“Quite.” Sir Percival paused to remove a snuffbox from his pocket, a pretty thing enameled in green and gold, with cherubs on the lid.
“I really should not advise a trip to the north just now,” he said, opening the box and concentrating on its contents. “Really I should not. The weather is like to be inclement at this season; I am sure it would not suit Mrs. Malcolm.” Smiling at me like an elderly angel, he inhaled a large pinch of snuff and paused, linen handkerchief at the ready.
Jamie sipped at his wine, his face blandly composed.
“I am grateful for your advice, Sir Percival,” he said. “You’ll perhaps have received word from your agents of recent storms to the north?”
Sir Percival sneezed, a small, neat sound, like a mouse with a cold. He was rather like a white mouse altogether, I thought, seeing him dab daintily at his pointed pink nose.
“Quite,” he said again, putting away the kerchief and blinking benevolently at Jamie. “No, I would—as a particular friend with your welfare at heart—most strongly advise that you remain in Edinburgh. After all,” he added, turning the beam of his benevolence on me, “you surely have an inducement to remain comfortably at home now, do you not? And now, my dear young people, I am afraid I must take my leave; I must not detain you any longer from what must be your wedding breakfast.”
With a little assistance from the hovering Johnson, Sir Percival got up and tottered off, his gold-knobbed stick tap-tapping on the floor.
“He seems a nice old gent,” I remarked, when I was sure he was far enough away not to hear me.
Jamie snorted. “Rotten as a worm-riddled board,” he said. He picked up his glass and drained it. “Ye’d think otherwise,” he said meditatively, putting it down and staring after the wizened figure, now cautiously negotiating the head of the stairs. “A man as close as Sir Percival is to Judgment Day, I mean. Ye’d think fear o’ the Devil would prevent him, but not a bit.”
“I suppose he’s like everyone else,” I said cynically. “Most people think they’re going to live forever.”
Jamie laughed, his exuberant spirits returning with a rush.
“Aye, that’s true,” he said. He pushed my wineglass toward me. “And now you’re here, Sassenach, I’m convinced of it. Drink up, mo nighean donn, and we’ll go upstairs.”
“Post coitum omne animalium triste est,” I remarked, with my eyes closed.
There was no response from the warm, heavy weight on my chest, save the gentle sigh of his breathing. After a moment, though, I felt a sort of subterranean vibration, which I interpreted as amusement.
“That’s a verra peculiar sentiment, Sassenach,” Jamie said, his voice blurred with drowsiness. “Not your own, I hope?”
“No.” I stroked the damp bright hair back from his forehead, and he turned his face into the curve of my shoulder, with a small contented snuffle.
The private rooms at Moubray’s left a bit to be desired in the way of amorous accommodation. Still, the sofa at least offered a padded horizontal surface, which, if you came right down to it, was all that was necessary. While I had decided that I was not past wanting to commit passionate acts after all, I was still too old to want to commit them on the bare floorboards.
“I don’t know who said it—some ancient philosopher or other. It was quoted in one of my medical textbooks; in the chapter on the human reproductive system.”
The vibration made itself audible as a small chuckle.
“Ye’d seem to have applied yourself to your lessons to good purpose, Sassenach,” he said. His hand passed down my side and wormed its way slowly underneath to cup my bottom. He sighed with contentment, squeezing slightly.
“I canna think when I have felt less triste,” he said.
“Me either,” I said, tracing the whorl of the small cowlick that lifted the hair from the center of his forehead. “That’s what made me think of it—I rather wondered what led the ancient philosopher to that conclusion.”
“I suppose it depends on the sorts of animaliae he’d been fornicating with,” Jamie observed. “Maybe it was just that none o’ them took to him, but he must ha’ tried a fair number, to make such a sweeping statement.”
He held tighter to his anchor as the tide of my laughter bounced him gently up and down.
“Mind ye, dogs sometimes do look a trifle sheepish when they’ve done wi’ mating,” he said.
“Mm. And how do sheep look, then?”
“Aye, well, female sheep just go on lookin’ like sheep—not havin’ a great deal of choice in the matter, ye ken.”
“Oh? And what do the male sheep look like?”
“Oh, they look fair depraved. Let their tongues hang out, drooling, and their eyes roll back, while they make disgusting noises. Like most male animals, aye?” I could feel the curve of his grin against my shoulder. He squeezed again, and I pulled gently on the ear closest to hand.
“I didn’t notice your tongue hanging out.”
“Ye werena noticing; your eyes were closed.”
“I didn’t hear any disgusting noises, either.”
“Well, I couldna just think of any on the spur of the moment,” he admitted. “Perhaps I’ll do better next time.”
We laughed softly together, and then were quiet, listening to each other breathe.
“Jamie,” I said softly at last, smoothing the back of his head, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy.”
He rolled to one side, shifting his weight carefully so as not to squash me, and lifted himself to lie face-to-face with me.
“Nor me, my Sassenach,” he said, and kissed me, very lightly, but lingering, so that I had time just to close my lips in a tiny bite on the fullness of his lower lip.
“It’s no just the bedding, ye ken,” he said, drawing back a little at last. His eyes looked down at me, a soft deep blue like the warm tropic sea.
“No,” I said, touching his cheek. “It isn’t.”
“To have ye with me again—to talk wi’ you—to know I can say anything, not guard my words or hide my thoughts—God, Sassenach,” he said, “the Lord knows I am lust-crazed as a lad, and I canna keep my hands from you—or anything else—” he added, wryly, “but I would count that all well lost, had I no more than the pleasure of havin’ ye by me, and to tell ye all my heart.”
“It was lonely without you,” I whispered. “So lonely.”
“And me,” he said. He looked down, long lashes hiding his eyes, and hesitated for a moment.
“I willna say that I have lived a monk,” he said quietly. “When I had to—when I felt that I must or go mad—”
I laid my fingers against his lips, to stop him.
“Neither did I,” I said. “Frank—”
His own hand pressed gently against my mouth. Both dumb, we looked at each other, and I could feel the smile growing behind my hand, and my own under his, to match it. I took my hand away.
“It doesna signify,” he said. He took his hand off my mouth.
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.” I traced the line of his lips with my finger.
“So tell me all your heart,” I said. “If there’s time.”
He glanced at the window to gauge the light—we were to meet Ian at the print shop at five o’clock, to check the progress of the search for Young Ian—and then rolled carefully off me.
“There’s two hours, at least, before we must go. Sit up and put your clothes on, and I’ll have them bring some wine and biscuits.”
This sounded wonderful. I seemed to have been starving ever since I found him. I sat up and began to rummage through the pile of discarded clothes on the floor, looking for the set of stays the low-necked gown required.
“I’m no ways sad, but I do maybe feel a bit ashamed,” Jamie observed, wriggling long, slender toes into a silk stocking. “Or I should, at least.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, here I am, in paradise, so to speak, wi’ you and wine and biscuits, while Ian’s out tramping the pavements and worrying for his son.”
“Are you worried about Young Ian?” I asked, concentrating on my laces.
He frowned slightly, pulling on the other stocking.
“Not so much worried for him, as afraid he may not turn up before tomorrow.”
“What happens tomorrow?” I asked, and then belatedly recalled the encounter with Sir Percival Turner. “Oh, your trip to the north—that was supposed to be tomorrow?”
He nodded. “Aye, there’s a rendezvous set at Mullin’s Cove, tomorrow being the dark of the moon. A lugger from France, wi’ a load of wine and cambric.”
“And Sir Percival was warning you not to make that rendezvous?”
“So it seems. What’s happened, I canna say, though I expect I’ll find out. Could be as there’s a visiting Customs Officer in the district, or he’s had word of some activity on the coast there that has nothing to do wi’ us, but could interfere.” He shrugged and finished his last garter.
He spread out his hands upon his knees then, palm up, and slowly curled the fingers inward. The left curled at once into a fist, compact and neat, a blunt instrument ready for battle. The fingers of his right hand curled more slowly; the middle finger was crooked, and would not lie along the second. The fourth finger would not curl at all, but stuck out straight, holding the little finger at an awkward angle beside it.
He looked from his hands to me, smiling.
“D’ye remember the night when ye set my hand?”
“Sometimes, in my more horrible moments.” That night was one to remember—only because it couldn’t be forgotten. Against all odds, I had rescued him from Wentworth Prison and a death sentence—but not in time to prevent his being cruelly tortured and abused by Black Jack Randall.
I picked up his right hand and transferred it to my own knee. He let it lie there, warm, heavy and inert, and didn’t object as I felt each finger, pulling gently to stretch the tendons and twisting to see the range of motion in the joints.
“My first orthopedic surgery, that was,” I said wryly.
“Have ye done a great many things like that since?” he asked curiously, looking down at me.
“Yes, a few. I’m a surgeon—but it doesn’t mean then what it means now,” I added hastily. “Surgeons in my time don’t pull teeth and let blood. They’re more like what’s meant now by the word ‘physician’—a doctor with training in all the fields of medicine, but with a specialty.”
“Special, are ye? Well, ye’ve always been that,” he said, grinning. The crippled fingers slid into my palm and his thumb stroked my knuckles. “What is it a surgeon does that’s special, then?”
I frowned, trying to think of the right phrasing. “Well, as best I can put it—a surgeon tries to effect healing…by means of a knife.”
His long mouth curled upward at the notion.