He felt as though he was fevered, his mind dazed with the waves of heat that throbbed over his body. And like the half-glimpsed things in fever dreams, he saw her naked flesh, pale and shimmering with sweat in the humid night, slick under John Grey’s hand . . .
We were both f**king you!
His back felt as though someone had laid a hot girdle on it. With a deep growl of exasperation, he turned onto his side again and fumbled at the bandages holding the scalding plaster to his skin, at last wriggling out of its torrid embrace. He dropped it on the floor and flung back the quilt that covered him, seeking the relief of cool air on body and mind.
But the cabin was filled to the rooftree with the fuggy warmth of fire and sleeping bodies, and the heat that flamed over him seemed to have rooted itself between his legs. He clenched his fists in the bedclothes, trying not to writhe, trying to calm his mind.
“Lord, let me stand aside from this,” he whispered in Gàidhlig. “Grant me mercy and forgiveness. Grant me understanding!”
What his mind presented him with instead was a fleeting sense, a memory of cold, as startling as it was refreshing. It was gone in a flash but left his hand tingling with the touch of cold stone, cool earth, and he clung to the memory, closing his eyes, in imagination pressing his hot cheek to the wall of the cave.
Because it was his cave. The place where he’d hidden, where he’d lived, in the years after Culloden. He had throbbed there, too, pulsing with heat and hurt, rage and fever, desolation and the sweet brief consolation of dreams wherein he met his wife again. And he felt in mind the coldness, the dark chill that he’d thought would kill him, finding it now relief in the desert of his thoughts. He envisioned himself pressing his naked, scalded back to the rough damp of the cave wall, willing the coldness to pass into his flesh, to kill the fire.
His rigid body eased a little, and he breathed slower, stubbornly ignoring the ripe reeks of the cabin, the fumes of horseradish and plum brandy and mustard, of cooking and bodies washed infrequently. Trying to breathe the piercing cleanliness of the north wind, the scents of broom and heather.
And what he smelled was . . .
“Mary,” he whispered, and his eyes flew open, shocked.
The scent of green onions and cherries, not quite ripe. A cold boiled fowl. And the warm smell of a woman’s flesh, faintly acrid with the sweat in her clothes, overlaid by the mild, fatty smell of his sister’s lye soap.
He took a deep breath, as though he might capture more of it, but the cool air of the Highlands had fled, and he inhaled a thick gulp of hot mustard, and coughed.
“Aye, all right,” he muttered ungraciously to God. “Ye’ve made your point.”
He hadn’t sought out a woman, even in his most abject loneliness, living in the cave. But when Mary MacNab had come to him on the eve of his departure for an English prison, he’d found consolation for his grief in her arms. Not as replacement for Claire, never that—but only desperately needing, and gratefully accepting, the gift of touch, of not being alone for a little while. How could he possibly find it wrong that Claire had done the same?
He sighed, wriggling to find a more comfortable position. Little Chastity emitted a faint cry, and Silvia Hardman sat up at once in a rustle of clothes, bending down to the cradle with a sleepy murmur.
For the first time, the child’s name struck him. The baby was perhaps three or four months old. How long had Gabriel Hardman been gone? More than a year, he thought, from what the little girls had said. Chastity, indeed. Was the name merely the natural companion to Prudence and Patience—or Mrs. Hardman’s private, poignant bitterness, a reproach to her missing husband?
He closed his eyes and sought a sense of coolness in the dark. He thought he had burned long enough.
OF CABBAGES AND KINGS
HE WALKED TO THE road just before dawn, declining help from Prudence and Patience, though they insisted upon coming with him, in case he should fall flat on his face, be stricken with sudden paralysis, or step into a gopher’s hole and twist an ankle. They had no great opinion of his powers but were well mannered enough to keep a distance of a foot or so on either side, their hands hovering like small white butterflies near his elbows, pale in the half dark.
“There’s not so many wagons coming in, these last few days,” Patience observed, in a tone somewhere between anxiety and hope. “Thee may not find a suitable conveyance.”
“I should be satisfied wi’ a dung cart or a wagon filled with cabbages,” he assured her, already glancing down the road. “My business is somewhat urgent.”
“We know,” Prudence reminded him. “We were under the bed when Washington appointed you.” She spoke with a certain reserve, as a Quaker opposed to the practice of war, and he smiled at her small, serious face, long-lipped and kind-eyed like her mother’s.
“Washington is nay my greatest concern,” he said. “I must see my wife, before . . . before anything else.”
“Thee has not seen her in some time?” Prudence asked, surprised. “Why?”
“I was detained upon business in Scotland,” he said, deciding not to observe that he’d seen her but two days ago. “Is that a wagon coming, d’ye think?”
It was a drover with a herd of swine, in fact, and they were obliged to scuttle back from the roadside with some haste, in order to avoid being either bitten or trampled. By the time the sun was fully up, though, regular traffic had begun to flow along the road.
Most of this was coming from Philadelphia, as the girls had told him: Loyalist families who could not afford to leave by ship, fleeing the city with what they could carry, some with wagons or handcarts, many with no more than what they could convey on their backs or in their arms. There were also British soldiers in groups and columns, presumably assisting the exodus and protecting the Loyalists from being attacked or looted, should Rebel militia suddenly come out of the wood.
That thought reminded him of John Grey—who had been mercifully absent from his mind for several hours. Jamie ruthlessly pushed him out again, muttering, “Aye, stay gone,” under his breath. But a reluctant second thought occurred to him—what if Grey had been released by the militia at once and had already made his way back to Philadelphia? On the one hand, he would see to Claire’s safety; he could trust the man for that. But on the other . . .
Aye, well. If he walked into the house and found Grey there with her, he’d just take her away with him and say nothing. Unless . . .
“Does thee still suffer from the horseradish, Friend Jamie?” Patience asked politely. “Thee snorts quite fearful. Perhaps thee had best take my hankie.”
In the woods outside Philadelphia
GREY WOKE ABRUPTLY to full daylight and a musket barrel jabbed into his belly.
“Come out of there with your hands up,” said a cold voice. He got his good eye sufficiently open as to see that his interlocutor wore a tattered Continental officer’s coat over homespun breeches and an open-collared shirt, topped by a slouch hat turned up with a turkey feather through the brim. Rebel militia. Heart in his throat, he crawled stiffly out of his refuge and rose, hands in the air.
His captor blinked at Grey’s battered face, then at the fetters, strips of muslin bandage hanging from the rusted links. He withdrew the musket slightly but didn’t lower it. Now that Grey was on his feet, he could see several other men, as well, all peering at him with extreme interest.
“Ah . . . where did you escape from?” the officer with the musket asked carefully.
There were two possible answers, and he chose the riskier option. Saying “gaol” would have likely led to them leaving him alone or, at worst, taking him with them but leaving him in irons; either way, he’d still be wearing fetters.
“I was put in irons by a British officer who took me up as a spy,” he said boldly. Entirely true, he reflected, so far as it goes.
A deep hum of interest ran among the men, who pressed closer to look at him, and the prodding musket barrel was withdrawn altogether.
“Indeed,” said his captor, who had an educated English voice, with a slight Dorset accent. “And what might be your name, sir?”
“Bertram Armstrong,” he replied promptly, using two of his middle names. “And may I have the pleasure of knowing your own name, sir?”
The man pursed his lips a little but answered readily enough.
“I am the Reverend Peleg Woodsworth, Captain of the Sixteenth Pennsylvania, sir. And your company?” Grey saw Woodsworth’s eyes flick toward his liberty cap with its bold motto.
“I haven’t yet joined a company, sir,” he said, softening his own accent just a little. “I was on my way to do so, in fact, when I ran afoul of a British patrol and shortly thereafter found myself in the straits you see.” He raised his wrists a little, clanking. The hum of interest came again, this time with a distinct note of approval.
“Well, then,” Woodsworth said, and lifted his musket to his shoulder. “Come along with us, Mr. Armstrong, and I think we might be able to relieve your straits.”
ONCE THEY REACHED the trace, there were horses, mules, and wagons, as well as militia companies. Rachel was able to ride in a teamster’s wagon filled with sacks of barley, Ian and Rollo trotting along beside, as far as Matson’s Ford, where they were meant to meet Denzell and Dottie. They waited at the ford until midmorning, but there was no sign of Denzell’s wagon, and none of the militia groups crossing there had seen him.
“He’ll have had an emergency,” Rachel said, lifting one shoulder in resignation. “We’d best go on by ourselves; perhaps we can find a wagon on the main road that will carry us into the city.” She wasn’t troubled; any doctor’s family was used to fending for themselves unexpectedly. And she loved being alone with Ian, talking, looking at his face.
Ian agreed that this was good sense, and they splashed across, shoes in hand, the cold water a relief. Even in the forest, the air was close and hot, restless with prowling thunder that never came close enough to do much good.
“Here,” he said to Rachel, and handed her his moccasins, his rifle, and his belt, with powder horn, shot bag, and dirk. “Stand back a bit, aye?” He could see a scour in the streambed, where a persistent eddy had carved a deep hole, a dark, inviting shadow in the ripples of the creek. He leapt from stone to stone and jumped from the last one, going into the hole with a PLUNK! like a dropped boulder. Rollo, belly-deep in the ford and soaked to the shoulders, barked and showered Rachel with water from a huge wagging tail.
Ian’s head lunged back into view, streaming water, and he reached a long, skinny arm toward her leg, beckoning her to join him. She didn’t retreat but held his rifle out at arm’s length and raised one brow, and he dropped his invitation, scrambling out of the hole on hands and knees. He stood up in the ford and shook himself like Rollo, spattering her with icy drops.
“Want to go in?” he asked, grinning as he took back his weapons. He wiped water from his brows and chin with the back of his hand. “It’ll cool ye right down.”
“I would,” she said, smearing the cold droplets over her sweating face with one hand, “if my clothes were as impervious to the elements as thine are.” He had on his worn buckskin leggings and breechclout, with a calico shirt so faded that the red flowers on it were nearly the same color as the brown background. Neither water nor sun would make any difference, and he would look just the same wet or dry—while she would look like a drowned rat all day, and an immodest drowned rat at that, shift and dress half transparent with water and sticking to her.
The casual thought coincided with Ian’s buckling of his belt, and the movement drew her eye to the flap of his linen breechclout—or, rather, to where it had been before he raised it to pull it over his belt.
She drew in her breath audibly and he looked up at her, surprised.
“Never mind,” she said, her face going hot despite the cool water. But he looked down, following the direction of her gaze, and then looked back, right into her eyes, and she had a strong impulse to jump straight into the water, damage to her wardrobe notwithstanding.
“Are ye bothered?” he said, eyebrows raised, as he plucked at the wet cloth of his breechclout, then dropped the flap.
“No,” she said with dignity. “I’ve seen one before, thee knows. Many of them. Just not . . .” Not one with which I am soon to be intimately acquainted. “Just not . . . yours.”
“I dinna think it’s anything out o’ the ordinary,” he assured her gravely. “But ye can look, if ye like. Just in case. I wouldna want ye to be startled, I mean.”
“Startled,” she repeated, giving him a look. “If thee thinks I am under any illusions about either the object or the process, after living for months in a military camp . . . I doubt I shall be shocked, when the occasion a—” She broke off, a moment too late.
“Rises,” he finished for her, grinning. “I think I’ll be verra disappointed if ye’re not, ken?”
IN SPITE OF the hot blush, which seemed to run from her scalp straight down into her nether regions, she didn’t begrudge him fun at her expense. Anything that made him smile like that was balm to her own spirit.
He’d been deeply oppressed, ever since the dreadful news of the ship’s sinking had come, and while he’d borne up with a stoicism she thought natural to both Highlanders and Indians, saying little about it, he hadn’t tried to hide his desolation from her, either. She was glad of that, despite her own sadness for Mr. Fraser, for whom she had a deep respect and affection.
She did wonder about Ian’s mother and how she might have got on with that lady. At the best, she might have had a mother again herself—and that would have been a great blessing. She hadn’t been expecting the best, though; she doubted that Jenny Murray would have been any more pleased at the notion of her son marrying a Friend than a Quaker meeting might be to hear of Rachel’s intention of marrying a man of blood—and a Catholic, to boot. She wasn’t sure which of those would be more cause for consternation but was sure that Ian’s tattoos would pale in contrast to his affiliation with the Pope.