Jamie put up the curl again, with a skill born of long practice, then kissed me gently on the nape of the neck, making me shiver. He wasn’t immune to the prevailing airs of spring, either.
“I suppose I must go on looking for Duncan,” he said, with a tinge of regret. His fingers lingered on my back, thumb delicately tracing the groove of my spine. “Once I’ve found him, though . . . there must be some place here with a bit of privacy to it.”
The word “privacy” made me lean back against Jamie, and glance toward the riverbank, where a clump of weeping willows sheltered a stone bench—quite a private and romantic spot, especially at night. The willows were thick with green, but I caught a flash of scarlet through the drooping branches.
“Got him!” I exclaimed, straightening up so abruptly that I trod on Jamie’s toe. “Oh—sorry!”
“Nay matter,” he assured me. He had followed the direction of my glance, and now drew himself up purposefully. “I’ll go and fetch him out. Do ye go up to the house, Sassenach, and keep an eye on my aunt and the priest. Dinna let them escape until this marriage is made.”
JAMIE MADE HIS WAY down the lawn toward the willows, absently acknowledging the greetings of friends and acquaintances as he went. In truth, his mind was less on Duncan’s approaching nuptials than on thoughts of his own wife.
He was generally aware that he had been blessed in her beauty; even in her usual homespun, knee-deep in mud from her garden, or stained and fierce with the blood of her calling, the curve of her bones spoke to his own marrow, and those whisky eyes could make him drunk with a glance. Besides, the mad collieshangie of her hair made him laugh.
Smiling to himself even at the thought, it occurred to him that he was slightly drunk. Liquor flowed like water at the party, and there were already men leaning on old Hector’s mausoleum, glaze-eyed and slack-jawed; he caught a glimpse of someone behind the thing, too, having a piss in the shrubbery. He shook his head. There’d be a body under every bush by nightfall.
Christ. One thought of bodies under bushes, and his mind had presented him with a blindingly indecent vision of Claire, lying sprawled and laughing under one, br**sts falling out of her gown and the dead leaves and dry grass the same colors as her rumpled skirts and the curly brown hair between her—He choked the thought off abruptly, bowing cordially to old Mrs. Alderdyce, the Judge’s mother.
“Your servant, ma’am.”
“Good day to ye, young man, good day.” The old lady nodded magisterially and passed by, leaning on the arm of her companion, a long-suffering young woman who gave Jamie a faint smile in response to his salute.
“Master Jamie?” One of the maids hovered beside him, holding out a tray of cups. He took one, smiling his thanks, and drank half its contents in a gulp.
He couldn’t help it. He had to turn and look after Claire. He caught no more than a glimpse of the top of her head among the crowd on the terrace—she wouldn’t wear a proper cap, of course, the stubborn wee besom, but had some foolishness pinned on instead, a scrap of lace caught up with a cluster of ribbons and rose hips. That made him want to laugh, too, and he turned back toward the willows, smiling to himself.
It was seeing her in the new gown that did it. It had been months since he’d seen her dressed like a lady, narrow-waisted in silk, and her white br**sts round and sweet as winter pears in the low neck of her gown. It was as though she were suddenly a different woman; one intimately familiar and yet still excitingly strange.
His fingers twitched, remembering that one rebel lock, spiraling free down her neck, and the feel of her slender nape—and the feel of her plump warm arse through her skirts, pressed against his leg. He had not had her in more than a week, what with the press of people round them, and was feeling the lack acutely.
Ever since she had shown him the sperms, he had been uncomfortably aware of the crowded conditions that must now and then obtain in his balls, an impression made forcibly stronger in situations such as this. He kent well enough that there was no danger of rupture or explosion—and yet he couldn’t help but think of all the shoving going on.
Being trapped in a seething mass of others, with no hope of escape, was one of his own personal visions of Hell, and he paused for a moment outside the screen of willow trees, to administer a brief squeeze of reassurance, which he hoped might calm the riot for a bit.
He’d see Duncan safely married, he decided, and then the man must see to his own affairs. Come nightfall, and if he could do no better than a bush, then a bush it would have to be. He pushed aside a swath of willow branches, ducking to go through.
“Duncan,” he began, and then stopped, the swirl of carnal thoughts disappearing like water down a sewer. The scarlet coat belonged not to Duncan Innes but to a stranger who turned toward him, with surprise equal to his own. A man in the uniform of His Majesty’s army.
THE LOOK OF MOMENTARY startlement faded from the man’s face, almost as quickly as Jamie’s own surprise. This must be MacDonald, the half-pay soldier Farquard Campbell had mentioned to him. Evidently Farquard had described him to MacDonald, as well; he could see the man had put a name to him.
MacDonald held a cup of punch, as well; the slaves had been busy. He drained the cup deliberately, then set it down on the stone bench, wiping his lips on the back of his hand.
“Colonel Fraser, I presume?”
“Major MacDonald,” he replied, with a nod that mingled courtesy with wariness. “Your servant, sir.”
MacDonald bowed, punctilious.
“Colonel. If I might command a moment of your time?” He glanced over Jamie’s shoulder; there were giggles on the riverbank behind them, and the excited small screams of very young women pursued by very young men. “In private?”
Jamie noted the usage of his militia title with a sour amusement, but nodded briefly, and discarded his own cup, still half-full, alongside the Major’s.
He tilted his head toward the house in inquiry; MacDonald nodded and followed him out of the willows, as loud rustlings and squealings announced that the bench and its sheltering trees had now become the province of the younger element. He wished them good luck with it, privately noting the location for his own possible use, after dark.
The day was cold but still and bright, and a number of guests, mostly men who found the civilized atmosphere within too suffocating for their tastes, were clustered in argumentative groups in the corners of the terrace, or strolling round the paths of the newly-sprouting garden, where their tobacco pipes might fume in peace. Assessing the latter venue as the best means of avoiding interruption, Jamie led the Major toward the brick-lined path that curved toward the stables.
“Have you seen Wylie’s Friesians?” the Major asked as they rounded the house, making casual conversation ’til they should be safely out of earshot.
“Aye, I have. The stallion’s a fine animal, is he not?” By reflex, Jamie’s eyes turned toward the paddock by the barn. The stallion was browsing, nibbling at the weeds by the trough, while the two mares head-and-tailed it companionably near the stable, broad backs shining in the pale sun.
“Aye? Well, perhaps.” The Major squinted toward the paddock, one eye half-shut in dubious agreement. “Sound enough, I daresay. Good chest. All that hair, though—wouldn’t do in a cavalry horse, though I suppose if it were proper shaved and dressed . . .”
Jamie suppressed the urge to ask whether MacDonald liked his women shaved as well. The image of the loosened curl spiraling down that bare white neck was still in his mind. Perhaps the stables might afford a better opportunity. . . . He pushed that thought aside, for later reference.
“You had some matter with which ye were concerned, Major?” he asked, more abruptly than he’d meant to.
“Not so much my own concern,” MacDonald replied equably. “I had been told that you have some interest in the whereabouts of a gentleman named Stephen Bonnet. Am I reliably informed, sir?”
He felt the name like a blow to the chest; it took his wind for a moment. Without conscious thought, his left hand curled over the hilt of his dirk.
“I—yes. You know his whereabouts?”
“Unfortunately, no.” MacDonald’s brow lifted, seeing his response. “I ken where he has been, though. A wicked lad, our Stephen, or so I gather?” he inquired, with a hint of jocularity.
“Ye might say so. He has killed men, robbed me—and raped my daughter,” Jamie said bluntly.
The Major drew breath, face darkening in sudden understanding.
“Ah, I see,” he said softly. He lifted his hand briefly, as though to touch Jamie’s arm, but let it fall to his side. He walked a few steps further, brows puckered in concentration.
“I see,” he said again, all hint of amusement gone from his voice. “I hadn’t realized . . . yes. I see.” He lapsed into silence once again, his steps slowing as they neared the paddock.
“I trust you do intend to tell me what ye know of the man?” Jamie said politely. MacDonald glanced up at him, and appeared to recognize that regardless of his intentions, Jamie’s own intent was to gain what knowledge he had, whether by conversation or more direct methods.
“I have not met the man myself,” MacDonald said mildly. “What I know, I learnt in the course of a social evening in New Bern last month.”
It was an evening of whist tables hosted by Davis Howell, a wealthy shipowner and a member of the Governor’s Royal Council. The party, small but select, had begun with an excellent supper, then moved on to cards and conversation, well marinated with rum punch and brandy.
As the hour grew late and the smoke of cigarillos heavy in the air, the conversation grew unguarded, and there were jocular references to the recent improvement in one Mr. Butler’s fortunes, with much half-veiled speculation as to the source of his new riches. One gentleman, expressing envy, was heard to say, “If one could but have a Stephen Bonnet in one’s pocket . . .” before being elbowed into silence by a friend whose discretion was not quite so much dissolved in rum.
“Was Mr. Butler among those present at this soiree?” Jamie asked sharply. The name was unfamiliar, but if Butler was known to members of the Royal Council . . . well, the circles of power in the colony were small; someone in them would be known to his aunt, or to Farquard Campbell.
“No, he wasn’t.” They had reached the paddock; MacDonald rested his folded arms atop the rail, eyes fixed on the stallion. “He resides, I believe, in Edenton.”
As did Phillip Wylie. The stallion—Lucas, that was his name—sidled toward them, soft black nostrils flaring in curiosity. Jamie stretched out his knuckles mechanically and, the horse proving amiable, rubbed the sleek jawline. Beautiful as the Friesian was, he scarcely noticed it, his thoughts spinning like a whirligig.
Edenton lay on the Albemarle Sound, easily accessible by boat. Likely, then, that Bonnet had returned to his sailor’s trade—and with it, piracy and smuggling.
“Ye called Bonnet ‘a wicked lad,’ ” he said, turning to MacDonald. “Why?”