Chapter 1: Ire
“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.
Chapter 2: Pissed
Warm, wet kisses trailed down my neck, waking me from much needed sleep. I turned away, in no mood to appease the whim of any man when I’d been disturbed at least six times overnight.
The kisses didn’t stop. In fact, they became far more aggressive. A long tongue licked my ear, mouth breathing heavily and whining for attention. I began to worry that he might lose hold altogether right on top of me.
I sat up and opened my eyes to find the sweetest, happiest face staring up at me, arse wagging so enthusiastically that his whole body swayed with the pure joy in seeing my eyes.
“Good morning.” I gave him a scratch behind his long, floppy ears. He was undone, melting with sheer pleasure in my lap. If only all men were so easy to manage. “Do you require the necessary?”
He jumped up and licked my nose, having no clue what I said, but loving the sound of my voice.
I stood, and the happy little one jumped down from the bed, faceplanting on the stone floor. He popped right up and shook off his fall, completely unaffected, racing me to the door. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as I stepped painfully—bloody hell, I’d forgotten about my sprain—forward.
My foot landed in a cold puddle of piss right in the middle of my kitchen.
The little red beast was scratching at the door, desperate to get out to unleash his abnormally large bladder on the rest of the world. I threw a rag on the puddle and took him quickly outside to avoid more misfortune.
He bolted out the door and into the meadow, ears bouncing with every step, careless of the cool breeze and the morning dew lingering everywhere. His little bottom was not quite in sync with his front half and tried to run off in a different direction than his head. I couldn’t help but chuckle at my great protector as he attempted to urinate on every blade in the meadow.
He was distracted from his task only by the excitement of birds flying overhead. He jumped and barked—whether trying to reach them or chase them away, neither of us had a clue.
“You’re too far!” I called, worried about a large bird of prey swooping him up. “Come back, now!”
He looked at me, panting and smiling, and went on with his morning.
“Come…” my voice trailed off, only just realizing I’d yet to give him a name.
I hadn’t a clue what to call him. If I gave him a silly name, he’d only grow to be all the more ridiculous. He needed a name of substance. One of sense and distinguishment, then maybe he’d allow a lady to have lie in when she was tired or learn to hold his bladder overnight.
I knew of only one name with enough substance to turn a foolish man into a gentleman. I stepped forward and called it out across the meadow.
The dog stopped his ornithological pursuit and snapped his head around, ears propped up and face tilted in curiosity.
“Come!” I called again, with a nurse’s authority.
He barked sweetly and rushed over, possibly in excitement at having been bestowed such a fine name, but more likely at the joy seeing his person.
I thought James Fraser could learn a lesson or two about amiability from my new lad.
“Keep up, little one,” I called.
It was several days later that the dog followed me as I limped down the lane to see the first of several patients. I was doing house calls all day, none of which I really was looking forward to, and I couldn’t leave the puppy on his own, especially with storm clouds brewing overhead.
The first patient of the day was a woman close to seven months pregnant and in need of her regular checkup. I’d asked her to come to the surgery, but she insisted she didn’t feel well enough to leave her bed. She wasn’t prescribed bed rest, but I rather thought she enjoyed people waiting on her hand and foot.
I had delayed the appointment for over an hour, hoping to avoid the woman’s husband. I knew he often woke early to go to work, and I’d rather not have to see him if at all possible. She was a handful enough all on her own without his ominous presence.
“Bennet!” I called, as my little puppy scampered toward the door of Laoghaire Fraser’s house, yapping madly to get in. “Come here, you naughty little thing! You cannot insist on inviting yourself into other people’s houses!”
He didn’t listen.
The door opened to reveal a surprised Mrs. Fitz who was visiting her bed-bound granddaughter, ready to chastise whoever was responsible for the commotion. Before she got a chance, Bennet darted beneath her skirts to make his way inside.
“Is that yer wee ratton?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” I said, limping to catch up. “I’m terribly sorry for his lack of manners.”
Mrs. Fitz stepped aside as I pushed passed to retrieve my little burden. I followed the sound of his barking into Laoghaire’s bedroom, where she could be heard complaining about the intrusion.
“Put a muzzle on that thing, Jamie! How I’m expected to rest wi’ all that racket?”
“I’m so sorry. He’s just a little excit—” I stopped at the entrance of the bedroom door, and my mouth fell open. Laoghaire lay in the center of the bed, round and flustered, blonde hair messily pinned back and still wearing her night-rail. She was staring angrily up at her husband who stood next to the bed dressed only in his kilt and boots, holding a very happy Bennet in his large hands.
Jamie ignored his wife. He was too busy talking to the dog in a quiet, rumbling Gaelic, informing him of how handsome and mighty he was, and possibly the most ferocious beast he’d ever seen.
I intentionally ignored the fact that his muscled chest was on display for all the room to see. I was a military nurse for Christ’s sake; it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.
“Apologies,” I said, fearful of unwittingly angering him again—as I had a propensity to do. “Bennet is still learning how to mind.”
“Bennet?” Jamie looked at me with disgust. “Ye named the dog Bennet?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What kind of name is that?”
“One meant to inspire good sense and manners.”
His eyes told me he thought I was out of my mind. I became unnecessarily annoyed by his disapproval and raised my own bloody hackles. “What would you have named him?”
“Something manly. Like Fergus.”
“Aye. The first King of Scotland. He came from Ireland to defend the Scots from the Picts and Britons.” He held up Bennet to inspect him further. “This lad is an Irish setter, is he no’?”
“Well, he belongs to an Englishwoman now.”
“Ye may always be a sassenach,” spat Laoghaire, “but ye’re meant to be a Scot now, Mistress MacKenzie.”
“Hmphm,” grunted Jamie, keeping his focus on the dog. “If ye dinna like Fergus, then consider something of the land he’s meant to protect. Like Rowan, Ash, or Oakley.”
“His name is Bennet, thank you very much.”
“What does it matter what she names her mongrel?” Laoghaire sneered. “It’s naught to do wi’ us.”
Jamie ignored her, grabbing Bennet’s snout and pretending to nibble on his jowls. Bennet licked Jamie’s face with utter joy—the traitor—no doubt falling in love with the large, muscled brute.
Jamie dropped the dog on the floor and snagged his shirt off the bed. I averted my eyes toward my patient to begin my examination. Just as I was getting out the ribbon I used for a measuring tape, Laoghaire turned to Jamie and her voice softened. “Will ye be staying today, then?”
He glared at her with contempt—an expression of his I was all too familiar with—then looked away. He turned his back on us, silently gathering the rest of his clothes and revealing the hundreds of scars that covered his back. I sucked in a breath at the ghastly sight, wondering what kind of sick man Black Jack Randall must have been to stomach doing something like that to another person.
My sympathy for him was at war with my dislike of his character and his general neglect of his wife and unborn child. He gathered his weapons and stormed out of the room with no further word to either of us. Poor Bennet trailed behind his favorite Scot with his short legs and was met with a door slammed in his face.
Tears began streaming down Laoghaire’s cheeks, and as much as I disliked the girl, it must have been awful to feel so alone when with child. No wonder she was lying in bed all day; it was likely melancholy from having to spend her life with a complete arsehole.
“Is he not looking forward to the birth?”
“It’s no’ that. He’s only tired. He was up all night wi’ guard duty.”
I gave her a look that conveyed my doubts that sleepiness had anything to do with it.
She shook her head, tears still falling. “Dinna judge him too harshly. Ye’ll ken he’s an outlaw? I’m sure Dougal told ye.”
“He’s worrit he canna care for us both, is all. It makes him crabbit. If he could only get a pardon, we’d move to Broch Tuarach and take our place as Laird and Lady.”
“That’s right. Dougal said Jamie owns a good bit of land out near the Frasers of Lovat.”
“Aye. It would be much easier to deal wi’ a wean if we had his servants to help us. As it is, we’ve got just enough to keep food in our bellies and a roof o’er our heids.”
My sympathy for Laoghaire was growing, particularly as I knew the only reason Jamie agreed to marry her was because he was caught in a compromising position with her in one of the castle alcoves. Something told me James Fraser resented having a wife…and a child.
“Well,” I said, trying to sound encouraging, “it looks like you’re growing nicely. Let’s see how baby is doing, shall we?”
“Aye. Thank ye, Mistress.”
I reached down to grab my box of supplies, and my eyes landed on little Bennet. He had somehow managed to get himself into Laoghaire’s knitting basket. A half-knitted sock hung out of his mouth, and he was squatting in the yarn.
But I was too late. The tinkle of urine sounded in the otherwise quiet room, and the smell of warm piss filled the air.
I snatched him up as Laoghaire’s face turned a bright shade of red, and hobbled outside to have my guard watch over him. Bennet licked my cheek, excited to see what the next adventure awaiting him held.
“All the red headed men in Scotland are out to drive me fucking mad.”
I dropped the dog off with Willie and went back inside to face the wrath of Mrs. Fraser.
“I hear yer husband will be home soon,” said Geillis Duncan, interrupting my examination of her husband. It was my last house call of the day, thank goodness. My ankle was terribly swollen and my body weary with fatigue.
“Is that so?”
“Aye. I heard it from Lady MacKenzie just this morning. Did Dougal no’ tell ye?”
“No. He did not. Does it hurt when I push here?” I asked Arthur.
“No. Not there.”
“How about here?”
“Ahhh! Oh, dear God!” He jumped up from the table and ran out to the other room where a chamber pot was conveniently located.
If my ankle was any better, I might have followed him to check if he was all right. His wife, on the other hand, didn’t seem remotely concerned.
“His letter must have gotten lost in the castle,” she said.
“No, silly. Dougal’s. The one informing ye he’d be home in a few days’ time.”
“Perhaps.” I doubted he thought to send me notice.
“So, what was it he was doing, gone for so long?” she pried.
“I’m surprised you even noticed he was gone, being that you’re so busy here in Cranesmuir with your own husband.”
“Oh, aye. But Dougal is a man of so great importance that all notice his absence.”
She was right about that. My life was far more peaceful without him.
Geillis pressed on. “Was he away on business for Colum? Or was it a more personal errand?”
“I’m sure I don’t know. He wouldn’t entrust his wife with information regarding either of those things, now would he?”
Geillis smirked at me with a cool condescension, as though she knew more about my husband than I did. The truth was that I knew more than I’d let on to the biggest gossip in Cranesmuir. I didn’t keep quiet for the sake of my husband. Quite the contrary. I just didn’t want to be sucked into the messy politics of the doomed Jacobite rebellion.
Dougal had gone to England to meet privately with the Duke of Sandringham—a potential ally in the upcoming rebellion. I recalled Frank’s conversation with the reverend shortly before I came through the stones, speculating that the duke was a Jacobite. I also remembered his connection to Black Jack Randall, the frightening bastard who attacked me the moment we met…the man responsible for the scars on Jamie Fraser’s back.
No. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
Geillis was not of the same mind, constantly asking about my husband, taunting me with snippets of information meant to ruffle my feathers.
“I hope Arthur is all right,” I said, returning to the purpose of my visit.
“D’ye ken what’s wrong wi’ him?”
“I can’t quite pinpoint the source of the problem, but I’ll write some receipts for teas and a list of meals that might aid in alleviating his gastrointestinal distress.”
“I’m sure he’ll be grateful.”
Geillis gave me a bit of parchment and a quill, and I started scribbling down instructions.
“Are ye sure I canna tempt ye into a spot of tea or glass of wine before ye leave?”
“I’m afraid not.” I looked out the window at the rain pouring down. The clouds had darkened the skies prematurely, and I was already worried about getting home safely. If Willie wasn’t waiting outside to escort me back, I might have considered staying the night at the inn.
I hoped Willie was keeping Bennet dry.
I stayed just long enough to finish my examination on the fiscal, refusing Geillis’s insistent hospitality all the while. It was a relief to step into the rain and out of the Duncans’ stuffy home.
“Bennet! What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?!”
My wee lad barked at the sound of my voice and came rushing toward me. He was soaking wet and caked in mud.
Willie was grinning at the little heathen. It was hard to watch his joy in exploring the world without delight overtaking one’s heart.
“Come here, you little wretch.” I gathered him in my arms and wrapped him up in a spare bandage, not wanting to ruin my dress with mud. I stuffed the precious bundle in my cloak and had Willie assist me in mounting my horse.
Bennet writhed and wriggled until I opened my top button to let his head pop out. He licked my chin, still and cozy in my embrace, but no longer worried he might miss some bit of excitement along the way.
All was for naught when five minutes into our ride, he was fast asleep. I had to slow down to tuck him in and shield his sleeping face from the rain.
“Mistress MacKenzie!” yelled Willie from behind. “We’ll go straight to the cottage!”
Thank God. Dougal wouldn’t let me keep a horse at the cottage, fearful I’d ride off on it in the middle of the night without him knowing. I had expected Willie to force me to ride to the castle stables, then walk home on my bad ankle.
I’d never been more grateful for a Scottish downpour.
When we arrived at my door, I invited him in to warm up and have a bite to eat, but he insisted on taking the horses back to the stables to be properly cared for. My initial surprise at him leaving me alone faded quickly when I looked at the massive puddles of water and mud that covered the ground. There was no way I was going anywhere in my condition.
The first thing I did was start a fire and set a pot of water to boil. Then, I forced a sleepy Bennet outside to empty his overactive bladder. As tired as he was, he showed no inclination to leave the warmth of my side, and only whined at the doorstep, leaning heavily against my leg.
“Oh, all right.” I granted him a temporary reprieve. After whipping up a quick supper, enough for me, Bennet, and Willie, I washed out all the mud stuck in the dog’s fur.
Comfortably attired in my shift and wrapped in a shawl for warmth, I sat by the fire with Bennett in my lap and bestowed all the affection and cuddles a dozing puppy required. It was no hardship to run my fingers through his soft, clean cinnamon hair. The firelight glittered off highlights of copper and bronze, except his nearly bald belly, round and bulging from an overindulgence on fresh stew.
Not a terrible way to spend an evening.
A flash of lightning lit the windows, and I counted the seconds for the thunder to follow. One…two…three…fo—
Bennet jumped awake with the frightening sound, whimpering and nuzzling close.
“It’s all right, sweet thing. It’s all right.”
But he wasn’t having it. His ears perked up as well as they might, given their floppiness, and he listened intently to the storm. Out of nowhere, he began barking like mad and jumped off my lap, racing clumsily to the door.
“What is it?”
He was scratching the frame like mad, and I thought he might have to urgently relieve himself, but I was also afraid that he might get spooked by more lightning and run off only to drown in a large puddle.
“I suppose potty training is not for the faint of heart.” I hobbled to the door and let him out. He bolted deep into the dark meadow faster than I’d ever seen him run before.
“Bennet!” I pulled my shawl tight around my shoulders and stepped outside. “Bennet!”
Could he hear me over the sound of the rain? It was so dark; I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me.
Lightning struck, flashing a bright light across the meadow. A large, dark figure stood not fifty feet away, covered in MacKenzie plaid. I jumped back, knowing the man was far too big to be Willie.
It was Bennet’s excited bark from near the figure that calmed my nerves. From out of the darkness, the man loomed closer, and I could see he was holding my puppy in his large hands.
“Mr. Fraser? What are you doing here?”
“I was at the stables when Willie arrived. I sent him off to supper and told him I’d watch ye for the night.” He closed the distance between us, grabbing my elbow and steering me inside. “D’ye have a towel?”
“For the dog.”
“Oh.” Bennet was once again soaked to the bone. I retrieved the towel I had hung up by the fire after drying him off earlier and handed it to Jamie. He proceeded to rub it all over the puppy who delighted in the attention.
It was bizarre to see Jamie’s kindness toward Bennet after watching how unpleasant he was to his pregnant wife.
“Are you hungry?” I asked out of politeness. If he was going to be staying for any length of time, I figured I should make attempts at civility.
“No. I just had supper.”
“I thought you said you met Willie at the stables? Surely you didn’t return to work after supper?”
“Mmphm.” He only shrugged. I doubted he ate anything at all.
“And come to think of it, you worked all day today, and Laoghaire told me you were out on guard duty last night, probably having worked the entire day before, as well. Why the bloody hell are you here again?”
“Because Dougal’s men are mostly gone, and ye canna be left on yer own.”
“I’m hardly going to escape from his custody in weather like this. Especially now that you’ve saddled me with a damn baby to take care of.”
“Ye think I care if ye run away from yer husband?” he snorted.
“You’re here, aren’t you? Again!”
“Christ, woman, ye’re the war chief’s wife! Ye’re wanted by the English, and the Black Watch would love to get their hands on ye. Then there are everyday miscreants. Did’ye ever stop to think what kind of ransom ye’d be worth if ye were held by a rival clan?”
My heart thudded wildly at the thought of all the dangers lurking around every corner. The truth was that I’d become complacent. Life was peaceful at my cottage, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the castle. I spent my time caring for patients, foraging in the wilderness, bathing in natural springs, and tending to the most adorable puppy there ever was. Yes, I missed Frank and motorized vehicles and hot baths, but life hadn’t been too terrible once Dougal began leaving me alone.
I hung my head in shame for losing my drive to get home.
“Mmphm,” Jamie grunted in approval, misinterpreting my solemn mood.
“Still,” I challenged, “you’ve hardly slept in the last forty-eight hours. Aren’t you exhausted?”
“I’ve rested here and there.”
“Is the valerian root not working?”
“It works fine, when I take it.”
“Then why aren’t you taking it regularly?”
“Because if I’m asleep, I canna keep watch o’er you!”
I was startled by the vehemence in his tone. “Why would you want to? You don’t even like me.”
He only grunted and shook his head, keeping his attention on Bennet.
Craving space and time to think, I hobbled to the pantry to retrieve Willie’s plate of food. I set it on the table and gestured for Jamie to sit down. He did as I asked, setting Bennet on the floor before digging into his supper.
With Jamie present, I was all but forgotten by the little shit. Their wet hair was precisely the same color, and they looked like two peas in a pod. Though Jamie ignored me throughout the meal, he periodically bent down and told Benet to sit, pushing his little bum to the floor, then rewarding him with a small bit of meat. The dog had learned to sit on command in the space of fifteen minutes.
“You’re teaching him in English?” I asked. Every time I’d seen him speak to an animal, it was always in Gaelic. They seemed drawn to the language.
“His mistress is a sassenach.” He spoke as if it was a curse. “I dinna want to confuse him.”
I huffed in annoyance, tired of trying so hard to be nice to someone who was dead set against reciprocating. I moved to my seat back at the fireplace, intent on not speaking with him again, knowing he would just take anything I said and hurtle it back at me as an insult.
Jamie finished his supper and gave the last few bites to Bennet. “Thank ye for the meal,” he said with a bow, before turning for the door.
“You’re going back out there?”
“It’s pouring down rain. You’ll freeze!”
He shrugged as if it didn’t matter.
“Why not just stay where it’s warm? This storm is showing no sign of letting up. It’ll be unbearable out there in a few hours—”
“Mistress MacKenzie,” he interrupted, speaking through gritted teeth, “if ye think standing out in the freezing rain in the middle of a Scottish night is any less miserable than spending hours alone with you, ye’re sadly mistaken.”
“What the bloody hell have I done to deserve your ire? I’ve been nothing but kind to you! Caring for your pregnant wife, feeding you, generally staying out of your miserable way!”
He shook his head and moved to the door. I grabbed him by the arm and stopped him just before he slipped out.
“Tell me! Why the hell are you so awful to me?”
“Because ye exist!” he yelled back, making Bennet whimper and cower.
“Well, there’s little I can do about that! You, on the other hand, could leave me the hell alone to whatever dangerous fate awaits me! Yet, here you are, insisting on keeping me alive!”
He towered over me, shaking with rage, clinging to whatever shred of self-control he had left. I was a fool to provoke him, but his hostility was driving me fucking mad.
“Would it kill you to show me some degree of kindness?”
“I havena slept in three days,” he said softly, his quiet voice no less dangerous than his yelling. “It’s all the kindness I can bear to give.”
He turned and stepped toward the door. Bennet jumped forward, trying to go with him.
“Stop!” Jamie commanded, pointing at him. “Sit!”
Bennet complied without thinking.
“Guard yer mistress,” he said in Gaelic, then slammed the door on his way out.
I dreamed of dark figures standing in the rain, watching me sleep. Bennet growled ferociously to keep them at bay. He was fully grown, vicious, hackles raised and fury in his eyes. He barked and charged at them, but still, they remained.
I woke in a fright to find Dougal holding a little yapping Bennet up by the scruff.
“Give him here,” I said, reaching for my little darling, still feeling out of sorts.
Dougal dropped him in my hands and sat on the foot of the bed without saying a word about the dog.
“Welcome home. Did you have a nice trip?”
“Mmphm. We’ll see. Sandringham wants proof of the funds we’ve raised, and he wants a look at our forces before he commits.”
“Sounds reasonable. You don’t trust a word that comes out of his mouth, do you? He might sell you out to the English rather than contribute to your cause.”
“He might do both to win friends on either side.”
“Aye.” He stretched out, old bones sore from long days of hard travel. He was filthy, and I was more than a little annoyed he chose to bring that filth to my bed.
“Did you just get in this morning?”
“And you didn’t change? You stink.”
“Mmphm.” He stood up and began disrobing, tossing his dirty clothes at me on the bed. “Wash these for me, will ye?”
Bennet’s nose was buried in the stinky kilt, sniffing at a particularly crusty stain. Dougal dipped a rag into a cold pot of water and began wiping himself down.
I gathered his clothes and moved to put them in a basket. A particular scent wafted up to my nose in the process. I threw the clothes on the floor and turned to my husband. “You couldn’t ask your mistress to clean up her own mess after you were done with her? You had to bring it back here for me?”
“She’s already taken on plenty of yer wifely duties, lass. It would be unkind to give—” He stopped mid-sentence as Bennet leapt down from the bed and began squatting on Dougal’s discarded kilt. “Go on!” Dougal stomped hard on the floor to scare him away.
Bennet was not to be frightened off by a silly old war chief. He bit at Dougal’s ankles, yapping furiously. Dougal snatched him up by the scruff once again and gave him a more thorough inspection than the last time. “He’s got nerve, does he no’?”
It was my first time seeing the otherwise amiable puppy get angry. “I didn’t know he had it in him.”
“He’ll make a decent guard in a few months. Mebbe help wi’ the hunting. Where did’ye get him?”
“Your nephew brought him by. Perhaps he’s hoping the dog can take over guard duty and free him up in the evenings.”
“Jamie brought him?”
I nodded confirmation. Dougal handed Bennet over, and I brought him to the door so he could relieve himself before peeing on anything else I’d just have to clean up later.
“Mebbe he did so as payment for you caring for his wife and that wean?” said Dougal, still contemplating his nephew’s motivation.
“Perhaps.” I highly doubted Jamie valued my work at all, but rather than complain to Dougal about his taciturn relations, I changed the subject. “So, when is the duke coming for his inspection? Soon?”
“I’ve pushed him back until we collect the rents.” He fished out fresh clothes from his trunk and donned a clean shirt.
“Are you trying to raise more money before he arrives?”
“Aye.” He began the process of pleating his kilt. “I’ll need ye to play the part of my wife for the visit. Entertain him. Keep his glass full. Talk about whatever it is you sassenachs find amusing.”
I sighed heavily, not looking forward to playing politics.
“Dinna muck this up for me, lass,” he warned.
“I have no interest in mucking anything up. I’ll do what I must, so long as you stick to our agreement.”
“The agreement stands.”
“Good. Then be more discrete. Don’t come here smelling of your mistress again, or I’ll burn your soiled clothes for the whole castle to see.”
“Ye’re no’ jealous, are ye?”
“Hardly. But if you want a wife with credibility, then you better not make me appear the fool. Stick your cock in half the bloody castle, for all I care. Just don’t make me the butt of their jokes.”
Dougal chuckled as he belted on his kilt. I bent down to pick up Bennet who had finished his business, worried that if he attacked Dougal a third time, he might actually get crushed under a boot.
“Come out to the horse wi’ me, will ye? I’ve got my nice shirt and kilt stowed in the saddlebags. They’ll need a wash, as well, before the gathering.”
I groaned at the thought of attending a large event as Dougal’s wife. All the toasts and well-wishes for us newlyweds were sure to make my stomach turn, and I didn’t have any desire to see Dougal swear our fealty to Colum. I was already forcibly bound to one MacKenzie brother; I hardly wanted ties to another.
“Buck up, lass.” He smacked my bum, directing me out the door. “Ye’ve a few weeks to prepare.”
A few weeks to prepare.
A few weeks.
I hadn’t expected to spend a few days in the eighteenth century, much less a few weeks or months or years.
I stood there holding my husband’s laundry as he rode off to the castle with Bennet barking and chasing him away. Rupert sat in the shade of a distant tree, keeping an eye on things, ensuring no one got in or out of the meadow without Dougal’s consent.
How did I allow myself to stay so long? Because it was easy? Because I was fearful of the risk? I needed to make greater efforts to leave this godforsaken place and get back to Frank, regardless of the consequences.
It took two whole weeks to get the fucking laundry done. Perhaps my procrastination was a bit of passive-aggressive rebellion, or maybe I just hated doing laundry.
The time wasn’t idly spent. I used the excuse of foraging for medicinal plants to explore paths of escape, taking detailed notes of trails, advising my guards that I was just marking the spot to resupply on my next trip into the wilderness.
Bennet was made for the Highlands. He splashed in creeks, chased rabbits, and ran wild to his heart’s content. He was growing like a weed and thrived on our exploratory outings.
He frequently made solo trips outdoors to visit my guards, sniffing them out to see if they’d offer a scratch behind the ears or a bite to eat. I thought, perhaps, he was hoping to see Jamie. Bennet’s favorite Highlander hadn’t been back to guard me since Dougal and his men returned home.
“Bennet, my love, are you ready for a walk?” I asked, as though he had to put on his shoes or plait his hair. He jumped in circles and barked excitedly on his way to the door. I placed the last of Dougal’s clean clothes in my basket, and we set off down the familiar trail.
Bennet bolted around the perimeter of the house, looking for any sign of a guard. Finding no one, he ran to the edge of the forest, sniffing around. He returned to me, unsuccessful, but no less excited for our adventure and only occasionally distracted by the search of large sticks he could barely lift off the ground.
Dogs were not typically permitted inside the castle, but no guard was about to question the war chief’s wife about such a trivial matter.
I intentionally made the trip during suppertime, hoping to avoid Dougal while he was eating. I climbed the stairs to “our” room that I’d slept in a grand total of three times throughout our marriage. It was blessedly empty, so I moved quickly to hang up his clothes in the wardrobe.
Bennet sniffed around the room, growling in recognition of the occupant. I shuddered to think what scents a hound could discover in the private boudoir of Dougal MacKenzie. Before I left, I tidied up a little—hanging discarded stockings by the window to air out, placing his shoes by the door, and picking up stray bits of parchment off the floor.
It looked as though Dougal had left for supper in the middle of writing a letter. It was in code, of course—the key had also been left out in the open on his desk. Being that he also left out a ledger documenting resources, funds, and the number of soldiers the MacKenzies would commit to the rebellion, I assumed he was communicating sensitive information to the duke.
I ignored it all and moved on, wanting to be long gone before supper was over.
Bennet was of the same mind. He suddenly bolted out the door, barking his way down the hall.
“Bennet!” I followed him out, grabbing my basket and locking the door behind me. He raced down two flights of stairs, moving out of my line of sight quickly. Blessedly, he was so bloody noisy, he wasn’t difficult to find.
It was hardly a shock to see what had gotten him so excited. On the third floor, I found him lying on his back, enjoying an excellent belly rub from the man he considered his best friend. My heart jumped at seeing Jamie, as it always did, fearful of whatever unpleasantness he’d bring to this encounter.
He was too busy talking to Bennet in Gaelic to acknowledge my existence. “You’re growing into a fine young man. As strong as an ox, you’ll be. You’ve more than doubled in size. Are you taking care of your mistress? Not letting the bad men near, are you? That’s a good lad. I’ll have to visit more often. I can’t have you forgetting me, now can I?”
It was so goddamn endearing to watch them together. If only Jamie wasn’t such an arsehole to the rest of humanity, my heart may have even warmed. As it was, I was still tender about his parting words to me the last time we met.
“You look rested,” I said, trying to push my resentment aside. The bags under his eyes had cleared, and his complexion was glowing in the candlelight.
“Aye. Now that Dougal and his men have returned, there’s been no need to…” he trailed off.
“To watch me,” I finished for him.
Jamie looked toward the stairs. “Who’s looking after ye now? Willie? I saw Rupert and Angus down at supper.”
“No one that I know of. Bennet couldn’t find anyone when we left.”
He stopped petting Bennet and stood up. “No one is guarding ye?”
I stepped back, worried the news might trigger his unpredictable temper.
“I’ll speak wi’ Dougal about it tomorrow,” he grumbled.
“There’s no need. Really.” It would be a lot easier to escape without someone lingering around. I bent down and scratched Bennet behind the ears. “I have my great protector here. He can sniff a stranger out from a mile away, and he’s getting stronger by the day. I think he’ll be fully grown in a few more months.”
“He comes from large stock. He’ll be fully grown when he’s a year old. And his strength will only grow from there.” Jamie looked down at the dog, and I could swear his mouth almost twitched up into a smile. I didn’t believe him capable of an actual smile, but his eyes were certainly softer than I’d ever seen them. Perhaps sleep was doing him good.
I decided to press my luck and attempt to ease hostilities between us. “I’m not sure I properly thanked you for him. He’s an absolute sweetheart and such a clever thing—even if he does chew on my shoes. I’m quite taken with him.”
The right side of Jamie’s mouth visibly curved, though he kept his eyes on the dog and away from me. The impact that little smile had on easing the knots in my belly was more than ridiculous. No one’s reluctant happiness should matter so much to me, especially not an overgrown pain in the arse like James Fraser.
Yet, for some reason, it did.
He bent down and gave Bennet a few firm pats on his haunches and talked to him in Gaelic again. “You’ve gone and made her fall in love wi’ you, lad. Good for you. Few can boast the affections of one so pretty.”
It was a good thing Jamie refused to look at me, because if he had turned his head up, he would have seen me blushing to my ears. I forced my breath to stay steady, trying not to give away my understanding of his words. He was speaking for the dog’s sake, not mine. It was hardly a compliment when he was just placating a puppy.
I racked my brain, searching for more pleasantries to prolong the friendliest conversation of our acquaintance, but I came up empty. I couldn’t say anything of substance without the possibility of enraging him. Not of Laoghaire or the baby—who I was due to check up on shortly after the gathering. Not of Dougal. And I most definitely couldn’t question him about the source of his hatred for me.
The only safe topic of conversation between us seemed to be Bennet…so long as we didn’t discuss the Englishness of his name.
Jamie crouched low, checking Bennet’s progress in remembering how to sit. He rewarded the dog’s success with a piece of dried meat from his sporran.
“He can do a lot more than that now, you know,” I boasted, then proceeded to demonstrate Bennet’s development of several new skills: laying down, rolling over, and shaking hands.
Jamie snorted at the handshake. “If ye’re training him wi’ courtly manners, Sassenach, I should think ye’d teach him to bow in greeting, no’ shove his paws in someone’s hands.” Despite his words, Jamie’s pride was apparent by the rewards of food and attention he lavished upon him.
I felt a flutter in my heart at the attachment between the two, making me all the more confused at Jamie's horrid behavior toward me and his wife. Jamie with Bennet seemed an entirely different person than Jamie with anyone else.
I fought an impulse to run my hands through Jamie’s setter-red hair and reward his good behavior with treats and attention. He might actually try to murder me for something like that.
“Perhaps you can teach him a formal bow,” I laughed, “otherwise he might give a curtsy to the Duke of Sandringham when he comes to visit in a few months.”
“Sandringham?” Jamie’s head snapped up. “He’ll be here? At Leoch?”
“I think so.”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” I lied. “Meeting with Colum and Dougal for something or other.”
Jamie’s eyes were bright with possibilities, his thoughts racing a thousand miles an hour.
“Do you know the duke?” I asked.
“I’ve met him before. D’ye think…” he cut himself off.
“Never mind. ’Tis nothing.”
He shook his head.
“No, really. Is there something I can do for you? I’d love to pay you back for Bennet.” And more importantly, I wanted to make him happy instead of angry, as foolish and masochistic as those efforts were.
“I was only thinking that the duke might be in a position to—”
Bennet interrupted us with a dangerous growl and raised hackles. Jamie and I both snapped our heads around to see what set him off. A rumbling laugh and a foolish giggle came from the direction of the stairs.
Recognizing both voices immediately, I stepped back into an alcove to hide myself from view. Jamie followed and snapped his fingers for Bennet to do the same. Bennet didn’t lower his hackles, but he seemed to understand the need for silence.
I peer out of the alcove just in time to watch Dougal and Geillis Duncan walk arm in arm up the stairs and in the direction of his bedchamber. Geillis’s false interest in friendship with me suddenly made a world of sense.
Rage began building in my belly. I was hardly upset about their little tryst, but I was more than furious that I’d taken the time to clean up the room only to have them go fuck in it moments later.
As soon as they were well on their way, their footsteps and laughter faded away, I sank back against the wall, exhaling in frustrated embarrassment.
Jamie stepped forward, fists clenched, as though he was about to go defend my honor.
“Don’t,” I said, placing my hand on his arm. “It’s not necessary.”
“Really. It’s not. I’d prefer it this way.”
He looked at me with disgust. “No woman should have to see her husband wi’ another lass, no matter how strained their marriage.”
“It’s better than him coming to my bed to find his pleasure, which you know he’d feel entitled to do if I didn’t allow him another outlet.”
Jamie just cringed and shook his head, revulsion emanating from him in waves. When his eyes returned to mine, they were full of pity.
“Don’t do that,” I pleaded. “Don’t pity me.”
“No. I can handle your anger. I can even handle your dislike,” for the most part, “but not your pity. I will not be pitied for this.”
“I dinna pity ye, Claire. I—”
“Yes. You do.” It was clear as day, and I hated the shame it caused me. I just shook my head and stormed off toward the same staircase my husband and his mistress just ascended. Bennet whimpered at having to leave Jamie, but I could hear the quiet clicking of his paws on the stone floor following behind.
I'll likely put up chapter 4 up tonight or tomorrow morning. It's almost done and was initially meant to be a larger chapter 3, but I decided to split it in half. It picks up right on the heels of this encounter.
*** update *** It’s 1am and I’m sleepy. Chapter 4 just needs a wee bit of editing (which I’ll have the capacity for in the morning), and I’ll post it then.
Chapter 4: Shameless
There have been 2 updates in the last 12 hours, so make sure you didn't skip chapter 3.
It was still fairly early when I left the castle, and Scottish summers carried long light. With hours left in the day, I walked down to the spring in an attempt to wash off the feeling of shame that lingered since leaving Jamie and his judgmental gaze behind.
I was disgusted with myself for letting him get to me so badly. What the bloody hell was it about him that made his opinion of me matter so goddamn much?
It was a relief to be alone in the forest—no guards within sight, no obnoxious spouses or pernicious mistresses, no irascible Scots. I was in a quiet, beautiful place that was just what I needed to calm myself down.
The water in the spring was refreshing, and my body was in desperate need of a good scrub. My hair had become almost unmanageable in the eighteenth century, but there was something so freeing about just throwing it up in a few pins and not having to do much else to it. I washed it thoroughly, knowing I’d look like a dandelion puff when it dried, at least until I could apply some almond oil to tame it down.
Bennet sniffed the surrounding trees, no doubt searching for wildlife to chase around—he finally caught a rabbit the other day and now fancied himself a hunter. He typically stuck close by, not liking to have me out of his sights for long.
I had forgotten to inform Jamie of Bennet’s first hunting milestone. No doubt that would’ve earned the wee lad all the more attention and praise—as if Jamie needed a reason to give it to him.
I found myself wishing the Scot was half as generous in bestowing kindness on me as he was with Bennet.
Why did it bother me so much that he hated me? Maybe it was because I didn’t understand the reasoning for it.
Then again, I’d had people irrationally hate me before, yet I didn’t turn a hair. If Jamie so much as scoffed in my direction, I was crawling out of my skin.
Perhaps it was that he did show me a rare bit of kindness, like guarding me to his own detriment and gifting me Bennet for protection. Those actions were entirely incongruent with his general disgust and hatred of my existence.
The fact of the matter was that his kindness was even more disarming than his insults. His stupid little comment about me being pretty had far too potent an effect on me for my own good. I prided myself on being less vain than most, but those ridiculous words I was never meant to hear went straight to my head.
“Hmphm,” I grunted my own frustrated Scottish noise and stepped out of the spring.
As I dried myself off, I could hear Bennet barking excitedly just out of sight, and I wondered if he caught his second rabbit. He quieted down quickly, no doubt chowing down, and I shuddered at the thought of having to wash blood off his beautiful fur yet again.
Before getting dressed, I sat down on a large rock that was warmed by a small bit of sunlight filtering through the trees. I laid down, trying to absorb as much vitamin D directly into my skin as I could before the clouds returned.
I found it harder to relax than usual, thoughts still on that insufferable Scot. I did find it amusing that watching my husband sneak off with the fiscal’s wife hardly dampened my mood at all, but James Fraser saying that I was pretty while simultaneously looking at me with revulsion grated on my nerves to no end.
What is it about him?
If I was being honest with myself, I’d have to admit it could very well be that he was handsome—more so than any other man I’d met in Scotland. Maybe I was more ridiculous and superficial than I thought.
No, I told myself, James Fraser is more than handsome. He’s clever and educated. He’s protective. He’s bloody wonderful with Bennet…and the horses. Not so much with people.
A memory flashed in my mind of seeing him in his home without a shirt, his washboard stomach on full display. Dougal’s clothes wouldn’t be so miserable to wash if I was scrubbing them on Jamie’s abdomen.
“Ugh.” Maybe I was shallower than I thought. Or sexually repressed.
It had been months since I was intimate with a man, and even longer since one had given me an orgasm. My own fingers were a substandard substitution for decent intercourse, but until I returned home to Frank, they were all I had.
Yet, it wasn’t Frank on my mind when my hands moved down to my breasts to tease my nipples. Nor was it Frank when I slid my fingers between my thighs in search of slick heat and sensual pleasure.
Red hair and blue eyes filled my imagination as I dipped my fingers inside to gather arousal. Soft rumblings of French and Gaelic echoed in my mind, and the manly scent of sweat and hay filled my nose.
My thoughts were illicit, heady, and intoxicating. He was my husband’s nephew, for God’s sake, in addition to being a terrible person. Though he wasn’t the first ever unwitting acquaintance my imagination had used to enhance my arousal—commanding officers in the military, Frank’s colleagues at work, and even the milkman on occasion. They were just harmless fantasies meant for my pleasure and were discarded immediately after orgasm.
I felt no shame in using Jamie this way…at least he’d be good for something beyond dog training.
Yet, as I tried to call the rest of Jamie’s body to mind, I was unable to think of exactly what he looked like beyond red hair and a muscular chest. I’d spent so much time trying to avoid his hateful gaze, that I rarely looked directly at him. I seemed to be watching him all the time, but rarely seeing him.
I knew his hair to be the color of Bennet’s, and his eyes, a shocking blue—said to be from his Fraser side—but I struggled with recalling his bone structure or facial features. I knew his hands had to be large, but I didn’t remember the shapes of his fingers. His legs were long, but I couldn’t recall if they were soft or hairy, or if his knees were dirty or clean.
Refusing to let frustration get the better of me, I focused my thoughts on what I could remember, like the ease in which he lifted me up and carried me away. The warmth of his body. The rumbling, soothing sound of his voice.
I thought of him seeing me in my wet shift, nothing hiding my breasts from his gaze. I thought of what it might be like to have him stumble upon me in this very spot, and instead of injure me like the last time, have him take me, shove himself inside me and fuck me until his uncle could hear my screams from a mile away.
I fingered myself to completion, unable to stop from calling out, though I had no idea what I said. My sun-warmed body basked in the glow of light and pleasure as I touched myself until long after climax faded.
After washing up a second time, I dried off and dressed with little daylight left to spare. Bennet returned to me as soon as it was time to walk home.
I felt relaxed in a way I hadn’t for some months. Things were starting to come together. I had a viable plan in place to leave the castle very soon, and I had rubbed my frustration at James Fraser spectacularly out of my system.
It had been a damn good orgasm. Powerful. A part of me wondered if the magic of the fairy pool had anything to do with it.
As we made our way back through the meadow, Bennet left my side once more to run toward the tree line near the cottage. I saw a dark figure there, sitting in the shade and twirling a dirk in his hand. A guard, no doubt, though it was difficult to see which one in the fading light.
I shivered, wearing nothing but my shift and went straight to the shelter of my cottage. I wrapped myself in a shawl and started a fire for warmth and light.
When Bennet didn’t return right away, I peered out the window to check on him. The guard had taken him into the open meadow and began launching a large stick for him to retrieve.
It was James fucking Fraser, no doubt taking it upon himself to guard me if Dougal’s men weren’t doing a sufficient job.
My face flushed with heat on the heels of what I’d just done at the spring. I sank down on my bed, completely mortified, hiding my face in my hands. No longer in the heat of the moment, all my sexual bravado was completely gone.
What if he could sense what I’d done? What if he could read it in my expression?
“Get a hold of yourself, Beauchamp!” I demanded. “He’s not a mind reader, and you’ve had worse thoughts about acquaintances before, and you faced them with no problem.”
I forced myself to stand up and return to the window. I watched Jamie throw the stick over and over, his own youthful energy a good match for little Bennet. There was much to be said for stamina.
I had to admit, Jamie’s long limbs and firm muscles were pleasant to watch. I remembered my frustration at the creek, unable to recall specific details of his appearance, and a compulsion began growing inside me to inspect him more thoroughly before the daylight was completely gone. What if I wanted to use his image again the next time I needed a release?
I gathered fruit, cheese, and bannocks into a small basket to take out to him, trying to keep my expectations low for this interaction. I was only there to get a look at him; he’d made it perfectly clear he’d rather not share the same air as me for too long, and I had no intention of hearing more harsh words that might affect the pleasure of his appearance.
I blushed in shame once again, wishing I could display a little more self-respect. The man hated me, but my body was now foolishly aroused by his presence. I would use whatever images I wanted for my pleasure, while ignoring any malice lobbed in my direction.
The boundaries were clear, and my feelings would not be hurt.
“Mistress MacKenzie,” he bowed his head as I came closer, refusing to look directly at me.
Bennet ran up to me to show off the most excellent stick Jamie gave him.
“Very impressive, young man,” I said, scratching under his chin. He raced back to Jamie when he came to the conclusion I had no intention of throwing it for him.
I waited for Jamie to launch it out into the meadow before coming closer. “Here.” I handed him the basket. “I’m sorry for storming out on you earlier. I was just in no mood for company.”
Jamie nodded politely, but otherwise didn’t respond. He set the basket down on the ground and turned his attention back to Bennet, who was already retrieving the stick.
I felt myself deflate a little despite my earlier assurances to myself that his response wouldn’t matter. Two seconds into this meeting and he was already having that strange effect on me yet again.
The little fit I threw at the castle seemed to bring us right back to where we were before. And he was guarding me overnight again, which meant he’d lose sleep and be all the more irritable come morning.
I was suddenly no longer in the mood to glimpse the line of his jaw nor the curve of his cheek.
I bowed my head for a polite goodbye, though he was more concerned about throwing Bennet’s stick than whatever it was I was doing. “Have a good evening, Mr. Fraser. I hope you get some rest in the morning.”
Just as I turned to go, he asked a question, stopping me in my tracks. “Where did ye get his name?”
“Bennet. I kent ye said ye gave it to him so he might learn some manners, but where did it come from?”
“It’s from an old book. A favorite of mine.”
“What’s it called?”
“Pride and Prejudice. Bennet was the main character’s surname.”
“I’ve ne’er heard of it.”
“I expect you wouldn’t. It’s only known where I come from.”
I nodded and smiled to myself. “Yes.”
“I’m fond of books,” he said, dusting Bennet’s paw prints off his kilt. “Though I havena read much of anything in some time.”
“Do you have many books at Broch Tuarach?”
His eyebrows were the same color as his hair, and they disappeared up in the curls that hung down over his forehead. He seemed surprised I knew the name of his home. “Aye. My father had a large collection in his library. I…I suppose it’s mine now.”
But he couldn’t touch them. He couldn’t return home with a price on his head, endangering not only himself, but his family.
“Mebbe one day…” he said, pushing his curls out of his eyes, “...mebbe ye could tell me the story of Mr. Bennet. Of his pride and his prejudice.”
I had to bite my lip to stop me from smiling too broadly. “It’s Miss Bennet, actually.”
“And she displayed fine manners? That’s why ye named the dog for her?”
“Well, she inspired a proud and foolish man to make himself better. I hoped her name would do the same for the dog.”
“Is it working?”
I looked at Bennet, dragging his big stick through the mud, looking more like a giddy little Bingley than a Darcy or Lizzie. “Not at all.”
Jamie laughed—he actually laughed. I looked up to observe the way his humor lit his eyes, and the sight was breathtaking. He was nothing short of beautiful.
He had a strong jaw and sharp cheekbones, with days of scruff peppering his face. A little scar on his cheek that I’d never noticed before was dancing with laughter.
“I suppose he’s still wee. Gi’ him time.”
“He may never be a gentleman, but I’m fond of him all the same.”
Jamie smiled down at the little heathen who was occupying himself with chewing on his stick. I observed the Scot for a good long time, taking pleasure in the sight of his lightness of spirit, however short-lived it would be. I enjoyed it so much that I was taken quite off guard when he spoke again, changing the tone of our conversation quite drastically.
“I am sorry, Claire,” he whispered, voice full of regret.
“Dougal. That ye had to see him…wi’ her.”
I huffed a laugh. So that was why he was being nice to me—he was feeling sorry for me.
“It’s fine, Jamie. Really. I’m unbothered. Unaffected.”
He turned to look at me, head on, eyes searching for the truth. “Ye dinna seem indifferent.”
I could hardly tell him he was the cause of any distress I’d suffered and still maintain this newfound amiability, so I just shrugged and reassured him the best I could. “I do not love him, nor do I crave his affection. I’m happy here…alone in my cottage…just Bennet and me.”
“I can see ye care not for yer husband, but ye dinna seem happy to me.” He lifted a finger as though he was about to trace the lines around my eyes. I closed them, waiting for his touch on my skin…but he seemed to think better of it, and dropped his hand. “Ye’d best be on yer way, Mistress,” his voice soft but formal once again. “It’s getting dark now, and ye’ll catch a chill out here, wearing naught but yer shift.”
I couldn’t help my sigh of disappointment. I looked up at him one last time, committing his beautiful face to memory, then turned to go inside.
“Go on. Guard your mistress,” he commanded Bennet, and the dog immediately complied.
With Bennet and I safely back in the cottage, Jamie took his perch up once again beneath the tree, out of sight of passersby. I thought to myself as I readied us for bed that I was a long way from getting James Fraser out of my system, but at least I now had a glimpse of his smile to occupy that space in my mind.
Chapter 5: Hope
All of my guards were too drunk to know their arses from their armpits, not that anyone seemed all that keen on watching me lately anyway. No one except Jamie Fraser. At the moment, even Jamie was nowhere to be found, keeping his distance from the gathering so he didn’t have to pledge fealty to the MacKenzie.
I’d asked him to watch Bennet for me, taking comfort in the fact that if I did make it to the stones, the little one would have a home with someone who adored him. Of course, Jamie expected me to come pick Bennet up in the morning. I tried not to wonder too much what he’d think when I didn’t arrive as planned.
His wife was at the gathering, largely pregnant and drinking whisky like it was water, laughing with her young, silly friends. Apparently, she felt well enough to be off bedrest for large events.
I pretended to sip a glass of rhenish as I watched the festivities unfold, waiting for my moment to slip away and head down to the stables.
“Did ye find some books to suit yer fancy, good sister?” asked Leticia MacKenzie.
“I did. Thank you for being kind enough to grant me access to the laird’s library.” I’d taken copies of Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, and the Iliad for Jamie to read in payment for him watching Bennet. I’d learned from Leoch’s tutor that he had taught Jamie in his youth and the young man would be able to read all the books in their original languages—he was constantly full of surprises.
Butterflies tickled my insides at the thought of Jamie, and I had to acknowledge I’d developed quite a bit of a crush on him. Harmless, of course, but inconvenient. I wish I could have said it was purely a physical attraction, given how loathsome he could be, but I was actually getting a bit silly over him, heart racing and cheeks flushing whenever he was near.
The fear of him catching on to my ridiculousness only aided in my motivation to escape.
“When ye’re done with those books, feel free to borrow more whenever ye like,” Leticia went on.
“Thank you. That’s very generous.”
She stood up to retire for the evening and waved to Hamish to join her, putting an end to the havoc he and his castle friends intended to wreak.
After the Lady of Leoch excused herself, no one could have any qualms about me doing the same. I glanced around the room to see if anyone was even aware of my presence, and found my husband and his guards to be just as neglectful of me as they’d been over the past week. I began to wonder if my husband was starting to trust me, or if he was courting my misfortune.
I stole away out of the great hall and into an alcove where I’d hidden my provisions. I snuck out of the castle and down to the stables without being detected.
This is it, I told myself. In a few moments, I’ll finally be free.
A loud bark interrupted my hopeful musings, and my stomach dropped. More excited yapping sounded from the other end of the stables, and Bennet came racing around the corner to find me.
“Shhh. Little one,” I whispered, knowing Jamie had to be close by. “Go back to Jamie, my love. Go find Jamie.”
“Now why would he do that when his mistress is right here?” said the man himself.
My head snapped up, and my heart dropped. “It’s just…I only came to check on him. I intended to return to the castle right away.”
“Hmphm. I’m none sae sure I mentioned where I'd be staying tonight.” I thought he might be smirking in the darkness.
“I guess, I just assumed.”
“That I’d be sleeping wi’ the horses? And ye brought a good bit of traveling provisions, I see…in case ye got lost?”
“No. Of course not.” I stood up, and Bennet sat beside me, leaning against my leg. “These are for you. I know you’re missing out on all the fun, so I brought some food.”
Jamie skeptically peered into the basket. “Kind of ye. I would think some of the fresh meat might’ve been more fun than this dried stuff, though it wouldna last so long.”
“Right. Well, I see Bennet is fine. And so are you. So, here you go.” I handed the basket over. “I’ll just be on my way.”
Jamie grabbed my arm as I tried to walk past, stopping me in my tracks. “The castle is surrounded by guards, Claire. Ye didna think the laird would leave everyone unprotected now, did’ye? If ye try to escape, they’d bring ye straight to Dougal, and I’ve seen the way he punishes a wife. Trust me. It’s not pretty, lass.”
His grasp seared my skin, so I pulled away. My heart raced with adrenaline, and I had to squeeze my hands together so he wouldn’t see them shake. I didn’t know if I should confess the truth to a man who was clearly not my friend, or if I should keep up a farce he obviously didn’t believe.
I stepped away to put space between us so I could clear my head, but Bennet moved with me. I tripped, falling on the hay-covered floor.
“Claire!” Jamie and Bennet rushed to my side. A pair of gentle hands held my face, ensuring I was all right.
“I’m fine.” All except my pride. His hands felt cold against the heat of my embarrassed cheeks.
He helped me sit up, his touch surprisingly gentle when he wasn’t forcibly manhandling me. My heart stupidly fluttered, and my cheeks burned hot. If he noticed, I hoped he attributed my body’s reaction to the shame of falling down.
When I didn’t rise further, he sat down beside me so we wouldn’t have to stare directly at each other. Bennet came and squeezed himself between us, happy as a clam at high water.
“I ken ye didna want to marry the man, Sassenach, and he’s no’ exactly the most devoted husband, but ye’re safe here at Leoch. If ye go back to Oxfordshire or try to travel to France or wherever ye came from, Randall will find ye.”
“I’m not a criminal. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“But he wants to take ye in for questioning all the same, and I can assure ye, ye willna much care for his methods of extracting information.”
“I’m very aware of his methods.” My previous run-ins with Randall were so painful and terrifying that I agreed to marry a man I barely trusted, hardly liked, and sometimes loathed, just to save my skin. And then there were the scars on Jamie’s back to drive the point home. “Is that why you’re still here? Because of Randall?”
“Mostly. I’ll be gone as soon as my name is cleared.”
“Will you return home?”
He shrugged. “I suppose I must.”
He’d been gone from Broch Tuarach a long time. I would have thought he’d be eager to get back. Perhaps there were other reasons he was reluctant to go home. Either way, it didn’t matter until the English removed the price from his head.
“The difference between you and I,” I said, “is that I have a safe place to run to anytime I want. If I could just escape Leoch, I’d be home free.”
“Is that so? Where would ye go that's out of the crown’s reach? Out of Dougal’s reach?”
I huffed a laugh, wondering what he’d think if I told him the truth.
“Ye think I’ll tell Dougal, and yer destination will no longer be safe?”
“Something like that.”
“I willna tell him, ye ken. I have no reason to.”
I turned to face him. “Why not? He’s your uncle?”
He refused to look directly at me. “Aye. And he’s your husband, but I dinna see you confiding in him either.”
I sighed heavily and scratched Bennet behind the ears, a little relieved to have a bit more time with him now that the initial disappointment of not escaping had sunk in. Jamie was petting down the dog’s back, all the way to his gleefully wagging tail.
“I don’t understand why you’d keep my secrets or help me in any way,” I said. “You’ve made it clear I’m not your favorite person. We’re not even friends.” My heart thudded, fearful my words would set off his unpredictable anger. “I mean, I’d like to be your friend. It’s just…you’ve never seemed to reciprocate that sentiment.”
“Ye’re right. I dinna want to be yer friend. Far from it.” His tone was strangely calm for speaking such hurtful words. “And I ken I deserve yer distrust, the way I’ve treated ye. It’s only natural to question my sincerity.”
He stopped petting Bennet to run both hands through his own hair. My heart warmed at how his fingers looked just the same as they did when scratching Bennet’s red fur. “I just…I have reasons for my capriciousness…and my compassion.”
“Any you’d care to share?”
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and smirked. “About my capriciousness? No. But my compassion? Aye. I suppose I can share one or two.” He went back to petting the dog. “The first is that I ken what it’s like to be an outsider here, Sassenach, and ye have it much worse than I do in that respect. At least these are my mother’s people, and most actually want me here, even if it’s no’ where I belong. You, on the other hand…” he trailed off.
“Yes. I know. And what’s the second reason?”
“The second is that I ken what it’s like to be forced into a life ye didna want…a marriage ye didna want.”
We sighed in unison, mutual disappointment weighing down our breath.
“Any other reasons?”
“Not any I care to share at the moment.”
“How do I know you’re not just spinning me this tale of compassion now, then you’ll go running to Dougal to share my plans of escape when it suits your needs?”
“I’ve lied to ye only one time in all of our acquaintance, and that was when I answered to the name MacTavish before ye marrit Dougal. Even then, I wasna fond of the farce, I promise ye.”
“It was a poor story at that, seeing as how I was the only person in Leoch who called you by that name.”
He laughed with such a soft tone, that it was hard to believe only moments before he was telling me the thought of a friendship between us was offensive to him. I decided then and there that whether Jamie Fraser wanted it or not, I would be his friend, and he would be mine—my fluttering heart liked that idea immensely.
“I swear, Claire, any words ye hear from my mouth will be the truth, and I hope ye’ll trust me wi’ the same. I may be a brute and arse to ye sometimes, but at least I’ll be an honest one.”
“And if there are things we’re not willing to share with each other?”
“Then we’ll just say so. I dinna mind secrets, but no’ lies.”
We sat there in silence, feeling the weight of the agreement we were making settle on our shoulders. The only noises I could hear were coming from Bennet, the horses, and a few drunken clansmen in the distance.
“This feels like friendship,” I insisted.
I smiled at the lack of hostility in his tone.
“May I ask you another question? Given our agreement of sincerity.”
He nodded wordlessly.
“What did you want for your life? You know…before you were forced to marry.”
“I’m a simple man, Sassenach. All I wanted was a loving home. A family.” He looked down at Bennet and gave him a good scratch. “My dogs.”
“Do you think it’s possible? Will you ever be able to clear your name?”
Bennet chewed on Jamie’s fingers and growled playfully, while Jamie absentmindedly tugged the dog’s jaw back and forth.
“Mebbe. I must think it so. Many lives depend upon it.”
“Oh, mine, of course. And Laoghaire. Her bairn. Then, there’s my sister and her child who are all alone at Lallybroch. My tenets.”
He smiled fondly. “It’s what we call home when we’re no’ being sae formal.”
“Dougal said you’re innocent. You didn’t kill that redcoat.”
“Aye. Though I have killed other redcoats before, that particular one wasna one of them.”
“I wish there was something I could do to help.”
He was quiet for a moment, petting Bennet, eyes pensive. “Perhaps there is.”
“What? What can I do?”
“Ye said the Duke of Sandringham is coming for a visit?”
“He is, though I think not for some time. Not until after Dougal returns from collecting rents.”
“A good word from the duke to the right people about my character, and it may persuade them to grant me a pardon.”
“I see. And you think my position as Dougal’s wife might elicit a more favorable response from the duke than you asking on your own?”
“Don’t you think it would be more significant coming from Dougal himself? Or Colum?”
“Weel, Dougal is reluctant, ye see, though Colum is considering it for his own reasons.”
“Why wouldn’t they help? They’re your bloody uncles!”
“Aye, but they’re MacKenzies.”
I snorted, understanding exactly what he meant.
“Dougal has asked that if I return home, I commit my people to his cause.” He sighed heavily, with the tired exhale of a man who knew war far too well.
“And you said no?”
“I didna commit either way.” Jamie looked me in the eyes for the first time, as though reassuring himself of my interest in his welfare before revealing too much. I tried to place a reassuring hand on his arm, but he pulled it away.
“If I agree to Dougal’s conditions, I fear I may be condemning my people to death in his bloody war, but if I refuse, I canna rule out the possibility of some misfortune befalling me.”
“You mean, Dougal would have you killed?”
“Wow. That’s quite a husband I have.”
“Aye. Another reason for my compassion.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Aye,” he continued, “if Dougal kills me—and it wouldna be the first time he tried—Lallybroch would then belong to Laoghaire.”
“And if Laoghaire is here with the MacKenzies…”
“Aye,” he nodded, “Dougal may likely wrestle control over it anyway.”
“Good God. What about Colum? What’s stopping him from helping you get your name cleared?”
“If I return home, I’ll no’ be likely to take up as Laird of Leoch when he dies…at least until Hamish comes of age. It’s better for him if I’m dependent on his good will for the protection of me and my wife. My freedom doesna serve his present agenda.”
“What? Colum would rather you be laird than Dougal?”
“Aye. Dougal would drive Leoch into the ground for his cause, and Colum kens it. It’s why…”
He rubbed his hands through his hair once again. “It’s why he forced me to marry Laoghaire in the first place. Marrying a MacKenzie would put me in greater favor wi’ the clan if a decision needed to be made.”
“Colum forced you? I thought you had to marry her because you’d been caught in a compromising position with her.”
“There was a bit more to it than that,” he grumbled in a way that told me he was done talking about his wife.
“Well,” I said, in an attempt to keep things friendly between us. “I’ll certainly talk to the duke for you. I doubt I’ll hold much sway over him, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.” If I was still in the eighteenth century at that time.
“If ye can manage it, and my name gets cleared, I’m sure I’d be in a position to travel about wi’out being hassled. I could help ye sneak away from the castle to wherever this safe place of yours may be…so long as I dinna have to board a boat.”
I tried not to get too excited about the prospect. It was a longshot that I could convince the duke to clear Jamie’s name, and even if I could, that was still months away. I intended to be long gone before then. Even so, I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup plan. “You don’t like boats?”
He put a hand to his belly and shook his head.
“Seasick, hmm? Well, don’t worry. Where I’m headed, there will be no water in sight, save what falls from the sky.”
“Where would I be taking ye?” And there it was…the reason he’d shared so much with me. It was a little game of give and take. He gave personal information, and he expected to take some in return. A MacKenzie indeed.
“You’d be taking me back to where Dougal found me. I can get home by myself from there.”
Jamie narrowed his gaze. “The standing stones at Craigh na Dun?”
“You know how to get there?”
“Of course, I do. Only, it seems a strange place to leave a lass on her own. Ungentlemanly, even.”
“You are worried about being a gentleman with me?” I couldn’t help the laughter bubbling up. “Since when?”
“Weel,” he flushed sheepishly, “ye might forgive me my harsh words to ye that night…and a few other encounters before that. I hadna been sleeping much, Sassenach, and ye’ve pushed me past my limit of patience more than once. D’ye ken how mad a man gets when he hasna slept in days?”
I had a few stretches of no sleep like that during the war. I was ridiculously emotional and even hallucinating by the end of it. “I do know, as a matter of fact, but I hardly think offering to have you stay in my house, out of the cold and rain, was ‘pushing you’ into anything. Is my presence truly that unbearable?”
He stared at me blankly, and I knew he was masking whatever thoughts were swirling around his head. My heart dropped to the floor once again.
“You really don’t like me. Do you?” I said.
He kept his face as stoic as he could. “I promised I wouldna lie to ye, Claire. And yet, I dinna care to do either one of us damage by telling ye the truth. Please dinna ask me that question again.”
“Yet you trusted me with your secrets? Some of them, anyway.”
“And ye’ve trusted me with some of yers.”
“So…if we’re not friends—seeing as how friends should probably like each other, at the very least—then what are we?”
He gave Bennet one last scratch before standing up. Then, he put out a hand to help me. “I suppose that makes us allies.”
He gathered up my basket and nodded for me to lead the way out the door. “I’ll walk ye home, Sassenach, so long as ye dinna mind staying off the main path.”
“I don’t mind, at all.” I felt perfectly, foolishly safe with Jamie—safer than I felt with anyone else at Leoch.
The walk home took a good long time, seeing as how we were navigating in the dark and through the woods. Jamie was patient with me and helped me over large rocks and steep hills. By the time we made it to the meadow and my cottage was finally in sight, I realized I was hungry. I retrieved an apple from my basket and took a bite, while Jamie tossed Bennet little bits of dried meat.
“How are you liking the books?” I asked.
“I like them verra much. I’m grateful to ye. I’d rather no’ have to ask Colum for anything myself, if I can help it. Even for something so small as a book.”
“Which one are you reading first?”
I’d hoped he would keep the conversation going, but his thoughts were clearly elsewhere. We walked in silence to my front door.
“I suppose you still don’t want to come inside?”
He smiled a little and shook his head. “I’ll be just there if ye need me.” He pointed to a copse in the distance.
“Well, here.” I fished out another apple and held it out to him. “I’d hate for you to starve on my account.”
He hesitated, reluctant to accept, but his good manners won out. His eyes met mine when he took it from my hand. “Thank ye, Sassenach.”
“You may not like me, Jamie, but for some reason, in spite of your sleep-deprived, ungentlemanlike behavior, I still like you.”
He smiled softly and took a bite of his apple. “I ken, Sassenach. I ken.”
As he walked out into the darkness, all I could feel was thunder in my heart and a tingling on my skin where his fingers grazed as he took the apple.
“Guard yer mistress,” he commanded without looking back.
Chapter 6: Grief
“Good grief!” I stepped aside quickly as Bennet bolted by in pursuit of a bird. His coordination still needed to catch up to the increase in speed he obtained from his latest growth spurt.
I looked around as I entered the meadow on my way home and was displeased to find a familiar horse grazing not far from my door. Dougal’s mount. I rolled my eyes. These unexpected visits were exactly why I hadn’t made any efforts to escape since the gathering. I never knew when he or one of his men would show up. I couldn’t wait for him to leave Leoch to go collect rents so I could attempt another escape.
As we neared the cottage, Bennet caught Dougal’s familiar scent and let off a low warning growl.
“I know, darling, but he is bigger than you, and he carries a pistol. Stay quiet if you know what’s good for you.”
As I walked in, Dougal was rifling through a basket on my kitchen table. It was full of an assortment of fruit, a lumpy scarf made of harsh, itchy wool, and a Scotch pie.
“Hello, husband. Did you come bearing gifts?”
“No. I found this just outside yer door.” Very few people paid me for my services with money, so I was often bestowed random gifts of food, blankets, and clothing.
“Are you hungry,” I asked, eyeballing the pie, pleased I wouldn’t have to cook for him.
“Mmphm,” he declined. “I just came from supper, and that pie doesna look fit for yer dog.”
Bennet was hardly subtle in his attempts to keep himself protectively between Dougal and me, a fact that seemed to annoy my husband.
I took a fork and stabbed into the pie, pulling out a bit of the meat inside. The smell was unpleasant, but I hated to waste food. I took a tentative bite and gagged. Insufficient salt should have made it flavorless, but the lack of proper seasoning was overcompensated with a liberal mixture of unidentifiable herbs, so much so that it was unfit for human consumption.
I tried to think of anyone I’d stitched up or tended to recently that might be an awful cook. Perhaps it was Ronnie MacKay’s senile mother who tried to feed him sheep’s droppings the week before.
The aftertaste was even worse than the smell. “I’d rather live on grass than take another bite.”
“Ye should ha’ listened,” said Dougal.
“What is it that brings you by? Are you just here to monitor my food intake?”
“I came to inform ye that ye’ll be coming wi’ me to collect rents.”
“What? No. I can’t leave with you. I…I have patients.” And it would be most inconvenient as that was when I had intended to make my escape.
“And ye’ll have more patients on the road. I need ye to tend to the people of yer clan.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. No one saw me as a member of the clan, and he bloody well knew it.
“Legally, this is yer clan, whether ye like it or not. And seeing as how it would suit me best to gain public approval of our union, I should like to take ye out to meet them. Tend to their ails. Show them ye dinna wear a red coat, and the only king ye honor is no’ the one currently occupying the throne.”
“You know I couldn’t care less about who sits on that throne.”
“Aye, weel, they dinna ken that. I’ve kept my part of our bargain, Claire, and I expect ye to do the same.”
I had a role to play as his wife, per our agreement, and if I wanted him out of my bed and away from my home, then I had better make it believable. I ground my teeth together in frustration.
“Come here, darling,” I called Bennet over and offered him the pie, trying to avoid giving an answer as long as possible. Bennet’s resulting growl told me he didn’t want the food any more than he wanted to be pet by Dougal.
“Hmm,” I considered. “Maybe I’ll give it to Angus.”
Dougal stared at me, awaiting my acquiescence, having no doubt it would come. The agreement between us was made with more good faith than any of our other wedding vows, and he knew he could count on my cooperation.
“We’re stuck wi’ each other, whether we like it or no’,” he’d said at the time of our wedding. He promised to arrange a place of my own outside the castle, provide a decent life for me, and he wouldn’t force his way into my bed, as far too many husbands of this time felt was their right to do. In return, I’d play the role of his wife in any way he otherwise required.
To be fair to the man, he really didn’t want to marry me, but did so partially for the sake of my safety. His late wife had just died, and from what I gathered, he was still in mourning. Not to mention, there were far more politically advantageous marriages he would have rather made than binding himself to a stray sassenach with questionable loyalties. But I had already seen too much of Dougal in my sojourn into the eighteenth century when I was caught by Randall during an attempted escape, and I held enough information about the MacKenzie war chief’s role in building up the Jacobite army that when faced with the choice of marrying me or handing me over Randall, he chose the former…and so did I.
I turned my thoughts away from our unpleasant wedding night, and toward the future. Perhaps it wasn’t such a terrible idea to go out into the far reaches of MacKenzie lands with armed company. I’d have travel provisions, a horse, and protection for most of my journey. And when we edged close to Craigh na Dun, I’d make a run for it.
“Fine. I’ll go with you and offer my services to those in need, but I’d rather not be involved in your politics if I can help it.”
Dougal snorted, making clear his amusement at the thought of his wife avoiding political discourse. He stood up, apparently done with me. “Be ready to leave a week from tomorrow. And ye may want to find someone to watch over that dog. I doubt his wee legs can handle the travel.”
Bennet snarled and barked loudly when Dougal was a good distance away, courage all the greater when those large boots were out of stomping distance. We watched him mount his horse and take off back toward the castle.
As soon as the threat was out of sight, Bennet returned inside and sat by the fireplace. He whined like a baby to get my attention. I had yet to make a fire as was usual for us, and this was his way of communicating that he didn’t much care for the change in our routine.
“Give me a minute, love,” I said, feeling discomfort in my stomach. My body was apparently rejecting the bite of pie as much as my tastebuds. “I just need to use the privy.”
Bennet whined even more as I made my way into the tiny outdoor loo. “You’re getting too comfortable, my lad!” I called, pulling up my skirts. “If I can’t find you a sitter, you'll be living rough on the road with me next week, and you’re going to wish you had a meat pie all to yourself and a cozy cottage to sleep in, fire or not.”
Bennet’s response was to stop whining and replace that noise with enthusiastic barks, similar to those he emitted in sight of an animal he was intent on hunting. I finished up in the privy, fearful he’d run off into the darkness only to be descended upon by a pack of hungry wolves.
Instead of vicious wildlife, I was greeted with the stunning sight of Jamie Fraser riding up to the cottage on his massive black horse. I attempted in vain to ignore the somersaults my stomach was currently performing at the appearance of the impressive Scot.
“Claire!” he called desperately, ignoring Bennet for the first time in the dog’s life and barging in through my front door.
“Jamie! Is everything all right?”
He came out of the house, and half the tension in his face fell away when he spotted me. He rushed forward and clamped his hands down tight on my arms, yanking me toward his horse. “Come, Sassenach. Ye’ll have to ride behind.”
“Behind what?” My brain automatically thought of a car.
I looked up at his horse and shook my head. “I’m not getting on that beast!”
“Donas is strong. Dinna fash.”
“It’s Laoghaire. The bairn is coming.” His face was tense, but displayed little emotion otherwise. “Something’s no’ right.”
With no further objections from me, he mounted Donas and helped pull me up behind him. I gripped him tight, and we set off, galloping quickly out of the meadow and down the path toward the castle. He whistled and called for Bennet to follow.
The pup did his best to keep up, and I wished I had thought to carry him on my lap, though there would have been no room for him on the horse if I tried. My arms were tightly secured around Jamie’s waist, holding on for dear life.
Donas was a tall, strong, and willful creature. Only a man like Jamie could have mastered riding him. I felt the muscles under his shirt move and shift with every gallop. His arse and thighs between my legs were in complete control of the horse, so much so, that he hardly needed the reins for much of anything.
“You said something isn’t right?” I yelled up into his ear.
He nodded, but didn’t elaborate. He rode hard, not willing to waste time on conversation. I’d never known Jamie to exaggerate the seriousness of a situation, but on the other hand, most fathers tended to be terrified when their children were entering the world. I prayed it was a normal, reasonable level of paternal panic.
I pressed my face against his back to hide from the biting wind. Thankfully, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky on that clear, starry night.
I realized as we neared his house that I hadn’t brought any of my medical supplies, and I’d have to send Jamie back to retrieve them. Perhaps it would be a good idea to give this helpless father a task to keep him busy and distracted while I did my best to get his wife and baby through childbirth unharmed.
I shrugged off my unwelcome discomfort at the prospect of seeing Jamie and Laoghaire together. I was mature enough to know a mild infatuation granted me no claim on the man, and I had no right to the strange possessiveness I felt anytime I thought of him. The woman was having his child, for Christ’s sake, and the birth of his first born need not be tainted by my jealousy, no matter how slight it may have been. I just tried to relax as best as I could on the back of a galloping beast and attempted to save my indecent thoughts about the feel of Jamie’s body in my arms and between my legs for my next trip to the spring.
He didn’t slow down until we made it to his front door. If only we'd have known then that it was already too late.
I left Laoghaire’s house at dawn, spending a long, painful night attempting to save a child that never had a chance to survive. Jamie stuck around only long enough for me to confirm the baby was gone. Mrs. Fitz tended to Laoghaire, who was inconsolable and had no interest in my care. She only wanted the one thing no one on earth had the power to give.
I walked home with Bennet at my side, trying to reassure myself that I hadn’t failed her…that I hadn’t failed Jamie…nor his son. There was a problem with the umbilical cord that must have occurred sometime between our last checkup and her water breaking—an unforeseeable problem, and one I couldn’t fix, even if I’d known what would happen. A cord knot so tight, the child hadn’t been getting the oxygen or nutrients it needed for some time.
Bennet sensed the ache in my spirit, and didn’t once try to run off to hunt whatever creatures rose with the dawn. In fact, he didn’t leave my side until we reached the cottage. A gust of wind carried a scent to his nose, and he took a few steps toward the woods and whimpered.
“What, darling? Is something out there?”
He sniffed around until he retrieved a stick and brought it to me.
“Do you want to play? It’s a little late—or early—for that, my love.”
With the stick in his mouth, he gave a muffled bark, then began trotting out toward the woods.
“Benne—oh.” I was late to catch on, but Bennet’s behavior must have meant that Jamie was nearby…grieving his son. “Oh dear.”
I followed Bennet without another thought. He led me down an all too familiar path to the spring.
Jamie was indeed there, sitting on a large, moss-covered rock. His hair was wet and dripping, and I wondered if he either took a swim in the spring and only recently dressed, or if he just splashed water over his hair and face. No Highlanders ever got near my fairy pool, so the sight was more than a little surprising.
I wanted to ask if he minded my presence, but I knew I wouldn’t like the answer, so I just sat quietly on the rock beside him. He prayed softly in French to the Holy Mother, a wooden rosary in hand, fingers moving over the beads one by one with every prayer.
At some point, I joined him, stumbling quietly over the words under my breath, never having recited the prayer in French before. Bennet lay at Jamie’s feet, seeming to understand that now wasn’t the time for games. Still, the big puppy couldn’t help but chew on his stick while he provided comfort to his best friend.
We prayed the remainder of the rosary, and then let our voices fade into silence. The sun had risen through the trees in the meantime, lighting up my not-so-secret hideaway.
There were no tears falling down Jamie’s face—perhaps the spring washed them away—but his eyes held the agony, defeat, and exhaustion of one experiencing unimaginable grief.
“Why do you pray in French?” I asked, hardly above a whisper.
“Habit. It’s how it was done on the battlefields when I was a mercenary in France.”
My body released half of its tension. I knew Jamie well enough to be certain that if he wanted me gone, he would have said so, and he would not have entertained my question for the sake of civility.
“Are you praying for your son’s soul?”
He hadn’t looked at me since I arrived, and he kept his head turned down as he spoke, watching Bennet and his stick. “No. I did so before ye arrived, and I’ll do so again shortly.”
“Then what were you praying for just now?”
“My own soul, as selfish as that may be.”
“Not selfish. I think God instructed us to do such things when warranted. Why is it warranted in this circumstance?”
Jamie’s hands gripped his hair, and he took a deep, haggard breath.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You don’t have to tell me—”
“I dinna presume,” he interrupted, “to think my will is significant enough to influence God’s plan on who should live and who must die, but…” he breathed deeply again, “...but a part of me didna want that bairn.”
I kept my exclamations of surprise to myself and just rested a hand on his back to encourage him to keep going.
“I think Dougal told ye some bit of why I marrit Laoghaire?”
“He said that you were caught fooling around with her at the castle. That you were forced to marry for the sake of her honor and your own. But I remember you telling me there was more to it than that.”
“Aye.” He reached down and grabbed Bennet around the middle, settling the dog on his lap. Bennet was getting quite large, but Jamie’s size made him appear much smaller. He focused his attention on petting the dog while he spoke. “I did as Dougal said. I kissed the lass here and there in the alcoves where I didna think we’d be seen. She was more than eager, and being a young, foolish man…I was…I mean…I was burning something fierce.”
“I understand.” I rubbed his back and offered a small smile he’d never see.
“Weel, we were found, and when Colum and Laoghaire’s father discussed the consequences of our actions, I thought maybe I must take a beating in front of the clan for it, and we’d move on.”
“Instead, you ended up with a wife?”
“Laoghaire…Laoghaire told them she was wi’ child.”
“Oh! But I thought you hadn’t…”
“We had not. It was in no way possible for me to have gotten any woman wi’ child, much less Laoghaire. Though none would have believed me, o’ course, no matter the vehemence of my protests.”
He was a virgin. No wonder he’d been burning so badly. “Colum wouldn’t want to believe you; not when he finally had a reason to force you to marry a MacKenzie.”
“Aye. Ye see, it was the duty of all those in my mother’s family to have their marriages arranged for the sake of politics or property or what have ye. And so it was…for all but my mother. She stole away in the dark of night wi’ my father, and they eloped, no’ returning back until she was carrying his child.”
“Dear God. Colum must have been furious.”
Jamie didn’t smile, but his mouth looked as though it wanted to curve up at the corner. “He couldna force my mother to marry who he wanted,” his eyes flashed up and briefly met mine, “but he could force her son. He said if I shamed the family by ruining the lass, he’d turn his back on me and hand me o’er to Randall.”
Jamie nodded. “And he meant it, too. He said if I should marry Laoghaire, he’d do what he could to clear my name when the time was right.”
“You mean, so you could lead his clan when he died.”
“Aye. So…I was wed by a priest wi’ a special license that week.”
“And you had a baby on the way that wasn’t yours.”
“I don’t understand. I thought you said…”
He grew restless and set Bennet down, then stood up and began pacing. Bennet took this as an invitation to play. Jamie obliged, launching the stick as far as the forest would allow, and Bennet tore off after it.
“I…” he hesitated, running his hands through his hair, avoiding my gaze. “I was determined to try to make a happy marriage, one of respect and affection.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “So on our wedding night, in an attempt to consummate our union…I found she was in the midst of her courses.”
“Was she having a miscarriage?”
Jamie shook his head. “There was never a child to begin with. She deceived me. She deceived her father…the entire clan.”
“Why would she do that?”
Jamie shrugged, though I could see suspicion written all over his face. Perhaps Laoghaire just wanted to trap him into a marriage and become the Lady of Lallybroch. Perhaps Dougal pressed the girl to make a false claim so the land would fall into MacKenzie hands if something happened to Jamie. It could have even been Colum, manipulating Jamie into more dependence on him and greater acceptance of his mother’s clan. Whatever the reason, it was unjust and unfair.
“So, you were stuck in a marriage with a woman who lied about carrying your child.”
“And it wouldna be the last time she did so.”
“What do you mean? Did you not…did you not sleep with her then?” I blushed at my own vulgar curiosity, mortified the question popped out of my mouth without thought. Jamie, on the other hand, seemed relieved to finally be speaking the truth to a…friend.
“I did bed the lass a few times.” His face cringed with frustration. “But neither of us enjoyed it all that much…not beyond the fleeting pleasures of the body. Ye see, I intended to make an honest effort to love her…the way my father loved my mother.”
“But your marriage was based on a lie.”
“Aye. And a woman who would deceive a man into marriage in such a way is no’ one I could find it in my heart to respect.” He finally looked up at me, forcing me to meet his gaze. “And you of all people ken what it’s like to lie wi’ another whose touch makes ye want to shrink away.”
I nodded, our eyes locked together. “I’d rather spend every night of the rest of my life alone than bed a man I don’t respect.”
“Three months after I last touched her, she missed her courses for the first time.”
“Three months later?”
“So that child, the baby boy, wasn’t yours?”
“Not by blood.”
Bennet returned with his stick, and brought it to Jamie for more, but Jamie didn’t have it in him. He took the stick and tossed it aside, disappointing and confusing the pup who retrieved the stick yet again.
“Whose baby was it?”
“I dinna ken. I dinna want to know either.”
“Because I’d have to challenge the man for bedding my wife, and I dinna care enough about her to want to kill someone over touching her. All that would happen is she’d be shamed. And me, as well. If ever I could return home, I wouldna want my people to ken their lady deceived their laird. How could they have faith in me to help them, when I canna even manage my own home?”
“So, you were just going to raise another man’s child as your own?”
“He would have been mine, Sassenach. My first born, meant to inherit all of Broch Tuarach. Blood or no blood, my wife’s child born in the time of our marriage would be mine.”
“And you wouldn’t want that shame for the child either.”
He nodded and came to sit beside me on the rock once again. “So, ye mebbe see why a part of me—no small part, mind ye—didna want this child?”
“Of course, I see why. It’s only human. And thoughts are not who we are. I have a dozen conflicting thoughts racing unbidden through my mind at any given moment. I shouldn’t like to be held responsible for each and every one of them, particularly if I chose not to act on them.”
“I would have raised him as my own. I swear it, but…the thought of never having a bairn of my flesh and blood, a child wi’ my mother’s hair or my father’s eyes, pains me to no end.” He picked at a fern, sprouting from the earth at his feet.
“I understand that sentiment as well…all too bloody well, in fact.”
He turned to me, eyes curious. “Is being wi’ Dougal so bad then? Ye would rather never have a child than bring him to yer bed?”
“It’s not that I won’t have children with my husband. I can’t have them at all. My body is just not made for it.” I tried to keep the regret from my tone, but failed miserably.
“I am. I was married to a man I loved dearly for years before I met Dougal, but no matter how hard we tried, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“I’m sorry, lass.”
“It’s all right. I’m glad I’m not bringing a child into this dangerous world with someone I do not love.”
“In that, we are the same.”
“So, that’s why you were praying for your soul? Because of the guilt of having those thoughts?”
He nodded. “Guilt. And anger at Laoghaire…at God. Shame.”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of, Jamie.”
“Oh, but I do. Ye see, more than anything else, what I feel most right now is relief. Relief to no’ be saddled wi’ the product of deception by the woman who promised me love, respect, and fidelity for as long as we both shall live. For God’s sake, is it no’ within my right to choose whether or not to have a child? Haven’t enough choices been taken from me already?”
The tears finally started falling, and he sucked in a breath to stifle a sob. His face was once again buried in his hands, and his body shook gently as he gasped for air. “But most of all, I pray to God to forgive my resentment that I may never have a chance to be a father again, unless I lower myself to play the part of a fool.”
I placed a hand softly on his back, wishing there was something I could do to take away his pain. Bennet had his nose pressed against Jamie’s boot, stick long forgotten, clearly struggling with the same desire I had to comfort the soul-deep ache of a kind and deserving man.
We sat there long enough that the shock and adrenaline of the night were gone, and I was left with the exhaustion of vicarious grief and more than twenty-four hours of no sleep. My eyes were heavy, and my body craved rest, but I’d be damned if I left Jamie’s side when he seemed to want me to stay.
“Will ye pray wi’ me again, Sassenach?” he whispered. “This time for the bairn?”
He pulled out the rosary once more and made the sign of the cross before starting with the Apostles’ Creed. “Je crois en Dieu, le Père Tout-puissant, Créateur du ciel et de la terre…”
I prayed as long as my body would allow, but the rhythmic words repeated over and over in the deep, rumbling French of Jamie’s tongue were too hypnotic to keep me awake. My consciousness gave way to dreams of prayers whispered in other languages on battlefields where mothers were giving birth and puppies were chasing sticks.
I woke several hours later in my own bed—no memory of how I got there. Jamie and Bennet were out in the shade of the nearby copse of trees, leaning against a large trunk, and still praying over tiny wooden beads.
Chapter 7: Warmth
There is a small bit in this chapter that might seem a little mystical to the folks who haven't read the books. I just wanted to preface that most of *that* part is taken directly from book 1 (2-3 paragraphs that are literally word for word from ch 19 of Outlander). It wasn't in the show, but I've always thought it a special moment, and I had wished Jamie was there to see it.
This is me having Jamie see it...and learning a little something about his strange sassenach in the process.
“Wait. You’re coming too?” I asked, heart falling. I was hoping Jamie would be able to keep an eye on Bennet when I left. The trip would be a long one for his little legs; not to mention, I had no intention of returning from it, and the thought of him being there for my disappearance was heartbreaking.
Jamie was in the process of assisting me with my saddlebags as our rent party gathered at the stables for final preparations. “Aye. Dougal wants me to help wi’ the horses.”
“Please,” I rolled my eyes. Every man present could manage their mount just fine.
He couldn’t hide his smirk before turning away. “I presume he has other reasons for wanting me to come along.”
“Considering the English killed my father, attacked my sister, beat me nearly to death more than once, and now have a price on my head for a murder I didna commit, I’m sure I’m meant to inspire fear and anger in my countrymen as an example of what English rule amounts to. What happened to me could easily happen to them or their sons.”
“And how do you feel about playing along with this?”
“My feelings on the matter are of no consequence, Sassenach. He’s my uncle.”
“An uncle who tried to murder you,” I mumbled harshly.
For some ridiculous reason, Jamie found the thought amusing. I followed him to the larger wagon where he began loading supplies. I told myself speaking with him was a necessity, and the pleasure I received from watching his broad shoulders and long body engage in manual labor was just a benefit that I’d be a fool to ignore.
“Do you have any suggestions for what I should do with Bennet? No one else wants to mind him.” I realized I spoke with the incredulity of a young mother who was flabbergasted that no one else liked her obnoxious child.
“Have him run along beside us. Build his strength. We’ll no’ be moving very fast wi’ the wagon coming along.”
“What if he gets stomped on? Or tired? Dougal said he can’t ride in the wagon because it’ll be carrying chickens and such.”
“Then he’ll have to be carried on a horse when he’s worn out.”
“Jamie,” I said his name with exasperation, forcing him to stop what he was doing to turn and look at me, “I can hardly manage myself across rough terrain. He may be a puppy, but he’s already too big for me to hold and ride my horse.”
“I didna mean you should carry him. I will, of course.”
“Oh.” I stood there in shock for a moment. I wasn’t accustomed to his kindness.
“Jamie!” called a man from behind, interrupting our conversation. It appeared to be Jamie’s godfather. I hadn’t seen him around Leoch for over a month. “Dougal wants a second horse for the wagon, but when I informed Alec, he said he canna spare another.”
“I’ll talk wi’ him.” Jamie turned to me and smirked. “He likes me better than Dougal.”
“I’m sure most people do,” I whispered back, then blushed, realizing I was giving myself away.
“To be fair, it was my mother he cared for more than me. She charmed half of the Highlands before she married my father.”
“You’ve been helping Alec with the horses for over a year now. I’m sure he’s fond of you in your own right.”
Jamie snorted, indicating his doubt at the possibility of Alec being fond of more than one person at a time. He took off toward the horsemaster to discuss the situation further.
“You’ll be coming along with us too?” I asked Murtagh.
“Mmphm,” he grumbled an affirmative, about as jovial as Alec ever was.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you around.”
“It’s a pleasure having you back.” I was antagonizing him at this point, wanting to see just how many grunts I could elicit before he ignored me altogether. “I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about on the road.”
“On yer horse, wife,” Dougal trotted over, interrupting our robust conversation. “Ye’ll be riding up front wi’ me. I dinna want that mongrel of yers near the wagon.”
I sighed heavily and waved at Murtagh before obeying my beloved’s command.
It took an entire day to make it to our first stop, and when we arrived, I was immediately put to work tending to ill clansmen and their families in a rather clever strategy of my husband’s to gain public approval of our union. Dougal was more than boastful about the value of my services, and even volunteered them to a man who requested assistance with the farrowing of his sow.
“Take Jamie wi’ ye,” Dougal instructed when I told him I’d never helped a pig give birth before. “He’ll have done it a few dozen times and has a way wi’ animals.”
It was a messy affair, though I had to admit, spending the afternoon and early evening in Jamie’s presence instead of Dougal’s was not something I’d ever be heard complaining about. Dougal was right; Jamie was very good with the sow, and I was a capable nurse. Unfortunately, we lost one of the piglets, but eight survived, and they were happily nursing when we left them with their mother.
Our walk back to the tavern where the rent party was sleeping for the night was the first time we’d been alone since Laoghaire lost the baby, and I found myself walking slowly to prolong our conversation.
“How have things been at home?” I asked gently.
Jamie breathed heavily, but I was relieved to see it wasn’t in exasperation with me. “As to be expected, I suppose.”
“Laoghaire refused to see me when I stopped by the following day…and the day after that. Her grandmother said she’s healing well—her body, anyway.”
“Aye. She’s moving about just fine. Has plenty to say to me whenever I’m home,” he cringed. “Might be one of the reasons I agreed to come along wi’ Dougal.”
“What does she say to you?”
“Nothing of consequence. She blames me for being a terrible husband and father.”
“It’s not like she gave you a choice in the matter, though that’s the story of your fucking life.”
“What does that mean? Fucking?”
“Oh.” I blushed. “It means…well…it means what one would need to do in order to conceive a child.”
“Swiving? It’s a filthy word, then?” he smirked.
“Yes, though I didn’t use it in that context just now.”
“No. I suppose ye did not. It would ha’ been awfully presumptuous, seeing as how we were talking about my life. Come, laddie!” he called to Bennet, who had fallen behind to bark madly down a rabbit hole. Bennet obeyed as though his body had no choice but to listen to Jamie.
“He’s hungry. He hasn’t eaten much today.”
“We’ll get him some food at the tavern. I bet they’ll have a few decent bones lying about for him too.”
“I’m rather hungry myself, come to think of it. Perhaps Dougal will have spared a few of the good bones for me.”
“Dougal may no’ be a verra good husband, but he’ll no’ let ye starve. Me, on the other hand…I dinna think he’d mind so much if I wasted away.”
“Aren’t you concerned about coming along on this trip? That he might…I don’t know…slit your throat or push you off a cliff?”
“Dinna fash on my account, Sassenach. I can manage just fine.” He gave one of his rare, sweet smiles.
“I know you can, but I can’t help but worry a little. That’s what friends do, after all.”
“Have ye forgotten already? We’re no’ friends. We’re allies.”
“The two aren’t mutually exclusive, you know. We can be both.”
“No, Sassenach, I dinna think we can.” The friendly smile hadn’t left his face, not even when he reached for the tavern door and bowed me in.
The scene before us felt as though we’d entered a theater in the middle of the final act. Dougal was giving a speech, fully embodying his great war chief persona. No one even spared us a glance as we made our way over to his table.
Jamie’s godfather had saved us both full plates of food, mine enough to feed both Bennet and me, though I doubted he gave a rat’s arse about my dog. I was hardly listening to Dougal, seeing as how it took a certain degree of mental effort to translate Gaelic into English. I gathered Dougal was talking about how heinous the English were, and how God demanded the Scots restore his Catholic king to the throne. The man truly carried as much charisma as any World War II general I’d ever seen speak to a crowd, but not nearly as much charisma as the unidentifiable roasted fowl on my plate held for me in my starving state.
As hungry as I was, and lacking propriety in present company, it took all of ten minutes to eat what my stomach could handle and give Bennet what was left. Jamie was likewise drinking down the last of his ale and soaking up all juicy remnants off his plate with a fresh bannock when Dougal came up behind him and ripped his shirt clean off his back.
Bennet growled and launched himself at Dougal, but Murtagh was quick to grab him by the scruff and hold him still.
Without missing a beat, and with Jamie’s scars exposed to the whole tavern, Dougal pressed on about the heinous crimes the English imposed on his own nephew and would not hesitate to do so again to any Scot in the room. He detailed what it was like, watching Randall flay open Jamie’s back twice in two weeks.
As his uncle prattled on, Jamie’s face was set in a hard line, barely containing his rage. I wondered why he didn’t storm away or lash out at Dougal. I didn’t know what made him sit there and hold his tongue, but whatever it was, I didn’t have it in me. I threw my napkin down and moved to stand up, ready to make my own displeasure known.
Much like Bennet, I was stopped by a strong hand on my shoulder, dropping me back down on my seat with a rattle of my teeth.
“Settle down, lass,” Murtagh hissed.
“You would let him do such a thing to your godson?” I whispered harshly.
“Jamie must choose his battles, and this isna one of them.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means it’s none of yer concern. Dinna meddle in yer nephew’s business.”
“No one deserves to be treated that way. Jamie should decide if he wants to play a part in this rebellion, not be forced into it, like every other goddamn thing in his life.”
“He’s as much a MacKenzie as his uncle, and ye’d do well to remember that. He wouldna let the likes of Dougal use him unless it suited his needs, so keep yer arse down and yer mouth shut…for Jamie’s sake.
I watched with excruciating impatience as Dougal finished his speech and collected money from those around the room, each one of them staring at Jamie with fear, pity, and disgust. Jamie just sat there, spine stiff, face as impassive as it could be under the weight of all his rage.
When everyone left, Dougal tossed the ripped shirt at me and demanded I mend it. I nearly threw it back at him to insist he mend it, but Murtagh’s words of caution rang clear in my mind. Pick your battles. If I wanted a chance at escape, I needed Dougal to think me compliant…not to mention, it seemed Jamie’s compliance was also a deliberate choice, but for whatever reason, I didn’t know.
I looked down at Jamie’s shirt, relieved it wasn’t his nicest one, and inspected the damage. It was mendable, though it would be a mess, even if Mrs. Fitz was the one to do it. I wasn’t much of a seamstress, but if I could suture up a wound, I could do my best to tend to Jamie’s apparel. Maybe I could even talk to my husband about getting more sympathy and investment from the clansmen if, moving forward, he had Jamie take his own shirt off as an act of rebellion to the crown—though no doubt Dougal’s misuse of Jamie so publicly was meant to send a message regarding the MacKenzie family hierarchy. Perhaps I could convince Dougal that misusing his nephew in such a way would only hurt his chances at winning favor with the clan.
I inhaled deeply in an attempt to calm myself down, remembering this fight was not mine, and I’d be gone soon anyway. As I breathed in, I was struck with the familiar scent of Jamie’s sweat, horses, and hay. I lifted the shirt to my nose and breathed in deeply, finding it surprisingly pleasing.
“Mmphm,” Murtagh grunted next to me, watching my fascination with the ripped garment.
“It stinks,” I said. “Needs a wash.”
I then pushed away from the table and called for Bennet to follow me up to my room without a glance back.
Jamie wasn’t in the mood to talk the following day, avoiding me—and everyone else—like the plague. I had a chance to mend his shirt and give it a good wash when we stopped to camp for the night, but he was nowhere to be found until long after dark.
Overcast skies obscured the light of the moon, stealing all warmth left over from the day. We were all huddled close to the fire, doing our best to hide from the biting wind. Most of the men had fallen asleep shortly after Rupert regaled us with a story of a waterhorse and his wife.
I watched Jamie’s large body easily maneuver through the darkness to where his godfather slept a short distance away. He moved silently. If I wasn’t already having a sleepless night, I would have most certainly missed him.
His eyes met mine as he knelt down and unrolled his blanket, though I could see nothing of his expression thanks to the shadows cast by the flickering flame. The look was short-lived, as he turned his head in the opposite direction and quickly drifted off to sleep.
I stared at his back, watching the golden light of the fire reflect off his hair that seemed ginger in the orange light. Even curled in on himself, his body was massive, eclipsing my view of all the other men who lay nearby.
As the cold wind nipped at my nose, reminding me that Scottish summers faded quickly into autumn, I thought of how nice it would be to cuddle close to that man under the stars. He could surely keep a lass warm in his arms, even in the most frigid of winters.
I turned my head to look over my shoulder at where Dougal lay snoring in my ear. He was a large, hot-blooded man himself, but not one I had any interest in snuggling up to.
I had to give the bastard credit; he behaved himself well enough, but it was difficult to let my guard down enough to relax, when all I could think about was the lewd look in his eyes as I joined him on his bedroll. I knew he was recalling our wedding night and hoping our proximity might inspire me to revoke my embargo on marital intimacy. I slept poorly, cuddling Bennet and longing for the lumpy tavern beds that allowed space between a reluctantly married couple.
Our next stop the following day was close to a good number of small farms, and though the clansmen’s medical needs in the area were minimal, their veterinary ones were not. Jamie was once again enlisted to join me in tending to the ails of multiple animals, including a horse with an injured hoof, a sheep with a large tumor sticking out of its belly, and a goat that was mauled in the night by a wild boar.
I liked watching him with the animals. There was something so pure about the way he engaged with them. I supposed the simplicity of their needs was a relief in comparison to the demands the rest of the world put upon him. He had such a strong, soothing presence, and I often found myself under his spell quite as much as the animals.
“I need to wash the blood and pus from my apron,” I told Jamie as I unpinned the garment from my dress. “Do you mind if we stop by the loch on our way back to camp?”
We meandered slowly through the woods, camp holding little of interest to either one of us in terms of company. A warm fire and hot food would have been welcome, though it came at too high a price for us to rush back.
“Here. I forgot.” I reached into my bag and pulled out Jamie’s mended shirt. “I didn’t have a chance to return it to you yesterday.”
“Mmphm. Thank ye,” he mumbled, clearly still tender over the occurrence.
“Can I ask why you let him do that to you? Don’t you worry he’ll do it again?”
“I ken he will.”
“But you hate it. Why would you let him?”
“Ye think I have a choice?”
“Yes. I do. I think you knew exactly what to expect from this bloody trip, yet you went along anyway. If you had appealed to Colum, he would have surely intervened.”
“Mebbe he would have…”
“But then I would ha’ missed an opportunity to leave the castle wi’ a band of armed men willing to fight for me.”
“And why would you need that?”
Jamie had taken something out of his sporran and began fiddling with it between his fingers. It looked like something carved from wood and polished smooth by decades of frequent handling. “A friend of mine sent word a while back that there was a witness to the murder I’m wanted for.”
“What? Really?” I grabbed his arm in excitement, and Bennet thought that was reason enough to jump up and put his paws on Jamie, as well.
He lifted a hand to settle us both down. “He’s a redcoat deserter, and hardly to be trusted. I doubt the English would listen to him if we could even get him to talk.”
“Which is why you want a band of fighting men with you to meet him.”
“Any why you’re putting up with Dougal’s shenanigans. If you scratch his back, he’ll scratch yours.”
“Just so.” He nodded, staring down at the piece of wood in his hands. It looked to be a carving of a snake. Perhaps a child’s toy. “I sent my godfather out to find this witness…a man called Horrocks.”
“That’s why he was gone from Leoch for so long?”
“He arranged a meeting in a week’s time near the southeast end of MacKenzie lands.”
“And Dougal agreed to help you for the measly cost of one repeatedly battered white shirt.”
“And a spare bit of pride. Aye.”
Bennet barked enthusiastically when we neared the loch’s edge, bolting toward the water.
“Murtagh was right. You are quite the MacKenzie, aren’t you?”
“It’s eat or be eaten out here, Sassenach. Ye’d do well to remember that.”
I waved off his callousness. “You wouldn’t eat me, if given the chance.”
“Mmphm—” Jamie’s grunt turned into a cough meant to conceal a laugh. I flushed to the tips of my toes in mortification.
“Oh, you know what I mean!” I stomped forward toward the water, eager for space from Jamie and the indecent thoughts my careless words inspired. I was far from the spring near my cottage and would have no place to rub out any frustrations until I made it back through the stones.
I removed my cloak, shoes, and stockings, leaving them on a rock near the shoreline, then I tucked up my skirts to wade into the freezing water. Armed with a bit of tallow and lye, I bent over with my apron in hand and did my best to scrub it clean. I would still have to boil it properly, but I wanted to get some of the stains out before they set. Few people trusted a healer covered in blood.
Bennet’s playful barks quickly turned to growls. I stood up and snapped my head around, wondering if Dougal was nearby, or perhaps another wild boar. Yet it seemed as though he was barking at me in the water. “It’s all right, darling. It’s not that cold. I’m safe.”
Jamie knelt down next to him with a calming hand on his back. The Scot’s eyes were narrowed, and he seemed to be listening for some sign of danger.
When nothing appeared, I went back to washing my apron. I’d gotten all the pus marks out, and the bloodstains had faded into faint brown spots.
“Not bad, I think. I’ll have to boil it when we get to camp.”
I stood up to examine my handiwork, pleased, if not satisfied with the results. It took a moment for me to notice the tiny waves against the rocks growing stronger as though pushed by an oncoming wind.
Once again, Bennet started barking like mad.
A great flat head broke the surface not ten feet away from where I stood. I could see the water purling away from keeled scales that ran in a crest down the sinuous neck. The water was agitated for some considerable distance, and I caught a glimpse here and there of dark and massive movement beneath the surface of the loch, though the head itself stayed relatively still.
I stood quite still myself. Oddly enough, I was not really afraid. I felt some faint kinship with it, a creature further from its own time than I, the flat eyes old as its ancient Eocene seas, eyes grown dim in the murky depths of its shrunken refuge. And there was a sense of familiarity mingled with its unreality. The sleek skin was a smooth, deep blue, with a vivid slash of green shining with brilliant iridescence beneath the jaw. And the strange, pupilless eyes were a deep and glowing amber. So very beautiful.
“Claire…” whispered Jamie behind me in a voice of warning. I was more startled by his sudden appearance in the water than I was by the beast in front of me. He gripped my arm tight and pulled me behind him. I hadn’t noticed until that moment that he had his large sword drawn, and he was reaching for his dirk.
“No,” I breathed, stepping forward to stop him. He meant to push me away from the beast, but my foot caught on a stone in the water, and I fell down with a noisy splash, cold water stealing the air from my lungs.
I wiped my eyes and watched as the beast sank down slowly, amber eyes never leaving mine. Jamie stayed on his guard, sword and dirk raised, long after the water had settled.
“Sàmhach sìos!” he called to Bennet, who had been barking from the shoreline the whole time. At his words, Bennet quieted his noise to a whimper, clearly wanting us to come back to solid ground.
I stood up, shaking head to toe—from cold, not fear—hardly able to move. Seemingly satisfied that nothing was jumping out of the loch in the next few moments, Jamie stowed his dirk and guided me forcefully back to shore. He didn’t sheath his sword until he gathered our things and had me far back behind the trees.
He peeled off my bodice, then turned me around to divest me of my skirts. My teeth were clattering hard against each other, but it didn’t matter, because I couldn’t feel my jaw. In moments, he rid of my stays so I wore nothing but a transparent, wet shift.
This was becoming a habit of ours.
“Can ye get this off?” he asked, pulling at the wet fabric.
I nodded an affirmative and struggled out of the soaked linen.
“Here,” his head was turned away, but he held out his mended shirt.
I took it from him and fumbled for the openings. It seemed to fight me as I pulled it on, but I finally managed, smoothing it down my body to where it hung at my knees. Once Jamie heard my sigh of relief, he gathered up my cloak and wrapped it firmly around my shoulders.
“Come here,” he pulled me against him and rubbed his large hands up and down my back, building heat with friction. His body was warm, save his legs where he had rushed into the water to protect me. I melted into him, wanting his heat, craving his comfort. My cheek rested against the hollow of his chest where his heart thundered wildly.
“You really need to stop dunking me into bodies of water.”
“Mmphm.” He was in no mood for joking.
“It’s all right, Jamie,” I tried to comfort him in return. “It was just a…a…” I shrugged, “a wee monster.”
I thought he would find it funny, but he didn’t. Instead, he took my face in his hands and turned my head up to meet his gaze. “Have ye ever seen anything like that before?”
I tried to recall a very different, much smaller, mud-colored replica of a prehistoric creature that adorned the fifth-floor diorama in the British Museum from my childhood. It looked nothing like the living breathing monster that rose up before us only moments past.
“Its eyes,” he breathed, tracing my cheekbone softly with the tips of his fingers, “they were just like yours.”
My heart thudded, but logic told me it was only coincidence. “You think I’m a water horse?” I snorted, reaching a hand up to finger my sodden hair. “A poor one if so.”
“Mebbe he was looking for a wife to take down to the depths of his loch.”
I wanted to think the beast was harmless, but I recalled the Scottish kelpie myths told to me by Uncle Lamb long before he died.
As though just realizing my hair was dripping wet with freezing cold water, Jamie gathered it up in his hands and did his best to ring it out away from my cloak.
“Are ye all right to walk? We should get ye to a fire.”
“Of course. Let me just put on my stockings and shoes.”
Jamie nodded and backed away, leaving me to my business. I immediately missed his warmth.
Keeping me in line of sight, he walked back to the edge of the trees to look out over the loch.
“You’re not afraid it will come back, are you?” I called.
“The dog has gone quiet.”
I looked down at Bennet who was sitting next to me, watching me lace up my shoes with interest. I realized, with a small pang of sadness, that his puppy impulse to chew on them seemed to be completely gone.
I stood up, and Jamie came back to me. He pulled me close again, covering my head with my hood and trying to massage warmth into my skull.
“What are we going to tell Dougal?” I asked, knowing the truth wasn’t an option. “Can we tell him a boar attacked me, or something?”
“No. He wouldna believe a boar was deep enough in the water to get to ye.”
“Then what should we say?”
“Ye slipped, then I followed ye in and fished ye out.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course a woman being clumsy would be more believable than a boar going in the bloody water.
“It’s all right, Sassenach. He’ll take a few digs, but he’ll move on soon enough.” He rubbed his hands up and down my back a little more, and I rested my face against his chest, knowing I might never get another chance.
The foolish thought crossed my mind that it would have been much pleasanter if it was Jamie I had been forced to marry rather than Dougal…though much, much harder to avoid his bed.
Dougal was surprisingly concerned about my frozen state, and took over the role of nurse with significant enthusiasm, much to Bennet's displeasure. He bought Jamie’s story, just as we knew he would, and sat me down right next to the fire with a cup of tea and a plate of stew. He had Rupert and Angus craft a drying rack for my clothes, and he bundled me up in his blanket.
When it was time for bed, he pulled my back flush against his chest to share his heat, making no move to grope or grind against me. I had warmed up a long time before then, but I didn’t fight his kindness. As Jamie said, it was eat or be eaten, and if he thought things were good between us, it would be that much easier to slip away when the time was right.
Just before falling asleep, I caught a pair of blue eyes staring at me from the other side of the fire. Jamie didn’t look away when I met his gaze like he normally would. I wondered if he was still thinking of the amber-eyed monster.
I sighed deeply, remembering what it was like to be wrapped in his arms. My nipples tightened at the thought and rubbed up against his poorly mended shirt that I had yet to take off.
Minutes had gone by, and he was still watching me. The only time his eyes moved were to trail down my body to where Dougal’s arm was tucked tight around my waist. His mouth had set in that angry, thin line before his gaze returned back to mine.
Both our cheeks were awfully flush for such a cold night.
I rolled away from Dougal—my body already warm enough.
Chapter 8: Ache
This is the second chapter in 2 days. Make sure you didn't skip chapter 7.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
For the first time since I came through the stones, I knew exactly where I was in relation to Craigh na Dun. We were riding alongside a creek I recalled all too well, seeing as how the last time I was there, I was clinging to Dougal on the back of his madly galloping horse as we fled from Black Jack Randall and his bloody dragoons.
It was peaceful at the moment, but I knew that could change quickly in present company.
“I won’t miss this rain,” I mumbled to myself, donning the hood of my cloak. I hadn’t been properly dry since before arriving in Scotland.
But I would miss Bennet…and Jamie. They were riding together just behind me, Bennet clutched tightly to Jamie’s chest, licking the raindrops off his face. I was glad they’d have each other when I was gone…they’d have someone to look after them…someone to love them unconditionally. They might even remember me together—that would be a special thing.
“This will do,” said Dougal, turning off the road and into a copse hidden well away.
“Do for what?” I followed behind, sliding off my horse.
“We’ll be riding out to meet Jamie’s deserter witness. I’ll no’ be having ye come along. It’s far too dangerous. He could easily be making a deal wi’ Randall or the Watch to take Jamie in, and I dinna want to worry about them finding you as well.”
“So, you’re just going to leave me here? Alone?”
“Ye’ll no’ be alone. Ye’ll have the dog wi’ ye.”
Jamie dismounted, setting Bennet on the ground. The first thing the dog did was sniff around the trees before urinating on each and every one.
“He’ll let ye ken if there’s danger, though if ye stay in the copse, no one will find ye.”
I stood staring blankly. After all these months of scheming and planning, it was happening just like that. Dougal had brought me safely to Craigh na Dun—save a few miles—and was leaving me on my own to make my escape with no obstacles in the way.
“Ye’ll be fine, Claire,” Dougal said softly. “I’d no’ leave ye anywhere ye’d be found.”
I nodded, knowing that was true.
Jamie was kneeling before Bennet, scratching him aggressively behind the ears, whispering to him quietly in Gaelic, no doubt giving him instruction on my protection.
I was suddenly unprepared for the goodbye I’d never be allowed to make.
“Go on.” Dougal nodded for me to hide in the copse. My feet obeyed his command.
“Guard yer mistress,” Jamie ordered Bennet, and my overgrown puppy came rushing to my side.
And just like that, they were gone.
I stood there in the rain with Bennet for some time, waiting to see if they’d return, as though they might think better of leaving me on my own. But they didn’t.
“I…I guess it’s time.”
I got down on my knees and took Bennet’s face in my hands. He really was a beautiful dog. So happy. So devoted. Tears began filling my eyes, and my heart squeezed painfully.
I wanted to curse James Fraser for imposing this pain on me, but I couldn’t find it in me to be angry with the man for giving me these few months with the best damn dog in the world.
Bennet leaned forward and licked my face, oblivious to the heartbreak I was about to bestow. I hugged him tight, running my fingers through his red hair that curled at the ends, just like Jamie’s, especially in the rain.
“You’re a good, good dog, my love.” I leaned back to look at him and scratch him behind his ears. “You take care of Jamie for me, ok? Give his obnoxious wife hell. Chew up her knitting and pee in her baskets all you like.”
I kissed his wet puppy nose…except he was looking less like a puppy than ever before. “Tell him goodbye for me. Please.”
He stood up and whimpered, moving his feet restlessly in place, as though he finally understood what was happening. I rose up along with him and stepped over to my horse to gather a bit of food and take a drink from my waterskin.
Bennet was glued to my side, taking Jamie’s command seriously.
“You’ll have to stay here with the horse. Jamie will come back looking for me, and I need him to find you.” I pet him once more and gave him a bit of dried meat that he dropped on the ground. The panic in his eyes made my heart ache something awful. “Goodbye, my little darling.”
I stepped forward, and he tried to come with me.
“Sit!” I commanded in my best imitation of Jamie. He complied against his will. “Now stay.”
I turned and walked away, knowing he wouldn’t follow.
I didn’t expect so many fucking tears on the way to the stones. Leaving was meant to be a relief, but all I felt was sadness. I was returning to my place, my time, my husband—the one I actually gave a damn about.
Yet all I could think of were the two red-haired lads I was leaving behind.
The long walk left too much time for rumination. I almost regretted not taking the horse or any supplies aside from a few scraps of food, but if something went wrong, I couldn’t let Dougal think I was running from him intentionally.
I tried keeping my thoughts on Frank…on hot baths and flushing toilets…on the ease of world travel and easy access to warm food. I wanted to play records at my whim. I wanted to see a fucking movie again…perhaps Casablanca—I tried not to think too hard about why tears formed at the memory of Ilsa leaving Rick.
Still, I wondered how it was going with Horrocks. Maybe I would be able to find some mention in history of Jamie. Perhaps if he became the MacKenzie chieftain there would be some note of him. Or if he ever assumed his role as Laird of Broch Tuarach. Or if the English got a hold of him and…the thought was too awful to bear.
I felt sick to my stomach abandoning my only ally in the eighteenth century to fend for himself…not that there was much I could effectively do for him if I stayed.
I moped the long miles toward Craigh na Dun until I finally saw the rise of the hill before me. My adrenaline helped relieve some of the ache in my heart. How could it remain sullen when it was racing like mad toward freedom?
I ran forward, thinking of all the times I’d been hurt and suppressed in this century, from falling through the stones into Randall’s violent hands, to being taken captive by Dougal, to escaping only to fall victim to Randall yet again, to being forced to marry and sleep with a man I didn’t want, to being followed constantly, never given a moment of privacy, to being ostracized and singled out in a place I was begging to leave by people who wouldn’t let me go!
I thought of everything I was running toward…a life of choice and freedom. A life where my uncle had allowed me to assert my will from a very young age and helped give me a voice. A life where my husband encouraged me to do what I thought I must to contribute to causes I was passionate about in my soul.
I ran up the hill toward the buzzing sound of freedom, slipping on the wet grass in the pouring rain. I ran past the outer ring of stones toward my free-fucking-will. I ran straight for the center stone toward independence and the ability to make my own life as I saw fit!
My hands touched down on the hard rock, and I felt my soul being pulled forward into the chaotic abyss of Time. It was agony, and I regretted it the moment it started sucking me in.
And then the pain was gone, but not the disorientation. Hands grasped my arms painfully, pulling me away from one place of chaos to another.
“Did you see that?” said an English voice. “Did it look like…?”
I opened my eyes and was surrounded by redcoats. There was one on either side of me, gripping my arms tight, and another in front of me with my husband’s face…my first husband’s face. But it wasn’t Frank…
“No—” I breathed.
“Mistress MacKenzie,” said Jack Randall, grinning sadistically. “A pleasure to see you again. I don’t see your husband; is he nearby?”
“Yes.” I tried desperately to catch my breath and gain my balance. “He’ll…he’ll be here shortly. I’m sure he…and my brother-in-law…will be quite concerned with how you’re manhandling his wife.”
The redcoat to my left loosened his grip, but Randall only smiled more. “I’m not so sure it’s very safe out here for a woman to be waiting on her own. We should get you to Fort William quickly, where you’ll be protected until he can come retrieve you from my custody.”
“But, sir,” said the man next to me. I looked up into a pair of concerned blue eyes. They might have even been pretty if they weren’t spinning with the rest of the world. “Is she not the war chief’s wife? She’s legally been made a Scot. We cannot compel her without cause—”
“And how do you know whether or not I have cause, Lieutenant?” The earth was only just beginning to stabilize when Randall stepped around me and commanded the others follow.
“No.” I protested weakly, trying to find my voice. “No!” Panic made it stronger.
I struggled against the lieutenant's grasp, pleading with him to let me go. “You know what a hateful bastard that man is. You can’t hand me over to him. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve committed no crime!”
I could see the compassion in the lieutenant’s eyes, but he was bound by duty to follow orders.
“Please,” I begged, while simultaneously stomping on his feet and pulling away. The rain made everything slippery, but his hands were like a vise.
“Stop fighting,” the lieutenant whispered. “He only likes it more.”
Oh God. Fear and despair gripped my insides.
They led me down the hill to where their horses were waiting. They must have been resting there when they saw me climb up.
Thunder clapped loudly, drowning out the fading buzz of the stones, drowning out the sound of freedom.
No. I thought to myself. No! I wouldn’t go through it again, and I wouldn’t allow my body to be ravaged like Jamie’s…not without a fight.
Feigning compliance, I stepped gently forward, then pulled back with all my might, twisting in their grasp until I sprang free. I turned around and bolted back to the hill toward my one chance at safety.
I took several steps forward before the hilt of a sword cracked down on my skull, bringing me to my knees. I saw nothing but black as a blow to my ribs stole the air from my lungs.
I drifted off into unconsciousness, and a thought absently passed through my mind that the concussion must have been quite severe, making me hallucinate the sounds of a dog growling and swords clashing behind me.
Chapter 8 will be up tonight, as well.
Chapter 9: Safe
This is the 3rd chapter posted in the last 2 days. Make sure you didn't miss anything.
There is power in our words that we often take for granted, a specialness in sharing thoughts from one mind to another. The sentiments relayed have the potential to paint beautiful pictures unique to the mind of their origin, and the language used can play a vital role in enhancing sentiments with all the more with color and passion.
Gaelic words in particular seemed to resonate in my heart before my brain could interpret their meaning. I felt them before I understood them…especially when it was Jamie talking.
That’s how I knew I was safe. My body—no matter the ache in my head, the bruising on my ribs, nor the fuzzy memory of recent fear—was relaxed as I woke up slowly, mind only edging toward consciousness.
Before I attempted to summon the mental effort necessary to interpret the meaning of the conversation around me, I knew I was in the presence of friends. I was warm—very warm—and comfortable, despite my pounding headache and wet shift. I inhaled deeply, attempting to catch the scent of woodsmoke I was certain had to be present to make me so cozy, but it wasn’t there. All I could smell was rain, horse, wet dog, and the sweat of a man.
The voices quieted at my deep breath, as though acutely attuned to my presence. When I didn’t open my eyes, they returned to their quiet conversation, though this time, I was aware enough to listen to what specifically they said.
“Dougal will keep searching for her until she’s found,” said Murtagh in Gaelic. “We should return to him soon.”
“No. Neither of us are safe here now. I shall take her directly to Leoch.” Jamie’s warm voice enveloped me, vibrating my cheek with every word, not surprising since I seemed to be pressed tightly against his chest. My body was frozen against him in shock, not alerting him to my consciousness quite yet. “Perhaps you can go to Dougal and inform him of our plans.”
“Christ, lad,” said Murtagh, “I don’t want to be the one to inform him of his wife’s disobedience. Do you realize the beating he’ll give the woman when he finds out she was running away?”
“Disobedience? He’ll hear nothing of the sort. He believes she was abducted, and he’ll go on believing it. You’ll inform him she was taken against her will…at gunpoint. That she had the sense to leave the dog behind to aid us in finding her. Christ. To think of what might’ve happened if we hadn’t arrived in time.”
“Jamie,” Murtagh warned, “you’d do well not to step between a man and his wife, no matter how pretty the lady.”
“I will not have his strap taken to her backside when all she was seeking was the freedom he denies her every day of her goddamn life.”
Jamie’s body was tense against mine from head to toe, so much so that I could hardly differentiate the hard floor we lay on from his chest. I realized the heat that was comforting me was coming from him, and I did my best not to audibly sigh with the pleasure of it.
He’d saved me—at no benefit to himself. I was alive and safe in his arms thanks to his selflessness. I’d never been more grateful to anyone in my life.
“Her situation is not yours,” said Murtagh. “And you are not responsible for fixing it. You have your own family to worry about.”
Jamie pulled me even tighter against him, as though silently protesting Murtagh’s words. His breath tickled the top of my head as he inhaled the scent of me.
“How did you do it?” he asked, his Gaelic words cracking beneath the strain of unbearable pain. “How could you stand to see my mother with my father day after day and not want to launch yourself off a rocky cliff?”
“Who said I didn’t?”
One of Jamie’s hands moved to my hair, fingers running gently through my knotted curls. He worked them out, much like he’d do to a frightened horse.
“You love her, then?”
Jamie snorted. “I love the damn dog, a ghoistidh. I love poetry on Sundays. No. This…Sorcha…this is…so much more.”
Murtagh cursed unintelligibly. “Loving her puts you in danger, Jamie. Dougal doesn’t need another reason to want you dead.”
“I cannot help what I feel. I’ve tried a thousand times to stop. I tried to make her hate me…but the stubborn thing will not behave rationally.”
“She’s as foolish as you are, though not as good at hiding it. I’ve seen the way she looks at you. This puts her in as much danger as it does you.”
“Which is the only reason I’ve not thrown her over my shoulder and run off with her.”
“You’re planning on doing just that come morning.”
“I’m taking her home, a ghoistidh, not climbing into her bed.”
“You’re still a fool for it. She may find you bonnie, lad, but she does not love you the way you love her. Do not risk your neck for a woman who would hardly do the same for you. She was trying to leave you to the wolves not two hours past.”
“If you think anything, be it her affection for me or her actions to the contrary, would change my mind—that I would not risk my home, my freedom, my honor, my bloody body—then you don’t know a damn thing about love.”
“I know better than anyone, risking my neck to save a stray sassenach for the sake of a vow to your mother.” Murtagh huffed, shifting around where he sat a few feet away. After a long silence, he said, “It was different with Ellen. She loved Brian. She was happy. If the sassenach was happy with your uncle, would you think to interfere?”
“No. I’d leave her in peace.” He nuzzled the top of my head. “But she’s not. She’s so miserable, she’d risk her life to leave him. She could have died.”
“You’ve got to stop, Jamie. Stop looking at her like that. Dougal will slit your throat if he finds out.”
“What else have I to live for?”
I opened my eyes at the sound of agony in his voice. I couldn’t see his face, not just because my own was pressed against his chest, but because we seemed to be hidden away in a dark cave, seeking shelter from the torrential rain. There was no fire, presumably because we were on the run.
“Then think of Claire. Dougal would do far worse than slit her throat, and you know it. Claire seems a smart woman, but she is a foolish one. You’ve heard her talk. She doesn’t know violence or pain the way you do. She comes from a place of safety, where men and women have the freedom to make choices with little in the way of consequence. Let the scars on your back be a reminder of what happens when you cross the wrong man. Please don’t make me bear witness to you receiving more because you can’t keep your cock in your breeks.”
“I have no intention of bedding her, a ghoistidh, even if it is the only thing my body will crave until the end of my days. We are bound to others we care not for, but still, we are bound. I would not risk her. I could never.”
“Never is a long time, lad, and you have only just become a man. You must remind yourself of the risks when your flesh is weak. You promised God you’d be faithful. If you cannot keep your promises to that adulterous wife of yours, then keep them to the Almighty.”
“Those promises were made by coercion. They were extorted from me by threat of my life. Claire’s vows were made by threat of hers, as well. All they are, are words, and what are words, but a breath of wind.”
“I will not touch her in that way, not because of promises kept, but because I value her life more than my own. I will seek a pardon to clear my name, then I will help her find safety.”
“She cannot discover your love for her, Jamie. She’ll ruin all your plans.”
Jamie leaned back to look at me, and his eyes widened at finding me awake. Aside from that, he wore his usual mask, somehow covering up all those feelings I was never meant to know he had.
“Enjoy her in your arms for one night under the guise of keeping her warm,” said Murtagh. “Come morning, you must push her away once again.”
Jamie may have been skilled at hiding his emotions, but I was not. I stared up into his eyes, nearly grey in the darkness, and let all my shock pour out through a shuddering breath and a tear falling down my cheek.
“Jamie…” I whispered so softly, I didn’t think Murtagh could hear over the pounding rain. Bennet did, and I felt him squirm against my back and nuzzle his wet nose into my neck.
Jamie just stared at me, and I realized he still didn’t know I understood nearly every word they said. Perhaps he thought my shock was waking up in his arms rather than the custody of Randall.
I didn’t want him ignorant of what I knew, yet I didn’t care to say anything in front of our audience. We just stared at each other, the sound of our breath muted only by the static of pounding rain only a few feet away.
I grew bold and slipped my hand beneath his shirt, wanting to touch him. My movement was concealed by the blankets that wrapped us together, sealing in our warmth. He shuddered when my cold fingers grazed over his hot skin. His belly was as smooth and firm as I’d fantasized, until he shivered and gooseflesh arose beneath my touch.
I slid my hand around his back, feeling the terrain change with his horrifying scars. It had been nearly a year since a woman touched him like this, and maybe never had one done so with the affection for him I held in my heart.
His breath was quick and shallow, but his face remained impassive. I thought of kissing him, and wanted to badly, but three things stopped me. The first was Frank. Jamie’s promises to Laoghaire may have been extorted out of him, but mine to Frank were not. A part of me resented being bound to vows I had made when I was hardly older than a child, but I had made them of my own free will. The second was that I still intended to leave this place as soon as I could. There was no way on God’s green earth Jamie and I had a chance of being together, and I didn’t want to break his heart all the more when I left. And third, whatever Murtaugh’s assumptions to the contrary, I had known violence and war on a grander scale than anyone in this century could fathom. I understood the consequences impulsive actions could have on my life and Jamie’s, and I wouldn’t do that to him. I couldn’t…not ever.
Yet the thought of going my whole life with the knowledge that this spectacular man loved me, that he rushed into danger to save me at great risk to himself—not out of duty to his uncle, but out of affection for me—made every inch of my skin ache to touch him. His lips, beautifully soft and pink, were only a breath away, and I would never be allowed to kiss them.
Several more tears fell from my eyes. His arms twitched around me, as though they were restraining themselves with all their might.
Unable to control myself any longer, I leaned forward and pressed my lips to his chest just above the opening of his shirt. I felt his heart thundering against my kiss.
I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I just pressed my body close to his and stayed there with my lips over his heart and our breath synchronizing more with every passing moment. He held me strong, as though his life depended on it. And maybe it did. Maybe if he released me, he might put his mouth on mine, and our lives would effectively be over.
“Are ye all right?” he whispered under his breath. “Are ye hurt? Hungry? Cold?”
I shook my head. “I’m just so bloody grateful. How did you find me?”
“Ye told me where ye’d go if ye had the chance.”
“What happened to Randall?”
“He got away.”
Damn. “And the other redcoats?”
“We didna kill them. We couldn’t…not if I ever want a chance at freedom.”
“Are they after us?”
“I dinna ken. We took their weapons, but they may have more nearby.”
“He went searching for you at Fort William. He may come across Randall soon, unless Randall is still after us.”
I kissed his heart again, wishing I could take it and hold it safely in my hands. “You risked everything for me. Everything.”
He tried to blow it off. “It was nothing.”
“Jamie,” I stared at him, seeing him clearly for the first time. I spoke in French, hoping that if Murtagh heard, he might not understand, “you promised honesty.”
“And I didn’t think I’d live to regret it so quickly,” he responded back in kind, eyes somehow shining with humor in the darkness.
“How long, what?”
“When did you know you loved me?”
His humor was immediately gone. “You understand the Gaelic?”
I nodded again. He sighed heavily, a thousand unspoken thoughts racing across his eyes.
“I should be horrified,” he lifted my chin, thumb caressing my cheek, “but I’m not.”
“Nor am I.”
“This changes nothing. It can’t.”
“It changes everything.”
He pulled my head to his chest and started running his fingers through my hair once again. He was trying to hide that his hands were shaking.
I kissed his heart once more and entwined our legs together, wishing for so much more.
“The moment I saw you,” he whispered, still in French.
“That’s when I knew.”
“That you loved me?”
I felt more than saw him shake his head. “That you loved me back.”
Chapter 10: Rest
We slept poorly that night. Between the butterflies in my stomach and the pain in my head, I could hardly find peace. It didn’t matter; I’d found something far more valuable.
Jamie’s strength was reassuring and his tenderness comforting. Wrapped in his arms, I felt secure in a way I never had before. I trusted this man to guard my life while I dozed in and out of fitful dreams. I gave myself over to the pleasure of touching him without fear of him snapping back or pulling away. His hands, too, seemed to take delight in touching me, as chaste and respectful as they remained.
As much as I regretted the danger my failed escape put us in, I could hardly lament that it led to this special intimacy where Jamie—however reluctantly—bared his heart to me. I would keep it safe—the most precious gift in my life at the moment.
Frank intruded into my mind only briefly, but I pushed the thought of him away. It was difficult not to with the solid presence of Jamie in my arms. I just closed my eyes, lips against his skin, and enjoyed a brief respite while on the run for my life.
I woke in the dark of night, shivering cold. Jamie’s blanket was wrapped around me, but he was gone, and Bennet had taken his place. As much as I loved my smelly, wet dog, he couldn’t quite fill Jamie’s shoes in terms of warmth or protection.
I sat up, pulling Jamie’s blanket around my shoulders and looking for some sign of where he might have gone. It seemed to have stopped raining, but when I peered out of the cave, the dark clouds obscured the stars from the sky. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me.
My trust in Jamie ensured my fear wouldn’t rise too high. I knew he’d return. I just hoped it would be soon, and not only for the sake of his warmth.
Murtagh’s words the night before came unbidden into my mind. “Enjoy her in your arms for one night under the guise of keeping her warm. Come morning, you must push her away once again.”
Would he push me away after everything we shared in those quiet moments of the night? I sincerely hoped we were past all that. We could have and express affection for each other without crossing any lines that would get either one of us killed…at least, I hoped so. Perhaps it might be too difficult for him.
I recalled his words from months ago, “...if ye think standing out in the freezing rain in the middle of a Scottish night is any less miserable than spending hours alone with you, ye’re sadly mistaken.”
He hadn’t been lying, nor was he exaggerating. I was only beginning to understand how excruciating my presence had to have been for him with the way he felt.
I shivered deep in my bones, from both the cold and his absence. I looked around for the rest my clothes and found them spread out over a few rocks. They were soaking wet without a fire to dry them, and I shuddered at the thought of putting them on again.
I sat against the wall with Bennet’s head in my lap, staring at the mouth of the cave, waiting for Jamie to return. I didn’t feel tired any longer, but I must have dozed off, because I woke with a start at Jamie’s hand on my cheek.
“Sassenach?” He smiled softly, thumb grazing over my skin. “We should leave while it’s no’ raining. I’ve got Donas saddled and ready.”
I took his hand and stood up, holding on for balance as I oriented myself to consciousness. “Where’s Murtagh?”
“He went to find Dougal.”
“So, it’s just us?”
“Aye.” He gave my hand a squeeze, then retrieved my clothes. I followed him out to Donas. “I think it’s best ye ride in front. I can keep ye warmer that way.”
He secured my wet clothes with the saddlebags, and I was relieved he wasn’t going to insist on me wearing them. He gave Bennet a good pet and some quiet instructions before mounting Donas and pulling me up in front of him. He secured the blanket over my chest and legs, and I was immediately warmer in his arms. I felt myself sinking into his body, already familiar after only one night pressed against it.
“Ye all right?” he asked, one hand taking the reins and the other sliding around my waist.
I nodded, gripping his arm for support. He squeezed his thighs, and Donas took off. Not that Bennet needed telling, but Jamie whistled to ensure he followed.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as we set off, but I was relieved Jamie had not returned to his previous hostility. He was by no means romantic either. In fact, he was strictly business.
In the safety of his presence, it was hard to recall just how dire my situation had become, but the way he relentlessly drove Donas and Bennet through forest made it clear he was more than a little worried about us being pursued. We stopped only to eat, relieve ourselves, and water the animals. We rode through the rain, which thankfully didn’t fall as hard as the day before, and stayed off the main roads.
It felt as though I had been in a perpetual state of rushing adrenaline since the moment Dougal left me alone at that copse. It didn’t help that my arse was not accustomed to sitting so long in a saddle. I was wired, hungry, worn out, and if I was being honest, uncontrollably aroused from sitting between Jamie’s legs for so long.
He hardly used the reins to steer the horse, naturally doing so with his muscular thighs, squeezing and directing the great beast this way and that. I had little to hold onto aside from said thighs and Jamie’s arm around my waist—an arm on which my breasts bounced freely, unrestrained as they were from my sodden stays. As we traversed hillsides or descended into small valleys, he would hold me fast to his body, and I would hang on to whatever piece of him was in reach to keep me from falling off his overgrown horse.
It was a damn good thing we were in such a hurry and fearful for our lives, otherwise, I might have been in a position to do something foolish.
We stopped to camp late in the evening, just as the rain began to pick up once more. Jamie found us a rocky overhang to shield us somewhat from the downpour. He devised an impromptu shelter that blocked the wind and concealed us from view.
I waited in the shelter for Jamie, shivering alongside Bennet—the poor pup was fast asleep with exhaustion—as he tended to Donas. He returned to me, closing the last hole of our shelter with large leafy branches he pulled off a nearby tree.
The shelter was much smaller with his massive body filling it, and all there was to be done was to lay down beside him. He gathered me in without hesitation, joining me under the blanket. We both shivered as our bodies connected, and it wasn’t long before we began generating heat.
“Ye all right?” he asked for the tenth time that day, taking my cold hands and pressing them to his chest.
I nodded, trying not to think of how nice he felt beneath my frozen fingers. His arms snaked around me, and I used his bicep as a pillow. “This is the best I’ve been in a while.”
His chest rumbled with humor.
“How about you? I hope it’s not too terrible…traveling with me.”
His hand moved up and down my back, creating warmth with friction. “Some pains are a pleasure to endure.”
I took that as permission to slide my hands under his shirt and cuddle into him the way I did the night before.
“How much longer until we’re home?”
“Ye’ll be sleeping in yer own bed next to a warm fire tomorrow night. I’m sure ye canna wait to be dry.”
“And where will you be sleeping?”
“I’ll be nearby. I'll not leave ye alone for long wi’ Randall after ye.”
“You’re not eager to return home?” I knew the answer to the question before I asked, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to hear it from him.
“No,” he whispered in my hair. “No, I’m not.”
The irrational thought popped into my head that he may have been married to someone else, but he belonged to me. I nuzzled his chest and slipped my legs between his for “warmth.”
“I’d forgotten to ask. How did it go with your witness?”
“Horrocks? As to be expected. He told me it was Randall who killed the man, but there’s no sane officer who would take the word of a deserter over a captain.”
“Randall?” My rage flared.
“Ye’re no’ surprised, are ye?”
By my huffing and puffing, he could tell I was.
“It’s fine. I’ll find another way.”
“But what if you can’t?”
“Then I suppose I’ll be forced to set off for France. I canna live my entire life on the run, as much as leaving Scotland would pain me.”
“There is no Scotland without you in it, as far as I’m concerned. You’ll take it with you wherever you go.”
Jamie chuckled. “It survived the loss of James Stuart, Sassenach. I think it’ll manage wi’out James Fraser.”
A Scotland without Jamie seemed a gloomy place.
“Ye should rest, lass.” He lazily stroked my hair. “We’ve a long ride ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Will you sleep?”
“Aye. When yer body goes limp, mine will settle down.”
I knew that to be the truth. When I was restless the previous night, he couldn’t sleep either. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of him, trying to let exhaustion overtake me. He needed rest even more than I did.
Yet I couldn’t settle. I was far too wired to sleep, and the necessity of getting rest only made the task more difficult. I was in the same predicament as the night before, lying in the arms of the man I’d suddenly found myself infatuated with, acutely aware of every part of him and his dizzying affect on me.
Well, perhaps my infatuation wasn’t quite so sudden.
“The moment I saw ye,” he had said. “That’s when I knew…you loved me back.”
I thought back to the day we met. Dougal had taken me out to the stables sometime after my arrival at Leoch. Jamie’s arm was out of place, popped out of socket by a fall from a horse…Donas, I now knew.
I was struck by the young man's size, as was everyone who met him for the first time, and his beauty. No one could look upon James Fraser and find him objectively unattractive. But it was his composure in the face of pain I found most impressive. He was clearly courageous and respected by even his brute of an uncle.
And then there was the trust he placed in me to set his arm right. In a world where everything about me was questioned from the moment I landed on Craigh na Dun, James Fraser took one look at me and nodded his acquiescence to my expertise.
He was relieved and grateful for my assistance, and I was pleased to fulfill my duty. His kind eyes were a mesmerizing, deep blue, and seemed to take as much pleasure in the encounter with me as I did with him…until those eyes suddenly turned cold. What I thought might have been a decent start to a friendly acquaintance turned out to be the first of many interactions with Jamie that left me confused, hurt, and more than frustrated.
But was it love?
I wanted to deny it, and yet I’d been at war with myself throughout our entire acquaintance about every interaction with him. I carried a need to please him, to make him like me, despite his clear aversion to my very existence…a compulsion completely out of my character. I certainly thought of him more than any other man in Scotland, including my husband…both my husbands. When I was all alone and giving myself pleasure, it was more often Jamie on my mind than anyone else.
Pressed up against him late at night, alone together in the woods with no one around for miles, was not the time to be thinking about that.
“Sassenach,” he chided, “ye’re as stiff as my dirk. Can ye no’ sleep?”
“I’m sorry. I—” I had no excuse. “I cannot.”
“I can hear yer thoughts racing wild, like Bennet after a wee rabbit.”
Waking at the sound of his name, Bennet nuzzled my leg, but he was too tired to seek further attention. He fell back to sleep promptly.
“I have a lot on my mind.”
“With good reason.” He bent his head down and lifted my chin to meet his gaze, so difficult to see in the dark. “Ye ken I’ll keep ye safe?”
“Oh, Jamie. Of course.” I reached up and touched his cheek. “That’s the least of my concerns.”
“What is it then?”
My shaky exhale somehow captured the pained humor I felt at his question. I squirmed against his body, and he seemed to finally understand.
“I see.” He cleared his throat and fidgeted right back. “Distraction it is, then.”
“Aye. How about a story?”
“You want to tell me a story?”
“No. I want you to tell me one.”
“Oh? Anything in particular?”
“Aye. The one of how the lad got his name.”
I felt more than saw his nod in the darkness.
“Oh. Well, all right.” We both settled in a little, as one does when preparing themselves for a story. “How detailed do you want me to be?”
“Tell me all ye can remember.”
I slipped my hands under his shirt again, wanting to touch his skin as I talked, tracing the lines of his abdomen. “The first line is quite a famous one. It goes, ‘It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’”
“Oh? Must he be?” he laughed.
“Many mothers of eligible young ladies would have you believe so. Elizabeth Bennet’s mother in particular.”
“It would be ungentlemanly to contradict a lady’s mother.”
“Very astute, Mr. Fraser.”
“Go on. Pardon my interruption.”
And so, we lay there in the middle of a Highland forest, tucked away beneath a rocky overhang, shielded from a storm and hiding from vengeful redcoats. I regaled him with as many details as I could remember of the ladies of Longbourn and their would-be husbands at Netherfield. Jamie was an active listener, humming and grunting in all the right places, asking the most delicious and amusing questions.
I rambled on as best as I could until a yawn interrupted my description of Mr. Darcy’s defense of a pair of very fine eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I think I’m getting rather sleepy.”
“Rest yer eyes.” He pulled me close. “Ye’ve given me plenty to consider for the night.”
“Have I?” I felt sleep pulling me under as he responded.
“Oh, aye. I ken what it’s like to be bewitched by a pair of verra fine eyes...” I couldn’t later recall if his lips on my temple were that of a dream, but I was certain his Gaelic words were real. “Rest easy, my darling. You’ll always be safe with me.”
We moved slowly the following day. Jamie informed me we were fairly close to Leoch, and he wanted to stay deep in the thickest parts of the forest where the redcoats rarely ventured.
I cuddled into him and continued reciting Elizabeth Bennet’s story at his request. “You see, Darcy told Mr. and Mrs. Gardener that he saved Lydia’s reputation out of duty, but they knew the truth—it was out of love for Lizzie.”
“I have nay doubt he did it for love, Sassenach, but I’m certain it was done from duty, as well.”
“You think so? He’d already done more than enough for Wickham. I hardly think it was Darcy’s responsibility to mind every maid the man happened upon in the country.”
“Darcy had the means and knowledge to find them and entice him to marry. Whether he wanted a chance at wedding Elizabeth or not, he was honor bound to help.”
“What if he didn’t know the lady at all? Would you expect him to—”
“You would do it too, wouldn’t you? Whether or not there was anything in it for yourself.”
“Lose a bit of coin to save a family from ruin? Especially if that money had little impact on my livelihood?” He snorted as though the answer was obvious.
I traced the muscles of his forearm down to his hand where it rested flat on my belly. Our fingers tangled together lazily in a way I knew I would miss when life returned back to normal. It was a gift to touch him so, to be close to him without worrying about propriety. The only things we had to concern ourselves with at present were our lives and safety, and Jamie seemed to have those things fairly well in hand.
“Tell me,” he said. “How did he ask for her hand the second time?”
“They went for a walk in the countryside, and she thanked him for his help. He begged her not to trifle with him and said his affections and wishes had not changed.”
“A subtle man, is he no’?”
“Indeed. Darcy wasn’t famed for his verbosity.”
“I suppose his actions spoke enough of his regard…in the end.”
“I suppose they did.” As did Jamie’s when he risked everything to save me from Randall.
“Aye,” he whispered a quiet breath in my ear and squeezed me a little tighter. God, it felt good. I fought off a bit of lightheadedness to keep myself upright on the bloody horse.
Without thinking, I put my hands on his thighs, just wanting to touch him while I had the chance. His kilt had ridden up, so I could feel his skin and the subtle shifts of muscle just below the surface.
He was marvelous.
As beautiful and perfect as his form was, I thought if it was all taken away from him that day, if his entire body was covered in a mass of scars like those on his back, I would still be just as enamored. I’d been mesmerized by everything he did, everything he said, from the day we met in a way I’d never even been with Frank.
And to know how much he cared for me was intoxicating. How many lovers might proclaim they would die for their beloved, yet could barely be bothered to take out the trash? Jamie wore himself out, night after night, watching over me. He faced his tormentor head on, without hesitation. And he did it all for nothing in return. For months, he’d been suppressing every impulse he had to touch me, to show me affection. He’d been trying to push me away to save me from whatever horrors his fucking uncle might impose upon me if I returned the slightest bit of affection.
I hardly noticed I was caressing the soft skin of his thighs when I felt a stiff pressure against my arse. It wasn’t the first time in the last two days I’d noticed his arousal. I took a great deal of pleasure in moments where he couldn’t hide his feelings for me. If I’d squirm against him, he’d often hold me still, not wanting to make matters worse or allow himself to be tempted into taking some catastrophic action.
I didn’t stop caressing his thighs, even knowing the effect it had. I just leaned back against him, letting the rise and fall of Donas’s walk move my body back and forth naturally.
“Claire,” he chided, gripping me tighter to stop the movement. “Please,” he pleaded quietly.
I tried to recall all the reasons it was dangerous to be affectionate with him, our safety being the most paramount. Then again, we were out in the wilderness where no one was likely to find us, not even Murtagh. Would it be such a terrible thing if we gave into our passions just one time? Or two? Or three? Or a few more?
“Claire,” he moaned again, the sound of his voice carrying so much agony that I was reminded of the real reason I couldn’t sleep with Jamie…to spare his heart…and my own. If we were this silly for each other now, how would it be after we kissed? After we made love?
We could never be together…not really. He’d never abandon his duty to Laoghaire, and Dougal would sooner slit our throats than be made a fool. My only choice was to return to the stones one day, and if Jamie and I were any more in love, I’d be dooming him to a broken heart…even more than what he felt already. I didn’t even begin to consider what leaving him would do to me.
“Tell me, Claire,” he asked, throat constricted, “did Darcy ever apologize for his unkindness?”
“Who? Oh!” I snapped out of my ruminative cycle of painful thoughts to answer his question. I moved my hands back up to his arm for safety. “He did. He was most contrite.”
“So, he became a true gentleman in the end.”
“It took him some time, but yes. He did.”
He gave the reins over to the hand that was holding me tight, then he reached up to move my hair back behind my ear, smoothing it down from where it tickled his face. He caressed my cheek and whispered. “I am sorry, Sassenach.”
“For all of it—my harshness, my unkindness, my impatience—but mostly…mostly for falling for ye as madly as I have. Nothing good can come of it.”
“You saved my life. That’s not such a terrible thing.”
He sighed deeply, trying to exhale a heartful of fears. “And let’s hope I have the strength to do nothing that might endanger it again.”
We did little more than hold hands for the rest of the ride back to Leoch. We kept a steady pace, and only stopped briefly twice before dark. The sleeplessness of the two previous nights finally got to me, and I spent the last two hours of our ride dozing in Jamie’s arms.
I woke up enough to dismount Donas outside my cottage door, but was out again as soon as Jamie lifted me in his arms and carried me inside. I woke up one last time to Bennet plopping down next to me in bed, slobbering into my neck. I pushed his snout aside and opened my eyes enough to find that Jamie had started a fire and was sitting on the floor next to the bed, entirely spent, head resting on my sheets.
I couldn’t tell whose red hair I ran my fingers through before falling asleep.