“That sounds terribly uncomfortable for the female snake,” I said, giggling.
“Well, she appeared to be enjoying herself,” said Jamie. “Near as I could tell; snakes havena got much expression on their faces.”
I buried my face in his chest, snorting with mirth. His pleasant musky smell mingled with the harsh scent of linen.
“Take off your shirt,” I said, sitting up and pulling at the hem of the garment.
“Why?” he asked, but sat up and obliged. I knelt in front of him, admiring his nak*d body.
“Because I want to look at you,” I said. He was beautifully made, with long graceful bones and flat muscles that flowed smoothly from the curves of chest and shoulder to the slight concavities of belly and thigh. He raised his eyebrows.
“Well then, fair’s fair. Take off yours, then.” He reached out and helped me squirm out of the wrinkled chemise, pushing it down over my hips. Once it was off, he held me by the waist, studying me with intense interest. I grew almost embarrassed as he looked me over.
“Haven’t you ever seen a nak*d woman before?” I asked.
“Aye, but not one so close.” His face broke into a broad grin. “And not one that’s mine.” He stroked my h*ps with both hands. “You have good wide hips; ye’d be a good breeder, I expect.”
“What!?” I drew away indignantly, but he pulled me back and collapsed on the bed with me on top of him. He held me until I stopped struggling, then raised me enough to meet his lips again.
“I know once is enough to make it legal, but…” He paused shyly.
“You want to do it again?”
“Would ye mind verra much?”
I didn’t laugh this time either, but I felt my ribs creak under the strain.
“No,” I said gravely. “I wouldn’t mind.”
“Are you hungry?” I asked softly, sometime later.
“Famished.” He bent his head to bite my breast softly, then looked up with a grin. “But I need food too.” He rolled to the edge of the bed. “There’s cold beef and bread in the kitchen, I expect, and likely wine as well. I’ll go and bring us some supper.”
“No, don’t you get up. I’ll fetch it.” I jumped off the bed and headed for the door, pulling a shawl over my shift against the chill of the corridor.
“Wait, Claire!” Jamie called. “Ye’d better let me—” but I had already opened the door.
My appearance at the door was greeted by a raucous cheer from some fifteen men, lounging around the fireplace of the main room below, drinking, eating and tossing dice. I stood nonplussed on the balcony for a moment, fifteen leering faces flickering out of the firelit shadows at me.
“Hey, lass!” shouted Rupert, one of the loungers. “Ye’re still able t’ walk! Isn’t Jamie doin’ his duty by ye, then?”
This sally was greeted with gales of laughter and a number of even cruder remarks regarding Jamie’s prowess.
“If ye’ve worn Jamie out a’ready, I’ll be happy t’ take ’is place!” offered a short dark-haired youth.
“Nay, nay, ’e’s no good, lass, take me!” shouted another.
“She’ll ha’ none o’ ye, lads!” yelled Murtagh, uproariously drunk. “After Jamie, she’ll need somethin’ like this to satisfy ’er!” He waved a huge mutton bone overhead, causing the room to rock with laughter.
I whirled back into the room, slammed the door and stood with my back to it, glaring at Jamie, who lay nak*d on the bed, shaking with laughter.
“I tried to warn ye,” he said, gasping. “You should see your face!”
“Just what,” I hissed, “are all those men doing out there?”
Jamie slid gracefully off our wedding couch and began rummaging on his knees through the pile of discarded clothing on the floor. “Witnesses,” he said briefly. “Dougal is no takin’ any chances of this marriage bein’ annulled.” He straightened with his kilt in his hands, grinning at me as he wrapped it around his loins. “I’m afraid your reputation’s compromised beyond repair, Sassenach.”
He started shirtless for the door. “Don’t go out there!” I said, in sudden panic. He turned to smile reassuringly, hand on the latch. “Dinna worry, lass. If they’re witnesses, they may as well have somethin’ to see. Besides, I’m no intendin’ to starve for the next three days for fear of a wee bit o’ chaff.”
He stepped out of the room to a chorus of bawdy applause, leaving the door slightly ajar. I could hear his progress toward the kitchen, marked by shouted congratulations and ribald questions and advice.
“How was yer first time, Jamie? Did ye bleed?” shouted Rupert’s easily recognized gravel-pit voice.
“Nay, but ye will, ye auld bugger, if ye dinna clapper yer face,” came Jamie’s spiked tones in broad Scots reply. Howls of delight greeted this sally, and the raillery continued, following Jamie down the hall to the kitchen and back up the stairs.
I pushed open the door a crack to admit Jamie, face red as the fire below and hands piled high with food and drink. He sidled in, followed by a final burst of hilarity from below. I choked it off with a decisive slam of the door, and shot the bolt to.
“I brought enough we’ll no need to go out again for a bit,” Jamie said, laying out dishes on the table, carefully not looking at me. “Will ye have a bite?”
I reached past him for the bottle of wine. “Not just yet. What I need is a drink.”
There was a powerful urgency in him that roused me to response despite his awkwardness. Not wanting to lecture nor yet to highlight my own experience, I let him do what he would, only offering an occasional suggestion, such as that he might carry his weight on his elbows and not my chest.
As yet too hungry and too clumsy for tenderness, still he made love with a sort of unflagging joy that made me think that male virginity might be a highly underrated commodity. He exhibited a concern for my safety, though, that I found at once endearing and irritating.
Sometime in our third encounter, I arched tightly against him and cried out. He drew back at once, startled and apologetic.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didna mean to hurt ye.”
“You didn’t.” I stretched languorously, feeling dreamily wonderful.
“Are you sure?” he said, inspecting me for damage. Suddenly it dawned on me that a few of the finer points had likely been left out of his hasty education at the hands of Murtagh and Rupert.
“Does it happen every time?” he asked, fascinated, once I had enlightened him. I felt rather like the Wife of Bath, or a Japanese geisha. I had never envisioned myself as an instructress in the arts of love, but I had to admit to myself that the role held certain attractions.
“No, not every time,” I said, amused. “Only if the man is a good lover.”
“Oh.” His ears turned faintly pink. I was slightly alarmed to see the look of frank interest being replaced with one of growing determination.
“Will you tell me what I should do next time?” he asked.
“You don’t need to do anything special,” I assured him. “Just go slowly and pay attention. Why wait, though? You’re still ready.”
He was surprised. “You don’t need to wait? I canna do it again right away after—”
“Well, women are different.”
“Aye, I noticed,” he muttered.
He circled my wrist with thumb and index finger. “It’s just…you’re so small; I’m afraid I’m going to hurt you.”
“You are not going to hurt me,” I said impatiently. “And if you did, I wouldn’t mind.” Seeing puzzled incomprehension on his face, I decided to show him what I meant.
“What are you doing?” he asked, shocked.
“Just what it looks like. Hold still.” After a few moments, I began to use my teeth, pressing progressively harder until he drew in his breath with a sharp hiss. I stopped.
“Did I hurt you?” I asked.
“Yes. A little.” He sounded half-strangled.
“Do you want me to stop?”
I went on, being deliberately rough, until he suddenly convulsed, with a groan that sounded as though I had torn his heart out by the roots. He lay back, quivering and breathing heavily. He muttered something in Gaelic, eyes closed.
“What did you say?”
“I said,” he answered, opening his eyes, “I thought my heart was going to burst.”
I grinned, pleased with myself. “Oh, Murtagh and company didn’t tell you about that, either?”
“Aye, they did. That was one of the things I didn’t believe.”
I laughed. “In that case, maybe you’d better not tell me what else they told you. Do you see what I meant, though, about not minding if you’re rough?”
“Aye.” He drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “If I did that to you, would it feel the same?”
“Well, you know,” I said, slowly, “I don’t really know.” I had been doing my best to keep my thoughts of Frank at bay, feeling that there should really be no more than two people in a marriage bed, regardless of how they got there. Jamie was very different from Frank, both in body and mind, but there are in fact only a limited number of ways in which two bodies can meet, and we had not yet established that territory of intimacy in which the act of love takes on infinite variety. The echoes of the flesh were unavoidable, but there were a few territories still unexplored.
Jamie’s brows were tilted in an expression of mocking threat. “Oh, so there’s something you don’t know? Well, we’ll find out then, won’t we? As soon as I’ve the strength for it.” He closed his eyes again. “Next week, sometime.”
I woke in the hours before dawn, shivering and rigid with terror. I could not recall the dream that woke me, but the abrupt plunge into reality was equally frightening. It had been possible to forget my situation for a time the night before, lost in the pleasures of newfound intimacy. Now I was alone, next to a sleeping stranger with whom my life was inextricably linked, adrift in a place filled with unseen threat.
I must have made some sound of distress, for there was a sudden upheaval of bedclothes as the stranger in my bed vaulted to the floor with the heartstopping suddenness of a pheasant rising underfoot. He came to rest in a crouch near the door of the chamber, barely visible in the pre-dawn light.
Pausing to listen carefully at the door, he made a rapid inspection of the room, gliding soundlessly from door to window to bed. The angle of his arm told me that he held a weapon of some sort, though I could not see what it was in the darkness. Sitting down next to me, satisfied that all was secure, he slid the knife or whatever it was back into its hiding place above the headboard.
“Are you all right?” he whispered. His fingers brushed my wet cheek.
“Yes. I’m sorry to wake you. I had a nightmare. What on earth—” I started to ask what it was that had made him spring so abruptly to the alert.
A large warm hand ran down my bare arm, interrupting my question. “No wonder; you’re frozen.” The hand urged me under the pile of quilts and into the warm space recently vacated. “My fault,” he murmured. “I’ve taken all the quilts. I’m afraid I’m no accustomed yet to share a bed.” He wrapped the quilts comfortably around us and lay back beside me. A moment later, he reached again to touch my face.
“Is it me?” he asked quietly. “Can ye not bear me?”
I gave a short hiccupping laugh, not quite a sob. “No, it isn’t you.” I reached out in the dark, groping for a hand to press reassuringly. My fingers met a tangle of quilts and warm flesh, but at last I found the hand I had been seeking. We lay side by side, looking up at the low beamed ceiling.
“What if I said I couldn’t bear you?” I asked suddenly. “What on earth could you do?” The bed creaked as he shrugged.
“Tell Dougal you wanted an annulment on grounds of nonconsummation, I suppose.”
This time I laughed outright. “Nonconsummation! With all those witnesses?”
The room was growing light enough to see the smile on the face turned toward me. “Aye well, witnesses or no, it’s only you and me that can say for sure, isn’t it? And I’d rather be embarrassed than wed to someone that hated me.”
I turned toward him. “I don’t hate you.”
“I don’t hate you, either. And there’s many good marriages have started wi’ less than that.” Gently, he turned me away from him and fitted himself to my back so we lay nested together. His hand cupped my breast, not in invitation or demand, but because it seemed to belong there.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered into my hair. “There’s the two of us now.” I felt warm, soothed, and safe for the first time in many days. It was only as I drifted into sleep under the first rays of daylight that I remembered the knife above my head, and wondered again, what threat would make a man sleep armed and watchful in his bridal chamber?
ONE FINE DAY
The hard-won intimacy of the night seemed to have evaporated with the dew, and there was considerable constraint between us in the morning. After a mostly silent breakfast taken in our room, we climbed the small hillock behind the inn, exchanging rather strained politenesses from time to time.
At the crest, I settled on a log to rest, while Jamie sat on the ground, back against a pine sapling, a few feet away. Some bird was active in the bush behind me, a siskin, I supposed, or possibly a thrush. I listened to its dilatory rustlings, watched the small fluffy clouds float by, and pondered the etiquette of the situation.
The silence was becoming really too heavy to bear, when Jamie suddenly said, “I hope—” then stopped and blushed. Though I rather felt it should be me blushing, I was glad that at least one of us was able to do it.
“What?” I said as encouragingly as possible.
He shook his head, still pink. “It doesna matter.”
“Go ahead.” I reached out a foot and nudged his leg with a tentative toe. “Honesty, remember?” It was unfair, but I really couldn’t stand any more nervous throat-clearing and eye-twitching.
His clasped hands tightened around his knees, and he rocked back a bit, but fixed his gaze directly on me.
“I was going to say,” he said softly, “that I hoped the man who had the honor to lie first wi’ you was as generous as you were with me.” He smiled, a little shyly. “But on second thought, that didna sound quite right. What I meant…well, all I wanted was to say thank you.”
“Generosity had nothing to do with it!” I snapped, looking down and brushing energetically at a nonexistent spot on my dress. A large boot pushed into my downcast field of vision and nudged my ankle.
“Honesty, is it?” he echoed, and I looked up to meet a derisively raised pair of eyebrows above a wide grin.
“Well,” I said defensively, “not after the first time, anyway.” He laughed, and I discovered to my horror that I was not beyond blushing after all.
A cool shadow fell over my heated face and a large pair of hands took firm hold of mine and pulled me to my feet. Jamie took my place on the log, and patted his knee invitingly.
“Sit,” he said.
I reluctantly obliged, keeping my face turned away. He settled me comfortably against his chest and wrapped his arms about my waist. I felt the steady thump of his heart against my back.
“Now then,” he said. “If we canna talk easy yet without touching, we’ll touch for a bit. Tell me when you’re accustomed to me again.” He leaned back so that we were in the shade of an oak, and held me close without speaking, just breathing slowly, so that I felt the rise and fall of his chest and the stir of his breath in my hair.
“All right,” I said after a moment.
“Good.” He loosened his grip and turned me to face him. At close range, I could see the bristle of auburn stubble on cheek and chin. I brushed my fingers across it; it was like the plush on an old-fashioned sofa, stiff and soft at the same time.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I couldna shave this morning. Dougal gave me a razor before the wedding yesterday, but he took it back—in case I cut my throat after the wedding night, I expect.” He grinned down at me and I smiled back.
The reference to Dougal reminded me of our conversation of the night before.
“I wondered…” I said. “Last night, you said Dougal and his men met you at the coast when you came back from France. Why did you come back with him, instead of going to your own home, or the Fraser lands? I mean, the way Dougal’s treated you…” I trailed off, hesitant.
“Oh,” he said, shifting his legs to bear my weight more evenly. I could almost hear him thinking to himself. He made up his mind quite quickly.
“Well, it’s something ye should know, I suppose.” He frowned to himself. “I told ye why I’m outlawed. Well, for a time after—after I left the Fort, I didna care much…about anything. My father died about that time, and my sister…” He paused again, and I sensed some kind of struggle going on inside him. I twisted around to look at him. The normally cheerful face was shadowed with some strong emotion.
“Dougal told me,” he said slowly, “Dougal told me that-that my sister was wi’ child. By Randall.”
He glanced sideways at me, then away. His eyes were bright as sapphires and he blinked hastily once or twice.
“I…I couldna bring myself to go back,” he said, low-voiced. “To see her again, after what happened. And too”—he sighed, then set his lips firmly—“Dougal told me that she…that after the child was born, she…well, of course, she couldna help it; she was alone—damn it, I left her alone! He said she had taken up wi’ another English soldier, someone from the garrison, he didna know which one.”
He swallowed heavily, then went on more firmly. “I sent back what money I could, of course, but I could not…well, I couldna bring myself to write to her. What could I say?” He shrugged helplessly.
“Anyway, after a time I grew tired of soldiering in France. And I heard through my Uncle Alex that he’d had word of an English deserter, named Horrocks. The man had left the army and taken service wi’ Francis MacLean o’ Dunweary. He was in his cups one day and let out that he’d been stationed wi’ the garrison at Fort William when I escaped. And he’d seen the man who shot the sergeant-major that day.”