FOLLOWED BY HER maid, Evaine slipped into the coolness of the evening. Warmed and emboldened with wine, she went at once to the moonlit garden, fragrant with the scents of lavender and meadowsweet. The muted sounds of pipes floated on the air.
“Your hair, my lady. It’s falling out of its plaits. Let me fetch your comb.”
“Don’t bother, Gwenda. I’ll not have you fussing over me.” Cooled by the night, Evaine lifted her dark tresses and piled them on top of her head. “I wish I were a man,” she said, “to wear a tunic and hose instead of this heavy gown, to crop my hair short, and ride wherever I please. What would it be like? Would I be happy?”
Her maid stepped toward her. “What did he say?” she asked, her voice low.
Evaine let out a small sigh. “He loves me. Or so he claims.”
“And you believe him?”
“I know his heart.” Evaine glanced up at the soft moon, in part concealed behind a sea of drifting clouds. “He is my other half, as I am his. How can I doubt him?”
“You’re bewitched,” Gwenda retorted. “You’re too far gone in wine to know what you’re saying. If there were any help for it, I’d stop this madness at once.”
Evaine advanced on her. “You put me up to it! Should I have stayed in my room, weeping like a child?”
The maid reached to pluck a loose ribbon from her lady’s hair. “I wished only to cheer you,” she argued. “Alas, I fear I’ve put the Devil in you. I pray it won’t be your undoing.”
Evaine laughed, turning a pirouette beneath the Rowan tree. A shower of white blossoms fell in her hair.
“Hush!” hissed Gwenda. “Someone’s coming!”
A tall figure emerged from the shadows and began to walk toward her, his hair limned in silvery light, his mantle flung over his shoulder.
Evaine sought her chaperon; the woman had vanished through a side door, leaving her to her folly. A moment’s panic engulfed her. If her heart pumped any harder, she feared it might burst. She had no time to escape; all at once he was standing in front of her. She could not look at him; he was too powerful a presence, too bright, too near.
An urgent hand reached out to touch her shoulder. The strong, slim fingers closed over her velvet sleeve, and without a moment’s warning, he caught her up and pulled her into his arms.
“Evaine.” It was a breath, a sigh. Something thundered in the air between them, something nameless and compelling and infinitely complex.
His heart throbbed in rhythm with hers; she heard it as he pressed her head against his chest. He stroked her hair with his long fingers, and the white flowers fell around them.
She looked up at him at last, and for the space of several heartbeats, he held her motionless with the strength of his gaze. A moment passed.
“Say it to me,” he commanded, his voice low and breathless. “Say my name; I want to hear you say it.”
“My lord, I–”
“Please, my lady, I beg you–”
“Lord Ciaran.” His name rolled off her tongue with a round little trill. Delighted by the sound, she gave him a modest smile.
He nodded, closing his eyes for a moment. “Perfect.” He opened them again and released a soft sigh. Lifting the damp hair from her neck, he laid a burning palm against her cool, bare skin. “You are shaking almost as badly as I am,” he said, the corner of his mouth curling up in a nervous half-smile. He ran the knuckle of his forefinger along her cheek. “Does this frighten you?”
“No–yes.” A small thrill raced through her.
“But here you are, all the same.”
“My lord. Despite my apprehensions, I could not stay away.”
“Nor could I. It would seem we have both fallen under the same spell.”
Is that what it is? I’ve never felt like this before.”
“I haven’t either.” He smoothed back an errant strand of her hair. “Christ, you’re so beautiful. When I look at you, I can scarcely breathe.”
Evaine’s cheeks flushed with warmth. “You have the same effect on me,” she confided, still wary of shedding her uneasiness at finding herself alone with him.
He spoke in a whisper. “The priests say I’m damned,” he replied with a frown, “yet you look on me without judgment. What do you see?”
She tipped her head back, shivering under the strange familiarity of his touch and gazed at him as the curious treasure he was. “You’re like a diamond,” she said. “Hard, bright, full of mystery. There’s a secret concealed in you, something that taunts and beckons. Some say your soul is made of fire, and that you can never die.”
The flicker of anguish in his eyes coaxed from her a flood of sympathy. “I meant to express the highest esteem, my lord, not to condemn you. If you are kin to the Shining Ones, then you are a true Immortal. The priests would do well to treat you with dignity.”
Moments passed before he spoke. Everything stilled but for his trembling, and Evaine’s wild heart drumming in her breast.
“My lady, I am not worthy of your praise.”
She rose and linked her hands behind his neck, and drawing his head toward her, she laid the softest kiss upon his temple where the pulse vibrated. “When I am near you,” she murmured, her lips against his ear, “I stand at the border of some unknown country. And though wisdom forbids such trespass, my prince, I would enter that land willingly, for I confess you have captured my soul.”
Ciaran stood as if stunned. Eyes glistening, he stared at her in silence, the moonlight racing between them. He lifted her chin, and, as if he wanted to do it before his anxiety stopped him, he bent and covered her mouth with his. His kiss was pure fire. Cupping her head, he held her stationary; his fingers thrust through the dark ripples of her hair. His other hand pressed into the small of her back, all but lifting her off her feet, while the strength of his embrace threatened to crush the air from her lungs.
He was hot and hard and full of purpose. The warmth and pressure of his lips, the quickening of his breath, and the tender assault of his tongue rendered her lightheaded and weightless, her limbs tingling with naked pleasure. Just as she began to writhe against him in protest, he released her, holding her apart from him to gaze into her eyes.
The taste of his lips still burned her mouth. It was all she could do not to reach up and touch it as if covering a wound. She searched his strange, sad eyes with their hidden power.
Before she could collect her wits, he took her face in his slender hands. “Evaine. If I’ve worked magic on you it was not my will to do it.” He shook his head in contradiction. “No, that’s a lie. I wanted you from the first time we met. But if you feel for me as I do for you-” He drew in his breath with such emotion it made her gasp; his face betrayed a raw tenderness that pierced her like an arrow.
He stared at her. “Sometimes, my lady, I swear it is you who have bewitched me.”
Between tears and laughter, they clung to each other.
“Don’t let me go,” Evaine implored him.
Ciaran enfolded her in his arms, his chin resting on the top of her head, and began to rock back and forth.
Evaine shivered and sighed, nestling into his uncanny warmth.
“And so,” he said, “we love. We’ve spoken it.”
“Words so sweet. And so perilous.” She pressed her cheek against his chest, wanting and not wanting to deny what her soul believed, and her heart knew. “My dearest prince,” she said, “I think now our sorrows begin.”