“Well, no,” he said, smiling. “Not so bad as that. And perhaps it’s nay so troublesome as Duncan fears. But he’s worrit in his mind about it, and yet he canna bring himself to speak to my aunt; he’s a bit shy of her, aye?”
Duncan was a shy and modest man altogether; an ex-fisherman pressed into service during the Rising, he had been captured after Culloden, and spent years in prison. He had been released, rather than transported, only because he had contracted blood poisoning from a scratch, and had lost one arm, making him unfit for labor and unsalable as an indenture. I didn’t have to wonder whose idea this marriage had been; such lofty aspirations would never have occurred to Duncan in a million years.
“I can see that. What’s he worried about, though?”
“Well,” he said slowly, “it’s true that Duncan hasna been wed before. Did ye not wonder why?”
“No,” I said. “I’d just assumed that the Rising had—oh, dear.” I stopped, catching a notion of what this might be about. “It’s not—goodness. You mean . . . he likes men?” My voice rose involuntarily.
“No!” he said, scandalized. “Christ, ye dinna think I’d let him marry my aunt, and him a sodomite? Christ.” He glanced around, to be sure no one had heard this calumny, and shepherded me into the shelter of the trees, just in case.
“Well, you wouldn’t necessarily know, would you?” I asked, amused.
“I’d know,” he said grimly. “Come along.” He lifted an overhanging bough and ushered me beneath it, a hand in the small of my back. The grove was a large one, and it was easy enough to get out of sight of the party.
“No,” he said again, reaching a small open space well in among the trunks. “The filthy mind of you, Sassenach! No, it’s nothing o’ the sort.” He glanced behind him, but we were a good distance from the lawn, and reasonably shielded from view. “It’s only that he’s . . . incapable.” He lifted one shoulder slightly, looking profoundly uncomfortable at the thought.
“What—impotent?” I felt my mouth hanging open, and closed it.
“Aye. He was betrothed, as a young man, but there was a dreadful accident; a cart horse knocked him into the street and kicked him in the scrotum.” He made a slight motion, as though to touch himself for reassurance, but checked it. “He healed, but it—well, he wasna fit for nuptial rites any longer, so he released the young woman and she marrit elsewhere.”
“The poor man!” I said, with a pang of sympathy. “Gracious, poor Duncan’s had nothing but bad luck.”
“Well, he’s alive,” Jamie observed. “A good many others aren’t. Besides”—he gestured over one shoulder, at the spread of River Run behind him—“I shouldna be inclined to call his present situation precisely unlucky. Bar the one small difficulty, that is,” he added.
I frowned, running through the medical possibilities. If the accident had resulted in severe vascular damage, there wasn’t much I could do; I was in no way equipped for fine reconstructive surgery. If it were only a hemocoel, though, then perhaps . . .
“When he was a young man, you said? Hmm. Well, it’s not promising, after so long, but I can certainly have a look and see whether—”
Jamie stared at me, incredulous.
“A look? Sassenach, the man goes puce when ye inquire after the health of his bowels, and he nearly died o’ shame, telling me. He’ll have an apoplexy, and ye go pokin’ his privates.”
A strand of hair had been pulled loose by an oak twig; I pushed it irritably behind my ear.
“Well, what did you expect me to do, then? I can’t heal him with spell-casting!”
“Of course not,” he said, a little impatiently. “I dinna want ye to do anything to Duncan—only to speak to my aunt.”
“What—you mean she doesn’t know? But they’ve been engaged to be married for months, and living together for most of it!”
“Aye, but . . .” Jamie made the odd half-shrugging gesture he used when feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable, as though his shirt were too tight. “D’ye see—when the question of marriage rose, it never occurred to Duncan that it was a matter of . . . mmphm.”
“Mmphm,” I said, raising one eyebrow. “Doesn’t marriage usually involve at least the possibility of mmphm?”
“Well, he didna think my aunt was wanting him for his manly beauty, aye?” Jamie said, raising his own brows back at me. “It seemed only a matter of business and convenience—there are things he could manage as owner of River Run that he couldna do as overseer. At that, he wouldna have agreed, save she persuaded him.”
“And he never thought to mention this . . . this impediment?”
“Oh, he thought. But there wasna any indication that my aunt regarded marriage in any but the sense of business. She didna mention the matter of bed; he was too shy to say. And the question didna really arise, ken.”
“I gather that it now has arisen? What happened? Did your aunt slip her hand under his kilt this morning and make a bawdy remark about the wedding night?”
“He didna happen to say,” he replied dryly. “But it wasna until this morning, when he began to hear the jests among the guests, that it occurred to Duncan that perhaps my aunt was expecting him to . . . well.”
He lifted one shoulder, and let it fall. “He couldna think what to do, and was in a panic, listening to everyone.”
“I see.” I rubbed a knuckle across my upper lip, thinking. “Poor Duncan; no wonder he’s been nervous.”
“Aye.” Jamie straightened up, with the air of one having settled something. “So, if ye’ll be so kind as to speak wi’ Jocasta, and see it’s all straight—”
“Me? You want me to tell her?”
“Well, I shouldna think she’ll mind greatly,” he said, looking quizzically down at me. “After all, at her age, I shouldna think—”
I made a rude noise.
“Her age? Your grandfather Simon was well into his seventies and still putting it about, when last seen.”
“My aunt is a woman,” he said, rather austerely. “If ye hadna noticed it.”
“And you think that makes a difference?”
“Oh, it makes a difference, all right,” I said. I leaned back against a tree, arms crossed under my bosom, and gave him a look from under my lashes. “When I am a hundred and one, and you’re ninety-six, I’ll invite you to my bed—and we’ll see which one of us rises to the occasion, hmm?”
He looked at me thoughtfully, a glint in the dark blue of his eyes.
“I’ve a mind to take ye where ye stand, Sassenach,” he said. “Payment on account, hmm?”
“I’ve a mind to take you up on it,” I said. “However . . .” I glanced through the screen of branches toward the house, which was clearly visible. The trees were beginning to leaf out, but the tiny sprays of tender green were by no means sufficient camouflage. I turned back, just as Jamie’s hands descended on the swell of my hips.
Events after that were somewhat confused, with the predominant impressions being an urgent rustling of fabric, the sharp scent of trodden onion grass, and the crackling of last year’s oak leaves, dry underfoot.
My eyes popped open a few moments later.
“Don’t stop!” I said, disbelieving. “Not now, for God’s sake!”
He grinned down at me, stepping back and letting his kilt fall into place. His face was flushed a ruddy bronze with effort, and his chest heaved under his shirt ruffles.
He grinned maliciously, and wiped a sleeve across his forehead.
“I’ll gie ye the rest when I’m ninety-six, aye?”
“You won’t live that long! Come here!”
“Oh,” he said. “So ye’ll speak to my aunt.”
“Effing blackmailer,” I panted, fumbling at the folds of his kilt. “I’ll get you for this, I swear I will.”
“Oh, aye. You will.”
He put an arm round my waist and swung me off my feet, turning round so that his back was to the house, screening me with his body. His long fingers deftly ruffled up the skirt of my gown, then the two petticoats beneath, and even more deftly, slid between my bare legs.
“Hush,” he murmured in my ear. “Ye dinna want folk to hear, do ye?” He set his teeth gently in the curve of my ear, and proceeded about his business in a workmanlike way, ignoring my intermittent—and admittedly rather feeble—struggles.
I was more than ready and he knew what he was doing. It didn’t take long. I dug my fingers into his arm, hard as an iron bar across my middle, arched backward for a moment of dizzying infinity, and then collapsed against him, twitching like a worm on the end of a hook. He made a deep chuckling sound, and let go of my ear.
A cold breeze had sprung up, and was wafting the folds of my skirts about my legs. The scent of smoke and food drifted through the cool spring air, along with the rumble of talk and laughter from the lawn. I could dimly hear it, under the slow, loud thumping of my heart.
“Come to think of it,” Jamie remarked, releasing me, “Duncan has still got the one good hand.” He set me gently on my feet, keeping hold of my elbow, lest my knees give way. “Ye might mention that to my aunt, if ye think it will help.”
MUSIC HATH CHARMS
ROGER MACKENZIE MADE HIS WAY through the crowd, nodding here and there to a familiar face, but pushing on purposefully, preventing any attempt at conversation. He was not in a talkative mood.
Brianna had gone off to feed the kid, and while he missed her, he was just as pleased that she was out of sight for the moment. He didn’t care at all for the sort of looks she’d been getting. Those directed at her face were admiring, but respectful enough; he’d caught that wee bastard Forbes staring at her rear view with an expression similar to the one the gentlemen were using on the undraped marble goddess on the lawn, though.
At the same time, he was more than proud of her. She was gorgeous in her new dress, and he felt a pleasant sense of possession when he looked at her. Still, his pleasure was slightly spoiled by the uneasy thought that she looked as though she belonged here, mistress of all this . . . this . . .
Yet another slave trotted past him, skirts hooped up over one arm as she made for the house, a basin of fresh rolls balanced on her head and another under her arm. How many slaves did Jocasta Cameron keep? he wondered.
Of course, that alone put the notion of Brianna’s inheriting River Run out of the question. She wouldn’t countenance the notion of slaves, not ever. Nor would he himself; still, it was comforting to think that it wasn’t merely his own pride keeping Bree from her rightful inheritance.
He caught the thin wail of a fiddle coming from the house, and felt his ears prick up at the sound. Of course there would be music for the party. And with luck, a few new songs that he didn’t know.
He turned across the terrace toward the house. He hadn’t a notebook with him, but doubtless Ulysses could provide him with something. He bowed to Mrs. Farquard Campbell, who looked like a particularly horrible but expensive lampshade in pink silk. He paused to let her precede him into the house, biting the inside of his cheek as the four-foot spread of her skirt stuck momentarily in the three-foot doorway. She twitched adroitly sideways, though, and sidled crabwise into the hall, Roger following at a respectful distance.