“ ’Til death us do part.” The words rang out in the quiet chapel with a startling finality. Everything was still, as though in suspended animation. Then the minister asked for the ring.
There was a sudden stir of agitation and I caught a glimpse of Murtagh’s stricken face. I barely registered the fact that someone had forgotten to provide for the ring, when Jamie released my hand long enough to twist a ring from his own finger.
I still wore Frank’s ring on my left hand. The fingers of my right looked frozen, pallid and stiff in a pool of blue light, as the large metal circlet passed over the fourth finger. It hung loose on the digit and would have slid off, had Jamie not folded my fingers around it and enclosed my fist once more in his own.
More mumbling from the priest, and Jamie bent to kiss me. It was clear that he intended only a brief and ceremonial touching of lips, but his mouth was soft and warm and I moved instinctively toward him. I was vaguely conscious of noises, Scottish whoops of enthusiasm and encouragement from the spectators, but really noticed nothing beyond the enfolding warm solidness. Sanctuary.
We drew apart, both a little steadier, and smiled nervously. I saw Dougal draw Jamie’s dirk from its sheath and wondered why. Still looking at me, Jamie held out his right hand, palm up. I gasped as the point of the dirk scored deeply across his wrist, leaving a dark line of welling blood. There was not time to jerk away before my own hand was seized and I felt the burning slice of the blade. Swiftly, Dougal pressed my wrist to Jamie’s and bound the two together with a strip of white linen.
I must have swayed a bit, because Jamie gripped my elbow with his free left hand.
“Bear up, lass,” he urged softly. “It’s not long now. Say the words after me.” It was a short bit of Gaelic, two or three sentences. The words meant nothing to me, but I obediently repeated them after Jamie, stumbling on the slippery vowels. The linen was untied, the wounds blotted clean, and we were married.
There was a general air of relief and exhilaration on the way back down the footpath. It might have been any merry wedding party, albeit a small one, and one composed entirely of men, save the bride.
We were nearly at the bottom when lack of food, the remnants of a hangover, and the general stresses of the day caught up with me. I came to lying on damp leaves, my head in my new husband’s lap. He put down the wet cloth with which he had been wiping my face.
“That bad, was it?” He grinned down at me, but his eyes held an uncertain expression that rather touched me, in spite of everything. I smiled shakily back.
“It’s not you,” I assured him. “It’s just…I don’t think I’ve had anything at all to eat since breakfast yesterday—and rather a lot to drink, I’m afraid.”
His mouth twitched. “So I heard. Well, that I can remedy. I’ve not a lot to offer a wife, as I said, but I do promise I’ll keep ye fed.” He smiled and shyly pushed a stray curl off my face with a forefinger.
I started to sit up and grimaced at a slight burning in one wrist. I had forgotten that last bit of the ceremony. The cut had come open, no doubt as a result of the fall I had taken. I took the cloth from Jamie and wrapped it awkwardly around the wrist.
“I thought it might have been that that made ye faint,” he said, watching. “I should have thought to warn ye about it; I didna realize you weren’t expecting it until I saw your face.”
“What was it, exactly?” I asked, trying to tuck in the ends of the cloth.
“It’s a bit pagan, but it’s customary hereabouts to have a blood vow, along with the regular marriage service. Some priests won’t have it, but I don’t suppose this one was likely to object to anything. He looked almost as scared as I felt,” he said, smiling.
“A blood vow? What do the words mean?”
Jamie took my right hand and gently tucked in the last end of the makeshift bandage.
“It rhymes, more or less, when ye say it in English. It says:
‘Ye are Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone.
I give ye my Body, that we Two might be One.
I give ye my Spirit, ’til our Life shall be Done.’ ”
He shrugged. “About the same as the regular vows, just a bit more…ah, primitive.”
I gazed down at my bound wrist. “Yes, you could say that.”
I glanced about; we were alone on the path, under an aspen tree. The round dead leaves lay on the ground, gleaming in the wet like rusted coins. It was very quiet, save for the occasional splat of water droplets falling from the trees.
“Where are the others? Did they go back to the inn?”
Jamie grimaced. “No. I made them go away so I could tend ye, but they’ll be waitin’ for us just over there.” He gestured with his chin, in the countryman’s manner. “They’re no going to trust us alone ’til everything’s official.”
“Isn’t it?” I said blankly. “We’re married, aren’t we?”
He seemed embarrassed, turning away and elaborately brushing dead leaves from his kilts.
“Mmmphm. Aye, we’re married, right enough. But it’s no legally binding, ye know, until it’s been consummated.” A slow, fierce blush burned its way up from the lacy jabot.
“Mmmphm,” I said. “Let’s go and find something to eat.”
REVELATIONS OF THE BRIDAL CHAMBER
At the inn, food was readily available, in the form of a modest wedding feast, including wine, fresh bread, and roast beef.
Dougal took me by the arm as I started for the stairs to freshen myself before eating.
“I want this marriage consummated, wi’ no uncertainty whatsoever,” Dougal instructed me firmly in an undertone. “There’s to be no question of it bein’ a legal union, and no way open for annulment, or we’re all riskin’ our necks.”
“Seems to me you’re doing that anyway,” I remarked crossly. “Mine, especially.”
Dougal patted me firmly on the rump.
“Dinna ye worry about that; ye just do your part.” He looked me over critically, as though judging my capacity to perform my role adequately.
“I kent Jamie’s father. If the lad’s much like him, ye’ll have no trouble at all. Ah, Jamie lad!” He hurried across the room, to where Jamie had come in from stabling the horses. From the look on Jamie’s face, he was getting his orders as well.
How in the name of God did this happen? I asked myself some time later. Six weeks ago, I had been innocently collecting wildflowers on a Scottish hill to take home to my husband. I was now shut in the room of a rural inn, awaiting a completely different husband, whom I scarcely knew, with firm orders to consummate a forced marriage, at risk of my life and liberty.
I sat on the bed, stiff and terrified in my borrowed finery. There was a faint noise as the heavy door of the room swung open, then shut.
Jamie leaned against the door, watching me. The air of embarrassment between us deepened. It was Jamie who broke the silence finally.
“You dinna need to be afraid of me,” he said softly. “I wasna going to jump on ye.” I laughed in spite of myself.
“Well, I didn’t think you would.” In fact, I didn’t think he would touch me, until and unless I invited him to; the fact remained that I was going to have to invite him to do considerably more than that, and soon.
I eyed him dubiously. I supposed it would be harder if I found him unattractive; in fact, the opposite was true. Still, I had not slept with any man but Frank in over eight years. Not only that, this young man, by his own acknowledgment, was completely inexperienced. I had never deflowered anyone before. Even dismissing my objections to the whole arrangement, and considering matters from a completely practical standpoint, how on earth were we to start? At this rate, we would still be standing here, staring at each other, three or four days hence.
I cleared my throat and patted the bed beside me.
“Ah, would you like to sit down?”
“Aye.” He came across the room, moving like a big cat. Instead of sitting beside me, though, he pulled up a stool and sat down facing me. Somewhat tentatively, he reached out and took my hands between his own. They were large, blunt-fingered, and very warm, the backs lightly furred with reddish hairs. I felt a slight shock at the touch, and thought of an Old Testament passage—“For Jacob’s skin was smooth, while his brother Esau was a hairy man.” Frank’s hands were long and slender, nearly hairless and aristocratic-looking. I had always loved watching them as he lectured.
“Tell me about your husband,” said Jamie, as though he had been reading my mind. I almost jerked my hands away in shock.
“Look ye, lass. We have three or four days together here. While I dinna pretend to know all there is to know, I’ve lived a good bit of my life on a farm, and unless people are verra different from other animals, it isna going to take that long to do what we have to. We have a bit of time to talk, and get over being scairt of each other.” This blunt appraisal of our situation relaxed me a little bit.
“Are you scared of me?” He didn’t look it. Perhaps he was nervous, though. Even though he was no timid sixteen-year-old lad, this was the first time. He looked into my eyes and smiled.
“Aye. More scairt than you, I expect. That’s why I’m holdin’ your hands; to keep my own from shaking.” I didn’t believe this, but squeezed his hands tightly in appreciation.
“It’s a good idea. It feels a little easier to talk while we’re touching. Why did you ask about my husband, though?” I wondered a bit wildly if he wanted me to tell him about my sex life with Frank, so as to know what I expected of him.
“Well, I knew ye must be thinking of him. Ye could hardly not, under the circumstances. I do not want ye ever to feel as though ye canna talk of him to me. Even though I’m your husband now—that feels verra strange to say—it isna right that ye should forget him, or even try to. If ye loved him, he must ha’ been a good man.”
“Yes, he…was.” My voice trembled, and Jamie stroked the backs of my hands with his thumbs.
“Then I shall do my best to honor his spirit by serving his wife.” He raised my hands and kissed each one formally.
I cleared my throat. “That was a very gallant speech, Jamie.”
He grinned suddenly. “Aye. I made it up while Dougal was making toasts downstairs.”
I took a deep breath. “I have questions,” I said.
He looked down, hiding a smile. “I’d suppose ye do,” he agreed. “I imagine you’re entitled to a bit of curiosity, under the circumstances. What is it ye want to know?” He looked up suddenly, blue eyes bright with mischief in the lamplight. “Why I’m a virgin yet?”
“Er, I should say that that was more or less your own business,” I murmured. It seemed to be getting rather warm suddenly, and I pulled one hand free to grope for my handkerchief. As I did so, I felt something hard in the pocket of the gown.
“Oh, I forgot! I still have your ring.” I drew it out and gave it back to him. It was a heavy gold circlet, set with a cabochon ruby. Instead of replacing it on his finger, he opened his sporran to put it inside.
“It was my father’s wedding ring,” he explained. “I dinna wear it customarily, but I…well, I wished to do ye honor today by looking as well as I might.” He flushed slightly at this admission, and busied himself with refastening the sporran.
“You did do me great honor,” I said, smiling in spite of myself. Adding a ruby ring to the blazing splendor of his costume was coals to Newcastle, but I was touched by the anxious thought behind it.
“I’ll get one that fits ye, so soon as I may,” he promised.
“It’s not important,” I said, feeling slightly uncomfortable. I meant, after all, to be gone soon.
“Er, I have one main question,” I said, calling the meeting to order. “If you don’t mind telling me. Why did you agree to marry me?”
“Ah.” He let go of my hands and sat back a bit. He paused for a moment before answering, smoothing the woolen cloth over his thighs. I could see the long line of muscle taut under the drape of the heavy fabric.
“Well, I would ha’ missed talking to ye, for one thing,” he said, smiling.
“No, I mean it,” I insisted. “Why?”
He sobered then. “Before I tell ye, Claire, there’s the one thing I’d ask of you,” he said slowly.
I must have flinched uncomfortably, for he leaned forward earnestly, hands on his knees.
“I know there are things ye’d not wish to tell me, Claire. Perhaps things that ye can’t tell me.”
You don’t know just how right you are, I thought.
“I’ll not press you, ever, or insist on knowin’ things that are your own concern,” he said seriously. He looked down at his hands, now pressed together, palm to palm.
“There are things that I canna tell you, at least not yet. And I’ll ask nothing of ye that ye canna give me. But what I would ask of ye—when you do tell me something, let it be the truth. And I’ll promise ye the same. We have nothing now between us, save—respect, perhaps. And I think that respect has maybe room for secrets, but not for lies. Do ye agree?” He spread his hands out, palms up, inviting me. I could see the dark line of the blood vow across his wrist. I placed my own hands lightly on his palms.
“Yes, I agree. I’ll give you honesty.” His fingers closed lightly about mine.
“And I shall give ye the same. Now,” he drew a deep breath, “you asked why I wed ye.”
“I am just the slightest bit curious,” I said.
He smiled, the wide mouth taking up the humor that lurked in his eyes. “Well, I canna say I blame ye. I had several reasons. And in fact, there’s one—maybe two—that I canna tell ye yet, though I will in time. The main reason, though, is the same reason you wed me, I imagine; to keep ye safe from the hands of Jack Randall.”
I shuddered a bit, at the memory of the Captain, and Jamie’s hands tightened on mine.
“You are safe,” he said firmly. “You have my name and my family, my clan, and if necessary, the protection of my body as well. The man willna lay hands on ye again, while I live.”
“Thank you,” I said. Looking at that strong, young, determined face, with its broad cheekbones and solid jaw, I felt for the first time that this preposterous scheme of Dougal’s might actually have been a reasonable suggestion.
The protection of my body. The phrase struck with particular impact, looking at him—the resolute set of the wide shoulders and the memory of his graceful ferocity, “showing off” at swordplay in the moonlight. He meant it; and young as he was, he knew what he meant, and bore the scars to prove it. He was no older than many of the pilots and the infantrymen I had nursed, and he knew as well as they the price of commitment. It was no romantic pledge he had made me, but the blunt promise to guard my safety at the cost of his own. I hoped only that I could offer him something in return.
“That’s most gallant of you,” I said, with absolute sincerity. “But was it worth, well, worth marriage?”
“It was,” he said, nodding. He smiled again, a little grimly this time. “I’ve good reason to know the man, ye ken. I wouldna see a dog given into his keeping if I could prevent it, let alone a helpless woman.”
“How flattering,” I remarked wryly, and he laughed. He stood up and went to the table near the window. Someone—perhaps the landlady—had supplied a bouquet of wildflowers, set in water in a whisky tumbler. Behind this stood two wineglasses and a bottle.
Jamie poured out two glasses and came back, handing me one as he resumed his seat.
“Not quite so good as Colum’s private stock,” he said with a smile, “but none so bad, either.” He raised his glass briefly. “To Mrs. Fraser,” he said softly, and I felt a thump of panic again. I quelled it firmly and raised my own glass.
“To honesty,” I said, and we both drank.
“Well, that’s one reason,” I said, lowering my glass. “Are there others you can tell me?”
He studied his wineglass with some care. “Perhaps it’s just that I want to bed you.” He looked up abruptly. “Did ye think of that?”
If he meant to disconcert me, he was succeeding nicely, but I resolved not to show it.
“Well, do you?” I asked boldly.
“If I’m bein’ honest, yes, I do.” The blue eyes were steady over the rim of the glass.
“You wouldn’t necessarily have had to marry me for that,” I objected.
He appeared honestly scandalized. “You do not think I would take ye without offering you marriage!”
“Many men would,” I said, amused at his innocence.
He sputtered a bit, at a momentary loss. Then regaining his composure, said with formal dignity, “Perhaps I am pretentious in saying so, but I would like to think that I am not ‘many men,’ and that I dinna necessarily place my behavior at the lowest common denominator.”
Rather touched by this speech, I assured him that I had so far found his behavior both gallant and gentlemanly, and apologized for any doubt I might inadvertently have cast on his motives.
On this precariously diplomatic note, we paused while he refilled our empty glasses.
We sipped in silence for a time, both feeling a bit shy after the frankness of that last exchange. So, apparently there was something I could offer him. I couldn’t, in fairness, say the thought had not entered my mind, even before the absurd situation in which we found ourselves arose. He was a very engaging young man. And there had been that moment, right after my arrival at the castle, when he had held me on his lap, and—
I tilted my wineglass back and drained the contents. I patted the bed beside me again.
“Sit down here with me,” I said. “And”—I cast about for some neutral topic of conversation to ease us over the awkwardness of close proximity—“and tell me about your family. Where did you grow up?”
The bed sank noticeably under his weight, and I braced myself not to roll against him. He sat closely enough that the sleeve of his shirt brushed my arm. I let my hand lie open on my thigh, relaxed. He took it naturally as he sat, and we leaned against the wall, neither of us looking down, but as conscious of the link as though we had been welded together.