“I couldn’t help admiring your children,” I said, with as much pretense of admiration as I could manage on short notice. I beamed kindly at them. “Such pretty babies! Tell me, how old are they?”
Her jaw dropped, confirming the absence of several teeth. She blinked at me, then said, “Oh! Well, that’s maist kind o’ ye, mum. Ah…Maisri here is ten,” she said, nodding at the eldest girl, who was in the act of wiping her nose on her sleeve, “Joey’s eight—tak’ yer finger out o’ yer nose, ye clattie imp!” she hissed, then turned and proudly patted her youngest on the head. “And wee Polly’s just turned six this May.”
“Really!” I gazed at the woman affecting astonishment. “You scarcely look old enough to have children of that age. You must have married very young.”
She preened slightly, smirking.
“Och, no! Not so young as all that; why, I was all o’ nineteen when Maisri was born.”
“Amazing,” I said, meaning it. I dug in my pocket and offered the children each a penny, which they took with shy bobs of thanks. “Good day to you—and congratulations on your lovely family,” I said to the woman, and walked away with a smile and a wave.
Nineteen when the eldest was born, and Maisri was ten now. She was twenty-nine. And I, blessed by good nutrition, hygiene, and dentistry, not worn down by multiple pregnancies and hard physical labor, looked a good deal younger than she. I took a deep breath, pushed back my hair, and marched into the shadows of Carfax Close.
It was a longish, winding close, and the printshop was at the foot. There were thriving businesses and tenements on either side, but I had no attention to spare for anything beyond the neat white sign that hung by the door.
PRINTER AND BOOKSELLER
it said, and beneath this, Books, calling cards, pamphlets, broadsheets, letters, etc.
I stretched out my hand and touched the black letters of the name. A. Malcolm. Alexander Malcolm. James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Perhaps.
Another minute, and I would lose my nerve. I shoved open the door and walked in.
There was a broad counter across the front of the room, with an open flap in it, and a rack to one side that held several trays of type. Posters and notices of all sorts were tacked up on the opposite wall; samples, no doubt.
The door into the back room was open, showing the bulky angular frame of a printing press. Bent over it, his back turned to me, was Jamie.
“Is that you, Geordie?” he asked, not turning around. He was dressed in shirt and breeches, and had a small tool of some kind in his hand, with which he was doing something to the innards of the press. “Took ye long enough. Did ye get the—”
“It isn’t Geordie,” I said. My voice was higher than usual. “It’s me,” I said. “Claire.”
He straightened up very slowly. He wore his hair long; a thick tail of a deep, rich auburn sparked with copper. I had time to see that the neat ribbon that tied it back was green, and then he turned around.
He stared at me without speaking. A tremor ran down the muscular throat as he swallowed, but still he didn’t say anything.
It was the same broad, good-humored face, dark blue eyes aslant the high, flat cheekbones of a Viking, long mouth curling at the ends as though always on the verge of smiling. The lines surrounding eyes and mouth were deeper, of course. The nose had changed just a bit. The knife-edge bridge was slightly thickened near the base by the ridge of an old, healed fracture. It made him look fiercer, I thought, but lessened that air of aloof reserve, and lent his appearance a new rough charm.
I walked through the flap in the counter, seeing nothing but that unblinking stare. I cleared my throat.
“When did you break your nose?”
The corners of the wide mouth lifted slightly.
“About three minutes after I last saw ye—Sassenach.”
There was a hesitation, almost a question in the name. There was no more than a foot between us. I reached out tentatively and touched the tiny line of the break, where the bone pressed white against the bronze of his skin.
He flinched backward as though an electric spark had arced between us, and the calm expression shattered.
“You’re real,” he whispered. I had thought him pale already. Now all vestiges of color drained from his face. His eyes rolled up and he slumped to the floor in a shower of papers and oddments that had been sitting on the press—he fell rather gracefully for such a large man, I thought abstractedly.
It was only a faint; his eyelids were beginning to flutter by the time I knelt beside him and loosened the stock at his throat. I had no doubts at all by now, but still I looked automatically as I pulled the heavy linen away. It was there, of course, the small triangular scar just above the collarbone, left by the knife of Captain Jonathan Randall, Esquire, of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons.
His normal healthy color was returning. I sat cross-legged on the floor and hoisted his head onto my thigh. His hair felt thick and soft in my hand. His eyes opened.
“That bad, is it?” I said, smiling down at him with the same words he had used to me on the day of our wedding, holding my head in his lap, twenty-odd years before.
“That bad, and worse, Sassenach,” he answered, mouth twitching with something almost a smile. He sat up abruptly, staring at me.
“God in heaven, you are real!”
“So are you.” I lifted my chin to look up at him. “I th-thought you were dead.” I had meant to speak lightly, but my voice betrayed me. The tears spilled down my cheeks, only to soak into the rough cloth of his shirt as he pulled me hard against him.
I shook so that it was some time before I realized that he was shaking, too, and for the same reason. I don’t know how long we sat there on the dusty floor, crying in each other’s arms with the longing of twenty years spilling down our faces.
His fingers twined hard in my hair, pulling it loose so that it tumbled down my neck. The dislodged pins cascaded over my shoulders and pinged on the floor like pellets of hail. My own fingers were clasped around his forearm, digging into the linen as though I were afraid he would disappear unless physically restrained.
As though gripped by the same fear, he suddenly grasped me by the shoulders and held me away from him, staring desperately into my face. He put his hand to my cheek, and traced the bones over and over again, oblivious to my tears and to my abundantly running nose.
I sniffed loudly, which seemed to bring him to his senses, for he let go and groped hastily in his sleeve for a handkerchief, which he used clumsily to swab first my face, then his own.
“Give me that.” I grabbed the erratically waving swatch of cloth and blew my nose firmly. “Now you.” I handed him the cloth and watched as he blew his nose with a noise like a strangled goose. I giggled, undone with emotion.
He smiled too, knuckling the tears away from his eyes, unable to stop staring at me.
Suddenly I couldn’t bear not to be touching him. I lunged at him, and he got his arms up just in time to catch me. I squeezed until I could hear his ribs crack, and felt his hands roughly caressing my back as he said my name over and over.
At last I could let go, and sat back a little. He glanced down at the floor between his legs, frowning.
“Did you lose something?” I asked, surprised.
He looked up and smiled, a little shyly.
“I was afraid I’d lost hold altogether and pissed myself, but it’s all right. I’ve just sat on the alepot.”
Sure enough, a pool of aromatic brown liquid was spreading slowly beneath him. With a squeak of alarm, I scrambled to my feet and helped him up. After trying vainly to assess the damage behind, he shrugged and unfastened his breeches. He pushed the tight fabric down over his haunches, then stopped and looked at me, blushing slightly.
“It’s all right,” I said, feeling a rich blush stain my own cheeks. “We’re married.” I cast my eyes down, nonetheless, feeling a little breathless. “At least, I suppose we are.”
He stared at me for a long moment, then a smile curved his wide, soft mouth.
“Aye, we are,” he said. Kicking free of the stained breeches, he stepped toward me.
I stretched out a hand toward him, as much to stop as to welcome him. I wanted more than anything to touch him again, but was unaccountably shy. After so long, how were we to start again?
He felt the constraint of mingled shyness and intimacy as well. Stopping a few inches from me, he took my hand. He hesitated for a moment, then bent his head over it, his lips barely brushing my knuckles. His fingers touched the silver ring and stopped there, holding the metal lightly between thumb and forefinger.
“I never took it off,” I blurted. It seemed important he should know that. He squeezed my hand lightly, but didn’t let go.
“I want—” He stopped and swallowed, still holding my hand. His fingers found and touched the silver ring once more. “I want verra much to kiss you,” he said softly. “May I do that?”
The tears were barely dammed. Two more welled up and overflowed; I felt them, full and round, roll down my cheeks.
“Yes,” I whispered.
He drew me slowly close to him, holding our linked hands just under his breast.
“I havena done this for a verra long time,” he said. I saw the hope and the fear dark in the blue of his eyes. I took the gift and gave it back to him.
“Neither have I,” I said softly.
His hands cupped my face with exquisite gentleness, and he set his mouth on mine.
I didn’t know quite what I had been expecting. A reprise of the pounding fury that had accompanied our final parting? I had remembered that so often, lived it over in memory, helpless to change the outcome. The half-rough, timeless hours of mutual possession in the darkness of our marriage bed? I had longed for that, wakened often sweating and trembling from the memory of it.
But we were strangers now, barely touching, each seeking the way toward joining, slowly, tentatively, seeking and giving unspoken permission with our silent lips. My eyes were closed, and I knew without looking that Jamie’s were, as well. We were, quite simply, afraid to look at each other.
Without raising his head, he began to stroke me lightly, feeling my bones through my clothes, familiarizing himself again with the terrain of my body. At last his hand traveled down my arm and caught my right hand. His fingers traced my hand until they found the ring again, and circled it, feeling the interlaced silver of the Highland pattern, polished with long wear, but still distinct.
His lips moved from mine, across my cheeks and eyes. I gently stroked his back, feeling through his shirt the marks I couldn’t see, the remnants of old scars, like my ring, worn but still distinct.
“I’ve seen ye so many times,” he said, his voice whispering warm in my ear. “You’ve come to me so often. When I dreamed sometimes. When I lay in fever. When I was so afraid and so lonely I knew I must die. When I needed you, I would always see ye, smiling, with your hair curling up about your face. But ye never spoke. And ye never touched me.”
“I can touch you now.” I reached up and drew my hand gently down his temple, his ear, the cheek and jaw that I could see. My hand went to the nape of his neck, under the clubbed bronze hair, and he raised his head at last, and cupped my face between his hands, love glowing strong in the dark blue eyes.