A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 89

   

The cabin door quivered with each meaty thump of the whore’s backside, and Brianna could hear laughter in the corridor outside, both male and female; evidently Orden had brought back enough to supply crew as well as captain.

Bonnet heaved and grunted for a minute or two, then gave a loud groan, his movements suddenly jerky and uncoordinated. The whore put a helpful hand on his buttocks and pulled him close, then relaxed her grip as his body went limp, leaning heavily against her. She supported him for a moment, patting his back matter-of-factly, like a mother burping a baby, then pushed him off.

His face and neck were flushed dark red, and he was breathing heavily. He nodded to the whore, and stooped, fumbling for his breeches. He stood up with them and waved toward the littered desk.

“Help yourself to your pay, darlin’, but give me back the bottle, aye?”

The whore pouted slightly, but took a final deep gulp of the liquor and handed him the bottle, now no more than a quarter full. She pulled a wadded cloth from the pocket at her waist and clapped it between her thighs, then shook down her skirts and minced across to the desk, poking delicately among the litter for scattered coins, which she picked out with two fingers, dropping them one by one into the depths of her pocket.

Bonnet, clothed once more, went out without a backward glance at the two women. The air in the cabin was hot and thick with the scent of sex, and Brianna felt her stomach clench. Not with revulsion, but with panic. The strong male reek had triggered an instinctive flush of response that tingled across her br**sts and gripped her inwardly; for a brief, disorienting moment, she felt Roger’s skin, slick with sweat against her own, and her br**sts tingled, swollen and wanting.

She pressed both lips and legs tight together, and curled her hands into fists, breathing shallowly. The last thing she could stand right now, she thought—the very last thing—was to think of Roger and sex, while anywhere within miles of Stephen Bonnet. She resolutely pushed the thought aside, and edged closer to the whore, searching for some remark with which to open conversation.

The whore sensed the movement, and glanced at Brianna, taking in both the torn dress and its quality, but then dismissed her in favor of finding more coins. Once she had her pay, the woman would leave, going back to the docks. It was a chance to get word to Roger and her parents. Not much, perhaps, but a chance.

“You . . . um . . . know him well?” she said.

The whore glanced at her, eyebrows lifted.

“Who? Oh, Stephen? Aye, he’s a good ’un, Stephen.” She shrugged. “Don’t take more than two or three minutes, no bones about the money, never wants nothin’ but a simple swive. He’s rough now and then, but he don’t hit unless you cross him, and no one’s fool enough to do that. Not more than once, anyroad.” Her gaze lingered for a moment on Brianna’s torn dress, one brow lifting sardonically.

“I’ll remember that,” Brianna said dryly, and pulled the edge of her ripped chemise up higher. She glimpsed a glass bottle amid the rubble on the desk, filled with a clear liquid, containing a small round object. She leaned closer to look at it, frowning. It couldn’t be . . . but it was. A round, fleshy object, rather like a hard-boiled egg, a pinkish-gray in color—with a neat round hole drilled completely through it.

She crossed herself, feeling faint.

“I was that surprised,” the whore went on, eyeing Brianna with open curiosity. “He’s never had two girls together, so far as I know, and he’s not one as wants someone to watch while he’s at his pleasure.”

“I’m not—” Brianna began, but then stopped, not wanting to offend the woman.

“Not a whore?” The young woman grinned broadly, exposing the black gap of her missing tooth. “I might ha’ guessed as much, chickie. Not as it would make no never mind to Stephen. He sows as he likes, and I can see as how he might like you. Most men would.” She looked at Brianna with dispassionate assessment, nodding at her disheveled hair, flushed face, and tidy figure.

“I expect they like you, too,” Brianna said politely, with a faint feeling of surreality. “Er . . . what’s your name?”

“Hepzibah,” the woman said with an air of pride. “Or Eppie, for short, like.” There were coins still on the desk, but the whore left them alone. Bonnet might be generous, but evidently the whore didn’t want to take advantage of him—more likely a sign of fear than of friendship, Brianna thought. She took a deep breath and pressed on.

“What a lovely name. Pleased to meet you, Eppie.” She held out a hand. “My name is Brianna Fraser MacKenzie.” She gave all three names, hoping the whore would remember at least one of them.

The woman glanced at the extended hand in puzzlement, then gingerly shook it, dropping it like a dead fish. She pulled up her skirt, and began to clean herself with the rag, fastidiously wiping away all trace of the recent encounter.

Brianna leaned closer, bracing herself against the odors of the stained rag, the woman’s body, and the hot smell of liquor on her breath.

“Stephen Bonnet kidnapped me,” she said.

“Oh, aye?” said the whore, indifferent. “Well, he takes as he likes, does Stephen.”

“I want to get away,” Brianna said, keeping her voice low, with a glance at the cabin door. She could hear the sound of feet on the deck overhead, and hoped voices wouldn’t carry through the heavy planks.

Eppie wadded up the rag and dropped it on the desk. She rummaged in her pocket, coming out with a small bottle stoppered with a plug of wax. She still held her skirts up, and Brianna could see the silvery streaks of stretch marks across her plump belly.

“Well, give him what he wants, then,” the whore advised, taking out the plug and pouring a bit of the bottle’s contents—a surprisingly mild scent of rosewater—into her hand. “Chances are he’ll tire of ye in a few days and put ye ashore.” She wiped the rosewater lavishly over her pubic hair, then sniffed critically at her hand and made a face.

“No. I mean, that’s not what he kidnapped me for. I don’t think,” she added.

Eppie recorked the bottle, and dropped both it and the rag into her pocket.

“Oh, he means to ransom you?” Eppie eyed her with a little more interest. “Still, I’ve never known scruples interfere with the man’s appetite. He’d take a virgin’s maidenhead and sell her back to her father before her belly started swelling.” She pursed her lips, a belated thought coming to her.

“So how did you talk him out of havin’ you, then?”

Brianna put a hand on her stomach.

“I told him I was pregnant. That stopped him. I wouldn’t have thought—a man like that—but it did. Perhaps he’s better than you think?” she asked with a wisp of hope.

Eppie laughed at that, small eyes squeezing half-shut with hilarity at the thought.

“Stephen? God, no!” She sniffed with amusement, and smoothed down her skirts.

“No,” she went on, more matter-of-factly, “best story you could tell, though, if you don’t want him at you. He called me down to him once, then put me off when he saw I’d a cake in the oven—when I joked him about it, he said he’d once taken a whore with her belly the size of a cannonball, and right in the midst of it, she give a groan and the blood come spurting out of her fit to drench the room. Put him right off, he said, and no wonder. Left our Stephen with a horror of swiving girls what are up the spout. He’s takin’ no chances, see.”

“I see.” A trickle of sweat ran down Brianna’s cheek, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. Her mouth felt dry, and she sucked the inside of her cheek for moisture. “The woman—what happened to her?”

Hepzibah looked blank for a moment.

“Oh, the whore? Why, she died, of course, poor cow. Stephen said as how he was struggling to get into his wet breeches, all soused with blood like they were, and he looked up and saw her layin’ still as stone on the floor, but with her belly still wriggling and twitching like a bag full o’ snakes. Said it come to him sudden that the babe meant to come out and take its revenge on him, and he fled the house right then in his shirt, leavin’ his breeches behind.”

She chortled at this amusing vision, then snorted and settled herself, brushing down her skirts. “But then, Stephen’s Irish,” she added tolerantly. “They take morbid fancies, the Irish, especially when they’re gone in drink.” The tip of her tongue came out and passed reminiscently over her lower lip, tasting the lingering traces of Bonnet’s liquor.

Brianna leaned closer, holding out her hand.

“Look.”

Hepzibah glanced into her hand, then looked again, riveted. The thick gold band with its big cabochon ruby winked and glowed in the lantern light.

“I’ll give it to you,” Brianna said, lowering her voice, “if you’ll do something for me.”

The whore licked her lips again, a sudden look of alertness coming into her heavy face.

“Aye? Do what?”

“Get word to my husband. He’s in Edenton, at the Reverend McMillan’s house—anyone will know where it is. Tell him where I am, and tell him—” She hesitated. What should she say? There was no telling how long the Anemone would stay here, or where Bonnet would choose to go next. The only clue she had was what she had overheard in his conversation with his mate, just before he came in.

“Tell them I think he has a hiding place on Ocracoke. He means to rendezvous with someone there at the dark of the moon. Tell him that.”

Hepzibah cast an uneasy glance at the cabin door, but it stayed shut. She looked back at the ring, longing for it warring in her face with an obvious fear of Bonnet.

“He won’t know,” Brianna urged. “He won’t find out. And my father will reward you.”

“He’s a rich man, then, your father?” Brianna saw the look of calculation in the whore’s eyes, and felt a moment’s misgiving—what if she should simply take the ring and betray her to Bonnet? Still, she hadn’t taken more money than her due; perhaps she was honest. And there was no choice, after all.

“Very rich,” she said firmly. “His name is Jamie Fraser. My aunt is rich, too. She has a plantation called River Run, just above Cross Creek in North Carolina. Ask for Mrs. Innes—Jocasta Cameron Innes. Yes, if you don’t find Ro—my husband, send word there.”

“River Run.” Hepzibah repeated it obediently, eyes still fixed on the ring.

Brianna twisted it off and dropped it into the whore’s palm before she could change her mind. The woman’s hand closed tight around it.

“My father’s name is Jamie Fraser; my husband is Roger MacKenzie,” she repeated. “At the Reverend McMillan’s house. Can you remember?”

“Fraser and MacKenzie,” Hepzibah repeated uncertainly. “Oh, aye, to be sure.” She was already moving toward the door.

“Please,” Brianna said urgently.

The whore nodded but without looking at her, then sidled through the door, shutting it behind her.

The ship creaked and swayed underfoot, and she heard the rattle of wind through the trees on the shore, over the shouts of drunken men. Her knees gave way then and she sat down on the bed, careless of the sheets.

THEY LEFT WITH the tide; she heard the anchor chain rumble and felt the ship quicken, taking life as her sails took wind. Glued to the window, she watched the dark green mass of Roanoke recede. A hundred years before, the first English colony had landed here—and disappeared without trace. The governor of the colony, returning from England with supplies, had found everyone gone, leaving no clue save the word “Croatan” carved into the trunk of a tree.

She wasn’t even leaving that much. Heartsick, she watched until the island sank into the sea.

No one came for some hours. Empty-bellied, she grew nauseated, and threw up in the chamber pot. She could not bear the thought of lying down on those revolting sheets, but instead pulled them off, remade the bed with only the quilts, and lay down.

The windows were open, and the fresh air of the sea stirred her hair and lifted the clamminess from her skin, making her feel a little better. She was unbearably conscious of her womb, a small, heavy, tender weight, and what was likely happening inside it: that orderly dance of dividing cells, a sort of peaceful violence, implacably wresting lives and wrenching hearts.

When had it happened? She tried to think back, remember. It might have been the night before Roger left for Edenton. He had been excited, almost exalted, and they had made love with lingering joy, spiced by longing, for they both knew the morrow would bring separation. She had fallen asleep in his arms, feeling loved.

But then she had waked alone, in the middle of the night, to find him sitting by the window, bathed in the light of a gibbous moon. She had been reluctant to disturb his private contemplation, but he had turned, feeling her eyes on him, and something in his look had made her get out of bed and go to him, taking his head against her bosom, holding him.

He had risen then, laid her on the floor, and had her again, wordless and urgent.

Catholic that she was, she had found it terribly erotic, the notion of seducing a priest on the eve of his ordination, stealing him—if only for a moment—from God.

She swallowed, hands clasped over her belly. Be careful what you pray for. The nuns at school had always told the children that.

The wind was growing cold, chilling her, and she pulled the edge of one quilt—the cleanest—over her. Then, concentrating fiercely, she began very carefully to pray.

103

PUT TO THE QUESTION

NEIL FORBES sat in the parlor of the King’s Inn, enjoying a glass of hard cider and the feeling that all was right with the world. He had had a most fruitful meeting with Samuel Iredell and his friend, two of the most prominent rebel leaders in Edenton—and an even more fruitful meeting with Gilbert Butler and William Lyons, local smugglers.

He had a great fondness for jewels, and in private celebration of his elegant disposal of the threat of Jamie Fraser, he had bought a new stickpin, topped with a beautiful ruby. He contemplated this with quiet satisfaction, noting the lovely shadows that the stone cast on the silk of his ruffle.

His mother was safely planted at her sister’s house, he had an appointment for luncheon with a local lady, and an hour to spare beforehand. Perhaps a stroll to stimulate appetite; it was a beautiful day.

He had in fact pushed back his chair and begun to rise when a large hand planted itself in the center of his chest and shoved him back into it.

“What—?” He looked up in indignation—and took great care to keep that expression on his face, despite a sudden deep qualm. A tall, dark man was standing over him, wearing a most unfriendly expression. MacKenzie, the chit’s husband.

“How dare you, sir?” he said, belligerent. “I must demand apology!”

“You demand what ye like,” MacKenzie said. He was pale under his tan, and grim. “Where is my wife?”

“How should I know?” Forbes’s heart was beating fast, but with glee as much as trepidation. He lifted his chin and made to rise. “You will excuse me, sir.”

A hand on his arm stopped him, and he turned, looking into the face of Fraser’s nephew, Ian Murray. Murray smiled, and Forbes’s sense of self-satisfaction diminished slightly. They said the boy had lived with the Mohawk, become one of them—that he dwelt with a vicious wolf who spoke to him and obeyed his commands, that he had cut a man’s heart out and eaten it in some heathen ritual.

Looking at the lad’s homely face and disheveled dress, though, Forbes was not impressed.

“Remove your hand from my person, sir,” he said with dignity, straightening in his chair.

“No, I think I won’t,” Murray said. The hand tightened on his arm like the bite of a horse, and Forbes’s mouth opened, though he made no sound.

“What have ye done with my cousin?” Murray said.

“I? Why, I—I have nothing whatever to do with Mrs. MacKenzie. Let go, God damn you!”

The grip relaxed, and he sat breathing heavily. MacKenzie had pulled up a chair to face him and sat down.

Forbes smoothed the sleeve of his coat, avoiding MacKenzie’s stare and thinking rapidly. How had they found out? Or had they? Perhaps they were only trying a venture, with no sure knowledge.

“I am grieved to hear that any misfortune might have befallen Mrs. MacKenzie,” he said politely. “Am I to take it that you have somehow misplaced her?”

MacKenzie looked him up and down for a moment without answering, then made a small sound of contempt.

“I heard ye speak in Mecklenberg,” he said, his tone conversational. “Very glib ye were. A great deal about justice, I heard, and protection of our wives and children. Such eloquence.”

“Fine talk,” Ian Murray put in, “for a man who would abduct a helpless woman.” He was still crouching on the floor like a savage, but had moved round a little, so as to stare directly into Forbes’s face. The lawyer found it slightly unnerving, and chose instead to meet MacKenzie’s eyes, man to man.

“I regret your misfortune extremely, sir,” he said, striving for a tone of concern. “I should be pleased to help, in any way possible, of course. But I do not—”

“Where is Stephen Bonnet?”

The question struck Forbes like a blow to the liver. He gaped for a moment, thinking that he had made a mistake in choosing MacKenzie to look at; that flat green gaze was like a snake’s.

“Who is Stephen Bonnet?” he asked, licking his lips. His lips were dry, but the rest of him was heavily bedewed; he could feel sweat pooling in the creases of his neck, soaking the cambric of his shirt beneath his oxters.

“I heard ye, ken,” Murray remarked pleasantly. “When ye made the bargain wi’ Richard Brown. In your warehouse, it was.”

Forbes’s head snapped round. He was so shocked that it was a moment before he realized that Murray was holding a knife, laid casually across his knee.

“What? You say—what? I tell you, sir, you are mistaken—mistaken!” He half-rose, stammering. MacKenzie shot to his feet and seized him by the shirtfront, twisting.

“No, sir,” he said very softly, his face so close that Forbes felt the heat of his breath. “It is yourself has been mistaken. Most grievously mistaken, in choosing my wife to serve your wicked ends.”

There was a ripping sound as the fine cambric tore. MacKenzie shoved him back violently into the chair, then leaned forward, seizing his neckcloth in a grip that threatened to choke him on the spot. His mouth opened, gasping, and black spots flickered in his vision—but not sufficiently as to obscure those brilliant, cold green eyes.

“Where has he taken her?”

Forbes gripped the arms of his chair, breathing heavily.

“I know nothing about your wife,” he said, his voice pitched low and venomous. “And as for grievous error, sir, you are in the process of committing one. How dare you assault me? I shall prefer charges, I do assure you!”

“Oh, assault, forbye,” Murray said, scoffing. “We havena done any such thing. Yet.” He sat back on his haunches, tapping the knife thoughtfully against his thumbnail and regarding Forbes with an air of estimation, like one planning to carve a suckling pig on a platter.

Forbes set his jaw and glared up at MacKenzie, who was still standing, looming over him.

“This is a public place,” he pointed out. “You cannot harm me without notice being taken.” He glanced behind MacKenzie, hoping that someone would come into the parlor and interrupt this grossly uncomfortable tête-à-tête, but it was a quiet morning, and all the chambermaids and ostlers inconveniently about their duties elsewhere.

“Do we care if anyone notices, a charaid?” Murray inquired, glancing up at MacKenzie.

“Not really.” Nonetheless, MacKenzie resumed his seat and resumed his stare. “We can wait a bit, though.” He glanced at the case clock by the mantel, its pendulum moving with a serene tick-tock. “It won’t be long.”

Belatedly, it occurred to Forbes to wonder where Jamie Fraser was.

ELSPETH FORBES was rocking gently on the veranda of her sister’s house, enjoying the coolness of the morning air, when a visitor was announced.

“Why, Mr. Fraser!” she exclaimed, sitting up. “What brings ye to Edenton? Is it Neil ye’re in search of? He’s gone to—”

“Ah, no, Mistress Forbes.” He swept her a low bow, the morning sun gleaming off his hair as though it were bronze metal. “It is yourself I’ve come for.”

“Oh? Oh!” She sat up in her chair, hastily brushing away crumbs of toast on her sleeve, and hoping her cap was on straight. “Why, sir, what could ye possibly want with an old woman?”

He smiled—such a nice-looking lad he was, so fine in his gray coatie, and that look of mischief in his eyes—and leaned close to whisper in her ear.

“I’ve come to steal ye away, Mistress.”

“Och, awa’ with ye!” She flapped a hand at him, laughing, and he took it, kissing her knuckles.

“I shallna take ‘no’ for answer, now,” he assured her, and gestured toward the edge of the porch, where he had left a large, promising-looking basket, covered with a checkered cloth. “I’ve a mind to eat my luncheon in the country, under a tree. I’ve the very tree in mind—a braw, fine tree—but it’s a poor meal, taken without company.”

“Surely to goodness ye could find better company than mine, lad,” she said, thoroughly charmed. “And where’s your dear wife, then?”

“Ah, she’s left me,” he said, affecting sorrow. “Here’s me, with a wonderful picnic planned, and her off to a birthing. So I said to myself, well, Jamie, it’s shame to waste such a feast—who might be at liberty to share it with ye? And what should I see next but your most elegant self, taking your ease. An answer to prayer, it was; surely ye wouldna go against heavenly guidance, Mistress Forbes?”

“Hmph,” she said, trying not to laugh at him. “Och, well. If it’s a matter of wasting . . .”

Before she could say more, he had stooped down and plucked her from her chair, lifting her in his arms. She whooped with surprise.

“If it’s a proper abduction, I must carry ye away, aye?” he said, smiling down at her.

To her mortification, the sound she made could be called nothing but a giggle. He seemed not to mind, though, and bending to sweep up the basket in one strong hand, carried her like a bit of thistledown out to his carriage.

“YOU CANNOT KEEP ME prisoner here! Let me pass, or I will shout for help!”

They had, in fact, held him for more than an hour, blocking all attempts on his part to rise and leave. He was right, though, Roger thought; traffic was beginning to pick up in the street outside, and he could hear—as could Forbes—the noises of a maid setting out the tables for dinner in the next room.

He glanced at Ian. They had discussed it; if word hadn’t come within an hour, they would have to try to remove Forbes from the inn, take him to a more private place. That could be a dicey business; the lawyer was intimidated, but stubborn as a ball bearing. And he would call for help.

Ian pursed his lips thoughtfully, and drew the knife he had been playing with down the side of his breeches, polishing the blade.

“Mr. MacKenzie?” A small boy had popped up beside him like a mushroom, dirt-smeared and round-faced.

“I am,” he said, a wave of thankfulness washing through him. “Have ye got something for me?”

“Aye, sir.” The urchin handed over a small twist of paper, accepted a coin in return, and was gone, in spite of Forbes’s call of “Wait, boy!”

The lawyer had half-risen from his seat in agitation. Roger made a sharp move toward him, though, and he sank back at once, not waiting to be pushed. Good, Roger thought grimly, he was learning.

Undoing the twist of paper, he found himself holding a large brooch in the shape of a bunch of flowers, done in garnets and silver. It was a good piece of workmanship, but rather ugly. Its impression on Forbes, though, was substantial.

“You wouldn’t. He wouldn’t.” The lawyer was staring at the brooch in Roger’s hand, his heavy face gone pale.

“Oh, I expect he would, if ye mean Uncle Jamie,” Ian Murray said. “He’s fond of his daughter, aye?”

“Nonsense.” The lawyer was making a game attempt to bluff it out, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off the brooch. “Fraser is a gentleman.”

“He’s a Highlander,” Roger said brutally. “Like your father, aye?” He’d heard stories about the elder Forbes, who by all accounts had escaped Scotland just ahead of the hangsman.

Forbes chewed his lower lip.

“He would not harm an old woman,” he said, with as much bravado as he could summon.

“Would he not?” Ian’s sketchy brows lifted. “Aye, perhaps not. He might just send her awa’, though—to Canada, maybe? Ye seem to ken him fair weel, Mr. Forbes. What d’ye think?”

The lawyer drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, breathing through his teeth, evidently reviewing what he knew of Jamie Fraser’s character and reputation.

“All right,” he said suddenly. “All right!”

Roger felt the tension running through him snap like a cut wire. He’d been strung like a puppet since Jamie had come to fetch him last night.

“Where?” he said, feeling breathless. “Where is she?”

“She’s safe,” Forbes said hoarsely. “I wouldn’t have her harmed.” He looked up, wild-eyed. “For God’s sake, I wouldn’t harm her!”

“Where?” Roger clamped the brooch tight, not caring that its edges cut into his hand. “Where is she?”

The lawyer sagged like a half-filled bag of meal.

“Aboard a ship called Anemone, Captain Bonnet.” He swallowed hard, unable to keep his eyes away from the brooch. “She—I told—they are bound for England. But she is safe, I tell you!”

Shock tightened Roger’s grip, and he felt the sudden slick of blood on his fingers. He flung the brooch onto the floor, wiping his hand on his breeches, struggling for words. The shock had tightened his throat, as well; he felt as though he were strangling.

Seeing his trouble, Ian stood abruptly and pressed his knife against the lawyer’s throat.

“When did they sail?”

“I—I—” The lawyer’s mouth opened and closed at random, and he looked helplessly from Ian to Roger, eyes bulging.

“Where?” Roger forced the word past the blockage in his throat, and Forbes flinched at the sound.

“She—she was put aboard here. In Edenton. Two—two days ago.”

Roger nodded abruptly. Safe, he said. In Bonnet’s hands. Two days, in Bonnet’s hands. But he had sailed with Bonnet, he thought, trying to steady himself, keep a grip on his rationality. He knew how the man worked. Bonnet was a smuggler; he would not sail for England without a full cargo. He might—might—be going down the coast, picking up small shipments before turning to the open sea and the long voyage for England.

And if not—he might still be caught, with a fast ship.

No time to be lost; people on the docks might know where the Anemone was headed next. He turned and took a step toward the door. Then a red wave washed through him and he whirled back, smashing his fist into Forbes’s face with the full weight of his body behind it.

The lawyer gave a high-pitched scream, and clutched both hands to his nose. All noises in the inn and in the street seemed to stop; the world hung suspended. Roger took a short, deep breath, rubbing his knuckles, and nodded once more.

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