The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 118


“I was not ‘canoodling’ in the slightest degree, and you know it! The beastly little twerp made a pass at me, that’s all.”

“A pass? Made love to ye, ye mean? Aye, I can see that!”

“He did not!”

“Oh, aye? Ye asked him to let ye try his bawbee on for luck, then?” He waggled the finger with the black patch under my nose, and I slapped it away, recalling a moment too late that “make love to” merely meant to engage in amorous flirtation, rather than fornication.

“I mean,” I said, through clenched teeth, “that he kissed me. Probably for a joke. I’m old enough to be his mother, for God’s sake!”

“More like his grandmother,” Jamie said brutally. “Kissed ye, forbye—why in hell did ye encourage him, Sassenach?”

My mouth dropped open in outrage—insulted as much at being called Phillip Wylie’s grandmother as at the accusation of having encouraged him.

“Encourage him? Why, you bloody idiot! You know perfectly well I didn’t encourage him!”

“Your own daughter saw ye go in there with him! Have ye no shame? With all else there is to deal with here, am I to be forced to call the man out, as well?”

I felt a slight qualm at the thought of Brianna, and a larger one at the thought of Jamie challenging Wylie to a duel. He wasn’t wearing his sword, but he’d brought it with him. I stoutly dismissed both thoughts.

“My daughter is neither a fool nor an evil-minded gossip,” I said, with immense dignity. “She wouldn’t think a thing of my going to look at a horse, and why ought she? Why ought anyone, for that matter?”

He blew out a long breath through pursed lips, and glared at me.

“Why, indeed? Perhaps because everyone saw ye flirt with him on the lawn? Because they saw him follow ye about like a dog after a bitch in heat?” He must have seen my expression alter dangerously at that, for he coughed briefly and hurried on.

“More than one person’s seen fit to mention it to me. D’ye think I like bein’ made a public laughingstock, Sassenach?”

“You—you—” Fury choked me. I wanted to hit him, but I could see interested heads turning toward us. “‘Bitch in heat’? How dare you say such a thing to me, you bloody bastard?”

He had the decency to look slightly abashed at that, though he was still glowering.

“Aye, well. I shouldna have said it quite that way. I didna mean—but ye did go off with him, Sassenach. As though I hadna enough to contend with, my own wife . . . and if ye’d gone to see my aunt, as I asked ye, then it wouldna have happened in the first place. Now see what ye’ve done!”

I had changed my mind about the desirability of a duel. I wanted Jamie and Phillip Wylie to kill each other, promptly, publicly, and with the maximum amount of blood. I also didn’t care who was looking. I made a very serious effort to castrate him with my bare hands, and he grabbed my wrists, pulling them up sharply.

“Christ! Folk are watching, Sassenach!”

“I . . . don’t . . . bloody . . . care!” I hissed, struggling to get free. “Let go of me, and I’ll f**king give them something to watch!”

I didn’t take my eyes off his face, but I was aware of a good many other faces turning toward us in the crowd on the lawn. So was he. His brows drew together for a moment, then his face set in sudden decision.

“All right, then,” he said. “Let them watch.”

He wrapped his arms around me, pressed me tight against himself, and kissed me. Unable to get loose, I quit fighting, and went stiff and furious instead. In the distance, I could hear laughter and raucous whoops of encouragement. Ninian Hamilton shouted something in Gaelic that I was pleased not to understand.

He finally moved his lips off mine, still holding me tightly against him, and very slowly bent his head, his cheek lying cool and firm next to mine. His body was firm, too, and not at all cool. The heat of him was leaching through at least six layers of cloth to reach my own skin: shirt, waistcoat, coat, gown, shift, and stays. Whether it was anger, arousal, or both, he was fully stoked and blazing like a furnace.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, his breath hot and tickling in my ear. “I didna mean to insult ye. Truly. Shall I kill him, and then myself?”

I relaxed, very slightly. My h*ps were pressed solidly against him, and with only five layers of fabric between us there, the effect was reassuring.

“Perhaps not quite yet,” I said. I felt light-headed from the rush of adrenaline, and took a deep breath to steady myself. Then I drew back a little, recoiling from the pungent reek that wafted off his clothes. Had I not been so upset, I would have noticed immediately that he was the source of the vile aroma I had been smelling.

“What on earth have you been doing?” I sniffed at the breast of his coat, frowning. “You smell terrible! Like—”

“Manure,” he said, sounding resigned. “Aye, I know.” His arms relaxed.

“Yes, manure,” I said, sniffing further. “And rum punch”—he hadn’t been drinking rum punch himself, though; I had tasted nothing but brandy when he kissed me—“and something awful, like old sweat, and—”

“Boiled turnips,” he said, sounding more resigned. “Aye, the maid servant I was telling ye about, Sassenach. Betty, she’s called.” He tucked my hand into the crook of his arm, and with a deep bow of acknowledgment toward the crowd—who all applauded, damn them—turned to steer me toward the house.

“It would be as well if ye can get anything sensible out of her,” he said, with a glance toward the sun, which hung in mid-sky above the tops of the willows along the river. “But it’s growing late; I think perhaps ye’d best go up and speak to my aunt first, if there’s to be a wedding at four o’clock.”

I took a deep breath, trying to settle myself. A good deal of unexpended emotion was still sloshing round inside me, but there was plainly work to do.

“Right, then,” I said. “I’ll see Jocasta, and then have a look at Betty. As for Phillip Wylie . . .”

“As for Phillip Wylie,” he interrupted, “dinna give him another thought, Sassenach.” A certain look of inward intentness grew in his eyes. “I’ll take care of him, later.”



I LEFT JAMIE in the parlor, and made my way up the stairs and along the hall toward Jocasta’s room, nodding distractedly to friends and acquaintances encountered along the way. I was disconcerted, annoyed—and at the same time, reluctantly amused. I hadn’t spent so much time in bemused contemplation of a penis since I was sixteen or so, and here I was, preoccupied with three of the things.

Finding myself alone in the hall, I opened my fan, peering thoughtfully into the tiny round looking glass that served as a lake in the pastoral scene painted on it. Meant as an aid to intrigue rather than grooming, the glass showed me no more than a few square inches of my face at once—one eye and its arched brow regarded me quizzically.

It was quite a pretty eye, I admitted. There were lines around it, true, but it was nicely shaped, gracefully lidded, and equipped with long, curving lashes whose dark sable complemented the black pupil and contrasted very strikingly with the gold-flecked amber of the iris.

I moved the fan a bit, to get a view of my mouth. Full-lipped, and rather fuller than usual at present, to say nothing of a dark, moist pink. The lips looked as though someone had been kissing them rather roughly. They also looked as though they’d liked it.

“Hm!” I said, and snapped shut the fan.

With my blood no longer boiling, I could admit that Jamie might perhaps be right about Phillip Wylie’s intent in making objectionable advances to me. He might not be, too. But regardless of the young man’s underlying motives, I did have incontrovertible proof that he had found me physically appealing, grandmother or not. I rather thought I wouldn’t mention that to Jamie, though; Phillip Wylie was a very annoying young man, but upon cooler reflection, I had decided that I would prefer not to have him disemboweled on the front lawn, after all.

Still, maturity did alter one’s perspective somewhat. For all the personal implications of those male members in an excited state, it was the flaccid one that most interested me at the moment. My fingers itched to get hold of Duncan Innes’s private parts—figuratively, at least.

There were not so many kinds of trauma, short of outright castration, that would cause physical impotence. Surgery nowadays being the primitive affair it was, I supposed that it was possible that whatever doctor had attended the original injury—if one did—had in fact simply removed both testicles. If that were the case, though, would Duncan not have said so?

Well, perhaps not. Duncan was an intensely shy and modest man, and even a more extroverted personality might hesitate to confide a misfortune of that extent, even to an intimate friend. Could he have concealed such an injury in the close confines of a prison, though? I drummed my fingers on the inlaid marquetry of the table outside Jocasta’s door, considering.

It was certainly possible for men to go for several years without bathing; I’d seen a few who obviously had. On the other hand, the prisoners at Ardsmuir had been forced to work outdoors, cutting peat and quarrying stone; they would have had regular access to open water, and presumably would at least have washed periodically, if only to keep the itching of vermin at bay. I supposed one could wash without necessarily stripping nak*d, though.

I suspected that Duncan was still more or less intact. It was much more likely, I thought, that his impotence was psychological in origin; having one’s testes badly bruised or crushed was bound to give a man pause, after all, and an early experiment might easily have convinced Duncan that all was up with him—or rather, down.

I paused before knocking, but not for long. I had had some experience of giving people bad news, after all, and the one thing that experience had taught me was that there was no point in preparation, or worry over what to say. Eloquence didn’t help, and bluntness was no bar to sympathy.

I rapped sharply on the door, and entered at Jocasta’s invitation.

Father LeClerc was present, seated at a small table in the corner, dealing in a workmanlike manner with a large assortment of edibles. Two bottles of wine—one empty—stood on the table as well, and the priest looked up at my entrance with a greasily beaming smile that appeared to go round his face and tie together behind his ears.

“Tally-ho, Madame!” he said cheerfully, and brandished a turkey leg at me in greeting. “Tally-ho, Tally-ho!”

“Bonjour” seemed almost repressive by contrast, so I contented myself with a curtsy and a brief “Cheerio, then!” in reply.

There was clearly no way of dislodging the priest, and nowhere else to take Jocasta, as Phaedre was in the dressing room, making a great to-do with a pair of clothes brushes. Still, given the limits of Father LeClerc’s English, I supposed absolute privacy was not a requirement.

I touched Jocasta’s elbow, therefore, and murmured discreetly that perhaps we might sit down in the window seat, as I had something of importance to discuss with her. She looked surprised, but nodded, and with a bow of excuse toward Father LeClerc—who didn’t notice, being occupied with a stubborn bit of gristle—came to sit down beside me.