He was a selfish bastard really, he thought as he gazed down at her still wrapped in dreams. The morning light caressed her cheek and like a jealous lover, he raised his hand to block the sun. The shadow of his fingers traced the contours of her face. As if she could feel his ghostly touch, she nuzzled closer to his body. Simon closed his eyes and pulled Elizabeth more securely into his embrace. The day could wait a little longer.
Time, tide and the new winter quarter wait for no man, and the alarm clock finally sounded. With a swift movement Simon silenced the painful country western music station Elizabeth insisted they set the damnable thing to. He mumbled something rather rude about the singer's wife-cousin and dog, Chet under his breath and dropped his head back onto the pillow.
Elizabeth gave a husky laugh that did nothing to further Simon's desire to get out of bed.
"You have a decidedly twisted sense of humor," he said, hoping to steal a few more minutes next to her sleep-warmed skin.
"That's why you love me," Elizabeth said, giving him a quick kiss.
"In spite of that." He caught her and pulled her into his arms. "In definite spite."
After a long, far from sufficiently satisfying kiss,
Elizabeth eased back and arched an eyebrow. "Why Professor Cross, I think you're stalling."
Simon tried to frown, but she was right. He was due at University for pre-term office hours, which, to his mind, were a complete waste of time. It was an odd sensation, this sudden urge to shirk his responsibilities. Although, he hadn't exactly embraced many of his professorial duties, he'd never wanted to toss them aside for more pleasurable pursuits. Then again, he thought as he looked down at the woman in his bed, he'd never had such a pleasure to pursue before. He shook his head in defeat and pulled back the covers. "All right, Miss West, up with you then."
She clutched at the quickly receding blanket. "But it's cold."
"If I have to suffer, you have to suffer."
She huffed out her breath in dramatic indignation. "You're very Simon Legree today."
He chuckled and tossed her robe. "Come along, Cassy."
"Very funny." She put it on and tied the sash. "I almost forgot. Can you give me a lift to the mechanic's? My car should be ready today."
Simon shrugged on his dressing gown. "I don't see why you insist on throwing good money after bad."
"It's a classic," Elizabeth said as she started for the bathroom.
Simon followed closely behind. "It's a bloody death trap."
Elizabeth splashed water onto her face. "But a classic death trap."
He handed her a towel and glared at her reflection in the mirror. Why was she so intransigent? "Elizabeth, I really wish you'd let me buy you another car."
Her expression was lost in the towel, but he could hear the frown in her voice. "Haven't we had this conversation before?"
"I live with irrational hope that someday you'll be rational about it."
She handed him the soggy towel and slipped past him to turn on the shower taps.
"I don't see why you won't let me give you something that's well within my means to give. Not to mention the fact that I wouldn't have to wonder if you survived each trip to university."
She stared into the shower for a moment before answering. Her voice was so soft he barely heard it above the running water. "Because it's mine."
They'd been down this path before and he still had yet to fully comprehend her reservations. "What I have is yours."
"I know that," she said as she turned to face him. "And I appreciate it, but it's..."
Simon sighed and finished her sentence for her. "The first and only thing that's ever truly been yours."
He knew how little she'd had and how much the little she did have meant to her. He simply could not understand why she balked at his attempts to give her more. He would give her the earth and everything on it if she asked. Stepping forward, he wrapped his arms about her waist.
She seemed ready to give some very pithy response, but merely ducked her head briefly in temporary defeat and gave him a fleeting kiss before stepping into the shower.
Simon watched the glass door close between them. Perhaps it was the way her lips brushed against his, or the sixth sense a lover has for his partner, but Simon knew that something else was wrong. With the practiced and stalwart nature of a man long on the short end of things, his chest tightened and he pretended not to notice.
In the nearly four months since their return from 1929 New York City, Simon had grappled with the changes in his life--from exclusive to inclusive, from the periphery to a center he was sure could not hold.
An accident with his grandfather's pocket watch had thrown them both back in time to Prohibition era New York. He'd fought his attraction to Elizabeth for as long as he could. But the arrival of a gangster, intent on having Elizabeth for his own, lit a fire under the coals that had been his heart. As a professor of the Occult, he'd found the proof he'd been searching for, and as a man he'd found the love the he'd been hiding from. He'd nearly lost her and vowed he'd do anything to keep that from happening again. The rest of the world be damned.
The first few days after their return were a blur of pain and the ecstasy of being alive, of being together. The physical wounds had healed in their course. Elizabeth still had the fading remnants of a scar on her forehead from the boat's explosion. The soft pink crescent mark was the only visible sign of what they'd endured. There were scars that weren't so easily healed or seen.
"Are you all right?" she asked, breaking him from his reverie.
With his thumb he brushed a wet strand of hair from her cheek and nodded.
She leaned into his touch. "I think about it too."
He smiled wanly. Her memories, despite it all, were fond remembrances of how their life together had begun. His were painful recollections of how it had almost ended.
She tipped her head up and kissed the corner of his mouth, just as she had for their first kiss, months, decades ago. This time, he didn't pull away, afraid to love her. This time, he held her tightly, afraid to let go.
Simon was already sitting at a table when Elizabeth arrived at the restaurant for lunch. "Sorry, I'm late. Meeting ran over."
"Everything all right?" he asked as he rose and pulled out her chair.
His instinctive manners were one of the many things she loved about him. Sometimes he was too good to be true-green eyes the color of Absinthe, a long, lean body that moved with easy grace and a baritone voice with a cut glass British accent.
He took his seat again. "Your car didn't break down again, did it?"
He was also a royal pain. She spread her napkin out across her lap. "My car is just fine. Thank you for asking."
"I was only joking, Elizabeth," he said and reached across the table to take her hand.
Just when she was all ready to get riled up, he had to go and be charming. Her buttons were far too easily pushed these days. One innocent question from him and she was ready to jump down his throat. Not that she didn't adore him even when he was being a pill. He meant well, but ever since they'd come back he'd been her constant shadow. At first, she loved the feeling of absolute safety his omnipresence had provided. Who didn't want to be loved to distraction? Until it became...distracting.
After the first few months what had been cocooning became smothering. She didn't blame him. She could only imagine what it must have been like for him after she'd disappeared. Mostly because he hadn't actually told her what he'd gone through.
"I wish they hadn't let Louis go," Simon said. "The menu has never been the same."
"The Vichy just doesn't soise like it used to."
"Very droll." Simon peered over the edge of his menu and narrowed his eyes. "Something is wrong."
"No, nothing's wrong," she said and bit the inside of her cheek in penance for the lie. Not that anything was really wrong, though she doubted Simon would see it that way.
Simon wasn't a big fan of change and while she was certain this one was for the best, she knew he was going to resist every step of the way. She also knew she had to spit out the truth sooner or later. Unfortunately, later was catching up with her, but she wasn't finished stalling quite yet. "How was your morning? Any students dare to enter the inner sanctum?"
He closed his menu and set it aside. "As a matter of fact. I'm afraid you may have to have one of your talks with Mr. Goode."
"I knew I should have glued that hourglass to your desk."
Simon smirked in response and continued, "He had the ludicrous notion that I was in need of a new assistant."
Elizabeth nearly choked. Damn the campus gossip grapevine. It was worse than a beauty parlor. "He did?"
"Someone's idea of joke, I suppose."
Later was now. "Or not," she said softly.
She took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "Nothing's official yet, but I have been thinking about talking to Professor Aumond about working as his assistant. Or maybe even looking for something outside of the university."
Simon looked as if he'd been slapped. He jerked his head back and blinked several times before he muttered, "You what?"
The shock in his voice took her breath away for a moment. He wasn't angry; he was hurt. "I know I should have said something sooner, but I wanted to think about it first. Nothing's set. I'm...I'm just thinking about it."
He leaned back in his chair dumbstruck. They sat in silence as a ten months pregnant elephantine pause stretched out between them. When he finally spoke, his voice was flat. "How long have you been planning on leaving me?"
The guilt that had taken up residence in her heart at the start of the conversation just sublet a room to shame. She wasn't leaving. There was no planning. There was a definite lack of planning involved here. Maybe there should have been more planning. She fiddled with her napkin. This wasn't going well at all.
"I'm not. I'm just thinking about the future."
No, he didn't see. Couldn't see. She loved being his assistant, but she wanted more than that. She wanted to be his partner, but as long as he was signing her timecard that wasn't going to happen. Not to mention that a few members of the university board had raised eyebrows and pursed lips at her and Simon's work and home hybrid relationship.
She reminded herself that being in a relationship was new territory for Simon. He'd managed to live his life without getting close to anyone and now that he was, it made him feel raw and vulnerable. For a man used to very firm footing, this was like a tightrope act without a net.
"Simon, I love you. I'm just thinking about taking another job is all. And I'm just thinking about it. It might be best for both of us. But nothing's changed yet."
He ran his finger up and down the stem of his water glass. "Was there something about our...arrangement that bothered you?"
"Aside from you calling it an arrangement?" she said in an attempt to leaven the situation, but it fell matzo flat on the table between them. "I love being with you, working with you, but we can't do both."
"I don't see why they're mutually exclusive."
"The Board does."
"I don't give a bloody good damn what the Board thinks," Simon said loudly, causing people at nearby tables to turn and glare their disapproval.
"But I do," she said quietly. "You deserve their respect and as long you're sleeping with your assistant, an ex-student, you'll never get it."
"Then I'll quit."
"And give up teaching? You bark about it, but I know how much you love it. You don't have to work, but you do. Nobody does that unless they love it."
"You didn't have to go behind my back."
She huffed out a breath and tried to keep a cool head. Why did growing pains have to be so painful? "I didn't go anywhere. And it's not just the board, although that's reason enough. I can't stay your assistant forever. I just think it might be for the best."
"For the best?"
"Why are you making this so hard?"
"I'm sorry, am I forgetting to play my part?"
Elizabeth gripped her napkin tightly in a fist. "That's not fair."
"I dare you to find anything about this situation that is."
Elizabeth took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I know this is a shock." Simon snorted, but she kept on. "I know I probably should have discussed this with you sooner."
"Is that what we're doing? Discussing it? If that's the case then let me give you my opinion. You'd be a fool to work for Aumond."
She counted to ten before she responded. "I understand that you have issues with him, but--"
Simon crossed his arms over his chest. "This has nothing to do with me."
"Doesn't it? You're angry because I didn't tell you what I was thinking and the reason I didn't is because you'd be angry."
He slammed his palms down on the table causing the water glass to nearly topple over. "And shouldn't I be?"
"No. That's just it, Simon. You might, oh I don't know, consider what I want."
"Don't I always?"
"No," she said with forced equanimity, the sort she knew got under his skin. "You consider what you want me to have."
She could tell that had hit mark. His expression faltered before he got all British again. "Forgive me for looking out for your welfare."
"I did manage to get up in the morning and make it through the day before I met you."
As soon as she'd said it, she wished she could grab the words and cram them back down her throat. Simon's mask of control dropped for the barest of seconds and she saw the vulnerability behind it. His jaw muscles flexed under the strain of keeping his composure.
"You made yourself perfectly clear," he said as he placed his napkin on the table.
He shook his head and stood. Taking out his wallet, he pitched a few bills onto the table. "I'm sure you can manage perfectly well."
Elizabeth squeezed her car into a tiny parking space under a leaky pipe and yanked up the emergency break. Her VW Beetle groaned and creaked in protest, but she didn't care. God, she'd made a mess of things. She wanted to go to Simon's, but had no idea what to say. She shouldn't have waited so long to discuss it with him. She'd seriously taken the chicken exit on that one, but now it was done. There was nothing left to do but give him some time.
She rummaged in her purse and found her keys. She hadn't been back to her apartment in weeks. The plants she hadn't already managed to kill were probably dead by now. Three ferns and one relationship, not bad for a day's work. The door to her apartment always stuck and so she pressed her shoulder against it and gave it a good shove. It flew open, and she stumbled unceremoniously into her pitiful, little bachelorette.
She closed the door, tossed her purse onto the Goodwill couch, and headed straight for the kitchenette. Everything in the apartment was an ette. The refrigerator was squat and older than she was, but blissfully still cold. She opened the door and pulled out an open bottle of chardonnay, yanked the cork and sniffed. Not too skunky considering it had been there for weeks. She poured herself a glass and took a deep swig.
Sour grapes. She swallowed the irony with the wine. Her little apartment had never seemed so little before. Damn Simon and his spacious living.
As she looked around, everything about her place spoke of someone living somewhere else. Clothes were strewn about in the haste of packing and not caring what she left behind. A washed bra, long forgotten, still hung on the partition she'd jury-rigged to create a bedroom space. It was her apartment and not even a crackerjack size, but it had never felt confining before. Until now.
She poured the rest of the wine down the water-stained sink and walked back into the living room area. Maybe Simon had called, but the ancient answering machine's red light stared back dull and unblinking. Even her cell phone had nothing to say.
Maybe she deserved a little silent treatment. She'd really bungled this one. She'd wanted him to see her as a partner, so she'd gone behind his back. Smooth.
She could still see Simon's face when she'd said she could manage without him. If there'd been a ref there, she definitely would have had a point deducted for a low blow.
Worst yet, she knew better. Not that she was any Dr. Phil, but she knew how hard this was for Simon. For him, being with someone was like being suddenly left-handed. It was awkward and sometimes you jabbed yourself in the nose when you brushed your teeth.
Sighing, she plopped down onto the couch. The lump she'd nicknamed "Sciatica" dug into her hip. The scarf hanging on the wall as a poor man's version of tapestry drooped at one corner, the thumbtack lying in wait for her bare foot. This was home.
Closing her eyes, she listened for the familiar muffled sounds of apartment life, but everything was eerily silent. A knock at the door interrupted her start of her pity party. Elizabeth jerked upright and breathed out a sigh of relief. Simon. They'd argue a little more, talk it out, and have crazy monkey make-up sex. All in all, not so bad.
She walked over to the door and pushed out a cleansing breath before opening it. "Simon, I-"
A slight, balding man in a rumpled suit stared back at her with nervous, bright eyes behind black-rimmed glasses. He was the sort of man who was, even in his early forties, the spitting image of the boy he'd been. As he shifted his briefcase from the tight, clutching grip against his chest and into one hand, he offered her the other. "Miss West, it's... it's an honor to meet you."
Elizabeth took a cautious step backward and gripped the edge of the door. "And you are?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Peter Travers," he said in a thin, high-pitched voice that sounded a little like Piglet and then glanced anxiously around the hallway where fluorescent lights flickered with a will of their own. "Could we continue this inside? I...I'd feel much better inside."
"I'm sure you would, but I'm afraid I'm just not interested in whatever it is you're selling," she said, gesturing to his briefcase.
"Oh, I'm not a salesman," he said and then squared his slender shoulders and lowered his voice. "I'm with the Council. The Council for Temporal Studies."
Elizabeth's grip on the edge of the door tightened. "The... the Council?" Horrible thoughts that she'd somehow single-handedly mangled the space-time continuum flooded her mind. "What do you want with me?"
"I'd rather discuss this inside. If that's all right with you?" A door opened and slammed down the hall causing him to jump so badly he had to right his glasses. He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his shiny forehead. "Please?"
"Right," Elizabeth said, her mind still spinning, and allowed him into the apartment. "Is this about what happened in the past?"
Travers smiled thoughtfully at her. "It always is."
A whole herd of butterflies took flight in her stomach. Dear God, what had she done? It could have been anything. Even the smallest ripple in time could potentially change the course of history. What if she'd eaten a piece of pie at the automat that someone really important was supposed to eat, like FDR, and he was so angry they didn't get his blueberry pie he never ran for president and we lost World War II?
"I'm sorry," she said.
Travers stopped rummaging in his briefcase and looked up in confusion. "For what?"
"For whatever I did."
He squinted and shook his head. "I don't follow you."
Elizabeth paced across the room, but could only take two steps in the small apartment. Why wasn't her place big enough for a good solid pace? "I changed time, right? That's why you're here. It was an accident, you know. We didn't mean to activate the watch."
"We know," Peter said sympathetically. "And just to ease your mind, I'm not here because you changed time. Off the record, everything you did was just as it was meant to be."
Elizabeth stopped fidgeting and tried to get her mind around that. "I'm not sure I understand."
"Time is immutable. Or at least it's supposed to be," he added with a frown. "We're not really sure on that one."
Elizabeth stopped her mini-pace and considered the implications of that little admission.
"You were meant to go back to 1929," Travers continued. "Everything that happened there was meant to be. You working for Charlie Blue, meeting King, Sebastian Cross's..." His voice trailed off and cleared his throat.
"You know about all that?" She didn't know whether to be frightened or relieved or maybe just throw up a little.
"I studied your case file extensively before I destroyed it."
Definitely, leaning toward frightened. "I have a case file? Wait a minute. Destroyed it?"
"It was necessary."
"That doesn't sound good."
"It isn't," he said and then took a folder out of his briefcase. "We need your help."
There was something about those four little words that provoked clarity of mind. "What do you mean?"
Travers tilted his head to the side as if trying to figure how to say what needed to be said. Apparently not liking the answer, he tugged anxiously on his ear. "We have a...situation."
Euphemisms were never good. They were just a red flag for the big ugly lurking beneath a patina of vagueness. The Council's situation. Her and Simon's arrangement.
"I should call Simon," she said abruptly and started for the phone.
Turning a lighter shade of pale, he stepped into her path. "W-why don't you hear me out first? Then you can call him and tell him everything. That way y-you have something to tell him."
That sounded logical enough, and truth be told, Simon probably wouldn't answer the phone right now even if he was home. No one brooded like Simon. It was art.
"All right," she said. "But I am going to tell him everything you tell me. We don't have any secrets," she said, trying not to choke on that particular chunk of irony.
He seemed inordinately relieved that she wasn't calling Simon, but that thought was pushed away by a much more troubling one. "How do I know you're who you say you are?"
"Ah!" he said and reached into his briefcase, revealing a velvet pouch. Pulling the drawstring, he let the contents fall into his hand. Elizabeth's breath hitched. It was an antique pocket watch just like Simon's grandfather's with the same Mercator map etched into its gold case.
A rush of memories swept over her as he placed it in her hand. She ran her fingers over the etching, afraid to open it. She'd learned the hard way that time travel devices were not to be treated casually.
"Go ahead," he said, indicating that she should open it. "Nothing will happen."
She knew he was right, there was no eclipse to activate it, but she still felt a tingle of fear as she opened the clasp.
It had the same complex dials and rings as Simon's. He moved closer to admire it. "Beautiful, isn't it?"
And dangerous. Elizabeth handed it back to him, but he refused it. "It's yours."
She held it out to him. "You've made a mistake."
His brow knitted and if it could, it would probably have purled too. "You are Elizabeth West, aren't you?"
She couldn't help but laugh, but the seriousness of what she held in her hand brought her back. "I am, but--"
Taking out his crumpled handkerchief, he mopped the beads of sweat that had spontaneously popped out on his forehead. "I told them I wasn't the right person for this assignment," he muttered to himself, before stuffing the cloth back into his pocket. "This isn't a joking matter."
Elizabeth looked down at the watch and tightened her hand around it. "I know."
"That watch is one of twelve. Nine are currently assigned and in the field. The tenth is, I believe, in Mr. Cross' safety deposit box at the National Bank on First."
Travers held up a hand to stop her. "The Council knows where all the watches are at any time and in any time. But that's not important. What is important is what you do now."
He gestured toward the sofa. "May I?"
Elizabeth nodded and he sat down uncomfortably, setting his briefcase down on the coffee table. He sat up straight and moved toward the edge of the cushion and cleared his throat. "The Council is need of your help. We find ourselves in a difficult situation."
"I don't mean to be blunt, Mr. Travers, but I don't see how that's my problem."
"I'm afraid it might become your problem."
Elizabeth didn't like the sound of that.
"We have reason to believe that time has been altered, or will be. It's difficult to explain, but our Council of Twelve is now a Council of Eleven."
"Someone ceased to be."
"I don't understand."
"Charles Graham was a long-standing member of the Council and a fine field operative. Today, any trace, every record of his existence is gone. After some research, we discovered that his great-grandfather was murdered and never had children. Graham's grandfather, father and subsequently Graham himself were never born."
"But how is that possible? You said time was immutable."
"I said we thought it was. Apparently, we were wrong."
Elizabeth didn't know what to say to that. Our entire theory of time and space? Forget that. "But if time has changed, how do you know that it has? You're part of the new timeline and this is giving me a serious headache."
"The memory of his existence is already fading. Proximity to the watch somehow lets us remember how it once was, but that effect will fade in time too."
"Simon's grandfather Sebastian told him that there was a temporal wash from the watch."
"Yes, yes exactly. And to make matters worse-"
"Let's not do that," Elizabeth said.
"This moment in history is important to the Council in other ways as well. We don't know many details about the founding of the Council itself. The files are disturbingly vague actually. But we do know that the watchmaker, identity unknown, created the watches in early 1907. It's possible, he has some connection to the changing of events."
"I still don't see what this has to do with me or Simon. I'm sorry for Mr. Graham, but-"
"Ripples. One change leads to other changes. We're afraid that Graham's murder has the potential to change the shape of the Council, even its very existence. Ask yourself: If there's no Council, what does Sebastian Cross do? How does his life change? How do the lives of his children and their children change? Do they even exist?"
Elizabeth felt a chill run through her body and rubbed the goose bumps that covered her forearms. "You don't know that will happen."
"We believe it will. And if we don't act soon, we'll forget everything that's changed and it'll be too late. You'll never meet Simon Cross because Simon Cross will never have been born. And you won't even know it."
Travers left a few hours and a few hundred questions later. It was totally insane, but Elizabeth couldn't get past one thing - if she didn't try, the Simon she knew and loved might never exist. The very thought gave her a chill. It was bad enough to be fighting, to be afraid of losing him. But the idea of never even knowing him took her breath away.
The whole thing was hard to wrap her mind around. Time travel paradoxes and the endless possible permutations gave her that same glassy-eyed feeling she'd had in Mr. Talbot's calculus class. Things sort of made sense when she just let them come to her, but if she tried to hold onto something specific it squirted away like a greased pig at the county fair. In the end it didn't matter. No matter how hard she rubbed her brain cells together, her gut told her what she had to do.
According to Travers, Victor Graham was murdered sometime late Easter Sunday 1906. In, of all places, San Francisco. Why couldn't he be from Sheboygan? Travel back in time, stop a murder, and survive one of the worst earthquakes in history. Somehow she knew that would be easy-peasy lemon-squeezy compared to convincing Simon to go.
When she and Simon had first returned from 1929, she was as relieved as he was, what with them both nearly dying and all. But memory paints impressionistic portraits of the past, enhancing some images and blurring others. To her, the crucible didn't seem nearly as important as the things it forged-friendship, courage and love. But it had been traumatic. For both of them. Not to mention Simon's trust of the Council could fit inside a flea's belly button. Even though his own life might depend on it, she knew he'd resist.
To make matters worse, the clock was officially ticking. They had only two days until the eclipse that would allow the watch to take them back in time. She literally didn't have a minute to waste.
She pulled her Beetle up to the curb in front of Simon's place. She ignored her poor car's death rattle as it shook and shimmied before giving one last cough and shutting down. Anxious, but afraid of what might come, she looked out of the window and at Simon's house. The gentle glow of a single light from the study window filtered out into the quiet night making the house look like a dragon sleeping with one eye open. She tucked the folder under her arm. Time for a little slaying.
Clutching the file tightly, she walked up the dark path to Simon's house. She stumbled on an uneven cobblestone and swore under her breath. Even his house wasn't going to make this easy.
The door to his study stood ajar, the light jutting out in a sharp angle against the dark, hardwood floors. Gently, she pushed it open further. "Simon?"
Sitting forward in an overstuffed reading chair, his elbows resting on his knees, Simon stared down intently at his clasped hands. "Where have you been?"
For a split second, she felt her buttons being pushed, but she flipped the override switch and forged ahead. "You will not believe who I just talked to."
"Aumond?" he said, not bothering to hide his contempt.
"No," she said with a sigh. "I'm sorry about not discussing that with you sooner, but it doesn't matter."
He raised his head to meet her eyes. "It matters to me."
"I know, but..." she said and paced across the room. Now, this was a room built with a good pace in mind. "Aumond is small potatoes; we're talking the entire potato famine here."
"If you think I'm going to let what happened earlier go so easily..."
Elizabeth stopped pacing and turned to face him. Of course not. He wouldn't be Simon if he did. Soothing hurt feelings would have to wait though. She was going to bust if she didn't tell him what happened. "The Council came to see me."
Simon's head snapped back as if he'd been struck. He stared at her for a long moment before speaking in a voice that sounded like stone grinding against stone. "They what?"
"They came to-"
Simon surged out of his chair and was across the room and gripping her arms before she could finish her sentence. "You're to have nothing to do with them," he said fiercely. "Do you understand me?"
Elizabeth blinked in shock, before gathering her wits and wriggling out of his grasp. "I understand that you might seriously need some Valium," she said and massaged her arms. "What is the matter with you?"
Simon seemed to snap back to himself and then faltered. "I'm..."
"Slightly out of control?" She knew another parry was the wrong move. She needed to try to calm him and not provoke him, but the words spilled out.
They seemed to help him regain his footing. He fixed her with a piercing glare that held her more strongly than his hands ever could. "Don't ever speak to them again, Elizabeth. You have to promise me you won't."
"You don't even know what they asked me."
He turned quickly away and strode across the room, raking a hand through his hair. "It doesn't matter."
Had he lost the plot completely? Wasn't he even the least bit curious? "It does matter," she said with forced patience, before taking a breath. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. It matters a lot."
He stopped and stared at the far wall. "They'll just have to make do without your help."
Something didn't add up. She didn't expect him to take it in stride, but something wasn't right. "How did you know they wanted my help?" She felt the pang of a belatedly realized betrayal. Elizabeth tightened her grip on the folder and her surging anger. "They came to see you first, didn't they?"
Slowly, he turned around. "Yes, two days ago."
His frank admission, so matter of fact, stunned her. "And you were going to share this when?"
Oh, that was rich. "Wasn't irrelevant at lunch."
His eyes darted away from hers. "That was different."
The air was suddenly thick and heavy and impossible to breathe. The word hypocrite danced on the end of her tongue, but she forced it back down. They'd deal with that later. He'd survive that, but the Council's news was something else entirely. "What if everything they've said is true? Did you even consider that? Simon, your life is in danger."
"Did you even listen to what he had to say?"
"We've no reason to trust them," he said as though that answered her question.
Elizabeth huffed in disbelief. "We? I must have missed the 'we' part. Did that come before or after you decided what was best for me?"
"My grandfather died on one of their... missions," he said, practically spitting out the word. "Don't think that a day passes in my life when I don't remember how close I came to losing you. All because of that bloody Council. I'll be damned if I'll let it happen again."
"And I don't want to lose you!" Elizabeth took a deep breath and tried to calm down. "Would you at least listen to what I have to say?"
Simon rolled his shoulders and stalked to his desk. He planted himself in the chair and waved his hand giving her the floor. Only Simon could be completely accommodating and utterly condescending at the same time.
Not exactly a receptive audience, but at least he wasn't shouting anymore. Elizabeth gave him the Reader's Digest version of everything that Travers had told her.
When she was finished, Simon leaned back in his chair. "And why don't they send one of their own men? Why you?"
"They want someone outside of the Council. There's no telling how things have changed, how they might have been corrupted."
"No telling," Simon echoed. "Might have. A story spun of what-ifs and maybes."
He leaned forward, intense. "They're manipulating you."
That thought had crossed Elizabeth's mind. She really had no reason to trust the Council and several reasons not to. "Maybe they are."
Simon got out of his chair. "Finally, some sense."
Elizabeth smiled sadly. "But I'm not willing to risk the consequences if they're right."
"You're not doing this," Simon said.
The words were absolute, but she heard the doubt and fear inside them. "You can't control everything, Simon."
His hand sliced through the air. "It's not-Damn it." he said and let out a deep breath. "Elizabeth, if you love me-"
"I'm doing this because I love you, Simon. I had hoped that even if you didn't trust the Council, you'd trust me."
With that, she turned and walked out. If he had an answer he gave it to an empty room.
His moment's hesitation at her departing declaration had cost him dearly. By the time he'd gathered himself enough to follow her she was already gone. Simon spent the next few hours searching for her without any luck. None of her friends had heard from her. He'd gone to her apartment, the office, even the damn library, and she was nowhere to be found. Clearly didn't want to be found.
He slammed the front door behind him as he returned home. "Damn!"
Simon's fantasies of finding her and talking some sense into her were just that, fantasies. He could have tied her to the bedposts and she would have found a way to go.
It was folly, pure unadulterated idiocy, and exactly the sort of thing she was wont to do. He'd known it from the moment she'd mentioned the Council. And like a fool, he'd challenged her. Even if she wasn't intent on going before, she surely was now.
The grandfather clock in the hall chimed ominously, each resounding clang marking the time he'd wasted. A litany of invectives streamed behind him like a comet's tail as he walked into his study.
Why was she so reckless? So trusting? What could she be thinking? She'd run off and get herself killed. For what? Because the Council said they needed her help? It was idiocy. It was naïve. It was... He drew up short. It was love.
She was doing this insane thing out of love. When it came to that, there was no stopping her. He'd been a fool. Again. He should have stood with her. He'd been so afraid of losing her, he'd completely ignored the fact that she felt the same way. The last time he let his fear get the better of him he pushed her away and nearly lost her. And now, he'd done it again.
The weight of that revelation pushed him down into a chair. He leaned forward and clasped his hands.
He should have trusted her, but his overriding need to protect her had trumped his common sense. Not that she wanted his protection or needed it, but he felt compelled to give it nonetheless. Despite what she thought, it wasn't because he saw her as incapable and it certainly had nothing to do with her being a woman. It did, however, have everything to do with her being the woman he loved.
There was a life's breath in being with her that he couldn't live without. But if he kept pushing her away, if he kept standing in front of her instead of beside her, he would lose her.
She was willing to risk everything for him and he'd dismissed her feelings completely. He really was a selfish bastard and damn her she was going to save him whether he deserved it or not.
He stood and strode over to his desk. Perhaps it was time to start deserving it, he thought. The fragmented feeling of helplessness was abruptly replaced by the firm conviction of singleness of purpose. He wasn't going to waste the next two days in a fruitless search. If she didn't want to be found, and it was clear she didn't, he wouldn't be able to find her. But that wouldn't stop him. He'd be damned if he'd let her go alone. This time, though, he'd be prepared.
He turned on his blasted computer and pulled out his phonebook.
He remembered scant details from that blithering idiot Travers' tale to Elizabeth, but it was enough. It had to be enough. He remembered the date and location - April 9, 1906, San Francisco, just a little over one week before the catastrophic earthquake. That gave him pause. The San Francisco earthquake was nothing to be trifled with. If he remembered his history correctly, the quake was over 8.0 on the Richter scale and the fires that followed were even more devastating. He'd have to convince her to leave the city before then. A time and a place--not much to go on--but all he needed. Whatever Elizabeth was getting herself into, she wouldn't be in it alone and that was all that mattered.
He sat down in his desk chair and got to work.
Over the years he'd cultivated an extensive network of antiquity collectors and spent the next few hours waking, bullying and bribing them. The full complement of supplies had cost him an unconscionable sum, but he would have spent ten times that if needed. Money had never meant much to him, until he'd been forced to live without it. Traveling back in time to New York and living as a pauper had been an object lesson he wasn't soon to forget.
Antique national bank notes, the only reasonable currency of the time, with a face value of nearly ten thousand dollars were being sent by overnight courier. Explicit instructions had been given to his tailor. A suit appropriate for a wealthy man at the turn of the century with all accompanying accouterments would be ready by noon. No excess was too excessive. No expense too expensive. No possibility considered impossible. He'd even contacted the family solicitor and asked him to send a few important papers.
This time, he would arrive as a man of means. And those means had only one end-to do anything and everything to bring Elizabeth back safely.
By morning, Simon had completed all his preparations, save one. He was at the bank when it opened and accompanied the clerk to his safety deposit box. The teller placed the slender metal container on the table and left him to his privacy. The cyclone of manic planning dwindled until only an ill wind remained. When he'd put the watch away four months ago, he'd hoped it would be the last time he'd ever see it. Only an unbreakable allegiance to his grandfather had kept him from destroying it.
Slowly, he opened the lid to his own Pandora's box and a plague of personal demons was released. Picking up the watch, he held his only hope in his hand. The last time he'd held it, the watch had wielded him, controlled his fate. This time, he would wield it.
Simon tied the ivory cravat around his starched, white collar and looked at himself in the mirror. A gentleman of repute stared back. The tailor had outdone himself. Calfskin button boots settled just beneath the cheviot, dark grey twill of his trousers. A pristine, white shirt with stiff cuffs accented with sterling silver links stood out brightly against the pearl silk waistcoat and gloves.
Through his cutaway coat the money belt bulged above his hip, but there was nothing to be done for it. He'd been forced to acquire smaller denominations than he'd wanted and the result was an unseemly lump. Luckily, the weather in San Francisco hadn't changed in the last hundred years and his Chesterfield overcoat would still be de rigueur for early spring.
Money wasn't his only weapon, he thought as he slipped a 1905 Colt vest pocket pistol into his pocket. It was a small caliber gun, but the little magazine held six bullets. If he needed more than that, no gun, he feared, was going to be enough.
With only minutes to spare, he shrugged on his overcoat and pulled the felt-banded brim of his hat down. A spider's crawl of anticipatory dread inched up his spine, but he willed it away. Elizabeth needed him, whether she knew it or not, and he wasn't about to let her face whatever dangers awaited her alone. Armed with certitude of purpose, he opened the watchcase, stared down at the moon inset and waited.
He didn't have to wait long. The paralyzing, blue light sparked out of the watch and up his arm. The world around him shivered and he was plunged into darkness.
Elizabeth struggled against the strange disconnected feeling until she felt her head definitely connect with something. Something... leafy? Managing to right herself, she stared at the offending bush before remembering to check for any witnesses. Thankfully, she was alone. Very, very alone. Damn you, Simon.
She'd spent the last day and a half trying to soak up the reams of information Travers had given her and trying not to think about what she was leaving behind. Besides, if everything went well, it would be like she'd never left. Except for the arguing and gargantuan emotional chasm they'd have to cross. She'd leap the Great Divide when she came to it. Right now she had a job to do, a Simon to save and twigs to get out of her hair. So much for the two hours she'd spent wrangling it into her best Gibson Girl imitation.
Victor Graham was a wealthy businessman and that meant he traveled in elite circles. Travers had meticulously given her a crash course in Victorian and Edwardian society. Just the word society had been enough to make her pulse race. Living with Simon had given her a glimpse at how the better half lived, but they weren't exactly on the social circuit. The closest she'd ever gotten to consorting with the horsey set was getting tips from the touts at the track. She was part of the great unwashed and had the dirt on her cheek to prove it. Thank God, Travers had insisted she stuff that kerchief into her sleeve. She glanced quickly around and spit into it before wiping her cheek.
A smooth start. Taking a header into a hedge and spitting. Her head pounded and her stomach was a little wiggly, but it was a heck of a lot better than the headbanger's ball she'd suffered through last time. Taking a deep breath she felt her ribs squish her innards.
The corset she could have done without. Torquemada had nothing on whatever sadist invented it. Compressing her breasts into some sort of one-eyed, monobosom monster, squeezing the life out of her stomach and thrusting her hips backward, it successfully contorted her body into what society of the early twentieth century deemed an acceptable shape. It was all she could do not to rip the dang laces and start the bra-burning age a few decades early.
Not being able to breathe was the least of her worries. She'd managed to arrive without passing out. Point one for her, although, she hadn't managed to move from that spot. Quickly, she took stock of her surroundings. Large oak trees canopied expansive, outlandishly colorful flowerbeds. Flaming oranges and deep reds swirled in complicated patterns amongst a vibrant purple like some tapestry gone mad. Enclosing the entire thing was a large, boxwood hedge, with whom she was already well acquainted.
This looked like the right place. Travers had said that if everything went well she'd arrive in the garden of Mrs. Eldridge's safe house. It was secluded from the street, thanks to her friend the hedge, and she could appear without scaring the living bejesus out of anyone. Herself notwithstanding.
Satisfied she was in one piece, and having stalled longer than was necessary, Elizabeth took a well-measured breath and headed for the front path. All she had to do was utter the simple code phrase Travers had given her and Mrs. Eldridge would give her whatever else she needed.
As she edged up the walkway, the mansion loomed even larger. Gothic and imposing. Steeply pitched gables and sharp arched windows made it look more like a cathedral than a home. The fleeting image of being held prisoner inside one of the pinnacle towers flashed in her mind. But she was no Rapunzel and her knight currently had his head up his ass. Just as she was having serious second thoughts, the front door opened and a young man and an elderly woman stepped out onto the porch.
"I'll be sure to give Mother your regards." The young man bounded down the stairs and nearly crashed into Elizabeth. "I beg your pardon," he said quickly taking off his goggles and cap. "Are you all right?"
"I'm...I'm fine," Elizabeth managed. "Thank you."
He smiled disarmingly. "The thanks is all mine," he said and then turned back to the elderly woman. "Where have you been keeping her?"
The woman, who simply had to be Mrs. Eldridge, lifted her pince-nez and arched an eyebrow. "In the garden, it appears."
The young man turned back to her and laughed. "You have," he said and waved a hand in the general direction of her hair, "an intruder."
Elizabeth patted at her hair.
"If you'd allow me?" he asked, and before she could protest, plucked a leaf from her hair.
"That was embarrassing," Elizabeth mumbled.
He turned on that smile of his again. "I think it was rather becoming. And I'll cherish it always," he said as he stuffed the leaf into his breast pocket. "Maxwell Alexander Harrington the Third, your humble servant," he added with a bow.
The older woman sighed and lowered her glasses. "You are incorrigible."
"You'll have to forgive me," he said, not taking his eyes off Elizabeth. "Love does strange things to a man."
"Ignore him," the woman said. "Riding in that new motorcar of his has scrambled his brain."
For a long moment, he didn't react, just simply stared at Elizabeth. It should have been discomfiting, but he exuded an earnestness no amount of brashness could cover. Handsome by any standards, he was the very definition of the All-American Boy--tall, easily over six feet, sun-streaked hair and a dimple in his chin you could crawl inside.
"And your manners," the older woman prompted. "How you could possibly be a relation of mine is beyond me."
"She's my distant aunt," he said by way of explanation.
"And growing more distant with every passing moment."
Elizabeth liked her immediately. She was Helen Hayes with attitude. "I didn't mean to interrupt."
She waved her hand dismissively. "No, no. Maxwell was just leaving. What can I do for you, dear?"
Elizabeth's throat went dry. This was the moment of truth. "Mr. Holland sent me."
A brief flicker of surprise and then recognition crossed the woman's face before she smiled as though Elizabeth had just complimented her prized petunias. "Oh, isn't that lovely," she said coming down a few steps and holding out her hand. "I haven't heard from him in ages. Won't you come inside dear and you can tell me how everyone's doing?"
Just like that Elizabeth was being shuttled into the house.
"Another of your secret liaisons, Aunt Lillian?" Max said trailing behind.
Mrs. Eldridge never stopped escorting Elizabeth inside and merely said over her shoulder, "Goodbye, Maxwell," and promptly shut the door behind them. Once they were a few feet into the entry hall she squeezed Elizabeth's arm gently. "Welcome to 1906, dear."