A thick breeze broke through the tangle of branches and spider webs knotting the canopy. Alice slowed down to inhale the fragrance that had momentarily dissolved the humidity of early afternoon.
Modest azaleas. It was the perfume Cora had worn for her coming-out ball after her sixteenth birthday. Privately Cora had seemed rather blasé about the event. But thirteen-year-old Alice, watching from the upstairs banister, had seen how Cora greeted the guests with queenlike grace, a vision of decorum in white muslin. Their father had been proud as well. It flickered beneath his eyes despite his determined restraint. Strange that she should smell it again in the wilderness, a thousand miles from London society. Their new guides…it was unclear who they were exactly. None of their tight-lipped escorts had introduced themselves. But they had led them to a peaceful spot, beside a stream lined with white-flowered rhododendrons and emerald ferns. Even Duncan looked more like his usual self, and he had been on edge since their rescue an hour ago. Alice viewed the return to normalcy with relief. The Duncan Heyward she knew had always been a cheerful, openhearted person. The irritable man he had briefly turned into was a stranger.
Her faded riding habit stuck unpleasantly to her skin. She looked enviously at the stream. It would have been wonderful to splash a handful of cool water on her face, as the young Indian scout had done a few minutes ago. She wondered what Cora would say. Cora was pragmatic; she would probably understand. But she did not want to hold the others up. After all, Alice thought, she had caused enough trouble already.
In its own way she supposed the heat was a blessing. At least she could blame that for the flush in her cheeks, and not the idiocy of her behavior. Logically she knew there was nothing she could have done during the attack. Even Cora had been helpless, though her older sister had at least maintained her composure. But afterward, when the younger Indian had turned their horses loose in the woods—she could not think of a decent excuse for the way she had acted then. How foolish she must have looked, as she rushed at him and demanded to know what he was doing. It had amounted to nothing but a pathetic attempt to assert herself. At first he had looked stunned at her outburst. But in the space of half a second, his eyes swept over her and decided she was still hysterical. He gently but dismissively passed her off to her sister.
Alice blinked and tried to clear her head. What did it matter what a half-civilized heathen thought of her? It was not as though she would ever see him again. It was her own failure that bothered her. Cora and Duncan had been as shocked as she was, but they had not lost their self-control. Next time she would do better, she promised herself.
Her heart gave an uneasy turn at the possibility of a next time. The larger part of her believed their ambush that morning had been a fluke. This belief was not based on a childish hope; it was rational. Their last guide had betrayed them, or so the scout with the chiseled nose and sarcastic temper had told Duncan. These strangers would not have rescued them only to betray them again. One night sleeping on the ground and then they would reach the fort, where her father and his fifteen hundred soldiers would protect them. A few months later she and Cora would return to Albany, and then to Portman Square.
Still, it was a little jarring to think of their homecoming. Alice had always been something of a wallflower in Portman Square. As a child she had believed she would shed her shyness once she became a woman and made her formal entrance into the world, but two years in society had not yet given her that grace. Visiting the Americas was supposed to change that. Leaving London, she had imagined all the stories she would tell of the wild frontier and how much more interesting she would become.
Perhaps the azaleas were a good omen. To find a reminder of England on the frontier must mean that her old life had not completely abandoned her. But as she made her way along the creek, she could not shake a feeling that the breeze had been a kiss farewell, as though without meaning to she had crossed into an alien place from which there was no guarantee she would return.