Braden took a hackney to the university, telling the driver to crack on. His colleague, Dr. John Blackmore, was giving a lecture on the latest developments in managing difficult pregnancies, and now he’d be lucky if he caught the tail end of it—thanks to Logan reading him the riot act.
He paid the driver and hurried upstairs to the east side of the university, a three-story building with massive columns framing the doors. Although most of his day was usually spent at the Royal Infirmary, Braden kept a small office at the college for study and meeting with his students. He also assisted John, a senior professor with specialties in midwifery and infectious diseases. John had taken Braden under his wing, and in those four years, he’d taught Braden as much as almost all his professors combined.
He’d become a damn good friend, too, and probably understood Braden better than his own family did.
He sidestepped a rush of black-gowned students coming out of the lecture hall, enthusiastically discussing the lecture they’d just heard. Then he made his way down the narrow center aisle, past rows of writing tables and chairs, to meet John.
“There you are,” his mentor said as he packed away his instruments. “I’m sorry you missed the lecture. We had quite a lively discussion afterwards.”
“My sincere regrets, but I had my own lecture and discussion at Heriot Row. And there are no short discussions in my family.”
John’s incisive gaze flickered over him. “About another late night in Old Town, I suppose, and your brother didn’t approve. You’re looking rather worn around the edges, Braden. Was it a difficult case?”
“Actually, no. It’s what happened afterwards that was tricky.”
“Ah, a mystery, then. You can tell me all about it as we walk to my office. You look like you could use a strong cup of tea—or coffee.”
“I wouldn’t say no to either.”
They headed down the long corridor toward the professors’ rooms, Braden keeping pace with the older man’s long stride. Although well into his forties, John had as much strength and energy as a man half his age. Unlike many other successful physicians, John refused to go soft, as he dismissively called it.
John’s devotion to his patients and his work was superseded only by his devotion to his wife and daughter. As a mentor, Braden couldn’t have picked a better man. As a role model—one who easily seemed to manage both his personal and professional lives—he found John a bit daunting.
Now that he thought of it, he was rather like Braden’s older brothers, who were equally successful in work and in love. It was a formula he’d never been able to crack.
“What’s wrong?” John quietly asked.
Braden dredged up a smile. “Nothing. Just a bit tired.”
“You know, it won’t do your patients any good if you fall ill from lack of rest.”
“Nonsense. I have the constitution of a sewer rat.”
His friend snorted. “I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
“It is for a doctor who works in Old Town.”
John put out a hand to stop a passing college porter and ordered coffee. Then he unlocked his office door and waved Braden in.
As a dean and supervising physician at the Infirmary, John had one of the largest offices in the college. Sturdy bookshelves, packed with hundreds of volumes as well as glass jars containing medical specimens and botanical compounds, lined two of the walls right up to the wood-paneled ceiling. A polished oak table, piled high with books, stood in front of a tiled fireplace, and a large writing desk, cubbyholes stuffed with papers, was positioned in front of the window for maximum light.
John quickly stirred up the banked fire while Braden sank into the leather club chair in front of the desk. Foggy tendrils weaved through his brain. He straightened his spine, refusing to give into the urge to let his eyelids drift shut.
“Coffee should be up in a few minutes,” John said as he settled behind his desk. “That’ll put some life into you. I’m afraid you look rather like hell.
“You’d look like hell, too, if you were set upon by one idiot with a machete and another idiot with a club.”
His friend jerked upright. “Good Lord. Did they actually get a hand on you?” He leaned forward over his desk. “Do I need to examine you for injuries?”
“Och, you’re as bad as my family. I escaped, and I’m fine.”
“So, it was a robbery attempt?”
Braden shook his head. “Only in part. Do you remember Naomi Parson? It was a near thing with her, as I’m sure you recall.”
“Yes, a miscarriage. It was a very distressing situation. Her husband blamed you for encouraging Naomi to go to the—” Understanding dawned, and John’s gray gaze turned stormy. “Bloody hell. Don’t tell me the villain tracked you down for revenge?”
“Yes, and he brought a jolly friend with a machete along with him.”
“Were you armed?”
“Only with a knife.”
John’s frown turned disapproving. “Braden, I think it’s time you carried a pistol with you in Old Town, especially at night.”
“Yes. That oversight will be corrected forthwith, I promise.”
“See that it is. So, how did you manage to escape?”
“I whacked Parson in the face with my medical kit and then ran like hell.”
John choked out a surprised laugh. “Thank God for quick thinking.”
Braden tapped his skull. “Unlike my brothers, I prefer to use brains over brawn.”
“I find that’s usually best.”
After knocking on the door, the porter entered with a coffee service and a plate of scones.
“You may leave it on my desk,” John said. “I’ll pour.”
“Just coffee, thanks,” Braden said, after the porter left. “Sugar and cream will do nicely.”
“You should eat,” John said. “You’re beginning to look like one of the skeletons in the anatomy classroom.”
“Thank you for that charming comparison. And while I might not be a brick wall like my brothers, I’m lean and I’m quick. Which does come in handy when running away from armed morons.”
“That’s one advantage, I suppose.” John frowned. “You’re fortunate to have been able to get away from them.”
“Yes, but there’s more to the story,” Braden replied after a gulp of the hot brew. “That’s what I wanted to speak with you about.”
John let out a sigh. “So there is trouble. I do believe you’re as bad as your brothers, after all.”
“That is literally impossible, at least according to any normal law of nature.”
John twirled an impatient hand. “What happened?”
“I only escaped because I was rescued by a young lady.”
“One of the Old Town girls?” John shot him a quizzical look. “I know a number of them carry knives, but against two armed men?”
His friend often provided free medical services to the prostitutes who plied their trade in Old Town. He and his wife, Bathsheba, made a point of helping vulnerable women who were forced to support themselves on the streets.
“No, this woman had an armed manservant with her, and she also carried a very lethal blade concealed in a walking stick.” He shook his head at the memory of her impressive skills. “And let me say that she knew how to use it.”
“That’s not even the oddest part. Neither she nor her companion uttered a single word at any time. They simply rousted the villains and quickly escorted me back to safety.”
John had been about to take a sip from his cup, but put it down. “They said nothing at all?”
“Not a word. They did, however, communicate using hand gestures.”
“You mean like sign language?”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about.”
John’s sister-in-law, Rachel Compton, was an accomplished young woman of twenty-four. She was also profoundly deaf. Rachel was part of the reason John had accepted the position in Edinburgh in the first place. One of the first schools for those who were deaf had been founded in the city, run by excellent teachers who’d helped develop a standardized language of signing. Rachel had proved such a capable student that she’d recently taken up a position as a teacher at a new school in London.
“Describe their signs,” John tersely said.
Braden mentally frowned at his friend’s odd tone, but then he gave a quick run through of events, and as much detail as he could remember about the mystery couple’s communication.
“So,” he said when he’d finished his description, “does that sound like the system taught at the school in Edinburgh?”
John spread his hands flat on his desk and stared at them for several long moments. “Possibly. What happened after your attackers fled?”
“My rescuers escorted me out to Cowgate. When the night watchman approached, they promptly retreated.” Braden held up a finger. “Back the way we came, I might add.”
John’s eyebrows shot up. “Back into the slums?”
“Good God,” his friend muttered.
“Yes.” Braden waited for several seconds while John stared down at his hands. “So, what do you think?”
John’s gaze flickered up. “About what?”
“Was it sign language or not?”
“Obviously, since they were using it to communicate.” When Braden raised his eyebrows, John grimaced. “Sorry, but you have to admit that it’s a bizarre story.”
“That’s putting it mildly, especially since they were clearly disguised and ready for trouble.”
“Or looking for it,” John said in a thoughtful tone.
Braden snorted. “And they found it.”
Again, John seemed lost in thought—and not happy ones, from the looks of it. Then he seemed to shrug it off, and he reached for the coffeepot.
“I can’t say if it was a system of signing that they invented themselves, which is entirely possible, or if it’s a standardized form. I know that’s not very helpful, but there it is.”
As Braden studied his friend’s austere expression, he was unable to shake the feeling that his friend was . . . lying? But that didn’t track. The man was all but incapable of lying, and was sometimes blunt to the point of rudeness, if necessary.
Something was definitely off.
John calmly sipped his coffee, as if they’d just been discussing a mildly interesting medical case and not a bizarre and dangerous encounter in the slums.
“I suppose it will have to remain a mystery, then,” Braden finally said.
“Apparently. By the way, I’ve got an interesting proposal for you.”
The abrupt transition confirmed that something indeed wasn’t right. But if John didn’t wish to talk about it, applying pressure would be fruitless.
For the moment, Braden decided to let it go. “A proposal about what?”
“You know of my work with the Penwith Philanthropic Foundation.”
“I do. I’ve always wondered how you fit it in on top of all your other work.”
“About the same way you fit in your free clinic on top of your other duties,” John noted.
“I don’t run two university departments, nor do I have your schedule of duties at the Infirmary. Not to mention a wife and a daughter.”
John smiled. “Bathsheba and Mary make everything better, but your point is valid. I do need help.”
“Do you need me to squeeze some blunt out of Logan for you?”
“No, although I will keep that in mind during our next round of fundraising.”
“As you know, the foundation runs an orphanage for boys and a charity school for girls.”
Braden nodded. “It was founded by the Penwith family some years ago, was it not?”
“Correct, although only one member of the family is currently involved—Lady Samantha Penwith.”
Braden rifled his mental files. “She’s a widow, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she’s Roger Penwith’s widow. He set up the foundation and ran it until his unfortunate demise. Have you ever met Lady Samantha?”
“You know I’m not one for socializing.”
Braden was all but allergic to the Edinburgh social scene. Parties bored the hell out of him, unless there was another doctor or scientist lurking behind the potted plants. That’s where he was generally to be found whenever he allowed a random family member to drag him to a party.
“Neither is Lady Samantha,” John said. “She devotes most of her attention to her charitable work. And to Roger’s younger sister,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
“She sounds like an admirable person.” Braden still had no idea where this was headed.
“Braden, we wish you to join the board of the Penwith Philanthropic Foundation. You would be a great asset, I feel sure.”
He tried not to grimace at the invitation. “Endless meetings, gruesome social events, hitting up dowagers for money. John, I have to say no, thank you. Again, if you need a contribution—”
“I’m perfectly capable of fundraising, as is Lady Samantha,” John bluntly interrupted. “That’s not what we want you for.”
“So, why do you want me, then?”
“There have been disagreements amongst the board members. While Lady Samantha’s vision for the foundation is outstanding, most of the others see her ideas as too progressive and rather alarming. It certainly doesn’t help that she is a young woman. With a few exceptions, the other board members tend to dismiss her, even though she’s a great deal smarter than they are.”
“How old is she?”
Braden put down his empty coffee cup. “She’s young to be running a foundation. Most won’t even tolerate a woman on the board, much less allow her to set the guiding vision.”
“Which is exactly why she needs allies.”
“Why not just get rid of the lot of them, and start over?”
“It’s complicated, unfortunately.”
Braden snorted. “You’d be far better off with Logan on your board. He’d terrify everyone into compliance.”
John waved a dismissive hand. “I don’t need another businessman. I need a physician and scientist, someone who will know exactly what we’re trying to accomplish.” He hesitated for a moment. “Braden, I believe it would be good for you to expand your horizons. Meet some new people, do a bit of socializing, attend a few gruesome parties. And did I mention that Lady Samantha is a very lovely and intelligent young lady?”
Braden rolled his eyes. “I don’t have time for socializing or lovely young ladies. I’ve barely enough time to cover both my regular practice and my clinic.”
“But that’s just it. Working on this board could be an excellent way to garner support for your clinic. Possibly even fold it into the foundation at some point. Just think how many more patients you could treat with the support of the Penwith Foundation.”
“You’ve been thinking this through, haven’t you?” Braden wryly said. “Wait until I’m tired, not thinking very clearly . . . and then you pounce. Sorry, old fellow, but I’m not that out of my head.”
John chuckled. “All right, I’ll stop pestering for now. But please promise that you’ll consider it. Especially the part about helping your free clinic and your patients and how much good you could accomplish.”
Braden shook his head. “You’re bloody relentless, you are.”
“Me? Never.” John drained his coffee cup and stood. “I’m off to make my rounds. Care to join me? There’s an interesting case I’d like you to see.”
Braden rose. “I thought you’d never ask.”
That was the world he was most comfortable in, that of science and medicine. It was a world where intellect and talent held sway, not emotions. And it was definitely where he could do the most good.
As for socializing and getting involved with lovely young ladies? It would be a frosty day in Hades before he made that mistake again.