Her nostrils flared briefly, but she didn’t look up. Just went on frowning at the potato vine, as though she suspected it might have bugs.
“I knew that,” she said at last. “I did hope—” She broke off, lips pressing tight as she swallowed. “I did hope I might be of help to ye, though. Everyone could see ye needed a woman. Just not me, I suppose,” she added bitterly.
Stung, he said the first thing that came to his tongue.
“I thought ye needed me.”
She looked up then, her eyes gone bright. Christ, she was going to weep, he knew it. But she didn’t.
“I’d weans to feed.” Her voice was hard and flat and hit him like a slap on the cheek.
“So ye did,” he said, keeping his temper. It was honest, at least. “They’ve grown now, though.” And he’d found dowries for both Marsali and Joan, too, but he didn’t suppose he’d be given any credit for that.
“So that’s it,” she said, her voice growing colder. “Ye think ye can talk your way out of paying me now, is that it?”
“No, that is not it, for God’s sake!”
“Because,” she said, ignoring his denial and swinging round to face him, bright-eyed, “ye can’t. Ye shamed me before the whole parish, Jamie Fraser, luring me into a sinful match wi’ you and then betraying me, laughin’ at me behind your hand wi’ your Sassenach whore!”
“And now ye come back from America, fardeled up like an English popinjay”—her lip curled in scorn at his good ruffled shirt, which he’d worn to show her respect, God damn it!—“flauntin’ your wealth and playin’ the great yin wi’ your ancient hussy foamin’ in her silks and satins on your arm, is it? Well, I’ll tell ye—” She swung the broom down from her shoulder and drove the handle of it violently into the ground. “Ye dinna understand one thing about me, and ye think ye can awe me into crawlin’ away like a dyin’ dog and troubling ye no more! Think again, that’s all I’ll say to ye—just think again!”
He snatched the purse out of his pocket and flung it at the door of the garden shed, where it struck with a boom and bounced off. He had just a moment to regret having brought a chunk of gold, and not coins that would jingle, before his temper flared.
“Aye, ye’re right about that, at least! I dinna understand one thing about ye! I never have, try as I might!”
“Oh, try as ye might, is it?” she cried, ignoring the purse. “Ye never tried for an instant, Jamie Fraser! In fact—” Her face clenched up like a fist as she fought to keep her voice under control. “Ye never truly looked at me. Never—well, no, I suppose ye looked once. When I was sixteen.” Her voice trembled on the word, and she looked away, jaw clamped tight. Then she looked back at him, eyes bright and tearless.
“Ye took a beating for me. At Leoch. D’ye recall that?”
For an instant, he didn’t. Then he stopped, breathing heavily. His hand went instinctively to his jaw, and against his will he felt the ghost of a smile rise against the anger.
“Oh. Aye. Aye, I do.” Angus Mhor had given him an easier time than he might have—but it was a fair beating, nonetheless. His ribs had ached for days.
She nodded, watching him. Her cheeks were splotched with red, but she’d calmed herself.
“I thought ye’d done it because ye loved me. I went on thinking that, ken, until well after we’d wed. But I was wrong, wasn’t I?”
Bafflement must have showed on his face, for she made that small “Mph!” in her nose that meant she was aggravated. He knew her well enough to know that, at least.
“Ye pitied me,” she said flatly. “I didna see that then. Ye pitied me at Leoch, not only later, when ye took me to wife. I thought ye loved me,” she repeated, spacing the words as though speaking to a simpleton. “When Dougal made ye wed the Sassenach whore, I thought I’d die. But I thought maybe you felt like dyin’, too—and it wasna like that at all, was it?”
“Ah… no,” he said, feeling awkward and foolish. He’d seen nothing of her feelings then. Hadn’t seen a thing but Claire. But of course Laoghaire had thought he loved her; she was sixteen. And would have known that his marriage to Claire was a forced one, never realizing that he was willing. Of course she’d thought she and he were star-crossed lovers. Except that he’d never looked at her again. He rubbed a hand over his face, feeling complete helplessness.
“Ye never told me that,” he said finally, letting his hand drop.
“What good would it ha’ done?” she said.
So there it was. She’d known—she must have known—by the time he married her what the truth of it was. But still, she must have hoped… Unable to find anything to say in reply, his mind took refuge in the irrelevant.
“Who was it?” he asked.
“Who?” Her brow furrowed in puzzlement.
“The lad. Your father wanted ye punished for wantonness, no? Who did ye play the loon with, then, when I took the beating for ye? I never thought to ask.”
The red splotches on her cheeks grew deeper.
“No, ye never would, would ye?”
A barbed silence of accusation fell between them. He hadn’t asked, then; he hadn’t cared.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, at last. “Tell me, though. Who was it?” He hadn’t cared then in the least but found himself curious now, if only as a way of not thinking of other things—or not saying them. They hadn’t had the past she’d thought, but the past lay still between them, forming a tenuous connection.
Her lips thinned and he thought she wouldn’t say, but then they parted, reluctant.
“John Robert MacLeod.”
He frowned, at a loss for a moment, and then the name dropped into its proper place in memory and he stared at her.
“John Robert? What, him from Killiecrankie?”
“Aye,” she said. “Him.” Her mouth snapped shut on the word.
He hadn’t known the man well at all, but John Robert MacLeod’s reputation among young women had been the subject of a good deal of talk among the men-at-arms at Leoch in his brief time there. A sly, good-looking slink of a man, handsome and lean-jawed—and the fact that he’d a wife and weans at home in Killiecrankie seemed to hamper him not at all.
“Jesus!” he said, unable to stop himself. “Ye’re lucky ye kept your maiden-heid!”
An ugly flush washed darkly over her from stays to cap, and his jaw dropped.
“Laoghaire MacKenzie! Ye werena such a wanton fool to let him take ye virgin to his bed!?”
“I didna ken he was marrit!” she cried, stamping her foot. “And it was after ye wed the Sassenach. I went to him for comfort.”
“Oh, and he gave it ye, I’m sure!”
“Hush your gob!” she shrieked, and, picking up a stone watering pot from the bench by the shed, hurled it at his head. He hadn’t expected that—Claire threw things at him frequently, but Laoghaire never had—and was nearly brained; it struck him in the shoulder as he ducked aside.
The watering pot was followed by a hail of other objects from the bench and a storm of incoherent language, all manner of unwomanly swearing, punctuated by shrieks like a teakettle. A pan of buttermilk hurtled toward him, missed its aim, but soaked him from chest to knees with curds and whey.
He was half laughing—from shock—when she suddenly seized a mattock from the shed wall and made for him. Seriously alarmed, he ducked and grabbed her wrist, twisting so she dropped the heavy tool with a thump. She let out a screech like a ban-sidhe and whipped her other hand across his face, half-blinding him with her nails. He snatched that wrist, too, and pressed her back into the wall of the shed, her still kicking at his shins, struggling and writhing against him like a snake.
“I’m sorry!” He was shouting in her ear to be heard above the noise she was making. “Sorry! D’ye hear me—I’m sorry!” The clishmaclaver stopped him hearing anything behind, though, and he had not the slightest warning when something monstrous struck him behind the ear and sent him staggering, lights flashing in his head.
He kept his grip on her wrists as he stumbled and fell, dragging her down atop him. He wrapped his arms tight round her, to keep her from clawing him again, and blinked, trying to clear his watering eyes.
“Free her, MacIfrinn!” The mattock chunked into the earth beside his head.
He flung himself over, Laoghaire still clutched to him, rolling madly through the beds. The sound of panting and uneven steps, and the mattock came down again, pinning his sleeve to the ground and scraping the flesh of his arm.
He jerked free, heedless of tearing skin and cloth, rolled away from Laoghaire, and sprang to his feet, then launched himself without pause at the weazened figure of Laoghaire’s servant, who was in the act of raising the mattock above his head, narrow face contorted with effort.
He butted the man in the face with a crunch and bore him flat, punching him in the belly before they hit the ground. He scrambled atop the man and went on punching him, the violence some relief. The man was grunting, whimpering, and gurgling, and he’d drawn back his knee to give the bugger one in the balls to settle the matter when he became dimly aware of Laoghaire, screeching and beating at his head.
“Leave him alone!” she was shrieking, crying and slapping at him with her hands. “Leave him, leave him, for the love of Bride, don’t hurt him!”
He stopped then, panting, feeling suddenly a terrible fool. Beating a scrawny cripple who meant only to protect his mistress from obvious attack, manhandling a woman like a street ruffian—Christ, what was the matter with him? He slid off the man, repressing an impulse to apologize, and got awkwardly to his feet, meaning to give the poor bugger a hand up, at least.
Before he could manage, though, Laoghaire fell to her knees beside the man, weeping and grappling at him, finally getting him partway sitting, his narrow head pressed to her soft round bosom, she heedless of the blood gushing from his smashed nose, petting and stroking him, murmuring his name. Joey, it seemed to be.
Jamie stood swaying a bit, staring at this demonstration. Blood was dripping from his fingers, and his arm was beginning to burn where the mattock had skinned it. He felt something stinging run into his eyes and, wiping it away, found that his forehead was bleeding; Joey the openmouthed had evidently inadvertently bitten him when he’d butted the man. He grimaced with disgust, feeling the tooth marks in his forehead, and groped for a handkerchief with which to stanch the blood.
Meanwhile, foggy as his head felt, matters on the ground in front of him were becoming clearer by the moment. A good mistress might try to comfort a wounded servant, but he’d yet to hear a woman call a servant mo chridhe. Let alone kiss him passionately on the mouth, getting her own face smeared with blood and snot in the process.
“Mmphm,” he said.
Startled, Laoghaire turned a blood-smeared, tearstained face to him. She’d never looked lovelier.
“Him?” Jamie said incredulously, nodding toward the crumpled Joey. “Why, for God’s sake?”
Laoghaire glared at him slit-eyed, crouched like a cat about to spring. She considered him for a moment, then slowly straightened her back, gathering Joey’s head once more against her breast.
“Because he needs me,” she said evenly. “And you, ye bastard, never did.”
HE LEFT THE HORSE to graze along the edge of the loch and, stripping off his clothes, walked into the water. The sky was overcast, and the loch was full of clouds.
The rocky bottom fell away and he let the gray cold water take him, his legs trailing loose behind, his small injuries chilling into numbness. He put his face under the water, eyes closed, to wash the cut on his head, and felt the bubbles of his breath soft and tickling over his shoulders.
He raised his head and began to swim, slowly, with no thought at all.
He lay on his back among the clouds, hair afloat like kelp, and stared up into the sky. A spatter of rain dimpled the water around him, then thickened. It was a soft rain, though; no feel of the drops striking him, only a sense of the loch and its clouds bathing his face, his body, washing away the blood and fret of the last little while.
Would he ever come back? he wondered.
The water filled his ears with its own rush, and he was comforted by the realization that, in fact, he had never left.
He turned at last and struck out for the shore, cutting smooth through the water. It was still raining, harder now, the drops a constant tapping on his bare shoulders as he swam. Still, the sinking sun shone under the clouds and lit Balriggan and its hill with a gentle glow.
He felt the bottom rise and put his feet down, then stood for a moment, waist-deep, looking at it for a bit.
“No,” he said softly, and felt remorse soften into regret and, at last, the absolution of resignation. “Ye’re right—I never did. I’m sorry.”
He walked out of the water then, and with a whistle to the horse, pulled the wet plaid over his shoulders and turned his face toward Lallybroch.
USEFUL HERBS, I wrote, and paused—as usual—to consider. Writing with a quill caused one to be both more deliberate and more economical in writing than doing it with ballpoint or typewriter. Still, I thought, I’d best just make a list here and jot down notes regarding each herb as they came to me, then make a clean draft when I’d got it all straight and made sure to include everything, rather than try to do it all in a single run.
Lavender, peppermint, comfrey, I wrote without hesitation. Calendula, feverfew, foxglove, meadow-sweet. Then went back to add a large asterisk beside foxglove to remind me to add strong cautions about the use, as all parts of the plant were extremely poisonous in any but very small doses. I twiddled the quill, biting my lip in indecision. Ought it to mention that one at all, given that this was meant to be a useful medical guide for the common man, not for medical practitioners with experience in various medicaments? Because, really, you ought not dose anyone with foxglove unless you’d been trained… Best not. I crossed it out but then had second thoughts. Perhaps I’d better mention it, with a drawing, but also with a severe warning that it should be used only by a physician, in case someone had the bright idea of remedying Uncle Tophiger’s dropsy permanently….