A breeze carried my words overtop the horse’s head, bearing them toward the neat stone walls just visible in the distance; and having said it, I felt something—yes—relief shudder down my spine. Despite the years, despite everything…it did still feel like my home. Divinely-sent or mere desperation, I took the reassurance with all my heart, and kicked my mount hard toward Lallybroch; toward home.
It had been a last-minute decision, to come here, instead of to Edinburgh. In fact, I’d been fully through the stones and in Inverness boarding the carriage that would deliver me south! Then something clicked into place and before I even stopped to question myself, I was exchanging the coach fare for a horse and saddle, wondering why Lallybroch hadn’t been my plan from the start.
Well, no—I knew exactly why. Because the idea of going anywhere but directly into Jamie’s arms had seemed ludicrous.
He was ALIVE. And so close—I was *so close* to having him again, it was like a physical pain in my chest. the longing—the wanting….
But *think*, Beauchamp, I’d counseled myself in those vital seconds on the mounting block: a visit to Lallybroch will yield me *actual* information as to the whereabouts of those arms; a far cry more reliable than your hunch from a two-hundred year old artifact! I mean, *good Lord*, consider all the variables, here! Perhaps he’s moved to new premises across town! What if he’s abandoned his nom de plume for another and there is no longer an A. Malcolm printing in Edinburgh? What if he’s been so successful in his business, he’s moved to London to join a larger firm? Hell, what if he’s decided to make his fortune as a fur trader in Canada, for heaven’s sake??
Yes, the closer I got to Lallybroch, the more confident I was in the wisdom of my sudden volte-face. Even overlooking the more remote possibilities that may have taken him out of Scotland, a quick chat with Jenny and Ian could easily save me days or even weeks of roaming around Edinburgh asking after red-headed printers; and as an unarmed woman traveling alone and with limited funds, this was more than prudent, no matter how you looked at it.
I mean, surely, even if he did still occupy the shop in Carfax Close, he would visit home occasionally….
….and there was always the chance that even NOW, he might be…he COULD be…
Don’t get ahead of yourself, Beauchamp. One leap at a time.
I dismounted and led the horse on foot for the final approach up the road toward the house, as much for my own pounding heart as for the beast’s sake. Dear God…almost exactly the same as I left it twenty years ago.
The trees overhanging the dooryard; the sounds of cooking and chatting and children playing from inside the house; even the customary pack of dogs that heralded my arrival through the archway, howling and barking as befitted their time-honored station…Yes, it was home. My home.
“What do you think, lads?” I laughed softly, holding out my knuckles for the slobbering, leaping home guard to sniff. “Do I pass muster?”
Apparently I did, for they all began vying for my attention. I obliged happily, scratching behind ears with my free hand and murmuring dog-lover-nonsense to each of them in turn, wondering if goodwill and trust could be passed down canine generations.
“A good morning to ye, Mistress!”
I turned to see a stableboy of about ten hurrying across the dooryard toward me. A stranger, to my eyes, but with a warm, friendly manner, he bobbed a quick bow.
“Good morning!” I replied with a grateful smile as I relinquished the horse. “And what’s your name, lad?”
At my words, he jumped and uttered a gaelic curse, his reaction so violent that he dropped the reins and caused the horse to rear. It wasn’t until I’d reclaimed the beast—nearly getting my teeth knocked in— and turned panting back to the boy, to his pale and frightened face, that I realized what had been his curse: sassenach. Said not in affection, the way Jamie had from the beginning, and Jenny and others had picked up from time to time in jest: but in fear and disgust. The vehemence of it felt like a blow to my gut, and for the first time, I felt afraid, ludicrous as it was to be bowed before a young boy. Before, I’d been only suspicious to Highlanders. Now, after Culloden, after the Clearances—I was, objectively, the enemy.
The boy, to his credit, recovered with a good show of politeness, retrieving the reins and offering a murmured apology. He did *not*, though, offer his name. “Are ye expected at the house this morn, Mistress?” (Do you have a reason for being here, or are you an English informant fixing to burn the place down?)
“I’m an old friend of the family,” I said, with a concerted confidence and ease that I hoped would reassure him, “but, no, I’m not expected.”
In fact, I could say with absolute confidence that I would be the least expected person ever to darken Lallybroch’s door.
“Oh, aye,” the boy said. Polite. Wary. “If you’ll just follow me, Mistress, I’ll put awa’ the horse and then show ye inside until someone will be in to receive ye.”
My heart thumped and my hope screamed piercingly in my ears:
Jamie. Jamie. JAMIE.
My hands were shaking. I had to swallow and moisten my mouth to get the words out as I followed behind the boy toward the hitching post. “I beg your pardon, but does the…?” Nothing to lose, at this point, I suppose. “Is the laird in residence?”
“Mr. Jamie?” the boy asked over his shoulder, clearly surprised by the inquiry. “Aye, ‘course.”
He was here.
I nearly fainted where I stood.
Thank God!! Thank GOD I trusted my gut and came here instead of going to Edinburgh.
Jamie was near. My Jamie could be HERE at any moment!
God, what will—
“But he’s no’ to home just at present,” the boy added hastily. “Went up to Broch Morda for the day.”
“Oh! Oh, that’s—that’s quite alright.” In fact, it was a relief. I would have time to think, to plan; to prepare myself.
Dear God, Jamie!
“Shall I send a message after him to let him know you’ve business wi’ him, Mistress?”
It should be alone, when we met — to give him time to react in private — Lord, would he faint? Scream? Regardless, I did not want to be responsible for giving Jamie a premature cardiac arrest.
“That’s very kind, lad, but no, I’ll wai—”
“It’s Jamie Murray, he means.”
I whirled, my heart crushed with realization before I even finished the turn. Of *course* Jamie Fraser was no longer the laird; I’d known that; I KNEW that.
But even the ache of my desperation for Jamie vanished for that moment as I took in the sight of the woman standing in the open kitchen doorway. Older, weathered, just like me–but the same. My eyes filled with tears of joy and love and relief and I gave a little sob as I made to run to her, to embrace her.
But I was halted by a cold voice I didn’t recognize. “He’s no’ here.”
I stared as a dead person stares, looking but without conscious thought. It was a stranger speaking, a hostile stranger showing not a scrap of surprise or pleasure at my appearance. And her eyes—God, those blue eyes so very like his—staring me down— so bone-chillingly cold —
No, not just distant…..
Jesus, I wanted to whimper, Don’t you recognize me, sister? It’s ME…
But she did recognize me; and she did not like what she saw.
I braced my shoulders. Met her eye. And tried not to let my wounds show.