I searched helplessly for words to reassure her. “But I won’t. I won’t go again. I only want to stay here with him—always.”
I laid a hand on her arm and she stiffened slightly. After a moment, she laid her own hand over mine. It was chilled, and the tip of her long, straight nose was red with cold.
“Folk say different things of the Sight, aye?” she said after a moment.
“Some say it’s doomed; whatever ye see that way must come to pass. But others say nay, it’s no but a warning; take heed and ye can change things. What d’ye think, yourself?” She looked sideways at me, curiously.
I took a deep breath, the smell of onions stinging the back of my nose. This was hitting home in no uncertain terms.
“I don’t know,” I said, and my voice shook slightly. “I’d always thought that of course you could change things if you knew about them. But now…I don’t know,” I ended softly, thinking of Culloden.
Jenny watched me, her eyes so deep a blue as almost to be black in the dim light. I wondered again just how much Jamie had told her—and how much she knew without the telling.
“But ye must try, even so,” she said, with certainty. “Ye couldna just leave it, could ye?”
I didn’t know whether she meant this personally, but I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “You couldn’t. You’re right; you have to try.”
We smiled at each other, a little shyly.
“You’ll take good care of him?” Jenny said suddenly. “Even if ye go? Ye will, aye?”
I squeezed her cold fingers, feeling the bones of her hand light and fragile-seeming in my grasp.
“I will,” I said.
“Then that’s all right,” she said softly, and squeezed back.
We sat for a moment, holding each other’s hands, until the door of the root cellar swung open, admitting a blast of rain and wind down the stairs.
“Mam?” Young Ian’s head poked in, eyes bright with excitement. “Hobart MacKenzie’s come! Da says to come quick!”
Jenny sprang to her feet, barely remembering to snatch up the basket of onions.
“Has he come armed, then?” she asked anxiously. “Has he brought a pistol or a sword?”
Ian shook his head, his dark hair lifting wildly in the wind.
“Oh, no, Mam!” he said. “It’s worse. He’s brought a lawyer!”
Anything less resembling vengeance incarnate than Hobart MacKenzie could scarcely be imagined. A small, light-boned man of about thirty, he had pale blue, pale-lashed eyes with a tendency to water, and indeterminate features that began with a receding hairline and dwindled down into a similarly receding chin that seemed to be trying to escape into the folds of his stock.
He was smoothing his hair at the mirror in the hall when we came in the front door, a neatly curled bob wig sitting on the table beside him. He blinked at us in alarm, then snatched up the wig and crammed it on his head, bowing in the same motion.
“Mrs. Jenny,” he said. His small, rabbity eyes flicked in my direction, away, then back again, as though he hoped I really wasn’t there, but was very much afraid I was.
Jenny glanced from him to me, sighed deeply, and took the bull by the horns.
“Mr. MacKenzie,” she said, dropping him a formal curtsy. “Might I present my good-sister, Claire? Claire, Mr. Hobart MacKenzie of Kinwallis.”
His mouth dropped open and he simply gawked at me. I started to extend a hand to him, but thought better of it. I would have liked to know what Emily Post had to recommend in a situation like this, but as Miss Post wasn’t present, I was forced to improvise.
“How nice to meet you,” I said, smiling as cordially as possible.
“Ah…” he said. He bobbed his head tentatively at me. “Um…your…servant, ma’am.”
Fortunately, at this point in the proceedings, the door to the parlor opened. I looked at the small, neat figure framed in the doorway, and let out a cry of delighted recognition.
“Ned! Ned Gowan!”
It was indeed Ned Gowan, the elderly Edinburgh lawyer who had once saved me from burning as a witch. He was noticeably more elderly now, shrunken with age and so heavily wrinkled as to look like one of the dried apples I had seen in the root cellar.
The bright black eyes were the same, though, and they fastened on me at once with an expression of joy.
“My dear!” he exclaimed, hastening forward at a rapid hobble. He seized my hand, beaming, and pressed it to his withered lips in fervent gallantry.
“I had heard that you—”
“How did you come to be—”
“—so delightful to see you!”
“—so happy to see you again, but—”
A cough from Hobart MacKenzie interrupted this rapturous exchange, and Mr. Gowan looked up, startled, then nodded.
“Oh, aye, of course. Business first, my dear,” he said, with a gallant bow to me, “and then if ye will, I should be most charmed to hear the tale of your adventures.”
“Ah…I’ll do my best,” I said, wondering just how much he would insist on hearing.
“Splendid, splendid.” He glanced about the hall, bright little eyes taking in Hobart and Jenny, who had hung up her cloak and was smoothing her hair. “Mr. Fraser and Mr. Murray are already in the parlor. Mr. MacKenzie, if you and the ladies would consent to join us, perhaps we can settle your affairs expeditiously, and proceed to more congenial matters. If you will allow me, my dear?” He crooked a bony arm to me invitingly.
Jamie was still on the sofa where I had left him, and in approximately the same condition—that is, alive. The children were gone, with the exception of one chubby youngster who was curled up on Jamie’s lap, fast asleep. Jamie’s hair now sported several small plaits on either side, with silk ribbons woven gaily through them, which gave him an incongruously festive air.
“You look like the Cowardly Lion of Oz,” I told him in an undertone, sitting down on a hassock behind his sofa. I didn’t think it likely that Hobart MacKenzie intended any outright mischief, but if anything happened, I meant to be in close reach of Jamie.
He looked startled, and put a hand to his head.
“Shh,” I said, “I’ll tell you later.”
The other participants had now arranged themselves around the parlor, Jenny sitting down by Ian on the other love seat, and Hobart and Mr. Gowan taking two velvet chairs.
“We are assembled?” Mr. Gowan inquired, glancing around the room. “All interested parties are present? Excellent. Well, to begin with, I must declare my own interest. I am here in the capacity of solicitor to Mr. Hobart MacKenzie, representing the interests of Mrs. James Fraser”— he saw me start, and added, with precision—“that is, the second Mrs. James Fraser, née Laoghaire MacKenzie. That is understood?”
He glanced inquiringly at Jamie, who nodded.
“Good.” Mr. Gowan picked up a glass from the table next to him and took a tiny sip. “My clients, the MacKenzies, have accepted my proposal to seek a legal solution to the imbroglio which I understand has resulted from the sudden and unexpected—though of course altogether happy and fortuitous—” he added, with a bow to me, “return of the first Mrs. Fraser.”
He shook his head reprovingly at Jamie.
“You, my dear young man, have contrived to entangle yourself in considerable legal difficulties, I am sorry to say.”
Jamie raised one eyebrow and looked at his sister.
“Aye, well, I had help,” he said dryly. “Just what difficulties are we speakin’ of?”
“Well, to begin with,” Ned Gowan said cheerily, his sparkling black eyes sinking into nets of wrinkles as he smiled at me, “the first Mrs. Fraser would be well within her rights to bring a civil suit against ye for adultery, and criminal fornication, forbye. Penalties for which include—”
Jamie glanced back at me, with a quick blue gleam.
“I think I’m no so worrit by that possibility,” he told the lawyer. “What else?”
Ned Gowan nodded obligingly and held up one withered hand, folding down the fingers as he ticked off his points.
“With respect to the second Mrs. Fraser—née Laoghaire MacKenzie—ye could, of course, be charged wi’ bigamous misconduct, intent to defraud, actual fraud committed—whether wi’ intent or no, which is a separate question—felonious misrepresentation”—he happily folded down his fourth finger and drew breath for more—“and…”
Jamie had been listening patiently to this catalogue. Now he interrupted, leaning forward.
“Ned,” he said gently, “what the hell does the bloody woman want?”
The small lawyer blinked behind his spectacles, lowered his hand, and cast up his eyes to the beams overhead.
“Weel, the lady’s chief desire as stated,” he said circumspectly, “is to see ye castrated and disemboweled in the market square at Broch Mordha, and your head mounted on a stake over her gate.”
Jamie’s shoulders vibrated briefly, and he winced as the movement jarred his arm.
“I see,” he said, his mouth twitching.
A smile gathered up the wrinkles by Ned’s ancient mouth.
“I was obliged to inform Mrs.—that is, the lady—” he amended, with a glance at me and a slight cough, “that her remedies under the law were somewhat more limited than would accommodate her desires.”
“Quite,” Jamie said dryly. “But I assume the general idea is that she doesna particularly want me back as a husband?”
“No,” Hobart put in unexpectedly. “Crow’s bait, maybe, but not a husband.”
Ned cast a cold glance at his client.
“Ye willna compromise your case by admitting things in advance of settlement, aye?” he said reprovingly. “Or what are ye payin’ me for?” He turned back to Jamie, professional dignity unimpaired.
“While Miss MacKenzie does not wish to resume a marital position wi’ regard to you—an action which would be impossible in any case,” he added fairly, “unless ye should wish to divorce the present Mrs. Fraser, and remarry—”
“No, I dinna want to do that,” Jamie assured him hurriedly, with another glance at me.
“Well, in such case,” Ned went on, unruffled, “I should advise my clients that it is more desirable where possible to avoid the cost—and the publicity—” he added, cocking an invisible eyebrow in admonition to Hobart, who nodded hastily, “of a suit at law, with a public trial and its consequent exposure of facts. That being the case—”
“How much?” Jamie interrupted.
“Mr. Fraser!” Ned Gowan looked shocked. “I havena mentioned anything in the nature of a pecuniary settlement as yet—”
“Only because ye’re too busy enjoying yourself, ye wicked auld rascal,” Jamie said. He was irritated—a red patch burned over each cheekbone—but amused, too. “Get to it, aye?”