“Damn you, you insufferable sassenach wench! Could you not keep your immense, fat arse out of my way?” said James Fraser. At least, that was what I thought he said. My Gaelic was improving, though not nearly fluent. Still, I got the gist.
He thought me ignorant of the language—most MacKenzies did—but one of the benefits of my current position at Leoch was access to tutors, and my progress was coming along rather nicely. I could understand Gaelic even better than I could speak it, but the likes of Jamie MacTavish—pardon, Fraser—had no business knowing my level of linguistic competence.
I might have been offended by the lad’s harsh words if I wasn’t distracted by a terrible pain in my right foot. My ankle had popped when I rolled it as he and his massive beast of a horse barreled into me only moments before. They were careening out of control down the mountain and rammed into me as I was getting dressed after a bath in the spring located about a half mile away from my cottage.
Thankfully, he didn’t catch me naked. I’d already put on my shift, though now it was covered entirely in mud, along with my hands and half my face.
“Are ye all right?” he asked, coming to my side after tying up his horse. His tone made it clear the injury he imposed on me was a great inconvenience.
“I’m fine,” I growled through gritted teeth. I tried to get a look at my ankle, but it was covered in mud.
“It’s no’ broken, is it?”
“I don’t think so. Probably sprained. If I could see it properly, I’d be able to make an assessment—”
The next moment, I was cradled in his arms, and he began unceremoniously dunking me into the water like John the bloody Baptist.
“Put me down, you overgrown brute!”
Half drowned and feeling rather like a soaked poodle, I was brought back to solid ground and deposited on a large, mossy rock. I attempted to wipe the water from my eyes to properly chastise my nurse, but was interrupted when he cursed impatiently in Gaelic and pushed my hands aside to clumsily rub a wet handkerchief over my face.
“Would you stop? You’re making it worse!” I tried pushing him away, but I might as well have tried moving a mountain. He was even larger than his uncle! Instead, I snatched the handkerchief from his grasp and began smacking him over the head with it.
He stepped out of reach, looking at me like I was the one who had lost my mind. I ground my teeth together, clenching my fists, sprained ankle completely forgotten. Something about James Fraser made my blood boil, and it was all the worse when he acted like the fucking neanderthal he was.
I was trying to decide if it was worth the pain in my foot to jump up and throttle him, when I noticed his ears had turned red and the vein in his forehead was throbbing with a life of its own. For some inexplicable reason, he seemed to be angry with me. And not just a little miffed. He was furious.
I tried to recall what the bloody hell I’d done to deserve his ire, but came up short. He was the one who crashed into me.
I shivered uncontrollably as he glared at me with disgust and what could only be described as pure hatred. Whatever protections I had by my current position in the castle, I’d heard plenty about what a beast James Fraser could be in a fight, and it was nothing short of terrifying to be the object of his inexplicable rage. His hands were so immense, he could easily squash the life out of me if he chose to do so—and the look in his eyes told me he wanted to, very badly.
I raised my chin, pulled back my shoulders, and puffed out my chest with more confidence in my safety than I had any right to have. He watched me, eyes running up and down my pathetic, injured body, soaked to the bone and growing chilled.
Finally, he grunted and shook his head, mumbling unintelligibly under his breath. He removed his wet coat and wrung it out, water dripping softly on the moss below. Without warning, he moved behind me and wrapped the coat around my shoulders.
The heat of him that lingered on the wool was a shocking comfort, despite the fact that I’d half expected him to strangle me with it. Just as I was getting ready to thank him, he bent down and lifted me up, cradling me in his arms once again.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Taking ye home.”
“Put me down! I can walk by myself.”
He snorted with grating condescension. “Ye couldna make it three feet, let alone the half mile it would take to get there.”
He was right, of course. My ankle was throbbing something terrible, and I was certain I couldn’t put any weight on it. “If you could just help me find a sturdy stick…”
He ignored me and kept moving through the wilderness. I clung to his neck to stop from slipping out of his arms. The last thing I needed was a sore bottom to match my ankle.
“What about the rest of my clothes? My basket? Your horse?”
“I’ll come back for them.”
“It’s too far for you to carry me the whole way. I could just—”
“Bi sàmhach, boireannach,” he grumbled, and kept marching on. Be quiet, woman, was what he said, clearly not expecting me to understand and relying on his tone to communicate intention.
Fine. He could have it his way and break his bloody back hauling around my immense, fat arse all he liked.
But after trekking up a fairly steep hill without a grunt of strain, I was forced to admit he was quite impressive. I could hardly navigate my way through the overgrown path on my best day without stumbling around, but the man moved like he was on a paved street in the middle of twentieth century London.
Even though he didn’t appear to be having trouble managing his burden, I still clung to him tightly, just in case his massive arms decided to give way without warning.
I could tell he didn’t like our forced proximity any more than I did. It wasn’t long before he restarted that incoherent mumbling under his breath, each sound carrying a tone of complete exasperation. I leaned in closer, trying to decipher what he said.
“Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, priez pour nous pauvres pécheurs, maintenant et à l’heure de notre mort.”
“French?” I pulled back to look in his eyes. “You speak French?”
He gave me one of those grunting nonanswers and kept mumbling on. I listened carefully and realized he was praying the rosary. I shook my head in surprise. I hadn’t taken the great oaf to be a religious man, much less a learned one. And his accent, from what I could hear of it, was flawless.
“Ow!” I groaned in agony as he leapt over a fallen tree.
He flinched at my discomfort, but didn’t slow down, nor did he apologize. I clung tighter to his body to minimize the amount of jostling I had to endure. His grip on my thigh and around back tightened as though it pained him to hold me so close. I didn’t let up; he was the one who insisted upon this two-person hike, for God’s sake.
“What were ye doing at the fairy pool?” he asked, accusingly, as though I had done something forbidden.
“I was taking a bath.”
“I ken that.” He rolled his eyes. “It’s just that no’ many would dare to swim in those particular waters. They’re meant for the Wee Folk.”
“Are you saying I received my injury from the fairies for disturbing their spring?”
He was somehow able to manage a shrug.
“Funny, I thought it was the out-of-control horse and his rider that did me bodily harm. In fact,” I looked up at him and reflected back his tone of accusation, “what were you doing riding that beast out here? The only thing nearby is my cottage. Were you looking for me?”
“Of course not,” he spat, as though the idea was revolting. “I was taking Donas for a ride, and a bee spooked him. It was all I could do to stay in the saddle.”
“You’re mad for riding that thing. He’d kill a man as soon as look at him.” When the words left my mouth, I realized that Jamie Fraser was likely no different than his horse.
“He just needs a firm hand, is all.”
He carried me quietly through the woods and into the light of the meadow. I spotted my cottage a good distance away. It was a beautiful little home and all my own—not bad for temporary lodging before I found my way back to the stones.
“I’m surprised yer husband let ye to live outside the castle,” he grunted. “I wouldna allow it if it were me.”
“I insisted on it.” In fact, I refused the man’s proposal until he agreed to give me a place to stay of my own.
“It’s no’ safe.”
“He has guards watching the cottage to ensure my safety.” And that I didn’t escape.
“I ken.” Jamie was sometimes wrangled into guard duty when men were scarce.
I sighed in resignation at my current fate. I wasn’t a wife. I was a prisoner. The only place I was allowed to go alone was out to the spring for a bath, and I had no chance of escaping from there. The forest was too dense for me to navigate on my own. Even if I could get to the main road, I still didn’t know the way to Craig na Dun, and if I did, there were still red coats, hostile clans, and the bloody Black Watch to deal with.
I inhaled deeply, resting my head on Jamie’s shoulder. He smelled of horse, fresh sweat, and hay—an improvement from the scent of body odor and metabolizing alcohol more common of my guards.
Carrying me truly seemed no bother to him, gliding smoothly across the flatter surface of the meadow. I relaxed my grip on his neck, faith growing in his strength and endurance. Goosebumps sprang up on his skin at my gentler touch, and his whole body quivered. Clearly, I made his hair stand on end in agitation.
“Ye should get a dog,” he said, looking around the meadow.
“Yer guard is nowhere to be found. Ye need a dog. For protection. I ken a lad who’s got a setter wi’ a litter no’ two months old.”
“I don’t want a dog.” I didn’t want any ties to Scotland, much less a dependent.
“I didna ask if ye wanted one. Ye need one.”
Bloody Scottish men. All they cared about was the way they thought things should be, not how it affected the people around them. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t all Scottish men, just the MacKenzie sort.
I leaned back to glare up at him and offer my thoughts on where he could shove his advice, but was distracted by dark, puffy circles around his eyes. “You’re not sleeping,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
His jaw twitched, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge my words.
“What’s keeping you up at night? Newlywed bliss?”
He shot me a dangerous look at the mention of his wife, scary enough for me to jump in his arms and irritate my injury. His lip curled into a snarl, and he said, “No. It’s guard duty.”
I spent the rest of the walk trying not to anger him any more than I already had, though my existence alone seemed to gall him something fierce. I audibly sighed with relief when we crossed the threshold of my cottage, and I didn’t have to be in his awful presence any longer. He carried me across the large room and set me down gently on my bed.
“I’ll be back in a bit wi’ yer things.”
“Wait!” I stopped him just as he turned to walk away. “Your coat.”
I stood up on my one good leg and peeled off his large, warm coat. His ears turned a fierce shade of red when I handed it back to him, and his mouth was smashed down in a tight line. He reluctantly took it from me, ensuring his fingers didn’t touch mine in the process, and hung it over his arm. He bowed with a dip of his head and left abruptly.
It wasn’t until I limped over to find a dry shift that I realized the wet one I was wearing was completely transparent. Heat traveled down my body with mortification, and I yanked it off over my head and replaced it to ensure I was better covered for when the French-speaking-man-beast returned.
I tended to my ankle as best as I could after he left, wrapping it up and keeping it elevated. Confined as I was to the bed, there was little I could do to distract myself from the agitation presented by Jamie’s imminent return. I just sat and stared out the window, watching the wind blow through the long grass and rustle about the trees.
I counted the minutes to his return and found myself frustrated when he was gone for longer than an hour. Once he made it back to his giant beast of a horse, he could have ridden there and back ten times over since he left me.
Perhaps he just went back for his horse and left my things for the wolves. Or maybe he broke his neck mounting that behemoth.
Just as the beginnings of worry started to rise up in my mind, I heard Donas’s heavy gallop draw near. I quickly swooped up a shawl to wrap around my shoulders for modesty’s sake and opened a book to appear as though I’d forgotten he was coming.
A gentle knock sounded on the door, then it opened from the outside. Jamie came in with his hands full, acknowledging me only with a grumbling nod before dumping my gown and stays on a chair and placing two baskets on the table. One of them was mine, full of plants I’d gathered before my bath, but the other was unfamiliar.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“Food from the castle. It’ll no’ be easy for ye to cook a meal wi’ yer ankle swelling up as nasty as it is.”
“Oh.” Apparently, that’s what took him so long. He went all the way to the castle. “Well…thank you.”
He nodded gruffly, without looking at me. I took his lack of open hostility as a good sign. It was the nicest he’d ever been to me.
“I have something for you,” I said in an attempt at a peace offering.
I stood up on my good leg and began limping over to my medicine chest. He grumbled at my incompetence and took my arm, helping me reach my destination with little in the way of gentleness. I reached into the chest and found what I was looking for. “Valerian root. Steep a small spoonful in a cup of boiling water before bed and drink it down. It’ll help you sleep…when you’re not standing guard, that is.” We both knew whatever it was that kept him up all night had nothing to do with the occasional guard duty.
He took it from me and nodded a silent thank you.
“Look, Jamie,” I pressed on, “I know we seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot, but seeing as though we’re family, I—”
“We are not family.”
“Like it or not, I’m your aunt, and—”
His barely controlled rage finally slipped, and he tightened his grip on my arm so hard, I worried it might break. “You are not my aunt!” he said, raising his voice sharply. He bent over my face and every syllable he spoke dripped with disdain. “Ye may have marrit my uncle, but ye’re no’ my family, and ye never will be.”
I whimpered, more in fear than pain, but he still didn’t release me. I was paralyzed with fright, though moving would have done no good, unable as I was to escape his grip of pure iron.
A soft whine behind me seemed to shake him out of his rage. He let go of me abruptly and left without another word.
I watched through the window as he mounted Donas and tore off back toward the castle. I rubbed my aching arm where it still felt as though he never let go.
The whining sounded again from behind, and I realized someone else was in the room. The sounds were coming from the unfamiliar basket on the table. The lid was jostling up and down along with the noise, and I knew what was inside before I even opened it up.
I raised the lid to find a tiny, red-haired Irish setter gnawing on a tightly wrapped bundle of food, trying to get at whatever deliciousness lay inside. I picked up the little thing in one hand to inspect it, wondering how such a sweet, pathetic little pup was meant to offer me protection.
I brought it up close to my face, and he—it definitely was a he—tilted his head with curiosity at his new owner. His hair was a lovely cinnamon and copper, almost identical to the brute who dumped him off on my table. The little beast had long, floppy ears that were trying to lift up to hear whatever it was I had to say to him.
“Fucking hell,” was the best I had to offer.