Authors: Isabel Cooper
Tags: #Highland Warriors, #Highlanders, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal Romance, #Romance, #Scotland, #Scotland Highland, #Scottish Highland, #Warrior, #Shifters, #Dragon Shifter, #Magic
“Carter and I met on an archaeological expedition,” Stephen began. “We went to Bavaria to investigate some recently uncovered ruins. There was some controversy about whether the builders had been the local tribes themselves or the Romans, and I had an interest in the latter at the time.”
Regret pricked him for a moment: wistfulness for the days only a few decades ago when he’d been free to pursue his own interests.
Nostalgia didn’t last long, though. It couldn’t, because Miss Seymour was already holding up a hand to stop him.
“Yes?” Stephen asked with what he felt was considerable patience.
“Professor Carter’s last expedition was fifteen years ago. And that was to Egypt.”
“Well, Egypt seems a pleasant place for an excursion,” Stephen said. He knew what Miss Seymour was trying to hint at, and he knew that a more gentlemanly man might have saved her the process. Neither the evening nor her intrusion left him inclined to be a gentleman. “I hope he found it pleasant.”
Miss Seymour’s long fingers twitched on the piece of bread she was holding, but she gave Stephen no other reaction. Slowly, deliberately, she let her gaze travel down his body, then up to the crown of his head, lingering particularly on his face and his hairline.
For all the skepticism in her look, it was a rather intimate appraisal, and Stephen felt the path of her eyes as if she’d trailed a finger along his skin. Before he was aware of what he was doing, he’d lifted his head and straightened his shoulders, aware both that it made his chest look broader and that it was absurd to care what impression he made on a woman who had so far only caused him trouble. His less rational impulses were always harder to control just after transformation.
Fortunately, Miss Seymour chose that moment to speak, and to speak with a level of asperity that quenched any remaining urge to pose for her. “I can only assume,” she said, “that you weren’t traipsing off to Bavaria when you were ten. And a skilled hairdresser and a bottle of dye can only do so much.”
“I’m certain I wouldn’t know.”
“Are you immortal, then?”
“We’re all immortal, if you believe the preachers,” Stephen said. “I’m no more so than the next man, but I do age considerably slower.” The real scions of the MacAlasdairs—his grandfather and back—were a different story, but he preferred not to bring his family into the discussion. He lifted his eyebrows. “And I’m not sure how my age has much bearing on our situation.”
A hit: Miss Seymour’s pale cheeks flushed, and she suddenly found her bread and preserves very interesting.
“Go on, then,” she said, as if the interruption had been all of Stephen’s doing.
He decided to be gracious in victory. “As I was saying, Carter and I went to Bavaria. The party also included Colonel Moore and a young businessman, Christopher Ward. Carter was the one with the real knowledge, even then. Moore and I were dabblers—and so was Ward, we thought. He owned a string of factories, and it seemed that archaeology was by way of a hobby for him.”
“I suppose it would depend on who you asked,” Stephen said. “He was as familiar as Moore and I with mythology and history and all of that. None of us had anywhere near Carter’s expertise, although Ward forgot that fact a time or five.” He shrugged. “His parents had died some time before. He’d inherited the factories from them. Otherwise, I didn’t know very much about him. We weren’t close.”
“It doesn’t sound as if you wanted to be,” said Miss Seymour.
“No. He didn’t endear himself to any of the three of us. Moore and I had each known Carter for a while, in our own ways. Ward was the newcomer and perhaps felt it more than we’d intended him to. Still, as I said, he was often arrogant—” Here Miss Seymour’s dark eyes glinted a little, and her full lips twitched. Stephen thought that he could read her mind without any magic at all, and that it contained references to pots and kettles. He went on quickly, “—and he’d a manner with servants that I disliked.”
“Ah,” said Miss Seymour, “and what sort of manner might that be?”
“Temper, mostly. He wasn’t a man to bear well with being thwarted or frustrated in his purposes. Especially not when there was someone he could blame for it, even if they weren’t truly
blame. We’d have gone through five guides before we reached the site if he’d had his way. Still”—Stephen spread his hands—“he was putting up a considerable bit of the funding, and he wasn’t a thief or an overly violent man. At least not that we saw. Now I wonder.
“We reached the site and spent a few days there.” He remembered the smell of the south wind, sharp with snow while the sun warmed his shoulders. He remembered rough stone beneath his hands and the pleasant exhaustion after a long day at good work. He’d accompanied Carter half hoping to find something of his own ancestry, but the trip itself had been well worth his time.
At least, he’d thought so then.
“On the fourth day,” he said, “we found a secret panel in the floor. Once we’d managed to open it, we found an old chest bound and inscribed with a great many holy symbols. Some were Christian. Not all. Moore and I were uncertain about opening it. We wanted to speak to a priest first, at least. Although, in fairness, I’m not sure how much good it might have done if we had. Whatever traditions bound that box had long been lost.”
Miss Seymour frowned. “You and Colonel Moore wanted to wait,” she said, “but Professor Carter?”
“Carter was quite the skeptic in those days,” Stephen said. “He’d had some trouble before that with priests and churches and the like. Perhaps he was in the wrong then, too—but he wanted nobody interfering, and Ward was not a patient or a reverent man. Neither Moore nor I felt very strongly, either. There was a fair chance that the symbols were only superstition, to keep raiders from the village’s treasure.
“So we opened it. We took care, of course, but no more than you would with anything so old. When we worked the binding free…I’m not entirely sure what happened. I felt different: not myself. I managed to keep this shape, but it was difficult,” he said, skipping over the way his bones had ground together and the feeling that bits of broken glass were running through his veins. He skipped, too, the smell of his companions’ blood and the sudden awareness of how fragile they were, how strong he could be.
The woman across from him, intruder that she was, didn’t need to hear such things—and he didn’t need to remember them in any more detail.
Miss Seymour tilted her head. “You were already”—she made a small circle in the air with one hand—“like you are, back then?”
“I’ve been a dragon my entire life,” said Stephen. “Though it’s only since Bavaria that I’ve
“Hmm,” she said, as if making a note of it. “Every night, I take it. For two hours at dusk.”
Miss Seymour spoke matter-of-factly enough, but she still left Stephen staring at her. “How did you know that?”
“Your servants haven’t taken a vow of silence,” she said, “or if they did, they haven’t been faithful to it. Did you really think they wouldn’t talk?”
“I hadn’t given it much thought,” said Stephen.
“Of course you hadn’t,” said Miss Seymour, and chuckled a little in the back of her throat. It was a pleasant sound—she had a good voice, rather rich—but not a good-humored one. “I beg your pardon, my lord.
are you a dragon?”
“Why aren’t you?” Stephen shot back. “You have one shape in your blood. I have two.”
“Does your whole family?”
Since she had no idea how big his family was, or who was in it, that was a safe enough question to answer. Stephen nodded. “But this is hardly to the point.”
“I suppose you’re right. What was in the box?”
“A crown,” said Stephen. “Gold, or so it looked, though it must have been impure. Pure gold could never hold the shape so long. There were rubies in it. A great deal of wealth. That was the problem.”
“How do you mean?”
“Our guide was from the village, ye ken,” Stephen said, half-conscious of the way memory broadened his accent. “He said that the crown was theirs by rights, and that we weren’t to do anything until he’d spoken with their mayor. They werena’ a wealthy people.”
“And you disagreed?” Honey-colored eyebrows went up again, and Miss Seymour regarded him with undisguised skepticism.
“No,” Stephen said, more quickly than he might have. Then, irritated by the need to justify himself to this woman—this mortal who had never been his servant or in his charge, who had no claim at all on him—he corrected himself. “I might have, perhaps. We’d done the work of finding it. Carter and Moore werena’ certain. But Ward didna’ take it well, even the suggestion. He began to shout at the guide, and the guide shouted back. I was distracted.”
He had wanted to be distracted. Back then, disputes between mortal men had seemed both inevitable and irrelevant. Men shouted. They stopped in time. When these two stopped, he would step in. Until then, he had better things to think about. Stephen had turned back to the box and its inscriptions, trying to ignore the raised voices. Then he’d heard something else.
“Ward knocked the fellow down. Then he picked up one of the stones we’d pried up, and—well, the guide was dead before even I could reach them. Brutally dead by the time I could pull Ward away.” Stephen had seen messier deaths over his lifetime, but the sheer rage in Ward’s actions had given even him pause. Carter had been sick afterward.
“Ward grew angry with
, then. He hadn’t thought I’d interfere, not for a man we’d hired for a shilling a day. I knocked him down. I thought he’d stay down for a while, so I turned away and told Carter to go get the local constable. That was when Ward grabbed the guide’s knife.”
Stephen touched his stomach, just below his last rib. “It was a fair wound, but we’re harder to kill than most. It did take me by surprise, though, and Ward ran off before I could recover myself, or before the others could step in.”
“What happened to him?” Miss Seymour asked.
“We’d thought he was dead. The police never found him, and his estate passed on—to a nephew, for the most part. There was no body, though.”
Miss Seymour reached for her teacup and held it in both hands for a moment. “Right,” she said. “So this man, Ward, blames you and the others for getting him in trouble—”
“For losing him everything he had. He’d been a wealthy man, as I said, and a man of some position in the world. He became a fugitive. He had the money he’d carried, which was no small amount, but he couldn’t draw on any of the rest. If he did survive, and it seems he did, I can’t imagine what he had to do.”
Stephen sighed. “And to his mind, it could all have been avoided if I and the others had simply agreed to say nothing of the guide’s death, or perhaps even if we’d been more firmly on Ward’s side at the start of the matter. We did give the crown to the guide’s village in the end. They sold it to a museum for a great deal of money, and that probably makes Ward all the angrier.”
“Hmph,” said Miss Seymour, which seemed to cover her entire opinion on the matter. “And now he summons shadow monsters?”
Stephen ran a hand wearily through his hair. “The wound I took, and how lively I was afterward, made it clear enough I wasna’ a normal human.”
How often in the last few decades had Stephen scourged himself mentally for opening that path to Ward? How much more often in the last few weeks? He’d lost count.
Half expecting Miss Seymour to reproach him on the subject, or to at least ask, he felt an immense relief when she merely nodded and went on, her eyes like honed steel. “He wants to kill you?”
“He wants to take everything I have from me, I’d imagine,” said Stephen, “the way he thinks I took it from him. As he’s not been terribly direct, I think he wants more to discover what he doesna’ know about me and to use it against me. One man saying that Lord MacAlasdair is a beast… Well, as you said, the asylums are very pleasant these days.” At Miss Seymour’s dubious look, he shrugged. “Comparatively. But a man with proof, or with another witness, could do me far more damage. I’d prefer not to be a monster, and I very much prefer not to be a target.”
And he would be damned before he saw his family made into either.
Across the table, Miss Seymour listened, her face pale gold in the amber lamplight. In it, her eyes were very large and dark. She took a long breath and looked up at Stephen. “You haven’t heard from Ward at all between then and now? This is the first time he’s tried anything?”
“Moore’s death was, yes. To the best of my knowledge. Ward wouldn’t have known where I was until I came to London. He’d hate Moore and Carter, as well, for throwing their lot in with the guide and for not lying for him, but I think he hates me most of all.”
“Because you stopped him,” said Mina.
“Because I was stronger than he was, and he couldna’ kill me,” said Stephen, “and because he didna’ know what I was. Being powerless can give a man a powerful hunger for revenge.”
“Ah,” Miss Seymour said, and Stephen was relieved to hear neither judgment nor sympathy in her voice. She let a moment pass in silence: perhaps a measure of respect, perhaps just buying herself time to think. “Why are you here now?”
That question was easy enough to answer, if still painful in its own way. “My father passed on six months ago. He conducted our business affairs. They require a presence in the city. I’m his heir.”
“Speaking of heirs—Ward’s family, or what there is of it?”
“Not very much. One nephew, who never met him. The police questioned him about Moore’s death, once I’d given them the information. The nephew is over thirty, with a wife and three children, and a fair bit of history in his neighborhood. That doesn’t mean he’s not working with his uncle, but Scotland Yard hasn’t found anything on him.”
“Besides,” said Miss Seymour, with a cynical little smile, “you made him a rich man. If anything, I think he’d send you flowers. You’ve talked a good bit to the Yard, then?”
Stephen nodded. “Carter, as well. We told them…as much as we could, with certain alterations. We said it was an older cousin of mine involved in the original dispute.”