He allowed Jenny to do what she felt she must, exerting all her skill to try to save him from the brink yet again. But when she’d finished digging the ball from his side, the fever followed hard and fast.
He welcomed it.
He welcomed the feeling of being barely tethered to this life, his bonds to earth the finest gossamer threads. The physical pain was there, unavoidable, but a large part of him felt separate from it.
He was ready.
He’d been prepared to pursue, to apologize, to explain. Laoghaire’s actions had put an end to that plan, and slowly, the fight had seeped out of him like the blood from his wounds. He cast around, but could find no hatred or malice toward Laoghaire in the burning chaos of his fevered mind. She had given him an exit from a life he no longer wanted.
His life was gone.
There was the pain, more piercing than the projectile that had ripped open his flesh, set his bones on white-hot fire, and opened the door for the invaders now waging war in his blood.
Claire had left him. And this time, she’d left willingly.
He had existed in the shadows for twenty years, living the barest essence of a life. Then, on a day that had started like any other, she’d exploded back into his world and filled it to bursting with light and color and joy. And having tasted the fullness of life again — the completion only found in her body; the lightness of spirit only found in sharing his entire heart with her; the freedom of knowing and being known — he could never return to the shadows.
He was done fighting. What was there to fight for now? So, he would wait for the fever to run its course and take him. He allowed it to carry him, bringing him visions, flashes of other times, other places. He floated through remembrances of the life he was prepared to lay down for good.
But fevers did not soothe. They tormented. Little wonder, then, that all his remembrances revolved around her.
The sensation of falling from his horse was not one he had experienced often since he was a lad. But the fatigue, blood loss, hunger, and darkness were too much, and he felt himself slipping from the saddle. It was quite like the feeling of his fever dreams — the detached, unreal quality of falling. Two things brought him back to reality: hearing her voice (“Stop! Help, he’s going over!”) and finding himself on the ground. Gradually, his awareness returned, along with the increasing pain of his wounds. His awareness of Claire was both instinctual and growing with experience, just like knowing how and where to strike during a fight.
Her voice, barking orders and cursing fit to make grown men blush.
Her touch, not altogether gentle but effective, doing what needed to be done, binding him together to make him fit to travel once more.
Her fearlessness, planting her knee in his chest to keep him on the ground and going toe-to-toe with Dougal over what she felt her patient needed.
The need of her, the all-consuming want of her, was not just born of this moment, of course, but the whole series of moments since she appeared in the cottage with Murtagh. In the haze of pain, the fire had seemed to cast an ethereal glow around her. Christ, she was bonny, this mysterious Sassenach angel with the tongue of a devil. She’d set his shoulder and dressed his wound, the pulsing feeling in his skin only partially due to pain.
Then Dougal had assigned her to ride on his horse, and the feel of her in front of him in the saddle would have surely tempted a saint. The feel of her head against his chest when she dozed as they rode. The feel of her wrapped in his plaid, held tight against him to fight off the cold. The feel of sharing a drink with her and his lips tingling when they met the place hers had just touched.
The feelings swirled and gathered and built, and when her knee connected with his chest, the want of her ripped him open.
And he’d thought he was dizzy before. If he hadn’t already been on the ground, he likely would have wound up there anyway. She wasn’t a witch, but oh there were times when he wondered, so completely under her spell was he.
He had always considered himself content by nature. There were things he wanted in his life, surely, but they were simple things — made more complicated by outside forces, but basic in their essence. He wanted to clear his name. He wanted to take his place at Lallybroch, follow in his father’s footsteps, be a good laird to his tenants. He wanted reconciliation with Jenny, despite his anger that still burned. He wanted to find a good woman to stand beside him as Lady Broch Tuarach, to love as his parents had, to have children and raise them in the place he called home.
But there was nothing simple about the way he wanted Claire Beauchamp. This wanting was rage, inferno, desperation, madness.
He would never know contentment apart from her again.
His father once said he would have no doubt when he found the right woman, and he was right. But why hadn’t his father told him about the wanting? Was it just that indescribable, the raw, exposed vulnerability? His heart was all jagged edges and open chambers with no defenses, simply waiting for her to storm in and either fill him up or leave him forever empty. The want of her was a living thing, like an untamed stallion, stampeding through his blood, aching in his lungs, and yes, echoing in his cock. It was the one part of himself where he could not hide his response to her through the rest of their ride to Leoch. He only hoped she was too exhausted to notice.
He wished he had the strength to find the rooster loudly proclaiming the new day and wring its neck.
Jenny had tended him through the night, giving him brandy and wiping his fevered brow. He knew there was no point in telling her not to bother. He told her he loved her (he had no desire to have the last words he spoke to her in this world be in anger), and she simply nodded and bit her lip. The fact that she didn’t rage at him, didn’t argue that there was no way she was going to let him die, proved that she was worried.
As the fever swung him back and forth between nebulous dreams and reality, he found both comfort and pain in thinking about Claire. He wondered if she had already made it to the stones, if she had disappeared again behind that impenetrable veil. He wondered if she thought about him, what she thought about him. He wondered what she would tell Brianna when she returned.
Brianna. He took some small comfort in knowing that a piece of him — of them — would remain. Her life would be a testimony that he and her mother had loved in some distant past. He wished he had her pictures at hand so he could look at her in his solitary moments, but he nearly had them memorized anyway. His favorite was the one of Claire holding her on the day she was born, both so beautiful it made everything inside of him ache.
As the tentacles of the fever pulled him back down once more, he thought of how close they had come to never having children at all, the first time he’d faced losing her for good.
Forests were always full of sound, but it seemed that everything had gone silent except for her weeping — the trees and plants and creatures of the woods, the whispers of the wind hushing themselves in reverence to her pain. He was an educated man and a Scot, fluent in both languages and legends, the ways of the world and the other-worldly.
None of it had prepared him for what his wife had just revealed.
He’d asked if she was a witch. Then he wished for the simplicity of that, upon learning all she was.
He told her he believed her, and he did. Claire had no talent for falsehood under the best of circumstances, which these certainly were not. And she may have been exhausted, scared, hungry, and overwrought, but she was not insane. The only possible conclusion was the one that made no sense, but was nonetheless the truth.
Would they have burned her anyway if they’d known the truth, that she wasn’t a witch, but a time traveler?
He had never ridden harder in his life than he had to get to her at Cranesmuir. Thank God for Alec, who’d found him, and for Donas, who’d carried him. The events after his arrival were a blur, but he’d managed to keep his wits until Geillis provided enough of a distraction for them to get away. Good thing, too. If he’d allowed his emotions to rule over his good sense, he would have attempted to tear every man who had dared touch his wife — who had marred her flawless pearl skin and made her quake in terror — limb from limb.
His wife. Except she wasn’t really his wife. She was another man’s wife. She was Frank’s wife.
And he was ripped open all over again.
He told her believed her. He held her and comforted her, cradled her near the fire like a bairn until she calmed, and then she told him the whole story. The part that kept ringing in his ears and aching in his chest was that she belonged to another. Somewhere, somehow, in a way that he couldn’t comprehend, a man that hadn’t been born had a claim on her. And she had attempted, more than once, to get back to him.
He knew what he had to do, what he was honor-bound to do. He watched her for a long time after she finally fell asleep and saw every one of his dreams for their life together evaporate like the mists on the moor. He tried to take comfort in the fact that she would be happy, back in her own time, surrounded by familiar people and familiar things — that she would be safe and loved. His mind tripped over the last thought, and his hatred burned strong and bright for a man he would never see. But somehow his mind’s eye could easily conjure them together, tangled and sweating, and he wanted to scream and rage and fight and curse. The longer he looked at her, though, the more certain he was that he couldn’t deny her. He had to give her the chance she hadn’t been able to grasp on her own.
He tried to start pulling back from her the next morning, saying little, though he knew it was pointless. He’d given her possession of his heart so long ago he knew there was no chance of getting it back now. But the instinct of self-preservation was so strong he had to at least make the attempt, no matter how feeble. Every stride Donas made took a condemned man closer to the gallows.
At some point, he surrendered — decided he should try to take whatever pieces of her he could to sustain him through the long days and nights without her that stretched before him, a road with no destination. He tried to memorize the sweep of her jaw, the delicate but proud line of her neck, the herbal scent of her hair, the feel of her waist under his hands, and that lovely round arse he knew would torment him the rest of his life. He cursed himself for his own weakness that night as he made love to her one last time, wondered if she could feel the desperation in it despite the languid pace. Then he rose with the new day — calmer, more sure — to do what must be done.
As he swam back to lucidity for a few moments, he still marveled, all these years later, that she’d chosen him. He tried to use that feeling as a shield against the pain that had grown steadily worse in his body and his heart. He wished the fever would hurry up and do its job so he could find relief from the throbbing ache in his arm and side, the pounding in his head. Time had long since lost its meaning, but he thought it was somewhere in the small hours of the morning before dawn, the beginning of the third day since she’d gone.
The only thing that scared him about dying was wondering when and how he would see her again in the next life.
Jenny came in and he tried to use his good arm to wave her away, but it was weak and ineffective. He slowly realized she was crying, and it stunned him. She knelt next to him and grabbed his hand, but he winced, and she let go. She said in a small voice, “I’m sorry, Jamie. I’m sorry, a bràthair. I did what I thought best but . . . Would ye try if she were here?”
“Dinna fash, Jenny. ‘Tis done now. Just let me rest, aye? I’ll see her soon.” Every word was an effort, the labor of speech leaving him breathless. His sister dropped her head and wept openly for a few moments, already grieving, then sniffed and raised her head, pulling herself together to give him a few more sips of brandy and wipe the sweat away. He could sense the fear in her every time she returned, not knowing if she would find him still breathing. He admired the strength it took her to walk away and leave him to rest, as she did now. The brief but emotionally charged conversation left him defenseless against the next wave of fever that knocked him back under the churning waves once again.
God, she’s lovely. It was always his first thought when he was able to gaze upon his wife without her knowing. It had never changed, together or apart, in all the years since they’d first met. He loved being able to look on her like this, allowing himself to be overcome by her beauty, letting it combine with his admiration of her — her strength and her skill and her determination — until it all snowballed into a searing, pulsing lust that made his fingers ache to touch her and his entire being cry out to get her alone.
Something wasn’t quite right, though. There was some tiny bit of his rational self that intruded on the fever for a moment, almost as if he had two minds existing side by side, when he realized he’d never seen her like this.
Was this a fantasy? Another torment? A vision of a time yet to be? Was he dead and already reunited with her? He didn’t understand it a bit, but somehow they were together, and since it was all he wanted he ceased to question. She was dressed formally, but this wasn’t Paris because he could see the silver streaked through her sable hair, piled atop her head in a tamed display of the curls he longed to unpin and dishevel. All those details about her he’d memorized years before while taking her to the stones stood out in sharp relief against the somewhat hazy surroundings in his vision. That long, lovely line of her jaw and the slope of her neck were just the same, as if she hadn’t aged a day. He could still catch the slight scent of herbs in her hair. She was still narrow in the waist, round in the curves of her hips and arse.
There was not a single part of her that did not call to him, that did not have the power, still, to rip him open with want and need and love.
The scene, still hazy and unformed, had undercurrents of tension, of worry. Wherever they were and whatever they were doing, all was not well. He could sense that they would need her talents as a healer, quick thinking and quick action to get through whatever this latest challenge would bring. Yet there was — as there had always been with them — an overwhelming feeling of peace that surrounded and supported every moment. It truly did not matter what they were facing. Hadn’t they already proven over and over that they could face down the worst the world had to throw at them, so long as they were together?
Trial. Captivity. Torture. Trauma. Intrigue. Loss. War. Hunger.
They were bound, knit together so tightly that not even twenty years apart could break them (blood of my blood and bone of my bone, they’d vowed and reaffirmed). They communicated without speaking, a wordless conversation. They moved in tandem, a dance without touching. They each played their parts, a play with no script but with lines they somehow knew perfectly. And when the last obstacle was removed, the crisis averted, they found rest and shelter and sanctuary in each other’s arms. He wanted nothing more, in this life or in any other.
When he came to the surface again, he was alone. And night had fallen.
He was still so hot, there wasn’t a single part of him that didn’t ache, and he wondered how long it could possibly take a fever to kill someone. He bobbed in and out of awareness, flinching and moaning sometime later when he vaguely felt a hand touch him. When he mustered the strength to open his eyes, he saw her.
She looked much as she had the first time he’d laid eyes on her all those years ago in the cottage, making him wonder if he’d fallen back into that memory again. She was soaked, disheveled, dirty, and tired. And she was still the most beautiful sight he had ever seen in his life, the fire glowing around her turning her ethereal.
His Sorcha, his light.
He knew he must be close now. He would follow his light home. He said a silent prayer of thanks that she’d been sent to him now, at this hour, just as she had so clearly in his mind’s eye as he lay dying at Culloden. He suddenly felt it had to be so; that she would be his guide from this world into the next. So, to prepare himself, he spoke to her, told her everything that was in his mind and heart.
“Ye came back, then,” he said softly. “I knew ye would.”