He nudged the horse and it reluctantly accelerated a bit. It accelerated a lot faster in the next moment, when a crashing noise came from the hillside just above.
“Whoa! Whoa, you eedjit! Whoa, I said!” These adjurations, along with a heave of the reins to bring the horse’s head around, had an effect, and they ended facing back the way they’d come, to see a young boy standing, panting, in the middle of the road, his red hair all on end, nearly brown in the muted light.
“Daddy,” he said, and his face lit as though touched by a sudden sun. “Daddy!”
ROGER HADN’T ANY memory of leaving his horse or running down the road. Or of anything else. He was sitting in the mud and the mist in a patch of wet bracken with his son hugged tight to his chest, and nothing else mattered in the world.
“Dad,” Jem kept saying, gasping with sobs, “Daddy, Daddy . . .”
“I’m here,” he whispered into Jem’s hair, the tears running down his own face. “I’m here, I’m here. Don’t be afraid.”
Jem took a shuddering breath, managed to say, “I’m not afraid,” and cried some more.
At last, a sense of time crept back, along with the sensation of water soaking through the seat of his breeches. He breathed and shuddered a bit himself, smoothed Jem’s hair, and kissed his head.
“You smell like a goat,” he said, swallowed, brushed at his eyes with the back of a hand, and laughed. “Where the hell have you been?”
“In the broch with Mandy,” Jem said, as though this was the most natural statement in the world. He gave Roger a faintly accusing look. “Where have you been?”
“Mandy?” Roger said blankly. “What do you mean Mandy?”
“My sister,” Jem said, with the patience children occasionally show for the denseness of their parents. “You know.”
“Well . . . where is Mandy, then?” In Roger’s state of surreal confusion, Mandy might just as well have popped up beside Jem like a mushroom.
Jem’s face went momentarily blank with confusion, and he glanced round as though expecting Mandy to materialize out of the moss and heather at any moment.
“I don’t know,” he said, sounding mildly puzzled. “She ran away to find you, and then Mam fell down and broke something and—”
Roger had let go of Jem but grabbed him again at this, startling the breath out of the boy.
“Your mother’s here, too?”
“Well, sure,” Jem said, sounding mildly annoyed. “I mean—not here here. She’s up there, in the old fort. She tripped on a rock when we were running to catch Mandy.”
“Jesus, Lord,” Roger said fervently, taking a stride in the direction of the fort, then halting abruptly. “Wait: you said she broke something—she’s hurt?”
Jem shrugged. He was beginning to look worried again, but not very worried. Dad was here; everything would be okay.
“I don’t think it’s bad,” he assured his father. “She couldn’t walk, though, so she told me to run and catch Mandy. But I found you first.”
“Okay. She’s awake, though, she’s talking?” He had Jem by the shoulders, as much to keep him from disappearing—he half-feared he was hallucinating—as to compel an answer.
“Uh-huh.” Jem was looking vaguely about, a slight frown on his face. “Mandy’s here someplace. . . .” Wriggling free, he turned round slowly, face creased in intent concentration.
“Mandy!” Roger shouted up the hill. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled again. “BREE!” He scanned the fort and the hillside anxiously for Bree’s head popping up above the ruins or any sign of agitation among the vegetation that might be occasioned by a scrambling three-year-old. No head showed, but a breeze had come up and the whole hill seemed alive.
“Mandy ran away down this hill?” he asked, and, at Jem’s nod, he glanced behind him. The land flattened out into moor on the other side of the road, and there wasn’t a glimpse of anything that might be Mandy on it. Unless she’d fallen down and was lying in a hollow . . .
“You stay right here,” he said to Jem, squeezing his shoulder hard. “I’m going to go up the hill and look. I’ll bring your mother down.” He bounded up the gravel trace that was the nearest thing there was to a path, calling out Mandy’s name at intervals, torn between overwhelming joy and terrifying panic, lest it not be real, lest he actually had cracked and was simply imagining that Jem was there—he turned at every third step to check that he was there, still standing on the road.
Bree. The thought that she was up there, just above him . . . “Mandy!” he shouted again, his voice cracking. But it cracked from emotion, and he realized in a startled instant that he’d been shouting at full volume for minutes now—and it hadn’t hurt.
“God bless you, Hector,” he said fervently under his breath, and went on, beginning now to zigzag back and forth across the hill, beating through the sticks of dry broom and birch saplings, kicking at gorse and dead ferns in case Mandy should have fallen, maybe knocked herself out on a rock.
He heard the seagulls shriek above, thin and piercing, and looked up, hoping to see Brianna peering over the wall of the fort. She wasn’t, but something called again—thin and piercing, but not a gull.
“Daddeeeee . . .”
He whirled, almost losing his footing, and saw Jem running down the road—and coming round the bend of that road, Buck’s horse with Buck atop him, and a wildly squirming bundle with black curly hair cradled precariously in Buck’s arm.
He couldn’t speak at all by the time he reached them.
“Think ye might have lost something,” Buck said gruffly, and handed Mandy carefully down to him. She was a heavy, lively weight in his arms—and smelled of goats.
“Daddy!” she exclaimed, beaming at him as though he’d just come in from work. “Mwah! Mwah!” She kissed him noisily and snuggled into his chest, her hair tickling his chin.
“Where were you?” Jem was saying accusingly.
“Where was you?” Mandy countered, and stuck her tongue out at him. “Bleah.”
Roger was crying again, couldn’t stop. Mandy had burrs and foxtails stuck in her hair and in the fabric of her jacket, and he thought she might have wet herself somewhere in the recent past. Buck twitched the reins, as though about to turn and go, and Roger reached out a hand and grabbed his stirrup.
“Stay,” he croaked. “Tell me it’s real.”
Buck made an incoherent noise, and, looking up through his tears, Roger could see that Buck was making an inadequate attempt at hiding his own emotion.
“Aye,” Buck said, sounding almost as choked as Roger. He looped his reins and, sliding off into the road, took Jem very gently into his own arms. “Aye, it’s real.”
DR. MCEWAN WAS a single man and owned a single bed. The bed was presently accommodating four people, and even if two of those people were not full-sized, the general atmosphere was that of the London Tube in rush hour. Heat, random flesh in all directions, and a distinct shortage of oxygen.
Brianna squirmed, trying to find room to breathe. She was lying on her side, back pressed to the wall, with Mandy squashed into a heavily breathing mass between her parents. Roger balanced precariously on the bed’s outer edge with Jem draped bonelessly over him, Jem’s legs occasionally twitching spasmodically, prodding Bree in the shins. And Esmeralda was taking up most of the single pillow, red yarn hair getting up everyone’s nose.
“Do you know the word ‘frottage’?” Bree whispered to Roger. He wasn’t asleep; if he had been, he’d have been on the floor by now.
“I do. Why, do ye want to try it now?” He reached carefully across Jem and stroked her bare arm lightly. The fine hairs rose on her forearm; she could see them do it, lifting silently in the dull glow from the hearth.
“I want to do less of it with a three-year-old. Mandy’s zonked. Is Jem asleep enough to move?”
“We’ll find out. I’m going to suffocate if he’s not.” Roger edged out from under his son, who emitted a loud “mmmm,” but then smacked his lips and subsided. Roger patted him softly, bent to check that he was solidly asleep, and straightened up. “Okay, then.”
They’d appeared at McEwan’s door well after dark, Brianna supported between Roger and Buck, the children at their heels. The doctor, while clearly surprised at this nocturnal invasion of MacKenzies, had taken it calmly, sitting Bree down in his surgery with her foot in a pan of cold water and then going to call his landlady to find a bit of supper for the children.
“A sprain, and not too bad,” he’d assured Brianna, drying her foot with a linen towel and expertly palpating her swollen ankle. He passed a thumb up the problematic tendon and noted her wince. “It will just take time to heal—but I think I can ease the pain a bit . . . if you like?” He glanced toward Roger, brow raised, and Brianna breathed in through her nose.
“It’s not his ankle,” she said, mildly annoyed. “And I’d certainly appreciate anything you can do.”
Roger nodded, to her further annoyance, and McEwan took her foot onto his knee. Seeing her grip the edges of the stool to keep her balance, Roger knelt behind her and wrapped his arms around her.
“Lean on me,” he said quietly in her ear. “Just breathe. See what happens.”
She shot him a puzzled look, but he merely brushed her ear with his lips and nodded toward McEwan.
The doctor’s head was bent over the foot, which he held lightly in both hands, his thumbs on her instep. He moved them slowly in circles, then pressed firmly. A sharp pain shot up her ankle, but died abruptly before she could gasp.
The doctor’s hands were noticeably warm on her chilled flesh, and she wondered at that, since they’d been immersed in the same cold water as her foot. One hand now cupped her heel, and thumb and forefinger massaged the puffy flesh lightly, repeatedly, then a little harder. The sensation hovered unsettlingly somewhere between pain and pleasure.
McEwan looked up suddenly and smiled at her.
“It will take a little time,” he murmured. “Relax, if you can.”
In fact, she could. For the first time in twenty-four hours, she wasn’t hungry. For the first time in days, she was beginning to thaw out completely—and for the first time in months, she wasn’t afraid. She let out her breath and eased her head back on Roger’s shoulder. He made a low humming noise in his throat and took a firmer hold, settling himself.
She could hear Mandy telling Jem a disjointed story about Esmeralda’s adventures, in the back room where the landlady had taken them to eat their soup and bread. Sure that they were safe, she gave herself up to the elemental bliss of her husband’s arms and the smell of his skin.
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face;
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists . . .
“Bree,” Roger whispered to her some moments later. “Bree—look.”
She opened her eyes and saw at first the curve of his wrist where it rested on her bosom, the hard elegance of bone and the curve of muscled forearm. But then her focus widened and she started a little. Her toes were glowing with a faint blue light barely visible in the crevices between them. She blinked hard and looked again, to be sure she was really seeing it, but the sound Roger made in his throat assured her that she was—and that he saw it, too.
Dr. McEwan had felt her startlement; he looked up and smiled again, this time joyful. His eyes flicked up toward Roger, then back to her.
“You, too?” he said. “I thought so.” He held her foot still for a long moment, until she thought she felt the pulse in his fingers echo in the spaces between the small bones, and then he wrapped a bandage neatly around her ankle and lowered her foot gently to the floor. “Better now?”
“Yes,” she said, and found her voice a little husky. “Thank you.”
She’d wanted to ask him questions, but he rose and put on his coat.
“Ye’ll oblige me greatly by staying here the night,” he said firmly, still smiling at her. “I’ll find a bed with a friend.” And raising his hat to Roger, he bowed and went out, leaving them to put the children to bed.
Not surprisingly, Mandy had put up a fuss at sleeping in a strange bed in a strange room, complaining that Esmeralda thought the surgery smelled funny and was scared of the big wardrobe because there might be kelpies in it.
“Kelpies only live in water, silly,” Jem had said, but he also looked a little apprehensively at the enormous dark armoire with its cracked door. So they’d all lain down on the narrow bed together, parents comforted as much as children by sheer physical proximity.
Brianna felt the soft warmth and the haze of exhalation blanketing her bodily exhaustion, a pull on her senses beckoning her toward the well of sleep. But not nearly such a strong pull as her sense of Roger.
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees; dress does not hide him . . .
She lay for a moment, hand on Mandy’s back, feeling the slow beating of the child’s heart, watching as Roger scooped Jem into his arms and turned to lay him down on one of the extra quilts McEwan’s landlady had brought up with the soup.
The strong, sweet, supple quality he has, strikes through the cotton and flannel . . .
He was dressed in nothing but shirt and breeks and now paused to shed the homespun breeks, casually scratching his arse in relief, the long linen shirt momentarily rucked up to show the lean curve of a buttock. Then he came to pick up Mandy, smiling over her stertorously breathing body at Bree.
“Leave the bed to the kids, you think? We could make up a pallet with the cloaks—if they’ve dried out a bit—and quilts in the surgery.” He gathered Mandy up like an armful of laundry, and Bree was able to sit up and scoot across the bed, feeling a wonderful movement of air through her perspiration-dampened shift and a brush of soft fabric across her br**sts that made her ni**les rise.