The hail was short-lived. As the rush and clattering lessened, though, the crunching noise of muddy boots came up the path. Jamie, with Father Kenneth Donahue in tow, crusted hail on their hair and shoulders.
“I’ve brought the good Father for tea,” he said, beaming round the clearing.
“No, you haven’t,” I said, rather ominously. And if he thought I’d forgotten about Stephen Bonnet, he was wrong about that, too.
Turning at the sound of my voice, he jerked in an exaggeration of startled shock at sight of me in my mobcap.
“Is that you, Sassenach?” he asked in mock alarm, pretending to lean forward and peek under the drooping frill of my cap. Owing to the presence of the priest, I refrained from kneeing Jamie in some sensitive spot, and contented myself instead with an attempt to turn him into stone with my eyes, à la Medusa.
He appeared not to notice, distracted by Germain, who was now dancing in little circles while singing theme and variations on my initial French expression, to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Father Donahue was going bright pink with the effort of pretending that he didn’t understand any French.
“Tais toi, crétin,” Jamie said, reaching into his sporran. He said it amiably enough, but with the tone of one whose expectation of being obeyed is so absolute as not to admit question. Germain stopped abruptly, mouth open, and Jamie promptly thumbed a sweetie into it. Germain shut his mouth and began concentrating on the matter at hand, songs forgotten.
I reached for the kettle, using a handful of my hem again as pot holder. Jamie bent, picked up a sturdy twig, and hooked the handle of the kettle neatly from my hand with it.
“Voilà!” he said, presenting it.
“Merci,” I said, with a distinct lack of gratitude. Nonetheless, I accepted the stick and set off toward the nearest rivulet, smoking kettle borne before me like a lance.
Reaching a rock-studded pool, I dropped the kettle with a clang, ripped off the mobcap, flung it into a clump of sedge, and stamped on it, leaving a large, muddy footprint on the linen.
“I didna mean to say it wasna flattering, Sassenach,” said an amused voice behind me.
I raised a cold brow in his direction.
“You didn’t mean to say it was flattering, did you?”
“No. It makes ye look like a poisonous toadstool. Much better without,” he assured me.
He pulled me toward him and bent to kiss me.
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate the thought,” I said, and the tone of my voice stopped him, a fraction of an inch from my mouth. “But one inch farther and I think I might just bite a small piece out of your lip.”
Moving like a man who has just realized that the stone he has casually picked up is in actuality a wasp’s nest, he straightened up and very, very slowly took his hands off my waist.
“Oh,” he said, and tilted his head to one side, lips pursed as he surveyed me.
“Ye do look a bit frazzled, at that, Sassenach.”
No doubt this was true, but it made me feel like bursting into tears to hear it. Evidently the urge showed, because he took me—very gently—by the hand, and led me to a large rock.
“Sit,” he said. “Close your eyes, a nighean donn. Rest yourself a moment.”
I sat, eyes closed and shoulders slumped. Sloshing noises and a muted clang announced that he was cleaning and filling the kettle.
He set the filled kettle at my feet with a soft clunk, then eased himself down on the leaves beside it, where he sat quietly. I could hear the faint sigh of his breath, and the occasional sniff and rustle as he wiped a dripping nose on his sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” I said at last, opening my eyes.
He turned, half-smiling, to look up at me.
“For what, Sassenach? It’s not as though ye’ve refused my bed—or at least I hope it’s not come to that yet.”
The thought of making love just at the moment was absolutely at the bottom of my list, but I returned the half-smile.
“No,” I said ruefully. “After two weeks of sleeping on the ground, I wouldn’t refuse anyone’s bed.” His eyebrows went up at that, and I laughed, taken off-guard.
“No,” I said again. “I’m just . . . frazzled.” Something griped low in my belly, and proceeded to twist. I grimaced, and pressed my hands over the pain.
“Oh!” he said again, in sudden understanding. “That kind of frazzled.”
“That kind of frazzled,” I agreed. I poked at the kettle with one toe. “I’d better take that back; I need to boil water so I can steep some willow bark. It takes a long time.” It did; it would take an hour or more, by which time the cramps would be considerably worse.
“The hell with willow bark,” he said, producing a silver flask from the recesses of his shirt. “Try this. At least ye dinna need to boil it first.”
I unscrewed the stopper and inhaled. Whisky, and very good whisky, too.
“I love you,” I said sincerely, and he laughed.
“I love ye too, Sassenach,” he said, and gently touched my foot.
I took a mouthful and let it trickle down the back of my throat. It seeped pleasantly through my mucous membranes, hit bottom, and rose up in a puff of soothing, amber-colored smoke that filled all my crevices and began to extend warm, soothing tendrils round the source of my discomfort.
“Oooooo,” I said, sighing, and taking another sip. I closed my eyes, the better to appreciate it. An Irishman of my acquaintance had once assured me that very good whisky could raise the dead. I wasn’t disposed to argue the point.
“That’s wonderful,” I said, when I opened my eyes again. “Where did you get it?” This was twenty-year-old Scotch, if I knew anything about it—a far cry from the raw spirit that Jamie had been distilling on the ridge behind the house.
“Jocasta,” he said. “It was meant to be a wedding gift for Brianna and her young man, but I thought ye needed it more.”
“You’re right about that.”
We sat in a companionable silence, and I sipped slowly, the urge to run amok and slaughter everyone in sight gradually subsiding, along with the level of whisky in the flask.
The rain had moved off again, and the foliage dripped peacefully around us. There was a stand of fir trees near; I could smell the cool scent of their resin, pungent and clean above the heavier smell of wet, dead leaves, smoldering fires, and soggy fabrics.
“It’s been three months since the last of your courses,” Jamie observed casually. “I thought they’d maybe stopped.”
I was always a trifle taken aback to realize how acutely he observed such things—but he was a farmer and a husbandman, after all. He was intimately acquainted with the gynecological history and estrus cycle of every female animal he owned; I supposed there was no reason to think he’d make an exception simply because I was not likely either to farrow or come in heat.
“It’s not like a tap that just switches off, you know,” I said, rather crossly. “Unfortunately. It just gets rather erratic and eventually it stops, but you haven’t any idea when.”
He leaned forward, arms folded across the tops of his knees, idly watching twigs and bits of leaf bobbing through the riffles of the stream.
“I’d think it would maybe be a relief to have done wi’ it all. Less mess, aye?”
I repressed the urge to draw invidious sexual comparisons regarding bodily fluids.
“Maybe it will,” I said. “I’ll let you know, shall I?”
He smiled faintly, but was wise enough not to pursue the matter; he could hear the edge in my voice.
I sipped a bit more whisky. The sharp cry of a woodpecker—the kind Jamie called a yaffle—echoed deep in the woods and then fell silent. Few birds were out in this weather; most simply huddled under what shelter they could find, though I could hear the conversational quacking of a small flock of migratory ducks somewhere downstream. They weren’t bothered by the rain.
Jamie stretched himself suddenly.
“Ah . . . Sassenach?” he said.
“What is it?” I asked, surprised.
He ducked his head, uncharacteristically shy.
“I dinna ken whether I’ve done wrong or no, Sassenach, but if I have, I must ask your forgiveness.”
“Of course,” I said, a little uncertainly. What was I forgiving him for? Probably not adultery, but it could be just about anything else, up to and including assault, arson, highway robbery, and blasphemy. God, I hoped it wasn’t anything to do with Bonnet.
“What have you done?”
“Well, as to myself, nothing,” he said, a little sheepishly. “It’s only what I’ve said you’d do.”
“Oh?” I said, with minor suspicion. “And what’s that? If you told Farquard Campbell that I’d visit his horrible old mother again . . .”
“Oh, no,” he assured me. “Nothing like that. I promised Josiah Beardsley that ye’d maybe take out his tonsils today, though.”
“That I’d what?” I goggled at him. I’d met Josiah Beardsley, a youth with the worst-looking set of abscessed tonsils I’d ever seen, the day before. I’d been sufficiently impressed by the pustulated state of his adenoids, in fact, to have described them in detail to all and sundry over dinner—causing Lizzie to go green round the gills and give her second potato to Germain—and had mentioned at the time that surgery was really the only possible effective cure. I hadn’t expected Jamie to go drumming up business, though.
“Why?” I asked.
Jamie rocked back a little, looking up at me.
“I want him, Sassenach.”
“You do? What for?” Josiah was barely fourteen—or at least he thought he was fourteen; he wasn’t really sure when he’d been born and his parents had died too long ago to say. He was undersized even for fourteen, and badly nourished, with legs slightly bowed from rickets. He also showed evidence of assorted parasitic infections, and wheezed with what might be tuberculosis, or merely a bad case of bronchitis.
“A tenant, of course.”
“Oh? I’d have thought you had more applicants than you can handle, as it is.”
I didn’t just think so; I knew so. We had absolutely no money, though the trade Jamie had done at the Gathering had just about—not quite—cleared our indebtedness to several of the Cross Creek merchants for ironmongery, rice, tools, salt, and other small items. We had land in plenty—most of it forest—but no means to assist people to settle on it or farm it. The Chisholms and McGillivrays were stretching well past our limits, in terms of acquiring new tenantry.
Jamie merely nodded, dismissing these complications.
“Aye. Josiah’s a likely lad, though.”
“Hmm,” I said dubiously. It was true that the boy seemed tough—which was likely what Jamie meant by “likely”; simply to have survived this long by himself was evidence of that. “Maybe so. So are lots of others. What’s he got that makes you want him specially?”