The shower brought Riley back to life, and after mussing with her hair and makeup, she tugged on a pair of heavy tights, then her new dress from the secondhand shop. It was soft emerald green wool and its hem ended just a few inches above her knees. Its long sleeves were a prudent choice as the manor was drafty. Even better, it fit her perfectly, its color doing lovely things for her complexion. Riley tugged the zipper up, adjusted the neckline and then put on the earrings Beck had bought her in Edinburgh.
She did a twirl in front of the mirror. Hey, look at me!
Now it was time to show off her new outfit.
“Den . . . ?” she asked, walking into his room unannounced. “What do you think? Will this be okay?”
Beck stuck his head out of the bathroom, nervously adjusting a black bow tie. His eyes widened as he took her in. “You look so pretty.”
Which was exactly what she’d hoped he’d say.
Riley gave him a huge smile, which faltered the instant he stepped out of the bathroom. Besides the bow tie, he was wearing a fancy dress shirt and black waistcoat, topped by a black Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket. The kind Stewart wore on special occasions. But that wasn’t all.
He was wearing a kilt.
Her mouth dropped open in astonishment.
The kilt was made of fine red and black wool and he had the little extras to complete the outfit: the sporran, the flashes, and the sgian dubh, the short knife stuck in one of his knee-highs. His black shoes were highly polished.
Beck turned toward her, his expression worried. “What do you think? Do I look stupid?”
“Oh, wow, I mean . . . ” Riley said. “You’re . . . ”
“I look like a dork, don’t I? I was afraid of that,” Beck said, nervously tugging on the jacket now.
“You do not look like a dork,” Riley replied, moving closer. “You’re . . . ” She took a deep breath to keep her mind from veering off into some seriously steamy fantasies, all of which involved them missing supper entirely.
Riley cupped his face, inhaling his aftershave. “I thought you were awesome before, but now you’re just . . . ” She sighed. “You are sooo handsome, Den.”
He blinked in surprise, as if the idea had never crossed his mind. “Yer sure? I can wear somethin’ else.”
“No! You’re wearing that kilt. You are totally hot.” Scorching even. “Do we really have to go downstairs?”
“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “I know, but we have no choice. MacTavish wants our guests to meet me. And you, too.”
“Ohhhkay. Hold on, your tie’s crooked. Let me fix it for you.”
As she adjusted it, he relaxed even further.
“The tartan is from the Macpherson clan,” he explained. “Figured I should honor my gran’s people.”
Riley touched his cheek again. “You’re a really cool guy.”
“You know, maybe I shoulda worn this up on Arthur’s Seat,” he said. “Might have got a different answer.”
She winced and stepped back, putting distance between them. Whether it was on purpose or not, he’d ruined the moment with a reminder of just how bad she’d hurt him. Even if they did get married some day, would he always hold that one mistake over her head?
“We should be going,” she said, turning away, trying not to let the hurt show on her face.
“Riley,” he began, catching her arm. “God, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Then why did you?
# # #
“I’m so pleased to meet you,” Scrimshaw said, her accent neither English or Scottish. At Riley’s puzzled look, she added, “I’m Canadian.”
“Ah, got it. I hated to ask, you know?”
“I get that all the time.” Mrs. Scrimshaw turned to Beck, took in the full kilted package and beamed. “Well, grand masters are looking better every day. I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Beck.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Monsignor Lang greeted Riley politely, but he skipped the handshake. Besides that standard clerical garb, he had a luxuriant moustache and solemn brown eyes.
Did he know that she’d been grilled by the Vatican’s Demon Hunters? Or her involvement with a certain Fallen angel? There was no good way to ask those questions, so Riley just smiled in return.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Blackthorne,” Lang said. “I recently spoke with a friend of yours, a young man named Simon Adler.”
“Simon?” she said, surprised, looking over at Beck and then back to the priest. “He’s here in Scotland?” Lang nodded. “How is he? I haven’t gotten an e-mail from him for a while.” Which wasn’t unusual for her ex-boyfriend, so she hadn’t been terribly worried.
“He’s doing fairly well. I spoke with him about a month ago. He indicated that a period of contemplative prayer will be beneficial, so I made arrangements for him to go to Pluscarden Abbey, for a retreat. It’s a Benedictine monastery in northern Scotland. From what I gather, he’s still there.”
“Good, he’ll like that. I’m glad for him,” she said, meaning every word. “How did you meet him?” And why did he mention me?
“A representative of the Vatican asked if I could help Mr. Adler while he was here.”
The Vatican? Now that was interesting.
“Thanks for helping him. Simon’s a good guy.”
“Yeah, he is,” Beck said softly. “Hell was really hard on him.”
“It is on all of us,” the monsignor replied. His eyes moved back to Riley. “Some more than most.”
Riley intended to follow up on that comment, but was interrupted by someone calling out her name. She gritted her teeth. Not willing to risk offending the grand masters in any way, she reluctantly turned toward the approaching necromancer.
Fayne was in her mid-fifties, with dark hair and full lips, wearing a dark brown robe. She frankly assessed Riley like a jeweler would a rare diamond.
Biting the inside of her lip, Riley put on her “I’m here only because I have to be, so don’t push your luck” expression.
When the summoner offered to shake her hand, Beck intervened.
“Good to meet you, ma’am,” he said, intercepting the woman’s handshake. “I’m Denver Beck.”
“The new grand master?” she asked, studying him closely.
“Not yet, ma’am. I’m still workin’ toward that. It’s a long haul.”
“You actually killed an angel?” the woman asked, skepticism overlaying each word.
Her tone made Riley’s hackles rise.
“It was either that or it’d kill me,” Beck replied.
Fayne’s attention moved back to Riley and she stretched out her hand again.
Riley ignored it. Before it became even more awkward, Kepler interceded, guiding Fayne across the room to meet the druid. From the look on the necro’s face, she wasn’t pleased by the interruption.
“If it wasn’t for Mort, I’d never talk to another summoner again,” Riley murmured.
“Same here,” Beck agreed. “Since Simon’s in Scotland, I’ll try to catch up with him if I can. Buy him a beer. See how things are goin’.”
“If you do talk to him, tell him I’m thinking of him,” she replied.
“I will. Funny thing, down the line I’ll be spending some time at that monastery too.”
Riley blinked. “Why?”
“It’s during the last few weeks of a grand master’s trainin’. Kepler says that by then I’ll need some quiet time to work things out in my head.”
“You? In a monastery? That outta be fun,” she said, rolling her eyes.
Beck frowned back. “A few months ago, I wouldn’t have done it. Now?” He nodded more to himself than her. “I think I’ll like it. It’ll be straightforward. So much of my life isn’t that way anymore.”
“You really have changed,” she said, looking up at him.
“Not so much on the outside,” he said.
She pointed at the kilt and he shrugged in acceptance.
“Well, maybe so.” Then his eyes slowly rose to meet hers. “Do you . . . like . . . .the new me?”
There was so much turbulent emotion behind the question it drowned out everything around them.
“It’s taking a bit to get used to, but I do like the new Beck. I’m so proud of you,” she said.
He took her hand and kissed it. “Then there is still a chance for us?”
“I think so, if I can get my head straightened out.”
“Good.” He dropped a kiss on her cheek and then smiled. “Then let’s get this supper over with, so it’s just us two, okay?”
Riley’s cheeks warmed at what his husky tone implied.
After more social chitchat among the guests, which carefully avoided the twin land minefields of politics and religion, the group headed for the formal dining room. It was spacious, and sported two fireplaces, one on each end of the long room. Unfortunately the majority of the heat headed directly toward the high ceiling and Riley’s feet and ankles didn’t like that.
As she gazed around, she realized the dining room sent two opposing messages: the long table was set with expensive bone china, elegant crystal and silverware, a fine welcome to any guest. In contrast, the walls were lined with swords and other implements of war, many arrayed in intricate fan shapes. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that their hosts could easily shift from hospitable, to lethal, if the situation warranted.
Walk softly and carry a really big sword.
She shot a look at Beck and he nodded ever so slightly to indicate he’d gotten the message as well. Since this evening, they’d been on the same wavelength, more like they had been in Atlanta. Riley prayed that would continue.
Her good mood vanished when Riley found herself seated across from the summoner, who continued to stare at her. MacTavish sat at the head of the table, Kepler to his right and Beck to his left. There was a light sheen of sweat on Beck’s forehead, his way of showing he was nervous. She gave him a reassuring you’ll do fine look and then directed her attention to the conversation around her.
Around them, Brennan and the maid circulated with bottles of wine. When he gave her a questioning look, Riley shook her head. Even though she could legally drink in this country, her mind was just starting to clear. No reason to mess it up again.
Some sort of thick and creamy pale orange soup was delivered and her stomach growled in response. Fortunately no one else heard it. Picking up a spoon, she looked down the table at Beck, who was staring at his assortment of silverware in total bewilderment.
MacTavish said something to the druid, then pointedly picked up the proper spoon from his selection. Beck, ever the quick study, followed suit, then looked over at her.
She winked and addressed the meal.
“Miss Blackthorne? I trust you are recovered from the incident at the graveyard?” the summoner asked, lobbing the question across the table like a live grenade.
Riley nearly choked on her soup. She hadn’t expected anyone would ask that kind of question, especially here. Farther down the table, Brennan’s eyes widened as he refilled a wine glass. Beck’s brow furrowed and she could tell he was pissed.
MacTavish, however, made no move to deflect the question. Perhaps he was hoping just this kind of confrontation would occur.
Play dumb. That was the best response, especially with the monsignor at the table. The last thing she needed was for the Vatican to take a renewed interest in her life.
Riley hedged. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean,” she replied.
“Of course you do,” Fayne insisted. “My superiors told me everything.”
“Your superiors?” Beck cut in.
“Summoners Enfield and Minton. They were supposed to be here tonight, but I requested to take their place. I just had to meet Miss Blackthorne after everything I’d heard.”
“What exactly happened?” the monsignor said after wiping his mouth with a napkin.
Riley kept her groan of despair to herself.
“Someone tried to summon a demon in Edinburgh and it went wrong.” Fayne’s chilly tone indicated she wasn’t that concerned, even though three people had died. “Novices. Such things happen when they are involved.”
The monsignor’s moustache twitched in response. “It could be argued that no one should be attempting such things, amateur or expert,” he weighed in, his eyes on Riley now.
“I totally agree,” she said.
Fayne turned back toward her, eyes cagey. “Why do you think the summoning went wrong?”
“I’m not the one you should ask. I’m a Demon Trapper. I don’t do magic.”
“That’s not what I heard.” Fayne retorted.
She glared at the necromancer. “Then whoever is telling you this stuff is full of it.”
“Riley,” Grand Master Kepler cut in. “Is it true that you are compiling the history of Atlanta’s trappers for Grand Master Stewart?”
She sighed in relief. Thank you, dude. I owe you one.
“Yes, sir. It’s been really interesting. There was more demonic activity during the Civil War than I thought.”
“Hellspawn working for Sherman? I just can’t believe it,” Beck said, his tone mocking. “I mean, it’s not like the general turned a couple of Pyro-Fiends loose to burn Atlanta down or anythin’.” He paused, timing it perfectly. “Oh wait . . . ”
That earned him some laughs, and, more importantly, shut down the summoner’s mini inquisition.
Beck caught her eye and it was his turn to wink. They were a team again and that felt so good.
What the hell am I doin’ here? Beck didn’t know a thing about this kind of get together. For him, barbecue and beer was fancy.
MacTavish picked up the farthest fork from the left and then gestured with it toward the plate that had just been placed in front of Beck.
“Looks to be a fine bit of lamb,” he said.
In his own way, the grand master was helping him navigate these uncharted waters. Helping him grow into his new skin. Beck carefully selected the proper fork from his numerous choices and began working on the food.
Though the point of the dinner seemed to be social, MacTavish and Kepler were strategists, just like Stewart. It came with being a Grand Master.
So why do they have that necro here? Why is she pushing Riley so hard? Did she have somethin’ to do with what happened in the graveyard?
At this point Riley laughed at a remark from the druid, and Beck smiled to himself. He never quite understood how her voice could be a balm to him, but it was. Looking at her now, you’d never know she’d been to Hell and back.
Maybe, if things kept getting better between them, he’d find the courage to ask his question again.
Maybe the next time she’d say “yes.”
(c) 2013 Jana Oliver
All Rights Reserved