Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 14

   

The traffic grew thicker, slowing to a crawling line of cars as they reached the entrance to the resort where the festival was being held.

“Look,” Brianna said abruptly. She didn’t turn toward him, but stared out through the windshield at the New Jersey license plate of the car in front of them. “I have to explain.”

“Not to me.”

She flicked one red eyebrow in brief irritation.

“To who else?” She pressed her lips together and sighed. “Yeah, all right, me too. But I do.”

Roger could taste the acid from the tea, bitter in the back of his throat. Was this where she told him it had been a mistake for him to come? He’d thought so himself, all the way across the Atlantic, twitching and cramped in the tiny airline seat. Then he’d seen her across the airport lobby, and all doubt had vanished on the instant.

It hadn’t come back during the intervening week, either; he’d seen her at least briefly every day—even managed a baseball game with her at Fenway Park on Thursday afternoon. He’d found the game itself baffling, but Brianna’s enthusiasm for it enchanting. He found himself counting the hours left before he’d have to leave, and looking forward nonetheless to this—the only whole day they’d have together.

That didn’t mean she felt the same. He glanced quickly over the line of cars; the gate was visible, but still a quarter-mile off. He had maybe three minutes to convince her.

“In Scotland,” she was saying, “when all—that—happened with my mother. You were great, Roger—really wonderful.” She didn’t look at him, but he could see a shimmer of moisture just above the thick auburn lashes.

“It was no great thing to do,” he said. He curled his hands into fists to keep from touching her. “I was interested.”

She laughed shortly.

“Yeah, I bet you were.” She slowed, and turned her head to look at him, full-on. Even wide open, her eyes had a faint catlike slant to them.

“Have you been back to the stone circle? To Craigh na Dun?”

“No,” he said shortly. Then coughed and added, as if casually, “I don’t go up to Inverness all that often; it’s been term time at College.”

“It isn’t that the Minister’s cat is a fraidycat?” she asked, but she smiled slightly when she said it.

“The Minister’s cat is scared stiff of that place,” he said frankly. “He wouldn’t set foot up there if it were knee-deep in sardines.” She laughed outright, and the tension between them eased noticeably.

“Me too,” she said, and took a deep breath. “But I remember. All the trouble you went to, to help—and then, when it—when she—when Mama went through—” Her teeth clamped savagely on her lower lip, and she hit the brake, harder than necessary.

“Do you see?” she said, in a small voice. “I can’t be around you more than half an hour, and it all comes back. I haven’t talked about my parents in more than six months, and no sooner do we start playing that silly game than I’ve mentioned both of them in less than a minute. It’s been happening all week.”

She thumbed a loose strand of red hair off her shoulder. She went a lovely pink when she was excited or upset, and the color was burning high in her cheeks.

“I thought it might be something like that—when you didn’t answer my letter.”

“It wasn’t only that.” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, as though to bite back the words, but it was too late. A brilliant tide of red washed up out of the V of her white T-shirt, turning her the color of the tomato sauce she insisted on eating with chips.

He reached across the seat and gently brushed the veil of hair back from her face.

“I had a terrible crush on you,” she blurted, staring straight ahead through the windshield. “But I didn’t know whether you were just being nice to me because Mama asked you to, or whether—”

“Whether,” he interrupted, and smiled as she risked a tiny look at him. “Definitely whether.”

“Oh.” She relaxed fractionally, loosening her stranglehold on the wheel. “Well. Good.”

He wanted to take her hand, but didn’t want to pry it off the wheel and cause an accident. Instead, he laid his arm across the back of the seat, letting his fingers brush her shoulder.

“Anyway. I didn’t think—I thought—well, it was either throw myself into your arms or get the hell out of Dodge. So I did, but I couldn’t figure out how to explain without looking like an idiot, and then when you wrote, it was worse—well, see, I do look like an idiot!”

Roger flipped open the catch of his seat belt.

“Will you drive into that car in front of us if I kiss you?”

“No.”

“Good.” He slid across the seat, took her chin in one hand, and kissed her, fast. They bumped sedately over the dirt road and into the parking lot.

She was breathing easier, and her color had receded a little. She pulled neatly into a parking slot, killed the motor, and sat for a moment, looking straight ahead. Then she opened her seat belt and turned to him.

It wasn’t until they got out of the car several minutes later that it occurred to Roger that she had mentioned her parents more than once—but the real problem had likely more to do with the parent she so carefully hadn’t mentioned.

Great, he thought, absently admiring her backside as she bent to open the trunk. She’s trying not to think of Jamie Fraser, and where the hell do you bring her? He glanced at the entrance to the resort, where the Union Jack and the Saltire of Scotland snapped in the summer breeze. From the mountainside beyond came the mournful sound of bagpipes playing.

4

A BLAST FROM THE PAST

Used as he was to changing in the back of someone’s horse van or in the Gents’ facilities of a pub, the small backstage cubicle allotted to Roger’s personal use seemed remarkably luxurious. It was clean, it had hooks for his street clothes, and there were no drunken patrons snoring on the threshold. Of course, this was America, he reflected, unbuttoning his jeans and dropping them on the floor. Different standards, at least with regard to material comforts.

He yanked the bell-sleeved shirt over his head, wondering just what level of comfort Brianna was accustomed to. He was no judge of women’s clothing—how expensive could blue jeans possibly be?—but he knew a bit about cars. Hers was a brand-new blue Mustang that made him itch to take the wheel.

Plainly her parents had left her enough to live on; he could trust Claire Randall to have seen to that. He only hoped it wasn’t so much that she might think him interested on that account. Reminded of her parents, he glanced at the brown envelope; should he give it to her, after all?

The Minister’s cat had nearly jumped out of her skin when they’d walked through the performers’ entrance and come face-to-face with the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ pipe-band from Canada, practicing at full blast behind the dressing rooms. She’d actually gone pale when he’d introduced her to the pipe major, an old acquaintance. Not that Bill Livingstone was intimidating on his own; it was the Fraser clan badge on his chest that had done it.

Je suis prest, it said. I am ready. Not nearly ready enough, Roger thought, and wanted to kick himself for bringing her.

Still, she had assured him she’d be all right exploring on her own while he dressed and got himself up for his turn.

And he’d best turn his mind to that, too, he thought, snugging the buckles of his kilt at waist and hip, and reaching for the long woolen stockings. He was on in the early afternoon, for forty-five minutes, then a shorter solo turn at the evening ceilidh. He had a rough lineup of songs in mind, but you always had to take the crowd into account. Lots of women, the ballads went well; more men, more of the martial—“Killiecrankie” and “Montrose,” “Guns and Drums.” The bawdy songs did best when the audience was well warmed up—preferably after a bit of beer.

He turned the stocking tops down neatly, and slid the antler-handled sgian dhu inside, tight against his right calf. He laced the buskins quickly, hurrying a little. He wanted to find Brianna again, have a little time to walk round with her, get her something to eat, see she had a good seat for the performances.

He flung the plaid over one shoulder, fastened his brooch, belted on dirk and sporran, and was ready. Or not quite. He halted, halfway to the door.

The ancient olive-drab drawers were military issue, circa World War II—one of Roger’s few mementos of his father. He didn’t bother with pants much in the normal course, but included these with his kilt sometimes as a defensive measure against the amazing boldness of some female spectators. He’d been warned by other performers, but wouldn’t have believed it, had he not experienced it firsthand. German ladies were the worst, but he’d known a few American women run them a close second for taking liberties in close quarters.

He didn’t think he’d need such measures here; the crowd sounded civil, and he’d seen that the stage was safely out of reach. Besides, offstage he’d have Brianna with him, and if she should choose to take any liberties of her own…He dropped the pants back in his bag, on top of the brown envelope.

“Wish me luck, Dad,” he whispered, and went to find her.

“Wow!” She walked round him in a circle, goggling. “Roger, you are gorgeous!” She smiled, a trifle lopsided. “My mother always said men in kilts were irresistible. I guess she was right.”

He saw her swallow hard, and wanted to hug her for her bravery, but she had already turned away, gesturing toward the main food area.

“Are you hungry? I had a look while you were changing. We’ve got our choice between octopus-on-a-stick, Baja fish tacos, Polish dogs—”

He took her arm and pulled her round to face him.

“Hey,” he said softly. “I’m sorry; I wouldn’t have brought you if I’d known it would be a shock.”

“It’s all right.” Her smile was better this time. “It’s—I’m glad you brought me.”

“Truly?”

“Yeah. Really. It’s—” She waved helplessly at the tartan swirl of noise and color all around them. “It’s so—Scottish.”

He wanted to laugh at that; nothing could be less like Scotland than this mix of tourist claptrap and the bald-faced selling of half-faked traditions. At the same time, she was right, it was uniquely Scottish; an example of the Scots’ age-old talent for survival—the ability to adapt to anything, and make a profit from it.

He did hug her, then. Her hair smelled clean, like fresh grass, and he could feel her heart beating through the white T-shirt she wore.

“You’re Scots, too, you know,” he said in her ear, and let go. Her eyes were still bright, but with a different emotion now, he thought.

“I guess you’re right,” she said, and smiled again, a good one. “That doesn’t mean I have to eat haggis, does it? I saw some over there, and I think I’d even rather try the octopus-on-a-stick.”

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