Jewels of the Sun



  pound, her vision to blur as it had that first time at Maude’s grave.

  She said his name, just one sigh, then threw her arms around him.

  The jolt rocked him to the soles of his feet, the sudden heat, the abrupt burst of power that whipped out of her and snaked around him like rope.

  His hands streaked up, over her hips, her back, into her hair to grip hard and fast. The kiss changed from a coy brush and nibble to a wild war of tongues and teeth and lips where body strained to body and pulse thundered against pulse.

  In that warm cascade of sensation, she lost herself. Or perhaps she found the Jude that had been trapped inside her—like a voice locked in a silver box.

  Later, she would swear she heard the stones sing.

  She buried her face in the curve of his neck and gulped in the scent of him like water.

  “This is too fast.” Even as she said it she locked her arms around him. “I can’t breathe, I can’t think. I can’t believe what’s going on inside my body.”

  He gave a weak laugh and nuzzled her hair. “If it’s anything to what’s going on inside mine, we’re likely to explode any second here. Darling, we could be back at the cottage in minutes, and I’d have you in bed in the blink of an eye. I promise you we’d both feel a good deal better for it.”

  “I’m sure you’re right, but I—”

  “Can’t go quite that fast, or you wouldn’t be Jude.”

  Though it cost him, he drew her back to study her face. More than pretty, he thought now, but solid as well. Why was it, he wondered, she didn’t seem to know just how pretty or just how solid she was?

  Because she didn’t, more time and more care were needed.

  “And I like Jude, as I’ve said before. You need some courting.”

  She couldn’t say if she was stunned, amused, or insulted. “I certainly don’t.”

  “Oh, but you do. You want flowers and words, and stolen kisses and walks in soft weather. It’s romance Jude Frances wants, and I’m the one to give it to you. Well, now, look at that face.” He caught her by the chin as an adult might a sulky child, and she decided insult won. “You’re pouting now.”

  “I certainly am not.” She would have jerked her face free, but he tightened his grip, then leaned down and kissed her firm on the mouth.

  “I’m the one who’s looking at you, sweetheart, and if that’s not a fine pout, I’m a Scotsman. It’s that you’re thinking I’m making fun of you, but I’m not, or not much anyway. What’s wrong with romance then? I’d like some myself.”

  His voice went warm and rich, like whiskey by the fire. “Will you give me long looks and warm smiles from across the room, and the brush of your hand on my arm? A hot, desperate kiss in the shadows? A touch”—he skimmed his fingertips over the curve of her breast and all but stopped her heart—“in secret?”

  “I didn’t come here looking for romance.”

  Hadn’t she? he thought. With her myths and legends and tales. “Looking or not, you’ll have it.” On that score his mind was made up. “And when I make love with you, the first time, it’ll be long and slow and sweet. That’s a promise. Walk back with me now, before the way you’re looking at me makes me break that promise as soon as I’ve made it.”

  “You just want to be in charge. In control of the situation.”

  He took her hand again in the friendliest and most annoying of manners. “I suppose I’m accustomed to being so. But if you want to take over and seduce me, darling Jude, I can promise to be weak and willing.”

  She laughed, damn it, before she could stop herself. “I’m sure we both have work to do.”

  “But you’ll come see me,” he continued as they walked. “You’ll sit and have a glass of wine in my pub so I can look at you and suffer.”

  “God, you’re Irish,” she whispered.

  “To the bone.” He lifted her hand and nipped her knuckle. “And Jude, by the way, you’re damn good at kissing.”

  “Hmmm,” was the safest response she could think of.

  But she went to the pub, and sat and listened to stories. Over the next days as spring took a firmer hold on Ardmore, Jude could often be found at the pub for an hour or two in the evening, or the afternoon. She listened, recorded, took notes. And as the word spread, others with stories came to tell them, or to be entertained by them.

  She filled tapes and reams of pages and dutifully transcribed and analyzed them at her computer while she sipped at what was becoming her habitual cup of tea.

  If sometimes she dreamed herself into the stories of romance and magic, she thought it harmless enough. Even useful if she stretched things a bit. After all, she could understand the meanings and the motives all the better if the stories and the actions in them became more personal.

  It wasn’t as if she was going to waste time actually writing it that way. An academic paper had no room for fancies or fantasies. She was only exploring until she found the core of her thesis, then she’d tidy up the language and delete the ramblings.

  What the hell are you going to do with it, Jude? she asked herself. What do you really think you’re going to do even if you polish and perfect and hammer it until it’s dry as dust? Try to have it published in some professional journal absolutely no one reads for pleasure? Use it to try to kick off a lecture tour?

  Oh, the idea of that happening, however remote the possibility, felt like an entire troop of Boy Scouts tying knots in her stomach.

  For an instant she nearly buried her face in her hands and gave in to despair. Nothing was ever going to come of this paper, this project. It was self-defeating to believe differently. No one was ever going to stand around at a faculty function and discuss the insights and interests of Jude F. Murray’s paper. Worse, she didn’t want them to.

  It was no more than a kind of therapy, a way to pull her back from the edge of a crisis she couldn’t even identify.

  What good had all those years of study and work accomplished if she couldn’t even find the right terms for her own crises?

  Poor self-esteem, bruised ego, a lack of belief in her own femininity, career dissatisfaction.

  But what was under all of that? Really under it. Blurred identity? she mused. Maybe that was part of it. She’d lost herself somewhere along the line until whatever was left, whatever she’d been able to recognize, had been so pale, so unattractive, that she’d run from it.

  To what?

  Here, she thought and was more than a little surprised to realize that her fingers were racing over the keyboard, her thoughts were speeding out of her head and onto the page.

  I ran here, and here I feel somehow more real, certainly more at home than I ever did in the house William and I bought, or the condo I moved into after he’d grown tired of me. Certainly more at home than in the classroom.

  Oh, God, oh, God, I hated the classroom. Why couldn’t I ever admit it, just say it out loud? I don’t want to do this, don’t want to be this. I want something else. Nearly anything else would do.

  How did I become such a coward, and worse, so pitifully boring? Why do I, even now with no one to answer to but myself, question this project when it pleases me so much? When it gives me such satisfaction. Can’t I, just for this little piece of time, indulge myself with something that doesn’t have any solid, guaranteed-practical purpose or goal?

  If it’s therapy, it’s time I let it work. It’s not doing any harm. In fact, I think—I hope—it’s doing me some good. I feel attracted to the writing. That’s an odd term to use, but it fits. Writing attracts me, the mystery of it, the way words fit together on a page to make an image or a point or just to be there, sounding.

  Seeing my own words on the page is thrilling. There’s a wonderful kind of conceit in reading them, knowing they’re mine. Part of that terrifies me because it’s so incredibly exciting. For so much of my life I’ve turned away, backed away, hidden away from anything that’s frightening. Even when it is thrilling as well.

  I want to feel substantial again.
I yearn for confidence. And under it all, I have a deep and nearly crushed-out delight in the fantastic. How it was nearly crushed and by whom isn’t really important. Not now that I find the glimmer of it’s still there, inside me. Enough of a glimmer for me to be able to write, at least in secret, that I want to believe in the legends, in the myths, in the faeries and the ghosts. What harm is there in that? It can’t possibly hurt me.

  No, she thought, leaning back again, resting her hands in her lap. Of course it can’t hurt me. It’s harmless and it makes me wonder. It’s been too long since I really let myself wonder.

  Letting out a long breath, she closed her eyes and felt nothing but the sweetness of relief. “I’m so glad I came here,” she said aloud.

  She rose to look out the window, satisfied that she’d used her writing to fight off the threat of despair. Her days here, nights here, were soothing some threatening storm inside her. These little moments of joy were precious.

  She turned away from the window, wanting the air and the outdoors. There she would ponder the other aspect of her new life.

  Aidan Gallagher, she thought. Gorgeous, somehow exotic, and inexplicably interested in solid, sensible Jude F. Murray. Talk about the fantastic.

  Perhaps the time spent with Aidan wasn’t quite so soothing, she admitted, though she was careful enough to arrange things so they were never alone. Still, the lack of privacy didn’t stop him from flirting, from indulging himself in those long looks he’d spoken of, or the slow, secret smiles, the lazy brush of a hand over her arm, her hair, her cheek.

  And what was wrong with that? she asked herself as she carried a fresh bouquet of flowers over the hill to Maude’s grave. Every woman was entitled to a flirtation. Maybe, unlike the blossoms in her hand, she was a slow bloomer, but better late than never.

  She badly wanted to bloom. The idea of it was as thrilling, as frightening, as exciting as writing.

  Wasn’t it wonderful to discover that she liked being flirted with, being looked at as if she was pretty and desirable. For God’s sake, if she stayed in Ireland the full six months, she’d be thirty before she saw Chicago again, so it was high time she felt pretty, wasn’t it?

  Her own husband had never flirted with her. And if memory served, his highest compliment on her appearance had been telling her she looked quite nice.

  “A woman doesn’t want to be told she looks nice,” Jude muttered as she sat down beside Maude’s grave. “She wants to be told she’s beautiful, sexy. That she looks outrageous. It doesn’t matter if it’s not true.” She sighed and laid the flowers against the headstone. “Because for the moment, when the words are said and the words are heard, it’s perfect truth.”

  “Then may I say you’re as lovely as the flowers you carry on this fine day, Jude Frances.”

  She looked up quickly and into the bold blue eyes of the man she’d met once before in this same spot. Eyes, she thought uneasily, that she so often saw in dreams. “You move quietly.”

  “It’s a place for a quiet step.” He crouched down with the soft grass and bright flowers adorning Maude’s grave between them.

  The water of the ancient well murmured like a pagan chant.

  “And how are you faring in Faerie Hill Cottage?”

  “Very well. Do you have family here?”

  His bright eyes clouded as they skimmed over the stones and high grass. “I have those I remember, and who remember me. I once loved a maid and would have offered her everything I had. But I forgot to offer her my heart first and last. Forgot to give her the words.”

  When he looked up, his expression was more quizzical than confident. “Words are important to a woman, aren’t they?”

  “Words are important, to everyone. When they’re not said, they leave holes.” Deep, dark holes, Jude thought now, where doubts and failures breed. Unsaid words were as painful as slaps.

  “Ah, but if the man you’d married had said them to you, you wouldn’t be here today, would you now?” When she blinked at him in shock, he only smirked. “He wouldn’t have meant them, so they would have just been convenient lies. You already know he wasn’t the one for you.”

  A little lick of fear worked up her spine. No, not fear, she realized, breathless. A thrill. “How do you know about William?”

  “I know about this, and I know about that.” He smiled again, easily. “I wonder why you take upon yourself the blame for something that wasn’t your doing. But then, women have always been a charming puzzle to me.”

  She supposed her grandmother had spoken to Maude, and Maude to this man, though she didn’t care for the fact that her personal life, and embarrassments, had been discussed over the teapot by strangers. “I can’t imagine that my marriage and its failure is of particular interest to you.”

  If the cold chill in her voice affected him, his breezy shrug didn’t show it. “Well, I’ve always been a selfish sort, and in the long scheme of things what you’ve done and do may have bearing on what I most want. But I apologize if I’ve offended you. As I said, women are puzzles to me.”

  “I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

  “It does as long as you let it. I wonder if you would answer a question for me?”

  “Depends on the question.”

  “It seems a simple one to me, but again, it’s a woman’s perspective I’m wanting. Would you tell me, Jude, if you’d rather a handful of jewels, such as this . . .”

  He turned over an elegant hand, and mounded in it was the blinding brilliance of diamonds and sapphires, the aching gleam of creamy pearls.

  “My God, how—”

  “Would you take them as they’re offered from the man who knows he holds your heart, or would you rather the words?”

  Dazzled, she lifted her head. The fire and spark still sheened her vision, but she saw how dark, how fiercely intent was his gaze as he studied her. She said the first thing that came into her head, because it seemed the only thing.

  “What are the words?”

  And he sighed, long and deep, his proud shoulders slumping, his eyes going soft and sad. “So it’s true, then, they matter so much. And these . . .”

  He opened his fingers and let the shimmer, the fire, the glow of the stones sift through and sprinkle over the grave. “Are nothing but pride.”

  She watched, her breath coming short, her head going light, as the jewels melted into puddles of color, and those puddles sprang into simple young flowers.

  “I’m dreaming,” she said softly, while her head reeled. “I’ve fallen asleep.”

  “You’re awake if you’ll let yourself be.” He spoke sharply now, with an impatience ripe and ready. “Look beyond your nose for a change, woman, and listen. Magic is. But its power is nothing beside love. It’s a hard lesson I’ve learned, and a long time it’s taken me to learn it. Don’t make the same mistake. More than your own heart lies on the line now.”

  He got to his feet while she stood frozen. On his hand the stone he wore shot sparks, and it seemed his skin began to glow.

  “Finn save me, I’ve to depend on a mortal to begin it all, and a Yank at that. Magic is,” he said again. “So look at it, and deal with it.”

  He shot her one last look of smoldering impatience, lifted both hands toward the sky in a sweeping gesture of drama. And vanished into the air.

  Dreaming, she thought giddily as she staggered to her feet. Hallucinating. It was all the time she was spending listening to fairy tales, all the time she spent alone in the cottage reviewing them. She’d told herself they were harmless, but obviously they’d pushed her over some edge.

  She stared down at the grave, the new flowers in their colorful dance over the mound. When a flash caught her eye, she bent down, reached carefully among the pretty petals, and plucked out a diamond as big as a quarter.

  Real, she thought, struggling to steady her breathing. She could see it, feel the shape and the cold heat it held inside.

  She was either crazy, or she’d just had her second conversation with Carrick
, prince of the faeries.

  Shivering, she rubbed her free hand over her face. Okay, either way she was crazy.

  Then why did she feel so damn good?

  She walked slowly, fingering the priceless jewel as a child might a pretty stone. She needed to write it all down, she decided. Carefully, concisely. Exactly how he’d looked, what he’d said, what had happened.

  And after that, she would try to get some sort of perspective on it. She was an educated woman. Surely she would find a way to make sense of it all.

  When she came down the slope toward her cottage, she saw the little blue car in the drive and Darcy Gallagher just getting out.

  Darcy was wearing jeans and a bright red sweater. Her hair tumbled down her back like wild black silk. One glance had Jude sighing with envy even as she cautiously tucked the diamond into the pocket of her slacks.

  To once, she thought—just once—look that carelessly gorgeous, that absolutely confident. She fingered the jewel absently and thought it would be worth the price of diamonds.

  Darcy spotted her and shaded her eyes with the flat of one hand while she waved with the other. “There you are. Out for a walk, are you? It’s a fine day for it, even if they’re calling for rain tonight.”

  “I’ve been visiting Maude.” And I talked to a faerie prince who left me a diamond that could probably buy a small Third World country before he vanished into thin air. With a weak smile, Jude decided she’d keep that little bit of information to herself.

  “I just went a couple rounds with Shawn and took a drive to cool off.” Darcy skimmed her gaze over Jude’s shoes, casually, she hoped, to try to gauge how close in size they were to what she wore herself. The woman, Darcy thought, had fabulous taste in shoes. “You’re looking a bit pale,” she noted when Jude walked closer. “Are you all right?”

  “Yes, I’m fine.” Self-consciously, she pushed at her hair. The breeze had teased strands out of the band. Which, she thought, would make her look unkempt rather than wonderfully tousled like Darcy. “Why don’t we go in and have some tea?”

  “Oh, that would be nice, but I’ve got to get back. Aidan’ll already be cursing me.” She smiled then, a dazzle of charm. “Maybe you’d like to come back with me for a time, and then he’d be distracted with you and forget to skin my ass for walking out.”

  “Well, I . . .” No, she thought, she didn’t think she was up to dealing with Aidan Gallagher when her head was already light. “I really should work. I have notes to go over.”

  Darcy pursed her lips. “You really enjoy it, don’t you? Working.”

  “Yes.” Surprise, surprise, Jude thought. “I enjoy the work I’m doing now very much.”

  “If it was me, I’d find any excuse in the world to avoid working.” Her brilliant gaze scanned the cottage, the gardens, the long roll of hill. “And I’d die of loneliness out here all by myself.”

  “Oh, no, it’s wonderful. The quiet, the view. Everything.”

  Darcy shrugged, a quick gesture of discontent. “But then you’ve got Chicago to go back to.”

  Jude’s smile faded. “Yes. I have Chicago to go back to.”

  “I’m going to see it one day.” Darcy leaned back against her car. “All the big cities in America. All the big cities everywhere. And when I do, I’ll be going first class, make no mistake.” Then she laughed and shook her head. “But for now, I’d best be getting back before Aidan devises some hideous punishment for me.”

  “I hope you’ll come back when you have more time.”

  Darcy shot her that dazzling look again as she climbed into her car. “I’ve the night off, thank the Lord. I’ll come by with Brenna later, and we’ll see what kind of trouble we can get you in. You make me think you could use a bit of trouble.”

  Jude opened her mouth without a clue how to respond, but was saved the trouble when Darcy gunned the motor and shot out into the road with scarcely more care than Brenna took.

  NINE

  T HERE ARE THREE maids, Jude wrote, as she nibbled on a shortbread biscuit, and each represents some particular facet of traditionally held views of womanhood. In some tales two are wicked and one good, as in the Cinderella myth. In others, the three are blood sisters or fast friends, poor and orphaned or caring for one sickly parent.

  Some variations have one or more of the female characters possessing mystical powers. In nearly all, the maidens are beautiful beyond description. Virtue, i.e., virginity, is vital, indicating that innocence of physical sexuality is an essential ingredient to the building of legend.

  Innocence, a quest, monetary poverty, physical beauty. These elements repeat themselves in a number of perpetuated tales that become, over generations, legends. The interference, for good or ill, of beings from the otherworld—so to speak—is another common element. The mortal or mortals in the story have a moral lesson to learn or a reward to glean from their selfless behavior.

  Almost as often simple beauty and innocence are equally rewarded.