“Where are we going?” she asked.
“To the manor.”
“I thought we were going up there later this week.”
“We were. Now we’re goin’ today.”
“Orders from your boss?” she said, glaring at him.
“Yeah. Get movin’.”
From that point on, they packed in silence. The room felt too small, maybe even the whole planet. If there was some way Riley could fly home today, she would have done it. She had no doubt Beck would have happily let her go.
After using the last of the Holy Water and tossing the bottle in the trash, she zipped her suitcase shut.
I shouldn’t have come here. I should have stayed home.
Maybe if she could find a way to ditch Beck, she might be able to think this through. But that wasn’t likely to happen.
Beck kept snapping at her until they boarded the train, and his surly behavior made her wonder just how much he hated her now. Once they were seated, he seemed to settle down, and his chilly behavior thawed a bit, as if he’d come to terms with her rejection and decided to move on.
He traded texts with Brennan, then, as the train wound its way west through Stirling and then farther north, he extracted a map from his backpack and helped her trace their journey into the Highlands. He’d been right — the scenery was beyond her imagining.
# # #
A couple hours later, they left the train at a small Scottish town where Beck led them to a car at the far end of a car park.
When she asked about how it’d gotten there, he said, “Brennan left it here for us.”
Brennan again. “He’s kind of your all-purpose slave, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, but don’t tell him that,” Beck replied.
“You know how to drive on the left side?”
He nodded. “It’s simple once you work it out in yer head.”
Until you get back to Atlanta.
As they climbed in she found another bottle of Holy Water on the seat with a note attached:
“Your guy Brennan is way efficient.”
“He must like ya,” was the curt reply.
Riley stuffed the bottle in her backpack — her wounds were healed enough she didn’t need it anymore.
As they made their way along a two lane highway, she tried to relax and enjoy the scenery. She’d seen pictures of Scotland, but they weren’t close to the real thing. The Highlands were ruggedly beautiful, almost beyond the ability to describe them in mere words. The mountains were covered in trees and there were deep lakes — lochs as they called them.
She found herself relaxing, not feeling the need to escape any longer.
I am so screwed up. She kept taking quick glances at Beck, replaying the night before over and over in her head. Now she felt sick that she’d turned him down. If she’d agreed to marry him, today would be so different, so good. But I didn’t. And now, on every birthday for the rest of her life, she’d remember that moment on the mountain.
“What do you think?” Beck asked, looking over at her now.
“What? Oh . . . Now I know why Stewart loves this place.”
“Wait until you see the loch behind the manor house. It’s real pretty at sunset.”
“What am I getting into here? Are the other grand masters nice or . . . ” Will they hate me because of what I did to you?
“There’s only one other grand master who lives here — his name is Kepler — and he’s in his seventies. His job is to keep track of the archives.”
“How many grand masters are there in the world?”
“Twenty-nine. If I’m lucky, I’ll be number thirty.”
“Not many of us survive first contact with a Fallen. You know what they’re like.”
Ori. Even now his name brought heartache. Was he enjoying the sunrise each morning as the newest gargoyle on the Blackthorne mausoleum back in Atlanta? Or was he as lost as he’d seemed when she’d first met him?
“Yer missin’ the angel, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “How could you tell?”
“You always look so sad when you hear his name,” he said. Beck reached over to squeeze her hand, then stopped himself as if she wasn’t worthy of that gesture now. “Personally, I didn’t like the bastard, but he did what was right in the end.”
“He thought he could keep me safe.”
“It was still wrong.”
Beck might not mourn Ori’s death, but she would in her own way.
“So if there are only twenty-nine grand masters, how do they get anything done? I mean, they can’t be everywhere at once.”
“They have people who handle things in different countries. That’s what Brennan’s trainin’ to be — one of the International Guild’s representatives. They’re thinkin’ of sendin’ him to Mexico since he’s fluent in Spanish.”
So that’s how it all works. She’d always wondered.
“We’re almost there,” he said. “About a mile left.”
Riley wasn’t exactly sure what she expected, but the manor house certainly was impressive. Huge by US standards, though probably small by Scottish measures, it was comprised of solid stone. Large windows dotted all four floors and she didn’t even try to count the chimneys.
“How old is this place?” she asked.
“The original house was built in the eighteen hundreds but they kept addin’ to it,” Beck replied. “I remember the first time I saw it. All I could think is ‘What the hell is a poor Georgia boy doin’ here?’”
“Learning to be a grand master, that’s what,” she said, trying to smile. It seemed like she’d almost forgotten how.
“I figured they’d toss my ass out first thing, but MacTavish invited me into some sort of sittin’ room and handed me a glass of whisky. Then he asked me about what Atlanta was like. So I told him.”
“Sizing you up?”
“Yup, but he was so smooth I didn’t realize what he was doin’ until I found myself talkin’ about the tactics we used at the Oakland Cemetery battle.”
That conjured up memories that were hard to handle: scores of demons hacking their way through the trappers and the Vatican’s Demon Hunters. The dead and dying. Her father. Lord Ozymandias. Sartael and Ori. Then the final confrontation between the forces of Hell and those from Heaven.
“Sorry,” he said, looking over at her. “Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that.”
“I’ll have to deal with the nightmares someday.”
“I never will,” he replied, softer now.
Beck parked around the side of the building near two other cars and then helped her bring in her luggage. She paused a short distance from the front door, studying the twin dragon statues that flanked the entrance. A tingle of magic rode across her skin. “This place is warded. I felt it when we came up the drive. Who would be stupid enough to take on the grand masters?”
“Unfortunately, there is an abundance of stupid in this world. And in Hell.”
She couldn’t argue with that. Conjuring up demons was complete lunacy, but somehow the necromancers never got that memo.
Riley climbed the stone steps, following Beck inside. The sound of footsteps came from a long arched hallway. The ancient guy who joined them had a wrinkled face and bright blue eyes. His thin build looked lost in the black turtleneck and slacks.
“Denver, welcome back,” he said, his accent crisply English.
How cool. This place even has a butler.
“Riley, this is Grand Master Kepler. Sir, this is Riley Blackthorne.”
Oops. Thank goodness she’d not said anything that would embarrass Beck. “Hi. I’m pleased to meet you,” she said, politely.
Kepler briskly shook her hand, his grip surprisingly strong for one so aged. He held it a bit longer than was necessary, then let go. “It is a pleasure to meet you. Denver has told us much about you.”
Probably not everything or you wouldn’t be so nice to me.
“Riley will need her own room while she’s here,” Beck cut in. “We won’t be sharin’ one, not like I thought.”
Riley gaped at him, caught completely off guard. Her boyfriend, had just thrown her under the bus in front of a grand master. And here she’d been worried about embarrassing him.
“I see,” the older man said. “You can stay in the room next door to Denver’s,” he said. He shifted his eyes to Beck now. “The key is in the kitchen.”
“Thank you, sir,” Beck replied. He set off down the hallway, leaving her and the old master alone.
An understanding smile came her way. ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’,” Kepler replied. “Not surprisingly, Shakespeare is still relevant today.” He waved her on. “Come along, I’ll show you where you need to go,” he said.
Her anger still burning at being blindsided, Riley and the grand master walked down the hallway. Kepler took hold of her hand as if to steady himself. His grip was warm and reassuming.
The grand master gave her a sidelong glance. “When was the last time you were around a necromancer, Miss Blackthorne?”
“Ah, at the graveyard. Why?”
“Just curious,” he replied.
Beck rejoined them at that moment, and she noted he wasn’t meeting her eyes. “I’ll take her from here, sir.”
“Thank you. The stairs seem more daunting with each passing year.” Kepler turned toward Riley. “Have a peaceful stay, Miss Blackthorne.”
“Thank you,” she replied, touched by his kindness.
Beck hefted her small suitcase and led her up two long flights of oak stairs, an even grander version than those in Stewart’s home. As they ascended, Riley’s anger began to wane as she found herself staring in wonder at the portraits scattered along the walls.
She paused in front of one; the name plate stated this was Grand Master Jonathon P. Barnsbury, that he was from Aberdeen, and that he had lived from 1710-1783. Even more impressive — he was wearing a kilt.
“Will you get a portrait made some day?” she asked, intrigued.
Beck looked chagrined. “Yeah, I will. Part of the deal, I guess. Kinda freaks me out, you know?”
“I think it’s way cool. Will you wear a kilt?”
“No,” he replied flatly. “No way.”
Riley paused in front of the next portrait — a lady named Antoinette LaFarge from Calais. “A woman. A French one. Now that rocks.”
“There aren’t many gals who’ve taken down a Fallen Angel, but if they do, they’re one of us.”
“So if I’d killed Sartael, I could have done all this,” she replied thoughtfully. “I’m pretty envious here, just so you know.”
Beck looked over at her, his expression softer now.
“In my mind, you’re already one of us. You stood up to that bastard, and you have the scars to prove it. You’ve been to Hell and came back. There’s little difference between you and me.”
Of course there is. You never sold your soul.
Though Riley had expected something small, her room had a double bed as well as its own bathroom. The bedspread was a cheery rose color to match the thick curtains. An old desk sat under a broad multi-paned window, along with an electric tea kettle, tea supplies and a cup and saucer.
“It’s nice,” she said.
“Not bad,” Beck replied as he unlocked the door between their two rooms. On impulse, she followed him into his space. His desk was piled high with leather bound books, proving that the guy who once had trouble reading was now a bookworm. Or at least an industrious student.
Stepping forward, she peered out the window onto a broad open vista which culminated at the edge of a forest. A narrow trail cut through the trees, angling up the tall hill behind the manor house.
“The loch is just over that hill,” Beck explained. “I take my mornin’ run that way. About killed me the first few times until I figured out I had to lighten my backpack cuz of the altitude.”
“I’m up to forty pounds. I’m aimin’ for fifty before I come back home.”
Always pushing yourself.
“I wish I had this view back in Atlanta,” she admitted. When Riley turned she found Beck close now. So close she could see deep into his eyes.
“Why did you tell Grand Master Kepler I needed my own room?”
His expression hardened. “I figured we both need some space right now.”
“But you made that decision without asking me, without thinking how embarrassed I’d feel when you blurted that out.”
He shrugged, which didn’t earn him any points.
“You know, I’m done apologizing to you, Den. It isn’t helping you’re acting like a butthead and—.”
He waved her to silence. “MacTavish wants to talk to you in the library. Best not to keep him waitin’.”
“Oh, we’d hate to have that, wouldn’t we?” she said, angry at the way he’d blown her off.
Though it was childish, Riley took her time unpacking, then joined Beck in the hallway. From the glower on his face, she’d pushed more than a few of his buttons.
Two can play that game, Backwoods Boy.
(c) 2013 Jana Oliver
All Rights Reserved