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Lallybroch, Late September 1757 

 

“James Murray, ye slow down right now! I dinna want tae be cleaning up yer scratches again!” Ellen Murray hollered at her wild son. 

 

It was nearing the end of harvest, all the crops tucked safely away for now and a chill settled in the bones of the estate’s inhabitants. It was likely the last day outside before winter cooped them up inside every day. The clearances and famines had long passed for the time being, but they could still feel their lingering touch over a decade later. But still, they had survived the worst of it. They always had. The long line of Murrays could attest to that. 

 

James flung his body like a ragdoll on the gravel of the expansive courtyard by the manor house and shrieked in delight. He was currently fending off a ‘filthy Sassenach’ and claiming freedom for his country with just the flimsy stick in his hand. It was the truth, though the adults often muttered it was just stories of ‘the faeries and make-believe’. He would defend his mam and home against the lobsterbacks for it was his duty as would-be Laird of Lallybroch. 

 

Ellen was content to let the toddler wander about near her while she did the laundry and the men tended the fields. Soon, she’d have a new bairn underfoot and she couldn’t possibly comprehend how she could handle not one but two balls of endless energy. She smiled to herself at the thought and pressed her hand on the fabric that covered her navel. Humming to the presence within her, her eyes flashed up again to survey her surroundings, suspicious at the sudden quiet that had taken over it. Where was her son?

 

“Mam!” Ellen’s heart dropped at the new tone that her son’s cries had taken. 

 

She picked up her skirts into her hands and rushed to the side of the manor, near where the chicken coops resided. James stood, lip quivering and eyes unwavering as he fixed his gaze at the window of the Laird’s room. He howled in fright and hugged his arms to his shoulder as he shook. Ellen quickly gathered her distressed son in her lap and soothed him. 

 

“Shh. What’s wrong mo chridhe?” 

 

“Look ma, look in the window!” He shouted before burying his face in his mother’s chest. 

 

It was then that she saw them, two figures embracing tightly. The tall figures almost shimmered in the light that passed through the smudged glass. The brunette turned and her eyes shone with such melancholy it touched Ellen’s heart as well. Her husband, Ellen presumed, gripped the waist of the curly haired woman and bent down to her ear, whispering something. Both their shoulders shook with laughter in response and he swooped down to kiss her neck. She cradled something in her arms, a swaddled babe perhaps, and never ceased her gaze to the man in front of her. But, just for one second they flashed down to Ellen below. The distinct hue of amber sent shivers down Ellen’s spine. The bundle of tartan gave out a mighty wail and then… nothing.

 

A wheeze of breath strained out of Ellen’s lungs and she crossed herself, clutching her bairn tightly. “Blessed Michael defend us.”

Chapter Text

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?

Chapter Text

Hampton Court Palace, June 1556

 

It had been weeks since their first, and last, encounter. Every flash of red and blue had her eyes chasing around, only to stumble upon a servant, or even once a portrait of a late queen. She was even embarrassed once to have her focus on what was decidedly not human, but in fact the arse of a fine red horse. It had promptly expelled its bowels of gas straight into her face before she could step away. Of course it would be an arse that reminded her of him, he was a complete and utter arse, flipping her life upside down just from one night in a chapel, one simple touch of a hand, and immediately leaving her sight. 

 

She had no idea what was wrong with her. Perhaps it was one of the ailments many women of the court seemed to succumb to, compelling them to never leave their chambers, even at meal times. She was mad, of that she was certain. She could not banish him from her mind. Maybe he was some spirit, some demon she had confronted not long after her encounter with the decollated queen. For what else but the devil could sway her so? 

 

Lord Randall was relentless, and she escaped his many pedestrian conversations allocutions through daydreams. At least with the earl a chaperone was always required, and their meetings were always in broad daylight in the gardens. Most of the time she excused herself from the luncheons due to her quite ‘delicate constitution’. No, the constant heat and sun rays would not do. Claire was quite pleased with herself when Lord Randall always insisted she rest at the first sign of what he assumed were weekly ‘womanly attacks’. He was none the wiser. Women were an enigma to him. It was on one of those days of picnic and feigned interest, when the air outside was sweltering and she was plucking up the courage to faint for some entertainment, that a rider dashed through the narrow pathways of the gardens. Hooves clopped roughly against the grass, picking up clumps of dirt and spitting it out at unsuspecting victims. One of those victims was a very unenthused Earl de Vere. Claire smiled behind her teacup at the sight, watching him furiously brush out his poofy trousers and impractical cape. When he roared for a servant, she slipped away. 

 

The horse was a rather strange sight indeed, given the stables were at the opposite end of Hampton Court. She did notice the flash of red atop the black beast but thought nothing of it after weeks of mindless searching. What struck even more odd in the peculiar situation, was that the man riding the hellish thing had a skirt. And a rather short one at that. 

 

She felt the short, quick breaths on the back of her neck before she saw him. “Lady Beauchamp.” 

 

Claire twirled herself back to face him, nearly giving herself whiplash in the process. “J-Lord Fraser.” 

 

“I was wondering if you'd be so kind in allowing me your company for the afternoon.” He was clearly making a concerted effort to tame his accent in the presence of the public. “My manservant shall accompany us of course. One of your lady’s maids can escort us as well.” He plucked something from inside his jacket and offered up a sprig of forget-me-nots. 

 

“I-” She gripped the stem of the flowers in her hand. “Where have you been?” 

 

“Miss me Sassenach?” Jamie teased. “I was needed at the borders. There was a wee stramash up there. I’m surprised the news hasn’t reached the gossip circles and their flapping mouths in English court yet.” 

 

“Are you alright?” Claire’s eyes widened at the red trail on his temple. “For God’s sake you’re bleeding, you fool!” She untied the lace of the linen around her throat and pressed it against his temple, having to reach up on her tip toes slightly. 

 

“Naught but a scratch lass. And who would ken that a proper lady such as yerself would take the lord’s name in vain and call one a fool in the same breath.” 

 

“Be quiet or you’ll be very sorry.” She pressed into the wound more firmly than necessary at that and he winced. “You haven’t told me the cause of your injury.” 

 

Jamie wanted to voice that she had just told him to be quiet and then demanded the opposite of him in her very next words, but bit his tongue to keep that particular comment from fleeing his mouth. 

 

“Weel Donas…”

 

“That demon horse that just rushed through here?” 

 

“Aye.” He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. 

 

“It’s a wonder you aren’t dead yet.”

 

“I suppose my chances o’ survival have improved since meeting you. Ye have quite a soothing touch. You’d make a great healer.” 

 

“Well, I am a woman. So no use arguing that point.” 

 

Her triangular kerchief was stained a slight pink from his blood at one of the corners, so she decided against refastening it around her neck. There was no place else to put it, so she expertly shoved it into one of her pockets before Jamie could notice. Only having met the man once before, she knew he would make a fuss and apologise profusely for ruining her clothing. But she couldn’t care less, as long as he was healthy and not missing any limbs. 

 

“Ye ken, in Scotland, there are places where women can learn of such things.” A glint of mischief passed through his eyes. “Tis also wi’ those women that ye can learn of spells and hexes. We Scots are a superstitious lot alright. You would fit right in Sassenach.” Since it seems you have bewitched me already, he thought .  

 

“I’m glad my run in with the dead queen has humoured you so.” 

 

All traces of humour in Jamie vanished. What reflected in his eyes had an underlying seriousness Claire could not place. Respect? Compassion? Or was it what had been such a heavy weight in her heart and what had made her head take flight all these weeks? The thing she couldn’t quite place yet within herself? That made him attached to her every waking thought. Well, and dreaming too. 

 

“Well it did lead you to me.” His gaze never wavered. 

 

Jamie reached out his hand to place hers within it. No obligatory kiss to the knuckles as decorum would demand. It was enough to simply hold, to anchor himself to her through one small point of contact. The dance of their hands was more intimate than anything Claire had felt. It was almost too much, that she broke her gaze away from his intense one and her cheeks flushed. 

 

“Yes, that it did.” Her thumb stroked the golden skin of his knuckles. 

 

“The range is set up. If you would care for some archery today?” 

 

“With you, I presume?” Her fingers traced over the calluses inside his palm. 

 

In turn, he brushed against the smooth skin on the back of her hand with the pads of his fingers. “Aye, and my nosy page, my godfather, and whoever you deem fit to join us.” 

 

“Can you have your boy summon my maid Suzette?” 

 

Her attention was stolen by a young boy racing out of the corner of her eye. A slew of French swears passed through her ears. Her head turned to spy the boy more easily. His mop of brown curls bounced with each skip he took and the stick in his hand whacked against the hedges at irregular intervals. He stopped shortly near Jamie’s side and beamed. 

 

“Och, speak o’ the devil,” Jamie voiced. “Lady Beachamp. This is my page Fergus.” 

 

The scrawny boy swung out his leg and took a dramatic bow before her. He then gestured to his own chest. “Milady, you have the most beautiful bosom.” 

 

Jamie lightly cuffed the boy’s ear. Though he had the same thoughts, his mouth never ran him into trouble as often as Fergus’ did. Sure, Jamie was known to be an idiot sometimes, but he was working on it. 

 

“Dinna be an eejit, lad. You’re talking to a lady.” 

 

Fergus’ eyes widened. “Oh, I am sorry, milady. Please do not let him take out the whip again. My skin is already so sensitive from the last lashings. He never feeds me. Always has me feast on the rats in my dank room down near the dungeons. Would you take pity on this poor soul?” Claire would have been shocked at his admittance of such things, if it weren’t for the telltale twitch of his lip and the glint in his eyes that emanated something more mischievous than truthful in nature. 

 

“Fergus.” Jamie scolded again. “You know I do not hold wi’ that sort of punishment.” 

 

Jamie pulled Fergus to his side and gripped his shoulder tightly. “I am so sorry Lady Beauchamp. I found him in Paris not long ago and decided to take pity on the wee clotheid. We are still working on manners, aren’t we Fergus?” The boy nodded glumly, Jamie having taken away all the fun of the moment.  

 

“No it’s- it’s quite alright. Really no harm done. Boys are often wont to let their mouths carry them away before their minds can pick up the aftermath.” 

 

Fergus tugged on his lord’s coat and Jamie bent down to his level. He grabbed the tall man’s earlobe and pulled it down near his mouth to whisper. 

 

“Did she just call me an idiot like you did milord? But with far more words?” 

 

“Aye.” He grinned with pride at Claire and straightened up. 

 

“Now Lady Beauchamp wants you to fetch her maid, Suzette, so she can come along wi’ us to the archery range. Think you can manage that without causing even more trouble?” 

 

“Oui, milord.” He gave a curt nod and then dashed away into the maze of hedges. 

 

Through the whole exchange, Jamie never relinquished his grasp and Claire’s hand, and neither did she. They could feel each squeeze and tug, an extension of their minds and hearts at those moments. And they waited. 

 

Louise and Mary, content in each other’s company for their daily walk around the garden, as they ambled past Claire and Jamie. They threw some knowing looks at Claire and whispered to each other. The only thing Claire could do in response was roll her eyes at her ridiculous friends. They were notorious gossips, but not maliciously so. There’d not be a word uttered from them about Claire. Louise sent one last teasing look towards Claire, before the hedges of the garden swallowed up her friends once again. 

 

Not long after, Fergus dragged a frazzled Suzette towards the pair. The group gave her a moment to collect herself after what was no doubt an unnecessarily frantic run through the gardens. 

 

She smiled up at Claire and curtsied somewhat. “Milady.” Her gaze moved towards Jamie and she sent another short nod. “Milord.” 

 

“Suzette. Thank you for escorting us.” Claire expressed. 

 

“Of course, milady, you know I would do anything that you require.” 

 

Claire reached out her free hand, the one not captive to Jamie’s, and squeezed Suzette’s hand. Jamie scanned the area. Clearly there was someone missing. 

 

“Fergus, where is Murtagh?” 

 

“I do not know milord. Last I saw he was at the stables.” 

 

“Weel, we can not leave wi’ out him tae escort Lady Beauchamp. A trusted man must be present to ward off rumour or suspicion.” 

 

“But, milord, I am here.” Fergus stood up from his slouch. “And I am a man.” 

 

“Not quite, lad.” Jamie ruffled the boy’s hair and rested his elbow on top of it. “Unless ye wish to show me ye’ve grown hair on yer baws as proof.” 

 

Jamie paused to look at Claire and Suzette, then back to Fergus with a sigh. “Alright lad. I suppose you shall be the one escorting us.” And, sure enough, the boy visibly brightened at his lord’s trust.  

 

Fergus shuffled over to Claire and stood directly before her. His head did not even reach her shoulders yet, but his face held such solemnity and confidence. She was sure he would fight to his last breath, having only just met her. He stole Claire’s hand from Jamie’s and captured it between his lanky fingers. Fergus tugged her other one into the small sphere of protection as well.  

 

“Do not worry, milady. I shall defend your honour.” He tapped the handle of the blade on his hip. “If need be I shall kill the swine myself.” 

 

“Swine? Remember who keeps yer belly full lad.” Jamie jabbed from Claire’s side. 

 

“If you are dead I am sure Lady Beauchamp will take pity on my poor soul and place me under her employ. Right, milady?” 

 

“Um-” Claire started, unsure. 

 

“Fergus stop blethering, and let us be gone.” 

 

“Aye.” 

 

Fergus grabbed two bows, which looked giant compared to his small frame, the quiver of arrows, and led the way to a small rectangular space hidden by walls of hedges. The only way to spy inside was through the small opening at the corner. Suzette and Fergus stood guard at the opening, but turned to face away from the pair. 

 

Jamie grabbed the quiver and set the arrows within the wood cylinder on the ground. He rested the bow against the cylinder and walked back to Claire, hands open for the taking. 

 

“Shall we make a game of it, my lady?”

“Pray tell, what shall the game entail?” 

 

“Weel tis simple, the most targets hit, determines the winner. The winner earns a favour from the loser.” 

 

Claire’s gaze dropped to Jamie’s lips for a fleeting second, and then back up to his eyes again. Her tongue darted out to wet her suddenly dry bottom lip. Jamie’s grip tightened on his bow and he resisted the urge to swipe his thumb over the moisture clinging to the plump curve. 

 

She cleared her throat. “And what would that favour be?”  

 

“Well, that would ruin the fun if it was known beforehand. Would you not agree?” 

 

She smiled at the possibilities of what his favour would be. Another meeting like this? Perhaps even a dance at the upcoming Great Harvest Feast. Or perhaps… she would leave the range with her first kiss fresh on her lips. Without thought, her hand reached up to her mouth. 

 

“Oh, yes. We may keep our secrets for now.” She smirked; her request was going to be far more ambitious. 

 

“Ladies first.” Jamie gestured to four small flour sacks suspended beneath a wooden pole, held horizontally by two large stacks of rock. 

 

Claire took up her natural stance, and then slouched slightly to her left. Jamie leaned back, arms crossed, enjoying the scenery of the gardens, though his vision was only truly  fixed on one spot. There was room for more than one game here. She took a deep breath, aimed at the top left corner of the small flour sack, and then nocked her arrow. Releasing the arrow with a small exhale, she hit her intended target perfectly. That is, the point farthest away from the dark dot in the middle, without flying past the sack of flour completely. She was no stranger to the sport. No, not at all. 

 

“Oh my, I must tell you I am completely hopeless in this sport. Would you mind terribly, helping me?” She sighed, and it came off a bit more dramatically than she had intended, but still sent across the message well enough. 

 

“Of course, my lady. But ye ken it’s highly frowned upon tae have yer opponent shoot fer you.” 

 

Claire set one end of the bow by the inside of her foot and pulled another arrow from its holder. 

 

“Oh, is it? I’m sorry I haven’t the faintest idea about archery.” 

 

Jamie uttered a sound that Claire couldn’t quite place, but found herself accustomed to as a part of him. He toed the inside of her shoe with his boot, widening her stance slightly. Planting his feet on either side of Claire’s, he gripped her hips and pulled them perpendicular to the second target. His hands leisurely wandered up the fabric of her sides, finally resting on the curve of her shoulders, and he too adjusted those accordingly. 

 

“Ye ken, it’s all about the stance wi’ archery.” His breath was hot against the shell of her ear, causing gooseflesh to rise on her skin. 

 

He trailed his fingertips back down the silky fabric, moving up and down her sides. Claire could feel the muscles of his abdomen push and pull against her back and her heart beat in concert with the movements. Finally, his hands found purchase on her hips once again, content to rest for the time being. 

 

“Really?” 

 

“Aye.” 

 

“And is this the correct…” Her body itched to be closer to him, but that was impossible, considering there was already no space between them. “positioning my lord?” 

 

She wriggled her arse against him and Jamie prayed to God that he would leave without an embarrassing cockstand. He thought of the most unpleasant images he knew of. His dead gran. The kitchen maid covered with smallpox, grinning down as she placed a puss covered biscuit in his hands. His mother’s cat Adso, full of maggots and fleas after he snuck away for two weeks. The- 

 

Claire harrumphed and pushed further back into him, seeking the tingle she felt before from the friction. She moved to the left in his arms slightly and- Oh. Was that?

 

Wicked wee besom. Two can play at that game. 

He pulled his right hand from her hip and splayed it across her stomach. Claire knew he was large and tall, even when one spotted him from a distance, but it was an entirely different matter the way only one hand was needed to span her entire abdomen. Her stomach flipped with excitement but there was some part of her, some deeper part, that raged to be let loose. To claw at Jamie and, well she didn’t quite know what yet but the desire was there. His hand slowly inched lower and lower on her stomach and he stopped once her breath hitched, smirking to himself. 

Removing his hand from her middle, he grasped the arrow in her right hand. Jamie wrapped his hand around hers and guided it in drawing back the fletching against the bow string. His hand moved to her elbow, nudging the angle of it slightly. At that point, his head was nestled up on her right shoulder, his nose close to the curls that wanted to spring free from their unfortunate confinement. Those damn veils. With a sure squeeze from Jamie to signal for the release, the shaft of the arrow sunk perfectly into the target. Again, and then again. Three out of four hitting the mark wasn’t too shabby, Claire thought to herself. Reluctantly, Jamie stepped away from the warmth of her body. It felt as painful as ripping his own skin away. 

 

His turn. Surely, he could beat her aim. Well, it was really more of his aim than hers. 

 

Jamie stepped up to the marker and glanced back at Claire who stood unassumingly off to the side. Nock. Draw. Breathe. Release. He hit the target dead on and grinned back at Claire. That wouldn’t do, not at all. Claire stretched her arms behind her back, pushing up her chest and emphasising the lack of a kerchief to protect her modesty. It was a simple gesture, but one that she knew would catch him. Jamie gulped, trying desperately not to look where his attention was pulled. 

 

“May your aim prove true, my lord.” Her face transformed as a dazzling smile overtook it. 

 

He loosed the arrow, just barely striking the edge of the black mark. Christ . Claire struggled to keep the smirk that so desperately wished to appear tucked away. He looked back at her again, unable to tear his eyes away for longer than a second. A yawn from Claire. Another stretch. At this point it was a wonder that his eyes didn’t completely bug out of his head. This time, the arrow missed the sack completely. 

 

Ah Dhia. ” He swore silently to himself. 

 

This time, he would not look back. He would not give in to that particular temptation. No matter how bonny the lass looked. Or how the rich green of her bodice complimented her milky skin. Ah Dhia, how the swell of her breasts demanded that his eyes be on them. The brilliance of her smile. The way she held herself, strong and sure. There hadn’t been much conversation between them so far, but Jamie could already sense the underlying cleverness within her. 

 

His fingers expertly nocked back his fourth arrow and drew back. His eyes flicked back momentarily without his permission again and he already knew he had missed once more. Maybe this competition was a bad idea. The only hope he held onto was his curiosity towards Claire’s decision for her prize. Yes, he would lose, but gladly so. 

 

His feet took long strides towards her side; they knew where they belonged. He towered over her, but it didn’t intimidate her in the slightest. Their chests were practically touching, and if she concentrated hard enough, she could feel the minute shift of his body against hers as it took in and released air. 

 

“Ye wee devil. You set me up.” He pouted. 

 

Jamie took a slight step towards Claire and she stumbled backwards, losing her footing over a small rock in the ground. She shrieked and Jamie hugged her close to him. In the process, he too lost his traction and they came tumbling down into a mess of giggles and tangled clothes. His knees naturally positioned themselves next to Claire’s hips, boxing them in. Gripping her wrists, he leaned even closer. He could feel the shallow breaths puffing against the fabric clinging to his chest, and saw the imperceptible rise of her chest. His eyes blinked in what Claire was sure was a poor attempt of a wink. 

 

Claire could feel him between her legs and she began to panic. So many conversations flew through her mind at that moment. Her mother, ladies of the court, even the Queen herself. All of them leading to one conclusion. Being with a man was tolerable at best, likened to an itch that needed scratching, and could be extremely painful in the beginnings, or even long after. Her throat began to close and dread dropped down through her head to her toes like an anvil. Her mind yelled for escape and she began to squirm. 

 

“Get off me!” 

 

In an instant, Jamie rolled off of her, worry etched on his face. Claire pulled herself up, grabbing her knees to her chest in comfort. 

 

“I’m so sorry lass, I didna mean to hurt ye.”

 

“No, no- you didn’t. I-” She frantically reached out her hand to him and he took it, understanding her silent plea. It was easier when they touched. “I want to. Believe me , I want- but I-” 

 

“Ye dinna have to explain yerself, mo ghraidh. But please, tell me if ye feel that way again. Trust that I never wish to harm you.”  

 

“I know, thank you.” She gripped his hand, feeling the reassuring calluses on it. “Now about my favour.” She changed the subject, hoping he’d forget all about what happened moments before. 

“Awright, lass. What is it ye wish from me? A new kerchief?” He looked down at the exposed expanse of skin and then back up, his ears reddened slightly. “Or mebbe… a kiss on the cheek?” Only the cheek lad? Claire thought to herself and grinned. 

 

No, none of these requests would do. She knew they had only just met, but some marriages were formed on even less than that. A bride meeting her groom at the altar. Besides, there was something she couldn’t quite explain about him. About them. What the hell , she thought, might as well come straight out with it. 

 

“Ask for my hand.” 

 

“Are ye- are you proposing tae me?

 

“I suppose I am, yes. Do you have a problem with that?” 

 

“No, it’s only, I’ve already planned to ask ye and then yer father, but I guess you plucked up the courage before I could.” 

 

“Well it seems I don’t have the luxury of time, or inaction for that matter.” 

 

“The Earl?” Jamie spat, his voice laced with venom. 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“And you don’t prefer… a man with a greater title and larger vassals? I’m a second son, Claire. I can’t properly deck yer bonny neck wi’ as many jewels and gold as he can.” 

 

“No, Jamie, he’s the last thing I want.” And you are all I’ll ever want. “I don’t care about those things.”

 

“I will speak to yer father when next I see him. I promise.” 

 

“I’m going to hold you to that James Fraser.” 

 

“You have my word. Claire… Beauchamp.” Like a foolish lovesick boy, he would try out the other name later, when he stayed up late, not able to sleep from thoughts of her. 

 

***

 

“You have the most beautiful… eyeballs.” Claire rolled the roast duck inside her cheek with her tongue and nearly choked on it at the rarity of such a comment. 

 

“Eyeballs?” She didn’t know how many more of these meetings to conduct a ‘proper courtship’ she could take. Just lock me away for a year until the wedding day. I’m sure I’d have slightly less resentment not having my ears shrivel up and die from his horrid squawkings. 

 

“Yes, they are perfectly spherical.” Francis wiped at the corner of his mouth with a cloth napkin. 

 

“Oh, Lord Randall, you do flatter me so.” 

 

Francis cleared his throat and wiped his mouth with the napkin again, nervous. He reached out his hand to hers and she obliged for the time being. His fingers were lithe and hairless. Nothing like the leathery and warm hands of Jamie, kissed golden by the sun. He worked for what he had. It didn’t just fall in his lap like most of the nobility in court. 

 

Francis planted a sloppy kiss to her hand, and she wanted nothing more than to wipe it off. 

 

“Claire, darling, by now I-”

 

“Lady Beauchamp.” 

 

Francis’ bemused expression irked Claire more than she cared to admit. “I beg your pardon?”

 

“It is Lady Beauchamp, my lord.” 

 

“Well, Lady Beauchamp. ” The Earl of Oxenford spoke the title with contempt and it took everything within Claire to not roll her eyes to the very back of her head. “I have heard tell that you and the young Lord Fraser enjoyed some archery Saturday the last.” 

 

“You are correct.” She popped another bite of the meat into her mouth, thankful for the barrier preventing her from speaking more than necessary. 

 

“I must inform you that this young boy’s-”

 

“That young man is nearly half a year older than I.” 

 

“Yes, well, I have spoken to your father about the matter. I do not believe it wise for you to seek company with him any longer.” 

 

“Very well.” She shrugged, tearing off a chunk of bread from the middle of the banquet table. 

 

“You’ll just let it go that easily?” Francis said in disbelief. 

 

“Oh I think you misunderstand. I’ll do whatever I desire, Francis , without your permission, as you are not yet my husband. Not for a long time.” Claire murmured under her breath. “Not ever.” 

 

“Be that as it may, I will not have a sullied bride, Lady Beauchamp, is that understood?” 

 

“With the way your health is now,  I’m not quite sure you will rise to the occasion if we are indeed to wed.”  

 

“Why you bi-”

 

“Mind yourself, Lord Randall. I thought you wanted respect in our union? And if there’s not I’ll be sure to let the Queen herself know. She has been rather fond of my mother as of late.” 

 

That quieted him down, if only for a minute. The sounds of those dining around them filled the silence, utensils clanging against the intricate designs on the clay plates and bowls , mouths smacking against particularly dry foods, and quiet moans of approval at some specific dishes layed out. 

 

“I understand you have an interest in flowers, my lady. I have spent days mulling over the perfect one for you.” 

 

He pulled out a simple red rose from within his poofy coat and thrust it into her hand. Claire could feel a small pinch on her finger and tears welled up within her eyes. She dropped the flower to the ground and shook her injured hand. Francis looked peeved at her actions, and shook his head patronisingly. Ignoring propriety, she shoved her finger in her mouth, sucking out the blood and pain. 

 

“Really, Lady Beauchamp. There’s not much to fear from a simple flower.” 

 

Her finger pulled out with a pop. “That’s easy for you to say, when you have escaped unmarked.” 

 

“Darli-” Claire sent him a withering stare. “Lady Beauchamp. I’m sorry you deemed to find offense in my words. But, I was sure a woman would love such a gesture.”

 

“You assumed wrong. Good day Lord Randall.” 

 

“We still have much to discuss, my lady.” 

 

“Good. Day. Lord Randall.” 

 

Claire was terribly hungry before, but could stomach her food no longer in the man’s presence. She glanced longingly at the large dishes of roast duck, ham, and various stews, but would have to pass on those particular luxuries tonight. 

 

She rose from her seat and felt steady hands wrap around her arms. She sighed and closed her eyes, imagining if she could not see anything, it surely could not be real. 

 

“Claire bear.”

 

“Yes, my lord?” She turned around to look into the eyes of her father. 

 

“Your mother wishes to speak with you presently. We must discuss a great many things.” 

 

“Of course, sir. I shall be at your chambers later tonight.”

 

“Now.” His tone brokered no argument. 

 

Lord Beauchamp angled his body towards Francis and nodded tersely. “I trust my daughter enjoyed her time with you, the well-respected gentleman that you are.”

 

“Of course, I do believe we are quickly coming to some form of rapport.” 

 

“Good, good. We will see you at the Great Harvest Feast, Lord Randall. Until then.” 

 

Henri enfolded his daughter in his arm, and spirited her off from the hall. His grip on her shoulder was tight and controlling, and she knew she was in trouble. She mentally prepared herself for the reprimands that would follow from her mother. 

 

***

 

Claire left her parents’ chambers disheartened, but not defeated. She bore the brunt of her mother’s verbal lashings without a word in edgewise herself, and she was properly chastised. The only words she was able to utter in her presence were those of a promise. A promise that she wouldn't carelessly play such sport with that boy again. 

 

And she did promise that. Because they had threatened to move the date of her impending doom to the coming Great Harvest Feast instead of the next. 

 

Yes, sadly she’d never play archery again. Those were the exact words of the promise, and she would take it literally. She knew her parents thought of it in more broad terms, but she would follow the promise to the letter.  And she had to limit what exactly was seen in the public eye. 

 

While she was fuming on her way to her own chambers, she spotted a slight French boy out of the corner of her eye. Her hand slipped into her pocket where she kept the discarded paper of her charcoal drawing experiment, which ended up being a total failure. She traced out a simple code, one she knew only he would know. It was all sort of thrilling to her, the secrecy of it all. 

 

“Fergus.” She called out and her voice echoed in the empty stone halls. “Send this to your lord.” 

 

She slipped the paper into his coat and scurried away.