“Charming,” he said softly, and moved closer. “Good-natured. Delightful. And . . . beautiful.” He kissed me.
I was so shocked that I didn’t move for a moment. His mouth was soft, the kiss brief and chaste. That hardly mattered, though; it was the fact that he had done it.
“Mr. Wylie!” I said. I took a hasty step back, but was brought up short by the rail.
“Mrs. Fraser,” he said softly, and took the same step forward. “My dear.”
“I am not your—” I began, and he kissed me again. Without the least hint of chasteness. Still shocked, but no longer stunned, I shoved him, hard. He wobbled, and lost his grip on my hand, but recovered instantly, seizing me by the arm and slipping his other hand behind me.
“Flirt,” he whispered, and lowered his face toward mine. I kicked him. Unfortunately, I kicked him with my injured foot, which deprived the blow of much force, and he ignored it.
I began to struggle in good earnest, as the sense of stunned disbelief faded into the awareness that the young man had one hand firmly on my backside. At the same time, I was aware that there were a good many people in the vicinity of the stable; the last thing I wanted was to attract attention.
“Stop that!” I hissed. “Stop it at once!”
“You madden me,” he breathed, pressing me to his bosom and attempting to stick his tongue in my ear.
I certainly thought he was mad, but I declined absolutely to accept any responsibility for the condition. I jerked back as far as I could—not far, with the railing at my back—and fought to get one hand between us. Shock quite gone by now, I was thinking with surprising clarity. I couldn’t knee him in the balls; he had one leg thrust between my own, trapping a wodge of skirt in my way. If I could get my hand round his throat and get a sound hold of his carotids, though, he’d drop like a rock.
I did get hold of his throat, but his blasted stock was in the way; my fingers scrabbled at it, and he jerked to the side, grabbing at my hand.
“Please,” he said. “I want—”
“I don’t give a damn what you want!” I said. “Let go of me this instant, you—you—” I groped wildly for some suitable insult. “You—puppy!”
Rather to my surprise, he stopped. His face couldn’t go pale, being already covered in rice flour—I could taste it on my lips—but his mouth was set, and his expression was . . . rather wounded.
“Is that really what you think of me?” he asked in a low voice.
“Yes, it bloody is!” I said. “What else am I to think? Have you lost your mind, behaving in this—this despicable fashion? What is the matter with you?”
“Despicable?” He seemed quite taken aback to hear his advances described in this fashion. “But I—that is, you—I thought you were . . . I mean, might be not averse—”
“You can’t,” I said, positively. “You can’t possibly have thought anything of the sort. I’ve never given you the slightest reason to think such a thing!” Nor had I—intentionally. The uneasy thought came to me, though, that perhaps my perceptions of my own behavior were not quite the same as Phillip Wylie’s.
“Oh, haven’t you?” His face was changing, clouding with anger. “I beg to differ with you, madam!”
I had told him I was old enough to be his mother; it had never for a moment occurred to me that he didn’t believe it.
“Flirt,” he said again, though in quite a different tone than the first time. “No reason? You have given me every reason, since the first occasion of our meeting.”
“What?” My voice went up a tone, in incredulity. “I’ve never done anything but engage you in civil conversation. If that constitutes flirtation in your book, my lad, then—”
“Don’t call me that!”
Oh, so he had noticed that there was a difference of age. He simply hadn’t appreciated the magnitude, I thought. It came to me, with a certain feeling of apprehension, that at Phillip’s level of society, most flirtation was indeed conducted under the guise of banter. What in the name of God had I said to him?
I had some dim recollection of having discussed the Stamp Act with him and his friend Stanhope. Yes, taxes, and, I thought, horses—but surely that couldn’t have been sufficient to inflame his misapprehensions?
“Thine eyes are like the fishpools in Heshbon,” he said, low-voiced and bitter. “Do you not recall the evening when I said that to you? The Song of Solomon is merely ‘civil conversation’ to you, is it?”
“Good grief.” I was, despite myself, beginning to feel slightly guilty; we had had a brief exchange along those lines, at Jocasta’s party, two or three years ago. And he remembered it? The Song of Solomon was reasonably heady stuff; perhaps the simple reference . . . Then I shook myself mentally, and drew myself up straight.
“Nonsense,” I declared. “You were teasing me, and I simply answered you in kind. Now, I really must—”
“You came in here with me today. Alone.” He took another step toward me, eyes determined. He was talking himself back into it, the fatheaded popinjay!
“Mr. Wylie,” I said firmly, sliding sideways. “I am terribly sorry if you have somehow misunderstood the situation, but I am very happily married, and I have no romantic interest in you whatsoever. And now, if you will excuse me . . .” I ducked past him, and hurried out of the stable, as fast as my shoes would allow. He made no effort to follow me, though, and I reached the outdoors unmolested, my heart beating fast.
There were people near the paddock; I turned in the other direction, going round the end of the stable block before anyone should see me. Once out of sight, I made a swift inventory, checking to be sure that I didn’t look too disheveled. I didn’t know whether anyone had seen me going into the stable with Wylie; I could only hope no one had seen my hasty exit.
Only one lock of hair had come down in the recent contretemps; I pinned it carefully back, and dusted a few bits of straw from my skirts. Fortunately, he hadn’t torn my clothes; a retucked kerchief and I was quite decent again.
“Are ye all right, Sassenach?”
I leaped like a gaffed salmon, and so did my heart. I whirled, adrenaline jolting through my chest like an electic current, to find Jamie standing beside me, frowning slightly as he surveyed me.
“What have ye been doing, Sassenach?”
My heart was still stuck in my throat, choking me, but I forced out what I hoped were a few nonchalant words.
“Nothing. I mean, looking at the horses—horse. The mare. She has a new foal.”
“Aye, I know,” he said, looking at me oddly.
“Did you find Ninian? What did he have to say?” I groped behind my head, tidying my hair and taking the opportunity to turn away a little, to avoid his eye.
“He says it’s true—though I hadna doubted it. There are more than a thousand men, camped near Salisbury. And more joining them each day, he says. The auld mumper is pleased about it!” He frowned, drumming the two stiff fingers of his right hand lightly against his leg, and I realized that he was rather worried.
Not without cause. Putting aside the threat of conflict itself, it was spring. Only the fact that River Run was in the piedmont had allowed us to come to Jocasta’s wedding; down here, the woods were cloudy with blossom and crocuses popped through the earth like orange and purple dragon’s-teeth, but the mountains were still cloaked in snow, the tree branches sporting swollen buds. In two weeks or so, those buds would burst, and it would be time for the spring planting on Fraser’s Ridge.
True, Jamie had provided for such an emergency by finding old Arch Bug, but Arch could manage only so much by himself. And as for the tenants and homesteaders . . . if the militia were raised again, the women would be left to do the planting alone.
“The men in this camp—they’re men who’ve left their land, then?” Salisbury was in the piedmont, as well. It wasn’t thinkable for working farmers to abandon their land at this time of year for the sake of protest against the government, no matter how annoyed they were.
“Left it, or lost it,” he said briefly. The frown deepened as he looked at me. “Have ye spoken wi’ my aunt?”
“Ah . . . no,” I said, feeling guilty. “Not yet. I was just going . . . oh—you said there was another problem. What else has happened?”
He made a sound like a hissing teakettle, which for him betokened rare impatience.
“Christ, I’d nearly forgot her. One of the slave women’s been poisoned, I think.”
“What? Who? How?” My hands dropped from my hair as I stared at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I am telling ye, am I not? Dinna fash yourself, she’s in no danger. Only stinking drunk.” He twitched his shoulders irritably. “The only difficulty is that perhaps it wasna her that was meant to be poisoned. I’ve sent Roger Mac and Brianna to look, and they’ve not come back to say anyone’s dead, so maybe not.”
“Maybe not?” I rubbed the bridge of my nose, distracted from the extant worries by this new development. “I grant you, alcohol is poisonous, not that anyone seems ever to realize it, but there’s a difference between being drunk and being deliberately poisoned. What do you mean—”
“Sassenach,” he interrupted.
“What in the name o’ God have ye been doing?” he burst out.
I stared at him in bewilderment. His face had been growing redder as we talked, though I had supposed it to be only frustration and worry over Ninian, and the Regulators. It dawned on me, catching a dangerous blue glint in his eye, that there was something rather more personal about his attitude. I tilted my head to one side, giving him a wary look.
“What do you mean, what have I been doing?”
His lips pressed tight together, and he didn’t answer. Instead, he extended a forefinger and touched it, very delicately, beside my mouth. He turned his hand over then, and presented me with a small dark object clinging to the tip of his finger—Phillip Wylie’s star-shaped black beauty mark.
“Oh.” I felt a distinct buzzing in my ears. “That. Er . . .” My head felt light, and small spots—all shaped like black stars—danced before my eyes.
“Yes, that,” he snapped. “Christ, woman! I’m deviled to death wi’ Duncan’s havers and Ninian’s pranks—and why did ye not tell me he’d been fighting wi’ Barlow?”
“I’d scarcely describe it as a fight,” I said, struggling to regain a sense of coolness. “Besides, Major MacDonald put a stop to it since you were nowhere to be found. And if you want to be told things, the Major wants—”
“I ken what he wants.” He dismissed the Major with a curt flick of his hand. “Aye, I’m up to my ears in Majors and Regulators and drunken maid servants, and you’re out in the stable, canoodling wi’ that fop!”
I felt the blood rising behind my eyes, and curled my fists, in order to control the impulse to slap him.