The morning had dawned unusually clear, with a gentle breeze off the sea pushing thick white fluffs of cloud across a turquoise sky. James inhaled the brisk mingling of brine and grasses. He'd received bad tidings last night—Brother Lonan had apparently up and disappeared—but rare was the news that could bring him down when he'd a few holes of golf to look forward to on a fine day.
And nothing was more efficient at pushing all thoughts from a man's head than the links at Montrose. Cradled in the bosom of the North Sea, the course was bolstered by a wall of sand dunes along one side and peppered with hazards like sand, gorse, and long, impenetrable tufts of wispy dune grass that devoured golf balls like an insatiable demon. And the turf, so green as to provoke an Irishman's envy, was rippled by shallow hills like a sheet billowing gently to the ground. Wind could assail an unsuspecting golfer from all sides and gave the course its teeth, demanding complete vigilance of even the most talented players. It was an unusually large course, and James marked a banner day as one in which he had the opportunity to play every one of its twenty-five holes.
"How's your traveler from the stars this morning?" Tom asked, with laughter in his voice.
"You'll not fash me on such a bonny morning," James replied easily, a smile on his face as he scanned the horizon, distractedly tapping the shaft of the wooden club in his hand.
"I'll not fash you, unless your new lassie has replaced thoughts of Aberdeen." Tom adjusted his hands along the suede grip of his club as he took a few tentative p ractice swings. "You said we'd be leaving within the fortnight, and that was nigh a fortnight ago."
"Aye, and so we are off, and soon. I've not forgotten." James took his swing and was away down the green to the next hole when he turned and blithely added, "I fear we must bring the lass, though." He paused for a second, then said nonchalantly, "The wind is showing us mercy today, aye?" "You'll not change topics on me, James Graham," Tom scolded, huffing down the hill after his friend. "What say you, bring the lass? To Aberdeen? Are you mad? You're off to wage war on the"—his voice shifted into a panicked whisper—"on the king! And then there's the Campbell to treat with."
"Now you're the one fashed, dear Tom." James squatted, studying the curve of the ground. "I'll not be waging a war, exactly. We're just off to… capture the king's attention." He stood and deliberately drew his club back to swing. "Inspire him to a bit of sense, aye? If he's a wise man, he'll listen. Ha!" he shouted, finishing his stroke. "A braw shot!"
Not waiting for his companion, James was off again across the fairway.
"But… och! Confounded game!" Tom cursed, fumbling his shot in his haste. "I'll ask you again, man," he pressed, "what do you plan if the men of Aberdeen have no mind for protesting their king?"
"Then, Tom," he declared, stopping short to address his friend, "that is when you and I shall talk of war.
"As for Archibald Campbell," James added, turning to amble leisurely toward his ball, "he'll stand with us. The Campbell has vexed me in the past, and his days of mischief making are surely far from over. But mark me, he will place his name on our Covenant;' He sneered. "That lout won't miss an opportunity to wave his pistol about in a skirmish, anyone's skirmish."
"What of the lass . James? The only gentlewoman on the road with a troop of men! Is her presence truly necessary?" "Aye," James replied, "if I'm to get her back home, the secret lies with an errant friar who, I'm told, is to be found at the abbey in Aberdeen."
Tom's brow furrowed. "So you persist in this fantasy that she's a traveler from another time?"
"Observe her for yourself, my good man." James beamed. "For here comes my bonny riddle now."
Magda was briskly making her way toward them across the green, with James's siste r Margaret trotting a few paces behind, her red face contorted with effort.
James's blithe humor faded and sharpened into something more intent, his eyes narrowing in rapt attention to take in the sight of the approaching woman.
And a sight she was. Light glinted off Magda's hair, flowing loose and smooth behind her like molten metal, the sun igniting the dark russet into bright sparks of copper and burnt orange.
An unexpected hunger drove to his core, and James wondered what it would be like to tangle his fingers in that red hair and bring her mouth to his. Would she maintain that veneer of propriety and stiffen in his arms? Or would she meld to him with a fire to match the challenge that burned bright in her green eyes?
She had hiked the hem of her tartan dress up to accommodate her long-legged stride, and her single -minded advance only exaggerated the lithely rigid line of her posture.
James wondered at what marvels Magda kept at bay. Certainly, he mused, the more unyielding the facade, the greater the passions it hid.
He exhaled sharply. They were soon leaving for Aberdeen, and he would keep these unbidden desires in check. He'd always been able to moderate the needs of the flesh and now was not the time to find himself fixated on a woman. Placing a smile on his face, he donned his own façade. The devil may care, James assured himself, but he would not. "Winsome she was, as is a jolly colt," he recited, a sexy tease in his voice, "Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt." "Excuse me?" Magda asked impatiently.
"Her mouth was as sweet as honeyed drinks," he added seductively, eyes lingering over Magda's lips, "Or "—
"James!" Margaret reached the party in time to be scandalized by her younger brother's impropriety. "You'll not speak thusly!"
"What, dear sister, not a fan of Chaucer?" He winked rakishly at Magda.
Margaret merely stood there, jaw flapping wordlessly like a fish out of water.
"I've not had the pleasure," Tom interjected, deflating the tension. Reaching his hand out to her, he said, "I am Thomas Sydserf, and you are clearly the lovely Magda." Looking a bit thrown off, she took his plump, damp hand and nodded.
"Though, James has been remiss and neglected to inform me of your surname."
"I've been trying to extract her origins for the better part of an hour," Margaret interrupted in a chiding voice.
"Oh. Yes, of course, I'm sorry." She gave a small bob of her head to James's sister. "It's Deacon. Magdalen Deacon."
Margaret stared, puzzled. "Is that an Irish name?"
"Her father was a man of the cloth. Some sort of missionary," James said quickly. "Now, dear sister, we'll have plenty of time for your tittle -tattle, but the sun waits for no man and it's currently hastening its way across the sky, taking my game with it. So," he announced, wiping a chunk of turf from the head of his club, "if you've some business with me, you'll need to take it up as I play. I will get in a good game before we leave for Aberdeen."
"Wait," Magda exclaimed, startling everybody. "Isn't that where that friar went? And… you're going?" she asked, forcing calm into her tone.
"You can smooth the worry from that pretty brow." James looked at her with a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. "You're coming with us."
His sister yelped in disbelief.
"Aye, we'll discuss the details as we play."
"Pardon me?" Two bright spots of color flamed Margaret's cheeks. "Our Magda most certainly cannot play your wretched game."
"I, well," Magda interrupted hesitantly, "actually I can play." Feeling an inexplicable mixture of pleasure and pride, James seized her with a look, thinking that somehow he'd expected that very response.
"Come, Margaret, we'll be a foursome," he announced merrily.
"I think not," his sister replied, aghast at the thought. "Women do not play golf."
"Not true, not true." Tom tapped his finge rs to his lips thoughtfully. "Mary Queen of Scots, in fact, played a fine game."
"We'll play a match of foursomes so you'll not have to take a shot each go," James said, trying to convince his sister. "You can forfeit any of your turns to your partner Tom here. But…" He gave a dramatically gusty sigh. "I suppose if you're not up to it, it's good -bye for now. I'll try to grab a moment before I leave Montrose to "—
"All right," Margaret announced, exasperated. "I'll walk with you, but I'll not touch that filthy ball, nor will I muck about in the wet sand."
"Fine, fine!" James grinned.
Magda shot a solid game straightaway, and James watched in frank admiration as she strode confidently across the fairway. She seemed to find comfort in their brisk walking. It was obvious that she knew her way around a course, and James surmised that something so mundane and familiar as a game of golf could be just the thing to loosen her up. "It's a birdie," she announced, as her ball sank into the hole after a slow and uncertain roll in its final inches.
"I beg your pardon, hen?" James squinted, looking up in the sky.
Magda looked confused for a moment. "No, not a bird. I birdied."
His face was open but puzzled. There were few people more conversant than he on the topic of golf, and yet he found he wasn't surprised that this elegant, auburn- haired mystery was able to confound him on that very thing.
"You don't call it that yet?" she asked.
"I suppose not." Squatting, he shaded his hand over his eyes to study the slope of the ground . "Though it was a superb shot."
By the sixth hole, Magda and James had an easy camaraderie, fueled by what was becoming a thorough trouncing of the other pair. Magda, though quiet, seemed to be enjoying the fresh air, and more than once James had spied her with her eyes shut and face turned toward the sun. Another oddity, he thought. Most women shrank from sunshine, and it was refreshing to see one savoring its warmth on her face.