The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 111

   

Mentally wiping my brow after this bit of delicate social rapprochement, I made my excuses and went out to the terrace, to see whether Jamie had succeeded in retrieving Duncan. Neither man was in sight, but I met Brianna, coming up from the lawn with Jemmy.

“Hallo, darling, how are you?” I reached for Jemmy, who seemed restless, squirming and smacking his lips like someone sitting down to a six-course meal after a trek through the Sahara. “Hungry, are we?”

“Hak!” he said, then feeling this perhaps an insufficient explanation, repeated the syllable several times, with increasing volume, bouncing up and down by way of emphasis.

“He’s hungry; I’m about to explode,” Brianna said, lowering her voice and plucking gingerly at her bosom. “I’m just going to take him upstairs and feed him. Auntie Jocasta said we could use her room.”

“Oh? That’s good. Jocasta’s just gone up herself—to rest a bit and change, she said. The wedding’s set for four o’clock, now the priest is here.” I had just heard the case clock in the hall chime noon; I did hope Jamie had got Duncan safely in hand. Perhaps he should be shut up somewhere, to prevent his wandering away again.

Bree reached to take Jemmy back, sticking a prophylactic knuckle in his mouth to muffle his remarks.

“Do you know the Sherstons?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied warily. “Why, what have they done?”

She raised one eyebrow at me.

“They’ve asked me to paint a portrait of Mrs. Sherston. A commission, I mean. Evidently Auntie Jocasta sang my praises to them, and showed them some of the things I did when I stayed here last spring, and now they want a picture.”

“Really? Oh, darling, that’s marvelous!”

“Well, it will be if they have any money,” she said practically. “What do you think?”

It was a good question; fine clothes and appointments didn’t always reflect actual worth, and I didn’t know much about the Sherstons’ circumstances; they were from Hillsborough, not Cross Creek.

“Well, they’re rather vulgar,” I said dubiously, “and dreadful snobs, but I think he’s legitimately rich. He owns a brewery, I think. But ask Jocasta; she’ll know for sure.”

“Rah-tha vul-gah,” she drawled, mocking my own accent, and grinned. “Who’s a snob, then?”

“I am not a snob,” I said with dignity. “I am a keen observer of social nuance. Have you seen your father and Duncan anywhere?”

“Not Duncan, but Da’s down there by the trees with Mr. Campbell.” She pointed helpfully, and I spotted Jamie’s bright hair and crimson tartan, a fiery gleam at the bottom of the lawn. Not a sign of Duncan’s scarlet coat, though.

“Damn the man,” I said. “Where has he got to?”

“Went to the necessary, and fell in,” Bree suggested. “All right, hold your horses, we’re going!” Addressing this last to Jemmy, who was uttering plaintive cries suggestive of imminent starvation, she disappeared into the house.

I settled my shawl and strolled down the lawn to join Jamie. A picnic lunch was being served to accommodate the guests, and I snatched a biscuit and a slice of ham as I passed the refreshment tables, improvising a hasty snack in order to stave off my own hunger pangs.

The air was still cool, but the sun was high and hot on my shoulders; it was a relief to join the men in the shade of a small grove of oaks that stood near the bottom of the lawn. They were pin oaks, and had begun to leaf out already, the unfolding leaves peeping out like a baby’s fingers. What had Nayawenne told me about oaks? Oh, yes; one planted corn when the oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear.

Judging by that, the slaves could be planting corn in the River Run kitchen garden any day now. It would be weeks before the oak leaves were out on the Ridge, though.

Jamie had evidently just said something humorous, for Campbell made the low, creaking noise that passed with him for laughter, nodding to me in greeting.

“I shall leave ye to the practice of your own affairs, then,” he said to Jamie, recovering his composure. “Call upon me, though, at need.” He shaded his eyes, looking up toward the terrace.

“Ah, the prodigal returns. In shillings, sir, or bottles of brandy?”

I turned to look as well, in time to see Duncan crossing the terrace, nodding and smiling shyly to well-wishers as he passed. I must have looked bewildered, for Mr. Campbell bowed to me, dry mouth crooked with amusement.

“I’d laid your husband a small wager, ma’am.”

“Five to one on Duncan, the night,” Jamie explained. “That he and my aunt will share a bed, I mean.”

“Goodness,” I said, rather crossly. “Is anyone here talking of anything else? Minds like sewers, the lot of you.”

Campbell laughed, then turned aside, distracted by the urgencies of a small grandson.

“Don’t tell me ye werena wondering the same thing.” Jamie nudged me gently.

“Indeed I was not,” I said primly. I wasn’t—but only because I already knew.

“Oh, indeed,” he said, one corner of his mouth curling up. “And you wi’ lechery as plain on your face as whiskers on a cat.”

“Whatever do you mean by that?” I demanded. Just in case he was right, I flicked the fan open and covered the lower half of my face. I peered over its ivory lacework, batting my eyelashes in mock innocence.

He made a derisive Scottish noise in his throat. Then, with a quick glance round, he bent low and whispered in my ear.

“It means ye look as ye do when ye want me to come to your bed.” A warm breath stirred the hair over my ear. “Do you?”

I smiled brilliantly at Mr. Campbell, who was viewing us with interest over his grandson’s head, snapped the fan open, and using it as a shield, stood on tiptoe to whisper in Jamie’s ear. I dropped back on my heels and smiled demurely at him, fanning away for all I was worth.

Jamie looked mildly shocked, but definitely pleased. He glanced at Mr. Campbell, who had fortunately turned away, drawn into conversation elsewhere. Jamie rubbed his nose and regarded me with intense speculation, his dark blue gaze lingering on the scalloped neckline of my new gown. I fluttered the fan delicately over my décolletage.

“Ah . . . we could . . .” His eyes flicked up, assessing our surroundings for possible prospects of seclusion, then down again, ineluctably drawn to the fan as though it were a magnet.

“No we couldn’t,” I informed him, smiling and bowing to the elderly Misses MacNeil, who were strolling past behind him. “Every nook and cranny in the house is filled with people. So are the barns and stables and outbuildings. And if you had in mind a rendezvous under a bush on the riverbank, think again. This dress cost a bloody fortune.” A fortune in illegal whisky, but a fortune nonetheless.

“Oh, I ken that well enough.”

His eyes traveled slowly over me, from the coils of upswept hair to the tips of my new calf-leather shoes. The dress was pale amber silk, bodice and hem embroidered with silk leaves in shades of brown and gold, and if I did say so myself, it fit me like a glove.

“Worth it,” he said softly, and leaned down to kiss me. A chilly breeze stirred the oak branches overhead, and I moved closer to him, seeking his warmth.

What with the long journey from the Ridge and the crush of guests caused by the impending celebration, we hadn’t shared a bed ourselves in more than a week.

It wasn’t so much an amorous encounter I wanted—though I would certainly not say no, if the opportunity offered. What I missed was simply the feel of his body next to mine; being able to reach out a hand in the dark and rest it on the long swell of his thigh; to roll toward him in the morning and cup his round, neat buttocks in the curve of thigh and belly; to press my cheek against his back and breathe the scent of his skin as I slipped into sleep.

“Damn,” I said, resting my forehead briefly in the folds of his shirt ruffle, and inhaling the mingled scents of starch and man with longing. “You know, if your aunt and Duncan don’t need the bed, perhaps . . .”

“Oh, so ye were wondering.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I said. “Besides, what business is it of yours?”

“Oh, none at all,” he said, unperturbed. “Only I’ve been asked by four men this morning if I think they will—or have done already. Which is rather a compliment to my aunt, no?”

It was true; Jocasta MacKenzie must be well into her sixties, and yet the thought of her sharing a man’s bed was by no means unthinkable. I had met any number of women who had gratefully abandoned all notion of sex, directly the cessation of childbearing made it possible—but Jocasta wasn’t one of them. At the same time—

“They haven’t,” I said. “Phaedre told me yesterday.”

“I know. Duncan told me, just now.” He was frowning slightly, but not at me. Toward the terrace, where the bright splotch of Duncan’s tartan showed between the huge stone vases.

“Did he?” I was more than a little surprised at that. A sudden suspicion struck me. “You didn’t ask him, did you?”

He gave me a slightly reproachful look.

“I did not,” he said. “What d’ye take me for, Sassenach?”

“A Scot,” I said. “Sex fiends, the lot of you. Or so one would think, listening to all the talk around here.” I gave Farquard Campbell a hard look, but he had turned his back, engrossed in conversation.

Jamie regarded me thoughtfully, scratching the corner of his jaw.

“Sex fiends?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Oh, aye, I do. I’m only wondering—is that an insult, would ye say, or a compliment?”

I opened my mouth, then paused. I gave him back the thoughtful look.

“If the shoe fits,” I said, “wear it.”

He burst out laughing, which made a number of those nearby turn and look at us. Taking my arm, he steered me across the lawn and into the patchy shade of the elms.

“I did mean to ask ye something, Sassenach,” he said, checking over his shoulder to be sure we were out of earshot. “Can ye find occasion to speak wi’ my aunt, alone?”

“In this madhouse?” I glanced toward the terrace; a swarm of well-wishers surrounded Duncan like bees round a flower patch. “Yes, I suppose I could catch her in her room, before she comes down for the wedding. She’s gone up to rest.” I wouldn’t mind a lie-down, either; my legs ached with hours of standing, and my shoes were new and slightly too tight.

“That’ll do.” He nodded pleasantly to an approaching acquaintance, then turned his back, shielding us from interruption.

“All right,” I said. “Why?”

“Well, it’s to do wi’ Duncan.” He looked at once amused and slightly worried. “There’s a wee difficulty, and he canna bring himself to speak to her about it.”

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “He was married before, and he thought his first wife was dead, but he’s just seen her here, eating cullen skink.”

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