I sat down on the packing case and stretched to ease my back, suppressing a groan. God knew how long it might take Ian to find Jamie among the teeming hordes. And I did hope that Denny hadn’t been knocked on the head or trampled by a mule.
“Pour me another cup of beer, will you? And have some more yourselves. I suspect we may need it.”
“. . . and if he says, ‘Oh, God, oh, God,’ at some point,” I advised, “take note of what you were just doing, so you can do it again next time.”
Rachel laughed, but Dottie frowned a little, looking slightly cross-eyed.
“Do you—does thee—think Denny would take the Lord’s name in vain, even under those circumstances?”
“I’ve heard him do it on much less provocation than that,” Rachel assured her, stifling a burp with the back of her hand. “He tries to be perfect in thy company, thee knows, for fear thee will change thy mind.”
“He does?” Dottie looked surprised but rather pleased. “Oh. I wouldn’t, thee knows. Ought I to tell him?”
“Not until he says, ‘Oh, God, oh, God,’ for thee,” Rachel said, succumbing to a giggle.
“I wouldn’t worry,” I said. “If a man says, ‘Oh, God,’ in that situation, he nearly always means it as a prayer.”
Dottie’s fair brows drew together in concentration.
“A prayer of desperation? Or gratitude?”
“Well . . . that’s up to you,” I said, and stifled a small belch of my own.
Approaching male voices outside the tent made us all glance self-consciously at the empty beer pitcher and sit up straight, poking at our slightly disheveled hair, but none of the gentlemen who came in were in any condition to cast stones.
Ian had found Denzell and Jamie, and somewhere along the way they had acquired a small, stout companion in a cocked hat, with his hair in a stumpy pigtail. All of them were flushed and, while certainly not staggering, were surrounded by a distinct haze of fermented barleycorn.
“There ye are, Sassenach!” Jamie brightened still further at seeing me, and I felt a small rush of delight at it. “Are ye—who’s this?” He had been advancing toward me, hand outstretched, but stopped abruptly at sight of Mrs. Peabody, who was lying with her arms flung out, mouth wide open.
“That’s the lady I told ye about, Uncle Jamie.” Ian wasn’t staggering, either, but was distinctly swaying and took hold of the tent pole to steady himself. “The one that’s . . . ehm . . .” He gestured with his free hand to the gentleman in the cocked hat. “She’s his wife.”
“Oh? Aye, I see.” He edged gingerly around Mrs. Peabody’s recumbent form. “She’s no dead, is she?”
“No,” I said. “I think I would have noticed.” He might have been somewhat inebriated, but still caught the faint dubious emphasis I’d placed on “think.” He knelt down carefully and put a hand in front of her open mouth.
“Nay, only drunk,” he said cheerfully. “Shall we lend ye a hand to take her home, Mr. Peabody?”
“Better lend him a wheelbarrow,” Dottie whispered to Rachel, beside me, but luckily no one noticed.
“That would be kindly of you, sir.” Surprisingly, Mr. Peabody appeared to be the only sober one of the lot. He knelt and smoothed the damp hair tenderly off his wife’s brow. “Lulu? Wake up, darling. Time to be going now.”
To my surprise, she opened her eyes and, after blinking several times in confusion, appeared to fix her gaze on her husband.
“There you are, Simon!” she said, and, with a rapturous smile, fell soundly back asleep.
Jamie rose slowly, and I could hear the small bones in his back pop as he eased himself. He was still flushed and smiling, but Ian had been right—he was dead tired. I could see the deep lines of weariness in his face and the hollows under his bones.
Ian saw them, too.
“Auntie Claire’s in need of her bed, Uncle Jamie,” he said, squeezing Jamie’s shoulder and giving me a meaning look. “It’s been a long night for her. Take her along, aye? Denny and I can help Mr. Peabody.”
Jamie gave his nephew a sharp look and then turned the same look on me, but I obligingly yawned widely enough to make my jaw crack—no great effort—and with a final quick look at Mrs. Peabody to be sure she was neither dying nor going into labor, I took his arm and towed him determinedly outside, waving briefly in farewell.
Outside, we both drew deep breaths of fresh air, sighed in unison, and laughed.
“It has been rather a long night, hasn’t it?” I put my forehead against his chest and my arms around him, slowly rubbing the knobs of his vertebrae through his coat. “What happened?”
He sighed again and kissed the top of my head.
“I’ve command of ten companies of mixed militia from Pennyslvania and New Jersey; the marquis has command of a thousand men—including mine—and is in charge of a plan to go and bite the British army in the arse.”
“Sounds like fun.” The racket of the camp had died down considerably, but the thick air still held the vibrations of many men, awake or uneasily asleep. I thought I could feel that same expectant vibration pass through Jamie, in spite of his obvious tiredness. “You need sleep, then.”
His arm tightened round me and his free hand traveled slowly down my back. I’d left Denny’s apron in the tent, and my cloak was over my arm; the thin muslin of my shift might as well have not existed.
“Oh, God,” he said, and his big, warm hand cupped my buttock with a sudden urgency. “I need you, Sassenach. I need ye bad.”
The shift was just as thin in front as in back; I could feel his waistcoat buttons—and a few other things—through it. He did want me bad.
“Do you mind doing it in a crypt that smells of wee?” I asked, thinking of the Chenowyths’ back bedroom.
“I’ve taken ye in worse places, Sassenach.”
Before I could say, “Name three,” the tent flap opened to disgorge a small procession, this consisting of Denzell, Dottie, Rachel, and Ian, each couple carrying one end of a canvas sheet on which lay the protuberant form of Mrs. Peabody. Mr. Peabody led the way, lantern held high.
We were standing in shadow, and they passed without noticing us, the girls giggling at the occasional stumble, the young men grunting with effort, and Mr. Peabody calling out encouragement as they made their laborious way through the darkness, presumably heading for the Peabody abode.
The tent stood before us, dark and invitingly empty.
The stretcher bearers had taken the lantern, and the setting moon was the barest sliver above the horizon; the inside of the tent was filled with a soft, dusty black that rose up around us in a fragrantly alcoholic cloud—with a faint tang of vomit—when we stepped inside.
I recalled exactly where things were, though, and we managed to push together four of the packing crates. I spread my cloak on these, he took off his coat and waistcoat, and we lay down precariously in the beery dark together.
“How long do you think we have?” I asked, undoing his flies. His flesh was warm and hard under my hand, and his skin there soft as polished silk.
“Long enough,” he said, and brushed my nipple with his thumb, slowly, in spite of his own apparent urgency. “Dinna hurry yourself, Sassenach. There’s no telling when we’ll have the chance again.”
He kissed me lingeringly, his mouth tasting of Roquefort and port. I could feel the vibration of the camp here, too—it ran through both of us like a fiddle string pegged tight.
“I dinna think I’ve got time to make ye scream, Sassenach,” he whispered in my ear. “But I’ve maybe time to make ye moan?”
“Well, possibly. It’s some time ’til dawn, isn’t it?”
Whether it was the beer and premarital explanations, the late hour and lure of secrecy—or only Jamie himself and our increasing need to shut out the world and know only each other—he had time, and to spare.
“Oh, God,” he said at last, and came down slowly on me, his heart beating heavy against my ribs. “Oh . . . God.”
I felt my own pulse throb in hands and bones and center, but couldn’t manage any response more eloquent than a faint “Ooh.” After a bit, though, I recovered enough to stroke his hair.
“We’ll go home again soon,” I whispered to him. “And have all the time in the world.”
That got me a softly affirmative Scottish noise, and we lay there for a bit longer, not wanting to come apart and get dressed, though the packing cases were hard and the possibility of discovery increasing with each passing minute.
At last he stirred, but not to rise.
“Oh, God,” he said softly, in another tone altogether. “Three hundred men.” And held me tighter.
THE SUN WASN’T YET above the horizon, but the horse park was busy as an anthill, full of grooms, foragers, teamsters, and farriers, all scurrying about their business in an incongruous soft pink light filled with the sound of hundreds of pairs of steadily champing jaws. William picked up the bay gelding’s hoof and held out his hand for the hoof pick his new, small groom was clutching nervously to his chest.
“Now, come here, Zeb,” he said coaxingly. “I’ll show you how it’s done; there’s nothing to it.”
“Yes, sir.” Zebedee Jeffers edged an inch closer, eyes flicking back and forth from the hoof to the towering mass of horseflesh. Jeffers did not like horses. He particularly didn’t like Visigoth. William thought it was just as well that Zeb likely didn’t know what a Visigoth was.
“All right. See there?” He tapped the pick against the shadow: the edge of a small rock that had trapped itself under the curve of the iron shoe during the night. “It’s only a little one, but it feels just like a pebble in your own shoe would feel, and he’ll go lame if we don’t take care of it. Here, it’s not stuck fast; do you want to try?”
“No, sir,” Zeb said honestly. Zebedee came from the shore of Maryland and knew about oysters, boats, and fish. Not horses.
“He won’t hurt you,” William said, with a touch of impatience. He’d be riding back and forth along the columns a dozen times a day, carrying dispatches and gathering reports; both his horses needed to be kept ready, his regular groom, Colenso Baragwanath, was down with a fever, and he hadn’t time to find another servant.
“Yes, he will. Sir,” Zeb added as an afterthought. “See?” He held out a scrawny arm, displaying what was undoubtedly a festering bite mark.
William suppressed the urge to ask what the devil the boy had been doing to the horse. Visigoth wasn’t a bad-tempered horse on the whole, but he could be irritable, and Zeb’s nervous fidgeting was enough to try anyone, let alone a tired and hungry horse.
“All right,” he said with a sigh, and pried the rock loose with one sharp dig. “Better, then?” he said to the horse, running a hand down the leg and then patting Goth’s flank. He felt in his pocket and drew out a bunch of limp carrots, bought the night before from a farmwoman who’d come through camp with baskets of produce on a yoke across her broad shoulders.
“Here. Give him that; make friends with him,” he suggested, handing a carrot to Zeb. “Hold it flat on your hand.” Before the boy could extend this putative olive branch, though, the horse reached down and snatched it from his fingers with an audible crunch of big yellow teeth. The boy uttered a small shriek and took several steps back, collided with a bucket, and fell over it, arse over teakettle.
Torn between annoyance and an unseemly urge to laugh, William smothered both and went to pick his groom out of a manure pile.
“Tell you what,” he said, dusting the boy off with a firm hand, “you see that all my dunnage is aboard the baggage wagon, see if Colenso needs anything, and make sure there’s something for me to eat tonight. I’ll ask Sutherland’s groom to tend the horses.”
Zeb sagged with relief.
“Thank you, sir!”
“And go see one of the surgeons and have that arm tended to!” William shouted after him, above the rising sound of braying and whickering. The boy’s shoulders rose up around his ears and he walked faster, pretending he hadn’t heard.
William saddled Goth himself—he always did, not trusting anyone else to check tack that his life might depend on—then left him with his other horse, Madras, and went to find Lord Sutherland’s groom. Despite the bustle, he had no trouble finding the string; Sutherland had ten horses, all prime creatures of sixteen hands or so, and at least a dozen grooms to tend them. William was just concluding negotiations with one of these when he caught sight of a familiar face among the throng.
“Shit,” he said, under his breath, but Captain Richardson had seen him and was coming toward him, smiling genially.
“Captain Lord Ellesmere. Your servant, sir.”
“Yours, sir,” William said, as pleasantly as he could. What did the scoundrel want now? he wondered. Not that Richardson was a scoundrel—or not necessarily one, despite Randall’s warning. It might, after all, be Randall who was the scoundrel. But he did hold rather a grudge against Richardson, on Mother Claire’s account, as well as his own. The thought of Mother Claire stabbed him unexpectedly, and he forced it back. None of it was her fault.
“I’m surprised to see you here, your lordship,” Richardson said, glancing round at the roiling camp. The sun was up, and bands of gold lit the fog of dust rising from the mules’ rough coats. “You are a conventioneer, are you not?”
“I am,” William said coldly. Richardson certainly knew he was. William felt obliged to defend himself, though against what, he wasn’t sure. “I cannot fight.” He spread his arms slightly. “As you see, I carry no weapons.” He made polite motions indicating his immediate need to be elsewhere, but Richardson went on standing there, smiling with that very ordinary face, so unremarkable that his own mother probably couldn’t pick him out of a crowd, save for a large brown mole on the side of his chin.