Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 179

   

“No, you should not,” she said, in measured tones. “Listen to me, Lord John. I’m not crazy, I’m not frivolous, and I don’t mean it to be an inconvenience to you in any way—but I’m dead serious.”

The cold had reddened his fair skin, and there was a drop of moisture glistening on the tip of his nose. He wiped it on a fold of his cloak, eyeing her with something between interest and horror. At least he’d stopped laughing.

She felt mildly sick, but she’d have to do it. She’d hoped it could be avoided, but there seemed no other way.

“If you don’t agree to marry me,” she said, “I’ll expose you.”

“You’ll do what?” His usual mask of urbanity had disappeared, leaving puzzlement and the beginnings of wariness in its stead.

She was wearing woolen mittens, but her fingers felt frozen. So did everything else, except the warm lump of her slumbering child.

“I know what you were doing—the other night, at the slave quarters. I’ll tell everyone; my aunt, Mr. Campbell, the sheriff. I’ll write letters,” she said, her lips feeling numb even as she uttered the ridiculous threat. “To the Governor, and the Governor of Virginia. They put p-pederasts in the pillory here; Mr. Campbell told me so.”

A frown drew his brows together; they were so fair that they scarcely showed against his skin when he stood in strong light. They reminded her of Lizzie’s.

“Stop looming over me, if you please.”

He took hold of her wrist and pulled it down with a force that surprised her. He was small but much stronger than she had supposed, and for the first time, she was slightly afraid of what she was doing.

He took her firmly by the elbow and propelled her into motion, away from the house. The thought struck her that perhaps he meant to take her down to the river, out of sight, and try to drown her. She thought it unlikely, but still resisted the direction of his urging, and turned back into the square-laid paths of the kitchen garden instead.

He made no demur, but went with her, though it meant walking head-on into the wind. He didn’t speak until they had turned once more, and reached a sheltered corner by the onion bed.

“I am halfway tempted to submit to your outrageous proposal,” he said at last, the corner of his mouth twitching—whether with fury or amusement, she couldn’t tell.

“It would certainly please your aunt. It would outrage your mother. And it would teach you to play with fire, I do assure you.” She caught a gleam in his eye that gave her a sudden surge of doubt about her conclusions as to his preferences. She drew back from him a bit.

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that—that you might…men and women both, I mean.”

“I was married,” he pointed out, with some sarcasm.

“Yes, but I thought that was probably the same kind of thing I’m suggesting now—just a formal arrangement, I mean. That’s what made me think of it in the first place, once I realized that you—” She broke off with an impatient gesture. “Are you telling me that you do like to go to bed with women?”

He raised one eyebrow.

“Would that make a substantial difference to your plans?”

“Well…” she said uncertainly. “Yes. Yes, it would. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have suggested it.”

“ ‘Suggested,’ she says,” he muttered. “Public denunciation? The pillory? Suggested?”

The blood burned so hotly in her cheeks, she was surprised not to see the cold air turn to steam around her face.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wouldn’t have done it. You have to believe me, I really wouldn’t have said a word to anybody. It’s only when you laughed, I thought—anyway, it doesn’t matter. If you did want to sleep with me, I couldn’t marry you—it wouldn’t be right.”

He closed his eyes very tight and held them squinched shut for a minute. Then he opened one light blue eye and looked at her.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because of Roger,” she said, and was infuriated to hear her voice break on the name. Still more infuriated to feel a hot tear escape to run down her cheek.

“Damn it!” she said. “Damn it to hell! I wasn’t even going to think about him!”

She swiped the tear angrily away, and clenched her teeth.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Maybe it is being pregnant. I cry all the time, over nothing.”

“I rather doubt it is nothing,” he said dryly.

She took a deep breath, the cold air hollowing her chest. There was one last card to play, then.

“If you do like women…I couldn’t—I mean, I don’t want to sleep with you regularly. And I wouldn’t mind your sleeping with anybody else—male or female—”

“Thank you for that,” he muttered, but she ignored him, bent only on the need to get it all out.

“But I can see that you might want a child of your own. It wouldn’t be right for me to keep you from having one. I can give you that, I think.” She glanced down at herself, arms clasped across the round of her belly. “Everyone says I’m made for childbearing,” she went on steadily, eyes on her feet. “I’d—just until I got pregnant again, though. You’d have to put that in the contract, too—Mr. Campbell could draw it up.”

Lord John massaged his forehead, evidently suffering the onslaught of a massive headache. Then he dropped his hand and took her by the arm.

“Come and sit down, child,” he said quietly. “You’d best tell me what the devil you’re up to.”

She took a deep, savage breath to steady her voice.

“I am not a child,” she said. He glanced up at her and seemed to change his mind about something.

“No, you’re not—God help us both. But before you startle Farquard Campbell into an apoplexy with your notion of a suitable marriage contract, I beg you to sit with me for a moment and share the processes of your most remarkable brain.” He motioned her through the archway into the ornamental garden, where they would be invisible from the house.

The garden was bleak, but orderly; all the dead stalks of the year before had been pulled out, the dry stems chopped and scattered as mulch over the beds. Only in the circular bed around the dry fountain were there signs of life; green crocus spikes poked up like tiny battering rams, vivid and intransigent.

They sat, but she couldn’t sit. Not and face him. He got up with her, and walked beside her, not touching her but keeping pace, the wind whipping strands of blond hair across his face, not saying a word, but listening, listening as she told him almost everything.

“So I’ve been thinking, and thinking,” she ended wretchedly. “And I never get anywhere. Do you see? Mother and—and Da, they’re out there somewhere—” She waved an arm toward the distant mountains. “Anything could happen to them—anything might have happened to Roger already. And here I sit, getting bigger and bigger, and there’s nothing I can do!”

She glanced down at him and drew the back of a mittened hand under her dripping nose.

“I’m not crying,” she assured him, though she was.

“Of course not,” he said. He took her hand and drew it through his arm.

“Round and round,” he murmured, eyes on the path of crazy paving as they circled the fountain.

“Yes, round and round the mulberry bush,” she agreed. “And it’ll be Pop! goes the weasel in three months or so. I have to do something,” she ended, miserably.

“Believe it or not, in your case waiting is doing something, though I admit it may not seem so,” he answered dryly. “Why is it that you will not wait to see whether your father’s quest is successful? Is it that your sense of honor will not allow you to bear a fatherless child? Or—”

“It’s not my honor,” she said. “It’s his. Roger’s. He’s—he followed me. He gave up—everything—and came after me, when I came here to find my father. I knew he would, and he did.

“When he finds out about this—” She grimaced, cupping a hand to the swell of her stomach. “He’ll marry me; he’ll feel as though he has to. And I can’t let him do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because I love him. I don’t want him to marry me out of obligation. And I—” She clamped her lips tight on the rest of it. “I won’t,” she ended firmly. “I’ve made up my mind, and I won’t.”

Lord John pulled his cloak tighter as a fresh blast of wind came rocketing in off the river. It smelled of ice and dead leaves, but there was a hint of freshness in it; spring was coming.

“I see,” he said. “Well, I quite agree with your aunt that you require a husband. Why me, though?” He raised one pale brow. “Is it my title or my wealth?”

“Neither one. It was because I was sure that you didn’t like women,” she said, giving him one of those candid blue looks.

“I do like women,” he said, exasperated. “I admire and honor them, and for several of the sex I feel considerable affection—your mother among them, though I doubt the sentiment is reciprocated. I do not, however, seek pleasure in their beds. Do I speak plainly enough?”

“Yes,” she said, the small lines between her eyes vanishing like magic. “That’s what I thought. See, it wouldn’t be right for me to marry Mr. MacNeill or Barton McLachlan or any of those men, because I’d be promising something I couldn’t give them. But you don’t want that anyway, so there isn’t any reason why I can’t marry you.”

He repressed a strong urge to bang his head against the wall.

“There most assuredly is.”

“What?”

“To name only the most obvious, your father would undoubtedly break my neck!”

“What for?” she demanded, frowning. “He likes you; he says you’re one of his best friends.”

“I am honored to be the recipient of his esteem,” he said shortly. “However, that esteem would very shortly cease to exist, upon Jamie Fraser’s discovering that his daughter was serving as consort and brood mare to a degenerate sodomite.”

“And how would he discover that?” she demanded. “I wouldn’t tell him.” Then she flushed and, meeting his outraged eye, suddenly dissolved into laughter, in which he helplessly joined.

“Well, I’m sorry, but you said it,” she gasped at last, sitting up and wiping her streaming eyes with the hem of her cloak.

“Oh, Christ. Yes, I did.” Distracted, he thumbed a strand of hair out of his mouth, and wiped his running nose on his sleeve again. “Damn, why haven’t I a handkerchief? I said it because it’s true. As for your father finding out, he’s well aware of the fact.”

“He is?” She seemed disproportionately surprised. “But I thought he’d never—”

A flash of yellow apron interrupted her; one of the kitchen maids was in the adjoining garden. Without comment, Lord John stood up and gave her a hand; she got ponderously to her feet and they sailed out onto the dry brown scurf of the dead lawn, cloaks billowing like sails around them.

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