“I’m sorry,” I said, taking a deep breath. “It’s a fair question to ask. It’s only that it’s—a bit raw, yet.” A good deal more than a bit. I was both surprised and appalled to find just how raw the wound still was. I set the glass down on the table at my elbow. If we were going on with this, I was going to need something stronger than lemonade.
“Yes,” I said. “I told him. All about the stones—about Jamie. Everything.”
Roger didn’t reply for a moment. Then he turned, halfway, so that only the strong, sharp lines of his profile were visible. He didn’t look at me, but down at the stack of Frank’s books, at the back-cover photo of Frank, leanly dark and handsome, smiling for posterity.
“Did he believe you?” Roger asked quietly.
My lips felt sticky from the lemonade, and I licked them before answering.
“No,” I said. “Not at first. He thought I was mad; even had me vetted by a psychiatrist.” I laughed, shortly, but the memory made me clench my fists with remembered fury.
“Later, then?” Roger turned to face me. The flush had faded from his skin, leaving only an echo of curiosity in his eyes. “What did he think?”
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. “I don’t know.”
The tiny hospital in Inverness smelled unfamiliar, like carbolic disinfectant and starch.
I couldn’t think, and tried not to feel. The return was much more terrifying than my venture into the past had been, for there, I had been shrouded by a protective layer of doubt and disbelief about where I was and what was happening, and had lived in constant hope of escape. Now I knew only too well where I was, and I knew that there was no escape. Jamie was dead.
The doctors and nurses tried to speak kindly to me, to feed me and bring me things to drink, but there was no room in me for anything but grief and terror. I had told them my name when they asked, but wouldn’t speak further.
I lay in the clean white bed, fingers clamped tight together over my vulnerable belly, and kept my eyes shut. I visualized over and over the last things I had seen before I stepped through the stones—the rainy moor and Jamie’s face—knowing that if I looked too long at my new surroundings, these sights would fade, replaced by mundane things like the nurses and the vase of flowers by my bed. I pressed one thumb secretly against the base of the other, taking an obscure comfort in the tiny wound there, a small cut in the shape of a J. Jamie had made it, at my demand—the last of his touch on my flesh.
I must have stayed that way for some time; I slept sometimes, dreaming of the last few days of the Jacobite Rising—I saw again the dead man in the wood, asleep beneath a coverlet of bright blue fungus, and Dougal MacKenzie dying on the floor of an attic in Culloden House; the ragged men of the Highland army, asleep in the muddy ditches; their last sleep before the slaughter.
I would wake screaming or moaning, to the scent of disinfectant and the sound of soothing words, incomprehensible against the echoes of Gaelic shouting in my dreams, and fall asleep again, my hurt clutched tight in the palm of my hand.
And then I opened my eyes and Frank was there. He stood in the door, smoothing back his dark hair with one hand, looking uncertain—and no wonder, poor man.
I lay back on the pillows, just watching him, not speaking. He had the look of his ancestors, Jack and Alex Randall; fine, clear, aristocratic features and a well-shaped head, under a spill of straight dark hair. His face had some indefinable difference from theirs, though, beyond the small differences of feature. There was no mark of fear or ruthlessness on him; neither the spirituality of Alex nor the icy arrogance of Jack. His lean face looked intelligent, kind, and slightly tired, unshaven and with smudges beneath his eyes. I knew without being told that he had driven all night to get here.
“Claire?” He came over to the bed, and spoke tentatively, as though not sure that I really was Claire.
I wasn’t sure either, but I nodded and said, “Hullo, Frank.” My voice was scratchy and rough, unaccustomed to speech.
He took one of my hands, and I let him have it.
“Are you…all right?” he said, after a minute. He was frowning slightly as he looked at me.
“I’m pregnant.” That seemed the important point, to my disordered mind. I had not thought of what I would say to Frank, if I ever saw him again, but the moment I saw him standing in the door, it seemed to come clear in my mind. I would tell him I was pregnant, he would leave, and I would be alone with my last sight of Jamie’s face, and the burning touch of him on my hand.
His face tightened a bit, but he didn’t let go of my other hand. “I know. They told me.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “Claire—can you tell me what happened to you?”
I felt quite blank for a moment, but then shrugged.
“I suppose so,” I said. I mustered my thoughts wearily; I didn’t want to be talking about it, but I had some feeling of obligation to this man. Not guilt, not yet; but obligation nonetheless. I had been married to him.
“Well,” I said, “I fell in love with someone else, and I married him. I’m sorry,” I added, in response to the look of shock that crossed his face, “I couldn’t help it.”
He hadn’t been expecting that. His mouth opened and closed for a bit and he gripped my hand, hard enough to make me wince and jerk it out of his grasp.
“What do you mean?” he said, his voice sharp. “Where have you been, Claire?” He stood up suddenly, looming over the bed.
“Do you remember that when I last saw you, I was going up to the stone circle on Craigh na Dun?”
“Yes?” He was staring down at me with an expression somewhere between anger and suspicion.
“Well”—I licked my lips, which had gone quite dry—“the fact is, I walked through a cleft stone in that circle, and ended up in 1743.”
“Don’t be facetious, Claire!”
“You think I’m being funny?” The thought was so absurd that I actually began to laugh, though I felt a good long way from real humor.
I quit laughing. Two nurses appeared at the door as though by magic; they must have been lurking in the hall nearby. Frank leaned over and grabbed my arm.
“Listen to me,” he said through his teeth. “You are going to tell me where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing!”
“I am telling you! Let go!” I sat up in bed and yanked at my arm, pulling it out of his grasp. “I told you; I walked through a stone and ended up two hundred years ago. And I met your bloody ancestor, Jack Randall, there!”
Frank blinked, entirely taken aback. “Who?”
“Black Jack Randall, and a bloody, filthy, nasty pervert he was, too!”
Frank’s mouth hung open, and so did the nurses’. I could hear feet coming down the corridor behind them, and hurried voices.
“I had to marry Jamie Fraser to get away from Jack Randall, but then—Jamie—I couldn’t help it, Frank, I loved him and I would have stayed with him if I could, but he sent me back because of Culloden, and the baby, and—” I broke off, as a man in a doctor’s uniform pushed past the nurses by the door.
“Frank,” I said tiredly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to happen, and I tried all I could to come back—really, I did—but I couldn’t. And now it’s too late.”
Despite myself, tears began to well up in my eyes and roll down my cheeks. Mostly for Jamie, and myself, and the child I carried, but a few for Frank as well. I sniffed hard and swallowed, trying to stop, and pushed myself upright in the bed.
“Look,” I said, “I know you won’t want to have anything more to do with me, and I don’t blame you at all. Just—just go away, will you?”
His face had changed. He didn’t look angry anymore, but distressed, and slightly puzzled. He sat down by the bed, ignoring the doctor who had come in and was groping for my pulse.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, quite gently. He took my hand again, though I tried to pull it away. “This—Jamie. Who was he?”
I took a deep, ragged breath. The doctor had hold of my other hand, still trying to take my pulse, and I felt absurdly panicked, as though I were being held captive between them. I fought down the feeling, though, and tried to speak steadily.
“James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser,” I said, spacing the words, formally, the way Jamie had spoken them to me when he first told me his full name—on the day of our wedding. The thought made another tear overflow, and I blotted it against my shoulder, my hands being restrained.
“He was a Highlander. He was k-killed at Culloden.” It was no use, I was weeping again, the tears no anodyne to the grief that ripped through me, but the only response I had to unendurable pain. I bent forward slightly, trying to encapsulate it, wrapping myself around the tiny, imperceptible life in my belly, the only remnant left to me of Jamie Fraser.
Frank and the doctor exchanged a glance of which I was only half-conscious. Of course, to them, Culloden was part of the distant past. To me, it had happened only two days before.
“Perhaps we should let Mrs. Randall rest for a bit,” the doctor suggested. “She seems a wee bit upset just now.”
Frank looked uncertainly from the doctor to me. “Well, she certainly does seem upset. But I really want to find out…what’s this, Claire?” Stroking my hand, he had encountered the silver ring on my fourth finger, and now bent to examine it. It was the ring Jamie had given me for our marriage; a wide silver band in the Highland interlace pattern, the links engraved with tiny, stylized thistle blooms.
“No!” I exclaimed, panicked, as Frank tried to twist it off my finger. I jerked my hand away and cradled it, fisted, beneath my bosom, cupped in my left hand, which still wore Frank’s gold wedding band. “No, you can’t take it, I won’t let you! That’s my wedding ring!”
“Now, see here, Claire—” Frank’s words were interrupted by the doctor, who had crossed to Frank’s side of the bed, and was now bending down to murmur in his ear. I caught a few words—“not trouble your wife just now. The shock”—and then Frank was on his feet once more, being firmly urged away by the doctor, who gave a nod to one of the nurses in passing.
I barely felt the sting of the hypodermic needle, too engulfed in the fresh wave of grief to take notice of anything. I dimly heard Frank’s parting words, “All right—but Claire, I will know!” And then the blessed darkness came down, and I slept without dreaming, for a long, long time.
Roger tilted the decanter, bringing the level of the spirit in the glass up to the halfway point. He handed it to Claire with a half-smile.
“Fiona’s grannie always said whisky is good for what ails ye.”
“I’ve seen worse remedies.” Claire took the glass and gave him back the half-smile in change.
Roger poured out a drink for himself, then sat down beside her, sipping quietly.
“I tried to send him away, you know,” she said suddenly, lowering her glass. “Frank. I told him I knew he couldn’t feel the same for me, no matter what he believed had happened. I said I would give him a divorce; he must go away and forget about me—take up the life he’d begun building without me.”