The bridal couples had escaped fairly early: Denzell and Dottie very inconspicuously, Ian and Rachel to the raucous shouts and indelicate suggestions of a roomful of festive wedding guests. Once they’d left, the party had settled down to serious merrymaking, the drinking now unhampered by the interruption of wedding toasts.
We’d taken our leave of the Grey brothers—Hal, as father of one of the brides, was hosting the party—sometime after midnight. Hal had been sitting in a chair near a window, very drunk and wheezing slightly from the smoke, but sufficiently composed as to stand and bow over my hand.
“You want to go home,” I advised him, hearing the faint squeak of his breathing over the winding-down noises of the party. “Ask John if he’s got any more ganja, and if he does, smoke it. It will do you good.” And not only in a physical way, I thought.
“I thank you for your kind advice, madam,” he said dryly, and, too late, I recalled our conversation the last time he had been exposed to ganja: his worry over his son Benjamin. If he thought of it, too, though, he said nothing, and merely kissed my hand and nodded to Jamie in farewell.
John had stood by his brother’s side most of the evening and stood behind him now as we took our leave. His eyes met mine briefly, and he smiled but didn’t step forward to take my hand—not with Jamie at my shoulder. I wondered now briefly if I should ever see either of the Greys again.
We hadn’t gone back to the printshop but had wandered down by the river, enjoying the coolness of the night air and chatting about the young couples and the excitements of the day.
“I imagine their nights are bein’ a bit more exciting still,” Jamie remarked. “Reckon the lassies will be sore come morning, poor wee things.”
“Oh, it may not be just the girls,” I said, and he sniffed with amusement.
“Aye, well, ye may be right about that. I seem to recall wakin’ the next morning after our wedding and wondering for a moment whether I’d been in a fight. Then I saw you in the bed wi’ me and knew I had.”
“Didn’t slow you down any,” I remarked, dodging a pale stone in my path. “I seem to recall being rather rudely awakened next morning.”
“Rude? I was verra gentle with ye. More than ye were with me,” he added, a distinct grin in his voice. “I told Ian so.”
“You told Ian what?”
“Well, he wanted advice, and so I—”
“Advice? Ian?” To my certain knowledge, the boy had begun his sexual career at the age of fourteen, with a prostitute of similar age in an Edinburgh brothel, and hadn’t looked back. Besides his Mohawk wife, there were at least half a dozen other liaisons that I knew of, and I was sure I didn’t know them all.
“Aye. He wanted to know how to deal kindly wi’ Rachel, her bein’ virgin. Something new to him,” he added wryly.
“Well, they’ll be having an interesting night of it, then—all of them.” I told him about Dottie’s request in camp, Rachel’s advent, and our ad hoc session of premarital counseling.
“Ye told them what?” He snorted with amusement. “Ye make me say, ‘Oh, God,’ all the time, Sassenach, and it’s mostly not to do wi’ bed at all.”
“I can’t help it if you’re naturally disposed to that expression,” I said. “You do say it in bed with no little frequency. You even said it on our wedding night. Repeatedly. I remember.”
“Well, little wonder, Sassenach, wi’ all the things ye did to me on our wedding night.”
“What I did to you?” I said, indignant. “What on earth did I do to you?”
“Ye bit me,” he said instantly.
“Oh, I did not! Where?”
“Here and there,” he said evasively, and I elbowed him. “Oh, all right—ye bit me on the lip when I kissed ye.”
“I don’t recall doing that at all,” I said, eyeing him. His features were invisible, but the moonglow off the water as he walked cast his bold, straightnosed profile in silhouette. “I remember you kissing me for quite a long time while you were trying to unbutton my gown, but I’m sure I didn’t bite you then.”
“No,” he said thoughtfully, and ran a hand lightly down my back. “It was later. After I went out to fetch ye some food, and Rupert and Murtagh and the rest all chaffed me. I know, because it was when I drank some o’ the wine I’d fetched back, I noticed it burned the cut in my lip. And I bedded ye again before I got round to the wine, so it must ha’ been that time.”
“Ha,” I said. “By that time, you wouldn’t have noticed if I’d bitten your head off like a praying mantis. You’d got it properly up your nose and thought you knew everything.”
He put an arm round my shoulders, pulled me close, and whispered in my ear, “I’d got it properly up you, a nighean. And ye weren’t noticing all that much yourself, besides what was goin’ on between your legs.”
“Rather hard to ignore that sort of carry-on,” I said primly.
He gave the breath of a laugh and, stopping under a tree, gathered me in and kissed me. He had a lovely soft mouth.
“Well, I willna deny ye taught me my business, Sassenach,” he murmured. “And ye made a good job of it.”
“You caught on reasonably quickly,” I said. “Natural talent, I suppose.”
“If it was a matter of special training, Sassenach, the human race would ha’ died out long since.” He kissed me again, taking more time over it.
“D’ye think Denny kens what he’s about?” he asked, letting go. “He’s a virtuous wee man, aye?”
“Oh, I’m sure he knows everything he needs to,” I protested. “He’s a physician, after all.”
Jamie gave a cynical laugh.
“Aye. While he may see the odd whore now and then, it’s likely in the way of his profession, not hers. Besides . . .” He moved close and, putting his hands through the pocket slits in my skirt, took a firm and interesting grip on my bottom. “Do they teach ye in medical college how to spread your wife’s wee hams and lick her from tailbone to navel?”
“I didn’t teach you that one!”
“Indeed ye didn’t. And you’re a physician, no?”
“That—I’m sure that doesn’t make any sense. Are you drunk, Jamie?” “Dinna ken,” he said, laughing. “But I’m sure you are, Sassenach. Let’s go home,” he whispered, leaning close and drawing his tongue up the side of my neck. “I want ye to make me say, ‘Oh, God,’ for ye.”
“That . . . could be arranged.” I’d cooled down during our walk, but the last five minutes had lit me like a candle, and if I’d wanted to go home and take off my stays before, I was now wondering whether I could wait that long.
“Good,” he said, pulling his hands out of my skirt. “And then I’ll see what I can make you say, mo nighean donn.”
“See if you can make me say, ‘Don’t stop.’”
The Ties That Bind
THE BODY ELECTRIC
Redondo Beach, CA
December 5, 1980
IF SHE HADN’T NEEDED stamps, she wouldn’t have stopped in at the post office. She’d have clipped this batch of letters to the mailbox for the postman to collect, or posted them in the corner mailbox when she took the kids down to the beach to look for pelicans.
But she did need stamps; there were at least a dozen more niggling things to deal with: things needing notarization or photocopies or tax returns or . . .
“S-word,” she muttered, sliding out of the car. “Bloody F-wording S-word!” This was small relief to her feelings of anxiety and oppression. It really wasn’t fair. Who needed the relief of occasional bad language more than a mother of small children?
Maybe she should start using her mother’s “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” instead. Jem had incorporated that one into his own collection of expletives before he turned four and had long since taught it to Mandy; they wouldn’t be warped by hearing it.
It hadn’t been this hard, last time. Well, no, she corrected herself. It had been a lot harder, in the most important respect. But this . . . this . . . this quagmire of pettifogging details—property, bank accounts, leases, notifications . . . She flicked the sheaf of sealed envelopes in her hand against her thigh with irritation. Some days, she would have taken Jem and Mandy by their hands and run, not walked, straight into the stones with no feeling save relief at abandoning all this bloody Stuff.
She hadn’t really had much Stuff when she did it the first time. And, of course, she’d had someone to leave it with. Her heart squeezed a little, remembering the day she’d nailed down the lid on the wooden shipping crate that held her family’s modest history: the silver passed down through her father’s family, cabinet photographs of her mother’s parents, the collection of her father’s first editions, her mother’s World War II Queen Alexandra uniform cap, still with a faint but detectible odor of iodine about it. And taken such pains in writing the note to Roger to go with it: You told me once that . . . everyone needs a history. This is mine. . . .
Almost sure then that she’d never see Roger again, let alone the silverware.
She blinked hard and shoved the door of the post office open with so much force that it crashed into the wall, and everyone in the lobby turned to stare at her. Hot-faced, she grabbed the doorframe and closed it with exaggerated care, then crossed the lobby soft-footed, avoiding all eyes.
She shoved the envelopes through the collection-box slot one by one, with a certain feeling of grim satisfaction at each tedious thing disposed of. Preparing to disappear into the past, leaving all Stuff behind, was one thing; preparing to disappear while thinking that you might eventually come back and need that Stuff again—or that your children might come back twenty years later, without you . . . She swallowed. That was something else again, as her father was inclined to say. She couldn’t just dump it all on Uncle Joe; he didn’t—
She turned, glancing across the lobby automatically at her PO box, and stopped, seeing the letter. She felt the hairs rising on her forearm as she strode across the grubby linoleum and reached for the knob, even before her mind had consciously registered the fact that it didn’t look like a utility bill, a credit-card application, or any other sort of official mail.
G-H-I-D-E-I . . . the tumblers of the combination lock fell and the heavy little door swung open. And right there in the post office, she smelled heather and peat smoke and the breath of the mountains, so strongly that her eyes blurred and her own breath caught in her throat.
It was a regular white envelope, addressed to her in Joe Abernathy’s round, capable hand. She could feel something inside it, another envelope, this one with a lump on it—a seal of some kind? She made it to her rented car before ripping it open.
It wasn’t an envelope but a sheet of paper, folded and sealed with wax, blurs of black ink bleeding through the paper where a quill had scratched too deep. An eighteenth-century letter. She pressed it to her face, inhaling, but the scent of smoke and heather was gone—if it had ever been there. It smelled now only of age and brittle paper; not even the tang of the iron-gall ink was left.
There was a brief note from Uncle Joe, a slip of paper folded next to the letter.
Hope this catches you in time. It came from the estate agent in Scotland. He said when the new tenant at Lallybroch went to put the furniture in storage, they couldn’t get that big old desk through the door of the study. So they called an antiques guy to take the thing apart—very carefully, he assured me. And when they did, they found three Queen Victoria stamps and this.
I didn’t read it. If you haven’t left yet, let me know if you want the stamps; Lenny Jr. collects them and will give them a good home, if not.
All my love,
She folded the note carefully, pressing the creases, tucking it into her handbag. She felt as though she ought to go somewhere else to read the letter, somewhere private and quiet, so she could go to pieces without anyone noticing. The seal was sooty gray candle wax, not sealing wax, and Roger had sealed it with his thumbprint. It wasn’t necessary—she’d recognized the writing immediately—but there was no doubt of the tiny hook-shaped scar left when a scaling knife had slipped while he was cleaning a salmon he and Jem had caught in Loch Ness. She’d kissed it while the cut was healing, and a dozen times since.
But she couldn’t wait and, hands trembling, opened her pocketknife and carefully pried off the seal, trying not to break it. It was old and brittle; the candle grease had seeped into the paper over the years, making a shadow around the glob of wax, and it shattered in her hand. She clutched the fragments convulsively and turned the folded paper over.
Brianna Randall Fraser MacKenzie, he’d written on the front. To be kept until called for.
That made her laugh, but the sound came out as a sob, and she dashed the back of her hand across her eyes, desperate to read.
The very first words made her drop the letter as though it were on fire.
November 15, 1739
She snatched it back up. Lest she somehow miss it, he’d underlined 1739.
“How in bloody hell did you—” she said aloud, and clapped a hand over her mouth, where she kept it as she read the rest.
My Dearest Heart,
I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t know. My best idea is that I’ve come in search of Jeremiah and found him—or may have found him—but not the person I thought I was looking for.
I sought help at Lallybroch, where I met Brian Fraser (you would like him, and he, you), and through him—with the assistance of one Captain Jack Randall, of all people—came into possession of a set of RAF identification disks. I recognized the information on them.