Mary looked as if she were about to argue, but when she met Rachel's eyes, she seemed to change her mind. "I can see you're determined. What's between you two, Rachel?"
"Nothing that need concern you. Go, now. Try to hold the men off until I get there."
Sighing, Mary left. Rachel stood at the door, watching her go. Then she turned, wandered back to the hall that led to the library, and called Donovan's name. She heard his steps coming toward her, felt his essence touching her even before he came into sight. He only looked into her eyes, standing very still, then nodded. "You're leaving tonight, aren't you Rachel?"
"I must. You have to let me go, Donovan. It's-"
He held up a hand. "I won't stop you. My... arrangements are in place, for the most part. I can leave here right after you do."
She tilted her head, frowning hard at him. "My God, Donovan, do you still believe that's necessary? After what we've shared? The way we've talked... you really think I'd leave here only to tell your secrets to the world?"
He lowered his head. "What I believe," he whispered, "is that I'm as big a fool as Dante was. But I've no wish to suffer the same fate."
She looked up at him, stared deeply into his eyes, and what she saw there was pain. "If you leave... I'll never be able to find you again. Will I?"
He averted his eyes. "That's the entire point."
"No," she said softly. "It's not even close to the point."
"Then what is?"
She stepped closer, gripped the front of his shirt in trembling fists. "Must I throw my heart at your feet and wait for you to kick it aside? I will then. You mean more to me than my pride."
"I love you, Donovan O'Roark. I've loved you all my life, and I will until I die."
His face seemed to crumple in pain.
"I'm leavin' you tonight, yes. Because I must. But only tonight. I'd have come back. I'd have come back here, for you."
"You'd do well to leave, too, Donovan, for there's danger to you here tonight. But it's up to you where you go. Far away, where I can never set eyes on you again. Or close by... close enough so that I can find you... or you can find me."
Slowly, he shook his head. "You don't understand. It's the curse of my kind to live our lives alone, Rachel. It's how it has to be."
"No. 'Tis how you've made it. You have a choice now, Donovan. But it's up to you." Tears choked her. God, she didn't want to leave him. To lose him. To never see him again. But if she didn't, she might lose him anyway. To an angry mob, just the way he'd lost Dante. Impulsively, tears streaming over her cheeks, she pressed her lips to his, clung to his neck for a brief, passionate kiss. Then she turned and fled, through the front door and into the waning night.
When she left it was as if my heart had been torn apart. I should leave as well, I knew. I should pack up the few belongings I'd need, and make my way out of here. I didn't know what Mary had told her, but I didn't disbelieve Rachel when she said I'd be in danger here tonight. I should hurry.
I should. But I couldn't.
She said she'd come back, and d.a.m.n me for a fool, I believed her. More than that, I wanted it to be true. This place had never been more alive-I'dnever been more alive-than when she was here. Lighting my darkness. A blazing sun shining her warmth on my endless night.
She might betray me, as I'd spent so much time convincing myself she would. If she did, I'd be d.a.m.ned. But I couldn't leave until I knew.
I went to the settee lowered myself to it, bowed my head, and sat there, very still.
Who was I kidding? She wasn't going to betray me. I'd lost my heart to the woman, and when she came back I'd be here waiting. And I'd tell her, at last. My heart was in her hands.
Rachel sailed into the pub as if she hadn't a care in the world, though her heart was heavy. He'd be gone when she went back. He'd be gone, and she'd never see him again.
Still, she feigned surprise when she saw the men crowding the room, with Marney standing at the front of them all. "My," she whispered. "Business is better when I'm away, isn't it? And what's the celebration tonight that has half the village in attendance?"
"'Tis no celebration, Rachel." Marney stepped forward, clutching her hands as if she were his property. "But 'tis glad I am that you've returned. You'll be out of harm's way when we storm that d.a.m.nable castle."
She frowned, and drew her hands from his. "An' why is it you're plannin' to attack an empty ruin?"
"Aye," she said with a nod. "Donovan has gone. Only came for one last look at the place before leaving it for good. 'Tis a shame you didn't make him feel more welcome here, you know. He's a kind man."
"He's a beast!" someone yelled.
"Oh, I don't think that's true. He was kind enough to help me with my research before he went on his way." She walked behind the bar, reaching for her ap.r.o.n.
"I think you're lyin', Rachel," Marney said, eyeing her. "I think you're trying to protect him, an' you wouldn't be if you weren't under his spell."
"Spell?" she asked, wide-eyed. "Don't tell me you're fool enough to believe he's more than just an ordinary man?"
"You know he is."
She did. He was above and beyond ordinary and ten times the man of any in this room. But instead of telling them so, she only shrugged. "I know no such thing. But I do know this, Marney. I'll not allow you to harm him."
"Then he is still there!" Marney shouted, banging a fist on the table.
"I didn't say-"
"You didn't have to. You've been naught but cold to me since your return, Rachel. An' everyone knows you'd planned to marry me before you left. 'Tis that beast who's swayed yer mind."
"I never planned to marry you. The plans were all on your side," she told him. "And 'twas indeed a beast who made up my mind, Marney, but the beast was you. Not Donovan O'Roark."
"We're going' up there, and when we leave there'll be nothing left but rubble. He'll not escape us... not alive, at least."
He turned and the other men rose. They piled out the door, Marney leading them. Rachel surged after them all, but they moved quickly, and though she caught hold of several of the men, tugging at them, pleading with them, they were too frenzied to listen to her. When they turned onto the curving castle road, Rachel ducked into the woods and raced for the shortcut Dante had shown her, so she could come out ahead of them.
But when she got to the frenzied men again, it was to see the castle door opening to their pounding summons, and Donovan stepping out.
He eyed the crowd, shook his head slowly. He looked utterly calm, but she knew what he must be thinking. That she'd done this to him, just as her ancestor had done to his best friend. That she'd left him only to lead this crowd back here. That she'd betrayed him.
Then he lifted his head. "Where is Rachel?" he asked. "Have you harmed her?"
She blinked in surprise, unable to speak. He thought they'd harmed her? Then...
"Rachel's no longer your concern," Marney told him. "We all know you've bewitched her somehow, or she'd never defend you the way she has. Once you're gone, she'll be fine again." "Defended me, did she? I'm not surprised," Donovan said, and she could have sworn he battled a gentle smile. "Once I'm gone, you say," Donovan went on. "So you intend to kill me, do you?"
"Aye," Marney growled.
"Just so long as you're honest about your reasons," Donovan went on. "You want me gone because of Rachel. Because it's me she loves and not you."
The men grumbled, and someone yelled, "Is that true, Marney?"
"So will you drive me out into the sunrise, Neal," Donovan went on, "or simply kill me here and now?"
"Here and now," Marney whispered.
"Are you sure you can?"
Marney's eyes narrowed and he lifted his rifle. Rachel screamed and lunged from the woods, slamming her body into Marney's, and groping for the gun. But-she never found a hold. Marney staggered backward under the weight of her assault, and the shot cracked so loudly her eardrums split. Then she felt the burn... the heat. The rapid pulse of life from her body.
Blinking in shock, she would have fallen to the ground, had not Donovan lunged forward to gather her into his arms. "d.a.m.n you!" he shouted. "d.a.m.n you, look what you've done! Rachel? Rachel!" She opened her eyes, studied his face. Then she turned to Marney. Go," she told him. "Go away. If I see you again...." Marney backed away. Already the other men were scattering shocked from their fury, perhaps, to realize just what they'd been about to do. What had happened as a result of their foolishness.
Cradling her in his arms, Donovan bent over her, kissed her face. And Mary crowded through the retreating men, made her way forward while Marney stood in the road, blinking in shock. She leaned over Rachel, parting her blouse, and looking at her chest, where the pain throbbed and burned. Grimly, Mary lifted her gaze to Donovan's. "You can help her," she whispered. "Can't you?"
Through her fading vision, Rachel saw him nod. Then Mary turned away. "'Tis only a flesh wound," she called to Marney. "But I vow unless ye leave here now I'll inform the authorities an' have you arrested for attempted murder. An' if you ever bother these people again, I'll do it. Now go!"
Nodding, muttering that it wasn't his fault, Marney turned and ran away like the coward he was.
Mary faced the two of them once more. "I don't imagine I'll see you again, will I?"
Rachel said nothing, unsure what Mary meant.
"Goodbye, child. Be happy."
Then she was gone.
Rachel stared up into Donovan's eyes. "I was afraid you'd think I brought them..."
"I knew better."
"You know I did. I kept telling you I couldn't trust, couldn't care... even when I already did. I doubted you, Rachel, from the start, and I'm more sorry than I can tell you. You didn't deserve that. But you never gave up on me, did you?"
"How could I? You're in my soul, Donovan O'Roark. You have been since I was but a wee girl."
"And you in mine," he told her. "You made me believe in you, Rachel. Made me... made me love you when I'd vowed it was something I'd never do. I love you, Rachel Sullivan. Do you hear me? I love you."
"Of course you do," she whispered. "You always have."
He smiled very gently.
"I'm dying," she whispered.
"But you can prevent it, can't you, Donovan? You can make me... like you."
"'Tis not an easy way to live, child. Never again to see the sunlight. Always knowing there are those who would hunt you, kill you simply for being what you are." "Wandering hand in hand beneath the moonlight, spending every moment in your arms," she said weakly. "'Tis the life I want, so long as I can live it by your side. That's the dream I've always had, Donovan. To be with you... as we're meant to be... together." "Then together we shall be, Rachel. Always." He lowered his head and kissed her, and she knew she'd found her dream come true, at last. *****