“Are they that invested in having long lives?” Angus asked.
“I believe they are. Their population is a lot smaller than you might imagine. Bad aliens attacked Universe 1 some 500 years ago and they brought with them a sickness that wiped out two-thirds of all the people on the planet. So now they take very good care of themselves and any children they have. And apparently, they take care of where we come from too. No universe connected to the Earth is allowed to end because no one quite knows what that kind of change will bring. Agent Black, and those like him, police the balance on behalf of some group they refer to as the Guardians. They do their policing work through the same machine the aliens use to come and go. I get the impression the aliens don’t know about how the agents are using it. That’s one of just many secrets here in this strange place.”
“Ya must know that all that sounds like some big story yar spinning.”
Erin nodded. “I well know it. It sounds like one to my own ears, even after living it for a while.”
She drifted off in her storytelling and Angus let it happen. His mind was on overload anyway.
They ate in silence while he thought hard about why they were being treated well when it was clear from Toorg outside the door that they were prisoners. Instinct, combined with the guard’s massive size, sent a clear message that Toorg wasn’t going to let them do anything they weren’t allowed to do.
Someone Toorg’s size could easily enforce anything he needed to. Angus was no small man himself, and in his youth had made extra money tossing drunken buggers out of Paddy’s. All pondering the size and girth of their guard brought him was the clear thought that Erin had taken the proper course in playing along.
“So what have ya been doing with yerself while I was cooking in the box?”
Erin shrugged and continued eating. Finally, she rested her fork. She dreaded the explosion her revelation would cause, but she couldn’t handle lying to Angus the way she did to everyone else. “I’ve been matchmaking,” she finally said.
Angus’s fork froze halfway to his mouth. He stared at her and blinked.
She rolled her eyes over his reaction. “Do ya really think I would fecking make that up just to see that stunned look on yer face? And don’t be getting pissy at me for being the messenger either. Eat yer food and take it in, because every word is the fecking truth. That’s what they brought us here for, Angus. The old matchmakers who used to do the work are both dead.”
Perhaps he’d get angry later. For the moment, surprise had rendered him mute. Angus let the fork with the food on it find his mouth, but he tasted nothing. He even lifted another bite and chewed that too. Then he sat the fork down. He’d honestly thought Nate had been telling him a tall tale.
“Who the feck are ya matching up?” Angus asked tightly, trying not to yell the question. Erin’s glare said she knew him too well. She knew what was under that irritated tone.
“I’m matching up shirtless, muscled aliens with troubled women this group is exploiting. The women’s stories are dire and every single one of them would be dead if they hadn’t put themselves in this fecking program. Instead of fixing the real problems of the women, these power mad peckerheads are bartering them to aliens as brides. This bunch has woven quite the story about how wonderful being abducted is, so the women in the program are mostly jubilant. I don’t understand any of it.”
“Are the aliens all like Toorg and Berg? I can’t imagine having a conversation with someone who answers in the same sentence over and over.”
Erin snorted. “Those two are more eloquent than they appear. Toorg has an emotional range as wide as yers. Berg doesn’t bother with much inflection, but then he seems to have a few more sentences in his vocabulary.”
“Erin… I’ve seen ya resist a helping hand to carry a load of peat to yer fire. If ya think they’re doing something wrong, why are ya helping them?” Angus asked, going back to his food.
“Because I’m not sure this isn’t all normal here,” Erin explained, spreading her hands. “Plus those girls are so green about men.” She thought of sad Prudence. “Well, most of them are green. There is the occasional one who’s just here because life has dealt very poorly with her.”
“And I can see yar attached to those already,” Angus concluded, seeing determination in her eyes. “Ya never were neutral about yer customers, Erin.”
“No, I wasn’t, because I actually gave a shit about who they ended up with… unlike some I know. If it hadn’t been for me, ya would have matched yer own daughter with that married pervert from Dublin. The ghost of Mary MacNamara would have come back for me if I’d let ya do that to her first-born girl.”
Angus grunted. She had a point about that one, but she didn’t have to keep rubbing his nose in his worst mistake. “He wasn’t all that bad as a person. He just wasn’t right for my Lorrie.”
“He was already married to another, Angus. It doesn’t get much worse than that for someone of yer religion, now does it? The Dubliner wanted a young girl to play with until he’d ruined her. Not all fecking men are as good as ya. I’ll not be having matched those kind up on my conscience. Brighid strike me dead if I ever start going that way.”
Angus nodded solemnly. He’d forgotten about the Dubliner being married. It had happened years ago.
“Had I ever thanked ya for finding Joshua for her? The lad has made her very happy over the years. They were the first to get with a babe. I remember he was over the moon with joy about it, and the same with the babes that followed.”
Erin snorted. “Thanked me? No. Ya never thanked me for anything I did to help, Angus. All ya ever did was accuse me of meddling in yer important affairs.”
“Have I always been a contrary bastard to ya?” Angus asked, wincing when he realized he’d opened himself to be flayed with her answer. Erin surprised him by ducking her head.
“No,” she said. “At times, I thought ya were the kindest man ever to walk the Earth in any universe, but…”
Angus blinked hard as he took the last bite of his strangely filling dinner. He set down his fork for good. “What am I hearing at the end there? But… but what?”
Erin lifted her chin. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot because everyone here has memories of the ones like us who’ve now died. The Angus here died of old age, which apparently no one can fight forever—cooking box or not. His Erin died within the week that followed of nothing they could identify. It’s assumed she died from grieving his loss. Our other selves weren’t just matchmakers. They were the perfect match. They were legendary lovers that inspired those in this universe to find love themselves.”
“I’m not so far along in my strangeness that I think I’m the man who died here. Whoever he was—he wasn’t me. And ya are not the woman, Erin O’Shea. I can’t speak for ya in the matter, but I will never forget that most of my life happened somewhere else and with different people.”
“Save it, Angus. Yar preaching to the bloody choir. Nobody knows better than me that yer whole life is tied to a dead woman in a grave. Sure enough, they’re trying to give us a future here, but I had my suspicions it wouldn’t matter to ya. Ya can’t even bed another woman without thinking of the one yar never going to bed again. I knew this kind of second chance would be lost on yer hardheaded arse.”
Angus felt the red travel across his chest and up his neck. “I thought we agreed never to speak of that time between us again.”
Erin narrowed her gaze. “We agreed on nothing. You ordered me to forget it and I told ya to go feck yerself. I never forgot the first man who broke my heart and I won’t forget the last one who did either. All I can do is hope I might one day find a man who might value me as much as ya do that coffin full of bones back home. Yer the fecking poster boy for being faithful, aren’t ya?”
“That’s very cruel of ya, Erin,” Angus said.
“Like when ya called me by another woman’s name while I was beneath ya calling yers? That’s called reality, Angus, something I’ve been dealing with on my own for more years than I can remember.”
“Ya talk like I did harm to ya on purpose… which I didn’t. Drunkards make mistakes.”
Erin snorted. “Yes, I well know ya consider bedding me yer biggest one. Before ya go putting out that we’re not the devoted couple our alternate selves were, ya might want to consider what that would mean to the whole belief system here in this strange place. Not to mention what it might mean to our cushy, well-cared for situation. What they did to yer body in making it younger, that defies everything we could ever imagine, doesn’t it? Their power seems as infinite as that of our gods.”
Angus frowned. “Ya know I hate wading through yer philosophies. What are ya suggesting, Erin O’Shea? That we lie and go along with this sham out of fear for our lives?”
“Yes,” Erin declared, holding his gaze. “Lie at least until we figure out this place. No one knows but a few that our alternates here are dead. There are fifty women in the program who want to believe we’re those legendary people Nate told them we are, and frankly, I haven’t been doubted as the real Erin once. If it’s true that there’s no going back home, then we have plenty of time to decide how many ripples to make when we skip the big rock of our resistance across this muscle-bound alien pond. I’m saying there’s no benefit in these people knowing we hate each other.”
Angus straightened in his chair. “I didn’t say I hated ya. I never once said that… not even under the influence of drink.”
Erin waved her hand. “Hate. Despise. Pick yer own word. I waited nine years to get ya between my legs. When I finally did, ya hated me for not being Mary. That’s all the insult I can take from any man. The next man I let go there will be looking me in the eye and saying my fecking name. Do ya get my meaning, Angus? Ya took my gift of myself and stomped on it just like ya did Mary’s grave that day we were abducted. The difference is that I’m alive and my pride fecking matters to me more than it does to the dead woman ya yelled obscenities at.”
“Do ya want an apology from me now? It was nearly two years ago when we gave in to temptation,” Angus declared, but there was no real venom in his voice.
His ego was just nicked because he’d not manned up enough to do what was right back then. He’d known he’d been wrong, but was too ashamed to face her. He managed to avoid Erin for months after their weakness, but had never ceased thinking about how right it had felt sliding into her. Complete surprise another woman could feel so fine was what made him call out his wife’s name in shock. It had unfortunately taken him too long to figure his mind out about it.
Erin glared at him while he thought it through again and he winced in shame once more. She was not one bit less mad than if it had happened yesterday. Women always took bedroom slights hard. He knew that. He just hadn’t known how to make amends for something he’d never planned to repeat and never had.
“Ya can save yerself all that turmoil of thinking so hard,” Erin ordered. “The time to apologize for yer mistake was immediately afterward, before ya rolled away and slunk out my door. Or at least the next day. Or perhaps even a couple of weeks later. Ya should have brought me flowers and knelt at my feet and begged my forgiveness over what ya did. But no, that’s not for the proud Angus MacNamara. Ya went right on about yer business like I was no better than one of Paddy’s loose barmaids at the pub that let all the lads have a tumble. Even in death, I’ll never forgive ya for turning my weakness into a mental punishment I can’t seem to let go of.”
“Holy fecking shit, Erin. Ya were the first woman I’d bedded since Mary died. I got… mixed up… that’s all,” Angus exclaimed, trying to get her to be at least a little reasonable.
Erin snorted and glared. “I’m sure that lets ya sleep at night,” she said flatly, rising and putting the dishes back on the cart. “There’s drinks in the refrigerator in the tiny kitchen just beyond that half door. None are what ya might feel the need for after yer ordeal, but they quench thirst well enough.”
“Where are ya going?” Angus asked.
“I’ll be retiring to my room. Toorg gave me a device that connects to some magic in the air. I’m reading their history so I don’t get surprised whenever people talk about it. I also get news on it, but the only thing I understand are the articles about Angus MacNamara and his terrible illness. This fecking world here apparently revolves around yer big arse every bit as much as ya always thought the one we came from did.”
Angus didn’t reply as he watched Erin push the cart to the door. She’d barely opened it when he heard “Berg is here.” The cart disappeared from her hand and Erin thanked the guard for taking care of it for her. She came back inside, closed the door behind her, but didn’t bother locking it.
“Yar already a bird in a gilded cage,” Angus observed. He knew he’d said the words aloud when Erin turned to glare at him even more fiercely than she had over their personal argument.
“In case ya haven’t noticed, there’s no locks on the fecking doors here. Berg and Toorg would probably go past them anyway. But don’t mind me, try whatever the hell ya want. I’ve offered ya all the help I can. Yar as impatient as I am, so I guess ya will just have to learn things here the same way I did. Sleep well, Angus. Yar going to need yer rest for what ya see tomorrow.”