Genevieve Hudson closed the door to her office and leaned against it, breathing deeply. She was ready to pull her hair out…or slap someone, preferably her boss, obtuse male chauvinist that he was. Why couldn’t he see they didn’t need yet another bodice-ripping cover on their new book? What was so wrong with using a fully-clothed model?
She strode behind her desk and sat in her chair. Why was she even fighting him? There were millions of books with scantily clad women on the covers. What difference would one more make? Like he said, her campaign to clean up romance fiction was an utter waste of time. If women didn’t see what they wanted from her publishing house, they would go somewhere else. Apparently, the public wanted to see half-naked models on the covers of books. She laid her head down on the desk and sighed.
God, why is my life so useless? Is this really what I’m reduced to? I want my life to matter. I want to pray for people, to see your kingdom come, to walk in power and authority…to make a difference.
She opened her eyes to stare at the title of the manuscript she had to read that night. A Dream Come True.
There was no such thing. Yet here she was poised to read yet another fairy tale adventure where some princess marries some prince and lives happily ever after in a fabulous castle.
That’s what I want. A world where everything’s black and white, good or evil. I’m tired of having to figure it out.
“And I am so ready for my prince.”
Her assistant breezed into the room and held out Genevieve’s jacket. “You’re talking to yourself again. Besides, I told you, I got that prince thing all covered. My cousin will be in town next week. You’ll love him. He’s religious…just like you. I haven’t seen him for years ’cause he’s been on some crusade to save something or other.” She shook the jacket before Genevieve. “Come on. Time to go. Anyway, my mom really wants you to come to dinner so the numbers will be even at the table. His name is-”
“No, Karen.” Genevieve stood and slid her arms in the jacket held so patiently before her. “I am not going out with your cousin. How pathetic is that? Besides, how many times have I told you I don’t believe in fairy tale endings? Being romanced is nice, but love is a choice. When reality bites, only commitment will keep you together…and faith. Gotta have that.”
She grabbed her briefcase off the floor and turned to go.
“Hey, just because I said he’s a prince, doesn’t mean he’s totally into himself. My cousin is amazing. That’s what makes him a prince…and he loves books.” Karen reached for the desk. “Forgetting something aren’t we?”
“What?” Genevieve whirled, catching sight of the manuscript in Karen’s hand. “Oh, thanks. I’ve got to turn in my review in the morning.”
“Yeah. Maybe it will put you in a better mood. Sometimes when I read a fairy tale, I just want to jump right in.”
“I know what you mean. If only we could, but I always wake up the next day with the same job, the same bills, and the same dearth of men willing to commit themselves to…anything. Life is never easy for those who dream.”
“And who said that, smarty pants?”
“Robert James Waller. See you in the morning.”
Hours later, Genevieve sat on the side of her tub, adding copious amounts of bath salts. “Calgon, take me away.”
She climbed in the tub and positioned a lap tray across the sides then picked up the manuscript. A good fairy tale deserved a bubble bath, and she deserved a long soak.
The story instantly sucked her into another world where the hero lived by a code and sacrificed his own dreams for the greater good. The heroine believed that no matter what she experienced she could change the world around her if she never gave up. When they met, the chemistry kept the dialogue alive, and the action of their battle against evil drove the plotline. All in all, a satisfying read.
Genevieve sighed, stretching her legs in the now tepid water.
She moved the manuscript to a safe place and climbed out. She had a few suggestions to make before they signed the author. The descriptions of battle scenes lacked realism, but a little more research could easily fix that. The author’s ability to make the characters come alive would sell the book, not to mention her ability to make you feel as if you’d entered another world.
Is it really so wrong to want the fairy tale, God? Sometimes I get so tired of the same old thing. I want romance. I’d like to meet a guy who lives by his convictions and isn’t afraid to be strong, one who respects the strengths in me and helps me overcome the weaknesses.
She pulled on long pink flannel pajamas pants and a t-shirt before slipping her feet in the most absurdly hot pink, fluffy slippers she had ever seen, a gift from Karen.
She padded to the bedroom and climbed on the bed.
Really, Lord. I want something extraordinary to happen. I want to go where no man has gone before. She laughed. Okay, so that’s Star Trek, but I still want…something. She pulled her knees to her chest and hugged them. Let’s be completely honest. I want outta here. I want to ignore the tedious trials of my existence and run away to never never land. Just throw me knee-deep in another world and let me float on a cloud for a few days. And don’t forget the guy…a dream come true.
He stretched stiff muscles then sat up to shake the hay from his head. Sleeping in a hayloft had its advantages but picking hay out of your hair wasn’t one of them.
He rolled to his side then froze. About two yards away, another figure reclined in the hay, lost in slumber from the sound of the even breathing.
He crept closer and nearly choked with exasperation. A woman! An earth woman, if her bright pink attire was anything to go by. The lands of Elohan had rested in peaceful obscurity for decades until Princess Emira had shown up. Since then, any number of bizarre happenings had occurred, including the unorthodox arrival of earth women at inopportune times.
Ryan shook his head. He had no desire to be encumbered with an unreasonable female, especially one from earth, who, from the look of things, would soon awaken. She sighed and reached up to brush a strand of hay from her nose.
Ryan backed toward the ladder to make his escape before he was discovered. He reached down for his saddlebag.
Genevieve stretched. Something was poking her face, and she itched all over. She reached for her nose to brush the offending obstacle away so she could return to sleep. Her hand caught at something stiff and prickly. What was that? What?!
Her eyes flew open. Hay…everywhere. She bolted up, swallowing a squeal. What the…Where in the world was she? She brushed at the hay covering her lower body as she glanced around her. From the dim light issuing through the window, it was nearly daybreak, and she was in a hayloft. A hayloft…a hayloft. Why am I in a hayloft?
No answer occurred, nothing at all. A slight movement to her left brought her eyes around, frantically searching the shadowy area. What if there were rats? Didn’t rats live in haylofts?
A long arm stretched out, reaching down, and Genevieve screamed, scuttling backward as fast as she could.
“Stop that!” a deep voice demanded. “Do you want to wake everyone in the farmhouse? I’d rather no one knew I was here, if you don’t mind.”
Genevieve blinked. Did she mind? Of course she minded. Who was he? Where was she?
She opened her mouth to scream again, and the man fairly flew across the open space to hold his hand over her mouth and pin her down.
Genevieve reacted without thinking, biting, kicking, and flinging her body weight against him in an effort to dislodge him.
“Oww! Look lady, I don’t want to hurt you, but I will sit on you if I have to. Now shut your mouth, so we can have a civilized conversation. Agreed?”
He held her in a headlock, with one hand tightly gripping her jaw to prevent her from screaming or biting. Genevieve was unaccustomed to the strength in his hands or the rough skin scraping her tender cheek. If she remained docile, perhaps he would loosen his grip enough for her to escape. She nodded.
He waited for a second as if gauging her resolve then released her head. Genevieve jerked back in a race to survey her surroundings and plot her getaway. At the edge of the loft, she sighted the top rails of a ladder. It seemed the only means of egress, but she would have to get past the man first.
Her eyes met his, and he smiled. “I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m quite sure I can pin you again before you reach the ladder. Even if I can’t, I can easily jump from the loft to the ground before you can climb down. Shall we talk instead?”
She knew when she was beaten. For the time being, she would have to play along. It shouldn’t be hard to convince a man outfitted in leggings and knee-high calf-skin boots that she was in earnest.
“Fine. Who are you? How did I get here, and where am I?”
“I knew it. Look, I don’t have time for you. You’ll have to figure this out on your own.”
He picked up a worn leather saddlebag and threw it over his shoulder. The action should have reassured Genevieve, because he obviously wasn’t interested in accosting her, but it didn’t. Her only means of discovering where she was, appeared to be leaving.
“What do you mean? Hey, you can’t leave me here.”
He stepped to the ladder and turned around, preparatory to descending. “Whyever not? From your earlier…greeting, I assume my absence would be welcomed. I don’t know you. You don’t know me…and never the twain shall meet.”
“Kipling…only we have met.”
Genevieve sighed. “That quote is attributed to Rudyard Kipling. How can you say we haven’t met? Buddy, you have touched me in places I don’t touch myself.”
“I can’t believe you said that. Now, I know you’re from earth, even if that ridiculous sleeping attire didn’t scream-”
“Earth?” Her heart began to pound, and her hand went out to him. “Please. Please don’t leave without telling me what you mean. I…I am very confused.”
Ryan paused with one foot on the ladder. With her head tilted to the side like that and her hand held out in supplication, she really looked appealing, much more than when she’d bitten his hand.
He smiled. Did she know she had hay clinging to her hair? She didn’t seem the type to like a mess. He stepped back over the ladder and crouched on the floor of the loft.
“Okay, here’s the situation. You are from Earth. This is not Earth. It is an alternate reality where fairy tale beasts roam free…so don’t go wandering about on your own. You’re likely to get eaten. We have castles, kings, queens, dragons, elves, dwarves, and some creatures you don’t even want to think about. That covers it. Gotta go.”
She darted forward and put her hand on his arm. “Wait. Even if I believe that…how did I get here? Did you kidnap me?”
“What! Certainly not. I don’t kidnap defenseless women. Your tone is offensive.”
“What am I supposed to think? I went to sleep in my bed. I repeat…how did I get here?”
“Elohan has a spectacular sense of humor. One I fail to appreciate at the moment.”
“Oh…uh, God. Undoubtedly, you have traveled through a portal…a fairy ring, but there isn’t one for miles, leagues even, so I have no idea how you arrived. Now, I really must go before the household wakes. We aren’t exactly paying guests.”
Genevieve struggled to keep up with his jumps of information. She studied their surroundings as he backed once again to the ladder. They were in a hayloft in a barn.
“This isn’t your barn?”
“I would scarcely sleep in the hayloft.”
He started down the ladder, and Genevieve felt she had no choice but to follow.
“I’m going with you.”
“No. You aren’t.”
“I have to. I can’t wander around on my own, especially if something might eat me.”
He grunted as he jumped over the last few rungs to the ground. “I may have been exaggerating the danger…at least, in this area. Farther on…yes. But here, you’ll be fine. Stay in the settled areas. Goodbye, uh…whoever you are.”
“Genevieve.” She leaped off the ladder to catch up with him, but he was already out the barn door. She stopped and stomped her foot. “I am going to scream! I mean it. I am going to scream until everyone around here comes running.”
He whirled on his heel. “You are the most exasperating…female. I knew you were trouble the minute I laid eyes on you. Why can’t you go back where you came from?”
“Love to. Tell me how.”
Ryan leaned against the doorframe. How could he send her back to Earth? The closest portal would be the one between Elshamir and Rin. It would take days to get there by foot. She would never find it, and she didn’t have a means of opening it even if she did discover it.
Why had Elohan sent her here? He recalled that Emira had come to break the curse over Rin and return the sacred stone. Gwyn had come to abolish Imythra and find her father. But they were both elves; this girl, this human girl, had no place in a fairy tale land.
“Why do you even want to go with me?”
She shrugged. “The devil you know…”
“Is better than the one you don’t.”
He glanced at the sky. Already, he could see the sun breaking the horizon. He had miles to cover before nightfall, miles through countryside with which he was unfamiliar. She would slow him down.
He looked back inside the barn and noted her attire. With a resigned shrug, he strode back to her and flicked a finger. “Your clothing is inappropriate, ridiculous even.”
Genevieve looked down. Pajamas. Really? Who kidnapped someone in their pajamas and left them stranded in a hayloft…with an escaped lunatic from a Lord of the Rings convention.
“Well, look at you. Who runs around in leggings and knee boots? Unless you plan on attending Comic-Con that white shirt and leather vest are completely lame. Do you even know how to use that bow slung across your back?”
“I get it. You think you’re on Earth and that I’m crazy. Humor me for a minute. If you stay here, I’ll come back with something for you to wear. I saw something hanging on the clothesline that should fit.”
Would he really come back?
Did it matter if he did? Surely the people who lived on this farm could drive her home or let her use the phone.
Genevieve chafed her arms to warm them as she searched the interior of the barn for some indication of where she was…upstate New York…New Jersey? Come on. Who didn’t have at least one scrap of paper lying around?
A glimpse of white behind the feed bin drew her deeper into the barn. She got down on the ground and reached as far back as she could to pull out a tattered sheet of paper.
She spread it flat and stared. The face of her mysterious stranger stared back from a wanted poster, but not the usual America’s Most Wanted. The picture was hand-drawn and the print looked like something from an antique parchment with lots of curly-cues and scrolls. And the charges…an outlaw against the realm of Rin, wanted for crimes against the people and the Lord Chancellor.
He was a thief! And his name was Ryan. That is, if she really believed she was in another realm…a fairy tale. She folded up the poster and slid it under her t-shirt as Ryan appeared in the entry.
“Right here. Just looking around.”
“Well, get dressed. I want to be on my way.”
He held out a pile of garments and left the barn.
Genevieve shook out the two articles of clothing, a coarse white peasant’s blouse and a long camel-colored skirt with a bodice that laced up the back.
“You have got to be kidding!” she yelled out the door. “I can’t get this on by myself. How do you lace something behind your back?”
“Surely, you aren’t asking me to dress you.”
She stepped out of the barn, kicking at the long skirt. “Don’t be an idiot. I just need you to pull the laces tight and tie them off or this skirt is going to fall off.”
She stood there stiffly as his hands brushed against her back, pulling at the long strands.
What am I doing? A total stranger is dressing me, and I stand here as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. I’m just as crazy as he is.
“So, umm, what’s your name?”
“Ryan. I would say it’s a pleasure, but I’m not sure yet.”
He laughed. “Ditto, Genna. There. All done.”
He stepped around her.
He stalked away without looking back at her. What could she do now? How awkward this whole situation felt.
“Hey, Ryan…wait. Where are you going?”
“Does it matter? You wouldn’t understand anyway.”
“But we have to pay for this dress. Where did it come from? We can’t steal from…peasants. Is that what you call them? Peasants?”
“Geesh. Do you always talk this much? I’m not paying for the dress. They’ll never notice it’s gone.”
“What? You really are a thief. I’m not going till we pay.”
Ryan whirled on her. His eyes narrowed to slits, and his voice came out in a huff. “I didn’t ask you to come with me, so I couldn’t care less. What do you expect to use for currency? Got some coinage hidden in those ridiculous puffy slippers?”
“I don’t have any money. I just can’t take something that isn’t mine.”
“Well, Genna, you can always wear your pajamas. Good luck with that. I’m sure the locals will really appreciate the humor. Just tell them you need to travel to the nearest fairy ring and go through a portal to Earth. Goodbye.”
Genna glanced wildly around her. Beside the barn, there was a small cottage that appeared lifeless for the moment and a gated pen with a couple of shaggy black goats. Beyond that, she saw nothing but a dense forest. Not a road, not a car, not a bicycle, not even a trail.
It was as if she’d been dropped out of the sky into the middle of nowhere. There was certainly nothing that could show where she was or how to get home.
She bolted after Ryan. “I’ll go with you if you’ll just let me leave a note for these people and explain.”
“Leave a note?” His mouth twitched as if he might laugh. “I don’t have anything to write with…or on.”
“Oh…give me a minute.” She ran back in the barn, looking for a pencil. All she found was a broken piece of coal, but it would have to do. She pulled the wanted poster out of her blouse and rushed outside.
Ryan followed her to the little porch. “What are you doing?”
She scraped the coal over the surface of the paper. When she finished, she handed it to Ryan.
“Dear Madam, I have lost all my clothes so I borrowed your dress. I will try to return it as soon as possible. Genevieve and Ryan…where’d you get this paper?” He flipped it over. “This is my wanted poster. I don’t think…”
“It’ll be fine. Let’s go before they come out. If they call the cops, we’re in trouble. We did leave a note, but they still might not appreciate us walking off with their clothes.”
Before she could turn away from the porch, the door opened and a woman with graying dark hair poked her head out.
Genevieve slowly straightened and held up a hand. “Uh…hi.”
The woman looked her up and down from the top of her head, no doubt disheveled from sleep and hay, past the dress that obviously had been stolen, to the puffy pink slippers peeking out from underneath. Her eyes widened until she glanced past Genevieve to Ryan. Then her face relaxed, and she straightened.
Genevieve had no idea what happened next because after a prolonged look at Ryan, the woman’s eyes narrowed with a quizzical expression then she flung the door shut.
“What did you do?” Genevieve whirled on Ryan. “Did you threaten her?”
He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, scowling.
Genevieve turned back to the door and knocked.
It opened a crack.
“Look, I’m sorry,” began Genevieve, “but I lost my clothes. We really didn’t mean any harm. I…I don’t have any money so I can’t pay you…but I can work.”
“Genevieve, no!” Ryan’s voice behind her came too late.
The door flung wide. “What can you do?”
What could she do? She’d never been on a farm.
“I can cook. Oh…and I can wash dishes.”
The woman looked over her head at Ryan. Whatever she saw amused her because she smiled widely and stepped to the side.
“Come in. You can start breakfast while I go outside and gather some firewood.”
Genevieve glanced back at Ryan then stepped inside. “You don’t need to get the wood. He can do it. Just tell him where it is.”
“Well?” The woman gazed at Ryan.
He didn’t appear any too pleased as he muttered angrily to himself and marched away.
“You didn’t tell him-”
“He knows where. Come inside.”
She followed the woman through a simple sitting room. Without a light, it was difficult to see much beyond a couple of chairs, some shelves, and what appeared to be a large armoire. Didn’t they have a couch? A TV?
The kitchen was like something from a throwback to another age. A large sink with a long, black-handled pump, a huge butcher-block table, and four hand-hewn chairs. In the corner, a gaping fireplace awaited a fresh supply of wood for its dying embers.
Several black cast iron pots rested along the hearth underneath an arched hook that sprang from the ceiling of the fireplace. It took mere seconds for Genevieve to realize where she would be cooking breakfast. What in the world had she gotten herself into?
“I don’t know how to use a fire to cook.”
The woman halted to stare at her. “I suppose you’re from the castle.”
“Yes, she is.”
Ryan stomped past and dropped a load of logs on the floor before the hearth. He bent to stack it neatly before turning back to where Genevieve and the woman continued to stare at one another.
“I think she’s had an accident,” he explained. “She doesn’t remember where she is or how she got here.”
Ryan’s warm smile brought an answering smile from the woman, who patted Genevieve’s hand.
“Poor lamb. Been a lot of that lately since the dragon fires and that accursed frost. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more lost travelers. Start the fire, Ryan.”
“How did you know his name?” Genevieve’s eyes swept from the woman to Ryan. “I didn’t say.”
“Oh, didn’t you? Well, I’m Magda. My Jonathan will be in momentarily. He left early this morn to take the goats to new pasture. That blasted snow nearly killed everything for miles. Takes longer and longer for him to get back each day.”
Genevieve turned to Ryan, not quite sure what to make of all that, but he kept his back to her, preparing the wood for the fire. When he stood, he stepped between Genevieve and Magda and held out his hand.
“Well, we really must be going.”
Magda’s eyes gaped at Ryan as if he’d spouted another head then she nodded. What was going on here? Genevieve attempted to peer around him because she was certain he was silently communicating with the woman.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t pay you,” he continued. “Is there anything else we can do…quickly?”
“But you already…”
At a stern look from Ryan, the woman’s voice trailed away, and she hurried to the side of the kitchen. She came back with a cloth-covered bundle, which she handed to Genevieve.
“Here. It isn’t much, but you won’t starve.”
“Thank you. I don’t know what to say. You’ve been very kind, and we’ve done nothing for you.”
“Now, now…not another word. You can trade me them fancy foot covers…if you don’t mind. I got a pair of boots be much better for traveling.”
The woman disappeared for a moment then came back with some odd little leather boots and a pair of thick woolen socks. She sat on the hearth then patted the corner beside her. Genevieve dropped down and pulled off her slippers. Without a word, Magda handed her the socks. Genevieve stretched them out, casting a questioning glance at Ryan. He shrugged.
“I’ve never seen socks like this? Did you make them?”
Magda beamed. “I did. That small flock of goats has been quite a blessing.”
“Imagine that.” Genevieve pulled on the socks and ran her hand along them. “Soft.” She stomped her feet in the boots and stood. “I think they’ll be fine.”
Magda took a couple of wobbly steps in the over-sized slippers.
Genevieve laughed. “Perfect. I hope you enjoy them.”
Now that they both seemed happy with the exchange, Genevieve looked for Ryan. When she didn’t see him in the kitchen, she called out. “Ryan!”
“What? How could he? I don’t know where to go.”
She ran to the front door. Ryan was just disappearing at the edge of the treeline.
Genevieve turned back to Magda, who had followed her to the door. The older woman seemed so caring and the farmhouse was quaintly homey. Was she sure she wanted to follow a strange man into the woods? A man with a price on his head, who was more than capable of subduing her, if their earlier tussle was anything to go by. He was really strong and built like a Mac truck. When she pushed against him, it had been like hitting a wall.
Lord, what do I do?
Her jaw dropped as she caught sight of two pale moons, a ghostly remnant of night. Two moons? That had to be an optical illusion…or a fairy tale land.
She grabbed Magda’s hand. “Thanks for everything. I’ve got to go.”