Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 129

   

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want you to come after me. But…Roger, I’m awfully glad you’re here!”

He kissed her temple; she was damp and salty with sweat and tears.

“So am I,” he said, and for the moment all the trials and dangers of the past two months seemed insignificant. All but one.

“How long have you been planning this?” he asked. He thought he could have told her, to the day. Since her letters had begun to change.

“Oh…about six months,” she said, confirming his guess. “It was when I went to Jamaica during last Easter vacation.”

“Aye?” To Jamaica, instead of to Scotland. She’d asked him to join her, and he’d refused, foolishly hurt that she hadn’t planned to come to him automatically.

She took a deep breath and let it out, blotting the neck of her shirt against her skin.

“I kept dreaming,” she said. “About my father. Fathers. Both of them.”

The dreams were little more than fragments; vivid glimpses of Frank Randall’s face, longer stretches now and then, in which she saw her mother. And now and then a tall, red-haired man whom she knew to be the father she had never seen.

“There was one dream in particular…” It had been night in the dream, somewhere tropical, with fields of tall green plants that might have been sugarcane, and fires burning in the distance.

“There were drums beating, and I knew something was hiding, waiting in the canes; something horrible,” she said. “My mother was there, drinking tea with a crocodile.” Roger grunted, and her voice grew sharper. “It was a dream, all right?

“Then he stepped out of the canes. I couldn’t see his face very well, because it was dark, but I could see that he had red hair; there were copper glints when he turned his head.”

“Was he the dreadful thing in the canes?” Roger asked.

“No.” He could hear the susurrus of her hair as she shook her head. It had gone quite dark by now, and she was little more than a comforting weight on his chest, a soft voice beside him, speaking from the shadows.

“He was standing between my mother and the awful thing. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there, waiting.” She gave a small, involuntary shudder and Roger tightened his hold on her.

“Then I knew my mother was going to stand up and walk right toward it. I tried to stop her, but I couldn’t make her hear me or see me. So I turned to him, and I called to him to go with her—to save her from whatever it was. And he saw me!” The hand on his arm squeezed tight. “He did, he saw me, and he heard me. And then I woke up.”

“Aye?” Roger said skeptically. “And this made you go to Jamaica, and—”

“It made me think,” she said sharply. “You’d looked; you couldn’t find them anywhere in Scotland after 1766, and you couldn’t find them on any of the emigration rolls to the Colonies. That was when you said you thought we should give up; that there wasn’t any more we could find out.”

Roger was glad of the darkness that hid his guilt. He kissed the top of her head, quickly.

“But I wondered; the place I saw them in the dream was in the tropics. What if they were in the Indies?”

“I looked,” Roger said. “I checked the passenger rolls of every ship that left Edinburgh or London in the late 1760s and ’70s—headed for anyplace. I did tell you,” he added, an edge in his voice.

“I know that,” she said, with a matching edge. “But what if they weren’t passengers? Why did people go to the Indies then— now, I mean?” She caught herself, voice cracking a little in realization.

“For trade, mostly.”

“Right. So what if they went on a cargo ship? They wouldn’t show up on the passenger rolls.”

“Okay,” he said slowly. “Right, they wouldn’t. But then how would you look for them?”

“Warehouse registers, plantation account books, port manifests. I spent the whole vacation in libraries and museums. And—and I found them,” she said, with a small catch in her voice.

Christ, she’d seen the notice.

“Aye?” he said, striving for calmness.

She laughed, a little tremulously.

“A Captain James Fraser, of a ship named Artemis, sold five tons of bat guano to a planter in Montego Bay on April 2, 1767.”

Roger couldn’t help a grunt of amusement, but at the same time, couldn’t help objecting.

“Aye, but a ship’s captain? After all your mother said about the man’s seasickness? And not to be discouraging, but there must be literally hundreds of James Frasers; how could you possibly know—”

“There might; but on April the first, a woman named Claire Fraser bought a slave from the slave market in Kingston.”

“She what?”

“I don’t know why,” Brianna said firmly, “but I’m sure she had a good reason.”

“Well, sure, but—”

“The papers gave the slave’s name as ‘Temeraire,’ and described him as having one arm. Makes him stand out, doesn’t it? Anyway, I started looking through collections of old newspapers; not just from the Indies, from all the southern colonies, looking for that name—my mother wouldn’t keep a slave; if she bought him, she’d free him somehow, and the notices of manumission were sometimes printed in the local papers. I thought I could maybe find where the slave was freed.”

“And did you?”

“No.” She was quiet for a minute. “I—I found something else. A notice of their…deaths. My parents.”

Even knowing that she must have found it, to hear it from her lips was still a shock. He pulled her tight against him, wrapping his arms around her.

“Where?” he said softly. “How?”

He should have known better. He wasn’t listening to her half-choked explanation; he was too busy cursing himself. He should have known she was too stubborn to be dissuaded. All he’d done with his fatheaded interference was to drive her into secrecy. And it had been he who’d paid for that—in months of worry.

“But we’re in time,” she said. “It said 1776; we’ve got time to find them.” She sighed hugely. “I’m so glad you’re here. I was so worried you’d find out before I could get back and I didn’t know what you’d do.”

“What I did do.…You know,” he said conversationally, “I have a friend with a two-year-old child. He says that he’d never in life condone child abuse—but by God, he understands what makes people do it. I feel very much the same about wife beating just now.”

There was a small quiver of laughter from the heavy weight on his chest.

“What do you mean by that?”

He slid a hand down her back and got a firm grip on one round buttock. She wore no underclothes beneath the loose breeches.

“I mean that were I a man of this time, instead of my own, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to lay my belt across your arse a dozen times or so.”

She didn’t seem to consider this a serious threat. In fact, he thought she was laughing.

“So since you’re not from this time, you wouldn’t do it? Or you would, but you wouldn’t enjoy it?”

“Oh, I’d enjoy it,” he assured her. “There’s nothing I’d like better than to take a stick to you.”

She was laughing.

Suddenly furious, he shoved her off and sat up.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I thought you’d found someone else! Your letters, the last few months…and then that last one. I was sure of it. It’s that I want to beat you for—not for lying to me or going off without telling me—for making me think I’d lost you!”

She was silent for a moment. Her hand came out of darkness and touched his face, very softly.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I never meant for you to think that. I only wanted to keep you from finding out, until it was too late.” Her head turned toward him, silhouetted by the faint light from the road outside their refuge. “How did you find out?”

“Your boxes. They came to the college.”

“What? But I told them not to send those until the end of May, when you’d be in Scotland!”

“I would have been; only for a last-minute conference that kept me in Oxford. They came the day before I left.”

There was a sudden spill of light and noise as the door of the tavern opened, disgorging a knot of patrons into the road. Voices and footsteps passed by their refuge, startlingly close. Neither of them spoke until the sounds had disappeared. In the renewed silence, he heard the sound of a conker falling through the leaves, to bounce on the leaves nearby.

Brianna’s voice was oddly husky.

“You thought I’d found somebody else…and you still came after me?”

He sighed, anger gone as suddenly as it had come, and wiped the damp hair off his face.

“I’d have come if you were married to the King of Siam. Bloody woman.”

She was no more than a pale blur in the darkness; he saw the brief movement as she leaned to pick up the fallen conker, and sat toying with it. Finally, she drew a very deep breath and let it out slowly.

“You said wife beating.”

He paused. The crickets had stopped again.

“You said you were sure. Did you mean it?”

There was a silence, long enough to fill a heartbeat, long enough to fill forever.

“Yes,” she said softly.

“In Inverness, I said—”

“You said you’d have me all—or not at all. And I said I understood. I’m sure.”

Her shirt had pulled free of her breeches in their struggle, and billowed loose around her in the faint hot breeze. He reached under the floating hem and touched bare skin, which rippled into gooseflesh at his touch. He pulled her close, ran his hands over bare back and bare shoulders under the cloth, buried his face in her hair, her neck, exploring, asking with his hands—did she mean it?

She gripped his shoulders and leaned back, urging him. Yes, she did. He answered, wordless, opening the front of her shirt, spreading it apart. Her br**sts were white and soft.

“Please,” she said. Her hand was at the back of his head, pulling him toward her. “Please!”

“If I take you now, it’s for always,” he whispered.

She scarcely breathed, but stood stock-still, letting his hands go where they would.

“Yes,” she said.

The tavern door opened again, startling them apart. He let her go and stood up, reaching down a hand to help her, then stood with her hand in his, waiting while the voices receded into distance.

“Come on,” he said, and ducked under the drooping branches.

The shed was some distance from the tavern, dark and quiet. They stopped outside, waiting, but there was no sound from the back of the inn; all the windows on the upper floor were dark.

“I hope Lizzie’s gone to bed.”

He wondered dimly who Lizzie was, but didn’t care. At this distance he could see her face clearly, though the night washed all color from her skin. She looked like a harlequin, he thought; white cheek planes slashed by leaf shadows, framed by the dark of her hair, her eyes black triangles set above a dash of vivid mouth.

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