Kayla and Liv had managed to get up in time to enjoy breakfast. Sort of. The night before, Kayla had made arrangements to have a tray set outside their room at 7am sharp, begrudgingly conceding to Mrs. Thicke that they would probably be eating cold food by the time they got to it. But to Kaylas surprise, she had awoken early and refreshed and hungry. So here they were, sitting in bed together, drinking sweet tea and eating buttered toast, hair disheveled, sheets pooled around the waists of buck-naked bodies, with papers scattered all around them.
"Is there any more milk?" Liv mumbled around a big bite. She wiped the crumbs from the corners of her mouth with index finger and thumb and then reached for the small pitcher that Kayla was absently passing her. "Thanks."
"Hmm?" Kayla didnt look up from what she was reading.
A mischievous smile curled Livs lips. "I said Im sleeping with Mrs. Thicke. I hope you dont mind."
"Thats nice." Kayla patted Livs thigh and left her hand there.
"I thought so," the blonde woman agreed cheerfully, taking another sip of tea. "Kayla?"
Liv poked at the hand on her leg. "Earth to Kayla."
Liv quirked an eyebrow. "Mrs. Thicke and I roll each other in butter then sugar and cinnamon, then lick it off. Everyday."
Still no reaction.
"On the beach in front of the entire world," she continued blithely. Liv fluffed the pillows behind her back with one hand. "Shes a wild woman with amazing stamina. Youd never know that she was a hundred and eleven."
Kayla nodded again. "Thats niWHAT?" Her head snapped up and she tore her glasses from her face. "Mrs. Thicke?"
The combination of shock, bewilderment and disgust painted so clearly on Kaylas face was priceless, and Liv burst out laughing.
"Well, hello." Liv grinned impishly. "Nice to have you back."
"Bubuyoubut" Kayla scrubbed her face with her hands, purposely ignoring Livs saucy wink.
"Heh." Liv was exceedingly pleased
with herself. "Now that Ive got your attention, care to share whats
so interesting in those files? I dont have the mind-reading thing down
pat yet, you know."
"Sorry," she grumbled a little sheepishly.
Liv kissed her cheek softly. "Sokay, honey. You just tend to get a little um " she quickly searched her mind for a diplomatic way to say anal retentive, "you get so focused on one thing that you tune everything else out." She settled herself back against her pillows again. "So whats up?"
I do not do that. "Sugar and cinnamon, huh?" Kayla grinned. "Can we?"
Liv arched an eyebrow and rattled the file in Kaylas hand. "Youre doing it again."
"Oh." The brunette made a face. "Okay. Fine. It seems that Mr. Keiths maid, Mrs. Jane MacPherson, has worked for him since the late 1950s. Her husband also worked for Mr. Keith until 1987, when the husband died of a heart attack. They found his body a few paces from his bedroom in the middle of the night. Jane stated that he had gotten up to investigate a strange noise."
Livs eyes widened.
Kayla curled her fingers around Livs and squeezed gently. "He died before he could explain what happened." She gave her lover a sympathetic look. "He probably just had a nightmare, Liv. Theres nothing to show any connection between that and whats going on now."
Liv nodded, not entirely convinced. Next time we go back were staying
"together," came the reassuring answer to her unspoken statement.
Liv let out a relieved breath. They locked eyes and each gave a quick nod of acknowledgement. It was a promise.
Kayla glanced back at the file. "A few months before his death, the MacPhersons adopted a seven-old-girl they named Mary."
Liv retrieved her plate from the nightstand and slathered some marmalade on her third piece of toast. "That would have made them sort of old parents," she commented conversationally, trying not to think of anything frightening enough that it could induce a heart attack.
"Right. In their early fifties."
Liv was a little surprised. "I had assumed Mr. Keith was talking about a child when he mentioned the daughter who lived with his maid at Keith House."
"Me too." Kayla leaned forward and stole of bit of Livs toast, her white teeth neatly severing a large piece.
"Hey! Youve got your own." Liv slapped Kaylas bare shoulder.
"But yours tastes so good," Kayla said innocently.
Liv snorted at the double entendre but chose not to comment, knowing if she replied they wouldnt be getting any work done for quite some time.
"The daughter still lives with her mom today. Dont you think its strange that someone would still be living at home at that age?" Kayla poured more tea then took a deep drink. "Ouch! Shit. Mrs. Thicke was wrong." She peered into her mug, giving it an evil look. "Thats still hot as hell."
Liv winced and wordlessly poured a little milk into Kaylas cup to cool the liquid. "I dont think thats so weird. A lot of people are still living at home in their early twenties. Thats only a few years older than Dougie and your sister Marcy," she said wistfully, her thoughts turning to the parents that shed lost when she was only nineteen. A day didnt go by that she didnt wish theyd had more time to get to know each other as adults. She sighed.
"Maybe," Kayla allowed, wondering at the sad look she saw reflected in her friends deep green eyes. She herself had moved out of the house at seventeen, and, even though she truly loved her parents, couldnt imagine living under their roof any longer than was necessary.
Liv pushed away thoughts of the past and tried to focus on the here and now. "Does the daughters story match her moms?"
Kayla shrugged one shoulder. "Pretty much. They both heard Mr. Keith scream. Mrs. MacPherson saw the blood first, and Mary confirmed its existence, though her mother refused to let her into the room at first. Mrs. MacPherson also recalls numerous other unusual happenings in the house that she claimed," Kayla held the file a little farther away as she read the quote without her glasses, "chilled my old skin colder than the bottom of a well diggers"
"Im familiar with the phrase," Liv interrupted wryly. "Do we need to talk with either one of them or will jail baits interviews be enough?"
Kayla choked on her tea. "Jail" She continued to cough and laugh, sitting forward as Liv helpfully slapped her back. "Who are you talking about?"
"You know damn well, who Im talking about, Ghostbuster." Liv set her cup and plate on the nightstand and flopped down on the bed, flattening her pillows. "Shes twelve years old. Youre lucky youre not in prison." And I should be ashamed at how jealous Im feeling," Liv admonished herself privately.
Kayla turned amused eyes on her partner. "The woman has an M.B.A and a Ph.D. in psychology."
"Great." Liv rolled her eyes dramatically. "Another Doogie Houser."
Kayla laughed and she set the breakfast tray on the floor. She lay back down on her side facing Liv. "Shes older than you are, Liv."
Kayla feigned insult, pushing the fluffy pillow away from her head to she could see Liv better. "Its true!"
"Dammit, Liv, shes thirty three."
Liv reached around and gave her a sharp pinch on the ass.
"Ouch!" Kayla squirmed away from Livs fingers. "I swear," she laughed.
Liv stopped her attack and snuggled into Kaylas embrace, feeling her lovers heart racing. She squealed when Kayla shifted onto her back, taking her with her. "No way, Kayla." Liv lifted her head and eyed her lover speculatively. She blinked at the serious look on Kaylas face. "Really?"
The low sound rumbled through Liv, drawing an unconscious smile. She let her head drop against Kaylas shoulder and exhaled contently. "Weird." Liv trailed her fingers along Kaylas hip, enjoying the feel of silky-soft skin. "When is her birthday?" she finally asked quietly.
Kaylas warm breath ruffled Livs hair. "How the hell should I know?"
"Oooo." Liv chuckled and rewarded Kaylas reply with a kiss to her collarbone. "Good answer."
Kayla suddenly went so quiet that Liv pushed up onto her elbows and studied her partners face. "Whats the matter?"
Kayla sighed unhappily. "I asked for all the financial records for this case. Glen usually takes care of all of that. But " Another sigh.
"But you dont trust her."
"I did. I want to."
Liv just waited.
Kaylas brows furrowed deeply. "But I dont with this case. Something is different."
"Mmm." Liv lay back down. "Im sorry," she murmured, gently patting Kaylas chest. "Maybe youre wrong and everything will turn out fine." But even as she said the words she didnt believe them to be true. Part of what made Kayla so good as a paranormal researcher was her sixth sense. If she believed deep down that something was wrong, it probably was. Or maybe it just makes it easier for me to dislike the little bitch if Kayla has doubts about her too. Ooo, see? That wasnt nice at all.
Liv yawned and could feel her eyelids growing heavy again. She didnt try to fight it as she let herself drift off into a light sleep.
Kayla, on the other hand, used the time to think, replaying Glens reactions to the questions shed asked her the night before. The Japanese woman was nervous and slightly evasive, but not overly so. And when I asked her about the new equipment she was supposed to have ordered over two months ago she changed the subject or claimed there must have been a mix up in the order or the shipping.
When Liv woke up nearly an hour later, she opened her eyes to Kaylas sleepy smile. The bed was now free of papers and the sheet had been pushed down to their feet. The room was cool but not cold and Kaylas natural body heat was more than enough to keep Liv comfortable.
Kayla moved closer, tangling her legs with her partners, and delighting at the sensation of soft skin sliding between her calves and thighs. A shiver of desire raced through her. "Morning Again."
Liv arched her back and stretched, letting lose a big yawn. "Morning." She sighed happily. "So, boss, whats on the agenda for the today? I know you said we need the cameras and equipment to run for twenty-four hours before we disturb them."
Kayla adjusted her head on Livs pillow, her dark hair mixing with the pale locks that smelled faintly of peppermint. "Dont call me that," she urged Liv quietly, growing more and more conscious of the warm skin so close to her with each passing second. "Were were partners. I dont wanna be your boss." Her eyes dropped to the pulse point on Livs throat. Transfixed, she watched the graceful shift of muscles as Liv swallowed. Kayla licked her lips as a low, soft growl erupted from the back of her throat. "At least not for work."
Livs heart skipped a beat at the timbre of Kaylas voice. "Ooo I should have guessed youd be all toppy."
The body beneath hers shook with silent laughter.
"Okay, partner." Liv brought her hand up and caressed Kaylas cheek. "Are we going back to the Keith House this morning or um " Hands slid up her bottom and came to rest on the small of her back. "Umm " Was Kaylas skin always this hot? And for the first time Liv noticed the attractive flush covering the faint freckles on Kaylas chest and shoulders. "Mmm . You feel great," she breathed. Her thoughts began to get away from her as Kaylas body demanded her full attention. Livs eyes traced the expressive curve of sensuous lips and she couldnt remember what they were talking about. The look on Kaylas face silently compelled her forward and she captured the younger womans lips with quiet, sincere passion. They tasted like tea and honey and Liv was helpless under their spell, unable to resist their beckoning softness. She hummed at the sensual contact.
When the long kiss ended, Kayla pulled back. "Wow." She laughed a little nervously, slightly startled by the unexpectedly intense exchange.
"Yeah." Liv smiled. "Wow." Then she remembered what she wanted to ask, but her hands refused to remain still and she traced Kaylas eyebrow as she spoke. "Or maybe we could go and talk to Badger?"
Kayla gazed at her lover through half-lidded eyes. "Whatever you want." Then she pinned Liv with an incredulous glare. "You dont mean now, do you?"
Shes kidding, right? Just try to get out of this bed! "Well"
"Liv." The word came out as a beseeching whine that instantly reminded Liv of her younger brother Dougie.
"Awww " Green eyes twinkled. "Youre pouting," Liv exclaimed delightedly, tweaking Kaylas nose.
"I am not," Kayla lied. But her disobedient face creased into a guilty grin. She ducked her head and began to kiss the soft skin behind Livs ear. "Its too early to go anywhere," she informed her sternly, turning her body and using strong arms to securely tuck Liv neatly beneath her.
Liv closed her eyes and allowed herself to feel the full weight of her attraction and affection for Kayla. It surged through her, making her toes tingle. "Youre right. Kayla" She gasped when Kaylas lips dropped even lower and began painting a trail down her chest. "You should stay Oh, God " she gasped when a hot mouth closed around her nipple, and her voice dropped to a low growl, "Right there."
She was nursing her third drink when the hostess led a guest over to her table then quietly disappeared. "Its not like you to keep me waiting." Glen gestured to the empty seat across the table.
Mary MacPherson looked around uncomfortably as she crushed out her cigarette in the ashtray on the table. "Its not like you to stand me up." Her red curls bobbed as she tilted her head downward. She glared at Glen. "Where were you last nicht? "
As always, Glens manner was detached and in control, despite her slowly building anger at the young womans impudence. "I dont think I owe you an explanation, Mary. But if you must know, I was unavoidably detained."
"By that psycho woman, no doubt." Mary snorted derisively and waved over a waiter. She ordered an enormous Scottish breakfast and a pint of beer, despite the early hour.
Glen forced a thin smile. "Thats psychic not psycho. Though she was more than a little angry last night." The Japanese woman leaned forward and lowered her voice. She glanced sideways to make sure no one was nearby before she spoke. "Why didnt the old man listen to me about keeping everything the way it was? You told me he would do exactly as I asked."
Honey-colored eyes dropped to the tablecloth that Mary suddenly found very interesting.
"Mary?" Glen clenched her fists and felt her nails digging into the smooth flesh. "I left Mr. Keith very explicit instructions to leave everything about that damn bloody wall just as he found it for Kayla. Do you have something to tell me?"
Mary bit her bottom lip and braced herself for Glens reaction. "Dont overreact."
"Oh, God." Glen immediately downed the remainder of her drink in one big swallow. She pushed the empty glass away with disgust. She simply wouldnt allow things to fall apart now. Shed come too far. "Well?"
"I spoke to the old miser a few days ago and convinced him to repaint the wall and even rip up the floor there."
"You did what?" The volume of Glens words hadnt changed one iota, but they were hard and cold as granite.
Mary fought the urge to shiver. "He came over to my Aunts home, begging my mither to come back to him. Sayin how much he needed her on his staff and how important she was and how he didnt trust anyone else to run his household." Mary waved her arms as she spoke, then crossed them over her ample chest. "I knew the bastard would appreciate her once she was gone. Ha!" She slapped her palm down on the table, causing Glen to jump. "Its far too late for that now."
Glen reached under the table and took Marys freckled hand in her own. Something was very wrong. "What have you done, Mary?"
Mary turned away from Glens
coal-black gaze. "Nothing more than I said Id do."
Glens slender brows furrowed. "Then why?"
Mary sighed, but her face brightened when a plate laden with steaming eggs, fragrant ham, fried bread, sausages and stewed tomatoes was set in front of her. She let go of Glens hand and said to the waiter, "Ill take that." She reached out and took the pint of beer from the server before he could even set it on the table. Mary took several long drinks and wiped the thin layer of foam from her lips with the back of her hand.The muscles in Glens cheeks began to twitch and Mary could see her lovers patience was at an end. She held up a hand to forestall Glens words. "Mr. Keith came asking about Mither. She was gone to the market, but I talked with him anyway. He said hed do anything to get her back and told me all about your lovely para-psychiatrist."
Glen rolled her eyes, but didnt bother to correct Mary.
"He said the scientist would come and test the house and prove it wasnt haunted." She stabbed a tomato with her fork and brought it to her lips. "He told me that the blood on the walls was likely sheeps blood or some other poor farm animals, and that that would prove this whole incident had been nothing more than a terrible prank. Probably by some rival inn, worried about his precious Keith House opening up, and trying to scare him away." She popped the tomato in her mouth. "And the fancy scientists would run a bunch of other tests to show there was nothing to be afraid of."
Glen rubbed the bridge of her nose tiredly, wondering how many drinks shed consumed the night she found Mary MacPherson even remotely interesting. She was pretty enough and lively in bed to be sure. But the time spent the night before with Kayla, despite the fact that theyd argued like bitches in heat for most of it, was a dream compared to this. "So far, thats exactly what we want to have happen," she told Mary carefully.
"Ay. It is." Mary set down her fork, and lifted her warm gaze to meet Glens. "But I told him that mither might come back to work for him if she didnt have to look at that nasty bloody wall ever again." She waved her hands dismissively. "The bald bastard argued with me, of course. But I made sure hed move quickly by explaining mither was looking for another job. One that paid far better and wouldnt cause her feet to ache."
Glens dark eyes narrowed. "And you did all this because...?" Her jaw worked silently as Mary hesitated in her answer. "This had better be good, you fool," Glen snapped. "Kayla, who is far smarter than you," she ignored the flash of hurt in Marys eyes, "is now suspicious."
Mary lifted her chin and glared at the short woman. Kayla Redding isnt better than me, she told herself. "I might not be a genius and I surely havent gone to any fancy university, but I wont sit here and be insulted either. You asked me here this morning." And you still need me.
There was a long second of charged silence between them, while Glen acknowledged silently that making Mary angry wasnt going to get her the answers she needed. She softened her gaze and reclaimed Marys hand. "I apologize."
Mary nodded. "I had him paint the walls for one very simple reason. The blood that dripped down them wasnt from some poor bastard dog or chicken."
Glen instantly paled. "You," she paused and swallowed, hoping she had misheard Marys last words, "youre trying to tell me"
"The blood was human."
Glens closed her eyes and leaned back bonelessly in her chair. "Oh, my God." She let go of Marys hand and pinned her with flashing, fearful eyes. "What have you done?" she whispered. What have I done?
"Hello, Brody," Liv greeted warmly.
The tall young mans head snapped up from the magazine he was reading in the booth at the gates of Cobb Manor. "Hello!" His eyes lit up and he tossed his reading aside, stepping outside to join them, and straightening his kilt as he stopped next to Kayla. The breeze blew his shaggy reddish hair in his eyes and he shook his head a little to dislodge it. "I didnt expect you lasses today." Unconsciously, he reached up and fiercely scratched his lightly stubbled cheeks. A sheepish grin curled the corners of his mouth when he realized what he was doing. "One day and Im already thinking a beard isnt for me."
"Looks good though," Liv complimented.
Kayla blinked, then her brow furrowed. Her own hand lifted to her smooth cheeks.
"Stop it," Liv laughed, pulling Kaylas hand down from her face and not letting go once it was back at her lovers side. Its natural warmth seeped through her skin and Liv was hard-pressed not to sigh.
"Your father is going to continue telling us a little family history."
"Ah, excellent!" Brody was never one to pass up a chance at spending some time with the ladies. "Maybe Ill join y Ouch!" A stinging smack to the back of Brodys head interrupted his words. "Hello, mither," he said without turning around. "I was just"
"Haud yer wheesht, you worthless thing! I wont hear anymore talk of you leaving your job. Who would take the tickets?"
Sylla rested her hands on her wide hips. "And didnt you just ask your faither for next Friday off?" she reminded him impatiently.
Brodys eyes went a little round.
Sylla waggled her finger at her only child. "Dont play the innocent with me, young man. And I know you asked for next Monday off as well "
"To study so I can take exams to get into the University and learn about gardening," he complained.
"Och!" Sylla swung her large arm towards Brody, but this time he dodged out of the way and further infuriated his mother by beginning to laugh. She began chasing after him, swatting at his slender bottom with a frustrated hand. "You want to take the day off so you can take out that trashy Englishwoman from that pub that you think I dont know you go to every evening after work! No good, lad !"
"Ouch!" One of Syllas hands connected with Brodys backside. "Ohh If mither!" He smiled at Liv and Kayla. "If youll excuse me I should yeow! get back to work." Brody jumped back into his booth and shut the half door behind him, effectively placing himself out of his mothers reach. Then Sylla got a good look at the magazine hed been reading.
"Brody James Cobb!" She began tugging at the door, calling the young man everything short of the Devil himself.
"Now, mither" he laughed, holding up his hands to ward off further attack.
"And what is that nasty fuzz on your face?" The booth began to rattle. "Did you lose your razor?"
Kayla and Liv exchanged looks and both took off towards the house at a near run, eager to escape Sylla The Sullen, a Cobb family squabble, and the temptation of more shortbread. Liv could swear her jeans were tighter today than theyd been yesterday.
The wind carried Brodys squeals of laughter and Syllas ranting curses all the way to the Manors front door as they let themselves into the large stone building.
Cobb Manor was far more crowded than it had been the day before, and from the foyer Liv and Kayla could see a large tour group being led around by a woman wearing a seventeenth century costume that resembled Syllas. Minus the pink fuzzy slippers.
"Ahh, Ladies!" A deep voice boomed from the stairway as Badger nimbly made his way towards them, his stout, bulky body easily traversing the steps. He stopped at the first landing and he waved with a powerful hand. "I love lasses who know how to tell the time. Forenoon is what I said, and here you are. I just finished popping in on the tour group you just saw. University lasses, here from Cambridge." He wriggled his thick white eyebrows.
Kayla smirked. Apparently, Brody came by his slightly wicked ways quite honestly.
As they drew alongside him Liv could smell the faint, clean scent of soap mixing with his sweet pipe tobacco. He was wearing the same costume he had the day before, but in deference to the chilly weather, his shirt was heavier and it looked slightly more worn.
Badger looked up at Kayla as they walked down the long, dimly lit hallway. "I understand from Sylla you were interested in the library."
Kaylas dark head turned towards Badger. "Well"
"No . um that was me. Id love to see it!" A light flush broke out across Livs cheeks. She hadnt meant to answer for Kayla. "Please," she finished weakly.
Two sets of slightly different colored blue eyes twinkled at the blonde woman in undisguised affection. And Liv found herself tumbling helplessly under both their spells, though for very different reasons.
Badgers deep laugh shook his chest. "Then the library it shall be."
The librarys walls were covered with sturdily built, hardwood bookshelves that ran from floor to ceiling. The musty scent of old paper caused Kayla to sneeze as soon as they walked through the door.
"I do that myself," Badger commented, taking a chair with its back to the window. He handed Kayla a tissue from a box on the table beneath the windowsill. Light spilled in across his broad shoulders, illuminating the swirls of tiny dust motes that danced with his every movement. "The place could use a good airing." He sighed. "But the early rains this autumn have caused Sylla to keep this place shut tight as a drum."
Liv was shifting in her seat next to Kayla, trying to see what was on the shelves in front of her. "Take a look around, lass. Thats why were in this room."
Liv could feel the excitement in her grow as she jumped to her feet. "Thanks. But I dont want to keep you unnecessarily."
Badger blew out a disgusted breath. "Please. If youve seen one tourist youve seen them all. Im more than happy to spend some time in your company."
"We appreciate that," Kayla said seriously, surreptitiously glancing at her watch.
Badger chuckled. Kaylas alert eyes and intelligent face couldnt quite manage to veil her natural impatience. "Perhaps I could start while youre still looking?" He shifted his attention to Liv, who was already caught up in a first edition of Robert Tannahills poetry. "Ahh I see youve found one of my favorites. Are you familiar with his poems?"
"Not really." Her eyes scanned the verses and she allowed the words to paint a picture in her heart. "But theyre beautiful." She ran her fingers over the worn leather cover wistfully. Her stint in the Peace Corps in some of Africas most remote villages had made enjoying hidden treasures like this a near impossibility. Shed nearly forgotten how much she loved the written word in all its forms.
"Of course you havent read him," Badger snorted. "That damn Rabie Burns gets all the attention."
Kayla could feel a sudden flow of wonder and yearning coming from her lover as Liv continued to read and bits and pieces of the words and emotions floating around in the blonde womans mind made themselves known to her. She narrowed her eyes as she considered what she could do about it. And with a slight nod, she silently rose to her feet and stepped over to Badger, bending over to whisper something in his ear.
When she was finished, the old man drew back with his bushy eyebrows nearly on top of his head. Then he nodded and held out his hand. "Its a deal, lass."
Kayla grinned and shook it firmly. A shiver chased up and down her spine and, startled, she looked hard into the mans eyes, searching. Then her gaze flicked to the window over his shoulder.
Badger regarded her kindly and squeezed her hand once more before letting it go. "Its cold in this big place." He patted his woolen kilt. "You get used to it, especially in one of these."
Kayla rubbed the skin on her arms, the hairs still standing on end. "Yeah." The corner of her mouth curved up. "I suppose so." Then she remembered the bargain shed just struck. "Come sit down by me, Liv," she called out softly." She and Badger exchanged smiles. "And bring your book."
Liv sighed and began to slip it back into its spot on the shelf, not understanding the meaning behind Kaylas words. Youll have time to read and explore later. Dont be a baby now. Theyre both waiting. "One second."
"Bring over your book, Liv." Kayla bit her lip, trying to suppress a peal of unexpected laughter that threatened to spill out. Doing something nice for Liv gave her a little thrill that made her feel so good it was almost scary. Then her lovers eyes locked on hers and what she felt down deep inside was nothing like fear.
"My book?" Her fingers instinctively tightened around its worn spine.
Kayla felt heat sting her cheeks and nodded slowly. She swallowed a few times. "Maybe you can read it to me later," she asked hopefully, completely forgetting about the man sitting three paces from her.
"Lord, help me." Badger pinned Liv with a playful glare. "Would you two like to be alone? I can always come back later."
"Oh, God," Liv mumbled, covering her face with her hands.
Heh. I love my life. Badger began to dig his pipe out from his sporran. "Because although it does my old heart good to see such a happy young couple, a man can only stand so much of the love-sick eyes before he keels over."
Kayla closed her eyes and groaned out her embarrassment. What on Earth is wrong with me today? Im practically a puddle around her.
Sensing her friends embarrassment, Liv crossed the room and put herself between Badger and Kayla, blocking Badgers view of her partner. She leaned over and kissed Kaylas cheek, "Thank you, honey," she whispered softly. "Something this old isnt cheap."
Kayla squirmed uncomfortably. She just knew Badger was sniggering at her behind Livs back. Old fart. But Ive got Liv and youve got that battle-ax Sylla. So there!
Badger began to hack. He pulled his pipe from between his teeth as a cloud of smoke surrounded his head.
"Youre worth it, Liv," Kayla said, honestly but quietly.
Liv cupped Kaylas chin and tilted her head up. "Thank you." Then on impulse, she turned around and planted a kiss on Badgers cheek, the bristly hairs of his beard tickling her mouth. "Thank you, Badger. Its a beautiful book."
His face was beet red from his coughing and somehow, after Livs kiss, it just got worse.
Now it was Kaylas turn to snicker. Loudly.
"Ack." He wiped his cheek with his hand. "Youre welcome, lass. Now go sit by that tall friend of yours so I can start up my tale," Badger told her gruffly.
But Liv could see he really wasnt angry. Still smiling, she joined Kayla on a small love seat.
Badger pointed a thick finger to an afghan that hung over the back of the chair. "You might want to cover yersels. With no fireplace, this room is a wee bit colder than where we were yesterday."
Kayla and Liv dutifully complied and snuggled closely together with the warm blanket covering their legs.
"Now, in case youve forgotten..." He knew damn well they hadnt forgotten; but story telling usually is most effective when the storyteller uses some sort of lead-in. "It was the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and ninety, and it was a cold, unforgiving November in the American Colonies ."
"No ." Bridget murmured. "I it too cold." Her entire body jerked as though she was struggling against some unknown force.
Dazed green eyes slowly fluttered open. "Bridget?" Faylinn tiredly lifted her head and peered at Bridgets face, studying it through the shadows.
Rain still pelted the stables, its staccato rhythm magnified by the stillness of the room.
Faylinns eyes went round and any trace of sleepiness vanished before her next heartbeat. "God." A small, trembling hand moved to Bridgets forehead and a tendril of stark terror wound its way around Faylinns heart and tightened.
Bridget was on fire.
The tall womans body convulsed in the throws of her fever and nightmare. Her eyes were screwed tightly shut and salty sweat poured from her face, pooling in the hollow of her throat and drenching her hair. "Ca-ca-cold."
Faylinn sat up and straightened the horse blanket that covered Bridget. Then she scrambled off the bed completely and tucked the musty quilt tightly around the shivering womans body. She could feel herself beginning to panic. Bridget had had a fever when theyd arrived. But not like this. It felt like her wobbly legs might suddenly give way and Faylinn leaned against the wall with one hand, its cool, rough surface scraping her palm. "Oh, God. Oh, God," she chanted, eyes closed. "Its happening again and I cant stop it. I dont know what to do."
The blonde bolted for the door. Her hands automatically moved down to lift skirts that werent there and her fingertips brushed her heavy woolen trousers instead. She threw open the door and a blast of cooler air raced over her skin and the scent of clean hay and manure wafted up to greet her. "Will? Are you here?"
Only a gray, hazy light filtered through the cracks around the door, cutting into the darkness. Her eyes scanned the room, darting in and out of the shadows. The workbench where Will and Katie tended Bridgets wounds had been rinsed clean of blood, and the clothes theyd had to cut off Bridgets brutalized body were no longer strewn carelessly on the dirt floor.
Faylinn squinted as she walked through the stables, which was empty save for a pair of scruffy, gray mules and a sleeping dog, whose light snores could be heard from across the room. She moved towards the light and nervously yanked open the stable door. How long had she and Bridget been asleep? It was impossible to tell.
The rain was cascading down in great sheets, as though she was standing in the center of a roaring waterfall. But if she looked hard enough, she could barely make out the outline of the Beynon farmhouse in the distance.
The mules whinnied loudly, stamping their hooves as cold, damp air flooded their stalls and the wind scattered the loose hay against the stable walls.
Faylinn wrung her hands. She didnt care at all about the icy rain. She would walk through the fires of Hell if it would help Bridget. But she couldnt leave her alone. Not now. What if I left her and . No. She shook her head violently. Im not going anywhere.
An anguished scream from the back room propelled Faylinns heart into her throat and she bolted back past the stalls. She entered the small room half-expecting to see Bridget on her feet or on the floor, having fallen. Instead, the dark-haired woman was lying on the bed, eyes closed, the blankets balled in white-knuckled fists.
"Bridget." Faylinn rushed to the bed. "Stop. Youre going to tear your stitches. Calm down!"
Faylinns raised voice caused Bridgets movements to grow wilder, and after staring at her for a second, body frozen in shock, the younger woman forcibly took hold of her scattered emotions. She dropped to her knees and, heedless of Bridgets greasy, sweat-soaked skin, peppered the bruised face with the softest of kisses. "Bridget, calm down," she soothed, pressing her cheek to the brunettes. "Its all right. Go back to sleep."
"Hurry," Bridget hissed, shaking. Scowling, she jerked her face away from Faylinns. "Cold." The words were as full of fear as impatience.
"I know." Tears stung Faylinns eyes and she ruthlessly blinked them away. Sitting up, she re-tucked the blankets around her sister-in-law and then threw another log on the fire, stoking it with a long stick that was propped up against the wall. She stripped off her borrowed trousers and climbed back into bed, moving as close as she dared, and pressing her legs against Bridgets, trying to share her body heat. "Im so sorry." She lightly stroked Bridgets face with one hand, her fingers deftly avoiding the many cuts as the room grew brighter from the force of the flames.
"Bridget, you will be fine." She knew the words were as much for herself as her injured companion but she continued her litany of encouragement anyway. "You must. Do you hear me?"
"No," Bridget said weakly. "You dont understand." She pawed at her blanket. "Hurry."
Faylinn frowned. "You dont have to hurry, Bridget. Youre safe here, love." At least for the time being.
Bridget began to thrash, grimacing at the pain the action caused her broken arm. "Hes in the cold!"
Faylinn shook her head. "No. No one is in the"
"Henry," Bridget cried softly. "Hes still out there."
It was like having a bucket of ice water dumped over her head. Faylinn blinked stupidly for several long seconds until the words penetrated her brain. Instinctively, she covered her ears with her palms and curled up into a tight ball. She couldnt think straight as images assaulted her and recent memories threatened to drown her, dragging her into their madness and despair. But, the soft mewing of the woman she loved wouldnt allow her to withdraw completely.
Sky-blue eyes worked furiously beneath closed lids. "I failed. I tried but my fault." Bridget licked her dry lips. "Sor-sorry."
Faylinns head snapped up
at the words. "Dont say that," she whispered harshly, clinging to Bridgets
side. "Its not your fault. By God, none of it was! How can you think that?"
she anguished. Youre the only one without blame. And youve suffered
Bridgets hand found Faylinns and she gripped it tightly. "But hes cold and wet," she breathed raggedly. "I can feel it." Bridgets mind flashed to her toddler nephew huddled in the hollow of a tree, his body shaking from the cold, his laughing gray eyes glazed and unseeing.
Faylinns breathing hitched and she had to swallow a few times before she could find her voice. "Hes not ." She stopped again, willing herself not fall apart. "Hes not outside in the cold, Bridget." Unbidden, the thought of her son in a grave flashed before her eyes, twisting the knife in her gut.
A wretched expression twisted Bridgets beautiful, damaged face. "I cant find him. Im trying so hard. You have to believe me," she begged, starting to cry. "Please."
"God, forgive me." This guilt will follow me to the grave. As I deserve. "I should have believed then but I was afraid. I do believe you now."
"You dont!" The voice was a deep, guttural growl.
"Yes," Faylinn swore fervently. "I will always believe you." Give me the chance to prove that, Bridget. "Shh " she soothed, and carefully pushed clinging bangs from Bridgets forehead. She scooted up to the head of the bed and, through sheer determination alone, managed to get into position so that she was cradling the larger woman with strong, if shaky, arms. Faylinn was panting by the time she was finished, but it seemed to help.
Bridgets breathing began to slow and even out, and her violent thrashing came to an end.
From behind Bridget, Faylinn rested her chin on a broad shoulder as a trickle of perspiration dripped from her own brow onto Bridgets bare skin. She could feel the steady rhythm of Bridgets heart against her own chest and the wet material of Bridgets shirt stuck to hers. For a moment she became light-headed and wished she hadnt stoked the fire. But it passed and she felt herself growing sleepy. Lazily, she shifted and placed a kiss on the top of Bridgets head.
"I cant find"
Please, not again. The blonde woman held her tighter. "You did find him, Bridget. You did everything right." She paused. "Hes safe now."
Bridget seemed not to want to believe the gentle voice near her ear. The words couldnt be true, could they? She was still looking. And it was so dark. When she was a girl she was afraid of the dark. Henry would be too. But the calming words were spoken so softly, so lovingly, that couldnt help but believe them. "Hes safe?"
Faylinn voice cracked. "Yes."
Bridget sighed and her body began to relax. "Warm?" she questioned finally, the word barely audible.
Hot tears streamed down Faylinns cheeks and dripped into Bridgets hair. She moved her lips close the darker womens ear. "Yes, love. Hes warm." A small bittersweet smile touched quivering lips. "Sleep now. Nothing can hurt him, I promise."
"Im not a witch."
The unexpected words were said in such a clear, true voice, that, for a moment, Faylinn thought they came from someone else. She gently turned Bridgets face to the side and found a pair of bloodshot, sky-blue eyes peering tiredly back at her. Awake. Alive. The strength of her watery smile grew. Thank you. "It wouldnt matter if you were a witch," she told her gently, meaning every word. "Not to me."
Bridget sighed and her eyes drifted shut. I need I need you so.
Faylinn heard the words in her own mind and bit back a sob. Needs me? Oh, God.
Bridget murmured something unintelligible as she finally succumbed to her need for deep, healing sleep and her muscles turned to water.
"Thats right." Faylinn exhaled raggedly, feeling the racking tension in her body finally begin to ebb. "Rest," she said again, running her fingers through Bridgets thick tresses.
Faylinn began to softly croon a Scottish lullaby. It was one she sang to Henry that her own mother had sung to her whenever was ill as a child. Even at her tender age, the sunny summers of her past seemed so long ago and far away that her mind could barely grasp them. They vanished like wisps of smoke between her fingers.
A crackling bolt of lightning tore through the sky above the Beynon farm. Exhaustedly, Faylinn clung to Bridget with all her might, refusing to let her go. "You are not a witch, Bridget Redding. But youve enchanted me just the same."
Badger stopped his tale and dug thick fingers into his well-worn tobacco pouch in order to reload his pipe. He glanced up from his task and what he saw caused his hands to still. "Are you lasses all right?"
Kayla exhaled, feeling a little stunned and light-headed. Damn, how long have I been holding my breath?
Liv could only nod. The telling of young Henrys death and the toll it had taken on his mother had hit her especially hard the first time, dredging up her own insecurities regarding her parents and the little brother she raised herself. Its retelling was having the same effect and she was plainly rattled.
Kayla grasped Livs hand and threaded their fingers together, giving it a little squeeze. Her forehead creased in thought for a split second before she pinned Badger with intense blue eyes. "Does she die?"
The man looked a little surprised. "Faylinn or Bridget?"
Kaylas jaw visibly sagged. "Bu-But . Shes not even hurt. What do you mean, Faylinn?" she demanded. Taking Livs hand with her she propped her elbows on her knees and leaned forward to better hear Badgers answer, despite the fact that the mans voice rang out clearly in the room. "Just tell us!"
Badger scratched his chin through his thick beard and addressed Liv. "Is she always so bossy?"
"Hey!" Kayla complained loudly, sitting up ramrod straight.
Badger ignored the tall woman completely. "How do you stand it, Liv?"
"Shes not bossy," Liv informed him flatly. Then her eyes took on a familiar twinkle and she smiled, feeling herself relax a little. "Just a little umm intense. But only sometimes," she added quickly, already hearing her lovers growl in the back of her mind.
"Hey!" Kayla repeated, this time shooting a glare at Liv.
Badger grinned unrepentantly, raised a bushy eyebrow, and said, "Articulate too, I see."
Liv sighed. Two peas in a pod. She slapped Kaylas thigh playfully. She leaned close and whispered, "Youre expressive and intense in ways Badger cant even imagine. And I love you to pieces."
Kayla squared her shoulders and grumbled to herself, "Thats a little better." But she was still scowling. "I guess."
Badger regarded both women kindly, his thick Scottish brogue and deep voice recapturing their attention with ease. "I can see that neither one of you is going to last for the long but highly interesting telling. Too bad too." He shook his head sadly but his stare was only mildly reproachful. "So let me make things plain for you. Both Faylinn and Bridget died"
"What?" Liv and Kayla cried in unison.
Badger held up his hands. "Och! If youd let me finish you wouldnt fash yersels so. They both died eventually. But not for many, many years after the terrible events of Cobb Island."
"Thank goodness." Liv closed her eyes.
Badger chuckled. "Feel better now? Or shall I stop?" he asked innocently, not looking up from his pipe.
"No!" they chorused incredulously.
He bit back a smile. "Ill take that as a no."
Kayla was tempted to blurt out smartass but prudently held her tongue. She was rewarded by a tiny hand squeeze from Liv, who recognized she was making an effort. Which was hard considering she hadnt missed the gleeful look in Badgers eyes as he teased her. How does Liv get along with everyone from flirty teenagers to crusty old Scotsmen? And even more bizarre, why would she want to?
Badger finally pushed a large pinch of tobacco into the bowl of his meerschaum pipe and brushed away a few stray shreds that speckled the rim. " a Weel, Ive no problem continuing. Ill gab all day if you like." He winked. "Anything to avoid Sylla, ya know." Placing his tobacco pouch back into his sporran he shifted his bulky body in the chair to get more comfortable again. "But seein as how I let the cat out of the bag about Bridget stayin alive, how about I skip ahead a wee bit of time past some of her recovery?"
A dark head nodded. "Absolutely. Its about time to fast forward. Im especially hoping"
Badger lifted an eyebrow and Liv clamped her hand over Bridgets mouth. "Shes especially hoping that youll tell us the story exactly as you see fit."
"Oh, I can see that," Badger laughed.
Kayla nipped Livs palm with sharp teeth, earning a high pitched yelp.
"Well, at least youre not kissin each other again," Badger said wryly. Though it always lightened his heart to see people truly in love. Hed seen it with his own parents, enjoyed the blessing himself, but knew it was sadly lacking in todays world.
The stout man cleared his voice. "Here we go then. A thin blanket of snow and ice covered the Virginia coast as a harsh autumn gave way to an equally unforgiving winter ."
A frigid wind howled outside the small room in the back of the Beynon stable. She paced the room, oblivious to the fireplace shed let grow cold. She wore a pair of Wills dark-brown, buckskin, hunting trousers and a new navy-blue, woolen shirt that Faylinn had made for her during the past month. The cloth was well-worn but clean, having been recycled from several shirts that were too small for even Faylinn. One sleeve had been made extra-wide so it would fit over the splint on Bridgets left arm, and the collar and pocket hung slightly askew.
She smoothed her sleeve fondly and recalled the many nights Faylinn had toiled away with a needle and thread in front of the flickering fire, her pale brows drawn together in utter concentration. Despite her worry, Bridget chuckled. It was truly the ugliest piece of clothing shed ever owned. And she couldnt have loved it more had it been spun of pure gold.
"Where are you?" Bridget whispered worriedly as she pulled open the rickety shutter and peered out into the cold night. "Faylinn, must you always be late?" They needed a clock, she decided. That way she could stare at it all night and feel justified in worrying over her companion so. But I must be careful and pay attention or Ill smother her as my pig brother Cyril did. But it was full dark outside and Faylinn, Will, and Katie had promised theyd be back from town by late this afternoon, which was now long past.
The trio had left at sunrise the day before, intent on reaching town early enough to shop at the mercantile and locate a reasonably priced inn for the night. Will usually camped in the rough on his monthly trips for basic foodstuffs, tools, and the like, but hed decided to make this trip a holiday treat for his wife and Faylinn, whom hed come to think of as a daughter. If this months shipment of slaves had arrived, the runners would have pumped untold amounts of coin back into the local economy before heading back to sea. If the shipment hadnt arrived, the shops would still be chock-full of wares to catch their attention and tempt the plantation owner, who had come to buy.
Bridget had fought hard to come along, though she was barely healed enough to be out of bed. But Will had told her bluntly that the story of her suicide had spread through the Colony like wildfire. And that made her decision for her. At the very least the Beynons would forfeit their homestead for harboring a fugitive. But for Faylinn things would be much, much worse.
The Crown recognized no distinction between those in league with a servant of Satan and the servant herself. Methods employed for gaining confessions were often worse than the ultimate punishment itself. Swinging at the end of a rope would be a kind fate for Faylinn, Bridget had thought sarcastically.
Then there was Cyrils death, for which Faylinn would surely be blamed. Bridget sighed. In a very real way, Bridget Redding and Faylinn Cobb Redding were and would forever remain dead.
You already knew that, Bridget reminded herself grimly. But shed never really had time to think about what her life had become. She was too busy trying to save Faylinn then stay alive. Now she could clearly see what she had really asked of her sister-in-law when she begged the younger woman to steal away with her in the night. God. Bridget had closed her eyes, feeling the mantle of guilt resting heavily on tired shoulders. Ive stolen a life I fear I can no longer protect.
Against Faylinns protests, Bridget had gone for a long, painful walk in the woods alone. Shed desperately needed some time to process what had happened and would happen now. Her head and arm had throbbed and shed felt slightly queasy and winded after the first few paces, but a larger part of her reveled in the freedom of the clean cold that flooded her lungs and the brightness of the newly fallen snow. Forgive me my ill-tempered words, Faylinn, but if I dont have this time I shall go mad.
Stress and a nagging flu no doubt brought on by a horrific boat ride in the pouring rain where each woman had taken one oar and rowed for hours to save their lives had plagued Faylinn for weeks. It was only this week that her body seemed to begin adapting to the shock of what had happened on Cobb Island and the new stresses of frontier life.
It never even occurred to Bridget that though Faylinn still grieved for her son, more often than not, she was happier than shed ever been. The bright innocence in her emerald eyes had been tempered. But the result was something deeper and infinitely more compelling. Faylinn seemed older and more thoughtful, yet somehow lighter too. She cried more, but she laughed more as well and, as always, her gentle touch was a balm to Bridgets soul.
But none of that mattered, because she knew that Faylinn was unselfishly making the best of things for her own sake. Its just like her to suffer in silence. She did it with Cyril and now shes doing it with me. In a matter of seconds, Bridget found herself in a full-fledged, self-pitying, foul mood.
Slowly, shed made her way back to the stables only to find Faylinn standing outside in the cold, waiting for her.
"I cant leave you here alone," Faylinn had told her, her eyes a little panicky. "You still need help."
But at that moment, Faylinns pity was more than Bridget could bear. Theyd argued bitterly, exchanging harsh, hurtful words as they never had before, until, finally, Bridget had gotten her way. A heavy sensation settled in her chest as the confrontation from the morning before came crashing back.
"Pity? What do you mean pity?" The fair-haired women stared at Bridget in disbelief.
Blue eyes flashed angrily even as tears began to well in them. "You heard me, Faylinn. It was, and is, not your place to play nurse-nanny to me every second of every day!"
Faylinns hand clenched at her sides. "And just who was going to dress and feed you? Keep your wounds clean and your body washed? And yes, by God, even clear away your chamber pot when you could not? Hmm?"
"I dont know!" Bridget shouted back, confused. Suddenly she couldnt meet Faylinns sharp gaze. Things were spiraling out of control and she couldnt seem to stop them. "I can manage on my own now." That was a lie and she knew it.
Faylinn shook her head, fighting the urge to lash back. But Bridget wasnt making it easy. "Be reasonable, Bridget. Even now, you still cannot"
"I am not an invalid!" Bridgets voice dropped an octave and took on an icy edge that Faylinn had never had directed towards her before. "Though you seem to believe that I am."
Faylinns cheeks took on an angry flush and she took a step closer to Bridget. "I never said that. I never even thought it!" But then, and at the worst possible moment, her eyes fixed itself on Bridgets splinted arm. How that must hurt. She blinked as exactly what she was doing hit her. Her eyes snapped upward but it was too late. The raw pain that chased its way across Bridgets face made her gasp.
"Thats right." Bridgets entire body went still. "Set wrong, I suspect. Its basically useless. A burden." She cocked her head slightly to the side and her dark brows pulled together. "Like me."
"Oh, God, please dont think thats what I believe." Faylinns eyes went glassy and she wiped at them frantically. "That thats not ."
Bridget turned her back on her friend and stared at the glowing orange and red coals in the fireplace. In one glance her faith in herself had been shaken to the very core and her fears confirmed. "No need to fuss, Faylinn. Despite my current condition, I am more than capable of caring for myself. "
Faylinn ran a shaky hand through her hair. "As long as you dont want to get back up if you fall," she snorted as the last of her patience vanished. "Or you dont want to fasten the ties of your clothing. Or"
The older womans face contorted in rage and she whirled around, ignoring a wave of dizziness. "I will be fine. Go!" She pointed to the door with a trembling hand. "Get out of this wretched, smelly room. I dont need you at all!"
It felt like a stinging slap to the face. But Faylinn didnt recoil. Instead of fleeing the room, as Bridget knew she would, she marched up to the dark-haired woman, seething. She grabbed two large fists full of Bridgets shirt and yanked her down towards her. They were nose to nose, feeling hot, labored breaths against her lips. Her heart began to pound out of her chest and for a split second Faylinn had the strongest urge to barely tilt her chin and brush her lips .
Bridgets words startled her, forcing her back to the moment. She shook her head. "You, Bridget Redding, are the most idiotic woman on Gods Earth." Heedless of Bridgets arm, she shook her roughly, feeling the muffled groans of pain as though they were her very own. But she didnt stop. "What you see in my eyes when they look at you is not pity, you imbecile!" Her gaze found her hands and she stared at them as though they belonged to someone else. She uncoiled her trembling fists and let them fall to her sides.
Their eyes met and Bridget found herself holding her breath.
Dumbstruck, Bridget watched as Faylinn turned on her heels, grabbed her cloak from the peg near the door and marched out of the room, grumbling loudly all the while. She should, she knew, go after Faylinn, drop to her knees and beg her forgiveness. Instead, she watched in pained silence as the other woman trudged angrily towards the Beynon house and away from her.
"Bloody hell!" Bridget cradled her left arm, and tapped impatiently on the splint. Violently, she tore it off her arm, nearly biting her lip through in agony. "That," she hissed through clenched teeth, "was not smart." She could feel some sensation in her hand and fingers but couldnt make a fist or even bend it at the elbow. For all intents and purposes it hung limply at her side like a piece of meat. Useless.
Her cuts and bruises had faded, and shed been making slow but steady progress in gaining back most of the weight, but only some of the stamina, that shed lost over the past six weeks. But in Bridgets mind it wasnt nearly enough. Faylinn needed her now more than ever.
She rested her forehead in her hand and sighed raggedly. How had things gotten so out of control and changed so quickly. While she had always spent a fair amount of her time on the mainland, Cobb Island was still her home. Judith and Afia and even Elizabeth were her family. Now she was as unsure of her own place as she was Faylinns.
Will snapped the reins of his cart sharply and the mule dutifully complied, picking up his sluggish pace. Lifting the tri-horn hat from his head, he gazed up at the blanket of twinkling stars and scowled. "Lazy beast. We should have been home hours ago." He replaced his hat. "Snows not that deep."
"Mmm." Katie agreed softly as she patted Wills leg. She shifted on the seat next to him, tilting her head closer to his. "Ive no doubt Bridget is at this very moment climbing the walls, blaspheming all the while."
Will snorted. "It wouldnt surprise me one bit to see her on the road up ahead, waiting." They werent but a mile or so from home and Will guided his cart off the path that ran along the coast and over a grassy, snow-covered hill.
"She certainly cares for her sister-in-law." Katies tone was full of honest admiration. "God bless them, they are the picture of sisterly devotion."
"Sisterly?" Wills eyebrows crawled up his forehead and stayed. He turned to his wife and opened his mouth.
The air was silent except for the dull thudding of the mules hooves and the creaking of the wheels. "Ummm " He quickly thought of the young woman huddled in the back of his cart and gave his head a little shake. "Not a blessed thing, sweet Katie." Lord above, what was I thinkin? He had nearly violated one of lifes sacred rules and he repeated it over in his head, lest he forget again sometime soon. What Katie doesnt know cant hurt me. What Katie doesnt know cant hurt me.
The cart lurched heavily to one side and Faylinns head jerked up and right into a small keg of beer. "Oww." She rubbed the spot just above her ear.
"Serves you right for falling asleep back there," Will said gruffly.
"That means: Im sorry for steering the cart right into that big hole and Ill try to be more careful in the future," Katie explained to Faylinn, who chuckled quietly.
Faylinn rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "Apology accepted, Will."
The man didnt answer verbally but his face creased into a happy smile.
Faylinn pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders and tilted her head towards the sky. It was a moonless, cloudless night and it looked as though God had scattered a hand full of glittering diamonds into a great black sea. "Were late," she commented absently.
Will snapped the reins again in response.
Katie heard Faylinns sigh and reached back to squeeze the young womans shoulder. "Shell be fine."
Faylinn swallowed and nodded. "I know she will. Im just being silly, I suppose. But Do you think shell have eaten?" Bridget hated to cook and Faylinn pictured her having nothing but jerky and stale bread over the past two days.
Will burst out laughing. "If she hasnt eaten in the past two days shell either be dead or weaker than gnats piss by the time we get home."
"Will!" Katie scolded. "Watch your language."
The man smiled sheepishly and leaned backwards over his seat, making a great show of tipping his hat to Faylinn. Any sense of class-consciousness had long since disappeared between them but it was still worth teasing over. "My apologies, Mistress Redding."
Katie narrowed her hazel eyes at her husband. "I said hush. No more teasin the girl. Its right for her to be concerned about her own kinfolk. It wasnt so many days ago that we were thinking wed be buryin Bridget before the first hard freeze."
"What?" Faylinn gasped.
"Big mouth," Will grumbled to Katie. Then he moved to assure Faylinn. "Bridget is a strong woman and shes well enough to be left alone or we wouldnt have left her in the first place." And she needs some space to breath. Though Will prudently kept that thought to himself.
Faylinn fingered the small bundle tucked beneath her cloak. "I I suppose she is." But their parting argument had left her feeling unsettled and shaky. In the months since theyd met, she and Bridget had rarely exchanged a cross word. Until now. Part of her was petrified that theyd return to the homestead to find Bridget gone.
"Wilfred is right. Concern is fine, worry will only give you gray hairs." Katie pointed to her own salt-and-peppered head. "If this isnt proof, I dont know what is!"
"Be quiet, woman," Will admonished.
Katie blithely ignored him. "Faylinn, how are you feeling?"
"Fine." A pause. "I think."
"Youre still tired." It wasnt a question.
Faylinns eyes slid shut and she shivered. "A little, I guess." Shed had a comfortable bed with a feather-filled mattress all to herself the night before but still hadnt slept a wink. She missed the warm body she curled up against each night. "Though I did fall asleep back here."
"Only the good Lord above will ever know how with the way my Will drives."
Will turned to his wife and frowned. "Next time Im leavin you at home, nag!"
"You are not," Katie informed him bluntly.
"If you sass me like that again, I most certainly will!" He puffed up his chest, daring her to say differently. Which, of course, she immediately did.
"Ha! You will "
Faylinn shook her head as the couple bickered. Shed never seen two people who loved each other so, argue so bitterly. And strangely, that made her feel a little bit better about her and Bridget. Youre every bit as stubborn as Will, Bridget. And I love you every bit as much as Katie does him. They hadnt so much as shared a kiss since that single, desperate time, the night Bridget was to be executed. Still, she knew she held Bridgets heart, she only hoped that after they spoke this night Bridget would still want hers. The mere thought of another confrontation caused Faylinns stomach to churn mercilessly. And she wrapped her arms around herself in mute comfort.
Then the arguing and the wagon came to an abrupt halt.
"Here we are."
Faylinn looked up in surprise. They were parked right outside the stable.
Will jumped down from his seat and stretched with a loud groan. He quickly unhooked the mule and led her inside, telling her how, come next spring, she was going to be turned into several new pair of boots and a set of tack.
The blood drained from Faylinns face when she looked at the door. She should see a trail of smoke coming from the chimney above but not a single sliver of light shone through the shutters.
"Thank you for the beautiful cloth and keg of beer for Will." Katies exhale sent a cloud of fog spiraling upward. "We didnt expect any Christmas gifts."
Faylinn pushed away thoughts of Bridget for just a moment and smiled weakly at Katie. "Then why I am wearing a new dress?" It was as simple and shapeless as a dress could be. But it was made by Katies own hand and Faylinn had come to realize just how precious a commodity cloth was. The gift was yet another kindness from a couple whose generosity already astounded her.
Katies blush was evident even in the starlight. "Well, it would hardly be proper for you to go walking about town dressed as a man."
Unlike Bridget, who frequently wore trousers, they had taken some getting used to for Faylinn. Though she had to admit they seemed far more practical now that shed actually tried them out.
"Did you enjoy town? A far cry from London I suspect."
Faylinn smiled gently. "It wasnt London, Katie. And it didnt need to be. I had a grand time. Thank you for the invitation."
Unlike Bridget, Faylinn had spent her entire time in the Colonies on Cobb Island. On the mainland, she was just another young woman, completely anonymous unless she happened to run into one of the Naval Officers with whom Cyril had done business. But Will had assured her that if she steered clear of the local docks, taverns, and brothel, she would have nothing to fear. But just in case, the young woman never lowered her cloaks hood.
In town, Will had helped her pawn a necklace Cyril had given Faylinn as a wedding gift. The amount she received for it was a paltry sum for a piece of jewelry of passable quality. But it allowed her to buy gifts for the Beynons and still have plenty left over to purchase a few food items and sneak them into Katies crate. Her favorite gift, however, she had yet to give.
Faylinn grinned. "I felt much more comfortable in town with this on than I would have wearing trousers. Thank you again." The grin slipped as Faylinn eased herself out the back of the small cart.
"Dont fret so much." Katie pulled the smaller woman into a tight hug and pressed her lips to Faylinns cold ear. "She will understand."
Faylinn nodded. "Merry Merry Christmas, Kat" Her throat closed tightly and she bolted past Will, who was exiting the stable.
"Whoa." He turned worried eyes on his wife as he hefted the small keg of beer onto one shoulder and Katie helped him lay a fifty-pound sack of flour on the other. "Is she all right?"
Katie filled her arms with the bolt of cloth and a wooden crate full of cooking suppliesshed have to make another trip for the rest. "If shes not, youll be diggin that grave for Bridget Redding you were so worried about before."
Wills wide eyes followed his wifes portly form as it plowed through the snow towards their house. "Uh oh."
part 4 of 6