Authors: Nora Roberts
“We all knocked back more than a few.” Rob gulped his tea. “I'm feeling a little hollow myself. The food helped.”
“I'll pass on that for now.” He took the glass of ginger ale from Millie, murmured his thanks, and sipped it carefully. “I think I'll get some air, clear my head. And remind myself why I'm too old to drink until damn near dawn.”
“Speak for yourself.” And though he looked a little pale himself, Rob bit into a scone.
“I'm always going to be four minutes ahead of you.”
“Three minutes and forty-three seconds.”
Ross shoved his feet into wellies, pulled on a thick jacket. Thinking of his sore throat, he wrapped a scarf around his neck, put on a cap. And taking the tea Millie offered him in a thick mug, he walked out into the cold, crisp air.
He sipped the strong, scalding tea and began to walk as Bilbo, the black Lab, fell into companionable pace with him. He walked a long way, decided he felt steadier. Hangovers might be a bitch, he thought, but they didn't last. And he wouldn't spend his last
hours in Scotland brooding about drinking too much whiskey and wine.
A hangover couldn't spoil a bracing walk in the country with a good dog.
He found himself crossing the same field where he'd downed the last pheasant of the hunt. And approaching the small stone circle where it had fallen.
Was that its blood on the winter-pale grass under the skin of snow? Was it black?
He didn't want to go closer, didn't want to see. As he turned away, he heard a rustling.
The dog growled low in his throat as Ross turned to stare into the copse of old, gnarled trees edging the field. Something there, he thought with a fresh chill. He could hear it moving. Could hear a rustling.
Just a deer, he told himself. A deer or a fox. Maybe a hiker.
But the dog bared his teeth, and the hair on Bilbo's back stood up.
“Hello?” Ross called out, but heard only the sly rustle of movement.
“The wind,” he said firmly. “Just the wind.”
But knew, as the boy he'd been had known, it wasn't.
He walked back several paces, his eyes scanning the trees. “Come on, Bilbo. Come on, let's go home.”
Turning, he began to stride quickly away, feeling his chest go tight. Glancing back, he saw the dog still stood stiff-legged, his fur ruffled.
“Bilbo! Come!” Ross clapped his hands together. “Now!”
The dog turned his head, and for a moment his eyes were almost feral, wild and fierce. Then he broke into a trot toward Ross, tongue happily lolling.
Ross kept up a quick stride until he reached the edge of the field. He put a handâit shook a littleâon the dog's head. “Okay, we're both idiots. We'll never speak of it.”
His headache had eased a bit by the time he got back, and his
stomach seemed to have settled enough to allow him some toast with another cup of tea.
Sure the worst was over, he sat down with the other men to watch a match on TV, dozed off into fragments of dark dreams.
The nap helped, and the simple bowl of soup he had for dinner tasted like glory. He packed his bags as Angie packed hers.
“I'm going to call it an early night,” he told her. “I'm pretty ragged out.”
“You lookÂ â¦ hingy.” Angie laid a hand on his cheek. “You might be a little warm.”
“I think I've got a cold coming on.”
With a brisk nod, she walked off to the bathroom, rummaged around. She came back with two bright green tablets and a glass of water.
“Take these and go to bed. They're p.m. cold tablets, so they'll help you sleep, too.”
“You think of everything.” He downed them. “Tell everybody I'll see them in the morning.”
“Just get some sleep.”
She tucked him in, making him smile. Kissed his forehead.
“Maybe a little warm.”
“I'll sleep it off.”
“See that you do.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In the morning he thought he had. He couldn't claim a hundred percentâthat dull, nagging headache was back and he had loose bowelsâbut he ate a good breakfast of porridge and strong black coffee.
One last walk, then loading up the car got his blood moving. He hugged Millie, embraced Hugh.
“Come to New York this spring.”
“Might be we will. Our Jamie can see to things around here for a few days.”
“Tell him good-bye for us.”
“That we will. He'll likely be home before long, butâ¦”
“Plane to catch.” Rob gave his hugs.
“Oh, I'll miss you,” Millie said as she pulled both women close. “Fly safe, be well.”
“Come see us,” Angie called out as she got into the car. “Love you!” She blew a kiss as they drove away from the MacLeod farm for the last time.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
They returned the rental car, infecting the clerk and the businessman who rented it next. They infected the porter who took their bags when tips exchanged hands. By the time they reached and passed through security, the infection had passed to an easy two dozen people.
More still in the first-class lounge where they drank Bloody Marys and relived moments from the holiday.
“Time, Jayne.” Rob rose, exchanged one-arm hugs and backslaps with his brother, a squeeze and kiss on the cheek with Angie. “See you next week.”
“Keep me up on the Colridge account,” Ross told him.
“Will do. Short flight to London. If there's anything you need to know, you'll have it when you land in New York. Get some rest on the plane. You're still pretty pale.”
“You look a little off yourself.”
“I'll perk up,” Rob told him and, gripping his briefcase with one hand, gave his twin a quick salute with the other. “On the flip side, bro.”
Rob and Jayne MacLeod carried the virus to London. On the way, they passed it to passengers bound for Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Dublin, and beyond. In Heathrow, what would come to be known as the Doom spread to passengers bound for Tokyo and Hong Kong, for Los Angeles, D.C., and Moscow.
The driver who shuttled them to their hotel, a father of four, took it home and doomed his entire family over dinner.
The desk clerk at the Dorchester cheerfully checked them in. She
cheerful. After all, she was leaving in the morning for a full week's holiday in Bimini.
She took the Doom with her.
That evening, over drinks and dinner with their son and daughter-in-law, their nephew and his wife, they spread death to more of the family, added it with a generous tip to the waiter.
That night, ascribing his sore throat, fatigue, and queasy stomach to a bug he'd caught from his brotherâand he wasn't wrongâRob took some NyQuil to help him sleep it off.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
On the flight across the Atlantic, Ross tried to settle into a book but couldn't concentrate. He switched to music, hoping to lull himself to sleep. Beside him, Angie kicked back with a movie, a romantic comedy as light and frothy as the champagne in her glass.
Halfway across the ocean he woke with a violent coughing fit that had Angie shooting up to pat his back.
“I'll get you some water,” she began, but he shook his head, holding up a hand.
He fumbled to get his seat belt off, rose to hurry to the bathroom. His hands braced on the basin, he coughed up thick yellow phlegm that seemed to burn straight out of his laboring lungs. Even as he tried to catch his breath, the coughing struck again.
He had a ridiculous flash of Ferris Bueller speculating about coughing up a lung as he hocked up more phlegm, vomited weakly.
Then a sharp, stabbing cramp barely gave him enough time to drag down his pants. Now he felt as if he shat out his intestines while sweat popped hot on his face. Dizzy with it, he pressed one hand to the wall, closed his eyes as his body brutally emptied out.
When the cramping eased, the dizziness passed, he could have wept with relief. Exhausted, he cleaned himself up, rinsed his mouth with the mouthwash provided, splashed cool water on his face. And felt better.
He studied his face in the mirror, admitted he remained a little hollow-eyed, but thought he looked a bit better as well. He decided he'd expelled whatever ugly bug had crawled inside him.
When he stepped out, the senior flight attendant cast him a concerned look. “Are you all right, Mr. MacLeod?”
“I think so.” Mildly embarrassed, he covered with a wink and a joke. “Too much haggis.”
She laughed obligingly, unaware she'd be just as violently ill in less than seventy-two hours.
He walked back to Angie, eased by her to the window seat.
“Are you okay, baby?”
“Yeah, yeah. I think so now.”
After a critical study, she rubbed a hand over his. “Your color's better. How about some tea?”
He sipped tea, found his appetite stirred enough to try a little of the chicken and rice that was on the menu. An hour before landing, he had another bout of coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea, but judged it milder than before.
He leaned on Angie to get him through customs, passport secu
rity, and to handle pushing the baggage cart out to where the driver from their car service waited.
“Good to see you! Let me take that, Mr. Mac.”
“How was your trip?”
“It was wonderful,” Angie said as they wove through the crowds at Kennedy. “But Ross isn't feeling very well. He picked up a bug along the way.”
“I'm sorry to hear that. We'll get you home, quick as we can.”
For Ross the trip home passed in the blur of fatigue: through the airport to the car, loading the luggage, the airport traffic, the drive to Brooklyn and the pretty house where they'd raised two children.
Once again he let Angie handle the details, appreciating her arm around his waist as she took some of his weight while guiding him upstairs.
“Straight to bed with you.”
“I'm not going to argue, but I want a shower first. I feelÂ â¦ I need a shower.”
She helped him undress, which struck him with a wave of tenderness. He leaned his head against her breast. “What would I do without you?”
“Just try to find out.”
The shower felt like heaven, made him believe absolutely he'd gotten through the worst. When he came out and saw she'd turned down the bed and set a bottle of water, a glass of ginger ale, and his phone all on the bedside table, his eyes actually stung with tears of gratitude.
She hit the remote to lower the shades on the windows. “Drink some of that water, or the ginger ale, so you don't get dehydrated. And if you're not better in the morning, it's to the doctor with you, mister.”
“Already better,” he claimed, but obeyed, downing some ginger ale before sliding blissfully into bed.
She tucked and fussed, laid a hand on his brow. “You're definitely running a fever. I'm going to get the thermometer.”
“Later,” he said. “Give me a couple hours down first.”
“I'll be right downstairs.”
He closed his eyes, sighed. “Just need a little sleep in my own bed.”
She went downstairs, got some chicken, along with a carcass she'd bagged, out of the freezer, and began the task of running it under cool water to speed up the defrosting. She'd make a big pot of chicken soup, her cure for everything. She could use some herself, as she was dog-tired and had already sneaked a couple of meds behind Ross's back for her own sore throat.
No need to worry him when he was feeling so low. Besides, she'd always had a tougher constitution than Ross, and would probably kick it before it took serious hold.
While she worked she put her phone on speaker and called her daughter, Katie. They chatted happily while Angie ran the cold water and made herself some tea.
“Is Dad around? I want to say hi.”
“He's sleeping. He came down with something on New Year's.”
“Don't worry. I'm making chicken soup. He'll be fine by Saturday when we come to dinner. We can't wait to see you and Tony. Oh, Katie, I got the most adorable little outfits for the babies! Okay, a few adorable little outfits. Wait until you see. But I've got to go.” Talking was playing hell with her sore throat. “We'll see you in a couple days. Now don't come by here, Katie, and I mean it. Your dad's probably contagious.”
“Tell him I hope he feels better, and to call me when he wakes up.”
“I will. Love you, sweetie.”
“Love you back.”
Angie switched on the kitchen TV for company, decided a glass of wine might do her more good than the tea. Into the pot with the chicken, the carcass, then a quick run upstairs to look in on her husband. Reassured, since he was snoring lightly, she went back down to peel potatoes and carrots, chop celery.
She concentrated on the task, let the bright chatter of the TV wash over her, and stubbornly ignored the headache beginning to brew behind her eyes.
If Ross felt betterâand that fever he had went downâshe'd let him move from the bedroom to the family room. And by God, she'd get into her own pajamas because she felt fairly crappy herself, and they'd snuggle up, eat chicken soup, and watch TV.
She went through the process of making the soup on automatic, disposing of the carcass now that it had done its work, cutting the chicken meat into generous chunks, adding the vegetables, herbs, spices, and her own chicken stock.
She turned it on low, went back upstairs, looked in on Ross again. Not wanting to disturb him, but wanting to stay close, she went into what had been her daughter's room and now served as a room for visiting grandchildren. Then dashed to the guest bath to vomit up the pasta she'd had on the plane.
“Damn it, Ross,
did you catch?”
She got the thermometer, turned it on, put the tip in her ear. And when it beeped stared at the readout in dismay: 101.3.
“That settles it, chicken soup on trays in bed for both of us.”