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Rhianwyn leaned against an ancient yew, watching the grass waving rhythmically in the morning breeze. Inhaling earthy scents from last night’s rainfall, she listened to the shrill call of a goshawk soaring overhead and observed the pretty pink sunrise. Nature’s splendor once gladdened her heart or soothed her soul no matter what life threw at her. Yet lately…nothing truly cheered her.
She gazed across the plain at the towering stones. Even though she’d been born and raised near the village of Hengebury, walking distance from the massive stone formation, the size still awed her. She’d always been drawn to the sunstones. Unfortunately, now the location only held deep regret.
“Silver penny for your thoughts, Elspeth.”
Even hearing his voice made her heart flutter.
She turned, hoping to seem unaffected by him, but felt herself blush at the memory of their recent heated coupling. The physical union with her beloved husband, which to him would have been adultery. How she longed to have the ability to go back in time.
One fateful night last autumn, she met three friends within the mystical stone circle for a final farewell before being thrust into unwanted futures. Rhianwyn was ordered to give up her healing and marry an arrogant Irish nobleman; Elspeth, a castle servant, was promised to the sheriff’s despicable son; Princess Lilliana would be sent to Cymru to marry a Welsh prince she’d never even seen; and gentle, innocent Selena was to begin life as a harlot.
They’d bitterly complained, bemoaning what lay ahead of them. How much better the other friends’ lives seemed. That’s when the stones glowed eerily and a strange old crone appeared, offering them an enchanted opportunity. They could, if they chose, enter a magical pact to exchange lives, to spend one season with their consciousness inside the body of each friend.
The others had leaped at the chance, seemingly without thought. Rhianwyn had been skeptical, but fear for young Selena caused her to consider. Eventually, she’d sworn to enter the magical pact with her friends. Now they were bound to it, probably damned by it. Thus far, Rhianwyn had lived winter as Selena and spring as Elspeth. With summer nearly upon them, it was almost time for the transformation that would put her into Lilliana’s life. One last season, and then, pray God, she could once again live as herself.
Despite being more empathetic of the other women’s plights, she yearned for her own life. After she and Broccan Mulryan, lord of Brockwell Manor and revered knight in the king’s order, were married, she’d rued the pact even more. She and Broccan had been wonderfully happy and shared a loving, passionate relationship.
After everything that happened, even when the year concluded…even if she returned to her life with Broccan, she doubted they’d ever regain their bliss. Her heart despaired at that.
Now he was gazing at her intently, probably wondering why she hadn’t replied. To capably sound like Elspeth, she’d best think of a witty retort.
“I didn’t think you’d be awake,” she said finally. “Aren’t you suffering a morbid aching head from overdrinking and feeling weary after your eventful night?”
“It was late when I returned from the castle.” Broccan nodded. “But I thought you’d want to hear about Godric since he’d been missing for some time.”
She shrugged. “Matty told me my lout of a husband still lives. I suppose I should be relieved. At least I can’t be accused of killing him. But that also means I’m still married to the bastard!”
Thoughts of Godric made her queasy. The night he’d disappeared, Godric had attacked her. He’d gotten away with criminality before, but raping and beating Elspeth nearly to death had blackened his name. Rhianwyn, who’d been in Elspeth’s body at the time, had suffered the pain, degradation, and fear. If he was released, she suspected he’d become more violent and try to harm Elspeth…again.
Selena who’d next take her turn as Elspeth had returned from Cymru with far more confidence. Rhianwyn wouldn’t permit Godric to make her fearful again. Therefore, she must find a way to deal with him. She couldn’t involve Broccan. He had to remain clearheaded during the dangerous competitions.
“I wish the vile shite was dead, too,” Broccan said.
Shivering, she pulled her shawl tighter. Broccan also appeared deep in thought.
Yesterday evening he’d been asking peculiar questions. Could he know something about the magical transformation? Had he noticed she and her friends weren’t themselves—literally? Her body became warmer; her heart beat faster remembering the latter part of the night when she and Broccan made love. Since her soul was in Elspeth’s body that meant he’d been unfaithful in his marriage…again. She clung to the hope that he knew it was her.
She shouldn’t have lain with him. They’d been filled with drink and her need for him was visceral, no matter what body her awareness inhabited. When he’d come to her, she didn’t resist but if he discovered the whole truth, there’d be no salvaging their marriage.
Besides, it would also be perilous. The unusual old woman warned them not to speak of it. When Rhianwyn dared to try to tell Broccan before, there’d been treacherous consequences—fire, dangerous lightning strikes, and a vicious wolf attack. She couldn’t risk it.
“You needn’t worry he’ll hurt you again, Elspeth. He’s in the dungeon babblin’ like a bloody lunatic. He will be made accountable for all he’s done to you and others.”
Broccan despised Godric nearly as much as she did.
“Just forget him,” she said. “You should be resting for the tournament. Sir Severin’s counting on you making a good showing. The king would be disheartened, too, if his knights aren’t victorious.”
How relieved she’d be when this accursed pact was done. One more season! She’d begin living Lilliana’s life as princess midway through the jousting tournament and weaponry competitions that would commence tomorrow. Knights and warriors from several kingdoms were expected to attend. Lilliana’s husband, Prince Tyven, was slated to take part. Rhianwyn was curious to meet the man who’d be her husband for three moons.
Her eyes met Broccan’s again. His very gaze made her skin tingle and her mind nearly incapable of clear thought. Still, she needed to appear aloof.
“I must go.” She turned from him. “I’m meeting Rhianwyn and Selena this morning.”
He reached for her, clasping her arm. His touch thrilled her. “We should talk…about last night.”
She pulled away, trying to ignore the way her body responded when he was near. She ached for his kiss and to be held in his powerful arms.
“There’s nothing to say. It shouldn’t have happened and it won’t happen again.” She longed to appear unfeeling, like Elspeth. But Rhianwyn’s heart raced; her breath quickened.
Broccan drew nearer, grasped her shoulders, and stared into her eyes. “We can’t ignore this attraction,” he said. “I want you even now.”
She closed her eyes avoiding his ruggedly handsome face and muscular body. Inhaling his enticing masculine scent made her weak at the knees.
Step away. Resist.
She must be more like Elspeth who always spoke her mind, not caring if she was tactless, hurtful, or outrageously inappropriate.
“So, we want each other,” she scoffed. “We can’t be together again. You are wed to my friend, which wasn’t foremost in our minds last night. You must mend your marriage. I won’t suffer the noose for Godric’s murder, but adultery could bring an equally grim outcome for me. I’ll not be tempted again no matter how sumptuous you are, Sir Broccan.”
Rhianwyn glanced at his large, strong hands. His touch was enthralling. Now her body hummed with need. As much as she despaired leaving Broccan, going to Cymru, a two-day journey by horse, would be best. He wouldn’t be a constant temptation.
“Take your damn hands off me!” She hoped to sound demanding.
He puffed his cheeks, blew out his breath, but finally moved away.
“We can’t be together again, Broccan. You promised faithfulness to your wife, and she is my friend.”
Not waiting for his response, she hastened away. Being near him would weaken her resolve.
Rhianwyn, Elspeth and Lilliana gathered in the guesthouse’s dining hall. Unexpected rain had changed their intent to meet in the garden. They couldn’t speak openly at Brockwell Manor and risk Broccan, Matty, or the servants overhearing. Hopefully Mirtha and Fairfax, the siblings residing here, would remain at the stables with Chester, the groom. The minstrel Keyon still slept here sometimes but was presently at the castle.
Selena, in Princess Lilliana’s form, joined them wearing a cheerful smile much contrary to Elspeth—unmissably hungover, resting her head on her arms on the table. Rhianwyn disliked seeing the cantankerous scowl on her own face. If Elspeth remained her much longer it might be forever etched.
“Well, Rhianwyn,” Elspeth grumbled, “you dragged us here at this godforsaken hour. What’s on your mind?”
Rhianwyn inhaled. “Broccan suspects something about the pact. I’m certain that’s why he asked those bizarre questions last night. We must ensure he can’t confirm his suspicions. We need to be more diligent in pretending we’re the person our appearance suggests. Broccan’s an intelligent man and will be paying closer attention to mannerisms that could give us away.”
Elspeth lifted her head and rolled her eyes.
“There!” Rhianwyn pointed. “Everyone knows you do that when you’re annoyed. Therefore, you mustn’t.”
Elspeth rolled her eyes again, pulled a face, and stuck out her tongue. How damn infantile!
“Well go on; tell me what else I shouldn’t do if I’m trying to convince others that I’m you, Lady Brockwell.”
Rhianwyn despised that title and Elspeth well knew it.
“You cross your arms when you’re angry,” Rhianwyn replied.
“And incessantly jest and speak of inappropriate subjects,” Lilliana said.
“Your strong voice is very loud,” Selena whispered, looking sheepish saying that.
Elspeth shrugged. “Anyway, I’m nearly done being Rhianwyn. I’ll need to take on Selena’s traits.”
Rhianwyn nodded. “So, tell us some.”
Elspeth pulled her hands through her unbound hair, which Rhianwyn noted was dreadfully tangled. She had nearly dragged her out of bed.
“Selena’s quiet and timid, afraid of nearly everything,” Elspeth said. “She’s gullible and naïve, high-strung and easily led astray.”
It was Selena’s turn to make a face.
“If Selena’s easily led astray, who do you suppose does the leading?” Rhianwyn quipped.
Elspeth grinned, almost proudly. “Selena, your voice is so soft it’s difficult to hear. That’s when you actually dare to offer your opinion, which is bloody rare. You fear displeasing others—want everyone always cheery and agreeable.” Another eye roll. “You cry at the drop of a handkerchief, clasp your hands when worried and twist your hair when you’re nervous or afraid.”
Selena wore a wounded expression. “Apparently you think I have no favorable traits.”
Rhianwyn touched Selena’s hand. “You’re kind, gentle, and empathetic. You see the best in people and are wonderfully forgiving, hence the reason why you remain friends with Elspeth.”
Rhianwyn cast a reproachful glance at Elspeth. “Selena shouldn’t bear the brunt of your foul mood.”
Elspeth pouted. “You’d never defend me so readily.”
“You’re mostly amusing, Elspeth. You make others laugh and lighten our hearts when you’re not being damn unseemly. You defend those you care for. Even if it’s usually by cussing at or punching the offender.”
Rhianwyn and Elspeth shared a smile.
“Should I list your unfavorable traits?” Elspeth asked.
Rhianwyn shrugged. “Go on then.”
This should take a while. The two had bantered often through the years.
“You believe you’re wiser and more intelligent than us.” Elspeth gestured toward them.
She quelled the urge to adamantly disagree.
“Rhianwyn does know much about healing and almost everything,” Selena praised.
“Which makes her think she’s more important,” Elspeth said.
“That’s completely untrue.” Rhianwyn shook her head.
Lilliana narrowed her eyes. “You basically said that the night we made the pact. Let me recall your words.” She paused contemplatively. “‘Meaning no disrespect, but it took me years to learn to become a healer.’ Then you added something wholly patronizing like… ‘It did probably take time to learn to behave as a princess or to attend to the king and princess’s chambers as they wished, but it couldn’t possibly be essential as knowing about healing.’”
“I apologize if I seemed patronizing,” Rhianwyn replied. “However, I didn’t say being a healer was more essential. I said not knowing about healing could cost someone their life.”
“You sounded as arrogant as your husband often does,” Elspeth agreed with Lilliana, which was rare. “No wonder you two were attracted to one another.”
“Almost all men are attracted to Rhianwyn,” Selena said.
“True.” Lilliana placed her fingers on her chin elegantly. “Our friend’s had a host of knights and other men hanging about her for some time.”
“You received the first marriage proposal.” Elspeth nodded. “You’re the only one who’s had actual proposals. My father and the sheriff arranged my undesired wedding. The marriage advisor and several others began plotting whom Lilliana should marry probably immediately after the king announced she was born with a cranny.”
“I only received the first proposal because I’m the eldest,” Rhianwyn reasoned. “Born a year before you, Elspeth, and two before Lilliana and Selena.”
“As a harlot, I’ll never get a proposal,” Selena said, sadly.
Selena dreamed of being wed and raising a large family. The other three friends, having lost their mothers in childbed, were less inclined.
“Sir Zachary would marry you straightaway.” Lilliana glanced at Selena. “In truth, he’s already asked you…well he asked me.”
“I missed my own marriage proposal!” Selena slumped, not looking like a princess now. “How did you respond?”
“I told him I’d dwell on it. I thought you’d want to decide.”
“That was good of you.” Selena used sarcasm, which was uncommon. “I like Zachary but certainly don’t want to wed him.”
Elspeth put her hands before her, perplexed. “God’s teeth. I thought you yearned to marry, Selena!”
“I don’t yet know Zachary well enough to marry him,” Selena explained.
Lilliana laughed. “Your body knows him very well…biblically.”
Selena threw her an uncharacteristic glare.
“It’s interesting,” Elspeth said, “Rhianwyn didn’t even mention Selena when stating being a healer was so infinitely important.”
“I did not say that!” Rhianwyn bristled. “By Christ, you like to stir the shit, Elspeth. I didn’t mention Selena, for at the time she hadn’t become a harlot. It wouldn’t be easy to be a harlot, a castle servant, or a princess.”
“But being a healer would be more important,” Lilliana said.
Was she agreeing or being difficult?
“I suspect men frequenting the brothel would argue that.” Elspeth smirked. “They’d believe a harlot far more necessary than a healer.”
“Until they come to me wanting a potion to get hard or to stay hard longer. Or they drop their breeches and suggest I touch it to see if it would get hard or they need an ointment for spindle rash and request I rub it upon it.”
The other women wore expressions from astonishment to disgust at Rhianwyn’s revelation.
Elspeth snorted. “You might’ve seen more spindles than me!”
“Men honestly requested those kinds of potions and wanted you to touch them?” Selena looked mortified.
Rhianwyn nodded. “Some men were humiliated. Others only hoped to befuddle me.”
“Or sard you.” Elspeth snickered. “Men are often swine, which is why I prefer women. Well sometimes. In truth I wouldn’t want to choose.”
“As much as it grieves you, Rhianwyn, I admit I’m relieved you’re no longer permitted to heal,” Lilliana said. “I wouldn’t want to be expected to know all you do. But now let’s continue deciding how we might convince others we are who our appearances suggest.”
“Maybe you should tell me how you sound during sexual relations, Selena,” Elspeth continued, “or do you remain still and silent?”
Elspeth enjoyed making Selena uncomfortable. Selena squirmed even now, cheeks flaming.
“Did Prince Tyven make your time in Welshland pleasant?” Elspeth wouldn’t let up. “I suppose we could ask Broccan what type of lover you are. He was with you when he thought you were Rhianwyn. Of course, he was with Rhianwyn when he thought she was you, too.” Elspeth snorted, clearly bemused, which didn’t amuse Rhianwyn. She threw her a daggered gaze.
“How do you react when you’re sarding, Rhianwyn?” Elspeth asked.
“Since I’ve had the displeasure of hearing your loud, exuberant cries during coitus, with my husband no less, I tell you plain, I’m not as vocal as you.” Fighting her temper, Rhianwyn tucked her hair behind her ear.
“You do that when displeased, Rhianwyn.” Lilliana mimicked the gesture. “You also place your hands on your hips when you’re angry.”
Rhianwyn nodded. “I’ve been trying to curb that habit.”
She resisted now.
“You look like you want to say more,” Selena said.
Rhianwyn paused, not really wanting to. “This should bring you great satisfaction, Elspeth. I must speak on the topic of coupling.”
“Please do tell.” Lilliana’s eyes were wide in anticipation, which looked precisely like Selena.
“When I reach my…crest…I…” she stammered, taking a breath. “My right thumbnail makes an indentation that sometimes pierces the skin of the man, leaving a distinct arched mark. I wasn’t aware till last night when…”
Elspeth leaned closer, eagerly. “Go on…when?”
“When I was with Broccan,” Rhianwyn blurted. Not willing to meet their eyes, she looked down, watching a hairy spider scuttle across the stone floor.
Elspeth chuckled, probably pleased she wasn’t the only one guilty of sinfulness.
“With Broccan intimately?” Lilliana looked dumbstruck.
Rhianwyn nodded abashedly.
Elspeth rolled her eyes again. “That was bound to happen when you let him share your bed.”
Lilliana peered at Rhianwyn. “You were sharing a bed? I didn’t know and my chamber’s next to yours at the manor.”
“Lilliana, you and Zachary have been so preoccupied—your cries so loud,” Elspeth snorted, “you likely didn’t know anything existed beyond those walls.”
Lilliana glowered at Elspeth.
“It began innocently,” Rhianwyn explained, perhaps justified. “Broccan slept beside me to comfort and warm me after Godric’s attack. Besides, Elspeth had banished Broccan from their bedchambers.”
Selena looked more confused.
“At any rate,” Rhianwyn continued, “Matty interrupted us before my thumbnail did any piercing. However, I believe Broccan was mostly with me to learn if I was actually me and not Elspeth, to see if I’d react similarly during intimacy.”
“I’m sure he was only too glad to be with you.” Elspeth crossed her arms. “Even if he hasn’t wanted me lately.” That last bit was nearly a whisper.
Elspeth despaired when Broccan hadn’t been capable of fulfilling his husbandly duties in bed. Elspeth was accustomed to regular coupling and men always wanting her. The situation had shaken her confidence.
“You were truly with Broccan again?” Selena sounded disappointed. “Rhianwyn, how could you? You know how much it distressed him last time.”
When Selena’d taken her turn as Rhianwyn she’d developed feelings for Broccan, even believed she was falling in love with him, and didn’t want him hurt. When Rhianwyn was Selena, she and Broccan eventually had sexual relations and the guilt tormented him.
Rhianwyn sighed. “I know. But I love him so. I can’t possibly explain the powerful pull Broccan has on me. Our honeymoon was barely over when the first transformation happened. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other. We often made love several times a day. My desire hasn’t changed. When my soul inhabits other bodies, I still want him desperately. I don’t expect you to understand how difficult it is for me to resist him.” She exhaled and her fringe fluttered.
“You do that when you’re distressed or breathless.” Selena gestured toward Rhianwyn’s hair.
Rhianwyn smoothed her fringe.
“Rhianwyn will soon take her turn as me,” Lilliana said. “What habits or characteristics should she know?”
They all thought for a time.
“You lift your chin in the air when you’re angry, offended, displeased…or come to it, nearly all the damn time,” Elspeth said, “which makes you look right snooty.”
Lilliana did so even now. Elspeth chortled, nudging Selena. “She just proved that truth.”
“You jab people with your elbow, Elspeth,” Lilliana said. “It is altogether unfeminine and annoying. You also tread most unladylike.”
“Tread? Who the hell treads, but you?” Elspeth growled. “You walk like a damn queen adjusting your skirts and robes with an air about you like you’re commanding everyone to look at you with reverence. Like you’ve never done anything dishonorable in your entire life.”
“You’re supposed to be Lady Brockwell,” Lilliana taunted. “You hardly appear a lady with your tangled hair and still attired in a sleeping garment.”
Lilliana sniffed disapprovingly—arrogantly.
“Rhianwyn bloody woke me up before the crack of dawn and I overdrank last night,” Elspeth snarled.
Lilliana smiled smugly. “Which you do nightly. Also nothing like Rhianwyn.”
“By Christ.” Elspeth threw out her hands. “Rhianwyn just admitted she was frequently being bedded when she was Lady Brockwell. She wouldn’t need to drink to ease her woes, Princess!”
Selena, ever the peacekeeper, tapped the table. “Perhaps we could be kinder. Did any of you know Rhianwyn can read?”
Elspeth shook her head and Lilliana eyed Rhianwyn enviously. “Obviously we should’ve learned all this before the transformations.” Elspeth sighed again.
Rhianwyn put her palms on her forehead. “Or not entered into the confounded agreement in the first place.”
Elspeth waved her fist. “Honestly, Rhianwyn, if you whinge about that again, I may punch you! We understand you didn’t want to swear to the pact. We know you rue agreeing to it. We’re well aware, for you bloody well remind us at…every. Sarding. Opportunity!” Elspeth’s voice rose with each word.
“Why not shout it throughout the kingdom?” Lilliana admonished with a chin lift. “See what might occur if the old crone knows you’re freely announcing it. Call the hag’s bluff and risk what chaos might befall us.”
Selena’s eyes filled with fear at that consideration.
“Selena’s correct,” Rhianwyn said, tucking her hair behind her ear. “We must stop being unkind. Try to remember we’re friends, at least we once were.”
If she possessed magic, she would wish herself away from this pact and dealing with her friends, yet she feared losing them, too.
“Clearly, Rhianwyn can’t teach me to read by the next transformation,” Lilliana snipped, “even if I am an unusually fast learner.” Lacing her fingers, she rested her chin on them looking and sounding haughty. “Why didn’t you tell us you’re literate, Rhianwyn?”
“Since it’s unlawful for women by your father’s order, I wasn’t about to admit it.” Then, remembering her own advice, she added, “Mam taught me when I was very young.”
“We’ve all done much that would’ve been deemed unlawful,” Lilliana said. “For me to be seen with common-born people when we’ve met through the years was prohibited.”
Elspeth crossed her arms. “If found out you might’ve been scolded; our punishment would’ve been more severe.”
Selena’s usual ready smile faded at her friends’ bickering.
“Let’s simply divulge anything the others mightn’t know,” Rhianwyn said.
She wanted to end this objectionable meeting.
Elspeth tilted back on her chair, precariously. “That shouldn’t take long.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “It’s not like we have any secrets.”
“Lilliana, you and I will tell each other anything crucial we should know.” Rhianwyn tried to keep her voice steady. “Elspeth and Selena, you do so as well.”
Lilliana shook her head. “Even if we know much about each other it’s doubtful we’ll be able to change how we instinctively behave when frightened, angry, or excited.”
“I believe we can,” Rhianwyn countered. “Selena’s much more self-assured now. She’s even overcome her fear of horses.” Rhianwyn smiled proudly at Selena.
Selena nodded. “I’m still wary of dogs, but I’m trying to appear less fearful.”
“How are we to control ourselves when in the throes of passion or during culmination?” Elspeth asked.
“Now that I’m aware, I’ll be mindful to dig my thumbnail into Sir Broccan’s magnificent muscular chest or back when I take my turn as you, Rhianwyn,” Lilliana purred, making her eyes appear seductive. On Selena’s innocent face, it seemed most peculiar.
Lilliana had once chastised Elspeth for gloating about being in Broccan’s bed. Now she made no bones about wanting him, too.
Having barely slept, Rhianwyn was in no mood for squabbling or hearing of Lilliana’s desires for Broccan. She had the greatest urge to walk out, take Blath—her beloved horse—and ride till day’s end. But it wasn’t Elspeth’s horse, and Elspeth rarely rode.
She glanced at the door. She yearned to restore her weary soul in the forest, perhaps dance in the rain. She certainly wouldn’t be permitted to do so when she became princess. But she’d requested this damn meeting to ensure Broccan didn’t learn the truth and be in peril by the crone’s magic. For him, she’d bear almost anything.
End of Excerpt