Dragonfly in Amber(9)

By: Diana Gabaldon


Unable to count backward fast enough, he rose and scrabbled through the perpetual calendar that the vicar had kept, in a clear space to itself on his cluttered wall. He found the date and stood with his finger pressed to the paper, blood draining from his face.

Claire Randall had returned from her mysterious disappearance disheveled, malnourished, incoherent—and pregnant.



* * *

In the fullness of time, Roger slept at last, but in consequence of his wakefulness, woke late and heavy-eyed, with an incipient headache, which neither a cold shower nor Fiona's chirpiness over breakfast did much to dispel.

The feeling was so oppressive that he abandoned his work and left the house for a walk. Striding through a light rain, he found the fresh air improved his headache, but unfortunately cleared his mind enough to start thinking again about the implications of last night's discovery.

Brianna didn't know. That was clear enough, from the way she spoke about her late father—or about the man she thought was her father, Frank Randall. And presumably Claire didn't mean her to know, or she would have told the girl herself. Unless this Scottish trip were meant to be a prelude to such a confession? The real father must have been a Scot; after all, Claire had disappeared—and reappeared—in Scotland. Was he still here?

That was a staggering thought. Had Claire brought her daughter to Scotland in order to introduce her to her real father? Roger shook his head doubtfully. Bloody risky, a thing like that. Bound to be confusing to Brianna, and painful as hell to Claire herself. Scare the shoes and socks off the father, too. And the girl plainly was devoted to Frank Randall. What was she going to feel like, realizing that the man she'd loved and idolized all her life in fact had no blood ties to her at all?

Roger felt bad for all concerned, including himself. He hadn't asked to have any part of this, and wished himself in the same state of blissful ignorance as yesterday. He liked Claire Randall, liked her very much, and he found the thought of her committing adultery distasteful. At the same time, he jeered at himself for his old-fashioned sentimentality. Who knew what her life with Frank Randall had been like? Perhaps she'd had good reason for going off with another man. But then why had she come back?

Sweating and moody, Roger wandered back to the house. He shed his jacket in the hallway and went up to have a bath. Sometimes bathing helped to soothe him, and he felt much in need of soothing.

He ran a hand along the row of hangers in his closet, groping for the fuzzy shoulder of his worn white toweling robe. Then, pausing for a moment, he reached instead far to the back of the closet, sweeping the hangers along the rod until he could grasp the one he wanted.

He viewed the shabby old dressing gown with affection. The yellow silk of the background had faded to ochre, but the multicolored peacocks were bold as ever, spreading their tails with lordly insouciance, regarding the viewer with eyes like black beads. He brought the soft fabric to his nose and inhaled deeply, closing his eyes. The faint whiff of Borkum Riff and spilled whisky brought back the Reverend Wakefield as not even his father's wall of trivia could do.

Many were the times he had smelled just that comforting aroma, with its upper note of Old Spice cologne, his face pressed against the smooth slickness of this silk, the Reverend's chubby arms wrapped protectively around him, promising him refuge. He had given the old man's other clothes to Oxfam, but somehow he couldn't bear to part with this.

On impulse, he slipped the robe over his bare shoulders, mildly surprised at the light warmth of it, like the caress of fingers across his skin. He shifted his shoulders pleasurably under the silk, then wrapped it closely about his body, tying the belt in a careless knot.

Keeping a wary eye out in case of raids by Fiona, he made his way along the upper hall to the bathroom. The hotwater geyser stood against the head of the bath like the guardian of a sacred spring, squat and eternal. Another of his youthful memories was the weekly terror of trying to light the geyser with a flint striker in order to heat the water for his bath, the gas escaping past his head with a menacing hiss as his hands, sweaty with the fear of explosion and imminent death, slipped ineffectively on the metal of the striker.

Long since rendered automatic by an operation on its mysterious innards, the geyser now gurgled quietly to itself, the gas ring at its base rumbling and whooshing with unseen flame beneath the metal shield. Roger twisted the cracked "Hot" tap as far as it would go, added a half-turn of the "Cold," then stood to study himself in the mirror while waiting for his bath to fill.

Nothing much wrong with him, he reflected, sucking in his stomach and pulling himself upright before the full-length reflection on the back of the door. Firm. Trim. Long-legged, but not spindle-shanked. Possibly a bit scrawny through the shoulders? He frowned critically, twisting his lean body back and forth.

He ran a hand through his thick black hair, until it stood on end like a shaving brush, trying to envision himself with a beard and long hair, like some of his students. Would he look dashing, or merely moth-eaten? Possibly an earring, while he was about it. He might look piratical then, like Edward Teach or Henry Morgan. He drew his brows together and bared his teeth.

"Grrrrr," he said to his reflection.

"Mr. Wakefield?" said the reflection.

Roger leaped back, startled, and stubbed his toe painfully against the protruding claw-foot of the ancient bath.

"Ow!"

"Are you all right, Mr. Wakefield?" the mirror said. The porcelain doorknob rattled.

"Of course I am!" he snapped testily, glaring at the door. "Go away, Fiona, I'm bathing!"

There was a giggle from the other side of the door.

"Ooh, twice in one day. Aren't we the dandy, though? Do you want some of the bay-rum soap? It's in the cupboard there, if you do."

"No, I don't," he snarled. The water level had risen midway in the tub, and he cut off the taps. The sudden silence was soothing, and he drew a deep breath of steam into his lungs. Wincing slightly at the heat, he stepped into the water and lowered himself gingerly, feeling a light sweat break out on his face as the heat rushed up his body.

"Mr. Wakefield?" The voice was back, chirping on the other side of the door like a hectoring robin.

"Go away, Fiona," he gritted, easing himself back in the tub. The steaming water rose around him, comforting as a lover's arms. "I have everything I want."

"No, you haven't," said the voice.

"Yes, I have." His eye swept the impressive lineup of bottles, jars, and implements arrayed on the shelf above the tub. "Shampoo, three kinds. Hair conditioner. Shaving cream. Razor. Body soap. Facial soap. After-shave. Cologne. Deodorant stick. I don't lack a thing, Fiona."

"What about towels?" said the voice, sweetly.

After a wild glance about the completely towel-less confines of the bathroom, Roger closed his eyes, clenched his teeth and counted slowly to ten. This proving insufficient, he made it twenty. Then, feeling himself able to answer without foaming at the mouth, he said calmly.

"All right, Fiona. Set them outside the door, please. And then, please… please, Fiona… go."

A rustle outside was succeeded by the sound of reluctantly receding footsteps, and Roger, with a sigh of relief, gave himself up to the joys of privacy. Peace. Quiet. No Fiona.

Now, able to think more objectively about his upsetting discovery, he found himself more than curious about Brianna's mysterious real father. Judging from the daughter, the man must have had a rare degree of physical attractiveness; would that alone have been sufficient to lure a woman like Claire Randall?

He had wondered already whether Brianna's father might have been a Scot. Did he live—or had he lived—in Inverness? He supposed such proximity might account for Claire's nervousness, and the air she had of keeping secrets. But did it account for the puzzling requests she had made of him? She didn't want him to take Brianna to Craigh na Dun, nor to mention the captain of the Broch Tuarach men to her daughter. Why on earth not?

A sudden thought made him sit upright in the tub, water sloshing heedlessly against the cast-iron sides. What if it were not the eighteenth-century Jacobite soldier she was concerned about, but only his name? What if the man who had fathered her daughter in 1947 was also named James Fraser? It was a common enough name in the Highlands.

Yes, he thought, that might very well explain it. As for Claire's desire to show her daughter the stone circle herself, perhaps that was also connected with the mystery of her father; maybe that's where she'd met the man, or perhaps that's where Brianna had been conceived. Roger was well aware that the stone circle was commonly used as a trysting spot; he'd taken girls there himself in high school, relying on the circle's air of pagan mystery to loosen their reserve. It always worked.

He had a sudden startling vision of Claire Randall's fine white limbs, locked in wild abandon with the naked, straining body of a red-haired man, the two bodies slick with rain and stained with crushed grass, twisting in ecstasy among the standing stones. The vision was so shocking in its specificity that it left him trembling, sweat running down his chest to vanish into the steaming water of the bath.

Christ! How was he going to meet Claire Randall's eyes, next time they met? What was he going to say to Brianna, for that matter? "Read any good books lately?" "Seen any good flicks?" "D'you know you're illegitimate?"