Jamie smiled, seeing my pleasure. “Oh, aye. I expect they’ll have to knock him on the head wi’ an ax to kill him. He looks just the same as he always did, though he must be past seventy now.”
“Does he still live at Castle Leoch?”
He nodded, reaching to the table for the tumbler of water. He drank awkwardly, right-handed, and set it back.
“What’s left of it. Aye, though he’s traveled a great deal these last years, appealing treason cases and filing lawsuits to recover property.” Jamie’s smile had a bitter edge. “There’s a saying, aye? ‘After a war, first come the corbies to eat the flesh; and then the lawyers, to pick the bones.’”
His right hand went to his left shoulder, massaging it unconsciously.
“No, he’s a good man, is Ned, in spite of his profession. He goes back and forth to Inverness, to Edinburgh—sometimes even to London or Paris. And he stops here from time to time, to break his journey.”
It was Ned Gowan who had mentioned Laoghaire to Jenny, returning from Balriggan to Edinburgh. Pricking up her ears, Jenny had inquired for further details, and finding these satisfactory, had at once sent an invitation to Balriggan, for Laoghaire and her two daughters to come to Lallybroch for Hogmanay, which was near.
The house was bright that night, with candles lit in the windows, and bunches of holly and ivy fixed to the staircase and the doorposts. There were not so many pipers in the Highlands as there had been before Culloden, but one had been found, and a fiddler as well, and music floated up the stairwell, mixed with the heady scent of rum punch, plum cake, almond squirts, and Savoy biscuits.
Jamie had come down late and hesitant. Many people here he had not seen in nearly ten years, and he was not eager to see them now, feeling changed and distant as he did. But Jenny had made him a new shirt, brushed and mended his coat, and combed his hair smooth and plaited it for him before going downstairs to see to the cooking. He had no excuse to linger, and at last had come down, into the noise and swirl of the gathering.
“Mister Fraser!” Peggy Gibbons was the first to see him; she hurried across the room, face glowing, and threw her arms about him, quite unabashed. Taken by surprise, he hugged her back, and within moments was surrounded by a small crowd of women, exclaiming over him, holding up small children born since his departure, kissing his cheeks and patting his hands.
The men were shyer, greeting him with a gruff word of welcome or a slap on the back as he made his way slowly through the rooms, until, quite overwhelmed, he had escaped temporarily into the laird’s study.
Once his father’s room, and then his own, it now belonged to his brother-in-law, who had run Lallybroch through the years of his absence. The ledgers and stockbooks and accounts were all lined up neatly on the edge of the battered desk; he ran a finger along the leather spines, feeling a sense of comfort at the touch. It was all in here; the planting and the harvests, the careful purchases and acquisitions, the slow accumulations and dispersals that were the rhythm of life to the tenants of Lallybroch.
On the small bookshelf, he found his wooden snake. Along with everything else of value, he had left it behind when he went to prison. A small icon carved of cherrywood, it had been the gift of his elder brother, dead in childhood. He was sitting in the chair behind the desk, stroking the snake’s well-worn curves, when the door of the study opened.
“Jamie?” she had said, hanging shyly back. He had not bothered to light a lamp in the study; she was silhouetted by the candles burning in the hall. She wore her pale hair loose, like a maid, and the light shone through it, haloing her unseen face.
“You’ll remember me, maybe?” she had said, tentative, reluctant to come into the room without invitation.
“Aye,” he said, after a pause. “Aye, of course I do.”
“The music’s starting,” she said. It was; he could hear the whine of the fiddle and the stamp of feet from the front parlor, along with an occasional shout of merriment. It showed signs of being a good party already; most of the guests would be asleep on the floor come morning.
“Your sister says you’re a bonny dancer,” she said, still shy, but determined.
“It will ha’ been some time since I tried,” he said, feeling shy himself, and painfully awkward, though the fiddle music ached in his bones and his feet twitched at the sound of it.
“It’s ‘Tha mo Leabaidh ’san Fhraoch’—‘In the Heather’s my Bed’—you’ll ken that one. Will ye come and try wi’ me?” She had held out a hand to him, small and graceful in the half-dark. And he had risen, clasped her outstretched hand in his own, and taken his first steps in pursuit of himself.
“It was in here,” he said, waving his good hand at the room where we sat. “Jenny had had the furniture cleared away, all but one table wi’ the food and the whisky, and the fiddler stood by the window there, wi’ a new moon over his shoulder.” He nodded at the window, where the rose vine trembled. Something of the light of that Hogmanay feast lingered on his face, and I felt a small pang, seeing it.
“We danced all that night, sometimes wi’ others, but mostly with each other. And at the dawn, when those still awake went to the end o’ the house to see what omens the New Year might bring, the two of us went, too. The single women took it in turns to spin about, and walk through the door wi’ their eyes closed, then spin again and open their eyes to see what the first thing they might see would be—for that tells them about the man they’ll marry, ye ken.”
There had been a lot of laughter, as the guests, heated by whisky and dancing, pushed and shoved at the door. Laoghaire had held back, flushed and laughing, saying it was a game for young girls, and not for a matron of thirty-four, but the others had insisted, and try she had. Spun three times clockwise and opened the door, stepped out into the cold dawnlight and spun again. And when she opened her eyes, they had rested on Jamie’s face, wide with expectation.
“So…there she was, a widow wi’ two bairns. She needed a man, that was plain enough. I needed…something.” He gazed into the fire, where the low flame glimmered through the red mass of the peat; heat without much light. “I supposed that we might help each other.”
They had married quietly at Balriggan, and he had moved his few possessions there. Less than a year later, he had moved out again, and gone to Edinburgh.
“What on earth happened?” I asked, more than curious.
He looked up at me, helpless.
“I canna say. It wasna that anything was wrong, exactly—only that nothing was right.” He rubbed a hand tiredly between his brows. “It was me, I think; my fault. I always disappointed her somehow. We’d sit down to supper and all of a sudden the tears would well up in her eyes, and she’d leave the table sobbing, and me sitting there wi’ not a notion what I’d done or said wrong.”
His fist clenched on the coverlet, then relaxed. “God, I never knew what to do for her, or what to say! Anything I said just made it worse, and there would be days—nay, weeks!—when she’d not speak to me, but only turn away when I came near her, and stand staring out the window until I went away again.”
His fingers went to the parallel scratches down the side of his neck. They were nearly healed now, but the marks of my nails still showed on his fair skin. He looked at me wryly.
“You never did that to me, Sassenach.”
“Not my style,” I agreed, smiling faintly. “If I’m mad at you, you’ll bloody know why, at least.”
He snorted briefly and lay back on his pillows. Neither of us spoke for a bit. Then he said, staring up at the ceiling, “I thought I didna want to hear anything about what it was like—wi’ Frank, I mean. I was maybe wrong about that.”
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” I said. “But not just now. It’s still your turn.”
He sighed and closed his eyes.
“She was afraid of me,” he said softly, a minute later. “I tried to be gentle wi’ her—God, I tried again and again, everything I knew to please a woman. But it was no use.”
His head turned restlessly, making a hollow in the feather pillow.
“Maybe it was Hugh, or maybe Simon. I kent them both, and they were good men, but there’s no telling what goes on in a marriage bed. Maybe it was bearing the children; not all women can stand it. But something hurt her, sometime, and I couldna heal it for all my trying. She shrank away when I touched her, and I could see the sickness and the fear in her eyes.” There were lines of sorrow around his own closed eyes, and I reached impulsively for his hand.
He squeezed it gently and opened his eyes. “That’s why I left, finally,” he said softly. “I couldna bear it anymore.”
I didn’t say anything, but went on holding his hand, putting a finger on his pulse to check it. His heartbeat was reassuringly slow and steady.
He shifted slightly in the bed, moving his shoulders and making a grimace of discomfort as he did so.
“Arm hurt a lot?” I asked.
I bent over him, feeling his brow. He was very warm, but not feverish. There was a line between the thick ruddy brows, and I smoothed it with a knuckle.
“I’ll go and make you some willow-bark tea.” I made to rise, but his hand on my arm stopped me.
“I dinna need tea,” he said. “It would ease me, though, if maybe I could lay my head in your lap, and have ye rub my temples a bit?” Blue eyes looked up at me, limpid as a spring sky.
“You don’t fool me a bit, Jamie Fraser,” I said. “I’m not going to forget about your next shot.” Nonetheless, I was already moving the chair out of the way, and sitting down beside him on the bed.
He made a small grunting sound of content as I moved his head into my lap and began to stroke it, rubbing his temples, smoothing back the thick wavy mass of his hair. The back of his neck was damp; I lifted the hair away and blew softly on it, seeing the smooth fair skin prickle into gooseflesh at the nape of his neck.
“Oh, that feels good,” he murmured. Despite my resolve not to touch him beyond the demands of caretaking until everything between us was resolved, I found my hands molding themselves to the clean, bold lines of his neck and shoulders, seeking the hard knobs of his vertebrae and the broad, flat planes of his shoulder blades.
He was firm and solid under my hands, his breath a warm caress on my thigh, and it was with some reluctance that I at last eased him back onto the pillow and reached for the ampule of penicillin.
“All right,” I said, turning back the sheet and reaching for the hem of his shirt. “A quick stick, and you’ll—” My hand brushed over the front of his nightshirt, and I broke off, startled.
“Jamie!” I said, amused. “You can’t possibly!”
“I dinna suppose I can,” he agreed comfortably. He curled up on his side like a shrimp, his lashes dark against his cheek. “But a man can dream, no?”