Everything about Gaharet d’Louncrais spoke of arrogance, power and sex. The confident tilt of his bearded chin, the hint of a smirk on his lips and those dark, intense eyes making all sorts of heated promises. Not to mention the whole tall, dark and handsome thing he had going on. The man oozed masculinity from every pore.
Erin Richardson gave an exasperated sigh, raking her hair off her face. She’d become obsessed. This job had burrowed under her skin more than any other excavation, working its way deep into her psyche and manifesting in erotic dreams where she awakened in a tangle of sheets, achy and wanting.
Oh, for crying out loud. They were here searching for clues to the man’s demise. Hoping for the ultimate discovery of his bones. Fantasizing over the long dead, tenth-century French knight, a chevalier, was the epitome of foolishness.
Erin scowled at the sketch on her clipboard. No longer only in her dreams, she’d succumbed to the urge to draw him. Driven by the need to get him out of her head and onto paper. She’d taken all she’d gleaned about him from documented descriptions, added a touch of her own artistic flair, and rendered him in full Faber-Castell color. Now her creation stared back at her, sword in hand, muscular shoulders covered in chain mail under a blood red surcoat, and a howling black wolf—the d’Louncrais family’s crest—emblazoned over his heart. He was magnificent.
I’ve lost the plot.
Shaking her head, she tucked the clipboard under her arm and headed up the hill to the ruins of Langeais Keep. Below, beyond the rooftops of Langeais, the Loire River snaked through the valley. The smell of baked goods and ground coffee hung over the village as afternoon shadows darkened and the cooler evening air began to seep in. Behind her, the manicured gardens of the fifteenth-century Château de Langeais slowly emptied of tourists who’d streamed through during the day—exploring, taking photos, buying souvenirs. Up here, cordoned off from the public, members of the excavation field team worked undisturbed by lingering sightseers.
She nodded to the security guard and picked her way amongst the crumbling remnants of the tenth-century keep. One full wall of rough, pale stone remained, another partially intact, and a few foundations jutted up out of the ground. Stepping over string grid lines that marked the site, she approached the gaping hole in the ground, pausing on the edge. She shivered. No matter how many times she stood at the entrance, the sight never lost its impact. A narrow, almost vertical, stone stairwell disappeared into the earth, chiseled into rock, lit up by bright lights strung at intervals along the rough stone walls. They could have enough lights in there to outshine the sun, and the sight would still give her the chills.
“Takes your breath away each time, doesn’t it?”
Erin started, catching sight of their intern, hunched over, bagging and tagging a heavily corroded piece of iron.
“Yeah, it does. How’s it going with the grate?”
“Good, I’ve found a few pieces so far. Buried deep, but I’m surprised no one found it on the original dig.”
Erin shook her head. “Not much of a surprise, really. This is one of the earliest examples of stone keeps. Cells below ground weren’t common until the eleventh century, a few years too late for this place.” Or so they’d thought.
Taking a deep breath, she began her descent. Two steps down, her phone rang. She puffed out an impatient breath. Juggling her clipboard, her coffee and a bag of chocolate croissants, she pulled her phone from her pocket and glanced at the screen. Her heart sank. Her mother. Why the hell is she calling now? They hadn’t spoken for over a year. Their last conversation hadn’t gone so well.
She let the call go unanswered. Her phone dinged. A text came through and she rolled her eyes.
Call me. I’ve met someone.
“I bet you have,” Erin muttered. Drop-dead gorgeous with bucket loads of charisma and heaps of money, no doubt. Swept her off her feet just like every other man her mother had dated. She grunted. Her mother gravitated to a certain type. Good-looking, confident, suave and usually with either a high-profile job or a high-ranking position, like a media personality or a CEO. Men that had the world at their feet and they knew it. Men that had a never-ending supply of women to choose from, her mother just one of many in a long line of others. That her mother didn’t look her age never failed to draw them in.
Ding. Another text.
I think this time it’s going to last.
Erin shook her head. Her mother never learned. Erin shoved her phone back into her pocket and descended the steps. She was done being a commiserating shoulder for her mother to cry on. She had work to do.
Reaching the bottom, Erin stepped out into the room—a cramped and airless space, the walls rough, cold and damp. Fluorescent lights cast eerie, elongated shadows across the uneven floor. It couldn’t have fit too many prisoners in here. According to their research, it had only ever held one. His bones, partially excavated, lay in the middle of the room.
Greg, lead archaeologist and site supervisor, crouched beside the skeleton, packing away his brushes and tools. Connor worked against the back wall, gathering up labeled airtight bags to be delivered to the lab. They’d spent weeks removing a ton of dirt and rubble from the cell, an arduous task hampered by the narrow steps. They suspected they still had another foot or so to go to reach the original floor.
“Are you sure you want to stay here alone?” Greg stood stretching his spine and rolling his shoulders.
Erin smiled. “I’ll be fine. Security patrol the fences. Those kids won’t get through again. Besides, I don’t plan to stay too long. Just until I have the entire skeleton unearthed.” She shook the paper bag. “And I have my snacks.”
Greg’s eyes brightened at the sight. “Is that what I think it is?”
She grinned. “Chocolate croissants.” She turned to Connor. “Any luck finding the shackles to go with those chains you discovered this morning?”
“Yeah. Greg found them not long after you left to get coffee.” He, too, held up a bag. “Secure around the ulna and radius bones. And one around the neck vertebrae.”
“Around the wrists and neck. Interesting. And the chain had snapped? That would require an awful lot of strength.” Erin stepped closer, grasping the bag. “Are they silver?”
“That they are.”
“That’s strange. Why not use iron? Like the chain. It’s stronger. Something to do with the status of the prisoner, maybe?”
“Maybe.” Conner’s gaze dipped to the bag of croissants. “It seems a bit redundant to lock someone down here and then chain them to the wall as well. Whoever they put in here, they were really afraid of him, or they were making sure he didn’t get out. Or both.”
Greg reached for Erin’s croissants.
Laughing, she tucked them behind her back. “You can buy your own pastries. Both of you. These are mine.”
“Wait a minute. What’s this?” Greg snatched her clipboard from her and held it up, displaying her drawing.
“Is that a drawing of d’Louncrais?” Connor whistled. “Hot stuff.”
Let the ground open up and swallow me now.
“It’s good, Erin.” Greg gave her a cheeky grin. “He looks just as I imagined him. I think this is the best drawing you’ve done so far. I liked the one you did of the little girl in front of the château, and that cafe scene, too, but this is so lifelike. Such attention to detail. Right down to the expression in his eyes. You’ve captured a sense of authority and self-confidence.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty impressed with himself.” Erin snatched the clipboard back. She should have trashed the drawing the minute she’d finished it. What had possessed her to leave it on her clipboard?
Greg chuckled, the sound echoing around the cell. “Well, the man had everything to be arrogant about. Few chevaliers amassed the wealth and influence he did.” Greg smirked, amusement twinkling in his eyes. “He’s good-looking, too.”
Erin blushed. Great. Her fascination with the handsome chevalier was now revealed for all to see.
Connor snorted. “Fat lot of good any of that did him once he ended up down here.”
Erin glanced up at Greg’s smiling face, catching him studying her. Her gaze dropped back to her clipboard.
“If the bones belong to him.”
“True,” said Greg. “All right, time for a shower and then dinner.”
“Sounds good to me. See you, Erin.” Connor hefted his backpack over his shoulder and headed up the narrow steps.
“So, Erin.” Greg tucked his kit under his arm. “Blue moon tonight. You want to watch it rise over the Loire River with me? I’ll have a magnificent view from my balcony. We’ll open a bottle of wine…”
“Um, sure.” Erin shrugged. The prospect wasn’t unappealing. A diversion from her usual routine of going over her notes before bed.
She liked Greg, admired his work ethic and his dedication. His passion for history rivaled hers. They had a lot in common—a good working relationship and an easy camaraderie on site—dare she say they were friends—and he was a genuinely nice guy. As men went, he ticked all the right boxes, and the view from his balcony would be stunning. The illuminated Pont Du Langeais bridging the Loire River made for a postcard-perfect sight on any night, but the added hue of a full moon would make it almost magical.
“Okay then.” He smiled.
He had a pleasant smile.
“I’ll see you later.”
As Greg ascended the steps, brown eyes beckoned from her clipboard, drawing her attention. Erin scowled down at the sexy chevalier. The man was too good-looking for words. According to her drawing.
“Don’t forget what I said about blue moons,” called Greg over his shoulder.
Blue moons. Pfft! All day Greg had regaled her with the folklore surrounding blue moons. How the superstitious perceived them as a portent of new beginnings. How Wiccans believed they could amplify things. She stared up the stairwell, the shuffle of Greg’s footsteps retreating. Was he hoping for a romantic evening?
Her gaze dipped to her clipboard. Greg was no Gaharet d’Louncrais.
She cast a baleful eye over her sketch, and tossed her clipboard to the ground, out of her way. The minute she got back to the hotel, she’d bin that thing. Screw it up and chuck it in the trash. Promise? Maybe. Okay, probably not.
She huffed out a breath, knelt beside the skeleton. Opening her kit, she chose a brush, turned her back on that damned drawing and got to work.
From a cursory examination of the skeleton’s pelvis and leg bones, they’d established the remains belonged to a tall, over six-feet-tall, male. She’d found some signs of ossification, though the scan would give them a clearer indication of age. D’Louncrais had died around the age of thirty-five, but a lifetime of fighting would’ve impacted his body. The bones could belong to d’Louncrais. They could belong to anyone. She’d need time in a lab and a thorough study of the bones before she could reach any real conclusions.
Her gaze shifted to her sketch. Again. Dark eyes stared back at her, taunting her. Even in death, the man had the power to captivate and intrigue. That’s the only explanation she had for the creation on her clipboard—a chevalier in shining armor worthy of a leading role in any blockbuster movie. A flutter started in her belly. Erin groaned, rolling her eyes.
Come on, Erin. He’s dead. It’s a simple drawing, and you know there’s no such thing as a knight in shining armor.
She pulled her gaze back to the bones. Sure, he was good-looking. The women of his time had thought so, if they could believe the written evidence of them swooning in his presence. And he hadn’t risen to his position as the count’s adviser, or commander of his army, by being dim-witted either. Although, his inherited wealth, title and a level of ruthlessness would’ve helped there. Bestowing on him qualities of a romantic hero…well…that was ludicrous.
Of its own volition, her gaze strayed to the drawing again, and an unwanted thrill skipped through her veins. She forced the sensation down.
What is wrong with me?
How many men like him had her mother dated? Too many, and none of them had lasted the distance. Erin had always aspired to something more, something stable, a deeper lasting connection with someone who inspired loyalty, conversation and a meeting of minds. A best friend and lover. A stayer, not a player. You didn’t get that with a man like d’Louncrais, no matter how much you wished it. Not even a modern version of him would deliver. And someone living would be handy.
So why are you so obsessed with him?
Maybe it was genetic—a recessive gene that had remained dormant until now. God, she hoped not.
Puffing out her breath, Erin slammed the door shut on Gaharet d’Louncrais’ distracting image. She returned to the last vertebrae, brushing away the remaining dirt. She peered closer.
“What have we here?”
Incised bone trauma. She’d examine it more closely in the lab, but its existence suggested a cause of death. Decapitation. That added credence to Greg’s theory of a rift between Count Lothair of Anjou and his most trusted vassal. If the bones belonged to d’Louncrais, what had changed between him and the count? What had he done? Had an affair with the count’s wife?
She dug around for the skull and found it not at the apex of the spinal column but off to the side. More evidence to support beheading as the prisoner’s demise.
Erin set to work on it, humming along with the rhythmic movement of her hands, her brush sweeping deftly across the cranium. Ridges appeared and orbital arches took shape. The more she revealed, the deeper her frown until her humming dwindled into silence. She sat back on her haunches.
“What the hell?”
Leaning forward, she peered at the alabaster expanse of bone. She pried it loose. This was unexpected. If the silver shackles weren’t unusual enough, or an underground cell in a tenth-century keep, this really upped the ante on strange.
She held up the skull, the long muzzle, the flat forehead, curved mandibles and large canines white in the harsh, electric lighting. Definitely not a human skull. Nor that of a dog. No, this belonged to a wolf.
She stared at the cranium crusted in dirt. Had some poor, rabid, half-starved animal been thrown in here to kill the prisoner? They’d already revealed the ribs, humerus, pelvis, clavicle and femurs, and she’d given them a cursory examination. None of them showed any signs of damage pertaining to an animal attack. Or evidence of a wolf having devoured the prisoner after he’d died, gnawing on the bones until it, too, succumbed to death. If she located the wolf’s body and the man’s skull, would they provide the answers? Or raise more questions.
There was always the possibility the count had removed the prisoner’s head, taken it to display on a pike and used it as a warning to others. As one of the more notorious counts of the period, that wasn’t out of the equation. What about the wolf, though?
She frowned at the skull, letting the dirt sift out.
Something solid dropped to the ground.
A tooth dislodged when she’d moved the skull? She picked up the loose piece.
“Oh.” Erin’s eyes widened. Not a tooth. Something far more interesting. She held it in her palm—a small disc of tarnished gold the size of a fifty-cent piece with a hole in the top. A pendant? Flipping it over, she held it up to the light.
Stamped into the gold was the d’Louncrais family crest.