When Riley woke, the room was in twilight, the heavy curtains pulled closed once again. For a moment she thought she’d slept the entire day. A glance at the clock proved it was closer to nine in the morning.
She’d woken up once overnight, and out of habit had treated her deepest wounds and bandaged them. Beck had slumbered on, without knowing she’d gotten out of bed.
Now she heard a faint voice through the door to the bathroom; he was talking to Stewart about her.
Reporting back to your masters?
“Don’t worry,” Beck said, his voice louder now. “I’ll keep her safe. I give you my word on that.”
And just like that the distrust faded. If Beck gave his word, it was solid gold.
He does love me. And I love him.
So why did she feel so unsure about him now?
Riley flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, confused. Other than a few kisses he’d not tried to rekindle what they’d shared in Atlanta. It was like he didn’t care for her anymore, at least not in that way.
She thumped her forehead with the palm of her hand.
The bathroom door opened and Beck paused when he saw she was awake. Instead of looking guilty, he seemed pleased. “Did I wake you?”
She shook her head.
“I was talking to Stewart, letting him know how you were doing. He sends his love.”
“Is he freaking out?”
“A little. His cough is better.”
“That’s good news.”
With a big smile, Beck sat on the side of the bed. “Happy Birthday!” he said. “How’s it feel to be eighteen?”
Birthday? Riley had totally forgotten it, which was major weird.
Wow, the jet lag is seriously kicking my butt.
“It is my birthday. So why I don’t feel any different?”
“I never do. It’s just a number thing.” He kissed her forehead and she inhaled the scent of soap and aftershave.
“So Princess, you wanna go see a castle?”
Part of her did and other part just wanted to lay here and stare at the ceiling. What is up with that? She was in Scotland with her guy. She could chill at home.
“Sure,” Riley said, trying to sound excited. “Let me do the Holy Water thing and get dressed.”
# # #
In his own way, Beck made sure her birthday was as special as he could make it. They had lunch at the castle, visited more bookshops, then as the afternoon wore away he suggested they make a trip to Arthur’s Seat right before sunset. He insisted it was a grand view of Edinburgh eight hundred and some feet above the city.
Riley studied the massive rock. “We’re climbing that?”
Beck laughed. “No. I wouldn’t do that to you. I want you in good shape once we get to the top.”
She heard something in his voice that told this was more than a mere hiking expedition.
A few minutes later, Beck flagged down a cab and the driver took them as far up the hill as was possible. After he’d arranged for the guy to return in an hour, they began the ascent. Riley kept her eyes on the path, and soon was rewarded with labored breathing and a dripping nose.
Will he ask me to marry him up here?
That would be just like him.
Though she tried, Riley couldn’t get a handle on her feelings. She loved him. He loved her. Why was she so uneasy?
I’m just nervous.
Once they reached the top she knew it’d been worth all the effort. Edinburgh lay below them like a complex quilt: Old Town, New Town, the Balmoral Hotel, Sir Walter Scott’s memorial, and the castle. In the distance the estuary, the Firth of Forth, sparkled in the waning light.
“This is amazing, Den,” she said, searching and then failing to find the Old Calton graveyard where it was hidden among the maze of buildings.
“I love it,” he said as he settled on a broad rock that offered a commanding view of the city below. When she shivered in the brisk wind, Beck pulled her closer. “It’s even better now that yer here.”
That made her smile. “Any Scots in your family?”
“Some, at least on my momma’s side. My gran was a Macpherson. Beck is German, so I’m a mutt.”
“My family was all English,” Riley replied.
She laid her head on his shoulder, content for the moment, though in some ways this peace felt fragile, like hand-blown glass.
In the distance, the sun gradually vanished behind a sea of clouds, creating a deep purple glow. Below, lights began to come on one by one.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he whispered.
“Yes, it is.” The passage of time marked by sun and stars.
“I wouldn’t want to share this with anyone else,” he said, turning toward her. A soft kiss brushed her cheek. She shivered and he tucked her coat collar closer around her neck.
Beck rose and stood a few paces away, his back to her. For a time he stared out at the city, as if composing his thoughts. Then he turned back toward her. With a shy smile, he was down on one knee in heartbeat.
Ohmigod. He’s going to do it.
Beck took her hands, stripped off the gloves and then kissed each of her palms. She could feel the brush of his stubble and his warm breath on her fingers.
“Den . . . ”
Denver Beck took a deep breath, preparing himself for what had to be one of the most important times of his life.
“I am a plain Georgia boy,” he began, his voice rough. “I always will be. I have many things I love, but none as much as you.” He took another quick breath, fearing his courage would falter. “I can’t live without you, Riley. Yer in my heart, and in my soul.”
God, this is hard. No matter how many times he’d practiced it in front of a mirror.
“I want you to be mine, forever. My wife, the mother of my children. I swear there won’t be anyone else but you for as long as I live.” He swallowed, trying to clear his suddenly dry throat. He was so nervous now, he could hardly speak. “Will ya . . . will you marry me, Riley? Will you stand by me for the rest of my days?”
For godsakes say you will.
His heart hammered and he felt himself sweat as those gorgeous brown eyes widened. He loved her so much, but Riley was just eighteen, and she’d be shackling herself to him for life. Because it was all or nothing for him.
There were tears in her eyes now, but still no answer.
“Riley?” he said, his nerves jumping all over the place.
She pulled her hands away and wrapped her arms around herself, withdrawing. “I . . . ” she began.
He saw something in her eyes now, and it wasn’t joy. It was more the look of a trapped animal.
She was going to turn him down.
“Riley?” he repeated, his fear growing.
“I can’t. I’m not sure why,” she said, her voice quavering. “If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have said yes. But now . . . ”
“Are ya mad at me cuz I wasn’t there for ya?”
“Yes . . . No. God, I don’t know,” she stammered. “I think . . . ” Then she shook her head as if she couldn’t find the words. “I don’t understand what’s wrong now, but something is.”
Hell! She turned me down. She let me make a fool of myself.
His ego told him it wasn’t his fault. In the past, when he’d been some loser, he could have seen her refusing him, but now he was doing good things, making something of himself. He had a future and he’d thought she wanted to share it with him.
What the hell is goin’ on in yer head? Have ya just been playin’ me all along?
Lurching to his feet, he moved away from her, pointedly putting space between them. When he jammed his hands in his pockets, his fingers touched the box that held the ring — the one she’d seen at the street market. It was why he was being so secretive on the phone the other day, eager to surprise her.
He resisted the urge to toss it off the side of the mountain.
She was on her feet now. “Den, I’m—”
He raised his hand for silence. “No need to explain. Ya don’t wanna get married to me. I got it. Don’t say stuff just to try to make me feel better.”
The tears were rolling down her cheeks now. “I’m so sorry.”
Not as much as I am.
# # #
It had been incredibly somber in the taxi back to the hotel, and even worse in their room. Whatever they’d shared between them was damaged now, perhaps destroyed forever.
Why did I turn him down? She’d been dreaming about this for months, ever since he said he’d wanted her to come to Scotland for her birthday.
What is wrong with me?
Sullen, Beck pulled the extra blankets and a pillow out of the wardrobe and claimed the couch, actions that told her he wouldn’t be sharing her bed tonight. Or any night in the future.
Hands shaking, Riley treated her wounds again, letting the Holy Water burn into her flesh. As the liquid cleansed the demon taint, her horror at what she’d done began to fade.
She had a right to say “no” if she wanted. Beck could just deal. It wasn’t like he really cared.
But I still love him, don’t I?
If so, why did she feel the need to run, to get away from him?
As Riley went through the motions, putting on fresh bandages, tears trickled like a slow leak. She curled up in the bed, alone.
An hour later, unable to sleep, she sat up and looked over at the couch. Beck was still lying there, fully clothed, his hands behind his back as he glowered at the ceiling. When he realized she was watching him, he rose, collected his cell phone, heading for the door.
He halted and did a slow turn, his eyes burning in fury. “Is there some other guy, Riley? Is that what’s gonna on here?”
“What? No! How could you even think that?”
“I don’t know. How could I possibly think ya’d be wantin’ to marry me? Silly old Beck, stupid as ever.”
“Just go to sleep,” he snarled. “There’s nothin’ ya can say that’ll make it any better.”
The door slammed behind him, leaving Riley alone in the dark.
# # #
Beck was on his third pint of beer and tempted to just keep drinking. He hadn’t felt this empty since the night Paul had died.
Yeah, old friend, yer little girl just kicked me right in the balls.
He sure as hell hadn’t seen that coming. Or had he? He sorted back through his memories — Riley all eager and happy, counting down the days before she could see him. Riley upset, but coping right after the demon incident. Even though she’d been injured, she’d been doing okay.
He frowned in thought. When did she change?
“Another one, mate?” the hotel bartender asked, gesturing at Beck’s empty pint.
“No, thanks,” he replied. He had enough of a buzz on as it was. “Got any coffee?”
The man nodded and headed off to fill the order. Beck stared down at the box holding the engagement ring where it sat next to the empty glass of beer. Maybe he could return it and . . .
Was it just his ego that had taken a hit, or was something else going on?
He checked the time — just a little after eleven. Though he didn’t like to share his troubles with anyone, something made him dial Grand Master MacTavish. His superior answered almost immediately.
“How’s it goin’, lad? Did ya pop the question yet?”
Beck gave him the grim news and waited for the reaction.
“Ya dinna call me ta say the girl turned ya down. What’s really on yer mind?”
“She’s different. I know, maybe it’s my pride talkin’, but my gut says somethin’s goin’ on with her, and it started when we got to the hotel.”
There was a long pause. While Beck waited, a cup of coffee appeared in front of him. He nodded his thanks and took a sip, finding it strong, bitter even, and that helped clear his head.
“How much did she trust ya in the past?” MacTavish asked.
“With her life,” Beck said.
“And now she’s not trustin’ ya at all. Hmmm . . . Bring her here tomorrow. I want ta talk ta Riley for a bit, see if she can tell me what’s goin’ on.”
“She hasn’t told me,” Beck snapped.
“Yer too close ta her. If it’s a matter that she’s got cold feet, then we’ll know that. If it’s somethin’ else . . . ”
“We’ll see when ya get here.”
“Did you find out how many people knew about her comin’ to Scotland?” Beck asked.
“Aye. Includin’ the two of us, there were eight: Kepler and Brennan, of course. Then there’s the housekeeper, the cook, the maid, and our travel agent.”
“Someone leaked that information and set Riley up,” Beck replied. Someone had deliberately screwed up his future.
“I’m not thinkin’ they’re not done messin’ with her yet. Put the hurt behind ya, lad, and keep focused on the problem. We’ll sort it one way or the other.”
We damned well better.
(c) 2013 Jana Oliver
All Rights Reserved.