Read Drums of Autumn Online

Authors: Diana Gabaldon

Drums of Autumn (9 page)

“Well, you can’t really blame them,” I protested.

“I most certainly can,” he assured me. “If one of the brutes scalps ye, I shall blame him a great deal.”

“Ah…hmm,” I said. I cleared my throat and had another stab at it. “Well, what if a bunch of strangers came round and tried to kill you and shove you off the land you’d always lived on?”

“They have,” he said, very dryly indeed. “If they hadna, I should still be in Scotland, aye?”

“Well…” I said, floundering. “But all I mean is—you’d fight, too, under those circumstances, wouldn’t you?”

He drew a deep breath and exhaled strongly through his nose.

“If an English dragoon came round to my house and began to worry me,” he said precisely, “I should certainly fight him. I would also have not the slightest hesitation in killing him. I would
not
cut off his hair and wave it about, and I wouldna be eating his private parts, either. I am not a savage, Sassenach.”

“I didn’t say you were,” I protested. “All I said was—”

“Besides,” he added with inexorable logic, “I dinna mean to be killing any Indians. If they keep to themselves, I shallna be worrying them a bit.”

“I’m sure they’ll be relieved to know that,” I murmured, giving up for the present.

We lay cradled close together in the hollow of the rock, lightly glued with sweat, watching the stars. I felt at once shatteringly happy and mildly apprehensive. Could this state of exaltation possibly last? Once I had taken “forever” for granted between us, but I was younger, then.

Soon, God willing, we would settle; find a place to make a home and a life. I wanted nothing more, and yet at the same time, I worried. We had known each other only a few months since my return. Each touch, each word was still at once tinged with memory and new with rediscovery. What would happen when we were thoroughly accustomed to each other, living day by day in a routine of mundane tasks?

“Will ye grow tired of me, do ye think?” he murmured. “Once we’re settled?”

“I was just wondering the same thing about you.”

“No,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “That I willna, Sassenach.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I didn’t,” he pointed out. “Before. We were wed three years, and I wanted ye as much on the last day as the first. More, maybe,” he added softly, thinking, as I was, of the last time we had made love before he sent me through the stones.

I leaned down and kissed him. He tasted clean and fresh, faintly scented with the pungency of sex.

“I did, too.”

“Then dinna trouble yourself about it, Sassenach, and neither will I.” He stroked my hair, smoothing damp curls off my forehead. “I could know ye all my life, I think, and always love you. And often as I’ve lain wi’ you, ye still surprise me mightily sometimes, like ye did tonight.”

“I do? Why, what have I done?” I stared down at him, surprised myself.

“Oh…well. I didna mean…that is—”

He sounded suddenly shy, and there was an unaccustomed stiffness in his body.

“Mm?” I kissed the tip of his ear.

“Ah…when I came upon you…what ye were doing…I mean—were ye doing what I thought?”

I smiled against his shoulder in the darkness.

“I suppose that depends what you thought, doesn’t it?”

He lifted up on one elbow, his skin coming away from mine with a small sucking noise. The damp spot where he had adhered was suddenly cool. He rolled onto his side and grinned at me.

“Ye ken verra well what I thought, Sassenach.”

I touched his chin, shadowed with sprouting whiskers.

“I do. And you know perfectly well what I was doing, too, so why are you asking?”

“Well, I—I didna think women did that, is all.”

The moon was bright enough for me to see his half-cocked eyebrow.

“Well, men do,” I pointed out. “Or you do, at least. You told me so—when you were in prison, you said you—”

“That was different!” I could see his mouth twist as he tried to decide what to say. “I—that is to say, there wasna any help for it then. After all, I couldna be—”

“Haven’t you done it other times?” I sat up and fluffed out my damp hair, glancing sidelong at him over my shoulder. A blush didn’t show in the moonlight, but I thought he had gone pink.

“Aye, well,” he muttered. “I suppose I have, yes.” A sudden thought struck him and his eyes widened, looking at me. “Do you—have ye done that—often?” The last word emerged in a croak, and he was obliged to stop and clear his throat.

“I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘often,’ ” I said, allowing a bit of acerbity to creep into my tone. “I was widowed for two years, you know.”

He rubbed a knuckle over his lips, eyeing me with interest.

“Aye, that’s so. It’s only—well, I hadna thought of women doing such a thing, is all.” Growing fascination was overcoming his surprise. “You can—finish? Without a man, I mean?”

That made me laugh out loud, and soft reverberations sounded from the trees around us, echoed by the stream.

“Yes, but it’s much nicer with a man,” I assured him. I reached out and touched his chest. I could see the goose bumps ripple over his chest and shoulders, and he shivered slightly as I drew a fingertip in a gentle circle round one nipple. “Much,” I said softly.

“Oh,” he said, sounding happy. “Well, that’s good, aye?”

He was hot—even hotter than the liquid air—and my first instinct was to draw back, but I didn’t follow it. Sweat sprang up at once where his hands rested on my skin, and trickles of sweat ran down my neck.

“I’ve never made love to ye before like this,” he said. “Like eels, aye? Wi’ your body sliding through my hands, all slippery as seaweed.” Both hands passed slowly down my back, his thumbs pressing the groove of my spine, making the tiny hairs at the base of my neck prickle with pleasure.

“Mm. That’s because it’s too cold in Scotland to sweat like pigs,” I said. “Though come to that, do pigs really sweat? I’ve always wondered.”

“I couldna say; I’ve never made love to a pig.” His head ducked down and his tongue touched my breast. “But ye do taste a bit like a trout, Sassenach.”

“I taste like a
what
?”

“Fresh and sweet, wi’ a bit of salt,” he explained, lifting his head for a moment. He put it back down, and resumed his downward course.

“That tickles,” I said, quivering under his tongue, but making no effort to escape.

“Well, I mean it to,” he answered, lifting his wet face for a breath before returning to his work. “I shouldna like to think ye could do without me entirely.”

“I can’t,” I assured him. “Oh!”

“Ah?” came a thick interrogative. I lay back on the rock, my back arching as the stars spun dizzily overhead.

“I said…‘oh,’ ” I said faintly. And then didn’t say anything coherent for some time, until he lay panting, chin resting lightly on my pubic bone. I reached down and stroked the sweat-drenched hair away from his face, and he turned his head to kiss my palm.

“I feel like Eve,” I said softly, watching the moon set behind him, over the dark of the forest. “Just on the edge of the Garden of Eden.”

There was a small snort of laughter from the vicinity of my navel.

“Aye, and I suppose I’m Adam,” Jamie said. “In the gateway to Paradise.” He turned his head to look wistfully across the creek toward the vast unknown, resting his cheek on the slope of my belly. “I only wish I knew was I coming in, or going out?”

I laughed myself, startling him. I took him by both ears then, urging him gently up across the slippery expanse of my naked flesh.

“In,” I said. “I don’t see an angel with a fiery sword, after all.”

He lowered himself upon me, his own flesh heated as with fever, and I shivered under him.

“No?” he murmured. “Aye, well, you’ll no be looking close enough, I suppose.”

Then the fiery sword severed me from consciousness and set fire to my body. We blazed up together, bright as stars in the summer night, and then sank back burnt and limbless, ashes dissolved in a primordial sea of warm salt, stirring with the nascent throbbings of life.

P
ART
T
WO

Past Imperfect

3

THE MINISTER’S CAT

Boston, Massachusetts, June 1969

B
rianna?”

“Ha?” She sat bolt upright, heart pounding, the sound of her name ringing in her ear. “Who—wha’?”

“You were asleep. Damn, I knew I’d got the time wrong! Sorry, shall I ring off?”

It was the faint hint of a burr in his voice that belatedly made the scrambled connections of her nervous system fall into place. Phone. Ringing phone. She’d snatched it by reflex, deep in her dream.

“Roger!” The rush of adrenaline from being startled awake was fading, but her heart was still beating fast. “No, don’t hang up! It’s all right, I’m awake.” She scrubbed a hand over her face, trying at once to disentangle the phone cord and straighten the rumpled bedclothes.

“Aye? You’re sure? What time is it there?”

“I don’t know; it’s too dark to see the clock,” she said, still sleep-addled. A reluctant deep chuckle answered her.

“I
am
sorry; I tried to calculate the time difference, but must’ve got it backward. Didn’t mean to wake you.”

“That’s okay, I had to wake up to answer the phone anyway,” she assured him, and laughed.

“Aye. Well…” She could hear the answering smile in his voice, and eased herself back against the pillows, shoving tangles of hair out of her eyes, slowly adjusting to the here and now. The feel of her dream was still with her, more real than the dark-shrouded shapes of her bedroom.

“It’s good to hear your voice, Roger,” she said softly. She was surprised at just
how
good it was. His voice was far away and yet seemed much more immediate than the far-off whines of sirens, and the
whish!
of tires on wet pavement outside.

“Yours, too.” He sounded a little shy. “Look—I’ve got the chance of a conference next month, in Boston. I thought of coming, if—damn, there’s no good way to say this. Do you want to see me?”

Her hand squeezed tight on the receiver, and her heart jumped.

“I’m sorry,” he said at once, before she could reply. “That’s putting you on the spot, isn’t it? I—look—just say straight out if you’d rather not.”

“I do. Of course I want to see you!”

“Ah. You don’t mind, then? Only…you didn’t answer my letter. I thought maybe I’d done something—”

“No, you didn’t. I’m sorry. It was just—”

“It’s fine, I didn’t mean—”

Their sentences collided, and they both stopped, stricken with shyness.

“I didn’t want to push—”

“I didn’t mean to be—”

It happened again, and this time he laughed, a low sound of Scottish amusement coming over the vast distance of space and time, comforting as though he’d touched her.

“It’s all right, then,” he said firmly. “I do understand, aye?”

She didn’t answer, but closed her eyes, an indefinable sensation of relief sweeping over her. Roger Wakefield was likely the only person in the world who
could
understand; what she hadn’t fully realized before was how important that understanding might be.

“I was dreaming,” she said. “When the phone rang.”

“Mmphm?”

“About my father.” Her throat tightened, just a little, whenever she spoke the word. The same thing happened when she said “mother,” too. She could still smell the sun-warmed pines of her dream, and feel the crunch of pine needles under her boots.

“I couldn’t see his face. I was walking with him, in the woods somewhere. I was following him up a trail, and he was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying—I kept hurrying, trying to catch up, so I could hear, but I couldn’t quite manage.”

“But you knew the man was your father?”

“Yes—but maybe I only thought so because of hiking in the mountains. I used to do that with Dad.”

“Did you? I used to do that with my dad, as well. If you come back to Scotland ever, I’ll take ye Munro bagging.”

“You’ll take me
what?

He laughed, and she had a sudden memory of him, brushing back the thick black hair that he didn’t cut often enough, moss-green eyes creased half-shut by his smile. She found she was rubbing the tip of her thumb slowly across her lower lip, and stopped herself. He’d kissed her when they parted.

“A Munro is any Scottish peak more than three thousand feet. There are so many of them, it’s a sport to see how many you can climb. Folk collect them, like stamps, or matchbooks.”

“Where are you now—Scotland or England?” she said, then interrupted before he could answer. “No, let me see if I can guess. It’s…Scotland. You’re in Inverness.”

“That’s right.” The surprise was evident in his voice. “How did you know that?”

She stretched, scissoring her long legs slowly under the sheets.

“You roll your r’s when you’ve been talking to other Scots,” she said. “You don’t when you talk to English people. I noticed when we—went to London.” There was no more than a faint catch in her voice; it was getting easier, she thought.

“And herrrrre I was beginning to think ye were psychic,” he said, and laughed.

“I wish you were here now,” she said impulsively.

“You do?” He sounded surprised, and suddenly shy. “Oh. Well…that’s good, isn’t it?”

“Roger—why I didn’t write—”

“You’re not to trouble about it,” he said quickly. “I’ll be there in a month; we can talk, then. Bree, I—”

“Yes?”

She heard him draw breath, and had a vivid memory of the feel of his chest rising and falling as he breathed, warm and solid under her hand.

“I’m glad you said yes.”

She couldn’t go back to sleep after hanging up; restless, she swung her feet out of bed and padded out to the kitchen of the small apartment for a glass of milk. It was only after several minutes of staring blankly into the recesses of the refrigerator that she realized she wasn’t seeing ranks of ketchup bottles and half-used cans. She was seeing standing stones, black against a pale dawn sky.

She straightened up with a small exclamation of impatience, and shut the door with a slam. She shivered slightly, and rubbed her arms, chilled by the draft of the air conditioner. Impulsively, she reached up and clicked it off, then went to the window and raised the sash, letting in the warm mugginess of the rainy summer night.

She should have written. In fact, she
had
written—several times, all half-finished attempts thrown away in frustration.

She knew why, or thought she did. Explaining it coherently to Roger was something else.

Part of it was the simple instinct of a wounded animal; the urge to run away and hide from hurt. What had happened the year before was in no way Roger’s fault, but he was inextricably wrapped up in it.

He’d been so tender, and so kind afterward, treating her like one freshly bereaved—which she was. But such a strange bereavement! Her mother gone for good, but certainly—she hoped—not dead. And yet it was in some ways just as it had been when her father died; like believing in a blessed afterlife, ardently hoping that your loved one was safe and happy—and being forced to suffer the pangs of loss and loneliness nonetheless.

An ambulance went by, across the park, red light pulsing in the dark, its siren muted by distance.

She crossed herself from habit, and murmured
“Miserere nobis”
under her breath. Sister Marie Romaine had told the fifth grade that the dead and dying needed their prayers; so strongly had she inculcated the notion in her class that none of the children had ever been able to pass the scene of an emergency without sending a small silent prayer upward, to succor the souls of the imminently heaven-bound.

She prayed for them every day, her mother and her father—her fathers. That was the other part of it. Uncle Joe knew the truth of her paternity, too, but only Roger could truly understand what had happened; only Roger could hear the stones, too.

No one could pass through an experience like that and not be marked by it. Not him, not her. He’d wanted her to stay, after Claire had gone, but she couldn’t.

There were things to do here, she’d told him, things to be attended to, her schooling to finish. That was true. More importantly, she’d had to get away—get clear away from Scotland and stone circles, back to a place where she might heal, might begin to rebuild her life.

If she’d stayed with Roger, there was no way to forget what had happened, even for a moment. And that was the last part of it, the final piece in her three-sided puzzle.

He had protected her, had cherished her. Her mother had confided her into his care, and he’d kept that trust well. But had he done it to keep his promise to Claire—or because he truly cared? Either way, it wasn’t any basis for a shared future, with the crushing weight of obligation on both sides.

If there might be a future for them…and that was what she couldn’t write to him, because how could she say it without sounding both presumptuous and idiotic?

“Go away, so you can come back and do it right,” she murmured, and made a face at the words. The rain was still pattering down, cooling the air enough to breathe comfortably. It was just before dawn, she thought, but the air was still warm enough that moisture condensed on the cool skin of her face; small beads of water formed and slid tickling down her neck one by one, dampening the cotton T-shirt she slept in.

She’d wanted to put the events of last November well behind them; make a clean break. Then, when enough time had passed, perhaps they could come to each other again. Not as supporting players in the drama of her parents’ life, but this time as the actors in a play of their own choosing.

No, if anything was to happen between her and Roger Wakefield, it would definitely be by choice. It looked as though she was going to get the chance to choose now, and the prospect gave her a small, excited flutter in the pit of her stomach.

She wiped a hand over her face, slicking off the rain-wet, wiping it casually through her hair to tame the floating strands. If she wasn’t going to sleep, she might as well work.

She left the window open, careless of the rain puddling on the floor. She felt too restless to be sealed in, chilled by artificial air.

Clicking on the lamp on the desk, she pulled out her calculus book and opened it. One small and unexpected bonus of her change of study was her belated discovery of the soothing effects of mathematics.

When she had come back to Boston, alone, and back to school, engineering had seemed a much safer choice than history; solid, fact-bound, reassuringly immutable. Above all, controllable. She picked up a pencil, sharpened it slowly, enjoying the preparation, then bent her head and read the first problem.

Slowly, as it always did, the calm inexorable logic of the figures built its web inside her head, trapping all the random thoughts, wrapping the distracting emotions up in silken threads like so many flies. Round the central axis of the problem, logic spun her web, orderly and beautiful as an orb-weaver’s jeweled confection. Only the one small thought stayed free of its strands, hovering in her mind like a bright, tiny butterfly.

I’m glad you said yes,
he’d said. So was she.

July 1969

“Does he talk like the Beatles? Oh, I’ll just die if he sounds like John Lennon! You know how he says, ‘It’s me grandfather?’ That just knocks me out!”

“He doesn’t sound anything like John Lennon, for God’s sake!” Brianna hissed. She peered cautiously around a concrete pillar, but the International Arrivals gate was still empty. “Can’t you tell the difference between a Liverpudlian and a Scot?”

“No,” her friend Gayle said blithely, fluffing out her blond hair. “All Englishmen sound the same to me. I could listen to them forever!”

“He’s not an Englishman! I told you, he’s a Scot!”

Gayle gave Brianna a look, clearly suggesting that her friend was crazed.

“Scotland’s part of England; I looked on the map.”

“Scotland’s part of Great Britain, not England.”

“What’s the difference?” Gayle stuck her head out and craned around the pillar. “Why are we standing back here? He’ll never see us.”

Brianna ran a hand over her hair to smooth it. They were standing behind a pillar because she wasn’t sure she
wanted
him to see them. Not much help for it, though; disheveled passengers were beginning to trickle through the double doors, burdened with luggage.

She let Gayle tow her out into the main reception area, still babbling. Her friend’s tongue led a double life; though Gayle was capable of cool and reasoned discourse in class, her chief social skill was babbling on cue. That was why Bree had asked Gayle to come with her to the airport to pick up Roger; no chance of any awkward pauses in the conversation.

“Have you done it with him already?”

She jerked toward Gayle, startled.

“Have I done
what
?”

Gayle rolled her eyes.

“Played tiddlywinks. Honestly, Bree!”

“No. Of course not.” She felt the blood rising in her cheeks.

“Well, are you
going
to?”

“Gayle!”

“Well, I mean, you have your own apartment and everything, and nobody’s going to—”

At this awkward moment, Roger Wakefield appeared. He wore a white shirt and scruffy jeans, and Brianna must have stiffened at the sight of him. Gayle’s head whipped round to see where Brianna was looking.

“Ooh,” she said in delight. “Is that him? He looks like a
pirate
!”

He did, and Brianna felt the bottom of her stomach drop another inch or two. Roger was what her mother called a Black Celt, with clear olive skin and black hair, and “eyes put in with a sooty thumb”—thick black lashes round eyes you expected to be blue but that were instead a surprising deep green. With his hair worn long enough to brush his collar, disheveled and beard-stubbled, he looked not only rakish but mildly dangerous.

Alarm tingled up her spine at the sight of him, and she wiped sweating palms on the sides of her embroidered jeans. She shouldn’t have let him come.

Then he saw her, and his face lit like a candle. In spite of herself, she felt a huge, idiotic smile break out on her own face in answer, and without stopping to think of misgivings, she ran across the room, dodging stray children and luggage carts.

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