Archive for October, 2010

24
Oct
10

Two Hearts in Time – Chapter 1

Two Hearts in Time

By

Leslie McKelvey

Chapter One

“Hold on!”

The cab driver stood on the brakes, throwing Claire Wallace forward.  Air whooshed out of her as her seatbelt cut into her midsection and her forehead snapped sharply against the top of the front seat.  The cab’s tired squealed as the vehicle skidded, shuddered violently, then came to an abrupt stop.

“Ouch.”  Claire pressed a hand to her forehead as she sat back and took a breath.

“Are you all right, lass?” the cabbie asked breathlessly.

Claire blinked and looked at him.  “What happened?”

Before the older gentleman could speak a loud tap against the window to her right brought her gaze around.  She inhaled sharply and scooted back in her seat as she came face to face with a sheep, the rest of the flock enclosing about the car like land sharks.

“Sorry, lass,” the cabbie told her.  “I couldn’t see them around that blind curve.  They must have broken out of their pen.”  He laid a gentle hand on her arm.  “Are you all right?”

She nodded slightly and looked around them.  The cab was literally engulfed in the four-legged, wooly creatures.  “I’m – I’m fine.”  She glanced at her watch.  “I suppose this means I’m going to be late to the funeral.”

The cabbie’s eyes widened.  “Funeral?  Eli Wallace’s funeral?”

She eyed the man warily.  “Yes, why?”

He studied her face.  “No reason.  I just thought you looked familiar, and now I know why.”  He gave her a small smile.  “It’s the Wallace eyes.  You’ve got ‘em.”  The cabbie turned and tried to open his door, but the sheep refused to move.

Claire sighed.  “I am going to be late, aren’t I?”

A rueful chuckle escaped the man.  “Afraid so, lass.  Unless a shepherd comes along, we’re just going to have to wait for these walking sweaters to move on their own.”

Twenty minutes later the sheep finally decided to meander away and the cabbie drove as fast as the winding road would allow.  When they finally emerged from the narrow valley road the first thing Claire saw was the enormous castle sitting high on the cliff overlooking the village of Eversleigh.  Her breath caught.  The castle didn’t just sit on the hill, it loomed, yet it wasn’t an intimidating sight, not to her.  The moss-covered walls melded imperceptibly to the rock face as if it had been carved out of the mountain itself.  The ancient structure stood like a stone guardian, the soaring towers and expansive parapets softened by swirling mist.  Something about the ancient structure called to her on a primal level, stirring feelings in her that a man-made edifice should not have been able to do.  Claire suddenly realized she wasn’t breathing, and she’d just fallen in love.

As the cabbie made his way to and through the narrow roads of Eversleigh, she found herself unable to look away from the monolith.  Even when the cabbie had stopped to drop her bags at her hotel her gaze hadn’t wavered.

“Quite a sight isn’t it?” the cabbie asked as he got back behind the wheel.

“Yes, it is,” Claire breathed.

The next thing she knew the cab had stopped, and the cabbie was opening the door for her.  Claire blinked, shook her head, then took his extended hand and stepped out of the car.  Her eyes once again swept upward as she absently handed over her fare and a generous tip.

“Sorry again about the sheep,” the cabbie said as he slipped back behind the wheel.  “My condolences, lass.  Eli will be sorely missed.”

Claire said a murmured thank you as the cab drove away.  She gazed at the towering castle for a few more moments, then literally ripped her eyes away and focused on the building directly in front of her.  Taking a breath, she stepped through the wrought iron gate.

The centuries-old chapel stared hard at her with eyes of brightly colored stained glass.  Claire stared back at the lead-veined panes and took a steadying breath.  Thick, carved doors of polished oak were all that stood between her and what remained of her family, a family she hadn’t known existed until a few months ago.  The ancient hinges looked as if they had held the chapel doors strong and erect since the day the tiny church opened centuries past, the heavy wrought iron fleur-de-lis and studs the size of her fist more than capable of keeping out those who didn’t belong.  And, right now, she didn’t belong.

A shiver coursed through her and she pulled her scarf more tightly about her neck.  The sky above was clear and bright, but a stiff wind was coming off the nearby ocean, the chill penetrating through her clothing and seeping into her bones.  A glance at her watch told her it was 12:20 p.m.  The service had started 20 minutes ago, but thanks to the sheep her plan to arrive early had been foiled.  Now there was no way she could go in unnoticed.

“Come on, Claire,” she said to herself.  “Just get it over with.”

She looked once again at the gray stone facade, then grasped the thick, ornate handle and pushed.  She had expected the hinges to squeak, but the door opened silently and so quickly she almost stumbled and fell.  Taking another deep breath she straightened and smoothed her fabric of her coat.  Thankfully, the doors didn’t open directly into the sanctuary.  Claire removed her hat and gloves, ran her fingers quickly through her hair, then walked slowly toward the sound of muted voices.

If it hadn’t been her grandfather’s funeral Claire would have focused on the medieval architecture, the elaborate carvings, the statues, and the brilliant stained glass.  Had she arrived earlier she imagined the vibrant reds, blues, and yellows would be muted and subdued beneath the shadow of the castle.  With the sun high overhead, however, the lead-veined panes cast bright rainbows of color across the stone floor.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t the eye-catching windows that held her attention.  Instead, her eyes were drawn to the polished casket sitting beneath a magnificent antique crucifix.  To the right of the casket was a large portrait of an elderly, but still handsome and distinguished gentleman with white hair and snapping blue eyes.  A slight smile curved his mouth, as if he had a secret everyone else wanted to know, but he refused to tell.

To the left of the casket, behind an intricately engraved wooden podium a man stood, addressing the large gathering of family and friends of the deceased in a voice that was deep, resonant, and thick with Scottish brogue.  He was tall, several inches over six feet, she guessed, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist.  His hair was dark brown, curly, and shoulder length, his eyes a clear sky blue.  She had to admit he was handsome, his features angular without being sharp, and the neatly trimmed beard accentuated rather than hid his full mouth.  He paused in his   speech when he saw her, and Claire thought she saw a flash of recognition in his eyes.

She slid into the very back pew which was, thankfully, unoccupied.  As the man continued to speak, she found herself unable to look away from the casket.  This was the second funeral she’d been to in three months, and the first had led her here.  Never in a million years had she thought she’d leave her home in sunny California to travel all the way to the Scottish Highlands for a man she’d never met, a man she’d thought long dead.  Yet, here she was.

After the man finished speaking, he returned to his seat in the front pew, but not before deliberately catching her eye.  Two or three more people spoke after him, but Claire didn’t hear them.  Her gaze moved between the polished silver coffin and the back of the curly-haired man’s head.  All too soon the service was over, and she dropped her gaze as the mourners rose and filed out of the chapel.  She felt the curious stares and heard the hushed whispers, but not one person said a word to her.

When the last of the shuffling feet had gone Claire lifted her eyes.  The chapel was empty, and a hush seemed to descend over the hall as she rose and stepped into the aisle.  Her shoes whispered over the stone floor as she approached the casket and mounted the three shallow steps.  The man who looked so full of life in the portrait lay in eternal slumber, his expression one of peace and tranquility.  Tears stung and Claire blinked rapidly.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “I never knew.”

“You came.”

Claire turned and found herself eye to eye with the tall man who possessed the mesmerizing voice.  He stood two steps below her with legs spread, hands thrust into his pockets, the dark grey suit jacket open.

“You’re Claire.”

Claire blinked.  “How do you know my name?”

He smiled.  “You wouldn’t remember me, but we met . . . long ago.”  He held out a hand.  “I’m Aidan Wallace, your cousin.”

Claire grasped his fingers, dumbfounded.  “Pleased to meet you,” she said at last.  His grip was firm, his hands slightly rough.

“You were a wee babe the last time I saw you,” he told her.  “I was probably six.”

“Where did we meet?” she asked.

“Right here,” he answered, looking around the chapel.  “It was the day of your baptism.”

Her brows rose.  “I was baptized . . . here?”

“Aye, lass,” he replied.  He looked at the portrait.  “It was one of his proudest days.”  He eased down on the front pew and his expression darkened.  “One of his last proud days.”

Claire looked over her shoulder at the grandfather she’d never met.  “I didn’t know . . . .”  She took a shaky breath.  “My father always told me he was dead.”

Aidan sighed and rested his elbows on his knees.  “Well, after what he did to your father, that’s not surprising.”

“What do you mean?”

Aidan chuckled.  “It’s a long story, lass,” he told her, “and better suited to someplace other than a church.”  He rose.  “Where are you staying?”

“The Seven Bridges Inn,” she replied.

He grinned.  “I know the owner.  I’ll call Collin and have him send over your things.”

“Wait a minute,” Claire said, “have my things sent where?  I’m not going anywhere with you.  I don’t know you from Adam.”

“You’re family, Claire,” Aidan replied.  “Besides, the castle is half yours now.”

She gaped at him.  “What?”

Aidan crooked his finger and walked toward the chapel entrance.  Once outside, he walked to the road and turned to face the church, looking up and over it.  Claire trailed behind him, then stood at his side and followed the direction of his gaze.  Her eyes widened.

Again, Claire’s breath caught as she admired the castle’s stoic, formidable beauty.   During her graduate studies she had worked with a renowned archaeologist excavating castles in northern England and Ireland, and despite their damp, chilly reputation, she knew them to be engineering marvels that kept their inhabitants warm, dry and protected.  Looking at the keep now, the archaeologist in her couldn’t wait to explore it, to stand inside a piece of history, to walk halls that had been home to her ancestors for hundreds of years.  The thought that part of that piece of history was part of her made her heart beat a little faster.

“Wow,” she whispered.

“Behold Castle Claire,” he said in a low voice.  “I’ll wager you didn’t know you were named after something like that now, did you?”

✠  ✠  ✠  ✠  ✠

Aidan watched Claire closely as she entered the main hall.  Her eyes were immediately drawn to the soaring ceilings and she turned in a slow circle.  She was quite pretty, with large blue eyes flecked with violet, a head full of dark, shining corkscrew curls the color of rich mahogany, and a lean, athletic build.  Tall, probably close to 5’10”, she had the longest legs he thought he’d ever seen.  If they weren’t related, he’d have found himself quite attracted to her.

“The Great Hall,” he said.  While he didn’t raise his voice, the space had been designed with acoustics in mind, and the sound echoed through the room.  “Can you imagine it?  A fire on the hearth, the smell of baking bread and roasting meat, and this room filled with people, rich and poor, happy and miserable, not much different than we are today except an iPhone would be thought witchery.”

“Oh, but they were very different,” she replied softly.  “Every day, every breath meant something to those people.  Back then it was all about surviving, by sheer will if nothing else.”  She walked toward the huge hearth which was several feet taller than she was, just as deep, and nearly 15 feet long.  She stared up the flue and shook her head as she ran her hands over the stone, worn smooth by heat, cleaning, and time.  “We think we know how to live.  I disagree.”

Aidan sat on the edge of the large dining table and watched her, fascinated.

“I think they understood what was really important,” she continued.  She met his gaze and smiled.  “Living.  In the time this castle was built, it was all about family, faith, and relationships for the typical man.  The average life-span was only about forty years, and from all the things I’ve seen, read, and studied, they understood each day was a gift.”

“It was a hard life,” Aidan commented, watching her as she moved from column to column, examining them as if they were precious scrolls, “a time fraught with war, danger, disease, and death.”

“It was also a time that gave us some of the most magnificent minds we’ll ever know,” she argued.  She stood in front of him.  “Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Martin Luther . . . .”

“You sound as if you envy them.”

She nodded and continued her perusal of the great room.  “In a way I do.  It was the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation.  The creativity and . . . boldness of that era . . . it’s unsurpassed.”  She turned toward him, her eyes alight with excitement.  “Do you know during that time cosmetics were banned by the Church because they were thought to promote vanity, one of the seven deadly sins?  To redden their lips, women would use citrus, lemons usually.  Sometimes it would take days to achieve the desired color, and result in pretty much unkissable lips, but still they did it.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Aidan said with a chuckle.

“Well, today convenience is the mother of invention,” she replied, “not necessity, because, in all honesty, what do any of us really need, a smaller cell phone?”  She huffed.  “Please.  If mine gets any smaller I’ll lose it for good.”

“For arguments sake,” Aidan began, “did women really need redder lips?  Or, was the church right in saying cosmetics promoted vanity?”

Claire gave him a sidelong glance.  “You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?”

Aidan was surprised.  “Aye.  How did you know that?”

“In addition to medieval history and archaeology, I studied anthropology,” she answered, “people.”  She returned his disbelieving stare for a moment, then grinned.  “There was a business card on the floorboard of your car that read Aidan Wallace, Esquire.  I’m good at simple math.”

Aidan’s brows drew together, then he burst out laughing.  “You, lass, are most definitely a Wallace.”

“And to answer your question,” she continued, “yes, women did need redder lips.”

He folded his arms over his chest.  “All right, lass, I’ll bite.  Why?”

Claire sat down beside him on the table.  “Well, it’s been scientifically proven men subconsciously look for certain traits when choosing a potential mate, such as curves, for example.  Women with larger bosoms, small waists, and wider hips are seen as having the ability to successfully birth and feed babies.”

“And what do red lips symbolize?” he asked.

“Health and vitality,” she replied with a shrug, “something any man would want in the mother of his children.  Plus, back then there were no photographs, no video chats, no dating websites.  Women needed to make an impression that would last beyond an initial meeting.  They did what they had to do.”

“And so our line continues,” he said.  “Now would you like to see your room?”

“Aidan, you’re very kind . . . .”

“And you’re family,” he interrupted.  “You should be staying with family.  Besides, this is your home, too.”

“No,” she argued, standing and backing away from him.  “Even if I was baptized in that chapel, that was more than thirty years ago.  I will not walk in here and lay claim to something that isn’t mine.  It belongs to you.”

He nodded.  “Half of it does, aye.”

She frowned.  “Aidan.”

“Look, lass, I’ve lived here all my life, and I love this place,” he told her, “but it was never mine.  It belonged to our grandfather, Eli Wallace, and it was his to do with as he saw fit.  I helped him draw up the bloody papers.”

“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Without another representing attorney, aye,” he replied.  “This is what he wanted.  It’s all he ever wanted, to have you back in your family home where you should’ve grown up, but didn’t.”

She lifted one arched brow.  “Which brings us back to the subject you avoided earlier.”

He stared at her, and from the mutinous set of her chin, a distinctive Wallace trait, he knew she wouldn’t be deterred.  “Fine,” he agreed, “but only if you agree to stay here.”

“That’s blackmail.”

A grim smile curved his mouth.  “Take it or leave it.”

He battled visually with her, quite enjoying the angry flush in her cheeks.  Finally, after several tense, silent moments, she gave him a curt nod.

“Deal, but I’m not planning to stay.”

“Shame,” he said, “since you be the first true-blood Wallace woman to walk these halls since it was built.”  That brought her up short.

“What?”

“You, Miss Claire, are the first woman born into our family in more than 400 years,” Aidan replied.  “But, since you won’t be staying there’s no need to waste your time with family history.”

He set the hook, waited, and it didn’t take long for her to take the bait.

“Well, I don’t have to return right away,” she said.  She chewed her lip for a minute, then pointed a finger at him.  “But, I won’t stay long, and I am not claiming my half of the castle, if that’s even true.  She belongs to you now.”

He grinned.  “If’n it makes you feel better to say that, then by all means.  Now, let me introduce you to Jason and I’ll show you to your room.”  He put two fingers between his teeth and whistled loudly, chuckling when Claire winced.  He looked over his shoulder as his head houseman, Jason, appeared from inside the kitchen.  He was younger, shorter, and about 20 pounds heavier than Aidan, with sandy blonde hair and warm brown eyes.  Jason jogged over to where he and Claire were standing, a smile on his face.

“Jason,” Aidan began, “this is my cousin, Claire.  Claire, meet Jason.  If you need anything Jason’s your man.  He’s lived in Eversleigh all his life and knows everyone.”

“Pleased to meet you, miss,” Jason said, extending his hand.  “Welcome home.”

Claire wrapped her fingers around his and smiled.  “Thank you, but I’m not home.”

Jason looked at Aidan.  “I thought you said the castle was half hers.”

“It is,” Aidan said with a smirk, “but she insists on being difficult.”  He crossed his arms over his chest.  “Don’t worry, Jason.  By the time I’m done working Castle Claire’s magic, she’ll never want to leave.  Now, come on, Claire.  Let me show you to your room.”

✠  ✠  ✠  ✠  ✠

Claire leaned her elbows on the thick stone and looked over the inner bailey with a sense of amazement and, oddly enough, déjà vu.  The room Aidan had set aside for her was luxurious to say the least, with a large, curtained four-poster bed, thick Turkish rugs on the floor, and her own private balcony that overlooked the wall and inner courtyard.  The furnishings were oversized and masculine, and the hearth would no doubt heat the room quite effectively.  There was no lavatory, but in a place this old she hadn’t expected there to be, at least not in the room.  Thankfully, indoor plumbing had been installed, and there was a large, beautiful bathroom just down the hall, complete with a copper tub that would easily fit two people.  If it weren’t for the electric lights and the cell phone vibrating in her pocket, she could easily imagine she’d been sent back in time.

There was a knock on the door and a moment later she heard her name.

“Out here,” she called over her shoulder.

Aidan joined her on the balcony and leaned his elbows on the stone beside her.  “So,” he asked, beaming with pride, “what do you think?”

“I think it’s spectacular,” she replied with all sincerity.

“You’re liking the idea of owning a place like this, eh?”

“Aidan . . . .”

“Oh, come now, lass,” he drawled, “admit it.  You like it here.”

“Of course I like it here,” she said, her gaze wandering over the walls and courtyards and towers.  “It’s amazing, but I have no right.”

He bumped her shoulder with his.  “You have Wallace blood in your veins.  You have every right.  Besides, I like the idea of you being here.”

She looked askance at him.  “You don’t even know me.”

“I know enough.”  His expression changed and he gazed out over the village, so far below it looked like a town made of children’s toys.  “I sent you the funeral notice, Claire.  Eli’s last wish was that I find you, and get you to come home.”  He sighed.  “I know more about you than you think.”

Butterflies took to wing in her stomach.  “What do you mean?”

He faced her.  “I know you’ve never married, though you were engaged once.  You’ve a dual PhD in Medieval History and Archaeology, and a degree in anthropology.  Even though you’re only 35, you’re a published, well-respected professor at the University of Southern California, and you spend your off-time digging in castles and tombs all over the U.K., Ireland, and Europe.”  He took her hand and sandwiched it between his much larger ones.  “Don’t you see, Claire?  You’ve been studying and training all of your adult life . . . for this.”

Claire pulled away from him.  “For what?”  She scowled.  “You expect me to quit my job and move here so I can do . . . what?  Run a very large B&B?  I do not have a degree in hospitality management.”

“No, but you do have a passion for history,” he told her.  “Look around you, lass, you’re standing on top of history, your history, my history, our family’s history.”  He waved an arm.  “The stories that were made here . . . you could tell them.”

Claire ran a hand over her eyes.  While part of her yearned to be part of something as solid and longstanding as Castle Claire and her family lineage, another part waited for the bottom to drop out from beneath her.  “This is too much, Aidan.  I buried my father three months ago–”

“What?” Aidan said, his expression stricken.  “Your father is . . . dead?”

She blinked against the tears that wanted to come.  All her life it had been her and her Dad, the two of them against the world.  She’d never known her mother, and her father had rarely spoken of her.  When he had, it had caused him so much pain Claire had stopped asking and contented herself with having a father like most of her friends didn’t: one who was actually present and actively involved in her life from day one.  Craig Wallace had always been there for her, no matter what, and his death at the age of 55 had hit her hard.

“He was hit by a drunk driver,” Claire whispered.  “They say he never saw it coming and he died instantly.”

Aidan exhaled slowly.  It was obvious he had not been expecting this bit of news.

“I’m sorry, lass,” he said in a low voice.  “I did not know.”

“I guess you didn’t dig deep enough,” she told him, with more than a little bit of sarcasm.  She immediately regretted the worlds.  “I’m sorry, and it doesn’t matter.  His death is the only reason I didn’t toss the notice you sent me into the trash.”  She pressed her fingers into her eyes.  “After the funeral I started going through his things.  To my surprise I discovered my grandfather hadn’t died when I was a baby, and that I did have family.”  Her chin trembled, and despite her best efforts the tears came.  “Which is why I need you to tell me what happened, because when he died it hit me . . . I was completely and utterly alone.”

“But you’re not . . . .”

“I know that now,” she shot back, “and I have been so angry with him ever since I found out he lied to me.”  She sniffed and wiped her eyes.  “Please . . . tell me he had a good reason to sever ties with the only other people in the world who are obligated to care about me.”

Aidan gave her a pained look and put an arm around her shoulders.  “Oh, Claire.”

Claire let him pull her into his embrace and, for the first time since her father had passed, she cried.

“Hush, love,” he whispered.  “Do not be angry with him.  He had a good reason.”

When she could cry no more, she moved away and covered her face with her hands.  “I’m sorry,” she told him.  “I’m not usually so emotional, but today has been one hell of a day.”

Aidan chuckled and rested his hands on her shoulders.  “That is has, lass.  Now, why don’t we go downstairs and I’ll tell you the whole story over dinner.”

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye.  “As long as we’re not having haggis.”

“I think we have beef stew with Ayrshire bacon dumplings.”

She smiled.  “That sounds much better than stuffed sheep’s stomach.”

“It is, Claire, and I’m starving.  Let’s go.”

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