“Oh,” he said. “Well. It’s only that we . . . er . . . we aren’t actually married at the moment.”
“Well, of course not. The wedding’s not ’til tonight. Speaking of which . . .” She looked at Roger, and a bubble of laughter rose from the pit of her stomach. “Oh, dear,” she said, fighting back a fit of giggles. “You look like somebody’s had their will of you in the woods, Mr. MacKenzie.”
“Very funny, Mrs. Mac,” he said, eyeing her own bedraggled state. “Ye’ve been in a rare fight, too, by the looks of you. But what I meant was that we’ve been handfast for the last year—and that’s legally binding, in Scotland at least. But the year and a day have been up for a bit—and we’re not formally married ’til this evening.”
She squinted at him, wiping rain out of her eyes with the back of one hand, and once more gave way to the urge to laugh.
“My God, you think it matters?”
He grinned back, a little reluctantly.
“Well, no. It’s only I’m a preacher’s lad; I know it’s fine—but somewhere inside is an old Scotch Calvinist, muttering that it’s just a wee bit wicked, to be carrying on so with a woman not really my wife.”
“Ha,” she said, and settled her arms comfortably on her drawn-up knees. She leaned to one side and nudged him gently.
“Old Scotch Calvinist, my ass. What is it, really?”
He wouldn’t look directly at her, but kept his eyes down, looking at the ground. Droplets glittered on his strongly marked dark brows and lashes, gilding the skin of his cheekbones with silver. He drew a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
“I can’t say you’re not right to be afraid,” he said quietly. “I hadn’t realized—not really thought about it before today—just how dangerous marriage is for a woman.” He looked up and smiled at her, though the look of worry stayed in his moss-green eyes.
“I want you, Bree—more than I can say. It’s only that I was thinking of what we just did and how fine it was—and realizing that I’ll maybe—no, I will—be risking your life if I keep on doing it. But damned if I want to stop!”
The small strands of dread had coalesced into a cold snake that ran down her backbone and coiled deep in her belly, twisting around her womb. She knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t only the thing they’d just shared—powerful as that was. Knowing what he wanted, though—and why—how could she hesitate to give it to him?
“Yeah.” She took a breath to match his, and blew it out in a plume of white. “Well, it’s too late to worry about that, I think.” She looked at him and touched his arm. “I want you, Roger.” She pulled down his head and kissed him, taking comfort from her fears in the strength of his arm around her, the warmth of his body beside her.
“Oh, God, Bree,” he murmured into her hair. “I want to tell you that I’ll keep you safe, save you and Jemmy from anything that might threaten you—ever. It’s a terrible thing, to think it might be me that would be the threat, that I could kill you with my love—but it’s true.”
His heart was beating under her ear, solid and steady. She felt the warmth return to her hands, clasped tight on the bones of his back, and the thaw reached deeper, uncoiling some of the frozen strands of fear inside her.
“It’s all right,” she said at last, wanting to offer him the comfort he could not quite give her. “I’m sure it’ll be okay. I’ve got the h*ps for it, everybody says so. Jugbutt, that’s me.” She ran a hand ruefully down the lush swell of one hip, and he smiled, following her hand with his own.
“You know what Ronnie Sinclair said to me last night? He was watching you bend down to pick up a stick of wood for the fire, and he sighed and said, ‘Ye ken how to pick a good lass, MacKenzie? Start at the bottom and work your way up!’ Oof!” He recoiled, laughing, as she slugged him.
Then he bent and kissed her, very gently. The rain was still falling, pattering on the layer of dead leaves. Her fingers were sticky with the blood from his wound.
“You want a baby, don’t you?” she asked softly. “One you know is yours?”
He kept his head bent for a moment, but at last looked up at her, letting her see the answer in his face; a great yearning, mingled with anxious concern.
“I don’t mean—” he began, but she put a hand across his mouth to stop him.
“I know,” she said. “I understand.” She did—almost. She was an only child, as he was; she knew the yearning for connection and closeness—but hers had been gratified. She had had not one loving father but two. A mother who had loved her beyond the bounds of space and time. The Murrays of Lallybroch, that unexpected gift of family. And most of all, her son, her flesh, her blood, a small and trusting weight that anchored her firmly to the universe.
But Roger was an orphan, alone in the world for such a long time. His parents gone before he knew them, his old uncle dead—he had no one to claim him, no one to love him for the sake only of his flesh and bone—no one save her. Little wonder if he hungered for the certainty she held in her arms when she nursed her child.
He cleared his throat suddenly.
“I—ah—I was going to give ye this tonight. But maybe . . . well.” He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and handed her a soft bundle, wrapped in cloth.
“Sort of a wedding present, aye?” He was smiling, but she could see the uncertainty in his eyes.
She opened the cloth, and a pair of black button eyes looked up at her. The doll wore a shapeless smock of green calico, and red-yarn hair exploded from its head. Her heart beat heavily in her chest, and her throat tightened.
“I thought the wean might like it—to chew on, perhaps.”
She moved, and the pressure of the sodden fabric on her br**sts made them tingle. She was afraid, all right; but there were things stronger than fear.
“There’ll be a next time,” she said, and laid a hand on his arm. “I can’t say when—but there will.”
He laid his hand on hers and squeezed it tight, not looking at her.
“Thanks, Jugbutt,” he said at last, very softly.
THE RAIN WAS HEAVIER; it was pissing down now. Roger thumbed the wet hair out of his eyes and shook himself like a dog, scattering drops from the tight-woven wool of coat and plaid. There was a smear of mud down the front of the gray wool; he brushed at it, to no effect.
“Christ, I can’t be getting married like this,” he said, trying to lighten the mood between them. “I look like a beggar.”
“It’s not too late, you know,” she said. She smiled, teasing a little tremulously. “You could still back out.”
“It’s been too late for me since the day I saw you,” he said gruffly. “Besides,” he added, lifting one brow, “your father would gut me like a hog if I said I’d had second thoughts on the matter.”
“Ha,” she said, but the hidden smile popped out, dimpling one cheek.
“Bloody woman! You like the idea!”
“Yes. No, I mean.” She was laughing again now; that’s what he’d wanted. “I don’t want him to gut you. It’s just nice to know he would. A father ought to be protective.”
She smiled at him, touched him lightly. “Like you, Mr. MacKenzie.”
That gave him an odd, tight feeling in the chest, as though his waistcoat had shrunk. Then a tinge of cold, as he recalled what he had to tell her. Fathers and their notions of protection varied, after all, and he wasn’t sure how she would see this one.
He took her arm and drew her away, out of the rain and into the shelter of a clump of hemlocks, where the layers of needles lay dry and fragrant underfoot, protected by the wide-spreading branches overhead.
“Well, come and sit with me a moment, Mrs. Mac. It’s not important, but there’s a small thing I wanted to tell you about before the wedding.” He drew her down to sit beside him on a rotting log, rusted with lichen. He cleared his throat, gathering the thread of his story.
“When I was in Inverness, before I followed you through the stones, I spent some time trolling through the Reverend’s bumf, and I came across a letter to him, written by your father. By Frank Randall, I mean. It’s no great matter—not now—but I thought . . . well, I thought perhaps there should be no secrets between us, before we marry. I told your father about it last night. So let me tell you now.”
Her hand lay warm in his, but the fingers tightened as he talked, and a deep line grew between her brows as she listened.
“Again,” she said, when he’d finished. “Tell me that again.”
Obligingly, he repeated the letter—as he’d memorized it, word for word. As he’d told it the night before, to Jamie Fraser.
“That gravestone in Scotland with Da’s name on it is a fake?” Her voice rose slightly with astonishment. “Dad—Frank—had the Reverend make it, and put it there, in the kirkyard at St. Kilda, but Da isn’t—won’t be, I mean—won’t be under it?”
“Yes, he did, and no, he won’t,” Roger said, keeping careful track of the “he’s” involved. “He—Frank Randall, that is—meant the stone as a sort of acknowledgment, I think; a debt owed to your father—your other father, I mean; Jamie.”
Brianna’s face was blotched with chill, the ends of nose and ears nipped red as the heat of their lovemaking faded.
“But he couldn’t know we’d ever find it, Mama and me!”
“I don’t know that he wanted you to find it,” Roger said. “Perhaps he didn’t know, either. But he felt he had to make the gesture. Besides,” he added, struck by a memory, “didn’t Claire say that he’d meant to bring you to England, just before he was killed? Perhaps he meant to take you there, make sure you found it—then leave it to you and Claire what to do.”
She sat still, chewing that one over.
“He knew, then,” she said slowly. “That he—that Jamie Fraser survived Culloden. He knew . . . but he didn’t say?”
“I don’t think you can blame him for not saying,” Roger said gently. “It wasn’t only selfish, you know.”
“Wasn’t it?” She was still shocked, but not yet angry. He could see her turning it over, trying to see it all before making up her mind what to think, how to feel.
“No. Think of it, hen,” he urged. The spruce was cold at his back, the bark of the fallen log damp under his hand. “He loved your mother, aye, and didn’t want to risk losing her again. That’s maybe selfish, but she was his wife first, after all; no one could blame him for not wanting to give her up to another man. But that’s not all of it.”
“What’s the rest, then?” Her voice was calm, blue eyes straight and level.
“Well—what if he had told her? There she was, with you, a young child—and remember, neither of them would have thought that you might cross through the stones as well.”