Daring in a blue dress, p.24
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.24

           Katie MacAlister
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  “You’re a natural at this,” Vandal told him, pulling off his helm. “You have the balance to remain on your feet—most of the time—and the sword arm to take down even the biggest competitor. If you stay focused, which you don’t far too often for my liking.”

  Alden unhooked his helm and peeled off his arming cap, using it to wipe the sweat from his face. “I said I was sorry.”

  “You don’t have to apologize to me,” Vandal replied, taking a towel and soaking it with water before wiping it over his face. “You’re the one who took a mace to the back because you weren’t paying attention.”

  Alden wiggled his shoulders inside the armor, wincing at the ache in his back as he did so. He’d definitely feel that in the morning. “I’ll try to be more focused, although I really don’t belong competing in the Fight Knight event. I’m just an amateur.”

  “We’re all amateurs. And you have just as much talent as any of the other competitors, or you would if you’d not let your mind wander.” Vandal tossed the towel into a bucket.

  During his time away from the fighting ring, Alden drew plans, made lists, and brainstormed ways he could raise the funds to build something—anything—on the land that he owned, so that he could live there with Mercy and her horses and sheep and children. For a man who was determined not to think about it, he certainly spent a vast amount of time doing just that.

  “What are you doing?” Mercy asked the day before the big event, stopping where he sat on a bale of hay. She had bunting in her hand, and was helping Fenice decorate the garden. “Thinking about the house?”

  “Of course not,” he said resolutely, closing the notebook in which he’d been making sketches of a modified version of the old hall. “I haven’t thought about it in days.”

  “Right. And how’s that working out for you?”

  He glared at her.

  She blew him a kiss. “You keep at it, Alden. I have faith in you, even if it means you have to sell off that tit part of the land so we can build our dream Bestwood Hall II: The Next Generation.”

  “It’s your unconditional love for me that is making you so optimistic,” he called after her. “I don’t think there’s any chance I can rebuild.”

  She waved her hand to show she heard, but hurried off to put up the bunting.

  Alden slumped on his seat of hay until Vandal approached, a clipboard in hand. “Alden, I know you aren’t crazy to do a one-on-one battle, but according to the schedule the committee gave me, there’s room for you if you wanted to do the triathlon duel, or the professional fight.”

  “What are those?” he asked, pulling his attention from the miserable circumstances of his life. Although he wasn’t particularly thrilled to be in Vandal’s event, he had agreed to be a part of the big all-in melee battle.

  “Triathlon is one versus one, three rounds, each round a minute and a half. First round you use long sword, second you use sword and buckler shield, and third you use your regular shield and sword.”

  “That sounds painful,” Alden said.

  “The professional fight might be more to your style. It’s three rounds also, but three minutes per round, and each contestant uses the same randomly picked weapon. Points are given for blows by your weapon, shield, fist, leg, and knee. You’re damned good with your fists, and I can show you a few leg moves this afternoon.”

  “I’ll do that one,” Alden said after a moment’s thought. “But just so we’re clear that I’m doing this as a complete novice, and won’t be bringing your company any glory.”

  “You don’t know until you try,” Vandal said, making a note on his schedule. “I’ll see you this evening, after the regular class is over, all right? Your friend Butcher has decided to form his own team, by the way.”

  Alden made a noncommittal noise. “He’s hardly my friend, although I’m surprised he’s not fighting for you.”

  “I asked him to, but he said I had enough people with you and the other students, and that he’d bring his own group.” Vandal shrugged. “So long as they pay the entrance fee, I don’t care.”

  Alden found it difficult to be very interested in much of anything other than Mercy. He went through the motions for the rest of the day, helping with the decorations, moving equipment, and fashioning a temporary list where the melee fights would be held. By the time night had come upon them, he was tired, but strangely distant from everyone.

  Everyone but Mercy, that is. She seemed to thaw out his frozen heart like nothing else could, the warm, happy glow about her making him feel alive again.

  “Aren’t you excited about tomorrow?” Mercy asked that evening when she was changing from her now somewhat ragged blue—but much beloved—archery dress into a new pair of jeans and shirt that she’d bought the day after the fire. “I am. Actually, I’m nervous as hell, especially since I’m the only archer for Fenice and Vandal. You’re doing two things, aren’t you? Fenice said Vandal sweet-talked you into doing another one, which will make Team Hard Day’s Knights look good. Oh lord, I hope I can hit the target. That’s all I ask—just hit the target and not shame myself.”

  “You won’t shame anyone,” he told her, relishing the aura of light and love she brought into his life. Being near Mercy made him feel like he was bathed in golden sunshine, warm and happy and contented with life. It was only when she’d gone that he returned to an icy state of indifference. “I have just as much confidence in you as you claim to have in me.”

  Mercy stopped trying to examine herself in the small hand mirror she’d set on a wardrobe shelf, and turned back to him. “Are you OK, Alden?”

  He looked puzzled. “I’ve healed up quite nicely, a fact you should know, since you’ve examined me each night to make sure I was lovemaking-worthy.”

  Slowly she approached, sitting next to him on the bed. “I meant that in more a metaphysical way. You seem . . . depressed.”

  “I am depressed. My house and sole form of livelihood has just burned down,” he said, far more acid audible in his voice than made him comfortable. He cleared his throat and added, “There’s not a lot to be ecstatically happy about in my life, present company excepted.”

  She watched him silently for a moment. “Is there anything I can do?”

  He smiled. “Just love me.”

  “That’s a given. I don’t suppose you’re in love with me, yet?”

  He pursed his lips, and looked thoughtful.

  “Honest to god, Alden, if I was as slow as you are, we’d never have gotten together.” She threw a hand towel at him, and stomped out of the room.

  He caught it, his smile fading as she left, and a familiar sense of despair returned. She loved him—of that he was dead certain—but how on earth could he ask her to share his life now that he had nothing? How could he even admit to her that sometime over the past twenty days, he’d fallen as deeply in love as she had, when their life together would be fraught with stress and financial unhappiness? What sort of a man would he be to expect her to bind her life to his only to end up sharing his poverty?

  “Dammit,” he swore to himself. “I’m going to have to take Barry’s offer.”

  You can start anew, he told himself, washing his face and hands. You can use the money to buy a smaller house, one that isn’t so historical, and renovate that and then flip it. Mercy would like that.

  Mercy liked Bestwood Hall. For that matter, so had he. If only there was a way he could rebuild without having to sell off any more land.

  Dinner that evening was a lively affair, made more so because the gatehouse was playing host to not just its regulars but also a handful of people present for the battle on the following day.

  “This is Tamarind,” Fenice said, introducing a tall, elegant black woman who had bright red hair. “She’s a workmate who was in the area, so she thought she’d stop by to watch the proceedings tomorrow.”

  “Too bad you’re
not a fighter,” Vandal said, strolling up and giving Tamarind a clearly lascivious once-over. “If I told you that you have the body for it, would you hold it against me?”

  Alden almost groaned at the blatant way Vandal was flirting, but Tamarind needed no help in taking her swain down a peg or two.

  “Not likely, mate. Didn’t your sister tell you? I prefer the other side.” Tamarind smiled at everyone before turning to Alden, who was seated next to her. Her voice dropped to an intimate level. “I heard about your house. I’m so sorry.”

  “Thank you,” Alden said, experience having taught him how to politely escape the well-wishers. “That’s very kind of you. The house is mostly destroyed, although there is one wall still standing.”

  “Do you know the cause of the fire?”

  “No. I assume there will be an investigation at some point.”

  “No doubt,” Tamarind said. “Fenice told me—I hope this isn’t a painful subject, given the fire, but I am very interested in caves and such—Fenice told me about your smugglers’ cave. Evidently it leads up to the house proper?”

  “It did.” Alden, distracted for a few minutes by the obvious interest in Tamarind’s face, told her about the discovery of the secret passageways. “I’m sure one of the previous Baskervilles used the passages to transport wine and rum, although we found no signs of any hidden cache, more’s the pity.”

  She laughed. “I can imagine that such a thing would be quite valuable today. It’s interesting about those lights you said were strung along the passageways. That can’t have been a product of the free-traders.”

  “No, I gather Sir James Baskerville had them installed.” He glanced down the long table in the dining room, where Lady Sybilla sat next to her maid, both of them picking at their spaghetti dinner. “Although Lady Sybilla claimed that the passages hadn’t been used for at least a century or two.”

  “How very curious. Do you think she was hiding something?”

  “Possibly.” He gave Tamarind a long look. “Then again, I think it’s possible you’re doing the same.”

  She blinked at him, a half smile on her lips. “Me? What would I have to hide?”

  “Fenice said you were a workmate, but given that she is with the police, that could mean a great many things, couldn’t it? It might even stretch to someone who was responsible for looking into house fires.”

  Tamarind’s smile grew. “You’re a perceptive man, Mr. Ainslie.”

  “Alden, please.”

  She glanced around the table before saying quietly, “As a matter of fact, I’m with a different branch altogether. But I can assure you that the fire is being looked into. Would you mind if I had a peek into your cave?”

  “I beg your pardon!” Mercy, in the middle of a lively conversation with one of Vandal’s Swedish friends who had shown up with his team for the competition, evidently caught just the tail end of the conversation with Tamarind. “You want to do what to his what?”

  Alden couldn’t help but smile at the outrage in her voice, and was tempted to tell her right then and there just how much he loved her, but he couldn’t do that to her. He had to find a way to provide some sort of a life for them both before he could ask her to join him. “You misheard, Mercy. She was asking to look into the smugglers’ cave.”

  “Oh. Sorry.” Mercy looked mollified for a few seconds, then frowned. “Why would you want to do that?”

  Tamarind gave an enigmatic smile. “Perhaps I’m a big fan of caves.”

  Mercy said nothing, but Alden noticed that she glanced at the other woman several times during the rest of the dinner.

  “To bed, to bed!” Vandal called after another hour. By then, Lady Sybilla and Adams had retired, and the rest of the group—including the Berserkers, as the Swedish combat team were known, and a handful of Vandal’s British friends—were scattered around the ground floor of the gatehouse, singing, drinking, and generally having a good time. “I want all of Team Hard Day’s Knights in bed!”

  “You can’t have us,” one of the local students answered. “Not while there are ale wenches to be amused!”

  “I’ll wench your ale,” Mercy said, having reentered the dining room after a visit to the loo.

  “Promise?” the local asked, to the cheers of the Berserkers.

  “I will if you all don’t keep it down. Lady Sybilla is trying to sleep, and you lot are making enough noise to drown out a bull elephant in full trumpet.”

  “Aw, you know how to take the poop out of every party,” Lisa said, her words slurring a little. She was seated on the lap of one of the Swedes, and leaned out to the side, almost falling off him.

  “That doesn’t even make sense,” Mercy replied, scowling. “Not that I’m surprised, since nothing you’ve said since Alden was almost impaled on the window railings has made sense.”

  Alden moved over next to Mercy, wrapping an arm around her waist, the better to whisper in her ear not to make a scene with Lisa.

  “Oh!” Clearly, Lisa was outraged by Mercy’s comment. “You are so mean to me! I’ve tried to be as nice as I can, and you’re just mean in return. I told my husband about you, and he said you’re just jealous of me. So you can just put that in your jealous pipe and smoke it.”

  “What on earth are you talking—wait, husband? You’re married?” Mercy stopped scowling and shot Alden a questioning look. “You never mentioned you were married.”

  “Of course not. It’s a secret.” Lisa was speaking in a singsong manner now, her words sloppy with extra sibilants. The Swede in whose lap she was sitting was also clearly well past sober, because he gave Lisa a smacking kiss on the cheek and told her he didn’t care if she was married to a hundred men—she was still welcome to sleep in his tent.

  “An’ what’s more, I think he’s right. You are jealous,” Lisa added, jabbing a finger toward Mercy. “And you’re bossy, too.”

  “Did you know she’s married?” Mercy asked Alden.

  He shook his head. “I’m just as surprised as you. I can’t imagine why my sister-in-law would send her to me if she was already married. Perhaps Alice didn’t know.”

  “Yeah,” Mercy said slowly, and was about to add something to that when a shout went up, almost deafening them. The Berserkers declared it was time to dance, and someone brought out a set of speakers for his phone.

  “And this is where the party ends,” Alden said.

  “Things do look like they are getting out of hand,” Mercy agreed.

  With Vandal’s assistance, and Mercy’s blatant shoving of men outdoors, they managed to get everyone who wasn’t currently residing at the gatehouse outside and returned to the various tents that now dotted the front lawns of Bestwood.

  “I’ll put the diva to bed,” Mercy said as Vandal carried Lisa, now well plastered, upstairs to her room.

  “You sure? I don’t mind doing it,” Vandal said with a waggle of his eyebrows.

  “Are you sleeping in the stables?” Alden asked. “If you are, I’d rather you stay out there and keep an eye on the outbuildings. We don’t need any more fires or other incidents.”

  “That was my thought as well,” Vandal said, reluctantly dumping Lisa onto her bed. With quick precision, Mercy removed her shoes, skirt, and blouse, leaving Lisa in her underwear and a tank top.

  “We’re going to have a little talk, you and I, in the morning,” Mercy warned, throwing a blanket on top of the prone woman.

  Lisa gurgled something, and curled into a fetal ball.

  “I hope she has a hangover to end all hangovers tomorrow,” Mercy said when they returned to their own room. “Which reminds me—you haven’t commented on the fact that I have not pestered you about getting the police to talk to her.”

  “I may not have commented, but I did notice that fact,” Alden said, sitting on the edge of the bed and wondering when he had last felt this exhausted.
  “Good. I decided that I wouldn’t pursue it until after the shindig tomorrow, since the evidence has been destroyed anyway.”

  “What evidence? The house?”

  “Yeah. It’s just too bad that we couldn’t get back to those light switches to dust them with the stain. I’m sure Lisa’s hands would have proved that she was the guilty party.”

  “But guilty of what?” He watched with interest as Mercy disrobed, neatly folding each garment she took off and placing it tidily away in the wardrobe. He wondered if his habit of just dumping his clothes on the nearest chair annoyed her, and if so, whether it would cause strain in their marriage in years ahead.

  His brain stumbled to a halt. Marriage? Since when was he thinking of marrying Mercy? He narrowed his eyes on her as she tidied his things up, noting how graceful she was, how intuitive to his desires—both carnal and otherwise—and, most of all, how her lovely shining self seemed to light up all the dark corners of his soul. Of course he would marry her! He didn’t want her looking at another man the way she looked at him. The matter was settled.

  “Obviously, of trying to do you in with the trapdoor in the gallery. But as to what she could be doing under the house . . .” Mercy stood still, his newly purchased shirt in her hands. “You know, a thought occurred to me.”


  “It’s kind of an out-there thought, so feel free to tell me I’m crazy.”

  “I would never do that,” he said nobly. “At the worst, I might tell you that you were a bit mad, but never barking so.”

  “Hee-hee. Barking mad is such an English phrase.” She set down his shirt, now neatly folded, and slipped into bed next to him. Unfortunately, her deliciously wicked nightgown had been lost in the fire, but he made a mental note to buy her a suitable replacement as soon as possible. “It’s that stuff we found the other day. The wash bottle and the bit from an OTC package.”

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