“He wouldn’t do it, though.” Roger said. It was growing chilly in the study as the sun went down, and he bent and switched on the ancient electric fire. “Because you were pregnant?” he guessed.
She shot him a sudden sharp look, then smiled, a little wryly.
“Yes, that was it. He said no one but a cad would dream of abandoning a pregnant woman with virtually no resources. Particularly one whose grip on reality seemed a trifle tenuous,” she added ironically. “I wasn’t quite without resources—I had a bit of money from my uncle Lamb—but Frank wasn’t a cad, either.” Her glance shifted to the bookshelves. Her husband’s historical works stood there, side by side, spines gleaming in the light of the desklamp.
“He was a very decent man,” she said softly. She took another sip of her drink, closing her eyes as the alcoholic fumes rose up.
“And then—he knew, or suspected, that he couldn’t have children himself. Rather a blow, for a man so involved in history and genealogies. All those dynastic considerations, you see.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Roger said slowly. “But wouldn’t he feel—I mean, another man’s child?”
“He might have.” The amber eyes were looking at him again, their clearness slightly softened by whisky and reminiscence. “But as it was, since he didn’t—couldn’t—believe anything I said about Jamie, the baby’s father was essentially unknown. If he didn’t know who the man was—and convinced himself that I didn’t really know either, but had just made up these delusions out of traumatic shock—well, then, there was no one ever to say that the child wasn’t his. Certainly not me,” she added, with just a tinge of bitterness.
She took a large swallow of whisky that made her eyes water slightly, and took a moment to wipe them.
“But to make sure, he took me clean away. To Boston,” she went on. “He’d been offered a good position at Harvard, and no one knew us there. That’s where Brianna was born.”
The fretful crying jarred me awake yet again. I had gone back to bed at 6:30, after getting up five times during the night with the baby. A bleary-eyed look at the clock showed the time now as 7:00. A cheerful singing came from the bathroom, Frank’s voice raised in “Rule, Britannia,” over the noise of rushing water.
I lay in bed, heavy-limbed with exhaustion, wondering whether I had the strength to endure the crying until Frank got out of the shower and could bring Brianna to me. As though the baby knew what I was thinking, the crying rose two or three tones and escalated to a sort of periodic shriek, punctuated by frightening gulps for air. I flung back the covers and was on my feet, propelled by the same sort of panic with which I had greeted air raids during the War.
I lumbered down the chilly hall and into the nursery, to find Brianna, aged three months, lying on her back, yelling her small red head off. I was so groggy from lack of sleep that it took a moment for me to realize that I had left her on her stomach.
“Darling! You turned over! All by yourself!” Terrorized by her audacious act, Brianna waved her little pink fists and squalled louder, eyes squeezed shut.
I snatched her up, patting her back and murmuring to the top of her red-fuzzed head.
“Oh, you precious darling! What a clever girl you are!”
“What’s that? What’s happened?” Frank emerged from the bathroom, toweling his head, a second towel wrapped about his loins. “Is something the matter with Brianna?”
He came toward us, looking worried. As the birth grew closer, we had both been edgy; Frank irritable and myself terrified, having no idea what might happen between us, with the appearance of Jamie Fraser’s child. But when the nurse had taken Brianna from her bassinet and handed her to Frank, with the words “Here’s Daddy’s little girl,” his face had grown blank, and then—looking down at the tiny face, perfect as a rosebud—gone soft with wonder. Within a week, he had been hers, body and soul.
I turned to him, smiling. “She turned over! All by herself!”
“Really?” His scrubbed face beamed with delight. “Isn’t it early for her to do that?”
“Yes, it is. Dr. Spock says she oughtn’t to be able to do it for another month, at least!”
“Well, what does Dr. Spock know? Come here, little beauty; give Daddy a kiss for being so precocious.” He lifted the soft little body, encased in its snug pink sleep-suit, and kissed her button of a nose. Brianna sneezed, and we both laughed.
I stopped then, suddenly aware that it was the first time I had laughed in nearly a year. Still more, that it was the first time I had laughed with Frank.
He realized it too; his eyes met mine over the top of Brianna’s head. They were a soft hazel, and at the moment, filled with tenderness. I smiled at him, a little tremulous, and suddenly very much aware that he was all but naked, with water droplets sliding down his lean shoulders and shining on the smooth brown skin of his chest.
The smell of burning reached us simultaneously, jarring us from this scene of domestic bliss.
“The coffee!” Thrusting Bree unceremoniously into my arms, Frank bolted for the kitchen, leaving both towels in a heap at my feet. Smiling at the sight of his bare bu**ocks, gleaming an incongruous white as he sprinted into the kitchen, I followed him more slowly, holding Bree against my shoulder.
He was standing at the sink, naked, amid a cloud of malodorous steam rising from the scorched coffeepot.
“Tea, maybe?” I asked, adroitly anchoring Brianna on my hip with one arm while I rummaged in the cupboard. “None of the orange pekoe leaf left, I’m afraid; just Lipton’s teabags.”
Frank made a face; an Englishman to the bone, he would rather lap water out of the toilet than drink tea made from teabags. The Lipton’s had been left by Mrs. Grossman, the weekly cleaning woman, who thought tea made from loose leaves messy and disgusting.
“No, I’ll get a cup of coffee on my way to the university. Oh, speaking of which, you recall that we’re having the Dean and his wife to dinner tonight? Mrs. Hinchcliffe is bringing a present for Brianna.”
“Oh, right,” I said, without enthusiasm. I had met the Hinchcliffes before, and wasn’t all that keen to repeat the experience. Still, the effort had to be made. With a mental sigh, I shifted the baby to the other side and groped in the drawer for a pencil to make a grocery list.
Brianna burrowed into the front of my red chenille dressing gown, making small voracious grunting noises.
“You can’t be hungry again,” I said to the top of her head. “I fed you not two hours ago.” My br**sts were beginning to leak in response to her rooting, though, and I was already sitting down and loosening the front of my gown.
“Mrs. Hinchcliffe said that a baby shouldn’t be fed every time it cries,” Frank observed. “They get spoilt if they aren’t kept to a schedule.”
It wasn’t the first time I had heard Mrs. Hinchcliffe’s opinions on child-rearing.
“Then she’ll be spoilt, won’t she?” I said coldly, not looking at him. The small pink mouth clamped down fiercely, and Brianna began to suck with mindless appetite. I was aware that Mrs. Hinchcliffe also thought breast-feeding both vulgar and insanitary. I, who had seen any number of eighteenth-century babies nursing contentedly at their mothers’ breasts, didn’t.
Frank sighed, but didn’t say anything further. After a moment, he put down the pot holder and sidled toward the door.
“Well,” he said awkwardly. “I’ll see you around six then, shall I? Ought I to bring home anything—save you going out?”
I gave him a brief smile, and said, “No, I’ll manage.”
“Oh, good.” He hesitated a moment, as I settled Bree more comfortably on my lap, head resting on the crook of my arm, the round of her head echoing the curve of my breast. I looked up from the baby, and found him watching me intently, eyes fixed on the swell of my half-exposed bosom.
My own eyes flicked downward over his body. I saw the beginnings of his arousal, and bent my head over the baby, to hide my flushing face.
“Goodbye,” I muttered, to the top of her head.
He stood still a moment, then leaned forward and kissed me briefly on the cheek, the warmth of his bare body unsettlingly near.
“Goodbye, Claire,” he said softly. “I’ll see you tonight.”
He didn’t come into the kitchen again before leaving, so I had a chance to finish feeding Brianna and bring my own feelings into some semblance of normality.
I hadn’t seen Frank naked since my return; he had always dressed in bathroom or closet. Neither had he tried to kiss me before this morning’s cautious peck. The pregnancy had been what the obstetrician called “high-risk,” and there had been no question of Frank’s sharing my bed, even had I been so disposed—which I wasn’t.
I should have seen this coming, but I hadn’t. Absorbed first in sheer misery, and then in the physical torpor of oncoming motherhood, I had pushed away all considerations beyond my bulging belly. After Brianna’s birth, I had lived from feeding to feeding, seeking small moments of mindless peace, when I could hold her oblivious body close and find relief from thought and memory in the pure sensual pleasure of touching and holding her.
Frank, too, cuddled the baby and played with her, falling asleep in his big chair with her stretched out atop his lanky form, rosy cheek pressed flat against his chest, as they snored together in peaceful companionship. He and I did not touch each other, though, nor did we truly talk about anything beyond our basic domestic arrangements—except Brianna.
The baby was our shared focus; a point through which we could at once reach each other, and keep each other at arm’s length. It looked as though arm’s length was no longer close enough for Frank.
I could do it—physically, at least. I had seen the doctor for a checkup the week before, and he had—with an avuncular wink and a pat on the bottom—assured me that I could resume “relations” with my husband at any time.
I knew Frank hadn’t been celibate since my disappearance. In his late forties, he was still lean and muscular, dark and sleek, a very handsome man. Women clustered about him at cocktail parties like bees round a honeypot, emitting small hums of sexual excitement.
There had been one girl with brown hair whom I had noticed particularly at the departmental party; she stood in the corner and stared at Frank mournfully over her drink. Later she became tearfully and incoherently drunk, and was escorted home by two female friends, who took turns casting evil looks at Frank and at me, standing by his side, silently bulging in my flowered maternity dress.
He’d been discreet, though. He was always home at night, and took pains not to have lipstick on his collar. So, now he meant to come home all the way. I supposed he had some right to expect it; was that not a wifely duty, and I once more his wife?
There was only one small problem. It wasn’t Frank I reached for, deep in the night, waking out of sleep. It wasn’t his smooth, lithe body that walked my dreams and roused me, so that I came awake moist and gasping, my heart pounding from the half-remembered touch. But I would never touch that man again.