An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 30

   

But Mandy was well now—hair-raisingly healthy, as the trail of destruction that followed her testified. The painstaking details of reestablishing their identities in the twentieth century had been accomplished, the purchase of Lallybroch made from the bank that owned it, the physical removal to Scotland accomplished, Jem settled—more or less—into the village school nearby, and a nice girl from the same village engaged to come clear up and help look after Mandy.

And now Brianna was going to work.

Roger was going to hell. Metaphorically, if not literally.

BRIANNA COULDN’T SAY she hadn’t been warned. It was a man’s world she was walking into.

A rough job it had been, a tough undertaking—the toughest, digging the tunnels that carried the miles of cable from the turbines of the hydroelectric plants. “Tunnel tigers,” they’d called the men who dug them, many of them Polish and Irish immigrants who’d come for a job in the 1950s.

She’d read about them, seen pictures of them, grimy-faced and white-eyed as coal miners, in the Hydro Electric authority office—the walls were covered with them, documentation of Scotland’s proudest modern achievement. What had been Scotland’s proudest ancient achievement? she wondered. The kilt? She’d suppressed a laugh at the thought, but evidently it made her look pleasant, because Mr. Campbell, the personnel manager, had smiled kindly at her.

“You’re in luck, lass; we’ve an opening at Pitlochry, starting in a month,” he’d said.

“That’s wonderful.” She had a folder in her lap, containing her credentials. He didn’t ask to see it, which rather surprised her, but she set it on the desk before him, flipping it open. “Here are my … er … ?” He was staring at the curriculum vitae on top, his mouth hanging open far enough for her to see the steel fillings in his back teeth.

He shut his mouth, glanced up at her in astonishment, then looked back at the folder, slowly lifting the CV as though afraid there might be something even more shocking underneath.

“I think I have all the qualifications,” she said, restraining the nervous urge to clench her fingers in the fabric of her skirt. “To be a plant inspector, I mean.” She knew damned well she did. She had the qualifications to build a freaking hydroelectric station, let alone inspect one.

“Inspector …” he said faintly. Then he coughed, and flushed a bit. Heavy smoker; she could smell the fug of tobacco that clung to his clothes.

“I’m afraid there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding, my dear,” he said. “It’s a secretary we’re needing at Pitlochry.”

“Perhaps you do,” she said, giving in to the cloth-clenching urge. “But the advertisement I replied to was for plant inspector, and that’s the position I’m applying for.”

“But … my dear …” He was shaking his head, clearly appalled. “You’re a woman!”

“I am,” she said, and any of a hundred men who’d known her father would have picked up the ring of steel in her voice and given in on the spot. Mr. Campbell unfortunately hadn’t known Jamie Fraser—but was about to be enlightened. “Would you care to explain to me exactly which aspects of plant inspection require a penis?”

His eyes bulged and he turned the shade of a turkey’s wattles in courting season.

“That—you—that is—” With evident effort, he mastered himself enough to speak courteously, though the shock was still plain on his blunt features.

“Mrs. MacKenzie. I’m not unfamiliar with the notion of women’s liberation, aye? I’ve daughters of my own.” And none of them would have said something like that to me, his raised brow said. “It’s not that I think ye’d be incompetent.” He glanced at the open folder, raised both brows briefly, then shut it firmly. “It’s the—the work environment. It wouldn’t be suitable for a woman.”

“Why not?”

He was recovering his aplomb by now.

“The conditions are often physically rough—and to be honest, Mrs. MacKenzie, so are the men you would encounter. The company cannot in good conscience—or as a matter of good business—risk your safety.”

“You employ men who would be likely to assault a woman?”

“No! We—”

“You have plants that are physically dangerous? Then you do need an inspector, don’t you?”

“The legalities—”

“I’m well up on the regulations pertaining to hydroelectric plants,” she said firmly, and reaching into her bag, produced the printed booklet of regulations—obviously well thumbed—supplied by the Highlands and Islands Development Board. “I can spot problems, and I can tell you how to rectify them promptly—and as economically as possible.”

Mr. Campbell was looking deeply unhappy.

“And I hear that you haven’t had many applicants for this position,” she finished. “None, to be exact.”

“The men …”

“Men?” she said, and allowed the smallest edge of amusement to tinge the word. “I’ve worked with men before. I get on with them well.”

She looked at him, not saying anything. I know what it’s like to kill a man, she thought. I know just how easy it is. And you don’t. She was not aware of having changed expression, but Campbell lost a bit of his high color and looked away. She wondered for a split second whether Roger would look away, if he saw that knowledge in her eyes. But this was no time to think of things like that.

“Why don’t you show me one of the work sites?” she said gently. “Then we’ll talk some more.”

IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, St. Stephen’s had been used as a temporary prison for captured Jacobites. Two of them had been executed in the graveyard, by some accounts. It wasn’t the worst thing to have as your last sight of earth, he supposed: the wide river and the vast sky, both flowing to the sea. They carried an abiding sense of peace, wind and cloud and water did, despite their constant movement.

“If ever you find yourself in the midst of paradox, you can be sure you stand on the edge of truth,” his adoptive father had told him once. “You may not know what it is, mind,” he’d added with a smile. “But it’s there.”

The rector at St. Stephen’s, Dr. Weatherspoon, had had a few aphorisms to share, too.

“When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Yeah. The problem was that this particular window opened off the tenth story, and he wasn’t so sure God supplied parachutes.

“Do You?” he asked, looking up at the drifting sky over Inverness.

“Beg pardon?” said the startled sexton, popping up from the gravestone behind which he’d been working.

“Sorry.” Roger flapped a hand, embarrassed. “Just … talking to myself.”

The elderly man nodded understandingly. “Aye, aye. Nay bother, then. It’s when ye start getting answers ye should worry.” Chuckling hoarsely, he descended back out of sight.

Roger made his way down from the high graveyard to street level, walking slowly back to the car park. Well, he’d taken the first step. Well past the time he should have done—Bree was right, to a degree; he had been a coward—but he had done it.

The difficulty wasn’t resolved as yet, but it had been a great comfort, only being able to lay it out for someone who understood and sympathized.

“I’ll pray for you,” Dr. Weatherspoon had said, shaking his hand in parting. That was a comfort, too.

He started up the dank concrete steps of the car park, fumbling in his pocket for the keys. Couldn’t say he was entirely at peace with himself, just yet—but he felt a lot more peaceable toward Bree. Now he could go home and tell her …

No, damn it. He couldn’t, not yet. He had to check.

He didn’t have to check; he knew he was right. But he had to have it in his hands, had to be able to show Bree.

Turning abruptly on his heel, he strode past a puzzled car-park attendant coming up behind him, took the stairs two at a time, and walked up Huntly Street as though he trod on red-hot coals. He stopped briefly at the Fox, digging in his pocket for coins, and rang through from the call box to Lallybroch. Annie answered the phone with her customary rudeness, saying “Yiss?” with such abruptness that it emerged as little more than an interrogatory hiss.

He didn’t bother rebuking her phone manners.

“It’s Roger. Tell the Missus I’m going down to Oxford to look something up. I’ll spend the night.”

“Mmphm,” she said, and hung up.

SHE WANTED TO HIT Roger over the head with a blunt object. Something like a champagne bottle, maybe.

“He went where?” she asked, though she’d heard Annie MacDonald clearly. Annie lifted both narrow shoulders to the level of her ears, indicating that she understood the rhetorical nature of the question.

“To Oxford,” she said. “To England.” The tone of her voice underlined the sheer outrageousness of Roger’s action. He hadn’t simply gone to look up something in an old book—which would have been strange enough, though to be sure himself was a scholar and they’d do anything—but had abandoned his wife and children without notice and hied away to a foreign country!

“Himself did say as he’d come home tomorrow,” Annie added, with great dubiousness. She picked up the bottle of champagne in its carrier bag, gingerly, as though it might explode. “Ought I put this to the ice, d’ye think?”

“To the—oh, no, don’t put it in the freezer. Just in the fridge. Thank you, Annie.”

Annie disappeared into the kitchen, and Brianna stood in the drafty hall for a moment, trying to get her feelings firmly under control before going to find Jem and Mandy. Kids being kids, they had ultra-sensitive radar concerning their parents. They already knew something was the matter between her and Roger; having their father suddenly disappear was not calculated to give them a feeling of cozy security. Had he even said goodbye to them? Assured them he’d be back? No, of course not.

“Bloody selfish, self-centered …” she muttered. Unable to find a satisfying noun with which to complete this, she said, “rat-fink bastard!” and then snorted with reluctant laughter. Not merely at the silliness of the insult, but with a wry acknowledgment that she’d got what she wanted. Both ways.

Granted, he couldn’t have stopped her going for the job—and once he got past the dislocations involved, she thought he’d be all right with it.

“Men hate things to change,” her mother had once casually told her. “Unless it’s their idea, of course. But you can make them think it is their idea, sometimes.”

Maybe she should have been less direct about it; tried to get Roger to feel that at least he had something to say about her going to work, even if not to think it was his idea—that would have been pushing it. She’d been in no mood to be devious, though. Or even diplomatic.

As for what she’d done to him … well, she’d put up with his immobility for as long as she could, and then she’d pushed him off a cliff. Deliberately.

“And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it!” she said to the coatrack.

She hung up her coat slowly, taking a little extra time to check the pockets for used tissues and crumpled receipts.

So, had he gone off out of pique—to get back at her for going back to work? Or out of anger at her having called him a coward? He hadn’t liked that one bit; his eyes had gone dark and he’d nearly lost his voice—strong emotion choked him, quite literally, freezing his larynx. She’d done it on purpose, though. She knew where Roger’s soft spots were—just as he knew hers.

Her lips tightened at that, just as her fingers closed on something hard in the inner pocket of her jacket. A weathered shell, turreted and smooth, worn white by sun and water. Roger had picked it up on the shingle by Loch Ness and handed it to her.

“To live in,” he’d said, smiling, but given away by the gruffness of his damaged voice. “When ye need a hiding place.”

She closed her fingers gently over the shell, and sighed.

Roger wasn’t petty. Ever. He wouldn’t go off to Oxford—a reluctant bubble of amusement floated up at the thought of Annie’s shocked description: to England!—just to worry her.

So he’d gone for some specific reason, doubtless something jarred loose by their fight—and that worried her a bit.

He’d been wrestling with things since they came back. So had she, of course: Mandy’s illness, decisions about where to live, all the petty details of relocating a family in both space and time—they’d done all that together. But there were things he wrestled with alone.

She’d grown up an only child, just as he had; she knew how it was, how you live in your own head a lot. But damn him, whatever he was living with in his head was eating him up before her eyes, and if he wouldn’t tell her what it was, it was either something he considered too private to share—which bugged her, but she could live with it—or it was something he thought too disturbing or too dangerous to share, and she wasn’t bloody having that.

Her fingers had clenched round the shell, and she deliberately loosened them, trying to calm down.

She could hear the kids upstairs, in Jem’s room. He was reading something to Mandy—The Gingerbread Man, she thought. She couldn’t hear the words, but could tell by the rhythm, counterpointed by Mandy’s excited shouts of “Wun! Wun!”

No point in interrupting them. Time enough later to tell them Daddy’d be away overnight. Maybe they wouldn’t be bothered, if she was matter-of-fact about it; he’d never left them since they’d come back, but when they lived on the Ridge, he was often gone with Jamie or Ian, hunting. Mandy wouldn’t remember that, but Jem …

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