Thrice Again is the working title for the next book in my Once and Future Series. Here are some excerpts.
A Strange Encounter
Sarah was glad that she had Dermot to lead her around Edinburgh, because she had no doubt that she’d never have made it anywhere without him. That wasn’t because it was a difficult city to navigate, but because every time she left her flat she found herself gawking at this old building or that restaurant she wanted to try or a busker doing something amazing. A building at home was old when it had been standing for a hundred years. Here, that was practically new. And while Chapel Hill was fairly cosmopolitan, it had nothing on Edinburgh. There was every kind of food and culture on display, and she was ready to soak it all up.
She had no idea where Dermot had taken her for lunch, or what type of food it had been other than delicious. They had been working all morning at the research team’s office putting furniture to rights, assigning desks, and organizing equipment and supplies. Aside from the utterly drab environment of the white walled office, her mood had been dampened by having to endure the company of Kirstie Robinson. The team had its first official meeting this afternoon, but Kirstie had taken it upon herself to show up days early and ‘help’ set things up. Sarah was sure that Kirstie was probably a nice person under normal circumstances, but she made it plain at every opportunity that Sarah was an interloper, a yank and a nuisance.
When Dermot called lunch, Sarah jumped at the chance to get out of confines of the office. She felt a little bad about how relieved she was when Kirstie declined to go to join them. It was obvious that the girl needed some kindness and maybe some help loosening up.
The restaurant had been small and dimly lit, betweeen two other small shops on West Nicholson Street. The owner had been friendly and boisterous suggesting dishes most of which Sarah had never tried before. Now, as they made their way back to the office with spicy aroma of the restaurant still clinging to them like a cloud, Sarah felt nothing but excitement. How many years had she been dreaming about coming to Scotland? The reality of being there with him was beyond anything she had imagined. She glanced up at Dermot as he was walking beside her. The sun was behind him and burst in rays around his head. Suddenly, Sarah couldn’t hear the bustling noise of the street and the traffic behind him blurred. She loved this man. She’d change his mind. She had to.
He glanced down at her and away again quickly, clearing his throat. She wished so badly that she could take his hand that her fingers itched. She put them in her pockets to fight the temptation.
“Are ye cold?”
Not really. She smiled. “Still getting used to Scottish weather.”
He made throaty noise and continued walking. Sarah tried to keep up.
Just around the corner, Sarah noticed a panhandler sitting on the cold sidewalk. He sat close to the wall with his knees pulled up to his chest. He had wrapped his legs with a worn and filthy blanket. The edges of a folded newspaper peeked out from underneath him, and his coat was also filthy and torn at the shoulder with insulation spilling out in a little cloud of fluff. He wore a threadbare stocking cap that Sarah didn’t think could be offering nearly enough warmth for the weather and several strands of matted gray hair trailed across his shoulders from under it. His straggly salt and pepper beard rested on his knees and his eyes stared vacantly across the street toward the campus.
As beautiful and exciting as Edinburgh was, it was still a big city. There would always be those who needed help. She was struck by the difference between the rural poverty that she had seen in the holler, and the urban poverty of a modern city. They had been poor, but at least they had been able to grow their own food. At least they’d had a home. Sarah fingered the change in her pocket where she had stuffed the few pounds change she’d gotten after paying for lunch.
When she reached where he sat, Sarah knelt down in front of him and put the money in the rusty can at his feet. She reached up and squeezed his shoulder gently until he turned his unfocused eyes to hers. She waited a second longer until the cloud in his eyes seemed to lift. She smiled at him. “I hope you find help, brother.”
He smiled back, and Sarah thought she caught the gleam of tears in his eyes. She gave his shoulder another friendly squeeze and stood. She was a couple of steps away when she heard the cracked old voice whisper, “Mòran taing, a’bhana-phrionnsa.”
She stopped dead, and suddenly felt the mid-winter cold surge in her veins. The last person to call her princess had been holding a gun to her head. She turned back, but the man was gone. Sarah stepped back to where he’d been. There was no sign that he’d been there, not even a rust stain on the concrete where his filthy can had been. Sarah checked her pocket for the money, wondering if she had hallucinated the whole thing, but the money wasn’t there and it wasn’t on the sidewalk.
She was about to go back around the corner to see if he had run that way when Dermot’s voice cracked through her confusion. “Sarah? Where did you go?”
“Sorry.” She said when he reached her. “I stopped to give the man some money.”
“What man?” His forehead wrinkled in concern.
Sarah glanced up and down the street again hoping to see him. “The panhandler. He was right here. I gave him a few pounds and then he disappeared.”
“I didn’t see a man.” He shook his head.
“You walked right by him him. He was right here.” She hoped she didn’t sound too crazy insisting the man had been there.
“Alright. Maybe I just wasna looking.” He took her elbow and leaned down to admonish her softly. “But you shouldn’t be stopping for people like that. I know you want to be kind, but anybody like that could be the next Ryan Cumberland in disguise.”
“That’s just it, Dermot. He called me princess.”
He grabbed her wrist and began to scan the street around them. “What was he wearing?”
“He was filthy. All of his clothes were grimy. He had on a-” She thought, trying to remember something distinct through the dirt. “-A black stocking cap, grey beard…straggly gray hair.”
Dermot studied the crowd on either side of the street. Then walked to the corner to look back at the way they had come. He hadn’t let go of Sarah’s wrist and dragged her around the corner a few yards scanning side to side. Sarah looked to, but there were no alleys or shops that he could have ducked into fast enough to completely disappear the way he had. Sarah dug in her heels. “He was here, Dermot. I swear.”
He studied her for a few long seconds before nodding. “Aye, well. We won’t find him now. But ye’ll let me know if you see him again. And do us both a favor and hold off on the in person donations, yeah?”
She sighed, hating that she had to be afraid of showing a little kindness. “Yeah.”
Sarah tapped her fingers on the handle of her suitcase as she watched each floor tick slowly by in bright red numbers. She was only going to the sixth floor, but this was possibly the longest elevator ride of her life. She had hoped that leaving Raleigh before dawn would have helped her sleep on the flight over, but no such luck. Nerves, her seat, and the loud talker in the row in front of her had kept her up the most of the way.
Now, she was practically swaying on her feet while the elevator crept at a pace that made her wonder if it wasn’t being pulled up manually. Finally the six appeared with a soft ding and the door slid open to reveal a long gray hallway dotted with mostly closed doors. She couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. She was expecting the University of Edinburgh to look more old world, but this building was 1960’s modern. With a sigh she stepped out of the elevator dragging her suitcase behind her. As she made her way down the hall she noticed small signs next to some doors stating what the offices housed. Most of them seemed to be university administration offices.
She could see one door nearly at the end of the hall that was flung wide open. On the floor outside was a stack of cardboard boxes. She made her way to it to find a sheet of white paper with ‘Scots Preservation Field Team’ scrawled in black marker taped over the little plaque beside the door. ‘Looks like this is the place,’ she thought taking a bracing breath and stepping inside.
The large room appeared to be in disarray. Several desks were pushed into one corner while a few chairs were shoved into another. There was one long table up against the wall next to the window. Boxes were stacked on almost every available surface and a petite dark haired woman with her back to the door was rummaging in one of them.
“Pardon me,” Sarah cleared her throat and said, “I’m looking for Dermot Sinclair.”
The woman turned around and arched an eyebrow at Sarah. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, pretty, and obviously annoyed at having been interrupted. She rolled her eyes before walking toward a narrow hall that Sarah hadn’t noticed. The young woman leaned into the hallway and said loudly. “A’Dhiarmad. Tha an bean an seo.” (Dermot, there is a woman here.)
Sarah heard a muffled voice from the office say something but she couldn’t make out the words.
The woman made a clearly unhappy face. “Ma thogair! Tha ise Aimeireaganach.” (Who cares! She’s American.)
The last bit was said with a decided sneer, and Sarah wondered how jarring her accent must be to folks around here. The words had the desired effect. After a sound that must have been a wheeled chair smacking into a wall, Dermot came barreling out of the office and into the larger room his eyes aflame.
He made straight for Sarah. She thought for a second that he would grab her, but he caught himself abruptly a few feet away. His eyes scanned her from head to toe. His face looked thunderous. “I don’t know whether to kiss ye or throttle ye.”
Sarah gave him her most beguiling smile. “I know which I’d prefer.”
“D’ye have any idea how worried we’ve been?” She could tell he was upset when his ‘worried’ sounded like ‘wuhrrit’. Sarah felt just the tiniest bit of satisfaction that her stunt had gotten under his skin.
She cut her eyes over to the young woman who was avidly watching their exchange. “And here I thought you’d be glad to see me.”
Dermot pulled his shoulders back and she could tell he was making an effort to calm down. “I am glad. I just wish ye would have told me ye were coming today.”
“That’s better,” Smiling, she turned to the dark haired woman and extended her hand. “I’m Sarah MacAlpin. I’m going to be helping with the fieldwork.”
The woman looked at Sarah’s outstretched hand then at Dermot. “Aimeireaganach? Bheil gu dearbh?” (An American? Really?)
Dermot looked sharply at the young woman. “Kirstie, don’t be rude. This American…”
Sarah stopped him before he could say more. “It’s no problem, Dermot,” She smiled sweetly before addressing the young woman in flawless Gaelic. “I may be American, but I’ve spoken Gaelic all my life. I learned it from my Grandmother who emigrated before The War. It’s nice to meet you, Kirstie.”
The other woman’s face turned red and she grunted before turning back to the box that she had been digging in before.
Dermot eyed her and Sarah had a feeling Kirstie would be getting a little talk about teamwork and professionalism in the near future. He looked back at Sarah and held out an arm indicating the direction of the interior hallway.
Sarah walked ahead of him and found her way to the first door on the right. She glanced over her shoulder in question and he nodded. She stepped into a tiny office that could barely fit a desk and two chairs. Dermot stepped in behind her.
As soon as the door was closed he turned her around and pulled her into a rib cracking bear hug. Sarah buried her face in his sweater and inhaled filling her lungs with the scent of wool and soap and him. She felt a small easing of the tension she’d been carrying around for weeks.
“I thought ye’d run away.” He whispered into her hair without loosening his grip.
She’d thought about it many times, wondered if she’d have made it, if she’d have been successful where her mother had failed. “And leave you here to have to explain why,” She pressed her cheek to his chest not caring that the wool of his sweater was scratchy. “Would I do that to you?”
She tore his heart out almost daily without even trying. Who knew what she would do when she set out to hurt him? He’d been holding his breath since getting the call from Fleming that Sarah hadn’t been in her apartment this morning. Now, with the solid shape of her in his arms and her curls tickling his nose, he could breathe again. His Sarah was safe.
Safe. Not his. Reluctantly he released her and stepped around his desk. He didn’t look at her again until the desk was between them. She stood in the same spot as if she was waiting for him to come back and hold her again. When he didn’t she sat in the chair on the other side of the desk. When her eyes met his they burned with that quiet determination that he’d seen before. She may be here, but she had her own agenda and Dermot was sure it probably ran contrary to his.
“Ye’re a week early,” He said.
“Well, there wasn’t much to stay for. I packed everything up and Amy was gone for the holiday. I thought I would get out of the way before she got back.” He didn’t miss the note of sadness at the mention of Sarah’s friend and roommate.
“How is Amy?”
Sarah took several seconds to answer, her eyes drifting down to examine a scuff on the toe of her brown clog. “It’s hard to tell. You saw her when she got the news. There are a lot of different emotions going on there. I think she understands intellectually that Ryan was playing her, but she still doesn’t want to talk to me. I called her on Christmas Eve, but she wouldn’t talk, so I just left a message with her mom.”
“That’s ballocks!” He hated that there was a rift between the two girls. They’d been like sisters when he met them.
“Like I said, a lot of emotions. Besides she doesn’t have all the background information that we do. She just thinks a psycho pretended to be her boyfriend to get close to me so he could kill me,” A ghost of a smile floated across her face. “I can cut her some slack, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to hang around there feeling guilty and awkward while she works it all out. I’d rather get a head start here.”
“Aye, and here ye are.” He watched her carefully as he asked the next question. “What exactly does that mean?”
She lifted her eyes to his. They burned with the same fire that lit them when she’d told him how she would get over being held hostage by her roommate’s boyfriend just 3 weeks ago. “It means that I have a dissertation to finish and that’s just what I’m going to do.”
She again seemed fascinated with the scuff on her shoe. “James is a big boy. And no matter how much his family has spoiled him, at some point he’s going to have to learn that he doesn’t get everything he wants.”
He made one of those equivocal noises that Sarah called his mumbly grunts. If anyone could challenge James Stuart, it would be Sarah. Dermot just hoped that there would be something left of her after she tried.