She stared at James. The strong triangle of his back. He inhaled deeply just then. She could see the rise and fall of his rib cage. He tilted his face up to the sun. Just then she wished she really could see the look on his face. His eyes
would be closed. She imagined she'd see his pleasure written in the subtle change in his features. In the smoothness of his brow, the slight curve to his lips.
She rubbed her wet hands briskly over her face. No, the degree of panic she felt definitely did not match what her current predicament called for.
She cleared her throat. "Yes?"
"Merely ensuring you've not turned into some gorgeous red-feathered creature and flown away."
"No," she said tentatively. His attentions made her self- conscious, and she bent again to the water, rushing to finish. "I'm still here."
It was supposed to be just a quick peek. James had promised he wouldn't look, but after her prolonged silence and much internal debate, in the end, his concern for Magda had won out. He'd wanted to ensure she was still there, sound and upright.
And was she. He'd intended a brief glimpse, and instead she'd taken his breath away.
She'd knotted her petticoat to just above her knees, and though the water concealed most of her legs, the simple white gown clung to her, revealing modest curves at her hips and breasts. He watched, mesmerized, as her delicate hands reached to cup handfuls of water, stroked up along elegant stretches of pale arms, down her long throat, and back again, a smooth curtain of auburn hair hanging down all the while, threatening to graze the surface of the water. He wanted to look away, but kept telling himself just one moment more. She'd spotted the tumble of rose petals at the water's edge. He smiled as he watched her give a shrug, then bend to scoop a handful. The wild roses were much smaller than their formal counterparts, but he knew the petals were no less soft. He watched her crush them, bring them to her nose, shutting her eyes to breath in their perfume. They would be like suede in her fingertips. The scent lush, and likely familiar.
He turned away quickly then. She'd begun to rub the petals over her arms and chest when James remembered himself.
It was clear the lass was terrified of water. And worse, her fear seemed tied to some greater issue close to her heart. She'd not told him what the matter was, and he hadn't pressed, but he'd thought to be on the alert for whatever might come to pass during what should've been a quick dunk and splash in a stream. But instead he found himself adjusting his position on the rock, uncomfortably aroused by the unexpected and intimate glimpse.
He felt her grow still at his back. Would she be looking at him? he wondered. She was likely just examining her dress, or perhaps adjusting a stocking. But, turning his face to the sun, James fantasized that she watched him from behind instead.
Eyes shut, he listened intently to the rustle of clothes as she began to dress. He breathed in deep, imagining he could smell the roses on her skin from far away. There was the rasp of cord against fabric. She'd be lacing her bodice then. How would it be to untie those laces, set free that bosom into the cool air. to see Magda clothed just in sky and the shadows from the trees above?
He felt the cool spill of shadow over his legs and opened his eyes. Magda stood before him, clean and dressed, and he couldn't stop his gaze from raking up the length of her. Nervously pleating and smoothing a swath of her skirts, she seemed almost embarrassed to stand before him. He found her self-consciousness endearing, took it as a sign that perhaps she too had perceived the intimacy of his close proximity.
"Better now?" He hopped to standing and in a flash was inches from her. He sensed the chill of her skin against his warmth, noticed the slight shiver that trembled up her torso. He chafed her arms softly, to lend her heat. The barest scent of roses teased him, and he paused.
He couldn't help himself. Leaning down, he tucked his nose close at her neck and breathed deep. "I see you found some use for those petals, hen."
"I…" She felt the cool pull of air along her skin as he breathed in. All rational thought emptied from her mind and Magda shivered. "I…"
"But here, you're chilled." He swung his coat over her shoulders and pulled her unnecessarily tight to his side. "We shouldn't tarry now. The sun sets early this time in the season."
The coat around her shoulders was warm. She pulled it tight around her, and the smell of him lingered in her senses. "I can walk," she managed.
Though he nodded, James didn't loosen his grip. As they emerged from the trees, Magda gasped, halting them where they stood. She felt him instinctively put his hand to his empty scabbard, sensed him scanning the land before them. But she couldn't spare him a glance. She could only stare up at the sky, awestruck.
The evening was only beginning to purple into dusk, yet already she could make out millions of stars surfacing into clarity like spirits materializing from the twilight. And bisecting it all was a spectacular flume of starlight, a dense, swirling cloud cutting across the sky.
James gave a throaty chuckle at her side. "Not generally let out after dark, hen? Or is it that there are no stars in your time?"
"No…" she murmured. She began to walk forward slowly, not taking her eyes from the sky overhead. "I mean, yes. There are stars. But not like this ."
"Well then, we shall bide a wee." He ushered her to the base of the hill, sitting them both down. "You must tell me how it is the stars can have changed over time."
"It's not that they've changed. Stars are stars." Magda slowly leaned back to lie against the sloping hillside. "It's the sky that's changed. Because of electric lights, the nights are no longer as dark as they once were."
He lay back, waiting silently beside her, and she finally pulled her eyes from the sky to look at him. "Oh. Electricity." She sighed. "In the future, we have electricity. Like…" She looked back up, scanning the sky. "Like the power of lightning harnessed at your fingertips. Because of it, our homes have lights that burn brighter than any candle. All you need to do is walk into a room, flick a switch, and it's bright as day."
"Doesn't that get… hot?"
"No!" A startled belly laugh escaped her and she turned to him. He'd edged closer and was looking intently at her, his expression open, eager to share in her mirth. Their eyes met, and she grew still. "Oh…" She glanced away quickly. "Um, no, not hot. Just… bright."
She could feel that he hadn't moved, that he still faced her. She could hear his breath, felt it tickle her cheek. Her stomach gave a flutter. She sensed his eyes on her, wondered what would happen if she'd but turn her head the slightest bit. But she kept her gaze locked on the sky above.
The light dimmed quickly now, the sun winking below the horizon, and Magda felt tiny beneath the darkening sky. After all she'd been through, seeing such a magnificent explosion of stars above, it was impossible not to think about the more distant past, all those who'd come before, seen this same vast bowl overhead.
"I see why they named it the Milky Way." She realized she'd been fidgeting and forced her hands to still. "It is like a big swirly cloud of… well, of milk."
"Aye." James shifted, and though she sensed his gaze turn from her back to the sky above, she felt the warmth of his arm near her side. "Greek legend has it that it is a river of milk." He pointed his finger and traced the thick line streaking across the night sky. "They say it appeared while the goddess Hera held her infant son Hercules to her breast. While the baby suckled, Hera discovered he was Zeus's bastard from another woman. She pushed the baby away, and her milk spilled in a great stream, forever marking the heavens above."
"Oh." Her voice was quiet. He had enthralled her, his voice masculine, but gently thoughtful, transporting her to another time.
"So there aren't many stars in your time?" His question brought her back to the moment.
"Well, I suppose there are, we just can't see them as much. Unless you go far into the country, and even then, it's nothing like this."
"So you're not from the countryside?"
"Oh no." She sighed, thinking of Manhattan. "I'm from one of the biggest cities in the world."
"And that's where your museum is?"
"Yes. There are a lot of museums where I live. And stores and bagels and buses and hot dogs…" Her voice trailed off. "Dogs?"
"No," she chuckled. "Hot dogs. A kind of food. People sell them from carts. On street corners. They're like… like tubes of meat. Delicious tubes of meat."
"Ah, like a blood sausage."
"Oh yuck!" She laughed. "Nothing like blood sausage."
"So you don't see many stars whilst eating these… hot dogs?"
"No. You can't really see the stars in New York City."
James was silent for a time, then said, "I'm not surprised."
"That we can't see the stars?"
"No, hen, that you come from a city. You seem… not readily impressed, aye?"
She did turn to him then, without thinking, and smiled. "Well this… these stars impress me." You impress me. She gazed back at the sky and thought how grateful she was not to have missed this. Not miss you. Regardless of what she'd been through, in some small measure, this had made it all worthwhile.
"Thank you." "Whatever for, hen?" "For this."
"Does your friend Tom know?" Magda hammered her heel into the solid barrel of her horse's belly to catch up. It had taken the full two- day ride to Aberdeen for her to realize that the trick to the lazy, gray mare was forceful persistence.
She and James had set out that morning for King's College on the outskirts of the city, and though it was early yet, the old horse was already asserting her stubborn streak. "Where you come from? Aye, he knows. And," James added with a smile, "if he didn't believe it before, watching you golf brought the truth to your words. I've not seen him beaten so handily in quite some time." He ran his eyes up and down Magda sitting erect in the saddle. "And wouldn't the jackals of society chatter to see such a fine stroke from a lass? One look at you, and golf would become the latest infatuation of every woman at court."