The Highlander universe, the concept of Immortality, the Watcher organization, and the guys we all know and love--Connor, Duncan, Richie, and Joe--are the property of Panzer/Davis and Rysher Entertainment. No profit is involved or intended here. I'm just borrowing the guys for my own enjoyment and hopefully yours, and will put them back when I'm done. Any characters you don't recognize are mine, so please ask if you want to play with them.
It was too damn early for snow, I grumped to myself as I shifted the Cherokee down to four-wheel low. I couldn't quite hold back a sigh of relief as the wheels bit into the snow on the road. What should have been the last hour's drive, even on winding country roads, had stretched to three and taken a corresponding toll on my nerves. All I wanted was to get the rest of the way to what Connor had jokingly christened my "country estate," preferably in one piece and without getting stuck.
Next to last turn. I groaned when I saw that the snowplow had not yet made it out this far. Carefully I eased around the corner, wishing for a sand truck and glad that my access road was only a couple of miles further on. If I had to stop suddenly in this half-frozen slush, God only knew where I'd end up.
I felt a familiar tingling down my nerves that settled hard in my stomach as I rounded the last curve. A spilled motorcycle lay in the middle of the road, its rider sprawled motionless on the pavement. I tapped my brakes and promptly found the same slick patch that had caused the accident. All at once I was fighting to keep the Jeep out of the ditch, out of the trees, and away from the mess in the road. In the end, I had to settle for two out of three--the vehicle finally stopped a whole lot closer than I would have liked to the downed motorcycle. The rider had pulled off his helmet and was carefully standing up when I got out of the Jeep. This was the presence I'd felt, all right.
He felt me, too. He turned around and looked at me and was clearly unimpressed by a five-foot-six- inch woman of indeterminate age with shoulder-length auburn hair. He shot a look at his bike, then started toward me. I waited, my hand still resting on the driver's door.
"Hey! You damn near ran over my bike!" he shouted angrily. He stopped a few feet away. Fencing distance away.
I was suddenly very aware of the sword lying across the Jeep's back seat under my duffel bag and two sacks of groceries. "Sorry," I called back contritely. "Looks like I found the same patch of ice you did.
"That's not all you found," he answered, his face and voice grim.
"I have no quarrel with you--" I began, certain that I'd never met this young man with the short red- blond hair before, but the words died in my throat when I saw the cup-hilted Spanish rapier that glistened in his hand. Just what I need tonight, I thought in exasperation, a young one with an attitude. I was thoroughly sick of the Game, the challenges, and clients who didn't understand why they should still pay my fee even when I had to tell them that their ostensibly rare old manuscript was a forgery. For a moment I fought the temptation to tell him he'd be doing me a favor and to please hurry up about it. Reluctantly I opened the back door of the Cherokee and pulled the katana from its scabbard. I turned around and dropped into a guard position, shifted a few cautious steps away from the Jeep. "Why are we doing this? I don't even know you--"
His eyes widened a little at the sight of the katana. "Richie Ryan," he answered defiantly. "Forget about the 'why' part--let's just say I've had a really bad week."
It was a lousy reason for a challenge and a worse place for a fight. His name seemed vaguely familiar--Connor had mentioned that his kinsman had taken on a new Immortal as a student some time ago. Was this him? I thought I'd heard something, but I couldn't come up with it.
"Megan Ross," I answered in turn. "Can't we just walk away from this?"
"One of us will," he assured me as he advanced, the rapier extended.
It was an ugly fight. Ryan came into it with a young man's energy and driven by anger. For the most part, I concentrated on blocking his attacks and hoped he would wear himself out soon. When he fell on the ice, I waited for him to get back on his feet. More than once I blessed Connor for all the times he had swept my legs out from under me and made me fight from the ground in sparring sessions. Ryan fought well, but he was too busy being angry to really focus on the business at hand. After a while his anger began to seem forced, as though he was having to work hard to sustain it.
Finally I had him. He had expected me to fall back yet again from an attack he had tried several times, but instead I closed the distance and got inside his guard. There was no room for him to clear his blade and get his weapon between us, and when he tried to retreat he backed solidly into a tree. The edge of my blade came to rest against his neck.
He stared hard into my face for a moment, then looked away. "Finish it," he said bitterly, pain showing in his voice that had nothing to do with the wounds we'd dealt each other.
I nodded once and drew back the katana. Ryan closed his eyes. He went down like a sack of oats when I slammed the pommel into the side of his head.
By the time he woke up, I had managed to drag his bike off the road into the trees where we could find it again and get both of us up to the house. I pulled off his cold weather gear and his boots, then settled him on the couch with an icepack for his head and a blanket for the rest of him. Ryan would heal quickly, as our kind do, but I'd hit him as hard as I could and it was going to hurt for a bit.
The fire was going nicely by the time I heard him groan. I turned around from the fireplace just in time to stop him from trying to sit up. "It's all right," I said, resting a hand firmly on his shoulder. "You're safe. Just lie still and let your head finish healing."
He lay back on the cushions. "What--where--?" he asked, hesitant. Before I could answer, his eyes opened wide. He looked quickly around the room and then stared at me. "Holy ground--?"
"Yes. The place started out as a monastery three hundred years ago, give or take a decade or two." I smiled. "How's your head?"
"Better." He reached up and looked surprised as he touched the icepack. "Why didn't you--" he started to ask, then saw that his rapier lay on the coffee table, the hilt easily within arm's reach and the blade still streaked with my blood after a too- hasty cleaning. The confusion on his face shifted into profound embarrassment as he turned away. "Oh, jeez," he groaned into the back of the couch. "I tried to take your head ..."
I resisted the urge to help him as he struggled to sit up.
When he'd managed that, he met my eyes again. "Why didn't you finish it?"
I should have known he'd ask, and sooner rather than later. "That was the stupidest reason I've ever heard for a fight and believe me, I've heard a few," I told him bluntly as I sat back down on the raised hearth.
"Self-defense wasn't reason enough for you?"
I shook my head. "An excuse, maybe, but not even a very good one. That fight was insane if you were seriously after my head--bad light and treacherous ground in an unfamiliar area, Heaven help us, and how could you have known I would come along just then? The only way it made any sense was if I were simply a target of opportunity and you were more interested in losing your head than in taking mine. I thought I'd heard your name before, too--your teacher was Duncan MacLeod, right?"
Ryan nodded slowly, old misery surfacing briefly in his eyes. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"For starters, the fact that your teacher and mine are friends and kinsmen. The last thing I wanted today was a fight with anyone--and if I'd taken *your* head, I sure wouldn't look forward to trying to explain it to Connor or Duncan, either." I stood up from where I'd perched on the edge of the hearth and stretched. "You're looking a lot better-- how about some dinner?"
We were both too tired and hungry to talk much. It was just as well that I had brought supplies for serious cooking, which was already on my list for the next day; I quickly gave up any fond, foolish hopes of leftovers as I watched the stew and crusty sourdough rolls disappear. His discomfort seemed to fade, though, and he reached for the dish towel without being asked as I started washing our few dishes.
"Thanks for the dinner, Ms. Ross," he said as he finished drying the silverware.
"Megan, please," I corrected gently. "And you're more than welcome."
"Megan." He smiled hesitantly, then held out his hand. "My friends call me Richie..."
Hastily I dried my own hand on the apron I'd improvised from a dish towel and clasped his firmly. "Good to meet you, Richie." I saw the relief in his eyes and smiled.
"I wish it had been." He stared hard at the floor. "Are you always this nice to idiots who try to take your head over nothing?"
"Richie--" All at once I found myself groping for the right words. I took his other hand, held them both in mine while my mind raced. "The short answer is no, I'm not," I finally said. "You're off the hook for now because I don't think you're an idiot any more than I think that fight was 'over nothing'--there was more to it than just you and me and the Game. Besides, I never met you before tonight, and I've only seen Duncan maybe four or five times in the last three hundred years or so."
"The last three hundred ..." he repeated, his voice fading as surprise flashed across his face. He took a deep breath. "Megan, I'm sorry, but you're wrong--I am an idiot--" He started to turn away, but I kept hold of his hands.
"Shush." My best teacher voice startled him into silence. "We were both very lucky out there tonight," I told him quietly. "Let's just be glad it ended as well as it did, and that I had a safe place to bring you instead of having to leave you unconscious in the ditch." I smiled a little and clasped his hands a touch tighter for a moment. "It could have turned out a lot worse, regardless of who won."
He sighed and gave me a halfhearted smile. "Yeah." I let go of his hands. He held on to my fingers for a second, then he was turning away to fetch the empty bread basket from the table. "Ah, what about my bike?" he asked as he handed the basket to me.
"I managed to get it off the road and into the trees," I said. "After breakfast tomorrow we'll go pick it up in the Jeep, then we'll take it down to Tolliver's and see how long it will take to fix it. You're welcome to stay here, but I'm afraid I'm not really set up for having a lot of company--"
"The couch is just fine," he assured me quickly.
Morning came a whole lot earlier than I'd had in mind. The scent of coffee brewing got me out of bed, and I ambled out to the kitchen after taking a minute to wash my face, tie my hair back, and generally make sure I wouldn't scare small children--or young men, for that matter. In a moment of silliness I struck a seductive pose in the bathroom mirror, but somehow my jeans and heavy sweater spoiled the effect. I grinned at my reflection and went out to the kitchen.
"Good morning," Richie greeted me. "I hope you don't mind--"
"That coffee smells like heaven," I said, taking a long breath and enjoying the aroma. Richie took a mug from the cabinet, filled it, and handed it to me with a flourish and an apologetic smile.
"Good thing something does," he commented wryly. "Any chance of a shower before breakfast?"
I led him to the guest bathroom and got out the usual necessities, counting myself lucky when I found a new toothbrush in the drawer, still wrapped and sealed. "Your saddlebags are with your bike," I explained. "There wasn't time to try to get them--I was afraid another car would come along and lose it there, and nail us both. Connor manages to leave something behind every time he visits--everything will be too long, but at least it's clean. We'll run your stuff through the washer and dryer so you can wear your own jeans into town."
"Thanks." He gave me a rueful smile. "This sweatshirt is history."
We drank the last of the coffee while Richie's clothes cycled through the dryer. He seemed to relax over breakfast, enjoying watching me cook and helping out here and there, and greeting the results with youthful enthusiasm. Now his smile faded as he set his mug down.
"Megan, uh, there's something I need to ask you," he said, his eyes fixed firmly somewhere over my left shoulder. He took a deep breath. "About this trip into town..."
I nodded. "We probably won't be back until the middle of the afternoon," I said mildly. "I thought I'd take care of some errands, we'll get some lunch, and we can pick up a couple of movies to watch tonight, if you want."
"That's not--" He shook his head, then blurted, "Are you sure you want to trust me off holy ground?"
"Is there some reason why I shouldn't?" I asked gently. I waited for a minute, and when he didn't answer I continued, "I don't know what's going on with you, where all that anger came from last night or why you're so quick to think the worst of everyone and doubly so of yourself. You don't have to tell me any of that, but it would be simple courtesy to let me know if someone is after your head--I can't very well watch your back if I don't know who I'm watching for."
His surprise would have been amusing if I hadn't seen the sadness that clouded his face, only to be hidden again almost before I noticed it. He stared into his empty coffee mug for a long moment before he met my eyes. "No one in particular is after me," he said, answering the easy question first. "If they are, I don't know about it." He took a deep breath, then reached over hesitantly and took hold of my hand. "Megan, I swear I won't make a move on you. Anyone else would have taken my head last night--I still don't understand why you didn't, but I owe you big time. Besides," he added with an embarrassed smile, "when I look at you, I--I want to protect you, even though I know you can do that better than I probably could ... It's been a long time since I felt like that about someone."
I held his hand and smiled and hoped my relief didn't show.
The trip into town was a lot more pleasant than my drive the night before, though it was still cold. The radio in the Jeep said they were looking for temperatures in the high 40's to low 50's, which was a big improvement. The shady spots were treacherous, but the ice on the road was melting in the sun and already there were puddles and mud everywhere. I found the spot where I'd moved Richie's motorcycle off the road without too much trouble, even with everything looking different in daylight and coming from the opposite direction. Together we got it out of the trees and up to the Jeep.
Richie groaned when he got a good look at his bike. I don't know much about motorcycles, but daylight didn't seem to do this one any favors. Jack Tolliver down at the town's one garage and body shop was the only person who would be happy to see it.
"Maybe it's not as bad as it looks," I suggested, trying to keep the doubt out of my voice.
"I hope you're right," Richie replied, but the look he gave the bike said he didn't think so.
"Look, they know me in town. Let me cover this- -you can square up with me later. Jack does good work, but he's more than happy to charge for it and that out of state plate will only encourage him."
Richie smiled up at me with relief from where he squatted next to his bike. "Thanks, Megan. I've seen that one a time or two already." The smile faded as he turned serious. "Count on the part about squaring up."
"You're on." I opened the Jeep's back hatch and spread a tarp over the floor of the cargo area. With some heaving and groaning and a few choice words, we managed to wrestle the bike into the back of the Jeep.
Jack Tolliver was a lot happier to see Richie's motorcycle before I told him I'd be paying for the repairs. We stood at the counter and went back and forth about prices and parts and labor long enough for my feet to get tired, even in my favorite boots. It didn't help that Richie had done some customizing and replaced some of the more important parts with the expensive racing versions. Finally the mechanic who had been looking at it came back out to the counter. Jack stepped away and had a quiet consultation with the man.
"This is definitely not a good sign," Richie observed under his breath.
I was inclined to agree with him, but before I could say anything Jack was coming back to the counter and telling us that it looked worse than it probably was, shouldn't take more than a day, maybe two. He was already busy with other casualties of the storm, but he'd see what he could do. Richie turned to me as the stocky, gray-haired mechanic totalled everything up, his relief turning to concern when he heard the numbers. He started to ask if I was still willing to cover it like we'd planned, but subsided when I bumped him hard on the ankle with the side of my boot.
"So, Megan, what happened? You hit him during that storm last night and decide to keep the insurance companies out of it, or what?" Jack asked after I had given Richie my keys and sent him to help get the bike out of the Jeep.
I grinned. "Not even close," I answered. At least that part was the truth. "He's my cousin's kid, out visiting from Seacouver. He planned this road trip for a long time, but I think the idea is fast losing its appeal."
"He's lucky he didn't get busted up along with his bike," Jack observed. "What the hell--at that age they just kinda bounce, don't they?"
I grinned and nodded in agreement. "Yeah, they're all convinced they're bulletproof, and they get lucky just often enough to encourage them."
Richie came back into the office then, and I hustled us out as quickly as I could.
"So what's next?" he asked as we got back in the Jeep.
I glanced at my watch. Still a little early for lunch. "Well, I need to check my post office box, and I forgot a couple of things when I bought groceries to bring up here. We'll leave the store for last." I put the Jeep in gear and headed toward the center of town.
The post office was quiet, with only a couple of people in line. I waved to the clerks at the counter and went over to the boxes. Richie's eyes widened at the amount of paper stuffed in mine.
"Don't get excited," I grumped as I opened it and started pulling things out. "Bet you lunch that there's at least two come-ons from record clubs and one from a book club, two publishing houses trying to tell me I'm about to win their big sweepstakes, and a couple of catalogs."
"You're on." He grinned as he surveyed the rapidly growing pile on the nearest countertop.
"There should be a wastebasket around here somewhere," I commented. "Looks like we're going to need it for a minute." I straightened up from reaching into the box as Richie set the wastebasket down within easy reach. "Let's see what we have here. H'mm, an invitation from a singles group, first record club, two sweepstakes packets from the same publishing house--"
"--Still only counts once."
"Right. Book club, second record club, software catalog, second publishing house..." I fell silent as I continued to sort through the mail, most of it going directly into the wastebasket. "Aha! Now we're getting to the good stuff. This one should be a check, here's a couple of letters, the phone bill, ditto for gas and electric, and this looks like another check, thank Heaven."
"How did you get on all those mailing lists? It takes me six months to get this much mail--not that I'm complaining."
"You're welcome to some of mine!" I laughed. "I never got this much until I moved out here--I guess they figure anybody in a small town has to want to order this stuff." I put the few envelopes worth keeping into my coat pocket, then headed outside and started up the sidewalk.
Richie looked a little startled when I stopped to check the special board by the front door of Elsa's place, which has been called The Lodge since sometime in the 'Twenties despite various owners' attempts to change the name. When Elsa Schreiber bought it just after World War Two, she wisely decided to leave the name alone and put her energy into excellent food served in a setting as comfortable as a good friend's house. I could almost hear Richie groan when he saw the prices, and he hung back as I reached for the heavy wrought iron handle on the front door.
"Don't worry," I told him. "The owner and I are friends. Besides, this is on me, remember?"
He nodded unhappily. "Yeah, but I figured we'd just get a burger somewhere ..."
"Guess again." I grinned. "I never cheap out on a bet. This is where I always stop when I'm up here, and I thought you might like it, too."
"Okay." He brightened a little, and I opened the door before he could change his mind and start arguing again.
We had the place almost to ourselves. Elsa had just opened and we had beaten the usual lunchtime crowd. She turned from inspecting an arrangement of fresh flowers to greet us, looking like an Austrian baroness expecting guests in the country, slim and aristocratic in a wool skirt and cashmere sweater with the pearl strand she always wears.
"Megan!" The baroness all but vanished as Elsa greeted me with a warm smile. "You look tired, liebchen. You have been traveling too much and working too hard again, I can tell! But maybe it is not so bad if you do not go alone..." She turned to Richie, a query in one elegantly arched eyebrow.
"This is Richie Ryan," I said quickly. "Richie, Elsa Schreiber."
"It's a pleasure." Richie smiled and took the hand Elsa held out. To my astonishment, he bowed slightly and brought her hand briefly to his lips. Elsa smiled in delight and somehow managed to shoot me her we-really-have-to-talk look over Richie's head at the same time. I gave her a slight nod in acknowledgment, and then she was showing us to a table in a quiet corner.
As soon as we were seated a waiter brought menus and filled our water goblets. "You made some serious points with Elsa," I told Richie when the waiter had gone.
He smiled absently. "Sometimes I get lucky." His eyes full of memories, he turned his attention to the menu. "So... where do you know her from?"
"We're neighbors," I said easily. "Her place is up the hill from me. I met her one day when her car had broken down and I stopped to help." That wasn't the half of it, but the rest wasn't mine to share.
The waiter came for our orders then, and when he had headed off to the kitchen I excused myself to the ladies' room. As I crossed the dining room I noticed that Elsa had placed us with Richie's back to the short corridor that led to the restrooms and her office. You don't miss a trick, do you, my friend, I thought as I swallowed a smile.
Elsa was waiting when I came back out into the corridor. Deftly she steered me into her office and closed the door behind us. "I had a call this morning," she said unhappily. "If even half of it is reliable--and I know the information is much better than that ..." She ran a hand through superbly-cut graying blonde hair, the sleeve of her sweater sliding up past the edge of the tattoo inside her left wrist.
Oh, God, I thought, why is this so hard for her? My mouth went dry. I forced myself to stay calm, but I had to know. "Elsa, what is it?" I asked gently. I swallowed hard. "Is it Connor?"
She stared at me in surprise for a moment. "No, no, Connor is fine, the last I heard he was giving his Watcher the jet-lag again--" All at once she stopped and put her hands on my shoulders. "Liebchen, I am sorry! Here I am trying so hard to say this right so I do not make it worse, and all the time you are thinking--"
"It's all right, Elsa," I told her. Tears were stinging my eyes even as I smiled. "It's all right, but you had me going for a minute! Now out with it, before I have to deal with awkward questions on top of cold food."
"Never a good combination," she agreed, with a smile that quickly faded. Her hands came off my shoulders and she stepped back. "Your young friend is trouble, I am told. He left Seacouver very suddenly a few months ago, and since then he has all but gone from one fight to another."
"I can imagine," I said, remembering how Richie had introduced himself to me. "I'll tell you all about it when we have more time," I added in response to her questioning look. "I wish I knew what was going on with him."
She nodded. "So do I. All his Watcher knew for certain was that he went to his usual place to work out, his old teacher showed up while Richie was there--"
"Duncan MacLeod?" I cut in.
"Ja. The two of them were there for a while, then there were gunshots, four or five of them, close together. Richie ran outside, got on his motorbike, and took off like the bat out of hell." She paused, concern showing in her eyes. "Watch your head, liebchen."
"Always," I promised her soberly. "I've got to go."
Richie was dawdling over his salad when I returned to the table. "Everything okay?"
I nodded as I swept my napkin into my lap and picked up my salad fork. "Sorry that took so long. I ran into Elsa and, well, you know how it is when friends haven't seen each other for a while..."
There was one question still nagging at me even after we had finished lunch and gone to the bank so I could drop off the checks I'd picked up that morning. Where did Richie's teacher fit into all this? Presumably they had remained friends after Richie took his first Quickening, or he wouldn't have gone where he did to work out.
If Elsa's information was reliable, and I had no reason to doubt it, why wasn't someone pulling in the reins on this youngster before he picked one fight too many and got himself well and truly killed? The only thing I was really sure of was how fast and hard Connor would land on me for what Richie appeared to be doing, never mind all the years since my own first Quickening. I'd be wishing a ton of bricks had caught up to me instead. I shook my head as we walked back toward where I'd parked the Jeep, uncertain whether Richie's teacher was unwilling or unable to intervene. That uncertainty troubled me more than I wanted to admit, even to myself.
I pushed my concerns to the back of my mind as I drove to the grocery store. Once inside, it seemed I was accosted at almost every turn by someone I knew. Yes, I was back for awhile; my cousin's kid was out from Seacouver and would be staying with me for a couple of days; yes, I would be at the church choir rehearsal Thursday night, thanks for reminding me; no, I hadn't heard about the fire at the Johnsons' place, good thing everyone was all right. When at last we found a moment of solitude next to shelves of toothpaste and dental floss, all I could do was shake my head and try not to laugh out loud. The expression on Richie's face wasn't helping.
"The church choir?" he asked me incredulously, grinning.
"Why not?" I retorted. "I enjoy the music, and they're always glad of another voice, even though I can't always be there."
Richie looked at me, clearly remembering how we'd met and having a hard time picturing me singing hymns. "Yeah, right."
"Besides, in a good week I get five or six hours away from home without having to watch my back--it's better than single malt." I grinned, then let it fade as I added, "And sometimes, to be honest, I need people around."
He nodded soberly at that. "Yeah," he agreed quietly. "Megan, I'm sorry. It must be nice to belong somewhere like this."
I glanced away in time to see the choir director wave to me as she turned toward the produce section. I waved back. "Gonna hurt like a sonofabitch when it's time to leave."
The next morning found me up and about while Richie was still sleeping. The old orchard was going to be a mess after the storm, and I expected a busy few days getting it ready for the coming winter. I padded quietly out to the kitchen and made coffee, then turned my attention to breakfast. When the smell of the coffee didn't wake him, I went to see what was keeping Richie.
It looked like he'd had a bad night. The sheets and blankets of his makeshift bed on the couch were half tangled around him and half on the floor. He was murmuring something in his sleep, and by the sound of it he wasn't enjoying his dreams. I watched for a while, wanting to wake him up but not certain if I should. The thought of a Spanish rapier somewhere under the bedding on the floor made me careful, too.
Finally I went around the couch, so that I was leaning over the back of it, and reached down to gently shake his shoulder. "Richie?" I said softly.
He started a little in his sleep. "Mac?" he said, still dreaming.
"Richie, it's Megan. Wake up." My hand on his shoulder was firmer this time.
"Huh--what? Where--" He got his eyes open, his gaze clearing as he looked around. "Oh... hi, Megan." He yawned and rubbed his eyes. "What time is it?"
"A little after seven. Are you okay?"
He thought about that for a minute. "I guess so. Jeez, it felt like I dreamed all night."
I glanced at the tangled bedding. "Looks like you weren't exactly dreaming about Cindy Crawford," I commented, wondering how to be sympathetic without embarrassing him.
"Yeah, well ..." He sat up and started untangling himself from the sheets.
"You can sleep a while longer, if you'd like," I offered.
Richie shook his head. "Thanks anyway. I should get up, maybe practice for a while..."
"I think you'll like my workout room." I smiled. "It's even better after breakfast."
My workout room started life as the monks' dormitory, then went through various incarnations that had included an artist's studio, a teenager's private hangout, and roughly a century of less than benign neglect. When I bought the place, half the windows were broken, mice and squirrels had done a job on the wiring, and the skylights installed by the artist leaked. All in all, the whole business had looked like such a project that I put off tackling it until I moved back here again. Now hardwood gleamed softly on the floor and the walls were well insulated behind smooth plaster, with a long stretch of full- length mirror down one side. The artist's skylights had been redone.
"Whoa!" Richie said respectfully, hesitating in the doorway as he looked around.
"Come on in," I said. "I'll show you where everything is. There's a shower and dressing area down at the other end."
He followed me across the hardwood, sword in hand. "This is a great practice floor."
I nodded. "It's just about perfect for kata. You don't want to know how long it took Connor and me to put it in."
I showed him where to find everything, towels and weights and all of that, and made sure he knew how the few pieces of exercise equipment worked. He was absorbed in practice with his rapier before I got to the door.
My own exercise routine involved broken branches and drifts of fallen leaves. After helping to feed nearly a century's worth of monks, the orchard had been abandoned to nature. I had had more pressing concerns, and turned my attention to it relatively recently. Now it had a split-rail fence, which did nothing to slow down the occasional deer but was tall enough to discourage two-legged predators. The fence had also let me expand the perimeter of my security system, and before I started on the rest of the mess I took time to make sure the hardware was still secure. The panel in the house could only register the various components as functioning or not; there was no indicator for "ready to go down the next time a squirrel bumps it."
That done, I unlocked the shed and got out the stepladder, gloves, a pruning saw and a can of tree seal. I pulled off my sweater and left it folded neatly on the small workbench. The morning breeze was more than a match for the cotton knit tank top I wore underneath, but I knew the goosebumps wouldn't last long. I picked up the ladder and tools and headed for the far side of the orchard.
It was one of those bittersweet early fall mornings, with a deep blue sky that seemed to reach halfway to Heaven and the first kiss of winter in the soft breeze. I moved methodically through the trees, with only the rustling of leaves and the rhythmic burr of the hand saw to ruffle the silence. Occasionally a bird twittered, off in the woods outside my fence.
A twingeing sense of presence brought me back to myself. Carefully I finished daubing sealant on the end of the freshly-cut branch and put the lid back on the can before I turned to look over my shoulder.
"Can I give you a hand with that?" Richie asked as he came toward me.
"I'm almost done, but I could use some help gathering up the dead branches," I told him, pushing a stray lock of hair out of my face. "There should be another pair of gloves in the shed."
He nodded and took off, returning quickly with leather work gloves in hand. I sent him off to the far edge of the orchard, then dealt with the last broken limb. My back and shoulders protested when I picked up the ladder to put it back in the shed. The fatigue and soreness would pass, but I still wished I'd taken Connor's suggestion about putting in the hot tub. I tried to figure out how to add room for it to the old dormitory as I got the wheelbarrow out and started in Richie's direction. I couldn't help wondering if it would embarrass the old monks' ghosts.
I was still grinning at that thought when I got to the pile of branches Richie had started.
"What's so funny?" he asked as he put an armload of dead wood on the pile.
"Nothing much," I answered lightly. "Just reconsidering a suggestion of Connor's for the workout room." Damned if I was going to tell him all of it, especially as I watched his expression shift from curiosity to appreciation of the trim black tank top as I bent to lower the wheelbarrow's handles.
It took the better part of another hour to gather up rest of the branches. We worked together in companionable silence, enjoying the golden day and the feeling of accomplishment that comes of work followed by visible evidence of progress. I smiled tiredly as I started toward the wheelbarrow, now filled with the last load, pausing to stretch my back and roll my shoulders before picking up the handles.
"Here, let me get that," Richie insisted quietly. "You've been out here all morning." He stepped up to the wheelbarrow, close enough to let me catch a faint whiff of healthy male sweat. I moved back, surprised to find myself so keenly aware of the gentle rippling under his T-shirt as he took hold of the handles.
We left the branches beside the compost heap and started toward the house. "Want me to see what I can do for those shoulders?" Richie offered as we started past the workout room.
"That would be wonderful," I answered. "I could use a shower, though."
"Yeah, me too," he agreed, "but first we get your shoulders loosened up--then you can really enjoy the hot shower."
I nodded and opened the back door to the workout room, letting us in just a few steps from the dressing area. Once there, Richie gestured toward the wide padded bench along one wall. I sat down and pulled off my shoes, then turned sideways to put my back within reach as he settled on the bench.
His strong swordsman's hands went to work on my tight muscles, exploring gently at first, not knowing how much pressure I might like. I gasped softly as his fingers kneaded their way down my back and started upward again.
"Excuse me a minute," I murmured, annoyed as the tank top decided to crawl up and get in the way.
"Megan, are you okay?" Richie asked quietly as he took his hands away. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"Not at all," I assured him quickly, wanting to ease the concern I heard in his voice. I tugged the tank top out of my jeans and pulled it off, then released the clasp at the front of my bra. I dropped both garments discreetly on the floor next to the bench.
He kneaded the top of my right shoulder with one hand and carefully worked the joint with the other. I sighed as I felt tight muscles relax and let little happy sounds burble out of my throat.
"Those were in the way," he agreed, a smile in his voice. "It didn't look very comfortable for you, but I wasn't sure how to ask..." He transferred his attentions to my other shoulder. This side felt even better. When he felt the shoulder loosen up, he started in on the back of my neck, then moved to the muscles just above my collarbones. His hands moved slowly downward, careful fingers probing the muscles of my chest. Then the softness of his lips on the back of my neck and the warmth of his hands brushing against my breasts made me gasp and arch my back.
He snatched his hands away as if I'd burned him. "I'm sorry, Megan! I should have asked," he apologized quickly. "If you want me to stop, just say so and this is over right now."
"I didn't mean to startle you," I apologized in turn and tried to gather my scattered wits. For the last several years I've lived alone, with business trips and the occasional visit with Connor to punctuate the quiet times which lately came too often.
Connor and I had been teacher and student for a long time, good friends for longer still. When we drifted into becoming lovers it was sporadic at best, connecting only when distance and the timing of our respective marriages permitted, but that didn't keep me from missing him. My most recent husband was years dead, living only in memories until Richie abruptly reminded me just how good a man's hands could feel. The things we do to keep the loneliness away, I thought wryly, even as I leaned back against him and turned so I could meet his troubled eyes. Whatever else he might be, right now he was trying hard to be a gentleman. "This doesn't have to stop here," I said softly, "though I'll understand if you'd rather not go on..."
He answered that by gently tilting my head back against his shoulder. The kiss that followed left no doubt about his hopes for the afternoon.
Sunset colors were beginning to glow through the curtained windows when I opened my eyes again. Richie smiled down at me as he brushed my hair back from my face. I turned quickly to kiss the palm of his hand as it moved before smiling back.
"Thanks," I said, then stopped as I heard him saying the same thing at the same moment. "Great minds..." I suggested as we laughed together.
"Great something," he amended, grinning, then sobered. "Megan ... thanks for chasing the shadows away for a while."
"You, too," I said quietly. I sat up, gave him a quick one-armed hug and stood up from the bench. I picked up my scattered clothing and handed Richie his jeans. Suddenly my stomach remembered that we'd skipped lunch and rumbled loudly in the silence. "How about we go back to the house and clean up, then go get some dinner?" I offered, laughing a little as I put on my shoes and just enough clothing to go outside without flashing the wildlife.
"Fine with me, as long as you let me buy." He hesitated just long enough to let visions of greaseburgers drift through my head and grinned at the look on my face. "Your friend's place okay?"
I couldn't help worrying a little about the financial consequences of Richie's gallant gesture as I drove us down to town through the gathering dusk. "You don't have to do this," I finally said as I turned into a parking lot a couple of blocks from The Lodge.
"I know," he replied, watching for a parking space. "I want to, though... I couldn't think of any other way to thank you for putting me up and helping out with the bike--it would have cost a bundle if you hadn't been there." He paused to point out a vacant space. "About this afternoon ..."
"This afternoon surprised the hell out of me." I parked the Jeep, turned off the ignition and the lights.
He stared out the windshield, startled into silence. "Yeah ... me, too," he said at last. Hesitantly he reached over and took my hand for a moment, then released his seatbelt and opened his door.
No strings. As we walked to the restaurant, I realized that I was profoundly relieved.
The Lodge was busy, the dinner hour well started. Elsa was sorting out some problem with a large party's reservation and could only give us a well-bred wave and a sharp look as her maitre d' put us on the list for a table. She caught up to us a few minutes later as we waited in the bar, but the maitre d' was right behind her to tell "Mr. Ryan" that his table was ready. All she could do was raise one eloquent eyebrow as she saw us escorted into the dining room, Richie's hand resting lightly in the small of my back for a moment.
I was too preoccupied to give the menu the attention it deserved. Finally I told Richie that whatever he was having was fine with me and would he please order for both of us. We made desultory conversation while I played with my water goblet and tried to sort things out. Elsa had been my Watcher for the last ten years or so that I knew of, and while I have made some effort not to lead any of mine into harm's way, in the end a Watcher is a vehicle for a chronicle and a video camera.
My friend Elsa, however, was someone who had bent if not broken her oath more than once on my account, and my apparent disregard for her concern was poor repayment indeed. It was one thing to be alone on holy ground with this young man, and quite another to haul him around the countryside with me. Granted, Richie had promised me no harm, but broken promises were nothing new to me: they cut like sharp steel and can be just as deadly. Our impulsive afternoon's enjoyment of each other would make me vulnerable the instant I let it become anything more than the very welcome distraction it had been.
As I thought of it, I realized how much I missed Connor and how right he was when he urged me to think about marrying again. As much as I had enjoyed the young man across the table from me, the knowledge remained that we hardly knew each other and in another day he would be gone. Waking up together was half the pleasure for me, and already the memories made me hungry for someone who would be there for some mornings after.
Richie was putting considerable effort into hosting a pleasant evening, and as we ate I grew annoyed with myself for not being better company. I gave up as I saw a waiter bringing the pastry tray our way. After telling Richie that if he wanted dessert it should be chocolate and come with two forks, otherwise coffee was enough for me, I excused myself to the restroom as soon as Elsa glanced our way.
She was urging me into her office before I could get my hand on the restroom door. "What do you think you are doing, liebchen? Have you lost your mind? Or is it your head you wish to lose?" She might as well have been shouting as she fired questions at me, but her sharp words were pitched not to carry to the passageway outside.
"Elsa... I'm sorry."
She blinked in astonishment. "Your life--and your head--are yours to risk or not as you see fit, liebchen," she said slowly. "It is I who should apologize..."
"For what, Elsa? Being my friend?"
"Some of my... colleagues would say that I am wrong because of precisely that." She turned, straightened a few of the collection of framed photographs clustered on the wall near her desk. "You know far better than I how to live your life," she said at last. "I don't know what advice I think I can give you--it is foolish of me to try." She ended the photo-straightening exercise with her back to me.
I shifted a step or two, put one hand on her shoulder. "No," I said simply. "It might surprise you, but I always listen--whether I agree or not is beside the point. I'm just glad you care that much."
"Even when it looks like what I tell you goes in one ear and out the other, without the slowing down in between?" Elsa demanded. She stepped away and turned to face me. "I tell you this Ryan is trouble, I ask you to be careful--how careful can you be while you're in bed with him?"
All I could do was stare at her. "That's one hell of an assumption, Elsa," I said flatly.
"Not by the tension between you," she shot back. "You look like new lovers who are still getting used to the idea." Her voice softened at my worried look. "It is something only another woman would notice, and one who didn't know you well would miss it," she told me with a small reassuring smile. "I doubt anyone but me would suspect anything ... interesting between you and your cousin's son visiting from Seacouver. One must admit, he is a very attractive young man." Elsa hesitated, rested one hand lightly on my arm. "I only met Robert a few times, liebchen," she said gently. "I know him mostly from what you have told me. Still, I cannot believe he would wish you to remain alone so long for the sake of honoring his memory."
I couldn't answer her at first, and stared unseeing at the photographs over her shoulder. Robert, my husband, who had known what I was and loved me anyway, and had resolved the conflict between his position as an officer of the court and the keeping of his wife's secrets by leaving his thriving law practice. Robert, who had found unexpected delight in teaching English at a small college far from the city he knew and thanked me for his new life in a hundred small ways. Robert, who had died in my arms after being hit by a neighbor's car as he walked home from the campus at dusk. Robert, whose spirit had seemed to hover at my shoulder, giving me the strength and the words to forgive a heartsick novice driver and hold a trembling teenager as she cried.
"Are you all right, liebchen?" Elsa's soft words pulled me back to myself. The concern in her eyes was much at odds with her Watcher's oath.
I nodded, swallowed tears clogging my throat. "Sometimes... it feels like it happened yesterday."
She turned to her desk, poured mineral water from a crystal carafe, pressed the glass into my hand. I could feel something shifting down inside, and I sipped the water gratefully, holding on. "He would want you to have today, Megan, would he not?"
It was no idle question. Tears stung my eyes as I remembered Robert telling me exactly that. He had known that he was more than two centuries too late to be the first man in my life. At the same time, he never wanted to be the last. He wanted only to be loved and remembered, he would say the few times we spoke of it, then add half jokingly that he didn't mind as long as he made the top ten percent, but if not he'd come back and haunt me for making bad choices. The memory made me smile as my eyes filled.
Briskly Elsa took the glass I still held and set it on the desk with one hand as she held out a box of tissues with the other. I took one and dabbed carefully at my eyes, then picked up the glass. "Your coffee is getting cold, liebchen."
"You're right," I said, draining the glass and setting it back on her desk. "So is Connor, dammit."
I closed the door on her quizzical look. Richie's impish grin faded abruptly as I came back to the table and sat down. Concern shadowed his face, but he said nothing until a waiter had answered his gesture and poured coffee for us. A dessert plate held a rather generous slice of chocolate cheesecake centered on a swirl of raspberry puree, with more berries gracing the top of it and two small silver forks resting on the edge of the plate.
"Everything okay, Megan?" Richie smiled hesitantly and pushed the plate toward me.
I nodded and busied myself with my coffee, taking my time with sugar and cream, sipped at it before I spoke. "Yes. Some old memories got stirred up tonight, that's all." I picked up one of the dessert forks, only to put it down on the tablecloth.
"We don't have to stay," Richie said quietly. "I've taken care of the bill--we can leave if you like."
I hated to give up so easily. It had been a rather expensive evening for him, and to leave now seemed unfair. I sipped coffee again, finding the creamy sweetness of it oddly comforting. Managing a smile, I picked up the fork. "They do such a beautiful job with desserts here--it seems a shame to waste it."
He smiled back and took the other fork. "I was hoping you'd say that." He made a small after-you gesture.
I took him up on it, then contrived to let him have most of the cheesecake. It was up to Elsa's usual high standard, but I was still not in the right mood to really appreciate it. The richness of it was almost overpowering. Richie didn't seem to like the raspberries all that much, though, so it came out almost even.
Oh, damn. The presence of another Immortal nudged me in the stomach as we walked back to the Jeep. I glanced up and down the well-lit street, the katana a comforting weight in my coat. Richie was looking for the source of it too, but with no more luck than I was having.
"Well, he's keeping his distance, whoever he is," I commented, relaxing a bit.
"Maybe we surprised him, too," Richie said, his hand dropping from his lapel to the side pocket of his jacket. "Do you think it might be Connor? You said he comes to visit sometimes."
"He usually calls first, especially after the time he showed up in the middle of the night and tripped the security system." I smiled in spite of myself at the memory of the uproar that had ensued. "In any case, there are still some people around--not much anyone can do in the middle of town. The late movies won't be over for another hour or so, at least," I pointed out. "Let's go get the Jeep and head on home. I don't want to provoke a challenge by scaring the daylights out of whoever this is."
Richie looked at me oddly, as though avoiding a fight would never have occurred to him, but kept walking. He even tried to relax a little.
The sense of presence got stronger as we approached the parking lot. A car door closed loudly and startled both of us, then a middle-aged couple backed a Cadillac out of a space and drove away. Richie and I exchanged sheepish grins and headed for the Jeep.
The presence hit me hard as I fished my keys out of my coat pocket. I forced myself to reach out calmly and unlock the driver's door.
"Well done, Megan," Connor's voice said from the front of the Jeep. He stood up from where he'd hidden in the shadows between the bumper and the side of the neighboring building. "You were looking so distracted back there that I couldn't resist a little wake-up call." The grin he gave me was full of mischief, but he and I both knew that he was right.
"Hello, Richie. Where's Duncan?"
Richie's stricken look was clearly the wrong answer. In one quick movement Connor grabbed the front of the younger man's jacket and slammed him hard against the brick building. "I said, where's Duncan?"
"Connor, stop!" I hurried around the front end of the Cherokee. "Are you trying to get yourself arrested? This is not the time or the place for this!"
"Forgive me if I disagree with you, Megan," Connor replied, his eyes never leaving Richie's face and his tone warning me not to press matters any further. "What in Heaven's name have you done, boy?"
"Connor." I took a deep breath. "The 'boy' is a guest in my house. He has my protection."
Connor turned to stare at me, letting go of Richie so abruptly that he almost fell. "What?"
I finished unlocking the Jeep. "Get in," I told Richie, who was still breathing hard as he leaned on the hood. Shaken and pale, he nodded once and got into the back seat without a word. As soon as the door was closed I turned back to Connor. "I found him on the road late yesterday afternoon, right after he'd spilled his bike on a patch of ice. I stopped to help, he picked a fight, I won."
"But you didn't take his head."
"The whole fight felt wrong--the light was fading, the ground was bad, and I'm willing to bet he doesn't know the area. I tried to talk him out of it, but his answer to that was 'let's just say I've had a really bad week.' Since when has that been any reason for a fight?"
"For some of us, it's more than enough," Connor reminded me, calming down as he began to get curious.
"Agreed, but not for you or me nor, I suspect, for Duncan. So why should it be enough for Duncan's former student, who at least appears to still be his friend?"
"That's a question Richie will have to answer, right after the one I already asked him. I haven't been able to raise Duncan at the dojo or on the barge. I've been leaving messages for the last month, and he never takes this long to return a call."
No wonder he was upset. I put my arms around him and held him close. After a moment I drew back enough to meet his eyes. "I know what you're thinking, and I know how it feels," I said gently. "Elsa tried to warn me about Richie yesterday. She was having such a hard time saying anything that for a minute I was certain she was trying to tell me that--that something had happened to you. I almost couldn't ask her if that was what she meant." I wondered what my face was giving away, and forced myself to smile. "When I did, she told me that you were fine and apologized for the confusion."
"I hope that's all this is." I felt his arms close around me, and let my head rest against his shoulder.
"Me, too," I murmured into the fabric of his coat. After a moment I eased away. "There's a better time and place for this, too," I pointed out quietly.
"Better audience, at least." He smiled a little and reached for the handle on the front passenger door. "What did Elsa tell you?"
"Later," I said firmly as I went around to the driver's side. I hoped Connor had gotten some dinner somewhere.
I drove home up the mountain with Connor staring stonily out the windshield, silent and unreadable. Richie had started to say something as I got in the Jeep, but gave it up after two words. The occasional glance in the mirror caught him looking skittish and thoroughly miserable. Neither of them moved until I had parked the vehicle in the garage and opened my door.
"I know this isn't easy, but putting it off won't help," I said quietly as I got out. "Come inside, where it's warm. There's nothing to be gained by staying out here."
Neither of them looked thrilled at the idea, but they had both caught up to me by the time I got the door into the house unlocked. I sent them into the main room to wait while I went down the hallway to deal with the security system.
Connor was poking the fire into life when I came back. I left him to it and got Richie to help me bring glasses and the bottle of Laphroaig to the coffee table. He looked glad to have something to do. By the time I finished pouring, Connor had the fire going to his satisfaction. He sat down on the hearth, cocking an eyebrow at me over the rim of his glass as Richie and I took opposite ends of the sofa.
"Richie," I said quietly, "Connor deserves an answer to his question about Duncan."
He nodded miserably. "Mac still had his head when I left the dojo," he said. "I don't know where he went after that."
Connor relaxed a little and took a sip of his drink, but he still looked troubled. "What happened?"
"I went to the dojo to work out, just like always. I had the place to myself--at least that part of it, I don't know where Mac was--so I put some lights on and started practicing with my sword. After a while Mac came in, and ..." His voice trailed off and his hands clenched in his lap. "He asked what I was doing there--in the dojo--like all of a sudden I wasn't supposed to be there or something. He had his sword in his hand, and he was walking toward me, and then he--it was like he turned into a stranger--he got this look in his eyes--and then he went for me."
"Sounds like a trick I've pulled on Megan once or--"
"No way," Richie said flatly, cutting him off. "Connor, he tried to kill me--tried to take my head. I wanted to know why--I was asking him--he wouldn't tell me--just kept attacking until he got me on my knees..." His hand trembled as he reached for his glass. We waited in silence as he drank, gave him time to steady himself. "I thought I was dead," he said at last. "All I could do was watch him raise his sword. I didn't hear the elevator come up or the door open." He shuddered, and all at once looked very young. "He--he looked like he was enjoying it. The next thing I knew there were gunshots--someone was shooting him--"
"Who shot him?" Connor asked sharply. "Was it one of--"
"No." Richie sipped at his drink.
"Then who was it?" Connor looked ready to launch himself across the coffee table.
"Just--just some guy," Richie answered, staring into his glass. "He hit him maybe four times in the chest. Mac went down and he--the guy told me to get out of there. I didn't hang around." He looked up and met Connor's eyes. "I swear, Mac still had his head when I left."
"For your sake, let's hope he still does," Connor told him.
I got up and slipped out to the kitchen to see about some coffee, concerned for Richie and profoundly grateful that my partially-modernized former monastery had somehow missed being deconsecrated. Holy ground is our protection and our refuge, but Richie should have been safe anywhere with the man who had been his teacher and his friend. As I ground coffee beans and heated water, I wondered how I would feel if Connor turned on me like that. I finally had to admit that such a betrayal was more pain than I could imagine.
"I'd swear he's hiding something, but you've had more time with Richie than I have in the last few days," Connor said as he carefully pushed the door closed. I waved him to the easy chair and sat on the end of the bed, my legs curled under me. We had left Richie asleep on the couch and adjourned to my room with what remained of the Laphroaig. He passed me a glass and settled comfortably into his chair. "I wonder how much of what he told us was the truth."
"I'm thinking most of it was," I answered after a moment's reflection. "At least, it matches what Elsa told me." I sipped at my drink. "When we ... met, he looked like some hard memories were catching up to him when I pulled out the katana. There have been some other times, just for a minute or so, when he looked like he was carrying a lot of baggage. I haven't pressed him about anything, other than to ask before we went into town if anyone in particular were after him. He seemed surprised that I asked, and told me there was no one. He knows who you are--he has to know that if anyone harmed Duncan, they'd have to answer to you for it."
"Unless Duncan gave them a damned good reason, which I can't imagine happening," Connor agreed. "And I can't imagine Duncan going for Richie's head without serious provocation." He gazed into his glass for a moment, swirling it gently and watching the deep amber liquid catch the candlelight. "'Just some guy,' huh? The dojo wouldn't be very tempting to an ordinary thief. Did Elsa have any guesses about it?"
I thought for a moment. "If so, she didn't share them with me. So the dojo's not like a ground- floor storefront that gets a lot of people walking by?"
"No." He shook his head in agreement. "Duncan keeps the entrance to the building locked, and the elevator takes a key, too, not to mention making a fair bit of noise when it runs."
"It sounded like Duncan had Richie's undivided attention--he said he never even heard it come up while he and Duncan were ... whatever." I shifted position a little to forestall a kink in my back. "Who else would have had keys?"
Connor started to say something then, but a loud crash from the living room cut him off. By the time he got out of his chair I was off the bed and headed for the door, my glass abandoned on the night table and a thin curl of smoke rising from the blown-out candle. I glanced at the panel for the security system just long enough to see that all the right lights were lit as I hurried down the hallway, Connor at my heels.
Richie was tossing and thrashing on the couch, pleading with someone only he could see. The coffee table was on its side on the stone floor. I stopped and signalled Connor to be quiet, then crept close enough to make out what Richie was saying. The pain and confusion in his voice tempted me to wake him, but Connor's hand on my shoulder held me back.
"Where's his sword?" Connor whispered when I turned to protest.
"On the floor by the couch, I think," I whispered back. I knew better than to hope it had rolled anywhere; the long quillons projecting to either side of the hilt would prevent that. We watched and listened as Richie's nightmare pulled him further into his last memories of his teacher.
Finally I started cautiously forward, but Connor whispered sharply in my ear for me to stay back. Richie suddenly shouted "No!" and sat up, his body rigid, eyes wide and unseeing, breathing hard.
Connor moved quickly around the couch to stand over him, his hands resting firmly on the younger man's shoulders. Carefully he sat down on the edge of the cushions. "Richie, wake up! You're safe now, you're on holy ground." He kept this up until Richie relaxed.
"Jeez!" Richie exclaimed softly, blinking and shaking his head. "It was like-- like it was happening all over again." He straightened away from Connor's hands, looking exhausted and desperately unhappy. "Man, I'm losing it."
"You will, if you don't get some sleep," Connor replied as he stood up.
I went to the fireplace, stirred the embers until they glowed brightly, added a bit of wood to take the chill off the room and give Richie more light. Without comment I set the coffee table back on its legs, glad that Richie's empty glass hadn't been on it when he knocked it over.
"I don't even want to think about going back to sleep after that." Richie stifled a yawn but remained resolutely upright.
"I've had my share of nightmares," I told him quietly. "I know how it is, but not sleeping will only make it worse in the end. I think I have something that will help." I went out to the kitchen, heated water while I searched the cupboard that held tea.
"Oh, no," Richie groaned when I came back a few minutes later with a steaming mug in my hand. "Not you, too." Carefully he took the mug, sniffing the aroma that rose from it suspiciously at first. "This smells good," he admitted after a moment. "What is it?"
"Chamomile with a bit of lemon. Careful, it's hot."
He sipped cautiously, smiled a little as he tasted it. "Thanks, Megan."
Connor's room was the next one past mine. As we reached my open door he stopped and looked searchingly at my face in the dimness. "Are you all right?" he asked softly, remembering our wakeful guest. "It isn't like you to let one of us get so close so easily... that kind of inattention will get you killed." His voice was softer still as he added, "I don't want to lose you."
"Me either," I agreed ruefully, stifling a yawn.
"It's late. We'll talk tomorrow." He smiled apologetically and started down the hall.
"Connor?" I said hastily. He turned, and the words tried to hide in my throat. "Were--are you planning to be here for a while, or--"
"I don't have to be anywhere for a month or so." He paused delicately. "If that's a problem ..."
I shook my head. "No--glad to hear it." I took a step toward him, reached out and caught his hand. "Connor, I ... I don't want to be alone tonight." Once again I had to force the words out.
He drew me to him, pulled his hand free to put his arms around my shoulders. "Are you sure about this, mo leannan?" The quiet warmth of his voice turned the Gaelic endearment to heather honey.
I couldn't blame him for asking. The last time we had shared a bed was two years after Robert's death. The comfort and physical closeness I thought I wanted proved to be more than I was ready for, and as a result our relationship had taken a definite comradely turn. I looked up and met his eyes, smiled gently as I answered. "I'm sure."
The sound of the shower running in my bathroom woke me. We had talked late into the night, Connor listening carefully and prodding a little when things got difficult. I was glad of his arms around me when the tears came, and when comforting became caresses I welcomed those, too. I stretched lazily and found myself smiling at the ceiling, feeling more at peace than I had in a long time.
A look at the clock made me groan in consternation as I heard the shower stop. With any luck, Richie would still be asleep. I got out of bed and went to the window for a look outside, then headed for the closet.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," Connor greeted me as he came out of the bathroom, a towel kilted around him. "I borrowed your telephone this morning--I hope you don't mind."
"Good morning, yourself, and no, of course I don't mind." I smiled and hugged him. "Do I want to know who you woke up?"
"I woke up the man who shot Duncan and saved your houseguest's head."
I almost dropped the jeans and shirt I held. "What did he say?"
"He said that Duncan had just gotten back to Seacouver. He seems full of remorse but he's all right. Duncan always has taken it hard when he thinks he's screwed up."
"If Richie told us the truth, Duncan did more than just screw up," I observed, unable to keep a certain tartness out of my voice.
"Well, yes, he did," Connor admitted. "Duncan's friend told me there was more, but didn't say what."
"Duncan's friend shot him dead?"
"He was convinced that Duncan wasn't himself, and there was no other way to stop him in time. From what he said, either of us would have had our hands full with him, and his friend is no match for him physically. That much makes sense, he was trying to keep Duncan from doing something irrevocable that he'd regret later, but what I don't understand is what he said about a dark Quickening. I've heard a legend or two, but that's all I ever thought they were."
"Most legends have a grain of truth in them somewhere," I pointed out. I'd heard the stories, too.
He sighed, nodding in agreement. "Duncan's friend was certainly convinced, and he'd be able to confirm it if anyone could."
"Why are you willing to take his word for it?"
Connor's mouth quirked in a wry smile. "He's Duncan's Watcher." His tone made it clear that the discussion was over.
"Okay," I agreed hesitantly, then took a deep breath. "What do we tell Richie? He's trusted us with a lot, and I don't want him to feel like we've been checking up on him."
"I'll talk to him before he leaves and try to point him towards home."
I hustled through the shower and out to the kitchen. Connor had made coffee and opened a fresh carton of orange juice, judging by two used glasses in the sink and a half-full pot of coffee. I could just hear the quiet rumble of male voices from the dining room. They sounded serious, so I left them to it and got myself a mug of coffee before considering breakfast.
By the time they came back into the kitchen, the scones were almost ready to come out of the oven and I was tending a frying pan full of salmon cakes. "At least think about it, Richie," Connor urged as he refilled his coffee mug.
"Yeah, I know," Richie agreed reluctantly. "It's just that ..." He let the words trail off, relief showing plainly in his smile when he turned to me. "Good morning, Megan."
"Good morning," I replied, smiling back. "Did you manage to get back to sleep okay?"
"Yeah, thanks, I did. Still hard to get up, though." He started to go back into the dining room, then seemed to change his mind. "Anything I can do?"
"I'm going to need a plate for these soon. Could you get me one, please?" I gestured at the cupboard across the kitchen from where I stood.
Connor came up beside me, pausing to admire the salmon cakes before reaching for the coffee pot. He glanced down at my nearly empty mug.
I cleared my throat quietly and murmured under my breath, "Remember what I told you last night-- let's not make things worse for the lad."
Understanding flashed across Connor's face. Smoothly he poured coffee into his own mug, then went to fetch the basket for the scones. When he came back, he got into a spirited debate with Richie about how to cook the eggs. I smiled to myself, glad for the harmless fun they seemed to be having, though it was a relief when they finally decided what they wanted and went to set the table.
The phone rang as I poured the eggs into a clean skillet. Connor answered it and then brought the cordless unit to me. I tucked it up against my shoulder and kept stirring the eggs. My end of the conversation seemed to consist mostly of "sure," "yeah, that's fine," and "thanks."
"That was Jack Tolliver," I told them when I had finished. I smiled at Richie as I put the scrambled eggs into a serving bowl. "Your bike is ready. We can go pick it up whenever you want."
"Great!" Richie smiled back uncertainly.
"Don't worry--before breakfast is not an option," I added.
He laughed at that and helped Connor take the food into the dining room.
"Hey, Megan, you want to come along on the test drive?" Richie grinned as he pushed his bike out of the bay at Tolliver's garage and fastened his backpack to the rack.
"Where did you have in mind?" I asked. Connor stood beside me, not saying anything but not looking happy, either.
"Back up the road toward your place," he said. "That should be enough to find out if they missed anything important."
"Just remember I haven't got a helmet, okay?" I smiled and gave Connor's hand a reassuring squeeze, then fastened the toggles of my duffel coat securely and climbed onto the bike behind Richie.
The engine started easily, running smoothly and quieter than I expected while I settled myself on the seat and put my arms around Richie's waist. Then we were off, blending easily into the light traffic as we headed off toward the road up the mountain. As Richie downshifted to take the steep grade, I could understand why he enjoyed riding the motorcycle so much.
He turned off onto the fire road so quickly that at first I thought he was just putting the bike through its paces. I expected him to do some kind of sharp racing turn and head back, but we kept going until we came to a meadow that struck me as just about the right size to hold a house.
"End of the line," he announced as he stopped the bike at the edge of the meadow and shut off the engine.
"What's wrong?" I got off the bike and stepped back. "Connor will probably be along with the Jeep in a few minutes, if that's any help."
"Then we'll have to make this quick, won't we?"
The meadow was so quiet I could hear the zipper sliding on his jacket. I turned around slowly to the whisper of steel being drawn. My breath caught in my throat when I saw the rapier in his hand, gleaming in the golden autumn sun. His blue eyes glittered like ice. Of its own accord my hand moved to open my coat. I shrugged out of it, drew the katana from its folds as I dropped it to the ground.
"What the hell is this about, Richie?" I demanded, trying to keep the outrage and bitter disbelief out of my voice, holding the emotions away at arm's length. Duplicitous little bastard.
"I really have to hand it to you, Megan," he said, smiling sardonically as his blade flicked in an abbreviated salute. He made a sudden feint at my right shoulder. "You just about had me convinced, especially after yesterday afternoon--but your first mistake was not taking my head when you had the chance."
I parried and moved back a step. "I didn't want your head then, and I don't want it now."
"Don't lie to me! Of course you want it--Megan, it's what we do!" There was broken glass in his voice and anguish in his eyes, but his next attack was fast and focused and seemed to go on forever.
Every parry I made provoked another thrust in a different line. Countless hours of training screamed at me to break up his timing with a riposte or a counterattack, to do something, but I was still trying to talk him into walking away. Once I drew blood he would stop listening.
"What happened to 'Megan, I swear I won't make a move on you?'" Hard words, harsh voice. "Is this how Duncan taught you to keep your word?"
"Lately I've been remembering what Duncan taught me," he answered bitterly. "Especially that last lesson--the only thing that matters is there can be only one."
He attacked again, the blade of his rapier flashing in the sun as we circled the meadow. There was no more holding back, no more breath to waste on words, neither of us spending energy on non-lethal attacks to arms or legs.
I found myself suddenly in the cool, still place my mind goes when I'm fighting hard, with no room for fear or regret or outrage, where there is only muscle and bone and nerve and steel, the mind watching in silence. The katana moved with its own unconscious speed as I parried Richie's attacks and then began to push him back with attacks of my own.
His counterattack was exquisitely timed, a combination of feints making a split-second opening for a thrust to my left side that flashed through ribs and lung. I grabbed his right wrist with my left hand, holding his blade in place. I couldn't heal like this, but for as long as my grip held I would keep my head. At least I'd bought myself a little time. Shock damped most of the pain, but the bleeding inside would get worse with every breath. "This solves nothing, Richie." I forced the words out, trying to make each one count. "You think Duncan betrayed you, so you betray me. Maybe it makes you hurt a little less right now. It won't last. Don't forget that Connor will come for you-- and he will kill you. My Quickening won't help you enough to matter." I paused and fought a sudden urge to cough. "Let it end here, Richie. Duncan is back in Seacouver, in his right mind, needing his friends. Go home."
"How--how do you know that?" Richie's eyes were enormous as they bored into mine.
"This morning Connor called the man who saved your life." It was a struggle to stay on my feet. "Go home. Talk to your friend. Talk to Duncan if you can. It has to stop somewhere." I felt my grip go slack on his wrist, then the katana's hilt slid away as my right hand opened. Richie's face was chalk-white above the dark mist rising from the ground. The sunlight dimmed and went out as he stepped back and cleared his blade.
A strong presence made my stomach clench. I groaned in protest and tried to roll onto my side so the coughing wouldn't hurt so much. A hand at my back supported me until the spasm passed.
"It's over, Megan. You'll be all right soon." Connor's voice was soft in my ear as he wrapped my coat around me. He picked me up carefully and carried me to the Jeep. I had the good sense not to protest as he put me in the front passenger's seat and fastened the seatbelt for me. It was enough to close my eyes and let him drive us the rest of the way up the mountain.
All too soon Connor eased the Jeep to a smooth stop in my garage. Without a word he got out of the vehicle and came around to open my door. His face had a closed look to it, like he was furious and not sure he wanted me to see it, but his hands were gentle as he lifted me down out of the car. More than anything else, that told me how worried he had been. "Can you stand up?" he asked quietly.
When I nodded, he set me carefully on my feet. I stood there for a moment, one hand on his arm to steady myself, then started for the door into the house. I had lost more blood than I thought.
To his credit, Connor respected my independence for three halting steps, then caught me as I stumbled. "No arguments," he told me firmly, then carried me into the house. He left me on the couch while he went to reset the security system. A moment later he was back, his mouth tightening when he saw me starting to sit up. I lay back against the cushions and watched him poke fiercely at the cold ashes in the fireplace, then set about building a new fire. I had caused him more than enough worry already, and if he felt the need to fuss a bit over me I could damn well accept it with good grace, never mind that my body would be fully recovered in a moment or two.
Once he got the fire going, Connor went to the cabinet and pulled out a new bottle of Laphroaig, found two glasses and brought everything to the coffee table. He poured a generous measure for me and held it out.
I sat up and reached for the glass, and everything that I had held back during the duel with Richie broke loose and kicked me in the head. My fingers refused to close at first, then clenched convulsively around the glass as Connor pressed it into my hand. I shivered despite the warmth of the fire, and when I tried to drink the glass rattled against my teeth. I had come so close...
He sat down quickly, putting one arm around my shoulders and reaching with his other hand to take the drink from me and set it safely on the coffee table. I let him pull me close and fold his arms around me.
"Connor ... oh, God," I groaned into the rough warmth of his sweater. He shushed me gently, his hand stroking my hair as I rested my head against his shoulder.
When the shivering stopped, he drew back enough to reach my drink for me. At least this time I could hang onto it. I nearly emptied the glass, welcoming the smoky heat of the single malt. "It's still hard to believe what happened," I said, staring into the fire. I finished the last of the scotch and set the glass aside. "And I don't even know all of it..."
"Believe it," Connor replied, glancing pointedly at the rips in my flannel shirt before answering my unspoken question. "What surprised me was finding you with this still attached, after the way Richie took off when he saw me coming." He rested one hand on my hair for a moment. "I'd been watching for a Quickening, but nothing ... I found you just in time to see him pull his sword back, and I was sure he was going to finish it--" His arms tightened around me for a moment, then slowly relaxed. His voice was rough when he spoke again. "Mother of God, woman, do you think I want more candles to light in church?"
Tears stung my eyes at the pain I heard behind his words. I shifted a little on the couch to get my arms around him and wished for a good answer to his question. "We both have more than enough of those already," I said at last.
"That we do," he agreed soberly, then bent his head to kiss me.
I met him halfway, holding him tighter and enjoying the nearness of him. The kiss deepened, offering plans for the evening. I started to respond, for the moment dismissing the half-formed thought that nagged about somewhere else I had to be. Then the thought took shape. Reluctantly I pulled away.
"What is it, mo leannan?" he asked, concerned.
"Would you mind coming with me to choir practice later?" I asked. "I wish it wasn't tonight, but they're already short a couple of people and I did promise I'd be there. I'm sorry."
He laid one finger lightly across my lips. "You promised, and that's the end of it--no apologies needed," he said quietly. "Of course I'll come along--surely you didn't think I'd let you out of my sight?"
I smiled at that and shook my head, knowing that he would enjoy being there almost as much as I did and for many of the same reasons. Then my smile became a wicked grin. "Glad to hear it--I could use a shower ..."
He stood up, mischief and more glinting in his eyes, then pulled me to him when I took his outstretched hand.
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