“So, then,” Jamie said, before the good mood should have a chance to curdle on them, “who is it ye mean to wed?”
“Jesus Christ,” Joan replied promptly.
He stared at her for a moment, until he became aware that his mouth was hanging open and closed it.
“You want to be a nun?” Claire’s brows were raised with interest. “Really?”
“I do. I’ve kent for a long time that I’ve a vocation, but…” She hesitated. “… it’s… complicated.”
“I daresay it is,” Jamie said, recovering himself somewhat. “Have ye spoken to anyone about it, lass? The priest? Your mother?”
Joan’s lips pressed into a thin line.
“Both of them,” she said shortly.
“And what did they say?” Claire asked. She was plainly fascinated, leaning back against the rock, combing back her hair with her fingers.
Joan snorted. “My mother says,” she said precisely, “that I’ve lost my mind from reading books—and that’s all your fault,” she added pointedly to Jamie, “for giving me the taste for it. She wants me to wed auld Geordie McCann, but I said I’d rather be dead in the ditch.”
“How old is auld Geordie McCann?” Claire inquired, and Joan blinked at her.
“Five-and-twenty or so,” she said. “What’s that to do with it?”
“Just curious,” Claire murmured, looking entertained. “There’s a young Geordie McCann, then?”
“Aye, his nephew. He’s three,” Joan added, in the interests of strict accuracy. “I dinna want to wed him, either.”
“And the priest?” Jamie intervened, before Claire could derail the discussion entirely.
Joan drew breath, seeming to grow taller and sterner with it.
“He says that it’s my duty to stay to hame and tend to my aged mother.”
“Who’s swiving Joey the hired man in the goat shed,” Jamie added helpfully. “Ye ken that, I suppose?” From the corner of his eye, he saw Claire’s face, which entertained him so much that he was obliged to turn away and not look at her. He lifted a hand behind his back, indicating that he’d tell her later.
“Not while I’m in the house, she doesn’t,” Joan said coldly. “Which is the only reason I am in the house, still. D’ye think my conscience will let me leave, knowing what they’ll be up to? This is the first time I’ve gone further than the kailyard in three months, and if it wasna sinful to place wagers, I’d bet ye my best shift they’re at it this minute, damning both their souls to hell.”
Jamie cleared his throat, trying—and failing—not to think of Joey and Laoghaire, wrapped in passionate embrace on her bed with the blue-and-gray quilt.
“Aye, well.” He could feel Claire’s eyes boring into the back of his neck and felt the blood rise there. “So. Ye want to go for a nun, but the priest says ye mustn’t, your mother willna give ye your dowry for it, and your conscience willna let ye do it anyway. Is that the state o’ things, would ye say?”
“Aye, it is,” Joan said, pleased with his concise summary.
“And, um, what is it that you’d like Jamie to do about it?” Claire inquired, coming round to stand by him. “Kill Joey?” She shot Jamie a sidelong yellow-eyed glance, full of wicked enjoyment at his discomfiture. He gave her a narrow look, and she grinned at him.
“Of course not!” Joan’s heavy brow drew down. “I want them to wed. Then they’d no be in a state of mortal sin every time I turned my back, and the priest couldna say I’ve to stay at home, not if my mother’s got a husband to care for her.”
Jamie rubbed a finger slowly up and down the bridge of his nose, trying to make out just how he was meant to induce two middle-aged reprobates to wed. By force? Hold a fowling piece on them? He could, he supposed, but… well, the more he thought of it, the better he liked the notion …
“Does he want to marry her, do you think?” Claire asked, surprising him. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder that.
“Aye, he does,” Joan said, with obvious disapproval. “He’s always moaning on about it to me, how much he looooves her…” She rolled her eyes. “Not that I think he shouldna love her,” she hastened to add, seeing Jamie’s expression. “But he shouldna be telling me about it, now, should he?”
“Ah … no,” he said, feeling mildly dazed. The wind was booming past the rock, and the whine of it in his ears was eating at him, making him feel suddenly as he used to in the cave, living in solitude for weeks, with no voice but the wind’s to hear. He shook his head violently to clear it, forcing himself to focus on Joan’s face, hear her words above the wind.
“She’s willing, I think,” Joan was saying, still frowning. “Though she doesna talk to me about it, thank Bride. She’s fond of him, though; feeds him the choice bits and that.”
“Well, then…” He brushed a flying strand of hair out of his mouth, feeling dizzy. “Why do they not marry?”
“Because of you,” Claire said, sounding a trifle less amused. “And that’s where I come into this, I suppose?”
“The agreement you made with Laoghaire, when I… came back.” Her attention was focused on Joan, but she came closer and touched his hand lightly, not looking at him. “You promised to support her—and find dowries for Joan and Marsali—but the support was to stop if she married again. That’s it, isn’t it?” she said to Joan, who nodded.
“She and Joey might make shift to scrape along,” she said. “He does what he can, but… ye’ve seen him. If ye were to stop the money, though, she’d likely have to sell Balriggan to live—and that would break her heart,” she added quietly, dropping her eyes for the first time.
An odd pain seized his heart—odd because it was not his own but he recognized it. It was sometime in the first weeks of their marriage, when he’d been digging new beds in the garden. Laoghaire had brought him out a mug of cool beer and stood while he drank it, then thanked him for the digging. He’d been surprised and laughed, saying why should she think to thank him for that?
“Because ye take care for my place,” she’d said simply, “but ye don’t try to take it from me.” Then she’d taken the empty mug from him and gone back to the house.
And once, in bed—and he flushed at the thought, with Claire standing right by him—he’d asked her why she liked Balriggan so much; it wasna a family place, after all, nor remarkable in any way. And she’d sighed a little, pulled the quilt up to her chin, and said, “It’s the first place I’ve felt safe.” She wouldn’t say more when he asked her, but only turned over and pretended to fall asleep.
“She’d rather lose Joey than Balriggan,” Joan was saying to Claire. “But she doesna mean to lose him, either. So ye see the difficulty, aye?”
“I do, yes.” Claire was looking sympathetic but shot him a glance indicating that this was—naturally—his problem. Of course it was, he thought, exasperated.
“I’ll… do something,” he said, having not the slightest notion what, but how could he refuse? God would probably strike him down for interfering with Joan’s vocation, if his own sense of guilt didn’t finish him off first.
“Oh, Da! Thank you!”
Joan’s face broke into a sudden, dazzling smile, and she threw herself into his arms—he barely got them up in time to catch her; she was a very solid young woman. But he folded her into the embrace he’d wanted to give her on meeting and felt the odd pain ease, as this strange daughter fitted herself tidily into an empty spot in his heart he hadn’t known was there.
The wind was still whipping by, and it might have been a speck of dust that made Claire’s eyes glisten as she looked at him, smiling.
“Just the one thing,” he said sternly, when Joan had released him and stood back.
“Anything,” she said fervently.
“Ye’ll pray for me, aye? When ye’re a nun?”
“Every day,” she assured him, “and twice on Sundays.”
THE SUN WAS starting down the sky by now, but there was still some time to supper. I should, I supposed, be there to offer to help with the meal preparations; these were both enormous and laborious, with so many people coming and going, and Lallybroch could no longer afford the luxury of a cook. But even if Jenny was taken up with nursing Ian, Maggie and her young daughters and the two housemaids were more than capable of managing. I would only be in the way. Or so I told myself, well aware that there was always work for a spare pair of hands.
But I clambered down the stony hill behind Jamie and said nothing when he turned away from the trail to Lallybroch. We wandered down toward the little loch, well content.
“Perhaps I did have something to do wi’ the books, aye?” Jamie said, after a bit. “I mean, I read to the wee maids in the evenings now and again. They’d sit on the settle with me, one on each side, wi’ their heads against me, and it was—” He broke off with a glance at me and coughed, evidently worried that I might be offended at the idea that he’d ever enjoyed a moment in Laoghaire’s house. I smiled and took his arm.
“I’m sure they loved it. But I really doubt that you read anything to Joan that made her want to become a nun.”
“Aye, well,” he said dubiously. “I did read to them out of the Lives of the Saints. Oh, and Fox’s Book of the Martyrs, too, even though there’s a good deal of it to do wi’ Protestants, and Laoghaire said Protestants couldna be martyrs because they were wicked heretics, and I said bein’ a heretic didna preclude being a martyr, and—” He grinned suddenly. “I think that might ha’ been the closest thing we had to a decent conversation.”
“Poor Laoghaire!” I said. “But putting her aside—and do let’s—what do you think of Joan’s quandary?”
He shook his head dubiously.
“Well, I can maybe bribe Laoghaire to marry yon wee cripple, but it would take a deal of money, since she’d want more than she gets from me now. I havena got that much left of the gold we brought, so it would need to wait until I can get back to the Ridge and extract some more, take that to a bank, arrange for a draft… I hate to think of Joan having to spend a year at home, trying to keep yon lust-crazed weasels apart.”
“Lust-crazed weasels?” I said, entertained. “No, really. Did you see them at it?”
“Not exactly,” he said, coughing. “Ye could see there was an attraction atween them, though. Here, let’s go along the shore; I saw a curlew’s nest the other day.”
The wind had quieted and the sun was bright and warm—for the moment. I could see clouds lurking over the horizon, and doubtless it would be raining again by nightfall, but for the moment it was a lovely spring day, and we were both disposed to enjoy it. By unspoken consent, we put aside all disagreeable matters and talked of nothing in particular, only enjoying each other’s company, until we reached a shallow, grass-covered mound where we could perch and enjoy the sun.
Jamie’s mind seemed to return now and then to Laoghaire, though—I supposed he couldn’t help it. I didn’t really mind, as such comparisons as he made were entirely to my benefit.
“Had she been my first,” he said thoughtfully at one point, “I think I might have a much different opinion of women in general.”
“Well, you can’t define all women in terms of what they’re like—or what one of them is like—in bed,” I objected. “I’ve known men who, well…”
“Men? Was Frank not your first?” he demanded, surprised.
I put a hand behind my head and regarded him.
“Would it matter if he wasn’t?”
“Well…” Clearly taken aback by the possibility, he groped for an answer. “I suppose—” He broke off and eyed me, meditatively stroking one finger down the bridge of his nose. One corner of his mouth turned up. “I don’t know.”
I didn’t know, myself. On the one hand, I rather enjoyed his shock at the notion—and at my age, I was not at all averse to feeling mildly wanton, if only in retrospect. On the other hand…
“Well, where do you get off, anyway, casting stones?”
“Ye were my first,” he pointed out, with considerable asperity.
“So you said,” I said, teasing. To my amusement, he flushed up like the rosy dawn.
“Ye didna believe me?” he said, his voice rising in spite of himself.
“Well, you did seem rather well informed, for a so-called virgin. To say nothing of… imaginative.”
“For God’s sake, Sassenach, I grew up on a farm! It’s a verra straightforward business, after all.” He looked me closely up and down, his gaze lingering at certain points of particular interest. “And as for imagining things … Christ, I’d spent months—years!—imagining!” A certain light filled his eyes, and I had the distinct impression that he hadn’t stopped imagining in the intervening years, not by any means.
“What are you thinking?” I asked, intrigued.
“I’m thinking that the water in the loch’s that wee bit chilly, but if it didna shrink my c**k straight off, the feel of the heat when I plunged into ye … Of course,” he added practically, eyeing me as though estimating the effort involved in forcing me into the loch, “we wouldna need to do it in the water, unless ye liked; I could just dunk ye a few times, drag ye onto the shore, and—God, your arse looks fine, wi’ the wet linen of your shift clinging to it. It goes all transparent, and I can see the weight of your bu**ocks, like great smooth round melons—”