Dynamite, and the fuse was lit.
His other hand rested at the top of her thigh under the towel, close enough that he could feel the damp curls brush his finger. God, what color was it? Deep auburn, as he’d imagined? Copper and bronze, like the hair of her head?
Despite himself, his hand slid farther, dying to cup the soft slippery fullness he could sense, so close. With an effort that made him dizzy, he stopped.
Her hand was on his arm, pulling him back down.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please, I want you to.”
He felt hollow as a bell; his heartbeat echoed in head and chest and painfully hard between his legs. He closed his eyes, breathing, pressing his hands against the rough fiber of the rug, trying to erase the feel of her skin, lest he grab at her again.
“No,” he said, and his voice sounded queer, hoarse to his own ear. “No, not here, not like this.”
She was sitting up, rising out of the dark blue towel that puddled around her hips, like a mermaid from the waves. She had cooled; her flesh was pale as marble in the gray light, but goose bumps stippled the smoothness of arms and br**sts and shoulders.
He touched her, rough skin and smooth, and drew his fingers over her lips, her broad mouth. The taste of her was still on his lips, clean skin and toothpaste—and a sweet, soft tongue.
“Better,” he whispered. “I want it to be better…the first time.”
They knelt staring at each other, the air between them crackling with unsaid things. The fuse was still burning, but a slow match now. Roger felt rooted to the spot; perhaps it was the Gorgon, after all.
Then the smell of scorching milk rose up the stair, and both of them started up at once.
“Something’s burning!” Brianna said, and made a dart toward the stair, her towel clumsily back in place.
He caught her by the arm as she passed him. She was cold to the touch, chilled by the drafty hallway.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “You go and get dressed.”
She shot him a quick blue glance and turned, disappearing into the spare bedroom. The door clicked shut behind her and he dashed down the hall, clattering down the stair toward the smell of disaster, feeling his palm burn where he had touched her.
Downstairs, Roger dealt with the spilled and scalded soup, berating himself. Where did he get off, lunging at her like a crazed salmon en route to the spawning grounds? Ripping off her towel and grappling her to the floor—Christ, she must think him next door to a rapist!
At the same time, the hot feeling that suffused his chest wasn’t due either to shame or to heat from the cooker. It was the latent heat from her skin, still warming him. I want you to, she’d said, and she’d meant it.
He was familiar enough with the language of the body to know desire and surrender when he touched them. But what he’d felt in that brief moment when her body came alive to his went a great deal farther. The universe had shifted, with a small, decisive click; he could still hear its echo in his bones.
He wanted her. He wanted all of her; not just bed, not just body. Everything, always. Suddenly the biblical injunction, one flesh, seemed something immediate, and very real. They’d nearly been just that, on the floor of the hallway, and stopping as he had made him feel suddenly and peculiarly vulnerable—he wasn’t a whole person any longer, but only half of something not yet made.
He dumped the ruined remains of the soup into the sink. No matter; they’d have supper at the pub. Best to get out of the house and away from temptation.
Supper, casual chat, and maybe a walk by the river. She’d wanted to go to the Christmas Eve services. After that…
After that, he would ask her, make it formal. She would say yes, he knew. And then…
Why, then, they would come home, to a house dark and private. With themselves alone, on a night of sacrament and secret, with love newly come into the world. And he would lift her in his arms and carry her upstairs, on a night when virginity’s sacrifice was no loss of purity, but rather the birth of everlasting joy.
Roger switched out the light and left the kitchen. Behind him, forgotten, the gas flame burned blue and yellow in the dark, ardent and steady as the fires of love.
The Reverend Wakefield had been a kindly and ecumenical man, tolerant of all shades of religious opinion, and willing to entertain doctrines his flock would have found outrageous, if not downright blasphemous.
Still, a lifetime of exposure to the stern face of Scottish Presbyterianism and its abiding suspicion of anything “Romish” had left Roger with a certain residual uneasiness upon entering a Catholic church—as though he might be seized at the door and forcibly baptized by outlandishly dressed minions of the True Cross.
No such violence offered as he followed Brianna into the small stone building. There was a boy in a long white robe visible at the far end of the nave, but he was peaceably engaged in lighting two pairs of tall white candles that decorated the altar. A faint, unfamiliar scent hung in the air. Roger inhaled, trying to be unobtrusive about it. Incense?
Beside him, Brianna stopped, rummaging in her purse. She took out a small circle of black lacy stuff, and bobby-pinned it to the top of her head.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you call it,” she said. “It’s what you wear in church if you don’t want to wear a hat or a veil. You don’t really have to do it anymore, but I grew up doing it—it used to be that women couldn’t go into a Catholic church with their heads uncovered, you know.”
“No, I didn’t,” he said, interested. “Why not?”
“Saint Paul, probably,” she said, whipping a comb from her purse to tidy the ends of her hair. “He thought women ought to keep their hair covered all the time, so as not to be objects of unseemly lust. Cranky old crab,” she added, stuffing the comb back into the purse. “Mama always said he was afraid of women. Thought they were dangerous,” she said, with a wide grin.
“They are.” Impulsively, he leaned forward and kissed her, ignoring the stares of the people nearby.
She looked surprised, but then rocked forward on her toes and kissed him back, soft and quick. Roger heard a faint “Mmphm” of disapproval somewhere nearby, but paid no attention.
“In kirk, and on Christmas Eve, too!” came a hoarse whisper from behind.
“Well, it’s no the kirk exactly, Annie, it’s only the vestibule, aye?”
“And him the meenister’s lad and all!”
“Well, ye ken the saying, Annie, as the cobbler’s bairns go barefoot. I daresay it’s a’ the same wi’ a preacher’s lad that’s gone to the deil. Come along in, now.”
The voices receded into the church, to the prim tap of Cuban heels and a man’s softer shuffle accompanying. Brianna pulled back a little and looked up at him, mouth quivering with laughter.
“Have you gone to the devil?”
He smiled down at her, and touched her glowing face. She wore her grandmother’s necklace, in honor of Christmas, and her skin reflected the luster of the freshwater pearls.
“If the devil will have me.”
Before she could answer, they were interrupted by a gust of foggy air as the church door opened.
“Mr. Wakefield, is it yourself?” He turned, to meet two pairs of bright, inquisitive eyes beaming up at him. A pair of elderly women, each about four foot six, stood arm in arm in their winter coats, gray hair puffed out under small felt hats, looking like a matched set of doorstops.
“Mrs. McMurdo, Mrs. Hayes! Happy Christmas to you!” He nodded to them, smiling. Mrs. McMurdo lived two doors down from the manse, and walked to church every Sunday with her friend Mrs. Hayes. Roger had known them all his life.
“Come over to Rome then, have ye, Mr. Wakefield?” Chrissie McMurdo asked. Jessie Hayes giggled at her friend’s wit, the red cherries bouncing on her hat.
“Maybe not just yet awhile,” Roger said, still smiling. “I’m only seeing a friend to the services, aye? You’ll know Miss Randall?” He brought Brianna forward and made the introductions, grinning inwardly as the two little old ladies looked her over with a frankly avid curiosity.
To Mrs. McMurdo and Mrs. Hayes, his presence here was as overt a declaration of his intentions as if he’d taken out a full-page ad in the evening newspaper. Too bad Brianna was unaware of it.
Or was she? She glanced at him with a half-hidden smile, and he felt the pressure of her fingers on his arm, just for a moment.
“Och, there’s the wee laddie comin’ wi’ the censer!” cried Mrs. Hayes, spotting another white-robed boy emerging from the sanctuary. “Best get in quick, Chrissie, or we’ll never have a seat!”
“Such a pleasure to meet ye, my dear,” Mrs. McMurdo told Brianna, head tilted back so far that her hat was in danger of falling off. “My, such a bonny tall lass!” She glanced at Roger, twinkling. “Lucky to have found a lad to match ye, eh?”
“Just coming, Jessie, just coming. Dinna fash, there’s time.” Straightening her hat, trimmed with a small bunch of grouse’s feathers, Mrs. McMurdo turned in leisurely fashion to join her friend.
The bell above began to clang again, and Roger took Brianna’s arm. Just in front of them, he saw Jessie Hayes glance back, eyes bright with speculation, her smile half sly with knowing.
Brianna dipped her fingers in a small stone basin set in the wall by the door, and crossed herself. Roger found the gesture suddenly and oddly familiar, despite its Romanness.
Years ago, hill-walking with the Reverend, they had come upon a saint’s pool, hidden in a grove. There was a flat stone standing on end beside the tiny spring, the remnants of carving on it worn nearly to smoothness, no more than the shadow of a human figure.
A sense of mystery hung about the small, dark pool; he and the Reverend had stood there for some time, not speaking. Then the Reverend had bent, scooped up a handful of water, and poured it out at the foot of the stone in silent ceremony, scooped up another and splashed it over his face. Only then had they knelt by the spring to drink the cold, sweet water.
Above the Reverend’s bowed back, Roger had seen the tattered knots of fabric tied to tree branches above the spring. Pledges; reminders of prayer, left by whoever still visited the ancient shrine.
For how many thousands of years had men thus blessed themselves with water before seeking their heart’s desire? Roger dabbed his fingers in the water and awkwardly touched both head and heart, with something that might have been a prayer.
They found seats in the east transept, crowded shoulder to shoulder with a murmuring family, busily engaged in settling belongings and sleepy children, passing coats and handbags and baby bottles to and fro, while a small, wheezy organ played “O Little Town of Bethlehem” somewhere just out of sight.
Then the music stopped. There was a silence of expectation, and then it burst out once more, in a loud rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Roger rose with the congregation as the procession came down the center aisle. There were several of the white-robed acolytes, one with a swinging censer that sent puffs of fragrant smoke into the crowd. Another bore a book, and a third a tall crucifix, the gruesome figure on it blatant, daubed with red paint whose bloody echoes shimmered in the priest’s vestment of gold and crimson.