Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 39

   

He looked me over disapprovingly, taking in every detail of my waterlogged costume, unkempt hair, and generally disheveled appearance.

“Damned if I know what they want you for,” he observed. “Or, if you’re so valuable to them, why the devil they let you wander about the countryside by yourself. I thought even barbarians took better care of their womenfolk than that.” A sudden gleam came into his eyes. “Or have you perhaps decided to part company with them?” He sat back, intrigued by this new speculation.

“The wedding night was more of a trial than you anticipated?” he inquired. “I must confess, I was somewhat put out to hear that you preferred the alternative of bedding one of those hairy, half-naked savages to further discussions with me. That argues a high devotion to duty, Madam, and I must congratulate whomever employs you on their ability to inspire it. But,” he leaned still further back in his chair, balancing the claret cup on his knee, “I am afraid I still must insist on the name of your employer. If you have indeed parted company with the MacKenzies, the most likely supposition is that you’re a French agent. But whose?”

He stared at me intently, like a snake hoping to fascinate a bird. By now I had had enough claret to fill part of the hollow space inside me, though, and I stared back.

“Oh,” I said, elaborately polite, “I’m included in this conversation, am I? I thought you were doing quite well by yourself. Pray continue.”

The graceful line of his mouth tightened a bit, and the deep crease at the corner grew deeper, but he didn’t say anything. Setting his glass aside, he rose, and taking off his wig, went to the cupboard, where he placed it on an empty stand. I saw him pause for a moment, as he saw the dark grains of sand adorning his other wig, but his expression didn’t change noticeably.

Unwigged, his hair was dark, thick, fine-textured, and shiny. It was also disturbingly familiar-looking, though it was shoulder-length and tied back with a blue silk ribbon. He removed this, plucked the comb from the desk and tidied the hair flattened by the wig, then retied the ribbon with some care. I helpfully held up the looking glass, so that he could judge the final effect. He took it from me in a marked manner and restored it to its place, shutting the cupboard door with what was almost a slam.

I couldn’t tell whether this delay was in hopes of unnerving me—in which case; it was working—or merely because he couldn’t decide what to do next.

The tension was slightly relieved by the entrance of an orderly, bearing a tray of tea things. Still silent, Randall poured out and offered me a cup. We sipped some more.

“Don’t tell me,” I said finally. “Let me guess. It’s a new form of persuasion you’ve invented—torture by bladder. You ply me with drinkables until I promise to tell you anything in exchange for five minutes with a chamber pot.”

He was so taken by surprise that he actually laughed. It quite transformed his face, and I had no difficulty seeing why there were so many scented envelopes with feminine handwriting in the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk. Having let the facade crack, he didn’t stifle the laugh, but let it go. Finished, he stared at me again, a half-smile lingering on his mouth.

“Whatever else you may be, Madam, at least you’re a diversion,” he remarked. He yanked at a bellpull hanging by the door, and when the orderly reappeared, instructed him to convey me to the necessary facilities.

“But take care not to lose her on the way, Thompson,” he added, opening the door for me with a sardonic bow.

I leaned weakly against the door of the privy to which I was shown. Being out of his presence was a relief, but a short-lived one. I had had ample opportunity to judge Randall’s true character, both from the stories I had heard and from personal experience. But there were those damnable flashes of Frank that kept showing through the gleaming, ruthless exterior. It had been a mistake to make him laugh, I thought.

I sat down, ignoring the stench in my concentration on the problem at hand. Escape seemed unlikely. The vigilant Thompson aside, Randall’s office was in a building located near the center of the compound. And while the fort itself was no more than a stone stockade, the walls were ten feet high and the double gates well guarded.

I thought of feigning illness and remaining in my refuge, but dismissed it—and not only because of the unpleasantness of the surroundings. The unpalatable truth was that there was little point in delaying tactics, unless I had something to delay for, and I didn’t. No one knew where I was, and Randall didn’t mean to tell anyone. I was his, for as long as he cared to amuse himself with me. Once again, I regretted making him laugh. A sadist with a sense of humor was particularly dangerous.

Thinking frantically in search of something useful I might know about the Captain, I latched onto a name. Half-heard and carelessly remembered, I hoped I had it right. It was a pitifully small card to play, but the only one I had. I drew a deep breath, hastily let it out again, and stepped out of my sanctuary.

Back in the office, I added sugar to my tea and stirred it carefully. Then cream. Having drawn out the ceremony as long as I could, I was forced to look at Randall. He was sitting back in his favorite pose, cup elegantly suspended in midair, the better to look at me over.

“Well?” I said. “You needn’t worry about spoiling my appetite, since I haven’t got one. What do you mean to do about me?”

He smiled and took a careful sip of the scalding tea before replying.

“Nothing.”

“Really?” I lifted my brows in surprise. “Invention failed you, has it?”

“I shouldn’t care to think so,” he said, polite as usual. His eyes traveled over me once more, far from polite.

“No,” he said, his gaze lingering on the edge of my bodice, where the tucked kerchief left the upper swell of my br**sts visible, “much as I would like to give you a badly needed lesson in manners, I am afraid the pleasure must be postponed indefinitely. I’m sending you to Edinburgh with the next posting of dispatches. And I shouldn’t care to have you arrive damaged in any visible way; my superiors might consider it careless of me.”

“Edinburgh?” I couldn’t hide my surprise.

“Yes. You’ve heard of the Tolbooth, I imagine?”

I had. One of the most noisome and notorious prisons of the period, it was famous for filth, crime, disease, and darkness. A good many of the prisoners held there died before they could be brought to trial. I swallowed hard, forcing down the bitter bile that had risen at the back of my throat, mingling with the swallow of sweet tea.

Randall sipped his own tea, pleased with himself.

“You should feel quite cozy there. After all, you seem to prefer a certain dank squalor in your surroundings.” He cast a condemning glance at the soggy hem of my petticoat, sagging below my gown. “Should be quite homelike, after Castle Leoch.”

I rather doubted that the cuisine at the Tolbooth was as good as that to be had at Colum’s board. And general questions of amenities aside, I couldn’t—could not—allow him to send me to Edinburgh. Once immured in the Tolbooth, I would never get back to the stone circle.

The time to play my card had arrived. Now or never. I raised my own cup.

“Just as you like,” I said calmly. “What do you suppose the Duke of Sandringham will have to say about it?”

He upset the hot tea on his doeskin lap and made several very gratifying noises.

“Tsk,” I said, reprovingly.

He subsided, glaring. The teacup lay on its side, its brown contents soaking into the pale green carpet, but he made no move toward the bellpull. A small muscle jumped in the side of his neck.

I had already found the pile of starched handkerchiefs in the upper lefthand drawer of the desk, alongside an enameled snuffbox. I pulled one out and handed it to him.

“I do hope it doesn’t stain,” I said sweetly.

“No,” he said, ignoring the handkerchief. He eyed me closely. “No, it isn’t possible.”

“Why not?” I asked, affecting nonchalance, wondering what wasn’t possible.

“I would have been told. And if you were working for Sandringham, why the devil would you act in such a damned ridiculous manner?”

“Perhaps the Duke is testing your loyalty,” I suggested at random, preparing to leap to my feet if necessary. His fists were bunched at his side, and the discarded riding crop was within much too easy a reach on the desk nearby.

He snorted in response to this suggestion.

“You may be testing my gullibility. Or my tolerance to irritation. Both, Madam, are extremely low.” His eyes narrowed speculatively, and I braced myself for a quick dash.

He lunged, and I flung myself to one side. Getting hold of the teapot, I threw it at him. He dodged, and it hit the door with a satisfying crash. The orderly, who must have been lingering just outside, poked a startled head in.

Breathing heavily, the Captain motioned him impatiently into the room.

“Hold her,” he ordered brusquely, crossing toward the desk. I began to breathe deeply, both in hopes of calming myself and in anticipation of not being able to do it in a moment.

Instead of hitting me, though, he merely pulled out the lower right-hand drawer, which I had not had time to investigate, and pulled out a long strand of thin rope.

“What kind of gentleman keeps rope in his desk drawers?” I inquired indignantly.

“A prepared one, Madam,” he murmured, tying my wrists securely behind me.

“Go,” he said impatiently to the orderly, jerking his head toward the door. “And don’t come back, no matter what you hear.”

This sounded distinctly ominous, and my forebodings were abundantly justified as he reached into the drawer once more.

There is something unnerving about a knife. Men who are fearless in personal combat will shrink from a nak*d blade. I shrank myself, until my bound hands collided with the whitewashed wall. The wicked gleaming point lowered and pressed between my br**sts.

“Now,” he said pleasantly, “you are going to tell me everything you know about the Duke of Sandringham.” The blade pressed a little harder, making a dent in the fabric of my gown. “Take as long as you like about it, my dear. I am in no hurry whatsoever.” There was a small pop! as the point punctured the fabric. I felt it, cold as fear, a tiny spot directly over my heart.

Randall slowly drew the knife in a semicircle under one breast. The homespun came free and fell away with a flutter of white chemise, and my breast sprang out. Randall seemed to have been holding his breath; he exhaled slowly now, his eyes fixed on mine.

I sidled away from him, but there was very little room to maneuver. I ended up pressed against the desk, bound hands gripping the edge. If he came close enough, I thought, I might be able to rock backward on my hands and kick the knife out of his hand. I doubted that he meant to kill me; certainly not until he had found out just what I knew about his relations with the Duke. Somehow that conclusion was of relatively little comfort.

He smiled, with that unnerving resemblance to Frank’s smile; that lovely smile which I had seen charm students and melt the stoniest college administrator. Possibly under other circumstances, I would have found this man charming, but just at present…no.

He moved in fast, thrusting a knee between my thighs and pushing my shoulders back. Unable to keep my balance, I fell heavily backward on the desk, crying out as I landed painfully on my bound wrists. He pressed himself between my legs, scrabbling with one hand to raise my skirts while the other fastened on my bared breast, rolling and pinching. I kicked frantically, but my skirts got in the way. He grasped my foot and ran a hand up my leg, pushing damp petticoats, skirt, and chemise out of the way, tossing them up above my waist. His hand dropped to his breeches.

Shades of Harry the deserter, I thought furiously. What in God’s name is the British army coming to? Glorious traditions, my aunt Fanny.

In the midst of an English garrison, screaming was unlikely to attract any helpful attention, but I filled my lungs and had a try, more as a pro forma protest than anything else. I had expected a slap or shake in return, to shut me up. Instead, unexpectedly, he appeared to like it.

“Go ahead and scream, sweeting,” he murmured, busy with his flies. “I’ll enjoy it much more if you scream.”

I looked him straight in the eye and snapped “Get stuffed!” with perfect clarity and terrible inaptness.

A lock of dark hair came loose and fell across his forehead in rakish disarray. He looked so like his six-times-great grandson that I was seized by a horrible impulse to open my legs and respond to him. He twisted my breast savagely and the impulse disappeared at once.

I was furiously angry, disgusted, humiliated, and revolted, but curiously not very frightened. I felt a heavy, flopping movement against my leg and suddenly realized why. He wasn’t going to enjoy it unless I screamed—and possibly not then.

“Oh, like that, is it?” I said, and was rewarded at once with a sharp slap across the face. I shut my mouth grimly and turned my head away lest I be tempted into any more injudicious remarks. I realized that rape or not, I was in considerable danger from his unstable temper. Looking away from the sight of Randall, I caught a sudden flicker of movement at the window.

“I’ll thank ye,” said a cool, level voice, “to take your hands off my wife.” Randall froze with a hand still on my breast. Jamie was crouched in the window frame, a large, brass-handled pistol braced across one forearm.

Randall stood frozen for a second, as though unable to believe his ears. As his head turned slowly toward the window, his right hand, shielded from Jamie’s view, left my breast, sliding stealthily toward the knife, which he had laid on the desk next to my head.

“What did you say?” he said, incredulously. As his hand fastened on the knife, he turned far enough to see who had spoken. He stopped again for a moment, staring, then began to laugh.

“Lord help us, it’s the young Scottish wildcat! I thought I’d dealt with you once and for all! Back healed after all, did it? And this is your wife, you say? Quite a tasty little wench, she is, quite like your sister.”

Still shielded by his partly turned body, Randall’s knife-hand swiveled; the blade was now pointed at my throat. I could see Jamie over his shoulder, braced in the window like a cat about to spring. The pistol barrel didn’t waver, nor did he change expression. The only clue to his emotions was the dusky red creeping up his throat; his collar was unbuttoned and the small scar on his neck flamed crimson.

Almost casually, Randall slowly raised the knife into view, point almost touching my throat. He half turned toward Jamie.

“Perhaps you’d better toss that pistol over here—unless you’re weary of married life. If you’d prefer to be a widower, of course…” Their eyes locked tight as a lover’s embrace, neither man moved for a long minute. Finally, Jamie’s body relaxed its springlike tension. He let out his breath in a long sigh of resignation and tossed the pistol into the room. It hit the floor with a clunk and slid almost to Randall’s feet.

Randall bent and scooped up the gun in a quicksilver motion. As soon as the knife left my throat, I tried to sit up, but he placed a hand on my chest and shoved me flat again. He held me down with one hand, using the other to aim the pistol at Jamie. The discarded knife lay somewhere on the floor near my feet, I thought. Now, if only I had prehensile toes.…The dirk in my pocket was as unreachable as if it were on Mars.

The smile had not left Randall’s features since Jamie’s appearance. Now it broadened, enough to show the pointed dog teeth.

“Well, that’s a bit better.” The pressing hand left my chest to return to the swelling flies of his breeches. “I was engaged when you arrived, my dear fellow. You’ll forgive me if I get on with what I was doing before I attend to you.”

The red color had spread completely over Jamie’s face, but he stood motionless, the gun pointed at his middle. As Randall finished his maneuvers, Jamie launched himself at the open mouth of the pistol. I tried to scream, to stop him, but my mouth was dry with terror. Randall’s knuckles whitened as he squeezed the trigger.

The hammer clicked on an empty chamber, and Jamie’s fist drove into Randall’s stomach. There was a dull crunching sound as his other fist splintered the officer’s nose, and a fine spray of blood spattered my skirt. Randall’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he dropped to the floor like a stone.

Jamie was behind me, pulling me up, sawing at the rope around my wrists.

“You bluffed your way in here with an empty gun?” I croaked hysterically.

“If it were loaded, I would ha’ just shot him in the first place, wouldn’t I?!” Jamie hissed.

Feet were coming down the corridor toward the office. The rope came free and Jamie yanked me to the window. It was an eight-foot drop to the ground, but the footsteps were almost to the door. We jumped together.

I landed with a bone-shaking jar and rolled in a tumble of skirts and petticoats. Jamie jerked me to my feet and pressed me against the wall of the building. Feet were passing the corner of the building; six soldiers came into view, but didn’t look in our direction.

As soon as they were safely past, Jamie took my hand and motioned toward the other corner. We sidled along the building, stopping short of the corner. I could see where we were now. About twenty feet away, a ladder led up to a sort of catwalk that ran along the inside of the fort’s outer wall. He nodded toward it; this was our objective.

He brought his head close to mine and whispered, “When ye hear an explosion, run like hell and get up that ladder. I’ll be behind ye.”

I nodded understanding. My heart was going like a trip-hammer; glancing down, I saw that one breast was still exposed. Not much to be done about it just at present. I rucked up my skirts, ready to run.

There was an almighty roar from the other side of the building, like a mortar explosion. Jamie gave me a shove and I was off, running as fast as I could go. I jumped for the ladder, caught it and scrambled up; I felt the wood jerk and tremble as Jamie’s weight hit the ladder below me.

Turning at the top of the ladder, I had a bird’s-eye view of the fort. Black smoke was billowing up from a small building near the back wall, and men were running toward it from every direction.

Jamie popped up beside me. “This way.” He ran crouching along the catwalk, and I followed. We stopped near the flag staff set in the wall. The ensign flapped heavily above us, halyard beating a rhythmic tattoo against the pole. Jamie was peering over the wall, looking for something.

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