“I am,” said the red-haired man. “You’ll know me?” The tone of the question was distinctly unfriendly.
Roger took a deep breath, cursing his own dishevelment. He didn’t know how Brianna might have described him to her father, but Fraser had evidently expected something a good deal more prepossessing.
“Well, you—look quite a bit like your daughter.”
The young man gave a loud snort, but Fraser didn’t look around.
“And what business have ye wi’ my daughter?” Fraser moved for the first time, stepping out from the shadow of the trees. No, Claire hadn’t exaggerated. He was big, even an inch or two taller than Roger himself.
Roger felt a stab of alarm, mingled with his confusion. What the hell had Brianna told him? Surely she couldn’t have been so angry that—well, he’d sort that out when he saw her.
“I’ve come to claim my wife,” he said boldly.
Something changed in Fraser’s eyes. Roger didn’t know what it was, but it made him drop his hat, and half raise his hands in reflex.
“Oh, no, ye’re not.” It was the boy who had spoken, in an odd tone of satisfaction.
Roger glanced at him, and was still more alarmed to see the lad’s big, bony knuckles white on the pistol’s grip.
“Here be careful! You don’t want that to go off by accident,” he said.
The young man’s lip lifted in a sneer.
“If it goes off, it’ll be no accident.”
“Ian.” Fraser’s voice stayed level, but the pistol lowered, reluctantly. The big man took another step forward. His eyes were fixed on Roger’s, deep blue and slanted; unnervingly like Brianna’s.
“I’ll ask only the once, and I mean to hear the truth,” he said, quite mildly. “Have ye taken my daughter’s maidenheid?”
Roger felt his face grow hot as a flood of warmth washed up from chest to hairline. Christ, what had she told her father? And for God’s sake, why? The last thing he had expected to meet was an infuriated father, bent on avenging his daughter’s virtue.
“It’s…ah…well, it’s not what you think,” he blurted. “I mean, we…that is…we meant to…”
“Did ye or no?” Fraser’s face was no more than a foot away, completely expressionless, save for whatever it was that burned, far back in his eyes.
“Look—I—damn it, yes! She wanted to—”
Fraser hit him, just under the ribs.
Roger doubled and staggered back, gasping from the blow. It didn’t hurt—yet—but he’d felt the force of it all the way to his spine. His principal feeling was one of amazement, tinged with anger.
“Stop,” he said, trying to get enough breath to talk. “Stop! For God’s sake, I said I—”
Fraser hit him again, this time on the side of the jaw. That one hurt, a glancing blow that scraped the skin and left his jawbone throbbing. Roger jerked back, fear turning rapidly to fury. The bloody sod was trying to kill him!
Fraser swung at him again, but missed as Roger ducked and whirled. Well, to f**k with good family relations, then!
He took a giant step backward, shrugging out of his coat. To his surprise, Fraser didn’t come after him, but stood there, fists at his sides, waiting.
The blood was drumming in Roger’s ears, and he had no eyes for anyone but Fraser. If it was a fight the bugger wanted, that’s what he’d get, then.
Roger crouched, hands up and ready. He’d been taken by surprise, but he wouldn’t be caught that way again. No brawler, still he’d been in his share of pub fights. They were well matched for height and reach, and he had more than fifteen years’ advantage on the man.
He saw Fraser’s right, ducked and countered, felt his fist brush linen as it passed Fraser’s side and then the left he hadn’t seen took him in the eye. Bloody stars and streaks of light exploded through the side of his head, and tears ran down his cheek as he launched himself at Fraser, roaring.
He hit the man; he could feel his fists strike flesh, but it seemed to make no difference. Through his one sound eye, he could see that broad-boned face, set in eerie calm, like a Viking berserker. He swung, and it disappeared, bobbed up again; he swung, grazing an ear. A blow struck him in the shoulder; he swung half around with it, recovered, and launched himself headfirst.
“She’s…mine,” Roger gritted between clenched teeth. He had his arms wrapped around Fraser’s body, felt the deep-sprung ribs give as he squeezed. He’d crack the bastard like a nut. “Mine…hear?”
Fraser rabbit-punched him in the back of the neck, a glancing blow, but hard enough to numb his left arm and shoulder. He let go his grip, hunched and drove his right shoulder hard into Fraser’s chest, trying to drive the older man off his feet.
Fraser took a short step back and hooked him hard, but the blow struck his ribs, not the soft flesh below. Still, it was hard enough to make him grunt and jerk back, crouching to protect himself.
Fraser lowered his head and butted him, straight on; he flew backward and landed hard. Blood from his nose ran down his mouth and chin; with a sense of remoteness, he watched the spatter of dark red drops grow and run together into a splotch on his shirt.
He rolled to one side to avoid the kick he saw coming, but not far enough. As he rolled frantically the other way, it occurred to him, in a detached sort of way, that while he might be fifteen years younger than his opponent, Jamie Fraser had likely spent every one of those fifteen years engaged in physical combat.
He had got momentarily out of range. Gulping air, he rolled up onto his hands and knees. Blood gurgled through smashed cartilage with each breath; he could taste it in the back of his throat, a taste like sheared metal.
“Nuff,” he panted. “No. ’Nuff!”
A hand grabbed his hair and jerked back his head. Blue eyes glittered six inches away, and he felt the man’s breath hot on his face.
“Not nearly enough,” Fraser said, and kneed him in the mouth. He fell over and rolled once, then struggled to his feet. The clearing blurred in a throb of orange and yellow; only instinct got him up and moving.
He was fighting for his life, and knew it. He hurled himself blindly at the weaving figure, got a grip of Fraser’s shirt and drove a punch at the man’s belly, as hard as he could. Fabric tore and his fist struck bone. Fraser shifted like a snake and shot a hand down between them. He grabbed Roger’s testicles and squeezed with all his strength.
Roger stood stock-still, then dropped as though his spinal cord had been severed. There was a split second, before the pain hit, when Roger was conscious of one last thought, cold and clear as a shard of ice. My God, he thought, I’m going to die before I’ve been born.
A FATHER’S SONG
It was well after dark before Jamie came in, and my nerves were thoroughly on edge from the waiting; I could only imagine Brianna’s. We had eaten supper—or I should say, supper had been served. None of us had any appetite, either for food or conversation; even Lizzie’s normal voracity was noticeably impaired. I hoped the girl wasn’t ill; pale and silent, she had pled a headache and gone to bed in the herb shed. Still, it was fortunate in the circumstances; it saved me having to invent an excuse to get rid of her once Jamie did arrive.
The candles had been lit for over an hour when I finally heard the goats bleat in greeting at his step on the path. Brianna looked up at once at the sound, her face pale in the yellow light.
“It’ll be all right,” I said. She heard the confidence in my voice and nodded, slightly reassured. The confidence was authentic, but not unalloyed. I thought everything would be all right eventually—but God knew, it wasn’t going to be a jolly family evening. Well as I knew Jamie, there were still a good many circumstances in which I had no idea how he would react—and hearing that his daughter was pregnant by a r**ist was certainly one of them.
In the hours since Brianna had made my suspicions a certainty, I had envisioned virtually every possible response he might make, several of them involving shouting or the putting of his fists through solid objects, behavior which I always found upsetting. So might Bree, and I knew rather better what she might do when upset.
She was under a tight control for the moment, but I knew how precarious her calm demeanor was. Let him say a bruising word to her, and she would flare like a striking match. Beyond red hair and arresting height, she had from Jamie both a passionate nature and a perfect readiness to speak her mind.
So unfamiliar and so anxious to please each other, they had both so far stepped delicately—but there seemed no delicate way of handling this. Unsure whether I should prepare myself to be advocate, interpreter, or referee, it was with rather a hollow feeling that I lifted the latch to let him in.
He had washed at the creek; his hair was damp at the temples, and he had wiped his face on his shirttail, judging by the moist patches on it.
“You’re very late; where were you?” I asked, standing on tiptoe to give him a kiss. “And where’s Ian?”
“Fergus came and asked could we give him a hand wi’ his chimney stones, as he couldna manage verra well by himself. Ian’s stayed ower, to help finish the job.” He dropped an absent kiss on top of my head, and patted my bottom. He’d been working hard, I thought; he was warm to my touch and smelled pungently of sweat, though the skin of his face was cool and fresh from washing.
“Did Marsali feed you supper?” I peered at him in the gloom. Something seemed different about him, though I couldn’t think what.
“No. I dropped a stone and I’ve maybe broken my blasted finger again; I thought I’d best come home and have ye tend to it.” That was it, I thought; he’d patted me with his left hand instead of his right.
“Come into the light and let me see.” I drew him to the fire, and made him sit down on one of the oak settles. Brianna was on the other, her sewing spread around her. She got up and came to look over my shoulder.
“Your poor hands, Da!” she said, seeing the swollen knuckles and scraped skin.
“Och, it’s no great matter,” he said, glancing dismissively at them. “Save for the bloody finger. Ow!”
I felt my way gently over the fourth finger of his right hand, from base to nail, disregarding his small grunt of pain. It was reddened and slightly swollen, but not visibly dislocated.
It always troubled me slightly to examine this hand. I had set a number of broken bones in it long ago, before I knew anything of formal surgery, and working under far from ideal conditions. I had managed; I had saved the hand from amputation, and he had good use of it, but there were small awkwardnesses; slight twistings and thickenings that I was aware of whenever I felt it closely. Still, at the moment, I blessed the opportunity for delay.
I closed my eyes, feeling the fire’s warm flicker on my lids as I concentrated. The fourth finger was always stiff; the middle joint had been crushed, and healed frozen. I could see the bone in my mind; not the polished dry surface of a laboratory specimen, but the faintly luminous matte glow of living bone, all the tiny osteoblasts busily laying down their crystal matrix, and the hidden pulse of the blood that fed them.