“Go on.” His voice was steel; the one he used with the whisky smugglers; not to obey was unthinkable. Ian moved timidly to do as he was ordered. Standing back, he took a halfhearted swing. There was a dull thwacking sound.
“That one didna count,” Jamie said firmly. “Look, man, it was just as hard for me to do it to you. Make a proper job of it, now.”
The thin figure squared its shoulders with sudden determination and the leather whistled through the air. It landed with a crack like lightning. There was a startled yelp from the figure on the fence, and a suppressed giggle, at least half shock, from Jenny.
Jamie cleared his throat. “Aye, that’ll do. Finish it, then.”
We could hear Young Ian counting carefully to himself under his breath between strokes of the leather, but aside from a smothered “Christ!” at number nine, there was no further sound from his uncle.
With a general sigh of relief from inside the house, Jamie rose off the fence after the last stroke, and tucked his shirt into his breeks. He inclined his head formally to his nephew. “Thank ye, Ian.” Dropping the formality, he then rubbed his backside, saying in a tone of rueful admiration, “Christ, man, ye’ve an arm on ye!”
“So’ve you, Uncle,” said Ian, matching his uncle’s wry tones. The two figures, barely visible now, stood laughing and rubbing themselves for a moment. Jamie flung an arm about his nephew’s shoulders and turned him toward the house. “If it’s all the same to you, Ian, I dinna want to have to do that again, aye?” he said, confidentially.
“It’s a bargain, Uncle Jamie.”
A moment later, the door opened at the end of the passage, and with a look at each other, Jenny and Ian turned as one to greet the returning prodigals.
“You look rather like a baboon,” I observed.
“Oh, aye? And what’s one of those?” In spite of the freezing November air pouring in through the half-open window, Jamie showed no signs of discomfort as he dropped his shirt onto the small pile of clothing.
He stretched luxuriously, completely naked. His joints made little popping noises as he arched his back and stretched upward, fists resting easily on the smoke-dark beams overhead.
“Oh, God, it feels good not to be on a horse!”
“Mm. To say nothing of having a real bed to sleep in, instead of wet heather.” I rolled over, luxuriating in the warmth of the heavy quilts, and the relaxation of sore muscles into the ineffable softness of the goose-down mattress.
“D’ye mean to tell me what’s a baboon, then?” Jamie inquired, “Or are ye just makin’ observations for the pleasure of it?” He turned to pick up a frayed willow twig from the washstand, and began to clean his teeth. I smiled at the sight; if I had had no other impact during my earlier sojourn in the past, I had at least been instrumental in seeing that virtually all of the Frasers and Murrays of Lallybroch retained their teeth, unlike most Highlanders—unlike most Englishmen, for that matter.
“A baboon,” I said, enjoying the sight of his muscular back flexing as he scrubbed, “is a sort of very large monkey with a red behind.”
He snorted with laughter and choked on the willow twig. “Well,” he said, removing it from his mouth, “I canna fault your observations, Sassenach.” He grinned at me, showing brilliant white teeth, and tossed the twig aside. “It’s been thirty years since anyone took a tawse to me,” he added, passing his hands tenderly over the still-glowing surfaces of his rear. “I’d forgot how much it stings.”
“And here Young Ian was speculating that your arse was tough as saddle leather,” I said, amused. “Was it worth it, do you think?”
“Oh, aye,” he said, matter-of-factly, sliding into bed beside me. His body was hard and cold as marble, and I squeaked but didn’t protest as he gathered me firmly against his chest. “Christ, you’re warm,” he murmured. “Come closer, hm?” His legs insinuated themselves between mine, and he cupped my bottom, drawing me in.
He gave a sigh of pure content, and I relaxed against him, feeling our temperatures start to equalize through the thin cotton of the nightdress Jenny had lent me. The peat fire in the hearth had been lit, but hadn’t been able to do much yet toward dispelling the chill. Body heat was much more effective.
“Oh, aye, it was worth it,” he said. “I could have beaten Young Ian half-senseless—his father has, once or twice—and it would ha’ done nothing but make him more determined to run off, once he got the chance. But he’ll walk through hot coals before he risks havin’ to do something like that again.”
He spoke with certainty, and I thought he was undoubtedly right. Young Ian, looking bemused, had received absolution from his parents, in the form of a kiss from his mother and a swift hug from his father, and then retired to his bed with a handful of cakes, there no doubt to ponder the curious consequences of disobedience.
Jamie too had been absolved with kisses, and I suspected that this was more important to him than the effects of his performance on Young Ian.
“At least Jenny and Ian aren’t angry with you any longer,” I said.
“No. It’s no really that they were angry so much, I think; it’s only that they dinna ken what to do wi’ the lad,” he explained. “They’ve raised two sons already, and Young Jamie and Michael are fine lads both; but both of them are more like Ian—soft-spoke, and easy in their manner. Young Ian’s quiet enough, but he’s a great deal more like his mother—and me.”
“Frasers are stubborn, eh?” I said, smiling. This bit of clan doctrine was one of the first things I had learned when I met Jamie, and nothing in my subsequent experience had suggested that it might be in error.
He chuckled, soft and deep in his chest.
“Aye, that’s so. Young Ian may look like a Murray, but he’s a Fraser born, all right. And it’s no use to shout at a stubborn man, or beat him, either; it only makes him more set on having his way.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” I said dryly. One hand was stroking my thigh, gradually inching the cotton nightdress upward. Jamie’s internal furnace had resumed its operations, and his bare legs were warm and hard against mine. One knee nudged gently, seeking an entrance between my thighs. I cupped his bu**ocks and squeezed gently.
“Dorcas told me that a number of gentlemen pay very well for the privilege of being smacked at the brothel. She says they find it…arousing.”
Jamie snorted briefly, tensing his bu**ocks, then relaxing as I stroked them lightly.
“Do they, then? I suppose it’s true, if Dorcas says so, but I canna see it, myself. There are a great many more pleasant ways to get a cockstand, if ye ask me. On the other hand,” he added fairly, “perhaps it makes a difference if it’s a bonny wee lassie in her shift on the other end o’ the strap, and not your father—or your nephew, come to that.”
“Perhaps it does. Shall I try sometime?” The hollow of his throat lay just by my face, sunburned and delicate, showing the faint white triangle of a scar just above the wide arch of his collarbone. I set my lips on the pulsebeat there, and he shivered, though neither of us was cold any longer.
“No,” he said, a little breathless. His hand fumbled at the neck of my shift, pulling loose the ribbons. He rolled onto his back then, lifting me suddenly above him as though I weighed nothing at all. A flick of his finger brought the loosened chemise down over my shoulders, and my ni**les rose at once as the cold air struck them.
His eyes were more slanted than usual as he smiled up at me, half-lidded as a drowsing cat, and the warmth of his palms encircled both br**sts.
“I said I could think of more pleasant ways, aye?”
The candle had guttered and gone out, the fire on the hearth burned low, and a pale November starlight shone through the misted window. Dim as it was, my eyes were so adapted to the dark that I could pick out all the details of the room; the thick white porcelain jug and basin, its blue band black in the starlight, the small embroidered sampler on the wall, and the rumpled heap of Jamie’s clothes on the stool by the bed.
Jamie was clearly visible, too; covers thrown back, chest gleaming faintly from exertion. I admired the long slope of his belly, where small whorls of dark auburn hair spiraled up across the pale, fresh skin. I couldn’t keep my fingers from touching him, tracing the lines of the powerfully sprung ribs that shaped his torso.
“It’s so good,” I said dreamily. “So good to have a man’s body to touch.”
“D’ye like it still, then?” He sounded half-shy, half-pleased, as I fondled him. His own arm came around my shoulder, stroking my hair.
“Mm-hm.” It wasn’t a thing I had consciously missed, but having it now reminded me of the joy of it; that drowsy intimacy in which a man’s body is as accessible to you as your own, the strange shapes and textures of it like a sudden extension of your own limbs.
I ran my hand down the flat slope of his belly, over the smooth jut of hipbone and the swell of muscled thigh. The remnants of firelight caught the red-gold fuzz on arms and legs, and glowed in the auburn thicket nested between his thighs.
“God, you are a wonderful hairy creature,” I said. “Even there.” I slid my hand down the smooth crease of his thigh and he spread his legs obligingly, letting me touch the thick, springy curls in the crease of his bu**ocks.
“Aye, well, no one’s hunted me yet for my pelt,” he said comfortably. His hand cupped my own rear firmly, and a large thumb passed gently over the rounded surface. He propped one arm behind his head, and looked lazily down the length of my body.
“You’re even less worth the skinning than I am, Sassenach.”
“I should hope so.” I moved slightly to accommodate his touch as he extended his explorations, enjoying the warmth of his hand on my naked back.
“Ever seen a smooth branch that’s been in still water a long time?” he asked. A finger passed lightly up my spine, raising a ripple of gooseflesh in its wake. “There are tiny wee bubbles on it, hundreds and thousands and millions of them, so it looks as though it’s furred all about wi’ a silver frost.” His fingers brushed my ribs, my arms, my back, and the tiny down-hairs rose everywhere in the wake of his touch, tingling.
“That’s what ye look like, my Sassenach,” he said, almost whispering. “All smooth and naked, dipped in silver.”
Then we lay quiet for a time, listening to the drip of rain outside. A cold autumn air drifted through the room, mingling with the fire’s smoky warmth. He rolled onto his side, facing away from me, and drew the quilts up to cover us.
I curled up behind him, knees fitting neatly behind his own. The firelight shone dully from behind me now, gleaming over the smooth round of his shoulder and dimly illuminating his back. I could see the faint lines of the scars that webbed his shoulders, thin streaks of silver on his flesh. At one time, I had known those scars so intimately, I could have traced them with my fingers, blindfolded. Now there was a thin half-moon curve I didn’t know; a diagonal slash that hadn’t been there before, the remnants of a violent past I hadn’t shared.