“Roger wasn’t being strictly romantic, you know,” I said. “Or maybe he was—depending how one wants to look at it.”
Jamie looked quizzical, as he took my hand again. Our fingers locked and twined, moving slowly, and I sighed with pleasure.
“Bree asked me about birth control, and I told her what methods there are now—which are frankly not all that good, though better than nothing. But old Grannie Bacon gave me some seeds that she says the Indians use for contraception; supposed to be very effective.”
Jamie’s face underwent the most comical change, from drowsy pleasure to wide-eyed astonishment.
“Birth con—what? She—ye mean he—those clatty weeds—”
“Well, yes. Or at least I think they may help prevent pregnancy.”
“Mmphm.” The movement of his fingers slowed, and his brows drew together—more in concern than disapproval, I thought. Then he returned to the job of massaging my hands, enveloping them in his much larger grasp with a decided movement that obliged me to yield to him.
He was quiet for a few moments, working the ointment into my fingers more in the businesslike way of a man rubbing saddle soap into harness than one making tender love to his wife’s devoted hands. I shifted slightly, and he seemed to realize what he was doing, for he stopped, frowning, then squeezed my hands lightly and let his face relax. He lifted my hand to his lips, kissed it, then resumed his massage, much more slowly.
“Do ye think—” he began, and stopped.
“Mmphm. It’s only—does it not seem a bit strange to ye, Sassenach? That a young woman newly wed should be thinking of such a thing?”
“No, it doesn’t,” I said, rather sharply. “It seems entirely sensible to me. And they aren’t all that newly wed—they’ve been . . . I mean, they have got a child already.”
His nostrils flared in soundless disagreement.
“She has a child,” he said. “That’s what I mean, Sassenach. It seems to me that a young woman well-suited with her man wouldna be thinking first thing how not to bear his child. Are ye sure all is well between them?”
I paused, frowning as I considered the notion.
“I think so,” I said at last, slowly. “Remember, Jamie—Bree comes from a time where women can decide whether or when to have babies, with a fair amount of certainty. She’d feel that such a thing was her right.”
The wide mouth moved, pursed in thought; I could see him struggling with the notion—one entirely contrary to his own experience.
“That’s the way of it, then?” he asked, finally. “A woman can say, I will, or I won’t—and the man has no say in it?” His voice was filled with astonishment—and disapproval.
I laughed a little.
“Well, it’s not exactly like that. Or not all the time. I mean, there are accidents. And ignorance and foolishness; a lot of women just let things happen. And most women would certainly care what their men thought about it. But yes . . . I suppose if you come right down to it, that’s right.”
He grunted slightly.
“But MacKenzie’s from that time, too. So he’ll think nothing odd of it?”
“He picked the weeds for her,” I pointed out.
“So he did.” The line stayed between his brows, but the frown eased somewhat.
It was growing late, and the muffled rumble of talk and laughter was dying down in the house below. The growing quiet of the house was pierced suddenly by a baby’s wail. Both of us stood still, listening—then relaxed as the murmur of the mother’s voice reached us through the closed door.
“Besides, it’s not so unusual for a young woman to think of such a thing—Marsali came and asked me about it, before she married Fergus.”
“Oh, did she?” One eyebrow went up. “Did ye not tell her, then?”
“Of course I did!”
“Whatever ye told her didna work all that well, did it?” One corner of his mouth curled up in a cynic smile; Germain had been born approximately ten months following his parents’ marriage, and Marsali had become pregnant with Joan within days of weaning him.
I felt a flush rising in my cheeks.
“Nothing works all the time—not even modern methods. And for that matter—nothing works at all if you don’t use it.” In fact, Marsali had wanted contraception not because she didn’t want a baby—but only because she had feared that pregnancy would interfere with the intimacy of her relationship with Fergus. When we get to the prick part, I want to like it had been her words on that memorable occasion, and my own mouth curled at the memory.
My equally cynical guess was that she had liked it fine, and had decided that pregnancy was unlikely to diminish her appreciation of Fergus’s finer points. But that rather came back to Jamie’s fears about Brianna—for surely her intimacy with Roger was well established. Still, that was hardly . . .
One of Jamie’s hands remained entwined with mine; the other left my fingers and reached elsewhere—very lightly.
“Oh,” I said, beginning to lose my train of thought.
“Pills, ye said.” His face was quite close, eyes hooded in thought as he worked. “That’s how it’s done—then?”
“Um . . . oh. Yes.”
“Ye didna bring any with you,” he said. “When ye came back.”
I breathed deep and let it out, feeling as though I were beginning to dissolve.
“No,” I said, a little faintly.
He paused a moment, hand cupped lightly.
“Why not?” he asked quietly.
“I . . . well, I . . . I actually—I thought—you have to keep taking them. I couldn’t have brought enough. There’s a permanent way, a small operation. It’s fairly simple, and it makes one permanently . . . barren.” I swallowed. Viewing the prospect of coming back to the past, I had in fact thought seriously about the possibilities of pregnancy—and the risks. I thought the possibility very low indeed, given both my age and previous history, but the risk . . .
Jamie stood stock-still, looking down.
“For God’s sake, Claire,” he said at last, low-voiced. “Tell me that ye did it.”
I took a deep breath, and squeezed his hand, my fingers slipping a little.
“Jamie,” I said softly, “if I’d done it, I would have told you.” I swallowed again. “You . . . would have wanted me to?”
He was still holding my hand. His other hand left me, touched my back, pressed me—very gently—to him. His skin was warm on mine.
We stood close together, touching, not moving, for several minutes. He sighed then, chest rising under my ear.
“I’ve bairns enough,” he said quietly. “I’ve only the one life—and that’s you, mo chridhe.”
I reached up and touched his face. It was furrowed with tiredness, rough with whiskers; he hadn’t shaved in days.
I had thought about it. And had come very close indeed to asking a surgeon friend to perform the sterilization for me. Cold blood and clear head had argued for it; no sense in taking chances. And yet . . . there was no guarantee that I would survive the journey, would reach the right time or place, would find him again. Still less, a chance that I might conceive again at my age.
And yet, gone from him for so long, not knowing if I might find him—I could not bring myself to destroy any possibility between us. I did not want another child. But if I found him, and he should want it . . . then I would risk it for him.
I touched him, lightly, and he made a small sound in his throat and laid his face against my hair, holding me tight. Our lovemaking was always risk and promise—for if he held my life in his hands when he lay with me, I held his soul, and knew it.
“I thought . . . I thought you’d never see Brianna. And I didn’t know about Willie. It wasn’t right for me to take away any chance of your having another child—not without telling you.”
You are Blood of my blood, I had said to him, Bone of my bone. That was true, and always would be, whether children came of it or not.
“I dinna want another child,” he whispered. “I want you.”
His hand rose, as though by itself, touched my breast with a fingertip, left a shimmer of the scented ointment on my skin. I wrapped my hand, slippery and green-scented, round him, and stepped backward, bringing him with me toward the bed. I had just enough presence of mind left to extinguish the candle.
“Don’t worry for Bree,” I said, reaching up to touch him as he rose over me, looming black against the firelight. “Roger picked the weeds for her. He knows what she wants.”
He gave a deep sigh, the breath of a laugh, that caught in his throat as he came to me, and ended in a small groan of pleasure and completion as he slid between my legs, well-oiled and ready.
“I ken what I want, too,” he said, voice muffled in my hair. “I shall pick ye another posy, tomorrow.”
DRUGGED WITH FATIGUE, languid with love, and lulled by the comforts of a soft, clean bed, I slept like the dead.
Somewhere toward dawn, I began to dream—pleasant dreams of touch and color, without form. Small hands touched my hair, patted my face; I turned on my side, half-conscious, dreaming of nursing a child in my sleep. Tiny soft fingers kneaded my breast, and my hand came up to cup the child’s head. It bit me.
I shrieked, shot bolt upright in bed, and saw a gray form race across the quilt and disappear over the end of the bed. I shrieked again, louder.
Jamie shot sideways out of bed, rolled on the floor, and came up standing, shoulders braced and fists half-clenched.
“What?” he demanded, glaring wildly round in search of marauders. “Who? What?”
“A rat!” I said, pointing a trembling finger at the spot where the gray shape had vanished into the crevice between bed-foot and wall.
“Oh.” His shoulders relaxed. He scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair, blinking. “A rat, aye?”
“A rat in our bed,” I said, not disposed to view the event with any degree of calm. “It bit me!” I peered closely at my injured breast. No blood to speak of; only a couple of tiny puncture marks that stung slightly. I thought of rabies, though, and my blood ran cold.
“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach. I’ll deal with it.” Squaring his shoulders once more, Jamie picked up the poker from the hearth and advanced purposefully on the bed-foot. The footboard was solid; there was a space of only a few inches between it and the wall. The rat must be trapped, unless it had managed to escape in the scant seconds between my scream and Jamie’s eruption from the quilts.
I got up onto my knees, ready to leap off the bed if necessary. Scowling in concentration, Jamie raised the poker, reached out with his free hand, and flipped the hanging coverlid out of the way.
He whipped the poker down with great force—and jerked it aside, smashing into the wall.
“What?” I said.
“What?” he echoed, in a disbelieving tone. He bent closer, squinting in the dim light, then started to laugh. He dropped the poker, squatted on the floor, and reached slowly into the space between the bed-foot and wall, making a small chirping noise through his teeth. It sounded like birds feeding in a distant bush.