Every Time with a Highlander (5 page)

BOOK: Every Time with a Highlander
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Eleven

Michael spotted the pump house immediately through the arrow slits that lined the curving stairwell. He exited in unsettling awe past a musket-armed guard standing outside the door at the bottom of the steps, hurried by a dank-smelling well from which a bonneted maid pulled a bucket, and nearly ran into a man with a cleft lip hammering a wheel onto the front of a carriage.

Every image sent another stab of uneasiness through him, and the more seemingly “normal” the image, the sharper the stab of unease. He felt like Hamlet, stumbling unhappily through his haunted dreams. Now that he figured out how he'd gotten here (whether or not his brain could accept it as fact), he needed to figure out how to get back, and there was only one person who could help him with that.

The pump house was no minor outbuilding. Perched on the banks of the river, with a gabled roof and an astounding array of wheels and valves visible through its tracery windows, the pump house was an engineering marvel, and Michael might have spent a moment or two imagining the work necessary to put such a thing together had not the other marvel in view commanded his attention.

Undine stood at the edge of the beech-lined courtyard adjacent to the pump house. Despite her note, she appeared in no urgent need of help. She stood with her back to him, gazing happily at the Tweed, her skirts licked by the breeze.

She hadn't noticed him, and he watched her without making a sound for as long as decency would allow.

“Look at them,” she said without turning. “See them dance.”

He flushed, realizing she must have known he'd been watching, and looked in the direction of her gaze.

There, just past a bend in the river, scores of fish were leaping in the air and wriggling in the warmth before returning to the churning blue with a splash.

“Salmon, yes?”

“Aye,” she said. “Cuddies and glowers too. But salmon mostly.”

The energetic exercise, like a tiny display of maritime fireworks, seemed to enchant her. He found himself wishing he could elicit the same response.

“There was a huge rain yesterday,” she said. “The fish always come out after that. They like the current. It massages the stiffness from them.”

She'd said the last with such empathetic certainty Michael didn't quite know how to respond. “It sounds as if you'd like to be in there swimming with them.”

“I would.”

He had come to a stop a little behind her, enjoying the graceful curve of her neck as much as the view. She reached absently under the thick knot of blond at her nape to rub a muscle. Without thinking, he lifted his hands toward her shoulders and recovered himself with a start.

Good Lord, you hardly know the woman.

Undine chose that moment to turn, and he shoved his hands in his pockets, mortified.

“How was my fiancé's confession?”

“I'm afraid I can't tell you,” he said, remaining true to his supposed office.

“I very much doubt he said anything.”

He shrugged, apologetic. “Confidentiality. It's woven into the cloth.”

“But you're not a real priest.”

He lifted a brow. What could she mean? He knew she believed him to be a priest. She'd called him “Father” and asked about the location of his parish.

“Am I not?”

She pinkened. “No. I wouldn't have called you if you were. I'm sorry. I don't say it to embarrass you. I thought at first when I mixed the potion you would be an acolyte, but you're too old for that.”

He coughed. “How flattering.”

The pink deepened to red, though she didn't apologize.

“I assume you've been defrocked then?” she said. “Or suspended from service in some way?”

“In the corner in a dunce cap? That's how you see me?” She seemed to have no knowledge of his having traveled three centuries to serve her. She certainly had no idea he was a theater director. The gaps in her knowledge were large. Perhaps the gaps would prove useful.

“You needn't be ashamed,” she said. “I'm sure you're a competent man. Everyone makes mistakes—and in this case, your failing will serve some good.”

“Whom exactly will my failing serve—other than you, of course?”

She shifted. “That's complicated.”

“I assumed it would be.”

“The people who long for peace in the borderlands, which too often doesn't include the English.”

He laughed out loud. “Oh God, you're a Scot.” Her accent was northern English not Lowland Scots, but he knew well enough one can hide anything with the right training.

Her brow rose. “I am neither a Scot nor an Englishwoman.”

“And how is that? Has a new principality been established along the border? A sort of Andorra of Northumberland? Oh, wait. You're a fairy. I forgot. Fairies don't have nationalities.”

“I am a naiad, sir,” she said, furious. “Half-naiad, in any case.”

“And the other half? No, let me guess. Unicorn? House elf? Monarch butterfly?”

She didn't reply, but he caught a flicker of some-thing in her eyes, something beneath the fury, something she wanted neither to talk nor think about.

“Well, I'm sorry to report my paperwork is fully up-to-date,” he said. “Your wedding, should I perform it, will stand the test of time. Which is why you should send me back. Now. Before my hand starts to shake and I accidentally sign the license even without a ceremony.”

Her jaw flexed. The seeds of doubt had been planted. “'Tis not possible,” she said.

“Isn't it? Have your spells never gone awry?”

She opened her mouth and closed it again.

“I'm willing to help you,” he said, “but I want your word you'll get me back—today. I have no desire to spend the rest of my days in godforsaken Coldstream.”

“You are a very unpleasant man.”

“Is that your way of saying yes?”

If her eyes had been bolts of lightning, he'd have been nothing more than a large puff of burlap dust. She gave him a derisive nod of agreement.

“If you don't mind,” he said, “I should like your word—spoken, please—and a handshake.”

“Naiads don't shake hands.”

“Of course they don't. Do we touch elbows? Meet at a circle of stones at midnight?” He hid his disappointment. He'd been looking forward to holding that slim, capable hand.

“I give you my word.”

“I'm assuming I can count on it?”

“Once a naiad gives her word, she cannot withdraw it, ignore it, or undermine it.”

She made the pronouncement with such certainty, he could hardly doubt it. He bowed. “Thank you. There's a lot I need to learn about naiads, I guess.”

She snorted.

He turned at the sound of hoofbeats. Bridgewater appeared over the rise on a bay stallion and rode directly for them.

“Have you seen the bishop?” he said, pulling his horse to a stop.

“I haven't,” Michael said, “but—” He turned to suggest Undine might have, only to find Undine was no longer in sight. “But I was just about to check the, er, pump house.”

“Which you think he might have chosen to explore after having the clothes savagely torn from him a mile from here?”

“He has a great curiosity regarding mechanics.”

Bridgewater viewed Michael with hopeless disgust. “Well, I shall leave it to you to investigate the entire catalog of machines here. Do let me know the instant you find anything. Have you seen Undine?”

Michael shook his head.

“If you do, tell her I insist she return immediately to the house. If a madman is on the loose, I don't want her in harm's way.”

“I will tell her.”

He geed his horse to a gallop and disappeared. Michael peered down the gentle slope that led to the river and walked around the entire length of the beeches. Undine was nowhere to be seen.

“You nearly got us found out,” she said.

He wheeled around. She stood at the far end of the courtyard, arms crossed, by a mass of overgrown roses in front of the pump house. With her face hidden by the pump house's tiny buttress and her dress barely distinguishable against the pink of the flowers, she'd been nearly invisible—or completely. Who knew how naiads' powers worked?

“Found out?” he said. “What do you mean?”

She pointed to the fountain. In it lay a motionless and exceedingly naked man. Michael jumped back. “
Jesus.

“All we needed was for Bridgewater to decide to investigate the pump house. He'd have had to walk right by him.”

“Is he
dea
d
?” Michael said. Sending someone through time for your own purpose was one thing. Killing a man for it was something else entirely.

The man rolled from his back to his side, letting out an enthusiastic fart. He drew up a knee, resettled himself on his granite bed, and began to snore.

Michael's own back began to stiffen just looking at it. “The bishop?”

“Could you tell by the ecclesiastical ring?”

“What happened to him?”

“He was about to marry us,” she said, hinting in her tone that there was more misfortune to be had for those who thought to cross her.

“Well, you're a nondiscriminatory drugger, I'll give you that. Same potion?”

She gave him a narrow look. “Hardly.”

“What happened to his clothes?”

“I needed to divert Bridgewater and his men away from here.”

“So you drugged him, stripped him, and—wait. How did you get him here?” Undine looked capable of a lot but not carrying a hundred-and-fifty-pound man the length of the estate grounds.

“Oh, my
skies
.” She rolled her eyes. “You don't incapacitate a man and
then
bring him to the place you want him. You incapacitate him on-site.”

“Pardon me. I'm new to the assault-and-kidnapping game.”

“Are you?” she said, lifting a theatrical brow. “I'm astonished.”

“Why did you want me here?”

“I've
told
you—”

“No,
here
,” he said, gesturing to the courtyard. “Why did you want me
here
.”

“Oh.” She straightened. “To help hide him. The man will wake in a few hours, and we need to get him to a place where coming to naked with one's head thumping and no memory of the night before won't arouse suspicions—one's own or anyone else's—which of course means—”

“Oh Christ, no.”

“—a whorehouse.”

The sound of men's voices rose in the distance.

“And how might we accomplish that?” he asked.

“I have an idea,” she said, “but we'll have to hurry.”

Twelve

The cart bumped along the path to the town, and the farmer driving it whistled “Tam Lin” loudly. Undine could feel Father Kent's annoyance with her, and she adjusted the cloak over his shoulders as a means of appeasement.

“A hunchback?” he said. “Really?” He made an exasperated growl as the cart hit a particularly large rut.

“'Tis the only way to move what needs to be moved without being seen.”

One of the bishop's hands flopped out, and Undine shoved it back under the fabric.

Kent wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “There's nothing like wearing a wool cloak over a sweaty bishop on the most humid day in eternity while getting one's teeth rattled out of one's head to make one really long for the pleasures of Bankside.”

“We shall have you home soon enough.”

“Oh, we are
miles
past soon enough.”

After she'd explained her plan, Kent had lifted the bishop from the fountain onto his back like a summer pig and directed her to fetch rope to secure him and a cloak to hide him. She thought of the ease with which Kent had managed the effort. For a man of the church, he had the forearms of a blacksmith and the dexterity of an acrobat—not to mention the high-handedness of a sultan.

“Where did you get your training?” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your ecclesiastical studies. Where did you do them?”

He shrugged. “You know. Here and there. One picks up what one can.”

There was something about the way the corner of his mouth curved when he spoke that made everything he said feel like the start of an improper joke. She found herself wanting to smile even in the silences, which was very unlike her.

“But you studied under a rector or bishop, did you not?”

“Oh, that.” He waved a hand. “Yes, of course.”

“Where?”

“In, er, Basingstoke.”

“Basingstoke? The miller here is from Basingstoke. Perhaps the two of you—”

“Though I was only there for a short while,” he added hurriedly. “Bit of a kerfuffle with the chief patroness. Had to move on.”

She gave him an interested smile. “Does kerfuffle mean what I think it does?”

“Bite your tongue,” he said, horrified, and she laughed. “If you knew the patroness, you would apologize at once. She's eighty if she's a day—though in reality, I think she's been dipped in amber. She's been haunting young clerics for the last several centuries at least.”

And the wit of a courtier.

“Please accept my apology.” She bent in a makeshift curtsy.

The farmer slowed enough to make it over a squat stone in the path without tipping his passengers onto the ground, though she slid rather indelicately into Kent's side.

“How long do we have until your fiancé raises the alarm over your absence?” he asked, helping her regain her former position.

“I can only guess.” The warmth of Kent's hand lingered on her arm. “He wouldn't want to be seen as a man whose lover had fled, that is certain. He'd take matters into his own hands rather than enlist help.”

“And
are
you his lover?”

The curve of his mouth was gone, replaced by curiosity and something closer to concern. “I can't stand the man.”

“It's none of my business, of course, but that's not quite what I asked.”

“No,” she said. “I'm not.”

Did she imagine his shoulders relaxing?

“Yet you accepted his proposal of marriage?” he said.

The farmer, peeved by a flock of passing sheep, stopped his whistling and began to wave his stick. A necessary silence fell over the cart's occupants. Undine adjusted her skirts, feeling Kent's probing gaze. After a beat or two, the cart started up again, and so did “Tam Lin.”

“It has nothing to do with desire,” she said under her breath.

“Money then? Or position? You'd be Lady Bridgewater, after all.”

He said it without judgment, just interest.

“Believe when I tell you that receiving the wifely honorific of an English title—
that
English title in particular—would offer me no pleasure.”

“So not for love, lust, wealth, or title. What then?”

What could Kent know of the struggles for peace? Of men who wish that the bows and pistols in their hands would never rest? Of sons cut down at twenty or sixteen or twelve? Of the noblemen on both sides of the border who treated the centuries-old struggle like a game of cards, a pastime only for those who could afford the stakes? Nothing.

Or could he?

She saw compassion in those eyes as well as a desire to help, and she found herself tempted to tell him the truth.

In a farmer's cart? To a man you hardly know? Fool.

“For satisfaction,” she said. “Mine.”

He turned, full face, to appraise her. For a long moment, he didn't say anything, and Undine wondered if she'd offended him.

“Revenge can be a powerful motivator,” he said at last, adding more wistfully, “I doubt you'll find it very satisfying, though.”

She nearly laughed. Kent thought Bridgewater was a former lover who'd slighted her. She wished to tell him it wasn't true, that Bridgewater would be the last man in the universe she'd ever choose as a lover, but her training would not allow it. Besides, the less Kent knew, the more secure she could be in his safety.

The wagon bumped to a halt at the corner of the town's square, and Undine hopped down. Kent scooted to the edge, an exercise that should have been made ungainly by his deadweight companion, but he unfolded himself with surprising grace.

In any case, more grace than one would expect from a hunchback.

Undine gave the farmer a wave of thanks, and when she turned back, she started. Bent and twisted now, Kent had transformed from a man in his prime to a weary, limping cripple who looked ten years older and half a dozen inches shorter.

“Father,” she said, speechless.

“Hunchback you said, and hunchback it is. Are you familiar with the play
Richard II
I
?”

His voice too had changed, sounding flatter with a faint rasp, and his cadence had slowed. When he stepped from the roadbed to the footway, she nearly offered him her arm.

She smiled. “The play and the king, both. Aye, I am.”

“‘And thus I clothe my naked villainy, with odd old ends stol'n out of holy writ, and seem a saint when most I play the devil.'”

Now the voice had turned a rich, fluid baritone, and the restrained malevolence in the words made her hairs stand on end.

“You're
very
good,” she said.

He made a small bow. “One can hardly be a priest without a bit of the actor in one's blood.” He attempted to hike the bishop's limp body higher and managed only to move the center of the mass to the level of his armpit. “Carrying a ten-stone hump certainly adds to the realism.”

She leaned in to help but, being rather scrupulous when it came to naked bishops, used a shoulder rather than her hands to shove the man's arse high enough to get his head back over Kent's shoulder.

“Where are we going with him?” Kent said. “Please don't say far.”

“Do you see the building with the black shutters?”

He cocked his head. “Yes.”

“I have a friend there—a woman. She knows Rothwell's coming. I sent a note earlier. There's a door around the back, and you should—”

“Undine,” called a man from across the road.

She recognized the voice and groaned.

“Who is it?” Kent asked.

“Go,” she said. “I'll take care of it.”

BOOK: Every Time with a Highlander
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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