Jewels of the Sun

  “You didn’t bring me flowers.” But she stepped back to let him come inside and drip.

  “I’ll see that I do next time. You’ve been cleaning. The house smells of lemon oil, a nice, homey scent. If you get me a rag, I’ll wipe up this wet I’m tracking in to your nice, clean house.”

  “I’ll take care of it. I have to go up and get my tape recorder and so forth. We’ll work in the kitchen. You can just go ahead back.”

  “All right, then.” His hand closed over hers, making her frown. Then he slipped the flowers out of her fingers. “I’ll put these in something for you so they don’t look quite so pitiful.”

  “Thank you.” The stiffly polite tone was the only defense she could come up with against six feet of wet, charming male in her hallway. “I’ll only be a minute.”

  She was barely longer than that, but when she walked into the kitchen he already had the flowers in one of Maude’s bottles and was handily brewing a pot of tea.

  “I started a fire there in your hearth to take the chill off. That all right, then?”

  “Of course.” And she tried not to be annoyed that every one of the tasks he’d done took her three times as long to accomplish. “Have a seat. I’ll pour the tea.”

  “Ah, it needs to steep a bit yet.”

  “I knew that.” She mumbled it as she opened a cupboard for cups and saucers. “We make tea in America, too.” She turned back, set the cups on the table, then hissed out a breath. “Stop staring at me.”

  “Sorry, but you’re pretty when you’re all flustered and your hair’s falling down.”

  Mutiny ripe in her eyes, she jammed pins back in violently enough to drill them into her scalp. “Perhaps I should make myself clear. This is an intellectual arrangement.”

  “Intellectual.” Wisely he controlled the grin and kept his face sober. “Sure it’s a fine thing to have an interest in each other’s minds. You’ve a strong one, I suspect. Telling you you’re pretty doesn’t change that a bit, does it?”

  “I’m not pretty and I don’t need to hear it. So if we can just get started?”

  He took a seat because she did, then cocked his head again. “You believe that, don’t you? Well, now, that’s interesting, on an intellectual level.”

  “We’re not here to talk about me. My impression was that you have a certain skill as a storyteller and are familiar with some of the myths and legends particular to this area.”

  “I know some tales.” When her voice went prim that way it just made him want to lap at her, starting anywhere at all. So he leaned back in his chair. If it was intellectual she wanted, he figured they could begin with that . . . then move along.

  “Some you may know already, in one form or another. The oral history of a place may shift here and there from teller to teller, but the heart of it remains steady. The shape-shifter is told one way by the Native Americans, another by the villagers of Romania, and still another by the people of Ireland. But the same threads weave through.”

  While she continued to frown, he lifted the pot to pour the tea himself. “You have Santa and Father Christmas and Kris Kringle—one may come down the chimney, another fills shoes with candy, but the basis of the legend has its roots in the same place. Because it does, time after time, country after country, the intellect comes to the conclusion that the myth has its core in fact.”

  “You believe in Santa Claus.”

  His eyes met hers as he set the pot down again. “I believe in magic, and that the best of it, the most true of it, is in the heart. You’ve been here some days now, Jude Frances. Have you felt no magic?”

  “Atmosphere,” she began, and turned her recorder on. “The atmosphere in this country is certainly conducive to the forming of myths and the perpetuation of them, from paganism with its small shrines and sacrifices to the gods, Celtic folklore with its warnings and rewards and the addition of culture seeded in through the invasions of the Vikings, the Normans, and so on.”

  “It’s the place,” Aidan disagreed. “Not the people who tried to conquer it. It’s the land, the hills and rock. It’s the air. And the blood that seeped into all of it in the fight to keep it. ’Tis the Irish who absorbed the Vikings, the Normans, and so on, not the other way around.”

  There was pride there that she understood and respected. “The fact remains that these people came to this island, that they mated with the women here, passed down their seed, and brought with them their superstitions and beliefs. Ireland absorbed them, too.”

  “Which came first, the tale or the teller? Is that part of your study then?”

  He was quick, she thought. A sharp mind and a clever tongue. “You can’t study one without studying the other. Who tells and why, as much as what’s told.”

  “All right, I’ll tell you a story that was told to me by my grandda, and to him by his father, and his by his for as far back as any knows, for there have been Gallaghers on this coast and in these hills for longer than time remembers.”

  “The story came down paternally?” Jude interrupted and was met with that quirked brow. “Very often stories come down the generations through the mother.”

  “True enough, but the bards and harpists of Ireland were traditionally male, and it’s said one was a Gallagher who wandered to this place singing his stories for coin and ale, that he saw some of what I’ll tell you with his own eyes, heard the rest from the lips of Carrick, prince of the faeries, and from that told the story himself to all who cared to listen.”

  He paused, noting the amused interest in Jude’s eyes. Then began. “There was a maid known as Gwen. She was of humble birth but a lady in her heart and in her manner. She had hair as pale as winter sunlight, and eyes as green as moss. Her beauty was known throughout the land, and though she carried herself with pride, for she had a slim and pleasing form, she was a modest maid who, as her blessed mother had died in the birthing of her, kept the tidy cottage for her aging father. She did as she was bid and what was expected and was never heard to complain. Though she was seen, from time to time, walking on the cliffs of an evening and staring out over the sea as if she wished to grow wings and fly.”

  As he spoke, a silent stream of sunlight shimmered through the rain, through the window, to lie quietly on the table between them.

  “I can’t say what was in her heart,” Aidan continued. “Perhaps this is something she didn’t know herself. But she kept the cottage, cared for her father, and walked the cliffs alone. One day, when she was taking flowers to the grave of her mother, for she was buried near the well of Saint Declan, she met a man—what she thought was a man. He was tall and straight, with dark hair waving to his shoulders and eyes as blue as the bluebells she carried in her arms. By her name he called her, and his voice was like music in her head and set her heart to dancing. And in a flash like a lightning strike, they fell in love over her dear mother’s grave with the breeze sighing through the tall grass like faeries whispering.”

  “Love at first sight,” Jude commented. “It’s a device often used in fables.”

  “Don’t you believe that heart recognizes heart?”

  An odd and poetic way to put it, she thought, and was glad she’d have the question recorded. “I believe in attraction at first sight. Love takes more.”

  “You’ve had the Irish all but drummed out of you,” he said with a shake of his head.

  “Not so much I don’t appreciate the romance of a good story.” She sent him a smile, a hint of dimples. “What happened next?”

  “Well, however heart recognized heart, it was not the simple matter of a maid and a man taking hands and joining lives, for he was Carrick, the faerie prince who lived in the silver palace under the hill where her cottage sat. She feared a spell, and she doubted both his heart and her own. And more her heart yearned, more she doubted, for she’d been taught to beware of the faeries and the rafts where they gathered.”

  His voice, rising and falling like music on the words, lulled Jude into propping her elbows on the table, r
esting her chin on her fists.

  “Even so one night, when the moon was ripe and full, Carrick lured Gwen from the cottage and onto his great winged horse to fly with her over the land and the sea and show her the wonders he would give her if only she would pledge to him. His heart was hers and all he had he would give her.

  “And it happened that her father, wakeful with aches in his bones, saw his young Gwen swirl out of the sky on the white winged horse with the faerie prince behind her. In his fear and lack of understanding he thought only to save her from the spell he was sure she was under. So he forbade her to have truck with Carrick again, and to ensure her safety he betrothed her to a steady young man who made his living on the water. And Lady Gwen, a maid with great respect for her father, dutifully tucked her heart away, ceased her walking, and prepared to be wed as was bid her.”

  Now, the little slash of sunlight that danced across the table between them vanished, and the kitchen plunged into gloom lit only by the simmering fire.

  Aidan kept his eyes on Jude’s, fascinated by what he saw in them. Dreams and sadness and wishes.

  “On first hearing, Carrick gave way to a black temper and sent the lightning and thunder and wind to whip and crash over the hills and down to the sea. And the villagers, the farmers and fishermen trembled, but Lady Gwen sat quiet in her cottage and saw to her mending.”

  “He could have just taken her into the raft,” Jude interrupted, “and kept her for a hundred years.”

  “Ah, so you know something of how it’s done.” Those blue eyes warmed with approval. “True enough he could have snatched her away, but in his pride he wanted her to come to him willing. In this way the gentry aren’t so very different from ordinary people.”

  He angled his head, studying her face. “Would you rather be snatched up and away without a choice or romanced and courted?”

  “Since I don’t think one of the Good People is going to come along and do either in my case, I don’t have to decide. I’d rather know what Carrick did.”

  “All right, then, I’ll tell you. At dawn Carrick mounted his winged horse and flew up to the sun. He gathered fire from it, formed dazzling diamonds from it, and put them in a silver sack. And these flaming and magic jewels he brought to her at her cottage. When she went out to meet him, he spilled them at her feet, and said to her, ‘I’ve brought you jewels from the sun. These are my passion for you. Take them, and me, for I will give you all I have, and more.’ But she refused, telling him she was promised to another. Duty held her and pride him as they parted, leaving the jewels lying among the flowers.

  “And so they became flowers.”

  When Jude shuddered, Aidan reached for her hand. “Are you cold, then?”

  “No.” She forced a smile, deliberately freed her hand and picked up her tea, sipping slowly to soothe away the flutter in her throat.

  She knew the story. She could see it, the magnificent horse, the lovely woman, the man who wasn’t a man, and the fiery blaze of diamonds on the ground.

  She had seen it, all of it, in her dreams.

  “No, I’m fine. I think my grandmother must have told me some version of this.”

  “There’s more yet.”

  “Oh.” She sipped again, made an effort to relax. “What happened next?”

  “On the day she married the fisherman, her father died. It was as if he’d held on to his life, with all its pains, until he was assured his Gwen was safe and cared for. So, her husband moved into the cottage, and left her before the sun rose every day to go out and cast his nets. And their life settled into a contentment and order.”

  When he paused, Jude frowned. “But that can’t be all.”

  Aidan smiled, sampled his tea. Like any good storyteller, he knew how to change rhythm to hold interest. “Did I say it was? No, indeed, it’s not all. For you see, Carrick, he could not forget her. She was in his heart. While Gwen was living her life as was expected of her, Carrick lost his joy in music and in laughter. One night, in great despair, he mounted his horse once again and flew up to the moon, gathering its light, which turned to pearls in his silver bag. Once more he went to her, and though she carried her first child in her womb, she slipped out of her husband’s bed to meet him.

  “ ‘These are tears of the moon,’ he told her. ‘They are my longing for you. Take them, and me, for I will give you all I have, and more.’ Again, though tears of her own spilled onto her cheeks, she refused him. For she belonged to another, had his child inside her, and would not betray her vow. Once more they parted, duty and pride, and the pearls that lay on the ground became moonflowers.

  “So the years passed, with Carrick grieving and Lady Gwen doing what was expected of her. She birthed her children, and took joy in them. She tended her flowers, and she remembered love. For though her husband was a good man, he had never touched her heart in its deepest chambers. And she grew old, her face and her body aging, while her heart stayed young with the wistful wishes of a maid.”

  “It’s sad.”

  “ ’Tis, yes, but not yet over. As time is different for faeries than for mortals, one day Carrick mounted his winged horse and flew out over the sea, and dived deep, deep into it to find its heart. There, the pulse of it flowed into his silver bag and became sapphires. These he took to Lady Gwen, whose children had children now, whose hair had gone white and whose eyes had grown dim. But all the faerie prince saw was the maid he loved and longed for. At her feet, he spilled the sapphires. ‘These are the heart of the sea. They are my constancy. Take them, and me, for I will give you all I have, and more.’

  “And this time, with the wisdom of age, she saw what she had done by turning away love for duty. For never once trusting her heart. And what he had done, for offering jewels, but not giving her the one thing that may have swayed her to him.”

  Without realizing it, Aidan closed his fingers over Jude’s on the table. As they linked together, that little sunbeam danced back.

  “And that it was the words of love—rather than passion, rather than longing, even rather than constancy—she’d needed. But now she was old and bent, and she knew as the faerie prince couldn’t, not being mortal, that it was too late. She wept the bitter tears of an old woman and told him that her life was ended. And she said that if he had brought her love rather than jewels, had spoken of love rather than passion, and longing and constancy, her heart might have won over duty. He had been too proud, she said, and she too blind to see her heart’s desire.

  “Her words angered him, for he had brought her love, time and again, in the only way he knew. And this time before he walked away from her, he cast a spell. She would wander and she would wait, as he had, year after year, alone and lonely, until true hearts met and accepted the gifts he had offered her. Three times to meet, three times to accept before the spell could be broken. He mounted and flew into the night, and the jewels at her feet again became flowers. She died that very night, and on her grave flowers sprang up season to season while the spirit of Lady Gwen, lovely as the young maid, waits and weeps for love lost.”

  Jude felt weepy herself and oddly unsettled. “Why didn’t he take her away then, tell her it didn’t matter?”

  “That’s not the way it happened. And wouldn’t you say, Jude Frances, that the moral is to trust your heart, and never turn away from love?”

  She caught herself, and realizing she’d been too wrapped up in the tale, even as her hand was in his, drew back. “It might be, or that following duty provides you with a long, contented life if not a flashy one. Jewels weren’t the answer, however impressive. He should have looked back to see them turn into flowers—flowers she kept.”

  “As I said, you’ve a strong mind. Aye, she kept his flowers.” Aidan flicked a finger over the petals in the bottle. “She was a simple woman with simple ways. But there’s a bigger point to the tale.”

  “Which would be?”

  “Love.” Over the blooms, his eyes met hers. “Love, whatever the time, whatever the obstacles, lasts. T
hey’re only waiting now for the spell to run its course, then she’ll join him in his silver palace beneath the faerie hill.”

  She had to pull herself out of the story and into the reasoning, she reminded herself. The analysis. “Legends often have strings attached. Quests, tasks, provisions. Even in folklore the prize rarely comes free. The symbolism in this one is traditional. The motherless maid caring for her aging father, the young prince on a white horse. The use of the elements: sun, moon, sea. Little is said about the man she married, as he’s only a vehicle used to keep the lovers apart.”

  Busily making notes, she glanced up, saw Aidan studying her thoughtfully. “What?”

  “It’s appealing, the way you shift back and forth.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “When I’m telling it to you, you’re all dreamy-eyed and going soft, now here you are, sitting up straight and proper, all businesslike, putting pieces of the story that charmed you into little compartments.”

  “That’s precisely the point. And I wasn’t dreamy-eyed.”

  “I’d know better about that, wouldn’t I, as I was the one looking at you.” His voice warmed again, flowed over her. “You’ve sea goddess eyes, Jude Frances. Big and misty green. I’ve been seeing them in my mind even when you’re not around. What do you think of that?”

  “I think you have a clever tongue.” She got up, without a clue what she intended to do. For lack of anything else, she carried the teapot back to the stove. “Which is why you tell a very entertaining story. I’d like to hear more, to coordinate them with those from my grandmother and others.”

  She turned back around, jolted when she realized he was standing just behind her. “What are you doing?”

  “Nothing at the moment.” Ah, boxed you in now, haven’t I? he thought, but kept his voice easy. “I’m happy enough to tell you tales.” Smoothly, he rested his hands on the edge of the stove on either side of her. “And if you’ve a mind to, you can come into the pub on a quiet night and find others who’ll do the same.”

  “Yes.” Panic was beating bat wings in her stomach. “That’s a good idea. I should—”

  “Did you enjoy yourself last night? The music?”

  “Mmmm.” He smelled of rain, and of man. She didn’t know what to do with her hands. “Yes. The music was wonderful.”

  “Is it that you don’t know the tunes?” He was close now, very close, and could see a thin ring of amber between the silky black of her pupils and the misty green of the iris.

  “Ah, I know some of them. Do you want more tea?”

  “I wouldn’t mind it. Why didn’t you sing then?”

  “Sing?” Her throat was bone-dry, a desert of nerves.

  “I had my eye on you, most of the time. You never sang along, chorus or verse.”

  “Oh, well. No.” He really had to move. He was taking all her air. “I don’t sing, except when I’m nervous.”

  “Is that the truth, then?” Watching her face, he moved in, sliding his body into an amazing fit against hers.

  She knew what to do with her hands now. They lifted quickly to brace against his chest. “What are you doing?”

  “I’ve a mind to hear you sing, so I’m making you nervous.”

  She managed a stuttering laugh, but when she tried to shift she only succeeded in pressing more firmly against him. “Aidan—”

  “Just a little nervous,” he murmured and lowered his mouth to nip gently at her jaw. “You’re trembling.” Another nip, teasing and light. “Easy now, I’m after stirring you up, not frightening you to death.”

  He was doing both. Her heart was rapping against her ribs, ringing in her ears. While he slowly nibbled his way over her jaw, her hands were trapped against the solid wall of his chest. And she felt marvelously weak and female.

  “Aidan, you’re . . . This is . . . I don’t think—”

  “That’s fine, then, a fine idea. Let’s neither of us think for just a minute here.”

  He caught her bottom lip—the wide, soft wonder of it—between his teeth. She moaned, quiet; her eyes clouded, dark. A spear of pure and reckless lust shot straight to his loins.

  “Jesus, you’re a sweet one.” His hand lifted from the stove, fingers skimming over her collarbone. As he held her where he wanted her, he took her mouth. Sampling, then savoring, then wallowing in the taste of her.

  Even as she slid toward surrender, he used his teeth to make her gasp. And went deeper than he’d intended.

  Still she trembled, putting him in mind of a volcano poised to erupt, a storm ready to strike. Her hands remained trapped between them, but her fingers gripped his shirt now and held fast.

  She heard him murmur something, a whisper against the wall of sound that was her blood raging. His mouth, so hot, so skilled, his body, so hard, so strong. And his hands, light as moth wings on her face. She could do nothing but give, and give, even as some shocking, unrecognizable part of her urged her to take.

  And when he drew away it was as if her world tilted and spilled her out.

  He kept his hands on her face, waited for her eyes to open, focus. He’d intended only to taste, to enjoy the moment. To see. But it had gone beyond intentions into something just out of his control. “Will you let me have you?”

  Her eyes were huge, glazed with confusion and pleasure. And nearly brought him to his knees. He didn’t particularly care for the sensation.

  “I . . . what?”

  “Come upstairs and lie with me.”

  Shock came a bare instant before she simply nodded her head. “I can’t. No. This is completely irresponsible.”

  “Is there someone in America who has a hold on you?”

  “A hold?” Why wouldn’t her brain function? “Oh. No, I’m not involved with anyone.” The sudden gleam in Aidan’s eyes had her straining back. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to just . . . I don’t sleep with men I barely know.”

  “At the moment, I feel we know each other pretty well.”

  “That’s a physical reaction.”

  “You’re damn right.” He kissed her again, hard and hot.

  “I can’t breathe.”

  “I’m having a bit of trouble with that myself.” It was against his natural instincts, but he stepped away. “Well, what do we do about this, then, Jude Frances? Analyze it on an intellectual level?”

  His voice might have carried the musical lilt of Ireland, but it could still