“Cut him? Oh, castrate him, you mean. Yes, I suppose that would get his attention, though it seems a bit drastic.” I hesitated a moment, reluctant. “Do you want me to do it?”
He stared at me in amazement, then burst out laughing.
“Nay, Sassenach, I dinna think cutting an eighteen-hand stallion is a job for a woman, surgeon or no. It doesna really require the delicate touch, aye?”
I was just as pleased to hear this. I had been working at the sponge with my thumb; it loosened a bit, and a tiny shell popped suddenly out of a large pore. It floated down through the water, a perfect miniature spiral, tinted pink and purple.
“Oh, look,” I said, delighted.
“What a bonnie wee thing.” Jamie leaned over my shoulder, a big forefinger gently touching the shell at the bottom of the basin. “How did it get into your sponge, I wonder?”
“I expect the sponge ate it by mistake.”
“Ate it?” One ruddy eyebrow shot up at that.
“Sponges are animals,” I explained. “Or to be more exact, stomachs. They suck in water, and just absorb everything edible as it passes through.”
“Ah, so that’s why Bree called the bairn a wee sponge. They do that.” He smiled at the thought of Jemmy.
“Indeed they do.” I sat down and slipped the shift off my shoulders, letting the garment fall to my waist. The fire had taken the chill off the room, but it was still cold enough that the skin of my br**sts and arms bloomed into gooseflesh.
Jamie picked up his belt and carefully removed the assorted impedimenta it held, laying out pistol, cartridge box, dirk, and pewter flask on top of the small bureau. He lifted the flask and raised an inquiring eyebrow in my direction.
I nodded enthusiastically, and he turned to find a cup amid the rubble of oddments. With so many people and their belongings stuffed into the house, all of our own saddlebags, plus the bundles and bits acquired at the Gathering, had been carried up and dumped in our room; the humped shadows of the luggage flickering on the wall gave the chamber the odd look of a grotto, lined with lumpy boulders.
Jamie was as much a sponge as his grandson, I reflected, watching him rootle about, completely nak*d and totally unconcerned about it. He took in everything, and seemed able to deal with whatever came his way, no matter how familiar or foreign to his experience. Maniac stallions, kidnapped priests, marriageable maidservants, headstrong daughters, and heathen sons-in-law . . . Anything he could not defeat, outwit, or alter, he simply accepted—rather like the sponge and its embedded shell.
Pursuing the analogy further, I supposed I was the shell. Snatched out of my own small niche by an unexpected strong current, taken in and surrounded by Jamie and his life. Caught forever among the strange currents that pulsed through this outlandish environment.
The thought gave me a sudden queer feeling. The shell lay still at the bottom of the basin—delicate, beautiful . . . but empty. Rather slowly, I raised the sponge to the back of my neck and squeezed, feeling the tickle of warm water down my back.
For the most part, I felt no regrets. I had chosen to be here; I wanted to be here. And yet now and then small things like our conversation about immunity made me realize just how much had been lost—of what I had had, of what I had been. It was undeniable that some of my soft parts had been digested away, and the thought did make me feel a trifle hollow now and then.
Jamie bent to dig in one of the saddlebags, and the sight of his bare buttocks, turned toward me in all innocence, did much to dispel the momentary sense of disquiet. They were gracefully shaped, rounded with muscle—and pleasingly dusted with a red-gold fuzz that caught the light of fire and candle. The long, pale columns of his thighs framed the shadow of his scrotum, dark and barely visible between them.
He had found a cup at last, and poured it half full. He turned and handed it to me, lifting his eyes from the surface of the dark liquid, startled to find me staring at him.
“What is it?” he said. “Is there something the matter, Sassenach?”
“No,” I said, but I must have sounded rather doubtful, for his brows drew momentarily together.
“No,” I said, more positively. I took the cup from him and smiled, lifting it slightly in acknowledgment. “Only thinking.”
An answering smile touched his lips.
“Aye? Well, ye dinna want to do too much of that late at night, Sassenach. It will give ye the nightmare.”
“Daresay you’re right about that.” I sipped from the cup; rather to my surprise, it was wine—and very good wine. “Where did you get this?”
“From Father Kenneth. It’s sacramental wine—but not consecrated, aye? He said the Sheriff’s men would take it; he would as soon it went with me.”
A slight shadow crossed his face at mention of the priest.
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” I asked. The Sheriff’s men had not struck me as civilized enforcers of an abstruse regulation, but rather as thugs whose prejudice was momentarily constrained by fear—of Jamie.
“I hope so.” Jamie turned aside, restless. “I told the Sheriff that if the Father were misused, he and his men would answer for it.”
I nodded silently, sipping. If Jamie learned of any harm done to Father Donahue, he would indeed make the Sheriff answer for it. The thought made me a trifle uneasy; this wasn’t a good time to make enemies, and the Sheriff of Orange County wasn’t a good enemy to have.
I looked up to find Jamie’s eyes still fixed on me, though now with a look of deep appreciation.
“You’re in good flesh these days, Sassenach,” he observed, tilting his head to one side.
“Flatterer,” I said, giving him a cold look as I picked up the sponge again.
“Ye must have gained a stone, at least, since the spring,” he said with approval, disregarding the look and circling round me to inspect. “It’s been a good fat summer, aye?”
I turned round and flung the wet sponge at his head.
He caught it neatly, grinning.
“I didna realize how well ye’d filled out, Sassenach, so bundled as ye’ve been these last weeks. I havena seen ye nak*d in a month, at least.” He was still eyeing me with an air of appraisal, as though I were a prime entrant in the Silver Medalist Round at the Shropshire Fat Pigs Show.
“Enjoy it,” I advised him, my cheeks flushed with annoyance. “You may not see it again for quite some time!” I snatched the top of the chemise up again, covering my—undeniably rather full—breasts.
His eyebrows rose in surprise at my tone.
“You’re never angry wi’ me, Sassenach?”
“Certainly not,” I said. “Whatever gives you an idea like that?”
He smiled, rubbing the sponge absently over his chest as his eyes traveled over me. His n**ples puckered at the chill, dark and stiff among the ruddy, curling hairs, and the damp gleamed on his skin.
“I like ye fat, Sassenach,” he said softly. “Fat and juicy as a plump wee hen. I like it fine.”
I might have considered this a simple attempt to remove his foot from his mouth, were it not for the fact that nak*d men are conveniently equipped with sexual lie detectors. He did like it fine.
“Oh,” I said. Rather slowly, I lowered the chemise. “Well, then.”
He lifted his chin, gesturing. I hesitated for a moment, then stood up and let the chemise fall on the floor, joining his breeks. I reached across and took the sponge from his hand.
“I’ll . . . um . . . just finish washing, shall I?” I murmured. I turned my back, put a foot on the stool to wash, and heard an encouraging rumble of appreciation behind me. I smiled to myself, and took my time. The room was getting warmer; by the time I had finished my ablutions, my skin was pink and smooth, with only a slight chill in fingers and toes.
I turned round at last, to see Jamie still watching me, though he still rubbed at his wrist, frowning slightly.
“Did you wash?” I asked. “Even if it doesn’t trouble you, if you have oil from the poison ivy on your skin, it can get on things you touch—and I’m not immune to the stuff.”
“I scrubbed my hands with lye soap,” he assured me, putting them on my shoulders in illustration. Sure enough, he smelled strongly of the acrid soft soap we made from suet and wood-ash—it wasn’t perfumed toilet soap, but it did get things clean. Things like floorboards and iron pots. No wonder he’d been scratching; it wasn’t easy on the skin, and his hands were rough and cracked.
I bent my head and kissed his knuckles, then reached across to the small box where I kept my personal bits and pieces, and took out the jar of skin balm. Made of walnut oil, beeswax, and purified lanolin from boiled sheep’s wool, it was pleasantly soothing, green-scented with the essences of chamomile, comfrey, yarrow, and elderflowers.
I scooped out a bit with my thumbnail, and rubbed it between my hands; it was nearly solid to begin with, but liquefied nicely when warmed.
“Here,” I said, and took one of his hands between my own, rubbing the ointment into the creases of his knuckles, massaging his callused palms. Slowly, he relaxed, letting me stretch each finger as I worked my way down the joints and rubbed more ointment into the tiny scrapes and cuts. There were still marks on his hands where he had kept the leather reins wrapped tightly.
“The posy’s lovely, Jamie,” I said, nodding at the little bouquet in its cup. “Whatever made you do it, though?” While in his own way quite romantic, Jamie was thoroughly practical as well; I didn’t think he had ever given me a completely frivolous present, and he was not a man to see value in any vegetation that could not be eaten, taken medicinally, or brewed into beer.
He shifted a bit, clearly uncomfortable.
“Aye, well,” he said, looking away. “I just—I mean—well, I had a wee thing I meant to give ye, only I lost it, but then you seemed to think it a sweet thing that wee Roger had plucked a few gowans for Brianna, and I—” He broke off, muttering something that sounded like “Ifrinn!” under his breath.
I wanted very much to laugh. Instead, I lifted his hand and kissed his knuckles, lightly. He looked embarrassed, but pleased. His thumb traced the edge of a half-healed blister on my palm, left by a hot kettle.
“Here, Sassenach, ye need a bit of this, too. Let me,” he said, and leaned to take a dab of the green ointment. He engulfed my hand in his, warm and still slippery with the oil and beeswax mixture.
I resisted for a moment, but then let him take my hand, making deep slow circles on my palm that made me want to close my eyes and melt quietly. I gave a small sigh of pleasure, and must have closed my eyes after all, because I didn’t see him move in close to kiss me; just felt the brief soft touch of his mouth.
I raised my other hand, lazily, and he took it, too, his fingers smoothing mine. I let my fingers twine with his, thumbs jousting gently, the heels of our hands lightly rubbing. He stood close enough that I felt the warmth of him, and the delicate brush of the sun-bleached hairs on his arm as he reached past my hip for more of the ointment.
He paused, kissing me lightly once more in passing. Flames hissed on the hearth like shifting tides, and the firelight flickered dimly on the whitewashed walls, like light dancing on the surface of water far above. We might have been alone together at the bottom of the sea.