Daring in a blue dress, p.12
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.12

           Katie MacAlister
 
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  “No.”

  I watched him a moment. He kept shooting me little glances that made me think he was feeling shy again.

  “What are you doing?” I asked, giving him a supportive smile.

  “The light . . . it stopped working. It . . .” He shrugged.

  I wondered if I’d get tired of helping him overcome his shyness. I decided, as I reached out and stroked the bare part of his leg, that I wouldn’t.

  He almost jumped off the chair. “What are you doing?”

  “Getting you annoyed or aroused enough so that you’ll talk to me without feeling weird. The choice of which emotion to go with is yours.”

  He made a face. “I’m not a child who needs soothing, Mercy.”

  “Of course you aren’t. But you have to admit, you get downright chatty when I touch you.”

  “That’s because I like you touching me.”

  “Good.” I gave his calf another stroke, then leaned against the counter to watch him.

  Silence filled the kitchen for about three minutes.

  “It doesn’t like me.”

  “The light?” I asked, my smutty thoughts about what I’d like to do with Alden evaporating.

  “No, the house. I think it’s depressed.”

  “Huh?” I hoisted myself onto the counter, and watched him work while he screwed in the fixture. I liked the way his shirt moved over his back and arms.

  He slid me a sidelong look. “You think I’m exaggerating, don’t you?”

  “Not necessarily.” I fiddled with a box of lightbulbs. “What I think that you might have is a bias influencing your perception of what’s happening in an old house that is likely to have decrepit fixtures, and interpreting that as being a personal vendetta against you, due to the fact that you are stressed over the amount of work to be done, and thus are looking for outside forces to blame for any potential failure.”

  “You really took away a lot from those psychology classes, didn’t you?” he said, climbing down from the chair and going over to where an electrical panel darkened the wall between the kitchen and the pantry. He flipped a switch. The light fixture made a humming noise, then popped, and the light went out.

  Alden sighed.

  “Sorry,” I said, holding out the box of lights. “Try again?”

  He shook his head. “It won’t do any good. The house doesn’t want to be fixed. What are you doing here?”

  “I assume you mean here in the kitchen when I should be out working?”

  “Yes.”

  “I’m on my lunch break.”

  He set down his tools and stretched, wiggling his shoulders around in a manner that warned they were feeling tight and uncomfortable. “I could use a break, too.”

  “Good. We can have lunch together, although all I was going to make was a grilled cheese sandwich.”

  “That sounds fine to me.”

  I got off the counter and went into the still faintly smoky-smelling pantry to get the necessary ingredients. While I assembled the sandwiches and got them onto a small skillet to cook, Alden put away his tools, and tidied up the bits of broken glass that came from a bulb he said had been stuck in the fixture.

  “What are you going to do next?” I asked when we sat down to our sandwiches, a bowl of grapes, and corn chips. “More fixing things, or renovation work?”

  “I can’t renovate anything until I get some supplies,” he answered around a mouthful of sandwich. “I may try to do that later today.”

  “I have an idea,” I said, popping a grape into my mouth.

  “Oh?” He shot me a look that was partly wary, and partly steamy. “Does it involve touching my leg again? Or any other part of me?”

  “Actually, it does.” I wiped my fingers, and smiled at him. “I thought you might like to try the melee shindig this afternoon. Vandal is taking walk-ins for the afternoon class, and I figured it would be a good way for you to work off some stress.”

  “Pretending to be a medieval knight?” Alden said, and shook his head. “I’m not one for playacting.”

  “I meant the combat part of it. I watched a bit of it earlier—guys put on all sorts of armor, and learn how to beat the tar out of each other without actually killing the other man. Or hurting him seriously. It’s pretty awesome-looking.”

  Alden pulled a face. “That’s not my idea of the best way to spend an afternoon.”

  “OK. It was just a suggestion.” I finished my lunch, gathered up my plate, and gave it a quick wash. “Have fun fixing up stuff.”

  “Thank you. I suspect it will be a nonstop laugh-fest.”

  I paused as I was leaving the kitchen, glancing back to where Alden sat alone at the table. He looked a little forlorn, sitting in the big empty kitchen all by his lonesome, tempting me into offering to teach him archery, but I reminded myself that although I was trying to show him he didn’t have to be awkward around me, that didn’t mean I could pressure him into doing things that I thought he’d enjoy.

  “Which is just a shame,” I said aloud, then glanced at my watch before trotting down the hall toward the back of the house. “Because I bet he’d be sexy as hell as a knight.”

  Chapter 8

  Dear Mercy.

  Alden consulted the slim volume of obscure Edwardian poetry he found propping up a coal scuttle in what used to be a maid’s room on the uppermost floor of the house. I saw this, and thought of you.

  I sit and watch the shadows pass,

  Grey shadows on a grey water.

  None comes ever to my door,

  Or stirs the rushes on my floor.

  Only memory with me stays.

  Alden eyed the words, frowning. He decided that he was too ambiguous, and added, When I say “thought of you,” I meant that the words applied to me, and how I feel around you. Not that they applied to you.

  Was that making it less clear? He was unsure, but decided to slide the note under her bedroom door and hope that she understood what it was he was trying to say. After all, she’d had a pretty good sense about his thoughts thus far; no doubt she’d get the reference.

  He was halfway down the hall when he turned around, went back to his room, and on a piece of scratch paper, wrote, The poem is by Ethel Clifford, by the way. Just in case you thought I’d written it.

  An hour later, his knuckles were scraped raw from stripping the stained and mildewed wallpaper from the old music room. Twice he slipped with the putty knife he was using to peel off the wallpaper, leaving him with a couple of bloody gouges on his left hand.

  “Son of a—”

  “None of that, now, there are ladies present!”

  Alden jumped at the loud voice, spinning around to see Barry Butcher’s eyebrows at the door, with Barry not far behind. He had a big smile on his red face, and clutched in one hand the size of a respectable ham was the arm of a slight woman with short red hair, a pair of expensive sunglasses, and lips the color of lacquered cherries. “Oh . . . I . . . erm . . .”

  “Knew you wouldn’t mind if I dropped by to give you the latest report by the HTC, and found this young lady wandering around looking for you.” Barry released the woman’s arm, glancing around curiously. “Stripping the walls, eh? Needs it.”

  “Yes to both. Er . . . are you here for the medieval classes?” Alden asked the woman. Everything about the woman reeked money, from her stylish wedge sandals to the chiffon summer dress and a handbag with a well-known name.

  “Heavens, no.” She pulled the sunglasses down, her bright red lips parting to reveal very white teeth. Her eyes, a rather unremarkable shade of brown, twinkled at him. “I’m Lisa Hauf, and I’m here to help out.”

  “Me?” Alden stared at her for a few seconds, trying to work out who she was, and what she wanted. Just as he was about to ask those questions, it struck him—this was Alice’s friend. This was the woman
she had chosen specially for him. He fought back the urge to make some excuse and run from the room, taking a couple of deep breaths while remembering what Mercy had said about her experience at college. If she could stand an embarrassing scene, then he could deal with this situation. “Ah. You’re from . . . yes.”

  “Wish I could get this kind of help around my house,” Barry said with a loud bark of laughter. “Lucky sod. Well, now. Here’s the report I promised you yesterday. I think you’ll find our research on the nesting grounds of the Hairy Tit is above and beyond what you’d expect to see. We really pulled out all the stops on it, and I just know you’ll read it and see the reason behind our offer. Which still stands, by the way. I had a little chat with the board last night, and they all feel it’s vital to the well-being of the tit to spend the money on the land.”

  “Tit?” Lisa slid a questioning look toward Barry. “Did I hear that correctly?”

  “It’s a wee bird about so big,” Barry said, indicating three inches. “Very rare, and makes their home here at Bestwood in the north pasture. It’s all in the report—a qualitative analysis of the likelihood of survival if the Bestwood nesting area is disturbed, and a point-by-point examination of the offer to purchase the land for preservation.”

  “How very interesting.” Lisa turned to Alden, her eyes doing a smiling thing at him that instantly tied his tongue up tight. “Dumplin’, my feet are killing me. Is there somewhere I can get into something a little more suited to work?” She had a Southern U.S. accent, one Alden thought of as being stereotypical Deep South, but with an odd habit of stressing certain words.

  With a start, Alden remembered his manners, and murmured a welcome, and that he’d be happy to show her to a room.

  “I can see I’m de trop,” Barry said with an obvious wink at Alden. “So I’ll take myself off. Give me a call if you have any questions. I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss with you some recent geographical survey results that we have showing just how fragile the ecosystem is for the poor little tits.”

  “That’s really not necessary,” Alden started to object, but Barry cut him off.

  “No trouble at all. It’s worth taking the time to ensure you’re fully cognizant of what our plan is, and why it’s so important that we save the tits for future generations.”

  Lisa snickered. Alden was too distressed by the arrival of Alice’s protégée to appreciate the assumedly unwitting pun. “This way,” he said miserably, and accompanied Lisa to the habitable wing, showing her an available room.

  “Oh, it’s charming, just charming,” she said, glancing around the powder blue room containing only a dark Victorian bedstead and mattress, a massive wardrobe that was no doubt too large to get through the doors, and a broken ladder-back chair with only three legs. “A little sparse on the furnishings, but I could just eat it up with a spoon—it’s so cute.”

  Alden murmured something about finding her blankets and bed linens.

  “That would be much appreciated,” Lisa said, strolling around the room, her fingers trailing along the blue and white patterned wallpaper. “I do hope you’ll show me around the rest of the house this afternoon. I’d love to see the rest of it. That nice Mr. Butcher, bless his heart, says you are renovating? I do love the thought of a historical home being brought back to life for all to enjoy.”

  Panic swamped him, leaving him a bit startled by the strength of the emotion. He might not be comfortable around women, but he seldom felt quite so uncomfortable. He took firm control of his emotions, and said, “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

  “No? But I will be so very sad if you can’t find a few minutes to spend showing me around your wonderful house. And speaking of wonderful, this room has lovely dimensions. I can just picture it done over in shades of rose and a pale gold. Perhaps with a touch of cream? Ah, I see I have a view of the garden. Or is it the garden? Some sort of event seems to be taking place out there. Is it a fete?”

  “No, that’s—” Alden paused, a thought occurring to him. “That’s a medieval combat fair. That’s why I can’t show you around the house. I will be down with the medieval combat class. In fact . . .” He made a show of looking at his watch. “In fact, I should be down there now. You’re more than welcome to poke around the house as you like. The kitchen is on the ground floor, on the south side. Please help yourself to anything there. Tea is in the cupboard above the electric kettle. If you wish to know more about the house, you can visit Lady Sybilla. She’s also on the ground floor, in the west wing.”

  While speaking, he had been sidling toward the door, a sense of relief swamping him when he reached it.

  “Well, yes, of course I’ll visit Lady Sybilla. You see—”

  Lisa turned a surprised face to him when he bolted out of the door, saying over his shoulder, “Excellent. I’m sure I’ll see you later.”

  “But, sugar, you didn’t let me finish—”

  He ran down the hallway at a full gallop, making a mental promise that he’d devote himself to Lisa later to make up for his atrocious manners. His footsteps reverberated loudly in the empty great hall, echoes bouncing from crackled marble floor to dark wooden panels, and back, in a growing crescendo. Just as he headed to the rear of the house, a door opened, and Lady Sybilla’s grim-faced maid looked out. She frowned at him, and turned to say into the room, “—think you’ll be very pleased with her, my lady. Oh. It’s not her. It’s just the new master running pell-mell like a madman.”

  “Good afternoon,” he called politely, not pausing to converse with the elderly ladies. He dashed through the library, stumbled over a parquet floor tile that had chosen that moment to disengage its hold on the subflooring, and continued on through the doors to blessed freedom.

  The warmth of the afternoon sun caught him full-on when he arrived at the garden, the mingled scents of hay, flowers, and grass having a soothing effect on his jangled nerves. The scene before him was oddly anachronistic. Ladies in long, flowing dresses with laced-on sleeves strolled around; children in a bewildering array of costumes varying from what he thought of as Robin Hood–esque to outright fantastical leaped and yelled and ran around with plastic swords, shields, and, in one case, a light saber. To his left, the archery butts had been set up, but were currently empty of all but a couple of children chasing a large Saint Bernard dog.

  On the right, a grassy expanse had been turned into some sort of a battleground, with bales of hay serving as a barrier to the rest of the garden. Standing in the middle of the battle area, Vandal, clad in full plate-metal armor—all but a helm—stood waving his sword and shouting at a pair of men.

  Alden descended the three stone steps into the garden proper, heading for the men, when a voice called out over the general noise and confusion. “Hey, look who showed up after all.”

  Mercy emerged from one of the small sheds, on the heels of two tittering teenagers in what vaguely looked like harem-girl outfits.

  “I decided that a little exercise would help counteract all the centuries of dust I’ve breathed in during the last few hours,” he told her, nodding toward where Vandal still chastised two of his students. “What’s going on there?”

  “Evidently one of the guys decided to disregard the rule that says you can only bash other people with swords, and not do any sort of stabbing. Dude on the ground was knocked down by Vandal when he stabbed at the guy over there, seeing Alec.” She nodded to their left, where Alden noticed a couple of women clustered around a man seated on a bale of hay, having his armor removed by a man who closely examined each piece. Fenice was one of the women, her good hand gesturing as she spoke to the injured man.

  “Was he hurt seriously?” Alden asked, images of lawsuits floating through his head.

  “Not hurt at all, just winded, or so his daughter told me. She’s the one over there.” Mercy nodded toward where a heavily pregnant woman in a medieval kirtle and a flowery wreath on her head strolled aroun
d with another woman. “I gather Fenice is trying to convince him to go see a doctor just in case, but his daughter says he just wants to get back at it.”

  “If there is any risk that he might be truly injured—,” Alden started to say.

  Mercy shook her head even as he spoke. “Evidently he’s not. Fenice is just being overly cautious, which I gather she doesn’t need to be, since the students here sign all sorts of waivers saying they are aware of the physical risks they’re taking, and that they can’t sue if they get hurt. Fenice made me sign one yesterday afternoon, not that I’m likely to shoot my own eye out. But I have a list of rules a mile long about where my students can stand while I’m teaching them, just to keep the Hard Day’s Knights insurance company happy. Are you going to try fighting?”

  Alden resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder at the house to see if Lisa was watching from her bedroom window. “I thought I might give it a few minutes.”

  “Excellent. I’m sure that Fenice and Vandal will be willing to let you have a go without charge, since you’re not making a fuss about them being here, and staying in your house. Let’s go see Alec and he can fit you with some armor.”

  An eye-opening twenty minutes followed, in which Alden learned the difference between a bazuband and a gauntlet and why the heavy cotton arming tunic and hose were necessary.

  “OK, let me see if I get my spiel right.” Mercy consulted a sheet of handwritten notes, and pulled out of a bin a weird-looking jacket that appeared to be made up of bits of sheet, cotton batting, and leather. “This is the arming doublet, or gambeson. Let’s have you slip into it. No, over your T-shirt is fine.”

  Alden stuck his arms through the thick padded sleeves, and immediately started sweating. “Is it supposed to be this heavy? I thought the armor was supposed to protect me.”

  “It is, but this is to keep you from being hurt by the armor. And it has ventilation holes on it so you don’t drown in sweat. OK, see these things?” Mercy pointed to little squares of leather with leather laces hanging from them. They were situated around his waist, on his shoulders, and at the collar. “These are called arming points, and are what we use to attach the armor to you. And here are the pants, which Vandal insists I call hose.”

 
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