The day after Claire and Ian returned to Lallybroch, Fergus came back. Claire hated to admit it, but she hadn’t much considered he would still be at Lallybroch. She thought about the boy often, and she hoped she would see him again. But he would be a man of twenty by now, why would he stay on a farm without Jamie and Claire? Then when she got to Lallybroch and Ian, Jenny, nor Jamie had offered anything about the lad, Claire figured he was long gone.
Seeing him walking up the lane was like seeing a ghost. Judging by the way Fergus froze when he saw her as well, the feeling was mutual. They sized each other up for a long minute. He had grown, obviously. But he was nearly the size of Jamie. He had the same soft French features and high cheekbones he’d had in his youth.
“Milady?” Fergus asked finally and hopefully. The wave of relief and guilt would have toppled her if Fergus hadn’t thrown his arms around her and held her close, “You’ve returned?”
“Oh, Fergus,” Claire cried as she pushed him just far enough away that she could take in his face, “Let me look at you.” His hair had darkened and he’d grown, but he was unmistakably the same boy she had loved as her own, the same boy she had left. Then she felt his hand. Wooden. Claire’s breath caught in her throat.
“The red coats, milady,” Fergus said ruefully, then his face brightened again, “It is truly you, then?”
“Yes,” Claire said. She threaded their arms together and walked back to the house, “And there’s someone I want you to meet.”
Unlike Jenny, the sight of Brianna seemed to explain away every hole in her story. Fergus spent a long time looking between the girl and Claire. Bree looked back at him with just as much scrutiny.
“Mon dieu,” Fergus murmured eventually, “She looks just like him.”
“I know,” Claire replied, “Acts just like him too.”
“I have chores, Mama,” Bree said eventually to pull Claire and Fergus out of their own little world.
“Shall we do your chores together, ma petite?” Fergus asked with a nervous smile. Bree’s eyes lit up and she nodded vigorously. Fergus promised he would meet her outside.
“And just like you, Milady, her face can’t hide a single thing,” Fergus said with a wide smile before running off to join her daughter. Claire couldn’t keep the smile off her face. Both her children, together.
It had been several weeks, and there was still no word from Jamie.
In that time, life at Lallybroch was much the same as Claire remembered. Well, life was the same for everyone other than her. Brianna seemed to blend seamlessly into life in Broch Tuarach. Claire tried her best, but she was still something distinctly other.
She knew the rumors that followed her. Faerie and ban sidhe were some of the nicer words that were left in her wake. There were others that weren’t so nice. She and Jamie had been giving so little time at Lallybroch when they were first married. It seemed that all anyone remembered was that she was English and that she had left when they’d needed her. Bree softened the blow, but not by much. It didn’t help matters that it was common knowledge how the current Lady of Lallybroch felt about her.
But the fact was that Lallybroch was in desperate need of a healer, and Claire had a responsibility to help whether they wanted her or not. And it was often that they didn’t. So Claire passed her days treating common ailments with so much resistance that it was like pulling teeth. She did a lot of that too, and she bloody hated it.
Lucky for her, Jenny’s resentment hadn’t seemed to spread to anyone else in the house. She and Ian were back to being good friends, Fergus acted like she hadn’t left at all, and a few of the children had even started calling her ‘Auntie’ (much to Jenny’s annoyance). Claire could often get one of the older children to go with her to town to assist when Bree couldn’t, which made things a little easier.
But still, other than Fergus, there was a clear divide between her and the rest of the house. She was still treated like a guest that could leave at any time. And though the children seemed happy to assist her, she always had to ask. Nothing was ever offered at Lallybroch, and that was because of Jenny. Claire hadn’t expected a warm welcome. It had been ten years, but she hadn’t been prepared for the open distaste. At the very least, Claire thought Jenny would accept her reasons even if it didn’t soothe her anger.
But it had been more than a month, and Claire hadn’t been alone with Jenny for even a moment to clear the air. With the sheer number of patients Claire had, she barely had a moment to rest or eat. That coupled with taking care of Bree, missing Jamie, and Jenny’s open hostility had Claire very nearly at the end of her rope.
Something was bound to give.
“In the house. Now,” Jenny demanded one day just as Claire had come back from the village. She had taken Maggie, and Jenny’s tone was so stern that she thought for a moment she was talking to her child. But then Maggie scampered off and it was clear she had been talking to Claire like that. And what was worse was that she had no idea what she’d even done. She and Jenny had been butting heads more and more often, but it had been a relatively peaceful week.
“If this is about Maggie,” Claire ventured, “I asked Ian if I could take her to town.” Jenny didn’t respond and instead led Claire up to the laird’s room. When the door was bolted, she spun Claire around and efficiently untied her laces.
“Take yer skirts off,” Jenny said.
“Will you tell me what’s going on?” Claire asked. Instead of answering, Jenny got down on her knees and attempted to pull something from underneath the bed. Claire stared at her for a moment and then obeyed until she was just in her shift.
“Ye’ve been wearing the same dress for two weeks,” Jenny muttered as she finally pulled the thing- a trunk, Claire saw- from under the bed, “The same filthy dress.”
Claire looked at the discarded clothes on the floor. Jenny had a point. Claire had only brought two dresses, and she’d ruined the first one treating a family with a bad case of the stomach flu. Claire wrinkled her nose at the memory of it. The one she was wearing now was covered in blood and god knew what else, but it was the cleaner of the two. Between her patients, taking care of Bree, and her own need to sleep on occasion, she hadn’t had a chance to launder her own clothes. And her pride hadn’t allowed her to ask someone else to do it.
“Do ye not think that reflects badly on me that I canna keep ye clean?” Jenny demanded as she opened the trunk. Claire gasped at the sight before her. Clothes. Her clothes from Paris.
“You kept these?”
“Jamie insisted,” Jenny shrugged, “Dinna change the subject.”
“The subject of laundry?” Claire continued with a furrowed brow.
“The subject of ye claiming ye wanna be part of this family, yet ye dinna act like a member of the household,” Jenny said as she thrust a clean, silk skirt at Claire. Jenny took Claire’s dumbstruck silence as acquiescence and she continued, “Ye dinna help with the household chores, ye dinna let anyone help ye, ye barely speak at meals and ye have barely said a word to me.”
“You cannot be serious,” Claire finally snapped at the last. She was clutching the fine skirt so tightly that she was worried she’d tear it, “When have you ever given me the chance to talk to you?”
“Yer barely here for me to give ye a chance,” Jenny huffed.
“Because I have been taking care of the tenants,” Claire said.
“Dinna play the hero with me,” Jenny said as she crossed her arms, “We have been doing just fine without ye.”
“Just fine?” Claire replied. She could hear the venom in her tone. She knew she was heading towards saying something she couldn’t take back, but she couldn’t stop herself, “Half of them are malnourished, most are missing teeth. Injuries haven’t been properly tended to and people have died because of it. There isn’t enough peat to last the winter and some will freeze to death if they don’t get some relief. And the ones that aren’t starving are only fed because of me.”
“Aye,” Jenny allowed, with something equally spiteful in her own voice, “Ye said plant potatoes, I did as told. Ye already know that’s kept us alive. And barely alive, as ye’ve pointed out. Yet ye and yer bairn look well fed and taken care of.”
“Jenny…” Claire began, already seeing what this was really about and regretting her words. But there was no going back now.
“I never asked ye why,” Jenny continued, emotion starting to choke her up. But it wasn’t anger. Jenny was hurt, far more hurt than Claire thought her capable of, “But I thought ye would tell me on your own. Since ye wanted to be my sister again and all.”
“I told you-”
“But we both ken it isna the truth,” Jenny said, “Not the whole truth.”
“Jamie thought he was sending me back to another man. A man who would take care of Bree and I,” Claire said before she could stop herself, “But when I saw him, he wouldn’t raise another man’s child. By then, I was too far along to travel and I couldn’t risk Brianna’s safety.”
“And while we were starving and freezing, ye and yer bairn were safe in the colonies,” Jenny said, “I’ve heard that part of the story. So yer no going to tell me the truth, then?”
“It is a yes or no question, Claire,” Jenny demanded.
“I’m sorry, Jenny,” Claire said hopelessly. They held eye contact for one tense moment before Jenny tried to close herself off again. She wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes and pulled a bodice from the trunk that matched Claire’s skirt.
“Dress yerself properly in this for now,” Jenny said. She was trying for stern, but she couldn’t hide her hurt from Claire, “We can get ye something better suited for a farm when I take Bree into town.” Then she turned to leave.
“Jenny-” Claire tried again, but she was interrupted.
“When a horse breaks its leg, ye put it out of its misery because it’ll never heal right,” Jenny began. She gave Claire one more searching look, asking for the truth Claire couldn’t give her. Jenny gave her a nod of sad acceptance after a moment, “And neither will we.”
As much as Claire hated the distance still between them, that conversation signaled a kind of ceasefire with Jenny. She knew the household had breathed a sigh of relief, but the frosty politeness was almost worse than the anger. But what right did Claire have to be unhappy? Jenny’s parting look had been clear enough, all she wanted was the truth. Barring that, Claire was welcome at Lallybroch. She could be aunt to Jenny’s children, and she would be family to Bree in turn. But she and Claire were not sisters, and they would not be until Claire was ready to be honest.
But what would she even say? She didn’t have any proof, and it was an outlandish tale. In her own time, Claire had considered bringing photographs back. Just for herself. But she had decided the risk of being caught and having to explain them was too great. She wished more than anything she could have shown Jamie his daughter, and now she wished she had them as proof of another time.
Then there was the matter of if she even wanted Jenny and Ian to know. She loved them, and she trusted them as much as was possible in her situation. But Claire had already been tried for witchcraft once and she very nearly died. Even if Jenny and Ian still trusted her, Claire knew how the rumors would spread. If she told Jenny and Ian, eventually a servant would catch on, then it would spread to the rest of the tenants. What if Broch Tuarach proved to be just as suspicious and fearful as Cranesmuir? If it was just her, Claire might risk it. But any accusations against her would turn to Bree. Not to mention what might happen to her if Claire was burned at the stake.
No. Even if it meant losing Jenny, Claire couldn’t risk it. How was it that Jenny was every bit the fiery Fraser as her husband, but Claire could only manage him? For the millionth time, she wished Jamie was here. He would know what to say and what to do to earn Jenny’s trust. At the very least, he would be on the outside with her. She wanted nothing more than to send him a letter, but Jenny wouldn’t allow it. She claimed that he had to send one first. There was always the chance a letter would be intercepted, but Jamie had better odds of smuggling it if he knew it was coming. Or maybe Jenny was just being spiteful and she wanted to keep Claire away from her brother. Claire honestly wouldn’t blame her.
In any case, there was little Claire could do other than wait for a letter that might never come. Instead of obsessing, Claire tried to throw herself into the household as best she could without Jenny’s full approval. She was in the kitchen most mornings and in the garden in the evenings after she’d tended to her patients. She threw her dirty dresses in the communal laundry pile and gave Bree chores on top of the one’s Jenny already gave her. She tried her best to act with the grace the former Lady of Lallybroch should.
In exchange for her cooperation, Jenny kept her word. There was no more belittling or snide remarks. She gave Claire brief thanks for the chores she did do and made sure Claire had the medical supplies she could get in this time.
She even made good on her promise to take Claire and Bree into town. Claire tried to insist that Bree wear the hand me downs from Maggie, but Jenny insisted Bree deserved at least one dress of her own.
“Besides,” Jenny continued, “Ye cannot keep traipsing around a farm in French silk.”
Claire didn’t argue that, so into town they went with their brood. Her reception in the village was decidedly different when she was accompanied by Jenny. Claire tried not to linger on how the suspicious looks softened and she didn’t hear whispers in her wake. It had only been a few weeks, she reasoned, things would get better eventually and she wouldn’t need Jenny.
After her own fitting, Claire took Kitty to check in on a few of her patients while Jenny took care of Bree and the rest of the children. She was heading back when she ran straight into a woman significantly shorter than her.
“Oh, I’m sorry…” Claire’s words died on her tongue when she saw who it was. It had been a decade and the woman looked a good deal older, but Laoghaire Mackenzie was unmistakable.
“What are ye doing here?” Laoghaire demanded with confusion and thinly veiled contempt. Her eyes darted around the market, looking for Jamie, probably.
“What are you doing here?” Claire asked instead. It was her husband’s land, after all.
“I live on Fraser lands and this is the closest village,” Laoghaire replied, “Not that I owe ye any explanation.”
“No, I don’t suppose you do,” Claire said dryly. Laoghaire’s eyes darted to where Kitty was holding Claire’s hand, then she looked back up at Claire with a quirked eyebrow, “My daughter and I live at Lallybroch.”
“Daughter?” Laoghaire asked, “So ye married again then?”
“No,” Claire snapped, “My daughter with Jamie.”
“He isna here,” Laoghaire said once she managed to say anything past her shock.
“I know damn well where he is. Since I am his wife,” Claire said, “Goodbye, Laoghaire.”
“I dinna ken what kind of witchcraft ye used to come back here,” Laoghaire said when Claire turned to leave. She didn’t turn around, but Laoghaire continued, “But ye should have stayed gone.”
It was a thinly veiled threat, but Claire didn’t give Laoghaire the satisfaction of turning around. Instead, she nudged Kitty back to the direction of the tailor and left Laoghaire to whatever mischief she would plan.
“I ken Laoghaire is a nuisance,” Ian said once they were back at Lallybroch and Claire told him what had happened, “But I wouldna worry about a jealous lass.”
“That jealous lass very nearly had me killed,” Claire replied. She hated to admit it, but she was more than a little shaken up. Laoghaire still had the look of innocence about her, but Claire knew better than to trust her. If a decade hadn’t done anything to ease her hatred, it wouldn’t have done anything to soften her methods of revenge. With one chance encounter, Claire had put the whole estate in danger. Just as she feared she would do.
“Laoghaire MacKimmie has a small farm hours away,” Ian said sternly but with sympathy, “She is widowed with two bairns. She has no allies and no resources. She canna hurt ye or Bree, Claire.”
“A letter!” came a cry from outside. A moment later, Fergus was inside with two envelopes, “Letters from Jamie!”
He thrust one into Claire’s hands, and for just a moment, all of her other problems were forgotten. All that mattered was that Jamie was safe. And had enough freedom to send letters. Claire’s eyes filled with tears that she quickly wiped aside. Claire couldn’t wait a single moment longer. She tore the seal off the letter and began reading. She only got one sentence in before someone was pounding on the doors.
“Mr. Murray!” A Scottish voice with clear authority rang out. Ian and Fergus froze after exchanging a glance.
“Who is that?” Claire asked, even though she feared she already knew the answer. Ian answered anyways.