He smiled suddenly, the haze of fatigue gone. “Oh, aye. Chickens are verra poor company, especially on a long journey.” Realizing that the dressing was completed, he hunched the shoulder experimentally, wincing as he did so.
“Don’t do that!” I said in alarm. “You really mustn’t move it. In fact,” I glanced at the table, to be sure there were some strips of dry fabric left. “I’m going to strap that arm to your side. Hold still.”
He didn’t speak further, but relaxed a bit under my hands when he realized that it wasn’t going to hurt. I felt an odd sense of intimacy with this young Scottish stranger, due in part, I thought, to the dreadful story he had just told me, and in part to our long ride through the dark, pressed together in drowsy silence. I had not slept with many men other than my husband, but I had noticed before that to sleep, actually sleep with someone did give this sense of intimacy, as though your dreams had flowed out of you to mingle with his and fold you both in a blanket of unconscious knowing. A throwback of some kind, I thought. In older, more primitive times (like these? asked another part of my mind), it was an act of trust to sleep in the presence of another person. If the trust was mutual, simple sleep could bring you closer together than the joining of bodies.
The strapping finished, I helped him on with the rough linen shirt, easing it over the bad shoulder. He stood up to tuck it one-handed into his kilt, and smiled down at me.
“I thank ye, Claire. You’ve a good touch.” His hand reached out as though to touch my face, but he seemed to think better of it; the hand wavered and dropped to his side. Apparently he had felt that odd surge of intimacy too. I looked hastily away, flipping a hand in a think-nothing-of-it gesture.
My gaze traveled around the room, taking in the smoke-blacked fireplace, the narrow, unglazed windows, and the solid oak furnishings. No electrical fittings. No carpeting. No shiny brass knobs on the bedstead.
It looked, in fact, like an eighteenth-century castle. But what about Frank? The man I had met in the wood looked disturbingly like him, but Jamie’s description of Captain Randall was completely foreign to everything I knew about my gentle, peace-loving husband. But then, if it were true— and I was beginning to admit, even to myself, that it might be— then he could in fact be almost anything. A man I knew only from a genealogical chart was not necessarily bound to resemble his descendants in conduct.
But it was Frank himself I was concerned with at the moment. If I was, in fact, in the eighteenth century, where was he? What would he do when I failed to return to Mrs. Baird’s? Would I ever see him again? Thinking about Frank was the last straw. Since the moment I stepped into the rock and ordinary life ceased to exist, I had been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped and jostled. I had not eaten or slept properly for more than twenty-four hours. I tried to control myself, but my lip wobbled and my eyes filled in spite of myself.
I turned to the fire to hide my face, but too late. Jamie took my hand, asking in a gentle voice what was wrong. The firelight glinted on my gold wedding band, and I began to sniffle in earnest.
“Oh, I’ll … I’ll be all right, it’s all right, really, it’s … just my … my husband … I don’t—”
“Ah lass, are ye widowed, then?” His voice was so full of sympathetic concern that I lost control entirely.
“No … yes … I mean, I don’t … yes, I suppose I am!” Overcome with emotion and tiredness, I collapsed against him, sobbing hysterically.
The lad had nice feelings. Instead of calling for help or retreating in confusion, he sat down, gathered me firmly onto his lap with his good arm and sat rocking me gently, muttering soft Gaelic in my ear and smoothing my hair with one hand. I wept bitterly, surrendering momentarily to my fear and heartbroken confusion, but slowly I began to quiet a bit, as Jamie stroked my neck and back, offering me the comfort of his broad, warm chest. My sobs lessened and I began to calm myself, leaning tiredly into the curve of his shoulder. No wonder he was so good with horses, I thought blearily, feeling his fingers rubbing gently behind my ears, listening to the soothing, incomprehensible speech. If I were a horse, I’d let him ride me anywhere.
This absurd thought coincided unfortunately with my dawning realization that the young man was not completely exhausted after all. In fact, it was becoming embarrassingly obvious to both of us. I coughed and cleared my throat, wiping my eyes with my sleeve as I slid off his lap.
“I’m so sorry … that is, I mean, thank you for … but I …” I was babbling, backing away from him with my face flaming. He was a bit flushed, too, but not disconcerted. He reached for my hand and pulled me back. Careful not to touch me otherwise, he put a hand under my chin and forced my head up to face him.
“Ye need not be scairt of me,” he said softly. “Nor of anyone here, so long as I’m with ye.” He let go and turned to the fire.
“You need somethin’ hot, lass,” he said matter-of-factly, “and a bit to eat as well. Something in your belly will help more than anything.” I laughed shakily at his attempts to pour broth one-handed, and went to help. He was right; food did help. We sipped broth and ate bread in a companionable silence, sharing the growing comfort of warmth and fullness.
Finally, he stood up, picking up the fallen quilt from the floor. He dropped it back on the bed, and motioned me toward it. “Do ye sleep a bit, Claire. You’re worn out, and likely someone will want to talk wi’ ye before too long.”
This was a sinister reminder of my precarious position, but I was too exhausted to care much. I uttered no more than a pro forma protest at taking the bed; I had never seen anything so enticing. Jamie assured me that he could find a bed elsewhere. I fell headfirst into the pile of quilts and was asleep before he reached the door.