COUNTY WICKLOW, IRELAND 1830
Rough stone met her palm, and a blast of wind swirled around the glen as if to draw her closer. Goosebumps pricked her skin, and she held her breath. Elsbeth traced her dirt-stained fingertips along the engraved swirls and listened. Waited.
That’s when she heard it. A low whistle from the nearby woods. Haunting. Mysterious. Lovely. Leaving her bag and the bundle of her mum’s apple cake at the base of the Celtic monolith, she ventured nearer.
Beneath the gnarled arms of the hawthorn’s protected canopy, the world grew silent. Nothing moved along the forest floor, save for the bending branches that cast dancing shadows across the wooded glen.
How many times had her brothers teased her for believing in their grandfather’s stories? One of these days, she’d prove them wrong. There was more to this island than grass and sea. She knew it as she knew these woods.
The sound of footsteps made her turn, and a deep voice greeted her. “Looking for something?”
She spun and peered up into the face of her brother’s best friend. “Calen? What are you doing here?”
A gust of wind snatched a copper curl from her linen scarf, and she let it fly with abandon against her skin. She’d be a liar to say his presence didn’t cause her heart to flutter like the leaves above their heads. The thought that he’d sought her out this far made hope billow in her chest.
He tilted his head and analyzed the stone monolith beside her. The corners of his mouth curved. “I see Aiden was right. I would find you here. Your brother knows you well.”
His chuckle was soft, yet it made her defenses rise. Her brother made no show of supporting her wild theories, but Calen?
She stood, fists against her hips. “Say it. You think I’m crazy, too. Don’t you?”
His eyes flashed a steel grey beneath the coming storm, and he stepped closer, his smile all but gone. He opened his mouth and closed it. The muscle in his jaw ticked, speaking louder than the words he wouldn’t say.
“I never said that.”
She tilted her head back to maintain eye contact and dared him to contradict her. Of course, he’d side with Aiden. Why’d she ever think he could be different? Now that was a fanciful dream if ever there was one. Gathering her skirts, she pushed past him, the magic of this place dwindling with every passing moment under Calen’s disapproving stare. Her shoulder brushed his, and his hand settled in a bracing grip against her elbow.
“What would you have me say, Elsbeth? That I believed all those stories, same as you? Well, I do.” He relaxed his grip and looked at her from beneath his knit cap.
She stilled, fearing her ears had betrayed her. “You… what?”
“You’re not the only one who listened to your granddad as a kid. Why do you think I brought this?” He pulled a small crumb-covered bundle from his jacket and shrugged, an impish smile tugging at his lips. “Your granddad did say apple cake was their favorite.”
At that moment, a rush of air swept over them. A noise as shrill as a banshee cry made the hair raise on the back of Elsbeth’s neck. Another arctic blast pushed against her, and she pitched forward. In a moment, Calen dropped the cake and caught her before they both went tumbling down the knoll. Rough wool scratched against her cheek, but all she could think about was the way her heartbeat pounded with the wind against their backs.
She ducked her head into his woven sweater, the intimate contact muddling her brain to applesauce. Acutely aware of her body pressed against his, she unclenched her fists from his sweater and ducked her burning face toward the grass.
Neither of them spoke, but from the rosy glow creeping up Calen’s neck, she knew he’d felt something, too. At a loss for words, they stood in stunned silence until a childlike giggle echoed over the clearing.
Her eyes grew wide, and they both turned toward the source of the noise. “Was that…?” Her voice trailed off. She took a step toward the forest and scanned the trees.
Calen shifted behind her until his voice broke the spell of the woods. “The apple cake. It’s gone.”
She looked toward where he knelt beneath the monolith, and in a few strides, she was beside him. She followed the direction of his gaze and spied the discarded twine on the grass.
“It was them. They were here,” he whispered, almost reverently.
“But how did we miss them?” She frowned and studied the frayed edges. All her life, she’d listened to the stories, hoping to one day catch a glimpse of the fantastical creatures. Now, when she finally had her chance, she’d been too distracted by her feelings for Calen to notice.
Beside her, Calen rose. He brushed the grass from his trousers and looked at her, a new light in his eyes she’d never seen before. “There’s more mystery to life than meets the eye.”
He extended his hand toward her, and she gladly took it. Warmth blossomed in her chest, and despite missing her chance to see the fairies, she couldn’t help but smile. “I suppose there is.”
He eased her back up and inclined his head toward home. “Come on. If we’re going to see them again, we’re going to have to make another cake. How about we do it together this time?”
His laugh was magic itself. Warmth unfolded within her chest and spread to her toes. Maybe there was something special about this stone circle after all.
“I’d love nothing more.”
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