Authors: Diana Killian
“But why should someone want to murder me?” He sounded more interested than perturbed.
. No mincing words with Mr. Fox.
“Is that question rhetorical?” Grace asked in her best professorial manner, trying to match Peter Fox’s dispassionate tone.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Grace shrugged. “You must know if you have enemies.”
It seemed a strange conversation to be having, but then Grace’s vacation had definitely take a strange turn from the moment she stumbled across Mr. Peter Fox bobbing for stream pebbles.
“Your Yank candor is so refreshing,” Peter bit out. “Mind if we stop for a minute?” He dropped down on the grassy verge, resting his head on his folded arms. He took slow, deep breaths.
“Do you want me to run ahead and get help?” Grace hovered indecisively.
“No, I do not.” The vehemence of this was lessened by the fact that he had his head between his knees. “Damn, damn, damn it to hell …”
Men, Grace thought sardonically. It didn’t matter how old they were—and she guessed Peter Fox was somewhere in his late thirties—when it came to the male ego they were all sensitive boys.
Patiently Grace waited while Mr. Fox continued his deep breathing exercises. The night air tasted of approaching autumn, wood smoke and the bite of moldering fennel and mint. Grace kept her ears pricked for anything out of the ordinary, but there was nothing to hear but the chirp of crickets.
“What did you say your Christian name was?” Peter asked, his voice muffled.
“Grace,” he repeated. “Saving Grace in this case.” Even half fainting he had a flip way of speaking that reminded Grace of those drawling rakes in the Regency novels to which she was secretly addicted. No one really talked like that; probably not even Regency rakes, but Peter was certainly lifelike in all other aspects. Grace could feel the heat of him emanating through his wet clothing, and she could recall what his hard male body had briefly felt like in her arms.
“My mouth tastes as though I’d been sucking the bottom of the streambed.” He wiped his hand over his mouth and then pushed himself upright once more with a less than fluid movement.
He walked on and Grace followed.
The narrow path gave way to a dirt road which Peter and Grace followed across a humpback bridge, at last putting the woods safely behind them. Ahead stretched a meadow, colorless in the moonlight.
“What exactly were you doing out here by yourself?” Peter inquired, his voice sounding stronger.
“Walking. Enjoying the scenery.” Through the trees Grace spied the lights of the Tinker’s Dam. Laughter and voices carried across the meadow. Moonlight gleamed on the cars in the crowded car park. A weathered sign painted in fading colors portraying a skinny gray mare hitched to a gypsy caravan hung above a lighted doorway.
Peter had no comment to Grace’s answer, and in silence they crossed the meadow and walked up to the inn.
“Do me a favor,” Fox said, his hand on Grace’s arm as she moved toward the entrance of the pub. “Have a drink with me.”
“A drink?” Alcohol and concussion was a bad mix, she was thinking, but no doubt Peter Fox had been around enough to know that.
“Yes.” He rubbed his solar plexus absently. “It’s beginning to sink in that you … er … probably saved my life. The least I can do is stand you a drink.”
“Oh well, that’s not …” What was she saying? A goodlooking, intriguing man was asking her to have a drink. “I mean, happy to oblige, as you British say.”
Peter Fox’s wide mouth twitched humorously at this. He said only, “I’ll run upstairs, have a wash and join you in a couple of minutes.”
“Aren’t you going to call the police?”
The slanted brows rose. “The police? No.”
“But someone tried to kill you!”
“There’s no point involving the police.”
Grace realized she was gaping. She quit gaping and said, “And you Brits talk about Americans’ blasé attitude toward crime!”
“My dear woman,” Peter said patiently, “the police will simply think I slipped and then rolled over in a semiconscious state. Even if they believe your story, the tramp or juvenile delinquent who hit me has long since scarpered. What’s the point then wasting the rest of our evening chatting with the local constabulary?”
“Aren’t you at least going to have a doctor look at your head?”
Peter Fox smiled. His long, thin fingers caressed and yet seemed to warn as he pushed Grace toward the doorway.
“I’ll be down in ten.” As an afterthought he added, “Keep your eye on the door. I want to know who comes in after us.”
Grace went inside the smoky, crowded pub. It was a comfortable room with dark wood paneling and mullion windows. There were hunting and fishing prints on the wall. The Tinker’s Dam had been serving pints since before America was a colony. It was the kind of place Grace adored.
Squelching across the polished wood floor, she decided on a dash upstairs to change out of her muddy things. After all, her travels had not abounded with handsome, intriguing men inviting her for drinks; she might as well make the most of this.
It was quiet in her room; the genial hubbub of the bar was muffled beneath the thick floorboards. The old-fashioned lamp cast an amber light as Grace ran a brush through her hair and quickly dabbed her mouth with lipstick. Even as she made these cursory preparations she shook her head. She prided herself on being “serious-minded” (as Ms. Wintersmith, the principal at St. Anne’s Academy for Girls, would put it). She was not a woman to get thrown into a flutter by a good-looking (and probably aware of it) man. She was not strictly on vacation, after all. Well, she was, but her vacation did have a higher purpose—and that higher purpose did not include meeting men. (Although, in her friend and traveling companion Monica’s case, it had.)
Grace pulled on clean slacks and a fresh shirt. Refusing to reexamine her reflection—or her thoughts of Peter Fox—she headed downstairs to the taproom.
She ordered a lager and lime and sat down in a high-backed booth facing the door. Sipping her drink, Grace studied the room. Everyone in the pub looked as though they belonged—or at least, had been there all evening. A couple of men were playing darts by the fireplace. At an oak table a group of ruddy-faced men in tweed caps were discussing sheep. At another booth sat a younger group, hikers and rock climbers, laughing about the day’s exploits.
If anyone was out of place, it was herself, the eccentric American “professor” tracking down the haunts of long dead Romantic poets.
Peter Fox sat down on the bench across from Grace, startling her out of her speculations. He had showered and changed into a black turtleneck sweater and jeans faded almost white.
“What are you drinking?”
Now that she had a good look at him in the light, Grace was struck by the odd attractiveness of his face: elegant bones, thin yet sensual lips and heavy-lidded eyes of an arresting blue beneath the black V of his eyebrows. His hair, damp from the shower, fell across his forehead in straight golden strands. The contrast of blond hair and dark brows was unusual but not unappealing.
Realizing that Peter was waiting for her reply, Grace made a negative gesture. “I’m fine.”
Peter headed for the bar with its gleaming brass fixtures and rosy-cheeked barmaid, who he immediately engaged in smiling banter.
Grace skeptically studied the neat white strip of adhesive behind his ear. Obviously the man was able to take care of himself. By rights he should be in a hospital bed, not chatting up giggling barmaids.
Peter returned to the booth with what looked like a strong one.
“Cheers.” Touching his glass to Grace’s, he took a long swallow, then leaned back. “So tell me all about yourself, Miss Grace Hollister from America. Where in America exactly? The West Coast?”
Grace nodded. She thought it was interesting that Peter did not ask whether anyone had entered the bar. He seemed prepared to forget all about his close call.
“There’s not much to tell,” she said slowly. “I’m thirty-three, single. I teach English literature at St. Anne’s Academy for Girls. I’m working on my doctorate.” She shrugged. “This is my first trip to Britain.”
“Then this is a business trip?”
Grace grinned. “To be honest, I could do my research in the States but it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. Or as much fun.”
“And what brings you to this particular neck of the woods?” Beneath hooded lids Peter’s eyes were as intent as a cat scoping a mouse hole.
“The Romantics are my period. Wordsworth, Coleridge … so naturally I wanted to visit the Lake District.” Actually it was Byron, Shelley, and Keats who fascinated Grace, but it sounded too unintellectual to confess a secret passion for the bad boys of poetry.
“Ah.” Peter smiled enigmatically and quoted, “That blended holiness of earth and sky.”
As Peter’s rather husky voice unself-consciously quoted Wordsworth, a strange emotion fluttered through Grace. If he had quoted Shelley or Keats she probably would have fallen in love on the spot.
“That’s it exactly,” she said, leaning forward in her eagerness. “I’ve never been anywhere quite so … romantic. Even the names of the places are poetic: Windermere, Seathwaite, Derwent Water.”
Peter smiled again and sipped his brandy. “You’re traveling alone?”
“Yes. Well, not exactly. I came over with a friend of mine, Monica Gabbana. We both teach at St. Anne’s. Monica was here years ago as an exchange student. Anyway, we were staying in Surrey when we ran into an old friend—actually, a college don of hers.” Grace laughed and made a face. “You know what they say, two’s company, three’s a crowd? So I’m seeing the Lake District on my own.”
“I take it the friendly old college don was male?”
“Yes. They realized they had some unfinished business.”
“ ‘Unfinished business.’ My God, what an American way of putting it.”
“How would you put it?”
Peter smiled a slow, deliberate smile that was as seductive as a kiss.
Remembering the feel of his soft lips on her bare skin, Grace blinked.
“Anyway,” she continued at random, dragging her eyes away from the peculiar pull of Peter’s, “it’s been a great trip so far. Yesterday I saw Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived for several years. He was so poor at the time he had to line the walls with newspaper to stay warm.” She shook her head a little at the thought. “The garden is so lovely and the museum has one of the greatest collections of manuscripts, books and paintings relating to British Romanticism. But it’s the cottage that I found amazing. It’s just as it was in Wordsworth’s time. His spectacles are still lying there just waiting for him to walk in and slip them on.”
“And I saw Rydal Mount where he lived when he was poet laureate. Oh, and I saw St. Oswald’s churchyard where he’s buried.”
“All the high spots, in fact.”
No doubt it sounded pretty tame to Peter Fox. He did not look like the academic type. Who would have thought twenty-four hours ago, when Grace had finally resigned herself to spending the remainder of her vacation alone, that tonight she would be having drinks with a devastatingly attractive man who could quote the Romantic poets?
Peter drained his glass. “Ever tried something called a Gypsy Queen?” he queried.
“I don’t think so.”
“Let me see if they can make one up.” He quirked one brow. “You look a bit like a gypsy with all that red gold hair and those sparkling earrings.” He rose once more and made his way to the bar.
Grace contemplated her half-empty glass and tried to decide whether she was being seduced. Either way, things were definitely livening up. She was still smiling when Peter returned with their drinks.
“I don’t know if it’s particularly funny. I was just thinking what a strange evening this is turning into.”
“Mmm.” Peter nodded as Grace took a cautious sip. Her eyes widened. “How’s the drink?” he inquired.
“Wow. What’s in this thing?”
“Four parts vodka, one part Benedictine, a dash of orange bitters.”
The door to the pub opened with a sudden gust of cold night air. Two men made their way through the room to a small table near the fireplace. Something told Grace they were strangers to this quiet agricultural community.
Watching Grace’s face, Fox grew alert. “Who’s just come in?” He continued to turn his glass in one tanned, well-shaped hand.
Grace tried to study the pair without being obvious.
“They’re both … um … Caucasian. One’s small, middle-aged. Kind of wizened looking. Bottlebrush mustache. The other’s taller, younger. He’s got a sad sort of face. Big mournful eyes.”
From the way Fox’s expressive brows drew together Grace gathered that none of this sounded familiar. “What are Mutt and Jeff doing?”
“Mutt and—” He cocked an eyebrow. “You sheltered academic types. It’s an American comic strip from the 1920s.”
“A little before my time, thank you very much.” She peeked once more at the men across the room. “They’re arguing, I think.”