The pane was rimed at the bottom with a light frost; winter was not far off. The air was so crisp and fresh that I paused before shutting the window, breathing in great gulps of dead leaf, dried apples, cold earth, and damp, sweet grass. The scene outside was perfect in its still clarity, stone walls and dark pines drawn sharp as black quillstrokes against the gray overcast of the morning.
A movement drew my eye to the top of the hill, where the rough track led to the village of Broch Mordha, ten miles distant. One by one, three small Highland ponies came up over the rise, and started down the hill toward the farmhouse.
They were too far away for me to make out the faces, but I could see by the billowing skirts that all three riders were women. Perhaps it was the girls—Maggie, Kitty, and Janet—coming back from Young Jamie’s house. My own Jamie would be glad to see them.
I pulled the shirt, redolent of Jamie, around me against the chill, deciding to take advantage of what privacy might remain to us this morning by thawing out in bed. I shut the window, and paused to lift several of the light peat bricks from the basket by the hearth and feed them carefully to my fledgling fire, before shedding the shirt and crawling under the covers, numb toes tingling with delight at the luxurious warmth.
Jamie felt the chill of my return, and rolled instinctively toward me, gathering me neatly in and curling round me spoon-fashion. He sleepily rubbed his face against my shoulder.
“Sleep well, Sassenach?” he muttered.
“Never better,” I assured him, snuggling my cold bottom into the warm hollow of his thighs. “You?”
“Mmmmm.” He responded with a blissful groan, wrapping his arms about me. “Dreamed like a fiend.”
“Naked women, mostly,” he said, and set his teeth gently in the flesh of my shoulder. “That, and food.” His stomach rumbled softly. The scent of biscuits and fried bacon in the air was faint but unmistakable.
“So long as you don’t confuse the two,” I said, twitching my shoulder out of his reach.
“I can tell a hawk from a handsaw, when the wind sets north by nor’west,” he assured me, “and a sweet, plump lassie from a salt-cured ham, too, appearances notwithstanding.” He grabbed my bu**ocks with both hands and squeezed, making me yelp and kick him in the shins.
“Oh, a beast, is it?” he said, laughing. “Well, then…” Growling deep in his throat, he dived under the quilt and proceeded to nip and nibble his way up the insides of my thighs, blithely ignoring my squeaks and the hail of kicks on his back and shoulders. Dislodged by our struggles, the quilt slid off onto the floor, revealing the tousled mass of his hair, flying wild over my thighs.
“Perhaps there’s less difference than I thought,” he said, his head popping up between my legs as he paused for breath. He pressed my thighs flat against the mattress and grinned up at me, spikes of red hair standing on end like a porcupine’s quills. “Ye do taste a bit salty, come to try it. What do ye—”
He was interrupted by a sudden bang as the door flew open and rebounded from the wall. Startled, we turned to look. In the doorway stood a young girl I had never seen before. She was perhaps fifteen or sixteen, with long flaxen hair and big blue eyes. The eyes were somewhat bigger than normal, and filled with an expression of horrified shock as she stared at me. Her gaze moved slowly from my tangled hair to my bare br**sts, and down the slopes of my naked body, until it encountered Jamie, lying prone between my thighs, white-faced with a shock equal to hers.
“Daddy!” she said, in tones of total outrage. “Who is that woman?”
“Daddy?” I said blankly. “Daddy?”
Jamie had turned to stone when the door opened. Now he shot bolt upright, snatching at the fallen quilt. He shoved the disheveled hair out of his face, and glared at the girl.
“What in the name of bloody hell are you doing here?” he demanded. Red-bearded, naked, and hoarse with fury, he was a formidable sight, and the girl took a step backward, looking uncertain. Then her chin firmed and she glared back at him.
“I came with Mother!”
The effect on Jamie could not have been greater had she shot him through the heart. He jerked violently, and all the color went out of his face.
It came flooding back, as the sound of rapid footsteps sounded on the wooden staircase. He leapt out of bed, tossing the quilt hastily in my direction, and grabbed his breeks.
He had barely pulled them on when another female figure burst into the room, skidded to a halt, and stood staring, bug-eyed, at the bed.
“It’s true!” She whirled toward Jamie, fists clenched against the cloak she still wore. “It’s true! It’s the Sassenach witch! How could ye do such a thing to me, Jamie Fraser?”
“Be still, Laoghaire!” he snapped. “I’ve done nothing to ye!”
I sat up against the wall, clutching the quilt to my bosom and staring. It was only when he spoke her name that I recognized her. Twenty-odd years ago, Laoghaire MacKenzie had been a slender sixteen-year-old, with rose-petal skin, moonbeam hair, and a violent—and unrequited—passion for Jamie Fraser. Evidently, a few things had changed.
She was nearing forty and no longer slender, having thickened considerably. The skin was still fair, but weathered, and stretched plumply over cheeks flushed with anger. Strands of ashy hair straggled out from under her respectable white kertch. The pale blue eyes were the same, though—they turned on me again, with the same expression of hatred I had seen in them long ago.
“He’s mine!” she hissed. She stamped her foot. “Get ye back to the hell that ye came from, and leave him to me! Go, I say!”
As I made no move to obey, she glanced wildly about in search of a weapon. Catching sight of the blue-banded ewer, she seized it and drew back her arm to fling it at me. Jamie plucked it neatly from her hand, set it back on the bureau, and grasped her by the upper arm, hard enough to make her squeal.
He turned her and shoved her roughly toward the door. “Get ye downstairs,” he ordered. “I’ll speak wi’ ye presently, Laoghaire.”
“You’ll speak wi’ me? Speak wi’ me, is it!” she cried. Face contorted, she swung her free hand at him, raking his face from eye to chin with her nails.
He grunted, grabbed her other wrist, and dragging her to the door, pushed her out into the passage and slammed the door to and turned the key.
By the time he turned around again, I was sitting on the edge of the bed, fumbling with shaking hands as I tried to pull my stockings on.
“I can explain it to ye, Claire,” he said.
“I d-don’t think so,” I said. My lips were numb, along with the rest of me, and it was hard to form words. I kept my eyes fixed on my feet as I tried—and failed—to tie my garters.
“Listen to me!” he said violently, bringing his fist down on the table with a crash that made me jump. I jerked my head up, and caught a glimpse of him towering over me. With his red hair tumbled loose about his shoulders, his face unshaven, bare-chested, and the raw marks of Laoghaire’s nails down his cheek, he looked like a Viking raider, bent on mayhem. I turned away to look for my shift.
It was lost in the bedclothes; I scrabbled about among the sheets. A considerable pounding had started up on the other side of the door, accompanied by shouts and shrieks, as the commotion attracted the other inhabitants of the house.
“You’d best go and explain things to your daughter,” I said, pulling the crumpled cotton over my head.
“She’s not my daughter!”
“No?” My head popped out of the neck of the shift, and I lifted my chin to stare up at him. “And I suppose you aren’t married to Laoghaire, either?”
“I’m married to you, damn it!” he bellowed, striking his fist on the table again.
“I don’t think so.” I felt very cold. My stiff fingers couldn’t manage the lacing of the stays; I threw them aside, and stood up to look for my gown, which was somewhere on the other side of the room—behind Jamie.
“I need my dress.”
“You’re no going anywhere, Sassenach. Not until—”
“Don’t call me that!” I shrieked it, surprising both of us. He stared at me for a moment, then nodded.
“All right,” he said quietly. He glanced at the door, now reverberating under the force of the pounding. He drew a deep breath and straightened, squaring his shoulders.
“I’ll go and settle things. Then we’ll talk, the two of us. Stay here, Sass—Claire.” He picked up his shirt and yanked it over his head. Unlocking the door, he stepped out into the suddenly silent corridor and closed it behind him.
I managed to pick up the dress, then collapsed on the bed and sat shaking all over, the green wool crumpled across my knees.
I couldn’t think in a straight line. My mind spun in small circles around the central fact; he was married. Married to Laoghaire! And he had a family. And yet he had wept for Brianna.
“Oh, Bree!” I said aloud. “Oh, God, Bree!” and began to cry—partly from shock, partly at the thought of Brianna. It wasn’t logical, but this discovery seemed a betrayal of her, as much as of me—or of Laoghaire.
The thought of Laoghaire turned shock and sorrow to rage in a moment. I rubbed a fold of green wool savagely across my face, leaving the skin red and prickly.
Damn him! How dare he? If he had married again, thinking me dead, that was one thing. I had half-expected, half-feared it. But to marry that woman—that spiteful, sneaking little bitch who had tried to murder me at Castle Leoch…but he likely didn’t know that, a small voice of reason in my head pointed out.
“Well, he should have known!” I said. “Damn him to hell, how could he take her, anyway?” The tears were rolling heedlessly down my face, hot spurts of loss and fury, and my nose was running. I groped for a handkerchief, found none, and in desperation, blew my nose at last on a corner of the sheet.
It smelled of Jamie. Worse, it smelled of the two of us, and the faint, musky lingerings of our pleasure. There was a small tingling spot on the inside of my thigh, where Jamie had nipped me, a few minutes before. I brought the flat of my hand down hard on the spot in a vicious slap, to kill the feeling.
“Liar!” I screamed. I grabbed the pitcher Laoghaire had tried to throw at me, and hurled it myself. It crashed against the door in an explosion of splinters.
I stood in the middle of the room, listening. It was quiet. There was no sound from below; no one was coming to see what had made the crash. I imagined they were all much too concerned with soothing Laoghaire to worry about me.
Did they live here, at Lallybroch? I recalled Jamie, taking Fergus aside, sending him ahead, ostensibly to tell Ian and Jenny we were coming. And, presumably, to warn them about me, and get Laoghaire out of the way before I arrived.
What in the name of God did Jenny and Ian think about this? Clearly they must know about Laoghaire—and yet they had received me last night, with no sign of it on their faces. But if Laoghaire had been sent away—why did she come back? Even trying to think about it made my temples throb.