Royal Enchantment

Book Cover: Royal Enchantment
Editions:ePub
ISBN: 9781488031205
Paperback
ISBN: 978-0263930139
Kindle
ISBN: B01MZCOSUM

She married the king. She wanted the man. 

Guinevere's marriage to Arthur was a political partnership, never a romance. Merlin knows that the king's court, newly restored at a medieval theme park, will only be complete if Arthur has his lady. Little did anyone suspect that once Guinevere gets a taste of twenty-first-century freedoms that this ancient queen would lose interest in belonging to any man—even a royal one.

It takes a dragon, and some passionate nights spent in each other's arms, to lure her back to her husband's side. Arthur is willing to accept Gwen's help in protecting the new Camelot from a fae menace, but the bigger challenge will be wooing back Guinevere for a second chance at love…

Publisher: Harlequin
Genres:
Tags:
Excerpt:

Prologue

Once upon a time, King Arthur of Camelot made an alliance with the fae and the witches to keep the mortal realms safe for all the free peoples. The world back then was filled with peril, with dragons and ogres and much, much worse lurking in the dark places. The greatest danger came from the demons who roamed the earth, causing suffering wherever they went. With the help of the enchanter, Merlin the Wise, the allies waged war upon the demons and succeeded in casting them back into the abyss.

At least, that’s what Queen Guinevere was told. Stuck in the castle with her ladies-in-waiting, all she heard was gossip and rumors and thirdhand accounts of how mighty Sir So-and-So had been that day. As a royal princess, her value was measured by the children she’d bear, not the strength of her sword arm—and certainly not by anything she had to say.

READ MORE

So she missed how Merlin’s final battle spells had stripped the fae of their souls—and how the Faery people blamed Camelot for the disaster—until an enraged party of wounded fae burst into the castle threatening to crush humanity to dust. That’s when fear rose from the soles of Guinevere’s slippers, creeping up her body in chill waves of foreboding. Something had gone horribly wrong for her husband and his friends—but, as usual, Arthur had failed to send her word, and so there was nothing Guinevere could do.

In the end, it was Merlin who gave her a full account of the disaster. He came to her sitting room dusty and disheveled from the road and with his dark face tight with worry. She set down her embroidery and stood, feeling as if she needed to be on her feet for whatever he had to say.

And then he told her. The fae would indeed carry out their threat against the mortal realms, but no one knew which day, year, or even century their attack would come. So Merlin had put the king and his knights into an enchanted sleep and, when the fae returned, the heroes of Camelot would arise once more. As Merlin spoke, the mighty warriors of the Round Table were already stretched out upon empty tombs, trapped as effigies made of stone. In that form they would wait out the ages. They had sacrificed everything—fame, wealth and their very futures to stand guard over humankind.

But Guinevere had been left behind. Again.

Chapter 1

“Is this where you saw the beast?” asked Arthur Pendragon, High King of the Britons, as he slowed the Chevy SUV into the gravel beside a remote highway.

“Yes, about a half hour’s walk off the road.” His passenger was the dark-haired Scottish knight, Sir Gawain. “That’s a wee bit close for comfort.”

They were miles from civilization, but both men knew that meant nothing. A determined monster could find a town and crush it in the matter of an afternoon. Arthur parked and got out, a cold drop of rain making him look up. The October sky was baggy with clouds, promising a downpour.

Sir Gawain slammed the passenger door and walked around the front of the vehicle to stand beside him. The two men gazed toward the wild landscape of the inlet, a forest of cedars to their backs. Arthur glimpsed a distant sliver of water crowned with the ghostly outline of hills. The raw beauty of the place only darkened his mood. “Let’s gear up.”

They pulled weapons from the back of the SUV—swords, guns and knives—and buckled them on. Once armed, Gawain loped toward the forest at a speed that said much about the urgency of their hunt. He’d shrugged a leather jacket over a fleece hoodie and looked more like a local than a knight of Camelot. On the whole, he’d adapted to the twenty-first century with enviable ease.

Arthur followed, his heavy-soled boots sinking into the soft loam. Unlike Gawain, he’d spent his entire life as a king or preparing to be one, and blending in hadn’t been a necessary skill. Until now, anyway. Waking up in the modern world had changed more things than he could count—but not his duty to guard the mortal realms.

As they crossed the swath of scruffy grass between the road and the trees, Arthur saw the tracks. He immediately dropped to one knee. “Blood and thunder,” he cursed softly. The print was enormous, as big as a platter with three clawed toes pointed forward and a fourth behind. “Not to ask the obvious question, but what is a dragon doing in Washington State?”

“What’s Camelot doing here?” Gawain countered with a shrug.

“Are you saying there’s a connection?”

Gawain didn’t answer, and Arthur didn’t blame him. Sometimes there was no easy way to tell enchantment from sheer bad luck. As a case in point, after Merlin had sent the Knights of the Round Table into an enchanted sleep, an entrepreneur had moved the church and its contents—knights included—to the small town of Carlyle, Washington, to form the central feature of the Medievaland Theme Park. Arthur had gone to sleep in the south of England and awakened nearly a thousand years later as part of a tourist attraction in the US of A. After that, a fire-breathing monster hardly surprised him.

Arthur rose, dusting grit and pine needles from his hands. “A dragon can’t cross into the mortal realms on its own. It doesn’t have that kind of magic.”

“Then it had help,” Gawain muttered. “I suspect that’s your connection.”

Arthur shifted uneasily, the wind catching at the long skirts of his heavy leather coat. “So do we have a new enemy or an old one we’ve overlooked?” There were too many choices.

Gawain grabbed his arm in a bruising grip. “There!” He pointed, his hand steady but his face losing color.

Arthur sucked in his breath as a ripple of movement stirred the undergrowth. He reached for the hilt of his sword, Excalibur, but his fingers froze as the beast reared from the shaggy treetops. He was forced to tip his head back, and then tip it more as he looked up into a nightmare. “Bloody hell.”

The dragon’s green head was long and narrow with extravagant whiskers. Huge topaz eyes flared with menace, the slitted pupils widening as the beast caught sight of the two men. The eager expression in that gaze reminded Arthur of a cat spotting a wounded bird.

“I told you it was big,” said Gawain helpfully.

Arthur’s thoughts jammed like a rusted crossbow. The dragon was close enough that he could make out its scent—an odd mix of musk and cinders. Through the screen of trees, he could see a bony ridge of spikes descending from its humped back onto a long muscular tail that twitched with impatience. Or hunger.

“Ideas?” Gawain asked under his breath.

Arthur repressed a desperate urge to run. “Be charming. Maybe it will listen to reason.”

Gawain gave a strangled curse.

“Hello, mortal fleas.” The dragon boomed, its deep voice resonant with unpleasant amusement.

Arthur grasped Excalibur’s hilt and drew the long sword with a hiss. It should have made him feel better, but fewer knights than dragons walked away from a fight. He adopted his most courteous tone. “Sir Dragon, pray tell us what brings you to this realm?”

“Are there only two of you?” The dragon’s tufted ears cupped forward with curiosity as he pointedly ignored Arthur’s question. “What happened to your armies, little king?”

Arthur flinched with annoyance. After transporting Camelot’s resting place to Washington State, Medievaland’s founder had sold off most of the stone knights as a fund-raising effort. As a result, Camelot’s warriors now resided in museums and private collections, and there they would stay until awakened with magic. Counting Arthur, Camelot had exactly eight knights awake out of the hundred and fifty that had gone into the stone sleep and no one knew where the rest of them were. Arthur was hunting his missing men one by one, but it was slow going.

There was no way he was sharing those details. “I don’t need an army to say that this place offers you no welcome. The mortal realms have forgotten the old ways, and dragons are no more than myths. Not even the fae reveal themselves to the humans here.”

The dragon snorted, twin puffs of smoke curling up from its cavernous nostrils. “And what does this world make of you, High King of the Britons?”

Arthur held Excalibur loosely in one hand, the tip resting between his feet. It was a posture meant to look relaxed, but he was balanced and ready to strike. “To my great sorrow, Camelot is forgotten. I keep my true name to myself.”

Amused, the dragon rumbled with a sound like crashing boulders. “But you still tell me to go? You would risk a thankless death for the ignorant rabble who live here?”

“Yes,” Arthur replied with outward calm.

Like a preening cat, the dragon stroked a huge, taloned forepaw over its whiskers. It looked casual, but Arthur detected something else in the dragon’s manner. Anger, or sorrow, or even disappointment.

“You amaze me, little king,” said the creature. “Once, your Pendragon forefathers held the deep respect of my kind. Now you can do no more than shoo me away as if I were a stray cat.”

“This time is different.”

“Is that why you left the mistress of your forgotten realm a widow?”

Arthur clenched his jaw. Guinevere. The memory of her made him ache with a mix of fury and regret. “That is not your affair.”

“A shame.” There was a dragonish, smoky sigh. “The minstrels of my world still sing of the Queen of Camelot’s beauty. A dragon would have kept his mate close.”

Arthur ground his teeth. Leaving his queen was the only thing he’d done right in their marriage. Back then, even the image of her delicate face and graceful hands had burned like acid crumbling his bones. He’d desired her so much, and yet they’d been so utterly mismatched. His crown and sword, his title and lands—none of it had meant a thing to her. All she’d wanted was—he wasn’t even certain what she’d wanted. He prayed she’d found happiness in the end.

“Don’t speak of my queen,” Arthur growled, all pretense of civility gone. “I ask you again, dragon, why are you here?”

“Ask me rather what I want.” The dragon arched its neck to angle one huge yellow eye at Arthur.

His words echoed Arthur’s thoughts with almost-sinister precision. “Fine. What do you want?”

“It has been long years since I made humans tremble behind their flimsy doors. I was once a destroyer of cities, a fiery death that rained from the skies. The name of Rukon Shadow Wing was the refrain of minstrel’s songs.”

None that Arthur had heard, but he kept that to himself. “Our cities are not your playthings.”

“They are if I make them so, and this mortal realm is ripe for plucking. My name shall be whispered in terror once again.”

“Humans have weapons far greater than my sword,” Arthur said, his voice hard. “You won’t survive.”

“But there your logic breaks down, little king. You don’t have an army, and by your own admission modern mortals think me a myth.” The dragon gave a sly smile that was horribly full of teeth. “It will be too late by the time the modern generals gather their wits for an attack.”

“I will stop you.”

“Assuming you could find the men to do so, every accord with the hidden world, including the witches and even the fae decrees that the magical realm must stay hidden. Breaking that trust means war with the few allies you have left, and you can’t afford that.”

Arthur said nothing. Unfortunately, the creature was right.

The dragon chuckled, smoke rolling from its muzzle. “Poor king. Even if you could convince the human world that I am real, the rules won’t let you say a word. What will you do, I wonder? Stand aside and watch me rampage through the countryside, or try to stop me all by yourself?”

Arthur finally lost his temper, gripping Excalibur’s hilt, but the dragon still wasn’t done.

“That would be the finest song of all,” the beast said with a growling purr. “Rukon Shadow Wing defeating the mighty King of Camelot. You see, at the end of it all, that is what I want the most. The trophy of your head in my lair.”

“I will not play the games of a delusional lizard!” Arthur roared, his gut burning. “I will see you dead first.”

The creature’s gaze flashed. “Foolish and rude. An unfortunate move, little king.” And it bared its scythe-like fangs, saliva dripping from their points.

Arthur heard Gawain’s breath hiss with alarm. His friend had been so still, Arthur had all but forgotten his presence. Now, with quicksilver speed, Gawain drew his gun and fired, grazing the long, weaving neck.

The dragon stretched its head high and snarled. White flame shot toward the sky, the heart of it a blue as pale and clear as gemstones. Terror shot down Arthur’s spine, making his heart pound so hard he barely heard the branches shatter as the dragon crashed through the trees. It was coming toward them at a deliberate jog, tail lashing in its wake.

Gawain and Arthur fell back step by step, keeping just enough distance to avoid the wicked jaws. The creature was perhaps eight feet high at the shoulder, but three times that from nose to tail. The huge head bobbed on the snakelike neck, jaws gaping to show its flickering tongue. But despite the danger, Arthur’s thoughts turned to crystalline calm as he tracked its every motion. This kind of impossible fight was what Arthur of Camelot had trained for.

They reached the grassy ground beyond the trees and used the room to run, drawing the monster into the open. Gawain fired again just as the dragon’s shoulders pushed out of the forest. The weak sunlight shimmered along its scales as it twisted away from the shot, but this time the beast wasn’t so lucky. Chips of scale flew as the bullet hit its side. It was no more than a flesh wound, but the dragon bellowed with fury, the sound so loud it was a physical blow.

The beast bounded forward and snatched up Gawain, quick as a heron plucking fish from the water. The knight’s howl of surprise shut off as the dragon’s jaws clamped around his chest. The gun flew from Gawain’s hand as the long neck reeled him skyward. One burst of flame, and he would be cooked.

Arthur swung Excalibur, his only thought to save his friend. Rukon reared up as Arthur attacked, the long belly flashing creamy white. Arthur lunged for one of the pale gaps between scales. It was a suicidal move, but a man defended his brothers, and a king spilled his blood for them. Arthur felt his blade connect, the shock of the blow jolting his shoulder before he spun away. Blood spilled but Excalibur’s edge did not slide far into the flesh. The beast seemed to be made of iron. Still, Arthur bolted in again, refusing to give up.

The next second Rukon’s whiplike tail whirled through the air, hammering Arthur so hard he flew back into the forest. Branches crackled and clawed at his face, turning the world into a mosaic of green and golden leaves—but not before he saw the dragon toss Gawain into the air with a disgusted flick. Gawain spun, arms outstretched, and dropped into the bushes with a mighty crash.

Arthur scrambled to Gawain’s side, dreading what he would find. Just as Arthur reached him, the dragon roared again, then thrust its head through the trees toward Arthur. He scrabbled for Excalibur, but it wasn’t needed. The dragon simply wanted to mock them now.

“This match goes to me. Have a worthy army waiting for my return, and bring reporters so that they can sing the song of my victory.”

“Reporters?” Arthur repeated the word with confusion. What did a dragon know about the human press?

He didn’t get a reply. With a huff of smoke, the dragon drew its head out of the trees and turned its back to the forest. Then it broke into a thundering run across the grass and unfurled huge leathery wings, each spine tipped with a glittering claw. The wingspan was enormous, blotting out the light. With a thunderous flap, Rukon Shadow Wing sprang into the sky, beating hard until the long, twisting form soared above the wild landscape.

As it rose higher and higher, a bright spiral of light appeared in the clouds. It was no bigger than a coin to Arthur’s sight, but he knew it was a rift into another realm—a doorway no dragon should have been able to create. Rukon dived through it, and the light winked out. The sky was suddenly empty of anything but the coming rain.

Gawain moaned and rolled onto his back. “Did I ever mention dragon breath smells like old barbecue?”

“How badly are you hurt?” Arthur asked, helping Gawain as he struggled to sit up.

The knight paused before answering, as if doing a mental check of his bruises. “Hitting the bushes hurt the worst.” He peered at the sleeve of his leather jacket. The fabric was scarred by the dragon’s fangs, but not torn. For some reason, Rukon had spared him.

Arthur clapped his friend on the shoulder, unable to speak. Relief had closed his throat with a burning ache. They had survived, but he had a feeling their good luck had just run out. Too much didn’t make sense. How was the dragon traveling between realms? Was Rukon really so hungry for glory—for the chance to kill Arthur before the cameras of the human media—that it was willing to risk starting a war with every magical creature that preferred to hide from human eyes? And why hadn’t it butchered Gawain?

“Have you ever heard of Rukon Shadow Wing?” Gawain asked.

“No,” Arthur replied, getting to his feet. “And I’d remember if we’d met.”

Arthur picked up Excalibur and scowled at the blade. The strike against the dragon’s scales had dulled the edge. He slammed the sword back into its scabbard and paced the loamy ground, anger and confusion prickling along his nerves. What was going on and, more to the point, how could he stop it?

Both men jumped when Gawain’s phone rang with the sound of a tiny fanfare. The knight was still sitting on the ground, but he unzipped his pocket and extracted the smartphone in its shockproof case. “Hello?”

Arthur watched his friend’s face pucker in confusion. He knew most of Gawain’s trademark scowls, but this was different. The knight held out the phone with a faintly dazed expression. “It’s your wife.”

The clouds picked that moment to unlock their downpour.

Chapter 2

Minutes later, Guinevere handed the phone back to Merlin the Wise. They sat in his workshop, the light dim and the details of the room lost in shadow. It didn’t bother her that she couldn’t see much. Her mind was already far too crowded.

“That voice,” she said, the words faint. “That was his voice.”

She’d heard her husband speak through a tiny square of slippery, unfamiliar material called plastic. Impossible. Disorienting. A bone-deep queasiness made her clutch the edge of her chair.

“What about Arthur’s voice?” Merlin asked gently.

She wasn’t sure what to say. That hearing Arthur speak had made the blood rush to her cheeks? That she’d thought him lost to her forever? That hearing his words—she could barely recall what those were, she’d been so flustered—brought back bitter disappointment that Arthur had left her behind?

No, she’d never reveal that much vulnerability to Merlin. He was too arrogant and too manipulative for trust. She had no wish to be a pawn on his chessboard.

“Has Arthur changed?” she asked instead. Despite the unfamiliar form of communication, she’d recognized the force of Arthur’s personality through his shock. There had been something different, more grim.

“Yes, he’s had to change. This is a new world,” Merlin said, offering no details as he pocketed the phone. “And no, he’s the same as he always was. That’s the strength and the curse of Arthur.”

“He left you behind, as well,” she said, suddenly putting things together. “That must have been a blow.”

“There is no need to concern yourself with that. I am here with Arthur now, and so are you.” The enchanter’s eyes were an odd amber color that reminded her of a hawk. She had no idea how old he was, but he appeared to be a man in his thirties, lean and dark and with the air of someone too smart for his own good. He watched her now as if afraid she’d turn hysterical. Maybe she would.

Her eyes strayed to the tomb at the center of the gloomy workshop. On top of it was an elegant effigy made of white marble, every fold of cloth expertly carved. She would have admired its beauty, except the face on that statue was hers. She was that stone woman with the budding rose in her folded hands—and that Gwen was dead. It was a tomb for her, and it was very old. So why was she alive?

She tried to swallow, but her mouth was as dry as the grave. “Tell me again how I woke up inside that statue?”

“Magic,” he said with an airy wave. “I cast the same spell on you as I did on the knights of Camelot. While you were part of the stone, you slept. No age or disease touched you. But now you are awake and fully mortal again. Your life picks up exactly where you left off.”

“Oh.” She didn’t sound enthusiastic even to herself.

Had she asked for this? She couldn’t remember Merlin’s spell, much less discussing it beforehand—and yet somehow that seemed the least of her problems. “Does this mean I shall continue as Arthur’s wife and the Queen of Camelot?”

Merlin gave an affirmative nod.

“Why?” The word came out before she could stop it.

“Why?” He tilted his head. “I brought you here because Camelot requires a queen.” He said it casually, the way someone might say Camelot required a gate, or a carpet, or new furniture in the reception hall. She was an object taken out of storage.

Gwen had always done what was required of her, but a hot nugget of anger was coming to life, as if emerging from its own block of stone. She hadn’t asked to be abandoned, but she hadn’t asked to be turned into a gigantic paperweight, either. Of course, there was only one man who was ultimately responsible for anything that happened in Camelot. “I want to speak to Arthur. Take me to him.”

Merlin gave a sly smile and bowed low. “At once, my queen.”

Merlin’s obedience was about as reliable as a cat’s but, for the moment, she was at his mercy. She watched with unease while he sketched an arc in the air with his hand. Where his fingertips passed, a bright, tremulous light followed, as if he’d opened a seam in reality. Gwen blinked and stepped back in alarm as the golden luminescence dripped across the air like honey from a spoon. She’d seen many of Merlin’s tricks, but this was new. She swallowed hard, trying to look as if this sort of thing happened every day.

When the light had filled in the impromptu doorway, he bowed again and reached for her hand. Stiffly, she allowed him to take it, and they stepped through the brilliance. A buzzing sensation rippled across her skin and, in the time it took Gwen to gasp, they emerged into a long hallway punctuated with closed doors. Merlin began walking, Gwen trailing after. When she twisted her head to look behind her, the arc of golden light had vanished.

“Where is this place?” Gwen asked.

Merlin stopped before a plain and very unmagical-looking door at the end of the hallway. “The king’s dwelling, as you desired.”

The enchanter put one long-fingered hand around the doorknob and spoke a word. Pale light flared around the brass knob, and a series of clicks followed. Gwen guessed that was the sound of the locks surrendering.

“Why not simply knock?” Gwen asked, suspecting Merlin was just showing off now.

“Arthur’s not home, so we’ll let ourselves in.”

“I may have hurtled through centuries,” Gwen said under her breath, “but I can’t imagine any reality in which my royal husband welcomes uninvited guests.”

“We’re not guests,” Merlin said smoothly. “This is your home as much as his.”

He pushed the door open with a flourish. Gwen stood on the threshold, suddenly uncertain if she wanted to step inside. “This is Arthur’s home? Where is his castle?”

The enchanter gave a nervous cough. “Things work slightly differently in this day and age. This is my lord’s apartment, which he rents. These rooms are his, but not the entire building.”

On one level, Gwen understood the concept. Merlin’s enchantment had given her information about the modern world, but the tumult of facts had come too fast for her to grasp them all. Not yet, and what she had absorbed seemed random. Modern clothes were a blank, but she was certain the standard measurements for an entry door like this were thirty-six by eighty inches.

Merlin was waiting for her to react, a concerned frown creeping onto his face. She stepped inside, reminding herself she was queen of this domain. Ahead was a large room with a balcony beyond tall glass doors. There were dark leather couches suitable for sprawling males. There was a bowl of something on a low table she assumed was food, although it was nothing that she recognized.

She continued her inspection, keeping emotion from her face. She didn’t need Merlin to see her mounting distress. The function of the other rooms—a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom—were clear, although they lacked warmth, or interest, or personality, or the slightest hint of being a home. Even the grand castle at Camelot, with hundreds of inhabitants, said more about its king than this sad place. Arthur was utterly absent. Gwen bit her lip. Come to think of it, absent was rather his style.

She turned back to Merlin. “Is this everything? Where do the servants sleep?”

“There’s an office.” He pointed to the one door she hadn’t opened yet. “No servants.”

“No servants?” That explained the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and the crumbs around the bowl of whatever-it-was on the table. Words formed on the tip of her tongue, hot and burning. This was an insult. Royalty had men and maids to do their bidding. Gwen curled her fingers, indignation sharp in her chest. Then she swallowed it down. Arthur, for all his flaws, did everything for a reason. There had to be an explanation.

“Will I have my own chambers?” she asked, quieting her voice. “Will there be ladies to tend me?”

Merlin actually shuffled his feet like an embarrassed squire. “That’s a conversation you should have with Arthur.”

Which meant she wouldn’t like the answer.

“Very well.” She walked to the nearest couch and sat down, folding her hands in her lap. “When will the king arrive?”

Merlin gave a slight shrug. “Not long. He’s meeting with his men.”

“I understand,” she said with a touch of acid. “His wife returning from the grave is a small matter compared to his knights.”

The enchanter winced. “There was a dragon.”

“Oh?” She raised a brow. “This is not the Forest Sauvage. How did a dragon get here?”

“We don’t know. That’s half the problem.”

“And the other half?”

Merlin opened his mouth, and then closed it. “Arthur will tell you.”

Which meant Arthur had asked Merlin not to say more. This, at least, was familiar territory. Battling monsters was a man’s business. Never mind that it was the women, left at home, who had the most face time with whatever horror was tearing the village apart. They typically had the beastie on the run by the time Sir Whatever showed up to poke it with a sword.

Gwen paused, wondering at her thoughts. Merlin’s spell had introduced a lot of unfamiliar—and usefully sarcastic—words and phrases. She rather liked that.

“I can wait. There’s always a dragon. Or a troll. Or a quest.” Closing her eyes, Gwen leaned back against the squishy cushions, discovering the ugly piece of furniture was actually comfortable. “While we wait, you can tell me why Camelot needs a queen.”

Merlin’s voice was soft. “That’s also something Arthur needs to say.”

Gwen sighed. She considered trying out one of the useful modern phrases, but when she looked up again, Merlin had disappeared. The only thing left was a faint curl of smoke drifting toward the spackled ceiling.

Gwen huffed. Coward. It was Merlin’s fault she was here. She hadn’t asked to be dragged forward in time.

She rose, too nervous to stay still. The prospect of seeing Arthur turned her insides cold. She was angry with him, of course, but there were other emotions, too—ones that she really didn’t want to examine. Fear, maybe? Shame? Anytime she’d tried to fix things between them, it had all gone wrong. They were just too different. And then there was the fact she’d never done the one thing required of a queen—she’d failed to give him an heir.

She drifted around the space, picking things up and putting them down again. The circuit didn’t take long. To the left was an alcove with table and chairs, but she couldn’t imagine it had ever seen a dinner party. The kitchen was filled with marvelous devices, but little food. She avoided the bedroom.

The office door beckoned. Why was it closed when every other room was open for inspection? There was no lock, however, and in a moment she was inside. She froze before she’d taken two steps.

Now she understood the closed door. This was the room where Arthur lived. It was not large, but there was a substantial desk in the corner covered with papers. The clutter had the feel of determination and excitement, of boundless enthusiasm colliding with rigorous organization. She approached it, her hands at her sides, touching nothing.

A map hung on the wall, poked full of colored pins. Gwen studied it, not sure what it signified but recognizing the hand of the high king who had made a conquest of Britain. He’d been barely more than a child when the lesser rulers had bowed to his sword. Give Arthur something to conquer, and he was in his element.

Once upon a time, that confidence, that strength of purpose had stopped her heart. Who wouldn’t revere a man who could pluck kingdoms like ripe fruit and make them his own? But she might as well have loved the sea or a range of mountains. Great works of nature had no time for mortal women. She had been a clause in a treaty between Arthur and her father, King Leodegranz. Marriage had been the price of peace, and her dowry had been the famous Round Table.

The table had got more of Arthur’s attention. Gwen frowned and turned away from the map.

There was a computer on the desk, and she experimentally touched a key. The black screen jumped to life, displaying words and pictures. She bent closer to look, her brain catching up to the spell that made it possible for her to read the modern text. Once she began, Gwen lost all awareness of the room around her. She pushed the arrow buttons, making the lines of type move. The novelty of it intrigued her.

So did the words themselves. It was a report of mysterious destruction outside the town. Was this the dragon Merlin had mentioned? Her pulse quickened.

A thickly muscled arm caught her around the waist. Deep in thought, Gwen jerked away from the desk, surprise quickly turning to alarm. The grip tightened, pulling her back against a wall of chest. And then she knew him. She knew the scent, the feel of his body.

“Arthur.” She put both hands on his confining arm, but he didn’t release her.

“What are you doing in here?”

He’d spoken to her on the phone, but the device had done his voice an injustice. Up close, the deep, rich sound was something touchable, like warm fur. Gwen closed her eyes, wishing it didn’t enchant her quite so thoroughly. He’d left her behind. That said enough about his true feelings.

“Shouldn’t you be asking why I’m here at all?” She put an edge in her voice out of reflex, as if that would hold his magnetic effect at bay.

“You forget I spoke to Merlin. I know how you arrived.” His tone was carefully neutral.

His coolness burned her. “And no more needs to be said?”

“What would you have me say?”

“You could begin with hello. I am your wife.”

He relaxed his grip enough that she could turn and pull away. She took a step back, looking up into his face. Her breath hitched then. The encounter with the dragon hadn’t been gentle. His left cheekbone was purpling over raw scrapes that said he’d skidded on hard ground. Without thinking, she reached up and cupped his wounded face. “How badly are you hurt?”

“Gawain got the worst of it, but he walked away.”

Arthur’s clear blue eyes finally met hers. Their expression made it plain that he was unsettled to see her. That made everything worse. His anger was easier to fight.

Gwen dropped her hand, her mouth gone dry. The bruises did nothing to hide the clean, strong symmetry of his face. He was eight years older than she was, but that only put him in his early thirties. His neatly trimmed beard had not changed, but his hair was longer. There was something lionlike about the shaggy mass—it was no one color, but a wealth of autumn shades from gold to dark auburn. She yearned to touch it.

He was dressed strangely in what she assumed was the modern style. Her hands fisted in her skirts—the same ones she’d slept in for centuries. The clothes made the gulf between them seem even wider.

They stared at each other for a long moment, teetering at the edge of—something. Could it be he was glad to see her? There was so much unsaid, so many hurts, and so many things she didn’t understand.

In all their years together, she’d never come to grips with what drove him. Most of all, she’d never known what drove him away, exactly, beyond the fact that she wouldn’t sit still and say nothing for years on end.

All Gwen’s unspoken questions rose up, almost a physical pressure under her ribs. At times—though not often enough—she would have swallowed her questions back, bowed her head and retreated. But she’d been ripped from her century and dumped here without permission, and she was done with silent obedience.

“Why am I here?” she demanded.

 

COLLAPSE