Authors: Jane Feather
The two men left the terrace, taking the broad walk bordered by large flowering laurels and catalpas, which led down to the river highway and the landing stage where Trueman’s boat waited.
Inside the mansion, Eliza Paget flew up the graceful stairway with its carved step ends and newel posts, her hand barely skimming the rich mahogany handrail, to seek refuge in her chamber. She knew her husband
blamed her for this dreadful happening. If only she had been able to give him more children, but of the six she had borne, only Bryony had survived to adulthood. The five little graves beneath the oak tree were a constant reproach.
Her husband, that man of stern and rigid principle, a man of short temper who did not suffer fools gladly, was ultimately responsible for anything his daughter might do. He had indulged her from the moment she had said her first words, had encouraged her defiance of her mother, had supervised an education that went far beyond the requirements of a girl whose only role in life was to be a good and obedient wife, a loving mother, and a just plantation mistress.
If only he had insisted that the marriage to Francis Cullum be celebrated on Bryony’s eighteenth birthday, as the betrothal contract had stipulated, none of this would have happened. If only his daughter had been taught to recognize the duty she owed her parents, instead of cherishing this shocking assumption that she had the right to dictate the terms of her existence. For that, Edward was to blame. If Bryony carried such an assumption into marriage, she would be storing up a life of misery for herself. Eliza had learned by heart the
description of a “good wife,” one who was humble and modest from reason and conviction, submissive from choice, and obedient from inclination. A husband had the right to expect such a wife, and it was the parents’ duty to ensure that their daughter would fulfill those expectations.
But none of these truths could assuage the mother’s grief as she thought of her daughter and remembered only the warm, loving nature, the sunny temper, the
quick consideration of others; she forgot the obstinacy, the sharp tongue, the indecorous habit Bryony had of always speaking her mind, no matter to whom, and the exasperating reluctance to devote her time to the embroidery, music, and drawing lessons essential to the education of a well-bred young lady.
Benedict fixed the night crawler on his hook and cast his line into the creek. It was an activity that usually brought him an untrammeled mind and enough clarity of thought to allow for problem solving. But his present problem seemed to defy solution. What in the name of the good God had he done? He had failed to recognize the hysteria of a fevered brain, of a young innocent subjected to a series of physical and mental assaults. He had thought he had an experienced wanton in his arms, and he could hardly have been blamed for thinking so. The way she had moved, had twined herself around him, had aroused him with such devastating instinct; and she had begged with such husky longing for the loving he found himself desperate to give. She had responded in the manner of one well versed in loving. But the devil take it! She wasn’t well versed in anything, unless it was female sorcery.
A tug on his line caught his attention, and with a muttered oath, he pulled it in, unhooked the respectable-sized catfish, and tossed it into the bucket before re-baiting the hook and casting again. He had taken the virginity of some scion of Virginian landed gentry, and he’d probably got her with child into the bargain! For a minute he gave himself up to the scourge of self-disgust, permitting the self-flagellation as a necessary penance.
Then, with customary decision, he looked again at the problem.
It was twofold, as far as he could see. On the one hand, he had allowed an unknown quantity to penetrate the secrecy that ensured his survival. Until the quantity became known, he must keep her both secure and in ignorance of anything except his first name and her immediate surroundings. She must not be allowed to wander farther afield and thus gain a knowledge of the geography that could be put to good use later. Neither must she be allowed a hint of his greater purpose.
The second thread of the problem lay quite simply in what had happened this morning. It must not be allowed to happen again. He could not possibly complicate further an already impossibly convoluted situation. She was his responsibility because he had made that decision the night of the Trueman raid and would continue to honor it; she was his prisoner by the same token, and her future would remain undecided until he had discovered her identity. Enjoying her body was most definitely not compatible with such a scenario.
Another tug on the line punctuated this satisfactory exposition of problems and half answers. He pulled in a second catfish and decided that two would suffice for their supper. It was also high time he returned to his responsibility, whom he had left dead to the world in the aftermath of passion.
Picking up a flat stone, he put the flapping, gasping fish out of their misery, then took the wickedly sharp clasp knife from his belt and gutted them both with swift economy. After tossing the guts back into the creek, where they would be devoured in the age-old
food chain of turn and turn about, he wiped the knife on the grass and made his way back to the clearing.
Bryony had slept throughout most of Benedict’s absence, but she had woken feeling bereft and disoriented, until, discovering the traces of that wonderful possession, she remembered why her body was cold and lonely. She lay still, playing with the images of what had happened, hearing her voice, shameless in its wanting, begging to be loved, reliving the sensations of her body as her hands moved slowly, touching herself where she had been touched. She was a spoiled virgin. The loaded phrase popped into her head with the ease of familiarity. Obviously, then, such a thing mattered to whoever she was. To whoever she
It didn’t matter in the slightest to who she was
Bryony stretched with a wondrous sense of well-being, feeling the slight stickiness on her belly and between her thighs. How had she known what to do? What was absolutely the right thing to do? She certainly had not done such a thing before; she seemed to know enough about breaching the maidenhead to be certain that that was what had happened. Perhaps you didn’t need to know. Perhaps such knowledge was deeply embedded in the body and didn’t need to be learned, needed only the right trigger to release it.
She sat up with a surge of energy and swung herself off the cot just as the door opened and Benedict came in. A wave of shyness paralyzed her, froze her tongue, and she just stood and looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. A slash of sun from the open door behind him burnished the thick copper thatch of his hair, carelessly rumpled as if he had just run his fingers through it. The nose was aquiline, set above that expressive mouth with
its long, sensuous upper lip, a lip that her own remembered with tingling vividity. His complexion was bronzed by the sun, his beard as burnished as his hair, and the black eyes held all the sharp perception of a hawk.
His eyebrows lifted as he ran a swift, all-encompassing look down her body. Bryony blushed and pushed her hair back from her face. “I would like to bathe and wash my hair.”
“I am not sure that water will be good for your burns just yet,” he replied, briskly matter-of-fact, as if she were not standing naked in front of him. Then his eyes flicked to the bed behind her, caught the bright stain of blood on the sheet, and the self-recriminations flooded in again. “I don’t suppose it will matter,” he said, changing his mind. “They are all but healed. I even have some soap, somewhere.” He picked over the shelf and came up with a sliver of the precious stuff. “Only coarse, I am afraid, but better than nothing.” A scrap of toweling appeared in his hand. “You can use this to dry yourself.”
“Thank you.” Bryony took the offerings and continued to stand by the cot, uncertain what to do or say next.
“Come along, then.” He moved to the door, a distinctly impatient note in the soft voice.
“Where to?” Bryony asked.
Benedict stopped and looked at her in surprise. “To the creek. You wish to bathe, do you not?”
Baths, Bryony seemed to remember, were generally taken in tubs within four walls. However, if they took place in creeks in this new life, so be it. Shrugging, she wrapped herself in the blanket again and followed him down to the water’s edge. Once there, she regarded the
rather murky water with some misgiving. “It does not look very clean.”
“It is perfectly clean,” he said shortly. “It flows constantly.”
“But there will be fish in it.” She looked at him, the huge eyes wide with appeal.
Benedict’s lips twitched. He could not possibly manage to maintain his distance when she looked at him like that. “You will cause them more trouble than they will cause you,” he said, taking the blanket from her. “Now, in with you, lass. I have to cook our supper in a minute.”
Bryony took a tentative step into the bullrushes, her toes sinking with a squelch into mud. A shoal of tiny fish shot out from the reeds in alarm. Bryony jumped backward onto the bank. “I think I would prefer to fill a tub.”
“I do not have a tub,” he told her, his shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter.
“Well, perhaps I will wait until tomorrow.” She picked up the blanket.
“You are in sore need of a bath, Bryony, and having got this far, I think we should complete the task.” He pulled off his boots and unfastened his britches. “I will come in with you and frighten away the fish.”
“I am not afraid of a little fish,” she denied with total lack of conviction, her eyes locking without volition onto his body as he pushed off his britches.
“Then prove it!” He tossed his shirt onto the bank and strode toward her. “In!” Spinning her round so she could no longer look at him with those hungrily speculative eyes, he pushed her ahead through the rushes. “Get right under the water and wet your hair. I’ll wash out the blood by that cut.”
His voice was brisk, his hands as impersonal as he could make them, pressing on her shoulders to encourage her submersion. Bryony obeyed because she appeared to have little choice, but as she ducked below the water, her hand brushed against his flat belly. The muscles tautened involuntarily, and Benedict drew in a sharp breath. Deliberately, he made no further move, telling himself that the touch had been accidental. They were standing very close to each other, after all. But then her fingers whispered across his thighs in a knowing, arousing caress that only an insensate fool could pretend had been accidental. With an oath, he yanked her up.
“Just stop that!”
“You seemed to like it,” she observed with a mischievously sensual smile, her hand reaching for the powerful evidence of his liking.
Dear God! Where had she acquired this wanton assurance? “Bryony, listen to me.” He grabbed her wrist, holding it tightly. “What happened this morning was an aberration, and it is not going to happen again.”
She looked at him, bewildered. “Why ever not? Why was it an aberration?”
“I do not make a habit of deflowering maids,” he said bluntly. “If you had not convinced me you were no maid, it would never have happened.”
“But I wanted it to,” she said simply. “You made me whole again. I still have no history, but I do not feel annihilated anymore. I have a present, and a future, which you helped me create.”
“That is well and good, then; I am glad to have been of help,” he said briskly, turning her back to him so that her hands were out of the way. “But it is not going to occur again.” He lathered soap into her wet hair, carefully
circumventing the lump behind her ear as he rubbed at the blood-clotted strands. “Once we discover who you are, you will be able to put it behind you, see it as a dream. So long as there are no repercussions,” he added, pushing her under the water again to rinse the soap from her hair.
“What repercussions?” Bryony came up choking, in such a hurry to ask the question that she took in a mouthful of creek water.
Benedict sighed. “Think.”
Bryony thought. “A child, you mean?”
“Then we would marry, would we not?” It seemed simple enough to Bryony. “I don’t think I am already, and I could learn to live in a log cabin very easily.”
Benedict wondered if she were being deliberately simpleminded, but, of course, she knew nothing about him at all. He told her so, succinctly.
“Well, I know that you are not a backwoodsman, really, for all that you are living like one at present,” Bryony informed him, serenely soaping herself.
Benedict stiffened. “How do you know that?”
“Your hands, for a start,” she replied, turning back to him, raising her arms to wash beneath them, the movement lifting her breasts clear of the water. “They are too fine, too elegant. And the way you speak. There is something about your voice, a lilt that I do not think I have heard before, but I do know that you don’t have the speech of a peasant farmer or woodsman.”
Benedict averted his gaze from the creamy swell where the tight bud of her nipple had hardened in response to the cool water and the fresh air. “Knowing
what a man is not, my dear girl, is a long way from knowing what he is.”
“Then tell me what you are.” She looked at him in frank curiosity, her square chin tilted in unconscious challenge.
That combination of deep blue eyes, raven-dark hair, and skin like clotted cream was common to the beauties of his homeland, Benedict reflected absently. Perhaps she had Irish ancestry. “Come, you will catch cold if you stay in the water any longer. You are still not as strong as you should be.”
“Why will you not answer me?” Her voice was low and insistent as she took his arm with sudden urgency.
“Because I cannot,” he said briefly. “Do not ask again.” Shaking off her hold, he turned his bare back on her for the first time and waded to the bank.
Bryony stared, appalled. The broad, muscled back was crisscrossed with ridged white scars from his neck to his waist. “What happened to you?” Her voice was barely a whisper; she knew the answer well enough, and a wave of nausea churned in her belly, surged acid bile in her throat.