The act of violence had drained enough rage for me to be able once more to control my shaking fingers. I kicked the stays into a corner and pulled the green gown over my head.
I had to get out of there. That was the only half-coherent thought in my head, and I clung to it. I had to leave. I couldn’t stay, not with Laoghaire and her daughters in the house. They belonged there—I didn’t.
I managed to tie up the garters this time, do up the laces of the dress, fasten the multiple hooks of the overskirt, and find my shoes. One was under the washstand, the other by the massive oak armoire, where I had kicked them the night before, dropping my clothes carelessly anywhere in my eagerness to crawl into the welcoming bed and nestle warmly in Jamie’s arms.
I shivered. The fire had gone out again, and there was an icy draft from the window. I felt chilled to the bone, despite my clothes.
I wasted some time in searching for my cloak before realizing that it was downstairs; I had left it in the parlor the day before. I pushed my fingers through my hair, but was too upset to look for a comb. The strands crackled with electricity from having the woolen dress pulled over my head, and I slapped irritably at the floating hairs that stuck to my face.
Ready. Ready as I’d be, at least. I paused for one last look around, then heard footsteps coming up the stair.
Not fast and light, like the last ones. These were heavier, and slow, deliberate. I knew without seeing him that it was Jamie coming—and that he wasn’t anxious to see me.
Fine. I didn’t want to see him, either. Better just to leave at once, without speaking. What was there to say?
I backed away as the door opened, unaware that I was moving, until my legs hit the edge of the bed. I lost my balance and sat down. Jamie paused in the doorway, looking down at me.
He had shaved. That was the first thing I noticed. In echo of Young Ian the day before, he had hastily shaved, brushed his hair back and tidied himself before facing trouble. He seemed to know what I was thinking; the ghost of a smile passed over his face, as he rubbed his freshly scraped chin.
“D’ye think it will help?” he asked.
I swallowed, and licked dry lips, but didn’t answer. He sighed, and answered himself.
“No, I suppose not.” He stepped into the room and closed the door. He stood awkwardly for a moment, then moved toward the bed, one hand extended toward me. “Claire—”
“Don’t touch me!” I leapt to my feet and backed away, circling toward the door. His hand fell to his side, but he stepped in front of me, blocking the way.
“Will ye no let me explain, Claire?”
“It seems to be a little late for that,” I said, in what I meant to be a cold, disdainful tone. Unfortunately, my voice shook.
He pushed the door shut behind him.
“Ye never used to be unreasonable,” he said quietly.
“And don’t tell me what I used to be!” The tears were much too near the surface, and I bit my lip to hold them back.
“All right.” His face was very pale; the scratches Laoghaire had given him showed as three red lines, livid down his cheek.
“I dinna live with her,” he said. “She and the girls live at Balriggan, over near Broch Mordha.” He watched me closely, but I said nothing. He shrugged a little, settling the shirt on his shoulders, and went on.
“It was a great mistake—the marriage between us.”
“With two children? Took you a while to realize, didn’t it?” I burst out. His lips pressed tight together.
“The lassies aren’t mine; Laoghaire was a widow wi’ the two bairns when I wed her.”
“Oh.” It didn’t make any real difference, but still, I felt a small wave of something like relief, on Brianna’s behalf. She was the sole child of Jamie’s heart, at least, even if I—
“I’ve not lived wi’ them for some time; I live in Edinburgh, and send money to them, but—”
“You don’t need to tell me,” I interrupted. “It doesn’t make any difference. Let me by, please—I’m going.”
The thick, ruddy brows drew sharply together.
“Back. Away. I don’t know—let me by!”
“You aren’t going anywhere,” he said definitely.
“You can’t stop me!”
He reached out and grabbed me by both arms.
“Aye, I can,” he said. He could; I jerked furiously, but couldn’t budge the iron grip on my biceps.
“Let go of me this minute!”
“No, I won’t!” He glared at me, eyes narrowed, and I suddenly realized that calm as he might seem outwardly, he was very nearly as upset as I was. I saw the muscles of his throat move as he swallowed, controlling himself enough to speak again.
“I willna let ye go until I’ve explained to ye, why…”
“What is there to explain?” I demanded furiously. “You married again! What else is there?”
The color was rising in his face; the tips of his ears were already red, a sure sign of impending fury.
“And have you lived a nun for twenty years?” he demanded, shaking me slightly. “Have ye?”
“No!” I flung the word at his face, and he flinched slightly. “No, I bloody haven’t! And I don’t think you’ve been a monk, either—I never did!”
“Then—” he began, but I was much too furious to listen anymore.
“You lied to me, damn you!”
“I never did!” The skin was stretched tight over his cheekbones, as it was when he was very angry indeed.
“You did, you bastard! You know you did! Let go!” I kicked him sharply in the shin, hard enough to numb my toes. He exclaimed in pain, but didn’t let go. Instead, he squeezed harder, making me yelp.
“I never said a thing to ye—”
“No, you didn’t! But you lied, anyway! You let me think you weren’t married, that there wasn’t anyone, that you—that you—” I was half-sobbing with rage, gasping between words. “You should have told me, the minute I came! Why in hell didn’t you tell me?” His grip on my arms slackened, and I managed to wrench myself free. He took a step toward me, eyes glittering with fury. I wasn’t afraid of him; I drew back my fist and hit him in the chest.
“Why?” I shrieked, hitting him again and again and again, the sound of the blows thudding against his chest. “Why, why, why!”
“Because I was afraid!” He got hold of my wrists and threw me backward, so I fell across the bed. He stood over me, fists clenched, breathing hard.
“I am a coward, damn you! I couldna tell ye, for fear ye would leave me, and unmanly thing that I am, I thought I couldna bear that!”
“Unmanly? With two wives? Ha!”
I really thought he would slap me; he raised his arm, but then his open palm clenched into a fist.
“Am I a man? To want you so badly that nothing else matters? To see you, and know I would sacrifice honor or family or life itself to lie wi’ you, even though ye’d left me?”
“You have the filthy, unmitigated, bleeding gall to say such a thing to me?” My voice was so high, it came out as a thin and vicious whisper. “You’ll blame me?”
He stopped then, chest heaving as he caught his breath.
“No. No, I canna blame you.” He turned aside, blindly. “How could it have been your fault? Ye wanted to stay wi’ me, to die with me.”
“I did, the more fool I,” I said. “You sent me back, you made me go! And now you want to blame me for going?”
He turned back to me, eyes dark with desperation.
“I had to send ye away! I had to, for the bairn’s sake!” His eyes went involuntarily to the hook where his coat hung, the pictures of Brianna in its pocket. He took one deep, quivering breath, and calmed himself with a visible effort.
“No,” he said, much more quietly. “I canna regret that, whatever the cost. I would have given my life, for her and for you. If it took my heart and soul, too…”
He drew a long, quivering breath, mastering the passion that shook him.
“I canna blame ye for going.”
“You blame me for coming back, though.”
He shook his head as though to clear it.
“No, God no!”
He grabbed my hands tight between his own, the strength of his grip grinding the bones together.
“Do ye know what it is to live twenty years without a heart? To live half a man, and accustom yourself to living in the bit that’s left, filling in the cracks wi’ what mortar comes handy?”
“Do I know?” I echoed. I struggled to loose myself, to little effect. “Yes, you bloody bastard, I know that! What did you think, I’d gone straight back to Frank and lived happy ever after?” I kicked at him as hard as I could. He flinched, but didn’t let go.
“Sometimes I hoped ye did,” he said, speaking through clenched teeth. “And then sometimes I could see it—him with you, day and night, lyin’ with ye, taking your body, holding my child! And God, I could kill ye for it!”
Suddenly, he dropped my hands, whirled, and smashed his fist through the side of the oak armoire. It was an impressive blow; the armoire was a sturdy piece of furniture. It must have bruised his knuckles considerably, but without hesitation, he drove the other fist into the oak boards as well, as though the shining wood were Frank’s face—or mine.
“Feel like that about it, do you?” I said coldly, as he stepped back, panting. “I don’t even have to imagine you with Laoghaire—I’ve bloody seen her!”
“I dinna care a fig for Laoghaire, and never have!”
“Bastard!” I said again. “You’d marry a woman without wanting her, and then throw her aside the minute—”
“Shut up!” he roared. “Hold your tongue, ye wicked wee bitch!” He slammed a fist down on the washstand, glaring at me. “I’m damned the one way or the other, no? If I felt anything for her, I’m a faithless womanizer, and if I didn’t, I’m a heartless beast.”
“You should have told me!”
“And if I had?” He grabbed my hand and jerked me to my feet, holding me eye to eye with him. “You’d have turned on your heel and gone without a word. And having seen ye again—I tell ye, I would ha’ done far worse than lie to keep you!”
He pressed me tight against his body and kissed me, long and hard. My knees turned to water, and I fought to keep my feet, buttressed by the vision of Laoghaire’s angry eyes, and her voice, echoing shrill in my ears. He’s mine!
“This is senseless,” I said, pulling away. Fury had its own intoxication, but the hangover was setting in fast, a black dizzy vortex. My head swam so that I could hardly keep my balance. “I can’t think straight. I’m leaving.”
I lurched toward the door, but he caught me by the waist, yanking me back.
He whirled me toward himself and kissed me again, hard enough to leave a quicksilver taste of blood in my mouth. It was neither affection nor desire, but a blind passion, a determination to possess me. He was through talking.