“Christ,” Jamie muttered next to Claire at the ship’s railing, his hands tightening sharply on the wood and his knuckles going white.
“What?” Claire peered at the small skiff with its passengers approaching their ship, the wind already filling its sails and pulling them out to sea and away from the coast. She recognized Fergus and there seemed to be someone else next to him—perhaps two bodies—but his position blocked her sight of them.
Jamie smacked his hand on the rail and stormed to where the rope and slat ladder was being lowered for the last few passengers to climb aboard. Claire followed and heard Jamie’s voice take on a surprisingly gentle tone considering his anger and frustration a moment before.
“Hold tight now,” he called and reached down. “Keep yer mind on what ye’re about—one foot, then the other. There ye are, I’ve got ye now.”
The small and wary body of Joanie MacKimmie was hauled aboard and she wound up securely in Jamie’s arms, though whether he had pulled her to him or she had thrown herself at him for comfort was unclear.
Marsali MacKimmie was close behind her younger sister, a sackcloth bag secured to her back and Fergus ascended last, similarly laden with hastily packed belongings. Jamie settled Joanie back on the deck letting her continue to cling to his side as he leveled his gaze at Fergus and Marsali.
“What do ye think ye’re doing here?” He fought to keep his voice level as the ladder was raised and the ship pulled further to open water. “Dragging the wee lass with ye too? No,” he shook his head firmly and turned to seek the captain. “We’re turning around and taking ye back. Yer mam will have me strung up if she thinks I had any part of this.”
Joanie began to cry quietly with fear but didn’t appear sure of where to find the comfort she craved. Marsali had an arm around Fergus while his rested on her shoulders pulling her close.
Claire was speechless as she stood a few feet away watching Marsali turn to glare defiantly at Jamie while Fergus swallowed, resolute but sheepish. Joanie was a frightened mess with tears trickling down her sallow cheeks and her eyes quickly growing red.
“Ye cannae send me back,” Marsali challenged Jamie. “For one, ye’re no my father and by yer own choice and two, Fergus and I are married. Where he goes, I go and where I go, Joanie goes.”
“Married?” Jamie blinked. “And when did ye manage that?”
“We were handfast this morning, Milord,” Fergus explained with a happy smile and a glance to Marsali.
“No,” Jamie said again as though simply saying it aloud would be enough to make it so. “And even if ye were properly wed, it isna an excuse for dragging yer sister halfway across the world on a whim!”
“Jamie,” Claire interrupted, scolding. Marsali’s sharp and accusing gaze fell on her but Claire’s attention was focused on Joanie. “Hello Joan,” she said quietly. “My name is Claire. You look like you’re feeling unwell.”
Joanie nodded still holding tight to Jamie who was also beginning to look green and had beads of sweat beginning to break out on his forehead.
“Aye. Captain!” he called. “Make for shore, if ye please!”
The captain laughed. “Even if I did, we’re too far underway. We’ll stop in Ireland for final provisions but that’s the best I can promise.”
Joanie vomited on the deck and her quiet tears became loud and embarrassed sobs.
Claire remembered a time when she’d been called to come pick Brianna up from school because she’d been ill. Brianna had been nine and fluctuated between a clammy and sickly pallor and a redness that seemed to leech from her hair into her face. When they were finally at home and Claire had Brianna tucked into bed, the girl had finally broken down sobbing over how she’d been sick in front of everyone and some of the boys had laughed at her while the girls had screamed in horror.
“It’s all right,” Claire said again in a warm and soothing tone, this time to Joanie.
Reflexively reaching to comfort and check the child for symptoms it might be more than just seasickness, she froze when Marsali shouted, “Dinna touch her ye English witch!” and rushed forward. Joanie began to cry harder.
“Marsali.” Jamie’s tone was cold and sharp. “Ye’ll no speak to Claire like that if ye intend to remain on this ship.”
“Please, ma chére ,” Fergus soothed. “Milady will not harm her. She is a healer and will help her to feel well again.”
Marsali clenched her teeth and glared at Jamie but stayed still while Claire returned to tending Joanie.
“Why don’t we let them talk and I’ll help get you cleaned up,” Claire suggested, glancing at Jamie who nodded his thanks. “Then I can give you something to settle your tummy and you can lie down and rest a bit.” She extended her hand for Joanie to take.
The girl looked at it a moment then looked up at Jamie. He smiled and gave her a nod of encouragement. But while she no longer looked wary about Claire, there was still something obviously bothering her. He bent himself to her level and whispered, “What is it, lass?”
“I… I’m sorry about the mess,” she whispered back, her eyes darting to the pile of sick on the deck. Tears spilled silently from her eyes again.
“DInna fash, Joanie,” Jamie assured her, keeping his voice down. “I’ve made a mess or two like that myself and am like to do so again before long. On deck up here isna so bad as down below. There ye dinna want it on the floor but up here, they’ll just drop a bucket to the sea, splash it across the boards and it’ll be clean again. Now go on and get ye some rest. I’ll be along to check on ye as soon as I’ve talked more wi’ yer sister.”
Joanie looked a bit relieved as she let Claire lead her to the stairs that led them below deck and to the first of the two cabins.
“Have a seat and I’ll be back in a moment,” Claire urged the young girl before departing only long enough to fetch some fresh water and blankets. “Rinse your mouth out with this,” she instructed Joanie, handing her a cup and then following with the bucket for her to spit into.
“Thank ye,” Joanie murmured when she’d finished.
“And do you feel like you’ll be sick again? Or has it passed?” Claire asked getting onto her knees so she could examine Joanie’s pupils and verify she wasn’t feverish. Then she wet a cloth and began wiping the girl’s face clear of tears and snot. Her face was red from the crying and nerves.
“It’s… gettin’ better… I think,” Joanie responded. “Is… is Da very angry do ye think? He cannae send us back, can he? I saw them handfast.”
“I’m not sure it’s the handfasting he’s most worried about,” Claire explained, moving to sit on the berth and bracing herself so she didn’t hit her head as the ship rolled with the swell. “I think he’s worried about what your mother will have to say.”
Joanie’s lip trembled and more tears welled in her eyes.
“Tha’s why we had to come,” she whimpered. “Mam’s gone. The soldiers took her… for shooting Da.”
“Someone turned over the pistol and told ‘em what Ma’d done to ye,” Marsali explained to Jamie having trouble meeting his eye for the first time since boarding.
“Marsali, ye must ken it wasna me nor would Claire. I didna want you and Joanie to suffer for yer mam’s mistakes,” Jamie hastily assured her, “not when her anger toward me wasna wholly unjustified.”
“We know, Milord. It was Mistress Murray,” Fergus said.
“Jenny?” Jamie’s brow darkened with confusion.
“Aye, Milord. When she heard of her son… she believed it was punishment for her interference…” he glanced down at Marsali who was staring at their shoes on the deck. “She thought that if she could take steps to make it right, we would be rewarded in finding young Ian and bringing him safe home.”
Jamie rolled his eyes, both frustrated with Jenny and feeling her pain alongside his own guilt. Hadn’t he had similar thoughts about using the money to pay Laoghaire and keep Claire for himself.
“I see what ye mean, Marsali. Ye couldna leave her behind and if yer mam is… well, I understand how ye wouldna want to stay to be gawked at and pitied. But handfast or not, the two of you are not sharing a berth till ye’re properly wed,” Jamie pressed. “And tha’s no like to happen till we reach Jamaica. So, Marsali, you and Joanie will share a cabin wi’ Claire and Fergus will bunk wi’ me.”
“What? Ye want me to share a room with the hoor that drove Ma to land herself in an English prison?” Marsali frowned and shook her head. “I’ll no do it. I’ll sleep aboard deck in the open before I sleep in the same room as her.”
Jamie stepped closer, looming over his stepdaughter. “Wi’ yer mam gone ye could have stayed with her kin in Scotland but ye chose to come here and put yerselves under my care as yer father by marriage.”
“I chose Fergus,” Marsali snapped taking her own step closer, peering up at him from under a judgemental brow she inherited from her mother.
“And Fergus has been a son to me for many years now—to me and Claire,” Jamie smiled in challenge. “Like it or not, Claire’s a mother to ye now so ye might want to try makin’ the best of it. She’ll be a part of yer life so long as ye choose to be here. But…” he stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest, still smiling. “If ye wish to disembark when we stop for final provisions and make yer way back home from there, ye’re free to do so.”
Marsali’s face screwed up with anger and frustration but she said nothing more, just turned on her heel and stalked toward the bow of the ship. Fergus shot an apologetic smile at Jamie but before he had turned to follow Marsali, his resignation and joy had started to reassert their control of his expression.
Jamie had a difficult time begrudging the lad his happiness, even if he found it thoroughly surprising that Marsali had been the one to capture his affections—and vice versa. He watched as Fergus went to stand beside Marsali at the rail and slipped an arm protectively around her. Marsali tilted her head to rest on his shoulder and they looked so peaceful and content.
Jamie swallowed, knowing he wouldn’t be able to maintain his anger and frustration for long—certainly not as long as Marsali with Laoghaire’s blood running in her veins. He was ashamed he felt so little regret over learning Laoghaire had been imprisoned and knew part of it was the unexpected joy of having the lasses with him again. He only hoped Claire didn’t mind. How would she feel being asked to help him raise Laoghaire’s children? She’d been so hurt seeing Joanie that first night. His stomach churned dangerously at the thought of seeing that betrayal creep back into her eyes when she looked at him.
Hurrying to the railing, Jamie leaned over and was sick.
Claire had calmed and reassured Joanie as best she could with so little insight into what had happened. She had gotten the girl to lie down in the berth before turning her attention to brewing some ginger tea to help settle her own stomach, though its knots were more the result of growing anxiety and uncertainty than from the rise and fall of the ship.
Joanie had fallen asleep when Jamie knocked on the cabin door and peeked his head in to check on them.
Claire was on her feet in a moment pouring him a cup of tea and urging him to sit down.
“You look positively green,” she whispered.
He grimaced as he swallowed the tea and set the cup down. “I’ll do,” he assured her unconvincingly then stared at Joanie curled up in the bunk. She was perhaps the only person aboard who could comfortably fit in it.
“She’s settled down a bit,” Claire informed him. “She’s… quite upset about what happened to her mother. Is it true? She’s been arrested?”
“Jenny,” Jamie said with a nod. “Trying to balance the scales of her actions. Marsali was right to bring her with them. Time away will help defuse the taint from Laoghaire. I’m just sorry it all came to this.”
“Well… as far as the list of people who might bear blame for all that has happened, I think the only thing I’m certain of is that Joanie and Marsali are not on it.” She looked over to the little girl sleeping in the berth, her cheek resting on her palm and the blankets cuddled to her chest. “It’s not their fault that Laoghaire is their mother.”
“We had our differences, Laoghaire and I— many of them,” Jamie murmured also watching Joanie’s slumber. “But I must say she always did what was best for her children.”
“With the recent exception of shooting you and getting herself arrested,” Claire jested, though she couldn’t dull the sharp, resentful edge of her words.
“With that exception, aye,” Jamie conceded then turned to Claire, pausing to gather himself before continuing. “I ken the vow I swore to Laoghaire when I wed her is… invalid… but it was a vow to more than just her… it concerned her girls as well. That one… I cannot consider it similarly invalid. They need me now, to watch out for them and to provide for them. With all I’ve done… I cannot turn my back on them—nor do I want to.”
Claire blinked and swallowed, glanced at Joanie then back to Jamie. Her tone was soft and warm as she reached across the small table to put her hand on Jamie’s. “Nor should you. They are not their mother and you’re right—they need you now.”
“They could use a mother too,” Jamie said with a question in his voice.
She chuckled with disbelief and shock. “You can’t be serious, Jamie… They hate me.”
“Joanie doesna hate ye and Marsali… she’ll come around.”
Claire shot him a look that left voicing her every doubt on that count unnecessary. Then she sighed. “I don’t suppose we have much choice in the matter.” She rose and crossed to help raise him from his chair. He was beginning to look decidedly ill and like he regretted drinking the tea. “However much Marsali may try to cast me as the evil step-mother, I shall endeavor to kill her with kindness.”
Jamie followed her guiding hands as she led him to the hallway and next door to his own berth. “Whether it be with kindness or no, I should think killing her would only secure ye that position.” He lay back on the bedding and gripped the edge of the berth to steady himself but groaned as the ship lurched over a steep swell.