Authors: Gwyn Cready
Michael quoted from Robert Burns in his best burr, “âA prince can mak a belted knight, A marquise, duke, an' a' that; But an honest man's abon his might, Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!'”
Undine looked horrified. “Silence, then. And no, no plaid.”
“I'll have you know my accent is extremely good.”
The brunette grabbed the knot at his waist and began to loosen the rope, and Undine reached for his wrist. He knew what it was like to have backstage dressers yanking and pulling on his clothes, but not a woman he'd barely met. And definitely not a woman he'd barely met alongside a woman who felt it within her right to pass judgment on the sexual abilities of the entire male world. God knows what she'd make of hisâ
“Too short,” Undine said definitively, looking at the sark. She lifted Michael's arm and stretched it across her chest. “We need something longer in the arm and broader in the shoulders.”
His elbow rested in the soft valley between her breasts. He could feel the warmth of her skin. Any words of protest he might have mustered died on his lips.
“Odd,” Undine said, peering into his eyes. “You don't look that tall.”
He wanted to say he didn't look that tall because Friar Laurenceâ
Friar Laurence, at leastâwas a plump man built close to the ground, and the way he'd walked and stood and gestured were meant subtly to communicate that, but only another actor would understand.
“Stand up straight,” she commanded. “Full height.”
He shook off the role and allowed his body to expand into its usual space.
Her eyes widened, and as they did, her grip slackened. The elegant hand still holding his fell, pulling his arm unconsciouslyâand torturouslyâacross the plump flesh and rigid nipples. Propriety demanded he separate his arm from her, which he did, but no force on earth would have been able to convince him to release her hand.
quite tall,” she said shocked. The grayish green in her eyes was like fog rolling off a Scottish hill. She could say she wasn't a Scot all she wanted, but he could see the fiery independence there, that I'll-have-you-or-not-as-I-choose that resided in the eyes of all Scotswomen. It was nothing like the cool appraisal of an Englishwoman.
“Take off your habit,” she said. “Quickly.”
Reluctantly, he released her hand. She touched the burlap, and he stripped it off, remembering too late he'd left his shirt backstage.
He'd spent most of the summer rebuilding an ancient stone wall on his property, and the ropiness of his arms and brown of his skin showed it.
She seemed to realize she'd been staring and busied herself with the habit, which she'd been clutching.
“You seem to have forgotten your hair shirt, sir,” she said with a mocking smile.
The hair he wished to feel brushing his chest was not from a shirt but twisted tightly in a blond knot at her nape.
“Undine,” the brunette said, trying to catch her friend's attention.
“I thought even Bankside clerics could afford a sark.”
That broke the spell. Undine cast her gaze in the direction the brunette was looking, and so did he.
Not breeks. Not trewes. Not even Elizabethan cannions. He was wearing bespoke trousers from a tailor in Savile Row. He'd never had a woman, let alone two, more entranced by the real estate below his belt. It would have been less uncomfortable if he'd been naked.
The brunette shook her head. “Oh, Undineâ¦”
Speechless, Undine looked at the habit and back at his trousers.
“He's notâ¦from here,” the brunette said in a tone laden with a meaning Michael couldn't quite unpack.
“I can see that.”
I can see that too, Abby.”
“How does this keep
Undine's eyes cut to his. “You told me you were from Bankside.” The fiery independence had turned into flat-out fire.
“I am from Bankside,” he said.
Gah. Downgraded. “I didn't lie. I am from Bankside. You presumed I was from Bankside in
. Your presumptions are not my responsibility. Your presumptions areâ”
“Be quiet,” she said. “I need to think.”
The door at the top of the stairs opened, and a man called down softly, “
, there's a man up here looking for a priest.”
“He's here,” Undine said, adding to Michael, “Take off your breeks.”
The man on the stairs said, “I beg your pardon. Did you just say, âTake off your breeks'? To whom are you speaking? Should I be coming down?”
“Try to send our visitor away,” Undine called.
Michael strained for a view of the man, who closed the door, grumbling. “
” meant “my heart,” and Michael wondered who would be calling Undine that. He kicked off his sandals and unbuttoned his trousers. “Was thatâ¦your brother?” he asked.
The brunette chuckled and Undine silenced her with a look.
“Find him shoes, breeks, and a bigger sark, would you?” Undine said, and Abby scampered off.
“You need to leave here as soon as possible,” Undine said. “The judge is an acquaintance of Bridgewater's. Go to the Leaping Stag,” she said. “There'll be a couple thereâbrown hair and red, deeply in loveâit's quite stomach turning, believe meâand tell them you're my colleague. They'll hide you until I can gather the herbs you'll need to leave and get them to Abby in Coldstream, probably tomorrow.”
Michael extracted himself from his trousers reluctantly. He understood the need to get into a different disguise, but he would have preferred if one of the steps in the transition hadn't included him standing in front of the naiad in his bright-red Arsenal trunks.
She frowned, a mixture of shock and fascination on her face. “Is that a cannon?”
“Yes. It's their symbolâthe team's, I mean. Arsenal. They're a football team.” He found it hard to clarify his thoughts while she examined the design with such intensity.
“It's notâ¦ It doesn't have to do with those balls. It's a sport. The players use a leather ball filled with air. You kick it, you know, with your foot.” He demonstrated a slow-motion kick, but her attention remained undiverted.
“It's quite large, isn't it? And red?”
It felt very, very small from Michael's perspective.
“Tell me,” she said, “do all the men in your time wear drawings of weapons on, er, the coverings for their cocks?”
“No, and we call them trunks.”
“You call your cocks âtrunks'?” she said, dubious. “Like an elephant's?”
. We call the coverings trunks.”
“Ah. Well, that makes more sense.”
He shifted, trying without success to remove his cannon from the heat of the spotlight. “Maybe I've been reading the wrong books, but aren't women of the eighteenth century supposed to be a little more, well, demure when it comes to cocksâyou know, heart pitter-pattering, smelling salts, that sort of thing?”
Undine snorted. “Cocks are like snakes,” she said. “If you don't learn how to spot the bad ones and immobilize them, you're not going to last very long in the borderlands.”
“You immobilize snakes, do you?”
“I avoid them entirely.” She gave him an unapologetic look. “Best strategy.”
Abby, returning with an armload of clothes and boots, skidded to a halt when she saw Michael. “Verra eye-catching.”
He tugged the trousers from the articles in her hands and thrust his foot into a leg. The fabric was roughly woven, not nearly as nice as the trousers he'd given up. “It's a symbol,” he said primly.
“It certainly is.” She turned to Undine. “Remind me to find out more from Duncan.”
“Who's Duncan?” Michael asked curtly. “Or you, for that matter?”
The brunette's head rose, and her shoulders went back like the wings of Winged Victory. The room seemed to shrink to half its size.
Undine cleared her throat. “Lady Kerr, please allow me to offer you the acquaintance of Father Kent of Bankside. Father Kent, this is Lady Kerr, chieftess of Clan Kerr.”
His eyes nearly popped out of his head. A clan
? Hell, a
anything. Clan chiefs had people
to them. They were like gods on earth. Queen Elizabeth in her pink coat and purse had nothing on a Scottish clan chief. He tried to process the different layers of his shock and was still working on a suitable response when he realized Lady Kerr was waiting expectantly.
Sheepishly, he dropped into another bow and immediately realized half of his trousers were still hanging from his hand. Nonetheless, he managed a very courtly flourish.
“Verra bonny, Father. Would you mind telling me how you happened to make Undine's acquaintance?”
He hopped into the rest of the trousers. “Certainly. It seems she needed a priest toâ”
“Try to get Bridgewater to confess,” Undine finished, and gave Michael an iron look.
“Indeed?” said the chieftess. “And were you successful?”
“Yes. No. Well, partly,” Michael said, returning Undine's look. “There's a lot more to uncover. A
more.” Undine didn't want her friend to know about the wedding.
Lady Kerr studied Undine closely, clearly not believing she'd been given the whole story.
“You appear to be a man of action,” Lady Kerr said to Michael. “I would be most appreciative if you were to keep a close eye on my friend. Her fiancÃ© isn't to be trusted, and she has made the unfortunate decision to take up residence in his home, despite the strenuous objections of her dearest friends.”
Michael felt the tension between the women, but it was the discomfort on Undine's face that struck him most. “I doubt she wishes to disappoint those who care for her,” he said. “But she has an obligation to do what she thinks she must. I feel certain you, as a clan chieftess, would have some sympathy for that.”
“You've been made privy to her plan?” Lady Kerr looked surprised.
“I have not. Well, not all of it.”
“Yet you're willing to defend it?”
“Let's just say I know enough of Undine in my short time with her to be sure that while one might question her means, one could never question her objective.”
Lady Kerr looked at Undine. “Well, you certainly have him bamboozled.”
Michael's face must have shown his surprise because the chieftess grinned.
“You like âbamboozled,' do you?” she said. “Duncanâthe man on the stairsâtaught me that. I'm glad to have someone to use it on.”
“Duncan, is it?” Michael straightened. “And he's yourâ¦?”
Lady Kerr's eyes twinkled. “FiancÃ©. Aye, he is mine. No one else's.”
Michael held up his hands. “I didn't meanâ”
“No, of course you didn't. And I can count on you to watch Undine?”
“Though I long desperately to fulfill everyone's wishes regarding my safety,” Undine said, “I'm sorry to report Father Kent will not be returning to the house with me.”
“Why?” asked Lady Kerr, and he wondered the same.
“First, because he has been identified as a man with a hump. Second, because he has been identified by the same gentleman as a man without a hump. Third, because the gentleman who now knows Kent in both his humped and humpless forms also happens to be the gentleman Kent punched as well as an ally of Bridgewater's. Fourthâ”
“I didn't punch him,” Michael said, pulling the threadbare sark over his head. “I guided him to the ground with my arm and put my knee on his chest.” He stuffed his feet into the muddy boots Lady Kerr had brought.
,” said the chieftess, impressed.
Undine handed him a handkerchief.
The linen had a
embroidered on it as well as a several colorful fish. “What's this for?”
“Your cheek to begin with. You've got mud on your hands from the boot and now it's on your face. Fourth,” she said, returning to her list, “because he has made his desire to leave clear.”
“Bridgewater?” Lady Kerr asked, with hope writ large.
“No,” Undine said dryly. “Kent.”
“Oh dear. Is that true, Father?”
“Well, yes,” he said, wiping his face. “I mean eventually. But I think I can be of further service to Undine here.”
“I'm afraid your usefulness has been exhausted,” Undine said to Michael, “and Iâ¦” Her voice trailed off.
“What?” Michael said.
“And I can't guarantee your safety,” she said with a touch of honest sadness. “You have to see that. You don't know Bridgewater as I do, but if word of our doings today reaches himâ¦”
“You will be equally at risk then,” Michael said. “And I can guarantee my own safety.”
“I believe that,” she said, and Lady Kerr made an impressed
“However, putting outsiders at risk is not in the code I follow.” She extended her hand.
She was cutting him out of whatever this was, and while he had every reason to want to return to the comforts of the twenty-first century, he found himself wanting to do it only
he'd ensured Undine's safety. He had one piece of leverage.
“Perhaps if your friends knew more about your intentions with Bridgewater, I'd feel better about leavingâ¦”
Whoa! Wrong tack.
The regret in Undine's eyes was replaced by fury, and she withdrew her hand. “Father,” Undine said, “you areâ”