Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 176

   

Brianna’s stomach clenched, and she surreptitiously wiped sweaty hands on her skirt. There they were, all together and in one place—the four stones she had thought it would take a lifetime to find.

Mrs. Alderdyce was jabbing an arthritic finger at the emerald, explaining the virtues of her choice, but Brianna paid no attention to what the woman said. She glanced at Lawyer Forbes, his round face still reflecting smugness. A sudden wild impulse filled her.

If she said yes, now, tonight, while he still had all four stones…could she bring herself to that? Inveigle him, kiss him, lull him into complacency—and then steal the stones?

Yes, she could—and then what? Run off into the mountains with them? Leave Jocasta disgraced and the county in an uproar, run and hide like a common thief? And how would she get to the Indies before the baby came? She counted in her head, knowing it was insanity, but still—it could be done.

The stones glittered and winked, temptation and salvation. Everyone had come to look, heads bent over the table, murmuring their admiration, herself temporarily overlooked.

She could hide, she thought, the steps of the plan unfolding inevitably before her mind’s eye, quite without her willing it. Steal a horse, head up the Yadkin valley into the backcountry. Despite the nearness of the fire, she shivered, feeling cold at the thought of flight through the winter snows. But her mind ran on.

She could hide in the mountains, at her parents’ cabin, and wait for them to come back with Roger. If they came back. If Roger was with them. Yes, and what if the baby came first, and she was there on the mountain, all alone with no one at hand, and nothing to help but a handful of stolen brightness?

Or should she ride at once for Wilmington and find a ship to the Indies? If Jocasta was right, Roger was never coming back. Was she sacrificing her only chance at return to wait for a man who was dead—or who, if not dead, might reject her and her child?

“Miss Fraser?”

Lawyer Forbes was waiting, swollen with expectation.

She took a deep breath, feeling sweat trickle down between her br**sts, beneath the loosened stays.

“They’re all very lovely,” she said, surprised at how coolly she was able to speak. “I could not possibly choose among them—but then, I have no particular liking for gems. I have very simple tastes, I’m afraid.”

She caught the flicker of a smile on Mr. MacNeill’s face, and the deep flush of Forbes’s round cheeks, but turned her back on the stones with a polite word.

“I think we will not wait dinner,” Jocasta murmured in her ear. “If his Lordship should be delayed…”

On cue, Ulysses appeared in the doorway, elegant in full livery, to announce dinner. Instead, in a mellifluous voice that carried easily over the chatter, he said, “Lord John Grey, ma’am,” and stepped aside.

Jocasta breathed a sigh of satisfaction, and urged Brianna forward, toward the slight figure that stood in the doorway.

“Good. You shall be his partner at dinner, my dear.”

Brianna glanced back at the table by the hearth, but the stones were gone.

Lord John Grey was a surprise a surprise. She had heard her mother speak of John Grey—soldier, diplomat, nobleman—and expected someone tall and imposing. Instead, he was six inches shorter than she was, fine-boned and slight, with large, beautiful eyes, and a fair-skinned handsomeness that was saved from girlishness only by the firm set of mouth and jaw.

He had looked startled upon seeing her; many people did, taken aback by her size—but then had set himself to exercise his considerable charm, telling her amusing anecdotes of his travel, admiring the two paintings that Jocasta had hung upon the wall, and regaling the table at large with news of the political situation in Virginia.

What he did not mention was her father, and for that she was grateful.

Brianna listened to Miss Forbes’s descriptions of her brother’s importance with an absent smile. She felt more and more as though she were drowning in a sea of kind intentions. Could they not leave her alone? Could Jocasta not even have the decency to wait a few months?

“…and then there’s the wee sawmill he’s just bought, up to Averasboro. Heavens, how the man manages, I couldna tell you!”

No, they couldn’t, she thought, with a kind of despair. They couldn’t leave her alone. They were Scots, kindly but practical, and with an iron conviction of their own rightness—the same conviction that had got half of them killed or exiled after Culloden.

Jocasta was fond of her, but clearly had made up her mind that it would be foolish to wait. Why sacrifice the chance of a good, solid, respectable marriage, to a will-o’-the-wisp hope of love?

The horrible thing was that she knew herself it was foolish to wait. Of all the things she had been trying not to think of for weeks, this was the worst—and here it was, rising up in her mind like the shadow of a dead tree, stark against snow.

If. If they came back—if, if, IF. If her parents came back at all, Roger would not be with them. She knew it. They wouldn’t find the Indians who had taken him—how could they, in a trackless wilderness of snow and mud? Or they would find the Indians, only to learn that Roger was dead—of injuries, disease, torture.

Or he would be found, alive, and refuse to come back, not wanting to see her ever again. Or he would come back, with that maddening sense of Scottish honor, determined to take her, but hating her for it. Or he would come back, see the baby, and…

Or none of them would come back at all. I will bring him home to you—or I will not come home myself. And she would live here alone forever, drowned in the waves of her own guilt, her body bobbing in the swirl of good intentions, anchored by a rotting umbilical cord to the child whose dead weight had pulled her under.

“Miss Fraser! Miss Fraser, are ye quite weel, then?”

“Not very, no,” she said. “I think I’m going to faint.” And did, shaking the table with a crash as she fell forward into a whirling sea of china and white linen.

The tide had turned again, she thought. She was buoyed up on a flood of kindness as people bustled to and fro, fetching warm drinks and a brick to her feet, seeing her tucked up warmly on the sofa in the little parlor, with a pillow to her head and salts to her nose, a thick shawl round her knees.

At last they were gone. She could be alone. And now that the truth was out in her own mind, she could cry for all her losses—for father and lover, family and mother, for the loss of time and place and all that she should have been and would never be.

Except that she couldn’t.

She tried. She tried to summon up the sense of terror she had felt in the drawing room, alone among the crowd. But now that she truly was alone, paradoxically she wasn’t afraid anymore. One of the house slaves popped a head in, but she waved a hand, sending the girl away again.

Well, she was Scottish, too—“Well, half,” she muttered, cupping a hand over her belly—and entitled to her own stubbornness. They were coming back. All of them; mother, father, Roger. If it felt as though that conviction were made of feathers rather than iron…still it was hers. And she was hanging on to it like a raft, until they pried her fingers off and let her sink.

The door to the small parlor opened, silhouetting the tall, spare figure of Jocasta against the lighted hall.

“Brianna?” The pale oval face turned unerringly toward the sofa; did she only guess where they had put her, or could she hear Brianna breathing?

“I’m here, Aunt.”

Jocasta came into the room, followed by Lord John, with Ulysses bringing up the rear with a tea tray.

“How are you, child? Had I best send for Dr. Fentiman?” She frowned, laying a long hand across Brianna’s forehead.

“No!” Brianna had met Dr. Fentiman, a small, damp-handed golliwog of a man with a strong faith in lye and leeches; the sight of him made her shudder. “Er…no. Thank you, but I’m quite all right; I was just taken queer for a moment.”

“Ah, good.” Jocasta turned blind eyes toward Lord John. “His Lordship will be going on to Wilmington in the morning; he wished to pay you his regards, if you are well enough.”

“Yes, of course.” She sat up, swinging her feet to the floor. So the lord wasn’t going to linger; that would be a disappointment to Jocasta, if not to her. Still, she could be polite for a little while.

Ulysses set down the tray, and soft-footed out the door behind her aunt, leaving them alone.

He drew up an embroidered footstool and sat down, not waiting for invitation.

“Are you truly well, Miss Fraser? I have no desire to see you prostrate among the teacups.” A smile pulled at the corner of his mouth, and she flushed.

“I’m fine,” she said shortly. “Did you have something to say to me?”

He wasn’t taken aback by her abruptness.

“Yes, but I thought perhaps you would prefer that I not mention it in the midst of the company. I understand that you are interested in the whereabouts of a man named Roger Wakefield?”

She had been feeling fine; at this, the wave of faintness threatened to return.

“Yes. How do you—do you know where he is?”

“No.” He saw her face change, and took her hand between his. “No, I am sorry. Your father had written to me, some three months ago, asking me to assist him in finding this man. It had occurred to him that if Mr. Wakefield was anywhere in the ports, he might have been taken up by a press-gang, and thus be now at sea in one of His Majesty’s ships. He asked if I would make use of my acquaintance in naval circles to determine whether such a fate had in fact befallen Mr. Wakefield.”

Another wave of faintness passed over her, this one tinged with remorse, as she realized the lengths her father had gone to, in attempting to find Roger for her.

“He isn’t on a ship.”

He looked surprised at her tone of certainty.

“I have found no evidence that he was impressed anywhere between Jamestown and Charleston. Still, there is the possibility that he was taken up on the eve of sailing, in which case his presence on the crew would not be registered until the ship reached port. That is why I travel tomorrow to Wilmington, to make inquiries—”

“You don’t need to. I know where he is.” In as few words as possible, she acquainted him with the basic facts.

“Jamie—your father—that is, your parents—have gone to rescue this man from the Iroquois?” Looking shaken, he turned and poured two cups of tea, handing her one without asking if she wanted it.

She held it between her hands, finding a small comfort in the warmth; a greater comfort in being able to speak frankly to Lord John.

“Yes. I wanted to go with them, but—”

“Yes, I see.” He glanced at her bulge and coughed. “I collect there is some urgency in finding Mr. Wakefield?”

She laughed, unhappily.

“I can wait. Can you tell me something, Lord John? Have you ever heard of handfasting?”

His fair brows drew together momentarily.

“Yes,” he said slowly. “A Scottish custom of temporary marriage, is it not?”

“Yes. What I want to know is, is it legal here?”

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