“All right,” Dottie said slowly. Her own breakfast was congealing on her plate. So was Hal’s. “So you don’t believe Ben is dead, because this Richardson told you he was—and you think Richardson is a wrong ’un. But that’s . . . all?” She looked intently at her father, her young chin trembling slightly, begging reassurance.
Hal closed his eyes for an instant, opened them, and looked at her directly.
“Dorothea,” he said softly. “I have to believe that Ben is alive. Because if he isn’t, then your mother will die of heartbreak—and I will die with her.”
There was a moment of long silence, during which Grey heard the passage of carts in the street and the muffled voices of his valet and a bootblack in the corridor. Dottie made no sound at all, but he felt he could hear, too, the tears that rolled slowly down her cheeks.
THE RAVELED SLEEVE OF CARE
September 15, 1778
I WOKE ABRUPTLY IN the dark, disoriented and alarmed. For a moment, I had no idea where I was or what was happening—only that something was seriously wrong.
I sat up, blinking furiously in an attempt to focus my eyes. Patted round in confusion and found myself naked, legs tangled in a sheet and wisps of straw prickling . . . oh. Loft. Printshop.
That was what was wrong. He lay next to me, but not still. He was on his side, turned away from me, body contorted, knees drawn up, and his arms crossed tight over his chest, head bowed. Shivering violently, though moonlight showed me the gleam of cold sweat on his shoulders. And making the terrible small whimpering noises that betokened the worst of his dreams.
I knew better than to try to wake him suddenly. Not in a small space with a lot of clutter and a steep drop ten feet away.
My own heart was pounding, and I knew his was. I eased myself carefully down beside him, facing his back. I needed to touch him, to bring him slowly to himself—or to enough of himself that he could recover alone. This wasn’t the sort of nightmare eased by talking. Or, sometimes, even by waking.
“God, no,” he said, in a heartbroken whisper. “God, no!”
I mustn’t grab or shake him. I clenched my teeth and ran my hand lightly from the slope of his shoulder down to his elbow, and his skin shivered like a horse ridding itself of flies. That was all right, then. I did it again, paused, and again. He took a deep, horrible gasp, choked with fear . . . but the violent shivering eased a little.
“Jamie,” I whispered, and, with extreme caution, touched his back very lightly. If he was dreaming about Jack Randall, this might—
“No!” he exclaimed, in a loud, fierce voice, and his legs straightened, every muscle in his body tight against his skin. “Damn you to hell!”
I took a deep breath and relaxed, just a bit. Anger was a thousand times better than fear or pain. Anger would leave him, as soon as he woke completely. The other things tended to linger.
“Hush,” I said, a little louder but still softly. Germain often slept by the hearth, not wanting to share a bed with his younger siblings. “Hush, Jamie. I’m here.” And with some trepidation, I put my arm round him, lightly, and laid my cheek against his back. His skin was hot; he smelled pungently of our lovemaking and even more strongly of fear and rage.
He stiffened, caught his breath—but I felt his awareness come back: instantly, the way it did when he woke to some alarm, ready to leap out of bed, reaching for a weapon. I tightened my hold and pressed my body against his. He didn’t move, but I felt the thud of his heart, beating hard and fast.
“Can you hear me?” I asked. “Are you all right?”
After a moment, he drew a deep breath and let it out in a long, quivering sigh.
“Aye,” he whispered, and his hand reached back to grasp my thigh, so tightly that I jerked but managed not to squeal. We rested quietly together for a time, until I felt his heart begin to slow and his skin cool, and then I kissed his back and traced the scars that would never fade from his body, over and over with gentle fingers, until they faded from his mind and he slept in my arms.
THE PIGEONS ON the roof of the boardinghouse made a purling noise, like the sea coming in on a pebbled shore, rolling tiny rounded rocks in the surf. Rachel was making a similar noise, snoring very faintly. Ian found it charming and could have lain watching her and listening to her all night—save that she was lying on his left arm, which had gone numb, and he needed urgently to piss.
As gently as possible, he edged out from under her soft weight, but she was a light sleeper and woke at once, yawning and stretching like a young catamount in the candlelight. She was naked, arms and face the color of just-toasted bread, her body white and her privates under their dark-brown bush a wonderful dusky color that wasn’t either rose or violet or brown, but reminded him of orchids in the forests of Jamaica.
She stretched her arms above her head, and the movement lifted her startlingly white round br**sts and made her ni**les slowly rise. He began to slowly rise, too, and hastily turned away, before it became impossible to do what he’d meant to.
“Go back to sleep, lass,” he said. “I just—er . . .” He gestured toward the chamber pot under the bed.
She made a pleasant sleepy noise and rolled onto her side, watching him.
“Does thee mind my looking at thee?” she asked, in a soft voice husked by sleep and earlier muffled shrieks.
He glanced at her in astonishment.
“Why would ye want to?” The notion seemed mildly perverse, but in a distinctly arousing fashion. He wanted to turn his back so he could piss, but if she wanted to watch him . . .
“It seems an intimacy of the body,” she said, looking at him through half-closed eyes. “A trusting, perhaps. That thee consider thy body to be mine, as I consider mine to be thine.”
“Do ye?” That idea surprised him, but he didn’t object. At all.
“Thee has seen the most hidden parts of me,” she pointed out, and, spreading her legs, drew her fingers delicately between them in illustration. “And tasted them, as well. What did it taste like?” she asked curiously.
“Fresh-caught trout,” he replied, smiling at her. “Rachel—if ye want to watch me piss, ye can. But ye canna do it if ye talk to me like that while I’m trying, aye?”
“Oh.” She made a small snort of amusement and rolled over, turning her back and her very round bottom to him. “Go ahead, then.”
He sighed, examining his prospects.
“It will take a minute, aye?” Before she could think of anything else outrageous to say to him, he went on, in hopes of distracting her. “Uncle Jamie and Auntie Claire think of leaving Philadelphia soon. To go back to North Carolina, ken? What would ye think of going with them?”
“What?” He heard the rustle of the corn-husk mattress as she turned over quickly. “Where is thee thinking of going, that thee would not take me with thee?”
“Och, I didna mean that, lass,” he assured her, with a quick glance over his shoulder. She was propped on her elbows, looking at him accusingly. “I meant we’d both go. To Fraser’s Ridge—Uncle Jamie’s settlement.”
“Oh.” That surprised her into silence. He could hear her thinking about it, and smiled to himself.
“Thee does not feel an obligation to the Continental army?” she asked after a moment, cautiously. “To the cause of freedom?”
“I dinna think those are necessarily the same thing, lass,” he said, and closed his eyes in relief as everything relaxed at last. He shook himself and put away the pot, giving himself time to form a coherent sentence.
“The Duke of Pardloe told Auntie Claire that after Saratoga the British made a new plan. They mean to try to separate the southern colonies from the northern ones, blockade the South, and try to starve the North into submission.”
“Oh.” She moved to give him room to lie down beside her, then snuggled into him, her free hand cupping his balls. “Then thee means there will not be fighting in the North, so thee will not be needed as a scout here—but thee might, in the South?”
“Aye, or I might find another use for myself.”
“Outside the army, thee means?” She was trying hard to keep hopefulness out of her voice; he could tell from the very sincere way she looked up at him, and he smiled at her, putting his own hand over hers. He was much in favor of bodily intimacy, but would rather not be squeezed like an orange should Rachel be overcome by enthusiasm.
“Perhaps,” he said. “I own some land, ken, on the Ridge. Uncle Jamie gave it to me, some years back. ’Twould be hard work, mind, clearing fields and planting and plowing, but farming is mostly peaceful. Bar things like bears and wild pigs and fire and hailstorms, I mean.”
“Oh, Ian.” Her face had gone soft, and so had her hand, now resting peacefully in his. “I should love to farm with thee.”
“Ye’d miss your brother,” he reminded her. “And Dottie. Maybe Fergus and Marsali and the weans, too—I dinna think they’d come settle on the Ridge, though Uncle Jamie thinks they’d maybe travel south with us but settle near the coast. Fergus would need a decent-sized city, if he’s to make much living as a printer.”
A shadow crossed her face at that, but she shook her head.
“I will miss Denzell and Dottie—but I should in any case, for they will go where the army goes. But I will be very happy if thee does not,” she added softly, and lifted her face to kiss him.
RACHEL WOKE instantly. She hadn’t been soundly asleep, her body still a-hum from lovemaking, and still so attuned to Ian’s that when he gasped and stiffened beside her, she sprang at once into awareness and had her hands on his shoulders, meaning to shake him gently out of his dream.
The next moment, she was on the floor in a tangle of bedding, her husband on top of her and his very large hands vised round her throat. She flopped and wriggled, pushed at him in futile panic—and then, as her breath vanished and brilliant red stars flashed in the darkness of her vision, she got hold of herself and brought her knee up as hard as she could.
It was a lucky blow, though it missed its mark; she hit Ian hard in the thigh, and he woke with a start and let go. She struggled out from under him, gasping and wheezing, and crawled as fast as she could to the corner, where she sat quivering with her arms wrapped round her knees, chest heaving and her heart thumping in her ears.
Ian was breathing heavily through his nose, pausing every so often to grunt or to say something brief—and probably very expressive, if she’d had the wit to understand it—in either Gaelic or Mohawk. After a few minutes, though, he got slowly into a sitting position and leaned back against the bedstead.
“Rachel?” he said warily, after a moment’s silence. He sounded rational, and her tight-clasped arms loosened a little.
“Here,” she said, tentative. “Is thee . . . all right, Ian?”
“Oh, aye,” he said mildly. “Who taught ye to do that to a man?”
“Denny,” she said, beginning to breathe easier. “He said that discouraging a man from committing the sin of rape wasn’t violence.”
There was a moment of silence from the vicinity of the bed.
“Oh,” said Ian. “I might have a wee chat wi’ Denny, one of these days. A philosophical discussion on the meaning of words, like.”
“I’m sure he would enjoy it,” Rachel said. She was still unnerved by what had happened, but crawled over and sat beside Ian on the floor. The sheet was lying in a pale puddle nearby, and she shook it out and draped it over her nakedness. She offered half of it to Ian, but he shook his head and leaned back a little, groaning as he stretched out his leg.
“Um. Would thee like me to . . . rub it?” she asked tentatively.
He made a small huffing noise that she interpreted as amusement. “Not just now, aye?”
They sat together, shoulders barely touching, for a bit. Her mouth was dry, and it took some time to work up enough spit to speak.
“I thought thee was going to kill me,” she said, trying hard to keep her voice from quivering.
“I thought I was, too,” Ian said quietly. He groped for her hand in the dark and held it, hard. “Sorry, lass.”
“Thee was dreaming,” she ventured. “Does—does thee want to tell me about it?”
“God, no,” he said, and sighed. He let go her hand and bent his head, folding his arms atop his knees.
She kept quiet, not knowing what to say, and prayed.
“It was the Abenaki,” he said eventually, his voice muffled. “The one I killed. In the British camp.”
The words were simple and bald, and struck her in the pit of the stomach. She knew; he’d told her when he came back wounded. But to hear it again here, in the dark, with her back scraped from the floor and her throat bruised from his hands . . . She felt as though the deed itself had just happened in front of her, the reverberation of it shocking as a scream in her ear.
She swallowed and, turning to him, put a hand on his shoulder lightly, feeling with her thumb for the fresh, ragged scar where Denzell had cut to remove the arrow.
“Thee strangled the man?” she asked, very quietly.
“No.” He breathed deep and sat up slowly. “I choked him, and I cut his throat, just a wee bit, and then I bashed his head in wi’ a tomahawk.”
He turned to her then and passed a hand lightly over her hair, smoothing it.
“I didna have to,” he said. “Not right that moment, I mean. He didna attack me—though he’d tried to kill me before.”
“Oh,” she said, and tried to swallow, but her mouth had dried afresh. He sighed and bent so that his forehead rested on hers. She felt the warmth of his nearness, the warmth of his breath, smelling of beer and the juniper berries he chewed to clean his teeth. His eyes were open but so shadowed that she couldn’t see into them.