Excerpt: Till There Was You
The de Piaget Family
Just Outside London, England
Winter, Present Day
Zachary William Smith lay on his back, stared up into the flat gray sky, and came to a conclusion.
He was finished with doors.
Answering them, knocking on them, being shoved back through them, and subsequently rolling down the stairs away from them; it was time to give up altogether.
In fact, it was past time to give up quite a few things. He shifted to escape a bit of sharp gravel digging into the spot just inside his shoulder blade, then settle his head a bit more comfortably to consider what those things might be.
Architectural drawings sailed suddenly over his head and fluttered to the ground behind him. Change jobs was obviously going to be first on the list.
Well, perhaps finish up with current unreasonable client was closer to the mark. He had already parted company with his former employer on very good terms, and the next chapter in his life was waiting for him up the road that afternoon–assuming he could get there before he found himself tossed in the local jail for assaulting the man who had just shoved him down the stairs.
“I wanted the addition paneled,” the voice bellowed, “not papered in zinnias!”
Zachary sat up and looked at the originator of that shout. A man stood at the top of the steps, glaring as if everything wrong in his life could be laid at Zachary’s feet. Zachary winced as he rubbed a spot on his lower back where he hadn’t been able to avoid an encounter with an unpleasantly large piece of driveway, then heaved himself up. He gathered up the blueprints out of habit–no sense in having them ruined by any potential sleet–and wondered if three sheets of architectural renderings were sufficient to bear up under the strain of being shoved down an obnoxious client’s throat or if they would require additional underpinnings.
It was tempting to find out.
But he was nothing if not self-disciplined, so he walked over to his car, tossed the plans into the front seat, then closed the door. He brushed himself off, then walked back over to look up at Michael Smyth-Gordon, Viscount Franbury, the one who thought nothing of pushing innocent architects down half a dozen very nicely preserved Regency-era stairs. Zachary supposed he was fortunate he was so light on his feet or else he wouldn’t have been back up on them so quickly.
His lordship was a very unattractive shade of red. If fact the red was now deepening into an alarming shade of something Zachary supposed might have been called crimson. Or maybe vermilion. Whatever it was, it seemed like Franbury might be on the verge of a stroke. Obviously, the polite thing to do would be to head off the tantrum at the pass.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and propped a booted foot up on one of Franbury’s very well-maintained steps. “I told you before, Michael, that I’m an architect, not an interior decorator.”
“You’re responsible for all phases of construction, from beginning to end,” Franbury said in a garbled tone. “And that includes the decorating!”
“No,” Zachary said firmly, “it doesn’t.”
“Our firm’s contract states very specifically what I am and am not responsible for, and hanging wallpaper isn’t on the list.”
“I didn’t want wallpaper!”
“I’m sure you didn’t,” Zachary conceded, “but that isn’t my problem. The Lambeth Group always stands ready to recommend talented, reputable interior designers, which, if you’ll remember, we did for you. You will also perhaps remember that you were uninterested in our suggestions.”
“Candy Selzter is a fine decorator,” Franbury said stiffly.
Zachary supposed it would be impolite to point out that the BBC had fired the dazzling Miss Selzter from her job as the assistant’s assistant of a very cheesy DIY show because she couldn’t tell chartreuse from candy-apple red. In Michael’s case, she had probably misread panel as petunia and decided that zinnias would be more showy.
“You know, I didn’t want you for this job,” Franbury said stiffly. “I was convinced to take you on by one whose judgment I never should have trusted.”
Zachary sighed, then looked to Michel’s left and came to his second unavoidable decision of the day.
Give up women.
It was bad enough when they were just hard on his heart. Given that the lady Beatrice Smyth-Gordon had joined in the shoving along with her brother, Zachary began to suspect they were hard on his body as well. Yes, swearing off women for a few years was probably a very wise thing to do. Especially titled ones in expensive cashmere sweaters, plaid skirts, and very smart boots.
He supposed he wouldn’t have to work very hard to avoid dating nobility. The fact that he’d even spoken to Michael’s sister could probably be considered something of a miracle. He’d first seen her at a party he hadn’t wanted to be at but had attended just the same as a favor to his sister-in-law. He’d flirted with Beatrice much like a man might flirt with a Lamborghini–by walking past the showroom window a time or two, lusting after but never intending to buy.
He’d been surprised that his first words to her had included a dinner invitation. He’d been even more surprised to listen to her accept.
It had taken approximately six minutes into an overpriced salad to realize that Beatrice wasn’t an airhead; she was profoundly nasty and quite cunning. And she liked him very much, though he hadn’t had a clue why. He’d spent the next month trying to very gracefully extricate himself from his pseudo relationship–unfortunately only after she’d succeeded in talking him into taking over her brother’s little project from the third set of architects he’d fired.
He had agreed to do the work in direct violation of his first rule of survival, which was never to mix business with pleasure. He never dated clients, he never met with clients’ wives alone, and he never designed anything for free unless it was for family where he was sure any differences in opinions on the execution of the plans could be settled over swords.
Unfortunately, he’d been too stupid to take his own advice, all of which left him where he was, standing at the feet of a very lovely manor, still short of his very reasonable fee, and wondering if Beatrice had actually broken something when she’d punched him before she and Michael both had shoved him back out the door. He wiggled his jaw a time or two and was rather relieved to find it still worked. The woman had an impressive right hook.
“I never want to see you again!” Beatrice screeched, stomping her trendy little boots, then spinning on her heel and stalking back into the house.
Zachary didn’t bother to tell her the feeling was mutual. He was too busy watching Michael and wondering what the man intended to do next. His hands were very busy clenching and unclenching, but at least they were empty. That was reassuring.
“This is retaliation,” Michael said through gritted teeth. “Retaliation for Bea dropping you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Michael,” Zachary said shortly. “This has nothing to do with her and you know it. You approved the plans. You watched me go the extra mile for you time and time again. What you chose to do with the inside of your new addition–”
“I didn’t want flowers!”
“Panel over them.”
“I’ll see you ruined,” Michael said hotly. “Completely.”
“Go ahead and try,” Zachary said, before he thought better of it.
Franbury’s features hardened. “You don’t want to start a war with me.”
Zachary suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. He knew several very good lawyers, his brother included, who would have been more than happy to take the fool in front of him down a notch or two. As for any conflicts of a more physical, personal nature, he thought he might be able to manage those himself.
But he wasn’t going to say as much. Ten years ago, he might have forged ahead without considering the odds. Now he knew very well how to spot the signs of a battle that wasn’t worth the trouble of fighting.
“And you don’t want anything adding to your murky reputation.”
Zachary blinked. “My what?”
Michael stuck out his chin stubbornly. “You heard me.”
Zachary knew he should have walked away, but that little slander was something he just couldn’t ignore, especially since he actually had a very good reputation. He’d been working in England for almost a decade, making his was as a Yank in an industry full of born-and-bred Englishmen. He’d been a part of the Lambeth Group almost since he’d make the UK his home and never had anyone complain about him. In fact, most of his clients said he had an uncanny feel for what a property had looked like in the past.
He himself never commented on those comments.
“And I’m not talking about your pitiful drawing skills,” Michael added. “I’m talking about you.”
“What about me?” Zachary asked before he could stop himself.
“I’ve heard tell that you spend far more time than is reasonable with those reenactment types,” Franbury said, looking down his nose from the great height of his illustrious title. “I understand there are swords involved. Costumes. All manner of silly Scottish things.”
Zachary decided that it was perhaps best to cut his losses before he provided any more grist for Franbury’s rumor mill. He merely inclined his head slightly in as close to a bow as he could muster.
“I’ll have someone send you a list of people who can undo what Candy did.”
“I wouldn’t trust any of them.”
“I don’t think you can go anywhere but up from here, my lord.”
“You’ll regret this,” Michael turned and strode back into the house, slamming the door behind him.
And, like clockwork, it began to sleet.
Zachary wasn’t surprised. He cast a baleful glance heaven ward, then trudged over to his car. It was a fitting end to a very unpleasant pair of months. The job had been a nightmare from the start, with Michael changing his mind about basic structural issues every two days. Zachary had finally taken to camping in the man’s garden just to be there to humor those changes. Now, all he wanted to do was get into his car, hope the heater was having one of its good days, and get the hell out of Dodge.
He found that the heater was indeed functioning as it should, then drove away before Michael could come out and use his tires for target practice. He picked up his cell phone and dialed his former boss. Garrett Lambeth would need to be warned about what was coming his way, as Zachary had no doubt Michael would go immediately into his zinnia-papered den and dial his attorney. He would give Garrett the heads-up, thank him for almost nine years’ worth of wonderful opportunities, and tell him again how much he’d appreciated the flexibility in his hours.
That flexibility was directly connected to the last thing in his life he needed to change. It was the most difficult, but perhaps the most important.
But that could wait until later. For now he was finished with his business in the south and he had nothing to do but get on with the rest of his life. He drove out the gates and headed happily into his future.
* * *
He pulled into a car park at sunset.
It wasn’t a particularly good car park, as car parks went. It was more a suggestion as to where someone might leave his little runabout if absolutely necessary, as if the owner of the castle wasn’t particularly interested in providing space for that sort of thing but felt, grudgingly, as if he didn’t have much choice.
Zachary heaved himself out of his car and stretched with a groan. Getting out of London was never a pleasant experience, but today the misery had been compounded by aches he’d acquired on his trip down Michael Smyth-Gordon’s front steps. At least his car hadn’t given him any trouble. It could have been much worse.
He took a deep breath, then looked up. The castle in front of him was, to put it politely, a complete wreck.
It was perfect.
He walked up the way and through Wyckham’s missing front gates. He could easily imagine how those gates might have looked in their heyday, with a forbidding barbican surrounding them and a heavy portcullis hanging over the way through. Now, the barbican was gone and only a hint remained of the towers on either side. It was probably just as well, for it allowed him to walk inside as if he had every right to.
He wandered around the inner bailey, considering where the outbuildings had been and admiring the path that still wandered through what had once surely been the garden but was now just grass. An ancient tree stood in a corner of that garden, but Zachary couldn’t tell if it were alive or not. It was still just March, too early in the year for any sort of springtime activity. Maybe he would wait a month and see what happened. If he dawdled, it would take him that long to complete the remodel on the cottage just outside Wyckham’s walls. He would have ample time to camp out and enjoy a castle that most certainly didn’t belong to him.
He stopped in the middle of the inner bailey and looked at the keep itself. It had, apparently at some point in its past, been plastered on the outside and whitewashed. When the sun hit it just right, as it was doing now, it stained the remaining hints of plaster with a sort of pinkish hue that made the place look as if it belonged in a very pleasant fairy tale.
Or another century.
Zachary walked over to the hall and put his hand on the doorway with its stone unforgivingly cold and solid to the touch and grounded himself in the current year. He looked around. There were no outbuildings, no garden, no men-at-arms. Just a ruined castle surrounded by its equally ruined outer walls, a castle he wanted so badly he could taste it. A castle that found itself firmly planted in the twenty-first century.
Change weekend and holiday habits.
The last of his resolves came to his mind without any coaxing on his part. He was going to, from that point on, live an unremarkable life. No more jaunts with his brother-in-law James MacLeod to places where no sensible soul would go. No more hiding what he did on the weekends, no more narrow brushes with plague and other medieval maladies, no more going out for little hikes on MacLeod soil with map in hand and his wild-eyed brother-in-law leading the charge. He wanted prepackaged food instead of whatever critter had been caught earlier that afternoon and plunked down into a pot. He wanted to put gas in his car instead of hay into his horse. He wanted to draft plans with AutoCAD, not with quill and parchment.
And he wanted absolutely nothing of a paranormal nature that would add anything else to his already questionable reputation. His brothers and sister were married with families of their own. It was past time he at least started thinking about heading in that direction himself.
He loped down the handful of steps to the courtyard, then strode across the where the gates should have been. He grabbed a sleeping bag and backpack from his trunk, then walked back to the great hall. He shivered, wondering if he dared make a fire or if that would bring attention to him that he wasn’t going to want.
He paused just inside the missing doors and realized that decision wasn’t going to be up to him. A fire was already burning cheerily. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the sort of blaze that would generate enough heat to fire up anything but a decent imagination.
He frowned as he walked over to the cluster of chairs sitting in front of that useless fire, chairs that hadn’t been there five minutes ago. Those chairs were being used by three souls he knew from previous encounters, hale and hearty gentlemen who weren’t exactly of this world.
Damn it anyway.
Obviously, the ban on paranormal activity in his life would have to wait another day.
He set his gear down next to the hearth, took a deep breath, then made a bow to the leader of the little group.
“Laird Ambrose,” he said, straightening. “What a surprise.”
Ambrose MacLeod lifted a mug in salute. “We’re just here to keep you company, lad. Thought you might like that on such a chilly night.”
“Don’t believe him,” Fulbert de Piaget grumbled. “He’s just avoiding the Boar’s Head Inn. Mrs. Pruitt’s gone shopping, you know.”
Zachary had been to the inn before and was well acquainted with the proprietress’s military bearing. Mrs. Pruitt would have made the entire British navy snap to attention with just a look. She also had set her cap for the less-than-corporeal Scot sitting there squirming. He smiled at Ambrose in sympathy, then turned to Fulbert. “I hesitate to ask this, but what sorts of things did Mrs. Pruitt go looking for?”
“Frillies,” Zachary repeated. “Really.”
“That can only mean one thing,” Fulbert said with a knowing nod.
Zachary smiled in spite of himself. “Our good laird MacLeod is being wooed.”
“The saints preserve me, not if I can help it,” Ambrose said faintly. “And as interesting a topic as that is, Zachary lad, we find ourselves here tonight for other reasons. To enjoy the brisk night air is one.”
Zachary thought he might rather have been enjoying a roaring fire, but he’d slept in far worse conditions than his current one, so he would just make do. At least the ghosts in front of him didn’t seem to have him in their sights, though he supposed if he didn’t do something about his own marital state soon, they would.
“Are you keeping an eye on the remodel?” Zachary asked, bending down to arrange his gear so he could sit and eat.
“Then you’re expecting a descendant of yours to show up soon?”
“You never know.”
Zachary looked around for a log or a chunk of stone to use as a seat, but found nothing useful. He shrugged, then reached for the sack containing his dinner. Of course half of it needed to be nuked, but he’d made do with cold food more than once and survived. “I’m not sure who would bother,” he said absently, fishing for a fork, “given the condition of the keep–”
“Ach, by the saints,” said another voice suddenly. “He’s not too quick on the uptake, is he?”
Zachary watched in surprise as another Scot of indeterminate vintage but undeniably incorporeal status strode into the light from the fire. The ghost created a quite lovely Charles Rennie Mackintosh–style chair, then sat himself down on it without delay.
Then he looked at Zachary pointedly.
Zachary wished quite suddenly for a chair of any design, but since there was none to be had, he simply set his supper back on the ground, planted his feet a comfortable distance apart, and shoved his hands in his pockets. “And who are you? If I might ask.”
“Drummond,” the man said. “The Drummond, you disrespectful boy. I was your grandpa way back into the far reaches of Scotland’s glorious past–”
“But we’re Mackintoshes,” Zachary interrupted gingerly.
“Your family tree has an extra fork or two,” Laird Drummond growled, “and I found myself unhappily sitting on one of them. I was peacefully dividing my time between reclining atop the Space Needle with a nice, glowing red fire and stirring up mischief in the Underground when I was assaulted–assaulted, I tell ye!–by that pencil poker over there.” He gestured accusingly at Hugh McKinnon.
Hugh only smiled and waved.
“They want me here in case they need me,” the Drummond finished, glowering. “But if you ask my opinion, romance is verra, verra silly stuff indeed.”
Zachary felt his mouth fall open. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. Ambrose had been eyeing him purposefully for half a dozen years now, but Zachary had always managed to decamp before the geriatric plotter could broach any uncomfortable subjects, such as romance, marriage, or what they might be arranging either for Zachary before he could protest.
“Ah,” he began, hoping something useful would follow without his having to think too hard.
No such luck.
The Drummond shot Ambrose a displeased look. “Perhaps you were too hasty in choosing him.”
“Choosing me?” Zachary echoed, trying to make it sound as if he didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. “Choosing me for what?”
Ambrose wasn’t buying what he was selling. “For the coveted spot on my list,” he said smoothly.
Fulbert looked at him from under his busy eyebrows. “Just take your turn, lad, and have it over with. It’ll all go down painlessly if you don’t struggle too much.”
“But I have list of my own,” Zachary protested, “and romance isn’t on it. In fact, I purposely put no romance on it this morning. Along with a few other necessary things.”
Hugh plucked a clipboard out of thin air, then pulled a pencil from behind his ear, almost stabbing the Drummond with it. Laird John shot Zachary a pointed look, then got up and moved his chair a safer distance away. Hugh looked up expectantly, his pencil at the ready.
Zachary didn’t wait for Hugh to take down the particulars of what he’d decided. He turned to Ambrose instead.
“It isn’t that I don’t appreciate your potential efforts on my behalf,” he began, “it’s just that this doesn’t fit in with my plans. I’m starting a new chapter of my life tomorrow. The one in which I run the preservation trust for Cameron and Gideon.”
“Of course,” Ambrose said with a smile. “A fitting task for you, but one that will only be enhanced by your seeing to other aspects of your life, namely–”
“Getting rid of all paranormal activities,” Zachary finished for him. “Exactly my thought. I’ve hinted as much to Jamie, but he ignored me. I trust you three won’t do the same thing.”
“Ignore you?” Ambrose said, lifting one eyebrow. “Now, Zachary, why would we ignore you?”
Zachary put away all pretence of not knowing exactly what Ambrose was capable of. “Because I’ve seen you all in action–you in particular, my laird. And while I appreciate the thought, I’ll tell you once more that I’m not interested.”
“Told you he’d be a problem,” Fulbert grumbled. “He’s seen too much.”
“I have,” Zachary agreed, “which is why I know exactly what I’m not interested in.”
“Ah,” Ambrose said, pouncing on the opening, “but I contend you haven’t been looking for the right girl in the right place.”
“I can imagine the places you think I should look,” Zachary said evenly, “and they won’t be an improvement. Once any woman finds out whom I’m related to, she doesn’t understand why I don’t drive a Porsche and have a valet to iron my jeans. The ambitious ones don’t understand why I don’t work more and the unambitious ones…well, they don’t understand that, either. And it isn’t as if I can tell them what I do with my weekends, can I?”
“Well, I suppose you do have secret or two to keep,” Ambrose conceded.
That was an understatement. Zachary scowled with a bit more vigor. After all, how was he supposed to even begin to broach the subject? Oh, hi, I’m Zachary Smith. I’m an architect during the week, but on most weekends I run around Scotland with my insane brother-in-law looking for little patches of ground that have something special that always takes us somewhere else. Sometimes it’s just to a different century; other times it’s a different location. Sometime we get a bonus and hit both. That’s the reason I don’t have any money. Because I’m basically working part-time and time traveling part-time. Wanna go see a movie?
It was actually amazing he managed to get anyone to go out with him at all.
“But perhaps there might be a girl out there who wouldn’t care about what you do,” Ambrose suggested.
“No,” Zachary said firmly, “there isn’t. I might rethink my decision if I could find an ordinary, untitled, low-maintenance girl who doesn’t care how much money I have or what I do for a living, but I seriously doubt she exists.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Ambrose said enigmatically.
Zachary was thoroughly dissatisfied with that answer, though he felt somewhat vindicated when Laird Drummond nodded his head in dour agreement. That was still two against three, though, and those odds weren’t good.
Zachary considered for a moment, then looked at Ambrose. “Why is Laird Drummond here?”
“In case I didn’t cooperate?”
“Well,” Ambrose said with a very small smile, “that possibility did occur to me.”
Zachary pursed his lips. He might have smiled, but his jaw ached from where Beatrice had punched him that morning and his back ached from where he’d reclined on her brother’s driveway. Reason enough to stick to his earlier decisions. He shook his head.
“Again, my laird, I appreciate the thought, but I’m not interested. I’m going to check into the Boar’s Head Inn tomorrow morning, then get to work. I don’t have time for anything else right now.”
Hugh, Fulbert, and John Drummond were exchanging knowing glances. Ambrose was only watching, silent and calculating.
The former laird of the clan MacLeod pressed his fingers together, then rested his chin atop them. “You know, Zachary lad, ofttimes you find what you were looking for where you didn’t expect to.”
“Yes, castles to be remodeled and manor houses to be restored,” Zachary said firmly. “I couldn’t agree more. Now, if you gentlemen would excuse me?”
He made them all a brief bow, then turned to make himself at home for the night before any of them could say anything else. He rolled out his sleeping bag, helped himself to the comforts of the cottage’s bathroom, ate his deliciously modern food, then lay down and hoped for sleep.
“No matchmaking,” he announced, on the off chance that he hadn’t make that clear enough before.
His only answer was the sound of someone puffing vigorously on a pipe. He squinted back over his head and saw that Laird John was enthusiastically working on filling the great hall with smoke. Ambrose and Fulbert were studying various vistas provided by the lack of roof. Hugh was industriously scribbling on paper held by his clipboard.
“No more paranormal activity, either,” Zachary muttered under his breath, just in case Hugh wanted to add that to his list.
He could have sworn the last thing he heard before he fell asleep was indulgent laughter.