This day was not going to end well; of that, she was certain. And the worst of it was that it was all her own damn fault. Well done, Charlotte, she told herself scathingly. Spying Ezra at the end of the bar, she worked her way further into the dim confines of Standish & Black, the saloon and restaurant she owned with her former ward. It may have been her fault, but Charlotte had a pretty good idea of just who had started the fire.
Not wasting any time on pleasantries, she got straight to business as she drew even with him. "Did you tell Tony about Methos?" she demanded of the younger Immortal.
Ezra looked startled at her unexpected question, but quickly gathered himself. "I may have mentioned 'Matthew'," he admitted. "We were playing cards, and there was possibly an offhand reference to your beau."
"Why would you do that, Ezra?"
"I think the question should be, why didn't you?" he shot back.
"I was going to!"
"When exactly? Did you plan on arriving at the Expo on Methos' arm? That would have gone well," he observed dryly.
"That isn't fair! You know what Tony's life has been like these last months; I was waiting for the right moment." Oh, that was rich: right moment! Self deception is never an attractive quality, lass. Just great; her little voice now sounded suspiciously like Jack. It ticked her off, but she knew 'he' was right. Tony Stark's on again, off again girlfriend – that's what the tabloids called her. But it had never bothered her, diverted her, perhaps, but bother? No. She cared little what strangers might think, and honestly, who would believe that she and the billionaire were 'just friends'? Not a one. And just friends they might be, but Charlotte knew how possessive Tony could be; he didn't like to share. And until now, he'd never had to. So she'd turned avoidance into an art form, and now, it was coming back to bite her.
"I know Methos isn't your favourite person, but the situation..." Shoulders slumped, her anger fled. "I'm sorry, Ezra, none of this is your fault." She would have left, but Ezra's hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"What happened?" he asked, his voice now full of concern.
Sighing, she rubbed at her temple with two fingers. "Tony dropped by, very unexpectedly, this afternoon. He had Methos investigated, Ezra! He thinks he's some deadbeat sponging off my money."
Ezra began to say something, but whatever flippant remark he might have made died on his lips at the patently obvious distress in Charlotte's eyes.
"Do you know what that means, Ezra? Methos will leave when he finds out," she said, her voice cracking.
Ever practical, he asked, "Why does he have to?"
For a moment, she was tempted, but there had been enough secrets. "He has to; I don't have the right to keep something like that from him."
"I am sorry, Charlotte," he said sincerely.
"I have no one to blame for this mess but myself." She sighed resignedly. "And going to Afghanistan with Tony will only compound matters," she said to herself.
Eyes widening, his hand on her shoulder tightened. "Afghan… Have you lost your mind?"
Pulling away, she shook her head angrily, but her reply was interrupted by the arrival of a new Immortal presence. "We'll talk about it later," she said, her eyes now focused on Methos, accompanied by Duncan, as the two men made their way towards them.
"You're damned right we will," Ezra muttered in response as he smoothed his expression to one of nonchalant ease, leaning against the bar as they were joined by Methos and Duncan.
"How was the surfing lesson?" Charlotte asked Duncan as Methos kissed her on the cheek in greeting.
"It was great," the Scots Immortal enthused, eyes lighting up at her question.
Methos groaned. "God, do not get him started, I'm warning you!"
Duncan ignored his friend. "There's such a sense of freedom when you're skimming across the surf; I've never done anything quite like it. And Tess is a great teacher," he enthused
"And has a great body, great eyes, and, oh yes, such a great smile," Methos said in a voice that was supposed to be an imitation of Duncan's, though not a very good one.
"Pay him no mind," Charlotte advised Duncan. "Tess is lovely, and it's hardly a crime you noticed." Tess Helm was Charlotte's winemaker, and the two had hit it off when Charlotte had introduced them. She privately thought that Duncan's sudden interest in learning to surf was a pretext for spending more time with the hazel eyed, brunette beauty. "Just don't try and steal her away from me, or there will be hell to pay," she warned with mock sternness.
"Not a chance," he replied with a laugh. "But I hope you don't have any objections to me taking her to dinner?" He flashed a winning smile at Charlotte, waving at Tess as she approached the group at the bar.
"None at all." Quite the opposite in fact; she'd always had a bit of a matchmaking streak, and she thought that the Highlander and Tess were an excellent match. She gave Ezra an innocent look when he shook his head, smiling knowingly.
Duncan gallantly kissed the back of Tess's hand. "I'm glad you could make it," he told her warmly.
"Me too," she replied with a cheeky wink.
Charlotte's smile widened at the obvious attraction between the two; Ezra's low laugh at her side earned him an elbow in the ribs. Tess Helm's family had lived in the San Louis Obispo area since Spanish colonial days, and Charlotte had been good friends with her great-grandmother when Charlotte had first moved here in the 1870s. Tess reminded her sharply of her long dead friend, and her smile took on a wistful quality as she remembered.
"I can't believe you held out on me!" Tess said suddenly, turning her attention to Charlotte.
Jerked abruptly from the past, she blinked, trying to catch up with what Tess was saying.
"Tony Stark comes to visit and you keep him all to yourself! What kind of friend are you? You know how much I wanted him to try the private reserve."
"He did," Charlotte said faintly, noticing Methos' sudden interest in the turn the conversation was taking. She could salvage this, she could. "He loved it."
Tess beamed at the news. "I knew he would!" Then she added with mock pique, "But not enough to give me an Aston Martin."
Ezra tried to head the young woman off at the pass, while giving Charlotte a look that plainly said he wanted all the details later. "I do believe your table is ready."
"In a minute, Ez," she said, digging around in her purse for something. "When I stopped by the office, Lily said to give you this."
Charlotte felt as though she were standing in front of an oncoming train, powerless to stop the impending collision. Lily, Charlotte's personal assistant, must have filled Tess in on the afternoon's happenings. Her heart sank.
"Here it is!" She pulled out a rumpled piece of paper. "Pepper emailed it; the itinerary for the Afghanistan trip." She shoved the paper at Charlotte, oblivious to the stricken look on her employer's face. "It's very exciting," she said as Charlotte took it from her. Then, turning serious, she added, "But you'll be careful, won't you? I know you'd do anything for him, but it's dangerous and, well, after what happened…," she trailed off.
While Tess may not have noticed the charged atmosphere, Duncan did. "Hey, I'm hungry, so why don't we eat?"
"Sure," Tess agreed, letting Duncan lead her away. "See you tomorrow," she called over her shoulder to Charlotte.
Charlotte clenched the damning sheet of paper in her hand. How had it all gotten so out of control so fast? "Methos," she said, finally looking at him, but wishing she hadn't. His eyes were dark and unreadable; never a good sign.
"If you need me, call," Ezra said softly, kissing her cheek. His expression was one of remorse for what his offhand remark to Tony Stark had caused. At her nod, he left her and Methos alone.
"Methos," she repeated, "I was going to explain it all to you tonight."
"Better late than never, I suppose," he replied caustically.
"It's complicated… me and Tony…." She searched for the right words, but those obviously weren't the ones.
"Oh, not that complicated," he shot back.
The innuendo was obvious, and she bristled. "It isn't like that!"
"Then why don't you tell me exactly what it is like, Charlotte?"