It was a dreadful day, and Janet's mood matched it.
Huge, grey clouds hung ominously low in the southeast while faster moving ones raced each other northward. A fugitive cold wind played havoc with Janet's cloak and skirt, puffing them out most annoyingly.
At least her brother, Jamie, had saddled up Fatima, the most placid and biddable mare in their stable. The dark brown Friesian ignored the flapping of her garments when another horse would have spooked.
She pushed back the hood of her cloak irritably. She had not had time—or made the time—to climb to her room and get her own before she left.
Instead, she had taken the first available cloak from the peg behind the kitchen door. Wrinkling her nose, she thought it was most likely Ian's. It smelled like him—a combination of unwashed body odor, dung, and wet dog.
"Ye'd have done the same if told to do something ye didn't want to," she mumbled to Fatima. She couldn't believe a day that had begun so promisingly could turn out to be disappointing. What was a body to do?
She had ridden Fatima hard, trying to put as much distance as she could between her and Lallybroch. They had made good time on the ride to Broch Mordha, nearing it before mid-morning. Beyond the village lay Balriggan, less than a quarter-hour’s walk.
Where she had an unpleasant task to discharge for Jenny.
Being the youngest daughter isn't like being the youngest son," she grumbled to Fatima, who merely snorted back. "You're forced to do things ye don't want to. In and out, Jamie said! Dinna talk to anyone else." she said, imitating her brother's baritone.
Returning to her normal voice, she added, "He has no idea how embarrassing this could be. The Grizzler will be asking questions. What could I say to head her off?"
Leaning forward, she stroked Fatima's withers. "At least we women have more sense than to give unwanted, vague advice, do we not?"
She should have been rejoicing for the return of her brother, Ian, the visit of Uncle Jamie, and most importantly—Claire. Janet could have been gossiping excitedly about Auntie Claire's miraculous return with her sister-in-law, Joan.
But she wasn't.
And she only had one person to blame—Jenny.
"Good morning to ye," a deep voice called out, startling her.
Approaching her was Amyas Kettrick, the owner of a neighboring property. He was a portly man, about the age of her father, nodded to him politely from her perch.
"Good morning, sir. Glad to see ye up and about."
"Yer one of the Murrays. Are yer da and mam home, Mistress? I have something of import to tell them."
She smiled at him in answer, pleased at being addressed like an adult. "I have an errand to run, but it won't take more than an hour. I can pass on your message," she offered. "Unless there is something else ye intend to discuss with them."
"Och, no. But I met yer Uncle Jamie and, I believe, one of your brothers early this morning. A woman was with them," he said huffily. "She’s younger than him with curly, brown hair. I dinna ken who she is, though she looked familiar." He raised both eyebrows at her.
She barely heard his last sentences for the thrumming of her heart. Fatima fidgeted at that moment, sidling away from the roan gelding Amyas was riding. Janet fought to regain her composure as she brought her mare under control.
"Yer nag's a flighty one," he observed with interest. "Hold on to yer reins and dinna forget yer seat."
She ignored his advice. "I'm sure I won't," she answered. "But I must be off if I'm to make it home before tea. How far away are they?"
Amyas looked disappointed to Janet’s jaundiced eyes. It was clear he was expecting information to share with everyone else.
"The way they were dawdling, it would be another good four or five hours," he said. "Well, I'll take my leave of you then. Give my regards to Ian and Jenny." And with that, he doffed his tricorn hat and rode away.
Janet urged Fatima forward, allowing the mare to pick her way on the bridle path. She needed to think, and Fatima knew how to get to Balriggan, anyway. Janet could trust her not to stray.
She just wished she could say the same for herself.
Her day had started auspiciously enough.
She'd woken with a sense of well-being for she'd beaten George, the rooster, before his fifth crow. She considered it a particularly good omen, despite the strong draft from the window.
She was already helping Mary and Joan, her sister-in-law, well before Jenny showed up in the kitchen.
"It's a fine day when you're up afore your Da." Jenny smiled at her briefly then fell silent. Amid the greetings of the two other women, Janet peeked at Jenny, trying not to stare. But it was difficult. She'd rarely seen her mother so upset, with puffy eyelids and red-rimmed eyes.
"Mam, would ye like some tea now?" she offered. "Ye can take it in the parlor. I'll be in and light a log fire for ye."
"Aye, Mother Jenny," Joan seconded. "We have breakfast well in hand. A fire will warm ye up nicely."
Jenny considered for a moment. Then nodding her agreement, she motioned for Mary to follow her out.
One heartbeat, two heartbeats, three—
"What do ye think happened?"
"Have ye ever seen Mother Jenny so tired?"
Janet and Joan laughed softly at talking on top of each other.
"It's not for me to say, but they were in the parlor till the wee hours. Jamie and I were in bed long afore we heard them climb the stairs," Joan whispered.
"I've rarely seen Mam so sad, Joan," Janet confided. “The last time was when Uncle Jamie married Auntie Laoghaire. But that was the day after the wedding," she added as she upended a basin to wash her hands.
Joan strode to the open kitchen door and peered out into the dark hallway. Closing it half-way, she returned to stand beside Janet near the kitchen sink. Together, they listened for voices from the parlor.
There were none to be heard.
"Well, Jamie told me Mother Jenny had seen the fetch of a woman between Uncle Jamie and Laoghaire at the altar," Joan said in a low voice.
"No—" Janet breathed, crossing herself. The hairs at her nape lifted, and she shivered at the fresh draft of air coming in from the open window.
"Mother Jenny said it was the fetch of Uncle Jamie's first wife, Claire, the sassenach," Joan answered, crossing herself as well. "She swore to Jamie if she wasna sure Claire was a witch, she kent it then. Why else would she show herself afore the final blessing?"
"So why didn't Mam say anything then? Call off the wedding? By the Blessed Saint Oda, Uncle Jamie looked near to death himself," Janet exclaimed. "Da always said Uncle Jamie would have run off if Da had not herded him from his room.”
Janet's thoughts were in a whirl but uppermost in her mind was Jenny's perfidy.
She was fifteen when Uncle Jamie had come home two years ago. Silent and sad. To her surprise—but not to Mam's—he married a widow within a week of his arrival. The whiner, the sniveler—Laoghaire MacKenzie MacKimmie. A woman who didn't know how to fight correctly, Jenny and Ian had whispered to each other—not knowing Janet was right there, hiding under the stairs.
"How could he?" Janet had raged to Michael throughout the ceremony. Memories of Auntie Claire were all around them! To learn Jenny could have prevented it—
"Mam should have said something, then. Called out…anything to stop it." Janet could say no more for the lump in her throat.
"And to what end, eh?" Joan asked sensibly. "It would have disgraced us all, to stop the wedding. And, it was plain to see, Auntie Laoghaire needed Uncle Jamie. No, wanted him."
They sprang apart and turned, alarmed it was Jenny returning. But it was Mary, frowning at them who had made that disapproving sound.
"The Mistress has asked for ye, Janet," she said evenly. "I've already lit a fire in the parlor. I'm glad ye've not brewed tea, seeing she doesna want it now."
Joan hurried back to the bannocks she was preparing. Janet blushed but said nothing as she rushed to the parlor. Mary was a sweet woman; her loyalty to Jenny was unquestionable. She was also not one to tattle, but she did not tolerate people gossiping, not when there was work to be done.
Arriving at the parlor, Janet knocked quietly, entering only when told to.
The room was dim, lit only by two candles and the glow from the fireplace. Janet took a few steps inside bringing her beside the Laird's table.
She was startled. Jenny was standing near one of the bookshelves, a glass of whiskey clutched to her chest. Most people in the highlands drank whiskey. Even weans were given it when they were teething. But she'd never seen Jenny, nor Ian for that matter, drink it so early in the day.
"Mam, I could make ye tea. Does Da know you’re down here?"
"It's of no importance," Jenny answered. She was now holding the glass up toward the nearest candle, studying its contents as if entranced.
"Whiskey eyes," Jenny whispered. "Jamie always said that's what they were. How could I have forgotten?"
Janet fell silent, rooted to where she was. She stilled trembling hands. It wouldn't do to show Jenny she was frightened.
"Janet," Jenny said abruptly, bringing the glass back to her chest, "I need ye to go to Balriggan. Tell yer Auntie Laoghaire that Jamie is back from Edinburgh. Tell her," she paused, seeming to consider her next words, "he’s bringing home a piece of baggage—Claire."
She gasped, searching Jenny's face for any sign she was somehow joking. Janet's heart beat faster. Auntie Claire was Ian's secret yesterday! She'd somehow found her way back to Uncle Jamie. Wasn't that something to be happy about?
Jaw clenched, Jenny half-turned to look outside the window where dawn lightened the sky. "Tell Laoghaire I need her to be here when Jamie and yer brother, Ian, arrive in five days. She and Jamie must settle the question of who the legal wife is, and quick, afore more damage can be done to their marriage," she said evenly.
Janet felt behind her for the edge of the Laird's table and clung to it. No, she decided. Jenny must have misspoken. She couldn't have possibly said that. She knew Jenny loved Claire. Why stir up trouble that way?
"Mam…" she cleared her throat and fumbled with the hem of her apron. "I…I dinna hear ye correctly."
She looked around her, hoping for anything that would distract Jenny. Or give her courage. She felt a fluttering in her stomach at the prospect of questioning her mother's instructions. She had never done so before.
"Did ye order me, Mam, to ride to Bal...Balriggan this morning and tell Laoghaire Unc…Uncle Jamie is coming ho…home?" she stammered. "With Auntie Clare? But she's his wife! Laoghaire has nothing to do with it."
Quick as a flash, Jenny rounded on her, face leeched of all color save for her lips and flashing eyes.
"Ye seem to be hard of hearing, Janet. And yes, I want ye to ride to Balriggan to tell Laoghaire about Jamie and his first wife." Jenny shook her head at her and crossed her arms below her breasts. "A body would think ye dinna ken what's right or wrong. Claire left us. It doesna matter if it was before or after Culloden. She just did. Now, yer Uncle Jamie's marrit again. And Laoghaire is his legal wife."
Sweat trickled down her back. Janet clenched her hands and bit her lip, hoping to stem the words welling up from her. But she could not. The bitterness of willow bark was on her tongue, and the words rushed out in a torrent of confusion.
"And why should I be the one to go to Balriggan? It's not like they'll be home anytime soon."
"Haud yer wheesht, Janet!"
"What about ye, Mam? Do you ken that what ye want me to do is wrong?" she cried out. "How will telling her, of all people, help Uncle Jamie? She does nothing but snivel and cries when they quarrel. And Uncle Jamie married again because he believed Auntie Claire died—"
"He never even told me she was dead! Only that she was lost to him forever."
"Mam, Auntie Claire's marriage came first. Therefore, Grizzler cannot be married to him. And ye cannot change my mind about it."
"Watch yer tongue," Jenny cut in, her voice low and hard. "She's still yer Auntie Laoghaire and deserves yer respect. Dinna call her by that name."
At Janet's snort of derision, Jenny uncrossed her arms and stood akimbo, watching Janet with narrowed eyes. "And what is this talk about Claire's marriage into our family? What do ye ken about it? She was well away even afore ye were born."
"I kent from your stories … all of yours! Da's, Missus Crook's and even Granny MacNab's before she passed away when I was five."
"We didn’t ken who she is, Janet. Nobody did," Jenny answered, a quaver in her voice. "I was as much a fool as anyone, for I had not thought to ask her about her folks." Jenny walked toward the hearth and stopped, hand on the mantle, looking up at the portrait of her mother, Ellen MacKenzie Fraser. “I believed in the love I thought she and Jamie shared.”
Seeing Jenny silhouetted against the fire, head bowed, body shuddering as she drew deep breaths, moved Janet profoundly. She had never thought Jenny was small. On the contrary, she had always seemed more vital than anyone else, including Uncle Jamie.
For a moment, Janet's heart contracted with love. She blotted tears from her eyes and her cheek with her apron, intending to apologize for answering back and worse, raising her voice. But, Janet thought, it was clear Jenny was conflicted. Otherwise, she would have just ordered Janet to do her bidding.
So Janet remained still—her hands pleating her apron to the occasional popping from the log fire—hoping for a reprieve from her unwanted task.
Straightening slowly, Jenny squared her shoulders and turned back to her, eyes tearless and bright, color back in her cheeks.
She waved her hand dismissively at Janet, voice once again firm. "But it is what it is. I know there's no reasoning with ye, but ye must go. Now, afore the rains begin. Remember to bring a cloak for the rains are sure to come."
And with that, Jenny brushed past in a cloud of whiskey fumes, leaving Janet alone in the parlor with her thoughts.
Janet started from her daydreams to find Fatima had crested the final rise to Balriggan. It was a pretty property, she acknowledged, with an orchard, vegetable plots and a small lake visible from where she was.
It was easy to imagine Uncle Jamie fishing or doing chores around the place. And she wondered, not for the first time, at the state of his second marriage. It said much that he had been able to leave this idyllic place and his new bride. Gathering her thoughts, she urged Fatima faster toward a small gate set in the hedgerow.
She wasn't sure if she should tell Laoghaire that Uncle Jamie would be in Lallybroch that afternoon. A part of Janet rebelled against it, deciding instead to give Jenny's message as it was. She wasn't going to lie, she told herself virtuously. But she wasn't going to include Amyas Kettrick’s news.
Janet reached the gate and hesitated before dismounting. Wee Joanie and Marsali, Laoghaire's daughters, were sitting on a bench halfway to the house. Blonde and ginger heads were close together as they surveyed the vegetable plots. A heaviness settled in her stomach. They would be devastated at her message.
"It doesn't matter," she said under her breath as she unlocked the gate. "They're not Uncle Jamie's real children." She thought rebelliously, that it was true, even as she tamped down her guilt at downplaying their place in her uncle's affections.
Joanie saw her first and ran up to her, grinning with delight. Marsali followed more sedately, giving her a reserved but genuine smile. Once again, Janet felt conflicted.
"Janet, yer here!" Joanie cried, hugging her midsection.
"Are ye here to see Mam?" Marsali asked. She looked toward the gate where Fatima was tethered, forehead crinkling. "Did ye come alone?"
"Yes, I'm here to see your mam," she answered quietly. Her chest felt too tight, so she took a deep breath. Then another. "Is she in?" she asked, half-praying Laoghaire was in the village or had gone off to visit her brother, Hobart.
"Aye, she's inside,” Marsali answered. Peering into Janet’s face, she exclaimed, “Cousin, you've gone as white as goat cheese! Are you ill? Let’s go in so you may rest.” Marsali took hold of one arm, urging Janet forward, Joanie following behind.
The door of the brick house opened, and the small, plump figure of Laoghaire came out, cap-covered head bobbing in her haste to reach them.
Now that the moment had arrived, Janet wasn't sure she could go through it. She didn't know if she could be so cruel as to hurt someone deliberately. Even someone she disliked.
“Mary, Margaret, and Bride! What in the name of God has happened to ye, Janet?" Laoghaire asked as she reached up to lay a hand on Janet’s forehead.
Janet tried to smile, but the corners of her lips refused to turn up. Sweat broke out on her face, her nape, and trickled down her back.
"Come in for some water or milk if it suits ye," Laoghaire said with a half-smile.
But Janet shook her head. She gently removed Marsali's hand from her arm and faced Laoghaire.
"Please, please, Saint Michael, deliver me from this task," she mumbled under her breath.
"Why, yer as skittish as a colt," Laoghaire said, not unkindly. "What's wrong? Speak up, niece!”
Janet pinched the bridge of her nose, squeezed her eyes tightly and, gathering courage, burst out—