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Second Wife

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      Arriving at Lallybroch again, Jamie was a husk, a hollow man.  He had left his heart behind in Helwater, Willie’s desperate voice in his ears as he rode away.

      Now he wandered the halls at Lallybroch like a fearful ghost, memories lying in wait behind every corner. 

     He didn’t want the Laird’s room back.  He’d assured Jenny of that the instant he’d returned.  But he couldn’t help passing it on occasion, and once, when the door was open, his eye caught sight of the blue walls with their cream-colored leafy design. He had a flash of memory, as real as day:

     Claire was there, a vision in her white nightdress, wrapped in a shawl.  Standing in front of the tall casement window with the moonlight shining through it.  Asking him why Broch Tuarach was called a north facing tower, when it was round. 

     And then he remembered sensations.  Taking her in his arms, her warm body leaning against him, his arms wrapped around her, her soft curls brushing his face, and her shoulder making the perfect resting place for his chin. Sweet kisses.  Running his hand down the curve of her hip and pressing her body to him as they laughed together. Feeling certain of the rightness of Claire in this place, with him.  And then making love to her in that bed, a gentle joining that whispered ‘I love you’ with every touch.  What he would give to kiss her, to hold her, to have her body next to him one more time.  When the memory burned away, like mist in the morning sun, Jamie could have cried.  He felt desperately alone.

     There was no place safe at Lallybroch.  Anywhere he went, Claire had been there with him.  Or he had been there without her, and the place bemoaned her absence just as he had grieved it as well. He saw the entry to the priesthole, and that triggered another flood of memory:

      Few things had filled his heart after Claire’s departure.  In the moments he came down from the cave, the excited chatter of his nephew Wee Jamie and his niece Maggie, along with the gangly pre-pubescent Fergus and Rabbie, drove out the darkness for moments.  When he could relax, when they knew the patrol was not about, he would take Margaret on his lap and the boys would press close for him to tell them stories, the legends of their Scottish ancestors.  And for a precious few moments, surrounded by warm bodies and sweet faces, he would forget.

      With brand new baby Ian in his arms, that precious bairn, he again thought of Claire.  Was she safe?  What did their son look like?  Did he have dark hair like Brian Dubh?  Or red, like his own?  When the soldiers had come and he had held Ian close, putting his index finger into the tiny mouth to quiet the baby, Jamie had felt the same desperate emptiness as he had felt when he knew Claire was with child again, there in the camp close to Culloden.  He could not keep the things he loved close to him; he endangered them just by his presence.  He had sent Claire away, certain he would die, whether from a wound in the battle or from a broken heart.  And now he knew, that birth-day at Lallybroch that he must not hurt wee Ian, and that would mean saying goodbye.  Again.

     But Wee Ian was grown now; a lad of 12, who had no real memory of his uncle at all.  Fortunately, Jenny and Ian had both told their son about his Uncle Jamie.  Mostly Ian, for Jenny would not wish her son to admire the exploits Ian happily recited.  So though Wee Ian did not remember Jamie, he quickly began following his uncle about like a red-haired puppy, making up for the lost years.

     Jamie found moments of peace in the stable, caring for the horses.  It was healing for him to brush them after a ride, to check their hooves, to feed and water them, to train the young colts.  They didn’t ask questions like the prying neighbors and well-meaning tenants.  But they did stir memories of Helwater and Willie:

      Willie woke his heart up once more.  Watching him grow, Jamie felt like he could see his son Brian through all the years he had missed.  Jamie could easily bring Claire to mind, but he had always drawn a blank imagining their child. 

      Isobel would walk Willie in his pram, and she made sure they came by the stables so Jamie could see him. She would hold Willie on her hip, his chubby fingers excitedly pointing out the horses.  “Weeeeee,” he would say, doing his best to mimic the whinnying of the large beasts. 

      Jamie witnessed some of his first steps, heard some of his first words, and watched Willie grow.  When Willie was old enough to walk and talk, he quickly demanded to spend much of his time at the stables, and Jamie had the pleasure of teaching his son.  He would lift his warm body up to the saddle, and hold Willie’s hand as he gently led the horse forward, watching that sweet face as it lit up in excitement.

      And then it became apparent that once again, Jamie would have to say good-bye.  He was weary of it, even though he knew he was heading home to Lallybroch.

      It had once been home, but eleven years had changed everything.  Now there was dark-haired Janet Murray, arguing away with Wee Ian, like they were play-acting the childhood of their feisty mother and hot-headed uncle.  Wee Jamie was twenty-three, married, with bairns of his own.  Margaret was also married, and now it was her babies, not Maggie, whose warm bodies Jamie cuddled close in the middle of the night, whose sweet faces gazed up at him as he told them the things he could not speak of to any other.

      And yet, he still felt empty.  After the bustle of the day, the family would retreat to their own homes, their own rooms, and Jamie would be left.  He would stay in the common rooms as long as he could, and only when he was near dead with exhaustion would he go to his empty bedchamber and sleep alone.

     “I’m weary of it,” he spoke to the darkness in his room.  “Weary of the loneliness.  Weary of feeling like the world has continued without me, as if I havena even been missed.”

     And then, there was Hogmanay.  The old year was ending, the new year arriving.  Jenny kept him, Ian, Fergus, Wee Jamie, and Wee Ian fair hopping with her demands.  Bringing water for washing, keeping the wood boxes full for baking and cooking, moving tables, retrieving greenery boughs from the forest, killing fowl, lugging bottles of whisky from storage, and doing errands to town ‘til they all started hiding in the stable and out in the field just so she wouldn’t see them loitering and give them another job to do. 

     The women folk kept the ovens blazing, baking bread and pies and bannocks and cakes, stewing fruit and roasting meat until the tables groaned under the weight of it all.

     At that Hogmanay, there was something magic in the air.  The glow of candles and fire, the smells of food and evergreen boughs, the sounds of laughter and music.  He could feel other ghosts there: Brian Dubh Fraser, Ellen Caitriona MacKenzie, and William wandered with him.  Jamie held back creeping about the halls as invisible as a spirit.  Then those two precious girls found him; lovely Marsali, with her cheery smile and blonde hair, and sweet little Joanie, brown-eyed, with hair as fiery as his own.  They danced with him out on the floor, their small warm hands clinging to his.  Warm bodies, sweet faces.  He hadn’t felt happy in so long.

     When they pointed out their mother and Laoghaire met his eyes; when he discovered she was a widow, alone with her two precious daughters, a faint spark in his heart took hold, a hunger kindled that could not be satiated any other way.

     Brian and Willie were out in the world without him.  Jamie Fraser was already a father; he was ready for someone to call him Daddy.

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     She was a little rounder, a little more mature, but still bonnie. Instead of wearing her hair down like a lass, it was pinned up. Her mouth spread in a warm smile and her eyes lit up when she saw him, standing at the table with her two daughters. He smiled in recognition, then turned back to the girls.

     “Now, which MacKimmie of Clan Fraser is your father then, girls?” They looked at each other, then the little one shook her head and hid her face in her sister’s apron.

     “He was Simon MacKimmie. But our Da’s been dead a long time,” said the blonde. “He died in prison some years after Culloden.”

     “Oh, I’m sorry,” Jamie said, kicking himself for not thinking. The war had taken many of the men of the clans, and left a generation of fatherless bairns behind. He wanted to change the subject and return to the joyful laughter of just a few minutes before.

     “If Mistress MacKimmie is your mother, then I have a secret for you,” Jamie said, bending close and speaking in a conspiratory whisper. “I ken her when she was just a lass, no’ much older than you!” He gestured at the taller blonde one.

     The girls giggled. “You ken her at Castle Leoch, then?” The elder asked.

     “Yes,” Jamie said. “Ken her, and kissed her at Castle Leoch, too.”

     The redhead covered her mouth with her hand and giggled, looking at him with her big brown eyes. The blonde blushed.

     “Ah, but that was when I was young and foolish,” Jamie said. “I’ve grown up, now.”

     “You have,” said Joan seriously. “You’re very big,” Jamie threw his head back and laughed. It felt foreign, but so good. He looked back at the two girls in front of him.

     “Now, we didna meet properly,” Jamie said gravely. “If you are the Miss MacKimmies, what are your names?”

     “Mine is Marsali,” the blonde said, glancing over her shoulder at her mother with a curious expression. “You arna jesting about Leoch, are ye?”

     Jamie shook his head but blushed slightly, wondering if mentioning the old days had been a wise choice, especially to Laoghaire’s daughters. Ah well, he could blame the whiskey. He hadn’t had any of this good stuff to drink in England, and it was going to his head. He was feeling warm and lighthearted. Or was that lightheaded?

     “And what about you?” He asked the littler of the two, bending down to her level, and giving one of her rope-like red braids a tug. “What shall I call you?”

     “Joanie,” she said, smiling shyly. “Or just Joan.” She pursed her lips. “And what shall I call you?”

     “I suppose Uncle Jamie,” he responded. “The other ones about your age call me that. I dinna think you’d be wanting to call me Mister Fraser.”

     Marsali looked at him with wide eyes. “Fraser? You’re Jamie Fraser?” He didn’t know why she asked, but he nodded, wrinkling his forehead in confusion.  Marsali nudged Joan. “He’s the one, Joanie, that took Ma’s beatin’ in the Hall.”

     Now Jamie truly was flushing. Laoghaire had told her daughters about him. And he remembered something more. He remembered a moment at Leoch. It paled in comparison to any moment he’d had with Claire, but he remembered Laoghaire coming to him by the river, talking to him, tempting him, when he and Claire were at odds after the beating.

     Claire had cast him from her bed, and he was lovesick and frustrated. He hadn’t recognized that aching pressure when he was a virgin, but with Claire taking him to her bed, desires had awakened him that forced themselves upon his consciousness countless times daily.

     Laoghaire had come to him wearing just a corset and skirt with no shift underneath, her pale skin covered with goose flesh. Behind the laces of her corset he could see her cleavage, even her ribs. It would not have taken long to untie those laces, he had thought at the time. She was offering herself to him freely and they were far from the castle, with a cloak and a kilt they could have used as a blanket. She’d taken his hand and put it on the rise of her bosom, and reached her lips up to him. He’d almost kissed her. That day she was a temptress, trying to woo him away from his wife; he had stayed true to his vows.

     But now? He snuck another glance. Now she was a mother. The girls ran up to her, talking and gesturing at once, and occasionally pointing in his direction. Laoghaire warmly put her arm around Marsali, beamed down at Joanie. She flushed, too, and glanced over in his direction.

     Suddenly the girls were pulling Laoghaire, blushing and protesting, towards him.

     “We told our Ma you’re a bonny dancer, Uncle Jamie,” announced little Joan. “She doesna have anyone to dance with tonight.”

     Jamie smiled in embarrassment, but he couldn’t say no to those precious faces. “Dance wi’ me then, Laoghaire?” he asked, offering his hand.

     She smiled up at him, shrugged her shoulders as if in apology for her forward daughters, and placed her hand in his.

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     Marsali and Joan looked like angels.  They wore new dresses for the occasion, and Margaret had woven flowers into their braids, and piled the thick strands on top of their heads.

     Shortly after Hogmanay, after Jenny had nearly worn his ears off with her reasons he should marry and her approval of Laoghaire as a good choice, he had sat Marsali and Joan down.

     “Girls,” he said.  “I would like to ask your Ma to marry me, but I wouldna want to do it wi’ out knowin’ I had yer approval first.”

     “Uncle Jamie!” Marsali exclaimed with pleasure.  “Why, you’d make Ma so happy.  Her having loved you all those years ago at Leoch.  It’s like a fairy tale!”    

     Joan was silent, looking at him seriously, lips pursed. 

      “Well, Joanie, you havena shared your thoughts yet,” Jamie said.

     “Will we still call you Uncle Jamie?” she asked finally.  “Cause I’d rather call you Daddy.”

     Jamie’s eyes welled up at the word.  He knelt in front of Joan and put his arms around her.  “That sounds just fine, Joanie,” he said. 

     And now his eyes welled up again at the sight of the girls.  He was tired of being alone, and in one fell swoop his home would be filled with three more souls.  He looked beyond the girls and saw their mother, her eyes glistening. 

     A wife.  Someone to warm his bed and his body.  He stiffened at the thought, standing tall as his bride approached.

 

     Where Claire had been a firebrand, a live flame in his hands, Laoghaire was an icicle. Claire’s moans and squeaks, mews and cries were all messages of encouragement: harder, faster, yes, there, yes, Oh, Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, yes!

     With Laoghaire, sounds were warnings: that hurts, don’t do that, don’t touch, don’t kiss, don’t lick...definitely don’t bite. Within ten minutes he had established that Laoghaire didn’t like having her breasts gripped tightly, disliked having her nipples licked, let alone gently bitten. Her stomach was ticklish, grabbing her arse was dirty, she wasn’t aroused by having her neck kissed or her earlobes sucked on.   

     He finally gave up on anything but kissing her on the lips (no tongue!) and gently caressing her shoulders and upper back.  Trying to touch her to see if she was wet enough, Jamie thought, This is like trying to change the clout of a toddler who doesna want to be changed.  She squirmed and wriggled under his caresses, trying to escape his hand.  He didn’t want to force himself on her, and he didn’t want to hurt her.  How could he know she was ready?  Claire always signaled quite clearly when she wanted him—sometimes she even said it: “I want you inside me, Jamie.” 

     Jamie quickly shook his head, trying to rid himself of his thoughts of Claire.  Laoghaire was his wife now.  Claire was gone.  

     He kissed her again, and her lips were warm and soft; but they didn’t open to him, or reach for him, didn’t signal desire or love or even affection.  Jamie wasn’t used to feeling confused in bed. 

     I ken I’m no a young man anymore, thought Jamie, with concern,  but I’m in bed wi’ a near naked woman who is my wife, and I’m no as hard as a rock. He brushed himself with his hand just to make sure he hadn’t forgotten how it should feel.  It had been years, after all.  

     This couldna even be called a cock-sit, much less a cockstand, Jamie mused. He didn’t mean to, but he chuckled.  

     Laoghaire stiffened. But then Jamie heard sounds that were the death-knell of any erection, and therefore any wedding night expectations he might have had.  His new bride was crying.  

     He remembered that on his wedding night to Claire, she had been grieving for Frank and felt as if she were being unfaithful. Maybe Laoghaire was thinking about Hugh or Simon.  

     “Dinna fash, lass,” he said, reaching for her to pull her to his chest. But Laoghaire would not be held, and she would not be comforted.  She walled him off, turning her back to him. When he tried to stroke her shoulders comfortingly, saying, “We dinna have to do this tonight,” Laoghaire violently shrugged his hand off of her and kept weeping. 

     Jamie lay on his back for a long while; his only movement the fingers of his right hand, drumming on the quilt over his thigh. 

     Twice, earlier in the day, Jamie’s body had reminded him what getting married meant.  When Laoghaire came into the kirk in her wedding dress, bonny with flowers woven into her golden hair, Jamie felt an unfamiliar ache in his groin.  He wished he had his kilt and dirk then, but at least the kirk was dark, as were his breeches, and everyone was focused on the beautiful bride. 

     The second time was as he walked toward their bedroom with his heart pounding in his ears, after his new wife had excused herself and he had visited long enough to not seem too eager.  He had wondered how much help she would need to disrobe, and nervously opened the bedroom door, expecting to see Laoghaire in some stage of undress. The thought had excited him again, so he was stunned to find that the only sign of his new wife was a lump under the bedclothes. 

     “Are ye asleep, lass?” he asked, still standing by the door. 

     “No,” came Laoghaire’s answer.

     “Are ye staying in bed then?” he asked.

     “Well, yes,” said Laoghaire.  “’Tis our weddin’ night.”

     “Then, may I get in wi’ ye?” Jamie was hesitant.

     “What else would you do?” Laoghaire asked.

     Laoghaire must be shy to be seen by a third husband, Jamie considered, taking his clothes off in silence.  She did not watch him, didn’t seem to want to see him.  He considered whether to leave his shirt on or not, but thought that would be unfriendly and a bit inconvenient.  Naked, he crawled underneath the covers and reached out, only to find that Laoghaire was still wearing her shift.  He was embarrassed for a moment, but she made no move to reach for him, so she didn’t know that he wore nothing.

     He had been grateful for the wide neck and the ties of her shift, because it became apparent after a few tries at undressing her that Laoghaire intended to remain clothed throughout the act.  At least he had access to her soft breasts, but he quickly realized he was not free to explore her body.

     Jamie rolled onto his side now, facing away from Laoghaire.  It hadn’t worked.  He had married Laoghaire because he was tired of being alone.  But in all the past years, he had not felt lonelier in bed than he did right now with Laoghaire’s back towards him, and this ache in his heart.

     The moon was full.  It was his wedding night, damn it.  He should be satiated.  He had mastered the art of the stealth sgaoileadh at Ardsmuir.  He could certainly take care of himself here.  Or excuse himself from bed under the guise of visiting the privy closet.

     But he didn’t want an empty release.

     He wanted Claire.

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     In the light of day, Jamie was able to reassure himself.  The marriage bed was truly only a small part of a marriage.  He hadn’t been capable of sleeping with Claire for months in France after they had rescued him from Wentworth prison.  He had gone without for years in the cave, years in Ardsmuir, years at Helwater. . . he wasn’t a man to be ruled by his baser passions.

     As much as Jenny had tried to tempt him with one beautiful local virgin after another, bringing the girls into their home for ridiculously concocted reasons, trying to tempt him with their cooking skills or their beauty, he hadn’t succumbed.  He was a man in possession of a good deal of self control.

     It was the magic of Hogmanay that did it, that and the adorable girls Joan and Marsali.  He liked the thought of not being alone, of being needed.  At times he had felt like a vestigial structure at Lallybroch, an appendage whose purpose had long since been forgotten, a person who was no longer necessary. 

 

     But Jamie quickly discovered the limits his second marriage placed on him, and how foolish he had been to think this would fill his void. 

     The wedding feast and wedding night were at Lallybroch.  The second night of their marriage they were at Balriggan. 

     When they arrived, he had few things to unpack from the cart.  Laoghaire and the lassies each had a trunk a piece.  Jamie had just a few pairs of clothes, and not much of significance to take from Lallybroch.  Balriggan would have its own wood shop tools and farm equipment. 

      “Da, let us show you the house!” Marsali exclaimed excitedly.  She and Joan took turns guiding him through the rooms and outbuildings, showing him their rag dolls and sewing projects.  He wanted to spend more time in the stable and perhaps inspect the fields, but amiably allowed himself to be towed around until he sensed, from Laoghaire’s manner, that she was displeased.

      “Aye, lassies, it’s a braw house,” Jamie finally said in dismissal.  “But it’s time for me to see what work your Ma has for me to do.”

     Laoghaire did seem pleased at how quickly he brought in wood and water.  She turned to the task of cooking dinner, and soon the house was filled with a delicious fragrance, which foretold a meal that was just as good as the smells had been.

     After dinner, the lassies had talked his ear off about Balriggan—the boys, the gossip, their friends.  Laoghaire had sat silently knitting, but she seemed happy enough.

     The girls had gone to bed, Laoghaire was continuing to knit, and he was doing anything but reading the book in his lap.  A careful observer would have noticed his fingers tapping against the cover of the book.

      “May I speak wi’ ye, Laoghaire?” Jamie asked.

     She looked up at him, fearful. “About what?” she asked warily.

      “About last night.”

      “Not here,” she said.  “The lassies might hear.  Joanie or Marsali might leave their rooms to go to the privy.  We must speak in our bedchamber.”

 

     Jamie had thought anywhere but the bedchamber would be better for this discussion, but he retreated with Laoghaire just the same.  She began to remove her clothing, and so he did also, finally sitting on the bed once he was in just his nightshirt.  He had offered to help her, but her response was a glaring refusal.

     Finally, she sat on a chair at the dressing table.

      “What do you wish to speak to me about, James?”

      “I dinna ken what I did to make ye cry, Laoghaire,” Jamie said.  “Unless it was that I laughed.  I ken I shouldna laughed, but I felt nervous.  ‘Tis been many a year since I slept wi’ a woman.”

      “I wasna crying because you laughed,” she said.  “Well, maybe a bit.  But ’tis been a long time for me as well.”

      “Ye didna like what I was doing.  Can ye tell me what to do differently?” Jamie asked.

     Through her shift he could see that she had full, heavy breasts.  He wanted to see them without her shift on, to touch them, to feel them filling his hands, soft and warm, the nipples pressing into his palms.  He felt his body begin to rouse.

      “For one thing, I wish you would stop fussin’ wi my body.  Why do you keep touching me?  It takes too long.  You should be quick about it!”

      “But there’s a purpose to the touching,” Jamie tried to insist.  “I can ready you, Laoghaire.”

     After their wedding night, when Claire had told him that only if a man was a good lover would a woman always have a ‘petit mort,’ as the French called it, Jamie had prided himself on the ways he was able to bring Claire pleasure.  It brought him pleasure as well, to feel the slippery wetness that showed he was rousing her body, to hear the sounds she made as she lost control of her responses to him, and then as he learned her body, to even sense as the tissues in those intimate places firmed and swelled beneath her skin, readying her to receive him.  Unlike a man, you couldn’t see a woman’s hardening response, but it was there, just the same.

     Laoghaire laughed bitterly.  “Ready me?  How?  How could anyone be ready for that?!”  She gestured in the direction of his groin.

     Jamie looked down.  Indeed, his thoughts had brought about their own hardening response, which was making itself quite apparent underneath his nightshirt.

      “But I could try,” Jamie said hopefully.

      “No,” Laoghaire walked toward him.  “There is no need.  I am your wife,” she said, resigned.  “It is my duty.”  She lay down on the bed and hiked up the skirt of her shift slightly, raising and parting her knees as she did.

     Jamie mused to himself that she didn’t look any more excited about her fate than most prisoners facing their death had, either those waiting for the gallows at Fort Williams, or the ones waiting to be shot in the barn close to Culloden.

      “Get on wi’ it,” she urged him, turning her face away.

     He was lucky his body wanted this so badly, Jamie thought after he had crawled atop her.  He had to close his eyes so he would not see Laoghaire wincing, grimacing, and gritting her teeth beneath him.  He did his best to “Get on wi’ it,” but in order to speed things up, he had to think of Claire.  Claire’s body, Claire’s white skin, Claire’s breasts.  Claire making the moans and squeaks beneath him, gasping with each stroke as he took her.

     The thought made him expand in arousal, and he heard a cry beneath him that was not one of pleasure. 

     Claire.  Claire.  Claire, he thought.  And with relief, he was finally able to release and climb off of Laoghaire, who seemed strangely rigid and wilted at the same time.

     She rolled over onto her side.  Away from him.

      “Can I bring you a towel?” he asked, getting up to get a cloth wet at the ewer.  She was silent.

     But later, when they slept, each thoroughly on their own half of the bed, the mattress began to shake, and he could hear her quietly sobbing.

     Jamie began to understand the advice given him on the eve of his wedding by Rupert, Murtagh, and Ned Gowan.  They had said, “Women generally do not care for it.”  After a time, he had thought perhaps it was the men at fault, that they weren’t as generous or perceptive as he.  Now, however, he could not judge.  He felt like he knew absolutely nothing at all.

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     Laoghaire’s home in Balriggan had been without the care of a man for years, and Jamie had much to occupy his time.  He set himself to work with determination, fixing windows and straightening sagging doors, checking the roofs for leaks and applying new shingles where they were needed.  He scraped out the chimneys and replenished the peat supply.  Laoghaire had kept her garden up, but he reinforced the fence to keep out the neighborhood dogs and wandering deer.  And he made sure the ground was ready for planting grain and potatoes come spring.

     The work was satisfying. His favorite time of the day, though, was after he had come in exhausted and eaten the evening meal prepared by Laoghaire.  She was an excellent cook, taught well by her grandmother, Mrs. Fitz.  With a full belly, he would build up the fire, and then Joanie would sit on his lap and Marsali would curl up next to him, with Laoghaire knitting in her chair by the fire.  Then he would tell them stories, or read to them from the books his tutor had introduced him to many years back: the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

     And when Joanie fell asleep on his shoulder, her fiery hair blending with his, he would shut the book and carry her upstairs to lay her on her bed.  Sometimes she would awaken and sleepily blink her brown eyes at him, whispering “Good night, Daddy,” but even when she slept through the transfer to her bed, he felt a warmth flood his soul that partially filled that cavernous hole deep in his heart.

     After their atrocious failure of a first night together, Jamie managed to express that he was much older than Hugh and Simon had been, and that he really didn’t need anything but once a fortnight.

     It wasn’t all bad.  Out of the bedroom, Laoghaire felt comfortable, familiar.  So much had changed in the last 20 years; so little that was familiar remained.  There were faces he missed: Colum, Dougal, Rupert, Angus, Murtagh.  And Claire.  They were all gone.  But seeing Laoghaire roused memories of Castle Leoch that hadn’t come to him for years.  She was like a painting of a place and time long forgotten that stirred up strong recollections.

     It was perhaps a bit disturbing that he would look at Laoghaire, and instead, remember Claire.  

     It seemed like Laoghaire was always crying, but she would never tell him why.  Once, she was bent in front of the fire, stirring a pot, and weeping.  The sight transported Jamie to a room at Leoch, another fire, another pot, another weeping woman.  He closed his eyes then, and he could almost feel Claire, in her thin, strange little shift, pressed against his bare chest, shaking with grief over her husband.  He had awkwardly crouched in his kilt to hold her, and she clung to the arm he wrapped around her, as he whispered to her and stroked her hair.  He had already developed a sense of affection towards the Sassenach woman, with her fiery ways and her bold tongue.  She had impressed him with her medical knowledge and her compassion; she had just seen his back, and yet he felt no shame in her presence.  As he held her, he had wanted to wrap her up in his plaid, to take her to bed then and there.  And for a moment when their faces were inches apart, he could sense she would have responded, that she would have been comforted by the warmth of his body.  Laoghaire would never be comforted.

     Jamie would see Laoghaire for a second, her blond curls around her shoulders before she pinned her hair up in the morning, and then he would turn and see Claire instead, giddy and tipsy with Colum’s Rhenish, listening to Gwyllyn the bard, completely unaware of how smitten he was with her.  He would see himself walking her back to old Davie Beaton’s surgery with the excuse of making sure she got home safely; when what he really wanted was her alone.  The way she untied his cravat and with her soft hands lifted the edge of his shirt and touched his shoulder made him catch his breath and will himself to keep his hands off her.  He had told Claire the first day at Leoch that she need not be scared of anyone while he was around.  But at that moment, he was a little scared of himself.  Did she notice him devouring her with his eyes, willing her to become his?

     Jamie might see Laoghaire lacing up her corset, and though the face and body made him remember a girl by a river, his mind would walk him away from the river, back through Leoch, and down a dark hallway, to Claire in their bedchamber, beautiful and bereft, sitting in front of the mirror.  He would feel the pain of wondering if she would ever forgive him, if they would ever be close again.  In his mind, he would again take up his dirk and pledge his fealty to her, and she would forgive him, with a caveat—that he would never raise a hand to her again.  Sometimes it hurt too much to stay past that moment, to remember their desperation to possess and invade each other; to truly become one flesh. 

     But sometimes he had to see it through to the end, to remember that it had happened, that Claire hadn’t been just a fantasy, a faery in his life for only three years, now haunting his dreams for the last eighteen.  He needed to know that passion and love truly were possible.

     He tried, by God, Jamie tried.  He tried platonic affection during the daytime, and Laoghaire would pull away from his hand on her waist.  This was odd to him, as he was accustomed to embracing and kissing his sister Jenny on the forehead, and Joan and Marsali seemed to thrive when he would hug them or kiss them when he tucked them into bed.  They would be in raptures if he brushed and plaited their hair for them, which he would sometimes do just to have the warmth of them close to him.

     The girls came to love him, and he to love them.  But not Laoghaire.  Jamie paid her compliments, brought her gifts, picked her flowers.  He worked harder to please her, farmed their land and worked for wages at the neighbor’s, bringing home the money to her.  He perceived her needs before she asked, keeping the wood and water stocked.  Nothing seemed to thaw Laoghaire’s response to him.

     Jamie began to wish he had said he didn’t need to be with her but once a month, because as it approached the two-week point, he noticed Laoghaire stiffen whenever he came near.  It was such a marked reaction that a few times he had looked up and seen Marsali watching them with a look of curious concern on her face.  What impression was the lass getting of marriage?  Jamie wondered. 

     He tried, twice, to approach Laoghaire with no thought for his own pleasure.  One night he had whispered to her, “Please, may I touch you?”  She allowed him to fondle her breasts, but when he tried to cup his hand on her, down there, she froze, clamping her legs so tightly together that he couldn’t even fit a finger between them.

     And one morning, seeing the spill of Laoghaire’s curls on the pillow, her face so fresh and rosy in sleep, and her shift rucked up by her tossing and turning in the night, Jamie thought he might try to pleasure her with his mouth.  But when Laoghaire awoke, she thought a rat or other vermin was in the bed trying to eat her, and she screamed and kicked so violently that Jamie was thrown off the bed and suffered a black eye.   

     After that, Jamie determined that if anything was to occur in their bedchamber, it would have to be at Laoghaire’s initiative. 

     And so he threw himself into the purposes he did have.  Being a father, working with his hands, making the land produce food, and providing for his family.

Chapter Text

    “Joanie,” Jamie tugged the wee lassie’s braid as she stood on a chair before the stove, stirring the pot of stew.  “What’s wrong with yer ma?  She’s outside doin’ the wash, and she’s crying while she does it.”

     “I dinna ken,” replied Joan.  “Ask Marsali.  She called Ma to the privy this mornin’, and Ma started cryin’. And then Marsali started crying as well. And Ma’s been cryin’ ever since.”  Joanie rolled her eyes.  “It seems a fair bit of silliness to me,” she announced, returning seriously to her task.

     “Well, Joanie, your days for irrational behavior are still ahead of ye.  For now, thanks for making sure supper doesna burn.”  He planted a kiss on the top of her head, and she smiled at him. Like sunshine, that one, warming everything she came in contact with.

    Jamie sought out Marsali, whom he found curled up by the fire with a warm brick wrapped in cloth held to her belly.  He’d already had a hunch, from what Joan told him, what was happening—drama in the privy had been his first clue.  He recognized the other signs immediately: abdominal pain, soothed by resting and warmth.  Marsali must have started her courses for the first time. 

    It made him smile to know it, gave him a sense of the intimacy of fatherhood; yet he felt excluded as well.  Laoghaire hadn’t told him, and she was grieving as if there’d been a death, without sharing the source of her sorrow with him or coming to him for comfort.  He wasn’t sure why Laoghaire would be taking it so hard, unless perhaps it was time for her courses as well. He found her general moodiness bewildering, but this was even more severe than normal.

    Jamie mused that he would like to say something to his daughter, an acknowledgment of her passage into womanhood, but he needed to consider how best to approach Marsali.  She was young, and probably embarrassed and fragile. 

    As he thought, Jamie suddenly experienced a moment of panic.  He was in the home of three lassies, and he knew how carefully he had needed to tread with Claire when her time was approaching. What if there were three schedules to manage, three women around whom to tread lightly?  At least it shouldna be for a few years yet for wee Joanie, Jamie consoled himself.

 

     “Laoghaire,” he said, approaching his wife at the washtub in the courtyard.  Laoghaire’s blonde hair was dangling around her face in wet strands from the sweaty work, the warm water and her breath making steam in the cold February air.    He could see that the foam was a rusty brown, and that she was washing white items—sheets and a lace-edged shift. 

     “Go away, James.  ‘Tis not for you to witness this.” Laoghaire said irritably.

     “I dinna ken why not, Laoghaire.  Has Marsali started her courses, then?  It doesna trouble me to know it.  Ye ken I had a sister.  And a wife.”

     Laoghaire’s eyes narrowed.  “Dinna talk to me about that Sassenach bitch, James Fraser.”

     “Ye willna speak of her that way, Laoghaire,” Jamie said firmly, refusing to retaliate.  “I dinna speak of Hugh or Simon with disrespect.  I simply meant to say that ‘tis a natural part of life.”

    Laoghaire turned and glared at him.  “Natural?” she exclaimed bitterly.  “You’re a man.  What do you ken?”

     “I ken that Marsali is growing up, and I think it an amazement to witness it!”

     “Ye find the curse of Eve amazing?”  Laoghaire turned back to the wash.  “I willna ever understand you, James Fraser.  Now leave me be.  I have work to do.”

    As Jamie left her, he took some comfort from the fact that at least now she was mad instead of tearful.  Mad he could deal with.

 

     “Marsali,” Jamie said.  “Do you feel well enough for a wee walk?” He had put Joan to bed, and Laoghaire was bathing.  His second wife’s further actions that day led him to realize that indeed, more than one lass in the Fraser household was on her courses, an observation that was seconded when he changed his clothes after working in the field and noticed their own bed was also covered with fresh sheets.  He had steered clear of Laoghaire for the rest of the afternoon, appearing in time to help set the table for a silent supper, and shooing Laoghaire off to bathe and Marsali to rest while he and Joanie did the dishes.  He was getting weary from holding himself back, and a walk would serve several purposes.

    Marsali had chewed on some willow bark, and she seemed to be feeling better, but she seemed nervous at his request.

     “Go change your clout first,” he urged her.  “That way ye won’t worry.  But we willna be gone long.”

    He couldn’t tell whether Marsali was embarrassed that he knew and that a man was giving her female advice, or if she was relieved by such a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the subject.  After her mother had spent the entire day in tears, the girl needed someone to calm her, Jamie considered.

    When they exited the house, Jamie offered Marsali his arm like a gentleman would a lady.  She smiled up at him, and wove her fingers through the crook of his elbow.

    They walked in silence for a moment, then stopped by a tree, still bare in the February chill. The moon was rising, peeking through the spidery branches, full and glowing.

     “Close your eyes, Marsali,” Jamie said, “What do you hear?”

     “Cows lowing and baby calves finding their mams,” she said.  “Frogs in the pond who refused to burrow and sleep.”  They were both silent.  “And the wind, in the trees, blowin’.”

     “What do you see?”

     “Your breath as you speak.  The frozen crystals of ice on the tree.  And the moon.”  Marsali sighed peacefully.

     “What things do you find the most beautiful in this night?”

    She looked around.  “I love the bright moon.  And the stars.  And the thought that though ‘tis cold and the trees are bare, that spring is around the corner.”

    Jamie sighed, nodding in agreement, and smiling at her answers.  “There is much beauty in the world.”   The quiet had calmed him, and he felt ready to talk to her.  “I understand that you are to be congratulated today!  Is it true that you’ve started your courses?”

    Marsali nodded, not quite certain that congratulations were the order of the day.

    Jamie persisted. “Did you know that the moon and stars have courses as well?”

    Marsali wrinkled her forehead in confusion.

     “Depending on the time of year, we see different stars.  And depending on the time of the month, we see different moons—the new moon and full moon, the crescent moon. They all follow a pattern.  They all have a time.”

    Marsali wrapped a strand of her hair around her finger thoughtfully, looking up at Jamie with her bright blue eyes.

     “Ye are part of the earth now, Marsali,” Jamie said, pulling her into a gentle embrace as they both gazed up at the moon.  “Just as the moon starts over every month, just as spring comes once a year; every month your body is making a new home, readying itself for the day when you can become a mother.”

     “But, Ma called it the curse of Eve,” said Marsali, wistfully.  Jamie could tell she wanted to believe him.

     “Well, I have heard it can hurt.  And it isna convenient.  But I dinna think creating life is a curse.  I think ‘tis a blessing.  For me there are few things more beautiful than a mother feeding her wee baby.  Or the seedlings in a field that tell you things are growing.”  Jamie looked down at Marsali’s face.  “Or a little lassie sprouting into a lovely young woman.”

    It was dark, but there was enough light from the moon to show that Marsali was blushing prettily at his compliment.

    Jamie turned his face away again, his forehead wrinkling in thought.  “I do want to say though, that this does mean that ye could have a bairn.  So ye must be careful around the laddies.  Some of them will treat you wi’ the respect you deserve. But some of them will try to pull you into dark corners and touch your body.”  Oh, he was fouling this up. He did not wish to frighten the girl so she ended up like her mother….  “A time will come when that is good and right—when ye are married.  But until then…Well, I’m your Da now.  And if any young men wish to court ye, they must ask me first.  I willna let an unworthy man pay his respects to ye.”

    Jamie was grateful for the cover of darkness. He wished he had thought his advice through beforehand, as he was currently blushing with mortification.

    But as they turned back to the house, Marsali grabbed his hand.  “Thank you, Da,” she said, squeezing his fingers with her own.  “I felt afeared this morning when Ma talked to me.  ‘Twas bad enough to see the blood and think I was dying.  Then the things she said, and read to me from St Paul?  I was so scairt!  Now at least I can see the truth in it.  That I am growing, that I will be a woman; that someday I might have a bairn.”      

    Jamie walked toward the lights of the house, with Marsali swinging their linked hands, and felt a sweet moment of deep and contented joy.

Chapter Text

     Jamie had shooed her off to bathe, and now Laoghaire was clean and warm, cuddled in her long nightdress, wrapped in a knitted shawl, stockinged feet propped on the hearth.  This day had been especially hard for her.  Something about Marsali beginning her courses triggered a despondent cascade of memories.  She had been remembering and weeping all day long.  When she was Marsali’s age, becoming a woman had been exciting to her.  Here she was, living in Balriggan, with James Fraser as her husband.  Wasn’t that what she had dreamed of all those years ago?

☆☆☆☆☆

     She had been helping her grandmother in the kitchen when excited voices declared that the war chief’s party had returned to Leoch.  Mrs. Fitz had bustled out of the kitchen to greet them, pulling her cap more firmly on her head for her trip out into the rainy courtyard.

     “Dougal’s party is back?” Laoghaire attempted to ask the kitchen maids rushing by her.  “I had thought they weren’t to return until the Gathering.”  No one listened to her—they were rushing to the windows to see which of the raiding party had returned, hoping that none of the men had been lost in the skirmishes, either with the Redcoats or the Watch.

     “Who is that braw fellow with the hair like flames?” asked one of the girls.  “Begorry, he’s a handsome devil, but he could do wi’ a wash.”

     “I’ll help him wash, gladly!” jested one of the lassies of marriageable age, which elicited a bunch of knowing giggles from the other girls.

     “I do believe that’s Jamie Fraser,” said one of the older women, the ones who had been working in the kitchen much longer, and therefore felt that they had a right to order the younger ones, such as Laoghaire, to do the things they felt beneath him.  “I also see his godfather Murtagh in the party.  I wouldna expected to see that lad here again.  There’s a price on his head, ya ken.”

     At the name, Laoghaire’s heart had dropped into her feet, and she worked even harder to press her way to the front of the group jostling for a view at the window.  Jamie Fraser.  When the lad had been about fourteen he had spent a year fostering with his uncle Dougal, and as a seven year old, she had been smitten with him immediately.  He was tall, and muscular, big for his age even back then.  He was a fierce combatant with the sword and dirk, and she would loiter at the edges of the practice field to see if she could catch a glimpse of him.

     Not that he really noticed her, though one afternoon he had pulled her thick blonde braid in passing, and another time he remarked to the other lads he was with, “Aye, watch out for this one.  When she grows up, she’ll be the bonniest lass at Leoch.”

     Pressing to the window, Laoghaire could see him in the courtyard.  Many of the other men had left their mounts immediately, but James Fraser was taking the time to care for his, gently removing his gear with some slight hesitation, his attention split between his horse and Mrs. Fitz, who had greeted most of the men and was now standing and talking to a bedraggled woman who appeared to be wearing a dirty torn shift that may have once been white.

     Jamie was moving awkwardly and slowly, and when Laoghaire peered more closely, she could see that his right hand was bound to his chest with a belt, and what appeared to be a bandage was tied from his shoulder to his ribcage.  There was blood on his face, as well, and his hair hung in wet clumps.

     Laoghaire was pushed out of the way, and when she got back to the window, her grandmother, Jamie, and the woman in white were all gone.  Her heart was pounding, and she raised her hands to her cheeks.  She could feel herself flushing.  Eight years ago, it had been.  And at that time, a fourteen-year-old had little in common with a seven-year-old, especially when the fourteen-year-old was a boy and the seven-year-old was a girl.  But at twenty-two and fifteen it was different; people married who had more of an age spread than that.

     Her grandmother’s cheery, loud voice preceded Mrs. Fitz’s return to the kitchen.

     “I need some comfrey, some witch hazel, and some willow bark tea,” she announced.  Laoghaire was quick to rush to her grandmother’s side.

     “Willow bark tea?  Is someone hurt?”  Laoghaire asked.

     “Young Jamie took a bullet to the shoulder, and the Sassenach woman, Mistress Beauchamp, is going to clean and dress it.”

     “But you’re the healer here at Leoch, Gran,” Laoghaire responded in confusion.

     “Well, I mayna need to continue, if Mistress Beauchamp has as much trainin’ as she seems to.”

     Saffron MacKenzie had pulled together the requested items on a tray. 

     “May I take the things to the room where she’s tendin’ Jamie?” Laoghaire asked.  She could nearly hear her heart pounding in her ears at the thought of seeing Jamie again.

     “Thank you lass, but I can do it,” said Mrs. Fitz.  “Yer Da is expectin’ ye home soon, anyway.  He’ll need you to tend the animals and help wi’ the younger children.  We do have dinner in the great hall tonight, so ye willna need to cook, unless ye are low on bannocks for breakfast.”

     Laoghaire felt desperate to stay, but she also knew that if she wasn’t home right on time, Da would be angry.  He didn’t trust her, now that she filled out her corset and that many eyes, those of boys and men alike, stared at her as she walked past.  She’d never felt so conspicuous and she didn’t always like it, but she could tolerate the unwanted attention if it meant that Jamie Fraser would notice the ways she had matured as well.

     Laoghaire wrapped her cloak around herself and strode off across the courtyard to the stable to retrieve Branaugh.  At least she didn't have to walk to the village in this weather.  She would have been soaked and had mud all over her skirts if she had to walk.  It wouldn't even be worth it to go home. 

     She wished her Da would just let her live at the castle.  He always insisted that she needed to be at home in her bed every night.  All the other kitchen girls got to stay in small rooms in the servants’ wings, and they could be up until late in the hall, not having to rush home before the evening was done.

     When Laoghaire reached the village, she dismounted.  Branaugh didn't like walking on the cobblestones, so she needed to lead him through the walkways.  Somehow he seemed calmer if she was in front of him instead of riding on his back.

     She was nearly at her house when a dark, shadowy form leapt out from between the buildings and grabbed her about the waist, causing her to drop Branaugh’s lead.  The horse was so calm he wouldn’t wander.

     "Hugh!" She exclaimed in irritation.  "Why are you always trying to startle me?"

     "Because ye flush when ye're frightened, and ye look so bonny when yer cheeks are pink!"

     Hugh MacKenzie was 19.  He had been trying to get Laoghaire to promise to marry him for the last year, but she just couldn't agree to it.  He seemed a nice enough lad, but he was fat.  Well, not fat, exactly, but very beefy and soft around the middle.  He had taken ill with the chicken pox when he was a wee lad, and though he recovered from the illness, he was quite pockmarked with scars from the infection.  So between his body, his greasy hair, and his scars, Laoghaire just wasn't ready to commit to him.

     However, she wasn't rude enough to deny him every comfort.  She looked up at him and took a step back into the shadows.  He mirrored her with a step forward, then pressed his body gently against hers until her back hit the wall and she could go no further.  He bent his face to hers and kissed her on the lips.  It was nice, kissing.  For a moment, she pretended she was kissing Jamie Fraser.

     “O Ghiall, Laoghaire!"  Hugh exclaimed, as he removed his lips from hers for a moment, then he bent to his work for a few more seconds.  "Have you changed yer mind about getting’ marrit?  I dinna ken what's gotten into you!"

     If he would just stop talking it would work better, Laoghaire thought.  She felt a sudden urge to allow more to happen, and Hugh must have felt the same thing at the same time, because he drew his hand upward and let his fingers rest on her bosom, right above the fabric of her shift.

     Oh, it felt good.  Laoghaire felt her breath catch in her throat.  She closed her eyes, imagining it was the big red-haired Scotsman with one hand entwined in the curls at the back of her neck and the other enthusiastically trying to worm its way down into her tight corset.  "Oh, Jamie," she felt herself whisper.

     "Jamie?" Hugh exclaimed in disgust.  "Ye ken it's Hugh!  Who is Jamie?"

     "Laoghaire?"  another exclamation followed instantly afterward, in a gruff, masculine voice.  "Ye wanton wee whore!"  Hugh looked at her with terror in his eyes and dashed down the alleyway as quickly as he could.

 

     She didn't get to eat dinner at Leoch that night.  Instead Laoghaire was sequestered to her attic room, and her father made it very clear that he was taking her to the Hall the next day.  He had warned her about her behavior with the lads before, and he was at his wit’s end with her.  Maybe if The MacKenzie ordered a beating for her, she might finally stop making so free with every young lad who made eyes at her or paid her a compliment.

     Laoghaire was terrified.  It wasn't the beating itself that worried her—her father had beaten her with a belt before, so she knew how it would feel.  The pain would pass.  What she was terrified of was the utter humiliation of being beaten in the hall. Before all the men and the women, the Laird, the War Chief, even Letitia.  And her Gran?  Worst of all was the thought of Jamie Fraser watching.  It didn't matter how buxom she had grown, how beautiful her flaxen hair, or pink her cheeks.  If every time he looked at her he imagined her screaming out in pain while being held and beaten, humiliated in front of the crowd, he would never think of her in that way. 

     But as she awaited her punishment, she couldn't help but think back to the braw red-haired young man, pairing that attractive vision with the memory of Hugh's enthusiastic if inexpert caresses.  She felt heavy with desire, and burdened with fear.

 

     She didn’t remember everything from the Hall the next day.  She couldn’t remember her father’s exact words, just that he called her every horrible insult he could think of—being a whore, carrying on with the young lads of the town repeatedly, even though he had demanded that she stop.  He wanted her to be punished for disrespect and disobedience. Laoghaire could not look at the crowd, sure she’d catch the eye of a friend, or Hugh, or Jamie.

     She did hear the two clear raps on the arm of the chair, and the MacKenzie giving his ruling.  Then she heard the slow, terrifyingly deliberate sound of her Da unbuckling his belt.  Two guards grabbed her by the arms, turning her so she faced the crowd, away from Colum and her Da.  She had kept herself calm up to this point, but couldn’t keep the tears from beginning to flow.  It was over.  Every hope she’d entertained since she became a young woman was crumbling into dust.  She pulled back against the rough hands that held her, setting her jaw stubbornly.

     A husky voice called out in Gaelic, but Laoghaire was gritting her teeth, preparing herself for the stinging blow that must be only seconds away, and she didn’t truly hear it.  She only noticed a stirring murmur in the crowd, the sound of feet moving and dresses rustling, and boots tramping across the floor toward her.

     When Laoghaire finally got up the nerve to open her eyes, she thought she must have fainted, for surely she was imagining things.  There, just feet away from her, facing Colum and her father, in a clean shirt and kilt, with curling copper hair and a smile on his face, was Jamie Fraser.

     He was so handsome, so broad and tall, standing confidently in front of the crowd, speaking words that somehow made the people laugh.  Laoghaire looked back and forth between Jamie, Colum, and Dougal.  She was confused, still not quite understanding what was happening.

     Released by the guards after the brief negotiations between Colum and Jamie, Laoghaire stood there dumbly for a few seconds, and then realizing how lucky she was, she disappeared into the crowd, quickly finding the friendly face of her Gran, and collapsing into her arms, as Jamie announced to Colum that he chose fists, rather than the strap.

 

     Laoghaire had watched the beating from the far corner of the Hall, held tightly by Mrs. Fitz.  She couldn’t watch it all, as with each blow, she winced as if she was the one who had been struck.  Jamie Fraser was taking her punishment.  Why would he do that?  They hadn’t even spoken, let alone seen each other face to face since Jamie had returned.  When Jamie had fallen to the ground, Laoghaire started sobbing.  The guards pulled him to his feet, and he had mustered enough strength to smile and thank Rupert and Colum, and then he left the hall as well.

     Though Colum was Laird of Leoch, Mrs. Fitz was the only omniscient one in the castle.  She had quickly found out where Mrs. Beauchamp was caring for Jamie’s wounds, and bustled around the kitchen pulling together a tray with a bowl of leeches, a cup of willow bark tea with orris root and some St. John’s wort soaked in vinegar. 

     Laoghaire followed her at a distance, afraid to see Jamie, and yet needing to know he was well, that he wasn’t hurt too badly.  When her grandmother left the room, she hung back at the entrance, longing to say something to Jamie, to see him, to thank him.

     This was the first time she’d gotten a look at this English woman, “Mistress Beauchamp,” who had arrived with the raiding party.  She was lovely, but a bit older than Jamie, with dark hair that appeared to be curly, but pinned up.  The sassenach bent over Jamie as he sat on a chair, holding his face gently in her hands, peering closely at the bruises around his eye and the cut on his lip.

     Jamie and the woman were speaking quietly to each other, which made Laoghaire wonder what was being said in the murmured conversation between the two, and then Mistress Beauchamp had noticed her outside the door, and nodded in her direction.

     When Laoghaire and Jamie were alone, she could barely meet his eyes.

     “Ye shouldna done that, James Fraser,” she said.  “But thank ye.”

     “Ah, lass,” said Jamie.  One of his eyes was obviously going to be bruised the next day, but it looked like the leeches had gotten rid of the swelling.  “I ken what it’s like to be young.  Once when I was yer age, I was beaten at one of the Hall gatherings.  I remembered how embarrassed I was then, and I didna want you to be shamed in front of everyone that knows ye.”

     “But ye might have been truly hurt,” Laoghaire said, reaching gently up with her hand to touch the bruise on his cheek.  His skin was warm, and his scruffy beard scratched her palm.  She lowered her eyes as she gently drew her hand away.  “I dinna ken if I can ever thank ye enough,” she said, tears glistening on her eyelashes.

     “Dinna fash, lass,” murmured Jamie, reaching to pull her to him.  She melted into the embrace, feeling his solid warmth against her.  She could have stood like that forever, but felt him release her.  Turning away, she quickly left the chamber so he wouldn’t see her cry.

☆☆☆☆☆

     A commotion at the entrance of the house brought Laoghaire back from her reverie.  Marsali was smiling up at Jamie as they came inside, their hands linked.  He drew her into an embrace and the two stood there for a moment, the red haired giant clasping the petite blonde in his arms.

     "Where have you been?" Laoghaire asked them.

     "A wee walk," Jamie responded.

     “Well, close the door,” Laoghaire snapped irritably.  “Yer letting the cold in.”

Chapter Text

     “Milord!”  The voice had changed and deepened in the many years since Jamie had first recruited the little pickpocket in Paris, but he’d recognize the lilting French accent anywhere.  Jamie turned to see the distinctive mass of brown curls and bright blue eyes of his young ward, as Fergus dismounted from his horse and came toward him.

     Fergus had a large pack on the back of his horse, and as he approached Jamie with a question on his face, Jamie already had a distinct idea of what the request would be. 

      “Milord, I would not wish to trouble you, and you have already done so much for me.  You are barely established here at Balriggan, and just newly married…” Fergus seemed to be spending as much time on the preliminaries and justifications as he was planning to on the request.

      “Out wi’ it, Fergus.  Ye shouldna feel worrit about askin’ me for anything.”  Though Jamie’s tone was gruff, he seemed genuinely pleased to see Fergus again.

     Fergus sighed.  “Do you imagine you could find work for me here at Balriggan?  You had only just returned from England when you married Mistress MacKimmie.  I know you might be fine without my assistance, but I miss seeing you, and they already have so many men and boys at Lallybroch, and I thought, with the time for planting arrived…”

     The young man was quickly enveloped in a bear hug, the red curls and brown blending for a minute.  “Aye, Fergus, I can use your help.  I’m fair glad you’ve come.  Here, let’s take your things inside and get ye settled.”

     If Jamie had thought Fergus being welcomed as a part of the family at Balriggan would have been automatic and an easy transition, he was sadly mistaken.  From the instant Laoghaire saw Fergus enter their house carrying a valise, the chill in the air was palpable.  She took to banging the pots on the stove more loudly than necessary, and when they sat to the table for supper, though Jamie and Fergus had made themselves useful and both cleaned up before the meal as well, she wrinkled her nose at them as if they disgusted her.

     Joan had no such qualms.  She found Fergus’s accent enchanting and his hook intriguing.

      “Yer like a real pirate!” announced Joanie, excitedly gripping the hook to look at it closely.  “Ye only need an eye patch and a parrot, and a tri-corn hat, and maybe a beard, with glowing firebrands in it…”

      “Joanie,” Jamie said, trying to shush her with a small shake of his head.  “Fergus hasna ever been to the West Indies.”

      “But if I had,” Fergus announced with a grin, “I am most certain I would make an excellent pirate!”

     Though Fergus’s response delighted Joanie to no end, Jamie saw that Laoghaire was stewing, the set of her jaw a dead giveaway that they would be having a mostly one-sided discussion later in their bedchamber. 

     During the meal, Marsali was quiet, shyly spending more time gazing down at her food than taking part in the conversation.  Jamie had noticed some marked changes in his step-daughter since she had begun her courses a month or so prior.  The thirteen-year-old girl who used to willingly tromp in mud barefoot without caring about the state of her skirts, climb trees and run madly around the farm, play sword-fighting with Joanie with some long kindling, was now spending an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror in the morning, brushing her hair.  She took more care about her garments, and she seemed to pay attention to the interactions between Laoghaire and Jamie, which made him very nervous.  She should not be learning how to be a wife from her mother.

     Marsali’s form was changing, too, whether because she was being less active, or just because she was now a woman.  She was a bonny young lass, who would make some laddie a good wife.  In three or four years, though, at the very earliest.

     What disturbed Jamie slightly at the dinner table was that he also noticed a strange alertness in Fergus.  Though Marsali’s eyes would not often fall on the young Frenchman, his were on her quite often, and it almost seemed as if he watched especially for her reaction when he told them all stories about his part in the Rising or helping Jamie in his spying escapades in France.

     Once Fergus was about to mention Claire, and Jamie desperately caught his eye and shook his head; fortunately the young man noticed and turned the story in another direction.  Unless Jamie was prepared for the discussion tonight to enter the realm of death threats, Claire’s name must not be spoken.

     Laoghaire did once direct a question to Fergus.  “So, ye’ve been to Edinburgh, then?”

      “Oui,” said Fergus.  “I’m not really cut out to be a farmer, so I’ve looked into different trades there.  There are shopkeepers and excise men, printers and blacksmiths; importers, tavern owners, lawyers.  I haven’t decided what I want to do, but I do intend to make myself a living.  I’m vingt-neuf, ah, twenty-nine years old?  If I wish to marry, I must make a fortune first!”

     Marsali colored briefly, looking up in surprise when Fergus mentioned his age.  He wasn’t like the young Scotsmen she was constantly surrounded by, big and braw, tall and muscular.  He was fine- featured and slender, and he did not look as old as he said.

     “If you find a job in Edinburgh, will you also find your wife there?” Laoghaire asked pleasantly.

      “There are many young ladies in Edinburgh,” Fergus responded.  “But I believe there are none so bonny as your daughters.”  He grinned sidelong at Marsali, who blushed and focused on the last piece of tattie she had on her plate.

     Jamie looked alarmed, and Laoghaire, furious.  Fergus glanced back and forth from one to the other and quickly decided he should make his excuses and turn in for the evening.  Considering how the evening had gone, Jamie thought it best to set Fergus up in the loft over the stables instead of in the main house.  Laoghaire had seemed so angry already; he did not want to risk an explosion.

     As he helped make up the bed for Fergus, Jamie sighed deeply and began to speak.

      “I dinna ken if I really saw what I think I did at dinner.  But I must say to you, Marsali is thirteen, Fergus.  Now, I’d trust ye with my life, but I willna trust you wi’ my daughter.  I canna make it more clear than this.”  He looked straight at the young Frenchman, meeting his eyes directly.  “Keep your hands off her.”

     Fergus impishly lifted both forearms in the air, showing one hand and one hook.

     Jamie shook his head in good-humored disgust.  “If ye dinna listen to me, lad, you may end up wi’ one less hand, ye wee Frangach.  Keep yer hand off her, and yer hook.  And yer lips.  And yer wheedling eyes.  And yer sweet talk.”

     Fergus shrugged his shoulders and smiled.  “I will do as you say, milord.  Marsali is lovely, but I do not see her in that way.”

      “Good.  Just remember, Fergus.  Yer a man, and she’s a bairn.  And her ma will kill you and will never forgive me if ye do anything with Marsali at all.”

     Leaving Fergus with a decanter of their best whisky, Jamie headed down the ladder and into the house, steeling himself to meet his fate in the bedchamber with Laoghaire.

 

      “You’ve put him in the stable?” Laoghaire asked, as Jamie entered their room and closed the door.

      “Yes, Laoghaire,” Jamie responded.  “Though he should be staying in the house, I have put him in the stable.”

      “He should not be staying in the house.  We’ve got two daughters,” Laoghaire insisted.  “And he’s the bastard son of a French whore, who grew up in a whorehouse.”

     Jamie’s eyes told Laoghaire she was treading on dangerous ground.  “My da was a bastard son, Laoghaire.  A child hasna any say about where they are born or who their parents are.  Fergus is a good lad, and I’ve kent him for twenty-one years.  He hasna lived in a whorehouse since we met.”  Jamie didn’t persist any further, as he knew that while Fergus hadn’t lived in a whorehouse in all that time, he may have been to one, if the tales Wee Jamie and Rabbie had told him were true. 

      “If I dinna want that Frenchman here, ye canna say he can stay,” Laoghaire fumed.  Even in her anger she couldn’t stay still.  She was straightening quilts and folding clothes as if her life depended on it. “This is my home, James Fraser.”

      “’Tis it now?”  Jamie asked casually, his jaw twitching.  “Seems to me that one of the marriage vows is ‘With all my worldly goods, I thee endow!’  This place is as much mine as yers now.  I’ve worked this land plenty.  I’ve made our home a better place.”

      “Ye ken what I mean, and you know it, James Fraser,” she said, glaring.  He always knew he was in trouble when she took to calling him his given name.

      “Yes, I ken what you mean, but I also know who Fergus is to me.  He’s the closest thing to a son I have in my life.”

      “But he’s not your son, is he?” Laoghaire asked, shaking out the feather pillows from atop their bed.  She couldn’t see the way Jamie was clenching his jaw in response.

      “Your girls arena mine either, now, are they?  But I love them as my own,” Jamie insisted.  “I’ve known Fergus longer.  And I vowed to support the lad, if ever he was wounded in my service.”

     Laoghaire sniffed scornfully.  “And because he was foolish and taunted the British and lost his hand, you’re bound to him for life?”

      “Fergus lost his hand drawing the Redcoats away from my cave and you ken it, Laoghaire,” Jamie started to raise his voice.  “If it werena for the lad, you wouldna have a husband at all.”

      “A husband!” Laoghaire scoffed bitterly.  “How can you be called a husband when ye dinna respect my wishes, and ye dinna love me?”

     Jamie took two fierce steps toward Laoghaire.  “How can I love ye, when ye willna even let me touch ye?”  His eyes were fiery, his body expanding in his anger.  “When ye willna let me kiss ye?!  Yer always sayin’, ‘Oh, Jamie, ye shouldna touch that.’  ‘It’s filthy’.  ‘Ye canna kiss me there’.  ‘Oh, ye shouldna put yer hand on that!’”

     Laoghaire’s face was crimson, and she was nearly hyperventilating as she faced him, her fists balled at her sides.

      “You’re heartless and cruel,” she screeched. 

      “I’m heartless?  At least I tried,” said Jamie, shaking his head and glaring at her.  “Yer the one who willna let me near ye.  Yer the one who has made this room as cold as a prison!  I’d rather sleep on the floor of a prison cell in Ardsmuir!”

      “Well…well, yer a lecherous beast!” Laoghaire said accusingly, her lips quivering.

      “A lecherous beast?” Jamie rolled his eyes scornfully.  “Now there’s a lie if ever there was one.  I am no lecher… In fact, I dinna ken if I’m even capable of a respectable cockstand anymore.  Yer such an icy bitch, ye’ve rendered me a eunuch!”  With his final words, he flung the bedroom door open and stomped down the hall, leaving Laoghaire to melt into a puddle of self-pitying tears. 

Chapter Text

     He might have stormed out of their bedroom in anger the previous night, but Jamie knew that he needed to keep peace in his home.  Several times in his life, Jamie had walked toward a necessary conversation with a heavy heart, and this time hurt him especially.

     He found Fergus in the stables, forking hay down from the loft into the stalls. He’d thought of Fergus frequently in the years he was in Ardsmuir and Helwater.  The lad was still the same handsome, clever, quick-witted creature Jamie had first met, but the familiar face had changed markedly in the eleven years Jamie had been gone.  Fergus had been eighteen when Jamie turned himself in to the British, a young man who was still slender and youthful of face.  A boy continues to grow and mature in his twenties when girls have often reached their maturity before they leave their teenage years.  Fergus had widened through the rib cage, though he was still thin.  His beard had thickened as well, so that if he did not shave, there was a dark shadow on his cheeks.  But the real changes were less perceptible—a sense of humor and wisdom in the eyes, confidence, and a settled peace in his personality.

    Fergus climbed down the ladder as Jamie stood below, trying to consider his words.

     “Ah milord,” Fergus said empathetically as Jamie approached him with downcast face.  “I know what you need to say.  Please know I cannot fault you.  You must consider the feelings of your wife now.”

     Jamie shook his head, as if the effort could change the circumstances.  “But Fergus, lad, you’re like a son to me. I wanted you here.  I didna even consider that it would be a problem for the second Mrs. Fraser.  I think maybe Laoghaire sees ye and it makes her think of France, and Claire.  For me those are good memories, but they are not good memories for her.”

     “What shall I do then, milord?” Fergus asked, looking about him at the beasts in the stable and the crops in the fields beyond.  “I am not made to be a farmer.  I cannot go back to Lallybroch.”

     Jamie wrinkled his forehead as he too stared out over the fields.  “I’ve been thinking, Fergus.  The land doesn’t create enough income anymore.  There’s not enough to support Jenny and Ian and their children at Lallybroch, while also supporting us here at Balriggan.  We need another source of income.”

     “Milord?”  Fergus asked curiously.  “What are you thinking?”

     “Ye were speaking about seeking out yer fortune last evening.  You’re a smart lad, Fergus, and ye have a way wi’ people.  If I sent ye to Edinburgh, do ye think you could find ways for us to make additional money?  I’ve got the last gem retrieved from Silke Island secreted away, so we would have some capital to buy or start something. I need a business, lad.  Something respectable. Something an educated man might find stimulating and rewarding, but something that might also be a cover for a less reputable but more profitable business venture.”  Jamie’s eyes twinkled as he spoke, and Fergus could see the idea gaining more traction in his mind.

     “Milord,” said Fergus, brightening, “This is a thing I could do.  What exactly might you be considering?”

    “When I worked for Jared,” Jamie mused, “I could see that there is money to be found in the selling of spirits. Ye should go to Edinburgh and seek out a business that moves things, one where it’s common for tubs and casks to come and go.  A business where the excise men willna typically think they should even go.”

     “Ah, milord,” Fergus smiled.  “This will be a challenge.  And it will be good to be in your service again and seek sources of income. As I said, I was not made to be a farmer.”

     “Nay, lad, ye werena made for that. Well, come in to break yer fast,” Jamie said.  “Ye can say goodbye to the little lassies.  And Laoghaire will be happy to pack you a generous amount of delicious food, as long as it’s to send ye away on a long journey.”  He chuckled bitterly.

     Jamie was right.  Laoghaire was quite cheerful, considering the sabaid mhòr they’d had the previous night. He had crept down to the guest room and slept on the bed he’d intended for Fergus.  He didn’t want to be around her after the words they’d said, but he didn’t much feel like apologizing, either.

     Joanie was sad to see her new friend leave.  “Ye will write and tell us if you find a parrot and decide to sail to the West Indies, will ye not?” she asked, holding onto Fergus, one hand gripping his hand and the other his hook.

     “You will be the very first to know if I become a pirate, Miss Joanie,” Fergus assured her.  “But currently, I do plan to return at least for Hogmanay.  I wouldna want to be away from the family at the holidays.”

     “But that’s months away!” Marsali exclaimed, breaking her silence and stepping toward Fergus in her distress.  “Nine months!  Will ye truly not come to visit us in all that time?  And that means ye also willna be here for my birthday next month.  I’m turning fourteen. Nearly a young lady.”

     Fergus smiled at her, and patted her on the arm.  Jamie was glad Laoghaire was in the kitchen packing vittles for Fergus to take on his journey, for the way Fergus looked at Marsali, and the way Marsali tensed and blushed at Fergus’s touch demonstrated that sending Fergus away was probably the best choice, though he wouldn’t admit it to Laoghaire.  Fergus needed to be reminded of his influence on real women, not a mere child like Marsali. 

     As he bid the girls farewell, Fergus first bowed low to Joan, taking her hand after she’d curtsied and kissing it briefly.  He did the same for Marsali, but he met her eyes, and his lips perhaps lingered a little longer than they should have.  But he was leaving, so Jamie rolled his eyes at the young flirt and ushered him out of the house.

     The two men embraced once more at the road as Fergus prepared to mount his horse for the journey to Edinburgh.  Jamie ruffled Fergus’s hair as he used to when he was just a wee lad, and with some last pieces of advice, he sent the young man on his way.

 

     Laoghaire had been very aware of Marsali’s admiration for Fergus the previous evening.  She recognized the telltale signs of infatuation in her daughter’s actions: listening intently while not actually making eye contact, blushing in response to being acknowledged, and more than anything, Marsali’s otherworldly awareness of the young man’s location at all times.  When Fergus had left, her daughter had burst into tears and gone running upstairs.  Laoghaire thought she might actually still be crying up there.  The lad definitely needed to leave.

     Her argument with her husband had been horrid last night, but she was very glad that Jamie had listened to her, even if his words had stung her to the core.

     Icy?  He called her an icy bitch.  She had been anything but icy towards Jamie at Castle Leoch.

☆☆☆☆☆

     It was a miracle that her father let her out in company again after the hall.  That night her Da and her Gran had a huge argument.  Mrs. Fitz finally told her son-in-law that she would take responsibility for the young lass.  Wasn’t it those uncouth village boys who she’d been with, after all?  Laoghaire had tearfully promised on her mother’s grave that she would not behave in a loose manner, and the deal was done.  Now she was sharing a room with her Gran, and sequestered to the kitchen for most of the day, with just occasional privy breaks where she could be alone.  Laoghaire was grateful.  She had a feeling if she’d gone home with her Da, it wouldn’t matter that Jamie had volunteered to take her punishment in the hall—her Da was just as capable of using his belt at home.

     She was grateful to be allowed to see Gwyllyn the bard perform in the hall that evening.  When Mrs. Fitz finally excused her from her kitchen duties, she crept into the large vaulted room and looked for an open seat.  She didn’t realize she was sitting next to the Sassenach until the woman had leaned toward her to introduce herself.  They had exchanged names, acknowledging each other with congenial smiles.

     Laoghaire’s attention was drawn away to the entrance to the hall, and her heart instantly began to pound.  There he was—James Fraser, wearing his kilt, drawing the attention of everyone with his handsome face, his strong body, and that red hair.

     Mistress Beauchamp had noticed as well, and whispered “Cuts quite the fine figure, that Mr. MacTavish!”

     “Aye,” she had answered.  There was no use denying it.

     Jamie had been engaged in cheerful conversation with several men by the entrance, but as the two young ladies were watching him, he glanced over in their direction.  Mistress Beauchamp waved to the young man, as Laoghaire considered, Which one of them was he looking at

     She sighed, concluding the worst.  “But it’s not me he fancies.”

     He was walking toward them, as Mistress Beauchamp joked, “Well, men rarely know what’s best for them.  That’s what us women are for.”

      He tried to make himself smaller to not offend the other members of the audience, but that was virtually impossible.  He completely filled the empty space in between them with his bulk, greeting them in turn. 

     “Laoghaire.  Mistress Beauchamp.”

      “Mr. MacTavish,” said Mistress Beauchamp.  She leaned out and looked beyond him to Laoghaire.  “I was just telling Miss MacKenzie how beautiful she looked tonight.”

       He looked at her distractedly, taking in her hair, her dress.  “Aye,” he said.  “Aye, she’s bonny.”  Then he turned his gaze away from her as Gwyllyn started to play.

     Laoghaire could tell from Jamie’s posture which one of them had the majority of his attention.  His body leaned away from her like a tree blown in the wind, his torso angled clearly toward the English woman.  Mistress Beauchamp tried to include her in the conversation, but Jamie seemed to shut her out, his broad back like a wall.  She couldn’t hear what Mistress Beauchamp was saying, and Jamie was leaning towards the Sassenach every time he spoke.

     He did mention the time he had been at Leoch before, and Laoghaire tried to re-insert herself in the discussion.  “I remember the time you were here before.”

     “Mmmm?” said Mistress Beauchamp, sipping her Rhenish and acknowledging her.  “Do you?”

     “You canna have been much more than seven or eight yourself,” said Jamie. He smiled, and Laoghaire sighed in embarrassment.  He leaned back towards Mistress Beauchamp, saying, “I doubt I was much to see then so as to be remembered.”

     “Well, I do remember, though,” she had responded to him.  She thought back to that strong young man, and her young girl’s crush.  “You were so—.“ She didn’t want to embarrass herself and didn’t quite know how to finish the sentence.  “I mean, do you not remember me from then?”

     “No,” said Jamie, casually.  “No, I dinna think so.  Still, I wouldna even be likely to.”  He was trying to be polite, maybe.  He turned back to the Sassenach, again.  “A young burke of 16 is too taken up with his own grand self to pay much heed to what he thinks are naught but a rabble of snot-nosed bairns.”

     Snot-nosed bairns!  Laoghaire wanted to remind him.  She wanted to say, Ye weren’t but fourteen, and ye did notice me, Jamie Fraser.  Ye said I would be the bonniest lass at Leoch when I was grown.  But he wasn’t paying attention to her now.  Mistress Beauchamp had just elbowed him, which made him freeze and stare at her.

     The older two continued their whispered conversation next to her, and Laoghaire felt ignored.  Gwyllyn had only finished the first song, when Jamie finally turned back to Laoghaire.  But it was only to hand her Mistress Beauchamp’s glass which he had just drained, and to say, “It’s gotten late.  I believe I’ll see Mistress Beauchamp back to her chamber.” 

      With that, Jamie and Mistress Beauchamp got up and left the hall, and Laoghaire watched them as they went, Jamie holding onto the Sassenach by the elbow.  They weren’t married, and Mistress Beauchamp seemed very proper.  But the way she had touched Jamie the previous night seemed very intimate.  What were they going to do?  Laoghaire’s stomach ached with longing and disappointment, and she glared at Claire's retreating back.

 

     The following day Laoghaire was yet again working in the kitchen.  Mrs. Fitz had her wrapping up bannocks and cheese in cloth and putting them in baskets for the young men who picked up their luncheons before heading out to work in the fields or with the horses.  She was busy at her work, when suddenly she felt fingers on her back and then someone tugging at her hair.

     “Stop-it, Adam,” she hissed.  The young lad was constantly teasing her instead of bringing in wood like he was supposed to.

     “Not Adam,” said a deep voice from behind her.  Laoghaire’s eyes flew open and she whipped around, slowed slightly by the hand which still gripped a sizeable hank of her hair.

     “I just recalled,” said Jamie.  He was grinning at her, his eyes twinkling.  “I think I do remember you, Laoghaire.  Did ye used to plait your hair in a thick braid, like a golden rope down yer back?”

     She pursed her lips at him.  “Yes,” she said skeptically.  Did he truly remember?

     “And I told the other lads we should be careful.  For when you were grown, you were going to be the bonniest lass at Leoch.”

     “You do remember,” she said, shaking her head, feeling irritated with him. It was too late.  He’d already embarrassed her in front of the Sassenach.  “Are ye here to take your luncheon?  The finished baskets are over there.”  She gestured to the other table.

     “No,” said Jamie.  “I will be working the horses today, but I think I need to go to confession, first.”

     “Confession?” Laoghaire asked.  “’Tisn’t Sunday.  Dinna ye want to wait for Mass?”

     “Some things need to be confessed sooner, or they wear on your soul,” Jamie responded.

     “Are you so very evil?” Laoghaire asked him.  “You have so many sins that you must confess every day?”

     “Nah,” said Jamie, “But I have been thinking about the scriptures, and it’s put me in mind of some things I need to confess.”

     She made a face at him.  Not many lads bothered to read anything, much less the Bible. He was in an odd mood, but Laoghaire decided to play along.  “Which scriptures are ye thinkin’ about, James Fraser?”

     Jamie was looking around the kitchen, and he gestured toward the hallway with his head.  Mrs. Fitz was occupied, so Laoghaire put down the packet she was working on and followed him. 

     When they were out in the hall, they faced each other.  Oh, his eyes were so blue, Laoghaire thought.

     He couldn’t quite meet her gaze, and his lips twisted in a wry smile.  “I was thinkin’ about what St. Paul says, that ‘tis better to marry than to burn.”

     “Are ye getting’ marrit, then?” Laoghaire asked, confused as to where the young man was going with this line of discussion.

     “No.”  Jamie stepped closer to her and bending close, whispered in her ear words in a husky voice that sent chills down her spine.  “No, but I’m burnin’, lass. And if I’ve got to go to confession already, I might as well have something to confess.”

      “What about Mistress Beauchamp?” she asked, eyes narrowed.

     “Mistress Beauchamp?”  Jamie paused and sighed thoughtfully, “Well, she’s been marrit, and she doesna plan to stay at Leoch.  Besides, she has no use for an outlaw like me.”

     Laoghaire stepped back and looked up at him.  Was he making fun of her?  The look she saw in his eyes made it quite clear.  This was not the distracted young man of last night, dismissing the little lassie next to him while he hung on every word of the beautiful Sassenach.  He was devouring her with his eyes, looking at her face, and quite clearly his eyes were drifting lower as well.

     “Well, maybe we can give ye something to confess, and I can show my thankfulness,” Laoghaire teased.  “I know a place,” she whispered.  And taking him by the hand she led him into an alcove where a striped linen curtain would hide them from view.  He sat on a keg and pulled her down onto his lap.  With a sweet, hungry smile, he stroked the side of her face, then dug his fingers into the thick blonde locks at the back of her neck and pulled her close to him until their lips met.

     Her heart may have leapt when she was seven, and she surely felt roused when she kissed Hugh and thought of Jamie, but that was nothing in comparison to what Laoghaire felt now.  With Jamie’s gentle hands roaming her body, she was head-to-toe goose bumps and shivers.  Hugh kissed in a sloppy, wet way, which Laoghaire sometimes thought was like letting a baby calf suck on your face.  But Jamie did it differently, opening his lips, and gently touching and licking hers with the barest touches of his tongue. 

     He stroked her body as well, gentle caresses down her arms and up her back, tracing her ears and neck with his fingers, traveling over her breasts at the gathered edge of her shift.

     And then Laoghaire felt his large hand pushing her skirts upward, for a moment resting on her knee, and then gently creeping farther, stroking the sensitive skin of her thigh.  She thought she would faint.  Her muscles were liquid.  She felt weak, in body as well as willpower. 

     “No,” she said, when his hand was halfway up her thigh, finally realizing she needed to place a limit on him and on herself.

     “Oh, Laoghaire,” he breathed.  “Oh, ye are so bonny.  Ye are right, though.  We shouldna keep going.”

     She thought she’d felt something shift beneath her as they were kissing, and when she got off of Jamie’s lap, he didn’t instantly rise.  He was wide-eyed and somewhat breathless, his face flushed.

     He chuckled and made a face at her.  “That St. Paul.  He must have done a lot of confessing, for I dinna think the man married.  So he must have been burnin’, all right.”  She was waiting for him to leave with her, but he stayed seated.

     “Ah, we should probably leave separately anyway.  And I think I need a minute, lass,” Jamie said, slowly blowing out his breath as he waved for her to exit. 

☆☆☆☆☆

     As Laoghaire watched Jamie read to the girls that night, she truly looked at him for the first time in quite a while.  He was not the same young man as he had been at Leoch.  For one thing, he had more scars.  Besides the scars from the double flogging, and the small white line on his lip from the beating he took for her, as well as the crescent shaped scar on the back of his head, buried in his hair, there was the triangular one on his neck, and the long wound on his thigh from the battle at Culloden.

     He certainly had hidden scars as well.  Though he was very sweet with the girls, sometimes it seemed as if he didn’t have a whole heart to give.

     But then, neither did she.  She was scarred as well, in ways that Jamie would never see; some of her deepest scars actually caused by him.  She wondered, as she looked at the red curly head bent close to the girls with their braids, like gold and copper ropes: What would their lives have been like, if Jamie had really listened to himself as he propositioned her in the hallway, with those words from St. Paul?  What if she hadn’t stopped his hand?

 

Chapter Text

     Joan was not yet over Fergus’s departure.  “Do ye think Fergus has gotten to Edinburgh yet?” she asked Jamie, as they sat by the fire that evening.

      “Not yet, lassie.” Jamie answered.  “It’s a long journey.”

     Marsali attempted a casual tone as she darned some of Jamie’s well-worn stockings.  “What work do ye think Fergus will do?”

      “I dinna ken,” Jamie responded.  “He’s a resourceful lad.  It will interest me to hear from him once he writes us.”

     Joanie looked thoughtful.  “Well, what things have you done, Da?”

      “Besides being a farmer?”  Jamie asked.

      “Yes,” the little one announced.  “I want to know.”

      “Oh, I’ve been a horse trainer and I’ve been in the army.  And, before I came back here I was a groom, at a place called Helwater in England.”

      “A groom?”  Joanie sounded bewildered.  “Did ye just marry ladies all day long?”

     Marsali laughed outright.  “Silly, that’s a bridegroom.  A groom works wi’ horses.”

      “Even I ken ye canna marry a horse, Da!” Joanie dissolved into giggles at her own joke.  Jamie poked her in the ribs, causing her to collapse into another bout of giggles.

      “I am going to miss Fergus. He speaks so funny,” Joanie remarked, tracing the long scars on Jamie’s fingers.

      “That’s because he’s from France,” explained Jamie.  “They speak another language there, and because they learn French as wee lads and lasses, that means that they have an accent when they learn another language.”

      “French?” said Joan.  “Why dinna they just speak English instead?”

      “Well, French is a beautiful language,” Jamie smiled.  “Tu es une belle jeune femme, ma fille.”

      “Daddy!”  Joan turned to him in surprise.  “You talk French, too?  What did you say?”

      “I said, ‘you are a beautiful young lady, my daughter.’”

     Joan leaned back on Jamie’s chest, smiling with pleasure, as she again pulled his hand onto her lap and inspected the scars and lines.

      “Now say something for Ma,” Joanie demanded.  Laoghaire was watching them from across the room.

     Jamie looked over at her.  “Le dîner était délicieux, ma chérie,” he said, smiling.

      “What did that say?” Joan asked.

      “That dinner was delicious, my dear,” Jamie translated.  Laoghaire smiled back.

      “Now say something for Marsali,” Joanie ordered.

     Jamie pondered for a moment, and then turned his eyes to his elder daughter.  “Je suis excité de voir ce que vous devenez quand vous êtes une femme adulte.”

      “So, what did that say, Da?” Marsali asked.  “It was very long.”

      “I said I was excited to see what you will become when you are a grown woman.”

      “What I will become?” Marsali asked in confusion.  “What do women become but wives and mothers?”

      “Being wives and mothers is a good thing,” said Jamie.  “But I’ve known women who are very wise, who help the sick, who write, who play music, who work with their husbands.  A day could come when women will be doctors or lawyers, too.”

     Across the room, Laoghaire scoffed derisively.  “Stop putting ideas in their heads, James Fraser.  Wife and mother is a worthy enough task for any woman.”

      “I dunno,” said Joan seriously, shaking her head and making a face.  “I want to be a pirate.”

     Marsali, Jamie, and Laoghaire all laughed, which made Joanie pout and fold her arms grumpily.  But as Jamie patted her arm comfortingly, she settled, yet again picking up his hand.

      “Da,” she said, sitting up slightly, “You have a scar like Jesus Christ did.”  She placed one finger on the tiny white scar in the center of his palm that still remained after 21 years; turning his hand over to show the slightly larger matching scar on the back of his hand.  She grabbed his other hand, but put it down in disappointment when she didn’t find the same scars there.

     Jamie had just been reading to them from the Bible about Doubting Thomas, who had wished to touch the scars in Jesus’ hands and sides before he would believe he was risen from the dead.

      “Jesus’ scars came from being nailed to the cross.” said Joanie.  “Look, Marsali.”                                      

     Marsali leaned forward and held Jamie’s hand in both of hers.  “Da!”  she exclaimed in horror.  “How did that happen?”

     Jamie’s pupils were wide.  The girls didn’t notice, but he was beginning to tremble.

      “A nail, also.  Through my hand,” he answered in clipped sentences.

      “Was it an accident, then?” Marsali looked up at his face, and her eyes widened in concern at the expression she saw there.

      “No.  A bad man did it.”  Jamie said.

     Joanie was oblivious, and continued cheerily.  “Jesus was nailed to the cross to save us.  Were you nailed to save someone?”

     Jamie looked at her in shock.  He swallowed.  “Yes.  A good friend.  Someone I loved."  Jamie shook his head slowly.  "I dinna wish to speak of it, Joanie.  I’m sorry.” Grasping Joanie by her arms, Jamie lifted her and set her down on the couch beside him.

     In an unnaturally cheerful voice, Jamie announced, “Lassies, I suddenly begin to think that I didna close the gate of the sheep pen.  I believe I’ll check it.”  He stood and rapidly walked to the door, exiting without a backward glance.

      “Joanie,” Marsali hissed.  “Dinna ever ask about his hands again.  Did ye not see his face?”  She put her hands to her face and fled the room.

     Joanie and Laoghaire were left in surprised silence, unsure what had just happened.

 

     He was a man, and men didn’t cry.  At least, they didn’t cry when they could be seen.  Jamie was virtually blind in the darkness, though he didn’t stumble—he had a sort of sixth sense about objects in his vicinity.

     It hurt too much.  His heart felt like it was breaking.  How could he feel this pain and still be alive?

     He finally found a large boulder by some trees where were dead leaves and needles on the ground—cold, but dry.  He sat down and leaned his back against the solid surface. His head stopped swimming.

     He’d given his beechwood rosary to Willie, but he’d purchased a replacement which he had around his neck now.  He pulled it off over his head and gripped it in his hands.  Even in the darkness he could feel the scarred surfaces, all the small gouges from his young great-nieces and nephews using it as a teether.  It made him smile, and holding the beads and the cross between his fingers was truly calming.  He breathed for a moment, and then he began to pray.

      “Lord, be wi’ my sister, Jenny.  She works so hard for all around her.  Give her rest for herself.”

      “Lord, be wi’ Ian.  He saw me through the battles in France, and we’ve accompanied each other in saintliness as well as sinfulness.  Give him relief from the pain of his leg.”

      “Lord, be wi’ Young Jamie, and his wife, Maggie and Paul, and their sweet bairns.”  He caressed one of the gouged beads for an extra length of time, picturing all the sweet little faces.

      “Be wi’ Katherine Mary.  Be wi’ the twins, Michael and Janet.  Be wi’ Wee Ian.“

      “Be wi’ the tenants at Lallybroch.  Wi’ the men from Ardsmuir.  Wi’ Murtagh.  And for those who I’ve lost along the way, that I will see them in your kingdom.”

      “Travel wi’ Fergus into Ediburgh.  Help him find reputable work, and also lead him to somewhat less reputable work.”  He chuckled at that.  If the Lord had died for him, he was probably big enough to handle a wee joke.  “Ye ken, ye did once turn water into wine, did ye not?”

      “Lord, be wi’ Joanie and Marsali.  Protect them from lads who are as I was once.  Find them good husbands.”

      “And Lord, be wi’ Laoghaire.  Some way, she was hurt.  I dinna understand it, but she canna let herself be loved.  I may be lonely, but help me to keep from sin and selfishness.”

      “Be wi’ Willie, and his ma, Isobel, and his da, Lord John.  Help him to grow big and braw, and show his parents they shouldna be spoiling him as they are.”

     He stopped then, eyes closed, the tears spilling down his cheeks.  He could breathe again, but he wouldn’t be able to go back right away.  He would not be able to explain these tears.

      “And Lord,” he prayed.  “Be wi’ Claire, that she may be safe.  She and the child.”

 

Chapter Text

     Arousal was foreign to Laoghaire.  She felt hyper-aware of her body, the way her lower abdomen felt full and heavy, with a dull cramping that was almost like having her courses.  Her breasts and nipples ached slightly, making her want to either press her arms against them or to take off her corset, one of the two.  It made her recall when Joan and Marsali were infants and slept longer than usual, the way she would peek into their room to see if they were awake, desperate to put them to her breasts to ease the pressure. 

     The most disconcerting thing, though, was the wetness between her legs.  She had actually gone to the privy to see if her flow had begun again.  It shouldn’t be time—she’d only finished a week ago.  But there was no blood, just a copious clear fluid, and her parts had felt extremely sensitive when she wiped herself with a cloth.

     And all this, just from thinking about being with Jamie in the alcove those many years ago.

     She had wanted him once, back at Leoch, with a fierce hunger that made her wish to sneak into his quarters and offer herself; with a desperate need that drew her to seek him out and watch him wherever he was; with a possessiveness that turned her into a jealous fiend.

 

     But their marriage did not resemble those days of youth at all—they had been married for four months now, and they had really only been together as husband and wife once.  Jamie never approached her anymore, and she had become comfortable knowing that she was safe from his advances, his touches, and his body.  He had seemed fine as well.

     During their argument a night ago, he had made her clearly aware of how he felt.  He was not fine; he was furious.  Jamie had declared that he would rather sleep on a cold prison cell floor than in bed with her.  He considered her an icy bitch.

     And now he’d left the house, in what seemed a strange response to the girls asking him about his scars.  He hadn’t come back yet, and it was getting late.  She wasn’t certain he would even sleep in their bedroom at all tonight.  He had crept into the bedchamber just before dawn that morning, probably to keep up appearances for the girls, but walking past the guest room during the day Laoghaire had seen that the bed had been slept in.  He might sleep there again.

     What an irony, she thought bitterly, that the one time she might have responded to him, Jamie was nowhere to be found.

     It wasn’t like him, though.  Whatever flaws there might be in their bedroom, he was a good partner.  She’d gotten so used to Jamie’s active involvement in parenting that it seemed strange to have to tuck the girls into bed. 

     Joanie had been confused.  “Mama, where is Daddy?” she asked mournfully.  “Did I really upset him as Marsali said? I didna mean to.”  She started crying.  “If Da comes in when I’m already asleep, will you tell him I’m sorry?”

     Marsali was also still teary and emotional.  “What happened, Marsali?” Laoghaire asked.  “You were talking, and Joan was looking at Jamie’s hands, and then he got upset.  Do you know why?”

      “I don’t, Ma,” said Marsali, pulling her covers up to her chin.  “But the look on his face.  He wasn’t mad.  I can’t even say it was sadness.  He seemed more upset, or maybe afraid, or just very empty.  All I know is that whoever did that to him is a very bad person.”

 

     Laoghaire was still sitting there, thinking, when she heard the latch quietly click open.

     It was Jamie, tip-toeing in.  He was surprised to see her up and sitting on the bed.

      “Laoghaire?”  He said.  “You are still awake?”

      “I was worried, James,” she said.  “And the girls were very sad—Joanie told me to make sure...”

      “I ken,” he said, regretfully.  “I stopped in and kissed Marsali goodnight, but Joanie needed me longer.  Poor wee thing is sleeping now.”  He stretched, seeming to work out a kink in his back.  “Her bed isna big enough for her and me as well.”

     Jamie looked haggard.  His eyes were red and slightly sunken, his face scruffy, it having been some time since his last shaving. 

     Laoghaire felt a strong sense of pity for him.  He was not a whole man.  The thoughts of the afternoon, the response of her body, his love for the girls, and the tug at her heart inspired her to reach out.  “Will you come to bed, then?” she asked.  Jamie stood by his wardrobe, silent. Laoghaire began to think he must have meant just to come in to get his clothing, and then to sleep in the spare room.

     But he turned to her, a look in his eye—just like Marsali had said—of bereft emptiness.  “Please, lass?” he said.

     Perhaps it would hurt less, as wet as she was, Laoghaire thought, looking down at herself, considering.  She was tired, but Jamie was always offering to help her undress.  Maybe it was because he wanted to be a part of the slow reveal, not just that he wanted to be helpful.  But tonight his reason did not matter.

      “Will you help me?” she asked.  She had unlaced the stiff bodice of her dress, but it was a relief to have assistance with the skirts and petticoats.  She unlaced her corset herself, not ready for him to be that close to her yet.

     Jamie removed his jacket and vest, then boots and breeks, until he was just in his shirt, and she was in her shift.

     She felt aroused still, but very shy.  Being with child had changed the shape of her body, and she never felt as beautiful now as she had been as a young lady.

      “Can we blow out the candles?” she asked.  Jamie obliged, until the room was dark save for the light of a sliver-thin new moon gently sifting through the window.

     Jamie reached for her, and the years faded away.  Under the cover of darkness, Laoghaire felt as if they were not two wounded middle-aged widowers in their second and third marriages.  He was Jamie MacTavish, dashing outlaw and brave rescuer, and she was Laoghaire MacKenzie, newly ripening castle beauty with a well-deserved-reputation and a way with the lads.  His touch was familiar, but he was not particularly gentle.  And she did not need him to be.

 

     Jamie awoke to find the other side of the bed empty.  He had slept like the dead.  The draining emotions of the previous evening, paired with an oddly undramatic episode of copulation with his wife, and he hadn’t tossed and turned like he did many a night.

     It was probably the release.  God, it had been a long time.  He cringed slightly as he remembered their coupling.  There were definitely awkward moments.  They didn’t know each other’s bodies, so they kept clashing and bumping into each other.  She didn’t move with him, respond to him like Claire did, but she had invited him to her bed, and she was clearly ready for him—that was miracle enough.

     She was also silent, which in their case was an improvement, for her sounds their previous time had been in response to actual pain, not the pain-pleasure groans, moans, and sighs he remembered when making love to Claire. And she was not aggressive or rough with him—but that he had been grateful for as well.  With the girls pointing out his scars and bringing Black Jack Randall to his mind, he had needed nothing to even hint of violence.

     Jamie wondered what it meant for the future.  Had Laoghaire finally warmed to him?  Was it seeing him with the girls and having him compliment her cooking?  Was it hearing him finally speak his anger out loud? Or was it that he had seemingly respected her wishes by sending Fergus away?  She had no way of knowing that in the back of his mind, he sent the lad away because he needed an escape plan.  As much as he loved Joan and Marsali, the marriage to Laoghaire had been a misguided attempt to give himself what he was missing.  But nothing could replace Claire, their child, or Willie.

     It seemed grim to foretell the future, but Jamie knew nothing ever lasted in his life.  It was as if there was a bomb buried deep in his soul.  Once again, the fuse had been lit, and though every once in a while it appeared that the spark had been quelled, moments would fan the flame, and he would again see his life destructing around him.

     But that was enough of thinking.  There was work to be done.  Jamie dressed and headed down the stairs.  He could smell Laoghaire’s cooking wafting all the way up to greet him before he even neared the kitchen.

 

     Laoghaire was standing at the wash basin in the kitchen when he arrived downstairs.  The table showed the evidence of two young ladies having already eaten—Joanie’s spot with its spilled milk, and Marsali’s with its neatly cleared and wiped surface. 

     The girls were nowhere to be seen.  In a moment of magnanimous gratitude, Jamie approached Laoghaire and patted her affectionately on the rump.

     Laoghaire whirled around, her hands sopping wet, held up defensively in front of her body.  “Don’t touch me,” she hissed.  Her nose and eyes were red and puffy.

     Jamie stepped back, stunned.  “Lass?” he asked.  She turned back to the dishes, and started sobbing, almost wailing.  He reached to pat her shoulder, but she must have seen his reflection in the glass, because she dodged him with a jerk before he could even brush against her.

      “Laoghaire,” he begged.  “What is wrong?”

     She shook her head, and kept weeping.

     Laoghaire didn’t speak to Jamie for the next three days.  She would speak to the girls.  But if he entered the room, she would turn away, looking out the window.  She would not meet his eyes.  In their bedroom at night, she clung so tightly to the edge of the bed that Jamie wondered how she was managing not to fall off. 

     He was bewildered, but beyond that he was frustrated.  When he went for a long while without bedding a woman, his body would forget.  But just one night with Laoghaire, and once again he was waking up with raging cockstands and an urgency to reach over to his wife, hoping for her to be warm and welcoming.  All that met him as he looked next to him was a form clad innocently in white muslin, guarded by an impenetrable wall of hatred.

 

     They had made love, Laoghaire thought.  It was tender and sweet and almost good.  She was glad he needed her, even if it was only mild pleasure she personally gained from the experience.  When he had spent himself, Jamie had kissed her one last time before he rolled off of her.  And before they fell asleep, he had put his arm over her and pulled her close.  For once, she didn’t mind.

     But in the hour before daybreak, he had cried out, awakening her.  He had clung to her, and she could hear him sobbing.  Speaking.  What was he crying out?  She turned her face toward him so she could hear her husband, so she could comfort him.  His eyes were closed, but tears were streaming down his face, his forehead wrinkled in pain.  And then she heard the words that cut her to the depths of her soul.

      “Claire…” her husband moaned, sobbing.  “Claire.  Claire.  Oh, God, Claire.”

 

Chapter Text

     During her silences, Laoghaire’s mind was whirling.  She kept on looking back, wondering what she’d missed, what she could have done differently, how she could have acted in a way that her life would not be the wreck it currently was. 

     The sad conclusion she came to was that it was all Jamie’s fault.  But yet, not his fault, entirely.  He could have loved her.  He could have been satisfied with a girl from Leoch.  They would have made their home there, had babies that looked remarkably like Marsali or Joanie.  And when Dougal had died at the Rising, and her wounded husband had come home, he would have been Laird of Castle Leoch, and she its Lady.

     But it wasn’t Jamie’s fault, was it?  It was that witch, the Sassenach.  Claire.

☆☆☆☆☆

     Word had quickly spread around the castle about the miracle.  Laoghaire was grateful her cousin was better; after all, there had been tales of boys who died after visiting the Black Kirk.  What she didn’t like was the way people watched the Sassenach reverently as she entered the hall to listen to Gwyllyn.

     Laoghaire was sitting in the back, a few places away from her da, who was watching her like a hawk these days.  She saw the Sassenach’s face as she entered, but did not smile.  Jamie had sat all the way on the other side of the hall.  When Laoghaire had met his eyes, she had colored and looked down shyly.  But when she looked back up, he had moved on and wasn’t even looking at her anymore. 

     He was, however, looking at the Sassenach now, waving his hand wildly, trying to get her attention as she somberly nursed her glass of Rhenish in the back.  Giving up, he had crouched down and gone to retrieve Claire, cheerily whispering to her and then leading her by the hand back to his seat.  Then he eagerly acted as her translator, leaning closer to whisper in her ear as the Sassenach listened with rapt attention.

     Laoghaire fumed inwardly.  The Sassenach had made it clear at the first concert that she wasn’t interested in Jamie.  She’d tried to get him to pay attention to Laoghaire, to encourage her to be confident.  Hadn’t she said that it was the job of the woman to help a young man know his own mind?  Had she changed hers? 

 

     At luncheon the day of the oathtaking, Laoghaire was allowed to leave the bustle of the kitchen to serve in the dining hall for a time, where she wandered up and down the tables, providing water and whiskey.

      “Where’s Jamie been?” Laoghaire asked Murtagh offhandedly as she refilled his glass with whisky.  “I havena seen him here in the castle today.”

     Murtagh looked up at her from under his bushy eyebrows, immediately seeing through her façade of ambivalence.  “The lad canna be here for the oathtaking,” he said.  “So he’s making himself scarce.”

      “Why can’t he?” Laoghaire asked, confused.  “He’s Colum and Dougal’s nephew.  Surely he should be here, pledging fealty with the rest of the men.”

      “Aye, so you’d think lass,” Murtagh nodded.  “But Jamie canna pledge fealty to Colum, because he isna a MacKenzie.  He’s a Fraser.  Clans are Tanist, which means that a maternal nephew is the preferred heir to an uncle. Because Ellen, Jamie’s mother, was a MacKenzie, he’s in line after Colum to be laird.”

      “It seems like that wouldna be a problem,” Laoghaire said.  “If that’s the way ‘tis meant to be.”

      “Aye, but there yer wrong,” said Murtagh.  “Dougal isna the war chief for nothing.  Have ye seen how fierce the man is? As it stands, he is next in line after Colum.  But should Jamie pledge fealty, he will be replaced, and he canna stand that. Jamie would barely stand up from kneeling, and he would be dead at Dougal’s hand.”

      “Well, then,” said Laoghaire, wide-eyed.  “I’m glad he’s making himself scarce.”

      “Agreed, lass,” said Murtagh.  “There will be time enough to see him after the gathering.”  He grinned at her knowingly.  Had Jamie told him?  Laoghaire wondered, blushing in embarrassment.

 

     That evening at the oath taking, every man, woman, and child present was dressed in their finest.  After a long day in the sweltering kitchen, Laoghaire had bathed and dressed, and now she was standing with her da in the hall, watching as one after another the men went up, removed their dirks from their sheaths, and pledged their fealty.

     Her attention was elsewhere, to be honest.  The more she thought about it, the more Laoghaire determined that she must help Jamie know his own mind.  And she must also make it clear to the Englishwoman that Jamie was hers.  Surely the Sassenach had simply forgotten her intentions to return to her family in France.  And if she didn’t plan to make a home in Leoch, she would step aside once Laoghaire made it clear that she was interested in Jamie.  When she saw Claire’s expression of boredom and quick dash out of the hall, Laoghaire followed her, forming a plan in her mind.

     As far as she could tell, it went well.  She had accidentally startled the Sassenach at the entrance to her surgery.  Mistress Beauchamp was breathless and distracted, and it took time to clarify what she wished for.  If Claire had the power to bring a dying boy back to life, surely a love potion made by her would be particularly powerful. 

      “I was wonderin’ if you would have a potion that might open a lad’s heart to a lassie.” Laoghaire had finally said.

     The look of derision on Mistress Beauchamp’s face when she realized Laoghaire was asking about a love potion almost discouraged her from continuing.  But she had to stake her claim; maybe flattery would help.

      “Well, I thought…ye aid so many with yer healing that maybe ye have something in yer keen knowledge that could help a lass hold a lad’s attention.”

     Claire had smiled compassionately when she realized Laoghaire was talking about Jamie. 

      “Mr. MacTavish?” she asked.  “Well, you didn’t appear to need much assistance the last time I saw you two together.”

     She had seen?  Laoghaire had a moment of embarrassment.  “Not for that.  It’s for moving his heart forward.”

     The look on Mrs. Beauchamp’s face was one of sympathetic thoughtfulness.  As she went away to mix up the brew, Laoghaire felt a sense of elation.  Jamie was going to be hers.  She felt even prouder of him, and more possessive, as he stood before the Laird and did not take an oath, but yet did not receive the sharp end of Dougal’s sword, either. 

     She had been clenching her fists in fear as Jamie approached Colum.  When all was resolved, she realized that she was tightly gripping the bottle of potion Claire had given her.  She slipped away in the commotion to sprinkle the dry brown powder in front of Jamie’s door. 

     The faint smell of horse dung rose to her nostrils as she stood on the doorstep, providing a vivid olfactory reminder of the man when he had held her close in the alcove.  Clicking her heels together, Laoghaire pictured herself and Jamie on their wedding day, having babies, growing old together.

     “There’s no place like love,” she whispered.  “There’s no place like love.”

 

     The next day, once again she managed to wheedle her grandmother into letting her leave the kitchen for a period of time. “’Tis the last game,” Laoghaire begged.  “I need to cheer on the Castle Leoch lads.”

     Laoghaire didn’t really understand the rules of shinty.  All she knew is that her blood stirred when she watched the lads play fiercely, driving their shoulders into each other and whipping their wicked camans about as they fought desperately to maintain control of the leather ball.  The men were violent and didn’t always fight fair, but the game roused them; with their flushing wives and lasses on their arms, they left ready to prove their manliness in other ways.

     Her da would sometimes joke that Highland men took shinty as seriously as they did their boar hunts.  He could barely get through the punchline without his face reddening and laughing heartily, saying, “Though there is possibly just a little less bloodshed during a boar hunt.” 

     She had told her Gran that she wanted to cheer on the Castle Leoch lads.  That was almost the truth.  There was one Castle Leoch lad in particular that Laoghaire longed to see in action, and she was not disappointed. 

     She arrived mid-game, and eyed the field diligently until she found the muscular form topped with fiery red hair on the far end, keeping the ball in front of himself with his caman before swiping it swiftly to Murtagh farther up the field.

      “Go, Jamie!”  Laoghaire exclaimed, unable to restrain her admiration.

      “Ah, so that’s Jamie,” said an irritated male voice to her left.

      “Hugh,” Laoghaire replied in measured acknowledgement, not looking at him. They hadn’t really seen each other since the alley incident and the almost-beating.

      “Ye used to like me more, Laoghaire MacKenzie,” he said somberly.  “But now I see the big, muscled, red-haired reason why yer heart isna mine any longer.”

      “My heart?”  Laoghaire asked with a skeptical side-long glance at him.  “My heart was never yours.”

      “Well, ye shared yer lips rather freely, then,” Hugh grumbled bitterly. “It appears I was wrong to assume a lass wouldna give herself wi’out also giving her heart.”

      “I didna give myself to you, Hugh,” Laoghaire hissed.  “And if ye keep on speaking thus, ye willna get my lips again, either.  But now we speak on it, it certainly wasn’t you volunteering to take my beating at the hall, was it, though yer the reason I was going to get one?”

     Hugh looked away shamefacedly. 

      “Now, leave,” Laoghaire commanded.  “In case my da or my gran has spies out here.”

     Laoghaire returned her attention to the field just in time to witness what appeared to be a two-man battle for dominance.  After the conflict at the Oath Taking, it was as if Dougal and Jamie needed to draw blood to prove who deserved to be Laird.  Dougal might be older, but he was still fierce and fit.  Laoghaire winced as Jamie took a hit squarely to the back that forced him to the ground.  Even after Jamie caught up to Dougal, the elder had the advantage, repeatedly striking Jamie with the head and handle of his caman.  The sounds Jamie made had Laoghaire wincing, recalling the way Jamie grunted and cried out during the beating.

     Then, with one final burst of strength, Jamie maneuvered himself under Dougal’s arm, and flipped his uncle to the ground, where Dougal lay with the wind knocked out of him.  There was no lasting bitterness, though; Jamie reached his hand down to help his uncle up, the two stood shoulder-to-shoulder, chins high, eyeing each other ferociously, and then it was over.

     Laoghaire was standing at the sidelines as a handsome young man wearing a MacLeod tartan strolled up beside her.  “Fierce game, aye?”  he asked.

     Laoghaire ignored him.

      “Which young man is yers?” he asked, making a second effort.  Good.  He didn’t assume she wasn’t spoken for.

      “Jamie MacTavish,” she announced haughtily.

      “Really?” he asked skeptically.  “Seems I’ve seen him much in the company of the Sassenach wench lately.” 

     Laoghaire turned and glared at him.

      “No, lass, truly.  It isna a lie.  Some lads and I ran into the two of them last night before the oathtaking.  Seemed to be coming back to the castle from the direction of the stables.  And I might be mistaken as to what they may have been doing in the stables, but I can tell ye there was a good deal of straw on their garments.  Her hair was disheveled; he was carrying a travel bag.  And holdin’ hands, they were.”

     Laoghaire’s lips had gone white, and only then did the gentleman see how much he was upsetting her.  “Oh, I didna think.  Are you promised to each other, lass?”

      “No, but he has spoken of marriage,” Laoghaire said, trembling slightly. That wasn’t a lie, precisely.

      “Well, he’s a fool if he’s choosing that white English witch over a bonny Scottish lass like yourself,” the young man said.  Laoghaire looked at him.  His eyes were brown, as was his hair, but he was handsome and lean, with a square jaw.

      “Will you be leaving once the Gathering is over?” the man asked.

      “No.  I’m from Castle Leoch,” Laoghaire answered.  “Laoghaire MacKenzie,” she said, proffering her hand.

      “John Robert MacLeod,” he said, dipping his lips to brush them against her skin.  “Of Killiecrankie.  Pleasure to make yer acquaintance.”

 

     It turned out Murtagh was wrong; there wasn’t much time for visiting Jamie. The Gathering was barely over before Mrs. Fitz announced that they must pack up the wagon with food for the rents party.  It was a big task, as the group of men was to be gone for several months collecting rent from the different tenants across MacKenzie land.

     Slowly the list of those going along trickled in.  Laoghaire’s stomach was sick, waiting to hear if Jamie would be gone.  Dougal, of course, and Ned Gowan to keep the ledgers.  Angus and Rupert, Dougal’s right hand men.  Willie, the young MacKenzie lad they were going to train.  Murtagh.  A few of the other fierce clan warriors.  There was much to defend when the rents were collected.  When Laoghaire heard his name, her heart dropped.  Jamie was going.  She instantly ached with missing him. 

     The early morning of the rents party departure, Laoghaire came down as the lads loaded the food items onto the cart.  Onions, apples, flour for bannocks.  They’d hunt along the way.  Jamie was over by his horse, strapping his bedroll onto his saddle, when Laoghaire approached him. 

     She stood on tiptoe, pulled his face down to hers, and quickly kissed him.  He looked around to make sure none had seen, and he patted her on the arm.   “I’m waiting for you, Jamie Fraser,” she whispered in his ear.  He smiled at her.

     Laoghaire turned back toward Castle Leoch, feeling calm.  Then she saw her.  Mistress Beauchamp, carrying her healer’s bag and a valise.  She also saw Jamie’s face perk up as the English woman approached.  He came around his horse and helped load the Sassenach’s luggage, smiling and chatting with Claire as he did.

     Laoghaire would be waiting here at home.  That witch was going along.

Chapter Text


 

Milord,

    I would not read this letter out loud in its entirety, the reason for which you will soon understand.

    As it turns out, I have more talent for seeking out disreputable business than reputable.  In my explorations here in Edinburgh, I have met a woman, Madame Jeanne, who could easily make use of our trade and provide some valuable storage and cover for us.  As the owner of an establishment where spirits are freely served, along with some other licentious activities that encourage men in authority to look the other way, for they themselves would not wish to be exposed, Madame Jeanne has already proven herself to be a woman with the utmost discretion, and therefore, a good person to know in the city. 

     She has some small attic rooms, and she is putting me up in one for the present.  I realize this is not an ideal living situation, but having been born in such a place, milord, there is something comforting and familiar about the environment.  The jeune filles are very friendly to me, and Madame Jeanne has been most gracious in introducing me to her various contacts.  I am fed, and I have a place to sleep, so I am content.

     If you wish to travel here, we might do well seeking for the reputable branch of our business together, as well as making the specific arrangements for shipping and selling our products.  I may no longer be a young lad, but would appreciate your input as a much older and wiser man.  It may sound as if I jest, but I would welcome your advice and presence here.  In the meantime, I will work to make more contacts among the sailors, dock workers, and tavern owners here in the city.

     Tell Joanie that the enclosed necklace is to be her first buried treasure, though I will not be offended should she choose to wear it instead of burying it.  The eye patch should also ease her transition into piracy.  And tell her that if I am ever lost on the high seas, I hope that she will come rescue me.

     The note and gift for Marsali are for her birthday. 

      You are missed.  Write me soon, and I do hope to see you darken my door before I come home for Hogmanay.

Amicalement,

Fergus


 

Mon Chéri Marsali—

While in the shops today, I found this bracelet.  The stones are the colour of your eyes, so I knew it must be yours.  Happy birthday, or as we say in France, Bon anniversaire!

Fergus


 

 

 

      “Keep up, slow pokes!”  Joanie yelled from her perch in front of Jamie.  “Come on, Daddy,” she urged.  “Can’t you make him run?”

     Jamie glanced back over his shoulder at Marsali and Laoghaire, each on her own mount.  They were just going to Lallybroch for one night, so they’d packed light, with enough clothing crammed into their saddlebags that they had night clothes and fresh shirts and shifts for tomorrow.  Low clouds hinted that there might be rain to come, but here in the highlands, you never could know.  Jamie glanced down at his breek-covered legs gripping the horse's sides.  He missed the security of wearing his tartan and plaid, the knowledge that he always carried a form of shelter if rain came along.  The loose fabric of his plaid had been enough to cover more than just himself, he considered; and of course, that made him think of Claire.

      “Are you well, Daddy?” Joanie asked, as she felt Jamie’s body expand and contract in a deep sigh. 

      “Aye, Joanie.”  Jamie dug his heels into Gaoth’s flanks.  Living up to his name, the horse whipped across the moor, as fast as wind.  Joanie giggled, but Jamie put his arm around her middle to keep her securely with him as they galloped along. 

     It was ten miles to Lallybroch, which was a wearying journey on horseback.  Part of the time Joanie slept, her ruddy head leaning back on his chest, sometimes bumping against him, occasionally flopping to the side onto one of his arms.  After their first race ahead, they had slowed to allow Laoghaire and Marsali to catch up.  It wouldn’t do to be separated; back roads were safe enough these days, but two women alone would be no match for a band of marauders.

     Seeing the smoke rising from the Lallybroch chimneys brought dual emotions: relief that their trip was almost at an end, and the uncomfortable desperation to be done now.  Sometimes it felt as if the last mile was the longest part of any journey.

     Jenny must have set wee Ian up as watchman, because by the time they arrived, the family had spilled out of the house into the courtyard to greet them.  Little great nieces and nephews, Ian, Janet and Michael, Katherine Mary, Maggie and her husband, and Young Jamie and his wife, holding their newest bairn.  As always, Jenny was next to last to appear, industrious to a fault, keeping busy in the kitchen, and following her was Ian.  As the years had gone by, his limp had become more pronounced, but Jamie was still as delighted to see the familiar face of his best friend and brother-in-law.

     It didn’t take long for all to disperse.  Marsali disappeared with Janet, wee Ian, and Michael as the lads led the horses off to be fed and watered, and Joanie, who absolutely adored babies, quickly had Margaret’s toddler perched on her slender hip, chatting animatedly at womanly young Katherine and wee Jamie’s wife as they retreated to the house. 

     Jenny bustled away with Laoghaire as well, and soon it was just Ian and Jamie, standing and looking around dumbfoundedly at the empty quiet where before there had been noisy chaos.

     Ian smiled.  “Whisky?” he asked.  Jamie nodded, and the two climbed the steps to the house and retreated to the front parlor, out of the way of the hubbub of food preparation in the kitchen and dining room.

     Jamie shut the door, and with a half-apologetic smile, moved the bolster to one end of one of the couches and lay down exhaustedly.  “Someday, d’ye think there’ll be a road between Balriggan and Lallybroch?” he asked.  “It surely would be easier to drive a cart, were there a place wide and level enough.  I believe my chest is bruised from four hours of being bumped by little Joanie’s hard noggin.  She mayna be my natural daughter, but her head 'tis probably as thick as my own,” Jamie joked.

     Ian gratefully sunk onto the other couch after pouring each of them a glass of whisky.  Jamie drained his whisky quickly and got up to get himself another tumbler full.

      “Ye look well fed,” Ian said, grinning as he observed his brother-in-law.

      “That I am,” Jamie said, with a slightly bewildered glance down at his lower abdomen, then an affectionately proud pat of the barely perceptible bulge.  “I’ve never been fat before.”  He grinned.

      “And ye aren’t fat now,” said Ian, rolling his eyes.  “It’s just that after yer years of prison food, followed by years of servant food, you finally have a wife to cook for ye.”

      “Well, she does do that, at least,” Jamie said impulsively, instantly regretting his sarcastic tone.

      “But there are things she doesna do?” Ian asked hesitantly.

      “We aren’t really living as husband and wife, Ian,” said Jamie.  “I’ve taken her to bed only twice.”

      “In four months?” Ian exclaimed, attempting to minimize his appearance of shock.  “That’s no good, Jamie.  Ye must overcome your reluctance and be a comfort to her.”

      “'Tisna me,” Jamie insisted.  “And ‘tisna for lack of trying.  By God, I’ve tried just about everything you could think of that would open a woman’s heart or rouse her body to a man.  It doesna work.”

     Ian’s forehead wrinkled.  “But ye told me about how she came to you as a lass at Leoch and offered herself to ye.  No shift under her corset, the wee wanton, and her takin’ yer hand and puttin’ it on her bubbies.”  Ian looked around shamefacedly after his atypically lecherous comment.  “After ye told me about it, I asked Jenny if she would…one night…Well, yer sister doesna typically slap me…” he rubbed his jaw meditatively as Jamie laughed.

      “God’s tooth, Ian, ye ken I dinna want to hear about you and my sister,” Jamie said.  “And as for Laoghaire, I dinna ken what’s happened since those days at Leoch, Ian.”

      “Sometimes having bairns can change things,” Ian suggested.  “Women can tear or scar.”

      “Aye, but I think it’s something more.  She cries.  All the time.  She’s silent and doesna even meet my eyes, but she willna tell me why she’s sad or angry.” Jamie sighed deeply.  "I’ll be honest wi’ ye, Ian.  Were it not for the little lassies, I would probably have gone to Edinburgh already.  As it is, I’ve sent Fergus on ahead to look for a business to buy and I begin to believe I will be following him before long.”  He sat up, leaning forward thoughtfully, with his elbows on his knees.  “Ye know the farms aren’t paying for themselves now.  We need to find other sources of income so we dinna have to increase rents on our tenants.”

     Ian sat up as well.  “Aye, Jamie,” he mused.  “Ye ken, ye really do act as Laird here, even though ye are living over at Balriggan.  Ye once signed the land over with the deed of sasine, but if ye should ever want it back, ye have but to ask.”

     Jamie stared off into the distance.  "When I thought of being Laird of Lallybroch, I always pictured doing it wi' Claire by my side.  I dinna have it in me to do it wi'out her."

     The men were silent.

      “Ye havena mentioned her name in years.” 

      “Not out loud,” Jamie said, his eyes glistening, rotating his empty whisky glass in his hands, watching the one last drop of amber-colored liquid swirl in the bottom.  “At least, no when I’m around people.  The Lord has heard her name plenty, though.”

      “I’m not sure, Jamie, but do ye think that Claire is what is between you and Laoghaire?” Ian asked.  “I dinna wish to speak ill of the dead, but it’s been nigh on twenty years since Culloden.  We all loved Claire.  We’ve all grieved for her.  We just wish we could see you happy.”

     Jamie gazed at his wrist and traced it with his forefinger.  There was no scar; had never been one, in fact.  It had barely been a scratch at their wedding twenty-three years before, when Dougal had taken his dirk and scored their wrists, tying them together with a white linen strip, their blood mingling.

      “I canna forget her, Ian.  She’s part of me.  When I spoke the blood vows to Claire, I think it meant more than it sometimes does.  That we did become blood of blood, and bone of bone.  I gave her my spirit; and though her life here may be done, mine is not.  I have been wi’ other women since Claire’s death, but I havena felt the same wi’ a woman since that I felt that oneness.”

     Ian wrinkled his forehead, considering Jamie’s somber face.  “Ye ken the story ye used to tell the bairns about the graylag geese?”

     Jamie nodded, still gazing at his wine glass.

      “You used to say you shouldna kill a greylag goose.  But if you do, you must wait for the mate to come mourn at its body, and ye must kill that one too.  Ye would say that the mate of the fallen goose would grieve itself to death, searching through the skies, callin’ out for the missing one.”  Ian sighed.  “I knew back then that ye were speakin’ of yerself.  I hoped to God that you would find happiness.  And I thought you just might with Laoghaire.”

     Jamie gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head.

     Ian chuckled shortly.  “I dinna want to make ye feel bad, man, but I had some jealousy when ye headed off to Balriggan wi’ yer new bride, young and buxom, wi' those stories ye'd told me before.  But as life would have it, I b’lieve Jenny is at the change…”

      “The change?” Jamie questioned.

      “Ye ken, when a woman stops having her courses?” Ian explained, blushing slightly.

      “Aye?” said Jamie, the look on his face insinuating that Ian was again treading into dangerous waters.   

      “Well, now that there’s no chance of a bairn?”  Ian huffed in amusement.  “Yer sister’s a fiend in the bedroom!”

     Jamie groaned, shook his fist at Ian playfully, then lay back down.

      “I believe I’ll take a short rest before we eat,” Jamie said.  “I feel weary.”

     Ian hobbled off, and as he lay there on a couch at Lallybroch, Jamie gripped his rosary through his shirt and prayed, “Lord, that she may be safe.  She and the child.”

 

Chapter Text

     In the kitchen, Jenny was looking at Laoghaire with a knowing smile.  “Well, Laoghaire,” she said.  “Jamie looks well.  He was like a ghost, roaming the halls here at Hogmanay.  But I was watching as he arrived, and he and Joanie were laughing as they climbed off their horse.  I know Joanie is Simon’s, but she nearly looks like she could be his own.”

     Laoghaire smiled mildly.  She was mixing up the crust for Marsali’s birthday dessert, a rich tart filled with fruit and nuts, and she didn’t want to mis-measure any of her ingredients.  Mrs. Fitz had drilled that into her mind, that’s for certain. 

     When yer baking, lass, ye canna be distracted, Laoghaire could almost hear her gran talking.  Making a stew, dinna fash, you can throw in anything in any order, long as you don’t triple the salt.  But wi’ bakin’, the measurements matter.

     When she’d finished measuring, Laoghaire began pinching together the butter and flour, rubbing the ingredients between her fingers until the butter was evenly worked in, and the crumbly mix was ready for adding cold water.

     When Laoghaire had finished mixing up the crust and was pressing it into a ball to roll out, she realized Jenny was standing, looking at her.

      “Laoghaire,” she said.  “You arna happy.  What is it?”

      “Jamie may not be a ghost anymore, but there’s another spirit haunting our marriage.”

      “I ken we like to joke about the faeries, but are ye speaking of a real ghost?”

      “Feels real enough,” Laoghaire responded, but then at Jenny’s confused silence, she continued.  “She’s been dead and gone for 20 years.”  She dusted the counter top with flour.  “Twenty years, and yet she’s still here.”

      “She?” queried Jenny. “D’ye mean Claire?”

     Laoghaire winced at the name, and nodded.

      “Then ye’ve seen her, wandering about?”  Jenny’s eyes were wide.  She hadn’t told anyone what she had seen at the wedding, the apparition of a dark-haired woman standing between Laoghaire and Jamie as they made their vows.

      “No,” Laoghaire shook her head as she deliberately began rolling the crust as evenly as possible.  She took pride in never having to re-roll her crusts, which would make them tough.  She shook her head again. “No.” 

      “Then what can ye mean, Laoghaire?”

      “I canna explain it.  It was so many years ago at Leoch that I loved Jamie, and she came between us then.  And she might have died at Culloden, but in Jamie’s heart, she’s still alive.  He cries out for her when he sleeps.  He isna mine.”

      “Does he not…” Jenny hesitated.  “Want ye?”

     Laoghaire looked around for children or eavesdropping servants.  Finding none, she continued, “Well, he did, but it felt so wrong.  I was used to Simon’s ways, and Jamie was touching me as if what he did should please me, like he was waiting for something from me. But it wasna really for me.  It was for someone else’s body.  I dinna ken what he’s waitin’ for, and I canna help but think of her.”

     Jenny frowned thoughtfully.  “Well, having only been wi’ Ian, I canna truly understand what ye are saying.  But I guess it might be like nursin’ someone else’s bairn.  I’ve done it before, to be kind, or when the mother couldna make it back in time for the next feeding.  But it doesna feel quite right.”

     Laoghaire folded the thinly rolled circle of dough into fourths, then gently lifted it into the pan, unfolding it again to line the bottom and sides of the tart tin.

     “’Tis not the only thing in marriage, though,” Jenny said reassuringly.  “Are there some things that are good?” Her brow was wrinkled in concern.  She had been an advocate of the relationship from the beginning, and she felt responsible.

     “Oh, aye,” said Laoghaire.  “We are provided for, and I feel safe.  There is money for meat at the market, and I’ve been able to sew a new dress for each of the girls.  Everything that used to be broken is repaired, and the goats and cows have never produced more milk, nor the chickens more eggs.  Our fields are planted, and it already looks like ‘twill be a good crop.”

     Jenny sighed in relief.  “I’m glad to hear it.  And he’s good with the girls?”

     Laoghaire smiled. “That he is.  Reads to them, prays wi’ them at night.  But I just wish he needed me; that he loved me more.”

      “My brother…is a passionate man.  But he’s a man.  I dinna think he knows how to love without touchin, as well.”

      “The girls like it when he pets them, but it isna something I like.  I’m not a cat.”  Laoghaire said irritably, eyeing the well-fed mouser that had wandered in the open door of the kitchen.

      “Is there anything that might make it easier for ye to come together in the bedroom?”  Jenny didn’t ask in a nosy way, Laoghaire thought.  She asked like a friend or sister who wished to help solve a problem. 

     Again, Laoghaire looked around the kitchen, fearful of eavesdroppers.  “Well, there is one thing,” she answered.  “The last time Jamie took me to bed, I had been thinking about us when we were young.  And my…well…down there…it was wet.  When Jamie came to me, it didna hurt like it always did wi’ Simon and Hugh.  And I wondered if there was a way to make that happen again.  I dinna like it when he puts his hands on my body, though, or touches me there.”

     Jenny’s face lightened with understanding.  “Oh, I ken.  Ye can just use an oil.  If you put it on yerself, or he puts on himself, if ye prefer, it makes it easier.”

     Laoghaire blushed furiously.  “But then, well, when I had Joanie, I tore badly, at the front.  And the scars cause it to hurt.”

     Jenny moved in closer to Laoghaire.  “Now, ye will never tell my brother I said this to ye,” she insisted in a serious whisper.

      “Aye,” Laoghaire agreed, nervously.

      “Ye might…”  Jenny struggled to find her words.  “Ye might try it from behind.”

      “Why?”  Laoghaire exclaimed. “And how?”

      “It presses on your body differently.  It might not hit the scar tissue the same.  And how?”  Jenny flushed furiously.  “Stand on the floor, and lean yer elbows onto yer bed.  He’ll figure it out quickly enough.  He’s grown up watchin’ horses; that’s probably how he thought it should be done from the first.” 

     A bunch of chattering interrupted their conversation, to the great relief of both women, and soon they were surrounded by children begging for “just a wee bite” of the shortbread cookies cooling on the counter.

     They had begun their journey at daybreak, and after the long trip and helping with the baking, Laoghaire was quite weary.  She withdrew to the guest room where Jenny had put her and Jamie;  Marsali and Joan would be sleeping with Kitty and Janet.  As she lay on her bed, snippets of memory appeared to her, moments that changed the course of her life, moments that tore Jamie away from her.

☆☆☆☆☆

     When the shout first came out that the rents party had returned, Laoghaire was incredibly nervous, but deliriously happy.  Her hands were shaky as she untied her apron and rushed to the dull mirror in the kitchen.  She straightened her hair, tying it back neatly.  She pinched her cheeks to pink them, and then joined the procession of clansmen and women, servants and maids, that were heading toward the hall.  Colum would be greeting the returned travelers, and she would be greeting Jamie.

     When she first saw him, her heart leapt. She felt it in the pit of her stomach, that deep longing to have him near her.  She hoped they would be able to slip away again.  Surely after several months, he would be eager to reacquaint himself with her body.  She felt her abdomen involuntarily clench inside at the thought of his body, his lips, and his hands on her.

     But then she saw that the Sassenach was holding his arm.  When she heard her grandmother’s voice exclaiming joyfully, “They’re married!!” she thought she was going to vomit.  Or faint.  Or both.  The blood had drained from her face, and she was breathing shallowly. 

     That witch.  He had married that witch.

     As people began to understand what it meant, that Jamie had married a Sassenach, a wind of whispers began.  “Jamie canna be laird now!”  “Dougal must be happy, but d’ye see the look on Colum’s face?” “Why’d he marry her?  Didna we think he should be with one of the lasses from the castle?”  “I thought I’d seen him with the blonde-haired lass whose beating he took.”

     Shaking with fury, Laoghaire considered the expressions she saw on three faces.  Colum looked grimly angry.  Jamie was white-faced, particularly when Colum acknowledged Lady Broch Tuarach, but not Lord Broch Tuarach.  And the Sassenach looked bitter and annoyed, as if she couldn’t stand for Jamie to be touching her.

     They weren’t happy, that was obvious.  And she was miserable.  Laoghaire couldn’t understand why he would do such a thing.

 

     The story circulated quickly enough.  The Sassenach had been captured by Captain Jack Randall, the fierce Redcoat captain whose name was feared the Highlands over, and it sounded like he had beaten her.  Good, thought Laoghaire bitterly.  Because Mistress Beauchamp was an English subject, she could be compelled to turn herself in to the British, and Dougal didn’t want her witnessing against him, so he decided to make her a Scot by having her marry a Scotsman.  It was complex, but at least it explained why Jamie would have done such a thing.

     Their quick conversation in the hallway left her with more questions than answers.

     But during the wee hours of the night, she began to form a plan.  And the next day, before she could dissuade herself, she had laced up her corset over her bare skin, pulled her cloak on, and with one last look in the mirror, she headed to the river.  She knew she would find Jamie there.

 

     But it had all gone wrong.  Laoghaire had run blindly away from the river, sobbing and struggling to pull her cloak over her shoulders.  She was mortified, humiliated, furious, devastated.  That witch got Jamie to make a vow, and he was so noble, he was keeping it, no matter how unhappy he was to be married to that cold English bitch.  No matter how much he wanted her.  She had seen it in his eyes, the way he had looked at her body, had put his hand on her willingly, had caressed her with his long, strong fingers.  Why had he denied himself?  How could he deny his feelings for her?

     She couldn’t go to the castle.  She couldn’t risk seeing the Sassenach, or she’d be likely to commit murder and go to prison, so she turned toward the village and home, blinking away the tears and trying to control her sobs.

      “Lass!”  The voice was deep, husky, and gentle.  “Are ye well, lass?”

     Laoghaire wiped her eyes, one with the back of her hand and the other with the heel of her palm.

      “No,” she answered, not yet able to see clearly.  Before she knew what was happening, she was pulled in to a firm embrace, two long arms wrapping around her.  He was murmuring comforting words to her, and when her shoulders stopped shaking, he took her by the arms and held her away from him to look in her eyes.

      “You!” she said.

      “Jamie Fraser’s lass,” he said, smiling.

      “No,” she said.  “He isna mine.  He…is…married!” She burst into tears, and John Robert put his arm about her again. 

      “Now, now, aonan milis,” he crooned.  “He doesn’t deserve such a beauty.  How can he not see what is right before him?” 

      “It’s that Sassenach witch,” Laoghaire managed to blurt out, burying her cheek in his chest again. He was strong, and warm, and he smelled of woodsmoke and herbs. 

      “Aye, I told ye, he isna good enough for ye.”  John Robert said.  He was beginning to walk with her, one arm around her shoulders, in the direction of her house.

     They were passing the tavern, when John Robert stopped her.  “Wait here,” he said.  “I’d like to buy you some tea, but I dinna want to be surrounded by a crowd.  I’ll rent a private room, and you can rest and have tea like a real lady.”

     Laoghaire stood in the street in front of the tavern as she waited, nervously pulling the edges of her cloak more tightly together.  She knew she should keep walking—her house was only a few blocks beyond the tavern.  But John Robert’s handsome face, the way she felt when he held her, and her dismay over Jamie convinced her to remain anyway.  Her distress over Jamie’s rejection of her allowed her to see the end of the path she was heading down and yet choose it anyway.

     “Your parlor awaits,” John Robert said, gallantly offering her his arm.   It did seem somewhat strange that he led her into the alley and up a narrow staircase before they entered the prettily decorated parlor, with a tea table and two chairs, as well as a fainting couch.

     “May I take your cloak?” he asked.  Laoghaire blanched.  But then, eyeing him critically, she gently opened the front of the cloak, exposing her corseted torso.

     John Robert gasped.  “Oh, lass.  Did he refuse you?  In all this beauty?”  With no hesitation, he was in front of her, asking permission with his eyes.

 

     It was what she had wished for with Jamie.  It began the same way, with John Robert pulling her onto the couch to sit on his lap, kissing and caressing her lips and face, stroking down her back.  When he gently pushed the sides of her cloak off her shoulders and saw her bare neck and bosom he was overcome, pupils dark with desire.

      “Mo chraidhe,” he whispered.  “Aon àlainn, my beautiful one.  Ye are so sweet and lovely.”  Swallowing hard, he had gently undone the laces, gasping when he was finished and she was released from the pressure, and her breasts, full and heavy, were revealed.

     He laid her back against the couch, then, and traced the circles of her nipples with his fingertips, then lips, then tongue.  She was breathless, astounded, overcome with the sensations.  This time, when a hand traveled up her thigh, she did not stop it.  When he parted the hair and dipped his fingers into that place, it stunned her.  It felt like she was floating above her body, the sensation so otherworldly. 

      “Are you a maid, lass?” he had asked.  When Laoghaire nodded yes, he had taken one of the napkins from the table and laid it on the couch beneath her.  He had barely disrobed—just unbuttoning the front of his breeks.  And as he entered her, as he gently took her maidenheid, John Robert continued to whisper words of affection, extolling her beauty, assuring her of his undying admiration.

     Traveling the rest of the way home, she had been floating on air.  Jamie Fraser could go hang.  She was going to be married to John Robert MacLeod, who loved her as none other had.  She felt beautiful, desirable, vindicated, hopeful.

☆☆☆☆☆

John Robert MacLeod, Laoghaire thought bitterly.  John Robert MacLeod, the married man from Killiecrankie.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

     “Daddy…DaddyDa!!”  The voice got progressively louder, until finally Jamie woke from his sleep.  He opened one eye first.  He had been sleeping on Jenny and Ian’s couch, and there was a patch of spittle left on the brocade where he must have been sleeping with his mouth open. 

      “I’m an old man!” Jamie exclaimed, his voice still gritty with sleep.  “Snorin’ and droolin’!”

     Joanie laughed as he sat up, and came close to him to smooth out his hair and retie his queue.  “Yer hair looked fair awful!” she giggled.  “But I fixed it.”

      “Now, wee lassie, why are ye wakin’ yer father from his deep slumber?”  Jamie rubbed his eyes, feeling ridges in the skin of his cheek.  The pattern on Jenny and Ian’s couch was now imprinted on his face.  Wonderful.

      “I want to go swimming in the mill pond,” she said.  “But Ma said I canna go alone.  Would you come watch me?”

      “But wee one, ye didna bring any extra clothes for swimming,” Jamie said.

      “That’s not stopping Ian, Michael, Janet, and Marsali,” she said, pouting.  Jamie’s eyes widened. 

      “What do you mean, Joanie?” Jamie asked, attempting to keep his voice calm.

      “They took their clothes off to go swimming,” Joanie announced confidently.

     Jamie stared at her, his forehead wrinkled.  Then he started, realization flooding his features. “Joanie, where’s yer ma?”

      “She’s upstairs, sleeping,” Joan answered.  “Or, she was until I asked her if I could go swimming.”

      “But she went back to sleep after ye left her room?”

      “No,” Joanie responded.  “When I told her I didna need a swimming costume cause Marsali, Michael, and Ian weren’t wearing any, she woke up.  And she said, ‘Go get yer da,’ so I figured she wanted you to help me swim.”

      “Oh, Christ,” Jamie swore, pulling on his boots as quickly as he could.

      “What’s wrong?” Joan asked, concerned.  Jamie generally tried not to swear around the girls.

      “If Marsali is swimming wi’ boys wi’out her clothes on, yer ma is going to kill first her and then me…Or first me and then her.”  He shook the last remnants of sleep out of his head, grabbed a large blanket, and headed quickly towards the mill.

     In the years since Jamie lost his shirt on the water wheel, Ian and the boys had excavated a large area below the mill which they had turned into a pond, for a reservoir.  They used the power of the mill to pump some water to the grain fields, and it assured them a water supply in case of drought.  Of course, it was Scotland, so that was rare.  The children liked to use the mill pond for refreshing on hot days, or just to amuse themselves.  Today fell into the amusement category, as it was May, and the sky was still gray and overcast.

     Jamie muttered to himself as he approached the mill pond.  Looking ahead, he could see black and golden heads of hair, both on women’s bodies, wearing skirts and shawls.  Jenny. . .and Laoghaire.  For a moment, he considered turning around and heading back to the house.  Jenny could oversee her own children; Laoghaire could take care of Marsali. 

     But remembering Laoghaire’s reaction to Marsali starting her courses, he realized it would be cowardly of him and more traumatic for Marsali for him to stay away. 

      “Ian Murray, Michael Murray!” Jenny was exclaiming sharply.  “Get out of the water this instant!!  What on earth are you thinking?”  The boys were pulling themselves out of the water, cupping their hands around their ballocks and arses.  Jenny sharply swatted each of them on the side of the head as they skittered past her to the piles of clothing on the rocks by the gravel entry to the pond.  Jamie stretched the blanket out like a curtain and stood between the boys and the pond as they hastily tried to pull shirts and breeks on over wet skin.  He told them with his eyes and eyebrows, no words needed, that as soon as they were dressed, they’d better make themselves scarce.

      “Thanks, Uncle Jamie,” said Ian, making a face.

      “Aye, thanks Uncle,” Michael agreed.

      “We didna do anything,” feisty Janet insisted to the indignant mothers as the boys dashed away over the grassy fields toward Lallybroch in the distance.  She and Marsali were still huddled shoulder-deep in the water.  “The lads turned their backs to let us get in first, and then we looked away for them.  Ye canna see far in the water.  We thought you’d prefer it to us getting our clothing all wet.”

      Jamie could see, from the tight set of Laoghaire’s lips, that Janet’s explanation was not adequate. 

      “Shall we let the girls get out?” Jamie asked.  “I can turn my back, Jenny, and you and Laoghaire can hold the blanket to give the lassies a place to dress.  I dinna want them to catch their death of cold just because you’re angry at them.”  He handed off the blanket and turned his back, shaking his head.  Lassies were so much more complicated than lads, that was for certain.  Of course, he wasn’t convinced that Ian and Michael would have kept their end of the bargain.  He knew he’d seen Jenny a time or two as a teenager.  Education, he figured.  Living on a farm you saw a lot more than just private parts.  It wasn’t a perfect education however, he considered ruefully, remembering a young man with some misconceptions needing to be kindly corrected on his wedding night.

     After attempting to squeeze any extra water out of their hair, the girls dressed, and the five headed back to the house.  He’d warned Joanie to find something else to do.  He imagined there’d be some heated discussions on their return.

     When they entered the house and found their way into the front parlor, Marsali and Janet huddled next to each other on one couch, and Jenny, Laoghaire, and Jamie sat on the other one, facing them.  Jamie noted that Laoghaire was already starting to sniffle.

      “Where are the lads?” Janet snipped. “We arna the only ones to blame.”

      “No doubt they’ll have their own sort of consequence later,” Jamie said.  “Ian and I will discuss it.”

      “Janet already told you,” Marsali said, stubbornly lifting her chin.  “We chose to swim this way to save wash, and it wasna a problem.  We didna do anything wrong.”

      “The boys didna touch you, Marsali?”  Laoghaire asked, obviously speaking over a sizeable lump in her throat.

      “Ma!” Marsali exclaimed.  “Ye dinna think I’d do any such thing wi’ my cousins, d’ye?”

      “Nor me, wi’ my brothers?” Janet piped up.  “Other than that I’ve seen them nekkid since they were wee little things.”

     Jamie raised a finger, seeking permission to speak.  “I will say, Janet, that yer bodies are not the same as when ye were wee little things.  A time comes when it isna right for boys and girls to be in each other’s company nude!”

     Laoghaire had started quietly weeping.  Jenny and Jamie met each other’s eyes in confusion.

      “Laoghaire,” Jamie said.  “I dinna think ye need to worry.  When Jenny and I were children, if I wasna listening to her well enough, she would reach under my kilt and grab me by the bollocks to make me listen to her.”

     Wee Janet burst out laughing as Jenny blushed and glared at Jamie.  “Ma, really?  Well, I never did that wi’ Ian or Michael.”

     Marsali got up from the couch and knelt at Laoghaire’s feet, then grabbed her hands.  Looking up at her mother, she said seriously, “Mama, I know how important it is to you that I marry well.  I willna do anything that could endanger that.  We were just swimmin’.”

     Laoghaire tried to quell her tears.  Jamie reached over to pat her shoulder.  He felt her stiffen slightly, but she didn’t pull away.

      “I need to check the roasting chicken,” Laoghaire sniffled, getting up from the couch.  She and Marsali headed to the kitchen, wee Janet following behind. Brother and sister sighed as they met each other's eyes.

      “Shall we walk?”

     They walked in silence for a time, Jamie moderating the length of his strides so that Jenny could keep up with him.  Without intending to, Jamie turned them toward the Fraser cemetery up on the top of a hill, with a view of fields, lake, mountains, and farms.

     Since they were already there, the siblings met each other’s eyes and climbed up through the break in the wall, gently laying their hands on the precariously balanced stones as they passed them.  Jenny followed as Jamie wended his way through the lichen-covered gravestones towards the ones that marked the graves of Brian Dubh Fraser and Ellen MacKenzie Fraser.  And Matthew Fraser.  They stood, looking at the trio of stones etched with names and dates.

      “Where shall we put ye, Jamie?” Jenny asked sharply.

      “Put me?”  Jamie turned to her.  “What an odd question, Janet.  Where there’s room.  By Da.”

      “No, ye clotheid.  Not when you die.  Now.  Because yer actin’ like yer already dead.”

     But he was dead, Jamie thought, absurdly.  He had died back at Culloden Moor; no, he had died at the stones—at Craigh na Dun.

     He realized how foolish those thoughts were.  “I’m not dead, Janet, nor am I acting like it.  I came out and helped wi’ getting the wee fools out of the pond.  I at least thought to bring a blanket.  And I brought my family here for Marsali’s birthday." 

      “I grant ye that,” Jenny said.  “But yer heart’s not in it.”

     Jamie put his fingers to his temples.  “Ye women weary me.  I’m surrounded wi’ them all day long, and now ye’ve got more to add to the ways I feel like I will ne’er be enough.”

     Jenny looked at her brother, and saw the lines of weariness on his face.  And yet, she didn’t relent.  “Yer a man, James, so be one.  She isna coming back.”

     Jamie turned to her, eyes narrowed.

      “This life,” Jenny said, her arm taking in the surrounding view.  “This?  This is what you get.  Down there in that stone house?  That’s the wife you get.  Those are the daughters you get.  I’m the only sister you get.  Ian’s the only brother-in-law.”

      “Now, Janet,” Jamie had bristled at the mention of Joanie and Marsali.  “I love those little lassies like they were my own.  I live each day as if it’s the only one I have because I know how precious time is.”

      “What about yer wife, then?”  Jenny asked.  She put her hands on her hips, making herself resemble a fierce little bantam hen.

      “What have ye been wheedling out of Laoghaire?” Jamie asked accusingly.

      “She says you try.  But she also says that you come to her as if you expect something of her, and she always feels like she’s disappointing you!”

     Jamie turned away with a gruff grumble.  “I dinna ken that I ever feel I’ve ended a day with Laoghaire happy.”

      “Ye can’t expect this marriage to be the same as what you had with Claire.  This is what there is, Jamie.  Did you hear me?  Stop looking for what ye had before.”

     Jamie gazed out over the countryside, then began to speak contemplatively.

      “Tell me, Jenny, having known love with Ian, would you be satisfied with a shadow of that love?”

      “I would try,” Jenny responded.

      “I have tried, Janet,” Jamie said quietly.  “But ‘tisna even a shadow.  She’s a wall, a darkness that absorbs everything I give and shines nothing back to me.  I’m weary.  I canna be myself with Laoghaire.  I make a wee joke? It hurts her feelings.  I come to her in our bedroom, and the next day she’s screaming and crying and willna tell me what I’ve done.”

     The two stared at each other, foreheads wrinkled.  Finally, Jenny chuckled wryly. 

      “D’ye think marriage is easy, Jamie?” Jenny said.  “Ye were married for three years; now ye’ve been married for four months.  Ian and I have been married for twenty-five years.  Do ye not know that sometimes Ian and I hate each other?  Sometimes I canna bear the sight of the man.  Sometimes he thinks I’m a shrew and a harpy.”

     She saw the look on her brother’s face and glared at him.  “And dinna say that sometimes I am a shrew and a harpy.  For I ken that’s what ye were thinkin’, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.”

     Jamie recited a proverb he’d heard from his father:

Ceannsaichidh a h-uile fear an droch bhean,  Ach an duin' aig am bi ì,”*

     At Jenny’s lowered brows he translated: “Everyone can rule a shrew, Except the one she’s married to.”  Jamie drew his sister to him, her head underneath his chin.  “Ah, Janet,” he said.  “Ye are a shrew and a harpy.  And I love ye anyway.”  He kissed her on the forehead, grabbed her by the hand, and led her away from the stones.

     They stopped at the crest of the hill to look over the land.

      “This, Janet?” Jamie asked, a question in his voice.

      “This is what there is, Jamie.” 

     Jamie sighed deeply. “Janet,” he asked, as he stepped down before her and reached a hand back to help her down.  “I’m no wearin’ a kilt.  But why do my ballocks hurt?”

     She scoffed, and gently boxed his ear.  “Gille gòrach*.  I love ye, too.”

Chapter Text

     The house smelled of meat and sweets, and every corner was filled with joyful noise.  Jamie still couldn’t keep all the little people straight, especially as Angus and Anthony, Matthew and Henry insisted on not staying in one place and constantly showing up in different configurations, but he was getting better. 

     Young Jamie’s wife was Joan, and they had handsome dark-haired Matthew and Henry, as well as baby Caroline.  Caroline was just a wee thing, whom little Joanie had latched onto, especially adoring the baby because Joan shared names with her ma.

     Maggie was married to a tall, quiet man named Paul Lyle.  They had two active boys named Angus and Anthony.  Four-year-old Angus had lost his two front teeth in a headlong jump into a table, and Jamie felt a twinge of remembrance, thinking of his own toothless friend of the same name—fellow cattle thief, ruffian, and rescuer, whom he’d lost in the Rising.

     Then there was Kitty—Katherine Mary—who was said to have a young man, and might soon be engaged.  The younger ones were the twins, Janet and Michael, and the youngest was Ian, who had been just a babe when Jamie left.

     Fortunately, it didn’t require the knowledge of names to play the silly games the little boys begged for.  “Nunka Jamie” quickly gained popularity as a great red-haired lion who would hunt the boys through the forest of furniture, a copper-maned pony who gave galloping rides about the house, and a terrifying Goliath, who did an impressive performance of falling to the ground when the boys, each playing David in turn, had flung their only-slightly-smelly stockings at his head.

     He finally collapsed, panting onto the couch, only to be attacked by the foursome, who demanded that Nunka Jamie tell them stories.

     Jenny smiled at the sight, and pointed the little band out to Laoghaire.  “The boys love their Papa, but Ian canna play wi’ them in the same way,” Jenny said.  “Can ye imagine—Marsali and Joanie having wee ones some day?  Jamie will be a wonderful grand-da.”

     Laoghaire smiled at the thought.  It was good to see Jamie here at Lallybroch.  Somehow he seemed more settled and comfortable.

 

     They had all gathered around the huge table in the dining hall for dinner: Ian and Jenny, James and Joan, Maggie and Paul, Jamie and Laoghaire, then Kitty, Janet, Michael, Ian, Marsali and Joanie.      There were too many people to seat the entire family, so the four youngest boys had been fed first, and spent dinner time running wildly around in the great room, making their mothers start in terror every time there was a crash, and only relax when the loud sound wasn’t followed by devastated wailing.

     Jamie looked at his sister and Ian, sitting next to each other.  Their eyes sent each other messages without words. He knew marriage was not perfect, but he could easily see the depth of love and mutual understanding they had for each other.  And Jenny had spoken sense to him.  How could he judge ‘til death do us part’ from four months of marriage?

     Flanked by her daughters, Laoghaire looked happy, which made Jamie breathe easier.  Marsali’s hair had dried in golden ringlets.  Wee Janet sat next to her and the girls were giggling and whispering—apparently having become even better chums through the experience.  The boys had mucked out the stalls for their part in the foolishness, and had been thoroughly chastened by their da and uncle about their responsibility to treat young ladies honorably, beginning with their own sisters and cousins.

     But truly, no harm had been done.  For much of the afternoon the girls helped cook in the kitchen.  Joanie, slightly disappointed to not be able to swim, had satisfied herself with playing school with the wee boys, who made wonderful misbehaving students; Joanie was able to make them stand in a corner to her hearts’ content. 

     Wasn’t this what life was about? Jamie thought.  Family, and work, and food.  It was easy to feel satisfied with such abundance to table, though Jamie did consider, looking down at his belly, whether he should perhaps eat less pie.

     After dinner, after Nunka Jamie had worn out the young boys with playing (or perhaps it was the other way around), the family gathered in the hall to give Marsali her gifts.  Gifts for birthdays tended to be simple.  Young Jamie’s Joan gave Marsali some soft wool she had spun and dyed herself.  Ian and Janet gave her a worn novel that had already seen several owners and many years of use.  Laoghaire had sewn and embroidered her a new shift.  Maggie gave her a new tortoise-shell comb for her hair, which made Marsali flush.  It was quite fine as a gift.

      “My gift for you is not down here,” Jamie said.  “I want you to choose something from a trunk we have of clothing.  You are tall enough, and they aren’t getting much use.”

     Eventually the young families headed home or to their rooms: Young Jamie and his wife, boys, and baby to their apartments at Lallybroch, Maggie and her husband along with their boys off to the Lyle farm.  With a smaller audience, Jamie reached into the pocket of his jacket and fished out a small packet of folded paper, handing it to Marsali.   She opened it, read it quickly, and blushed a fiery red.

     Laoghaire had calmed slightly since the swimming incident and tried to reassure herself.  There was a fire of independence in Marsali that perhaps she had not had as a girl.  In addition, Marsali had a ma to talk to her about men and what they wanted, and what they would do to get it, and how she should behave to get what she wanted, two things which were diametrically opposed.

     Sadly, Laoghaire herself had none of this advice as a fifteen-year-old; and as a result, she had gone about it all wrong.

☆☆☆☆☆

     After she left the tavern, in the shy bliss of being known by John Robert MacLeod, Laoghaire could hear his words ringing in her head.  How could that bastard James Fraser say no to this beauty?  He’s a fool!  Oh, ye are so bonny, yer breasts like pillows the gods would sleep on, yer eyes sparkling like sapphires, yer lips like roses in a garden.

     The words continued to echo as she slipped into her house, retrieving her shift and dressing in her attic room.  She continued to hear them as she bid her brothers and sisters goodbye again and headed back toward Leoch.  John Robert was right, Laoghaire decided.  Jamie Fraser was a fool and Mistress Beauchamp a true witch to steal him away from her.  Only then did she realize she was walking past Geillis Duncan’s shop.

     She opened the door and a cacophony of scents assailed her nose.  Pungent, sweet, bitter, acidic, herbal.  The main portion of Geillis’s business came from running a perfectly respectable and effective apothecary.  But there was also the less-advertised menu of well-known potions and charms she would sell.  One just had to know what to ask for. 

      “I would like to buy an ill wish,” Laoghaire said, pulling her coin purse out of her pocket.  “One for a woman who has stolen a man.”

      “Aye?” Geillis asked.  She began bustling about the room, retrieving sticks, bones, string, and herbs. “Do ye have any of her hair?” Geillis asked, as she began to assemble the items at a back table. 

      “No, but I can add some when I place it in her bedchamber.”  Laoghaire’s nose wrinkled at the thought of Claire’s great tangled mop of hair.  How Jamie saw anything in her. . .

      “’Twouldna be for Mistress Beauchamp…I mean, Lady Broch Tuarach, would it?” Geillis asked, from behind the divider used in case any customers should enter who were interested only in the reputable half of her business. That woman deserved her reputation as a witch, Laoghaire thought.  She knew too much; seeing everything with those strange green eyes.

      “And if it was?” Laoghaire asked.  “Would ye not sell it to me, then?”

      “’Tisn’t my business to judge my customers,” Geillis remarked.  “’Tis just my business to know my customers.”

      “Aye?” said Laoghaire. 

      “And from what I see, ye are a pretty young thing,” Geillis said, green eyes glowing preternaturally.  “If ye end up wi’ a man before ye marry, ye must make sure to not sleep wi’ him for 10 days after yer courses.  And if ye do catch a bairn, ye must come to me for a tea which will help the bleeding to come.”

     Finally Geillis emerged from the back, carrying a crude bundle of sticks.  She wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, and handed it over to Laoghaire in exchange for a few coins.

      “Wrap three hairs around the center, if ye can find any.  And place it under his bed.  The charm should drive him away from her.”  Geillis looked at her shrewdly.  “I canna tell if it will draw him to you, though.”

      “I dinna think I need that,” Laoghaire said primly, thinking of John Robert.  He loved her, and they would be married.  Laoghaire nodded in thanks, then rushed away, hoping to find a time to slip into Jamie’s chamber unnoticed.

      “Laoghaire,” called a male voice from behind her.  The street was loud, so she turned, half hoping to see John Robert.  Her face fell slightly as she saw Hugh instead.  “Where ye headin’?” he asked cheerfully.  “May I accompany ye?”

     Laoghaire sighed, but there was no escape, so she let Hugh fall in step with her.

      “’Tis good to see ye again, Laoghaire,” he said.  “Ye look lovely today.”

     Of course she did, Laoghaire thought, lovely enough that she had a man.  She had no need of this gangly, pock-marked teenager.

      “What’s that?” he asked curiously, pointing at the small fabric-wrapped bundle. 

      “Mistress Beauchamp asked me to bring her something from Geillis’s shop,” Laoghaire said, pleased that she was clever enough to think on her feet.

      “Ye mean, Mistress Fraser now, aye?” Hugh said.

     Laoghaire gritted her teeth, her eyes narrowing as she thought of Jamie and Claire together.  “Ye shouldna be so gleeful, Hugh,” she snapped.  “Ye know I cared for him, and I thought he cared for me.”

     Hugh stopped, taken aback by her response, and Laoghaire stalked on angrily, alone.  “I didna...Laoghaire!” he called after her.

 

     Laoghaire slipped into Jamie’s room when he and Mistress Beauchamp were in the hall for supper.  She scouted just long enough to see that their plates were filled, as were their glasses, and they were surrounded by people curious about the circumstances of their marriage.  Though the two sat next to each other, Laoghaire could see from their body language that they were not happy.  Jamie was not touching Mistress Beauchamp, and though he was often looking at her, she was not looking at him, sitting with her chin up proudly and her lips set.

     She snuck down the hallway, checking in both directions to make sure she was not seen as she entered the room, the ill wish in her hand.  It was tidy.  The bed was unrumpled and neatly made.  If they were acting like newlyweds and taking each other to bed many times a day, or if they had bedded each other right before dinner, Laoghaire thought, the bed would definitely be messier.  

     What was messy was the hair brush.  Laoghaire scrunched up her nose in disdain as she pulled a few frizzy hairs off the brush, then wrapped them around the center of the talisman.  Her heart thumping in her ears, Laoghaire approached the bed, knelt on the floor, and pushed the bundle underneath.

     She was about to leave the room, but her curiosity was not satisfied.  Laoghaire had done enough laundry to know the tell-tale signs of people bedding each other—stained sheets, particularly when the pale, roundish stains were slightly lower than center of the bed.  She blushed as she thought of John Robert.  She had bled, just slightly, but he had been ever so gentle.  And he had enough forethought that he’d laid down the cloth so they didn’t dirty the couch.

     With a glance over her shoulder, Laoghaire pulled down the covers, revealing the sheets all the way down to the feet.  No stains; none whatsoever.  And moreso, the sheets were only wrinkled in two separate areas, very close to the two edges of the bed.  They were not taking each other to bed, and they were not even sleeping close.  She felt vindictive pleasure settle in her stomach along with her nervousness.  Carefully, she spread the covers back in place, crept out of the door, and headed back to the kitchen to do her work.

     She needn’t have been so worried about being discovered while placing the ill wish.  The dinner went late into the evening.  Laoghaire felt especially happy to see Claire head off toward the sleeping wing alone, while Jamie seemed to be heading to a meeting with Dougal, Colum, and Ned Gowan.  Colum wore an angry frown, and Jamie looked like he was heading to the gallows. 

     Poor man, thought Laoghaire.  No one to comfort him tonight when he goes back to his room.  That cold Sassenach witch.  Maybe if Jamie drank himself into a stupor, he would at least take what he deserved from a wife.

     She thought of trying, just once more, to intercept Jamie, perhaps as he headed back to his room.  But as she was doing one last round of the  tables, pouring whisky, water, and tea, a hand touched her elbow.

      “Lass,” said a husky, masculine voice.  “How much later are ye serving tonight?” 

     She turned to see John Robert MacLeod, sitting smilingly at the table.  Her heart leapt.

     Bending down as if to pour water into his glass, she whispered, “What are ye doing here?”

      “I couldna be apart from ye, Laoghaire.”  John Robert responded.  “I invented some business to bring me up to the castle, and Colum has provided me a chamber for the night.  Will ye come to me, then?”

     Laoghaire had blushed, and looking for another way to delay and talk longer, spilt an amount of water on the floor.  She bent down to wipe it up, considering.  Again?  Twice in one day?  Her stomach clenched, and she could feel a warmth in her lower abdomen just from hearing his words.

      “I dinna think I can,” she said.  “’Twould be too hard to slip away.”

      “Oh, but Laoghaire, I canna go another hour without havin’ ye near me.  Yer beautiful eyes, your lovely form.  Ye are drivin’ me insane with desiring you.”  He truly sounded desperate for her.  It made Laoghaire’s body throb with wanting.

      “I canna sleep there, but I could come for a time,” she whispered back.  She wanted to go, truly just to hear him say such things to her again.

☆☆☆☆☆

      “Look, ma,” said Marsali, excitedly coming over to Laoghaire, dangling a shiny bauble from her wrist and placing the note in her mother’s hand.  “Fergus sent me this bracelet wi’ stones that look like sapphires in it.  He says such nice things.”  Marsali blushed. “That...that the stones are the color of my eyes, and made him think of me.”

     Her daughter’s eyes were like sapphires, Laoghaire thought, her heart sinking; sparkling at the flattery of a man.

Chapter Text

     “Come, Marsali,” Jamie said.  When Jenny had whispered in his ear a moment earlier, his eyebrows had raised and he nodded in response.  “Time for you to choose your final birthday gift!”

     With sparkling eyes, Marsali hopped up from her little pile of treasures on the floor, and she, Janet, and Joanie followed Jamie and Jenny up the stairs to the laird’s room.

     Marsali and Joanie had never seen a room so fine, with dark wood furniture and beautiful drapes, as well as actual wallpaper in a lovely blue and ivory pattern.  Balriggan only had painted rooms, and a few old tapestries.  Wallpaper was something that royalty had in palaces.

     Joanie was clinging to his hand, but Jamie, noting Marsali’s cautious steps and the look of wonder in her eyes, reached out to pat her on the shoulder.  “Exactly how I felt as a young lad when I came into my ma and da’s room.  Very fine, is it not?”  Marsali nodded wordlessly in response.  Though there were times she seemed very much like a woman, glimmers of the little girl were still left, and currently evident on her face.

     Jenny and Jamie dragged a trunk out of the corner.  “Now that ye are a young lady, Marsali, I wanted ye to have a choice of some grown-up lady clothing.” Jamie said, reaching down and opening it up.

     Marsali fell on her knees in front of the trunk, joined quickly by Janet and Joanie.  The trunk held bright bits of blue and yellow and red silk, as well as some darker colors, deep green and gray.  “So extravagant!” Marsali said, hesitant to touch anything.  “Much too fine for Balriggan.  Maybe if I were to go to Edinburgh, or London…”

      “I’m certain ye can find something that would suit you now,” Jamie said encouragingly.

     Marsali looked overwhelmed.

      “What about this?” Jenny asked, pulling something made of green wool out of the trunk.  “A lovely thick, warm cloak would be something useable—even for your trip back, particularly if it rains.”

     Smiling, Marsali ran her hand over the warm wool.  “Indeed, Auntie.  This would work nicely, though if I ever have a ball to go to, I would love to come and look at these dresses again!”  She withdrew her hand from the glossy silks reluctantly. 

      “Ye can still look at and touch them, mo chridhe,” said Jamie.  “They are lovely to see and feel.”

     Marsali lifted each garment, then turned and handed them to wee Janet, who laid them out on the bed, where Joanie stroked the fine fabric and inspected the gathers and stays. 

     Jenny noticed Jamie clenching and releasing one hand as if it ached, and she sidled up close to him, putting her arm about his waist.  He put his arm over her shoulder, then sighed and settled into her embrace, and continued to watch as the girls exclaimed over each new revelation.

     Finally Marsali reached the bottom of the trunk.  There were some fine white lacy underthings that made her blush slightly, so she simply pushed them aside to pull out the last item in the trunk.

     The three girls gasped as Marsali drew out the dress.  A beautiful taupe linen with silvery threads interwoven created a skirt which must have been made with yards and yards of fabric.  The bodice was made of the same fabric, and the stomacher was of cream colored linen, embroidered with silvery thread in a pattern of acorns and leaves.

      “Oh, Auntie Jenny, your wedding dress was so lovely!” gasped Joanie.  “Like a fairy princess!”

      “Wasna mine,” said Jenny, turning questioningly to Jamie.

      “It belonged to my first wife,” Jamie said.  “I was married once, before I married yer ma, Joanie and Marsali.  Back before Culloden.  A little before your ma married Hugh MacKenzie, her first husband."

     Joanie reached out a hand and barely brushed the intricate stitching.  “Oh, Da, it was very fine.  Were ye rich, then?”

      “Just fortunate,” Jamie replied, smiling.  “Ye remember Ned Gowan?  He found it for me the day we were to be wed.”

      “It’s beautiful,” Marsali murmured.  “Was she lovely also?”  After asking the question, she looked worriedly at Jamie, but he smiled distantly.

      “Yes,” Jamie replied.  “When I saw her, it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.” He smiled, his eyes focused beyond the walls of the room as if seeing a vision.

      “Da, I dinna want to upset ye,” said Joanie, coming close and holding his hand.  “But do ye mind saying what happened to her?”

     Jamie’s eyes were watery as he looked at the dress.  “It was long ago, Joanie, and it still hurts to think of her.  Just know that I hope when ye lassies are wed, that ye find someone who loves ye as much as I loved her.”

      “But Da, if it hurts ye,” Marsali looked worried, but she came to Jamie’s other hand, “do ye really want me to be wearing her fine things around?”

      Jamie and Jenny met each other’s eyes.  Jamie spoke slowly.  “I canna live in the past.  And if someone I love is wearing her things, it seems good and right.”

     Marsali threw her arms around Jamie, burying her face in his shirt front.  “I love ye, too, Daddy.”

     The girls reverently laid the dresses back in the trunk, and as they did, Jamie’s eyes followed the dresses longingly.  Jenny looked at him with concern.

     He put his arm back around her shoulders, and leaning to her ear, said, “She is not here anymore.  It’s time for me to focus on what is.”

      “Oh, Jamie,” she said compassionately.  There was little else she could say.

 

     Laoghaire was sitting quietly by the fire when the little troop came downstairs, Marsali happily wearing the green cloak about her shoulders.

     With the hubbub of dinner and gifts, no one had really noticed that Kitty had disappeared after dinner.  They couldn’t tell you when she had come back in the house blushingly and beckoned Ian into the parlor, nor had they seen her pull a tall young man from the front door to the parlor by his hand.  Few noticed that she had pushed him inside, and closed the door behind him, rocking excitedly up on her toes with her hands clasped behind her back, waiting.

     It was just about the time that Jamie and Joan, Maggie and Paul were packing up their wee ones to head home that Kitty had burst from the parlor, pulling the aforementioned young man behind her by the hand, with Ian smilingly taking up the rear.

     Entering the hall, Ian had clapped his hands for attention.  Conversations had ceased, and eyes turned in his direction. 

      “Geordie has asked Kitty to marry him, and she has accepted!”  he announced proudly.

     The cheering and well wishes began almost before Ian announced that Kitty was engaged, and the crowd barely heard him say that he was happy to give them his blessing and welcome George to the family.

     Just as few of them had noticed Kitty’s secretive behavior, few noticed Laoghaire after the announcement.  She was pale-faced, a slight sad turn to her lips, and a wrinkle on her forehead. 

     Laoghaire had never been as giddy as Katherine Mary was to be getting married, holding onto her fiance’s hand with both of hers, gazing up at him with shining eyes. 

     Her memories were nothing like that at all.

☆☆☆☆☆

     She had managed to slip in to see John Robert before heading to her own chamber for bed, she believed without being noticed.  He had such a way with words—she had never felt so adored.  She had to hurry him along and left most of her clothing in place—since she needed to get back to the room she shared with Mrs. Fitz and she didn’t want to look disheveled—but even a truncated experience had made her ecstatically lightheaded.  She couldn’t wait until they could be married, and lay in their bed together, blissfully naked, able to take their time for words and caresses.  Laoghaire knew her cheeks were flushed when she reached her bedchamber, but Mrs. Fitz already had the lights out and bade her to be quiet, as she was exhausted from the long day.

     When Laoghaire came into the kitchen in the morning, she tried to get to work quickly.  She didn’t want to draw attention to herself, and truly, she just kept thinking over and over of John Robert MacLeod and the last few days.  Had she noticed how handsome he was when he spoke to her at the shinty match?  She’d been blind, then, blinded by her childhood crush on Jamie.  Certainly the man had his merits, but John Robert was in love with her.

     In the previous week Laoghaire had been working on an apron for Mrs. Fitz.  Wanting to maintain a good relationship with her grandmother, she'd chosen this morning to give it to her.  Mrs. Fitz was delighted and marveled at Laoghaire’s even stitching and the perfect fit. 

      “It’s so lovely.  I hate to dirty it,” Mrs. Fitz said.

     Laoghaire was focused on helping her grandmother put on the apron, so she didn’t see Mistress Bea…Fraser approach.

      “Claire, do ye see what my darling granddaughter here has stitched fer me?” Mrs. Fitz reveled excitedly.  “Is it not the most beautiful thing ye’ve ever laid eyes on?”

     This Claire looked nothing at all like the warm, friendly woman watching Gwyllyn the bard; though truly, that Claire had consumed at least two glasses of Colum’s Rhenish, Laoghaire thought. 

     When Claire started speaking, Laoghaire had felt the bile rise in her throat and her heart begin to pound.  This was not going to be a friendly chat.  Mrs. Fitz pulled the other kitchen maids Saffron and Fiona away, both of whom had started staring at Claire’s entrance.

     It had been so long ago, all Laoghaire remembered was staring up at Claire as she scolded her, arched eyebrows and features giving her the bearing of some regal lady, thrusting the ill wish under Laoghaire’s nose and then throwing it to the side when Laoghaire denied it came from her.

     She just stared at the woman, bitterness growing.  But when Mistress Beauchamp said, “The truth is, he was never yours to begin with,” something deep in Laoghaire took over.

      “That’s a lie,” she had said.  “Jamie Fraser was and is mine.  And ye did us both a wrong past bearing when ye stole him away."

      “You are mistaken, child,” said Mistress Beauchamp.

     Laoghaire remembered the separate hollows in the sheets, and the stain-free bed.  “My poor Jamie,” she said.  “Trapped in a loveless marriage, forced to share his bed with a cold, English bitch.  He must have to get himself swine drunk of a night before he can stand to plow yer field.”

     Mistress Beauchamp had slapped her then, and threatened her to stay away from her and to stay away from her husband.

     Her face still red and stinging, Laoghaire had tried to act nonchalant when she welcomed her gran and the other maids back into the kitchen.  She had begun to peel potatoes when she overhead Saffron talking to Fiona as they mixed up the bannock dough.  She kept herself low over the scraps bowl so they wouldn’t halt their conversation on her account.

      “Did ye see Jamie and Mistress Fraser this morning?  She looked well-ridden, to be sure,” giggled Saffron.

      “Walkin’ a bit sore, was she now?” Fiona answered.  The two maids giggled. 

      “Aye, that, and the flush on her face whenever she would look at him?”  Saffron whistled.

      “Did ye see the way he was lookin’ at her, though?” Fiona added.  “Like he could devour her right then and there.”

      “And he couldna keep his hands off her, neither,” Saffron giggled.  “She got embarrassed and pushed him away, but I was certain I saw his hand pullin’ up her skirt under the table and him touchin’ her knee.”

      “They were hungry for more than breakfast, ye ken?” The two maids dissolved in paroxysms of laughter, and Laoghaire glared in their direction.

     Damn Geillis Duncan and her damn ill wish, Laoghaire thought to herself.  Obviously the green-eyed witch had taken Laoghaire’s money and given her nothing in return.

     She tried to keep John Robert at the forefront of her mind.  Each time she recalled his words and the way he spoke to her, she was able to calm herself.

     Saffron had seen her, and directed a question at her.  “Now, Jamie was a favorite of yers, wasn’t he, Laoghaire?”

      “He was, once,” Laoghaire responded haughtily.  “But I have a new young man now.”

      “Oooohh!” said Saffron, teasingly making eye contact with Fiona.  “Tell me.  What is the young man’s name?”

     Laoghaire felt shy.  Should she tell?  John Robert was handsome, and he said he was a blacksmith in town, with his own shop.  There was nothing to be ashamed of there. She lifted her chin.  “John Robert MacLeod,” she said proudly.

     She knew something was amiss when Saffron and Fiona exchanged distressed glances.  “What?” she asked.  “What?!  Tell me.”

      “Lass,” said Saffron, kindly.  “John Robert MacLeod is married.”

      “Married?” Laoghaire had repeated,

      “And he has several children,” Fiona added. 

      “Several?” Laoghaire asked in disbelief, insisting, “Not the John Robert MacLeod I’m talking about.”

      “Aye, John Robert MacLeod.  Tall, brown hair, square jaw?  He lives in town above his smithy, but he was here last night.  We’ve all been warned about him, and I guess, here’s yer warning as well.  Sometimes he doesna want to stay at home, so he finds some excuse to bring him up here.  Must be looking for a castle lass to bed,” said Fiona.

      “He’s a sweet talker, that ‘un,” Saffron added.  “Best keep clear of him, lass.  He will make ye feel like yer the only lass in the world, just so he can have yer maidenheid.”

     Laoghaire felt nauseated and could barely keep her tears in until she was able to race to the privy, where she lost her breakfast and then sat and sobbed.

☆☆☆☆☆

     That was the one time she had anticipated a wedding announcement, Laoghaire thought, looking sadly at the happy young couple.  Hugh had asked her father for her hand, but there were no happy announcements, and by the time Simon MacKimmie had proposed, her da was gone.

     She looked across the great room at Jamie.  They were married now.  Despite the Sassenach telling her that she’d wasted her money on that stupid ill wish and that she would never have Jamie, he was hers now.  Hers, and the Sassenach was gone. 

      “Will ye come to bed, Jamie?” she asked, standing up.  His eyes met hers with curious bewilderment.  She was announcing her intention to bed him in front of the whole family?  She could see the entire thought process parading across his face, from confusion to acceptance, to mild anticipation.

     It was truly a shallow reason to take her husband to bed, Laoghaire thought.  But when Jenny changed their sheets in the morrow, she would not see signs of a cold wife—separately wrinkled sheets, and a fresh white expanse. 

     Laoghaire would show that cold Sassenach bitch.

Chapter Text

     The human body was a disconcerting thing, Jamie thought, as he followed his golden-haired wife up the stairs at Lallybroch.  He had told Ian and Jenny he felt nothing for Laoghaire, which wasn’t a lie.  Then why was his cock progressively stiffening with each step he took?

     Jamie knew that this evening seeing Claire’s wedding dress had stirred up an unstoppable flood of memories of their wedding day, each with its own visceral response: the dress and her incredible beauty; her sad, scared eyes; the blood oath; the kiss, where she leaned into him, offering the earnest pressure of her lips and the warmth of her tongue, when suddenly he thought she might not be so sorry to be marrying him after all.

     Even now as he slowly climbed the steps, he could recall walking up the stairs to their chamber, the hoots and calls of the men behind him, and his cock leading the way.  He’d been grateful for his kilt and dirk then—the way the overlapping folds of his plaid and the heaviness of his blade in its sheath camouflaged his desire for her. 

     He had wanted her, more than anything he’d ever wanted in his life.  He could have taken her to bed the instant he entered their chamber, if that is what she had desired.  But he was afraid she hated him, that she resented having to marry him, and that bedding her was going to take much more than just the “persuasion” Dougal suggested she’d need.  He thought she must feel resentful—the way she couldn’t meet his gaze, swigging down glass after glass of whisky, even when he’d tried to set her at ease.  He had touched her arm so she would look him in the eyes, to assure her he didn’t intend to force himself on her.  Her wistful smile in response gave him hope.  She didn’t hate him; she was just afraid.

     After the fact, Jamie was grateful for her hesitance.  Surely, he could have bedded Claire right away, but their marriage was more than the mere joining of bodies.  They were friends first, and the hours of talking their wedding night, the sharing of stories, histories, and laughter made certain they joined spirits before they joined bodies.

     Seeing that flimsy shift in the trunk had evoked another cascade of memories: Claire’s adorably flushed face when she had suggested that it was late, and perhaps they should go to bed.  Just that phrase had been enough to instantly rouse his body again, to cause his heart to pound and blood to rush to his groin.  He was afraid she could tell, but she was looking at his face, meeting his eyes. She wasn’t afraid, finally, but he was terrified. Or maybe that wasn’t exactly true—she still held her whisky glass like a shield.  Whisky had been her protector already—staying soused the night before and the day of their wedding. That was the first item of her clothing he removed, Jamie thought with a faint smile, the way he’d taken the glass from her and set it aside.  She had looked nervous then, with nothing to hold, nothing between them.

     Then he had to focus on one thing at a time to get beyond the fear.  At least then Claire gave him directions, to unfasten her petticoats and untie that ridiculous pannier that kept them feet apart when sitting on the bed.  He’d known the shape of her body already, from having her in between his thighs for hours wearing that strange little white shift, and he’d felt her close to him before so it shouldn't have been a surprise to see the shape of her appear when the pannier was removed.  But it was not the same.

     Something in him wanted her completely bare, so he’d even untied the string of the lace choker she had on her neck as she faced away from him, the fingers of his hands resting on her silken skin, watching her breathe and stiffen as the end of the lace traced its way across her breasts.  When she turned back to him, something had changed in her expression.  She looked…trusting.  She even smiled, when untying her corset took forever.

     And then it was done, and Claire stood before him, looking up at him, her eyes as bare as her body, only thinly veiled.

     He didn’t know what he should do, so he followed his desire.  Gauzy and draping, her shift revealed the true shape of her breasts, the darkened circles and tiny rise of her nipples.  He needed to touch her.  And she let him, as he caressed the slope of her neck down to her breast, and then parted the front of her shift to take her breast in his hand.  God, he had wanted her.

 

     Laoghaire stopped when they reached the long hallway, pulling him into an alcove.  The width of the alcove was blocked by her wide skirts, and she stared at him, pupils wide.

      “Here,” she said.  “Take me here.”

     Jamie wasn’t sure he’d heard her right, but his body was aching with need.  “Are ye sure, lass?”

      “I want you,” she said.  “Touch me.  Take me, now.”

     Jamie couldn’t place it, but Laoghaire’s words felt familiar.  Still, he was beyond ready.  He pressed his body against hers, taking her mouth with his.  Her face rose to him, she offered her tongue.  He pushed her skirt up, found her thigh, and traveled north with his hand.  Christ, she was wet.  She gasped at the touch of his fingers and her head dropped backward, revealing her neck.  The bare expanse was soft, the perfect place for his lips and tongue.  He was about ready to remove his belt and drop his kilt when she spoke.

      “I want your mouth on me.” 

     The last time Jamie had tried he’d been rewarded with a black eye, so he made certain he’d heard her correctly.  At Laoghaire’s nod, he moved her so she was leaning against the wall, and disappeared under her skirts, gripping her thighs with both hands to spread her legs slightly.  He wished he could hear her, but tasting and feeling her would do.  She was salty and soft and warm.     He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed giving a woman pleasure with his mouth, feeling his power to restrain his own desire and bestow bliss instead.

     Suddenly, Laoghaire’s legs clamped together, forcing him to stop.  He was about to emerge from under her skirts to ask her what was wrong, when he heard it.

      “Auntie Laoghaire, is all well wi’ ye?”  Wee Ian’s voice was beginning to drop, which meant that occasionally a high-pitched syllable would interrupt a sentence.

      “Yes, fine,” said Laoghaire.  “Just admiring the moon is all.”

      “The moon?”  Ian stepped forward, surprised.  “I didna think ye could see it tonight.”

     Damn, Jamie thought, struggling to keep from bursting into laughter and revealing himself.  If the lad tries to squeeze by to look out the window, he’ll run into my body.  Are my boots visible?

      “Did I say the moon?” Laoghaire attempted to sound casual.  “I meant the stars.”

      “Stars?”  Ian persisted.  “Have the clouds lifted?”  He pressed closer.  Jamie froze, willing himself not to make a sound.

      “Did ye need something, lad?” Laoghaire asked, the strain of the situation obvious in her tone.

      “Yes, Auntie, I did,” Ian said, shuffling his feet.  “Auntie Laoghaire, I wished to apologize.”  He sounded ashamed.  “I’m sorry for not being more of a gentleman and protecting my cousin.”

     It was odd to be under here, Jamie thought, but it was interesting to feel Laoghaire’s bodily reactions so close.  Her legs had been tensed and tight, and as Ian spoke to her, she relaxed slightly, leaning on one leg more than the other.

      “Oh, lad, thank ye,” Laoghaire responded.  “It’s just, when I was a lass, I was not always respected, and that makes me worry for Marsali.”

      “Well, I am sorry, Auntie,” the adorable lad concluded.  “And I willna do it again.  Ye can count on me to be Marsali’s protector in future.” 

     Oh, Jamie loved that boy.  He smiled even more as he heard Ian’s kindhearted offers.  “Are ye tired, Auntie?  D’ye feel well?  Can I help ye to yer room?”

      “I’m waiting for yer uncle,” Laoghaire responded.  “But thanks, lad.”

     Jamie heard the echo of Ian’s boots retreating down the hallway.  He waited for a moment before gently stroking Laoghaire’s leg, but he could tell the moment had passed.  He was still smiling under her skirts, though, when Laoghaire finally ushered him out.

     She gave him a hand and helped him to his feet.  His knees creaked slightly, and his back ached from being frozen in the cramped position under her skirts.  Jamie might be able to return to twenty-two in his mind, but his body was most definitely twice that age.

     They retreated to their room, and Jamie locked the door, turning, wondering if she would want him to continue to pleasure her after the interruption.  He moved to her, standing close, a question in his eyes.  He could already see the answer on Laoghaire’s face.

      “I’m sorry, James.  It’s just too…strange,” she said, apologetically. “I tried, but I dinna like it.  But I want you to…finish.” 

     Jamie had lost his erection with the interruption as well.  He didn’t know if he’d be able to get it back, but he knew it would hurt Laoghaire’s feelings if he didn’t. 

      “Well, let’s undress,” he said.  “And when the candles are out…”

 

     Claire’s breast in the palm of his hand.  If he could choose heaven, that would be a close second to holding Claire in his arms in the darkness, talking to each other, holding her close to his heart.

     Few moments in Jamie’s life stood out like that, his first virginal touch.  Oh, he had caressed and kissed a few other bosoms, heaped up above tight corsets.  But he had never felt a woman’s breast in his hand, the weight and warmth of it, the rise of the stiff nipple, a miniature replica of his own erection.

     He’d stepped forward, ready to take her right then, but Claire had stopped him.  “My turn,” she had said.  It surprised him.  Jamie had not even considered that she would want to touch him, but here she was, reaching for his belt and meeting his eyes as she jerked at his buckle, pulling his groin closer to her, her hand so close to his cock.  The thoughts it gave him!

     Claire surprised him several times that night, especially when she’d told him to take off his shirt.  He wanted to see her, but he wasn’t brave enough to remove her clothing completely or ask her to bare herself.  This was the one time she showed her experience, turning to him boldly, ordering him.

      “I want to look at you,” she had said.  She’d seen him before, seen his scars, touched him, healed him.  But she hadn’t seen all of him, not with his cock announcing his desperate need for her.  But he trusted Claire with his soul, and he knew he could trust her with his body. 

     She touched him then, and he realized that he had much to learn.  His skin felt like it was afire, There was so much more to bedding a woman than just putting himself inside her.  She made him brave enough to tell her what to do, and she had obeyed him when he said, “Well, then, fair’s fair.  Take off yours as well.”

     And then when Jamie saw Claire naked, bare and trusting, with a hunger in her eyes that matched his, if he thought he had wanted her before…oh, now he had to have her, couldn’t wait to sheath himself in her.

 

     The candles were snuffed by then, and Jamie’s body was ready.  He crawled in bed with his wife, touched her breasts a little, somewhat mechanically, and climbed atop her. 

     Her body was there, voluptuous and warm, but it wasn’t her he was making love to in his mind.

 

     Laoghaire could tell. 

     But it didn’t really matter, because she hadn’t been being herself anyway.

☆☆☆☆☆

     She could see what the girls meant after the confrontation in the kitchen.  Rather than being cursed by the ill wish, Jamie and Mistress Beauchamp seemed to be invigorated by it.  They were so smitten it seemed they could see none but each other, so Laoghaire was able to observe them easily.  Just as Fiona and Saffron had said, at mealtime they would be caressing each others’ hands under the table, or Jamie would be sneakily hiking up Claire’s skirts.  From the right angle, you could see Mistress Beauchamp’s face, a mixture of distracted bliss and bashful annoyance.

     One evening Gwyllyn came back and sang again in the hall, and Laoghaire found a place in a shadowy alcove where she could watch undisturbed.  Claire sat close to Jamie, and Laoghaire could see him looking down at his wife’s cleavage.  A casual viewer wouldn’t have noticed it, but Laoghaire was no casual viewer.  The candles guttered low, and in the growing darkness, Jamie’s hand crept up Mistress Beauchamp’s bodice until his hand edged over and plucked at the edge of her shift. 

     Mistress Beauchamp shivered uncontrollably, and turned to stare at Jamie, who flushed like a naughty schoolboy caught in his misbehavior.  But then she had arched her eyebrows, and taking him by the hand, led Jamie out of the Hall.

     Laoghaire followed at a distance, grateful for her leather-soled house shoes.  She was certain she would be stopped from seeing their intimacy by the door of their bedchamber, but they didn’t appear to be waiting until they got there to begin.  Jamie grabbed Claire by the arms and pressed her up against the wall, pinning her with his mouth.  Claire wrestled away from him and ran, laughing, down the hallway. 

     But then she turned, and pulled him into an alcove.  Backed up against the wall, Claire ordered, “Here.  Take me here.”

     Jamie looked left and right, down the darkened hallway; Laoghaire pressed herself back into the shadows, praying that he wouldn’t see her.

      “I want you,” Claire said.  “Touch me.  Take me, now.”

     Laoghaire could see the muscles in Jamie’s back and arms as he forced himself forward, pressing his body against Claire’s, taking her mouth with his.  Claire wrapped her hand around Jamie’s neck and entangled her fingers with his hair.  Jamie used his hands to pull her skirt up, and Laoghaire could only guess what he was doing, as Mistress Beauchamp gasped and dropped her head backward, revealing her neck.  Jamie appeared to be ravenous, the way he licked and bit her, Laoghaire thought.  She felt roused just from watching them.

      “I want your mouth on me,” she heard the Sassenach say.  For a moment, Laoghaire felt confused.  Where exactly was Jamie’s mouth right now?

     And then she saw what Claire meant, as Jamie knelt before her, handed Mistress Beauchamp the bulk of her skirts, and began to…

     Young Laoghaire’s sense of propriety had finally been reached.  Was such a thing done?  Or was this a foul bastardization of the act of love, created by witches, demanding that their men bow down and worship them? Wide-eyed, she had turned away and crept down the hall.  She was haunted for hours afterward.

☆☆☆☆☆

     Such things were not done often, Laoghaire had discovered, as neither Hugh nor Simon had ever considered such a thing, and she wasn’t about to ask.  Having experienced it now, she felt like it was strange and dirty, and wondered why it had made the Sassenach cry out in whimpers of pleasure that echoed down the hall to Laoghaire’s ears as she quickly retreated away from them.

     Those days and nights planted the seed of bitterness, Laoghaire thought.  A seed that took root in an angry heart.  She was angry.  Angry at Geillis Duncan, for promising something, taking her money and not delivering results.  Angry at Claire for stealing Jamie, for looking down on her as if she were a child, for bewitching her man.  Angry at Jamie, for allowing himself to be bewitched. 

     Even now she still felt angry at Claire, for setting such a standard of wantonness that Laoghaire could never, and would never want to, reach.

     But Jamie was her husband now.  And her husband currently lay next to her with his arm over her waist.  He had kissed her and said, “Thank you, lass,” before falling asleep.

     And the Sassenach witch was dead.

     But not gone, a little voice in Laoghaire’s head whispered as she fell asleep.  Not gone.