Son of the Morning (Chapter 17)

ONE OF HER PAGES OF NOTES HAD BLOWN OUT. GRACE COULDN'T stop thinking about it, her insides clenched tight with dread. She had made a dreadful mistake.

She drove carefully through the snow-dustedIowa night, well aware she was long past exhaustion and operating on sheer instinct. She needed to sleep, but she couldn't make herself stop. She felt driven, somehow, and so she drove.

She had lost one of the sheets. It was just a sheet of her notes, not one of the document sheets, but still she clearly remembered seeing "Creag Dhu" on it as she reached for it. What were the odds against one of those men picking it up? Not very good. They had to know they weren't just after her, but some papers as well.

She had given Parrish the location of the Treasure; all he had to do was figure out what it was. She had to assume he would. After all, the Foundation's business was archaeology. Parrish had access to any number of old maps, files, cross-references. He would learn Creag Dhu had been a fourteenth-century castle, and with a little effort he would be able to pinpoint its location. He could throw the Foundation's enormous resources into excavating the site-and he would find the Treasure.

Her fault. Her fault.The words drummed ceaselessly through her head. She had failed Ford and Bryant, letting Parrish attain the knowledge for which he had killed them.

She had failed Niall. She should have done something, should have shot both the other men if necessary, and chased down that errant sheet. But all she had been thinking about had been escape, survival; she hadn't remembered the paper until she was already inIowa .

She had actually shot a man. All ofMatty's advice had worked, and she had functioned well enough todo something, instead of simply flailing in terror and hoping for a lucky blow. Eight months ago she wouldn't have had any idea how to use a pistol, and would have been horrified at the thought of doing so; this afternoon she had used both knife and pistol. Thinking of the moment when she had pulled the trigger, Grace wondered numbly if she was still the same person at all.

But what good had all of it done? She was alive, yes, but still she had failed Niall. She had failed to protect the papers. Parrish had won, through her own negligence.

Eaten alive by guilt, sick in the aftermath of battlefield adrenaline, it was almost ten when she thought of Kris. Swearing softly to herself at her lack of consideration, she began looking for an exit occupied by people and equipped with a pay phone. Perhaps she simply hadn't been paying attention, but it seemed as if most of the exits were nothing more than lonely intersections, access to empty roads leading off into empty night.

She must not have been paying attention. There was a brightly lit truck stop at the next exit. She pulled into the crowded parking lot, her truck dwarfed by the huge tractor trailer rigs that sat idling, their motors rumbling like enormous sleeping beasts. She decided she might as well gas up while she was there, so she pulled up to one of the islands and stood shivering in the icy wind as the tank filled. At least the cold woke her up; she had sunk almost into a stupor, her eyes half closed, hypnotized by the endless zipper of stripes between twin banks of dirty snow, where the snowplows had cleared the highway.

It had started snowing again, she realized, seeing the white flakes blowing through the bright vapor lights of the truck stop. She couldn't go much farther; she was too exhausted to battle snow too. She paid the attendant for the gas, then got in the truck and moved it to the restaurant.

The warmth inside went right through her, making her shudder with relief. Truckers sat at a long counter, or in pairs in the booths that lined the wall. A jukebox played some rollicking honky-tonk song, and a cloud of blue cigarette smoke hovered against the ceiling. There was a tiny hallway to the left, decorated with an arrow and a sign that said "Rest Rooms," and two pay phones were crowded into it. One of the phones was in use by an enormous bearded fellow whose gut strained his thermal-knit shirt. He looked like a cross between Paul Bunyan and a Hell's Angel, but when she neared she heard him say, "I'll call you tomorrow, honey. Love you."

Grace squeezed past him and dug change out of her pocket. A quarter bought her a dial tone. She punched in the numbers, then waited until a recorded voice told her how much more change to feed the beast.

Kris answered immediately, his voice anxious. She turned her back on the big guy, and lowered her voice. "I'm okay," she said, not giving her name. "But they almost caught me this afternoon, and I had to leave. I just wanted you to know. Is everything okay on your end?"

"Yeah." She could hear him gulp. "Are you hurt, or anything?"

"No, I'm fine." "That was you, wasn't it?" His voice shook. "That shooting at the McDonald's. They said on television a woman in a brown truck. I knew it was you."

"Yes." "The police don't know what happened. All those men vanished before the cops got there."

Grace blinked. That was surprising news. She had expected the cops to be hot on her trail, too.

Evidently Parrish didn't want the cops to catch her, preferring to do so himself. She didn't know why; she had seen about half the city'smuckety -mucks on the donor list, so she had no doubt he could pull enough strings to get the papers out of the evidence room, or whatever they called it. He could also have her killed in her cell, and she would be just one more jail violence statistic.

The implication was startling. Parrish wanted her alive, and he wanted her ashis prisoner. A wave of revulsion swept her at the thought, but she didn't analyze it.

"I have to go now," she told Kris. "I just wanted you to know I'm okay, and tell you how much I appreciate what you did."

"Grace-" His voice cracked on her name. "Take care.' Stay alive." He paused, and his next words came out quiet and strained. "I love you."

The simple words almost shattered her. She had been too alone; too many months had passed since she had heard them. She gripped the receiver so tightly her knuckles turned white, and the plastic creaked under the strain.

She couldn't blow off his youthful devotion as an adolescent crush; he deserved more respect than that. "Thank you," she whispered. "I love you, too. You're a wonderful person." Then she gently hung up, and pressed her forehead against the wall.

Beside her, the trucker was saying his own good-byes, more "I loveyous " and "I'll becarefuls ." He hung up and glanced at her.

A meaty paw patted her shoulder with surprising delicacy. "Don't cry, little bit," he said comfortingly. "You'll get used to it. How long you been on the road?"

He thought she was a truck driver. Amazement chased away all other emotion. Did shelook like a truck driver? Her, the poster girl for academia?

She looked down. He wore boots; she wore boots. He had on jeans; she bad on jeans. Baseball caps topped their heads.

She looked like a truck driver. She was so tired she was giddy, and nothing seemed quite real. For the first time in eight months, her lips quivered with amusement. She didn't laugh, but she was astonished at the impulse. Quelling it, she cleared her throat and looked up at Paul Bunyan. "Eight months. I've been driving for eight months."

He gave her another pat. "Well, give it a little more time. It's tough, being away from your family so much, but the freight has to move and some body's gonna get paid for hauling it. Might as well be us, huh?"

"Might as well," she echoed. She nodded to him and escaped out to her truck. She hoped he didn't see her driving off in an ordinary pickup, instead of one of the snoozing behemoths; she didn't want to destroy his illusions about her.

The snow was falling faster, and more trucks were leaving the interstate, rumbling up the exit ramp to take overnight refuge at the truck stop. There was a small, ratty-looking motel next door, and its "Vacancy" sign was lit. Grace decided not to chance driving any farther, and to take a room before the new arrivals got them all.

The room was just as ratty-looking as the exterior. The carpet was worn and stained, the walls were brown, the bedspreads were brown, the lavatory bowl was brown-and it wasn't supposed to be. But the heating unit worked, and so did everything in the bathroom; good enough.

She stuck the pistol in the waistband of her jeans and dragged out the computer case, and a change of clothes for the next day. If the rest of her clothes weren't safe in the truck overnight, well, she hoped the thief was small enough to wear them, because she didn't have the energy to cart everything inside.

She undressed, then reloaded the pistol. Her hands trembled, and she fumbled the bullets. She thrust the gun under her pillow, then climbed into the lumpy bed and was unconscious even before her head hit the pillow.

She dreamed.

"And so came Grace to Creag Dhu." Niall wrote the words, the pen scratching across the page. He signed it, dated it, then turned to face her. "Aye, lass, that will bring ye to me." His intent black gaze moved over her, starting at her feet and lingering at hips and breasts before reaching her face. She drew a deep breath, knowing what that look meant. He was the most intensely sexual man she had ever met, and the challenge of that burning appetite only fed her own sensuality. She could feel her body readying itself for him, growing warm, softening, her nipples standing upright and her cheeks flushing. Excited desire began coiling deep in her belly.

He knew it, saw it. His hard mouth took on a sensual curve and he dropped the quill onto the table, turning on the high wooden stool to face her. He held out his hand. "Dinna wait near seven hundredbluidy years," he said softly. "I want yenow."

Grace took the five steps that carried her to him, her hands lifting to sift through the thick black silk of his hair. He bent his head, and his mouth covered hers. No one else kissed like Niall, she thought dazedly. His taste was as potent as fiery whisky, his kiss was both dominating and seductive, taking what he wanted but giving pleasure in return.

His big hand covered her breast, his thumb rubbing gently over her extended nipple. Her hands clenched in his hair and she crowded closer to him, shivering.

They had already made love so many times he knew exactly how aroused she was, knew there was no need for love play. With a soothing murmur he pulled up both her skirts and his kilt, and lifted her astride him as he sat propped on the high stool. Their loins came together with ease, and she gave a little whimper of relief as his thick erection slipped up into her. Niall gasped, his teeth set, then he gathered her close and they clung together, their need deeper and sharper than physical desire.

'Twasher. Niall awoke, fiercely aroused and aching, but grimly triumphant. This time he had seen her face, this damned wench who tormented his sleep, who watched him from hidden places. He sat up in bed and thrust both hands through his hair, pushing it out of his face as he tried to firm his memories of the dream.

He had been sitting on a stool at a high table, writing something, while she stood off to the side. He couldn't remember what he had said, he just remembered looking at her, and the wench looking back at him, and lust abruptly burning through him. He held out his hand to her and she came to him, into his arms, and he had not even carried her to bed but taken her there, lifting her skirts and hoisting her onto his shaft. She was like liquid fire, flowing over him, lovely blue eyes closed and her face tilted back, exalted, as she pleasured him and he pleasured her.

She felt fragile in his arms, her body tender, her skin silky. She had a great swath of dark hair hanging down her back, thick and sleek, and her eyes were as pure a blue as aHighland lake under a clear summer sky. Her face… a chill ran over him. Her face looked like an angel's, solemn and slightly distant, as if she had some greater purpose. Her brow was clear and white, her delicatejawline slightly squared, and her mouth… .. Ah,weel , perhaps not an angel after all," he said aloud, relieved. That mouth put him in mind of a number of things, all of them very carnal.

Still and all, there was something about her that made him uneasy, and Niall was a man who trusted his instincts. He snorted to himself. Aye, and so he should be uneasy, for she was likely a witch; how else could she watch him without being seen, and slip into his dreams whenever she wished? Witch or no, should she ever appear in the flesh he would be glad to give her the measure of his shaft in truth as well as dream, but he would not trust her.

She had to have some purpose for watching him; perhaps she had somehow learned of the Treasure.

It would be her ill fortune if that was what she sought, for he was sworn to guard the Treasure against all threat, be that threat from male or female. He had yet to kill a woman for it, but her sex would not save her. If she came for the Treasure, though he ached at the necessity, she would have to die.

Grace slept past theeleven o'clock checkout, awakening only when the maid pounded on the door. She stumbled to her feet, told the maid to come back later, and fell back into bed. She woke for good at three, groggy from so much sleep.

She stood in the shower for a long time, alternating hot and cold water in an effort to dispel the mental fog. She fell physically rested but mentally tired, as if her brain hadn't shut down all night. She had dreamed endlessly, it seemed, her mind going over the short, violent scene in the McDonald's parking lot, replaying it like a loop of film. Time after time she saw herself reach for the sheet of paper, saw "Creag Dhu" on it. She would feel the wind coming, know what was going to happen, and over and over she grabbed for the paper but every time it sailed out of her grasp, straight into Parrish's hands. He had looked at it, smiled, and said, "Why, thank you, Grace." Then he pointed a pistol at her and fired, and the dream would start allover again.

She had also dreamed of Niall, of making love with him. His black gaze had pierced straight through her, as if he knew she had failed to protect the precious papers given to her. But he had held out his hand to her, demanding she come to him, and she had gone.

"Come to me," he had said. "Now." A violent shudder wracked her, starting at her feet and moving upward until her entire body shook. Her knees gave out and she leaned against the shower wall, her mouth open and little whimpers coming from it. She couldn't stop shaking, couldn't control the sensation of flying apart. Some external force pulled at her, tore at her, compelled her. Her eyes dilated and the dingy shower walls suddenly looked very bright, as if they were glowing.

Come to me. Travel the years, six hundred and seventy-five of them. I have given you the knowledge. Come to me.

The voice boomed inside her head, and yet it was from without. It was Niall speaking, but the voice that was low and devastatingly sexual in her dreams now sternly demanded,Come to me.

The glow began to fade, and the quaking in her muscles gradually weakened until she was standing upright and steady. Cold water pelted down on her and hastily she shut it off, grabbing a thin towel to wrap around her head. She used another to roughly dry herself. God, she was freezing! How long had she been standing like a dope, hallucinating, under the cold water? She had almost given herself hypothermia.

But she hadn't been hallucinating. She knew it. It had been real. There really was a Power; she had felt it from the first moment she had seen those old documents. That was why she had been driven to keep translating them, lugging both them and the laptop around when doing so had been a lot of trouble. She had protected them when common sense should have led her to abandon both.

Everything that had happened in the past eight months had led her inexorably to this moment, standing naked and cold in a dingy little shower in a truck-stop motel somewhere inIowa , facing an unbelievable but suddenly crystal clear conclusion.

If it were possible, she had to travel through time. Parrish had the sheet; perhaps that was preordained, and there was nothing she could have done about it. But now that he knew, she had to prevent him from getting the Treasure, and the only way to do that was to force Niall to hide it somewhere else. Or perhaps – silly thought, because she wasn't made of heroic material, but still – just perhaps, she was meant to find the Treasure, and use the Power to destroy the Foundation.

She had to go to Creag Dhu – six hundred and seventy-five years ago.