“Well, then, make your own choice,” Jamie said shortly. “And I wish ye well of it!”
“You…are…not…listening!” Brianna said, grinding each word between her teeth. “I’ve made my choice. I said I won’t…marry…anyone!” She punctuated this with another stamp of her foot.
Jamie thrust the fork into the pile with a thump. He straightened up and eyed Brianna, rubbing his fist across his jaw.
“Aye, well. I seem to recall hearin’ a verra similar opinion expressed by your mother—the night before our wedding. I havena asked her lately does she regret bein’ forced to wed me or not, but I flatter myself she’s maybe not been miserable altogether. Perhaps ye should go and have a word wi’ her?”
“It’s not the same thing at all!” Brianna snapped.
“No, it’s not,” Jamie agreed, keeping a firm grip on his temper. The sun was low behind the hills, flooding the stable with a golden light in which the creeping tide of red in his skin was nonetheless quite visible. Still, he was making every attempt to be reasonable.
“Your mother wed me to save her life—and mine. It was a brave thing she did, and generous, too. I’ll grant it’s no a matter of life or death, but—have ye no idea what it is to live branded as a wanton—or as a fatherless bastard, come to that?”
Seeing her expression falter slightly at this, he pressed his advantage, stretching out a hand to her and speaking kindly.
“Come, lassie. Can ye not bring yourself to do it for the bairn’s sake?”
Her face tightened again and she stepped back.
“No,” she said, sounding strangled. “No. I can’t.”
He dropped his hand. I could see them both, despite the fading light, and saw the danger signs all too clearly, in the narrowing of his eyes and the set of his shoulders, squared for battle. “Is that how Frank Randall raised ye, lass, to have no regard for what’s right or wrong?”
Brianna was trembling all over, like a horse that’s run too far.
“My father always did what was right for me! And he would never have tried to pull something like this!” she said. “Never! He cared about me!”
At this, Jamie finally lost his temper, which went off with a bang.
“And I don’t?” he said. “I am not trying my best to do what’s right for ye? In spite of your being—”
“Jamie—” I turned toward him, saw his eyes gone black with anger, and turned toward her. “Bree—I know he didn’t—you have to understand—”
“Of all the reckless, thoughtless, selfish ways in which to behave!”
“You self-righteous, insensitive bastard!”
“Bastard! Ye’ll call me a bastard, and your belly swellin’ like a pumpkin with a child that ye mean to doom to finger-pointing and calumny for all its days, and—”
“Anybody points a finger at my child, and I’ll break it off and stuff it down their throat!”
“Ye senseless wee besom! Have ye no the faintest notion o’ how things are? Ye’ll be a scandal and a hissing! Folk will call ye whore to your face!”
“Let them try it!”
“Oh, let them try it? And ye mean me to stand by and listen, I suppose?”
“It’s not your job to defend me!”
He was so furious that his face went white as fresh-bleached muslin.
“Not my job to defend you? For Christ’s sake, woman, who else is meant to do it?”
Ian tugged gently on my arm, drawing me back.
“Ye’ve only the twa choices now, Auntie,” he murmured in my ear. “Douse them both wi’ a pan o’ cold water, or come away with me and leave them to it. I’ve seen Uncle Jamie and my Mam go at it before. Believe me, ye dinna want to step between two Frasers wi’ their dander up. My Da said he’s tried once or twice, and got the scars to prove it.”
I took a final glance at the situation and gave up. He was right; they were nose to nose, red hair bristling and eyes slitted like a couple of bobcats, circling, spitting and snarling. I could have set the hay on fire, and neither one would have spared an instant’s notice.
It seemed remarkably quiet and peaceful outside. A whippoorwill sang in the aspen grove, and the wind was in the east, carrying the faint sounds of the waterfall to us. By the time we reached the dooryard, we couldn’t hear the shouting anymore.
“Dinna be worrit, Auntie,” Ian said comfortingly. “They’ll get hungry, sooner or later.”
In the event, it was unnecessary to starve them out; Jamie stamped down the hill a few minutes later and without a word, fetched his horse from the paddock, bridled him, mounted, and rode bareback at a gallop down the track toward Fergus’s cabin. As I watched his departing form, Brianna stalked out of the stable, puffing like a steam engine, and made for the house.
“What does nighean na galladh mean?” she demanded, seeing me at the door.
“I don’t know,” I said. I did, but thought it much more prudent not to say. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it,” I added. “Er…whatever it means.”
“Ha,” she said, and with an angry snort, stomped into the house, reappearing moments later with the egg basket over her arm. Without a word, she disappeared into the bushes, making a rustling noise like a hurricane.
I took several deep breaths and went in to start supper, cursing Roger Wakefield.
Physical exertion seemed to have dissipated at least some of the negative energy in the household. Brianna spent an hour in the bushes, and returned with sixteen eggs and a calmer face. There were leaves and stickers in her hair, and from the look of her shoes, she had been kicking trees.
I didn’t know what Jamie had been doing, but he returned at suppertime, sweaty and windblown but outwardly calm. They pointedly ignored each other, a reasonably difficult feat for two large persons confined in a twenty-foot-square log cabin. I glanced at Ian, who rolled his eyes skyward and came to help carry the big serving bowl to the table.
Conversation over supper was limited to requests to pass the salt, and afterward, Brianna cleared the dishes, then went to sit at the spinning wheel, working the foot treadle with unnecessary emphasis.
Jamie gave her back a glare, then jerked his head at me and went out. He was waiting on the path to the privy when I followed him a moment later.
“What am I to do?” he demanded, without preamble.
“Apologize,” I said.
“Apologize?” His hair seemed to be standing on end, though it was likely only the effects of the wind. “But I havena done anything wrong!”
“Well, what difference does that make?” I said, exasperated. “You asked me what you should do, and I told you.”
He exhaled strongly through his nose, hesitated a moment, then turned and stalked back into the house, shoulders set for martyrdom or battle.
“I apologize,” he said, looming up in front of her.
Surprised, she nearly dropped the yarn, but caught it adeptly.
“Oh,” she said, and flushed. She took her foot off the treadle, and the great wheel creaked and slowed.
“I was wrong,” he said, with a quick look at me. I nodded encouragingly, and he cleared his throat. “I shouldna have—”
“It’s all right.” She spoke quickly, eager to meet him. “You didn’t—I mean, you were only trying to help.” She looked down at the thread, slowing as it ran through her fingers. “I’m sorry too—I shouldn’t have been mad at you.”
He closed his eyes briefly and sighed, then opened them and lifted one eyebrow at me. I smiled faintly and turned back to my work, pounding fennel seeds in the mortar.
He pulled up a stool and sat down beside her, and she turned toward him, putting one hand on the wheel to stop it.
“I know you meant well,” she said. “You and Ian both. But don’t you see, Da? I have to wait for Roger.”
“But if something has happened to the man—if he’s met with an accident of some kind…”
“He isn’t dead. I know he isn’t.” She spoke with the fervency of someone who means to bend reality to her will. “He’ll come back. And how would it be if he did, and found me married to Ian?”
Ian looked up, hearing his name. He sat on the floor by the fire, Rollo’s great head resting on his knee, his yellow wolf-eyes mere slits of pleasure as Ian methodically combed through the thick pelt, pulling out ticks and burs as he found them.
Jamie ran his fingers through his hair in a gesture of frustration.
“I have had word out since ye told me of him, a nighean. I sent Ian to Cross Creek to leave word at River Run, and with Captain Freeman to pass to the other rivermen. I’ve sent Duncan wi’ word, all through the Cape Fear valley and as far north as Edenton and New Bern, and wi’ the packet boats that run from Virginia to Charleston.”
He looked at me, pleading for understanding. “What more can I do? The man is nowhere to be found. If I thought there were the slightest chance—” He stopped, teeth set in his lip.
Brianna dropped her gaze to the yarn in her hand, and with a quick, sharp gesture, snapped it. Leaving the loose end to flap from the spindle, she got up and crossed the room, sitting down at the table with her back to us.
“I’m sorry, lass,” Jamie said, more quietly. He reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder, gingerly, as though she might bite him.
She stiffened slightly, but didn’t pull away. After a moment, she reached up and took his hand, squeezing it lightly, then putting it aside.
“I see,” she said. “Thank you, Da.” She sat, eyes fixed on the flames, her face and figure utterly still, but managing to radiate complete desolation. I put my hands on her shoulders, rubbing gently, but she felt like a wax manikin under my fingers—not resisting but not acknowledging the touch.
Jamie studied her for a moment, frowning, and glanced at me. Then, with an air of decision, he got up, reached to the shelf, brought down his inkhorn and quill jar, and set them on the table with a clank.
“Here’s a thought,” he said firmly. “Let us draw up a broadsheet, here, and I will take it to Gillette in Wilmington. He can print it up, and Ian and the Lindsey lads will take the copies up and down the coast, from Charleston to Jamestown. It may be that someone’s not kent Wakefield, not hearing his name, but they’ll maybe know him by his looks.”
He shook ink powder made of iron and oak gall into the stained half-gourd he used as a well, and poured a little water from the pitcher, using the shaft of a quill to stir the ink. He smiled at Brianna, and took a sheet of paper from the drawer.
“Now, then, lass, how is this man of yours to look at?”
The suggestion of action had brought a spark of life back to Brianna’s face. She sat up straighter, and a current of energy flowed up her spine, into my fingers.
“Tall,” she said. “Nearly as tall as you, Da. People would notice; they always look at you. He has black hair, and green eyes—bright green; it’s one of the first things you notice about him, isn’t it, Mama?”