Betty had passed from her stupor into what looked like a normal deep sleep. When she woke in the morning, we would find out who had given her the cup, and—perhaps—what was in it. I hoped that Jemmy would sleep comfortably as well. But what was really on my mind, of course, was Jamie.
I hadn’t seen him among the card players, nor yet among the men talking low-voiced of taxes and tobacco.
I hadn’t seen Phillip Wylie anywhere on the first floor of the house, either. I could well believe he was out with the revelers by the river landing. That was his set and his style, wealthy young men who would seek diversion in drink and carouse in the dark, careless both of cold and danger, laughing and chasing each other by the light of random gunfire.
That was neither Jamie’s set nor his style, but the thought of him among them was what made my feet curl with chill, despite the heat of the room.
He wouldn’t do anything stupid, I assured myself, rolling onto my side, knees drawn up as much as possible in the cramped quarters. He wouldn’t; but his notion of stupid wasn’t always the same as mine, by any means.
Most of the male guests were bedded down in the outbuildings, or in the parlors; as I passed, I had seen anonymous sleeping figures sprawled on the floor of the front parlor, snoring loudly, wrapped in their cloaks before the fire. I had not gone to poke among them, but doubtless Jamie was there—he had had as long a day as I had, after all.
But it was not like him to retire without coming to wish me good night, no matter what the circumstances. Of course, he had been annoyed with me, and despite the promise of our interrupted conversation on the terrace, we had not quite made up the quarrel. Re-inflamed it, rather, with beastly Phillip Wylie’s invitation. My hands curled, thumbs rubbing at the slight calluses that marked the spots where my rings normally sat. Effing Scot!
Next to me Jemima Hatfield stirred and murmured, disturbed by my restlessness. I eased myself slowly back onto my side, and stared sightlessly at the oaken footboard in front of me.
Yes, he was undoubtedly still angry about Phillip Wylie’s advances. So was I—or I would be, were I not so tired. How dare he—I yawned, nearly dislocating my jaw, and decided that it really wasn’t worth the bother of being annoyed, at least not now.
But it wasn’t like Jamie to avoid me, angry or not. He wasn’t the sort of man to sulk or brood. He would seek a confrontation or provoke a fight, without a moment’s hesitation; but I didn’t think he had ever let the sun go down on anger—at least not with regard to me.
Which left me to worry about where he was, and what in bloody hell he was doing. And the necessity of worrying about him was making me really angry, if only because that was better than being worried.
But it had been a very long day, and as the moments passed, and the faint pops of gunfire from the river landing gradually ceased, languor stole over me, blunting my fears and scattering my thoughts like spilled sand. The gentle breathing of the women all around me lulled me like the sound of wind in the trees, and my grip on reality slackened and at last fell free.
I might have expected dreams of violence or nightmares of dread, but my subconscious had plainly had enough of that. In the contrary way of such things, it instead chose to dwell on another thread of the day’s events. Perhaps it was the warmth of the room, or simply the closeness of so many bodies, but I dreamed vividly and erotically, the tides of arousal washing me now and then near to the shores of wakefulness, then once more carrying me out into the deeps of unconsciousness.
There were horses in my dreams; glowing black Friesians with flowing manes that rippled in the wind as the stallions ran beside me. I saw my own legs stretch and leap; I was a white mare, and the ground flew past in a blur of green beneath my hooves, until I stopped and turned, waiting for the one, a broad-chested stallion who came to me, his breath hot and moist against my neck, his white teeth closing on my nape . . .
“I am the King of Ireland,” he said, and I came slowly awake, tingling from head to foot, to find that someone was gently stroking the sole of said foot.
Still bemused by the carnal images of my dreams, I was not alarmed by this, but merely muzzily pleased to discover that I had feet after all, and not hooves. My toes curled and my foot flexed, reveling in the delicate touch of the thumb that traced its way from the ball of my foot down the high arch and up into the hollow below my anklebone, managing to stimulate an entire plexus of sensation. Then I came all the way awake, with a small jerk.
Whoever it was plainly sensed my return to consciousness, for the touch left my foot momentarily. Then it came back, this time more firmly, a large warm hand curling quite round my foot, the thumb executing a firm but languid massage at the base of my toes.
By this time, I was quite awake, and mildly startled, but not frightened. I wiggled my foot briefly, as though to throw off the hand, but it squeezed my foot lightly in response, and then its companion gently pinched my great toe.
This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home . . . I could hear the rhyme as clearly as though it had been spoken aloud, as the fingers deftly pinched their way across my toes, one by one.
And this little piggy went weee-weee-weee, all the way home! The touch flicked tickling down the sole of my foot and I jerked, an involuntary giggle caught in my throat.
I lifted my head, but the hand seized my foot again and squeezed in admonition. The fire had gone out altogether and the room was black as velvet; even with eyes completely dark-adapted, I could gain nothing but the sense of a hunched figure near my feet, an amorphous blob that shifted like mercury, its edges blending with and disappearing into the dark of the air.
The hand slid gently up the calf of my leg. I twitched violently, and the woman next to me snorted, reared up with a bleary, “Hnh?” and collapsed again, in a whoosh.
My stomach muscles quivered with suppressed laughter. He must have felt the slight vibration—the fingers left my little toe with a gentle squeeze, and stroked the bottom of my foot, making all my toes curl tight.
The fingers curled into a fist, pressing along the length of my sole, then suddenly opened, cupping my heel. His thumb stroked my ankle, and paused, questioning. I didn’t move.
His fingers were getting warmer; there was only a faint sensation of cold as they followed the curve of my calf and sought shelter in the soft place behind my knee. The fingers played a quick tattoo on the sensitive skin there, and I twitched in agitation. They slowed and stopped, settling surely on the artery where my pulse beat fast; I could feel it, blood rushing past where the skin was so thin the veins would show blue beneath it.
I heard a sigh as he shifted his weight; then one hand cupped the round of my thigh, and slid slowly upward. The other followed, pressing my legs gently, inexorably apart.
My heart was thumping in my ears and my br**sts felt swollen, n**ples poking hard and round through the thin muslin of my shift. I took a deep breath, and smelled rice powder.
All at once, my heart gave a double-thump and nearly stopped, as the sudden thought sprang to life in my mind—what if it wasn’t Jamie?
I lay quite still, trying not to breathe, concentrating on the hands, which were doing something delicate and quite unspeakable. Large hands, they were large hands; I could feel the knuckles pressing the soft inner flesh of my thigh. But Phillip Wylie had large hands, too; quite large for his size. I had seen him scoop up a handful of oats for his stallion, Lucas, and the horse bury its big black nose in the palm.
Calluses; the roving hands—oh, God!—were smoothly callused. But so were Wylie’s; dandy he might be, but a horseman; his palms were quite as smooth and hard as Jamie’s.
It had to be Jamie, I assured myself, lifting my head an inch or so and peering into the black velvet darkness. Ten little pigs . . . of course it was Jamie! Then one of the hands did something quite startling and I gasped out loud and jerked, limbs twitching. My elbow slammed into the ribs of the woman next to me, who snapped upright with a loud exclamation. The hands retreated abruptly, squeezing my ankles in a hasty farewell.
There was a shuffling noise as someone crawled hurriedly across the floor, then a flash of dim light and a breath of cold air from the corridor as the door opened and shut again immediately.
“Wha—?” said Jemima next to me, in woozy astonishment. “Whozat?”
Receiving no answer, she flounced, muttered, and at last lay down again, to fall promptly fast asleep.
I did not.
IN VINO VERITAS
I LAY SLEEPLESS for quite a long time, listening to the peaceful snores and rustlings of my bedmates, and to the agitated thump of my own heart. Every nerve in my body felt as though it were sticking out through my skin, and when Jemima Hatfield rolled unconsciously into me, I jabbed her viciously in the ribs with my elbow, so that she uttered a startled “Whoof?” and sat halfway up, blinking and muttering, before collapsing slowly back into the communal sea of sleep.
As for me, my small bark of consciousness was adrift on the flood, spinning rudderless, but without the slightest chance of being pulled under.
I simply couldn’t decide how to feel. On the one hand, I was aroused—unwillingly, to be sure, but still most definitely aroused. Whoever my nocturnal visitor had been, he knew his way around a woman’s body.
That would argue for its being Jamie, I thought. Still, I had no idea how experienced Phillip Wylie might be in the arts of love—I had spurned his approaches in the stable so promptly that he had had no chance of demonstrating any skills he might possess in that direction.
But my midnight visitor had not used any caress that I could positively identify as being in Jamie’s repertoire. Now, if he had used his mouth . . . I shied away from that line of thought like a spooked horse, and Jemima gave a muffled grunt as I convulsed slightly, my skin rippling in involuntary response to the images it evoked.
I didn’t know whether to feel amused or outraged, seduced or violated. I was extremely angry; I was sure of that much, at least, and the surety gave me some small anchor in the maelstrom of emotion. Still, I had no idea as to the correct target of my anger, and with nowhere to aim that particularly destructive emotion, it was simply crashing round inside me, knocking things down and leaving dents.
“Oof,” said Jemima, in a pointed—and quite conscious—tone of voice. Evidently I wasn’t the only one being dented by my emotions.
“Mmmm?” I murmured, feigning half-sleep. “Glrgl. Bzg.”
There was a small tinge of guilt in the mix, as well.
If I were sure it had been Jamie, would I be angry?
The worst of it was, I realized, that there was absolutely nothing I could do to find out who it had been. I could scarcely ask Jamie whether he had crept in and fondled me in the darkness—because if he hadn’t, his immediate response would certainly be to assassinate Phillip Wylie bare-handed.
I felt as though tiny electric eels were squirming under my skin. I stretched as hard as I could, alternately tensed and relaxed every muscle—and still could find no way to keep still.
At last, I slid cautiously off the bed, and made my way to the door, with a glance at my erstwhile bedmates, who lay slumbering peacefully under the quilts like a row of perfumed sausages. Moving with great stealth, I eased the door open and peeked out into the hallway. It was either very late or very early; the tall window at the end of the corridor had gone to gray, but the last of the stars still showed, vanishing pinpoints on the charcoal satin of the sky.