Chapter 1: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
— Brianna —
“Fire that's closest kept burns most of all,” whispered Jamie, his voice hollow and disconnected.
Brianna watched her father’s blue eyes reflect the flaming inferno before them. They were glossed over and out of focus, as though he wasn’t seeing the fire, at all, but something far beyond.
“I don’t think this is what Shakespeare meant by that line,” said Bree.
She turned to her brother who stood next to her. His eyes were filled with pain as he watched the last of his inheritance go up in flames. He’d already given up the Ransom family fortune when he declared his allegiance to the Americans, and now his last tie to the Dunsany family’s great wealth was burning to the ground.
Bree’s heart broke for him. He had nothing left...and neither did Lord John.
Jamie placed a large hand on John’s shoulder. She was uncertain if Jamie was trying to comfort John, or if he was holding him upright. John appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
Claire was looking over John’s wounds with an anxious restlessness. They were old injuries from days before when those bastards assaulted him unaware, but Claire needed something to keep her nerves at bay. Everyone made it out of the house without injury, so the skills Claire typically relied on to keep herself centered during catastrophe were being channeled into an inconsequential task. Any new wounds inflicted on John were clearly not of the body.
Bree looked over her own family once again. Thankfully, they were all safe. Roger and the children were huddled next to her, staring in disbelief. Mandy clung tight to her big brother’s hand.
Germain was trying to comfort a whimpering Fanny to little effect. He patted her awkwardly on the back as she covered her mouth in horrified shock. She shrieked and jumped back when the second level of the great house collapsed down onto the first.
Willie snapped out of his trancelike state and grabbed the panicking girl in his arms. Bree watched as her brother held the young girl to his chest, steadying her just like she’d seen her father do a dozen times before. Even as flames erupted before them, she couldn’t help but marvel at their similarities.
Roger’s arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her close. She looked to him with silent questions in her eyes. What were they going to do? Where were they going to go?
Roger nodded to Jamie. “I’m sure yer Da has already come up with a plan.”
It took a moment for Bree to remember her mother and father lost their home to a fire some years before. Thinking of the fine house they only recently finished building and the full life they still led, her nerves began to settle. Houses could be rebuilt; things could be replaced.
She bent down and wrapped her children in her arms. They were all alive, and that’s what mattered most.
As she held her babies tight, she noticed Lord John was no longer watching the blaze. He stared at the ground, his eyes nearly closed. A solitary tear ran down his bruised and battered cheek.
Who would do such a thing?
There was no doubt it was arson, seeing as how all the sheds and stables some distance away were also alight with flames. John and Willie both had enemies, John even more so than his son.
Claire took John’s hand in both of hers and squeezed in reassurance. Jamie moved in front of them—his hand still on John’s shoulder—and said quietly, “Trust me, mo charaid. I’ll take care of everything.”
John finally looked up and met Jamie’s eyes. He sighed deeply, his hot breath visible in the cold November air. He patted Claire’s hands with affection and told Jamie, “I know you will. You always do.”
And Brianna wondered who would soon meet their untimely end at the soot-stained hands of a vengeful James Fraser.
Chapter 2: Fire Closest Kept
“Passionate souls burn with a fire few can handle, but none can resist.”
- Mark Anthony
3 Weeks Previous
— Jamie —
Jamie didn’t know what was pulsing harder, his heart or his cock.
He was at least a week early for the family’s visit to his son’s plantation in Virginia; his eagerness to meet with John without a half dozen other eyes on them had him making excuses to set off ahead of everyone else. His plan was to sell his whisky to a distributor in Petersburg—a city recently liberated of its infestation of redcoats. He told his family he’d ride out a week early to handle business and then meet them back at the plantation after they arrived.
John was unaware of this spontaneous change of plans, and Jamie worried all his scheming would be for naught if the man wasn’t even home to receive him. The thought grew ever more troubling the more imminent Jamie’s arrival to his destination.
It had been five months since he’d last seen John. Five months since he heard his voice...touched his skin...felt his lips. It had been five months of fantasizing of their reunion.
As Jamie turned down the tree-lined road, he kept his eyes peeled for the large, white house John described in his letters. It came into view exactly as John depicted. Built in the same style as Riverrun with great pillars lining the façade—an obvious statement of established power and stability—Mt. Josiah was an impressive sight to behold.
Looking around the property as the horse-drawn wagon stopped in front of the house, Jamie noticed cracks in that carefully crafted façade...hedges untrimmed, a sow escaped from its pen, and a significant lack of slaves working the land. Mt. Josiah looked as though it had been abandoned months ago.
He sighed deeply, hoping John was handling the stress of Willie’s plans for his property as well as his letters intimated. Surely John would tell him if there were unforeseen problems.
He wondered if his friend was inside or off attending to the severely neglected land. There was a good likelihood William would be home if John was there, too, and Jamie was looking forward to seeing his son. The best Jamie could hope for was to spend an afternoon in the company of both men, catching up on the happenings at Mt. Josiah, and then spending the night alone with John, fulfilling a handful of the endless fantasies swirling through his mind over the last few months.
As he stared up at the house, fear and joy bubbled up in his gut. He tapped his fingers against his leg to steady himself and tried not to allow his hopes to run away with him. Disappointment was always a possibility; John could very well be out of town, for all he knew.
Try as he might to subdue his enthusiasm, Jamie took the stairs three at a time, reaching the top in only two strides. Before he could make his presence known, the door opened of its own accord.
“Jamie!” said a most welcome voice.
“John! It’s fine to see ye, mo charaid.”
John’s eyes were wide with wonder. He scanned the road to see if Jamie was as alone as he appeared.
“’Tis just me,” said Jamie. He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder at the whisky barrels in his wagon. “I’m only passing through. I’ll join the family next week when they arrive. I thought I’d stop by and see if ye’d care for a dram and quick match before I move on.”
The tightly controlled expression that usually graced John’s face was nowhere to be found. His smile was bright, showing both rows of pearly, white teeth. “It would be my pleasure.”
“Are ye sure I’m no’ interrupting anything?”
John shook his head. “No, not at all. The last harvest is just in, and we’ll begin making preparations for winter in a few days. It’s the perfect time for a visit.”
“We’ll be sure to assist ye wi’ whatever ye need when the family arrives.”
“I’d be ever grateful.”
Jamie restrained himself from peering into the house. “Is Willie home?”
“No. Not at the moment. In celebration of a successful harvest, he rode into town yesterday to meet with friends for some...amusements. I expect him home late tomorrow.”
“Amusements...aye.” Whores, more like.
With the impeccable posture of a life-long soldier, John stepped aside to open the door wide. He had one hand behind his back and the other inviting Jamie in. Jamie noticed how the position arched the line of his body with a quiet strength and surprising grace.
Never had Jamie been so affected by the male form, but there he stood, eyes lingering on John’s bottom, appreciating how his waistcoat curved over the swell of his buttocks.
“There’s no one else home. Just you and me,” John said quietly, noticing the direction of Jamie’s gaze.
“No’ even yer servants?”
“Not a one.”
Jamie paused with a raised brow. Willie’s plans for the estate seemed to be progressing smoothly. Jamie nearly asked him about it, but the sensual tone in John’s voice didn’t leave much in the way of attention for such things at the moment.
He nodded to his friend and walked past him through the doors. His arm grazed John’s chest as he moved, heat radiating off their bodies in the crisp November air.
Jamie heard the click of the lock behind him when he stopped in the middle of the foyer. Trying to keep some modicum of decorum, he stood completely still, his precariously restrained lust near impossible to contain.
“Shall I…” John started, no doubt intent on entertaining formalities.
Jamie turned and sprang on his lover, pulling the man into his embrace, mouths colliding brutally. They crashed back into the French doors, Jamie crushing him against the solid, heavy oak. His cock drove hard into the softest part of John’s abdomen. Their tongues tangled and their teeth clashed. The shadow of John’s beard scraped against Jamie’s weeklong scruff.
John hiked up Jamie’s kilt, grabbing handfuls of his arse. He rubbed his cock against Jamie’s thigh, demanding friction.
With an impatient need to be in the man, Jamie pulled at John’s breeks, ripping the clasp apart and shoving them down, the heat of John’ cock like fire against his leg. Even the moisture from its head scorched Jamie’s thigh.
Jamie grabbed him and lifted, dropping their bodies to the floor. On his knees, Jamie fought John’s boots and breeks, tearing them off and throwing them aside. He spread John’s legs and moved in between.
John’s cock stood at attention, balls tight against his body. Jamie reached into his sporran and grabbed a small jar Claire placed in there before he kissed her goodbye at the Ridge. He offered a whisper of gratitude to his wife as he unscrewed the lid and dipped his fingers inside.
John stared up at Jamie, stroking his own cock and massaging his balls. The sight was maddening, provoking fantasies of watching John abuse himself until he spilled his seed...spilled all over Claire...all over Jamie.
Jamie reached under his kilt and greased his cock quickly, groaning at the slick lubricant melting on steaming flesh. He scooped out more and rubbed it between his fingers before pressing them to John’s arse.
As he pushed his fingers in, he berated himself for not taking the time to fully appreciate the sound of John’s groans or the sensation of the smooth flesh inside. Such things were meant to be savored. But they’d have time to enjoy each other later. It had been months since Jamie bedded his friend, and all patience for tenderness was gone.
Jamie grabbed John’s hips and lifted, lining up his cock at just the right angle. He watched as he pushed in, faster and more impatient than he intended. A sweet, aching relief washed through him as the soft, slick insides of John clamped down, squeezing his cock. This. He missed this. He needed this.
He looked into his friend’s eyes and saw the same expression reflected back. John’s hand hesitated its stroking as his arse adjusted to being filled.
Their relief was soon overpowered by ravenous hunger. Jamie pulled back and hammered into John. Each stroke was gloriously tight and endlessly fulfilling. Their bodies slapped together noisily, louder still as perspiration built with exertion.
An aching desire for closeness had Jamie bending down to take John's mouth. His hands tangled in John’s hair, holding him in place for Jamie’s possession. John’s right hand stroked on and his left gripped Jamie’s arse urging violence.
Jamie was relentless in his assault, his mouth and cock punishing John for the audacity to part from him for so long. Jamie was determined to own the deepest parts of him, determined to fill him with his seed and leave him sore for a week until he’d be able do it all over again upon his return.
John’s body began to stiffen, and his stroking hand sped. Knowing John’s release imminent, Jamie rose up on his knees to watch, never slowing his pace. John’s eyes stayed on Jamie as his seed shot out like a filthy waterfall. Jamie’s hips thundered on, his eyes watching his friend overtaken with pleasure.
Craving John’s seed, Jamie ran his hand through the viscous fluid. He lifted it to his mouth and licked the musky flavor.
“Dear God in heaven,” John whispered, then yelled out as Jamie redoubled his efforts.
Jamie saw nothing but blazing light as his own seed began to spill. Pleasure erupted from his cock like a blast of a canon, spreading in all directions. His hips kept moving, desperate to hold onto the feeling, even as his body had nothing left to give.
Finally, he stilled. He noticed his lungs laboring for the first time, filling him with spunk-scented air. His eyes came into focus and his heart began to slow.
John stared at him with his lips slightly parted, sucking in uneven breaths. His eyes glittered with fascination, with affection, with adoration. Jamie’s body softened the longer he looked.
Growing awareness of their surroundings had Jamie pulling his eyes away. He looked around the grand foyer they just desecrated with their filthy act...an act he intended to repeat as soon as his body was up to the task. Perhaps they’d christen several more rooms in such a way before he had to leave.
His hands moved up and down John’s thighs that were still spread wide, feeling soft hair over smooth skin. He touched John’s half-hard cock, massaging in the creamy seed that shined in the natural light.
“I missed ye, John,” he said hoarsely. “I missed this.”
John breathed a laugh, “You have no idea.”
Jamie carefully pulled his cock out, eyeing John’s arse, reveling in the way his cock stretched the once tight, puckered hole.
John lifted onto his elbows, preparing to stand. Jamie bent down to kiss him again before he let him rise. Tenderness came easy now that unbridled lust was sated.
“I missed this, as well,” Jamie repeated quietly against his lips.
Grabbing him by the arm, Jamie helped John to stand. Jamie was still fully dressed and appreciated the ease of love-making in a kilt. John’s trousers, however, were sure to be ruined. Bare from the waist down, John bent over to retrieve his useless breeks.
Jamie noticed a glistening white liquid dripping down John’s leg. He stepped forward to touch it, tracing up its path and rimming the hole from where it came.
“Proud of your handiwork, Fraser?” said John, standing up straight and smirking.
“Aye.” Jamie turned John to face him, taking his mouth once more, his finger still behind John, rubbing his seed up and down the split of his arse. He pushed inside, wanting to feel the proof of his possession. “Aye,” he whispered again in a low rumble.
John rested his head on Jamie’s shoulder as he fingered him. He spoke halting and breathless, “I should really...get your horses...stabled...and your wagon secured.”
“No. I’ll take care of it.” He pulled his finger away. “Ye canna be running around yer property wi’out yer breeks.”
After one more kiss, Jamie reluctantly pulled away. He really did need to get his trunk into the house—leaving it outside was asking for trouble. He watched John gather his discarded boots before he turned to the door. “Wait for me in yer bedchamber,” he called over his shoulder. “Wear naught but a glass of whisky and my seed in yer arse, aye?”
A great smile spread across John's face. “As you wish.”
A half hour later, after his horses were watered and the wagon tended, Jamie carried his trunk upstairs and found John exactly where he instructed him to be...naked and sitting in his bed, holding a full glass of whisky and nothing else.
Jamie immediately stripped off his clothes and joined him in bed. He tasted the whisky on John’s lips before stealing the glass.
“All I want is to spend the day naked and drunk and filling every hole ye have.”
John reached for the bottle on his nightstand and refilled the glass Jamie just drained. “When I awoke this morning in an empty house, I never expected to hear such poetry before tea.”
They emptied another two glasses together before Jamie set it aside and reached for John. He pulled the man over him, spreading John's legs astride his own. John’s hands moved up and down Jamie’s chest, fingers running through his hair and pinching his nipples.
Their mouths connected, kissing deep. Their tongues danced slowly, taking their time to reacquaint themselves with an old friend. In truth, it was a kiss like they’d never shared before, soft and lazy, full of desire and affection.
“How was your journey?” asked John as Jamie kissed down his neck.
“Long.” Jamie spoke against his skin. “Ye’ve no idea the countless sinful thoughts I had along the way. They seemed to stretch out the road longer than it had any right to be.”
Jamie kissed down John’s chest to his nipple, taking it into his mouth, flicking the tight little bud with this tongue. John gripped his head, fingers tangling in his hair.
“Have you fulfilled any of your fantastical thoughts thus far?”
“Aye. But when one gets fulfilled, ten more spring up in its place.” Jamie looked up into John’s eyes, his face serious to convey the depth of his agony. “Five months, John. It has been five month of dreaming of ye. We’ve no’ even scratched the surface of my depraved thoughts, and every moment I’m wi’ ye, that list only grows.”
“Five months,” John laughed. He kissed Jamie’s forehead softly.
Jamie realized five months of agonizing separation was nothing to the decades of John’s torment of unrequited love. Memories of the loss of Claire for twenty years pierced Jamie’s heart. To think of another decade on top of that was unbearable. He desperately wanted to make it up to John, though he knew it impossible. But still, he supposed he could start somewhere.
“Get on yer knees, Grey. Put yer cock in my mouth.”
John didn’t need telling twice. He rose up quickly and presented himself, already rising with need. John grabbed his cock by the base and brought it to Jamie’s mouth, threading his other hand through Jamie’s hair. John traced Jamie’s lips with the moist tip until Jamie licked the sensitive underside of his head.
Jamie gripped John’s bum, urging him closer. He pulled John’s cock between his lips and sucked deep.
John hissed a breath and pulled out. “I’m not sure my virility is capable of another climax so soon after the last,” he warned.
“Just give me whatever ye have, man, seed or no’.”
John nodded and grabbed Jamie’s face delicately between his hands. He pressed his cock back between his lips and slowly began thrusting into his mouth. Jamie pulled in his cheeks and sucked deep, licking down the base and over the head as it passed by. He suppressed the reflex to gag and sputter when John’s cock hit the back of his throat—he had a new appreciation for his wife’s skill in the act. He forced himself to relax and suck harder, determined to milk John’s seed.
John gripped Jamie’s hair, pinning his head back as he increased his pace. The look in John’s eyes was one of pained focus and determination. Jamie massaged John’s balls, eager to feel their tightening before peak.
After long minutes of trying, John huffed a breathless laugh and dropped back down to Jamie’s lap. “The heart is willing…” said John, defeated.
“Aye. We’ll have a go again later.”
John leaned back, eyeing Jamie with an amused and baffled expression.
“What?” asked Jamie.
“I’m just...in shock, to be frank. I just stuffed your mouth for the last fifteen minutes, and you’re telling me you want to do it again later? It’s not a reality I’d ever considered plausible.”
Jamie chuckled with him, running a hand over John’s chest and down his abdomen. “Neither did I.”
Their cocks met where John sat astride Jamie, both appendages stood erect, side by side, like old friends catching up after a long absence. Jamie took them both in one hand and began lazily stroking.
“You will be the death of me, Fraser.” John sighed heavily and closed his eyes. “Pure exhaustion and dehydration.”
“Nah. I’ll keep ye alive by feeding ye seed and whisky. What else d’ye need?”
John laughed, “I’m an Englishman of birth. I must stop for tea at some point...or possibly brandy.”
“Perhaps ye just need the proper motivation.”
“And you don’t think this is motivating enough? Good Lord, I told you I was willing to die for it.”
“Aye, weel, I might have a better idea to keep ye going than tea. Where d’ye keep yer chessboard?”
John laughed. “Downstairs. And how is playing chess supposed to help with my stamina?”
“’Tis no’ the game, but the stakes that’ll give ye proper motivation.”
“Aye,” Jamie’s voice was low and raspy. Jamie felt John twitch in his slowly stroking hand.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Hmphm. Anything ye’d like...if ye win.”
John nearly choked. “Anything?” He narrowed his eyes. “Are you saying you’d do anything I want?”
“If ye win. And I dinna intend on losing.”
“And what will you have me do if I lose?”
“Och, I’m a simple man. Nothing too perverted…” he hesitated, “or at least none so vile. I dinna want to hurt ye.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“I dinna ken quite yet. Perhaps I’ll bend ye over a piece of furniture and ha’ my way wi’ ye...or maybe make use of that tongue of yers.”
“You know,” said John, pulling away and rising out of bed with a smirk, “I’ve beat you a fair few times over the years. Your winning is not a foregone conclusion.”
“And what would ye have me do if ye’re the victor?”
John walked away to retrieve the board. He stopped at the door and turned with darkness in his pale, blue eyes. “You’d better ensure you win, Jamie. I don’t think you’re ready for what I intend to do.”
An hour later, Jamie lay flat on his back with three more shots of whisky down his throat and the first victory in his hands. He was panting heavily and grasping John’s hips. John was in the process of slamming his arse down repeatedly on Jamie’s cock, riding like the expert horseman Jamie knew him to be.
He rode until Jamie climaxed, then jerked his cock until he spilled all over Jamie's chest.
“I might need to lose more often,” John said, sucking in heavy breaths. “I quite like you covered in my spunk.”
Jamie slapped John arse firmly, “And I like ye filled wi’ mine.”
John dismounted and lay down next to Jamie. He propped himself up with his arm and watched Jamie run a finger through his seed with amusement. He brought the finger to his mouth, sucking off the creamy fluid.
“Dear God, when you do that...” John bent down and kissed Jamie’s lips. Jamie pulled their bodies together, spunk spreading all over.
John sighed heavily. “If only I could spend the rest of my life in this bed.”
“It would be a fine thing….though, we’d run out of whisky.” Jamie retrieved the glass from the nightstand and filled it back up.
“Heaven forbid. Perhaps we could entreat Claire to bring us more when she arrives?”
“Aye,” Jamie’s heart warmed at the thought of his wife joining them. He gave John his glass.
“I see she made use of the almonds I sent her.”
“Aye,” Jamie growled. “She put me to work grinding them up for her. My elbow still aches from the task.”
“It was certainly worth the effort.”
“She misses ye, ye ken. If it wasna for Fanny and Germain, she’d be here wi’ me now.”
“I’ve missed her, as well. Achingly so.”
“She’s worrit about ye.” Jamie trained his eyes on John, intent on perceiving any discomfort. “She kens what happens to people disrupting the status quo in these times.”
John’s lips curled into a tight, forced smile. He handed the glass back to Jamie. “I do enjoy when you speak Latin.”
“Claire is just lovingly concerned for my welfare. There's no need to worry.”
“Ye’ve no’ been having any problems, then? No one’s causing ye trouble?”
“Are you sure Claire is the one worried about me? Everything is fine, as I said. There have been a few words of vitriol here and there. Nothing of significance.”
“John,” Jamie said sternly, “ye’ll tell me if someone’s harassing ye, aye? Do I need to pay someone a visit?”
John rolled his eyes. “In case you’ve forgotten, I was a soldier most of my life. I can handle a few disgruntled plantation owners fussing over how I run this property.”
“Aye. And I was a general in the army. It wouldna do ye any harm to let me have words wi’ 'em.”
“Come now, Jamie. I know this sort of life is new to you,” he pointed between their two naked bodies, “but the last thing we need is for you to go addressing every verbal slight against me with the passion of an avenging lover.”
“Hmphm.” Jamie refilled his glass.
"I’ve not been overtly threatened…”
“Overtly?!” Jamie sat upright, as though ready to spring into action—the buzz of intoxication surprisingly dizzying.
“...so I’ll ask that you kindly let me handle my business without intervention. I’m quite capable, you know.”
“Hmphm!” Jamie sat back in a huff.
“Honestly, it’s the least of my concerns, at the moment.”
“The least? Who else? The loyalists?”
“Not so much anymore. Now that the English have been driven out of Virginia, I’ve heard little from them.”
“A quiet enemy is no less dangerous.”
“Yes, well, a traitor isn’t well received on either side. There is suspicion abound no matter what I do. You knew this when you asked me to change sides.”
“Aye. I ken what it means to be a traitor better than anyone.”
“Well, it’s not the loyalists nor the slave owners I’m concerned about...not right now, anyway. It’s the debt collectors.”
“Aye,” Jamie grimaced. “I'll be getting some money from selling the whisky. D’ye want me to make a payment to hold them off?”
“Fine! I'll keep my neb out...for now.”
“Yes, I can think of much better places for you to stick your...neb.”
Jamie snorted and sat back, sipping his drink once again. John rose up and began looking around for chess pieces that had been tossed aside in Jamie’s recent triumph.
“Wanting another go of it already?” Jamie asked. “Ye fancy my neb sae much, aye?”
“I intend on winning, Fraser...and this time I’ll be the one doing the sticking.”
Befuddled with drink and exhausted from the exertions that came with several more victories, Jamie—who usually slept flat on his back—fell asleep face down on John’s bed. He was unconscious for hours in a deep, restful slumber, until an involuntary shiver ran down his spine. His eyes cracked open to ensure all was well.
“Apologies,” whispered John. “Did I wake you?”
“Hmphm.” Lingering traces of John’s gentle caresses still tickled his back.
“Go back to sleep, Jamie. I’ll leave you be.”
“’Tis alright. I dinna mind yer touch.”
Jamie kept his eyes closed, but he heard John set a glass down on the nightstand before scooting his body in close. His hand resumed its gentle caresses across Jamie’s scars.
“The men who did this to you…” John whispered, “please tell me they’re dead.”
“And what would ye do if they werena?”
“I’d make them beg me to stop at only their backs.”
Gooseflesh rose as John’s hand traced the outline of his scars, from up to his neck, down to his bottom.
“’Twas one man, and he’s long dead. Culloden.”
“Was it you who killed him?”
“I dinna ken. It doesna matter whether it was or no'.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because he’s burning in hell and I’m living life full. I have you, John...and Claire...and my bairns. His ghost canna take anything from me I dinna give him.”
John’s breath was tight and uneven. Jamie could feel him containing his rage.
“Put him from yer mind, man. He’s no longer in mine.”
A few deep breaths later, and Jamie felt John’s lips on his back. It was a soft kiss of love and sympathy. Seemingly emboldened by Jamie’s acceptance of his affection, John kissed across the mutilated skin, leaving a trail of moisture in his wake. He kissed down to where the scars ended across the curve of his bottom...and his lips didn’t stop there.
John’s hands spread apart Jamie’s buttocks and kissed down the sensitive line. He licked deep, plunging his tongue inside.
“Christ!” Jamie groaned, thrusting his hips into the bed, wanting to bury his cock into something. God, he wished Claire was there.
John’s hands massaged Jamie’s buttocks as his tongue continued its assault. Jamie gripped his pillow tight, trying desperately not to rip it apart. His cock was aching and demanded yet another release.
Jamie rose up on his knees to abuse himself. John licked around the rim, making Jamie’s whole body quiver. He kissed down to Jamie’s balls and licked the tight, constricted skin. Jamie stroked on, ignoring the ache in his elbow from grinding Claire’s almonds.
John licked the sensitive skin from Jamie’s balls to his arse with a firm, flat tongue, then plunged it back inside. Jamie could hear the sound he was making—like a rutting boar—but couldn’t find it in him to care. John’s eager mouth was skilled and insistent, not allowing for shame amidst its waves of pleasure.
Jamie shuddered as his gut clenched, and his seed spilled on the sheets beneath him. John kept licking until Jamie collapsed face down on the bed once more.
John slowly kissed his way up Jamie’s spine, his cock as solid as a metal rod, trailing along Jamie’s leg as he moved. John buried his face in Jamie’s hair and wrapped his arms around him from behind. His cock was solid against his arse, though John made no move to remedy his obvious discomfort of unsated arousal.
Jamie wanted very badly for John to find his release in the same way he allowed Jamie. But a jolt of adrenaline had Jamie’s heart speeding instead of slowing as it should after climax. The proximity of John’s cock to his bottom had his mind and body in a state of hypervigilance.
It’s John, he told himself. It’s my John Grey.
“Oh, Jamie...” John breathed, starting to pull away. He must have felt Jamie’s tension beneath him.
“Wait,” said Jamie. He reached behind and held John close. A ghost couldn’t take anything from Jamie he didn’t give...and he wasn’t willing to give up John, not for the likes of Black Jack Randall.
Unbeknownst to John, Claire had been preparing Jamie for this act; she even had tools made by the smith—tools she claimed were for medicinal use. He supposed there was something healing in such things; they certainly made him feel better.
Eager to perform an act of reciprocity, he forced himself to push through his paralysis of nerves. He moved his hand down and reached back for John’s cock.
“Jamie,” John whispered, “you don’t have to. I don’t need this.”
“I ken. But I do.”
He took comfort in the sound of John’s voice and the familiar masculine scent of him. Jamie pressed John’s cock to the slit of his arse.
“Dear God,” John groaned. “The grease, Jamie. You can’t do this without the grease.”
John pulled away, and Jamie released a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
“Right,” John said, returning back behind Jamie. His warm body was a living contradiction, provoking safety and threat, need and avoidance. Jamie’s tension returned immediately; he was as stiff as the cock nudging against his arse. He held his breath, waiting for John to push inside...
John never did. Instead, he took his cock, slick and warm from the grease, and slid it smoothly up and down the slit of Jamie’s arse.
“John,” he sighed, “ye can put it inside.”
“When you’re ready.” He kissed him behind his ear. “This is enough for now.” He thrust his hips again. “This is more than enough.”
When Jamie tensed this time, it had nothing to do with caution. He squeezed John’s cock between his buttocks the way Claire had once done with her breasts.
John made the most ungentlemanly sounds in his ear, grunting and groaning with complete loss of propriety. He rose up on his knees and kept on. His hands were on Jamie’s ass, spreading his cheeks apart and then squeezing them back together, sliding his cock back and forth along the line.
Lying there in such a passive state, Jamie’s thoughts perseverated on how badly he wanted to give himself to his friend...how badly needed to be filled by him.
Claire would know how to help him.
John’s pace quickened, and his hands squeezed harder. His thrusts were rough and rhythmic, edging toward climax. Just as he spilled his seed, John pressed his cock to the entrance of Jamie’s hole. He didn’t push in, but he ran the tip around the rim, hot and slick with seed.
Jamie thought he’d lose his mind with need. “God, just put it in!”
John grunted, still in the throes of climax. Instead of his cock, he used a finger to do as Jamie asked.
Claire was always so gentle with him—her fingers delicate and efficient—and when she used her tools on him, she started slow, building his need... desensitizing him, she called it. John’s fingers were large and rough, and his pleasure-addled mind was incapable of caution. Jamie was grateful for it. Though incapable of another climax, he craved the feeling of fullness.
As their heart rates steadied and their lungs slowed, John lay down over Jamie and buried his face in his hair. He removed his finger and wrapped his arms around him once more.
Being embraced by a man was a novelty. For years, the only arms that held him were pearl white and small. John was firm and protective, his weight heavy on his back.
John spoke as he squeezed Jamie tight, his voice overwhelmed with affection, “I love you, Jamie. God help me how much I love you.”
Jamie turned in his arms and stared into his eyes, gray in the lack of light. He stroked John’s cheek softly, his scratchy beard rough on the pad of Jamie’s fingers. Their kisses were quiet and gentle in the still of the night.
John rested his head on Jamie’s filthy chest as they drifted off to sleep. The air smelled of hearth and intercourse and sweaty male bodies. Jamie looked to his right at the empty space in their bed, and his heart ached for the presence of Claire.
He wrapped an arm snugly around John and whispered in a quiet breath, “I love ye, too, mo charaid.”
The following morning, Jamie insisted John take him through the property and show him what needed to be tended. John, of course, had a thorough understanding of the land and its needs, and he’d already made a list of priorities that Jamie could find no fault in. John was, nevertheless, a most patient host who indulged Jamie’s anxious whims.
Jamie was planning on leaving for Petersburg as soon as they were finished, but John convinced him to stay for lunch. They prepared the horses and wagon for Jamie’s journey before returning inside for their meal.
Jamie watched John rummage through the pantry in an attempt to scrounge up a decent lunch. “Why have ye no’ offered a lass from town room and board to cook for ye? Ye’ve got me fearing for yer welfare, man. I dinna see how ye havena starved.”
“I probably should’ve hired someone, but…” John cut himself off and went back to searching for food.
A vague memory of something Claire said about John’s sometime cook—a wanderer who came and went as he pleased, both from John’s kitchen and his bed—flashed through his mind.
Rage flared in Jamie’s heart at the thought of John touching another man. His fists clenched and his jaw twitched as the images ran wild in his head.
John squatted down to grab salted meats from the bottom shelf. He grunted as he stood, legs weak from the day’s exertions. He laughed as he said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to walk straight for a month. I hope you’re proud of yourself, Fraser.”
If there was any bit of pride in Jamie at the moment, it was being suffocated by petty jealousy.
John’s eyes narrowed at Jamie when he didn’t get the response he expected. “Are you alright?”
“Hmphm.” Jamie forced himself to stop tapping his fingers on his leg.
“Jamie…what is it?”
Jamie hesitated. They’d never talked about John’s other men before. Part of him felt he had no business intruding, and the other part of him thought he’d go mad with rage for someone else touching what was his.
“Just spit it out.”
Jamie knew he was being foolish, he just didn’t know which part of him was the fool. “’Tis only that I just realized…” he hesitated. “Claire told me about yer...friend. The cook.”
“Oh...oh dear,” John laughed. “And what? You think I haven’t gotten another cook because I’m waiting for Manoke to come around and bed me?”
Jamie noticed his shoulders rising up to his ears with tension and forced them back down.
“I haven’t seen him since last spring,” said John, “and I’m in no way anticipating his arrival.”
Jamie poured them both a cup of ale and tried not to seethe. He found himself choking the fine drink down like it was ground glass instead of brew.
“Well, this is interesting…” said John, lifting his cup to his lips.
“I’ve never had a jealous lover before.” John couldn’t hide the curve of a grin threatening to overtake his mouth. “It’s far more pleasing to my manhood than it has any right to be...possibly because it’s you in particular that’s jealous.”
A realization of how often John must’ve felt such a thing about him and Claire smothered the heat of rage.
“Ye’re no’ much comfort to a man in a fit state, Grey,” Jamie’s mouth twitched reluctantly. “Ye could at least school the joy out of yer eyes.”
Unabashedly smiling, John took Jamie’s hand and brought it to his lips. “I look forward to many such occasions of possessive jealousy to practice a more impassive countenance.”
When John tried to release Jamie’s hand, Jamie gripped him firm, tight enough for a breath of shock to escape John’s lips.
“Careful, Grey,” Jamie rumbled low and dangerous. “Ye dinna want to push a man like me...no’ if ye want yer wee cook to keep his bollocks.”
John caressed Jamie’s hand with his thumb. “I haven’t thought of his bollocks in some time. My heart and my bed are full enough as it is.”
Appeased, Jamie grabbed a piece of salted meat and took a bite, never releasing John’s hand. He kept hold of it throughout their less than adequate meal.
“Mac,” said Willie from the door.
Jamie dropped John’s hand and turned abruptly. “Willie!”
The heat of embarrassment crept up to Jamie’s ears, but he forced his features to remain impassive. Willie’s ears were a matching red, though Jamie was uncertain if it was due to his unexpected presence or to witnessing the affection between his fathers. Jamie dearly hoped his body had shielded their hands from Willie’s view.
Willie bowed formally rather than offer an embrace, though the hint of a smile on his face was promising. After the initial shock of his son’s interruption faded, Jamie noticed the boy’s haggard appearance. He looked as though he found more amusement the previous day than he was able to handle.
“Jamie has business in Petersburg before the family arrives. He stopped for a quick visit before moving on.”
“Petersburg?” said William with a raised brow. All three men were acutely aware that a stop at Mt. Josiah was a significant detour along his travels.
“Aye,” said Jamie. “I thought I’d come by before the family arrived to see the state of things here. I ken ye’ve been making some changes.”
Willie laughed, “Brianna didn’t leave me much choice...”
“No one ever made a Fraser do something they werena willing. I ken ye’re doing what ye think is right.”
Willie nodded, “And causing Papa endless headaches in the process. I’d be lost without him.”
John retrieved a cup and poured Willie some ale. Jamie noticed John didn’t contradict Willie’s statement. He wondered how forthcoming his friend was being about the problems they were facing.
“How were things at the Ridge when you left?” asked Willie. “I trust my sister and the children are all in good health?”
“They’re braw and excited to come visit.”
“And Mother Claire? How is she?”
Jamie smiled as he conjured an image of his wife working in her garden. “She’s verra fine. She’s pleased wi’ ye, lad...wi’ what ye’ve done in freeing the slaves.”
“I look forward to having her here. It’ll be a nice change of pace to have someone offering support and encouragement rather than physical violence.”
“Violence?” Jamie set down his cup more firmly than he intended. He turned to John.
“He’s being quite hyperbolic, I assure you. The matter has already been addressed.”
Jamie didn’t miss the sharp glance John shot Willie. Willie raised an eyebrow before seeming to accept John’s words as putting an end to the matter.
“John?” said Jamie.
“Everything is fine, Jamie. I wouldn’t have your family come visit if I believed anything to the contrary.”
Jamie was preparing to push the issue further, but was interrupted by Willie coming to his Papa’s aid and abruptly changing the subject. “Brianna tells me you have a new family settling at the Ridge. She said they’re hailing from France?”
Jamie forced himself to pull his eyes away from John and respond to his son. “Aye.”
“She said they’re a large family, and you’ve had to spend a significant amount of time building a home for them.”
“Hmphm, aye. ’Tis no’ much trouble. I’ve become rather efficient at building houses since the wee cabin ye first visited on the Ridge.”
John remained noticeably quiet for the rest of their conversation, certainly an oddity for the three of them. John was usually the one running interference, not Willie.
As the afternoon grew closer, Jamie began to worry about the amount of light he’d have for his journey. Despite his concerns for John and his desire to spend more time with Willie, he knew he should be heading out. And his horses were likely growing impatient with waiting.
“I best be off,” Jamie reluctantly conceded. He patted Willie on the back and said, “It looks like ye can do wi’ a bath and some rest from all yer recent amusements. ”
Willie flushed red to the tips of his ears, but straightened his back like a good soldier as they escorted Jamie to the front door. “I look forward to seeing you and the family next week. It’ll be a pleasure to once again have the house full of life.”
Jamie patted his son’s arm affectionately. “When I come back, perhaps we’ll have a game or two of chess, aye?”
“I look forward to it.”
“Now, go on up to yer room and get some sleep, will ye?”
“I think I’ll do just that. Safe travels, Mac.”
Willie bowed before making his way out of the room. When his footsteps could no longer be heard, Jamie turned back to John with a raised brow.
“Hyperbolic? Or realistic?”
“We’re fine, Jamie. Everything is going according to plan. We knew we’d incite anger when we chose this path.”
“Aye, but I dinna like leaving ye to deal wi’ it alone.”
“You’ll be back in a week. I’ve had to live without you for longer stretches of time, and I seem to have survived just fine.”
“I suppose ye have.”
Jamie grabbed John’s hand, tempted to pull him close. John looked in the direction Willie just exited and hesitated. “Let’s step outside.”
They stood on the porch out of sight of any windows in the house. Jamie scanned the landscape, ensuring no other sets of eyes were on them. When he was satisfied, he took John’s hand once again and pulled him close.
Jamie kissed him with the pained tenderness of goodbye, as short-lived as this one was to be. Their bodies pressed tight together, wishing there was more time.
“I love you, Jamie,” John whispered. “Please be cautious on the road.”
Jamie chuckled, “Ye act as though I’m some sort of magnet for danger.”
“’Tis no’ my safety I’m concerned about.”
John caressed Jamie’s cheek. “We’ll be fine. Just...hurry back, will you?”
“Aye.” He kissed him one last time before pulling away and forcing himself down the stairs to his waiting wagon. “Oh, John?”
“If my wife arrives before I return…” he trailed off smirking.
“Is there something you’d like me to do?”
Jamie jumped up on his wagon and grabbed the reins. “Aye. Kiss her hello for me, will ye? At least until I come back to do it myself.”
A smile spread widely over John’s face. “As you wish.”
Chapter 3: Vulgar Curiosity
“I rubbed a knuckle over my lips, not wanting to seem vulgarly curious—but vulgarly curious at the same time.”
– Lady Grey, An Echo in the Bone
— John —
Up to his ankles in manure, John was unprepared for company, but Claire Fraser was a woman for which no amount of preparation would ever be enough.
John and Willie watched the Fraser family’s wagon pull up to the front of the house. The gleeful smile that lit his son’s face was a reflection of John’s own.
Claire. His heart palpitated erratically.
Knowing the matriarch of the Fraser family’s disposition for hygiene, they cleaned up as best as they could without hot water and soap before making their way to meet their guests.
“Uncle Willie!” yelled Jemmy.
“Lord John!” called Germain.
John waved as four children jumped off the wagon and raced over to greet them, Fanny Pocock and the MacKenzie children aiming for William and Germain Fraser colliding with John.
“It’s wonderful to see you, young man,” said John, patting Germain on the back. “Comment allez-vous?”
“Je vais bien, merci beaucoup.” Germain walked beside John as they made their way back to the wagons where the adults were only just stepping on solid ground. John watched Ian Murray lend a hand to Claire as she came down.
“I have wonderful news, Lord John,” said Germain.
“Pleasant tidings are always a fine way to greet someone.”
“Oui, Monsieur. Grand-père no longer wants to string you up by your toenails! He’s insisted Grannie bring you a bottle of his finest whisky and jars and jars of creams for…”
“John!” Claire waved as she walked toward him with a dazzling smile. He was struck by the beauty of her elegant face in the bright, afternoon sun. Even travel-worn and exhausted she was stunning.
“Claire, my dear.” They embraced with more fervency than John intended; he was surprised by the magnetism pulling them together. He whispered quietly in her ear. “Dear God, you’re radiant.”
“I’ve missed you, darling. More than you know.” She pulled back to look him in the eyes, her arms still clamped firmly around him. The warmth she emitted was fueled by waves of obvious affection. “It’s been a long five months.”
“Indeed it has. How is it possible you’ve become all the more captivating in that time?”
She laughed, her uninhibited sounds a chorus in his ears. “You’ve clearly been isolated from society, spending too much time with livestock, if you think so.”
“I stand resolutely by my assessment. I’ve a reputation for excellent taste.”
“I shall gracefully concede that point.” By the tenderness of her soft sigh, John gathered that she was thinking of their mutual taste in Highland chieftain.
“Mama, you have to share our host; you can’t keep him all to yourself,” said Brianna, tapping her mother’s shoulder.
Claire kissed John’s cheek before reluctantly letting go. She moved aside and embraced William warmly. John was surprisingly bereft without her in his arms.
“Brianna, my dear. It’s always a pleasure.” John took her hands in his and looked her over. She was a glorious mix of both her parents. Though his affection for her was born of his love for Jamie—as it was for William—he’d grown quite fond of the young woman in her own right.
“How are you holding up with all the changes of the last five months?” she asked, cringing in acknowledgment that her encouragement was what started William on his current path.
“There are always challenges abound, my dear, but when one has reasons for enduring them, they’re little more than a nuisance.” His eyes flickered to William and Claire—two people at the top of his reasons for enduring. “Come, let’s go inside and get you some refreshment.”
William and Ian saw to the horses and wagon as John brought the rest of the family into the house. They were eager to clean off the road dust and freshen up, so John led them to their various rooms and assisted Roger with carrying up traveling chests and saddlebags.
He saved Claire’s room for last, hoping for a moment alone with her before returning to his hosting duties—duties all the more abundant since he no longer had assistance. He brought her trunk into her room and set it next to the wardrobe. As he stood up, he heard the door close behind him, flushing at the implication of temporary privacy.
John turned to find Claire walking toward him with a dark, caramel hue in her eyes. He was generally unversed in the sensuality of women, but her ardor was unmistakable. The impact of her desire hit him with dizzying force.
He liked being wanted by this woman. He liked wanting this woman.
His voice was unintentionally low as he said, “Madam, your husband requested I impart a message upon your arrival.”
John stepped forward, taking Claire’s hand. “Indeed.”
The softness of her body brushed against him like French silk. John traced the graceful line of her jaw and lifted her chin. His lips pressed gently against hers, moist and plump and wanting. Her husky moan lit his bones on fire, coaxing out his tongue.
Claire’s hands moved around his back, up and down the lines of his muscles. He surrounded her with his body, her delicate frame eclipsed by his broad shoulders. It was a dance of reacquaintance with the sheer physicality of each other.
His hand found the soft, malleable curve of her bosom. She was the antithesis of Jamie’s hard lines and great strength. Never had he imagined finding more than aesthetic appreciation for such a form, but there he stood with her wrapped in his arms, growing all the more desperate to be inside her.
How did this happen? When did it happen?
John tried desperately in his youth to love women, to want women. He berated and shamed himself for the nature of who he was. It took many years and the love of a courageous young man to help him finally accept that he was just built differently from what was expected of him.
Neither time with whores nor a marriage to an angel could sway the direction of his desire. Yet, somehow, Claire Fraser had crawled under his skin and burrowed her way into the forefront of his heart and mind.
The first time John and Claire lay together, they used each other to bed the man they loved, but as John now stood in her room, holding her, kissing her, he wanted nothing more than to bed her for the sheer pleasure of mating with the woman he adored.
The sound of children running in the halls pulled their lips apart. He attempted to muster the fortitude to step away, but feared the sting of bereavement when she was no longer in his arms.
Her cheeks were flushed, and her hair was pulling loose from its pins. She gave a breathless chuckle as she said, “How thoughtful of Jamie to leave such a fine gesture in your capable hands.”
“Just wait until I give you my own welcome.” His lips grazed over her brow.
“Such an attentive host,” she said. She wasn’t wrong; his cock was quite diligently attending to her hip at the moment.
He cradled her face in his hands and wondered how her beauty was able to defy the hardships of the rough Carolina wilderness. Her pale skin should have made her a target for the elements, not thrive in them like an ethereal nymph.
Her rose-pink lips still glimmered with the moisture of his tongue. “Dear God in Heaven, you are the most alluring woman.” Forgetting all the reasons they should stop, he kissed her deeply again.
He contemplated whether or not he had it in him to make it to the bed, or if they should just drop to the floor like the first time he had her.
A knock on the door interrupted his plans. “Mama? Can we borrow your moisturizer? Roger’s hands are cracking from handling the reins for so long.”
John pulled away quickly and moved back to the far side of the room behind a rocking chair. Claire rushed to the dressing table and peered in the mirror, wrestling with her hair so her appearance didn’t betray them.
“Come in, darling!” she called out, shoving a stray curl into the greater mass on top of her head.
Brianna strode purposefully inside, but stopped in her tracks when she saw John. He hoped the slats of the rocking chair were sufficiently concealing his indecent state.
“Oh, hi. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
John tried to come up with a good reason why an unmarried—well, previously married—man and woman would be speaking alone in a private bedchamber. He nearly stuttered a pathetic excuse about fixing a broken piece of furniture or handling a rogue pest, but stopped himself when Claire spoke for them.
“You’re not interrupting, darling. We're just having a chat.” Claire spoke as though it was of no consequence. She found a jar of some greenish concoction and brought it to her daughter. “Is Roger alright? Do I need to take a look at his hands?”
“He’s fine. You know how sensitive his skin can be.”
“Have him come by if it gets inflamed.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing, but we’ll keep an eye on it.” She waved casually to John before turning to leave. She surprised John further by closing the door behind her.
“Good Lord,” he said, slipping as he leaned against the chair for support, making it rock forward with his weight.
“Don’t worry, I don’t think she suspects anything.”
John shook his head, astounded. “Apparently, two people of the opposite sex closed up in a room together is nothing of consequence where the two of you come from?”
“It wouldn’t be unusual.”
“Be that as it may, we’ll have to be more careful. Could you imagine the scandal…?” He closed his eyes and shook his head. He’d spent his life cautious of the wrong person finding out about his predilections and was accustomed to these occasional brushes with exposure, but the thought of his Frasers being subjected to such consequences was alarming.
She rolled her eyes. “Scandal? I doubt any member of our family would broadcast such a thing. I’m sure they’d run straight to Jamie, and that would be the end of it.”
“Hardly. They’d expect Jamie to kill me...or worse. If that didn’t happen, they’d grow all the more bewildered. His lack of action would inspire a dangerous curiosity. That’s not a good thing for someone like me.”
She stepped close to him. “For people like us , you mean.”
“Like us,” he amended.
She kissed him gently, a gesture born of care and solidarity. “We’ll be careful, but we don’t have to live in fear. Our family loves us, John. They wouldn’t do anything to compromise us.”
“I’m afraid fear is inherent in such relationships, my dear.” He held her lovely face in his hands.
“I won’t let it stop us from being with you, John. Neither will Jamie.” She kissed him matter-of-factly. “We’ll pick this up again tonight. It would be quite unfair if I let you boys have all the fun.”
He conceded with a nod and held out an arm to escort her back downstairs. “It would be most ungentlemanly to leave a lady wanting. Now, shall we return to the other guests?”
She hooked her arm in his and smiled with satisfaction. “We shall.”
“Debt? How much?” asked Bree, as she poured herself another cup of tea. John was pleased a nefarious connection in Richmond was able to procure a box of tea straight from London before the Frasers arrived. He knew how long it had been since his favorite Englishwoman had a proper cup.
“You don’t want to know,” said William.
“But we could help. You know Da has plenty of... gold.” She whispered the word conspiratorially, though there was no reason for it. No one in the room was ignorant of the Frasers’ accidental wealth. Ian had helped Jamie and Claire hide the gold, and Jamie informed John and Willie about it when they first told him of their struggles.
“And what would we do with gold?” said John, scooting over on the couch to make room for Claire to sit next to him with her steaming cup of tea. “Pay those in my employ with shavings of bullion? Trade it in town for coin? Whose coin? British pounds of ever diminishing value? Or worthless American money? The Continental Congress has taken every asset we haven’t nailed to the ground as proof of our newfound loyalty. If they heard rumors of gold, they’d be scouring the bowels of this place before sundown.”
John rubbed his face in his hands before continuing on, “You insisted we free our slaves—rightly so—and as a consequence, I must pay fair wages for assistance with the land. Only, I can’t hire anyone to help, because the meager profit of our lackluster harvest is going toward paying down the debts Dunsany owed for buying the slaves and land in the first place.”
“Can’t you sell the land?”
“No one wants a plantation without slaves, and I can’t sell it for less than we owe. If we default on our debts, they’ll find a way to obtain repayment of what’s owed...one way or another.”
John noticed Willie pacing back and forth at the far end of the room. He ran his hands through his hair, making it stick up in places, much the way Jamie’s often did. The poor boy had never been anything but abundantly wealthy before.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” asked Bree.
“We can aid them in preparing for winter,” said Claire. “The harvest will keep the debtors at bay until next Spring.”
“But, Mama, what about the slave owners harassing them? The angry loyalists? Our own government stealing from them?”
“Yes, well, when you put it like that...” She sipped her cup in defeat, but couldn’t help the sigh of pleasure that escaped her lips at consuming the fine tea.
“Please, don’t worry,” said John. “We’ll manage. We just need to prepare next year’s crops and stay afloat. We do not require any sort of lavish lifestyle, by any means. Except the tea. I don’t think I could live without a decent cup of tea in the afternoon.”
Claire let out a moan of agreement. John was quite enjoying the sounds his ex-wife constantly emitted. His thoughts naturally turned to the ones he could evoke later that evening when he took her to bed.
“Lavish?” said Brianna. “Do you even have enough food to get you through winter?”
“Of course we do...especially if we can catch that damned sow who refuses to be butchered,” John teased.
Willie huffed in frustration.
“D’ye want me to shoot it down for ye, cousin?” asked Ian. “I’ve got my bow in my room.”
“I can handle the pig myself. Thank you very much,” Willie spoke through gritted teeth.
“I was only joking about the sow,” said John. “We have plenty of food.”
John noticed steam rising from his son’s ears at their continued focus on his financial descent. He forcibly turned the conversation to a more neutral direction. “Now tell us, what news from the Ridge? Any new births or marriages? Any new settlers?”
“There’s always a new birth happening on the Ridge,” said Roger. “Claire should open a maternity ward in her surgery.”
“I’m sure Jamie would love that,” said Claire. “Screaming women and crying babies serenading us night and day. No, it’s better I go where I’m needed. We have enough traffic at the house as it is.”
“We’ll be having more soon,” said Brianna. “We’re getting a large family of French settlers arriving next Spring. Some people Da met years ago in Paris. Da, Roger, and Ian have been building them a house for some months now.”
“Yes, I heard,” John laughed, “I’m eager to hear how well the Parisians adapt to life in the wild country. What are they planning to do for a living? Harvest silkworms for fine dresses? Perhaps the Ridge will be establishing its first brothel?”
Claire choked on her tea. “Oh, Jamie might well have an apoplexy.”
Ian laughed a little too heartily, and Brianna threw a pillow at him.
“Come now, cousin,” said Ian, “Auntie Claire could set up a tent outside the brothel doors and charge for penicillin injections. She’d make enough money to pay the debts on this plantation and three more.”
Claire shook her head and scoffed, but failed to suppress her grin.
“Why don’t you sell your medicines, Mother Claire?” asked William.
“Oh, people usually give what they can afford, but I can’t, in good conscience, capitalize on someone’s poor health.”
William smiled softly at his stepmother. “Rather admirable, I’d say.”
Roger laughed, “Especially considering what the men were spending their money on only moments before they entered yer hypothetical penicillin tent.”
“So, a brothel is out of the question,” said John. “Perhaps the French settlers will earn their keep by bringing some culinary skill from their homeland.”
“You’re not implying the Ridge has a lack of culinary skill at present, are you?” teased Claire.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, my dear.”
“Speaking of cooking,” said Bree, “how have you two bachelors been feeding yourselves? You’re both looking a little thin.”
Frankness, it seemed, was an inherited trait.
“Oh, indeed,” said Claire, with exaggerated curiosity. Her hawk eyes narrowing on John. “Has your old cook come by to ensure you’re not starving?”
John shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the mention of Manoke. “No, he hasn’t. William and I have been making due with our own culinary abilities.”
“Oh, Heaven help you,” Bree laughed and eyed her brother. “At least I won’t get any more complaints about my cooking while I’m here. You might actually be grateful for it.”
“Why don’t I cook first this evening,” said Claire, “and tomorrow they’ll be so eager to not repeat such a misadventure that they’ll beg for your hand in the kitchen.”
“I’ll have you know,” William interjected, “a friend of mine in town has been showing me some of the finer points of home cooking. I have tonight’s supper already planned.”
Brianna snorted. “You are cooking?”
William sat up straight in his seat and adjusted his coat. “Indeed, I am. I’ve developed some skill in the kitchen since last we met. I couldn’t be expected to live off Papa’s cooking for any great length of time.”
“Now, really,” said John, feigning offense. “Salted meat and a glass of ale is a perfectly adequate meal.”
“For a pirate,” said Claire, reaching a hand to his face for a superficial examination. “Remind me to check you for scurvy before we retire this evening.”
John sighed pleasantly and leaned into her delicate hand. She really had a lovely touch.
“Don’t fret on his behalf, Mother Claire,” said William. “I’ve ensured Papa will be keeping all his teeth in his old age. I may not be putting spinach in his omelettes, but I do make certain he consumes his share of fruits and vegetables, as you’ve suggested.”
“Good man, William. And don’t allow his less than subtle groans of protest to deter you. It’s for his own good.”
“Yes,” John grumbled, “William is becoming quite the caretaker as I fade into senility.”
Noticing Claire’s cup empty, John reached for the teapot and filled her up once again. He was eager to hear more of her sighs of contentment.
A loud clattering from the anteroom had all their heads turning toward the door. It burst open, and little Amanda came running inside.
“Ma! Da! Come quick! The sow chased Fanny up a tree. Jemmy and Germain are trying to chase it away!”
“Oh God,” said Bree.
“Perhaps we will be needing that bow of yours, Cousin,” William told Ian as they rose to their feet and rushed off to Fanny’s aid.
“This isn’t the piglet we gave you several years back, by chance? The one from our white sow?” Claire asked.
“I’m afraid it is,” said John, helping her to her feet. “She’s certainly inherited her mother’s disposition...and something of the Fraser temper.”
“Then I’d better get my medical kit. I’m sure there will be more than just a few bruised egos.”
“Is it upstairs in your trunk?”
“No, I had Ian keep my supplies in the wagon. We don’t need all that in the house.”
“We can retrieve what we need on our way.”
“Poor, sweet Fanny,” John took Claire’s hand in his and set a quick pace out the door. “I doubt she’ll ever wish to visit Virginia again.”
“Not at all. The white sow has treed her at least three other times in the past year, and she’s perfectly content at the Ridge.”
“Lovely. I’m glad we can make her feel at home.”
It was a long day, but thankfully, a short evening. Everyone was too exhausted from their travels to care to stay up and be entertained much after dinner. When the last of his guests were in their rooms, John retired to his own and set to readying himself for his evening with Claire. She may well be interested only in falling asleep after spending the last of their day tending to minor injuries inflicted by his rogue swine.
John disrobed and made his way to the wash basin to scrub himself down. He used a sponge to scour away the muck and grime of the day. He couldn’t imagine trysting with Claire while traces of manure clung to his boots and the smell of the sow lingered on his hands. Their romantic entanglement was too new to sully with self-consciousness over something as preventable as a distasteful malodour.
John chuckled to himself, thinking about how little washing he and Jamie had done during his visit the week before. The scent of their sweat and spunk in his bedchamber had lingered for days. But Claire was a lady, and being that he had time and means, he owed it to her to make their intimacy all the more palatable.
He waited an hour before leaving his room, wanting to ensure no one else was awake and wandering the halls. He dressed in a pair of fresh breeches and a linen shirt for the sake of modesty. His skin smelled of the last of his fine, French cologne; hints of orris root from the iris flower, tonka bean, and lavish leather surrounded him.
He bypassed knocking on her door, fearful of drawing attention with the sound. Instead, he cracked it open and whispered, “Claire?”
“Come in,” her voice was soft and low.
He stepped inside and closed the door quietly. He scanned the room to find her standing at the large window in nothing but her shift, staring off into the distance. Moonlight was streaming in behind her, illuminating the curves of her silhouette. In that moment, John finally understood Jamie’s penchant for devouring his wife on ledges of open windows.
John’s footsteps fell faintly across the floor. He curled his arms around Claire from behind and inhaled orange blossoms and vanilla in her freshly-washed hair. She sank back into his embrace, all traces of tension deflating with an audible exhale.
He kissed down the side of her temple past the sensitive spot just below her ear. She hummed contentedly, the vibrations tickling his lips as he kissed down her throat.
“Did I interrupt your evening musings?” he asked.
“No. I was just looking out over the clearing, hoping to glimpse your silver doe.”
“And did she reveal herself?”
“I thought so, for a moment, but…”
Claire pointed to a great figure grazing off in the distance, glowing silver in the moonlight. “Ah yes...the damn sow.”
“She really is quite regal in the proper lighting.”
“The moonlight does seem to filter out her more revolting qualities. I can’t see one bit of her ghastly snout.”
“I can’t imagine your doe would venture near the house with that beast roaming about.”
“No, I daresay this villain has poisoned the land with her stench. No animal with an ounce of self-preservation would come near Mt. Josiah now that she’s escaped her pen.”
Claire turned around, wrapping her arms around his neck, her soft eyes full of concern. “Is it too much to hope she’ll drive off the people causing you so much trouble?”
“There is always room for hope, my dear.”
Claire lifted up on her toes to kiss him. John gently sucked on her bottom lip, savoring the softness of her delicate skin against his freshly-shaved face.
“I missed you, John. Terribly so.” She pulled back and looked him in the eyes. “I didn’t expect the pain your leaving would cause. I would’ve driven Jamie mad with all my whining and complaining over your absence if he wasn’t doing the same.”
It was a fine picture in John’s mind—Jamie and Claire moping about the Ridge in his absence. “As a gentleman, I shall regret anything that gives you discomfort, but as your lover, I cannot authentically express such sympathies. Provoking longing from you gives me no little satisfaction.”
“Schadenfreude for all the years you spent longing for Jamie?”
“Perhaps a little. In truth, I never thought I’d arouse such sentiments in anyone at all, much less the two of you. Spending the better part of my existence drowning in the misery of unrequited love suppressed whatever optimism I had. The acute sting of inevitable heartache was more than a minor aversion to hope. Allowing myself to imagine someone I love caring for me would have meant certain torment.”
She cradled his face in her hands. “If only there was a way I could take away your pain without losing the man that emerged from it.”
He chuckled darkly. “Would it be so terrible a thing to take away that small piece of who I am?”
“Yes,” she said sincerely. “This is how I want you...just as you are. I’d spare you suffering if I could, but at great sacrifice to myself. The man it made you is the man I’ve grown to love.”
Her words spoken softly were a hammering blow. To be loved just as he was by the most magnificent of all women was somehow just as painful as it was glorious.
“Oh, Claire…” his voice cut off before the rest of his thoughts could reach his tongue.
He pulled her tight against him and kissed her passionately. His mouth opened, seeking admittance to hers. Her tongue was waiting for him, reaffirming her beautiful, maddening words with its affectionate caress.
His hands were aching to touch her everywhere, all at once, but John was a master of delayed gratification. He had schooled himself since his youth to stifle his needs for a grander payoff; he would do so with Claire. He wouldn’t sully the moment with his eager fumbling. His heart demanded he remember every moment, savor the feeling of loving someone so dearly with both his heart and his body.
His hands tangled in her hair, always so much softer than how it looked in wild disarray. She melted in his arms, her body molding to his, fitting to his shape the longer they kissed.
He felt the exquisite lines of her curves through the thin fabric of her shift. Her bottom, so soft and round, was made to be grabbed. He squeezed it firmly and pulled her close to rub their bodies together. She squeaked in his ear when he rolled his hips.
Like dancers intertwined, he led her back from the window and across the room to her bed. She released the buttons of his breeches with practiced ease, and dropped them to the floor. He pulled off his shirt and cast it aside, leaving himself naked before her.
Claire met his gaze as she untied her shift. The light fabric floated to the ground in a whisper. Her body was near achromatic in the lack of light, all pale skin and black hair, save the amber of the hearth reflecting in her eyes.
They looked at each other in the quiet darkness, seeming to find something between them that wasn’t there before. He restrained the feral desire within and forced himself to be still and revel in the unique want she inspired.
Her eyes dropped to his erection, her mouth curling at the corner. “It looks as though you’re as ready as I am.”
“I think I must be.”
“How did we get here?” she asked in breathless wonder. “When did this happen?” They were the same questions he’d been asking himself all day.
“Damned if I know.” He stepped into her space and ran his hands up and down her arms. “We’ve gone from rivals to friends to spouses to…”
“To what?” she laughed. “What do we call this?”
“Love? Is there a better word for it?”
She smiled sweetly and shook her head. “No...there’s no better word.”
He held her face and kissed her again, making every effort to be slow and deliberate. They had all night to be alone together, and he was determined this coupling be different than what they shared before, because they were different from who they were before.
Claire, however, was a woman of passion, and her body’s eagerness would not allow such a pace. She moaned and pressed herself against him, her leg curling around his. Her energy permeated through their skin, feeding his need, stripping away what meager self-control he had left.
He lifted her up from her bottom to lay her on the bed. Crawling between her legs felt foreign and thrilling. He propped himself over her in the superior position, the head of his cock nudging against her slick heat.
Claire, having none of his patience, grabbed his arse and demanded penetration. He thrust inside with more force than he intended, but her encouraging moan compelled him to do so again and again. She was lifting into him, meeting him stroke for stroke, breaking down the constructs in his mind about what it meant to love a woman.
He gave over to his passion, kissing her savagely. He grabbed hold of her thigh and pulled hard, driving all the more vigorous into her quim. His mouth muffled her continuous moans of needy pleasure; he swallowed them whole, converting them into fuel.
Claire’s desire was raw and feminine. Her fingernails dug into the skin on his back, her soft breasts pressed against his hard chest, the cushion of her thighs melded to his hands, the wetness of her quim coated his cock. His appetite for her womanness was inexplicably maddening.
He realized he was groaning and grunting as loud as his partner. His hands moved up her body and squeezed her breasts. They felt magnificent in his hands and even better in his mouth, but as Claire grew louder and louder, he was forced to occupy her tongue with his own.
Her hand slipped between them and rubbed her little knot of pleasure. He’d forgotten how powerful her release could be, how it squeezed his cock so tight, how her face knotted up in agony. It was beautiful and shocking, triggering his own seed to spill.
Time suspended in that moment when his heart beat so fast it hummed in his ears like the wings of a dragonfly. He hadn’t realized his eyes were closed, not until he opened them to find a set of golden irises staring back at him, sparkling citrine gemstones, flickering in the firelight.
“Breathtaking,” he sighed.
She pulled him down to kiss him again.
John lay propped up on his arm, tracing the curves of Claire’s body with his fingertips.
“When we met that third time in Jamaica,” he laughed, “I thought you must be as hard and cold as stone with your marble skin; imagine my surprise to find you warm-blooded and satin-soft.”
Her eyes reflected a genuine smile. “Well, when I thrice met you, I saw a man in love...with my husband. I wanted to kill you for it then...I want to bed you for it now.”
“I remember that day well. I thought I was seeing a ghost.”
Her fingers lazily stroked the line of his jaw back and forth as she spoke. “I don’t buy for a minute that you believe in ghosts. You don’t have a mystical bone in your body.”
“Not mystical ghosts, dear. I believe our minds manifest their own demons in the darkest depths of consciousness. We don’t need supernatural forces to create them for us. We do a fine job of it on our own.”
She raised a brow. “That’s where I resided in your mind? A demon in the darkest depths?”
“Indeed, you did.”
“But no longer?”
“No. Now you permeate every dark depth and well-lit shallow I have.”
She smacked his abdomen as her laughter shook her body. Relaxing into their newfound ease, John lay back on the pillow and invited Claire into the crook of his arm. She lay her head on his shoulder and fingered the hairs on his chest.
“And you, my dear?” he asked. “Do you have ghosts that lurk in your depths, threatening to pop out when you least expect them?”
Her hand stilled its soft caress, and the slow, steady rise of her breast came to a halt. In only a moment, her breath resumed its normal pace, and her hand stroked on. “As you said before...we all have them.”
“Apologies. I didn’t mean to pry.”
She lifted her head to kiss his chest and gazed into his eyes. “You’re allowed to pry. You always put up with my vulgar curiosity.”
“I quite enjoy your interest in me, whatever my protestations to the contrary.”
“I’ll remind you of that one day.”
He laughed, but didn’t press for more. He didn’t need to; she spoke when she was ready. “I do have ghosts that stir when I’m most vulnerable.”
“When you lay down your defenses, it’s easier for them to rise up.”
“You know, I wish they were actual spirits floating around on a metaphysical plane. Perhaps if they had a mind of their own, they’d lose interest and find someone else to haunt.”
John combed his fingers through her wild hair. “These ghosts...they must’ve done you great harm to earn residence in a mind as formidable as yours.”
“Well, some of the ghosts are of my own making, but some of them I share with Jamie. The ones he carries are too much to bear sometimes. I take them over for him when I can. He does the same for me.”
“And what do you do when you’re apart and forced to face the demons alone?”
She sighed deeply and heavily. “Then we face the terror of the dark on our own...and try to remember that the sun also rises.”
“Yes, but the sun does cast its own shadows. The darkness never fully leaves. It changes us, transforms us forever.”
“Well, as I said before, I love your resulting transformation, John.”
“Hmm. Thank you, my dear. But I wasn’t talking about me.”
Claire looked up with questioning eyes. “You're not talking about me either, are you?”
He shook his head.
“Has Jamie told you of his ghosts?”
“He’s made vague mention of them. Nothing I hadn’t already intuited.”
Claire sat up, the pained look in her eyes told him she carried some of Jamie’s ghosts with her even when he was gone. She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs.
“And what was it you intuited?”
John sat up with her, contemplating what to say. “From the force of impact of his fist on my eye, and from the explosiveness of his rage anytime I previously let my desire for him show, I concluded long ago that a man did great damage to his person...and to his mind. He all but confirmed as much this summer. And then...well...last week...”
“What? What happened?”
John bit his cheek, entirely too uncomfortable to discuss details of intimacy in such a manner.
“Whatever your protestations to the contrary, John, you like my curiosity, remember? Tell me what happened.”
“I didn’t think you’d have a chance to throw that in my face so quickly,” he grumbled, adjusting the blankets around him.
“Alright.” He stiffened his spine and just came out with it. “Well...as you might’ve noticed, Jamie was quite eager to visit me.” He blushed profusely at the absurdity of the statement.
“I did happen to notice,” she smiled. “Go on.”
“After he satisfied himself with me—several times…”
“...he asked me to…” John sighed uncomfortably. There was no way he could say it.
“Buggery?” she said. She was grinning, completely unsurprised.
“Yes, well, it’s something he wants to give you and something he wants for himself. He’s been having me help him prepare.”
“I see. The tools Jamie mentioned?”
She nodded. “Precisely. Cucumbers don’t grow on the Ridge this close to winter.”
“So? Did you do it?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No. His body was more tense than I think he realized. I didn’t feel it right to...I…” He searched his brain for words suitable to a lady’s ears—even a lady as untraditional as Claire. “I found my pleasure through other means, despite his demands to the contrary.”
“Hmm. Didn’t you want to…?”
“Of course, I wanted to. Christ.”
“Then why didn’t you do what he asked?”
“If you must know, I’ve rarely had occasion to integrate intercourse and love, and I didn’t want to damage the man who holds my affection further than what’s already been done. We have all the time in the world for whatever depraved acts he wants me to commit on him. It didn’t have to happen in the heat of the moment like that, not with his arsehole so tight, none but a ghost could slip through.”
“Heat of the moment? Intercourse with Jamie may seem spontaneous, but he’s a meticulous planner, and he had five months to imagine that night with you.”
“I just...I just didn’t want to hurt him. I don’t need that from him if it would do him harm.”
Claire wrapped her arms around John’s bicep and kissed his shoulder. “Darling, you are such a good man, down to the marrow of your bones. That’s probably the thing I love most about you.”
“No...no however...no buts. I admire how the depth of your love supersedes all else.”
He scoffed, “I’m not as noble as all that.”
“Are you saying I’m wrong? You're a bold man to tell a modern woman such a thing. Did you learn nothing as my husband?”
“Claire,” he took her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles, “this person you describe is not me...it’s you.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. The corner of her mouth twitched slightly. “Perhaps you did learn a thing or two when you were married to me. Flattery will get you everywhere.”
“It’s no surprise Jamie is healing from his ghosts, my dear, with you helping bear them. You’ve certainly helped with mine.”
Chapter 4: Both Sides Now
“Every parting is a form of death, as every reunion is a type of heaven.”
- Tryon Edwards
— Claire —
“William, I’m thoroughly impressed,” I said, walking through the gate into his small garden.
“You flatter me. It’s naught to yours, but it has been fruitful. Unfortunately, it’s nearly empty now. I didn’t plan well for this time of year.”
“It looks like you have some winter squash attempting to fight off the cold evenings.”
“I’ve already harvested most of them for the freezing months, but there are a few resilient little ones left.”
I squatted down to pick one from the vine. “It’s wonderful you were able to get them planted in plenty of time.”
“Eating plants was physician’s orders, and I wouldn’t dare commit insubordination.” He smiled indulgently, reminding me so much of Jamie. His cheeks bunched up as though trying to stop his grin from spreading too broadly.
“Has John been compliant with his doctor’s nutritional recommendations?” I asked.
“Of course. You know Papa; he’ll do what must be done.”
In fact, John was doing what must be done for William at that very moment. Early in the morning, he received a message from one of his creditors in town and left hastily to meet with them, leaving William in charge of hosting duties.
I handed William the squash and bent to pick another. “So, tell me, who’s been teaching you to cook? I can’t imagine many of your contemporaries showing interest in the culinary arts.”
Willie grunted a surprisingly Scottish sound, making me turn to look for Jamie. “Just a young woman in town.”
My stomach dropped in disappointment when I realized it wasn’t my husband who made the grunting noise. Assuming William may not be appreciative of a reminder of his similarities to his father, I chose not to point out the reason for my distraction. In an attempt to recover with an air of casualness, I asked, “A young woman? Are you courting her?”
The unseasonably fresh November air was far too temperate to account for the vibrant flush moving up Willie’s neck to the tips of his ears.
“Oh my,” I said. “You’re quite taken with her, aren’t you?”
“I’m afraid it’s not what you think.” William bent down to place the fruit in his basket.
“So, you’re not interested in her romantically?”
He avoided my eyes, turning away to grab a spade. He began digging down one of the rows, clearing out an irrigation trench—though there was little irrigating to be done just before winter.
“It’s alright if you don’t want to talk about it,” I offered.
“I definitely do not want to talk about it.”
His agitated grumbling as he worked the soil begged for further inquiry. “Is she promised to someone? Betrothed? Married?”
His shoulders dropped and he eyed me in exasperation.
“Sorry,” I shrugged. “Is she?”
“No,” he said firmly. “She is not promised.”
“And you’re not courting her? But she’s intimate enough with you to teach you how to cook...oh!” I closed my mouth abruptly when realization hit.
He cringed as he went back to work on his garden.
“She’s a...um…?” I asked.
“A whore. Yes.”
I found another squash and bent to retrieve it. “And are you...purchasing her services?”
He didn’t stop digging, but the steam rising from his head made the answer clear.
“Well, then. I’ll be sure to brew up a few batches of penicillin...just in case.”
“She doesn’t have the pox,” he snapped.
“You can’t know that, William. Not unless you know the sexual histories of all her clientele?”
His silence was telling. He kept on digging.
“I can treat her, too, if you’d like. We could make a trip into town sometime after Jamie arrives.”
William scoffed. “It would drive Mac to apoplexy if he found out I was purchasing the services of a whore.”
“You wouldn’t be the first in the family to do so.”
“None of those family members were his son.”
Claire laughed, “Do you not know anything about your elder brother? Or where Jamie lived when I came back to him after our twenty-year separation?”
William turned incredulously and leaned his weight on the spade. “Mac lived in a brothel?”
“Indeed. And before you ask, no, he wasn’t a customer. But many of his men were.”
William seemed doubtful. “Do you really think he’d admit to his wife if he was bedding whores?”
“Yes, I think he would. There’s a truth between your father and I.”
His eyes were sympathetic, “You don’t think he has secrets?”
“If Jamie is keeping secrets from me, then they aren’t his to tell.”
“Mother Claire…” his voice trailed off, his expression almost pitying. “I’m quite fond of you...I’d hate to see you hurt.”
I had all the faith in the world in Jamie, but that didn’t stop alarm bells from ringing in my head. “Is there something you’re not telling me, William?”
He pressed his lips together as though contemplating whether or not he wanted to speak. He turned back to work on his trench and muttered, “Of course not. I just know how men can be, being one myself. You and the rest of the family have such faith in Mac...I just hope it’s not misplaced.”
“Is this really about Jamie and me? Or is it about the truth he withheld from you?”
“Pardon my mistrust. It’s been well earned, as you know.”
“He loves you, William. You know that, right?”
He nodded as he worked. “I believe he has affection for me, but his lies have broken trust, even if they were for my own good.” He peered at me over his shoulder. “What if he lied to you and said it was for your own good?”
“Lying to a spouse or partner is very different than lying to a child. An adult is responsible for themselves. A child is not.”
“I suppose you’re right.” He sighed heavily and scooped out another clump of soil.
I was hit quite suddenly with overwhelming shame. John, Jamie, and I were once again withholding a monumental secret from Willie...one that would upend his entire life. Did he not deserve to know the truth of it? Even if keeping it from him was for his own good?
Uncomfortable with my role in the deception, I bent down on my knees to clear away weeds and debris, hiding my transparent expression from his scrutiny.
He was paying little attention to me. He worked his spade up and down the row until it met his satisfaction. He had a perfectionist’s eye, much like his father. He moved onto the next row and repeated the process.
“I’m surprised to hear your continued reservations about Jamie,” I said. “I thought things had improved between the two of you.”
His breath was growing heavier with exertion. Still, he attempted to keep his voice calm and unaffected, though the words he spoke were anything but, “When I was a child, I idealized Mac. He was a giant in my eyes. I wanted to be just like him. I could dream of nothing greater than having a father like Mac.”
“Everything. My identity, my titles, my privileges. He stole an inheritance for me that was never meant to be mine, and I had no idea until the moment I saw his face in Philadelphia.”
“Yes, well, Jamie’s had more than his fair share taken from him; it was only fitting that he arrange for you to have more than what you were entitled to.”
“Sometimes, I hate him for it...and sometimes I'm immensely grateful.” He stopped working again to watch me as he asked, “Brianna told me he was once a great leader of his clan...a Laird?”
I nodded softly, fond memories of our brief tenure as Laird and Lady of Lallybroch passing through my mind. “He gave up everything to save his people and his family. ”
“How did he do it? How did he lose all he had, his entire birthright, and just pick up and move on?”
“Oh, well, I’m not sure it was as easy as all that. There was a prison stay, a parole indenture, a long life as a criminal and outlaw, and twenty years without his wife and daughter. No, I’d say it wasn’t easy to just pick up and move on, at all. But it was necessary. You should talk to him about it someday. Your father has a way with words...he’s quite the storyteller.”
“I remember,” he whispered. Moisture gleamed in his eyes as he retreated into the depths of his memory.
I sat back, patting the patch of dirt next to me in invitation. He quirked an agreeable smile before accepting. He was nearly as big as Jamie and had to fold himself up to sit beside me.
“So, in your youth, you idealized him,” I said. “Then you grew to despise him. What now?”
“I really don’t know. It’s all still there. None of it ever went away. I still love him and hate him with equal measure. It, somehow, comes out as strained politeness, but beneath the surface, it’s anything but.”
“He can see that, you know...your ambivalence. We all can.”
“Yes, I’ve been told I’ve no ability to contain myself.”
I grabbed his hand, knowing how frustrating being so transparent could be.
“Well,” he said with feigned nonchalance, “as unfortunate as all Mac’s losses may be, an upside to him no longer being Laird is that he doesn’t have to live with the disappointment of a son who couldn’t follow in his footsteps. I can hardly manage a worthless garden, much less a plantation of my own—not without the help of Papa. Could you imagine a whole clan of people wasting away under my leadership?”
“First of all, do you really think your father is no longer Laird? Just because he’s in North Carolina instead of Scotland, doesn’t mean he’s not leading his people.” I squeezed his hand, “And you’re not a disappointment, William. You should be proud of what you’re doing here at Mt. Josiah, despite the consequences. And if you think Jamie lived his life without the assistance of your Papa, then you are sadly mistaken.”
Willie smiled appreciatively. “A generous assessment, Mother Claire, but we both know I couldn’t live up to the expectations of being the great General Fraser’s son. I mean, look at this worthless place.” He gestured to his land sitting in a state of disrepair. “I have no talent for running it and certainly not the heart for it.”
“Then what do you have the heart for?”
“I have no idea.”
“Where I come from, it’s not uncommon for a young man such as yourself to still be figuring out his path in life. You’ve only recently discovered where you came from, how could you possibly know where you’re going?”
He shrugged in frustrated helplessness.
“Well, at the very least, you have a future ahead of you in the culinary arts with all the lessons you’ve been having from your companion .”
He tried not to join in my laughter, but his shoulders couldn’t hide their shaking amusement.
We sat looking over the land. The weather was unseasonably warm for early November. The sun was high in the sky, and no frost was to be seen on the ground. It would likely be cooling down when we made our way home in a couple of weeks.
In the distance, the children could be seen playing near the stables, throwing what looked to be either mud or manure at each other. I dearly hoped it was the former. It was a rare occasion I truly missed the twentieth century, but laundry days were one of them.
“Ian seems quite happy,” said William, not looking at the children, but off into the forest where Ian had gone out hunting hours before. William’s face didn’t quite convey the pleasant aloofness his tone attempted to suggest. “Married life agrees with him?”
“It does. He and Rachel are very happy.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t bring Rachel and their son on this trip.”
“I’m sure they had their reasons.”
“They’re a good match.” He looked at me sheepishly. “I can see that now.”
I patted his back, recalling William’s own feelings for Rachel. “They are. And you’ll find such a match for yourself one day.”
I dearly hoped he would stop his habit of falling in love with every whore he slept with and find an actual partner. I pushed away uncharitable thoughts that Freud would have a field day with this boy and his issues with his mother.
“Not everyone finds a match as fortuitous as you and Mac,” he said. “I know you have your share of problems, but overall, I can see how special the two of you are to each other. Papa says marrying for the kind of love you have is a rare and special thing. Not everyone is so lucky.”
“Was he referring to his own marriage to Isobel?”
Willie nodded, “They were kind and familiar with each other, but they were nothing like you and Mac. He didn’t look at her the way Mac looks at you.”
“All relationships are different, I suppose.”
“I want that for him. I want him to find love...to be happy.”
“I think we all want that for him.”
Willie looked down at me with pain in his eyes. “And what if in order for him to be happy, someone else has to get hurt?”
My heart leapt into my throat. Could William possibly know about John’s feelings for Jamie? Perhaps he thought John harbored feelings for me since the end of our marriage? “Why should anyone have to be hurt for your father to find love?”
“It’s just the way of things sometimes, is it not?”
“I suppose so. But try not to worry too much about your Papa. He can manage his own life for himself. He’s quite capable, you know...and lovable.”
“I know that better than anyone.”
I beg to differ , I thought to myself.
“Come,” I said, “let’s get these fruits inside the house. The children will be hungry for lunch soon, and you’re a much better cook than the rest of us.”
Willie stood first and helped me up. He carried the basket as we exited the gate and made our way toward the house. Silent thoughts weighed heavy on both our minds. The secrets we kept from each other hindered the depth of intimacy that could’ve existed otherwise.
“Shall we call in the children to come wash?” he asked.
“I should think so.” I looked toward the stables, but they had already moved on. A screech from the carriage house told me where they might have gone. “Oh dear, there’s probably muck and manure everywhere.”
Willie chuckled indulgently. “I’ll go round them up.”
“No, no. I’ll go. I need to ensure they haven’t been rummaging through my medical supplies with their filthy hands. Go on and get started on lunch.”
Willie gave a teasing grin that clearly affirmed he was assigned the more favorable task.
The carriage house was a large building meant to house at least a dozen or so carriages and wagons. John’s letters over the past five months informed us that the Continental Army had used Mt. Josiah to house and train troops for a short time upon his renunciation of loyalty to the crown. Several months ago, this carriage house was full of Continental soldiers finding respite from battle. The troops had since moved South to pursue their next campaign.
Now, the only battle taking place in the carriage house consisted of flying excrement.
“Alright, children! That’s enough. Drop any and all fecal matter and come here at once.” She ignored the groans of disappointment as Germain, Jemmy, Mandy, and Fanny presented themselves in all their filthy glory. “The great fight of the feces is over, and you all can declare temporary victory over cleanliness and hygiene.”
Jemmy’s whoop of triumph was all too enthusiastic.
“Now, go find a broom and sweep up your mess.”
“But Grannie…” protested Jem.
She cut him off with a look. “And when you’re done, rinse off in the creek before going in the house to wash up for lunch. With soap!”
Four sets of feet dragged heavy on the floor as they left to do as instructed. Their groans and complaints faded with their footsteps out the door.
I surveyed the large, almost empty, wooden building. Only three wagons remained in the once fine carriage house. Two belonged to John and William, and the other was ours.
I pulled open the cover on our own wagon—thankfully, sans excrement—and retrieved my microscope, needles, and instruments for making penicillin. When I had all I required, I replaced the cover over the rest of my supplies; it wouldn’t do for the children to be throwing cowpies into such valuable equipment. John didn’t have the resources he once did to replace it yet again.
Squeals of delight from outside had me setting down my things and rushing to the door. I had a good sense of what might provoke such delight in the children, and my ears heard confirmation of my presumption before my eyes took in the sight.
“What in the name of St. Michael happened to the four of ye?” Jamie’s voice floated into the carriage house. “Ye smell like the offspring of the white sow!”
Four voices vied for attention from their grandda. As I turned the corner, I saw Jamie keeping their manure-covered bodies at bay with his long limbs. He dismounted from his wagon and kissed each one on their heads wherever he could find a clean space.
He caught my movement out of the corner of his eye. His eyes flared, and his mouth quirked with mischievous intention. The children parted like the red sea as he made his way over to me; they knew better than to get between their grandparents after an extended absence.
The sight of him filled me with a lightness, like a dandelion seed, rising up on the breeze. Whatever rooted me to the ground while he was gone lifted with his proximity. I wanted to rise up and fly into his arms.
His obvious delight in our reunion made me giddy. Sunlight glittered off the white and ginger of his beard that framed his smile. He clearly hadn’t shaved since leaving the Ridge.
He grabbed me by the waist and pulled me in. His soft beard tickled my skin as his mouth met mine. Groans of disgust sounded behind him as the children observed our overt display of affection, but I tuned them out in favor of Jamie’s hum of pleasure stoked by every lick of my tongue.
“God, Sassenach, I need ye right now.” He shifted my hips against him so I could feel the truth of his words pressing against me.
I nuzzled my cheek against his beard, inhaling the masculine scent of him. “Have Germain see to the horses and take me up to the house.”
“No, too far.” He spoke to the children over his shoulder, “Go on and get yerselves cleaned up! Ye’re filthy.”
“But Grannie says we must clean the manure!” said Germain.
Jamie cocked an eyebrow at his grandson. “Clean the manure?”
Germain shrugged as though my instructions were as mad as his words made them sound.
“Go on!” said Jamie, waving them off. “I’ll take care of it.”
The children’s squeaks of joy were drowned out by Jamie’s great hands covering my ears as he held my head to kiss me again. I meant to give him fair warning about the enormous mess he just agreed to clean up, but my words were lost to the skill of his tongue.
His eyes stayed open as he kissed me, watching my every move. I couldn’t help but close mine and lose myself in the sensuality of his touch. With swaying steps, he kissed me backward to the carriage house to find a private space.
“How I’ve yearned for ye, mo nighean donn.” We kissed our way through the door. “All I could think of was…”
He froze still, his muscles tense beneath my hands, and inhaled deeply. With his face scrunched up in disgust, he spat, “What the devil?”
“That would be the manure you agreed to clean up for the children,” I laughed.
He grumbled under his breath and shook his head. As he assessed the room around us, I worried the stench and filth might put him out of the mood.
“Up to the house?” I asked, still hanging onto hope.
“I shouldna leave the horses on the wagon too long. And I want ye to myself a bit before we see the others.” He looked around for an alternative solution. “Come.” He pulled my hand, leading me outside and around the back of the carriage house. He pressed me up against the wall and bent his head to kiss me.
“Jamie!” I chided. “Someone will see us.”
“No’ unless they’re hiding in the forest.” He brought his lips down to mine again.
He was right, of course; the plantation was nearly empty of inhabitants. We could make love in the middle of the garden and none would be the wiser.
He was greedy and groping with more urgency than usual, his hunger for me exhilarating. I pulled at the buttons of the flap on his trousers. His solid cock sprang free. He already had my skirts around my hips as he bent down to grab my thighs and lift me bodily against the wall.
His cock slid snugly between my legs. He took a moment to sigh in relief—one of my favorite sounds in the world. Our foreheads pressed together, and our mouths breathed the same air. We were almost three hundred miles from the Ridge, but in Jamie’s arms, I was home.
With our need building, he began to move his hips, speeding rapidly with every thrust. As much as I craved him in my bed, stretching out the hours of love-making, I relished his urgency.
“God, I want ye, Sassenach. All I could think of when I was gone was that another man’s cock was buried inside ye. I raced back to remind ye where ye belong.”
“Mmmm,” I moaned in his ear at a particularly jolting thrust. “Jealousy, is it? And here I thought you just missed me.”
He squeezed my thighs and rammed in hard. “Both can be true at once, mo ghraidh.”
“Should I be jealous of you and John, then?”
“Aye,” his voice was as rough as gravel, full of dark intent, “if ye like.”
Our coupling was quick and urgent, reconnecting and reclaiming. I’d missed the guttural sounds of his love-making in my ear and his hot breath on my cheek. I missed his great hands holding me like he was clinging to life.
I rubbed myself to peak against his body as he pressed me hard against the wall. I threw my head back, hitting the solid wood as I tensed around him, and pleasure pulsed through me. His pace sped at my climax, signaling his own impending release. In the midst of the throes of my satisfaction, he lost hold and found his own.
His shaky legs gave way as we tried to catch our breath. He switched our positions, his back sliding down the wall, and sank to the ground. I sat astride him, boneless and spent, though I exerted little energy in comparison. The muscles inside me were still contracting around his cock, neither of us willing to separate quite yet. I buried my face in his neck, breathing in sweat and road dust as our racing hearts thrummed in my ears.
His strength returned slowly, and as it did, he wrapped his arms around me and hugged me with a loving possessiveness.
“You’re not really jealous of John, are you?” I asked, lifting my eyes to his.
“No. I just missed ye, mo chridhe.” He kissed my head and rubbed his hands up and down my back. “If I had any jealousy, it was only that I couldna be here to join in on whatever it was the two of ye were doing wi’out me.”
“I hope you weren’t too distressed. We only arrived yesterday, and John had to leave for business early this morning.”
“Just the one night, then?”
“Mmhm. Although it was a very nice evening, I must say.”
“Hmphm. I can imagine.” His eyes filled with soft contentment, so I knew he wasn’t too bothered. “What was it ye did wi’ yer ‘verra nice evening’ together?”
Jamie snorted. “Five months apart and ye spent the night talking?”
I shrugged. “I said ‘mostly’.”
Amused curiosity flared in his eyes. “What was it he did to ye when ye werena talking ?”
“Who said he was the one doing things to me?”
“That’s how it was, was it?” He bit his bottom lip.
Though not as mercurial as he was last June, Jamie’s emotional shifts had the potential to be quite formidable. I reeled in my teasing and answered cautiously, “If you must know...he made love to me. He was very tender.”
“Quite the gentleman.”
Jamie took in our surroundings. “Ye’re saying he didna have ye out behind a dung-filled carriage shed?”
“No, he didn’t. In fact, he took great care with his hygiene. His face was freshly shaved,” I traced a teasing finger down Jamie’s full beard, “and he wore French cologne. We made love next to a warm hearth and filled our bellies with fine tea smuggled in from London.”
“Gentle love-making and tea?” He shook his head in disgust. “Sassenachs.”
“I heard your evening with John was a little more vigorously spent?”
He smirked, quite proud of himself.
“He told me all about it, you know.”
“Did he now?” he chuckled. “I bet the puir bastard was crawling out of his skin wi’ yer interrogations, Sassenach.”
“He endured with grace, I must say.” I traced Jamie’s lips with my fingertips, enjoying the smooth surface in the midst of his rugged beard. “He told me about what you asked him to do.”
“The buggery? Aye. He refused. I canna say I’m much distraught over it. I wasna ready; he knew so better than I.”
I held his face in my hands, seeing tension in his brow that wasn’t there before. “What happened, darling?”
He narrowed his eyes as though he was looking back through his memory. “My mind and my body werena in the same place. I wanted to give myself to him, but the memory of my body is even more stubborn than my heid.”
For someone with such physical mastery over himself, it was clearly infuriating for Jamie to feel so out of control. Hoping to bring some comfort, I kissed him softly. “John doesn’t need that from you. He just wants you happy.”
“I ken that well enough.”
“You don’t have to force yourself.”
“I want this, Claire. Ye ken I do. I think…’tis only that I needed ye there wi’ me. My body kens all is well wi’ ye in my arms.”
“Oh, Jamie.” I wrapped myself around him and held his head to my breast.
“’Tis alright, mo chridhe. We’re all together now.”
I released him and inspected his face to ensure his words were honest. Satisfied, I cuddled back into his neck.
“Well, we will be together again soon, when John returns from town, of course.”
“Hmphm . Creditors?”
“If only he’d held out for a day. I’ve enough in my purse to hold them over for...well...long enough.”
“How did it go on your end? Did you run into any problems?”
“All was well. Although, I am about starved. Is there any food in the house besides John’s damn salted meat?”
“Your son is in there cooking lunch as we speak.”
“He has quite the talent for it.” I decided to let him fill his belly with food and drink before informing him where exactly his son acquired said talent.
We stood and made our way back around the carriage house. As we walked by the door, Jamie stopped in his tracks and inhaled deeply.
“Shite,” he groaned, his shoulders falling in defeat.
I patted him on the cheek and lifted up on my toes to kiss him. “Welcome back, darling. I’ll have a bottle of whisky waiting for you, shall I?”
“Hmphm,” he confirmed, before turning on his heel to go find a broom.
“Careful with that poisoned pawn,” said Brianna. She was standing over her brother’s shoulder, looking at the chess match Jamie and Willie were having.
“Poisoned pawn?” asked Willie.
“He’s luring you into position here.” She pointed to another part of the board. “Don’t fall for it.”
Jamie sat across from his children. He had a whisky in his hand and a smile in his eyes. His muscles were loose and relaxed—a man well satisfied. I refilled his glass while Bree and Willie attempted to derail his attack. I left the bottle on the table, knowing it would likely be needed again soon.
Everything was almost as it should be...if only John would come home and complete the picture.
Soon, I told myself. We’d all be together soon.
Jamie grabbed my hand, his eyes knowing on mine. “I’m sure he’s fine, Sassenach.”
“You’re worried about Lord John?” asked Brianna. “Did he say when he might be back?”
“Sometime this evening,” I said.
“It’s not unusual for him to arrive home late on business,” said William. “When he takes the trip into town, he attends to multiple errands at once to avoid the necessity of additional excursions.”
William was right, of course. I took Jamie’s glass and sipped a bit of whisky, trying not to ruminate on John’s absence and just enjoy a peaceful moment with my family. Jamie pulled me close to where he sat, his hand rubbing up and down my hip as he considered his next move.
“Who taught you how to play?” Willie asked Jamie. “Was it your own father?”
“Nay. ’Twas my Uncle Colum—my mother’s brother. I fostered wi’ the MacKenzies as a lad. When I wasna spending time wi’ the tutor, my Uncle Dougal insisted he batter me wi’ a blade by day, then Colum would do it again wi’ a chessboard at night. Sharp and calculating, my Uncle Colum. He had a great mind for strategy.”
“He was cunning and devious,” I said with a strange mix of affection and vexation. “The only person I ever met who could give him a run for his money was the sly ol’ Fox himself.”
“Old Fox?” asked William.
“Yer great-grandsire,” Jamie chuckled. “My father’s father. Simon Fraser...the former Lord Lovat.”
“However, he was more ruthless and wily, as opposed to Colum’s shrewd and cunning," I said.
“How did you and Aunt Jenny come out unscathed?” Brianna asked her father. “Grandda Brian and Grandma Ellen didn’t inherit their family’s guile?”
Jamie and I both snorted aloud.
“They most certainly did,” said Jamie. “I’ve told ye how they schemed to run off wi’ each other and obtain their own fine bit of land, did I no’? They were as devious as their parents before them, only, ’twas tempered by the softness they carried for each other and their children.”
“Can you not think of someone who might be prone to devise a scheme or two in order to further his own self-interest?” I asked Brianna.
Her eyes moved to her father who was smirking into his whisky glass. She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “That must be where Jemmy and Mandy get it from. They’ll be positively unmanageable when they’re grown.”
“Schemes?” said Willie, looking between the three of us. “What sort of schemes have you devised?”
“Never mind that, laddie,” said Jamie. “’Tis of nae consequence.”
“Did any of these schemes happen while you were living in the brothel?” Willie was trying vainly not to laugh, his eyes glittering with amusement and his cheeks scrunched up like his father’s.
Jamie’s mouth dropped open. He looked back and forth between me and Brianna, trying to find the informant. He settled on me, my face revealing the guilty party. “Et tu, Sassenach?”
I shrugged unapologetically, “We were picking squash in the garden. He caught me in my vulnerable place, darling. He’s just as devious as you are, apparently.”
“So, ’tis no’ yer fault ye rattled off all my secrets, then?”
I watched William and Brianna whisper to each other quickly before making another move while their father was occupied with me. Willie sat back, smirking with no little self-pride.
“Will you tell me of your schemes in the brothel, Mac?” said Willie, his tone full of exaggerated interest.
“Aye, I suppose I can.” He sipped his whisky, eyes twinkling mischievously. “I kent the madam there was struggling to find a decent price for whisky. I may ha’ set up a wee bit of a smuggling business wi’ my cousin Jared in Paris to supply her wi’ an affordable product.”
“All the while, he was printing and distributing seditious pamphlets,” I added.
“Freedom and whisky gang together,” said Roger from the card table where he was playing whist with Ian.
“Indeed, they do,” Jamie smiled at me. The softness in his eyes was irresistible. I placed a gentle kiss on his lips and lovingly caressed his bearded cheek.
Brianna and Willie were unperturbed by our overt display of affection. They used the time to strategize against their father. Jamie was most certainly privy to their strategy of distraction, but he didn’t seem to remotely care.
“Your turn, Da,” said Bree, grinning at the board like Charles Stuart eyeing Jared’s best bottle of Bordeaux.
Jamie hardly pulled his gaze away from my eyes as he made his move with complete nonchalance.
Willie responded aggressively with his queen before asking, “So, you’ve always had a hand in making and distributing spirits?”
“Aye. Jared taught me a wee bit when I was a lad, and I picked up a few things along the way.”
“I can’t fault your results.” Willie picked up his own glass and inhaled deeply before taking a sip. “You know, Papa and I have a distributor in Richmond who would pay a pretty penny for a few barrels.”
“Oh, aye? Ye sell him yer wine?”
“We do. Actually, we have a number of contacts up and down the seaboard from Philadelphia to Savannah. If you’re ever looking to expand your reach, I’m sure Papa and I would be pleased to facilitate introductions.”
“I may take ye up on that, lad.” Jamie held his son’s gaze, recognizing the olive branch for what it was.
William was the first to look away. He sipped his whisky and stared down at the board. Jamie’s grip tightened around my hip before he made his next move.
He looked back and forth between his offspring, then a smirk played across his face. “Check.”
“What?” said Willie in disbelief.
“No!” said Bree.
Jamie gave a self-satisfied chortle as he refilled his glass. “I’d suggest ye practice developing yer skill. Neither of ye have enough guile to best me wi’ distraction, ye’d do better to focus yer energy on mastering the game rather than tricking yer opponent.”
Brianna stood and rolled her eyes. “This is why no one wants to play with you except Lord John.”
“And how about Papa?” asked Willie, grinning broadly. “On the rare occasion he wins, does he best you with skill or distraction?”
“It would have to be skill,” said Bree. “John is too honorable for deception.”
Jamie and I exchanged a glance. The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement. “I dinna think ye ken our host as well as ye think, a nighean.”
Willie’s eyes glittered in amusement. “I bet you have a few stories you could tell us about Papa.”
“Hmphm,” Jamie grinned into his glass once again. He took a long drink and said, “Aye, but sometimes, the best stories are the ones ye’ll take wi’ ye to the grave.”
“I thought you told me not to worry?” I said later that evening, watching Jamie stare out the window down Mt. Josiah’s drive. It was barely visible in the pale moonlight.
“I’m no’ worried,” he grumbled.
“Hmphm,” I made my own version of a Scottish noise.
I soaked a sponge in the warm water near the fire and then worked up a lather to finish up the last of my bath. He didn’t respond further until I was rinsing myself off with a wet cloth.
“Alright, I’m a wee bit concerned, aye,” he conceded.
“Staring down the drive won’t make him come home any sooner,” I said, wondering how I suddenly became the one doing the comforting. “I’m sure he decided to stay the night in town. It’s not safe traveling alone through the forest after dark.”
“Aye.” He still didn’t look away.
“Come here, darling. Let me give you a wash. You’ve been traveling a long time.”
Jamie sighed deeply, but reluctantly pulled himself away from the window. He peeled off his clothes and cast them aside. I stood to give him my seat near the basin.
Tension radiated off him in waves. I ran the lathered sponge over his broad, stiff shoulders. Gooseflesh rose up with a shiver as his body adjusted to the warm water on his skin.
I spoke in a vain attempt to turn his thoughts away from John. “Things seemed to be going well with Willie tonight.”
“Aye,” he rumbled. “The lad still has his reservations, but I can feel him warming to me.”
“I spoke with him earlier, you know. We had an illuminating conversation.”
“So I gathered.” He reached back to pinch my leg playfully. “Ye told him about the brothel?”
“I did. He was worried you’d think less of him for his recent choice in female companionship. I assured him you didn’t have a leg to stand on for that kind of moral argument.”
“Hmphm. I suppose ye’re right.” He stretched out his back as I washed down each of his sides. “What was it that was so illuminating?”
“He’s struggling to integrate all his conflicting conceptualizations of you. Are you the Mac of his infancy? The Mr. Fraser of his adolescence? The deceitful father of his early manhood? Or something else entirely?”
“Aye, I see. Ye ken, there was a time when I struggled with the same questions myself.” His hand reached out to stroke my face. “I was a shattered soul wi’out ye, Claire. When ye came back to me, who I was before didna matter anymore. If all else faded away, I’d still be me, because I love you.”
I put my hand over his heart. “I love all the pieces of you, James Fraser. And I’ll take any of those pieces I can get.”
He leaned forward to kiss me, my body coming alive at the touch of his lips. His eyes were adoring, watching me as he pulled away. After all our years together, the man still made my heart race and stole the breath from my lips.
I shook my head and forced myself back to the task at hand—though scrubbing Jamie’s body did nothing to slow my speeding heart.
“Ye ken, Sassenach, I spent years living in that brothel, but only one memory stands out above the rest.”
I smiled, looking up at him through my lashes. “One of the happiest nights of my life.”
“Twenty years, mo ghraidh,” his voice was pained. “To have ye back after so long...to hold ye and lie wi’ ye again...to have so much fear of losing ye after decades of forgetting the meaning of the word.”
“You needn’t fear losing me, darling. I’m still here.”
“Thank the Lord for that.”
His muscles began to relax as I finished his wash. He particularly liked when I massaged his scalp and beard. I inhaled the floral scent of my shampoo, pleased with how soft it made his hair.
“You must be exhausted traveling so long,” I said, rinsing off the soap.
“Nae. I slept fine wi’out the children and the Ridge to tend to. My only discomfort was laying down wi’out my wife by my side.”
“Well, you have her now. What do you intend to do with her?”
He smirked and eyed me appraisingly, as though contemplating his answer with great care. He took the cloth from my hands and tossed it aside. “I intend to savor her.”
He stood abruptly and pulled me into his arms, gazing at me with the longing of a man who’d spent twenty years without the love of his life. He kissed me slowly; passion absorbed through my skin, heating my blood more than the fire beside us. He held me so tight, I thought his arms might encircle me two times over. My hands tangled in his damp hair, and his beard tickled soft against my skin.
He lifted me up, and his tongue pushed in my mouth. My feet dangled inches off the floor, rubbing against his legs. The hair on his chest scratched pleasantly against my breasts. I felt weightless in his arms as he carried me to bed.
He lay me down with his massive body over mine. His kisses were firm and slow, his eagerness sated by our last encounter. He was doing just as he intended...savoring me.
My naked body delighted in having its partner back to be doted on once again. His large, familiar hands stirred up excitement in every nerve they touched. As he kissed down my neck and breasts, each part of my anatomy seemed to be celebrating his return and welcoming his lips back home. My thighs spread wide of their own accord, anticipating the attention he would pay what lay between.
He gripped my bottom with both hands, as though ready to devour a meal. I felt his warm breath before his tongue touched down, licking from bottom to top. His lips closed over my clitoris, and he sucked it gently, massaging with his tongue.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.” I didn’t know if I was cursing or praying.
Jamie wasn’t teasing or taunting, he licked with intent to fulfill. His bearded mouth stimulated my sensitive flesh, as though stroking me with a soft-bristled brush. This man knew my body and knew my pleasure, and his mouth was determined to elicit as much of it as he could.
He licked through my folds, made all the more hot and slick by his skilled tongue. My thighs tried squeezing his head, desperate to trap him there and rub out the ache building inside, but his hands pinned them down, spreading me wider still. He fluttered his tongue over my most sensitive places as I rolled my hips to beg for more.
Orgasm washed over me in a great wave, starting from his mouth and flowing out to my extremities. It crashed into my heart with fretful delirium, then washed over my mind with a buzzing euphoria.
Little in the world could give me greater pleasure than my husband’s tongue.
As Jamie rained down lazy kisses all over my quim, I heard a sound at the door through my pleasured haze. Both our heads snapped around; I was still too boneless and paralyzed by climax to move much else. Jamie, however, rose up on his knees as the door creaked open.
I didn’t know if I was more relieved or concerned at seeing John’s face. Dark scruff covered his jaw, and his eyes were tired despite his obvious pleasure in coming home to his guests.
“Mo charaid,” said Jamie. My moisture on his lips gleamed in the firelight as he grinned. I attempted to sit up with him, but he put a hand on my chest keeping me pinned down. “What in God’s name are ye doing home so late?”
“I should have stayed in town, but I was eager to return. When I put my horse in the stables, I noticed you’d arrived. I came straight upstairs to welcome you.”
He peeled off his coat and tossed it on a chair. To my surprise, he bent over the bed and kissed me before Jamie; typically, he deferred to Jamie in acknowledgement of his claim over me, but seemed to be of the mind this evening that ladies should be attended to first.
His kiss was sweet and gentle on my lips, but the shadowy scruff of his beard was rough against my surrounding skin. It was stimulating in a whole different way than Jamie’s long beard. The conflicting texture had me wrapping my arms around his neck to hold him there longer.
Jamie rumbled from where he knelt between my legs. His hand dropped to touch me, running his fingers through my slick, sensitive flesh.
John licked in my mouth one last time before he pulled away, heat radiating from his eyes. “Hello, my dear.”
“Welcome home, darling.”
He turned to Jamie, cock straining in his trousers, and kissed him much the same way. Jamie’s hand left me to hold John’s face as their tongues met.
“Mmmm,” John hummed. He licked his lips. “I’d ask what you two have been up to, but I think I can draw my own conclusions. Would you mind terribly if I joined you?”
“As if ye need to ask.” Jamie bit his lip, watching John remove his sark. “Before ye arrived, I was demonstrating to Claire how terribly I missed her while I was gone.”
“Please, don’t let me interrupt,” he said as he unbuttoned his trousers. “Perhaps I’ll have something to add to your demonstration. I find myself missing her even when merely parted a few hours.”
Jamie grinned down at me with amusement. “Ye like that, d’ye no’, Sassenach? Ye’ve got us both miserable wi’out ye.”
I stretched my arms over my head and purred like a kitten. “Well, I’m sure you boys could find some way to pass the time without me, but since I’m here with you now, you’re welcome to bestow your affections however you see fit.” I butterflied my legs open in invitation.
Jamie chuckled as he laid down to resume his position from moments before. He rubbed his beard back and forth, causing a loud squeak to erupt from my mouth.
John sat on the edge of the bed, amused by my outburst. He smelled like a man who’d been riding long and hard all day, traces of last night’s cologne hardly detectable. I very much liked this rugged side of him that I so rarely got to see. He kissed me deeply, his tongue ardently caressing my own.
My two men each doted on a different set of lips. My body rolled in waves, uncertain of which man’s mouth it should focus on, which mouth it should rise up to meet. I found myself undulating, arching up first to John, then to Jamie.
John’s hand began kneading my breasts, sensual and exploring, grasping handfuls of malleable flesh. He kissed down my throat, letting loose my mouth to release its moans.
Jamie’s tongue dipped inside me before pulling back and licking around the rim. Then, he plunged in deep again.
I forced myself to lay still to feel both mouths at once. Never had I imagined anything quite like this. Perhaps it was because I had always thought of John and I as both being in love with Jamie. Our sexual encounters seemed to revolve around him even when he wasn’t there.
But something changed between us last night. The intimacy...the attraction...the desire. I wanted him and he wanted me whether Jamie was present or not.
And now, my husband and my lover were pleasuring me together. Jamie licked the tip of my clitoris as John turned his body and kissed down my abdomen. John’s cock was hard and exposed where he sat next to me, so I took it in my hand to sate the need to do something. His grunt was muffled against my skin as I started stroking.
John’s tongue traced down my belly until he reached my quim, facing down where Jamie faced up. Jamie made space, allowing John alongside him, two tongues assaulting me with quick, flicking licks.
“Oh God!” I moaned, trying to thrust my pelvis in the air, but Jamie had my thighs pinned down, and John’s weight was heavy on my body.
Their tongues wouldn’t stop or slow. It was somehow even more maddening when they tangled together, stealing kisses between fluttering licks.
As orgasm neared, I could feel Jamie grow more excited. His grip on my skin was almost painful, but still not hard enough. I shrieked as I came, trying to feel more of everything. My body convulsed under their skilled mouths and hands.
Jamie dropped his tongue down to lick inside me as orgasm went on. John’s lips sealed over my clitoris, not allowing me to come down from climax. In truth, I was uncertain if I orgasmed again or if it was the same one still carrying on, but it wouldn’t stop. As much as I wanted it to go on forever, I was certain I couldn’t take anymore.
“God, I need ye, Sassenach!” Jamie finally released me and got up on his knees. He lifted my pelvis, dislodging John, and shoved himself in before my climax finished. A moan resonated deep in my chest at being filled so full when my body was completely out of control.
John bent back down to take my clitoris again. I reached out to him scratching my nails along his back, trying to make him feel something close to the intensity of what he was doing to me.
Jamie moved his hips, fucking into me. His thrusts were short and fast, allowing John to lick the space where Jamie’s cock met my quim. I could feel Jamie’s restraint, wanting more of John’s mouth, but fighting the need to drive into me.
“Christ, man! Stop, or I’ll no’ go on!”
John kissed up his body as Jamie resumed with harder thrusts. John’s mouth on Jamie’s nipple elicited an aching groan from my feral Scot, and his hips hammered harder against mine.
Just when I was certain I couldn't take anymore, Jamie pulled out and pushed John away. He bent over, breathing hard, trying to stop himself from coming.
Seizing his opportunity, John took his place between my legs. Unprepared for the intrusion, I squeezed him tight, contracting around him, setting off another orgasm. I moaned into the pillow, biting down on the soft linen cover.
John lay over me, driving in hard. Just like Jamie, he was near his limit—I was far past mine, my vision unfocused and my awareness fading.
How much longer could we possibly last?
Just as I thought John would release himself, he stilled his hips with his cock deep inside me. He bit his lip and groaned as something heavy pressed his body harder into mine.
Jamie was taking him from behind. I lay there spread out and exhausted as John set the pace between us. I could no longer tell the difference between climax and arousal. It was a never ending barrage of sensation.
When John came, he buried his face in my hair and growled incoherently until his finish. I wrapped my arms around him, needing something to hold onto.
Jamie’s climax came shortly after, and I feared he might collapse on John and crush me further into the mattress. Just aware enough to be conscientious, he rolled to the side and fell heavily on the bed.
Moments later, I was asleep.
Quiet laughter and rumbling voices woke me in the dark hours of the night. I tried to open my eyes, but they refused to comply. Any attempts to rub them awake were thwarted by the inability to raise my arms. Every inch of my body ached and was weak from exertion.
“Ye alright, Sassenach?” Jamie sat next to me, his weight pressing the bed down, causing me to roll into him. The floral scent of my soap filled my nose at his presence.
Finally able to open my eyes, I looked up at my husband. He was still naked, and his beard was covered in suds. I ran a hand over his chest and could tell he washed away the sweat from our last few industrious hours.
With love in his eyes, he gazed down on me and gently caressed my cheek. “Are ye in pain, mo nighean donn?”
“I feel like a casualty of a war between the Scots and English.”
“I think we were all on the same side this time.”
“How progressive.” I touched the soap on his beard. “Are you shaving?”
“Aye. I left my blade at the Ridge, so John is letting me use his.”
I pouted a little; I’d miss the beard.
“Ye want me to keep it?”
“No. Take it off. As much as I enjoyed it, you both could use a shave. I’m so raw, I don’t think I’ll be able to sit comfortably for some time.” I cupped myself to comfort my battered quim.
His eyes flared with pride. In a tender gesture at odds with the wild look in his eyes, he placed a rogue strand of hair behind my ear, “D’ye need anything, Sassenach? Will any of yer wee herbs help ye feel better?”
“Not at the moment. Perhaps I’ll try to find some aloe in the morning. For now, I could just use another wash.”
“Let me finish wi’ this beard and I’ll come wipe ye down, aye?” He dropped his forehead to mine, careful not to let the soap touch my skin.
John stood at the basin near the hearth, sharpening his straight razor. Jamie moved to the seat he recently vacated, smartly avoiding the rocking chair by the fire. He sat with his chin up and his eyes closed. John smiled at me before he took the razor in his right hand and brought it to Jamie’s face.
It was a beautiful sight to behold, two men of war naked by the fire. John’s cock hung heavy and relaxed as he leaned into Jamie, scraping off the weeks worth of growth. Despite my body’s objections, I wanted a closer look.
I tried not to groan as I forced myself out of bed. Every step was painful, but it was worth it to watch with a decent view. John had a careful hand and a loving touch.
Being that I was already there, I took a wet cloth and washed between my legs. Arms weak with exhaustion, I dropped the cloth and was forced to bend over to pick it up.
“Look,” Jamie told John, “that’s the real Fraser’s Ridge right there.”
John chuckled and ran a hand down the crack of my arse. “The glories of nature. I’ve heard tell of a great geyser at the south end.”
I batted his hand away, “It’s private property, and it’s been ravaged by raging beasts. Keep off.”
Unable to stand any longer, I made my way back to the bed. I laid face down in the center, all interest lost in the majestic sight only feet away.
The men finished quickly and joined me in bed, Jamie to my left and John to my right. I grumbled as their bodyweight jostled me around. Jamie’s hand moved possessively down my back and over the Ridge, caressing it like he did the soil of his land.
“You’ll no’ run off to town anymore wi’out me now, will ye?” Jamie asked John, apparently continuing a conversation they were having while I was asleep.
“I don’t see any reason to leave Mt. Josiah for the time being. Don’t worry.”
I forced myself to look up between them. “Did something happen?”
“It was nothing, my dear. Just a little skirmish on my way out of town.”
I rolled over and sat up. “Someone attacked you?”
John smirked, reminding me more of Jamie than himself. “They attempted to accost me, but failed.”
I looked down at John’s hands and found evidence of a fight on his knuckles. “John! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now. They were sloppy and untrained. Brutes, not soldiers. I was more than capable of chasing them off.”
“Do you know who they were?”
“I can only guess. They didn’t identify themselves as they ran off.”
“Ye got a good look at them?” asked Jamie. “If ye see them again, ye’ll ken who they are?”
“It was quite dark; I saw very little.”
Jamie put a hand on John’s shoulder. “I wish there was more we could do. I’d like to ride into town and find the bastards who did this.”
“You know you can’t do that. I need your help here. You’re doing plenty as it is.”
“John,” I said, “you’ve had the weight of the world on your shoulders for most of your life. You’ve been there for our family countless times. You don’t have to deal with these things alone anymore. We’re here now. We’ll help you just as you’ve helped us.”
His smile was soft and sincere. His eyes misted over as he took my hand. “You’ll never know just how much that means to me.”
I lifted his hand and kissed his battered knuckles.
“We have our plan, my dear. Let’s just stick to it.”
I nodded my reluctant agreement, fearful we hadn’t heard the last of those men who attacked John.
All three of us were drained from the madness of the day. I laid my head on John’s chest, and Jamie curled his massive body around us both.
As I was beginning to drift off, a thought crossed my mind, jolting me awake. “Oh! There’s something I meant to talk to you both about, though I suppose it could wait until morning.”
“What is it, Sassenach?”
“Willie. I think...well, I don’t feel comfortable lying to him anymore. I think we should talk to him and let him know the truth.”
I felt John’s hand stiffen on my arse. “Why on Earth would we do that? It could ruin everything.”
“We lied to him his whole life about who his father was. If he found out the truth about this and realized we were lying again…”
“Claire,” said Jamie dismissively, “ye’re right, we should talk about this in the morning after ye get some rest. Ye’ll be thinking more clearly then.”
“Just, consider it, will you? He’ll never learn to trust you if you don't trust him.”
“We’ll think about it, aye? Now, go to sleep, mo nighean donn. We’ve had a long day.”
And I was certain this would only be the first of many long days in the coming weeks.
Chapter 5: Truth is Fire
Truth is fire, and to speak the truth is to shine and burn.
- Leopold Schefer
— Claire —
Kisses from a beardless face tickled behind my ear, attempting to wake me from a deep, restful slumber. I grumbled and tried to push him away, but my arms were too weak to apply force. Jamie chuckled and kissed me once more before moving on.
“If she had any strength, I’d fear for your safety,” said John. “Leave the poor woman alone.”
“Dinna let her fool ye,” said Jamie. “She whines a wee bit when she’s tired, but if ye nibble on her ears, she’ll come around.”
If I had the energy, I would’ve told him to bugger off, but thankfully, he made no further effort to disturb me. The reason for his distraction became clear when the mattress shifted and rumbling moans sounded next to me.
I peeked through my eyelids and confirmed my suspicion. Jamie’s large, muscular body lay over John’s. Their limbs were entwined and their mouths sealed together. The rocking of the mattress came from their rolling hips, grinding against each other.
I watched them in my semiconscious haze, as though it was the most natural thing in the world to witness one’s husband making love to another man. It was a beautiful sight, and if my body wasn’t so wasted from the night before, I’d be diving into the fray.
There was much to be said for observing these men without intention to interfere. It was a beautiful dance of masculine affection. Gone was all Jamie’s awkward lustfulness of the summer; it was replaced by a sweet and tender passion.
I watched lazily as Jamie pivoted around to take John’s cock in his mouth, and John did the same to him. Fully alert and oriented now, I was tempted to somehow join in, but when I tried to move, my soreness overpowered my ambition. I resigned myself to watching my men pleasure each other and accept this moment as a voyeuristic glimpse into the time they spent alone without me.
Their golden skin tautly covered straining muscle and sinew that rocked back and forth as they moved their heads and hips. Even with their initial intentions of tenderness, they couldn’t inhibit their natural aggression while being pleasured so thoroughly. A biting growl from one man’s throat would cause a wild bucking of another’s hips. They were both at each other’s mercy.
Climax was a loud and triumphant affair, first John, then Jamie. After the pained delirium faded from their faces, Jamie rolled onto the bed between us, and a beautiful satisfaction took its place.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” I said, stroking Jamie’s leg that lay closest to my head.
Jamie’s whole body chuckled next to me.
“Apologies, my dear,” said John. “Did we disturb your rest?”
“A most pleasant disruption. As magnificent as the dawn itself.”
Jamie sat up chuckling. “If ye ask me, I’d say it far eclipsed the brilliance of dawn.”
“Yes, I suppose it was quite an eclipse. I had a glorious view of the moon.” I reached over and pinched his arse. He leaned in and kissed me good morning with the taste of John on his lips.
As Jamie slid off the bed to ready himself for the day, John moved into the space he vacated. John’s lips were soft and delicate on mine, such a contrast to the way they were moving on Jamie’s cock not long before.
“How are you this morning, my dear?” His hand roamed gently up and down my spine. “Feeling any better?”
He kissed across my jaw and murmured, “I’m sorry we were so unrelenting last night. You’re far too delectable for your own good.”
“Waking with the aches and pains of a night spent subject to the ministrations of your unrelenting admiration is no hardship, I assure you. As soon as I’m recovered, I’ll find means to return the favor.”
“I look forward to it.”
He held me close as our attention turned to Jamie, who was folding the pleats of his plaid. Contented sighs escaped our lips when Jamie bent over in front of us, displaying his glorious backside. He peered over his shoulder and shook his head indulgently.
“What do you gentlemen have planned for today?” I asked.
“Just the morning chores and more preparations,” said John.
“I think he’s taking Ian and Brianna to help with the bottling at the wine shed while Roger gives lessons to the children.”
I waited for Jamie to make a snide comment about the poor children having to endure such torture, but as he lay down over his kilt to belt it on, his thoughts were on his son. “Why ye asking about Willie, Sassenach? Ye’re no’ still wanting to tell him the truth, are ye?”
“As a matter of fact, I am. I was serious when I brought it up last night.”
“Serious, but no’ sensible.” He stood with his kilt belted around his hips and his body otherwise bare. If he didn’t just call me insensible, I might’ve had to forego my recovery and ravish him.
He came back to the bed and sat on the edge next to me. As he eyed me with scrutiny, I felt surrounded by Jamie and John, overwhelmed by their imposing masculinity. It only made me push my point harder. “What did I say that was so insensible? William told me himself that he’s cautious of trusting you again, given the gravity of the lies you’ve told him in the past. He knows you’re capable of justifying more of the same if you thought it was for his own good. He’s an adult now. He has every right to know the truth. We shouldn’t be lying to him, not about this.”
“We’re no’ lying. Misleading, to be sure, but I’ve no’ lied to the lad.”
“He won’t see it that way, and you know it. Secrets are understandable between friends, but if you want to obtain the closeness with your son that you crave, he deserves honesty. Believe me, Jamie, the secrets I kept from Brianna put a wall between us; you’re doing the same to William.”
Jamie shook his head. “No. There is room for secrets wi’ a child—a grown child at that. I dinna want to ken all the whores he’s taken up wi’, and he has no need to ken everything I do.”
“You’re right that a person is allowed to have their secrets if they don’t affect the people they love, but our secret affects the very foundation of his life. It’s his secret as much as ours.”
He shook his head again, but I could see he was considering the validity of my words. “Sassenach, it could ruin everything. He may try to put a stop to it.”
I shrugged. “He has every right to have an opinion about this.”
Jamie turned to John, “Tell her, man. We canna let anyone ken what we’re doing.”
John looked between us as he considered his response. He was generally careful with his words, but all the more so when forced to choose a side between his two loves.
“She does have a point, Jamie. You aren’t the only one William was angry with when he found out the truth of his parentage. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m begging for his forgiveness again.”
Jamie looked almost betrayed. “Better to ask his forgiveness than permission.”
“Excuse me?” I snapped. “When you killed the man who assaulted me without my permission, was that your logic?”
Jamie shook his head. “I never needed your permission to protect what’s mine, Claire.”
“You stubborn Scot,” I grunted and pushed my way past him off the bed, sore muscles be damned.
“I think we should all go down and get something to eat,” said John, nervously. “We can continue this discussion once our bellies are full and we’re all calmed d…”
“Wheesht,” said Jamie, dismissing him.
“I am perfectly calm!” I said. “I was only suggesting we be honest with William for your sake, Jamie. But fine. We’ll do whatever you want. If he finds out the truth another way, at least he won’t be angry with me for lying to him yet again!”
“Aye, and I’ll deal wi’ his anger just as I’ve done yers.”
I’d had enough of his stubbornness for the moment. I threw on my shift and set to getting dressed. I could see John awkwardly getting out of bed and hunting down his clothes. Jamie looked between the both of us and grumbled something about the “b loody English ” under his breath.
With very little talking and an excessive amount of grunting, Jamie was the first of us completely dressed. He made to leave the room in a huff, but stopped as soon as he opened the door.
“William?” said Jamie, stepping out into the hall and closing the door behind him. John and I moved quietly to listen in, exchanging glances of relief that Willie didn’t catch a glimpse of his Papa getting dressed after an amorous night with his father and stepmother.
“Good morning,” said Willie, his voice muffled through the door. “I’m sorry to bother you.”
“Ye’re nae bother. What ails, lad?”
“It’s only...I seem to have misplaced my... your ...rosary. I can’t seem to find it anywhere.”
“I’m sure it’ll turn up. Perhaps one of the children was playing wi’ it.”
“I certainly hope not. I’d hate for something to happen to it. I’ve had it most of my life. It’s impor...” he cut off. “I’d just rather it remain intact.”
Jamie was quiet a moment, and when he did speak, his voice cracked, “Aye...I ken.”
“Would you mind asking Mother Claire to keep an eye out for it?”
“Of course, lad. I’ll do so now.”
The sounds of awkward shuffling suggested a return to formality. Willie’s footsteps faded before Jamie reentered the room. The three of us exchanged significant glances as the bubble of our secret world nearly popped.
Jamie ultimately shrugged and mumbled to John, “Just be careful when ye leave the room, aye?”
He turned to go, but I grabbed his hand to stop him. “You heard in William’s voice how meaningful that rosary is to him.”
His eyes dropped to the floor, and his teeth ground together.
“Don’t ruin what hard-earned trust you fought to get back with all this deception.”
His eyes met mine, and I could see them misting over. He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it gently.
He looked to John and mumbled, “I’ll meet ye down at the stables,” before he gave my hand one last squeeze and walked away.
Sneaking around at my age was even less thrilling in execution than concept, particularly when the sneaking was meant to deceive my own family. It was beginning to feel a little too like Paris with all our deceptions. Thankfully, we didn’t have the future of an entire culture resting on our shoulders this time. Additionally, we had the fulfillment of each other’s company to withstand all the dissonance of our actions.
I yearned for the day when there might be no more ruses or devious stratagems, that we could live our life in peace and not constantly look over our shoulders. These thoughts were foremost in my mind in the midst of doing some such sneaking later that week.
John and I were coming out of a small shed near the carriage house after being quite up to no good only moments before. I had just closed the door and wiped the sweat of exertion from my brow when Brianna’s voice sounded behind us.
“Mama? What were you two doing in there?”
“Oh!” My face heated, and my heart jumped into my throat. John was even less composed than me, which was unsurprising, considering what I’d just done to him. “Nothing much. Just...uh...making fresh penicillin. You never know when we’ll need it.”
“I thought you were making it inside? I saw your microscope and moldy bread out in one of John’s spare rooms.”
“Right. Well, I wasn’t having any luck indoors, so I thought I’d see if the right spores were floating around out here.”
John smiled formally and nodded his confirmation.
“Come now, darling, help me get dinner on. We can’t rely on William to cook all our meals.”
John didn’t follow alongside us. Instead, he backed away in the opposite direction. “I’ll just go find Jamie and see if he requires assistance with anything.”
“Don’t be late for dinner.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” He bowed graciously and strode away.
Brianna narrowed her brow at our bizarre behavior. I was once so much better at lying. I hooked her arm and urged her forward, hoping she had enough lingering childhood compliance to do as I instructed without any more questions. She came along with me, though the tension in her body betrayed her reluctance. I did all I could not to look back at the site of our indiscretion and shift her attention forward.
“I’m sick of lying to our daughter,” I whispered to Jamie.
The house was abustle with children running wild and adults chasing after them. John and Jamie were having a dram in the kitchen to keep me company while I cooked.
Dinner was simmering in a pot over the fire, but it would still be some time before it was ready. The stew let off a mouth-watering scent of dried herbs, winter vegetables, and fresh venison.
“I ken, mo chridhe. I dinna care for it much myself.”
Jamie wrapped me in his arms, enveloping me in the sheer size of him. I closed my eyes and laid my cheek against his broad chest. He rained kisses on top of my head as we rocked a slow, steady rhythm, back and forth with the pace of his heart. I melted into him, listening to quiet Gaelic mutterings. It wasn’t long before his Highland spell brought me comforting peace.
I opened my eyes and found John watching us from across the kitchen. The urge to comfort me showed plain on his face. With all the traffic in the house, he was forced to keep his distance, but his sky blues yearned with unmistakable longing.
I found myself craving not only the privacy of our bedroom, but the freedom to love and touch each other as we saw fit.
Why couldn’t we live in a world where John was allowed to embrace us whenever he wanted? What harm would it do anyone if we were allowed to love each other openly?
I couldn’t imagine spending an entire lifetime in John’s shoes, saddled with the unfairness of bigoted expectation.
Jamie lifted my chin at the sudden return of tension. “’Tis alright, Sassenach. Everything will work out just fine. We’ll see it so.”
I nodded in agreement. We would ensure everything worked out as planned. I didn’t cross two hundred years of time and space to live a life half full.
He bent to kiss me softly, our bodies rubbing together with our swaying motion. When he kissed me like that, it really did feel as though everything would work out just fine.
The sound of John’s glass being set down on the table was clearly meant to remind us of his presence. I liked that he’d grown comfortable enough to assert himself in this relationship. I could feel his eyes on my body almost as if they were his hands. Jamie didn’t stop kissing me, though I knew his gaze was trained on John.
When Jamie’s lips left mine, he looked around the room in search of something. “Perhaps ye might need more wee herbs for yer stew, Sassenach?”
“More herbs?” Was he really concerned about the flavor of dinner when I just had my tongue in his mouth?
He looked to John. “Ye think ye might show us to yer pantry, mo charaid ?”
My confusion dissipated when I saw the significant look the men exchanged. Jamie wanted privacy. The children’s laughter echoed from somewhere deep in the house, and I couldn’t hear any sign of their parents.
“Of course,” said John. “It’s just around the corner.”
Jamie tucked me into his side, and we followed John to the pantry. He opened the door and waved us through before him. The scent of cured meats and dried herbs filled the air. It was dark and almost impossible to see once John closed the door. Jamie left my side, and I heard him collide with John. Muffled groans told me they succeeded bestowing the kisses they were longing for only moments before.
I reached out to the men to find my bearings. Jamie grabbed my arm and drew me close, moving his mouth from John’s to mine. John’s hand was in my hair, gripping the back of my head, waiting for us to take a breath before he pulled me in. His lips replaced Jamie’s, giving me the same attention as his predecessor.
I felt like a teenager, sneaking away from Uncle Lamb to kiss a boy concealed in the hanging keffiyeh at the market. My lips moved from man to man, frustrated I couldn’t kiss them both at once, even more frustrated when I couldn’t join the kisses they gave each other.
Heat spread throughout the small space, our bodies radiating off of one another. I could feel their need was as great as mine by the passion in their kisses and their erections against my hips.
Just as I began contemplating the logistics of intercourse in such cramped quarters, the sound of approaching footsteps stopped us in our tracks. John moved quietly toward the door, so that when it opened, he’d be concealed behind it.
Jamie pressed me up against a row of shelves in the direct line of sight of the door and began kissing me passionately. I stiffened at first—a natural reaction to someone walking in on our intimacy—but then forced myself to relax when I realized he was manufacturing a diversion meant to cause an intruder to avert their eyes. With his hands gripping my arse so firmly, if anyone in the family walked in on the scene, they would surely be driven away with shame. I couldn’t help the giggle that escaped my lips.
“Shhh,” Jamie said, though I could feel him smiling with me.
The door opened, and light shined in from the hall.
“Oh, dear God!” said William, standing frozen in shock.
Jamie hesitated a good long moment before turning his head and looking at his son. I kept my face buried in his neck.
“Apologies,” said William, who abruptly closed the door and walked quickly away. His footsteps faded from the hall before all three of us sighed in relief.
“Thank goodness he didn’t inherit your light-footedness,” I told Jamie.
“’Tis an acquired trait.”
John was back at our side, his hand tracing up and down my arm. “You two better go on. I’ll follow behind in a moment.”
“Aye,” said Jamie. He kissed John firmly before taking my hand and leading me toward the door. John grabbed my other hand and kissed it before Jamie pulled me out of reach.
I flushed more than a little at the thought of facing William after what his fathers were just doing to me in the pantry. I needn’t have worried; he was surprisingly unaffected by what he witnessed. He was too busy looking through the cupboards when we returned to the kitchen.
“I beg yer pardon,” Jamie said to announce our return. “The grandchildren give us little privacy, and…”
“Not at all,” said William, searching in another drawer. “I was only looking for a wooden ladle, or I wouldn’t have intruded at all. I saw the stew was simmering unattended, and I meant to check in on it. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the damn utensil.”
“The one I was using is just here on the counter,” I pointed it out.
“Yes, but that’s not the one I typically use.”
“A man likes his favorite tools,” said Jamie.
“What is so special about this ladle?” I asked.
William crouched down to look deep in the back of a cabinet. He spoke in a quiet mumble; I almost didn’t hear him. “A friend gave it to me.”
“Oh, I see.” It must have been a gift from his companion. That was surprising. I didn’t think the general inclination of whores was to bestow material generosity on their customers.
“I hope the children didn’t run off with it,” Willie said. “With my luck, they’ll be using it to launch manure at that loathsome sow.”
“We’ll keep an eye out for it,” Jamie assured him. “Would ye like me to talk with the wee fools about keeping their hands off yer possessions?”
William seemed to resign himself of its absence in the kitchen. “No, I’ll talk to them myself. If they didn’t take it, perhaps they can help me find it.”
“That’s a good plan,” I said.
Before he left, he took the spoon I was using to cook the stew and dipped it in the pot for a taste. He let the flavor sit on his palate before a cringe took over his face. “If you don’t mind, Mother Claire, I’d recommend a small bit of thyme and a generous amount of salt before it’s served.”
Jamie chuckled, and I smacked him in the arm.
“Thank you, William. I’ll heed your suggestions.”
He nodded formally before taking his leave. As I watched him go, a gentle hand moved to the small of my back, making me jump in my still rattled state.
“It’s only me,” whispered John. “I’m sorry I frightened you.”
“It’s alright. I’m just...jumpy.” I looked back and forth between Jamie and John. “He doesn’t seem to suspect a thing.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
Jamie shook his head. “I ken what ye’re thinking, Sassenach. The answer is still no .”
“We’ve been hiding so much from him. He’s going to be furious when he finds out. This is one thing we can give him.”
“He won’t find out.”
“The truth has a way of coming out. If we tell him before he grows suspicious...”
“’Tis a risk we canna take.”
“Jamie,” said John, “I...I think we should have more faith in our son. Your experience of him as an adult has been limited to pained rejection and cautious vulnerability. You haven’t seen his fierce loyalty, nor the depth of his love and acceptance. His affection for us will keep him open-minded.”
Jamie looked back and forth between us in disbelief. “Ye’re mad. Both of ye.”
“We never denied that.”
Jamie didn’t laugh, but I saw the humor in his eyes. “I’ll think on it a bit, aye? ’Tis no’ something that needs to be rushed.”
I wrapped my arms around him; this time it was me comforting him. “Just don’t take too long to think about it. He’s as bright as his father. He will figure things out eventually.”
“Hmphm.” Jamie kissed the crown of my head. “Ye best go listen to the lad about the stew. If there’s something I’ve learned to trust him with, it’s making dinner. I wonder where he learned how to cook sae well.”
I pulled away from Jamie to hide my expression. I glanced quickly at John who shook his head ever so slightly. If we were to convince Jamie to trust William’s judgment, we had better not answer that question.
The following afternoon, I was tidying up the parlor, contemplating how much penicillin I might need to distribute at the brothel, when my thoughts were interrupted by John striding into the room. He was filthy from a hard day’s labor. Jamie trailed slowly behind, covered similarly with muck and grime. A stone expression masked his face, altering me to a state of agitation. It was a subtle contrast to John’s rigid formality, which I had learned over the years concealed an underlying anxiety.
“Is everything alright?” I asked.
“Where is he?” said John.
“I was certain I saw him come to the front door.” John looked around the room as though I was hiding someone behind a lamp. I raised a questioning eyebrow at Jamie, but his face remained artificially indifferent. His stone expression made my heart jump nervously.
“Papa?” called William from the door. “There you are. I thought I heard your voice.”
“Where is he?” said John sharply. He seemed to catch his tone and rephrased with more gentility, “I saw we had a guest arrive a few moments ago.”
“Yes, I was just coming to tell you. He was hungry after an extended journey from the North. I brought him to the kitchen to find something to eat. He’s waiting for you there.”
Without giving eye contact to neither me nor Jamie, John bowed slightly and excused himself with a quiet pardon, shutting the door behind him. The cold look Jamie shot John as he left sent a chill down my spine.
“What in Heaven’s name is going on?” I asked.
I waited for Jamie or William to answer, but neither seemed so inclined. I was tempted to go to the kitchen and find out for myself.
Something in my expression must’ve given away my intentions, because Jamie finally gave in, rubbing a hand over his emerging scruff as he spoke. His voice was filled with a surprising amount of derision. "John has a visitor. His auld cook.”
“Oh...Oh!” I said. My stomach performed a number of aerial acrobatics before it settled like a lead weight in my belly. Our eyes locked, exchanging a thousand unspoken words.
I was surprised by the force of my jealousy. More than likely, John would send the man away and return to our bed by nightfall, but my fearful heart couldn’t help ruminating on my insecurities. Manoke in the abstract was far less a threat than Manoke in the flesh一a man with whom John had a sexual relationship for many years.
I don’t know why I was so worried. John told me himself they didn’t share the depth of intimacy he had with me and Jamie. They’d asked for neither fidelity nor commitment from each other. But the jealousy was still there inside me, and I could see it raging like a tempest in Jamie’s eyes.
I’d felt the unwelcome pang of jealousy any number of times in my life—Laoghaire, Mary McNab, Frank’s endless supply of young coeds, and even of John himself on occasion—but never did it feel as though they were an actual threat to me or to the relationship I valued more than any other. Whenever Jamie and I were together, he’d made it abundantly clear he wanted me more than anyone else. Poor Jamie, on the other hand, lived for twenty years with the knowledge that I was with another man. Jealousy was a very different, very real, beast for him.
“Manoke is a fine man,” said William, his tone accusing, “and a good friend to Papa.”
“I’m pleased to hear.” My own tone didn’t sincerely reflect the content of my message.
Jamie tapped the side of his leg in agitation, as though it was getting harder to keep himself reined in. Not wanting to similarly betray my own discomposure, I went back to tidying the room to keep myself busy. I bent down to grab Amanda’s little doll, Esmeralda, from under a side table.
Jamie and William stood around in awkward silence for some time. I wished they’d sit down and attempt warm civility, perhaps even play a game of chess or have a whisky. Instead, agitation bounced around the quiet room like a giant pinball. We kept knocking it back and forth against each other, increasing its speed and impact with every collision.
Buzzing about in my own distress, the strangeness of William’s behavior hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. I knew exactly what Jamie was thinking—I was experiencing much the same myself—but I couldn’t figure out what could possibly be bothering William about Manoke’s visit...not until he worked up the courage to share with us himself...
“Papa deserves every happiness,” said William with that same accusatory tone as before.
William and Jamie eyed each other intensely. Alarm bells began firing off in my head. William had clearly picked up on Jamie’s hostility and was ready to protect John from it, no matter the cost.
Even though it wasn’t William that Jamie was angry with, the boy was unwittingly putting himself in the line of fire. They were two Fraser grenades with the pins pulled out and a precarious grip on the safety lever.
“We quite agree, I assure you,” I said. “John’s happiness is of the utmost importance to us.”
“Brianna told me you know about Papa,” Willie’s eyes remained locked on Jamie. “I’m aware you’ve been apprised of his association with Manoke.”
Jamie said nothing, but I could feel him vibrating with rage from across the room.
“Your disapproval is showing,” said William, censuring his father. “I will not allow it.”
“Disapproval?” I said, setting down Esmeralda and moving to Jamie’s side. I hoped my presence would rein in his temper.
“What is it ye think we’re disapproving of exactly?” said Jamie, his voice quiet and dangerous.
William lifted his chin defiantly. “His...disposition.”
“Hmphm. Does he ken of yer awareness of his disposition , as ye say?”
“I wouldn’t know either way. I don’t see how that matters.”
I grabbed Jamie’s arm; it was rock solid with strain.
“Listen, lad, if we have any disapproval, ’tis no’ for the reasons ye think.”
“Then why, may I ask, does the presence of Manoke bother you so much?”
“’Tis between us and John. I’d thank ye to keep yer neb out of it,” Jamie snapped.
I squeezed his hand to caution him. His relationship with Willie was still too shaky for such a chiding. He couldn’t speak to him the way he would any of his other children.
Jamie took a deep breath and placed his other hand on my arm, as though attempting to absorb what little serenity I had. He tried again, “ Mo mhac , John and I have a friendship that spans more than three decades. There is much between us that will remain private, but ken that any disapproval I have for his choices comes from a place of concern and affection.”
“I will not have him bear distress as a result of your distaste in how he chooses to live his life.”
“Distaste?” I said. “Who said anything about distaste?”
William rolled his eyes and pointed at Jamie. “It's plain on your face. But I’m sorry to inform you, not everyone has a choice in who they love. More often than not, we fall for the wrong person. Not that you would know anything about that.” There was a venom in William’s tone that seemed far beyond the tenor of the conversation.
“Ye dinna ken a thing about who I have and have no’ loved in my life, ye wee coof,” spat Jamie.
“Stop!” I said. I put a hand on Jamie’s chest to try to prevent him from escalating further.
“A coof?” said Willie. “I’m no damn coof, you self-righteous bastard! You know nothing of what it means to hide a relationship out of fear or shame. Most of us don’t get to marry the people we love! You’re a stinking papist, and you married one, too! You and your bloody pope can take your judgments and shove them up your Scottish arse!”
“Ye’re a bloody Scot, too, whether you like it or no’!” Jamie stepped closer to his son.
“Well, I don’t like it! Not one bit!”
“Stop it! Both of you!” I moved between them, hands out like a referee. “Neither of you mean what you’re saying. You both love and care for John and want to see him happy. The two of you fighting will accomplish nothing of the sort.”
“What would you have me do? Stand back and let this man pass judgment on Papa as though he’s the Almighty himself?”
It was then I realized, William’s defensiveness was not just about John. “William, Jamie isn’t judging John for who he loves...just as he wouldn’t judge you for who you love. He didn’t judge you for Jane...remember?”
William narrowed his eyes. “I can see it on his face! The way he looked at Papa when he walked out of the room.”
“That had nothing to do with John’s attraction to men!” I yelled. Jamie and William looked at me in shock. I covered my mouth, grateful the door was closed and the children and grandchildren were all outside the house.
Jamie smirked involuntarily at my unintentional proclamation and shook his head. “What she says is true, lad. I’ve kent about John since long before ye were born. I’ve trusted him with the keeping of my son. Whatever prejudices I had are long since forgotten.”
Willie stared at Jamie with heaving breath, as though he didn’t quite believe what he was saying, but could find no further way to dispute it.
“How did you find out about John?” I asked. “Surely he didn’t tell you.”
William huffed a laugh, “I’ve lived under the same roof as him most of my life. I’d be blind not to notice something.”
“And you’ve never had any of your own objections?”
“I lost three parents long before I grew into manhood. I couldn’t bear the thought of pushing away the only one I had left over something I didn’t fully understand.”
“And now that you do understand?”
“He’s not hurting anyone. What does it matter who he loves?”
“Except he doesna love him,” Jamie snapped.
“What do you know of it?”
“I ken enough.”
Jamie’s jealousy had faded enough that he was finally able to sit down. I sat next to him on the love seat, hooking my arm around his.
William stared at us, confusion plain on his face. “You’re serious? It doesn’t bother you?”
We both shook our heads slightly. If the lad only knew just how little it bothered us.
Our answer seemed to send Willie’s thoughts in some unknown internal direction. The boy collapsed down on one of the chairs across from us, and lost himself somewhere in his head. I was too exhausted to probe further.
It was a relief when John returned sometime later, looking quite disheveled and holding a bottle of whisky and three glasses.
“William,” he called his son over. Willie responded immediately, coming to his side. We could easily hear his quiet words in the silent house. “He’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. Please help him settle for the night in the staff’s quarters, and ensure he has enough food to last him at least a week. His horse will need tending.”
“Please, William. No questions.”
Willie took pity on John and nodded in acquiescence. He left with only a warning glance toward Jamie and me before closing the door behind him.
John gathered himself as best as he could before coming to sit on a chair next to us. He set up the glasses in a row and poured generously. Jamie’s long arms hardly had to reach for our glasses. We drank with sighs of temporary relief as the whisky burned down our throats.
John poured another round before a word was said.
“Are you alright?” I asked. He looked like he’d aged a few years since this morning.
“It’s never pleasant to hurt a friend,” he looked at us, “much less three.”
“Ye’re sending him away?” said Jamie.
John nodded and took another drink.
“Ye’re sure that’s what ye want?”
John looked at Jamie incredulously, “How can you ask that?”
“Because above all else, we want you happy,” I said.
He smiled softly, allowing his sincerity to show through. “I cared for Manoke, but I love you. I’ve never felt the slightest bit possessive over him, and never did I offer myself so wholly as I have to the two of you.”
“Ye’re choosing us, then?” said Jamie. “Over anyone else? Even if there are times when we canna be together?”
“Jesus Christ, yes, Jamie. I choose you, and I choose Claire. Tell me you know how much I love you?”
Jamie stood up and moved in front of John. He pulled him up to take John’s face in his hands, “Ye’re mine, mo charaid. Mine and Claire’s.”
“Happily,” John smiled, his hands resting on Jamie’s sides.
Jamie kissed him hard; I was uncertain if he was needing physical reassurance or staking a claim. Either way, John was breathless when their lips parted.
“Ken this, John, if any of yer lovers comes near ye again, they may no’ survive the encounter.”
John laughed nervously, as though surprised by the vehemence of Jamie’s words. Jamie kissed him again before John recovered, seeming to need to drive his point home.
Seeing where this was going, I rose up and crossed the room to the door, peeking my head out to ensure no one was around. I closed it again and turned the lock.
Jamie was yanking down John’s trousers as they kissed, his impatience growing by the moment. Being the object of Jamie’s jealousy before, I knew what John was in for.
Jamie turned him around in a forceful motion and bent John over the arm of the couch. He dug into his sporran and pulled out the small jar I’d packed him before he left the Ridge. I moved quickly to help them, worried Jamie’s hastiness might result in an unpleasant situation for John.
Even with my interference, Jamie struggled with inhibition. He pushed into John before I could pull my hands away. John’s moan of pleasure told me he didn’t seem to mind. He was wrapped tightly in Jamie’s arms, surrounded by him.
I stood watching for some time as Jamie rocked into John. The look on John’s face whenever he was with Jamie was positively feral. My tension eased the deeper they connected.
I hunted down a tea towel from the corner of the room to wipe down my hands. I didn’t intend to remain a spectator for long.
As I walked back to the men, Jamie had John’s hips in his hands and was hammering into him. He wouldn’t last long. This wasn’t to draw out his pleasure...he was marking his territory like the beast he was.
He folded himself over John when he came, squeezing the man’s body and biting down on his neck. He growled as he shuddered, spilling his seed.
John pushed up off the arm of the couch with Jamie still behind him. His cock was rock hard and demanded attention. John stroked himself with Jamie’s cock still in his arse.
I stepped forward, turning them both around so Jamie leaned against the arm of the couch with John on his lap. I dropped to my knees to take John in my mouth, wanting very much to love him, to thank him for choosing us.
Two sets of hands tangled in my hair as I sucked him off. They alternated watching me and kissing each other over John’s shoulder. John came hot and thick in my mouth, and I swallowed every bit of him.
When John’s strength was back, he pulled me up to my feet, wrapping his arms around me and burying his face in my neck. We surrounded him in Fraser. I could feel moisture where he lay his head, and by his shuddering breath, I was certain it was caused by tears.
We sat together on the loveseat, the gentlemen side by side and me across their laps. They’d insisted on fingering me to climax, and the catharsis of orgasm left me grateful for their persistence.
In our state of contented relaxation, I found it easy to bring up my concerns one more time, hopeful for less resistance than before.
“William’s in love with a whore,” I told Jamie.
John’s body bounced with laughter as Jamie made an exasperated Scottish grunt.
“He’s afraid to tell you. He thinks you won’t approve.”
"Hmphm .” The sound was so ambiguous, I couldn’t tell whether he’d approve or not.
“Don’t you dare let him down.”
Jamie’s eyes went wide at my demand.
I turned to John, “And William knows you prefer the sexual company of men.”
He stopped laughing abruptly, “What?”
“He’s known for a long time now. He doesn’t care.”
“’Tis true, mo charaid . He just informed us as he came to yer defense, thinking we disapproved.”
John let out a shaky breath. “I suppose that’s quite a relief.”
“I’d expect so,” I said. I turned back to Jamie, “He can accept whatever truth we have to give him. What he cannot accept are lies. You know it's the right thing to do.”
“And if he tries to put a stop to it?”
“He has every right to say his piece.”
John reached out to stroke the scruff of Jamie’s cheek. “I remember as a young man, I once thought you fearless...but you’re as terrified as the rest of us, aren’t you?”
“I suppose I am. Thucydides once said, ‘ The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it. The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage. ’” He turned to kiss John’s palm that was resting against his face. “Ye thought me fearless, but I had no choice in facing the perils of Culloden and Ardsmuir. I did then exactly as I must. But now...now I have choice. This will take far more courage than going into battle.”
“Have the courage to trust him, Jamie,” I said, “and perhaps, one day, he might learn to trust you.”
He sighed deep and resigned. “Fine. We’ll talk to him tonight after dinner. I dinna want to ruin my meal if we must throw stones yet again.”
Chapter 6: Room for Secrets
“While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive.”
- Sissela Bok
— Brianna —
“Where the hell is it?” Brianna grumbled to herself, looking through Lord John’s library the following afternoon. Roger had asked her to grab Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government for his lesson with the children tomorrow. He was positively giddy at John’s collection of philosophy.
After twenty minutes of unsuccessful searching, Brianna gave up. The children could thank her for it later.
Exhausted from all the work she’d been putting into the property with her brother, she decided not to venture out to help William and Ian at the wine shed that afternoon. Instead, she elected to find her mother. Bree had spent little time with Claire since their arrival to Mt. Josiah. They hadn’t had more than a few brief moments alone together with all that needed to be done for Lord John and Willie, containing the children, and Claire’s obsessive focus on developing penicillin for the local brothel.
Brianna searched for Claire throughout the entire house to no avail. She searched the garden, the carriage house, and the mill. Still nothing. The only other place Claire might reasonably be was the shed where she was making penicillin.
As Brianna neared the small structure, she heard a sensual moan followed by a peal of laughter so full of joy, it brought a smile to her face. She loved to hear her mama happy. Growing up, Claire laughed so little with Frank. Now, she and Jamie laughed all the time. Most children might be appalled by their parents stealing away together or trysting in old sheds in the middle of the day, but for Brianna, it was a reaffirmation of their decision to come to the eighteenth century. Claire’s happiness meant that all the hardship she faced since traveling through the stones was truly worthwhile.
Brianna was about to turn around and allow her parents to have their private moment together when she heard a voice that was decidedly not her father.
“...didn’t know you were ticklish there, my dear,” said John.
“Well, you’re usually quite focused on other parts of my anatomy.”
A cold, sick dread filled her stomach. She didn’t want to believe her mother capable of deceiving her father in such a way, especially when they were so obviously happy together—every look they shared so full of love, every touch full of tenderness.
Not wanting to jump to conclusions about the meaning behind the words, Brianna forced herself closer to the shed. She contemplated walking away, just pretending she didn’t hear anything, but she couldn’t stop her feet from moving forward, and she couldn’t stop her hand from reaching for the door.
She opened it quietly, only a crack, not wanting to give herself away. Her father had spent years teaching her to hunt and move stealthily through the wilderness. She used those skills now as she peered inside.
There was no mistaking what she saw. In the midst of Claire’s medical supplies, Lord John’s arms were wrapped passionately around her mother. They were kissing sweetly, dreamily, like two people madly in love...the way she’d only ever seen Claire kiss Jamie.
She closed the door quickly and silently. Her eyes burned painfully, and acid bubbled up from her stomach, seeping into her mouth. The world around her began to blur, as though an unclean lens covered her eyes. Her throat felt like it was closing up, making it difficult to pull in air.
She was going to vomit. She needed water...or whisky.
Going back to the house wasn’t an option; there was no way she could face Roger or the children. Uncertain of where she was headed, she forced herself to move, one foot in front of the other. She trudged her way through the overgrown sedge and tufted hairgrass that covered the property. Every step felt as though she was slogging her way through a swamp of her mother’s lies.
She nearly fell over at the sound of her father’s voice. “Hmm?”
Jamie was striding toward her, clearly troubled by her disoriented state. “Ye all right, a leannan? Ye look as though ye’ve seen a ghost.”
He grabbed her by the arm to steady her. She looked up into his worried eyes and saw the love he bore her overflowing from his stormy blues so full of paternal concern.
She thought she should tell him, thought she should say something. He was her father, and he deserved the truth.
But her mouth couldn’t move to say words her brain wouldn’t form.
She tried to shake off the fog clouding her ability to speak. She couldn’t understand why she was acting this way. Brianna had no lack of words when she found out Frank wasn’t her biological father. She had railed her mother far beyond what she had any right to do at the time.
Perhaps her words came so easily to her then because she immediately accepted that Claire was capable of cheating on Frank. Brianna never truly believed them to be in love. While the reality of the situation was far more complicated than what her initial assumptions suggested, Claire’s love for Jamie had tainted her every interaction with Frank.
But Brianna was certain of Claire’s devotion to Jamie. She knew they loved each other more than life itself. Perhaps this paralysis of speech was due to the impossibility of Claire throwing it all away to have an affair with John Grey. She just couldn’t wrap her mind around it.
How could Mama do this to Da?
Tears started falling, and Jamie pulled her instantly into his chest. She sobbed achingly, painfully, enveloped in the strength of her father. A part of her wondered if she’d soon have to be the one comforting him in the same way.
“Tell me what’s happened, M’ annsachd.”
She shook her head against his chest. She didn’t want to do it. She didn’t want to have to be the one to wreck his entire world. She didn’t want to be the one to tell him the truth.
No. It would have to be Claire. And John. They did this. They would have to be the ones to face the consequences of their actions.
She pulled her head back and looked up at her father. “I can’t. Not now. Not yet.”
“No, Da. I promise you’ll know. I just need time. Ok?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Ye’re no’ hurt, are ye? Ye’re no’ in danger?”
“No. This has nothing to do with me.”
He nodded reluctantly. “Alright, let me take ye inside to find yer mother. No doubt she’ll want to make ye some tea.”
“No!” she shouted, then forced herself to calm down. “No. I don’t need tea right now, and I don’t need Mama.”
Jamie held her face in his hands. “What d’ye need, Brianna?”
She shook her head and looked around, taking in her surroundings for the first time. She realized she had been unconsciously making her way to the wine shed where her brother and cousin were working.
“Willie. I was looking for Willie.”
Jamie sucked in a breath, “Is he…?”
“He’s fine. I just need my brother.”
The concern never left his eyes, but they did soften. “He’s just inside wi’ Ian. I’ll take ye to him.”
He kissed her forehead tenderly, a thousand wordless reassurances in a touch. He tucked her into his side, making her feel small and protected in a way that only he could, and guided her into the shed.
The wine shed was a dark and musky place, filled with the intense odor of fermenting grapes. Willie and Ian were hauling a large barrel to an awaiting wagon as Brianna and Jamie came in.
“Lift it with your legs, old man,” Willie teased his cousin with a strained voice. “Your wife will never forgive me if I return her husband to her with a lame back.”
“Dinna fash on my account, laddie. My wife has a healer’s touch.”
“She and your boy will be missing you by now.”
“I ken.” Ian exhaled loudly as they finally got the barrel on the wagon. “I’m eager to get back to them. I’m sure she’ll be ready for me to run interference wi’ my Ma.”
Willie snorted, “God help her.”
“Willie. Ian,” said Jamie.
Their good-humored faces turned quickly wary as they took in the two new arrivals.
Jamie kissed Brianna’s temple once more. “If ye need anything, a nighean, come find me.”
She nodded without meeting his eyes.
Jamie called Willie over to him with a tilt of his head. They stepped just outside the shed and spoke in hushed voices.
“Ye been crying, cousin?” said Ian.
She sighed heavily, frustrated at how her complexion so easily gave her away. “I don’t want to talk about it. Is there an open bottle of wine?”
“Always.” He searched her face for a moment before turning to retrieve the wine and a few metal cups.
Willie returned just as Ian finished pouring. She drained the cup quickly, catching the wide-eyed glances exchanged by her brother and cousin. She took the bottle from Ian and was far more generous with her refill than he was with the initial serving.
“Brianna…” Willie said cautiously.
“I’m fine.” She knew how ridiculous that sounded as she was in the process of consuming her second cup of wine—which amounted to half the bottle’s contents—before their lips even touched their first.
They finally drank with her, not seeming to know what else to do. She found a large barrel to sit on as Willie and Ian did their best to catch up with her rapid intake. They drank in silence until that bottle and one more were empty.
It wasn’t until William opened a third that Ian asked, “What did Roger do this time?”
She shot him a contemptuous look. “Nothing. It’s not about Roger.”
“What happened, Bree?” said Willie, the softness in his voice so much like Jamie’s from only moments before. “You know you can talk to us about anything.”
She did want to talk about it. She wanted to give the burden she carried to someone else, to share the weight of the wrecking ball she was about to hurl at her parents’ perfect life.
The growing buzz from the wine almost convinced her that it would be ok to share the darkest secrets of her parents’ marriage to soothe her battered heart. But she couldn’t do that to her father. She couldn’t broadcast a betrayal to the rest of the family that would devastate him before he had a chance to prepare.
“It’s not for me to say,” she said, trying to rub the building tension out of her shoulders that only seemed to be increasing despite the potency of the alcohol. As the shock wore off, anger was taking its place. Anger at her mother...at John.
He doesn’t even like women, for Christ’s sake! He’s supposed to be in love with Da!
Of course, everyone knew Claire and John slept together when they were married—it was a poorly kept family secret—but the general consensus was that it was done out of grief and pain, that it was more about Jamie than about each other.
Clearly, they were wrong.
“Come now, sister. You’re upset. You have every right to share your hardships with the people you love.”
“I can’t. You don’t understand…”
“Christ, Bree, we ken yer family are all time-traveling fairies. What secrets could you carry greater than that?” said Ian.
“It’s not my secret to tell!” she lashed out.
“If it isna yers, then why is it bothering ye so much?”
“Because it could ruin my whole family! Is that enough reason for you?” She stood up, grabbed one of the empty bottles, and launched it across the shed. Shards of flying glass spread in every direction.
She collapsed back down on her seat and buried her face in her hands. Tears fell harder in rage than disappointment. All her inhibition was gone, smothered by the excellent wine, hand-crafted by Lord John Grey himself. Instead of taking away her troubles, it took whatever self-restraint she had. In that moment, she very much hated John Grey and his exceptional skills as a vintner.
The sound of scraping wood on the dirt floor told her someone was pulling up a barrel next to hers. Her brother groaned as he sat, no doubt exhausted from all the work he’d been putting into the land for months on end. His arm came around her and pulled her close, resting her head on his shoulder. She collapsed into him, tears absorbing into his shirt.
“It’s alright, Bree,” he whispered, rubbing a comforting hand up and down her back. “Let it out; you’ll feel better for it.”
Being a decade younger than her, she’d always seen Willie as her little brother, but there in his arms, he didn’t feel so small. In fact, he was once again reminding her of someone else...
Her quiet laughter interrupted her flow of tears.
“What?” he asked.
“I was just thinking how annoying it must be for you to always hear how much you’re like Da.”
He chuckled quietly, “It’s not so bad...not anymore.”
“What changed your mind about him?”
“Oh, any number of things. What he did for Jane and Fanny. Some conversations we’ve had along the way. Then there was that hunting trip with my sister and cousin.”
She looked up and stared into a mirror of her eyes. “Yeah? That helped?”
“Yes. Talking to you helped. Talking generally seems to help when one is in distress.”
She sighed heavily. “You’re not subtle, you know that?”
“I wasn’t intending to be.”
Bree turned to Ian who was handing her another cup of wine. She accepted gratefully, finally calm enough to sip and actually enjoy the flavor—even if it was infused with the bitterness of resentment toward its maker.
“Now,” said William, accepting a generous pour from Ian, “tell us what happened.”
She drank once more to gather her thoughts, letting the wine sit on her tongue and absorb directly into her bloodstream. She gulped it down and said, “I saw something I wasn’t meant to see...and now I have to force it out in the open.”
“Why does it fall on you?”
“Because someone I love is getting hurt...well, they don’t know they’re being hurt...but they are.”
“You’ve uncovered a deception?”
She nodded. “The worst kind.”
“Brianna,” said Ian, “we ken the deception has naught to do wi’ any of us, nor wi’ Roger…”
“...which only leaves three other people staying at the house,” finished William, “aside from the children.”
Her tears started falling again.
“And being that yer Da was the one that brought ye here, we can guess it had naught to do wi’ him.”
Willie sighed heavily, “It was Mother Claire and Papa, wasn’t it?”
She buried her face in her hands and doubled over. Images of Claire and John were imprinted on her brain...their happiness, their joy at being in each other’s arms regardless of what it would do to Jamie.
She cringed at being so foolish; she shouldn’t have revealed enough to let them guess at her secret. She felt guilty, like she was betraying her father, even though she said next to nothing about what she saw.
Part of her did wonder how they could jump to such a conclusion so quickly.
To her surprise, her cousin snorted aloud and laughed heartily. He was wheezing into his drink, coughing and sputtering in his mirth. “Ye saw them then?” he said between breaths. “Ye caught the bloody fools together?”
“I did,” she said, taken aback by his amusement. “They were kissing in the shed near the carriage house.”
This time her brother snorted.
“What the hell is so funny?!” she demanded.
The boys erupted in hysterics, much to her chagrin. Ian was bent over, holding his ribs in pain.
“Would you both stop? This isn’t funny!”
“It’s a little amusing,” said Willie, his shoulders bouncing with humor. “It’s actually bloody hysterical.”
Brianna pulled away, rising up above her brother. “What is wrong with you? My mother uprooted all of our lives in the twentieth century for her one great love , and then cheats on him with his gay best friend! How is that amusing?”
They laughed like idiots, wiping tears from their eyes.
“Brianna,” said Ian, trying to catch his breath, “yer Da kens exactly what was going on in that shed.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! You told me how he reacted when he found out John and Mama slept together when they thought he was dead. There’s no way he’d be okay with them having an affair.”
William and Ian exchanged knowing looks, both trying desperately not to be overcome with laughter once more.
“When did ye find out?” Ian asked Willie.
“I’ve had my suspicions about Mac and Papa for some time. And remember, I was living in Philadelphia with Papa and Mother Claire when they wed and...became intimate. But I didn’t find out for certain about all three of them until just last night. We were having a discussion about a few things, and their affection for each other—all three of them—became abundantly clear.” He shook his head as he laughed at a memory. “How about you? When did you find out?”
“Och, I’d seen Uncle Jamie and Lord John out in the woods when ye visited last summer, but I didna ken Auntie Claire was involved until we arrived here. They’re none so subtle.”
Willie snorted, “You saw the three of them then...together?”
“Aye,” Ian flushed. “My room is next to Uncle Jamie and Auntie Claire’s. I ken they can be noisier than two bears in ruttin’ season, but some of the sounds were a bit concerning. I went to listen at the door and heard Lord John in there wi’ em. They’ve been sneaking around ever since. Just yesterday, I peered in the parlor window and...”
“Stop!” said Bree. “Just stop! You cannot be saying what I think you’re saying.”
Ian and William just shrugged.
“No! There is no way you’d be so calm. There’s no way you’d be laughing if that were the case. Not my father. Not after everything he and my mother have been through.”
“And what about everything he and Papa have been through? Everything your mother and Papa survived together? Brianna, I’m certain the only reason I call John Grey ‘Papa’ is because of his love for our father.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean my father loves him back. Not that way.”
“Have ye no’ seen them together, cousin?” asked Ian. “No’ when everyone is around; both men are soldiers and can mask their affection. But watch when they think no one is looking. There’s no mistaking what’s between them.”
Brianna looked back and forth between the two men. They were no longer laughing. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You’re saying my parents are in a...a relationship with John Grey?”
Willie nodded his head, and Ian raised his cup in confirmation. She searched desperately for the joke in their eyes, uncertain if she wanted to find it there or not. If they were telling the truth, then her fundamental understanding of who her parents were was completely false. If they were teasing her, then her mother was once again an adulteress. Which was worse?
She found nothing but gentle sincerity in their expression. “How can you be so calm? You’re both just...okay with this?”
Ian shrugged and finished his wine. “The Mohawk and other tribes dinna view marriage the same as Scots. I’ve seen many ways for people to find their happiness.”
“And you?” she said to Willie.
He shrugged, too. “I’ve known about Papa most of my life, and I’ve never been troubled over it. Why should this bother me any more than that?”
“I don’t know! I guess...I just don’t get it. If the man I love ever touched someone else, I think I might kill him.”
Ian snorted, “I’ve no doubt...I’d help ye.”
“And I...I guess I just liked the idea of my parents being soulmates. I don’t like the thought that there are other people out there for them.”
“Dear sister,” said Willie, “why can’t they be soulmates and still love Papa? An abundance of love doesn’t devalue it. Scarcity does that, because when there isn’t enough to go around, people get hurt. This doesn’t make their love any less meaningful. If anything, it makes it all the more unique.”
Brianna stood frozen, her mind trying desperately to process what she was hearing. Never would she have thought Willie would be the one defending their father’s actions to her.
It wasn’t necessarily that she was appalled by what they were doing; it was the lies that concealed the true nature of her parents from her. Would she ever truly know them? Would they ever trust her with what was in their hearts?
She was struck with a sudden thought that gave her the urge to vomit. “How in the hell am I supposed to tell Roger?”
“Och no,” said Ian, pouring her another cup of wine. “Yer Da would never hear the end of it.”
She sat back down and drank deeply, trying to understand what this all would mean for their family. How could she go back up to the house and face her parents? How could she face Lord John? Should she just pretend like nothing had changed? Or should she demand answers?
“Ye alright, Bree?” asked Ian. “I ken ’tis a shock, but ye’ll get used it.”
She shrugged her shoulders in complete befuddlement.
“Ye ken I’ll be leaving back home tomorrow to see Rachel and my wean. I dinna want to leave ye when ye’re none sae well.”
“She’ll be fine,” said Willie, moving to put an arm around his sister. “She just needs a little time. I’ll be here with her.”
Ian looked at Brianna and raised a brow, “Ye sure ye’ll be alright?”
She shrugged, “I suppose this is better than Mama and John having an affair.”
“Aye. That would most certainly end in the loss of someone’s life.”
Brianna sipped her wine as a million thoughts raced through her head. She stopped suddenly, coughing mid swallow.
“What’s the matter?” asked Willie.
“I was just thinking...after all the shit he gave poor Lizzie and her husbands...”
Ian laughed, “I suppose he’ll be a wee bit more understanding now.”
“He sure as hell better be.”
“If he’s not,” suggested Willie, “I’m sure we can find a subtle way to remind him that we don’t always choose who we love.”
Willie stood and held out a hand for his sister. “Come. I should get supper started. If we don’t get some food in your belly, you’ll wind up sick all night.”
“I’m not drunk,” said Bree. “You’re not drunk if you can stand up.”
She stood from her barrel just fine—aside from a little dizziness and a slight lean to the left. Willie chuckled and grabbed her arm.
Ian reached in a crate and pulled out a few more bottles of wine. “If ye're no’ drunk yet, we’ll get ye there by supper. Come on.”
Chapter 7: Remember, Man
“And time is, of course, all-healing. Give anything enough time and everything is taken care of: all pain encompassed, all hardship erased, all loss subsumed.”
- Prologue - A Breath of Snow and Ashes
— Jamie —
Jamie felt like he was moving through water. It wasn’t the heavy slog of swimming through a storm; it was more like floating in a warm spring. He felt light and fluid. Peaceful.
John and Willie’s fine wine flowed freely after supper, leaving him pleasantly relaxed as he and Claire made their way to their bedchamber.
“Who’s Jack Tripper?” he asked his wife. “A man from yer time?”
She turned her head to look at him apprehensively, but the movement threw her off balance, and she nearly fell over. He caught her around the waist to steady her, both of them giggling foolishly in their state of inebriation.
“I’ve never heard of Jack Tripper. Was that someone Brianna mentioned?”
“Aye. She was half gone wi’ drink when we were putting the bairns to bed, and she said, ‘You’re just a regular Jack Tripper, aren’t you ?’”
Claire scrunched up her face, “In that context, I’m certain she wasn’t talking about Jack the Ripper. Are you sure she said Tripper?”
“Aye, but the drink could ha’ made her tongue a bit heavy.”
“Jack the Ripper was a nineteenth century serial killer in London. Maybe Tripper was someone from the 1970s or 80s?”
Jamie snorted. “I hope she doesna see her father as a killer, though she wouldna be wrong.”
“You only kill when you must, darling, not for the pleasure of it.”
“Dinna deceive yerself, lass. There have been several men I took great pleasure in sending to the Devil.”
“Yes, well, I’d say you’re more vigilante than serial killer, and I’m sure there’s some sort of moral hierarchy there.”
Jamie reached for the doorknob as quiet steps passed behind them.
“Goodnight, dear friends,” said John, smiling mischievously, eyes glimmering with intoxication. “I wish you both the most pleasant of dreams.”
Claire hummed, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“Goodnight, mo charaid,” said Jamie. They watched him walk down the hall to his room, regretting the necessary charade.
In the privacy of their own bedchamber, Claire immediately began disrobing. Layer after layer fell to the floor, a trail of clothes neglected in her inebriety. She opened the large window and stuck her head outside into the crisp November air.
Jamie followed behind and picked up her dress, petticoats, stays, and shift. He hung them over the backs of chairs, knowing she’d chide herself in the morning for her carelessness.
“Brianna was looking much better this evening, wasn’t she?” said Claire. “She had color in her cheeks and was laughing with Willie and Ian by the end of the night.”
“Aye,” said Jamie, admiring his wife’s lovely backside. The cold sent a shiver down her spine along with a wave of gooseflesh across her beautiful skin. “She appeared much better than this afternoon. She didna tell ye what vexed her?”
Claire turned and sat on the ledge of the window while she pulled pins out of her hair, flicking them away without a thought of how she’d find them in the morning. The cool breeze blew softly through her wild locks as they fell to her shoulders. “No, she didn’t. I’m sure she’ll talk to us if it’s important. Children keep plenty of secrets from their parents, you know.”
Jamie took off his own clothes, eager to press his warm body flush against his sloshed and chatty wife.
“William has been wonderful with her, hasn’t he?” she went on. “And not just her, but us, too. I told you he would surprise you, Jamie.”
“Aye, Sassenach. Ye were right. The lad listened well when we told him the truth. His questions were thoughtful and astute, and he willna try to put a stop to it.”
She sighed in deep relief, making her bare breast rise and fall. “One less person to lie to.”
Discarded hairpins poked his feet as he stepped closer to his wife. She was cold to the touch and quivered when she felt his heat. “Yer nipples are as hard and frozen as wee icicles.” He bent down to cover one with his mouth.
“Careful, your tongue might get stuck.”
“A man can hope.”
“You know,” she wrapped her arms around his neck and lifted her breasts for examination, “in the future, people make sweetened fruit juice icicles for a treat. They’re called popsicles. You suck on them and they melt in your mouth.”
He kissed her smiling lips and chuckled quietly. “Is that so? And what flavor are yer wee popsicles, Sassenach? They look as though they’d taste of cherries.”
“I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”
Jamie ducked his head and took a frozen nipple in his mouth once again. He sucked determinedly, as though drinking down the flavor.
“Bacon,” he mumbled through a mouthful of breast, “marinated for hours in a cabernet franc.”
She snorted noisily, slapping his backside. “I doubt you taste any better, working outside all day!”
“Ye ken how much I love bacon, Sassenach. Ye’re mouthwatering.” He took it in his mouth again and moaned in appreciation to reiterate his point. “But if ye’d like to taste me all the same, ye’re welcome to it.” He rubbed his cock against her belly. “It may no’ be verra cold, but I’m sure ye can find some juice in there.”
“You are positively vulgar when you’ve been drinking.”
“Ye married a barbarian, did ye no’?” He kissed her neck and nibbled behind her ear where he knew she liked it.
She squeaked involuntarily. “Oh, alright then. Have a seat, and let’s sample your bouquet.”
“Here, come by the fire, or ye’ll catch a chill.”
He led her to the rocking chair near the hearth. He sat comfortably, helping her down to her knees in front of him. She slid her hands up his large, solid thighs and leaned over, rocking the chair forward.
“Oh my,” she said wondrously delighted, “the rocking chair does, in fact, rock.”
He chuckled, “What did ye expect it to do? Topple?”
She grabbed hold of the legs of the chair and set him into a rocking motion. Her drunk eyes glittered in the firelight, tickled by her new revelation. “I never realized the implications of such a tool in the bedroom.”
Jamie guffawed as she leaned forward to take his cock in her mouth and let the chair rock him in and out. “Jesus, woman, ye’ll make me seasick doing that. I’ll spit up my wine before I spill my seed!”
She ignored him and kept on. Whatever his complaints, her sweet, wet mouth was still wrapped snugly around his cock, and he couldn’t bring himself to stop her. She rocked him back and forth, giggling as she sucked. At least the chair was more predictable than the ocean.
Just as he was starting to get comfortable with the motion, she gave a particularly vigorous push and gagged as his cock hit her throat on the way back. Tears filled her eyes as she coughed and sputtered.
He doubled over with laughter, wheezing for air. His eyes teared up for a very different reason than his wife’s.
“Oh, quiet you,” she snapped, biting him on the thigh.
“Christ, Sassenach! No’ there. ’Tis sensitive.” He rubbed his wounded leg. “If ye need to bite something, stick to the kneecaps. They’re all that can stand up to yer well-kept teeth.”
“Kneecaps, is it?” she snickered. She dropped her mouth to one of his knees and latched on.
“Jesus, Mary, and Bride!” His cock jumped with excitement. “Do it again, and this time use yer tongue.”
She snorted with laughter as she licked and nibbled on his knees. He stroked his cock, wondering how, in all their years of marriage, there was a part of their bodies they hadn’t kissed before.
The door opened quietly, and husband and wife swiveled their heads to see their new visitor. “What in God’s name are you two doing?” said John.
“I’m teaching him a lesson,” said Claire.
“Oh, my dear. There are better ways of doing that than biting his knees.”
Claire collapsed back on the rug, howling with a ridiculously giddy laughter that only seemed to surface when she was drunk. Jamie wiped the tears from his face as he struggled to catch his breath.
John grinned at the two lunatics in front of him. He had an open bottle of wine in hand, and he tipped it straight back into his mouth, bypassing the need for a glass. “Knees it is, then. Although, I’m closing that window before licking any joints. It’s bloody freezing in here.”
Jamie stood to help his giggling wife off the floor. “Let’s take our depravity to bed, lass. I’m getting too auld for the damn floor.”
“Speaking of depravity…” Claire scuttled over to her trunk and bent to dig through her possessions. Jamie smiled at her backside wobbling around as she searched for something in its depths.
John came to his side, handing him the bottle of wine. Jamie drank deep, never taking his eyes off his wife. He was about to hand the bottle back to John when he saw that Claire had found what she was searching for.
His stomach dropped, and he upended the bottle into his mouth once again.
“Dear God,” said John, “Was zur Hölle?”
“Think of it as a metal cucumber, darling,” said Claire, waving it around.
“Here.” Jamie handed him back the wine.
“Who’s first, gentlemen?”
John grabbed the bottle and gulped loudly, cursing under his breath. “Sheisse.”
Jamie patted John’s bum, “Loosen up, man. Ye dinna care to have that thing come at ye while ye’re sae tense.”
“Do me a favor, Fraser.”
John looked down at Jamie’s cock, “Find something else to put in me before she gets too close.”
“Afraid of a wee sassenach lassie, Grey?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t think her a witch. Look, she has a wand and everything.”
“No’ all magic is evil. Now go grab the grease if ye ken what’s good for ye.”
Jamie’s wife may have been a witch, but at least she was a generous one. She gave John a reprieve, deciding to use her tool on Jamie instead. As much a fuss as Jamie made over the thing, he was grateful for it...and for Claire. If he’d ever get to the point where he could give himself to John, this is what would get him there.
Desensitization , Claire called it. A strange name for the process; there was no lack of sensitization in his body when she used it on him, but he had to admit, it had gone a long way in taking away his wariness over being buggered.
For the second time that night, he enjoyed his wife’s mouth on his cock, but this time, there was no foolishness with rocking chairs or nibbling knees. She took him to the back of her throat, humming with excitement. Her hand rubbed his bollocks, teasing and massaging.
Jamie lay on his side as Claire pleasured him. John sat behind him, tracing the hard lines of his body. Jamie could feel John’s nervousness in his touch. Quiet German curses escaped John’s lips whenever Claire would move unexpectedly, as though she might make a sudden grab for her metal contraption.
But Jamie was unconcerned. What Claire was doing to him was something they’d practiced for months at the Ridge, slowly working up the intensity of what he could handle. She wouldn’t deviate from their routine. She said Jamie needed predictability. He needed the anticipation of knowing what was coming next, so he’d be eager for what was in store, not fearful of the unknown.
Her fingers began moving over the smooth skin behind his balls...God he loved when she did that. She massaged slowly, sensually, while she worked his cock between her lips. Her finger caressed his tight hole with featherlight softness. Her hot mouth surrounded him while she teased with illicit promise.
“John,” she whispered, beckoning him to take over.
Jamie expected a finger, slick with grease, to start pushing in, but it was John’s hot breath over his buttocks that he felt next. John’s tongue pressed against him, seeking entrance, like he’d done several times before. Jamie gripped the sheets beneath him as it pushed gently in.
“Oh God!” he groaned at the maddening intensity of his wife’s mouth on his cock and his friend’s tongue in his arse. He was surrounded in pleasure. John’s tongue was so soft, it didn’t feel intrusive, at all. It felt as right as Claire licking the tip of his cock.
In moments, the state of his body shifted from enjoying the pleasure of being touched to the desperation of seeking orgasm. “More, John,” he groaned. “Damnit, I need more.”
He heard the lid twist off the jar of almond cream, and a whisper from Claire to John, “Take your time...no matter what he says.”
“Hmphm,” Jamie grumbled at their talking about him like he wasn’t in the room, but he was quieted immediately by the return of her mouth on his balls.
John seemed to be taking Claire’s words to heart, much to Jamie’s dismay. He moved slow...agonizingly slow. When he pushed in his first finger, he did so with careful delicacy.
“Come on, man. Just put it in!”
“You are ready for it, aren’t you?” John’s voice was low and husky.
Still, John moved with no sense of urgency. His finger slipped in and out with steady ease, pulling, stretching, teasing. It was a sharp contrast to Claire’s eager mouth, sucking as though her life depended on it. Jamie reached back to grab John’s hair and demanded more intensity.
John finally added a second finger, pushing them both in as far as Jamie’s arse would allow. They were larger than Claire’s fingers, long and thick in comparison. Whatever their size, they felt damn good. John caressed a place somewhere deep behind Jamie’s cock, making Jamie squirm and squeeze them tight. John’s other hand, slick with oil, massaged his buttocks with the same rhythm as his fingers.
As John sped his hands, Jamie’s heart pulsed rapidly, and his body writhed in pleasure. His lungs no longer seemed capable of pulling in air. He had to push Claire off his cock and grip it tight to stop himself from spilling his seed too soon.
Claire moaned greedily as she crawled up the bed to kiss him. He wrapped his arms around her when their tongues met. Her body rubbed against him, demanding friction to fill her own building need. Not for the first time, he envied her endless capacity for climax. With no need to pace herself, she squirmed and rubbed against him until she was squeaking and whimpering into his neck, huffing her breath and moaning his name. Her pleasure dripped hot and wet from her quim, coating his cock, taunting him to push inside.
So caught up in his wife, Jamie was only peripherally aware of John removing his fingers, but awareness grew as John began applying more cream to Jamie’s bottom.
“Are you ready?” asked Claire, whispering in his ear.
“Aye,” he breathed.
She nodded to John over Jamie’s shoulder.
Jamie felt his nerves rise as John prepared the plug. Feeling her husband tense up, Claire bent down and took one of his nipples in her mouth, knowing full well it would get him out of his head.
Not wanting to be a passive participant in the matter, Jamie shoved his cock inside his wife, wrapping her leg around his waist. She cried out and clamped down on him, chasing away all his nerves and reservations.
“Here it comes,” said John, his voice low and raspy.
Jamie felt the cold, slick metal push into his arse. Claire had the smith shape it narrow at the top and widening as it went down, making it easier to slide in. When John met resistance, he slowed his pace, twisting and working it gently back and forth until it was all the way in, right up to the narrowing of the tool just before the flanged end.
Jamie held still for a moment, breathing heavy. It wasn’t painful...but it was damn full and a shock to his body. He didn’t think his cock had ever been so hard.
“Jamie,” Claire whispered, “look at me.”
He hadn’t realized his eyes were closed. He opened them to find her watching, her eyes glimmering like faraway stars.
“I love you,” she said softly.
“Aye,” he breathed. “I ken.”
He pulled her against him, filling her from the front as John filled him from behind. He kissed her, finding comfort and pleasure in her lips. As he moved his hips, the plug put pressure on a place deep inside, awakening fierce, untamed need.
All else was gone but Claire in his arms and the metal plug behind him. Her hips met his with every stroke, and he battered hard against her with a bluntness he was grateful his wife’s body could take.
A furious growl erupted from his mouth when her hips stopped moving, preventing him from filling his need.
“It’s alright,” she calmed him. “Just give me a moment.”
Jamie shook his head to clear it, trying to understand what was happening. He took a deep breath, and the scent of almonds filled his nose.
He finally realized John was behind Claire. Jamie hadn’t even noticed the man move. John’s arms were wrapped around her waist, and he was pushing his cock into her arse.
Jamie felt the moment John’s cock pushed in. Only a thin wall of flesh separated the two men. Jamie marveled at the ease of which Claire’s body accepted them both at the same time. Jamie was struggling to keep himself together with just the plug. But Claire had two full-sized cocks pushed inside her and was only moments away from being pummeled by both of them.
Having rogered the woman from both sides more than once in the last two weeks, she was more accustomed to what they were doing than Jamie thought he might ever be.
He moved his hand around her, squeezing between John’s hips and her buttocks. He felt where John’s cock entered her arse. He was thick and slick with grease. John moaned and buried his face in Claire’s hair when Jamie gave him a squeeze.
He didn’t know who started moving first—it could’ve been him for all he knew—but soon they were finding their rhythm. Claire mostly held still as the two men set the pace. Their legs were tangled together in such a mass, it was impossible to decipher whose limbs belonged to whom.
Maddening pleasure built deep within Jamie’s gut—magnified by the pressure of the plug shifting inside, the squeeze of wife’s hot center, and the friction of John’s cock moving along with him—and it grew with every thrust of his hips, demanding he move faster and harder to release the feeling to the rest of his body.
Claire screeched in his ear and bit down on his shoulder. She was tense and rigid, nearly pushing Jamie out. He fought all the harder to stay in, grunting, pushing through, so close to his peak.
He cried out as his stomach clenched, pulling Claire against every inch of him as he lost hold. John reached around Jamie, putting a hand on his back, using Jamie as leverage to bugger his wife. John came with grunting relief, stuttering to a stop.
They lay there, unmoving and breathing heavily. Pleasure hummed in the air around them as they waited for their bodies to settle and their minds to clear.
It was the fullness in Jamie’s bottom that had him stirring first. He pulled out of his wife and turned over. “D’ye mind, Claire?”
She chuckled quietly as she removed her tool. A sigh escaped his lips at the relief of its absence. She got up to wash the damn thing and wipe herself down. Then, she brought rags to clean up Jamie and John.
“Come, mo nighean donn,” he groaned at her fastidiousness. “Lay yer head to rest wi’ me.” She and John would need their sleep to deal with all that was to come before they left for home...even if Jamie wouldn’t get his. He needed the comfort of her in his arms.
Claire disposed of her rags and crawled back into bed. She snuggled into the curve of his arm and kissed him soundly.
He then turned to John, who lay next to him on the other side. John was watching him warily. His eyes asked a silent question. Are you alright?
Jamie curved his lips into a small smile and nodded. He reached for John’s face, pulling him in to seal his reassurance with a kiss. John didn’t let go of Jamie’s mouth, putting something more into the kiss...a deep affection and fierce admiration. He felt a flush to the tips of his ears as he pulled away.
Jamie lay there, his wife in one arm and his lover in the other. The magnitude of the moment hit him with brutal force. He refused to allow the tears to fall from his eyes—not when he’d have to release one of his loves to wipe them away. He inhaled the scent of them, the presence of them, basking in the peace their bodies gave him.
As with possessing anything he loved, Jamie felt the responsibility to keep them safe and protected weigh heavy on his heart. He prayed desperately to be enough for both of them, whatever they were bound to face.
John and Claire snored loudly as Jamie slipped quietly out of bed. It was with utmost reluctance that he pulled himself away from a place of such comfort and happiness, but he had important business to attend to.
He dressed quickly and warmly before making his way down to the stables. The nights were getting colder, and Jamie could see his breath in the moonlight. He pulled his plaid tight around him as he walked across the grounds.
Ian was already there waiting for him. “Hello, Uncle. I didna think ye’d make it down.”
“I told ye I’d help pack the wagon before ye left, did I no’?”
“Aye,” Ian laughed, “but I ken ye have yer hands full.”
The smirk on his nephew’s face made Jamie question his words. He knew his nephew to be perceptive, but he hoped the lad was referring solely to his Auntie Claire. “Aye.”
“Everything is ready to be loaded. We just need to get it in the wagon.”
“Listen, lad,” Jamie grabbed him by the arm. “I’m worrit about ye traveling alone. Ye ken John was set on by a band of men.”
“Dinna fash, Uncle. I can handle a few rogue men.”
“Aye, but perhaps ye can take someone wi’ ye? Another man might give the bandits pause if they happen upon ye.”
Ian snorted, “Who is there to take? Ye ken everyone is needed here.”
“Aye, but ye ken I just worry for ye like my own son.”
Ian sighed deeply, appreciating the sentiment. He replied with his voice full of sincerity, “And I love ye as much as my own father. Nothing would ever change that. Ye ken that, d’ye no’, Uncle Jamie? Nothing, at all.”
Jamie nodded, his eyes never leaving Ian’s. He pulled him in for a fierce hug and let the wave of affection embrace his nephew. They patted each other firmly on the backs before letting go.
“Ye’ll be careful, aye?” said Jamie.
“Of course. I’ve got a wife and bairn to get home to. And dinna forget, Uncle, there is a Committee for Safety around these parts. I’m sure they’ll help keep the roads safe for travel.” Ian’s laughter told Jamie just how much Ian disbelieved his own words.
“Verra amusing, lad,” Jamie said sarcastically. He’d only had a handful of encounters with safety committees; most were corrupt and useless, and some were a downright menace. “Ye stay as far away from them as ye can, aye?”
Ian rolled his eyes. “I’m no’ a bairn, as ye very well ken.”
“Aye, and that’s the only reason I’m letting you go out on your own. Dinna let me regret it.”
He patted Ian on the back firmly. “Come now. Let’s get ye packed up and ready to go. The sooner ye get a move on, the sooner ye’ll be able to get back to yer bairn.”
“I bet the lad will ha’ grown another four inches by the time I see him again.”
Jamie thought of his own son and all he missed in his life. “Let’s get on, then. We canna be having ye miss much.”
Jamie returned back to his room to find John and Claire cuddled up in the spot he’d vacated an hour before. She was wrapped tightly around him, no doubt attempting to find warmth in the chilly room. The temperature had dropped significantly in the short time Jamie was gone, and he worried about the likelihood of snow on Ian's travels.
He went to stoke the flame and add a few logs to the fire. He knew sleep would be hard to come by with his worries for his nephew so fresh in his mind. He poured himself a glass of water and found a cushioned chair to pull up next to the window—he’d had his fill of rocking chairs for the time being.
The land was dimly lit by the moon out to the edge of the forest, but the beauty of the grounds seemed tainted somehow. The moonlight was no longer silver, but dark and mucky gray. What was once a comfort to him—the security of his son owning property—was now a burden.
He couldn’t wait to return home. He craved the security of the Ridge, the protection of isolation, and loyalty of his tenants. The family would need to get packing soon. He couldn’t allow them to be sitting ducks for debt collectors, corrupt safety committees, or bitter slave-owners.
A flash of white had him looking toward the line of the forest. Hoping for a glimpse of the white doe, Jamie leaned forward and narrowed his eyes, ready to wake John and Claire if it appeared.
It wasn’t the white doe. “Bastard sow,” he grumbled.
He settled back into his seat and stared out over the dark forest. After long moments of going over lists in his head of what was left to be done before they could return home, his eyelids grew heavy, and the Virginia forest began blending with the Carolina wilderness he missed so dearly.
Quiet footsteps woke him from his slumber in the small hours before dawn. The soft footfall was muffled by the rugs covering the floor as John made his way to the chamberpot. He knew it was John even without looking. Not only did the man walk heavier than Claire, but his wife had a propensity to moan and grunt anytime she was forced out of bed—even by her own bladder.
The footsteps didn’t return to the bed when they were finished. A gentle hand rested on his shoulder. “Are you alright?” John asked.
Jamie rubbed his cheek against John’s hand and said, “Aye. Was having a bit of trouble sleeping, is all.”
“You’re worried, aren’t you?”
Jamie nodded. “Aye. Sending Ian off on his own left a sick feeling in my wame.”
“Do you think he’s in danger?”
Jamie shrugged, “I dinna ken. They tried to harm you, did they no’?”
“I suppose they did. Jamie, perhaps you should go after him and…”
“No. He kens the risk, and he takes it as he must for ones he loves.”
“I can’t thank you all enough for coming to our aid. You’ll never know how much this means to me.”
“Hmphm. I understand what it means to feel indebted to a friend, John. Sometimes, ye must accept what we give ye wi’ grace. Ye’ve taken care of me and mine for years. ’Tis time we return the favor.”
John’s fingers traced the line of Jamie’s jaw, making his large body quiver. John hummed as he moved to lean against the window ledge in front of Jamie. He was still naked, the chill of the room gone with Jamie’s fire.
“I was concerned you were...struggling...with what we did last night,” said John delicately. “I worried we pushed you too far.”
Jamie snorted, “Nae. Bedding ye and Claire is a comfort, mo charaid, no’ a strain.”
“Good. I don’t think I could bear it if I ever made you uncomfortable in such times.”
Jamie looked down at John’s cock, knowing the size of which it was capable of growing. “Oh, I dinna mind a wee bit of discomfort. Claire taught me that on our wedding night.”
“You’re a brave man, Jamie. Whatever it was that was done to you...you’ve found a way to not let it control your life.”
“’Tis no’ about being brave. See, my mind learned quickly to hold the thoughts of what that bastard did to me wi’out the fear or terror that once came wi’ it. ’Twas the rage that took more time, ye ken. I couldna let go of the anger...the injustice. He found the one thing he could use to break me, and he did. I swore to never allow a man to do so again.”
“The one thing he could use to break you?” John sat pensively for a moment. “It was Claire, wasn’t it? He used her to hurt you?”
Jamie nodded. “Aye. I’d do anything to spare her harm.”
“I’ve spent years learning how to let go of the fury...to think of the past wi’ some degree of objectivity. All these years later, I can finally hold the memories in my mind wi’out getting the sickness in my wame. I can even be angry about it wi’out losing myself in rage. My mind has mastered itself. I can think rationally, logically, about what was done. Ye see, ’tis naught to do wi’ bravery, because I dinna have anymore fear of the man in my heart.”
“Then what is it?”
“My mind has evolved, but my body has not. I canna reason wi’ my body like I can wi’ my mind. My body must be shown ’tis safe...more importantly, it must be shown Claire is safe.”
“Oh,” said John. His eyebrows rose as comprehension dawned. “He used the threat of hurting Claire to break you…”
“Aye...so when we make love, man, and I feel her happy and safe in my arms, my body kens ’tis alright for ye to touch me. Ye mean her no harm, nor me. Ye love her...and ye love me.”
“I do love you, Jamie. And I love her...madly.”
Jamie turned to glimpse Claire sleeping in their bed, completely at peace. “I ken ye do. Claire is my heart and my soul, my blood and bone. Ye couldna love me fully if ye didna love her."
John smiled softly. "Last summer, I was worried my relationship with the two of you would change the beauty of what you share. A foolish and misguided thought."
"Much has changed between the two of ye since last summer.”
“She’s very dear to me, and has been since we wed, but our time over the last few weeks has been most extraordinary.”
“John…” Jamie hesitated, but forced himself to go on. “If anything should happen to me, I ask ye to take care of her again...the way ye did before. Except this time, dinna fuck her for the sake of fucking me. She should be loved in her own right.”
John met his eyes unblinkingly. “You don’t even have to ask.”
“Good,” Jamie nodded, but stopped himself at a thought. “But will a woman be enough for ye? D’ye think ye’ll need a man to…”
John snorted, “You’re asking me if your wife is enough for me? Claire Fraser is more than enough for any man. I mean, did you fail to notice the metal tool she had me shove up your arse last night?”
“I remember that well enough.” Jamie squeezed his bottom, recalling the sensation of being invaded.
“How did she get the smith to make such a contraption? Surely, he must’ve thought her mad?”
“Hmphm. She told him it was a tool to treat piles and said if he didn’t want her shoving it up his bum, then he’d better start eating his vegetables.”
John’s whole body bounced with suppressed laughter, trying to ensure the object of his humor would remain asleep.
“I do have a question about it...the tool...about how it...felt,” John said, flushing red.
Jamie grinned broadly, “Ye’ve come a long way, Grey. I remember when ye nearly swallowed yer tongue when I asked ye how ye liked the bedding. And now ye ask me such a vulgar question?”
John rubbed his face in his hands, clearly embarrassed. Jamie found it amusing that a naked man would be covering his face to avoid the heat of shame.
“What d’ye want to ken?”
John took a deep breath and forged on. “Was it...pleasing?”
Jamie snorted, “Could ye no’ tell?”
“You appeared to be enjoying yourself.”
“I was. I have little to compare it to, aside from yer tongue. What it lacks in warmth and dexterity, it makes up for in size.”
John laughed heartily and had to force himself to quiet down. Despite his laughter, John’s growing erection wasn’t lost on Jamie.
“Ye're curious, man? Ye want us to use it on ye?”
“It would only be fair.”
“Aye, fair’s fair.”
Jamie rose to face John at the windowsill. His tall form loomed over him as he stepped in close. Their hands found each other’s bodies. The density of John’s muscular form was much heavier than the soft curves of his wife, but not at all unpleasant.
“I must say,” Jamie spoke quietly, “I’m none so sure I want the damn thing near ye. I shouldna like to be jealous of a scrap of metal.”
“I’m sure you can arrange a substitute that is warmer, more flexible, and without deficiency of size.”
Jamie pulled his kilt up to let John feel said substitute. The muscles on John’s back flexed as he pressed himself against Jamie.
“You don’t know what a dream this is, Jamie,” John whispered. “You don’t know how many times in how many years I’ve pictured moments like this.”
“I dinna ken if I can live up to a dream, man, but I’ll try to give ye every one of them.”
Their lips met, soft and pliant. Wrapping his arms tight around John, Jamie wished he could surround him always...protect him. Claire, John, their children, the tenants...he needed to be enough for all of them.
“You’re so much more,” said John, though Jamie didn’t know if he was responding to his last words or his thoughts. Either way, it was what he needed to hear.
A fire had been lit deep within Jamie’s heart last summer, a fire burning for the man before him. He was forced to smother it into containment in the presence of others, but in the privacy of their room, he could set it ablaze.
He could almost see the fire when he closed his eyes and kissed the man. He could see the flames rising as he licked in his mouth. Orange and yellow light shined through his lids. He opened them, certain the man in front of him was alight with flames.
Flames there were, but they were not coming from John.
Jamie stared out the window trying to take in the sight. Sensing his tension, John’s lips left his mouth and followed his gaze.
“The wine shed!” said John, opening the window.
Jamie was already putting on his boots and reaching for his weapons. He strapped them on and ordered John, “Get dressed and wake Claire! Have Roger, Bree, and Willie guard the home before ye come after me to help put it out. Bring yer sword!”
John nodded sharply, like a good soldier, and Jamie took off down the stairs and out of the house. The cold November air didn’t seem as crisp with an entire building ablaze before him.
The whole shed was in flames. There was clearly naught to be done to put it out. All he could do was prevent it from spreading elsewhere.
Jamie stopped at a shed to grab a spade before making his way to the blaze. His eyes scanned all directions, trying to see if anyone was lying in wait to attack. Seeing nothing but the bright flames in the darkness, he forged ahead.
The wind was blowing West, feeding the flames. The morning dew that covered the overgrown grass, long dead since the heat of summer, seemed the only thing stopping the entire forest from catching on fire.
Jamie worked as hard and fast as he could, clearing away dead grass and bushes, forming a gap between the flames and everything else. The heat of the fire was oppressive. Sweat poured down his face, evaporating moments later into thin air. The sound of the wind feeding the flames and the burning boards collapsing in on themselves was deafening. He shoveled madly, mindless of all else, desperate to protect the people he loved.
He didn’t stop until his arms gave way and his knees hit the floor. He knew he must be close to dehydrated, and he was beyond exhausted.
He inspected the gap he made between the fire and everything else. He breathed a smoky sigh of relief, knowing it was unlikely that the fire would spread beyond that space on such a cold, wet November morning.
In his furious shoveling, he hadn’t realized the first light of dawn had already begun to touch the earth. The sky was turning blue, except around the rising sun where all was pink and orange and yellow. The light of the fire stole from the magnificence of dawn.
Jamie took a deep breath, and his lungs felt like they might collapse in on themselves. He coughed and gagged from the smoke, spitting out whatever moisture he had left in his body.
He wished John would’ve come to help clear the grass.
“Where are ye, man?” Jamie turned from the fire to look around. He’d been so caught up in his task, he’d forgotten to keep an eye on the rest of the land.
Fear found Jamie the reserves of energy he needed to move quickly. He turned away from the flames, praying he’d done enough to contain them. He knew John wouldn’t be in the house unless there was trouble. He scanned the property as he ran back to the great, white structure.
Hearthfires had been lit inside, and Jamie could see silhouettes of people moving about. The front door burst open, and Willie came rushing out.
“It’s gone?” asked Willie, though Jamie hardly thought he needed to answer. Anyone could see from the porch that the shed was completely destroyed.
“John? Is he here? Is he inside?”
Willie narrowed his eyes and shook his head. “No. He left to help you...ages ago.”
Willie’s last words were spoken to the back of Jamie’s head; Jamie was already running out, calling for his friend. “John! Mo charaid! Where are ye, man?”
The sunrise was beginning to light the land, giving Jamie some reprieve to help him search.
“Where would he go?” Jamie mumbled to himself. Mebbe to grab a spade? The shed?
His long strides got him there quickly. He could hear William’s footsteps not far behind. “Papa?! Papa?!” The fear in his voice permeated every word.
The shed door was open, though that could’ve been from when Jamie grabbed the spade to deal with the fire. Jamie pulled out his pistol with his left hand and his blade with his right. He peered in and found nothing amiss.
Willie was at the door looking wildly around. “Can’t you track him?”
Jamie was already scanning the mud, doing just that. He could see a fresh set of tracks, several men, at least, heading from the shed straight out to the woods. There should be little reason anyone from the house would need to go from the shed straight to the forest.
Jamie rushed forward, his eyes sweeping back and forth. Willie kept up his calls for John as he followed behind.
“He came out in a white sark,” said Willie. “He should be relatively easy to find.”
Not if it’s covered in blood, thought Jamie. “John!”
They followed the tracks into the trees, and almost immediately, they spotted a body lying on the ground. His eyes were closed and he was covered in blood and filth.
“John!” Jamie rushed to his side, scanning around for his attackers. John’s face was swollen and bloody, but the wounds looked as though they’d been sitting for some time.
“Here.” Jamie handed Willie his pistol, and he sheathed his sword. “Keep yer eyes peeled, lad.”
Willie nodded and took up guard.
“John, ye alright, mo charaid?” Jamie took John’s face in his hands and rubbed his cheeks, trying to wake him up. Jamie could feel enough warmth in John’s body to know he was alive, but seeing his blue eyes flicker sent a flood of relief to his heart.
“Jamie…” he whispered.
“’Tis alright, man. I’ll get ye back to Claire. She’ll have ye right as rain in no time.”
“William? Is he…?”
“I’m here, Papa. I’m fine. They didn’t come to the house.”
John sighed in relief.
“D’ye ken the bastards who did this to ye?”
John attempted to nod, but cringed in pain. Rage pulsed through Jamie’s body the likes of which he hadn’t felt since he faced the man who harmed his wife. He forced himself to keep it under control for John’s sake.
“Dinna fash, mo charaid. I’ll take care of them, I swear it to ye.”
John closed his eyes and tried to sit up, but pressed a hand to his head in pain. “Dear God,” he grunted.
“Here.” Jamie helped him up.
“What did they do to you, Papa? Where does it hurt?” asked Willie.
John’s eyes were closed, and he was rubbing his temples, “Everywhere. My head mostly. They struck me from behind near the shed. We exchanged some words, and I tried fighting them off, but one of them knocked me to the floor and another kicked me in the head. I don’t remember anything after that.”
“They weren't trying to kill you?”
“I don’t think I’d be breathing if that were the case.”
“Did they say what they wanted?”
John nodded despite the pain it caused him. “They came for the wine and anything else they could sell.”
“The debt collector, then?” asked Jamie.
“What makes you say that?” asked Willie.
“Dead men don’t make payments,” said John. "And I recognized him well enough. I'm certain the men who attacked before were the same who accompanied him today."
“God, Papa, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
“’Tis no’ yer fault, William,” said Jamie. ’Tis mine, he didn’t say. He should’ve done something sooner. “Come now. We need to get him to Claire.”
The sooner Claire gave word that John would be alright, the sooner Jamie could be on his way to avenge his friend.
William helped Jamie lift John to his feet, but it became clear very quickly that John was too dizzy to keep himself upright. Despite John’s protestations, Jamie picked him up, cradling him in his arms.
Moving slow from the exhaustion of the morning and the weight of the man in his arms, Jamie carried him back to the house. He prayed quietly under his breath with every step—Gaelic prayers of health, strength, and justice.
John melted into Jamie’s arms and was unconscious before they made it to the front door.
“John!” yelled Claire, eyes wide and terrified. She rushed to Jamie, feeling for the man’s pulse.
“He’s alive, Sassenach. He’d been hit in the heid. Where d’ye want him?”
“Somewhere comfortable. Upstairs in his bed would be best.”
Jamie followed his wife’s instructions and brought John to his room. His muscles groaned in relief when he laid John down on the large mattress. He took John’s battered face in his hands and whispered one last prayer over him. He pressed a kiss against a wound on John’s forehead and another on his swollen lips before releasing him to Claire.
As he backed away, he bumped into William, who most certainly witnessed his overt display of affection. Willie said nothing for some time as they watched Claire examine John.
She woke him up, asked him questions, and inspected his wounds—her hands and tone that of a physician, for the moment, not a lover.
“I want to go with you,” said William.
Jamie didn’t need to ask where he meant. “I canna allow it.”
“And why not? He’s my father. This is my land. I should be the one to avenge him.”
Jamie turned and met his son’s gaze, staring into eyes that were so much like his own. “He’s mine to avenge, lad. I willna have it any other way.” He dared his son to challenge him.
“Fine,” Willie conceded, “but I want to be there when you do it.”
“And what if the bastards come back when I’m gone? Who’s to defend John and the women and children? Roger Mac? Nae, yer responsibility is here, to yer family and yer land.”
Willie sighed in frustrated helplessness. Jamie knew the feeling all too well; so many times before he’d felt it himself. But he was done feeling helpless now. It was time he took matters in his own hands and ensured the safety of the people he loved.
Chapter 8: Thou Art Dust
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
- Genesis 3:19 - King James Bible
— Jamie —
Jamie scooped up a handful of ash, softer than the finest sand. He let it fall between his fingers and watched the wind carry it away.
All that was left of the wine shed was a few pieces of its charred frame. The equipment inside was incinerated, the tools destroyed, and the last drops of wine evaporated. Nothing was salvageable.
But John was alive...and so was William.
He wiped his hands on his kilt, trying to clean off the ash, but the soot had stained them black. He needed hot water and soap to get the rest off...he only wished there was a way to clean the blood off them so easily.
He looked up at the house. There were signs of domestic life starting to appear: hearthfire being lit, the privy in use, and sounds of children already at play. He was more than ready to get back to his family.
It had been only two days since John was assaulted, but it felt like a week…
The men were not difficult to track; they didn’t appear concerned about hiding who they were. Their only advantage was having several hours headstart on Jamie before he could leave John. John gave as detailed of descriptions as he could remember of the three men who would soon meet their end.
Their tracks—two on horseback, one in a wagon—headed in the direction of Richmond, which was no surprise, seeing as how that was where the debt collector resided. Jamie knew the loans for the property were held by a gentleman in Savannah, and the debt collector was contracted solely to obtain payment. Unfortunately, it meant that when Jamie killed them, it would resolve nothing in the way of the debt, even if it would give Jamie some peace of mind.
The men appeared to live in the same building where they conducted business. He watched them over the course of the two days, observing and deciding how to find his justice. He noted where they stored their horses and wagon.
Jamie witnessed firsthand how they conducted their business—if it could even be called that. Their methods were brutal and uncompromising, no matter who it was who owed money. It took a great deal of restraint for Jamie not to intervene on behalf of the clientele, but when rich men’s money was at stake, there were always more consequences to one’s actions than superficial observation suggested.
On his second day in Richmond, a very large man—both in height and breadth—came to visit the debt collector and his men. Jamie gave a few coins to a boy playing in the street to find out the man was a leader of the local Committee for Safety. It was clear by their interaction, the large man and the debt collector were familiar with each other and certainly on friendly terms.
Jamie waited for the small, dark hours of the morning, not unlike what the bastards had done to John. He wrapped his hair and face in dark cloth and drove the debt collector’s wagon back behind the building. He broke in quietly through the back window, using the paper and treacle method his daughter shared with him years before.
The men were easy to find by their raucous snoring, clearly induced by abundant consumption of liquor. Jamie followed the sounds upstairs to a small room that held two cots and a pallet on the floor.
It was almost too easy. What he really wanted was to challenge them to a duel and fight it out hand to hand in the middle of the street. There was no honor in killing a man in his sleep...but honor had nothing to do with it.
The men would never get another chance to harm someone he loved, and they’d aid him protecting his family with their deaths.
John’s battered body and bloody face were at the forefront of his mind when he came up behind the man sleeping facedown on the pallet. Jamie wrapped an arm around the drunken fool’s neck, hooking it with his other arm and squeezed tightly enough to close his airways. The bastard woke in a disoriented terror, but all Jamie’s weight was on his back, and the drunken fool didn’t stand a chance.
He was gone quickly and quietly.
The second man went in much the same way, save for his arm banging on the wall in an attempt to wake his companion. He was subdued just as the debt collector rose clumsily out of his cot. Jamie watched him lunge for a pistol attached to his belt, hanging over the edge of the bed.
Jamie was much quicker and far more sober. He overpowered the man with ease and got him into the same chokehold as the other two. He took his time suffocating this one.
“Let the last moments of yer life be filled with regrets for what ye’ve done to my family and to John Grey,” Jamie whispered in his ear.
Practicality won out over vengeful desire for prolonged torture. Jamie squeezed harder, stealing the bastard’s last hopes for more air...for more life.
Jamie didn’t have it in him to pray for the souls of the men he’d just killed...not yet. He hoped Claire and John’s prayers would be enough to one day save his soul.
He wrapped the bodies in their blankets and took them silently down to their own wagon. No one in Richmond was any the wiser about what he’d done.
He was back at Mt. Josiah several hours later, standing in the ashes that were all that remained of the wine shed.
Jamie watched the sunrise from where he stood. It was a brilliant display of God's power; deep blues, majestic purples, and vibrant pinks filled the expanse of the sky.
He crossed himself with his soot-stained hand and said a prayer for the safety of his family.
No one heard him enter the house. The sounds of the family’s usual breakfast clamor echoed from the kitchen. A paradoxical peace settled over him as he listened to the commotion.
The fatigue and melancholy that had overwhelmed him moments before faded at the sounds of normalcy of everyday life. They drew him in with the promise of distraction.
He could hear snippets of conversation the closer he came. The smell of freshly cooked sausages lingered in the air, making his stomach growl at its neglect.
“Wait!” said Bree’s voice to someone in the kitchen. “You’ve met Benjamin Franklin?”
“Indeed. In fact, I’ve seen all too much of him,” said John, distastefully.
Brianna roared with laughter, “You saw him nude sunbathing, didn’t you? He’ll be famous for it.”
“Infamous, more like.”
“Tell us, what was he like?”
“Oh, a bright and jovial man. We got on rather well when he was properly attired. In fact, he gave me several letters of introduction to friends of his in the Colonies. I’ve even been in contact with him rather recently regarding one of his business ventures in Philadelphia. The poor man is eager to come home to America.”
“What business venture?”
The moment Jamie walked into the kitchen, all conversation stopped, and he was mauled by screaming children hugging his middle and hanging on his limbs.
“Did ye get ’em, Grandda?”
“Did you challenge them to a duel, Grand-père?”
“Granny’s gonna thrash ye for muckin’ up the floors wi’ yer boots. She mopped three times yesterday.”
“Did ye feed their guts to the sow?”
“Alright!” said Claire, as Jamie distributed kisses all around. “Give your Grandda a moment. He’s probably half-starved and deprived of sleep.”
“Aye,” he said, coming to wrap his arms around his wife. He bent down to kiss her and take in her scent. She’d been in the herbs already, likely tending to John.
Jamie turned his head to meet John’s eyes from across the room. The swelling had subsided, thanks to Claire’s leeches, but the bruises were dark and purple across the side of his face. Though John showed obvious relief at Jamie’s arrival, a cloud of dysphoria seemed to hang heavy in the air around him.
Whatever guilt Jamie carried for strangling three men in their sleep was gone in an instant. He only regretted he couldn’t kill them again.
His eyes remained locked on John, and his arms stayed clasped around Claire. He was vaguely aware of Brianna shooing the children away so the adults could speak in private.
“What happened, Da?” she asked, coming back into the room. “Did you find them?”
Jamie forced his eyes away from John and spoke to his daughter. “No. I lost their trail some ways North. I thought it best to come back and get the family home to the Ridge. I didna want to leave ye here for long wi’ so little protection.”
“Wait,” said Willie, “you didn’t catch them? You let my father’s attackers get away?!”
“William,” said John sharply.
“No! He assured me he’d get vengeance for you, Papa. He forced me to stay and protect the family. He said he would get the job done.”
Claire was holding Jamie possessively, as though trying to protect him from his son’s disappointment.
“Dinna fash, lad,” said Jamie. “They willna go unpunished.”
“Losing their trail will make them all the more difficult to find!”
“We’ll talk about this later. I shall have breakfast and some rest, then we can discuss our retribution further.”
Claire pulled away and started filling Jamie a plate of breakfast.
“No,” said William. “If you won’t find them, I will.” He turned on his heel and walked to the door.
“William! Stop!” said Jamie.
Despite his anger, Willie obeyed his father’s command.
“Yer family needs ye here.”
“I will not allow the men who hurt Papa to roam around free to do it again!”
“William, please,” said John, standing quickly. He grunted in pain and pressed a hand to his temple.
Claire put Jamie’s plate on the table and rushed to John’s side, checking his eyes and his pulse.
“I’m fine,” John grumbled. “It’s just a headache.”
“You said the headaches were gone,” Claire chided.
“They were. I’m sure this is only a tension headache. There’s plenty of that going around.”
“Mo charaid,” said Jamie, “why are ye no’ in bed resting? Surely, ye shouldna be up and about after only two days time.”
“It was only a hit to the head. I promise you, I’m fine.”
Claire reassured Jamie in the midst of her examination, “Aside from the concussion, the rest of his injuries were superficial. He slept for almost an entire day, but he was up and about yesterday. He insists he isn’t experiencing any dizziness, memory problems, or confusion, but there has been some depressed mood and headaches…”
“If someone kicked any part of my body, it would surely ache. Truly, I’m fine. They only meant to send me a message, not to do me harm.”
“We have a verra different perception of what is meant by the word ‘harm’,” said Jamie.
“Come, Papa,” said Willie, “let me take you up to bed. You need to rest before…”
“I said I’m fine. You all have plenty to do without obsessing over the state of my health.”
“No,” said Jamie, seizing an opportunity for privacy, “the lad’s right. Ye need to get up to yer room.”
Jamie grabbed his plate from the table in one hand and John’s arm in the other. “Come, man. I’ll have my breakfast upstairs, and we can speak on all that’s transpired the last two days.”
Jamie gave him a subtle, significant look, and John nodded in understanding. “Alright, I’m sure my pride can stand to appease you just this once.”
Claire took Jamie’s plate from his hand and led the way out of the kitchen.
“Come, William,” said Jamie. “Help me see John comfortably upstairs.”
“For Heaven’s sake, I’m not an invalid,” John pulled his arm from Jamie’s grasp and sped his steps to walk with Claire.
“He’s been like that since you left,” murmured William. “Except when he’s sleeping.”
Jamie looked over his shoulder to make sure Roger and Brianna weren’t following them. “Aye. He doesna care much for being fussed over.”
Four sets of footsteps clambered up the stairs and down the hall to John’s room. Even injured, John held the door open for everyone.
“Go on, man,” said Jamie, forcing him in the room first. “Get yer arse in bed.”
“I do not need…”
“You really are looking tired, darling,” said Claire, rubbing a soothing hand up and down his arm. “Please humor us, if only for a while.”
He sighed in frustration, unable to deny the sweet look of concern on her face, and made his way to the bed, but not without exasperated grunts and the pitiful look of a man coerced. He sat against the headboard, one foot hanging off the bed, as though ready to stand at any moment. He didn’t even bother to take off his boots.
Jamie found a chair and pulled it up next to John. He took his plate from Claire and set it on the nightstand next to him. The bannocks were soft and warm, no doubt made fresh by William, and the sausages were exceptionally delicious.
“What happened, Jamie? Did you find them?” asked Claire, her hands resting on his shoulders.
“Aye. I did. All went as planned.”
“What?” said William, coming to sit at the foot of the bed. “You found them? Why did you lie?”
“It was necessary,” said John. “The fewer who know, the better.”
“We can trust my sister.”
“Yes, but she’ll be sure to tell her husband.”
“What d’ye mean?” asked Jamie.
William looked down and blushed, “There are things we’ve discussed that she has no intention of sharing with her husband.”
“Aye, weel, ’tis no’ that we dinna trust yer sister or Roger Mac, but the fewer people who must carry the burden of truth, the better. They will keep our secrets for us, but they shouldna have to.”
“So you got them?” asked John. “All three of them?”
“Aye. ’Twas much easier than I’d thought. Although…”
Jamie took another bite of his bannock before continuing on. “Yer debt collector was friendly wi’ the Committee for Safety. It willna be long before they figure out he’s gone.”
“We’ll be long gone back to the Ridge before that happens, don’t you think?” asked Claire.
John rubbed the side of his head in frustration. “The last thing I want is for this madness to follow you to North Carolina.”
“Dinna fash, John. No one will be following us anywhere. I told ye I’ll take care of things, and I meant it.”
“Yes, but I never expected you’d have to kill anyone for me, Jamie, much less fend off a safety committee who has ties to the victims.”
“Hmphm .” Claire made an adorable little grunt that almost sounded Scottish in its own right. “I’d hardly call those violent arsonists victims.”
“So, laddie,” Jamie said to William, “ye dinna need to ride off in defense of yer father. I swore to ye he’d be avenged, and I fulfilled that promise.”
“Did they suffer?” asked Willie, with a maniacal light in his eyes.
“That’s between me, God, and the three souls passing into the next life. Dinna fill yer heart wi’ resentments for dead men.”
Willie looked away from Jamie in frustration. Asking a young man to let go of his anger was asking him to complete a Herculean task, and asking so of a Fraser was even worse.
“Now, go on and help yer sister get things packed. I intend to be on the road in two days’ time.”
Willie grudgingly stood and did as he was told. The way he dragged his feet across the floor made clear his reluctance to go.
He hesitated briefly at the door, as though teetering on the edge of a decision. Making up his mind, he turned around and addressed Jamie. “Thank you, Mac. Thank you, both,” he looked to Claire, “for taking care of Papa.”
“You’re family,” said Claire. “Both of you.”
William nodded gratefully before taking his leave.
Jamie took the moment of peace as an opportunity to finish his meal. He ate quickly and was grateful to Claire for bringing him water to wash it all down—even if he would’ve preferred ale.
“Did you run into any trouble?” she asked, untying his hair and running her fingers through his curls. His body shivered, and a wave of relaxation followed gooseflesh from the top of his head down his shoulders.
“None, at all. I spoke true when Willie was here. All went as planned.”
“Are you alright?” He could tell by her tone and the way her hands caressed his scalp that she wasn’t asking about his body.
“Aye, Sassenach. As well as anyone might be after such a deed.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck from behind and kissed him softly on his cheek. It wasn’t lost on him that only hours before he was strangling three men to death using a chokehold similar to the way Claire was now providing him comfort.
“I love you,” she whispered.
He sighed heavily, allowing her words to absorb into the depths of his heart. “And I love you, mo chridhe.”
“Thank you,” said John. “Though I wish you would’ve waited a day and allowed me to come with you. It would’ve given me great satisfaction to face those bastards again.”
“It is done, and ye can focus on living yer life now while they no longer have their own.”
“I suppose that is the best kind of revenge.”
“Come now.” Jamie stood, pushing his plate aside on the nightstand. “Rest wi’ me awhile, will ye? We’ve got a long few days ahead of us, and I can hardly keep myself upright.”
John looked as though he was about to protest being forced to rest any more than he already had, but Claire addressed him pointedly. “I think we can all use a moment to lie quietly together.”
Seeing that he was outnumbered, John nodded and began removing his breeks and boots. Jamie helped his wife out of her stays before undressing down to his shirt and getting into John’s bed.
He lay in the center with John and Claire on either side. He kissed them both soundly and held them snugly in his arms. Too tired for his thoughts to race for long, he fell asleep before his conscience could get the better of him.
“Would it be so horrible if the whole place went up in flames?” Brianna asked her brother later that day. “Don’t you have insurance on it?”
“It’s not enough to cover all the debts,” said William. “We’d be in the same position we are now, but without the means to make any money for the payments.”
Jamie was packing the family’s wagon with his son and daughter. They’d pulled the wagon up to the front of the house to get it loaded. He only slept a few hours that morning, knowing he’d never sleep at night if he let time get away from him. There was still so much to do before they left.
“Da, isn’t there some way you could pay the debts with your gold?” asked Bree.
He shook his head as he lifted one trunk on top of another for more space. “If we came up with such a large sum of money, or if we carried bars of gold to the office of the debt collectors, people would most certainly take notice, especially during a war. If we said the money came from John, he’d have the Continental Congress down his throat for no’ being forthright about his assets when changing sides. We also canna let it be known that we have such wealth at the Ridge. Remember what happened the last time someone got wind about the gemstones in our auld house? It burned to the ground. All money has a trail.”
“Try not to worry about it, sister. We’ll find a way.”
“But with the wine gone, how are you supposed to make your payments through the winter?” asked Bree.
“It wasn’t our only source of income. We have other crops.”
“Dinna fash, lass. Yer Ma and I wouldna let any harm or poverty befall yer brother or John.”
“I know that. I just hate not doing anything.” She crossed her arms and leaned back against the wagon in defeat. “I feel like a sitting duck.”
Jamie laughed. “As busy as we’ve been the past few weeks, ye still feel like ye havena done enough? Perhaps I can find ye a few more chores.”
“Ha. Ha,” she scoffed.
“Here, Mac,” said Willie, lifting a large trunk up into the wagon.
Jamie pulled it up and found a space for it with the others. “Is this it, then?”
“I’ll ask Mama if she’s packed all her medical supplies, and I’ll have one last look around the house for all the things that have gone missing.”
“Missing things? What d’ye mean?”
“Oh, odds and ends we can’t seem to find. Books from the library, Mandy’s little doll, Willie’s rosary and ladle.”
“Oh,” said Willie. “Don’t worry about that.” He pulled his rosary out from underneath his sark. “I found them both in my room. I must’ve just been careless about where I put them.”
“And yer Ma has the lassie’s wee doll up in our room,” said Jamie.
Brianna sighed in relief. “Good. That’s one less thing to worry about, I guess. I should probably go inside and ask Mama if she needs help with anything else.”
Jamie watched his daughter walk up the stairs and into the house, the weight of her family’s distress resting on her shoulders.
“She’s a braw lass, yer sister,” said Jamie.
“She is,” Willie agreed. “I hate seeing her like this.”
“Brianna feels responsible for taking care of everyone around her. She’s no’ one to sit idly by and let things sort themselves out.”
“Like her father.”
Jamie turned to William, wondering if there was some sort of underlying sarcasm hidden in his words. But Willie’s expression held no hostility. It seemed to be a genuine observation.
“Aye. We come by it naturally, I’d say. You, as well.”
“Aye. How ye cared for Jane and Fanny...and for John.”
William nodded solemnly at the mention of Jane.
“Ye did the best ye could by the lass, Willie. And ye’ve ensured a safe place for her sister to grow.”
“The best I could wasn't good enough. I failed Jane. I was too late...for her.”
“Ye did all ye could, lad. I pray every day of my life that I’m enough for the people who need me. ’Tis no’ always so.”
“When have you not been enough?”
“Oh, I’ve told ye so before.” He sat down on a trunk to rest his feet. “Wi’ yer sister... Faith . I couldna save her, nor could I be there for Claire when she lost her. I canna count how many times I wasna there for you, for Brianna, Fergus, and Ian. I’ve failed ye many times...all of ye. ’Tis why the responsibility is so heavy; I ken the consequences well.”
“So do I.” Willie dropped his gaze to the ground, and his ears flushed red. There was clearly something he wanted to say and was working up the courage to say it.
Finally, he lifted his chin, squared his shoulders, and turned to look up at his father. His voice was louder than normal, and he spoke with the confidence inherent in the station of an earl, even if his expression betrayed his fear. “I’ve fallen in love with someone...a young woman in town. I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
Jamie couldn’t help his smirk at the resolve in his son’s voice. He could hear the same steel in William’s words that he put into his own when he insisted to Murtagh that Claire would be his wife all those years ago. “Is that so?”
“That’s not all. She’s...not what you’d expect.” He audibly swallowed and pressed on. “She’s a whore...well, she was a whore.” He blushed profusely. “I suppose she still is, but she’s not...I’ve ensured she won’t be giving her services to other men.” William rubbed his eyes in frustration. “This is all coming out wrong.”
“Come here, lad,” Jamie reached a hand out to his son so he could sit with him in the wagon. When Willie was settled, Jamie asked, “Does the lass love ye back?”
“Of course she does,” he snapped. “I wouldn’t be considering marriage if she didn’t.”
“I only asked because whores are meant to make a man believe such things. ’Tis good for business. Ye’re certain she’s as devoted to ye as ye seem to be to her?”
“I am,” Willie said defensively. “I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. It’s not like that. She’s not like that.”
“What’s she like, then?”
“She’s... lovely ,” Willie sighed, eyes a bit dreamy. “She has ginger hair, if you can believe it.”
“But it’s soft and light. Different from yours and Brianna's. Like sunshine and strawberries.”
Jamie laughed, “Ye must be in love; she’s made ye a poet. Did ye bed her?”
“What?” Willie said, affronted.
He looked down in shame. “Only once. The first time...I didn’t plan on falling in love with her. I didn’t plan on falling for anyone ever again. But when we were together…” his voice drifted off.
“Aye. I ken what it’s like when things feel right.”
“I thought, perhaps, I was being a fool. She wouldn’t be the first whore I fell in love with...nor the second. But…”
“It didn’t matter. I’d gladly be her fool.”
Jamie chortled, wondering how many times over the years he’d been a fool for Claire.
“I didn’t sleep for three days after my first night with her. When I wasn’t in agony over seeing her again, I was ruminating on all the other men parading in and out of her room in the meantime, doing things to her that she didn’t really want to do, touching her in a way that was only meant for me.”
“So ye went back?”
Willie nodded, a grin spreading across his face. “With three large casks of wine for the madam in exchange for her to be reserved for only me over the next three months. Of course, I wouldn’t allow myself to bed her now that I was in love with her.”
Jamie laughed heartily. “So what d’ye do with her, then, if there’s no bedding to be had?”
Willie joined in Jamie’s laughter, “She’s been teaching me to cook.”
“No wonder ye’re such a talent in the kitchen. If it was my only distraction from touching Claire as a young man, I might’ve been fit to cook for the King of France himself.”
William laughed with his father, relieved at Jamie’s acceptance. But his smile soon faded, and a sadness stole over his eyes. “She didn’t want to be a whore, you know. She was destitute and alone...her family killed in the war. She did what she must to survive.”
“I ken the meaning of that well enough. I’ve done a few regrettable things myself to save my hide...or someone else’s.” He patted Willie on the leg. “D’ye think she’ll have ye? Will she be yer bride?”
“I suppose we shall see. I promised I’d help her get out of the brothel and find a way to support herself, and that offer is not contingent upon her acceptance of my proposal.”
“That’s a good lad. Ye dinna want to have to coerce yer wife into marrying ye...no’ like yer father did.”
Willie narrowed his eyes, “Mother Claire?”
“Aye,” Jamie laughed. “’Twas either marry me or be taken prisoner by a sadist. I pride myself that the lass saw me as the better option.”
“A narrow margin, I’m sure.”
“I thought...I thought you might be ashamed of your son marrying a whore. After all, you meant for me to be an earl.”
"It wouldn't have mattered to me if you were...not for my sake. I just couldn't bare the thought of you putting that on her."
Jamie patted him firmly on the back, pride swelling in his heart. "I've been a traitor, a murderer, and a fool many times in my life. I dinna think it fair to cast stones at a lass meant to marry my son...Although, I should like to ken her name. It willna do to refer to her only as her profession.”
William smiled softly. His voice was tender as he spoke, betraying the depth of his feeling for the woman. “Grace. Her name is Grace.”
“Yes,” he breathed, “she is.”
“’Tis getting colder,” said Jamie, staring out their bedroom window. “We canna waste another day.”
“You’re right,” said Claire, brushing her hair by the fire. “As unseasonably warm as this Autumn has been, if we wait any longer, the road to the Ridge will be snowed over. We’ve been lucky to stay here this long.”
“Hmphm.” It didn’t feel much like luck at the moment. “I’m tired, Sassenach. I want to go to bed. Where’s John?”
“In his room, I’d expect. Perhaps he fell asleep waiting for the children to go to bed. Would you like me to check?”
“No. I’ll go. Lay down, mo ghraidh.”
“Don’t wake him if he’s asleep. He needs the rest.”
Jamie nodded and moved to the door. He opened it to find John already on his way. He looked even more tired than Jamie felt.
When John was safely inside with the door closed, Jamie asked, “Ye alright, man?”
“Fine, thank you,” he said, though he rubbed his shoulder with a miserable expression on his face. He made his way to the bed and plopped down with a grunt to take off his boots.
Claire crawled up behind him and started rubbing his neck and shoulders. A groan of relief resonated in his chest, and he dropped the boot he was holding on the floor to enjoy the alleviation of discomfort.
Jamie knelt before him and helped remove his stockings and breeks. “I hate to see ye like this, mo charaid.”
“I told you, I’m fine, Jamie.”
Rubbing his hands up and down John’s thighs, Jamie said, “Ye dinna look fine. What is it, man? Is it the headaches?”
“No, they're gone. I’m just...tired.”
“Ye look more than just tired.”
“You’re one to talk,” mumbled Claire.
John pulled away and laid down in bed. “Let’s just get some sleep. We could all use the rest.”
“Christ, Grey,” said Jamie, standing up and pulling off his own breeks. “When ye told me all those years ago that if ye’d ever get me in bed, ye’d make me scream, I didna think ye meant I’d be doing so out of frustration.”
John’s face softened, and a chuckle escaped his lips. “Can we forget all the ridiculous things I said twenty years ago?”
“Never a chance.” Jamie went to the other side of the bed and lifted Claire bodily over him so he could sleep between her and John.
She smacked him on the chest. “Bloody overbearing Scot.”
He kissed her forehead and pulled her into his side. She curled around him, nuzzling into his chest like a fuzzy, little kitten.
John, on the other hand, was making no effort at affection. His eyes were closed, and his hands were folded over his chest. It pained Jamie to see him so disconnected.
“I’d let ye try, ye ken,” said Jamie in the quiet of the room.
“Try what?” John peered out of the side of his eye.
“To make me scream...though I dinna think ye have it in ye.”
“Jamie…” he sighed heavily. “I didn’t accept your body when you offered it in exchange for the care of William; what makes you think I have any interest in accepting it out of pity?”
“Pity?” Jamie sat up, leaning against the headboard. Claire moved with him, curled around his arm. “Ye think I’ve been having Claire shove a metal sausage up my arse for the sake of pity?”
Claire snorted, her shoulders bouncing with laughter.
John was trying vainly not to smile. “My brother told me long ago about the bloody madness of Highlanders. I should’ve listened to him then.”
“Only a pompous, huddy Englishman would fash himself half his life about rutting wi’ a man, and when the opportunity presented itself—more than once, I might add—deny his desire for the sake of virtue .”
“Jamie…” Claire chided.
“Believe me, Fraser,” snapped John, “it has nothing to do with virtue.”
“Then what’s stopping ye?”
“Jesus Christ, Jamie,” he sat up and faced him head on. “It’s a little hard to get in the mood for intercourse when the whole damn family’s safety is at risk, because I owe an absurd amount of money to a greedy bastard in Savannah. Hell, the only reason I’m not dead already is because he would never get payment from a corpse.”
“I told ye, man, I killed the bastards who came after ye, and we’ll be sorting out the debts in no time. And ’tis no’ you who owes the money; Willie owes the debt. We're all protecting the lad, so I dinna want to hear shite about this being anything to do wi’ what you have done. Ye’ve done naught but protect our son.”
“I’ve done nothing. Even now, you’re the one protecting me. Claire is tending to my wounds. Hell, even Roger has done more than I have to the farm in the last few days.”
“Come now, John,” Claire clucked her tongue. “Do we need to make a list of all your accomplishments? I’ve always known you to be quite rational about the value of your contributions.”
“Perhaps it has nothing to do with my contribution, and everything to do with accepting yours. I’m a man of service. I have been all my life. Service to the crown, to my family, to yours…” he cut off, rubbing his temples with the heels of his hands. “I don’t think I’ve had anyone do as much for me as you have since...since...my old valet.” He laughed at the foolishness of his own words.
“Ye didna…” Jamie raised an eyebrow, the flame of jealousy sparking.
“For Heaven’s sake, Jamie. No!” He rolled his eyes. “If I didn’t know you were coming from a place of possessive jealousy, I might actually be quite put out by your assessment of me.”
“Ye’re the one who brought him up after I offered myself to ye.”
Claire leaned over Jamie to grasp John’s hand, ignoring their foolishness. “You know, when I was working in the hospital, I always hated when my patients were other doctors. They were terribly uncomfortable with the reversal of their roles, and they were awful patients.” She brought his hand to her lips and kissed it, much like a gentleman would a lady. “You’ve been a caretaker most of your life; let us take care of you. You’ve loved Jamie most of your life; let him love you.”
“Aye,” said Jamie. “And if ye plan on waiting to show us affection until after the family is no longer under the threat of danger, ye’ll no’ likely have much in the way of romance for the rest of yer life. D’ye no’ ken how much trouble we’re prone to get into?”
“Please,” John scoffed, “I know better than anyone, seeing as how I’ve been the one to get you out of it on numerous occasions.”
“’Tis true. Ye’ve helped me escape shackles in Scotland, England, and Jamaica.”
“Don’t forget Philadelphia,” said Claire.
John rubbed his eye where Jamie hit him after finding out he bedded Claire. “No, I don’t think that’s possible.”
Jamie reached out a hand and caressed the soft skin under John’s eye with the pad of his thumb. “I am sorry for that, mo charaid. We’ve come a long way since then, have we no’?”
“We certainly have.”
Jamie leaned forward and kissed gently over John’s eye, hoping to draw away the distress weighing heavy on his friend’s mind. The soft flutter of John’s lashes tickled Jamie’s lips.
He pulled back to see if his tenderness was having its desired effect, but John’s body remained tense beneath his hands. “Ye’re wound up like an auld clock. ’Tis no surprise yer head has been troubling ye so.”
“My head isn’t troubling me.”
Jamie held John’s face gently in his hands. “Let us take the strain away. Ye dinna have to carry this burden alone.”
“I know, I just...” his voice trailed off.
“Ye can have me, ye ken. Just say the word, and ye can have me anyway ye like.”
John shook his head, pulling back. “No, I can’t do it. I won’t have you like that.”
“I won’t use you that way, as tempting as it may be. I’ve craved your body far too long to sully it with the fear and shame coursing through me. When I have you, I want to ensure I’m in a state of mind to ward off any ghosts that try to join us, not draw them in by using you roughly to make myself feel better.”
Jamie grabbed John’s hand and looked him in the eyes, “Then let go of the fear and shame. I love ye, John. And I trust ye willna damage me...or Claire.”
He could see John softening under his words and his touch. “I want ye, man. I want ye something fierce. Dinna let anything else come into our bed and take away another moment of our time together.”
“Are you sure this is what you want?” John searched his eyes. “If you’re not ready…”
“I’m ready. Ye see.” Jamie took John’s hand and brought it down to his cock. It was thick and solid at the thought of what he’d have John do to him. John’s hand wrapped around him, his thumb caressing the tip already moist in anticipation. Jamie took John’s cock in his own hand and stroked slowly up and down until it stood firm.
The last of John’s defenses were gone. He leaned forward and kissed Jamie, his tongue sliding into his mouth. The tension in his body finally ebbing away.
Jamie’s heart jolted when he realized that he and John were both finally ready—at the same time—to make love in the way they’d so long craved. He reached for Claire’s thigh beside him to hold him in place, lest his spirit somehow flee and deny him this triumphant moment.
Jamie was a mindful man, attentive by nature, and he did all he could to be so in that moment. He was determined to remember every touch, every kiss...to remember the sound of their shirts falling to floor...the way John’s lips trailed kisses down his chest...how John’s mouth covered his cock, sucking until he nearly found release...how Jamie laid on his side, spooning Claire in his arms as John curled around him from behind.
Claire’s hair tickled his nose, but instead of pulling away, he nuzzled firmly against her head, finding comfort in the scent of his love. She was arching back, rubbing her full bottom against his cock. He pushed inside her quim, wanting to be joined with her and face what was coming together.
Jamie held still, breathing in his wife’s hair and squeezing her breasts as John’s fingers set to loosen him up. He didn’t fear what was coming. He didn’t even cringe at the memory of what Randall had done to him. He learned long ago that the more he tried not to think of the bastard, the more the bastard invaded his thoughts. Instead, he pulled up a mental seat for the sadist to watch the sweetness of their love-making, to elate in the face of the man who tried to steal the peace in his heart but failed miserably.
“Are you ready?” John whispered when it was time.
Jamie’s arms snaked firmly around Claire, their bodies one, blood of his blood and bone of his bone. “Aye.”
Slowly, John pushed in. Jamie found himself pushing back, wanting the man deeper inside. Though John was larger than the plug, there was some flexibility in his cock, making it easier to take in.
John let out a raw, carnal groan. His hands were pulling on Jamie’s hips, trying to get in deeper, even as he was sheathed to hilt.
Jamie hadn’t realized he was making coarse grunting sounds of his own until Claire reached behind and placed a soothing hand on his cheek, his calman geal, bringing him peace as she’d always done. He adjusted to the aching fullness, aided by a building undercurrent of pleasure.
John’s hands traced up and down his body. It wasn’t the caress of a man seeking to fill a need, but one of concern. He was breathless when he spoke, “Is this alright?”
“God, yes,” Jamie growled, squirming against him and shifting his cock inside his wife.
John began moving slowly, with small strokes of his hips. Jamie fit perfectly into the curve of John’s body, and Claire fit perfectly into his.
A sordid hunger squeezed in his depths, demanding it be sated. He pulled out of Claire’s quim, and brought his slick cock back to her arse, wanting her to feel exactly what he did. Her squeal rang in his ears when he pushed himself in her bottom.
“Christ!” he yelled, quite overcome.
Claire was writhing in his arms, wiggling back and forth, the sounds of ecstasy escaping her lips. She pulled his hand down to her quim, her intention clear. Jamie slipped his fingers inside, massaging deep behind her pelvic bone. The palm of his hand rubbed her outside, the rhythm of his caress set by the motion of John’s hips behind him.
He rocked back and forth between them, finding pleasure all around. Like the bellows before a burgeoning fire, the three of them moved, pulling apart, then compressing together, fanning the flames in the spaces between.
Any discomfort he may have had was long gone, overtaken by the fervor clouding his mind. Though much of what he felt was foreign to him, he was strangely overcome with a sense of rightness in the world—Claire at his front and John at his back, the way his life was meant to be.
John’s arm hooked around Jamie’s bicep, leveraging his weight for a harder thrust. His mouth came down on Jamie’s shoulder, teeth clamping on skin, as he drilled in from behind. The force of John’s cock set his heart racing and his stomach clenching, triggering an uncontrollable drive into Claire.
Jamie’s body was confused, overwhelmed, and madly impassioned. He couldn’t stop his hips, not even if the house started fire. His hair stuck to his face where the sweat poured down. Claire’s body was sliding wildly against him, slick in his arms.
Claire squeezed around him, climax making her stiff and rigid, nearly evicting him from her body. The tightness around him triggered his own release. He gripped her hips like a vise, holding her hard against him while he spilled his seed.
John pounded in from behind, savage grunts and groans with every thrust. Jamie's fingers were digging into the softest parts of Claire curves as his climax raged on. Finally, John stuttered to a stop, his breath faltered and his body quaked.
The thrumming of Jamie’s heart was loud in his ears as Claire and John’s bodies sank into the bed next to him. Claire turned her body around—no easy feat in her exhausted state—and pressed herself firmly into Jamie’s chest.
She lifted her a hand lazily to caress the lines of his face, making sure he was well. He kissed her fingers as they passed over his lips.
A hand grazed tentatively up and down his spine. John’s voice was quiet and shaky as he asked, “How are you, Jamie? Are you alright?”
He was reeling...delirious...overwhelmed...but he was most certainly alright.
Jamie rolled on his back to look at John. A wave of affection washed over him as he gazed in those sparkling blue eyes that were filled with moisture and genuine concern.
Jamie gave him a crooked smile in affirmation that all was well, and then he spoke the words he’d denied the ghost of Wentworth all his life. “I love ye, John.” And God help him how much he meant it.
John lost his breath, shaking his head as his tremulous lungs attempted to pull in air.
“And how about you, man? Are ye alright?”
“No,” John stated firmly, lying back on his pillow and laughing a little madly up at the ceiling. “I’m anything but ‘alright’.”
“We didna give ye another headache wi’ the love-making, did we?”
“I think he’s fine...medically, anyway,” said Claire, peering at John with humor in her voice.
“My head is fine. It’s my heart that doesn’t seem to be functioning properly.”
“Nay, I can hear it beating loud and strong as a Scottish war drum.”
Claire reached down and held Jamie’s softening cock and balls. “Shall I add to the music by playing the bagpipes?”
“I think you already did, my dear," said John, "though the sounds they emitted were a little off key.”
“Come here, lass,” Jamie pulled Claire on top of him, grabbing handfuls of her plump bottom, “and I’ll show ye both how to work the bags to make the most beautiful sounds.”
He kissed her thoroughly, good humor bringing peaceful serenity. He then moved his lips to John, relishing the contrast of Claire’s smooth skin with the shadow of his burgeoning beard.
When they parted, Claire and John’s lips met with sweet affection. Jamie marveled at how a sight that would’ve once lit him with fury now warmed him to the very depths of his heart.
“I love you, madly, my dear,” said John.
“And I love…” She cut herself off with a loud squeak as Jamie pinched her hard on her right buttock. She hit him firmly on the chest, and giggled, “Barbarian.”
“Aye,” he agreed, gripping her arse firmly.
“Well, one of us should maintain some degree of civilization. I’ll get us washed up so we can finally get some rest,” said Claire, pulling herself away from Jamie’s grasp. “We’ve got a busy day ahead of us before we get on our way.”
John groaned, “Please, don’t remind me.”
“Dinna fash, man,” said Jamie. “I told ye, we’ll take care of everything.”
“I know, but…”
“No ‘buts,’ darling,” said Claire, going to retrieve a soap and water. “Well….except for the ones I’m about to clean.”
Jamie caressed down the side of John’s face with the back of his finger. “Ye’re ours now, as we are yours. Ye’ll let us care for ye. I’ll no’ have it any other way.”
He kissed him once again, comforting and reassuring. Jamie wrapped the man in his arms, ready to finally get the rest they sorely needed.
“I suppose there are worse things a man could endure,” John whispered.
“Aye. Just wait until ye hear me sing.”
Chapter 9: Shine and Burn
“Truth is like fire; it cannot be hidden under dry leaves.”
- African Proverbs
— Brianna —
Little more than twenty-four hours later, Brianna was awoken by the shouting of her father. “Bree! Roger! Awake, lass! There’s a fire! Get up, a nighean!”
Henri-Christian’s fate in Philadelphia was immediately present in her mind. “Jem! Mandy!” she yelled.
“I’ve got the bairns!” said Jamie. “Get yerselves outside!”
Her eyes found no sign of a fire, but she could smell the smoke, just like when the wine shed went up in flames several days before. Wearing only her shift, she grabbed her clothes and ran with Roger out the door and into the hall. She could see Mandy in Jamie’s arms charging down the stairs. Jemmy, Germain, and Fanny were following behind with Willie.
Claire and John stood at the front door, counting heads as they ran past. Just before Brianna made it out, she stopped dead in her tracks. The stench of rotting flesh had her frozen in place. She turned toward the parlor and saw a body on the floor.
“Come, a leannan!”
“Da, there’s a body!”
“I ken! Come!”
Jamie had already thrown the children in the wagon that had been readied the night before for their impending departure. Brianna ran to her father, tripping over an empty bottle of whisky, having to steady herself on his arm before she came to a halt. “Who was that?”
“The bastard who hurt John. Get in!”
As soon as the whole family was in the wagon, he grabbed the reins and drove them some distance away from the house. He stopped the wagon and turned his attention back to the flames.
Brianna looked around the property and realized everything was on fire. She hadn’t seen any of it in her panic. One by one, she took inventory of the buildings...the carriage house...the small shed where she caught her mother kissing John...the stables...the barn...the servants’ quarters. Everything was up in flames. The main house was the only place that appeared untouched.
The family began descending from the wagon, ten pairs of eyes wide with horror as they watched the buildings burn to the ground. Brianna pulled Mandy and Jemmy close, certain there were more arsonists lying in wait...no one man could do that much damage on his own.
A deafening blast rocked the house, shattering the windows and engulfing it in flames.
“Oh my God!” she cried.
They watched for some time, helpless to do anything. Smoke filled the air, smothering the light of any stars. The horses had gotten loose from the stables and were running free. The sow could be heard squealing angrily in the distance.
Only moments before, she was sleeping soundly, dreamlessly in her bed, wrapped in her husband’s comforting arms. Now, she was wiping the sleep from her eyes, near naked in the firelight, watching her brother’s inheritance go up in flames.
Brianna looked to her father and watched his blue eyes reflect the flaming inferno before them. They were glossed over and out of focus, as though he wasn’t seeing the fire, at all, but something far beyond.
“Fire that's closest kept burns most of all,” he whispered, his voice hollow and disconnected.
“I don’t think this is what Shakespeare meant by that line,” said Bree.
He didn’t answer. His eyes stared fixed on some point in the distance, as though visualizing an end to this madness that only he could see.
“Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all,” Brianna whispered to herself. “Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all .”
She looked at Roger sitting next to her in the tavern where their family was staying later that night. Roger was shoveling a large bite of stew into his mouth.
“What the hell did hell did Da mean by that?” she asked.
Roger chewed quickly and took a drink of ale to wash it down. “Well,” he said in his professor’s tone, “that’s a quote Lucetta says to Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona . She meant that a secret love is the most passionate of all.”
“I know all that,” she waved him off. “I want to know why Da said it.”
“Aside from the obvious fire raging in front of us?”
“It’s a strange time to quote Shakespeare, don’t you think?”
“Is there ever a puir time to quote the Bard?”
The children sat next to them, each processing the events of the last day in their own way. Mandy was sniffling, grieving the loss of her little Esmeralda to the fire. Fanny stared wide-eyed with longing up the stairs where Willie was last seen. Jem and Germain chattered away, spinning fantastical tales of what happened early that morning.
“And did you see the rogue sow carrying that pistol in her mouth?” asked Germain.
“Come off it,” said Jemmy. “Next ye’ll say she was the one lighting the fires.”
Brianna looked up the stairs in the direction of her parents’ room. They were in there with John, Willie, and the Committee for Safety who were investigating the fire. Hopefully, they’d be able to figure out who did this and stop them from harming her family ever again.
“It’s alright, Bree,” said Roger, rubbing a comforting hand up and down her back. “Yer Da got us all out of the house in time. Everyone’s safe, and that’s all that matters.”
Safe for now, she thought. She couldn’t get that dead body out of her mind. The smell of it lingered in her memory, tainting the taste of her dinner.
Roger bumped her arm to bring her attention back to the stairs where the members of the Committee for Safety were descending noisily. They must’ve gotten all the information they needed for their investigation.
“Would you stay with the kids, Roger? I’m going to go see what’s happening.”
Brianna didn’t wait for him to respond. She was already making her way up the tavern stairs to her parents’ room.
She could hear mumbling voices talking inside when she neared the door, but couldn’t make out the words they were saying. She knocked softly and cracked it open.
“Bree,” said Claire, “is everything alright?”
Brianna looked around at the occupants of the room. Jamie and John sat at a small table, Claire was leaning against the frame of the bed, and Willie stood against the far wall.
“Yeah, we're fine. We saw the Committee people leave. What happened? Did they find anything?”
The four of them exchanged stiff looks, before John spoke for everyone. “They seemed to have found the remains of some bodies in the house.”
“Indeed. They believe the men who assaulted me and set fire to the wine shed earlier this week were responsible. They found the debt collector’s wagon in the woods near the property.”
“But that body was dead before the fire overtook the main house.”
“The Committee found empty bottles of wine and whisky near the house. They found more in the wagon and in the debt collector’s home. They believe the arsonists were too blind drunk to manage setting so many fires without succumbing to asphyxiation from the smoke.”
“They died of lack of oxygen,” said Claire, “not burning to death.”
“Asphyxiation?” Brianna shook her head. “That’s not possible. There wasn’t enough smoke to asphyxiate someone yet.”
“Aye, weel,” said Jamie, “perhaps he passed out drunk. Wouldna surprise me.”
“The important thing,” said Claire, “is that the family made it out safe and alive, and we’re free to go home. We’ll be leaving in the morning. There’s no sense in waiting around.”
“Try not to worry, sister,” said Willie. “The family is safe and well, and we’ll ensure it remains so.”
“But, Willie, your house. How are you ever going to pay your debts?”
“Dinna fash, a leannan,” said Jamie. “They’ll collect their insurance money, and we’ll see to whatever debt is left.”
“But they’re homeless, and they have no money to rebuild.”
Claire grunted in frustrated concern, turning her back to Brianna and staring out the window. Jamie stood up and moved to his daughter, putting his hands on her shoulders to calm her. “They’ll be coming back to the Ridge wi’ us. We have plenty of room in the new house.”
Having her brother living at the Ridge settled her nerves significantly, but something just wasn’t sitting right in her stomach.
“William?” said a quiet voice from the door. “Is it true? Are you coming back to live with us?”
“Yes, dear Fanny,” said Willie, coming to her side and bending down to her level. “Papa and I will be staying at the Ridge until we find a suitable place to live.”
Her eyes lit up with joy, and she wrapped her small arms around his large frame. Willie chuckled softly and patted her sweetly on the head.
“Come,” said John, rising to his feet. “I’m sure we’re all starving. Let’s go down for a good supper and plan on a full night’s rest before starting our long journey to North Carolina.”
“Aye,” said Jamie, reaching back for Claire. “Come, Sassenach. Ye havena eaten all day. I’ll no’ have ye falling faint off the wagon.”
Claire turned away from the window and took Jamie’s hand. He led her past Brianna and out the door. Brianna noticed Claire’s forced smile and downcast eyes as she walked by.
Bree got the feeling her parents and John were avoiding further discussion.
“Papa?” said William. “Will you escort Fanny downstairs?”
“Of course.” John nodded. He placed a hand on Fanny’s shoulder and steered the girl out of the room, despite her reluctance to leave William behind.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” asked Bree.
“No. Not at the moment. I have a task I must complete before leaving. I’m afraid it cannot wait.”
“Is it Grace?”
He sighed deeply and nodded.
“Do you think she’ll say yes?”
“I’m a man of no home, no assets, and an absurd amount of debt to my name. She’d be foolish to accept me,” he smiled.
“But you’ll ask anyway?”
He nodded. “I’d lay the world at her feet if I could. Instead, I’ll offer her a trip to North Carolina...for as long as she’ll have me.”
“She’d be a fool not to accept you. And I wouldn’t let my brother marry a fool.”
Willie stepped forward and embraced her, placing a kiss gently on the crown of her head. “Get some rest, Bree. All will be well soon. Have faith, dear sister.”
“In you? Always.”
The next morning, shortly after breakfast, Brianna was helping her father load the children into Bree and Roger’s new wagon for their long journey home. Jamie had gone back to Mt. Josiah overnight and took custody of the debt collector’s wagon, offering it to his daughter and son-in-law as a morbid little gift.
They were almost ready to go. The only thing they were waiting on was…
“Uncle Willie!” said Jemmy, pointing down the road.
Brianna looked up to find her brother trotting on horseback...and he wasn’t alone.
“It looks like our family will be growing once again,” Claire said to Jamie, hooking her arm around his. A grin split his face from ear to ear as he watched his son ride up the road. Brianna could almost see the grandbaby fever heating his cheeks and illuminating his eyes.
The difference in size between her brother and Grace was almost comical. He was the height of their father, and she was closer to the size of Aunt Jenny. Grace’s slight frame was dwarfed by William, as he rode up with her in front of him in the saddle.
Willie dismounted, helping the young woman down from his large white horse, his hands encircling her tiny waist. She appeared to be in her early twenties and looked just as he described, with pale, strawberry-blonde hair and vibrant green eyes.
“Good morning to ye,” said Jamie, stepping forward to meet the new arrivals.
“Darling,” said William, “this is my father, James Fraser. Mac, this is the woman I told you about...Grace.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Fraser,” she said quietly, allowing Jamie to take her small hand and envelop it in both of his own.
“Grace has accepted my offer of marriage and will be coming with us to the Ridge.”
“Then, we’ll be pleased to have ye. And seeing as how ye’ll soon be family, ye can call me Mac, if ye like...as William does.”
She nodded graciously, flushing a deep shade of crimson. Willie then introduced her to his Papa and stepmother, and finally, his sister. He looked at Brianna, silently pleading for her to be fond of the woman he loved so dearly.
Grace was beginning to curtsy, but Brianna pulled her in for a warm embrace. “We’ll be sisters soon; there’s little room for all these formalities between family.”
Grace smiled shyly, blushing profusely.
“Come, let’s find you a seat in our wagon,” said Bree. “The kids are noisy, but at least you won’t be saddlesore by nightfall.”
William’s handling of his bride-to-be was surprisingly delicate as he aided her into the wagon. It was as if he thought her some sort of fairy or ethereal creature. Grace's hand seemed to linger on William’s after her feet were steady beneath her. She smiled softly at him, their height difference much smaller when she was several feet in the air.
Bree and Grace sat across from each other as the children fell all over themselves to meet the new member of the family.
“Ye taught my uncle how to cook?” said Jemmy. “Thank God for that, or Grannie would’ve been forcing us to eat weeds in our eggs every day these last few weeks!”
“Uncle Willie said you know how to make candied petals and crystallized peels!” said Germain.
“Is that true?” asked Mandy, her eyes wide with awe.
Grace nodded sweetly. “And sugar plums and Turkish delights.”
The children hooted with excitement.
“Where did you learn your way around a kitchen?” asked Bree.
Grace smiled wistfully as her green eyes met Brianna’s. “My mother...before she died.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” They both sighed anxiously. “Perhaps, you can teach me how to make them? The holidays are coming soon. And I can help make some for the wedding.”
“That would be lovely,” she said, flushing yet again.
The awkwardness of their first encounter was given a temporary reprieve as Jamie hollered at the horses, leading the family and the wagons down the road in the direction of the Ridge.
The lightening of the family’s mood wasn’t lost on Bree the further away from Richmond they traveled. William rode his horse as close to his betrothed in the wagon as safety would allow. The children began playing games with cards and dice to keep themselves occupied. John and Claire’s laughter floated back on the cool breeze from the wagon in front of them where they were sitting a little closer than ex-spouses probably should. Her father watched over his family atop his great steed Gideon, the excitable horse ready for the long trip up the mountains—the beast was certainly lucky to escape that fire unscathed.
The tension in her father's shoulders relaxed the more miles they put behind them. It seemed strange to her that their family faced such a monumental tragedy only one day before. If she'd been ignorant of the fire, she never would've guessed the magnitude of their loss by their smiling faces—most foolishly in love—and jovial mood.
It seemed she was the only one still holding onto any level of discomfort.
The journey to the Ridge was quite uneventful, save a light scattering of snow that fell to the ground on their last day. The family’s general feeling of relief continued to grow as the wilderness became all the more untamed. The fresh, mountain air cleared their lungs of lingering smoke and replaced it with the scenes of pine, oak, and cypress.
Claire, Jamie, and John, in particular, seemed to buzz with excitement as the Ridge grew near. Brianna suspected it had something to do with their lack of privacy on the road. She tried not to notice the several occasions where some combination of two or three of them disappeared for a half hour or so into the dense trees of the forest.
They were so eager to get home that they rode later into the evening than was reasonable, but everyone wanted to sleep in their own beds after being gone for over a month. The abundance of moonlight provided enough light to keep them moving well into the dark.
When they arrived in the middle of the night, Brianna took her sleepy children up to their cabin and left Roger to help her father unpack. Wary of building a hearthfire after recent events, she struggled with falling asleep as quickly as Mandy and Jem. Exhaustion finally pulled her under just Roger came home and crawled into bed alongside her.
She didn’t wake up until late the following morning when Roger brought her a plate of food from the big house where William and his fiancée had made everyone breakfast.
“God, I could kiss you,” she said, biting into a piece of bacon. The salty, crispy meat made her salivary glands scream with delight.
Roger did, in fact, lean in for a kiss before stealing a bite of bacon for himself. She laughed and pushed him away, digging back into her meal.
“It’s good to be home,” he sighed with relief, “though there is so much to do before the snow really hits. A wee flurry started up this morning, though it's already settled.” He picked up a small jar of moisturizer on the nightstand and began rubbing it into his palms.
“What are you doing today?”
“Yer Da asked me to mend the door on Gideon’s paddock. He doesna think it’ll last the winter. And you?”
“I’ll go up to the big house and try to make myself useful. I’m sure Mama will have something for me to grind or wash or boil.”
He kissed her once more before he left, and she narrowly avoided another of his attempts to steal her bacon. When she finished eating, she washed and dressed and headed out on the path toward her parents' grand house. Her eyes rose to the sky, hoping to see a few snowflakes after the flames of the last few weeks.
The Ridge was a busy place that morning. The children could be heard over at the stables, avoiding chores for as long as they could while their parents’ attention was otherwise occupied. Bobby Higgins shouted a greeting from down by the creek where he was filling a few pails of water. She noticed her Aunt Jenny walking from the big house down the road to Ian’s cabin with her future sister-in-law on her arm.
“Aunt Jenny!” Bree called, rushing to catch up. “Grace!”
“Hallo, a leannan ! Welcome home!” Jenny wrapped up Brianna in her arms. Bree always felt like she was the smaller one when embraced by the immense personality of her aunt.
“I missed you,” said Bree.
“And I, you. ’Tis good to have ye home.”
“Good morning, Grace.”
“Morning, is it?” snorted Jenny. “’Tis almost noon! Your good sister here has already fed the family and is coming down to meet my wee grandson.”
Brianna ignored her aunt’s ribbing. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Ian is, would you? I need to speak with him.”
“Ian? I’d expect he’ll be heading back from Philadelphia by now. I hope this weather holds up.”
“Aye. He had business up North for yer Da and John Grey. He told us so before he left.”
“He told me he was coming back home to his wife and son.”
“No,” Aunt Jenny raised a brow, “he was quite clear. He told us no’ to expect him home for some time after Jamie and the family returned. Yer Da reassured me just this morning that all was going as planned.”
“Why wouldn’t they tell me?”
“I dinna ken. Ye ken how men can be.”
Brianna looked up to the big house and then back to Jenny. “This was the plan the whole time?”
She shook her head in bewilderment. That didn’t make sense, at all. “Excuse me, Aunt Jenny. Grace. I need to go find my father.”
“Tell him we’ll be back this afternoon to help with supper!”
Brianna was already moving up the road to her parents’ house. She strode in and went straight for her father’s office—not that she expected him to be there in the middle of the day, but thought it worth a shot.
“Mama? Da?” She called out, but no one answered. She looked in the surgery, the parlor, and the kitchen...still no sign of either one.
She doubted they would be upstairs in their room at this time of day—part of her feared what she might find if they were—but she needed answers, and she had to check.
Unfortunately—or thankfully—the room was empty. She wondered if her parents were already heading out to check on some of their tenants.
As she turned to leave, her eyes landed on something bright red in an open trunk near the far end of the room. Her heart leaped as she recognized the vibrancy of the twentieth century fabric. “Esmeralda! Thank God!”
She swooped up her daughter’s doll they'd brought two hundred years through the stones from the 1980s. She looked it over, pleased there was no soot or ash or any damage to the little toy.
Her attention dropped down into the trunk the doll was found in. It seemed to be filled with a mish mash of items that made little sense to take traveling to and from the long road to Virginia. There were old, well-kept books, a tobacco pipe box, pieces of silver, an antique pocket watch, several fine scarves…
She froze in her perusal of the trunk’s contents. The name on one of the books stopped her in her tracks. John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government.
“What the hell?” She rifled through everything in the trunk and realized all of the items belonged to Lord John and Willie. And they weren’t so random, after all. It was full of things that must’ve been very valuable to them, things of monetary value, nostalgic memorabilia, and family heirlooms.
“They had time to pack a trunk in the middle of a fire?” Brianna hadn’t even had time to put on her stays as her father rushed her out the door.
She sat down on the bed and thought over everything she could remember the morning of the fire. Questions that had popped up in her mind, but had been pushed away in her state of panic, were once again demanding her full attention.
Why were her parents fully dressed the morning of the fire? Why were the horses waiting on the wagon? Why were there bodies in the parlor before the fire did any damage to the house? Why did they smell as though they'd been dead for days?
Then, there was her parents’ ridiculous story about the dead men being so drunk they died before the fire could kill them. Now that she thought about it, the explosive way the house went up in flames didn’t seem like something a couple of eighteenth century dunkards could manage, and they certainly couldn’t coordinate fires all over the property the way they were led to believe.
Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all.
“Grace!” a voice yelled from below. “Gracie, darling, I have wonderful news!”
She rose off the bed and ran downstairs, taking them two at a time, and landed heavily on the bottom floor. She followed Willie’s voice calling for Grace in the kitchen.
His eyes were alight with joy...she didn’t think she’d ever seen him so radiant. “Brianna! You won’t believe what Mac has done.”
“Oh,” she said seriously, “I’m pretty sure I can believe him capable of anything at this point.”
She lifted Locke's book and Mandy’s Esmeralda in her hand. “I want the truth, Willie. All of it.”
The joy drained from his face, and a green pallor stole over. “It would seem you’ve already figured it out for yourself.”
He ran his hand through his hair, making some of his curls stick up on end. He forced his gaze up to meet his sister’s head on. A smirk began to curl at the corner of his mouth. “Fine. As you seem to have deduced...it was our parents who burned down my house. They’d been planning it for months, lying to everyone the whole time.”
Her muscles clenched tight in her stomach. “And when did you find out?”
“Not long before the fire. Your mother convinced them to obtain my permission before destroying my inheritance. Apparently, it had been a point of contention between her and Mac.”
“And you gave them permission?”
He nodded slowly.
“Where the hell are they right now?”
Chapter 10: Burns Most of All
— Claire —
There was nothing more comforting than waking up in one’s own bed after a long absence, except when that bed was also occupied by two of God’s most well-crafted specimens of man.
I was wrapped in a cocoon of warmth, sleeping between Jamie and John. I could see snowflakes on the window panes, but my body was ignorant of the cold.
I’d won the battle for the middle of the bed last night, Jamie being too exhausted from all of our travel—and bedroom activities—to put up much of a fight, and John being too much of a gentleman to move me bodily as Jamie normally would.
I stretched my arms out like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, spreading its wings for the first time. My hands landed on the chests of my bedmates, taut skin over firm muscle and a scattering of masculine hair. The men were relaxed in that state between wakefulness and sleep, but I could feel the change in their breathing at my touch.
My energy began building with the rise of their consciousness. Squirming with arousal, I found myself in a most tantalizing predicament. Who would I turn toward to sate my lustful appetite?
It’s foolish to choose just one, I thought, as my hands traced down their bodies beneath the quilt we all shared. John quivered at my touch, and gooseflesh rose across Jamie’s skin.
Quiet synchronized gasps sounded on either side of me as my hands reached their lower anatomy. I stroked their cocks, making them stir with more signs of life—squirming hips, rumbling groans, and shaky breaths.
With a full night's rest under his belt, Jamie no longer held any qualms about grabbing me around the middle and pulling me astride him. Our bodies, having been mates for so long, joined instantly with a roll of our hips. Our mouths followed suit, tongues tangling lazily together.
We fell into our natural rhythm of morning love-making. His kisses were deep and impassioned, filled with the gratitude of a man who’d spent twenty years apart from his love, devoid of hope for another chance at such intimacy in his earthly body ever again.
He let me ride him for as long as he could bear. But soon, he rolled over me, bearing his weight down, grounding me into our bed as though trying to keep me from floating away. I dug my nails into his back so he’d feel just how present I was.
For a moment, it was just the two of us, as it had been for so long. But the weight of the bed shifted with John rising to sit against the headboard, and we were reminded we weren’t alone.
I was hit quite suddenly with the thought that the intimacy we shared as a group was different than what I shared with my husband. And now, Jamie and I were inviting John to witness the depth of what it was between us in our most private moments.
Part of me wanted to keep protecting it, to hide it away forever, but the stronger part looked at the love in John’s eyes as he watched us together, and it made me want to bear our souls to him. He would witness our love and protect it with the same ferocity as we would ourselves.
Pinning me to the bed, Jamie brought us both furiously to climax under the watchful eye of the one we loved. John held his cock tightly in his hand, as though soothing the ache and stifling his building need.
My Gaelic had grown a little better over the years, but in the throes of orgasm, I didn’t have a chance of understanding the raspy muttering in my ear. I was at constant war with myself over wanting to learn the language versus loving the guttural, melodic sounds he whispered without associating any more meaning to them than his tone implied.
He kissed with long licks into my mouth, dizzying me nearly as much as the orgasm still pulsing through me.
I wasn’t quite recovered when Jamie turned to John with mischief in his eyes. “Ye like watching, mo charaid?”
John smirked, giving himself a squeeze. “It is far superior to listening from an open window.”
“Ye suppose it’s my turn to watch now?”
“As you say, my friend, fair is fair.”
In my pleasured haze, it took me a moment to realize it was my body they were intending on using to balance their scales. I barely had a moment of preparation before Jamie maneuvered me into a most vulnerable and exposed position.
He sat up against the headboard and pulled me onto his lap, my back pinned flush against his chest. I could feel his hot breath in my hair as his bloody enormous arms reached around me, grabbing my ankles to spread my legs wide. He cocked his elbows, pinning my arms helplessly back.
If I was indeed a butterfly, my chrysalis was long shed, and Jamie was having me mounted for display right there on his lap.
Rumbling darkly, John crawled over Jamie’s legs and straddled them on his knees before me. His eyes raked up and down my body, coveting his best friend’s wife.
I could feel gravity pulling Jamie’s semen downward, dripping from my body to his thighs. John’s eyes flared with a carnal desire, and his tongue traced across his upper lip. Seeing the ever contained John Grey lose his composure gave me a triumphant, manic energy...so much so, my body fought helplessly against Jamie’s restraining arms to try to reach him.
John brought his cock between my legs, his soft head gliding through my slippery folds. Jamie bit down on my shoulder, and his hands tightened their grip.
“You quite enjoy watching another man take your wife, don’t you?” teased John. “Such depravity, General Fraser. I expected more from you.”
“If ye want more, man, expect I’ve got plenty to spare.”
John chuckled as his hands moved up my body; one tangled in my hair and the other reached for Jamie behind me. His mouth closed over my ear, making me squeal and pull at my restraints. His teeth clamped down on the soft skin of my lobe and pulled until I was shaking against him. “I’ll take all the damn depravity the two of you can muster.”
He hammered in roughly, seizing Jamie’s offering with a ravenous greed. I lost my breath with the force of his thrust. Whatever sounds attempting to come out of my mouth were stuck somewhere deep in my lungs.
Jamie, on the other hand, was breathing heavily in my ear. Even recently sated himself, his cock was still hard beneath me. Such a thing couldn’t be helped, seeing as how we were making love on his lap, and John’s balls were rubbing on his thighs.
Jamie released one of my legs, grabbing John and pulling their lips together. The kiss was loud and hard next to my ear, and I was drawn to it like a magnet. John’s mouth moved from Jamie's to mine, and then back to Jamie’s again, all the while battering me up against my husband.
I wanted more, and I wanted it harder, as though John’s pounding into me could somehow merge all three of us together in this euphoric state of oneness—three bodies, indivisible, and pleasure for all.
Jamie’s hand moved between us to help me reach climax as John increased his pace. He rubbed hard and fast with the pads of his fingers, every change of direction a shock of pleasure.
Perhaps it was the angle of John’s thrusts, or how madly Jamie rubbed me...perhaps it was even the gravity of the upright position, but as orgasm hit, it came with a surge of fluid beyond the mixture of semen and my multiple climaxes of the morning. My body let loose a flood of pleasure over John’s cock and Jamie’s legs.
“God yes, Sassenach,” Jamie groaned in my ear, his hand never stopping, and my climax lingering on.
John’s eyes were wide, and his mouth was curled up at the corner, clearly a first for him to provoke such a response in a woman. Invigorated by my robust orgasm, his rhythm changed from pleasure giving to taking, with a single-minded focus on impending release.
He came loud, grunting in my ear, his weight crushing me hard against Jamie’s chest. “Claire,” John moaned, burying his face in my neck. “Oh, Claire.”
My arms and legs were freed at some point in the madness. Finally realizing this, I wrapped them around John, wanting to keep him close.
Jamie’s lips, however, were unsated, and he pulled us apart so he could tend to his hunger. He kissed us one at a time, and then both at once. He kissed us until our hearts slowed and our lungs steadied. Urgent kisses faded into lingering caresses of soft lips and lazy tongues.
My lips were tender and swollen when I pulled away from Jamie and John, my head falling on the pillow next to them. I watched their kisses, trying to decipher which tongue belonged to which man, and I very much enjoyed when it was impossible to tell the difference.
Now that I was conscious, and my lust was sated, I became more aware of the muffled sounds of the Ridge filtering through the cracks around the door. There was so much to be done after a long absence, but it was impossible not to bask in the glow of the relief that all our efforts to keep our family safe and thriving were successful. We were hundreds of miles away from the poison of Mt. Josiah, and we had a future of our own creation laid out before us.
The smell of bacon had me reluctantly rising out of bed. The soft snowfall muted the morning light, making me think it was earlier in the morning than it actually was. Jamie groaned at my departure, forcing him to accept that we’d have to leave our little love nest at some point in the day.
“You need food to survive, darling,” I reminded him. “And there’s the matter of the Frenchman’s house.”
“Aye,” he said, a smile spreading across his face. He kissed John once more before extricating himself from the warm embrace of our bed.
“The matter of the Frenchman’s house?” asked John. “Are you wanting to ensure the place is still standing?”
Jamie snorted and pointed out the window. The great house was visible atop one of the hills adjacent to ours. “Seems to be in fine condition.”
“Indeed it does. You built that awfully close to your own house.” John turned to me with a raised brow. “Aren’t you concerned about space and privacy?”
“Hardly,” I mumbled.
“Will ye come wi’ me to see it after breakfast?” Jamie asked John. “I’d like to take ye and the lad, if ye dinna mind.”
“I’m at your complete disposal,” John laughed. “I’ve nothing else to occupy my time with, save your whim.”
“Dinna be saying such things so close to the bed. I’m too auld to be rutting around again so soon after the last time.”
John moved to the window to look out over the Ridge. It was a sight to behold with the sun breaking through the scattered clouds, and it was made all the more awe-inspiring with John’s glorious naked form standing in front of it.
“With all my responsibilities elsewhere, never did I allow myself to imagine spending the rest of my days isolated in the wilderness. But now, I can see I was a fool to never consider it before.”
Jamie grinned at me, pleased and hopeful for what lay in store for later in the day.
“You know,” John went on, “if you would’ve shown me a glimpse of this moment when I was tied to that tree with a broken arm during the Scottish rebellion, I would’ve thought I’d gone mad with delirium.”
“Perhaps ye are delirious just now,” Jamie laughed. “Did’ye ever consider that?”
John turned to me, “Then I beg you not to heal me from this madness.”
“If you’re mad, then this is a folie à trois,” I said, “and I wouldn’t change if for the world.”
Though he started to dress after us, John didn’t have pleats to fold nor laces to tie up, so he was ready long before either of us. “I’d better go downstairs first,” he said, heading for the door. “It sounds like the rest of the house is awake.”
“Here,” said Jamie, getting up from the floor where he just donned his kilt. “I put a wee door in the corner just there.”
Jamie stepped to the far end of the room where he’d installed a new bookshelf a few months past. He reached up on a high shelf for a hidden latch. There was a faint click, and the bookshelf swung open, leading to the east wing guest room where John last stayed while a guest at the Ridge over the summer.
“Dear God in Heaven.”
“Just so ye dinna need to fash about coming and going as ye please.” Jamie’s ears were red at the tips, betraying his pride at his own ingenuity and his embarrassment at the extravagant farce.
“You are a never-ending stream of surprises, Jamie,” John laughed in astonishment.
I shook my head and tied on my skirt. “You haven’t seen the half of it yet.”
“Weel...d’ye like it?” asked Jamie nervously. His fingers tapped incessantly against his leg. I moved to his side to give him somewhere to direct his fidgety energy. His arm came around me and squeezed hard to cope with his nerves.
“Are you joking?” said John, looking at the detail Jamie carved into the molding in the parlor. “Of course I like it. It’s bloody marvelous. But you’ve always been a meticulous craftsman. It’s no surprise this house turned out as beautiful as your own.”
Jamie couldn’t hide his satisfaction at John's appraisal. I rubbed his back and kissed his shoulder, then spoke quietly in his ear. “I told you he’d love it.”
“Hmphm.” He gave me a squeeze. “William, does the place suit ye, then?”
“Suit me?” said Willie. “It’s magnificent, as you well know, but why on Earth are you asking if the house suits me? Didn’t you build it for some settlers coming from Paris?”
Jamie grinned down at me before turning back to Willie and John. “No. A farce. It was built wi’ the two of ye in mind...if ye want it. I started it as soon as we made our plans to rid ye of that damn plantation. Of course, no one else kens I’m offering it to ye, so if it doesna suit ye, I can surely find a family in need and none would be the wiser of yer declination. Though I’d much rather it go to my son than anyone else.”
“You built this house for me?” Willie was in shock.
“And John, of course.”
“Jamie…” John was breathless.
“I didna ken ye’d be bringing a lass wi’ ye,” said Jamie, “but the Ridge is none so bad a place to raise a family. And ye’ll have us all here wi’ ye...if ye need help wi’ anything.” Jamie waited for a response from John or Willie, but both were staring at the house in open-mouthed shock. “There’s a fair bit of land set aside for ye. And I could teach ye how we make the whisky...”
“I…” stuttered William, “I...can’t believe you’d do something like this for me.”
“And why not? I did the same for yer sister and for yer brother when he lived here. I set him up wi’ my press and a way to make a living. ’Tis the least a man can do for his children.”
Willie shook his head grinning, “And did you burn down their inheritance, too?”
Jamie looked sheepish. “Weel, we’ve faced a few fires before in this family. This was the first one set intentionally.”
Willie looked at the three of us, clearly at a loss for words. His hand ran through his hair, making his curls stand on end. He marveled at the parlor, eyes glossy with moisture, coughing to clear the emotion tightening his throat.
In a flash of movement, he collided with his father, arms tight around him. A solitary sob escaped his throat as Jamie recovered from the shock of affection from his son. Jamie’s great arms wrapped around him, feeling the impact of the embrace.
Jamie’s rapid heartbeat could be felt from feet away, and mine flurried in my chest to beat in tandem with his. A rough, callused hand tangled with mine. I thought, at first, John was holding it to support me as I was visibly overcome, but it was he who needed the aid of affection. I wrapped an arm around his waist, and we leaned on each other as Jamie whispered quiet words in his son’s ear.
William pulled back after some time. He was flushed and tearful, wiping his eyes. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to fetch Grace to show her our new home.”
“Aye, lad. Though I should think she’ll be staying at my house until ye’ve said yer vows proper before a priest.”
Willie laughed and bowed his head. “Of course.”
“Go on and find the lass. I hope she’ll be as pleased as ye are.”
Willie came and embraced me, kissing me softly on the temple. “Thank you dearly, Mother Claire.”
“Oh…” I was overcome with a dizzying warmth and had to lean on John when William released me. “It’s our pleasure.”
Willie took his leave to find his fiancée with a noticeable lightness in his step. As soon as the front door closed, John took William’s place in Jamie’s arms. “I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for our son.”
Jamie took John’s face in his hands. “It was for both of ye, John. For Willie and for you.”
Their lips connected, soft and affectionate, a mutual exchange of gratitude. John looked at Jamie like he hung the moon, and Jamie gazed back like he’d actually try if John asked.
“God, I can’t believe this is my life now. I don’t think it’s possible to be any happier than I am in this moment.”
Jamie chuckled, “Just wait until the lass gives ye a grandchild.”
“Dear God…” John’s eyes went wide, as though he never considered the thought. “Grandpapa?” He laughed in wonder.
He stepped back and looked over the house, shaking his head in disbelief. “Now I just have to find a way to help provide for this family.”
“I have no doubt you’ll figure something out,” I said. “You’ve adapted to whatever life has thrown your way so far. You’ve been a businessman, an officer, a winemaker, a knight in shining armor...”
Jamie snorted. “Aye. Ye can add whisky distiller and distributor of spirits to yer list soon enough.”
“I do have a number of contacts up and down the coast,” John considered thoughtfully. “Some in Jamaica and France, as well.”
“Aye. Willie has already offered introductions, though it may do better for the two of ye to sell it directly come Spring.”
“It’s not a bad thought,” said John. “Then you wouldn’t have to leave the Ridge.”
I smiled broadly. Not being left alone on the Ridge for weeks at a time was no small relief. I could see the same feeling reflected in Jamie’s eyes.
“And if all that goes to pot,” John continued, “I suppose I can always assist in your surgery, Claire, or putter around your garden.”
“I ken ye want to sow yer seed wi’ my wife, John, but I dinna trust the two of ye wi’ the cucumbers and such. Nae, best stick to the whisky.”
“Are you sure about that, darling?” I said. “He could take over grinding my almonds for you.”
Jamie considered with a smile in his eyes. “I suppose there would be some benefit to that.”
John laughed and stepped into Jamie's arms once again, burying his face into his chest and holding him around his waist. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
Jamie held him close and kissed the top of his head. They were a beautiful pair, standing there in each other’s arms. Two strong men of war that were putty in each other’s hands. My heart fluttered as their lips met with loving tenderness.
In truth, I still wasn’t used to their overt displays of affection. Our physical relationship with John was little more than a month old if you took away the time we spent apart. When they kissed each other like that, my body was immediately aroused. I wondered if the sight was something I’d ever grow accustomed to, or if I’d be quivering with delight in my old age as my two men showed each other the slightest bit of affection.
I must’ve made some sort of sound, because they both turned toward me grinning. They opened up to invite me into their hug, and surrounded me in their tenderness. If I thought I was affected as an observer, it was nothing to being a participant.
I don’t know how long we stood there in each other’s arms, waiting for Willie to return. Time ceased to exist in our little bubble, the rest of the world completely shut out. Jamie and John must’ve been in the same frame of mind, because we jumped apart at the sound of Willie’s voice outside.
“Bree, wait!” he called, likely more as a warning to us than an attempt to stop his sister. We pulled quickly apart, and John moved to the other side of the room.
Peering out the window, I saw the near identical siblings striding up the stairs, Bree’s red hair billowing out behind her like flames. Their steps were loud and purposeful as they made their way to the parlor.
Bree was flushed red from the bottom of her neck to the tips of her ears. I straightened my spine in preparation for dealing with an angry Fraser, which was no mean feat.
“Bree,” said Jamie tentatively. “Ye alright, lass?”
She gave a mirthless laugh that was decidedly not alright. For the first time, I saw she was carrying a couple of things in her hands. An old book I hadn’t seen before and Mandy’s little doll, Esmeralda.
“Oh dear,” I said, knowing exactly where she got them from.
Brianna looked at me head on. “I thought we agreed, ‘no more secrets’?”
“Yes, well, these ones were meant to keep you safe. The more people who knew what we were doing, the greater the danger there was.”
“You burned down my brother’s house! With my children still in it!”
“Actually,” John chimed in, “we were quite careful to ensure all of the family were nowhere near the house before it was set aflame.”
Jamie pulled me behind him, as though protecting me from some great threat. “Dinna take yer anger out on yer Ma, a nighean. I insisted we keep things secret between us. If ye’re angry, give it here, lass. Dinna hurt yer mother when she would’ve rather we told ye.”
“You think I’m angry?” said Bree. She appeared nothing short of livid to me. “Anger doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. I’m hurt and disappointed and confused and a million other things! Anger is just the tip of the iceberg.”
There was no furniture in the house just yet, so I didn’t have to worry about her throwing anything in her rage. Unfortunately, that also meant we had nowhere to sit, making the tension in the room all the greater.
“I ken ye’ll have questions…” Jamie stepped forward cautiously, not unlike the way he’d approach a temperamental horse. He rested his hands on her shoulders and took a deep breath. I could see her unconsciously breathing with him. “We meant to tell ye everything when we got back. Only, ye found out before we had the chance.”
She pulled away from her father’s grasp, but she seemed as though she’d be willing to listen. That was more than I could say for how she’d behaved in similar circumstances in the past.
“Tell me why you did it,” she demanded. “You said burning the house down wouldn’t cover the debt. There wasn’t enough of a payout with the insurance.”
“Aye. There was not. No man in his right mind would cover a property for more than it’s valued.”
“Da!” she said impatient for answers.
“As ye well ken, we have gold enough to pay that debt ten times over, but the dangers of doing so were too great a risk to family and the Ridge. And John couldna come up wi’ the gold on his own wi’out the Continental Congress growing suspicious.”
“So you needed to find a way to get your gold into the right hands to cover your tracks and his, while also paying the debt?”
“How did you do that?”
John stepped forward to share his part in the grand farce. “Remember me telling you, my dear, of my friendship with a Mister Benjamin Franklin?”
She nodded curiously.
“I’m not sure what has been told about him in your history books, but he is quite the entrepreneur. In fact, he was one of the first men in the colonies to start up a fire insurance company some years back.”
“You took out a policy with him?”
John cringed. “So to speak. You see, as much as Mr. Franklin has enjoyed his time in Paris, he’s made no secret of his eagerness to return home. He’s made very public appeals to anyone who will listen that might be of assistance. The Continental Congress, however, requires his services in France and has denied all his requests to return to America.”
Brianna raised a copper eyebrow, “You bribed a founding father of this country to give you a policy big enough to pay off your debts?”
John flinched. Clearly he wasn’t proud of his behavior. “I suppose that’s one way of putting it.”
“But Franklin is loyal to the Continental Congress. Why would he agree to this?”
“Because the gold was offered to him as a bargaining tool to get him home. Franklin would present the small fortune to the Continental Congress as a gift from some anonymous French aristocrats to aid in the war. He’d do so in hopes of winning favor with the Congress and be allowed to return back to America.”
“Everybody wins,” I said. “No one knows the gold came from your father or the Ridge, John and William’s debts are paid by the insurance policy, the Continental Congress gets much needed gold to fund their war efforts, and Ben Franklin has a better chance of coming home.”
“Come on, Mama. You and I both know Franklin will lead the negotiations for peace between America and the crown when this war is over. He’s not coming home anytime soon.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well I know that, but he doesn’t need to know.”
Brianna’s arms were crossed in disappointment, but I could see the amusement she was trying to hide in her eyes. “How did you get him the gold?”
“I brought the gold to Mt. Josiah wi’ me when I came ahead of the family,” said Jamie. “We thought it best I take it in case the children started digging through the trunks on yer long ride wi’ only yer Ma and Ian to look out for it. Ian took it the rest of the way up to Philadelphia to the care of Franklin’s people.”
“That’s where he is now?”
Brianna shook her head, “I can’t believe you told Ian and not me.”
“Well, Ian was rather essential to plan in more ways than one,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Who do you think lit the fires? The rest of us were ensuring the family made it out safe.”
Brianna narrowed her eyes, “How did he light those fires? He couldn’t possibly have done that himself.”
“Well, no.” I blushed deeply. “I helped him.”
I nodded. “I...um...I’d been making ether for a good portion of the time at the plantation.”
“It was quite effective in burning our own house down. A damn good idea if I do say so myself.”
“When did you have time to make it? And where the hell were you doing it?”
“In the shed near the carriage house. In fact, there was one time I thought you might catch me in the act. I’d just accidentally knocked John unconscious. He was helping me, of course—you know how your father doesn’t want me messing with the stuff on my own anymore—when he inhaled a mouthful and passed out in that tiny little shed. I woke him up and brought him out to clear the ether from his lungs, and there you were.”
“That’s what you were doing in that shed this whole time?”
I looked at John and blushed. “For the most part, yes.”
Brianna started pacing back and forth, trying her damnedest to put everything together. It seemed as though she was going through a mental checklist of inconsistencies. When she found another, she stopped and asked, “But Ian left days before the fires were started. How could he be the one to light them?”
“Aye, weel, John and Willie worked long and hard on making their wine and harvesting their crops; ye didna think we’d let them go to waste? Ian took the goods into town to sell them to some less than reputable business associates of John’s before coming back to help wi’ the fires.”
“But you said the debt collector took the wine. Was that all made up, too?” Brianna turned to John, “Were you really even attacked?”
“Unfortunately,” John grumbled, “I was genuinely assaulted. Remember, my dear, that the reason I agreed to concoct this plan with your parents was because William and I were in a very precarious situation. Jamie and Claire were rightfully worried about us, what with the slave-owners making threats, the debt collectors causing us problems, the loyalists angry with me for turning coat, and the Continental Congress stealing everything we owned.”
“We didna burn down the wine shed, lass,” said Jamie. “They did so because they came to steal the wine and found it already gone. They attacked John as a warning of what would happen if they didna receive payment.”
“The dead bodies…” her voice trailed off.
“Aye. I found them when I went to town looking for them. I killed them and brought their bodies back, thinking it would be convenient to no’ only cover up my role in their murder, but also blame them for the fires we’d yet to set. The Committee for Safety could see no reason to blame us for their deaths when the bastards were bragging days before about burning down the wine shed. They were sloppy, drunken fools who didna care who they hurt, so long as they got paid.”
Brianna looked sympathetically at her brother and John before returning her gaze to her father. She nodded in acknowledgment of the need for Jamie to find his own justice.
She sighed deeply, and her gaze dropped down to the doll and the book in her hands. “So the whole time we thought we were preparing for winter, we were really preparing to sell everything off and burn the place down?”
“And the things that were missing? You’d packed them away so they wouldn’t burn in the fire?”
“Remember, sister,” said Willie, “I was missing my rosary and my ladle? Papa had them packed safely away for me, knowing how much they meant to me. When your mother convinced them to tell me the truth, Papa returned them to me so I could ensure their safe keeping.”
She laughed. “It makes perfect sense. Everything makes sense now. Da tying the horses up to the wagon the night before….the four of you being fully dressed during the fire...Gideon and the other horses running free and not getting burned to death in the stables.”
I stepped close to Brianna and put my hands on her cheeks. “We were careful, darling. We did all we could to make sure no one in the family was harmed. Your brother was in real danger in Virginia. We had to get them back here safely and in a way that trouble wouldn’t follow them to the Ridge, placing the rest of the family at risk.”
Her eyes softened, and she nodded in understanding. I wrapped her in my arms and hugged her tight, grateful her affection for her brother and her parents made her predisposed to forgiveness.
She pulled back with raised brow. “Wait a minute…” She turned to Jamie. “You were planning on having them move to the Ridge since this summer?”
“You and the men started building this house in July. A house so close to yours that you can see if from your bedroom window...”
Jamie laughed. “Aye. There were never any French settlers coming to Ridge. The house was always meant for Willie and John...if they’d agree to accept it.”
“You didn’t know?” she asked Willie.
He shook his head, grinning. “They just told us. That’s why I was at the house looking for Grace. I wanted to show her our new home.”
John stepped forward to Brianna. She handed me Esmeralda so he could take her hand in his. “When Willie and I agreed to change our loyalties for the sake of this family, we lost everything and were in great danger. Your parents have ensured that your brother and I have a house, a family, safety, and a way to make a living. Please don’t blame them for their secrets. The Committee for Safety in Richmond is as corrupt as it is dangerous. If they would’ve caught wind of our plans and knew you to be involved...I shudder to think what might have happened.”
“We really did plan on telling you,” I said. “As soon as everything settled down.”
Brianna sighed in defeat and pulled John in for a hug. Her eyes were on me when she said, “I know how much they love you, John. I can’t blame them, or you, for keeping me in the dark.”
“It was not done maliciously, I assure you.”
“Now that I can most certainly believe.”
Brianna went around the room bestowing hugs on her parents and brother. When sighs of relief were breathed all around, she turned to us and said, “Well, I suppose there’s one major lesson I’ve learned in the past few weeks.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I guess there are just some secrets about you all that the rest of us don’t need to know...at least, not until you’re ready to tell us.”
I looked to Jamie and John and did my best not to blush profusely.
“But when you are ready tell us something...we will listen.”
Jamie narrowed his eyes at his daughter, but his mouth was twitching with humor. “Aye. We’ll keep that in mind.”
Later that night, after a rambunctious game of chess and an excessive consumption of celebratory whisky, Jamie and I bid goodnight to our family and made our way upstairs. We were in our room for only a short while before the latch clicked on the false bookcase, and it opened to reveal John.
“I could most certainly get used to this,” said Jamie, grinning as he pulled off his shirt.
John closed the shelf behind him and set to work on removing his own clothes.
“We have all the time in the world to try,” I said, staring out the window and watching Brianna and Roger walk home with Jemmy by their side and a sleeping Mandy in her father’s arms. “Brianna really has come a long way in reining in that Fraser temper. I suppose she does have some little bit of Beauchamp in her, after all.”
“I’m none sae sure about that, Sassenach,” said Jamie, coming up naked behind me and wrapping me in his arms.
“Ye heard the lass. She said she’s learning to be satisfied wi’ no’ knowing everyone else’s secrets.”
“Indeed,” said John, peering out the window with us. “I doubt you’ll ever lose your vulgar curiosity, my dear.”
“Oh, hush.” I cuffed his arm playfully. “Did you hear what she said, though? About being open to listen when we’re ready to tell any other secrets we may be keeping from her?”
“Aye,” said Jamie sharply, “but dinna even think about it, woman. I willna be subject to the disapproval of her Presbyterian husband. We’d probably frighten Roger Mac all the way back to the stones.”
“I do have to agree with Jamie this time, my dear. Let us all just enjoy each other and our secret doorway for as long as we can before bringing anyone else in on this.”
“Fine...fine...I won’t pressure you boys if you’re not ready. Just remember, as the Buddha once said, ‘Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.’ Our children are brighter than you boys are giving them credit for.”
“Perhaps,” said Jamie, “but winter is upon us, and the clouds will soon hide the sun and moon for a good long while, let us keep our business to ourselves in much the same way…”
Jamie cut himself off and narrowed his gaze out the window.
“What? What do you see?” asked John.
“Hmphm. I thought I saw something white in the forest there. It must’ve been that wretched sow.”
“And I only just escaped her bloody offspring.”
I extricated myself from Jamie’s grasp in order to remove my stays. He batted my hands away and helped with the laces. When we were all free of clothing, we made our way to bed. I rushed ahead of Jamie to ensure my spot in the middle.
“Dinna got too comfortable there, Sassenach. Once John and I have our way wi’ ye, I’ll be sure to claim that space as mine.”
“You brute. Ladies should choose first, and being that I’m the only lady in this room, I am entitled to the middle.”
Jamie chuckled as he crawled on the bed and pulled my body against his. “Oh, I like ye fine in the middle, lass. Just no’ when we sleep.”
I shivered with anticipation. “And what side of this little sandwich will you be on tonight? The front? Or the back?”
“Sandwich,” he snorted, remembering the several times I forced him to eat the food of the future. “I wasna thinking you a sandwich so much as a...swine.”
It was John’s turn to snort as he got in bed behind me. “Christ, Jamie.”
Jamie caught my hand as I swung it at his arm.
“No’ an ordinary swine, lass.”
I was not amused. “A special swine, am I?”
“Aye,” he kissed me, grinning with mischief. “One roasted on a spit.”
“Roasted on a spit...oh!” I nearly flushed when realization hit me.
“A spit?” John asked.
“Aye,” said Jamie. “What d’ye prefer, Grey? Heads?” He traced my lips with his finger. I bit him for his insolence. “Or tails?” He smacked my bottom sharply.
“Oh my,” said John, clearly intrigued.
“You’re only mistaken about one thing, dear husband,” I said.
“Oh? What’s that?”
“John and I will be playing the part of the spit, and you will be the swine roasting between.”
Jamie laughed heartily, but he didn’t shoot down my proposition. “And I suppose ye’ll be offering my tail to yon Englishman over there?”
“Oh, no, I don’t think I’ll do that.” I reached into the drawer of the nightstand and pulled out the almond cream and special metal instrument. “I think to properly roast you on a spit, you need to be skewered from both ends.”
“Good Lord,” said John. “If ever I thought settling down in the back country would be simple or boring, I was delightfully mistaken.”
Chapter 11: The Brilliance of Dawn
Sorry this epilogue took so long to get up. It's not been an easy time for my family in this pandemic.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
— Jamie —
The white doe was nearly impossible to see, blending into the thick cover of snow on the ground. When the dawn light reflected against its pelt, the shadows of movement were easier to track than the animal itself.
“Magnificent,” said Claire. “What on earth is she doing out here after such an awful storm?”
“I dinna ken, but I’m pleased to bear witness,” said Jamie.
He was standing naked at the window next to John and Claire. After a weeklong storm finally passed over the Ridge, they were eager to watch the sunrise over the snow-capped mountains. Just as the dawn lit the sky with a rainbow of color, the beautiful creature graced them with its ethereal presence.
Jamie wanted to believe that John’s doe had followed them from Virginia, as foolish a thought as it was. But it felt as though she was giving them her blessing. He snorted to himself, acknowledging the depth of paganism rooted in his soul.
He said a prayer for the wee thing as the rising sun cast a golden light on her snowy pelt.
It was a glorious sunrise; the first sunrise after a storm was always so splendid. Claire sighed contentedly as they watched the unfolding of its magnificence. They were warmed by the nearness of each other’s bodies and the comfort of their fire.
John stood behind him and kissed Jamie’s shoulder, wrapping his arms around from behind. Jamie pulled Claire in front of him and kissed the top of her head. He was surrounded in the ones he loved, looking over his great expanse of land on the most beautiful morning of the year.
It felt like the culmination of his entire life. All the pain, loss and sacrifice...all the joy, love, and friendship...everything led him to this very moment. A thousand pieces of a puzzle collected over a lifetime, finally fitting together.
The thought took his breath away.
He looked out over the land again and found the windows of Brianna’s house alight with activity. No doubt the children were eager to get outside and play in the snow after a week stuck in the smaller cabin. Jamie was growing eager to see his family again after the solitude of being snowed in since the week before...
The storm had come in quicker than expected. The family was only just finishing a feast in celebration of Ian's return from Philadelphia when the clouds covered the last bit of sunlight and the storm swept through the land.
Gideon, spooked by thunder and lightning, burst free from the stables and was running amok through the falling snow. Jamie enlisted Roger Mac to repair the damage done by that wretched horse as Jamie tracked Gideon down and coaxed him back into the shelter of the stables. When Gideon was safely in his stall, Jamie took over for Roger to speed things up and ensure the beast wouldn’t escape again.
“Weel, this was a nice way to end the evening,” Roger laughed. “All this activity should surely help our digestion.”
"Hmphm, I dinna have any problems wi’ digestion,” Jamie narrowed his eyes at the offending horse who interrupted his enjoyment of a glass of brandy and a candied peel.
“No, I suppose ye wouldn’t, not wi’ Claire forcing ye to eat fiber all the time.”
“Give me some more nails, will ye?” Jamie hammered away at the gate, paying little mind to Roger Mac using words of the future like fiber as though everyone in the present should know their meaning. Claire and Brianna did the same thing all the time.
A thought occurred to Jamie as he was putting the new latch on the door. “I’ve a question I’ve been meaning to ask ye, if ye dinna mind.”
"Brianna spoke something a few weeks back about a man from the future. Jack Tripper. Ye ken anything about him?”
Roger chortled pleasantly, and his eyes glazed over with nostalgia as they often did when he thought of fond memories or amenities of the twentieth century. “Oh, aye. He was a character on a television show from the 1970s and 1980s called Three’s Company ...” Roger’s words were interrupted by a brief silence as he considered something in his mind.
A sudden bark of laughter escaped Roger’s lips, and he flushed a deep shade of red. He had a hard time catching his breath, but once he did, he pressed on. “He…” Roger snorted again. “Tripper was a man living with two women in the same apartment. They lied about his sexuality so folks wouldn’t bother them about their arrangement.”
Jamie turned his head down and pretended to focus on his task so Roger wouldn’t see him turn a fierce shade of red. He was suddenly very hot in the middle of an icy storm. He took more time than was necessary on the latch in order to compose himself.
Brianna must have kent about John, thought Jamie.
When Jamie spoke next, he didn’t look up from what he was doing. “And, uh, people in yer time dinna scoff at such things? Three people living together?”
“Oh, some do. That’s why the hijinks they got up to were so amusing. But…” Roger paused, his voice turning quite serious, “but I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone for how they chose to live...so long as they weren’t harming anyone.”
Jamie swiveled his head to look him in the eyes. “You wouldna?”
A soft smile graced Roger’s face, and his eyes were full of warmth and humor. “I was the one who performed the marriage for Jo and Lizzie after she married Kezzie. Unintentionally, of course, but the truth still stands. I canna begrudge them their marriage when I helped them do it.”
Jamie nodded hesitantly. The door to the stall was mended, but they didn’t make a move to return to the house, even as the storm battered the stables around them.
“And,” Roger continued, “I wouldn't begrudge a man for carving a secret door in his bookshelf wi’ the latch hidden behind a copy of Don Quixote. A secret door that led to the guest room in which his dearest friend frequently resided...so long as that man’s wife kent what he was doing.”
“I mean. It’s a good place to hide the latch. I only reached for the book because I thought it was something else. You are the only one who speaks Spanish in the house.”
Jamie rubbed a hand over his face and into his hair.
“Claire knows?” said Roger.
Jamie sighed, defeated. He leaned back against the stall and closed his eyes, tense with the implications of their secret coming to light. “Aye...she does.”
“I figured so...she can’t hide a thing wi’ that glass face. Her affection for him shows clear.”
“As does yours.”
Jamie peered out of the corner of his eye to see Roger smiling warmly at him. “And a man of God like you doesna judge us for it?”
“This man of God has broken more than one of the ten commandments himself...repeatedly. I don’t think I’m in a place to pass judgment. I only wish for the same grace in return if ever a need should arise.”
“Ye’re no’ think of taking a…”
“No! God no. I’ve my hands full as it is,” Roger blushed. “I just meant, judge me not for all my inadequacies with a stable door and all that.”
“Oh, aye,” Jamie laughed. “When did ye find the hidden door?”
“Just before we left for Virginia. I was searching for some books to teach the children along the way.”
“And ye found more than ye were searching for.”
“Aye. And the three of you all but confirmed my suspicions at the plantation wi’ all yer sneaking around.”
Jamie shook his head at his own foolishness, “I suppose we must work on our subtlety…”
Jamie, John, and Claire had shortly after concluded that they were the protectors of the worst kept secret on the Ridge. Roger and Bree clearly knew the truth. Jamie was all but certain Ian had known for some time. And in a quiet but obvious gesture of acceptance, Brianna and Willie had taken the children out of the big house before the storm hit to give their parents a few days of privacy to, as Willie said, “play chess or what have you.”
It was the first time Jamie, John, and Claire had such freedom together, and they’d taken thorough advantage of their week of uninhibited peace during the storm. But the storm had cleared that night, and they would soon have to return to their normal life with a houseful of children, patients, tenants, and visitors.
Smiling at the thought, Jamie had to admit it didn’t sound so bad.
Thoroughly exhilarated by the sunrise and the visit from their white doe, Claire’s plump bottom was squirming against his cock. Jamie chuckled into her hair and squeezed her breasts. They’d have a chance at one more uninhibited bedding before returning to normal life.
Jamie rubbed himself in between John and Claire, thinking of how perfect it would be to have them in the light of such a glorious sunrise. He bent Claire over, leaning her weight against the window frame. He folded himself around her and slid his cock warmly inside. He set a slow, relaxed pace...the pace of a man thoroughly satisfied over the last week...of a man who knew he’d be satisfied for all the rest of his days.
He heard John retrieving the grease from the nightstand, and still he moved slow and easy inside Claire. He remained relaxed when John touched him from behind.
Jamie sighed with relief when John was finally inside. Jamie moved in Claire, and John moved in him...sweetly, lazily, happily.
The brilliant sun was near blinding as it reflected off the white snow, and the doe had likely fled into the forest upon hearing the sounds of their moaning. It was a glorious end to their week of solitude, and a glorious beginning to the rest of their lives.
Jamie pulled Claire onto his lap as they collapsed on the floor when all were satisfied. His arm moved around John, pulling him in close, reluctant to start their day and give up the peace of their morning.
“Dear God, I’m a lucky woman,” said Claire, snuggling sweetly against the two of them.
“I’m no’ sure if it’s luck or God or the wee faeries at the stones, Sassenach, but I’m grateful nonetheless.”
“We have so much to be thankful for.”
“Indeed,” said John, leaning over to kiss Claire gently on her lips. “I’m grateful for the two of you...and all our children...and I’m also grateful for the smith here on the Ridge. He’s quite the craftsman.”
Claire laughed heartily and patted John’s leg. “You’re growing fond of our tools, are you?”
“I must say I am.”
“You know, in the twentieth century, they make mechanical ones that vibrate.”
“Vibrate?” said Jamie, grinning. “And it feels nice, does it?”
Claire just shrugged, not admitting to the use of such a thing.
“Ye ken, the wee plug he made ye is hollow. It wouldna be much trouble to catch a few bees and trap them inside. I’m sure they’d be right angry and buzzing something fierce.”
John’s body bounced with laughter. “Dear God, I love your depravity.”
“Mine? The filthy wee sassenach here is the one who had the damn tools made. Now she wants them buzzing about in her quim.”
“Well,” said Claire, “It wouldn’t be the first time i came from a buzzing stone.”
Jamie snorted, laughing along with John and Claire as her hair tickled his face.
The sun was now streaming into the room, lighting up the evidence of the previous night’s depravity—almond cream, metal instruments, discarded clothes, and a belt attached to the bedpost. He smiled dreamily at the thought of this being his life now...a life he shared with the people he loved so dearly. It wasn’t a life that was handed to him, but one crafted by design.
“I suppose we should get up and start the day,” said Claire reluctantly. There were always chores to be done, even in the dead of winter.
They rose up from the floor and proceeded to clean and dress themselves. As they made to leave the room, John stopped and looked back with concern in his eyes. “Shall I smother the fire before we go?”
“Never,” said Jamie, pulling him close to kiss him firmly. “Let it burn.”
Thank you JeSuisPrest, the2ofusnow, BookDragon2016, and preciouslittleingenue for getting me through this. I love you. (PS, their stories are incredible and give me life).
Thank you to those giving comments, kudos, and bookmarks. When something like writing fic starts to feel meaningless in the grand scheme of this mess of the world, they *really* do help (especially for my OT3 who don't always get the love they deserve).
Much love, and thank you for reading.