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 were dark-haired twins Michael and Janet Murray, Janet arguing away with Wee Ian, like they were play-acting the childhood of their feisty mother and hot-headed uncle. There was willowy teenager Kitty as well. 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, Michael 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 from the company and chatter, 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; but he was beyond ready for someone to call him Daddy.