His hands touched my neck, my bare back, and shoulders as he worked; fleeting touches that brought my newly thawed flesh to life. I shivered, but let the quilt fall to my lap. The fire was still burning high, flames dancing on the side of the kettle, and the room had grown quite warm.
He was now describing, in a pleasantly conversational tone, various things he would have liked to do to me, beginning with beating me black and blue with a stick, and going on from there. Gaelic is a rich language, and Jamie was far from unimaginative in matters of either violence or sex. Whether he meant it or not, I thought it was probably a good thing that I didn’t understand everything he said.
I could feel the heat of the fire on my br**sts; Jamie’s warmth against my back. The loose fabric of his shirt brushed my skin as he leaned across to reach a bottle on the shelf, and I shivered again. He noticed this, and interrupted his tirade for a moment.
“Good.” The sharp smell of camphor stung my nose, and before I could move, one large hand had seized my shoulder, holding me in place, while the other rubbed slippery oil firmly into my chest.
“Stop! That tickles! Stop, I say!”
He didn’t stop. I squirmed madly, trying to escape, but he was a lot bigger than I was.
“Be still,” he said, inexorable fingers rubbing deep between my ticklish ribs, under my collarbone, around and under my tender br**sts, greasing me as thoroughly as a suckling pig bound for the spit.
“You bastard!” I said when he let me go, breathless from struggling and giggling. I reeked of peppermint and camphor, and my skin glowed with heat from chin to belly.
He grinned at me, revenged and thoroughly unrepentant.
“You do it to me when I’ve got an ague,” he pointed out, wiping his hands on the towel. “Grease for the gander is grease for the goose, aye?”
“I have not got an ague! Not even a sniffle!”
“I expect ye will have, out all night and sleepin’ in wet clothes.” He clicked his tongue disapprovingly, like a Scottish housewife.
“And you’ve never done that, have you? How many times have you caught cold from sleeping rough?” I demanded. “Good heavens, you lived in a cave for seven years!”
“And spent three of them sneezing. Besides, I’m a man,” he added, with total illogic. “Had ye not better put on your night rail, Sassenach? Ye havena got a stitch on.”
“I noticed. Wet clothes and being cold do not cause sickness,” I informed him, hunting about under the table for the fallen quilt.
He raised both eyebrows.
“Oh, they don’t?”
“No, they don’t.” I backed out from under the table, clutching the quilt. “I’ve told you before, it’s germs that cause sickness. If I haven’t been exposed to any germs, I won’t get sick.”
“Ah, gerrrrms,” he said, rolling it like a marble in his mouth. “God, ye’ve got a fine, fat arse! Why do folk have more illness in the winter than the springtime, then? The germs breed in the cold, I expect?”
“Not exactly.” Feeling absurdly self-conscious, I spread the quilt, meaning to fold it around my shoulders again. Before I could wrap myself in it, though, he had grabbed me by the arm and pulled me toward him.
“Come here,” he said, unnecessarily. Before I could say anything, he had smacked my bare backside smartly, turned me around and kissed me, hard.
He let go, and I almost fell down. I flung my arms around him, and he grabbed my waist, steadying me.
“I dinna care whether it’s the germs or the night air or Billy-be-damned,” he said, looking sternly down his nose. “I willna have ye fallin’ ill, and that’s all about it. Now, hop yourself directly into your gown, and to bed with ye!”
He felt awfully good in my arms. The smooth linen of his shirtfront was cool against the heated glow of my greased br**sts, and while the wool of his kilt was much scratchier against my nak*d thighs and belly, the sensation was by no means unpleasant. I rubbed myself slowly against him, like a cat against a post.
“Bed,” he said again, sounding a trifle less stern.
“Mmmm,” I said, making it reasonably obvious that I didn’t mean to go there alone.
“No,” he said, squirming slightly. I supposed that he meant to get away, but since I didn’t let go, the movement merely exacerbated the situation between us.
“Mm-hmm,” I said, holding on tight. Intoxicated as I was, it hadn’t escaped me that Duncan would undoubtedly be spending the night on the hearth rug, Ian on the trundle. And while I was feeling somewhat uninhibited at the moment, the feeling didn’t extend quite that far.
“My father told me never to take advantage of a woman who was the worse for drink,” he said. He had stopped squirming, but now started again, slower, as though he couldn’t help himself.
“I’m not worse, I’m better,” I assured him. “Besides—” I executed a slow, sinuous squirm of my own. “I thought he said you weren’t drunk if you could find your arse with both hands.”
He eyed me appraisingly.
“I hate to tell ye, Sassenach, but it’s not your arse ye’ve got hold of—it’s mine.”
“That’s all right,” I assured him. “We’re married. Share and share alike. One flesh; the priest said so.”
“Perhaps it was a mistake to put that grease on ye,” he muttered, half to himself. “It never does this to me!”
“Well, you’re a man.”
He had one last gallant try.
“Should ye not eat a bit more, lass? You must be starving.”
“Mm-hm,” I said. I buried my face in his shirt and bit him, lightly. “Ravenous.”
There is a story told of the Earl of Montrose—that after one battle, he was found lying on the field, half dead of cold and starvation, by a young woman. The young woman whipped off her shoe, mixed barley with cold water in it, and fed the resulting mess to the prostrate earl, thus saving his life.
The cup now thrust under my nose appeared to contain a portion of this same life-giving substance, with the minor difference that mine was warm.
“What is this?” I asked, eyeing the pale grains floating belly-up on the surface of a watery liquid. It looked like a cup full of drowned maggots.
“Barley crowdie,” Ian said, gazing proudly at the cup as though it were his firstborn child. “I made it myself, from the bag ye brought from Muellers’.”
“Thank you,” I said, and took a cautious sip. I didn’t think he had mixed it in his shoe, despite the musty aroma. “Very good,” I said. “How kind of you, Ian.”
He went pink with gratification.
“Och, it was nothing,” he said. “There’s plenty more, Auntie. Or shall I fetch ye a bit of cheese? I could cut the green bits off for ye.”
“No, no—this will be fine,” I said hastily. “Ah…why don’t you take your gun out, Ian, and see if you can bag a squirrel or a rabbit? I’m sure I’ll be well enough to cook supper.”
He beamed, the smile transforming his long, bony face.
“I’m glad to hear it, Auntie,” he said. “Ye should see what Uncle Jamie and I have been eatin’ while ye’ve been gone!”
He left me lying on my pillows, wondering what to do with the cup of crowdie. I didn’t want to drink it, but I felt like a puddle of warm butter—soft and creamy, nearly liquid—and the idea of getting up seemed unthinkably energetic.
Jamie, making no further protests, had taken me to bed, where he had completed the business of thawing me out with thoroughness and dispatch. I thought it was a good thing he wasn’t going hunting with Ian. He reeked of camphor as much as I did; the animals would scent him a mile away.
Tucking me tenderly under the quilts, he had left me to sleep while he went to greet Duncan more formally and offer him the hospitality of the house. I could hear the deep murmur of their voices outside now; they were sitting on the bench beside the door, enjoying the last of the afternoon sunshine—long, pale beams slanted through the window, lighting a warm glow of pewter and wood within.
The sun touched the skull, too. This stood on my writing table across the room, composing a cozily domestic still life with a clay jug filled with flowers and my casebook.
It was sight of the casebook that roused me from torpor. The birth I had attended at the Muellers’ farm now seemed vague and insubstantial in my mind; I thought I had better record the details while I still recalled them at all.
Thus prompted by the stirrings of professional duty, I stretched, groaned, and sat up. I still felt mildly dizzy and my ears rang from the aftereffects of brandywine. I was also faintly sore almost everywhere—more in some spots than others—but generally speaking, I was in decent working order. Beginning to be hungry, though.
I did hope Ian would come back with meat for the pot; I knew better than to gorge my shriveled stomach on cheese and salt fish, but a nice, strengthening squirrel broth, flavored with spring onions and dried mushrooms, would be just what the doctor ordered.
Speaking of broth—I slid reluctantly out of bed and stumbled across the floor to the hearth, where I poured the cold barley soup back into the pot. Ian had made enough for a regiment—always supposing the regiment to be composed of Scots. Living in a country normally barren of much that was edible, they were capable of relishing glutinous masses of cereal, untouched by any redeeming hint of spice or flavor. From a feebler race myself, I didn’t feel quite up to it.
The opened bag of barley stood beside the hearth, the burlap sack still visibly damp. I would have to spread the grain to dry, or it would rot. My bruised knee protesting a bit, I went and got a large flat tray-basket made of plaited reeds, and knelt to spread the damp grain in a thin layer over it.
“Will he have a soft mouth, then, Duncan?” Jamie’s voice came clearly through the window; the hide covering was rolled up, to let in air, and I caught the faint tang of tobacco from Duncan’s pipe. “He’s a big, strong brute, but he’s got a kind eye.”
“Oh, he’s a bonny wee fellow,” Duncan said, the note of pride in his voice unmistakable. “And a nice soft mouth, aye. Miss Jo had her stableman pick him from the market in Wilmington; said he must find a horse could be managed well wi’ one hand.”
“Mmphm. Aye, well, he’s a lovely creature.” The wooden bench creaked as one of the men shifted his weight. I understood the equivocation behind Jamie’s compliment, and wondered whether Duncan did, as well.
Part of it was simple condescension; Jamie had been raised on horseback, and as a born horseman, would scorn the notion that hands were necessary at all; I had seen him maneuver a horse by the shifting pressure of knees and thighs alone, or set his mount at a gallop across a crowded field, the reins knotted on the horse’s neck, to leave Jamie’s hands free for sword and pistol.
But Duncan was neither a horseman nor a soldier; he had lived as a fisherman near Ardrossan, until the Rising had plucked him, like so many others, from his nets and his boat, and sent him to Culloden and disaster.