“Your mother?” Simple astonishment was succeeded by a fresh burst of outrage. “What? You’re thinking of bloody Jamie Fraser? Ye think ye cannot be satisfied with a boring historian—ye must have a—a—great passion, as she did for him, and you think I’ll maybe not measure up?”
“No! I’m not thinking of Jamie Fraser! I’m thinking of my father!” She shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her jacket, and swallowed hard. She’d stopped crying, but there were tears on her lashes, clotting them in spikes.
“She meant it when she married him—I could see it, in those pictures you gave me. She said ‘better or worse, richer, poorer’—and she meant it. And then…and then she met Jamie Fraser, and she didn’t mean it anymore.”
Her mouth worked silently for a moment, looking for words.
“I—I don’t blame her, not really, not after I thought about it. She couldn’t help it, and I—when she talked about him, I could see how much she loved him—but don’t you see, Roger? She loved my father, too—but then something happened. She didn’t expect it, and it wasn’t her fault—but it made her break her word. I won’t do that, not for anything.”
She wiped a hand under her nose, and he gave her back the handkerchief, silently. She blinked back the tears and looked at him, straight.
“It’s more than a year before we can be together. You can’t leave Oxford; I can’t leave Boston, not till I’ve got my degree.”
He wanted to say that he’d resign, that she should quit her schooling—but kept quiet. She was right; neither of them would be happy with such a solution.
“So what if I say yes now, and something happens? What if—if I met somebody else, or you did?” Tears welled again, and one ran down her cheek. “I won’t take the chance of hurting you. I won’t.”
“But you love me now?” He touched a finger gently to her cheek. “Bree, do ye love me?”
She took a step forward, and without speaking, reached to undo the fastenings of her coat.
“What the hell are you doing?” Blank astonishment was added to the mix of other emotions, succeeded by something else as her long pale fingers grasped the zip of his jacket and pulled it down.
The sudden whiff of cold was obliterated by the warmth of her body, pressed against his from throat to knees.
His arms went around her padded back by reflex; she was holding him tight, arms locked round him under his jacket. Her hair smelled cold and sweet, with the last traces of incense trapped in the heavy strands, blending with the fragrance of grass and jasmine flowers. He caught the gleam of a hairpin, bronze metal in the copper loops of her hair.
She didn’t say a thing, nor did he. He could feel her body through the thin layers of cloth between them, and a jolt of desire shot up the backs of his legs, as though he were standing on an electric grid. He tilted up her chin, and set his mouth on hers.
“…see that Jackie Martin, and her with a new fur collar to her coat?”
“Och, and where’s she found the money for such a thing, wi’ her husband oot o’ his work this six month past? I tell ye, Jessie, yon woman…ooh!”
The click of French-heeled shoes on the pavement halted, to be succeeded by the sound of a throat being cleared with sufficient resonance to wake the dead.
Roger tightened his grip on Brianna, and didn’t move. She tightened her arms around him in response, and he felt the curve of her mouth under his.
“Ah, now, Chrissie,” came a hissed whisper from behind him. “Let them be, aye? Can ye not see they’re getting engaged?”
“Mmphm” came again, but in a lower tone. “Hmp. They’ll be getting something else, and they go on wi’ that much longer. Still…” A long sigh, tinged with nostalgia. “Ah, weel, it’s nice to be young, isn’t it?”
The twin tap of heels came on, much slower, passed them, and faded inaudibly into the fog.
He stood for a minute, willing himself to let go of her. But once a man has touched the mane of a water horse, it’s no simple matter to let go. An old kelpie-rhyme ran through his head,
And sit weel, Janetie
And ride weel, Davie.
And your first stop will be
The bottom of Loch Cavie.
“I’ll wait,” he said, and let her go. He held her hands and looked into her eyes, now soft and clear as rain pools.
“Hear me, though,” he said softly. “I will have you all—or not at all.”
Let me love her rightly, he had said in wordless prayer. And hadn’t he been told often enough by Mrs. Graham—“Be careful what ye ask for, laddie, for ye just might get it?”
He cupped her breast, soft through her jumper.
“It’s not only your body that I want—though God knows, I want it badly. But I’ll have you as my wife…or I will not have you. Your choice.”
She reached up and touched him, brushed the hair off his brow with fingers so cold, they burned like dry ice.
“I understand,” she whispered.
The wind off the river was cold, and he reached to do up the zip of her jacket. In doing so, his hand brushed his own pocket, and he felt the small package lying there. He’d meant to give it to her over supper.
“Here,” he said, handing it to her. “Happy Christmas.”
“I bought it last summer,” he said, watching her cold fingers fumble at the holly-printed paper. “Looks like prescience, now, doesn’t it?”
She held a silver circle, a bracelet, a flat silver band, with words etched round it. He took it from her and slipped it over her hand, onto her wrist. She turned it slowly, reading the words.
“Je t’aime…un peu…beaucoup…passionnément…pas du tout. I love you…a little…a lot…passionately…not at all.”
He gave the band a quarter turn more, completing the circle.
“Je t’aime,” he said, and then with a twist of fingers, sent it spinning on her wrist. She laid a hand on it, stopping it.
“Moi aussi,” she said softly, looking not at the band but at him. “Joyeux Noël.”
On the Mountain
Sleeping under the moon and stars in the arms of a nak*d lover, the two of you cradled by furs and soft leaves, lulled by the gentle murmur of the chestnut trees and the far-off rumble of a waterfall, is terribly romantic. Sleeping under a crude lean-to, squashed into a soggy mass between a large, wet husband and an equally large, equally wet nephew, listening to rain thrump on the branches overhead while fending off the advances of a immense and thoroughly saturated dog, is slightly less so.
“Air,” I said, struggling feebly into a sitting position and brushing Rollo’s tail out of my face for the hundredth time. “I can’t breathe.” The smell of confined male animals was overpowering; a sort of musky, rancid smell, garnished with the scent of wet wool and fish.
I rolled onto my hands and knees and made my way out, trying not to step on anyone. Jamie grunted in his sleep, compensating for the loss of my body heat by curling himself neatly into a plaid-wrapped ball. Ian and Rollo were inextricably entangled in a mass of fur and cloth, their mingled exhalations forming a faint fog around them in the predawn chill.
It was chilly outside, but the air was fresh; so fresh I nearly coughed when I took a good lungful of it. The rain had stopped, but the trees were still dripping, and the air was composed of equal parts water vapor and pure oxygen, spiced with pungent green scents from every plant on the mountainside.
I had been sleeping in Jamie’s spare shirt, my buckskins put away in a saddlebag to avoid soaking. I was dappled with gooseflesh and shivering by the time I pulled them on, but the stiff leather warmed enough to shape itself to my body within a few minutes.
Barefooted and cold-toed, I made my way carefully down to the stream to wash, kettle under my arm. It wasn’t yet dawn, and the forest was filled with mist and gray-blue light; crepuscle, the mysterious half-light that comes at both ends of the day, when the small secret things come out to feed.
There was an occasional tentative chirp from the canopy overhead, but nothing like the usual raucous chorus. The birds were late in starting today because of the rain; the sky was still lowering, with clouds that ranged from black in the west to a pale slate-blue in the dawning east. I felt a small rush of pleasure at the thought that I knew already the normal hour when the birds should sing, and had noticed the difference.
Jamie had been right, I thought, when he had suggested that we stay on the mountain, instead of returning to Cross Creek. It was the beginning of September; by Myers’s estimation, we would have two months of good weather—relatively good weather, I amended, looking up at the clouds—before the cold made shelter imperative. Time enough—maybe—to build a small cabin, to hunt for meat, to supply ourselves for the winter ahead.
“It will be gey hard work,” Jamie had said. I stood between his knees as he sat perched high on a large rock, looking over the valley below. “And some danger to it; we may fail if the snow is early, or if I canna hunt meat enough. I willna do it, if ye say nay, Sassenach. Would ye be afraid?”
Afraid was putting it mildly. The thought made the bottom of my stomach drop alarmingly. When I had agreed to settle on the ridge, I had thought we would return to Cross Creek to spend the winter.
We could have gathered both supplies and settlers in a leisurely manner, and returned in the spring in caravan, to clear land and raise houses communally. Instead, we would be completely alone, several days travel from the nearest tiny settlement of Europeans. Alone in a wilderness, alone through the winter.
We had virtually nothing with us in the way of tools or supplies, save a felling ax, a couple of knives, a camp kettle and girdle, and my smaller medicine box. What if something happened, if Ian or Jamie fell ill or was hurt in an accident? If we starved or froze? And while Jamie was sure that our Indian acquaintances had no objection to our intent, I wasn’t so sanguine about any others who might happen along.
Yes, I bloody well would be afraid. On the other hand, I’d lived long enough to realize that fear wasn’t usually fatal—at least not by itself. Add in the odd bear or savage, and I wasn’t saying, mind.
For the first time, I looked back with some longing at River Run, at hot water and warm beds and regular food, at order, cleanliness…and safety.
I could see well enough why Jamie didn’t want to go back; living on Jocasta’s bounty for several months more would sink him that much further in obligation, make it that much harder to reject her blandishments.
He also knew—even better than I—that Jocasta Cameron was born a MacKenzie. I had seen enough of her brothers, Dougal and Colum, to have a decent wariness of that heritage; the MacKenzies of Leoch didn’t give up a purpose lightly, and were certainly not above plotting and manipulation to achieve their ends. And a blind spider might weave her webs that much more surely, for depending solely on a sense of touch.