Chapter 1: Aon
He was dying, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Fergus had first noticed him getting tired and abundantly sweaty while they were out working with the horses. He’d even teased him about being exhausted from excessive nighttime activities.
But these were not symptoms of exertion; they were likely symptoms of some kind of cancer. Lymphoma was my best guess, though without proper lab work and scans I couldn’t be sure.
I would’ve diagnosed him sooner if he hadn’t been such a bloody Scot about his discomfort and told me something...not that it would’ve helped.
I checked the swollen lymph nodes in his neck once again, hoping they had magically shrunk down to a normal size, but that was a foolish hope. He was resting now, fatigued as he always was these days.
“I’m so sorry, darling,” I whispered, holding his fevered hand, lifeless in his unconsciousness.
“Grannie!” squealed wee Jamie, my grandson toddling into the room, arms wide for balance.
I stood quickly, swooping him up and carrying him away. “James Alexander Colin Fraser MacGregor, you must use your indoor voice when your father is sleeping.”
“Da’s sick,” he said severely.
“You’re right. He is sick. We must let him rest quietly.”
“Jamie, dinna go jumping on yer Da!” called Faith, gracefully sweeping into the cottage, my three-month-old namesake secured to her chest with a large wrap.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got him,” I said, shutting the door to Colin’s room, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, the little heathen was squirming out of my arms to go find his favorite toy sword his grandfather had whittled for him for Hogmanay.
“Hello, my Sunshine.” I kissed Faith’s cheek. “I didn’t expect you home for another hour, at least.”
She just shrugged, eyes red and swollen. I had come over early in the morning to give her and the children a break from caretaking Colin. They’d gone to Lallybroch to see the family, but apparently, that didn’t last long. Faith just couldn’t stay away when her husband was so ill.
“We finally have a bit of sunshine,” I said. “It would do you and the children good to be outdoors.”
Faith removed baby Claire from her wrap and handed her over to me, taking a moment to stretch her back. The walk to her cottage from Lallybroch wasn’t very far, but the poor woman was carrying the weight of two young children and a dying husband on her back.
Not for the first time in the past couple of months did I wish Jamie was home. Faith could’ve really used her father. But he was away with a few of our other children, first to Paris, then to London. He was due back home any day now.
“Would you like me to take the children home to Lallybroch?” I asked. “Give you a little room to breathe? Our housekeeper Leana just had a baby; she could nurse the little one if you—”
“No, Mama,” she cut me off. “I could use the distraction, and I want us all close to Colin...just in case.”
I looked down at my golden-eyed granddaughter in my arms, the only one in the family that looked more like me than Jamie. I kissed her little nose and hugged her close to my chest. “Do you want me to stay? I’d love to spend a bit more time with my little ones.”
“I’m alright, Mama. I’m sure ye have plenty of work waiting for ye at home wi’ Da being gone for so long.”
“Nonsense. Lallybroch is in Fergus’s capable hands.”
“Mama,” she said seriously, “I’m fine.”
“Alright then. I’ll go, but I’m coming back to check on all four of you tomorrow.” I handed little Claire back to her mother and kissed them both goodbye.
When I turned to wee Jamie, he held up his wooden sword and tried fending off my kisses with heroic swings of his blade, just like his grandda taught him. “Come here you little Scot!” I snatched him up and rained kisses down all over his cheeks as he erupted in a fit of giggles.
We were interrupted by Faith’s somber tone. “Mama, d’ye think...Is there something in the future that could save him? A medicine like yer penicillin?”
I froze, giving wee Jamie a chance to strike me smartly on the head with his wooden sword. I set him down, rubbing the tender spot and turning to her with a look of pained sympathy.
Faith was fingering a large sapphire she wore embedded on a gold chain around her neck. A gift from her father. The blood in my veins went cold as ice.
“What Colin has is likely cancer,” I said sharp and clear. “In the 1940s, they were treating such things with radiation and possibly some chemicals, but…”
“The treatments often did more damage than good, and the tools to treat it are enormous. They can’t be brought through the stones.”
“No, Faith! Even if we could somehow get the treatments here, they won’t do any good.”
“How do ye know?”
“Because I was a bloody nurse, that’s how.”
“So, ye’ve seen this before? This was the kind of patient ye treated when ye worked at the hospital?”
“Well no, but I have seen this before. I do know quite a bit about it. I had a friend, you see. She was a nurse in the army. Shortly after the war, she was diagnosed with cancer in her lymphatic system. She came to my hospital once to talk to the oncologists about possible treatments. They told her the average life expectancy after diagnosis was five years, and that was with radiation.”
“Five years? If it could give us more time—”
“Five years for those diagnosed early on! Colin is already far more progressed than she was, darling. Even if that weren’t the case, he can’t travel through time.”
“But I could go for him and bring the radiation here.”
“The machines are so big, they would hardly fit in your house, much less through a bloody stone circle.”
Tears welled up in her eyes as she tried to find yet another argument. As her mind raced, I clenched my fists in fear that she might take off straight away to the stones, regardless of the dangers of disrupting space and time.
But reason finally prevailed. She collapsed down into a chair, eyes staring far away, as though she was coming to grips once again with her husband’s death.
“A foolish hope,” she whispered, her voice weak. “I was just thinking of how my niece and nephew came to save me, and I wanted to do the same for him.”
“Look, if there was a way I could save him, I would do it. Even if that meant going back. I just don’t think it’s possible. And you can’t bloody well leave baby Claire and wee Jamie here without their mother, so don’t get any ideas.”
A silent sob quaked through her body and tears fell. “It just feels so helpless, ye ken. I can travel through time, but it’s bloody useless. If I canna save the ones I love, what is it even worth?”
“Oh darling, I know just what you mean. And I’m so sorry.”
“No, ye don’t!” she snapped.
“Yes, I do,” I whispered. I knew all too well.
“Oh, Mama. I’m sorry. I ken ye know better than anyone.” She looked ashamed of herself. “Ye lost yer husband? Frank?”
“And yer weans?”
I nodded again.
“I dinna ken how ye survived it.”
“I survived losing Frank, because I was meant to find your father. And I survived the babies, because I had you and your brothers and sisters who needed me.” I kissed her forehead. “And you’ll survive this because of them.” I nodded to her children.
“I ken I must do what’s best for the bairns. And I will. I swear it. It’s just that...sometimes I think…”
She looked up at me, eyes blurred with tears. “D’ye think maybe Death is following me, Mama? D’ye think it wants payment for the life ye saved? I wasna meant to be here, perhaps—”
“Absolutely not. That’s not how things like this work. Colin would be exactly where he is right now even if you were gone. Instead, you’ve given him a happy life, a beautiful family, and a great love. So chase such foolish notions from your mind.”
Her eyes dropped to the baby in my arms and then to the toddler at my feet. “D’ye think this is something that could be passed down to the children?”
“I really don’t know enough about it to make any reasonable kind of guess. There is some speculation that certain cancers may be heritable, while others are not.”
She inhaled deeply, shuddering, the air getting stuck in her throat.
“They’re strong and healthy now, my darling. And they likely can travel through time. Take heart. They’ll need their mother when their father is gone.”
She nodded, reaching out to grasp my hand. “And I have you...and the family.”
“We’re here for you, my Sunshine. And your father will be home soon.”
She breathed a little easier at the mention of Jamie. He couldn’t fight off Colin's cancer, but his solid presence was always so comforting.
I left them with a heaviness of heart, not only for Faith and the children, but for myself. I loved Colin. He’d been a wonderful son-in-law and was as much a part of our family as our own children.
The cold wind blew noisily in my ears and bit at my nose as I walked home on the long dirt road. My thoughts raced with every step, consuming my attention more so than the beautiful scenery around me.
It was strange how you could mourn someone before they were gone. But I supposed Colin was already gone, in many respects. Though he still had some humor when he was awake, he seemed to have lost his sharpness of mind and his quiet strength that were an integral part of his personality. And he didn’t look like himself any longer. He was pale and emaciated...weak and frail. He’d never been like that before.
A shiver went through my body at the thought of having to watch Jamie fall ill like that one day. I knew it wouldn’t come for many years, but a sick fear gripped me at having to live any part of my life without him.
As I walked around a bend in the road, I pulled off the golden necklace I always wore that displayed a large citrine gem. It was warm to the touch, even in the cold weather. One day, I would use a gem like this to leave my life here with my family and go on to save Jamie in his youth.
I understood what Faith meant when she said it sometimes felt as though Death was following her, like we were defying the natural order of things with our family’s existence. I would never let her know that I shared the same fears, but they were always there, a dark shadow in my mind, hiding in the corners even on my brightest of days.
I was so engrossed in my thoughts, I didn’t notice a large stone in the road. “Fuck!” I yelled, as I fell forward, necklace flying out of my hands and into the brush on the side of the road. My palms stung with fresh cuts, and my knees ached where bruises were likely to show in a day or so.
Getting old is not for the faint of heart, I thought, as I forced myself up, body disrupted by the jolt of impact more than it would’ve been twenty years ago.
I looked around for my necklace as I dusted myself off. Jamie was bloody obsessed with keeping gemstones in the hands of his time-travelling family. He wanted us to have them at the ready if ever a need should arise. The thought of enduring his irritated grumbling if he found out that I’d lost the necklace had me getting down on my freshly injured hands and knees to poke through a dog rose shrub and all it’s bloody thorns.
You’d think a gold necklace would be easy to find in the wilderness, but the shadows cast by the trees and shrubs muted whatever glitter might help find the bloody thing.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I cursed, as my cold knuckle scratched against a particularly vicious thorn. “If I had my shovel, I’d dig you out by the root and turn you into mulch, you bastard.”
A quiet chuckle sounded behind me—one I’d recognize anywhere. I looked over my shoulder and saw my husband grinning down at me, a hand on his chin, admiring the sight before him.
“When I thought of all the ways ye’d welcome me home Sassenach, I must say, this one didna cross my mind.”
“I dropped something.”
“Is that so?” He bent down behind me, evil intentions in his eyes. His hands came down to rest on the sides of my arse. “Your bum is the greatest thing about you.”
I snorted. “Is that so?”
“It’s Shakespeare, Sassenach. Ye always love it when I recite ye the bard’s verse.”
“Aye. Measure For Measure, act 2, scene 1.”
I laughed, making said bum bounce in his hands.
“Ye want more poetry, lass?” he started lifting my skirts, hands seeking soft, wobbly flesh. “Methought I was enamored of an ass.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
“Aye,” he groaned, ducking his head down.
“Don’t you dare!” I yelled, pulling away. “We’re on the side of the road where anyone can see!”
“No one’s around. Dinna Fash.” He bent his head again.
“But I’m filthy. It’s been hours since I bathed.”
He snorted. I knew he didn’t care, but I most certainly did. Peering over my shoulder, I saw him grab the flask that was attached to his belt and pop open the lid.
“Jamie!” I said, scandalized. “You are not going to pour whisky on my—OH GOD! It’s fucking cold!”
“I’ll warm ye up in a bit,” he said, wiping down the line of my buttocks with a handkerchief. “It’s been months of famine, Sassenach. Let me feast before the bairns descend, aye?”
I just sighed in resignation and wiggled my bum, feeling no less deprived than him in his absence. If truth be told, we likely wouldn’t have any time alone again until later in the evening, and I certainly couldn’t wait until then.
I expected his soft lips on my skin or his gentle tongue tracing the curve of my buttocks. What I didn’t expect was for him to bite my arse like a bloody horse in heat!
I let off a yelp as he licked sweetly over the injured buttock. Just as I was relaxed again, he moved over and bit the other side. “James Fraser!” I swung a hand back behind me, connecting with his all too hard head.
He laughed, full of mischief, licking and kissing down to more tender places.
“Oh,” I moaned, “now that’s nice.”
His tongue grazed the center of my buttocks, warm breath heating my skin. Jamie groaned as he licked over my arsehole, hands sinking deep in the fat of my bum, splitting me wide apart.
My nerves were heighted being outside where any passersby could see, though the trees and shrubs on the side of the road did provide us with some bit of cover. Making love to my husband outdoors had always been my favorite pastime, I just usually preferred the only witnesses be fluttering songbirds and the occasional deer.
“Ye ken ye like it, Sassenach,” he growled against my arse. “Knowing anyone could walk by and see yer husband defile ye.”
I thought of sweet old Mistress Kerr, the tavern owner in Broch Mordha, walking by and having an apoplexy at the sight of her beloved Laird’s face buried in his Lady’s backside. Or perhaps a patrolling redcoat getting confirmation of what complete barbarians the Scots were, bringing our filthy bedroom activities to the roadside.
For some reason, it made me all the more needy.
Jamie’s tongue was inside my arse as he slipped a finger down to my quim. “Bloody hell!” I yelled. There was nothing, nothing like being touched so intimately by a man who’d spent half his life devoted to knowing my pleasure.
His fingers were perfect—long, graceful, and fucking skilled. He rubbed over me, sliding them back and forth over my clitoris like he was playing a harp—I was certainly making plenty of noise at his touch, though unlikely to be anything the angels might sing to.
My fingers dug into the cold earth as my body tensed, fighting for orgasm. But I didn’t come until Jamie was good and ready, speeding his fingers back and forth until I was crying out his name.
He didn’t wait for my orgasm to stop. He yanked down his breeks, found purchase on my hips, and shoved his cock inside. “Deo gratias!” he groaned, holding my arse against him as he felt the last of my climax squeeze around him.
My arms grew weak, and I barely had the strength to hold my face off the ground, but he had only just begun. He pulled back and hammered in, knocking the breath from my lungs. His hips let loose their aggression after months of separation. His knees were between mine, pinching my skin against the dirt as his muscular thighs slapped against my own.
God, I’d missed the grunting sounds he let loose when seeking climax. I’d missed the feel of his hands on that soft, meaty part of my hips, gripping tight to pull me repeatedly against him. I’d missed the shuddering that rocked through my body when his cock battered my cervix. And I’d missed his triumphant growl whenever I clamped down around him, the fluid of my own pleasure audibly sloshing with every thrust. But most of all, I’d missed his arms curling around me, squeezing my body to his chest as he came, stuttering my name with holy reverence.
We both collapsed onto our sides, not moving our bodies otherwise. The closest I’d ever come to being any good at meditation was when we lay recovering, listening to our combined breath as our hearts slowed to a soft, languid pace.
For the first time in months, I felt completely at peace.
“Welcome home, Soldier,” I sighed.
He reached down and groped my bottom. “Welcome, ass.”
“Aye. Twelfth Night, though dinna ask me what scene; I can hardly recall my own name at the moment.”
“I think I miss Catallus.”
“Do ye, now?” He turned me over and met my eyes, smiling happily. “Ye want a thousand kisses, Sassenach?”
“Yes. After you’ve washed your face and mouth.”
He chuckled, loosening my bodice and pulling free my breasts. “Then let amorous kisses dwell, on our lips, begin and tell…” he recited, bending to kiss over my nipple.
“Dwell on our lips?” I interrupted. “Those aren’t exactly my lips.”
“Give me a minute to get my legs working again, and I’ll go wash up for them.”
“Tired, are you? Worn out after only one time?”
“After being on the road for a week, following months of rushing around to get my business done before Spring? Aye. I’m worn out. ” He rolled onto his back, trying to relax.
“Ifrinn!” he shouted, jumping up on his knees.
“What? What is it?”
He rubbed his bottom while his eyes scanned the ground for the violent offender.
He reached down to pick up a branch dog rose, complete with thorns and all. Tangled on one of the little vines was a small golden chain.
“My necklace! You found it.” I grabbed it cheerfully, and pulled it back over my head.
“Mmphm,” he grumbled, pulling up his trousers.
He helped me up to my feet, and in return, I assisted with sanitizing his face and mouth. After he spit out the last of the whisky, he asked, “May I kiss my wife now? Or d’ye want me to soak in a barrel of spirits for a few days first?”
I grabbed him by the collar and pulled his lips down to mine. I was never so happy as when in Jamie’s arms.
“God, I missed ye, mo ghràidh.”
I kissed him slowly, body and mind finally content in this little stolen moment together, away from the demands awaiting us at home. He had the most delectable bottom lip that my own lips loved to cling to as we parted.
All too soon, the curiosity of our time apart got the better of us, so he led me back to the road where his wagon was waiting, and we began to fill each other in on the last few months.
“How did you sneak up on me?” I asked as he assisted me into the wagon’s long seat.
“I saw ye walking up the path from Faith’s cottage. The wind was blowing in my direction, so ye couldna hear me come upon ye. When I turned round the bend back there, I meant to surprise ye, but then I noticed ye’d fallen down, so I rushed o’er.”
“I had a lot on my mind.”
“Oh?” He climbed up onto the seat beside me and set the horses off toward Lallybroch.
“No, you first. How’s my little man? And Bree? And Young Ian?”
“They were all just fine, last I saw them. Eager to be rid of me.”
“I doubt that.”
Jamie snorted. “When we arrived in Paris, puir Jared was nursing a headache from the night before from too much drink—”
“Jared had a hangover? He must be getting old.”
“Aye. Happens to the best of us. Anyhow, he was regaling us wi’ tales of a new brothel that just opened where he’s doing much of his business, and I could see Young Ian’s eyes glittering wi’ hope and possibilities.”
“Oh God. Jenny will kill us if he ends up getting a whore pregnant or dying of syphilis.”
“Aye. I suppose it’s none so terrible she and Ian moved to Fraser’s Ridge. An ocean separating us might keep her wrath at bay.”
“Do you think it was a good idea to leave him there? He’s still quite young and—”
“Come now, Sassenach. He’s fourteen. Ye ken he needs his education, and the lad has an adventurous spirit.”
It was my turn to snort. “Yes, I recall all too well how adventurous the lad is.”
It would be a long time before I’d ever forget everything that had happened with that adventurous young man all those years ago. Those events had resulted in him living in Scotland with us rather than North Carolina with his parents. But that was a story to ruminate on some other day.
“He’ll come to us if he needs us,” Jamie reassured me, “and Jared will keep an eye on him in the meantime.”
“You mean the Jared who was nursing a hangover and regaling him with tales of the latest brothel? That Jared?”
I shook my head. I wouldn’t win this argument. And Jamie had obtained Jenny and Ian’s permission to send him to university in Paris, so I suppose my opinion mattered little. Still, Ian was like a son to me. We’d had him in our custody since he was such a little boy.
“Brianna sends her love,” Jamie continued on. Our daughter was staying in Paris with my friend Louise so she could learn to paint with the masters. Only her love of the arts could pull her away from her breeks in Scotland and shove her into grand panniers in the salons of Paris.
“I know. I’ve already received a letter from her.”
“Yes. She sent it just after you left for London. She’s enamored with all she’s learning, though has little patience for Louise and her parties. She did say Ian was behaving himself, but you know she’d say that even if he wasn’t.”
“And what about Willie? How is my little darling?” I tried to hide the fact that my eyes were misting over at the thought of our baby boy being away from home for the first time.
“He’s more than alright, Sassenach. Ye ken he’s in safe hands.”
I took a deep, steadying breath. “Yes, but you know he’s getting to that age. It’s going to happen soon, Jamie.”
“Which is exactly why he needs to start spending more time away from us, Claire. Ye ken he canna do what he must if he’s a scairt wee bairn.”
I still didn’t like the idea. “Couldn’t we send someone else back in time to do it for him? A future grandchild or something?”
“And risk it all going wrong? No. It’ll be fine, lass. Ye ken it will. You were there.”
“You’re right, I was there, and it was bloody dangerous. And he’s only a child.”
“He’s ready. I’ve made sure of it. And dinna fash. They’re staying in England. His godfather assured me he has no business in Scotland until Summer. It likely won’t happen for another year or two, at least.”
Though his words were of some comfort, I still hated the idea of my son being out of my sight.
“Settle yer mind, Sassenach. He’s fine. He promised he’d write ye everyday before laying down to bed.”
I snorted, knowing how unlikely that was to happen. Jamie chuckled with me and hugged me close to his side. We could see the broch in the distance, and I felt Jamie’s chest swell with the comfort of coming home after a long time away.
“I’ve told ye about Bree, Willie, and Ian. Now, tell me, how are the rest of my bairns?” he asked. “And the tenants?”
I didn’t yet know how to tell him about Colin, so I started first with the other children. “Fergus has been taking care of the tenants. He’s doing a wonderful job.”
“Of course he is.”
“And Marsali is better at keeping house than I ever was.” Jamie snorted all too heartily for my taste. “The twins, well, you know them. They pop in and out as they please, usually dragging a boar or deer in with them.”
Jamie shook his head in irritation. “I told them to be looking out for their Ma while I was gone, but I see they’ve been letting ye traipse about the countryside on yer own. Who kens what may have happened if a stray Scot happened upon ye on the roadside, lass.” He blinked at me with a mischievous smirk.
I bumped his shoulder and continued filling him in. “They’ve been talking about building themselves a cottage.”
Jamie nodded. “They’re a bit young yet, but they’re ready for one—feral wee beasts that they are. Perhaps we’ll get started on it this summer.”
“Actually, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”
I sighed, gathering my courage to have the dreaded conversation. “There may be a cottage freeing up soon.”
Jamie looked down at me, narrowing his eyes.
“I think sometime in the next few months, maybe longer, Faith and her children will be coming to live with us at Lallybroch.”
He tensed at the heartbreak in my voice. “Why?” His voice was like gravel.
“It’s Colin.” I shook my head and took a deep breath. “He’s unwell.”
Jamie stopped the horses and turned to face me. “Unwell? Can ye no’ fix him?”
My eyes moistened and my chin quivered. All I could do was shake my head.
“And we canna save him wi’ the stones somehow?”
I shook my head again, and the tears fell.
“Oh Christ. How’s our lass?”
“Not good. She loves him so dearly.”
Jamie pulled me close, holding me tight the way I’d needed for months. Tears seemed to fall so easily in his arms, and I let them flow freely for the first time since I realized we’d be losing a son-in-law.
When my sobs subsided, he kissed my forehead and tucked me into his side once more. “We’ll do what we can for them, even if that only means prayer.”
He reached for the reins and got the horses moving again. There was a shaky urgency in his embrace that told me he was eager to go see Faith. “How are the weans? Wee Jamie and Claire?”
“Healthy. Happy. Oblivious as only children can be.”
“Oblivious? I’m sure they sense something is wrong.”
He was probably right. Children could often be more observant than their parents. We sat quietly together for some time, leaning on each other, drawing strength.
“And how’s my wee Lizzie? Did she miss her Da?”
“Of course she did. She’s made friends with the children of the new tenants just beyond the orchard.”
“Children? They’re hardly children, Sassenach. They’re teenagers, as ye say. And their father is a bloody Englishman.”
I smiled despite my tears. I didn’t want to tell him that one of the bloody Englishman’s teenagers had taken a clear liking to our daughter. Lizzie was more than a little enamored with the lad as well. I’d save it for a better time.
He sighed with relief as we rode up to the house, giving me a squeeze and kissing my temple. He helped me down from the wagon and escorted me inside, wanting to see the children before unloading the empty whisky barrels he’d brought from Paris.
The house was surprisingly quiet with so many of our children away from home or working outside. There was no one in the parlor or the dining room, so I dragged Jamie to the kitchen to get him something to eat.
“Da!” yelled Marsali, eyes wide. She rushed over quickly to greet him with a hug.
“It’s fine to see ye, lass.” He hugged her close and kissed her head.
“Welcome home, Papa,” said Fergus, smiling bright. His cheeks were a bit red; perhaps he was spending too much time in the sun.
Jamie released Marsali and embraced our eldest. “How’s everything, laddie? Are we ready for the planting?”
“Oui. We’re just waiting for the ground to thaw.”
“Claire tells me ye both did well taking care of Lallybroch while I was gone?”
“They were wonderful, darling,” I said. “Both are more capable of running this household entirely on their own.”
“Little makes a man as happy as knowing his sons and daughters are growing into fine young men and women,” Jamie patted Fergus on the back. “And the twa of ye working so well together—as brothers and sisters aught—is a comfort when I have to be away.”
“He’s hardly my brother,” snapped Marsali.
“Pardon?” I said, surprised by her tone.
She shrugged and returned to the counter to sharpen a blade. There was a raw piece of venison in front of her that I assumed was meant to be our dinner. “Fergus and I are not brother and sister. We share no blood.”
“Aye,” said Jamie, “but ye share the same parents and the same family.”
“Perhaps. But I was only a wean when he went off to university. And then he spent most of my life running spirits for ye between Edinburgh and Paris. He’s only been home a few years, and we’ve both been grown that whole time.”
“Marsali,” Fergus chided, “Papa is only pleased we can work together to help the family. I’m sure a thank you would suffice.”
“Aye, and I am only reminding him that you and I are not siblings.” She smiled at him without any joy in her eyes.
Jamie looked at me with utter confusion, hoping I could shine a light on whatever that was, but I was just as dumbfounded as him.
“Come, Papa,” said Fergus. “Let me help you unload the wagon. Did Jared have the good brandy barrels this time?”
“Aye,” said Jamie, eyes still narrowed on our son.
“Marvelous. I’ve cleared some space in the shed…” Fergus led Jamie away to the front door, thoughts of food apparently forgotten.
Marsali was busy with her knife and the venison, and she clearly wasn’t in the mood for further conversation, so I took the opportunity to steal away upstairs to wash myself down after our roadside activities.
As I cleaned myself up, I looked out the window to find Jamie and Fergus. The stable boys and farm hands had gotten wind of Jamie’s return, and people were beginning to filter into the courtyard to greet their Laird. I sighed contentedly, Lallybroch once again beginning to feel much more like home.
Immediately after the work was done, Jamie mounted my horse—poor Donas deserved a rest—and rode out to visit Faith and the grandchildren. He came back home visibly exhausted and a little on edge. He would’ve done well to just go upstairs and sleep for a good day and a half, but he was hungry and insisted on having dinner with the remaining children.
He had brought back a good amount of fine wine from his business with Jared, and we drank it lazily as we finished our dinner and caught up with the children. Jamie asked a dozen questions to Jo and Kezzie about their winter hunts, and Fergus filled Jamie in on the latest redcoat promoted to captain of the local dragoons.
Marsali had little to say to anyone at the table, which was unusual for her. I noticed her get up more than once to use the privy during the course of dinner, and she was looking rather gray in the dim candlelight.
Lizzie, on the other hand, was chattering away, as was her nature, sharing all about her day with her new friends on the other side of the orchard. “And then I helped dig up the dirt for a kailyard no’ far from the stream so they wouldna have to walk a great distance for water if we dinna get much rain this summer.”
“We’re in Scotland, Lizzie,” said Jo. “When do we ever ‘not get much rain’?”
“Mmphm,” she grunted, flipping her hair and rolling her eyes.
“Well, that’s a fine thing to help our new tenants wi’ their kailyard,” said Jamie, “but did ye help yer Ma wi’ hers while I was gone?”
Lizzie flushed red and smiled sheepishly.
“I expect my kailyard is far less interesting than the new tenants’,” I laughed, feeling the warmth of the wine on my cheeks, “considering there are no handsome young sassenach boys to help with the tilling.”
“What d’ye mean?” Jamie sat up straighter and narrowed his eyes on his daughter. I covered my mouth, realizing I’d yet to tell him about Lizzie’s little crush.
“Mama!” said Lizzie, shrinking into her seat and hiding her face with a hand at her brow.
“Is that wee laddie bothering ye, lass? What’s his name? Fitzwilliam?” he said with disdain.
“He’s no’ bothering me, Da. Please leave him alone.”
“Mmphm. Would ye rather no’ spend some time wi’ a good Scottish family? I ken the MacLeods can be a bit rambunctious, but they come from decent stock, and their lad Duncan seems a friendly sort.”
“Da! He’s thirteen years old!”
“Aye, and ye’re fifteen.”
“Dhia. Mama, may I be excused?”
“Yes, darling. Clean up your plate and check on the goats before you retire.”
Lizzie stood up in a mortified huff, grabbed her dishes, and left for the kitchen.
Jamie took a sharp bite of his bannock and chewed like he was the goat that needed feeding—an angry goat at that. I was pretty sure I heard him grumble, “Fitzwilliam,” under his breath.
“You do remember Lizzie’s mother is also a sassenach, darling?” I said, trying to hide my smile.
“He’s at least seventeen and has no business around my daughter.”
“Jamie, she’s fifteen. She’s going to be showing interest in young men, and considering you fell in love with a sassenach, I’d suppose she wouldn’t think it was such a terrible thing to do the same.”
I just sighed and poured him another drink.
“Pardon me,” said Marsali, getting up from the table quickly and rushing outside.
Jamie’s eyes went wide as he watched her leave the room. “What the bloody hell has gotten into the women in this family?”
I put my napkin down and began to follow her out, but Fergus stopped me. “I’ll go check on her, Maman. Rest your feet. She told me earlier she ate some bad cheese.”
We were left at the table with only the twins for company, both of whom were scarfing down their third helping of supper. They didn’t ask to be excused, but they took their plates and rushed off to the kitchen and out the back door when they were done.
Jamie sat looking at the large empty dining table with his mouth open in shock. I took a long sip of wine as he exclaimed, “Nine children! We have nine bloody children and not one of them can sit through a whole meal.”
“Faith and Brianna would if they were here, darling. Though I can’t say the same for Ian or Willie.”
“We live in a madhouse.” He gulped down his entire glass of wine.
I grabbed his hand and chuckled. “Well, I’m pleased to have you home. I was tired of being exasperated with this lot all by myself.”
He brought my hand to his lips and kissed my knuckles, thoughts still racing behind his narrowed brow. Despite his grouchy expression, my eyes—influenced no doubt by the delicious wine—gazed at my gorgeous husband who seemed to be glimmering beautifully in the soft candlelight. I could almost see the moment when he noticed how strongly his presence was affecting me.
“Come, lass. If the Lord and our children have blessedly given us a moment alone, let’s no’ waste it staring at their empty seats.”
I smiled giddily. “I’ll clean up the table and meet you upstairs when I’m done?”
“No.” He stood and helped me to my feet. He bent down and lifted me over his shoulder, calling out for our housekeeper to take care of the mess we were leaving behind.
“Jamie!” I yelled, laughing foolishly. “Put me down!”
“I ken exactly where I’m gonna put ye, Sassenach.” He marched me out of the dining room and into the parlor.
Just as he was about to traverse up the stairs and to our room, Fergus came running into the house, calling for his parents. “Maman! Papa! Viens vite ici!”
Jamie turned around to face him—which meant my arse was somewhere in the vicinity of his face as he was addressing our son. “Put me down!” I yelled, smacking his bum.
He gently set me on the floor, keeping his hands around my waist until I was steady on my feet.
“Come,” said Fergus. “You must see for yourself.”
Jamie and I looked at each other, both bewildered, before following Fergus outside. It was already dark, the sun having recently disappeared behind the mountains in the skyline. Kezzie and Jo were both holding lanterns to illuminate the scene.
“What’s going on? Who’s here?” I asked, holding Jamie’s arm as we made our way down the steps. It appeared we had an unexpected visitor arrive in a wagon.
“Jock?” said Jamie. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
The old Highlander was in his wagon, staring down at a basket in the middle of his cargo. The object seemed to be holding the rapt attention of Lizzie, Marsali, and the rest of our children.
“What is it?” I asked.
A small, infant’s cry answered my question.
“A baby?!” I instantly climbed up on the wagon and peered down at the little one bundled up in a basket. It had dark hair and lovely olive skin.
But the greatest shock wasn’t that a strange child had been brought to our house unexpectedly in the night. No, what floored me most was that in the child’s hands was an object in which I was intimately familiar.
“Brianna’s pearls!” I bent down to get the baby, pulling the pearls from its grasp, fearful it would break the necklace and choke on the little pieces. “But who does this child belong to?”
Jock just nodded to a lumpy blanket in the corner of the wagon. It was so dark, it took my eyes a moment to realize it was covering a body—a dead body by the smell of it.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!”
Chapter 2: Dhà
Brianna was resting on a large chair in the parlor at Lallybroch. She had fallen asleep reading a thick, heavy book, and it lay open on her lap. A shawl was wrapped around her shoulders, and a hint of Ellen’s pearls glimmered just above where they disappeared beneath her shift.
At the sound of a baby crying, her eyes snapped open and she jumped to her feet, the book on her lap falling to the floor. She hastily picked it up and set it aside before moving toward the sound.
Though it was difficult to see in the dark, a portrait of Ellen MacKenzie hung at the landing—the one that was displayed at Leoch before the castle’s destruction. Brianna continued down the Hall of Spoons, as the family liked to call it, with portraits of all eleven children—even the lost ones—lining the walls.
But there was one more portrait at the end of the hall than there should have been. It was of a baby. A bonnie wee lassie of a few months old, holding a string of pearls.
And suddenly, the baby began moving in the portrait. She was thrashing about, crying, and wailing. Brianna jumped back, startled.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” she said, with the accent of an Englishwoman.
Jamie jolted awake and shook his head, looking around the room for the source of disruption. Claire was up and grumbling, wrapping the bonnie wee bairn in her arms, bouncing her up and down, eyes half-closed in exhaustion.
“Did'ye say something, Sassenach?”
“Just some midnight blasphemy. Go back to sleep.”
Jamie sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes. He didn’t feel like sleeping after his dream of Brianna and the portrait. He lit a candle to make it easier for Claire to see.
The baby kept on crying.
“She’s hungry,” Jamie offered. “We’ll have to wake up Leana.”
“I know, the poor dear. As if her own baby doesn’t keep her awake most of the night already.”
“You were a wet nurse for a time too. D’ye recall?”
Claire nodded and would’ve smiled if she wasn’t so tired, and when she stroked the baby’s cheek, Jamie could see she was transported back to a time long ago, holding an entirely different bairn.
“I didn’t think we’d ever have a baby again,” she whispered.
“Claire,” he spoke cautiously, “we dinna ken anything about this child. She may already have a family.”
She deflated a little. “I suppose you’re right.”
A soft knock sounded at the door. It was already open, and their housekeeper was peering in with her kind, yet sleepy eyes. “Is the wean hungry? Shall I feed her?”
Claire passed the child over and watched them leave to the room where Leana was staying the night. It was fortunate they had a housekeeper who was still nursing one of her own; otherwise, they’d have to rely on Faith to do so, and the poor lass had so much to deal with already.
Looking tired and defeated, Claire closed the door before slinking back to bed and collapsing face down on her pillow. Her voice was unintelligible when she spoke, muffled by layers of linen and feathers.
Jamie pulled at her pillow, turning her head so her mouth was uncovered. “Come again?”
“We’re going to have to go to Paris, aren’t we?” she repeated.
“Why in God’s name would we do that?”
“The pearls. Brianna wouldn’t give those pearls away without reason. Something must’ve happened.”
“Let’s no’ assume the worst. Louise or Young Ian would ha’ informed us if there was a problem.”
“Perhaps. But if Brianna is alright, why wouldn’t she send a letter with the woman and child to explain why she gave them her pearls and had them come here?”
“I dinna ken. Mebbe she has done just that, but the courier was delayed. Or perhaps she didna realize the necklace was taken and doesna even ken who the woman is.”
“Was,” Claire corrected. “Brianna is not that oblivious to be completely unaware that a family heirloom was stolen from her possession. Don’t you find this whole situation strange?”
“Of course, I do. Even my dreams are disturbed, but it would be reckless to up and rush off to Paris—after I just got back, mind you—when Colin is dying, the planting will be starting soon, and there’s no indication Brianna is in any danger.”
Claire cringed. “You’re right. We can’t leave Faith and Colin right now. And that woman could’ve gotten those pearls by any number of means.”
“I hear ye saying the words, Sassenach, but yer tone tells me ye’re not convinced.”
“I’m just worried. We have three children away from home right now, and a dead body just appeared at our front door holding one of Bree’s possessions.”
Jamie scooted closer, taking his wife in his arms. “The woman and her bairn seem harmless enough. Jock said he found them on the side of the road to Lallybroch, and ye said yerself that the poor lass didna look as though she was murdered or harmed. She was thin and sickly. Perhaps Brianna told her what a fine healer ye were and sent her here with the pearls so ye’d care for her, but she died before she got here.”
“I didn’t do an autopsy, Jamie. I just had a cursory glance at the body in the candlelight. I don’t know with certainty whether she was sick or not.”
“Then what is it ye think we should do? Shall we set off for Paris in the morning?”
She swallowed hard and shook her head. “I suppose the situation doesn’t quite call for such a journey,” she conceded.
Yet Jamie could intuit how uncomfortable she was with just waiting around for word on their daughter’s welfare. In truth, he felt a similar discomfort. “We could send Fergus.”
“Don’t you need him for the planting?”
“Mmphm. We’ll make do. I can have him run a shipment for Jared on his way back for some extra coin.”
“We don’t need extra money right now.” Claire looked up at him. “You’d be sending him to calm my nerves.”
“I like yer nerves to be calm.” He kissed her nose and gave it a nuzzle. “It keeps ye from cursing at night and waking me up.”
She cuffed his shoulder, but her eyes were grateful.
“Brianna’s alright, Claire. Fergus will only confirm it.”
She seemed heartened by his affirmation and leaned forward to kiss him. Their lips lingered together, offering reassurances of peace. It was nothing more than a kiss of comfort, but he felt his body stir as it always did when their mouths met.
He’d been away from her for months, selling spirits in brothels, taverns, and inns with no lack of women or whores showing more than a little interest. He was never tempted, not in the slightest. In fact, he spent much of his time comparing them to Claire and contemplating all the ways they were found wanting.
His hands confirmed their memory of his wife’s perfection, of the dramatic curve from her waist to her hips, all soft flesh that was somehow a few degrees cooler than his own body. Her chilly fingers danced across his neck, raising gooseflesh on his skin.
“I missed you, Jamie. I missed this.” She held him, kissing him softly, no need to rush when she’d promised him a lifetime.
Their eyes met as they kissed, hers the dark color of heather honey in the candlelight. He could see in her depths the same contentment he always felt when they were together, the shared bliss of two becoming one. It was there even when dead bodies arrived at their doorstep or worry over their children consumed them.
“I swear ye were crafted for me, my Sassenach. Every piece of ye is perfect for my hands.” He slid them up and down her back, tangling in her hair one moment, then descending to grasp her bottom the next.
“Jamie…” she whispered for no reason but to say his name. He traced a finger over her mouth, her lips softening under his touch.
“I wonder sometimes if God sat there in heaven, knowing just what I’d love most in this world, and made me a gift I’d never be able to repay.”
“Or maybe,” she said, eyes lit with humor, “He made me as I am, and then He addled your brain to find me appealing.”
Jamie snorted. “If that be so, then I’m pleased He addled yer brains as well, otherwise I’d be a sad and lonely fool, my only love gone some two hundred years hence.”
“I could never leave you...not until it’s time to find you again.”
He hoped that would be so, but he also knew how unpredictable the future could be. His eyes dropped to her necklace and the citrine gem that lay on her breast—a reminder that her presence in his life was a gift, not a certainty.
He averted his eyes from the stone to avoid the panic that always rose up at the thought of life without Claire. It was like staring at the sun, crippling and damaging to ruminate on for too long. Instead, he shifted his gaze back to her eyes and held her body a little tighter. She was there with him at that moment, and the lingering imprints of the burning sunlight were no longer overwhelming, only quiet reminders to cherish what time they had together.
He kissed her again, feeling whole only when their lips touched.
“When we were young,” he whispered, “a part of me worrit that one day, ye might tire of me, that ye might grow so accustomed to my kisses that ye no longer craved them.”
“Aye,” he kissed her again. “This is home for you and for me—where amorous kisses dwell.” And he brought his lips home again.
Some time later, long after the baby was returned to her cradle at Claire’s side, in the dark moments just before dawn, Jamie heard his eldest daughter scream his name.
“Faith?!” He woke with a start, jumping to his feet. The dogs were barking like mad, sure to wake up the whole house.
“Jamie?” said Claire. “What is it?”
“Da!” Faith’s voice called in a desperate panic from outside.
Jamie threw on his trousers and shoes, grabbed his weapons, and rushed downstairs. He burst through the front door and found his daughter dismounting her horse. She was wearing nothing but her shift and a baby tied to her chest. Wee Jamie whined as she brought him down off the horse, an arm hooked around his belly.
“Faith!” Jamie rushed over, taking his grandson in his arms. The puir laddie was freezing cold. “What the Devil is going on?”
“Come, Da! Get Donas quickly! We have to go back!”
“What’s happened?” he demanded, wrapping his body around his grandson to warm him.
“Colin tried to stop them, but he’s so weak. He’ll be killed, Da!”
“Someone’s after Colin? Was it the Campbells?” And then Jamie noticed a cut on her throat, blood dripping down and soaking into her shift. “Ye’re hurt!”
“I’m fine. I dinna ken who it was. Colin fought him off so I could get the children out, but we have to go back!” They turned their heads to find Claire coming outside with the crying orphan in her arms. “Mama! Ye must come. Colin could be hurt!”
As Faith filled her mother in, Fergus rushed outside, his sword in one hand and a pistol in the other. Marsali followed behind, wrapped in a long cloak.
“Come.” Jamie pulled Faith forward, giving his grandchildren to a bewildered Marsali. “Get them inside and warmed by the fire. Claire, take the wean to Leana. Dress quickly and bring yer medicines and our cloaks. Fergus, help me wi’ the horses!”
Jamie noticed two heads of dark hair peeking out from the front door. “Jo, Kezzie, get yer blades and bows and mind the family while we’re gone!”
In an instant, everyone dispersed, save Marsali who handed over her cloak to Faith before taking the children inside. It took mere minutes for everyone to do as he commanded, though to Faith, it must’ve seemed an eternity.
“How many are there, lass?” Jamie asked Faith as he helped Claire into her saddle.
“I dinna ken. I was in bed, and I woke wi’ a blade at my throat and a man cursing and threatening us all. Colin fought him off, sent me to get the bairns away. But he’s weak, Da! And the man was so strong.”
Jamie swung a leg over Donas. “D’ye ken who he was? Did’ye recognize him?”
“No. ’Twas too dark.”
Jamie looked at their riding party—himself, Claire, Faith, and Fergus. They were armed so bloody fiercely, they’d never see the light of day again if a redcoat caught them. The pistol alone would cost them dearly, and Jamie prayed they’d have no cause to fire it.
He took the lead with Fergus at his right hand. He didn’t like Claire and Faith coming along with them, but he knew it would be pointless and a waste of time to try to keep them away.
It was a dark night, clouds covering the stars, but the dawn light would soon begin filtering through. Jamie and Donas traveled as much by memory as sight, and everyone else followed behind.
It was a quick ride, Faith preferring to live close to her parents. The cottage was dark, and there was no indication anyone was still inside.
“Stay with the women,” Jamie instructed Fergus. He dismounted Donas and pulled out his sword and dirk. He moved quickly and quietly to the door, peering in, listening for sounds of footsteps or heavy breathing.
There was nothing.
It was a small cottage, and there were few places to hide. Every possession in the house was upended or tossed around. It was clear in only a moment that the attackers were long gone.
When he went into the room, he found a body on the floor. “Colin!”
He ensured there was no one else there before he went to his son-in-law’s side. “Claire!” he called, knowing there was nothing she could do; the sheer amount of blood pooling on the floor told him Colin had long been dead.
Footsteps thundered through the house, and Faith screamed when she saw her husband. Jamie stood, taking his daughter in his arms and pulling her aside so Claire could see to Colin. Fergus came in with a candle as Claire inspected the body.
“Oh God,” said Faith, seeing the scope of the damage. “No! No. Colin, no.”
She threw herself on her husband’s body, crying his name and cursing God. Claire lifted her eyes to Jamie and shook her head—there was nothing she could do to save him.
“Where’s Faith?” Jamie asked, voice cracking. He had spent the morning trying to find tracks left behind by the attackers, but it was like they were bloody ghosts, disappearing into the mist.
“She’s with Beau,” said Claire, sitting by the fire with the wee orphan babe in her arms. Marsali sat wi’ Faith’s children, trying to keep the wee laddie from throwing his stockings in the fire. Claire wiped away moisture from her tear-stained cheeks. “She asked us for some space.”
Jamie bent down to kiss his wife’s temple, lips lingering longer than intended. He bloody hated seeing her in pain. She leaned against his mouth, a hand moving up to stroke his cheek.
With Colin’s loss so close, he couldn’t help but be grateful she was still with him. He kissed her once more and rubbed the baby’s tiny head before making his way out to the barn.
Jamie found Faith with Beau, her auld Heiland coo, just outside the barn. Beau was lying on the ground, chewing noisily on a vine, while Faith leaned against his side, staring blankly off into the distance.
“Faith?” Jamie said softly.
“Did’ye find them?”
“No,” he said, heart full of shame. “But I willna give up.”
“You think it was the Campbells?”
“It could ha’ been...if they found out he was a MacGregor.”
“The man who woke me,” Faith put a hand to the cut on her throat where she’d yet to clean off the dried blood, “he said was going to take everything from us that we took from him.”
Her chin quivered as she looked up at her father. “Colin was a peaceful man, Da. He didn’t take anything from anyone. Who would want to harm our family?”
He sat down next to Faith, Beau grumbling a bit when he leaned against him with the pommel of his sword pressing into the cow’s belly.
Jamie put an arm around his daughter and kissed her head. “Generations old blood feuds between clans dinna make sense to those of us who’ve taken no part in it—if that’s even what this was.”
“No one kent he was a MacGregor, save the people in this family. And I dinna believe anyone here would betray us.”
“I’m inclined to agree wi’ ye, lass.”
Faith buried her face in her father’s chest and let loose a sob. “I thought we’d have more time. Maybe months yet. He shouldna have died like this.”
“Oh, mo ghrian, ye’re right that it wasna fair he was taken from ye so soon,” Jamie lifted her chin to look into her sunburst eyes, “but ken this, a man like Colin would see it as a good death, a worthy death, protecting his wife and bairns wi’ his last breath. He saved ye, a nighean, and yer children. There is no more honorable cause than that.”
“What if it was Mama?” she sobbed. “Could ye do it, Da? Could ye go on wi’out her.”
Though his first thought was a resounding, “No," Jamie lied through his teeth. He lied so well that by the end of his breath, he almost believed it. “I’d go on because you and the bairns would need me to.”
He cupped her face in his hands and wiped away the downpour of tears with his thumbs. “Ye kent yer time wi’ him was short when ye discovered he was sick. He was suffering, lass. He’s no’ in pain anymore. A small consolation, but true, nonetheless.”
“But...all I wanted was more time. Like Mama gave you.”
“I ken.” He wiped away more tears. “And I swear by my love for you, I’ll lay justice at yer feet. I dinna ken when or how, but I will find those that did this and ensure they answer to God for this crime.”
Tears soaked his shirt when she buried herself in his arms again. Jamie stroked her hair, whispering quietly as her body quaked with sobs. There was nothing as helpless as a father who could do so little to comfort his child in pain.
When she’d cried herself hoarse, and her eyes were drained of tears, she sat up and stroked the long mane of Beau’s thick ginger hair. He’d been with her since she was a wean, her constant companion throughout her life. Jamie never had the heart to slaughter the beast, even during the famine, because he couldn’t bear his daughter’s tears.
“I should get back to the children,” she sniffed. “Wee Jamie must be worrit sick.”
“Marsali is wi’ him. Dinna fash. If anyone kens what it’s like to lose a parent so young, it’s her.” Jamie stood up and held out a hand to bring Faith to her feet.
He inspected the cut on her neck that had long since dried. “Let yer mother clean the wound for ye, lass. I dinna want ye falling ill.”
She shrugged as if it hardly mattered to her either way.
“Did they take yer necklace?” he asked, noticing her gem was gone.
“Aye. Ripped it right off my neck.”
They’d taken all the family heirlooms too. There was little of value left in the cottage, save perhaps a few trinkets and clothes. Jamie would have to find her a wee chain to have another gem mounted on it. Perhaps the black diamond he had hidden away in his study...as dark as Colin’s hair.
Faith gave Beau one last scratch between the horns before pulling herself away. Jamie put an arm around her and led her back to the house. He brought her into the parlor where Claire and Marsali were still with the children.
“Sassenach? Would ye mind mending the lass’s wound?”
“Oh, of course.” Claire popped up, relieved to be able to do something for her daughter. Jamie took the wean from her arms and sat down next to Faith.
“Who’s bairn is that?” she asked, letting wee Jamie crawl up on her lap.
“I dinna ken,” said Jamie. “Jock found this lassie and her mother on the side of the road to Lallybroch. The woman was dead and the baby lay squirming in her arms. Jock brought them to the house because they had Brianna’s pearls in their possession.”
“Bree’s pearls? Did she send the woman here to see Ma?”
“I think it likely. Only, they didna make it in time.”
“The puir dear, losing her mother.” Faith looked sadly down at the child, her own raw grief threatening to overwhelm her again. “Ye have someone to feed her?”
“Aye. Leana is taking care of it.”
Faith nodded, eyes rimmed with red. Jamie handed her his handkerchief when he saw the tears spilling over once again. She wiped them away and kissed wee Jamie on his temple, breathing the laddie in, as though trying to find some trace of his father.
Jamie looked down at the orphan in his arms, wondering if there was anyone out there to grieve for the child’s mother. With everything that had happened with Faith, he didn’t get a chance to speak with Fergus about going to Paris to check on Brianna. At that very moment, Fergus was at Faith’s cottage, packing away all her things to bring over to Lallybroch.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized sending Fergus away with a threat so close to home would be a puir idea. He needed the lad to run the farm should Jamie find some indication of who killed Colin, and he couldn’t leave the family unprotected—as adept as Jo and Kezzie were with blades and bows, they were far too young and unreliable to defend the whole house on their own.
Claire came back with her medicine box and some hot tea, busying herself with caring for Faith. With his daughter in good hands, he stepped away with wee Bonnie in his arms and went to his study for a moment to clear his head, bringing a candle with him for a small task.
He went to sit down at his desk, removing his sword and dirk from his belt and setting them down in front of him. He stared at the weapons, both beautifully made. They’d done their master well over the last eighteen years, though he’d had to keep them hidden away from the English since Culloden, there was still plenty of use for them in the shadows.
“Ye’ve still got purpose, auld friends,” he told the blades, longing for the day when he’d no longer have to use them again.
He opened the top drawer to his desk and pulled out a little wax candle in a small jar. He used the other candle to light it and sat back, allowing the fire to do its job and reveal the candle’s secret deep inside.
As he waited for the wax to melt, he looked over some letters Claire had placed on his desk while he was away. Most were of business, but one was from Jocasta, another from Jenny, and the last was from Brianna, giving them word of her simultaneous exasperation at staying with Louise in Paris and joy of learning from the masters. She reported Ian was doing well, and they visited each other regularly. She asked her mother for word on all the family's health at Lallybroch and an update on wee Willie in London.
By the time Jamie read through them all, the wax had melted enough so that he could pour the wax out of the little jar and fish out the little back diamond it was hiding inside.
“There ye are,” he whispered, so as not to wake the baby. He did his best to wipe off the wax one-handed. He set the jewel on his desk, where it glittered in the light streaming in from the window. He tried to think of how he could get it made into a necklace quickly for Faith. He didn’t like any of his time-traveling children without gems for long.
Wee Bonnie squeaked in his arm, and he looked down to find her awake. She was staring at him with wide, curious eyes. They were a murky, cloudy color that many babies seemed to carry their first few months of life.
He placed her on his chest, so they could get to know each other for a bit face to face. Bonnie was strong enough to lift her own head without wobbling very much.
“Well met. Good morrow, ye bonnie wee thing.”
He inhaled her scent of newborn babe, sour milk, and a bit of Claire. His hand steadied her as she squirmed around on her belly, reaching up for his face. She grabbed a hold of his bottom lip and yanked down.
“Ye’ve a strong grip wi’ those tiny hands, aye?” he said, extricating his lip from her possession. “And verra sharp nails.”
He lifted her bitty fingers to inspect them. “Though she be but little, she is fierce. An impressive display of weaponry, indeed.” He’d have to ask Claire to cut them or file them down with one of her little tools.
“D’ye have anyone out there missing ye, lass?” With Colin’s death, the mystery of her appearance had been pushed aside. Jamie was honor-bound to seek vengeance for his daughter, and that would take precedence over finding the child’s family. She’d likely be with them for a good time yet.
He realized there was a chance that wee Bonnie wasn’t going anywhere at all. If there was no one else to take her in, he’d better grow accustomed to having a small child around once again—one that wasn’t a grandbaby. “I’m an auld man now. If ye plan on staying, would ye mind taking it easy on me? The other bairns give us quite enough trouble as it is. In fact, the last time I saw Young Ian in Paris, he—”
A knock at the door interrupted his one-sided conversation. “Some visitors have just arrived, my Laird,” said Leana.
“Who are they?”
“Only a few tenants, sir. Shall I take the wean?”
“Aye.” He stood and handed the baby off to the housekeeper. He left his blades on the desk, no need to wear them for nor conceal them from his own people.
There were more than a few tenants that arrived. In fact, the front of his house was crowded with men on horseback, armed with shields, bows, and blades.
“Jock?” Jamie asked. “What in God’s name is going on?”
“The men heard about Colin, my Laird. We figured ye’d be wanting to ride out and find those responsible, aye?”
“As ye’ll no’ care to leave the family wi’out protection, some of us will go wi’ ye, and others will be taking it in turns to watch over the house, so ye can conduct yer business as ye see fit.”
“But ye have farms of yer own to tend to.”
“Aye. And we wouldna have them save for what ye did for us during the rebellion. Ye’ve sheltered and quartered us o’er the years, and ye can expect no less in return.”
Jamie was hit with an unexpected wave of emotion. He looked at the men surrounding him, some likely as hurt and angry over Colin’s death as himself, and his heart clenched.
“I’m grateful to ye, Jock. I’m grateful to all of ye.”
He took a moment to compose himself, feeling overwhelmed with affection for his men. Then he went around and spoke to each one, offering gratitude as they gave their condolences.
He spent the rest of the afternoon with them, drinking whisky and planning their strategy—who would stay home with his family, and who would accompany him to see the Campbells. He had to be cautious while inquiring into the attack. If it was not actually related to the blood feud between clans, then Jamie would be putting his grandchildren at risk if he announced them to all of Scotland as MacGregors.
It would take a whole day to ride to Campbell lands and a day to return home, and God only knew how long they would stay there. Jamie would have to wait to leave until after seeing Colin properly buried.
When he told Claire of his intentions later that night in bed after they blew out their last candle, her head dropped back onto the pillow, and she sighed heavily. “Have you not been gone long enough?”
“What should I do? Let the bastards who killed Colin get away wi’ it? What would have happened to Faith and the children if Colin hadn’t given them enough time to leave? What if they come back?”
“Exactly. What if they come back and you’re off somewhere else?”
“I have men staying behind to guard the house.”
“But none of them are you. ”
Jamie rolled over his wife, lying on top of her, and took her face in his hands so she was forced to look at him. “Would ye have me sit here and do nothing? How could I look my daughter in the eyes?”
Tears fell down Claire’s cheek. “I need you here. Faith’s not the only person who lost him, you know.”
He lowered his head, kissing her tears away, salty and warm on his lips. “I’m here now, Claire. I’m here.”
Her arms wrapped around him, pulling his weight down on her. He knew she wanted to feel the solidness of him, his heartbeat, his lungs. For he was doing the same with her.
He hadn’t planned on making love to his wife in their grief, but there was nothing more reassuring of her vitality than when he pushed inside her, feeling her breath change and her heart hammer beneath him.
Her legs locked around his waist, heels digging into his arse, urging him on. There could be no thoughts of death when life filled them so thoroughly.
He swallowed her cries when she came, smothering her sounds so they wouldn’t wake the baby or anyone else in the house, and he buried his face in her neck at his own climax, suddenly fine with meeting his own death if it was there in her arms.
They lay quietly, wrapped in each other’s embrace, sweaty bodies sticking to together as they cooled in the late winter air. Claire’s whispers were the first to break the silence. “I need my family home. You, Brianna, Ian, and Willie. I want everybody here.”
“I ken, mo ghràidh. But ye understand why I must go?”
“Yes, you bloody Scot. I know why. I know you.”
He held her until long after she’d fallen asleep, thinking of how lucky they were to have each other. Though the truth was, it was something more than luck. By all rights, both he and Claire should be dead. It was only her time-traveling intervention in his youth that allowed for the possibility of this life.
Thoughts of all he would’ve missed out on had Claire not been there to save him made him grow restless in bed. A compulsion overtook him to check on all the children, especially Faith and the bairns.
He carefully extricated himself from Claire’s sleeping grasp and slipped out of bed. He dressed quickly, and silently stepped into the hall.
A portrait of William greeted him across the hall from their door. He was the last of their bairns...or so Jamie had thought. The memory of the dream of wee Bonnie came to him, and he turned to a blank spot on the wall where the dream portrait had been.
“Why have ye come to us, wee lassie?” he whispered. He wondered if Claire had a chance to examine the mother’s body and see if there was any indication of illness or foul play. In the fallout of Colin’s death, such things seemed a bit trivial.
Distant barking pulled him out of his thoughts and back to the present. The dogs were unaccustomed to men patrolling Lallybroch, and they would bark every time someone came close to the house. Just to be sure that all was well, Jamie turned to make his way downstairs.
As he rounded the corner in the hall, he caught a glimpse of blonde hair disappearing into Fergus’s room.
“Marsali?” he said soundlessly. He wondered why in God’s name she’d be going into Fergus’s room in the middle of the night.
He stepped quietly to the door, assuming she was seeking comfort from her brother after Colin’s death. Jamie ensured his feet didn’t make a sound so that he wouldn’t intrude on his children’s grief.
As he edged closer, Marsali could be heard crying, and he nearly turned away to give them space, but he stopped when he heard her say, “I dinna want to wait any longer! I want to tell them now!”
“Je sais mon amour. Ma douce et belle fleur. But now is not the time. Think of Le Petit Soleil and her children.”
“We’ve waited long enough, and in a few months, Ma and Da will notice my great belly. The only reason they dinna ken already is because Ma was busy tending to Colin and Da's been gone.”
“I know. I know. Viens ma femme. Let us wait until Faith sees her husband buried before we share our... startling news.”
“Ma femme?” Jamie whispered to himself in absolute disbelief. There was no way on earth…
“D'ye no’ think Da will be happy for us?” asked Marsali.
“I’m sure he will...after he grows accustomed to the idea.”
There was silence for a long moment, until Marsali made a moaning sound that Jamie never thought to consider she was capable of. Shaking with shock, fear, and betrayal, he tried to open the door but met resistance from the lock. Rage from the deception had him kicking open the door to find Marsali in Fergus’s embrace, wearing nothing but her shift—a small bulge at her belly was more telling of their secret than their lips sealed together.
Fergus’s eyes went wide, and he shrank back in fear, but Marsali was ready for confrontation. She puffed out her chest to meet her father's ire head on. “I ken what it looks like, Da—”
“What it looks like?” Jamie repeated, voice deceptively calm, hands balled up into fists. “What it looks like is my son has been deceiving me under my own roof wi’ my daughter.” Jamie eyed Fergus’s delicate French bones, wondering how well they would hold up to his Scottish fists.
“He is not my brother!” insisted Marsali. “We’ve no blood between us. We have every right to—”
“He has no right to bed my child in my home! And he kens it! Sneaking about in the dead of night wi’ evil intentions!”
“Dinna speak ill of his intentions! We’re marrit, damn you! I’ll be having his bairn at the end of summer.”
“MARRIT?!” Jamie roared, trying to get to Fergus, but Marsali stood in his way.
“Milord, please,” said Fergus. “If ye’ll just let me explain—”
“Ye can explain to my bloody fists!” Jamie jumped, reaching for Fergus, but the quick wee Frenchman darted around him and out the door.
Family could be heard rising from their beds and coming out into the halls, blocking Jamie’s way to his eldest son. “What’s going on?” asked Lizzie, sleepily.
“Da found out about Fergus and Marsali,” said Kezzie.
“You all knew?!” Jamie rounded on the children.
“Everyone kens,” said Jo.
“Well, I didn’t know!” said Claire, coming down the hall with a crying baby.
More cries could be heard from Faith’s room where the weans were being roused by the racket. Even the dogs were going mad, barking up a storm outdoors. Jamie's fit of rage was too great to care about any of it.
“Please, milord,” said Fergus, as Jamie stalked forward down the stairs, Fergus backing up in retreat. “We were handfast while you were gone. I wanted to wait, but I was a coward—”
“Too right ye wee wicked wee frog!”
“—and knew you wouldn’t allow it.”
“Of course, I wouldna allow it! Ye’re my bloody children!”
“She’s having my child, and I’m afraid I cannot allow to you kill me and leave my wife widowed and my mon bébé fatherless.”
“Oh, laddie, I have no intention of killing ye,” said Jamie, following Fergus as he made his way outside. “Ye’ll do right by my wee lassie, marry her in a kirk, and make promises before God—”
“Of course, Papa. ”
“—but no’ until after I give ye a bit of the Laird’s justice.” Jamie leapt forward, grabbing Fergus by the shirt and raising a fist to strike him.
“Jamie!” called Claire.
“Go inside, Sassenach! Ye’ll no’ care to see this.”
“Jamie, the barn!” Claire said. “It’s on fire!”
“What?” Jamie’s head turned to see the barn had indeed caught fire. Shaking his head to clear his rage, he turned around to count the heads of his family as they were streaming outside: Claire, Fergus, Marsali, Bonnie, Jo, Kezzie, Lizzie, and Faith with a bairn in each arm. Even Leana and her own wean came out to observe the commotion. They were all there in front of him...all safe.
“Beau!” cried Faith, running forward with a look of utter horror in her eyes. “No! No! I canna lose him too!”
Jamie thought she was about to run right into the burning barn with her children in her arms. He reluctantly turned to Fergus. “Make sure she keeps away from the fire!”
“Oui, Papa!” Fergus bounded over to Faith holding her back as Jamie ran for the barn, Jo and Kezzie on his tail.
The building was made of brick, but the roof of wood, and it was almost all aflame. Jamie could tell the hay inside was likely ablaze before they even opened the door. Beau could be heard on the other side, frantic to get out. Jamie ordered Jo and Kezzie back as he opened the door, fearful a gust of wind would meet the fire and turn the blaze on his sons.
When the door came open, the cow shot out along with several of his brethren and the auld, useless mule. Jamie peered in to see if any animals were left behind and was shocked to find a man and two dogs laying dangerously close to the fire.
“Oh Christ! Jock!”
Jamie took a deep breath and shot inside to save his auld friend. He noticed Jo and Kezzie followed behind, each one grabbing one of the unconscious dogs. They pulled them all out to safety before the roof came crumbling down.
Claire ran to his side, checking Jock for a pulse and seeing if he was still breathing. “He’s alive,” she said, relieved, “but just barely.” She began peeling off his clothes to check his body for burns.
As she did so, Jamie wondered what his dogs were doing in the barn with Jock to begin with...and how the bloody fire got started…
“Jamie!” said Claire, ripping open Jock’s shirt to reveal a stab wound to the belly.
Jamie stood up and scanned the area, counting family members, making sure everyone was still safe. Someone had attacked Jock and the dogs, his guards who were meant to alert Jamie if an intruder was coming, then locked them up in the barn and set it on fire.
“If they didna want me to know they were coming, why would they set the bloody barn on fire?” he asked himself. “A diversion?” He reached for his sword and dirk at his waist, but found nothing but an empty belt holding up his breeks. Then he remembered he’d left them inside on his desk earlier that day.
“Everyone stay here in the light of the fire!” he called. “Someone’s in the house!”
Jamie turned back, running inside to get his weapons. He moved quickly, rushing to his study where he knew the blades lay.
It was dark in the house, the only light streaming in from the fire at the barn, but he moved with ease by memory alone. When he reached his study, it was lit by a small, flickering candle—one no one in his family would have a chance to light. He scanned the room, and his stomach clenched. Someone had wreaked havoc on his desk, papers scattered around, drawers upended, and worst of all, his blades were gone.
I know an awful lot happened in this chapter, and it might feel overwhelming. Just to warn you, even more is about to happen in Eyes of Long Light ch 3 HERE. Enjoy!
“Well met. Good morrow.”
- William Shakespeare - Timon of Athens
“Though she be but little she is fierce.”
- William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night’s Dream