Every Time with a Highlander (9 page)

BOOK: Every Time with a Highlander
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Fifteen

Michael kept the cap pulled low and stumbled past the parcel-laden shoppers. A tipsy laborer, even during the day, was sure to be an uneventful occurrence in a small, rural town, especially one as small and rural as this. The disparate buildings looked so inconsequential in comparison to the miles of verdant hills that surrounded them, it was almost as if the town might be swallowed up by nature and disappear completely at any moment.

He was supposed to be looking for the Leaping Stag, and he was but with only half his attention. The other half was struggling with the unexpected end to his brief time with Undine.

He realized the hands thrust deep in his pockets were curled into balls. Part of the reason why was an actor's instinct, to summon the concentrated carefulness of a man trying to appear less drunk than he actually was, but part of it was an effort to preserve the sense of her touch.

Embarrassed, he stretched his fingers.

He hadn't asked to be whisked three centuries back in time, and he'd certainly had no desire to be a private in Undine's one-man army. He'd spent the last decade and a half bowing to Lady Velopar's every wish. But he still felt as if the curtain here had come down too soon on the drama with Undine. He wasn't exactly sure what the second or third act would have wrought, but he wished he'd have gotten a chance to at least page through the rest of the story.

A towering red-haired man leaned against the front of the whorehouse/tea shop, eyeing him. Michael made a small belch and passed.

“Hey,” the man said, and Michael kept up his lumbering pace, hoping the man was talking to someone else.

A green carriage with polished fittings and a pair of white horses barreled toward a large, muddy puddle near him, and Michael squeezed closer to the shop front, but he wasn't able to evade the entire splash, and mud splattered his trousers and shirt.

Bloody bastard.

The bastard, it turned out, was Bridgewater. He leapt from the carriage in a state of some agitation. “Stay here,” he ordered his driver and footman. Michael stepped out of sight.

Bridgewater looked up and down the street. He took a step toward the whorehouse and hesitated. The lanky man was gone, which was good. Undine had said the bishop would wake tomorrow without remembering anything, so even if Bridgewater was heading there and found him, it shouldn't be a risk for Undine. However, if Bridgewater found Undine there, that would be a different story.

But Bridgewater turned on his heel and headed in the opposite direction—directly toward Michael.

Michael knew from his training that people were not particularly observant. Ask five witnesses at a car accident what happened, and you'll get five different stories. People were better with faces, but not faces they'd seen only once or twice, and especially not faces they were seeing in an entirely new context. The nurse who helped your mum in the hospital is a complete cipher to you when you run into her by the tomato bins in Sainsbury's. The theory was your brain builds its understanding of a person over time. Nonetheless, Michael preferred not to test the theory's validity. He did an about-face and found that the red-haired man had simply moved to the opposite side of the street. It dawned on him that the man was watching him watch Bridgewater. Michael began to walk faster.

There's a certain snobbery one brings to matters of the past, he thought, a sense that everything one knows and understands is superior to the poor, benighted people of earlier times—not unlike visiting one's cousin in Lower Pilsley. But Michael's snobbery was quickly evaporating. Without Undine, he had no one to ensure he navigated the odd practices of 1706 correctly, and now men—large, angry men—appeared to be hunting him down. He had no idea what sort of law enforcement existed here. He imagined resolving conflict boiled down to whoever held the biggest weapon. He could wind up dead and thrown in some damp Coldstream ravine before Undine even had a chance to miss him.

Did she miss him? It was a thought he wished he had more time to explore, but Bridgewater was coming up behind him at a clip.

Michael braced himself but felt only the brush of the man's frock coat as he hurried by. At this point, Michael knew he should exit quickly. He took one last look back on the off chance of seeing Undine again and ran directly into Bridgewater, who had reversed course.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” Michael said—in a
perfect
Scots accent—before tugging his cap and hurrying on.

“Wait!”

Michael sighed and stopped. There was no point in delaying the inevitable. “Aye?” He turned around.

“You dropped something.” Bridgewater snagged a flash of white off the ground, and Michael realized with a sickening lurch it was the handkerchief Undine had given him. He didn't know which would be worse—to have to explain why Father Kent was in laborer's clothes and talking in a Scots accent, or to be found in possession of the handkerchief belonging to Lord Bridgewater's fiancée. Scratch that. He knew exactly which would be worse.

Michael waited, fists clenched, for the man to come to one realization or the other.

“That's the trouble with a long summer,” Bridgewater said, gesturing absently with the handkerchief. “When it doesn't rain, you have dust everywhere. But when it does and you drop something, especially something fine…” He shook his head sadly, looking down at the linen. “And yours is remarkably—”

“Verra kind of you, milord,” Michael said, snatching it away and stuffing it in his pocket. The man rubbed the corner of his mouth contemplatively, and Michael's heart thrummed in his chest.

“You're quite welcome,” Bridgewater said. He tipped his hat and sauntered away.

Michael was stunned. Even in his perhaps slightly overblown regard for his acting ability, he'd never imagined he'd be able to pass as an
entirely different person
to a man who had bared his heart to him only a few hours earlier. Then he realized his calculations had excluded one critical factor: Bridgewater was a member of a very privileged class and, as such, regarded the people below him in the social strata as nameless, faceless bits of everyday ephemera—life's wallpaper, so to speak—and spared them about as much attention as one might the light switch in the loo or the disposable chopsticks at one's favorite Chinese takeaway.

His attention was diverted by Undine, who emerged from a fabric shop, causing both him and Bridgewater to jerk to a stop. The red-haired man laughed out loud.

Slipping away would have been smart, but Michael was unable to convince his legs to remove him from what might be his last look at her. He knew she saw him even though she didn't look his way. He could feel her
not
looking at him, in fact, which made him both a little happy and a little sad. It was as if they shared a secret no one else knew and yet they would never get a chance to take pleasure in their shared knowledge.

Undine smiled when she saw Bridgewater, and he hurried to her side. An intense conversation followed, with Bridgewater clearly communicating his concern about her disappearance and an unruffled Undine waving away his worry. If Bridgewater had raised his voice, Michael would have intervened, damp ravine or not, but the conversation was conducted with civility. He found himself a little disappointed, to be honest.

With a pang, Michael watched Bridgewater take Undine's elbow and lead her toward his carriage. He helped her in, followed on her heels, and the carriage pulled away. To Michael, it was as if the sun had pulled down its shades and closed for the season. He watched until the carriage was nearly out of sight, absently stepping one way or another to stay out people's way. And he would have stayed longer but a hand clapped him on the shoulder.

“Come,” the red-haired man said. “Let me buy you a wee dram. Ye look a bit dour.”

Sixteen

Bridgewater cleared his throat, and the look on his face was one of great reluctance. “I need to ask for your help on a matter.”

An uneasy feeling went through Undine. The carriage ride had been pleasant enough. Bridgewater told her his men hadn't found the bishop or any evidence of foul play and added that while he was glad to have found Undine safe, he'd have preferred her to have abided by his wishes and stayed in the house.

Undine had refrained from comment except to say that she'd needed to order some things for her wedding wardrobe. She'd asked demurely if he'd minded that she charged the bits of fabric and ribbon to him, and she'd almost felt bad for how much joy the question had brought him. Then she rubbed the knot behind her ear that his long-ago blows had given her and remembered she didn't give a whit how betrayed he'd feel when he discovered she hated him.

“You know my prophecy skills are lessened considerably by strong affection,” she said. “I canna see things clearly for those I love.”

This was the truth. Undine's powers were not infinite, though she worked hard to ensure men believed they were. She'd been born with some powers of foresight and learned to give every impression of the rest by reading people's faces and listening to the things they didn't say.

The carriage hit an unexpected groove, and they shifted hard to the left. His hand, cool and meaty, kept her from sliding away.

“You ‘canna' see,” he said with a smile. “Listen to you. You're practically a Scot yourself now. I know your friends are quite dear to you, and I can reassure you the help you give me will not in any way affect them.”

“I'd prefer not to reduce the intercourse between us to that of commerce, John. 'Tis not a prudent way to begin a marriage.”

His tongue had lodged in the corner of his cheek at “intercourse,” and she could see him struggle to bury his response smirk.

“I know that,” he said after a moment, “and I wouldn't ask were it not important.”

“Important to the English?”

His eyes turned clear blue—so blue she almost believed what she was about to hear would be the truth.

“No,” he said. “To me.”

Undine debated how hard to refuse. She'd told him powers weren't as strong with loved ones, and he'd assured her the favor would not hurt her friends or advantage the English—not that she believed him. Even the most powerful love spell could not erase a man's fundamental character flaws, after all. Continuing to protest could raise his suspicions, which might raise him from the spell like water splashed on one's face raises a man from slumber—and yet she had a bone-deep revulsion to even hearing the reason for his request.

She shook her head. “I think it'd be better if we—”

“It's not even for me, in all honesty. You've heard of Lord Morebright, I assume?”

Simon Morebright was an elderly English nobleman, deeply in debt. There were rumors he had once run a secret and separate intelligence operation for Queen Anne unknown to those in her cabinet—of course, there were founded and unfounded rumors about many people in Anne's small circle of friends—but Morebright was unique in that his relationship with Anne seemed to have ended badly. He'd closed his London house, moved north across the border to his estate in Scotland, and hadn't been heard from since. Undine couldn't begin to guess why Bridgewater might be seeking help for a man like him.

“I have,” she said. “He's a close friend of Queen Anne, is he not?”

“Oh, aye, though he's too old for the merriment of court anymore. He lives in Scotland.”

“Does he?”

“Aye, near Perth. Charming estate. He's dying and I wish to help him.”

Bridgewater looked at her, mournful. He'd certainly given her little room to say no with grace. She would, though, if she needed to. She could be quite immune to cajoling—ask any of her friends or even Bridgewater himself, whose beating had come when she'd refused to give him the information he sought.

And yet…

It struck her that Morebright might be involved in the messages, though it seemed unlikely. But the question to consider was who would learn more if she agreed to listen to Bridgewater's request concerning Morebright—her or her fiancé?

She touched her heart. “He's dying?”

There were enormous risks to playing this game with Bridgewater. She hoped she held the stronger hand.

“Aye,” he said. “I've described the case to the best surgeon in York. The situation involves a tumor on his wrist, and the surgeon says he can cure him, though it may involve removing his arm. I'm sending a man from my solicitor's office in my carriage to bring him down to York with his manservant.”

“I don't see how I can help you,” she said. “I'm not a surgeon. I might be able to tell if he's going to die if I saw him in person, but the man is quite old, and any death I saw could be the same old-bones death any one of us might expect at that age.”

“No, my dear,” Bridgewater said with a smile, “we'll leave that to the surgeon. He assures me that Simon—Lord Morebright—can enjoy several more years of good health with the surgery, albeit with only one arm.”

“'Tis very good of you to feel such concern,” she said. “I didn't realize you knew Morebright that well.”

“Oh, the man was like an uncle to me. My father was often away with the army, and when he was there… Well, let us say we did not always see eye to eye. Simon was there when I needed help or advice. There are some things, after all, one cannot share with one's father.” He gave her a weak smile.

“A friendship like that can be such a blessing.”

“Then might you consider aiding a dear friend?”

The warning voice in her head had not disappeared, but its cry was growing fainter. “I'm still not certain how I could help.”

“But you'll do it if you can?”

She licked her lips. “Aye,” she said. “If I can.”

“Thank you, Undine. I can't tell you how much this means to me. As I said, I'm sending my carriage for him, and they can take either the northwest road through Peebles or set out directly north and go through Edinburgh first. 'Tis a bit longer through Edinburgh, but only a day or so, and the most important thing is to ensure the carriage is not set upon by brigands or…worse.” He held up a calming hand. “Now, do not take issue with me. The clans are at war with England—”

“There is no declared war.”

“My dear, you might as well say there is no declared sun. And if you assure me both roads will be safe, no one will be more grateful than I.”

This was something she
could
sense, and her foresight rushed unbidden into the reservoir of her head. Like a cross between a galloping herd of horses and the gurgle of a borderlands stream, the silent rumble, cool and fluid and unstoppable, shook her. She could guide it or give way, but she couldn't stop it, not once it started.

The colors in her head swirled blue and green like the northern sky at Hogmanay. She turned her thoughts to the roads, each a formless blur, like a reflection in a wind-blown lake, but distinct from the other, and Bridgewater's carriage upon them. No red, no yellow, no orange.

“There's no danger,” she said. “The roads will be trouble free.”

“Thank you,” he said, relieved. “And will you give me your word you'll tell me if that changes?”

He'd said it lightly enough, as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world for a fiancé to ask. And it would be—if she cared about him or Morebright in the slightest. Instead, he was asking her to make an unbreakable oath. Once given, the word of a naiad could not be broken even if the naiad wished to. Did he know this? His face gave away nothing.

“Aye, of course, John.” What choice did she have?

“Thank you. I knew I could count on you.”

The carriage drove onto the ferry that would take them across the Tweed to Bridgewater's house. The sun was sinking low in the west, spilling its fire over the Cheviot Hills. Fingers of black and red stretched into the sky like tendrils of smoke.

She shook her head and the foresight receded.

“Our wedding awaits,” he said when they'd reached the opposite side. “I'm eager to find the priest.”

“I am too.” And she was, though it wouldn't be till tomorrow, and Bridgewater would find no joy in his search for an officiant to marry them tonight. But he could discover that in his own time.

He settled into the seat. “I'm happy we're of one mind on this.”

“'Tis truly the way of love.”

BOOK: Every Time with a Highlander
3.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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