Read Legend Of The Highland Dragon Online

Authors: Isabel Cooper

Tags: #Highland Warriors, #Highlanders, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal Romance, #Romance, #Scotland, #Scotland Highland, #Scottish Highland, #Warrior, #Shifters, #Dragon Shifter, #Magic

Legend Of The Highland Dragon (18 page)

BOOK: Legend Of The Highland Dragon
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Twenty-nine

“What are you doing?”

Colin’s voice came suddenly and without prelude from the previously empty room. Up on a stepladder, her arms full of books, Mina twitched but didn’t jump or scream. “Cataloguing the library,” she said, rather than any of the sarcastic replies that came to mind.

She plucked a final volume from the shelves. It was bound in green leather and newer than some of the others, but the dust was equally thick. Mina held back a sneeze and climbed carefully down the ladder.

“Give over a few of those, will you?” Colin held out his hands, and Mina was glad enough to fill them. When he felt the dust, she didn’t even try not to giggle at the expression on his face. “Good Lord. How long have we
had
these? And what have we been doing with them?”

“A long time and not much, from what I can tell,” Mina said. She deposited the rest of her stack onto the desk with a solid
thump
.

“And Stephen still has you messing about with them? He
has
grown into a tyrant.”

“He’s done no such thing,” said Mina, sharply enough to make Colin widen his eyes and hold up his hands in mock defense. “And he didn’t give me the job. He hasn’t had me do
any
work, really.”

Colin eyed her as if she were some newly discovered form of life. “You mean to say you volunteered? Why on earth?”

“Because it needs doing, and I needed something to do.”

“Ah.” The new species was a little more comprehensible, it seemed, alien as it might be. Colin looked from Mina to the desk. “And you’ve been doing this all day?”

“More or less.”

Less
was more accurate, despite Mina’s best intentions on the subject. Half her records had had blots, misspellings, or other features that had meant she’d had to cross them out and write them again. She’d written down one book twice and completely forgotten about another until she’d found it by the windowsill. Every trip up and down the ladder had taken about twice as long as normal, too.

Mina could have laid some of the blame at Colin’s feet. Their earlier conversation had left her thinking about mortality and humanity, rules and consequences, and coming to no useful conclusion regarding any of it. She wasn’t cut out for philosophy, she’d told herself, but her efforts to direct her thoughts elsewhere had only sent them toward that entry in not-Saint George’s journal, the one about rites and children, at which point she’d inadvertently knocked a set of Johnson’s works to the floor.

Work usually distracted her from troubling thoughts, not the other way around. What was
wrong
with her?

“Then I’m right in thinking it’s not a very urgent matter,” Colin said. “And that means you can come out with me.”

Coming back from her thoughts, Mina blinked at him. “Out? Where? Why?”

“Out.” He leaned against a bookshelf, counting off the points on his fingers. “Anywhere you want, within reasonable limits. Because London is quite a bit more entertaining than the inside of this library or even, if I may dare to say it, the inside of this house.”

“Yes, but why me?”

“Because you’re—” He looked at Mina’s face, saw the skeptical expression she’d used on dozens of other young men, and grinned ruefully before switching to honesty. “You’re here, and you’re pleasant enough company. And I don’t know many people in the city these days, or at least not many people who’d be glad to see me turn up, looking as I do.”

If he felt any sorrow about the matter, he concealed it easily enough—much easier than Stephen would have, Mina thought. Still, she felt a little sympathy for him, and more so because he’d had sense enough not to try and charm her. “I can’t,” she said.

“Of course you can. You don’t turn to dust in the sunlight. My brother would have mentioned.”

“I agreed,” she said, “not to go out of the house without Stephen, not until this matter with Ward is settled.”

“Oh, that’s the letter of the agreement, true enough.” Colin waved a hand. “But the spirit of it is that you shouldn’t tell anything to Ward or his men, whether you mean to or no. Stephen’s presence was meant to secure as much, and so mine should do just as well. I’d hardly risk his safety or let that jumped-up fellow Ward get his hands on anything important.”

“Well—”

“I’ll give you my word on it.”

“And what if they try something when we’re not here?”

“In broad daylight? This is a respectable neighborhood, or so I hear. Besides, Stephen told me that both of you have been out of the house before this, and no harm came of it.” Colin smiled at her. “So, you see, he trusts me, which means you should too.”

“Does it really?” Mina asked.

“Unless you’re more concerned for his welfare than he is. And if my intentions
are
evil, the farther I am from the house, the safer we all are, aren’t we? Particularly if you have me out in a public place somewhere. I’ve not been known to do horrible things in public. Mostly.”

There was a certain logic in his argument, self-serving as it was—and then, he’d never pretended that it was anything else. Like his brother, Mina sensed, Colin would never tell her that what he was doing was for her own good. As with Stephen, it was a refreshing change.

Being sought for her company was flattering, too, even if it was because she was the only remotely appropriate person around. If
Colin
thought she was a proper companion to take out into society—but no, it was best not to find that too encouraging. Colin wasn’t anything like proper. He’d already said he wasn’t particularly human in his outlook, and he’d
also
said that he and Stephen were very different people.

Flattery, without further implications, would still be enough. And getting out of the house would do Mina good. Given how quickly her thoughts had turned to Stephen, some distraction was certainly the best thing for her.

“Anywhere I want?” she asked.

“Within reasonable limits. I don’t think it would be a terribly grand idea for us to wander over to Spain, for instance, and I’ll not go to any sort of improving lecture, as my sense of chivalry only extends so far. Otherwise,” he said and gave a ludicrously courtly bow, “I am at your service.”

A page of the
Times
popped into Mina’s head. She’d read the article over breakfast and peered as hard as she could at the few small pictures that went with it.

“There’s an exhibition at the British Museum,” she said. “Art from India. Some of it’s thousands of years old—which might be less impressive for you, I suppose,” she added, “but there are some really wonderful paintings, they say, and some statues that—”

“Art,” said Colin, laughing and sighing at the same time. “
Ancient
art. I should have known.”

“Should have known what?”

“It’s as bad as taking Stephen out on the town.”

“Well, if you don’t want to—”

“No, no, I did promise. And I’ll enjoy myself, too. I’m not a complete Philistine. See, you’ll be having a good influence on me.”

“I doubt any woman can say that,” said Mina. “Give me a few minutes to change my dress, will you?”

“I wouldn’t have been rude enough to suggest it, but I do think it’d be a good idea. You’ve most of a book cover on your collar, too,” said Colin.

“Thank you.” Mina plucked the scrap of desiccated leather off her blouse and headed up to her room.

Her wardrobe was such as to spare her any moment of indecision. After washing her face and hands, she put on her best dress, the violet cotton she wore when she dressed for dinner. At least it would be more appropriate for the museum. Mina brushed her hair quickly, put it up again, then pinned on her best hat and peered into the small mirror.

Allowing herself a moment of vanity, she admitted that she looked rather nice. More to the point, she looked respectable. Respectability was really what mattered on this excursion, but despite the dreams and the case of nerves she’d been carrying around all day, her eyes were bright and her cheeks were flushed. Before she pulled the self-indulgent part of her mind up sharply, she thought that it was a pity nobody would be around to notice.

At the top of the stairs, she stopped in her tracks.

As the door closed behind him, Stephen looked up at her, his hat in one hand and his coat half-undone. Despite the hat, his mahogany hair was windblown, his clothing was rumpled, and his face was tired and drawn.

Mina couldn’t have imagined a more handsome man.

Thirty

Tired as he was from the trip, and struck as he was by the sight of Mina stopped on the stairs like the model for some painting, Stephen instantly grasped the meaning of her dress and hat. “You’re leaving?” he asked.

“No—I mean, not for good. I wouldn’t. Certainly not dressed like this.” Mina laughed and collected herself. “Your brother got tired of staying in the house.”

“And he wanted company, of course.”

“It didn’t seem like much of a risk,” Mina said, shrugging, “but if you’re worried, I can stay. He’ll find company soon enough.”

She hadn’t sounded wistful. She had, for as long as Stephen had known her, controlled herself very well under most circumstances. The hat she wore shadowed her face, too.

“No, you’re right,” Stephen said. “It’s daylight for several hours yet, and we’ve been out of the house before without anything particularly dire coming of it. And it’d be a shame to keep you inside when you’ve clearly gone to some trouble.”

“Well, it’s not exactly court regalia, is it? Thank you, though.” She came down to the bottom step of the stairs, although no closer, and gave Stephen a closer look. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll be well enough. It’s been a long day, that’s all.”

“I’d think so. You weren’t—” Mina glanced around. “Nothing happened to you while you were away, did it? Everything’s been peaceful enough here.”

“No, nothing happened. Not physically, at least—and no, not magically, either,” said Stephen, lowering his voice. Baldwin had gone off to deal with his baggage, and the other servants were clearly about other duties, but caution would always serve him well. “I’ve found at least one of Ward’s likely hiding places, though not where he lives.”

Mina’s eyes went wide. “Really?” Hope shone on her face, making it almost too bright to look at. “Then you’re safe, aren’t you? You can call the Yard and—”

“Best not,” said Stephen. “Not without knowing more. They wouldn’t know how to manage the matter. I’m not entirely sure myself, not when he’s got magic at his command.”

“He’d escape,” Mina said, coming back down to Earth. Clearly she was disappointed, and Stephen didn’t blame her. She’d almost been free of his house, free to pick her old life up again. “Or he’d kill the men who came to get him.”

Stephen nodded. “Probably both. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you bring outsiders into a sorcerous matter. It doesna’ often end well for anyone, particularly them.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Mina, her mouth quirking up at the corner. She folded back the end of one glove and laid her fingers against her wrist, pretending to take her pulse. “No untimely end so far, at least.”

“And there won’t be,” said Stephen, his voice echoing in the hall. Mina looked up at him, her lips slightly parted in surprise. “That is, I take my responsibilities very seriously.”

“And I’m one of them? Dutiful of you.”

She didn’t sound particularly happy about it. Stephen cleared his throat. “It seems the least I could do.”

“Ah.” Mina replaced her glove. “Well, what
are
we going to do?”

“Colin and I will have a look from above once it’s darker,” said Stephen, “but that’s some time yet. It shouldna’ be any trouble with your plans. Where were you headed off to?”

“The British Museum,” said Mina, responding in kind to his attempt to lighten the mood. “Bit of a busman’s holiday for me, I suppose, but they’ve got an exhibition—”

“The Indian artwork?” Stephen lifted his eyebrows. “I’ve heard the collection’s very good, but I’m surprised to hear Colin’s taken an interest.”

“She suggested it,” said Colin, coming through the door from the hallway. Naturally, he was both impeccable and fashionable; Stephen absently tried to smooth the wrinkles out of his sleeve. “Don’t start thinking I’m becoming a scholar. The shock wouldn’t be good for you, not after the day you’ve had.”

“Your concern is truly moving,” said Stephen, “but I think I’ll bear up for a little while yet.”

“Come with us,” said Mina, suddenly. “If you’re not too tired, I mean. It wouldn’t be any more risk than we’d have been taking if you hadn’t come back now.”

“No, I suppose it wouldn’t be—”

“And you’d be along to keep Miss Seymour safe,” said Colin. “You can’t really trust me to do that sort of thing, can you?”

“I’m not answering that question,” Stephen said, “but I will come.”

***

Two hours later, he stood in one of the museum’s more spacious halls, eyeing a golden statue of a naga, while from behind him came the sounds of subdued conversation and the quiet click of heels against the polished stone floors. An elderly gentleman to Stephen’s right was telling his grandson a story about Shiva, while somewhere behind him, three young men were earnestly debating the translation of a word that Stephen hadn’t caught.

London did have its attractions. As Stephen walked along the gallery, he could feel some of the day’s strain leaving him. His problems and his tasks still remained, but he could put them aside for a little while.

In the middle of everything to see, his gaze kept going back to Mina. He’d seen her looking around wide-eyed, pointing out a particularly fine landscape, examining a statue’s inscription, all fascinated concentration.

Now, at his side although carefully not too close, she looked from the statue to Stephen. “The nagas turned into people when they wanted, the legends say,” she said quietly. “Or at least according to the plaque.”

He met the silent question in her eyes with a smile. “Aye. And it’s not so far-fetched as all that. Traders along the Silk Road from India or China to Rome. Roman legionnaires crossing the water to Britain, later on. It could be—although the Russians have similar legends. Perhaps there was more than one beginning for my people.”

“You don’t know?”

“Not for certain, any more than I know who my more…regular…ancestors are after half a dozen generations or so. We’re no better at keeping records than you are. Well,” he added, looking at Mina, “most of us are much worse at it than
you
personally. I took a bit of an interest in the subject when I was younger.”

“Not now? I mean,” Mina added, “when you have time and leisure.”

“I’m interested in the past. I’ve given up trying to trace back so very far, though. My family’s affairs here and now started to be more important in the last few years. Or, rather, I’ve needed to take more of a role in them. They’ve always been important.”

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown?” Colin came up to Mina’s side.

“Easy enough, I suspect, compared to some men,” Stephen replied. “And it’s hardly a crown these days,” he added, in case anyone was around to overhear.

“Calm yourself. I don’t think anyone will arrest you for treason here. Looking for a resemblance?” Colin asked Mina, gesturing to the naga.

She laughed. “Speculating, maybe. It’s a lovely piece of work regardless. They all are.”

“Lovelier where they’d originally been, I suspect,” said Colin.

A passage from one of Judith’s letters came to Stephen’s mind. “Still keeping company with Carpenter and his radicals?”

“Not company: they’d have a few questions about my age if I did. But correspondence, as long as such things seem reasonable. They’re congenial sorts,” said Colin. “I don’t think I can quite manage their idealism—that sort of thing is for the young—but someone should, once in a while, and the principles behind it are sound enough for the most part.”

“Says the young aristocrat.”

“I said for the most part. Although we might not be as necessary as we’ve always thought. Or as you’ve always thought.”

“I don’t know about that. Men need a leader. Someone to organize matters and settle disputes. Although at the moment,” Stephen added, “I think I’d rather enjoy being superfluous.”

“No you wouldn’t. Trust me, I’ve done it for decades—it’s much more my kind of life than yours.”

“You’re just worried that I’ll find something for you to do,” Stephen said, smiling, and looked over to Mina. “And what about you, then?”

“What
about
me?” she asked with a saucy little grin. “I like to think I’m not superfluous.”

“Not at all,” Stephen said. “I meant what do you think—about men and leaders and so forth? Do you want to change the world, or do you like it fine the way it is?”

“I think the world will change with or without me,” said Mina. “I wouldn’t mind seeing it be a little more—” She frowned, searching for a word. “Free? Open? I don’t know. I think, if you want to be a—a doctor or a scholar or a poet, you should be able to, or at least to try, no matter what station you’re born to.”

“Or what sex?” Stephen asked, remembering their conversation over her first letter home.

Mina’s grin widened. “Or that.”

“Do you think it’ll happen?” Colin asked, eyeing Mina with the curiosity that more than a few women had mistaken, to their sorrow, for something else.

“I think it already is.” Mina showed no reaction to Colin’s look, if she noticed it. She held up her hands and then made a face. “But I can’t show you with the gloves on, and I haven’t been typing as much lately at any rate. My fingers used to be a fair point of demonstration—the tips get callused.”

“Your grandmother would disapprove?” Colin asked.

“Yours might,” said Mina, and her eyes glinted in a dare-you-to-be-shocked way that Stephen was beginning to find familiar. “Mine took in laundry.”

“Well,” said Stephen, “one of ours kept sheep.”

Mina blinked. “Really?” she asked, turning to look up at Stephen. “Your grandmother?”

Her expression might almost have been casual curiosity. Stephen wasn’t entirely certain otherwise, but there was a stillness about her face as she waited for his answer that suggested she was listening very carefully.

“Oh, aye,” said Colin, off beyond Mina’s gaze. “Our mother’s mother. They were very
good
sheep, though. And that was quite a while back. Don’t let it get around.”

“Even the bit about how good the sheep were?” Mina smiled, but the intensity left her expression and she looked away, flushing.

In the moment of silence that followed, the clock began to strike.

“Half an hour to dusk,” Stephen said, keeping his voice mildly displeased and not swearing the way he wanted to. They were at a museum, after all. “I’d best be on my way.”

“Oh,” said Mina, and stepped away from the exhibit. “All right.”

She sounded completely normal, even matter-of-fact, but she’d clearly been enjoying herself, and such outings were rare for her these days. That was at least partly Stephen’s fault.

“The two of you should stay,” Stephen said, “and take the carriage back. I’ll hire a cab easily enough.”

“But—” Mina began.

He had no wish to hear the offer that she’d surely make, well-meant as it would be. “No, I insist,” Stephen said. “I’ll make better time on my own. Colin, you’ll join me when you can.”

Meeting Mina’s eyes only briefly, he touched his hat to both of them, then strode off toward the exit.

BOOK: Legend Of The Highland Dragon
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