“Do you know how rare such a thing is?” he asked quietly. “That peculiar sort of mutual passion?” The one-sided kind was common enough.
“Yes.” She had half turned, her arm along the back of the love seat, and was looking out through the French doors, over the burgeoning spread of the spring flower beds below.
“The thing is—I think I had it,” she said, even more quietly. “For a little while. A very little while.” She turned her head and looked at him, with eyes that let him see clear through her.
“If I’ve lost it—then I have. I can live with that—or without it. But I won’t live with an imitation of it. I couldn’t stand that.”
“It looks like you may get me by default.” Brianna put the breakfast tray over his lap and collapsed heavily into the love seat, making the joints groan.
“Don’t riddle with a sick man,” he said, picking up a piece of toast. “What do you mean?”
“Drusus just came racing into the cookhouse, saying he saw two riders coming down through Campbell’s fields. He said he was sure one of them was my father—he said it was a big man with red hair; God knows there aren’t that many like him.”
“Not many, no.” He smiled briefly, his eyes traveling over her. “So, two riders?”
“It must be Da and my mother. So they haven’t found Roger. Or they did, and he—didn’t want to come back.” She twisted the big sapphire on her finger. “Good thing I have a fallback, isn’t it?”
Lord John blinked, and made haste to swallow his mouthful of toast.
“If by that extraordinary metaphor, you mean that you intend to marry me after all, I assure you—”
“No.” She gave him a halfhearted smile. “Just teasing.”
“Oh, good.” He took a gulp of tea, closing his eyes to enjoy the fragrant steam. “Two riders. Did your cousin not go with them?”
“Yes, he did,” she said slowly. “God, I hope nothing’s happened to Ian.”
“It might be that they experienced any variety of disasters on the journey, which obliged your cousin and your mother to travel behind your father and Mr. MacKenzie. Or your cousin and MacKenzie behind your parents.” He waved a hand, indicating innumerable possibilities.
“I guess you’re right.” She still looked peaked, and Lord John suspected she had cause. Comforting possibilities were all very well for the short term, but the colder probabilities were inclined to triumph over the longer course—and whoever accompanied Jamie Fraser, they would be arriving shortly, with the answers to all questions.
He pushed back the unfinished breakfast and leaned back against his pillows.
“Tell me—how far does your remorse extend for having nearly gotten me killed?”
She colored and looked uncomfortable.
“What do you mean?”
“If I ask you to do something you do not wish to, will your sense of guilt and obligation compel you to do it nonetheless?”
“Oh, more blackmail. What is it?” she asked warily.
“Forgive your father. Whatever has happened.”
Pregnancy had made her complexion more delicate; all her emotions ebbed and flowed just under the surface of that apricot skin. A touch would bruise her.
He reached out and laid a hand very gently along her cheek.
“For your sake, as well as his,” he said.
“I already have.” Her lashes covered her eyes as she looked down; her hands lay still in her lap, the blue fire of his sapphire glowing on her finger.
The sound of hooves came clearly through the open French doors, rattling on the gravel drive.
“Then I think you had better go down and tell him so, my dear.”
She pursed her lips, and nodded. Without a word, she stood up and floated out the door, disappearing like a storm cloud over the horizon.
“When we heard that there were two riders coming, and one of them Jamie, we feared lest something had happened to your nephew, or MacKenzie. Somehow, it occurred to neither of us to think that anything had happened to you.”
“I’m immortal,” she murmured, peering alternately into his eyes. “Didn’t you know?” The pressure of her thumbs lifted from his eyelids and he blinked, still feeling her touch.
“You have a slight enlargement of one pupil, but very small. Grip my fingers and squeeze as hard as you can.” She held out her index fingers and he obliged, annoyed to feel the weakness of his grip.
“Did you find MacKenzie?” He was further annoyed not to be able to control his curiosity.
She gave him a quick, wary glance from those sherry-colored eyes, and returned her gaze to his hands.
“Yes. He’ll be coming along. A little later.”
“Will he?” She caught the tone of his question and hesitated, then looked at him directly.
“How much do you know?”
“Everything,” he said, and had the momentary satisfaction of seeing her startled. Then one side of her mouth curved up.
“Enough,” he amended sardonically. “Enough to ask whether your statement of Mr. MacKenzie’s return is knowledge on your part or wishful thinking.”
“Call it faith.” Without so much as a by-your-leave, she tugged loose the strings of his nightshirt and spread it open, exposing his chest. Rolling a sheet of parchment deftly into a tube, she applied one end of it to his breast, putting her ear to the other end.
“I beg your pardon, madame!”
“Hush, I can’t hear,” she said, making small shushing motions with one hand. She proceeded to move her tube to different parts of his chest, pausing now and then to thump experimentally or prod him in the liver.
“Have you moved your bowels yet today?” she inquired, poking him familiarly in the abdomen.
“I decline to say,” he said, pulling his nightshirt back together with dignity.
She looked more outrageous even than usual. The woman must be forty at least, yet she showed no more sign of age than a fine webbing of lines at the corners of her eyes, and threadings of silver in that ridiculous mass of hair.
She was thinner than he remembered, though it was hard to judge of her figure, dressed as she was in a barbaric leather shirt and trouserings. She’d plainly been in the sun and weather for some time; her face and hands had baked a delicate soft brown, that made the big golden eyes that much more startling when they turned full on one—which they now did.
“Brianna says that Dr. Fentiman trephined your skull.”
He shifted uncomfortably under the sheets.
“I am told that he did. I am afraid I was not aware of it at the time.”
Her mouth quirked slightly.
“Just as well. Would you mind if I look at it? It’s only curiosity,” she went on, with unaccustomed delicacy. “Not medical necessity. It’s only that I’ve never seen a trepanation.”
He closed his eyes, giving up.
“Beyond the state of my bowels, I have no secrets from you, madame.”
He tilted his head, indicating the location of the hole in his head, and felt her cool fingers slide under the bandage, lifting the gauze and allowing a breath of air to soothe his hot head.
“Brianna is with her father?” he asked, eyes still closed.
“Yes.” Her voice was softer. “She told me—us—a little of what you’d done for her. Thank you.”
The fingers left his skin and he opened his eyes.
“It was my pleasure to be of service to her. Perforated skull and all.”
She smiled faintly.
“Jamie will be up to see you in a bit. He’s…talking to Brianna in the garden.”
He felt a small stab of anxiety.
“Are they—in accord?”
“See for yourself.” She put an arm behind him, and with amazing strength for a woman with such fine bones, levered him upright. Just beyond the balustrade he could see the two figures at the bottom of the garden, heads close together. As he watched, they embraced, then broke apart, laughing at the awkwardness caused by Brianna’s shape.
“I think we got here just in time,” Claire murmured, looking at her daughter with a practiced eye. “It isn’t going to be much longer.”
“I confess to some gratitude at your prompt arrival,” he said, letting her ease him back onto the pillows and smooth his bedding. “I have barely survived the experience of being your daughter’s nursemaid; I fear serving as her midwife would finish me completely.”
“Oh, I nearly forgot.” Claire reached into a nasty-looking leather pouch around her neck. “Brianna said to give this back to you—she won’t need it anymore.”
He held out his hand, and a tiny spark of brilliant blue fell into his palm.
“Jilted, by God!” he said, and grinned.
BOTTOM OF THE NINTH
It’s like baseball,” I assured her. “Long stretches of boredom, punctuated by short periods of intense activity.”
She laughed, then stopped abruptly, grimacing.
“Ugh. Intense, yeah. Whew.” She smiled, a little lopsidedly. “At least at baseball games you get to drink beer and eat hot dogs in the boring parts.”
Jamie, grasping at the only part of this conversation that made sense, leaned forward.
“There’s a crock of small beer, cool in the pantry,” he said, peering anxiously at Brianna. “Will I fetch it in?”
“No,” I said. “Not unless you want some; alcohol wouldn’t be good for the baby.”
“Ah. What about the hot dog?” He stood up and flexed his hands, obviously preparing to dash out and shoot one.
“It’s a sort of sausage in a roll,” I said, rubbing my upper lip in an effort not to laugh. I glanced at Brianna. “I don’t think she wants one.” Small beads of sweat had popped out quite suddenly on her wide brow, and she was looking white around the eye sockets.
“Oh, barf,” she said faintly.
Correctly interpreting this remark from the look on her face, Jamie hastily applied the damp cloth to her face and neck.
“Put your head between your knees, lass.”
She glared at him ferociously.
“I can’t get…my head…near my knees!” she said, teeth clenched. Then the spasm relaxed and she took a deep breath, the color coming back into her face.
Jamie glanced from her to me, frowning worriedly. He took a hesitant step toward the door.
“I expect I’d best go, then, if you—”
“Don’t leave me!”
“But it’s—I mean, you’ve your mother, and—”
“Don’t leave me!” she repeated. Agitated, she leaned over and grabbed his arm, shaking it for emphasis. “You can’t!”
“You said I wouldn’t die.” She was staring intently into his face. “If you stay, it will be all right. I won’t die.” She spoke with such intensity that I felt a sudden spasm of fear clutch my own innards, hard as the pain of labor.
She was a big girl, strong and healthy. She should have no great trouble delivering. But I was large enough, healthy as well—and twenty-five years before, I had lost a stillborn child at six months, and nearly died myself. I might be able to protect her from childbed fever, but there was no defense against a sudden hemorrhage; the best I could do under such circumstances would be to try to save her child via Caesarian section. I resolutely kept my eyes off the chest in which the sterile blade lay ready, just in case.