The Blue Bull, he decided. He’d glanced into the shed there as he passed earlier, and seen a good pile of clean straw. He’d spend a penny or two for dinner, and perhaps the owner would let him sleep in the stable for the sake of Christian kindness.
Turning, his eye caught sight of a sign on the house across the road.
WILMINGTON GAZETTEER, JNO. GILLETTE. PROP., it read. Wilmington’s newspaper; one of the few in the Colony of North Carolina. One too many, if you asked Roger. He fought the urge to pick up a rock and hurl it through Jno. Gillette’s window. Instead, he yanked the sodden band off his head and, making an effort to tidy himself into some semblance of decency, turned toward the river and the Blue Bull.
She was there.
She was sitting by the hearth, her tailed hair sparking in the firelight, engaged in conversation with a young man whose smile Roger wanted to wipe off forcibly. Instead, he slammed the door behind him with a crash and started toward her. She turned, startled, and stared blankly at the bearded stranger. Recognition flashed in her eyes, then joy, and a huge smile spread across her face.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s you.” Then her eyes changed, as realization flared up like a brushfire. She screamed. It was a good full-bodied scream, and every head in the tavern snapped round at the sound of it.
“Damn you!” He lunged across the table, and got her by the arm. “What the devil do you think you’re doing?”
Her face had gone dead white, her eyes round and dark with shock. She jerked away, trying to free herself.
“That I won’t! You’ll come with me, and ye’ll do it this moment!”
Sidling round the table, he got hold of her other arm, jerked her up, whirled her around and pushed her in front of him toward the door.
“MacKenzie!” Damn, it was one of the seamen from the cargo boat. Roger glowered at the man, willing him to keep out of it. Luckily the man was both smaller and older than Roger; he hesitated, but then took courage from the company and lifted his chin pugnaciously.
“What you doing to the lass, MacKenzie? Leave her be!” There was a stir among the crowd, men turning from their drinks, attracted by the uproar. He had to get out of here now, or he wouldn’t get out at all.
“Tell them it’s all right, tell them you know me!” he whispered into Brianna’s ear.
“It’s all right.” Brianna spoke, voice husky with shock, but loud enough to be heard over the growing hubbub. “It’s all right. I—I know him.” The seaman dropped back a little, still dubious. A scrawny young girl in the inglenook had gotten to her feet; she looked frightened to death, but bravely clutched a stone ale bottle in one fist, evidently intending to hit Roger with it, if necessary. Her high-pitched voice rang out above the suspicious grumble of voices.
“Miss Bree! Ye’ll not go wi’ yon black villain, surely?”
Brianna made a sound that might have been laughter, choked by hysteria. Reaching up, she dug her nails hard into the back of his hand. Startled by the pain, he loosened his grip and she yanked her arm out of his grasp.
“It’s all right,” she repeated, more firmly to the room at large. “I know him.” She made a small shooing gesture at the girl. “Lizzie, go on up to bed. I’ll—I’ll be back later.” She whirled on her bootheel and headed for the door, walking fast. Roger gave the taproom a menacing glare, to discourage anyone who thought of interfering, and followed her.
She was waiting right outside the door; her fingers sank into his arm with a fierceness that might have been gratifying were it prompted solely by joy at seeing him. He doubted it.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
He detached her fingers and gripped them firmly.
“Not here,” he snapped. He took her arm and dragged her a little way down the road, to the shelter of a big horse-chestnut tree. The sky still glowed with the remnants of twilight, but the drooping branches reached nearly to the ground, and it was dark enough underneath to hide them from any curious souls who thought of venturing after them.
She whirled on him the instant they reached its shadows.
“What are you doing here, for God’s sake?”
“Looking for you, ye wee fool! And what in the name of all holy are you doing here? And dressed like that, God damn you!” He’d had the briefest look at her in her breeches and shirt, but it was enough.
In her own time, the clothes would have been so baggy as to be sexless. After months of seeing women in long skirts and arisaids, though, the blatant division of her legs, the sheer bloody length of thigh and curve of calf, seemed so outrageous that he wanted to wrap a sheet around her.
“Bloody woman! You might as well walk down the street nak*d!”
“Don’t be an idiot! What are you doing here?”
“I told you—looking for you.”
He took her by the shoulders, then, and kissed her, hard. Fear, anger, and the sheer relief of finding her were fused at once into a solid bolt of desire, and he found he was shaking with it. So was she. She was clinging to him, shaking in his arms.
“It’s all right,” he whispered to her. He buried his mouth in her hair. “It’s all right, I’m here. I’ll take care of you.”
She jerked upright, out of his arms.
“All right?” she cried. “How can you say that? For God’s sake, you’re here!”
There was no mistaking the horror in her voice. He grabbed her by the arm.
“And where the hell else should I be, with you tearing off into f**king nowhere and risking your bloody neck, and—why the hell did you do it?!”
“I’m looking for my parents. What else would I be doing here?”
“I know that, for God’s sake! I mean why in hell did you not tell me what you meant to do?”
She jerked her arm out of his grasp and gave him a healthy shove in the chest that all but sent him staggering.
“Because you wouldn’t have let me go, that’s why! You’d have tried to stop me, and—”
“Damn right I would! God, I’d have locked you in a room, or tied you hand and foot! Of all the flea-brained notions—”
She hit him, a full-palmed slap that caught him hard across the cheekbone.
“Bloody woman! D’ye expect me to let you go off into—into nothing, and I sit at home twiddling my thumbs while you’re having your womb paraded on a pike in the marketplace? What sort of man d’ye think I am?”
He felt her movement rather than saw it, and grabbed her wrist before she could slap him again.
“I’m in no mood for that, girl! Hit me once more, and by Christ, I will do you violence!”
She folded her other hand into a fist and punched him in the belly, quick as a striking snake.
He wanted to hit her back. Instead, he grabbed her, and with a handful of her hair wrapped round his fist, kissed her as hard as he could.
She squirmed and struggled against him, making strangled noises, but he didn’t stop. Then she was kissing him back, and they sank to their knees together. Her arms came round his neck as he bore her down beneath him to the leaf-matted ground beneath the tree. Then she was crying in his arms, choking and gasping, tears running down her face as she clutched him.
“Why?” she sobbed. “Why did you have to follow me? Didn’t you realize? Now what are we going to do!”
“Do? Do about what?” He couldn’t tell whether she was crying from anger or fear—both, he thought.
She stared up at him through strands of tangled hair.
“Getting back! You have to have somebody to go to—somebody you care for. You’re the only person I love at that end—or you were! How am I going to get back, if you’re here? And how will you get back, if I’m here?”
He stopped dead, fear and anger both forgotten, and his hands clamped tight on her wrists to stop her hitting him again.
“That’s why? That’s why you wouldn’t tell me? Because you love me? Jesus Christ!”
He let go of her wrists and lay on top of her instead. He grabbed her face with both hands and tried to kiss her again. She gave a sudden snap of her hips, swung her legs up on either side, and scissored him neatly across the back, crushing his ribs.
He rolled, breaking the hold, and brought her with him, ending on his back, with her on top. He got a hand in her hair and drew her face down to his panting.
“Stop,” he said. “Christ, what is this, a wrestling match?”
“Let go of my hair.” She shook her head, trying to dislodge his grip. “I hate having my hair pulled.”
He let go of her hair, and slid his hand up the length of her neck, fingers curled round the slender nape, a thumb resting on the pulse in her throat. It was going like a trip-hammer; so was his.
“Right, how are ye on being choked?”
“Don’t like it.”
“Neither do I. Get your arm off my neck, aye?”
Very slowly, her weight eased back. He still felt short of breath, but not from being choked. He didn’t want to let go of her neck. Not from fear of her cutting loose again, but because he couldn’t bear to lose the feel of her. It had been too long.
She reached up and took hold of his wrist, but didn’t pull his hand away. He felt her swallow.
“Right,” he whispered. “Say it. I want to hear it.”
“I…love…you,” she said, between her teeth. “Got it?”
“Aye, I’ve got it.” He took her face between his hands, very gently, and drew her down. She came, arms trembling and giving way beneath her.
“You’re sure?” he said.
“Yes. What are we going to do?” she said, and began to cry.
“We.” She’d said we. She’d said she was sure.
Roger lay in the dust of the road, bruised, filthy, and starving, with a woman trembling and weeping against his chest, now and then giving him a small thump with her fist. He had never felt happier in his life.
“Hush,” he whispered, half rocking her. “It’s all right; there’s another way. We’ll get back; I know how. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.”
Finally, she wore herself out, and lay still in the crook of his arm, sniffling and hiccuping. There was a large wet spot on the front of his shirt. The crickets in the tree, startled into silence by the uproar, cautiously resumed their songs overhead.
She freed herself and sat up, fumbling in the dark.
“I have to blow my dose,” she said thickly. “Do you have a hadky?”
He gave her the damp rag he used to tie back his hair. She made whooshing noises, and he smiled in the dark.
“You sound like a can of shaving cream.”
“And when was the last time you saw one of those?” She lay down on him again, head tucked into the curve of his shoulder, and reached up to touch his jaw. He’d shaved two days ago; there had been neither time nor opportunity since.
Her hair still smelled faintly of grass, though no longer of artificial flowers. It must be her natural scent.
She sighed deeply, tightened her arm around him.