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“Claire,” he said evenly, “I shall tell ye in my own time why I’ve wed ye—or I won’t. I asked honesty of you, and I’ve given ye the same. And I give it to you now. The girl has no claim on me beyond that of courtesy.” He squeezed my chin lightly. “But that claim she has, and I’ll honor it.” He released my chin and chucked me softly under it. “D’ye hear me, Sassenach?”

“Oh, I hear!” I jerked free, rubbing my chin resentfully. “And I’m sure you’ll be very courteous to her. But next time draw the drapes of the alcove—I don’t want to see it.”

The coppery brows shot up, and his face reddened slightly.

“Are ye suggesting I’ve played ye false?” he said, unbelievingly. “We’ve been back to the Castle less than an hour, I’m covered wi’ the sweat and dust of two days in the saddle, and so tired my knees wabble, and yet ye think I’ve gone straight out to seduce a maid of sixteen?” He shook his head, looking stunned. “I canna tell whether ye mean to compliment my virility, Sassenach, or insult my morals, but I dinna care much for either suggestion. Murtagh told me women were unreasonable, but Jesus God!” He ran a large hand through his hair, making the short ends stick up wildly.

“Of course I don’t mean I think you’ve been seducing her,” I said, struggling to inject an air of calmness into my tone. “All I mean…” It occurred to me that Frank had handled this kind of thing much more gracefully than I was managing to do, and yet I had been angry then too. Likely there was no good way to suggest such a possibility to one’s mate.

“I simply mean that…that I realize that you married me for your own reasons—and those reasons are your own business,” I added hastily, “and that I have no claim at all on you. You’re at perfect liberty to behave as you wish. If you…if there’s an attraction elsewhere…I mean…I won’t stand in your way,” I finished lamely. The blood was hot in my cheeks and I could feel my ears burning.

Looking up, I found that Jamie’s ears were burning as well, visibly, and so was the rest of him from the neck up. Even his eyes, bloodshot from lack of sleep, seemed to be flaming slightly.

“No claim on me!” he exclaimed. “And what d’ye think a wedding vow is, lassie? Just words in a church?” He brought one big fist down on the chest with a crash that shook the porcelain ewer. “No claim,” he muttered, as though to himself. “At liberty to behave as I wish. And you’ll not stand in my way?!”

He bent to pull off his boots, then picked them up and threw them, one after the other, as hard as he could at the wall. I winced as each one thudded off the stones and bounced to the floor. He yanked off his plaid and tossed it heedlessly behind him. Then he started toward me, glaring.

“So you’ve no claim on me, Sassenach? You’ll free me to take my pleasure where I like, is that it? Well, is it?” he demanded.

“Er, well, yes,” I said, taking a step backward despite myself. “That’s what I meant.” He grabbed my arms, and I found the combustion had spread to his hands as well. His callused palms were so hot on my skin that I jerked involuntarily.

“Well, if you’ve no claim on me, Sassenach,” he said, “I’ve one on you! Come here.” He took my face in his hands and set his mouth on mine. There was nothing either gentle or undemanding about that kiss, and I fought against it, trying to pull back from him.

He bent and scooped me up with an arm under my knees, ignoring my attempts to get down. I hadn’t realized just how bloody strong he really was.

“Let go of me!” I said. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Well, I should ha’ thought that was reasonably clear, Sassenach,” he said through his teeth. He lowered his head, the clear gaze piercing me like a hot iron. “Though if ye want telling,” he said, “I mean to take ye to bed. Now. And keep ye there until you’ve learned just what claim I have on you.” And he kissed me again, deliberately hard, cutting off my protest.

“I don’t want to sleep with you!” I said, when at last he freed my mouth.

“I dinna intend to sleep, Sassenach,” he replied evenly. “Not just yet.” He reached the bed and set me carefully on the rose-patterned quilt.

“You know bloody well what I mean!” I rolled, meaning to escape from the other side, but was stopped by a solid grip on my shoulder that flipped me back to face him. “I don’t want to make love with you, either!”

Blue eyes blazed down at me from close range, and my breath came thick in my throat.

“I didna ask your preferences in the matter, Sassenach,” he answered, voice dangerously low. “You are my wife, as I’ve told ye often enough. If ye didna wish to wed me, still ye chose to. And if ye didna happen to notice at the time, your part of the proceedings included the word ‘obey.’ You’re my wife, and if I want ye, woman, then I’ll have you, and be damned to ye!” His voice rose throughout, until he was near shouting.

I rose to my knees, fists balled at my sides, and shouted back at him. The contained misery of the last hour had reached explosion point and I let him have it, point-blank.

“I will be damned if I’ll have you, you bullying swine! You think you can order me to your bed? Use me like a whore when you feel like it? Well, you can’t you f**king bastard! Do that, and you’re no better than your precious Captain Randall!”

He glared at me for a moment, then stood abruptly aside. “Leave, then,” he said, jerking his head toward the door. “If that’s what ye think of me, go! I’ll not hinder ye.”

I hesitated for a moment, watching him. His jaw was clenched with anger and he was looming over me like the Colossus of Rhodes. His temper this time was under tight rein, though he was as angry now as he had been by the roadside near Doonesbury. But he meant it. If I chose to leave, he wouldn’t stop me.

I lifted my chin, my own jaw clenched as tightly as his. “No,” I said. “No. I don’t run away from things. And I’m not afraid of you.”

His gaze fastened on my throat, where my pulse was going at a frantic rate.

“Aye, I see,” he said. He stared down at me, and his face gradually relaxed into a look of grudging acquiescence. He sat down gingerly on the bed, keeping a good distance between us, and I sat back warily. He breathed deeply several times before speaking, his face fading a bit toward its natural ruddy bronze.

“I don’t run either, Sassenach,” he said gruffly. “Now, then. What does ‘f**king’ mean?”

My surprise must have shown plainly, for he said irritably, “If ye must call me names, that’s one thing. But I dinna care to be called things I can’t answer. I know it’s a damn filthy word, from the way ye said it, but what does it mean?”

Taken off guard, I laughed, a little shakily. “It…it means…what you were about to do to me.”

One brow lifted, and he looked sourly amused. “Oh, swiving? Then I was right; it is a damn filthy word. And what’s a sadist? Ye called me that the other day.”

I suppressed the urge to laugh. “It’s, er, it’s a person who…who, er, gets sexual pleasure from hurting someone.” My face was crimsoning, but I couldn’t stop the corners of my mouth from turning up slightly.

Jamie snorted briefly. “Well, ye dinna flatter me overmuch,” he said, “but I canna fault your observations.” He took a deep breath and leaned back, unclenching his hands. He stretched his fingers deliberately, then laid his hands flat on his knees and looked directly at me.

“What is it, then? Why are ye doing this? The girl? I’ve told ye the plain truth there. But it’s not a matter for proof. It’s a question of whether ye believe me or no. Do ye believe me?”

“Yes, I believe you,” I admitted grudgingly. “But that’s not it. Or not all of it,” I added, in an attempt at honesty. “It’s…I think it’s finding that you married me for the money you’d get.” I looked down, tracing the pattern of the quilt with my finger. “I know I’ve no right to complain—I married you for selfish reasons, too, but”—I bit my lip and swallowed to steady my voice—“but I have a small bit of pride, too, you know.”

I stole a glance at him, and found him staring at me with an expression of complete dumbfoundedness.

“Money?” he said blankly.

“Yes, money!” I blazed, angered at his pretense of ignorance. “When we came back, you couldn’t wait to tell Colum you were married and collect your share of the MacKenzie rents!”

He stared at me for a moment longer, mouth opening gradually as though to say something. Instead, he began to shake his head slowly back and forth, and then began to laugh. He threw his head back and roared, in fact, then sank his head between his hands, still laughing hysterically. I flung myself back on the pillows in indignation. Funny, was it?

Still shaking his head and wheezing intermittently, he stood up and set hands to the buckle of his belt. I flinched involuntarily as he did so, and he saw it.

Face still flushed with a mixture of anger and laughter, he looked down at me in total exasperation. “No,” he said dryly, “I dinna mean to beat you. I gave ye my word I’d not do so again—though I didna think I’d regret it quite so soon.” He laid the belt aside, groping in the sporran attached to it.

“My share of the MacKenzie rents comes to about twenty pounds a quarter, Sassenach,” he said, digging through the oddments inside the badgerskin. “And that’s Scots, not sterling. About the price of half a cow.”

“That’s…that’s all?” I said stupidly. “But—”

“That’s all,” he confirmed. “And all I ever will have from the MacKenzies. Ye’ll have noticed Dougal’s a thrifty man, and Colum’s twice as tight-fisted wi’ his coin. But even the princely sum of twenty pound a quarter is hardly worth marrying to get, I should think,” he added sarcastically, eyeing me.

“I wouldna have asked for it straight away, at that,” he added, bringing out a small paper-wrapped parcel, “but there was something I wanted to buy with it. That’s where my errand took me; meeting Laoghaire was an accident.”

“And what did you want to buy so much?” I asked suspiciously.

He sighed and hesitated for a moment, then tossed the small package lightly into my lap.

“A wedding ring, Sassenach,” he said. “I got it from Ewen the armorer; he makes such things in his own time.”

“Oh,” I said in a small voice.

“Go ahead,” he said, a moment later. “Open it. It’s yours.”

The outlines of the little package blurred under my fingers. I blinked and sniffed, but made no move to open it. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Well, so ye should be, Sassenach,” he said, but his voice was no longer angry. Reaching, he took the package from my lap and tore away the wrapping, revealing a wide silver band, decorated in the Highland interlace style, a small and delicate Jacobean thistle bloom carved in the center of each link.

So much I saw, and then my eyes blurred again.

I found a handkerchief thrust into my hand, and did my best to stanch the flow with it. “It’s…beautiful,” I said, clearing my throat and dabbling at my eyes.

“Will ye wear it, Claire?” His voice was gentle now, and his use of my name, mostly reserved for occasions of formality or tenderness, nearly made me break down again.

“You needna do so,” he said, looking at me seriously over his cupped palm. “The marriage contract between us is satisfied—it’s legal. You’re protected, safe from anything much save a warrant, and even from that, so long as you’re at Leoch. If ye wish, we may live apart—if that’s what ye were trying to say wi’ all yon rubbish about Laoghaire. You need have little more to do wi’ me, if that’s your honest choice.” He sat motionless, waiting, holding the tiny circlet near his heart.

So he was giving me the choice I had started out to give him. Forced on me by circumstance, he would force himself on me no longer, if I chose to reject him. And there was the alternative, of course: to accept the ring, and all that went with it.

The sun was setting. The last rays of light shone through a blue glass flagon that stood on the table, streaking the wall with a shaft of brilliant lapis. I felt as fragile and as brilliant as the glass, as though I would shatter with a touch, and fall in glittering fragments to the floor. If I had meant to spare either Jamie’s emotions or my own, it seemed I was very much too late.

I couldn’t speak, but held out my right hand to him, fingers trembling. The ring slipped cool and bright over my knuckle and rested snug at the base of my finger—a good fit. Jamie held my hand a moment, looking at it, then suddenly pressed my knuckles hard against his mouth. He raised his head, and I saw his face for an instant, fierce and urgent, before he pulled me roughly onto his lap.

He held me hard against him then, without speaking, and I could feel the pulsebeat in his throat, hammering like my own. His hands went to my bare shoulders, and he held me slightly away, so that I was looking upward into his face. His hands were large and very warm, and I felt slightly dizzy.

“I want ye, Claire,” he said, sounding choked. He paused a moment, as though unsure what to say next. “I want ye so much—I can scarcely breathe. Will—” He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “Will ye have me?”

By now I had found my voice. It squeaked and wobbled, but it worked.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’ll have you.”

“I think…” he began, then stopped. He fumbled loose the buckle of his kilt, but then looked up at me, bunching his hands at his sides. He spoke with difficulty, controlling something so powerful that his hands shook with the effort. “I’ll not…I can’t…Claire, I canna be gentle about it.”

I had time only to nod once, in acknowledgment or permission, before he bore me back before him, his weight pinning me to the bed.

He did not pause to undress further. I could smell the road dust in his shirt, and taste the sun and sweat of travel on his skin. He held me, arms outstretched, wrists pinioned. One hand brushed the wall, and I felt the tiny scrape of one wedding ring chiming against the stone. One ring for each hand, one silver, one gold. And the thin metal suddenly heavy as the bonds of matrimony, as though the rings were tiny shackles, fastening me spread-eagled to the bed, stretched forever between two poles, held in bondage like Prometheus on his lonely rock, divided love the vulture that tore at my heart.

He spread my thighs with his knee and sheathed himself to the root in a single thrust that made me gasp. He made a sound that was almost a groan, and gripped me tighter.

“You’re mine, mo duinne,” he said softly, pressing himself into my depths. “Mine alone, now and forever. Mine, whether ye will it or no.” I pulled against his grip, and sucked in my breath with a faint “ah” as he pressed even deeper.

“Aye, I mean to use ye hard, my Sassenach,” he whispered. “I want to own you, to possess you, body and soul.” I struggled slightly and he pressed me down, hammering me, a solid, inexorable pounding that reached my womb with each stroke. “I mean to make ye call me ‘Master,’ Sassenach.” His soft voice was a threat of revenge for the agonies of the last minutes. “I mean to make you mine.”

I quivered and moaned then, my flesh clutching in spasms at the invading, battering presence. The movement went on, disregarding, on and on for minutes, striking me over and over with an impact on the edge between pleasure and pain. I felt dissolved, as though I existed only at the point of the assault, being forced to the edge of some total surrender.

“No!” I gasped. “Stop, please, you’re hurting me!” Beads of sweat ran down his face and dropped on the pillow and on my br**sts. Our flesh met now with the smack of a blow that was fast crossing the edge into pain. My thighs were bruising with the repeated impact, and my wrists felt as though they would break, but his grip was inexorable.

“Aye, beg me for mercy, Sassenach. Ye shallna have it, though; not yet.” His breath came hot and fast, but he showed no signs of tiring. My entire body convulsed, legs rising to wrap around him, seeking to contain the sensation.

I could feel the jolt of each stroke deep in my belly, and cringed from it, even as my h*ps rose traitorously to welcome it. He felt my response, and redoubled his assault, pressing now on my shoulders to keep me pinned under him.

There was no beginning and no end to my response, only a continuous shudder that rose to a peak with each thrust. The hammering was a question, repeated over and over in my flesh, demanding my answer. He pushed my legs flat again, and bore me down past pain and into pure sensation, over the edge of surrender.

“Yes!” I cried. “Oh God, Jamie, yes!” He gripped my hair and forced my head back to meet his eyes, glowing with furious triumph.

“Aye, Sassenach,” he muttered, answering my movements rather than my words. “Ride ye I will!” His hands dropped to my br**sts, squeezing and stroking, then slid down my sides. His whole weight rested on me now as he cupped and raised me for still greater penetration. I screamed then and he stopped my mouth with his, not a kiss, but another attack, forcing my mouth open, bruising my lips and rasping my face with bearded stubble. He thrust harder and faster, as though he would force my soul as he forced my body. In body or soul, somewhere he struck a spark, and an answering fury of passion and need sprang from the ashes of surrender. I arched upward to meet him, blow for blow. I bit his lip and tasted blood.

I felt his teeth then on my neck and dug my nails into his back. I raked him from nape to buttocks, spurring him to rear and scream in his turn. We savaged each other in desperate need, biting and clawing, trying to draw blood, trying each to pull the other into ourselves, tearing each other’s flesh in the consuming desire to be one. My cry mingled with his, and we lost ourselves finally in each other in that last moment of dissolution and completion.

I returned only slowly to myself, lying half on Jamie’s breast, sweated bodies still glued together, thigh to thigh. He breathed heavily, eyes closed. I could hear his heart under my ear, beating with the preternaturally slow and powerful rhythm that follows cli**x.

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