed thing.” The color in his face heightened as he admitted reluctantly, “It—it disappeared.”
“At some point during the chaos of the fire, someone stole the book.”
“You mean that terrible
is still out there for someone to make use of, to decipher all those hideous spells?”
Simon nodded grimly.
“Oh, that’s marvelous.” Miri threw up her hands and paced past the stalls in her agitation, ignoring Willow’s playful attempt to nip at her. “Well done, Simon. You persecute my innocent family to the ends of the earth while you let one of the greatest evils of all time slip through your fingers. So that is why you tore this island apart. You thought one of us still had that
Simon followed her out of the stall and locked his arms across his chest. “Perhaps one of you still does.”
“You mean Renard, I suppose. I can tell you with certainty that he doesn’t.”
“You never believed he had it the first time,” Simon replied coolly, but when Miri halted and glared at him, he flung up one hand. “Truce. I didn’t come here to rake up the past or quarrel with you.”
“Then I wish you would come to the point and tell me exactly why you are here.”
“I am beginning to wonder that myself.” He grimaced, but as his gaze rested on her, something softened in his face. “Perhaps it is partly because when I heard you had returned to Faire Isle, I—I just wanted to see you again, to know how you were faring.”
“Now you’ve seen me and I’m just fine,” Miri snapped. “So what’s the other part of your reason?”
He moved toward Elle, burying his fingers in the horse’s mane. At last he said as though the words were wrung from him. “I—I need your help.”
Miri stared at him, too stunned to say anything for a moment. She finally gave a mirthless laugh. “You are completely unbelievable, Simon Aristide. Twice in the past I trusted you, even mistook you for a friend. But all you were doing was using me to destroy my sister’s husband. Is that what you are after again? I couldn’t help you with that even if you tortured me. Since I returned to Faire Isle, I—I have lost track of Ariane and Renard. I have no idea where they are or Gabrielle and Remy either.”
Miri bumped up her chin defiantly, daring him to call her a liar. Simon likely knew she wasn’t telling the truth, but he chose not to challenge her.
“I am not after Renard,” he said. “I once believed the comte the most wicked being I had ever encountered, but I’ve learned better. Until recently, I had no idea what real evil could be. I have struck up against an enemy too powerful, too clever in the dark ways for one man to defeat.”
“So why come to me? Why not go to your patron the king? You and he once made a pact, didn’t you, to rid France of all sorcery?”
“The king unfortunately lost interest in our campaign and moved on to other pursuits. He has proved a weak and volatile man who has mismanaged France so badly he can barely hold his throne safe from the rising power of his nobles.”
“Well . . . well, what about your fellow witch-hunters?”
“I have not employed mercenaries for a long time, not since the raid on Faire Isle. My men slipped completely out of my control, looting and burning. I suffered from delusions of grandeur in those days, imagining that I could command the obedience of such battle-hardened men when I was little more than a stripling myself.” Simon’s lip curled in an expression of self-derision. “What an arrogant young ass I was, so infernally sure of myself.”
Miri eyed him doubtfully. Yes, he certainly had been arrogant, obstinate, and inflexible. She would have thought him incapable of ever admitting he could be wrong about anything.
“And just what are you now, Simon?” she asked.
Simon raked his hand back through his damp hair and gave a ragged laugh. “Now I am sure of nothing. All I am is very tired . . . and alone.”
He scarcely needed to tell her that. She could see that soul-deep weariness in his gaze, feel the pull of his loneliness like a dark tide threatening to draw her in. She had to lock her arms tightly about her middle to steel herself against it.
“So what do you want from me?”
“I know I have no right to expect anything from you. All I am asking is that you listen to my tale. If you choose not to believe anything I tell you, I swear I’ll leave you in peace. You’ll never set eyes on me again.”
He took a step toward her. When she tensed, he stopped, coming no closer. He offered his hand instead. “Is it a bargain?”
Miri stared at those strong, blunt fingers, feeling more torn than she had ever been in her life. Given her history with Simon, she would have to be six kinds of fool to accede to his demand.
Except that that was the problem. Simon wasn’t demanding. He was asking, and far more humbly than she would have imagined possible. All that he requested was a hearing. It seemed so unreasonable to refuse him.
But she could almost hear Gabrielle’s voice scolding in her head.
“Have you lost your mind, Miri? After all this man has done, you are worried about treating him unreasonably. I vow you’d give the devil himself a second chance.”
And it could well be the devil standing before her. Miri glanced up at Simon, but his face provided her no answers, his dark gaze steady but unreadable. Although she ignored his outstretched hand and brushed past Simon, she conceded in a low voice, “All right. Come to the cottage as soon as you are done looking after your horse.”
“Thank you,” Simon said gruffly, but he doubted that Miri even heard him as she slipped out the barn door and vanished into the rain and darkness.
But her image remained with him as he set about the task of feeding Elle, ladling oats into a feed bucket. For so long, the memory of Miri had been frozen in his mind, a girl just blossoming into womanhood, lithe and willowy, her features so serene, so ethereal, she did not seem like she’d been fashioned out of the same clay as the rest of the world. More like she’d been born of air, light, and spirit.
She was no longer that girl. What curves he could make out beneath that soaked gown were definitely those of a woman. Her face was thinner, paler than he’d remembered. The openness, the wonder that had once sparkled in Miri’s eyes had dimmed, the shadows beneath them deep. He was responsible for that. If he were damned for nothing else he’d done, he would be for the havoc he had wreaked on this one gentle, trusting heart.
As Elle blissfully plunged her nose into the feed bucket, Simon rubbed his knuckles between her eyes, a caress that the mare was particularly fond of.
“Ah, the devil take me, Elle,” he murmured. “I’ve inflicted enough pain on that woman. I should never have come here.”
Time and again he had betrayed Miri’s trust, used her in his quest to rid the world of witches. The damnable thing was he might well end up hurting her again. If he possessed any scrap of decency, he would simply wait out the storm, saddle up Elle, and ride away, find some other way to defeat the Silver Rose and leave Miri in peace.
But Simon sighed, knowing that he would not. Because he was every inch the bastard that Miri Cheney thought he was.
IMON PLUNGED THROUGH
the pouring rain, his saddlebag flung over his shoulder. By the time he reached Miri’s doorstep, any drying out he’d achieved in the barn was lost. He was dripping wet, his streaming hair snarled across his face. He hammered against the door with his fist, the rough wood abrading his knuckles. He was astonished when it yielded, creaking open. Darting inside, he slammed the door closed.
As he slicked back the wet hair from his face, Simon saw the reason that it had opened so readily. Miri had neither iron lock nor wooden bar upon her door. He ought to have been grateful for it and it was after all none of his affair. But it alarmed him to discover that the woman was still that trusting.
The cottage was a far cry from Miri’s former home, Belle Haven, with its beautiful tapestries and multiple bedchambers. The dwelling place consisted of one large room, with a ladder leading to a loft above, the outline of a simple box bed barely visible. The rest of the furnishings below were likewise simple, a pine table, a few stools and chairs, a cupboard, and a cypress chest, but the cottage still managed to convey an aura of cheerful disorder. A blue shawl was draped over the back of a chair, the contents of a sewing box were strewn across the table, drying herbs and baskets hung haphazardly from hooks mounted in the beams of the ceiling. A cluster of baby rabbits huddled together in a wire cage bedded with straw, no doubt some orphaned creatures Miri was seeking to rescue.
Shutters were battened across the windows, muting the wind and the lash of the rain. The soft glow of candles and the logs crackling on the hearth made the place seem like a haven of warmth and light. Or was that more owing to the woman who stood drying her hair before the fire?
Miri had removed her wet clothes, her gown and underpinnings hanging from a rope she had strung from a hook on the hearth to a peg imbedded in the wall. She was clad only in a shift, and the firelight silhouetted her womanly figure through the thin fabric. Simon could clearly make out the dusky aureole of her nipples, the soft curve of her hips, the shadowy delta at the cusp of her legs. His breath hitched in his throat.
Miri froze at his entrance, her comb tangled halfway down a long skein of her hair. Obviously she had not been expecting him to finish up in the barn so soon. Simon shuffled his feet. It was damned strange. He had kicked in more doors, forced his way into more homes than he could count, but never had he felt so much like an intruder.
“Er—I am sorry. I tried to knock. Should I go back out until you—you—”
Miri tugged the comb from her hair and clutched it in her hands. “Don’t be foolish. You are already soaked. Just take off your boots. They’re muddy.”
Simon nodded, trying not to stare at her as he eased his saddlebag to the floor. He was bruised. He was tired. He was soaked to the skin and still he was amazed to feel heat course through him. For so long he had thought himself numb to any feelings that were not directly related to his needs for survival. His body announced otherwise, the flash of desire that sizzled through him as unexpected as being struck by lightning.
Miri tensed like a doe suddenly aware of the hungry gaze of a wolf. She stalked over to the shawl she had left abandoned over the chair. She draped herself in the voluminous woolen folds, knotting the ends across her bosom. Her movements were unhurried and not in the least self-conscious. Rather than a woman modestly seeking to veil herself, it was more like having one slam the bedchamber door in one’s face.
Plunking down on a three-legged stool, Simon struggled to work off his boots. It proved a difficult proposition, the leather slick with rain and mud. But the exertion allowed him time to recover from the wayward reaction of his body to the sight of hers. Matters between him and Miri Cheney were strained enough without the added complication of any carnal impulses.
Lining his boots up neatly by the door, Simon wiped his hands clean on his breeches that were already a mess from his fall. He stepped hesitantly toward the hearth, feeling like some mongrel dog approaching a beckoning campfire and not at all sure what his reception would be.
Wordlessly, Miri handed him a linen towel and retreated to the opposite corner of the room to finish combing her hair. Simon found himself in sole possession of the blazing fire. Well, him and the cat. Necromancer curled up on a braided rug before the hearth, lazily eyeing Simon through narrowed slits.
Simon held out his hands to the welcome blaze of heat. A small cauldron of something steamed over the fire, emitting a fragrant spicy aroma. His back to Miri, Simon applied the towel first to his face, shifting aside his eye patch.
His leather patch had gotten wet in the rain, but Simon seldom removed it except when he was alone, self-conscious about the extent of his injury, even after all these years. When he’d finished drying his face, he replaced the patch, wincing at the feel of the damp leather settling back against his cheek.
As Simon worked to undo the laces of his doublet, he said, “You ought to have some sort of bar or lock on that door.”
“Why?” Miri compressed her lips as she struggled with a particularly stubborn knot in her hair. “There is a reason I live way out here in the woods. My neighbors are ones I can trust, the four-legged kind.”
“Unfortunately your address is also known to the sort that walk on two legs. If you insist upon the company of animals, at least you should surround yourself with useful ones. A pack of large fierce mastiffs would serve you far better than a basket of rabbits or this scrawny old cat.”
In spite of his gruff words, Simon found the sleek softness of Necromancer’s dark coat irresistible. He hunkered down to stroke the dozing feline. Necromancer went from sleeping cat to hissing fury in the bat of an eye. Lashing out, he scratched Simon’s small finger, the same hand that already bore the claw marks from the witch who had tried to kill him two nights ago.
Simon jerked back, swearing while Necromancer stalked off in high dudgeon. With amazing agility for such an old cat, he scrambled up the ladder, disappearing into the darkness of the loft.
“Damn!” Simon muttered, sucking the streak of blood from his injured finger. “I’m glad he wasn’t the one wielding the knife earlier.”
Miri’s lips twitched with the hint of a smile, but she was quick to suppress it. “Yes, you should be. That
scrawny old cat
was the one who lured you straight into my trap.”
“Not a particularly effective trap. If you are going to rely on snares for protection, I can show you how to fashion a better one. A simple noose would have caught me around the ankle and left me hanging upside down and far more helpless. Or get an iron trap with the kind of teeth that can crush a man’s ankle.”
“Such traps would be far too dangerous. What if I caught some fox or poor little rabbit by mistake? I don’t happen to like harming innocent creatures.”
“Believe it or not, neither do I.”
She clearly didn’t believe it. Turning away from him, Miri went back to combing her hair. Suppressing a tired sigh, Simon struggled out of his jerkin and draped it over the rope line Miri had fashioned. He spied a painting hanging on the wall, half-hidden by the drying clothes.
Simon pushed Miri’s gown aside in order to obtain a better look, his face softening with recognition. Set in a gilt-edged frame was a unicorn cantering through the forest, a magnificent study in contrasts between the vivid details of the trees and the phantom aura of the unicorn. The longer one stared at it, the more one became unsure where myth ended and reality began.
Her sister, Gabrielle, had done the painting for Miri. When Simon had last seen it, it had been incomplete and seemed destined to remain that way. But it had been Miri’s greatest treasure, so fixed had she been in her childlike belief in unicorns.
Simon smiled in spite of himself, the memory bittersweet. He felt ridiculously pleased that Gabrielle had finally finished the painting and that Miri still had it. He’d lain awake for too many sleepless nights when he realized that his actions had cost Miri Belle Haven. He was glad she still had some small part of her childhood home.
He heard the floorboard creak and realized Miri had crept up behind him. “So Gabrielle finally finished your unicorn?”
“Yes,” she replied softly.
“I remember how you always used to insist there was one that roamed Faire Isle. Of course, I being naught but a lowly boy could never hope to see the creature.”
“And I recall how you tugged on my braid and teased me, telling me I was too old to believe such things.”
“And you told me most indignantly, ‘The day I am too old to believe in unicorns is the day that I die, Simon Aristide.’ ”
Once more, she almost smiled at him, biting down on her lip to still its quiver.
“So do you still see the old boy in your rambles through the woods?”
Miri shook her head.
“Never tell me that you think I drove the unicorn away as well,” Simon half-jested, determined to provoke a real smile from her. “I swear I never touched a single hair of his mane.”
“No, the unicorn is probably still there. I simply stopped looking for him.” Her face grew more pensive and sad, adding to the burden of guilt he already carried.
No doubt she was recalling what he should have had the tact and wit to remember himself. He’d only ever seen the unicorn painting because Miri had trusted him enough to allow him inside her home. Simon had used the opportunity to gather evidence against her brother-in-law, to steal the ring that would lure the Comte de Renard to Paris, where he could be arrested. It was the first time Simon had betrayed Miri’s friendship in his zeal to bring the sorcerer to justice. Unfortunately, it had not been the last.
That was the trouble with even the best of the memories that they shared, Simon reflected ruefully. They would always be tainted with his many betrayals, shadowed by their vastly differing views of the world.
Miri twitched her gown back into place, blotting out the sight of the unicorn. She regarded him with a sudden frown. “You’re bleeding.”
Simon lifted his hand to find the angry-looking scratch still oozing blood, his finger smeared with it. Impatiently, he started to wipe it on his shirt when Miri intervened.
“Don’t do that.”
He was surprised when she seized hold of his hand. Snatching up the towel, she dabbed brusquely at the scratch, causing it to sting. When Simon sucked in his breath, she said, “Necromancer clawed you pretty good. You should never presume to touch any creature unless you are invited to do so.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” Simon replied dryly.
As she finished cleaning his scratch, her hands grew gentler. It had been a long time since anyone had touched him with anything approaching kindness. Her gentleness was a far more dangerous seduction than the sight of her body had been. Simon’s urge to draw back was immediate and instinctive. But he felt strangely helpless to move, rather bemused to find himself being tended by the woman who should have wanted him dead.
“So why didn’t you do it, Miri?” he demanded.
“Kill me when you had the chance. It was what I would have done in your place.”
Although she continued to tend his scratch, she appeared disturbed by his question, a tiny furrow creasing her brow. “I am a daughter of the earth. I am meant to heal, not harm.”
“And is that the only thing that stayed your hand?”
“N-no. I suppose it was also because I have endured enough grief over you. The thought of you dying, your blood spilling over my hands—” She shuddered.
“Then you don’t completely despise me?”
“It would seem not.” She glanced up at him and her smile broke free at last. The merest quirk of her lips but Simon felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from his heart.
He had almost forgotten the power of those fey eyes of hers. Like a clear white light drawing him in with all the force of the moon’s pull upon the wayward sea, that inexplicable attraction that had always existed between him and Miri. What was more, he was certain she felt it, too.
She flushed and released his hand. “T-there. The bleeding has stopped. It looks as though Necromancer’s attack won’t prove fatal, but—” She peered closer, for the first time noticing the gouge marks above his knuckles.
“Good heavens, what happened there?” she teased. “Did you try to pet a bear?”
Simon drew back, self-consciously covering the scratches with his other hand. “No, it is only a memento from a dispute I had with a witch two nights ago.”
“Oh?” Miri’s light tone faltered. “And—and how did this
fare from the encounter?”
is dead.” When Miri paled, Simon silently cursed the bluntness of his own tongue.
“Not by my hand,” he hastened to add, but Miri was already backing away from him.
The eyes that had been so soft a moment ago now pierced him with reproach. “You once boasted to me that when you suspected someone of being a witch, you immediately put her to the sword.”
“That is all that it was, the boast of a swaggering young dolt who was trying to appear as ruthless as possible. I have never behaved that arbitrarily.” Honesty compelled Simon to add. “At least I hope that I haven’t.
“The woman plunged over the side of a cliff when she was trying to kill
I actually tried to pull her up to safety, but she clawed my hand. She fell to the rocks below and was swept out to sea. I assure you she was no
She was most definitely a God-cursed witch, an agent of the Silver Rose.”
“The Silver Rose?”
“Yes, the enemy that I mentioned in the barn, the sorceress that I have ridden so far to tell you about.”
Except he feared she might no longer be willing to listen to him. She shrank from him, regarding him with troubled eyes. Simon wished to hell he had never mentioned the dead witch, but he had promised himself he would be truthful with Miri this time.
“Miri, please,” he reminded her. “You agreed you would hear me out.”
He could clearly see her inner struggle mirrored in her face. At last she gave an unhappy nod and gestured toward one of the chairs pulled up to the table.