“I don’t think they can hear us,” I said, though I lowered my voice.
“I’ve done wi’ talking,” he whispered, and, leaning forward, closed his teeth gently on the nape of my exposed neck.
“Hush,” he said again, though mildly. I hadn’t actually said anything, and the sound I’d made was too high-pitched to draw the attention of anything save a passing bat. I exhaled strongly through my nose and heard him chuckle deep in his throat.
My stays came loose, and cool air flooded through the damp muslin of my shift. He paused, one hand on the tapes of my petticoats, to reach round with the other and gently lift one breast, heavy and free, thumb rubbing the nipple, hard and round as a cherry stone. I made another sound, this one lower-pitched.
I thought vaguely how fortunate it was that he was left-handed, as that was the hand nimbly engaged in undoing the tapes of my skirts. These fell in a swishing heap round my feet, and I had a sudden vision—as his hand left my breast and the shift whiffed up round my ears—of Young Mr. Bartram suddenly realizing a dire need to pot up a batch of rosemary seedlings. The shock probably wouldn’t kill him, but . . .
“May as well be hung for sheep as lambs,” Jamie said, having evidently divined my thought from the fact that I’d turned round and was shielding my more private bits in the manner of Botticelli’s Venus. “And I’ll have ye naked.”
He grinned at me, whipped off his own dirt-streaked shirt—he’d thrown off his coat when he set me down—and yanked down his breeks without pausing to undo the flies. He was thin enough to make this possible; the breeches hung on his hipbones, barely staying up by themselves, and I saw the shadow of his ribs beneath his skin as he bent to shed his stockings.
He straightened and I put a hand on his chest. It was damp and warm, and the ruddy hairs prickled into gooseflesh at my touch. I could smell the hot, eager scent of him, even over the agricultural fug of the shed and the lingering smell of cabbage.
“Not so fast,” I whispered.
He made a Scottish sound of interrogation, reaching for me, and I dug my fingers into the muscle of his breast.
“I want a kiss first.”
He put his mouth against my ear and both hands firmly on my bottom.
“Are ye in a position to make demands, d’ye think?” he whispered, tightening his grasp. I caught the faint barb in that.
“Yes, I bloody am,” I said, and adjusted my own grip somewhat lower. He wouldn’t be attracting any bats, I thought.
We were eyeball-to-eyeball, clasped and breathing each other’s breath, close enough to see the smallest nuance of expression, even in the dimness. I saw the seriousness that underlay the laughter—and the doubt beneath the bravado.
“I am your wife,” I whispered, my lips brushing his.
“I ken that,” he said, very softly, and kissed me. Softly. Then closed his eyes and brushed his lips across my face, not so much kissing as feeling the contours of cheekbone and brow, of jaw and the tender skin below the ear, seeking to know me again past skin and breath, to know me to the blood and bone, to the heart that beat beneath.
I made a small sound and tried to find his mouth with my own, pressing against him, bare bodies cool and damp, hair rasping sweetly, and the lovely firmness of him rolling between us. He wouldn’t let me kiss him, though. His hand gripped the tail of my hair at the base of my neck, cupping my head, the other hand pursuing the same game of blind man’s buff.
There was a rattling thump; I had backed into a potting bench, setting a tray of tiny seedling pots to vibrating, the spicy leaves of sweet basil trembling in agitation. Jamie pushed the tray aside with one hand, then grasped me by the elbows and lifted me onto the bench.
“Now,” he said, half breathless. “I must have ye now.”
He did, and I ceased caring whether there were splinters in the bench or not.
I wrapped my legs round him and he laid me flat and leaned over me, hands braced on the bench, with a sound halfway between bliss and pain. He moved slowly in me and I gasped.
The rain had grown from a patter to a ringing din on the tin roof of the shed, covering any sounds I might make, and a good thing, too, I thought dimly. The air had cooled but was full of moisture; our skins were slick, and heat sprang up where flesh touched flesh. He was slow, deliberate, and I arched my back, urging him. In response, he took me by the shoulders, bent lower, and kissed me lightly, barely moving.
“I willna do it,” he whispered, and held tight when I struggled against him, trying vainly to goad him into the violent response I wished—I needed.
“Won’t do what?” I was gasping.
“I willna punish ye for it,” he said, so softly I could barely hear him, close as he was. “I’ll not do that, d’ye hear?”
“I don’t frigging want you to punish me, you bastard.” I grunted with effort, my shoulder joints creaking as I tried to break free of his grasp. “I want you to . . . God, you know what I want!”
“Aye, I do.” His hand left my shoulder and cupped beneath my buttock, touching the flesh of our joining, stretched and slippery. I made a small sound of surrender, and my knees loosened.
He pulled back, then came back into me, strongly enough that I gave a small, high-pitched cry of relief.
“Ask me to your bed,” he said, breathless, hands on my arms. “I shall come to ye. For that matter—I shall come, whether ye ask it or no. But remember, Sassenach—I am your man; I serve ye as I will.”
“Do,” I said. “Please do. Jamie, I want you so!”
He seized my arse in both hands, hard enough to leave bruises, and I arched up into him, grasping, hands sliding on his sweat-slick skin.
“God, Claire, I need ye!”
Rain was roaring on the tin roof now, and lightning struck close by, blue-white and sharp with ozone. We rode it together, forked and light-blind, breathless, and the thunder rolled through our bones.
GIVE ME LIBERTY . . .
AND AS THE SUN set on the third day since he had left his home, Lord John William Bertram Amstrong Grey found himself once more a free man, with a full belly, a swimming head, a badly mended musket, and severely chafed wrists, standing before the Reverend Peleg Woodsworth, right hand uplifted, reciting as prompted:
“I, Bertram Armstrong, swear to be true to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies and opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the Continental Congress and the orders of the generals and officers set over me by them.”
Bloody hell, he thought. What next?
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch . . .
A STEP INTO THE DARK
October 30, 1980
Craigh na Dun
A BLOTCH OF SWEAT darkened the shirt between William Buccleigh’s shoulder blades; the day was cool, but it was a steep climb to the top of Craigh na Dun—and the thought of what awaited them at the top was enough to make anybody sweat.
“Ye haven’t got to come,” Roger said to Buccleigh’s back.
“Get stuffed,” his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather replied briefly. Buck spoke absentmindedly, though, all his attention, like Roger’s, focused on the distant crest of the hill.
Roger could hear the stones from here. A low, sullen buzz, like a hive of hostile bees. He felt the sound move, crawling under his skin, and scratched viciously at his elbow, as though he could root it out.
“Ye’ve got the stones, aye?” Buck stopped, clinging one-handed to a birch sapling as he looked back over his shoulder.
“I have,” Roger said shortly. “D’ye want yours now?”
Buck shook his head and wiped shaggy fair hair off his brow with the back of his free hand.
“Time enough,” he said, and began to climb again.
Roger knew the diamonds were there—he knew Buck knew, too—but put a hand into his jacket pocket anyway. Two rough pieces of metal clinked together, the halves of an old brooch Brianna had cut apart with the poultry shears, each half with a scatter of tiny diamonds, barely more than chips. He hoped to God they’d be enough. If not—
The day was only cool, but a bone-deep shudder ran through him. He’d done it twice—three times, if he counted the first attempt, the one that had almost killed him. It got worse each time. He’d thought he wouldn’t make it the last time, coming back on Ocracoke, mind and body shredding in that place that was neither place nor passage. It had only been the feel of Jem in his arms that made him hold on, come through. And it was only the need to find Jem now that would make him do it again.
A hydroelectric tunnel
under the Loch Errochty dam
HE MUST BE getting near the end of the tunnel. Jem could tell by the way the air pushed back against his face. All he could see was the red light on the service train’s dashboard—did you call it a dashboard on a train? he wondered. He didn’t want to stop, because that meant he’d have to get out of the train, into the dark. But the train was running out of track, so there wasn’t much else he could do.
He pulled back a bit on the lever that made the train go, and it slowed down. More. Just a little more, and the lever clicked into a kind of slot and the train stopped with a small jerk that made him stumble and grab the edge of the cab.
An electric train didn’t make any engine noise, but the wheels rattled on the track and the train made squeaks and clunks as it moved. When it stopped, the noise stopped, too. It was really quiet.
“Hey!” he said out loud, because he didn’t want to listen to his heart beating. The sound echoed, and he looked up, startled. Mam had said the tunnel was really high, more than thirty feet, but he’d forgotten that. The idea that there was a lot of empty space hanging over him that he couldn’t see bothered him a lot. He swallowed and stepped out of the tiny engine, holding on to the frame with one hand.
“Hey!” he shouted at the invisible ceiling. “Are there any bats up there?”
Silence. He’d kind of been hoping there were bats. He wasn’t afraid of them—there were bats in the old broch, and he liked to sit and watch them come out to hunt in the summer evenings. But he was alone. Except for the dark.
His hands were sweating. He let go of the metal cab and scrubbed both hands on his jeans. Now he could hear himself breathing, too.
“Crap,” he whispered under his breath. That made him feel better, so he said it again. Maybe he ought to be praying, instead, but he didn’t feel like that, not yet.
There was a door, Mam said. At the end of the tunnel. It led into the service chamber, where the big turbines could be lifted up from the dam if they needed fixing. Would the door be locked?
Suddenly he realized that he’d stepped away from the train and he didn’t know whether he was facing the end of the tunnel or back the way he’d come. In a panic, he blundered to and fro, hands out, looking for the train. He tripped over part of the track and fell, sprawling. He lay there for a second, saying, “Crap-crap-crap-crap-crap!” because he’d skinned both knees and the palm of his hand, but he was okay, really, and now he knew where the track was, so he could follow it and not get lost.
He got up, wiped his nose, and shuffled slowly along, kicking the track every few steps to be sure he stayed with it. He thought he was in front of where the train had stopped, so it didn’t really matter which way he was going—either he’d find the train or he’d find the end of the tunnel. And then the door. If it was locked, maybe—
Something like an electric shock ran right through him. He gasped and fell over backward. The only thing in his mind was the idea that somebody had hit him with a lightsaber like Luke Skywalker’s, and for a minute he thought maybe whoever it was had cut off his head.
He couldn’t feel his body, but he could see in his mind his body lying bleeding in the dark and his head sitting right there on the train tracks in the dark, and his head couldn’t see his body or even know it wasn’t attached anymore. He made a breathless kind of a noise that was trying to be a scream, but it made his stomach move and he felt that, he felt it, and suddenly he felt a lot more like praying.
“Deo . . . gratias!” he managed to gasp. It was what Grandda said when he talked about a fight or killing something, and this wasn’t quite that sort of thing, but it seemed like a good thing to say anyway.
Now he could feel all of himself again, but he sat up and grabbed his neck, just to be sure his head was still on. His skin was jumping in the weirdest way. Like a horse’s does when a horsefly bites it, but all over. He swallowed and tasted sugared silver and he gasped again, because now he knew what had hit him. Sort of.
This wasn’t quite like it had been when they’d all walked into the rocks on Ocracoke. One minute he’d been in his father’s arms, and the next minute it was as if he’d been scattered everywhere in little wiggly pieces like the spilled quicksilver in Grannie’s surgery. Then he was back together again, and Da was still holding him tight enough to squeeze his breath out, and he could hear Da sobbing and that scared him, and he had a funny taste in his mouth and little pieces of him were still wiggling around trying to get away but they were trapped inside his skin . . .
Yeah. That was what was making his skin jump now, and he breathed easier, knowing what it was. That was okay, then; he was okay; it would stop.
It was stopping already, the twitchy feeling going away. He still felt kind of shaky, but he stood up. Careful, because he didn’t know where it was.
Wait—he did know. He knew exactly.
“That’s weird,” he said, out loud without really noticing, because he wasn’t scared by the dark anymore; it wasn’t important.
He couldn’t see it, not with his eyes, not exactly. He squinted, trying to think how he was seeing it, but there wasn’t a word for what he was doing. Kind of like hearing or smelling or touching, but not really any of those.