“Yes, I bloody was!” I said again, furious. “I was drunk every damned day since I heard you were dead.”
He drew a deep, deep breath, and I saw his eyes fix on his hands, clenched on his knees. He let it out very slowly.
“And what did he give ye, then?”
“Something to hit,” I said. “At least to begin with.”
He looked up at me, startled.
“Ye hit him?”
“No, I hit you,” I snapped. My fist had curled, without my realization, clenched against my thigh. I remembered that first blow, a blind, frenzied punch into unwary flesh, all the force of my grief behind it. The flex of recoil that took away the sensation of warmth for an instant, brought it back with a smash that flung me onto the dressing table, borne down by a man’s weight, his grip tight on my wrists, and me screaming in fury. I didn’t remember the specifics of what came next—or, rather, I recalled certain things very vividly but had no idea of the order in which they happened.
“It was a blur,” people say. What they really mean is the impossibility of anyone truly entering such an experience from outside, the futility of explanation.
“Mary MacNab,” I said abruptly. “She gave you . . . tenderness, you said. There should be a word for what this was, what John gave me, but I haven’t thought of it yet.” I needed a word that might convey, encapsulate.
“Violence,” I said. “That was part of it.” Jamie stiffened and gave me a narrow look. I knew what he was thinking and shook my head. “Not that. I was numb—deliberately numb, because I couldn’t bear to feel. He could; he had more courage than I did. And he made me feel it, too. That’s why I hit him.”
I’d been numb, and John had ripped off the dressing of denial, the wrappings of the small daily necessities that kept me upright and functioning; his physical presence had torn away the bandages of grief and showed what lay below: myself, bloody and unhealed.
I felt the air thick in my throat, damp and hot and itching on my skin. And finally I found the word.
“Triage,” I said abruptly. “Under the numbness, I was . . . raw. Bloody. Skinned. You do triage, you . . . stop the bleeding first. You stop it. You stop it, or the patient dies. He stopped it.”
He’d stopped it by slapping his own grief, his own fury, over the welling blood of mine. Two wounds, pressed together, blood still flowing freely—but no longer lost and draining, flowing instead into another body, and the other’s blood into mine, hot, searing, not welcome—but life.
Jamie said something under his breath in Gaelic. I didn’t catch most of the words. He sat with his head bent, elbows on his knees and head in his hands, and breathed audibly.
After a moment, I sat back down beside him and breathed, too. The cicadas grew louder, an urgent buzz that drowned out the rush of water and the rustling of leaves, humming in my bones.
“Damn him,” Jamie muttered at last, and sat up. He looked disturbed, angry—but not angry at me.
“John, um, is all right, isn’t he?” I asked hesitantly. To my surprise—and my slight unease—Jamie’s lips twisted a little.
“Aye. Well. I’m sure he is,” he said, in a tone admitting of a certain doubt, which I found alarming.
“What the bloody hell did you do to him?” I said, sitting up straight.
His lips compressed for an instant.
“I hit him,” he said. “Twice,” he added, glancing away.
“Twice?” I echoed, in some shock. “Did he fight you?”
“No,” he said shortly.
“Really.” I rocked back a bit, looking him over. Now that I had calmed down enough to take notice, I thought he was displaying . . . what? Concern? Guilt?
“Why did you hit him?” I asked, striving for a tone of mild curiosity, rather than one of accusation. Evidently I was less than successful with this, as he turned on me like a bear stung in the rump by a bee.
“Why? Ye dare to ask me why?”
“Certainly I do,” I said, discarding the mild tone. “What did he do to make you hit him? And twice?” Jamie had no problem with mayhem, but he normally did require a reason.
He made a deeply disgruntled Scottish noise, but he’d promised me honesty a long time ago and hadn’t seen fit to break that promise yet. He squared his shoulders and looked at me straight.
“The first was between him and me; it was a blow I’ve owed him for a good while.”
“And you just seized the opportunity to punch him, because it was convenient?” I asked, a bit wary of asking directly what the devil he meant by “between him and me.”
“I couldna help it,” he said testily. “He said something and I hit him.”
I didn’t say anything but inhaled through my nose, meaning him to hear it. There was a long moment of silence, weighted with expectation and broken only by the shush of the river.
“He said the two of ye hadna been making love to each other,” he finally muttered, looking down.
“No, we weren’t,” I said, somewhat surprised. “I told you. We were both—oh!”
He did look up at me then, glaring.
“Oh,” he said, the word dripping with sarcasm. “Ye were both f**king me, he said.”
“Oh, I see,” I murmured. “Well. Um. Yes, that’s quite true.” I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I see,” I said again, and thought I probably did. There was a deep friendship of long standing between Jamie and John, but I was aware that one of the pillars it rested on was a strict avoidance of any reference to John’s sexual attraction toward Jamie. If John had lost his composure sufficiently as to kick that pillar out from under the two of them . . .
“And the second time?” I asked, choosing not to ask him to elaborate any further on the first.
“Aye, well, that one was on your account,” he said, both voice and face relaxing a little.
“I’m flattered,” I said, as dryly as possible. “But you really shouldn’t have.”
“Well, I ken that now,” he admitted, flushing. “But I’d lost my temper already and hadna got it back again. Ifrinn,” he muttered, and, stooping, picked up the discarded digging knife and jammed it hard into the bench beside him.
He closed his eyes then, pressed his lips tight, and sat tapping the fingers of his right hand against his leg. He hadn’t done that since I’d amputated the remains of his frozen fourth finger, and I was taken aback to see him do it now. For the first time, I began to appreciate the true complexities of the situation.
“Tell me,” I said, in a voice not much louder than the cicadas. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“About John Grey. About Helwater.” He drew a deep, exasperated breath and opened his eyes, though he didn’t look at me. “I managed there. Staying numb, as ye said. I suppose I might have stayed drunk, too, had I been able to afford it.” His mouth twisted, and he folded his right hand into a fist, then looked down at it in surprise; he hadn’t been able to do that for thirty years. He opened it and put his hand flat on his knee.
“I managed,” he repeated. “But then there was Geneva—and I told ye how that was, too, did I not?”
He sighed. “And then there was William. When Geneva died and it was my fault, it was a knife in my heart—and then William . . .” His mouth softened. “The bairn cut me wide open, Sassenach. He spilled my guts out into my hands.”
I put my hand on his, and he turned it, his fingers curling over mine.
“And that bloody English sodomite bandaged me,” he said, so low I could scarcely hear him above the sound of the river. “With his friendship.”
He drew breath again and let it out explosively. “No, I didna kill him. I dinna ken if I’m glad of it or not—but I didn’t.”
I let out my own breath in a deep sigh and leaned against him.
“I knew that. I’m glad.”
The haze had thickened into steel-gray clouds, coming purposefully up the river, muttering with thunder. I took a deep, lung-filling whiff of ozone and then another, of his skin. I detected the basic male animal, very appetizing in itself, but he seemed to have acquired a rather unusual—though savory—bouquet in addition: a faint whiff of sausage, the strong bitter scent of cabbage, and . . . yes, mustard, underlaid with something oddly spicy. I sniffed again, repressing the urge to lick him.
“You smell like—”
“I smell like a large plate of choucroute garnie,” he interrupted, with a slight grimace. “Give me a moment; I’ll have a wash.” He made as though to get up and go toward the river, and I reached out and seized him by the arm.
He looked at me for a moment, then drew a deep breath and, reaching slowly out in turn, pulled me against him. I didn’t resist. In fact, my own arms went round him in reflex, and we both sighed in unison, in the sheer relief of embrace.
I would have been quite content to sit there forever, breathing the musky, dusty, cabbage-laced smell of him and listening to the thump of his heart under my ear. All the things we’d said—all the things that had happened—hovered in the air around us like the cloud of troubles from Pandora’s box,—but for this one moment, there was nothing but each other.
After a bit, his hand moved, smoothing the loose, damp curls behind my ear. He cleared his throat and shifted a little, drawing himself up, and I reluctantly let go of him, though I left my hand on his thigh.
“I wish to say something,” he said, in the tone of one making a formal statement before a court. My heart had quieted while he held me; now it fluttered in renewed agitation.
“What?” I sounded so apprehensive that he laughed. Only a breath, but he did laugh, and I was able to breathe again. He took my hand firmly and held it, looking into my eyes.
“I don’t say that I dinna mind this, because I do. And I don’t say that I’ll no make a fuss about it later, because I likely will. But what I do say is that there is nothing in this world or the next that can take ye from me—or me from you.” He raised one brow. “D’ye disagree?”
“Oh, no,” I said fervently.
He breathed again, and his shoulders came down a fraction of an inch.
“Well, that’s good, because it wouldna do ye any good if ye did. Just the one question,” he said. “Are ye my wife?”
“Of course I am,” I said, in utter astonishment. “How could I not be?”
His face changed then; he drew a huge breath and took me into his arms. I embraced him, hard, and together we let out a great sigh, settling with it, his head bending over mine, kissing my hair, my face turned into his shoulder, openmouthed at the neck of his open shirt, our knees slowly giving way in mutual relief, so that we knelt in the fresh-turned earth, clinging together, rooted like a tree, leaf-tossed and multi-limbed but sharing one single solid trunk.
The first drops of rain began to fall.
HIS FACE WAS open now and his eyes clear blue and free of trouble—for the moment, at least. “Where is there a bed? I need to be naked with ye.”
I was entirely in sympathy with this proposition, but the question took me momentarily aback. Of course we couldn’t go to John’s house—or at least not in order to go to bed together. Even if John himself was in no position to object, the thought of what Mrs. Figg would say if I walked into the house with a large Scotsman and immediately ascended the stairs to my bedroom with him . . . and then there was Jenny . . . On the other hand, eager as I was, I really didn’t want to be naked with him among the ranunculus, where we might be interrupted at any moment by Bartrams, bumblebees, or rain.
“An inn?” I suggested.
“Is there one where folk wouldna ken ye? A decent one, I mean?”
I knit my brows, trying to think of one. Not the King’s Arms, definitely not that. Otherwise . . . I was familiar only with the two or three ordinaries where Marsali bought ale or bread—and people most assuredly knew me there—as Lady John Grey.
It wasn’t that Jamie by himself needed to avoid notice anymore—but his supposed death and my marriage to John had been the subject of a tremendous amount of public interest, by reason of its tragedy. For it to become widely known that the presumably deceased Colonel Fraser had suddenly reappeared from the dead to reclaim his wife would be a subject of conversation that would dwarf the withdrawal of the British army from the city. I had a quick flash of memory—our wedding night, witnessed at close quarters by a crowd of raucously drunk Highland clansmen—and imagined a reprise of this experience, with interested commentary by the ordinary’s patrons.
I glanced at the river, wondering whether, after all, a nice, sheltering bush—but it was late in the afternoon, cloudy, and the gnats and mosquitoes were hanging in small carnivorous clouds of their own beneath the trees. Jamie stooped suddenly and swept me up in his arms.
“I’ll find a place.”
THERE WAS A wooden thump as he kicked open the door of the new potting shed, and suddenly we were in a light-streaked darkness smelling of sun-warmed boards, earth, water, damp clay, and plants.
It was abundantly clear that he wasn’t seeking privacy for the purpose of further inquiry, discussion, or reproach. For that matter, my own question was largely rhetorical.
He stood me on my feet, turned me about, and began undoing my laces. I could feel his breath on the bare skin of my neck, and the tiny hairs there shivered.
“Are you—” I began, only to be interrupted by a terse “Hush.” I hushed. I could hear then what he’d heard: the Bartrams, in conversation with each other. They were some distance away, though—on the back porch of the house, I thought, screened from the river path by a thick hedge of English yew.