It was cold in the hall, away from the contained body heat of the women, but I welcomed the chill; the blood was pulsing just under my skin, and I bloomed with heat and agitation. A nice cooldown was exactly what I wanted. I made my way quietly to the back stairs, meaning to go down and outside for a breath of air.
I stopped dead at the top of the staircase. A man stood at the foot of the stair, a silhouette tall and black against the panes of the double French doors. I didn’t think I had made any sound, but he turned at once, face lifted toward me. Even in the poor light, I knew at once that it was Jamie.
He was still clad in the clothes he had worn the night before—coat and waistcoat, frilled shirt and buckled breeches. The shirt was open at the neck, though, coat and weskit unbuttoned and askew. I could see the narrow line of white linen, the flesh of his throat dark against it. His hair was loose; he had been running his hands through it.
“Come down,” he said softly.
I hesitated, looking back over my shoulder. A ladylike medley of snores came from the room I had just left. Two slaves were sleeping on the floor in the hall, curled under blankets, but neither moved.
I looked back. He didn’t speak again, but lifted two fingers, beckoning. The scent of smoke and whisky filled the stairwell.
The blood was thrumming in my ears—and elsewhere. My face was flushed, my hair damp at the temples and on my neck; cool air rose up under my shift, touched the patch of dampness at the base of my spine, the film of slickness where my thighs brushed together.
I came down slowly, cautiously, trying not to let the stairs creak under my bare feet. It occurred to me belatedly that this was ridiculous; the slaves thundered up and down these stairs hundreds of times a day. Even so, I felt the need for secrecy; the house was still asleep, and the stairwell was filled with a gray light that seemed as fragile as smoked glass. A sudden sound, a move too quick, and something might explode under my feet, with a flash like a lightbulb popping.
His eyes stayed fixed on me, dark triangles in the paler dark of his face. He stared at me with a fierce intensity, as though to drag me down the stairs by the force of his gaze alone.
I stopped, one step from the bottom. There was no blood on his clothes; thank God for that.
It wasn’t that I’d never seen Jamie drunk before. No wonder he hadn’t come up the stairs to me. I thought he was very drunk now, and yet there was something quite different in this. He stood rock-solid, legs set wide, betrayed only by a certain deliberation in the way he moved his head to look at me.
“What—” I began, whispering.
“Come here,” he said. His voice was low, rough with sleeplessness and whisky.
I hadn’t time either to reply or to acquiesce; he seized my arm and pulled me toward him, then swept me off the last step, crushed me to him, and kissed me. It was a most disconcerting kiss—as though his mouth knew mine all too well, and would compel my pleasure, regardless of my desires.
His hair smelled of a long night’s smoke—tobacco and woodsmoke and the smoke of beeswax candles. He tasted so strongly of whisky that I felt light-headed, as though the alcohol in his blood were seeping into mine through our skins where they touched, through the sealed membranes of our mouths. Something else was seeping into me from him, as well—a sense of overpowering lust, as blind as it was dangerous.
I wanted to remonstrate with him, to push him away. Then I decided that I didn’t, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. He didn’t mean to let go.
One big hand was gripping the back of my neck, warm and hard on my skin, and I thought of a stallion’s teeth closing on the neck of the mare he mounts, and shivered from scalp to sole. His thumb accidentally pressed the great artery under my jaw; darkness swam behind my eyes and my knees began to buckle. He felt it and let go, easing me back so that I was almost lying prone upon the stairs, his weight half on me and his hands seeking.
I was nak*d under my shift, and the thin muslin might as well not have been there.
The hard edge of a stair pressed into my back, and it occurred to me, in the dim way that things do when you’re drunk, that he was just about to take me right there on the stairs, and devil take anyone who might see.
I got my mouth free of his long enough to gasp, “Not here!” in his ear. That seemed to bring him momentarily to his senses; he lifted his head, blinking like one roused from a nightmare, eyes wide and blind. Then he nodded once, jerkily, and rose, pulling me to my feet with him.
The maids’ cloaks were hanging by the door; he seized one and wrapped it round me, then picked me up bodily and shouldered his way through the door, past a staring housemaid with a slop jar in her hands.
He set me down when he reached the brick path outside; the bricks were cold under my feet. Then we were moving together through the gray light across a landscape of shadow and wind, still entangled with each other, stumbling, jostling, and yet somehow almost flying, clothes fluttering round us and cold air brushing our skins with the rude touch of spring, bound for some vaguely sensed and yet inevitable destination.
The stables. He hit the door and pulled me through with him into the warm dark, thrust me hard against a wall.
“I must have ye now, or die,” he said, breathless, and then his mouth was on mine again, his face cold from the air outside, and his breath steaming with mine.
Then he drew abruptly away, and I staggered, pressing my hands against the rough bricks of the wall to keep my balance.
“Hold up your hands,” he said.
“What?” I said stupidly.
“Your hands. Put them up.”
In complete bewilderment, I held them up, and felt him take hold of the left one, fumbling. Pressure and warmth, and the faint light from the open door shone on my gold wedding ring. Then he seized my right hand, shoved my silver ring onto my finger, the metal warm from the heat of his body. He raised my hand to his mouth, and bit my knuckles, hard.
Then his hand was on my breast, cold air brushed my thighs, and I felt the scratch of the bricks on my bare backside.
I made a noise, and he clapped a hand over my mouth. Speared as neatly as a landed trout, I was just as helpless, pinned flapping against the wall.
He took his hand away and replaced it with his mouth, engulfing mine. I could feel the small urgent growls he was making in his throat, and felt another one, much louder, rising in mine.
My shift was wadded high around my waist, and my bare buttocks smacked rhythmically against the roughened brick, but I felt no pain at all. I gripped him by the shoulders and held on.
His hand skimmed my thigh, pushing at the drifts of linen that threatened to come between us. I remembered, vividly, those hands in the darkness, and bucked convulsively.
“Look.” His breath came hot in my ear. “Look down. Watch while I take ye. Watch, damn you!”
His hand pressed my neck, bending my head forward to look down in the dimness, past the folds of sheltering fabric to the nak*d fact of my possession.
I arched my back and then collapsed, biting the shoulder of his coat to make no noise. His mouth was on my neck, and fastened tight as he shuddered against me.
WE LAY TANGLED together in the straw, watching daylight creep through the half-open door across the red-brick floor of the stable. My heart was still thumping in my ears, blood tingling through skin and temples, thighs and fingers, but I felt somehow detached from such sensations, as though they were happening to someone else. I felt unreal—and slightly shocked.
My cheek lay flat against his chest. Moving my eyes slightly, I could see the fading red flush of his skin in the open neck of his shirt, and the coarse curly hairs, so deep an auburn that they looked nearly black in the shadowed light.
A pulse was throbbing in the hollow of his throat, no more than an inch from my hand. I wanted to lay my fingers on it, feel his heartbeat echo in my blood. I felt oddly shy, though, as though such a gesture were too intimate to contemplate. Which was completely ridiculous, in view of what we had just done with—and to—each another.
I did move my index finger, just a bit, so that my fingertip brushed the tiny three-cornered scar on his throat; a faded white knot, pale against his bronzed skin.
There was a slight catch in the rhythm of his breathing, but he didn’t move. His arm was round me, his hand splayed on the small of my back. Two breaths, three . . . and then the faint pressure of a fingertip against my spine.
We lay silent, breathing lightly, both concentrated on the delicate acknowledgment of our connection, but didn’t speak or move; slightly embarrassed, with the return of reason, at what we had just done.
The sound of voices coming toward the stable galvanized me into motion, though. I sat up abruptly, yanked my shift up over my shoulders, and began to brush straw from my hair. Jamie rolled up onto his knees, his back to me, and began hastily to tuck in his shirttail.
The voices outside stopped abruptly, and we both froze. There was a brief, charged silence, and then the sound of footsteps, delicately retreating. I let out the breath I had been holding, feeling my racing heart begin to slow. The stable was filled with the rustlings and whickers of the horses, who had heard the voices and footsteps, too. They were getting hungry.
“So you won,” I said to Jamie’s back. My voice sounded strange to me, as though I hadn’t used it in a long time.
“I promised ye I would.” He spoke softly, head bent as he rearranged the folds of his plaid.
I stood up, feeling mildly dizzy, and leaned against the wall to keep my balance as I brushed sand and straw from my feet. The rough feel of the bricks behind me was a vivid reminder, and I spread my hands out against them, bracing myself against the rush of recalled sensation.
“Are ye all right, Sassenach?” He turned his head sharply to look up at me, sensing my movement.
“Yes. Yes,” I repeated. “Fine. Just . . . I’m fine. And you?”
He looked pale and scruffy, his face stubbled and hollow with strain, eyes smudged black from a long and sleepless night. He met my eyes for a moment, then glanced away. A hint of color showed on his cheekbones, and he swallowed audibly.
“I—” he began, then stopped. He got to his feet and stood before me. His formal queue had come undone, and the tails of his hair splayed over his shoulder, glimmering redly as the bar of light from the door lit him.
“Ye dinna hate me?” he asked abruptly. Taken by surprise, I laughed.
“No,” I said. “Do you think I should?”
His mouth twitched a little, and he rubbed his knuckles across it, scraping on the stubble of his beard.
“Well, maybe so,” he said, “but I’m glad if ye don’t.”
He took my hands gently in his own, his thumb rubbing lightly across the interlaced pattern of my silver ring. His hands were cold, chilled by the dawn.
“Whyever do you think I might hate you?” I asked. “Because of the rings, do you mean?” Granted, I would have been upset and furious with him, had he lost either one. Since he hadn’t . . . Of course, he had caused me to worry all night about where he was and what he was doing, to say nothing of sneaking into my room and making improper advances to my feet. Perhaps I ought to be annoyed with him, after all.