Outside Saratoga Springs, NY
Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, as she liked to think of herself, was hot, tired, and cranky. The humidity hung thick in the air, sweat clinging to her skin. In fact, it felt as though everything was clinging to her skin; clothes, dust, even the smells of so many bodies crowded into one place. She sat down on a bench and sighed, taking in the scene before her. It was mid September, but the afternoon sun partially blinded her, so she had to lift a hand to her forehead and squint in order to bear keeping her eyes open. “Bloody well can’t believe I left my sunglasses at the hotel,” she muttered to herself, for perhaps the millionth time that day.
“Talking to yourself again, Mama?”
Claire’s hand rose to her chest and she jumped. “Christ, you really shouldn’t sneak up on people, Bree.” Brianna giggled and let go of Roger’s hand to place it on her mother’s shoulder. She moved one long finger, frowning slightly as she collected a bead of sweat that had run down Claire's neck.
“Mama, you look tired. And I know that this isn’t really your thing. Why don’t you take the car and go back to the hotel and rest? Or go do something you enjoy. You’ve been traipsing around with us all week. You’ve been a trooper; we can manage without you for an afternoon.”
Claire sighed and stretched her legs. It was all true. This vacation to upstate New York had been Bree and Roger’s idea, and it was no wonder. A trip to visit old military forts and battlegrounds was the perfect getaway for a pair of historians, but Claire had already seen, had already lived , enough history for a lifetime.
Still, she had agreed to go along because it was their last chance to spend time together at home before Roger stole her daughter away to England. “No, Beauchamp,” Claire quickly lectured herself. “Stop thinking about it like that. You love Roger. Bree loves Roger.”
This was part of growing older, she supposed, along with the new crick in her back, the ankle that always seemed to swell when she stood on her feet for too long, the gray that had infiltrated her formerly brown, unruly curls. All of this and her only daughter, “Only living daughter,” she corrected herself, falling in love and leaving to start a new life. It was a good thing, a natural thing. Those words formed a mantra that she repeated over and over in her mind, and yet, she could already feel the hole boring into her heart.
“Hello? Mama, are you with us?” Bree's light-hearted voice pulling her back to the moment.
Claire turned her head and gave the couple a small smile. The sunlight sparkled off Bree's red curls and Claire had to take an extra moment to steady herself. My God, you are so like your father.
“You’re right. I’m tired. I think I’ll go back to the hotel and take a rest. Maybe when the sun starts to set, it will cool off a little and I can take a walk someplace with a little more grass and a lot less dust,” she said, looking around at the bare ground surrounding the visitor's center, clearly having been trampled by day after day of summer tourists. Even as she watched, the footprints left by those gone by were replaced by others, tracks covered over and over again. She blinked, realizing she had once again become lost in the confines of her own mind, and refocused her attention toward her family. “How will you get back?”
“Och, dinna fash yerself, Claire,” Roger replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. Claire smiled, as she always did when Roger spoke to her in his melodic Scots. “The hotel said they had shuttles. If ye’ don’t mind, sign us up on the list for pick up at 4. That’ll give us time to get back and changed in time for dinner.”
Claire walked to the car, grateful to be getting out of the unusually hot September sun, feeling relieved to have some time to herself. The relief was accompanied by a touch of guilt, but not quite enough to change her mind about seeking some solitude. She was someone who appreciated, craved, alone time; needed it to survive. Each of the last five days had been spent with the happy couple, listening to their conversations in the car, trailing along behind them as they visited historic sites, and offering her opinions on items when they took a detour and went shopping. Each night the trio had lingered over dinner and drinks, staying up much too late, savoring each other’s company, with the unspoken knowledge that it would likely be a long time before they would able to do something like this again. It was important and it made her happy, but there was no denying that it was cutting into the peace and quiet that she desperately needed to feel like herself once more.
She took a glance in the mirror, quickly determined there was no hope for the curly mass on her head in this heat, took quick stock of the number of wrinkles in the corners of her golden eyes, and started the car, slowly backing out of the parking spot. She was slightly turned around but confident that she could follow the winding Battlefield Road until she got back to the main highway.
As she turned onto the narrow, paved road, she forced herself to feel happiness for Bree. Her little girl was not so little anymore, almost thirty-one years old now, high time to finally settle down; Roger was eight years her senior and Claire knew he would be eager to start a family now that Brianna had finally finished her Doctorate. She smiled, thinking of how proud Frank would have been when Brianna called with the news that her thesis had been accepted; that her hard work had paid off, that she was finally done. “Dr. Brianna Wakefield.” They were a family full of MDs and PhDs and her heart swelled with pride, though the pleasant thoughts were quickly drowned out by heavy memories, a sharp pang in her chest and dread in the pit of her stomach as the voice in her head reminded her, “Not all of you.” Your father would have been proud, too.
Turning her focus back to the road, Claire realized that, while she had gotten further and further away from the visitor’s center, she also didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the main road. No bother, she thought to herself. It was all one big loop; she would eventually find her way to one of the landmarks, the main road, or even back to where she began.
“Ye always were terrible with directions, Sassenach.”
The voice rang in her head loud and clear, as if Jamie were sitting right beside her in the passenger seat. She took a deep shaking breath and forced herself to concentrate on the road.
“Aye, that’s right; you should watch where yer goin’, driving around in this death trap. If yer no careful, ye’ll wind up in a ditch.”
Claire sighed, rolled her eyes at her long dead husband, and continued to ignore him. The older she got, the more he seemed to visit her, his presence haunting her dreams at night and following her around like a relentless spirit in the day. “Probably because I get closer to being with him every day,” she thought dryly. She chuckled to herself then, thinking of how much Jamie would hate riding in a car, how sick he would likely be from the motion. The two boat trips she had taken with him had been agony for him – and for Claire by extension.
Her heart caught in her throat as she thought of the child she had been carrying in her belly on the trip to France, the child whom she did not carry in her arms when they had returned to Scotland. Faith .
“Aye, I think of her too, still, Sassenach. Ye’ll no’ ever get over the loss of a child.”
Claire shook her head vigorously, as if she could forcefully remove the memories from her mind and directed all her attention on the road again, looking for any sign that would point her in the direction she needed to go. Christ, for all she knew, she had been driving in circles while she daydreamed about her dead husband and child. “Pull yourself together, Beauchamp. This is the last time I’m going to tell you.”
She saw a small sign about fifty feet ahead and slowed the car. Squinting, she had forgotten her driving glasses at the hotel too, she inched up toward the sign. “Direction of Fraser’s Forces,” it read, with an arrow pointing to the left. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” she muttered under her breath. She sat there idling for a few moments, trying to decide what to do before she swung the car to the left and followed the arrow.
It wasn’t that she had any particular interest in General Fraser and his forces. She already knew, from Bree and Roger' research into the Fraser family, that he had been a kinsman to Jamie, some distantly related cousin. And it certainly wasn’t that she had any interest in seeing another battlefield. It was just that, on days like these, when she felt surrounded by ghosts, it was easier not to fight it. Better to just give in to the universe’s way of forcing her to remember.
The road narrowed until she reached an empty parking lot, covered in gravel that crunched beneath the rubber tires as she pulled her car off to one side. There was a small path ahead, surrounded by high, vibrant grass. She should have just turned around and tried to find the main road once more, but her botanist’s heart led the way. As if her body was acting on its own, she grabbed her basket and scissors, locking the car door behind her.
The uneven, dirt path was just wide enough for two people to walk side by side comfortably and there were worn, informational signs resting on posts sporadically along the path. Claire ignored these and kept her eye out for any herbs or flowers that might be interesting or serve a medicinal purpose. She was concentrating so hard on the task at hand that she hadn’t even noticed that she was no longer on the path. She took one step, then another, before she noticed the low buzzing sound surrounding her. As the noise grew louder, she paused and turned in a circle to see if there was a swarm of bees nearby. Seeing nothing, she shook her head, trying to get her bearings, wondering for a moment if she was falling victim to a sudden onslaught of tinnitus. The rational side of her mind calmed her momentarily, enabling her to absent-mindedly take a few more steps, until a realization had her heart leaping into her throat. Her body knew the sound before her mind even registered it: standing stones, and close by.
Taking a deep breath, Claire quickly turned around to head back to the path. As she did, her foot caught in a small divot and her ankle twisted beneath her. “Dammit that’s my bad ankle,” she thought as she went down, basket and scissors flying out of her grasp. The sound of the stones filled her body, vibrating, a siren song calling to her, their power drawing her in. She needed to get the hell out of this place as quickly as possible, but the moment she tried to stand up, even the slightest bit of pressure on her foot caused pain to shoot up her leg. She winced, squeezing her eyes shut and taking deep and measured breaths in an attempt to center herself. Just as the pain was finally abating and her heartbeat was steadying, through her closed eyes, she saw a bright flash of light as the air filled with a cacophony, as if the world’s largest lego had accidentally been sucked up into an industrial vacuum hose.
The buzzing was gone, and the air was completely still. Claire slowly opened her eyes and blinked. As the spots cleared from her vision, she saw a figure standing about fifty feet away, silhouetted by the sun.
He was tall, that much she could tell, taller than Bree’s six feet by several inches at the very least. He appeared to be frozen for a moment, a dark frame with no discernable features, a lean muscular build set against the sky, until a cloud passed over the sun. Claire could not hold back the choking gasp that escaped as she saw Jamie’s chiseled jawline, complete with a slight cock of his head. She closed her eyes again, willing herself to wake up. She must have hit her head when she fell. That was the only logical explanation.
When she opened her eyes, he had moved closer to her. He still stood at a respectable distance, but now she could see his features clearly: blue cat eyes peering out under a tricorn hat, a long straight nose set between broad cheekbones. Her gaze shifted down, drawn by the glimmer of an Officer's gorget resting on a red uniform coat. At this sight, she choked on a scream, trying to scramble to her feet like a crab scurrying away from a predator, only to have lightning shoot up her leg from foot to hip bone, paralyzing her. At that, the scream let loose and the white orbs that had been hovering in the corners of her vision darkened and spread.
When she was able to open her eyes once more, he was inches from her face. She drew her breath in and didn’t let it out. A chestnut curl was peeking out of his hat, just above his left eye.
And then he spoke, and she heard not the broad, lilting tone of the Highlands, but a polished, crisp accent of London.
“Are you all right madam?”