Magda turned and had to smile at the person attached to the scalding voice. Hovering on the other side of the bed was a woman with an uncanny resemblance to James, bearing his black eyes and longish nose on plump cheeks that wore an easy smile despite her constant admonishments. The woman leaned across the bed and playfully whacked James on the back of the head for good measure.
"Magda, may I present my sister Margaret?" James nodded hesitantly toward the women, trepidation clear on his face. "Margaret, meet Magdalen." Magda gave her a warm smile. She recognized a big sister when she saw one.
Then her smile faltered, the light in her eyes going instantly cold at the memory of her own little brother, and the constant bickering that had belied her fierce love for him. She never knew when Peter's loss would surge to the forefront; it was always the more brutal when so unexpected.
"James!" Margaret shrieked. "The poor creature withers in front of us even now, and you!" She pointed a thick finger at her brother. "You'll get your physician now, James, or I swear I'll—"
"No, really," Magda interrupted, "I'm fine." Her eyes met James's, and she added softly, "Really, I am."
Tossing the cloth aside, he gripped her hand in his. "Leave us, Margaret," he said, eyes not leaving Magda's face.
"Well!" she announced with mock anger. "I'll be right outside this door if this beast offends you in any manner."
A weak but encouraging nod from Magda sent Margaret out of the room in a rustle of skirts and dramatically beleaguered sighs.
"What about your doctor?" she asked immediately. For some reason, she'd implicitly trusted James and dismissed Margaret's urging for a physician. "Weren't we… What happened?"
"You fainted dead away. And," he added gravely, "from what you showed me, I fear you need seek more than merely a practitioner of the healing arts. Though," he added with a shake of his head, "I don't know the path whose destination does not feature your bonny self tied at the stake for witchcraft."
"Witchcraft!" She pulled her hand from his.
"Hush." James stood to secure the door. "Aye, hen, witchcraft indeed. And you'll mind your voice if you don't want to bring unwanted attention to yourself. I've more than a few Lowlanders in my employ, and they're particularly skittish when it comes to talk of scrying the future, or any other sort of witchery."
"I'm"—she lowered her tone—"I'm not a… a witch." Magda flopped her head back hard on the pillow. She felt trapped. Relentless panic had ravaged her, leaving her desolate, sapped, her body out of adrenalin. "I told you, I'm not from here."
"And that is why you thought you were dreaming?"
She merely nodded.
"That would explain your fear. Your confusion." He stared out the window for a moment, lost in thought. "Aye, to be trapped in a nightmare…" he finally said. "A chilling thing indeed."
She nodded more vehemently.
"But perhaps you've merely suffered an injury?"
Tears spilled down her cheeks. He didn't believe her. If she couldn't convince him, he could put her out, and she had no idea how she'd survive.
"Your family might be looking for you even now."
"My family's not even born yet." She sniffled and wiped her face with the back of her hand. She was beginning to feel like she'd gone insane. She tried to pull it together. James was her one connection to this world. He had to believe her. She needed him to believe her.
"If I'm not from the future, how do you explain my lighter?" He sat silently, appraising her. James took the lighter from his pocket and idly flicked it lit over and over. "I thought the world—my world—had such marvelous inventions. Clocks and spectacles, the printing press, the telescope." He tucked away her lighter and retrieved her digital watch. Shaking his head, he pressed the button lighting its face. "But none such as this."
"You're right." Magda sat up suddenly, nodding. "It's all new. That's all modern-day technology. Things like digital watches and lighters weren't invented until the twentieth century."
He studied her. "Tell me, Magdalen, how is it you find yourself here? You mentioned something of painting when you claim your world fell away?"
"Yes." The formal sound of her full name on his lips drew her eyes to him. She saw the trust on his face, knew then that he wasn't merely placating her anymore. And if he believed her, he could help her. She felt her shoulders loosen at the thought.
"Well, no, I wasn't painting anything. I work in a museum. I was cleaning your portrait. That portrait," she said, pointing above the fireplace. Magda craned her head toward the hearth, and the portrait hanging above it. James in armor, with lace at the collar, his hair worn loose, and black eyes pinning her where she lay. "It was right in front of me, and then… then you were there instead."
"How is it you encountered a portrait of me almost four hundred years hence?" Bewilderment and something looking like fear played on his face.
"Four hundred… What year is it exactly?"
"It is 1638, hen, with spring on the horizon."
"More like three hundred seventy years then," she stated, expressionless. "The painting. It felt… special. I couldn't keep my eyes from it."
She blushed fiercely at his self-satisfied nod.
"Aye, the artist did a fine job."
"Not like that," she added quickly. "It was powerful somehow. You seemed… alive" Her gaze roved from him to the portrait and back again. Her eyes pored over his features, then the fine brushwork that depicted the intensity of his gaze, yet still captured his easy informality. Feeling something tighten in her belly, she stumbled on quickly. "But it's different now. It's just a painting again." He bit at his lip, and Magda found herself abruptly looking away to concentrate on some vague point on the far wall. "'Twas one of the Black Friars who painted it," he said somberly.
She looked at him quizzically.
"Named so for their black robes, aye?" He explained, "They've a monastery in Montrose, and earn a modest income teaching, but mainly they're scholars of a sort, and a rare sight outside monastery walls."
Seeing Magda's interest, James bent a leg to sit more fully on the bed, and leaning in, continued, "They've a wee plot for tilling but, on occasion, circumstances require the men to beg in order to supplement their coffers. Though not a papist myself." he interjected quickly, "I'm drawn to men of letters and had the occasion to meet one of these friars, a fellow named Brother Lonan."
A wistful smile softened James's features as he continued. "He'd given me a livelier debate than I'd had in ages, at least without the benefit of ale to hand, and I saw fit to make a goodwill gesture, with some coins from my purse and a promise of goods from my cellar. 'Twas a small thing for me," he assured her, "and soon forgotten, but not so Brother Lonan.
"The man came round one evening—nearly frightened the staff to death"—James laughed, his handsome face breaking into an easy smile—"appearing in the dark as he did, like some tormented spirit in a black robe and bearing a tattered valise reeking of paints and oils.
"He insisted on repaying my kindness by painting my portrait, of all things. Claimed he was short on subjects yet long on time and would I do him the honor. Well, seeing fit to prolong our discussion, I agreed, and an invigorating debate it was."
Visibly moved, James was lost for a moment in thought. Abruptly, he asked, "But what has this to do with anything? The man seemed a canny artist, if a trifle dark," he grinned. "But certainly not capable of transporting lovely young lasses back in time to my very own bed. Had I known the means by which Black Friars express gratitude. I'd have tithed to the monastery years ago."
"Please be serious," she pleaded, her voice flat.
"Oh, but I am always serious, hen," he said with mock gravity. Cheerfully disregarding the daggers in her eyes, he asked, "You were telling me what role this strapping portrait played in your arrival?"
"Yes, well. I was cleaning it, and"—she hesitated—"well, I felt the need to touch it."
"To touch it?"
"I see," he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "You needed to touch the painting."
"Yes," she faltered.
He pressed, "What did you touch?"
"I told you," she said, "I just touched it."
"But what" James asked, leaning in close, "did you touch?" "I…" she stumbled, feeling the blood creep into her cheeks. "I felt compelled to…"
"To touch your face. Your face," she added quickly, "in the painting. And when I did, something happened. It was like I fell through it and," she finished quickly, "there you were, and well, here I am."
"Here you are indeed," he said, his voice low, eyes glittering as he studied her face. "I take it that is why you attempted to slap my portrait senseless upon your arrival?"
She nodded, willing the tears that blurred her vision not to fall.
James lifted his arm, hand poised over her cheek as if to cup it. Slowly tracing his finger along her jaw, he asked, his voice a husky whisp er, "And what would you say if I told you I felt the need to touch your face now?"
"I -I," she stuttered, feeling the heat from his palm like a caress. Lips parted, the rise and fall of her chest became an effort as she felt her breath mingle with the heat of James's thumb, threatening to graze along her lower lip.
Staring at her mouth, his own lips moved ever so slightly, as if pondering a thought that hovered there. Magda's gut felt suddenly hollow, as some long-neglected need fluttered to life in her core, tightening her breasts, speeding the pounding of her heart. "I—I'd say no."