If she were caught—caught doing what she’d promised to give up—what would the cost be? Too high. Oh, but the need. The need itched across her skin, jerked her fingers toward her phone. Outside a stacked-stone Welsh church in Flintshire, Katy Tolson snugged her pashmina scarf tighter against the pine-scented October breeze whipping through their tour group and across the rocky terrain. Ruining our bachelorette vacation, my butt. Maybe just a quickie? Katy slipped her phone from her coat pocket and clutched her connection to the world—to her wedding preparations. Restricting herself to five uses a day? Not possible. But if her bridesmaids caught her with her phone for, okay, the umpteenth time, they might make good on their threat of a penis piñata. Katy had managed to make her bridesmaids behave during their week-long trip, but only because she’d promised they could do the traditional wild party on the last night. And that was tomorrow. The trade-off was, for every illicit phone use on Katy’s part, they got to add something tacky or outrageous to the night’s festivities. The rest of the group stared down a stone well. Ha, her chance at last. She slipped around the church’s corner and pulled out her phone, thumbs flying across the keyboard, the relief at being able to take care of tiny details poignant. At the next corner, she pulled up short.
A dark-haired man, dressed in form-fitting coat and pants—as if he were an extra in a Jane Austen movie—leaned against a headstone, his back to her. A tour guide? Grief hunched his shoulders, a spray of violets clutched in his gloved hand. He turned slightly, revealing glasses perched on a handsome face. He pulled a small object from the inside of his coat and extracted a small card from it. He kissed the card and placed it on the headstone, his fingers tapping it several times. His head jerked up. Had she made a noise? She flattened against the wall just before his bespectacled gaze swept by her. She cast her gaze skyward. Why the heck was she hiding from the guy? She peeked around the corner. Air shimmered around his form, the autumn leaves and crumbling headstones in his vicinity wavy and ultra-saturated with color, as if she were looking into a water tank.
Uh, yeah. That wasn’t normal. What the hell? Pop. The air compressed, and the minor concussive force pushed her back, her elbow scraping against the stone wall. Everything within a foot of the figure pinched to a small point and then flashed bright. An object, glinting silver in the afternoon sun, dropped from the flash point and landed with a bounce and a dull clunk. The man was gone. As in—Not. There. Anymore.
Her mind seized up at the impossibility even as she staggered down the slight incline and slid, leaves scrunching and scattering, her heart beating in what-the-heck spurts. He had to be there. Fallen behind a headstone, head bashed in and bleeding. Or something. The murky sun glinted off a smallish metallic object nestled between two moss-covered rocks. But no Austen-dressed man. She picked up the object, the metal warm against her skin, a tiny stream of energy surging into her body like an aftershock. Her pulse missed a beat and skittered onward with a reverberating thunkthunk. Because the object she held—no bigger than her palm—looked like Isabelle’s calling card case, the one that for some woo-woo-weird reason allowed her friend to time travel on nothing but a wish. Four months ago, Isabelle had made a careless wish to visit 1834 London on a case such as this.
And had. And stayed. Damn her. Katy turned the case around. It lacked the engraved monogram. So, not the same case. Katy did a quick pivot. Still no one near. She pinched the button on the side of the case and eased it open. Hand-engraved calling cards clustered inside with just one line: Mr.
Bartram Podbury, esq. Podbury. Podbury. Definitely familiar. A connection to Isabelle, said a little niggle in her gut. Or was it only the eerie similarity of their cases and the dark-haired man disappearing? Disappearing in a flash of light. The hairs on the back of her neck rose as if to say, pay attention. Katy rifled through the cards, but nothing else materialized. She surveyed the headstone. A turtledove cocked its head, flicked its mottled brown feathers, and lifted into the air with a parting whistle-tweet.
One of Mr. Podbury’s cards fluttered to the ground in its wake. “Katy!” She whipped her head up. Traci waved from the church. “You’re missing the tour.” Drat. And she hadn’t texted the florist. Katy tucked the case into her coat pocket and climbed up the hill. “And I see your phone.” Traci smiled, mischievousness lending it a sharp edge.
“That’s one for me tomorrow night.” “But I wasn’t using my—” She looked down. Dang. It was there, in her hand still. Traci rubbed her hands, plotting already, no doubt. Great. The penis piñata. Katy tucked her phone into her purse and shuffled behind the rest of the dozen-odd members of the tour group into the church, kinda stunned she wasn’t babbling about the disappearing man. The cool air embraced her with its smell of dry stone and stillness. She fell in with her bridesmaids in front of the elderly lady—their guide around St.
Cefnogwr’s Church. Dammit. The colorful local legends had enticed her, but now her need to focus on all the wedding details overshadowed the charm. She wasn’t even going to think about Mr. Podbury right now. Could she sneak her phone out? No. Traci had magic eyes in the back of her head. Magic Iknow-what-you’re-planning, witchy eyes. Katy followed the others down the central aisle, probably no longer than a tennis court. “Come on, come on, come on.
” Just one chance to sneak a text out. The stretches in between uses felt like she was free floating…and not in a good way. Tethered. She needed to be tethered. Katy judged the distance to the side door—twenty some-odd steps—and the likelihood of escape. Yeah, none. She peeked at Traci, whose casual lean against a pew while twirling her dark hair, gaze locked on hers, didn’t fool Katy; her friend was wise to her plan, damn her. They reached the east side, and the weak sunlight through the multicolored glass bathed the dark recess in an otherworldly glow. Everyone stilled. Their shuffling feet stilled.
Even the air stilled. A chill skittered down Katy’s spine. A church-going chick she was not, but it was moments like this when something unexplainable seeped in and tugged her. The guide waved toward a white marble figure of a knight lying on a stone slab, the muted jewel tones from the stained glass windows shifting across the surface. “Here before you lies the memorial to St. Cefnogwr, though he is not buried here, of course.” At her words, an uncanny knowing flushed through Katy and, crazy-of-crazy, transfixed her. “Why? Where is he?” Traci stepped forward, hand on her hip. A you’re-right-on-cue look crossed the guide’s face. She pointed to the ceiling.
Traci scoffed. “I meant, where’s the body?” Her American southern accent lent a strange contrast to her skepticism. Again, the tour guide’s arthritic finger pointed upward, and a smile tugged at her lips, the smokers’ wrinkles on her upper lip smoothing out. “That’s the miracle that made him a saint, you see. Throughout the twelve hundreds, the Welsh struggled to maintain our independence from the English. During Madog’s Rebellion in 1294, St. Cefnogwr, a noble Norman-English knight, turned against his liege lord and sided with the Welsh—” “Norman-English?” Katy frowned, her voice raspy in her dry throat. “Why would a Norman have a Welsh name and side with the Welsh?” She might be an American, but her years living in England had taught her that was unusual. “The English nicknamed him. It means ‘sympathizer’ in Welsh.
The knight was captured and, for his crime, sentenced to hang. As he swung, the rope creaking in the crowd’s silence, an angel of mercy swooped down and—” She clapped her hands in one decisive smack, and everyone jumped. “The rope dangled empty, free of its burden. Proof, we say, of his noble cause. He’s been venerated ever since as a Welsh hero.” Another chill danced over Katy’s skin. A chill that flashed warm as the story seeped into her. Familiar. Achingly familiar. Unease followed—this existential stuff was so not her.
“His rescue by an angel was enough to make him a saint?” ever-practical Traci asked. “Unofficially. The Welsh named him one, and eventually it became a fait accompli. Now, please follow me.” The tour guide stepped toward a side door. Katy let the others pass and approached the knight covered in chainmail and other medievallooking doodads. Only his face peeked out from a tight-fitting, chainmail hoodie-thing. One hand gripped a shield, the other, a sword. She touched his straight nose, the marble a cool kiss against her finger. So.
This person had lived about seven hundred years ago. His angular features were starkly masculine. Probably had women admiring them in the flesh. Had he loved? An odd…void bloomed within, tugging at her, as if it were the absence of a feeling seeking wholeness. Evidence of past lives frozen in time always made her feel…disconnected. Disconnected and disturbed. Unable to grasp some larger meaning. Especially since Isabelle was in the past now too, instead of here as her maid of honor. She traced along the knight’s torso, the bumps from the carved chainmail teasing her fingers. “The tour group is getting on the bus.
Hurry.” Traci’s voice came from the door. “Coming.” One last glance at her knight. Katy ran a finger down his strong nose again. “Bye,” she whispered. That night in the B&B, Katy sat on her bed, feet tucked under her, and caught herself staring. At the white lace curtain. Sure, it was a nice curtain, but… She sighed. That damn knight still cluttered her thoughts.
She’d been happily annotating her mini Erica Conklin date planner with notes about tomorrow, and then her memory flashed to the sight of her finger brushing down his nose, the cool feel of the stone. Thoughts strayed from there and…yeah, the curtain. She straightened and pulled the stack of Isabelle’s letters into her lap. In the privacy of her room, she’d already taken care of any texts she needed to send, and her day tomorrow was reviewed. Washi tape lay scattered in multicolored disarray around her. Now she had time to satisfy her curiosity about Mr. Podbury. Maybe that would take her mind off that stupid knight. “Isabelle. Why did you go back? Why did you go back and stay?” Her whispered question was drowned by the night traffic and low hum of the Welsh town of Corwen seeping through her window.
It was the why—the why—that always eluded her. So much so, she had brought the letters with her, creased and crinkled and coffee-stained from constantly scouring them for a clue to her friend’s…madness. And she scoured them again for mention of Mr. Podbury of the silver case, and bingo—he was the funny guy Isabelle had met in 1834 researching time travel at the Royal Society. Katy couldn’t help it, she shuffled to the last letter and bit her lip, sadness curling through her. She’d received it a month ago, along with ten others in one batch. One batch that represented the rest of her best friend’s life, delivered without fanfare three months after Isabelle had abandoned Katy, abandoned her exciting career, abandoned her own time, and gone to live with this Lord Montagu. Barclay’s Bank had called, the attendant no longer surprised she had time-dated material from the nineteenth century left in trust for her in their vaults. As with the first batch, Isabelle had planned it well, bequeathing the contents of her safety deposit box to whomever lived at a particular address at a particular time—which just happened to be Katy’s. A Time Capsule Experiment, it had been called in the papers, and she’d had to deal with some publicity, but when she’d revealed it was only letters, interest vanished.
To the odd museum curator who inquired, she’d endured their blistering you’re-aheathen stares when she said she’d destroyed them. She fingered the wooden object that had arrived with the packet of letters, its smooth surface, its carved lines calling to her. She read the final letter. Again. The ending she almost had memorized: …I found the item in the accompanying box at a little curiosity shop in Wales. Go ahead and open it. Okay. Isn’t it just too cute? Phin wondered why I’d become so attached to “an old wooden bird,” but the carving, while not artistically perfect, I thought captured the essence of a small bird in flight. For some reason, the bird reminded me of you, so now you have it. The shopkeeper claims it’s from the Middle Ages, but I’ve found antiquity dealers notoriously unscrupulous.
With this gift, I’m also saying goodbye. I realized that continuing to write letters to you about my happenings here and how things go on, wouldn’t be fair to you. All at once you’d receive the whole of my life. I’d rather you keep thinking of me living my life here at the same time you’re there. And I’ve never regretted going back in time. May you find happiness, my friend. Love, Belle The hand-carved bird had spoken to Katy, though. It was the main reason she’d picked Wales for her bachelorette trip. She lay back on the bed with a sigh and, unbidden, the warrior-saint from the church filled her thoughts.