Yesterday & Forever
May 12, 1995
The swans glided silently by the daffodils, the regal bearing of the birds a complementary contrast to the sunny flowers nodding enthusiastically in the breeze. It was a scene to delight an impressionist. . . Monet or Renoir. A setting bucolic and serene.
“Too damn serene, if you ask me,” Maggie Masterson muttered under her breath, and surveyed her surroundings through narrowed eyes hidden by dark glasses. She slumped lower on the wood-slatted garden bench and closed her eyes against the tranquil sight.
An arrow flashed by her cheek.
A flurry of arrows shrieked past her, scattering hapless swans. Tourists screamed and scrambled in their panicked efforts to escape the sudden onslaught. Maggie bolted upright and whirled to face the scene behind her
An army of archers advanced from the dark shelter of the trees, the sea of bodies broken only by men on horseback clad in shining armor. Maggie clambered to stand on the bench and boldly faced the oncoming hordes.
From nowhere, an ebony stallion charged, reared, and pawed the air. Sunlight glinted off the silvered armor of the knight astride the magnificent beast. She shielded her eyes against the glare. A crimson plume thrust jauntily above his helmet was bent double from the force of the wind of his charge. The black steed thundered toward her, halting mere inches from where she stood. Maggie refused to so much as flinch.
The knight tore his helmet from his head and flung it to the ground. His tousled blond hair fell in joyous abandon around a strong, bronzed face. Mahogany eyes gleamed above a roguish smile.
“Lady Margaret, it has been a long time.”
She raised a curt brow. “Indeed it has, Sir Cedric.”
The corners of his lips quirked upward. “Have you been waiting long?”
“Practically forever.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “What kept you?”
He shrugged as best he could in the rigid armor. “Oh, this and that. Slaying dragons, rescuing damsels, and of course there were the Crusades.”
“Of course.” She nodded, mollified by his response. “Well, at least you’re here now.” She reached her arms out to him. With one powerful motion he swept her up and set her before him on the charger. “Cedric!” She shivered. “Your armor’s so cold.’”
His eyes twinkled down at her. “Indeed, my lady, but beneath this frigid steel beats a heart aflame with desire for you.”
“Oh, good line, Cedric.” She gave him an admiring glance.
“Thank you,” he said modestly.
Maggie snuggled closer to the unyielding armor, hard and cold beneath her head. She shifted with discomfort. Her head slipped lower. Abruptly, she jerked upright.
The swans floated undisturbed, their surroundings still placid and peaceful. Maggie brushed her dark hair away from her face and sighed. That was some daydream, complete with a knight in shining armor, no less. She’d never had a fantasy like that before. Her lips curled in a rueful grin. But Sir Cedric was definitely something to dream about.
She gathered up the assorted traveling paraphernalia that had fallen out of her tote bag and hoisted herself to her feet. Her gaze fell once again on the innocent swans and she studied the birds thoughtfully. Why did the beautiful creatures irritate her so much? They were completely inoffensive, harming no one, simply drifting with whatever current came . . .
That was it, she realized with a mental snap of her fingers. The birds simply drifted aimlessly, with no purpose. Exactly how her sister, Kiki, described Maggie when she’d insisted her younger sibling accompany her to London.
Kiki. Petite, pretty, and damn near perfect, she was a free-lance photographer with an international reputation and little patience for a sister with no particular direction in life and no apparent ambition to change.
“Come on, Maggs,” Kiki had said a short month ago. “You don’t have any real focus in your life. You’re twenty-six, and you still don’t know what you want to do when you grow up. Take that job of yours. I thought it was going to be temporary.”
“It was.” Maggie shrugged. “But it kind of grew on me.”
“I’ll say. You’ve been doing it now for three years. Maggs, you majored in art. You have a real gift for oils and watercolor. You’re wasting all that talent in a job designing labels for canned fruit.”
“I’ll have you know it takes a lot of skill to make sliced peaches look good enough to eat,” Maggie said in halfhearted defense. She grinned sheepishly at her sister’s concerned expression. “Maybe I’m just not cut out for a career. Maybe I just want to find Mr. Right and be a stay—at-home wife and mother.”
Kiki sighed. “Fine. Whatever makes you happy. Anything would be better than nothing. You’re just—”
“I know, I know,” Maggie said. “Drifting, I’m just drifting. I appreciate the concern, really I do, but I have to run my own life.” She threw up her hands helplessly. “Even if I’m not exactly sure how.”
Kiki shook her head in a vague gesture of resignation. “Well, at least come with me to London. You can get away and do some serious thinking. We’ll spend two weeks there, then I have a job a few hours away. We can stay together or split up. What do you say?”
Maggie knew from the beginning she didn’t have a choice. If Kiki wanted her to go to London, she’d surely be on the next plane. Their relationship was that simple. Kiki had been mother and father to her since their parents died in a car accident ten years ago.
Still, it annoyed her that her sister, a mere six years older, insisted on controlling her life. But Maggie loved her too much to put up more than a token fight and hated to let her down. She suspected the way she lived her life did just that. Worst of all, Kiki was right. Maggie knew it long before her sister made it an issue.
Maggie kicked the pebbles at the water’s edge. All her life she’d sensed something missing. But what? That was the big question. What did she want? A home and family? A solid career? Success? Love? Maggie had never even championed a cause. A heavy sigh slid from her heart and escaped through her lips. She just didn’t know; she only hoped she’d recognize it when she found it. Whatever “it” turned out to be.
“Maggie.” Kiki’s voice intruded on her soul searching. Maggie turned toward the tiny, energetic blonde approaching at full speed. “I’ve seen enough botanical gardens for one day. How about you?”
“Oh yeah. I’ve pretty much had my fill.”
Kiki grinned at the sarcasm in Maggie’s tone. “Great. We’ve got to get going if we want to catch the next train back to London. If we don’t make it, we’ll lose our dinner reservations.”
“Reservations.” Maggie groaned. “Can’t we just get takeout pizza or something? I’m beat, exhausted, ready to drop. Why can’t we do something that requires less effort than a restaurant? I’m not even hungry.” She turned her best give-me-mercy expression to her lively sister.
Kiki ignored the familiar look and propelled Maggie to the garden’s main gate. “Has your big sister worn you out?”
“Yes, yes, I give up.”
“Sorry, sweetie, I promised some friends we’d meet them. After dinner, you can go right back to the hotel and collapse. I promise. But right now get your rear in gear and get going. I don’t want to miss that train.”
“Great.” Maggie heaved a heartfelt sigh and dragged after her sister.
Maggie had to admit, once again, Kiki was right. The food was wonderful and the restaurant had the kind of atmosphere and old-world charm you could have featured on a postcard. Even Kiki’s sophisticated friends were fun. Still, Maggie passed on plan to sample London’s nightlife in favor of returning to her hotel room and bed.
Outside the restaurant, she glanced up and down the quiet, almost residential street. If the restaurant was the epitome of London, so, too, was this night. Mist swirled around her ankles in damp clouds. Mysterious, romantic, and more than a little lonely.
“Never a cab around when you need one,” she said with resignation.
“Beggin’ your pardon, miss.” A quiet, scratchy voice intruded on her thoughts. Startled, Maggie swiveled around. A horse and antique carriage was parked on the street nearly beside her.
“Where the hell did that come from?” She could have sworn the carriage wasn’t there a minute ago.
“Sorry if’n I startled you, miss.” The owner of the voice was poised on a leather covered bench high behind the horse, looking much as he sounded: elderly, wizened, and tiny, more gnome than man.
Maggie shook her head at the fanciful idea. But what better addition to a foggy night in London than an ancient, slightly mystical old man who looked as if he possessed the wisdom of the ages?
“That’s okay, I just didn’t see you. I must be more tired than I thought. Have you been here long?”
“A long time, miss, a very long time. This be my route, ye see. And you’re lookin’ like ye need a ride.” Nimbly, the gnome jumped from his perch, landing lightly by Maggie’s side. Minuscule and weathered, he seemed more like a wooden carving than a living, breathing being.
Vivid blue eyes guarded by bushy, white eyebrows surfaced amid a sea of leathered wrinkles, all crowned by a wreath of snowy curls. His clothes were old-fashioned and well worn, pants sewn from some kind of homespun material, shirt loose and flowing, covered by a soft leather vest. To Maggie’s not so critical eye he looked authentic, although she had no idea what period of British history he was made up for. History never was one of her strong suits.
“I was looking for a cab. I want to go back to my hotel.”
“Need a rest, do ye? Ain’t nothin’ more restful than a ride in me carriage.” The gnome offered his hand in a gallant gesture.
Maggie hesitated a moment. “Why not?” She smiled, accepting his warm and surprisingly steady hand. “After all, I’m in London. It’s a Sherlock Holmes kind of night. I might as well take advantage of it and get the full effect.”
The gnome helped her step into the carriage. She snuggled into the worn, tufted seats, the sharp smell of leather and the pungent scent of horse tickling her nose.
“Besides,” she said as the gnome climbed up to his post in front of her, “you just don’t know when a chance like this will come your way again, do you?”
“No, miss.” He clicked his tongue. The horse pricked up his ears and the carriage started off. “Ye never know with chances and choices.” He paused as if considering his words. “I hear folks say destiny is a matter O’ choice, not chance. But mebee it’s a little bit 0′ both. Ye never know what might be ahead when ye hit a fork in the road. Take the safe choice and mebee ye’d be passin’ up somethin’ special, somethin’ ye cain’t name, but somethin’ ye know is missin’. Then mebee that’s the time to take a chance. Take a path ye wouldn’t take otherwise and mebee, just mebee, that’s destiny. But ye see,” he said with a chuckle, “I’m jist talkin’ about a carriage ride, o’course.”
“Of course.” His words mulled though her mind and the setting spurred her imagination: the soupy London night, a carriage ride, and an ageless philosopher.
Something was definitely missing in her life, and this gnome spoke about that very thing. Weird. More than likely his speech was a standard spiel to enthrall unsuspecting tourists. Still . . . it was a little spooky, and a little thrilling, and more than enough to make Maggie glad she hadn’t passed up this particular fork.
She smiled and relaxed against the carriage seat. The fog drifted closer, deeper, a blanket around her. The carriage rattled slowly through the shrouded streets, the moist, heavy cloud growing thicker, growing closer.
Maggie frowned, a twinge of unease trickling through her. “Is the weather getting worse? Is it always this bad?”
“It’s typical, miss, jist typical. It’s always like. . . every time. . . . “
His voice faded in the mist, his soothing tones reassuring. The gentle rocking of the carriage lulled her, and her eyes slipped closed. Without warning, a sudden jerk brought her fully to her senses.
“What’s going on?” Had they been hit by a car? Panic gripped her stomach and she tried to pull herself to her feet. She screamed but couldn’t hear the sound of her own voice. A rushing roar, like an approaching train, filled her ears. Wasn’t that the same kind of noise tornado victims reported hearing? Was this some kind of freak storm? An accident? She could see nothing through the white, swirling clouds.
A jarring wrench tossed her off balance and propelled Maggie helplessly through the air. She barreled into a firm, solid object. The sharp impact knocked her breath away. Her head smacked a hard surface. Searing pain ripped a scream from her throat.
Then. . . nothing.
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