Authors: Tracy Cooper-Posey
He swivelled his chair as the door chimed, knowing it could only be Nayara. Nayara stood framed in the doorway as she paused for a fraction of a moment. Ryan knew she was mentally sniffing the atmosphere and assessing Ursella’s mood, which would dictate how welcome Nayara’s interruption would be.
“This may concern both of you,” Nayara told them, taking a half-step forward, but not far enough to let the door shut. “The Sydney sales office contacted our security HQ five minutes ago.”
Ursella picked an invisible piece of lint from her white dress. “Your tourist operation has nothing to do with my concerns, as long as they do not interfere with history in anyway.” She spoke with sharp, ultra-precise enunciation.
Nayara glanced sideways at the petite, dark-haired woman. “This might,” she said and stepped forward, letting the door close. “They have a drop-in waiting to speak to a sales agent. The drop-in says his name is Charbonneau.”
?” Ursella sat forward. “Not
Nayara looked at her again, with a blank
Charbonneau Villeneuve is a French aristocrate.
His family go back generations, even before the First French Revolution. They have old money, new money, new-era money and political power to move planets.”
“He doesn’t have a seat in the Worlds Assembly,” Ryan pointed out, for politics was his business and a personal playing field.
“He doesn’t need to,” Ursella said dryly. “Why get his hands dirty when he can get someone else to do that for him?”
Ryan nodded. “That sort of money. I see.” He looked at Nayara. She was the Chief Executive Officer for the Agency, so security would naturally come to her first. “He’s shopping for a tour?”
“They believe so. They also agree with Ursella that from appearances, this Charbonneau is the French aristocrat. They just can’t confirm it.”
That had Ryan’s attention. “Why not?”
“All the bio-feedbacks give us nothing.”
“Even retina?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she repeated.
There was a small silence.
Ursella understood the implications as well as they did. “Does that mean…” she said slowly, “that he’s…one of…your kind?”
One of you
, was what she had been about to say. Ryan suppressed the heavy sigh that tried to escape him, turning his head so Ursella wouldn’t see his expression. The permanent star field beyond his window, the absolute black and pure light, helped his perspective. A little.
“He could be,” Nayara said carefully, as he gathered his composure. “But we usually have to go looking for others. They don’t front up on our doorstep saying ‘Here I am.’ Those still passing for human want to stay there, for whatever reason. We try to let them be.”
“And now you question this Charbonneau’s motives?”
“Yes,” Nayara said flatly.
“Play it out,” Ursella said. “See what he wants.”
“I agree,” Ryan said. “Send in one of our best, though.”
“How stupid do we play?” Nayara asked. “He’s got to know we have a good idea who he is. He has to know our scans have turned up nothing.”
“Don’t let him know that,” Ursella said instantly. “You’ve giving away information he doesn’t have to have straight away.”
Nayara shook her head. “If he’s one of us, he deserves straight dealing.”
“Yes,” Ryan agreed.
He didn’t have to look at Ursella to know she had wrinkled her nose. The old prejudices never died, especially in her. It was one of the reasons the Worlds Foundation had appointed her head watch dog for the Agency.
But he didn’t have to like it.
* * * * *
They came for him quicker than Charbonneau thought they would. Barely forty minutes after he had settled himself in the armchair by the fire, the door opened and a suntanned man with sandy hair, a white smile and the latest in designer business wear stepped into the room.
Human, Charbonneau instantly catalogued, especially with that suntan.
He shook the hand the man offered.
“I’m Justin,” the man introduced himself. “I’m told you might be interested in one of our chronological tours.”
“That’s what they told you?”
Justin grinned in a lopsided way that seemed more natural than the first polite smile. “They actually told me a number of things, among them the speculation that you might be here to enquire about a tour.”
, Charbonneau thought, pleased. “And did they tell you who I am?”
“Our current theory is that you are
Charbonneau Villeneuve XXIII, from the French aristocratic family line that goes back to the time of the French empire.”
Charbonneau pursed his lips. “I suppose it must look that way, but most true French aristocracy still consider me a newcomer. There’s a reason for my family name.” He pulled up his sleeve, lifted his wrist to his mouth and bit down hard. He heard flesh tearing and felt the flow of his blood against his lips. Carefully avoiding tasting it, he extended his arm toward Justin.
“You might want to take a sample, as all your other biofeedback sensors would have failed. You’ll need my blood to verify that I am vampire.”
Justin dipped his forefinger into the pooling blood on Charbonneau’s wrist, then placed it in his mouth. His eyes narrowed. He licked his lips. “Verified,” he said. His voice was a little hoarse, a product of the arousal any vampire experienced when blood was within close vicinity.
“You are, too? I am truly surprised. You pass well,” Charbonneau told the suntanned man. He allowed his wrist to heal and dropped his arm.
“They thought you might feel more…at ease with me, rather than one of our other representatives,” Justin told him.
“I appreciate the courtesy.”
“Do you feel comfortable enough to tell us why you are here?” Justin asked.
“Certainly.” Charbonneau waved his hand around the replica historical room. “I want to become a time travel courier for Chronologic Tours.”
* * * * *
Not a single sound emerged from inside the tent, not even the noise of a spoon against a platter. It was that absence that finally drove Rob back inside, to check on his captive.
The tent was utterly empty. The cold plate of stew sat untouched where he’d left it. She must have made her move the moment he’d turned his back.
Even as he rushed back out and around the tent, drawing his dagger as he went, he marvelled at the sheer relentlessness of the woman. Despite the very real threat of having her throat cut before she reached the edge of the encampment, she still persisted in trying to escape.
No, to find her wretched manservant, he corrected himself.
Rob changed directions and slowed to a brisk walk, which wouldn’t stir curiosity amongst those who still were sober enough to take interest in one of their officers running through the lines.
He headed for the wagon where the manservant had been hobbled. It was on the edges of the camp, far from any warming fire, but there was hay in it for the horses and if the man had the sense of one, he’d bury himself in the stuff and welcome the soft bed.
As Rob neared the wagon, he slowed, studying the shadows around it. Finally, he spotted her. She stood as still as a stone in the shadows of the quarter-master’s big tent, watching the wagon and all who moved around it. She must have just found the man and was now scouting for her opportunity to free him. She still appeared unarmed, so how she intended to cut the rope was a mystery to Rob. As for stealing the bumbling fool out through a pack of well-trained soldiers…she was as foolish as her manservant.
Rob gripped his dirk and slid around the tent, stealing up on her from behind. He had years of experience at it and she was used to the ways of the great hall and castle keep. He slapped his hand over her mouth and touched the blade to her throat before she was able to so much as draw breath in reaction.
“Ye’re stubborn like a highland colleen, I’ll give ye that,” he breathed in her ear. “Back up now, back to my tent. Draw no attention to yeself. Every man still awake this night has drink and food in him and is just spoiling for a bit o’ light fluff like you to dally with. D’ye hear me?”
She nodded and he felt her step back as he did. After a few more steps, he let go of her mouth and gripped her arm instead. He lowered the dagger, but kept it in his hand.
Finally, when they reached the comparative safety of his tent, he allowed himself to relax just a little. He adjusted the low-burning lantern and turned to look at her.
She stood with her arms around her, as if she were cold, assessing him with an expression that held no anger and no fear.
“Ye daft, ye hear?” he said, feeling fury building in him. “They’d’ve slit ye man’s throat for ye, and kept ye for sport.”
“I’d have made it to safety.”
“No, ye bloody wouldn’t!” He pushed his hand through his hair. “Don’t ye understand how this works?” It was uncanny the way her eyes seemed to pierce through his flesh.
“You keep me captive until someone who cares enough offers coin for my return. You get rich and I get to go free. In theory.”
“In theory?” He took a breath, let it out. “Let me tell ye the real truth. I capture ye and keep ye in my tent until yer family come to claim ye, lest those restless, bored soldiers out there decide to play a different game. If I dinna pull ye here by sword point this day and made sure ye were seen as mine, ye’d’ve been found by one of the others. They’re all good men, but they’re men and they’ll see you as English…”
“I understand,” she said softly.
Her eyes were drawing him in. He found himself stepping closer, his temper converting to a more languorous heat. “Ye may be right about the English coming and if ye are, this land will empty of anything but two armies intent on wiping the other off the face of God’s earth. I dinna care who ye think ye are, ye won’t survive that. Not if ye insist on taking that useless mare of a servant of yours.”
She took a breath. Another. “I can’t explain it, other than to assure you that I must take him with me.”
He nodded. “Then the only way ye get to go home at all is if ye remain my property until I can get ye home to yer family.”
“And if they don’t claim me?”
“Then ye must stay here until the war is won or lost.”
“But I cannot stay here until mid-summer—”
“Mid-summer? Who told you the deadline?” he demanded sharply.
She bit her lip. “I guessed,” she said at last. “Can you not find a way to smuggle us out of the camp again? Perhaps, back to the Bannock burn?”
“And let the English pick ye up? Nay, I’ll not do that.”
She closed her eyes. “Do you not understand that as long as you keep me here, I must find a way to escape? I cannot explain why, except to say that I would be betraying my own duty if I did not make the attempt.”
“Then I must stay with ye.”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“If ye must make the attempt, I must stay with ye to be sure ye don’t.”
“Now who’s being bloody ridiculous?” She looked amazed. Anger was stirring in her eyes. He could see it.
Rob bent down and picked up the rope he’d discarded earlier and tied it about her wrist. “And don’t be trying to unpick it, for it’ll just tighten more,” he told her. “I know how to tie a good knot.” Then he lifted his own wrist.
She tried to pull away when she realized his intention, but he was braced for it and held her arm and tied the knot one-handed. His side didn’t need to be as intricate as hers. Then he lifted up his wrist, tugging her forearm up by the rope between them. “Here ye be and here ye stay, until the English are but blood on the field.”
Fury blazed in her eyes. “Rob, ye cannot—“
“Finally, ye acknowledge my name,” he said.
She fell silent, but her chest was heaving with her anger.
Rob wrapped his anchored arm around her waist and drew her closer. She fought him, pushing against his arms and chest, but he simply tightened his hold and waited until her strength gave out.
She gave in with a shuddering breath and he felt her arms and shoulders give way. Her head dropped.
Rob lifted her chin with his free hand, forcing her to look at him. “’tis meant as a kindness, Natalie. You’ll understand, by and by.”
Her gaze was steady. The fury had gone. “I understand well enough.” Her voice was low. “’tis no way I leave this camp a maiden. Not tied to your wrist for half a summer.”
His body tightened. Thrummed. “Well as maybe, lass. You chose the terms of ye capture.” His voice emerged harsher than he’d have liked. “Count your blessings. If I’d left ye out there this night ye’d be the entertainment of the entire army.”
Rob relented. “Will ye not tell me ye family name, Natalie? Let me send word? Then all this will be over in a matter of days.”
She shook her head. “I cannot.”
Rob sighed. “Then the matter must proceed as ye have chosen.” He stroked her cheek. “I’ll do my best to ensure you don’t regret yer choice.”