“She had a right to know,” Jenny said as soon as Jamie was near enough to hear her.
“Dinna talk to me,” he huffed pushing past her and into the house. He had been walking the fields for hours trying to think of what he ought to do, what he could possibly say to Claire. He was furious with his sister for orchestrating the confrontation and with himself for not having told Claire the truth sooner. Secrets but not lies. That was what they’d promised to one another when they wed and he had been lying to himself every time he had shied away from telling her about Laoghaire.
“She’s left,” Jenny said as she followed him through to the hall. She tried not to flinch when he whirled on her. “She didna want to stay after what ye did.”
“What I did? It wasna yer place, Jenny!” he yelled.
“She had a right to know,” Jenny reiterated.
“Aye, and I had a right to be the one to tell her. Dammit Janet, ye just canna keep yer nose out of what doesna concern ye,” Jamie’s anger shifted beneath the surface, finding fresh heat in a pocket of resentment. “If it weren’t for yer interference four years ago, I’d never have married Laoghaire in the first place and wouldna be in this mess at all. Now…” He choked on his fury. “Now because of you I’ve lost Claire again. You think ye ken what it’s been like for me all these years but ye don’t. Even when Ian was in prison, ye at least kent where he was and had reason to hope he’d come back to ye.”
Though she hadn’t flinched earlier, Jenny did flinch at her brother’s use of her full name and regret began to seep in.
“I’m sorry, brother,” she said quietly. “Ye’re right—it wasna my place to take action so. I should have told ye you were being a daft fool no to tell Claire the truth and left ye to do as ye would on yer own.”
Jamie was unable to speak but nodded his agreement.
Uncertain what she might do to atone for her role in things, Jenny looked around the room as though the answer might be found there. “She can’t have gone too far—Claire that is. She was on foot so if ye take a horse I’m sure ye can catch her up and explain to her how all this mess is my fault. So long as the two of ye can be civil and no—”
“No,” Jamie interrupted with quiet but firm resignation. “She didna want to stay and it’s her right to go. I’ll no chase her down and beg her… And I shouldna have blamed ye like that. Ye do ken how to push me to things but when it comes down to it the decision to marry Laoghaire was mine… and it was mine to keep it from Claire.”
Jenny looked up to see the strain in her brother as he fought to keep his freshly reopened grief at bay. She caught him in her arms and held him before he could crumble, succumbing to tears herself in the process.
“I ken this is likely no a time ye’re going to be keen on listening to my advice,” Jenny said, moving to pull back and look up into her brother’s face, “but dinna be so stubborn about this. She came to find ye after all this time… Dinna let yer pride prevent ye from being with her again. Go after her and at least make an effort.”
Jamie blinked and his jaw twitched. He shook his head, doubtful but unable to speak either refusal or concession.
“You should listen to her,” Claire said from the doorway, startling the siblings. She smiled weakly, her face streaked from her earlier tears, which had mixed with the dust from the road.
Jamie sputtered at the sight of her and crossed in three steps to take her in his arms, his sobs shaking them both.
Jenny slipped discreetly away towards the kitchen. She met her youngest son on her way there, took him by the shoulders, and turned him right back around shooing him through the door ahead of her.
“I made it to the upper edge of the valley and couldn’t bear to keep going,” Claire told Jamie, her chin hooked over his shoulder, her cheek pressed to his neck. His arms were strong on top of hers so she couldn’t have broken free from his grip but she didn’t want to be anywhere else; she pressed her palms flat against his back and pulled herself into his chest. “I couldn’t take the step that would put Lallybroch out of sight so I stood there staring back down the road and hoping I’d see you coming after me. I knew you were too stubborn for that and told myself I should keep going but still couldn’t go. I finally realized how stupid I was being and turned back.”
Jamie’s sobs had calmed—one of the last tremblings might even have been a chuckle. His grip loosened and she was able to pull one of her arms free to raise her hand and cup his cheek, her thumb wiping at the wetness that had caught in the stubble along his jaw.
“I’m sorry. I was surprised and jealous—still am, though I know I’ve no right to be. I should have been more understanding as far as the situation I put you in by just showing up like that. There’s been enough in our way already without us hindering ourselves. I gave up everything to find you and be with you—I can give up a bit of pride as well,” she said quietly before asking, “Can you?”
Jamie smiled and nodded. “Aye. I’ll give anything ye ask of me, Sassenach, and Lord knows I’ve pride enough to spare.” She grinned up at him and pulled him down to kiss her, his hold on her warm, strong, and sure.
She sighed when they broke apart.
“I suppose the next step is figuring out what to do about Laoghaire—not that I’m eager to hear it…” Claire couldn’t conceal her discomfort from her tone. Redness rose in Jamie like the mercury rising in a thermometer as water prepares to boil. “Perhaps it will be best if we go for a walk while we discuss it,” she suggested reaching out her hand and taking his.
Some of the tension left his shoulders and he nodded, giving her hand a self-assuring squeeze.
The afternoon was warm given the time of year but the sun was already advancing down in the western horizon.
“I’m not familiar with the legalities of a situation like this,” Claire began after they had passed through the yard and into one of the fields. The harvest was well under way and much of the soil had been turned over in the pursuit of potatoes. She wondered whether there had been further feasts like the one they’d shared in that one blissful year between the tragedies of Paris and the disastrous march toward Culloden.
“I dinna ken much either,” Jamie admitted. “I ken our marriage predates… so I think it would invalidate the other…” He sighed. “But it wansa Laoghaire’s fault I wasna free and it certainly isna fair to her lasses to lose what means I provided to support them.”
Claire swallowed past a lump in her throat. “The girls… you feel they’re your responsibility?”
“Aye,” Jamie answered quickly. “They’re no my blood but they were what made living there bearable—for a time, at least. They needed a father and I tried to be one to them. But when things between me and Laoghaire… Well, it reached a point I feared my being there was more harm than good so I went to Edinburgh and sent them money. There’s Laoghaire’s wounded pride to consider, all right, but that’s just appearances; it’s the money she’ll truly be hurtin’ for.”
“Money that you don’t exactly have anymore,” Claire pointed out, “what with the shop destroyed. It isn’t safe for you to engage in some of your more profitable illicit activities just now either—I won’t have you risking being caught and hanged.” She emphasized her point by leaning into his arm and gripping it with her free hand, pulling him off balance so that he had to stop and turn to face her. “Do you hear me? No more of your smuggling just now. We’ll figure out some other way to get whatever money you need to feel you’ve done right by her.”
Jamie’s mouth twitched into a dissatisfied smile. He reached up and brushed a curl behind Claire’s ear. “I dinna ken I’ll ever feel I’ve done right by her… or you in this whole mess. But… ye do forgive me for it?”
“If you can forgive me for how I reacted.”
“Aye,” he responded, this time with a genuine smile, his finger tracing the line of her jaw and lifting her chin. “I dinna think there’s anything ye could do that I couldna forgive.” His lips brushed hers.
“I’m going to hold you to that,” she told him, tugging his arm again to turn them back around toward the house.
“Dreamin’ up ways to try my resolve already, are ye?”
“Would serve you right if I was.”
“Ach weel, I suppose the next step is to fetch Ned and have him poke through the legalities of this mess.”
“Ned? Gowan? He’s still… I mean… I would have thought…” Claire stuttered.
Jamie chuckled. “He’s still among the living, Sassenach. Made quite the name for himself too, arguing against the Crown’s confiscating various properties in the Highlands by claiming their owners were Jacobites whether they were or no. This legal knot is precisely the kind of chore he enjoys. Whether we’ll enjoy him going on about it is less certain.”
As they approached the main yard Fergus and Jenny hurried over.
“I swear to ye, brother, I dinna ken what she’s doing here,” Jenny preemptively stated.
Jamie turned to Fergus for further information.
“Ian spotted Laoghaire approaching with Marsali and Joan.”
“Ifrinn!” Jamie exclaimed hastening his stride. Claire hurried after him. “Claire, ye ought to go back to the house with Fergus and Jenny.”
All of them began making objections to his suggestion at once.
“I’m not leaving your side.”
“This is partly my doing and I’ll tell that woman to go once and for all.”
“I can be of assistance, milord, I am certain.”
Jamie waved them off as Laoghaire marched forward purposefully. Marsali and Joan hung back a few paces, eyeing their mother with a bit of fear—Marsali looked desperately to Fergus and clutched Joan to her side.
“Did I no tell ye to go on back to Balriggan?” Jamie called to Laoghaire, his displeasure fuming.
“Aye, ye did,” she snapped, “And so I went—as a good and obedient wife should—but ye said nothing of coming back again, now did ye.”
“There’s naught either of us can do just now, Laoghaire,” he told her, fighting for civility and composure. “I’ll send for Ned Gowan tomorrow and in a few days he’ll be here and we can settle things between us.”
“Ye intend to shame me then.” Her voice wavered, pleading for reconsideration even as she aimed for disgusted resignation. “Ye intend to abandon me and leave my bairns to starve while ye take up wi’ yer whore again.”
Jamie glared at her and stood straighter, cutting an imposing figure that had Laoghaire cowering, clutching her skirts. “Ye’ll no talk of Claire like that—not afore me. I’ve no intention of letting anyone starve but I’ll no have ye disrespecting Claire like that. Ye kent well how I felt when we wed—”
“I did not!” Laoghaire protested. “I needed a man, it’s true, but I believed ye loved me as I love you. Aye, I do still love ye, James Fraser—though I dare say ye dinna deserve it.”
They were in each other’s faces, the others scattered around them all giving the feuding couple a wide berth.
“Ye may be right,” Jamie’s voice dropped, “I likely dinna deserve it—from you or from Claire. But from you, at least, I never sought it nor do I want it now.” Laoghaire flinched and paled; tears welled in her eyes. “I’ll see ye’re provided for,” Jamie insisted, taking a step back; his tone and posture softened a little, “for the lasses’ sakes and because it’s the honorable thing to do but—”
“The honorable thing? Ye mean to do the honorable thing?” Laoghaire scoffed. “Ye wouldna ken the honorable thing if it smacked ye in the face. Ye mean to choose that woman when she’s no children to provide for, no property to tend, while I have both—”
“She may no need me,” Jamie cut in, distracted briefly as Claire breathed his name from her spot along the circle’s perimeter. He glanced over his shoulder at her tender expression, her need for him evident in her warm eyes. He smiled at her and continued to hold her gaze as he finished addressing Laoghaire. “But I need her.”
Marsali flinched, curling her body towards her sister as their mother raised her hands from her skirt.
She was holding a pistol and aiming it at Jamie.
Claire saw the movement and turned pale the fear on her face causing Jamie to spin and face Laoghaire.
“What in God’s name do ye think ye’re doing?” he exclaimed. “Put it down. I’ve told ye I’ll find a way to pay ye for the wrong I’ve done ye—that I’ll be sure ye’re provided for—”
“Ye’re really choosin’ her?” Laoghaire’s voice was a disbelieving squeak as tears gathered in her eyes and redness flooded her cheeks.
Jamie slowly shifted one arm forward, reaching towards the pistol—it was one he had left at Balriggan, loaded and ready should Laoghaire need it to protect the house and the girls; his other arm he raised out at his side—an indication that he would handle the situation unassisted.
“Jamie.” By simply stating his name, it was clear she was urging him to be cautious. Laoghaire’s eyes flitted from Jamie to Claire, her anger flared, and the barrel of the pistol shifted.
The shot was louder than any of the screams—Jamie’s scream of protest, Claire’s scream of pain, Marsali and Joan’s screams of fear—but the screams lingered after the echoing shot faded away.
Jamie spun to see Claire clutch her upper right arm with her left hand as blood squeezed through her pale fingers and dripped to stain the ground. He whirled and caught her as she leaned forward, still crying from the pain even as she applied pressure to her wound—or perhaps because she applied pressure to her wound.
“Claire! No, no, no, no, no,” Jamie muttered, laying her on the ground gently. “Please, God, no. Claire?”
She writhed and wouldn’t take her hand from her arm, sucking her breath in sharply through gritted teeth as she fought to control her cries.
Laoghaire stood stunned, her hand and arm stinging from the pistol’s recoil. She stared at Jamie, crouched over Claire, his hands hovering above her afraid to touch her and hurt her further but desperate to find something to do—he would always choose her.
She dropped the pistol to the ground and cleared her throat—had her throat swollen because of the smoke? why was it so difficult to swallow?
“Come along Joan, Marsali,” she said hoarsely, turning to her daughters.
Marsali was clutched to Fergus with her own arms around Joan. Both girls stared at their mother with mingled fear and disgust. Fergus glared.
Laoghaire panicked, turned, and fled.
Jenny’s attention darted between Fergus and the two girls, Laoghaire’s disappearing figure, and Claire in agony on the ground with Jamie slowly falling to pieces beside her. She didn’t know what to attend to first—someone had to stop Laoghaire but the girls should be led inside and Claire—
“Jenny!” Jamie’s pleading cry cut through her daze.
She blinked and fell to her knees on Claire’s other side prying her fingers off her upper arm to assess the wound. Each little poke elicited a gasp from Claire.
“D’ye have a knife, brother?” Jenny asked, pulling at the seams of Claire’s sleeve. “I canna see the wound properly but I dinna think she’s bleeding o’ermuch—could be a through wound…”
Claire shook her head on the ground as Jamie pulled out a small blade for Jenny then held Claire still by her shoulders.
It took some effort to get the blade to slice down the length of the sleeve—the sleeve of her shift underneath split easier, the fabric thinner and more worn. Jenny pulled the flaps of fabric apart to examine the blood-smeared skin below. She lifted Claire’s arm, feeling for the exit wound.
Claire grit her teeth and shook her head. “It didn’t go through,” she finally managed to utter. “I think it struck the bone—might have broken it.” She struggled to raise her head and see the damage herself but Jamie ran his hand along her forehead and stuttered through something meant to be soothing. She locked eyes with him. “Is it spurting? I feel chilled… but I can’t tell if it’s shock or if it’s… How much blood am I loosing?”
Jamie looked over at the wound. Jenny was ripping strips of cloth from one of her petticoats and folding it to cover the wound while they moved Claire indoors. Jamie winced at the sight but it wasn’t a dangerous amount of blood. Claire turned her head to look again and sighed with relief.
“It didn’t hit any arteries—that’s good,” she tried to reassure Jamie.
“What happened?” Ian cried as he came upon the scene.
“Laoghaire shot Claire,” Jamie explained curtly.
“I thought I heard a shot but Fergus brought those two lasses into the house…”
The younger Ian was soon upon the scene as well.
“We need to get her inside,” Jenny declared.
Jamie carried Claire to the house where a space on the sofa had been cleared and a low table brought over that her arm could rest upon.
“You’ll need to dig the ball out,” Claire instructed through chattering teeth. She was pale and covered with a sheen of sweat—she was in shock.
“Get her a blanket,” Jamie begged of his nephew. Young Ian nodded and scurried off as Jenny appeared with a number of supplies from the kitchen and stillroom that might be put to use in mending Claire’s arm. Jamie put a hand on Jenny’s arm before she could set the tray down. “Have those been boiled?”
“Aye, I remember how Claire likes things done,” Jenny tried not to snap. “Hold her down.”
“A splint… it’ll need to be… splinted after…” Claire murmured.
Jenny set about wiping the caked blood from around the wound as young Ian returned with a blanket. Jamie drew it over Claire as the elder Ian handed him a flask with whiskey.
“Drink this, mo nighean donn,” Jamie urged her, holding it to her lips. She coughed on it at first but he got her to drink most of the flask—enough for her teeth to stop their chattering, at least.
“Ian,” Jenny addressed her youngest son. He was staring at Claire with abject terror on his face. “Ye heard what yer auntie said about needing a splint. Go out and see what ye can find for that—good and straight now, aye?”
The lad nodded and vanished.
“I’ll need a candle for light and for ye to hold it steady too,” Jenny requested of her husband as she ran her hands over the sharp knife and small tweezers for reassurance. When Ian returned there was nothing left but to begin. “Hold her down and keep her calm if ye can,” Jenny told Jamie firmly.
He put his weight on Claire’s shoulders, pinning her to the sofa’s cushions with his hands holding either side of her face with a firm but gentle touch. She couldn’t look at anything but him, which helped him in his resolve not to look either.
“I’ve got ye, mo chridhe,” he whispered. “I’m no letting ye go—never again, d’ye hear me.”
Claire pressed her eyes shut as Jenny settled to her task, opening the wound a little wider to allow herself easier access with the tweezers.
“I’ve found it,” she murmured, to herself as much as to anyone else. “I’ve just… got to get… a firm hold of it…”
Claire moaned and tried to draw away under Jamie’s hands but he held her in place.
“Nearly through,” he told her, stroking her hair with a shaking hand and tears in his throat. He switched to quiet Gaelic prayers and Claire tried gritting her teeth.
There was a dull ping as Jenny deposited the misshapen ball on a nearby plate. “There,” she said triumphantly before quickly switching the tweezers for a clean cloth soaked in watered down whiskey. Claire screamed as the alcohol burned through her arm. Jamie pressed his forehead to hers and kept her pinned in place.
Young Ian appeared with the thin but sturdy strips of wood he’d managed to compile. He remained pale and concerned as it sounded to him like Claire was being tortured.
“Go fetch some broth from Mrs. Crook in the kitchen,” Jenny immediately issued him another order that would take him out of the room. “And some bannocks too. Claire’ll need food to keep up her strength and to help wi’ all the whisky in her belly.”
With the hall to themselves again and the wound sufficiently disinfected, Jenny took up the needle and thread she had prepared for stitching the wound back together. Though she was more proficient with cloth, Jenny moved quickly and efficiently and soon Claire’s arm was mended and splinted.
“I canna feel a break wi’out poking at it a bit more but she seems to ken it’s there,” Jenny said quietly, tying the last bit of bandage off and sitting on her heels to brush the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. Her fingers were tacky with blood.
“Thank you,” Claire said weakly, the ordeal having drained her. “I… I’ll rest a bit now.”
“Have a bit of broth first,” Jamie urged, reaching for the bowl that had been brought from the kitchen.
Claire waved it off weakly with her good hand. “Later.”