Daring in a blue dress, p.19
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.19

           Katie MacAlister
 
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  “Aye, same to you, same to you.”

  I wandered around the area from which I’d seen him emerge, but didn’t see any blue cloth hanging anywhere. The sun was lower in the sky now, stretching long shadows, and dappling through the copse with long, golden streamers. Birds chattered overhead, with flies buzzing around in an intensity that warned I was close to the boundary of the sheep farmer. Five more minutes passed and I was just about to call it quits and go back to Barry when out of the corner of my eye I saw a blue flutter. I headed toward it, pulling out an arrow to set onto the bow, frowning at the devious way Barry had hidden the target. The cloth was barely recognizable as such through a clump of broad-leaved shrubs, with fleeting glimpses of it visible as the branches moved gently in the breeze. I took aim, held my breath, and was just about to release the arrow when something struck me as odd.

  A faint noise sounded to the left of me, followed almost immediately by a startled yell.

  “What the hell?” I jumped forward, aware of the noise of someone moving through the trees to the left, and Barry calling out to ask if I was all right.

  I pushed through the shrubs, tangling my hair and dress on them in the process, which is why it took me longer than normal to emerge from the other side. When I did, I stopped in horror. Before me, Alden stood, one hand braced against a tree trunk as he yanked an arrow from it.

  “Holy crap, Alden!” I hurried forward at the same time Barry crashed his way through the shrubs. “Are you OK? Are you hurt? Who shot at you?”

  “I’m not hurt,” he said, glaring at the arrow before looking up at me. His frown deepened as his eyes went to the bow I held, and the quiver slung over my back. “As to who shot me, I believe you could answer that better than me. What the hell do you think you’re doing shooting out here? There are any number of people who come through this copse—it’s part of the right of way that leads to the coast. That was an extremely dangerous thing to do, Mercy.”

  “I didn’t shoot you!” I said quickly, showing him the arrow in my hand. “I was going to, thinking you were Barry’s target, but something didn’t feel right, so I stopped. But I did hear someone else shooting.” I spun around to pin Barry back with a mean look.

  “It wasn’t me,” he said quickly, glancing around. “I was over there, to the south. I heard Mercy cry out and came to see what was the matter.”

  “Well, someone shot at me,” Alden said irritably. “And I don’t see anyone else out here with a bow.”

  I felt his accusation was pointed at me, and got a bit irritated, myself. “I may not be a master archer, but I do know the difference between shooting a person and a piece of torn cloth,” I said brusquely.

  “And that’s not my type of arrow,” Barry said, holding out his quiver. His were all fletched with bright orange feathers. “That’s red, that is.”

  “Red . . .” I swallowed hard, suddenly feeling my palms sweat. I looked down at the arrow in my hand. It bore red feathers. “I . . . this isn’t Fenice’s quiver. This is what we use for the intermediate students.”

  I looked up to Alden, unable to say more. I knew I hadn’t shot an arrow, but would he believe me?

  He took the arrow from my hand, and held it up to compare with the one he’d extracted from the tree. They were identical.

  “Well,” Barry said with a soft whistle. “I believe my missus is expecting me home, so I’ll be saying good-bye, and thank you for the lesson.”

  “Bye,” I said absently, shaking my head at the two arrows. “I didn’t shoot at you, Alden.”

  “I know you wouldn’t intentionally shoot me,” he said, watching as Barry plowed his way through the shrubs. “But perhaps it was a mistake. What are you doing out here?”

  “I was about to ask you the same thing. Barry wanted some practice shooting in the real world, as he called it. We were having a little contest.” Briefly, I explained about the lesson, finishing with, “But I didn’t let go of the arrow, Alden. I would know if I did. Someone else did this.”

  “Barry?” he asked. “He had orange arrows.”

  “That doesn’t mean he didn’t have a red one,” I said quickly.

  “You said he’s been shooting the last hour—did he have any red arrows earlier?”

  “No,” I admitted, knowing full well I would have noticed if he’d been using arrows of a different color. “They were all orange.”

  “Ah.”

  That was all he said, but it was the way he said it that made me both frightened and annoyed. “It’s nice to know you trust me so much,” I said, taking my arrow from his hand and stuffing it back into the quiver. “Nice to know you have my back when the going gets rough.”

  “You’re not the one who was almost gulleted by an arrow!” he pointed out.

  “And speaking of that, just what are you doing out here lurking around the bushes?” I asked, my hands on my hips.

  “I told you I was meeting with the ex-CID man. We were out here trying out the powder where we wouldn’t be seen.” Alden collected a small squat jar with a black lid, and stuffed it into a backpack. “He just left, and I was seeing if I could lift my fingerprints from a rock, in case we happen to get the opportunity to take everyone’s prints and compare them to the lanterns.”

  “You picked a hell of a place to be covert,” I said, stung at the fact that he didn’t seem to believe me. “Also, Alden!”

  “What?”

  I slapped my thighs with my hands. “How can you believe I’d shoot at you!”

  “If you didn’t know I was there—”

  “I didn’t shoot! Why won’t you believe me? Do you think I’m lying?”

  “No,” he said slowly, his frown darkening, but I was relieved to see it was aimed at the arrow, not at me. “But if you didn’t shoot it, and Barry didn’t—”

  “Then someone else did,” I finished for him.

  We both glanced around the area.

  There was no one else to be seen. I shivered despite the heat of the afternoon, a cold, clammy feeling gripping my stomach.

  Who had shot the arrow if it hadn’t been Barry or me? And more important, who was trying to harm Alden?

  Chapter 13

  My very dear Mercy,

  There is no need to snap at Lisa. Despite the shooting incident earlier, you and you alone hold my interest.

  Alden slipped the note under Mercy’s door, wincing with pain as he returned to his room to take a quick shower. He’d been so distracted by the fact that he’d almost been gored by an arrow that he hadn’t been paying attention at afternoon melee training, a fact that Vandal and the other two men training soon realized, and which they took what Alden felt was undue advantage of.

  His mind returned to Mercy, and a little smile curled his lips while he turned on the water as hot as he could stand it. She clearly was smitten with him, else why would she get so irate over Lisa’s attempts to flirt?

  “She’s in love with me, that’s what it is,” he told the empty bathroom, ignoring the pain of the bruises that lined his back, ribs, and upper arms. “She’s fallen hard for me, but doesn’t yet realize it.”

  While he showered, he mulled over how he felt about Mercy being more than just a delightful summer interlude. It occurred to him that if he was wrong, if she wasn’t head-over-heels in love with him, then by rights she could be leaving the following week when the Hard Day’s Knights left Bestwood.

  He stared sightlessly at the shower wall, a sudden chill sweeping over him despite the hot water.

  “No,” he said aloud, just as if speaking the words would give them validity. “No, she has to love me. That’s all there is to it. If she doesn’t love me, then she’ll leave me, and that’s just . . . no. She’s just going to have to fall in love with me by next week.”

  He would not consider the fact that it was of vital importance to him not only that Mercy stay on
at Bestwood after the combat troupe had left, but that she also be in love with him. He told himself it was just that she provided such excellent therapy that he couldn’t afford to have her go, and blithely refused to acknowledge the warm well of feelings that made him feel aglow with happiness every time she was near.

  A square of white on the dark, hideous carpet of his bedroom caught his eye when he emerged from the bathroom to dress.

  “Ah, another love note,” he said, unfolding the sheet of paper with much anticipation. Would Mercy have done another of her erotic drawings? Would she include a smutty limerick, as she had a few days past? Or perhaps a slightly pornographic haiku, which she had been promising to do for almost a week?

  Alden, the note read. I did not shoot you! DID. NOT. SHOOT. Got that?

  Mercy.

  He frowned at the note. This was not the writing of a woman in love. This was the work of a woman who was annoyed because she knew there was no one else who could have shot the arrow at him, and yet insisted that she hadn’t been the one who had done it.

  He stared at the note, indecisive for a moment as to how to deal with it. He wanted to believe her—everything in him told him to believe her—and yet, the evidence told a different tale.

  My lovely, adorable Mercy, he wrote, sitting down naked at his desk. If you will glance again at my note with those beautiful eyes of yours, you will notice that nowhere in it do I state that you shot me. Or attempted to. Or even did not intend to, but accidentally did. I simply said how much you fill my thoughts. Which you do.

  I look forward to kissing your delectable body, all of it, every last inch of it, tonight.

  With a towel around his waist, he slid the note under Mercy’s door, and returned to his own room to dress.

  A rustling sound alerted him to the arrival of a new note. He paused in the act of tying a shoelace, squinting at the white sheet of paper. Was it something good, or was she still annoyed? No, she was in love with him (or soon would be)—it had to be good.

  He tied his shoe and went to fetch the note.

  Look, buster! I can read between the lines as well as the next girl. I did not shoot you, and you know, I’m actually fairly annoyed that you refuse to believe me. Do you think I’m lying? Huh? Is that it? You think I’m a big ole liar?

  God, Alden! I’d never think that about you!

  Mercy

  “Well, hell,” he said, contemplating going to her room to set things right. But the thought of facing an angry Mercy had him hesitating, and eventually, he sat down at the desk.

  Mercy, goddess of all things bright and beautiful,

  You fill my every waking thought, and many of my sleeping thoughts. I know you didn’t shoot me. And even if it happened without you being aware, it wouldn’t matter to me. I’d relish the pain simply because it was you who had done the shooting.

  I am yours, my adorable one.

  Nodding with satisfaction at his adroit handling of a difficult situation, he slipped the note under her door, and ran upstairs to the attic space to make sure the doors were all closed. He then made a quick survey of the house to see if any new damage had occurred, told the house it was doing well coping with the fact that he was going to update it, and returned to his room to check the window seat.

  A note was waiting for him, not under his door, but stabbed into the wood of the door itself with a wickedly sharp letter opener that he had found in the attic and left on his desk.

  Mr. Emanuel Alden Ainslie,

  This is a cease and desist notice. Cease referencing the shooting incident THAT I WAS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR, and desist in sending me notes I no longer want or desire. I will not be coming by your room later tonight for romping between the sheets, and on top of them, and possibly on the rug by the fireplace assuming you found some firewood, and a rug to go in front of it.

  Good day, sirrah.

  Ms. M. Starling (single woman with no handsome English boyfriend)

  “Hell,” Alden said aloud, and setting the letter opener back in his room, he did a quick check of the window seat to make sure the way was still blocked to anyone hoping to climb into his room, and with the letter in hand went to find Mercy.

  The library was empty, but when he entered the kitchen, he found Lisa at the sink, washing a mug.

  “Good evening, Alden,” she drawled in that slow, honey-sweet voice she liked to exaggerate whenever he was around. “My, don’t you look charming, and so delicious I could just eat you up.”

  Alden fought his usual reaction to run away, and instead forced a polite smile to his lips. “Good evening, Lisa. Thank you. My mother bought me this shirt for my last birthday. Have you seen Mercy?”

  “Why, yes, I have. She went with Fenice and that yummy brother of hers into town to have supper at the local pub.” Her eyes glittered, but Alden wasn’t sure if it was due to emotions or the overhead lights. “Why, did you need something?”

  “No, no, I just thought we could . . . that is, Mercy wanted to check out a couple of rooms, and I thought now would be a good time to inspect them—”

  “A tour!” Lisa clapped her hands together. “I hope you will give me a full tour this time, not two rooms like you did that first day I arrived here. I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for the grand tour of the hall. And how thrilling that it’ll be by the master of Bestwood himself.”

  “No, I—”

  “Let’s see, I’m supposed to be doing some work for Lady Sybilla tonight, but I’m sure I can get it done early.” She blinked eyes with impossibly long eyelashes, and slid her arm into his, tugging him a step toward the door. “Why don’t we go ahead with the tour now, and later, we can have dinner together?”

  “Oh. Er . . .” He thought wildly of an excuse, but his mind, fascinated as it was with Mercy, was not offering up any help with Lisa. “Erm . . . Lady Sybilla . . . won’t she want you?”

  Lisa’s eyebrows waggled. “She might, but that doesn’t mean she’ll get me, sugar. Now, let’s have that tour, and then after, I’ll take you to a marvelous Italian restaurant that is run by one of Adams’s nephews. Did you know she has eight nephews? She might look like a dried-up old piece of carpet, but evidently she has sisters and brothers coming out of her ears. . . .”

  He was trapped in hell, but these last few weeks with Mercy had taught him that he could survive such encounters. He didn’t resist as Lisa pulled him down the narrow hallway out to the entrance hall proper; he figured he’d get the tour she wanted over with as quickly as possible, and then would go to the pub in search of Mercy.

  “This is the great hall, as you probably know,” he said, dredging up facts he’d learned about the house from the sale prospectus. “The oldest part of the house was built in 1518, and the hall dates back to then. The floor is marble, although it needs a good deal of work. The paneling is not original, however—I’m told it was refinished during the Georgian period, when there was a call for wooden panels. The staircase was added in the early nineteenth century, although we don’t know the maker. And upstairs, we have the gallery.”

  “It’s all so very authentic,” Lisa said, her hand firmly on Alden’s arm as they made their way up the stairs to the long open gallery that ran the width of that section of the house. “It just makes me feel like I’m standin’ right in a Pride or Prejudice movie, that’s what it does!”

  “It’s quite a bit older than Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” Alden said, and felt an overwhelming relief when Lisa released his arm to go over to one of the long windows that ran down one side of the gallery.

  “And this view! Why, I could drink this in forever. The drive up here in a carriage must have been glorious.”

  “The road would have been in much better repair,” he said, glancing out of the window, and feeling a sense of pride in the stretch of trees that lined the now rutted and potholed drive. “But that’s an easy fix.”<
br />
  “These bars remind me of New Orleans,” she commented, opening one of the big windows to touch the wrought iron fretwork that had been added sometime in the early twentieth century. It consisted of intricate spikes and curlicues, and ran the length of all the windows in the gallery, and was badly cemented to the stone of the building, a fact Alden knew well, since one of the pieces had nearly crushed his head when it came loose and tumbled down right in front of him. “They’re so ornate.”

  “Be careful, those are loose,” he warned. “Whoever put them on the house didn’t use the proper mortar, and it’s crumbling to dust.”

  “Well, it’s still very pretty,” Lisa said, gazing out along the front expanse of the house. “You must have a party here someday, you really must.”

  Alden drifted down a couple of windows just in case she had ideas about latching on to his arm again. He glanced around the gallery, wondering what he could tell Lisa about it, when he noticed that one of the faded and threadbare rugs that dotted the floor was slightly rumpled at a corner. “I’ve thought of renting out the space to wedding parties and the like, which is something my brother does with great success, but obviously, I’ll need to get the work done first.” He headed for the rumpled carpet, intent on smoothing it out so no one would stumble over it in the dark, but as soon as his foot hit the carpet, the world slipped and went askew.

  His feet seemed to fail just at the moment he realized that the floor had given away from underneath him, his entire body plummeting forward. A hoarse cry erupted from him as he flailed arms and legs, managing to catch the edge of the dangling rug with one hand.

  For two seconds, he hung in midair, tied by one hand around a century-old rug from who-knew-where, his heart pounding as he looked up from the dark abyss into which he’d fallen. He had a moment to wonder at the way the golden early-evening light streamed into the window before the rug started moving toward him, sliding with him into whatever pit he’d fallen into.

  With a loud slithering sound, the rug tumbled in after him. Pain burst hot and bright in his head and shoulder, and the last thing he heard before he was consumed by darkness was his name on Lisa’s lips.

 
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