He turned from the window to stare at me.
“Christ!” he said. “Not want ye?” His face was pale now, and his eyes unnaturally bright.
“I have burned for you for twenty years, Sassenach,” he said softly. “Do ye not know that? Jesus!” The breeze stirred the loose wisps of hair around his face, and he brushed them back impatiently.
“But I’m no the man ye knew, twenty years past, am I?” He turned away, with a gesture of frustration. “We know each other now less than we did when we wed.”
“Do you want me to go?” The blood was pounding thickly in my ears.
“No!” He swung quickly toward me, and gripped my shoulder tightly, making me pull back involuntarily. “No,” he said, more quietly. “I dinna want ye to go. I told ye so, and I meant it. But…I must know.” He bent his head toward me, his face alive with troubled question.
“Do ye want me?” he whispered. “Sassenach, will ye take me—and risk the man that I am, for the sake of the man ye knew?”
I felt a great wave of relief, mingled with fear. It ran from his hand on my shoulder to the tips of my toes, weakening my joints.
“It’s a lot too late to ask that,” I said, and reached to touch his cheek, where the rough beard was starting to show. It was soft under my fingers, like stiff plush. “Because I’ve already risked everything I had. But whoever you are now, Jamie Fraser—yes. Yes, I do want you.”
The light of the candle flame glowed blue in his eyes, as he held out his hands to me, and I stepped wordless into his embrace. I rested my face against his chest, marveling at the feel of him in my arms; so big, so solid and warm. Real, after the years of longing for a ghost I could not touch.
Disentangling himself after a moment, he looked down at me, and touched my cheek, very gently. He smiled slightly.
“You’ve the devil’s own courage, aye? But then, ye always did.”
I tried to smile at him, but my lips trembled.
“What about you? How do you know what I’m like? You don’t know what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years, either. I might be a horrible person, for all you know!”
The smile on his lips moved into his eyes, lighting them with humor. “I suppose ye might, at that. But, d’ye know, Sassenach—I dinna think I care?”
I stood looking at him for another minute, then heaved a deep sigh that popped a few more stitches in my gown.
“Neither do I.”
It seemed absurd to be shy with him, but shy I was. The adventures of the evening, and his words to me, had opened up the chasm of reality—those twenty unshared years that gaped between us, and the unknown future that lay beyond. Now we had come to the place where we would begin to know each other again, and discover whether we were in fact the same two who had once existed as one flesh—and whether we might be one again.
A knock at the door broke the tension. It was a small servingmaid, with a tray of supper. She bobbed shyly to me, smiled at Jamie, and laid both supper—cold meat, hot broth, and warm oatbread with butter—and the fire with a quick and practiced hand, then left us with a murmured “Good e’en to ye.”
We ate slowly, talking carefully only of neutral things; I told him how I had made my way from Craigh na Dun to Inverness, and made him laugh with stories of Mr. Graham and Master Georgie. He in turn told me about Mr. Willoughby; how he had found the little Chinese, half-starved and dead drunk, lying behind a row of casks on the docks at Burntisland, one of the shipping ports near Edinburgh.
We said nothing much of ourselves, but as we ate, I became increasingly conscious of his body, watching his fine, long hands as he poured wine and cut meat, seeing the twist of his powerful torso under his shirt, and the graceful line of neck and shoulder as he stooped to retrieve a fallen napkin. Once or twice, I thought I saw his gaze linger on me in the same way—a sort of hesitant avidity—but he quickly glanced away each time, hooding his eyes so that I could not tell what he saw or felt.
As the supper concluded, the same thought was uppermost in both our minds. It could scarcely be otherwise, considering the place in which we found ourselves. A tremor of mingled fear and anticipation shot through me.
At last, he drained his wineglass, set it down, and met my eyes directly.
“Will ye…” He stopped, the flush deepening on his features, but met my eyes, swallowed once, and went on. “Will ye come to bed wi’ me, then? I mean,” he hurried on, “it’s cold, and we’re both damp, and—”
“And there aren’t any chairs,” I finished for him. “All right.” I pulled my hand loose from his, and turned toward the bed, feeling a queer mix of excitement and hesitance that made my breath come short.
He pulled off his breeches and stockings quickly, then glanced at me.
“I’m sorry, Sassenach; I should have thought ye’d need help wi’ your laces.”
So he didn’t undress women often, I thought, before I could stop myself, and my lips curved in a smile at the thought.
“Well, it’s not laces,” I murmured, “but if you’d give a hand in the back there…” I laid aside my cloak, and turned my back to him, lifting my hair to expose the neck of the dress.
There was a puzzled silence. Then I felt a finger sliding slowly down the groove of my backbone.
“What’s that?” he said, sounding startled.
“It’s called a zipper,” I said, smiling, though he couldn’t see me. “See the little tab at the top? Just take hold of that, and pull it straight down.”
The zipper teeth parted with a muted ripping noise, and the remnants of Jessica Gutenburg sagged free. I pulled my arms out of the sleeves and let the dress drop heavily around my feet, turning to face Jamie before I lost my nerve.
He jerked back, startled by this sudden chrysalis-shedding. Then he blinked, and stared at me.
I stood in front of him in nothing but my shoes and gartered rose-silk stockings. I had an overwhelming urge to snatch the dress back up, but I resisted it. I stiffened my spine, raised my chin, and waited.
He didn’t say a word. His eyes gleamed in the candlelight as he moved his head slightly, but he still had that trick of hiding all his thoughts behind an inscrutable mask.
“Will you bloody say something?” I demanded at last, in a voice that shook only a little.
His mouth opened, but no words came out. He shook his head slowly from side to side.
“Jesus,” he whispered at last. “Claire…you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
“You,” I said with conviction, “are losing your eyesight. It’s probably glaucoma; you’re too young for cataracts.”
He laughed at that, a little unsteadily, and then I saw that he was in fact blinded—his eyes shone with moisture, even as he smiled. He blinked hard, and held out his hand.
“I,” he said, with equal conviction, “ha’ got eyes like a hawk, and always did. Come here to me.”
A little reluctantly, I took his hand, and stepped out of the inadequate shelter of the remains of my dress. He drew me gently in, to stand between his knees as he sat on the bed. Then he kissed me softly, once on each breast, and laid his head between them, his breath coming warm on my bare skin.
“Your breast is like ivory,” he said softly, the word almost “breest” in the Highland Scots that always grew broad when he was truly moved. His hand rose to cup one breast, his fingers tanned into darkness against my own pale glow.
“Only to see them, sae full and sae round—Christ, I could lay my head here forever. But to touch ye, my Sassenach…you wi’ your skin like white velvet, and the sweet long lines of your body…” He paused, and I could feel the working of his throat muscles as he swallowed, his hand moving slowly down the curving slope of waist and hip, the swell and taper of buttock and thigh.
“Dear God,” he said, still softly. “I couldna look at ye, Sassenach, and keep my hands from you, nor have ye near me, and not want ye.” He lifted his head then, and planted a kiss over my heart, then let his hand float down the gentle curve of my belly, lightly tracing the small marks left there by Brianna’s birth.
“You…really don’t mind?” I said hesitantly, brushing my own fingers over my stomach.
He smiled up at me with something half-rueful in his expression. He hesitated for a moment, then drew up the hem of his shirt.
“Do you?” he asked.
The scar ran from midthigh nearly to his groin, an eight-inch length of twisted, whitish tissue. I couldn’t repress a gasp at its appearance, and dropped to my knees beside him.
I laid my cheek on his thigh, holding tight to his leg, as though I would keep him now—as I had not been able to keep him then. I could feel the slow, deep pulse of the blood through his femoral artery under my fingers—a bare inch away from the ugly gully of that twisting scar.
“It doesna fright ye, nor sicken ye, Sassenach?” he asked, laying a hand on my hair. I lifted my head and stared up at him.
“Of course not!”
“Aye, well.” He reached to touch my stomach, his eyes holding mine. “And if ye bear the scars of your own battles, Sassenach,” he said softly, “they dinna trouble me, either.”
He lifted me to the bed beside him then, and leaned to kiss me. I kicked off my shoes, and curled my legs up, feeling the warmth of him through his shirt. My hands found the button at the throat, fumbling to open it.
“I want to see you.”
“Well, it’s no much to see, Sassenach,” he said, with an uncertain laugh. “But whatever it is, it’s yours—if ye want it.”
He pulled the shirt over his head and tossed it on the floor, then leaned back on the palms of his hands, displaying his body.
I didn’t know quite what I had been expecting. In fact, the sight of his naked body took my breath away. He was still tall, of course, and beautifully made, the long bones of his body sleek with muscle, elegant with strength. He glowed in the candlelight, as though the light came from within him.
He had changed, of course, but the change was subtle; as though he had been put into an oven and baked to a hard finish. He looked as though both muscle and skin had drawn in just a bit, grown closer to the bone, so he was more tightly knit; he had never seemed gawky, but the last hint of boyish looseness had vanished.
His skin had darkened slightly, to a pale gold, burned to bronze on face and throat, paling down the length of his body to a pure white, tinged with blue veins, in the hollow of his thighs. His pubic hair stood out in a ferocious auburn bush, and it was quite obvious that he had not been lying; he did want me, and very badly.
My eyes met his, and his mouth quirked suddenly.
“I did say once I would be honest with ye, Sassenach.”
I laughed, feeling tears sting my eyes at the same time, a rush of confused emotion surging up in me.
“So did I.” I reached toward him, hesitant, and he took my hand. The strength and warmth of it were startling, and I jerked slightly. Then I tightened my grasp, and he rose to his feet, facing me.