“What did happen?” he asked, ignoring the question. Politely, but with a distinct edge.
I took a deep breath, then blew out my cheeks in a helpless gesture.
He growled. I glanced at him, startled, having never heard such a noise from him before—at least, not aimed at me. Apparently it was somewhat more than important.
“Er . . .” I said cautiously, sitting down beside him. “What did John say, exactly? After telling you about the carnal knowledge, I mean?”
“He desired me to kill him. And if ye tell me ye want me to kill you rather than tell me what happened, I warn ye, I willna be responsible for what happens next.”
I looked at him narrowly. He seemed self-possessed, but there was an undeniable tension in his posture.
“Well . . . I remember how it began, at least. . . .”
“Start there,” he suggested, the edge more pronounced.
“I was sitting in my room, drinking plum brandy and trying to justify killing myself, if you must know,” I said, with an edge of my own. I stared at him, daring him to say something, but he merely cocked his head at me in a “Go on, then” gesture.
“I ran out of brandy and was trying to decide whether I might walk downstairs to look for more without breaking my neck, or whether I’d had enough not to feel guilty about drinking the whole bottle of laudanum instead. And then John came in.” I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry and sticky, as it had been that night.
“He did say there was drink taken,” Jamie observed.
“Lots. He seemed nearly as drunk as I was, save that he was still on his feet.” I could see John’s face in memory, white as bone save for his eyes, which were so red and swollen that they might have been sandpapered. And the expression in those eyes. “He looked the way a man looks just before he throws himself off a cliff,” I said quietly, eyes on my folded hands. I took another breath.
“He had a fresh decanter in his hand. He put it down on the dressing table beside me, glared at me, and said, ‘I will not mourn him alone tonight.’” A deep quiver ran through me at the memory of those words.
“And . . . ?”
“And he didn’t,” I said, a little sharply. “I told him to sit down and he did, and he poured out more brandy and we drank it, and I have not one single notion what we said, but we were talking about you. And then he stood up, and I stood up. And . . . I couldn’t bear to be alone and I couldn’t bear for him to be alone and I more or less flung myself at him because I very much needed someone to touch me just then.”
“And he obliged ye, I take it.”
The tone of this was distinctly cynical, and I felt a flush rise in my cheeks, not of embarrassment but of anger.
“Did he bugger you?”
I looked at him for a good long minute. He meant it.
“You absolute bastard,” I said, as much in astonishment as anger. Then a thought occurred to me. “You said he desired you to kill him,” I said slowly. “You . . . didn’t, did you?”
He held my eyes, his own steady as a rifle barrel.
“Would ye mind if I did?” he asked softly.
“Yes, I bloody well would,” I said, with what spirit I could summon up amongst the growing confusion of my feelings. “But you didn’t—I know you didn’t.”
“No,” he said, even more softly. “Ye don’t know that.”
Despite my conviction that he was bluffing, a small chill prickled the hairs on my forearms.
“I should have been within my rights,” he said.
“You would not,” I said, chill fading into crossness. “You didn’t have any rights. You were bloody dead.” Despite the crossness, my voice broke a bit on the word “dead,” and his face changed at once.
“What?” I said, turning my own face away. “Did you think it didn’t matter?”
“No,” he said, and took my mud-stained hand in his. “But I didna ken it mattered quite that much.” His own voice was husky now, and when I turned back to him, I saw that tears stood in his eyes. With an incoherent noise, I flung myself into his arms and clung to him, making foolish hiccuping sobs.
He held me tight, his breath warm on the top of my head, and when I stopped at last, he put me away a little and cupped my face in his hands.
“I have loved ye since I saw you, Sassenach,” he said very quietly, holding my eyes with his own, bloodshot and lined with tiredness but very blue. “I will love ye forever. It doesna matter if ye sleep with the whole English army—well, no,” he corrected himself, “it would matter, but it wouldna stop me loving you.”
“I didn’t think it would.” I sniffed and he pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and handed it to me. It was worn white cambric and had the initial “P” embroidered awkwardly in one corner in blue thread. I couldn’t imagine where he’d got such a thing but didn’t bother asking, under the circumstances.
The bench was not very large, and his knee was within an inch or two of mine. He didn’t touch me again, though, and my heart rate was beginning to speed up noticeably. He meant it, about loving me, but that didn’t mean the next while was going to be pleasant.
“It was my impression that he told me because he was sure that you would tell me,” he said carefully.
“So I would have,” I said promptly, wiping my nose. “Though I might possibly have waited ’til you’d got home, had a bath, and been fed supper. If there’s one thing I know about men, it’s that you don’t break things like this to them on an empty stomach. When did you last eat?”
“This morning. Sausages. Dinna be changing the subject.” His voice was level, but there was a good deal of feeling bubbling under it; he might as well have been a pan of simmering milk. One extra degree of heat and there’d be an eruption and scorched milk all over the stove. “I understand, but I want—I need—to know what happened.”
“You understand?” I echoed, sounding surprised even to my own ears. I hoped he did understand, but his manner was more than a little at odds with his words. My hands were no longer cold; they were starting to sweat, and I gripped the skirt over my knees, heedless of mud stains.
“Well, I dinna like it,” he said, not quite between clenched teeth. “But I understand it.”
“I do,” he said, eyeing me. “Ye both thought I was dead. And I ken what ye’re like when you’re drunk, Sassenach.”
I slapped him, so fast and so hard that he hadn’t time to duck and lurched back from the impact.
“You—you—” I said, unable to articulate anything bad enough to suit the violence of my feelings. “How bloody dare you!”
He touched his cheek gingerly. His mouth was twitching.
“I . . . uh . . . didna quite mean that the way it sounded, Sassenach,” he said. “Besides, am I no the aggrieved party here?”
“No, you bloody aren’t!” I snapped. “You go off and get—get drowned, and leave me all alone in the m-midst of spies and s-soldiers and with children—you and Fergus both, you bastards! Leave me and Marsali to-to—” I was so choked with emotion that I couldn’t go on. I was damned if I’d cry, though, damned if I’d cry any more in front of him.
He reached out carefully and took my hand again. I let him, and let him draw me closer, close enough to see the faint dusting of his beard stubble, to smell the road dust and dried sweat in his clothes, to feel the radiant heat from his body.
I sat quivering, making small huffing sounds in lieu of speech. He ignored this, spreading my fingers out between his own, gently stroking the palm of my hand with a large, callused thumb.
“I didna mean to imply that I think ye a drunkard, Sassenach,” he said, making an obvious effort to be conciliatory. “It’s only that ye think wi’ your body, Claire; ye always have.”
With a tremendous effort of my own, I found words.
“So I’m a—a—what are you calling me now? A loose woman? A trollop? A strumpet? And you think that’s better than calling me a drunkard?!?”
He gave a small snort of what might have been amusement. I yanked at my hand, but he wouldn’t let go.
“I said what I meant, Sassenach,” he said, tightening his grip on my hand, and augmenting it with another hand on my forearm, preventing me from rising. “Ye think wi’ your body. It’s what makes ye a surgeon, no?”
“I—oh.” Overcoming my dudgeon momentarily, I was obliged to admit that there was something in this observation.
“Possibly,” I said stiffly, looking away from him. “But I don’t think that’s what you meant.”
“Not entirely, no.” There was a very slight edge to his voice again, but I wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Listen to me.”
I sat stubbornly silent for a moment, but he simply held on, and I knew that he was more stubborn by nature than I could be if I worked at it for a hundred years. I was going to hear what he had to say—and I was going to tell him what he wanted to hear—whether I liked it or not.
“I’m listening,” I said. He drew breath and relaxed a little but didn’t lessen his grip.
“I’ve taken ye to bed a thousand times at least, Sassenach,” he said mildly. “Did ye think I wasna paying attention?”
“Two or three thousand at least,” I said, in the interests of strict accuracy, staring at the digging knife I’d dropped on the ground. “And no.”
“Well, then. I ken what ye’re like in bed. And I see—all too well,” he added, his mouth compressing momentarily, “—how this likely was.”
“No, you bloody don’t,” I said warmly.
He made another Scottish noise, this one indicating hesitation.
“I do,” he said, but carefully. “When I lost ye, after Culloden—I kent ye weren’t dead, but that made it all the worse, if ye ask me . . . eh?”
I had made a noise of my own but gestured briefly at him to go on.
“I told ye about Mary MacNab, aye? How she came to me, in the cave?”
“Several years after the fact,” I said rather coldly. “But, yes, you did get round to it eventually.” I gave him a look. “I certainly didn’t blame you for that—and I didn’t ask you for the gory details, either.”
“No, ye didn’t,” he admitted. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with a knuckle. “Maybe ye weren’t jealous. I am.” He hesitated. “I’d tell ye, though—how it was—if ye wanted to know.”
I looked at him, biting my lip dubiously. Did I want to know? If I didn’t—and I wasn’t at all sure whether I did or not—would he take that as evidence that I didn’t care? And I was quite conscious of that brief “I am.”
I took a deep breath, accepting the implied bargain.
“Tell me,” I said. “How it was.”
Now he did look away, and I saw his throat move as he swallowed.
“It . . . was tender,” he said quietly, after a moment. “Sad.”
“Sad,” I echoed. “How?”
He didn’t look up but kept his eyes fixed on the flowers, following the movements of a big black bumblebee among the furled blooms.
“Both of us mourning things that were lost,” he said slowly, brows drawn down in thought. “She said she meant to keep ye alive for me, to let me . . . to let me imagine it was you, I suppose she meant.”
“Didn’t work quite that way?”
“No.” He looked up then, straight on, and his eyes went through me like a rapier through a scarecrow. “There couldna be anyone like you.”
It wasn’t said with an air of compliment, more one of flat finality—or, even, of resentment.
I lifted a shoulder briefly. There wasn’t much response I could make.
He sighed and looked back at his knotted hands. He was squeezing the fingers of his narrowed right hand with his left, as though to remind himself of the missing finger.
“It was quiet,” he said to his thumb. “We didna talk, really, not once we’d . . . begun.” He closed his eyes, and I wondered, with a small twinge of curiosity, just what he saw. I was surprised to realize that curiosity was all I felt—with, perhaps, pity for them. I’d seen the cave in which they’d made love, a cold granite tomb, and I knew how desperate the state of things had been in the Highlands then. Just the promise of a little human warmth . . . “Both of us mourning things that were lost,” he’d said.
“It was just the once. It didna last very long; I—it had been a long time,” he said, and a faint flush showed across his cheekbones. “But . . . I needed it, verra much. She held me after, and . . . I needed that more. I fell asleep in her arms; she was gone when I woke. But I carried the warmth of her with me. For a long time,” he said very softly.
That gave me a quite unexpected stab of jealousy, and I straightened a little, fighting it back with clenched hands. He sensed it and turned his head toward me. He’d felt that flame ignite—and had one to match it.
“And you?” he said, giving me a hard, direct look.
“It wasn’t tender,” I said with an edge. “And it wasn’t sad. It should have been. When he came into my room and said he wouldn’t mourn you alone, and we talked, then I got up and went to him, expecting—if I had so much as an expectation; I don’t think I had any conscious thoughts. . . .”
“No?” He matched my edge with his own. “Blind drunk, were ye?”
“Yes, I bloody was, and so was he.” I knew what he was thinking; he wasn’t making any effort to hide it, and I had a sudden, vivid recollection of sitting with him in the corner of a tavern in Cross Creek, his taking my face suddenly between his hands and kissing me, and the warm sweetness of wine passing from his mouth to mine. I sprang to my feet and slapped my hand on the bench.