“Are ye asking me, or him?”
“Pew. I don’t care; whichever one of you has an opinion.”
Jemmy plainly didn’t; cheerfully stoic, he was ignoring his mother’s determined assault on his private parts with a cold, wet cloth, absorbed in a new song of his own composition, which went along the lines of “Pew, pew, chit, chit, PEW, PEW . . .”
Brianna put a stop to this by swinging him up in her arms and sitting down with him in the nursing chair by the hearth.
“Want snackies?” she said, pulling down the neck of her shift invitingly.
“God, yes,” Roger said, with feeling. Bree laughed, not without sympathy, as she settled Jemmy on her lap, where he settled happily to suckling.
“Your turn next,” she assured Roger. “You want oatmeal porridge, or fried mush for breakfast?”
“Anything else on the menu?” Damn, he’d been nearly ready to stand up. Back to square one.
“Oh, sure. Toast with strawberry jam. Cheese. Eggs, but you’ll have to go get them from the coop; I don’t have any in the pantry.”
Roger found it hard to concentrate on the discussion, faced with the sight of Brianna in the dim smoky light of the cabin, long thighs spread under her shift, her heels tucked under the chair. She seemed to detect his lack of interest in matters dietary, for she looked up and smiled at him, her eyes taking in his own nak*dness.
“You look nice, Roger,” she said softly. Her free hand drifted down, resting lightly on the inner curve of one thigh. The long, blunt-nailed fingers made slow circles, barely moving.
“So do you.” His voice was husky. “Better than nice.”
Her hand rose and patted Jemmy softly on the back.
“Want to go see Auntie Lizzie after breakfast, sweetie?” she asked, not looking at him. Her eyes were fixed on Roger’s, and her wide mouth curved in a slow smile.
He didn’t think he could wait until after breakfast to touch her, at least. Her shawl was thrown across the foot of the bed; he grabbed it and wrapped it round his h*ps for the sake of decency as he got out of bed and crossed to kneel beside her chair.
Her hair stirred and lifted in a draft from the window, and he saw the stipple of gooseflesh break out suddenly on her arms. He put his arms around them both. The draft was cold on his bare back, but he didn’t care.
“I love you,” he whispered in her ear. His hand lay over hers, resting on her thigh.
She turned her head and kissed him, a glancing contact of soft lips.
“I love you, too,” she said.
She had rinsed her mouth with water and wine, and tasted of autumn grapes and cold streams. He was just settling down to more serious business when a loud hammering shivered the timbers of the door, accompanied by his father-in-law’s voice.
“Roger! Are ye in there, man? Up wi’ ye this minute!”
“What does he mean am I in here?” Roger hissed to Brianna. “Where the hell else would I be?”
“Shh.” She nipped his neck and reluctantly let go, her eyes traveling over him with deep appreciation.
“He’s already up, Da!” she called.
“Aye, it’s likely to be a permanent condition, too,” Roger muttered. “Coming!” he bellowed. “Where the hell are my clothes?”
“Under the bed where you left them last night.” Brianna set down Jemmy, who shrieked ecstatically at the sound of his grandfather’s voice and ran to pound on the bolted door. Having finally ventured to walk, he had lost no time with the next stage, moving on to rapid—and perpetual—locomotion within a matter of days.
“Hurry!” Sunlight flooded into the cabin as the hide over the window was thrust aside, revealing Jamie Fraser’s broad-boned face, flushed with excitement and morning sun. He lifted an eyebrow at the view of Roger thus revealed, crouched on the floor with a shirt clutched protectively to his midsection.
“Move yourself, man,” he said, mildly. “It’s no time to be hangin’ about bare-arsed; MacLeod says there are beasts just over the ridge.” He blew a kiss to Jemmy. “A ghille ruaidh, a charaid! Ciamar a tha thu?”
Roger forgot both sex and self-consciousness. He jerked the shirt over his head and stood up.
“What kind? Deer, elk?”
“I dinna ken, but they’re meat!” The hide dropped suddenly, leaving the room half in shadow.
The intrusion had let in a blast of cold air, breaking the warm, smoke-laden atmosphere and bringing with it the breath of hunting weather, of crisp wind and crimson leaves, of mud and fresh droppings, of wet wool and sleek hide, all spiced with the imaginary reek of gunpowder.
With a final, longing look at his wife’s body, Roger grabbed his stockings.
DANGER IN THE GRASS
GRUNTING AND PUFFING, the men pushed into the dark-green zone of the conifers by noon. High on the upper ridges, clusters of balsam fir and hemlock huddled with spruce and pine, over the tumbled rock. Here they stood secure in seasonal immortality, needles murmuring lament for the bright fragility of the fallen leaves below.
Roger shivered in the cold shadow of the conifers, and was glad of the thick wool hunting shirt he wore over the linen one. There was no conversation; even when they paused briefly to draw breath, there was a stillness in the wood here that forbade unnecessary speech.
The wilderness around them felt calm—and empty. Perhaps they were too late, and the game had moved on; perhaps MacLeod had been wrong. Roger had not yet mastered the killing skills, but he had spent a good deal of time alone in sun and wind and silence; he had acquired some of the instincts of a hunter.
The men came out into full sun as they emerged on the far side of the ridge. The air was thin and cold, but Roger felt heat strike through his chilled body, and closed his eyes in momentary pleasure. The men paused together in unspoken appreciation, basking in a sheltered spot, momentarily safe from the wind.
Jamie stepped to the edge of a rocky shelf, sun glinting off his tailed copper hair. He turned to and fro, squinting downward through the trees. Roger saw his nostrils flare, and smiled to himself. Well, then, perhaps he did smell the game. He wouldn’t be surprised. Roger sniffed experimentally, but got nothing but the must of decaying leaves and a strong whiff of well-aged perspiration from the body of Kenny Lindsay.
Fraser shook his head, then turned to Fergus, and with a quiet word, climbed over the edge of the shelf and disappeared.
“We wait,” Fergus said laconically to the others, and sat down. He produced a pair of carved stone balls from his bag, and sat rolling them to and fro in his palm, concentrating intently, rolling a sphere out and back along the length of each dexterous finger.
A brilliant fall sun poked long fingers through the empty branches, administering the last rites of seasonal consolation, blessing the dying earth with a final touch of warmth. The men sat talking quietly, reeking in the sun. He hadn’t noticed in the colder wood, but here in the sun, the tang of fresh sweat was apparent, overlying the deeper layers of grime and body odors.
Roger reflected that perhaps it was not extraordinary olfactory acuteness on the part of animals, but merely the extreme smelliness of human beings that made it so difficult to get near game on foot. He had sometimes seen the Mohawk rub themselves with herbs, to disguise their natural odor when hunting, but even oil of peppermint wouldn’t make a dent in Kenny Lindsay’s stench.
He didn’t reek like that himself, did he? Curious, he bent his head toward the open neck of his shirt and breathed in. He felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck, under his hair. He blotted it with his collar and resolved to bathe before going back to the cabin, no matter if the creek was crusted with ice.
Showers and deodorants were of more than aesthetic importance, he reflected. One got used to almost any habitual stink in short order, after all. What he’d not realized, secure in his relatively odorless modern environment, were the more intimate implications of smell. Sometimes he felt like a bloody baboon, his most primitive responses unleashed without warning, by some random assault of odor.
He remembered what had happened just the week before, and felt a hot blush creep over him at the memory.
He had walked into the dairy shed, looking for Claire. He’d found her—and Jamie, too. They were both fully clothed, standing well apart—and the air was so filled with the musk of desire and the sharp scent of male completion that Roger had felt the blood burn in his face, the hair on his body prickling erect.
His first instinct had been to turn and leave, but there was no excuse for that. He had given his message to Claire, conscious of Fraser’s eyes on him, bland and quizzical. Conscious, too, of the unspoken communication between the two of them, an unseen thrum in the air, as though they were two beads strung on a wire stretched tight.
Jamie had waited until Roger left, before leaving himself. From the corner of his eye, Roger had caught a slight movement, seen the light touch of the hand with which he left her, and even now, felt a queer clutch of his insides at the memory.
He blew out his breath to ease the tightness in his chest, then stretched out in the leaves, letting the sun beat down on his closed eyelids. He heard a muffled groan from Fergus, then the rustle of footsteps as the Frenchman made another hasty withdrawal. Fergus had eaten half-cured sauerkraut the night before—a fact made clear to anyone who sat near him for long.
His thoughts drifted back to that awkward moment in the dairy shed.
It was not prurience, nor even simple curiosity, and yet he often found himself watching them. He saw them from the cabin window, walking together in the evening, Jamie’s head bent toward her, hands clasped behind his back. Claire’s hands moved when she talked, rising long and white in the air, as though she would catch the future between them and give it shape, would hand Jamie her thoughts as she spoke them, smooth and polished objects, bits of sculptured air.
Once aware of what he was doing, Roger watched them purposefully, and brushed aside any feelings of shame at such intrusion, minor as it was. He had a compelling reason for his curiosity; there was something he needed to know, badly enough to excuse any lack of manners.
How was it done, this business of marriage?
He had been brought up in a bachelor’s house. Given all he needed as a boy in terms of affection by his great-uncle and the Reverend’s elderly housekeeper, he found himself lacking something as an adult, ignorant of the threads of touch and word that bound a married couple. Instinct would do, for a start.
But if love like that could be learned . . .
A touch on his elbow startled him and he jerked round, flinging out an arm in quick defense. Jamie ducked neatly, eluding the blow, and grinned at him.
Fraser jerked his head toward the edge of the shelf.
“I’ve found them,” he said.
JAMIE RAISED A HAND, and Fergus went at once to his side. The Frenchman came barely to the big Scot’s shoulder, but didn’t look ridiculous. He shaded his eyes with his one hand, peering down where Fraser pointed.
Roger came up behind them, looking down the slope. A flicker shot through a clearing below, marked by the swooping dip and rise of its flight. Its mate called deep in the wood, a sound like a high-pitched laugh. He could see nothing else remarkable below; it was the same dense tangle of mountain laurel, hickory, and oak that existed on the side of the ridge from which they had come; far below, a thick line of tall leafless trees marked the course of a stream.