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Table of Contents
About the Author
Praise for Out of the Ashes
"It is one of those books you can't put down. This is a delightfully fresh and entertaining yet poignant tale."
— Readers Favorite
"It was completely different from the other books I have read in the past."
— Book Obsessed Chicks
"This was a fantastic story. Fans of historical romance should definitely pick this up. I thoroughly enjoyed this read."
— Paperbacks and Frosting
"One of the best I've read this year. By the last page I didn't want it to end."
— Two Indie Ladies
"I thought it would be a fun romantic read but I had no clue that I would fall in love with this book from the very beginning."
"The book I waited years to read."
— Jennette Marie Powell, author of Time's Enemy
"Out of the Ashes is a book that will capture your imagination. It is crafted with deliberate precision, and will appeal broadly to readers who love romance set in exotic times and places."
— Night Owl Reviews
"It is just one of those stories that makes you wish you didn't read it, so you can read it over."
— Pen Met Paper
"I can honestly tell you that I cried while I read this book! I highly recommend it, and give it the highest score possible."
— Critique de Book
"I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys paranormal romance, who has interest in Pompeii or archeology, and who wants a good, well-told story."
— Paranormal Romance Guild
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organization, or person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Lori Dillon
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
For my daughter, Rachel, who once loved dragons more than dolls. Thanks for giving me the inspiration for DRAGON.
And for my dad, Bob "not the singer" Dillon. You were the first hero in my life. I love you and miss you so much.
I'd like to thank my critique partners, Donna, Liz, and Mary Ann, who told me to stop sitting on DRAGON and publish the thing already.
I'd also like to thank Aemelia and Alyssa at The Authors Red Room for their editorial expertise in catching all my grammar goofs.
In addition, I'd like to acknowledge the encouraging and innovative authors at IndieRomanceInk who have held my hand as I waded into the deep end of the indie publishing pool. The wise and knowledgeable authors at Hearts Through History, who helped me research all those pesky medieval details—any historical screw-ups are all mine. And to Virginia Romance Writers, my home RWA chapter and an amazingly supportive group of writers. Thank you all.
Desperation has a way of gripping most people in an ice-cold fist.
In Jill Donahue's case, it threatened to wrap around her ankles, tie itself into a hangman's knot, and trip her on her face as she half-jogged down the uneven sidewalk of Carytown.
Overhead, red, white, and blue banners waved on the street posts, remnants left over from the Fourth of July celebration. With a national holiday five days before her niece's birthday, she should've been able to recall the special occasion was coming up. But as she dodged around a wrought iron table parked outside a cozy sidewalk café, she conceded America's birthday hadn't helped her remember Zoe's impending sixth birthday one bit.
In the grand scheme of things, speed shopping was not one of Jill's greatest life skills. Yet here she was, peering in every shop window she passed, hoping for inspiration. But all she encountered were chic clothing boutiques catering to the country club elite, and antique shops full of heirloom furnishings from area estate sales. She even glanced in a jeweler's display window offering custom designed settings, but they were more wearable art than everyday adornments. Plenty of diverse stores selling everything imaginable, but nothing appropriate for a soon-to-be six-year-old girl.
Where the hell is that damn toy store? She could've sworn there was one stuck in among all the eclectic shops. Jill tried to squash the niggling sense of panic creeping its way into her brain. Why hadn't she gone to Toys R Us like any sane person would've done? Why had she waited until the last minute to look for a gift?
Because 'procrastination' is your middle name, that's why.
Glancing at her watch, she groaned. She was so screwed. There was no time to drive to the mall across the river. If she didn't find something soon, she was going to have to write Zoe an IOU or give her cash in an envelope. But if she did that, her whole family would hold the gift faux pas over her head for years to come.
She could hear her mother now. For heaven's sake, Jill. You're twenty-nine years old. Why can't you be more responsible? How can you expect to accomplish anything important in your life if you can't even manage to get a simple birthday present for a little girl?
And her sister Ann certainly wouldn't be far behind in the not-so-subtle reprimand department. Messed up again, eh sis? It figures. You only have one niece and her birthday comes the same day every year. How could you screw that up?
Apparently, she could. Royally.
Distracted by the imaginary Jill-bashing party going on in her head, she was caught off guard when she was suddenly shoved from behind. Stumbling forward, she slammed into the plate glass window of a storefront, hitting the pane so hard she was surprised it didn't shatter into a thousand tiny pieces and rain down on her in jagged, pain-inflicting shards.
Stunned, she massaged her throbbing forehead as she scowled at the moving horde. Not even an apology or murmured 'excuse me' from the human ramrod who continued blindly on his or her way.
Strong hands grabbed her from behind and yanked her off the busy sidewalk and into a small covered alcove.
"Oh, my dear. Are you all right?"
She turned to find a tiny woman who could've been an extra in the "Wizard of Oz" staring at her through thick-lensed glasses. Still dazed from the impact, she couldn't quite grasp the munchkin lady's presence as the woman took Jill by the arm and ushered her into the shop.
"Come in here and let's get you out of harm's way."
The cheerful tinkling of a bell over the door announced their entrance and she motioned for Jill
"Thank you," she said to the lady before turning to acknowledge the other person seated across the tiny, lace-covered table. "Hel—whoa!"
The woman had no nose.
Jill wondered briefly if she'd hit her head harder than she thought. Then she realized it was an old mannequin, garbed in a fringed flapper's dress and feathered hat, serving non-existent tea in dainty china cups, their yellowed glaze crackled with age.
"Oh, don't mind Fannie. She has that effect on people all the time. But she's pleasant enough company. A real good listener, but not much of a talker." The shopkeeper giggled at her own joke, her kind face creased with a web of wrinkles. "I'm Clo, by the way. Owner, operator and sole employee of Clotho's Bygone Treasures."
"Nice to meet you," Jill replied as she glanced around, trying to get her bearings. The cramped shop was filled with vintage clothing, some modeled by equally vintage mannequins like her current tea party companion. Scented candles did little to mask the pungent smell of mothballs, decades-old dust, and musty wool emanating from the aging garments.
Odd, but she passed this way every day on her way to work and had never noticed this tiny shop wedged between The Yarn Lounge and Le Visage Makeup Boutique. How had she not seen it? By the look of the worn floorboards and sagging shelves, it had been here for quite a while, probably as long as the 1920s Byrd Theatre down the street.
She moved to stand, but Clo kept her in place with a firm hand to her shoulder. "You should probably sit here for a bit to make certain you're okay."
"I'm fine. Really."
"No, you're not." Clo tsked. "From the sound of that crash, I'd say you're going to have a rather large knot on your forehead in a few minutes."
Jill cupped her palm over the throbbing spot, feeling a tender lump already forming. "Great. That's all I need. A concussion on top of everything else."
Clo patted her shoulder, concern evident on her weathered face. "Oh, you poor dear. You look so upset. Is there anything I can do?"
Jill snorted. "Unless you have a birthday present for a six-year-old girl hidden among all these old clothes, I doubt it."
She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth. The lady's small stature perked up and her eyes gleamed with dollar signs.
"Oh, I'm certain I have something."
Caught, Jill groped for an excuse, any flimsy reason to beat a hasty retreat. But the woman's wistful eyes—enlarged twice their normal size behind the thick lenses—froze Jill in her tracks. She glanced back at the face of her battered drinking partner, thinking they could both use something stronger than make-believe tea.
"Thanks anyway, but somehow I doubt it."
"Does she like to play dress up? We have children's clothing in the back—pinafores, crinolines, tiny gowns perfect for little girls to play princess in."
Jill snorted. "Oh, I don't think so. Her idea of dress up is to put on a fake fur pelt and pretend to be a Siberian snow leopard. I doubt Zoe's ever played at being a princess in her life."
"Really?" Clo remarked, her voice tinged with disbelief. "That seems a bit unusual."
Now that was an understatement. "My niece isn't like most little girls, which makes it a pain in the as—makes it difficult to shop for her. She adamantly refuses to play with dolls and boycotts any and all tea parties. If anyone gets her a Barbie, it ends up in the bottom of the toy box faster than the wrapping paper can hit the floor."
Jill watched the woman's pencil-thin eyebrows inch higher with each word.
"It's true. Sweet little Zoe would rather play with rubber alligators, fake snakes and plastic dinosaurs than anything that comes in pink." She tossed in a heavy dramatic sigh for effect, certain Clo was ready to admit defeat and boot her out the door. "She's not a girly-girl, so I can't get her prissy stuff. There probably isn't anything she'd like here." Jill smiled, standing to make good her escape. "I'm sorry I've wasted your time."
Rather than the confused expression most people acquired when she described her niece, the tiny shopkeeper grinned. "On the contrary, I think she sounds like a delightful and unique young lady." Then an odd twinkle glinted in the woman's eye. "So you say she likes alligators and dinosaurs?"
"What about dragons?"
"Dragons?" Jill hadn't really thought about it before. "I guess so. They're sort of similar, aren't they?"
"Wonderful! I have the perfect thing," Clo said, grabbing her by the arm.
Her initial shock at the lady's pushiness was offset by her surprising strength. Before Jill knew it, Clo had towed her into the dark recesses in the rear of the shop.
Finally letting go, the shopkeeper shoved an old wooden ladder along the shelves reaching up to the twelve-foot ceiling. The wheels screeched in the metal rails overhead, further aggravating the pounding in Jill's skull.
"It's right up here somewhere," the woman said as she started up the rickety rungs.
Jill reached out to stop her. "Wait. I don't want you to go to so much trouble. All I really need is directions to the toy shop around here."
Clo paused in her search. "Oh, it's no trouble. I'm certain the thing I have in mind will be perfect." Then she winked at her. "Trust me, dearie."
Great. This was one shrewd saleswoman, already halfway to guilting her into buying something whether she wanted it or not. Jill may as well be wearing an "I'm a sap" sign around her neck.
Attempting to steady the ladder, Jill worried the woman might come tumbling down on top of her at any minute, along with every kitschy knickknack and vintage whatnot crammed on the towering shelves. After shifting several items out of the way, Clo pulled a rolled bundle off the top shelf. Clutching it under one arm, she began her wobbly decent, heaving a big sigh as she hopped off the bottom rung with the spryness of a woodland elf.
"Here we go," she said as she led Jill back to the front of the shop where she placed the rolled piece of old fabric on the glass display case. "Go ahead. Open it."
The woman looked rather pleased with herself. Not quite sure if Clo was playing with a full deck, Jill decided it might be best to humor the woman for the moment, and she tried to untie the leather cord from around the rolled bundle. Hard and brittle, the thin strap refused to give up its tight knot.
"I can't seem to get—"
"Here, let me try," Clo offered, and with more dexterity than those stubby little fingers should be capable of, she had the tie unknotted within seconds.
What was this place? Part magic shop? Jill would've sworn the knot was not going to come undone unless she took scissors or a blowtorch to it. At Clo's nod, she unrolled a section of the fabric, expecting to see a dancing purple dinosaur or the cartoon characters from "Dragon Tales" on it. Instead, she gasped in surprise.
"Is that needlepoint?"
"Actually, it's a tapestry. Amazing detail for something so small, isn't it?"
Jill had to agree. The piece before her was only about the size of a place mat, but the intricate weaving revealed a tiny work of art.
"Look closely and you can see it tells a story."
The woman was right. The threads whispered a tale of long ago, depicting a quaint medieval town set in a fairy tale land of majestic mountains and rolling green hills. Whoever the weaver was, they did beautiful work. She could almost smell the smoke curling up from the villagers' huts and hear the rustle of the leaves as the trees swayed in a crisp spring breeze. In the foreground, a knight sat astride his big white horse, looking strong and brave. His helm obscured his face, but in her little girl's heart, Jill imagined him to be handsome and dashing, as only a knight in shining armor should be.
There was a girl standing nearby, wearing a flowing white gown with long blonde hair down to her knees. Jill shook her head, a lock of mousy brown hair falling into her line of vision. Why were the girls in fairy tales always blonde? Granted, there was Snow White with her black hair, bu
The girl's face in the picture was indiscernible, the area where her head should've been lost off the ragged edge. But Jill knew without a doubt she'd once been beautiful and that the brave knight had rescued her in the nick of time from some horrible fate worse than death. Of course, they'd fallen instantly in love and were living happily ever after in a castle somewhere. Wasn't that how those stories always ended?
Jill stroked the colorful threads. "It's beautiful."
Clo clasped her stumpy hands over her round belly. "Yes, it is."
"It looks very old."
"Over a thousand years, I'd say."
"What?" Jill stared at the woman, surprised the thing hadn't crumbled to dust in her hands. "Doesn't that make it rare? Shouldn't it be in a museum?"
"Maybe, if it were complete and in better shape."
She noted the tattered edges where the tapestry was unraveling, whatever story the rest of it told now lost in a snarl of threads. "It looks like it used to be part of a bigger piece."
"Perhaps." Clo shrugged. "Or maybe it just isn't finished…yet."
The lady wasn't making sense. "You mean it wasn't finished, right?"
"Yes, of course," she corrected herself. "I'm sure there used to be more to it, but through neglect and time, this is all that's left."
"That's a shame." Jill experienced an odd stabbing twinge in her chest, as if she shared the tapestry's physical pain at having parts of it slowly stripped away, one thread at a time.
"Some people don't have respect for old treasures. Now, it's only worth something to those who can appreciate the magic it holds."