“Go ahead,” she said. “Nothing much worth looking at.”
Without a word, he stood up and began to undress.
“What are you doing?” Her voice was low, but shocked.
“Not fair for me to sit here gawking at you, is it? It’s much less worth looking at, I expect, but…” He paused, frowning at a knot in the lacing of his breeches. “But at least you’ll not feel you’re on display.”
“Oh.” He didn’t look up to see, but he thought that had made her smile. He’d got his shirt off; the fire felt good on his bare back. Feeling unspeakably self-conscious, he stood up and eased his breeches halfway down before stopping.
“Is this a striptease?” Brianna’s mouth quivered as she tried to keep from laughing out loud, joggling the baby.
“I couldn’t decide whether to turn my back or not.” He paused. “Have you got a preference?”
“Turn your back,” she said softly. “For now.”
He did, and got the breeches off without falling into the fire.
“Stay that way for a minute,” she said. “Please. I like to look at you.”
He straightened up and stood still, looking into the fire. The heat played over him, uncomfortably warm, and he took a step back, a sudden memory of Father Alexandre vivid in his mind. Christ, and why would he think of that now?
“You have marks on your back, Roger,” Brianna said, her voice softer than ever. “Who hurt you?”
“The Indians. It doesn’t matter. Not now.” He hadn’t bound or cut his hair; it fell over his shoulders, tickling the bare skin of his back. He could imagine the tickle of her eyes, going lower, over back and arse and thighs and calves.
“I’m going to turn around now. All right?”
“I won’t be shocked,” she assured him. “I’ve seen pictures.”
She had her father’s trick of hiding her expressions when she wanted to. He couldn’t tell a thing from the soft, wide mouth or the slanted cat-eyes. Was she shocked, frightened, amused? Why ought she to be any of those things? She had touched everything she was now looking at; had caressed and handled him with such intimacy that he had lost himself in her hands, yielded himself to her without reservation—and she to him.
But that had been a lifetime ago, in the freedom and frenzy of hot darkness. Now he stood before her for the first time nak*d in the light, and she sat there watching him with a baby in her arms. Which of them had changed more, since their wedding night?
She looked at him carefully, head on one side, then smiled, her eyes rising to meet his. She sat up, shifting the child easily to the other breast, leaving her gown open, the one breast bared.
He couldn’t stand there any longer; the fire was singeing the hair on his arse. He moved to the side of the hearth and sat down again, watching her.
“What does that feel like?” he asked, partly from a need to break the silence before it got too heavy, partly from a deep curiosity.
“It feels good,” she answered softly, head bent over the child. “Sort of a pulling. It tingles. When he starts to feed, something happens, and there’s a rushing feeling, like everything in me is surging toward him.”
“It’s not—you don’t feel drained? I should have thought it would feel like your substance being taken, somehow.”
“Oh, no, not like that at all. Here, look.” She put a finger in the infant’s mouth and detached it with a soft pop! She lowered the small body for an instant, and Roger saw the nipple drawn up taut, milk jetting out in a thin stream of incredible force. Before the child could start to wail, she put him back, but not before Roger had felt the spray of tiny droplets, warm and then suddenly cool against the skin of his chest.
“My God,” he said, half shocked. “I didn’t know it did that! It’s like a squirt gun.”
“Neither did I.” She smiled again, her hand cupping the tiny head. Then the smile faded. “There are lots of things I couldn’t have imagined before they happened to me.”
“Bree.” He sat forward, forgetting his nak*dness in the need to touch her. “Bree, I know you’re scared. So am I. I don’t want you to be afraid of me—but Bree, I do want ye so.”
His hand rested on the round of her knee. After a moment, her free hand came down on his, light as a landing bird.
“I want you, too,” she whispered. They sat frozen together for what seemed a long time; he had no notion what to do next, only that he must not go too fast, not frighten her. Be careful.
The tiny sucking sounds had ceased and the bundle had gone limp and heavy in the curve of her arm.
“He’s asleep,” she whispered. Moving as cautiously as one holding a vial of nitroglycerine, she scooted to the edge of the bed and stood up.
She might have meant to lay the child in its cradle, but Roger lifted his hands instinctively. She hesitated for no more than a second, then bent to lay the child in his arms. Her br**sts hung full and heavy in the shadow of her open gown, and he smelled the deep musk of her body as she brushed him.
The baby was surprisingly heavy; dense, for the size of the bundle. He was amazingly warm, too; warmer even than his mother’s body.
Roger boosted the tiny body cautiously, cuddling it against him; the small, curved buttocks fit in the palm of his hand. It—he—wasn’t quite bald, after all. There was a soft red-blond fuzz all over the head. Tiny ears. Almost transparent; the one he could see was red and crumpled from being pressed against his mother’s arm.
“You can’t tell by looking.” Brianna’s voice jerked him out of his contemplation. “I’ve tried.” She was standing across the room, one drawer of the sideboard open. He thought it might be regret on her face, but the shadows were too deep to tell.
“That wasn’t what I was looking for.” He lowered the baby carefully to his lap. “It’s only—this is the first time I’ve had a proper look at my son.” The words sounded peculiar, stiff to his tongue. She relaxed a little, though.
“Oh. Well, he’s all there.” There was a small note of pride in her voice that caught at his heart, and made him look closer. The little fists were curled up tight as snail shells; he picked one up and gently stroked it with his thumb. Slowly as an octopus moving, the hand opened, enough for him to insert the tip of his index finger. The fist closed again in reflex, astonishing in the strength of its grip.
He could hear a rhythmic whish across the room, and realized that she was brushing her hair. He would have liked to watch her, but was too fascinated to look up.
The body had feet like a frog’s; wide at the toes, narrow at the heel. Roger stroked one with a fingertip, and smiled as the tiny toes sprang wide apart. Not webbed, at least.
My son, he thought, and wasn’t sure what he felt at the thought. It would take time to get used to.
But he could be, came the next thought. Not just Brianna’s child, to be loved for her sake—but his own flesh and blood. That thought was even more foreign. He tried to push it from his mind, but it kept coming back. That coupling in the dark, that bittersweet mix of pain and joy—had he started this, in the midst of that?
He hadn’t meant to—but he hoped like hell he had.
The child was wearing some long thing made of white gauzy stuff; he lifted it, looking at the sagging diaper and the perfect oval of the tiny navel just above. Moved by a curiosity he didn’t think to question, he hooked a finger in the edge of the clout and pulled it down.
“I told you he was all there.” Brianna was standing at his elbow.
“Well, it’s there,” Roger said dubiously. “But isn’t it a bit…small?”
“It’ll grow,” she assured him. “It’s not like he needs it for much yet.”
His own penis, gone flaccid between his thighs, gave a small twitch at that reminder.
“Shall I take him?” She reached for the baby, but he shook his head and picked up the child again.
“Not just yet.” It—he—smelled of milk and something sweetly putrid. Something else, his own indefinable smell, like nothing else Roger had ever encountered.
“Eau de baby, Mama calls it.” She sat on the bed, a faint smile on her face. “She says it’s a natural protective device; one of the things babies use to keep their parents from killing them.”
“Killing him? But he’s a sweet wee lad,” Roger protested.
One eyebrow quirked up in derision.
“You haven’t been living with the little fiend for the last month. This is the first night he hasn’t had colic in three weeks. I would have exposed him on a hillside if he wasn’t mine.”
If he wasn’t mine. That certainty was a mother’s reward, he supposed. She’d always know—had always known. For a brief, surprising moment, he envied her.
The baby stirred and made a small, faint yawp! noise against his neck. Before he could move, she was up and had the child back in her arms, patting the rounded little back. There was a soft belch, and he subsided into limpness once more.
Brianna set him on his stomach in the cradle, carefully, as if he were wired to a stick of dyn**ite. He could see the faint outline of her body through the gauze, highlighted by the fire behind her. When she turned around, he was ready.
“You could have gone back, once you knew. There would have been time.” He held her eyes, not letting her look away. “So it’s my turn to ask, then, isn’t it? What made you wait for me? Love—or obligation?”
“Both,” she said, her eyes nearly black. “Neither. I—just couldn’t go without you.”
He breathed deeply, feeling the last small doubt in the pit of his stomach melt away.
“Then you do know.”
“Yes.” She lifted her shoulders and let them fall, and the loose gown fell too, leaving her as nak*d as he was. It was red, by God. More than red; she was gold and amber, ivory and cinnabar, and he wanted her with a longing that went beyond flesh.
“You said that you loved me, by all you hold holy,” she whispered. “What is it that’s holy to you, Roger?”
He stood and reached for her, gently, carefully. Held her against his heart, and remembered the stinking hold of the Gloriana and a thin, ragged woman who smelled of milk and ordure. Of fire and drums and blood, and an orphan baptized with the name of the father who had sacrificed himself for fear of the power of love.
“You,” he said, against her hair. “Him. Us. There isn’t anything else, is there?”
It was a peaceful morning. The baby had slept all night, for which feat he was the recipient of general praise. Two hens had obligingly laid eggs in their coop rather than scattering them round the landscape, so I was not required to crawl through the blackberry bushes in search of breakfast before cooking it.
The bread had risen to a perfect snowy mound in its bowl, been molded into loaves by Lizzie, and—the new Dutch oven sharing the general mood of cooperation—had been baked into a delicate brown fragrance that suffused the house with contentment. Spiced ham and turkey hash sizzled pleasantly on the griddle, adding their aromas to the softer morning scents of damp grass and summer flowers that came through the open window.