Release Date: 1 December 2018
When she finally landed on her feet again, clutching at her crooked hat, she found herself facing the most astonishing man she had ever seen. For one giddy instant, she wondered if she had indeed hit her head and landed in a book of Norse sagas.
He was very tall, so tall he blotted out the sunlight and was a silhouette haloed in its golden glow. His shoulders were so broad under the perfect cut of his fine hunter-green wool coat, and his hair, falling to an unfashionably long length from beneath his stiff-crowned silk hat, was an astonishing red-gold color. His nose was slightly crooked, as if it had once been broken and healed wrong, but that didn't diminish from his sharp-cut cheekbones, his square jaw. He stared down at her from eyes so icy and pale blue they glowed.
She tottered on her feet, disoriented, and he held onto her by her waist, most improper. Most—interesting. He frowned—in concern, or irritation?--as he looked down at her. “Are you injured, miss?” he asked, his voice deep and rich, touched with a Scots burr that made him seem even more otherworldly.
He reminded her of something, but what? It was just there, just beyond the edges of her mind, but it kept slipping away. Maybe she had dreamed of him once or something, he seemed quite unreal.
“I—I...” she gasped, feeling foolish, as she seemed to have forgotten all words.
“You can't breathe, it's no wonder, all these glaikit people everywhere,” he said. “Eh!” he shouted. “Everyone move, and give a lady some space to breathe.”
The crowd immediately cleared around them, of course. Who wouldn't, at the sound of such a voice? That brogue, so full of authority and menace, as if Hyde Park was a battlefield. Thor with a Scots accent. It almost made her want to giggle, and she wondered if she was getting hysterical.
“Let's find you a place to sit down,” he said, gently taking her arm. His hand, ungloved, felt warm and steady, something to depend on in a dizzy world.
“My friends...” she said, suddenly remembering Emily and Diana. Where had they vanished? She glanced over her shoulder, but couldn't see them anywhere. The crowd had closed behind her again.
“We'll find them in just a wee,” he said. His lips, strangely sensual and soft for such a hard man, frowned as if he was concerned. “You look very pale.”
“I do feel a bit—startled,” Alex admitted. He led her gently to a bench under the shade of a tree, somewhat away from the crowded paths. The bench's inhabitants moved after a stern glare from Thor, and he helped Alex sit down. “I don't think I was expecting quite so many people here today.”
“Ach, a sunny day, a bit of free music, enough to turn things into a stampede ground in this aidle city. Let me fetch you something cool to drink.”
Before Alex could protest, he turned and strode quickly, long-legged, toward a stand selling ginger beer. She drew in a deep breath, trying to steady herself after the last few astonishing minutes. Surely she hadn't felt quite so much excitement in—well, ever! She had been so sure her life would never change, that she would smother in her parents' house, and now she had fallen and been nearly trampled, and then rescued by a Norse god who used the oddest words. No wonder she felt dizzy.
She craned her neck to study her rescuer as he waited in the refreshment line. He certainly was handsome. She was sure she had never seen him before, or anyone quite like him. He was so tall, so powerful-looking, so golden-amber, he looked nothing like the young men she danced with every evening, sat next to at dinner and listened to them talk about cricket. She was quite sure Thor never talked about cricket, or if he did she didn't want to know about it and spoil the fantasy she was indulging in.
He did wear the finest, most fashionable clothes, his sack coat of dark green wool with velvet lapels perfectly tailored, a gold watch chain over a luxurious ivory brocade waistcoat, books polished to a gleam, and he seemed perfectly comfortable in them. Yet something about him made the finery seem a bit incongruous, like it wasn't his favorite attire. She could see him striding across the moor in shirtsleeves and tweed trousers, high boots, his hair shining in the sun.
Yes, he definitely didn't seem like he belonged in the city. The—what was it he called it? Aidle city.
He came back with a glass of the ginger beer, and Alex sipped at it gratefully. Its tart coolness, fizzy on her tongue, seemed to steady her.
“Thank you,” she said, hardly daring to look at him for fear she would be dazzled witless again. “You have been very kind. I feel so foolish.”
“Not at all,” he answered in his rough-warm voice. “Anyone would want to faint in such a crowd. I would never have walked this way today if I had known.”
“So you aren't here to listen to the music?”
“I was on my way to work. I like to walk on fine days.”
Alex was dying of curiosity to know what he did for work, but she wasn't sure it was entirely polite to ask. Aside from her uncle and cousin Will, both at the Foreign Office, she really had no relative who had work they went to. She decided he must be a poet, or maybe a spy. No, a royal Stuart, come to claim his throne! It was surely something terribly dashing and romantic.
She felt her hat slip again from its pins, and pulled it entirely off, leaving curls of her soft, slippery hair to fall free against her neck and temples. She stared ruefully down at the bit of millinery, the scrap of blue velvet and net, now quite bedraggled. “I'm afraid it's ruined.”
He studied the hat in her gloved hands, his head tilted, a small frown on his lips. He smelled heavenly as he leaned closer, like a green, summery forest. “That shape is out of fashion, anyway. You need something with a larger brim, maybe with a scoop here over the eye, with a cluster of feathers. The color is good, though, especially with your eyes.”
Alex gave a startled laugh. “You know about ladies' hats, then, sir?”
He sat back on the bench beside her, his arms crossed over his chest. “It's my job.”
He worked in millinery? Alex could hardly have been more astonished if he said he was just about to jump to the moon. It seemed so—strange. He was surely the most masculine man she had ever encountered, so full of quiet confidence and strength.
“What do you think of my walking suit, then?” she asked, sitting up straighter and grinning at him, startled by her sudden boldness. It was very unlike her. Usually she just tried to blend into the woodwork. “Am I terribly out of fashion?”
He studied her carefully, those ice-blue eyes intent on only her, and she was almost sorry she had asked. She felt so hot and flustered under his gaze, and was sure her cheeks had gone bright red. She quickly gulped down the last of her drink.
“The color is also good,” he answered. “And the cut. It's fine cloth, and the velvet and silk go well together. But the trim is all wrong. A fur collar would be just right, or some gilded embroidery, like Princess Alexandra wears now.”
“Princess Alexandra?” Alex said, thinking of her godmother, who was indeed always perfectly dressed.
“Everyone follows what she wears.”
“Yes, I know. She's always very elegant. But I don't look much like her. Would her style suit me?”
He studied her carefully, from her disarranged hair to the tips of her kid walking boots, and Alex had to look away. To will her heart to beat slower. “Your coloring is different from the princess, of course, but you have the same delicacy. The same—distance.”
Alex didn't feel “distant” from him at all. She felt much, much too close. “Distance?”
His icy eyes narrowed. “Like you're not of this world. My old Nanna, my grandmother, would have said you were a fairy queen of winter.”
“Of winter?” Alex asked, intrigued.
“Aye. All pale and delicate outside, full of icy storms, curses and danger inside.”
She laughed. She rather liked that idea, having the command of ice and snow to get her way. It would make a nice change in her life. “I think I'm the least dangerous person there is.”
He shook his head. “I shouldn't contradict a female—but I think you're wrong. You're definitely of the winter fairy folk.”
She didn't know how to admit that sitting here with him on this bench was by far the bravest things she had ever done. She rather liked imagining being of the fairy-folk, able to do as she liked when she liked. Just as she enjoyed thinking of him as a god of the Norse country. It all took her out of her dutiful life, the life where she was never quite right, never quite enough, for a moment. It took her out of the ordinary day, out of being Lady Alexandra.
“I will have to buy a new hat immediately, then,” she said. “A winter fairy can't go around being dowdy. What would you suggest? Something like that? She looks in the stylish way.” She gestured at a passing lady, who wore a gown of purple and cream striped silk that was improbably close-fitting and an enormous cartwheel of a hat laden with fruit.
He didn't even glance at her, just kept watching Alex, something seeming to sharpen in his eyes. He didn't move closer, but it suddenly felt as if he had, as if his heat and strength surrounded her. “I could buy you the most fashionable hat you've ever seen, if you would have supper with me tonight at the Criterion.”
And the light-hearted moment shifted, like a gray cloud shifting in front of the sun. Alex sat up straighter, shivering. Even she knew about the Criterion. It was luxurious, all satin-wrapped and filled with French champagne, with private dining rooms where gentlemen took their actress and opera dancer friends. She heard whispers about it all at balls and teas, quickly quieted when she came near. This gorgeous man thought she was an—an actress?
She felt outraged and wanted to laugh, all at the same time.
“You—you think...” she gasped.
She could immediately that he realized his mistake. Once again, he did not seem to physically move, yet he was very far away from her. He took off his hat and ran his hand through his amber hair. “Forgive me. I should never have assumed...”
“You assumed because I was alone for a moment, I am a woman of—loose morals?” she whispered, still unsure what she was feeling. Embarrassment, yes, burning hot, but also filled with a strange, hysterical mirth. And disappointment, that her brief dream with this handsome man was gone so quickly. “I assure you I am not. I didn't realize your kindness was based on such a notion.” She quickly rose to her feet, glad she was steady now.
He stood up beside her, and she instinctively stepped back. “Of course not,” he said, his accent even heavier. “It is just that you're so—so...”
“So?” So bold, so outrageous, so—not herself?
“Beautiful,” he blurted out.
Alex felt her face turn even hotter. He thought her beautiful? Just her, Alex, not the duke's daughter? “I must go!”
“Let me help you find your friends.”
“No!” she cried. She was tempted to stay right there, standing with him, so she knew she had to run. She spun around and dashed away, not daring to look back. She lost herself in the crowd, hearing the brassy strains of music, of the laughter in the air. It all made her feel even more as if she was caught in a dream, where nothing in her real life existed any longer.
It was only when she heard Chris calling her name that she realized she had dropped her hat. She glanced back, hoping to see her rescuer, no matter how improper he was. And that was when it struck her, where she had seen him before. Not in her dreams. Oh, she was such a fool not have known him immediately!
He was Malcolm, her Malcolm. The sweet, handsome boy who had once taught her to fish. Yet there was no trace of that lad in him anymore. He had become arrogant, so sure everything belonged to him, just like the beautiful women he was with in the newspapers.
She thought she would drown in memories, the humiliation she felt when they parted. How had she ever considered him her friends? He never had been, and he truly was not now. They were worlds apart.
But she still wanted to cry when she remembered the sweetness of what once was, even if it was all just a girlish dream.
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