“And what did you want to buy so much?” I asked suspiciously.
He sighed and hesitated for a moment, then tossed the small package lightly into my lap.
“A wedding ring, Sassenach,” he said. “I got it from Ewen the armorer; he makes such things in his own time.”
“Oh,” I said in a small voice.
“Go ahead,” he said, a moment later. “Open it. It’s yours.”
The outlines of the little package blurred under my fingers. I blinked and sniffed, but made no move to open it. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Well, so ye should be, Sassenach,” he said, but his voice was no longer angry. Reaching, he took the package from my lap and tore away the wrapping, revealing a wide silver band, decorated in the Highland interlace style, a small and delicate Jacobean thistle bloom carved in the center of each link.
So much I saw, and then my eyes blurred again.
I found a handkerchief thrust into my hand, and did my best to stanch the flow with it. “It’s … beautiful,” I said, clearing my throat and dabbling at my eyes.
“Will ye wear it, Claire?” His voice was gentle now, and his use of my name, mostly reserved for occasions of formality or tenderness, nearly made me break down again.
“You needna do so,” he said, looking at me seriously over his cupped palm. “The marriage contract between us is satisfied— it’s legal. You’re protected, safe from anything much save a warrant, and even from that, so long as you’re at Leoch. If ye wish, we may live apart— if that’s what ye were trying to say wi’ all yon rubbish about Laoghaire. You need have little more to do wi’ me, if that’s your honest choice.” He sat motionless, waiting, holding the tiny circlet near his heart.
So he was giving me the choice I had started out to give him. Forced on me by circumstance, he would force himself on me no longer, if I chose to reject him. And there was the alternative, of course: to accept the ring, and all that went with it.
The sun was setting. The last rays of light shone through a blue glass flagon that stood on the table, streaking the wall with a shaft of brilliant lapis. I felt as fragile and as brilliant as the glass, as though I would shatter with a touch, and fall in glittering fragments to the floor. If I had meant to spare either Jamie’s emotions or my own, it seemed I was very much too late.
I couldn’t speak, but held out my right hand to him, fingers trembling. The ring slipped cool and bright over my knuckle and rested snug at the base of my finger— a good fit. Jamie held my hand a moment, looking at it, then suddenly pressed my knuckles hard against his mouth. He raised his head, and I saw his face for an instant, fierce and urgent, before he pulled me roughly onto his lap.
He held me hard against him then, without speaking, and I could feel the pulsebeat in his throat, hammering like my own. His hands went to my bare shoulders, and he held me slightly away, so that I was looking upward into his face. His hands were large and very warm, and I felt slightly dizzy.
“I want ye, Claire,” he said, sounding choked. He paused a moment, as though unsure what to say next. “I want ye so much— I can scarcely breathe. Will—” He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “Will ye have me?”
By now I had found my voice. It squeaked and wobbled, but it worked.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’ll have you.”
“I think …” he began, then stopped. He fumbled loose the buckle of his kilt, but then looked up at me, bunching his hands at his sides. He spoke with difficulty, controlling something so powerful that his hands shook with the effort. “I’ll not … I can’t … Claire, I canna be gentle about it.”
I had time only to nod once, in acknowledgment or permission, before he bore me back before him, his weight pinning me to the bed.
He did not pause to undress further. I could smell the road dust in his shirt, and taste the sun and sweat of travel on his skin. He held me, arms outstretched, wrists pinioned. One hand brushed the wall, and I felt the tiny scrape of one wedding ring chiming against the stone. One ring for each hand, one silver, one gold. And the thin metal suddenly heavy as the bonds of matrimony, as though the rings were tiny shackles, fastening me spread-eagled to the bed, stretched forever between two poles, held in bondage like Prometheus on his lonely rock, divided love the vulture that tore at my heart.
He spread my thighs with his knee and sheathed himself to the root in a single thrust that made me gasp. He made a sound that was almost a groan, and gripped me tighter.
“You’re mine, mo duinne,” he said softly, pressing himself into my depths. “Mine alone, now and forever. Mine, whether ye will it or no.” I pulled against his grip, and sucked in my breath with a faint “ah” as he pressed even deeper.
“Aye, I mean to use ye hard, my Sassenach,” he whispered. “I want to own you, to possess you, body and soul.” I struggled slightly and he pressed me down, hammering me, a solid, inexorable pounding that reached my womb with each stroke. “I mean to make ye call me ‘Master,’ Sassenach.” His soft voice was a threat of revenge for the agonies of the last minutes. “I mean to make you mine.”