For over a thousand years — so legend has it — the brambles have grown wild over the ruins of Dunhelm Castle. Many believed that the thorns were a sign that the castle was cursed, so no one dared to trespass, and the secrets that they protected and concealed have remained hidden — until now…
Armed with a pair of gardening shears, Baird Beauforte is determined to clear away the brambles that hinder the development of his resort, and he won’t let local superstition deter him. Dunhelm Castle is supposed to be the latest jewel in the Beauforte Resort chain, but the renovations can’t be finished if the workmen are frightened of a so-called curse. To dispel any lingering fears, Baird decides to vanquish the briars himself. What he never expects is to find a mysterious slumbering beauty…
Aurelia is like no one he has ever met before. Upon awakening, she demands to know his identity and why he is in her father’s castle! Bemused by he claim of being a king’s daughter, he is certain he has never met this “princess” before, although something about her rouses a haunting sense of familiarity. Soon, dreams plague this by-the-book businessman… dreams that feel more like memories. And Baird begins to wonder if he can claim his heart’s princess — now and forever — with a kiss.
Colorado Romance Writers’ Award of Excellence
for Best Paranormal, Fantasy or Time Travel Romance
The Toronto Star
An excerpt from Once Upon a Kiss:
Dunhelm Castle, Scotland
March A.D. 800
“Ships!” The sentry’s hoarse cry carried over the heavy walls and made every inhabitant look up with alarm. “Ships on the horizon!”
Aurelia crouched lower as her father darted up a ladder with the agility of a man much younger than his own fifty summers. Hekod’s long golden hair, now lined with silver, lifted in the stiff sea breeze as he reached the summit, his feet braced against the stone.
Aurelia pulled her hood further over her face. The last thing she needed was for her father to guess of her disobedience after they had argued so long over her role. She watched her father’s expression avidly from below, her mouth so dry that she could barely swallow.
Was it Bard, son of Erc, who came to take his avowed revenge?
Or had her father’s Viking relations arrived with aid?
Hekod’s expression turned grim as he scanned the seas. He swore with rare eloquence and Aurelia’s heart sank, the truth clear before he even spoke.
Hekod’s eyes blazed like sapphires as he pivoted to address his men. “That can be no Viking sail!” he roared. “Bard, son of Erc, dares to attack Dunhelm! To arms! To arms!”
With those words, chaos erupted.
The ladders leaning against the defensive wall creaked with the warriors’ haste to climb to the summit. Swords caught the sunlight as they were unsheathed, the freshly honed blades of battle axes gleamed dangerously.
Prayers were muttered and amulets kissed. Helmets were donned and leather jerkins laced among the Viking warriors, while the Picts boldly bared their tattooed flesh.
“The murderous swine dares to tempt a father’s wrath!” Hekod raged above the confusion, waving his own sword high in the air. The men stamped their feet in support. “Let him taste the bite of my blade!” The warriors bellowed. “Like father, like son, say I. Let Bard meet the Nairns by my hand as did his sire before him!”
The fighting men shouted their approval of this sentiment. The war horns were blown in a cacophony of sound and all attention turned to the sea.
Aurelia took advantage of the moment to dive out of her hiding place and hastily retrieve her bow. Her heart was pounding with the threat of discovery as she discarded the cloak that had hidden her garb this morning. The tunic beneath was purposefully short, the leggings and boots practical garb that Aurelia had worn little since her sire determined her to be of marriageable age.
Evidently, in her father’s mind, even marriageable Viking women did not wear short tunics or shoot crossbows.
But Aurelia knew the defense of her home was more important than mere modesty and protocol, whatever Hekod’s views to the contrary.
She tossed her long fair braid over her shoulder as she turned, standing as tall as a woman of tiny stature could. Aurelia was ready to face opposition, yet found none aware of what she had done.
Perfect. There was no time to waste on such nonsense, at any rate.
Aurelia simply could not sit by when all she held dear hung in the balance. Even her sire could not dispute that she was the best archer in Dunhelm – and Aurelia’s duty could be nowhere else but in the defense of her home.
Hekod was not the only one who thirsted for vengeance, after all. It was no small thing for Aurelia to carry the proud legacy of Viking blood and, to her mind, Hekod – the Viking responsible for that mingled blood – should have understood.
Aurelia scrambled up the ladder and posted herself a goodly distance away from her perceptive sire. The men on either side of her did not even warrant her arrival worth a questioning glance. Aurelia lifted her face to the sea, triumphant at her success thus far, but her heart trembled at what she saw.
A trio of ships crested the brilliant blue of the seas, their prows cutting through the waves with a purpose that could not be denied. Not one, but three ships came to battle!
These certainly were not the graceful Viking ships that all had hoped would arrive at Dunhelm first. These vessels were all of diverse and humble origins, their rigging cobbled and patched, their paint chipped and their hulls devoid of ornamentation.
Such sorry craft befitted a thieving vagrant like Bard, son of Erc. A dark hatred filled Aurelia’s heart and a tear blurred her vision as she recalled how this loathsome man had deceived her sole brother.
If Aurelia had anything to say about the matter, Bard, son of Erc, would not survive this day. She looked to her sire and saw the same grim determination harden his weathered visage.
The waves pounded on the wooden hulls of the ships as they drew near, the wind snapped the sails. Two men leapt from the lead ship and hauled it in toward shore, the waves coming above their waists. The individual men aboard the ships become distinguishable as the craft were drawn closer.
Aurelia was dismayed to see how numerous they truly were. The deck of each ship fairly bristled with weaponry.
There was a strange interval of silence on the walls in this moment, as though all looked into their hearts in the face of such odds and understood that this day would change their very lives. Many would not survive this battle, Aurelia knew, for Bard brought greater forces than anticipated. And without the Vikings to swell their ranks, Hekod’s forces would be hard-pressed to hold Dunhelm.
Aurelia knew she was not the only one to wonder at their chances.
“Bard, son of Erc, is mine alone,” Hekod declared coldly. The silence was such that his voice carried along the entire wall, the dark menace of his tone sending a shiver down every spine.
Aurelia had the sudden thought that the first strike could be telling. A quick gain for Hekod’s side could lift the spirits of Dunhelm’s troops. Aurelia knew enough of war to understand that that alone could send them surging to victory.
Without questioning her impulse, Aurelia loaded an arrow into her crossbow, silently beseeched the Goddess for favor, aimed and fired.
The arrow whistled through the air and was quickly lost in the sun. It buried itself with a barely audible thump as Aurelia strained to discern its landing point.
A heartbeat later, one of the men hauling the lead ship faltered, then fell into the blue of the sea.
He did not stand again. The end of the rope he had held trailed away into the waves, his alarmed partner missed a step before boldly surging forward again.
The men on the walls of Dunhelm cheered boisterously. Bard’s forces launched a volley of arrows that fell far short of the stone walls. Aurelia felt a surge of victory before her sire’s voice boomed across the ramparts.
Too late Aurelia realized that the accuracy of the shot betrayed her hand.
All eyes pivoted to Aurelia when Hekod spotted her and glared dangerously. Aurelia stubbornly held her ground.
Hekod muttered a curse, then pushed aside warrior and mercenary as he carved a path along the wall to his errant daughter.
And Aurelia knew she would not have another chance to fire a shot. She had to make this fleeting moment count!
The men around her murmured in dismay, but Aurelia quickly fitted another arrow and lifted her crossbow to aim once more.
She squinted and adjusted her sight on the second man in the sea. He had taken an uneven gait, presumably to foil her efforts. Precious moments passed before Aurelia was satisfied with her aim.
Just as she was about to let the shot fly, heavy hands landed on her shoulders. Aurelia jumped and lost her sight, her fingers fumbled with the arrow.
Pain burned in her left thumb. The sensation was hot enough to bring tears to her eyes.
“Aurelia!” Hekod cried out in dismay.
In that instant, a curious glow swirled around Aurelia. Everything around her seemed enveloped in shimmering silver, distant and unworldly. Aurelia herself felt buoyed by nothingness in a most unnatural way. It was as though she had been surrounded by a glittering fog.
Gods and goddesses! What was happening to her?
Aurelia glanced to her father, only to find him as ethereal as all else around her. His anger was gone, dissipated as quickly as it burned bright, and now his features were lined with concern.
“The prophecy!” he murmured hoarsely and his grip tightened on her shoulders. “It was true, after all!”
Aurelia tried to laugh at such foolishness but failed. The swirling gossamer haze had eclipsed the pain so thoroughly that Aurelia felt as unsubstantial as a morning mist. In fact, she tingled lightly all over. Aurelia had the strange sense that if her father let go of her shoulders, she would swept away to forever in the blink of an eye.
“It is only the loss of the blood that ails me,” she managed to say. Aurelia frowned, feeling as though the cloud had numbed her reason as well. Had she felt so odd when wounded before?
Hekod lifted his daughter’s wounded hand, his great paw gently cradling Aurelia’s much smaller fingers. “But, Aurelia, there is no blood.”
No blood? There must be!
But when Aurelia looked at her hand, she saw that Hekod was right. The arrow had fallen away, leaving behind no more than a gaping hole in Aurelia’s left thumb.
Right in the middle of the whorl, just as the prophecy made so long ago had clearly declared. And her very fingers sparkled against her father’s lined palm, as though she was wrought of something other than flesh and blood.
Aurelia blinked, unable to accept the evidence before her own eyes. The prophecy was a lie, after all!
But before Aurelia could argue, the whirling iridescent cocoon surrounded her and caressed her, lifted her so high that she could not even feel the weight of her father’s hands, let alone see the troubled blue of his eyes.
She could not leave him! She would not leave him!
But Aurelia was to have no choice. She faintly heard the clash of steel on steel, she struggled to join the fight to defend Dunhelm, but felt herself swept away. She could see nothing but thousands of shimmering lights dancing all around her.
And then Aurelia knew no more.
* * *
March – present day
The thorny brambles had no chance.
The hedge clippers Baird had borrowed from the groundskeeper were fiercely sharp and he wielded them with characteristic determination. The brambles, though, refused to surrender without a fight. Baird had never seen brambles grow so big, so tangled or so robust.
They must be ancient, like everything else at Dunhelm Castle.
Another massive thorn bit at him and Baird cursed under his breath. No wonder the groundskeeper had refused to clear this corner! Talorc could blame local superstition but the truth was that he was just avoiding a miserable job.
It was raining this morning, as it had rained every day since his arrival at his new holding, but the light drizzle didn’t bother Baird. He was getting used to Scotland’s wide variety of rains, as well as the national refusal to let poor weather change plans for the day. After all, the skies could change in the blink of an eye.
What wasn’t changing was the way Baird felt at Dunhelm, and he wasn’t having an easy time getting used to that. He felt as though nothing else mattered in the world except Dunhelm and his being here.
Baird felt at home in the old ruins.
For a man who had never had a home, who had been certain he never wanted one, and who had always made a point of not settling anywhere for any length of time, this was more than unusual.
It was downright weird.
Baird meant to put a stop to Dunhelm’s strange effect on him, and he was going to do it today.
Dunhelm Castle – or what remained of it – occupied a jagged point of an island dropped into the misty gray of the North Sea. Although the grass was as level as a bowling lawn where Baird worked, rocky cliffs fell unevenly to the crashing sea beyond the encircling stone walls. There was a beach on the east side of the peninsula, though the wind was cold enough to flay the skin of anyone foolish enough to swim there.
All around Baird were the walls, the crumbled ruins that once had been towers and halls and kitchens. The wind from the west whistled through the ruins, and at dusk, the castle seemed alive with whispers of forgotten times. Baird did not consider himself an imaginative man, but Dunhelm seemed to pulse with the heartbeats of all the people who had lived here over the millennia.
He wondered whether it was the age of the place that entranced him. Certainly, he had never owned anything a thousand years old. And he couldn’t think of any other reason why one sight of Dunhelm had been enough for him to make his decision. It was almost as though he recognized the castle from some long-forgotten dream.
But that would have been irrational and Baird Beauforte was a supremely logical man.
All the same, from that very first glance, Baird had known that this was the property for Beauforte Resorts to establish its toehold in the European market. He told himself that this was finely honed instinct at work, an understanding of the market based on years of experience. A logical recognition of opportunity.
But even to Baird’s own ears, that claim was beginning to ring hollow.
One thing was for sure – Baird had never felt such satisfaction in signing his name to the contract that would make a property his own.
It was good that he was so committed to this place, for Dunhelm was the largest renovation Beauforte Resorts had ever undertaken.
And by far the most expensive.
But all the costs of restoration would be worth it. Dunhelm would be spectacular, the crown jewel of the Beauforte chain. Already the main circular tower rose restored behind Baird and the restaurant at the top – with its panoramic view – was being roughed in.
The massive wrought iron double gates Baird had commissioned had been installed just the day before. They were the perfect accent to the long stone wall that marked the perimeter of the property and cut the peninsula off from the rest of the world. The Beauforte Resort logo was forged into the gates and dramatically silhouetted against the sky before the approaching visitor.
The work was a bit behind schedule, but Baird’s vision of Dunhelm was taking shape. There was no reason why he shouldn’t leave this job in the capable hands of his staff, as usual.
Except that he couldn’t bring himself to leave Dunhelm.
Even worse, he wasn’t sure why.
This tangled mound of briars had aroused Baird’s curiosity from his first tour of the property. His interest was only strengthened by Talorc’s and every other local workman’s refusal to go near the briars.
Not one to back away from a challenge, especially with no reason other than superstition to do so, Baird had taken the task of cutting back the thorns himself.
He was sure that revealing Dunhelm’s every hidden corner to the pale sunlight would loosen the place’s hold over him. After all, this was the last part of the estate still hidden away. And he had always liked to solve puzzles.
That must be at the root of his fascination with this place. Once he cleared the thorns, Baird was sure that all mysteries would be solved. Then Dunhelm’s grip over him would vanish.
Every fallen bough fed his conviction. Baird had to conquer these thorns, and he had to do it today.
©1998, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.