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My Dear Branson ePub 2024.jpg

Kip looked up at the sound of another voice, familiar but unknown. The tone was muffled, like he spoke from behind glass, the wail of sirens and vehicles overpowering everything else. Her aids had long since switched to dampening the high decibels, which in turn muffled everything except her own voice, which echoed in her ears like talking into a barrel. The man she'd spoken to in the hallway outside the lecture hall stood at the bumper of the truck to her right, wearing a long, black wool coat with a red tartan scarf wrapped around his throat and tucked into the collar. 


"What?" she asked, trying to focus on his lips.


Her insides had been shaking since she shook off the black haze of hitting the ground, smothered in chaos and sound and panic. She hadn't been able to bring herself to look too far around the corner to the destruction, afraid of what she might see. She had heard the talk -- at least half a dozen dead, if not more. Her stomach clenched painfully and she had to swallow hard. 


Lightheaded, she slid her other arm beneath the blanket to hang on to the truck so she wouldn't tip sideways.


He came away from the bumper, the shift of light from the emergency vehicles to the glow of the interior of the truck, bringing his face into focus. In the hall she'd been too intent on finding somewhere to deal with her hearing aids that she hadn't taken in most of the details. His features were angled with dominating cheekbones. A late day's dusting of auburn stubble accentuated a sharp prominent jaw line and defined mouth. Auburn hair, almost light enough to be called dark ginger, fell in chunky, thick curls across his forehead like it had been set out of control by the damp air. 


"Take a deep breath," he said, his eloquent accent a challenge -- British, but city or region she couldn't say other than it was a common accent -- until she focused on his lips for a few words. She'd noted the accent before, but the hall had been quiet and the only interference the damn clicking in her ears. His voice was a deep baritone, almost disproportionate to his tall, lean frame. Reading the words on his lips was different than anyone she'd encountered; he spoke with his lower lip, his defined upper lip not moving much to enunciate the words. "Count to four. Release it. Count to four," he instructed, stepping in front of her but back enough she didn't need to crane her neck to see him. "It will help with the adrenaline release."


She shifted her focus from his mouth to his eyes. Kip had spent most of her life forcing herself to pay close attention to the expressions of the people she spoke with, and with that required attention to detail came the side effect of often noticing the minute details of a person's features: their mouth and the way they moved it, their own tendency to make or avoid eye contact, and the details of their eyes where she often saw just as much communication as in the words they spoke. This man's were striking; a stormy mix of greens and blues so unusual they seemed unnatural, uneven, and they had the slightest upward tilt at the outer corners. What she saw beyond the color, and the shape, was the reserve. 


Kip blinked to clear her thoughts and did as he said, watching him as he watched her to make sure she did as he instructed. Three or four breaths later, she did feel less lightheaded, though her insides still twisted with tremors. All the while, he watched her. One corner of his mouth quirked when she looked at him again. 


"Feeling better?"


Kip nodded and tugged the blanket tighter around her. They had said she couldn't yet wear her coat so they could examine her hand and arm more easily, to assure nothing had been broken, and despite the woolen blanket she felt exposed and chilled. The coat was likely a lost cause anyway. She only hoped her laptop, bundled in her padded briefcase, survived the hit. She couldn't afford a new one right now.


"It might take a while yet, but then you'll sleep for several hours," he told her, and again she had to focus on his mouth to put the sound with the movements. 


There was too much noise, and her aids couldn't figure out where to focus the magnification, instead switching from a muffled mumble to apparently magnifying everything. She wondered if the programming had been affected by the blast and the fall. They were designed to instantly buffer loud, sudden sounds, but every tech had its limitations. Kip blinked and shook her head. She couldn't keep a thought.


"What is your name?"


She raised her head from staring at his black, polished shoes -- strange shoes for this weather. "Kip. Kip Branson."


His head canted a slight degree. "Kip. Is that a nickname?" 


"Short. For Kipling."


"Unusual name."


"Better than Rudyard if I were a boy," Kip said, giving her pat answer.


He chuckled, a deep baritone that cut through the excess noise. "Quite right," he said with a nod, then grew serious again. "How are you?


She blinked again, the only act she could seem to focus on properly. How was she? What a bizarre question, but she tried to focus on the most obvious intent of it. "I'll be fine," she answered, avoiding the urge to nod because of the pounding behind her eyes. 

"They said I banged my head pretty good, so I should be checked, but I think I'm fine. What about you?" Then she gasped. "What about Professor Crane?"


He took a step closer to her, coming more fully into the light cast from the interior of the ambulance, and there was no mistaking the strain around his eyes. She'd noted a reserve about him when they spoke in the hall, but this was more. "The paramedics and emergency staff are still cataloguing all the injured."


"Are you with the police?" she asked. A dull headache bloomed in the spot between her eyes, with a promise to get worse before it got better. Then she remembered he'd said he was there to speak to the class. A police officer wouldn't come to speak to a post-graduate comparative literature class. "I can't help notice you're not from Boston."


A quick upward tip of one corner of his mouth preceded his answer. He tugged at the lapel of his coat to reach inside, bringing out a leather bifold. He opened it and held it out for her to read, and in the dim light all she made out was the "Secret Intelligence Service" across the top. "Though this isn't representative of my purpose here at the university," he added. "It does allow me to assist in the investigation."


"Welcome to Boston," Kip said before her jumbled brain told her this might not be the best time for sarcasm.


He flipped the wallet closed, an almost indiscernible smile tugging at one corner of his lips, and extended his hand to Kip. She snaked her arm free of the blanket and took it, the warmth of the grip a contrast to the cold. He adjusted his hold to avoid the worst of her bandages while still taking her hand. "Grayson Holmes."


She arched an eyebrow. "And you think my name is unusual, Agent Holmes?"


"Agent is an American designation." As he spoke, he unwound the tartan scarf from his collar and draped it around her neck over her hair. The soft cotton was warm, and the subtle aroma of sandalwood and shave cream drifted to her through the cold air. 

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