“Come to greet us, have ye, wee Janet? That’s kind.” Jamie’s voice spoke pleasantly from behind me, but with a cynical note that made the girl glance up sharply and blush at the sight of him.
“Uncle Jamie! Oh, and…” Her gaze shifted to me, and she ducked her head, blushing more furiously.
“Aye, this is your auntie Claire.” Jamie’s hand was firm under my elbow as he nodded toward the girl. “Wee Janet wasna born yet, last ye were here, Sassenach. Your mother will be to home, I expect?” he said, addressing Janet.
The girl nodded, wide-eyed, not taking her fascinated gaze from my face. I leaned down from my horse and extended a hand, smiling.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” I said.
She stared for a long moment, then suddenly remembered her manners, and dropped into a curtsy. She rose and took my hand gingerly, as though afraid it might come off in her grasp. I squeezed hers, and she looked faintly reassured at finding me merely flesh and blood.
“I’m…pleased, mum,” she murmured.
“Are Mam and Da verra angry, Jen?” Young Ian gently put the puppy on the ground near her feet, breaking her trance. She glanced at her younger brother, her expression of impatience tinged with some sympathy.
“Well, and why wouldn’t they be, clot-heid?” she said. “Mam thought ye’d maybe met a boar in the wood, or been taken by gypsies. She scarcely slept until they found out where ye’d gone,” she added, frowning at her brother.
Ian pressed his lips tight together, looking down at the ground, but didn’t answer.
She moved closer, and picked disapprovingly at the damp yellow leaves adhering to the sleeves of his coat. Tall as she was, he topped her by a good six inches, gangly and rawboned next to her trim competence, the resemblance between them limited to the rich darkness of their hair and a fugitive similarity of expression.
“You’re a sight, Ian. Have ye been sleepin’ in your clothes?”
“Well, of course I have,” he said impatiently. “What d’ye think, I ran away wi’ a nightshirt and changed into it every night on the moor?”
She gave a brief snort of laughter at this picture, and his expression of annoyance faded a bit.
“Oh, come on, then, gowk,” she said, taking pity on him. “Come into the scullery wi’ me, and we’ll get ye brushed and combed before Mam and Da see ye.”
He glared at her, then turned to look up at me, with an expression of mingled bewilderment and annoyance. “Why in the name o’ heaven,” he demanded, his voice cracking with strain, “does everyone think bein’ clean will help?”
Jamie grinned at him, and dismounting, clapped him on the shoulder, raising a small cloud of dust.
“It canna hurt anything, Ian. Go along wi’ ye; I think perhaps it’s as well if your parents havena got so many things to deal with all at once—and they’ll be wanting to see your auntie first of all.”
“Mmphm.” With a morose nod of assent, Young Ian moved reluctantly off toward the back of the house, towed by his determined sister.
“What have ye been eating?” I heard her say, squinting up at him as they went. “You’ve a great smudge of filth all round your mouth.”
“It isna filth, it’s whiskers!” he hissed furiously under his breath, with a quick backward glance to see whether Jamie and I had heard this exchange. His sister stopped dead, peering up at him.
“Whiskers?” she said loudly and incredulously. “You?”
“Come on!” Grabbing her by the elbow, he hustled her off through the kailyard gate, his shoulders hunched in self-consciousness.
Jamie lowered his head against my thigh, face buried in my skirts. To the casual observer, he might have been occupied in loosening the saddlebags, but the casual observer couldn’t have seen his shoulders shaking or felt the vibration of his soundless laughter.
“It’s all right, they’re gone,” I said, a moment later, gasping for breath myself from the strain of silent mirth.
Jamie raised his face, red and breathless, from my skirts, and used a fold of the cloth to dab his eyes.
“Whiskers? You?” he croaked in imitation of his niece, setting us both off again. He shook his head, gulping for air. “Christ, she’s like her mother! That’s just what Jenny said to me, in just that voice, when she caught me shavin’ for the first time. I nearly cut my throat.” He wiped his eyes again on the back of his hand, and rubbed a palm tenderly across the thick, soft stubble that coated his own jaws and throat with an auburn haze.
“Do you want to go and shave yourself before we meet Jenny and Ian?” I asked, but he shook his head.
“No,” he said, smoothing back the hair that had escaped from its lacing. “Young Ian’s right; bein’ clean won’t help.”
They must have heard the dogs outside; both Ian and Jenny were in the sitting room when we came in, she on the sofa knitting woolen stockings, while he stood before the fire in plain brown coat and breeks, warming the backs of his legs. A tray of small cakes with a bottle of home-brewed ale was set out, plainly in readiness for our arrival.
It was a very cozy, welcoming scene, and I felt the tiredness of the journey drop away as we entered the room. Ian turned at once as we came in, self-conscious but smiling, but it was Jenny that I looked for.
She was looking for me, too. She sat still on the couch, her eyes wide, turned to the door. My first impression was that she was quite different, the second, that she had not changed at all. The black curls were still there, thick and lively, but blanched and streaked with a deep, rich silver. The bones, too, were the same—the broad, high cheekbones, strong jaw, and long nose that she shared with Jamie. It was the flickering firelight and the shadows of the gathering afternoon that gave the strange impression of change, one moment deepening the lines beside her eyes and mouth ’til she looked like a crone; the next erasing them with the ruddy glow of girlhood, like a 3-D picture in a box of Cracker Jack.
On our first meeting in the brothel, Ian had acted as if I were a ghost. Jenny did much the same now, blinking slightly, her mouth slightly open, but not otherwise changing expression as I crossed the room toward her.
Jamie was just behind me, his hand at my elbow. He squeezed it lightly as we reached the sofa, then let go. I felt rather as though I were being presented at Court, and resisted the impulse to curtsy.
“We’re home, Jenny,” he said. His hand rested reassuringly on my back.
She glanced quickly at her brother, then stared at me again.
“It’s you, then, Claire?” Her voice was soft and tentative, familiar, but not the strong voice of the woman I remembered.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said. I smiled and reached out my hands to her. “It’s good to see you, Jenny.”
She took my hands, lightly. Then her grip strengthened and she rose to her feet. “Christ, it is you!” she said, a little breathless, and suddenly the woman I had known was back, dark blue eyes alive and dancing, searching my face with curiosity.
“Well, of course it is,” Jamie said gruffly. “Surely Ian told ye; did ye think he was lying?”
“You’ll scarce have changed,” she said, ignoring her brother as she touched my face wonderingly. “Your hair’s a bit lighter, but my God, ye look the same!” Her fingers were cool; her hands smelled of herbs and red-currant jam, and the faint hint of ammonia and lanolin from the dyed wool she was knitting.
The long-forgotten smell of the wool brought everything back at once—so many memories of the place, and the happiness of the time I had lived here—and my eyes blurred with tears.
She saw it, and hugged me hard, her hair smooth and soft against my face. She was much shorter than I, fine-boned and delicate to look at, but still I had the feeling of being enveloped, warmly supported and strongly held, as though by someone larger than myself.
She released me after a moment, and stood back, half-laughing. “God, ye even smell the same!” she exclaimed, and I burst out laughing, too.
Ian had come up; he leaned down and embraced me gently, brushing his lips against my cheek. He smelled faintly of dried hay and cabbage leaves, with the ghost of peat smoke laid over his own deep, musky scent.
“It’s good to see ye back again, Claire,” he said. His soft brown eyes smiled at me, and the sense of homecoming deepened. He stood back a little awkwardly, smiling. “Will ye eat something, maybe?” He gestured toward the tray on the table.
I hesitated a moment, but Jamie moved toward it with alacrity.
“A drop wouldna come amiss, Ian, thank ye kindly,” he said. “You’ll have some, Claire?”
Glasses were filled, the biscuits passed, and small spoken pleasantries murmured through mouthfuls as we sat down around the fire. Despite the outward cordiality, I was strongly aware of an underlying tension, not all of it to do with my sudden reappearance.
Jamie, seated beside me on the oak settle, took no more than a sip of his ale, and the oatcake sat untasted on his knee. I knew he hadn’t accepted the refreshments out of hunger, but in order to mask the fact that neither his sister nor his brother-in-law had offered him a welcoming embrace.
I caught a quick glance passing between Ian and Jenny; and a longer stare, unreadable, exchanged between Jenny and Jamie. A stranger here in more ways than one, I kept my own eyes cast down, observing under the shelter of my lashes. Jamie sat to my left; I could feel the tiny movement between us as the two stiff fingers of his right hand drummed their small tattoo against his thigh.
The conversation, what there was of it, petered out, and the room fell into an uncomfortable silence. Through the faint hissing of the peat fire, I could hear a few distant thumps in the direction of the kitchen, but nothing like the sounds I remembered in this house, of constant activity and bustling movement, feet always pounding on the stair, and the shouts of children and squalling of babies splitting the air in the nursery overhead.
“How are all of your children?” I asked Jenny, to break the silence. She started, and I realized that I had inadvertently asked the wrong question.
“Oh, they’re well enough,” she replied hesitantly. “All verra bonny. And the grandchildren, too,” she added, breaking into a sudden smile at the thought of them.
“They’ve mostly gone to Young Jamie’s house,” Ian put in, answering my real question. “His wife’s had a new babe just the week past, so the three girls have gone to help a bit. And Michael’s up in Inverness just now, to fetch down some things come in from France.”
Another glance flicked across the room, this one between Ian and Jamie. I felt the small tilt of Jamie’s head, and saw Ian’s not-quite-nod in response. And what in hell was that about? I wondered. There were so many invisible cross-currents of emotion in the room that I had a sudden impulse to stand up and call the meeting to order, just to break the tension.
Apparently Jamie felt the same. He cleared his throat, looking directly at Ian, and addressed the main point on the agenda, saying, “We’ve brought the lad home with us.”