The window gaped before him, open to the night, a lovely sickle moon pale above. Taking this as the celestial invitation it surely was, he raised his shirt, gripped the window frame, and pissed into the night in a majestically arching rush of blinding bliss.
The sense of relief was so intense that he noticed nothing whatever in its wake, until Arabella–Jane seized him by the arm and pulled him away from the window.
“Get out of sight, for God’s sake!” She risked a hasty glance downward, then dodged back, shaking her head. “Oh, well. It’s not as though Captain Harkness was ever going to propose you for membership in his favorite club, is it?”
“Harkness?” William swayed toward the window, blinking. There was a remarkable amount of shouting and abuse coming from below, but he was having trouble in focusing his eyes and perceived nothing save the flicker of red uniforms, redder still in the light from the lantern over the establishment’s door.
“Never mind. He’ll likely think I did it,” Arabella–Jane said, a dark note in her voice.
“You’re a girl,” William pointed out logically. “You couldn’t piss out a window.”
“Not without making a prime spectacle of myself, no,” she agreed. “But ’tisn’t unknown for a whore to throw the contents of her chamber pot out on someone, accidental on purpose. Well.” She shrugged, went behind the screen, and emerged with the aforementioned receptacle, which she promptly upended out the open window. In response to renewed howls from below, she leaned out and shrieked several insults that a regimental sergeant would have been proud to author, before ducking back in and banging the shutters closed.
“May as well be hanged—or buggered—for a sheep as a lamb,” she remarked, taking him by the arm again. “Come back to bed.”
“It’s only in Scotland that they bugger sheep,” William said, obediently following her. “And maybe part of Yorkshire. Northumbria, too, maybe.”
“Oh, really? Is Captain Harkness from one of those places, then?”
“Oh, him?” William sat down on the bed rather suddenly, as the room had begun to revolve in a stately manner round him. “No. I’d say maybe Devon, from his—his . . . speech,” he concluded, pleased to have found the word.
“So they’ve got sheep in Devon, too, then, I suppose.” Arabella–Jane was unbuttoning his shirt. He raised a hand to stop her, wondered why he should, and left the hand hanging in midair.
“Lot of sheep,” he said. “Lot of sheep everywhere in England.”
“God save the Queen, then,” she murmured, intent on her work. The last button came free, and a faint draft of air stirred the hairs on William’s chest.
He remembered then why he should have been stopping her, but she’d put her head inside the open front of his shirt and licked his nipple before he could make his arrested hand complete its motion, and when he did, it merely settled gently on her head, which was surprisingly warm. So was her breath. So was her hand, which had wrapped itself around his prick in a possessive sort of way.
“No,” he said, after what seemed a very long time but could have been no more than seconds. His hand descended and closed—regretfully—over hers where it grasped him. “I . . . I meant it. I won’t bother you.”
She didn’t let go but did sit up and regard him with an air of puzzled impatience, just visible in the lantern light that seeped through the shutters.
“If you bother me, I’ll tell you to stop; how’s that?” she offered.
“No,” he repeated. He was concentrating fiercely now; it seemed exceedingly important that she understand. “Honor. It’s my honor.”
She made a small sound that might have been impatience or amusement.
“Maybe you should have considered your honor before you came to a whorehouse. Or did someone drag you inside against your will?”
“I came with a friend,” he said with dignity. She still hadn’t let go but couldn’t move her hand, not with his clasped tightly around it. “That’s . . . not what I mean. I mean . . .” The words that had come easily a moment before had slipped away again, leaving him blank.
“You could tell me later, once you’ve had a good think,” she suggested, and he was startled to discover that she had two hands and knew what to do with the other one, too.
“Unhand my . . .” Damn, what is the bloody word? “Unhand my testicles if you please, madam.”
“Just as you like,” she replied crisply, and, doing so, put her head back inside his damp, smelly shirt, seized one nipple between her teeth, and sucked so hard that it pulled every last word out of his head.
Matters thereafter were unsettled but largely pleasant, though at one point he found himself rearing above her, sweat dripping from his face onto her br**sts, muttering, “I’m a bastard, I’m a bastard, I’m a bastard, don’t you understand?”
She didn’t reply to this but stretched up a long white arm, cupped her hand round the back of his head, and pulled him down again.
“That’s why.” He came gradually to himself, aware that he was talking and evidently had been for some time, in spite of his head being cradled in the curve of her shoulder, his senses aswim in her musk (like a sweating flower, he thought dreamily), and her nipple a dark sweet thing an inch or two from his nose. “The only honor I have left is my word. Have to keep it.” Then tears came suddenly to his eyes, with recollection of the moments just past. “Why did you make me break my word?”
She didn’t answer for a while, and he would have thought she’d fallen asleep, save for the hand that roved over his bare back, gentle as a whisper.
“Ever think that maybe a whore has a sense of honor, too?” she said at last.
Frankly, he hadn’t, and opened his mouth to say so, but once more his words had gone missing. He closed his eyes and fell asleep on her breast.
SILVIA HARDMAN STOOD regarding Jamie with a lowered brow, her lips pushed out in concentration. Finally she shook her head, sighed, and drew herself up.
“Thee means it, I suppose?”
“I do, Friend Silvia. I must be in Philadelphia as quickly as may be. And to do that, I must reach the road. I must be able to walk tomorrow morning, however haltingly.”
“Well, then. Patience, fetch me thy father’s special flask. And, Prudence, will thee grind a good measure of mustard seed . . .” She stepped a little closer to the bed, peering nearsightedly at Jamie’s back as though to gauge the acreage. “A good handful—no, make it two; thy hands are small.” She took a digging stick from the shelf near the door but hesitated before opening it. “Do not touch thy eyes or face, Pru—and by no means touch Chastity without washing thy hands first. Let Patience mind her if she cries.”
Chastity was making fretful noises, though freshly fed and changed. Patience, though, had already run out the door, making Jamie wonder where her father’s special flask might be. Hidden, apparently.
“Put the wean beside me,” he suggested. “I can mind her for a bit.”
Silvia did so without hesitation, which pleased him, and he lay face-to-face with wee Chastity, amusing them both by making faces at her. She giggled—and so did Prudence, as the pestle scraped and the hot smell of ground mustard thickened the air. He stuck out his tongue and waggled it; Chastity shook like a small jelly and put out a tiny pink tongue tip in turn, which made him laugh.
“What are you all laughing at?” Patience demanded, opening the door. She frowned censoriously from one sister to the other, making them all laugh harder. When Mrs. Hardman came in a few moments later with a large grubby root in her hand, they had reached the point of laughing at absolutely nothing, and she blinked in bewilderment, but then shook her head and smiled.
“Well, they do say laughter is good medicine,” she remarked, when the hilarity had run its course, leaving the girls pink-faced and Jamie feeling slightly better—to his surprise. “May I borrow thy knife, Friend James? It is more suited to the purpose than mine.”
This was patently true; her knife was a crude iron blade, badly sharpened, the haft bound with string. Jamie had a good ivory case knife, bought in Brest, of hardened steel, with an edge that would shave the hairs off his forearm. He saw her smile with involuntary pleasure at the feel of it in her hand and had a momentary flash of memory—Brianna, delicately unfolding a blade of her Swiss Army knife, an air of pleased satisfaction on her face.
Claire appreciated good tools, too. But she touched tools with immediate thought of what she meant to do with them, rather than simple admiration for elegance and function. A blade in her hand was no longer a tool but an extension of her hand. His own hand closed, thumb rubbing gently against his fingertips, remembering the knife he had made for her, the handle carefully grooved and sanded smooth to fit her hand, to match her grip exactly. Then he closed his fist tight, not wanting to think of her so intimately. Not just now.
Bidding the girls stand well back out of the way, Silvia carefully peeled the root and grated it into a small wooden bowl, keeping her face averted as much as possible from the rising fumes of the fresh horseradish but still with tears streaming down her face. Then, wiping her eyes on her apron and taking up the “special flask”—this being a dark-brown stoneware bottle stained with earth (had the lass just dug it up?)—she cautiously poured a small amount of the very alcoholic contents. What was it? Jamie wondered, sniffing cautiously. Very old applejack? Twice-fermented plum brandy? It had probably started life as some sort of fruit, but it had been some time since that fruit hung on a tree.
Mrs. Hardman relaxed, putting the cork back into the bottle as though relieved that the contents had not in fact exploded upon being decanted.
“Well, then,” she said, coming over to pick up Chastity, who squealed and fussed at being removed from Jamie, whom she plainly regarded as a large toy. “That must steep for a few hours. Thee needs heat. Thee should sleep, if thee can. I know thee passed a wakeful night, and tonight may not be much better.”
JAMIE HAD STEELED himself to the prospect of drinking horseradish liquor with a mix of trepidation and curiosity. The first of these emotions was momentarily relieved when he discovered that Mrs. Hardman didn’t mean him to drink it, but it returned in force when he found himself a moment later facedown on the bed with his shirt rucked up to his oxters and his hostess vigorously rubbing the stuff into his bu**ocks.
“Have a care, Friend Silvia,” he managed, trying to turn his head enough to get his mouth clear of the pillow without either twisting his back or unclenching his bum. “If ye drip that down the crack of my arse, I may be cured wi’ a somewhat sudden violence.”
A small snort of amusement tickled the hairs in the small of his back, where the flesh was still smarting and tingling from her administrations.
“My grandmother did say this receipt would raise the dead,” she said, her voice pitched low in order not to disturb the girls, who were rolled up on the hearth in their blankets like caterpillars. “Perhaps she was less careful in her applications.”
“THEE NEEDS HEAT,” she’d said. Between the horseradish liniment and the mustard plaster resting on his lower back, he thought he might suffer spontaneous combustion at any moment. He was sure his skin was blistering. “I know thee passed a wakeful night, and tonight may not be much better.” She’d got that right.
He shifted, trying to turn stealthily onto his side without making noise or dislodging the plaster—she’d bound it to his lower back by means of strips of torn flannel tied round his body, but they had a tendency to slip. The pain when shifting was in fact much less, which encouraged him greatly. On the other hand, he felt as though someone was repeatedly passing a pine torch within inches of his body. And while she had been very careful while working the liniment into him from rib cage to knees, a bit of the ferocious liquid had touched his balls, giving him a not-unpleasant sense of remarkable heat between his legs but also an uncontrollable urge to squirm.
He hadn’t, while she was working on him, and hadn’t said a word. Not after seeing the state of her hands: red as a lobsterback’s coat, and a milky blister rising on the side of her thumb. She hadn’t said a word, either, just drawn down his shirt when she was done and patted him gently on the backside before going to wash and then smooth a little cooking grease gingerly into her hands.
She was asleep now, too, a hunched form curled up in the corner of the settle, little Chastity’s cradle by her foot, safely away from the banked embers of the fire. Now and then one of the glowing chunks of wood split with a loud crack! and a small fountain of sparks.
He stretched gingerly, experimenting. Better. But whether he was cured in the morning or not, he was leaving—if he had to drag himself on his elbows to the road. The Hardmans must have their bed back—and he must have his. Claire’s bed.
The thought made the heat in his flesh bloom up through his belly, and he did squirm. His thoughts squirmed, too, thinking of her, and he grabbed one, pinning it down like a disobedient dog.
It’s nay her fault, he thought fiercely. She’s done me nay wrong. They’d thought him dead—Marsali had told him so and told him that Lord John had wed Claire in haste following the news of Jamie’s death, in order to protect not only her but Fergus and Marsali as well, from imminent arrest.
Aye, and then he took her to his bed! The knuckles of his left hand twinged as he curled his fist. “Never hit them in the face, lad.” Dougal had told him that a lifetime ago, as they watched a knockdown fight between two of Colum’s men in the courtyard at Leoch. “Hit them in the soft parts.”
They’d hit him in the soft parts.
“Nay her fault,” he muttered under his breath, turning restlessly into his pillow. What the bloody hell had happened, though? How had they done it—why?