Disclaimers

These characters originated in the deep, dark recesses of Advocate’s mind and thus belong to no one but me. Copyright 2001 by Blayne Cooper (Advocate). All Rights Reserved.

Special Notice: This is the sequel to Cobb Island. Although there are no squirrels anyplace in that story, it’s still my favorite solo piece. I guess there’s no accounting for taste. If you haven’t read Cobb Island, it’s still possible to enjoy this tale, but you might find yourself scratching your head once or twice. If so, make an appointment at a dermatologist and remember that I told you you’d get more out of this story if you read Cobb Island first. Trust me, it’s mostly painless.

Some Scottish words and phrases are contained within. And since I didn’t include any feisty rodents or ugly dogs in the story, I gave you a glossary instead. The giving just never ends with me, does it? <G>

Sexual Content: It’s in there. It involves two women. And it’s steamier than the content in Cobb Island. If you’re under 18, please move along. Everyone else is welcome to pull up a chair and enjoy. This story is intended for an adult audience only.

Violence: If it’s there I don’t remember right now. So how bad can it really be?

Language: Yup. English, in case you were wondering. Oh, yeah, there are some naughty words sprinkled throughout the story to assure my quick entrance to hell should the sexual content fail to do the trick. If you don’t tell my mom, I won’t tell yours.

Acknowledgements: To my beta readers, Midgit, Barbara Davies, and Judith Kuwatch — your assistance was invaluable. TN and Stephanie, your feedback helped make this a better story. Finally, Nene Adams lent a much appreciated helping hand with some historical information.

Dedication: To the most underrated and awesome holiday of them all: Halloween. The one, lonely day each year when the line between the living and the dead blurs, when ghouls and goblins lurk in shadowy hiding places, just waiting for you to walk by, and when the chill that runs down your spine just might be more than the autumn breeze. Plus, you get those awesome bite-sized Snickers that contain absolutely zero calories and fat because THEY’RE BITE-SIZED. Do I really need to say more?

Comments/Feedback to: advocate8704@yahoo.com

Echoes from the Mist

by

Advocate (Blayne Cooper)

No one in Scotland can escape from the past.
It is everywhere, haunting like a ghost.
—Geddes MacGregor

Chapter One

Olivia Hazelwood jumped down from the bus steps and was immediately greeted by a blast of cool fresh air. "At last," she muttered to herself as she drew in a deep, cleansing breath. The air in the double-decker coach had been chilly but stifling, filled with so much cigarette smoke she was sure she’d shortened her life by at least ten years on the all night drive from London to Edinburgh.

Liv stepped away from the parked vehicle to allow the other passengers to move past her. Each one was sticking their hands in their pockets for warmth as they waited for the driver to make his way around to the side of the bus and open the luggage bin. A pair of warm hands landed on her shoulders, and Liv spoke without turning around, identifying their owner through touch alone as her eyes sought out their bags. "Remind me why we did this again." A not-so-subtle twitch of her shoulders earned her a slightly exasperated chuckle and a brief, but satisfying, massage.

"Maybe you’re just too old for travel, Liv."

"Very funny, smart-ass."

"Tsk. Such language from one of my elders."

"Hey!" Her green eyes flashed, but in good humor. "I won’t be thirty for a few more weeks, and that’s only…" She scowled as she calculated. Seven years? Ugh. "Older, okay? Dougie told you to tease me about that, didn’t he?" She’d seen her teenage brother talking to Kayla in the airport before they left Washington, D.C., their heads tilted together in a conspiratorial fashion. "Tell me."

A worried look flickered across Kayla’s face. "I would never betray a confidence," she answered seriously.

Kayla’s tone instantly stopped Liv’s teasing. "I know you wouldn’t," she assured, patting the solid body next to her with a gentle hand. I keep forgetting she doesn’t spend time around people very often. She doesn’t always realize when I’m playing… yet. Liv glanced at her watch. "Looks like we’re going to make our morning meeting. Though I feel incredibly grungy and disgusting and might offend your client."

"Our client." Kayla leaned down and whispered in Liv’s ear, "And you always look beautiful."

Liv smiled and reached up to squeeze the long fingers still resting on her shoulder. "Flattery will get you everywhere, my dear." She yawned. "I still can’t believe all the early morning flights here were booked and their were no seats on the train."

Kayla sighed. "The airport construction isn’t helping. I tried to reschedule the meeting for this afternoon but… um… apparently our new client is leaving town today and doesn’t intend returning until we’re finished looking around and have some answers."

Liv swallowed. "He’s leaving because of something in the house?"

"Maybe," Kayla answered honestly. She was about to say more, when the driver carelessly tossed their bags on the ground in front of them. "Hey! Watch it. I have a camera in there."

The driver grumbled something obscene about yank tourists as he slammed shut the luggage bin and began marching up the street, intent on having his early morning cup of coffee in peace.

"Who does he think he’s calling a Yankee?" Kayla drawled. She grabbed both bags and handed the smaller one to Liv.

Wordlessly, both women unzipped their bags and pulled out sweatshirts and tugged them over their heads.

Liv yawned again. "I bet we get sick." She helped Kayla pull her long, dark hair free of the sweatshirt’s collar.

"Why would we go and do something stupid like that?" Kayla began edging her way towards the sidewalk, a tiny gleam in her eyes.

Liv shook her head. Despite spending the entire day before on a plane and all last night on the bus, her companion was in an excellent mood. She’s so excited, Liv thought fondly. To anyone else Kayla would have appeared her normal, reticent self. But in a very short time, Liv had grown quite adept at reading her tall lover. Oh, yeah. She’s ready for another adventure. "You’re so excited you’re about ready to wet your pants, aren’t you?"

Kayla’s mouth dropped open and she stopped moving so that Liv could move back alongside her. "I certainly am not."

"Uh huh." Liv laughed. "I’m excited too, Kayla."

"Really?" She gave her partner a dazzling smile.

"Yeah. But… um…"

"You’re a little nervous?"

Liv bit her lip and nodded. Working with Kayla researching the paranormal had sounded a lot less daunting when she was back home in the States and not about to face ghosts or spooks or whatever it was they could find. Now she wasn’t so sure she was up to the task.


Compassionately, Kayla gazed down at her. "It’ll be okay. Remember–"

"I know." Despite her underlying nervousness, Liv couldn’t suppress a grin. "Mostly good things happen in the dark." She began ticking off her fingers. "And in the morning. And afternoon. And outside. And in my truck. And on–"

A dark blush crept up Kayla’s neck and she glanced around. She lowered her voice. "Liv."

"Yes?" Liv said innocently, batting her eyelashes.

Kayla’s mind went blank for a long second before she remembered something Liv had said on the bus right before they arrived. "Why are we going to get sick?"

"Oh, yeah, because of the change in climates of course. That almost always gives me a cold. It’s still a gazillion degrees in Virginia, and we were only in London for a few hours but it already felt like fall there. And it’s got to be at least fifteen degrees colder here than in London."

Kayla wrapped her arm around Liv’s shoulder. "True." She smiled at the fair-haired woman’s pink cheeks and nose. "But I’ll keep you warm."

"I’m counting on it." Liv hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and pointed toward the crowd who had disembarked from the bus and were all marching up the street. "I take it we’re going to make like sheep and head this way?"

"Come on." Kayla gave Liv a gentle push. "We’ve got time for some breakfast before our meeting. Up ahead is Princess Street and I think Burger King will be open at this hour." She debated with herself for a moment before adding, "You should eat more, Liv. You didn’t eat dinner last night."

Liv’s hackles rose slightly but she knew that Kayla was right. "When I’m nervous I lose my appetite. I had a two Snickers on the bus at 2:00 a.m."

"That’s healthy."

"Just as healthy as that burger you ate in London. Ever hear of mad cow disease?"

"Yes."

"Mooooooo."

"Ha ha." But Kayla smiled inwardly when she felt the muscles under her hand begin to relax. "How about I tell you a little about what usually happens at these meetings, and then you won’t be so nervous?"

Liv wrapped her arm around Kayla’s waist and matched her stride to her companion’s. She could see a busker standing on the street corner far ahead of them, his bagpipes wailing out into the cool morning air. "It’s a deal."

***

"The Witchery, huh? Cool." Liv used the back of her hand to block the early afternoon sun as she glanced up at the beautiful sixteenth century building. They were at the gates of Edinburgh Castle at the very top of a downward-slanting street called the Royal Mile, home to dozens of pubs, historical buildings, and colorful shops selling tartans, pure butter shortbread, and souvenirs to eager tourists.

Kayla’s gaze flicked to the address she had jotted on a piece of scratch paper the day before, then back up at the restaurant. She closed her eyes. "Oh, shit."

Liv stepped closer to Kayla. "What’s the matter? Isn’t this the place?"

Kayla winced and nodded weakly.

Just then, a woman in a green silk dress and heels walked out of the restaurant on the arm of a man in a tailored blue suit.

Liv’s eyes widened. "Oh, shit." She looked down at her own clothes. "‘Don’t worry,’ you told me. ‘We don’t need to change clothes or take a shower,’ you said." She groaned when another immaculately dressed woman exited the building.

I hate meetings. But inwardly Kayla was pleased she didn’t have to dig out a suit and go to the trouble of pressing it and finding suitable shoes. "I could have sworn this address was for the pub across the street."

"Do we have time to–"

"Nope." On their trek to the restaurant they’d decided to stow their bags in lockers at Waverly station so they could wander the streets unencumbered. Kayla had sent her equipment and the rest of their luggage on ahead from Virginia but it wasn’t due to arrive until that afternoon. She wrapped her arm around Liv’s. "We’re next door to the castle, the biggest tourist attraction in the city. I’m sure this restaurant is just filled with slovenly dressed," she sniffed the air, "slightly ripe travelers."

Liv pressed her nose to her sweatshirt. It smelled like stale cigarettes and the faintest hint of detergent. "Like us."

"Basically. But it’ll be okay." Glen is going to be so pissed.

"Okay." She nodded a little. Liv was going to have to trust that Kayla knew what was acceptable within her own circles. Especially since she herself had spent the last two years in the Peace Corps in Africa, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and boots nearly everyday. "If you say so." But the slight hesitation in her voice gave away her lingering doubt.

Kayla smiled reassuringly and without hesitation bent down and kissed Liv gently on the mouth. She turned her head slightly and pressed her cheek against Liv’s. "You’ve already made a permanently good impression on me, Liv. I have one-hundred percent faith in you," she pulled back and Liv caught sight of twinkling eyes, "with or without clothing. So don’t worry so much."

Liv’s cheeks colored slightly and her heart beat a little faster at the unexpectedly romantic gesture. For a moment she was tongue-tied, and she simply looked up at Kayla, her emotions showing clearly on her face.

Ooo, I did something right. "C’mon." Kayla grinned, obscenely pleased by Liv’s reaction and glad that she hadn’t bothered to think about what she was doing before she did it. Or else I probably would have been too chicken-shit to do it at all.

Kayla pulled open the massive wooden door and gave a handsome young man dressed in a tuxedo jacket, bow tie, and kilt, her name. The man smiled at Kayla, then his brows drew together when he realized Liv was with her. He looked down at the clipboard he was carrying.

Liv began to fidget as she watched the host and Kayla engage in a quiet discussion about something. After a moment, the man smiled and motioned Liv to join them. They were led through a small hallway to a courtyard that was hidden from the street. A long, steep, stone staircase later and they were in a large, well-lit room called The Secret Garden.

"Oh, wow," Liv mumbled to Kayla as they followed the host. "I thought you said this job would require roughing it. Please, make me rough it some more. Next you’ll be forcing champagne and massages on me, you brute."

Kayla laughed and shook her head, shifting a shock of dark hair over her shoulder. The room was magnificent, looking like an urn-filled terrace. Flowers were everywhere, their heady scent perfuming the air and mingling with the aroma of fresh-baked bread. The ceiling was painted with images from the tarot and included a happy, very chubby cherub playing the bagpipes. "Trust me, this has never happened before. The last business meeting I had was held in a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Mexico City."

They were seated in a corner of the room and given a wine list to examine while they waited for the rest of their party. Kayla looked at the list and frowned. She’d never acquired a taste for the drink. "What do you know about wine, Liv?"

Liv shrugged lightly, relieved that no one seemed to care what they were wearing and pleased that she had a moment alone with Kayla before their meeting began. "One glass makes me chatty, two glasses make me chatty and horny, and after three glasses you’ll have to carry me out." She smiled charmingly, the gesture wrinkling her nose. "Did you have something in mind?"

"Ale." Kayla grinned and made a mental note to pick up a bottle of whatever wine Liv liked on their way to the B&B after the meeting. Her attention suddenly drifted from Liv’s face towards the stairs and her grin broadened, showing off even white teeth. Her hand shot up and she gave a wave. "There she is."

Liv turned around to see a very striking woman animatedly speaking with a rail-thin man, who was nearly bald, except for a longish chunk of silver hair that was combed over the top of his head in a ridiculous attempt to hide its shiny surface. He walked with a cane.

When Kayla looked at her business associate, Glen, her eyes conveyed a warmth that Liv had never seen directed towards anyone but her, or perhaps Marcy, Kayla’s younger sister. She felt a pang of jealousy that she knew was irrational. Not nice, she chided herself. You’ve just never seen her with a friend before.

The dark-haired woman stood up to greet their tablemates. She towered over both of them. "It’s been a while, Glen."

"Hello, Kayla." Glen Fuguchi was at least two inches shy of Liv’s five-and-a-half feet. Her hair was long and a glossy black, pulled back in a gold clasp that rested at the base of her neck. Her skin was as flawless as fine porcelain.

Glen raised an inquiring eyebrow at Liv but quickly dismissed her and focused on Kayla, who she pulled into a quick hug. "What in the hell are you wearing?" she whispered harshly into the ear next to her lips. Kayla’s body shook with silent chuckles. "Don’t you laugh. You’re here to make a good impression." Backing away, she placed a kiss on Kayla’s cheek and brightly said, "It’s been too long, Kayla." Her voice held the barest hint of a Japanese accent.

"It has," Kayla said earnestly, oblivious to Glen’s appreciative gaze raking down her body. Baggy sweatshirt or no, Kayla was a beautiful woman.

The hair on the back of Liv’s neck stood on end. You are… okay, were a helluva lot more than business associates. She fought the urge to wrap her arm around Kayla’s waist and growl, ‘Mine’. Grudgingly, however, she admitted that that was probably not a very mature response. Maybe later she could just trip her on the way out instead. God, Kayla, Glen looks twelve friggin’ years old! Shouldn’t she be in homeroom right now?

"Kayla Redding, this is Mr. Robert Keith, the client I spoke with you about."

"Mr. Keith," Kayla acknowledged, reaching out and shaking his hand firmly.

The man smiled engagingly as he pumped her hand. His hair shook along with his body and he reached up and lifted his hair back into place. "I can’t tell you how pleased I am to meet you. I wanted the best," he puffed up his narrow chest a little, "and here you are, just as Ms. Fuguchi promised."

He looked at Liv who was now on her feet alongside Kayla and waiting patiently. "And you are?"

Kayla mentally kicked herself for her lack of manners. No wonder I pay Glen to take care of this part of the business. "This is my new business partner, Olivia Hazelwood. She’s a linguist from Virginia and someone who is going to be an invaluable asset to this and all our future projects."

Liv felt a jolt of happiness at Kayla’s words. It was almost enough to make Liv forgive Kayla for not telling her she and Glen had been involved romantically.

Glen’s dark eyes widened almost imperceptibly. "Partner?" she said quietly, hoping she didn’t sound as surprised as she felt.

She doesn’t know? Liv slowly turned to Kayla and glared. You are so dead, Ghostbuster.

Kayla swallowed. "She sure is." The tall woman took Liv’s hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. Fuck.

Liv squeezed back. Hard.

Double fuck.

Glen’s expression went a little cold. "How nice for you. Shall we sit?" She gestured towards their seats.

Robert Keith immediately slumped into his chair with a sigh of relief. He propped his cane against the wall behind him.

Glen and Kayla remained standing. Their faces were impassive but Liv could see by the rigid set of her lover’s shoulders that something wordless was passing between her and Glen. Another telepath perhaps? she wondered silently, a little surprised by how quickly she was starting to accept certain things that only days before she would have declared impossible.

Kayla’s research, began with the study of her own family’s highly evolved set of paranormal gifts. And although the Reddings’ phenomenal paranormal attributes had been diluted over the centuries, she herself had considerable telepathic abilities.

It was wholly by accident that the women had discovered that Liv too had heightened telepathic skills. Though Liv hadn’t even known that about herself. And for whatever reason, each woman brought out these talents in the other. A small part of Liv wondered how much that had to do with the bone-deep, almost innate, attraction they had for each other. She regarded Kayla carefully; the sculpted planes of her face, the sensuous curve of red lips, the penetrating intelligence that shone so clearly in those pale blue eyes. No, she thought a little dreamily. She would have had my heart in any case. But I’m still going to kill her.

A long moment passed while Mr. Keith busied himself with the wine list and menu, then Kayla and Glen took their seats and the Scotsman launched into a detailed diatribe. He ended by saying, "I awoke from a sound sleep wi’ chills racin’ through my body and saw blood dripping down the bedroom wall in front of me."

Their first course was nearly over when Kayla quietly put down her fork, looked Mr. Keith in the eye, and asked, "Are you on any medication?"

"Kayla!" Glen cried. "She’s joking, Mr. Keith. Truly." Glen’s voice was sharp. "Explain that you’re just teasing, Kayla." She plastered on a smile as she patted Robert’s bony hand. "Americans have such odd senses of humor, don’t you think? Of course we believe you. Why don’t you go over a few more of the specifics?"

Liv went a little pale at the thought of Mr. Keith going into more detail about what had supposedly happened in his house. She subtly pushed away her plate of sweet potato and apple gallette and reached for her water.

Kayla tossed her napkin onto the table. "Glen."

"What happened is clearly not unheard of," Glen said calmly. Her eyes flashed another warning to Kayla while her voice remained as smooth as silk.

"I know it’s hard to believe, Ms. Redding," Robert broke in, willing to do whatever it took to convince her. He paused for a moment while their dishes were cleared and an enormous plate of steak tartare and fried quail’s eggs was placed in front of him.

Liv smiled her thanks at the waiter who set down her seafood pie and Kayla’s wild mushroom tart.

Glen appeared content to acquire her calories in the form of a very expensive bottle of wine courtesy of their new client.

Liv’s eyes narrowed. Maybe she’s a vampire. They don’t eat at all.

When the wait staff retreated, Mr. Keith leaned towards Kayla and with a deadly serious expression said, "I know what I saw. And now, thanks to my blabbermouth cook, so do the papers. It wasn’t a delusion," he said, sounding a little insulted. "I’m sure it was all a hoax." He waved his hand dismissively. "And I don’t want Edinburgh thinking I’m prone to hallucinations, now do I?" He jutted his jaw defiantly, as if he had just made everything clear and it was up to Kayla to draw her own conclusions.

Which were that Mr. Keith was probably drunk at the time.

"Mr. Keith is a very respected member of the community and City Council," Glen added for Kayla’s benefit. Throughout lunch she had managed to ignore Liv’s presence almost entirely. Though, to her annoyance, Mr. Keith seemed intent on addressing both Liv and Kayla when he spoke. "His reputation is above reproach and he’s hired us to confirm that there is nothing haunted about his house."

"This is a matter for the police, Glen, not me. If someone was trying to frighten you–"

Robert shook his head emphatically. "Absolutely not. I intend to open my home as an inn next month. The damage is already done. My housekeeper handed in her notice the same morning she walked into my bedroom and saw me… well, in my state of surprise and fright." He looked a little shamefaced, deciding they didn’t need to know about his soiled sheets. "When I told her what I’d seen, she quit on the spot. She wouldn’t even collect her parting wages in person. Her daughter, the uppity thing, said for me to post them to her!"

"An article claiming Mr. Keith’s house was possessed by an evil, potentially deadly spirit appeared in the next day’s papers, quoting the cook," Glen said conversationally, refilling her glass. "I’ve already interviewed her and her daughter. Besides Mr. Keith, they were the only other people who lived in the house. They don’t have anything to add that we can’t get straight from the source."

"That’s right," Mr. Keith huffed, before taking another bite. "And that’s why I hired you and Ms. Fuguchi. I’ve done my research and know you are both very well respected within the scientific community. I specifically requested you over several other paranormal researchers that Ms. Fuguchi works with. People will believe what you say." And you’re young and pretty and would surely make the papers and local news bulletins.

Kayla’s brow furrowed as Mr. Keith’s thoughts began roughly taking shape in her head. She didn’t have a word for word understanding of his mental musings, but she caught snippets and impressions and a few odd words, processing them all in the blink of an eye. Kayla all but sneered at her new employer. News bulletins? Like hell. And why was Glen interviewing the residents of Mr. Keith’s home? She didn’t work in the field. Ever.

"So you want us to make sure that everyone knows there’s nothing spooky or paranormal about your house that would frighten away guests?" Liv asked Mr. Keith, unable to sit quietly by for another second.

"Hardly," he snorted and used bony fingers to smooth down his wool, regimental necktie. "Specters and spooks are a big part of Edinburgh’s history and continued economic success, Ms. Hazelwood. A few of those never hurt any inn’s business. And my home has been host to its share of minor hauntings over the years. As is the case with nearly any self-respecting, authentic structure in Old Town." He leaned back in his chair and took a healthy bite of his lunch.

Kayla was happier than ever than she had made arrangements for her and Liv’s accommodations away from Old Town. Worried green eyes glanced at her in question, and the look on the younger woman’s face reassured her lover

Liv let out a shaky breath, saying a quick mental thank you. The house on Cobb Island loomed very fresh in her memory and she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to relive that experience so soon. But that’s what Kayla does all the time, right? You don’t see her complaining. She loves her job. And you haven’t given it a chance. So stop bein’ such a baby.

Mr. Keith tore off a piece of bread from a loaf that sat in the center of the table and used the chunk to sop up the juices and blood from his steak tartare. He popped the sodden treat into his mouth.

Liv looked down at her food to block out the vile image. Kayla’s lips formed a thin line and even Glen began to resettle her napkin in her lap rather than watch Mr. Keith eat.

"But there’s a fine line between healthy fun and having rivers of blood running down the walls, wouldn’t you agree, Ms. Hazelwood?"

Liv sighed. Her fork was nearly to her lips when Mr. Keith piped up. Her stomach churned and she nodded her agreement, officially giving up on lunch. "No… er… I’m pretty certain that would not be a good thing."

The man grunted his approval over Liv’s answer and turned to Kayla, who was trying to get a few bites down while he was talking. "I expect that you’ll confirm the existence of something otherworldly, preferably having to do with the body snatchers, Burke and Hare, or perhaps medieval witchcraft. But nothing evil and certainly nothing that could be physically dangerous."

Kayla’s blood began to boil. Glen had some serious explaining to do. This man didn’t want a real scientific explanation, he wanted something to put on his brochures for the tourists. She was about to say as much when Mr. Keith added, "Scary sells. Evil repels. And what I saw was clearly the work of something terribly wicked."

***

Liv and Kayla sat silently in the back seat of the taxi that sped its way down Portobello High Street. The blonde woman’s forehead rested against the window as she watched the houses and shops fly by. Portobello, which was only a few miles from the heart of Edinburgh, dated back to the eighteenth century and was a popular seaside resort. By the early part of the nineteenth century, however, it had been annexed by Edinburgh and was now considered a sleepy hamlet of the city. A bit rundown, it still had its own brand of charm.

Kayla’s eyes closed as she contemplated this assignment and Liv. She sighed. Liv hadn’t said a single word since they’d left The Witchery. Not that I have to ask but… "Are you mad at me?"

Liv reached up with one hand and rubbed her temple, pressing against the throbbing pain that had developed there. "Yes, but I’m mostly tired, Kayla."

Oh, boy. Kayla tapped the driver’s shoulder and he wordlessly pulled over and accepted several crinkled bills from her out-stretched hand.

The women collected their bags from the front seat and began walking downhill along a short road that dead-ended at the beach. The temperature had dropped throughout the day, and a cold wind was blowing in from the gray sea, which was visible several hundred yards away. The sun was gone and a blanket of heavy, dark clouds had settled so low to the ground that Kayla imagined she could feel their weight on her shoulders.

Liv adjusted her bag over her shoulder and stuffed her hands into her pockets for warmth. She could taste the salt of the ocean on the back of her tongue. "I never realized we were so close to the water," she said absently. "Tomorrow I think I should buy a jacket. I should have thought to bring one."

"Hold up." Kayla placed her hand on Liv’s forearm to stop her stride.

It didn’t work.

"Hey." Kayla took several quick steps and moved directly in front of Liv to block her path. "Liv, please."

Liv let out an explosive breath and reluctantly stopped. A gust of wind sent her shoulder-length hair into disarray and Kayla found herself wanting to reach out and smooth down fair bangs.

"What?" Liv asked, her frustration from lunch returning with a vengeance.

"I’m sorry."

"Okay." The word was pronounced precisely. She shifted her bag higher on her shoulder and, cocking her head slightly to the side, looked Kayla dead in the eye. "Anything else?"

Kayla blinked a few times. "Uh… I guess not."

"Let’s go then."

Kayla visibly relaxed. That was easier than she expected. "Great." She scrubbed her face and exhaled a long, deep breath. "That’s great. I was afraid you were really–"

Liv silently walked around Kayla and headed down the street, checking the address plates mounted on each of the old Victorian houses as she moved past them.

Two dark eyebrows disappeared behind equally dark bangs as Kayla eyed Liv’s retreating form. Okay, it’s not that easy. She jogged until she had caught up with Liv and was padding alongside her. "I said I was sorry."

Silence.

Kayla threw her hands in the air, her own frustration boiling over. "But you’re still mad?"

"It would seem so." Liv’s voice was flat as she continued to hunt for their Bed & Breakfast, suddenly longing for the tacky but highly effective neon signs that signaled motels back home.

"I don’t know what else you want me to say."

Liv came to a sudden halt at the undertone of uncertainty in Kayla’s voice. "How about an explanation, Kayla? Why didn’t you tell your friend that we were going to work together? That’s seems like sort of a big thing to forget about. And it would have been nice to know I was having lunch with one of your old lovers."

Kayla blinked. "How did you–"

"I’m not a moron." Liv could see Kayla was painfully adrift. "That made me feel really lousy. Like some sort of unimportant afterthought." Her voice cracked on the last word and she knew that her emotions were starting to get a little out of control. Her headache was getting worse, and she was overtired and hungry.

Blue eyes went round with sudden worry. "I…I–"

You’re freaking her out. Liv winced. Just talk about it later, when you’re not spoiling for an argument. "Look, it’s not that big of a deal. You apologized. I’ll get over it."

Kayla couldn’t think of anything to say, so she reached out and slipped Liv’s bag off her shoulder, rubbing the spot where the strap had been. She slung it over her own shoulder where her bag was resting and gestured towards the pale yellow, three-story home just to their right. "This is it," she said softly.

A tiny smile edged its way onto Liv’s face despite her foul mood. "It’s lovely."

Kayla nodded quickly, eager to grab onto anything positive. "See the little garden." She pointed. "And they have a sunroom around back where they grow herbs and flowers, and a patio right on the sand. The owners are really great too. I’ve stayed here several times. It’s close to downtown but…" She looked around, at a loss for words.

"It feels different," Liv finished Kayla’s thought seamlessly.

"Yeah." Kayla’s face relaxed into a smile. "More cheerful."

"I can see that." She’s really trying. God, I love her.

Not five minutes later, after a short but warm greeting by the owners, Kayla was turning the key to their room. They were on the second floor and she had specifically asked for the room whose large window faced the beach. She loved breathing in the crisp ocean air as she slept and was secretly looking forward to snuggling up with Liv in the room’s small, but comfortable, double bed.

"Oh, Kayla." The room was decorated in a delicate floral-pattern of ivory and pink. It was cozy and painfully clean, the large windows and high ceiling giving it an airy quality that most rooms its size couldn’t pull off. "It’s beautiful." And not scary and dark in anyway. "I…" Liv’s words trailed off when her eyes strayed to the bedside table.

Lying across a box of milk chocolates, Liv’s favorites, was a single orchid.

Kayla bit her lip and waited.

You little sneak. Liv sat down on the bed and opened the box of candy, releasing the delightful scent of chocolate into the air. She all but swooned. Then she brought the fragrant bloom to her nose and sniffed appreciatively. "This was the phone call you made at the restaurant, wasn’t it?"

Liv had excused herself to go to the ladies room near the end of their meal. When she returned to their table, Mr. Keith and Glen were already gone and Kayla was just hanging up her cell phone. She’d been so angry with her that she hadn’t even bothered to ask what the call was about.

"I guess… I mean, yes." Kayla shrugged a little sheepishly. The look on her face reminded Liv very much of a painfully shy adolescent.

Kayla slowly removed the flower from Liv’s fingers and brushed its elegant petals softly against her cheek, smiling at the pink blush it left behind. "You see I’ve met this wonderful woman," she quietly confessed, causing Liv’s heart to melt a little more. "And she’s all I can think about."

Liv fondly ran her fingers through Kayla’s thick hair. "Even when she’s grumpy and acting like a jealous brat?"

"Even then," Kayla said seriously. "Because she does the same for me." She ducked her head and chuckled to herself. "I’m not sure about the scientific reasoning behind it — I suspect an evil combination of adrenaline, hormones and endorphins — but being in love has caused a serious lack of blood flow to my brain." She looked up, then pressed her forehead against Liv’s, bridging the already small distance between them. "There was no sinister reason why I didn’t tell you about Glen or vice versa, Liv. The simple truth is that she never even crossed my mind. It, along with my heart, has been otherwise engaged. I’m sorry."

"I’m sorry for not accepting your apology earlier." Liv tilted her chin up and brushed her lips against Kayla’s, humming at the little thrill the contact stirred in her gut. "Mmm… You’re getting much better at this relationship thingie. You’ve got the making up nearly down pat too. And this is really only our second argument." She thought back to the many cross words they’d exchanged on Cobb Island, then decided those didn’t count. She hadn't really known Kayla then.

Kayla cupped Liv’s cheeks, looking deeply into her eyes. "Thank God." She laughed weakly and flopped back on the fluffy comforter, feeling utterly drained. "Are you as tired as I am?"

"Am I still awake? I find that hard to believe, considering how tired I am." A single pale brow arched over a bleary eye, as Liv plucked a candy from the box and began to chew it with exaggerated slowness. "Oh, God, this is good."

"Yes, you’re still awake," Kayla murmured. She gently took the box from Liv’s hands and put it on the nightstand. "But you don’t have to be."

Wordlessly, the women undressed each other, trading kisses and tender touches that spoke more of love than passion and tasted faintly of rich milk chocolate. The covers were pulled down and they slid beneath the cool sheets. Bare skin met bare skin, prompting twin sighs as the women rolled onto their sides and Liv snuggled back into Kayla’s warm body.

A peaceful sleep stole over them while two mysteries, begging to be explored, waited for them across the misty streets of Edinburgh.

 

Chapter Two

Kayla’s eyelids fluttered open. Sunlight was streaming through the window, painting yellow-gold stripes across the comforter tucked neatly around her and Liv. It’s tomorrow already? Damn. I guess we were beat. She didn’t move a muscle though, instead deciding to let Liv dictate when they got going this morning. Kayla was rarely awake before the linguist, and she wasn’t about to waste this precious time when she could simply hold her and think.

So much had happened in the past few weeks. She had gotten to know her sister better and their relationship now seemed like that of true siblings and not girls who just happen to live in the same household as children. With the discovery of the missing family history on Cobb Island, she’d been able to make some remarkable leaps forward with her own telepathic abilities. But as important as those things were, they couldn’t even touch what she’d found with Liv.

Kayla Redding, child genius, introvert extraordinaire, lonely adolescent and lonelier still adult, had actually fallen in love. It baffled her logical mind even as it thrilled her heart and she was torn between jumping up and down like a little kid and weeping. It was wonderful and exhilarating and she’d never been so afraid in her entire life. I will not blow this, she swore to herself. I can’t. Yesterday was unacceptable. Well, at least part of it.

Time, she decided, was what she needed most. Time to learn how to be part of a team and consider Liv’s feelings. And that, above everything else, was going to be the hardest thing. In her heart of hearts she wasn’t sure she had what it took to really be part of a couple. She’d spent many an hour wondering what exactly would be expected of her and what Liv needed her to be.

Which was funny in a way.… Because despite the fact that she was the experienced telepath and Liv was only on the very edge of understanding her own abilities, the blonde woman had quite easily read Kayla from the very start. Liv had insisted that all she ever wanted from Kayla was for her to be herself. But that couldn’t be enough. Could it? The concept alone was so alluring Kayla had a hard time believing it could be true.

Liv mumbled something in her sleep, pulling Kayla from her thoughts. You, Kayla smiled wryly, think too much for your own good. Don’t be stupid. Enjoy what you’ve got this very second.

They weren’t due at the Keith House until later that afternoon. Glen had talked Mr. Keith into delaying his trip out of town in order to hold a lunchtime press conference. Never one to miss a publicity opportunity, Glen intended to announce Kayla’s presence and discuss the work she would be doing. Which is why Kayla intended to stay away until well after the media circus was over.

Liv began to stir and blonde hair tickled Kayla’s face as she moved. Kayla exhaled slowly. Today would be a good day. She had a surprise that Liv, okay, that both of them, were going to love.

"Mmm." Liv yawned but didn’t open her eyes. "I feel too good," she muttered. "It must be morning." She felt Kayla nod against her, then reach up and sweep the fair hair from the back of her neck so she could slowly kiss the sensitive skin there. "Oooo, I think, oooo, " Liv purred like a kitten being scratched, "I’d always like to wake up this way." Kayla’s nude, warm body spooned tightly against her back.

Kayla skimmed her palm along Liv’s bare hip and with a slight pull, guided her onto her back. She sank onto Liv, feeling the slight chill of the skin that had been facing away from her before. A loving smile curled her lips and she brushed a tiny speck of sleep from the corner of Liv’s eyes. "Morning," she husked, her voice rough from lack of use.

"Morning," Liv greeted happily. Her hands slid up Kayla’s sides and found their way into her hair. She threaded her fingers through the heavy locks and gently tugged, bringing Kayla’s head closer for a soft, heartfelt kiss good morning.

"Morning." Kayla used the tip of her tongue to carefully trace Liv’s lower lip, listening excitedly for the low growl of desire she knew would follow.

She wasn’t disappointed.

Liv’s heart began to pound and she instinctively deepened the kiss, swirling her tongue around her partner’s. She could feel Kayla’s nipples grow hard against her own chest as their breathing became more ragged with every passing second. They parted briefly and Kayla looked down at Liv with hooded eyes. "You are so beautiful," she whispered fervently. "I love you."

A warm wave of emotion and desire crashed over Liv. "I love you too." She surged up and crushed her lips against Kayla’s, allowing all the passion and devotion she felt in her heart to bubble to the surface as she kissed Kayla for all she was worth. A deep groan of approval tickled her ears.

Unfortunately, so did the alarm clock.

Kayla didn’t break the kiss. Instead, she began swatting at the box helplessly with one hand.

Liv finally pulled away, laughing. "I don’t remember setting that." Her body was still thrumming with excitement and she didn’t want to let Kayla go, but the larger woman was on the verge of smashing the clock to bits. She wondered if she should care.

Kayla finally managed to hit the right button and without blinking an eye, moved her lips to Liv’s tender throat where she began a series of slow, steady kisses down her body.

"Ooo." Liv closed her eyes in pure pleasure. "That’s a very excellent idea." She was suddenly finding it very hard to concentrate on anything but the mouth that was nibbling its way between her breasts. But she did manage to ask, "Who… who set the…" Liv gasped and arched upward when Kayla’s tongue brushed against her nipple, circling it slowly before it was enveloped by a very hot mouth. "Yes…. God, that’s so good," she moaned.

Kayla propped herself up on one elbow and stroked Liv’s thigh with her fingertips, smiling at the state her lover was in and how quickly it took to get her there. "Oof!" With a quick jerk of Kayla’s elbow, Liv sent her sprawling back on top of her.

Both women burst out laughing.

"Demanding little thing, aren’t you?" Kayla said as she nuzzled the underside of the breast she’d just been suckling.

"You started it," Liv snorted. "And if you don’t finish it I’ll be forced to kill you and then you can haunt this bed."

"Just the bed?"

"Mmm hmm."

Their mouths came together again in a smoldering kiss that lasted forever. Finally, hungry lips began to drift southward. Kayla spoke against heated flesh. "Mrs. Thicke does it for me."

Liv barely heard the words over the loud rushing of hot blood as it coursed through her veins. Her center was throbbing so painfully that she was sure that its pounding was audible. "Who? What are… you talking about? She turns you on?" Not another girlfriend!

Kayla smiled. "The proprietress here." Her hand glided down Liv’s body and languidly traced its curves with loving detail. I could do this all day, she thought contentedly.

Liv nodded as Kayla’s thoughts began to merge with hers. It felt vaguely like being submerged in a warm bath. Familiar and more peaceful the deeper you sank. "Yes," she breathed. All day.

Kayla growled loudly at the positive response that rang out clearly in her head, the slickness between her legs a testament to just how good this was. But that didn’t keep her from eagerly tormenting Liv by continuing their disjointed conversation. "Mrs. Thicke keeps me from sleeping through breakfast."

Liv groaned in frustration. Her chest was heaving. Using well-developed stomach muscles, she sat up, forcing Kayla up with her. She cupped Kayla’s cheeks with slightly shaky hands and demanded eye contact. Swallowing hard at the sight of Kayla’s sky-blue eyes gone dark with desire, she said in a husky voice, "I love you with all my heart, Kayla. Don’t take this the wrong way, but if you don’t finish this right this second, I will!"

Kayla’s eyes widened along with her smile.

A pale eyebrow arched. "And don’t think you’re going to watch." Though the mere idea caused a flutter low in her belly.

Kayla’s grin vanished so quickly that Liv nearly laughed. "Threats like that will get you everywhere, Liv." Softly but urgently, their lips met again, re-igniting the fire between them. Liv’s hands found firm breasts and this time it was Kayla’s turn to moan. "I was just checking… if… um… Oh, God. If you were hungry, Liv." Her body shuddered and her eyes slammed shut when Liv rolled her nipples between her fingers and tugged gently. "Jesus… um…."

"Yes?" Liv asked in a voice an octave below normal, drawing out the word. "What was that?" she teased, understanding completely how hard it was to carry on a conversation under these circumstances.

Kayla gritted her teeth, determined not to let Liv win what had turned into a playful game of one-upmanship. "Mrs. Thicke sets…. Harder is good, too…. Yes!" Her head tilted backwards. "She umm…."

Liv laughed again, finding it much funnier to be on the giving rather than receiving end of such sweet torture. Kayla’s exposed throat was too tempting to ignore so she ducked her head and began to kiss and suck lightly on the delicate flesh.

What was I saying? Trying to regain a modicum of control, Kayla pushed Liv back onto the bed, pinning her wrists with her hands. She began ravishing the older woman’s body with a single-minded intensity that might have frightened Liv had she not already been so turned on.


Long moments passed and Liv’s hips began pushing upward of their own accord, begging. Kayla had regained some of her focus, feeling as though she’d entered into a zone of pure enjoyment where her only goal was to pleasure her partner. She let go of Liv’s wrists and small hands immediately found purchase in dark tresses, stroking gently, encouragingly. Kayla’s breathing had slowed as her focus narrowed to the scent, taste, and feel of her lover.

Liv’s stomach growled and Kayla kissed the soft skin above it, frowning at the hollowness. "Are you hungry?" she whispered. Her lips circled Liv’s perfect navel and she dipped her tongue inside, causing the smaller woman’s stomach muscles to contract and release several times in quick succession.

Liv’s skin was flushed and damp, every nerve ending responding wildly to the smallest touch or breath or…. "Hell, yes, I’m hungry!" She squirmed helplessly under her partner’s relentless mouth and hands, her body near the breaking point. Finally, when she was on the verge of pleading or screaming or both, she began pushing Kayla where she needed her most.

"What a coincidence." A determined grin shaped Kayla’s mouth and she slid further down the bed and Liv’s lithe body. "So am I." She draped one of Liv’s legs over her shoulder and began to nibble the baby-soft, wet skin of her lover’s inner thigh, brushing the tip of her nose against the silky surface. Then she turned her head.

Liv cried out. Her hands flew to the sheets and she gripped them in white-knuckled fists.

They skipped breakfast that morning.

***

It was past 11:00 a.m. and Liv and Kayla were padding down the beach eating the thick ham, cheese, and cucumber sandwiches that Mrs. Thicke had graciously offered them after they had missed breakfast. They were freshly scrubbed and showered, each wearing clean blue jeans and soft, lightweight, cable knit sweaters that Kayla had purchased at a gift shop in Gatwick Airport. Liv’s was a dark charcoal color that contrasted nicely with her fair hair and pink-tinted skin. Kayla’s was a classic ivory crew neck

Liv finished her sandwich first. "Mmm." She wiped the crumbs from her lips with her fingers. Her eyes rolled back in their sockets as she relived each glorious bite. "That was sooo good."

"I could tell." Kayla’s eyes twinkled. "You were almost moaning as loud as this morning."

Liv chuckled in embarrassment. "When I like something, Kayla," she shrugged, "I’m not shy about showing it. I’m sorry if–"

"Don’t even go there," Kayla warned semi-seriously. "I love that about you."

Liv beamed at her partner and patted her stomach. "Good. Because at this moment I am supremely sated in every way."

"Me too, sweetheart."

The sun was shining brightly and gulls swooped playfully overhead, flying circles around the woman as they walked, and making frequent detours to the surf to look for fish. The bulk of the tourist season had ended a couple of weeks ago and it was just early enough in the day that Kayla and Liv had the beach nearly to themselves.

Liv wrapped her arm around Kayla’s waist as they strolled along.

"I have a surprise for you." Kayla wiggled her eyebrows.

"Really? What?"

"Well.…"

Liv pinched her partner’s hip. "No torturing me this morning. I’m in too good a mood."

Kayla jumped. "Yeow!"

"Spill it," Liv laughed, lightly rubbing the flesh she’d just goosed. She doubted Kayla felt anything through that thick denim.

"Would you have any interest in seeing the Cobb family ancestral home?" Kayla ate the last bite of her sandwich.

Liv stopped walking. "You mean Faylinn’s family home from the history? Wow. That would be great," she said excitedly. "But, Kayla, that wouldn’t still be standing."

"It would have to be over three hundred years old, I know. But look around you, Liv." Kayla gestured broadly towards the row of old but well-maintained homes that lined the beach. "It wouldn’t be so unusual here."

She was, Liv admitted, right about that. The ‘new’ buildings in Edinburgh still managed to be one or two hundred years old. Something from the late seventeenth century wouldn’t be unheard of. "Can we look in the phone book or–"

"Make an appointment to go over and see the place?" Kayla finished triumphantly. "A taxi should be waiting for us back at the Bed & Breakfast by the time we get there." She grasped Liv’s hand and swung her around in the opposite direction, reversing their course.

***

The Cobb family estate was about six miles outside Edinburgh proper. And, as in Faylinn’s day and age, it was still known for its small but well-respected horse breeding business.

The taxi chugged over a small hill and down the winding dirt road that led to Cobb Manor. They were dropped off at the front gates. The cabby tipped his hat then held out his hand for payment. "Enjoy your day, ladies."

"We will." Kayla took a moment to write down the driver’s cell phone number, promising to call him back when they were ready to leave.

Liv had already ventured a few paces forward and was talking to a young man standing in a small wooden booth at the house’s gate. As Kayla approached he stepped out of the booth.

He wore a loose-fitting, homespun shirt, ankle boots, and a pale-blue, red and green check tartan kilt. He was half a head taller than Kayla with full sensual lips that made him look almost feminine, despite his well-built frame. His hair was long and shaggy and tied back with a plain leather strap. In short, he looked like he had just crawled out of the seventeenth century. Only his digital wristwatch gave him away.

Liv turned and grinned at Kayla when she stepped up behind her and peered over her head at the talkative young man.

"You see," he intoned, fully immersed in his role, "the family name Cobb has no tartan of its own. Not every name does. But the Cobbs have a strong affiliation with the Lindsay clan, always have had. They, along with a few other families, used to share lands. And it’s the ancient Lindsay colors I’m wearin’ this lovely September day." He leaned towards Liv and spoke conspiratorially. "I don’t care for the modern Lindsay colors." The young man scrunched up his face in distaste. "Too dull." Then he straightened and squared his shoulders, smiling brightly at Kayla. "Hello."

"Hi," she mumbled a little self-consciously. She hadn’t gotten used to Liv starting conversations with complete strangers.

"This is so cool, Kayla! Did you know the house was a historical site where everyone is in costume? There’s a gift shop, and horseback riding and tours, and–"

"Nope." Kayla smiled fondly at her excited friend, amazed she’d found out so much in what couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds. "I didn’t know that." She looked up at the enormous varicolored stone structure, complete with tudor-style chimneys and stepped gables. It sat about two hundred feet ahead of them and around the side to the left was walled courtyard. Kayla guessed it contained the Manor’s garden. Her eyes flicked back to the sandy-haired man who appeared barely out of his teens. "But it looks worth the admission fee."

Liv began digging in her pocket for some bills when the man gasped, "Are you tryin’ to get me killed?" He looked back to the manor with nervous eyes. "If Mother saw me takin’ money from family she’d blister my backside." He smiled wryly. "Despite the fact that she’d have to stand on a chair to do it."

"Family? I’m not–"

"One of you is Kayla Redding, right?" He looked back and forth between the women.

Kayla’s brows drew together and she realized that they were indeed relatives, if only by marriage.

The man continued blithely, "Mother said she and another woman would be stopping by around lunchtime." He privately hoped that the brunette was Kayla. Family, no matter how far removed, gave him the willies and was off limits romantically. The pretty blonde, however, had already sparked his interest and libido. Perhaps she’d be interested in seeing what I wear under my kilt? he speculated cheerfully.

Liv jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "She’s Kayla Redding."

"Splendid!" the young man boomed. "Brody Cobb, at your service." He flashed Liv another charming smile. "If you’ll follow me inside, my mither is waiting for you."

Liv smothered a grin at Brody’s eagerness, a little surprised that anyone would bother to look twice at her when they could be gazing at her gorgeous lover instead.

Seeing no other customers driving up the road, Brody quickly locked the door to his booth and pushed open the heavy gate. He extended his hand towards the house. "After you, ladies." Liv walked past him, but when Kayla drew even with him, he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. His hopeful gaze darted to Liv. He lowered his voice. "Is she…?"

"Taken?" Kayla arched a menacing eyebrow and spoke in her most serious voice. "Why, yes. How nice of you to notice." Her tone made it very clear to whom the object of desire was attached.

Brody blushed badly. Even the tips of his ears turned a bright crimson. "Uh.… I’m sorry. I uh…."

Kayla glared at him until Liv noticed that she was now walking alone and glanced back at her in question. The dark-haired woman gave her a little wave, and Liv shrugged and kept walking down the path, eager to see the inside of the large house. "No harm done." Kayla assured Brody, relaxing her hard stare only a little. "Yet."

Mumbling a hasty ‘sorry’, Brody darted past both women and began leading the way to the Manor. Family or no, he could tell Kayla Redding wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. When he was safely ahead of them both, he launched into his well-practiced spiel about the grounds and the house itself.

"Mother," Brody called as they entered the house. When there was no answer, he raised his voice and tried again. "Mother!"

"Good Lord, boy!" a voice boomed. In walked Sylla Brody Cobb. "Why are you screamin’?" She took one look at Brody, noticed his wristwatch, and smacked him on the back of the head with an open hand. "We’re supposed to look authentic, bird brain."

Brody rubbed the head sheepishly, but didn’t look surprised or disturbed by his mother’s behavior. Apparently, it happened quite often. "Yes, Mither." He slid off his watch but kept it in his hand.

Liv smiled, thinking that Brody’s behavior reminded her of her little brother, Dougie, and that he’d have that watch back on his wrist the second he was out of his mother’s sight.

"If you’ll excuse me, ladies." He bowed deeply at the waist.

Both Sylla and Kayla rolled their eyes. Liv laughed.

"I need to get back to my post." He nearly winked at Liv but thought better of it when he noticed Kayla watching him like a hawk. Everyone in the room heard his nervous swallow.

"Let’s sit," Sylla told Kayla and Liv after the women had exchanged greetings.

Liv wondered if Brody was adopted as Sylla led them towards a set of stairs. A quick look at Kayla, who was studying Sylla carefully, let Liv know she was wondering the same thing. Sylla was short, stout, big-boned woman with a big head, big butt and… Liv looked down… big feet. Her hair was worn in a tight bun and she had a smile her friends would call infectious.

If she had friends.

Or smiled.

"I was quite surprised to hear from you, Ms. Redding," Sylla remarked as she began leading the women up a large oak staircase whose wooden steps had been stained a shade of brown so dark it was nearly black. They were on their way to a part of the Manor that wasn’t open to the public.

As they climbed, Liv admired the gleaming, openwork banister that had been cut from solid hardwood and stained to match the steps. The scent of lemon wood polish and dust lingered in the air. The house looked remarkably well preserved, and despite its size it didn’t have that sterile museum-like quality, rather, it looked like a functioning home, with minor warts and all.

Kayla cleared her throat and made a valiant attempt at being sociable. "Thank you for agreeing to talk with us." She relaxed a little when Liv took her hand and threaded their fingers together, silently praising her effort. "I was curious after discovering Cyril Redding’s marriage to Faylinn Cobb. I’m afraid it wasn’t very well-documented in my family."

"That’s too bad," Sylla said gravely. "Family heritage is a very valuable commodity to the Cobb family."

Kayla bristled at the implied slight. "I can see that. If I’m not mistaken, the sign out front set the value at four pounds."

Liv gaped at her companion. "Kayla," she chided under her breath. "Be nice."

"What?" Kayla mouthed silently with all the innocence she could muster. "She started it."

But Sylla remained unfazed. "Och! That wasn’t my doin’. We’re only open three days a week and it was my husband’s idea that we wear these costumes." She let out a long-suffering sigh. "It was this or plow under the gardens." She shook her head. "Soulless highway robbers is what those gardeners are. Brody is to apprentice with one next summer. Thank the Lord."

Liv had to smother her laughter with her hand. "Are you built on a graveyard?" she asked, remembering the brochure at their Bed & Breakfast that advertised a pub nearby that was supposedly haunted. "Seems like hauntings of all sorts are big business."

Sylla snorted loudly. "No, dammit. And just our luck, too. Though the tourists do seem to enjoy our home, and we’ve done quite well this summer." At the top of the stairs the women rounded the corner, and Sylla abruptly stopped and bent over, her new position thrusting her large bottom straight up into the air.

Kayla shivered inwardly and was certain she heard a faint ‘be nice’ repeated to her silently.

Sylla pulled off her pointy-toed leather shoes and stepped into an enormous pair of soft, fuzzy pink slippers. "No wonder Scotland’s population shrank in the sixteenth century," she huffed, straightening. "I’m convinced suicide brought on by chronic shoe pain was the likely cause." She moaned with pleasure when she wiggled her toes. "Much better," the matronly woman announced firmly. She lifted her skirts and began marching purposely down the red-carpeted hallway.

They passed the library on their way to the drawing room, Sylla’s announced destination, and Kayla had to grab Liv’s arm and pull her the rest of the way down the hall to keep her from sneaking inside. The tall, book-laden shelves sang out to her lover with a siren’s call. "Okay, okay," Liv whined quietly as Kayla successfully directed her course back down the hall.

"You can visit the library anytime you like, Ms. Hazelwood," Sylla commented without looking behind her. "I can show it to you before you leave if you like."

Liv cheeks flushed as she and Kayla picked up their pace to catch up with their hefty hostess. Sylla’s powerful, rolling gait had propelled her nearly halfway down the very long hallway. "Umm.... Thank you. That’s very kind you."

"Not really," Sylla answered truthfully. "I’ll do nearly anything to be able to keep my slippers on." She stopped. "Here we are." With an impatient hand, she pushed open the door and ushered Kayla and Liv inside.

The room was fairly small but had ceilings that easily topped twelve feet. The paneled walls were made of quartered white oak and they framed tall, narrow, limestone windows and a large limestone fireplace whose materials had been imported from England when the house was built in the mid-sixteen hundreds. The furnishings, however, were clearly from the present day and looked as though they had been purchased for comfort more than style.

Liv walked to the window and peered down to see Brody handing out tickets to a young couple with a baby in a stroller. The early afternoon sky had begun to cloud over again and she wondered idly if that was an everyday occurrence in Edinburgh.

"Sit and have a bite. I made these myself," Sylla announced proudly as she plopped down on the edge of a padded sofa. She lifted a silver tray from a stand next to the couch and tugged free the cloth had been covering the treats.

The room filled with the buttery aroma of shortbread, and both Liv and Kayla eagerly accepted a golden bar. Kayla nearly swooned. They were still warm from the oven.

Sylla’s eyebrows jumped at the sounds of Liv’s appreciative moans.

Kayla found herself growing aroused at the sound. God, I’m a pervert. She shook her head to clear it of naughty thoughts and addressed Sylla. She held up a piece of the cookie. "Do you sell these in your gift shop?"

"By the pound."

"We’ll take ten," Liv mumbled, her mouth still full.

"Ten?" Sylla and Kayla asked, astonished.

"What?" Liv cried.

Kayla crossed her arms over her chest in disbelief. "Ten pounds?"

"Okay, fifteen, but that’s my final offer."

"Liv! This isn’t an auction," Kayla complained half-heartedly. Truth be told, all Liv had to do was ask and Kayla would pull down the stars. Hell, she’d wrap them in bows.

Sylla almost looked as if she was going to smile at the purchase Liv had made, but instead she nodded knowingly. "They are good," she agreed. "Now, I’ve asked my husband to come up and tell you about Faylinn and her adventures in the American Colonies. He’s the real family historian and storyteller. Besides, a Cobb tale is best not told by a Brody."

Liv scooted closer to Kayla. "Sylla, I’m sure you’d do a good job."

"True," Sylla allowed readily, without even a hint of modesty. "But all the same, Mr. Cobb will be up after he finishes showing that group of Japanese tourists our stables. We’ve several bonnie colts this year. But perhaps a short tale first, eh?" Sylla paused, and Kayla could see the wheels in her head turning as she came to a decision. "Kayla," she began, "you’ve been to Scotland before?"

"Many times," the tall woman agreed.

"But you haven’t, Ms… Liv," she immediately corrected herself.

Liv answered, "No. Though what I’ve seen is beautiful. I should have come sooner."

Sylla grunted her agreement and moved off the sofa to a recliner that faced Liv and Kayla. "Then I’ve got a story just for you." She lowered her voice and her accent seemed to increase exponentially. "Have you ever heard of Mary Kings Close, child?"

Liv shook her head. "I’ve seen lots of things with ‘close’ or ‘wynd’ in the name but I–"

Sylla waved a dismissive hand in front of her as though she was shooing a pesky fly. "They’re alleyways between buildings. A ‘wynd’ is a path with an opening at both ends, while a ‘close’ only has an opening at one. Some are so narrow your shoulders scrape the sides as you walk. Now…" She smoothed her dress. "You know that Edinburgh is one of the most haunted cities in the world?"

Liv looked at Kayla in question but Kayla was forced to nod. That had been her experience.

"Ay, it is," Sylla assured her audience. "Make no mistake about that. And I’m going to tell you one of our most famous tales, and why so many tortured souls haunt our fair city."

Both Liv and Kayla leaned forward, resting their elbows on their knees.

"Before I tell you about Mary King’s Close I need to tell you a little about Edinburgh in the 1660s, the decade before Faylinn Cobb’s birth. Edinburgh was a growing city, even then. It was also a walled city and the large sunken area in front of Waverly Train Station was Nor’ Loch, a filthy cesspool," Sylla hissed.

Liv opened her mouth to.…

"Tch." Sylla held up an imperious hand and Liv’s mouth snapped shut. "I’m getting to that. Because Edinburgh didn’t have much room to expand outward, it expanded upward. And we had skyscrapers seven storeys high and packed with living bodies even then. It was a time before modern waste disposal and the streets of the city served as its reeking sewers. People would dump their putrid waste, human and otherwise, out the windows and let it drain down the buildings and into the street."

Kayla and Liv’s expressions turned sour.

Sylla nodded solemnly. "Exactly. Imagine…" her voice dropped again and Kayla and Liv were forced to inch a little closer. "Imagine, if you dare, the vile stench of a hot summer’s day. It’s enough to turn the strongest of stomachs. Now, most of this foul matter eventually drained down into Nor’ Loch, the low point of the city, which also happened to be the water supply that was used for drinking and bathing and so on."

Liv shuddered. "Ewww."

"In the year of our Lord sixteen and forty-five, the plague came to Edinburgh. Rats brought it. Or to be more precise, fleas on rats. Rats became infected when the fleas bit them. The vile little rodents eat garbage and human waste; the streets were teaming with them. Do you know what happens when someone contracts the plague, Liv?"

Liv swallowed. "They die?"

"Oh, yes, they die. But it’s how they die that makes it so remarkable. At first it seems as though they’ve caught nothing more then a cold. They get the chills, a fever, and cough a bit, nothing too serious. Until the second day.…"

Kayla wrapped her arm around Liv’s shoulders when she felt her partner grow more tense as the tale progressed.

"On the second day, tiny red dots appear all over the poor soul’s body. Then they can’t hide it. Everyone knows! And they run at the sight of you. ‘Plague bearer!’ they shout. ‘Carrier of the Black Death!’ Tumors form in your armpits and your groin, growing by the hour, dark circles ring the victims eyes." Sylla’s hands flew to her chest. "You begin to vomit blood and your stomach twists with maddening cramps. Enormous, festering boils cover most of your body and fill to breaking point with hot, thick pus. And break they do, sending more disease-filled fluid over your skin, creating more and more boils." Sylla finally took a breath.

So did Liv.

"Then the boils turn black as death itself, and soon your body is as splotchy as a rotting corpse. That’s why it’s called the Black Death." Sylla’s tone turned more conversational. "You’ve probably heard that term used before."

Liv nodded dumbly, green eyes wide.

"In that year of Pestilence, the people of Edinburgh were dying by the thousands and the dark streets now stank with the foul odor of rotting flesh as well as waste. The City Council tried everything to stem the tide of death. It thought pets might spread the disease and ordered all the city’s cats and dogs killed." Sylla sighed. "Of course, dogs and cats killed rats, and without them the rat population swelled and the disease claimed more and more lives. Why–" She looked up at Kayla, who quirked a slender eyebrow, letting Sylla know it was time to bring her tale to a rousing end.

The older woman cleared her throat. "Back to Mary King’s Close. It’s a dark, narrow alleyway that still exists to this very day. The plague hit the tenements there especially hard. The City Council was desperate. It had to do something or they would all perish. Nearly half the population of Edinburgh had already fallen victim. Mary Kings Close was known to harbor a great many sinners, and had been hit especially hard by the disease."

"You mean Catholics," Kayla snorted.

"Ay, they were mostly Catholic." Sylla shot Kayla an annoyed glance for the interruption. "In an effort to stop the spreading doom, the entrance to the close was boarded shut and guards were posted there. No one was to go in or out. Ever. All this was done with four hundred men, women, and children still inside. Their cries for food, water, and mercy rang out for days and days until finally all went silent. And every single wretched, pitiful soul perished in abject misery."

Kayla frowned at Liv’s suddenly unhealthy pallor. "Enough," she warned Sylla.

"Fine." Sylla brushed a piece of non-existent lint from her skirts. "I was finished anyway," she said, adding a touch of martyrdom for flair.

Subtly, Liv gave Kayla’s hand a reassuring squeeze. "I’m fine, Kayla." Liv turned back to Sylla. "What happened next?"

She smirked at Kayla before continuing. "The plague continued, of course. The City sent two butchers into Mary Kings Close and they dismembered the decaying bodies and removed them from their urban tomb. Slowly, the plague burned itself out and then vanished, disappearing just as mysteriously as it came." Sylla’s voice took on a woeful quality. "But the tortured souls of Mary Kings Close haunt Edinburgh to this very day."

"Oh." Liv rubbed her eyes, somewhat dumbfounded. She had no idea how to respond to that story. "That was… an… well, it was interesting and–"

"Was it really?" Sylla suddenly grinned broadly and Kayla had to use every ounce of her will power not to recoil at the sight. "Wonderful!" She clapped her hands together gleefully. "Do you think I should spend more time on the pus and blisters?"

Liv stared at Sylla in wonder.

But Kayla thought about the question. "No. I’d say that was just about right. Some do, some don’t. But you might mention that when an infected flea bites a human, it regurgitates a speck of adulterated blood into its victim, passing along the disease. "

"Regurgitation. Excellent!" Sylla looked directly at Liv. "I’m moonlighting as a guide for one of our city’s many ‘ghost walks’. We go right past Mary Kings Close and I’ve been practicing my story. Folks do love to hear about ghosts and pus. But best of all, I can wear my Nikes under my costume. Anyway…" she pushed up to her feet, "I’ll go and find my husband, Mr. Cobb, and wrap up your twenty-five pounds of shortbread. I can’t imagine what’s keeping him."

"Fifteen pounds," Kayla clarified.

"Right. That’s what I said. Twenty pounds." And with that, Sylla Cobb sauntered out of the room, whistling a happy tune as she mentally calculated the sale.

When she was out of sight, Liv rested her head in her hands and laughed weakly. "Oh, my God, Kayla. That has to be one of the most demented people I have ever met."

Kayla chuckled softly and leaned back. She stretched her arms high over her head. "I’d agree with that assessment. And when she smiled…."

Liv’s whole body shook and she wrapped her arms around herself. "Ugh. I know. It was the most unnatural facial expression I’ve ever seen on a human." She exhaled a long slow breath and pinned Kayla with an inquiring stare. "You knew what she was going to say, didn’t you?"

"I went on one of the ghost walks a few years ago. It was fun, I suppose, but highly unscientific."

"You sound like Spock."

"The baby doctor?"

"The Vulcan."

"Oh." Kayla unconsciously felt her ears to see if they were too pointy. "Are you calling me a geek?"


"Pretty much," Liv said amiably.

"Okay. I was just checking."

"I just thank God Sylla’s gross tale was fiction." Liv’s face twisted in disgust. "That was horrible."

Fiction? Oh, boy. "Ahh.…" Kayla chewed her lip. "Listen, Liv–"

Liv shook her head. "No, no, no. You listen." She waggled her finger at her lover. "I don’t care about the truth. I just don’t want nightmares. I’m very talented when it comes to harnessing the power of denial. Just ask my high school boyfriend. Now, repeat after me: It was just a story…." She smiled impishly. "And I love you more than a pig loves slop, Liv."

Kayla’s eyebrows jumped. "Only if you say the same to me — except that you have to love me more than shortbread cookies."

"Don’t push your luck."

Kayla burst out laughing. "I’ll do my best."

"Thank you," Liv said sassily.

"It was just a story. And I love you way more than a pig loves slop."

Liv kissed her friend on the cheek then nuzzled the soft skin there. "Now isn’t this nicer than talking about pus?"

***

Glossary of Scottish Words & Phrases

ay yes

aye always

auld old

bairn child

bonnie, bonny beautiful

brae hill

close courtyard; entry or alley

faither father

fash yersel to worry yourself

gab talk

lad, laddie boy

lass, lassie girl

mither mother

nicht night

och! an all-purpose exclamation

sassenach English person; foreigner

sporran leather pouch

suin soon

wee little, small

weel well

wi’ with

yersels yourself

I love you. Tha gaol agam ort.

Shut your mouth. Haud yer wheesht.

 

 

Continued - Part 2

 


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