Authors: Gwyn Cready
“Quite mistaken,” Michael said instantly. He cursed himself for his cravenness, but her hand was so close, and he couldn't bring himself to give up the chance to hold it, just once.
The fury left as quickly as it had arrived, and Undine extended her hand again.
Michael took it. Her skin was warm and alive. Then he remembered. “I thought you said naiads don't shake hands.”
“I am only half naiad, sir, and besides, you do, and I am not so set in my ways to pass up the opportunity to meet a friend halfway.”
At this, Lady Kerr snorted aloud, but Michael didn't care. He had received a naiadan honor and would treasure it always. He lifted Undine's hand and brushed his lips over her delicate, long fingers. She made a graceful curtsy and met his eyes.
He searched for an appropriate parting sentiment for the woman who had brought him out of his unremarkable life in the twenty-first century and thrust him into intrigues of the borderlands but found nothing suitable in his vocabulary.
“Good-bye, my friend,” he said at last. “Good luck.”
An instant later, Lady Kerr was rushing him down a dark hall, through a low door, and out into the light of the afternoon. The clouds seemed pregnant with rain, but none had fallen yet. He imagined a naiad would enjoy a rain shower. “How will Undine get back to the house?” he asked. “What if Bridgewater still insists onâ” He caught himself before he said “marrying her.”
“Insists on what?” Lady Kerr said, eyes narrowed.
“Seeing the priest.”
She looked at him thoughtfully. “Undine is verra resourceful. If I were you, I'd spend my worrying on looking out for myself. This world can be a treacherous place for a man not used to it.”
“Thank you. I'll try.”
He turned toward the door, then turned back. “Lady Kerr?”
She'd started for the door. “Aye?”
“I think I should stay. For her safety, you see.”
“Of course,” Lady Kerr said. “Well, I certainly canna suggest you defy Undine's orders. What sort of friend would I be?” She'd said it with conviction, though the look of amusement in her eyes didn't seem to gibe with her tone.
“Is she in danger, do you think?” Michael wished he could tell her about the marriage Bridgewater was trying to engineer, but he felt he'd made an unspoken promise to Undine to remain silent and wouldn't break his vow.
“She is certainly in danger,” Lady Kerr said, “and while I don't think it's of being attacked by Bridgewater, she may find it to be something equally startling.”
The amusement on her face grew, and Michael was even more confused.
“'Tis very kind of Undine to offer to return with the herbs tomorrow to ensure you can get home. I have seen others wait considerably longer for their release,” she added. “However, twenty-four hours is a long time to spend with nothing to do. I trust you'll find a way to fill the time.”
There was no more to be said. Michael bowed and she nodded her good-bye.
He considered his choices. The nerve endings in his palm still vibrated with the memory of Undine's touch and his lips with the sweetness of her fingers. He lifted his hand to his nose and searched for traces of her clean scent.
He started, having thought Lady Kerr gone.
“The Leaping Stag, aye?” she said. “A couple, brown-haired and red, deeply in love?”
“I remember,” he said. “I remember it all.”
“I'm certain you do.”
Undine picked up the trousers and folded them carefully. They'd have to be hidden so no one would ever find them again.
She thought of the man who'd worn themâthe insightful eyes flecked with gray, the sharp wit, the ability to keep his head in circumstances that would undo a lesser manâfeatures most admirable and too rarely found in the opposite sex. Of course, there was also his infuriating and complete refusal to be cowed by her.
In truth, she rather liked that. She'd lived her entire adult life as a feared outsider. Men sought her out, of course, for her wisdom and her ability to see their futuresâas if any man's future wasn't written plainly on his face. And they paid her well for it. She owned a cottage in Cumbria, had money in the bank, and could live as she chose.
But apart from Abby, Duncan, and their new acquaintances, Gerard and Serafina, she did not have friends. One didn't befriend a person who knew his or her most uncomfortable secrets and held the power of exposing what one wished to hide. One villainized herâprivately, of course, and out of the hearing of the woman who held the secrets. It was the only way to equalize the power. Undine had long ago accepted that and, at times, even used it to her advantage.
But it was still quite nice to have a manâa colleagueâwho regarded you as a friend.
She'd been absently caressing the wool and stilled her hand. As dark as a night sky, with a weave as smooth and gleaming as silk, the touch of the fabric filled her not just with a sense of him, but also with an unexpected longing for a time now lost to her. Perhaps her mother had had a dress or a jacket of similar material. But that was a secret she'd shared with no one.
“Are you cradling his breeks now?” Abby stood in the doorway.
“Don't be ridiculous,” Undine said and stuffed the trousers haphazardly under her elbow. “But we must remember to keep them out of sight.”
“Burn them and be done with it,” Abby said, reaching for them.
Undine stepped back. “There's no need to
them. He might need them tomorrow.”
“I see.” Abby crossed her arms.
“Stop looking at me that way.”
“Tell me, my friend, do you have any idea how, if you wanted a priest from our time to confess Bridgewater, you ended up with a man clearly
a priest from the future?”
“You don't think he's a priest?” Undine asked, surprised.
“Well, ayeâI mean, what makes you think he isn't?”
“Oh, Undine, I can't
what is blinding you on this particular point, but the man is most definitely not a priest. He has a beautiful head of hair, for one thing. No priest in a habit would allow himself to cultivate such a thing.”
“Perhaps priests in the future disdain shaving.”
“Aye, perhaps. And perhaps they dress themselves in wool luxurious enough to swaddle a royal baby, as well as breechcloths that could stop a ship at three leagues.”
Undine bit her lip. “I admit they were most gaily colored.”
“But more than anything, 'twas the way he looked at you that made me certain.”
Undine scoffed. “As if priests do not desire women.”
“So you dinna quibble with the lusting, only with me concluding that it means he's not a priest?”
Heat raced up Undine's neck. “Men lust for anything in a skirt. 'Tis nothing remarkable.”
“No, 'tis nothing remarkable, I admit. But what
remarkable is the way you hem and haw and paw at his breeks.” Abby grinned.
“You're crossing a dangerous line. Perhaps a little hawthorn in your evening wine will dampen your tongue.”
“And perhaps a little opium in yours will loosen your chemise.”
Undine gasped. “You are quiteâ¦inappropriate.”
“Aye, I am. Though I have a verra clear recollection of you stripping me of any thought of denying my desire for Duncan. All I'd wanted was a strong arm. You're the one who insisted I pursue him. Consider the favor returned.”
all you wanted was a strong arm, but that's not how the herbs work. The herbs I gave you work in accordance with one's desires andâ” Undine stopped midsentence, horrified.
“Aha! You asked for a priest, but you got a very nonpriestly paramour. My dear friend, dinna look so downhearted. I'm sure even naiads occasionally lose control of their hearts.”
“You areâ¦ You areâ¦”
“Right? Is that the word you're searching for?”
“Infuriating,” Undine said.
“And before you return tomorrowâand, no, you may not send the herbs with a messengerâI want you to loosen that knot of hairâ”
“What's wrong with my hair?” Undine looked in the ancient mirror.
“âand find a pretty gownâsomething with ruffles.”
“Aye, and in a brighter color. We need to move ye from pales and darks to something with color. Do ye have anything in emerald or gold?”
“No,” Undine said with honest fright. “Wait. Bridgewater had gowns made for meâ”
“There we go. We can appease him and put you in the eye of Mr. Kent at the same time.”
Undine touched the smooth, pale-blond locks she saw in the mirror, feeling self-conscious for the first time in her life. “What's wrong with my hair?”
Abby threw her arms around her and hugged her tightly. “There's nothing
with your hair. Your hair is gorgeous. Breathtaking. But ye have to offer men a wee bit of hope of actually touching it. A loose curl. A fat braid with a silky tail. Right now, that spun gold is locked up tighter than the Tolbooth.”
Undine's throat seemed to be narrowing, and she struggled to fill her lungs. She felt as if the mill's ancient grinding stone had been laid atop her chest. She couldn't breathe or think.
“No,” she said. “'Twould be outlandish. I am quite comfortable in the gowns I have. And right now I have more important things to concern myself with.”
Abby clasped her friend's cheek. “I have erred in rushing you. I can see that. Let us take this in smaller steps. Could I convince you to start with a pair of earbobs?”
Abby pulled the ones she wore from her ears.
“I have no holes,” Undine said warily.
“I refrain from comment.” Abby threaded Undine's lobe into the tightly-looped spring wire to which the tiny gold front was attached.
“It moves,” Undine said, horrified, as she explored the piece with her finger.
“Aye. 'Tis shocking, I know. Good thing the world already thinks you're a whore. Consider it part of the disguise. The main part there on your ear is a thistle. The blue gem hanging from it is called a water sapphire.”
“It is?” Undine gazed more closely at the mirror. “Why?”
“I'm told by Serafina, who as you know is the final word in all things maritime, that Viking sailors relied on them to determine the direction of the sun on overcast days. Something about the stone's structure. See?”
Abby removed the other earbob and held it up to the room's small, grimy window. When she turned it one way, the stone looked full blue. When she turned it a quarter turn, the stone turned almost transparent.
“I'll be damned,” Undine said.
“I have no doubt,” Abby said, putting it on her friend's ear, “though I suspect it won't be for wearing earbobs.”
Undine shook her head. The stones gave a sultry wriggle. “I don't knowâ¦”
“Pretend they're not there,” Abby said, pulling Undine's questing hands away, “you know, as you do with most people.”
Undine took a deep breath. “For you, I will try.”
“Not for me. For Mr. Kent.”
Was he really not a priest? And if so, why had he persisted in letting her believe he was? The man might have worthy breeks and handsome eyes, but if he thought he would have a fling at her with his burlap and rope and godly ways, he would find himself one very sorry gentleman.
“Oh, dear,” Abby said, looking into her eyes. “The fear has just barely subsided, and now we've moved full force into anger.”
“Why would he lie to me?”
“Indeed, why?” Abby said. “Does he not know your fiendish ways with hawthorn and twinflower? 'Tis something you must investigate, to be sure. I'm only sorry I willna be here to see it unfold.”
Undine frowned. “Where will you be?”
“I've been asked to call on Chieftain Hay in Jedburgh. Duncan and I will be leaving tonight. I've asked Rosston to join us there.”
“What is it, Abby?” Rosston was the leader of a former sept of Clan Kerr, and in an uneasy peace, he and Abby had agreed to lead their joined forces as co-commanders. Rosston had wanted Abby to join him in a marriage as well. But Abby, who'd had no intention of giving up her power completely, resisted, and Duncan's arrival had made the question moot. For Abby to have willingly invited Rosston to any meeting with another clan chief was a sign the meeting was unusual.
Abby made an uncertain noise. “Nothing yet. I dinna wish to concern you. If it comes to anything, I'll tell ye what I can. I promise.”
Abby's responsibilities lay with her clan; Undine's, with those who desired peace. At various times, the two friends had found themselves on opposite ends of a fight, which meant neither could be as open with the other as she wished. And though Abby worked almost as hard as Undine to ensure the families of the borderlands could live their lives free from conflict, Undine knew a time might come when she'd have to stand against Abby if the two sides were ever thrust into a full-on war.
Undine squeezed her friend's hand, and Abby pulled her into a close embrace.
“You too, my dear.”
Undine straightened and smoothed her gown. Then she remembered what would come next, and her happiness faded. She dreaded returning to Bridgewater, who had probably sent out search parties to look for her. Though with no priest and no bishop at hand, there could be no wedding ceremonyâat least not for the next day or so, or however long it took him to summon someone else from the bishopric.
But there was no point in taking comfort in that fact. Bridgewater would come upon some other way to try her patience. About that, she had no doubt.