Brianna couldn’t stop squeezing her mother’s hand as they sat side-by-side on the porch of the new Big House, watching the night settle over the trees.
The bench creaked as her father settled in on her other side, and slung a strong arm around her shoulders.
“I ken I’ve always said that the day yer Mam came back to me in Edinburgh, or the day I first met ye in Wilmington – those were the happiest days of my life.” He swallowed, throat thick with emotion. “But they are almost nothing compared to today, a leannan. I am blessed four times over.”
Brianna sighed, sinking against Jamie’s shoulder. He kissed the crown of her head. “I want you to know – this time it’s for forever. Roger and I decided.”
“Never say never,” Claire murmured. “Especially with the children.”
“I’ve so much to tell you,” Brianna sighed. “That time – it’s not safe for us. Not anymore.”
“Is there another war, then? Like the one yer Mam had, in France?”
A family of deer appeared at the edge of the clearing, nudging through the undergrowth.
“No – nothing like that. I’ll tell you all about it. Not now, though.”
Brianna sat up a bit straighter, rummaging inside her coat. “Roger and I bought Lallybroch – we lived there for a while. The kids went to school in Broch Mordha. Jem got in trouble for cursing at the kids in Gaelic.”
Jamie’s grin shone in the half-dark. “Good lad! Was the house well?”
“It had been abandoned for some time, but we fixed it up. Modernized it. And Mama, Uncle Joe helped me ship over quite a few boxes from the house in Boston. Mostly Daddy’s papers and books – his research stuff. Roger went through most of it – he wrote down all kinds of things, was thinking of publishing a book about Scottish immigration to North Carolina.”
Footsteps in the hallway – Roger appeared through the open door, balancing a tray with four mugs.
“Finally got them to at least try to sleep. They’re exhausted, but so excited to be here.”
Jamie handed a mug to Claire, then to Brianna, before taking hold of the other two. Roger pulled up a chair next to Claire, and Jamie handed him a mug, but not before gently clinking his own against it.
“Slainte, mo mhac,” he whispered.
Roger swallowed. “I canna tell ye what it means for us to be here.”
“It doesn’t sound like the journey was that eventful.” Claire sipped her cider. “Or at least, not from what you’ve shared so far.”
“It was surprisingly boring,” Brianna yawned. “Just complicated by the fact we had the two kids, and Mandy is so curious these days.”
“Aye, they always are at that age.” Jamie settled back on the bench, crossing one long leg over the other.
Brianna cleared her throat. “Anyway – Roger, tell them what you found in one of Daddy’s boxes.”
Roger pursed his lips. “I found the books you had had printed in Edinburgh – Grandfather Tales, and Principles of Health.”
“It’s Pocket Principles of Health, to be precise,” Claire smiled. “Mr. Bell did a fantastic job, didn’t he?”
“Aye, Sassenach – but Roger, ye’re saying that Frank Randall had them in his possession?”
“He did. I reviewed the inventory of his office at Harvard from when he died – the books were on it.”
Claire closed her eyes. Jamie reached behind Brianna to squeeze his wife’s shoulder.
“I recognized the spines of the books, Mama – he must have had them for quite a few years before he died.”
Roger coughed. “Anyway – I took a read through the books. And I found something.”
Brianna pulled a clear bag from the inside of her jacket, and handed it over to Jamie.
Jamie’s brow furrowed as he crinkled the bag. “What…”
“It’s called plastic.” Gently Claire reached to touch it, with a tentative finger. “It’s the same material I used when I gave you Brianna’s photographs.”
Carefully Jamie pulled two folded pages of lined paper from the plastic. Brianna thoughtfully took the bag as Jamie unfolded the pages.
“This is fine paper. Wi’ lines?”
“Common in that time. As you can see, there’s no date on it – but Bree and I think it was written shortly before he died.”
“It’s a letter.” Jamie swallowed. “Christ.”
“I hope ye dinna mind that we read it – only, we were so surprised to find it, and – ”
Jamie held up a hand. “No need. Of course I dinna mind. I’m…surprised, is all.” Slowly he stood, taking Claire’s hand. “Come, Sassenach – let’s go in, and read it wi’ the wee lamp.”
Quietly she stood too, following him back into the house and into the study – Bree and Roger trailing a few paces behind.
“This room is so much bigger than at the old house,” Bree remarked, sinking into a chair by the door.
Jamie pulled out his desk chair for Claire, then pulled over a stool to sit beside her as she slid the lamp across the desk. Almost in tandem, Jamie and Claire reached into their pockets for their spectacles.
“You too, Claire?” Roger teased.
She smiled. “I had them made the last time we were in Edinburgh.” When she blinked from behind the spectacles, her eyes were so magnified that it was almost comical. “I feel like the old woman I’ve become.”
“Nonsense.” Jamie narrowed his eyes from behind his own spectacles. “I’ve been wearing mine longer than you’ve been wearing yours – and I’m younger than ye, so what does that make me?”
Playfully she smacked his shoulder. “Come on. Let’s see what dear old Frank has to say.”
“Do ye mind if I read it out loud?”
Bree shrugged. “Go for it.”
Jamie spread the papers side by side on his desk. Frank Randall’s elegant script spidered across the page.
Some may consider it idiotic to write a letter to a dead man. But those same people would consider it impossible for one’s wife to travel through haunted stones, get caught up in the Jacobite Rising, and return pregnant by her dead eighteenth-century husband.
Only I know that you’re not dead, James Fraser. God help me, I’ve known for years.
I’ll leave you to judge me for my sins against her – not the least of which is the sin of omission, for not telling her that you survived Culloden. The Church I’ve diligently raised Brianna to believe in will tell you this is a sin, but if it means that I’ve kept Claire and Bree with me all these years because of it, then I cannot see it as such.
This book proves you survived the fire in North Carolina, and somehow returned to Scotland. I envy you for being grandfather to Brianna’s child, or children. I say envy, because the only reason why Claire would return to you, and for Brianna to find you, must be that I am dead. I won’t have the chance to grow old with Claire – but I’m sure she’ll tell you, silently we both knew that that would never come to pass.
You will get the years with them that I never will – although I’ll always have the years with them that you never will.
So – from one dead man to another – I thank you for the gift of them, and I thank you for caring for them when I’m no longer able to.
It was silent in the study for a long time.
Claire touched one tattered corner of a page. “Looks like he set down his glass of brandy here, while he was writing.”
Jamie turned on the stool to face his wife – his life, his heart. Took her hands. Held her gaze.
“You have always made the right decisions.”
Claire nodded. “For they all brought me to you.”
Standing beside Brianna, Roger squeezed his wife’s shoulder.