After a moment’s silence, he turned to me.
“May I… You will think me odd.”
“Well, you are a bit odd, aren’t you?” I said tolerantly. “I don’t really mind, though. What is it?”
He gave me a look, strongly suggesting that if one of us was indeed odd, he didn’t think it was himself. Gentlemanly instincts suppressed any remark he might have made to this effect, though.
“Will you allow me to see you? Ah… naked?”
I closed one eye and looked at him.
“This certainly isn’t the first time you’ve slept—I do mean slept with—a woman, is it?” I asked. He had been married, though I seemed to recall that he had spent much of his married life living separately from his wife.
He pursed his lips thoughtfully, as though trying to recall.
“Well, no. I do think it may be the first time I’ve done it entirely voluntarily, though.”
“Oh, I am flattered!”
He glanced at me, smiling slightly.
“So you should be,” he said quietly.
I was of an age, after all, where… Well, on the other hand, he presumably didn’t have the same instinctive reactions that the majority of men did, in terms of feminine attractions. Which rather left open the question …
A shy smile touched the corner of his mouth, and he hitched himself up against the pillow.
“I… am not quite sure, to tell you the truth. Perhaps it is only an effort to reconcile my memories of last night with the … er … actuality of the experience?”
I felt a sharp jolt, as though he had punched me in the chest. He couldn’t have known my first thoughts on waking and seeing him—that sharp, disorienting flash when I had thought he was Jamie, remembering so acutely Jamie’s flesh and weight and ardor, and so urgently wanted him to be Jamie that I had succeeded for an instant in thinking that he was, only to be crushed like a grape at the realization that he wasn’t, all my soft insides spurting out.
Had he felt or thought the same things, waking to find me there beside him?
“Or perhaps it is curiosity,” he said, smiling a little more broadly. “I have not seen a naked woman in some time, bar Negro slaves at the docks in Charleston.”
“How long is some time? Fifteen years, you said?”
“Oh, a good deal longer than that. Isobel—” He stopped abruptly, the smile vanishing. He hadn’t mentioned his dead wife before.
“You never saw her naked?” I asked, with more than idle curiosity. He turned his face away a little, eyes cast down.
“Ah … no. It wasn’t… She did not… No.” He cleared his throat, then raised his eyes, looking into mine with an honesty raw enough to make me want to look away.
“I am naked to you,” he said simply, and drew back the sheet.
Thus invited, I could hardly not look at him. And in all truth, I wanted to, out of simple curiosity. He was trim and lightly built, but muscular and solid. A little softness at the waist, but no fat—and softly furred with vigorous blond hair, darkening to brown at his crutch. It was a warrior’s body; I was well acquainted with those. One side of his chest was heavily marked with crisscrossing scars, and there were others—a deep one across the top of one thigh, a jagged thing like a lightning bolt down his left forearm.
At least my own scars weren’t visible, I thought, and before I could hesitate further, I pulled the sheet away from my own body. He looked at it with deep curiosity, smiling a little.
“You are very lovely,” he said politely.
“For a woman of my age?”
His gaze passed over me dispassionately, not with any sense of judgment but rather with the air of a man of educated tastes evaluating what he saw in the light of years of seeing.
“No,” he said finally. “Not for a woman of your age; not for a woman at all, I think.”
“As what, then?” I asked, fascinated. “An object? A sculpture?” In a way, I could see that. Something like museum sculptures, perhaps: weathered statues, fragments of vanished culture, holding within them some remnant of the original inspiration, this remnant in some odd way magnified by the lens of age, sanctified by antiquity. I had never regarded myself in such a light, but I couldn’t think what else he might mean.
“As my friend,” he said simply.
“Oh,” I said, very touched. “Thank you.”
I waited, then drew the sheet up over both of us.
“Since we’re friends …” I said, somewhat emboldened.
“I only wondered… have you… been quite alone all this time? Since your wife died?”
He sighed, but smiled to let me know he didn’t mind the question.
“If you really must know, I have for many years enjoyed a physical relationship with my cook.”
“With… your cook?”
“Not with Mrs. Figg, no,” he said hastily, hearing the horror in my voice. “I meant with my cook at Mount Josiah, in Virginia. His name is Manoke.”
“Ma—oh!” I recalled Bobby Higgins telling me that Lord John retained an Indian named Manoke to cook for him.
“It is not merely the relief of necessary urges,” he added pointedly, turning his head to meet my eyes. “There is true liking between us.”
“I’m pleased to hear that,” I murmured. “He, er, he’s…”
“I have no idea whether his preference is solely for men. I rather doubt it—I was somewhat surprised when he made his desires known in re myself—but I am in no position to complain, whatever his tastes may be.”
I rubbed a knuckle over my lips, not wanting to seem vulgarly curious—but vulgarly curious, all the same.
“You don’t mind, if he … takes other lovers? Or he you, come to that?” I had a sudden uneasy apprehension. I did not intend that what had happened the night before should ever happen again. In fact, I was still trying to convince myself that it hadn’t happened this time. Nor did I mean to go to Virginia with him. But what if I should and Lord John’s household then assumed… I had visions of a jealous Indian cook poisoning my soup or lying in wait behind the necessary house with a tomahawk.
John himself seemed to be considering the matter, lips pursed. He had a heavy beard, I saw; the blond stubble softened his features and at the same time gave me an odd feeling of strangeness—I had so seldom seen him less than perfectly shaved and groomed.
“No. There is… no sense of possession in it,” he said finally.
I gave him a look of patent disbelief.
“I assure you,” he said, smiling a little. “It—well. Perhaps I can describe it best by analogy. At my plantation—it belongs to William, of course; I refer to it as mine only in the sense of habitation—”
I made a small polite sound in my throat, indicating that he might curtail his inclinations toward complete accuracy in the interests of getting on with it.
“At the plantation,” he said, ignoring me, “there is a large open space at the rear of the house. It was a small clearing at first, and over the years I have enlarged it and finally made a lawn of it, but the edge of the clearing runs up to the trees. In the evenings, quite often, deer come out of the forest to feed at the edges of the lawn. Now and then, though, I see a particular deer. It’s white, I suppose, but it looks as though it’s made of silver. I don’t know whether it comes only in the moonlight or whether it’s only that I cannot see it save by moonlight—but it is a sight of rare beauty.”
His eyes had softened, and I could see that he wasn’t looking at the plaster ceiling overhead but at the white deer, coat shining in the moonlight.
“It comes for two nights, three—rarely, four—and then it’s gone, and I don’t see it again for weeks, sometimes months. And then it comes again, and I am enchanted once more.”
He rolled onto his side in a rustle of bedclothes, regarding me.
“Do you see? I do not own this creature—would not, if I could. Its coming is a gift, which I accept with gratitude, but when it’s gone, there is no sense of abandonment or deprivation. I’m only glad to have had it for so long as it chose to remain.”
“And you’re saying that your relationship with Manoke is the same. Does he feel that way about you, do you think?” I asked, fascinated. He glanced at me, clearly startled.
“I have no idea.”
“You, um, don’t… talk in bed?” I said, striving for delicacy.
His mouth twitched, and he looked away.
We lay in silence for a few moments, examining the ceiling.
“Have you ever?” I blurted.
“Have I what?”
“Had a lover that you talked to.”
He cut his eyes at me.
“Yes. Perhaps not quite so frankly as I find myself talking to you, but, yes.” He opened his mouth as though to say or ask something further, but instead breathed in, shut his mouth firmly, and let the air out slowly through his nose.
I knew—I couldn’t not know—that he wanted very much to know what Jamie was like in bed, beyond what I had inadvertently shown him the night before. And I was obliged to admit to myself that I was very tempted to tell him, only in order to bring Jamie back to life for the brief moments while we talked. But I knew that such revelations would have a price: not only a later sense of betrayal of Jamie but a sense of shame at using John—whether he wished such usage or not. But if the memories of what had passed between Jamie and myself in our intimacy were no longer shared—still, they belonged only to that intimacy and were not mine to give away.
It occurred to me—belatedly, as so many things did these days—that John’s intimate memories belonged to him, as well.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” I said apologetically.
He smiled faintly, but with real humor.
“I am flattered, madam, that you should entertain an interest in me. I know many more … conventional marriages in which the partners remain by preference in complete ignorance of each other’s thoughts and histories.”
With considerable startlement, I realized that there was now an intimacy between myself and John—unexpected and uninvited on both our parts, but… there it was.
The realization made me shy, and with that realization came a more practical one: to wit, that a person with functional kidneys cannot lie in bed drinking beer forever.
He noticed my slight shifting and rose at once himself, donning his banyan before fetching my own dressing gown—which, I saw with a sense of unease, some kindly hand had hung over a chair to warm before the fire.
“Where did that come from?” I asked, nodding at the silk robe he held for me.
“From your bedroom, I assume.” He frowned at me for a moment before discerning what I meant. “Oh. Mrs. Figg brought it in when she built the fire.”
“Oh,” I said faintly. The thought of Mrs. Figg seeing me in Lord John’s bed—doubtless out cold, disheveled, and snoring, if not actually drooling—was hideously mortifying. For that matter, the mere fact of my being in his bed was deeply embarrassing, no matter what I had looked like.
“We are married,” he pointed out, with a slight edge to his voice.
“Er… yes. But…” A further thought came to me: perhaps this was not so unusual an occurrence for Mrs. Figg as I thought—had he entertained other women in his bed from time to time?
“Do you sleep with women? Er … not sleep, I mean, but …”
He stared at me, stopped in the act of untangling his hair.
“Not willingly,” he said. He paused, then laid down his silver comb. “Is there anything else you would like to ask me,” he inquired, with exquisite politeness, “before I allow the bootboy to come in?”
Despite the fire, the room was chilly, but my cheeks bloomed with heat. I drew the silk dressing gown tighter.
“Since you offer… I know Brianna told you what—what we are. Do you believe it?”
He considered me for a time without speaking. He didn’t have Jamie’s ability to mask his feelings, and I could see his mild irritation at my previous question fade into amusement. He gave me a small bow.
“No,” he said, “but I give you my word that I will of course behave in all respects as if I did.”
I stared at him until I became aware that my mouth was hanging unattractively open. I closed it.
“Fair enough,” I said.
The odd little bubble of intimacy in which we had spent the last half hour had burst, and despite the fact that I had been the one asking nosy questions, I felt like a snail suddenly deprived of its shell—not merely naked but fatally exposed, emotionally as well as physically. Thoroughly rattled, I murmured a farewell and made for the door.
“Claire?” he said, a question in his voice.
I stopped, hand on the doorknob, feeling quite queer; he’d never called me by my name before. It took a small effort to look over my shoulder at him, but when I did, I found him smiling.
“Think of the deer,” he said gently. “My dear.”
I nodded, wordless, and made my escape. Only later, after I had washed—vigorously—dressed, and had a restorative cup of tea with brandy in it, did I make sense of this last remark.
Its coming is a gift, he’d said of the white deer, which I accept with gratitude.
I breathed the fragrant steam and watched the tiny curls of tea leaf drift to the bottom of the cup. For the first time in weeks, I wondered just what the future might hold.
“Fair enough,” I whispered, and drained the cup, the shreds of tea leaf strong and bitter on my tongue.
IT WAS DARK. Darker than any place he’d ever been. Night outside wasn’t really ever dark, even when the sky was cloudy, but this was darker than the back of Mandy’s closet when they played hide ’n seek. There was a crack between the doors, he could feel it with his fingers, but no light came through it at all. It must still be night. Maybe there’d be light through the crack when it got morning.