Authors: Cassidy Cayman
Catie Ferguson felt an overpowering sense of regret as Lord Ashford shoved her into the bedroom corner. She opened her mouth to say she changed her mind as he crowded her against the wall, gripping her arm so hard she thought he would squeeze through to the bone.
“One moment, Miss Burnet,” he said through gritted teeth.
“I dinna—” A sudden drop in temperature cut her off from admitting she wasn’t Miss Burnet, it was all a massive mistake. He still gripped her arm, but she could no longer see him.
Before panic set in, a slight pain flickered behind her eyes, and she staggered away from the wall.
“Lord Ashford?” she gasped.
He no longer held her arm and she blinked, looking around the room for him. Catie realized at once it must have worked. The big bed and thick rug were gone, the curtains were different, and no pretty pictures graced these somewhat dingy walls. The luxuriously furnished room was now nearly empty.
She stood next to a dresser, and a wardrobe with its door hanging open faced her on the opposite wall. The wood floor creaked when she took a tentative step forward, and wobbling on unsteady legs, she thrust out her arm to keep from falling.
Lord Ashford clapped his hand around hers. “Steady, there.” He smiled at her, seeming proud of himself. “Well, Miss Burnet, you’re home at last. I’ve arranged for clothes and a bit of money from this time to get you back on your feet.” He pulled a gold pocket watch from his waistcoat and nodded. “I wish I could stay, but …”
Catie swallowed hard, not wanting him to leave so soon. More than two hundred years from her own time, money and a change of clothes did little to ease her nerves. Was this happening? Had she traveled through time? She realized she needed to come clean, as he moved toward the corner again. If he disappeared before her eyes, she didn’t quite know what she would do.
“I’m not Elizabeth Burnet,” she blurted, taking a step back as his face went through a series of color changes and unpleasant expressions. “I’m verra sorry, but I had to.”
He looked at his watch again and rubbed his forehead. “Explain,” he said coldly. “Quickly and from the beginning.”
“My name’s Catriona Ferguson. My brother might be in this time.” She realized with growing dismay that she didn’t know what time Lachlan was in. ‘The future’ had seemed like a single destination to her throughout her planning, but it hit her now that it wasn’t the same as planning a trip to Edinburgh. He glared at her and she rushed to continue. “I found your instructions to Miss Burnet and—”
“Stole them and came in her place,” he surmised, looking profoundly disgusted. “You are aware she continues to be trapped there?”
Catie flinched. “My brother is in trouble,” she said, then got irritated at his judgemental attitude. “We look nothing alike,” she said defensively. “Ye didna recognize I wasna her?”
His appalled face would have been comical if Catie wasn’t so miserable and scared she’d made the worst decision in her short life. She took another step back, fearing it might be cut even shorter the angrier he looked.
“It’s been more than a year since I saw her,” he said, waving his hand at her head. “You both have blonde hair.” His shoulders slumped and he reached for her arm. “Well, let’s try to send you back. The portal may still be open. You can explain to Miss Burnet why she needs to wait another year to get home.”
“No,” she yelped, ducking away from his grasp. “I must help my brother.”
He looked down at his watch before looking sidelong at her. “Bloody hell.”
“Sorry,” she said.
He frowned at her and she clamped her mouth closed on any other explanations. He pulled a worn, leather-bound notebook from his jacket and unwound the lace that kept its tattered pages closed. Thumbing through it, he stomped to the window and threw back the curtain to get more light. As he muttered to himself and peered at the little book, she tried to see over his shoulder at the world outside. All she glimpsed were leafy treetops that could have been in her own time. Gathering her nerves, she picked through the clothes on the dresser.
There was a short, light blue shift and what looked like men’s trousers in a dark blue, heavy fabric. She perked up, having seen that fabric before. A visitor had come to her aunt’s farm once with similar trousers. Could he have been from this time? How long had her daft brothers been involved with this time travel nonsense?
There were also some tiny, soft cloth scraps that she held up for inspection, marveling at the stretchy fabric.
“That’s what they wear as underclothes in this era,” he said, glancing up from his book with a half grin.
Catie stuffed the pieces under the blue shift, her face heating up. “Is this all of it?” she asked. “And why would ye bring Miss Burnet men’s clothes?”
“Ladies wear trousers now. You’ll get used to them. Hurry and get changed, behind the wardrobe.”
He turned his back to give her privacy, but he was so absorbed in his book anyway, she didn’t think it mattered. Still, she appreciated the gesture and edged behind the big wardrobe. He was gruff and clearly furious with her, but he was acting a gentleman so far.
She still had on the massive ball gown from the party she’d fled to get to Belmary House on time. Try as she might, she couldn’t reach the laces. Mortified, she turned to ask him for help and nearly bumped into him.
“Turn around,” he said in a matter-of-fact manner. She meekly turned and he unlaced her while rambling on in an irritated voice. “Now, I need to get back to my own time,” he said. “But you’re clearly ill equipped to handle this day and age on your own.”
“I’ll do fine,” she said, but praying he wouldn’t leave her.
“Do you have any idea where your brother is? Assuming he’s even in this time?”
“Aye, I know exactly where he would be. Castle Glen. He married the laird’s daughter.”
“Scotland?” he asked. “And then of course almost as far north as one can go.” He finished unlacing her and returned to his spot at the window, speaking over his shoulder. “You can take the train. I’m certain I arranged enough money for that.”
Catie wriggled out of the rest of her clothes and tried to figure out the few scanty pieces from this time, her heart sinking. When she had them on, she huddled behind the wardrobe door, not wanting to walk out in them.
The thin top barely covered her middle, and clung to her body alarmingly. The trousers were stiff and she felt as if she might as well have been naked. She stuffed her beautiful ball gown and underthings into the wardrobe, sorry to leave them behind.
“So, I’m to take a train to Scotland. Is that like a coach?” She stepped out and held her arms across her front, blushing furiously.
“That’s how everyone dresses,” he assured her. “You won’t stick out at all.” He flipped back and forth through the pages of his book and looked at his pocket watch. He frowned at her harder than ever and shook his head. “A train isn’t much like a coach,” he said, looking down at his own clothes. “Look, I really cannot stay in this time. Any longer and I’ll be here for eight months.”
“And ye dinna like it in this time?” she asked, wanting to sniffle but not wanting him to think she was trying to get him to stay.
Her brother Quinn would do anything for her at the merest hint of a tear and she sometimes exploited that, but this man wasn’t her brother and she’d already lied to him.
“It’s not my favorite, no,” he said, causing her spirits to sink.
She nodded as bravely as she could, forcing her face into what she considered a convincing smile. He sighed gustily, not convinced. He opened his notebook and shook his head, as if he could find a better answer by staring sadly at the page.
“I was going to leave straight away and spend four hours in 1949. There’s a cinema down the street in that time and the films are quite good. Then, from there, spend a day in 1740, very inconvenient that, and finally make it back to my own year.” He looked at her for another long, uncomfortable moment. “I can stay with you for three hours,” he finally said. “I’ll have to reroute through 1875, and stay there for a fortnight. It’ll mean missing Lady Morland’s dinner and being blackballed from Almack’s for God knows how long.”
“I dinna understand what ye’re saying,” she said.
“It’s not important, lass,” he replied, kindness showing in his smile.
She was so befuddled by him, she forgot to show how grateful she was not to be left alone. “What are ye?” she asked. “How do ye do what we just did?”
He shrugged off his jacket and unbuttoned his waistcoat. “Do you want me to spend the limited time I have with you explaining how this works, or do you want to get on a train to Scotland?” he asked, looking down at his shirt, breeches and boots. “It’ll have to do.” He stuffed his discarded jacket and waistcoat in the wardrobe, and strode from the room. “Miss Ferguson, I need you to follow me, please.”
She followed him through the empty house. It was clear no one had lived in it for some time. Boxes were stacked high in the hallways, shelves full of dusty items crammed in between them, and the only light shone through the windows. Through one of the open doors, she could see a long table with an odd box with black cords coming out of it, surrounded by all sorts of things from vases to garden tools, labeled and in neat rows.
Lord Ashford glanced in and looked pained before continuing toward the back. The musty, messy place was so different from the lovely mansion she’d been invited to not a week before. Or hundreds of years and a week before. It was a shame no one lived in it any longer, and she wondered how Lord Ashford was connected to it. He obviously didn’t like seeing it in such a state.
At the back door he pointed to a panel on the wall that had numbers and a blinking red light. She leaned in closer to look at it, mesmerized by the tiny blinking glow, and he pulled her back, pointing to the door.
“When we open that, there’s going to be a noise,” he said in a low voice. “You need to keep your wits about you. We’re going to have to move quickly.”
She nodded, getting used to his strangeness. As if she’d be startled by a creaking door. He took her hand and turned the lock. With a stern glance at her, he pushed it open and pulled her through. A short, shrill peep sounded and he nearly jerked her arm out of its socket as he ran through the yard. She wanted to savor her first impression of this new century she was in, the miracle of it, and dug in her heels.
“Miss Ferguson, we need to run,” he said urgently, still pulling her toward the tall hedge that surrounded the property.
A terrifying wail sounded from behind her, the loudest sound she’d ever heard. For a moment, she froze completely, certain a sea monster was about to decimate London, and this was the sound it made. Lord Ashford pressed his lips together as if he was trying not to laugh at her and pulled her away, but no matter how far they ran, the terrible droning whoop kept screaming after them.
Tears rolled down her face as she struggled to follow him through a gap in the hedge, certain the beast would grab her legs and crush them in its giant maw. A few feet from the other side of the hedge was a high brick wall, which he hoisted himself onto, reaching down for her.
“What is it?” she sobbed as he pulled her to the top of the wall. She shook so violently she didn’t think her legs would hold her if they dropped to the other side.