Chapter One

Present

   She held tightly to her grandmother's fragile hand, her fingers trembling. "The key is hidden with your grandfather's picture," Glynnis said with her last breath.

   A loud rumbling shifted Kara Malone's subconscious from that heart-rending scene to one where horses ran full speed, and men screamed. She woke with a start. Fully conscious of her surroundings, she identified the noise as thunder. The fury of the storm rattled the windows.

   "Damn." She swung her legs over the side of the full-sized bed as a bolt of lightning cracked outside. She clutched the edge of the mattress, bowing her head and breathing deeply. Dreams and nightmares had been her constant companions since the age of thirteen. This one shook her more so than usual because it involved not only the wild and handsome warrior, but the last moments with her grandmother, as well.

   Pulling on sweats, she went downstairs to quench her thirst and steady her nerves. She headed straight to the antique liquor cabinet and a bottle of Asbach Uralt Brandy. The lining of her throat burned as the alcohol coated it. Her eyes watered.

   They weren't tears. She rarely cried.

   She looked out the window. Sheets of rain showered the lawn. Mother Nature's cleansing.

   Clutching the glass, Kara wandered the well-known house in the dark, feeling like an intruder. Without her grandmother, the place would soon be unbearable. No more laughter while making bat-wing cookies for trick-or-treaters. No more hot buttered eggnog with that hint of Rum at Christmastime while wrapping presents in front of the fire.

   Lurking on the threshold, she jumped as lightning lit her grandmother's darkened bedroom. She hadn't realized she'd come to this room, the sanctuary of her childhood when the nightmares had gotten so awful that she ran to Haskell and Glynnis' room. They smiled, opening their arms and their hearts to give her peace from the frightening moments. No child should suffer the fear of the unknown alone.

   A fluttering motion caught her eye. She turned her head. There was nothing there. 'Tis the wee fairies ye see, little Kara. They protect the children.'

   Glynnis had a story for everything. "There are no children here anymore, Grams."

   In another flash, the portrait of Haskell Malone brightened. Her grandmother's weak voice echoed in her head. The memory of Glynnis looking so frail and worn lying in the hospital bed caused Kara to take a huge gulp from the tumbler. She hissed as it burned her throat and soothed her nerves.

   The amber-colored liquid sloshed onto her hand as she slammed the drink down on the dresser. She licked it off before lifting the cumbersome frame from the wall. First, she lay the frame face down and slid the backer from its tracks. There were no magic keys taped to the cardboard or canvas. "I knew she was pulling my leg," Kara murmured putting everything back together. She stood the portrait against the wall.

   Rain battered the roof and wind bent trees almost in half with its force. Another bright burst of lightning and booming thunderclap caused her to jump.

   "Get a grip."

   Nights of little to no sleep were making her hands jittery and her mind foggy. She looked at the frame again. A weird feeling came over her. Something didn't seem right or was she imagining it? She flipped on the lamp and stared at the ornate, golden, hand-carved filigree on the frame. Glancing at the smiling face of her grandfather, she grumbled. "Do you know something I don't, Grandpa?"

   Kara ran her fingertips along the edges and touched the design until her forefinger scraped against an oddity. Moving closer, she concentrated on that area. She rubbed her thumb over it and pushed. A small gold key popped out of the design.

   "Oh my God."

   Why would her grandmother hide the key in such a sneaky way? Glynnis had seemed to have all her faculties still intact before she passed. But surely, the story couldn't be true.

Shaky fingers lifted the brandy glass. Clan stone, Scotland, myths, and legends. Glynnis loved the fairytales. Ancient Scotland was her favorite subject. She talked about the people with such familiarity. It was like she actually knew them.

   "This is ridiculous," Kara said. Marching over to the closet, she threw open the door and stared into the cluttered space. She pushed into the mess. "I swear the woman was a pack rat. You'd think she’d never heard of the Salvation Army or Goodwill."

   Ten minutes later, in the farthest recesses, her fingers brushed something. Blowing hair out of her eyes, she pulled the ten-by-eight-inch cedar box adorned with Celtic symbols into her lap. She recognized her grandfather's handiwork in the intricate carvings. A Celtic wooden cross, which hung in the living room above the doorway, had also been hand-carved by Haskell. It was a grand hobby of his. Flipping the box over, she ran her fingers across his initials etched in the corner.

   The tiny lock had the same shape as the key. An excitement—or was it fear—gripped Kara's stomach. The room seemed hotter than before. Standing, she grabbed the dresser to fight off waves of dizziness.

   Never drink on an empty stomach.

   Crossing the floor, she sat on the edge of the bed and hugged the box to her chest. The combination of alcohol and sleepless nights caused blurry vision and the start of a major headache. She didn't think she could deal with another shock right now. Placing the key on the chain around her neck, she tucked the box under her arm and went back to bed.

   It'll wait. What was one more day going to matter?

 

   Kara's flight to Hawaii had a seven fifteen a.m. boarding time and she had just finished packing. Her toe hit something under the bed as she used her body weight to close her suitcase. Bending, she retrieved the cedar box she'd stashed there before she fell into bed last night. Glancing at the overstuffed suitcase, she opted for tossing it in her backpack. Downstairs, the taxi pulled up and honked. She scanned the room with a strange sense of finality. This assignment could mean a permanent transfer to the islands.

   "How long to the airport?" she asked the driver, looking at her watch.

   "Fifteen minutes."

   By the time she checked in they were ready to board. She crammed her flight bag under the seat in front of her, buckled up, and adjusted her five-foot-six-inch length to get more comfortable. It would be a long flight from Beckley, West Virginia.

   Ever since she was little, she’d read about faraway places, and wanted to see the world. That combined with her love of the planet created a potent desire to explore and discover. She loved digging in soil, and studying the explosive history of this home we called Earth. Those interests led her to geology and beyond. Her job as a volcanologist took her to interesting places, like Hawaii. A couple of weeks ago her excitement about this new job had overflowed. She needed the time away to rethink things. Unfortunately, it gave her unwanted time to think about her grandmother's death and the fact that now she was truly alone. The dredges of insomnia took its toll and she fell asleep.

   The 747 bounced like a surfboard on a wave. A particularly hard jolt woke Kara.

   "We are experiencing some turbulence," the captain said over the intercom. "Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts."

   Rubbing sleep from her eyes, she sat straighter. The stiff muscles in her back ached. Raw emotions lingered from her dream and ripped her heart apart. She'd been in that beautifully barren place where she always met him, the man with the dark features and disarming smile.

   Jeez, stop drooling. She had the same reaction every time she had the dream. Who was he and how did he penetrate her subconscious?

   Resolved that she'd had all the sleep she could take, Kara lifted Glynnis' box out of her bag. From the chain around her neck, she retrieved the little gold key. She inserted it into the latch and twisted. The box sprung open and a small leather-bound book fell into her lap. Kara shifted toward the window, snatched up the book, and set it aside. A beautiful oval-shaped stone approximately four inches long, the color of ivory with cracks of green winding through it beckoned her.

   Her quivering fingers stroked the glassy finish. Bits of crystal twinkled in the light. A strange magic vibrated around the smooth piece of rock. Kara curbed an overwhelming desire to rub her cheek against it. She rested the object back on the velvet cloth which lined the box and turned her attention to the journal. The cover felt soft and supple. Inside the front flap, she saw handwriting belonging to her grandmother. The graceful loops in the writing swirled in her head with the music of her grandmother's distinctive brogue.

   May 5, 1948. I was born in the Hebrides o' Scotland in the year of our Lord 1340 A.D. Me home wasna particularly happy. The castle was stark, filthy and we had verra little food tae sustain the entire clan. I did me best tae grow vegetables, but the land was barren and desolate from years o' neglect. The plague had taken many tae their deaths. Wars and savageness were a part o' everyday life and me father, the mighty chief, or at least that's what he thought he was, liked it that way. He cared little for comforts and only wanted more lands and more power. He brought terror down on all who opposed him and being the bastard he was, treated me no better than cattle.

   One day, in the year of our Lord 1356 A.D., he ordered that I be given tae a rival clan chief. 'Twas a union tae bind the two clans and make their numbers stronger. I would had sooner pranced before the English army naked than be bartered and the callus whoreson knew it. Me bráthair had been me only salvation growing up, but he was away on a mission designed by the chief.

   I knew he had sent me bráthair away so he wouldna be there tae champion me, but there was naught I could do other than run. So, that night, while others slept, I pinched the clan stone and fled. When he found me gone, no doubt he would send warriors tae hunt me down and drag me back. I would have been beaten or worse for defying his orders. I couldna run fast enough.

   I rubbed the magical talisman for protection as the ancient tales had foretold. A swirling mist covered the forest in white. It engulfed me and everything faded tae black. When I woke, I was in another time, another place.

   Kara lowered her arms and laid her head back against the seat. She chuckled softly. This was definitely her grandmother's greatest tale. Her last tale.

   I was sure tae go mad from the fear and aloneness. Wandering the strange land, I went hungry for days. Not that hunger wasna a familiar friend. Some locals took pity and helped me find work and me own place tae live. Every day I hid wi’ the worry o' being found. It took some time afore I made friends and started a new life.

   Then, I met Haskell Malone, young and full o' fire. He swept me off my feet and we were marrit. Haskell shared his strength and courage and made me believe that no matter what life threw at us, we would handle it together.

   For a reason she couldn't explain, Kara's hands shook, making it harder to focus on the words and finish the story.

   Years passed and still no one appeared tae drag me back. I had filched the MacKay talisman so likely no one could follow, but I couldna keep the fear at bay. It haunts the back o’ me mind that one day the demon will appear and kill me dead. I have a son, Michael. Haskell and Michael are me life.

   Sometimes me heart breaks because I miss me bráthair and, in taking the stone, I put me clan at risk. But I wouldna give back one hour—one day.

   This history 'tis not for everyone, most wouldna believe it. In me heart, I am certain one will come tae take this knowledge and do the right thing. Until then, I keep it hidden.

   R. Glynnis Malone.

   Glynnis had always been tight-lipped about her past. She shared very little of her roots. Kara remembered once when she was in fifth grade and needed a note for school. Glynnis had written out the note and signed it, R. Glynnis Malone. When Kara asked what the R stood for, Glynnis clenched her jaw, tightened her lips, and shooed her off.

   For as long as Kara could remember, Grams harangued her about being too serious. "The universe is filled with magic, Kara. It swirls around us unseen. You have to believe and be open to it."  Her choice to become a scientist really hampered her ability to believe in the mystical world.

Glynnis used to tell wonderful stories about knights, fair maidens, Highland warriors, and young girls who had the balls to stand up to their fathers for unfair treatment, even if it meant severe punishment.

   Kara's heart ached. This journal was Grams' farewell. The story, a last attempt to bestow a sense of magical wonder on her fact-minded granddaughter. She picked up the stone and caressed it. In truth, she missed Grams' stories. Perhaps the centuries-old Scotland that Grams' brought to life with her storytelling is why Kara's dreams conjured the stark landscape and kilted warrior.

   A shadow fell over her. Kara looked out the window to see strange clouds tear through the sky and streaks of lightning come perilously close to the plane. White spirals reached for the heavens like fingers laced with beautiful pastel colors. Her eyelids drooped, suddenly too heavy to keep open. With the stone clasped in her hand, everything dimmed.