by Lynda K. Scott
eBook ISBN: 978-1-60659-232-8
Print ISBN: 978-1-60659-233-5
Eric d’Ebrur must find the legendary Heartstone and fulfill the ancient Gar’Ja bond he shares with the Stonebearer. But when he finds her, he discovers that love can be more dangerous than the Gawan threat. Eric can defeat the mind-controlling Gawan but will it cost him the woman he loves?
On the sign hanging over the door, the Old English letters spelling out The Treasure Chest gleamed in the morning light. The dark green awning that would prevent the hot afternoon sun from entering the windows added to the quaintness of the store.
Keriam Norton sighed happily. She treasured the old, well-worn and well-loved items in her inventory. They had a history, a past, a connection to earlier times, and now, with her help, they’d have a future.
She wished she could say the same. For all she knew, she and her mother, Meredith, had dropped out of the sky twenty-six years ago. As for the future, she would be satisfied with the store.
In the window, her cousin, Janna, fluffed the skirt of an old ivory wedding dress. Keriam smiled, remembering how the young woman had held it up to her body and admired it in the oval mirror. A true romantic, Janna fantasized about her wedding day constantly.
At least one of them had a fantasy.
In three hours, people would come into the store and browse through the collection of lovingly worn antiques.
She swallowed and rubbed suddenly damp palms against her pants legs. She took a deep breath. Released it slowly.
She and Janna would chat with them. Point out the eighteenth century armoire, the Art Deco or the kitschy collection of farm implements gracing the walls. Everything was going to be just fine.
Her stomach took a queasy roll.
Facing people she knew, and ones she didn’t, was going to be hard. It hadn’t always been so, just since her parents died. She inhaled raggedly at the surge of grief. So much had changed for her since then. But today was going to be a good day. It was, she repeated.
Janna backed out of the window. A moment later, she trotted through the front door to stand at Keriam’s side. Her cousin’s excitement poured off her in waves.
“Well? What do you think? Is it fantastic?” Janna asked.
“Oh, yes. Seriously fantastic.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s beautiful.” Keriam focused on the display, on the wedding dress with its yards of lace, fighting the rush of anxiety and joyous anticipation Janna was feeling. It would be worse if Janna actually touched her, she knew, and kept a careful distance between them. “Now. Let’s get ready for hordes of customers to make us filthy rich.”
“In your dreams,” Janna said, laughing. As she passed through the door, she added, “Mine, too.”
Keriam stopped as the weight of unseen eyes danced over her skin like thorny little ant-feet. She whirled, taking in the entire street with a sweeping glance.
Roseberg’s small business district, composed of ancient brick storefronts, would soon be bustling but now was serenely quiet. And yet…
Someone was watching her.
Across the street, a large black dog sniffed a reproduction coach lamp near the curb. Keriam dismissed the animal, letting her gaze move toward the intersection. A shadow, long and sharp in the sun’s slanting rays, moved and vanished before Keriam could identify it. No faces pressed against the glass of the shops lining Main Street. There was no traffic.
Her attention returned to the dog. It sat, tongue lolling, tail idly sweeping the sidewalk. It had a feral tilt to its pale eyes that made her think wolf. Which was ridiculous, there weren’t any wolves in this part of Michigan.
Then…expectancy flashed through her body, heightening her perception. From the east came the scent of the pig farms and the rendering plant, faint but distinguishable to her acute senses. Automobile fumes from the highway drifted, mingling with the occasional perfume of green, growing things from the surrounding farmlands. A silent call hung in the cool, morning air and she let the door close without going inside. She shut her eyes, fighting the urge to follow the call, to abandon Janna and the store.
A single, deep bark cut through the wild sensations and, as if a door slammed shut, the scents were gone, the call silenced. Her heart skipped a beat, then skittered like a wild thing. These episodes were coming far too often. And too powerfully. How long before she could no longer fight them?
How long before she lost her mind?
“Hey,” Janna spoke from the doorway. “Something wrong?”
“No.” Keriam shook her head, forcing a smile. “No. Nothing. I was just…daydreaming. Come on. There’s still a lot to do.”
* * *
In his alter-form, the canid, Eric d’Ebrur watched the Stonebearer enter the shop. Between one moment and the next, she’d gone pale and trembled. What had happened?
His first thought, that she was Infested, he dismissed. Once a Gawan took command, it didn’t relinquish control. He’d seen it often enough to know.
He’d been surprised when Benamont I’sadhe’s information had proved correct though he shouldn’t have been. The old scholar had resources beyond the scope of most. Resources he guarded as stringently as Eric guarded the Federation. Eric admired that.
But he didn’t admire the cavalier way I’sadhe had told him to use his niece, Keriam I’sadhe. The Stonebearer.
Still. She was tall and well-made like all the I’sadhe clan. The hair, glistening with dark fire, and the midnight-blue eyes came from her father’s line. He’d recognized that from the imagescans but what identified her was her scent.
That part of the Gar’Ja bond apparently held true.
Standing, Eric shook himself and trotted across the street to peer through the glass. She wasn’t there, he realized with a spurt of disappointment. Where had she gone? Her scent still came strongly to his sensitive nose, an evocative blend of woman and soft spice. His ears pricked forward, detecting movement beyond the young, yellow-haired female. Then the Stonebearer appeared, a stack of ancient tomes in her arms.
She was not beautiful, but her features intrigued him. She had high, wide cheekbones with just a hint of color and a jaw that was a little too strong. Her lips were full and elegantly shaped. He had the feeling she smiled often.
As he studied her, she looked up, saw him at the window. Her expression slowly became curious. She smiled, pointed him out to the other female. That one made a funny sort of ooh’ing sound and charged to the door as if the Gawan were hot on her tail. The door slapped open, accompanied by a tinkling bell.
“Hey, you lost, sweetie?” Fearlessly, the yellow-haired female rubbed his head, tickled his ears. “No collar? Poor baby!”
“Sheesh, don’t run up to a stray and start playing with it.” The Stonebearer’s voice came, exasperated and just a little amused, from beyond her companion. “Especially not one that big. You’ll get bit.”
“Oh, he’s a good boy. Look at him. He likes me.”
Eric allowed the female to draw him close but when he tried to turn to see the Stonebearer, he found his nose in the female’s cleavage. She squealed, merrily, and pushed him back. “Just like a guy. Or are you a girl?”
He narrowed his eyes in automatic insult then caught the Stonebearer’s silent laugh. Helpfully, she said, “Turn him upside down and check.”
“You turn him upside down, Xena-Warrior-Princess.” She ducked her head, peering under his belly. “Definitely a boy.”
Eric pulled free of her grasp and went to the Stonebearer. He nuzzled her dangling hand. One rasp of his tongue against her flesh told him what he needed to know. She wasn’t Infested.
A weight lifted from his chest. The Gawan hadn’t gotten to her. Yet. The Stonebearer knelt, holding his ruff between her hands, and looked him in the eye. “He looks well-fed.” She glanced at her companion. “I don’t think he’s been lost for long. Someone will be looking for him.”
She stood, glancing at the empty street. “Put a sign in the window saying you’ve found him. Then put him in the back.”
“He’ll get lonely back there.”
“Janna, we can’t keep him in the store. Not with customers coming in and out. All we’d need is for him to bite someone.”
Eric slipped past her, entering the store. He needed to stay close to the Stonebearer. Close enough to protect her should the Gawan come. Close enough to find the Heartstone if he could. Meanwhile, he would continue to play the big, friendly dog. He sat by the counter. Grinned. Wagged his tail.
“Look at that. Isn’t he sweet?”
Not many would call the Antiare Defender sweet. Dedicated, certainly. Honorable, he hoped. Dangerous, yes, a warrior must be dangerous. But not sweet.
“Put him in the back.”
The young female, Janna, did her best but Eric simply lay with his nose on his paws and refused to budge. He watched the Stonebearer, curious about what she would do.
He didn’t have long to wait. She whipped her belt off, looped it around his neck and tugged him toward the back of the store. He growled, braced his paws against the slick tile and still found himself sliding over the floor.
“Weighs a freaking ton,” Keriam panted as she dragged him through the door. “I’ve got a soup bowl in the cabinet. Get him some water. Then, run down to Jantzen’s Hardware and buy a collar and leash. Or rope. He’ll need to be taken outside to do his business.”
“What about food?”
Keriam planted her hands on her hips and studied him. “We’ll deal with that later. He doesn’t look in danger of wasting away real soon.”
The two females left, securing the door behind them.
And so, Eric d’Ebrur, the High Defender of Antiare, was relegated to the status of common pet.
But only for as long as it took to find the Heartstone.
* * *
While they hadn’t had hordes of customers exactly, the turn-out had been respectable. Keriam grinned at the big dog sitting in the passenger seat of her six-year-old Ford pickup. “Whaddaya think, Wolfgang? Is The Treasure Chest the neatest antique shop you’ve ever seen?”
The plumed tail thumped against the door.
“That’s right. It’s been a great day.” She flicked a glance at him. “Well, for me it has. You’re still a lost puppy, aren’t you? But don’t worry. We’ll find your family and, if not, I’ll find you a good home.”
He licked her hand.
“No, you can’t stay with me. You need a family. With a big yard and kids to play with.” She turned onto the long stretch of highway leading out of town. “Janna would take you in a heartbeat but she lives in an apartment. Besides she’d probably deck you out in a frou-frou collar and you don’t look to be the frou-frou type…I know what you’re thinking. I’ve got a big yard, true. But I’m not home a lot and I don’t have kids. You’d get lonely.”
He lay on the seat and rested his head on her thigh. Keriam laughed and dropped her hand onto his silky head. “You’re a charmer, all right. Don’t even think this is permanent, Wolfgang,” she warned. “I don’t have time to take care of a dog, let alone one as big as a house.”
The dog’s tail beat against the seat.
The dog grinned.
Turning her attention back to the road, Keriam made a mental list of what she wanted to accomplish the next day. The first thing, of course, would be to contact the newspaper and place a Found Dog ad. Wolfgang sat up, pressed his nose to the window which Keriam had left open a crack. A low rumble vibrated in his chest.
“Oh, don’t be silly. There’s nothing out there to worry about.” She darted a glance at him. “You’re probably the most dangerous thing for miles around…unless you count Mrs. Kitchen’s Pomeranian…or one of Mr. Mountley’s emus.”
The dog turned his unnerving crystal gaze on her.
“Yeah, I know. You’d make a great watchdog. You don’t have to convince me. But I am not going to get attached to you because we’re going to find your family.”
The problem was she liked animals. Always had. When her folks had been alive, she’d had all kinds of pets. Dogs, cats, chickens, cows–they’d all been her best pals. Even the one obnoxious sow her dad had kept penned had been friendly to her if no one else.
She pulled into the long gravel drive and parked beside the narrow sidewalk leading to the wide wrap-around porch. When Mom and Dad had been alive, the windows had always been bright. The kitchen had always smelled of hot, fresh bread. And, no matter how bad their day had been, they’d always greeted her as if the sun rose in her eyes.
God, she missed them.
Keriam slid out of the truck with Wolfgang right behind her. He stood, nose to the wind, then, satisfied, gave her a broad canine grin. She stroked his silky ears, the slight dome of his head. He responded by tilting his head into the palm of her hand. “What a flirt!”
Wolfgang nuzzled her palm, then slurped it with a wet, doggy kiss. She made another mental promise not to get attached to the big, friendly animal. “Bet you’re hungry. Let me get the kibble and we’ll go inside.”
As she hauled the thirty-pound bag out of the truck bed, the dog gave an uneasy whine. “What? You want to go potty? Well, go ahead. Just so you know, we don’t do that in the house.”
At the mention of potty, the dog looked downright embarrassed. Keriam laughed, shook her head. “Well, you’ve got better manners than the last guy I brought home. I’ll give you that.”
He rumbled a noise that sounded like a highly affronted groan. Keriam carried the bag onto the porch. “Not that Marc was all that bad. He just didn’t understand… Well, never mind that. Whoa! Slow down, Wolfgang. I’ve only got one hand, you know.”
The dog had stood on his hind legs, front feet pressed against the door. He slanted a sideways look at her, woofed softly, and then stared at the door intently. Keriam turned the knob and pushed the door open. Wolfgang leaped inside immediately and Keriam let go of the long lead attached to his collar. “Impatient, aren’t you? Hey, where you going?”
Wolfgang trotted through the kitchen then into the front room. Keriam put the kibble in the corner and flicked on the lights. “Just make yourself at home but remember what I said about deposits on the floor. And no marking the territory either.”
She set about making dinner. Spaghetti sounded good. The phone rang and she picked up the cordless handset. “Hello?… Hello…Last chance, hello.”
When no one answered, she clicked the phone off. “Change your mind before you dial, dummy.”
Wolfgang materialized beside her, his cold nose nuzzling her hand. “Don’t worry, fella. It was just a wrong number.”
She pulled a rug out of the back closet and laid it beside the table. “That’s your bed. You’ll have to eat out of mixing bowls. That’s all I have that’s big enough to hold the amount of food the bag says you’ll need.”
He lifted his nose toward the simmering sauce on the stove. Whined softly. Looked at her. She put her hands on her hips. “No way. Dogs don’t eat spaghetti.”
This one did. He didn’t eat the kibble though.
* * *
When the Stonebearer went upstairs to bed, Eric shifted to his true form and, scowling, scratched an insect bite on his naked hip. This primitive world could try the patience of a Starfarer, let alone that of a warrior. The Stonebearer hadn’t bothered locking the doors. She’d left windows open. Obviously, the woman lacked an ordinary sense of precaution.
He made a circuit of the lower floor, securing both doors and windows. When he heard water running upstairs, he took the opportunity to wash his face and hands in the kitchen sink. The long, thin noodles and thick, spicy sauce she had prepared for dinner had tasted remarkable but had been messy.
After he dried his face and hands, he fetched a glass from the cupboard and poured himself a glass of wine. He couldn’t explore upstairs until she was safely asleep.
The Heartstone had to be here, in this house. Somewhere.
Logic said she would keep it close.
He sipped the wine, padding into the front room to stare out the wide windows. The inky night glittered with sporadic flickers of light. Some kind of flying insect, he supposed, performing some sort of mating ritual.
“I’ll fight the Gawan with sword or blaster, fang or claw,” Eric had told his grandfather and Benamont I’sadhe. “But I will not take a wife.”
Eric pursed his lips. Supposedly the woman upstairs was his long lost Gar’Jael, his soul mate. If one believed in that sort of nonsense. Eric didn’t. And even if he did, he had no room in his life for a mate of any kind. He intended to destroy the Gawan before they destroyed everything he held dear.
For that, he needed the Heartstone.
Not a wife.
* * *
The next day, Eric feigned a canine sleep beside the sales counter in the small antique store. He hadn’t found the Heartstone though he’d searched long into the night. The only room he hadn’t been able to search had been her bedroom. He gusted a frustrated sigh.
She worked alone today, humming to herself as she arranged a display of pink-tinted glass plates. During the morning, a few customers had come in to examine her ancient goods. Nothing had been sold, however. The customers asked for the younger female, Janna, and left when they discovered she wasn’t there. That puzzled Eric.
They had seemed uneasy with the Stonebearer. Without lifting his head from his paws, he eyed the woman. She had done nothing, as far as he could tell, to warrant such an attitude. She had been friendly, though not obsequious as many merchants were. She had pointed out items they might find interesting, then left them alone. He found that refreshing.
The bell tinkled as a man entered and she looked up, a smile of greeting on her lips. As her smile faded, Eric sat up, watching the stranger intently.
“Hello, Keriam.” The man used the Stonebearer’s name but not the honorific and that irritated Eric though he could not say why. The man, clearly hesitant, glanced around the store. “This is nice. You’ve done a good job.”
“Thanks. Interested in Depression glass? I’ve just got some–“
“No,” the man said quickly, then laughed hesitantly. “I’ll tell my mother, though. She might be interested. I just came by to see how you’re doing.”
She folded her arms. “We’re doing good.”
The man stepped closer. He paused, then said, “I’ve been thinking about you. About us.”
Without thought, Eric growled. The low rumble shocked him into silence. The Stonebearer’s gaze flicked toward him, a warning in the blue depths of her eyes. He bristled but subsided. After all, the woman meant nothing more to him than a means to the Heartstone.
Face impassive, the Stonebearer said, “There isn’t any us.”
“What we had…it was good.” He held out his hand. When she didn’t take it, the hand dropped to his side. “I’d like to give us another chance. Look. We both did and said things we regret. I made a mistake, I admit it. Keri, I’d like us to start over. I need you and, I think, you need me.”
The man moved again. His touch was light but the Stonebearer gasped, anxiety cascading over her features. Eric could see the sudden, rapid pulse in her throat, the rigid tension in her body and all his protective instincts surged forward. He lunged, knocking the man back, away from the woman.
The Stonebearer dropped to her knees, grabbing Eric’s collar. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on her face but the color had returned, a little, to her cheeks. “Settle down, Wolfgang.”
“What the hell kind of dog is that?” The man glared at Eric. “You let him wander around in your store, attacking customers, you’ll get a lawsuit against you.”
“If he’d meant to hurt you, you’d be bleeding.” The Stonebearer stood, her hand still holding the collar.
“And calling the cops,” the man added. He shook his head, suddenly, his features settled into a sad mask. “I thought, by now, you’d have gotten help.”
“Maybe it’s just you, Marc, ever think of that?”
“Is it just me? Is there anyone who can touch you without …” His hand cut through the air, a helpless gesture, then he turned facing the door. Halting, he spoke again. “You really should see a psychiatrist. Get help before it’s too late.”
Eric growled, a sound that rolled up from his belly and thundered past his sharp, bared teeth. The man jumped and sidled toward the door. Stiff-legged, Eric followed, head lowered and pulling the Stonebearer with him.
Then, suddenly, her hand touched his shoulder, her smooth voice invaded his senses. “Don’t bite him, fella, unless you’ve had your rabies shots.”
She’d touched him before, but this time his fur lifted, rippled. His senses filled with her, with Keriam. His tongue all but lolled from his mouth as her fingers plunged into the thick ruff at his nape. Her scent, her touch, the sound of her voice cried–mate. His body added–mine. He fought the urge to lean into her touch, to twine himself around her long, straight legs as warnings rang in his mind.
Rottinghell, what kind of power did she have to affect him so? Desperate, he bared his teeth but his growl, meant to warn her off, changed to a soft whine as she danced the tips of her fingers down his spine. He shivered from nose to tail, then inched away from her intoxicating touch.
The coward, Marc, had fled and the store was quiet except for the ticking of an ancient wall clock and Eric’s own panting.
“You scared him off, you darling,” Keriam murmured, holding her hand toward his muzzle. He resisted the urge to touch his tongue to her palm, to allow her to play her fingers over his fur. The warnings became strident.
Gar’Ja bond or no, he had to shield himself from her, had to gain mastery of his emotions and body. When she released him, he ran into the back room, aware that he was as much a coward as Marc.
* * *
The next night, Keriam opened the kitchen door for Wolfgang to come in. “Hey, fella. Have a nice run?”
The big dog trotted to the water bowl, lapped a few half-hearted drinks then went to his rug. He didn’t seem as friendly the last day and a half. Was he sick? Or missing his lost family? Her heart went out to him. She knew how lonely life could be without someone to love or to be loved by. “Poor puppy. I know it’s hard but we’ll find your mom and dad, okay?”
His yawned hugely, then laid his head on his paws. Keriam smiled. “Okay. I get it. Time for bed.”
She stretched, felt her back pop, and yawned. “Good night, Wolfgang.”
The Stonebearer headed into the front room and up the stairs as Eric watched through narrowed eyes. He waited until he heard the shower, then shifted.
He was tired of being a dog. More than that, he was tired of the constant defense he had to erect against the Stonebearer’s attractiveness. He had to get back to Antiare. Had to stop the Gawan invasion. Had to find the Heartstone.
It wasn’t here. For two nights, he’d looked. Gone through cupboards and closets. Checked in drawers and boxes. He’d even searched her bedroom but she, a light sleeper, had awakened and he’d had to shift back into his canid form.
She’d thought he needed to go outside.
Aye, he was tired of being a dog.
He wanted a shower, clothes and the right to sit down and eat a hot meal. Using a fork and knife.
He wanted to converse with her as an equal. He wanted…damn it, he wanted to kiss her as a man.
He slapped a fist against his thigh. Forget that. He needed to find the Heartstone before it was too late.
Upstairs, the Stonebearer went into her bedroom. A few minutes later, the bedsprings squeaked as she got in bed.
Earlier, he’d seen her operate the safe in her shop. Could she have hidden the Stone there? There was only one way to know for certain. Rifling through her purse, he found the key to the store. He removed it from the key ring and pushed a rubber band into its top hole.
For a moment he paused, not liking the idea of leaving her unprotected. But his duty was clear. Find the Heartstone. Stop the Gawan. Save his world. He opened the kitchen door and slipped out. The night air had cooled, quieted with sleep.
Holding the rubber band between his lips, he removed the dog collar and, dropping it, spread his arms wide. He shifted.
As a large, black raptor, he took wing, flying due east.