There were definitely more rocks in the soil of Maine than was reasonable. Hard ones, too: granite and quartzite and basalt and gneiss, which wasn’t very, especially digging into his back. And they hadn’t been there when he began rolling, he was certain of that. Tricky little devils.
George Merrill shook himself mentally and refocused his attention on the view from his supine position at the foot of the rock-devil-ridden hill. Patches of blue-gray sky were visible through the fog, interrupted by wing-flashes of excited gulls identifiable mostly by their cries; pine trees loomed darkly in the middle distance, punctuated by the splash of red maple leaves. Sounds carried oddly in the fog: the rigging of the sloops and schooners anchored near the redolent tidal flats of the river creaked in the breeze (a minor fifth, a major seventh), and something went overboard with a loud slop; the honking of invisible geese flying in the direction of the sea was also clearly audible. The voices of the men aboard and on shore were murmurs, however, though an occasional word could be distinguished, and once an entire sentence drifted his way: “Abner Stocking, you touch that slush-tub once again and I’ll knock your fucking head off.”
Rustic colonials, he thought, and smiled. It was a comfortable smile. He was in danger of being far too comfortable here (give or take a few rocks). This was home territory in more ways than one, at least insofar as it could be for a man born five hundred miles away and nearly four hundred years in the future. Since his arrival that morning his spirits had risen considerably; it was a pity the fog hadn’t lifted along with them. Surely someone had seen him fall, though. I’m not going to have to climb up and do that again, am I? he groaned inwardly. Getting too old for this.
Trying an outward groan this time, a loud one, he decided to count a hundred and then get up. He’d reached eighty-seven when a tall somber figure appeared out of the mists. Simultaneously, a more familiar shape approached from the direction of the hill, running and calling his name. Beautifully timed, sweetheart.
His field of vision was suddenly filled by Olivia Lake, flushed and panting, her dark hair escaping its pins. Probably her bosom was heaving, but unfortunately it was hidden under a kerchief. How she’d managed the breathless look he didn’t know, since she’d had a good five minutes to make her way carefully down the face of the hill, in a far less precipitous fashion than he, but it was splendidly attractive, and he hoped it wasn’t wasted on…
Oh shit. On the clergyman in black, who had now reached them and was gazing in concern at George, while Olivia turned to him in appeal. “Sir,” she gasped, “he is hurt. Perhaps grievously injured. Please…”
Well, clergymen are human too, George thought, appreciating the performance. He groaned again, screwed up his face in pain—not so much of a performance—and began to push his way up onto his elbows.
“Oh, lie still,” Olivia cried out, falling onto her knees beside him. “Sir, might there be a doctor in the fleet? He ought to be examined by a doctor.”
George shook his head. “Livvy, you make too much fuss. I shall be…” He winced dramatically as he attempted movement again.
“Perhaps he ought,” said the clergyman, who had looked skeptical until that moment. “We have young Dr. Senter amongst us, but he has not yet come ashore. Still treating the malingering seasick, no doubt. But he may be free—”
Olivia, who had exchanged a glance with George on hearing the name, interrupted. “Is there another doctor? Closer?”
“I am afraid not, my dear. The cause cannot spare us more than one, you know. Unless… no, he is not aboard; we left him miles back.”
“Oh, the gentleman who rowed out to us this morning demanding speech with Colonel Arnold. Something about water getting into the boats, and the flux, and frostbite, and I know not what else. He was a physician, I believe, although something of a mad one. Captain Burr saw him off. But do you lie still, and I shall fetch Dr. Senter to you as soon as can be.”
George attempted to sit up again. “Thank you, Mr…?”
“Spring. Samuel Spring. Chaplain of this glorious expedition.”
“Honored, sir. Don’t be concerned for me. Dr. Senter has better things to do. My sweet cousin makes a bother over nothing. You do, Livvy; you know it.” She pouted, gorgeously. “I was a clumsy fool, is all. Was only trying to see the ships better, and I slipped.” He made a conscious effort to appear younger, arranging facial muscles to shave half a decade or more off his thirty-one years. “Is it true, sir, that you attack Canada?”
“Not I personally, I expect,” the Reverend Mr. Spring intoned. “But I shall do my best to keep the spirit willing in these brave men who do.”
“And Dr. Senter will no doubt keep the flesh from weakness. But perhaps even a mad physician might have been of some use.”
“The first words from his lips,” Spring said, “were ‘You shall fail.’ We could not have him among the men.”
Smart move. “So you sent him back to shore?”
“Oh, yes. As far back as the fort, I believe it was; yes, he came off with the pilot boat. But you are certain you will be well?”
“He will, sir,” said Olivia, pushing George to the ground again and taking his hands. “I shall not let it be otherwise.”
“A fierce and protective cousin, I see. Do not make a cosset lamb of him, my child. We shall all learn to bear hardships beyond those we have known, before the fight for our freedom ends. Let your cousin follow what a higher authority has in store for him.”
“Almighty God,” Olivia said, her reverence perfectly tuned.
“Quite so,” said Spring with the ghost of a smile, “though I had General Washington in mind.”
George sketched a salute in the direction of his forehead. “Each of us has his duty. Good luck with yours, sir.” Spring nodded and left them.
Olivia sat back on her heels and grinned. “My child? He isn’t any older than I am.”
“Father of his flock, though. And he’s got a hell of a big one. A thousand men. Does he make it through? I forget.”
A vague look came into her eyes as she consulted her drug-enhanced memory. “Oh, yes: without a scratch. Dies in eighteen-nineteen.”
“I always wonder why you bother. Someday it’ll come in handy?”
She shrugged. “Probably it’s worse to know what’s going to happen to them.”
“In this case it is, yes.” Spring had been right about the hardships. The disasters facing Colonel Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Quebec would begin shortly, when the sea-going vessels were abandoned for unsuitable boats on an unseasonably low Kennebec River, and would continue for nearly four hundred miles of wilderness, more than twice as long a journey as Arnold’s British-made maps had led him to believe. These men would be eating their shoes by the time they reached the battlefield. By death or desertion, a third would never arrive.
But now, at Parker’s Flats on the afternoon of the twentieth of September 1775, this was all in the future, and only the two of them knew of it. And likely one other.
“So he is still pretending to be a doctor. You were right,” George said.
“It did seem to be the part of his life that gave him the most… feeling of self-worth. And maybe the most persuasive way to get Arnold to change his plans.”
“He should have talked to him back in Massachusetts, then. Why here? It’s too late.”
Her eyes met his. “Bait?”
“You mean for me? How would he know… Oh. I see.” He frowned. “Maybe I did go on about Maine to the Professor once or twice.”
“Some of the others he could have figured out on his own. Salzburg, Eisenstadt, Vienna: he knows how you feel about Mozart and Haydn.”
“You mean we haven’t been chasing him down all this time, we’ve been chasing me down? I can’t see it. He doesn’t know we’re after him.”
“He saw us in Vienna. I’m sure of it. But that was seventeen eighty-two, so it hasn’t happened yet.” Damned verb tenses: spoken only in a wry twist of her lips. “He came to America first, though. Why, I wonder?”
“How about we ask him when we catch him?” George pushed himself to a sitting position in what he’d hoped was going to be one fluid motion. It failed miserably.
“George, you are hurt!”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, reaching around to feel his back. His hand came away bloody. “Shit.”
“I told you not—” She bit back the words.
“People who gather no moss shouldn’t roll on stones? Well, I know that now. Take a look and tell me how bad it is.”
She helped him off with his frock coat and yanked the shirt out of his breeches. Her cool hands probed the tender muscles of his back. “Superficial,” she said briskly. “I’ll bind it up, though.” She pulled off her kerchief and began forming it into a bandage. “Phoebe’s not going to like this.”
“I brought all my clothes back in perfect condition from Vienna,” he protested. “And they were much nicer clothes than these. In fact, I haven’t managed significant damage to my wardrobe since… since Bourne Heath.”
Clearly this was not one of the moments in which he was allowed to mention the debacle of their first assignment together. Olivia snapped out the finished bandage and moved behind him to apply it, depriving him of the distracting sight that had allowed the slip in the first place. The low necklines of eighteenth-century female costume were marvelously appealing, especially on his partner, and his imagination had got the better of him once again.
Not that he didn’t know what lay underneath. Their costumer had described, at length, her accommodation for Olivia’s refusal to wear confining stays on an active mission. The bodice mimicked a corset’s support without making it impossible to draw a full breath. It looked perfect from an eighteenth-century perspective; George had private thoughts on the faults of a silhouette that neglected the underside of the breast, but he wasn’t about to speak them aloud. Nor was he going to think about the one time he had seen the underside of Olivia’s breasts, and much more, and had been completely unable to do anything about it. For the time being, peeking would have to be enough.
Dammit. It wasn’t enough. He hadn’t had sex in far too long—seven months and twenty-eight days, not that he was counting (and that was just the twenty-second-century time, not including the six weeks their Bourne Heath jump had swallowed or the penetrations of the past they’d undertaken since then)—and it wasn’t only his frustrated body that was suffering from the record-breaking abstinence.
“Get on with it,” he said, in a brusquer tone than he’d intended. She drew the ends of the long bandage around his waist and tied them—exquisite brushes of her fingers—and then adjusted his clothing.
“Shall I help you up?” she said.
“No,” he said, and rose to his feet. Stiffly. “We need to head south.” It was only a few miles, as the seagull flew, from Parker Head to Hunnewell Point, where the blockhouse fort guarded the mouth of the Kennebec: one of those strategic spots that always seemed to need protection. Fort Popham was the name he knew, from the underwater archaeological excavations of the Civil War defenses; nearby, the original seventeenth-century colonists had built Fort St. George. Ha.
“It’s a little far to walk,” he went on. “So how about we steal a boat?”
“Couldn’t we go on horseback?”
He laughed. “I’ve been a dreadful influence on you, if you’re objecting to the mode of transportation rather than the theft. People here get around in boats for a reason: it’s easier and more direct. We might find a road or a trail, but probably not going the right way. And a boat’ll be a lot quicker to acquire than a horse.” She still looked dubious. “It’s a tidal river, not open sea. You won’t get sick.”
“I wasn’t thinking that. You row faster than I do, but not with your back cut open.”
“Maybe we’ll find a canoe. In any case, the tide’s going out, so it’ll be down-current. As long as we hurry. Come on.”
* * * * *
Hours later the dispirited pair abandoned their guerrilla lurking around the fort and made their way inland, turning toward the setting sun. At least the fog had finally lifted. The chance of finding their quarry was now considerably diminished; if he didn’t want to be found the chances were nil. It was still worth being here, George thought as they took a slanting path between the shore and a meadow of high grass and autumn wildflowers, if only for the benefits of…
“What do you call it,” he said, interrupting his own thoughts by vocalizing them, “when you’re nostalgic for something that’s hundreds of years in the future, but in your own past if you were where you’re supposed to be?”
She threw him an exasperated look. “Words, words, words.”
“’They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.’ I thought they were your business?”
“Not any more. Can’t you forget Twelfth Night?”
“No, actually. You know how that works.”
“Using Anamnex for nonprofessional purposes is completely against the rules.”
He grinned at her. “Still I keep on the windy side of the law.”
“Oh… stop it.” But she was smiling, and he knew he had pleased her. “What are you feeling nostalgic about?”
“This.” He swept an arm to take in the rocky point and the wooded hill. “We used to come here when I was a kid. This path is a big road in the twenty-second century, with throngs of picnickers. My father hates crowds, so he always insisted on coming early. Usually about six a.m. I’m surprised I can remember, since I was generally asleep on my feet. We’d bring breakfast and eat it up by the ruins of Fort Baldwin.”
“Twentieth century. Up on the hill in a clearing with a nice view. Almost private, at six in the morning.” The paraphrase The fort’s a fine and private place flitted through his mind—he had not entirely abandoned unauthorized usage of memory drugs—but he restrained himself from blurting it out. “I wouldn’t mind looking the spot over, actually. Hungry for supper?”
“Starving. How long does it take to get up there?”
“Oh, not long. I don’t think.”
Olivia gave him a sidelong look. “All right,” she said. “As long as we can eat soon. What do we have in the pack?”
“Something unrestrainedly eighteenth-century, no doubt. Not vegetable protein. Huzzah for authenticity.”
Their path angled more sharply uphill than he remembered, and before they reached the top he was lightheaded and trying not to pant. Olivia seemed unperturbed by the climb, her strides easy and her hips shifting in a regular rhythm under the skirts, a mesmerizing sway. After recovering from their first adventure, she had flung herself into physical training, and was now well on her way to becoming an accomplished horsewoman, a graceful mistress of eighteenth-century dances, and a decent fencer. The last he took as a compliment to himself, since it had next to no value for her new career as a time traveler. She had always exercised, running on the virtual road built into a closet of her house (of which he had yet to see the inside), so even while a student she had never been flabby; now she was fitter than ever. It might be the approach of her twenty-ninth birthday, which they would celebrate soon after arriving home, that dread of the encroaching thirties he’d been through himself, but he thought it was more than that. Activity seemed an obsession with her, as though sitting still for any length of time was dangerous. Perhaps it was. Better than drinking yourself silly on a regular basis, he thought ruefully.
A heavy belt of pine trees muddled his sense of direction for a moment—they weren’t there in the 2150s—but then the forest opened up and he knew where he was. Stone wore in four hundred years, but its nature did not alter, and this stone went deep, bedrock thrusting to the surface and glacial deposits half-buried, rock shelves gray striated with white and colored by lichens in green and brown and the occasional vivid yellow. He couldn’t see the colors now, as the sun had hidden itself behind the forest, but he knew them nonetheless, and the ancestors of the familiar small oaks were here as well, along with the low blueberry bushes, the tiny flowers growing in the veins and crevices of soil, and the smell of the pines and the salty air.
He followed Olivia to the edge of the hill and turned to the view in a gap between foliage: a broad sweep of water, river blending into ocean. Another mainland shore lay to the east; to the southeast was open water. Your eyes could journey in that direction till they came ashore somewhere in Africa; but in that vast openness islands rose, close and distant, a reminder that all land was one and connected, even where the waters filled the low places and sundered the islands from the shore. He wondered if anyone lived out there. Probably not: the mainland was enough of an island in these hard times. The last rays of the sun reflected from the water, coloring it in unexpected pastels, as though it were turquoise and rose quartz and the garnets that even in his day could be found peppering the rocks of this shoreline, with the iridescent sparkle of opal over all. For a moment he fancied it a solid and precious bridge, and imagined that he could seize the moment, walk across and find himself on the island’s shores.
Food first. Sitting on boulders, they munched the meat pies, apples, bread and cheese, and drank a sweetish wine with a low alcohol content, although he thought beer would have been more appropriate to their projected social level. Olivia finished the last bite, licked her fingers, and took a final swallow of wine, looking at him expectantly. “Back to the boat?”
He shook his head. “Sorry. I didn’t think it would take this long to get up here. It’s getting too dark; we’ll have to wait for the moon now.” The moon would not appear for hours, and would be a mere sliver when it did; he felt guilty knowing it.
“You must be cold without your kerchief on. It’s chilly in the evenings here. Come back out of the breeze; I’ll fetch your cloak from the pack and make us a fire.”
He found a pleasant mossy spot beneath a gnarled oak, without projecting rocks or roots, checked to be sure no poison ivy snaked up the trunk, and spread his coat to make a seat wide enough for both of them. “Here you go. No, really, this is the best place. I apologize for Maine; it’s rather bumpy. I hope Brant’s tripping over it in the dark, but I suspect he’s gone to ground in a nice little cabin somewhere. How the hell are we ever going to catch him?”
As he’d hoped, she was lured in by the shop-talk. Sandford “Sam” Brant was a safe subject, if not a safe person; if the discussion brought other less safe topics to mind, it might be all to the good. She sat and hugged her knees while he collected dry branches and twigs from the edge of the clearing.
“By the time he gets to Vienna, he’ll be teasing us,” she said. “Leaving messages, making himself conspicuous. He sent us here—but in this time, he doesn’t know we’re coming. I think he set himself up to be caught.”
“But that makes no sense,” George said, putting down his gleanings at the correct distance from their couch and going to the pack to fetch flint, steel, char and tinder. “He could have let himself be caught in Vienna.”
“Too much like giving himself up? Admitting he’s tired of the chase?”
“Maybe. There’s another possibility.” There were several, in fact; he has a gun and means to shoot us on sight wasn’t one he meant to utter out loud. “If we catch him now, and try to take him home… but he’s still supposed to be in Europe in seventeen eighty-two…”
“How can what jumpers do to each other cause a time breach?”
“I don’t know if it would. But I bet Brant would be interested to find out.” His materials arranged, he set about the business of fire-making, striking sparks off the flint with the steel and trying to set the char alight.
He wasn’t surprised Olivia had guessed his thoughts so quickly. She had spent more hours with Brant than he had during their English adventure, and knew him better. Their opponent was preoccupied with the idea of altering history; any change sufficient to throw a world off balance would shift him, and his fellow close-by time travelers, into another stream of time incompatible with their own. They might be trapped forever, unless the breach closed later on. It wasn’t supposed to matter what you did to each other, since you didn’t belong there to begin with, and small alterations—you couldn’t help having an effect on the lives of the people you encountered—tended to fix themselves; but you didn’t want to do anything too spectacular if you had any intention of going home again.
Brant hadn’t wanted to go home. In fact, he had been willing to commit murder to prevent it, and to prevent George and Olivia from reaching home to report on him, but his schemes hadn’t worked. Except that he had eluded their capture: not surprisingly, since they hadn’t even been aware of his identity until weeks into their stay, and had been hampered by illness and injury after that. They’d reached home, exhausted body and soul, only to find themselves assigned to a series of jumps in pursuit of the man they never wanted to see again. Six months they’d been after him now, and as far from their goal as when they’d begun.
And they’d had no respite from each other. The hours in the office wouldn’t have been so difficult, but the intimacy of jumps made George’s unrequited passion for Olivia a painful trial, particularly when they’d had to spend nights in close quarters; the euphemism “to sleep with” taunted him. He didn’t want their partnership split up, but he couldn’t stand the punishment much longer.
A spark glowed in the charred cloth, and he dropped the flint and steel, wrapping the smoldering char in a nest of tinder and blowing on it. The flame caught, and he tucked the tinder under the kindling he’d laid out, watching as the fire slowly came alive.
“I really don’t want to muddle around inside Sam Brant’s head right now,” Olivia said. “Though I suppose Charles will insist. Can’t they just let him go?”
“The boss isn’t one for giving up once he’s set his mind to something.”
She let out a frustrated sigh. “Well, dammit, in that case I wish he’d… Oh, forget it.” They watched the fire for a moment, and then she added abruptly: “We’re going to sleep here tonight, aren’t we?”
George’s heart beat quicker. “I think we’ll have to. Do you mind?” In the quiet that followed, a mosquito whined in his ear, and he blessed the pills they’d swallowed at home that made their skins unattractive to tiny pests; the smallest things could spoil the best turns of luck.
“We ought to figure out a way to question the soldiers at the fort tomorrow,” she said finally. An answer, but not an answer. “Someone may have seen Brant return from Arnold’s ships. And he must have got the boat from somewhere. Does your back still hurt?” She smiled. “That wasn’t quite a non sequitur. I was wondering if you’d be able to move in the morning.”
He shrugged. It hurt. “I’ll be fine. Will you be warm enough?”
“Oh, this is a lovely warm cloak. I don’t know where Phoebe gets these materials; it looks two days off the sheep and it’s probably suitable for the Antarctic. Shackleton would have loved it.”
Not if he was in my shoes. Damn. “So… is it big enough for both of us? We’ll have to lie on my coat. I think Phoebe put extra padding into it as well”—good girl—“but sorry I neglected to bring the anachronistic inflatable mattress.”
This was the moment when ninety percent of the women he’d slept with (meaning, in this context, had sex with) would have winked or giggled or, in a few cases, slapped him. Olivia gave him a few beats of silence, said simply, “Yes, it’s big enough,” slid the cloak from around her shoulders and lay down, draping a neat third of its breadth over herself.
There was no possible response but to follow suit. He had just begun to accept the inevitability of another sleepless night—he’d have to feed the fire in any case—as well as to note the position of every bit of rock he could feel against his back through the coat, and to wonder whether lying on his side would be less uncomfortable, when Olivia stirred and slid closer to him.
“The cold gets in under the edge,” she said.
“Are you sleepy?”
“No,” he said decidedly.
“Have you looked at the stars?”
There were few human beings alive in the twenty-second century who understood what the expression “black as night” truly meant, and he felt privileged to be one of them, though the darkness had been terrifying the first few times he’d experienced it, and the full field of stars glittering across the night sky more so. He’d grown to find them attractive, and then routine. As a child, he’d wanted to fly to the stars, but his goals hadn’t matched those of his government; he’d ended up flying through time instead. At this moment, he was extremely glad he’d stayed on earth.
“We’d never get to see this at home,” Olivia said, moving closer yet. “And listen to the quiet.” Birds were asleep, insect trills had subsided, and apart from the brush of the breeze through the tree branches, the distant roar of the surf, the occasional rustlings of night creatures and the crackling of the fire, there was nothing to take his attention from the sound of her words and the faint susurration of her breathing.
“Heavenly,” he whispered.
“At times like this I understand better why Sam Brant made the choice he did. And… everyone else who’s done the same.”
“I don’t think Brant stayed in the past for the stars.”
“I would. If I were going to stay.” Danger signals went blaring off in his mind, but he shut them down and let the quiet return. “What would you stay for?” she went on.
He turned his gaze away from the heavens and toward the woman he loved, illumined by firelight. Cool sweep of profile, definite and arched nose, strong cheekbones, pale olive skin like satin, full parted lips… He pushed himself to one elbow, ignoring the pull in his sore back, so he could examine her more closely. Her eyes met his, and of the complex of emotions visible in her face there was only one he cared to analyze at this moment: a clear and naked desire. Whatever hesitation or trepidation she might feel besides, she wanted him. It had not always been unrequited passion.
“I’d stay for the stars,” he said quietly, stroking her hair with his free hand. “Because you would.” He bent to kiss her.
At the last second, she turned her face away. Swallowing frustration, he changed his angle of descent and pressed his lips to the hollow of her throat, then began to inch them downwards, toward the creamy swell of her breast above Eagle Costuming’s best blue homespun. She arched toward him, then shuddered violently and scrambled away, retreating to the shelter of a nearby rock, where she sat with her head in her hands.
Hell. He sat up himself, waiting patiently until she raised her head and looked at him, her eyes hollow in the darkness and her mouth set in a line. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have…”
Shouldn’t have what? Led me on? Wanted me? Got in under my defenses? “Well, I’m sorry too,” he said. “I don’t know what else I can offer you. I just… I want you to let me love you. Make love to you. Give me a chance. I’ll make it worth your while.” Egotist. Braggart. Jackass.
“I have no doubt of that,” she said. “It’s what it would cost me afterwards.” She laughed bitterly, and then surprised him by adding, in an uncanny imitation of their account manager, Marc Lamprey, “I’d think it’s enough that we pay you for sleeping in the past, but you’d be amazed what some people try to get away with.”
If she could joke about it… He grinned in response. “If we sleep together they could pay us at cut rate. I’d like to see Marc’s face when we gave him the timesheets. Wouldn’t that make it worthwhile? Beyond the monetary compensation, I mean. And any… incidentals.” Damn, it was hard to read her face in this flickering light. “We might as well do it. The whole office thinks we are anyway.”
Olivia rose abruptly from her rock and walked across the clearing, standing with her face turned from him, looking toward the darkened ocean. He’d said the wrong thing again.
The rumors had begun when they returned from the job in England, emerging from the time machine wrapped in each other’s arms, though only because Olivia had been so weak he’d nearly had to carry her home. She had clung to him in a tender and persuasive manner, however, and the government-employed supervising technician, Marisol Delgado, whom he had bedded once immediately before falling hard for Olivia, had wasted no time in spreading the gossip. Their frequent collaborations in succeeding months didn’t help, nor did their habit of shutting themselves behind privacy screens. Of course, what they mostly did in there was talk about Bernard.
Bernard Quan, Olivia’s absent husband, was the crux of the problem. They knew where he had gone—Rotterdam, 1628—but it was their secret, and George’s was the only ear into which Olivia could pour her desire for reunion. George didn’t care whether he saw Bernard again; they’d been cordial colleagues in the three years they’d had adjacent cubicles, but they hadn’t been close, and it hadn’t surprised George that “the Professor” had turned out to be, like Sam Brant, a member of the reactionary Arcadians, nor that he’d made his escape to seventeenth-century Holland, home of his favorite works of art. It had surprised him that Bernard had neglected to take his wife along.
Expressing that surprise, however, and the anger and disdain that accompanied it, was against the rules of the deal he’d made with Olivia. She still claimed that Bernard’s departure had been an accident, or the time breach that had caught him in the past a tragic mistake; George did not agree. How any man could let Olivia go was more than he could understand, but if he managed to win her it was Bernard’s loss and his tremendous gain. They had to find the bastard first, though—which meant getting themselves assigned to a seventeenth-century European jump—and then the choice would be Olivia’s. He’d agreed to wait for that. He just hadn’t thought it would take this long.
“You’ve got no right, you know,” she said, her voice rough. “To let them think we’re… to make me…” She took a deep breath. “We said a year to get to Bernard. And then we tell Charles. And then I give up, if Charles won’t let us go. I haven’t given up yet. Don’t make it harder for me.”
He had, in fact, attached a clause to their informal contract allowing him to influence her choice by persuasive methods, including physical ones, but he wasn’t tactless enough to mention it.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Just that… I haven’t given up either. It would be like giving up air. Or water.”
She let out an infuriated sigh. “Stop being melodramatic. You won’t die without me.”
“How do you know?”
There was no reply, and it wasn’t until moments later that he realized she was crying. You utter fool. You always say the wrong thing. There was no way to repair the damage with words, and hands-on comfort was fraught with impending doom, but he had no choice. He crossed the clearing and touched her shoulders.
In a situation like this, he didn’t even know what to call her. Darling and sweetheart were out, and he knew her name would emerge from his mouth in a tone of chiding or censure; he couldn’t be either the lover or the mentor right now. He had to sound like… a cousin.
“Hey. Livvy,” he said experimentally, and gave her a gentle shake.
“Don’t call me that.”
At least she’d answered him. “Not a name to hallow to the reverberate hills, I grant you. But it serves to amuse.” He would never have resorted to the nickname had it been one of Bernard’s for her, but it seemed only her family and Charles used it. And it had amused her during their encounter with Spring. He’d seen her lip twitch.
“Olivia. Shall I go away and leave you alone? You can have the cloak. I’ll bring it over.”
When he turned to leave, she reached out for him blindly, sobbing afresh. “Here’s the shoulder,” he said in a tone much calmer than he felt. “Go ahead, soak it. You know, I’d never have let myself fall for you if I’d known you were going to live up to your surname so lavishly. Like Alice in Wonderland, just before she met the dodo. That’s probably the connection, come to think of it.” He stroked her hair. “Did you always cry this much, or is it just my influence? Dammit, I’m not the one who’s supposed to make you cry. I’m supposed to make you giggle insanely, and… and throw things, and grind your teeth in frustration, but not cry. Please. Don’t.” She collapsed against him, weeping and laughing simultaneously. Relieved, he hugged her, then pulled out his handkerchief to mop her face.
“Shh,” he said. “Coz. Sweetling.” The last tears glistened on her cheeks, and he forgot how to be cousinly. Dropping the handkerchief, he took her face in his hands and began to kiss the salty drops away. She shivered and closed her eyes.
Gently at first, then more firmly, his lips traced a line down her face, brushed across her mouth, buried themselves in her throat, found the firmness of collarbone and the softness of the tender flesh below; his fingers entwined themselves in her hair; his mouth was drawn back to hers and fastened on with desperate intensity. One hand found a breast, fondling roughly; the other slid down her back to below her waist and pulled her hard against him.
He had not left her much room to reciprocate, but the pressure of her mouth, the straining of her body toward him, told him that she was as aroused as he was. The small part of his brain still capable of rationality found this sudden shift disturbing, but the rest of him was more than happy to accommodate her.
“Want you, now,” he murmured into her ear. Her body went limp in his arms, letting her weight pull him toward the ground. When they found it, he began to fumble at the waistband of his breeches with one hand; the other found its way under her skirt and ran up her leg. Eighteenth-century fashion did not include drawers for women, nor did it often include fully disrobing for sex; he was more appreciative of the eighteenth century every second.
Then Olivia froze under him, not from misgiving this time but from alertness. Footsteps from beyond the clearing, faint on the pine needles, and branches snapping: someone approaching. Moving with a speedy instinct in tune with his heightened senses, he scooped Olivia off the ground with one arm, dragging her with him away from the perceived danger, into the shelter of the trees. He forced her down into a crouch beside him and waited.
Oh deer, rather. One cloven hoof at a time, a diffident, cautious doe picked her way into the clearing, delicate head nodding and eyes swiveling nervously; she froze at Olivia’s exhaled breath. Everything in the world held still for a long moment, and then the doe moved on, stopping to sniff at George’s discarded handkerchief before kicking up her heels and trotting back into the forest.
You complete idiot. You are exhibiting all the signs of a man with a guilty conscience. Couldn’t you at least look first before running away with your flies unbuttoned?
Perhaps the situation could still be salvaged. Relaxing his clutch on Olivia, he let his hands slide into a caress and turned his face into her neck.
“Where were we, sweetheart?”
Someplace, apparently, that we’re never going to be again. Oh, fuck. Or… not, as the case may be. She was as tight and skittish as the deer now, all the wrong nerve endings at the surface… oh, why couldn’t he time travel in miniature? Just a few minutes, that’s all he asked…
“I…” he began, but she was gone, back into the clearing. To his surprise, she returned to the improvised bed beneath the tree and tucked herself under the cloak, lying on her back and staring up at the stars.
Don’t flatter yourself. It’s not an invitation. She has nowhere else to go. Suddenly he hurt all over, as though he had rolled down a dozen rocky hills in the last few minutes. Rebuttoning himself, he walked into the open, pausing at the bed with a longing glance not entirely due to lingering throbs of desire, and made his way past the fire to a stony, root-infested, cushionless and windy berth twenty feet away. Not sleeping with.
It was times like this he wished he smoked a pipe. At the very least he could have thought of bringing a flask along. Maybe if Olivia had had more to drink…
…you could have taken advantage of her more thoroughly? It wasn’t enough to play on her weaknesses and seduce her against both your better judgments, after all. It wasn’t enough to make violent love to a woman crying over another man. You weren’t even going to do it right.
Castigation and self-loathing were pleasant and familiar if painful, like the rocky bits of Maine. He settled into their punishment, along with a cataloguing of his scrapes and bruises and their likely contribution to his planned sleepless night. After some time, though, a new element added itself to one of the endless replayings of the fatal moment, something his subconscious had noted at the time but his conscious mind had been too preoccupied to find important. There had been a sound before the deer began moving: a distinct click had preceded the footsteps. A recognizable click. Just like…
His back prickled. Turning slowly, he took in the shadows of the clearing, the dark hump that was Olivia, the protecting branches of the little oak, the embers of the fire shining on the quartzite and mica in the rocks: all still, but where the breeze shifted the dying leaves, and where… yes, where something was creeping out of the blackness of the pines. The shape resolved itself into a human figure, hatted and cloaked. It put down a bundle, lifted the panel on a dark lantern, sending light spilling across the ground, and took something from beneath its cloak with a faint gleam of metal. Then it—he—began to move inexorably toward Olivia.
Feeling for the knife at his belt, George shifted silently into a crouch, the unholy joy of battle filling his heart. As the pistol came to aim, he slid into position and threw the knife; it struck firmly, and he let out a triumphant “Ha!” as the injured man clutched at the blade in his left buttock, gasping, and turned to face the new enemy. But he hadn’t dropped the gun.
Their own pistol was, naturally, in the pack, unreachable; but there was no reason not to bluff. George stepped into the shadow, positioned a menacing hand by his hip in accepted gunslinger style and, in what he hoped were confident tones, said:
“Throw it away. I’ve got you covered. Get over here and leave her the hell alone, Brant.”