Eyes closed against the sun, Jamie laughed. “I suppose I could add a line for myself—‘I will leap into pools for thy sake.’ ”
We both laughed, and then were quiet for a time, basking in the warm sun of the early summer. It was very peaceful there, with no sound but the rushing of water beyond our still pool. Jamie’s breathing had calmed. I was very conscious of the slow rise and fall of his breast, and the slow beat of the pulse in his neck. He had a small triangular scar, just there at the base of his throat.
I could feel the shyness and constraint beginning to creep back. I reached out a hand and grasped his tightly, hoping that the touch would reestablish the ease between us as it had before. He slid an arm about my shoulders, but it only made me aware of the hard lines of his body beneath the thin shirt. I pulled away, under the pretext of plucking a bunch of pink-flowered storksbill that grew from a crack in the rock.
“Good for headache,” I explained, tucking them into my belt.
“It troubles you,” he said, tilting his head to look at me intently. “Not headache, I don’t mean. Frank. You’re thinking of him, and so it troubles you when I touch you, because ye canna hold us both in your mind. Is that it?”
“You’re very perceptive,” I said, surprised. He smiled, but made no move to touch me again.
“No great task to puzzle that out, lass. I knew when we married that you couldna help but have him often in your mind, did ye want to or no.”
I didn’t, at the moment, but he was right; I couldn’t help it.
“Am I much like him?” he asked suddenly.
In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast. Frank was slender, lithe and dark, where Jamie was large, powerful and fair as a ruddy sunbeam. While both men had the compact grace of athletes, Frank’s was the build of a tennis player, Jamie’s the body of a warrior, shaped—and battered—by the abrasion of sheer physical adversity. Frank stood a scant four inches above my own five foot six. Face-to-face with Jamie, my nose fitted comfortably into the small hollow in the center of his chest, and his chin could rest easily on top of my head.
Nor was the physical the only dimension where the two men varied. There was nearly fifteen years’ difference in their ages, for one thing, which likely accounted for some of the difference between Frank’s urbane reserve and Jamie’s frank openness. As a lover, Frank was polished, sophisticated, considerate, and skilled. Lacking experience or the pretense of it, Jamie simply gave me all of himself, without reservation. And the depth of my response to that unsettled me completely.
Jamie was watching my struggle, not without sympathy.
“Well, then, it would seem I have two choices in the matter,” he said. “I can let you brood about it, or…”
He leaned down and gently fitted his mouth over mine. I had kissed my share of men, particularly during the war years, when flirtation and instant romance were the light-minded companions of death and uncertainty. Jamie, though, was something different. His extreme gentleness was in no way tentative; rather it was a promise of power known and held in leash; a challenge and a provocation the more remarkable for its lack of demand. I am yours, it said. And if you will have me, then…
I would, and my mouth opened beneath his, wholeheartedly accepting both promise and challenge without consulting me. After a long moment, he lifted his head and smiled down at me.
“Or, I can try to distract ye from your thoughts,” he finished.
He pressed my head against his shoulder, stroking my hair and smoothing the leaping curls around my ears.
“I do not know if it will help,” he said, quietly, “but I will tell you this: it is a gift and a wonder to me, to know that I can please you—that your body can rouse to mine. I hadna thought of such a thing—beforehand.”
I drew a long breath before replying. “Yes,” I said. “It helps. I think.”
We were silent again for what seemed a long time. At last Jamie drew away and looked down at me, smiling.
“I told ye I’ve neither money nor property, Sassenach?”
I nodded, wondering what he intended.
“I should have warned ye before that we’d likely end up sleeping in haystacks, wi’ naught but heather ale and drammach for food.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
He nodded toward an opening in the trees, not taking his eyes off me.
“I havena got a haystack about me, but there’s a fair patch of fresh bracken yonder. If ye’d care to practice, just to get the way of it…?”
A little later, I stroked his back, damp with exertion and the juice of crushed ferns.
“If you say ‘thank you’ once more, I will slap you,” I said.
Instead, I was answered with a gentle snore. An overhanging fern brushed his cheek, and an inquisitive ant crawled across his hand, making the long fingers twitch in his sleep.
I brushed it away and leaned back on one elbow, watching him. His lashes were long, seen thus with his eyes closed, and thick. Oddly colored, though; dark auburn at the tips, they were very light, almost blond at the roots.
The firm line of his mouth had relaxed in sleep. While it kept a faintly humorous curl at the corner, his lower lip now eased into a fuller curve that seemed both sensual and innocent.
“Damn,” I said softly to myself.
I had been fighting it for some time. Even before this ridiculous marriage, I had been more than conscious of his attraction. It had happened before, as it doubtless happens to almost everyone. A sudden sensitivity to the presence, the appearance, of a particular man—or woman, I suppose. The urge to follow him with my eyes, to arrange for small “inadvertent” meetings, to watch him unawares as he went about his work, an exquisite sensitivity to the small details of his body—the shoulder-blades beneath the cloth of his shirt, the lumpy bones of his wrists, the soft place underneath his jaw, where the first prickles of his beard begin to show.
Infatuation. It was common, among the nurses and the doctors, the nurses and the patients, among any gathering of people thrown for long periods into one another’s company.
Some acted on it, and brief, intense affairs were frequent. If they were lucky, the affair flamed out within a few months and nothing resulted from it. If they were not…well. Pregnancy, divorce, here and there the odd case of venereal disease. Dangerous thing, infatuation.
I had felt it, several times, but had had the good sense not to act on it. And as it always does, after a time the attraction had lessened, and the man lost his golden aura and resumed his usual place in my life, with no harm done to him, to me, or to Frank.
And now. Now I had been forced to act on it. And God only knew what harm might be done by that action. But there was no turning back from this point.
He lay at ease, sprawled on his stomach. The sun glinted off his red mane and lit the tiny soft hairs that crested his spine, running down to the reddish-gold fuzz that dusted his buttocks and thighs, and deepened into the thicket of soft auburn curls that showed briefly between his spread legs.
I sat up, admiring the long legs, with the smooth line of muscling that indented the thigh from hip to knee, and another that ran from knee to long, elegant foot. The bottoms of his feet were smooth and pink, slightly callused from going barefoot.
My fingers ached, wantingto trace the line of his small, neat ear and the blunt angle of his jaw. Well, I thought, the action had been taken, and it was far past the time for restraint. Nothing I did now could make matters worse, for either of us. I reached out and gently touched him.
He slept very lightly. With a suddenness that made me jump, he flipped over, bracing himself on his elbows as though to leap to his feet. Seeing me, he relaxed, smiling.
“Madam, you have me at a disadvantage.”
He made a very creditable courtly bow, for a man stretched at full length in a patch of ferns, wearing nothing but a few dappled splotches of sunlight, and I laughed. The smile stayed on his face, but it altered as he looked at me, nak*d in the ferns. His voice was suddenly husky.
“In fact, Madam, you have me at your mercy.”
“Have I, then?” I said softly.
He didn’t move, as I reached out once more and drew my hand slowly down his cheek and neck, over the gleaming slope of his shoulder, and down. He didn’t move, but he closed his eyes.
“Dear Holy Lord,” he said.
He drew his breath in sharply.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be rough.”
“Thank God for small mercies.”
His fingers dug deeply into the crumbling earth, but he obeyed.
“Please,” he said after a time. Glancing up, I could see that his eyes were open now.
“No,” I said, enjoying myself. He closed his eyes again.
“You’ll pay for this,” he said a short time later. A fine dew of sweat shone on the straight bridge of his nose.
“Really?” I said. “What are you going to do?”
The tendons stood out in his forearms as he pressed his palms against the earth, and he spoke with an effort, as though his teeth were clenched.
“I don’t know, but…by Christ and St. Agnes…I will…th-think of s-something! God! Please!”
“All right,” I said, releasing him.
And I uttered a small shriek as he rolled onto me, pinning me against the ferns.
“Your turn,” he said, with considerable satisfaction.
We returned to the inn at sunset, pausing at the top of the hill to be sure that the horses of the Watch were no longer hobbled outside.
The inn looked welcoming, light already shining through the small windows, and through the chinks in the walls. The last of the sun glowed behind us as well, so that everything on the hillside threw a double shadow. The breeze rose with the cooling of the day, and the fluttering leaves of the trees made the multiple shadows dance on the grass. I could easily imagine that there were fairies on the hill, dancing with those shadows, threading their way through the slender trunks to blend into the depths of the wood.
“Dougal’s not back yet, either,” I observed as we came down the hill. The large black gelding he customarily rode was not in the inn’s small paddock. Several other beasts were missing as well; Ned Gowan’s for one.
“No, he shouldna come back for another day at least—maybe two.” Jamie offered me his arm and we descended the hill slowly, careful of the many rocks that poked through the short grass.
“Where on earth has he gone?” Caught in the rush of recent events, I had not thought to question his absence—or even to notice it.
Jamie handed me over the stile at the back of the inn.
“To do his business wi’ the cottars nearby. He’s got but a day or two before he’s supposed to produce you at the Fort, ye ken.” He squeezed my arm reassuringly. “Captain Randall willna be best pleased when Dougal tells him he’s not to have ye, and Dougal would as soon not linger in the area afterward.”
“Sensible of him,” I observed. “Also kind of him to leave us here to, er…get acquainted with each other.”
Jamie snorted. “Not kindness. That was one of the conditions I set for takin’ ye. I said I’d wed if I must, but damned if I’d consummate my marriage under a bush, wi’ twenty clansmen lookin’ on and offering advice.”
I stopped, staring at him. So that was what the shouting had been about.
“One of the conditions?” I said, slowly. “And what were the others?”
It was growing too dark to see his face clearly, but I thought he seemed embarrassed.
“Only two others,” he said finally.
“Well,” he said, kicking a pebble diffidently out of the way, “I said ye must wed me proper, in kirk, before a priest. Not just by contract. As for the other—he must find ye a suitable gown to be wed in.” He looked away, avoiding my gaze, and his voice was so soft I could scarcely hear him.
“I—I knew ye didna wish to wed. I wanted to make it…as pleasant as might be for you. I thought ye might feel a bit less…well, I wanted ye to have a decent dress, is all.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but he turned away, toward the inn.
“Come along, Sassenach,” he said gruffly. “I’m hungry.”
The price of food was company, as was obvious from the moment of our appearance at the door of the inn’s main room. We were greeted by raucous cheers, and hurriedly pushed into seats at the table, where a hearty supper was already in progress.
Having been somewhat prepared this time, I didn’t mind the rough jests and crude remarks at our expense. For once, I was pleased to be modestly self-effacing, scrunching back into the corner and leaving Jamie to deal with the rough teasing and bawdy speculations about what we had been doing all day.
“Sleeping,” said Jamie, in answer to one question of this sort. “Didna catch a wink last night.” The roars of laughter that greeted this were topped by louder ones as he added in confidential tones, “She snores, ye ken.”
I obligingly cuffed his ear, and he gathered me to him and kissed me soundly, to general applause.
After supper there was dancing, to the accompaniment of the landlord’s fiddle. I had never been much of a dancer, being rather prone to trip over my own feet in times of stress. I scarcely expected that I would do better, attired in long skirts and clumsy footgear. Once I had shed the clogs, though, I was surprised to find that I danced with no difficulty and great enjoyment.
Women being in short supply, the innkeeper’s wife and I tucked up our skirts and danced jigs and reels and strathspeys without ceasing, until I had to stop and lean against the settle, red-faced and gasping for breath.
The men were absolutely indefatigable, whirling about like plaid tops, by themselves or with each other. Finally, they stood back against the wall, watching, cheering and clapping, as Jamie took both my hands and led me through something fast and frantic called “The Cock o’ the North.”
Ending up by forethought near the stair, we swirled to a close with his arm about my waist. Here we paused, and he made a short speech, mixed in Gaelic and English, which was received with further applause, particularly when he reached into his sporran and tossed a small wash-leather bag to the landlord, instructing that worthy to serve whisky so long as it lasted. I recognized it as his share of the wagers from his fight at Tunnaig. Likely all the money he had in the world; I thought it could not have been better spent.
We had made it up to the balcony, followed by a hail of indelicate good wishes, when a voice louder than the others called Jamie’s name.
Turning, I saw Rupert’s broad face, redder than usual above its bush of black beard, grinning up from below.
“No good, Rupert,” called Jamie. “She’s mine.”
“Wasted on ye, lad,” said Rupert, mopping his face with his sleeve. “She’ll ha’ye on the floor in an hour. No stayin’ power, these young lads,” he called to me. “Ye want a man who doesna waste his time sleepin’, lass, let me know. In the meantime…” He flung something upward.
A fat little bag clanked on the floor at my feet.
“A wedding present,” he called. “Courtesy of the men of the Shimi Bogil Watch.”
“Eh?” Jamie stooped to pick it up.
“Some of us dinna spend our day idlin’ about the grassy banks, lad,” he said reprovingly, rolling his eyes lewdly at me. “That money was hard earned.”
“Oh, aye,” said Jamie, grinning. “Dice or cards?”
“Both.” A raffish grin split the black beard. “Skint ’em to the bone, lad. To the bone!”
Jamie opened his mouth, but Rupert held up a broad, callused palm.
“Nay, lad, nay need o’ thanks. Just give her a good one for me, eh?”
I pressed my fingers to my lips and blew him a kiss. Slapping a hand to his face as though struck, he staggered back with an exclamation and reeled off into the taproom, weaving as though drunk, which he wasn’t.
After all the hilarity below, the room seemed a haven of peace and quiet. Jamie, still laughing quietly to himself, sprawled out on the bed to recover his breath.
I loosened my bodice, which was uncomfortably tight, and sat down to comb the tangles out of my dance-disordered hair.
“You’ve the loveliest hair,” said Jamie, watching me.
“What? This?” I raised a hand self-consciously to my locks, which as usual, could be politely described as higgledy-piggledy.
He laughed. “Well, I like the other too,” he said, deliberately straightfaced, “but yes, I meant that.”
“But it’s so…curly,” I said, blushing a little.
“Aye, of course.” He looked surprised. “I heard one of Dougal’s girls say to a friend at the Castle that it would take three hours with the hot tongs to make hers look like that. She said she’d like to scratch your eyes out for looking like that and not lifting a hand to do so.” He sat up and tugged gently on one curl, stretching it down so that, uncurled, it reached nearly to my breast. “My sister Jenny’s hair is curly, too, but not so much as yours.”
“Is your sister’s hair red, like yours?” I asked, trying to envision what the mysterious Jenny might look like. She seemed to be often in Jamie’s mind.
He shook his head, still twisting curls in and out between his fingers. “No. Jenny’s hair is black. Black as night. I’m red like my mother, and Jenny takes after Father. Brian Dhu, they called him, ‘Black Brian,’ for his hair and his beard.”
“I’ve heard that Captain Randall is called ‘Black Jack,’ ” I ventured. Jamie laughed humorlessly.
“Oh, aye. But that’s with reference to the color of his soul, not his hair.” His gaze sharpened as he looked down at me.
“You’re not worrying about him, are ye, lass? Ye shouldna do so.” His hands left my hair and tightened possessively on my shoulders.
“I meant it, ye know,” he said softly. “I will protect you. From him, or anyone else. To the last drop of my blood, mo duinne.”
“Mo duinne?” I asked, a little disturbed by the intensity of this speech. I didn’t want to be responsible for any of his blood being spilt, last drop or first.
“It means ‘my brown one.’ ” He raised a lock of hair to his lips and smiled, with a look in his eyes that started all the drops of my own blood chasing each other through my veins. “Mo duinne,” he repeated, softly. “I have been longing to say that to you.”