Daring in a blue dress, p.7
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.7

           Katie MacAlister

  “That must have been truly horrific,” he said, empathy making him flinch at her story.

  “Oh, it was. It was hard as hell to do it, and you know what? It’s hard to tell you, an almost stranger, about something so intimate, but here we are both surviving the incident and, I hope, finding a little common ground because of it.” She smiled, and patted his knee in an impersonal manner. “I know you can’t help anxiety, and being shy around women, but the next time things get all tangled up around me, just think about me going to classes the day after Stainageddon, and remember that I’ve been in embarrassing situations and survived.”

  “Thank you,” he said, smiling back at her, and even placing his hand on hers in order to give her fingers a friendly squeeze.

  “Good lord!” she said, staring down at their hands. “Look at you touching a woman! Of your own accord! Let me alert the newspapers—wait, do we have a camera? Maybe I should post this online!”

  He made a face and pinched the back of her hand. “Are you going to make fun of me every time I manage to speak to you?”

  “Of course I am,” she said, laughing and getting to her feet. She held out her hands for him, and he allowed her to pull him up. “I wanted to be a psychologist for a while, and one of the things I learned in two years of psych classes is that you need to desensitize whatever you’re afraid of. If I make a big deal about you talking to me, and touching my hand, and staring at my boobs, then soon you won’t even think twice about those things.”

  He felt the color rushing to his face again. Dear god, had she noticed his reaction to her earlier? He’d kept careful control of his libido since walking into the library, but perhaps she knew the way her scent sank into his blood. Horrified, he pulled his hands from hers, and stammered, “I wasn’t ogling your breasts!”

  “No, you weren’t, and that makes me wonder why.” She puffed out her chest and peered downward at her breasts. “Is there something wrong with them? Do you not like them? Would a push-up bra help?”

  He stared first at her face, then at her chest (since she seemed to expect him to do so), then back to her face. “Are you . . . is this more desensitization?”

  “No. That was ribbing. This is desensitization.” She put both her hands on his chest, and leaned forward, kissing his cheek. “There, now you’ve been kissed by a woman you just met, and you got to look at her boobs with her full permission. And we both survived with no ill effects.”

  He was speechless for a few seconds, wishing she’d stay standing so close to him, but she immediately backed up. “Thank you,” he finally got out. “I . . . thank you. For everything. For understanding.”

  “You’re welcome.” Her head tipped again, the hair sliding in a way that made his fingers itch to touch it. “Maybe tomorrow we can throw caution to the wind and hold hands.”

  That sounded like a very fine idea to Alden, but he couldn’t possibly tell her that. Instead, his mouth blurted out the very worst thing it could. “There’s a woman coming here, to the house.”

  “Oh,” Mercy said, and once again, he felt a slight withdrawal of her personality. It was as if a cloud had rolled in front of the sun. “Gotcha. You’re in a relationship.”

  “No, I’m not,” he said quickly, shaking his head. “It’s . . . someone I might like, is all.”

  “I understand. I wasn’t trying to push myself on you, just in case that’s what you were thinking. I mean, you’re nice, and I like you now that I know you don’t loathe me, but I wasn’t chasing you. The hand-holding thing was just a joke. If you’d rather I not get touchy-feely, I won’t.”

  What the hell? How had it gotten to this point? He wanted badly to tell her that he had no intention of liking whomever Alice sent out to him, but couldn’t think of a way to say that without sounding horribly churlish. Instead, he addressed the more important issue. “No, I don’t mind. You touching me, that is. Christ, that sounds risqué.” He took a couple of deep breaths, adding, “Well, that just made it worse. Maybe you’re right. Maybe we should start over.”

  “Can’t do that.” She glanced at her watch, made a tsking noise, and collected up all the papers that had spilled onto the floor. “Ack, it’s been an hour already. Fenice is expecting me.”

  “Why can’t we start over?” Alden asked, more because he wanted to see what Mercy would say than because he really wished to erase the last few minutes.

  “Because I’ve already kissed you, and once you kiss someone, there’s no going back. Would you mind moving your left foot? Thank you.”

  “I don’t . . .” He moved aside, bending to help her collect the papers and books. “I’m not . . . this woman who is coming isn’t someone I’m involved with.”

  “Gotcha.” She tidied up the now teeming stacks of papers and books on the rickety card table. “I know how it is when you just meet someone, and it takes time for things to warm up. Gotta run. Fenice had to deal with a guy who brought a bunch of bales of hay, and we didn’t get to finish having our talk about archery.”

  “Hay?” he asked, rubbing his chin as she hurried around him and opened the French doors. “Archery? Wait, do you mean she’s having hay delivered to my garden? My nice, orderly garden?”

  His voice echoed slightly in the empty room. Mercy was gone, jogging down the gravel path toward the back of the house, waving good-bye as she did so.

  He sighed and sat back down in the chair, absently rubbing the spot on his cheek she had kissed, and wondering if the day would ever come when he could talk to a woman like a normal man. A piece of paper fluttered to the floor, and he picked it up, absently smoothing it out. It was a letter from the late baron to Sybilla.

  A little smile curled Alden’s lips.

  Chapter 5

  “Oh, there she is. Mercy, come meet Patrick.” Fenice waved me over as soon as she saw me trot down the stairs into the garden. “He’s late, which surprises no one, I’m sure, but at least he made it here.”

  “In one piece, which is more than I can say for you,” her brother replied, poking at her arm before he turned and flashed a megawatt smile at me. He even executed a fancy bow, saying, “The name is Vandal, and the pleasure is all mine, milady Mercedes. Welcome to Hard Day’s Knights.”

  “Hi,” I said, wanting to giggle at his Renaissance Faire roguish persona, but decided that might be rude. So instead, I bobbed a little curtsy. “It’s nice to meet you in person.”

  “It is, indeed.” His eyebrows waggled, but he turned back to Fenice when she whapped him with her good arm. “What for are you beating me, sister mine?”

  “We were having a discussion about what to do with the new owner. Stop flirting with Mercy and focus.”

  I had to admit, Vandal wasn’t hard on the eyes in any way. He was of a medium build—wiry, but not hipster thin—and tall, taller than Alden, who was just a few inches above my height. He had long hair midway down his back, which was tied back with a leather thong, and narrow, high cheekbones that made me think of Vikings.

  “I told you that there was nothing to worry about,” Vandal said while I was giving him the visual once-over. “We have a contract, signed and sealed, and nothing this new bloke can do will break it. Stop fussing about that and tell me what the hell we’re going to do for an archery instructor since you’ve gone and broken your collarbone.”

  “Actually, I was going to talk to you about that, Fenice,” I said quickly, before she could reply. “If all you need is someone to teach kids how to use a bow and arrow, I can do that.”

  They both turned to me, surprise etched on their faces. “You can?” Fenice asked, frowning a little. “You’re an archer?”

  “Well . . . I did do two and a half years of a phys ed degree at a university in Oregon, and spent a year on the longbow archery team. I can use a crossbow, too, although I’m not as good with it as I am the longbow.”

  “What draw weight?” Fenice asked.<
br />
  “Oh, I can do seventy, but I’m more accurate at forty-five.”

  “She’s an archer,” Fenice said to Vandal, relief filling her voice. “Bless the goddess, she’s a real archer.”

  “A longbow archer yet, none of that modern compound-bow business. It does seem most propitious,” Vandal answered, giving me a thoughtful look. “Why don’t we try you out on Fen’s bow and see how you do?”

  I murmured something about not wanting to use a valuable bow, but Fenice waved it away, and the three of us moved over to the far side of the garden where a couple of archery butts had been placed. There were also three large plastic bins containing what I imagined were the bows and arrows intended for instructional use. Fenice reached behind the pyramid of bins and pulled out a beautifully embossed leather quiver and a canvas case that obviously held a bow.

  “I won’t let you use Eloise—she’s my competition bow, and was custom-made for me by one of the best bow makers in Europe—but you can use Tarantella.” Fenice pulled out a lovely hickory bow about six feet long, and handed it to me.

  I balanced it on my palm for a second, then firmly grasped the jute cording that had been wrapped around the center of the bow as a grip, and extended my arm. With my right hand, I used my middle three fingers, and pulled the string back to my cheek, holding it for a few seconds before letting my fingers relax. The string slipped past them, twanging a sharp, high note.

  “Nice bow,” I told Fenice, accepting the quiver she held out to me. I slipped one of the arrows out, and locked it on the bow, feeling more than a little cocky. I silently recited my shooting mantra (Turn arm down; turn palm up), grasped the string, and, with the traditional swooping move upward, brought the string back to the far corner of my mouth while slowly lowering the bow until I had the target in sight. “Now let’s see if I can hit a bull’s-eye right off the . . . ow!”

  I had let my fingers relax before I finished my sentence, causing the arrow to sail off, and unfortunately getting a nasty case of string slap on the arm holding the bow.

  The arrow landed a good six feet away from the butt.

  Fenice pursed her lips while I rubbed the stinging spot on my forearm.

  “Hurt yourself?” Vandal asked, displaying what I felt was obnoxiously faux innocence.

  “Just a little string slap,” I growled, locking another arrow onto the bow.

  “Comes from hyperextending your arm, doesn’t it? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Fenice do that.”

  “Oh, shut it,” I snapped, then realized I was being rude to my boss. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Yes, it was an amateur move, and yes, I know better than to swing my arm around so that the string smacks it. I was just being a smarty-pants, but I’ve learned my lesson.”

  Vandal grinned at me. “And I apologize as well. I shouldn’t rag you the way I do Fen.”

  I took a deep breath, pulled the string back to my cheek, sighted the target, then held my breath for the count of three before releasing the arrow.

  “Now, that’s what I’m talking about,” I said, doing a little fist pump when the arrow (just barely) hit the bull’s-eye.

  “That’s not dead center,” Fenice said critically.

  “No, but surely it’s good enough to teach tourists how to shoot,” I argued.

  “It is, but there’s a little matter of Fight Knight at the end of our three weeks,” Vandal said.

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  Fenice turned to him, her eyes wide. “You didn’t!”

  He nodded, smiling. “I did.”

  “You got approval to hold it? It’s sanctioned and everything?”

  “I did, and it is. That’s why I was late coming back today—I met with the council and got their approval.”

  Fenice whooped and flung her good arm around her brother, giving him a loud kiss on the cheek. “I forgive you everything but that time when I was five and you locked me in a cupboard and wouldn’t let me out until I ate the horse’s mash.”

  “To answer your question, dear lady,” Vandal said when Fenice released him, “Fight Knight is a competition held every year. Medieval combat troupes take turns hosting it, and this year, the club who was supposed to be doing so had to give it up when they imploded with political drama over the embezzlement of club funds. Since it’s at short notice, the overseeing council said that we could have it here at Bestwood. It’s quite the feather in our cap, since Hard Day’s Knights is a new venture.”

  “I wish Walker and Pepper were here. They’d be so proud,” Fenice said, then explained to me, “We’re also part of a jousting troupe called Three Dog Knights. The leader of the group and his wife are in Australia to do a bunch of tourneys there. We would have gone with them, but we wanted to start up the melee combat troupe to supplement the jousting team, so we stayed here, and now my brilliant brother has gotten us the plum to end all plums!” She kissed him again and did a little jig of happiness.

  “That’s very cool, but I don’t see—oh, you do not think I’m going to compete, do you?” I gestured with the bow to the arrow sticking out of the ground. “I told you I wasn’t competition level. Teaching tourists is about as far as I could go.”

  “You have three weeks to practice,” Fenice said, grimacing when she moved her shoulder. “And if you can’t do it, then you can’t do it. It won’t be the end of the world if we don’t have someone competing. I wish my shoulder would be ready by then, but I wouldn’t be able to draw properly, not with Eloise.”

  “Isn’t it like a conflict of interest to be competing when you’re hosting as well?” I asked.

  “Only if we supplied the judging team, but they have already been booked and paid for by the group who crashed and burned. So Fenice, Alec, and I are all free to compete.”

  “Alec?” I glanced around, but didn’t see anyone else.

  “He’s our armorer,” Fenice said, taking back her bow and the quiver. “He doesn’t actually create armor for our students, but he makes whatever adjustments he can so that the collection of armor Patrick brought back from France will work with various body sizes.”

  “Alec comes in tomorrow morning,” Vandal added, waving at the stable as we headed toward the drive, where a battered white van was parked. “You’ll meet him then. But in the meantime, we have a bunch of armor to unload, ladies, and little time to do it. I want everything set up so that we’ll be ready for the first students in the morning.”

  “About that . . . I was supposed to be taking registrations and helping ladies dress up—”

  Fenice stopped me before I could finish my question. “We’ll switch jobs. Or what would have been my job if I hadn’t cocked up my arm. You can do the archery groups, and I’ll handle the women who want to playact they’re medieval damsels in distress.”

  “You don’t sound very approving of that aspect of your business,” I said carefully, not wanting to be judgmental.

  Vandal laughed when Fenice snorted, and said in a disgusted tone of voice, “I’m not. A bigger waste of time I can’t think of, but Patrick insists that we give the wives and girlfriends something to do while the men are out learning how to wield a disemboweling ax and long sword.”

  We reached the van at the last of her words. Vandal opened up the double doors at the back, and started pulling out large blue plastic bins that had lumpy armor shapes visible. “I’m not trying to jump on you for being sexist, because I’m sure you’re not, but . . . well . . .”

  “It sounds sexist?” Fenice asked.

  “Yeah. Don’t any women participate in the fighting bit?”

  “Some,” she said with a one-shouldered twitch that I took to be a shrug. “More and more each year, but it’s nowhere near equal numbers. Until that time, I’m going to have little patience for women who don’t think they can fight as well as men. Or throw knives, or shoot a bow, or any of the other skills we hope t
o feature in future sessions.”

  “Amen to that, sister. More women need to realize they can do anything a man can do except pee while standing up, and there are devices that let us do that,” I said.

  “You are preaching, as you Yanks say, to the choir. I’m a police officer eleven months out of the year, and I know all about women having to struggle for everything handed to men. Whereas Patrick . . .” She looked sourly at her brother.

  Vandal doffed a pretend hat. “There are no such glass ceilings in the world of accountancy.”

  I giggled a little at the thought of the roguish Vandal being an accountant by day. “So for one month, you guys get to be”—I waved my hand—“this?”

  “That’s right. Plus weekends. Most weekends we work at this or the jousting,” Fenice said.

  “Enough chatter, ladies! More moving.” Vandal shoved a bin at me, and instructed me where to haul it. The following hour was spent lugging bins to the stable, and unpacking them into stacks arranged by type. I learned all about plate helms, gauntlets, bazubands, greaves, and brigs.

  “This stuff weighs a ton,” I complained at one point, while lugging a bin of the rounded knee protectors known as cops. “How much does it add up to?”

  “About a hundred pounds for the armor. More with the protective padding worn underneath,” Fenice answered.

  “It’s worth it when you’ve got a six-foot-four man bashing at you with a mace,” Vandal commented as he staggered past with a plastic tub of thick, padded cotton arming tunics.

  I made a face at that thought. While it looked interesting, I decided I’d stick to archery.

  We were just putting away the last bin of helms when a voice spoke from outside the stable. “What in god’s name do you need all those bales of hay for? It’s drifting out all over my nice, tidy garden!”

  “That,” Fenice said, looking meaningfully at Vandal as he straightened a rack of pauldrons, “is the new lord and master.”

  “Ah.” His shoulders twitched as he tugged down his shirt, and he marched out of the stable with purpose in every stride. Fenice and I exchanged glances, and hurried after him.

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