Pam Binder - Time is an illusion and love the only reality

MY SECRET PROTECTOR
Pocket Books
June 2003
ISBN 0-7434-1795-X
$6.95 U.S./$10.50 Can.

Buy this book now at Amazon

The exciting sequel to Pam Binder’s award-winning novel, THE INSCRIPTION

In present-day Montana, William MacAlpin courageously fights fires as a

smoke jumper in the rugged backcountry, but this reckless endeavor masks an even more dangerous calling. For William is from a dying breed of immortals sworn to protect the earth. When he learns that a ruthless killer has escaped into 16th century England, determined to change history, William vows to bring the renegade immortal back — dead or alive.

Isabel de Pinze, a gifted painter and servant in Queen Mary’s court, knows nothing of the existence of the Immortals or of the battle that rages between good and evil. She knows only that the man she sees being ambushed along the Thames River needs her help, and that his stolen kiss stirs her deepest longings. Soon, however, William discovers that his quest is linked to Isabel’s own amazing destiny . . . for he has fallen in love with the one woman who can destroy them all.

“Time-travel and Paranormal readers should have this on their ‘must read’ list. ‘Highlander’ TV/Movie fans will enjoy the premise of this romantic adventure story.” Paranormal Romance Reviews

Talented Author, Pam Binder, blends fantasy with romance and mystery in My Secret Protector, a multi-layered tale guaranteed to make the reader hungry for more. Excitement galore! A book you won’t forget! ReaderToReader.com

Prologue

The Present

A wildland forest fire in Montana was not the place to die.

Molten red and amber flames rose like a wall before William MacAlpin. They surrounded him in a smothering heat that promised death. Over an hour ago he’d smoke jumped into this section to help rescue fellow firefighters, but time was running out. He didn’t know how much longer the men and women would survive. He motioned for them to follow him through the inferno. It was their only chance.

William gripped his long-handled ax as he hacked his way through the choking underbrush and channeled his anger toward clearing a path through the flames. Anger pushed him forward, and frustration fueled his temper. As usual, the force of nature resulted in the loss of life.

He intensified his battle through the trees. William relished fighting any force that did not value life as he did. When he’d heard firefighters were stranded, he’d asked only one question: How long would it take for the pilot to drop him over the area?

A sapling fir tree sizzled into flames beside him. With one efficient swing of his ax, he lopped it in two.

William shouted over his shoulder. “Hang on everyone. We’re almost home.”

Shouts drifted toward him over the roar of the inferno. He saw a flash of yellow jumpsuits. It was a team of firefighters coming to their rescue. They cleared a path toward him.

A tree crashed and sent tremors rippling through the ground. In the next instant William and the firefighters broke free of the fire and headed for a clearing. The area was set aside as a temporary command post. So far the blaze was contained with a system of deep trenches. But if the wind changed, it would be a different story.

William slowed his pace as he reached the clearing. Removing his helmet, he wiped the sweat and soot from his forehead. It’d been a long day, but there was still work to be done. He’d take a fifteen-minute break and see where else he was needed.

He heard a dog bark, then bound toward him, dodging and weaving around firefighters who tried to catch the animal. William grinned, pride swelling. His dog, Misfit, only allowed you to catch him if that’s what he wanted all along. He and the dog were alike in that regard. Misfit was a mixture of golden retriever, German shepherd and, William suspected, wolf. The animal had followed him home one day and refused to leave.

William smiled as the dog leaped toward him. “Well, Misfit, you’re a welcome sight. I’m glad Murphy let you loose.”

He heard his name shouted over the crackling of the fire. It was Murphy, the pilot who’d flown him to the rescue site.

Murphy skidded to a halt. “Hey, pal, don’t be blaming me. Misfit just showed up here, dragging what remained of his chain behind him.” Murphy scratched Misfit behind his ear and changed the subject quicker than you could say wildfire. “That was the last of the stranded ground pounders. Doc said you got them all out in time. Smoke inhalation, a few burns, but they’ll be as good as new in a couple of days.”

William ordered Misfit to settle down even though it was like trying to contain a two-year-old in a toy store. He didn’t like the idea that Misfit had pulled loose from his constraints. The dog only did that when there was an intruder. He’d better check out the place he’d rented before returning to the fire. Heat from the flames and the Montana sun cooked the air. William almost missed the rain. Almost.

He reached for the canteen of water Murphy offered and took a long, refreshing drink, pouring some in his hand for Misfit. “That’s good news about the firefighters. Any word about the weather?”

“We caught a bit of luck. There’s rain on the way and the Chief says that will help our efforts to contain the fire.” He paused and slapped William on the back. “The Chief will want my head on a platter when he finds out I dropped you in that sector by yourself. You’re one crazy Scotsman. Why didn’t you wait until we could form a rescue team? I know you like to work alone, but you can’t put this fire out by yourself.”

“There wasn’t time. We received word a crew was stranded on the North Slope and the wind was kicking up. If I’d waited, they’d all be dead.”

Murphy removed his baseball cap and rubbed his head. “Just be careful. I’ve lost too many friends to that man-eating beast and you know how I hate picking out sympathy cards. You may act like you’re as bulletproof as a superhero, but when you’re dead, you’re not coming back.”

William fought back a smile. He was closer to the mythical character than his friend realized. Both he and the man of steel lived a double life.

Misfit tugged on William’s sleeve as though trying to pull him away from the conversation. Dark foreboding curled around him like billowing smoke. His dog only acted this way with one person, his uncle, Gavin MacAlpin.

William wiped the sweat from his forehead again and headed toward his Jeep. “Hey, Murphy, I should take Misfit back home. I’ll be back to relieve the next shift.”

“Take your time. It’s under control.”

Murphy’s words drifted on the roar of the wildfire as William dumped his gear in the back of his Jeep. Misfit bounded into the passenger’s seat. The dog seemed eager. William hoped it was because Misfit was anxious to go home, not because they had an unwelcome visitor.

William started the engine and began the climb up the road leading to his cabin. It was only a couple of miles away; safe from the fire’s wrath, but not the smoke-and-ash-clogged air. Misfit’s tongue lolled on the side of his mouth as he breathed heavily. The animal was uncharacteristically quiet. William resigned himself to the fact that someone was waiting for him.

When William finally turned down the gravel road leading to his cabin, he was not surprised to see a silver sports car parked by the front door. One thing was certain, there was no way he was going to let his uncle draw him in again. William was out of the business. Let the young idealists fight the battles. He’d done his part. Out of respect for his mother, however, he would hear the man out. She was Gavin’s as well as the legendary Lachlan MacAlpin’s, sister.

William parked his Jeep in the driveway. Before he’d turned off the ignition, Misfit bounded out the open window and relieved himself on the tire of his uncle’s car.

William slid out of the Jeep and smiled. “Good boy. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

His uncle Gavin was leaning against the doorframe of the cabin with a scowl on his face. His arms were folded across his chest. The dark suit and gold wristwatch he wore cost more than William’s income for a year, maybe two. It was a lifestyle William had rejected long ago. Some said Gavin used to rebel against any type of authority before he took over his position on the Council. William believed it was just propaganda, created to try and breathe life into the well-dressed statue standing before him.

Misfit growled, and the hackles on his neck bristled.

Gavin arched an eyebrow. “Your dog doesn’t like me.”

“What’s to like? You send people to their death.”

Gavin’s scowl deepened. “You know it’s against the rules of the Protectors to own a pet.”

William clenched his jaw. “So I’ve been told. You let yourself into the cabin, I see.”

“It was unlocked. You shouldn’t be so trusting.”

“I’m trying something new.”

William stormed toward his uncle, taking pleasure when the man stepped aside to let him pass. Gavin must be desperate. Good. Then he wouldn’t be disappointed when William turned him down. Misfit followed close behind, a low growl expressing his own opinion of Gavin.

Entering the small, one-room cabin, William headed over to the sink and jammed a metal bowl under the facet and filled it with water. He set it down for Misfit and leaned against the counter, trying to control his growing impatience.

“Montana’s a long way from Scotland. I must be your last resort.”

Gavin strolled over to him and picked up a long cardboard tube. “You haven’t opened your birthday present from Angus.”

“I’ve been around a hundred years, give or take a decade. I don’t open birthday presents anymore.”

Gavin rested the tube against the wall. “Fair enough. I also noticed you don’t have much in the way of food. Your dog eats better than you do. Did you give up food as well?”

“You didn’t come here to discuss my eating habits or whether or not I open my gifts.”

“As always, you’re not much on small talk.” Gavin shrugged. “I’ll get to the point. Bartholomew’s escaped back in time to the sixteenth century. Among other things, our informant tells us that Bartholomew plans to change history.”

William whistled through his teeth. “I remember reading the man’s file. A real deviate, but Bartholomew usually hires others to do the really dangerous stuff. The man once vowed to seek revenge against Lachlan for killing his brother. You should have let Angus behead him when he had the chance.”

“That’s not our way.”

“The hell it’s not.” William pushed away from the sink. “Don’t give me the company line. Our people are obsessed with death. A doctor would have his work cut out for him trying to psychoanalyze our people. We spend more time obsessing about death than humankind.”

Gavin’s voice was as bland as his suit. “I can’t argue with you on that score, but the fact remains that Bartholomew has escaped and the Council feels you’re the best one for the job.”

William’s laugh was hollow. “Too bad you’ve done away with the old custom of forcing a Protector to take an assignment.”

“That’s not exactly true. There are always special circumstances. You can’t hide out here forever, William.”

“I’m not hiding. I’m saving lives, making a difference.”

Gavin combed his fingers through his hair. “John’s death wasn’t your fault. He knew the risks.”

“I cut off the man’s head. How can that not be my fault? This is crazy. I want you to leave.”

“You were acquitted by the Council of any wrongdoing. William, you were trained since birth as a Protector to uphold our laws, and you are the best we have. You’re also a master at blending into your surroundings. John disobeyed orders, and you did the only thing you could. You followed yours.”

“That’s why I quit. I was too good at letting you people tell me how to think. How to feel.”

Gavin’s expression darkened. “Your demons are not mine to fight. Besides, this time there’s more at stake than just a code violation. I’ve brought along Bartholomew’s file. . .”

William interrupted. “I read Bartholomew’s file when he was first imprisoned. It doesn’t matter. You’re not listening. I’m not interested.”

Misfit padded over to the door and barked.

“Need to go outside, boy?”

The dog barked again as though in reply.

William walked over to Misfit, promising himself that as soon as Gavin left, he was going so far undercover that no one would find him. He didn’t understand why they wanted him so bad anyway.

William opened the door for his dog and watched as he raced toward the fir trees, no doubt hot on the trail of a fat squirrel.

Gavin had moved to stand beside him. At least part of what William had heard about his uncle was true. Gavin was as silent as a cat, and probably just as unpredictable.

Gavin twisted his gold watch around his wrist. “William, have you heard a word I’ve said?”

“Yes, unfortunately. Why not let Bartholomew change history? Maybe his version will turn out better.”

“The last time something of this magnitude occurred, it resulted in a small ice age in the Middle Ages. We were able to bring things back to normal over a period of a few hundred years, but this time it might not be so simple. If we don’t stop Bartholomew, the ripple effect might result in the same catastrophe that sank our Island home.”

William wondered what was taking Misfit so long. He left the door open for the dog and crossed over to the kitchen. “Still not interested. I quit the Protector business. Remember?” William filled a pot with water and put it on to boil. “Want dinner?”

Gavin grimaced. “Instant macaroni and cheese? I’ll pass. Our informant didn’t know who was behind it, but he could tell us that Bartholomew was given instructions to use the Elixir of Death to try and extend the life of Queen Mary the First, preventing her half sister, Elizabeth, from ascending to the throne.”

William dumped dry noodles into the water. “You mean old Bloody Mary? Wasn’t she the one who wanted to reinstate Catholicism and liked to burn Protestants at the stake?”

“One and the same.”

William tossed the empty box of noodles in the trash under the sink. “Aside from wanting to prevent her from persecuting innocent people, what is so significant about extending her life?”

“Keeping her alive will unsettle an already unstable Europe. It will be easy pickings for the Renegade Immortals. The world will be plunged into chaos, making the Dark Ages look like the Age of Enlightenment.”

“I still don’t know what that has to do with me.” The water came to a rolling boil. “Why don’t you or Lachlan take care of this mess?” William took the pot off the burner, splashing hot water over his hand. “Damn.”

“Lachlan’s not available, and I’m needed to investigate another problem. Besides, lad, this is a job for a Protector.”

“You should have saved yourself the trip. I’m not going.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

Gavin crossed over to the open door and waved his arm.

William heard footsteps over the gravel driveway and sprang into action, grabbing Gavin and putting a kitchen knife to his throat. “Okay, Uncle, who’s your friends?”

“Easy, lad. That knife’s cutting into my flesh.”

“It will slice clean through your neck if you don’t answer my question.”

Gavin nodded toward the open door as the men crowded around the entrance. “They’re here to persuade you to take the assignment.”

“You might as well signal them to start the bloodbath, because you still haven’t given me a reason that will convince me to drop everything and travel five hundred plus years into the past.”

“Bartholomew’s a coward. It’s never been his style to take his enemies straight on. He likes someone else to do the dirty work. As an added bonus, and with Bloody Mary in his power, he will systematically have all of Lachlan’s relatives murdered. A fitting revenge for Lachlan killing his brother, don’t you think?”

William eased the knife away from Gavin’s throat. “Okay, so you have my attention. Who are Bartholomew’s first victims?”

“Your parents.”

Chapter One

1558 London, England

“This time will be different.”

Flames from hundreds of candles flickered over the artist’s studio where Isabel de Pinze painted. She said the words aloud again, but with more conviction.

“This time I will create a masterpiece.”

She was one of the few who remained this late at night. However, unlike the other artists, her dedication had not borne creative fruit. Isabel stepped back from the canvas and proclaimed it a failure. She rubbed her wrist. It ached from long hours of painting. She would welcome the pain if she achieved her goal. But it was not to be. No matter how hard she worked, she found it difficult to breathe life into the image on the canvas.

A likeness of the god Poseidon stood on the ledge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. It was to be part of a collection given to Queen Mary in celebration of her renewed good health. The physical proportions of the mythical god were accurate. The color’s of the raging sea and storm-fed sky were realistic. It was the soul of the painting that was missing.

She yanked her splattered smock over her head and tossed it over a chair. The smell of paint assaulted her senses. Normally, it was a fragrance more pleasing to her than the queen’s most precious French perfume. But in the lengthening hours of the night, it caused tears to brim in her eyes. At five and twenty she had avoided offers of marriage and a secure life in order to follow a dream she now believed might elude her.

Paulette, her friend and mentor, walked over and picked up a silver-gray cat, stroking the soft fur. Paulette’s hair was autumn red, and she wore a formless, sun-bright gown.

She smiled. “It grows late. I have ordered your horse be brought to the front entrance.” Paulette nuzzled her face against the cat’s head. He purred contentedly in her arms. “Puck is the most affectionate cat I have ever seen. He is still grateful to you for rescuing him from the alleys of London.” Puck purred again as though in response, settling in Paulette’s arms. She paused. “What troubles you, lass? I have never seen you look so discouraged.”

“I lack talent.”

Paulette laughed. “Now I know you will succeed. You speak like a true artist, not satisfied until you have created perfection. Mayhaps painting is not where your talents lie.”

Isabel sighed. “It was no better when I tried to sculpt.” She placed the protective cover over her portrait. “What I seek eludes me. I wish to capture what you and Ossian do so effortlessly. The people you create look as though they could walk off the canvas and speak.”

“Ah, but to achieve the level of awareness you seek you must always . . .”

Isabel interrupted her. “Suffer? Please do not tell me I am too young, or that if I was born ugly I would understand life’s mysteries.”

Paulette laughed again. “No, that is Jardin’s philosophy, not mine. She is a bitter woman, but that is a story for another time. Your talent will awaken you to new levels when you begin to take the time to laugh and enjoy the world around you. You are much too serious, Isabel de Pinze.”

Isabel had heard this argument before, but she disagreed with Paulette. There would be time for laughter when she achieved success as an artist. Until then the only path toward her goal was hard work. She turned and put the thick wool cloak around her shoulders.

“I know you mean well, Paulette, but the portrait of Poseidon is lifeless. I may just lack the talent to go further. Thank you for having my horse brought around. It is time I returned home to the Manor. Myra will be worried.”

Without waiting for a response, Isabel hurried out of the artist’s studio and into the cool night air. Her horse, Athena, was waiting for her. She patted the animal’s soft, sleek mane and whispered a greeting. Isabel mounted with the ease of someone who had spent her childhood riding horses, and she turned Athena in the direction of the Manor.

Her horse’s hooves echoed over the deserted streets of London as she sped along the perimeter of the Thames River to the Manor House near Hampton Court. The full moon was hidden behind dark clouds, and a light dusting of snow began to fall. She shivered and drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders as an icy wind blew her hair free of its braid. Isabel could never remember a winter so cold. What was more, there was a stillness in the air, as though the world waited in anticipation.

She brushed the dark foreboding aside. She had little time for such foolish thoughts. Just the same, she rested her hand on the dagger strapped to her waist, feeling the strength of the blade seep through her. In the last four years she had never been without it. And tonight, she was grateful for the gift.

The dagger had been a present from Angus and Myra on her twenty-first birthday. They were two loving people who had raised her as their own when her parents had been killed on a battlefield in Scotland. The blade was meant to keep unwanted suitors at bay. The cold steel gave her comfort. It had worked well. A husband would not understand her desire to become an accomplished artist, a profession dominated by men. Her dream was too important to leave in the hands of someone who might disapprove.

Although it was not unusual for Isabel to ride alone, it was after midnight and Myra would be concerned for her safety. Isabel urged her horse into a faster gait as she turned down a narrow alleyway. Wood buildings stood like silent guards on either side of the road as the street veered closer toward the water. This route was a shorter distance to the Manor and would save her time.

Isabel sighed. She tired of her double life. By day she was one of hundreds of servants who attended to the needs of the court of Queen Mary I of England. During the day, as Isabel assisted Myra in the cookroom, Isabel’s waist-length black hair was secured at the nape of her neck and her figure was hidden under layers of garments. At Hampton Court her identity and desires were of no consequence. It was only at night, when her duties were accomplished, that Isabel felt really alive and free to explore the world of an artist.

The silence pressed around her on the road leading toward the Manor. She was not used to the solitude. Her life on the fringe of court meant people always surrounded her. Her horse, Athena, tossed its head as though reflecting her unease.

Suddenly, Athena came to an abrupt halt near the wharf and pawed the ground. Her horse’s hooves scraped on the cobblestones and vibrated through her. It jangled her frayed nerves. Why had her horse stopped? It was not like Athena to act so skittish. Isabel bent down to comfort the animal, then straightened in her saddle and looked around. All appeared quiet, too quiet.

The moon crept out from behind the clouds and shone on the ebony waters, spreading its silver glow in ever widening circles. Waves lapped against the wharf and foamed around the pilings. Someone was coming. The thought sprang unbidden to her mind as a chill raced up her spine.

Without warning the river churned to life, bubbling over the wharf like a thick broth over the sides of an iron pot. Athena reared back, her hooves flaying the air. Isabel clung to the saddle as her heart hammered in her chest.

From out of the turbulent waters, a man dressed as a Highland warrior appeared before her.

Isabel’s heart pounded as he turned slowly in her direction. She expected the man to transform into a dragon before her eyes. Moonlight spilled over him, holding him in its embrace. He reminded her of the Greek and Roman gods she painted at the artist’s studio.

Startled by this creature, her horse reared up on its haunches and fought against its restraints. If it were not for Athena’s response, Isabel would believe the man was only an illusion. A character ripped from the world of her fantasies and daydreams.

His eyes met hers and she thought her heart would stop beating.

He walked toward her. She noted the colors of his plaid were muted by water and shadows. Damp hair grazed his shoulders, and his eyes were dark and intense. The stranger reached the shore and rested a hand on the hilt of his sword, surveying the docks with an air of authority.

Isabel’s pulse rate jumped another notch just as Athena seemed to calm down. She patted the horse on its neck. It was more for herself than Athena. The stranger moved silently in her direction, his gaze never leaving hers. Her throat was dry. It was impossible to breathe. Was this how an animal felt when it was being stalked?

Isabel pulled on Athena’s reins and dug her heels into the horse’s flanks, but Athena did not move. The horse was as bewitched as she was. Unable to retreat, time seemed to slow down. Isabel recalled childhood stories of fire-eating dragons and men and women who lived forever. Shape-shifters that could change their form at will and sorcerers who could paralyze you with a glance. She gripped the dagger, wishing Angus had given her a sword in its stead. She could be dragged to the Otherworld by this creature, never to be seen again. She willed the mad thoughts from her mind. She should dismount and run, but curiosity and something she could not identify prevented her from leaving.

The stranger paused in his advance, drawing his sword from its scabbard in one fluid motion. The blade glistened like molten steel in the moonlight and sent shivers through her.

Now she would die. And still she could not move.

 

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