The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 104

   

And then it did happen and everything dissolved and shook and throbbed—

Here she had blacked out the rest of the line, with a small, cross note in the margin, that said,

Well, none of the books I’ve ever read could describe it, either!

Despite his shocked fascination, Roger laughed aloud, then choked it off, glancing round hastily to see that he was still alone. There were noises in the kitchen, but no sound of footsteps in the hall, and his eyes went back to the page like iron filings drawn to a magnet.

I had my eyes closed—in the dream, that is—and I was lying there with little electric shocks still going off, and I opened my eyes and it was Stephen Bonnet inside me.

It was such a shock it woke me up. I felt like I’d been screaming—my throat was all raw—but I couldn’t have been, because Roger and the baby were sound asleep. I was hot all over, so hot I was sweating, but I was cold, too, and my heart was pounding. It took a long time before things settled down enough for me to go back to sleep; all the birds were carrying on.

That’s what finally let me go back to sleep, in fact—the birds. Da—and Daddy, too, come to think of it—told me that the jays and crows give alarm calls, but songbirds stop singing when someone comes near, so when you’re in a forest, you listen for that. With so much racket in the trees by the house, I knew it was safe—nobody was there.

There was a small blank space at the foot of the page. He turned it, feeling his palms sweat and his heartbeat heavy in his ears. The writing resumed at the top of the page. Before, the writing had been fluid, almost hasty, the letters flattened as they raced across the page. Here, they were formed with more care, rounded and upright, as though the first shock of the experience were spent, and she had returned, with a stubborn caution, to think further about it.

I tried to forget it, but that didn’t work. It kept coming back and coming back into my mind, so I finally went out by myself to work in the herb shed. Mama keeps Jemmy when I’m there because he gets in things, so I knew I could be alone. So I sat down in the middle of all the hanging bunches and closed my eyes and tried to remember every single thing about it, and think to myself about the different parts, “That’s okay,” or “That’s just a dream.” Because Stephen Bonnet scared me, and I felt sick when I thought of the end—but I really wanted to remember how. How it felt, and how I did it, so maybe I can do it again, with Roger.

But I keep having this feeling that I can’t, unless I can remember Roger’s secret name.

There the entry stopped. The dreams continued on the next page, but Roger didn’t read further. He closed the book very carefully and slid it back behind the others on the shelf. He rose to his feet and stood looking out the window for some time, unconsciously rubbing his sweating palms over the seams of his breeches.

PART FIVE

’Tis Better to Marry Than Burn

39

IN CUPID’S GROVE

DO YE THINK they’ll share a bed?”

Jamie didn’t raise his voice, but he’d made no effort to lower it, either. Luckily, we were standing at the far end of the terrace, too far away for the bridal couple to hear. A number of heads turned in our direction, though.

Ninian Bell Hamilton was openly staring at us. I smiled brightly and fluttered my closed fan at the elderly Scotsman in greeting, meanwhile giving Jamie a swift nudge in the ribs.

“A nice, respectable sort of thing for a nephew to be wondering about his aunt,” I said under my breath.

Jamie shifted out of elbow range and lifted an eyebrow at me.

“What’s respectable to do with it? They’ll be married. And well above the age of consent, both o’ them,” he added, with a grin at Ninian, who went bright pink with smothered mirth. I didn’t know how old Duncan Innes was, but my best guess put him in his mid-fifties. Jamie’s aunt Jocasta had to be at least a decade older.

I could just see Jocasta over the heads of the intervening crowd, graciously accepting the greetings of friends and neighbors at the far end of the terrace. A tall woman gowned in russet wool, she was flanked by huge stone vases holding sprays of dried goldenrod, and her black butler Ulysses stood at her shoulder, dignified in wig and green livery. With an elegant white lace cap crowning her bold MacKenzie bones, she was undeniably the queen of River Run Plantation. I stood on tiptoe, searching for her consort.

Duncan was slightly shorter than Jocasta, but he should still have been visible. I’d seen him earlier in the morning, dressed in an absolute blaze of Highland finery, in which he looked dashing, if terribly self-conscious. I craned my neck, putting a hand on Jamie’s arm to keep my balance. He grabbed my elbow to steady me.

“What are ye looking for, Sassenach?”

“Duncan. Shouldn’t he be with your aunt?”

No one could tell by looking that Jocasta was blind—that she stood between the big vases to keep her bearings, or that Ulysses was there to whisper in her ear the names of approaching guests. I saw her left hand drift outward from her side, touch empty air, and drift back. Her face didn’t change, though; she smiled and nodded, saying something to Judge Henderson.

“Run away before the wedding night?” suggested Ninian, lifting his chin and both eyebrows in an effort to see over the crowd without standing on his toes. “I’d maybe feel a bit nervous at the prospect myself. Your aunt’s a handsome woman, Fraser, but she could freeze the ballocks off the King o’ Japan, and she wanted to.”

Jamie’s mouth twitched.

“Duncan’s maybe caught short,” he said. “Whatever the reason. He’s been to the necessary house four times this morning.”

My own brows went up at this. Duncan suffered from chronic constipation; in fact, I had brought a packet of senna leaves and coffee-plant roots for him, in spite of Jamie’s rude remarks about what constituted a suitable wedding present. Duncan must be more nervous than I’d thought.

“Well, it’s no going to be any great surprise to my aunt, and her wi’ three husbands before him,” Jamie said, in reply to a murmured remark of Hamilton’s. “It’ll be the first time Duncan’s been married, though. That’s a shock to any man. I remember my own wedding night, aye?” He grinned at me, and I felt the heat rise in my cheeks. I remembered it, too—vividly.

“Don’t you think it’s rather warm out here?” I flicked my fan into an arc of ivory lace, and fluttered it over my cheeks.

“Really?” he said, still grinning at me. “I hadna taken notice of it.”

“Duncan has,” Ninian put in. His wrinkled lips pursed closed, holding in the laughter. “Sweating like a steamed pudding when I saw him last.”

It was in fact a little chilly out, in spite of the cast-iron tubs full of hot embers that sent the sweet smell of applewood smoke wisping up from the corners of the stone terrace. Spring had sprung, and the lawns were fresh and green, as were the trees along the river, but the morning air still held a sharp nip of winter’s bite. It was still winter in the mountains, and we had encountered snow as far south as Greensboro on our journey toward River Run, though daffodils and crocuses poked bravely through it.

It was a clear, bright March day now, though, and house, terrace, lawn, and garden were thronged with wedding guests, glowing in their finery like an unseasonable flight of butterflies. Jocasta’s wedding was clearly going to be the social event of the year, so far as Cape Fear society was concerned; there must be nearly two hundred people here, from places as far distant as Halifax and Edenton.

Ninian said something to Jamie in low-voiced Gaelic, with a sidelong glance at me. Jamie replied with a remark elegant in phraseology and extremely crude in content, blandly meeting my eye as the older man choked with laughter.

I did in fact understand Gaelic fairly well by now, but there were moments when discretion was the better part of valor. I spread my fan wide, concealing my expression. True, it took some practice to achieve grace with a fan, but it was a useful social tool to someone cursed, as I was, with a glass face. Even fans had their limits, though.

I turned away from the conversation, which gave every promise of degenerating further, and surveyed the party for signs of the absent bridegroom. Perhaps Duncan was truly ill, and not with nerves. If so, I should have a look at him.

“Phaedre! Have you seen Mr. Innes this morning?” Jocasta’s body servant was flying past, her arms full of tablecloths, but came abruptly to a halt at my call.

“Ain’t seen Mister Duncan since breakfast, ma’am,” she said, with a shake of her neatly capped head.

“How did he seem then? Did he eat well?” Breakfast was an ongoing affair of several hours, the resident guests serving themselves from the sideboard and eating as they chose. It was more likely nerves than food poisoning that was troubling Duncan’s bowels, but some of the sausage I had seen on the sideboard struck me as highly suspect.

“No, ma’am, nary a bite.” Phaedre’s smooth brow puckered; she was fond of Duncan. “Cook tried to tempt him with a nice coddled egg, but he just shook his head and looked peaked. He did take a cup of rum punch, though,” she said, seeming somewhat cheered at the thought.

“Aye, that’ll settle him,” Ninian remarked, overhearing. “Dinna trouble yourself, Mrs. Claire; Duncan will be well enough.”

Phaedre curtsied and made off toward the tables being set up under the trees, starched apron flapping in the breeze. The succulent aroma of barbecuing pork wafted through the chill spring air, and fragrant clouds of hickory smoke rose from the fires near the smithy, where haunches of venison, sides of mutton, and broiled fowl in their dozens turned on spits. My stomach gurgled loudly in anticipation, despite the tight lacing of my stays.

Neither Jamie nor Ninian appeared to notice, but I took a discreet step away, turning to survey the lawn that stretched from the terrace to the river landing. I wasn’t so positive of the virtues of rum, particularly taken on an empty stomach. Granted, Duncan wouldn’t be the first groom to go to the altar in an advanced state of intoxication, but still . . .

Brianna, brilliant in blue wool the color of the spring sky, was standing near one of the marble statues that graced the lawn, Jemmy balanced on her hip, deep in conversation with Gerald Forbes, the lawyer. She also had a fan, but at the moment, it was being put to better use than usual—Jemmy had got hold of it and was munching on the ivory handle, a look of fierce concentration on his small pink face.

Of course, Brianna had less need of good fan technique than I did, she having inherited Jamie’s ability to hide all thoughts behind a mask of pleasant blandness. She had the mask in place now, which gave me a good idea of her opinion of Mr. Forbes. Where was Roger? I wondered. He’d been with her earlier.

I turned to ask Jamie what he thought of this epidemic of disappearing husbands, only to discover that he had joined it. Ninian Hamilton had turned away to talk to someone else, and the space at my side was now occupied by a pair of slaves, staggering under the weight of a fresh demijohn of brandywine as they headed for the refreshment tables. I stepped hastily out of their way, and turned to look for Jamie.

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