Prince of Charming
"Your charm wonít help you this time, Robin Goodfellow. Youíll remain trapped for the rest of eternity." Titania finished her spell, slicing her arms down for emphasis.
Robin couldnít run. There was no escape. Already the coils of magic surrounded him, transformed him, forced him into his prison. He could not speak, could not move. He could only watch...and listen.
Was this to be his fate forever?
When Oberon appeared, long after Titaniaís departure, Robin took hope. His father would save him.
Oberonís serious expression destroyed Robinís hope. "You should have come to me before facing Titania. I cannot undo what she has wrought. But I may be able to change things..."
"There must be some mistake." Kate Carmichael shot out of her chair and planted her palms on the lawyerís desk. "I know Nana left a will. She gave her house to me."
"As I just explained, Miss Carmichael, if Zelma St. John had a will, it has yet to surface." Stan Bennettís expression didnít deviate from his bland mask. "She didnít file it with me."
Kate dug her fingernails into her palms, her stomach twisting into knots. This couldnít be happening. "But she promised Iíd be taken care of. She knew how much I love that house."
"Iím sorry. Without a will, all of Mrs. St. Johnís possessions go to her only living relative, Adam St. John." The lawyer motioned toward the man sitting in the chair beside Kateís vacated one.
Adam St. John. He hadnít changed much from the young man she remembered, other than the gray at his temples.
He met her gaze. "You knew this would happen, Kate."
"But itís not fair. I love the house. You donít."
He gave her a smile that didnít begin to reach his eyes. "But Iím the only blood family Nana had. Just because she was soft-hearted enough to keep you after your father deserted you doesn't--"
"My father didnít desert me," Kate cut him off, tightening her fists. She didnít...wouldnít believe that. "Heís dead."
"Whatever." The quick twist of Adamís lips showed he didnít care one way or the other. "For years youíve mooched off the old lady. I think youíve had far more than you deserve."
Kate bit her lip. His words held an element of truth. Dad had asked Nana to watch her for a month, maybe two. Only the two months had turned into twelve years. "But at least I cared about her. I was the one who took care of her when she got sick. I was the one who held her hand when she died." Tears pooled in her eyes and Kate blinked them back. She couldnít afford to display any weakness in front of him. "Where were you?"
"I had business."
"And that was more important than Nana?" Trust Adam to put economics ahead of his grandmother. In the past heíd enjoyed visiting her, but since his father had died three years ago, heíd only come to see Nana once. Making money was more important, especially since heíd married Cordelia.
"Youíd been saying she was dying for the last two years. How was I to know she really would kick the bucket this time?" Adam brushed a piece of lint from his tailored suit coat, avoiding Kateís angry glare.
"You couldnít come say good-bye, but you can find time to take over her house?" Her voice rose as her pent-up emotions spilled over. "Ever since Iíve known you, all you cared about was money. I can see you havenít changed."
"Look whoís talking." Adam scowled at her. "As far as the law is concerned youíre nothing but a freeloader." He speared the lawyer with a glance. "Isnít that right?"
"Iím afraid in this case, Mr. St. John has all the rights, Miss Carmichael." Bennettís expression softened enough to appear apologetic. "Without a valid will, youíre entitled to nothing."
"I see." Though anger vibrated through her body, Kate carefully straightened and slid her purse strap onto her shoulder. "Then I guess I need to find it."
"If it even exists." Adamís final taunt followed her out the door, but it only added to Kateís determination.
She stalked down the sidewalk, momentarily glad sheíd decided to walk the mile to the lawyerís office. She needed the physical exertion to ease her rising frustration.
Nana wouldnít have told her sheíd be taken care of if it wasnít so. Since the disappearance of Kateís father, the elderly woman had been the only person Kate had dared to trust...and love. And, as always, everyone Kate cared about left her.
Her mother had passed away when Kate was eleven, following a two year battle with cancer. Though Kate understood her mom had escaped the suffering and gone to a better place, she never could grasp the unfairness of it all. Mom had been a good person, always giving, ready to help others, smiling bravely to the end.
After her motherís death, Kate had drawn even closer to her father. Heíd always had time for her and sheíd never doubted his love. Until he left her.
The medical bills had bankrupted him. Always convinced that Carmichaels were blessed with faerie sight, Philip insisted he knew how to find some of the Fae creaturesí gold. With it, he could pay all the bills and provide for Kate. Heíd left her with Nana, a close friend of his deceased parents, and ventured off on his quest. Kate never saw him again.
At that time, Kate had firmly believed his tales of magic. Sheíd had no doubts he would do as he said. But sheíd matured since then.
Arriving at Nanaís large Victorian house, she paused outside, her chest tight. Framed against a backdrop of tall elm and maple trees and the majestic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the house resonated with dependability, security, and comfort. The house had been the one thing Kate thought would always be there.
And now Adam intended to take even this. With his connections, power, and money, what chance did she have of winning? Nanaís promise that Kate would be taken care of meant nothing to anyone but Kate.
Approaching the wide front porch, trimmed with gingerbread and broad slats, Kate breathed in the serenity of the place, the air filled with the scents of spring--blooming daffodils, new grass, and budding trees. It gave her a sense of renewal, of life, of hope.
She loved this place. It was home, the only place sheíd ever lived longer than a few years.
And dammit, she wasnít going to lose it. The will had to be here someplace.
Striding through the front door, Kate tossed her purse onto the heavy oak bureau in the hallway and paused. Where would Nana have put it?
She started with the sunroom, a small alcove off Nanaís bedroom, where the elderly woman had spent most of her time the last couple of years. A thorough search of the desk and shelves revealed nothing, as did a larger sweep of the bedroom itself.
Blast. Where was it? Nana hadnít walked much in the past year, only from her bedroom to the main room downstairs. If the will wasnít here, it had to be there.
Kate hesitated at the wood sliding doors that led into the living room. Of all the rooms in the house, this was her favorite. Large, multi-paned windows admitted brilliant sunshine, creating rainbows on the textured-papered walls as the light danced off the stained glass in the doors. Heavy wood furniture, most of it dating back to Nanaís mother, dominated the room. Though well-worn and not always the most comfortable, the furnishings suited the decor. Kate had spent much of her time here, surrounded by history and books.
Where to start? She searched the crevices of the furniture to no avail. Kate eyed the bookshelves built into the walls on either side of the wide stone fireplace. Nana had always loved to read.
Kate resorted to removing books to check behind them, even flicking through the pages of some of Nanaís favorites. While she did find a long-lost recipe card tucked inside one novel, she didnít locate the will.
Desperate, she dragged a padded bench over to check the top shelves. Nana never could have gotten up here herself, but Kate had to check everywhere. Wherever she didnít look was where the will would be.
Jean, the housekeeper, hadnít cleaned up here for a while. Kate ran her hand over the shelf and sneezed as a thick layer of dust filled the air.
Still nothing. Damn.
With a sigh, Kate propped her elbow on the shelf. Now where?
Her change in position brought her face to face with the portrait. Ah, him. The handsome one. Involuntarily, Kate smiled. How could she not when looking at that face?
The portrait had hung in this spot over the fireplace since long before Kateís arrival. Nanaís mother had brought it with her from England when she and her husband came to the United States as newlyweds following the first World War. Both Nana and Kate had spent many hours musing over the manís identity and staring at him for the pure pleasure of it.
They didnít make men like that anymore.
And that was assuming heíd once been real. His black hair, cut just above his collar, curled about his head, framing a face that was too perfect to be true--high cheekbones, a sleek aristocratic nose, dark eyebrows above chocolate brown eyes that held a glint of deviltry, and perfect lips, the bottom one sensuously full, the top finely arched.
His was a mouth made for kissing. And this man without a name, who existed only in this old portrait, had spoiled all other men for her. As a teen, Kate had been totally infatuated with him. No ordinary boy could compare.
Sheíd spent hours talking to the portrait, spilling her secrets, heartaches and desires where she knew theyíd be safe. The man in the portrait had become her confidante, her friend, her unrequited love.
Kate sighed and reached out to trace the outline of his face. Even now, when she was long past childish dreams, she still held a fondness for him. For a mere picture, he appeared amazingly alive, his cheeks glowing with good health, his eyes twinkling with mischief, his lips curved with the hint of a smile. The artist had skillfully captured this handsome young manís vitality.
"I donít suppose you know where Nana hid the will." As the words left her mouth, she gasped.
Of course. Nana knew of Kateís love for the portrait. She mustíve put the will somewhere nearby.
With renewed eagerness, Kate ran her fingers along the edges of the engraved frame.
She pulled the heavy painting away from the wall and peeked behind it. Was it stuck to the back? No. She scowled. The will had to be here. There was nowhere else it could be.
Before she could replace the portrait, a strange glimmer on the back caught her eye. Squinting, she leaned closer, almost losing her balance to examine it. Words were scrawled against the back of the canvas. How unusual.
Teetering on one foot, she made out the erratic scrawl. "Ro...Rob...Robin. Good...Goodfellow. Robin Goodfellow. What does that mean?"
"Actually itís my name."
As the deep voice, shaded with a definite English accent, spoke behind her, Kate whirled around. The bench teetered, knocking her off-balance, and she plummeted toward the floor with a cry. Strong arms caught her in mid-air, wrapping beneath her knees and shoulders to cradle her close to a very solid chest.
Her heart hammered so hard, speech was momentarily impossible. Kate glanced up at the man and lost any remaining breath. It was him--the man in the portrait. He was gorgeous, definitely too handsome to be true, with a sensuous smile on his lips that matched his dancing dark brown eyes--eyes that looked at her with more than a little interest.
He couldnít be real. She had to be dreaming. Men didnít look at her that way. And they didnít hold her as if she was a lightweight either.
Realizing he still held her nestled against his powerful body, she forced words through her closed throat. "I...I...you can put me down now."
"If I must." He set her slowly on her feet, a twinkle in his eyes.
As her feet touched the carpet, Kate stumbled backward, unable to stop staring at this extraordinary man. His clothes looked odd, as if heíd stepped from an old movie. His pants clung to his muscular thighs, stopping at the knee where they met high stockings. His coat was long and trimmed with ornate buttons, his shirt silky with lace ruffles falling from the neck. He shouldíve looked silly, but instead he looked...wonderful.
Kate shook her head. What was wrong with her? "Who are you?" she demanded finally. "Where did you come from?" How had he managed to get inside the house?
With a courtly bow, he took her hand, then pressed his lips against the back of it in a kiss so warm Kate felt certain it had left an imprint. "My name, sweet Kate, is Robin Goodfellow, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for setting me free. Iíd begun to fear I would be trapped in that portrait forever."
Portrait? Kate blinked, studying him. The resemblance was unbelievable, but he couldnít be... She glanced over her shoulder at the painting, then did a double take, the blood draining from her head, leaving her dizzy. The painting did appear to have lost some of its vitality. This was insane.
She faced the stranger again. His smile greeted her confused gaze. He looked exactly like the man in the portrait, down to the clothing he wore. "I must be dreaming."
That had to be it. After years of fantasizing over this man, sheíd fallen asleep and brought him to life in her dreams--not the first time sheíd done so. But she didnít feel like she was asleep and the warmth of his lips still lingered on her hand.
Kate extended her trembling fingers until she touched his jacket. It felt real, the material smooth, the buttons hard and cold, the man beneath it solid and warm.
"You canít be real." She spoke aloud, half-hoping to convince herself.
"Ah, but I am." He caught her elbow in his hand, his grip firm, reassuring. "Youíve gone quite pale. Come, sit down."
The whirling in her brain made her agree. Better to sit now than pass out at his feet. She sank onto the couch and he dropped to one knee before her, his expression solemn for the first time.
"I should go while I can, but I do owe you an explanation, Kate. Since you set me free, itís the least I can do."
"How do you know my name?"
He grinned, bathing her in warmth. "How could I not know you, sweet Kate? I saw you grow from a young girl to the beautiful woman you are today." His voice took on a seductive huskiness as he said, "You confided in me often enough that I know you very well."
Her pulse leapt into a rumba. Sheíd have to be a rock to be immune to that voice. "But I...I talked to the portrait." Confused, she glanced from his too real profile to the painting, then back...twice.
"Aye, and I was trapped within it for the past two hundred years."
"Thatís impossible." She closed her eyes, convinced he would be gone once she opened them again. Maybe the stress of Nanaís death and losing the house was causing her to see things.
"Everything is possible when thereís magic about." His smooth English accent made his crazy words believable and she opened her eyes to stare at him.
"Thereís no such thing as magic." She couldnít keep bitterness from tingeing her voice. "My father taught me that lesson well."
"No such thing?" He stood straight, his stance proud, his physique cover model quality. "You donít believe that."
"Yes, I do." But she couldnít meet his accusatory gaze.
"Thatís heartache speaking, not you."
She looked up in surprise. "What do you know about my heartache?"
"A great deal, sweet Kate." His voice softened. "Iíve been hanging over that fireplace for a long time."
The portrait. She glanced at it, half expecting the painting to be empty, but the seductive image remained suspended over the mantel. Only it wasnít nearly as seductive as the flesh and blood specimen before her.
Kate inhaled slowly, trying to steady her rapid pulse. "I donít know where you came from, but it wasnít from the portrait."
His lips quirked in an amused smile. "You shouldnít find this so difficult to believe. The tales Iíve seen in your picture box show many magical things."
He pointed to the large console television on the opposite wall. "There. Itís been very helpful in teaching me your speech patterns. Itís shown me things even I had trouble believing--flying machines, men in the blackness of space, women wearing less clothing than some Iíve made love to..." his expression reflected his appreciation of that last statement, "...and most unusual, people who change from child to adult then back to child simply by eating some kind of food."
Kate laughed. "Thatís just a commercial."
"Advertisements. Donít believe everything you see on TV. Itís--" She stopped abruptly. What was she doing? No matter how naive he acted, she couldnít believe his incredible tale.
She crossed her arms, refusing to let his charm and good looks seduce her. "Tell me where you came from, Mr. Goodfellow, why youíre here, then leave."
"As you wish." He sat on the couch beside her, far too close for her peace of mind. However, instead of screaming danger as any intelligent mind would, hers concerned itself with the quirk of his eyebrow and the shape of his lips as he spoke.
"I was born in eleven eighty-nine."
"Eleven eighty-nine?" Kate made a scoffing noise. "Right. Like youíre eight hundred years old." She wouldíve guessed more like twenty-eight or so.
He held up his hand, impish lights in his eyes. "Let me finish." When she pressed her lips together, he continued. "My mother was a simple country maiden who happened to catch the eye of Oberon, King of the Fae. They fell in love and I was born as a result of their union."
This sounded like one of the bedtime tales her father used to spin. A wave of nostalgia swept over her. Sheíd loved that time with Dad. Against her will, she found herself listening to Robinís crazy explanation.
"My father returned to the magical realm shortly after I was born, leaving me in my motherís care. She told me about him, but I didnít entirely believe her until my magic began to manifest itself."
His smile sent waves of heat through her veins. "With my charm, of course."
"Conceited." Even if it was true, he didn't have to sound so confident.
He shrugged, a grin lurking at the corners of his lips. "Only the truth. My magic is in my charm."
At this point, she could believe that. He oozed sensuality and mischief, a deadly combination. She raised her eyebrows, the closest she could get to vocalizing her skepticism.
He leaned closer and her breath caught as his face came within inches of hers. "I could persuade the wild creatures of the forest to come to me. And I could convince mortals to do my bidding, as well. Few could refuse me anything."
The husky quality of his voice made Kate think of sweaty sheets and long leisurely lovemaking. Yes, few probably refused him. Especially women.
She swallowed the lump in her throat. "Around here, we just call that sex appeal."
His grin broadened. "I do have some talent with glamour as well, but my powers of persuasion are my main gift. And my immortality."
"Oh, thatís right." Kate gave him a wry smile. "Youíre eight hundred years old."
"Eight hundred and eleven, to be exact."
He sat back and Kate gulped for air, feeling as if sheíd just been released from a spell. What was it about him? His magical charm? He hadnít even touched her, but her skin tingled, her blood warmed and her breasts grew heavy. She shook her head. Nonsense.
"So youíve been spreading your charm for all that time?" He probably spread more than a few wild oats as well. A man like him would have women falling all over him.
"About six hundred years actually." Robin paused and his expression lost its animation. "I grew tired of living with mortals. Theyíre born, they live hard lives with too little joy, then they die. After a few hundred years, I no longer wished to continue losing my friends to their mortality. I wanted to talk to my father, so I made my way to the magical realm."
If anything, he grew gloomier. Kate stopped herself from touching his shoulder to comfort him. How could she have gotten used to his smile in so short a time? Without it, she felt bereft. "And you couldnít find it?" she asked.
"I found it...and Titania."
Just the way he said the name sent a chill over Kateís heated flesh. "What happened?" In spite of herself, she was as engrossed in this fantastic tale as any told by her father.
"Titania is Queen of the Fae." He twisted his lips in a mere shadow of his previous grins. "And Oberonís wife. I quickly discovered she wasnít happy about his dalliance with my mother. The fact that my mother was long dead didnít sway her. I was alive."
He sighed. "Even worse, Oberon had given one of Titaniaís circlets to my mother. Heíd thought Titania would never miss it since it was one of her plainer ones. But she did and had never forgiven him for it."
"What did she do? Throw you out?"
"Ah, that wouldíve been too simple." A hint of pain appeared in his expressive eyes as he glanced at the painting. "I made the mistake of taking my portrait with me. My friend Tommy had just painted it and I intended to present it to my father as a gift. Since the Fae cannot harm one another, Titania spun a spell that trapped me within the painting for all eternity--a fate worse than any death. I could see. I could hear. But I was inanimate, unable to live."
His despair tugged at Kateís heart. Her active imagination had no trouble putting herself in his place, doomed forever to watch while unable to participate. Her eyes widened as a new thought occurred. Doomed to watch her as sheíd passed through the difficult teenage years to adulthood. How many times had she come into this room to bid Nana good night wearing nothing more than a skimpy nightshirt?
No, she wouldnít even consider that.
"If you were trapped forever, then how did you get free?" she demanded. She had him now, caught in his lies.
"You freed me, sweet Kate." His gentle smile returned. "With help from my father. He couldnít remove Titaniaís spell, but he did modify it slightly so that if a mortal said my name while in the presence of the portrait, I would be released. To increase my chances, he wrote my name on the back, where you saw it."
"Why the back? Why not the front where it would be more obvious?"
"Ah, more obvious to Titania as well." Robin ran his finger down the bridge of her nose in a quick but affectionate gesture that sent flashes of fire through her blood. "He sent my portrait back into the mortal world, where I waited for someone with faerie sight to read my name. And at last, you did."
"Faerie sight?" Now he was trying to make her believe she had magic as well. Not likely. "Anyone couldíve read that."
"The portrait went through several owners before Zelmaís mother brought it here. None of them saw it."
He touched her lips, silencing her. "I know. You donít believe. Itís no matter whether you do or not. Iíve done my duty and told my tale. Now Iíll be on my way." His eyes twinkled. "I have much to learn about this new era."
As he stood, she leapt to her feet. He was leaving. Wasnít that what she wanted? Then why did she have this irrational impulse to grab his arm and make him stay? She straightened her shoulders. "I think thatís best."
"Yes, I..." He hesitated, studying her face, his gaze suddenly intense. "It is for the best, but Iíll not go without a kiss."
Before his intention fully registered, he closed the distance between them and touched his lips to hers. Kate had been kissed before, but his gentle pressure reduced them all to dim tepid memories. He turned kissing into an art form, his lips seducing hers, the tenderness of his claim shattering Kateís defenses.
Okay, maybe he hadnít been lying about magical charm. Kateís heart thudded so loudly she knew he had to hear it. Her lips softened beneath his and the rest of her body followed suit, wanting to nestle even closer. Without conscious thought, she tightened her hand around his arm. An attempt to hold him in place?
It had the opposite effect. Robin drew back and smiled warmly. "Good-bye, sweet Kate, and thank you again." He gave her a courtly bow, then walked from the room.
Kate couldnít move. Her body simply didnít have the power to respond to mental commands. She stared after him, entranced, until the sound of the front door closing roused her from her stupor.
Good Lord. That man was more dangerous than a loaded weapon. Especially to a woman who hadnít much experience with men...a woman a little too Rubenesque to capture any manís interest.
Forcing herself to breathe evenly, she turned to the portrait. The familiar face looked back at her--the same, yet somehow different. It didnít have the same vibrancy, the sense of almost being alive. Could his story be true?
She didnít dare believe it. Her father had lived for that nonsense once and look where it led him. To his death.
But Robinís resemblance to the man in the portrait couldnít be instantly dismissed. A relative, perhaps? Had he come for the portrait, then left because heíd found Kate there?
She pulled the heavy frame away from the wall in an attempt to look behind it again. The name was there, perfectly obvious, if difficult to read.
"What are you doing?"
Adamís accusing tone made Kate jump and she turned to glare at him. When had he come in? "Iím trying to read the name back here."
Though his scowl didnít fade, Adam joined her in peering behind the painting. "I donít see anything."
"Itís right there." Kate pointed to the scrawl.
"Thereís nothing there." Adam let the portrait fall back against the wall. "What are you plotting now?"
"What?" Hot anger rose quickly. She didnít have red hair for nothing. "I was looking for the will."
"The fictitious will." He pinned her beneath his blue gaze. "Even if you produced one, I wouldnít believe it was real."
"How dare--" Kate stopped as she suddenly spotted Robin standing behind Adam. He hadnít been there a moment ago. Sheíd swear it.
Robin looked equally surprised. His expression held bewilderment as he glanced around the room, stopping at Kate. With a shrug, he grinned and bowed once again. "I was just leaving."
He made it to the front door before Adam turned to look at him. "Who was that?" he demanded. "Your boyfriend?"
"I donít have a boyfriend." Kate raised her chin, daring him to taunt her. "Youíve told me often enough no man would look twice at me."
A sheepish expression crossed his features, reminding her of the shaky camaraderie theyíd once shared...before he met Cordelia. "You have a pretty face, Kate. You just need to lose a few pounds."
Easier said than done. Kate didnít respond. Instead, she focused her attention on the portrait. Robin hadnít looked at her as if he found her roundness offensive. In fact, he made her feel sexy, almost pretty. His magical charm, no doubt.
Adam cleared his throat in an obvious attempt to get her attention. She didnít give him the satisfaction.
"Kate, Iíve talked to Mr. Bennett. I have to return home for now, so heís going to arrange for the sale of the house and its contents."
That brought her about to face him. "You canít sell this place. Itís my home."
"Not any longer." His face hardened. "You managed to dupe my grandmother all these years, but the free ride is over."
"I'm not a freeloader, Adam." No matter what he thought. "I've been working and helping to support Nana, which is more than you've done."
"It doesn't matter. The house is mine now."
"That doesnít mean you have to sell it." Nana was probably turning in her grave at the thought. "Or is Cordelia the one pushing for the money?"
The sudden tightness of his expression confirmed her suspicions. "I have a house in Chicago. I donít need this one." Adam surveyed the surroundings. "It would take too much time and money to keep it up."
"You can always buy it yourself."
His suggestion made her pause. She had some money saved from her meager salary as an elementary school secretary. Sheíd intended to use it to go to college, to get her teaching degree, but if it would save the house.... "How much are you asking?"
He named a figure that made her gasp. "I canít begin to afford that."
"Thatís not my problem." He started for the hallway. "You have a week to move out."
"A week?" She hadnít known until today that sheíd have to leave. When would she have time to find another place, to pack, to move?
"A week." His familiar scowl raked over her. "If youíre still here next Friday, Iíll have you forcibly removed."
Kate trembled with rage, her fingernails digging into her palms. "Damn you, Adam."
"Youíve taken advantage of the St. Johns long enough. My father told Nana to get rid of you years ago. She wouldnít listen. Itís up to me now."
Before Kate could come up with an adequate retort, he left, the firm click of the door signaling his departure. Damn him again. Nana had loved her and Kate had returned that love.
Did Adam have a clue how much Kate had contributed to the upkeep of this place? How much time sheíd spent taking care of Nana as the womanís health failed? This house had been her home, Nana her only remaining family.
Now she had nothing.
Choking back a sob, she whirled around to run to her room and collided with Robinís sturdy body. His hands caught her shoulders to steady her and she stared at him in amazement. Hadnít he just left?
He didnít look very happy himself. "Bloody hell," he muttered. "Iím not free after all."
"What?" Kate blinked back her tears and tried to concentrate.
"Every time I try to leave, I make it no further than the front walk before I find myself pulled back here to you."
"Which means what?"
His expressive mouth twisted in a grimace. "It means that while Iím no longer bound to the portrait, I am still caught by Titaniaís spell. Only now Iím bound to you."
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