“Yes, I understand,” I said. And then said, “Oh, but Bree!” as the knowledge of what her decision would mean to her flooded in on me anew.
She was watching me, brows drawn down, lines of trouble in her face, and it occurred to me belatedly that she might take my exhortations as the expression of my own regrets.
Appalled at the thought that she might think I had not wanted her, or had ever wished she had not been, I dropped the blade and reached out across the table to her.
“Bree,” I said, seized with panic at the thought. “Brianna. I love you. Do you believe I love you?”
She nodded without speaking, and stretched out a hand toward me. I grasped it like a lifeline, like the cord that had once joined us.
She closed her eyes, and for the first time I saw the glitter of tears that clung to the delicate, thick curve of her lashes.
“I’ve always known that, Mama,” she whispered. Her fingers tightened around mine; I saw her other hand press flat against her stomach. “From the beginning.”
IN WHICH ALL IS REVEALED
By late November, the days as well as the nights were cold, and the rain clouds began to hang lower on the slopes above us. The weather unfortunately had no dampening effect on people’s tempers; everyone was increasingly edgy, and for obvious reason: There was still no word of Roger Wakefield.
Brianna was still silent about the cause of their argument; in fact, she almost never referred to Roger anymore. She had made her decision; there was nothing to do but to wait, and let Roger make his—if he hadn’t already. Still, I could see fear warring with anger when she left her face unguarded—and doubt hung over everyone like the clouds over the mountains.
Where was he? And what would happen when—or if—he finally appeared?
I took some respite from the prevailing mood of edginess by taking stock of the pantry. Winter was nearly here; the foraging was over, the garden harvested, the preserving done. The pantry shelves bulged with sacks of nuts, heaps of squash, rows of potatoes, jars of dried tomatoes, peaches, and apricots, bowls of dried mushrooms, wheels of cheese, and baskets of apples. Braids of onions and garlic and strings of dried fish hung from the ceiling; bags of flour and beans, barrels of salt beef and salt fish, and stone jars of sauerkraut stood on the floor.
I counted over my hoard like a squirrel reckoning nuts, and felt soothed by our abundance. No matter what else happened, we would neither starve nor go hungry.
Emerging from the pantry with a wedge of cheese in one hand and a bowl of dry beans in the other, I heard a tap on the door. Before I could call out, it opened and Ian’s head poked in, cautiously surveying the room.
“Brianna’s no here?” he asked. As she clearly wasn’t, he didn’t wait for an answer but stepped in, trying to smooth back his hair.
“Have ye a bit o’ looking glass, Auntie?” he asked. “And maybe a comb?”
“Yes, of course,” I said. I set down the food, got my small mirror and the tortoiseshell comb from the drawer of the sideboy and handed them to him, peering upward at his gangling form.
His face seemed abnormally shiny, his lean cheeks blotched with red, as though he had not only shaved but had scrubbed the skin to the point of rawness. His hair, normally a thick, stubborn sheaf of soft brown, was now slicked straight back on the sides of his head with some kind of grease. Liberally pomaded with the same substance, it erupted in an untidy quiff over his forehead, making him look like a deranged porcupine.
“What have you got on your hair, Ian?” I asked. I sniffed at him and recoiled slightly at the result.
“Bear fat,” he said. “But it stank a bit, so I mixed in a wee scoop of incense soap to make it smell better.” He peered critically at himself in the mirror and made small jabs at his coiffure with the comb, which seemed pitifully inadequate to the task.
He was wearing his good coat, with a clean shirt and—unheard of touch for a workday—a clean, starched stock wrapped about his throat, looking tight enough to strangle him.
“You look very nice, Ian,” I said, biting the inside of my cheek. “Um…are you going somewhere special?”
“Aye, well,” he said awkwardly. “It’s just if I’m meant to be courting, like, I thought I must try to look decent.”
Courting? I wondered at his haste. While he was certainly interested in girls—and there were a few girls in the district who made no secret of returning his interest—he was barely seventeen. Men did marry that young, of course, and Ian had both his own land and a share in the whisky making, but I hadn’t thought his affections so strongly engaged yet.
“I see,” I said. “Ah…is the young lady anyone I know?” He rubbed at his jaw, raising a red flush along the bone.
“Aye, well. It’s—it’s Brianna.” He wouldn’t meet my eyes, but the flush rose slowly over his face.
“What?” I said incredulously. I set down the slice of bread I was holding and stared at him. “Did you say Brianna?”
His eyes were fixed on the floor, but his jaw was set stubbornly.
“Brianna,” he repeated. “I’ve come to make her a proposal of marriage.”
“Ian, you can’t possibly mean that.”
“I do,” he said, sticking out his long, square chin in a determined manner. He glanced toward the window, and shuffled his feet. “Will she—is she comin’ in soon, d’ye think?”
The sharp scent of nervous perspiration reached me, mingled with soap and bear fat, and I saw that his hands were clenched in fists, tight enough to make the knobby knuckles stand out white against his tanned skin.
“Ian,” I said, torn between exasperation and tenderness, “are you doing this because of Brianna’s baby?”
The whites of his eyes flashed as he glanced at me, startled. He nodded, shifting his shoulders uncomfortably inside the stiff coat.
“Aye, of course,” he said, as though surprised that I should ask.
“Then you’re not in love with her?” I knew the answer quite well, but thought we had better have it all out.
“Well…no,” he said, the painful blush renewing itself. “But I’m no promised to anyone else,” he hastened to add. “So that’s all right.”
“It is not all right,” I said firmly. “Ian, that’s a very, very kind notion of yours, but—”
“Oh, it’s not mine,” he interrupted, looking surprised. “Uncle Jamie thought of it.”
“He what?” A loud, incredulous voice spoke behind me, and I whirled to find Brianna standing in the doorway, staring at Ian. She advanced slowly into the room, hands fisted at her sides. Just as slowly, Ian retreated, fetching up with a bump against the table.
“Cousin,” he said, with a bob of his head that dislodged a spike of greased hair. He brushed at it, but it stuck out, hanging disreputably over one eye. “I…ah…I…” He saw the look on Brianna’s face and promptly shut his eyes.
“I-have-come-to-express-my-desire-to-ask-for-your-hand-in-the-blessed-sacrament-of-matrimony,” he said in one breath. He took in another, with an audible gasp. “I—”
Ian, his mouth opened to continue, immediately shut it. He opened one eye in a cautious slit, like one viewing a bomb momentarily expected to go off.
Bree glared from Ian to me. Even in the dim room, I could see the tight look of her mouth and the crimson rising in her cheeks. The tip of her nose was red, whether from the nippy air outside or from annoyance, I couldn’t tell.
“Did you know about this?” she demanded of me.
“Of course not!” I said. “For heaven’s sake, Bree—” Before I could finish, she had whirled on her heel and run out of the door. I could see the quick flash of her rusty skirts as she hurried up the slope leading to the stable.
I pulled off my apron and flung it hastily over the chair. “I’d better go after her.”
“I’ll go, too,” Ian offered, and I didn’t stop him. Reinforcements might be needed.
“What do you think she’ll do?” he asked, panting in my wake as I hastened up the steep slope.
“God knows,” I said. “But I’m afraid we’re going to find out.” I was entirely too familiar with the look of a Fraser roused to fury. Neither Bree nor Jamie lost their temper easily, but when they did, they lost it thoroughly.
“I’m glad she didna strike me,” Ian said thankfully. “I thought for a moment she was going to.” He pulled even with me, his long legs outstripping mine, hurrying though I was. I could hear uplifted voices from the open half-door of the stable.
“Why on earth would you put poor little Ian up to such a thing?” Brianna was saying, her voice high with indignation. “I’ve never heard of such a high-handed, arrogant—”
“Poor little Ian?” Ian said, vastly affronted. “What does she—”
“Oh, high-handed, am I?” Jamie’s voice interrupted. He sounded both impatient and irritable, though not yet angry. Perhaps I was in time to avert full-scale hostilities. I peeked through the stable door, to see them face-to-face, glaring at each other over a large pile of half-dried manure.
“And what better choice could I make, will ye tell me that?” he demanded. “Let me tell ye, lassie, I thought of every bachelor in fifty miles before I settled on Ian. I wouldna have ye wed to a cruel man or a drunkard, nor yet a poor man—nor one auld enough to be your grandsire, either.”
He shoved a hand through his hair, sure sign of mental agitation, but made a masterful effort to calm himself. He lowered his voice a bit, trying to be conciliatory.
“Why, I even put aside Tammas McDonald, for while he’s a fine stretch of land and a good temper, and he’s an age for you, he’s a bittie wee fellow forbye, and I thought ye wouldna care to stand up side by side with him before a priest. Believe me, Brianna, I’ve done my best to see ye well wed.”
Bree wasn’t having any; her own hair had come loose during her dash up the hill, and was floating round her face like the flames of a vengeful archangel.
“And what makes you think I want to be married to anybody at all?”
His mouth dropped open.
“Want?” he said incredulously. “And what has want to do with it?”
“Everything!” She stamped her foot.
“Now there you’re wrong, lassie,” he advised her, turning to pick up his fork. He eyed her stomach with a nod. “You’ve a bairn coming, who needs a name. Your time to be choosy is long since past, aye?”
He dug his fork into the pile of manure and heaved the load into the waiting barrow, then dug again, with a smooth economy of motion born of years of labor.
“Now, Ian’s a sweet-tempered lad, and a hard worker,” he said, eyes on his task. “He’s got his own land; he’ll have mine, too, in time, and that will—”
“I am not going to marry anybody!” Brianna drew herself up to her full height, fists balled at her sides, and spoke in a voice loud enough to disturb the bats in the corners of the ceiling. One small dark form detached itself from the shadows and flittered out into the gathering dusk, ignored by the combatants underneath.