Read Drums of Autumn Online

Authors: Diana Gabaldon

Drums of Autumn (10 page)

He met her halfway and swept her almost off her feet, hugging her hard enough to crack her ribs. He kissed her, stopped, and kissed her again, the stubble of his beard scraping her face. He smelled of soap and sweat and he tasted like Scotch whisky and she didn’t want him to stop.

Then he did and let go, both of them half breathless.

“A-hem,”
said a loud voice near Brianna’s elbow. She swung away from Roger, revealing Gayle, who smiled angelically up at him under blond bangs, and waved like a child going bye-bye.

“Hell-ooo,” she said. “You must be Roger, because if you’re not, Roger’s sure in for a shock when he shows up, isn’t he?”

She looked him up and down with obvious approval.

“All that, and you play the guitar, too?”

Brianna hadn’t even noticed the case he had dropped. He stooped and picked it up, swinging it over his shoulder.

“Well, that’s my bread and butter, this trip,” he said, with a smile at Gayle, who clutched a hand to her heart in simulated ecstasy.

“Ooh, say that again!” she begged.

“Say what?” Roger looked puzzled.

“Bread and butter,” Brianna told him, hoisting one of his bags onto her shoulder. “She wants to hear you roll the r’s again. Gayle has a thing about British accents. Oh—that’s Gayle.” She gestured at her friend in resignation.

“Yes, I gathered. Er…” He cleared his throat, fixed Gayle with a piercing stare, and dropped his voice an octave. “Arround the rrruggged rrrock, the rrragged rrrascals rran. That do you for a bit?”

“Would you stop that?” Brianna looked crossly at her friend, who had swooned dramatically into one of the plastic seats. “Ignore her,” she advised Roger, turning toward the door. With a cautious glance at Gayle, he took her advice, and picking up a large box tied with string, followed her into the concourse.

“What did you mean about your bread and butter?” she asked, looking for some way to return the conversation to a sane footing.

He laughed, a little self-consciously.

“Well, the historical conference is paying the airfare, but they couldn’t manage expenses. So I called round, and wangled a bit of a job to take care of that end.”

“A job playing the guitar?”

“By day, mild-mannered historian Roger Wakefield is a harmless Oxford academic. But at night, he dons his secret tartan rrregalia and becomes the dashing—Roger MacKenzie!”

“Who?”

He smiled at her surprise. “Well, I do a bit of Scottish folk-singing, for festivals and
ceilidhs
—High Games and the like. I’m on to do a turn at a Celtic festival up in the mountains at the end of the week, is all.”

“Scottish singing? Do you wear a kilt when you sing?” Gayle had popped up on Roger’s other side.

“I do indeed. How else would they know I was a Scotsman?”

“I just love fuzzy knees,” Gayle said dreamily. “Now, tell me, is it true about what a Scotsman—”

“Go get the car,” Brianna ordered, hastily thrusting her keys at Gayle.

Gayle perched her chin on the windowsill of the car, watching Roger make his way into the hotel. “Gee, I hope he doesn’t shave before he meets us for dinner. I just love the way men look when they haven’t shaved for a while. What do you think’s in that big box?”

“His bodhran. I asked.”

“His
what
?”

“It’s a Celtic war drum. He plays it with some of his songs.”

Gayle’s lips formed a small circle of speculation.

“I don’t suppose you want me to drive him to this festival thing, do you? I mean, you must have lots of things to do, and—”

“Ha ha. You think I’d let you anywhere around him in a kilt?”

Gayle sighed wistfully, and pulled her head in as Brianna started the car.

“Well, maybe there’d be other men there in kilts.”

“I think that’s pretty likely.”

“I bet they don’t have Celtic war drums, though.”

“Maybe not.”

Gayle leaned back in her seat, and glanced at her friend.

“So, are you going to do it?”

“How should I know?” But the blood bloomed under her skin, and her clothes felt too tight.

“Well, if you don’t,” Gayle said positively, “you’re crazy.”

“The Minister’s cat is an…androgynous cat.”

“The Minister’s cat is an…alagruous cat.”

Bree gave him a lifted brow, taking her eyes briefly off the road.

“Scots again?”

“It’s a Scottish game,” Roger said. “Alagruous—‘grim or woebegone.’ Your turn. Letter ‘B.’ ”

She squinted through the windshield at the narrow mountain road. The morning sun was toward them, filling the car with light.

“The Minister’s cat is a brindled cat.”

“The Minister’s cat is a bonnie cat.”

“Well, that’s a soft pitch for both of us. Draw. Okay, the Minister’s cat is a…” He could see the wheels turning in her mind, then the gleam in her narrowed blue eyes as inspiration struck. “…coccygodynious cat.”

Roger narrowed his own eyes, trying to work that one out.

“A cat with a wide backside?”

She laughed, braking slightly as the car hit a switchback curve.

“A cat that’s a pain in the ass.”

“That’s a real word, is it?”

“Uh-huh.” She accelerated neatly out of the turn. “One of Mama’s medical terms. Coccygodynia is a pain in the region of the tailbone. She used to call the hospital administration coccygodynians, all the time.”

“And here I thought it was one of your engineering terms. All right, then…the Minister’s cat is a camstairy cat.” He grinned at her lifted eyebrow. “Quarrelsome. Coccygodynians are camstairy by nature.”

“Okay, I’ll call that one a draw. The Minister’s cat is…”

“Wait,” Roger interrupted, pointing. “There’s the turn.”

Slowing, she pulled off the narrow highway and onto a still narrower road, indicated by a small red-and-white-arrowed sign that read
CELTIC FESTIVAL
.

“You’re a love to bring to me all the way up here,” Roger said. “I didn’t realize how far it was, or I’d never have asked.”

She gave him a brief glance of amusement.

“It’s not that far.”

“It’s a hundred and fifty miles!”

She smiled, but with a wry edge to it.

“My father always said that was the difference between an American and an Englishman. An Englishman thinks a hundred miles is a long way; an American thinks a hundred years is a long time.”

Roger laughed, taken by surprise.

“Too right. You’ll be an American, then, I suppose?”

“I suppose.” But her smile had faded.

So had the conversation; they drove in silence for a few minutes, with no sound but the rush of tires and wind. It was a beautiful hot summer’s day, the mugginess of Boston left far below as they snaked their way upward, into the clearer air of the mountains.

“The Minister’s cat is a distant cat,” Roger said at last, softly. “Have I said something wrong?”

She flashed him a quick blue glance, and a half-curled mouth.

“The Minister’s cat is a daydreaming cat. No, it’s not you.” Her lips compressed as she slowed behind another car, then relaxed. “No, that’s not right—it
is
you, but it’s not your fault.”

Roger shifted, turning in his seat to face her.

“The Minister’s cat is an enigmatic cat.”

“The Minister’s cat is an embarrassed cat—I shouldn’t have said anything, sorry.”

Roger was wise enough not to press her. Instead, he leaned forward and dug under the seat for the thermos of hot tea with lemon.

“Want some?” He offered her the cup, but she made a small face and shook her head.

“No thanks. I hate tea.”

“Definitely not an Englishwoman, then,” he said, and wished he hadn’t; her hands squeezed tight on the wheel. She didn’t say anything, though, and he drank the tea in silence, watching her.

She didn’t look English, her parentage and coloring notwithstanding. He couldn’t tell whether the difference was more than a matter of clothes, but he thought so. Americans seemed so much more…what? Vibrant? Intense? Bigger? Just
more
. Brianna Randall was definitely more.

The traffic grew thicker, slowing to a crawling line of cars as they reached the entrance to the resort where the festival was being held.

“Look,” Brianna said abruptly. She didn’t turn toward him, but stared out through the windshield at the New Jersey license plate of the car in front of them. “I have to explain.”

“Not to me.”

She flicked one red eyebrow in brief irritation.

“To who else?” She pressed her lips together and sighed. “Yeah, all right, me too. But I do.”

Roger could taste the acid from the tea, bitter in the back of his throat. Was this where she told him it had been a mistake for him to come? He’d thought so himself, all the way across the Atlantic, twitching and cramped in the tiny airline seat. Then he’d seen her across the airport lobby, and all doubt had vanished on the instant.

It hadn’t come back during the intervening week, either; he’d seen her at least briefly every day—even managed a baseball game with her at Fenway Park on Thursday afternoon. He’d found the game itself baffling, but Brianna’s enthusiasm for it enchanting. He found himself counting the hours left before he’d have to leave, and looking forward nonetheless to this—the only whole day they’d have together.

That didn’t mean she felt the same. He glanced quickly over the line of cars; the gate was visible, but still a quarter-mile off. He had maybe three minutes to convince her.

“In Scotland,” she was saying, “when all—that—happened with my mother. You were great, Roger—really wonderful.” She didn’t look at him, but he could see a shimmer of moisture just above the thick auburn lashes.

“It was no great thing to do,” he said. He curled his hands into fists to keep from touching her. “I was interested.”

She laughed shortly.

“Yeah, I bet you were.” She slowed, and turned her head to look at him, full-on. Even wide open, her eyes had a faint catlike slant to them.

“Have you been back to the stone circle? To Craigh na Dun?”

“No,” he said shortly. Then coughed and added, as if casually, “I don’t go up to Inverness all that often; it’s been term time at College.”

“It isn’t that the Minister’s cat is a fraidycat?” she asked, but she smiled slightly when she said it.

“The Minister’s cat is scared stiff of that place,” he said frankly. “He wouldn’t set foot up there if it were knee-deep in sardines.” She laughed outright, and the tension between them eased noticeably.

“Me too,” she said, and took a deep breath. “But I remember. All the trouble you went to, to help—and then, when it—when she—when Mama went through—” Her teeth clamped savagely on her lower lip, and she hit the brake, harder than necessary.

“Do you see?” she said, in a small voice. “I can’t be around you more than half an hour, and it all comes back. I haven’t talked about my parents in more than six months, and no sooner do we start playing that silly game than I’ve mentioned both of them in less than a minute. It’s been happening all week.”

She thumbed a loose strand of red hair off her shoulder. She went a lovely pink when she was excited or upset, and the color was burning high in her cheeks.

“I thought it might be something like that—when you didn’t answer my letter.”

“It wasn’t only that.” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, as though to bite back the words, but it was too late. A brilliant tide of red washed up out of the V of her white T-shirt, turning her the color of the tomato sauce she insisted on eating with chips.

He reached across the seat and gently brushed the veil of hair back from her face.

“I had a terrible crush on you,” she blurted, staring straight ahead through the windshield. “But I didn’t know whether you were just being nice to me because Mama asked you to, or whether—”

“Whether,” he interrupted, and smiled as she risked a tiny look at him. “Definitely whether.”

“Oh.” She relaxed fractionally, loosening her stranglehold on the wheel. “Well. Good.”

He wanted to take her hand, but didn’t want to pry it off the wheel and cause an accident. Instead, he laid his arm across the back of the seat, letting his fingers brush her shoulder.

“Anyway. I didn’t think—I thought—well, it was either throw myself into your arms or get the hell out of Dodge. So I did, but I couldn’t figure out how to explain without looking like an idiot, and then when you wrote, it was worse—well, see, I
do
look like an idiot!”

Roger flipped open the catch of his seat belt.

“Will you drive into that car in front of us if I kiss you?”

“No.”

“Good.” He slid across the seat, took her chin in one hand, and kissed her, fast. They bumped sedately over the dirt road and into the parking lot.

She was breathing easier, and her color had receded a little. She pulled neatly into a parking slot, killed the motor, and sat for a moment, looking straight ahead. Then she opened her seat belt and turned to him.

It wasn’t until they got out of the car several minutes later that it occurred to Roger that she had mentioned her parents more than once—but the real problem had likely more to do with the parent she so carefully
hadn’t
mentioned.

Great,
he thought, absently admiring her backside as she bent to open the trunk.
She’s trying not to think of Jamie Fraser, and where the hell do
you
bring her?
He glanced at the entrance to the resort, where the Union Jack and the Saltire of Scotland snapped in the summer breeze. From the mountainside beyond came the mournful sound of bagpipes playing.

4

A BLAST FROM THE PAST

U
sed as he was to changing in the back of someone’s horse van or in the Gents’ facilities of a pub, the small backstage cubicle allotted to Roger’s personal use seemed remarkably luxurious. It was clean, it had hooks for his street clothes, and there were no drunken patrons snoring on the threshold. Of course, this was America, he reflected, unbuttoning his jeans and dropping them on the floor. Different standards, at least with regard to material comforts.

He yanked the bell-sleeved shirt over his head, wondering just what level of comfort Brianna was accustomed to. He was no judge of women’s clothing—how expensive could blue jeans possibly be?—but he knew a bit about cars. Hers was a brand-new blue Mustang that made him itch to take the wheel.

Plainly her parents had left her enough to live on; he could trust Claire Randall to have seen to that. He only hoped it wasn’t so much that she might think him interested on that account. Reminded of her parents, he glanced at the brown envelope; should he give it to her, after all?

The Minister’s cat had nearly jumped out of her skin when they’d walked through the performers’ entrance and come face-to-face with the 78th Fraser Highlanders’ pipe-band from Canada, practicing at full blast behind the dressing rooms. She’d actually gone pale when he’d introduced her to the pipe major, an old acquaintance. Not that Bill Livingstone was intimidating on his own; it was the Fraser clan badge on his chest that had done it.

Je suis prest,
it said.
I am ready
. Not nearly ready enough, Roger thought, and wanted to kick himself for bringing her.

Still, she had assured him she’d be all right exploring on her own while he dressed and got himself up for his turn.

And he’d best turn his mind to that, too, he thought, snugging the buckles of his kilt at waist and hip, and reaching for the long woolen stockings. He was on in the early afternoon, for forty-five minutes, then a shorter solo turn at the evening
ceilidh
. He had a rough lineup of songs in mind, but you always had to take the crowd into account. Lots of women, the ballads went well; more men, more of the martial—“Killiecrankie” and “Montrose,” “Guns and Drums.” The bawdy songs did best when the audience was well warmed up—preferably after a bit of beer.

He turned the stocking tops down neatly, and slid the antler-handled
sgian dhu
inside, tight against his right calf. He laced the buskins quickly, hurrying a little. He wanted to find Brianna again, have a little time to walk round with her, get her something to eat, see she had a good seat for the performances.

He flung the plaid over one shoulder, fastened his brooch, belted on dirk and sporran, and was ready. Or not quite. He halted, halfway to the door.

The ancient olive-drab drawers were military issue, circa World War II—one of Roger’s few mementos of his father. He didn’t bother with pants much in the normal course, but included these with his kilt sometimes as a defensive measure against the amazing boldness of some female spectators. He’d been warned by other performers, but wouldn’t have believed it, had he not experienced it firsthand. German ladies were the worst, but he’d known a few American women run them a close second for taking liberties in close quarters.

He didn’t think he’d need such measures here; the crowd sounded civil, and he’d seen that the stage was safely out of reach. Besides, offstage he’d have Brianna with him, and if she should choose to take any liberties of her own…He dropped the pants back in his bag, on top of the brown envelope.

“Wish me luck, Dad,” he whispered, and went to find her.

“Wow!” She walked round him in a circle, goggling. “Roger, you are
gorgeous
!” She smiled, a trifle lopsided. “My mother always said men in kilts were irresistible. I guess she was right.”

He saw her swallow hard, and wanted to hug her for her bravery, but she had already turned away, gesturing toward the main food area.

“Are you hungry? I had a look while you were changing. We’ve got our choice between octopus-on-a-stick, Baja fish tacos, Polish dogs—”

He took her arm and pulled her round to face him.

“Hey,” he said softly. “I’m sorry; I wouldn’t have brought you if I’d known it would be a shock.”

“It’s all right.” Her smile was better this time. “It’s—I’m glad you brought me.”

“Truly?”

“Yeah. Really. It’s—” She waved helplessly at the tartan swirl of noise and color all around them. “It’s so—Scottish.”

He wanted to laugh at that; nothing could be less like Scotland than this mix of tourist claptrap and the bald-faced selling of half-faked traditions. At the same time, she was right, it
was
uniquely Scottish; an example of the Scots’ age-old talent for survival—the ability to adapt to anything, and make a profit from it.

He did hug her, then. Her hair smelled clean, like fresh grass, and he could feel her heart beating through the white T-shirt she wore.

“You’re Scots, too, you know,” he said in her ear, and let go. Her eyes were still bright, but with a different emotion now, he thought.

“I guess you’re right,” she said, and smiled again, a good one. “That doesn’t mean I have to eat haggis, does it? I saw some over there, and I think I’d even rather try the octopus-on-a-stick.”

He’d thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. The resort’s sole business, it seemed, was “ethnic fairs,” as one of the food vendors explained.

“Polacks dancin’ polkas, Swiss yodelers—Jeez, they musta had ten million cuckoo clocks here! Spanish, Italian, Japanese cherry blossom festivals—you wouldn’t believe all the cameras them Japs have, you just wouldn’t believe it.” He shook his head in bemusement, sliding across two paper plates filled with hamburgers and french fries.

“Anyways, it’s something different, every two weeks. Never a dull moment. But us food vendors, we just stay in business, no matter what kinda food it is.” The man eyed Roger’s kilt with some interest.

“So, you Scotch, or you just like wearing a skirt?”

Having heard several dozen variations of that pleasantry, Roger gave the man a bland look.

“Well, as my auld grand-da used to say,” he said, thickening his accent atrociously, “when ye put on yer kilt, laddie, ye ken for sure yer a man!”

The man doubled up appreciatively, and Brianna rolled her eyes.

“Kilt jokes,” she muttered. “God, if you start telling kilt jokes, I’ll drive off and leave you, I swear I will.”

Roger grinned at her.

“Och, now, ye wouldna do that, would ye, lass? Go off and leave a man, only because he’ll tell ye what’s worn under the kilt, if ye like?”

Her eyes narrowed into blue triangles.

“Oh, I’d bet nothing at all’s worn under
that
kilt,” she said, with a nod at Roger’s sporran. “Why, I’ll bet everything under there is in pairrrrrrfect operrrating condition, no?”

Roger choked on a french fry.

“You’re s’posed to say ‘Give us your hand, lassie, and I’ll show you,’ ” the food vendor prompted. “Boy, if I’ve heard that one once, I’ve heard it a hunderd times this week.”

“If he says it now,” Brianna put in darkly, “I’ll drive off and leave him marooned on this mountain. He can stay here and eat octopus, for all I care.”

Roger took a gulp of Coca-Cola and wisely kept quiet.

There was time for a wander up and down the aisles of the vendors’ stalls, selling everything from tartan ties to penny whistles, silver jewelry, clan maps of Scotland, butterscotch and shortbread, letter openers in the shape of claymores, lead Highlander figures, books, records, and every imaginable small item on which a clan badge or motto could be imprinted.

Roger attracted no more than a brief glance of curiosity; while of better quality than most, his costume was no oddity here. Still, most of the crowd were tourists, dressed in shorts and jeans, but breaking out here and there in bits of tartan, like a rash.

“Why MacKenzie?” Brianna asked, pausing by one display of clan-marked keychains. She fingered one of the silver disks that read
Luceo non uro,
the Latin motto curved around a depiction of what looked like a volcano. “Didn’t Wakefield sound Scottish enough? Or did you think the people at Oxford wouldn’t like you doing—this?” She waved at the venue around them.

Roger shrugged.

“Partly that. But it’s my family name, as well. Both my parents were killed during the war, and my great-uncle adopted me. He gave me his own name—but I was christened Roger Jeremiah MacKenzie.”

“Jeremiah?” She didn’t laugh out loud, but the end of her nose pinkened as though she was trying not to. “Like the Old Testament prophet?”

“Don’t laugh,” he said, taking her arm. “I was named for my father—they called him Jerry. My Mum called me Jemmy when I was small. Old family name. It could have been worse, after all; I might have been christened Ambrose or Conan.”

The laughter fizzed out of her like Coke bubbles.

“Conan?”

“Perfectly good Celtic name, before the fantasists got hold of it. Anyway, Jeremiah seems to have been the pick of the lot for good cause.”

“Why’s that?”

They turned and headed slowly back toward the stage, where a gang of solemnly starched little girls were doing the Highland fling in perfect unison, every pleat and bow in place.

“Oh, it’s one of the stories Dad—the Reverend, I always called him Dad—used to tell me, going down my family tree and pointing out the folk on it.”

Ambrose MacKenzie, that’s your great-grandfather, Rog. He’ll have been a boatwright in Dingwall. And there’s Mary Oliphant—I knew your great-grandma Oliphant, did I tell you? Lived to be ninety-seven, and sharp as a tack to her last breath; wonderful woman
.

She was married six times—all died of natural causes, too, she assured me—but I’ve only put Jeremiah MacKenzie here, since he was your ancestor. The only one she had children by, I did wonder about that
.

I asked her, and she closed one eye and nodded at me, and said,
“Is fhearr an giomach na ’bhi gun fear tighe.”
It’s an old Gaelic proverb—“Better a lobster than no husband.” She said some would do for marrying, but Jeremiah was the only lad bonny enough to take to her bed every night
.

“I wonder what she told the others,” Brianna said, meditatively.

“Well, she didn’t say she didn’t sleep with them now and then,” Roger pointed out. “Just not every night.”

“Once is enough to get pregnant,” Brianna said. “Or so my mother assured my high school health class. She’d draw pictures of sperm on the blackboard, all racing toward this huge egg with leers on their faces.” She’d gone pink again, but evidently from amusement rather than distressed memory.

Arm in arm, he could feel the heat of her through the thin T-shirt, and a stirring under his kilt that made him think leaving the pants off had been a mistake.

“Putting aside the question of whether sperm have faces, what has that particular subject got to do with health?”

“Health is an American euphemism for anything to do with sex,” she explained. “They teach girls and boys separately; the girls’ class is The Mysteries of Life, and Ten Ways to Say No to a Boy.”

“And the boys’ class?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure, because I didn’t have any brothers to tell me. Some of my friends had brothers, though—one of them said they learned eighteen different synonyms for penile erection.”

“Really useful, that,” Roger said, wondering why anyone required more than one. Luckily, a sporran covered a multitude of sins.

“I suppose it might keep the conversation going—under certain circumstances.”

Her cheeks were red. He could feel the heat creeping up his own throat, and imagined that they were beginning to attract curious glances from passersby. He hadn’t let a girl embarrass him in public since he was seventeen, but she was doing nicely. She’d started it, though—let her finish it, then.

“Mmphm. I hadn’t noticed much conversation, under those particular circumstances.”

“I imagine you’d know.” It wasn’t quite a question. Rather late, he realized what she was up to. He tightened his arm, pulling her closer.

“If you mean have I, yes. If you mean am I, no.”

“Are you, what?” Her lips were quivering slightly, holding back the urge to laugh.

“You’re asking if I’ve got a girl in England, right?”

“Am I?”

“I don’t. Or rather I do, but nothing serious.” They were outside the door to the dressing rooms; nearly time to fetch his instruments. He stopped and turned to look at her. “Have you? Got a bloke, I mean.”

She was tall enough to look him in the eye, and close enough that her breasts grazed his forearm when she turned to face him.

“What was it your great-grandmother said? ‘
Is fhearr an giomach.…’?

“ ‘…na ’bhi gun fear tighe.’ ”

“Uh-huh. Well, better a lobster than no boyfriend.” She lifted a hand and touched his brooch. “So yes, there are people I go out with. But I don’t have a bonny lad—yet.”

He caught her fingers and brought them to his mouth.

“Give it time, lass,” he said, and kissed them.

The audience was amazingly quiet; not at all like a rock concert. Of course, they couldn’t be noisy, she thought; there weren’t any electric guitars or amplifiers, only a small microphone on a stand. But then, some things didn’t need amplifying. Her heart, for one, hammering in her ears.

“Here,” he’d said, appearing abruptly out of the dressing room with guitar and drum. He’d handed her a small brown envelope. “I found these, going through my dad’s old bumf in Inverness. I thought you’d maybe want them.”

She could tell it was photographs, but she hadn’t looked at them right away. She’d sat with them burning a hole on her knee, listening to Roger’s set.

He was good—even distracted, she could tell he was good. He had a surprisingly rich deep baritone voice, and he knew what to do with it. Not just in terms of tone and melody; he had the true performer’s ability to pull aside the curtain between singer and audience, to look out into the crowd, meet someone’s eyes, and let them see what lay behind both words and music.

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