Aaron struck gold. His favorite table, tucked deep in the corner past the big stone fireplace that dominated The Queen’s Guard pub, freed up just as he came in.
Extra bonus—he’d question the height of his standards some other day—the departing local had left behind a copy of the Daily Mirror. Not the most scurrilous of the English scandal sheets, but not exactly The Times either. It offered the perfect amount of camp for a Friday afternoon. A pint of the local Donnington ale and he was content.
Bridget would know that he’d not be ready for his beef-and-mustard ale pie until he was at least halfway down the pint.
As always, he toasted the owner’s old dog before taking the first sip. After three months here, Snoop—short for Snoop Doggy Dogg, a knee-high Cavalier King Charles Spaniel—barely bothered to acknowledge Aaron’s arrival from his pillow close by the fire-warm hearth. It was a nice change. For most of his first month here, Snoop had delivered a sharp reprimand every time Aaron entered the pub.
After a long day of work, the Queen’s Guard had become Aaron’s retreat of choice and not only because they rented him a cheap room close under the third floor eaves and served a fine breakfast.
The pub itself dated back two hundred years before the Puritans had landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, yet it was far from the oldest building in the village of Fosse-on-the-Wold. The trademark yellow Cotswold limestone was dusted gray by its centuries as a pub. The massive beams always made him duck, even though experience had taught him they were several inches clear of his six-foot-one, except the one by the back corner table—something he never managed to remember when crowding forced him to sit so far from his favorite spot by the hearth.
The tables and chairs were by far the newest element of the furnishings, and they predated the American Civil War.
Yet despite its age, there was something about the place that felt brand new, as if the pub had been born the moment he walked into. It had a vitality that he’d lost in himself a year ago. Tonight it took a hard effort, but he managed to once more close off that past and tamp it down—hard.
The pub was abuzz with casual afternoon chatter. Not a single massive flat-screen TV in sight. Though that didn’t keep the Brits from their sports talk.
“Oy, did you hear what they’re paying those blokes what play for Manchester United? It’s just kickin’ a ball up and down the field. Me and the lads done that plenty ’urselves.”
Yeah, the three blokes with beer guts were going to show David Beckham and Bobby Charlton a move or two.
The phrase “…that mess in Afghanistan…” caught his attention and he did his best to slam that door closed. He used to care, but didn’t any longer. Honestly, he didn’t. He forced himself to listen to another table.
“I heard tell that Nelly is going out with that bloke from Bourton.”
“Naw, she’s taken up with that gypsy she met at the Stow horse fair last November. She’s been seeing him on the sly all along don’t y’know.”
Good luck to Nelly. The local gypsies were a rough lot. Their biannual horse fair and gathering—especially of those of marriageable age—typically shut down Stow-on-the-Wold for several days. He’d been warned to avoid it and, after a brief afternoon of seeing for himself, decided that the locals weren’t having him on. The Horse Fair was a good time to not be in Stow.
A man came in, haggard, burned-out homeless. Blank eyes, clothes that even the dump wouldn’t want, looking like a stray breeze would take the beggar down. Bridget zeroed in to shoo him off—except she didn’t.
“Manfred, it’s so good to see you getting out again at long last. We’re so sorry for your loss of Matilda. She was always one of our favorites.”
He teared up and patted her hand as she escorted him to a table on the far side of the pub. Hal had come out from the bar and was there to offer his condolences as well. Even Snoop went over for a visit.
Aaron didn’t feel put out when Hal actually delivered the pint to the man’s table rather than expecting him come up to the bar. Aaron had forgotten about small towns during his decade in the military. God but he loved them. They were places where people knew each other. That chance had led him to Fosse-on-the-Wold still amazed him.
Page Two of the Daily Mail had a brilliant piece about the Corgi spy dogs that had been infiltrated into the Queen’s entourage during the Cold War by Margaret Thatcher during one of her off-again periods with the Royals. The paper was the perfect excuse for clandestine observation of the local birds flocking through.
British English had its uses. Maybe only rude blokes thought of English women as “birds” anymore, but they appeared in such a wonderful variety of leggy brunettes and blondes, especially the blondes. England had trended back to long hair while America was still deeply ensconced in bobs and severe jawline cuts. British women let it grow long, flowing down their backs in soft waves that were truly a joy to watch go by. He’d always been partial to long hair.
He almost missed the blonde’s entrance because he was deep in an article on the documented ghosts of Nether Swell Manor, which lay just over the hill and down in the next valley from Fosse-on-the-Wold. He noticed her because of her stillness. Bridget crisscrossed to deliver meals and kindness in equal proportions. A family of Germans moved awkwardly around her still form to either side.
Aaron took a sip of his beer as an excuse to keep watching while she surveyed the room.
She didn’t walk like a Brit. Brits had a laziness…no, an ease to their walk. Out here in the country, hurry simply wasn’t a part of the daily routine. Even a Londoner down on a whirlwind holiday didn’t move with the sharp alacrity of an American. And even among Americans, few moved the way this one did.
Tall, he liked tall. Blonde, no complaints from him. Unlike the soft cascades of British hair, hers lay in a smooth sheet as perfectly controlled as her dancer’s posture. Her dress—he still wasn’t used to the word frock—was made of fine material and far too fancy for The Queen’s Guard. The afternoon sunlight shone through the door from behind, which hid her face in shadow and left it up to the imagination. But it cast just enough light to silhouette without revealing through her summery clothes. Very trim. Aaron definitely liked trim.
For a moment, he was afraid that she’d change her mind and duck away, but she visibly stiffened her already fortified spine and forged ahead. She scanned the room once, her gaze barely pausing as it passed over him, then she moved to the small table just one closer to the fire from his own. She’d dismissed him as neither important nor threatening—sadly, both true.
For a cold winter’s night, hers would be his first choice of a table, but on a warm spring day, he preferred to be out of the direct blast of the fire’s heat.
Snoop raised his head from his dog pillow to inspect her carefully. Usually he barked at foreigners, more at Americans than continentals. But he inspected the woman in calm silence with his slightly bulging eyes. Even after he settled his head back down on his paws, he watched the woman and Aaron didn’t blame him one bit.
She didn’t sit facing the pub, which would have placed her back to him, but rather facing the fire. Once his eyes adjusted, he could see her fine features by the fire’s light. The face revealed in firelight didn’t disappoint in the slightest.
“Elizabeth,” it just came out of him.
She turned to face him; her eyes were green and distinctly cool despite the fire’s warmth. “No, Jane.”
“Sorry,” he shot for a British accent but knew he’d missed it along with his chance to pretend he was the least bit exotic. “You are the spitting image of the portrait of Elizabeth the First there,” he pointed at the portrait on the pub’s far wall.
She turned away to glance at it for only a moment. Her neck was long and elegant, perhaps the best feature on a beautiful woman.
Even more than the portrait, she might be Cate Blanchett when she played Elizabeth in the films. He’d seen almost every film Cate had done—even the romancy things.
“Jane Tully,” she repeated flatly, not giving him enough to place any accent. She turned away, offering up her profile for further study.
If he were to shape her face in stone, it would have to be a warm stone to go with the cool features. But the ruddiness of the western Cotswold limestone wouldn’t suit her any better than the gold of the eastern. Maybe she would be served well by the cool white of an alabaster marble that—
“Don’t you have a paper to read?” She didn’t even turn from the fire to speak to him.
He looked down. He still held it open. The words were a blur, as if the light was suddenly too dim to read by after looking at Ms. Jane Tully.
Bridget came over to take her order. She was such a sharp contrast to Ms. Jane Tully that it was almost as if they weren’t the same species. Bridget was taller than the average woman—Jane was taller still. The waitress was generously built in all the right places, fit without being either slim or heavy—Jane was sleek as a fighter jet. And Jane’s immaculate blonde waterfall outshone Bridget’s pleasantly tangled brunette.
“We have some Guinness, love. Would that do for ya?”
Aaron often wondered if Bridget camped up her Yorkshire accent for the tourists—a long way north of this central Gloucestershire pub. If so, he’d never caught her out on it, so it was hard to tell. Like her age. She was either eighteen but looked twenty-five, or she was living proof that fifty was the new thirty. It seemed to switch from one moment to the next. At present—in fluorescent green sneakers and aiming her bright smile like a weapon—she was somewhere in between, making sport of gently teasing Americans.
“Yes,” Jane’s tone stayed flat. “A Guinness is fine.”
“Would ya be wanting a pint or a half?” Bridget was enjoying this far too much.
It was the first time he’d seen any uncertainty in the newcomer. She glanced at the waitress and then briefly toward him. He let go of an edge of the paper to reach for his own glass.
Before he could raise it and say, “This is a pint. You probably are after a half,” the center section of the newspaper fluttered away and scattered on the floor. He set his glass down quickly, grabbed for the falling section and missed, then banged his elbow on an unforgiving knob of stone sticking out of the old wall. Jerking upright, he knocked the table and almost lost his pint to the floor.
At Snoop’s bark he rapped his elbow hard again.
Jane’s still, blue eyes simply watched him dissolve into a state of total ineptitude.
“I’ll have the size glass he’s having,” she gave no reaction to the sad state of affairs that was Aaron Mason. Her voice had just the softest gracing of Southern, probably from one of the Carolinas, only added to her air of perfect sophistication. Finally Jane unleashed a hint of a smile, which focused all his attention on her lips. Good, full lips without any lipstick, but that hint was the first bit of emotion he’d seen from her. Humor beneath the chill exterior was almost a shock.
Bridget looked at him as if he’d lost his mind while he continued to fumble about—which wouldn’t surprise anyone, neither his family nor his old Army unit. “Well, for a beer, you’ve got to go up to the bar, love. I’ll just leave you a menu.”
When Bridget was gone, Jane turned to him. A slight furrow of brow was all she showed.
“The alcohol and the bill at the end are handled by the barman,” he filled in for her. “In England, the waitress typically offers food and attitude in equal portions—Bridget being masterful at both. I’m impressed, actually. She let me cool my heels for almost fifteen minutes first time I was in. She must like you.”
Jane’s look before she rose smoothly and headed for the bar said that it had nothing to do with her and everything to do with him. Wouldn’t surprise him a bit.
The view from behind was just as pleasant as the one from the front. He watched her all through the long process of Hal the barman drawing a pint of Guinness and couldn’t find a thing to complain about. She wore fine, but not senseless shoes—just enough heel to shape her calf nicely without getting all painfully fashionista or awkward. The dress accented without revealing. He wouldn’t mind if she stayed in town for a while. Not one bit.
As she collected her glass and turned back for the table, he did his best to be looking elsewhere when she returned. Only at the last moment did he remember he was holding a newspaper and he stared down at it. It took a moment to understand that it was upside down. He didn’t change it, hoping she wouldn’t notice. Instead, he folded it in half and set it aside as a lost cause—almost taking out his beer glass again.
Once seated she didn’t sip her beer, she quaffed down at least a quarter of it as if she was either painfully dry or wanted to get painfully drunk.
“You’re so busted, by the way,” again she spoke without turning from the fire.
“I am? For what?”
“There’s a mirror behind the bar.”
He glanced up just as Bridget moved to where Jane had been standing. Yep, his staring had been in Jane’s full view the whole time.
Jane liked that Mr. Not-at-all-smooth didn’t try to deny it. Somehow that earned him more credit than any bravado or lame apology.
“Maybe if you weren’t so stare-worthy in that dress.”
She glanced down and felt ill. She’d forgotten about the dress.
“Were you up at the manor for that posh wedding?”
Jane really didn’t want to be reminded of her sister’s wedding. Debbie had married the Earl of Evenston’s fourth son, who’d made a moderate fortune in computers. The groom hadn’t been some cool, geeky programmer with a brilliant idea. Geoffrey was an arrogant prick who’d bought out a company at just the right time, bilking the early investors of their hard-won payoff because some i***t in a pub had let him know that they were just months from a ground-breaking delivery that even the board hadn’t known about yet.
It had always been a life’s goal for Debbie to marry into money. The shock was that she’d actually pulled it off. With anyone else, Jane would give the marriage a year at best. But Debbie was just selfish and greedy enough that they’d probably settle in nicely at the manor together over screaming fights, fine martinis, and wild affairs that would end up on the front page of the paper Mr. Unsmooth had been reading upside down.
“Can’t a girl get drunk in peace here?” She turned on him and it came out far harder than she liked. Absolute b***h. She’d just earned the label fair and square, which made her far too much like her sister. Back to staring blankly at the fire, “Sorry.”
“Understatement of the bloody century.”
“Century’s still young yet. Besides, you’ll want to be careful with that,” his warning tone made her look over at him. “The B-word over here is worse than our F-word back home. Ruddy will get the spirit of it without offending the masses.”
“Don’t need a bloody linguistics lesson today either,” she went to turn away but his laugh stopped her. “What?”
“To think that I worry about English waitresses giving me attitude.”
“Do you deserve it?”
He tipped his head to the side before nodding, “Maybe. Probably.” Again points for honesty.
She hadn’t really focused on him. He was just another thing wrong with her day. He looked like a common workman. His hair had needed a trim a few months ago. Dressed in dusty slacks, battered work boots, and a denim shirt—a denim shirt that he filled out very nicely. He obviously worked hard with his hands, they were as powerfully muscled as the forearms sticking out past his rolled-up sleeves.
Geoffrey’s hand, when she’d shaken it and then wished for a restroom to wash off the feeling, had never lifted anything heavier than a fountain pen. How could Debbie want to be touched by those hands? Debbie wouldn’t care. She’d be thinking about the massive checks Geoffrey could sign with that fountain pen to accommodate her slightest whim. He’d given her a hot pink Ferrari as a wedding gift this morning. Jane couldn’t wait for Debbie to explain she couldn’t drive a manual. Maybe Geoffrey couldn’t either. Wouldn’t that be the perfect joke?
Mr. Unsmooth was handsome in a hard way. Not all square-jawed or chisel-featured. It was his eyes, she decided. He’d seen things with those dark eyes, uncomfortable things. Things people like her probably didn’t want to know about.
Now it was her turn to laugh.
She shook her head and knocked back more of her beer. It felt so good, smooth and cool with just the slightest cleansing of carbonation. Smooth, mule-kick beer. She should have the bartender set up a whole line of them.
“Come on. You owe me,” his voice was almost as deep as his eyes. The kind of voice a woman could wrap around her on a cold night.
“For revealing how much of a dolt I can be around a beautiful woman.”
Maybe the beer was having a fast effect on her empty stomach—or maybe it was the two large glasses of wine and no food she’d had before leaving the wedding—but she couldn’t find a fault in his argument.
“Spill it,” he made it sound like an order but he had a good smile and she let it sway her.
“My sister’s wedding is only half over. I should take you back for the second half to meet the groom, Geoffrey. I’m sure the two of you could be such pals.”
He almost spat his beer out on her in shock. “Your sister is marrying Geoffrey, the Third Worm of Evenston?”
“Fourth Worm.” What an apt description.
“No, I hear that the eldest brother is a good bloke. It’s the younger three that are horrors, especially Geoffrey.”
“Horrors?” Maybe she should warn her sister, not that Debbie would ever listen to her. But her mother had made her promise to take care of Debbie. It’s the only reason she’d come to the wedding in the first place. There was still a chance that—
“No, not the way I can see you’re thinking. Just egomaniac twits.”
“Peas in a pod.”
He looked at her strangely. No surprise really. Nothing Debbie ever did could surprise her. Disappoint? Always. Surprise? Not anymore.
Jane drank more of her beer, confused to discover that she was into the dregs. How had that happened so fast?
His beer was still nearly full.
“Well, are you going to finish that up?”
He inspected his barely-touched beer, “Why, are you wanting it?”
“No,” she did her best to make the yeasty burp ladylike and felt that she succeeded admirably. “I’m just thinking that you’ll want to finish that before you go to meet Geoffrey. There are some things that should not be done sober.”