The sidewalk outside Fergus’ townhouse
Mora leaned into Neil’s support. “These police, be they soldiers?”
“Yes, in a way.” What were police called in Scotland? Bobbies, or was that only England? Guards, maybe.
“Sassenach,” she hissed, a Scottish term he vaguely remembered as meaning outlander; one he hoped she wasn’t applying to him.
Through the wool plaid cloaking her, he felt the soft warmth of her body, marveling again that she was flesh and blood. She seemed to belong in another realm, an ephemeral being that might vanish with the dawn, though her anger at the hospital had been tangible enough.
She waved her hand at their surroundings. “’Tisn’t the chill or m’ head that vexes me so much as all this.” She tilted her face up at him. “I do not ken,” she said, using the Scottish dialect for understand and do not sounding like doo na.
The perplexity in her eyes made Neil want to hold her all the more and sooth away all her fear and confusion, if that were possible. He only just refrained from clutching her to his chest. “I’m sorry. You’ll feel better after a rest.”
Even a small American town like Staunton must seem very strange in comparison to what she knew, or thought she did. Given her peculiar state, it was difficult to say. “Easy. Let’s get you indoors.” He slowed his pace to accommodate her shorter stride.
“What manner of fuel be this?”
How could she not know? “Perhaps you’re accustomed to gas?”
She eyed him as one trying to translate a foreign language. “Sum disorder of the stomak?”
“Uh, no.” Maybe she hailed from some relic of a manor house with oil lamps or actual torches like they used in medieval castles. “Never mind. I’ll explain later.” Or not. He’d probably cause her further confusion.
Fighting to maintain a confident air despite mounting qualms, Neil guided her up the paved walk and brick steps to the narrow landing. A potted chrysanthemum drooped beside the wizened pumpkin smiling in toothless welcome leftover from Halloween. Fergus wasn’t much of a decorator.
Lifting his free hand, Neil banged the knocker on the olive-colored door. “Fergus!”
Mora gripped the iron railing with one hand. “Be this an alehouse ye’ve brought me to?”
“Of sorts. We’ll definitely be served refreshments.” Neil hoped she liked coffee. “It’s a townhouse.” What did they call townhouses in the British Isles, semi-detached, or was it attached? Likely it didn’t apply in her case anyway. “My friend, Angus Fergus, lives here.”
“Ah. He’s the tavern keeper, is he?”
“And a great deal more.”
Likely his eccentric business partner/best friend was settled in his favorite recliner with his laptop, tv remote in one hand and his caffeine molecule emblazoned mug in the other. Coffee was a food group to Fergus and one he took seriously. Even so, he might have dozed off in between caffeine highs or was preoccupied with one of his many gadgets.
Neil pressed the buzzer. “Fergus! Open up.”
“Not locked,” came the muffled reply.
Mora shook her head. “He leaves his door unbolted for all to enter at such a late hour. What of thieves? Every barrel of ale will be pilfered and all his cattle carried away.”
“I’ll caution him.” Though where Fergus would keep any cows in this development was questionable. As for the barrels, he’d probably fill them with his favorite specialty coffee.
“He ought to keep watch,” Mora added, clearly shocked at the lax security.
“Indeed.” Neil opened the door and ushered Mora into the living room, a catchall for Fergus’ beloved electronics. Techie magazines, comics, and the remains of fast-food meals littered the beige carpet.
Fergus didn’t look up from the leather upholstery. As usual, he was absorbed in his laptop. “Hail Caesar,” he said, offhandedly.
“Whyever does he call ye by sech a name?”
At Mora’s heavily accented query, Fergus arched his neck and peered up at them through the retro fifties glasses he didn’t really need. Fergus was all about Geek as the new kewl and more boyish looking than his actual age of twenty-four, further enhanced by his slender build. He had a quirky appeal, Neil supposed, but wasn’t exactly a babe magnet.
Fergus widened pale blue eyes and his reddish eyebrows rose above the thick black rims. “Who the—”
Neil could have said, “Mary Queen of Scots,” and Fergus wouldn’t have commented. Not the way he goggled at Mora.
The remote slipped from his usually nimble fingers. “Holy mother of—Neil what in the h—” Without finishing his exclamation, Fergus sat upright and straightened the recliner with a thump.
Mora must think Fergus couldn’t complete a sentence, while nothing could be further from the truth. It amused Neil to see his normally articulate friend so at a loss. Come to think of it, Fergus was never at a loss. Until now.
He set the mug on the end table and his laptop on the coffee table stacked with Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side books. Alongside these, virtual jellyfish floated in a purplish mood lamp and an ambient orb device transitioned between a rainbow of hues to show changes in the weather, the time, and most anything else Fergus might want to check the status of. An enormous fan of prime geek websites, Fergus stocked everything a computer nerd could want. But Neil might as well have taken Mora into outer space.
She stared from the suspended jellies and the iridescent sphere back to Fergus. “Magic?” she asked Neil in a whisper.
“Sort of.” Although highly creative, Neil wasn’t nearly as taken with techie gadgets as Fergus, preferring to lose himself in his art. But together, they made a great team. Fergus was even like a younger brother. Neil swept his hand at their gaping host. “Fergus, meet Mora Campbell, recently arrived from Scotland.”
“Seriously?” Fergus got to his feet in Star Wars Jedi slippers.
“Seriously.” Neil wasn’t certain how much information to give out about Mora and the old country of Scotland she seemed to hail from.
Eyes still dazed, Mora nodded. “Most serious. ’Tis a grave matter that brings us to ye, sir. I am betrothed to Neil, son of Robert MacKenzie.”
Fergus combed his fingers through a thatch of orange hair, a not so subtle tribute to cartoon character Bart Simpson. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he worked his clean-shaven jaw. Bart had no stubble and Fergus was a purist. “Dude—you’re engaged? Some online dating thing?”
“No. And it’s a long story.” Not one Neil was privy to the details of, which made sharing them a challenge. Not to mention Fergus would think he’d gone nuts. “Mora’s suffered a concussion and needs to rest. My house is off limits just now,” he explained instead.
She crinkled that adorable nose dusted with freckles. “Sassenach are come. We only just escaped from a vile chamber called a hospitale. There were no holy men at their prayers,” she added in a shocked tone. “No sacred Communion dispensed. How could sech a place care for poor and dying wretches of this world?”
Fergus considered, briefly. “How indeed?” He eyed Neil for an explanation he was unable to provide.
However, Mora appeared satisfied with Fergus’s response, at least as much as one who thought she’d fallen down a rabbit hole could. “If ye would be so good as to make provision for us this night, Mr. Fergus, and might I trouble ye for a ladies’ maid?”
“Sure,” he stuttered, regarding her as though she’d requested a meeting with a deceased saint. He angled a pronounced glance at Neil in a silent request for suggestions. He had none.
Fergus fished around in that quick mind of his and came up with, “I’ll call my cousin, Wrenie. She’s kind of a maid. Waitress, anyway. I’ll see if she’s free.”
“Is the poor lass imprisoned?”
Fergus rubbed his fingers over his chin. “Uh, not the last time I checked. Although the fashion police have a warrant out for her.”
She startled against Neil and raised a trembling finger. For a moment she stared mutely, and then said, “A murderous beast—there—in that box.”
Neil glimpsed the polar bear from a popular TV series. “It’s just the television. Telly,” he amended, in hopes of sparking a glimmer of recognition.
Nothing. So much for Mora having watched nature shows, or anything else for that matter. Had she been totally cut off from civilization? How’d she make it through life without ever seeing a television?
He tried a different track. “Only a picture.”
“But it moves. ’Tis haunted, that portrait.”
She is the sci-fi channel, Neil thought.
“Why does the Fergus address you as duke?”
How could Neil explain slang, he pondered, enjoying her spin on Fergus’ name. “It’s only an honorary title.”
“Yer friend must respect ye greatly.”
Fergus swept his thin arm down across a T-shirt that read, Go ahead, make my data, with a courtly flourish. “Inestimably. Come on, Neil. You two are in a play, right? Some community theater thing?”~
“Ms. Trissel masterfully blended the past and the present in order to create a lovely romance that spans centuries.” ~Poinsettia, Long and Short Reviews
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