Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 197

   

“Thanks.”

Fraser had brought a small looking glass and a pot of shaving soap as well. Very thoughtful. He could have wished that Fraser might have left him alone, rather than leaning against the doorframe, lending a critical eye to the proceedings, but under the circumstances Roger could scarcely ask him to leave.

Even with the unwelcome spectator, it was a sublime relief to get rid of the beard. It itched like a fiend, and he hadn’t seen his own face in months.

“Work going well?” He tried for a bit of polite conversation, rinsing the blade between strokes. “I heard you hammering in the back this morning.”

“Oh, aye.” Fraser’s eyes followed his every move with interest—sizing him up, he thought. “I’ve got the floor laid, and a bit of roof on. Claire and I will sleep up here tonight, I think.”

“Ah.” Roger stretched his neck, negotiating the turn of his jaw. “Claire’s told me I can walk again; let me know which chores I can take over.”

Jamie nodded, arms crossed.

“Are ye handy wi’ tools?”

“Haven’t done a lot of building,” Roger admitted. A birdhouse done in school didn’t count, he suspected.

“I dinna suppose you’ll be much hand wi’ a plow, or a farrowing hog?” There was a definite glimmer of amusement in Fraser’s eyes.

Roger lifted his chin, clearing the last of the stubble from his neck. He’d thought about it, the last few days. Not much call for the skills of either a historian or a folk singer, on an eighteenth-century hill farm.

“No,” he said evenly, putting down the razor. “Nor do I know how to milk a cow, build a chimney, split shingles, drive horses, shoot bears, gut deer, or spit someone with a sword.”

“No?” Overt amusement.

Roger splashed water on his face and toweled it dry, then turned to face Fraser.

“No. What I’ve got is a strong back. That do you?”

“Oh, aye. Couldna ask better, could I?” One side of Fraser’s mouth curled up. “Know one end of a shovel from the other, do ye?”

“That much I know.”

“Then ye’ll do fine.” Fraser shoved himself away from the doorframe. “Claire’s garden needs spading, there’s barley to be turned at the still, and there’s an almighty heap of manure waitin’ in the stable. After that, I’ll show ye how to milk a cow.”

“Thanks.” He wiped the razor, put it back in the bag, and handed the lot over.

“Claire and I are going to Fergus’s place the eve,” Fraser said casually, accepting it. “Takin’ the wee maid to help Marsali for a bit.”

“Ah? Well…enjoy yourselves.”

“Oh, I expect we will.” Fraser paused in the doorway. “Brianna thought she’d stay; the bairn’s settled a bit, and she doesna want to upset him wi’ the walk.”

Roger stared hard at the other man. You could read anything—or nothing—in those slanted blue eyes.

“Oh, aye?” he said. “So you’re telling me they’ll be alone? I’ll keep an eye on them, then.”

One ruddy brow lifted an inch.

“I’m sure ye will.” Fraser’s hand reached out and opened over the empty basin. There was a small metallic clink and a red spark glowed against the pewter. “Ye’ll mind I told ye, MacKenzie—my daughter doesna need a coward.”

Before he could reply, the brow dropped, and Fraser gave him a level blue look.

“Ye’ve cost me a lad I loved, and I’m no inclined to like ye for it.” He glanced down at Roger’s foot, then up. “But I’ve maybe cost ye more than that. I’ll call the score settled—or not—at your word.”

Astonished, Roger nodded, then found his voice.

“Done.”

Fraser nodded, and disappeared as quickly as he’d come, leaving Roger staring at the empty doorway.

He lifted the latch and pushed gently on the cabin’s door. It was bolted. So much for the notion of waking Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. He lifted a fist to knock, then stopped. Wrong her**ne. Sleeping Beauty hadn’t had an irascible dwarf in bed with her, ready to yell the house down at any disturbance.

He circled the small cabin, checking the windows, names like Sneezy and Grumpy drifting through the back of his mind. What would they call this one? Noisy? Smelly?

The house was snug as a drum, oiled skins nailed over the windows. He could punch one loose, but the last thing he wanted was to scare her by breaking in on her.

Slowly, he circled the house once more. The sensible thing was to go back to the surgery and wait till morning. He could talk to her then. Better than waking her out of a sound sleep, waking the kid.

Yes, that was plainly the thing to do. Claire would take the little bas—the baby, if he asked her. They could talk calmly, without fear of interruption, walk in the wood, get things settled between them. Right. That was it, then.

Ten minutes later he had circled the house twice more, and was standing in the grass at the back, looking at the faint glow of the window.

“What the hell do you think you are?” he muttered to himself. “A bloody moth?”

The creak of boards prevented his answering himself. He shot around the end of the house in time to see a white-gowned figure float ghostlike down the path toward the privy.

“Brianna?”

The figure whirled, with a small yelp of fright.

“It’s me,” he said, and saw the dark blotch of her hand press against the white of her nightdress, over her heart.

“What’s the matter with you, sneaking up on me like that?” she demanded furiously.

“I want to talk to you.”

She didn’t answer, but whipped round and made off down the path.

“I said, I want to talk to you,” he repeated more loudly, following.

“I want to go to the bathroom,” she said. “Go away.” She shut the door of the privy with a decisive slam.

He retreated a short distance up the path and waited for her to emerge. Her step slowed when she saw him, but there was no way around him without stepping into the long, wet grass.

“You shouldn’t be up walking on that foot,” she said.

“The foot’s fine.”

“I think you should go back to bed.”

“All right,” he said, and moved solidly into the center of the path in front of her. “Where?”

“Where?” She froze, but made no pretense of not understanding.

“Up there?” He jerked a thumb at the ridge. “Or here?”

“I—ah—”

Be careful, her mother said, and my daughter doesna need a coward, said her father. He could flip a bloody coin, but for the moment he was taking Jamie Fraser’s advice, and damn the torpedoes.

“You said you’d seen a marriage of obligation and one of love. And do you think the one cuts out the other? Look—I spent three days in that godforsaken circle, thinking. And by God, I thought. I thought of staying, and I thought of going. And I stayed.”

“So far. You don’t know what you’d be giving up, if you stay for good.”

“I do! And even if I did not, I know bloody well what I’d be giving up by going.” He gripped her shoulder, the light gauze of her shift coarse under his hand. She was very warm.

“I could not go, and live with myself, thinking I’d left behind a child who might be mine—who is mine.” His voice dropped a little. “And I could not go, and live without you.”

She hesitated, drawing back, trying to escape his hand.

“My father—my fathers—”

“Look, I’m neither one of your bloody fathers! Give me credit for my own sins, at least!”

“You haven’t committed any sins,” she said, her voice sounding choked.

“No, and neither have you.”

She looked up at him, and he caught the gleam of a dark, slanted eye.

“If I hadn’t—” she began.

“And if I hadn’t,” he interrupted roughly. “Drop it, aye? It doesn’t matter what you’ve done—or I. I said I was neither of your fathers, and I meant it. But there they are, the two of them, and you know them well—far better than I.

“Did Frank Randall not love you as his own? Take you as the child of his heart, knowing you were the blood of another man, and one he’d good reason to hate?”

He took her other shoulder and gave her a little shake.

“Did that redheaded bastard not love your mother more than life? And love you enough to sacrifice even that love to save you?”

She made a small, choked noise, and a pang went through him at the sound, but he would not release her.

“If you believe it of them,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper, “then by God you must believe it of me. For I am a man like them, and by all I hold holy, I do love you.”

Slowly her head rose, and her breath was warm on his face.

“We have time,” he said softly, and knew suddenly why it had been so important to talk to her now, here in the dark. He reached for her hand, clasped it flat against his breast.

“Do you feel it? Do you feel my heart beat?”

“Yes,” she whispered, and slowly brought their linked hands to her own breast, pressing his palm against the thin white gauze.

“This is our time,” he said. “Until that shall stop—for one of us, for both—it is our time. Now. Will ye waste it, Brianna, because you are afraid?”

“No,” she said, and her voice was thick, but clear. “I won’t.”

There was a sudden thin wail from the house, and a surprising gush of moist heat against his palm.

“I have to go,” she said, pulling away. She took two steps, then turned. “Come in,” she said, and ran up the path in front of him, fleet and white as the ghost of a deer.

By the time he reached the door, she had already fetched the baby from his cradle. She had been in bed; the quilt was thrown back and the hollow of her body was printed on the feather bed. Looking self-conscious, she sidled past him and lay down.

“I usually feed him in bed at night. He stays asleep longer if he’s next to me.”

Roger made some murmur of assent, and drew up the low nursing chair before the fire. It was very warm in the room, and the air was thick with smells of cooking, used diapers—and Brianna. Her scent was slightly different these days; the tang of wild grass tempered with a light, sweet smell that he thought must be milk.

Her head was bent, loose red hair falling over her shoulders in a cascade of sparks and shadows. The front of her gown was open to her waist, and the full round curve of one breast showed plainly, only the nipple obscured by the roundness of the baby’s head. There was a faint sound of sucking.

As though feeling his eyes on her, she raised her head.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly, not to disturb the baby. “I cannot pretend not to be looking.”

He couldn’t tell if she flushed; the fire cast a red glow over face and br**sts alike. She glanced down, though, as if she was embarrassed.

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