“You couldn’t leave him to hang, after all,” I said.
“Oh, aye, I could,” he said, surprising me. He saw me look up at him, and smiled, the wry twist of his mouth barely visible in the dark.
“The Crown doesna always pick the wrong man to hang, Sassenach,” he said. “More often than not, the man on the end of a rope deserves to be there. And I shouldna like to think I’ve helped a villain to go free.” He shrugged, and shoved his hair back out of his face.
“Aye, well, it’s done. Go and have your bath, Sassenach; I’ll come to ye so soon as I may.”
I stood on tiptoe to kiss him, and felt him smile as I did so. My tongue touched his mouth in delicate invitation, and he bit my lower lip gently, in answer.
“Can ye stay awake a wee bit longer, Sassenach?”
“As long as it takes,” I assured him. “But do hurry, won’t you?”
There was a patch of thick grass edging the point below the willows. I undressed slowly, enjoying the feel of the water-borne breeze through the damp cloth of shift and stockings, and the final freedom as the last bits of clothing fell to the ground, leaving me nak*d to the night.
I stepped gingerly into the water. It was surprisingly cool—cold, by contrast to the hot night air. The bottom under my feet was mostly silt, but it yielded to fine sand within a yard of shore.
Though it was a tidal creek, we were far enough upstream that the water was fresh and sweet. I drank and splashed my face, washing away the dust in throat and nose.
I waded in up to mid-thigh, mindful of Jamie’s cautions about channels and currents. After the staggering heat of the day and the smothering embrace of the night, the sensation of coolness on bare skin was an overwhelming relief. I cupped handfuls of cold water and splashed them on my face and br**sts; the droplets ran down my stomach and tickled coldly between my legs.
I could feel the slight push of the tide coming in, shoving gently against my calves, urging me toward shore. I wasn’t ready to come in yet, though. I had no soap, but knelt and rinsed my hair over and over in the clear dark water, and scrubbed my body with handfuls of fine sand, until my skin felt thin and glowing.
Finally, I climbed out onto a rocky shelf and lay languid as a mermaid in the moonlight, the heat of the air and the sun-warmed stone now a comfort to my chilled body. I combed out my thick curly hair with my fingers, scattering drops of water. The wet stone smelled like rain, dusty and tingling.
I felt very tired, but at the same time, very much alive, in that state of half consciousness where thought is slowed and small physical sensations magnified. I moved my bare foot slowly over the sandstone rock, enjoying the slight friction, and ran a hand lightly down the inside of my thigh, a ripple of goose bumps rising in the wake of my touch.
My br**sts rose in the moonlight, cool white domes spangled with clear droplets. I brushed one nipple and watched it slowly stiffen by itself, rising as if by magic.
Quite a magical place at that, I thought. The night was quiet and still, but with a languid atmosphere that was like floating in a warm sea. So near the coast, the sky was clear, and the stars shone overhead like diamonds, burning with a fierce, bright light.
A faint splash made me look toward the stream. Nothing moved on the surface but faint coruscations of starlight, caught like fireflies in a spider’s web.
As I watched, a great head broke water in the middle of the stream, water purling back from the pointed snout. There was a fish struggling in Rollo’s jaws; the flap and gleam of its scales showed briefly as he shook his head violently to break its back. The huge dog swam slowly to the shore, shook his coat briefly, and stalked away, his evening meal dangling limp and shimmering from his jaws.
He paused for a moment on the far edge of the creek, looking at me, the ruff of his hackles a dark shadow framing yellow eyes and gleaming fish. Like a primitive painting, I thought; something from Rousseau, with its contrast of utter wildness and complete stillness.
Then the dog was gone, and there was nothing on the far shore but the trees, hiding whatever might lie behind them. And what did? I wondered. More trees, answered the logical part of my mind.
“A lot more,” I murmured, looking into the mysterious dark. Civilization—even of the primitive kind I had grown used to—was no more than a thin crescent on the edge of the continent. Two hundred miles from the coast, you were beyond the ken of city and farm. And, past that point lay three thousand miles…of what? Wilderness, surely, and danger. Adventure, too—and freedom.
It was a new world, after all, free of fear and filled with joy, for now Jamie and I were together, for all of our lives before us. Parting and sorrow lay behind us. Even the thought of Brianna caused no dreadful regret—I missed her greatly, and thought of her constantly, but I knew she was safe in her own time, and that knowledge made her absence easier to bear.
I lay back on the rock, the trapped heat of the day radiating from its surface into my body, happy only to be alive. The drops of water were drying on my br**sts as I watched, vanishing to a film of moistness and then disappearing altogether.
Small clouds of gnats hovered over the water; I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there by the occasional splash of leaping fish, rising to snatch them from the air.
The bugs had been a ubiquitous plague. I inspected Jamie’s skin minutely every morning, picking voracious ticks and wood fleas from his crevices, and anointed all of the men liberally with the juice of crushed pennyroyal and tobacco leaves. This kept them from being devoured alive by the clouds of mosquitoes, gnats, and carnivorous midges that hung in the sun-tinged shadows of the woods, but it didn’t prevent the hordes of inquisitive bugs from driving them mad with a constant tickling inquiry into ears, eyes, noses, and mouths.
Oddly enough, the majority of insects left me strictly alone. Ian joked that the strong scent of herbs that hung about me must repel them, but I thought it went further than that—even when I was freshly bathed, the insects showed no desire to bother me.
I thought it might be a manifestation of the evolutionary oddity that—I surmised—protected me from colds and minor illness here. Bloodthirsty bugs, like microbes, evolved very closely with humans, and were sensitive to the subtle chemical signals of their hosts. Coming from another time, I no longer had precisely the same signals, and consequently the bugs no longer perceived me as prey.
“Or maybe Ian’s right, and I just smell awful,” I said aloud. I dipped my fingers in the water and flicked a spray of drops at a dragonfly resting on my rock, no more than a transparent shadow, its colors drained by darkness.
I hoped Jamie would hurry. Riding for days on the wagon seat next to him, watching the subtle shifts of his body as he drove, seeing the changing light on the angles of his face as he talked and smiled, was enough to make my palms tingle with the urge to touch him. We had not made love in several days, owing to our hurry to reach Charleston, and my inhibitions about intimacy within earshot of a dozen men.
A breath of warm breeze slipped past me, and all the tiny down hairs on my body prickled with its passing. No hurry now, and no one to hear. I drew a hand down the soft curve of my belly and the softer skin inside my thighs, where the blood pulsed slowly to the beat of my heart. I cupped my hand, feeling the swollen moist ache of urgent desire.
I closed my eyes, rubbing lightly, enjoying the feeling of increasing urgency.
“And where the hell are you, Jamie Fraser?” I murmured.
“Here,” came a husky answer.
Startled, my eyes popped open. He was standing in the stream, six feet away, thigh-deep in the water, his gen**als stiff and dark against the pallid glow of his body. His hair lay loose around his shoulders, framing a face white as bone, eyes unblinking and intent as those of the wolf-dog. Utter wildness, utter stillness.
Then he stirred and came toward me, still intent, but still no longer. His thighs were cold as water when he touched me, but within seconds he warmed and grew hot. Sweat sprang up at once where his hands touched my skin, and a flush of hot moisture dampened my br**sts once more, making them round and slick against the hardness of his chest.
Then his mouth moved to mine and I melted—almost literally—into him. I didn’t care how hot it was, or whether the dampness on my skin was my sweat or his. Even the clouds of insects faded into insignificance. I raised my h*ps and he slid home, slick and solid, the last faint coolness of him quenched by my heat, like the cold metal of a sword, slaked in hot blood.
My hands glided on a film of moisture over the curves of his back, and my br**sts wobbled against his chest, a rivulet trickling between them to oil the friction of belly and thigh.
“Christ, your mouth is slick and salty as your quim,” he muttered, and his tongue darted out to taste the tiny beads of salt on my face, butterfly wings on temple and eyelids.
I was vaguely conscious of the hard rock under me. The stored heat of the day rose up and through me, and the rough surface scraped my back and buttocks, but I didn’t care.
“I can’t wait,” he said in my ear, breathless.
“Don’t,” I said, and wrapped my legs tight around his hips, flesh bonded to flesh in the brief madness of dissolution.
“I have heard of melting with passion,” I said, gasping slightly, “but this is ridiculous.”
He lifted his head from my breast with a faint sticky sound as his cheek came away. He laughed and slid slowly sideways.
“God, it’s hot!” he said. He pushed back the sweat-soaked hair from his forehead and blew out his breath, chest still heaving from exertion. “How do folk do that when it’s like this?”
“The same way we just did,” I pointed out. I was breathing heavily myself.
“They can’t,” he said with certainty. “Not all the time; they’d die.”
“Well, maybe they do it slower,” I said. “Or underwater. Or wait until the autumn.”
“Autumn?” he said. “Perhaps I dinna want to live in the south, after all. Is it hot in Boston?”
“It is at this time of year,” I assured him. “And beastly cold in the winter. I’m sure you’ll get used to the heat. And the bugs.”
He brushed a questing mosquito off his shoulder and glanced from me to the nearby creek.
“Maybe so,” he said, “and maybe no, but for now…” He wrapped his arms firmly around me, and rolled. With the ponderous grace of a rolling log, we fell off the edge of the rocky shelf, and into the water.
We lay damp and cool on the rock, barely touching, the last drops of water evaporating on our skins. Across the creek, the willows trailed their leaves in the water, crowns ruffled black against the setting moon. Beyond the willows lay acre upon acre and mile upon mile of the virgin forest, civilization for now no more than a foothold on the edge of the continent.
Jamie saw the direction of my glance and divined my thought.
“It will be a good bit different now than when ye last kent it, I expect?” He nodded toward the leafy dark.
“Oh, a bit.” I linked my hand with his, my thumb idly caressing his big, bony knuckles. “The roads will be paved then; not cobbled, covered with a hard, smooth stuff—invented by a Scotsman called MacAdam, in fact.”