And now, on with the romance!
* * *
Lucie moved into a foreign ballad that her mother, Rinata, had taught her. She had been told many times that she had the sweetest voice in the Lower Districts, and wasn’t shy about singing in front of people. She didn’t understand the words to this song, but she could feel the mixture of sadness and strength in them. The tune was in a minor mode, almost tragic except for a subtle thread of love and tenderness that ran through it. This was one of her best songs, and she wanted the man from her visions to hear her at her best. Not that she really cared what he thought of her, of course; she just wanted to put her best face forward for a guest.
She sang, letting the feel of the music and the lilt of the language guide her singing. After a moment, she realized that another voice had joined hers, a fine baritone though somewhat rough from disuse; it was the stranger singing quietly along with her. He knew all the words, and pronounced them with more ease and certainty than Lucie did.
Lucie’s fingers faltered on the strings. Flustered, her heart bursting with a wild mix of emotions, she managed to make it through the rest of the verses and the last chorus. “I’m sorry,” she stammered when the song was done. “I’m tired. Good night.” She fled the hall, clutching her lute in both hands, the stranger’s voice still echoing in her mind.
* * *
He slid down along the wall to sit on the floor next to the washstand, fists clenched in frustration, tears in his eyes. The pain was bad enough, but he hated the sickness, the shame, the feeling of helplessness that came along with it. He felt like he was trapped in that dark hour twenty years ago, shortly after coming to the University, when he had crouched in a hidden corner with the point of a stolen kitchen knife pressed against his throat, trying to will himself to plunge it in, to put an end to the memories and pain and shame and to make sure that no one would ever discover what he was. The life he had painstakingly built for himself since that day, the respect and reputation he had gained, all seemed to crumble away under the onslaught of misery that Healing brought upon him. Why had he done this to himself, just for the sake of temporarily relieving a simple head cold?
Because her illness was his fault, that was why, a reproachful voice inside his head pointed out. It was disgraceful the way he had been overworking her. Had she really thought that he would dismiss her if she became ill? If he wasn’t careful, he would drive her away or wear her down completely before he even had a chance to begin the most important research he would ever do.
And, in any case, what right did he have to interfere in his employee’s personal habits? What had he been thinking, to insist that she go swimming in the frigid waters of early spring? He had been born in a place where icy winds blew unhindered for three-fourths of the year. Though he couldn’t bear pain, tolerance of the cold was bred into every particle and sinew of his body. It had been stupid of him to assume that Miss Tabrano would have the same tolerance.
He sat in misery, waiting for the pain to ebb away. As it faded, a memory of smooth, warm skin beneath his fingertips came unbidden into his mind, along with the realization that, regardless of pain, illness, and propriety, he had enjoyed having an excuse to touch her. More shame flooded through him — how could he have taken such advantage of Miss Tabrano in her illness? But he couldn’t bring himself to regret that brief moment of unexpected, unfamiliar pleasure.
And that was more alarming than any amount of pain.
* * *
Lainie tied Mala to a post outside the mercantile and looked at the list she had written on a scrap of paper. It contained five or six things her father had meant to tell her to get the other day when he sent her to buy nails but had forgotten. Ever since Blake's death, he was distracted and forgetful, lost in anger and memories and grief.
As she read the list, a shadow fell over the paper and she felt a presence beside her. She looked up to see Mr. Vendine standing there. A burst of excitement and shyness leaped up inside of her, and she tried, unsuccessfully, to keep from smiling.
He tipped his brown, flat-brimmed leather hat to her. "Good morning, Miss Banfrey."
She was being silly. She had only just met him; she couldn't be smitten with him already, and if she was, she was a fool. With an effort, she managed to respond with dignity. "Good morning, Mr. Vendine."
"More errands for your father today?"
"Yes, he always thinks of things he meant to tell me to get right when I've just made a trip to town."
"I certainly hope you have a better day for it than you did the other day."
"I hope so, too." Having someone to talk to about it, someone friendly who wasn't all wound up over the situation, made her words come spilling out in relief. "Once they've done some shooting, they usually calm down for a while before they start getting all riled up again."
"They? The miners?"
"All of them." Lainie waved a hand, encompassing the whole town. "The whole damn-fool lot of them." Suddenly she felt self-conscious of her own babbling. "Anyhow, Mr. Vendine, thank you for keeping watch over me the other day. If you'll excuse me --"
He touched her shoulder as she turned to go into the store, stopping her. "If I could speak to you privately for a few moments, Miss Banfrey, I'd appreciate it. Maybe on your way home?"
His voice and his handsome face and dark eyes were very serious. Not a trace of flirtation or even friendliness, though his manner was certainly polite. Although he had been so kind to her, she was suddenly afraid of what this stranger might have to say to her. He had a slightly dangerous air about him, as of a man who keeps his own secrets. Did he know about her power, how she had tried to protect herself with magic the other day? Or was there something else going on with him? The ranch hands had heard rumors he was a bounty hunter; did he think she knew something about a fugitive he was hunting?
"Please," he said. "I mean you no harm. It's important."
"It's a distance back to the ranch," she said. "Four leagues and some."
"My horse could use some exercise. I'll saddle him up and meet you back here by the time you're done with your business."
"My Pa don't want me riding out with men he don't know."
"It won't take long. I just have a question or two I'd like to ask you."
Just a question or two. There couldn't be any harm in that. Finally, she nodded. "All right, then."
"Thank you. I'll be waiting here for you." He tipped his hat again, then walked away towards Mundy's Boarding House. Lainie watched him go for a moment, then went into the store.
***Winner has been notified by email***