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Hampton Court Palace, May 1556

 

Claire shook her head, trying to divest herself of the image in her mind. 

 

Her hands were so bony, so pale when they reached out from the billowing green fabric that surrounded her. Claire could almost feel the traces of her touch on her neck, reaching out for the necklace around her throat. The B etched out of gold and the pearls that dangled from the symbol. It was a christening gift, one she always wore. And the apparition had seemed so absorbed by the minute curves of it. But what rattled her the most, was that the woman tucked her head on one hip, as if carrying around a small child, looking straight up at her with piercing eyes over the numerous quilts on Claire’s bed. She could see where the executioner had tried, and failed to hack through bone and leave a nice smooth swing. Claire reached her own hand up to rest on her neck, reassuring herself it was still intact. 

 

It was twenty years ago to the day that it happened. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. Her whole body shivered no matter how hard she tried to relax each muscle. There was one place she could try to seek refuge at such an ungodly hour, and her legs moved before her mind could catch up with them. Her slippers slapped against the cool stone of the halls. She hugged her arms into herself for warmth. It was unusually cool for a spring day, or maybe it was just her reaction to the preternatural events which had just unfolded before her. Either way, maybe the sanctuary of God would ease her mind if only for a short amount of time. Maybe she could even find some comfort by praying for the late Queen. Though protestant and an adulteress, the queen surely wasn’t deserving of such suffering. For now though, Claire and her family were safe under the Catholic Queen. And if the worst came to worst, they would flee to their true home in France. Not the stuffy politics of the English Court.  

 

Once settled in the chapel, she let out a sigh and closed her eyes. She clutched the fine jet beads of her rosary close to her chest and rolled them between her fingers. So absorbed was she in her prayers, that she did not notice the red-haired boy in the pew diagonal from her until he cleared his throat. Her heart raced and her eyes widened at the sight of him. He almost seemed unreal in that moment. The copper and golden strands of his hair illuminated by the candlelight and his kind blue eyes creased up in a smile. Could he be some other supernatural force that she would be forced to endure that night?

 

“Calm down lass, I will no’ harm ye.” 

 

“You’re real.” 

 

He chuckled. “Aye, lass, as real as ye are I suppose.” 

 

His eyes trailed down to her chest and she was suddenly conscious of what she was wearing. Or rather what she wasn’t wearing. Clad only in her sheer dressing gown and shift, the encounter felt utterly scandalous. The man was trying very hard not to look at her though, which allowed her to relax a bit in his presence. 

 

“I’m sorry, I fear I’ve chanced upon some spirit in these walls.” 

 

“Tis no wonder, they call this the witching hour ken?” The man’s- who was really more of a boy at that point- blue, cat-like eyes danced with humour in the soft glow of candlelight. 

 

“You’re mocking me sir?” Claire’s face hardened into a grim expression, despite the smile that struggled to wiggle its way onto her face.  

 

“No- I, twas not my intention, milady, I only-” Claire bit the inside of her cheek to stop the grin from inching up her face and continued to let him flounder. “I would ne’er seek tae cause ye strife or embarrassment lass, sorry milady I mean, tis only-” 

 

A very unlady-like snort echoed in the chapel; Claire not able to hold in her laughter for a moment longer. “Tis quite alright sir, simply a jape. I played one on you as well.” He visibly relaxed at her assurance and scooted closer to her on his wooden pew with her following his actions. “I never quite got your name.” 

 

“Och, aye. James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser.” He spaced each name with clear emphasis and pride filled his face. “Yer servant madame.” He placed her hand in his and brushed his lips against her knuckles, causing her cheeks to flush. 

 

“Oh, well. Claire Beauchamp.” She smiled as he never relinquished his hold on her hand. 

 

“Lady Beauchamp. ” The French rolled off his tongue and he placed another delicate kiss to the tip of her fingers. “Enchanté.” 

 

“With so many names, I feel the wind shall be stolen from my lungs before I can ever address you properly, my lord. What shall I call you?”

 

“Ye can jes’ call me Jamie, lass.” His lips twitched up into a smile and Claire clamped her mouth shut from opening in shock. Not Lord Fraser? Earl of somewhere? Perhaps a Count? Simply his Christian name. That wouldn’t do around anyone else. If anyone found out. But no one was there. And she was sort of thrilled at that fact. 

 

“Very well.” She nodded, though her mind screamed that she was disregarding all sense of propriety. “But you are a lord of course? I have no official title in court, being the French ambassador’s daughter, but surely you do. You’ve the sound of an English nobleman.” Claire still did not have a good handle on the varying accents at court, and Jamie’s English was smooth enough that she assumed it was his native tongue. 

 

A mixture of a boggled and a choked wheeze escaped from Jamie. The look on his face was almost pained but humoured. At that moment, James Fraser was a walking, or rather sitting, contradiction. 

 

“No, nowhere close to it. I’m Scottish through and through. But I’ve been employed by the Queen Regent o’ Scotland to smooth o’er some matters.” His eyes darted around the row of pews up to the altar, taking in the entire room, and then back to Claire’s eyes while he licked his lips. “There has been talk o’ the English Queen being in puir health recently.”

 

“Oh, yes indeed. Poor thing. My mother has doted on her more than me it seems.” She ignored the implications of his statement; it was almost bordering on treasonous to talk of the Queen’s health in such a manner with the mention of a foreign queen. “But, I pray God shall return her swiftly to her previous state.” 

 

“Aye.” They both crossed themselves at the sentiment and Jamie shuffled his feet beneath his pew. 

 

His head whipped up, as if suddenly remembering something. “Oh, my title lass. Sorry I forgot to mention. I’m Laird Broch Tuarach.” His chest puffed up in pride and Claire almost giggled at his boyish confidence. “Tis a small estate near Broch Mordha. A wee village in Scotland. The Highlands ye ken. And ye, my lady?” 

 

“I’m not entirely sure where home is. I’ve just always followed my father and mother. And they’ve always followed one court or another. Wherever we’re needed. I was born in Le Château de Compiègne.” 

 

“But ye have the sound o’ a Sassenach about ye.”

 

“Sassenach?”

 

“Weel, tis jes’ a term fer the English.”  

 

“Well I suppose my formative years have been spent here. With the English Queen. Did you know she saw to my education herself? She always took a shine to my mother and I suppose that extended to me.” 

 

“Aye, yer a Sassenach sure enough. If no’ by being English, then by being an outlander.” He shook his head and laughed in slight disbelief. “A Frenchwoman raised by the English. Of all the things.” 

 

Claire eyed his chest, at the loose fabric dangling delicately from his neck. And below it. A large expanse of skin that she was sure would be covered by the same light golden and red hairs if she were to relieve him of the linen that clung to it. 

 

“Your-” She cleared her suddenly scratchy throat. “Your kerchief is loose.” 

 

Without a response, or spoken permission, she leaned closer to him and grabbed the offending article. With deft fingers, she loosened the knot and then retied it with an expert tuck into his waistcoat. When her fingers brushed lightly against his bare skin, he let out a sigh and closed his eyes. And just as quickly as the movements were completed, she leaned back into her seat again. 

 

“There, all fixed.” She patted his chest and looked anywhere in the room besides him. 

 

“Thank ye.” His eyes bore into her, almost burning, and Claire was surprised she liked that. Christ, he’s a stranger, Beauchamp. Well maybe not so strange now… but still.

 

She turned her head away, collecting herself. “What led you to seek sanctuary at this hour? I’ve told you I fled from those ‘wee invisible beasties’, but you’ve never given me your tale.” 

 

“I was covering fer one of the brothers, ken. Tis my hour before the blessed sacrament.” 

 

“Oh, oh! I’m terribly sorry to have disturbed you. I shall take my leave now.” 

 

“Nay, tis no bother lass. Perhaps ye wish tae join me, find some peace fer the time being.” 

 

He roughly grasped her hand within his again and smacked his knee against the pew in his desperation. A string of mhac na galla, bod ceann, and other indistinguishable swears followed the large bang that resounded when the wood met bone . His eagerness was endearing to Claire, and she decided she didn’t mind his company one bit, though she did not know when her mind came to that conclusion. 

 

“Yes. I’ll take you up on that offer.” 

 

“Would ye- would ye like tae sit by me lass?” 

 

It was then she realised their current position, leaning so close to one another above the space between the pews that one nudge would have her falling flat on her face. The only thing holding her up was the strong grip he still had on her hand. She used that hold as leverage to push herself back up into a standing position, reluctantly letting go of the rough skin of his palm. Wordlessly, she shuffled between the gap and sat beside him, not touching, but still she could feel the heat radiating off of his thighs next to hers. With one simple brush of an elbow or a knee, she knew she would feel the solid muscle of his leg. 

 

He returned to vigilantly welcome the silence and solemnity of such a sacred place. Sometimes, she could even hear a hum escape from his mouth, but she couldn’t be sure. She never was a studious child in the matters of God, always fidgeting in mass and being her usually fussy self, or at least as her mother would say when she wanted to remind her of all the strife she had put her through. She tried to keep her eyes shut, and focus on the presence she was supposed to feel there… but all she could feel was Jamie. All prayers, verses, and hymns fled her mind and she was completely wrapped up in the man beside her. A complete stranger. Every few minutes, she’d peek one eye open and glance over to him calmly sitting. For a second, she swore his mouth twitched into a near smirk, as if he could sense her gaze without even seeing it. Yielding to the strange powers of the spirit, she rested her head back on the pew and forced herself to keep her eyes shut. She was right to come. She did feel peace. Peace with Jamie. 

 

She woke with a jolt, not realising that she had given into her body’s demands of rest. A man sniffled and breezed by her, producing a gust of wind. His hair was shaved in the signature style of the clergy and dark brown robes draped over his figure. He walked off to the side to give them privacy for the remaining minutes in front of the altar, but it was practically impossible not to eavesdrop in that cramped space. 

 

Jamie stood and stretched his arms with a resounding pop. He extended his arm down to Claire, helping her to her feet and brushing his hands against her waist for a moment longer than necessary. But she didn’t mind. Not at all. 

 

“Well, Jamie , it was a pleasure to meet you as well. You may call me Claire, if we are destined to meet again.” This shouldn’t be done, she shouldn’t allow any of this, let alone be alone with him in the middle of the night. 

 

“Aye we shall, of that I’m sure.” Her eyebrow quirked at that. Cocky bastard. “Do ye wish me tae escort ye back tae yer chambers? There may be many wee invisible beasties that ye will encounter on the way. I wouldna wish to leave ye fighting alone against them.”    

 

“I’m sure I shall manage, but thank you.” She squeezed the hand that was holding hers and reluctantly let go. “Good night.” 

 

“Good night, Claire .” He rolled the rrr’s of her name and butterflies fluttered in her stomach.  

 

With one last glance, she flitted down the halls back to her bed chambers, still feeling the warmth and strength that flowed from his hand to hers. 

 

Well it had worked, his presence took her mind completely off of the bone-chilling experience of before. She was filled with a different bone-deep feeling. It would last her for a while, but soon fade after the cloud surrounding her mind. Only now she would have to leave that warmth and safety surrounding him in exchange for the biting loneliness of her chambers. How cruel. But, at least she had the memory to play over in her mind again whenever the dark chose to give her a fright again. 

 

   

 

***

 

Claire exited the chapel, rosary in hand and flanked by two fellow ladies of the court, Mary and Louise, who had found companionship with each other in their shared Frenchness. They excitedly spoke in French about the upcoming feast, and Lord Beauchamp’s role in it. Across the lawn, one frantic Earl of Oxenford, Francis Randall de Vere, scrambled his way through the hedges and bushes of the garden to the group of three. 

 

“Lady Beauchamp!” 

 

Her friends broke away from her at the voice, clearly knowing more than she about the situation. A man decked in fine silks and brocades jogged up to her side, or at least tried to with her lively pace. They hastened their steps and veered off into an opening between hedges to the garden. But, she could still hear their breathing closeby. Clearly they meant to eavesdrop. 

 

“Lady Beauchamp!” His breath puffed and he took a moment to catch his breath.

 

“Dear Heavens, Lord Randall, have you run all this way?” She didn’t look directly at him as she addressed him, finding the rich blue fabric of her dress far more interesting. 

 

“I have just returned from Guildhall on the orders of Her Majesty. A servant informed me that you would be attending your daily prayers in the chapel at this hour, but it seems I was an hour too late. Now, I must ask you something of utmost importance, my lady.” The man, remembering his manners, bowed to Claire after his tangent and his sweaty combed-over hair flopped to the side. 

 

They stood in awkward silence for a few moments, which seemed to stretch into minutes, while he forgot himself. 

 

“Do go on then.” Mary and Louise giggled behind their hands off somewhere in the gardens. 

 

“I- I have held your affections in high regard for some time now, my lady. I would be greatly indebted to you if you would offer your blessing in this courtship.” 

 

“I-”

 

“Let it be known, Lady Claire, I do not require such blessing from you, I have earned it from your father, but I would like to earn your respect as well. Do you think that fair?”

 

“No-” She was interrupted, unable to get more than a single word in with this man. 

 

“No?” His fists clenched in restrained outrage. “It would be quite wise, this union. I do not wish to take you to wife by force, but it could be arranged that way. I simply wish to have your agreement” 

 

“You- you’re so old.” She glanced up finally at him, eyes focused on the yellow of his teeth and the stench emanating from his mouth. 

 

“There have been many unions with far greater years between than ours, my darling.” The endearment sent an unpleasant jolt through her. “But, I could think of no greater wife than you.” At this last statement, he reached out his hand to squeeze her elbow. 

 

“Let us rest on it, my lord, and with clearer heads tomorrow, may we be brought to a conclusion.” She knew she couldn't outright reject him, after his persistence, and not to mention his standing. Maybe she could delay him. But a delay could not stop the inevitable. It could not stop the march of time. 

 

“That is sensible indeed. I shall call upon you tomorrow then.” He nodded and left with one final bow directed towards her. 

 

Across the garden, she spied a mop of untamed red curls. 

 

***

 

“He is a fine man, my bear. He will make a fine husband for you.” Henri Beauchamp pressed his lips together stoically, shedding an air of authority to all those around him. 

 

“But I don’t love him!” Claire inwardly cringed at the high pitch her voice had taken moments before, sounding like the petulant child her mother would refer to her as always, but she didn’t give in. 

 

Claire sat fuming on the settle pushed against the wall of her parents’ chamber. Her mother and father sat on the edge of their bed, holding each other for the confidence to bring up such a subject. A united front. 

 

“You will in time dearest. I didn’t love your father when first we met at the beginning of our union but we had respect to build a love off of. And our love for you increased that. You will learn to bear love for the Earl through your children. It is your duty Claire.” Juliette Beauchamp forced a strained smile on her face. 

 

“And if I don’t agree?” 

 

“Claire darling, don’t do anything drastic.” Her mother dashed across the room to wrap her hands around her daughter’s, her eyes desperate and pleading. 

 

“No, no. Of course I won’t. You know me, mother.” Juliette nodded, not convinced by her daughter’s reply. 

 

“Well, if you indeed are inclined to make such a fuss over this, we’ll have no choice but to speed this along. Put some sense into you. You know it was Her Majesty who suggested the match in the first place.” 

 

“How long do I have?” Claire swallowed against the lump in her throat. 

 

“The Great Harvest Feast in the year next. That should give you plenty of time to be prepared for his… attentions.” 

 

“Very well, I suppose I shall… learn to return his tender regards within that time. More than a year? That should be sufficient.” She mumbled to herself and nodded. Her mother surely only awarded her such time given her young age; a marriage was a serious thing indeed to rest upon the shoulders of someone of seven and ten, a woman still clinging to the last vestiges of adolescence. 

 

Her father dismissed her and she hastened outside of the stuffy room. Relieved as she was that the awkwardness of their presence had lifted she was utterly devastated by the weight of what it all meant. 

 

Perhaps the pox, a hunting accident, even poison. It didn’t take much to kill a man in that time. And a man of power such as him surely had many enemies. No, she couldn’t wish death upon any creature. It wasn’t in her nature. Perhaps a certain man, with hair so fiery that she needn’t the light of the candles to see its vibrance, and eyes that seemed to pierce directly into her soul, could sway her parents. Perhaps… no. This was just fanciful thinking. Nothing could be brought to fruition from such ideas. 

 

The Earl of Oxenford certainly had money, titles, status, and power. She would be safe, protected. From outside forces at least. Comfortable. And maybe he’d pass off his focus from her after a while onto a mistress. She had heard talk from married women before. They described a sort of detachment from their husbands, and they were glad of the inattention, for they weren’t troubled that way often. Only when the husband had it in his mind to have another heir. It wouldn’t be entirely terrible… would it?