“Well, perhaps not all at once, no,” I agreed. A warm breeze from the window stirred his hair and the tails of his shirt. I fingered the creased linen, warm and damp from his body. “Why don’t you take that off?”
He looked me over carefully; I was standing now in nothing but my shift and stockings. A slow smile spread into his eyes.
“Fair’s fair,” he said. “Take yours off, as well, then.”
CLAIRE WAS LOVELY, standing white and naked as a French statue against the deep twilight from the open window, her curly hair a storm cloud round her shoulders. Jamie wanted to stand and look at her, but he wanted a lot more to have his c**k inside her.
There were still voices down in the kitchen, though, and he went and pulled the ladder up. Wouldn’t do to have Germain or one of the girls scamper up to say good night.
There was a hoot of laughter from Ian and Fergus below, probably at sight of the ladder disappearing, and he grinned to himself, laying it aside. They had their own wives, and if they were foolish enough to sit drinking beer instead of enjoying their beds, it was none of his affair.
Claire was already on their pallet when he turned from the edge of the loft, a pale shadow under the gloom of the ink casks. He eased himself in naked beside her, touched her curving hip; she touched his cock. “I want you,” she whispered, and suddenly everything changed.
It was their common magic, but magic nonetheless, the smell of onions and brine on her hands, the taste of butter and beer on her tongue, a tickle of hair on his shoulder, and a sudden rush when she ran a finger down the crack of his arse, which drew him straight up hard between her willing legs.
She made a sound that made him put a hand over her mouth, and he felt her laugh, hot breath against his palm, so he took his hand away and stopped her noises with his mouth, lying full on her for a moment, not moving, trying to wait, not able to wait for the feel of her squirming under him, slick and slippery, rubbing her ni**les on his, urging him . . . and then she quivered and made a small noise of surrender that freed him to do as he would, and he did.
JAMIE HEAVED a deep sigh of utter relaxation.
“I have been wanting to do that all day, Sassenach. Moran taing, a nighean.”
“So have—Is that a bat?” It was: a flittering scrap of detached darkness, ricocheting from one side of the loft to the other. I grabbed Jamie’s arm with one hand and pulled a corner of the sheet over my head with the other. It wasn’t that I minded bats, as such; a bat whizzing to and fro three feet over my head in the dark, though . . .
“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” he said, sounding amused. “It’ll go out again directly.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” I said, slapping something ticklish on my neck. “There are probably any number of insects in here for it to hunt.” Clouds of gnats and mosquitoes were inclined to roam in through the open loading window when evening fell, and it was always a Hobson’s choice: keep the window closed and die of suffocation, or open it and be chivvied all night by crawling feet and the irritating sneeeee! of mosquitoes whining in our ears.
“Ye ought to be pleased about the bat, then,” Jamie told me, rolling onto his side and using another bit of sheet to blot a sheen of sweat from his chest. “How many bugs did ye tell me they eat?”
“Well . . . lots,” I said. “Don’t ask me how I remember this, but according to Brianna’s encyclopedia, the average little brown bat can eat up to a thousand mosquitoes in an hour.”
“Well, there ye are, then,” he said. “I dinna think there can be more than two or three hundred mosquitoes in here just now—it shouldna take him more than a quarter hour to deal wi’ those.”
It was a definite point, but I was not quite convinced of the virtues of entertaining a resident bat. I did emerge from my makeshift shelter, though, peering upward. “What if more bats come in?”
“Then they’ll clear the place in five minutes.” He sighed briefly. “D’ye want me to catch him, throw him out, and close the door, Sassenach?”
“No,” I said, envisioning Jamie pirouetting around the loft in the dark, either being bitten by a startled bat if he did succeed in catching it or plunging over the edge of the loft in the effort to do so. “No, that’s all right. Tell me what you didn’t want to say earlier—that will take my mind off it.”
“What I—oh, aye.” He rolled onto his back, hands clasped on his stomach. “It’s only I’ve been talking wi’ Fergus and Ian about coming with us when we leave for the Ridge. Didna want to mention it at table, though. Ian and Fergus should talk it over wi’ Rachel and Marsali by themselves first—and I didna want the bairns to hear. They’d go mad with excitement, and Marsali would run me through the heart wi’ a meat skewer for stirring them up just before bed.”
“She might,” I said, amused. “Oh—speaking of Marsali . . . I rather think she’s pregnant.”
“Is she, now?” He turned his head to me, deeply interested. “Are ye sure?”
“No,” I admitted. “I can’t be sure without asking her nosy questions and examining her. But I think there’s a good chance of it. If so . . . that might affect whether they go with us, mightn’t it?”
The prospect of going home was suddenly real, in a way that it hadn’t been even a moment before. I could almost feel the breath of the mountains on my bare skin, and gooseflesh rippled fleetingly over my ribs at the thought, in spite of the heat.
“Mmm,” Jamie said, though absently. “I suppose it might. D’ye think—if she is wi’ child, might the new one be like Henri-Christian?”
“Probably not,” I said, though professional caution made me add, “I can’t be positive that his type of dwarfism isn’t a hereditary condition, because Fergus doesn’t know anything about his family. But I think Henri-Christian’s is probably a mutation—something that happens just once, a sort of accident.”
Jamie gave a small snort.
“Miracles only happen once, too, Sassenach,” he said. “That’s why all bairns are different.”
“I wouldn’t argue with that,” I said mildly. “But we’ll need to be traveling quite soon, won’t we? Even if Marsali is pregnant, she won’t be more than three or four months along.” A small sense of unease crept into my mind. It was early September; snow might begin to close the mountain passes as early as October, though if it was a warm year . . .
“How long will it take, do you think? To get back to the Ridge?”
“Too long to make it before the snow, Sassenach,” he said gently, running a hand down my back. “Even if I manage the money and find a ship to take us down to North Carolina—and I’d rather do that—”
“You would?” I blurted, astonished. “You? Take a ship? I thought you’d sworn you’d never set foot on one again unless it was the ship taking your coffin back to Scotland.”
“Mmphm. Aye, well. If it was only me, then, aye, I’d rather walk to North Carolina barefoot over hot coals. But it’s not. It’s you, and—”
“Me?” I sat up straight, angry. “What do you mean by that? Ahhh!” I clutched my hair and dived into his lap, for the bat had zoomed within inches of my head; I actually heard its faint squeaking and the leathery flap of wings.
Jamie laughed, but with a faint edge to it. As I sat up again, he ran a hand down my right side and rested two fingers over the fresh scar there.
“I mean that, Sassenach,” he said, and pressed. Very gently, and I kept myself from flinching at the touch—but the scar was still red and tender.
“I’m fine,” I said, as firmly as possible.
“I’ve been shot, Sassenach,” he said, very dryly. “More than once. I ken what it feels like—and how long it takes to get your full strength back. Ye nearly fell over in the street today, and—”
“I hadn’t eaten anything; I was hungry, and—”
“I’m no taking ye overland,” he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. “And it’s not only you—though it’s mostly you,” he added, in a softer tone, smoothing the hair off my face. “But there are the wee bairns, as well, and now Marsali, if she’s wi’ child . . . It’s a hard journey, lass, and dangerous, forbye. Did ye not say the duke told ye the British mean to take the South now?”
“Hmph,” I said, but allowed him to pull me down next to him. “Yes, he did. But I’ve no idea what that might actually mean, in terms of where they are or what they’re doing. The only battles I’d actually heard of, beyond Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, are Saratoga and Yorktown—that’s where it ends, Yorktown,” I added. “Obviously a few things must happen in between, though.”
“Obviously,” he said. “Aye. Well, I’ll buy another sword when we get to North Carolina and I’ve money again.”
He did in fact have considerable assets—in North Carolina. But there was no way of retrieving any of the gold hidden in the Spaniard’s Cave there—even if he had trusted anyone to do so, no one knew where the cave was, save him and Jemmy—and the aging whisky (almost as valuable as the gold, if brought to the coast for sale) was in the same place.
“I suppose the price of a good sword isn’t quite enough for ship’s passage for nine people—no, eleven, if Ian and Rachel come, too—is it?”
“No,” he said thoughtfully. “I said to Fergus that he might consider selling his press. He doesna own the premises, ken—but the press is his.” He made a small gesture, encompassing the building around us. “There’s my Bonnie in Wilmington, after all.”
“Your—oh, your press. Of course.” I hid a smile in his biceps. He invariably spoke of . . . well, her . . . with a certain possessive affection. Come to think, I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard him talk about me that way. . . .
“Aye. Fergus has his mind set that he’ll go on bein’ a printer, and I think that’s wise. Germain’s not yet big enough to plow—and poor wee Henri-Christian never will be.”
I suppressed my speculations as to just what Germain’s reaction might be if forcibly removed from the environs of a thriving city and plunked down behind a plow. He might remember the Ridge fondly, but that didn’t mean he wanted to be a farmer.
“What about Richard Bell?” Bell was the Loyalist who had been forcibly deported from his North Carolina home and sent, penniless and friendless, to England, ending up eventually in Edinburgh, where he had found employment as a printer—and where Jamie had encountered him and made the bargain whereby Richard would bring Bonnie to North Carolina and look after her in return for his passage home.
“I dinna ken,” Jamie said reflectively. “I wrote to him, to say we were coming to Wilmington and that we must make some arrangement . . . but I’ve had no reply.” This didn’t necessarily mean anything; letters frequently were lost or late. Jamie shrugged a little and shifted, stretching as he resettled himself. “Aye, well; let that bide. We’ll see when we see. How’s our wee friend?”
“Our—oh.” I looked up, scanning the low ceiling, but saw no trace of the bat. I didn’t hear any whining mosquitoes, either. “Well done, bat,” I said appreciatively.
Jamie laughed, low in his throat.
“Remember sittin’ on the stoop and watching the bats come out in the summer evenings on the Ridge?”
“I do,” I said softly, and turned on my side to embrace him lightly, hand on the curly hairs of his chest. I did remember. The Ridge. The cabin Jamie and Ian had built for shelter when we first came there, and the white piglet we’d bought, who had become the fearsome white sow, terror of the entire neighborhood. Our friends, Jamie’s tenants, Lizzie and the Beardsley twins . . . My heart squeezed at some of the memories.
Malva Christie. Poor doomed child. And the Bugs—Jamie’s trusted factor and his wife—who had proven a good deal less than trustworthy. And the Big House, our house, gone up in flames, and our life there with it.
“I’ll need to build the new house first thing,” he said thoughtfully. He laid his own hand on mine and squeezed it. “And I’ll make ye a new garden. Ye can have half the money I got for my sword, to buy seeds.”
BELIEF IS A WISE WAGER
September 10, 1778
HAL GAVE A MILD snort. “I don’t like your going alone,” he said.
“I don’t like it, either,” John said matter-of-factly, corking his hip flask. “But the only person who could effectively go with me is you, and you can’t, because of the regiment, so . . . God, I miss Tom Byrd,” he said impulsively.
“Your erstwhile valet?” Hal smiled, despite the worry of the situation. “How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Ten years at least, surely?”
“At least that.” Thought of Tom still gave him a slight pang. Tom had left his employment—with deep regret on both sides—in order to marry, and had become a successful publican in Southwark, his wife having inherited a thriving public house from her father. Grey couldn’t begrudge him his happiness, but he still sorely missed Byrd, with his sharp eyes, quick mind, and anxious care for Grey’s person as well as his clothes.
He glanced down at himself; his current valet managed to keep him decent—a task that he himself admitted to be Sisyphean—but lacked both imagination and conversation.
“You should take Marks, regardless,” Hal said, having evidently followed his train of thought without difficulty. “Someone’s got to keep you in order.” He gave John’s uniform a critical look.