He knelt awkwardly on his good knee, and splashed water from the burn over his face. Brianna did likewise, and gulped several handfuls of the cold, peaty-tasting water. Having no towel, she pulled her long shirttail from her breeks and wiped her face. She caught Ian’s scandalized look at the glimpse of her bare stomach thus afforded, and dropped the shirttail abruptly, her cheeks flushing.
“You were going to tell me why my father married her,” she said, to hide her embarrassment.
Ian’s cheeks had gone a dull red, and he turned hastily away, talking to cover his confusion.
“Aye. It was as I told ye—when Jamie came from England, it was like the spark had gone out o’ him, and there was nothing here to kindle it again. I dinna ken what it was that happened in England, but something did, sure as I’m born.”
He shrugged, the back of his neck fading to its normal sunburnt brown.
“After Culloden, he was bad hurt, but there was fighting still to do, of a kind, and that kept him alive. When he came home from England—there wasna anything here for him, really.” He spoke quietly, eyes cast down, watching his footing on the rocky ground.
“So Jenny made the match for him, with Laoghaire.” He glanced at her, eyes bright and shrewd.
“You’ll maybe be old enough to know, for all you’re unwed yet. What a woman can do for a man—or he for her, I suppose. To heal him, I mean. Fill his emptiness.” He touched his maimed leg absently. “Jamie wed Laoghaire from pity, I think—and if she had truly needed him—aye, well.” He shrugged again, and smiled at her.
“It’s no use to say what might have been or should be, is it? But he had left Laoghaire’s house some time before your mother came back, you should know that.”
Brianna felt a small surge of relief.
“Oh. I’m glad to know that. And my mother—when she came back—”
“He was verra glad to see her,” Ian said simply. This time the smile lighted his whole face, like sunshine. “So was I.”
It reminded her uncomfortably of Boston’s city dog pound. A large, halfdark space whose rafters rang with yelping, and an atmosphere dense with animal smells. The big building on the market square in Inverness sheltered a great many enterprises—food vendors, cattle and swine brokers, assurance agents, ship-chandlers and Royal Navy recruiters, but it was the group of men, women and children bunched in one corner that lent most force to the illusion.
Here and there a man or a woman stood upright amid the group, chin out and shoulders set in a show of good health and spirit, putting themselves forward. But for the most part, the people who offered themselves for sale eyed the passersby warily, in darting glances whose expressions were fixed between hope and fear—much too reminiscent of the dogs in the animal shelter where her father had now and then taken her to adopt a pet.
There were several families, too, with children clinging to their mothers, or standing blank-faced beside their parents. She tried not to look at them; it was always the puppies that had broken her heart.
Young Jamie was sidling slowly around the group, hat held against his chest to save it being crushed by the crowd, eyes half closed as he considered the prospects on offer. Her uncle Ian had gone to the shipping office to arrange her passage to America, leaving her cousin Jamie to choose a servant to accompany her on the journey. In vain had she protested that she didn’t need a servant; after all, she had—so far as they knew—traveled from France to Scotland by herself, in perfect safety.
The men had nodded and smiled and listened with every evidence of polite attention—and here she was, obediently following Young Jamie through the crowd like one of her aunt Jenny’s sheep. She was beginning to understand exactly what her mother had meant by describing the Frasers as “stubborn as rocks.”
Despite the hubbub around her and her annoyance at her male relatives, her heart gave a small, excited bounce at thought of her mother. It was only now, when she knew for sure that Claire was safe, that she could admit to herself how sorely she had missed her. And her father—that unknown Highlander who had come so suddenly and vividly to life for her as she read his letters. The minor fact of an intervening ocean seemed no more than a small inconvenience.
Her cousin Jamie interrupted these rosy thoughts by taking her arm and leaning close to shout in her ear.
“Yon fellow wi’ the cast in one eye,” he said in a subdued bellow, indicating the gentleman in question by pointing with his chin. “What d’ye say to him, Brianna?”
“I’d say he looks like the Boston Strangler,” she muttered, then louder, shouting into her cousin’s ear, “He looks like an ox! No!”
“He’s strong, and he looks honest!”
Brianna thought the gentleman in question looked too stupid to be dishonest, but refrained from saying so, merely shaking her head emphatically.
Young Jamie shrugged philosophically and resumed his scrutiny of the would-be bondsmen, walking around those who took his particular interest and peering at them closely, in a way she might have thought exceedingly rude had a number of other potential employers not been doing likewise.
“Bridies! Hot bridies!” A high-pitched screech cut through the rumble and racket of the hall, and Brianna turned to see an old woman elbowing her way robustly through the crowd, a steaming tray hung round her neck and a wooden spatula in hand.
The heavenly scent of fresh hot dough and spiced meat cut through the other pungencies in the hall, noticeable as the old woman’s calling. It had been a long time since breakfast, and Brianna dug in her pocket, feeling saliva fill her mouth.
Ian had taken her purse to pay for her passage, but she had two or three loose coins; she held one up and waved it to and fro. The bridie seller spotted the flash of silver and at once altered course, tacking through the chattering mob. She hove to in front of Brianna and reached up to snatch the coin.
“Mary save us, a giantess!” she said, showing strong yellow teeth in a grin as she tilted her head back to look up at Brianna. “Ye’d best take twa, my dearie. One will never do a great lass like you!”
Heads turned, and faces grinned up at her. She stood half a head higher than most of the men nearby. Mildly embarrassed by the attention, Brianna gave the nearest offender a cold look. This seemed to entertain the young man quite a lot; he staggered back against his friend, clutching his breast and pretending to be overcome.
“My God!” he said. “She looked at me! I’m heartstruck!”
“Och, awa’ wi’ ye,” his friend scoffed, shoving him upright. “ ’Twas me she was looking at; who’d look at you if they’d a choice?”
“Nothing of the sort,” his friend protested stoutly. “It was me—wasn’t it, darlin’?” He languished, making calf’s eyes at Brianna and looking so ridiculous that she laughed, along with the crowd around her.
“And what would ye be doing with her, if ye got her, eh? She’d make two of ye. Now, off wi’ ye, spawn,” the bridie seller said, casually smacking the young man across the buttocks with her wooden spatula. “I’ve business, if you haven’t. And the young woman will starve if ye dinna leave off playin’ the fool and let her buy her dinner, aye?”
“She looks in fine flesh to me, grannie.” Brianna’s admirer, ignoring both assault and admonition, ogled her shamelessly. “And as for the rest—fetch me a ladder, Bobby, I’m no afraid of heights!”
Amid gales of laughter, the young man was dragged away by his friends, making loud kissing noises over his shoulder as he moved reluctantly off. Brianna took her change in coppers and retired into a corner to eat two of the hot beef pasties, her face still warm with laughter and self-consciousness.
She hadn’t been so aware of her height since she had been a gawky seventh-grader, towering over all her classmates. Among her tall cousins, she had felt at home, but it was true; here she stuck out like a sore thumb, despite her having abided by Jenny’s insistence and changed from her men’s clothes to a dress of her cousin Janet’s, hastily altered and let out in the seams.
Her sense of self-consciousness was not helped by the fact that no underclothes went with the dress, beyond a shift. No one seemed to find any lack in this state of affairs, but she was intensely conscious of the unaccustomed feeling of airiness about her nether parts, and the odd feeling of her nak*d thighs sliding past each other as she walked, her silk stockings gartered just above the knee.
Both self-consciousness and drafts were forgotten as she bit into the first hot pastry. A bridie was a plump hot pie in a half-moon shape, filled with minced steak and suet and spiced with onion. A rush of hot, rich juice and flaky pastry filled her mouth, and she closed her eyes in bliss.
“The food was either terribly bad or terribly good,” Claire had said, describing her adventures in the past. “That’s because there’s no way of keeping things; anything you eat has either been salted or preserved in lard, if it isn’t half rancid—or else it’s fresh off the hoof or out of the garden, in which case it can be bloody marvelous.”
The bridie was bloody marvelous, Brianna decided, even if it did keep dropping crumbs down the top of her bodice. She brushed at her bosom, trying to be unobtrusive, but the crowd’s attention had turned—no one was looking at her now.
Or almost no one. A slight, fair man in a shabby coat had materialized by her elbow, making small nervous movements as though he wanted to pluck her sleeve but hadn’t quite got up the nerve. Not sure whether he was a beggar or another importunate suitor, she looked suspiciously down her nose at him.
“You—you are requiring a servant, ma’am?”
She dropped her aloofness, realizing that he must be one of the crowd of indentures.
“Oh. Well, I wouldn’t say I require one, exactly, but it looks as though I’m going to get one anyway.” She glanced at Young Jamie, who was now interrogating a squat, beetle-browed individual with shoulders like the Village Blacksmith. Young Jamie’s notion of the ideal servant seemed to be limited to muscle. She looked back at the small man in front of her; he wasn’t much by Young Jamie’s standards, but by hers…
“Are you interested?” she asked.
The expression of haggard nervousness didn’t leave his face, but a fugitive gleam of hope showed in his eyes.
“It—I—that is—not me, no. But will you think—perhaps consider—will you take my daughter?” he said abruptly. “Please!”
“Your daughter?” Brianna looked down at him, startled, her half-eaten bridie forgotten.
“I beg you, ma’am!” To her surprise, tears stood in the man’s eyes. “Ye cannot think how urgently I pray you, or what gratitude I must bear ye!”
“But—ah—” Brianna brushed crumbs from the corner of her mouth, feeling desperately awkward.
“She is a strong girl in spite of her appearance, and most willing! She will be content to do any service whatever for ye, ma’am, and ye’ll buy her contract!”