He laughed at that, and swallowed the rest of his orange.
“Oh, I am, aye? And what d’ye mean by that?”
“Frank loved me,” I said slowly. “But there were…pieces of me, that he didn’t know what to do with. Things about me that he didn’t understand, or maybe that frightened him.” I glanced at Jamie. “Not you.”
His head was bent over a second orange, hands moving swiftly as he scored it with his dirk, but I could see the faint smile in the corner of his mouth.
“No, Sassenach, ye dinna frighten me. Or rather ye do, but only when I think ye may kill yourself from carelessness.”
I snorted briefly.
“You scare me, for the same reason, but I don’t suppose there’s anything I can do about it.”
His chuckle was deep and easy.
“And ye think I canna do anything about it, either, so I shouldna be worrit?”
“I didn’t say you shouldn’t worry—do you think I don’t worry? But no, you probably can’t do anything about me.”
I saw him opening his mouth to disagree. Then he changed his mind, and laughed again. He reached out and popped an orange segment into my mouth.
“Well, maybe no, Sassenach, and maybe so. But I’ve lived a long enough time now to think it maybe doesna matter so much—so long as I can love you.”
Speechless with orange juice, I stared at him in surprise.
“And I do,” he said softly. He leaned into the berth and kissed me, his mouth warm and sweet. Then he drew back, and gently touched my cheek.
“Rest now,” he said firmly. “I’ll bring ye some broth, in a bit.”
I slept for several hours, and woke up still feverish, but hungry. Jamie brought me some of Murphy’s broth—a rich green concoction, swimming in butter and reeking with sherry—and insisted, despite my protests, on feeding it to me with a spoon.
“I have a perfectly good hand,” I said crossly.
“Aye, and I’ve seen ye use it, too,” he replied, deftly gagging me with the spoon. “If ye’re clumsy with a spoon as wi’ that needle, you’ll have this all spilt down your bosom and wasted, and Murphy will brain me wi’ the ladle. Here, open up.”
I did, my resentment gradually melting into a sort of warm and glowing stupor as I ate. I hadn’t taken anything for the pain in my arm, but as my empty stomach expanded in grateful relief, I more or less quit noticing it.
“Will ye have another bowl?” Jamie asked, as I swallowed the last spoonful. “Ye’ll need your strength kept up.” Not waiting for an answer, he uncovered the small tureen Murphy had sent, and refilled the bowl.
“Where’s Ishmael?” I asked, during the brief hiatus.
“On the after deck. He didna seem comfortable belowdecks—and I canna say I blame him, having seen the slavers at Bridgetown. I had Maitland sling him a hammock.”
“Do you think it’s safe to leave him loose like that? What kind of soup is this?” The last spoonful had left a delightful, lingering taste on my tongue; the next revived the full flavor.
“Turtle; Stern took a big hawksbill last night. He sent word he’s saving ye the shell to make combs of, for your hair.” Jamie frowned slightly, whether at the thought of Lawrence Stern’s gallantry or Ishmael’s presence, I couldn’t tell. “As for the black, he’s not loose—Fergus is watching him.”
“Fergus is on his honeymoon,” I protested. “You shouldn’t make him do it. Is this really turtle soup? I’ve never had it before. It’s marvelous.”
Jamie was unmoved by contemplation of Fergus’s tender state.
“Aye, well, he’ll be wed a long time,” he said callously. “Do him no harm to keep his breeches on for one night. And they do say that abstinence makes the heart grow firmer, no?”
“Absence,” I said, dodging the spoon for a moment. “And fonder. If anything’s growing firmer from abstinence, it wouldn’t be his heart.”
“That’s verra bawdy talk for a respectable marrit woman,” Jamie said reprovingly, sticking the spoon in my mouth. “And inconsiderate, forbye.”
I swallowed. “Inconsiderate?”
“I’m a wee bit firm myself at the moment,” he replied evenly, dipping and spooning. “What wi’ you sitting there wi’ your hair loose and your nipples starin’ me in the eye, the size of cherries.”
I glanced down involuntarily, and the next spoonful bumped my nose. Jamie clicked his tongue, and picking up a cloth, briskly blotted my bosom with it. It was quite true that my shift was made of thin cotton, and even when dry, reasonably easy to see through.
“It’s not as though you haven’t seen them before,” I said, amused.
He laid down the cloth and raised his brows.
“I have drunk water every day since I was weaned,” he pointed out. “It doesna mean I canna be thirsty, still.” He picked up the spoon. “You’ll have a wee bit more?”
“No, thanks,” I said, dodging the oncoming spoon. “I want to hear more about this firmness of yours.”
“No, ye don’t; you’re ill.”
“I feel much better,” I assured him. “Shall I have a look at it?” He was wearing the loose petticoat breeches the sailors wore, in which he could easily have concealed three or four dead mullet, let alone a fugitive firmness.
“You shall not,” he said, looking slightly shocked. “Someone might come in. And I canna think your looking at it would help a bit.”
“Well, you can’t tell that until I have looked at it, can you?” I said. “Besides, you can bolt the door.”
“Bolt the door? What d’ye think I’m going to do? Do I look the sort of man would take advantage of a woman who’s not only wounded and boiling wi’ fever, but drunk as well?” he demanded. He stood up, nonetheless.
“I am not drunk,” I said indignantly. “You can’t get drunk on turtle soup!” Nonetheless, I was conscious that the glowing warmth in my stomach seemed to have migrated somewhat lower, taking up residence between my thighs, and there was undeniably a slight lightness of head not strictly attributable to fever.
“You can if ye’ve been drinking turtle soup as made by Aloysius O’Shaughnessy Murphy,” he said. “By the smell of it, he’s put at least a full bottle o’ the sherry in it. A verra intemperate race, the Irish.”
“Well, I’m still not drunk.” I straightened up against the pillows as best I could. “You told me once that if you could still stand up, you weren’t drunk.”
“You aren’t standing up,” he pointed out.
“You are. And I could if I wanted to. Stop trying to change the subject. We were talking about your firmness.”
“Well, ye can just stop talking about it, because—” He broke off with a small yelp, as I made a fortunate grab with my left hand.
“Clumsy, am I?” I said, with considerable satisfaction. “Oh, my. Heavens, you do have a problem, don’t you?”
“Will ye leave go of me?” he hissed, looking frantically over his shoulder at the door. “Someone could come in any moment!”
“I told you you should have bolted the door,” I said, not letting go. Far from being a dead mullet, the object in my hand was exhibiting considerable liveliness.
He eyed me narrowly, breathing through his nose.
“I wouldna use force on a sick woman,” he said through his teeth, “but you’ve a damn healthy grip for someone with a fever, Sassenach. If you—”
“I told you I felt better,” I interrupted, “but I’ll make you a bargain; you bolt the door and I’ll prove I’m not drunk.” I rather regretfully let go, to indicate good faith. He stood staring at me for a moment, absentmindedly rubbing the site of my recent assault on his virtue. Then he lifted one ruddy eyebrow, turned, and went to bolt the door.
By the time he turned back, I had made it out of the berth and was standing—a trifle shakily, but still upright—against the frame. He eyed me critically.
“It’s no going to work, Sassenach,” he said, shaking his head. He looked rather regretful, himself. “We’ll never stay upright, wi’ a swell like there is underfoot tonight, and ye know I’ll not fit in that berth by myself, let alone wi’ you.”
There was a considerable swell; the lantern on its swivel-bracket hung steady and level, but the shelf above it tilted visibly back and forth as the Artemis rode the waves. I could feel the faint shudder of the boards under my bare feet, and knew Jamie was right. At least he was too absorbed in the discussion to be seasick.
“There’s always the floor,” I suggested hopefully. He glanced down at the limited floor space and frowned. “Aye, well. There is, but we’d have to do it like snakes, Sassenach, all twined round each other amongst the table legs.”
“I don’t mind.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head, “it would hurt your arm.” He rubbed a knuckle across his lower lip, thinking. His eyes passed absently across my body at about hip level, returned, fixed, and lost their focus. I thought the bloody shift must be more transparent than I realized.
Deciding to take matters into my own hands, I let go my hold on the frame of the berth and lurched the two paces necessary to reach him. The roll of the ship threw me into his arms, and he barely managed to keep his own balance, clutching me tightly round the waist.
“Jesus!” he said, staggered, and then, as much from reflex as from desire, bent his head and kissed me.
It was startling. I was accustomed to be surrounded by the warmth of his embrace; now it was I who was hot to the touch and he who was cool. From his reaction, he was enjoying the novelty as much as I was.
Light-headed, and reckless with it, I nipped the side of his neck with my teeth, feeling the waves of heat from my face pulsate against the column of his throat. He felt it, too.
“God, you’re like holding a hot coal!” His hands dropped lower and pressed me hard against him.
“Firm is it? Ha,” I said, getting my mouth free for a moment. “Take those baggy things off.” I slid down his length and onto my knees in front of him, fumbling mazily at his flies. He freed the laces with a quick jerk, and the petticoat breeches ballooned to the floor with a whiff of wind.
I didn’t wait for him to remove his shirt; just lifted it and took him. He made a strangled sound and his hands came down on my head as though he wanted to restrain me, but hadn’t the strength.
“Oh, Lord!” he said. His hands tightened in my hair, but he wasn’t trying to push me away. “This must be what it’s like to make love in Hell,” he whispered. “With a burning she-devil.”
I laughed, which was extremely difficult under the circumstances. I choked, and pulled back a moment, breathless.
“Is this what a succubus does, do you think?”
“I wouldna doubt it for a moment,” he assured me. His hands were still in my hair, urging me back.
A knock sounded on the door, and he froze. Confident that the door was indeed bolted, I didn’t.
“Aye? What is it?” he said, with a calmness rather remarkable for a man in his position.
“Fraser?” Lawrence Stern’s voice came through the door. “The Frenchman says the black is asleep, and may he have leave to go to bed now?”
“No,” said Jamie shortly. “Tell him to stay where he is; I’ll come along and relieve him in a bit.”
“Oh.” Stern’s voice sounded a little hesitant. “Surely. His…um, his wife seems…eager for him to come now.”
Jamie inhaled sharply.
“Tell her,” he said, a small note of strain becoming evident in his voice, “that he’ll be there…presently.”
“I will say so.” Stern sounded dubious about Marsali’s reception of this news, but then his voice brightened. “Ah…is Mrs. Fraser feeling somewhat improved?”
“Verra much,” said Jamie, with feeling.
“She enjoyed the turtle soup?”
“Greatly. I thank ye.” His hands on my head were trembling.
“Did you tell her that I’ve put aside the shell for her? It was a fine hawksbill turtle; a most elegant beast.”
“Aye. Aye, I did.” With an audible gasp, Jamie pulled away and reaching down, lifted me to my feet.
“Good night, Mr. Stern!” he called. He pulled me toward the berth; we struggled four-legged to keep from crashing into tables and chairs as the floor rose and fell beneath us.
“Oh.” Lawrence sounded faintly disappointed. “I suppose Mrs. Fraser is asleep, then?”
“Laugh, and I’ll throttle ye,” Jamie whispered fiercely in my ear. “She is, Mr. Stern,” he called through the door. “I shall give her your respects in the morning, aye?”
“I trust she will rest well. There seems to be a certain roughness to the sea this evening.”
“I…have noticed, Mr. Stern.” Pushing me to my knees in front of the berth, he knelt behind me, groping for the hem of my shift. A cool breeze from the open stern window blew over my naked buttocks, and a shiver ran down the backs of my thighs.
“Should you or Mrs. Fraser find yourselves discommoded by the motion, I have a most capital remedy to hand—a compound of mugwort, bat dung, and the fruit of the mangrove. You have only to ask, you know.”
Jamie didn’t answer for a moment.
“Oh, Christ!” he whispered. I took a sizable bite of the bedclothes.
“I said, ‘Thank you’!” Jamie replied, raising his voice.
“Well, I shall bid you a good evening, then.”
Jamie let out his breath in a long shudder that was not quite a moan.
“Good evening, Mr. Stern!” Jamie bellowed.
“Oh! Er…good evening.”
Stern’s footsteps receded down the companionway, lost in the sound of the waves that were now crashing loudly against the hull. I spit out the mouthful of quilt.
His hands were large and hard and cool on my heated flesh.
“You’ve the roundest arse I’ve ever seen!”
A lurch by the Artemis here aiding his efforts to an untoward degree, I uttered a loud shriek.
“Shh!” He clasped a hand over my mouth, bending over me so that he lay over my back, the billowing linen of his shirt falling around me and the weight of him pressing me to the bed. My skin, crazed with fever, was sensitive to the slightest touch, and I shook in his arms, the heat inside me rushing outward as he moved within me.
His hands were under me then, clutching my breasts, the only anchor as I lost my boundaries and dissolved, conscious thought a displaced element in the chaos of sensations—the warm damp of tangled quilts beneath me, the cold sea wind and misty spray that wafted over us from the rough sea outside, the gasp and brush of Jamie’s warm breath on the back of my neck, and the sudden prickle and flood of cold and heat, as my fever broke in a dew of satisfied desire.
Jamie’s weight rested on my back, his thighs behind mine. It was warm, and comforting. After a long time, his breathing eased, and he rose off me. The thin cotton of my shift was damp, and the wind plucked it away from my skin, making me shiver.
Jamie closed the window with a snap, then bent and picked me up like a rag doll. He lowered me into the berth, and pulled the quilt up over me.
“How is your arm?” he said.
“What arm?” I murmured drowsily. I felt as though I had been melted and poured into a mold to set.
“Good,” he said, a smile in his voice. “Can ye stand up?”
“Not for all the tea in China.”
“I’ll tell Murphy ye liked the soup.” His hand rested for a moment on my cool forehead, passed down the curve of my cheek in a light caress, and then was gone. I didn’t hear him leave.