Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 36

   

Jamie thoroughly approved this innovation. He must tell Ian about it; draw a diagram. The gypsies would be coming soon; the kitchenmaids and grooms were all talking of it. He would maybe have time to add another installment to the ongoing letter he kept, sending the current crop of pages whenever a band of roving tinkers or gypsies came onto the farm. Delivery might be delayed for a month, or three, or six, but eventually the packet would make its way into the Highlands, passed from hand to hand, and on to his sister at Lallybroch, who would pay a generous fee for its reception.

Replies from Lallybroch came by the same anonymous route—for as a prisoner of the Crown, anything he sent or received by the mails must be inspected by Lord Dunsany. He felt a moment’s excitement at the thought of a letter, but tried to damp it down; there might be nothing.

“Gee!” he shouted, more as a matter of form than anything. Bess and Blossom could see the approaching stone fence as well as he could, and were perfectly well aware that this was the spot to begin the ponderous turnabout. Bess waggled one ear and snorted, and he grinned.

“Aye, I know,” he said to her, with a light twitch of the rein. “But they pay me to say it.”

Then they were settled in the new track, and there was nothing more to do until they reached the wagon standing at the foot of the field, piled high with manure for refilling the roller. The sun was on his face now, and he closed his eyes, reveling in the feel of warmth on his bare chest and shoulders.

The sound of a horse’s high whinny stirred him from somnolence a quarter-hour later. Opening his eyes, he could see the rider coming up the lane from the lower paddock, neatly framed between Blossom’s ears. Hastily, he sat up and pulled the shirt back over his head.

“You needn’t be modest on my account, MacKenzie.” Geneva Dunsany’s voice was high and slightly breathless as she pulled her mare to a walk beside the moving roller.

“Mmphm.” She was dressed in her best habit, he saw, with a cairngorm brooch at her throat, and her color was higher than the temperature of the day warranted.

“What are you doing?” she asked, after they had rolled and paced in silence for some moments.

“I am spreading shit, my lady,” he answered precisely, not looking at her.

“Oh.” She rode on for the space of half a track, before venturing further into conversation.

“Did you know I am to be married?”

He did; all the servants had known it for a month, Richards the butler having been in the library, serving, when the solicitor came from Derwentwater to draw up the wedding contract. The Lady Geneva had been informed two days ago. According to her maid, Betty, the news had not been well received.

He contented himself with a noncommittal grunt.

“To Ellesmere,” she said. The color rose higher in her cheeks, and her lips pressed together.

“I wish ye every happiness, my lady.” Jamie pulled briefly on the reins as they came to the end of the field. He was out of the seat before Bess had set her hooves; he had no wish at all to linger in conversation with the Lady Geneva, whose mood seemed thoroughly dangerous.

“Happiness!” she cried. Her big gray eyes flashed and she slapped the thigh of her habit. “Happiness! Married to a man old enough to be my own grandsire?”

Jamie refrained from saying that he suspected the Earl of Ellesmere’s prospects for happiness were somewhat more limited than her own. Instead, he murmured, “Your pardon, my lady,” and went behind to unfasten the roller.

She dismounted and followed him. “It’s a filthy bargain between my father and Ellesmere! He’s selling me, that’s what it is. My father cares not the slightest trifle for me, or he’d never have made such a match! Do you not think I am badly used?”

On the contrary, Jamie thought that Lord Dunsany, a most devoted father, had probably made the best match possible for his spoilt elder daughter. The Earl of Ellesmere was an old man. There was every prospect that within a few years, Geneva would be left as an extremely wealthy young widow, and a countess, to boot. On the other hand, such considerations might well not weigh heavily with a headstrong miss—a stubborn, spoilt bitch, he corrected, seeing the petulant set of her mouth and eyes—of seventeen.

“I am sure your father acts always in your best interests, my lady,” he answered woodenly. Would the little fiend not go away?

She wouldn’t. Assuming a more winsome expression, she came and stood close to his side, interfering with his opening the loading hatch of the roller.

“But a match with such a dried-up old man?” she said. “Surely it is heartless of Father to give me to such a creature.” She stood on tiptoe, peering at Jamie. “How old are you, MacKenzie?”

His heart stopped beating for an instant.

“A verra great deal older than you, my lady,” he said firmly. “Your pardon, my lady.” He slid past her as well as he might without touching her, and leaped up onto the manure wagon, whence he was reasonably sure she wouldn’t follow him.

“But not ready for the boneyard yet, are you, MacKenzie?” Now she was in front of him, shading her eyes with her hand as she peered upward. A breeze had come up, and wisps of her chestnut hair floated about her face. “Have you ever been married, MacKenzie?”

He gritted his teeth, overcome with the urge to drop a shovelful of manure over her chestnut head, but mastered it and dug the shovel into the pile, merely saying “I have,” in a tone that brooked no further inquiries.

The Lady Geneva was not interested in other people’s sensitivities. “Good,” she said, satisfied. “You’ll know what to do, then.”

“To do?” He stopped short in the act of digging, one foot braced on the shovel.

“In bed,” she said calmly. “I want you to come to bed with me.”

In the shock of the moment, all he could think of was the ludicrous vision of the elegant Lady Geneva, skirts thrown up over her face, asprawl in the rich crumble of the manure wagon.

He dropped the shovel. “Here?” he croaked.

“No, silly,” she said impatiently. “In bed, in a proper bed. In my bedroom.”

“You have lost your mind,” Jamie said coldly, the shock receding slightly. “Or I should think you had, if ye had one to lose.”

Her face flamed and her eyes narrowed. “How dare you speak that way to me!”

“How dare ye speak so to me?” Jamie replied hotly. “A wee lassie of breeding to be makin’ indecent proposals to a man twice her age? And a groom in her father’s house?” he added, recollecting who he was. He choked back further remarks, recollecting also that this dreadful girl was the Lady Geneva, and he was her father’s groom.

“I beg your pardon, my lady,” he said, mastering his choler with some effort. “The sun is verra hot today, and no doubt it has addled your wits a bit. I expect ye should go back to the house at once and ask your maid to put cold cloths on your head.”

The Lady Geneva stamped her morocco-booted foot. “My wits are not addled in the slightest!”

She glared up at him, chin set. Her chin was little and pointed, so were her teeth, and with that particular expression of determination on her face, he thought she looked a great deal like the bloody-minded vixen she was.

“Listen to me,” she said. “I cannot prevent this abominable marriage. But I am”—she hesitated, then continued firmly—“I am damned if I will suffer my maidenhood to be given to a disgusting, depraved old monster like Ellesmere!”

Jamie rubbed a hand across his mouth. Despite himself, he felt some sympathy for her. But he would be damned if he allowed this skirted maniac to involve him in her troubles.

“I am fully sensible of the honor, my lady,” he said at last, with a heavy irony, “but I really cannot—”

“Yes, you can.” Her eyes rested frankly on the front of his filthy breeches. “Betty says so.”

He struggled for speech, emerging at first with little more than incoherent sputterings. Finally he drew a deep breath and said, with all the firmness he could muster, “Betty has not the slightest basis for drawing conclusions as to my capacity. I havena laid a hand on the lass!”

Geneva laughed delightedly. “So you didn’t take her to bed? She said you wouldn’t, but I thought perhaps she was only trying to avoid a beating. That’s good; I couldn’t possibly share a man with my maid.”

He breathed heavily. Smashing her on the head with the shovel or throttling her were unfortunately out of the question. His inflamed temper slowly calmed. Outrageous she might be, but essentially powerless. She could scarcely force him to go to her bed.

“Good day to ye, my lady,” he said, as politely as possible. He turned his back on her and began to shovel manure into the hollow roller.

“If you don’t,” she said sweetly, “I’ll tell my father you made improper advances to me. He’ll have the skin flayed off your back.”

His shoulders hunched involuntarily. She couldn’t possibly know. He had been careful never to take his shirt off in front of anyone since he came here.

He turned carefully and stared down at her. The light of triumph was in her eye.

“Your father may not be so well acquent’ with me,” he said, “but he’s kent you since ye were born. Tell him, and be damned to ye!”

She puffed up like a game cock, her face growing bright red with temper. “Is that so?” she cried. “Well, look at this, then, and be damned to you!” She reached into the bosom of her habit and pulled out a thick letter, which she waved under his nose. His sister’s firm black hand was so familiar that a glimpse was enough.

“Give me that!” He was down off the wagon and after her in a flash, but she was too fast. She was up in the saddle before he could grab her, backing with the reins in one hand, waving the letter mockingly in the other.

“Want it, do you?”

“Yes, I want it! Give it to me!” He was so furious, he could easily have done her violence, could he get his hands on her. Unfortunately, her bay mare sensed his mood, and backed away, snorting and pawing uneasily.

“I don’t think so.” She eyed him coquettishly, the red of ill temper fading from her face. “After all, it’s really my duty to give this to my father, isn’t it? He ought really to know that his servants are carrying on clandestine correspondences, shouldn’t he? Is Jenny your sweetheart?”

“You’ve read my letter? Ye filthy wee bitch!”

“Such language,” she said, wagging the letter reprovingly. “It’s my duty to help my parents, by letting them know what sorts of dreadful things the servants are up to, isn’t it? And I am a dutiful daughter, am I not, submitting to this marriage without a squeak?” She leaned forward on her pommel, smiling mockingly, and with a fresh spurt of rage, he realized that she was enjoying this very much indeed.

“I expect Papa will find it very interesting reading,” she said. “Especially the bit about the gold to be sent to Lochiel in France. Isn’t it still considered treason to be giving comfort to the King’s enemies? Tsk,” she said, clicking her tongue roguishly. “How wicked.”

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