The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 144

   

She wore only a shift and he hadn’t bothered to take it off, merely shoving her backward onto the bed and pushing it above her thighs. She’d lifted her hands toward him, but he hadn’t let her touch him; he’d pinned her arms at first, then later, borne her into the hollow of the mattress with the weight of his body, grinding, grasping, seeking reassurance in the thin padding of flesh that kept her bones from his.

They had done it in silence, half-aware of the sleeping child nearby. And yet somewhere in the midst of it, her body had answered him, in some deep and startling way that went beyond words.

“I mean it,” he’d repeated, moments later, speaking softly into the tangle of her hair. He lay on her, enclosing her with his arms, keeping her from moving. She twitched, and he tightened his grasp, holding her still. She sighed, and he felt her mouth move, her teeth sink gently into the flesh below his collarbone. She bit him. Not abruptly, but in a slow, sucking bite that made him gasp and lift up to break away.

“I know,” she said, and wriggled her arms free, to come round his back and hold him close to her damp, warm softness. “I mean it, too.”

“THAT WHAT YOU WANTED?” He whispered the words now, but softly, not to awaken her. The warmth of her body radiated through the bedclothes; she was deep asleep.

If it was what she’d wanted—what, exactly, was it? Was it the brutal nature of his lovemaking that she’d responded to? Or had she sensed the strength of what lay behind it, and acknowledged that—the desperation of his need to keep her safe?

And if it was the roughness . . . he swallowed, clenching a fist against the thought of Stephen Bonnet. She’d never told him what had passed between them, her and Bonnet—and it was unthinkable that he should ask. More unthinkable that he should suspect anything in that encounter might have shamefully stirred her. And yet she did stir visibly on those rare occasions when something led him to take her abruptly, without his usual gentleness.

He was a long way from praying now.

He felt as he had once before, trapped in a rhododendron hell, with the same maze of damp roots and hanging leaves always before him, no matter in which direction he turned. Dim tunnels seemed to offer hope of escape, and yet led only to further tangles.

For me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie banks and braes of Loch Lomond . . .

He was wound tight again, skin prickling and his legs twitching with restlessness. The mosquito whined by and he slapped at it—too late, of course. Unable to keep still, he slid quietly out of bed, and did a quick series of deep knee-bends to loosen the cramped muscles.

That brought some relief, and he dropped to the floor to do push-ups, counting silently as he dipped toward the floorboards. One. Two. Three. Four. Concentrating only on the increasing burn in chest and arms and shoulders, the soothing monotony of the count. Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight . . .

At last, muscles quivering with temporary exhaustion, he stood up, untacked the hide from the window, and stood nak*d, letting the damp night air flood in upon him. He might let in more mosquitoes—but the one might go out, too.

The wood was silvered with moonlight, and a faint fire-glow in the darkened heart of it spoke of the militia encamped there. They had been coming in all day, on mules or ragged horses, muskets laid across the bundles of their blankets. He caught the sound of voices and casual laughter, a fragment borne on the breeze. At least he wasn’t the only one wakeful; the notion comforted him.

A brighter light glowed at the side of the big house, at the farther side of the clearing. A lantern; two figures walking close together, one tall, one smaller.

The man said something, an interrogative rumble; he recognized Jamie’s voice, but couldn’t make out the words.

“No,” Claire’s voice answered, lighter, clear as they came closer. He saw her hands flutter, silhouetted in the lantern’s glow. “I’m filthy from the planting. I’m going to wash before I come in. You go up to bed.”

The larger figure hesitated, then handed her the lantern. Roger saw Claire’s face in the light for a moment, turned upward, smiling. Jamie bent and kissed her briefly, then stepped back.

“Hurry, then,” he said, and Roger could hear the answering smile in his voice. “I dinna sleep well without ye beside me, Sassenach.”

“You’re going to sleep right away, are you?” She paused, a bantering note in her voice.

“Not right away, no.” Jamie’s figure had melted into the darkness, but the breeze was toward the cabin, and his voice came out of the shadows, part of the night. “But I canna very well do the other unless ye’re beside me, either, now can I?”

Claire laughed, though softly.

“Start without me,” she said, turning away toward the well. “I’ll catch you up.”

Roger waited by the window until he saw her come back, the lantern swinging with the haste of her step, and go inside. The breeze had turned, and he heard no more of the men in the wood, though their fire still burned.

“You’re early, mate,” he said, and eased a finger toward the firefly, gently nudging. “Think there’s anyone else out there yet?” The insect moved a few inches, then stopped, abdomen stubbornly blinking.

He looked toward the wood, his skin cool now, and gooseflesh rose on his chest. He rubbed absently at it, and felt the tender spot where she had bitten him. It was dark in the moonlight, a faint blotch on his skin; would it still be there come morning? he wondered.

Reaching up to pull the hide back into place, he caught the gleam of moonlight on glass. Brianna’s small collection of personal items lay on the shelf by the window: the pair of tortoiseshell combs Jocasta had given her, her silver bracelet. The small glass jar of tansy oil, two or three discreet slips of sponge beside it. And the larger gleam of the jarful of Dauco seeds. She hadn’t had time for the tansy oil tonight, but he’d bet his life she’d taken the seeds sometime today.

He tacked down the hide, and made his way back to bed, pausing by the cradle to put down a hand and feel the baby’s breath through the mosquito-netting, warm and reassuring on his skin.

Jem had kicked his covers off; Roger lifted the netting and pulled them up by feel, tucking them firmly in. There was something soft . . . oh, Jemmy’s rag-doll; the baby was clutching it to his chest. Roger stood for a moment, hand on Jemmy’s back, feeling the soothing rise and fall of his breathing.

“Good-night, laddie,” he whispered at last, and touched the soft padded round of the little boy’s bottom. “God bless you and keep you safe.”

58

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU

May 1, 1771

May Union Camp

I WOKE UP JUST PAST DAWN, roused by an insect of some sort walking up my leg. I twitched my foot and whatever it was scuttled hastily away into the grass, evidently alarmed to discover that I was alive. I wriggled my toes suspiciously, but finding no more intruders in my blanket, drew a deep breath of sap-filled fresh air and relaxed luxuriously.

I could hear faint stirrings nearby, but it was only the stamp and blowing of the officers’ horses, who woke long before the men did. The camp itself was still silent—or as silent as a camp containing several hundred men was likely to be at any hour. The sheet of canvas overhead glowed with soft light and leaf-shadows, but the sun was not yet fully up. I closed my eyes half-way, delighted at the thought that I needn’t get up for some time yet—and when I did, someone else would have made breakfast.

We had come into camp the night before, after a winding journey down from the mountains and across the piedmont, to arrive at the place of rendezvous, at Colonel Bryan’s plantation. We were in good time; Tryon had not yet arrived with his troops from New Bern, nor had the Craven and Carteret County detachments, who were bringing the artillery field pieces and swivel guns. Tryon’s troops were expected sometime today; or so Colonel Bryan had told us over supper the night before.

A grasshopper landed on the canvas above with an audible thump. I eyed it narrowly, but it didn’t seem disposed to come inside, thank goodness. Perhaps I should have accepted Mrs. Bryan’s offer to find me a bed in the house, along with a few other officers’ wives who had accompanied their husbands. Jamie had insisted upon sleeping in the field with his men, though, and I had gone with him, preferring a bed involving Jamie and bugs to one with neither.

I glanced sideways, careful not to move in case he was still asleep. He wasn’t. He was lying quite still, though, utterly relaxed, save for his right hand. He had this raised, and appeared to be examining it closely, turning it to and fro and slowly curling and uncurling his fingers—as well as he could. The fourth finger had a fused joint, and was permanently stiff; the middle finger was slightly twisted, a deep white scar spiraling round the middle joint.

His hand was callused and battered by work, and the tiny stigma of a nail-wound still showed, pale-pink, in the middle of his palm. The skin of his hand was deeply bronzed and weathered, freckled with sun-blots and scattered with bleached gold hairs. I thought it remarkably beautiful.

“Happy Birthday,” I said, softly. “Taking stock?”

He let the hand fall on his chest, and turned his head to look at me, smiling.

“Aye, something of the sort. Though I suppose I’ve a few hours left. I was born at half-six; I willna have lived a full half-century until suppertime.”

I laughed and rolled onto my side, kicking the blanket off. The air was still delightfully cool, but it wouldn’t last long.

“Do you expect to disintegrate much further before supper?” I asked, teasing.

“Oh, I dinna suppose anything is likely to fall off by then,” he said, consideringly. “As to the workings . . . aye, well . . .” He arched his back, stretching, and sank back with a gratified groan as my hand settled on him.

“It all seems to be in perfect working order,” I assured him. I gave a brief, experimental tug, making him yelp slightly. “Not loose at all.”

“Good,” he said, folding his hand firmly over mine to prevent further unauthorized experiments. “How did ye ken what I was doing? Taking stock, as ye say?”

I let him keep hold of the hand, but shifted to set my chin in the center of his chest, where a small depression seemed made for the purpose.

“I always do that, when I have a birthday—though I generally do it the night before. More looking back, I think, reflecting a bit on the year that’s just gone. But I do check things over; I think perhaps everyone does. Just to see if you’re the same person as the day before.”

“I’m reasonably certain that I am,” he assured me. “Ye dinna see any marked changes, do ye?”

I lifted my chin from its resting place and looked him over carefully. It was in fact rather hard to look at him objectively; I was both so used to his features and so fond of them that I tended to notice tiny, dear things about him—the freckle on his earlobe, the lower incisor pushing eagerly forward, just slightly out of line with its fellows—and to respond to the slightest change of his expression—but not really to look at him as an integrated whole.

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