Authors: Irina Shapiro
I burst through the door to the crypt and ran down the steps, making for the passage and closing it behind me just as the wooden door above creaked open, and I heard footsteps on the stair. I had the feeling I was being followed as I ran to the church, but when I looked back I saw nothing but greening fields, whispering woods, and Everly Manor, standing solid and forbidding; its stone walls bathed in the rosy glow of a spring sunrise. I dove behind the knight’s tomb and breathed a sigh of relief to find my bag, clear evidence that I was back in my own time. I took off the gown, pulled on my jeans, sweater and coat, and switched on my phone. Nothing reassured me as much as the electronic ping that informed me of several missed calls, nine text messages, and seventeen notifications from my Facebook page.
“Thank God, thank God, thank God,” I muttered as I made my way up the steps and into the modern church. That’s about the most pious I’d even gotten in a church, but my heart was overflowing with joy, my blood singing with hope for the future. I got back, and I would never, ever, go back again. I’d been foolish in the extreme, but I’d learned my lesson. I stepped into the gentle spring sunshine and inhaled deeply, glad to be alive and exhilarated by my escape. I wasn’t ready to return to the manor, so I went back to retrieve my car, bought a breakfast sandwich and the largest cup of coffee they had to offer and went for a drive through the countryside, blasting the radio and feeling gloriously alive. I wished I could tell Max of my adventure, but he’d simply think I’d lost the plot and call the nearest psychiatric facility.
As I licked the last crumbs from my fingers and finished my coffee, my euphoria began to wear off, my logical mind returning to the passage. Was someone from the seventeenth century able to go through or was I the only one? Since the church hadn’t been modernized yet in their lifetime, was the other exit from the passage even there when someone came down to the crypt? Was it possible that because both exits existed in my own time, I was able to go between the two, but if so, would this apply to any modern person, and has anyone else gone before me? Could it be that both doors lay on a ley line, if there really was one, that passed beneath the church and therefore opened up some wormhole into the past? And why 1685? Of course, there were no answers to any of these questions, so I had to eventually put them aside and turn back toward the manor. It was time to return to real life, answer my calls and emails, and take a much-needed bath. The thought of modern plumbing made me practically giddy.
Tilly the Labrador came bounding up the drive as I got out of my car, her tail wagging in greeting. Her owner was only a few steps behind, not wagging his tail, but smiling from ear to ear as he called out to me.
“How was London?”
“Oh, you know…” I replied with a grin, happy to see a friendly face. It struck me anew how much Max resembled Hugo, but the resemblance ended with facial features. Max looked relaxed and casual in his tweeds, his wellies crunching on the gravel of the driveway as he walked toward me. I tried to picture Hugo Everly dressed in modern togs and failed, allowing him to remain in his courtly dress in realm of recent memory.
“It was awfully quiet without you, even Mummy remarked on it. We’ve gotten used to your endless phone calls, arguments with the director, and tirades from your boss. Don’t ever leave again.” Max said this jokingly, but I saw something in his eyes which made me realize that behind the flirtatious manner was a man who was desperate to be told that he’d been missed as well.
“It’s good to see you, Max -– very good. Were you going for a walk?”
“Care to join us?” he asked as he scratched Tilly behind the ears. I could see that she was getting impatient, her body practically vibrating with the need for exercise.
“I’d love to, but I have some work to do, and I’m desperate for a bath. I’ll meet you for lunch at the pub if you like though, say noon?”
“The pub gets crowded on Sunday afternoons. Everyone has to wet their whistle after church. How about somewhere a little more private? I know a lovely bistro that does an onion soup and foie gras to die for. Interested?”
“Very.” And I was.
“Be ready by noon,” Max called out as he set off at a trot after Tilly.
Max never mentioned that the bistro was nearly an hour away, nor that the drive through the countryside would be so scenic. I pushed away my plate, pleasantly sated with good food and fine wine, and smiled at Max.
“Thank you, Max. This was lovely; best Sunday I’ve had in some time.” And it was true. I’d spent the past few months in a fugue of misery, and this outing reminded me of how much I’d missed.
“So, have I won your heart yet?” Max asked conversationally, making me laugh. He was such a flirt.
“You think that all it takes is foie gras and some wine? My heart is worth a little more than that.”
“You’d be surprised what some women will do for foie gras,” Max replied with a raised eyebrow, making me snort with laughter. “I just wine and dine them until they are putty in my hands.”
“And does this technique work?” I asked, thinking that it probably did.
“Oh, every time. They can’t keep their hands off me.”
“Max, are you ever serious?” I asked, smiling at him. He was so easy to be with.
“Not if I can help it. By the way, do you like opera?”
“I do. Is there much opera performed in the village?” I quipped.
“Yes, we do have an annual performance staged by our very own company and I avoid it at all cost, but
is being performed next weekend at the London Coliseum, and I just happen to have two tickets. Would you like to join me?”
“Will more wining and dining be involved?” I asked, patting my stomach meaningfully. “I quite like duck confit as well.”
“Then I’m all yours,” I replied, hanging my head in surrender.
“See? Told you it works.”
Max and I left the restaurant in companionable silence, happy to be in each other’s company and acutely aware of the possibilities open to us. I wasn’t ready for a new relationship, but I was ready to start thinking of the future, and I genuinely liked Max. He was so different from Evan, who was always brooding, lamenting, and looking for signs of subterfuge from his colleagues. For all his ambition, Evan was a pessimist, whereas Max seemed to see life through rose-colored glasses, and I liked the view from his end. I certainly didn’t want to lead him up the garden path, so I interjected several comments into the conversation, letting him know that if anything were to develop between us, it would take time and patience on his part. We didn’t discuss it outright, but I felt Max understood and that was enough for now.
I was still grinning from ear to ear when I finally sat down at my laptop that night. I needed to prepare for tomorrow, and there was a long list of questions and comments from Lawrence Spellman. I made a few notes for myself and was about to log off when thoughts of Hugo overtook my mind. I’d managed to stay distracted for most of the day, but now that I was alone, I couldn’t help but wonder how Hugo and Jane reacted when they found me gone. I still felt awful for deceiving them, and I needed to know more about what the Duke of Monmouth was up to in the spring of 1685. The answer wasn’t difficult to find. Numerous entries for the Monmouth Rebellion popped up in response to my search, and after reading through a few of them, I felt sick to my stomach, my earlier happiness forgotten.
“Oh, Hugo,” I moaned, “what have you done?” The Duke of Monmouth had virtually signed his own death warrant when he took up arms against the king, but I didn’t care about him. He was an ambitious young man who saw his chance and took it. There were many like him throughout history, those whose gambles paid off, and those whose hadn’t. But Hugo was a different story. I don’t know why I felt such sorrow at the thought of his fate, but I knew he was on the verge of something catastrophic. Maybe I was subconsciously confusing my feelings for Hugo with those for Max, because they were so alike, but I didn’t think that was the case. I closed my laptop and just sat staring at the lid, brooding. There was nothing I could do. Hugo had made his choice, and it had nothing to do with me. Nothing at all.
All throughout the following week, I told myself that Hugo’s collision course with destiny wasn’t of any interest to me, but every time I walked through the gallery and saw his dark eyes follow me from the portrait I wanted to run and hide. Had his gaze become more guarded and full of accusation, or was I simply being more fanciful since I’d met the man? He didn’t know his future, but I did. Maybe Hugo truly believed that Monmouth stood a chance of taking the crown from his uncle and supported his cause, but I knew that he was walking – no, running -— toward disaster. Monmouth would pay with his life, but so would Hugo, his body never recovered or given a proper burial, his name all but forgotten by history. Only his sister would keep his memory alive and eventually pass everything to her son, who would be the patriarch of Max’s ancestral line.
“You could warn him,” a little voice said inside my head. It came unbidden but wouldn’t leave, arguing with me for days on end. “All you have to do is go back one more time and tell him what you know. He might not listen to you, but at least your conscience will be clear. You’d have tried to save his life.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I hissed at the insistent voice. “What am I to do, just waltz in there once again and announce that I can foretell the future? That would go over well. I’d be lucky if they didn’t accuse me of witchcraft and burn me on the village green. Forget Hugo.”
I tried, I really tried, but thoughts of Hugo were constantly with me, even when Max and I drove to London the following weekend. I had no idea why I felt so responsible, but the weight of knowledge lay heavy on my mind.
“You’re very pensive tonight,” Max remarked as he looked at me over his menu.”
“I’m sorry, Max. I was just thinking about the opera. It was so tragic.” The opera had been truly amazing. I’d seen
at least twice before, but I still enjoyed every moment, felt every note as it struck a chord in my own heart.
“I see we should stick to comedies,” Max replied. “I didn’t mean to make you so sad. I just thought all that anguish and romance would work in my favor.” He reached across the table and took my hand in his, his face suddenly serious.
“I mean it, Neve. Forget that prat, Evan, and give me a chance. I promise I will be very careful with your heart and not rush you into anything you’re not ready for. May I court you, my lady?”
Of course he had to end his speech with a joke, which made me want to walk around the table and give him a hug, but I didn’t, nor did I give him permission to pursue me. I liked Max immensely, but something inside me warned me off him. I suppose having had no parents to look out for me from a young age, I’d developed a certain radar for people who could be trusted. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t trust Max, but I had my reservations about his sincerity. Max’s charm and easygoing manner were a façade, one that effectively hid the real man underneath. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something about him that put me on my guard. Perhaps he was too charming and too eager to please, always ready with a compliment or a joke, but never serious long enough to betray his real feelings. “Slippery as an eel” was an expression that sprang to mind, one that my foster mother used often when I was a child. Perhaps I was doing Max a terrible disservice, prompted by my bitter disappointment in Evan, but I wasn’t ready to give him the green light until I felt I knew him better and could trust him with my wounded heart.
“Max, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to lead you on, but I’m just not ready for anything more than friendship. Not yet.”
“That’s okay. I understand, but I’m not giving up. I’ll win you over yet. Come on, the night’s still young. What would you like to do? We can go to a dance club or a bar in Soho, take a walk, or go back home and have a nightcap.”
The idea of spending several hours gyrating in the pulsating darkness of a club or screaming over the noise in a crowded bar just didn’t appeal to me after the emotional wrench of
, and although a walk would have been nice, I preferred to ride back in the open convertible, the night air caressing my face, the stars right overhead, a celestial canopy that made one feel small and insignificant, but very much alive. Was our destiny truly written in the stars as the ancients claimed, or was it just our over-romanticized imagination that wanted to harness the power of the universe and bend it to our will; making it responsible for our choices and future; imbuing it with a collective consciousness more suited to a divine being than an infinite vastness in which we were nothing more than particles of dust, twirling through space until our time was done?
“I’d like to go back if you don’t mind,” I said, watching Max’s reaction. What did he want to do? I could see that I made the right choice. Going to a club was all bravado. Max just wanted a quiet evening.
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
As we drove back to Cranleigh in the surprisingly balmy darkness of the spring night, I suddenly realized once again that I actually knew very little about Max. He always used humor to deflect personal questions or weighty topics, and although I really liked his easy manner, I needed to know more about the man inside before I could even begin to truly open up to him and allow our friendship to develop. Of course, tonight wasn’t the night to start quizzing him about his political views, past relationships, and hopes for the future. Tonight was just a casual second date; time enough for all the rest later.
But weighty topics were still on my mind, and I turned to Max, needing someone to talk to about the guilt that had been eating away at me for days.
“Max, if you knew that something terrible would befall someone you know because of a choice that they’d made, would you try to forewarn them or would you simply stand back and let it all play out regardless of the outcome?” I asked, hoping that Max wouldn’t make a joke. Thankfully, he didn’t.
“If I knew for a fact rather than suspected that this person would get seriously hurt, then I would try to warn them, even at the expense of overstepping the boundaries of friendship. Most people don’t want to be told that their choices are foolhardy or will lead to disaster, but if you are referring to actual bodily harm rather than just ruffled feathers, I’d say, step in. Are we speaking of a metaphorical girlfriend who’s meant to represent you in this scenario?” he asked with a knowing smile.
“Not exactly,” I muttered, ready to drop the subject. “But thank you, you’ve put things in perspective for me.”
I was still thinking of our conversation nearly an hour later as Max poured me a glass of wine and settled on the sofa next to me. The fire was burning low in the hearth, soft shadows dancing on the walls of the parlor, the moon peeking through the uncurtained window, its nearly round countenance resembling a curious face. Max moved closer to me, and the moon was momentarily blocked out as he leaned in to kiss me. The kiss was tender and romantic, but I found myself unable to respond. My body tensed, and I braced my palms against Max’s chest to keep him from getting any closer. Max pulled away, his eyes never leaving my face as he traced the shape of my lips with his finger.
“I know you’re not ready, and I won’t rush you into anything. I just wanted to give you something to think about.”
“You have,” I replied as I tried to ignore the turmoil I was feeling. Max made me feel desired and pampered, but was I using Max as a crutch to help me move on from Evan?
Max put his finger under my chin and raised my face to his, smiling into my eyes. “Neve, don’t overthink it. We’re not teenagers who’ll shag first and then decide if we like each other later. There’s no pressure, no rush. We can just be friends and see where that takes us. You can take the lead; I’m happy to let you set the pace. How does that sound?”
“That sounds great,” I replied, feeling a rush of affection toward Max. “I’ll say goodnight then.”
“Good night, darling.”