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“The Pretenders”

Copyright © 1992 Diana Gabaldon

Le Havre, France, 1744

2017-11-Dragonfly-20th-Anniv“Bread,” I muttered feebly, keeping my eyes tightly closed. There was no response from the large, warm object next to me, other than the faint sigh of his breathing.

“Bread!” I said, a little louder. There was a sudden startled heave of the bedclothes, and I grasped the edge of the mattress and tightened all my muscles, hoping to stabilize the pitch and yaw of my internal organs.

Fumbling noises came from the far side of the bed, followed by the sliding of a drawer, a muffled exclamation in Gaelic, the soft thud of a bare foot stamping planks, and then the sinking of the mattress under the weight of a heavy body.

“Here, Sassenach,” said an anxious voice, and I felt the touch of a dry bread crust against my lower lip. Groping blindly without opening my eyes, I grasped it and began to chew gingerly, forcing each choking bite down a parched throat. I knew better than to ask for water.

The dessicated wads of bread crumbs gradually made their way down my throat and took up residence in my stomach, where they lay like small heaps of ballast. The nauseating roll of my inner waves slowly calmed, and at last my innards lay at anchor. I opened my eyes, to see the anxious face of Jamie Fraser hovering a few inches above me.

“Ak!” I said, startled.

“All right, then?” he asked. When I nodded and feebly began to sit up, he put an arm around my back to help me.

Sitting down beside me on the rough inn bed, he pulled me gently against him and stroked my sleep-tousled hair.

“Poor love,” he said. “Would a bit of wine help? There’s a flask of hock in my saddlebag.”

“No. No, thank you.” I shuddered briefly at the thought of drinking hock—I seemed to smell the dark, fruity fumes, just at the mention of it—and pushed myself upright.

“I’ll be fine in a moment,” I said, with forced cheerfulness. “Don’t worry, it’s quite normal for pregnant women to feel sick in the morning.”

With a dubious look at me, Jamie rose and went to retrieve his clothes from the stool near the window. France in February is cold as hell frozen over, and the bubbled-glass panes of the window were coated thick with frost.

He was naked, and a ripple of gooseflesh brushed his shoulders and raised the red-gold hairs on his arms and legs. Accustomed to cold, though, he neither shivered nor hurried as he pulled on stockings and shirt. Pausing in his dressing, he came back to the bed and hugged me briefly.

“Go back to bed,” he suggested. “I’ll send up the chambermaid to light the fire. Perhaps ye can rest a bit, now you’ve eaten. You won’t be sick now?” I wasn’t entirely sure, but nodded reassuringly.

“I don’t think so.” I cast an eye back at the bed; the quilts, like most coverings supplied by public inns, were none too clean. Still, the silver in Jamie’s purse had procured us the best room in the inn, and the narrow bed was stuffed with goose feathers rather than with chaff or wool.

“Um, perhaps I will just lie down a moment,” I murmured, pulling my feet off the freezing floor and thrusting them under the quilts, in search of the last remnants of warmth. My stomach seemed to have settled sufficiently to risk a sip of water, and I poured a cupful from the cracked bedroom ewer.

“What were you stamping on?” I asked, sipping carefully. “There aren’t spiders up here, are there?”

Fastening his kilt about his waist, Jamie shook his head.

“Och, no,” he said. Hands busy, he tilted his head toward the table. “Just a rat. After the bread, I expect.”

Glancing down, I saw the limp gray form on the floor, a small pearl of blood glistening on the snout. I made it out of bed just in time.

“It’s all right,” I said faintly, a bit later. “There isn’t anything left to throw up.”

“Rinse your mouth, Sassenach, but don’t swallow, for God’s sake.” Jamie held the cup for me, wiped my mouth with a cloth as though I were a small and messy child, then lifted me and laid me carefully back in the bed. He frowned worriedly down at me.
“Perhaps I’d better stay here,” he said. “I could send word.”

“No, no, I’m all right,” I said. And I was. Fight as I would to keep from vomiting in the mornings, I could hold nothing down for long. Yet once the bout was over, I felt entirely restored. Aside from a sour taste in my mouth, and a slight soreness in the abdominal muscles, I felt quite my normal self. I threw back the covers and stood up, to demonstrate.

“See? I’ll be fine. And you have to go; it wouldn’t do to keep your cousin waiting, after all.”

I was beginning to feel cheerful again, despite the chilly air rushing under the door and beneath the folds of my nightgown. Jamie was still hesitating, reluctant to leave me, and I went to him and hugged him tightly, both in reassurance and because he was delightfully warm.

“Brrr,” I said. “How on earth can you be warm as toast, dressed in nothing but a kilt?”

“I’ve a shirt on as well,” he protested, smiling down at me.

We clung together for a bit, enjoying each other’s warmth in the quiet cold of the early French morning. In the corridor, the clash and shuffle of the chambermaid with her scuttle of kindling grew nearer.

Jamie shifted a bit, pressing against me. Because of the difficulties of traveling in the winter, we had been nearly a week on the road from Ste. Anne to Le Havre. And between the late arrivals at dismal inns, wet, filthy, and shivering with fatigue and cold, and the increasingly unsettled wakenings as my morning sickness got worse, we had scarcely touched each other since our last night at the Abbey.

“Come to bed with me?” I invited, softly.

He hesitated. The strength of his desire was obvious through the fabric of his kilt, and his hands were warm on the cool flesh of my own, but he didn’t move to take me in his arms.

“Well . . .” he said doubtfully.

“You want to, don’t you?” I said, sliding a chilly hand under his kilt to make sure.

“Oh! er . . . aye. Aye, I do.” The evidence at hand bore out this statement. He groaned faintly as I cupped my hand between his legs. “Oh, Lord. Don’t do that, Sassenach; I canna keep my hands from ye.”

He did hug me then, wrapping long arms about me and pulling my face into the snowy tucks of his shirt, smelling faintly of the laundry starch Brother Alfonse used at the Abbey.

“Why should you?” I said, muffled in his linen. “You’ve a bit of time to spare, surely? It’s only a short ride to the docks.”

“It isna that,” he said, smoothing my riotous hair.

“Oh, I’m too fat?” In fact, my stomach was still nearly flat, and I was thinner than usual because of the sickness. “Or is it . . . ?”

“No,” he said, smiling. “Ye talk too much.” He bent and kissed me, then scooped me up and sat down on the bed, holding me on his lap. I lay down and pulled him determinedly down on top of me.

“Claire, no!” he protested as I started unbuckling his kilt.

I stared at him. “Whyever not?”

“Well,” he said awkwardly, blushing a bit. “The child… I mean, I dinna want to hurt it.”

I laughed.

“Jamie, you can’t hurt it. It’s no bigger than the tip of my finger yet.” I held up a finger in illustration, then used it to trace the full, curving line of his lower lip. He seized my hand and bent to kiss me abruptly, as though to erase the tickle of my touch.

“You’re sure?” he asked. “I mean… I keep thinking he wouldna like being jounced about…”

“He’ll never notice,” I assured him, hands once more busy with the buckle of his kilt.

“Well… if you’re sure of it.”

There was a peremptory rap at the door, and with impeccable Gallic timing, the chambermaid pushed her way in backward, carelessly gouging the door with a billet of wood as she turned. From the scarred surfaces of door and jamb, it appeared that this was her usual method of operations.

“Bonjour, Monsieur, Madame,” she muttered, with a curt nod toward the bed as she shuffled toward the hearth. All right for some people, said her attitude, louder than words. Used by this time to the matter-of-factness with which servants treated the sight of inn patrons in any form of dishabille, I merely murmured “Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” in return and let it go at that. I also let go of Jamie’s kilt, and slid under the covers, pulling the quilt up to hide my scarlet cheeks.

Possessed of somewhat greater sang-froid, Jamie placed one of the bolsters strategically across his lap, parked his elbows on it, rested his chin on upturned palms, and made pleasant conversation with the maid, praising the cuisine of the house.

“And from where do you procure the wine, Mademoiselle?” he asked politely.

“From here, from there.” She shrugged, stuffing kindling rapidly under the sticks with a practiced hand. “Wherever it’s cheapest.” The woman’s plump face creased slightly as she gave Jamie a sidelong look from the hearth.

“I gathered as much,” he said, grinning at her, and she gave a brief snort of amusement.

“I’ll wager I can match the price you’re getting, and double the quality,” he offered. “Tell your mistress.”

One eyebrow rose skeptically. “And what’s your own price, Monsieur?”

He made an altogether Gallic gesture of self-abnegation. “Nothing, Mademoiselle. I go to call upon a kinsman who sells wine. Perhaps I can bring him some new business to ensure my welcome, no?”

She nodded, seeing the wisdom of this, and grunted as she rose from her knees.

“Well enough, Monsieur. I’ll speak to the patronne.”

The door thumped to behind the maid, aided by a skillful swing of her hip in passing. Putting the bolster aside, Jamie stood up and began to rebuckle his kilt.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I protested.

He glanced down at me, and a reluctant smile curved the wide mouth.

“Oh. Well… you’re sure you’re up to it, Sassenach?”

“I am if you are,” I said, unable to resist.

He eyed me austerely.

“Just for that, I should go at once,” he said. “Still, I’ve heard that ye ought to humor expectant mothers.” He let the kilt fall to the floor and sat down beside me in his shirt, the bed creaking beneath his weight.

His breath rose in a faint cloud as he turned back the quilt and spread the front of the nightdress to expose my breasts. Bending his head, he kissed each one, touching the nipple delicately with his tongue, so it rose as though by magic, a swelling dark pink against the white skin of my breast.

“God, they’re so lovely,” he murmured, repeating the process on the other side. He cupped both breasts, admiring them.

“They’re heavier,” he said, “just a bit. And the nipples are darker, too.” One forefinger traced the springing curve of a single fine hair that rose near the dark areola, silver in the frosted light of the morning.

Lifting the quilt, he rolled next to me and I turned into his arms, clasping the solid curves of his back, letting my hands cup the firm rounds of his buttocks. His bare flesh was chilled by the morning air, but the goose bumps smoothed away under the warmth of my touch.

I tried to bring him to me at once, but he resisted me gently, forcing me down onto the pillow as he nibbled the edges of neck and ear. One hand slid up my thigh, the thin material of the nightgown gliding in waves before it.

His head dipped lower, and his hands gently spread my thighs apart. I shivered momentarily as the cold air hit the bare skin of my legs, then relaxed completely into the warm demand of his mouth.

His hair was loose, not yet laced back for the day, and the soft red tickle of it brushed my thighs. The solid weight of his body rested comfortably between my legs, broad hands cupped on the roundness of my hips.

“Mmmm?” came an interrogative sound from below.

I arched my hips slightly in response, and a brief chuckle grazed my skin with warmth.

The hands slid beneath my hips and raised me, and I relaxed into deliquescence as the tiny shudder grew and spread, rising in seconds to a fulfillment that left me limp and gasping, Jamie’s head resting on my thigh. He waited a moment for me to recover, caressing the slope of my leg, before returning to his self-appointed task.

I smoothed the tumbled hair back, caressing those ears, so incongruously small and neat for such a large, blunt man. The upper curve glowed with a faint, translucent pink, and I ran my thumb along the edge of the curve.

“They’re pointed at the tips,” I said. “Just a bit. Like a faun’s.”

“Oh, aye?” he said, interrupting his labors for a moment. “Like a small deer, ye mean, or the things ye see in classical paintings wi’ goat’s legs, chasing naked women?”

I lifted my head and peered down across the roil of bedclothes, nightgown, and naked flesh, to the deep blue cat-eyes, gleaming above damp curls of brown hair.

“If the shoe fits,” I said, “wear it.” And let my head fall back on the pillow as the resultant muffled laugh vibrated against my all too sensitive flesh.

“Oh,” I said, straining upward. “Oh, my. Jamie, come here.”

“Not yet,” he said, doing something with the tip of his tongue that made me squirm uncontrollably.

“Now,” I said.

He didn’t bother to reply, and I had no more breath to speak with.

“Oh,” I said, a bit later. “That’s…”


“Good,” I murmured. “Come here. ”

“No, I’ll do,” he said, face invisible behind the tangle of roan and cinnamon. “Would ye like it if I…”

“Jamie,” I said. “I want you. Come here.”

Sighing in resignation, he rose to his knees and let me pull him upward, settling at last with his weight balanced on his elbows, but comfortingly solid on top of me, belly to belly and lips to lips. He opened his mouth to protest further, but I promptly kissed him, and he slid between my thighs before he could stop himself. He moaned slightly in involuntary pleasure as he entered me, muscles tensing as he gripped my shoulders.

He was gentle and slow, pausing now and then to kiss me deeply, moving again only at my silent urging. I ran my hands softly down the slope of his back, careful not to press on the healing ridges of the fresh scars. The long muscles of his thigh trembled briefly against my own, but he held back, unwilling to move as quickly as he needed to.

I moved my hips against him, to bring him deeper.

He closed his eyes, and his brow furrowed slightly in concentration. His mouth was open, and his breath came hard.

“I can’t…” he said. “Oh, God, I canna help it.” His buttocks clenched suddenly, taut beneath my hands.

I sighed with deep satisfaction, and pulled him hard against me.

“You’re all right?” he asked, a few moments later.

“I won’t break, you know,” I said, smiling into his eyes.

He laughed huskily. “Maybe not, Sassenach, but I may.” He gathered me close against him, his cheek pressed against my hair.

I flipped the quilt up and tucked it around his shoulders, sealing us in a pocket of warmth. The heat of the fire had not yet reached the bed, but the ice on the window was thawing, the crusted edge of the rime melted into glowing diamonds.

We lay quiet for a time, listening to the occasional crack of the burning applewood in the hearth and the faint sounds of the inn as the guests stirred to life. There were callings to and fro from the balconies across the courtyard, the swish and clop of hooves on the slushy stones outside, and the odd squeal now and then from below, from the piglets the landlady was raising in the kitchen behind the stove.

“Très francais, n’est-ce pas?” I said, smiling at the sounds of an altercation drifting up through the floorboards, an amiable settling of accounts between the innkeeper’s wife and the local vintner.

“Diseased son of a pox-ridden whore,” the female voice remarked. “The brandy from last week tasted like horse-piss.”

I didn’t need to see the reply to imagine the one-shouldered shrug that went with it.

“How would you know, Madame? After the sixth glass, it all tastes the same, is it not so?”

The bed shook slightly as Jamie laughed with me. He lifted his head from the pillow and sniffed appreciatively at the scent of frying ham that filtered through the drafty chinks of the floorboards.

“Aye, it’s France,” he agreed. “Food, and drink—and love.” He patted my bare hip before tugging the wrinkled gown down over it.

“Jamie,” I said softly, “are you happy about it? About the baby?” Outlawed in Scotland, barred from his own home, and with only vague prospects in France, he could pardonably have been less than enthused about acquiring an additional obligation.

He was silent for a moment, only hugging me harder, then sighed briefly before answering.

“Aye, Sassenach.” His hand strayed downward, gently rubbing my belly. “I’m happy. And proud as a stallion. But I am most awfully afraid, too.”

“About the birth? I’ll be all right.” I could hardly blame him for apprehension; his own mother had died in childbirth, and birth and its complications were the leading cause of death for women in these times. Still, I knew a thing or two myself, and I had no intention whatever of exposing myself to what passed for medical care here.

“Aye, that—and everything,” he said softly. “I want to protect ye, Sassenach—spread myself over ye like a cloak and shield you and the child wi’ my body.” His voice was soft and husky, with a slight catch in it.

“I would do anything for ye… and yet… there’s nothing I can do. It doesna matter how strong I am, or how willing; I canna go with you where ye must go… nor even help ye at all. And to think of the things that might happen, and me helpless to stop them… aye, I’m afraid, Sassenach.”

“And yet”—he turned me toward him, hand closing gently over one breast—“yet when I think of you wi’ my child at your breast… then I feel as though I’ve gone hollow as a soap bubble, and perhaps I shall burst with joy.”

He pressed me tight against his chest, and I hugged him with all my might.

“Oh, Claire, ye do break my heart wi’ loving you.”

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