He thought he might be sick on the spot, from sheer terror. Did she have the faintest idea how many lives lay in that manicured white hand? His sister, Ian, their six children, all the tenants and families of Lallybroch—perhaps even the lives of the agents who carried messages and money between Scotland and France, maintaining the precarious existence of the Jacobite exiles there.
He swallowed, once, and then again, before he spoke.
“All right,” he said. A more natural smile broke out on her face, and he realized how very young she was. Aye, well, and a wee adder’s bite was as venomous as an auld one’s.
“I won’t tell,” she assured him, looking earnest. “I’ll give you your letter back afterward, and I won’t ever say what was in it. I promise.”
“Thank you.” He tried to gather his wits enough to make a sensible plan. Sensible? Going into his master’s house to ravish his daughter’s maidenhood—at her request? He had never heard of a less sensible prospect.
“All right,” he said again. “We must be careful.” With a feeling of dull horror, he felt himself being drawn into the role of conspirator with her.
“Yes. Don’t worry, I can arrange for my maid to be sent away, and the footman drinks; he’s always asleep before ten o’clock.”
“Arrange it, then,” he said, his stomach curdling. “Mind ye choose a safe day, though.”
“A safe day?” She looked blank.
“Sometime in the week after ye’ve finished your courses,” he said bluntly. “You’re less likely to get wi’ child then.”
“Oh.” She blushed rosily at that, but looked at him with a new interest.
They looked at each other in silence for a long moment, suddenly linked by the prospect of the future.
“I’ll send you word,” she said at last, and wheeling her horse about, galloped away across the field, the mare’s hooves kicking up spurts of the freshly spread manure.
Cursing fluently and silently, he crept beneath the row of larches. There wasn’t much moon, which was a blessing. Six yards of open lawn to cross in a dash, and he was knee-deep in the columbine and germander of the flowerbed.
He looked up the side of the house, its bulk looming dark and forbidding above him. Yes, there was the candle in the window, as she’d said. Still, he counted the windows carefully, to verify it. Heaven help him if he chose the wrong room. Heaven help him if it was the right one, too, he thought grimly, and took a firm hold on the trunk of the huge gray creeper that covered this side of the house.
The leaves rustled like a hurricane and the stems, stout as they were, creaked and bent alarmingly under his weight. There was nothing for it but to climb as swiftly as possible, and be ready to hurl himself off into the night if any of the windows should suddenly be raised.
He arrived at the small balcony panting, heart racing, and drenched in sweat, despite the chilliness of the night. He paused a moment, alone beneath the faint spring stars, to draw breath. He used it to damn Geneva Dunsany once more, and then pushed open her door.
She had been waiting, and had plainly heard his approach up the ivy. She rose from the chaise where she had been sitting and came toward him, chin up, chestnut hair loose over her shoulders.
She was wearing a white nightgown of some sheer material, tied at the throat with a silk bow. The garment didn’t look like the nightwear of a modest young lady, and he realized with a shock that she was wearing her bridal-night apparel.
“So you came.” He heard the note of triumph in her voice, but also the faint quaver. So she hadn’t been sure of him?
“I hadn’t much choice,” he said shortly, and turned to close the French doors behind him.
“Will you have some wine?” Striving for graciousness, she moved to the table, where a decanter stood with two glasses. How had she managed that? he wondered. Still, a glass of something wouldn’t come amiss in the present circumstances. He nodded, and took the full glass from her hand.
He looked at her covertly as he sipped it. The nightdress did little to conceal her body, and as his heart gradually slowed from the panic of his ascent, he found his first fear—that he wouldn’t be able to keep his half of the bargain—allayed without conscious effort. She was built narrowly, slim-hipped and small-breasted, but most definitely a woman.
Finished, he set down the glass. No point in delay, he thought.
“The letter?” he said abruptly.
“Afterward,” she said, tightening her mouth.
“Now, or I leave.” And he turned toward the window, as though about to execute the threat.
“Wait!” He turned back, but eyed her with ill-disguised impatience.
“Don’t you trust me?” she said, trying to sound winsome and charming.
“No,” he said bluntly.
She looked angry at that, and thrust out a petulant lower lip, but he merely looked stonily over his shoulder at her, still facing the window.
“Oh, all right then,” she said at last, with a shrug. Digging under the layers of embroidery in a sewing box, she unearthed the letter and tossed it onto the washing stand beside him.
He snatched it up and unfolded the sheets, to be sure of it. He felt a surge of mingled fury and relief at the sight of the violated seal, and Jenny’s familiar hand within, neat and strong.
“Well?” Geneva’s voice broke in upon his reading, impatient. “Put that down and come here, Jamie. I’m ready.” She sat on the bed, arms curled around her knees.
He stiffened, and turned a very cold blue look on her, over the pages in his hands.
“You’ll not use that name to me,” he said. She lifted the pointed chin a trifle more and raised her plucked brows.
“Why not? It’s yours. Your sister calls you so.”
He hesitated for a moment, then deliberately laid the letter aside, and bent his head to the laces of his breeches.
“I’ll serve ye properly,” he said, looking down at his working fingers, “for the sake of my own honor as a man, and yours as a woman. But”—he raised his head and the narrowed blue eyes bored into hers—“having brought me to your bed by means of threats against my family, I’ll not have ye call me by the name they give me.” He stood motionless, eyes fixed on hers. At last she gave a very small nod, and her eyes dropped to the quilt.
She traced the pattern with a finger.
“What must I call you, then?” she asked at last, in a small voice. “I can’t call you MacKenzie!”
The corners of his mouth lifted slightly as he looked at her. She looked quite small, huddled into herself with her arms locked around her knees and her head bowed. He sighed.
“Call me Alex, then. It’s my own name, as well.”
She nodded without speaking. Her hair fell forward in wings about her face, but he could see the brief shine of her eyes as she peeped out from behind its cover.
“It’s all right,” he said gruffly. “You can watch me.” He pushed the loose breeches down, rolling the stockings off with them. He shook them out and folded them neatly over a chair before beginning to unfasten his shirt, conscious of her gaze, still shy, but now direct. Out of some idea of thoughtfulness, he turned to face her before removing the shirt, to spare her for a moment the sight of his back.
“Oh!” The exclamation was soft, but enough to stop him.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“Oh, no…I mean, it’s only that I didn’t expect…” The hair swung forward again, but not before he had seen the telltale reddening of her cheeks.
“You’ve not seen a man naked before?” he guessed. The shiny brown head swayed back and forth.
“Noo,” she said doubtfully, “I have, only…it wasn’t…”
“Well, it usually isn’t,” he said matter-of-factly, sitting down on the bed beside her. “But if one is going to make love, it has to be, ye see.”
“I see,” she said, but still sounded doubtful. He tried to smile, to reassure her.
“Don’t worry. It doesna get any bigger. And it wilna do anything strange, if ye want to touch it.” At least he hoped it wouldn’t. Being naked, in such close proximity to a half-clad girl, was doing terrible things to his powers of self-control. His traitorous, deprived anatomy didn’t care a whit that she was a selfish, blackmailing little bitch. Perhaps fortunately, she declined his offer, shrinking back a little toward the wall, though her eyes stayed on him. He rubbed his chin dubiously.
“How much do you…I mean, have ye any idea how it’s done?”
Her gaze was clear and guileless, though her cheeks flamed.
“Well, like the horses, I suppose?” He nodded, but felt a pang, recalling his wedding night, when he too had expected it to be like horses.
“Something like that,” he said, clearing his throat. “Slower, though. More gentle,” he added, seeing her apprehensive look.
“Oh. That’s good. Nurse and the maids used to tell stories, about…men, and, er, getting married, and all…it sounded rather frightening.” She swallowed hard. “W-will it hurt much?” She raised her head suddenly and looked him in the eye.
“I don’t mind if it does,” she said bravely, “it’s only that I’d like to know what to expect.” He felt an unexpected small liking for her. She might be spoiled, selfish, and reckless, but there was some character to her, at least. Courage, to him, was no small virtue.
“I think not,” he said. “If I take my time to ready you” (if he could take his time, amended his brain), “I think it will be not much worse than a pinch.” He reached out and nipped a fold of skin on her upper arm. She jumped and rubbed the spot, but smiled.
“I can stand that.”
“It’s only the first time it’s like that,” he assured her. “The next time it will be better.”
She nodded, then after a moment’s hesitation, edged toward him, reaching out a tentative finger.
“May I touch you?” This time he really did laugh, though he choked the sound off quickly.
“I think you’ll have to, my lady, if I’m to do what you asked of me.”
She ran her hand slowly down his arm, so softly that the touch tickled, and his skin shivered in response. Gaining confidence, she let her hand circle his forearm, feeling the girth of it.
“You’re quite…big.” He smiled, but stayed motionless, letting her explore his body, at as much length as she might wish. He felt the muscles of his belly tighten as she stroked the length of one thigh, and ventured tentatively around the curve of one buttock. Her fingers approached the twisting, knotted line of the scar that ran the length of his left thigh, but stopped short.
“It’s all right,” he assured her. “It doesna hurt me anymore.” She didn’t reply, but drew two fingers slowly along the length of the scar, exerting no pressure.
The questing hands, growing bolder, slid up over the rounded curves of his broad shoulders, slid down his back—and stopped dead. He closed his eyes and waited, following her movements by the shifting of weight on the mattress. She moved behind him, and was silent. Then there was a quivering sigh, and the hands touched him again, soft on his ruined back.