Excerpt: The Very Thought of You

Excerpt: The Very Thought of You

The MacLeod Family

The horse scrunched up his nose, tossed his head in obvious discomfort, and then sneezed.

Alexander Smith opened his mouth to curse, then realized the precariousness of his situation. He grasped the top edge of the stall door and very deliberately clamped his lips shut. He blinked furiously to clear his eyes of a substance he didn’t want to examine too closely.

He should have stayed in bed.

He’d known that, of course, from the moment he’d woken. His first clue had been the sound of rain on the roof–day fifty-six of the Scottish deluge. His next warning had been shivering through a cold shower, courtesy of his younger brother. The final straw had been counting on a breakfast of sausage, eggs, and fried potatoes only to find nothing but dangerously aged cottage cheese and on-the-verge-of-turning-green bread in the fridge. By the grease stains on his brother’s chin, Alex had known immediately where to lay the blame.

And now this.

He looked down at his snotty shirt and wondered just how long it would take for it to crust over so he wouldn’t drip all over the house.

His horse, looking much more comfortable and rather contrite, bumped him companionably with his nose.

“Beast, Beast,” Alex said, carefully dragging his sleeve across his mouth, “do you really think I can go out looking like this? What if we run into some beautiful Scottish girl? What kind of impression are we going to make?”

Beast ducked his head in obvious shame.

Alex grunted. “That’s right. Well, have nice day. I’m sure you will, now you can breathe again. I’m going back to bed.”

It seemed the safest alternative.

He wiped his face with a patch of clean shirttail, then left the stables and walked across the courtyard. The castle rose up before him, an impenetrable wall of gray stone relieved only by a few windows on the second floor. His brother-in-law Jamie had spent a fortune seeing the keep restored and the results were chilling. Alex could almost see medieval Scottish clansmen bursting out the front door in their plaids, brandishing their swords and screaming like banshees.

Alex entered the hall and pulled the door shut behind him with a bang. Once his eyes adjusted to the interior light, he saw his younger brother sitting in front of the hearth, warming his toes by the fire. Alex marched across the great hall, prepared to give the runt a second installment in the berating he’d given him earlier. He didn’t want another Saturday starting out like this–sans hot water and saturated fat.

Zachary glanced up from his book, took one look at Alex, and started to laugh.

“Grrr,” Alex said, wondering if strangling his brother would be half as satisfying as just contemplating it was.

“Good grief,” Zachary gasped out between guffaws. “What’d you have–an encounter with the Blob?”

Alex gritted his teeth. “How’d you like to have an encounter with my fists?”

“Eeuw,” Zachary said with a shudder. “Maybe after you clean up.”

“As if I could,” Alex growled.

“What’s your problem? I had plenty of hot water.”

“I know!”

Zachary only blinked innocently. Then he rubbed his disgustingly well-fed belly. “There’s nothing left in the fridge, you know,” he said.

“And whose fault do you think that is?” Alex demanded.

Zach sighed again, the mournful sigh of a man left home alone with nothing to graze upon. “Man, I hate it when Jamie and Elizabeth go out of town. The least they could have done was leave Patrick or Joshua behind. Josh makes great desserts.” He looked at Alex narrowly. “Why’d I get stuck with just you? You won’t even keep the fridge stocked.”

Alex relived briefly in his mind some of the more choice experiences he’d had pummeling his baby brother. His irritation momentarily soothed by those warm and fuzzy memories, he managed to speak very calmly. “And what’s wrong with you that you can’t go to the store?”

Zach settled himself more comfortably into his chair and moved his toes closer to the fire. “I’m too busy. You go instead. And get something good. None of that health food garbage.”

Alex mentally counted to ten. When that didn’t work, he set his sights on a larger number.

“Oh, and Alex? I’d go shower first if I were you.” He looked at Alex and started to grin again. “Really. I think it would be the right thing to do.”

Alex wanted more than anything to wring his brother’s neck in payment for ruining his Saturday morning and to stop the brat’s giggles. Unfortunately, his shirt was beginning to crust over and he was starting to itch.

“I’ll go to the store later,” he growled, contenting himself with giving Zachary a murderous look and a smart cuff to the ear on his way to the stairs. With any luck there would be hot water by now.

He rummaged around in the armoire for clean clothes, then headed for his bathroom. He was just reaching into the shower for the taps when the phone started to ring. He ignored it and turned on the water. He hesitantly put his fingers under the spray and smiled in faint surprise at the increasingly warm temperature. Maybe things were starting to look up.

He started to strip when he realized he had no towel. He had a vague memory of having flung it into the hamper in disgust after his earlier foray into chilly waters. After turning off the shower to conserve what precious hot water there was, he opened the bathroom door only to hear the phone still ringing. Alex growled in frustration.

“Zach, get the phone!” he yelled.

The phone continued to ring. Alex cursed as he gingerly rebuttoned his shirt, then made his way into his brother-in-law’s study.

“What?” he barked into the receiver.

“Nice to talk to you, too, buddy,” a male voice said with a laugh. “All that lovely Scottish scenery getting to you?”

Alex rolled his eyes heavenward. His day had just taken a decided turn for the worse. “Tony what do you want?”

“What, no chitchat?”

“Not with you, thanks anyway.”

“How’s Elizabeth?” Tony continued. “The baby? Your barbarian brother-in-law?”

“My sister’s fine, her baby is fine, and Jamie is fine. Now what the hell do you want?”

“Well, since you asked,” Tony said with a strained laugh, “I’ll get right to it. We need your services.”

Leave it to Tony not to mince words. Alex took a deep breath.

“Tony, I quit eight months ago. I haven’t changed my mind.”

“But you haven’t heard the deal on this one, my friend.”

“I don’t want to hear.”

Tony made a sound of impatience. “It’s the sweetest takeover I’ve ever seen. Smooth, easy. They’ll never see it coming. I’ve already got controlling interest. I just need you to come in and close the deal. It will make you richer than your wildest dreams.”

“I’m already richer than my wildest dreams, Tony.”

“You can always use more–”

“No. Don’t call me again.”


“Don’t.” Alex hung up the phone.

He leaned back and let out his breath slowly. Was it possibly he had ever enjoyed any of this?

Unfortunately, he could remember all too well just how enjoyable it had been. And he remembered just how it had all started. Anthony DeSalvio had hired him fresh out of law school, when Alex had still been green and full of chivalry. He’d become a lawyer to save the world from injustice. And then Tony, a senior partner, had come to him with a special assignment. Alex had been flattered beyond belief. A little corporate raiding, a takeover done by the book; it had been a rush. He’d saved all the little guys by getting rid of the big bad guys.

He’d been a smashing success.

It had gone to his head.

He’d woken up seven years later. It had taken his sister’s mysterious disappearance to make him take a good hard look at what he was doing with his own life; he hadn’t liked what he’d seen. He had become a pirate–a very rich pirate, but a pirate nonetheless. The little guys had become lost in the shuffle. Alex had raided just for the sheer sport of it, and for the money. He’s started out to save the world from injustice; instead he’d wound up being the cause of more injustice than he cared to think about.

So he’d walked away. Far away from New York and London and all the places where he’d hoisted the skull and crossbones. Leave it to Tony not to take his blunt and offensive resignation seriously.

“I need a change of scenery,” he said to the contents of Jamie’s study. “To somewhere sunny, like the Bahamas.”

Maybe Jamie had a few travel books on the shelf above his desk. Alex put off his shower a few minutes more in deference to Jamie’s private library. Surely there was some destination detailed there that would interest him. He had the time for a vacation. He certainly had the need for one.

He ran a finger along the spine of each book above Jamie’s desk, mentally checking off the ones he’d read.

Then he stopped.

Trails Through Time. Now, this was a new one. Alex pulled the book down and opened it. He read the inside jacket. “In Trails Through Time author Stephen McAfee takes the reader on a marvelous journey down roads in Britain, from Roman times to the present day.”

Interesting. Alex flipped through the pages, then stopped when something slipped out and landed on the desk with a soft plop. Alex put the book aside and reached for the folded piece of paper. It was very worn, as if it had been folded and unfolded dozens of times. He gingerly straightened it out, then looked at it in astonishment. It was a treasure map. Considering the day he was having, he was fairly impressed with his ability to recognize that.

Not that he should have been surprised. He’d been an Eagle Scout, after all, and one famous for his mapmaking skills. Add to that the board and plunder skills he’d acquired after law school and he had the piracy category all sewn up. This was, however, one of the oddest maps Alex had ever seen in his long and illustrious career.

There were the normal things, of course: requisite directional arrows, landmarks aplenty. In fact, the landmarks looked suspiciously like the surrounding countryside. Yes, Jamie’s mountains were there to the north. The castle sat prominently in the middle of the map, with the meadow below it due south. There was the forest to the west and another part of forest to the south. And that squiggle over there had to be the stream that fed into the pond not far from the garden. Alex stared at it for several minutes wondering what looked so strange.

Then it hit him.

There wasn’t just one X marking the spot. There were several.

To another man, such flagrant disregard for treasure-mapmaking standards might have only indicated slight befuddlement on the part of the mapmaker. But Alex wasn’t just another man. And the mapmaker was his brother-in-law, James MacLeod. And Jamie wasn’t befuddled, he was a honest-to-goodness, former mediev–

Alex put on the mental brakes before he traveled any further down that well-worn path. Traveling down any path Jamie was associated with was hazardous to one’s health. Maybe Jamie had just been scribbling in his spare time.

Unfortunately, those didn’t look like scribbles. Alex looked at the map again and frowned at what was very deliberately scrawled next to the X’s in Jamie’s bold handwriting.

Medieval England.

17th Century Barbados.

The Future.

It couldn’t mean what he thought it meant. The map was just Jamie’s doodles. People didn’t just walk over certain spots in the ground and up and disappear.

Though Barbados didn’t sound too bad at the moment. At least it would be sunny there. And look, there it was, due north of Medieval England. Alex left the map sitting prominently on top of the book where Jamie couldn’t help but notice that Alex had seen it. He would realize he’d been caught, and Alex would enjoy the opportunity to give Jamie a thorough ribbing. Heaven knew he deserved it.

Could it be true? Alex turned the possibility over in his mind. Barbados at least would be a pleasant change of scenery. What could it hurt to just go have a look and indulge in the fantasy for an hour or so? He had a great imagination. He could hang out under a tree and pretend he was loitering on some sunny beach. Maybe he’d even pretend he’d traveled there, just to see if he could rattle Jamie. Yes, the morning was starting to shape up nicely.

Alex left the study, grabbed his coat, and headed downstairs. He was still covered in horse snot, but there was no sense in getting cleaned up now. He wouldn’t need his shirt much longer because he’d be sunning himself on a nice beach, watching bikini-clad women strut their stuff in front of him–or at least pretending to do so. Given the fact that he hadn’t seen blue Scottish sky in weeks, Barbados was starting to sound mighty nice.

If there just wasn’t that disconcerting seventeenth-century business attached.

Alex plowed into his brother at the bottom of the steps.

“Hey,” Zachary said, annoyed, “watch it. You’re going to get me dirty and I have a date.”

Alex steadied himself with a hand on the wall. Zachary had a date? Alex hadn’t had a date in eight months, and he was the owner of a huge portfolio and worked out every day to keep his body from turning to fat. Zachary was a semi-starving former student who ate junk food in front of the television and grew thing on paper plates under his bed. How was this possible?

“With whom?” Alex asked, stunned.

Zachary smirked. “Fiona MacAllister.”

Alex reeled like a drunken man. “Fiona?” he gasped.

“Yeah,” Zachary said with a shrug. “You snooze, you lose, bro. And I wasn’t snoozing. I gotta go get cleaned up.” He gave Alex’s crusty shirt a pointed look before he mounted the stairs and disappeared out of sight.

Alex shook his head. Fiona MacAllister was the grocer’s daughter. Alex had been planning to ask her out for weeks. He’s just been waiting until he thought she might be used to him. After all, he was a rich and powerful former corporate raider, and he hadn’t wanted her to want him just for his money.

Alex pushed away from the wall. There was something very wrong in the world when his brother could get a girl to go out with him and he couldn’t.

He made one last detour to the kitchen on the off chance that some undiscovered cache of junk food was hiding there. He rummaged through the pantry and found his secret box of Ding-Dongs still safely hiding behind a container of oatmeal and a bag of rice. It was a good thing Zachary never came close to anything resembling a raw ingredient. Alex indulged himself immediately and tucked a second snack into his coat pocket. One never knew what one might find for dinner on the beach. No sense in not being prepared.

He shut the hall door behind him and put on his coat. As he walked across the courtyard to the stables, the rain increased with every step he took. It wasn’t a good sign, but he ignored it. Within minutes he had Beast saddled and was heading out the front gate.

He turned back to the north to look at the mountains behind the estate, with their last dustings of snow. Spring was right around the corner. He could smell it. He followed his nose as it pointed him to the west where a little stream ran into the pond which sat serenely next to the garden. Jamie had certainly done a good job reproducing that stream on the map. And there lay Barbados just past Medieval England on the other side of the pond.

Alex felt an uncomfortable tingle in the air and frowned. He could believe anything of the forest on the other side of the keep, but this bit of ground in front of him? There were no gateways to the past lurking under those boughs. Maybe his sister Elizabeth was just using the map for one of the romance novels she wrote.

Alex urged his horse forward, wondering as he did so just what he thought he was doing out in the rain on a horse who had a cold, following directions on a map made by his lunatic brother-in-law. He was losing it. It was the only answer. His breakfast of fermented cottage cheese had obviously had adverse effects on his common sense. Even the thought of mentally spending a morning in Barbados was starting to sound unappealing. He would probably be better off calling a travel agent.

But he had already come this far; there was no sense in turning back now. He continued on his way under the boughs of the rowan trees. The silence was palpable. A chill went down his spine. Alex pulled his collar closer to his neck and gave himself a hard mental shake.

All the same, he wondered just how Jamie had discovered all that business about those little gates.

Probably better not to know.

The trees thinned and suddenly gave way to an intimate little glade. The forest floor was carpeted with moss and clover and a large circle of plants. Elizabeth called it a faery ring. Alex looked narrowly at it. Was this the gate? Was it possible? He shook his head. It just couldn’t be anything more than a very simple ring in the grass.


Alex pulled out his spare infusion of chocolate and lard and munched thoughtfully. He’d traveled back to the fifteenth century through Jamie’s forest, but he didn’t remember having felt this kind of tingle in the air. Though at the time he’d been too worried about keeping his head on top of his neck to think much about the mechanics of the process.

Alex looked the silver ball of foil in his had and smiled faintly. It could be his version of the breadcrumb trail. He dropped it outside the ring, then patted his gelding’s neck.

“Well, Beast, we’re here so we may as well give this a try. We’ll sit here for a few minutes, pretend we’ve hiked on over to blue ocean and white sands, then we’ll go home and see what we can do about putting Zach out of commission. I’ll run to the market myself and take some action on this thing. Maybe Fiona just needs to know I’m interested. And if by some miracle we wind up on the beach, maybe Jamie will see our Ding-Dong trial and come get us. But not right away,” he added, nudging Beast forward until they were standing in the middle of the circle. “I could really use a dose of sunlight.”

Something whistled past his ear and Beast reared. Alex fought to stay mounted but it was a hopeless battle. He crashed to the ground, feeling a sharp pain in the back of his head. Then he saw stars, lots of them. He gritted his teeth as he struggled to stay conscious. He should have told Zach where he was going. Well, at least his brother would eventually realize Beast was gone. Maybe the brat would have the good sense to come after him before he drowned in the rain.

Through the haze that clouded his vision, he could have sworn he saw an arrow quivering in a tree above him. This was not a good sign.

He felt the definite nudge of a foot in his side. A booted foot. A very ungentle foot.

He tried to focus, but the pain in his head was blinding. Then he felt cold steel press against his neck. Now he knew he was losing it.

“You trespass on my lands,” a husky voice snarled. “Give me your name and your business.”

Alex blinked against the rain that had suddenly started up again with renewed vigor. All right, so some yahoo had wandered onto Jamie’s estate and had decided to rob him. If he could just buy time enough to let his head clear, he could deal with this. He started to sit up, then got help. He was hauled into a sitting position by the front of his jacket and he groaned involuntarily at the agony the motion sent flooding to his brain.

“Just a minute,” he said. He put his hand on his attacker’s shoulder to steady himself and forced his eyes to focus.

Big, brown eyes stared back at him from the shelter of a chain-mail coif.

A chain-mail coif?

Alex took in the rest of the boy’s outfit. He was sporting chain mail head to toe, topped by a surcoat, leather cross-garters over boots, and crude leather gloves. One gloved hand currently gripped a sword. Alex looked back at the young man’s face. It was a face far too beautiful to have been wasted on a boy. Maybe the kid got teased a lot.

“Your name, you fool!” the boy demanded.

It was then that Alex realized fully that something was dreadfully wrong. He was still cold, there were still trees around him–but he was being shaken by what looked to be a knight in full battle gear.

“Hey,” he said, “I was heading for Barbados!”

“If that is your word for hell, then indeed that is where you will be going if you do not answer me!” the young knight said angrily. “Must I cut your name and business from you?”

Alex was too stunned to answer. Damn it, he’d wandered straight into Medieval England!

“Just let me sit here for a minute, okay?” Alex said. “And stop shaking me!”

The knight shook him again anyway. “I should slit your throat to save myself the trouble of having you on my land.”

Alex watched the boy lift his sword to do that, when from the trees behind the knight there came the sound of merry whistling. His captor released him so quickly that he fell back again, smacking his head smartly against the ground.

“Count yourself fortunate you are so near the border,” the young man snarled, “else I would slay you and not be sorry.”

Alex was vaguely aware of the knight leaving the clearing. He stared up at the sky and let the rain fall on him unimpeded. Well, at least it might eventually soak his shirt enough to get it clean. No sense in time traveling when he was looking less than his best.

His horse ambled over and nudged him with his nose.

“This is all your fault, Beast,” Alex said. “If you hadn’t had a cold, I never would have gone into the house and never would have found that damned map.” Alex tried to sit up, but it was just too much effort. “Just a few more minutes,” he promised himself. “I’ll lie here for a few more minutes.”

He frowned as the singing came closer. This bozo couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. The singing stopped abruptly to be replaced by a gasp. Alex heard the snorting of another horse and the jingle of spurs. Alex stared up at the sky until the gray was blocked by the sight of another man in chain mail.

“This is merely hypoglycemic trauma brought on by lack of junk food,” Alex said firmly, closing his eyes. “I need Twinkies. I need Moon Pies.” He groaned. “Damn it, Jamie, I’ll get you for this!”

“My lord, allow me to assist you.”

“Go away,” Alex said crossly. “And stop singing. You suck.”

Soft laughter greeted his ears. “Good sir, you’ve had a fall that has addled your wits.” The scrape of metal and creak of leather preceded a firm hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Can you sit?”

“The question is, do I want to? And the answer is no.”

“You certain do not wish to remain here. We are too near Margaret of Falconberg’s land. Very fortunate are you that she hasn’t sent one of her men to slay you already.”

Alex was torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry. Damn it, why hadn’t Jamie locked that map up? Or at least put some kind of decent warning on it? Alex decided that when he managed to make his way back to 1998, he would strangle his brother-in-law and enjoy every minute of it.

With a heavy sigh he opened his eyes and looked up. “Who the hell are you?”

The man’s smile deepened into a grin. “Edward of Brackwald, at your service. Be you thankful I am so even-tempered, else your insults would have forced me to challenge you.” His grin didn’t fade. “Fortunately for you, I committed adultery with the countess of Devonshire a se’nnight past. My penance was to do a good turn for one in need.”

Alex sat up with a groan and gingerly touched the back of his head. “If ever there were a man in need, it’s me.” He looked at Edward of Brackwald and winced. Chain mail. A surcoat. Cross-garters covering hose and boots.

Alex sighed. “Let me guess. England, right?”

“Ah, you’re one of King Richard’s lads, eh?” Edward said with a soft laugh. “No Saxony or Normandy for you and your kind. Though I daresay you speak English with the lack of skill only a Norman could boast of.”

“My French is even worse,” Alex sighed. He rubbed the back of his neck with his fingers, grimacing at the the pull. “Well, the scribbles didn’t lie. Twelfth-century England. Jamie did this one up right.”

“Who is Jamie?”

“My brother-in-law. It’s a very long story.”

“I have nothing but time on my hands. Let us return to my brother’s hall. I can see by the condition of your garments that you’ve been traveling for quite some time.”

Alex didn’t bother to correct him. “I’d really love to, but I need to be getting home.” He closed his eyes and conjured up an image of Jamie’s keep.

No, that wasn’t working. All he could imagine was his fingers around his brother-in-law’s throat. Satisfying, but not very positive. He turned his thoughts to his car, but all he could see was it wrapped around a tree with Zachary standing next to it looking sheepish.

‘Tis my experience that a body cannot come home until his task in the past is finished.

Jamie’s words hit Alex with the force of a wrecking ball, and he gasped in spite of himself. If what Jamie had said was true, the ramifications were startling.

First, he might not be able to get home until he’d done what he was supposed to do in medieval England.

Second, Jamie had been doing more research on the subject than was good for him.

Either way, Alex knew he was doomed.

“My lord?”

“I think I would appreciate some help. For the moment,” he said, as a reminder to himself. He’d get rid of his headache, then he’d go home and kill Jamie.

“What is your name, my lord?”



Alex smiled. “Of Seattle, originally.” Maybe it was just as well he didn’t admit to any Scottish connections for the moment.

“Ah,” Edward said wisely. “From the continent, I assume. Very well, then. Let us speak French. That will soothe my brother. He’s of a mind that the English tongue should be executed along with its Saxon speakers.”

Then he launched into a long, drawn out tale only a portion of which Alex caught. He might have been fluent in Gaelic and fairly respectable in Old English, but his French was so poor as to be almost nonexistent. Too bad he hadn’t landed in ancient Rome. His Latin was excellent. Next time he would head over to that X. Damn, but he’d really wanted to wind up in Barbados. If he’d know the map was accurate, he would have worked a little harder at following it. White beaches, naked women, tasty rum. Why hadn’t he headed north instead of south?

“Sir Alex? Or should I call you lord? Is your father a nobleman?”

Alex had the distinct feeling Edward wouldn’t understand if he learned Robert Smith was a pediatrician. Best not to explain. Indulging in delusions of grandeur couldn’t hurt, could it?

“My father is a very important man in, ah, Seattle.”

“Ah, a nobleman. Then you are a knight?”

“Um, sure,” Alex lied. No sense in labeling himself as a serf from the start.

Edward looked at Alex’s feet. “But where are your spurs, Sir Alex? And your sword? By the saints, have you been robbed?”

“Well, not exactly. I sort of left them at home.”

“Ah,” Edward said, “I see. A dangerous way to travel, to be sure, but each man must act as he sees fit. Let us away to Brackwald and perhaps other gear can be found for you there.”

“Sounds good to me,” Alex said as he accepted Edward’s hand up. He heaved himself up into the saddle and gritted his teeth at the flare of pain in his skull. Edward started babbling again in French.

“Not so fast,” Alex begged. “My French is very poor.”

“How can that be,” Edward asked, “If your kin are from the continent?”

“I’ve been traveling most of my life.”

Edward’s ready smile was back. “Of course, Sir Alex.”

Alex followed Edward’s lead and poured all his energies into staying conscious. He would blink a couple of times, mumble a few old Celtic names as a spell, then be home. Jamie probably was just theorizing about that whole task in the past business. Damn him and his Scottish philosophizing. Alex pushed thoughts of bodily harm out of his mind and concentrated on his return. Maybe he’d manage to get home in time to head off Zachary before he went on his date with Fiona.

He felt himself begin to slip from the saddle, but found he didn’t have the energy to do anything but go with it. He landed in the mud with a bone-jarring thump.

As his last coherent thought flashed across his brain, it occurred to him that Jamie and Elizabeth had been coming home after long weekends looking quite tanned. Alex had the feeling he knew just where they’d been going on their little overnighters.

Sunny Barbados.

And here he was in soggy England.

Damn them both!