The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 225

   

No. He was. He’d been half-asleep—or wholly so—and he’d bloody thought I was bloody Laoghaire! Nothing else could account for the way he had been touching me, with a sense of painful impatience tinged with anger; he had never touched me like that in his life.

I lay back down, but it was patently impossible to go back to sleep. I stared at the shadowy rafters for a few minutes, then rose with decision, and got dressed.

The dooryard was bleak and cold under a high, bright moon. I stepped out, closing the kitchen door softly behind me, and clutched my cloak round me, listening. Nothing stirred in the cold, and the wind was no more than a sigh through the pines. At some distance, though, I heard a faint, regular noise, and turned toward it, making my way carefully through the dark.

The door of the haybarn was open.

I leaned against the doorjamb, and crossed my arms, watching as he stamped to and fro, pitching hay in the moonlight, working off his temper. Mine was still pulsing in my temples, but began to subside as I watched him.

The difficulty was that I did understand, and all too well. I had not met many of Frank’s women—he was discreet. But now and then, I would catch a glance exchanged at a faculty party or the local supermarket—and a feeling of black rage would well up in me, only to be followed by bafflement as to what, precisely, I was to do with it.

Jealousy had nothing to do with logic.

Laoghaire MacKenzie was four thousand miles away; likely neither of us would ever see her again. Frank was even farther away, and it was certain neither of us would ever see him again, this side the grave.

No, jealousy had nothing at all to do with logic.

I began to be cold, but went on standing there. He knew I was there; I could see it in the way he kept his head turned toward his work. He was sweating, in spite of the cold; the thin cloth of his shirt stuck to him, making a dark spot on his back. At last, he stabbed the pitchfork into the stack, left it, and sat down on a bench made from half a log. He put his head in his hands, fingers rubbing violently through his hair.

Finally, he looked up at me, with an expression halfway between dismay and reluctant amusement.

“I dinna understand it.”

“What?” I moved toward him, and sat down near him, curling my feet under me. I could smell the sweat on his skin, along with almond cream and the ghost of his earlier lust.

He gave me a sidelong glance, and answered dryly, “Anything, Sassenach.”

“Can’t be that bad, can it?” I reached tentatively for him, and ran a hand lightly down the curve of his back.

He heaved a deep sigh, blowing air through pursed lips.

“When I was three-and-twenty, I didna understand how it was that to look at a woman could turn my bones to water, yet make me feel I could bend steel in my hands. When I was five-and-twenty, I didna understand how I could want both to cherish a woman and ravish her, all at once.”

“A woman?” I asked, and got what I wanted—the curl of his mouth and a glance that went through my heart.

“One woman,” he said. He took the hand I laid on his knee, and held it tightly, as though afraid I might snatch it back. “Just one,” he repeated, his voice husky.

It was quiet in the barn, but the boards creaked and settled in the cold. I moved a little on the bench, scooting toward him. Just a little. Moonlight streamed through the wide-open door, glowing dimly off the piled hay.

“And that,” he said, squeezing my fingers tighter, “is what I dinna ken now. I love you, a nighean donn. I have loved ye from the moment I saw ye, I will love ye ’til time itself is done, and so long as you are by my side, I am well pleased wi’ the world.”

A flush of warmth went through me, but before I could do more than squeeze his hand in reply, he went on, turning to look at me with an expression of bewilderment so desperate as to be almost comical.

“And that bein’ so, Claire—why, in the name of Christ and all his saints—why do I want to take ship to Scotland, hunt down a man whose name and face I dinna ken at all, and kill him, for swiving a woman to whom I have nay claim, and who I couldna stand to be in the same room with for more than three minutes at the most?”

He brought his free hand down in a fist, striking the log with a thump that vibrated through the wood under my buttocks.

“I do not understand!”

I suppressed the urge to say, “And you think I do?” Instead, I merely sat quietly, and after a moment, stroked his knuckles very lightly with my thumb. It was less a caress than a simple reassurance, and he took it so.

After a moment, he sighed deeply, squeezed my hand, and stood up.

“I am a fool,” he said.

I sat still for a moment, but he seemed to expect some sort of confirmation, so I nodded obligingly.

“Well, perhaps,” I said. “But you aren’t going to Scotland, are you?”

Instead of replying, he got to his feet and walked moodily to and fro, kicking clumps of dried mud, which burst like small bombs. Surely he wasn’t contemplating . . . he couldn’t be. With some difficulty, I kept my mouth shut, and waited patiently, until he came back to stand in front of me.

“All right,” he said, in the tone of one stating a declaration of principle. “I dinna ken why it galls me that Laoghaire should seek another man’s company—no, that’s no the truth, is it? I ken well enough. And it isna jealousy. Or . . . well, it is, then, but that’s no the main thing.” He shot me a look, as though daring me to contradict this assertion, but I kept my mouth shut. He exhaled strongly through his nose, and took a deep breath, looking down.

“Well, then. If I’m honest about it.” His lips pressed tight together for a moment. “Why?” he burst out, looking up at me. “What is it about him?”

“What is what about who? The man she—”

“She hated it, the bedding!” he interrupted me, stamping a clod into powder. “Perhaps I flatter myself, or you flatter me . . .” He gave me a look that wanted to be a glare, but ended in bewilderment. “Am I . . . am I . . . ?”

I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me to say, “Yes, you are!” or “No, you’re not!” but satisfied myself with a smile that said both.

“Aye. Well,” he said reluctantly. “I didna think it was me. And before we were wed, even Laoghaire liked me well enough.” I must have made a small snort at that, for he glanced at me, but I shook my head, dismissing it.

“I thought it must be a mislike for men in general, or only for the act. And if it was so . . . well, it wasna quite so bad, if it wasna my fault, though I did feel somehow I should be able to mend it. . . .” He trailed off into this thoughts, brow furrowed, then resumed with a sigh.

“But maybe I was wrong about that. Perhaps it was me. And that’s a thought that sticks in my craw.”

I had no real idea what to say to him, but clearly I had to say something.

“I think it was her,” I said, firmly. “Not you. Though of course I may be prejudiced. She did try to kill me, after all.”

“She what?” He swung round, looking blank.

“You didn’t know that? Oh.” I tried to think; had I not told him? No, I supposed not. What with one thing and another, it hadn’t seemed important at the time; I had never expected to see her again. And later . . . well, it really wasn’t important then. I explained briefly about Laoghaire’s having sent me to join Geillie Duncan that day in Cranesmuir, fully aware that Geillie was about to be arrested for witchcraft, and hoping that I would be taken with her—as indeed I was.

“The wicked wee bitch!” he said, sounding more astonished than anything else. “No, I didna ken that at all—Christ, Sassenach, ye canna think I would have marrit the woman, knowing she’d done such a thing to you!”

“Well, she was only sixteen at the time,” I said, able under the circumstances to be tolerantly forgiving. “And she might not have realized that we’d be tried or that the witch-court would try to burn us. She might only have meant mischief—thinking that if I were accused as a witch, it would make you lose interest in me.” The revelation of her chicanery seemed at least to have distracted Jamie’s mind, which was all to the good.

His only response to this was a snort. He paced restlessly to and fro for a bit, his feet rustling in the spilled straw. He hadn’t taken his shoes or stockings, and was barefoot, though the cold seemed not to trouble him.

At last he stopped, heaved a massive sigh, and bent forward, resting a hand on the bench, his head on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

I put my arms round his shoulders and pulled him close, holding him hard until at last he sighed again, and the knotted strain in his shoulders relaxed. I let go, and he stood up, giving me a hand to rise.

We closed the barn door and walked back to the house in silence, hand in hand.

“Claire,” he said suddenly, sounding a little shy.

“Yes?”

“I dinna mean to excuse myself—not at all. It’s only I was wondering . . . do ye ever . . . think of Frank? When we . . .” He stopped and cleared his throat. “Does the shadow of the Englishman perhaps cross my face—now and then?”

And what on earth could I say to that? I couldn’t lie, surely, but how could I say the truth, either, in a way he would understand, that wouldn’t hurt him?

I drew a deep breath and let it out, watching the mist of it purl softly away.

“I don’t want to make love to a ghost,” I said at last, firmly. “And I don’t think you do, either. But I suppose every now and then a ghost might have other ideas.”

He made a small sound that was mostly a laugh.

“Aye,” he said. “I suppose they might. I wonder if Laoghaire would like the Englishman’s bed better than mine?”

“Serve her right if she did,” I said. “But if you like mine, I suggest you come and get back into it. It’s bloody cold out here.”

100

DEAD WHALE

BY LATE MARCH, the trails down the mountain were passable. No word had come yet from Milford Lyon, and after some debate on the matter, it was decided that Jamie and I, with Brianna, Roger, and Marsali, would travel to Wilmington, while Fergus took the survey reports to New Bern to be formally filed and registered.

The girls and I would buy supplies depleted over the winter, such as salt, sugar, coffee, tea, and opium, while Roger and Jamie would make discreet inquiries after Milford Lyon—and Stephen Bonnet. Fergus would come to join us, so soon as the surveying reports were taken care of, making his own inquiries along the coast as chance offered.

After which, presumably, Jamie and Roger, having located Mr. Bonnet, would drop round to his place of business and take turns either shooting him dead or running him through with a sword, before riding back into the mountains, congratulating themselves on a job well done. Or so I understood the plan to be.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” I quoted to Jamie, in the midst of one discussion on the matter. He raised one brow and gave me a look.

“What sorts of plans have mice got?”

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