An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 40

   

His eyes went wide as I laid what appeared to be a gold nugget the size of a walnut on the counter. It was in fact a bit of one of the French ingots, hacked off and hammered into a lump, then rubbed with dirt by way of disguise.

“My husband won it in a card game,” I said, with the tone of mingled pride and apology that seemed appropriate to such an admission. I didn’t want anyone thinking that there was gold on Fraser’s Ridge—in any form. Boosting Jamie’s reputation as a card player wasn’t likely to do any harm; he was already well known—if not quite notorious—for his abilities in that line.

Moray frowned a bit over the written specifications for the acupuncture needles, but agreed to make them. Luckily, he appeared never to have heard of voodoo dolls, or I might have had a bit more trouble.

With the visit to the silversmith and a quick trip through the market square for spring onions, cheese, peppermint leaves, and anything else available in the herbal line, it was late afternoon before I came back to the King’s Arms.

Jamie was playing cards in the taproom, with Young Ian watching over his shoulder, but he saw me come in and, giving over his hand to Ian, came to take my basket, following me up the stairs to our room.

I turned round inside the door, but before I could speak, he said, “I know Tom Christie’s alive. I met him in the street.”

“He kissed me,” I blurted.

“Aye, I heard,” he said, eyeing me with what might have been amusement. For some reason, I found that very annoying. He saw that, and the amusement deepened.

“Like it, did ye?”

“It wasn’t funny!”

The amusement didn’t go away, but it retreated a bit.

“Did ye like it?” he repeated, but now there was curiosity in his voice, rather than teasing.

“No.” I turned away abruptly. “That—I hadn’t time to … to think about it.”

Without warning, he put a hand behind my neck and kissed me briefly. And by simple reflex, I slapped him. Not hard—I’d tried to pull back even as I struck—and clearly I hadn’t hurt him. I was as surprised and discomfited as though I’d knocked him flat.

“Doesna take much thought, does it?” he said lightly, and stepped back, surveying me with interest.

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling simultaneously mortified and angry—and angrier still in that I didn’t understand why I was angry in the slightest. “I didn’t mean to—I’m sorry.”

He tilted his head to one side, eyeing me.

“Had I better go and kill him?”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous.” I fidgeted, untying my pocket, not wanting to meet his eyes. I was prickly, discomfited, irritated—and the more discomfited by not really knowing why.

“It was an honest question, Sassenach,” he said quietly. “Not a serious one, maybe—but honest. I think ye maybe owe me an honest answer.”

“Of course I don’t want you to kill him!”

“D’ye want me to tell you why ye slapped me, instead?”

“Why—” I stood with my mouth open for a second, then closed it. “Yes. I do.”

“I touched ye against your will,” he said, his eyes intent on mine. “Didn’t I?”

“You did,” I said, and breathed a little easier. “And so did Tom Christie. And, no, I didn’t like it.”

“But not on Tom’s account,” he finished. “Poor fellow.”

“He wouldn’t want your sympathy,” I said tartly, and he smiled.

“He would not. But he’s got it, nonetheless. Still, I’m glad of it,” he added.

“Glad of what? That he’s alive—or—surely not that he thinks he’s in love with me?” I said, incredulous.

“Dinna belittle his feelings, Sassenach,” he said, more quietly. “He’s laid down his life for ye once. I’d trust him to do it again.”

“I didn’t want him to do it the first time!”

“You’re bothered,” he said, in a tone of clinical interest.

“Yes, I am bloody bothered!” I said. “And”—the thought struck me and I gave him a hard look—“so are you.” I recalled suddenly that he’d said he’d met Tom Christie in the street. What had Tom said to him?

He tilted his head in mild negation, but didn’t deny it.

“I willna say I like Thomas Christie,” he said consideringly, “but I respect him. And I am verra much pleased to find him alive. Ye didna do wrong to grieve him, Sassenach,” he said gently. “I did, too.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that.” In the shock of seeing him, I hadn’t remembered, but I’d wept for him—and for his children. “I don’t regret it, though.”

“Good. The thing about Tom Christie,” he went on, “is that he wants ye. Badly. But he doesna ken a thing about you.”

“And you do.” I left it somewhere between question and challenge, and he smiled. He turned and shot the bolt on the door, then crossed the room and drew the calico curtain on the one small window, casting the room into a pleasant blue dimness.

“Oh, I’ve need and want in plenty—but I’ve knowing, too.” He was standing very close, close enough that I had to look up to him. “I’ve never kissed ye without knowing who ye were—and that’s a thing poor Tom will never know.” God, what had Tom told him?

My pulse, which had been jumping up and down, settled down to a quick, light thump, discernible in my fingertips.

“You didn’t know a thing about me when you married me.”

His hand closed gently on my behind.

“No?”

“Besides that, I mean!”

He made a small Scottish sound in his throat, not quite a chuckle.

“Aye, well, it’s a wise man who kens what he doesna know—and I learn fast, a nighean.”

He drew me gently close then, and kissed me—with thought and tenderness, with knowing—and with my full consent. It didn’t obliterate my memory of Tom Christie’s impassioned, blundering embrace, and I thought it wasn’t meant to; it was meant to show me the difference.

“You can’t be jealous,” I said, a moment later.

“I can,” he said, not joking.

“You can’t possibly think—”

“I don’t.”

“Well, then—”

“Well, then.” His eyes were dark as seawater in the dimness, but the expression in them was entirely readable, and my heart beat faster. “I ken what ye feel for Tom Christie—and he told me plain what he feels for you. Surely ye ken that love’s nothing to do wi’ logic, Sassenach?”

Knowing a rhetorical question when I heard one, I didn’t bother answering that, but instead reached out and tidily unbuttoned his shirt. There was nothing I could reasonably say about Tom Christie’s feelings, but I had another language in which to express my own. His heart was beating fast; I could feel it as though I held it in my hand. Mine was, too, but I breathed deep and took comfort in the warm familiarity of his body, the soft crispness of the cinnamon-colored hairs of his chest, and the gooseflesh that raised them under my fingers. While I was thus engaged, he slid his fingers into my hair, separating a lock which he viewed appraisingly.

“It’s not gone white yet. I suppose I’ve a little time, then, before ye get too dangerous for me to bed.”

“Dangerous, forsooth,” I said, setting to work on the buttons of his breeks. I wished he had on his kilt. “Exactly what do you think I might do to you in bed?”

He scratched his chest consideringly, and rubbed absently at the tiny knot of scar tissue where he’d cut Jack Randall’s brand from his flesh.

“Well, so far, ye’ve clawed me, bitten me, stabbed me—more than once—and—”

“I have not stabbed you!”

“Ye did, too,” he informed me. “Ye stabbed me in the backside wi’ your nasty wee needle spikes—fifteen times! I counted—and then a dozen times or more in the leg with a rattlesnake’s fang.”

“I was saving your bloody life!”

“I didna say otherwise, did I? Ye’re no going to deny ye enjoyed it, though, are ye?”

“Well … not the rattlesnake fang, so much. As for the hypodermic …” My mouth twitched, despite myself. “You deserved it.”

He gave me a look of profound cynicism.

“Do nay harm, is it?”

“Besides, you were counting what I’d done to you in bed,” I said, neatly returning to the point. “You can’t count the shots.”

“I was in bed!”

“I wasn’t!”

“Aye, ye took unfair advantage,” he said, nodding. “I wouldna hold that against ye, though.”

He’d got my jacket off and was busily untying my laces, head bent in absorption.

“How’d you like it if I were jealous?” I asked the crown of his head.

“I’d like that fine,” he replied, breath warm on my exposed flesh. “And ye were. Of Laoghaire.” He looked up, grinning, eyebrow raised. “Maybe ye still are?”

I slapped him again, and this time I meant it. He could have stopped me but didn’t.

“Aye, that’s what I thought,” he said, wiping a watering eye. “Will ye come to bed wi’ me, then? It’ll be just us,” he added.

IT WAS LATE WHEN I woke; the room was dark, though a slice of fading sky showed at the top of the curtain. The fire hadn’t yet been lit and the room was chilly, but it was warm and cozy under the quilts, snug against Jamie’s body. He had turned onto his side, and I curled spoonlike against his back and put my arm over him, feeling the gentle rise and fall of his breath.

It had been just us. I’d worried, at the start, that the memory of Tom Christie and his awkward passion might fall between us—but Jamie, evidently thinking the same thing and determined to avoid any echo of Tom’s embrace that might remind me, had started at the other end, kissing my toes.

Given the size of the room and the fact that the bed was jammed tightly into one end of it, he had been obliged to straddle me in order to do this, and the combination of having my feet nibbled and the view from directly behind and beneath a naked Scotsman had been sufficient to remove anything else from my head.

Warm, safe, and calm now, I could think about the earlier encounter without feeling threatened, though. And I had felt threatened. Jamie had seen that. D’ye want me to tell you why ye slapped me? … I touched ye against your will.

He was right; it was one of the minor aftereffects of what had happened to me when I had been abducted. Crowds of men made me nervous with no cause, and being grabbed unexpectedly made me recoil and jerk away in panic. Why hadn’t I seen that?

Because I didn’t want to think about it, that’s why. I still didn’t. What good would thinking do? Let things heal on their own, if they would.

But even things that heal leave scars. The evidence of that was literally in front of my face—pressed against it, in fact.

The scars on Jamie’s back had faded into a pale spiderweb, with only a slight raised bit here or there, ridged under my fingers when we made love, like barbed wire beneath his skin. I remembered Tom Christie taunting him about them once, and my jaw tightened.

I laid a hand softly on his back, tracing one pale loop with my thumb. He twitched in his sleep and I stilled, hand flat.

What might be coming? I wondered. For him. For me. I heard Tom Christie’s sarcastic voice: I have had enough of war. I am surprised that your husband has not.

“Well enough for you,” I muttered under my breath. “Coward.” Tom Christie had been imprisoned as a Jacobite—which he was, but not a soldier. He’d been a commissary supply officer in Charles Stuart’s army. He’d risked his wealth and his position—and lost both—but not his life or body.

Still, Jamie did respect him—which meant something, Jamie being no mean judge of character. And I knew enough from watching Roger to realize that becoming a clergyman was not the easy path that some people thought it. Roger was not a coward, either, and I wondered how he would find his path in the future?

I turned over, restless. Supper was being prepared; I could smell the rich, saltwater smell of fried oysters from the kitchen below, borne on a wave of woodsmoke and roasting potatoes.

Jamie stirred a little and rolled onto his back, but didn’t wake. Time enough. He was dreaming; I could see the movement of his eyes, twitching beneath sealed lids, and the momentary tightening of his lips.

His body tightened, too, suddenly hard beside me, and I jerked back, startled. He growled low in his throat, and his body arched with effort. He was making strangled noises, whether shouting or screaming in his dream I didn’t know, and didn’t wait to find out.

“Jamie—wake up!” I said sharply. I didn’t touch him—I knew better than to do that while he was in the grip of a violent dream; he’d nearly broken my nose once or twice. “Wake up!”

He gasped, caught his breath, and opened unfocused eyes. Plainly he didn’t know where he was, and I spoke to him more gently, repeating his name, reassuring him that he was all right. He blinked, swallowed heavily, then turned his head and saw me.

“Claire,” I said helpfully, seeing him groping for my name.

“Good,” he said hoarsely. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and then opened them again. “All right, Sassenach?”

“Yes. You?”

He nodded, closing his eyes again briefly.

“Aye, fine. I was dreaming about the house burning. Fighting.” He sniffed. “Is something burning?”

“Supper, at a guess.” The savory smells from below had in fact been interrupted by the acrid stench of smoke and scorched food. “I think the stewpot boiled over.”

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