He moved out of the trees, just a little, and her head turned at once as she caught sight of him. The slight frown on her face melted at once, her face lighting. He smiled back, then jerked his head in invitation, and turned away down the path, not waiting.
Was he sufficiently petty to want to demonstrate to that gang of gawpers that his woman would drop everything and come at his beck? Well . . . yes, he was. Embarrassment at that realization was tempered by a pleasantly fierce sense of possession at the sound of her step on the path above; yes, she would come to him.
She had left her work behind, but carried something in her hand; a small packet, wrapped in paper and tied with thread. He put out a hand and led her off the path, down toward a small copse where a scrim of tattered red and yellow maple leaves offered a decent semblance of privacy.
“Sorry to take you from your work,” he said, though he wasn’t.
“It’s okay. I was glad to get away. I’m afraid I’m not all that good at blood and guts.” She made a rueful face at the admission.
“That’s all right,” he assured her. “It’s not one of the things I was looking for in a wife.”
“Maybe you should have been,” she said, shooting him a brooding sort of glance. “Here in this place, you might need a wife who can pull your teeth when they go bad, and sew your fingers back on when you cut them off chopping wood.”
The grayness of the day seemed to have affected her spirits—or perhaps it was the job she had been doing. A brief glance at the run of Claire’s patients was enough to depress anyone—anyone but Claire—with their parade of deformities, mutilations, wounds, and ghastly illnesses.
At least what he meant to tell Brianna might take her mind off the more gruesome details of eighteenth-century life for a bit. He cupped her cheek, and smoothed one thick red brow with a chilly thumb. Her face was cold, too, but the flesh behind her ear, beneath her hair, was warm—like her other hidden places.
“I’ve got what I wanted,” he said firmly. “What about you, though? You’re sure ye don’t want a man who can scalp Indians and put dinner on the table with his gun? Blood’s not my main thing, either, aye?”
A spark of humor reappeared in her eyes, and her air of preoccupation lightened.
“No, I don’t think I want a bloody man,” she said. “That’s what Mama calls Da—but only when she’s mad at him.”
“And what will you call me, when you’re mad at me?” he teased. She looked at him speculatively, and the spark grew brighter.
“Oh, don’t worry; Da won’t teach me any bad words in Gaelic, but Marsali taught me a lot of really evil things to say in French. Do you know what un soulard is? Un grande gueule?”
“Oui, ma petite chou—not that I’ve ever seen a cabbage with quite such a red nose.” He flicked a finger at her nose, and she ducked, laughing.
“Save something for after the wedding,” he advised. “Ye might need it.” He took her hand, to draw her toward a convenient boulder, then noticed again the small package she held.
“A wedding present,” she said, and held it out to him with two fingers, distasteful as though it had been a dead mouse.
He took it gingerly, but felt no sinister shapes through the paper. He bounced it on his palm; it was light, almost weightless.
“Embroidery silk,” she said, in answer to his questioning look. “From Mrs. Buchanan.” The frown was back between her brows, and that look of . . . worry? No, something else, but damned if he could put a name to it.
“What’s wrong with embroidery silk?”
“Nothing. It’s what it’s for.” She took the package from him, and tucked it into the pocket she wore tied under her petticoat. She was looking down, rearranging her skirts, but he could see the tightness of her lips. “She said it’s for our winding claes.”
Spoken in Brianna’s odd version of a Bostonian Scots accent, it took a moment for Roger to decipher this.
“Winding cl—oh, you mean shrouds?”
“Yes. Evidently, it’s my wifely duty to sit down the morning after the wedding and start spinning cloth for my shroud.” She bit the words off through clenched teeth. “That way, I’ll have it woven and embroidered by the time I die in childbirth. And if I’m a fast worker, I’ll have time to make one for you, too—otherwise, your next wife will have to finish it!”
He would have laughed, had it not been clear that she was really upset.
“Mrs. Buchanan is a great fool,” he said, taking her hands. “You should not be letting her worry you with her nonsense.” Brianna glanced at him under lowered brows.
“Mrs. Buchanan,” she said precisely, “is ignorant, stupid, and tactless. The one thing she isn’t is wrong.”
“Of course she is,” he said, with assumed certainty, feeling nonetheless a stab of apprehension.
“How many wives has Farquard Campbell buried?” she demanded. “Gideon Oliver? Andrew MacNeill?”
Nine, among the three of them. MacNeill would take a fourth wife this evening—an eighteen-year-old girl from Weaver’s Gorge. The stab came again, deeper, but he ignored it.
“And Jenny ban Campbell’s borne eight children and deviled two husbands into the ground,” he countered firmly. “For that matter, Mrs. Buchanan herself has five bairns, and she’s certainly still kicking. I’ve seen them; turnip-headed to a man, but all healthy.”
That got him a reluctant twitch of the mouth, and he pressed on, encouraged.
“You’ve no need to fear, hen. You had no trouble with Jemmy, aye?”
“Yeah? Well, if you think it’s no trouble, next time you can do it!” she snapped, but the corner of her mouth curled slightly up. She tugged at his hand, but he held on, and she didn’t resist.
“So you’re willing there should be a next time, are you? Mrs. Buchanan notwithstanding?” His tone was deliberately light, but he drew her close and held her, his face hidden in her hair, for fear she should see how much the question meant to him.
She wasn’t fooled. She drew back a little, and her eyes, blue as water, searched his.
“You’d marry me, but live celibate?” she asked. “That’s the only sure way. The tansy oil doesn’t always work—look at Marsali!” The existence of baby Joan was eloquent testimony to the ineffectiveness of that particular method of birth control. Still . . .
“There are other ways, I expect,” he said. “But if you want celibacy—then yes, you’ll have it.”
She laughed, because his hand had tightened possessively on her arse, even as his lips renounced it. Then the laughter faded, and the blue of her eyes grew darker, clouded.
“You mean it, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he said, and did, though the thought of it lay heavy in his chest, like a swallowed stone.
She sighed, and drew her hand down the side of his face, tracing the line of his neck, the hollow of his throat. Her thumb pressed against his hammering pulse, so he felt the beat of it, magnified in his blood.
He meant it, but he bent his head to hers and took her mouth, so short of breath he must have hers, needing so urgently to join with her that he would do it in whatever way he might—hands, breath, mouth, arms; his thigh pressed between hers, opening her legs. Her hand lay flat against his chest, as though to push him off—then tightened convulsively, grasping shirt and flesh together. Her fingers dug deep in the muscle of his breast, and then they were glued together, openmouthed and gasping, front teeth scraping painfully in the flurry of their wanting.
“I don’t . . . we’re not . . .” He broke free for a moment, his mind grasping dimly for the fragments of words. Then her hand found its way under his kilt, a cold, sure touch on his heated flesh, and he lost all power of speech.
“Once more before we quit,” she said, and her breath wreathed him in heat and mist. “For old times’ sake.” She sank to her knees in the wet yellow leaves, pulling him down to her.
IT HAD STARTED raining again; her hair lay tumbled round her, streaked with damp. Her eyes were closed, her face upturned to the drizzling heavens, and raindrops struck her face, rolling down like tears. She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, in fact.
Roger lay with her, half on her, his weight a warm and solid comfort, his kilt spread over their tangled bare legs, protection from the rain. Her hand cupped the back of his head and stroked his hair, wet and sleek as a black seal’s fur.
He stirred then, with a groan like a wounded bear, and lifted himself. A draft of cold air struck her newly exposed body, damp and heated where they had touched.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “God, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” She opened one eye to a slit; he rose to his knees above her, swaying, and bent to pull her crumpled skirt down into decency. He’d lost his stock, and the cut under his jaw had reopened. She’d torn his shirt, and his waistcoat hung open, half its buttons gone. He was streaked with mud and blood and there were dead leaves and acorn fragments in the waves of his loose black hair.
“It’s all right,” she said, and sat up. She was in no better case; her br**sts were heavy with milk, and huge wet spots had soaked through the fabric of shift and bodice, chilling her skin. Roger saw, and picked up her fallen cloak, draping it gently around her shoulders.
“Sorry,” he said again, and reached to brush the tangled hair from her face; his hand was cold against her cheek.
“It’s okay,” she said, trying to gather all the stray fragments of herself that seemed to be rolling round the tiny clearing like beads of mercury. “It’s only six months, and I’m still nursing Jemmy. It’s—I mean, I think it’s still safe.” But for how much longer? she wondered. Little jolts of desire still shot through her, mingled with spurts of dread.
She had to touch him. She picked up one corner of her cloak and pressed it to the seeping wound beneath his jaw. Celibacy? When the feel of him, the smell of him, the memory of the last few minutes, made her want to knock him flat in the leaves and do it all again? When tenderness for him welled up in her like the milk that rushed unbidden to her br**sts?
Her br**sts ached with unsatisfied desire, and she felt dribbles of milk run tickling down her ribs beneath the cloth. She touched one breast, heavy and swollen, her guarantee of safety—for a while.
Roger put away her hand, reaching up to touch the cut.
“It’s all right,” he said. “It’s stopped bleeding.” He wore the oddest expression—or expressions. Normally his face was pleasantly reserved, even a little stern. Now his features seemed unable to settle themselves, shifting from moment to moment between a look of undeniable satisfaction and one of just as undeniable dismay.
“What’s the matter, Roger?”
He shot her a quick glance, then looked away, a slight flush rising in his cheeks.