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Chapter 42

Charles Ball was waiting for Driscol in the salon, along with Tiana's brothers. All three of them were standing by the door that led into the corridor beyond.


Driscol nodded at them as he entered. Then, after hesitating a moment, he cleared his throat.


"I'd appreciate it if you'd wait outside for me. I'd like to speak to Miss Rogers alone."


John Rogers, his face expressionless, immediately opened the door and stepped through. His brother followed at once. There might have been a slight smile on James's face.


Ball's face seemed to undergo a brief spasm. Driscol realized the gunner was struggling mightily to keep from grinning.


"Not a problem, sir," Ball said, half gargling the words. "The battalion's still getting into formation. Won't actually be ready to move for maybe half an hour."


That said, he hurried after the brothers. The door closed behind him with a firm click.


Driscol stared at the door. Now that he had the moment he'd wanted, he wasn't quite sure...


Tiana moved past him. Her graceful, long-legged stride struck Driscol even more powerfully than usual. She opened the door and stuck her head out.


Ball and her brothers were standing a few feet away, in the corridor.


"Wait outside, please."


She closed the door and turned back to Driscol. The smile on her face was so wide it was almost a grin.


"I was hoping," she said. "But with you, I always wonder a little. And I'm tired of wondering, even a little. By now, it's just silly."


In the corridor, the Rogers brothers glanced at each other. Then, simultaneously, they looked at Ball.


"You'd best do as she says, Charles," said John.


He gazed back at them, frowning. "And what about you?"


James smiled. "Oh, we'll be along, soon enough."


"We just want to make sure everything's all right." John was also smiling. "We might not be able to hear anything, outside."


"Of course, we might not be able to hear much here, either," James added. "That door's pretty thick."


His suspicions now fully aroused, Ball looked back and forth from one brother to the other. His gaze did not fail to take in the war clubs belted to their waists.


"I think maybe I should stay—"


"Why?" James snorted. "You think John and I are going to smash down the door to defend our sister's virtue?" He gave his brother a shake of the head. "Poor fellow's been spending far too much time with white people, you ask me. It's starting to muddle his mind."


John was always less sarcastic than his brother. "We just want to make sure, Charles, that's all. Tiana told us months ago to find her a suitable husband. We think we did. But the next few minutes ought to prove it, one way or the other."


Ball was still suspicious. "What's going to be proven? In half an hour, Patrick Driscol—with his stiff-necked ways—won't manage more than—"


James started to chuckle. Then, as if worried his sister might hear the sound, choked it down. "And you think Tiana will let him?"


By then, Tiana had Driscol pinned against the table in the center of the salon. She managed that feat without laying a finger on him, simply using the ancient tactic of the hoplites.


Inexorable advance. As if one sixteen-year-old girl was an entire Spartan phalanx.


She was now standing less than a foot away from him, looking down. The four inches she topped him in height seemed more like four feet.


Driscol cleared his throat.


"You might be dead in a day or two," Tiana said, softly but firmly. "We may never see each other again."


"Well..."


"It's time, Patrick. Do you want me?"


He looked up into her solemn eyes. Their bright blue color, as always, stood out sharply against her coppery skin. Set in those striking cheekbones, they seemed like two sapphires.


"Answer me."


With a vast sense of relief, Driscol realized it was time to surrender.


"Yes. Oh, dear God, yes."


An instant later, she had him in an embrace, her lips open and already on his mouth. It seemed as if he could feel her whole body pressing against him, from the ankles up.


He returned the kiss just as eagerly. He gripped her slender waist with his arm, wishing he still had the other to stroke her hair.


By then, his erection had come. More fiercely than any he could ever remember.


Even with the heavy woolen trousers, as tightly enfolded as they were, the fact was obvious.


Tiana gasped a little laugh, her mouth still on his. "Oh, good!"


For all that she was on the slender side, Tiana was incredibly strong. Driscol wasn't tall, and he wasn't fat. But as stocky and muscular as he was, he still weighed close to two hundred pounds.


It didn't matter. She lifted him two inches off the floor and carried him several feet. Before Driscol understood what was happening, Tiana had both of them sprawled across the big settee.


Her mouth never left his the whole way. It was the most passionate kiss Driscol had ever experienced in his life.


Once they were on the settee, Tiana's fingers started working at the buttons of his trousers. She was having a hard time of it. Partly, fumbling from passion. Mostly—so much was obvious—fumbling from inexperience.


Some last, Driscolish part of his mind tried to put a stop to it all.


"We can't, lass. You might—"


She finally broke the kiss. "Shut up," she growled. "Make these stupid things work."


Driscol gave Driscol a firm boot to send him flying. He didn't care any longer. He wanted the woman.


His own fingers made short work of the buttons and getting his trousers down.


Tiana made even shorter work of getting her dress up.


The mating that followed was more like a pure rut than lovemaking. It had been long months in the making.


Tiana didn't really seem to know what she was doing, at least not in precise detail. But as eager as she was, she managed well enough. Again, the simple tactics of the ancient phalanx. Inexorable copulation.


He slid into her easily, almost instantly. Driscol thought she was probably still a virgin. But as active a life as Tiana had led, her hymen had long since become a thing of the past.


Not that he cared in the least. He'd come from a world where women were either maidens or whores. But that had been many years ago. Many lands ago. Tiana was what she was, and always would be, not what someone else would make of her.


Very soon, he could feel her shuddering with an orgasm. He'd been disciplined enough—just barely—to wait for it.


"Dear God, I love you!" he half cried out, as he ejaculated. Tiana's response was a hiss so loud it might have come from a steam engine.


Outside, in the corridor, Ball's eyes still were fixed on the war clubs belted to the waists of the brothers. The gunner was cursing himself for not having brought a pistol, though there'd seemed no reason to do so.


That door wasn't close to being thick enough. The sounds coming through it couldn't have been mistaken by an idiot.


He was pretty sure all hell was about to break loose. Even with a pistol, dealing with James and John Rogers would have been a chancy business. Especially James.


He heard John clear his throat. Startled, Ball looked up.


The two brothers were exchanging a look of some sort. James had his arms crossed over his chest. John had his planted on his hips.


"I think we should go," John said.


James nodded solemnly, and uncrossed his arms. "Yes. We should respect our sister's privacy."


With no further ado, he started walking down the corridor toward the stairs leading to the lobby. John followed, shaking his head.


"Who cares about that? If she finds out, we're dead men."


Ball brought up the rear, also shaking his head.


If Tiana's father had been there, the situation might have turned explosive. Although it was hard to tell. Captain John had adopted many of the Cherokees' attitudes, for all that he jibed at them for their heathen ways.


But he wasn't there. He'd left the city again, on one of his never-specified "expeditions."


Ball was pretty sure that Cherokees were all crazy. On the other hand, they were crazy on his side, so he wasn't going to worry about it. Even if the craziness did seem surprisingly infectious.


In the middle of his dark musings, in his own room, Robert Ross heard Driscol's half cry, if not the words themselves. Tiana's response came through the door even more clearly.


The meaning of the sounds was...


Well. Obvious.


He smiled at the ceiling, feeling his gloomy mood lighten. The Church of England wouldn't have approved of the doings in that other room, of course. Indeed, no church that he knew of would. But, for Robert Ross also, his childhood upbringing had been many years ago. Many worlds ago.


Ross approved of that couple. So let the preachers and parsons be damned.


There was silence in the salon, for perhaps two minutes. Driscol and Tiana just nuzzled each other, too exhausted to do anything more.


As the seconds passed, Driscol found himself—for the first time in months, really—deeply missing his absent left arm. His right arm was pinned under Tiana, and as tightly as they were embraced, there was no way he could pry it loose.


Nor did he want to, for that matter. But he did wish he still had another hand, to caress that beautiful and precious face.


"I love you," he murmured, looking into her eyes. Her face lay not more than two inches away.


"Good." Her eyes crinkled from a smile. "I'd hate to think you were just taking advantage of my girlish enthusiasm. Not that I didn't enjoy that more than anything I've ever done before in my life."


The smile remained, but her gaze became solemn again. "Come back to me, Patrick. Please."


There was no sensible answer to that. Driscol would survive the coming battle, or he wouldn't—and very little that he did would have much effect on the matter. Battles were chaos incarnate, ruled by whimsical gods who struck down whomever they wished.


But he was pretty sure Tiana understood that. The plea was just her way of expressing her own love.


He slid out of her, finally. Half regretting the softness, and half cherishing the prosaic intimacy of the moment. If he survived the next few days, there'd be many such moments in the future.


Tiana, obviously, shared his sentiments. "Next time—and all the times after that—let's get all our clothes off first." A long, bare leg stroked down his own, twitching a bit once it got past the knee. "Wool's itchy. And I'm not too fond of all those buttons and hooks on your tunic, either."


He hadn't had time to remove the coat, beyond pushing it up and out of the way. It did, indeed, have a multitude of buttons— purely decorative, those—along with the eyelets and hooks to keep it closed. Far more than it needed, really, for practical purposes. The military just naturally seemed to dote on the things. That was true of every army Driscol had ever seen.


Of course, if he'd taken the time to remove the coat, the vest underneath it was woolen also.


"All our clothes," he echoed. He was able to lift himself up enough to stop the things from pressing any longer into Tiana's chest. She started to hold him back, by reflex, but not for very long.


Passion spent, the rest of the world was coming back, with its insistent demands. Driscol could hear, again, the sounds of the battalion in the street below getting ready for the march.


He could hear them, he belatedly realized, because the window was open.


Seeing his startled gaze, Tiana's eyes followed. "Oh, who cares?" she said. "It's not as if everyone doesn't know where babies come from."


The mention of babies caused Driscol to wince. Then, wince again, when he felt the wetness of their still-intimate contact.


Which was very wet. In every sense of the term, that had been the most explosive coupling of his life.


"Ah..."


"You and your stupid 'ahs'!" she laughed. "Stop worrying, Patrick. Or if you must, worry about staying alive in the battle."


But Driscol had adhered sternly to duty his entire life. "What if you get pregnant?"


Stern duty would not allow any fiddling with tenses, either. "Are pregnant."


Even lying on her back, Tiana's shrug was graceful. "I might be. It's close to the right time of month. And so what if I am?"


She stroked his cheek. "Patrick, I'm a Cherokee. There's no such thing as a bastard among us. The baby would be brought up like anyone else in the clan. And would give me something to remember you by. The best memory I could ask for."


It wasn't the first time Tiana had made Driscol feel as if she were twice his age, instead of the reverse. Fervently, silently, he pleaded with whatever God might be to allow him a full lifetime to spend with the woman.


The prayer came with some apologies, too. Not apologies for what they'd done, but for some of his past thoughts.


Not about Tiana, but her people. Other than his personal attachment to Tiana and her brothers, Driscol had shared none of Houston's fondness for the Cherokee. Just another tribe of barbarians, to Driscol's way of thinking, who'd added the civilized vice of slaveholding to their native ones.


Now, belatedly, it was occurring to him that the girl he so deeply loved had not appeared out of nowhere. Athena might have sprung full-blown from the brow of Zeus, but Driscol didn't live in the world of Greek myths. However many of Tiana's qualities were her own, something—somebody—had to have cast the mold in which they'd been able to form.


So, too—and not for the first time—Sam Houston seemed much older and smarter than he, at times. There could be a great stupidity brought on by too much scar tissue on the soul. Driscol had seen it in other people, and could now see it in himself. Sam's cheerful and friendly attitude toward the human race, as foolish as it might sometimes seem, was ultimately a much wiser way of passing through a life and its work.


So Driscol suspected, at least. What he knew, for a certainty, was that testing that hypothesis was a far more attractive prospect than continuing to amass evidence for its opposite.


Driscol wasn't just tired of the killing trade. He was increasingly getting tired of the whole business of hating altogether.


It seemed... empty, in the end. Where the young blue eyes gazing up at him were like pools of clear water with no bottom at all. He could swim in them for a lifetime, and be refreshed every day. Cleansed every day.


"I love you," he repeated. "But I must be going now."


"Yes," was all she said.


Once outside the hotel, Driscol tried to project the troll's fearsome countenance.


It was...difficult.


The assembled ranks of the soldiers on the street by the Trémoulet House were too precise, the shoulders of the men too square, their eyes too much to the front, their gear and weapons held too properly and too well.


Driscol glanced up at the window of Tiana's suite.


Wide open.


An entire battalion was doing its level best not to grin from ear to ear. Or even burst into outright laughter.


"Damn the bastards," he growled, trying desperately to catch the troll before he fled the scene altogether.


He glared at Charles Ball. The sergeant avoided his eyes, but there was a trace of a smile on his face.


"What are you grinning at, you black ape?"


"Nothing, sir. Just, ah, pleased to note that your sweetheart took your departure so well. She's a plucky lass."


In the end, Driscol couldn't think of anything to do other than smile himself. Under the circumstances, the troll seemed as ridiculous and out of place as a warthog at a wedding. Or a christening.


"Yes. Indeed, she is. A very spirited woman."


He even looked back—twice—as the battalion marched off. And made no attempt to hide the fact from his troops.


They were very long looks, too, since Tiana was now standing in the window. It might be the last time he would ever see her.


After the battalion had marched out of sight, Tiana went to


Robert Ross's room and knocked on the door.


"Come in," he said.


Once she entered, she looked around, almost hopping from one foot to the other. Then, not seeing anything better to do, she sat down on a chair next to the general's bed and clasped her hands in her lap.


"I was wondering if I could stay here, for a bit. Might be quite a bit."


Ross looked up at her. "Of course, my dear. Stay as long as you'd like."


Her fingers started twisting. She managed to stop them after a few seconds.


"Tell me about your life, Robert," she said abruptly. "Not your military career. Your life. Your boyhood. Your wife. Your children. Living things."


After a moment, she added: "Please."


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