Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 64

   

He studied her for a long moment.

“You miss her a lot?” he said. “Claire?”

She glanced at him, nodded briefly, and drank, then held out her empty cup for more.

“I’m—I was—afraid to look,” she said, eyes fixed on the stream of whisky.

“It’s not just him—it’s her, too. I mean, I know his stories, Jamie Fraser’s; she told me a lot about him. A lot more than I’ll ever find in historical records,” she added with a feeble attempt at a smile. She took a deep breath.

“But Mama—at first I tried to pretend she was only gone, like on a trip. And then when I couldn’t do that anymore, I tried to believe she was dead.” Her nose was running, from emotion, whisky, or the heat of the tea. Roger reached for the tea towel hanging by the stove and shoved it across the table to her.

“She isn’t, though.” She picked up the towel and wiped angrily at her nose. “That’s the trouble! I have to miss her all the time, and know that I’ll never see her again, but she isn’t even dead! How can I mourn for her, when I think—when I hope—she’s happy where she is, when I made her go?”

She gulped the rest of her cup, choked slightly, and got her breath. She fixed Roger with a dark blue glare, as though he were to blame for the situation.

“So I want to find out, all right? I want to find her—find them. See if she’s all right. But I keep thinking maybe I don’t want to find out, because what if I find out she’s not all right, what if I find out something horrible? What if I find out she’s dead, or he is—well, that wouldn’t matter so much, maybe, because he already is dead anyway, or he was, or—but I have to, I know I have to!”

She banged her cup down on the table in front of him.

“More.”

He opened his mouth to say that she’d had a good bit more than she needed already, but a glance at her face changed his mind. He shut his mouth and poured.

She didn’t wait for him to add tea, but raised the cup to her mouth and took a large swallow, and another. She coughed, sputtered, and set the cup down, eyes watering.

“So I’m looking. Or I was. When I saw Daddy’s books, and his handwriting, though…it all seemed wrong, then. Do you think I’m wrong?” she asked, peering woefully at him through tear-clogged lashes.

“No, hen,” he said gently. “It’s not wrong. You’re right, you’ve got to know. I’ll help you.” He stood up and, taking her under the arms, hoisted her to her feet. “But right now, I think you should maybe have a bit of a lie-down, hm?”

He got her up the stairs and halfway down the hall, when she suddenly broke free and darted into the bathroom. He leaned against the wall outside, waiting patiently until she staggered out again, her face the color of the aged plaster above the wainscoting.

“Waste of Glen Morangie, that,” he said, taking her by the shoulders and steering her into the bedroom. “If I’d known I was dealing with a sot, I’d have given you the cheap stuff.”

She collapsed on the bed, and allowed him to take off her shoes and socks. She rolled onto her stomach, Uncle Angus cradled in the crook of her arm.

“I told you I didn’t like tea,” she mumbled, and was asleep in seconds.

Roger worked for an hour or two by himself, sorting books and tying cartons. It was a quiet, dark afternoon, with no sound but a soft patter of rain and the occasional whoosh of a car’s tires on the street outside. When the light began to fail, he turned on the lamps and went down the hall to the kitchen, to wash the book grime from his hands.

A huge pot of milky cock-a-leekie soup was burbling on the back of the cooker. What had Fiona said to do about that? Turn it up? Turn it off? Throw things into it? He peered dubiously into the pot and decided to leave well enough alone.

He tidied up the remains of their impromptu tea—rinsed the cups and dried them, hung them carefully from their hooks in the cupboard. They were remnants of the old willow pattern set the Reverend had had for as long as Roger could remember, the blue-and-white Chinese trees and pagodas augmented by odd bits of ill-assorted crockery acquired from jumble sales.

Fiona would have all new, of course. She’d forced them to look at magazine pictures of china and crystal and flatware. Brianna had made suitable admiring noises; Roger’s eyes had gone glassy from boredom. He supposed the old stuff would all end up at the jumble sale—at least it might still be useful to someone.

On impulse, he took down the two cups he’d washed, wrapped them in a clean tea towel, and took them to the study, where he tucked them into the box he’d set aside for himself. He felt thoroughly foolish, but at the same time, somewhat better.

He looked around the echoing study, quite bare now save for the single sheet of paper on the cork-lined wall.

So your home’s gone for good. Well, he’d left home some time ago, hadn’t he?

Yeah, it bothered him. A lot more than he’d let on to Brianna, in fact. That was why it had taken so bloody long to finish clearing out the manse, if he was honest about it. True, it was a monster task, true, he had his own job to do at Oxford, and true, the thousands of books had had to be sorted with care—but he could have done it faster. If he’d wanted.

With the house standing vacant, he might never have got the job finished. But with the impetus of Fiona behind, and the lure of Brianna before…he smiled at the thought of the two of them: little dark, curly-headed wren, and tall fire-haired Viking. Likely it took women to get men to do anything much.

Time to finish up, though.

With a sense of somber ceremony, he unpinned the corners of the yellowed sheet of paper and took it down from the cork. It was his family tree, a genealogical chart made out in the Reverend’s neat round hand.

MacKenzies and more MacKenzies, generations of them. He’d thought lately of taking back the name permanently, not just for the singing. After all, with Dad gone he didn’t mean to come back much more to Inverness, where folk would know him as Wakefield. That had been the point of the genealogy, after all; that Roger shouldn’t forget who he was.

Dad had known a few individual stories, but no more than the names for most of the people on the list. And he hadn’t known even that, for the most important one—the woman whose green eyes Roger saw each morning in the mirror. She was nowhere on this list, for good reason.

Roger’s finger stopped near the top of the chart. There he was, the changeling—William Buccleigh MacKenzie. Given to foster parents to raise, the illegitimate offspring of the war chieftain of clan MacKenzie, and of a witch condemned to burning. Dougal MacKenzie and the witch Geillis Duncan.

Not a witch at all, of course, but something just as dangerous. He had her eyes—or so Claire said. Had he inherited something more from her as well? Was the terrifying ability to travel through the stones passed down unsuspected through generations of respectable boatwrights and herdsmen?

He thought of it each time he saw the chart now—and for that reason, tried not to look. He appreciated Brianna’s ambivalence; he understood all too well the razor’s edge between fear and curiosity, the pull between the need to know and the fear of finding out.

Well, he could help Brianna find out. And for himself…

Roger slipped the chart into a folder, and put it in the box. He closed the top of the carton, and added an “X” of sticky tape across the flap for good measure.

“That’s that, then,” he said aloud, and left the empty room.

He stopped at the head of the stairs, taken by surprise.

Brianna had been bathing, braving the ancient geyser with its cracked enamel and rumbling flame. Now she stepped into the hall, wearing nothing but a towel.

She turned down the hall, not seeing him. Roger stood very still, listening to the thud of his heart, feeling his palm slick on the polished banister.

She was modestly covered; he had seen more of her in the halters and shorts she had worn in the summer. It was the fragility of her covering that roused him; the knowledge that he could undress her with one quick tug. That, and the knowledge that they were quite alone in the house.

Dynamite.

He took a step after her, and stopped. She had heard him; she stopped, too, but it was a long moment before she turned around. Her feet were bare, high-arched and long-toed; the slender curves of her wet footprints were dark on the worn runner that covered the floor of the hallway.

She didn’t say anything. Just looked at him straight-on, her eyes dark and slanting. She stood against the tall window at the end of the hall, her swaddled figure black against the pale gray light of the rainy day outside.

If he should touch her, he knew how she would feel. Her skin would be still hot from the bath, damp in the crevices of knee and thigh and elbow. He could smell her, the minglings of shampoo and soap and powder, the smell of her flesh masked by the ghosts of flowers.

Her footprints on the runner stretched before him, a fragile chain of footsteps linking them. He kicked off his sandals and planted a bare foot on one of the prints she had left; it was cool on his skin.

There were drops of water on her shoulders, matching the droplets on the windowpane behind her, as though she had stepped through it out of the rain. She lifted her head as he came toward her, and with a shake, let the towel wrapped round her head fall off.

The bronze snakes of her hair fell gleaming, brushed his cheek with wet. Not a Gorgon’s beauty, but a water spirit’s, changing shape from serpent-maned horse to magic woman.

“Kelpie,” he whispered against the flushed curve of her cheek. “You look like you’ve come straight out of a Highland burn.” She put her arms around his neck, let go of the towel; only the pressure of their bodies held it between them.

Her back was bare. Cold air from the window raised the hair on his forearm, even as her skin warmed his palm. He wanted at once to pull the towel about her, shelter her, cover her from the cold; at the same time, to strip both her and himself, take her heat to himself and give her his own, right there in the damp and drafty hallway.

“Steam,” he whispered. “God, you’re steaming.”

Her mouth curved against his.

“That makes two of us, and you haven’t had a bath. Roger—” Her hand was on the back of his neck, fingers cool. She opened her mouth to say something more, but he kissed her, feeling hot damp seep through the fabric of his shirt.

Her br**sts rose against him and her mouth opened under his. The muffling terry cloth hid the outlines of her br**sts from his hands but not his imagination; he could see them in his mind’s eye, round and smooth, with that faint, enchanting wobble of full flesh.

His hand drifted lower, grasping the swell of bare buttock. She shied, lost her balance, and the two of them collapsed awkwardly, grappling with each other in an effort to stay upright.

Roger’s knees hit the floor, and he dragged her down with him. She tilted and sprawled, landing laughing on her back.

“Hey!” She grabbed for her towel, then abandoned it as he lunged over her, kissing her again.

He’d been right about her br**sts. The one under his hand was bare now, full and soft, the nipple hard in the center of his palm.

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