He drew a deep breath, somewhat relieved. One less thing to worry over, then.
A brief sound from the door jerked his head round to see Jenny standing there, wearing an unreadable expression. He coughed and took his hand off his cock.
“Ye haven’t got to do it, Jamie,” she said quietly, eyes fixed on his. “If ye’ve thought better of it, tell me.”
He’d nearly done it. But he could hear the house. There was a sense of bustle in it, a purpose and a happiness it had lacked for a very long time. It wasn’t only his own happiness at stake here—it never had been.
“No,” he’d said abruptly. “I’m fine.” And smiled reassuringly at her.
As he went downstairs to meet Ian at the foot, though, he heard the rain on the windows and felt a sudden sense of drowning—an unwelcome recollection of his first wedding day and how they’d held each other up, he and Claire, both bleeding, both terrified.
“All right, then?” Ian had said to him, leaning in, low-voiced.
“Aye, fine,” he replied, and was pleased at how calm his voice was.
Jenny’s face appeared briefly round the door to the parlor. She looked worried, but relaxed when she saw him.
“It’s all right, mo nighean,” Ian had assured her, grinning. “I’ve got a grip on him, in case he takes it into his head to bolt.” Ian was in fact gripping his arm, rather to Jamie’s surprise, but he didn’t protest.
“Well, drag him in, then,” his sister had said, very dry. “The priest’s come.”
He’d gone in with Ian, taken up his place beside Laoghaire in front of old Father McCarthy. She glanced up at him briefly, then away. Was she frightened? Her hand was cool in his but didn’t shake. He squeezed her fingers gently and she turned her head, looking up at him then, directly. No, not fright, and not candle glow or starshine. There was gratitude in her gaze—and trust.
That trust had entered his heart, a small, soft weight that steadied him, restored at least a few of the severed roots that had held him to his place. He’d been grateful, too.
He turned at the sound of footsteps now and saw Claire coming along the hall. He smiled—noting that he’d done so without the slightest thought—and she came to him, taking his hand as she peered into the room.
“Yours, wasn’t it? When you were young, I mean.”
“Aye, it was.”
“I thought Jenny told me so—when we came here the first time, I mean.” Her mouth twisted a little. She and Jenny did speak now, of course, but it was a stilted kind of speaking, both of them overcareful, shy of saying too much or the wrong thing. Aye, well, he was afraid of saying too much or the wrong thing himself, but damned if he’d be a woman about it.
“I need to go and see Laoghaire,” he said abruptly. “Will ye kill me if I do?”
She looked surprised. And then, damn her, amused.
“Are you asking my permission?”
“I am not,” he said, feeling stiff and awkward. “I only—well, I thought I should tell ye, is all.”
“Very considerate of you.” She was still smiling, but the smile had taken on a certain wariness. “Would you… care to tell me why you want to go and see her?”
“I didna say I want to see her,” he said, a noticeable edge in his voice. “I said I need to.”
“Would it be presumptuous of me to ask why you need to see her?” Her eyes were just that bit wider and yellower than usual; he’d roused the hawk in her. He hadn’t meant to, at all, but he wavered for an instant, suddenly wanting to seek refuge from his own confusion in an almighty row. But he couldn’t in conscience do that. Still less could he explain the memory of Laoghaire’s face on their wedding day, the look of trust in her eyes, and the nagging feeling that he had betrayed that trust.
“Ye can ask me anything, Sassenach—and ye have,” he added pointedly. “I’d answer if I thought I could make sense.”
She made a small sniffing noise, not quite “Hmph!” but he took her meaning clear enough.
“If you only want to know who she’s sleeping with, there are probably less direct ways of finding out,” she said. Her voice was carefully level, but her pupils had dilated.
“I dinna care who she’s sleeping with!”
“Oh, yes, you do,” she said promptly.
“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” she said, and on the verge of an explosion, he burst out laughing instead. She looked momentarily taken back but then joined him, snorting with it and her nose going pink.
They stopped in seconds, abashed at being hilarious in a house that hadn’t known open laughter for too long—but were still smiling at each other.
“Come here,” he said softly, and held out a hand to her. She took it at once, her fingers warm and strong on his, and came to put her arms around him.
Her hair smelled different. Still fresh, and full of the scent of live green things, but different. Like the Highlands. Like heather, maybe.
“You do want to know who it is, you know,” she said, her voice warm and tickling through the fabric of his shirt. “Do you want me to tell you why?”
“Aye, I do, and no, I don’t,” he said, tightening his hold. “I ken well enough why, and I’m sure you and Jenny and every other woman in fifty miles thinks they do, too. But that’s not why I need to see her.”
She pushed a little way back then and brushed the falling curls out of her eyes to look up at him. She searched his face thoughtfully and nodded.
“Well, do give her my very best regards, then, won’t you?”
“Why, ye vengeful wee creature. I’d never ha’ thought it of ye!”
“Wouldn’t you, indeed?” she said, dry as toast. He smiled down at her and ran a thumb gently down the side of her cheek.
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t. Ye’re no one to hold a grudge, Sassenach; ye never have been.”
“Well, I’m not a Scot,” she observed, smoothing back her hair. “It’s not a matter of national pride, I mean.” She put a hand on his chest before he could answer, and said, quite seriously, “She never made you laugh, did she?”
“I may have smiled once or twice,” he said gravely. “But no.”
“Well, just you remember that,” she said, and with a swish of skirts, was off. He grinned like a fool and followed her.
When he reached the stairs, she was waiting, halfway down.
“One thing,” she said, lifting a finger at him.
“If you find out who she’s sleeping with and don’t tell me, I will kill you.”
BALRIGGAN WAS A small place, little more than ten acres, plus the house and outbuildings. Still, it was bonnie, a large gray stone cottage tucked into the curve of a hill, a bittie wee loch glimmering like a looking glass at its foot. The English had burned the fields and the barn during the Rising, but fields came back. Much more easily than the men who tilled them.
He rode slowly past the loch, thinking that this visit was a mistake. It was possible to leave things behind—places, people, memories—at least for a time. But places held tight to the things that had happened in them, and to come again to a place you had once lived was to be brought face-to-face with what you had done there and who you had been.
Balriggan, though … it hadn’t been a bad place; he had loved the wee loch and the way it mirrored the sky, so still some mornings that you felt you might walk down into the clouds you saw reflected there, feeling their cold mist rise up about you, to wrap you in their drifting peace. Or in the summer evenings, when the surface glimmered in hundreds of overlapping rings as the hatch rose, the rhythm of it broken now and then by the sudden splash of a leaping salmon.
The road took him closer, and he saw the stony shallows where he’d shown wee Joan and Marsali how to guddle fish, all three of them so intent on their business they’d paid no heed to the midgies biting, and gone home wet to the waist and red with bites and sunburn, the wee maids skipping and swinging from his hands, gleeful in the sunset. He smiled just a little—then turned his horse’s head away, up the hill to the house.
The place was shabby but in decent repair, he grudgingly noted. There was a saddle mule browsing in the paddock behind the house, elderly but sound-looking. Well enough. Laoghaire wasn’t spending his money on follies or a coach-and-four, at least.
He set his hand on the gate and felt a twist go through his wame. The feel of the wood under his hand was eerily familiar; he’d lifted it without thinking, at the spot where it was always inclined to drag on the path. That twist corkscrewed its way up to his mouth as he recalled his last meeting with Ned Gowan, Laoghaire’s lawyer. “What does the bloody woman want, then?” he’d demanded, exasperated. To which Ned had replied cheerfully, “Your head, mounted above her gate.”
With a brief snort, he went through, closing the gate a bit harder than necessary, and glanced up at the house.
Movement took his eye. A man was sitting on the bench outside the cottage, staring at him over a bit of broken harness on his knee.
An ill-favored wee lad, Jamie thought, scrawny and narrow-faced as a ferret, with a walleye and a mouth that hung open as though in astonishment. Still, Jamie greeted the man pleasantly, asking was his mistress to home the day?
The lad—seen closer to, he must be in his thirties—blinked at him, then turned his head to bring his good eye to bear.
“Who’re you, then?” he asked, sounding unfriendly.
“Fraser of Broch Tuarach,” Jamie replied. It was a formal occasion, after all. “Is Mrs.—” He hesitated, not knowing how to refer to Laoghaire. His sister had said she persisted in calling herself “Mrs. Fraser,” despite the scandal. He hadn’t felt he could object—the fault of it being his and he being in America in any case—but damned if he’d call her that himself, even to her servant.
“Fetch your mistress, if ye please,” he said shortly.
“What d’ye want wi’ her?” The straight eye narrowed in suspicion.
He hadn’t expected obstruction and was inclined to reply sharply, but reined himself in. The man clearly kent something of him, and it was as well if Laoghaire’s servant was concerned for her welfare, even if the man’s manner was crude.
“I wish to speak with her, if ye’ve no great objection,” he said, with extreme politeness. “D’ye think ye might make shift to go and tell her so?”
The man made a rude sound in his throat but put aside the harness and stood up. Too late, Jamie saw that his spine was badly twisted and one leg shorter than the other. There was no way to apologize that would not make matters worse, though, and so he only nodded shortly and let the man lurch his way off into the house, thinking that it was just like Laoghaire to keep a lame servant for the express purpose of embarrassing him.
Then he shook himself in irritation, ashamed of his thought. What was it about him that a hapless woman such as Laoghaire MacKenzie should bring out every wicked, shameful trait he possessed? Not that his sister couldn’t do it, too, he reflected ruefully. But Jenny would evoke some bit of bad temper or hasty language from him, fan the flames ’til he was roaring, and then extinguish him neatly with a word, as though she’d doused him with cold water.
“Go see her,” Jenny had said.
“All right, then,” he said belligerently. “I’m here.”
“I see that,” said a light, dry voice. “Why?”
He swung round to face Laoghaire, who was standing in the doorway, broom in hand, giving him a cool look.
He snatched off his hat and bowed to her.
“Good day to ye. I hope I see ye well the day.” Apparently so; her face was slightly flushed beneath a starched white kerch, blue eyes clear.
She looked him over, expressionless save for fair brows arched high.
“I heard ye were come home. Why are ye here?”
“To see how ye fare.”
Her brows rose that wee bit higher.
“Well enough. What d’ye want?”
He’d gone through it in his mind a hundred times but should have known that for the waste of effort it was. There were things that could be planned for, but none of them involved women.
“I’ve come to say sorry to ye,” he said bluntly. “I said it before, and ye shot me. D’ye want to listen this time?”
The brows came down. She glanced from him to the broom in her hand, as though estimating its usefulness as a weapon, then looked back at him and shrugged.
“Suit yourself. Will ye come in, then?” She jerked her head toward the house.
“It’s a fine day. Shall we walk in the garden?” He had no wish to enter the house, with its memories of tears and silences.
She regarded him for a moment or two, then nodded and turned toward the garden path, leaving him to follow if he would. He noticed that she kept a grip on the broom, though, and was not sure whether to be amused or offended.
They walked in silence through the kailyard and through a gate into the garden. It was a kitchen garden, made for utility, but it had a small orchard at the end of it, and there were flowers growing between the pea vines and onion beds. She’d always liked flowers; he remembered that with a small twist of the heart.
She’d put the broom over her shoulder, like a soldier carrying a rifle, and strolled beside him—in no hurry but not offering him an opening, either. He cleared his throat.
“I said I’d come to apologize.”
“So ye did.” She didn’t turn to look at him but stopped and poked her toe at a curling potato vine.
“When we… wed,” he said, trying to retrieve the careful speech he’d thought of. “I should not have asked ye. My heart was cold. I’d no right to offer ye a dead thing.”