“Can ye not decide where to begin, Sassenach?” He reached down and took the empty wineglass from her hand, taking advantage of the movement to come close against her back, feeling the warmth of her through his clothes.
She laughed, and swayed back against him, leaning on his arm. She smelled faintly of rice powder and warm skin, with the scent of rose h*ps in her hair.
“I’m not even terribly hungry. I was just counting the jellies and preserves. There are thirty-seven different ones—unless I’ve missed my count.”
He spared a glance for the table, which did indeed hold a bewildering array of silver dishes, porcelain bowls, and wooden platters, groaning with more food than would feed a Highland village for a month. He wasn’t hungry, either, though. At least not for puddings and savories.
“Well, Ulysses will have seen to that; he wouldna have my aunt’s hospitality put to shame.”
“No fear of that,” she assured him. “Did you see the barbecue pit out back? There are no fewer than three whole oxen roasting on spits out there, and at least a dozen pigs. I didn’t even try to count the chickens and ducks. Do you think it’s just hospitality, or is your aunt meaning to make a show of what a good job Duncan’s done—showing off how profitable River Run is under his management, I mean?”
“I suppose she might,” he said, though privately he thought it unlikely that Jocasta’s motives were either so thoughtful or so generous in nature. He considered that the lavishness of the present celebration was much more likely owing to her desire to wipe Farquard Campbell’s eye, overshadowing the fete he had held at Green River in December, to celebrate his most recent marriage.
And speaking of marriage . . .
“Here, Sassenach.” He deposited her empty glass on a passing tray borne by a servant, and took a full one in return, which he set in her hand.
“Oh, I’m not—” she began, but he forestalled her, taking another glass from the proffered tray and lifting it to her in salute. Her cheeks flushed deeper, and her eyes glowed amber.
“To beauty,” he said softly, smiling.
I FELT PLEASANTLY liquid inside, as though belly and limbs were filled with quicksilver. It wasn’t all to do with the wine, though that was very good. More the release of tension, after all the worries and conflicts of the day.
It had been a quiet, tender wedding, and while the evening’s celebration was likely to be noisy in the extreme—I had heard a number of the younger men plotting vulgar hilarities for the later festivities—I needn’t worry about any of that. My own intent had been to enjoy the delightful supper that had been laid on, perhaps take a glass or two more of the excellent wine . . . and then find Jamie and go to investigate the romantic potential of the stone bench beneath the willows.
Jamie had appeared a trifle prematurely in the program, insofar as I had not yet eaten anything, but I had no objection to rearranging my priorities. There would be plenty of leftovers, after all.
The torchlight burnished him, making hair and brows and skin glow like copper. The evening breeze had come up, flapping tablecloths and pulling the torch flames into fiery tongues, and it nipped strands of hair from his queue and lashed them across his face. He raised his glass, smiling at me across the rim.
“To beauty,” he said softly, then drank, not taking his eyes off me.
The quicksilver shifted, quivering through my h*ps and down the backs of my legs.
“To . . . ah . . . privacy,” I replied, with a slight lift of my own glass. Feeling pleasantly reckless, I reached slowly up, and deliberately pulled the ornamented lace from my hair. Half-unpinned, curls fell loose down my back, and I heard someone draw in his breath in shock behind me.
In front of me, Jamie’s face went suddenly blank, his eyes fixed on me like a hawk’s on a rabbit. I lifted my glass, holding his eyes with mine, and drank, swallowing slowly as I drained it. The scent of black grapes perfumed the inside of my head and the heat of the wine warmed my face, my throat, my br**sts, my skin. Jamie moved abruptly to take the empty glass from my hand, his fingers cold and hard on mine.
And then a voice spoke from the candlelit French doors behind him.
We both started, and the glass fell between us, exploding into shards on the flags of the terrace. Jamie whirled round, his left hand going by reflex to the hilt of his dirk. Then it relaxed, as he saw the silhouetted figure, and he stepped back, mouth twisting in a wry grimace.
Phillip Wylie stepped out into the torchlight. His color was high enough to show through the powder, burning in hectic spots across his cheekbones.
“My friend Stanhope has proposed a table or two of whist this evening,” he said. “Will you not join us, Mr. Fraser?”
Jamie gave him a long, cool look, and I saw the damaged fingers of his right hand twitch, very slightly. The pulse was throbbing at the side of his neck, but his voice was calm.
“Yes.” Wylie gave a thin smile, sedulously avoiding looking at me. “I hear you are a good hand at the cards, sir.” He pursed his lips. “Though of course, we do play for rather high stakes. Perhaps you do not feel that you—”
“I shall be delighted,” Jamie said, in a tone of voice that made it perfectly clear that the only thing that would truly have delighted him was the prospect of cramming Phillip Wylie’s teeth down his throat.
The teeth in question gleamed briefly.
“Ah. Splendid. I shall . . . look forward to the occasion.”
“Your servant, sir.” Jamie bowed abruptly, then spun on his heel, seized my elbow, and marched off down the terrace, me decorously in tow.
I marched along, keeping step and keeping silence, until we were safely out of earshot. The quicksilver had shot up out of my lower regions, and was rolling nervously up and down my spine, making me feel dangerously unstable.
“Are you quite out of your mind?” I inquired politely. Receiving nothing but a brief snort in reply, I dug in my heels and pulled on his arm to make him stop.
“That was not a rhetorical question,” I said, rather more loudly. “High-stakes whist?”
Jamie was indeed an excellent card player. He also knew most of the possible ways of cheating at cards. However, whist was difficult if not impossible to cheat at, and Phillip Wylie also had the reputation of an excellent player—as did Stanhope. Beyond this, there remained the fact that Jamie didn’t happen to possess any stakes, let alone high ones.
“Ye expect me to allow yon popinjay to trample my honor, and then insult me to my face?” He swung round to face me, glaring.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean—” I began, but broke off. It was quite apparent that if Wylie had not intended outright insult, he had meant it as a challenge—and to a Scot, the two were likely indistinguishable.
“But you don’t have to do it!”
I would have had a much greater effect had I been arguing with the brick wall of the kitchen garden.
“I do,” he said stiffly. “I have my pride.”
I rubbed a hand over my face in exasperation.
“Yes, and Phillip Wylie plainly knows it! Heard the one about pride going before a fall, have you?”
“I havena the slightest intention of falling,” he assured me. “Will ye give me your gold ring?”
My mouth fell open in shock.
“Will I . . . my ring?” My fingers went involuntarily to my left hand, and the smooth gold of Frank’s wedding band.
He was watching me intently, eyes steady on mine. The torches along the terrace had been lit; the dancing light caught him from the side, throwing the stubborn set of his bones into sharp relief, lighting one eye with burning blue.
“I shall need a stake,” he said quietly.
“Bloody hell.” I swung away from him, and stood staring off the edge of the terrace. The torches on the lawn had been lit, too, and Perseus’s white marble buttocks glimmered through the dark.
“I willna lose it,” Jamie said behind me. His hand rested on my shoulder, heavy through my shawl. “Or if I do—I shall redeem it. I know ye . . . value it.”
I twitched my shoulder out from under his hand, and moved a few steps away. My heart was pounding, and my face felt at once clammy and hot, as though I were about to faint.
He didn’t speak, or touch me; only stood there, waiting.
“The gold one,” I said at last, flatly. “Not the silver?” Not his ring; not his mark of ownership.
“The gold is worth more,” he said, and then, after the briefest hesitation, added, “in terms of money.”
“I know that.” I turned round to face him. The torch flames fluttered in the wind and cast a moving light across his features that made them hard to read.
“I meant—hadn’t you better take both of them?” My hands were cold and slippery with sweat; the gold ring came off easily; the silver was tighter, but I twisted it past my knuckle. I took his hand and dropped the two rings clinking into it.
Then I turned and walked away.
THE LISTS OF VENUS
ROGER MADE HIS WAY from the drawing room out onto the terrace, threading through the gathering crowd that clustered thick as lice round the supper tables. He was hot and sweating and the night air struck coldly refreshing on his face. He paused in the shadows at the end of the terrace, where he could unbutton his waistcoat inconspicuously and flap his shirtfront a bit, letting the cold air inside.
The pine torches that lined the edge of the terrace and the brick paths were flickering in the wind, casting wildly shifting shadows over the mass of celebrants, from which limbs and faces emerged and disappeared in bewildering succession. Fire gleamed off silver and crystal, gold lace and shoe-buckles, earrings and coat buttons. From a distance, it looked as though the assembly were lit by fireflies, winking in and out among the dark mass of rustling fabric. Brianna was not wearing anything reflective, he thought, but she should be easy enough to spot, nonetheless, on account of her height.
He had caught no more than tantalizing glimpses of her during the day; she had been dancing attendance on her aunt, or caring for Jemmy, or engaged in conversation with the—apparently—dozens of people she knew from her earlier sojourn at River Run. He didn’t begrudge her the opportunity in the least; there was precious little society to be had on Fraser’s Ridge, and he was pleased to see her enjoying herself.
He’d been having a great time himself; his throat had an agreeably raspy feeling now, from the exertion of prolonged singing, and he had learned three new songs from Seamus Hanlon, safely committed to memory. He’d bowed out at last, and left the little orchestra playing in the drawing room, throbbing away in a steamy haze of effort, sweat, and alcohol.
There she was; he caught the glint of her hair as she came out of the parlor doors, turning back to say something to the woman behind her.
She caught sight of him as she turned back, and her face lit up, touching off a complementary warm glow beneath his rebuttoned waistcoat.
“There you are! I’ve barely seen you all day. Heard you now and then, though,” she added, with a nod toward the open drawing-room doors.