He sipped his own wine, savoring the rare pleasure of a decent vintage, and watched her covertly. She was the center of a small knot of gentlemen, with whom she seemed to be enjoying a clash of wits. A glass or two loosened her tongue and limbered her mind, as it did his. A few glasses more, and her glow would turn to a molten heat. It was early yet, and the real feasting not yet started.
He caught her eye briefly on him, and smiled. He held the goblet by its bowl and his fingers curved round the smooth glass as though it were her breast. She saw, and understood. She lowered her lashes in coquetry to him, and turned back to her conversation, color heightened.
The delightful paradox of having her in drink was that, having abandoned consciousness of him as anything save the agent of her own sensation, she would also cease to guard herself in any way, and thus lay entirely open to him. He might tease and caress, or churn her like butter, leading her through frenzy to gasping limpness beneath him, lying at his mercy.
She was using her fan to good effect, opening her eyes wide over the edge of it, in feigned shock at something that sodomite Forbes had said. He ran the tip of his tongue thoughtfully within the tender margin of his lower lip, tasting sweet silver blood in memory. Mercy? No, he would have none.
That decision made, he was turning his mind to the more practical problem of finding a spot sufficiently secluded to carry out this engaging agenda, but was interrupted by the advent of George Lyon, looking sleek and full of himself. He had been introduced, but knew little of the man.
“Mr. Fraser. A word with you, sir?”
“Your servant, sir.”
He turned aside for a moment to set down his glass, a slight shift of his weight enough to effect discreet adjustment of his plaid, glad that he wasn’t wearing tight satin breeks like that fop, Wylie. Indecent, he thought them, and grossly uncomfortable, forbye. Why, a man would be risking slow emasculation in female company, if he were not a natural eunuch—and Wylie clearly wasn’t that, for all his powder and patches. A belted plaid, though, could hide a multitude of sins—or at the least, a dirk and pistol—let alone a random cockstand.
“Shall we walk a bit, Mr. Lyon?” he suggested, turning back. If the man had such private business as his manner implied, they had best not stand here, where they might be interrupted at any moment by one of the wedding guests.
They strolled slowly to the end of the terrace, exchanging commonplaces with each other, and pleasantries with passersby, until they had gained the freedom of the yard, where they hesitated for a moment.
“The paddock, perhaps?” Not waiting for Lyon’s nod of assent, Jamie turned toward the distant stable yard. He wanted to see the Friesians again, in any case.
“I have heard much of you, Mr. Fraser,” Lyon began pleasantly, as they ambled toward the tall clock tower of the stable block.
“Have you, sir? Well, and I trust not a great deal of it was to my discredit, then.” He had heard a bit about Lyon; a dealer in what anyone would buy or sell—and maybe not just that bit too scrupulous regarding the provenance of his goods. Rumor had it that he dealt in things less tangible than iron and paper on occasion, too, but that was only rumor.
Lyon laughed, showing teeth that were even enough, but badly stained with tobacco.
“Indeed not, Mr. Fraser. Bar the slight impediment of your familial connections—which can scarcely be held to be your fault, though folk will make assumptions—I have heard none but the most glowing encomiums, both of your character and your accomplishments.”
A Dhia, Jamie thought, blackmail and butter, all in the first sentence. Was it only that North Carolina was a backwater, and not worth the time of a more competent intriguer? He smiled politely, with a murmur of modest dismissal, and waited to see what the blockheid wanted.
Not so much, at least to start. The strength of Fraser’s militia regiment, and the names of the men. That was interesting, he thought. Lyon was not the Governor’s man, then, or he would have such information to hand. Who was behind him, if anyone? Not the Regulation surely; the only one of them with a spare shilling to his name was Ninian Bell Hamilton, and if auld Ninian had wanted to know a thing, he would have come and asked himself. One of the rich planters from the coast, then? Most aristocrats had an interest in the colony that went no further than their pockets.
Which led to the logical conclusion that whoever Lyon’s intended market was thought there’d be something either to gain or to lose from the potential disaffections in the colony. Who might that be?
“Chisholm, McGillivray, Lindsay . . .” Lyon was saying reflectively. “So the majority of your men are Scottish Highlanders. The sons of earlier settlers, are they, or perhaps retired soldiers, like yourself, sir?”
“Oh, I should doubt that a soldier is ever truly retired, sir,” Jamie said, stooping to let one of the stable dogs smell his knuckles. “Once a man has lived under arms, I suspect he is marked for life. In fact I have heard it remarked that old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
Lyon laughed immoderately at that, declaring it a fine epigram, was it his own? Without stopping to hear the answer, he went on, clearly paddling into well-charted waters.
“I am pleased to hear such a sentiment expressed, Mr. Fraser. His Majesty has always relied upon the stoutness of the Highlanders, and their abilities as fighting men. Did you or your neighbors perhaps serve with your cousin’s regiment? The Seventy-eighth Frasers acquitted themselves with great distinction during the recent conflict; I daresay the art of warfare runs in the blood, eh?”
That was a bald enough swipe. Young Simon Fraser was not in fact his cousin, but his half-uncle, son of his grandfather. It was as expiation of the old man’s treason and in an effort to retrieve the family fortunes and estates that Young Simon had raised two regiments for the Seven Years’ War—what Brianna persisted in calling the French and Indian Wars, as though Britain had had nothing to do with it.
Lyon was asking now whether Jamie had also sought to establish his credentials as a loyal soldier of the Crown, by taking commission with one of the Highland regiments? He could scarcely believe the flat-footedness of the man.
“Ah, no. I regret that I was unable to serve in such a capacity,” Jamie said. “An indisposition from an earlier campaign, you understand?” The minor indisposition of having been a prisoner of the Crown for several years after the Rising, though he did not mention that. If Lyon didn’t know it already, there was no sense in telling him.
They had reached the paddock by now, and leaned comfortably upon the split-rail fence. The horses had not yet been put away for the night; the big black creatures moved like shadows, their coats glossy in the torchlight.
“What strange horses, are they not?” He interrupted Lyon’s disquisition on the evils of factionalism, watching them move in fascination.
It wasn’t just the enormously long, silky manes, rippling like water as they tossed their heads, nor yet the coal-black coats nor the springy arch of the neck, thicker and more muscular than Jocasta’s thoroughbreds. Their bodies were thick as well, broad through chest, withers, and barrel so that each one seemed almost blocky—and yet they moved as gracefully as any horse he had ever seen, adroit and light-footed, with a sense of playfulness and intelligence.
“Yes, it is a very old breed,” Lyon said, putting aside his inquisitiveness for the moment in order to watch. “I’ve seen them before—in Holland.”
“Holland. Ye will have traveled there a great deal?”
“Not so much. I was there some years ago, though, and chanced to meet a kinsman of yours. A wine merchant named Jared Fraser?”
Jamie felt a jolt of surprise, succeeded by a warm sense of pleasure at the mention of his cousin.
“Did ye indeed? Aye, Jared is my father’s cousin. I trust ye found him well.”
“Very well indeed.” Lyon moved fractionally closer, settling himself on the fence, and Jamie realized that they had now reached the point of the man’s business, whatever that might be. He drained the rest of the wine in his glass and set it down, prepared to listen.
“I understand that a . . . talent for liquor runs in the family as well, Mr. Fraser.”
He laughed, though he felt no great humor.
“A taste, perhaps, sir. I couldna say, as to talent.”
“Couldn’t you? Ah, well. I am sure you are too modest, Mr. Fraser. The quality of your whisky is well known.”
“Ye flatter me, sir.” He knew what was coming now, and settled himself to pretend attention. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had suggested a partnership; he to provide the whisky, they to manage the distribution of it to Cross Creek, to Wilmington, even as far as Charleston. Lyon, it seemed, had grander schemes in mind.
The best aged stuff would go by boat up the coast to Boston and Philadelphia, he suggested. The raw whisky, though, could go across the Treaty Line, there to be delivered to the Cherokee villages, in return for hides and furs. He had partners, who would provide . . .
Jamie listened in growing disapproval, then cut Lyon off abruptly.
“Aye. I thank ye for your interest, sir, but I fear I havena anything like sufficient product for what ye suggest. I make whisky only for my family’s use, and a few barrels beyond that, now and then, for local trade. No more.”
Lyon grunted amiably.
“I am sure you could increase your production, Mr. Fraser, given your knowledge and skill. If it were to be a matter of the materials . . . some arrangement could be made, I am sure . . . I can speak with the gentlemen who would be our partners in the enterprise, and—”
“No, sir. I fear not. If ye will excuse me . . . ?” He bowed abruptly, turned on his heel, and headed back toward the terrace, leaving Lyon in the dark.
He must ask Farquard Campbell about Lyon. The man would bear watching. It was not that Jamie had any great objection to smuggling. He did, however, have a great objection to being caught at it, and could think of few things more dangerous than a large-scale operation of the sort Lyon was suggesting, where he himself would be involved up to the neck, but have no control over the more dangerous parts of the process.
Aye, the thought of the money was attractive, but not so much as to blind him to the risks. If he were to engage in such a trade, he would do it himself, perhaps with the aid of Fergus or Roger Mac—maybe old Arch Bug and Joe Wemyss—but no one else. A great deal safer to keep it small, keep it private . . . though since Lyon had suggested the notion, perhaps it was worth a bit of thought. Fergus was no farmer, that was sure; something must be found for him to do, and the Frenchman was well acquainted with the risky business, as they called it, from their time in Edinburgh. . . .
He strolled back to the terrace, pondering, but the sight of his wife erased all thought of whisky from his mind.
Claire had left Stanhope and his cronies, and stood by the buffet table, looking over the delicacies on display with a faint frown upon her broad clear brow, as though puzzled by such surfeit.
He saw Gerald Forbes’s eyes rest on her, alight with speculation, and he moved at once by reflex, interposing himself neatly between his wife and the lawyer. He felt the man’s eyes slap against his back, and smiled grimly to himself. Mine, corbie, he thought to himself.