The stone bench under the willow tree was devoid of its usual charm at this time of year, but it was at least sheltered from the icy blasts off the river. Lord John saw her seated, sat down himself, and sneezed explosively. She opened her cloak and dug in the bosom of her dress, finally coming out with a crumpled handkerchief, which she handed to him with apologies.
It was warm and smelled of her—a disconcerting odor of girl-flesh, spiced with cloves and lavender.
“What you said about teaching me to play with fire,” she said. “Just what did you mean by that?”
“Nothing,” he said, but now it was his turn to flush.
“Nothing, hm?” she said, and gave him the ghost of an ironic smile. “That was a threat if I ever heard one.”
He sighed, and wiped his face once more with her handkerchief.
“You have been frank with me,” he said. “To the point of embarrassment and well beyond. So yes, I suppose I—no, it was a threat.” He made a small gesture of surrender. “You look like your father, don’t you see?”
She frowned at him, his words obviously meaning nothing. Then realization flickered, sprang to full life. She sat bolt upright, staring down at him.
“Not you—not Da! He wouldn’t!”
“No,” Lord John said, very dryly. “He wouldn’t. Though your shock is scarcely flattering. And for what the statement is worth, I would under no circumstances take advantage of your likeness to him—that was as much an idle threat as was your menacing me with exposure.”
“Where did you…meet my father?” she asked carefully, her own troubles superseded for the moment by curiosity.
“In prison. You knew he was imprisoned, after the Rising?”
She nodded, frowning slightly.
“Yes. Well. Leave it as said that I harbor feelings of particular affection for Jamie Fraser, and have for some years.” He shook his head, sighing.
“And here you come offering me your innocent body, with its echoes of his flesh—and add to that the promise of giving me a child who would mingle my blood with his—and all this, because your honor will not let you wed a man you love, or love a man you wed.” He broke off and sank his head in his hands.
“Child, you would make an angel weep, and God knows I am no angel!”
“My mother thinks you are.”
He glanced up at her, startled.
“She thinks what?”
“Maybe she wouldn’t go quite that far,” she amended, still frowning. “She says you’re a good man, though. I think she likes you, but she doesn’t want to. Of course, I understand that now; I suppose she must know—how you…er…feel about…” She coughed, hiding her blushes in a fold of her cloak.
“Hell,” he muttered. “Oh, hell and thundering damnation. I ought never to have come out with you. Yes, she does. Though in all truth, I am not sure why she regards me with suspicion. It cannot be jealousy, surely.”
Brianna shook her head, chewing thoughtfully on her lower lip.
“I think it’s because she’s afraid you’ll hurt him, somehow. She’s afraid for him, you know.”
He glanced up at her, startled.
“Hurt him? How? Does she think I will overpower him and commit depraved indignities upon his person?”
He spoke lightly, but a flicker in her eyes froze the words in his throat. He tightened his grip on her arm. She bit her lip, then gently detached his hand, laying it on his knee.
“Have you ever seen my father with his shirt off?”
“Do you mean the scars on his back?”
He drummed his fingers restlessly on his knees, soundless on the fine broadcloth.
“Yes, I’ve seen them. I did that.”
Her head jerked back, eyes wide. The end of her nose was cherry-red, but the rest of her skin so pale that her hair and eyebrows seemed to have leached all the life from it.
“Not all of it,” he said, staring off into a bed of dead hollyhocks. “He’d been flogged before, which made it all the worse—that he knew what he was doing, when he did it.”
“Did…what?” she asked. Slowly, she rearranged herself on the bench, not so much turning toward him as flowing in her garments, like a cloud changing shape in the wind.
“I was the commander at Ardsmuir prison; did he tell you? No, I thought not.” He made an impatient gesture, brushing back the strands of fair hair that whipped across his face.
“He was an officer, a gentleman. The only officer there. He spoke for the Jacobite prisoners. We dined together, in my quarters. We played chess, we spoke of books. We had interests in common. We…became friends. And then…we were not.”
He stopped speaking.
She drew away from him a bit, distaste in her eyes.
“You mean—you had him flogged because he wouldn’t—”
“No, damn it, I did not!” He snatched the handkerchief and scrubbed angrily at his nose. He flung it down on the seat between them and glared at her. “How dare you suggest such a thing!”
“But you said yourself you did it!”
“He did it.”
“You can’t flog yourself!”
He started to reply, then snorted. He raised one brow at her, still angry, but with his feelings coming back under control.
“The hell you can’t. You’ve been doing it for months, according to what you’ve told me.”
“We aren’t talking about me.”
“Of course we are!”
“No, we’re not!” She leaned toward him, heavy brows drawn down. “What the hell do you mean, he did it?”
The wind was blowing from behind her, into his face. It made his eyes sting and water, and he looked away.
“What am I doing here?” he muttered to himself. “I must be mad to be talking with you in this manner!”
“I don’t care if you’re mad or not,” she said, and gripped him by the sleeve. “You tell me what happened!”
He pressed his lips tight together, and for a moment, she thought he wouldn’t. But he had already said too much to stop, and he knew it. His shoulders rose under his cloak and dropped, slumping in surrender.
“We were friends. Then…he discovered my feeling for him. We were no longer friends, by his choice. But that was not enough for him; he wished a final severance. And so he deliberately brought about an occasion so drastic that it must alter our relation irrevocably and prevent any chance of friendship between us. So he lied. During a search of the prisoners’ quarters, he claimed a piece of tartan publicly as his own. Possession was against the law, then—it still is, in Scotland.”
He drew a deep breath and let it out. He wouldn’t look at her, but kept his eyes focused on the ragged fringe of bare trees across the river, raw against the pale spring sky.
“I was the governor, charged with execution of the law. I was obliged to have him flogged. As he damn well knew I would be.”
He tilted his head back, resting it against the carved stone back of the bench. His eyes were closed against the wind.
“I could forgive his not wanting me,” he said, with quiet bitterness. “But I couldn’t forgive him for making me use him in that fashion. Not forcing me merely to hurt him, but to degrade him. He could not merely refuse to acknowledge my feeling; he must destroy it. It was too much.”
Bits of debris boiled past on the flood; storm-cracked twigs and branches, a broken board from the hull of a boat, wrecked somewhere upstream. Her hand covered his where it rested on his knee. It was slightly larger than his own, and warm from sheltering in her cloak.
“There was a reason. It wasn’t you. But it’s for him to tell you, if he wants to. You did forgive him, though,” she said quietly. “Why?”
He sat up then, and shrugged, but didn’t put away her hand.
“I had to.” He glanced at her, eyes straight and level. “I hated him for as long as I could. But then I realized that loving him…that was part of me, and one of the best parts. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t love me, that had nothing to do with it. But if I could not forgive him, then I could not love him, and that part of me was gone. And I found eventually that I wanted it back.” He smiled, faintly. “So you see, it was really entirely selfish.”
He squeezed her hand then, stood up, and pulled her to her feet.
“Come, my dear. We shall both freeze solid if we sit here any longer.”
They walked back toward the house, not talking, but walking close together, arm in arm. As they came back through the gardens he spoke abruptly.
“You’re right, I think. To live with someone you love, knowing that they tolerate the relation only for the sake of obligation—no, I wouldn’t do it, either. Were it only a matter of convenience and respect on both sides, then yes; such a marriage is one of honor. As long as both parties are honest—” His mouth twisted briefly as he glanced in the direction of the servants’ quarters. “There is no need for shame on either side.”
She looked down at him, brushing a strand of windblown copper hair out of her eyes with her free hand.
“Then you’ll accept my proposal?” The hollow feeling in her chest didn’t feel like the relief she had expected.
“No,” he said bluntly. “I may have forgiven Jamie Fraser for what he did in the past—but he would never forgive me for marrying you.” He smiled at her, and patted the hand he held tucked in the curve of his arm.
“I can give you some respite from both your suitors and your aunt, though.” He glanced at the house, whose curtains hung unstirring against the glass.
“Do you suppose anyone’s watching?”
“I’d say you can bet on it,” she said, a little grimly.
“Good.” Pulling off the sapphire ring he wore, he turned to face her and took her hand. He pulled off her mitten and ceremoniously slid the ring onto her little finger—the only one it would fit. Then he rose smoothly on his toes and kissed her on the lips. Leaving her no time to recover from surprise, he clasped her hand in his, and turned once more toward the house, his expression bland.
“Come along, my dear,” he said. “Let us announce our engagement.”
TRIAL BY FIRE
They were left alone all day. The fire was dead, and there was no food left. It didn’t matter; neither man could eat, and no fire would have reached Roger’s soul-deep chill.
The Indians came back in late afternoon. Several warriors, escorting an elderly man, dressed in a flowing lace shirt and a woven mantle, his face painted with red and ocher—the sachem, bearing a small clay pot in his hand, filled with black liquid.
Alexandre had put on his clothes; he stood when the sachem approached him, but neither spoke nor moved. The sachem began to sing in a cracked old voice, and as he sang, dipped a rabbit’s foot into the pot and painted the priest’s face in black, from forehead to chin.
The Indians left, and the priest sat down on the ground, his eyes closed. Roger tried to speak to him, to offer him water, or at least the knowledge of company, but Alexandre made no response, sitting as though he had been carved of stone.