“Is there enough whisky in that bottle that you’d be willing to share?” a woman sat down opposite him and Burton completely forgot about Absalom Fearnley-Standish and all the obnoxious things he had ever done. She was small, with a face of straight lines and a natural grace to her movements that made Burton’s heart stammer. Her appearance was ageless, though faint lines around the eyes suggested to Burton that she might be his age, or even older. Not that that put him at ease—the she-wolf can bite to her last breath.
“Permit me to get another glass, ma’am,” he told her after a hesitation that seemed to him to last forever.
In answer, she lifted his shot glass to her own lips and took a sip. “If you feel you need one, sir,” she said, mocking him with her arched eyebrows and poker face.
Burton heard her statement as a challenge and his blood boiled within him. Still, something held him back, and it took him a moment to identify the restraining impulse. “I must tell you, ma’am, that I am not entirely at liberty. I am affianced, betrothed, engaged to be married.”
“You make it sound so lawyerly,” she commented, eyes and brows smiling at him though the lines of her lips were rather pursed and skeptical. “Shouldn’t love be an adventure?”
Ishtar’s pearly teeth, but wasn’t that the truth? “I will not tell my solicitor that you have so thoroughly dismissed his profession,” Burton managed to riposte, weakly. Who was this woman?
She took a second sip, smaller this time, and shrugged. “And yet I don’t mean to. I have a lawyer myself, a good one. For that matter, I have a husband. And I also have… adventures…” Her dark eyes glittered.
Burton wanted to resist, but he felt himself becoming intrigued. “Are you a traveler as well, ma’am, or do you reside in Fort Bridger?”
The woman laughed lightly. “You mean, am I a woman of virtue passing through, or am I some disreputable Wyoming whore? Have no fear, sir, your wallet and your venereal health are both safe from me; I am here di passagio, on my way to the Great Salt Lake City and merely looking for company with which to pass a slow and chilly evening.”
“I meant no disrespect to you, ma’am,” Burton joined her in laughing, a little ruefully. “Nor, for that matter, to whores. The history of the race is replete with powerful and—” he leaned forward to whisper the word—“sexual women. Think of Bathsheba, for instance.” He wanted to claim the initiative of the conversation, wrest back some of the control he had lost to this aggressive houri.
“Nefertiti,” she countered.
“Cleopatra.” Part of Burton mutely rebelled against the conversation. What if Isabel could see him now? But he felt compelled, by pride and also by lust, to press on.
“The Queen of Sheba,” she smiled.
“Her name was Balqis, according to the Arabs,” Burton offered. “They should know, they’re experts in all things pertaining to the harim.” Was he sweating? He thought he could feel drops of moisture beading onto his forehead.
“And are you an Arab, then, sir? You might be, with that dark, wild, romantic look of yours, those mustachios and those scars, and your foreign accent.”
Burton laughed out loud again. “No, ma’am, I’m a true subject of Her Britannic Majesty Queen Victoria and an Englishman of Anglo-Irish heritage, though it’s been suggested I might have Traveler blood in me.” He effected a slightly awkward bow, still sitting in his chair. “Richard Francis Burton, at your service. I’m known formally as Captain Burton, but I’m often called less flattering things.”
“Ruffian Dick is my favorite,” he offered. “Most of the others are unprintable.”
“My name is Roxie,” she told him, “Roxie Snow.” She made a small curtsy from the waist up. “I’ve been called more than one unprintable thing myself.” She took a third sip from the shot glass.
Burton hesitated. He felt quite strongly attracted to Roxie, who was obviously being very forward with him. He was by no means averse to—adventures, as Roxie named them, but now he was engaged to be married, and being engaged meant he was no longer a free man.
Not only did he have Isabel to think about, but there was also Fearnley-Standish. Burton tried to look about the room to spot the Foreign Office man, but found he couldn’t take his eyes off Roxie. Fearnley-Standish, too, was an anchor chained around Dick Burton’s neck. Burton was chained to orders, chained to a mission, chained to authority, chained to a useless companion and a cold, boring fiancée. He was totally unfree.
The weight of his servitude hung on him hard and heavy.
He took the glass and raised it. “To the unprintable,” he toasted, and drained the glass.