“Oh, aye? Sound all right, did it?” he asked casually, shamelessly fishing for compliments. She grinned and tapped his chest with her closed fan, mimicking the gesture of an accomplished coquette—which she wasn’t.
“Oh, Mrs. MacKenzie,” she said, pitching her voice high and through her nose, “your husband’s voice is divinity itself! Were I so fortunate, I am sure I should spend hours just drrrinking in the sound of it!”
He laughed, recognizing Miss Martin, old Miss Bledsoe’s young and rather plain companion, who had hung about wide-eyed and sighing while he sang ballads in the afternoon.
“You know you’re good,” she said, dropping back into her own voice. “You don’t need me to tell you.”
“Maybe not,” he admitted. “Doesn’t mean I don’t like to hear it, though.”
“Really? The adulation of the multitudes isn’t enough?” She was laughing at him, eyes gone to triangles of amusement.
He didn’t know how to answer that, and laughed instead, taking her hand.
“D’ye want to dance?” He cocked his head toward the end of the terrace where the French doors to the drawing room stood open, letting out the cheerful strains of “Duke of Perth,” then back toward the tables. “Or to eat?”
“Neither. I want to get away from here for a minute; I can hardly breathe.” A drop of sweat ran down her neck, glinting red in the torchlight before she swiped it away.
“Great.” He took her hand and drew it through his arm, turning toward the herbaceous border that lay beyond the terrace. “I know just the place.”
“Great. Oh—wait. Maybe I do want something to eat.” She lifted a hand and stopped a slave boy, coming up to the terrace from the cookhouse with a small covered tray from which an appetizing steam wafted into the air. “What’s that, Tommy? Can I have some?”
“You have all you want, Miss Bree.” He smiled, whipping the napkin away to display a selection of savories. She inhaled beatifically.
“I want them all,” she said, taking the tray, to Tommy’s amusement. Roger, seizing the chance, murmured his own request to the slave, who nodded, disappeared, and returned within moments with an open bottle of wine and two goblets. Roger took these, and together they wandered down the path that led from the house to the dock, sharing tidbits of news along with the pigeon pies.
“Did you find any of the guests passed out in the shrubbery?” she asked, her words muffled by a mouthful of mushroom pasty. She swallowed, and became more distinct. “When Da asked you to go and look this afternoon, I mean.”
He snorted briefly, selecting a dumpling made of sausage and dried pumpkin.
“Ken the difference between a Scottish wedding and a Scottish funeral, do ye?”
“The funeral has one less drunk.”
She laughed, scattering crumbs, and took a Scotch egg.
“No,” he said, steering her skillfully to the right of the dock, and toward the willows. “Ye’ll see a few feet sticking out of the bushes now, but this afternoon, they hadn’t had the time to get rat-legged yet.”
“You have such a way with words,” she said appreciatively. “I went and talked to the slaves; all present and accounted for, and mostly sober, too. A couple of the women admitted that Betty does tipple at parties, though.”
“To say the least, from what your Da said. Stinking, he described her as, and I gather he didn’t mean only drunk.” Something small and dark leaped out of his path. Frog; he could hear them piping away in the grove.
“Mmm. Mama said she seemed to be okay later on, in spite of Dr. Fentiman insisting on bleeding her.” She gave a small shudder, drawing her shawl round her shoulders one-handed. “He gives me the creeps, the Doctor. He looks like a little goblin or something, and he’s got the clammiest hands I ever felt. And he smells terrible, speaking of stinking.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure yet,” Roger said, amused. “Come on.” He pushed aside the hanging veil of willow branches, alert lest he disturb some courting couple that had beaten them to the stone bench, but all was well. Everyone was up at the house, dancing, eating, drinking, and planning a later serenade of the wedding pair. Better Duncan and Jocasta than us, he thought, rolling his eyes inwardly at some of the things he’d heard suggested. Another time, he might have been interested to see a shivaree, and trace all the roots of it from French and Highland customs—but not bloody now.
It was suddenly quiet under the willows, most of the noise from the house drowned by the rushing of water and the monotonous chirping of frogs. It was also dark as midnight, and Brianna felt carefully for the bench, in order to set down her tray.
Roger shut his eyes hard and counted to thirty; when he opened them, he could at least make out her form, silhouetted against the dim light that filtered through the willows, and the horizontal line of the bench. He set down the glasses and poured out the wine, the neck of the bottle chinking faintly against the goblets as he felt his way.
He put out a hand and ran it down her arm, locating her hand in order to put the full goblet safely into it. He raised his own glass in salute.
“To beauty,” he said, letting the smile show in his voice.
“To privacy,” she said, returning the toast, and drank. “Oh, that’s good,” she said, a moment later, sounding slightly dreamy. “I haven’t had wine in . . . a year? No, nearly two. Not since before Jemmy was born. In fact, not since . . .” Her voice stopped abruptly, then resumed, more slowly. “Not since our first wedding night. In Wilmington, remember.”
“I remember.” He reached out and cupped a hand round her cheek, tracing the bones of her face softly with his thumb. It was no wonder that she thought of that night now. They had begun it there, under the drooping branches of a huge horse-chestnut tree, that had sheltered them from the noise and light of a nearby tavern. Their present situation was oddly and movingly reminiscent of that dark and private secrecy, the two of them amid the smell of leaves and nearby water—the nearby racket of lust-crazed tree frogs replacing the tavern noises.
That had been a hot night, though, thick and humid enough that flesh melted to flesh. Now it was cold enough that his body yearned for the warmth of hers, and the scent that enclosed them was the spring smell of green leaves and running river, not the musty smell of leaf-litter and mudflats.
“Do you think they’ll sleep together?” Brianna asked. She sounded slightly breathless; perhaps it was the wine.
“Who? Oh, Jocasta, ye mean, and Duncan? Why not? They’ll be married.” He drained his own glass and set it down, the glass chiming faintly on the stone.
“It was a beautiful wedding, wasn’t it?” She didn’t resist as he took the glass from her hand and set it down with his own. “Quiet, but awfully nice.”
“Aye, very nice.” He kissed her, softly, and held her close against him. He could feel the back lacing of her gown, crisscrossed under the thin knitted shawl.
“Mmm. You taste good.”
“Oh, aye, like sausages and wine. So do you.” His hand twitched up the edge of the shawl, getting beneath and fumbling for the end of the lace, somewhere down near the small of her back. She pressed against him, making it easier.
“Will we still want to make love, do you think, when we’re as old as they are?” she murmured in his ear.
“I will,” he assured her, getting hold of the small bow that secured the lace. “I hope you will, too; I shouldna like to have to do it alone.”
She laughed, and took a deep breath, her back swelling suddenly as the tight lacing came loose. There were the stays underneath, too, though, damn it. He used both hands, looking for the inner lacings, and she arched her back helpfully, which made her br**sts swell up into sight just below his chin. The sight made him take one hand off her back, to deal with this new and delightful development.
“I haven’t got my . . . I mean, I didn’t bring . . .” She pulled back a little, sounding dubious.
“Ye’ve taken the seeds today, though?” Away to hell with pizza and loo-paper, he thought; at the moment, he’d trade all prospects of indoor plumbing for a rubber condom.
“Yes.” She still sounded doubtful, though, and he gritted his teeth, taking a firmer hold on her, as though she might bolt.
“It’s all right,” he whispered, nuzzling his way down the side of her neck toward that heartbreaking slope where the muscle of her shoulder joined it. She was smooth beneath his lips, her skin cool in the air, warm and scented beneath the fall of her hair. “We needn’t . . . I mean . . . I won’t . . . just let me . . .”
The neckline of her dress was fashionably low with her kerchief pulled off, still lower, with her gown unlaced, and her breast was heavy and soft in his hand. He felt the nipple big and round as a ripe cherry against his palm, and bent on impulse to put his mouth to it.
She stiffened, then relaxed with an odd little sigh, and he felt a warm sweet taste on his tongue, then a strange pulsing and a flooding of the . . . he swallowed by reflex, shocked. Shocked, and terribly aroused. He hadn’t thought; he hadn’t meant . . . but she pulled his head hard against her, holding him.
He went on, emboldened, and pushed her gently backward, easing her down onto the edge of the bench, so that he knelt before her. A sudden thought had come to him, prompted by the stinging memory of that entry in her dreambook.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered to her. “We won’t . . . risk anything. Let me do this—just for you.”
She hesitated, but let him run his hands under her skirt, up the silken curves of stockinged calf and round, bare thigh, under the flattened curve of her buttocks, cool and bare on the stone, beneath the froth of petticoats. One of Seamus’s songs had described a gentleman’s exploits “in the lists of Venus.” The words drifted through his head with the rushing of the water, and he was determined to acquit himself with honor in those lists.
Maybe she couldn’t describe it, but he meant to make sure she knew it had happened. She shivered between his hands, and he cupped one hand between her thighs.
Both of them jerked convulsively, Roger snatching his hands away as though burned. He could feel the thunder of blood in his ears—and his balls.
“Yes, what is it? Is that you, Phaedre? What’s wrong—is it Jemmy?”
He was sitting back on his heels, trying to breathe, feeling dizzy. He caught the brief pale gleam of her br**sts above him as she stood up and turned toward the voice, tucking her kerchief hastily back in, pulling the shawl up over her unfastened gown.
“Yes, ma’am.” Phaedre’s voice came out from under the willow nearest the house; nothing of the slave showed but the whiteness of her cap, floating dimly in the shadows. “Poor child, he woke up hot and fussin’, wouldn’t take neither mush nor milk, and then he started in to cough, sounded bad enough, Teresa said we best fetch Dr. Fentiman along to him, but I said . . .”