Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 63

   

She looked momentarily startled, but then laughed.

“Only children usually want big families, don’t they?”

“Couldn’t say,” he said. “But I do.” He leaned across the boxes and kissed her suddenly.

“Me too,” she said. Her eyes went slanted when she smiled. She didn’t look away, but a faint blush made her look like a spring-ripe apricot.

He wanted kids, all right; just at the moment, he wanted to do what led to kids a lot more.

“But maybe we should finish clearing up, first?”

“What?” The sense of her words penetrated only vaguely. “Oh. Yeah. Right, guess we should.”

He bent his head and kissed her again, slowly this time. She had the most wonderful mouth; wide and full-lipped, almost too big for her face—but not quite.

He had her round the waist, his other hand tangled in silky hair. The nape of her neck was smooth and warm under his hand; he gripped it and she shivered slightly, mouth opening in a small sign of submission that made him want to lean her backward over his arm, carry her down to the hearth rug, and…

A brisk rapping made him jerk his head up, startled out of the embrace.

“Who’s that?” Brianna exclaimed, hand to her heart.

The study was lined on one side by floor-to-ceiling windows—the Reverend had been a painter—and a square, whiskered face was pressed against one of these, nose nearly flattened with interest.

“That,” said Roger through his teeth, “is the postman, MacBeth. What the hell is the old bugger doing out there?”

As though hearing this inquiry, Mr. MacBeth stepped back a pace, drew a letter out of his bag and brandished it jovially at the occupants of the study.

“A letter,” he mouthed elaborately, looking at Brianna. He cut his eyes toward Roger and beetled his brows in a knowing leer.

By the time Roger reached the front door, Mr. MacBeth was standing on the porch, holding the letter.

“Why did you not put it in the letter slot, for God’s sake?” Roger demanded. “Give it here, then.”

Mr. MacBeth held the letter out of reach and assumed an air of injured dignity, somewhat impaired by his attempts to see Brianna over Roger’s shoulder.

“Thought it might be important, didn’t I? From the States, i’nt it? And it’s for the young lady, not you, lad.” Screwing up his face into a massive and indelicate wink, he oiled past Roger, arm extended toward Brianna.

“Ma’am,” he said, simpering through his whiskers. “With the compliments of Her Majesty’s Mail.”

“Thank you.” Brianna was still rosily flushed, but she’d smoothed her hair, and smiled at MacBeth with every evidence of self-possession. She took the letter and glanced at it, but made no move to open it. The envelope was handwritten, Roger saw, with red postal-forwarding marks, but the distance was too far to make out the return address.

“Visiting, are ye, ma’am?” MacBeth asked heartily. “Just the two of ye here, all on your ownie-o?” He was giving Brianna a rolling eye, looking her up and down with frank interest.

“Oh, no,” Brianna said, straight-faced. She folded the letter in half and stuffed it into the back pocket of her jeans. “Uncle Angus is staying with us; he’s asleep upstairs.”

Roger bit the inside of his cheek. Uncle Angus was a moth-eaten stuffed Scottie, a remnant of his own youth, unearthed during the cleaning of the house. Brianna, charmed with him, had dusted off his plaid bonnet and placed him on her own bed in the guest room.

The postman’s heavy brows rose.

“Oh,” he said, rather blankly. “Aye, I see. He’ll be an American, too, then, your uncle Angus?”

“No, he’s from Aberdeen.” Other than a slight pinkening at the end of her nose, Brianna’s face showed nothing but the most open guilelessness.

Mr. MacBeth was enchanted.

“Oh, you’ve a wee bit of Scots in your family, then! Well, and I should have known it, now, you wi’ that hair. A bonnie, bonnie lass, and no mistake.” He shook his head in admiration, lechery replaced by a pseudoavuncular air that Roger found only slightly less objectionable.

“Yes, well.” Roger cleared his throat meaningfully. “I’m sure we don’t want to keep you from your work, MacBeth.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble, no trouble at all,” the postman assured him, craning to catch a last glimpse of Brianna as he turned to go. “Nay rest for the weary, is there, my dear?”

“That’s ‘no rest for the wicked,’ ” Roger said, with some emphasis, opening the door. “Good day to you, MacBeth.”

MacBeth glanced at him, the shadow of a leer back on his face.

“A good day to you, Mr. Wakefield.” He leaned close, dug Roger in the ribs with an elbow, and whispered hoarsely, “And a better night, if her uncle sleeps sound!”

“Here, going to read your letter?” He plucked it from the table where she had dropped it, and held it out to her.

She flushed slightly and took it from him.

“It’s not important. I’ll look at it later.”

“I’ll go to the kitchen, if it’s private.”

The flush deepened.

“It’s not. It’s nothing.”

He raised one eyebrow. She shrugged impatiently, and ripped open the flap, pulling out a single sheet of paper.

“See for yourself, then. I told you, it’s nothing important.”

Oh, isn’t it? he thought, but didn’t say anything aloud. He took the proffered sheet and glanced at it.

It was in fact nothing much; a notification forwarded from the library at her university, to the effect that a specific reference she had requested was unfortunately not obtainable via interlibrary loan, but could be viewed in the private collection of the Stuart Papers, held in the Royal Annexe of Edinburgh University.

She was watching him when he looked up, arms folded, her eyes shiny and lips tight, daring him to say something.

“You should have told me you were looking for him,” he said quietly. “I could have helped.”

She shrugged slightly, and he saw her throat move as she swallowed.

“I know how to do historical research. I used to help my fa—” She broke off, lower lip caught between her teeth.

“Yeah, I see,” he said, and did. He took her by the arm and steered her down the hall to the kitchen, where he plunked her in a chair at the battered old table.

“I’ll put the kettle on.”

“I don’t like tea,” she protested.

“You need tea,” Roger said firmly, and lit the gas with a fiery whoosh. He turned to the cupboard and took down cups and saucers, and—as an after-thought—the bottle of whisky from the top shelf.

“And I really don’t like whisky,” Brianna said, eyeing it. She started to push herself away from the table, but Roger stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“I like whisky,” he said. “But I hate to drink alone. You’ll keep me company, aye?” He smiled at her, willing her to smile back. At last she did, grudgingly, and relaxed in her seat.

He sat down opposite her, and filled his cup halfway with the pungent amber liquid. He breathed in the fumes with pleasure, and sipped slowly, letting the fine strong stuff roll down his throat.

“Ah,” he breathed. “Glen Morangie. Sure you won’t join me? A wee splash in your tea, maybe?”

She shook her head silently, but when the kettle began to whistle, she got up to take it off the fire and pour the hot water into the waiting pot. Roger got up and came behind her, slipping his arms around her waist.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he said softly. “You’ve a right to know, if you can. Jamie Fraser was your father, after all.”

“But he wasn’t—not really.” Her head was bent; he could see the neat whorl of a cowlick at her crown, an echo of the one in the center of her forehead, that lifted her hair in a soft wave off her face.

“I had a father,” she said, sounding a little choked. “Daddy—Frank Randall—he was my father, and I love—loved him. It doesn’t seem right to—to go looking for something else, like he wasn’t enough, like—”

“That’s not it, then, and you know it.” He turned her round and lifted her chin with a finger.

“It’s nothing to do with Frank Randall or how you feel about him—aye, he was your father, and there’s not a thing will ever change that. But it’s natural to be curious, to want to know.”

“Did you ever want to know?” Her hand came up and brushed his away—but she clung to his fingers, holding on.

He took a deep breath, finding comfort in the whisky.

“Yeah. Yes, I did. You need to, I think.” His fingers tightened around hers, drawing her toward the table. “Come sit down; I’ll tell you.”

He knew what missing a father felt like, especially an unknown father. For a time, just after he’d started school, he’d pored obsessively over his father’s medals, carried the little velvet case about in his pocket, boasted to his friends about his father’s heroism.

“Told stories about him, all made up,” he said, looking down into the aromatic depths of his teacup. “Got bashed for being a nuisance, got smacked at school for lying.” He looked up at her, and smiled, a little painfully.

“I had to make him real, see?”

She nodded, eyes dark with understanding.

He took another deep gulp of the whisky, not bothering to savor it.

“Luckily Dad—the Reverend—he seemed to know the trouble. He began to tell me stories about my father; the real ones. Nothing special, nothing heroic—he was a hero, all right, Jerry MacKenzie, got shot down and all, but the stories Dad told were all about what he was like as a kid—how he made a martin house, but made the hole too big and a cuckoo got in; what he liked to eat when he’d come here on holiday and they’d go into town for a treat; how he filled his pockets with winkles off the rocks and forgot about them and ruined his trousers with the stink—” He broke off, and smiled at her, his throat still tight at the memory.

“He made my father real to me. And I missed him more than ever, because then I knew a bit about what I was missing—but I had to know.”

“Some people would say you can’t miss what you never had—that it’s better not to know at all.” Brianna lifted her cup, blue eyes steady over the rim.

“Some people are fools. Or cowards.”

He poured another tot of whisky into his cup, tilted the bottle toward her with a lifted brow. She held out her cup without comment, and he splashed whisky into it. She drank from it, and set it down.

“What about your mother?” she asked.

“I had a few real memories of her; I was nearly five when she died. And there are the boxes in the garage—” He tilted his head toward the window. “All her things, her letters. It’s like Dad said, ‘Everybody needs a history.’ Mine was out there; I knew if I ever needed to, I could find out more.”

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