Both faces were a pale green by now. Finished with the work, I wrapped the foot loosely in gauze bandages, and patted Roger’s leg.
“There now,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ve seen it before. One brave told me that they tickle a bit, gnawing, but it doesn’t hurt at all.”
I picked up the saucer and took it outside to wash. At the edge of the dooryard I met Jamie, coming down from the new house, Ruaidh in his arms.
“There’s Grannie,” he informed the baby, removing his thumb from Ruaidh’s mouth and wiping saliva from it against the side of his kilt. “Is she no a bonny woman?”
“Gleh,” said Ruaidh, focusing a slightly cross-eyed look on his grandfather’s shirt button, which he began to mouth in a meditative fashion.
“Don’t let him swallow that,” I said, standing on tiptoe and kissing first Jamie, then the baby. “Where’s Lizzie?”
“I found the lassie sitting on a stump, greetin’,” he said. “So I took the lad and sent her off to be by herself for a bit.”
“She was crying? What’s the matter?”
A small shadow crossed Jamie’s face.
“She’ll be grieving for Ian, won’t she?” Putting that and his own grief aside, he took my arm and turned back toward the trail up the ridge.
“Come up wi’ me, Sassenach, and see what I’ve done the day. I’ve laid the floor for your surgery; all that’s needed now is a bit of a temporary roof, and it’ll do for sleeping.” He glanced back toward the cabin. “I was thinking that MacKenzie might be put there—for the time being.”
“Good idea.” Even with the additional small room to the cabin that he had built for Brianna and Lizzie, conditions were more than crowded. And if Roger was to be bedridden for several days, I would as soon not have him lying in the middle of the cabin.
“How are they faring?” he asked, with assumed casualness.
“Who? Brianna and Roger, you mean?”
“Who else?” he asked, dropping the casualness. “Is it well between them?”
“Oh, I think so. They’re getting used to each other again.”
“Yes,” I said, with a glance back at the cabin. “He’s just thrown up in her lap.”
THE TOSS OF A COIN
Roger rolled onto his side and sat up. There was no glass in the windows as yet—none needed, so long as the summer weather kept fine—and the surgery was at the front of the new house, facing the slope. If he craned his neck to one side, he could watch Brianna most of the way down to the cabin, before the chestnut trees hid her from view.
A last flick of rusty homespun, and she was gone. She’d come without the baby this evening; he didn’t know whether that was progress or the reverse. They’d been able to talk without the incessant interruptions of wet diapers, squawking, fussing, feeding, and spitting up; that was a rare luxury.
She hadn’t stayed as long as usual, though—he could feel the presence of the child pulling her away, as though she were tethered to it by a rubber band. He did not resent the little bugger, he told himself grimly. It was only that…well, only that he resented the little bugger. Didn’t mean he didn’t like him.
He hadn’t eaten yet; hadn’t wanted to waste any of their rare solitude. He uncovered the basket she’d brought and inhaled the warm, rich scent of squirrel stew and salt-rising bread with fresh butter. Apple tart, too.
His foot still throbbed, and it took considerable effort not to think of the helpful maggots, but in spite of that, his appetite had returned with a vengeance. He ate slowly, savoring both the food and the quiet dusk creeping over the mountainside below.
Fraser had known what he was about when he’d chosen the site of this house. It commanded the entire slope of the mountain, with a view that ran to the distant river and beyond, with mist-filled valleys in the distance and dark peaks that touched a star-strewn sky. It was one of the most solitary, magnificent, heart-wrenchingly romantic spots he had ever seen.
And Brianna was down below, nursing a small bald parasite, while he was here—alone with a few dozen of his own.
He put the empty basket on the floor, hopped to the slop jar in the corner, then back to his lonely bed on the new surgery table. Why in hell had he told her he didn’t know, when she’d asked why he’d come back?
Well, because just then, he hadn’t known. He’d been wandering in the bloody wilderness for months, half starved and off his head with solitude and pain. He hadn’t seen her in nearly a year—a year in which he’d gone through hell and back. He’d sat on the cliff above that bloody stone circle for three solid days without food or fire, thinking things over, trying to decide. And in the end he’d simply gotten up and begun walking, knowing that it was the only possible choice.
Obligation? Love? How in hell could you have love without obligation?
He turned restlessly onto his other side, turning his back on the glorious night of scent and sun-warmed winds. The trouble with being restored to health was that some parts of him were getting a damn sight too healthy for comfort, given that the chance of their having any proper exercise was something below nil.
He couldn’t even suggest such a thing to Brianna. One, she might think he’d come back solely for that, and two, the bloody Great Scot had not been joking about the pig.
He knew now. He’d come back because he couldn’t live on the other side. If it were guilt over abandoning them—or the simple knowledge that he would die without her…either or both, take your choice. He knew what he was giving up, and none of it bloody mattered; he had to be here, that was all.
He flopped onto his back, staring up at the dim paleness of the pine boards that roofed his shelter. Thumps and skitterings announced the nightly visitation of squirrels from the nearby hickory tree, who found it a convenient shortcut.
How to tell her that, so she would believe it? Christ, she was so jumpy that she’d barely let him touch her. A brush of lips, a touch of hands, and she was sidling away. Except for the day when she’d held him while Claire had tortured his foot. Then, she’d been truly there for him, hanging on with all her strength. He could still feel her arms around him, and the memory gave him a small thump of satisfaction in the pit of his stomach.
Thinking on that, he wondered a bit. True, the doctoring had hurt like buggery, but it was nothing he couldn’t have stood with a little tooth-gritting, and Claire, with her battlefield experience, would certainly have known that.
Done it on purpose, had she? Given Bree a chance to touch him without feeling pressured or pursued? Given him a chance to remember just how strong the pull between them was? He rolled again, onto his stomach this time, and lay with his chin on his folded arms, looking out into the soft dark outside.
She could have the other foot, if she’d do it again.
Claire looked in on him once or twice each day, but he waited until the end of the week, when she came to remove the bandages, the maggots having presumably done their dirty work and—he hoped to God—cleared out.
“Oh, lovely,” she said, poking his foot with a surgeon’s ghoulish delight. “Granulating beautifully; almost no inflammation left.”
“Great,” he said. “Are they gone?”
“The maggots? Oh, yes,” she assured him. “They pupate within a few days. Did a nice job, didn’t they?” She ran a delicate thumbnail along the side of his foot, which tickled.
“I’ll take your word for it. I’m clear to walk on it, then?” He flexed the foot experimentally. It hurt a bit, but nothing compared to what it had before.
“Yes. Don’t wear shoes for a few more days, though. And for God’s sake, don’t step on anything sharp.”
She began to put away her things, humming to herself. She looked happy but tired; there were shadows under her eyes.
“Kid still howling at night?” he asked.
“Yes, poor thing. Can you hear him up here?”
“No. You just look tired.”
“I’m not surprised. Nobody’s had a good night’s sleep all week, especially poor Bree, since she’s the only one who can feed him.” She yawned briefly and shook her head, blinking. “Jamie’s got the back bedroom here nearly floored; he wants to move up here as soon as it’s ready—give Bree and the baby more room, and, not incidentally, have a little peace and quiet ourselves.”
“Good idea. Ah—speaking of Bree…”
No use dragging it out; better say it straight.
“Look—I’m trying all I can. I love her, and I want to show her that, but—she sheers off. She comes and we talk, and it’s great, but then I go to put an arm around her or kiss her, and suddenly she’s across the room, picking leaves off the floor. Is there something wrong, something I should do?”
She gave him one of those disconcerting yellow looks of hers; straightforward and ruthless as a hawk.
“You were her first, weren’t you? The first man she slept with, I mean.”
He felt the blood rising his cheeks.
“Well, then. So far her entire experience of what one might call the delights of sex consists of being deflowered—and I don’t care how gentle you were about it, it tends to hurt—being raped two days later, then giving birth. You think this is calculated to make her fall swooning into your arms in anticipation of your reclaiming your marital rights?”
You asked for it, he thought, and you got it. Right between the eyes. His cheeks burned hotter than they ever had with fever.
“I never thought of that,” he muttered to the wall.
“Well, naturally not,” she said, sounding torn between exasperation and amusement. “You’re a bloody man. That’s why I’m telling you.”
He took a deep breath, and reluctantly turned back to face her.
“And just what are you telling me?”
“That she’s afraid,” she said. She cocked her head to one side, evaluating him. “Though it’s not you she’s afraid of, by the way.”
“No,” she said bluntly. “She may have convinced herself that she has to know why you came back, but that’s not it—a regiment of blind men could see that. It’s that she’s afraid she won’t be able to—mmphm.” She raised one brow at him, encompassing a wealth of indelicate suggestion.
“I see,” he said, taking a deep breath. “And just what do you suggest I do about it?”
She picked up her basket and put it over her arm.
“I don’t know,” she said, giving him another yellow look. “But I think you should be careful.”
He had just about recovered his equanimity after this unsettling consultation, when another visitor darkened his door. Jamie Fraser, bearing gifts.
“I’ve brought ye a razor,” Fraser said, looking critically at him. “And some hot water.”
Claire had clipped his beard short with her surgical scissors a few days earlier, but he had felt too shaky then to attempt shaving with what was called a “cutthroat” razor for good reason.