Dawn on a Distant Shore Page 17

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With Robbie close behind, Nathaniel made his way to a stand of evergreen bushes, and pushing them apart, revealed a small wooden door without a handle. He pressed on two spots simultaneously and it swung silently inward to disclose a narrow stone stair. It smelled of damp and tobacco smoke and of Giselle, too--slightly musky, the scent of her hair when it was uncoiled and free. It was strange and still immediately familiar, and it made his own hair rise on the back of his neck, as if he were being stalked by an enemy just out of sight.

Nathaniel made his way up the short flight with Robbie following silently. They paused on a landing, although the stairs went on into the dark. By touch he found the two stools he remembered, and directed Robbie to one of them in a low voice.

On the other side of the wall were the muffled sounds of laughter and tinkling glassware. Nathaniel felt for the panel, andwitha moment's hesitation, slid it back to reveal two sets of peepholes. Candlelight came to them in four perfectly round streams, and the interwoven voices separated themselves into five or six distinct conversations.

His father and Otter were there, to either side of Giselle. Before Hawkeye was a plate of sweets and a full wine glass. Moncrieff was farther down the table, involved in a conversation with a well-dressed man Nathaniel didn't recognize.

"Panthers among peacocks," whispered Robbie. Hawkeye and Otter stood out in their worn buckskin hunting shirts and leggings, flanked by army and cavalry officers in scarlets and blues, green plaids, flowing ribbons, brass buttons, gold braid, silk sashes, swords with ornate baskets.

"Hawkeye looks aye crabbit."

"Testy, but in good health," Nathaniel agreed, relieved just to see his father looking himself. He was sixty-nine years old, a man who had spent most of his lifetime out-of-doors, but he sat there as he would sit at his own table, or at a Kahnyen'kehâka council fire, as lean and straight as a man in his prime, his eyes alert and watchful.

There was only a partial view of Otter's face, but the tension in the boy's shoulders was easy enough to read. He was wound up tight and ready to spring. Adele's visit had primed them well.

And there was Giselle. Looking down over the room and not ten feet away from her, they were close enough to count the pearl buttons at the nape of her gown. She sat with her back to them; a good thing, for she had sharp eyes. Nathaniel let himself study her, the dark blond hair pinned up to reveal the long neck, the white skin of her shoulders against deep green silk, the curve of her cheekbone when she turned her head to speak to the servant.

Now that he had got this far Nathaniel couldn't remember why he had dreaded the sight of her so much. She was still beautiful--he could see that even from here--but she wasn't Elizabeth, and she had no power over him. To his surprise, the most he could feel for her was a vague gratitude and reluctant admiration. Giselle did as she pleased. She could be ruthless; she cared nothing at all for the good opinion of others; and there was an air of casual danger about her. Because it suited her to do so, she surrounded herself with men who were eager to amuse, taking from them what she wanted and leaving the rest. Tonight she had placed a seventeen-year-old Kahnyen'kehâka at her right hand over rich and powerful men, and none of them dared challenge her. She had been having parties like these behind her father's back since she was sixteen.

A cavalry officer was holding up his glass toward Giselle, the wine picking up the candlelight and flashing it back again. His own complexion was equally flushed.

"This Paxareti," he announced in a voice slurred with drink, but just loud enough to claim everyone's attention, "is proof that the Portuguese are not total barbarians. It comes from a monastery a few hours' ride from Jerez, but it is well worth the cost. Well worth it, by God."

"And how very thoughtful of you to bring it to me, Captain Quinn," said Giselle. Her tone was easy, encouraging but not engaging, and her voice was just as Nathaniel had remembered it, deep and slightly rough, as if she had strained it the day-- or the night--before. "And how sad that our American friends resist so great a pleasure." She was looking at Hawkeye, but she leaned slightly toward Otter as she spoke.

"It is said that two glasses of strong sherry will render a reticent man more communicative without ... impairing him," commented an officer of the dragoons who was staring at Hawkeye. He was well grown and broad of shoulder, but when he grinned he revealed a set of ivory teeth too large for his mouth.

Hawkeye raised a brow. "When I've got something to say worth saying, I'll speak up, with or without spirits. So far I ain't heard anything worth the trouble."

Robbie's grunt of approval was lost in the mixture of laughter and protest from below.

"What of your young friend, then?" The dragoon's gaze wandered toward Otter. "Or has he no civilized languages?"

"Major Johnson," Giselle said evenly, before Hawkeye could reply. The toothy smile shifted in her direction; the tilt of his head said he expected her approval.

"At your service, Miss Somerville."

"You are boring me."

He drained of color. "I only meant--"

Giselle turned her attention to the opposite side of the table, ignoring Johnson's apologies.

"Captain Pickering, it has been a very long time indeed since you have come to our cold corner of the world. The navy abandons me at this time of year, but I can always count on you."

The man Giselle was addressing had been turned toward Moncrieff and deep in conversation, but he looked up gladly at her request, and Robbie and Nathaniel both drew up in surprise at this first clear sight of his face.

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