He rubbed his jaw, thinking. Either he’d shaved recently or he had a light beard; late as it was, he showed no sign of stubble.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “I have never seen the question addressed in law. Still, any couple who dwells together as man and wife are considered married, by common law. I should think handfasting would fall into that class, would it not?”
“It might, except that we’re rather obviously not dwelling together,” Brianna said. She sighed. “I think I’m married—but my aunt doesn’t. She keeps insisting that Roger won’t come back, or that if he does, I’m still not legally bound to him. Even by the Scots custom, I’m not bound beyond a year and a day. She wants to pick a husband for me—and God, she’s trying! I thought you were the newest candidate, when you showed up.”
Lord John looked amused at the idea.
“Oh. That would explain the oddly assorted company at dinner. I did notice that the rather florid gentleman—Alderdyce? A judge?—seemed inclined to pay you attention beyond the normal limits of gallantry.”
“Much good it will do him.” Brianna snorted briefly. “You should have seen the looks Mrs. Alderdyce kept giving me, all through dinner. She’s not going to have her ewe lamb—God, he must be forty, if he’s a day—marry the local whore of Babylon. I’d be surprised if she ever lets him set foot over the doorstep again.” She patted her small bulge. “I think I’ve seen to that.”
One brow rose, and Grey smiled wryly at her. He set down his teacup and reached for the sherry decanter and a glass.
“Ah? Well, while I admire the boldness of your strategy, Miss Fraser—may I call you ‘my dear’?—I regret to inform you that your tactics do not suit the terrain upon which you’ve chosen to employ them.”
“What do you mean by that?”
He leaned back in his chair, glass in hand, surveying her kindly.
“Mrs. Alderdyce. Not being blind—though by no means as astute as your aunt—I did indeed observe her observing you. But you mistake the nature of her observations, I’m afraid.” He shook his head, looking at her over the rim of his glass as he sipped.
“Not the look of outraged respectability, by any means. It’s granny lust.”
Brianna sat up straight.
“Granny lust,” he repeated. He sat up himself and topped his glass, pouring the golden liquid carefully. “You know; an elderly woman’s urgent desire for grandchildren to dandle upon her knee, spoil with sweetmeats, and generally corrupt.” He raised his glass to his nose and reverently breathed in the vapors. “Oh, ambrosia. I haven’t had a decent sherry in two years, at least.”
“What—you mean Mrs. Alderdyce thinks that I—I mean, because I’ve shown I’m—that I can have children, then she’s sure to get grandchildren out of me later on? That’s ridiculous! The Judge could pick any healthy girl—of good character,” she added bitterly, “and be fairly sure of having children by her.”
He took a drink, let it drift across his tongue, and swallowed, relishing the final ghost of the taste before answering. “Well. No. I rather think that she realizes he could not. Or would not; it makes no difference.” He looked at her directly, pale blue eyes unblinking.
“You said it yourself—he is forty and unmarried.”
“You mean he—but he’s a judge!” The moment her horrified exclamation came out, she realized the idiocy of it, and clapped a hand over her mouth, blushing furiously. Lord John laughed, though with a wry edge to it.
“The more certainty therefore,” he said. “You are quite right; he could have his choice of any girl in the county. If he has not so chosen…” He paused delicately, then lifted his glass to her in ironic toast. “I rather think that Mrs. Alderdyce has realized that her son’s marriage to you is her best—possibly her only—expectation of having the grandchild she so ardently desires.”
“Damn!” She couldn’t make a move right, she thought with despair. “It doesn’t matter what I do. I’m doomed. They’ll have me married off to somebody, no matter what I do!”
“You must give me leave to doubt that,” he said. His smile quirked sideways, a little painfully. “From what I have seen of you, you have your mother’s bluntness and your father’s sense of honor. Either would be sufficient to preserve you from such entrapment.”
“Don’t talk to me about my father’s honor,” she said sharply. “He’s who got me into this mess!”
His eyes dropped to her waistline, frankly ironical.
“You shock me,” he said politely, seeming not shocked at all.
She felt the blood surge up in her face once more, hotter than before.
“You know perfectly well that’s not what I mean!”
He hid a smile in his sherry cup, eyes crinkling at her.
“My apologies, Miss Fraser. What did you mean, then?”
She took a deep sip of tea to cover her confusion, and felt the comforting heat run down her throat and into her chest.
“I mean,” she said through her teeth, “this particular mess; being put on show like a piece of bloodstock with doubtful lines. Being held up by the scruff of the neck like an orphaned kitten, in hopes somebody will take me in! Being—being left alone here in the first place,” she ended, her voice trembling unexpectedly.
“Why are you alone here?” Lord John asked, quite gently. “I should have thought that your mother might have—”
“She wanted to. I wouldn’t let her. Because she had to—that is, he—oh, it’s all such a f**king mess!” She dropped her head into her hands and stared wretchedly at the tabletop; not crying, but not far from it, either.
“I can see that.” Lord John leaned forward and put his empty glass back on the tray. “It’s very late, my dear, and if you will pardon my observing it, you are in need of rest.” He stood up and laid a hand lightly on her shoulder; oddly, it seemed only friendly, and not condescending, as another man’s might.
“As it seems my journey to Wilmington is unnecessary, I think I will accept your aunt’s kind invitation to remain here for a little. We will speak again, and see whether perhaps there is at least some palliative for your situation.”
The commode was magnificent, a beautiful piece of smooth carved walnut that mingled appeal with convenience. Particularly convenient on a rainy, cold night like this. She fumbled sleepily with the lid in the dark, lit by lightning flashes from the window, then sat down, sighing with relief as the pressure on her bladder eased.
Evidently pleased with the additional internal space thus provided, Osbert performed a series of lazy somersaults, making her belly undulate in ghostly waves beneath her white flannel nightgown. She stood up slowly—she did almost everything slowly these days—feeling pleasantly drugged with sleep.
She paused by the rumpled bed, looking out at the stark beauty of the hills and the rain-lashed trees. The glass of the window was icy to the touch, and the clouds rolled down from the mountains, black-bellied and growling with thunder. It wasn’t snowing, but it was a nasty night and no mistake.
And what was it like in the high mountains now? Had they reached a village that would shelter them? Had they found Roger? She shivered involuntarily, though the embers still glowed red in the hearth and the room was warm. She felt the irresistible pull of her bed, promising warmth and, even more, the lure of dreams in which she might escape the chronic nag of fear and guilt.
She turned to the door, though, and pulled her cloak from the peg behind it. The urgency of pregnancy might necessitate her using the commode in her room, but she was resolved that no slave would ever carry a chamber pot for her—not as long as she could walk. She wrapped the cloak tightly around her, took the lidded pewter receptacle from its cabinet, and stepped quietly into the corridor.
It was very late; all the candles had been put out, and the stale smell of dead fires lay in the stairwell, but she could see clearly enough by the flicker of the lightning as she made her way downstairs. The kitchen door was unbolted, a piece of carelessness for which she blessed the cook; no need to make noise struggling one-handed with the heavy bolt.
Freezing rain struck her face and whooshed up beneath the hem of her nightgown, making her gasp. Once past the first shock of cold, though, she enjoyed it; the violence of it was exhilarating, the wind strong enough to lift her cloak in billowing surges that made her feel light on her feet for the first time in months.
She swept in a flurry to the necessary house, rinsed out the pot in the drench of rain that poured from its gutters, then stood in the paved yard, letting the fresh wind sweep into her face and slash her cheeks with rain. She wasn’t sure if this was expiation or exultation—a need to share the discomfort her parents might be facing, or some more pagan rite—a need to lose herself by joining in the ferocity of the elements. Either or both, it didn’t matter; she stepped deliberately under the spout of the gutter, letting the water pound against her scalp and soak her hair and shoulders.
Gasping and shaking water from her hair like a dog, she stepped back—and stopped, her eye caught by a sudden flash of light. Not lightning; a steady beam that shone for a moment, then vanished.
A door in the slave quarters opened for a moment, then closed. Was someone coming? Someone was; she could hear footsteps on the gravel, and took another step back into the shadows—the last thing she wanted was to explain what she was doing out here.
The lightning showed him clearly as he passed, and she felt a jar of recognition. Lord John Grey, hurrying shirt sleeved and bareheaded, his fair hair unbound and blowing in the wind, evidently oblivious to the cold and rain. He passed without seeing her, and vanished under the overhang of the kitchen porch.
Realizing that she was in danger of being locked out, she ran after him, awkward but still fast. He was just closing the door when she hit it with her shoulder. She burst into the kitchen and stood dripping, Lord John goggling at her in disbelief.
“Nice night for a walk,” she said, half breathless. “Isn’t it?” She wiped back her wet hair, and with a cordial nod slipped past him, out, and up the stairs, her bare feet leaving wet half-moon prints on the dark, polished wood. She listened, but heard no steps behind her as she reached her room.
She left cloak and gown spread out before the fire to dry, and having toweled her hair and face, climbed nak*d into bed. She was shivering, but the feel of the cotton sheets on her bare skin was wonderful. She stretched, wiggling her toes, then rolled on her side, curling tightly around her center of gravity, letting the constant heat from within tendril outward, gradually reaching her skin, forming a small cocoon of warmth around her.
She replayed the scene on the footpath once more in memory, and very gradually, the shadowy thoughts that had been rattling around in her mind for days fell together into a rational shape.
Lord John treated her always with attention and respect—often with amusement or admiration—but there was something missing. She had not been able to identify it—for some time had not even been aware of it—but now she knew what it was, without doubt.