“Mm. But the underskirt is ivory; if she is too fair, will she not look washed out?”
I disliked being discussed as though I were an objet d’art—and a possibly defective one, at that—but swallowed my objections.
Phaedre was shaking her head, definitely.
“Oh, no, ma’am,” she said. “She ain’t washed out. She got them bones as makes shadows. And brown eyes, but don’t be thinkin’ they’s mud-color. You recall that book you got, the one with the pictures of all them strange animals?”
“If you mean Accounts of an Exploration of the Indian Subcontinent,” Jocasta said, “yes, I recall it. Ulysses read it to me only last month. You mean that Mrs. Fraser reminds you of one of the illustrations?” She laughed, amused.
“Mm-hm.” Phaedre hadn’t taken her eyes off me. “She look like that big cat,” she said softly, staring at me. “Like that there tiger, a-lookin’ out from the leaves.”
An expression of startlement showed briefly on Jocasta’s face.
“Indeed,” she said, and laughed. But she didn’t touch me again.
I stood in the lower hall, smoothing the green-striped silk over my bosom. Phaedre’s reputation as a sempstress was well founded; the dress fit like a glove, and the bold bands of emerald satin glowed against the paler shades of ivory and leaf.
Proud of her own thick hair, Jocasta did not wear wigs, so there was fortunately no suggestion that I adopt one. Phaedre had tried to powder my hair with rice flour instead, an attempt I had firmly resisted. Inadequately concealing her opinion of my lack of fashionable instinct, she had settled for snaring the mass of curls in a white silk ribbon and pinning them high to the back of my head.
I wasn’t sure quite why I had resisted the array of baubles with which she had tried to further bedizen me; perhaps it was mere dislike of fussiness. Or perhaps it was a more subtle objection to being made an object, to be adorned and displayed to Jocasta’s purpose. At any rate, I had refused. I wore no ornament save my wedding ring, a small pair of pearl earbobs, and a green velvet ribbon round the stalk of my neck.
Ulysses came down the stairs above me, impeccable in his livery. I moved, and he turned his head, catching the flicker of my skirts.
His eyes widened in a look of frank appreciation as he saw me, and I looked down, smiling a bit, as one does when being admired. Then I heard him gasp and jerked my head up to see his eyes still wide, but now with fear; his hand so tight on the banister that the knuckles shone.
“Your pardon, madame,” he said, sounding strangled, and rushed down the stairs and past me, head down, leaving the door to the cookhouse breezeway swinging in his wake.
“What on earth…?” I said aloud, and then I remembered where—and when—we were.
Alone for so long, in a house with a blind mistress and no master, he had grown careless. He had momentarily forgotten that most basic and essential protection—the only true protection a slave had: the blank, bland face that hid all thoughts.
No wonder he had been terrorized when he realized what he had done. If it had been any woman other than myself to have intercepted that unguarded look…my hands grew cold and sweaty, and I swallowed, the remembered scent of blood and turpentine sharp in my throat.
But it had been me, I reminded myself, and no one else had seen. The butler might be afraid, but he was safe. I would behave as though nothing had happened—nothing had—and things would be…well, things would be what they were. The sound of footsteps on the gallery above interrupted my thoughts. I glanced upward, and gasped, all other thoughts driven at once from my mind.
A Highlander in full regalia is an impressive sight—any Highlander, no matter how old, ill-favored, or crabbed in appearance. A tall, straight-bodied, and by no means ill-favored Highlander in the prime of his life is breathtaking.
He hadn’t worn the kilt since Culloden, but his body had not forgotten the way of it.
“Oh!” I said.
He saw me then, and white teeth flashed as he made me a leg, silver shoe-buckles gleaming. He straightened and turned on his heel to set his plaid swinging, then came down slowly, eyes fixed on my face.
For a moment, I saw him as he had looked the morning I married him. The sett of his tartan was nearly the same now as then; black check on a crimson ground, plaid caught at his shoulder with a silver brooch, dipping to the calf of a neat, stockinged leg.
His linen was finer now, as was his coat; the dirk he wore at his waist had bands of gold across the haft. Duine uasal was what he looked, a man of worth.
But the bold face above the lace was the same, older now, but wiser with it—yet the tilt of his shining head and the set of the wide, firm mouth, the slanted clear cat-eyes that looked into my own, were just the same. Here was a man who had always known his worth.
“Your servant, ma’am,” he said. And then burst into a face-splitting smile as he descended the last few stairs.
“You look wonderful,” I said, hardly able to swallow the lump in my throat.
“It’s none so bad,” he agreed, with no trace of false modesty. He arranged a fold over his shoulder with care. “Of course, that’s the advantage of a plaid—there’s no trouble about the fit of it.”
“It’s Hector Cameron’s?” I felt ridiculously shy of touching him, garbed so splendidly. Instead, I touched the hilt of the dirk; it was topped with a small knurl of gold, roughly shaped like a bird in flight.
Jamie drew a deep breath.
“It’s mine, now. Ulysses brought it to me—with my aunt’s compliments.” I caught an odd undertone in his voice, and glanced up at him. Despite his obvious deep pleasure at wearing the kilt again, something was troubling him. I touched his hand.
He gave me half a smile, but his brows were drawn together in concern.
“I wouldna say anything’s wrong, exactly. It’s only—”
The sound of feet on the stairs interrupted him, and he drew me to one side, out of the way of a hurrying slave with a pile of linens. The house was humming with last-minute preparations; even now, I could hear the sound of wheels on the gravel at the back of the house, and savory smells floated through the air as platters were brought in at a gallop from the kitchen.
“We canna talk here,” he muttered. “Sassenach, will ye stand ready at dinner? If I should signal to ye”—and he tugged at his earlobe—“will ye make a diversion, right then? It doesna matter what—spill wine, swoon away, stab your dinner partner with a fork—” He grinned at me, and I took heart from that; whatever was worrying him wasn’t a matter of life and death, then.
“I can do that,” I assured him. “But what—”
A door opened onto the gallery above, and Jocasta’s voice floated down, giving last-minute orders to Phaedre. Hearing it, Jamie stooped quickly and kissed me, then whirled away in a swirl of crimson plaid and silver shoebuckles, disappearing neatly between two slaves bringing trays of crystal goblets toward the drawing room. I stared after him in astonishment, barely getting out of the way in time to avoid being trampled by the servants.
“Is that you, sweet Claire?” Jocasta paused on the bottom step, head turned toward me, eyes trained just over my shoulder. She was quite uncanny.
“It is,” I said, and touched her arm to let her know more precisely where I was.
“I smelt the camphor from the dress,” she said in answer to my unspoken question, tucking her hand in the crook of my elbow. “I thought I heard Jamie’s voice; is he nearby?”
“No,” I said, quite truthfully, “I believe he’s gone out to greet the guests.”
“Ah.” Her hand tightened on my arm, and she sighed, somewhere between satisfaction and impatience. “I am not one to lament what cannot be mended, but I swear I should give one of my eyes, could the sight of the other be restored long enough to see the lad in his plaidie this night!”
She shook her head, dismissing it, and the diamonds in her ears flared with light. She wore dark blue silk, a foil to her shining white hair. The cloth was embroidered with dragonflies that seemed to dart among the folds as she moved under the lights of the wall sconces and candle-heavy chandeliers.
“Ah, well. Where is Ulysses?”
“Here, madame.” He had come back so quietly that I hadn’t heard him, appearing on her other side.
“Come then,” she said, and took his arm. I didn’t know if the order applied to him or me, but followed obediently in her shimmering wake, dodging to avoid two kitchen boys bearing in the centerpiece—a whole roasted boar, tusked head intact and fiercely glaring, succulent backside gleaming fatly, ready for the knife. It smelled divine.
I smoothed my hair and prepared to meet Jocasta’s guests, feeling rather as though I, too, were being presented on a silver platter, with an apple in my mouth.
The guest list would have read like the Who’s Who of Cape Fear River gentry, had there been such a thing. Campbell, Maxwell, Buchanan, MacNeill, MacEachern…names from the Highlands, names from the Isles. MacNeill of Barra Meadows, MacLeod of Islay…many of the plantation names carried the flavor of their owners’ origins, as did their speech; the high plastered ceiling echoed with the lilt of spoken Gaelic.
Several of the men came kilted, or with plaids wrapped over their coats and silk breeches, but I saw none as striking as Jamie—who was conspicuous by his absence. I heard Jocasta murmur something to Ulysses; he summoned a small serving girl with a clap of his hands and sent her zooming off into the lanterned half-dark of the gardens, presumably in search of him.
Nearly as conspicuous were the few guests who were not Scots; a broad-shouldered, gently smiling Quaker by the picturesque name of Hermon Husband, a tall, rawboned gentleman named Hunter, and—much to my surprise—Phillip Wylie, immaculately suited, wigged and powdered.
“So we meet again, Mrs. Fraser,” he remarked, holding on to my hand much longer than was socially correct. “I confess that I am ravished with enchantment to behold you again!”
“What are you doing here?” I said, rather rudely.
He grinned impudently.
“I was brought by mine host, the noble and puissant Mr. MacNeill of Barra Meadows, from whom I have just purchased an excellent pair of grays. Speaking of which, wild horses would have proved insufficient to restrain me from attendance this evening, upon my hearing that this occasion is held in your honor.” His eyes wandered slowly over me, with the detached air of a connoisseur appreciating some rare work of art.
“May I observe, ma’am, how most becoming is that shade of green?”
“I don’t suppose I can stop you.”
“To say nothing of the effect of candlelight upon your skin. ‘Thy neck is as a tower of ivory,’ ” he quoted, drawing a thumb insinuatingly over my palm, “ ‘thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon.’ ”
“ ‘Thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon, which looketh toward Damascus,’ ” I said, with a pointed look at his aristocratically pronounced proboscis.