Jamie turned, lips pursed to enjoin silence, and beckoned to her that the coast was clear. She followed him quickly across the landing and outside, letting out her breath in relief as they arrived on the path unobserved.
“What were you doing there in the first place, Da?” she asked. He looked blank.
“In the kitchen garden,” she elaborated. “How did you find Betty?”
“Oh.” He took her arm, fetching her away from the house. They walked casually toward the paddock; innocent guests bent on viewing the horses. “I was just havin’ a word wi’ your mother, over by the grove. I came back through the kitchen garden, and there the woman was, flat on her back on the shit heap.”
“That’s a point, isn’t it?” she asked. “Did she lie down in the garden on purpose, or was it only an accident that you found her there?”
He shook his head.
“I dinna ken,” he said. “But I mean to speak to Betty, once she’s sober. D’ye ken where your mother is now?”
“Yes, she’s with Phillip Wylie. They were headed for the stables, I think.” Her father’s nostrils flared slightly at mention of Wylie, and she suppressed a smile.
“I’ll find her,” he said. “Meanwhile, lass, do you go and speak to Phaedre—and, lass—”
She had already turned to go; at this, she looked back, surprised.
“I think perhaps ye should tell Phaedre to say nothing unless someone asks her where Betty is, and if they do, to tell you—or me.” He straightened abruptly, clearing his throat. “Go find your husband then, lass—and, lass? Make sure no one kens what you’re about, aye?”
He lifted one brow, and she nodded in reply. He turned on his heel then, and strode off toward the stables, the fingers of his right hand tapping gently against his coat as though he were deep in thought.
The chilly wind nipped under her skirts and petticoats, belling them out and sending a deep shiver through her flesh. She understood his implication well enough.
If it was neither attempted suicide nor accident—then it might be intended murder. But of whom?
JAMIE HAD GIVEN ME a lingering kiss for encouragement after our interlude, and crashed off through the underbrush, intending to hunt down Ninian Bell Hamilton and find out just what the Regulators were up to at the camp Hunter had mentioned. I followed, after a moment’s interval for decency, but paused at the edge of the grove before emerging back into public view, to be sure I was seemly.
I had a rather light-headed sense of well-being, and my cheeks were very flushed, but I thought that wasn’t incriminating in and of itself. Neither would coming out of the wood be inculpatory; women and men alike often simply stepped into the shelter of the trees along the lawn in order to relieve themselves, rather than making their way to the overcrowded and smelly necessaries. Coming out of the wood flushed and breathing heavily, with leaves in my hair and sap stains on my skirt, though, would cause a certain amount of comment behind the fans.
There were a few sandburs and an empty cicada shell clinging to my skirt, a ghostly excrescence that I picked off with a shudder of distaste. There were dogwood petals on my shoulder; I brushed them off and felt carefully over my hair, dislodging a few more that fluttered away like scraps of fragrant paper.
Just as I stepped out from under the trees, it occurred to me to check the back of my skirt for stains or bits of bark, and I was craning my neck to see over my shoulder when I walked slap into Phillip Wylie.
“Mrs. Fraser!” He caught me by the shoulders, to prevent my falling backward. “Are you quite all right, my dear?”
“Yes, certainly.” My cheeks were flaming legitimately at this point, and I stepped back, shaking myself back into order. Why did I keep bumping into Phillip Wylie? Was the little pest following me? “I do apologize.”
“Nonsense, nonsense,” he said heartily. “It was my fault entirely. Deuced clumsy of me. May I get you something to restore your spirits, my dear? A glass of cider? Wine? Rum punch? A syllabub? Applejack? Or—no, brandy. Yes, allow me to bring you a bit of brandy to recover from the shock!”
“No, nothing, thank you!” I couldn’t help laughing at his absurdities, and he grinned back, obviously thinking himself very witty.
“Well, if you are quite recovered, then, dear lady, you must come with me. I insist.”
He had my hand tucked into the crook of his arm, and was towing me determinedly off in the direction of the stable, despite my protests.
“It will take no more than a moment,” he assured me. “I have been looking forward all day to showing you my surprise. You will be utterly entranced, I give you my word!”
I subsided feebly; it seemed less trouble to go and look at the damned horses again than to argue with him—and there was plenty of time to speak with Jocasta before the wedding, in any case. This time, though, we skirted the paddock where Lucas and his companions were submitting tolerantly to inspection by a couple of bold gentlemen who had climbed the fence for a closer look.
“That is an amazingly good-tempered stallion,” I said with approval, mentally contrasting Lucas’s kindly manners with Gideon’s rapacious personality. Jamie still had not found time to castrate the horse, who had consequently bitten almost everyone, horse and man alike, on the journey to River Run.
“A mark of the breed,” Wylie replied, pushing open the door that led to the main stable. “They are the most amiable of horses, though a gentle disposition does not impair their intelligence, I do assure you. This way, Mrs. Fraser.”
By contrast with the brilliant day outside, it was pitch-dark in the stable; so dark that I stumbled over an uneven brick in the floor, and Mr. Wylie seized my arm as I lurched forward with a startled cry.
“Are you all right, Mrs. Fraser?” he asked, setting me upright again.
“Yes,” I said, a little breathless. In fact I had both stubbed my toe viciously and turned my ankle; my new morocco-heeled shoes were lovely, but I wasn’t used to them yet. “Just let me stand a moment—’til my eyes adjust.”
He did, but he didn’t let go of my arm. Instead, he pulled my hand through the crook of his elbow and set it solidly, to give me more support.
“Lean on me,” he said, simply.
I did, and we stood quietly for a moment, me with my injured foot drawn up like a heron’s, waiting for my toes to stop throbbing. For once, Mr. Wylie seemed bereft of quips and sallies; perhaps because of the peaceful atmosphere.
Stables on the whole are peaceful, horses and the people who tend them being generally kindly sorts of creatures. This one, though, had a special air, both quiet and vibrant. I could hear small rustlings and stampings, and the contented noise of a horse champing hay close at hand.
So close to Phillip Wylie, I was aware of his perfume, but even the expensive whiff of musk and bergamot was overcome by the stable smells. It smelled of fresh straw and grain, of brick and wood, but there was a faint scent as well of more elemental things—manure and blood and milk; the basic elements of motherhood.
“It’s rather womblike in here, isn’t it?” I said softly. “So warm and dark, I mean. I can almost feel the heartbeat.”
Wylie laughed, but quietly.
“That’s mine,” he said. He touched a hand briefly to his waistcoat, a dark shadow against the pale satin.
My eyes adapted quickly to the dark, but even so, the place was very dim. The lithe shadow-shape of a stable cat glided past, making me wobble and set down my injured foot. It wouldn’t yet bear weight, but I could at least put it to the floor.
“Can you stand for a moment alone?” Wylie asked.
Without waiting for my reply, he detached himself and went to light a lantern that stood on a nearby stool. There were a few faint chinks of flint and steel, then the wick caught and a soft globe of yellow light ballooned around us. Taking my arm again with his free hand, he led me toward the far end of the stable.
They were in the loose-box at the end. Phillip raised the lantern high, turning to smile at me as he did so. The lantern light gleamed on hide that shone and rippled like midnight water, and glowed in the huge brown eyes of the mare as she turned toward us.
“Oh,” I said softly, “how beautiful,” and then, a little louder, “Oh!” The mare had moved a little, and her foal peered out from behind her mother’s legs. She was long-legged and knob-kneed, her tiny rump and sloping shoulders rounded echoes of her mother’s muscular perfection. She had the same large, kind eyes, fringed with long, long lashes—but instead of the sleek hide of rippling black, she was a dark reddish-brown and fuzzy as a rabbit, with an absurd little whisk broom of a tail.
Her dam had the same glorious profusion of flowing mane I had noted on the Friesians in the paddock; the baby had a ridiculous crest of stiff hair, about an inch long, that stuck straight up like a toothbrush.
The foal blinked once, dazzled by the light, then ducked swiftly behind the shelter of her mother’s body. A moment later, a small nose protruded cautiously into sight, nostrils twitching. A big eye followed, blinked—and the nose vanished, only to reappear almost instantly, a little further this time.
“Why, you little flirt!” I said, delighted.
“She is indeed,” he said, voice filled with pride of ownership. “Are they not magnificent?”
“Well, yes,” I said, considering. “They are. Still, I’m not sure that’s quite it. ‘Magnificent’ seems more like what you’d say of a stallion, or a warhorse of some kind. These horses are . . . well, they’re sweet!”
Wylie gave a small, amused sort of snort.
“Sweet?” he said. “Sweet?”
“Well, you know,” I said, laughing. “Charming. Good-natured. Delightful.”
“All those things,” he said, turning to me. “And beautiful, as well.” He wasn’t looking at the horses, but rather at me, a faint smile on his face.
“Yes,” I said, feeling a small, obscure twinge of unease. “Yes, they are very beautiful.”
He was standing very close; I took a step to the side and turned away, under the pretext of looking at the horses again. The foal was nuzzling at the mare’s swollen udder, scraggy tail waggling with enthusiasm.
“What are their names?” I asked.
Wylie moved to the bar of the loose-box, casually, but in such a way that his arm brushed my sleeve as he reached above me to hang the lantern from a hook on the wall.
“The mare’s name is Tessa,” he said. “You saw the sire, Lucas. As for the filly . . .” He reached for my hand, and lifted it, smiling. “I thought I might name her La Belle Claire.”
I didn’t move for a second, stunned by sheer disbelief at the expression that showed quite clearly on Phillip Wylie’s face.
“What?” I said blankly. Surely I was wrong, I thought. I tried to snatch my hand away, but I had hesitated one second too long, and his fingers tightened on mine. Surely he wasn’t really meaning to . . .