“D’ye think he’s come to claim her, Uncle?” Ian interrupted. “We must stop him, aye?” The look of angry excitement was clear now, flushing the lad’s lean cheeks with feeling.
Jamie took a deep breath, only then realizing that he had been holding it.
“I dinna ken,” he said, surprised at the calmness of his own tone. He had barely had time to take in the news, let alone to draw conclusions, but the lad was right, there was a danger to be dealt with.
If this MacKenzie wished it, he might claim Brianna as his wife by right of common law, with the coming bairn as evidence of his claim. A court of law would not necessarily force a woman to wed a rapist, but any magistrate would uphold the right of a man to his wife and child—regardless of the wife’s feelings in the matter.
His own parents had wed by such device: fleeing and hiding among the Highland crags until his mother was well with child, so that her brothers were forced to accept the unwelcome marriage. A child was a permanent, undeniable bond between man and woman, and he had cause to know it.
He glanced toward the path that came up through the lower wood.
“Will he not be here on your heels? The Woolams will have told him the way.”
“Nooo,” said Ian thoughtfully. “I shouldna think so. We took his horse, aye?” He grinned suddenly at Lizzie, who giggled faintly in reply.
“Aye? And what’s to stop him taking the wagon, or one of the wagon mules?”
The grin widened substantially on Ian’s face.
“I left Rollo in the wagon bed,” he said. “I think he’ll walk it, Uncle Jamie.”
Jamie was forced to a grudging smile in return.
“That was quick of ye, Ian.”
Ian shrugged modestly.
“Well, I didna want the bastard to take us unawares. And though I’ve not heard Cousin Brianna talk about her laddie lately—yon Wakefield, aye?” He paused delicately. “I didna think she’d want to see this MacKenzie. Especially if—”
“I should say Mr. Wakefield has left his coming ower-long,” Jamie said. “Especially if.” It was no wonder she had stopped looking forward to Wakefield’s coming—once she’d realized. After all, how would a woman explain a swelling belly to a man who’d left her virgin?
He slowly and consciously unclenched his fists. There would be time enough for all that later. For the moment, there was the one thing to be dealt with.
“Fetch my pistols from the house,” he said, turning to Ian. “And you, lassie—” He gave Lizzie something intended for a smile, and reached for the coat he’d hung on the edge of the woodpile.
“Bide ye here, and wait for your mistress. Tell my wife—tell her I’ve gone to give Fergus a hand with his chimney. And dinna speak a word about this to my wife or daughter—or I’ll have your guts for garters.” This last threat was spoken half in jest, but the girl went white as though he’d meant it literally.
Lizzie sank down on the chopping block, her knees wabbling beneath her. She fumbled for the tiny medallion at her neck, seeking reassurance from the cold metal. She watched Mr. Fraser stride down the path, menacing as a great red wolf. His shadow stretched out black before him, and the late autumn sun touched him with fire.
The medal in her hand was cold as ice.
“O dear Mother,” she murmured, over and over. “O Blessed Mother, what have I done?”
The oak leaves were dry and crackling underfoot. There was a constant fall of leaves from the chestnut trees that towered overhead, a slow yellow rain that mocked the dryness of the ground.
“Is it true that Indians can move through the woods without making a sound, or is that just something they tell you in Girl Scouts?” Brianna kicked at a small drift of oak leaves, sending them flying. Dressed in wide skirts and petticoats that caught at leaves and twigs, we sounded like a herd of elephants ourselves.
“Well, they can’t do it in dry weather like this, unless they swing through the trees like chimpanzees. In a wet spring, it’s another story—even I could walk through here quietly then; the ground is like a sponge.”
I drew in my skirts to keep them away from a big elderberry bush, and stooped to look at the fruit. It was dark red, but not yet showing the blackish tinge of true ripeness.
“Two more days,” I said. “If we were going to use them for medicine, we’d pick them now. I want them for wine, though, and to dry like raisins—and for that, you want them to have a lot of sugar, so you wait until they’re nearly ready to drop from their stems.”
“Right. What landmark is it?” Brianna glanced around, and smiled. “No, don’t tell me—it’s that big rock that looks like an Easter Island head.”
“Very good,” I said approvingly. “Right, because it won’t change with the seasons.”
Reaching the edge of a small stream, we separated, working our way slowly down the banks. I had set Brianna to collect cress, while I poked about the trees in search of wood ears and other edible fungi.
I watched her covertly as I hunted, one eye on the ground, one on her. She was knee-deep in the stream with her skirts kilted up, showing an amazing stretch of long, muscular thigh as she waded slowly, eyes on the rippling water.
There was something wrong; had been for days. At first I had assumed her air of tension was due to the obvious stresses of the new situation in which she found herself. But over the past weeks she and Jamie had settled into a relationship that, while still marked by shyness on both sides, was increasingly warm. They delighted each other—and I was delighted to see them together.
Still, there was something troubling her. It had been three years since I had left her—four since she had left me, to live on her own, and she had changed; had grown entirely into a woman now. I could no longer read her as easily as I once had. She had Jamie’s trick of hiding strong feeling behind a mask of calmness—I knew it well in both of them.
In part, I had arranged this foraging expedition as an excuse to talk to her alone; with Jamie, Ian, and Lizzie in the house, and the constant traffic of tenants and visitors come to see Jamie, private conversation there was impossible. And if what I suspected was true, this wasn’t a conversation I wished to have where anyone could hear.
By the time I had my basket half filled with thick, fleshy orange wood ears, Brianna had emerged dripping from the stream, her own basket overflowing with clumps of wet green cress and bunches of jointed horsetail reeds to make into tapers.
She wiped her feet on the hem of her petticoat, and came to join me under one of the huge chestnut trees. I handed her the canteen of cider, and waited till she had had a drink.
“Is it Roger?” I said then, without preliminary.
She glanced at me, a flash of startlement visible in her eyes, and then I saw the tense line of her shoulder ease.
“I wondered whether you could still do that,” she said.
“Read my mind. I sort of hoped you could.” Her wide mouth quirked awkwardly, trying to smile.
“I expect I’m a bit out of practice,” I said. “But give me a moment.” I reached up and smoothed the hair off her face. She looked at me, but beyond me, too shy to meet my eyes. A whippoorwill called in the far green shadows.
“It’s all right, baby,” I said quietly. “How far gone are you?”
The breath left her in a huge sigh. Her face went slack with relief.
Now she met my eyes, and I felt a small shock of difference, the kind I had been getting since her arrival. Once, her relief would have been a child’s; a fear confided, and half eased already by the knowledge that I would somehow deal with it. But now it was only the relief of sharing an unbearable secret; she was not expecting me to remedy things. The knowledge that I couldn’t do anything in any case didn’t stop my irrational feeling of loss.
She squeezed my hand, as though reassuring me, and then sat down with her back against a tree trunk, stretching out her legs in front of her, long feet bare.
“Did you know already?”
I sat down next to her, less gracefully.
“I expect so; but I didn’t know I knew, if that makes sense.” Looking at her now, it was plain to see; the faint pallor of her skin and tiny alterations in her color, the fleeting look of inwardness. I had noticed, but had put the changes down to unfamiliarity and strain—to the flurry of emotions over finding me, meeting Jamie, to worry over Lizzie’s sickness, worry over Roger.
That particular worry now took on a sudden new dimension.
“Oh, Jesus. Roger!”
She nodded, pale in the filtered yellow shade of the chestnut leaves overhead. She looked jaundiced, and no wonder.
“It’s been nearly two months. He should have been here—unless something happened.”
My mind was busy calculating.
“Two months, and now it’s nearly November.” The leaves under us lay thick and soft, yellow and brown, fresh-fallen from the hickory and chestnut trees. My heart dropped suddenly in my chest. “Bree—you’ve got to go back.”
“What?” Her head jerked up. “Go back where?”
“To the stones.” I waved a hand in agitation. “To Scotland, and right away!”
She stared at me, thick brows drawn down.
“Now? What for?”
I took a deep breath, feeling a dozen different emotions collide. Concern for Bree, fear for Roger, a terrible sorrow for Jamie, who would have to give her up again, so soon. And for myself.
“You can go through, pregnant. We know that much, because I did it, with you. But honey—you can’t take a baby through that…that…you can’t,” I ended, helpless. “You know what it’s like.” It had been three years since I came through the stones, but I recalled the experience vividly.
Her eyes went black as the little blood remaining in her face drained away.
“You can’t take a child through,” I repeated, trying to get myself under control, think logically. “It would be like jumping off Niagara Falls with the baby in your arms. You’ll have to go back before it’s born, or—” I broke off, making calculations.
“It’s almost November. Ships won’t make the passage between late November and March. And you can’t wait till March—that would mean making a two-month trip across the Atlantic, six or seven months pregnant. If you didn’t deliver on the ship—which would likely kill you or the baby or both—you’d still have to ride thirty miles to the circle, and then make the passage, find your way to help on the other side…Brianna, you can’t do it! You have to go now, as soon as we can manage.”
“And if I do go now—how will I make sure I end up in the right time?”
She spoke quietly, but her fingers were pleating the fabric of her skirt.
“You—I think—well, I did,” I said, my initial panic beginning to subside into rational thought.
“You had Daddy at the other end.” She glanced up at me sharply. “Whether you wanted to go to him or not, you had strong feelings for him—he would have pulled you. Or me. But he isn’t there anymore.” Her face tightened, then relaxed.