Claire let out a long breath, then eased herself down into the old leather swivel chair behind the desk.
“Jesus H. Christ,” she said. She closed her eyes and leaned forward, elbows on the desk, and her head against her hands, the thick, curly brown hair spilling forward to hide her face. Brianna laid a hand on Claire’s back, face troubled as she bent over her mother. She was a tall girl, with large, fine bones, and her long red hair glowed in the warm light of the desk lamp.
“If he didn’t die…” she began tentatively.
Claire’s head snapped up. “But he is dead!” she said. Her face was strained, and small lines were visible around her eyes. “For God’s sake, it’s two hundred years; whether he died at Culloden or not, he’s dead now!”
Brianna stepped back from her mother’s vehemence, and lowered her head, so the red hair—her father’s red hair—swung down beside her cheek.
“I guess so,” she whispered. Roger could see she was fighting back tears. And no wonder, he thought. To find out in short order that first, the man you had loved and called “Father” all your life really wasn’t your father, secondly, that your real father was a Highland Scot who had lived two hundred years ago, and thirdly, to realize that he had likely perished in some horrid fashion, unthinkably far from the wife and child he had sacrificed himself to save…enough to rattle one, Roger thought.
He crossed to Brianna and touched her arm. She gave him a brief, distracted glance, and tried to smile. He put his arms around her, even in his pity for her distress thinking how marvelous she felt, all warm and soft and springy at once.
Claire still sat at the desk, motionless. The yellow hawk’s eyes had gone a softer color now, remote with memory. They rested sightlessly on the east wall of the study, still covered from floor to ceiling with the notes and memorabilia left by the Reverend Wakefield, Roger’s late adoptive father.
Looking at the wall himself, Roger saw the annual meeting notice sent by the Society of the White Rose—those enthusiastic, eccentric souls who still championed the cause of Scottish independence, meeting in nostalgic tribute to Charles Stuart, and the Highland heroes who had followed him.
Roger cleared his throat slightly.
“Er…if Jamie Fraser didn’t die at Culloden…” he said.
“Then he likely died soon afterward.” Claire’s eyes met Roger’s, straight on, the cool look back in the yellow-brown depths. “You have no idea how it was,” she said. “There was a famine in the Highlands—none of the men had eaten for days before the battle. He was wounded—we know that. Even if he escaped, there would have been…no one to care for him.” Her voice caught slightly at that; she was a doctor now, had been a healer even then, twenty years before, when she had stepped through a circle of standing stones, and met destiny with James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.
Roger was conscious of them both; the tall, shaking girl he held in his arms, and the woman at the desk, so still, so poised. She had traveled through the stones, through time; been suspected as a spy, arrested as a witch, snatched by an unimaginable quirk of circumstance from the arms of her first husband, Frank Randall. And three years later, her second husband, James Fraser, had sent her back through the stones, pregnant, in a desperate effort to save her and the unborn child from the onrushing disaster that would soon engulf him.
Surely, he thought to himself, she’s been through enough? But Roger was a historian. He had a scholar’s insatiable, amoral curiosity, too powerful to be constrained by simple compassion. More than that, he was oddly conscious of the third figure in the family tragedy in which he found himself involved—Jamie Fraser.
“If he didn’t die at Culloden,” he began again, more firmly, “then perhaps I can find out what did happen to him. Do you want me to try?” He waited, breathless, feeling Brianna’s warm breath through his shirt.
Jamie Fraser had had a life, and a death. Roger felt obscurely that it was his duty to find out all the truth; that Jamie Fraser’s women deserved to know all they could of him. For Brianna, such knowledge was all she would ever have of the father she had never known. And for Claire—behind the question he had asked was the thought that had plainly not yet struck her, stunned with shock as she was: she had crossed the barrier of time twice before. She could, just possibly, do it again. And if Jamie Fraser had not died at Culloden…
He saw awareness flicker in the clouded amber of her eyes, as the thought came to her. She was normally pale; now her face blanched white as the ivory handle of the letter opener before her on the desk. Her fingers closed around it, clenching so the knuckles stood out in knobs of bone.
She didn’t speak for a long time. Her gaze fixed on Brianna and lingered there for a moment, then returned to Roger’s face.
“Yes,” she said, in a whisper so soft he could barely hear her. “Yes. Find out for me. Please. Find out.”
FRANK AND FULL DISCLOSURE
May 9, 1968
The foot traffic was heavy on the bridge over the River Ness, with folk streaming home to their teas. Roger moved in front of me, his wide shoulders protecting me from the buffets of the crowd around us.
I could feel my heart beating heavily against the stiff cover of the book I was clutching to my chest. It did that whenever I paused to think what we were truly doing. I wasn’t sure which of the two possible alternatives was worse; to find that Jamie had died at Culloden, or to find that he hadn’t.
The boards of the bridge echoed hollowly underfoot, as we trudged back toward the manse. My arms ached from the weight of the books I carried, and I shifted the load from one side to the other.
“Watch your bloody wheel, man!” Roger shouted, nudging me adroitly to the side, as a workingman on a bicycle plowed head-downward through the bridge traffic, nearly running me against the railing.
“Sorry!” came back the apologetic shout, and the rider gave a wave of the hand over his shoulder, as the bike wove its way between two groups of schoolchildren, coming home for their teas. I glanced back across the bridge, in case Brianna should be visible behind us, but there was no sign of her.
Roger and I had spent the afternoon at the Society for the Preservation of Antiquities. Brianna had gone down to the Highland Clans office, there to collect photocopies of a list of documents Roger had compiled.
“It’s very kind of you to take all this trouble, Roger,” I said, raising my voice to be heard above the echoing bridge and the river’s rush.
“It’s all right,” he said, a little awkwardly, pausing for me to catch him up. “I’m curious,” he added, smiling a little. “You know historians—can’t leave a puzzle alone.” He shook his head, trying to brush the windblown dark hair out of his eyes without using his hands.
I did know historians. I’d lived with one for twenty years. Frank hadn’t wanted to leave this particular puzzle alone, either. But neither had he been willing to solve it. Frank had been dead for two years, though, and now it was my turn—mine and Brianna’s.
“Have you heard yet from Dr. Linklater?” I asked, as we came down the arch of the bridge. Late in the afternoon as it was, the sun was still high, so far north as we were. Caught among the leaves of the lime trees on the riverbank, it glowed pink on the granite cenotaph that stood below the bridge.
Roger shook his head, squinting against the wind. “No, but it’s been only a week since I wrote. If I don’t hear by the Monday, I’ll try telephoning. Don’t worry”—he smiled sideways at me—“I was very circumspect. I just told him that for purposes of a study I was making, I needed a list—if one existed—of the Jacobite officers who were in Leanach farmhouse after Culloden, and if any information exists as to the survivor of that execution, could he refer me to the original sources?”
“Do you know Linklater?” I asked, easing my left arm by tilting the books sideways against my hip.
“No, but I wrote my request on the Balliol College letterhead, and made tactful reference to Mr. Cheesewright, my old tutor, who does know Link-later.” Roger winked reassuringly, and I laughed.
His eyes were a brilliant, lucent green, bright against his olive skin. Curiosity might be his stated reason for helping us to find out Jamie’s history, but I was well aware that his interest went a good bit deeper—in the direction of Brianna. I also knew that the interest was returned. What I didn’t know was whether Roger realized that as well.
Back in the late Reverend Wakefield’s study, I dropped my armload of books on the table in relief, and collapsed into the wing chair by the hearth, while Roger went to fetch a glass of lemonade from the manse’s kitchen.
My breathing slowed as I sipped the tart sweetness, but my pulse stayed erratic, as I looked over the imposing stack of books we had brought back. Was Jamie in there somewhere? And if he was…my hands grew wet on the cold glass, and I choked the thought off. Don’t look too far ahead, I cautioned myself. Much better to wait, and see what we might find.
Roger was scanning the shelves in the study, in search of other possibilities. The Reverend Wakefield, Roger’s late adoptive father, had been both a good amateur historian, and a terrible pack rat; letters, journals, pamphlets and broadsheets, antique and contemporary volumes—all were crammed cheek by jowl together on the shelves.
Roger hesitated, then his hand fell on a stack of books sitting on the nearby table. They were Frank’s books—an impressive achievement, so far as I could tell by reading the encomiums printed on the dust jackets.
“Have you ever read this?” he asked, picking up the volume entitled The Jacobites.
“No,” I said. I took a restorative gulp of lemonade, and coughed. “No,” I said again. “I couldn’t.” After my return, I had resolutely refused to look at any material dealing with Scotland’s past, even though the eighteenth century had been one of Frank’s areas of specialty. Knowing Jamie dead, and faced with the necessity of living without him, I avoided anything that might bring him to mind. A useless avoidance—there was no way of keeping him out of my mind, with Brianna’s existence a daily reminder of him—but still, I could not read books about the Bonnie Prince—that terrible, futile young man—or his followers.
“I see. I just thought you might know whether there might be something useful in here.” Roger paused, the flush deepening over his cheekbones. “Did—er, did your husband—Frank, I mean,” he added hastily. “Did you tell him…um…about…” His voice trailed off, choked with embarrassment.
“Well, of course I did!” I said, a little sharply. “What did you think—I’d just stroll back into his office after being gone for three years and say, ‘Oh, hullo there, darling, and what would you like for supper tonight?’”
“No, of course not,” Roger muttered. He turned away, eyes fixed on the bookshelves. The back of his neck was deep red with embarrassment.