Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

This series is a sequel to Into the Game

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May 1804: The war between France and England has reached an apparent stalemate, with the former unconquerable on land, the latter unvanquished at sea. French ports are closed to British and neutral merchant ships, while English naval fleets have successfully blockaded Brest and Toulon. Napoleon Bonaparte, now First Consul of France for life, aspires to break the impasse, secretly beginning preparations for an invasion of England. Meanwhile, British agents and disaffected French Royalists hatch their own conspiracies to remove Napoleon from power . . .
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Any man's death diminishes me . . .

--John Donne

 

PART ONE: "A Death in the Family"

May, 1804

 

"All right, listen here, you lot!"

The words themselves were neither unusual nor unexpected; the tone and volume with which they were uttered, however, brought the entire common room to a sudden, silent halt, while a dozen pairs of trained, observant eyes fixed on the speaker. Archie Stewart, formerly Kennedy, studied his commanding officer and realized he had never seen Carmichael this angry before: cold rage radiated from him like sparks flying from a bed of stirred embers.

Carmichael still stood in the doorway. Face and voice as hard as flints, he continued, "Jamieson, Stewart, Grant, Ferguson, MacCrimmon, Dunbar: pack your gear. We're down to London at first light. Talbot, Erskine, Richards, Ross--your orders are to shut down things here, then get over to Leith and await further orders by sea. Once secure, be ready to go on an hour's notice.

"Seaton's been killed."

Abruptly, Carmichael turned on his heel and vanished. Archie glanced at Rory MacCrimmon, the only division member younger than himself. "Seaton?" The name sounded only slightly familiar.

Rory shrugged in response, equally puzzled.

"She was the head of one of the London divisions," Jamieson replied. The knife expert was still leaning against the wall, where he had been standing when Carmichael appeared, but the line of his mouth had gone as hard and straight as one of his own weapons. "She was one of our own." Just as abruptly as their commander, he pushed himself away from the wall and strode out of the room.

"She was one of Kilcarron's very first recruits," Caillean Dunbar explained. There was a flush of color high on the ciphers expert's usually pale cheeks, but the blue-green eyes were dry. "She and Carmichael must have worked together on at least nine or ten operations. I don't think there's a senior agent in the last twenty years that she didn't help train." She rose quickly to her feet. "I'm going to pack."

Round-eyed, Rory stared at Archie as Caillean departed."D'you think the whole house has heard about it?"

"Very likely," Archie replied. Despite the lateness of the evening, it did seem as if the lodge was beginning to hum--in a perturbed, discordant way like an overturned beehive. If this had happened within the chain of command on the Indy, Archie thought, if they had lost someone of long standing like Bowles or Bracegirdle to some kind of foul play while awaiting orders from the Admiralty . . . it might have felt this way.

"Are they all going to be like this?" Rory was wondering aloud about the unfamiliar mood of the surrounding adults.

Archie tried to think of a way to explain it. "Imagine if it was Carmichael who was killed, Rory. Or Dr. Latour. Or even Caillean. Someone you saw every day and were used to having nearby." He felt a small pang himself at that; there had been someone else close that he had seen every day once . . .

Rory looked thoughtful, then shivered. "I wouldn't want to be the one that killed her--not with that many people angry at me."

"No," Archie agreed, a little absently. "No--they're all very angry . . . don't tease Carmichael tonight, Rory--he might forget to miss."

"I'll stay out of his sight completely. Do you think we should go and pack?"

"That seems an eminently prudent idea."

As he and Rory ascended the stairs in their turn, Archie's mind skipped ahead. Half his possessions were already laid aside in preparation for this journey: the change in the surrounding circumstances now lent a greater urgency to the situation.

*****

The plan had first been broached close to a fortnight ago.

"London," Carmichael announced, coming into the common room with a letter in his hand. Rory and Jamieson looked up from their card game, Archie from his book, and Caillean from her needlework.

"Old Nick has a bitch of a mission down there. Says he wants more hands on it, and some new faces. Who's in, then?"

Caillean was smiling brightly; Carmichael grinned as he considered the others.

"Dunbar, Jamieson. Rory--it's time you saw a bit more of things. Stewart," the grin widened as he looked at Archie. "You'll have to come, you'd fit right in."

Archie let himself look exasperated but could not find a suitable retort; Caillean stood up.

"I'll spread the word. How many do we need?"

"He didn't give me a number. As many as'll go. We won't be leaving for at least a week--likely more."

"The more the merrier." Caillean executed a neat dance step and departed. The card-players left soon after. Carmichael wandered over to the window and stood there re-reading the letter.

London. Archie looked down at his book again, but the print was a meaningless blur. Memories were surfacing, long-buried feelings were stirring painfully to life . . .

"You're too quiet." Unnoticed, Carmichael had come up behind his chair. "What's wrong, then?"

Archie blinked in surprise, found himself at a loss to explain.

Carmichael pressed on. "Know someone down there?"

"I . . . did," Archie confessed, and looked away from the sympathy in the tawny eyes. "They must all think I'm dead, now."

"Then they won't -- expect to see you," Carmichael remarked carefully.

"No," Archie admitted, feeling the void where his loved ones had been. Suddenly he needed to fill that emptiness with words. "I hadn't been there--for any great length of time--in some years. It's just--remembering it, you see. If I should encounter anyone . . . " his voice trailed off.

"Remember they won't expect you," Carmichael said again. He frowned briefly, then tapped the side of Archie's jaw with two fingers. "Let it grow out a week or two."

Archie rubbed the jaw himself, understanding. "I could color it," he offered.

Carmichael grinned. "Red," he advised. "Make it red and no one'll notice anything else about you. Ask Rory!"

Archie just managed a smile at that. Carmichael cuffed his shoulder lightly and went out.

*****

It occurred to Archie that, even now, they did not know the exact details of the London mission. He and Rory speculated briefly as they headed down the hall towards their respective rooms. Little question but that the more dubious skills of the former house-breaker would be called upon, however; Archie left the younger agent contemplating his private arsenal of picklocks, lines, and grappling hooks, and made for his own quarters.

Once inside, he glanced about, taking a mental inventory of what he would need most. He would not take the second-hand sea-chest he had bought last year, before they had gone to Ireland--it was too distinctive, and they were traveling by land, in any case. But he had a perfectly acceptable trunk that would suffice. Dragging it to the center of the room, he threw back the lid and began his packing in earnest.

Nondescript clothes. Some of them in quite good repair, others a little more worn-looking: patched or a trifle threadbare, meant for use on the street. Other garments, more formal and distinctive, intended for afternoon calls or evening supper-parties. Archie selected a careful few in unexceptional colors--without specific and detailed instructions it seemed best to appear a well-bred non-entity.

Handkerchiefs, stockings, neckcloths . . . he took them carefully out of the drawer and looked down at what remained.

The ribbons for his hair.

Archie bit his lip briefly, one hand straying absently to the fair locks now falling just short of his shoulders . . .

*****

"Come look at these," Laura Grant invited, holding up her sketchbook.

Archie glanced at her questioningly, then down at the page, seeing what appeared to be a series of masculine profiles. "And these are--?"

"Sketches of how the young men of fashion are wearing their hair these days," she replied patiently.

Archie blinked and took a closer look. The profiles did indeed sport several different coiffures; in appearance, he thought, they reminded him of the heads he had seen on Greek and Roman coins. Hair trimmed and shaped like a bowl, or tousled in a cap of curls, but, in all cases, quite short, not reaching past the nape of the neck.

"I think I like this one best," Grant resumed, indicating a particular profile. "Full and soft on top and with just a bit of fullness in back." She looked full into Archie's face, her eyes kind. "Except for the length, it needn't look very different from the way you are wearing your hair now."

Archie's hand went involuntarily to his queue. He had cut his hair shorter for the Irish mission last year, but had let it grow out again in the following months: a tie with the past he had found himself unwilling to relinquish. Now, under Grant's assessing gaze, he felt his mouth compressing in an unhappy line. "You think--?"

"Long hair will be noticed," Grant pointed out. "Especially in town." She touched his shoulder lightly. "I have had some years of practice, cutting hair. It would not take very long."

He licked his lips. "You mean--now?"

"No time like the present."

In a matter of minutes, Archie found himself sitting on a chair by the window--"where the light was best"--as his new barber produced shears, brush, and comb for the procedure.

"I did Rob's last night," Grant said, referring to her husband, Ferguson. "And I'll see to Caillean's later this afternoon." She settled a towel over Archie's shoulders. "No need for skittishness. Untie it now."

Archie obeyed, hoping his reluctance did not show. He was half-tempted to ask Grant if Carmichael had put her up to this, but remembered in time that she was a fellow agent: she'd only give him as much of the truth as she chose, and he wouldn't be able to tell if she was concealing anything.

Light-handed, Grant spread his hair out over the towel. With an effort, Archie sat still.

"It's a good head of hair," Grant was saying casually. "I've known some lasses who'd give their eye-teeth to have it this color--and this thickness."

"Just don't cut it off crooked," Carmichael said, appearing in the doorway. He caught Archie's eye. "The galleries and those fancy parlors, remember?"

He was rewarded with a blue glare.

"You're as bad as Rob," Grant scolded mildly. "He's always saying he fears I'll clip one of his ears off!"

Carmichael chuckled. "Only leave it a bit longer on that side, if you do!"

"As if I would!" Grant retorted. She picked up the shears and turned back to Archie. "We'll leave it a bit on the long side in any case. Long hair can always be cut shorter again if necessary." She chuckled softly in her turn. "Much harder to try it the opposite way!"

"Yes, of course," Archie made himself answer, keeping control of his voice and feeling his mouth tighten a little. He told himself firmly not to be absurd, but bit his lip anyway as he heard and felt the shears going through.

Even after two years, the old sense of coercion was simmering below the surface. Not his idea, not his desire to change his appearance, but a necessity imposed by others that required his submission. Perhaps it would be easier to think of it as a duty. If they had ever changed uniform regulations in the service he would have been required to obey, no matter what his personal misgivings were.

The shears snipped away. Carmichael lingered, exchanging light words with Grant and sending the occasional teasing remark in Archie's direction. Trying to hold up his end of the conversation made Archie remember a childhood afternoon spent at the blacksmith's, watching the smith's apprentice use every trick possible to distract a nervous horse while it was being shod. He was not sure he appreciated the comparison.

However he berated himself for foolish sentimentality, he could not deny his relief when Grant at last put down the shears. It was over.

Carmichael had vanished from the doorway perhaps two minutes earlier. Archie licked his lips, forced himself to relax slightly as Grant whisked a comb through his shortened hair. The comb's teeth were cold against his bare nape; he kept himself from flinching through a sheer act of will.

"Finished," Grant announced, removing the towel and stepping back from the chair.

Archie exhaled, shook his head slightly. It felt -- odd not to have the extra weight there, the sensation of hair brushing his shoulder blades. Did sheep feel this naked, after they were shorn? Had Samson felt like this, when it had been Delilah wielding the shears?

"Here," Grant handed him a handkerchief. "I thought, perhaps, you might want to keep some of the longest strands."

Archie throttled the urge to shove the handkerchief into his pocket and sprint for the door, forcing himself instead to look down at the remains of his queue, startlingly bright against the folds of white linen.

"You could have it made up into a switch, eventually," Grant suggested.

Archie blinked. "A switch? But--I'm a man."

"One never knows when a wig or a hairpiece might prove useful," she said firmly. "Or a false beard, for that matter. Waste not, want not."

He nodded, tight-lipped again.

Grant brushed a stray bit of hair from his jacket. "Cheer up, Stewart. It will grow back, soon enough."

*****

The memory made Archie's face burn. What Grant--and Carmichael--had proposed, had been only common sense; he would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb with long hair, if it was not the fashion. It was his own foolishness that made him so conscious of his queue's absence. He'd heard stories, both from Latour and even during his own time in the Navy, about men who'd lost limbs in battle, and then reported they still felt itching or aching where the missing arm or leg should be. "Phantom pain," Latour had said it was called.

Phantom feeling in a vanished limb seemed believable enough. But--phantom hair? Archie found himself reaching up again as if to explore, then lowered his hand without touching anything, exasperated by his own foolish fancy.

It will grow back, he repeated sternly, shutting the drawer on the ribbons and turning his attention once more to the trunk. Vanity be damned--what mattered now was practicality. There were advantages to shorter hair, he knew, not the least of them being that it was much easier to color.

Color . . . dye! That was what he needed! Carmichael had suggested red. Archie ran an exploratory hand over his bristly chin, then stroked a finger across his upper lip: neither beard nor moustache was long enough by any means. Perhaps he should wait until they were nearer to London before coloring his hair and whatever whiskers he had managed to sprout by then.

In the meantime, he would pack his supply of red and brown dye, just in case Carmichael's proposal proved impractical. Memories and misgivings faded as he continued his preparations for the journey . . .

*****

It was a grim-faced, tight-lipped group of agents who assembled in the courtyard the following morning, at first light. In silence, they watched as the carriages were brought round and their trunks loaded by Kilcarron's household staff. Communications between those departing and those remaining were brief and to the point.

Standing with Rory and Jamieson before one carriage, Archie glanced over at his remaining colleagues, somberly noting their funereal demeanor. The usually cheerful Grant looked small and withdrawn, huddled in her traveling-cloak, and flanked protectively both by her husband, Ferguson, and by a pale, similarly subdued Caillean. Carmichael ranged before them, handing the women up into the second carriage, his face set and unreadable. Then he and Ferguson climbed in, rolling up the steps and shutting the doors behind them.

"They worked with Seaton most," Jamieson said, following Archie's gaze across the courtyard.

"All of them?"

"Three of them, any road. Especially Grant. She was assigned to London division, under Seaton. Then she married Ferguson and came up here. Caillean went back and forth for a time: London and Edinburgh. Carmichael, too." His own expression bleak, the older agent climbed into the first carriage, sat down by the window; Archie and Rory followed suit, seating themselves directly opposite Jamieson.

"What was she like?" Archie asked finally, as the carriage at last began to move. He was already picturing the deceased woman from Caillean's words the night before. An elderly lady, rocking in a chair perhaps, knitting placidly while agents gave their reports.

"Who, Seaton?" Jamieson frowned thoughtfully. "She was the only woman I ever knew with the guts to crack Carmichael over the head with a thimble."

The image of the tranquil and aged spinster vanished abruptly. Jamieson discovered himself the target of two pairs of staring eyes.

"What did he do?" Rory blurted out.

Jamieson grinned, very slightly. "What do you think he did? He's Carmichael--he let her do it.

"Besides," he concluded, "he'd more than half provoked it to begin with."

"How'd he do that?" Archie asked cautiously.

"Called her an old woman. In public, as it were. And not for the first time. She's--" the grin fell away abruptly from the dark, narrow-boned face. "She was a force to be reckoned with." He lapsed once more into laconic silence, as their carriage lurched out of the courtyard and towards the main road.

Soon the only sounds were their breathing and the clopping of the horses' hooves. After an uneasy glance at the still-silent Jamieson, Rory curled up under his cloak and closed his eyes with the ease of someone who had once led a primarily nocturnal existence. Archie peered out the window and decided, regretfully, that there was really insufficient light for reading and left the book in his pocket untouched. Respecting his fellows' desire for quiet, he stared unseeing out the window again, letting his thoughts range where they would.

Two years as an agent, and he was becoming accustomed to the odd pace of spying. Long periods of watching and waiting, interspersed with brief intervals of intense, even feverish activity as information became available and plans could at last be set in motion. In some ways, Archie reflected, it was not so different from being on patrol, or even blockade duty.

The level of activity had increased, however, in recent months. Despite Robert Emmet's failed rising in Ireland last year, Bonaparte remained set upon an invasion of England and convinced that the Irish would be willing to ally themselves with his cause. More than one of Kilcarron's agents had wondered just how likely that would be, given that the French had refused to commit themselves to Emmet's cause, but on further investigation, it seemed that the Irish were incorrigible. In the early months of 1804, Jamieson, Ferguson, and Archie himself had carried back a report to Edinburgh of increased activity among the now-scattered remnants of the United Irishmen; Agent Bonnard, still in France, had corroborated their findings with his own report that Bonaparte was again encouraging several exiled Irish leaders, including Emmet's older brother Thomas, to assist a French expeditionary force. Fortunately, the shorter nights and Channel storms had apparently postponed Bonaparte's planned invasion--at least for now.

Archie permitted himself a wry smile at the thought. One thing a seaman could rely upon was the weather being unreliable! If he hadn't learnt that lesson during his years in the Navy, the weeks he and the other two agents had spent tossed about on the Irish Sea, ferrying messages back and forth between Dublin and Edinburgh, would have taught him, certain sure! He had been heartily glad that he was not prone to Horatio's ailment or he'd have spent most of the mission doubled over the lee rail. As it was, he had felt a trifle unwell on several occasions and more than a trifle relieved when their stint as couriers came to an end.

By the time they arrived back in Scotland, the organization was abuzz with news of Bonaparte's arrest and execution of the Duc d'Enghien, following the former's discovery of another royalist plot to depose him. According to Carmichael, newly returned himself from France, there had been no conclusive proof to tie the duke to the conspiracy, but that had not prevented Bonaparte from having him tried, condemned, and shot within days of his arrest. England and the rest of Europe had roundly condemned the First Consul's decision as the act of a bloodthirsty tyrant, and even in France public opinion had been wildly divided on the subject.

Archie frowned to himself. Was it because of the Enghien affair that the Edinburgh division were being considered for this new mission in London? And how did it come about that a woman of Commander Seaton's age and experience should have been placed in so perilous--fatal--a position?

Impossible to guess and, he suspected, useless to speculate--at least, until he knew more. And none of the senior agents appeared to be in a forthcoming mood at present. Understandable, given their connection to the slain commander.

Reluctantly, his thoughts turned to the one inescapable fact of their future mission: they were going to London.

London . . . and all the memories of that place belonged to Archie Kennedy, rather than Archie Stewart.

A conundrum, and one he had thought he was getting used to. And yet he could not deny that there were still moments when he felt alarmingly divided, in mind and heart--as though he had been cut in two that day in Kingston. "Archie Stewart" had spent the last two years showing an unexpected aptitude for intelligence work, and had gained trust and acceptance among his colleagues. "Archie Kennedy" was the reason that Stewart frequently sought solitude, to struggle with the past. He would not willingly relinquish his memories: they were at once treasured and painful--but he would deal with them as he chose, without witnesses.

That was not an option now, however. There would be far fewer opportunities for solitude in town, surrounded by his closest colleagues and the members of the London division, whom he had not yet met. Still, there was no reason to assume that they were any less competent or observant than their Edinburgh counterparts--quite the contrary, if Kilcarron had chosen each of them personally.

Could he hope to hide his memories from everyone? Not really practical, under the circumstances, he supposed. Carmichael knew a little of it and Kilcarron, Archie remembered with an inner grimace, knew still more--likely his entire history! It might not be necessary for anyone else to know--not unless some remnant of Archie Kennedy's past promised to affect the mission, either for good or ill.

Again, no point in premature speculation. He would have a clearer idea of what to do once they arrived at their destination, some four hundred miles in the future.

Four hundred miles, with the past dogging him at every turn. Biting his lip, Archie glanced from the sleeping Rory to the brooding Jamieson. No escape there. Bracing himself against the carriage's cushioned squabs, he closed his eyes and let the memories come.

London. Five years since he had been there for any significant length of time. A Christmas fortnight, just before taking up his posting on board the Renown. Langford House en fete for the holidays, decorations of evergreens and berried holly everywhere, savory cooking-smells wafting through the house, his sisters' conversation, their children's laughter, the pianoforte hardly ever silent but trilling out all the favorite old songs and carols . . .

Archie swallowed. Almost too painful to remember, that Christmas and what it had seemed to promise. But there were earlier recollections too.

"I knew Drury Lane like it was my home," he had once told Horatio. And so it had been--ever since he was the merest child, taken by his parents to see his first pantomime. From pantomime and spectacle to the plays of Shakespeare--and the players who had "strutted and fretted" their way across the stage: Sarah Siddons, John Kemble, and the fascinating Katharine Cobham whom it had been his rare privilege to meet, on more than one occasion.

Other places too had vied for his attention, not only the great landmarks of Westminster Abbey and Tower Hill, but simpler locations as well: Hatchards bookshop, Hyde Park, Gunter's for ices and confectionery, and the establishment of Mr. Collins, who excelled at the making of naval uniforms. Archie felt his mouth crooking up in the barest of smiles. How he had teased Horatio when his friend came back from the tailor's, so pleased and self-conscious in his new lieutenant's uniform! And how Horatio had delighted in returning the favor--in his own solemn way--when Archie passed his examination and was himself fitted out as a commissioned officer!

Archie shivered, struck by a sudden chill. The Admiralty was in London, too--and the memories evoked by that circumstance were anything but pleasant. Nine years ago, he, Horatio, and their men had been sent to assist the Royalists on their mission to Muzillac and Quiberon Bay, an ill-fated business which none of them had cause to recall with any fondness. And then, some time later, still reeling from the disaster and grateful merely to be alive, they had learned about the Admiralty courier who was killed in London, the plans stolen before the Royalists had even taken ship for Brittany. Archie had been incoherent with rage on hearing the news, while Horatio had gone dangerously quiet and still, no doubt tallying up all the lives that need not have been lost.

Thinking of Muzillac brought another, more recent occurrence to mind--no less catastrophic and every bit as bitter: the day Captain Sawyer, maintained in his command, had received his orders to sail for the West Indies. And so had begun a voyage of terror, suspicion, madness, and death--the aftereffects of which still had the power to haunt Archie's dreams, to rouse him, sweating and sick, from an otherwise sound sleep.

Not so much now, though. He had paid the price full willing--and he was learning to live with the consequences. Impossible not to wonder about the danger of recognition . . . and yet, common sense told him he was not about to pitch a tent on the steps of Whitehall and loudly announce his presence to the Admiralty. No--London was a big city, with many places in which to hide oneself, whether in obscurity or plain sight. Besides, if Kilcarron had anticipated any serious problems in concealing Archie's former identity, surely he would not have included Archie in the London mission to begin with.

Exhaling slowly, Archie felt those shadows receding, at least part of the way. There remained only one phantom now--which he had avoided dealing with, whenever possible. During his first year as an agent--acquiring new skills, growing used to his new profession--it had been almost unbearable to remember Horatio, who had been such an integral part of his training as a naval officer. But it was not Horatio of whom he immediately thought when the subject of London arose.

Six years had passed since that summer, and while some details had blurred--mercifully, perhaps--with time, others remained as vivid as ever, knife-edged and bittersweet. Rose gardens, music, shared laughter, a hand resting lightly on the crook of his arm, and warm lips opening beneath the touch of his own . . .

Behind his closed lids, he felt his eyes stinging and squeezed them shut even tighter, no longer able to deny what had once been as natural as breathing.

I went to London . . . and I fell in love.

*****

INTERLUDE

Cornwall, 1801

 

"Four days?" Archie's brow furrowed in dismay. "But I must leave by then. I'd hoped to have the chance to ask Edward's permission again, for us to marry now, by special license."

"It was financing for the mine," Medora explained. "A new floor for Wheal Fortune. He and Henry have both gone. But I fear it would have been useless to ask him, and as for Fanny. . . " A bitter shrug was her unspoken conclusion.

"I might still try--" Archie could not quite keep the pessimistic note from his voice.

Medora promptly flared up. "And give her the chance yet again to deny us? To belittle you, and even your family? I forbid it! You must go away so soon, dear heart--I can't bear for you to waste any of our time together dealing with such a hateful person."

She saw the disappointment on his face and regretted her outburst. "Let's put her out of our minds, love." She tried to sound calmer. "Only think of what we have now, while you're here."

He nodded at that, trying to smile, and they walked on in silence along the shore. As the wind from the sea grew brisker, Archie slipped his arm around her shoulders, thankfully pulling her close. Leaning into the embrace, Medora studied his face again anxiously.

The shadows were still there behind his eyes, his mouth as taut and strained as it had been the night before. He had said so little about the past fourteen months, yet it was clear his position aboard the Renown had not been quite what he had hoped for. Margaret had been concerned too--after supper she had given Medora a long, speaking look before leaving the betrothed couple to their own devices. Alone before the fire, they had kissed and held each other for comfort, though not venturing nearly as far as they had that December night in the conservatory! The sweetness of that memory contrasted sharply with her present frustration, and Medora found herself uttering words she had never meant to say aloud.

"If only we had eloped, that time!" She stopped herself, aghast. "Oh, love, I didn't mean to say that! But I only wish--that we could be married at last, without any more hindrance from my family!"

"If we were in Scotland," Archie said almost absently, remembering some of the traditions he had learned of during his childhood, "not even at Gretna Green, we could do that. Marry ourselves." He frowned, trying to recall more details. "We could make our vows to each other--we don't even need witnesses. Just exchange our pledges, declare ourselves married before God."

Medora tilted her head to one side, puzzled. "But we did something similar that Christmas, did we not? The handfasting. But that was only for a year and a day," she concluded with a sigh, "and it's been considerably longer than that, hasn't it."

"It wouldn't be entirely the same." Archie looked down and away, flushing slightly. "When we were handfasted, we made a promise of *future* marriage to each other--and as you know, we did not . . . "

"We were not together," Medora supplied, "as husband and wife, in the fullest sense of the word."

"No." Archie glanced at her again. "Apparently, there are some fine distinctions in Scottish law between handfasting and marriage, of which I was not aware, then. But some months ago, I shared a drink with a marine captain, named Grahame--and we fell to talking. He mentioned that his parents had simply declared themselves married before God -- and lived as a wedded couple from that day forward. And the laws of Scotland recognized their union."

Medora had grown very still. "'What ceremony else?'"

"Just a pledge of marriage, I think. Oh, I do remember my father's ghillie and my old nurse mentioning some old wedding traditions--jumping over branches of flowering broom or joining hands over running water."

"Running water?" She caught her breath in a soft laugh. "Oh, my dearest lootal. I should say there is no shortage of that in Cornwall--and even if there were, I should not let that stop us!"

Startled blue eyes met determined grey ones. "My rose, what are you saying?"

Medora returned his gaze levelly. "I am saying that we should marry, love--this minute, as our Scottish forebears might have done. Without fear, without regret, and without delay."

 

END PART ONE