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

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BOOK: Legend Of The Highland Dragon
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Three

The best laid schemes of mice and men, as another Scotsman had observed, often went awry. Stephen had heard as much quite a few times in the century since Burns had written his poem, but the phrase had rarely seemed as true as at that moment. Granted that his plans hadn’t been that well-laid; still, at no point had they featured either a battle with manes or further conversation with Miss Seymour.

Miss Seymour herself did not look like she found their current situation either an expected or a desired development. The muscles of her arm were rigid under his hand. Her whole slim body was tense—torn, Stephen thought, between the primitive urge to flee and the more intellectual knowledge that it would probably do no good. Even knowing the woman as little as he did, he would also have wagered that the impulse to belt him with the poker was in there as well, which was why he hadn’t let go of her arm.

“I… You…” In the dim light, her eyes were very wide, very dark. Shock. She shook her head violently, though, and then turned from disbelief to defensive hostility, raising her voice and thrusting her chin forward. “I told people I was coming here tonight. Plenty of people. They’ll know it if you do anything to me.”

“Wise of you,” said Stephen. “But not necessary. Contrary to rumor, I don’t really eat virgins.”

If Miss Seymour blushed, it was too dark for him to see it, at least in human form. The dragon wouldn’t have found the dim light a problem, but the dragon would also have gotten a poker in the face some minutes back.

“And what,” Stephen went on, “did you tell these people? I can’t imagine you’re advertising your services as a housebreaker.”

Miss Seymour drew herself up. “I didn’t break in anywhere. I came to ’ave a cup of tea with—oh. Oh, Lord.” Indignation and suspicion both vanished, at least for the time being, and her mouth dropped open in horrified realization. “Your cook. Mrs. Hennings. She fell when they came in—hit ’er head. I don’t know if—but we should go see to her, and quickly.”

’Er
and
’ave
, Stephen noticed, even as he turned and started down the hallway, pulling the girl along with him. Also, her vowels were broader than they’d been when she’d spoken to him in Carter’s office. Hers wasn’t a strong accent, and she’d clearly tried to get rid of it, but it was there.

He wasn’t sure why her dialect, trained or native, mattered, but it was more information, and one never knew where or when that could prove valuable.

“Would you let me go?” Miss Seymour snapped as they hurried down the hallway. “You’re pulling the arm right off of me.”

Stephen winced and stopped. “Sorry.” It was easy to forget his strength; usually, he dealt with that by not making much contact with pure humans. He started to remove his hand, then stopped. Miss Seymour could manage a fair turn of speed when she ran. She was also still armed. “Perhaps—”

She glared up at him. “Do you really think I’ll run
now
? You know who I am. You’re a lord. You can go to Scotland Yard if you want, disgrace me and the professor both. What do you think I’ll do if you leave hold of me?”

“Ah,” said Stephen. She was right, but agreeing with her would have been gloating, and her voice was already spiky with frustration. “Well,” he said, “then I must ask you to put down the poker.”

Clang.

“I’m much obliged,” he said, and released her arm.

Miss Seymour rubbed at her bicep. “Likewise, I’m sure,” she said, formal and icy.

They went on.

The kitchen was still decently lit. Stephen could see the remains of a teapot and an overturned chair and Mrs. Hennings, lying on the floor with a pool of blood around her head.

Stephen rushed to her side and knelt down. The woman was still breathing, at least, and her pulse was steady when he felt the side of her neck. He lifted her head carefully, all the more aware of his strength since Miss Seymour’s outburst, and began what examination he could manage. Near at hand, he heard Miss Seymour moving around the kitchen: light footsteps, cabinet doors opening and closing, and the sound of water being pumped.

At last, he let himself sigh with relief. “It’s a nasty cut,” he said, “and she’ll have a lump for a few days, but there’s no dent in her skull. Head wounds always bleed considerably, even the mild ones.”

“I know,” said Miss Seymour, kneeling down herself. She had a basin of water with her and a small stack of clean napkins. “My brother’s friend Harry copped ’im on the forehead with a bit of rock once when we were young. Bled
sheets
, he did, and Mum almost fainted when she saw him walk in, but he was right as rain by dinnertime. Here. You wash the cut. I’ll see if some water on her face can’t bring her round.”

It did. After the first touch of the cloth, Mrs. Hennings made incoherent, pained noises and opened her eyes. “…Your lordship?” she asked, looking vaguely alarmed to see Stephen so near at hand.

“Lie still, please,” he said. “Can you see clearly?”

She blinked a few times. “Yes, sir. What—oh, dear God. What
happened
? There were these dark…dark men, weren’t there? They
were
men. They had to have been…but…no—”

“Ah,” said Stephen. “Well—”

“Burglars,” Miss Seymour said quickly. “They had masks over their faces. Probably ladies’ stockings, though I didn’t get much of a look. One of them hit you with a bullwhip, of all things. Seems he fancied himself Jesse James. Your knee gave out and you hit your head.”

Mrs. Hennings frowned, but in disapproval now, rather than the confusion and incipient hysteria of before. “Well, what happened? Are they still around? Did they get anything?”

“No,” said Miss Seymour. “Lord MacAlasdair,” there was only a slight pause, “shot one of them. In the leg. That subdued them both fairly quickly. The police have taken them away.”

Mrs. Hennings relaxed. Over her head, Stephen took a moment to stare at his involuntary companion.

After their first conversation, he’d mentally filed Miss Seymour away the way he did most people: Girl; Typist and Threshold Guardian; Professor Carter, For the Use of. Hair: Brown, Light. (Under the kitchen light, it was the color of caramels, somewhat curly, and more than somewhat escaped from its pins.) Eyes: Blue, Dark. Dress: Dark, Serviceable. Personality: Unfortunate, Deeply.

He hadn’t considered, as facets of her character, the existence of brothers, the ability to lie swiftly and convincingly, or the willingness to hit a dragon with a fireplace poker. The subjects had not occurred to him.

Stephen cleared his throat. “Yes, well,” he said, looking back down at his cook. “How are you feeling?”

“My head hurts a bit,” said Mrs. Hennings, and raised a hand to touch the cut. “Ugh. But I’m right enough otherwise, I’d think.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Stephen, “but you should still get some rest. You’ll have tomorrow off, and you’ll tell me if you’re feeling at all unwell afterward.”

Mrs. Hennings seemed about as well as a person could be after a knock on the head, and there wasn’t much that a doctor could do in any case, but such things could be tricky. Stephen remembered a boy, kicked by a horse, who’d been fine for days and then dropped down stone dead.

That had been more than fifty years ago. Back at home, Stephen wouldn’t have thought anything of such time. Here, surrounded by mayfly people, the gulf of years seemed wider.

He began to help Mrs. Hennings to her feet, a process that went fairly well until she put her weight on her left leg. She cried out then, not loudly, and grabbed involuntarily at Stephen’s arm as her knee buckled.

“A week off,” he said, bracing her calmly. More memories came back to him: the aftermath of fire and flood, battle and plague. “At least. And we’ll have a doctor in as soon as you’re settled.”

“Why don’t you go and send for one?” Miss Seymour stepped forward. “I’ll help Mrs. Hennings get comfortable. Unless—is there anyone else in the house?”

“Not yet,” said Stephen. Even Baldwin and his wife had left: Baldwin had mentioned taking in a show. Neither of them had been to London before, and they were evidently determined to enjoy it.

Stephen met Miss Seymour’s gaze again—You can disgrace me and the professor both, he heard her say in his memory—and then bowed to the inevitable.

A short walk later, he returned to find Miss Seymour sitting at the kitchen table, her hands folded in her lap. The broken teapot was gone; the tea and the blood had both been mopped up. Everything about the scene was calm. Outwardly, at least.

Miss Seymour looked up at the sound of footsteps, eyes narrowed and body tense. When she saw Stephen, she relaxed, but only a little.

“I’ve sent an errand boy for Doctor Gregory,” said Stephen. “He’ll be here shortly, I’d imagine. How is Mrs. Hennings?”

“Lying down,” said Miss Seymour. “One of your maids is with her. Jenny. She got here a bit after you left.”

“And what does she know of the incident?”

“Only that Mrs. Hennings had a nasty fall. No need to mention burglars. Mrs. Hennings thinks it’d only scare the girls.” Miss Seymour looked up at him and lifted an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t want that.”

“I certainly would not.” Stephen pulled out the chair opposite Miss Seymour and sat down. “I try not to frighten women and children, as a rule. Particularly when they work for me.”

The look on Miss Seymour’s face was, for a moment, one of undisguised skepticism. She opened her mouth, seemed to think better of whatever she’d been going to say, and turned it into a sigh.

Stephen sighed too. Eight in the evening, and already the night felt very long.

“My lord,” said Miss Seymour, and the title felt wrong coming from her. Stephen wasn’t sure why. “I’d guess there’s a reason you’ve kept me here, and I’d also guess it’s not for my company. And you’d have called the police by now if you were going to. Unless you sent for them when you were out just now,” she added, and her mouth went thin. “In which case, I’ll point out to them that there’s nothing illegal about having a cup of tea with your cook, and I only went farther into the house because I was running away from those things. What
were
those things?”

“Manes,” said Stephen. “The Romans thought they were the spirits of the restless dead. I’m…less certain of that.”

“They don’t act like anything that was ever a person. Or look it,” said Miss Seymour. She wrapped her arms around her chest, defensive. “Either way, you’re talking about ghosts, or—or devils, or something like.”

“I am.”

“Why did they come here? Why’d they go after Mrs. Hennings and me? And what are you?” Miss Seymour fired the questions across the table, stopped, and reloaded for a final shot. “And what’ve you got to do with Professor Carter, anyhow?”

“That last question brought you here, I take it?”

“Yes.”

Stephen rubbed his forehead with one hand. “Have you had supper?”

Miss Seymour blinked. “What? No.”

“Then,” Stephen said, getting to his feet, “we’re going to eat. Even if it’s only cold meat and bread. I’m not fond of making either explanations or plans on an empty stomach.”

“I wouldn’t say no to a bit of a meal,” Miss Seymour admitted, “but—plans? What sort of plans?”

Stephen, who’d been on his way to the pantry, turned to look back at her. “You’ve seen a great deal tonight,” he said, “and at a very dangerous time. We cannot pretend otherwise, I think, even if you were the sort of girl for that, which you are not.”

“No,” she said, sounding both pleased and annoyed at the same time.

“So—” Stephen spread his hands. “Here we are, you and I. What do we do now?”

Four

The pantry turned out to hold bread and cold chicken, as well as butter and plum preserves, though the previous difficulties with shadowy invaders meant that there was no more tea.

“You have to have another teapot somewhere,” said Mina.

“Have I?”

“For company, at least.” Ordinarily, she wouldn’t have suggested that she was “company” for a peer—even now, she could feel her mother’s hand on the back of her head—but this night had been anything but ordinary.

“It may surprise you to learn, Miss Seymour, that I don’t often entertain here.”

“Ah,” she said, thinking of the dark rooms and the things that had chased her through them. No, she wasn’t very surprised.

Mina drank water instead, tried not to let her hands shake while she held the glass, and eyed the food. Half-remembered fairy tales and a few of the myths she’d heard while working with Professor Carter made her hesitate, thinking of fairy food and drinks that made you sleep for years, but this was London, MacAlasdair employed a cook, and she’d never heard of anyone, in any story, enchanting cold chicken or plum preserves. Any decent spirit would probably snicker into its airy sleeves at the idea.

She took a slice of bread and buttered it, keeping her eyes on MacAlasdair as much as she could manage without buttering her cuffs by mistake.

“Well,” she said, when the silence grew so that she could no longer bear it, “
I
can’t tell
you
very much, I’m sure.”

“No, I’d imagine not,” said MacAlasdair, and the uncertainty in his voice made him seem slightly less remote and sinister. “I was going to wait until you’d had a chance to eat.”

“Suspense doesn’t make me very hungry,” said Mina, but she took a bite of her bread anyhow. Eating was only sensible, considering the circumstances.

Chewing was an effort, swallowing a worse one, but after the first few bites, her body remembered itself and demanded more. The food did help. It was solid and normal and made her feel grounded again, not tossed about on uncanny events like a leaf in the wind.

“You’ll have to stay here,” said MacAlasdair. “For the time being, that is.”

Atrocious timing. Atrocious man. Mina almost inhaled a morsel of bread, succumbed to a brief but undignified coughing fit, and got herself under control in time to wave MacAlasdair away. As a result, the first word she got out bore no resemblance, in either form or tone, to the icily proper “I beg your pardon?” that a lady would have used under similar circumstances.


What?
” Her voice practically shattered glass.

“I don’t mean anything…” MacAlasdair coughed indicatively. “I’ve a cook and a housekeeper, Miss Seymour, and a number of maids.”

“I’m happy for you,” said Mina. “Are you in the habit of keeping women prisoner, then? Or just anyone who wanders in here?”

MacAlasdair sighed. “Hardly. But the circumstances make it necessary.”

“What circumstances.”

“The things you’ve seen tonight.”

“And do you really think I’d
tell
anyone?” Mina rolled her eyes. “Oh, yes. I hear the weather’s real pleasant at Colney ’atch this time of year, thank you so much.” She heard her accent slip, stopped, and took a long breath, her hands tight fists at her sides. More carefully, she went on. “Even if I did tell, which I’m not going to, who on
Earth
would believe me?”

“Enough people,” MacAlasdair said, “to cause me considerable trouble.”

“One in specific?” she asked, picturing the shadow demons.

“That,” MacAlasdair said, leaning forward with narrowed eyes, “is none of your concern.”

Even human, he was a good bit larger than her. Mina suddenly couldn’t take her mind from that fact, nor from the tightness of his square jaw and the way his hands had clenched on the table. There was no poker here. The table itself might be an obstacle, but not for long.

Catching the look on her face, MacAlasdair sat back and dropped his hands to his sides. He closed his eyes. “You have my apologies,” he said roughly. “I didna’ mean to frighten you.”

“I’m fine,” Mina lied.

Opening his eyes, MacAlasdair looked at her dubiously, but said nothing. Instead, he took a bite of his sandwich. He’d devoured half of it while she blinked, it seemed, which made him far less intimidating as a gentleman and far more when she thought of his other form. He chewed slowly and finally spread his hands. “One hundred pounds,” he said. “I’ll draw up the check for you myself, once this is over.”

Almost from the moment of his ultimatum, Mina had expected a bribe of
some
sort. You couldn’t lock a girl in a dungeon these days, after all, and she’d hoped MacAlasdair wasn’t the blackmailing kind. All the same, the sum was a jolt. One hundred pounds was four times what she made in a year, and MacAlasdair tossed it off as casually as if he were buying a pint of beer.

She could almost be angry about that—how much it meant to her and how little to him—but, she reminded herself, it would serve no purpose. The world was as it was.

Still, her voice was a little sharper than she’d meant when she answered. “How long will that be, pray? And what will I be doing in the meantime? You’d have to give people
some
reason I was here, and I don’t think you could pass me off as your ward, not to anyone with eyes or ears.”

“I—” He frowned for a second, dark eyebrows slanting together, before hitting on an idea. “You’d be my secretary, I suppose. I’m sure I can find something for you to type.”

“Or a threshold to guard?” Mina asked. “And what about Professor Carter? He needs my services—come to think of it, what
about
Professor Carter? Is he in any danger?”

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I thought he was,” MacAlasdair said stiffly. “I’ve given him what protections I can, and I assure you that they’re effective. As for your services, Carter will understand. He and I are acquainted.”

“Old friends, you said.”

“So I did.”

“How long is ‘the time being’?”

“Until I settle a certain matter. I shouldn’t think it’ll be more than a few months,” MacAlasdair said, and then his thin mouth twisted in dark amusement. “One way or another.”

The room around her was huge. The man across from her was large and wealthy and, well, a dragon.
Scary
didn’t half begin to cover it.

But a hundred pounds would set her up well; the dragon seemed to be at least something of a gentleman; and Mina Seymour had never let being scared stop her from doing anything before.

“All right,” Mina said. “I’ll take your offer. With three conditions.”

“I should have known,” said MacAlasdair. “What do you have in mind?”

“First of all, it’s a hundred a year. And I get the first hundred however long your business ends up taking.”

One corner of MacAlasdair’s mouth twitched. “Agreed.”

Briefly, Mina wondered if she should have asked for more. Oh well. “Second, I want to talk with Professor Carter. I want to be sure he’ll have me back after this,
and
I want a good character from you. If I get a bad reputation from living with you, I’ll have the devil’s own time finding another place, and that might happen no matter how many maids and cooks you’ve got.”

“Strictly speaking, Miss Seymour, that’d be two conditions. But I’ll agree.”

“Third, I want you to tell me exactly what’s going on here.” That banished MacAlasdair’s incipient smile. Before he could say anything, Mina folded her arms across her chest and went on. “I’ve a right to know why I’m risking my good name and my career, and maybe my life. And with whom. I don’t need to know Crown secrets, but I want to know who you are, and what you are, and why someone’s sending shadow monsters after you.”

“For my safety and your own,” MacAlasdair said, “the less you know—”

“The less I know, the more I might accidentally let slip. Or walk into. You’re paying to keep an eye on me so I don’t tell what I
do
know. There’s not much more you can do by keeping mum about the rest of it, I’d think. And I’m not staying here half-blind.”

Mina lifted her chin and did her best to look calm and immovable. MacAlasdair couldn’t know how fast her heart was going—unless dragons had spectacular hearing, which they might. She tried not to think about that.

Finally, MacAlasdair sighed again. “Very well,” he said, and Mina heard
Cerberus
as an unspoken echo to his words. “I should have guessed that you’d not make this easy.”

BOOK: Legend Of The Highland Dragon
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